Spring and Autumn

A long time ago, before the Sun-Queen and the Moon-King went their separate ways, the world was a very different place.  Magic ran deep and steady through the veins of the world, and they spread so far that even those places barely touched by the light of the heavens could be wellsprings of strange events.  This was a time when there was no delineation of things such as “day” or “night.”  The Queen and the King walked together through the heavenly roads, each bearing their jeweled lanterns, and darkness was left in their wake until their journey brought them around again.

During this time, in a small cottage deep within a nameless forest, there lived an old man and an old woman.  They were not siblings, nor were they lovers; they had both simply been travelers who had come to this place together, and together they remained.  The old woman was named Spring and the old man was named Autumn.  They both worked to create small toys to be sold in the market: Spring made little pinwheel flowers of many pale colors, and Autumn fashioned balancing toys made out of acorns and twigs and bold red leaves.  Once a week they would walk through the forest to the nearest village, and they would spend the day at the market before they walked home together again.  The village they walked to was different every time, and the road was changed each morning, but still they made their way to market, carrying a large basket between them, forever and always without fail.

This continued for many years, but even in that long-ago time, where one could go to sleep as an elder and awaken again as an infant, there was a limit to how much magic could extend a person’s life.  Spring woke to darkness and felt something cold clutch at her heart, and knew that she would soon be leaving this cottage that she’d made her home for so many years.  When Autumn awoke, she told him of her dreams:

I was in a dark cold place, where there was neither sun nor moon.  Not even the stars were visible.  I was entirely alone.  Though I walked endlessly, I couldn’t find my way out.  At the end, I fell to my knees and I wept, and that was when I woke.

Autumn listened to her words and nodded, and he too was troubled by their omen.  Spring was a good and steady companion to him, and he knew well how empty a place could be without a lifelong companion to fill its spaces.  That day, they did not work on their normal crafts, but sat together in their small cottage, drinking tea and saying nothing.

The next night, though, Spring woke with a light heart and bright eyes.  Again when Autumn awoke, she told him her dream:

I was kneeling still in that dark place, unable to find my way forward, or even the strength to lift myself to my feet.  But at that time, I felt something warm upon my face, and I looked up to see a beautiful woman standing before me.  She was dressed in white with a dozen yellow jewels woven into her hair, and in one hand she carried a large gold lantern.  She said to me that I was meant to continue on, and that I could not simply allow myself to despair in this place.  There was a greater place waiting for me.  The darkness faded, and I saw flowers everywhere.

Autumn listened to her words and nodded, and he too was relieved, though he was still lonely with the knowledge.  It had been many years since he and Spring had begun living in this little cottage together, and he could easily picture the loneliness her absence would bring.

That night, however, Autumn was the one who dreamed, and in the morning, it was he who told Spring this:

I too saw a beautiful woman carrying a golden lantern.  She said to me that she had long admired our work, the two of us together, and our consistency.  It was not just you, and it was not just I, but in a world where things are never the same, constancy is still something to be admired.  In time, there will be something grander waiting for us both.

Spring listened to his words and took his hands, and she smiled, for she too had been worried at leaving her old friend behind.

In time the world did change; the travels of the Sun-Queen and Moon-King took them higher and farther away from the world and from each other, until their paths were in entirely opposite directions.  The strange things of the world became solid and consistent, and the deep veins of magic slowly drained to trickles and whispers.

And twice a year, from a small cottage deep in a nameless forest, an old woman and an old man step out together, carrying a large basket between them.  Sometimes they leave flowers; sometimes they leave bright leaves and acorns.

But they are steady and they are patient, and as always, they are together.

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The witch of the woods

Once upon a time, in a small village by a vast forest, there lived a girl named Scarlet, who wanted very much to be a witch.  When she was old enough to be allowed away from her mother’s watchful eye, she listened to the stories the other children told abut the witch who lived in the woods, all pieced together with the imagination of the very young from the vague admonishments of their elders.

Her heart was a flame, one said, and she was forced to eat straw every day even when she did not want to, in order to keep that fire from going out.

She was the reason that sunlight could find its way through the forest canopy and warm them every day, another claimed, because they were presents the Sun-Queen was sending to one of her daughters, blown far away from the lands east of the sun and west of the moon.

The witch of the woods brought the warm summer breezes and sent stinging bugs after those who made her angry.  She drank no water to keep her heart safe.  She wore three layers of fine silk wrapped around her feet to keep from simply setting the ground afire when she walked, and had to send for fresh bales of silk monthly to keep up with her need.

All of these stories and more Scarlet listened to, and when the evening came and most of the other children returned to their own homes, she turned and went deeper into the forest instead, to the home of the witch of the woods.

It was nearly dusk when she stumbled upon the little cottage, where a girl knelt beside the embers of a dying fire, turning the coals with a long stick.  She looked up at Scarlet’s approach, and Scarlet saw, swirling in looping patterns under her dark skin, were dozens of small pale lights, like fireflies on warm summer nights.  The witch-girl got to her feet, which were small and bare, and put her hands on her hips.

“What are you doing here?” she asked.  Her voice was high and sharp, like birdsong and glass.  “I don’t have anything for someone your age.  Go home.”

Scarlet crossed her arms.  “I want to be a witch,” she said.

“If you were not born one, you cannot be one,” the witch-girl said.  She held up both of her hands, to show how the lights under her skin moved.  “You’ll be marked somehow.  If you don’t have the favor of magic, you can only be an herbalist at best.”

“So teach me that,” Scarlet said.  “I am clever and I am old enough to learn my own trade; my mother has said so and my father has said so.  And we will see if I cannot become a witch after all.”

The witch-girl made terrible faces and stomped her feet, but she did not say no again.  When she went into her house Scarlet followed her.  Inside it smelled like smoke and the sharp tang of herbs.  The witch-girl frowned at Scarlet, but she pointed to the table and Scarlet sat.  The witch-girl sat across from her and said, “If you really wish to have lessons, you will have to learn.  But I will teach you no magic.”

To Scarlet’s disappointment, the witch-girl kept her word.  The night passed with Scarlet learning the name of different flowers that could be used to soothe a fever or calm a cough, of herbs that grew in secret dark places and could help to clear headaches and ease stomach pains.  She learned about blends that eased the pain of childbirth and joint pain both, and not to prescribe it for either in too large of a dose, because it could lead to death instead.  In the morning when she returned to her home she accepted the scolding of her parents and slept through the long hot day.

That evening she went back to the witch’s house.  Today the witch was planting something in the tiny patch of dark moist earth by her small home, and her surprise at seeing Scarlet was obvious.

“You came back?”

“I want to be a witch,” Scarlet said.  “But if you will not teach me that, you will teach me this.”

The pattern continued, and eventually — despite their solemn looks and deep frowns — Scarlet’s parents stopped scolding her when she returned in the early hours of dawn and slipped away during the twilight.  Scarlet learned about the mushrooms that could kill a human in an instant and the berries that could feign it.  She learned which leaves to chew for clarity of mind and which to burn instead; she learned how to weave together wreathes that could retain their freshness for weeks rather than days, and which plants were more potent dried and powdered.

She did not, however, learn the witch’s name.

A year passed, and then two, and then three and more.  Scarlet grew from being a child to a woman, but the witch-girl remained the same as she had been that first day, stick-thin and glowing from within.

Then, one evening, she came to the witch-girl’s house for her nightly lesson and found the little campfire cold and no sign of the house’s master.  She went inside and found the familiar furnishings covered over with a thick layer of dust, as if no one had lived there for years — which was ridiculous, for, after all, Scarlet had only seen the witch-girl the previous night.

That night, instead of learning anything, Scarlet searched the forest as far and wide as she could.  Because she did not know the witch-girl’s name, she could not call it, so she found the leaves that improved eyesight and crushed them, rubbing their juices over her eyes; she found the berries that gave energy and stamina and chewed on them as she searched.  In the end, though, she returned to her village empty-handed and dejected.  When she told her parents of her story, her mother clucked her sympathy, but her father — whose mother’s sister had been a witch, and who had told Scarlet most of her stories — shook his head.

“You shouldn’t look for her,” he said.  “They move on sometimes.  No one knows quite why.  Only the Witch of the Endless Sea has never moved, and only she has a title based on that.  The witch of the woods was a young witch.  She probably only stayed so long so that you could learn everything she felt you needed to.”

“Then I will wait for her,” Scarlet said at once.  “She did not teach me everything I needed to know.  I never learned her name.”

“A witch’s name is important,” said her father.  “Even my mother’s sister lost hers after a while.  There is the name they are born with, and the name they choose for themselves.  Even as her student, you probably would never have learned it from her.”

“If a name must be chosen, then I will choose one,” said Scarlet.  “I will wait for her.  I will live in her home and I will keep it until she returns, and I will be the witch of the woods until then.”

“You don’t have the witch’s favor,” her mother said.  “Even if you wait, she might never return.”

“I will wait,” Scarlet said.  “Until she comes back.”

With that, she packed her belongings, and back into the woods she went.

Once upon a time, in a small village by a vast forest, there lived a witch who kept to herself and rarely ventured from her small hut to the village proper.  Even those that remembered no longer called her by the name she had once held; they simply referred to her as the witch of the woods and were done with that.

One day, a traveler came to the village.  She dressed completely in heavy robes despite the heat of the summer day, with a scarf tied over her face and her eyes hidden in the shadow of her hood.  She listened to the stories about the witch of the woods — for the witch’s house lay along the path that would lead to the other side of the forest — and said nothing herself, but afterwards simply rode on into the woods.

When she arrived at the witch’s house, the witch was out tending to the coals of the fire, turning the smoldering coals over with a long stick.

Without dismounting, the traveler said, “Being a witch in name does not mean you’re actually one.”

The witch did not look up from her fire.  “I am a witch even to those that remember me,” she said.  “Not all magic is the sort that comes gifted from the gods.”

“You have probably rearranged all of my furniture.”

“It is my furniture now.”  The witch finally straightened, and pushed back her gray hair.  “Will you come in and see?”

The traveler did not answer, but she did dismount, and as she did, her horse vanished into a cloud of gray dust.

“I have thought of a name for you,” the witch said, as she took the traveler’s hand and refused to let go, even when the traveler tugged back.  “I have been waiting for many years to call you by it.”

“Oh?”  The traveler’s face remained hidden, but her tone was not quite scornful, heavy with meaning.  “And what would that be?”

The witch took the traveler’s wrist with one hand and pulled off her glove with the other.  She raised dark fingers, swirling through with dozens of tiny pinpoints of glowing light, and kissed the knuckles.

“Firefly,” she said.

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The (Shape) Of The Mind

Allen had his first wet dream at twelve. In it a girl with golden eyes and an odd ashen cast to her skin held hands with him and pressed up closer than a girl ever had in his life and kissed his cheek and ear over and over. He couldn’t understands the words she whispered to him, but they made his skin prickly and hot before she slid a leg over his hips and he awoke, panting and embarrassed. He crept from his bed to the washroom and if he woke his master, at least Cross had the decency to never comment upon it.

There were others over the years, but none nearly as vivid. By the time he actually met a girl with golden eyes and ashen skin, he’d forgotten about it entirely.

“You liar,” said the Other, with something approaching affection in his voice. “You never forgot, because I’ve never forgotten. Road would be flattered, you know.”

A hand ghosted down his cheek and he jerked away from it on instinct; even though those fingers were warm, they left a cold chill in their wake.

“She’s such a good girl. She always has been. Did you know that? I’m sure you realized.”

That hand settled at Allen’s throat. When he didn’t open his eyes immediately, those long fingers tightened by slow steady degrees, until he was forced to look upon the face hovering over his. The long shape of his nose and sharp slant of his eyes was nearly familiar, as was the width of his smile. “Good morning.”

“There is nothing good about this. Nor is it morning.” Allen covered the hand on his throat with one of his own and tugged it away. There was a moment of resistance, and then the Other caught Allen’s hand instead, firmly lacing their fingers together. His palm was warm, but there was a cold from it that seemed to sink past skin and straight into Allen’s bones. “Would you kindly get off me?”

“If you wanted that so much, you could easily make me,” said the Other. “If this is still your own mind, it shouldn’t be any problem at all.” He smiled again, almost politely, and with his other hand he grasped Allen’s chin, tipping it up.

“Unlike you, I try to be a gentleman,” said Allen. “So I thought I’d ask nicely first–I beg your pardon!” The last came out as a yelp as the Other caught the end of his tie and pulled it loose, spreading cool fingertips across the exposed skin.

“You have it, then,” the Other said. “But you’re still a liar. You can’t make me move, can you?”

“…”

“The time is very soon, now.” The Other forced Allen’s caught hand down, and the chair itself seemed to surge to life, wrapping around his wrist until it was pinned. “It would be a lot easier if you accepted that, you know. It’s such a waste of energy and time for both of us. Don’t you think?”

“I do not,” Allen said sharply. “In fact, I’d be much obliged if you would just give up already. I’m not handing my body over to you for whatever reason!” When the Other leaned back, possibly to make a show of undoing his buttons, Allen rocked back with his hips and kicked out, aiming at the Other’s chin. His foot connected with a rather satisfying crunch, and for a moment he was able to raise his trapped arm, feeling the material of his bindings start to tear.

And then, abruptly, he found himself pinned again, chains replacing his bindings, his legs now secured. The Other rocked forward again, still with that same wide smile, and licked the blood from the corner of his mouth. “Tsk,” he said. “That’s not what I meant at all by making me. If this is your mind entirely, and you won’t hand any of that over to me, why don’t you take that control? Use your power, if you have it.”

“In my own mind–I shouldn’t have to–! All I need to do is wake up–”

The Other leaned forward over him, curing his long body into a neat arch. “Do go ahead, then,” he said. “Do it, or acknowledge that you’ve already lost.”

Allen pressed his head back against the pillows a moment, then spat in the Other’s face.

For a moment the Other looked almost stupidly surprised. Then he laughed and sat back, rubbing the back of his hand against his cheek. “Allen,” he said, with something uncomfortably like affection in his voice, “I do think you were the best choice I could have made.” He reached down and began to undo the buttons of Allen’s shirt with, casually deliberate, taking care not to pull any single one free. When it was done, he pulled both halves of the shirt open and tucked them aside. “I’m glad.”

“Would you just listen to me–!”

“Make me, Allen,” said the Other, and bowed his head. His teeth were sharp and his mouth was hot on Allen’s shoulder, at the place where the flesh had once flowed into an arm. Allen jerked and let out a startled noise. He sucked his stomach in as fingers ghosted down the curve of his abdomen to toy with the lacing of his trousers. It felt ticklishly sensitive, that butterfly-light contact where no one had touched him gently in all his life.

“That’s right,” the Other mused, his lips brushing against Allen’s skin as he spoke. “The stomach is such a vulnerable area. Too much force and so many things can just burst.” A palm settled across his belly, pressing down gently when he tried to buck it off. “Any good Akuma knows that. They were human once, after all–but you know that, don’t you? Allen with the cursed eye, Allen who can see the souls of the Akuma.” Lips touched his eye then, like a benediction–like the memory of long ago–then moved down, past his neck, down his chest, to his belly. “The other clowns took out their frustrations on you. The ringmaster looked the other way. After all, what was the life of another orphan?” Each sentence was punctuated by a kiss. “Poor Allen. Or, perhaps, should I say–”

Don’t.”

The Other laughed. Clever hands settled on the fastenings of Allen’s trousers and quickly undid them before dipping inside, cool against the hot skin of his lower belly and thighs. “All right, Allen. All right. Even if you won’t call me by name, I’ll acknowledge yours.”

“It is hardly all right!” Allen twisted his hips, yelping aloud as his trousers were dragged down, as his legs were pushed wide open and up, draped over the arms of his chair. “What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing!”

“Of all the things I would have never expected to hear from a disciple of Cross Marian, that would have to be at the top of the list.” Another chuckle bubbles from that voice, familiar-but-not, and Allen opens his eyes (when had he closed them again?) and sees the Other looking up at him from between his spread legs, smirking as proudly as any of his master’s expensive courtesans. The smile on his face is fond, and that is the worst part.

“If it makes you feel better, you could always remake my image,” the Other offers, and something malicious touches his smile now, glinting in his eyes. “One of your Exorcist friends? That Crow who follows your heels like a dog? Or even Road? If this is your mind, Allen, then that should be no trouble for you at all.”

“I want none of them, and I certainly don’t want you.” His breath caught as the Other ran light fingers down his cock, traitorously already half-hard. “I think I rather liked you better when you were just spouting nonsense about destruction.”

The Other blinked, then let his head thunk against Allen’s leg, laughing; his breath was hot and damp and uncomfortably nice. “Did you! I thought you would’ve preferred me more eloquent. You Englishmen do enjoy your rambling on. Ah, but no matter,” he said, and squeezed to cut off Allen’s retort. “There are more important things at hand.”

Like what, Allen wanted to retort, but the words strangled themselves in his throat and he shut his eyes hard as the Other took his cock into a hot wet mouth. His hips were already rather confined, but he jerked them up regardless, thunking his head back against the chair. He felt more than heard the answering chuckle, and he raised a foot–free now, when had that happened?–and brought it down hard across the Other’s back. Maybe he didn’t have Lenalee’s strength, but he’d also trained, he certainly could–he whined briefly as his cock was freed to suddenly-cold air. The Other shifted up and against him, forcing his legs wider open around the sharp edges of the Other’s hips. There was a hot unmistakable pressure between his thighs now, and instinctively he squirmed against it, trying to kick out again, weaker this time than before.

“Allen, is that what you want? Maybe next time.” Lips touched his gently. He opened his eyes and saw that same kind smile. “But right now, we don’t have time.”

You don’t,” he corrected, the words slurred in his mouth. “I have … all the time …”

“No, Allen,” said the Other. Something moved in his eyes, dark and haunted. “We don’t.”

He moved forward in a short sharp motion. Allen’s cry was lost in the pressure of lips against his and the odd, unexpected taste of salt. Some small detached part of him was appalled at how easily this had worked–he’d heard enough whores talking shop, unconcerned by the boy in their midst; it couldn’t be–

It is, because that’s what I want. Because that is what I will, and so that is how it is.

No. He rolled his shoulders and found his arm suddenly free; this he threw around the Other’s shoulders and clung as his hips moved. It hurt and it felt good; it was hot but there was still a chill, something deeper than skin and muscle and bone, straight into the core of him. No, this isn’t yours–

“It is,” the Other whispered, aloud now, his breath hot against Allen’s mouth. “It is. Say my name, Allen. Acknowledge me.”

He shook his head.

Say my name, Allen–!” The Other caught his hips and held them still, grinding up hard against him, into him. “Say it!”

Again he shook his head. His hand curled hard until he could dig his nails into the Other’s back. My name is Allen Walker. I was adopted by Mana Walker, who was nothing more than a traveling clown. He died when I was still a child. There’s nothing more. There’s nothing more than that.

“You little fool–”

My name is Allen Walker, and you have nothing.

A hand wrapped around his cock and stroked rough and fast, nearly enough to hurt. Allen thunked his head back and teeth sank into his exposed throat; he could feel the shape of more words, formed voicelessly and lost into his skin. He clawed at the Other’s back, tightening his legs around those sharp-boned hips, and for a single blessed moment, let his mind go completely blank.

Allen woke.

He was curled on his side with his legs tucked close to his chest, gasping hard for breath. When he sat up, there was unpleasant stickiness between his thighs. He scrubbed his face with both hands hard, then gingerly swung his legs over the side of the bed and made his way to the washroom. You fell asleep again. Stupid! You’re lucky he tried something like that first, something like that has an end …

He flicked on the overhead light. In the mirror, his own bloodshot eyes peered back. And over his shoulder …

“Sod off, you ruddy bastard,” he told the Other’s pleading expression, and flipped the light off.

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Five Countries

i. Egypt

The desert stretched out as far as he could see, heat rising in visible shimmering waves off the sand. It made him dizzy to look at for very long. He stuck to walking in the shade whenever possible and complaining if his master attempted to send him out during the day. Night wasn’t much better, but the chill felt more normal to him, like a fragment of his faraway homeland.

On the third day he saw an Akuma in the marketplace.

Cross had disappeared into a merchant’s tent with curt instructions for Allen to remain in place. Nearly an hour later, bored and hungry, Allen looked up from tracing loose patterns in the sand to see a face leering above his. The shell belong to an older man, with streaks of white in his beard and eyebrows, but the soul chained in place belonged to a girl who seemed his own age. Startled, Allen fell back with a yelp. The man’s mouth twisted up into a wide, distorted smile.

“Hungry,” he–she?–it said. “I’m so hungry. It’s been so long. Please, sir, won’t you give me something to eat … ?”

Allen grabbed a handful of sand and flung it into the Akuma’s eyes. It gurgled and fell back for a moment to claw at its face. Others in the market were beginning to notice, stopping and staring. Allen heard a deep ripping noise and watched as the human skin shredded and split, the metal skeleton inside blooming outwards into a great round monstrosity. Someone in the crowd screamed, and that seemed to be the catalyst for panic, with people fleeing in droves. Allen stared past them, up at the girl still tethered in place by her chains.

Was it your father? he wondered. Or your grandfather, or–

He heard the shots a moment before he saw large black holes open up in the Akuma’s metal body. It jittered in place a few moments, and Allen had a moment longer to watch the progression of hairline fractures spiderwebbed out from those holes before a large hand snagged him by the scruff of the neck and hauled him back, into a dark tent that smelled strongly of incense.

The following explosion was loud enough to rattle his teeth, and the shock waves knocked him into a sprawl. A moment later he pushed himself back up to his hands and knees, spitting sand as he did. He looked at his master, standing rock-steady with his smoking gun in hand. In the dim light of the tent his face was difficult to see, but the flat line of his mouth wasn’t difficult to read.

Cross reholstered his gun and turned. He opened the curtains of the tent, revealing the small burned crater where the Akuma had been and the empty marketplace beyond that. “We start training you today.” There was a firmly final note in his voice.

Allen nodded.

ii. England

It rained hard and steady for the first two days straight after they returned from Egypt. On the third day, though it showed no signs of stopping, Cross went out.

Allen, who had nearly convinced himself he’d missed everything about his native country, enjoyed maybe the first five minutes of cold before he went scurrying for the relative shelter of his master’s side. Everything was gray and fuzzy from the damp rather than the heat and there was a chill in the air that sank to the bone.

Cross walked with a deceptively easy-looking long-legged gait, and Allen broke into a trot just to keep up. Water sluiced off the wide brim of his hat in broken ribbons, almost like a veil. The first place he visited was an apothecary that smelled like incense and whose ceiling was hazy with smoke. Allen waited just by the door with his mouth and nose covered by a hand and watched his master speak with the shopkeeper, who was a tiny stooped old woman with a snub nose and eyes nearly lost in her sea of wrinkles. Her accent was heavy and naggingly familiar in a way that was impossible to place, though it came flavored with a disapproval that was starting to become unmistakably familiar. In the end she gave Cross a small box without receiving any money in turn. This Cross turned and handed immediately to Allen.

“Don’t lose this,” he said, and then they headed out into the rain again.

The second stop was another apothecary, smaller than the first, this one with a stern-faced dark-skinned man behind the counter. He squinted suspiciously at the rose cross on Cross’s breast, then reluctantly pushed a hidden door in the back wall open and beckoned Cross along. He shot an equally judgmental look at Allen and said, “Touch nothing.”

Allen met his eyes and held them, deliberately jamming his hands into his pockets and rocking on his heels. Cross snorted something in a language he didn’t recognize, and the shopkeeper spits something back in the same tongue before the two of them disappear into the hidden back room. The door slammed hard enough to make the merchandise on the walls rattle. Allen turned his attention to the window instead, leaning close enough that his breath left a soft circle of steam, watching the huddled people scurry past outside. There went a woman with two fat children; there went a man with a high upturned collar and bowler hat; there went a woman in flared petticoats, hanging off the arm of a swaggering young man. The buttons on his coat and the buckles of his shoes were so bright that they seemed to glow.

Then a portly man in a battered black coat walked past, hand-in-hand with a small child who took two steps for his every one, both hooded against the rain. A dog gamboled around their heels, kept close by a leash looped in the child’s hand. Allen pulled away from the window at that, stuck his hands in his sleeves, and did not move until Cross re-emerged over an hour later, a half-smoked cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, and together they headed back out into the rain.

Their last stop was a candy shop run by an apple-cheeked woman who cooed over Allen’s thin face and white hair and tucked in a few extra toffees with a wink.

“You’ll make yourself sick,” Cross told him, but let Allen carry the bag anyway.

He didn’t make himself sick, nor did he cry: he ate the toffees one by one, letting them melt slowly on his tongue. He did not think about families or dogs or anything but pieces of candy, and the fullness of his belly afterward.

iii. France

On the fifth day alone, Allen went looking for his master. He stole some paper from a little corner market and drew a picture, then took to the streets. Avez-vous vu cet homme?

