and lets it shine through

Until the day he dies, he is going to know the taste of Clair’s blood: mixed in wine, mixed with sweat, bright and clean on his tongue.

+++

Giovanni remembers: being eighteen and still not entirely used to his new world of clean sheets and fresh food, lying awake and restless when his door opened. He remembers rolling out of bed, gun in hand, and stopping only when he registered Clair’s presence in his doorway. He remembers stick-thin boylimbs: the jutting knob of wrist bone and the the sweep of calves, and how pale they were in the light of the full moon.

He remembers his own shock and the sound of his voice saying Clair’s name; he remembers the light in Clair’s eyes — and wasn’t he too young for this, wasn’t he still just a kid even if he was Vampire’s son — and he remembers the coy edge in Clair’s voice, skirting an innocent little-kid question into dangerous territory: I had a nightmare, can I stay?

Even that long ago, he’d been unable to say no. Clair’s body had been bony and all angles and he generated enough heat that Giovanni could feel himself sweat; he’d remained awake the entire night, too nervous to sleep. No one in Company Vita was completely irreplaceable, even the Vampire himself (hence Clair’s grooming, hence his training, the odd mix of fatherly benevolence and tyrannical expectations), and certainly a no-family kid from the slums wouldn’t be missed by anyone but the young master, and there were already enough sharp-eyed men angling for a spot close to the next Vampire.

Eighteen and still mostly awkward in his own skin, Giovanni had known that the worth of his own life depended on the young boy (young man) curled against him, and so he remained awake and watching shadows where they blended into cool patterns on Clair’s skin, pale enough to glow in the moonlight. He remembers this clearly, like he could turn his head and find himself back in that room with Clair tucked into the crook of his arm, breathing in the quiet space between.

He remembers this as Clair’s giggles fill the little room, as he watches Clair rock back and forth on the small bed, as eyes meet his and slide away without registering his presence. Light comes in filtered from the curtains — even if they’re here under Shogun’s protection, Giovanni doesn’t dare leave them open — and leaves Clair looking dull and limp. There is nothing of that long-ago shine in him now.

Giovanni keeps his fingers tight on his gun and remembers.

+++

“I’m going to be Vampire, you know,” Clair had said, with the afternoon sun bright in his newly-dyed bangs. The silver ring in his lip flashed with each word.

“I know,” Giovanni had answered, and he had: it was a bone-deep knowledge and instinctive as breathing. He’d held still as Clair leaned forward, bony knees bracketing his thighs and a brief weight perched on his knees. His eyes were dazzled if he looked Clair straight in the face.

“That means you’ll have to do everything I tell you,” Clair had said, and put his skinny arms around Giovanni’s neck. And then he’d leaned in, till he eclipsed everything else in Giovanni’s sight, and laughed in his ear: “But wait, you already do.”

+++

“Papa bought me a girl,” Clair says idly; he’s obviously wearing nothing under the sheets bunched at his waist. Giovanni is frozen: it’s not the first time he’s seen his young master naked, but there is something very different in this particular scenario compared to helping Clair dress for functions, or even caring for him when ill. This is a young man whose predator-eyes are knowing and fixed on their target. “My first. I learned some interesting things from her.”

“Did … you.” Giovanni’s voice sounds strange to his own ears. In the back of his mind he’s composing a protest letter — one of thousands he’s directed towards Lorenzo Leonelli for years about how he treats his son — and so it’s too late when he hears himself say: “Like what.”

Clair grins, flashing white teeth in a red mouth. His lip ring is a stark hard line of metal in soft flesh. Like water, like a cat, he melts off the bed, dragging sheets with him. They ride so low that it’s more obscene than if he just came naked; his hipbones are clean sharp lines under his white skin. Giovanni thinks, the door is still open, but says nothing as Clair presses against him and finally lets the thin sheet fall. He is warm as he was a year ago, curled into Giovanni’s side, but there is a sense of deliberate intent now: the light in Clair’s eyes is conquering now, smug with the knowledge of his victory and basking in it.

“Do you really want to know?” Clair hisses. He giggles briefly, but he’s quiet steady when he begins to undo the buttons of Giovanni’s shirt. Giovanni’s hands rise and hover in the air by Clair’s thin shoulders. He should stop this, he thinks; Clair’s too young, too brilliant, too everything that a lower-city slum bastard can’t touch —

“I’ll show you,” Clair whispers, and firmly yanks Giovanni’s pants open before sliding to his knees with that same sinuous educated grace. Everything that Giovanni meant to say sputters and dies rather spectacularly as long fingers wrap around his cock and Clair’s hot mouth closes around him, because holy fuck there is no way Clair’s first girl could teach him this

His head hits the wall hard enough to hurt and he makes strangled noises as Clair laughs around him — not his usual giggle, but low and pleased and Giovanni just gives up and sinks his fingers into Clair’s hair, holding tightly as he dares, groaning again as Clair’s hands settle on his hips in turn and urge him into raw movement, into fucking Clair’s mouth and there’s no resistance, no gagging when his cock hits the back of Clair’s throat and fuck, fuck, he’s getting sucked off by Clair Leonelli and he can’t make himself look because he thinks he might go blind from the way Clair shines.

+++

That’s silly, in retrospect, but Giovanni remembers being slumped against the wall and watching dazedly as Clair licked his own fingers clean, and knows he didn’t imagine the smug glow that came from within.

+++

And here they are: his arm hurts so badly that he’s nearly blacked out twice when it shifted in just the wrong way and his breath comes rattling and pained in his chest. He still doesn’t get what happened, not really — he’d honestly expected to die in that dingy little alley. That someone (and Giovanni has no illusions on who that “someone” is) would hide an assassination program in the old man’s AI isn’t that surprising; the man behind “Serge Echigo” isn’t one to leave himself any room for failure. He rather hopes Daisuke won’t find out — it’d be insult on top of injury.

It’s all come to this, the former Vampire and his most loyal dog creeping together inch by painful inch through the lower streets of Judoh. Giovanni hurts all over, not just his arm, but there’s a smile that stretches his mouth till it aches. It’s a welcome little pain, it’s all completely worth it, because Clair is tucked under his arm, pressed against him, full-circle-but-not, and there is light in them again, brilliant and fierce enough to challenge the sun.

“What’s so funny?” Clair asks sharply. He’s not looking at Giovanni; he’s too busy checking all around them, because maybe the old man didn’t follow them, but it’s unlikely that Shun Aurora would only have one backup murder weapon. “Spit it out.”

“Nah,” says Giovanni. He shakes his head, and welcomes the ache in his head that comes as a result. “Welcome back, Clair.”

Clair glances sharply at Giovanni. Then he grins, bright-eyed and gloriously awake.

“Hmph,” he says. “Like I’d leave you in the dark for long.”

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The Boy Without Fear

Listen to my song: for I have grown old, but I still remember as keenly as the young. Lend me your time, and I will repay you in kind with a story. It will start like this:

***

In the lands east of the sun and west of the moon, there lived a boy who did not know fear, known by those of his village as Walker-Without-Shadow.

