“There aren’t any problems …”

Hold out both arms as wide as you can, like you did when you were a child and thought that just by running fast enough, you’d be able to take off and fly. Hold them until your chest aches with the effort and you don’t know if you can hold on any longer, any wider. Count each breath that struggles in and out of your lungs and don’t look down.

Don’t look down.

Sometimes you think if you closed your eyes before you let yourself tumble forward, maybe you would fly: you would fall forever without hitting the ground, and that’s close enough to count. There’s no running for it, there’s just tipping yourself into the freefall and never opening your eyes. It’s only when you open your eyes that the ground rushes up to greet you, and there’s broken bones and broken skin and broken dreams there. The ground is what holds all the problems of the world, and if you could only escape that, you think you could be fine. Breathe, because breathing is important.

Never open your eyes.

It’s been a long time, caught somewhere you don’t really belong, a place you don’t really fit in. You moved six months ago and things aren’t better yet. They should be. Your parents made concerned faces and frowned at how you still hold yourself like a wounded animal, stiff-limbed and awkward around the others in your classes. They say, Have you made any friends yet? and you just let silence stretch out as your answer. This isn’t where you’re supposed to be, and you know that you can’t find it as long as you’re stuck here. You can’t see the end of the tunnel, so you don’t know if you can believe that it’s coming.

I’m going to get out of here, you say, but there’s no one who answers you. Hold your arms open, look at the sky. There is emptiness in it that echoes you: there aren’t even clouds today.

When did you find the cliff? You’re not sure, but you were walking and suddenly you were there, staring down at the town that is now your family lives. Your staying-place. Your not-home. The old place wasn’t really home either, but it had the edges worn down through blunt familiarity, the same faces and the same people. Nothing was sharp enough to cut you there, whereas here, you don’t know yet where all the corners are.

They’re sharp enough to make you bleed.

There is wind here and it is in your hair. You tip your head back and you open your arms. It’s not unlike embracing the entirety of the sky, like you could fold it into yourself, and with its emptiness fill your own. Two negatives into a positive, like in math.

If you breathe in, the air tastes like cold water. Sometimes when you were little, you thought you could sip the entire sky like a glass, and each cloud was a piece of ice that sometimes slipped past your lips and lingered on your tongue. If you breathed in enough, if you drank enough, maybe you’d also become light. Maybe you could also fly away, maybe if you held your arms open and tipped yourself forward, if you let yourself fall with your eyes closed, you’d be all right. There was enough lightness in you to carry you away. You could drift on the next breeze to a different staying-place, and maybe eventually you’d find somewhere that felt right. Maybe you’d find a place that has just enough space to fit you, awkward and angled and a little strange, just for you.

You’re so tired. You’re so tired.

Take in a deep breath and hold it, and count your heartbeats. The moment won’t pass, but it’ll dull, and eventually you’ll be able to move again.

One more time.

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soundbite: glasses (di[e]ce)

He got his glasses the summer between middle school and high school. It was just a slight astigmatism in both eyes, but it was enough that his parents insisted, so two weeks after graduation, he found himself stuck with a pair: heavy black rims that felt too heavy and awkward on his face and threw the whole balance of it off.

You need to be able to see in order to do well, his mother scolded, when he complained. Seitokoh isn’t an easy school! What do you think will happen if you’re too careless with your grades? You can’t rely on Sion-kun to help you out every time.

Why not, he wanted to argue, but his father cut him off with a small cuff to the back of his head before he could, proposing Chinese for dinner, and that was the end of the argument.

Still, he tried to avoid the glasses as much as he could. They just felt uncomfortable, too much pressure behind his ears and against his temples, and they slid whenever he moved any faster than a slow walk. The first time he tried to play basketball with them was a disaster: the way they slid and slipped, he had a harder time seeing than without them entirely. Annoyed, he preferred to stuff them in his pocket whenever he could. It wasn’t as if his eyes were _that_ bad, after all. Maybe he could exercise them the same way he worked out, and then he wouldn’t need them any more.

And then, a month later, Sion’s family returned from their vacation from — whatever tropical paradise sort of place that the ridiculously rich visited when they were directed to spend their stupid amounts of money. Gara received the text shortly before midnight. All it said was: I’m back.