After two days of persistent searching, he found Cross Marian in a tiny brothel–so small that it had no proper name or sign–lounging on a bed with a lady curled up on either side. He had on both shirt and trousers still, but his feet were bare. Allen turned his head after a moment, more embarrassed by that than the nudity of the women.

“I thought you were going to come back after dinner,” Allen said.

Cross squinted at him. “Any time after dinner is after dinner,” he said. “What more do you want, foolish apprentice?”

“I would’ve liked at least knowing where you were!” Allen squawked. “It’s been a week! You didn’t say anything! How was I supposed to know when you were coming back! Or if you were!”

Cross sat up. One of his women murmured something low to him, but neither of them moved; both watched Allen with dark interested eyes. “Were you going to cry?”

“I’M TOO ANGRY FOR THAT,” Allen bellowed. “What sort of master are you, leaving your apprentice behind?! Without even saying where you were going! What if you were in trouble? What if I was in trouble? Show a little more responsibility, aren’t you supposed to be the adult here?!”

“If you want to learn, the madam will give you a discount for being a first-timer.”

THAT IS NOT THE POINT.

Cross sighed and ran a hand through his hair. He leaned forward, bending his legs up. “You know, my idiot of an apprentice,” he said, “there are times when a man’s needs have to be met, and denying that sort of thing will only get you in trouble. Perhaps for a brat like you, that doesn’t make sense yet, but–”

“I am going to sit outside of this room until you’re done,” Allen said. “And to anyone who wants to know why I’m here, I’ll say, ‘I’m waiting for my father,’ and then I will cry. I will be the very saddest child. I will use the worst French I know, and I don’t know very much. It will be very touching and people will be too uncomfortable to stay for very long, and then the madam will be annoyed that you’re losing her business.”

Cross’s forehead wrinkled. He squinted at Allen’s face for a moment, as if trying to find something in his expression. Allen squared his jaw and lifted his chin, glaring back. He balled both hands into fists and tried not to shake.

Finally, though, Cross made a rude noise, running a hand through his hair again. “This is why I hate brats,” he said. “You’ll never impress women that way.”

“I have time to learn from my mistakes,” Allen retorted. “Are you coming or not?”

The following pause was very nearly too long. Cross’s face was oddly stern, his one visible eye dark and narrowed. Eventually, though, he sighed, loud, long, and dramatic, and said something in French to the two women. One of them tossed her head and slid off the bed with a sniff, flouncing past Allen without a second glance. The second, though, giggled something in response and kissed Cross’s cheek before she too left the bed. At Allen’s side, she bent and kissed him too: a quick pressure of lips on his temple, heavy with the smell of perfume.

“He is a very good man, your master,” she whispered to him, in thickly-accented English. “I am glad. Good luck.” She squeezed his shoulder and was gone.

“Well,” said Cross. He swung his long legs over the edge of the bed. His bare feet were almost white against the dark wood of the floor. Allen glanced at that and had to look away again. “Don’t just stand there. Are you hungry?”

“–yeah–”

“Then let’s get dinner,” Cross said. He slid his boots on, and then his long black coat, and got to his feet, striding for the door. He stopped long enough only to put a heavy hand on Allen’s head, warm even through his gloves. “Don’t give me that look, either. You’re old enough to stand on your own.”

Allen took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “You were gone for a whole week,” he said sullenly.

“Someday, we’ll be parted for even longer than that,” Cross said. “… But maybe it’s too soon to think about it that way.”

“It was definitely too soon!”

“You found me,” Cross said. He moved his hand to Allen’s back and gave it a small push. “Let’s go.”

iv. Hong Kong

A girl tried to tell his fortune, as thanks after he chased off a couple of men who’d been harassing her. She was very pretty, with long dark hair and large soft brown eyes and the smell of jasmine in her hair. “My grandmother taught me,” she said, her words blurred by her accent, before she touched his wrist with soft fingertips. Allen gulped a few times and turned his head when she leaned forward.

And then, a moment later, her expression crumbled. She made a small pained noise, as if struck, and bowed her head; a moment later, teardrops splashed on his wrist. Startled, he jerked his hand back and watched in horror as she covered her face with her hands and began to sob aloud. Allen flailed his hands for a moment, hovering, but never quite touching her. “I’m sorry,” he said, helplessly, “I really am, I don’t know what I did, but–”

“Oh,” she gasped over his apology. “Oh, oh, oh no, oh no, oh! Oh sir, I am sorry.”

“Why are you sorry,” he asked. He gripped his red wrist with his normal hand and hunched his shoulders, awkward as she wiped at her eyes over and over. A proper gentleman would have a handkerchief to offer, he thought, though he hadn’t had one in years. A sleeve wasn’t very comforting. When he tracked his master down again, he’d ask to buy one–

“I’m sorry,” the girl said again. She took something from her pocket–a little charm, set with several pale green jade beads–and pressed this into Allen’s hand. “For luck, for luck when you need it,” she said, and before he could thank her, she pulled away from him and ran off, and was soon lost in the crowd. Allen looked at the charm she’d left behind and tucked it into his pocket.

Months later, during the long journey from India back to England, he put his hand in his pocket and found the charm was gone.

v. India

Allen heard the girl’s voice before he saw anything, small and sweetly hesitating, and he’d slammed the door open harder than necessary, because really, Master, was this the time–? before stopping short at the sight of a skinny little stick of a thing (and Allen was no judge, but if she was older than him he was a Frenchman) draped heavily across his master’s body, her fingers beginning to slide under the edges of his mask. Above her rose his soul, stoop-shouldered and bowed as if shouldering the weight of all his karmic sins at once. His withered face was twisted with distaste and anger–it thrummed in his chains with visible energy–and his lips moved as hers did, mouthing curses where she was cooing filthy suggestions. Allen moved before he could stop himself, eye burning and arm aching; by the time the Akuma had registered his presence it was too late. A moment later he had it pinned to the floor, claws buried in its chest as it hissed and spat and shrieked its human disguise to shreds.

“I’m sorry,” he said, though he didn’t think he was heard. “I hope you’ll see her again.”

When he pulled his claws free he pulled the guts of the Akuma with it: clockwork springs coated in fleshy pink pustules and slick red-tinted oil, and for a moment the entire room smelled like Butcher’s Row at the end of the day. It faded a moment later with the body, the chains of the soul snapping one by one. The old man did not smile, like some Akuma did; until the very end, his mouth remained a flat hard line and his eyes dark and unkind. Only when he was completely gone did Allen turn back to his master, frowning.

“Please be more careful,” he said. “I thought you were the one who said you could trust no one.”

“Even monkeys fall from trees,” Cross said. He hadn’t yet moved from his initial sprawl, his head tipped back and his throat exposed. His shirt was halfway opened. “Did you bring dinner?”

“Are you really still hungry after that?” Allen snapped. “What if I’d been five minutes later? Aren’t you supposed to be the master here?!” He stomped back to the door, where his dropped bag lay slumped on its side. “If the curry spilled everywhere, it’s not my fault.”

“If it’s spilled, you’ll have to go fetch more.”

“I refuse.” Allen dumped the bag into Cross’s lap and tried not to cringe at the wet thud it made. “Do it yourself.”

“Ahhhh,” Cross sighed and moved finally, first bringing in his long sprawled limbs and swaying into a vaguely upright position. “What a worthless student I’ve picked up …”

“I think that’s more my line.” Allen sighed. He flexed his fingers and watched that gesture. “Where did you meet her?”

“Does it matter?” Cross fished a cigarette from his pocket–somehow miraculously uncrumpled–and then a match to light it. “There won’t be family weeping for her at the end of the day. She came from the slums.” At Allen’s flinch, he raised an eyebrow. “If anything else, you’ve probably done them both a favor, even if the old man didn’t think so.” He tipped his head back again and exhaled a long thin plume of smoke. “Whether you believe in the Vatican or the Buddha, a bad deal is a bad deal. Don’t you get it by now?”

Allen looked at him. He was relaxed and unmoving except for the steady rise and fall of his chest with his breathing; the tip of his cigarette glowed with a cherry-red spark. Up close there were visible kiss marks on his throat, and pale scars under that, the edges shiny and puckered. One lay uncomfortably close to his heart. Even sitting up and drawn in, he took up most of what was meant to be a three-seat couch. Allen moved to perch on the edge of what little room was available, then tucked himself in just a fraction closer than that, until his knee was right up against his master’s.

“I guess,” he said.

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Birthday Mathoms 2011

Madoka Mafia AU

She’s nervous, of course. To be selected as a bodyguard for the head’s granddaughter at her age, when there are those far older and more experienced who would (and have) lost their heads over this particular dream, is a great honor. It is proof that all her hard work has meant something, that the Boss had been paying attention to the efforts of even the lowliest of his grunts.

Even so she keeps her worries internal: she focuses instead on the dull ache of being forced to remain in seiza position for nearly half an hour, the distant sound of traffic, the closer ticking of the hallway clock. This too is a test.

Finally the door opens. The Boss, dressed impeccably in white as always, smiles benignly at her. She knows better than to be fooled; part of his fearsome reputation is built around that smile, which never falters even in the face bloodbath or betrayal. Those who underestimate him as soft or easy to take advantage of are often quickly and brutally educated of their foolishness.

“Ohhhh, so you came,” he says. “Akemi Homura.”

She bows her head in respect. “Boss.”

“Or rather, you came and you stayed. Did you have fun with the welcoming party?”

He must have heard the gunshots; the walls of this estate are made of high-quality rice paper, and that does nothing to muffle sounds. She does not lift her head. “They tried their best, sir.”

“But you still got through them.” The Boss cocks his head, leaving his face half in shadow. “And the servants in the hallways?”

“I respectfully told them their assistance was not required and I would find my own way.” Then she rises to her feet, ignoring the way her legs want to ache and wobble from their previous position. Her gun is in her hand, natural as a full extension of herself, and she takes aim and fires.

The Boss straightens his head. He pulls a black handkerchief out of his pocket and dabs the spattering of scarlet on his face, then examines his sleeve with a sigh. The would-be assailant lies twitching on the floor, clutching at his face. “My granddaughter is very important, Akemi Homura.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I feel like she has the possibility to unite everything, if only she survives that long.”

“Yes, sir.”

“She might make something useful out of this world.” He raps his walking-stick against the ground a few times and smiles. “Take good care of her, Akemi Homura. I will know if you do not.”

She bows low at the waist, so low that her hair nearly brushes the ground. “I won’t let you down, Boss Kaname.”

“Of course, you won’t be working alone,” he adds. “I wouldn’t allow just one person to carry the burden of my precious granddaughter’s life.” He snaps his fingers, and from opposite sides of the room two doors open. From the right is a girl with long red hair, slouching along with deceptive casualness and sharp hard eyes; from the left is a girl with shorter blue hair who walks with deliberate weight, as if unafraid of giving away her position, or who might challenge her. She looks at them both and lets them both look at her in turn. Part of her misses the weight of her gun in her hand, but she pushes the thought down and away.

“Akemi Homura, Sakura Kyouko, Miki Sayaka,” Boss Kaname says, his smile firmly in place, “from the elite few you’ve been selected, and if you wish to keep your positions, you’ll continue to impress me. Do you all understand?”

“Sir!” they chorus; it is odd to hear other voices repeat the title with the same sort of reverence she has always had. The Boss chuckles, then half-turns.

“Madoka,” he says, “you can come meet your new friends now.”

The girl who walks out of the shadows to stand next to her grandfather is tiny and delicate-looking, sparing a glance for the dying man on the floor and pressing her lips together in what looks like genuine regret. Like her esteemed relative she dresses nearly all in white, with accents of pink to match her pigtails. She looks like she might blow away in the next strong breeze–and she looks like she could wait out the lifespan of a mountain, unmovable.

She bows to each of them in turn.

“My name is Kaname Madoka,” she says. “Let’s work together from now on.”

+++++

HomuMado! Alternate endings.

If there is something you want more than anything else, if there is a dream or a wish or a fantasy that consumes your life–wish to me! Believe in me! Take my hand and your dreams will come true!

+++

“So, Akemi Homura,” Kyubey says, “what sort of wish will you throw away your normal life to see come true?”

Homura lifts her head and breathes in deep.

+++

“All right, class,” the teacher says brightly, clapping her hands. “We have a new student today! So let’s do our best to welcome her, all right?”

There’s an excited buzz as the door opens, most of the class straining forward to catch a glimpse of the new student. Mitakihara Middle School doesn’t get many transfers, especially midway through the year, and everyone else is curious. In the back of the room, however, she sits with her hands clasped, chewing on the inside of her cheek and waiting.

“Here we are,” the teacher trills. “Would you like to introduce yourself?”

The girl at the front of the room smiles. “I’m Kaname Madoka,” she says. “Nice to meet all of you!”

+++

At lunch the new student is swarmed by her classmates.

“Your hair is so pretty,” one exclaims. “The ribbon’s cute, too! Where did you get it?”

“This? It was a present.”

“Ah! Kaname-san, does that mean you have a boyfriend? Oh no, did you leave him to move?”

“E-eh, no, nothing like that–”

“What sort of clubs were you in before? Music? Arts? Sports?”

“I wasn’t really good at anything like that …”

Homura remains hovering at the edge of the crowd, watching and listening to Madoka talk. There is a very tight lingering wistfulness in her chest. For all that she has learned, she finds that in this moment she is speechless. Madoka is close enough to touch, if she could just reach out–

She turns and leaves the room.

+++

“Ah– Akemi-san! Akemi-san, please wait!”

She almost keeps walking. She almost breaks into a run. Instead, Homura stops and turns. “Kaname-san,” she says softly. “May I help you?”

The other girl skitters to a halt before her, panting, one hand to her chest. “I just,” she begins, then laughs a little, perhaps embarrassed at her breathlessness, “I saw you leaving, and it just seemed sad. I wanted to know if you wanted to have lunch together.”

“Lunch? … With me?”

“Mm!” Madoka beams. “Akemi-san is a lot easier to be around than everyone else, somehow. Ah, but keep it a secret, okay? I wouldn’t want to hurt feelings.”

She stares for a moment, then says, “Homura.”

“–Eh?”

“You can call me ‘Homura,'” she repeats softly. “I don’t mind.”

“Ah, Homura-chan, then!” Madoka’s smile grows wider. It feels almost blinding to look at. “Then for me, just ‘Madoka’ is fine, too!”

The faintest ghost of a smile touches Homura’s lips. “… Madoka.”

Madoka reaches out and grabs one of Homura’s hands in both of her own, which are soft and warm. She squeezes a little. “Let’s be good friends, Homura-chan!”

+++

“–Shit, what the hell is this?!” Kyouko swatted away a fluttering, whispering thing with her spear. “What happened to that girl?”

Mami sights the figure in the center with her rifle, then pauses, lowering it, and shakes her head. “I think we’re too late, Sakura-san,” she says softly. “They’ve already nearly completely consumed her.”

“Shit,” Kyouko snarls again. “There’s nothing we can do??”

“At this point, I think she has more of their poison than her own blood inside of her,” Mami says quietly. She lifts the rifle again, and though her hands tremble for a moment, they steady by the time she has the gun resting on her shoulder. “We can at least see her off to a peaceful end. Cover me, Sakura-san.”

“As if you really need something like that.” Kyouko snaps her wrist, letting her spear separate into its component pieces. A moment later she’s in midair, staving off the demon’s minions before they can get too close. Mami takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly, positioning her rile for a headshot.

“I’m sorry, Akemi-san,” she says quietly. “I hope you’ll find something better than this.”

She pulls the trigger.

+++

“–Did you hear something?”

“Hmmmm?” Madoka doesn’t even bother to open her eyes, cuddling closer. Her hair smells like department store perfume and generic shampoo. It’s the nicest smell in the world.

“I thought I heard … never mind.” Homura curls an arm more firmly around Madoka’s naked back and closes her eyes. “Must have just been a dream.”

+++++

Musunde Hiraite/Tactics

“When I was a boy,” Kantarou says, exhaling smoke with his words, “I once saw a nekomata raise the dead.”

“They have a habit of that,” Haruka agrees. “It’s an annoying one.”

“It’s in their nature!” Kantarou pauses to shake his pipe briefly at Haruka. “Just like it is in a tengu’s to steal anything shiny.”

“It’s collecting, not stealing.” Haruka is placid, though he does lift a hand to block the pipe and nudge it aside. “Anyway, what of it? You’ve been getting involved with youkai all your life. What’s so special about this?”

Kantarou huffs and resettles, pressing the stem of his pipe to his lower lip. “It was for their new year’s celebration,” he says. “There were so many of them, more than you’d think could ever be gathered. They’re still cats, in the end.”

“Which makes them annoying.”

“Haruka!”

“All right, all right. Go on.”

Kantarou inhales deeply this time; his words come out scented by smoke and curling whitely in the dusk, as if these carried the weight of his normal spells. “It was because their king had died, I found out later. Cats don’t believe in rulers, but they do like luxury, so they contribute a little every year, hoping that they’ll be the next one selected to be the king. But only for a year–the nekomata king always has such a short lifespan after ascending. It’s sad, isn’t it?

“It was basically a battlefield. The entire graveyard was torn apart by these nekomata trying to posture and show off their abilities. Everyone had to outdo the hopefuls that came before them, you see. They forced those skeletons to dance–soldiers in their uniforms, oiran in their kimono, children in between them all. I was very quiet, so they didn’t notice me, but one person …”

He stops then, picking up his teacup. Haruka waits to see if he’ll continue, and when Kantarou doesn’t, he rolls his eyes and says, dutifully, “One person what?”

Kantarou beams at him, drawing on the pipe again. “One person stumbled in by accident. He wasn’t an old man–he was young and strong, the sort of person you wouldn’t expect to be anywhere near a graveyard, right? But he was there and he saw all of it, and he screamed. Ah, how he startled those cats! Bones fell everywhere as their spells faded–you have to concentrate hard to make something that much bigger than you move, don’t you know? Mm, and they were angry too, because they’d been celebrating and showing off, but now they would all have to start over.

“So they fell upon him. Ahh, it was terrible, a whole swarm of angry cats, deprived of their celebration of their own pride! That poor man didn’t stand a chance. He was caught up and swept away and by the time the cats were done, there was a brand new skeleton for the party, stripped clean of its meat and down to shiny gray bones only.”

“Why didn’t you help him, then?” Haruka raises an eyebrow. “You’re the one who’s always on about not hurting or killing anyone, are you telling me you just stood there and watched this and didn’t do anything?”

“I told you, I was a boy at the time.” Kantarou meets Haruka’s gaze evenly, unfazed by the implied challenge. In the deepening dark his red eyes are dark, more the color of dried blood. “Seeing that changed everything for me, you know. I realized what it could mean to be careless with someone’s life. That’s when I decided that sort of thing was terrible, actually. I never wanted to be part of that sort of thing ever again.”

“You …” Haruka snorts, eyes narrow. “How old are you, anyway? No one will believe anything like that even if you tell them.”

“Does that mean Haruka doesn’t believe me?”

“I’m old too,” Haruka says. “I know the sound of a story when I hear it. Especially from you. Knowing you, you somehow talked those cats into doing the dirty work for you because you disagreed with that other guy.”

“Haruka’s mean,” Kantarou sniffs. “Always suspecting the worst of his poor master.”

“If you don’t want me to, tell me a more believable story that makes you look good,” Haruka says. Somewhere in the distance, a cat yowls. Kantarou sighs and turns his pipe over, tapping out a small pile of ash.

“Most of my stories aren’t that good,” he says quietly. “Haruka will just have to make do with what he gets.”

+++++

Oakcest, masquerade party

“It will be good for you,” the princess says, her eyes wide, “to at least relax for an evening. I know you have your own worries, but surely for a single evening it is all right to set them aside.”

“Ouka-sama–”

“And, on top of that, it would please me greatly if you came.”

Hakuren slumps a little and sighs. “Very well,” he says. “As my lady wishes.”

+++

He dresses with the themes of white and gold: the colors of the First Princess Rosemanelle Ouka Barsburg, and the colors of the church he left behind. His boots are new and a rich brown that could pass for gold in certain lights; his trousers and shirt are white, as are his cravat and gloves. His frock-coat is nearly the same color of his boots with properly gold buttons. His mask is the most extravagant part of the costume, and that was provided by the princess herself–a white domino mask trimmed in gold, the patterns of leaves stitched on in white floss. It has been a very long time since he has worn anything remotely this fancy, and he feels more awkward than he would like to admit–but when the princess sees him she smiles widely and declares that he is quite handsome, indeed.

The party itself feels no different than any of the dozens he can remember from his childhood–at first everyone is stiff in their masks, but as the evening loses some of its new sharp edges and as the alcohol is distributed, people relax and speak more freely. Barbed poison lies veiled in most of the pleasantries exchanged, and in some places outright gossip flowers sharp and hot with jealousy. Most of it trails after the princess, who takes it with grace and poise. Hakuren is pleased to see how lightly she makes her way through the crowds, never letting their invective drag her down. He himself stays out of it mostly–with his mask in place, he is at least just another anonymous good-looking man attending the party; enough of his face is hidden that he can’t be immediately pegged as an Oak. He takes a small glass of water for himself and drifts to the walls, where he can stand and watch his princess unobstructed.

Only one other person seems to have the same idea of drifting away from the crowd–a young man his own age, dressed in black and silver, striking with his pale hair. From the way his shoulders are braced Hakuren judges him a soldier–but from the expression, half-sneer and half-scowl, that pulls his lips, also nobility. His first instinct is to move away–the last thing he wants is to possibly engage with another spoiled nobleman’s military son–but the princess occasionally glances around until she finds him and meets his eyes, and he thinks that, if he is at least standing with someone, she won’t be quite so disappointed that he isn’t socializing as much as she would hope. So he goes to stand next to the stranger, just nursing his one cup of water, watching as young man after young man approaches the princess and bows, leading her out for a brief dance. She is gracious to them all, but picks no favorites; every young man gets one dance and no more.

“They’re only interested in the favors she’ll be able to do their families,” his neighbor says, suddenly. His voice is hard and somehow, naggingly familiar. Hakuren straightens a little and glances aside.

“I beg your pardon?’

“Those men.” His neighbor gestures once, short and sharp, as if his hand were a weapon in and of itself. “They’re all panting after her heels because they think she’ll actually pick one of them as a favorite. She has a fiance but they want to be the royal lover, because then she’ll give them favors.”

It’s the last thing he expects to hear from anyone, let alone someone who holds himself as if he has lived an entire life of privilege. He lifts a shoulder in a single eloquent shrug. “Her Highness is a smarter woman than that,” he says. “See, she’s not playing any favorites at all.”

“Good for her.” His neighbor crosses his arms abruptly, lips twisting in an outright pout. “They don’t deserve it, none of them.”

Hakuren raises his glass but doesn’t drink. “Most of this court doesn’t deserve Ouka-sama’s consideration,” he says finally. “Everything’s become corrupt. People only worry about and for themselves. Even when they inquire for other people, in the end, it’s for something that will benefit them. However …”

He trails off deliberately, and the boy next to him finally turns to look at him. “However?”

“Ouka-sama herself isn’t like that at all,” Hakuren says simply. “Her heart is pure. I believe that with someone like her leading the country, the Empire will become a place worthy of the glory it takes for itself.” She’s looking for him again, and he raises her glass to her in a small toast when she finds him, which earns him a bright, genuine smile from all the way across the ballroom floor. “I believe that, and that is why I’ll follow her.”

He can tell his neighbor is staring. “People that generous don’t really exist,” he says finally, slowly, as if he doesn’t quite believe it himself. “Everyone–you said it yourself, everyone only worries about themselves. Even when someone does something good for them, they only care about the inconvenience if it stops …”

“Ouka-sama will change that,” he says, with all of his conviction in his voice. “I believe that.”

“That’s stupid, that’s completely stupid.” The other boy doesn’t sound quite as convinced, though. “Why should I believe you?”

“Maybe not now,” Hakuren says, and straightens off the wall. The princess is making her way slowly towards the door; he intends to meet her there and leave. “But you watch and you’ll see. And if I’m not right, I’ll apologize to you on bent knee.” He turns and he pulls off his mask, which makes his neighbor recoil a little with surprise. “On my honor as a man.”

“And not as an Oak?” the other asks, something wavering in the challenge.

“The Oaks will need to relearn their honor before I swear by that,” Hakuren says. “Will you accept?”

For a moment there’s no answer, his neighbor staring at him long and steady, as if memorizing the features of his face. Hakuren almost repeats his proposition when the other leans forward, grabbing his wrist and tugging hard; before he can do anything to protest, the other boy kisses him hard, teeth in sharp on Hakuren’s lip. He tastes metal, but not quite blood–and then the other pushes him away as hard as he’d been pulled in, breathing hard.

“All right,” the other boy says, blue eyes burning behind his mask, “you prove to me that’ll happen. I’ll be waiting, so you had better promise.”

“I–” Hakuren blinks a few times to try and clear his head, then nods, meeting the other’s eyes. “I promise.”