He was the youngest of seven brothers, all born to a seventh daughter, who in their tiny village was called a witch and kept no husband. She taught her sons many ordinary things, such as which plants to heal and which plants to poison, and she taught them how to listen to the voices in the ash-trees and how to follow the directions of the birds, who are terrible gossips, but are clever at finding out the truths of this world, and those above and below. All of her children were strong and beautiful, and she loved them all, but of all her sons she loved the youngest best. Continue reading

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when nothing remains to cover her eyes

She remembers the stories that the maids used to tell of her mother, behind cupped hands when they thought no one else was listening: how she had not always been that fragile pale creature who spent her days either in bed or by the window and stared out at the falling snow; how she had been wise and lovely and kind, beloved of her husband and her people.

Such a pity, the maids sighed, such a shame that the honored princess would be the one who gave birth to the twins of misfortune; how sad that someone so fair and gentle would be the one to bring disaster upon the world — and so tenderhearted that she *hid* the twins of misfortune in the desperate hope that if the rest of the world did not know of her sin, then perhaps its curse would be averted.

That is the image she holds in her mind when she creates a grave-keeper for her brother: a soft voice and a mother’s face, loyally keeping watch over that tiny glass coffin. She is not the only woman in King Asura’s court, but she is the only one who doesn’t serve in capacity as a maid or a cook or healer; she is the only one whose spells can raze entire mountains to dust. She keeps her hair cropped short and is grateful for her spare build; the men know she’s a woman without *knowing*; they look at her like a comrade, like the king’s trusted wizard — but no nobler, no more higher in rank than the rest of them.

Princesses are creatures that get referenced in the books of Asura’s library, sweet-faced and pure-hearted. She isn’t one. She can’t be one. She doesn’t know how.

She has rough hands in her gloves and her magic devours and destroys. King Asura calls her beautiful, but in the way that the snow-covered landscape is lovely: spare and cold and unforgiving, rather than warm or kind. She does not have the arms to embrace the hurts of the world to her breast; all she has room for was her wish, and the path to achieving it.

+++

And then: the ice king went to sleep.

And then: the desert princess lost her “heart.”

+++

In the winter of another country, they give her a dress to wear. She looks at it blankly and doesn’t quite understand how it works — in Celes, in Valeria, if women wore dresses, they were hardly more than ornate heavy robes over dense warm undergarments. Jade Country is not even a fraction as bitterly cold, but the dress still seems … impractical. She would much rather wear a frock-coat and trousers, as she’s seen the boy and the ninja (Syaoran-kun and Kuro-pippi, Kuro-tan, Kuro-sama) wear. The dress feels like a pretense.

“Fay-san?” the princess mumbles from the bed. She’s been carefully wrapped and warmly tucked away, poor little thing; for a desert princess, all this snow must be a terrible shock.

She fixes an immediate smile on her face and turns, still holding the dress. “Sakura-chan?”

“Are you having trouble?” Very slowly Sakura sits up; she rubs both of her eyes like a child. It’s cute. “That’s a very pretty dress.”

“Eheh~ do you think?” She holds it up against herself in model. “Hmm, but it’s not really to my tastes. Where I come from, dresses are rather impractical! It’s cold all the time, so we just wear lots and lots of layers. Only royalty–” She cuts herself off, so quickly that she tastes blood and the inside of her cheek stings.

Princess Sakura shakes her head. She untangles herself from the bed with dreamy, deliberate slowness. She’s still so obviously tired, the poor thing, and she crosses over to the fireplace and takes the dress.

“I’ll help you,” she says. She smiles, and the firelight casts warm shadows across her smooth face. It makes her look young and old and beautiful. “This style is tricky by yourself, anyway. Someone needs to lace you up in the back.” She smooths the dress’ full skirt and her little fingers are snow-white against the dark green velvet. “Turn around, please, Fay-san?”

And in spite of herself she does, letting Sakura help her wrestle into the dress with its voluminous skirts and layers and soft bell sleeves; sits with her head bowed forward and breath sucked in as the little princess tugs on the laces to pull them appropriately tight. Fingers brush the nape of her neck, playing against the short hair, and she freezes.

“Fay-san has such pretty hair,” the princess says in warm admiration. “It’s so soft, and the color is so nice! Have you ever thought of growing it out?”

She thinks of her mother (of Chii), and long, long cascades of white-blonde hair covered in nets of seed-pearls and braided with tiny crystals of blue and white. She thinks of the dirty unwashed rat’s-nest of hair that King Asura himself cut for her, and the way the messy tangle had hidden her brother’s face, softened some of its sunken hollowness.

“No,” she says, but leans into Sakura’s petting anyway.

+++

There’s another princess here, too, hundreds of years dead but still lingering on, watching over the castle that she kept in life. Like the stories in Asura’s collection, she was beautiful and sweet and protected the children of her kingdom, gathering them into the shelter of her wings.

The ghost speaks to Sakura of course; the little princess has a power that will grow all too soon — but more than that, it is one woman to another, one princess to another.

Neither of them acknowledge her, and she keeps her face turned away, not watching.

+++

It all goes wrong, of course.

It always goes wrong.

There is nowhere you can go to outrun your own curse, after all.

+++

Sakura weighs so very little, even with the metal braces on her still-lame leg, the ones their new sponsor has been generous to provide her. She stumbles once — only once, drifting weightless as one of her own feathers — and already has her equilibrium back by the time Syaoran catches her hand. She smiles at him vaguely, and she cannot be seeing him — she has to be seeing the other Syaoran, *her* Syaoran — but it doesn’t show in her eyes or on her lips when she thanks him.

Even now, taken apart and clumsily stitched back together again — even now, tired and grieving and far from home — she is every inch a princess. There is steel in Sakura that will not bend nor break; madness will not take her as it did Valeria’s crown princess, years ago.

She stays close to her princess and maybe allows herself to bask a little. Sakura is a soothing presence compared to Kurogane’s anger (and he’s so angry these days, paranoid and watchful and growling with every breath — well. She had earned his ire by now, hadn’t she?) and the awkward almost-familiar edges of this new Syaoran. She walks two steps behind, one to the left, as she had always walked behind her king; she follows her princess to her room.

“I must be a horrible person,” Sakura says, in the relative haven of her room. She turns and is leaning in close, her tiny fragility and terrible strength curled into a compact package that smells of leather and chemical fruits. The princess’ slim little fingers trace the collar around her throat (for you, my princess, only for you, it’s no burden) and her green eyes are dim and quiet. “It’s not even his fault, but I can’t …”

She takes her princess’ wrists in her own and marvels at their delicacy: a little pressure here, a push there, and it would snap between her fingers. She kisses one palm, then the other. Like this she can smell the blood that rushes so close to the surface.

“Syaoran-kun has his own burdens,” she says into white skin, her lips shaping words directly to flesh. Sakura shivers and bites her lip. (Poor little bird, she doesn’t even understand her own embarrassment.) “He would never blame Sakura-chan for having her own, and he’d take them from you if he could.”

Sakura shakes her head. For a moment she is that earnest innocent girl again: the princess beloved of her people, unaware of the darker, harsher things in the world. “It’s not right, though. I was the one who made the decision to do anything I can to get Syaoran-kun’s heart back — the real Syaoran-kun, the one who’s real to me …” She reaches up and brushes careful fingers against the bottom of the eye patch. “And Fay-san, too, has been hurt because of me …”

“No,” she says, and then again, “No. Sakura-chan, no.”

“I want everything to be all right,” Sakura murmurs. “I used to be able to say that. ‘Everything will be all right!’ Right now, I can’t believe it myself.” She presses closer, warm soft flesh and a pulse that pounds rabbit-quick in her thin breast.

