paradichlorobenzene

(jason kissed maddy for the first time before they did any clean up: he put his hands on her face and made it tilt up, then kissed her. he thought perhaps she would be surprised or upset, but instead she pressed herself closer to him and whispered that she did love him, and only him, and kissed him back. of all the things in his life, jason knew this would be the best and happiest of them all.)

The cat fights him as it dies, clawing his wrists and forearms into a network of scars. The bubbles move in clumps and nets in the pink-tinged water, but he can see its eyes anyway, glaring green and yellow like a bruise until the light in them goes out. It weighs more dead than it did alive; he wonders if it’s the water in its lungs. Maybe it swallowed some of his blood too. The thought bothers him so much that he finally lays it out and cuts its belly open, but at that point it’s impossible to tell what belongs to him and what belonged to the cat. Continue reading

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always the same thing

Waka awakens to the sounds of their screams.

The shock propels him out of his restless doze and the uncomfortable pilot’s seat; he lurches and catches himself on the Ark’s dashboard with both hands, panting hard alongside the sound of his heartbeat. It takes him a moment to realize that the ship is still silent, and a horrible twisting feeling clenches in the pit of his stomach: they haven’t started screaming yet.

He draws Pillowtalk with shaking hands, careless of his form, and pushes his way out of the cockpit and into the Ark proper. The great ship is uncomfortably quiet, and the sounds of his footsteps echo loudly enough to make him flinch. The details of his dream are already starting to fade, and he starts to run, terrified he’ll forget before he can do anything–

“Ushiwaka?” a voice trills, and it’s one of the gods–he doesn’t even remember her name; they’re all practically children to him, terrified and shocked over their recent losses–approaching, with two of her companions drifting behind her. He wonders if he should know their names by now, when it’s been weeks of them traveling together, towards what little refuge the moon can offer. “There are strange noises coming from the engine. They woke me, and I thought you should know.”

“Strange noises?” he asks, and his voice is sharper than he intends. The celestial and her companions draw back at his tone, their wings fluttering nervously. “What sort? Tell me at once.”

She licks her lips. Her name is–Asami, Asari, something short–and she wrings her hands. “Grinding noises,” she said. “Like the engine was in pain. Or crying out.”

Bitterness swells on his tongue. You don’t know anything true about pain, he wants to say, because she protected you and the lot of you were so dependent on her that none of you could lift a finger to help her when the time for battle came. He swallows it back instead, and says, “I’ll take a look. Go back to your beds.” That’s where you’ll be most helpful, he doesn’t add, and he starts to walk forward when something in the shadows move. His eyes take a moment too long to adjust, and then there’s a bandit-spider, its jaws gaping impossibly wide and hungry, heaving itself up over the railings. It snatches the first celestial in one hand and crunches off her head before she has time to scream. Her companions are two quivering statues of fear, and Waka is struck still for a long horrible moment, and he can hear her voice, so dreadfully sad, weeping over the loss of her children.

He bellows before he can stop himself and launches himself forward. Under his own cry, the two living celestials begin to scream, and this is it, this is what woke him in the first place, their shrill frightened voices the bait that calls their companions out to the slaughter. He slices through the hands that keep the bandit-spider balanced on the rail, but even as it falls, adding its own shrieking voice to the cacophony, he can see other demons and worse boiling up from the depths of the ship. Imps of all classes, namahage and other spiders, and he is amazed that there could be so many of them hiding for so long.

Waka launches himself up to balance on the damaged railing himself. He brandishes Pillowtalk over his head and yells–he’s not sure what, really, but it’s angry and it’s a challenge, and some of the tide surges to meet him, spears and claws and teeth ready. Some of them rise to meet him, but too many are diverted, swarming to batter open doors and tear through thin walls, or to hunt down the gods that run shrieking from their approach. For every one creature he cuts down, he can see two golden winged heads go flying. The celestials are still screaming, but it’s now more echoes than fresh voices. Every single one runs rather than fights, and Ushiwaka has trained under Tachigami himself, but he is only one man, and there are yet more creatures clawing their way out of the dark.

Finally, when the last thing rises from the abyss, Waka is too tired to even be surprised.

In the Great Temple, there is a statue of the Emperor of Darkness in its true inorganic form: the great sphere, carved with the strange blocky symbols that became the basis of the written language of the moon tribes. Waka knows over a dozen legends that detail how the people of the moon were saved by Yami’s guidance–how the Emperor shielded the tribal ancestors from the dark and the cold with its teachings and its technology, how it allowed them to live, separated as they were from the warmth and bounty of the sun. Waka grew up with these stories and he knows them very well. The people of the moon are proud of their ability to thrive, and they disdain the fluttering creatures of Takamagahara. Living there makes you soft, they say; it makes you as weak as the gods.

He knew that–he knows that–but he does not regret turning his back on that cold dead place. He has seen the sun rise on rich green plains and has sunk his fingers knuckle-deep into Amaterasu-okami’s thick fur. He does not regret any of it.

In human form, the Yami no Sumeragi is a tall thin man whose white skin is covered in the same marks that cover its true form. Its hair is lank and black and fades into the heavy folds of its black robes. Its face is barely more than skin stretched over bone, and its eyes are giant hollow sockets, each set with a pinpoints of cold blue light. It hovers in midair, staring down at Waka.

You are far from home, Prophet,” it says. The mouth doesn’t move: the human shape is just a construct, after all. “Here, in the nest of Our enemies.

“Funny,” says Waka. His entire body aches; blood drips into his eyes from a forehead gash. “That you would talk about nests, after an attack like that.”

We hungered,” says Yami. “It has been so long, and they were so weak. Why are you here, Prophet?

Waka says nothing. He shifts his weight, though, gripping his sword more firmly.

We had thought you to be with the Princess.

“And I thought you were banished to the darkest parts of the universe,” Waka says, the words spilling out before he can quite help himself. “The Queen of Takamagahara found you wanting, didn’t she?”

He has a moment to think that it was a mistake, to mention her aloud–Yami’s face changes finally, twisting into an inhuman moue of anger. The skin across its narrow face blackens and flakes away, revealing the metal framework underneath. Its mouth creaks open finally, and the air echoes with the echoes of its terrible shriek; the very air flinches away from it. Waka staggers and nearly drops Pillowtalk in that shock. Before he can regain his balance, Yami is upon him, metal claws grasping and shoving. He is pinned in five different places, limbs and throat, and the Yami no Sumeragi looms over him, stinking of darkness and corruption, of a thousand coiled demons waiting to be vomitted free.

Where is she,” it snarls at him. “Tell Us where the sun-wolf hides.

Waka almost laughs. He would laugh, if he had the breath for it, but instead it comes out as hiccuping breathes. “I don’t know,” he says. “Ma petite has taken off for parts unknown. Didn’t you know? She followed Orochi to the mortal plane.”

It is not a mistake to say or a confession to make, he thinks: Yami is hardly foolish, and the Ark is full (was full) of golden-haired bright-winged celestial gods, none of whom would have left Takamagahara if their mother-protector still roamed that place. Still, a frisson of worry goes through him at how Yami’s eyes flicker. The pressure at his throat intensifies until he can hardly breathe from it. Yami leans in close, so close that Waka can hear wires snapping and gears turning just beyond the human facade.

She cannot hide forever,” it says, and there is something outright satisfied in its voice, and it makes Waka’s skin crawl. “Orochi will draw her out. You will take us to meet her.

He wants to say, I would much rather die, thank you, but the words strangle in his throat. For all that he has spent years living in Takamagahara, softening under the light of the sun, he is unable to form the denial–he is still a child of the moon-tribes. He still bows under the weight of his god’s hand. Waka closes his eyes and says nothing, and when he is released, all he can do is rub his throat and cough. The sound of his voice echoes and echoes and is answered by the sounds of feasting.

Waka goes back to the cockpit and walks slowly, skirting fallen bodies where he can, but his geta are still stained with blood and worse by the time he sits again. He knows that the Yami no Sumeragi has followed him, and the entity’s sheer suffocating presence turns the already-small area outright claustrophobic. It says nothing with its proper voice, but the shadows hiss and gloat amongst themselves. They anticipate the taste of the sun’s blood and the way her flesh will smell, roasted upon her flames. One whispers for a desire to see her belt wrapped around the waist of the Emperor, as punishment for her rejection eons ago.