+++++

Princess Tutu main cast, reunion

Once upon a time there lived an elderly knight who had long ago traded his sword for a far mightier weapon. He lived in a small cottage by the edge of a clear lake, both quietly and unremarkably. On Tuesdays a boy from the village would bring him a basket from the market and take manuscripts down to be mailed off for a penny, but other than that, the knight kept primarily to himself.

Then there came a year where the winter came early and fiercely; a late-night snowstorm raged on into morning, until the drifts stood as tall as a man’s hip. The knight, bent over his latest manuscript, hardly noticed for the first couple of hours. Roughly around noon, however, there came a faint rapping from the window. He looked up and saw nothing but the snow whirling past. Three times this pattern repeated itself: the knight would manage a few words before something invisible tapped at the window for his attention.

After the third time, though, the knight looked up and saw the faint outline of a bird huddled against his window. He rose to his feet and went to the window to open it; what he pulled inside was a tiny yellow duckling, shivering and nearly as cold as the snow itself. Something like nostalgia, bitter and sweet, unfurled inside of him.

“What did you think you were doing, stupid bird,” he said. He went to his bed and took his thin blanket and wrapped both himself and the duckling in it before going to sit by slowly-dying fire. One hand he kept against the bird’s side so that it was pressed to his chest; the other he used to smooth carefully over the damp matted feathers. He looked into the flames and said, “I wrote so many stories about this sort of thing. The magic never came back to me. She died as she lived and now I write stories about that sort of thing instead.”

He closed his eyes. And he dreamed.

He dreamed that he stood up, and that all the years he’d accumulated slipped off like a discarded blanket. He no longer was in his small humble cottage, but standing before a magnificent castle of marble and pearl, glimmering in the sunlight. Beside him was a maiden whose smile was as brilliant as the sun itself, with her long red hair unbound and her little white feet bare in the grass. Before him was a prince with a princess, who even after so many years were not yet king and queen. And the prince smiled and held out his hand.

“My old friend,” he said, in the voice of memory, “dance with us.”

And the knight, with tears in his eyes, took his lord’s hand.

On Tuesday, when the boy from the village came from his weekly basket, trudging through the deep layers of snow, he received no answer at his knock. Wading his way around the cottage to the back windows, he found one wide open and a spill of snow and ice that led to the frozen huddled figure of the old knight, holding a pure white feather against his chest.

He was smiling.

+++++

Haruka/Kantarou, echo

“In ancient Greece, they said that the echo comes from a nature spirit who was cursed by her master to only be able to repeat the things that others said to her. That’s why ‘echo,’ because that was her name.”

“And?” Haruka raises an eyebrow. “You’re telling another pointless story again.”

“No, no, it’s very sad,” Kantarou says. He doesn’t look up from the newspapers he’s shuffling through; a frightened old man had come to visit early that morning, begging for their help to locate his missing granddaughter. She claimed to be able to see spirits, and I never believed her, he’d said, with tears in his eyes; but the last night I saw her upon the road and when I called her name there was a tremendous gust of wind that forced me to look away and when I turned back, she was gone. I fear she has been spirited away. Kantarou had listened to the story with sympathy, murmured to Youko to make an actual fresh pot of tea for the old man, and agreed to help as best as he was able. “Because she fell in love with a man who was so vain that he could love no one but himself. Even so, she was happy. She followed him everywhere and repeated all his words of self-praise back to him, and so she encouraged his delusional love in an attempt to get him to notice her. Don’t you think that’s sad?”

“I think it’s foolish,” says Haruka. “She had no one to blame but herself in that case.”

“Herself, and her loved one’s vanity,” Kantarou says. He hums briefly, pulling out a paper from the stack and scanning its headlines. “It’s a very tragic story. Even though she was powerful, she let herself be captured by someone who didn’t even notice the gift he’d been given.”

Haruka makes a face. “Are you trying to make this a parable,” he says flatly. “You really have bad taste sometimes …”

“Haruka, pay more attention,” Kantarou says, more sternly than normal. He carefully flips through the pages of the newspaper in his hands. “I’m trying to say is that I think this is what happened to Fujimoto-san’s granddaughter. What did you think I was talking about?”

“I wonder.” Haruka watches him, narrow-eyed. “So? What makes you think that? And what are you going to do?”

Kantarou sighs. He closes his eyes. “Nothing,” he says.

“–Nothing?” Haruka’s eyes narrow. “The old man paid you up front. Have you really progressed to the stage where you’re going to cheat an old man out of his money?”

“It’s more that there’s nothing I can do,” Kantarou says quietly. “I can arrange for them to meet one last time. But when you accumulate a certain amount of weight on your karmic burden, even if you ask someone powerful …” He shrugs a little without opening his eyes. “Not all stories end happily, Haruka. Echo’s story is one of them. This is another one. I think if you asked the old man for more details, he’ll tell you there was an accident a while ago–mm, not more than six months. And the granddaughter that should have died then somehow walked away, though someone who should have also survived didn’t.”

Haruka sits up a little, shoulders hunched up and tense. “So you’re saying–”

“You can only escape for so long,” Kantarou says. He opens his eyes, dark and dim. “But like Echo, if you can’t give something of your own self … one day, you’ll also fade away.”

+++++

Fuuma and Hakuren + questionable morals

Years later, an errand sends Fuuma to a world where the cities are situated on floating islands, divided roughly up into seven districts. The delivery takes him to a small chapel in the so-named First District. The young woman who greets him at the door is both bemused and flustered when he turns on the charm, stammering a few basic answers to the questions he has. He’s given a small room “for the course of his stay” which is hardly larger than a prison cell, but overlooks a lovely little garden. It’s quaint and charming in its own way, so he kicks up his feet to relax.

Nearly two hours later, he wakes to the sound of footsteps down the hall, but doesn’t open his eyes until he hears a familiar voice: “You didn’t even take your shoes off first. That’s messy, you know.”

He opens his eyes and smiles. “I’ve missed you too.”

Hakuren Oak crosses his arm and glares. The years have been generous to him: he has gained some height, though not much more bulk, and other than the glasses perched halfway up his nose, there are few visual cues of time having passed for him. “I didn’t say that.”

“You wouldn’t have come to meet me otherwise.” He sits up, swinging his legs off the edge of the bed. There is indeed some mud now caked on the sheets. “Alone, too.”

Hakuren’s eyes narrow just slightly. “I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself,” he says. “And I don’t need a babysitter.”

“Your young man seemed like he would argue that,” Fuuma points out, still amiable. “Loudly, and with rude gestures.”

“He still trusts me. Did you want something?”

“Package for you.” He jerks his thumb at the wrapped parcel leaning against the wall. “A special request from an old friend. Of mine, not yours, don’t worry,” he adds with a laugh when Hakuren’s brows draw together in a frown. “I was supposed to give it to ‘someone sensible’ and I suppose you’ll have to do.”

“I am terribly flattered for that stunning recommendation,” Hakuren says dryly. “Is that all? Just a package?”

“And instructions,” he agrees. “Not much of them, though, just–‘use this when the time is right.’ I suppose you’ll just have to use your own judgment for that.”

“Thankfully, my judgment is good.”

“Is it?” He smiles pleasantly when Hakuren slants a sharp glare his way. “I’m just wondering. If you’re the sort of man who’ll walk into another’s bedroom without knocking …” He gets to his feet and is pleased to see he’s still a good head taller. He saunters forward and is not terribly surprised when Hakuren holds his ground. “Are you sure it’s all right for you to be out here?”

“Of course it is,” Hakuren says. His voice is still even and just the smallest bit disapproving. “Just like it’s all right for you to leave your door wide open when you’re in a strange place, like you’d be willing to invite anyone in.”

“It’s been many years,” says Fuuma. He takes the last step forward until they are very nearly touching. “Things change.”

“Things do. But some things won’t.”

“Is this one of those things, then?”

“It is,” Hakuren says evenly. “Either you can agree to come visit for dinner, during which I will expect you to at least behave yourself, or you can stay for the meal here. I am fairly sure you’ll like what I can make far more.” His gaze flickers to the package where it lies against the wall. “I’ll also thank you to leave anything too questionable in safer hands than mine.”

Fuuma raises an eyebrow. “You don’t think you’re the sort of person who’ll use it ‘when the time is right’?”

“Rather,” Hakuren says, with a smile, “I suspect that my ‘right’ time is very different from that of the mysterious benefactor. I don’t believe in sacrificing little things for the greater good unless it’s my own work to give up.”

It starts a laugh out of him, loud and genuine, and he shakes his head. “Fair enough,” he says. “I’ll come to dinner, and we’ll see about sending this thing off to someone else.”

+++++

Break and the Lainsworth women, table manners.

“Xerxes,” says the Lady Cheryl, “what on earth are you doing?”

Break blinks at her, upside-down, then stuffs the lollipop back into his mouth. Around it, messily, he says, “Waiting for my Lady to be finished with her lessons, of course.”

“Of course,” Lady Cheryl echoes with a sigh, putting a hand to her cheek. “Our dear little Sharon is still going to be several hours yet. Her penmanship is improving, but she’s still young enough that she needs quite a bit of practice.”

“I’m quite happy to wait.” Break pulls the candy from his mouth, brandishing it for a moment like some small sugary sword. “I promised my Lady I would accompany her on a walk after lunch today. I wouldn’t like to disappoint her.”

“Lunch …” Lady Cheryl tilts her head, her hand still pressed to her cheek. She seems slightly troubled, like one might be by the tiniest of niggling doubts. “What, like that? Sprawled over the table? Where on earth will you put the plates to eat?”

“Perhaps we’ll have a picnic,” he says. “I will leave that discretion to my Lady.”

“Setting an example like that?” Lady Cheryl’s tone becomes arch. “I wonder what sort of things you’ll end up teaching her.”

He pauses halfway through the process of rolling around on the table, peering up at her. “Ah–”

“Displaying yourself like that,” she sighs. “Though you’re part of the noble Lainsworth House, and carry the burden of our pride on your shoulders. It would be one thing if you were a scullery-maid or a cook, but my daughter’s put quite a bit of trust in you. You’re practically a member of the family itself at this point. Did you learn nothing from her?”

“My Lady Cheryl–”

“Shelly was perhaps a little softhearted,” she muses. “But that’s fine as well; that is why I loved her. But for the sake of her daughter …”

“I assure you, I would never do anything untoward to the Lady Sharon–”

Lady Cheryl snaps her delicate fingers and a maidservant seems to practically materialize at the sound, dropping a low polite curtsey. “Mary,” she says, “be a dear and when my Sharon comes out of her lessons, inform her that I’ve absconded with Break for a while. I promise I shall return him by dinner-time.” She smiles at Break, who, already pale, is left to do nothing but chew on his lolipop to show his sudden nervousness. “I am sure it will take no longer than that.”

Mary curtseys again and murmurs her acquiescence. When she trots out of the room, Lady Cheryl turns her widest and most sincere smile on the man sprawled over the table.

“Well, Xerxes,” she says, “let’s do our best, so as to not disappoint Sharon by being late for dinner. You could show off everything you’ve learned to her. Wouldn’t that be nice?”

+++++

März, Pierrot

He doesn’t know what it is that draws him to the churchyard at that particular point. Elise is still laughing in pleasure after their last triumphant revenge, and the shrill sweet sound of her laughter echoes loudly in the otherwise still air. He falls in step next to a traveling fiddler who shivers and crosses himself at the chill they bring, and on a whim März follows him to his final destination: the quietly-hanging body of a woman newly-crucified. Her dress and ridiculously fine–a wedding-gown for the final bridegroom. Even in death, though, there is something lovely about her face.

“So why have you come here?” he wonders aloud, drawing his baton. Settled in the crook of his arm, Elise curls her tiny fingers in his shirt and remains silent. “Now, sing for me.”

The sound of her voice is pure and lovely as her face and the circumstances of her unrighteous death lend her words a soft, almost gentle weight. Even the way he has become, März can’t help but feel some genuine pity for her–it is admirable, of course, that she would love so strongly that she would sacrifice her life for the sake of this absent lover, but it is still ultimately foolish. “Would he really be happy, knowing that the price of your faith was your life?”

Her revenge will be the most dramatic yet, he thinks–retribution against the suitor who tried to force her to betray her true-love, and against the brother who had forced it to become a matter of life and death. All he needed was her consent and he would destroy the two men who put their own pride over the wishes of the woman they held helpless in their power. He could bring down a revolution on the prince who styled himself as if he were an emperor and the guillotine’s kiss to them both. There was no way to return the truly-dead to life, but at least he could send her to her final fate with that comfort, and maybe that could strip some of the sadness from her fate.

Fire and swords, he thinks, a rain of both from the heavens and from the earth. Brass and drums, and the shriek of the violin–a mad wild final dance to bring some kind of smile to her face. If she smiled, then he knows he could as well–the way he had for each of his beloved corpse-princesses before her, taking satisfaction in avenging each in their own unique way. A military march as the armies descended upon a castle and tore it apart stone by stone. He will revel in it as well, he thinks, as long as it brings her joy. “Shall we begin your revenge-play?”

“No. I wouldn’t wish for anything like that.”

+++++

Hakuren and Burupya, bathtime

“How did you even–ah, no, never mind. Don’t tell me. I don’t really want to know.”

“Pya?”

Gingerly, Hakuren picked the tiny dragon up from the mess on the floor–the shattered pieces of stone from the inkwell, and the sticky black mess spreading from those broken parts. “What were you even doing, wandering off on your own like this?” he murmured, more to himself. “Where’s Teito?”

“Brrrrrrrrr,” Mikage said helpfully. He flicked his tail, leaving a spattered trail on the floor.

“No, no, I said never mind,” Hakuren sighed. “Let’s get you cleaned up. It’s time for a bath.”

“–PYAUUUU?!”

+++

It wasn’t that Mikage hates the water, Hakuren knew that; he’d seen the baby dragon playing in the fountain with Razette and paw at the water in the basins the acolytes were meant to use to wash their faces and hands in. The few times it rained and Teito escaped outside to watch it, the baby dragon enjoyed frolicking along the wet stones, chasing raindrops like a cat might a yarn mouse.

Like any child, though, once the word “bath” came up …

By the time he’d brought Mikage back to the bedroom, Hakuren’s white robes were spattered the entire length with black–some of it from Mikage’s tail, some from frantic little paws, and some from when he had given up on simply carrying the baby dragon a distance apart from himself and had to wrap the squirming little things in his arm to keep it from escaping. There was ink on his face and in his hair, and his expression was so stern that even the nuns he passed in the hallway didn’t dare giggle until he was long out of earshot.

In the end the most effective tactic seemed to be scruffing Mikage firmly and pressing his chin against the basin. The edges were too smooth for tiny paws to really gain any good purchase for freedom, and though Mikage thrashed and squalled protest, it left most of his body in the water. Hakuren said a mental prayer of penitence and used his sleeve in place of a washcloth, scrubbing under wings and through the soft fur and between the longer pinion feathers. Mikage, for his part, wailed dramatically and thrashed as best he could (though at least he didn’t spit fire for it) until by the end, when the water was murky with black ink, he appeared to have exhausted himself, lying flopped over the rim of the basin.

“That’s the first part, at least,” Hakuren said critically. “Now again, with soap.”

“–PYAAAAA?!”

+++

By the time Teito crept back into their room, sometime after dinner, he found a large wet spot on his pillow and a damp bundle of feathers sulking under his covers (and another matching wet spot). “M… Mikage?”

“PYA,” Mikage informed him, flicking a sulky tail, and turned his back deliberately. “BurrrrrUUU pya.”

Teito jerked back, stunned. “Mikage–”

“Better water than ink,” Hakuren says, from his own desk. “Honestly, Teito, next time, keep better track of him.”

“Hakuren?! What did you do to him–”

“I gave him a b–” Hakuren pauses when a rolling noise of discontent rises from the sodden pink bundle of fur and feathers on Teito’s bed. “A b-a-t-h.”

“A bath?”

Mikage wails and sits up just to fling himself down again dramatically. Teito rubs at his temples. “He’s that upset about that–?”

“It’s probably better if you got him more used to that,” Hakuren says, mildly. “Perhaps bathing once a week. He’s very young, after all, he should develop the habit when young.”

Teito looked at Mikage, sprawled on his bed, little feet and tail-tip twitching. “Mikage,” he said. “… I’m sorry.”

“Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrgh.”

+++++

Amaterasu in Aather

On Day [xx] the sun did not rise, though she did come for a visit. She graciously allowed herself to be petted by the handful of people who’d actually witnessed her arrival (a tumble and a doggie barrel roll across the Ring that ended with scrabbling claws and her still tumbling off the edge) and accepts treats (two apples, several pieces of dried meat, and some vaguely-mangled thing that had probably once been a leather shoe) before she struts off to take a look around the area. Flowers spring up in her wake, haphazard and bright against the dull grass, and most linger for long moments before they crumble away.

A few stay.

At one point she climbs to the highest point available and stretches herself out to roll around and then fall asleep. Of the people who find her up there, only one attempts to disturb her by aiming a halfhearted kick at her back and ends up physically blown back by a sudden strong flower-scented wind; subsequent attempts end with the troublemaker being pushed further and further back until even the attempt to climb back up the hell is met with definite immediate resistance.

By the time dusk rolls around, soft and gray, the sun has woken up from her nap and is waiting. She lifts her nose and sniffs the air, then thumps her tail a few times against the ground, sending up clouds of seeds that drift off into the growing dark.

“We’re getting closer,” Beauty says to her softly, laying a transparent hand just above the space where the sun’s head is; out of courtesy, the sun does not ruin the illusion. “Every day.”

Overhead, the moon is rising.

+++++

Mikage/Shuri – master/servant

“The worst trouble I ever got into?” Mikage blinks, then shrugs. “When I was fourteen. I found where my dad kept the key to our employer’s liquor cabinet and I got into it. Worst trouble, and also, the worst headache I ever had.”

Teito snorts, but there’s a laugh somewhere hidden in the sound. “Bet that showed you.”

Mikage chews on his lip for a moment, thoughtful, then says, “Yeah.”

+++

“Ehhhhhhhh?!” Shuri’s eyes were wide as saucers. “You did what??”

“Shhh!” Mikage clapped a hand over the other boy’s mouth. “If my brother hears us–” He glanced around, just in case; when Kokuyou doesn’t swoop magically out of thin air, he relaxes and let go before pulling out the heavy brown bottle from his coat. “C’mon, it’s yours too, isn’t it?”

Shuri fidgeted, staring at the bottle. “Well, obviously,” he said, though he was clearly uncertain. “Since it’s Papa’s, technically, it’s also mine …”

“Exactly!” Mikage grinned. “That means they can’t get mad, ’cause who’d get mad at someone for drinking what was theirs?”

“… Do we at least have cups …”

“Nah, I couldn’t get them to fit. Don’t worry! I’m not sick!” Mikage grabbed Shuri’s hand and tugged. “Come on, let’s try it!”

+++

“Who did you guys work for, anyway?” There’s a rustling as Teito rolls over; his voice is sleepy now, and the question sounds more for the sake of continuing the easy conversation than actual curiosity.

“A pretty famous family,” Mikage says. “You’ve probably heard of them.”

“Hmmm?”

“The Oaks.”

“Geh, you mean, like that Shuri’s family?”

Mikage huffs a laugh that’s barely more than a breath. “Yeah. The one and the same.”

+++

“I feel funny,” Shuri whined. He tugged at his shirt weakly, though he didn’t move his head from where it was pillowed on Mikage’s leg. “It’s hot and my head hurts. That was a bad idea.”

“Mmmmmgh,” Mikage agreed. His tongue felt thick and heavy in his mouth, like it no longer fit quite properly. “Yuck.”

“This is your fault.”

“Mmhmm.”

“Stupid Mikage.”

“Stupid Shuri.”

I’m not stupid, you’re stupid. I’m the master, so you have to agree with me.”

“Nuh-uh.” Mikage groped for a moment before he could find Shuri’s head without opening his eyes. He wrapped his fingers in that soft fine hair and tugged–not hard enough to hurt, but enough to punctuate the statement. “I’m the one who’s sitting still. So–so–it means I’m tougher. So. So I’m the boss right now.”

Shuri rolls a little, whining again, and opens his eyes. “Stoppit.”

You stoppit.”

“Mikageeeeeee–”

“Nope, right now, I’m the boss.” Mikage grinned, muzzily pleased with himself. “So you gotta do what I say, not the other way around.”

“You’re just–a servant.” Shuri goes cross-eyed a little, trying to look up at Mikage’s face. “You don’t know how to give orders.”

“Do too.”

“So prove it.”

+++

“What was it like?” Teito asks after a moment. “Working for the Oaks?” Was it terrible is the implied question, and Mikage can hear the curl of distaste in his voice.

“… Actually, it wasn’t really that bad,” he says thoughtfully. “I mean, any time you have to work for someone, there’ll be ups and there’ll be downs, right? But it was good solid work. My dad and my brother are still working there. I’m the only one who decided to do go down another path, but that’s not because I hated it. I told you why I wanted to join the military–it’s not that I hated it, I just wanted to do differently.”

+++

Shuri’s mouth tasted like whiskey without the attendant burn. He was obedient enough for the kiss–startled by it, maybe, but also properly yielding, his hands settled on Mikage’s knees for balance. It was a clumsy kiss but Mikage liked it anyway–it felt comfortable and it felt good. When he tugged at Shuri’s hands and leaned away, Shuri made a surprised noise but didn’t argue when Mikage pushed him back.

“Look, see,” he said brightly. “That was a good order, right?”

“–That doesn’t count!” Shuri protested, blushing. “That’s wasn’t an order, that was you asking–”

“A request can still be an order,” Mikage said. “Okay, how’s this: I’m gonna kiss you again.”

Shuri blushed harder and pouted and said, huffy, “Fine, all right.”

+++

“They found us–me after I fell asleep,” Mikage says, laughing. “My dad and my brother, I mean. Boy, they were mad! You’d get how scary that is if you knew my dad–he doesn’t get angry about everything, but he sure was angry when he found me! ‘How could you, that was the master’s prized whiskey! What were you even thinking? Idiot son!'” Mikage punches his fist into his palm. “Ah, but he didn’t actually hit me. He said the hangover would be punishment enough.”

“Was it?”

“Yeah.” Mikage rolls onto his stomach, pillowing his head on his folded arms. He can hear the wistfulness in his own voice, but knows Teito won’t catch it, drowsy as he is, unused to regret that has anything to do with the softer, warmer things in life. “At the same time, I’m glad I did it.”

“Are you?”

Mikage closes his eyes. “… Yeah.”

+++++

Sherlock interaction with a small child!

To see Holmes with any of the Baker’s Street Irregulars is a unique experience to anyone who knows the consulting detective otherwise: he is still sharp and short-tempered, his brilliant mind skipping from clue to conclusion with hardly a pause in between, fast enough to bewilder anyone attempting to follow his logic before he lays it out in an orderly fashion. The boys who make up the Irregulars, though, are perhaps more used to dealing with Holmes than the jaded members of the Yard. Tonight’s snitch is a tiny scrap of a thing who at first glance cannot be older than twelve and so filthy that there are actual pale streaks of skin visible under the dirt, revealed by the outside downpour. He is perched on Watson’s own chair, chattering excitedly with a Cockney accent so heavy that everything seems to come out as a single slurred word. And yet Holmes, for all his impatience and his short temper, sits and nods and listens and has every appearance of understanding–even interjecting, now and then, to ask for clarification. As the urchin’s story continues it picks up steam, accompanied with wide pinwheeling gestures of his arms.

Finally, though, Holmes holds up a hand. “Stop, stop, all right. You’re certain it was the same man?”

The boy nods, so fast and numerous it’s a wonder his head doesn’t fly off. Holmes nods and reaches for his purse, from which he extracts a shilling. He holds it up and waits for the boy to stop nodding, and says, “This is for your day’s work. If it turns out this is the villain whom I am pursuing, I shall put in a word to Wiggins to send you back this way. Understand?”

Another enthusiastic nod, this time accompanied with a slurred thankeesir and a wide smile of yellowed teeth. Watson cringes a little at the sight. He grabs the coin from Holmes’s hand, keeping it tight in his grubby little fist, then trots out of the room; a moment later Mrs. Hudson can be heard exclaiming as the front door opens and closes again. In that brief space of time Holmes has left for his feet, seizing his jacket and swinging it on with a flourish; he grabs a hat and fixes it to his head with great determination. There is a brightness in his eyes that is dearly familiar to Watson.

“Come, my friend!” he cries, and is already half out the door. “We’ve a man to see about a murder!”

+++++

Shuri/Mikage — master/servant

When Mikage is ten years old, he comes down with a terrible cold. It’s bad enough that his parents shoo his siblings away and that even the master of the house notices: Mikage wakes up one evening in a feverish haze and hears a familiar deep voice speaking with his father. Deeply confused, he tries to get up to properly greet their esteemed guest and ends up tumbling to the floor in a tangled heap; a moment later the door opens and his mother sweeps him back into bed, hovering until he sleeps again.

