The Imitated Rose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It won’t be very good.”

“It will be good enough.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you learn something?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah,” said Murasaki, “my apologies.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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deal with the devil

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Happy birthday, dear–)

The world goes white.

+++

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

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

(but that’s not all of it)

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

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

“Mikage, Mikage, I’m sorry–“)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He closes his eyes, then opens them again.

“I’m in,” he says.

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Solitary Hide And Seek

One, two, are you ready yet?

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

Three, four, not just yet.

+++

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

+++

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

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

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

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

+++

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++

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

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

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

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

“Sir, please don’t encourage him …”

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

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

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

+++

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ren shrugs again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++

Five, six, are you ready yet?

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

Seven, eight …

+++

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I get it,” he says. “All right?”

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

+++

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

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

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

Ren blinks once.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ren licks his lips. “Why?” he rasps.

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

“Talk,” Ren whispers.

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

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

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

“All right,” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No–?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++

Nine, ten, I’m coming to find you.

+++

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

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

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

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

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

+++

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One two, are you ready yet?

Three, four, no, not yet.

Five, six, are you ready yet?

Seven eight, no, not yet.

Nine, ten, I’m coming to find you.

Posted in fairytaleverse, fiction, m/m, sex | Leave a comment

true story

The story goes something like this: if you listen closely right at midnight, you can hear a voice wailing in the woods. It’s quiet, often lost under the rustle and creak of the night itself, but it’s there. It’s a true story, they say; it’s the voice of a woman who was abandoned by all she had known and left to wander aimlessly until time ends and all the world turns to dust. If you listen to her for too long, she begins to tell you your future: who you’ll marry, who will betray you, how you’ll die. And then she will tell you that the price for knowing is losing, and so your corpse will be found the next morning, its face twisted into an expression of horror, for all the things you know you have lost.

It’s a true story. Everyone knows this.

+++

One version says this: Lydia was a beautiful girl, lovelier than any other in the entire village. Her eyes were the clear bright blue of midsummer sky, and her hair was dark as coal, struck through with red like the burning points of a flame. And like many beautiful people, she was graced with elegance and poise, confident in her every waking gesture. There was very little that was not hers, if she wished for it: an apple from the grocery, a loaf from the baker, a smile from Tom the soldier boy, when he came marching home. The entire world would lay itself down at Lydia’s feet, and she would want for nothing.

Which meant, of course, that girls who were less lovely and less graceful or charming suffered for Lydia’s presence. Resentment simmers low and deep in this village even now: it was worse once upon a time.

They said that Tom’s old sweetheart was abandoned at the altar, waiting in vain as he snuck into the fields with Lydia to lie under the open drowning blue of the summer sky. In her grief she spat words that took shape and twisted together: for this place is still very near to the crossroads of the world, where there is passage to the land that lies east of the sun and west of the moon. There, magic is still as much a part of life as life itself, and that power is sometimes strong enough to bleed through. So Tom’s sweetheart wept and tore her hair, and her words grew and wrapped around each other until they had become a thing unknown, an effigy with bleeding skin and worn nails that dragged itself out to the fields to find the lovers.

Tom’s fate is unknown. Lydia’s is less kind: her lovely dark hair was torn from her scalp in bleeding clumps; her lovely eyes were gouged out by grasping fingers. Her pale skin was bruised and torn, and when she finally stumbled back to the village, she was no longer lovely, but horrible as the creature that had taken its vengeance on her. None in the village would shelter her, and she was driven, weeping, out into the forest where she faded into a single wailing voice.

That is one story, at least.

+++
Another version says that Lydia herself was a witch, who lived near the edge of the village and wove little charms and spells to keep her living. The village tolerated her presence out of necessity: Lydia’s spells were what kept the rains coming regularly, and the crops growing, and the livestock strong. She kept to herself, and this pleased everyone involved.

In this story Tom was not a soldier, come home from war to marry his sweetheart. Instead, he was a young man who had always had a wandering eye. No one woman could keep him entirely; his heart was a fickle and finicky thing. He had reached a point where all the young ladies of the village who would have him were tired of him, and so he turned his face towards the edge of the village, where Lydia lived and worked her magic. Their courtship is hardly something to tell in detail: he charmed her, she responded, they tryst, and in the morning Tom was gone from her bed, knocking at his last lady’s door, hoping that he could come inside for warmth.

Lydia was furious, of course; she bent her magic and her skill to create a love-charm, so potent that anyone who swallowed it must be loved, or die of the wanting of it. She put everything she had into it, ignoring all her other work. Drought struck the land; livestock and crops alike sickened from lack of water and died. All summer Lydia worked, and in the fall, when the people were angry and restless at their failures, she slipped the charm into Tom’s drink. Immediately he was stricken, and he returned to her door to fall at her feet; his love turned him into a creature that crawled with its belly on the ground and its nails bent and grasping. It made a worm of a man, and he begged and begged, but Lydia merely turned her face away. She laughed when Tom died, writhing as he tried to carve out his heart with his fingernails.

This could not go unpunished, though: there are gods in this land still, though their power is grown faded and dim. There are things that all witches must answer to, and upon Tom’s death, Lydia’s punishment was immediate and swift: she was turned into a voiceless, faceless creature, doomed to wander the woods where she once lived, telling fortunes and stealing the lives of those foolish enough to overstep their bounds as mortal men.

That is another version.

+++
A third story says that Lydia and Tom were siblings. Twins, in fact, with Lydia proceeding her brother by half a day. And none in the village could separate them, even when the time came for Tom to learn men’s work in the field and Lydia to learn women’s craft in the home: they would meet somewhere in the middle, with Lydia staggering under her share of the harvest load and Tom bleeding his fingers on rough thread. None could imagine them as separate beings: they were always hand in hand, and would not tolerate to be separated.

However, this continued through childhood and into adolescence, then beyond that and into adulthood. Tom grew strong and handsome; Lydia grew lithe and beautiful. There was no shortage of men who would gladly have her, or women who peeked behind their lashes at him. Still Lydia and Tom never noticed: they only had each other, with a devotion that stretched from the field and into the house, and then the bed. The story does not say how they were discovered: perhaps it was when Lydia’s belly began to swell with a child that no other man in the village could have given her, or when Tom was found with his head beneath her skirts. Maybe it was when rings appeared on their fingers, or when their father died after shouting he would see them wed before he was in the grave.

Either way, the story ends thus: that Tom, his body black and blue, was hung until his feet dangled in the late autumn breeze, and that Lydia was driven into the woods, her belly beaten and her body left to wait until the forest claimed it. This story mentions two voices: a woman who speaks the future, and a man who speaks the past. Listen to him, and you forget everything you ever were once, and you’re left as nothing more than a shell, sucking your teeth and counting seconds until the numbers mean nothing. Perhaps they never did. There is a variation that says there is a third voice – a high wailing voice, like a child’s – that cries once exactly at midnight and falls silent. A woman who hears this will never be a mother, for even if her belly quickens, the child will pass before the term is over.

That is another way to tell the story.

+++

This is what I have been told: that Lydia was the baker’s daughter who loved Tom, the blacksmith’s son. Their families were friendly, so it was easily decided that when Lydia came of age, she and Tom would be married. Every evening, they walked together, from his father’s forge to her father’s home, and while they were never improper, no one could doubt how very much they cared for one another.

However, that summer there was a drought, worse than had been seen in many years; babes sickened and died in the heat, and crops withered under the unending onslaught of the sun. Men spoke in worried voices about rations and solutions, while women worked to put away what little food that could be found – and everyone gave what they could for the mothers in the village. Lydia’s own sister, Emma, buried two sons during that long awful summer, hollow-eyed and ghost pale with grief.

The heat continued long after autumn and winter should have come, the sun blazing relentlessly down on grass brown and long since dead; hopelessness hung low and thick in the air. Lydia dreamed of marriage, long since put aside in the face of tragedy, and tried not to be bitter; Tom threw himself into work and never let himself be wistful for what he couldn’t have.

A year passed, still the same. Neither Tom nor Lydia spoke of their romance. It was very sad, but people were dying and being practical was more important. Lydia’s sister died at the end of a long hot winter, her lips parched white and thin. Spring came with bitterly strong winds that rattled the dry grass in the fields, and in desperation, the village elders called in a sage, to take the measure of the aching land and divine what caused the drought. The man who arrived in the village was weathered and wizened, and looked dried-out as the land itself. He walked the perimeter of the entire village, then took a handful of dust from the ground that faced the parched forest. He sucked it into his mouth, rolled it, then spat it back to the earth.

“You have bled the land dry,” he said. Mud stained his yellow teeth. “You live too close to the crossroads of sun and moon, where magic bleeds into everyday action. The protections are eroded; the path of the Sun-Queen’s chariot draws too close to your village. The stores are dry; you have bled them out. This drought will follow wherever your people scatter. Someone will need to bleed dry, or this plague will spread.”

Into the silence that followed, it was Tom who spoke up: “I will go, and sleep in the forest,” he said. “I will spill my blood on the earth, and the village will be saved.”