Ushiwakamaru of the Full-Moon Tribe hears every single word that isn’t spoken. He closes his eyes and sees the Great City burning, the Temple razed to the ground and the princess being dragged, screaming, into a ship that will take her to safety. He knows this will be true, just as the screams that woke him in the first place: Yami will turn his fury upon his own people as punishment for a single man’s betrayal. And it would be certain that each and every single person knew, as it cut them down, the name of the traitor.

He makes his choice.

When Yami’s back is turned–perhaps glorying in the carnage that its army of imps and worse have wrought–Waka grips the controls for the Ark and slams the controls forward, and sends them plummeting down, down, down.

+++

Waka awakens to snow and bitter cold on his face.

He opens his eyes and sees a steel-gray sky, sliced through by white flurries of snow. It takes some effort, but he manages to push himself up to his hands and knees finally and look around.

Though he is in a snowbank, which cushioned his fall–how he was thrown free from the Ark, he doesn’t care to speculate–and he can see that the ship has been split in half. Imps and other monsters are trickling out of the cracked hull like blood from a wound, winding in a terrible line out into the snowy wastelands. The wind shrieks in his ears, but it carries softer notes–a human settlement, not too far from here. Waka gets to his feet and dusts himself off; his entire body aches terribly, and the cut on his forehead burns worse than fire. He closes his eyes and listens harder.

And there–there, he hears it: a single glorious crystalline note, the entire world singing for joy under each soft footstep of an exploring wolf. Waka sags with a relief he didn’t expect, covering his face with one hand. He almost laughs, but he feels scraped too raw and thin to muster up the energy.

“Ah, my dearest,” he says softly. “Will you be very angry with me? I only did what I thought was best.”

She does not answer. Waka makes a rattling noise in his chest that would have been a laugh at any other time, then makes his way to the ledge. The downward descent, to the frozen-over surface of the lake where the Ark crashed, is a careful and painful process. It will be some time before he can move freely again, with anything approaching the grace he’d shown off so carelessly in Takamagahara. He turns his face to the wind, which puts the sliver of the moon that is visible in the dark sky behind him.

He walks without ever looking back.

First to civilization, he thinks, or the closest equivalent thereof, and from there to warmer climes, to the village where Amaterasu waits for the Chosen One’s birth. It might be a long time yet, he knows–his dreams are never specific–but he does not think she would mind his company. He will confess to her, hands and knees in the dirt, and knows she will forgive him, though she will weep for the lives lost–both of her people, and of his. The other brush-gods will be at her side, and he knows she could rebuild a far greater empire with less material than she will have, returning to her home. And perhaps she will read his good intentions and allow him more than forgiveness–perhaps she will give him a home in her court, and he could sing songs for her to make her smile.

Buoyed by hope, he picks up the pace. He can imagine it so clearly that he could mistake it for a dream–the celestial plane reborn, scoured clean of the corruption and blight left in the wake of Orochi’s attack, and the shining spires of the Sun-Temple built tall and sleekly white as the fur of the wolf who patrols its floors. He can smell the ethereal perfume of cherry blossoms, whirling in a blizzard of petals that never rot, just simply fade into the grass. There’s even a few celestials in this vision, their wings stretched wide under the heat of the sun, smiling widely, and they do not resent, they do not hate, they do not fear–Waka is welcomed back among them with open arms, and that hope is so beautiful his chest aches with it.

“Wait for me, ma cherie,” he whispers. “I am coming to you now.”

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The Pale Girl

They say the world ended late on a spring Thursday afternoon, just as the sun was beginning to slant its way downwards and the sky was shading towards pink and orange. It happened quietly, like the moment between one breath and the next: one moment things were as they always were, and then nearly every person on earth went to lie down and die. People call it the Great Quiet, because it was – the world pulled the blankets on and turned out the lights and that was it.

My dad was one of them. That’s what Mom told us, on a winter Friday, when everything was gray and cold and wet outside. She said that the Pale Girl came for him, and that was when he had to go to sleep. Her mouth trembled a little when she said that, and she rubbed at her eyes with one hand, as if troubled by a headache or some deep terrible exhaustion.

Then she kissed both of us: me (twelve, wide-eyed, confused) and my brother (sixteen, sullen, already angry at things I didn’t know yet), and she went to bed. Continue reading

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this is (not) your world

“Our family was not a sentimental one, nor a terribly forgiving one. It was, however, a peculiar one, and one that is not overly concerned with the niceties and dictations of society. We are as we are, and will do as we must in order to maintain that.”

+++

You have always been clever; you have known that since childhood, after an uncle chucked his meaty hand under your chin, looked at your face, and declared that your face would never win you any prizes, so you had better be especially sweet-tempered, and that with your dowry would win you a proper husband. You had stared at him with a frown on your face, and you said that any man who would be so foolish as to accept such an obviously-cultivated facade did not deserve one penny of whatever money you might bring him. You might have said more, angry and flush the way the very young are (once upon a time, you had some vanity about your own appearence: you have outgrown that long ago), if not for your brother’s intervention and your father’s lazily well-timed remark, your lady sister would have boxed your ears soundly for such a remark, Charles, and don’t let yourself forget that.

You have always been very lucky: your brother would leave his door cracked open when tutors came, so that you could linger outside to listen, and there were times where he tutored you himself–mostly, though, he simply left his texts lying where you could find them (and deliberately so: there is no way it could be any sort of accident; not in a family like yours), and did not ask for them back. There is a system: you read, you make notes, and eventually you return the books exactly where you found them. He never asks for them, but sometimes he engages you in discussion on what you have read.

Your father teaches you practical things; he agrees, nearly apologetically, that you are not a very pretty child, and never shall be, but he tells you your mother had been striking in her own way, and he says if you cannot be beautiful, then by God, let you at least be clever, and he teaches you the working and making of things, of how to properly use both pistol and hunting-rifle and the violin; he teaches you that you must listen, instead of merely hear, when someone speaks, even if it is not to you. You must observe rather than merely see. For your sixteenth birthday, nearly upon his deathbed, he cuts off the heavy plait of your braid with a knife and gives it to you to burn, and he tells you that he is glad that he will be able to tell your mother about you, and that she will be glad to hear of you. At this point in your life, you are hardly the sort of person who can be moved by sentiment, but there is still a part of you that is fiercely glad at that declaration.

When he dies, you turn up your collar and wrap your small narrow breasts, and you follow your brother to your city.

+++

School starts off as a fascinating thing–there is such depth and amount of knowledge that you think you could not possibly get through even a quarter of it in your lifetime–but soon enough, you find yourself missing the countryside where you grew up, and the quiet steadfast nature of the people you left behind. People in the city are narrow-eyed and paranoid; they resent you enough for your intelligence when your disguise is firmly in place, and the things you have heard them spit about women while in their cups does not convince you to take them into your confidences. They are pigheaded, foul-tongued, and nowhere near as clever as they fancy themselves, her classmates, and the women that they keep company with are no better: fluttery empty-headed creatures who would as soon faint at the sight of a gun before they could be pressed to touch one, even to defend their own lives. In people you are disappointed, so away from people you turn: deeper into your books and your studies you go, separating out sorting out useful from the maybe someday important from the absolutely worthless.

They whisper about you, your classmates and their women; moreso when you manage to find the supposedly missing ring of the dean’s wife. It was simplicity itself to see the truth: that the silly woman, under the intoxication of a new affair with one of her husband’s students, had removed the ring so as to be able to accompany her buck into certain uncomfortable areas, and finally, at one particular time, had forgotten to put it back on again. You lay out the facts of this case nice and neat, and the woman turns scarlet and rails at you for having no human pity in your heart, to which you say: my pity, such as it exists, goes to the girl whom you attempted to accuse of stealing the ring; it is of no particular matter to me what happens to you, but I will not see someone innocent suffer in your place, madam!