The next time he wakes there’s someone else by his bed. Mikage squints his eyes and can’t open them completely, though he can see short-cropped pale hair, so he hazards, “K–ohaku?”

“Wrong!!” the boy next to his bed shrills. Mikage cringes back from the volume, and the next time Shuri talks he lowers his voice a little as if in deference. “I thought I would come and see what’s kept you so long. You’re supposed to be tending to me, you know!”

In spite of his aching head and sore body, he manages to dredge up a smile. “Sorry,” he croaks. “I’ll get right on it.”

“You had better,” Shuri sniffs. He slumps back in his chair, his posture nearly defensive, his lower jaw set in something close to a pout. “I’m expecting it of you! Who’s going to bring me my tea the way I like it? Your brother doesn’t put enough sugar and your papa doesn’t put any at all! What good is that then??”

“Dad doesn’t drink tea at all,” he says, barely over a raspy whisper. “He drinks coffee.”

Shuri makes a horrified face. “That’s terrible,” he says with genuine distaste. “It’s bitter and black and it smells like mud. My papa drinks tea. That’s a civilized man’s drink.”

“S’why mine is a steward,” Mikage agrees, closing his eyes again. “An’ yours is a general.”

“That’s how it’s going to be for us, too,” Shuri says. “I’ve decided this.”

“Mnnn?”

“When we grow up,” Shuri says, “I’ll be a general, just like Papa. You’ll be the steward that runs my house, and you’ll bring me tea when I come home from important meetings.”

“Doing what?”

“Important general things, obviously.” Shuri kicks the side of the bed, though not hard; Mikage hears it more than he feels it. “You’ll do important … housekeeping … things. Like bringing me tea with the proper amount of sugar.”

Mikage laughs even though it makes his throat hurt worse. “Two lumps.”

“Right! So …” Something tugs at his blankets, and Mikage opens one eye just enough to watch Shuri struggle with their weight, tugging them up where they’ve slipped, to Mikage’s chin. “That’s why you have to get better. I won’t accept anyone else! It has to be you.” He pokes Mikage in the shoulder once as if to punctuate his words. “All right??”

Mikage closes his eyes completely and ducks partly under the blanket to hide his smile. “All right,” he agrees, “Shuri-sama.”

+++++

Road/Allen, “sweet dreams”?

These days, any time he starts to drift off, he can hear a voice singing a lullaby.

It’s one that he knows very well by this point–one he knew even before he began to hear it in his sleep. And so the boy fell asleep.

He is tired and aching from so many days running. Everything has begun blurring together until he can hardly distinguish one day from another. All he knows is that he still has to keep running–that there is still something out there that he has to find. It’s important–maybe more so than anything else he has ever done in his life. Maybe more so than anyone, ever, has tried to do.

Until he discovers it–whatever it is–he can’t stop. He’ll keep going.

Sometimes, though–sometimes it’s hard enough to be painful. He hurts and he’s lonely; he misses the warm places and the familiar people he once knew. Some days he even misses the prison cell and the constant sub vocal hum from the wards that had been placed in multiple layers around him. It’s still too early to go back, though. It’s not yet time, when he hasn’t found the thing he has been so desperately trying to find. Once he does, though–once he does–

I will continue to pray that this child be granted love–

Even when he knows himself to be completely alone–the only time he can allow himself to relax enough to even consider sleeping–he can still hear that voice singing to him. It’s soft and it’s sweet, like the voice of a mother–or perhaps a lover–and part of him yearns for it even as part of him shies away. He knows the singer, though he doesn’t know where she lurks. Maybe she’s just another figment of his imagination, grasped in place of every other crazy betrayal he’s known in his life–someone who loved him enough to disappear for him, when he doesn’t even know if the other who claimed to love him even saw the person he was under the one they were waiting for …

He should be wary, he knows–he should distrust the comfort she offers him and the promises of sleep that her lullaby tempts. He can’t make himself go that far, though: everything else in his world has been turned upside down; he will take what comfort he is provided while he can.

With a kiss for these joined hands …

Allen Walker sleeps.

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Autumn Master

Nick died in autumn, so when the parade of ghosts came to fetch him, they draped him with scarlet and umber and sent him to walk with his seasonal companions, in line after the summer ghosts in their emerald and gold and before the winter ghosts in their snow-white and jet-black. Spring and Summer both called greetings to him as he passed, their many voices blending together into one: hail autumn! king of this moment in time!

The other autumn ghosts were a mixed lot. Some were joyful, singing the praises of their season and calling out to all the living world as they passed, as if their voices could be heard as anything other than the rustle of the wind. Others were quiet, sunk so deeply into their own thoughts that they seemed unaware of the parade’s steady march through the endless cycle of time. Nick chose to walk closer to the second group because he had no songs for the season that had ended his life–and he’d never been a great singer. He did not simply let his thoughts wander, though. He walked and he listened and he watched as the familiar scenery of his life slipped away and was gone.

Perhaps they only went for hours–maybe they went for days or longer–when a ripple went through the parade of ghosts. Summer picked up its pace and Winter dropped back, until Autumn seemed to be marching alone.

Someone touched Nick’s shoulder–a small polite tap that did not appear to come from anyone around him. Nick looked around, but the other quiet ghosts were distracted still and didn’t notice.

“Hullo,” said a voice. It sounded a little relieved and very much like an older woman. “Hullo, I’m Rita. Who are you?”

Nick looked around again. The cheerful ghosts, skipping ahead of him, were still singing their songs and even the ones closest to him did not show any signs of having heard the voice. He shrugged a little. “Hullo, Rita,” he said, because after all, he too was a ghost and in no position to judge. “I’m Nick.”

“Nick! Short for Nicholas?”

“But very nearly Nicodemus. My mum sometimes had peculiar ideas.”

“Oh,” said Rita. She sounded disappointed. “I think Nicodemus would have been quite a splendid name.”

“Bit heavy for a kid, though,” said Nick. “Even if you did shorten it up a little, that’s a hell of a name. It’s the twenty-first century now. Fancier names are only fashionable if they’re misspellings; otherwise you’re setting your kid up for quite a burden.”

“Oh. Oh, dear,” said Rita. “I suppose that is one way to think of things. Though between you and I, I would suggest being a bit more open-minded in the next year.”

“I’m dead,” said Nick, “so what does my opinion matter?”

“See, like that. If you’re to do us proud at all, as the Master of Autumn, you’ll have to try a little harder to be more open to things. Just a little.”

Nick stopped walking. “The master of what? What are you going on about?”

“It’s quite odd at first, I’ll give you that, but you do grow accustomed to it very fast,” Rita said. “When I first got started, oh, I made all sorts of mistakes. I thought I would be behind on everything forever! But I managed and I daresay I’ve even gotten a bit ahead. You can take it easy for the beginning.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Nick. He smacked his face a little, scrunching his eyes closed for a moment–but when he opened them, he was still walking and the ghosts of autumn were still gathered all around him. “Am I going crazy? Is that it? I’m hallucinating now–I only thought I died, and now I’m only dreaming the most peculiar vision of the afterlife. All I need to do is wake up and everything will be fine.”

“It’s not quite that simple, Nick,” said Rita. Regret lay heavy in her tone. “You did die, and the parade welcomed you. And you were the last one who died this season, so the title of ‘Master’ falls to you. Being dead is its own sort of cycle too. Don’t be afraid, Nick. Like I told you, it seems like quite a lot at first, but it gets ever so much easier with time.”

“That’s not it,” Nick said. He was suddenly aware of the new silence around him–even the joyful ghosts had stopped their songs, considering the march in perfect silence. “I don’t get it, I’m just dreaming, I’m imagining things, I’m not, I don’t–”

“Nick,” Rita said. He could see her now, a small round woman with apple cheeks and gray hair. She wore a brown dress and a crown of red and yellow leaves. She walked beside him, matching his pace exactly. “Nick, please listen to me now. This transfer will happen whether or not you actually want it. Things will be far easier for all of us if you accept this. Summer is lazy and Winter is selfish. It is our duty, as one of the transitioning seasons, to keep them in check. You will have to fight to thwart them, and you will have to be clever. Do you understand?”

“I’m dreaming,” Nick said. “I’m dreaming, I’m dreaming, and this is all nothing more than a terrible dream–”

Rita took Nick’s hand. Her palm was cool to the touch. “No, Nicholas. Everything else was the dream. And now it’s time for you to wake up.”

He swallowed. The sound was loud in his ears. “No,” he said.

“It won’t be forever,” Rita said. She smiled then, warm and friendly; he was reminded for a clear moment of his grandmother as she had been in his childhood, strong and solid and unwavering in the face of all terrible things. She squeezed his hand and let go and Nick realized with a sudden start that the world was starting to fade in a blur of warm colors, like the elements of a painting blending together. “Just until the next Master dies. You’ll know when that is. All right?”

“Rita,” said Nick, just as her face faded from sight. “Rita! Rita, I don’t understand, what’s going on?!”

It was too late; he was alone. He looked around the new place he found himself in–separated from the other autumn ghosts, standing alone in a forest that seemed caught at the cusp of the fall season: the branches overhead were half-empty, and under his feet was a thick carpet of leaves in a dozen shades of red and yellow. The air was warm but carried a crisp colder note that made his nose tickle. In front of him was a chair that appeared to have been fashioned out of raw branches of oak and maple. It appeared to be waiting.

Nick hesitated, then stepped forward. He put his hand on the arm of the chair, which was warm to the touch. He turned and sank into the chair; the twigs of the branches dug into his back and legs like little pinching fingers. Everything was silent and still, as if the entire world had taken a deep breath and was still holding it. In the sky overhead he could see flickerings of strange things–stars gathered in constellations he’d never seen before, clouds shaped into writhing strange beasts he didn’t recognize, and an entire history’s worth of names inscribed in dark red. His name was at the bottom. He closed his eyes hard for a few minutes and then opened them again. His name was still there, and he was still alone in a world that was silent and still. If he strained, and only then, he could hear the songs of the joyful ghosts of autumn, so far away that he couldn’t make out the words any longer.

It gets easier with time, Rita had said, but she’d smiled as she said it, as if she’d known more than she was saying–or if she’d been enjoying some kind of odd joke at his expense.

“I don’t understand,” he said. His fingers flexed on the arms of the chair.

I don’t understand at all.

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Lessons Learned

“So then, what year did the Great Unification take place?”

“F– fourteen hundred. And fifty … sir …”

“Summer or winter?”

“N–neither–it was spring–early spring–”

“Ha ha, very good. Then, the Treaty of the Five Kingdoms?”

“Summer the same year–ah–Master Frest–”

“Who signed the treaty for the House of Quertis?”

“M–my honorable great … great-grandmother, the Duchess Maria Valia Quertis. Master Frest, please–”

“Very good, Winter. You may finish.”

+++

Winter falls in love when he is twelve years old.

The day after his twelfth birthday–the last of such childish celebrations–he is summoned to his father’s study before breakfast. His manservant dresses him in gray and white and ties a black ribbon in his pale hair; the clothes are new and stiff and terribly uncomfortable. He wants very much to wriggle out of them, but an audience with his father is a rare and important thing, and he knows better than to be anything but absolutely impeccable when he arrives.

When he does, there is a second man in his father’s study. He’s tall and lean but broad-shouldered, with heavy blue eyes and a tousled shock of dark gold hair. He wears all black and a heavy silver cross lies in plain sight against his breast. It surprises Winter a little to see: his father is a practical man, one who hates wasting time or effort in things that don’t have any sort of tangible payout. To invite a priest to the estate is a rare thing, and he looks to his father.

“Your new tutor,” his father says, solemn as always, a faint twist to his mouth, as if something sour lingers on his tongue. The look in his eyes is equally unpleasant, something dark lurking behind his pale gaze. “Father Samuel Frest, lately from the capital. He’ll be your history and religions tutor.”

“Charmed,” the stranger–Frest–drawls. He crouches down, which brings him very nearly to Winter’s eye-level, and holds out a hand. He wears black gloves with weathered fingertips and palms, and he smiles like the sun coming out. “Winter, right? I’ll take care of you.”

Winter stares at that hand for a moment before he reaches out and accepts Frest’s handshake. Even through his gloves, his hands are warm. He shakes Winter’s hand like they’re both adults, with an easy strong confidence. Up close he smells like tobacco and incense.

Winter follows the line of Frest’s arm up, into those blue, blue eyes, and falls in love.

+++

Winter confesses when he is sixteen years old.

He is considered an adult now, in the eyes of the law and his family–even his mother comes for the celebration feast–but it will be years yet before he’ll be able to begin taking the reins of power from his mother’s hands. His lessons will escalate, he is told, and he is expected to apply himself to the very best of his abilities. The next generation of the Quertis family will be his to shape and guide; he must be a worthy leader by the time his mother retires.

The thought is both terrifying and exhilarating. After the festivities are over and most of the revelers have found their ways to beds, Winter slips from his room, down the long corridor and down a flight of stairs to Frest’s room. He doesn’t knock, just opens the door.

What he sees is Frest’s long broad back, naked, curved in a graceful arch; what he sees are two slim white legs hooked around his moving hips. What he hears is a girl’s voice whimpering and gasping (Hipa, he recognizes, one of the kitchen-girls who brings him meals from time to time); what he hears is Frest also moaning, low and deep in his chest.

As quietly as he can, Winter closes the door. He does not run, but he walks quickly, up the stairs, up and up until he’s in the highest attic-chamber. Once there he opens the windows and he leans out halfway, the ledge pressing sharply against his lower belly, and he looks out at all the scattered stars. Frest taught him those patterns too, he thinks–the Singer, the Sage, the Fallen King, all bright and cleanly visible tonight.

He does not berate himself for foolishness, though he is embarrassed for his impoliteness. He turns his feelings over and thinks that he’s not even angry–just disappointed. That in itself is embarrassing; it is hardly as if he has any actual claim to Frest’s affections beyond being a talented student. Though he has his mother’s delicate coloring and finer features, he still feels awkward in his own skin more often than not, these days: that’s not a lot to offer any lover, let alone one older and more experienced.

He’s not sure how long he stands there, leaning out into the cold air, before he hears a door open and close. Automatically he straightens out of his loose slouch, but before he can turn, a heavy black coat is draped over his shoulders. It smells like tobacco and smoke and incense.

Winter looks up; Frest looks back.

“Knock, next time,” he says.

“Yes sir.”

“You scared the hell out of me, kid.”

Winter’s lips twist a little at that, but he keeps his voice even. “Sorry, sir. I won’t do it again.”

Frest’s eyebrows rise and stay arched in disbelief. “What, you don’t agree with me?”

“I didn’t say that, sir.”

“You don’t have to say a damn thing.” Frest prods a finger into the center of Winter’s forehead. “You’d be a terrible card player, you know? Everything you’re feeling’s right there on your face.”

Winter bites the inside of his cheek. He steels himself and looks up to meet Frest’s eyes, then holds that gaze steadily for long moments. Understanding dawns slowly in Frest’s expression, and as it solidifies, his hand drops away to hang loosely by his side. Only then does Winter reply, his voice quiet, “Not everything, Master Frest.”

“I’ll be damned,” Frest says. His voice is not stunned, but heavy nonetheless. “A brat like you …”

“I’m sixteen today,” Winter says. Something about the words feel strange and heavy in his mouth, like stones dropping from his lips. He doesn’t look away from Frest’s face–he can’t even make himself blink, as if losing eye-contact will destroy this entire fragile scene. “I’m not a brat any more.”

Frest is the one who blinks now; he raises his gloved hand and presses it to the curve of Winter’s cheek. “You’re not,” he says. “I guess I should have been paying better attention.”

Winter allows himself a ghost of a smile; he lifts his own hand and presses it to Frest’s wrist. His fingers find the gap between glove and sleeve and rest against warm skin. It gives him a bright little thrill to have that contact. “You should have,” he agrees. “As long as you know now.”

Frest’s other hand comes up and hooks into the collar of Winter’s shirt; a little bit of tugging and the first button loosens itself. Lower still and another one pops free, and then another, and another, until Winter’s shirt is half-opened. “I do,” he says, and there are dark and thoughtful things in his eyes that Winter wants very much to ask about and refrains. “You know, this is the point where you tell me you’re joking and you don’t want this to happen.”

Winter’s shirt is fully open now; his skin is tight with goosebumps both from the cold and from anticipation. “I’m not joking,” he says, “I want this to happen.”

It’s like something clicks into place with his words; Frest’s eyes go dark and thoughtful. The hand against Winter’s chest pushes, nudging him back until his shoulders hit the wall. “You can still stay no, though,” he says. “At any time. In fact, I’ll teach you how to make a proper fist, and when you don’t like it, you can pop me one. Break my nose.”

“I wouldn’t mind learning,” Winter says. He watches with bright-eyed nervous interest as Frest begins to open his pants, “but I won’t say no. Not now, not ever.”

“Things can change,” Frest says, and then he draws Winter’s cock out, using the tips of his fingers and delicate touches. Anything Winter might have said in reply is lost in his startled gasp; he scrabbles a little against the stone wall with both palms, stunned only into watching. Frest glances up and smirks, all teeth now.

“Hey,” he says, “tell me about Valentine’s War.”

The question is so unexpected, so out of place, that it takes Winter a moment to parse it and respond. “The–what?! Why–?!”

“I want to see if lessons actually stick in that pretty head of yours,” says Frest. He drags the tip of his index finger along the length of Winter’s cock, root to tip; the soft leather catches a little against the soft skin. “If you’re good, you’ll be rewarded.” He flicks his finger a little against the head of Winter’s cock. “Tell me about Valentine’s War.”

“Va,” Winter begins, then squeezes his eyes shut when Frest leans in, nuzzling at the soft join between his leg and body, “Valentine’s War … was the first o-of the many–that led to Unification–it–Master Frest, why do we have to do it this way?!”

“No good?” Frest asks against his skin.

“It’s–shouldn’t it be at least–I don’t–”

“Is that a no?”

“No!” The exclamation rips from him before he can think; he grabs for Frest’s head before he can pull back. “I just don’t understand why …”

He cracks his eyes open and sees Frest looking back, something thoughtful in his expression. After a moment, he starts to rub at Winter’s hips, almost soothing.

“All right,” he says. “This time we can do it without the rest. I’m still your teacher, though; it’s my job to make sure you keep learning.”

“Master Frest …”

“Happy birthday, Winter,” says Frest, and leans in to take the entirety of Winter’s cock into his mouth in a single smooth motion. It happens so fast that Winter can’t even summon up the breath to cry out; the most that escapes him is a single weak gasp before his head thumps back and his hips move in clumsy desperate instinct. Frest’s mouth is hot and wet and his tongue is clever and obscene. It takes almost no time at all–to Winter it seems like only a few seconds, and if he is entirely honest, he’s not certain that isn’t the truth. He comes with a strangled gasp and a low whine, and then it’s only Frest’s hands on his hips that hold him up.

Winter opens his eyes to see Frest licking his lips. There are still teeth in his smile, and his eyes are hooded and dark. He rises, sliding his hands up Winter’s body as he goes; when he’s fully on his feet, Winter finds himself tucked against Frest’s body, his cheek against his tutor’s chest and an inescapable hard pressure against his hip.

“We’ll teach you endurance, too,” Frest says. “That’s next on the list.”

“I’d like that,” Winter manages in a small voice, and says nothing about love.

+++

“I hear your grades are improving,” his father says to him one morning, as breakfast is being cleared away.

Winter ducks his head a little, keeping his eyes politely downcast–his father’s lessons are always ones of propriety, and one’s proper place in the world, and Winter has learned those lessons long ago. “Yes, Father. I’ve been told so as well.”

“Good.” There is no warmth in the approval, or in the thin smile on his father’s face, but there is acknowledgment at least. The years have not been especially kind to the Lord Quertis, and the servants have learned to speak softly around him, except for Frest. It has not come to an actual confrontation yet, but the rumor mill is buzzing like flies, and there is no one who does not see it as only a matter of time–least of all Winter himself. “See to it that it stays that way–if not, well. There are others out there that I’m sure would be more than willing and qualified to oversee the rest of your education.”

“Yes, Father,” Winter says. He sits back to let the servant-girl take his plate and rubs his hands together, feeling as cold as his name.

+++

“Recite the Hymn of Annamarie.”

The light that slants in through the closed blinds is weak and watery, slicing lines across Frest’s exposed arm; it blends with the paler patches of scars that lie across the outline of muscle and bone. He uses that to brace his weight against the wall; his other arm is wrapped halfway around Winter, that hand pressed to Winter’s belly, his glove warm against bare skin. He moves with an exquisitely careful slowness and an inescapable rhythm, in and out, forward and back, arched over his student.

Winter curls both his fists into his discarded shirt, his head bowed until it nearly touches the blinds. Most of his hair has escaped its neat ribbon at this point and lies pressed in damp curls against his neck and cheek. His eyes are squeezed shut and his mouth works several times before he can summon his voice:

“A-and lo, I saw a garden in full bloom, in which–i-in which–”

Frest snaps his hips forward in a sudden sharp jab; Winter’s voice rises to a squeak and dries out. When he doesn’t continue, Frest slides his hand up to brace his palm against the center of Winter’s chest and tugs until they’re back-to-belly. He leans in until his mouth moves against Winter’s ear. “In which?”

Winter gulps a few times, fingers flexing. He arches his back, eyes slitting half-open. “I-in which I … I saw … a flock of white birds g–gathered in the arms of an oak tree, and these I knew t-to be … the souls of those who had come before me …”

Long fingers press gently at the very base of Winter’s throat. There is a smile in Frest’s voice when he answers: “Come before you?”

A hiccuping sob breaks from Winter’s throat. “Master–”

“And I looked upon them in their multitude,” Frest says, his voice low; he shifts his weight until his hips are pressed snugly to Winter’s own, dragging his fingertips down until he can fist Winter’s cock, hard and tight, “and I saw joy and I saw grief, but more than anything, I saw–continue, Winter.”

“I–!” Winter twists a little, but Frest’s grip is nearly like iron, inescapable. “I s-saw–the breadth and weight of their lives lived, and the shedding of their sins like feathers and–!”

“You’re doing fine,” Frest soothes. He starts to move his hand now, slow and easy, matching the previous rhythm of his hips. “Keep going.”

“Ma–Master Frest–”

“You’re doing fine,” Frest repeats. He rolls his hips once, sighing against Winter’s ear and drawing out an answering shiver. “It’s not that much more, is it?”

Winter swallows hard enough to be audible. “N-no …”

“Then keep going.” Frest presses his teeth to the soft spot behind Winter’s ear–not biting, but a vague half-promise, half-threat of their sharpness–and begins, in incremental degrees, to move his hand faster. “All the way to the end.”

Winter flexes his fingers a little. He shifts himself, pressing his hips back, a little more tightly against Frest’s, and feels an answering movement. He licks his lips, tasting salt. “And I saw … that the branches of the tree were the arms of the Lord of Heaven, who w–welcomed them all … to a place where no boundaries exist and no … n-no laws remain but ‘be at peace’ a-and–”

Frest bites Winter’s ear, a short sharp gesture, and gives a quick little flick of his wrist. As Winter cries out, high and startled, his entire body shaking, Frest finishes: “And I knew that there was nothing to fear, for I knew at the end of things, my reward would come. Amen.”

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a reunion of sorts

It is nearly like a cliche out of a romance novel: Wakaba sees the boy from across a crowded room, already full of women in glittering dresses and men in crisp black uniforms, and he shines more brightly than any of them in his plain white robes, trimmed simply in dark bronze.  He trails off in conversation with some Baroness-or-other, one of the many who lurk anxiously in the line of succession, waiting for the slightest hint of weakness from the heir to leave an opening wide enough for them to claw their way higher on the hierarchy.

It is–to further the horribly trite comparisons–a great deal like looking at a ghost of the past.  The boy has the same noble carriage and sharp eyes that identify him unmistakably as an Oak, with hair that is still so blonde it is nearly white, pulled in a tail over his shoulder; he has the high cheekbones and the thin mouth, and he has his mother’s grace.  It has been nearly six years, but Wakaba Oak knows his sister’s child when he sees him, and so he gracefully untangles himself from his conversation, making lighthearted promises he has every intention of forgetting, and makes his way across the room, neatly sidestepping the clusters and pairs of people who chatter together.  Their voices all blend together for him: these are the noises of the pathetic rabble: those who aspire to be something great, but have lost themselves in their own desires and disgusting habits.  They have forgotten the meaning of nobility, unlike those of the Oak family, who have safeguarded their honor for generations.

Looking at him, it seems that even the riffraff of this party of the gentry has recognized that he is something other to them, something higher and more pure: they keep their distance from him, and most don’t even look in his direction, as if ignoring him will erase his existence; perhaps they are afraid of the tantrums of Senator Oak if he hears that his black sheep of a son has been acknowledged at all, in spite of all the strings he pulled to bring the boy back home.  The utter ridiculousness of that thought makes a laugh catch in Wakaba’s throat; it will take more than their fear and their jealousy to ruin an Oak, even one that has fled from the protection of his family.