And the elders praised him, as did the sage who had been summoned to the village. The blacksmith’s wife wept, but there was pride in her eyes; the villagers murmured amongst themselves, and their words were all pleased. Only one voice said nothing, lurking at the far edge of the people who’d gathered to watch the sage work: Lydia, who’d buried her sister just a short week before. There were no tears in her eyes, dried as the earth itself, and red as the Sun-Queen’s veil.

That night, though, in the dark hot hours at midnight, there came a scream from the forest: loud, piercing, heartbreaking. People ran from their beds into a sudden downpour of rain and a bright light in the forest; there was the image of a woman immolated in flames that could not be doused by the falling rain. In those long moments, as she twisted and was consumed by fire, turning to smoke and ash and something hollow-eyed and gap-mouthed, she spoke the names of children who had never been born – would never be born – and she called Tom’s name, her fingers leaving red burned marks against his cheek when she vanished. In the baker’s home, Lydia was nowhere to be found.

This is the version I have heard. It is another way to tell the story.

+++

The story goes something like this: if you listen closely right at midnight, you can hear a voice wailing in the woods. A woman’s voice cries out from somewhere lost among the trees, grieving as she wanders, abandoned by loved ones and forever trapped. If you listen for too long, she will tell you your future in detail: your triumphs, your losses, your loves, your despairs. The price for knowing is death, knowing full well what you have lost, and what your death has robbed all those who might have known you. Villagers huddle together and close their windows to keep from hearing the sound as they sleep; it is a woman who lost her soul and devours all the possibilities of anyone unfortunate enough to hear her voice.

It’s a true story. Everyone knows this.

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The Disappearence of Granny Winter

There once lived an old woman who was so very old that none remembered her name. They called her Granny Winter, because her eyes were the color of water under ice, and her hair was the pure white of newly fallen snow. Pinned up in a bun, her hair was drawn so tightly that it pulled at the skin of her face. She never argued the name, but she did not seem to care for it either: her mouth turned into a sour frown and she glared when someone used it. Still, she answered, so no one ever thought to call her differently.

Granny Winter lived in a small house in the northern end of the village, which in turn was at the top of a mountain. She kept to herself, and if she’d ever had a husband, he was long forgotten to the past. The young men sometimes tried to dare each other to steal a kiss from her thin pressed lips, but no one ever accepted. If she’d ever had lover or family, they were nothing more than village legend now. She had a small flock of goats and a single donkey that seemed nearly as ancient as its mistress, but other than that she lived alone. Stray animals avoided Granny Winter’s house, and mothers whispered to their children to keep their distance. The old woman made no attempts to change this either; she seemed content to interact with the rest of the village as little as possible. Only once a week, on market-day, did she actually enter the village, leading her tottery donkey on a piece of fraying rope, its back piled with jugs of pale yellow goat milk. She bought what little things she needed, speaking briefly, then headed back up the steep trail, never looking back.

Life had followed this pattern for many years; even the oldest man in the village, who was now mayor simply by default, could not remember a time when Granny Winter did not make her slow, careful way to the market every week, looking as old as the rocks that lined the path.

Then, one year, there was a winter so fierce and terrible that three strong, healthy men froze to death in their beds overnight. As the cold deepened, heading into the darkness of the midwinter months, the people of the village drew together for warmth, coming together in the mayor’s fine house and sleeping in crowded, clumsy quarters. Only Granny Winter did not come, and people whispered that she must already be dead, like a canary in a mine: if only people had thought to check on her, and seen the harbringer! Others said that this was the revenge of her abandoned ghost, finally dead and without anyone to perform last rites before it could become a lost soul, seeking retribution against a village that she had never loved. They told stories and bowed their heads together and shivered as the wind howled outside, tearing at the walls and shrieking through the skeletal branches of trees.

Midwinter Day dawned icy-cold and clear, and people opened the windows and peered outside, squinting against the blinding reflection of light off the snow. What they saw was a girl standing in the middle of the village. She was hardly dressed for the weather: her bare feet made a line of faltering tracks in the heavy snow, and her white shift scarcely reached past her knees. A few of the youngest men, with the hottest blood, rushed out and tried to coax her inside; it took long moments before she consented.

Inside, the girl was given hot soup and tea and bundled up with what few blankets the villagers had to spare, before being led to the fire and pressed to sit. She was lovely and pale, with eyes the color of dark water under thick ice and hair so pale blond in color that it seemed nearly white. Her face was an elegant oval and her lips pursed into a tiny pink heart, dark against her fair skin. She drank what was given to her, but did not speak when they pressed her for a name or where she’d come from, only staring into the fire without blinking for long, long seconds. Still, many of the young men persisted: she was lovely and she was strange, and that was enough to enchant a good number of them.

Finally, as evening began to cut through the flimsy protection of the day, she looked up from the fire, and she said, “I must go see my grandmother.” Her voice was small and thin and high, more like a child than an adult woman.

The oldest of the village youths was named Richard, and he had spent the entire day at her side, attempting to get her to speak. He pounced on her words. “Your grandmother? You have family here? What’s your name? We could take you to her.”

She turned to look at him. When she blinked, her white lashes made strange crisscrossed shadow patterns against the high rise of her cheekbones. Her eyes darkened, so now they seemed less like ice and more like deep still waters. “I have to see her,” she repeated. “I have to see her before Midwinter’s Day ends.”

“It’s too late to go out,” he said. “We’ll give you more tea, and you can share my blankets. That way you will keep warm until tomorrow, and then we’ll go see your grandmother.”

The girl cocked her head. She frowned. “I have to find her,” she said, and she got to her feet, shedding the blankets that had been piled around her shoulders as she did. “Grandmother is waiting. I don’t want to keep her for too long.”

“You can’t do that,” said the second oldest of the village youths, whose name was Lucas, and who had also spent the day at her side. He looked at Richard and he looked at the girl, and he went on, “Night is coming. It’s too cold to go outside. You’ll have to wait.”

“I cannot.” The girl stepped away from the fire. She frowned at the ring of people that was silently forming around her. “Let me go.”

“It is folly,” said the mayor, whose beard was gray and whose face sagged with wrinkles. He was very old, but people still remembered his name though none used it any longer. “You’ll freeze to death if you wear nothing but that little shift. Once the sun sets completely, it will be too cold to bear outside. There is enough food for you, if people are careful; stay inside and rest until morning.”

Again, the girl said, “I must go see my grandmother.” She stared at each person around her in turn, never once blinking. “Whether or not you think you can allow me, I must go.” She stepped forward, and then forward again. Though people crowded in close, trying to form a wall of bodies, somehow she slipped through, elegant as any choreographed dance, her eyes fixed on the door. When she reached it, though, the mayor caught her small wrist in his large gnarled hand.

“Stupid girl,” said the mayor. “We couldn’t let you go outside now, no matter how much you wanted. It’s so cold that letting any of it inside would kill us, as well. Don’t be selfish. Wait until tomorrow; if there’s any sun, that will be enough to send you on your way.”

She looked at him with her ice-colored eyes. She said, “There was no way I could get in without being invited. There is no way you can keep me here.”

The people looking on only saw this: that the mayor abruptly went white as snow, looking into the girl’s eyes, and let go of her wrist, stumbling back until he hit the wall with his shoulders. His mouth gaped open and his hand remained half-raised, pointing. The girl watched him for a few moments longer, then turned back to the door, which she opened and stepped through. A blast of knife sharp wind tore around her slim frame and those inside flinched away as one; when they looked again, the girl was gone.

Rather than follow her into her folly, they closed the door again, padding the frame with the blankets she’d discarded, and turned to the mayor. He was pale and shaking, and refused to say what he’d seen in the girl’s face, and eventually he was given soup and tea and left to stare into the fire.

A long night passed. The wind seemed fiercer than the previous nights, scrabbling against the walls of the house with angry fingers. A few people, those with keener ears than the rest of the village, would later claim to hear a woman’s voice calling through the wind’s shrieking, calling something that could not be understood.

In the morning, the entire village was blanketed with a heavy cover of snow under slate-grey skies. With some effort, Richard and Lucas managed to work a window open wide enough for the both of them to wriggle through. Together they crawled outside and stood shivering together in the cold, looking around. The snow had fallen high enough to reach to the lower branches of trees, covering all but the top of the roofs for many of the houses in the area. The thin village road was completely obliterated by the snowfal, and the only building that stood mostly unscathed was Granny Winter’s small home, there on the far, far end of the village, up the steep trail towards the mountain’s summit. There was no sign of the girl. The two young men began to walk towards Granny Winter’s home.

When they reached it, Lucas pointed up. “She doesn’t even have snow on her roof,” he said. “That’s strange, isn’t it?”

“Maybe it’s her ghost,” said Richard, but he raised a fist and knocked on the door regardless. He waited a long moment, then turned to Lucas and said, “We probably won’t find anything, we should just go–”

Footsteps sounded inside. The two young men turned. A moment later, the door opened. Granny Winter looked at the two of them, healthy and alive as any of those who’d taken shelter in the mayor’s home, her thin lips pressed together into a disapproving frown. Her thick white hair was unbound for once, tumbled around her weathered face. She wore a thin white dress, not dissimilar to that of the girl from the day before, but with an added dark blue shawl draped across her drooping shoulders.

“What do you want?” she said. Her voice was low and raspy, going up and down in an odd rhythm. “Go away.”