“If my princess wishes,” she whispers, “then it’ll come true.”

Sakura shakes her head. “I’ve made so many wishes,” she murmurs. “Too many wishes, and they all flew away …”

She moves before that voice fades into silence, scooping her princess up before the little girl can fall and cradles her close (soft as feathers, so light she might vanish with a heavy breath) and carries her to bed. (Tiny princess, brave lovely child, royalty she herself will never be.) She has another kiss for each palm, and it grieves her to feel calluses forming there.

Her own magic is only destructive, and never has she regretted that more.

Sakura blinks at her, slow and tired, and she leans down until she can feel her princess’ breath against her own mouth.

“Whatever you wish,” she says against slack lips. “Whatever you want, if it’s within my power …” She can hear each individual beat of Sakura’s heart, the wet rush of blood under fragile skin. The creature that’s living in her skin can’t have anything but Kurogane’s blood, but its hunger takes so many forms: for the white smooth skin of Sakura’s neck, for the gently shallow rise of her breasts, for the instinctive poise that is a *princess*–

She pulls back. Sakura is asleep.

She touches Sakura’s parted lips; she touches the slow steady pulse in her princess’ throat and touches her own tongue to her fangs until they cut and she tastes blood.

She’s hungry, she thinks. She should find Kurogane.

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No Friend Of Mine

“It’ll be fun,” Janis coaxed, hugging his arm between her breasts and flashing him the biggest eyes she could manage. “C’mon, Daaaai, you haven’t been by for ages.” She pouted, red lower lip pushing out.

“She’s right,” Vivian agreed, tugging at Daisuke’s collar — though whether to straighten it or pull it aside, he still wasn’t sure. “You keep promising you’ll come play, and then you never do.” She leaned forward, allowing a good look down her low-cut shirt, and fluttered her lashes at him. “Dai, don’t you love us any more?”

He shrugged, pulling his sunglasses from his pocket. “It’s just been busy,” he said. “I don’t just come here for fun, you know. Man’s gotta work.”

“Oh, poo.” Cynthia stuck her tongue out. “Too much work isn’t healthy for anyone. Surely even your bosses let you have a vacation now and then?” She traced a red-painted nail down his arm, biting her lip. “Come on, Daiii, even the boss misses you. Says he’ll forgive you for trashing the place last time you came.”

“Hey,” he said mildly. “I was trying to prevent a drug transaction that was set to happen in your back room. It’s not my fault the guy didn’t want to come quietly like a good law-abiding citizen.” He spread his hands. “Or the time that the guy took a shot at me because I’d gotten one of his buddies busted a few weeks back. Or when J tracked that one rogue machine into the back alley behind your shop and–”

“That’s all in the past now,” Janis said brightly. She leaned in until her cheek was pressed to his, and fluttered her lashes. “Come onnn, Daiiiii, you know you want to. It’ll be fun! Say you will, pleeeeeease?”

“Please,” Vivian said, bright-eyed, echoed a moment later by Cynthia; it was the most insistent they’d been in a long time. When he leaned back, they followed, all sparkling eyes and hopeful smiles.

Daisuke sighed, getting to his feet and extracting his arm from Vivian’s grasp. “Fine,” he said. “Fine, I’ll go. Tonight, you say?”

The girls cheered as he put his sunglasses on. “You promise, right?” Cynthia asked, peering into his face. “That’s definitely a promise, so you’d better make it!”

“Right, right,” he sighed, tossing a wave over his shoulder without looking back. “I’ll be there.”

+++

“A man must always keep the promises he makes,” J said.

Daisuke peered at him suspicously. “The last time you went in for maintenance,” he said, “did Dr. Bellucchi install a sarcasm chip in you?”

J’s eyes focused on him. The machine’s expression never changed, but he said, “Such a thing is not necessary. You have made a promise, Daisuke. You should be willing to see it through.”

He groaned, scrubbing a finger through his hair. “Man, I was afraid you’d say that …”

+++

The club was dark except for the moving, brightly-colored lights on the stage. Daisuke paused in the doorway, peering into the dimness. There were girls dancing on the stage, moving and gyrating together and apart; there were girls in the audience draped over their patron of choice. It was almost a literal wall of moving flesh and he hesitated, scanning the crowds — if he was lucky, he might be able to skip out and just say he’d been by —

“Daiiiii!” Cynthia’s voice shrilled over the crowd; a moment later he was flanked by all three girls, dressed in clothes that were noticably flashier and skimpier than during the day. “You came after all!”

He leaned back a little, laughing a bit nervously. “Well,” he said. “Looks like they turned me loose earlier than I thought, and I thought I’d come. I’ve made it, so I’ll just–”

“Ehhh, noo, you need to come inside!” Vivian seized hold of his arm, pulling. “Have a drink on us, Dai, come on, you can’t run away from us just yet!”

“Give me a break,” he sighed, but let himself be pulled into the club fully; it was easier to let them guide his footsteps through the crowded dark area. “I’ve still got work tomorrow, you know–”

“Oh, don’t worry about it, don’t worry about it at all!” Cynthia said brightly. “Just let us take care of you, Dai, we’ll make sure that you’re taken care of.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of.” He looked around as he was pressed into a seat. “Besides, aren’t you three all working right now?”

“We’re on break,” Janis said. She perched on the arm of his chair, and Vivian hitched herself on the other, fighting for space with Cynthia. “So come on, Dai, let’s have fun, okay? We’ll get you some drinks, and we could play cards — you’re a lucky man, you know that?” She prodded his shoulder and leaned down, so that the weight of her breasts rested against it. “We’re suuuper-popular, you know.”

“Uh-huh,” he muttered, eyeing the drink that Cynthia pushed into his hand; it was electric pink and had a small paper umbrella sticking out of it. “Popular enough that you can spend most of the day hanging out at Kabuki Road and harass hardworking citizens?”

Vivian smacked his shoulder gently. “Be nice,” she scolded. “Here we are, paying attention to you! Three pretty girls when there’s only one of you, how are you losing?”

“Right,” he said. He took a cautious sip of his drink and managed to keep from gagging; it was sweet enough to make his teeth ache with a vaguely fruity aftertaste. “I’m … really doing well here, aren’t I.”

“Of course!” Cynthia said proudly. She drew herself up, putting a hand over her heart. “We’re the flowers of this shop — men fight over who gets to spend time with one of us by ourselves, let alone all three!”

“She’s right,” Vivian piped up, twirling pale blonde hair around one finger. “We work hard, we’re a big draw for this place.”

From the bar, there was a bellow, over the tinny piped-in music and the voices of the crowd; all three girls flinched. Daisuke swirled his cup, eyeing the liquid before taking another hesitant sip. It still tasted overly sweet. “Sounds to me like you’re not drawing enough,” he said, over the effort to not simply cough at the sugar burn down his throat. “Shouldn’t you go see what your boss wants?”

Janis threw a pouting look over her shoulder. “Poo,” she said. “And we were having fun, too …”

“Hey.” Daisuke waved a hand. “Business comes before pleasure, okay? I don’t want to wear out my welcome here again, if I’ve just gotten reinvited.” He leaned back in his chair as the call came again, not quite lounging as the three girls reluctantly peeled themselves away from him, heading back towards the bar. He wiggled his fingers at them and waited until the crowd swallowed them up before putting his drink down and gingerly pushing it as far away as possible. He watched it for a few moments, lips pursed, and then, when satisfied that it wouldn’t really eat through the material of the glass, he switched his attention to the girls onstage.