Your brother tuts at you for the news over dinner, when you are visiting him at his club; he gifts you with a clay pipe and a pouch of tobacco of your own. You will never make friends, if you cannot control your tongue, he tells you.

I do not want to make friends, if these are the sorts of people I must be friends with, you say, and he exhales plumes of smoke that wreath his head. It takes you nearly two weeks of practice before you can emulate the gesture.

Be that as it may, Sherlock, he drawls, his sleepy dark eyes never once blinking, you are most damnably clever, and I’d like very much to not have to bury the rest of my family before I myself am thirty. Indulge me this, please.

You are hardly of any category that needs indulgence, you say, but you let the subject be turned to your studies, and to his new employment, and it is a pleasant enough meal afterwards. In all the gray dreary streets of your new city home, your brother, at least, is comfortably the same, and intelligent enough that it does not feel like yelling at a closed door just to be properly heard.

+++

And then: John Watson.

He is a most peculiar man: a soldier, clearly enough, and a doctor as well–both so clearly obvious that he might as well have written the names upon his forehead. He does not immediately irritate you, though in some ways he is no more clever than the fellow students you have so recently left behind; there is a sort of genuinity about him that you have never seen properly faked. He will never be as smart as you, for all of his medical education, but he at least has potential: without ever having been taught, he listens. In your head, you picture it as such: it is as if you were in a closed room, shouting at the top of your lungs to communicate with the intolerably thick, and rather than allow you to continue straining yourself, John Watson simply opened the door and spoke with you face-to-face.

It is a most … fascinating thing, really. Refreshing, definitely.

He becomes your roommate and your companion in your business in short order; it is easy enough to convince him to follow you. Watson is a soldier, after all, and one prematurely discharged due to his injuries–a hale young man who is otherwise healthy, and chafes at how sedentary his life must become, to be a city-doctor to city-folk. A few choice phrases dropped here and there get his blood boiling with curiousity, and in short order, he has become your shadow and your backup, and you are quite glad to have him there. More vexing is his decision also to become your biographer and chronicler–but you are confident in your own cleverness and in the inherent desire of people (even those with such potential as Watson) to merely see what they want, when there is no explicit evidence to prove them wrong. He will look at you and see Sherlock Holmes, the world’s first consulting detective, tall and whipcord lean, a man with stern thin features and ruled by the demons of his own intelligence, because you will give him nothing that might make him consider otherwise. He will see that because that is what you will show him with no hint otherwise, and you know that never in your life will you be caught.

Besides, while Watson is an admirable fellow in all things, he has a certain chivalric streak that rankles you–it is one thing to be gallant to the high-class women who seek your services, or the poor shivering girls who are too poor and too frightened to do anything but gamble on your skills, but to be so genuinely kind to the hideously stupid is an insult to all intelligence; you may trust him in all things, but you do not trust that his nature would change when it came to the truth of your sex, and to be deferred to by him because of that and not because of your own competance is something so vilely intolerable that it keeps you awake for two days straight, alternating between your work-bench and your violin.

No: your friend (for he is your friend, in spite of your best efforts internally and without) must only know if he discovers the truth himself, and you have taken precautions to insure that he never will. With that, you are satisfied, and with that you set your violin aside and you procure tickets for the opera, inviting him to attend with you, confidence carrying you bouyantly along. He is the immovable object to your unstoppable force, and that, you think with great satisfaction, is exactly how the two of you shall remain.

+++

It is a strange and peculiar blow when Watson takes up with Miss Mary Morstan; his absence leaves a queer feeling in your gut that leaves you feeling oddly off-balance for days. Weeks, perhaps. You are horrified at the precisely fifty-seven mistakes you almost make, which would have revealed everything. Perhaps your tongue is loosened by the cocaine, or perhaps it is the knowledge that Watson will not be by your side forever more–but the man is so pleased with his new relationship that he does not notice your slips and mistakes, and that is also deplorable. You cannot decide if you are angrier at yourself or at him, so you retreat into the comfort of your blackest moods, and you begin to search for a way out.

When you find it, you leap upon the opportunity with a wholehearted freverence; when you tell your brother of what you wish, it gets an actual raised eyebrow out of him, and a vague pursing of his thin lips.

You are damnably clever, he says, as he did years before, but you are also quite mad.

Perhaps I am, you say, but you never waver, never break eye-contact. Perhaps I was born mad, the wrong mind as well as the wrong body. Perhaps somewhere there is a man who longs in his heart for the comfort of silk and lace upon his skin and is so empty-headed that the light in his eyes are simply another reflection of the sun. Will you help me?

He looks at you for long moments, your distinguished lazy older brother, smarter than any man you have ever known, except for perhaps–perhaps–your shared father. I will, he says at last, and the Devil take us both if this fails.

+++

Everything goes to plan, which is of no surprise to you. What is a surprise is Watson’s cry of anguish when he realizes that you must have gone over the falls, that you and Moriarity both are lost to the dark and cold and wet. He is a man happily-married with a thriving practice–he has dozens of notes from your adventures that have yet to see publication, and he has friends who call upon him regularly, and whom he is always glad to make social arrangements with. That he thinks you gone and would react like this is most peculiar. You wait until he leaves finally, walking with his head down and his shoulders stooped and his limp more pronounced than you have ever seen it: a man in some strange terrible pain, and you do not understand why, or why it should make that queer emptiness in your belly reach its cold fingers up to knot in your throat.

It is not terribly unlike when your father died, his hand in yours and his eyes bright, when he whispered Marie, my angel, she’s come for me in a display of sentimentality you had never otherwise seen in him. For a moment you feel too-young and confused, like the gawky young child who’d shed petticoats for a boy’s trousers–only you never regretted that change at all, and certainly not as you think you will come to regret this.

Watson is weeping; you can hear him. Even when he is gone, the echoes of it linger.

It is an image that you will carry with you for years to come.

+++

“I think, of everyone else in the world, Dr Watson, you were in a position to know my errant sibling better than any other soul, living or dead. However, I think that perhaps to expect you to have completely seized advantage of that would be unfair: Sherlock was always a creature too subtle even for family to catch at anything he did not wish to reveal. But I hope you shall consider what I have said, and indeed, what I have not–as well as those things that Sherlock left waiting for too long. Should an opportunity present itself again, I suggest that you do as your friend has always told you, and pay attention.

“I hope these words will bring some measure of comfort for you, Doctor, in the times to come.

“Good-night to you.”

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The Wrong Solution

There have been times in the face that is the life of Sherlock Holmes (more times than he cares to admit, if he is honest) where he has wished he were not so damnably clever: that his instinctive ability to adapt can size up a situation in the space of a heartbeat and formulate a distinct and exact plan were not quite so well-known. Even if he miscalculates once, it is only ever once.

He wishes he were not so clever, and he wishes that Watson did not know him quite so well. He never does anything without a reason, and Watson knows this full and well. He has the feeling that the good doctor will be very angry with him for a long time to come.

So be it, then; Holmes has never expected to ever be remembered fondly.

Observe the scene: a villain, as they often are, clutching a slim briefcase of vital papers in one hand and brandishing a gun with the other. A handful of hired thugs lurk as well; most of them have been dealt with, but there are enough to be distractions. Watson is keeping watch over them, looming menacingly, and so he does not see the gun that is pointed at him; he is too distracted to take too much note of what the ringleader is shrieking.

There are, of course, a handful of outcomes: one, the gun will go wild. (Unlikely; the man in question is a noted crackshot, and even in his rage at being foiled his hand is steady.)

Two, the bullet will strike precisely in the center of John Watson’s back, neatly fracturing his spine, rendering him either crippled (a forty percent chance) or dead (sixty–possibly seventy, depending on how the man angles the gun–ah; seventy, then).

Three … well.

He does not bother to shout Watson’s name first; there isn’t the time and he has to move, because if he is too slow the bullet will simply graze him. He runs and he tackles Watson with all his not-inconsiderable strength. The good doctor lets out a shout of surprise that is echoed by the roar of the gun going off; he half-turns and oh–

Twice before in his life, Holmes has been shot. It is an agonizing feeling–both times they merely grazed him, his life saved by his quick reflexes. Today, it is not his life he intends to save.