“We’re looking for someone,” said Richard and Lucas said at the same time. “There’s a girl who’s gone missing.”

Granny Winter did not look very impressed. She hitched her shoulders up a little, pulling the shawl tighter around her shoulders. “Stop sniffing around here,” she said. “Go back and chase the skirts that were meant to be opened to you.”

“You saw her, then,” Richard said. His eyes went bright. He tried to lean forward and peer around Granny Winter, where she filled the doorframe. “Is she your granddaughter? I never knew you had family – is she all right? What’s her name? Please, tell us, we were worried–”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Granny Winter. “There’s nothing for the two of you here. Go home.”

“I don’t want to,” said Richard. He stretched up onto his toes, looking into the darkness of Granny Winter’s small home. “I want to see her – I promise I’ll treat her well, I just want to talk–”

“It’s not going to help you,” said the old woman. “You’re not going to find what you want here. Go home, little boy.”

He frowned. “I am a man,” he said. “And you’re an old woman who’s been deadweight in this village for years. I just want to talk to her, so let me through.” He put a broad hand on Granny Winter’s skinny chest and shoved hard. She made a startled noise, like a struck cat, and fell back. Richard pushed his way inside and Lucas trailed after him, neither of them looking to see how and where the old woman fell.

Inside, her house seemed smaller than it looked from the outside, full of a strange cold dark – not as cold as the world outside, but still enough to make a man’s breath steam when he exhaled. A thin bed pallet lay in one corner and a few pots ringed a nest of dying embers. Straw had been stuffed into cracks in the walls, but it did a poor job of any proper insulation. Richard looked around the small room and frowned.

“Where is she?” he said. “Where are you hiding her?”

Granny Winter said nothing. Richard turned to her. She leaned heavily against one of the walls, both of her hands pressed to her chest. Under the tangle of her heavy white hair, her dark eyes were hard and unblinking. He took a step towards her, drawing himself up to his full height, so he towered over the slight old woman. It had been a long winter and he was a restless young man; he took a deep breath and seemed to swell until he filled the entire small room.

“She’s your granddaughter, right?” he said, his voice too loud. “Or were you lying before? It isn’t funny, old woman.”

Granny Winter’s mouth twisted and she lowered her head until her hair swung forward, first framing, then veiling, her face. In the dim light from the fading embers, she looked less like anything human and more like a fixture in the small crowded room. “I said nothing about any girl,” she said. “You were the one who assumed. Now get out.”

Richard’s hands clenched into fists, relaxed, tightened again. His eyebrows drew together and he said, “Where is she?”

“She’s not here,” said Granny Winter. Something passed across her face that might have been a smile, though in the dark it was hard to be certain. “Leave now.”

“I’m not leaving until I find her,” said Richard. He reached out and caught a fistful of Granny Winter’s shawl, dragging her in closer. He was tall enough that it lifted her up onto her toes and then off them, so that she dangled like a doll. “So you might as well cooperate, or it’ll end poorly.”

“Richard,” said Lucas. He sounded small and nervous. “Come on, if she’s not here, we need to keep looking–”

“She’s here,” Richard said. His eyes gleamed in the dim red firelight. “And the old woman is going to tell us, or else.” He raised his other hand in threat.

Granny Winter finally lifted her head. She looked at Lucas, who stood by the door and made weak noises about the wasting day – and she looked at Richard, who seemed to take what he saw in her face as encouragement. His hand began to move down.

The first noise it made was loud as a whipcrack. Granny Winter’s head snapped around until it faced Lucas, who flinched at the sight of her wide-open eyes. Richard shoved her back, still clutching the front of her shawl; her head made a dull thud against the wall when she struck it. Her arms and legs jerked with the impact, then just dangled loosely. Richard’s fist connected again.

And again.

And again.

And before the fifth time, Granny Winter said, in a voice that was clear and without pain, “Winter has come early for you.”

Richard struck her again, and the door banged open, in a numbing blast of winter air. Lucas yelped and fell silent. Richard turned to look. The girl stood in the doorway, her long hair fluttering around her, brighter than anything but the snow itself, which swirled in graceful flurries around her small bare feet. He smiled at once, dropping the old woman.

“You were here,” he said. “I knew it, I was waiting for you–”

The girl looked at him. Snow was caught in her long hair, on the edges of her shift, rested unmelting against her high cheekbone. Lucas was gibbering in the corner, pressed as far away from the doorway as he could manage; Granny Winter remained completely silent. Richard came towards her, holding his arms out and smiling broadly. She watched him come towards her, and when he swept her up into her arms, she weighed practically nothing, as cold in his arms as the wind itself.

“I looked for you,” he said. “I dreamed about you, too. Tell me your name.”

She tilted her face up. Wind cut through her hair, moving pale shadows across her face. She reached up with a small hand and touched his cheek, and her fingers were cold enough to make the entire side of his face ache with their chill. Her pale lips moved.

“I can’t hear you,” said Richard. He leaned down closer, until his forehead was pressed against hers. His teeth were chattering loudly, but he still smiled, tightening his arms around her waist. His breath steamed out in a cloud around their faces. “Tell me again.”

For the first time, the girl smiled. She brought up her other hand, so that she was cupping his face between both, and pushed up onto her toes, her lips a hairs breadth away from his. She spoke again, breathing into his mouth, and then closed the last gap for a brief, chaste kiss. Richard made a noise into it: first a sound of pleasure that then drew out and elongated into a long begging moan, not unlike the wind that wound its way through the empty trees.

He fell silent. The girl pulled away from him then; she let go of his face and put both of her small hands on his chest and pushed. Richard fell as she did so, his body breaking away from the arms that were hooked around her tiny waist, to fall onto the floor and bounce once, with a lifeless thud. The arms tumbled into the snow, the fingers still locked together. The girl rubbed her thumb across her own lower lip, then licked it and stepped into the small hut, over the fallen body. She looked at Lucas, who had covered his face with both hands and was moaning into them, trembling like he was naked in the cold. She looked at Granny Winter, who had straightened and was undoing the knot of her shawl, which she let drop to the floor. Bruises had already formed on the old woman’s pale skin, livid over her cheekbone and across one eye.

“Did he hear you?” she asked.

The girl shook her head. “No,” she said. “And if he did, he took it to the darkness with him.”

Granny Winter smiled then; it softened her face into a maze of wrinkles and made her eyes light up. She held her arms open. Dainty as a deer, the girl crossed over to step into their circle and wrapped her pale arms around the old woman’s neck. They leaned together, cheek to cheek, the old woman stroking the girl’s long flowing hair, and Granny Winter whispered, “I have missed you.”

“I came when I could,” the girl said, her voice also a whisper, apologetic. The howling wind outside subsided at the sound of her voice. “As soon as I heard you calling. I know it’s been hard. I’m sorry.” She tilted her face and brushed her pink mouth across the darkest of the bruises on Granny Winter’s face. “I wish I had come earlier. These will take a while to heal.”

“But they will heal,” said Granny Winter. She shook her head and ducked it a little, coy as a girl in spring. “I’m ready to go with you.”

The sentence earned her another smile, bright and warm as the hidden sun. The girl pulled away, taking one of Granny Winter’s worn hands in her own. She beamed “We’ll go now, then,” she said, tugging. “Follow me, darling. The way is long, but I won’t let you get lost.”

Without looking back, they walked out into the snow.

Hours later, worried about the oncoming evening, several of the other young men of the village emerged from the relative safety of the mayor’s home to venture after the fading tracks that led up to Granny Winter’s home. They found the open door and the pieces of Richard’s body, and Lucas shivering speechless in the corner of the small stark room. He refused to answer any of their questions, his eyes skittering over Richard and then sliding away, like he couldn’t bear to look for too long. They had to carry him back, where he huddled beside the mayor, the two of them shivered in a cold that the fire couldn’t touch.

After that, the weather began to clear: the unusual chill gradually dissipated, fading from the intense cold into a warm, early spring. Richard was buried once the earth was soft enough to receive him, but Lucas never spoke of what he’d seen that day – his eyes would grow shadowed and uneasy if the subject was brought up, his silences stretching until they turned awkward.

The mayor only ever said one thing: that winter was a cruel and demanding creature, and life would be better without its presence. He died before the fall came again, eyes wide open and staring until someone came to press them gently shut.

Granny Winter and the girl were never seen again.

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il carnevale

i. a skeleton of words

Once upon a time (he says, his voice lowered to a murmur, for that is the proper way to start a story) there was a circus. It traveled from village to village and brought happiness to all the people it visited. Each night, the tent was full to bursting, and the air was always filled with the sounds of applause and laughter.

Ah, it was magical. Truly magical! It went on like this for many years, and everyone was content.

But one day, the Ringmaster woke up and found out that he had become very old. His bones ached and his eyesight was dim; it hurt him very much to get out of bed. For the first time in his long life, he felt the weight of his time upon him, and found it nearly too heavy to bear. That burden turned to fear, which became acid in his belly and cold fingers that clutched at his legs, pulling him down. When he looked in the mirror, he found his face had changed into something he could not recognize, with skin that hung loose, pouched under his eyes, and made his jowls droop. He could not look for very long, for the sight of that ugly creature made him ill.