He snapped his book shut and tossed it aside on his bed and went to his window. In a moment he had it open and was climbing his way down: their apartment was only on the third floor, and there were enough ledges and a fire escape staircase that made it relatively easy — easier than going through the front and risking waking his father. The old man wasn’t unbearable, but he had the sort of temper that could turn something small into a big fight, and he wasn’t terribly interested in shifting through that.

Once on the ground, he stuffed his hands into his pockets and ambled towards the nearby park. It wasn’t “their” place — that sort of thing was stupid, more for childhood sweethearts than just old friends — but as he expected, he could see a pale-haired figure seated on one of the swings.

“Yo,” he called, lifting a hand in greeting. “Took you long enough. How sunburned are you?”

“Unlike you, I have mastered the concept of sunscreen,” Sion said. “And Mother insisted that I wear a hat.”

“Seriously? I would’ve paid money to see that.”

“And this is why you’re always broke.” Sion’s tone was long-suffering. He turned, then he frowned. “What on earth–?”

It took him a moment to realize, and then he thought: shit, the glasses. He’d been reading, and the text was blurry enough to give him a headache without them, so he hadn’t even thought about it … with a sigh, he rubbed the back of his neck.

“The old lady insisted,” he said. “Apparently thinks I really need ’em or something.”

Sion pressed his lips together, thoughtful. “Your eyes were really that bad?”

“Don’t say that like you noticed all along …”

“You weren’t exactly subtle about it.”

“Bastard, are you trying to make fun of me?!”

“If it’s the truth, there’s no changing that.” Sion sighed and rose up from the swings. “… They don’t look too bad.”

The retort died on his lips. He paused and automatically adjusted them up his nose. “–Uh?”

“They almost make you look civilized.” It was hard to tell exactly, but he knew too well what it was like when Sion was laughing: there was a slight tightening at the edges of his eyes and the corners of his mouth, and his voice sped up just a fraction. Someone who didn’t know him wouldn’t have even noticed, but he was too familiar with the bastard to live in that sort of blissful ignorance. “Maybe even stylish?”

“Ugh.” He covered his face with one hand. “In that case, I’m definitely getting rid of them as soon as possible.”

“That would be too bad,” Sion said. “What would you do when classes started?”

“Don’t say things like that, you sound like my ma.”

Sion leaned forward just a little, and this time he was the one who adjusted the glasses, settling them so they actually seemed to fit, like they were slotting finally into their proper place. “I like them,” he said, simply.

He ended up keeping them after all.

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the last day of the cursed child

In a certain village in a certain area, there was a legend: once upon a time, the village had a tradition of choosing two children from every generation, the last two born in a given year, a boy and a girl, who were designated as cursed children.  Those born in the winter only had the weakest chances of survival; those who would come late after the harvest were clearly not even human — they must be demons, sent to bedevil and trouble the village by draining resources and leaving their mothers weakened and unable to work.  These cursed children were forced to bear the burdens of the village’s evil karma, and with their bodies repay the price of the human lives they had stolen as demons, before their unfortunate rebirth.

This is a story that grandfathers tell and grandmothers whisper; this is a story that remains even today.

+++

“Hide and don’t say a word.”

He looked up and had to squint against the brightness of the setting sun.  Even when he closed his eyes, everything was red as blood.  He made a questioning noise, trying to reach out.  Small hands caught his and squeezed them so hard that his fingers ached for a moment.

“It’s all right.  I won’t let them find you.”

Those hands slipped away from his, and he opened his eyes.  He could see the other child’s disappearing back as she ran, small and pale among the dark trunks of the trees.  He tried to get to his feet, but his knees failed him, buckling and sending him back to the ground.  He braced both of his hands in the soft earth and took huge grasping handfuls of it, digging his fingers through grass and tangled roots.  He wanted to call out after her, but all that came out was a labored echoing groan.

I didn’t want this, he thinks, and he drags himself forward hand over hand.  I didn’t want this!  Where are you going, why are you going?  What are you doing?  What’s happened?

Somewhere in the forest was a loud cracking noise.  A flock of birds took to flight, chattering their fear.  He tilted his head up to watch them, even when the sunlight burned his eyes.  His mouth opened but he still could only bleat weakly before his arms gave out as well and he crumpled completely.  His face pressed into the grass, which smelled hot and green and tickled his cheeks.  His stomach churned, but he couldn’t summon the strength to do anything but cough a few times, the sound muffled by the earth.