What happens next, he isn’t entirely sure: his entire world is reduced to a red haze of pain. It is really quite disturbing; he cannot remember ever having his perception of things so uniquely and absolutely dulled. He thinks he hears shouting, and the sound of blows, but he can feel nothing but the horrible spreading pain in his back. He can hardly breathe. He cannot tell precisely where he was hit, because it hurts all over. However, he thinks: there is blood pouring out of him, and more than is healthy.

Then he is being moved–or not moved so much as lifted up; he blinks his eyes open with effort and finds himself clutched to John Watson’s breast, much the way a young lady of society might press her handkerchief. The good doctor is shouting something–at him? at someone else? ah, it’s hard to say–and he wants to say Watson, my dear fellow, don’t shout so, but the words catch in his throat and bubble out as a cough instead.

Holmes? Holmes, don’t you dare–damn you, man, stay with me! Do you hear me, I forbid you to do anything foolish!

Ah, he thinks, a painful laugh rattling, scraping in his lungs, but it’s too late for that, my dear Watson. I have already done many foolish things, the least of which was being involved with you.

Holmes, what are you–

You see, Watson, he continues on, with a merry madness–it pours out of him like blood–I have had the most horrible misfortune to think more highly of you than any other being living or dead in this world; and yet you have found someone who suits you much better! If that is not being foolish, to pine like one of those ridiculous heroines in a penny dreadful, then surely nothing is.

There are footsteps coming–or maybe it’s just the sound of his own heartbeat, thunderously loud in his ears–and he can’t help but smile a little; it’s all so terribly funny. He closes his eyes, and he thinks that he must be grateful to have had what he did, and that at least John Watson will go home safe and whole. He cannot ask for more than that.

Satisfied, he lets himself sink into darkness.

+++

And then he opens his eyes to light.

Not much of it, certainly: there is a lamp burning at his bedside with a dull yellow glow, casting flickering shadows across the walls. He is lying on his belly, his cheek pressed to the pillow. He shifts and there is a horrible aching pain spread all across his back.

“Ah,” he says, and his voice is low and rough and sounds nothing like himself. It surprises him so much that he stops to consider it.

“You’re awake, then,” says a voice to his side. It takes a tremendous amount of effort to turn his head, and there is John Watson, his own personal devil, seated beside him. That familiar face is hardly pleased, though: there is a tremendous frown sitting on his brow, his mouth a thin unforgiving line under the softening edge of his mustache. His eyes are dark with so many things, but all he says, once he knows he has Holmes’ attention, is, “You are an idiot.”

“Watson,” Holmes says, wincing as he tries to move–it takes far longer than he should, and now that the moment is no longer so immediate, he can feel that he was shot high in the back, nearly in the shoulder–a dangerous area, to be certain, but not necessarily automatically fatal. Damn. “If you’ve any fondness for me, do be gentle with me. I am more resilient than I might have thought, I think, but I am still quite–”

“You are an idiot,” Watson cuts him off, more warmly than before. “A hundred times–a thousand times–an idiot. What on earth were you thinking?”

Holmes licks his lips; they are dry and taste sour. “Ah. Well. I would imagine that would have been obvious. There was very little time, and you were rather distracted, so–”

“Damnit, Holmes!” Watson cries, lurching to his feet; the force of his movement knocks his chair over and sends it skittering. “If you are going to say such things, at least say them when you aren’t–when you’re not–” His face twists, and then he turns away, covering his face with one hand.

“Oh, dear,” Holmes murmurs. “I’d no idea you were so given to listening to the ravings of madmen, my dear doctor; you mustn’t let yourself be so distracted. I’ve been led to understand that very little good comes of it.”

“Holmes,” Watson says, and it is worse than before–his voice is dried to a husk of sound, tired and fragile with things that are impossible to decipher. “Why did you say those things?”

“You’ll have to remind me,” Holmes says. He rolls onto his stomach again fully, pressing his face fully into the pillow. “Or better yet, don’t. Call it a moment of madness. The last confessions of a dying man.”

“You weren’t dying,” Watson snaps almost immediately. “As if I would have allowed that.”

“Yes, yes,” Holmes says into the pillow. “My bad, old boy, now if you’d just let me sleep–”

“Holmes.” There is a warning note in Watson’s normally gentle voice. He’s angry. Of course he’s angry; Doctor John Watson is a kindhearted man, and even if his erstwhile former roommate and associate drives him to distraction, never allowing him peace even though he’s moved out and taken up new lodgings with his lovely new bride–he will feel for the man, as he feels for anyone injured and in need of his tender care. Holmes does not bother to lift his head; he has had enough of terrible confessions to last the rest of his blasted lifespan, however many months or years that might be.

“Holmes, look at me.”

“I’m afraid I’m quite tired,” Holmes says, muffled into the pillow. “I daresay I will fall asleep and find this all to be quite a terrible dream. If you ask me later, I shall say I forgot everything.”

“Holmes–”

Finally he lifts his head and forces his aching eyes to focus on Watson’s face, pale and flushed both, angry and confused. In spite of himself, he smiles at that, as gently as he can–he has always found it within himself an especial tenderness for Watson, even if his own particular brand of kindness is too rough and clumsy to have any affect on a man well-used to the softness of a woman’s touch.

“Watson,” he says softly. “I assure you, with all of my considerable intelligence, that if we are to carry this conversation any further, both you and I will regret the outcome, whatever it may be–and not only that, but your lovely wife may be the one most damaged.”

Watson’s eyes darken. His mouth opens. His throat works. His mouth closes.

“You see,” Holmes says. “Let it go, my dear boy. Perhaps in a decade or so, we could meet and laugh over this. Not now, though.”

“Holmes,” Watson says, and there is more than enough answer in his voice. Holmes lets his head sink back into the pillow and closes his eyes. They say nothing more, because there is nothing else to say, but before he sleeps again, he knows he does not imagine the tentative hand that smoothes its way slowly but surely through his hair.

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breathe.

It is a documented phenomenon, that in times of great stress or shock, that an event that would normally takes a mere heartbeat complete appears, to the observer, to span the course of several minutes.

Breathe: It is a dark alleyway, so far away from the gas streetlamps that their light does little good. There are three men, of the broad-shouldered, thick-jawed variety that is so common among the villainously-inclined lower class. One carries a crowbar the length of a man’s arm, and the others are unarmed.

Breathe: Holmes, engaging them. With that peculiar mad humor of his, he hails them as if for all the world is he one of their fellows. They are startled, they are angry: their boss had promised they would be unharassed, and Holmes has made a liar of him. There is shouting.

Breathe: A fight. It goes lightning-fast, contrary to everything that follows. Watson has his cane, Holmes has his fists; a typical Sunday afternoon.

Breathe: The moment.

Breathe: Watson has been in war, had been a soldier for nearly a year before his own injury, and he is not certain he has ever heard a gunshot quite so loud.

Breathe: He sees explosion of sparks and fancies he sees the gleam of the bullet itself, its lazy arc in the air.

Breathe: He hears Holmes’ pained grunt and suddenly the lean coiled presence at his back is ripped away, falling. He half-turns and watches his friend strike the ground, bouncing like a child’s rag-doll tossed carelessly aside.

Breathe: Cold certainty replaces the blood in his veins. It is dark and Holmes is not breathing. The name dies on his lips unspoken. The villains are fleeing, terrified of their boldness–they must be very inexperienced indeed, a voice says in Watson’s head (one that sounds like the dead man at his feet), to turn tail at a single gunshot.

Breathe: He falls to his knees and reaches out with trembling hands. His skin feels too hot and his chest too tight, and there is a terrible roaring of blood in his ears.

And then: “Ah! Damn!” Holmes sits up and pats himself down, a look of feline disgust wrinkling his brow and pinching his lips. After a moment, he reaches into his vest and produces his pocket-watch, shattered quite beyond repair. Holmes makes a sound of distress, prodding at the mess of gears and wires with the tip of his pinky, then looks up at Watson.

“This was my favorite watch,” he says. “It has served me well for many years, and see how all its loyal service is repaid! Who knows if I’ll be able to find another one quite so reliable, Watson, I–Watson?”