For a whole week he shut himself up in his room and allowed no one to enter. The clowns and trainers were worried, and they whispered behind their hands, Is he sick? Is he sick? Will he die? and wept bitter tears, for many of them had traveled with the circus for a long time.

On the eighth day, though, the door opened and the Ringmaster stepped out. Those who saw him gasped, for his gray hair was now white as snow, and his skin no darker; his eyes were hollow and burning with a strange fire.

Come, he said, his voice ringing, tonight, we will give them a show to remember!

And they looked at each other and laughed nervously, for there was something strange in his voice and his gestures – but he was still their beloved Ringmaster, and so they followed him to the next village, to the next performance.

After that (he says, and raises his voice back to a normal speaking tone) no one is exactly sure what happened. Certainly they arrived at a little town, who welcomed their arrival with open arms. Something happened, though, under the blind open eye of the full moon, for the next day there was no village and no circus: only an empty field of dry, dead grass where life once flourished. Afterwards, well. They say strange things occur if you linger too long; you might dream of a wolf swallowing the moon, of a woman with no skin, of eyeless children who never once had parents.

How strange, how strange. Don’t you think?

ii. [white noise]

“Oh, I like that place. So many people!”

“That is a lot, isn’t it? Do you think you’re ready, dumpling?”

“Please, say we can go there – I would enjoy it ever so much! They look like they could be such fun!”

“Ah! Who am I to refuse such enthusiasm? If that is your heart’s desire, then we shall proceed.

iii. redblueredblueredredredred

Lacey is having the time of her life.

The masquerade ball is fucking awesome. There’s more expensive food and booze than she’s ever seen in her life, and everyone there is drop-dead gorgeous – even her! Her hair is actually behaving, coiled and braided with seed-pearls. Her dress fits like a glove and doesn’t pooch anywhere, and her mask is incredible: dark blue with an intricate pattern of small, sparkling rhinestones at the far corners of each eye, and it matches her dress perfectly. It’s the sort of enchanted series of luck she knows will never happen to her again, so she drinks it in while she still can. Everyone is talking, eating, drinking, laughing, and she is too. This is the night of her life. She feels only a little guilty for blowing Nick off for this: masquerade balls aren’t his thing.

Over the noise of the crowd comes a measured clapping sound, and she turns to look. The host is there, smiling broadly at them under his white mask. He’s a tall bastard – probably taller than six feet, if she had to guess – and rail-thin too. She’s pretty sure he’s about as thin at his waist as he is at his ankles, and that’s just gross.

“My dearest guests,” he says. He has a nice voice – it’s deep and carrying over the murmurs in the crowd. Lacey feels it all the way down to her toes. “Are we ready for the next part of tonight’s entertainment?”

If that’s a cue, Lacey takes it along with everyone else, lifting her glass and cheering. Her cheeks are hot, and she feels practically giddy right now, carried by the exuberance of the crowd. If she were to look down, her feet might not be touching the floor. When the host opens the door (Come in, come in!), she is thrilled to see how her dress flows around her ankles as she glides in.

The amphitheater is dark but roomy. The walls seem to stretch on to forever – she can’t remember if the building looked this tall on the outside. Tiny strings of lights sparkle high up above, like trails of stardust. Lacey takes her seat next to a woman in a dark, red dress and folds her hands in her lap. Her heart is beating fast. She tracks their host’s movements with her eyes, watching as he ascends the steps, and takes them two at a time with his long legs. He moves to center stage, and instantly the spotlight is upon him. The white of his mask is nearly blinding, but she can’t look away.

“My darlings,” he says, in that same rolling voice, “my dearest friends and my wonderful companions! Tonight, I promise you a show unlike any other you will ever experience again in your life – a performance to amaze, to shock, to mystify! Something you will dream of for years to come!” He lays a finger to his lips, nearly as pale as his mask, and smiles. “But first, I will need your help. Would someone care to volunteer for me?” His gaze sweeps the crowd slowly, thoughtfully. In spite of herself, Lacey sits up straighter in her chair, though a sudden flare of nerves keeps her from simply raising her hand. She holds her breath.

The host points. His arm is so long that even five rows back, she feels like she could reach up and take it easily. “You, darling,” he says. “Please come up front. Bring your friend with you.”

Lacey looks at the girl sitting next to her, the one in the dark red dress. She nods back, and there is equal excitement in her face. As one, they get to their feet, and Lacey has to fight to just not bolt for the stairs. Her heart is beating even faster now. She feels like it might explode from her chest with the force of its movement. Somehow she stays graceful, though, ascending the steps with the other girl. The host moves to her, and up close she can see that, under the edges of his mask, his cheeks are sunken and hollow. She wonders if he has been recently sick. He takes their hands, one in each of his. His fingers are so thin that they’re practically bone.

Up close, he smells a little like musk and cotton candy – the smells of the circus, Lacey thinks. He smiles and lets go of the other girl to pull her closer. From his pocket he pulls out a long piece of bright, blue string, which he loops twice around her wrist before tying it off in a bow. As she stares at it, he takes her other hand and presses something hard into it before moving on to repeat the process with the girl in the red dress. Lacey looks: it’s a knife he’s given her, with a bone handle, and polished mirror-bright. Her own reflection in the blade is strange to her. Has she ever been so beautiful? Really?

The host is talking. His voice is wonderful, but she can’t quite make out the words. She tightens her fingers around the knife’s hilt and wonders at how it feels like an extension of herself.

Another person is being called to the stage. This volunteer is a young man with no mask, and looks utterly naked even with all his clothes on. His eyes are terrified for some reason. Lacey licks her lips as he is strapped to a board and presses her thumb to the very base of her knife, testing the pressure without pushing hard enough to cut herself. His costume is all white and yellow, the bland, easy colors of spring. He’d look better with more vibrant colors, she thinks, something bold and dark to cut the softness. Music starts up from unseen speakers, and Lacey moves forward without prompting, her smooth gait intersecting and separating from the path of the girl in the red dress. When she pauses for just a moment, she feels the host’s hands light on her shoulders, delicate and thin like a dream.

“I love you, darling,” he says. “Make me proud.”

iv. a man of string and bone

[excerpted from N—–‘s journal, found amongst his belongings]

–saw his face tonight. I think he is the man who took Lacey. It was a terrible face. I only saw it for a second but it will never leave me. At first it was fine, maybe a little gray, but not anything strange, and then it started smiling … and smiling … AND SMILING …

It was like his mouth was getting bigger with each second until it was wider than his face. He had too many teeth. The smile made his skin do weird things, too, like you could see veins under the skin because it was pulled so tight. He was a skeleton with nerves and skin and you could see every single detail. It made me sick. I think he was laughing at me. He knows I want Lacey back.

It’s funny. I used to never believe in this sort of stuff. Now I don’t think I have a choice. I saw his face, and he saw mine. I will either come back with Lacey tonight, or not at all.

v. [white noise]

“Can you hear me?”

“Nnnnnnnnnnngh.”

“It’s me, Nick. Don’t you recognize me?”

“Nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnngh.”

“I’m going to turn the light on, now. Okay? Oka–”

Nnnnnnnnn!

“It’ll be fine, I promise. … There, see, that’s–oh my god–”

“… nnnnnnnnnnnn …”

vi. a fantastic collection

Sometimes, on the night of a full moon, if you are in just the right place at just the right time, you can hear singing. If you do, running will only delay the inevitable. The carnival has come to town, riding on the back of a giant wolf, ready for fresh blood – for volunteers of any sort.

If it’s just the man’s voice, it will be slow and easy, as you’re seduced into his world, into his performance.

If it’s just the boy’s voice, it will be violent and fast. He’s only a child, and he hasn’t yet learned patience. At least it will be over quickly.

If you hear them both, in strange harmony, your show is about to begin.

Don’t be late.

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As Close As Defined

“Senpai,” Rena says. “Are those two really friends?”

Natsumi looks up from the dishes; Rena is watching the GetBackers, on the other side of the cafe. They’re squabbling over the last pieces of sushi from their last order, with Ginji clinging steadfastly to Ban’s arm and ignoring the threats of leggo you damn eel before I skin you and they’ve been at that stalemate for nearly half an hour. No one else is in the cafe except for Paul in the back.

“Of course they’re friends,” Natsumi says. “Why wouldn’t they be?”

For a moment Rena’s knuckles go white on her dishcloth. “It just seems that they’re very … close?”

“Boys are like that,” Natsumi says wisely, with knowledge gleaned from two years of high school. “Well, boys like those two, anyway!” She looks at Rena’s pale face and adds, more gently now, “If it really bothers you, we can ask them to leave.”

Rena ducks her head a little. “Umm,” she says. “I’m all right. I was just curious. If they were really friends or not.”

“They’re the best of friends!” Natsumi says, glowing with the force of her smile. On the other side of the Honky Tonk, Ginji is in the process of electrocuting Ban with one hand, holding the nearly-empty platter of sushi over his head with the other, and Ban is threatening all sorts of horrible things and trying to get his sunglasses off, spitting mad.

“… Friends,” Rena says doubtfully. “Right.”