Prostitution had been legalized in Judoh around the same time machines had been outlawed; some nervous senator or other, upset at losing one outlet, had apparently pushed for allowing the other. Most girls worked out of clubs like this one, complete with their own regulations and health laws, and a man could easily be blacklisted for mistreating one, or refusing medical tests or protection. It also meant that most of the girls in the shop were a valuable information resource; there had been once or twice in his memory when they’d heard of things even before Shougun. Daisuke made it a habit to stay friendly, whenever and wherever he could.

He didn’t look away from the stage when the chair next to his was pulled out, though he watched the other guy from the corner of one eye. He was thin and clean-shaven, hunching his shoulders in like a man trying to disguise his height, with long hands that he folded together on the tabletop. His hair was cut in a shaggy fringe over his eyes, dark brown in color; he turned his head towards Daisuke for a moment, then snapped his gaze away again, as though embarrassed to be caught. Though he looked to be around the same age, he looked so young and new that he’d squeak if he turned too fast. Daisuke grinned in spite of himself, leaning forward a little.

“Nice show, huh?” he said.

The man jumped, large hands fumbling in air for a moment. “Um,” he said; even in the dim light, it was obvious he was blushing. “I’m just — I’m here with some friends, they insisted, and. Uh. Well, they’ve got company and I’m not … ahahaha, that’s not to say I’m, you know — but I just — um.” He ducked his head for a moment, then lifted it again with apparent effort, meeting Daisuke’s eyes. “I’m Ryuu.”

“Daisuke,” he said with a grin, offering a hand. “I got dragged here by friends too.”

“Did you?” Ryuu’s eyes lit up, perhaps a little too brightly and desperately. “I, um. I’m glad.” He took Daisuke’s hand in a warm, slightly damp grip and shook it. “Oh, good. I mean — not good that you’re here if you don’t want to be, but good that you’re–” He cut himself off and gave a brief, nervous laugh. “Uh. It’s nice to meet you.”

“Likewise,” Daisuke said, and smiled.

+++

“Is this all right?” Ryuu muttered. His hands were large and a little sweaty, but they were warm and mostly steady, one cupping the back of Daisuke’s head with his fingers sunk into Daisuke’s hair and the other resting on his hip beneath shirt and pants. He kissed open-mouthed and sloppy, his mouth tasting more of alcohol than anything else, panting a little against the curve of Daisuke’s ear. “You don’t — if you don’t want to, we shouldn’t–”

Daisuke laughed softly. “I’ve got nowhere else I need to be,” he said. He skimmed both hands up and down Ryuu’s sides, feeling out each ticklish flinch and line of muscle. It felt good — Ryuu was of height with him but more heavily built, and he wasn’t that afraid to lean his weight into Daisuke, pressing him into the alley wall. “You?”

“No,” Ryuu said. He smiled; it made him look both earnest and young. His mouth was swollen and wet. “I don’t. I just wanted to make sure–”

“I’m fine,” Daisuke repeated, hooking his fingers into the belt loops of Ryuu’s pants and hitching him closer. “So let’s just–”

Ryuu made a small keening noise in his throat, pushing closer. “Daisuke,” he said, like it was some sort of prayer. “Daisuke, Daisuke–”

At the mouth of the alley, headlights flashed, bright enough to make them both flinch. Daisuke turned his head, squinting into the glare; it took a moment of adjusting to see the slim figure standing there, backlit by the hard glow.

“Oh, my,” said a voice. “Isn’t this embarrassing? Daisuke Aurora, hanging out in back alley like some sort of nameless slut?”

Daisuke’s mouth twisted as he raised an eyebrow. “Considering you know my name,” he said, “doesn’t that defeat the purpose of that insult?”

The newcomer giggled, a high rattling sound that Daisuke recognized: it wasn’t the sort of laugh one forgot. “This is my city,” he said. “I make it my business to know everyone’s name.” He laughed again. “You know how it works, don’t you, Daisuke?”

“It’s you, then,” Daisuke said. He shook his head. “Convinient, how you always show up at such opportune moments.”

The lights from the car dimmed. Clair Leonelli tipped his head to one side and smiled, wide-eyed and toothy. “I just happened to be passing by,” he said. “But look, look what I’ve caught you doing. Wouldn’t your big brother be so disappointed?”

“Heh.” Daisuke smirked. “My bro’s given up on trying to control that part of my life.” He spread his hands with a shrug. “Took him a long time, but he’s gotten over it.”

Ryuu looked from Daisuke to Clair and back again, obvious panic growing on his face. “That’s,” he began, and swallowed hard. “He’s. And you’re–”

“Daisuke,” Clair said; his tone was almost repoachful. “Didn’t you tell him anything?”

“I told him what he needed to know,” Daisuke said. He leaned back against the wall, and when Ryuu pulled back, he let his fingers slip free of their hold on his clothes. “Honestly, doesn’t Company Vita’s Vampire have anything better to do with his time?”

“Vuh,” Ryuu said. He continued backing up, wild-eyed. “Vuh, vuh–”

Clair glanced at him, then looked away, clearly dismissive. “I thought you had better taste,” he said. “Picking up people from a–” His gaze flicked up, then down again. “A gentleman’s club?”

Daisuke shrugged. He stuck his hands into his pockets and grinned. “Seemed like a good idea at the time,” he said. When Ryuu finally broke and ran for it, neither of them watched him go. “So what do I owe the pleasure of your company, Clair Leonelli?”

“I happened to be in the area,” Clair said. His eyes were bright and his grin stretched across his entire face, distorting the softness of it. He strode forward, his gait loose and easy. “After all, Kabuki Road is mine. I make it a point of knowing what’s going on at all times.” He stopped in front of Daisuke, leaning to the side until he actually had to look up into Daisuke’s face to smirk. “And look at what I’ve found.”

“Heh.” Daisuke shook his head. “Looks like to me that you’re just spying,” he drawled. “That’s hardly good behavior, isn’t it?”

Clair’s lip curled. “Good boys don’t have to prove anything. They get to play and not worry at all …” He giggled, teeth catching his lip near the cold metal glint of the ring, tongue flicking out and leaving a brief shining-wet trail. He tilted his head, and for a brief moment only one pale eye was visible through his bangs, glittering poison-bright. “But you’re out here in the cold, fucking in an alley.” Teeth flashed in his sudden smile. “You’re judging me again.”

Daisuke shrugged. “Him?” he said. “He bought me a drink. It could’ve been worse.”

“Is that your price, then?” Clair straightened, one eyebrow rising in an eloquent question. “A single drink for Daisuke Aurora?”

“I like meaningful conversations and long walks by the riverfront, too,” Daisuke said, letting the words pull out into a drawl. “I do have some standards.”

Clair rocked back on his heels as though physically pushed by the words. A moment later he began to laugh again, the sound starting in his throat and rising to a full-fledged cackle until he was doubled over from the force of it. Daisuke watched him narrowly, still leaning against the wall but tensed — the Leonelli car is still there even if its headlights are dimmed, and he doesn’t doubt that the driver’s got a gun trained on him just in case — for the fight that’s beginning to look inevitable.

Instead, Clair was suddenly in his face — they were almost the same height, and that their foreheads almost touched when Clair leaned in. A fraction of movement on either part would have them touching, but all Daisuke felt was quick fast breath against his cheek, and the heat that poured from Clair’s thin body like a furnace.