I don’t want to be here, he thinks; I don’t want to be left behind.  I wish I were still inside.

He closed his eyes and breathed in deep.  With an enormous shove, he pushed himself up again, then staggered his way to his feet, swaying.  His entire body ached, but he couldn’t make himself stop.  Step after step, his arms outstretched in an attempt to keep his balance, he made his way into the forest, following her path.  Every now and then he stumbled, catching himself on a tree, but he always always continued walking.  Something was beating in his throat so hard and fast that it was hard to breathe around it.

Eventually he found her.  She was lying in a bush with her arms outstretched.  Her eyes were closed and her white dress was red on the shoulder.  He stumbled to kneel beside her and took one of her hand in both of his.

Her eyes opened.  She smiled.

“You’re very bad at this,” she said.  “Hide and seek.”

He pressed her hand to his cheek.  She laughed a little; the sound was pained.

“I wanted to play more.  I thought maybe I was fast enough … I think I was wrong.”

He squeezed her hand hard and felt her fingers tighten for a moment in answer.  They were weaker than before.

“I’m sorry.  Maybe we should have stayed inside.  But …”  She looked up then, towards the sky, where the red sunset was fading into the deep violet blue of evening.  There was a single bright light that wasn’t the sun or the moon, but he didn’t know what it was.  It made her smile wider, though, her eyes half-closed.  “But I’m glad.  I had fun today.”

He made a low noise that wasn’t a name or even a word.  She turned her head towards his and smiled.

“Let’s stay out here forever,” she said.  “I would like that.  Far away from everyone and everything … where no one could find us.  It’d just be you and me and we’d be happy.  I know we would.”

I know too, he wanted to say.  I would be happy if you were there.  But you’re already leaving me.

“That cell was always so cold,” she said.  Her tone was soft, vague, barely more than a breath now.  “I’m cold now.  I wonder if I’ll wake up there again.”  She blinked, and finally tears slipped from her eyes, sliding down her cheeks.  “I don’t want that.  I want to stay out here.”

He pressed her cool knuckles to his mouth clumsily.  She blinked again, her eyes going wider for a moment.  “–Oh.  But you’re here too …”

I’m here, he thought, and pressed his mouth harder to her fingers.

“Then that’s fine.  I’m glad.  Thank you.”

She closed her eyes.  He waited until her chest stopped moving, then closed his as well.

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Undercity: Disappear

Tonight her name is Columbine and she is wearing black and red, with a line of diamonds of descending size painted under her left eye.  Her gloves have no fingers tonight and her nails are painted alternating red and black.  She has applied little stickers for the four card suits, but her thumbs are blank.  She sits at the table closest to the door, shuffling her battered pack of cards.  There are gold ribbons in her hair, like a little girl’s, and she is barefoot.  Tonight she is smiling and friendly to the clients who wander into the Bar, talking easily and openly, occasionally doing a neat little sleight of hand to keep them interested.  From behind the bar, the Bartender watches and doesn’t say a word; he doesn’t need to.  His gaze is a weighty enough thing.

“Would you like a game?” she asks to the man who enters the bar around midnight.  His name is Louis and he is recently heartbroken; his job has been taken from him and his girlfriend has vanished with it.  His eyes are heavy and he already smells strongly of alcohol, his suit and tie pulled into disarray long ago.  He squints at the girl Columbine and he sneers, his lips pulling back from yellowed teeth.

“A game?  A _game_?  Everything is a game!  I’m sick of those things!  That’s the last thing I want.  I need a drink.”

With the declaration he stumbles for the bar and leaves her.  Columbine simply hums under her breath and goes back to shuffling her cards, but this seems to provoke some small piece of Louis’ brain.  He turns and he narrows his bloodshot eyes.

“You know what?  Why don’t we have a game.  I’m sick of it.  Let’s do it.”

Columbine smiles.  She begins to deal, her movements smooth and fast.  “Poker, sir?”

“What the hell ever.”  He lumbers and drops into the chair across from her.  He leans forward and braces one elbow against the table.  “You’d better not cheat.”

“Sir, I never cheat.  That’d be disrespectful to the cards.”