+++

Next she asks the master. It’s not really in her nature to trust men she only scarcely knows — but Wan Paul reminds her more of her father than any other man, and whenever they are alone together, he makes sure to keep at least a good two feet between them at all times. Rena is grateful for this, and she uses her gratitude for the past six months to cobble up the courage to ask: “Are the GetBackers really friends?”

Paul’s eyebrows go up, but his glasses don’t slip any. “Well,” he says. “That’s a strange question.”

She flushes and drops her eyes, knotting her fingers in her apron. “It’s just strange,” she mumbles. “They always argue, or Midou-san is hitting Amano-san, or Amano-san is yelling at Midou-san …”

Paul slides a cup of coffee at her. She starts and looks back up at him.

“About those two,” he says. “Maybe it’s not friendship that goes smoothly, but it’s friendship that says you’re never alone.”

Rena picks up her cup, but doesn’t drink. “Never alone?”

“The ‘S’ in GetBackers means you’re never alone,” Paul says, and something in his voice gives her pause. Remiel was an angel of silences, and she’d taught Rena to listen well.

“Master,” she says, “did you also–”

He smiles cryptically. “It’ll take more than an argument to break those two up,” he says. “I wouldn’t worry too much.”

+++

The next time Kadsuki comes in (and Rena likes him, with his long hair and pretty face, and the smell of night-jasmine that is all around him), she almost asks. Natsumi has told her, and Remiel has whispered to her, and she knows Kadsuki and Ginji are friends. She’s pretty sure he could explain.

But her nerve fails her and she just mumbles the route greeting and thanks when he pays her and leaves.

+++

Then one night, as she’s getting ready for bed: she hears loud heavy pounding at the locked doors of the Honky Tonk; a moment later, Ginji is yelling for the master. Rena creeps along the stairs enough to peek and watches as Paul flies past her, unlocking the door so both of the GetBackers tumble inside. She hears the master whistle: “Ah, you two get into all sorts of trouble, don’t you?”

“It could have been worse,” Ginji says; now that he’s inside, he sounds less panicked. “I mean, Ban-chan could have taken them on his own! But he was already sort of drunk, so I guess he didn’t see the guy coming up from behind — that’s cheating, you know, sneaking up on a drunk man!” Then he considers. “Ahh, Ban-chan lost, I can’t believe it!”

He sounds indignant; Rena leans further to try and peek at his face. Paul notices her then, and beckons. She freezes, then forces herself to move down the stairs, clinging to the banister the whole way. For a moment she continues to hesitate, though Ginji’s smile is very kind when he sees her.

“Sorry, Rena-chan,” he says. “Did we wake you?”

She swallows and shakes her head. “No …”

He smiles then, quick and friendly, then readjusts Ban’s weight: he’s pulled one of his partner’s arms across his own shoulders, and Ban’s head hangs forward. He looks almost helpless now, dark hair limp. Rena leans forward. She only saw part of his fight against Sariel, but she remembers well the weight and terrifying presence when he fights seriously, and the creeping reptilian cold of Aesculapius’ presence close by.

“He’ll be all right,” Ginji tells her, misinterpreting her curious look. “Ban-chan’s taken bigger hits than this. … even if he did lose.”

“–‘re you callin’ a loser, y’goddamn eel!” Ban jerks up and then sways wildly, and Rena shies back automatically. Ban’s free arm pinwheels for a moment, but he can’t seem to break away from Ginji enough to punch him, and so settles for peering at him instead.

“Wossit,” he says. “Where?”

“We’re at the Honky Tonk, Ban-chan,” Ginji keeps his voice gentle. “We were at the bar, remember? We came here after.”

“Oh.” Ban squints. “Whossa?”

“Rena-chan, Ban-chan. You remember Rena-chan, right? She works here now.”

Ban grunts, then shakes his head. “Y’dun need t’patronize me, y’damn eel …”

Rena isn’t sure where Ban is misinterpreting kindness as patronizing, but Ginji at least seems unconcerned by the insult. If anything, he looks a little relieved by it.

“Of course not, Ban-chan.”

“Well,” Paul says, and he has a blanket draped over his arm, which startles Rena — it means he left her alone with the GetBackers at one point, and she didn’t even notice — “now that we’ve got location settled, how about getting Ban to bed? It’s the back for you two, the guest room is Rena-chan’s room now.”

“Hey,” Ban slurs. “Fuck you, old man, you don’t treat me like that either …”

“Ginji, you can take care of this joker, right?” Paul hands him the blankets, and Rena takes the opportunity to duck out of the way.

Ginji smiles. “I always do,” he says, with simple straightforward honesty. It takes him a bit of juggling with Ban in one arm and the blankets in the other, but then he says, cheerful, “Let’s go, Ban-chan,” and they stagger towards the Honky Tonk’s small back room. They’re not entirely successful in coordinating their movements, and a few times Rena thinks they’re just going to fall, but somehow they make it, and Ginji gives a brief wave good-night before closing the door.

“They’ll be fine,” Paul tells her. “As long as they clean up after themselves.”

Rena hesitates. “Master …”

“Hmm? Something up, Rena-chan?”

She looks down at her feet. She takes a deep breath. “Those two,” she says. “The GetBackers. What you said before … they’re not friends, are they.”

“Well.” Paul’s eyebrows lift. “I suppose that depends on what you mean when you say they aren’t friends.”

“They fight so much,” she whispers. “They fight more than I did with the other angels, and they were just my allies, not my friends. They fight and they only seem to get along when the money is good — but Senpai was saying how they’re good friends, they’re the best of friends, and–”

“Rena-chan,” Paul says, his voice patient, “you see things differently than Natsumi-chan does. So when you look at them, what do you see?”

She bit her lip and dug at the floor with the toe of one slipper. “… I don’t know,” she mumbles. “It’s not. It isn’t really friendship, though.”

“No,” the master agrees. “They’re not quite.” He pushes his sunglasses up — why he’s wearing them so late at night, Rena suddenly wants to ask as well, though she manages to refrain. “It’s a sort of bond that doesn’t have to make sense, as long as it exists.” He glances at the back door. “You’re a smart girl, I’m sure you understand.”

“Then …” Rena thinks for a moment before, blushingly, she lifts her pinky. “Like — this?”

Paul’s eyebrows shoot higher. “I don’t want to know where a girl like you learned sign language like that,” he says. “But pretty much. It’s a little different — don’t do that.” He reaches out, slowly, and Rena watches with narrowed eyes as he covers her hand with his, folding her pinky back down. “When you were Remiel, you had comrades you fought with, right?”

Rena nods, looking at their hands. “People you fight with,” she whispered. “People you die with.”

There’s a silence; when she looks up, she’s surprised to see Paul smiling at her.

“Closer,” he says. “But rather than someone you die with, it’s more someone you die for.”

+++

The next morning, early, Rena creeps downstairs. Outside the first blush of dawn has faded into the steely gray of an overcast day. She walks on the balls of her feet, mouse-quiet, as Remiel taught her to do, and she opens the door to the back room, also quiet.

To her surprise, Ginji is awake; he looks up and blinks at her. Then he smiles, sudden and spontaneous, and she sees that Ban is lying with his head in Ginji’s lap.

“Shh,” he says. “Ban-chan’s still asleep, Rena-chan, but we’ll be out before the Honky Tonk opens, okay?”

Mutely she looks at him. He has one hand tangled in Ban’s hair — not petting, but woven in, his palm flat to the vulnerable curve of skull. Ban’s glasses have been taken off and set aside, and Rena would have expected a fighter like him to start awake at the slightest noise — but he’s still fast asleep. He may (and this could just be a trick of the light) be smiling a little.

“Rena-chan?” Ginji’s voice is still soft. “Is there something wrong?”

She looks at him again, and for the first time she doesn’t see any trace of his card still lingering in his face.

“No,” she says softly. Then, shyly, almost as an afterthought, she adds, “Sleep well. It will be a few hours before we open.”

He smiles at her; his fingers curl and relax in Ban’s heavy hair. “Yeah,” he says. “Thank you, Rena-chan.”

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A Bed Of Flowers (All Smell The Same)

“You’re certain this will work?”

“Ladies go nuts for this sorta thing, the bigger the better! ‘Course, Kadsuki-han ain’t a lady, but he’s a gentleman, and that’s close enough.”

+++

The entire place stank of flowers. There were too many of them, all clashing, and some of them so crushed under the weight of their fellows that they’d begun to rot at the edges.

It was an … interesting effect, to say the least, though they did add something to the otherwise-barren and grim landscape of Lower Town. Some of the braver kids hovered behind the broken pieces of walls, watching, and the boldest had already darted to grab a handful of flowers and dash off with them.

Emishi whistled when he saw the lot of them. “Where’d you find all of that?” he asked. “No florist in his right mind delivers to the Mugenjou. ‘Specially not anywhere past the doorstep.”

“I went looking myself,” Juubei said stiffly. “It would not do to delegate all the work.”

“Hahhh?” Emishi’s head tilted. “I don’t get what you’re sayin’.”

“This is my duty,” Juubei said. “While I could ask for help, I could not simply direct, as a lord does. It would not be proper.”

“Proper. Right.” Emishi crossed his arms. “… You do know we’re not really like that any more? Like, it’s not really cheating if you get takeout. I promise.”