“Hakuren, right?” he says, projecting as much warmth as possible into his voice; he keeps it deliberately soft, as if he doesn’t mean for anyone to overhear.  “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

He opens his eyes, and ah, those are the eyes Wakaba remembers–not from him, but from his mother, before she married and lost her fire, bowing her head to that ridiculous husband; it is like looking into the past all over again.

“… Uncle,” he says, his tone exquisitely neutral; there is no matching warmth in his voice, and Wakaba cannot blame the boy–his brother-in-law is an idiot, no better than the rabble that mills around them and wallows in the trappings of being a noble family.  “It’s been a while.”

“That it has!” Wakaba says, and claps a hand to the boy’s shoulder, thin and sharp under the white robes.  The Church might be good for a man’s soul (not, of course, that an Oak’s soul needed any sort of purification: it was already the pinnacle of what humanity could achieve), but it was not always so kind for his body–a diet of nothing but vegetables, with no meat to speak of, can only lead to a man wasting away.  The boy is better off now that he’s away from that coddling and again in the company of his peers (such as they exist, in this rotten corrupted court).  “You’ve grown since I’ve last seen you.”

Violet eyes slant at him again, narrow and considering, then move away again, tracking across the busy room, to where the Princess is standing, flanked by her maidservant, trapped by a pair of royal cousins, her pretty face schooled to polite blankness.  He watches her carefully and closely, but it is not with a man’s gaze–there is something of the solemn-faced little boy that Wakaba once knew, standing still under his mother’s delicate hand.  That is a relief; it would have been–troublesome–if Hakuren had any actual interest in the Princess.  Wakaba chuckles and with genuine amusement, keeping his hand where it is on the boy’s shoulder.  He squeezes a little and feels it dip in a small reflexive shrug, though nothing is reflected on Hakuren’s face.

Wakaba leans down, until his mouth is right beside the pale shell of the boy’s ear.  Keeping his voice low, he says, “I hoped you’d be here.  Your mother asked me to keep an eye out for you.”

That, at last, has impact: the boy’s eyes go wide and a brief flush crosses his face, stark against his pale skin.  He goes very still, fine tremors running through him, and he glances to the side, at Wakaba.  His lips part without sound.  Wakaba squeezes his shoulder again and he turns into that, and his face is that of a young child’s, hungry for information.  His throat works several times, soundless, and then he says, “… Is she well?”

“She’s as fine as she can be expected,” Wakaba says.  He keeps his voice low, intimate, and he knows the picture they make is a striking one: the decorated and honored General Oak, head of the main branch of the prestigious Oak family, still handsome despite his age, bent into intimate conversation with the prodigal son of the same family, dragged back to serve as the Imperial Princess’s attendent and in the first early flush of his beauty.  There are over a dozen pairs of eyes focused on them, and the trick is to make it appear as if he doesn’t notice.  As a feint, he reaches and straightens Hakuren’s collar slightly, then leaves his fingertips pressed to the boy’s collarbones, sharp even through the layers of his clothing.  “She misses you terribly, of course, and she’s cherished every one of the letters you’ve sent her over the years.”

“She got them?”  Hakuren sags just a little–not enough that anyone who wasn’t pressed directly into his personal space would notice, but such a gesture all the same.  His lips thin for a moment, then relax again.  “I’m grateful.  I didn’t know if my father would allow them to pass into her hands.”

So he still acknowledged a relationship with that idiot parent of his; Wakaba lets his amusement fuel his next open smile.  “It took some convincing,” he said.  “But I did manage to talk him into it, eventually.”

Another flush darkens Hakuren’s cheeks just a little–it’s quite fetching, really, and endearing how his sister’s sharp-edged child is so weak to just a hint of news about her.  “You did, Uncle–?”

“Of course I did,” Wakaba says, his voice kind and his eyes gentle.  “She’s my only sister, and you are her only child.  I have to look out for you any way that I can, right?  It’s what family does.”  He adds a slight emphasis to the world and sees the boy tense a little, unconsciously–perhaps, then, there is more of his sister’s old fire in him, instead of just his father’s blind devotion.  That is a little more troublesome, but Wakaba is old and experienced, and he is used to dealing with the young and idealistic.  He tugs a little at Hakuren’s collar again, enough that his gloved fingers can brush against the bare skin of the boy’s throat, and doesn’t quite smile at the startled sudden intake of breath.  “If you’d like, I know for a fact that your father is going on a day-trip in a week’s time, and your mother will be having lunch with me.  If you’d like …”

He can see the hope in the boy’s face; it glows like an actual light in his eyes and the softened lines of his mouth.  He keeps his fingers where they are, in the shallow dip of the boy’s collarbone, feeling the minute shifts of a living body under his touch.  “I wouldn’t have to see my father at all?”

“Not at all,” Wakaba promises.  “In fact, I think we’d all prefer that, wouldn’t we?  You, me, her–if he weren’t there …” He meets Hakuren’s eyes again, insinuating; he knows that the boy is just within his grasp, caught helplessly by his desire for his mother.  If he can win Hakuren Oak, then all of his idiotic brother-in-law’s own plans will come apart–this boy is the key to them, unreliable as he is to his family’s cause.  Senator Oak has called in too many of his tenuous favors in binding his son to the palace, and he has done nothing to soften the boy’s heart.  And Wakaba has some sentimentality to him: he would rather not destroy the boy unless absolutely necessary.  He <i>is</I> the only child of Wakaba’s dearest sister, after all.

Even so: there is only one Imperial Princess, and she could only have one consort.  Hakuren is too much of a wild card after his years at the church, and he’d never been (according to his brother-in-law’s rantings about the boy) entirely tractable to the idea of the Oak family’s superiority over all the others within the kingdom.  Shuri, on the other hand, is easy to please and desperate to please in turn, and he believes in nothing as much as he believes in the greatness of their bloodline–and of his father’s benevolent love.

“Would you like to come to lunch with us, Hakuren?” Wakaba asks.  His fingers trail up Hakuren’s neck, nearly to the boy’s chin.  “I know she’d be happy to see you, and your father will never have to know.  I can make it happen, if you just ask.”

And then he loses it–that tenuously building connection snaps abruptly, and he sees the exact second Hakuren’s eyes harden again; he feels the subtle shift as the boy leans away.

“Thank you, Uncle,” he says, with a smoothness that comes utterly unexpected–where he expected a boy nearly six years out of court and only several months back in practice, the son of an idiot and a woman whose heart is softer than goosedown–there is a man whose eyes are diamond-hard and whose posture is respectful but only just so, who has a smile like a knife wrapped in silk.  “It’s very kind of you to offer–but I can make my own arrangements.  If Father will be out of town next week, then perhaps I will call on Mother myself.  Thank you for telling me, Uncle.”

He steps back and bows, a hand to his heart, and then he turns and walks away–to the Princess, who is watching his approach curiously, one of her slim hands resting upon the neck of her pet fyulong; Hakuren speaks to her briefly, too low to be heard in a room gone suddenly silent, and she smiles and nods.  “Of course,” she says, and her voice does carry, clear and sweet.  “Have a good night, Hakuren.”

Hakuren Oak bows to his princess and he leaves the room with his back straight and his head high, as if he doesn’t realize everyone is staring–Wakaba chief amongst them.  His hand is still half-lifted, from where it had been resting upon the boy’s shoulder.  After a moment he curls his fingers into a fist and he smirks as he hooks a thumb into his own collar and adjusts it.  The desire to laugh wells up and is firmly repressed–it wouldn’t do to allow the boy an obvious victory, because of the stories of what he does now will filter back as rumors without fail.  It isn’t war precisely that has been declared, but it <i>is</I> a line clearly drawn, and Hakuren, at least, might prove to be a better opponent than his grasping idiot of a father.

Very well, he thinks.  If that is what the boy has chosen, then perhaps he isn’t as foolish as he first appeared–but still a fool.

Wakaba Oak takes his own leave, elegant and poised as his nephew before him, and he must admit: he is looking forward to seeing the boy crumble under his heel, but more than that, he is eager to see where the next play falls.

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last blood

It was my sister who drew last blood.

Perhaps it was an accident. Perhaps it was not. The blade was in her hand and she had both a smile on her lips and a shocked look in her eyes. There was a lightness to her I had never seen in my life.

+++

Backtrack: we were born together, my sister and I. Our mother said we had been born holding hands. Our father said that was what killed our mother. In our village, we were known as the Pale Ones, because we had been born at the cusp of dawn. That is supposed to be good luck, but my sister was born dead, the birthing-cord wrapped tightly around her neck and her hand in mine, and it took the nurse long minutes of coaxing and prodding before she took her first breath in this strange world of the living. I don’t remember this, of course. I was fine.

I don’t remember our mother, either, though I have seen photos of her around the house, tucked in places where they are both in plain sight and easily overlooked. She has the same eyes I see when I look in the mirror and the same fine pale hair that my sister ties into braids every evening. Father didn’t like to speak of her very often. He married another woman when we were six, who had dark hair and a red mouth and looked nothing like my sister or like me. She brought no children of her own, but she tried to act like a mother in her own fashion: she sang songs when my sister fussed; she brushed my hair when I fell and left it tangled. She told us the things our father said about our mother.

The day we turned ten, my sister and I, I drew the first blood.

We had new dresses, the two of us, white and red. We were very pretty; everyone said so. But more people looked at my sister, even though we had the very same face, and more of them gave their smiles to her, pale as a ghost where I burned pink. The grocer gave us candy for our birthday, but he gave an extra piece to her with a wink that he thought I did not see. My sister accepted it with a close-lipped smile, and then she looked at me and very deliberately put the second piece of candy away into the pocket of her dress. After we left the store, and we were outside in the hot dusty street, I tried to stick my hand into her pocket and take the candy. She struck me then, hard across the mouth, but I did not bleed. I curled my fingers into her thin fine hair and pulled until it came away in my hand, trailing red, and then there were adults yelling as they pulled us apart. I let go of her hair, but there were red sticky stains on my hand, on her face, on our dresses. Her eyes followed me the whole time.

Of course I was punished. My father screamed and my stepmother looked pale and unhappy and I was sent to bed without supper. I crept to the edge of our bedroom and listened to the sound of people singing well-wishes for my sister and of them eating cake.

Later that night, after the lights were out and our father and our stepmother were asleep, she came and stood beside me. When I rolled over and looked at her, she smiled at me once, and then retreated to her own bed.

+++

Move forward: after that, we alternated with blood. When we were twelve my sister, in a temper, grabbed a rock and threw it at me; it struck me in the same spot where, on her own head, there was a scar from the missing hair. I knelt as she stood over me and we both stared at the way my blood dripped into a little pool on the gravel. At fifteen a boy gave her roses and I struck her cheek with one of the thorny stems. At twenty she struck me across the mouth and that time my lip caught on my teeth and filled my mouth with the taste of metal.

Then we turned twenty-five. From what our stepmother told us, that was the age our own mother had been when she died. I worked at the grocer’s and my sister drifted into the arms of the mayor’s son, richer than half the families in our small village put together. On our birthday she came to me and took my hands and placed them upon her belly and she said, strike me here.

I looked into her eyes and I saw something nearly like panic there. Her lips were bitten and red through no fault of mine. Her belly was flat and cool under my palm.

Strike me here, she said again, the blood is yours now. Hurry. Here. And she took my hands then and pressed them together into a double fist.

This won’t be just my blood, I said. She leaned in and put her lips against my cheek and let go of my hands to put her own onto my shoulders. We no longer looked quite so alike: my work had left me broad and strong, while she was still soft and fluttering as we had been together as children. Looking at her was sometimes like looking back through time. Her mouth was cold, but it moved with warm breath and whispered to me, my name and please.

So I clasped my hands together into that double fist and I drove it into her belly. Though she dug her fingers into my shoulders (and so drew blood again, and to this day I am not sure if that counts in our strange tally), she did not cry out. When I asked her, Again? she nodded and I did as she asked, because after all: she was my sister. She held me and wept into my neck and I struck her a third time for good measure, and together we breathed loud and rough and waited until that feeling passed. Then she kissed my cheek and did not say thank-you as she left.

+++

Further forward still: our father died last week. The funeral was today. My sister came with her husband, both of them dressed from head to toe in black. The contrast made her look more like a ghost than ever, her mouth curved into a pale pink bow beneath the cover of her veil. She did not look at me, nor did she say anything to me; when the service was over and she had thrown her handful of earth over his coffin, she put her hand on her husband’s arm and they walked away. I wanted to call her name, or at least reach out to her, but instead I put my own hands in my pockets and let her go.

Which leads to this morning, when I was at our old house, sorting through the various sundry of our father’s life, when there was a knock on the door. My sister opened it without waiting for me to answer. She was still dressed all in black, but she had removed her veil. Her eyes were bright, but they were not clear. She said my name and she put her hands on her thin neck and she said to me, this is where you struck me first. I know that now. Then she came to my side and took my hand in her cold one and she said, Now I know. Now I see.

And then she struck me, so fast I only saw the flutter of her sleeve afterwards, followed by a hot slice of pain across my face. My cheek was wet. The blade was in my sister’s hand. There was a smile on her lips and shock in her eyes. She opened her fingers so that the razor clattered to the floor; it bounced once. And she said, I love you, and she said, I’m going outside now, and she said, Good night.

She closed the door behind herself and that was the last I saw of her.

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The Dream’s End

“Sometimes I dream of flying.”

When Pike was seven, his sister almost died. She was two years older than him and what the adults called “special” when they thought no children were paying attention. Her name was Butterfly and to him, she was beautiful.

On the first day of winter holidays, before the relatives had come to visit, their mother had been asleep and their father had been reading in the living room and she had gone to the attic window and opened it. Pike had followed her because he knew they were not allowed in the attic and his instinct as a younger sibling compelled him to come see. He remembered how she looked, framed against the pale winter sky with her black hair floating around her. She looked back and smiled, and then she jumped.

Later, in her hospital room, white amongst the white sheets, her face turned towards the window, she whispered (to him alone; their father had already pulled their mother from the room, sobbing and hysterical), “I thought maybe I could fly.”

+++

Butterfly talked with her hands more than her words. Sometimes in the middle of a sentence she would trail off and simply gesture as if that alone could convey her thoughts. It made their mother upset–“Use your words,” she would say, thin-lipped and uneasy–but it was a habit she seemed disinterested in breaking. Sometimes she would stop completely and simply stare into space, her mouth open and her hand raised.

When she was ten, one year after the Incident From The Attic, Butterfly began seeing Doctor Carl. He was an old man with thick white eyebrows and thicker glasses and no hair at all. He spoke slowly and deliberately, and each word from his mouth was heavy and round, like old stones. Sometimes Pike came along when his mother dropped Butterfly off and picked her up, and Doctor Carl would have a sucker for him and a grave smile, like they were sharing a secret communication.

Every time Butterfly came home she would curl up on her bed and sleep for hours. All the yelling and shaking from both of their parents never seemed to reach her at all. Sometimes Pike went in to sit with her, and sometimes she slept through his visits, and sometimes she woke.

“I had a dream,” she told him once, but that was all she would say.

+++

Pike enjoyed exploring the woods behind his house, playing catch with his dad, and gardening with his mom. Long after he should have outgrown the habit, he liked to hold his sister’s hand whenever they went out anywhere together. When his friends teased him he took it with good grace and kept his fingers laced together with hers.

Though no one ever asked him why, he would have said it was because he was afraid that she would simply float away if he wasn’t there to anchor her to earth.

+++

“You have to be patient with your sister,” his father said once, as the two of them walked home from the park. “And your mother. They try very hard, you know.”

Pike nodded because his father’s voice was so serious, but if he was honest, he didn’t know. He saw his mother get upset and restless and his sister drift through life like she couldn’t quite figure out how to exist properly in the world. His father, on the other hand, remained solid and placid and unflappable; in all his life, Pike had never seen his father get angry. As he spoke his face was solemn and he was looking up at the dim sky overhead. He seemed to be searching the first evening stars for something, but after a moment gave up and looked down again. “Promise you’ll do your best for them.”

“I will,” Pike said.

+++

If Butterfly wasn’t asleep, she was drawing. Her notebooks were filled, cover to cover, with intricate little designs and more elaborate sketches, of birds and winged people and her own namesake, all turned away and ready for flight. Pike thought she was very good. Sometimes, on a good day, she would point to one or another and tell him the stories for each. They all came to her when she dreamed, she said, and they always left when she woke. Though she tried and tried to follow when they floated off into the dawn, the pathway always eluded her.

But, she said, she was getting closer every day.

+++

If his father was the earth, his mother was flash-fire: quick to rage and slow to fade, her face red and her voice cracking. Most of her temper used Butterfly as its target, though occasionally even Pike bore the brunt of her wrath.

Later though, she would creep back apologetically, demure and drained where before she had been snapping and fierce. She would sit by Butterfly’s bedside and stroke her hair, or touch Pike’s cheek with soft fingers. He disliked this intensely: there was always something sad in his mother’s eyes when she was tired, deep and old and inescapable. Sometimes he heard her crying at night, and he thought he’d rather her be angry–because at least then, she fought back. He could hear her rage and knew she hadn’t given up.

What she was fighting against, he didn’t know for certain, just that it had to do with Butterfly. For that alone he hoped for his mother’s rage–for her anger and her determination, because now, even with her hand firmly clasped in his, Pike didn’t think he could keep hold of his sister for much longer.

+++

During the spring, Pike’s habit was to collect a handful of wildflowers every day as he walked home from school. He tried for a different type each day, clumped together into a fist. When he got home, he would go straight to Butterfly’s room first. If she was awake he would give her the flowers; if she was asleep, he would leave them on her pillow. She never thanked him, even when she was awake, but they would make her smile, and her eyes would focus on something immediate in the room, and to Pike, that was a victory.

+++

There were drugs, when Butterfly was awake–prescribed by Doctor Carl, his leathery face radiating concern when he handed Pike’s mother the slip of paper. They were small and white and Butterfly took them obediently when prompted; whether they helped at all was hard to say. Butterfly slept and she drew and sometimes she seemed to actually see the faces of her family, but even then, her eyes were full of secrets.

+++

When Pike was fourteen, his sister died.

Somehow, though the attic door had been locked for years, she’d found a way to jimmy it free and slipped inside. He had been walking up the driveway and happened to look up in time to see her, pale and tripping upon the rooftop of the house. For a moment he didn’t realize what he was seeing, and then it was too late.

For the rest of his life he remembered it–the way she spread her arms wide and the way her hair and her long sweater fluttered wildly in the wind, unfurling out behind her like wings–and the perfect moment after she jumped and seemed to hang suspended in the air, as if she would simply stay there forever, a girl stuck in that small piece of sky, her face turned upward and her arms outstretched as if to embrace the whole of the world.

+++

“I am sick of dreaming.

“Today, I am going to wake up.”

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[07-Ghost] And One For The Journey

(He takes a running start and leaps, holding his arms out wide, feeling the wind whistle through his hair, past his ears, and he flies.)

As far back as he could remember (though that is of itself funny, now that he’s aware of how little he actually remembers), Teito Klein has never dreamed like normal people. He’d heard other students at the academy talking about it, though the conversation always died when they became aware of his presence, but he’d heard a few from Mikage–in the morning, bleary-eyed with the desire for more sleep, his hair at odd angles, always starting with, I had the weirdestdream last night, before he launched into wild descriptions of this instructor in a skirt or that instructor with three heads or Shuri Oak shrinking to the size of an ant and the mad quest to find him before someone could step on him and his father blew up the entire Academy. And Teito, who had seen a building explode once before, only scowled and told him they would be late for breakfast if Mikage didn’t hurry and get dressed.

Things like that, those were what Mikage would tell him, and at first, Teito had thought he was being made fun of, because who would dream of someone like Shuri Oak ever? Or even such frivolous things as rolling around in a bed made of clouds, watching stars pinwheel overhead. Mikage never stopped with his stories, though, as if his words needed somewhere to go, so they would flow around his reticent roommate until Teito found himself listening in spite of himself. More often than not, he still ended up confused, but Mikage just laughed and said, Roll with it, come on, just roll with it! and never seemed upset at being misunderstood.

Mikage had been a good person like that.

Had been.

(It’s easier than he expects, sliding into his old shape, feeling the still-familiar stretch of arms and legs and the body he left behind, stretching into it like a wrinkled coat. He pats his face a few times until he feels the rise of the edges of the scar under his fingers, confirming that it’s where it needs to be, then pushes off again. It feels like falling through layers and layers of tissue, which all bears his weight gently downwards. There’s a light ahead, and he knows that’s where he’s going.)

Teito slept rigidly and absolutely still: a carryover from his days as a fighting-slave: a restless sleeper was an unrested fighter, and one who quickly ended up dead. The first morning after receiving his new roommate, he’d woken to see Mikage hovering over his bed, very nearly teary-eyed, saying Oh thank God, I thought you were dead, don’t you even breathe? Breathing is something you do, right?? and more until Teito hauled back and punched him just to get him to move away from the bed. In time, Mikage grew accustomed to it, but every now and then, he would say something like,Hey, you know, you can relax around me. I’m your friend, right? and Teito would feel small and ashamed and then irritated before telling Mikage to mind his own business.

To which Mikage always said, You’re my roommate and you’re my friend, so you’re my business, and Teito never quite knew what to say to that. At the time, he’d been embarrassed to be so easily defeated by a boy who only made decently good grades and was a passable fighter–one who would perhaps survive the first wave in true war, and maybe even the second, but after that …

He regretted, now, being irritated with Mikage. If he’d known how little time there had been, from the first time he’d been offered a stranger’s hand to when he’d felt his friend’s body had dissolved in his arms, he would have cherished it–he would have been kinder, he would have held on just a little longer, he would have–he would have done a thousand things differently, just to see Mikage smile.

(He touches down lightly and easily, first one foot, and then the other. Once more, he swings his arms, testing the familiar weight of them, and he nods with satisfaction. This is good enough.

He turns to the bed and goes to sit on it, beside the lump that curls under all of the blankets, as if it could drown within them. He reaches and paws through them, peeling back each layer until the boy underneath is revealed. He smiles at that dear face, pale and stiff even in sleep, and reaches to touch it, tracing borrowed fingers over the curve of Teito’s cheek. When those big green eyes open, he smiles, but doesn’t pull his hand away.

“Missed me?” he asks.

There’s a heartbeat of silence as Teito stares at him; then a moment later there is a blur of movement as Teito then launches forward, tackling him down, off the bed, to the floor. “Mikage,” he says, in a voice that is strangled and cracking, “Mikage, Mikage, Mikage–” and he’s crying as Mikage, finally named, puts his arms around Teito’s shoulders and hugs him, shrugging against the cold stone under his back.

“Hey, buddy,” he says. “C’mon, breathe, there we go.” And he pets Teito’s hair then, which is soft as kitten-fur and warm between his fingers, waiting until the babbling against his shoulder subsides. “I guess you did miss me.”

Idiot,” Teito says, wetly, but doesn’t lift his head.

“Ah, that’s just cold,” Mikage says, amused, but then Teito stiffens in his arms, looking up; his expression is stricken.

“No, I’m sorry,” he says. “Mikage, you know, I don’t, I never–”

He smiles, and he says, “Of course I know,” and he tugs fondly at Teito’s hair. “We’re friends, after all.”

“I’m sorry,” Teito says again, small and miserable. “If it weren’t for me–”

“I wouldn’t have had as much fun, this past year,” Mikage says. “I was happier than I’ve ever been, after meeting you. I’ve always wanted to find someone to devote myself to, you know? And I found that.” He pushes himself up onto his elbows and touches his mouth to the corner of Teito’s mouth, and then speaks there: “Thank you.”

“Mikage …”

“It’s easier to say these things when you’re dead,” he says, not pulling away. “Huh.”

Mikage!”

“Teito,” he says, “close your eyes.”

“Why should I!” Teito sputters, and does as asked, his brow furrowed and mouth pursed.

Mikage kisses him. It’s only his second kiss ever, and his first since dying, but it’s less awkward than he anticipated, with Teito’s mouth soft and warm against his, and though Teito starts at the contact, exhaling sharply once, he doesn’t pull away. The moment holds for long seconds, and as Mikage pulls back, Teito’s eyes open, nearly black, and for a sinking moment he wonders if he’ll have to explain this, too–or if this is something that has been ruined for Teito by his history, because otherwise he isn’t certain he’ll ever be able to forgive himself–

“Mikage,” Teito says softly, “I’m glad you’re here.”

“Teito?”

“You’ll be gone soon,” Teito says. He lifts his chin, jaw set in a stubborn line, meeting Mikage’s eyes. “For good. So–I don’t want to worry about other things. Even if this isn’t real–it feels real. That’s what matters. So, I–” And he leans forward before he can finish, this time kissing Mikage himself: a little off-center, a little clumsy, with both of his hands curled into fists in Mikage’s shirt. He kisses like every other gesture of affection he’s tried in the past year, stiff and uncomfortable until Mikage meets and matches him, until he learns enough from observation to relax. Mikage slides both hands into Teito’s hair and kneads.)