“To the cards?  Hah!  You can’t fool me.”  He leans further forward and jabs a finger at her.  It comes just short of touching her.  “I know your kind.  I know all of this is just a setup!  But I’m nice.  I’ll give it a shot, because you asked.  I can’t say nice to a pretty girl, right?”

“You’re always free to say no,” she says.  She sets her cards down and turns her hands over.  “Shall we?”

Louis doesn’t pick up his cards, though; he remains leaning forward, squinting at her face.  “You’re just humoring me.”

“I think maybe it’s the other way around, sir.  I did ask you for a game.”

Louis throws himself back a little in his chair, hard enough that it skids half an inch against the floor.  “And I told you, I can’t say no to a pretty girl.  Aren’t I generous?  You should praise me.”  He picks up his hand and squints at it, then scowls.  He tosses it back onto the table, careless, letting the cards flutter as they fall.  Some land face-up; some don’t.  There is the King of Clubs and the Two of Hearts.  “Never mind.  I can’t do this.”

Columbine tsks and begins to gather her cards up again.  “You shouldn’t say yes if you don’t mean to follow through on things,” she says.  “That’s going to make you unpopular.  Even if you think it’s nice to never say no.”

“It _is_ nice,” Louis declares.  He slumps further in his chair, until his chin is nearly resting on his chest.  He scrubs both hands through his fine black hair, leaving it on end in strange tufted clumps.  “I’m nice.  That’s why I’m failing.  I can’t get any farther if I’m so nice.  That’s what they told me.  That’s what she told me.  That’s what my life’s become.  I was raised to be a good person, and that’s where it’s taken me.  What shit.”

She neatly stacks her desk, then puts both of her elbows on the table, resting her chin on her hands.  Her fingers are stretched against her cheeks, spread to show off her nails.  She swings her legs and tilts her head and gives him a wide-eyed look.  “Has it really been that difficult?”

“Are you stupid?  That’s what I’ve been saying from the beginning.”

“Not everyone thinks the same things are difficult.”

“Oh god.”  He rubs a hand over his face.  “I don’t need this.  I need a drink.  Something strong.  The strongest there is.  I don’t care how much money it costs.  It’s not like I’ve got anywhere else to spend it right now.”

Columbine gets to her feet.  She skirts around the table and stays just out of reach, though Louis watches her through the gaps in his fingers.  He takes the tip of his tongue between his teeth, lips parted.  He watches the long thin line of her legs, and how they reach up into her short skirt and then flare gently out to her hips.  She goes to the bar and the Bartender puts down a cup for her.  The contents of the glass are a livid green in color, swirled around two perfectly square cubes of ice.  Columbine brings this back to the table and sets it down in front of Louis, again staying just out of reach.  He stretches out an arm to test it, but she has judged the distance well.  His fingers brush against a fold of her skirt before his arm falls to the table.  “What’s this?”

“Something to drink,” she says.  “Something strong.”

He eyes it.  “It looks like plant shit.”

“It’s the strongest thing we’ve got,” she says.  “It’s on the house.  You’ll forget everything if you drink that.”

“Will I?  That’s rich.”  He hauls himself to a more upright position, a rough staccatto of laughs rattling deep in his throat.  “I don’t believe you.”  He takes the cup in both hands and pulls it close, as if it was in danger of being snatched away.  “I don’t believe any of it.”

He drinks.

***

In the morning, Louis’ girlfriend, remorseful over their fight, goes to his apartment.  She knocks on the door and calls his name, but there’s no answer.  Later she gets the landlord, who unlocks the door and finds the apartment empty, stripped bare and clean.  There is an empty glass in the center of the room, and under it is the Joker card.  There is no sign of Louis anywhere.

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Undercity: the Bar

In the Undercity there is a bar that has a broken neon sign with only two letters still intact and glowing.  The rest of the letters have been long since removed, carried off by enterprising thieves during the daytime, but the “L” and the “R” remain, opaque hints to what the bar’s name might have once been.  The man who works behind the counter is the same one who has been there for twenty years, and his name is just as unknown; those who pass in and out simply call him “Bartender,” reassigning his title without second thought.  He is a tall thin man, bulked out by his heavy black coat, which he always wears even during the hottest days of summer.  His hair is red and shot through with thick streaks of gray, always pulled back in a low tail at the nape of his neck.  He wears an eyepatch over his left eye on Sundays, and over his right eye every other day of the week.