“Let’s go inside,” Clair said. He glanced towards the car, and though he made no obvious gesture, it began to back up, then pulled out of the alley and drove away. He looked back to Daisuke, biting a grin on his lower lip. His hand brushed phantom-light on Daisuke’s wrist, still not quite touching. “What sort of place is this, hm?”

“Right,” Daisuke said. He pulled back, lifting an eyebrow. “Because I’ll go anywhere with you.”

“Oh,” Clair said, and broke up snickering. “I think you will. See …” He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out enough of a grenade to show it off, his thumb hooking into the tab. “I’ve been thinking of redecorating a bit. I’d be happy to have your input, Daisuke Aurora.” He glanced up at the sign over the door. “Places like this are an eyesore, aren’t they? All those panting animals who call themselves men, like they’re any better than beasts.”

Daisuke’s answering smile was more of a grimace than anything else, tight with barely reigned-in irritation. “Well,” he said. “Why don’t we discuss this over a few drinks, then?”

Clair swept back, just enough for Daisuke to slide out from between him and the wall. He let the grenade drop back out of sight in his pocket, stepping up till he was almost shoulder-to-shoulder with Daisuke. “Lead the way, then,” he purred.

+++

Thankfully no one immediately spotted them when they slipped back into the club; a new set of girls had rotated onto the stage, wrapped in bits of silk and lace that left very little to the imagination. Judging from the noises of the crowd, they were certainly appreciative. Clair glanced briefly at them before looking away, dimissing them with a curl of his lip. Daisuke followed close behind, keeping a close eye on the younger man as he made a beeline for the back of the club. He paused by one table, swiping his finger across the top and then staring at the fingertip; there was almost no way he could see anything in the dimness, but his nose curled in disgust anyway.

“Filthy,” he said. He flicked his wrist and moved on, repeating the process three times before settling on a table in a dark corner. The last one he didn’t bother testing, hooked one of the chairs out of the way and hitched himself up onto the table top, leaning back on his hands and kicking his legs idly. He looked up at Daisuke from under lowered lashes, teeth flashing white and pressing to his lipring again. “I’m thirsty. Get me something.”

Daisuke raised an eyebrow. “Flat broke,” he said. “You’ll just have to get your own.”

“Hmmmmm.” Clair tipped his head. Colored lights cut in sharp angles across his face. “Boring.”

He shrugged. “You were the one who wanted to come inside,” he said. “Not my fault if it’s not to your tastes.”

Clair leaned in the other direction. For a moment it looked like he might say something, and then he surged to his feet, striding forward. Daisuke automatically moved back before they could actually collide, his hands in his pockets; Clair matched him step for step, eyes glittering.

“I don’t like how you look at me,” he murmured, his voice still clear even through the bass beat of the music. “You’re always looking down on me, aren’t you? Always …” He raised a hand, finger pointing but never quite touching Daisuke’s chest. “Like you at the Safety Management Agency are so much higher than me, like you’ve got the right to look down on me …” He looked up through his lashes, baring his teeth, not even pretending to be a smile. “It makes me sick.”

Daisuke turned into a looping half-circle, through some miracle avoiding the tables and chairs in the way. Clair followed. “Just part of the job,” he said easily. “Wouldn’t be very good at preventing crimes if we didn’t keep an eye on you Leonellis.”

“There,” Clair hissed. His eyes flared open wider for a moment, and he giggled, the sound spilling out like he couldn’t quite stop it. “That’s the sort of attitude I hate.” He cocked his head to one side, the movement flowing. Daisuke sidestepped his next advance, the two of them pacing around a table for a few rounds before Clair abruptly switched directions, moving forward and driving him back again. “You piss me off, Daisuke Aurora.” His eyes opened wide; his arm flashed, and a moment later he had the muzzle of his gun pressed flat to Daisuke’s chest. “I wonder what sort of mark you’d make.”

“A mess, at least,” Daisuke said blandly. He never looked away from the gleam in Clair’s eyes. “It’d be a pain to clean up.”

“Ah.” Clair laughed again. His head dropped forward. “Ahhhhh, is that so? Is that so.” He jabbed at Daisuke again with the gun, pushing him back a few more steps until his shoulders hit the wall. “But your eyes would stay the same, wouldn’t they? Like you’re any better.” He glanced up through his bangs, and the smile had been wiped away from his face. A heartbeat later, his open palm slammed into the wall hard beside Daisuke’s head — a hairsbreadth from touching, but without actual contact. Daisuke didn’t flinch. “What gives you the right, hm?”

Daisuke shrugged, a lazy smile flickering across his face. “Nothing,” he said. “I just don’t like you.”

The corner of Clair’s mouth twitched. His arm flashed up. Daisuke twisted away from the wall and caught the blow with his arm. A moment later he pivoted to dodge an elbow to the ribs, ducking into a sweeping kick.

They broke apart, circling again. Daisuke tucked his hands back into his pockets. Clair reholstered his gun.

“It’s pathetic, don’t you think?” Clair hissed. “You run around, playing cops and robbers with your little machine, like you’re something actually important. Half the time, you can’t even do it right. You’re supposed to prevent crimes, right?” He leaned in suddenly, so close their faces were almost touching. “And yet, here you are, unable to do a damn thing.” He lifted a single finger, trailing it up the side of Daisuke’s neck and the side of his face, close enough to be a ticklish presence. “What good are you, Daisuke Aurora?”

“A man is someone who does things his own way,” said Daisuke. He leaned his head away from Clair’s touch, smirking. “And doesn’t need to explain himself to anyone.”

“I see.” Clair’s eyes widened. “Do you dance, Daisuke?”

“–Huh?” Daisuke stopped, lifting an eyebrow. “What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”

Clair giggled and surged forward. And Daisuke tensed, though nothing in Clair’s movement telegraphed any sort of hostility, just–

A long-fingered hand fisted into his hair and dragged him down an abrupt distance that ended with Clair Leonelli’s teeth sinking hard into his lower lip.

He tasted blood and the colder metal of the lipring, his startled noise swallowed before it was more than gasp in his throat. Instinctively he jerked back, and his hip collided hard into an empty chair; a moment later another hand settled at the small of his back and hauled him back forward. His fingers closed around a thin wrist and clenched.

Clair’s tongue swiped the cut on his lip in a fleeting bright spark of pain. He could feel the outline of that too-wide smile pressed to his mouth. It’d be easy enough to break his hold — either of them — but somewhere in the decision, he found himself manuvered until his back hit the wall again.

“Here’s a secret,” Clair whispered, lips moving against his own. His laugh rattled dryly in his throat. “I love dancing. I’m good at it. Very, very–” His fingers tightened in Daisuke’s hair, jerking it back; in the dim light, his blood on Clair’s mouth was a damp dark smear. Pale eyes opened wide and glittering. “–Very good. You see.”

Daisuke licked his own cut lip. “You really do have crappy habits,” he said. He grasped Clair’s wrist again and pulled, twisting at the same time until he’d pulled Clair’s one arm up, their legs shifted into a parody of a dancer’s pose. Clair’s eyes opened wider as Daisuke dipped him over backwards, lips peeling back from his teeth in a sudden fierce grimace. “If we dance, we do it on my terms.”

“Is what part of being a ‘man’?” Clair hissed; it trailed into a rising giggle. “Getting to call the shots?”