“This is the proper way of doing things!” Juubei scowled. “Emishi, you were the one who said–”

“Right, right, I gotcha.” Emishi held up his hands. “Still, this is a lot. How’d you get it here?”

“…” Juubei said at first, and then, grudgingly, “I hired the GetBackers.”

“But they’re retrievers, not transporters.” Emishi squatted down and tugged a wilting lily from the heap. “How’d you do that?”

Juubei shrugged. However, light pinged off his visor and he might have smiled just a little. “Even Midou’s pride isn’t strong enough to withstand an empty stomach and no work for over a month. I had them retrieve flowers from whatever shops they could.”

“Didja give ’em the money for it?” Emishi lifted his prize up, making a brief face at the soggy sad thing. “If they didn’t have the money for food, they–”

“I did not ask how they found the necessary items,” Juubei said, almost prim. “What matters is they were obtained.”

+++

“Dumpsters,” Ginji told Emishi later. “We went dumpster-diving. ‘Cause eventually, most florists will throw away their older flowers, right, the ones they didn’t sell? We just got those. And I think Juubei paid for a few new ones. The roses, maybe.” He glanced at Ban, who was seated at the Honky Tonk’s counter, nursing the same cup of coffee he’d had when Emishi had wandered in over an hour ago. “Ah, but don’t mention it to Ban-chan, okay? He’s still sulking.”

+++

“Juubei, we have to do something about this mess,” Makubex said. He’d emerged from his control room to see the still-growing pile of flowers for himself; they now filled nearly an entire small lot, though the smell was getting decidedly more rotten-green than floral. “How much more do you need?”

“I’m looking for the perfect ones,” Juubei said. He was seated, seiza style, among smaller mounds of flowers. There was a pile in his lap and bits of vegetation in his hair. “I’ll know them when I find them. I haven’t yet.”

“But, Juubei,” Makubex said, “you still can’t see.”

Juubei dug his hands through the pile of flowers and brought them to his face, breathing deeply. When he put them aside, there was a bruised and browning petal on his lower lip. “I’ll know it when I find them,” he said; the fragment on his lip bobbed with the words, but didn’t fall off.

“Er,” Makubex said, then sighed. “Just try to hurry, all right? It’s creating a mess.”

Still serene, Juubei reached for the next pile of flowers and put them on his lap. Then he sifted his fingers through them, discarding whatever fell free, and repeated the sniffing process.

“I’ll find them when I find them,” he said, and reached for more. Makubex watched him a few moments longer, then made his escape.

+++

“Juubei-han,” Emishi began. “Yanno, when I said flowers would be a good idea, I didn’t really mean anything like–”

“This one,” Juubei said. He held up a rather bedraggled-looking rose. “What color is it?”

“Er? It’s red, Juubei-han, but I don’t think–”

“Red,” Juubei said; he sounded rather satisfied with himself. “Perfect. This one?”

“Red too, Juubei-han–”

“This one? Emishi, this is important.”

“So’s the mess you’re making,” Emishi protested. “We’re Makubex’s kings, we’ve got a reputation to uphold! We’re followin’ in the footsteps of Kadsuki-han and Shido-han, we gotta do ’em proud! Eh? Ehhh?”

Juubei waited patiently for the spiel to end, then gestured with the next flower again.

Emishi sighed. “That’s red too. Any particular reason why?”

For a moment Juubei fell silent, sorting through a new pile of flowers by touch. Eventually he said, “The lady of the house used to keep gardens that she tended to — not the gardeners, she’d do the actual work herself. She grew red peonies, which she planted the day she learned she was pregnant.” His fingers twisted, and one of the stems was neatly beheaded. “They burned with the rest of the estate.”

Emishi said nothing as he looked at Juubei. Then he reached out and took the next few flowers from Juubei’s hands. “These aren’t red,” he said.

Juubei nodded his thanks.

+++

Eventually, though, the big guns had to be brought out: after two weeks of flowers slowly piling up and mulching near the New VOLTS headquarters, Sakura went to speak with her brother. She stood and watched him for a while, and then said, “Juubei.”

“Sister.” Juubei did not look up from his work. “Was there something you needed?”

Sakura nudged a pile of vegetation with one foot. “While I’m sure the sentiment is very nice,” she said, “but this is going a little too far.”

Juubei’s hands paused. “It’s for Kadsuki’s birthday.”

“I know.” She continued to look at him evenly, and after a moment Juubei shifted — not quite a squirm — under her watchful gaze. “But something a little simpler might be better.” She bent and picked up a single red lily — one on the top of its pile, and remarkably undamaged. She twirled it between her fingers. “Lady Fuuchoin always believed in elegance and simplicity as the true signs of beauty.”

He said nothing. She walked over to stand beside him and took his hand, pressing the lily into it.

+++

“I don’t get it,” said Emishi. He’d taken a clump of Juubei’s flowers and dropped it over his head — camouflage, he’d called it — and was now peering over a broken stone wall at the Kakei siblings. “How does she do it?”

“It’s because she’s Sakura,” Makbuex said. He wasn’t quite comfortable with the crouching and spying thing — it would’ve been easier to view from his control room, he’d pointed out, and had still been dragged out for his protests. “And she knows how to deal with her brother.” In spite of himself, he leaned up a little to get a better look as she pressed a flower into Juubei’s hand.

“Imagine that!” Emishi put his hands over his heart and sighed. Bits of muddy greenery slipped at the movement, hanging down half the side of his face. “Just like you’d expect from the wonderful Sakura-han, right?”

Makubex gave him a look. “Emishi?”

“Yessir?”

“Next time you have a brilliant suggestion for Juubei, run it by me first.”

+++

“I’ve seen this work before,” Kadsuki said thoughtfully. He ran his fingertips lightly down the sides of the vase, tracing from base to lip. “Your mother’s style of ikebana, isn’t it?”

Juubei shrugged. He sat with his legs folded under him in seiza, hands on his knees. “You always said my mother’s ikebana was the most elegant you’d ever seen,” he said. His expression remained deadpan, but there was something shading into embarrassment in his voice. “If it’s not sufficient, I can still–”

“I’d forgotten,” Kadsuki interrupted gently. “Your mother had a wonderful eye. She taught you well, if you can remember this much without seeing.”

“I had help,” Juubei said. “In getting the flowers–”

“So I’d heard.” Kadsuki’s lips quirked into a half-smile. “You never do anything by half-measures, Juubei.”

Juubei squares his shoulders. “Kadsuki. I–”

“And all this for me.” Kadsuki knelt beside Juubei covered one of Juubei’s hands with his own. After a long moment, Juubei moved to lace their fingers together. “You remember nobility as well as any other.”

“I could have done more,” Juubei said, his voice heavy now with shame. “But I was blinded yet again by my own desires. I became too involved in my pride, and forgot my promises to you–”

Kadsuki pressed a cool finger to his lips. “None of that,” he said. “There have been kings who have killed for less.”

Juubei’s arms lifted slowly. Kadsuki put the arrangement aside, out of the way, and leaned into his embrace.

“Happy birthday,” Juubei muttered, into Kadsuki’s sweet-smelling hair, “my master.”
+++

Later:

“But Juubei, my brithday is January first.”

“… Oh. Happy anniversary, then.”

“Our anniversary isn’t — never mind. Thank you, Juubei.”

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for his loyalty

It is war that takes Uther Pendragon’s life: his war on magic, which in turn spreads to a clash with a baron desperate to keep his daughter’s magical studies hidden, sends Camelot marching to her king’s death. No one can say exactly how it happened, only that the king fell as the sun rose on the eighth day of battle, toppled from his horse by the gravity of a stopped heart. It is his son who takes up his fallen banner, who roars challenge and fights with the vicious anger of the newly-orphaned; it is his son who brings the baron to his knees and forces the opposing army to surrender: to be certain, his own army rose with him, but the stories that follow from this day always mention Arthur and Arthur alone by name, great and terrible both in his grief–bloodied and still shining golden under the last rays of the setting sun.

The king is dead; long live the king.

The stories precede them: Camelot is already draped in colors of both mourning and celebration by the time the army returns, limping and diminished, and the moment Arthur dismounts he is swept up into an inexorable tide of people. Everyone has to speak with him at once, from councilors to envoys to servants, their voices competing with one another until everything came together in a terrible cacophony of sound. He is the picture of remarkable poise and grace and so cements more of his legend into place. By the time Merlin finds him and beats off the lingering vultures (a metaphor, certainly, but one perhaps more literal than Merlin himself likes, and he would have to be blind to miss the flash of naked relief in Arthur’s eyes after he chased off the last pinch-faced minister), there are already people murmuring about the new king’s inhuman patience and calm, how he seems less like a man and more like an ideal, rock-solid as if his feet were rooted directly in Albion’s soil. That is how a king should be, they whisper with satisfaction, and no disrespect to his lord father, but that’s only the truth of the matter.

It is only hours later, when things are dark and still and Merlin is the only other person with him, that Arthur shares his opinion on the matter: it was a relief–a lifetime of obsessive hatred changes a man, however noble his intentions once were. It was a relief, because Uther was starting to lose himself. He was becoming less of a father and a man, more of a caricature of hate. Maybe in this way, dying in battle with sword raised and banner high, people would someday remember him as he was: the king who brought peace and prosperity to Camelot and loved his kingdom so well she was always first and foremost in his thoughts, as much–if not more–as an older sibling to Arthur as Morgana. Maybe his legacy would not be forever tarnished by the madness and decline of his later years.