There are no other workers in the bar except the girl, whose name changes every night.  Sometimes she is Nightingale; sometimes she is Cherry; sometimes she is just Lady.  She is small with an interesting face, one might say; there is heavy scarring all along the right side of her face, to the point where the eye is lost in a knotted mass of old thick skin.  She wears her pale hair pulled over that in a front-facing braid, heavily pinned with paper and cloth flowers.  Her dress is sleeveless and low-cut but there is little cleavage to show off; one could easily mistake her for being a boy from a distance.  Like Bartender, she always wears thin white gloves that stretch all the way to her knobby elbows.  The girl doesn’t serve drinks to patrons, but sometimes she will pull out a battered deck of cards and challenge people to a friendly game.  If no one takes her up on the offer immediately, she will start a game of solitaire with herself, and sometimes she will make sly comments as she plays — insults that are designed to jab and prod the pride of inebriated men until they see her as a threat.

No one has ever beaten the girl.  No matter what the game, she never loses.  If she cheats, no one has yet caught her, and her reputation is powerful enough in the Undercity that there are those who deliberately attempt to trip her up.  There are those who come ready and primed to cheat, but even with a deck of fifty-two aces, the girl still pulls a victory without any apparent effort.

During the day, the bar is left open, but Bartender and the girl are nowhere to be found.  No money is in the til, and no one ever tries to ransack it, despite its unlocked doors.  As soon as night falls, though, the odd pair returns.  No one ever sees them leave, no one ever sees them return, but come nightfall, there they are.

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Beastiary: The Crying Girl

Sometimes you hear a voice weeping in the darkness—she only appears in dark areas, where there are few cars and no lights at night.  Her time isn’t midnight, but 2 a.m., when things are quiet and still and the sound of her voice carries for miles.  She sounds like a girl sobbing like her heart has just been broken, just on the verge of hysteria.  It’s the kind of crying that hurts to listen to, reaching through your chest to grab your heart and twist.

If she calls your name, don’t answer her.  If you answer her, she’ll know how and where to find you, and then you’ll have no peace.  She’ll follow you everywhere, even into the unforgiving light of day: you’ll hear her weeping wherever you go, whatever you do—you’ll see long dark hair out of the corner of one eye and turn, and she won’t be there, but her voice is in your ear, never stopping.  Her courtship lasts one lunar cycle: on the next new moon, she comes to take you home.

Listen.  She’s crying.

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Left-handed white blood cell

Luke was lefthanded and enjoyed things that were particularly sour or bitter in taste. He was a quiet boy who did nothing to stand out, though his grades were good and he was polite enough to the other students. He didn’t really have friends as much as he had people he was friendly with, and who thought decently well of him, and during lunch he usually sat with a few other boys and listened to them talk as he dissected his sandwich into separate components of bread and cheese and deli meat (usually ham, though occasionally his mother would use roast beef instead). During recess he would play kickball with the same boys he ate lunch with, and wandered in at the bell without any grumbling or protest. Math and music were his best subjects, though he was never quite so good that he caught the attention of others as impromptu tutor. Sometimes he would deliberately wait to turn in a test until the very end, knobby elbows akimbo as he wrote each number with careful deliberation.

Once upon a time, he’d been two people, or so his grandmother told him, but something had happened and then he was only one lefthanded person.

“It means you were born under a shadow,” the old woman said, squinting her beady dark eyes from under the wide brim of a straw hat. “Whatever your life would have been, it was changed before you were born. You absorbed someone else’s destiny from them.” And she would never hug him or touch him like a grandmother was supposed to, or like they did in stories—she would just sit back in her chair and stare at him, never blinking. His mother complained about this to his father, Your mother is always telling Luke horrible things, would it kill her to just treat him like her grandson? and his father would protest, That’s just how she is, she’s my mother, like I can change her, what do you want from me?

Luke didn’t mind very much, though. He did not like very much to be touched, and avoided even hugs or hairpets from his mother, who tried her hardest to take care of him. She really did, and he thought that if anyone were to suggest otherwise at any time, he would actually fight back. He loved his mother: she had done her best.