Once, when Teito had gone to Chairman Miroku’s room for a debriefing, he’d found the old man with a woman in a slinky black dress perched on the arm of his chair, her smooth arm over his shoulders and her breasts close to his face; Miroku acted as if nothing were out of the ordinary, but the woman had stared at Teito the whole time with a smile on her face that made his belly clench and twist, and when he’d finally been allowed to escape, the burning in his cheeks had lingered for hours.

Mikage’s kiss made him feel nearly the same, only warmer and closer, and he wanted to be closer still, until he could be wrapped up in the warmth of his best friend. Even if this was nothing more than an illusion, if he had the chance to give something back to Mikage in the slightest, he would seize that chance. He kissed with that thought in mind and tried to be as gentle as he could–he clung to Mikage’s clothes instead of his shoulders; he tugged their bodies to roll until he was the one who had his back against the stone floor; and he muttered Mikage’s name like a prayer in between kisses, hearing his own echoed back in reply.

Teito bent his knees up, using them to bracket Mikage’s hips and then pin them in place against his. He tugged at Mikage’s shirt and growled until Mikage laughed and said, All right, all right, I get it, and pulled back, tugging until Teito released him, undoing the buttons of his shirt with nimble fingers. In the dim light, he was not beautiful, but he was familiar, and that was enough to make Teito’s throat ache and his eyes sting. He reached up and put his hand to Mikage’s chest, where the skin was warm and there was no heartbeat. Mikage just smiled sadly at his sharp breath, and leaned to kiss him again. This time, Teito clung back, his surprise making him fierce–if he let go, if he closed his eyes, then maybe that would be the second Mikage disappeared again.

And Mikage didn’t seem to mind–he muttered and directed and made little noises of pleasure, and even when Teito squeezed Mikage’s shoulders enough to make his own fingers ache, Mikage never protested. They kissed like it could communicate everything that had gone unsaid (that would always be unsaid, Teito knew, because this was only a dream), I love you and I miss you and Stay with me, whatever you do, don’t leave.

Then Mikage pulled away to rest his forehead against Teito’s, and he muttered, Can I? with his hand resting low on Teito’s hip, where the nightshirt had ridden up, exposing most of one leg. His eyes were dark and more serious than Teito could ever remember them being–even that last evening at the Academy, when he’d taken Teito’s hand without second thought and run, ready to throw away everything for the sake of friendship. His hand trembled slightly, but did not move from its spot, thumb pressed the rise of Teito’s hipbone and no closer. His mouth was open and red, but at whatever look he found on Teito’s face, it curved into a weak little smile. Hey, buddy, if you don’t want–

Teito grabbed Mikage’s hand and pulled it up and over, between his own legs, and he can’t help but gasp and rock into that, squeezing his eyes tightly shut. His entire body feels hot and focused on that touch–with how Mikage’s grip goes from tentative to confident, shaping around Teito’s cock through his nightshirt, and the feel of Mikage’s smile pressed against his cheek. Teito, hey, it’s all right, I’ve got you.

So Teito reached up, awkward, his hips rolling in tiny, desperate rocks against Mikage’s hand, and grabs onto Mikage’s arm, near his shoulder, squeezing to test the strength of it. He managed a smile of his own, forcing his focus on Mikage’s face, and he said, his own voice low, And I’ve got you.

Then he had to close his eyes, because the smile on Mikage’s face was bright enough to dazzle, and when Mikage’s hand moved again, fast and confident, it was all he could do to just arch helplessly in response. It felt good and it felt strange, to feel his body–honed and refined as a tool over the years until he thought he’d known it well–move helplessly in response to unfamiliar stimuli; he’d known gentle touch, and it had been nothing like this. Mikage’s arm over his shoulders, Kurena’s soft fingers over his palm–he hadn’t known. He hadn’t been ready. He didn’t think a lifetime of preparing would have have been enough to know what to expect. Like a prayer, Mikage’s name broke on his lips, over and over again, and he cracked his eyes open just that little bit to see Mikage’s face, so close their noses nearly touched, and he thought his heart would break from how full it felt.

Mikage, I, you know, I–

I love you, Teito, Mikage said, smiling.

Teito sobbed once and came.

(He kisses Teito’s brow one last time and pulls back to memorize that dear face–pale in the moonlight, stiff and stained with tears, but unchanged, unbroken, and he smiles. He rests his fingers on Teito’s cheek and sees that they’re already starting to fade. He’s stayed for too long.

“You know,” he says, “I was really happy. Thank you for being born and finding me. Thank you for everything.”)

The next morning dawned bright and harsh; Teito opened his eyes and immediately squeezed them shut again, turning his face hard into the pillow. His body felt hot and strange, like it didn’t really quite belong to him any more–it responded when he tried to move, but sluggishly, with small unfamiliar shudders. Images lingered behind his closed eyes, confused and jumbled and full of Mikage’s eyes and smile and voice, fading away even as he clutched at their tattered remains. A moment later and they were gone except for the vague impression of their previous presence, like how Mikage’s smell was nothing more than an illusion, buried deep in the folds of his jacket.

Even so, Teito pressed his face into the cloth and breathed in as deeply as possible. For the first time he could remember, he felt genuinely afraid.

I don’t know how to move forward. I don’t know where the path to the light lies. Because, Mikage–

You were my light.

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a candle, blown out

There is one night — not the first, but close to it — when Ciel asks, “Is that just someone’s skin you’re borrowing, while you’re under contract with me? Did you make it up, or was it real before you came along?” He reaches out with both hands, the sleeves of his nightshirt hanging too-wide and low on his skinny arms. His fingertips stop just short of Sebastian’s chest. “How real are you, Sebastian?”

Sebastian covers Ciel’s hands with his own and folds them into fists. “I’m real enough for your purposes,” he says. His smile draws all the shadows in the room until the white of his teeth gleam in comparison. Even through his gloves his fingers are cold enough to make Ciel’s bones ache. “See?”

Ciel looks. Sebastian holds him loosely, but there is no way he could simply twist his way free. His left eye throbs, the lines of the seal still fresh enough to be tender when exposed to the air. He’s still not entirely used to the change in depth perception, but the peculiar double-vision he has when the eyepatch comes off is stranger still. It makes the entire world spin just a little out of focus, and Sebastian is the only thing he can clearly see.

“Does your head hurt, my lord?” Sebastian asks politely. He lets go of one of Ciel’s hands and covers the sealed eye with his gloved palm. The contact is blessedly cool, and Ciel leans into it fractionally. “If you lie down, you’ll feel better.”

Ciel licks his lips. He lies back at the pressure of Sebastian’s hand and raises his own, pressing his thumb to the thin strip of skin exposed between Sebastian’s glove and sleeve, which is cold and strangely textured, like old leather stretched tight over a thin frame. Sebastian moves with and leans over him, with that same bright smile and allows it until Ciel slides his fingertips up, just underneath the glove. The ache in his eye flares at that, deepening into a stabbing pain. Something catches in his throat, an anticipation he doesn’t quite understand that makes his skin itch and his belly twist.

“Ah-ah,” says Sebastian. He catches Ciel’s wrist and gently pulls it away before pressing it down to the bed. The pressure in Ciel’s eye immediately lessens. “I doubt you’re old enough for that yet, my lord.”

“But old enough to make a deal with?” Ciel leans his head back against the pillows. “How is one different from the other?”

Sebastian chuckles. He runs a finger down the curve of Ciel’s cheek, then follows the soft line of jaw to the point of his chin. His thumb brushes against Ciel’s lower lip. “Not so different,” he agrees. “But you’re very tired still from the initial binding, Master Ciel. It wouldn’t do for you to exhaust yourself this early on, now, would it.” He lets go and pulls away; his fingers have left phantom impressions of cold upon Ciel’s skin.

“Perhaps another night,” he says. He reaches for a lamp and dims it; the last thing that fades from sight is his smile, a cheshire-cat smirk that gleams. “Sleep well, my lord.”

Ciel watches him open the door, the long lean shape of him briefly limmed in the doorway and looking back. He sees two pinpoints of red flare and die away. “Sebastian–”

“Shhhh,” Sebastian admonishes, then closes the door and is gone.

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The Imitated Rose

“There is a certain someone already,” he said. He had given his name as Aoi, though it was not the same name that he gave to clients during the day; there was a blue rose in his jacket lapel. “I would ask that you do not inquire too deeply.”

The other man, who had introduced himself as Murasaki and kept a violet rose in his own lapel, just smiled. “That is fine with me,” he said. “There is also a certain person in my circumstances. I won’t ask if you don’t.”

Aoi looked relieved at the admission. It made him wide-eyed and youthful for a moment, like a boy who had stumbled into this strange world entirely by accident. He put down his wine glass with a hard clink and kept his hand braced against the table, as if to take his weight; he wet his lips and cleared his throat and couldn’t quite look Murasaki in the eye. With his other hand he tugged at his collar to loosen it, exposing a pale stretch of skin. Then he laughed, his hands still in place, and his smile turned wryly self-deprecating. “I don’t know what to do,” he said. “I came here because I wanted to learn, but now that I’m here, I have to be taught even that.”

Murasaki rose to his feet. At slouched relaxation, he and Aoi were at eye-level with one another. He crossed the room and was pleased to see that Aoi held his ground–young, yes, and nervous with his inexperience, but not stupid. He smiled and placed his own hand on Aoi’s cheek. His fingers were rough and sun-browned, but he kept his touch gentle as he traced the line of Aoi’s cheek and said, “I came to forget. You may have my knowledge instead, if you’d like.”

“There’s someone,” Aoi said, and Murasaki laughed before he could finish, pressing a thumb to Aoi’s chin so that his mouth opened. He pushed until Aoi’s head tipped back and looked thoughtfully at the graceful line of exposed throat. Under his hands, Aoi was still, but his breathing was fast and a touch unsteady, and the restlessness coiled inside of him was very nearly its own tangible sensation.

“There always is,” said Murasaki. He leaned down and pressed his mouth to the blue line of the vein in Aoi’s neck. It jumped under his lips and he laughed there, exhaling warmly against that skin. One of Aoi’s hands found a spot on his shoulder and flexed there before curling into the material of Murasaki’s shirt. “I don’t mind. After all, we’re in the same situation.” He set his other hand against Aoi’s hip to brace his weight, then bit down, not precisely gentle, and tugged him closer when he yelped until their hips were pressed tightly together. Aoi pulled back to look at him with those same wide eyes as before, his mouth open in a rounded o shape. Murasaki smiled at him and released his face to douse the candle.

“This way,” he said. He took one step back, then another, keeping his hand pressed tightly to Aoi’s back so that Aoi moved with him, like the steps of a waltz, until they reached the bed on the far side of the darkened room. Murasaki moved until he felt his legs hit the bed, then sank down onto it, smoothing his hand from back to hip, letting his thumb dig into the soft dip of flesh just above the jut of Aoi’s hipbone. His other hand moved to the button-fly of his pants and slipped each button free one by one; they made soft snapping noises in the dark. Murasaki took one of Aoi’s hands–the fingers were soft all the way to their tips, with only the faintest hints of a writing callus on thumb and index finger–and tugged it down to press against his half-hard cock.

“Do you do any work at all?” he asked. He rubbed his thumb, with its sword-roughened pad, against the soft sweep of skin across the back of Aoi’s hand. “It doesn’t seem like it …”

“Don’t be rude,” Aoi protested, but he didn’t pull his hand away. “I do plenty of work. In fact, I help my father–”

Murasaki tightened his grip on Aoi’s wrist until the other man winced. “Shush,” he said. “I won’t ask, but don’t volunteer the information like that. We haven’t even done anything yet.” And he smiled again to take some of the sting out of his words, though Aoi flushed slightly, the red color stark against his pale skin.

“I’m sorry,” Aoi said, and when Murasaki loosened the grip on his wrist, he turned his hand, brushing his fingers hesitantly over warm skin and rough hair. “Sometimes, when I–I’ll stop.”

“You can still talk, if you want,” said Murasaki, and pushed at Aoi’s shoulder until the other man’s knees bent and he sank down to kneel on the floor beside the bed. “But something like that doesn’t have a place here. Even when you’re learning.”

“You asked,” Aoi protested, but he sounded more petulant than upset. He adjusted his weight minutely a few times, then wrapped his fingers firmly around Murasaki’s cock, stroking it out of his pants, into open air. Through a gap in the curtains, just enough light slanted through across his face and highlight his expression of concentration: eyebrows drawn together, jaw set, and just the tip of his tongue peeking out over the wet curve of his lower lip. He did not notice he was being watched; his gaze was instead riveted on Murasaki’s cock like it was some sort of great and complicated question he had never considered before.

Perhaps he had not. Murasaki gentled his own touch further, curling his fingers around Aoi’s to tighten their grip. When Aoi looked up at him, eyes wide, Murasaki said, “The best way to learn is to just try.”

“It won’t be very good.”

“It will be good enough.”

Aoi’s mouth twisted for a moment, as if he tasted something sour already, but then he broke eye-contact to study Murasaki’s cock again. He moved his hand slowly, carrying Murasaki’s touch with it, and he leaned in until his breath was warm and damp over the head of Murasaki’s cock. As he hovered, caught by indecision, Murasaki slid his other hand into Aoi’s hair, which was finer and softer than his skin, and dragged his nails briefly against the scalp. He tugged down and arched his hips up at the same time but said nothing, and Aoi took a deep breath and leaned the final hairsbreadth of distance to fit soft slack lips around the head of Murasaki’s cock. The hard edge of his teeth were a fleeting presence before Aoi pulled back and made low coughing noises in his throat. Before Murasaki could prompt him again, though, he leaned forward once more, setting one hand against Murasaki’s hip as if to brace himself.

“Ah,” Murasaki breathed, as Aoi’s mouth slid around him again. His teeth scraped for a second before he figured out folding his lips over them, and he did not go down the whole way; he was awkward, and as warned, not very good–but his expression was still one of intense concentration; he was entirely focused on his task. Murasaki exhaled through his teeth and nearly smiled as he stroked his hand through Aoi’s hair again, then removed it to the bed to hold his own weight; his other hand, he used to direct Aoi’s on his cock, setting a slow steady rhythm to keep himself interested and sustained in a holding pattern. He did not close his eyes as he might have normally, choosing instead to study the pale curve of Aoi’s cheek in the moonlight, or the shadows cast by the long sweep of his eyelashes.

Murasaki only knew one other person with skin this pale without the aid of powders or creams.

The thought made something hot unfurl in his stomach. His breath hissed out between his teeth in a moment of genuine surprise, and Aoi gave a low hum in answer. Sweat prickled along Murasaki’s hairline and his fingers fisted harder in the sheets, and he could not make himself blink, staring hard at Aoi’s half-shadowed face. There was nothing feminine in his beauty, but there was a nearly familiar grace in the aristocratic line of his jaw and in the untried softness of his hands. He was too tall, too broad-shouldered, too angular to look anything like the person who haunted Murasaki’s thoughts, but for a moment–for just a moment–

Of their own volition, his hip rocked up. Aoi made another noise and pulled back, lips swollen and wet, and he released Murasaki’s hip for a moment to scrub the back of his hand over his mouth. He looked up to meet Murasaki’s eyes and his were darker than before, their light dimmed into something more diffuse. He said nothing, but when Murasaki touched his cheek, he leaned into it for a moment before he bent to take Murasaki’s cock into his mouth once more–more easily now, less awkward, if not any deeper. The movement had hair sliding across his forehead, hiding his face further, and Murasaki made a noise that was not quite a groan, letting his hips rock again, moving into a steady, shallow rhythm.

This time, he closed his eyes. He could nearly imagine that someone else knelt in Aoi’s place, delicate nearly to the point of being fragile, with heavy golden hair that clung to his fingers when he slid his hand through it and small clever fingers that stroked him with slow deliberate precision. The knot of heat in his belly tightened again, pulling a grunt out of him, and he reached for Aoi’s hair, too fine to match with his fantasies, and said, “Now, ah, now–”

Aoi’s head jerked for a moment, as if to pull back, and then he swayed forward again, his mouth sliding down further than before. Murasaki squeezed his eyes shut and bit the inside of his cheek until he tasted blood to keep from saying the name that rested on his tongue, ready to break free. His climax was a quiet–a choked shudder, a brief rush of heat, a brilliant smile seared in his mind’s eye–and then it was over and Aoi pulled away coughing; when Murasaki opened his eyes, he watched Aoi wipe at his mouth and felt another small warm curl in his belly. It could almost be named affection.

“Did you learn something?” he asked.

Before he answered, Aoi cleared his throat and then looked up. There was a small twist to his lips as he said, “Maybe.”

Murasaki laughed again. “I will teach you one more thing, then,” he said and reached down to pull Aoi first up to his feet, and then down on the bed beside him. “After that, it’ll be better if you learn with the partner that you’re pining for.”

“I’m not pining,” Aoi said, but he dropped his gaze as he spoke.

“Then the other person in your thoughts,” said Murasaki, and he reached to place his hand squarely between Aoi’s legs, rolling the base of his palm against the hardness he found there. Aoi let out a startled yelp and swayed into him, both hands clutching at Murasaki’s shoulders, his mouth and eyes open and round in shock. Murasaki leaned to press his lips just under Aoi’s ear, not quite a kiss, and massaged his fingers with firm unrelenting pressure. His other arm slid around Aoi’s waist to hold him close and upright; through that contact, he could feel the small shudders that rippled through the other man’s body at his touch.

“Oh,” Aoi gasped. His voice was small and surprised. “Oh, oh–”

Against his ear, lips moving against his skin, Murasaki whispered to him: “This is what it feels like for you.”

“I,” Aoi began, his voice quavering, “I don’t. I’m not. I.”

“Bodies are made for this sort of thing,” Murasaki said, his voice a low soothing murmur. He plucked at the fastenings for Aoi’s pants–two large round buttons–deliberately missing several times, letting his fingers trace the outline of Aoi’s trapped cock instead. “If you can’t recognize what it’s like, it will rule you.”

“Murasaki,” Aoi ground out, his fingers clenched hard in Murasaki’s shoulders, “with all d–due respect, I have done–things with myself before, so I, I’m, it isn’t like I haven’t–”

“Ah,” said Murasaki, “my apologies.”

He slipped the buttons of Aoi’s pants open, one and then the other, and wrapped his fingers firmly around the cock that sprang free. Aoi made a keening sound as if in pain, his entire body jerking as if shocked. His head fell back to expose his throat and the sharp wing of his collarbone. The blue rose in his lapel was wilting, bruised, but still mostly intact. Murasaki slowed his touch and leaned down, until he could breathe in that delicate scent. He heard Aoi say his name again, soft and almost confused, and squeezed his fingers tighter. With his other hand, he tugged Aoi closer, enough so that his nose was pressed into the rose; once it was, he began to move his hand hard and fast, nearly merciless. He kept his eyes closed, tilting his head so he could brush his lips against that rose, and pretend.

It did not take long at all for Aoi to come. He made a single choked noise, his fingers digging in with unmistakable force into Murasaki’s shoulders, and his cock jerked in Murasaki’s hand with all the eagerness of the enthusiastically inexperienced. Murasaki murmured nonsense words into the heart of the rose, letting the petals catch against his lips, then opened his eyes.

The shirt Aoi wore under his jacket was white and no longer as crisp as it had been earlier in the evening. Tucked into the breast pocket, just barely peeking out, was a dark satin ribbon with a tiny yellow rose embroidered on the end of it. It was the sort of ribbon that normally found its place braided into someone’s hair–something he’d seen only one other person wear, dark dark red against bright gold hair….

Aoi’s hand rose up into Murasaki’s line of vision and tugged his jacket firmly shut. The gesture crushed the blue rose between his own hand and chest. Murasaki looked up and met Aoi’s eyes and saw something in them so familiar it was nearly like looking into a mirror.

“There is a certain someone already,” said Aoi quietly.

And Murasaki laughed, though the sound was strained even to his own ears. “I see,” he said. He put a hand over the purple rose on his own lapel and closed his eyes. “We’re in the same situation after all.”

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deal with the devil

(Happy birthday to you~ happy birthday to you~)

No matter how noisy the world around him becomes, he can still hear that song in the back of his head–warbly and thin, cracking on the highest notes, always on repeat. It never gets any louder or any fainter–it is always just there, teasing at the edges of his awareness with the promise of some kind of reward at the end of all things. If he fought harder, ran faster, pushed himself to the very end of his endurance and beyond, then maybe he’d evolve, and he could leave behind this nagging feeling of pieces missing and that song, always that song in the back of his head–

(Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you~)

The blond general in front of him takes a last deep drag off his cigarette, then flicks it off somewhere to the side. He exhales deeply and then grins through the smoke. He raises his right arm, which glows white for a moment as his Innocence activates, unfurling out into the shape of a scythe. His smile is wide and full of teeth that look too sharp to fit properly into a human mouth.

“Brat,” he says, in a long low drawl, “you’re a thousand years too early if you think you can take me on.”

Rage bubbles up inside him. It is the same anger that always lingers inside him, twisted and black in the pit of his stomach, crawling nervously up and down his back–ringing echoes in his ears in counterpoint to his master’s birthday song. It gathers into his throat until it bursts free as a scream and he shifts form, shedding the pathetic human disguise for the modified body that his master created for him. He launches himself forward, his claws extended and his own teeth bared, rage and hate both fueling his charge–humans, humans, humans, he hates them so much, he wants to rip each one apart and taste blood on his tongue.

(Happy birthday, dear–)

The world goes white.

+++

He wakes with a horrible sour taste in his mouth and silence in his head. It’s so strange that it takes him a moment to realize this, and when he does, he sits bolt upright, so fast that his stomach churns. He has to press both hands over his mouth and breath hard through his nose for long moments before the desire to vomit passes. Even after, he presses his forehead to his knees and feels a chill creep over him until he’s shivering so hard that his teeth chatter.

Movement at the corner of his vision catches his attention and he turns his head just enough to see what it is: a mirror. The room is too dark to see that clearly, but he sees his face and realizes that he cannot remember when this happened–and, he thinks, that it’s all wrong. The curve of his face is too soft, the hair and eyes are the wrong color, and when he moves his fingers to see his chin, he thinks, there should be something there, but all he can see is smooth skin. He moves his hands from his mouth to touch at his face, exploring it, and he thinks: That’s wrong. That’s wrong. That’s wrong. It’s all wrong.

(but that’s not all of it)

He knows this face, but it’s not his face. He knows these eyes and the sullen twist of this mouth, because he’s seen them before, moving, talking, covered in blood–

(“Teito, why, why would you do this?!”

“Mikage, Mikage, I’m sorry–“)

This time he can’t stop it; he lurches for the side of the rough cot he’s been sleeping on and is noisily, violently ill over the side. He clutches the side of the bed and retches several times, but all that comes out is thin bile and black oil. He stares at the puddles they form on the floor without really seeing them, shivering again. He remembers the way that soft skin and fragile bones tore apart under his fingers (spindly robotic too many joints and stiff with newness) and the wet slick heat as he settled himself into his new skin (teito’s skin teito’s blood teito’s screams) and opened his new eyes (cloudy with tears and some of those were even his) and the Millennium Earl put a hand over his eyes and cooed Happy birthday, Mikage.

A door opens. Mikage’s head snaps up and though his stomach churns with the movement he throws himself backwards across the bed until his shoulder hits the wall. His hands curl, threatening to change, and he watches as a man steps in.

He is both tall and broad-shouldered, with neat auburn hair and a pair of thin glasses perched on the end of a sharp nose, and he is not the general that Mikage faced before. He is dressed all in black, but on his left breast, over his heart, is the rose cross of the Black Order. He does not look particularly surprised to see Mikage awake, nor that there is a mess on the floor. He pushes his glasses up his nose with a single decisive gesture and says, “Stop that. You’ll just hurt yourself.”

Mikage shakes his head. The man tuts at that and says, “It’ll pass. The first hour is always the worst–your mind is still adjusting to your modification.”

“Mm,” Mikage says, and winces a little at his voice–Teito’s voice–“Mod … ification … ?”

“You have yourself back,” the man says. His tone is no-nonsense. “But you’re still the Earl’s creation; nothing we can do can fix that. In here, though, you’re fine.” He taps a finger against his temple. “That’s what matters. Now that you’re awake, though, there are a few last adjustments–”

“Hey,” says another voice, and that one Mikage remembers from their brief fight; a moment later the general from before swaggers into the room, shouldering the first man aside. He still has on the long coat of the Order, wide open to expose his bare chest, which is embarrassingly free of any injury. Mikage doesn’t remember much of the battle, but some small part of him is rankled that he hadn’t managed to land a single hit on this general. “The brat just woke up. Give him a moment.”