Watson, in the middle of Holmes’ ranting, has reached out; his hand now rests upon his friend’s narrow breast. He can feel the charred ripped edges where the bullet penetrated cloth, and it makes him shiver.

“Watson? Say something, man.” Holmes leans forward, and there is just enough light to catch the furrow of his brow and the frown that pinches the corners of his mouth. He seems nearly as distressed as he did over his watch. “You’re not hurt, are you?”

And in that moment the whole scene is absurd: here he is, kneeling in a filthy alley with his hand over solid unbroken skin and his friend pouting (pouting!) over his broken pocket-watch, begrudging to ask if he was all right. Overcome in a sudden impulse, Watson reaches further and hooks his long arms around his friend’s thin shoulders and hauls him in, ignoring the strenuous protests as he embraces his friend, alive and spitting complaints, squirming like a captured cat, but tolerating the embrace for long seconds.

“You are, perhaps,” Watson says, “as well as the wisest, the most foolish man I have ever met, Sherlock Holmes.”

“Ah. Well.” Holmes gives him an indulgent look, the sort usually turned upon unruly children. “That’s all well and good. Would you mind letting me go?”

“I’d mind very much,” Watson says, and over Sherlock Holmes’ indignant sputtered protests, he squeezes to feel the narrow body against his own, and laughs out of sheer bloody relief.

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the color of red

Watson returns to their lodgings late in the afternoon–late enough that it could possibly be called evening, and his mood is pensive and quiet, enough so that Holmes glances at him above the paper and allows it to pass unremarked. Watson has to gently refuse dinner from Mrs Hudson before he retires to his own chair, chin resting on one hand, staring pensively into the fire.

Finally, after nearly an hour, he says, abrupt as a gunshot, “What do you think of the color red, Holmes?”

The man himself doesn’t answer for several minutes; a less clever man might have been mulling over his words, in order to pick the correct ones, but Holmes is merely being polite. Eventually, he says, “It is not an unpleasant color, though I’ve a preference for others over it. Unlike the lady in question.”

Watson sinks lower into his chair for a moment, his fingers pressed over his eyes. “We went to school together, did you know,” he said after a moment.

“I had wondered,” Holmes says, too carefully bland. Watson sees him move from the corner of one eye, long body uncoiling and recurling, shifted more towards him, eyes intent. “There are not many reasons a man will go to a woman’s funeral when she is not his blood-relation. Were you good friends?”

“Once, perhaps,” says Watson. “We lost touch some time ago, though we still exchanged letters every now and then. Still. None of our classmates wanted to work with a woman. It is an amazement she made it through with everyone biased against her. Even the dean of the school himself tried to persuade her not to take up the profession–she’d be better off as a nurse, that’s what everyone wanted to tell her. Instead …” He shrugs a little, wordless.

“You had presumed, as she had overcome those odds and survived every other disaster in that short life of hers, she would not die so soon, or so abruptly.”

“Correct,” Watson says, nearly a sigh, blown through his mustache. “After everything that has happened, I feel as if I should say, ‘thank God for the poor woman, she’s at rest!’ and yet I cannot quite bring myself to do so.”

“That is because you are an uncommonly empathic sort of fellow, Watson,” Holmes tells him, and his tone is nearly gentle. He reaches down and catches up his violin, though he does not yet set it to his chin; his long fingers move across the strings without producing any sound. “And I for one am grateful for that. Madame Red, however, cannot be glad or upset for your condolences now. She’s other business to attend to.”

“God rest her soul,” Watson says quietly.

Holmes says nothing else, but the song the violin sings is a quiet one–nearly a lullabye, more tender than his usual frantic practices, and Watson lets it lull him slowly to sleep.

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Five Times (Holmes realized he was touching Watson, and one time he didn’t)

-1-

There was the one time, very early in their partnership, where Watson–still new to this entire business and prone to overexcitement even now–had panicked at the sound of people approaching and shoved them both into a closet that was entirely too narrow to fit two grown men.

And yet, somehow, fit they did: miraculously so, with Holmes’ cheek smashed against Watson’s own and everything intolerably close. The good doctor had shaved that morning and nicked himself once (the dog’s fault: Gladstone was not especially given to barking, but one of Holmes’ concoctions–meant to silence the voice–had induced the most alarming series of hiccups that had startled Watson’s normally rock-steady hand); the stink of opium smoke was in his hair from their earlier visit to a particular den. His coat had been freshly-laundered as of the morning, but damp and stinking of river muck now. The contact only served to emphasize the discomfort of wet clothes, clammy and itchy in all the places where they pressed together. All of this paired with the doctor’s excited breathing as they waited for their unexpected interruption to pass made the experience most discomforting. Holmes disliked touch and avoided it where he could, and this from a stranger was all the worse.

Watson, damn his eyes, never once noticed. Once the footsteps passed, he’d spilled them both from their narrow hiding-space, eyes dilated and cheeks flushed. Ah, Holmes remembered thinking, here was a man for whom danger could become an excitement, and the lure of the chase could become an addiction. Perhaps, with proper training (for one: Holmes was not some rag doll to be tossed around willy-nilly for the sake of Watson’s delicate nerves), he would make an acceptable–if very occasional–partner. Holmes straightened his shirt and mustered what dignity he still had left to him, and returned to his lock-picking.

-2-

“If you would, please, your finger–here,” Holmes said. He did not wait for Watson’s reply, but instead reached out and grabbed the man’s wrist, dragging it over. To his delight, he didn’t have to actually coax Watson’s hand into the proper position; the doctor willingly places his index finger over the complex knot that Holmes is attempting to tie. The package will be sent as a present for a young lady that Holmes is courting for information about her father’s smuggling business; he does think the red ribbon is the perfect touch.

Under his hand, Watson’s skin was warm and dry, with a faint residue from his soap. (His fingers, later, would smell faintly of pine and rosemary.) His pulse beat steadily under the thin skin of his wrist; he laughed, and his breath, close to Holmes’ ear, smelled of his pipe tobacco. “Really, Holmes, do you think this will work? Miss Hargreaves is supposed to be notoriously difficult to impress.”

“Ah, but that is the challenge, then, isn’t it!” Holmes finished his knot with a flourish, which drags his fingers briefly against Watson’s sleeve. “I shall have to be so impressive that she cannot help it.”

Watson laughed again, and whatever he said in reply was tinged with sardonic good humor; Holmes made a humming sound of agreement–his actual words did not matter in this case–and watched the sunlight slanting into Watson’s hair.

-3-

The first time Watson caught him with the seven percent solution, he thought it was a dream at first: the light coming in through the window framed his dear friend, and though he was a man of science and of facts and learning–it was not very difficult to mistake the man’s appearence as something close to divine. He reached out with a drowsy languid slowness–or it seemed as such, anyway; the drug dulled the edge of his normally too-acute senses and allowed him to experience the world as he thought others must–and found his fingers brushing against the solid warmth of Watson’s collar. It felt surprisingly real, so he pressed harder, considering the sharp edge of bone softened under skin: an instrument finer than his own violin, that was the human body!

“Holmes,” Watson said, and he sounded too disappointed to be a hallucination–not that Holmes was terribly given to those, and so, he supposed, this must be real. His hand was taken and laid gently aside; he wondered a little at how he mourned the loss of contact. How far things had come, from that first uncomfortable time!

After Watson left, still disappointed and never looking back, Holmes sat until the sun had taken herself to bed, rubbing his fingers together and wondering at how touching Watson felt so much like another part of himself.

-4-

He woke before he opened his eyes. It took a moment to catalogue where he was: the stink of bodies and smoke, the sound of metal clinking and crisp booted footsteps across cobblestones and he thought ah, the police yard. His cheek was pressed against a hard warm surface, overlaid with linen and imbued with the smells of tobacco and antiseptic.

Ah, he thought, Watson.

He let his head fall forward and opened his eyes.

-5-

“For you,” he said. “You lost the other ring, didn’t you? I’ve noticed–you’ve been rather despondant, and checking your pockets for anything else you might pawn off, while all your belongings are packed and your checkbook is still in my desk.”