Maybe.

Merlin listens to him say these things, low and hoarse–embarrassed confessions that Arthur will completely disavow in the morning–and says nothing for once; he knows what it is like to lose a father, and he has learned enough to realize when his silence is his greatest comfort.

+++

Uther’s funeral ends with Arthur’s coronation. Arthur dislikes the idea, his lips pinched white and his eyes tight at the corners–but he cannot argue the practicalities of it, with the kingdom nervously waiting her proper king and rivals eying Camelot’s borders with hungry speculation. He wears Pendragon’s red and gold without a scrap of black, but it does not take a particularly observant person to see he is mourning. Still, he keeps his back straight and his shoulders squared, even as he kneels to accept his crown, and Merlin almost can’t watch, because his heart has swelled nearly to a point of pain. He joins the cheering with a fervor that might have embarrassed him once upon a time; now, he only hopes that Arthur hears him, and is comforted by that.

Afterward, everything comes together into a blur: Uther’s death was ill-timed (but then, there is very rarely a good time for a king to die, even with a proper and acknowledged heir left behind him), in the deep, suffocating cold months that follow midwinter and in the midst of delicate trade treaties. There are agreements that must be reworded, lines that must be redrawn, and Camelot’s young new king spends his time in discussion and political maneuvering. He has little time for sleep and less for meals; it takes Merlin and Gwen both working together to ambush him before he will accept either. He ages in those long months and Camelot holds her breath to see which way he will fall, when his plans and his treaties unfurl into action. The flurry of rumors and stories that began with his father’s death turn uneasy with speculation. Will he be a good king? the servants whisper to each other, and to their families in the lower city. He is a good man, and one who has grown remarkably in the past few years, but does that make him a good ruler? Is he ready for this responsibility?

Merlin holds his breath as well, counting the lines that begin to bracket Arthur’s eyes and mouth, and does what he can: a quick whispered spell to ensure that Arthur’s clothes are warmed, a charm that lets the heavy royal cloak block out all but the most persistent of winter winds, and more to keep the fire burning and the rooms draft-free. It is perversely easier now: the ban on magic still stands, but Arthur is not there to catch him, though Merlin lurks in the king’s chambers more than anywhere else–and if his efforts are noticed, no one is ready to bring it to the king’s attention just yet.

He prays, though, and he can feel the land stirring to life as the winter drags on to its slow and inevitable end. Albion shivers and stirs, and there is an excited thrumming in Merlin’s veins that he cannot suppress. It is the same way he felt the first time he looked at Arthur and saw the king the man could become–would become. As her last and truest king guides his kingdom through the pitfalls of winter, of food shortages and speculative whispering from bordering countries, the land awakens and begins to sing. The sound echoes in Merlin’s ears day and night, and he thinks it will keep him from sleeping, but instead, he sleeps better and more soundly than he can remember in his entire life.

On the first day of spring, the boy comes to Camelot.

+++

It takes several months of wheedling and subtle hints and a few blunt outright statements, but Merlin finally convinces his king to take a short ride, though they do not go even far enough to lose sight of the castle gates–the wind today is sweet, rather than the bitter aching cold of previous weeks, and it seems to do Arthur some good: he even smiles a little, though he is still quiet and subdued. The arrogant princeling is a persona that will take months to rebuild if it ever returns, and the quiet thoughtful man revealed in his place is someone Merlin is rather looking forward to getting to know. They don’t talk, but it isn’t a brooding silence; there is singing in Merlin’s ears and the nervous excited feeling of something–something–coming.

At the gates of the castle, when they return, is a boy.

He isn’t very old–more child than man, with tremendous bristling dark brows that didn’t match his fair hair. He dresses like a countryman, but his cloak is long and unstained by travel, and of finer quality than anything else he wears. Under those brows, his eyes are green as Albion’s hills, but that and the roundness of his face were the only softness in him–his face was set in a terrible scowl, his arms crossed over his thin chest. Arthur stops dead at the sight of him, an odd confusion plain on his face. For Merlin, though, the singing in his ears swells to its greatest crescendo, to the point where he couldn’t even hear anything else. Something shudders into life in his chest like a second heartbeat, a growing sense of excitement that, he thinks, could lift him off his feet and into the air with no effort by himself or his magic.

“You’re the king,” the boy says; his is one of the only voices that cuts through the cacophony in Merlin’s ears.

“And you’re …” Arthur’s voice is the other. A name forms on Merlin’s lips, but he can’t quite make himself speak it, just yet. Arthur frowns as if he has the same block, mouth twisting around a word that won’t come.

But: “My mother is Albion, who was your father’s, and your father’s father’s,” the boy says, his eyes clear and ageless under his heavy brows, “and I am yours.”

It’s utterly ridiculous and completely impossible and carries the weight of absolute truth. Merlin wants to laugh, and can see from Arthur’s face that he feels the same–but neither of them can manage it. Long seconds pass as king and boy stare at each other; the guards look to Merlin, who can only shrug helplessly.

Finally, though, never taking his eyes from the newcomer’s face, Camelot’s king holds his hand out to the boy who claims to be the son of his country. Gravely, the boy accepts it, and the two walk side-by-side, not quite touching beyond their clasped hands, and Merlin can only trot in their wake, trying his hardest to keep his feet on the ground. He does not entirely succeed, so he is grateful that his cloak is nearly long enough to hide that fact.

No one stops them as they enter the castle, as they make their way up the long stone stairs to the king’s private chamber. One courtier approaches them and abruptly pivots before he gets within hailing distance, and Merlin is fairly certain it isn’t his doing–but there is such a large part of his awareness that is preoccupied by that strange bubbling excitement; the entire kingdom is singing, and if he is nudging things to make sure that song doesn’t stop, he cannot entirely blame himself. The boy walks like a king himself, head high and back straight–but he clutches Arthur’s hand with a white-knuckled grip and his lips pressed together, like a child determined not to cry.

Once in his chamber, Arthur lets go of the boy’s hand slowly, almost reluctantly, then goes to throw himself into his chair. He steeples his fingers, his expression solemn.

“I think I remember you,” he says, as Merlin shuffles quietly in after both him and the boy, closing the door behind him and heading for the fire. In spite of himself, he strains to hear his king’s voice. “When I was a child–”

“Your father didn’t appreciate us,” the boy cuts in. His voice is too loud, and there are high spots of color in his cheeks; while his posture is still proud and tall, he is so painfully and clearly nervous that it’s painful to watch. “Mother Albion warned him–she told him it wouldn’t end well, and he banished her.” His fists ball up, trembling, and there is a tension in his shoulders and the lift of his chin, like he’s bracing for a blow. “We’re supposed to serve our leaders, but he didn’t want, he only–we went to the others, but they were never right, so–”

Arthur holds up a hand. The boy immediately falls silent, but he took a deep breath, puffing himself up further.

“I remember,” he says softly. “Father was furious for weeks after. We lost a border skirmish with Mercia that month, and we very nearly lost more. It took years to recover from that setback, and even then, we never really won all that territory back.” He leans back further in his chair, resting his chin on one hand, fingers splayed against his face; it is such a familiar gesture in such an alien situation that Merlin is struck by it, watching the shadows on Arthur’s face. “Was that you?”

“We don’t have the power to change the tides of war,” the boy says. “But we swear sword and shield to our liege, and there are none who know our lands better.” His lips press together, and his eyes sparkle dangerously wet. “And if we’re forbidden, there’s nowhere else for us to go.”

“Don’t cry,” Arthur says, and that is also a voice Merlin remembers, the prat under the king. He sits forward then, his blue eyes shadowed and glittering, intent as a hawk–as the dragon on his crest. Merlin finds himself holding his breath, the pounding of his heartbeat in his ears nearly enough to drown out the joyous singing he can still hear; his vision is overlaid with the image of clear skies with the Pendragon banner flying gloriously free. “You’re here for me, then? What do you want?”

“I’m here to serve you,” the boy says, and his face goes even redder; he fidgets without looking at anything but his own feet. “Whatever you want from me–if you’ll have me, your majesty, I–” He fumbles for a moment, then drops to his knees, hands clasped now as if in prayer or pleading. “I’ll serve you all your life. You’re going to be my king, everyone’s always said that, it’s supposed to be destiny–”

“I don’t believe in destiny,” says Arthur, and that is enough to make both the boy and Merlin stop. His expression is calm as he gets to his feet, his hands folded behind his back, and goes to stand before the fireplace. Backlit as he is, he is a powerful figure, the sort that legends could be made from, and his expression is absolutely unreadable. “I believe in hard work, and in determination. A man doesn’t need to be of noble birth to amount to something–and neither does he need sanction from some higher power in order to enact change.” He turns away from the fire and approaches the boy, drawing his sword.

Merlin freezes and opens his mouth to protest, but Arthur rests the blade on the boy’s shoulder instead, the flat of the blade on the narrow slope of flesh. He says, “You’ll follow me?”

“To the end of everything,” the boy says. He isn’t afraid any more: his eyes are clear and there is less tension in his posture; though there is a sword close to his exposed neck, he doesn’t flinch away. “Even if you don’t believe, I do.”