His companion gives him a withering look, over the rims of his glasses. “Timing is essential in something like this,” he says. “The longer he’s awake without the last tuning, the more likely his original programming will kick in and–”

“For fuck’s sake, Four-Eyes, he’s a goddamn kid,” the general snaps. “Give him a break, yeah?” He pulls a half-empty pack of cigarettes from a pocket and thumps the bottom to push one up, then takes it between his lips, though he does not yet light it. He looks at Mikage and raises an eyebrow. “And you, you could’ve fooled me,” he says. “Face like that, I could’ve sworn you were a girl.” His grin is brief, not quite a leer.

His companion covers his face for a moment. “Is that why you brought him back …”

“It’s ’cause he was a kid,” the general says, without skipping a beat. He jerks a thumb at himself, then, and says, “I’m Frau. The mad scientist over there’s Castor. Welcome back to life, kiddo.”

Mikage bites the inside of his cheek. Oil spreads across his tongue. “No,” he says miserably. “I didn’t want …” He looks at his spread hands. “Teito …”

Frau watches him a moment, and says, “Losing someone always drives you a bit crazy. You wanna make something of it, you help us out.”

“Help–?” He glances up, flexing his fingers still. “What do you mean?”

“You know what we are, obviously,” Frau drawls, and now he fishes a box of matches out of his pocket, using one to light his cigarette. “You know we’re fighting your boss. He’s the one who talked your sweetheart into doing that to the both of you.” He makes a gesture at Mikage that somehow encompasses the whole of him and the terrible situation. “You wanna make it right, you can help us.”

Mikage looks at his hands again. They’re Teito’s hands entirely–there’s the scars on the knuckles from their third year in school, and the little ragged patch of skin on the thumb where Teito used to bite when he was nervous. The skin sits on his metal bones with a settled familiarity, but he feels utterly, unavoidably alien in his own body. He blinks hard, but there isn’t enough life left in his flesh to properly cry. From the corner of one eye, he sees Castor start forward again, and this time Frau doesn’t stop him; a moment later, cool gloved fingers take Mikage’s chin firmly in hand, pressing at the hinges of his jaw until his mouth opens. Castor puts something on his tongue that tastes unbearably salty on his tongue, then presses his mouth shut, holding it as Mikage struggles and squirms, until whatever it was has dissolved away entirely.

“The method’s not perfect yet,” he says. “The Earl keeps upgrading his designs to make them harder to hack. It’s a challenge.” He smiles when he says it, and Mikage shrinks away just a little, wiping the back of his hand over his mouth and coughing a few times to clear his throat before he speaks.

“Teito,” he whispers. “What happened to Teito? If I’m here, then he’s …”

“Who knows?” says Frau. He tilts his head back and exhales smoke. “Maybe he’s still in there with you. Maybe he’s waiting in Heaven. That’ll be up to you to find out, when you’re done.”

Castor shoots him a sharp, unreadable look. “Frau,” he says. “That’s–”

“Up to the kid,” says Frau. He looks at Mikage, meeting his eyes directly. “You in?”

Mikage flexes his hands slowly. The images of blood and Teito’s tear-stained face are beginning to fade, though the bitterness in his throat lingers. He wipes at his mouth with his fingers, rubs at his cheeks, tugs at his hair. He thinks of the last time he saw Teito smile, backlit by the sunset with the wind in his hair, finally relaxed enough to trust someone else with the awkward pieces of himself. Mikage curls his fingers and presses them to where his heart would normally be, and finds the silence there nearly as terrible as the Earl’s singing voice in his ears.

He closes his eyes, then opens them again.

“I’m in,” he says.

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Solitary Hide And Seek

One, two, are you ready yet?

The snow is beginning to fall. There is a thick blanket of it already, deep enough to leave footsteps. The sound of a single boy’s voice echoes but is muffled through the white. It takes a long time before the answer comes back to him–

Three, four, not just yet.

+++

When Ren had been born, there had been something clutched tightly in his fist. When the nurse prised it open, she found a small piece of bone against his palm, which had been held so tightly that it had left an impression in the soft baby flesh. It was a sign, she told his mother and his father, the boy was someone who was reborn to atone for some grief from his past life, something so terrible that he could not slip the chains of the world and move on to a better place. It was better to encourage him to discover the source of his old attachments and resolve them rather than allow him to grow up in ignorance. The piece of bone was put into a silk pouch, expensive enough to be worth a full week’s work, and this pouch was tied around Ren’s neck: in this way, his memento could be kept close to him always.

+++

Ren is a quiet boy, one who is given to long silences and slow deliberate words. He only speaks when spoken to, and never tries to insert himself into any conversation that may be happening around him. Even as an infant and then again as a child, he was not given to play: he sits and watches the track of birds across the sky instead, or his mother as she does the washing and the mending, his eyes watching the movement of her hands carefully, as if the answer to his riddle were in her simple repetitive movements. Other children in the village don’t dislike him, exactly, but he is strange compared to the rest of them, pale and thin and weak where they are brown and solid and strong. Whenever he is invited to participate in running games, he shakes his head and offers no explanation for his refusal.

The adults put their heads together and they say it is because Ren was an Atoner, because he’d clung so tightly to his past life that he could not reconcile it to his current one. It was better that he did not get involved with the children, then, lest he influence them into having the same attachments that were doomed to remain unfulfilled. Over time, the invitations from the other children grow fewer, until there are none. The adults who see his parents in the marketplace still bow politely and make conversation, but no one ever asks about Ren. His mother starts adjusting his clothes to make the collars higher, to hide the silk pouch that he wears around his neck and never removes, even to bathe. His father starts buying heavier coats for him, which swallow up his thinness and give him the impression of bulk, at least during the cold of full winter.

His parents also worry. Late at night they lie awake and they say to each other: what could it have been, that was so terrible that he could not have shaken off the chains of karma and was dragged back to earth as an Atoner? Was there someone else waiting for his return, who would become an Atoner in turn if he never found that person again? Would they wake one morning and find him gone forever, without even a sign of where he might be headed? Where the other children drink up touch and indulge in hugs and other playful tussling, Ren always goes very still under any sort of contact, like a wild deer startled in its foraging. There is a part of him that is so distant that he hardly seems real, a ghost-child that stays in their house and drifts through their lives, theirs but not.

If Ren hears these whisperings, he makes no indication. He works slowly but diligently, first at the tasks of children–the small mending, the washing of vegetables, the repair of broken sandals and umbrellas–and then at the tasks of men in the fields, and he never once seems to notice his slowly growing status as a pariah. Instead, he continues to lose himself in the movement of the birds in the sky, and, when the weather is so, the drifting flutter of falling snowflakes. The faces of the people he knows by rote memory never seem to surprise him–as he grows, he makes no friends among his peers, and only the village elder’s wife ever wins anything like a smile from him. If the pouch around his neck ever bothers him, he gives no indication.

+++

Three weeks before Ren’s sixteenth birthday, the troupe comes to his small village. The others his age abandon their work at the first sound of bells and strings and pipes, clustering in small groups as the wagon creaks gently to a stop. The head of the troupe is an old man, but his back is still straight and his eyes are still bright, and he leaps from the driver’s seat with the grace of a young man. He lands with a flourish, then puts his hands together and bows politely to the village elder, who bows back with equal courtesy.

“I have heard that the paths through the mountains are already blocked over with snow,” says the troupe leader. “If it’s not too much trouble, we’d like to request shelter here until the spring comes. We won’t be dead weight, though; though our skills are in one area, it doesn’t mean we’re incapable of other work.” He pats his own arm then, which is corded and solid with muscle.

“The snows are always earliest and worst here,” the village elder says. He strokes his long beard and looks at the collected members of the troupe with a practiced eye. He smiles and he says, “And more than anything, songs and stories help pass a long and dreary winter. I and mine welcome you and yours to this village; may the blessings of the Traveler allow you to rest your wings here until it is safe to move on.”

“And may the grace of the Hearth Tender smile upon this village,” the troupe leader says with an equal smile. He turns then and claps his hands. “All right! You heard him, we’re setting up!”

As if his words were a dam breaking, the people of his troupe spring into action, and the people of the village begin to venture closer. Other than the old man himself, there is an old woman whom he introduces as his wife, or as close to it as they come, a handful of men and women who have raised children to adulthood and left them behind to a more stable village life, and a few who are only teenagers themselves. The youths of the village make eyes and are smiled back at; it is a good meeting. One boy in particular is popular among boys and girls alike; his skin is white as the snow, but he is nimble and quick to laugh, and his eyes are a rare bright blue, the same as the cloudless summer sky. He says his name is Haru, and a mother clucks her tongue and says it is a good strong name for him: Queen Spring must be pleased to share one of her many names with him.

Haru laughs, tossing his head back, and the sound is bright and glad. “I hope so!” he says. “Otherwise, I’d be in a lot of trouble! It’s only because of this name I’ve ever gotten anywhere in life.” And he winks, and the girl whose mother had spoken blushes bright red, ducking behind the woman in a sudden unexpected shyness. Others crowd in, though, all admiring, and he laughs for them all in turn, so infectious and glad that no one takes insult at his teasing.

The whole time, Ren remains in the fields and never looks up, even as the commotion dies down, and the members of the troupe are, for the moment, integrated into his village. It is only when he returns home, a basket of his pickings under his arm, that he sees this other person in his home. The guest mat is laid out by the fireplace, and there are two boys who are sitting on it, their bare feet thrust out to the roaring fire. One leaps to his feet when Ren comes in and bounds over, grinning widely.

“You’re Ren,” he says. “I’m Haru. It’s nice to meet you! We’ll be staying with you until spring.”

Ren tilts his head. He says nothing. Haru goes on, as if he’d been answered: “Your parents actually asked for us specifically! When they said ‘Ren,’ though, I was expecting a cute girl.”

“Haru,” says the other boy by the fire, whose eyes are brown and whose name is Jin–Haru’s cousin and fellow actor–“that’s rude to our guest.”

“You didn’t let me finish,” Haru protests, and he claps both hands on Ren’s shoulders, beaming. “I was going to say, even though I was expecting a cute girl, it turns out you’re a pretty cute boy, too. I’ll accept you having such a pretty name.” He looks straight into Ren’s eyes, and his gaze is clear and unwavering. “All right, Ren?”

Ren just blinks. He is still as stone under Haru’s hands, but the knuckles of his own are white now, upon the edge of his basket. Jin clucks his tongue and gets to his feet as well, coming over to hook fingers in the back of Haru’s shirt and tugging. “Oi, Haru, leave the poor kid alone. You can’t just throw yourself at people all the time and expect they’ll always like you right away.”

“They always have before,” Haru protests, and Jin says over him, “Only because you’ve got spring’s own luck guiding you. Come on, give him some space,” and drags him back to the fire. It isn’t much space, but it is enough for Ren to take a sudden breath, and enough for him to have room to slip past the watchful pair and into the kitchen, where his mother is washing rice and humming to herself. She looks up when Ren enters and she smiles, looking nearly young.

“Oh, Ren,” she says. “I heard, it seems you’ve met our guests.”

Ren nods, dropping his gaze. He kneels before his mother and puts the basket down. There isn’t much in it–roots, mostly, foraged from the fields and the base of the mountains that surround their little village, a freshly-killed squirrel that has been neatly wrapped for cleaning, and nothing else. His mother looks at the contents and shakes her head, and though she is still smiling, it turns a little sad.

“Don’t worry about that,” she says. “Because we have guests, they’re paying us for the room and board. Your father’s gone to the market to buy us a roast.”

Ren glances up at her for a moment, pressing his lips together, then looks down again. His mother dries one of her hands on her apron and reaches out to rest her fingertips on his thin shoulder.

“I know you’re worried,” she says. “But they’re both nice boys, it seems, and the elder has already given their troupe permission to stay. When that one boy heard about you, he insisted that he stay with us. You must try to be nice to them, all right? If they leave…” Her other hand, still submerged in the milky water with the rice, curls into a slow fist, then forcibly relaxes. “Anyway, they will be sleeping in the living room. That is the only place with enough room for both of them, after all.”

Ren nods again. He begins to take the roots he’s gathered out of the basket, laying them out in order of size, small to large. When he’s done with that, he ties back his sleeves, keeping his head bowed; he can feel his mother’s sad eyes on him the entire time.

“Promise you’ll be good, Ren,” she says abruptly. “I know you don’t really like people. But they’re here, and for better or worse, we’ll have to take care of them. And they’ll take care of us, while we’re tending to them. Maybe if they’re happy enough, there’ll be something left over when spring comes. It’s only until the seasons turn.”

He wets his lips. His voice is a quiet thing, rusty with disuse, but he whispers anyway, “Yes, Mother.”

+++

As promised, Ren’s father returns with a solid haunch of a deer’s leg and other treats; the squirrel is cleaned and skinned and already cooking when he returns, cheeks red from the cold, but grinning like a schoolboy. Haru and Jin move to help him at once, and Ren, hovering in the kitchen doorway, just watches as the three of them haul the meat and the extra rice and the sweets and the bundle of winter greens in the middle of the living room. It’s a lot of food, and Haru immediately goes for one of the boxes of sweets; he gets one in his mouth before Jin smacks the back of his head and snaps at him to be patient.

“But I’m hungry now,” Haru whines. “Even that squirrel’s not going to be enough for me! I just want something to eat, Jin, leave me alone!”

“If I left you alone, who knows what would happen,” Jin grumbles. “You’re being rude to our hosts again.”

Ren’s father just laughs, though, shaking his head. He sounds genuinely pleased as he strips off his heavy winter coat and boots. “It’s fine, it’s fine–I bought it so that we could all share.”

“Sir, please don’t encourage him …”

In the meantime, Haru opens the box again and sneaks a second piece of candy. He catches Ren’s eye, from where Ren is standing, and winks once, deliberately. His fingers are sticky with honey, and he licks each one clean, never breaking eye contact. Jin smacks him again as soon as he’s done, and they’re back to squabbling over the proper time and place to eat candy; Ren ducks back into the kitchen and keeps his head low as his mother bustles past him to greet her husband and exclaim over what he’s brought back home. Ren goes to kneel by the cookpot instead, where the rice-and-squirrel porridge is slowly bubbling away. His face feels unexpectedly hot, so he leans in close to the steam, and lets that be his excuse.

When his mother comes back to the kitchen, laden with meat and winter greens and one of the boxes of candies (Haru and Jin are still arguing about the one left behind, while Ren’s father occasionally laughs but says nothing), she is beaming and happy in a way she has never been, in all the years of his life. She puts her burden down and leans down to pass her fingers through Ren’s hair once, which is so startling that he looks up–his mother has not been one for casually touching him in years.

“I think they might be our good luck charms, those boys,” she tells him softly. “Your father bought all of this and still had money left over, but when he tried to return it, they refused to take it. They said to keep it. With this, perhaps we’ll be able to afford more in the spring.” She folds a hand over her breast and closes her eyes, still smiling, and Ren stares at her face and chews the inside of his cheek until it tastes raw. Then she opens her eyes and the spell is broken as she resumes business as before, tasting the porridge and declaring it nearly finished, and setting him to the task of cleaning and preparing the bitter greens as she attended to the business of the deer. Ren does as he’s told, keeping his head bowed the entire time.

+++

Dinner is a peculiar affair because it is noisy: Haru and Jin tell stories of their travels and Ren’s parents laugh and ask questions, teasing and scolding in turn. Haru talks about one village where Jin got drunk and nearly got them run out by his behavior (to which Jin retorts that perhaps Haru’s misremembering, as he was the one who had been drunk enough to take a swing at the elder’s wife when she came to check on them), and Jin talks about Haru’s inability to memorize his lines until the day before a performance, so everyone always frets that perhaps this will be the time when their plays are a failure and they’ll be laughed at and not paid, and Haru protests that at least he does remember them, and every single play’s gone off with a hitch, hasn’t it?

Because you have spring’s own luck, Jin says again, and Ren’s mother laughs and laughs and says that perhaps when he gets older, Haru will finally learn some temperance, as spring itself does when it begins to mature into summer.

“But Auntie,” Haru says, his eyes wide and guileless, “it’s not nearly as much fun that way.”

They all laugh again, four different voices clashing and discordant, and Ren puts his plate down and leaves.

Outside, it’s snowing. He puts his hands in his sleeves and takes long slow breaths, staring up at the sky and blinking away the snowflakes that get caught in his lashes. It isn’t a heavy fall yet; most of the ground is still visible through the faint white powdering. He watches his exhalations puff out and fade away and tries to will his unease away.

“Ren,” Haru says from behind him. Ren tenses, but doesn’t turn around. “Ren? I’m sorry. Your mother says you’re not really fond of noise and stuff like that. I guess we’re tiring you out, aren’t we?”

Ren lifts one shoulder stiffly, then drops it again–a shrug. Haru lets out a sharp breath that’s nearly a laugh.

“All right,” he says. “I guess I get the point. Sorry. I’m used to people liking what I have to say.”

Ren shrugs again.

“Say something, all right? It’s kind of creepy, with you just staring all the time. You can talk, can’t you?”

Ren glances back. Haru is standing in the open doorway, framed in the light from inside. There is no more noise, as if there was already enough snow to muffle everything. He licks his lips quickly. “… Close the door,” he whispers. “It’ll get cold.”

Haru’s eyes widen. “You can! I knew it! C’mon, say something else–”

Ren ignores him, moving towards, then around him, trying to reach for the door. Haru catches his wrist before he can; his fingers are both warm and very strong. He tugs that hand up, and Ren has to look up as he tries to tug his hand free. There is something thoughtful in Haru’s sky-blue eyes, the beginnings of a frown on his smiling mouth. There is a long silence that passes between them, and then Ren sets his own mouth into a scowl and yanks his hand free, grabbing at the open door and pulling it closed, shutting them both out of the house together. He stops then, hand still resting on the door, breathing hard.

After a moment, Haru laughs for real; the sound is soft, nearly rueful. “Bet you didn’t mean to do that,” he says. Ren glances briefly at him, and he goes on, “Now it’s like we’re stuck together. I mean, for now.” He holds up both hands, as if to show Ren he’s unarmed, then tucks them deep into his own sleeves. “Sorry. Jin’s always yelling at me to think more, but I’m not very good at that. I didn’t mean to scare you. Or bother you, if it’s that.”

Ren just glares. He doesn’t let go of the door, fingers curling.

“No good, huh?” Haru asks softly. “Guess I should have expected that. Sorry.”

He reaches out then, putting his hand a good distance above Ren’s on the door, then pushes it open. Ren opens his fingers when Haru pushes, and lets the door open, watching silently as the other boy heads back into the little house, this time closing the door behind himself. He rubs at his wrist where Haru’s fingers had been moments before and turns his back to the house and goes back to watching the slow steady descent of the snow.

+++

Five, six, are you ready yet?

His breath comes in little steaming puffs around his face, and there’s so much snow that he can’t see much beyond endless white below and endless black above. He presses his hands to his face, to keep some of the cold from his mouth and nose, and to breathe on his fingers to warm them.

Seven, eight …

+++

Eventually, a sort of pattern is reached. Ren wakes early enough to avoid both of the guests, going out to the fields long before his father begins and stays long after he stops. Because of the money that Haru and Jin pay, there is always a full table and even frivolous snacks to take when he goes out, but Ren still wanders through the long winter-dead grasses and kneels on the cold dirt to dig up roots where he can find anything that looks promising. His parents look less pinched and worried than ever before, and whenever Ren comes creeping back to the house, they are all laughing and talking, filling the house with noise. Just listening to them tires him out, so he goes to the kitchen to take his share of food–his mother, observant still, leaves his portion there for him–and then takes it outside, to eat under the eaves as he watches the snow fall. The rest of the troupe is also integrating into the village–he sees girls he has grown up with with their arms hooked with strange young men, and a couple of his peers nervously preening for unfamiliar girls who giggle at their earnestness.

Haru does not try to speak to him again, not since that first night. Ren is relieved; he’s not certain he wants to deal with whatever it was that Haru wanted in the first place, with that sly suggestion from the candy-eating. It’s too strange, just like everything about the other boy, and Ren knows it’s better to be done with it, separate from him even when they’re sleeping in the same house.

Then Ren’s sixteenth birthday comes, just shy of Longest Night and its accompanying Snow Festival. In the morning, as he’s preparing to creep out again, the elder’s wife comes to his home and knocks on the door. Being the only one awake, Ren opens the door and looks down at the old woman, whose name is Mai and whose face is familiar and solemn in the gray light of early morning.

“Happy birthday, Ren,” she says. “Will you walk with me?”

He nods. He does not have the heavy coat his father bought for him, but he steps outside anyway. When Mai puts out her hand, he takes it slowly, linking their fingers together, and together they set out, across the fresh layers of new-fallen snow, out of the village and down towards the fields, and the mountains beyond them. They walk until they are nearly to the mountain itself and the village is barely visible as a dark, nearly shapeless stretch behind them, and then Mai stops and turns to look at Ren, taking his other hand in hers, peering up at his face.

She says, “When the snows melt this year, will you leave the village?”

Ren’s brows draw together; for just a moment, his fingers tighten on hers, then relax.

“You will not find what you’re looking for, here,” she says. Regret is heavy in her voice, and she presses her lips together at first, like she can’t make herself say the rest of it just yet. “This village is too small, and you already know everyone in it. Except for the occasional traveler or group, what new faces do you find here? With this–” She pulls one hand free of his, and as Ren’s hand drops limply, she stretches to touch the small lump under his shirt, from the silk pouch strung around his neck. “You have to find the reason you’re Atoning, Ren. Whether it’s a person or a task left undone, you won’t find it here.”

Ren licks his lips quickly. “I’m fine,” he whispers, his voice thin. “I like this place. I like it here.”

“Ren,” the old woman says. “There’s no place for you here.” She presses again on the pouch under his shirt and says, “An Atoner who does not find his reason for rebirth will become a Hungry Ghost. If you die here, this is where your bones will be laid to rest, and it will be this village that you love which suffers for it.” Her fingers close for a moment around the pouch, like she might rip it from his neck, and then she lets go of both that and his other hand, stepping away from him. “When the mountain paths thaw out in the spring, we will prepare a sending-off for you.”

He stares at her face for a moment, then lets his head fall forward, staring at the ground instead. For a moment he feels both hot and dizzy, like his legs won’t quite hold him up; when the moment passes, it feels as if a long, strange fog has finally lifted from his senses. Everything feels sharper and clearer than before, like glass polished clean of scratches and dust so that the light can shine more easily through. Before him, Mai is still talking: they hope to send him off with the visiting troupe, so that at least for a short while, he’ll still have companionship and protection, and when he sees fit, he may part ways with them. They have not yet spoken with the troupe leader, but her husband hopes to approach him to-day, and they will know his decision before the spring thaws. The village does not hate him, it never has, but it recognizes he is not one of them, and certainly he must have noticed it by now. It is for the best to do this before the worst happens–

“Grandmother Mai,” Ren says quietly, “I understand.”

The old woman goes silent. She says nothing else, but walks around him to leave him. He half-turns to watch, and her shoulders are stooped more than before, her gray head bowed so low he almost cannot see it over the rise of her back. Though she does not look back, she drags her feet as she goes, slowly, slowly, back to the village. Ren looks away from her then, leaning against the nearest tree and tipping his head back. He is tired and he is cold, and there is no snowfall to watch and clear his mind, so he is instead only able to watch his own breathing. He reaches for the pouch at his neck, tugging it out of his shirt so that it lies warmly against his palm. When he closes his fingers, he can feel the small bone-fragment that is nestled within, the symbol he had been born with and lingers even now–it must be a person, he thinks, for the first time; it must be a person that is waiting for him, because otherwise, his mark would have been something different.

Stories of Hungry Ghosts are common enough, all mindless hunger and rage, searching for something to satisfy their never-ending hunger, too lost in their own selfish griefs to realize what they have become or what will assuage their pain. Even in a tiny village like this, there are stories told to keep children behaving–Ren has never needed anything like that. Now, he thinks, perhaps he does–and it’s his own shadow that he must be wary of.

When he straightens finally, turning to walk to the fields, he sees, beside his own tracks and Mai’s dragging steps, a third set of footprints in the still-fresh snow. It should surprise him more than it does, he knows, but he follows them back, through the field and down into the village itself, until they lead to his own door. Haru is leaning against the wall, under the eaves, where Ren normally takes his dinners, and his normally-laughing face is as stonelike and solemn as it has ever been in the weeks since his arrival to this village. Ren stops at the sight of him, rocking up onto his toes for a moment, body tense. He tilts his head.

Haru says, “So you’re leaving with us?”

Ren shrugs a little. He’s beginning to feel numb again, distant from his own body and self. Haru’s blue eyes darken.

“You are, or you’re not,” he says flatly. “Pick one.”

Ren wets his lips. He glances at the path, where Mai’s footsteps have moved on, back towards her own large home. Haru follows his gaze and snorts.

“Leader will say yes, of course,” he says. “Your village’s treated us well, better than most places this size would. He likes all of you. Are you coming with us?” He moves forward now, and there is aggression in his posture and his walk, which makes Ren freeze up again, automatically. “But you’ve got to make that decision. If you dither, I’ll tell Leader that you don’t want to, that they’re forcing you to leave for no reason, and then–” He starts to reach out, as if to touch Ren, and on sudden, impulsive instinct, Ren lashes out, slapping that hand away before it can make contact. The sound is very loud, in the cold winter morning.