When he was older, he would spend more time in the library than he would in the lunchroom. He would eat fast and then slip away when his companions turned the topic to girls and to cars and sports, all those glittery untouchable things for boys that were barely teenagers. He liked the dark cool quiet of the library more than the bustling noise of the lunchroom, so stuffed full with people that it was hazardous to walk if you didn’t pay attention to the movement of elbows and bodies. Luke preferred to go and sit to read, tucked in one of the hardbacked chairs and hardly minding, and he would read.

One thing he read: that a person who was lefthanded had once been a twin, but had murdered his brother or her sister in the womb, and thus was marked. He thought about that and the things his grandmother had said to him, her distrust, and he held out his left hand and looked at it, like there was something in the lines and patterns of his skin that would tell him the story of death and worse. Fratricide. Sororicide. Was there such thing? Did it count when you were still inside of your mother and were technically still part of her, could it be like white blood cells coming to cut out the infection of the bad and harmful parts of yourself? Was that what he could call himself?

Luke, the lefthanded white blood cell. It wasn’t such a bad thought.

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Poor Tom

Tom died when he turned fifteen.

It was a spectacular death, if he did say so himself: practicing for his learner’s permit, with his father in the seat next to him, coaching him, they hit a slippery patch in the road and spun out.  He remembered that it had felt a little like the split second before a drop on a roller coaster: the moment of feeling utterly weightless and the way his stomach felt like it was spinning inside of him—and then they _were_ spinning, hard and fast, and then there was a tremendous crashing noise and blackness.

Tom was proud of his death.  He liked the way that it had left a mark, black skid marks on the street and the crumbled safety railing; the way that the front and side of the car had been completely crunched in, like wet paper instead of steel and plastic.  How often could you say you went out _that_ dramatically?  Most accidents kids his age had were fenderbenders or running into the mailbox, or maybe scraping up the side of the car because they misjudged how close the other car or building or wall actually was.  Tom, however, had managed to completely destroy the car, pulp his entire midsection, and kill his father at the same time.

His father was less impressed, of course, but the old man had already long since moved on, so Tom no longer had to listen to his angry lectures or his yelling—or worse still, deal with his terrible silences.  It was a relief, really, to be free from that.

Tom died when he was fifteen and now he spent his days perched on the railing where he’d been killed.  It was difficult to tell from a distance the damage that had been done, but since he was so close, he could see the exact place where older metal fused into newer sheets.  He could point to the fading grooves in the road and say that that was where it happened; that was the place where I lost control and then my life ended.

For a while people used to bring flowers.  Someone had even left a marker with a photo of him and a small teddy bear.  It was Lizzy, who sat behind him in English and occasionally asked him questions about the work.  He hadn’t known she’d liked him, and sometimes he drifted over to her house to see how she was doing.  (Pretty well, though of course she was a little broken up.  Tom didn’t blame her.  Dying was always easiest on the dead.)  He always came back to the scene of his death, though, watching cars buzz past like it was no big deal.  He wondered if any of them even knew what had happened here, that they were driving over the places where his blood had spilled out in a dramatic wave.  Little bits and particles of it still had to exist in the material of the road itself, he knew, so all those cars that were driving over this spot—they were taking small pieces of him away.  There were parts of him that had probably made it as far as Oregon, or Washington, maybe even Canada.

He’d never been to Canada when he was alive.

Because he was pretty sure no one actually realized what had happened in this spot, Tom liked to sometimes call out to people when they drove past, especially the ones that kept their windows down.  He would holler as loudly as he can, HEY SOMEONE DIED HERE! and watch as the drivers and their passengers went pale and shivery and uneasy, though they looked around and could see nothing.  Tom was just there; it didn’t mean he was visible.  Sometimes they swerved a little, but as of yet, no one had managed to crash into the railing or join him.

That really suited Tom just fine, though.  This place was his, and it was his blood that marked it.  He didn’t really want to share it with anyone else.  (Which was another reason why he was glad his father had finally let go and moved on.  He was older, anyway, he probably had boring adult things to worry about, being dead.  Tom, though, Tom still liked to watch people go and wonder if they would die young too, or maybe wait until they were old and gray.)

Those kinds of deaths seemed like they’d be terribly boring, to him.

The one thing Tom never did, though, was go home.

He thought about it once, fairly soon after he’d died, when his father was still around.  He had a mother who was still alive, and a brother who was four years younger than him.  He thought about seeing them, and had ultimately decided that it would be too weird to even try.

So he had not.

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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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