“It’s part of being practical,” Daisuke said, and let go a moment before Clair’s knee came up, aimed for his groin. “I like going home with all pieces intact.” He circled again, keeping pace with Clair’s loose easy movements, weaving through the empty chairs and abandoned tables with careful grace. They stopped on opposite sides of a table, staring at each other unblinking. “Besides, a place like this isn’t my ideal. We’ll just have to dance another night.”

“Hmmm,” Clair said. His eyes narrowed, but he sighed and turned his head. “How boring.”

“Sorry for being boring, then,” Daisuke said, with absolute insincerity. “I like living the way I do.” He started to turn away, then paused at the jab of a gun in the small of his back; he hadn’t even heard Clair move, despite the chairs that should have been in his way.

“I don’t like boring people,” Clair said, eyes wide. He nibbled his lower lip. “They make me angry.”

“The way I see it,” Daisuke said, “lots of things make you angry.”

The gun jabbed hard into his back again, then was gone; a moment later, Clair was crowded close behind him — again, only just a hairsbreadth from touching. He was very warm. When he leaned up, his breath was hot and damp on Daisuke’s ear.

“Better make it up to me then,” he whispered. “Careful, my patience only lasts so long.”

Teeth nipped sharply at Daisuke’s earlobe — almost certainly hard enough to draw blood — and then Clair pulled away, the warmth of him retreating; Daisuke waited for a full minute before he turned. The narrow row of chairs and tables behind him was empty, and the back door hung open. He touched his tongue to the cut on his lip, this time wincing at the sting, and rubbed the back of his neck. Warmth lingered at his hip, where Clair’s hand had rested.

“Sheesh,” he sighed. “Too rich for my blood.”

He glanced back at the stage. A new set of girls were gyrating on the stage, one leaning down so far that her breasts were pressed into an ecstatic customer’s face. With another sigh, he shook his head and headed out the back door. Outside, the night was damp and full of the familiar scent of exhaust and ozone; there was no sign of person or car down either end of the alley. Daisuke tucked his hands into his pockets and slouched his way to the alley mouth and looked up. The Company Vita building was half-obscured by others, a solid looming shape rising on the Judoh skyline.

If he wanted, he thought, he could follow the road past the casino, straight into the Vita building; the guards certainly wouldn’t stop him. He flexed his fingers and remembered how easily Clair had bent backwards, as though his spine had the same fluid flexibility of a cat. He rolled his tongue against the cut in his lip one more time.

No, he thought. Not tonight, not yet; a dance with Clair Leonelli would be a lot more complicated than he had the time to navigate, and too compromising for his current interests. He shifted, feeling the subtle weight of the silver bullet around his neck — light enough that he could sometimes forget it was even there, but never gone, always hovering there just at the corner of thought and memory.

Shrugging to himself, he turned away and started walking.

+++

“Have fun?” Giovanni asked. His eyes were hidden behind his glasses, but one eyebrow angled up, and his tone was wry.

Clair shrugged, crossing his arms behind his head and his legs at the knees, kicking idly at the back of the driver’s seat with one foot. “I danced,” he said.

“Any good?”

Clair made an eloquent noise of disgust, turning his face to the window. “He had no manners at all,” he said.

“But not boring?” asked Mitchell, grinning into the rearview mirror.

“Hmm.” Clair’s nose wrinkled. “… It was annoying,” he said at last, then turned deliberately to the window, cutting off the rest of the conversation. Mitchell met Giovanni’s eyes in the mirror and shrugged.

They drove the rest of the way in silence.

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she’ll one day be queen

“Cousin! Dear cousin, you mustn’t fly so–”

Mercedes made no sound other than a rustle of skirts when she bounced off the palace wall and went tumbling backwards in the air, her wings fluttering furiously in an attempt to keep her balance. Melvin rolled his eyes heavenward for a moment, then rushed after her, managing somehow to catch her before she actually hit the ground. Continue reading

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lemon party

Ingway/Mercedes (Odin Sphere)

Ingway remembered Queen Elfaria, dimly: a tall statuesque woman, heavy at the breasts and hips, with lovely grave eyes and an elegant hand. She’d handled her crossbow with careless ease, but there had been no calluses upon her palm that he could feel when he pressed Titrel into her grasp. He remembered how her expression had never changed though she must have been surprised, only touched a finger to her full lower lip and thanked him gravely. There were traces of that ethereal beauty in her daughter’s face, but Queen Mercedes was still soft with youth, her cheeks pink as her mouth and her eyes wide and maybe a little frightened.

She was so very young; Ingway couldn’t remember ever being quite so young. He thought perhaps he’d never been: because he could remember his grandfather’s bared teeth as he watched his own hands on his daughter’s throat, and he could remember the speculative gleam in the old man’s eyes as he watched his granddaughter dance, and the bruises Velvet would never explain. He’d known all these things from childhood as a litany forever drilled into him, and he could not unlearn that, not even for the sake of this tiny soul in his arms. Continue reading

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Follow If You May

You learned his scent long ago: part of you is still human and tries to recognize by sight, but it has almost become instinct now, to identify by smells. It takes effort, at times, to filter out a single person from the cacophony that makes up Judoh in sight-sound-smell, but you’ve learned to take pride in that. It’s a sign of your mastery over the beast within you; it’s proof that you’re still human enough.

Still, you’ve learned their scents, the both of them. Vampire’s men were thorough when their master was not, and they gave you a scrap of cloth torn from Daisuke Aurora’s coat: heat-laced ozone and metal from the machine (from J), dust and sweat and cheap soap. In many ways it’s no different from the thousands of others who live in and below Judoh, but. Continue reading

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The Story of the Cat and the Crane

Once upon a time (so the story goes), a cat lived east of the sun and west of the moon.

He was not the largest of cats, nor the most powerful or even the bravest, but he was very clever, and so he survived in the part of the world that always remains in flux, where one day is high summer and the next is vibrant spring and the day after is the dead of winter.

Sometimes he pretended to be a man, and made potions and glass trinkets to sell to the tiny villages that lived in the shadow of the Sun-Queen’s palace. One particular village had only animals pretending to be people, and there the cat decided to stay, at least until the wind changed and he found something better.

One day in the summer, as he was drying out the straw mats he used for his work, someone came to his door and knocked.

“Cat!” cried his visitor. “Oh Cat, are you in?” Continue reading

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the necessity of breath

Cain sleeps on his stomach, with his face pressed to starched pillows and blankets piled heavily atop him, even during the hottest parts of summer.

It feels a little like suffocation, and he can’t rest otherwise. Continue reading

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The Ways of Ritual

It was not an obvious thing, nor a constant one; it was not even a regular thing. Weeks could slip into months before anything happened.

However, it was always a consistent thing. It would always start once Miss Merryweather was seen to her bed, tucked away with a smile and a kiss from her brother and a maid snuffing out the candles. The servant-girl would excuse herself, a curtsy for the master and a smaller one for Riff before she scurried off, and before he could follow, there would be a hand upon his elbow. All God’s angels did not have the strength to stay him as well as that one touch, and he would hold himself still, counting seconds until Master Cain would finally release him, requesting a drink, a snack, some book — any manner of small inconsequential thing, to be delivered to his room. Riff could watch as his master slipped past, a slim elegant shadow with flashing eyes, and he could try to calm his restless heart, but there was nothing left to it but to do as he was asked. Continue reading

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in-between earth and sky

The sword has been restless, whispering endlessly of discordant notes and propelling him on: there are stories of a creature in the waves that lures fishermen to their doom. He has walked long and far to reach the ocean; it has been a long time since he rested.