Watson’s eyes were steady, and there was a brightness in them that was unnerving. Holmes found he could not meet them for long. “Holmes …”

“Call it an apology,” he said. His lips twitched and pressed, not quite making it to a smile. “For my previous behavior. I suppose I’ve been rather dreadful, haven’t I?”

“Absolutely wretched,” Watson agreed, in the same even tone. “But that doesn’t explain how–”

“Just take it,” Holmes said. He grabbed Watson’s wrist and firmly pressed the ring against his friend’s palm, folding those long fingers firmly over their new burden. He can feel the faint healing scars from the explosion–Watson’s hands had mostly been spared, but there had been some gashes across the solid knuckles as well. His skin was cooler than normal to the touch: good, no infection. His inital doctor after the explosion might have been horrid, but there were none better than Watson himself, in Holmes’ opinion. “Give it to your Mary, and be glad with my blessing.”

-xxx-

“I am, as I have always been, grateful for your friendship,” says Sherlock Holmes. He clasps Watson’s hand with a firm grasp of his own, and his smile is a real thing–tiny, tremulous, and perhaps not something he himself is aware of, but Watson sees it, and recognizes it for what it is. “Do not doubt that, whatever else may happen.”

Long seconds pass without Holmes growing uneasy or snatching his hand away; that in itself is so unusual that Watson does not protest his friend’s strange behavior: he stands still, instead, and allows himself to be studied, as if he were one of those criminials that Holmes chases down–as if he were a case to crack open. He waits and waits and waits, and finally he is the one who pulls back and lets go, says that he must tell Mary where they are going, especially as it will be longer than simply a day for this particular case. Holmes nods and does not protest, but he watches Watson go the whole way; outside on the street, he glances up and sees he is still being watched.

Weeks later, at the funeral, he stares at the empty casket that is being lowered into the earth, and wonders why he ever retracted his hand.

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beauty and the beast

Once upon a time, in a little village near the Great Woods, there lived a girl who had been blind since birth.

She lived quietly with her grandmother and her grandfather and very rarely ventured out of her house beyond its sagging front step. Though she could not see, her fingers were slim and clever, so she spent her days spinning, sometimes in the cool shade of indoors, and sometimes in the warmth of the afternoon sun. People would bring her their wool, and it was said that there was no yarn finer than what the blind girl spun in the entire kingdom. In this way she was able to live, quietly with her grandparents, for many years.

When summer and market-season came, her grandfather loaded up their single donkey with the wool she had spun, and those that her grandmother had spun, and set off on the worn old trail, through the Great Woods and to the city that lay on the other side. Her grandmother stood in the doorway and waved him off, and the girl continued to spin the morning’s batch of wool, singing louder than normal, so that he could carry the sound of her voice with him for longer. Continue reading

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Grandmaster Draw

“Please, allow me to introduce myself,” the man says. He sweeps into a low bow–but not enough to hide the smirk that crosses his face, so wide it nearly splits in half. “Xerxes Break, at your service.”

“You’re the Lainsworth servant, aren’t you?” Vincent says. He smiles gently, matching Break’s with his own. “I remember, you were there when the Lady Sharon came to negotiate about us taking my brother in from the Vesalius. I’m indebted to her for that.”

“My lady is a gracious person,” Break says. His smile never wavers; it’s more perfect armor than anything else Vincent has ever seen. “And a softhearted one. When she heard of your plight, how could she do anything but offer her help? Especially since the Lainsworth has such a good relationship with the other Houses.”

“That’s true.” Vincent pushes away from the wall, walking on the balls of his feet, and leans forward until he is in Break’s space. Nothing changes in the man’s face or posture, not even to lean back, like most people would. It’s as much of a reaction as it *isn’t* one, which utterly delights him. “Why, one might say that without them, the rest of the Houses would have simply fallen apart through their own petty squabbles by now.”

“Such a thing to say about your own House!” says Break, who is now the very model of a concerned servant. His one eye is open very wide in the picture of sincerity. “What if your honored father heard you?”

“The honored Lord Nightlay has his own things to take care of, tonight,” Vincent says. He reaches up, his fingers not quite touching Break’s face, ghosting over the sharp edge of a cheekbone without ever quite touching. The skin is smooth and cool, like the porcelain of a doll. (A proper one, not the dressed-up raggedy thing perched on his shoulder.) “I’m free to do as I like, provided it isn’t anything too … outlandish.” He smiles again, sweet as the cakes that are being served at this little soiree. “What about yourself? Shouldn’t you be checking upon your Lady Sharon now?”

Without breaking eye contact, Break points. Vincent glances aside and sees that, unerringly, his finger is directed at the tiny heiress of the House Lainsworth. Tonight she is splendid in a dark blue dress, her long hair caught up in complicated artistic draping and pinned with seed pearl netting. She’s speaking to a member of the Barma family, poised and elegant despite her young age. He sees all of this in a moment, but when he looks back at Break, there is something that has subtly changed in the other man’s face. He’s still smiling, but there’s no longer anything even pretending to be friendly about it. One would have to be very close indeed to see that.

“Ah,” Vincent says gently. “As always, you serve your mistress well.”

“I always have,” Break says. This time, when Vincent leans into his space, he moves away just fractionally. Nothing else changes, not even the pace of his breathing. That’s very interesting.

“And I hope you’ll continue to do so, for a long time.” Vincent lowers his lashes and peers up at them; leaning forward as he is, he’s in a position to look up, coy as a maiden. “Your dedication is quite the inspiration for me.”

“Haha, is that so? The young master flatters me.” Break rubs the back of his neck, a calculated sort of embarrassed gesture. Anyone looking would only see a humble servant, embarrassed and pleased at the attentions of a young lord. “It’s my pleasure and my honor to serve the Lady Sharon, as I did her mother before her.”

“Your pleasure,” Vincent purrs. “How wonderful, to have such simple pleasures.” His hand trails lightly in the space just above Break’s shoulder, tracing the shape of it, sharp and angled. The cut of his clothes is very fine, better than most servants would be allowed–but he’s the manservant of the Lainsworth heiress, so perhaps he’s allowed a little more leeway with his budgeting. Vincent makes a note to buy Echo a particularly nice dress, the next time he goes into town. “Tell me, Mister Break, how deep does it go? Does your sun rise and set on her smile? If she touches you, is it something you feel all day? Right here–”

He reaches out. Before he can make contact, Break smoothly sidesteps him. It’s not awkward or out of place–instead, the movement is smooth and easy, flowing from his stillness without effort. Vincent is close enough to see what flickers just briefly through Break’s eyes, rippling through his pleasant smile. He doesn’t bother to drop his hand, standing there with it still outstretched, his own smile never changing.

“Oh,” he says. “Too close?”

“Those are rather personal questions, wouldn’t you say?” Break asks. He’s almost prim. “I’m sorry, Master Vincent, but I don’t believe I will be able to sneak away with you for any sort of tryst. Someone needs to keep an eye on the Lady Sharon, and if anything were to happen to her, even by accident …”

“She doesn’t seem terribly unreasonable,” Vincent purrs. He takes a half-step closer, and there is nothing polite or proper about the way he leans in close once more. Anyone looking would know immediately what’s happening. “After all, she could deal with my father and the head of the Vesalius family and not have them come to blows or blood. If you asked, I’m sure she’d let you go.”

“Then perhaps I should say that I don’t wish to ask,” Break says. He smiles sweetly now, and this time he doesn’t bother to hide what poison he feels. “You said so yourself, didn’t you? If my greatest pleasure is to be found at her side, why would I ever leave?”

“Why indeed,” Vincent says. He glances down, his lashes a fan against his cheek. “I apologize for any insult. I hope we can not let this become an issue between us.”

“Oh, hardly,” Break says. “I am but a servant, after all. I live to serve, though I am afraid that in this particular manner, and for you, I am not yours to ask for. If you’d like, I can recommend some discreet individuals who’d be more than happy to satisfy your whims tonight.” His one eye, jewel red and bright under the transparent fringe of his bangs, is dagger-sharp. There is a sudden and distinct distance between them; it’s no more than an arm’s length, but it might as well be the length of the entire ballroom. In spite of himself, Vincent can feel the corners of his mouth curling up wider. It gives away too much, but he thinks it must only be fair: he’s close enough to read so much out of Xerxes Break’s pale face. He wonders if even Shelly Lainsworth had seen this much of the man, who’d followed her everywhere like a pale ghost until the day she stopped appearing in public and her daughter stepped forward instead.