“I …” Ren glances one way and then the other, everywhere except for Haru’s startled face, “I don’t know. They just. I only just. Today is the first time. I heard of anything. Like that. I …” He has to stop then, take a few deep breaths to keep up with the words that are bubbling up inside of him–for the first time in years, he thinks dimly, if ever. “I don’t know. I don’t want. I don’t want to hurt anyone. I. If I leave, I won’t. But I don’t. I’ve never left. Ever.”

“Hey,” Haru says, gently now, his expression contrite; he doesn’t try to reach out again, but his posture shrinks back and softens; he’s no longer threatening, but still hovering. “I’m sorry, I thought–”

“I’ve never,” Ren gasps, desperately, fixing on a point on Haru’s chest to stare at instead, “I’ve never! Father sometimes–sometimes goes. To the next village over. But not me. I stay home. The farthest–I’ve only ever been to the mountain. No farther. I–” He blinks, and is startled at the sudden burning in his eyes. “I want to go home. I want to stay home.”

“I know,” Haru says softly. “Leaving home is never easy.” The door behind him opens; from the corner of one eye, Ren can see Jin stepping out to join them, closing the door behind them. “Not that we ever really had a home, the two of us, but we’ve picked people up before–most of them don’t last beyond the first major city.”

“Haru,” Jin says, “you’re going to scare him more.”

“I’m not–” Haru lets out an explosive breath. “All right. All right. Ren? Ren, look at me for a moment.”

Ren keeps his gaze stubbornly set on Haru’s chest–but he sees how the other boy’s hand moves, reaching up, towards his own neck, and in spite of himself, he watches as Haru reaches into his own shirt and pulls out a small silk pouch, strung on a black cord around his neck. His eyes fly up to meet Haru’s, and he sees the other boy is as quiet and serious as he’s ever been, and he knows his mouth is open and his face is wet and that it’s suddenly difficult to breathe. Haru holds his gaze for long seconds, still holding up the pouch, then quietly tucks it back into his shirt, out of sight, and smoothes a hand down his front so that the pouch lies flat–nearly invisible, as it was before Ren had known it was there.

“I get it,” he says. “All right?”

Ren stares at him for a minute longer, mute again, then turns and flees.

+++

As evening descends, snow begins to fall again: softly at first, and then with more urgency, covering everything in a slowly-thickening blanket of white. Ren watches it, tucked up on a tree branch, his hands stuck into his sleeves as far as his elbows. His toes are beginning to go numb, but he just tucks his body into a smaller ball, staring blankly up at the sky. He feels cold and hot by turns, strange inside of his own skin when a day before, everything had fit together neatly and easily. His breath steams and fades in small puffs each time he exhales, and the pouch around his neck is heavier than he can ever remember it being. Once, he fingers the cord, as if he could tear it off and fling it away himself, and absolve himself in that manner, but in the end, he tucks his hand back into his sleeves and bends his head to his folded arms.

It’s already dark by the time he hears a voice calling his name at the foot of the tree. He shifts just a little to look down at Haru’s pale face, and in the dimness his blue eyes are nearly black. Nearly familiar.

“Your father was gonna come look,” Haru says. His voice is hushed, but it still carries. “I said I’d do it, since it was my fault you ran away.”

Ren blinks once.

“I didn’t tell them, though,” he adds. “About me. That’s not something they need to know. It’s bad enough they know about you–I guess they’d have to, since they’re your parents, this time around.” He stamps his feet a few time in the snow, rubbing at his arms, but his attention never wavers, staring up at Ren in the tree. “We heard that there was someone like you here, you know. Like me, I guess–stories like that, they travel.” He tries a smile, but it’s weak and tired. “Leader thought it’d be good for us to come here–we did it on purpose. Because we thought if we were here long enough, we’d figure out who the right person was, but it was pretty obvious from the beginning. Or it was to me, I don’t know if the others guessed.” He snorts again, ducking his head for just a moment to blow on his hands, then looks up at Ren again. “Hey, won’t you come down?”

Ren sighs and looks up. The snow is still falling heavily, and his body feels rather pleasantly numb. He hears Haru take another breath–probably to call him down again–and slowly unfolds himself. It hurts a little to force blood back into his limbs, and he has to move carefully as he sets hands and feet for the slow climb down. Haru waits silently the whole time, hands over his mouth, trapping his breath between his fingers, and his expression is solemn when Ren drops the last jarring distance from the lowest branch to the ground. The shock is enough to make him sway and his knees buckle, but before he can hit the ground he hits Haru’s chest instead, and there are strong solid arms that hold him close for a moment, then gently push him back to his feet. Ren stares up with unblinking eyes into Haru’s face.

“Come back inside,” Haru tells him. “You’ll freeze to death this way.” He smiles then, a wry, almost self-deprecating twist of his lips. “Then you’ll be no good to anyone, not even yourself.”

Words rise up in Ren’s throat and almost come out. Instead he bows his head and nods a little. When Haru puts a hand on his elbow to gently urge him along, he doesn’t flinch away–just lets himself be guided. The lights are off in his parents’ house when they return, but Jin is still awake, sitting in front of the door like some sort of sentinel beast. He rises to his feet as they approach, meeting Haru’s eyes for a long moment, then opens the door to allow them both inside. There is food set out in the living room still–two meals’ worth–and Haru pushes Ren to sit in front of one, then takes a seat across from him.

“You’re gonna eat, right,” Haru asks. “I’m not going to have to feed you?”

Ren shakes his head. He picks up his chopsticks and flexes his fingers a little, testing their dexterity. He eats mechanically, staring at the food without really tasting it. Jin passes through the living room only once, ducking into the room that Ren shares with his parents, and doesn’t emerge. Ren pauses, and Haru says, “He’ll sleep in there tonight. Jin’s a good person. He’s not like us, but we grew up together. He knows all the bad things about me.” There is something heavy in those last words, but when Ren glances at him, Haru is looking at the curtained doorway, and not at Ren.

Ren licks his lips. “Why?” he rasps.

“Because I like you,” Haru says, still not looking at him. “And I wanted to talk to someone who knows what it’s like.” He doesn’t move at all, but Ren swallows and again becomes keenly aware of the cord around his neck, and the similar one hidden under Haru’s shirt.

“Talk,” Ren whispers.

“Jin would say I’m taking advantage of you,” Haru says, and turns to look at him. He smiles, and for a moment it’s the same brilliant thing that had charmed so many of the villagers when they’d first arrived, with the winter snows and the freezing of the mountain passes. “Would I be?”

Ren puts down his chopsticks. “… Maybe,” he says softly. He makes himself look up, meeting Haru’s eyes deliberately for the first time, and he says, “I’m cold.”

Haru puts down his own bowl and leans forward, across the low table, and covers Ren’s hands with his own. He doesn’t smile, but his eyes are warm and his touch is careful.

“All right,” he says.

Up close, Haru smells mostly of woodsmoke and the clean traces of snow; there are bits of cold wetness still caught in his hair. The first thing he does is lean his forehead against Ren’s, bringing his hands up now to rest on Ren’s shoulders. They are warm, even through the material of Ren’s jacket, and a fleeting smile touches Haru’s face again.

“I have a strong heart, Leader says,” he says, “so no matter what, I’m always warm.” Gently he pushes back, moving around the low dining table, and Ren lets himself be eased until he’s on his back on the rush-mat floor, blinking hard up at him. “If you’re cold, I’ll take care of that.” He remains in a half-crouched, half-seated position over Ren, moving to untie first sash, then to pull the two folded edges of his shirt open, and Ren shivers at once, flinching away from the cold. He opens his mouth, but all the words he wants to say are ash in his mouth when Haru spreads both hands across his thin chest, and the warmth from those fingers seem to sink into his very bones, and he can feel his skin tightening into goosebumps from that.

“You know, I was right,” Haru says. “You are cute.”

Ren blinks at him, then frowns, brows drawing just a little together. “Would that have been better…?”

“Ren is Ren, isn’t he?” Haru says. He leans forward now, his hair framing his face, making his blue eyes seem larger and darker than before. “You’re the one who’s the Atoner, like me. So it doesn’t matter.” He presses his lips to Ren’s bared shoulder, and his mouth is dry and a little rough and very warm, just like his hands, which track their way down, across Ren’s ribs, along his sides, to settle on his hips. Ren’s own hands flutter uselessly for a moment for lack of anywhere to settle before he decides on Haru’s shoulders, which are surprisingly solid through his own clothes, like knotted wood under Ren’s fingers. His lips move, but he can’t say anything as his belt is unfastened and tugged loose, only squeeze his eyes tightly shut and clutch at Haru’s shoulders like a lifeline.

“Hey,” Haru murmurs. His voice is low and rough. “Hey, relax. I’m not really taking advantage of you here, am I?”

Ren forces himself to open his eyes, and sees that Haru’s face is hovering just above his, openly concerned. He draws in a quick breath and it’s hard to breathe, and he can see how Haru’s face darkens, the way he begins to retreat, and he does the one thing he can think of–he reaches out and snags his fingers into the collar of Haru’s shirt, searching until he finds the cord hanging around his neck, then curls around that, tugging until it pulls free. He slides his hand down that length and closes his hand around the pouch itself, pressed tightly to his palm, as he imagines he carried his own symbol at birth.

“I’m fine,” he says. “You don’t have to worry.”

Haru’s eyes are wide and surprised, but then he smiles. “You’d better mean it,” he says. “I’m not in the habit of doing this wrong, I’d rather not start.”

Ren tightens his fingers around the pouch and tugs until Haru is forced to lean down further. He pushes himself up onto his elbows to meet the other boy halfway, and presses their lips together. It’s a little awkward and a lot strange–when he thinks about it, Ren can’t remember if he’s ever kissed anyone before, even his own family: he’s seen others do the same, so he knows what it looks like in theory, but what he notices most is the warmth of Haru’s breath, smelling of rice, right there against his own mouth. Haru makes a small startled noise, and then his mouth opens, and there is wet pressure that flickers against Ren’s mouth, encouraging him to do the same. They kiss at that angle for a moment before Haru reaches to gently unhook Ren’s hand from his necklace and presses that hand to the floor, shifting above him to kiss him harder now. There is a dull roar of blood in Ren’s ears, but his nerves feel oddly calmed, and he puts his other hand on Haru’s shoulder again, kneading at the solid strength of it.

Haru’s kiss is like the snowfall, he thinks, closing his eyes–a warm snowfall, one that calms him and warms him through. He hisses once when gently callused fingers press against the sharp rise of his hipbones, at first instinctively flinching back from that touch, and then pressing tentatively into it. Haru spreads fingers wide on Ren’s lower belly first, then finally moves down, and his fingers warm further against the softer skin it finds down there. When they close finally over Ren’s cock, he makes a startled garbled noise, a dozen words compressed into a few syllables, exclaimed into Haru’s open mouth, and which are returned to him in a low, fond chuckle.

“It’s all right,” Haru tells him, barely more than a whisper, like a secret language into Ren’s skin as he begins to stroke slowly, firmly, with a confidence that must come from practice, “I’ve got you.”

And Ren finds himself unable to do anything but gasp and cling to Haru’s shoulder with the one hand, lacing the fingers of the other tightly with Haru’s own. It feels strange, hotter than he’s ever been before–and consistently so, without the flashes of distant chill he has become so accustomed to over the course of his life. He paws restlessly at the floor with both feet and whimpers into Haru’s mouth over and over, each breath nearly a long low whine. He slits his eyes open and sees Haru’s face, tight with concentration, and he feels the slow deliberate flex of his body as his arm works.

He opens his mouth to say something finally–Haru’s name, perhaps–and then his back snaps up into an arch, a startled yelp bursting from him when he comes, a sudden hot rush in his veins that leaves him unable to think for long seconds as his body folds down again to rest upon the floor. Haru chuckles again, roughly but not unkindly, and he says, “Was that so bad?”

Ren shakes his head slowly, breathing hard still. When Haru kisses him again, he responds at once, fingers kneading restlessly against the other boy’s shoulder. When it breaks, he opens his eyes at last, looking up at Haru’s face–familiar but different now, with this shared not-secret between them. “What should I–?”

“There’s a lot,” Haru tells him, pulling back just a little, letting go of Ren’s other hand to push his hair back from his face. He’s smiling now, easy as before, something quite fond in his expression. “Whatever you want to do, though. You get to decide.”

Ren pushes himself up onto his elbows, chewing his lips for a moment. He glances down to his own splayed legs and Haru’s wet fingers resting against his lower belly, and he goes bright red, turning his head partially away. “I–”

“This can be enough,” Haru tells him at once. “If you’re not ready.”

“It isn’t,” he starts, then shivers. He feels cold again, abruptly, as if the small distance between their bodies is too much, so he pushes himself up further, closer to Haru’s body again, and he brings his arms up to wrap them both around Haru’s neck. It takes a little bit of manuvering, with his body still too sensitive in places, but he puts his legs around Haru’s hips as well, hooking his ankles to press them together. He presses his face into that solid shoulder, and he says, “I want to. Let’s.”

“Oi, oi,” Haru murmurs, and his clean hand presses up, under Ren’s shirt to rest against his naked back, supporting him. “Are you sure? That’s a big thing. And where did you learn about something like that, anyway?”

“I want to,” Ren mutters, though his face is so red it hurts, and he can’t make his hands untangle themselves from the deathgrip he has on Haru’s shoulders. “I want to, you need, I want–”

For a moment Haru is silent, just holding Ren without moving, and then, gently, he says, “No.”

“No–?”

“Maybe later,” Haru says. “I mean, it’s going to be a long winter. If you don’t hate the sight of me tomorrow, that means we’ll have plenty of time later.” Carefully now, moving slowly, as one might approach a wounded creature, he reaches up and grasps Ren’s arm with damp fingers and pulls. “Tonight, we’ll just do it like this. Let go a moment.”

Ren struggles for a moment, scowling to himself, but Haru’s thumb strokes a sweep across the tender skin of his inner elbow, and he shudders and finally acquieses, forcing one hand to let go of Haru’s shirt. When he does, his wrist is caught and guided down; it takes him a moment to realize where it’s headed, and then Haru is pressing Ren’s palm against his belly, the supporting hand on Ren’s back stroking gently, soothingly, before his wrist is released.

“Just do as you like,” Haru tells him in a low husky voice. “Tonight’s because you’re cold, isn’t it? This will be good for both of us, then.”

Ren takes a deep breath. He nods, though he keeps his hand where it is when Haru shifts, tugging his own pants open one-handed. Only when Haru shifts again, pulling them to lie side-by-side, that one hand still resting warmly against Ren’s back, does Ren actually move, catching his own upper lip between his teeth and sucking it in concentration as he presses his hand into those open pants and finds something that is summer-hot and hard between his fingers–almost like the warmed bark of a sapling’s branch, but different at the same time: alive, moving just a little under his touch; he can feel an unfamiliar pulsebeat there when he closes his fingers around that heat, and Haru’s entire body jerks a little, a low sigh exhaled heavily against Ren’s hair.

“That’s fine,” Haru says, his voice rough. “You can hold a little harder. Like I did for you.”

Ren gives a tiny nod, but he can’t make himself grip that tightly yet–he’s worried he might not be able to feel as much himself if he does: the skin of Haru’s cock is as soft and smooth as the fine silk that carries Ren’s symbol of Atonement, but warm and it feels alive; he has no better way to describe it. He bites his lip harder and starts to stroke, listening to Haru’s groans as he does and pressing himself closer to the other boy. It feels good and it feels strange, and his own breath is starting to come fast and nervous in his chest now when Haru’s cock jerks in his hands. This is his doing, he thinks with some awe–he’s the one who’s doing this. He closes his eyes and whimpers a little himself, and then Haru moves again: the hand on his back slides down to press low, nearly against his hips so that they’re now flush with Haru’s own, and then Haru rasps at him, “Like this,” and tugs Ren’s hand away. Before he can protest, though, Haru is guiding him again to take both of their cocks in hand, his own fingers curled warmly around Ren’s.

“Like this,” he whispers again, and Ren can only whimper and nod, closing his eyes and stroking them both hard and fast, and this time, when he comes, Haru’s open mouth is pressed against his own, and this time he manages the words, but there is only thing he wants to say–

“Haru,” he breathes, warm to his core. “Haru.”

+++

In the morning, Ren wakes up and feels odd. It’s not just the unfamiliar sensitivity of his body–something inside of him feels lighter, freer, different from anything he’s ever experienced in his life.

He sits up and his hand automatically goes to the pouch around his neck. Carefully, holding his breath, he slips the cord off–for the first time in his life–and opens the little silk pouch before he upends it over his palm.

Nothing falls out. He keeps holding his breath, pressing a finger into the pouch and feeling around. It’s completely empty.

“Oh,” he says aloud. Beside him, Haru rolls over.

“Oh?” he says, and opens his eyes. Though his gaze is hazy, it sharpens in a moment, fixing on the pouch in Ren’s hands. A second later he’s sitting up himself, ripping off his own pouch, biting his lip so hard that it goes white between his teeth. He doesn’t try to turn his pouch over, rooting around it for a moment, then meets Ren’s eyes. When he lets his lip go, there are dark impressions on the flesh left behind. He says, “This sort of thing isn’t supposed to happen. Only in stories. It’s not …” He stops and puts a hand over his face, his shoulders trembling–not crying, Ren thinks, but something nearly that, for a hysterical sort of relief that’s more than a single lifetime old. “Magic like this isn’t real.”

Ren leans in and presses his lips to Haru’s cheek: a kiss and a benediction both. “Maybe,” he says, “sometimes, it is.”

+++

Nine, ten, I’m coming to find you.

+++

“What did you have?” Ren asks, as they watch rain fall from the sky–rain finally, and not snow, the first sign that spring is finally on its way. “Here, I mean.” He taps his chest as an indication.

Haru stretches, luxurious, his long lean body draped, catlike, against the wall and its low windowsill. “A horn,” he says. “Blood-red, actually. Scared the hell out of my parents, I bet. It was like a demon’s horn, or something.” He pulls a quick face, then laughs. “Stupid, huh? Demons don’t come this far west–they’re all over on that side of the world.” He waves a dismissive hand in precisely the wrong direction, but Ren just covers his own smile with one hand and says nothing. “I still don’t know what it means, though. It’s gone, so that’s good, but the rest of it …”

Ren leans closer to him, hand creeping until it finds Haru’s, and laces their fingers together. “So we’ll find out,” he says quietly. “Whatever it means.” He turns his face to the window again, eyes tracking the movement of water down across the glass. “In the spring, when we leave, we’ll find a place that’s just meant for us. Maybe we’ll find our own story out there. … But even if we don’t, that’s not such a terrible thing. Right?”

And Haru turns to him with a smile that is more warm than bright, and squeezes his hand. “Guess not,” he says. “No ghosts for us.”

Ren kisses his cheek, and says, “Nope. Never again.”

+++

Once upon a time, in a village that sat high up in the mountains, a little boy was born with two small horns growing from his forehead, red as blood even when the rest of his face was wiped clean. His own mother was terrified and cast the infant child out into the snow, where the head monk of the local temple found and took the child in to raise himself. The boy grew up in the silent and holy space of the temple, but he always wore a wrap around his head to disguise the horns that had made his own mother recoil in disgust. He was quiet and thoughtful, but he loved to watch the snow fall and he loved the little songbirds who came to the mountain in the spring, and with permission from the monk, he would feed the birds whenever he could.

At the same time, in the same village, there lived another little boy who had been so lovely at birth that his mother wept tears of gratitude to the gods for the gift she had been given. He was a healthy and inquisitive child, and he liked to explore the wilder places of the mountain whenever he could. He also loved birds and the newly-fallen snow– and so it seemed inevitable that one day, he came to the temple grounds while the horned boy was feeding his birds, and the wind came up sudden and fierce, blowing away the wrap that hid his horns. So ashamed was the horned boy that he ran and hid in the temple, but the village boy came and sat on the other side of the sliding door and spoke to him through it, saying that he thought the horns were very interesting, and that he’d never met anyone so different before, and he liked it. He talked and talked until his voice went hoarse and faded, and finally, the horned boy peeked out from behind the door and said that he, also, had never met anyone like the village boy, and if it pleased him, would he stay?

So began a friendship between the two boys, one that stretched beyond weeks and months and into years. Sometimes the woman who had given birth to the horned boy would look up and see the son of her body walking and talking gladly with the village boy, who was by now lovely enough to rival any of the maidens their age and she would feel something that was not quite regret to see him this happy, but she remembered too clearly the horns that were hidden under his wrap, and the scars they had left on her body during birth. So she said nothing, and the two boys grew into youths together, and you could not see one without the other being close behind.

The game the two boys liked to play the most was hide and seek, for no one knew the mountain and its secret places as well as these two. They would play this game long into an age when others their age had their eyes turned to girls and it was always the same: one, two, are you ready? three four, not yet; five six, are you ready? seven eight, not yet; nine ten, I’m coming to find you. They were inseparable, and even if one could always find the other, it was a game that was played less for the sport and more for the fun, their two voices echoing long after the sun had gone down and the village had lit its lights for the evening.

Then came the day where the village boy’s mother and father came to him, and they said, You are nearly a man now, and you must now start thinking about having a wife and a family. We would like grandchildren in our age.

But the village boy balked at this. I have no need for a wife, he said, for there are plenty of orphans at the temple who would be glad to be welcomed into a family’s name.

You will need companionship, said his mother and his father.

I have a companion already, the village boy said, and he is my good friend for now and for ever.

Then his parents went away with their hearts troubled and the village boy went up to the temple to call for his friend, who came at once to continue their eternal game of hide and seek. Their laughter was clear and clean in the mountain air, and those who heard them nodded to each other and said yes, these were two who would suit each other very well, whether or not they took children into the family name or not.

However, the village boy’s father remained troubled. He alone was one of the few who knew the truth about the horned boy’s appearance, for the boy’s mother was the father’s cousin, and on her deathbed she had confessed all to him, as well as the terrible scars he had left upon her as a birthing infant. He was troubled at the ill omen he was certain the horned boy represented, so one night, as his son slept, the father went up to the temple and, disguising his voice, called for the horned boy, who came at once. And the father took his family’s sword, which was said to have been made itself from the horns of a demon and the only thing that could kill others of the same kind, and he thrust the sword into the horned boy’s chest, so that it pierced his heart and threw him to the ground, so that the snow was painted red with his blood. And the father took the body and threw it not into the wilds of the mountain, but into the stream that wound its way from the top to the bottom, so that the body would be carried far, far away. Then he went back to the temple and cleaned away the bloodied snow, and then he went home and slept untroubled for the first time since his son’s confession.

The next morning, though, the village boy went to the temple as before, and called for his friend. And this time, his friend would not come, though the village boy called and called until his voice was hoarse. He went in to speak with the monk who was now very old, but still head of the temple, and he was told that his voice had been heard the night before, though he knew that he himself had not come, and that his friend was gone. The sheets of his bed were cold. Confused and unhappy, the village boy returned home, and that night he dreamed: his friend came to him, covered in blood with his skin rotting away to show the bone underneath and weeping. Oh, oh, my friend! You have tricked me! he cried, and when the village boy reached for him he only pulled away. The village boy reached out again, and this time he pulled his friend’s littlest finger away from the rest of his hand.

Who has done this to you, he cried, who has made you so?

One whom you hold dear, said the horned boy, and when he wept, his tears were blood. One whom you have trusted always and whom we had always believed in. He sleeps in the same house as you, and you are untroubled by this! With this, I am caught by the chains of the world, for you were one I believed in always, and I see how my trust is repaid.

And the village boy wept and protested, for he knew of the sword his father kept. I will look for you, he promised, and until your body is given a proper burial, I too will be chained to this world. We have always been together as two, and we will continue to be so until both our sins are atoned for. Please promise you will wait.

I will be in the world somewhere, said the horned boy, but I do not promise to wait. And then he vanished and the village boy woke from his dream, and weeping, he took up the sword his father had used and saw that it was still red with blood in places. He took it to the bedroom of his father and his mother, and what happened there has never been said. But afterwards he walked out from his home and into the wilds of the mountain, with tears down his face and his clothes rent and torn. He vanished into the mountains, and the villagers could hear his voice echoing, week after week, one, two, are you ready yet? nine ten, I’m coming to find you. They spoke to the monk of the temple, who shook his bald head and said that there was nothing he could do, not without the bodies of the two boys, which of course were nowhere to be found.

Someday, perhaps, the old monk said, as he stroked his beard, white as the mountain snow, they will find their own peace, and that voice will stop.

It is said, though, that while they did fade in time, every now and then, on the night of a full hunter’s moon, when the snow is tinted red from the light, you can still hear voices crying to each other in the mountain wilderness:

One two, are you ready yet?

Three, four, no, not yet.

Five, six, are you ready yet?

Seven eight, no, not yet.

Nine, ten, I’m coming to find you.

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