At the shore itself he stops where the waves wash highest, and looks up as the sun unfurls overhead, burning away the clouds in a flash of brilliance. A warm breeze touches his face and fades like fond laughter.

He bows to the ocean; he bows to the sun; he moves on.

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songs of the passing day

In his own way, this is worship.

Ushiwaka goes to her, because it is not seemly for the goddess to bow another. If he finds her in the shadow of the grandfather tree that sprouted from Sakuya’s sapling, then he knows she is waiting for him, and is grateful. He comes to her as a man on his own feet and not on his knees

(even if he wants, even if he feels he should, as penance for all his failures) Continue reading

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Telling Stories

Once upon a time — because that is always how these things start, isn’t it — lived a prince with no name. He had everything else a prince might want: fine clothes, good food, a warm bed and a lovely castle, a thousand and one beautiful things to look at. But he did not have a name, and so he could not have love: for a name is what shapes the heart and gives it voice, and if the heart cannot call for anything, how will it find anything for itself?

Still the prince was content, for he had brilliant tutors and a sharp clever mind that delighted them, and a thousand torches lit his every step, so that he never walked in darkness. He was beautiful and swift and strong, and even the sun itself bowed its head in respect to him.

But perhaps that’s not quite true: for after all, the prince had no name; he had no love. Perhaps instead of respect it was pity, rustling in a thousand whispers until it reached the ears of the prince. At first he ignored it, for he was content with his part in life, with his lovely home and rich gardens and the strength and grace of his arm; however, as time went on, he watched those around him spin away from his orbit, led by their names to those who matched them in turn. He looked upon himself, in his great palace, and saw that it was empty, and the halls echoed with only the sound of his voice alone.

And so he went down to the fortune-teller who lived in the darkest parts of the city, like a shining star descending to the dark earth, and to the fortune-teller he said, “I must have had a name once. Where did it go?”

And the fortune-teller licked its yellow teeth, for it was very old and you could not say if it was man or woman. It touched the prince’s soft cheek with one gnarled finger, and said, “It is gone, gone, and you cannot get it back. You must content yourself with what you have, unless you would give up all the riches you have now.”

The prince put his hand on his breast, for though he had no name he still had a heart, and he felt it beat slowly against his palm. Again he said, “I must have had a name, once. Where did it go?”

And again the fortune-teller told him: “You cannot have it back again, unless you are willing to give up what you have now. You are blessed with grace and strength, but too many gifts and the gods will punish you instead.”

In wonder, the prince said, “What is a name, that would be worth all the riches that a kingdom offers? I want to know, for I am clever enough to know the answer to all riddles save this.”

And the fortune-teller laughed, in a sound like dry old bones and dust, and it clapped its weathered hands, and it said, “Ah! Spoken truly! It is not the name that matters. It is how it binds the heart.” And it touched its finger to the prince’s heart, and he felt it stutter and clutch with a pain he had never before felt.

“Go forth, then,” said the fortune-teller, and then stood tall; beneath the trappings of its dark tattered robes was a fairy, more lovely than the roses of the prince’s garden, with hair golden as the sun and skin silver as the moon. And there was pity in the fairy’s face as she touched the prince’s head, and her power moved through him so that he fell to his knees.

“Go and seek your name,” she said, “but you may not return to your old home, for you are already not the same as you once were.”

So the prince rose to his feet, weeping for terror and grief both, and he walked, away from the fairy, away from his castle and his tutors and his companions, his lovely clothes and his fine foods; he walked away. And the fairy watched him go with her face still and quiet, for there are worse things in life than being reborn, but few as painful.

None in his kingdom ever saw him again, though often they whispered of him, behind their gloved hands, with their eyes turned to the empty castle on the hill. They spoke of him in soft tones, the Nameless Prince, until he had walked from the pages of history and into the words of legend.

+++

“Soubi!” Ritsuka scowled fiercely, but he still stepped aside to let him in. He was wearing pajamas that are a little too large for him, but not for long; Ritsuka was growing. “What the hell are you doing, don’t you know how late it is?” He looked down, then bristled, tail fluffing to twice its size. “And you’re soaking wet! Stay right there, I’ll get a towel–” He was up and gone and back again in a heartbeat, and he only had to stretch as far as his toes to throw the towel over Soubi’s head, growling the whole time, *idiot, idiot, stupid Soubi, disappearing for a month without saying anything, why am I just letting you barge in, and you’re soaked, were you TRYING to get sick?*

Soubi bowed his head and let Ritsuka towel his hair, hard enough to pull at his scalp, but not enough to hurt. His hands uncurled and settled on Ritsuka’s thin hips, where the pajama bottoms pulled down and the wings of his hipbones were prominent under his skin. He pressed his thumbs to the hollow of each and listened to Ritsuka’s voice stutter to embarrassed silence.

“Ritsuka,” he said. If he turned his head, there was sleepy heat and the stale smell of the bedsheets; if he leaned, his nose was pressed to Ritsuka’s cheek. The sound of Ritsuka’s swallow was very loud.

“Soubi,” he said quietly. “I might still say no.”

Gracefully, without hurry, Soubi went to his knees. He put his arms around Ritsuka’s waist and his cheek to Ritsuka’s stomach, which flinched back at the cold of his skin. He had been walking for a very long time, and the ache of exhaustion had set deep into his bones.

But Ritsuka’s hands touched his head, carding through his hair, scratching lightly at the scalp where his ears had once been, low and gentle and he thought: perhaps there was no name for this sort of thing. Naming meant quantifying it, and quantifying it meant cheapning it.

“Where did you go?” Ritsuka asked. His voice was low, barely more than a rumble that made his stomach shift, but Soubi still heard it.

“Ritsuka,” he said, and he kissed Ritsuka’s hip where it rose over the elastic band. The skin tasted faintly of soap. “Tell me a story, Ritsuka.”

“A story?” There was disbelief in Ritsuka’s voice, threatening to explode into full-fledged irritation. “Are you trying to divert me again? Seriously, where did you–”

“A story,” he said, and closed his eyes. He slid his hands up, under Ritsuka’s shirt, and spread his hands flat against warm skin. “Tell me a story, and I’ll tell you one in turn.”

The hands in his hair fisted and pulled; Soubi lifted his face and did not open his eyes until Ritsuka’s mouth touched his, gone light and fast as a butterfly. Over him, Ritsuka’s face was very serious.

“Promise,” he said. “You’ll tell me this time?”

“If you want to know,” said Soubi. “What there is to tell.”

Ritsuka stared at him, then bent as well — less gracefully than Soubi, perhaps, but still with poise, and still small enough that he could tuck himself against the curve of Soubi’s body. He pulled Soubi’s head down to his shoulder like he were the taller, and he took a breath that gusted, warm, against Soubi’s ear.

“Once upon a time,” he said, and Soubi closed his eyes.

+++

And did the prince find his name, and thus find his love? The stories have never quite said.

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Trick or Treat — 2007

Loveless: on gossamer wings he flies

“Oh look,” says Yuiko. “A butterfly.”