“Perhaps another time,” he murmurs. Like two dancers, they sidestep and move around each other so that it all looks very natural, and in the end Vincent is leaning against the wall again, watching as Break drifts back to Sharon Lainsworth’s side, drawn easily back into her orbit. She smiles more immediately and more warmly for him than anyone else she’s spoken to all evening–even from a distance, it’s quite easy to see. Ah, she’s still so very young, and he wonders if her contract froze more than just her physical age. He wonders how far he could push before he no longer could see Xerxes Break, just the Mad Hatter’s leering grin.

Vincent ducks his head and laughs quietly to himself. He rubs his thumb against the tips of his other fingers, then presses them to his lips.

“Ah, next time,” he murmurs, “I’ll skip to the queen herself.”

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pr(a/e)y

He wakes hungry.

There is a line of ice down his arm that’s so cold it burns; when he opens his eyes it’s twisted under him, the fingers twisted into claws. In the back of his head, an angry voice is murmuring.

He’s hungry. His belly growls and when he breathes he can smell something impossibly good, something that even the restless voice pauses for. It takes effort to swallow. He moves and bumps against something small and warm and curled against his side, and his breath is sour with wanting. His arm aches, his belly aches, his head–

“Frau,” the small warm thing beside him says, in a voice that is slurred and rich with sleep.

And he remembers.

+++

Even half-asleep and grumpy at being woken, Teito kisses like someone who still doesn’t understand life outside of fighting: hard and with teeth, leaning all his whipcord weight and strength into it, but he softens with certain touches–a hand threaded and petting through his hair, a mouth just under his ear, fingers sweeping a stroke against the tender skin of his inner elbow. He puts his arms around Frau’s shoulders and digs his nails in, makes startled, almost broken noises when Frau slides a broad hand under his back and pulls him up to a seated position, draped into Frau’s lap.

“Quiet,” he mumbles into Frau’s shoulder. “Capella’s …”

“I’m not the noisy one,” Frau says, which is true: Teito whines and yowls and mouths off, as if determined to take a more active part than his inexperience and impatience allow. He slides his thumbs into the waist of Teito’s pants and tugs them down easily; Teito squirms to help. “And that means if the kid wakes up, you’ll have to be the one to explain, brat.”

I’ll have to,” Teito says indignantly, and loses the rest of his protest in Frau’s kiss. He bites Frau’s bottom lip in retaliation, and Frau’s arm aches instead. He can feel pressure needling under his skin, so he kisses harder, more insistently, one hand on Teito’s back to brace him and the other wrapped around Teito’s cock, half-hard and quickly rising. The rest of Teito’s continued (muffled) diatribe melts into a strangled noise of pleasure, his back arching like a bow, bending further than really should be humanly possible. Frau works his fingers hard and fast and hard, Teito’s lower lip caught between his teeth, until Teito’s breath chokes and Frau’s fingers are damp and sticky.

He pulls away slowly, keeping his hand braced against Teito’s back, waiting until those huge green eyes blink into some semblance of focus. He smirks, and Teito goes red as a tomato.

“Wh–what was that for?! I thought you said we had to leave early tomorrow, you’re the one who said you wanted to sleep–”

“I changed my mind,” Frau lies. His fingers flex against Teito’s back, as if he could draw warmth out of that living skin. “Unless you’re done, brat, which I guess is understandable, someone like you–”

Teito growls and grabs his wrist. He spits into Frau’s palm, still damp and sticky, and he glares straight into Frau’s eyes and says, “Do it.”

Frau laughs, the sound low and thick, caught in his throat. He slides his hand down low on Teito’s back and presses to force him to tilt his hips up. “Maybe I should take it slow,” he says, as he brushes his damp thumb over Teito’s entrance, tightening his other fingers when Teito automatically flinches. “You’re young, aren’t you, brats like you could use it lots of times–”

“You’re a pervert,” Teito snaps, redfaced and trembling, his thin chest heaving. “Stupid pervert priest, always–this is–this is all you ever think about–”

Frau grins wide to show off all his teeth. “We could stop,” he offers. “Right here, right now, and go to sleep–”

“I’ll beat you up,” Teito growls, and his blush deepens. His skinny knees dig hard into Frau’s hips; his blunt nails draw red lines down Frau’s chest. With effort he lifts himself up, exhaling and trembling as Frau’s fingers work inside of him. His body is hot enough to begin easing the ache in Frau’s own. “Stupid–stupid perverted priest, what does anyone see in you, ever–”

“Ask yourself that question first, brat,” Frau says.

Teito growls again, digging in hard with his nails against Frau’s shoulder as he squirms and positions himself, and he stares straight into Frau’s eyes, unblinking, as he sinks down onto Frau’s cock. It is not the best prep job they’ve ever done–he sees the flinch that tightens the corners of Teito’s mouth, and he trembles a little too hard as he moves, but when Frau lets his hands simply hover over Teito’s hips, not touching, the brat continues shifting, relaxing in slow degrees until the movement is mostly smooth.

“Stupid,” he pants. “Stupid–pervert–ah–”

“As you see me,” Frau allows, though his own voice is strained; it feels good–it’s not enough to satisfy the full ache that gnaws at his belly, but it’s close enough to distract. When Teito’s eyes flutter closed, concentrating, Frau finally grasps his hips and holds on, not quite guiding or directing. He doesn’t not allow himself to close his own eyes–not completely–and the tiny, almost surprised gasps of Teito’s voice are almost enough to drown out that thing that’s murmuring to him the whole time.

(–want–need–hungry–)

Teito comes for a second time with a strangled noise, tossing his head back and exposing the line of his throat, distorted by his collar; only when he slumps does Frau let himself go, with a silence that he impresses himself with–for a few blessed moments, everything is quiet in his world.

Then Teito slumps forward against his chest, panting, warm, sticky, and Frau thinks about just rolling him off and over, but instead he puts an arm around Teito’s thin back and props him back up, using the sheet to clean them both off–in the cold, the inn’s provided them with two blankets, so at least there’ll be something left when they sleep. Teito makes a few grumpy noises, something along the lines of I can do it, and falls asleep before Frau’s halfway through. His breathing is soft and gentle on Frau’s shoulder.

His arm aches. He’s hungry.

Frau lifts his hand and alternates a few times between making a fist and relaxing. He frowns.

“That’s the most you get,” he says, refusing to acknowledge what he’s hearing, murmured soft and low–blood and seed and warm salty flesh and a crystal-pure soul–

Frau closes his eyes.

+++

He wakes hungry.

The light through the windows is gray and pale and sometime during the night the small warm weight against his left was joined by another smaller, warmer presence. He feels both heavy and light; the only thing that is clear is the hunger in his stomach and the icy burn that traces through the veins of his arm.

He remembers. And he wishes the taste of blood on his tongue, made when it slices against his teeth, was not his own.

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nighttime

It is long dark by the time Bastien returns to his rooms. The day has been a long one: Jio is making noises about promoting him soon, but he’s still holding out–it’s only another year before the exam, and while he hasn’t taken on an apprentice in years, there is one in particular that he’s interested in–

He pauses in the doorway to his room. He looks around slowly in the dark and frowns. He sighs, then walks over to the bed and takes a good double handful of his blankets–then gave a good hard yank. There’s a loud indignant squawk as a small body tumbles to the floor in a tangle of sheets. A moment later, a tousled blond head emerges from the mess, just visible in the silver of light that comes from the still-open door.

Bastien sighs and starts folding the blankets. “Frau,” he says sternly. “You’re breaking curfew.”

Frau sits with his shoulders hunched and his knees hitched up. It’s a posture that’s not unlike a wounded animal. He doesn’t look up, staring balefully at a spot somewhere past Bastien’s knees. “No one pays attention,” he mutters. “They saythere’s a curfew, but who’s even looking? You don’t even have a guard or anything.”