It rains all throughout the end of the month, and only on the very last day does the sun break through. It’s almost too late in the year for flowers, but a few sad bruised specimens remain along the side of the path, bowed low under their own damp weight. A pure-white butterfly rests on one, wings slowly moving as though for balance. In the sunlight, it glows like a dropped pearl.

Ritsuka crouches down to get a better look and it flutters away, its wings bright against the clear sky. Continue reading

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And Miles Yet To Go

This is something no one ever tells you: rebirth is painful.

Of course it is. You take all the pieces and parts of your life and compress them in tightly before it all gets reshaped, reformed, and who’s to say it’s still “you” who comes out in the end. It’s messy, it’s ugly, it’s painful. Birth itself is nothing in comparison.

But the baby who used to be Alice sleeps peacefully. It had cried for hours after its original body had faded to ash, but quieted as soon as Jirou took it into his arms. It weighs hardly anything; he wonders if it would simply float away, if he let it go. Even after hours of walking, it hardly feels like anything is weighing him down. A part of him thinks that if he looks down he would only find a bundle of empty swaddling clothes, just like before.

(good-night, she’d whispered to him, as though curled safely in their bed and not lying on the battlefield, her body turning to gray ash and crumbling even as he tried to hold on — even as he’d clung to her and tried to say her name though nothing but silence filled his throat oh, oh god, oh Alice.)

“My,” says a voice behind him. He would know it anywhere, and a thousand years will not be enough to forget. “After all you’ve done, they still turn you out with an infant on your back? That’s hardly civilized behavior, don’t you think?”

Jirou turns slowly.

Cassandra smirks at him, one hip canted out and her fingers tucked into her pockets. There is blood at the corner of her mouth, and she meets his eyes directly before she licks it away. Rage surges inside him, a cold hungry thing that sees that blood and wants to make it Cassandra’s own, to rip her apart and spread it everywhere until the earth is saturated with the blood. He puts his hand on his sword, and in the crook of his other arm, the infant stirs and burbles at him. It’s like a splash of cold water, and he looks down at the baby for just a moment; an instant later Cassandra is there, close enough that he can smell her skin under her perfume, clean and cold. He jerks back, but she catches his wrist in one hand, and the touch burns.

“Tsk,” she said. “Is that how you treat an old friend, Jirou? Or a lover?” She leans in so that her lips are against his cheek; he can feel every word shaped exactly against his skin. Between them, the infant breathes quietly. “What would Alice say?”

Jirou hisses and yanks his hand away from her. He has the uneasy feeling he managed only because she allowed him: he is tired from hours of walking, whereas she has the easy relaxation of the well-rested and -prepared. Cassandra’s eyes are bright and reflect all of the full moon, and her teeth all gleam in her wide smile. She reaches out again and before he can quite stop her, she has her fingers tangled in the baby’s hair. It opens blue eyes and looks up at her unblinking.

“How cute,” Cassandra says, and that’s as far as she gets, because she has to leap out of the way before he guts her right there. She licks her fingers as though stung and laughs. The baby remains silent.

“You,” Jirou says. His voice cracks. “I will never allow you to–”

“Hm?” Cassandra waves a dismissive hand, though her eyes go narrow. “Never allow me to do what, Jirou? Touch Alice? It’s a bit late for that, isn’t it?” She tosses her hair. It’s utterly familiar, completely careless, and Jirou bites his cheek hard and tastes blood.

“Alice trusted you,” he says. He points the sword at her, and the blade remains steady, aimed for her heart. “You betrayed her when she–”

“She loved me,” Cassandra says. Her eyes go narrow and she smiles when he stops with his mouth open, his accusation caught midsentence. She frames her hips with her hands and licks her teeth. “You remember, don’t you? Jirou?”

(you match, she’d laughed, tying a scrap of ribbon around the ends of Cassa’s long hair, then reached to tug the matching one in his own and her eyes were bright with affection as Cassa mimes irritation but kisses Alice’s cheek anyway, pretty pretty Sage Eve and her snake-eyed beloved guardian.)

“Ah,” says Cassandra. She purses her lips and laughs again, a throaty pleased noise. “You do remember.” With a swagger in her hips, she comes towards him. Jirou bares his fangs and keeps the sword steady, but when she puts her hand against the flat and pushes it gently aside, he cannot find the strength inside himself to fight her. He does lean back when she comes too close, turning his body partway to put his bulk between her and the baby. Her fingers touch his face, cool and strong, and tilt him back to face her. Her smile is wide and red.

“Jirou,” she croons. “Where will you go now? Even a hero has his flaws. You don’t even know how to care for a child, do you?”

“I’ll protect him,” Jirou says. “That’s what matters.”

“Of course,” Cassandra purrs. “But who protects you, then?”

Her arm moves, lightning flash, and she catches him by the throat, spinning to pin him against a tree branch; his sword goes flying and stabs into the ground some distance away. They’re eye-level with each other, and when Cassandra leans up, her fangs flash in her mouth with each word. “I could bite you right now, Jirou Mochizuki. Wouldn’t that be the best irony? The hero of the Kowloon War, the one who defeated the Kowloon King when no one else could, changed! Wouldn’t that be funny?”

Jirou sucks in a breath and stops breathing. Cassandra’s green eyes are bright with amused madness as she leans in. Her breath is warm upon his cheek before her mouth drifts down, pressed there against the corner of his mouth. He lets out a shaky breath and wonders when he’d become so cold: after Alice’s death, surely, unless the viper’s poison had entered his veins long ago.

(Cassa kisses confidently and without fear, nothing sweet or delicate about her: she knows what she wants and she takes it, her hands in his hair as Alice giggles at the look of shock on his face.)

Pressed between them, the infant starts to cry.

Cassandra jerks back at that. Jirou sucks in an immediate sharp breath and adjusts his grip as the baby begins to thrash, sobbing like all the pain and horror of rebirth is there in its eyes again, all the things it cannot possibly remember yet. He bounces the child awkwardly and wishes for Alice’s ease with children, and isn’t that the real irony of the situation? He looks up to see Cassandra staring at the child with her teeth gritted.

She looks up. For a moment Jirou sees something he recognizes rather than remembers. Her mouth twists into an exasperated scowl.

“She always does that,” she says. “Ruining my fun! It’s not fair.”

Jirou looks blankly at her. The infant continues to cry, though softer now: its wails are dying to whimpers, and it clings to Jirou’s coat like he might simply leave it behind. “Cassa–”

Cassandra blinks, and that fleeting moment is gone. She flips her hair back over her shoulder and bares her teeth in something that is not really a grin. “Jirou,” she says. “You might want to go by boat if you’re trying to avoid my siblings. They’re quite angry about what you did to our father, you see. They’d take any excuse to get you.”

He frowns. Without breaking eye-contact he shifts a little, ready to break for his sword. “… and I’ll believe you because … ?”

She laughs and blows him a kiss. He swears he feels it, there upon his cheek. Before he can reach his sword, however, to retaliate or threaten or —

he doesn’t even know what, really

— she’s gone. Jirou pulls his sword from the ground and looks down at the baby in his other arm, who has now fallen silent and looks at him with large wet blue eyes. He can still (already?) see traces of Alice looking back at him. He touches one round damp cheek with his thumb and the baby smiles like the sun coming up — like Alice did, once upon a time. Jirou smiles back because he has never been able to resist.

“We’ll get there soon,” he murmurs. He looks up to the sky; in the distance, the horizon is still black, but dotted with stars.

Jirou sheathes his sword and starts moving.

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