“Of course we don’t, Bastien says, placid. He puts the re-folded blankets onto the bed, then crouches down. “This is a church, not a prison.”

Frau’s eyes dart up towards his face for a moment, then away again. His jaw is set in an impressive scowl for his young child-soft face. “Could’ve fooled me.”

Bastien sighs again. He puts a hand on the ground to brace himself and moves from a crouch to a seated position–he’s not old yet, certainly, but his knees are protesting the movement more than they did even a year ago. He leans forward, but not so far that he crowds the boy, and he says, “Frau. Why would you say such a thing?”

“Nothing with this many rules isn’t a prison,” Frau mumbles. His voice trails off as he speaks, as if he can’t quite make himself finish the phrase. “Why wouldn’t I think that?”

“There are rules in every society,” Bastien says. “This is how we keep ourselves pure, so that we may set an example for the rest of the w–”

Before he can finish, something rockets forward, striking him center in the chest. Taken by surprise, Bastien falls back, thumping into the side of his bed, and Frau is kissing him, inexpertly and clumsily and more than a little violent; his startled indrawn breath tastes like blood. Frau shakes like a leaf in a storm, tucked into a tight ball in Bastien’s lap, and Bastien is so shocked that he lets it go for a few seconds before he very firmly puts his hands on Frau’s shoulders and pushes him back.

“Generally,” he says, still gentle, still unruffled, “if you want something like that, the thing to do is ask, first.”

Frau’s pale face is defiant. There is a smear of blood on the corner of his mouth. He’s still shaking. “That’s what you want, isn’t it?” he asks.

“Hmm?”

“I’ve heard stories,” Frau goes on, trying so hard for cocky and sounding more like a lost little boy. It’s the worst he’s sounded in nearly a year, and that troubles Bastien. He sounds more like the boy who first came to the church, abandoned by his companions through death and trying so hard to pretend he didn’t care. “Priests like that sort of thing, don’t they? You don’t care about pictures or anything like that, so–so if it’s a real person, if it’s a boy–”

“Frau,” Bastien says. His voice is still gentle, but it’s still so absolute that Frau’s blustering cuts off immediately. “You are a beloved child of this church and a student whom I think very highly of. I think you could go very far, if only you tried. And–” he holds up a finger and affects his sternest frown, “it’s not a child’s position to presume how and where an adult spends his time. You’re still very young if you think something like that is enough to move me.”

For a moment, Frau just stares. His small face is so mobile, it’s astonishing; Bastien has never met anyone quite so expressive. He goes from shocked to disbelieving to–insulted–in the space of a couple of heartbeats. “Hey–hey! I’m not that much of a kid! I’m good at that, okay! I–”

“Yes, yes,” Bastien says indulgently. He gets to his feet, wincing a little when his knees crack. “I know. Let’s get you back to bed, all right?”

Frau looks at him and his outstretched hand. He squirms a little, going shift-eyed. “Mumblemumble,” he says.

Bastien continues to wait. “What?”

“I said, mumblemumblemumble,” Frau says. He glances up at Bastien’s patient face, then sighs loudly, squirming in spot. “… can I stay here … ?”

Bastien’s eyebrows both rise nearly to his hairline. “What was that?”

“Not like that!” Frau scowls fiercely. “I don’t mean like that! I just–I dunno, I thought–you know what, never mind! I’ll go! You didn’t have to complain so much!”

As he scrambles to his feet, Bastien sighs. “Only tonight,” he says. “You’re getting too old for this sort of thing. And you mustn’t brag about it, all right?”

Frau pauses. His back is framed in the light from the doorway, and his shoulders are still tense and unhappy. “Like I’d do that,” he mutters. “I don’t want–”

“If you kick or steal the covers, you’ll sleep on the floor,” Bastien says. He turns his back politely, undoing the heavy clasp of his outer robe, as he heads to the small wardrobe he keeps in the back of his room. “I’m getting changed.”

He takes his time deliberately. He hears the door close. When he turns and lets his eyes adjust to the dark, he can see a small lump curled on the right side of his bed. He smiles as he crosses over, and he slides into bed without disturbing his companion. It takes long seconds, but Frau finally unfolds, lying less like a defensive soldier, and more like a person ready for sleep.

“Good night,” Bastien says into the dark. “May you have good dreams.”

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ka i da n

Shhh, shh, shhhh, goes the wind in the trees. The sun is setting and turning the sky is turning into brilliant puddles of orange and violet and pink, and there is a breeze that makes fallen leaves rustle and whisper amongst themselves. The air is growing cool. In the distance, people are talking and laughing and singing, can you hear them? I’ll light a candle–hold it, if you would.

It’s a good night for stories. Here is one that my grandfather told me.

You know how they say when a cat lives to be a certain age, its tail splits into two, and it becomes a totally different creature? It becomes a demon that can make the dead dance and bow to its whims. There’s a faster way to do this, though, and bind the resultant creature to you. Take a black cat that is exactly three months old and not a second older or younger, and tie a ribbon around its neck. Red is the traditional color. Tie the other end of that ribbon to your wrist and lift it up. Let the cat hang. As it goes through its death throes, be careful not to let it scratch you; then you’ll have to start all over. While it dies, exactly as its last breath leaves its body, be sure to look straight into its eyes. Say its name (its true name, mind you, the one that is so difficult to get out of cats–they’re secretive bastards, worse than even foxes, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise) as it fades. Continue reading

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Valentine

In the end there is confusion and shouting, and though he folds himself around her and though she clings tight, they are torn apart. He sees her face in the light of day for the first and last time, stained with tears and shocked by the betrayal of her people and his. Everyone is yelling, filling the air with accusations, but he cannot look away from her, afraid to even blink.

“I will come,” he calls to her, through the noise.

Her lips tremble, then turn up into a smile. “I’ll die waiting,” she tells him, and is swept away.

+++

“Father,” she says. For just a moment she’s his little girl again, more precious than anything in his kingdom, trembling in fear of the dark.

He blinks. His hands are around her throat.

“Father,” she says again, softer now; she isn’t even trying to struggle. Deeply sinful child that she is, he feels a last tired spark of pride that she would accept his final command so willingly. The flutter of her breath is soft as a butterfly’s wing against his fingers. Her eyes are starting to dim.

“Sleep,” he says, crooning like the lullabies of long ago.

She does.

+++

Valentine watches her dance under hooded lids. His thin lips are set into a scowl and he strokes his fingers up and down the gold chain hanging at his neck. Now and then, he bares his teeth on a name he never once voices.

Valentine watches her dance, jealous as a lover, never blinking. Something flickers in his narrow eyes and quickly dies. The world could burst into flames and he would never notice, too preoccupied with the girl in silks and red velvet and the ghost that dances together with her.

Valentine watches her dance. And Ingway watches him.

+++

Fire and worse still rains down from the sky, but most of the screams have fallen silent when he crawls out from the under the Cauldron’s shadow. On his belly goes until he finds his sister, pale and still and sheltered. She is still wearing red silk. He touches her to make certain she’s real; his fingers brush her lips.

They’re soft. Her breath is warm against his fingertips. For a moment his heart pounds so loudly in his ears he can hear nothing else.

Like a man burned, he scrambles to his feet; he runs and never looks back.

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where morning has gone

We’ve been together since the day we were born. Before that, even. No matter what, if I reached out, your hand would be there to grasp mine in turn …

+++

There is a certain spot in the desert where rain never falls, even when the scattered clouds come to all other places; the locals call it the Mouth of Sheol and avoid even mentioning it. If you trick one into looking in its direction, they go pale and turn away as soon as possible. Most don’t even bother to pretend: they just close their eyes and the subject abruptly changes. Even if it was nothing serious to begin with. You learn to pick up the cues–and the clues–and piece them together as best as you can. No one wants to say whether or not they’ve seen Nick, but you’re willing to bet everything you’ve got that he’s been through. You saw the way the man at the gate looked at you when you arrived: pale and then red, angry and afraid, like he’d seen a ghost. Or worse. You know there are more frightening things in this world and the next. You’ll do whatever you can to push through.

Nick’s waiting. You’ve kept him long enough. Continue reading

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