“That’ll do for now,” says Arthur. He steps back and sheaths his sword immediately, all without taking his eyes away from the boy’s face. “What do I even call you?”

“I am Albion,” the boy says. “Like my mother before me.” He glances over then, at Merlin, who hovers as unobtrusively as possible in the back of the chamber. “And you’re–”

“Merlin,” he says quickly. “Just Merlin. The king’s manservant.”

“And an utterly useless one at that,” Arthur says, but his mouth quirks into a smile, which is warmer than any expression he’s had for months. “He’s not bad for entertainment, though, which is why I keep him around.”

“Oy!”

Arthur leans forward and offers his hand to the boy–to Albion, who stares at it for a moment before clasping it again, and lets himself be helped to his feet. He clasps the boy’s other shoulder with his free hand and smiles, the firelight golden in his hair and reflected in his eyes. His gaze is distant, as if he can also see those clear skies and the flourishing country, and the land sheltered under the dragon’s wing. “We will do what’s best for our people,” he says, “and together we will build something great.”

+++

“I have to admit,” Merlin says later, “I’m surprised.”

“Hmmmm?” Arthur raises an eyebrow, one cheek stuffed with a torn chunk of bread. “And what’s that?”

“That boy,” Merlin says, “he just shows up, tells you he’s the–he’s the living embodiment of the entire country, and you just accept that? Poof, that’s it? Where’s all the the accusations of lies, where’s the yelling about magic and how you’ll never accept that, where’s–”

“Merlin,” Arthur sighs. “Merlin, Merlin, Merlin. Clearly, I shouldn’t have expected someone as uniquely thick as you are to understand the reasoning here–I’ll admit, it’s quite complicated, especially useless uneducated servants who get uppity–”

“Arthur.”

Arthur takes another bite, and his expression goes slowly sincere. “I meant what I said,” he says. “About remembering him. And the woman who came with him–you don’t forget someone like that.” He picks up his cup, but he doesn’t drink, staring down into its contents. “I’d never seen them before in my life, but when they showed up, it felt like I’d known them forever. And when they left …” His mouth twists abruptly, and he puts the cup away. “I don’t know. It was the right thing to do.”

“Even though you don’t believe in destiny,” Merlin says, and he can’t help himself, his voice is small and almost afraid. Arthur looks at him sharply.

“No,” he says finally, slowly. “I don’t. If you simply expect things to happened, merely because they’re destined–that’s taking the lazy man’s way out. I’d rather know the consequences of my actions are things I’ve earned, rather than something that was just handed to me, by right of my birth.”

From somewhere deep inside, Merlin dredges up a smile. Judging from the way Arthur’s frown deepens, it is not a very good one. “What a change,” he manages. “Wasn’t it just last year you were telling me that you should get things because you were the Crown Prince?”

Arthur’s tired half-smile is no better than his own, he knows. “The responsibilities of a prince versus those of a king are very different,” he says. “I’ve learned a lot.”

Silence spins out in the wake of that comment, and finally Merlin can’t stand it–he reaches out and tentatively brushes his fingers against the back of Arthur’s hand, still resting near his cup. The skin there is warm and rough from calluses, with only the barest promise of fragility in it–the delicacy of being mortal and fallible, and it takes more effort than he would like not to snatch that touch back at once. He looks at Arthur and Arthur looks at the fire, and just when he thinks that he’s being ignored, and move away, Arthur’s hand moves, lacing his fingers just barely with Merlin’s own.

“Is it all right, then,” Merlin says softly, “if I believe? In destiny and rot like that.”

Arthur’s eyes cut towards him again before the other man snorts in a moment of unexpected good humor. “I hardly think I could stop you,” he says dryly. “I could order you to do a thousand things, and you wouldn’t listen to a single one.”

That’s not entirely true, Merlin thinks; you could order a hundred things, and I would do a thousand.

Aloud, he says nothing, but he does not move his hand away.

+++

Merlin dreams:

Guinevere, with dozens of small white flowers embroidered into her hair, kneels in a ripple of cream-colored skirts under a night sky, nervous anticipation and hope both in her eyes. When a man appears at the edge of the garden, she leaps to her feet with a glad cry, and she kicks off her fine shoes to run barefoot to him; she throws something aside as she tosses herself into her lover’s arms, and the Pendragon emblem is softly outlined by fickle starlight. She whispers apologies between kisses and they are echoed back to her, but the man whose pain they regret is nowhere nearby, unaware of his betrayal.

(How could you, he cries; why would you, with what you had!)

A battlefield that is a thousand times worse than the one that claimed Uther’s life, enemies and allies alike lying dead and discarded, blood and mud and worse churned into the ruined earth. Two men in particular lie together as if locked in a lover’s embrace. One still struggles, choking on the blood that runs from both corners of his mouth, trying to push the deadweight of his killer off; his eyes roll like those of a terrified horse as a woman approaches them both, a second boyish figure trailing in her wake. They speak in low hushed voices, and the larger man, pliable and loose-limbed in death as he never was in life, is lifted into the boy’s arms. The woman raises her face and pulls back her hood, and Morgana looks down upon her companion’s burden with infinite sadness before she kneels to retrieve both fallen swords, and they walk away.

(No, he weeps; it isn’t true, it can’t be true, we were meant to be immortal.)

The boy–Albion–bows low to a woman who is agelessly beautiful and painfully sad, whose dress is the same shimmering misty grey of early morning. She accepts the dead man that her son has brought to her and cradles him like a mother would a beloved infant. She turns away and walks from the shore, slowly and calmly, and is swallowed up by the mists that shroud the Isle of the Blessed.

Merlin wakes.

The first thing he does is scrub his face, oddly furious at the tears on his cheeks, and then gets up, dressing in the peculiar light of pre-dawn, and he goes searching.

He finds the boy standing on the battlements, looking down at the sleeping veiled countryside. Though Merlin himself shivers in the chill, the boy doesn’t even seem to notice, his green eyes shadowed and thoughtful. He looks up once at Merlin’s approach and nods, solemnly, but does not say anything as Merlin takes a place by his side.

Merlin himself has to break the silence: “I thought you said you’d protect him.”

“I will serve him,” the boy corrects softly. “Like my mother served his grandfather, and would have served his father, if she’d been allowed.”

“But he’ll still–”

“All humans die,” the boy says, and the last few of Merlin’s lingering doubts are dashed away: there is something alien and sad in the boy’s face, and while there is understanding, there is no empathy. “Even the best and most beloved.”

“But Arthur–”

“Is the most beloved. He’ll still die. I can’t protect him from that.” For just a moment, Albion looks regretful, his small fingers going white-knuckled against the stone. “That’s part of his destiny.”

Merlin opens his mouth to protest–this cannot be, no one with Destiny could die like that, gasping and alone except for his killer–abandoned by everyone else until it was too late for anyone to reach him–but cannot make the words come out. Something in him trembles with the knowledge of inevitability. He swallows and it feels like a blade going down his throat. Albion turns to face him now, one hand still braced against the stone, the other outstretched.

“Until then, I will fight for him,” Albion tells him, young and so utterly serious, like another boy Merlin once knew. “Everything will prosper, and when it’s done, my mother will care for him.”

For long moments, Merlin just stares at that hand. Slowly, with an odd feeling of detachment, he lifts his hand and clasps Albion’s outstretched one. Part of him expects–hopes–for better visions, happier visions, like the gleeful anticipation from the day before, but there is nothing but a small, warm, slightly callused fingers against his own. The chill of early morning is beginning to fade, burned away by the rising sun. He looks down into those solemn green eyes and sees a reflection of his own fears.

“Both of you are first and last,” says Albion. It’s on the tip of Merlin’s tongue to protest, but it’s arrested by the look in Albion’s eyes. “He doesn’t know, does he?”

Merlin shakes his head. There is only one thing Arthur does not know–one critical thing that has fallen by the wayside, busy as they’ve been. Merlin has not been as secretive as he once was, but he has never simply come out and said By the way, I’m a sorcerer. At this point, he’s not sure he can, not without destroying the years of rapport he’s built up with his young king and losing the best and dearest friend he’s had the fortune to cherish. Fear turns him silent; anticipation keeps him still.

“Ah,” says Albion; there is something knowing in his tone, as if he could hear that unsaid explanation. His brow furrows. “But he has to know,” he says. “Everyone knows–it’s all the faeries sing about, when people ask about you–”

In that moment, he looks just like a confused little boy, confronted by the challenge that his bedtime stories (and what sort of stories does one tell an infant country, really; if Albion exists in this form, with a mother, then are there more, do they know each other, is it–it’s beginning to make Merlin’s head hurt) are not real. He says again, “Shouldn’t he know? By now? You’re going to tell him, right?”

(Merlin dreamed, and in those dreams, he had not been in a single one.)

He does not let go of Merlin’s hand, so Merlin is the one who has to pull away, muttering something about fetching breakfast for the king, and flees. He feels strange and out of place, like all the familiar hallways and faces have been replaced by strangers. By the time he makes it to Arthur’s chambers–the king’s chambers–that feeling has intensified to what feels like physical pressure across his shoulders.

He opens the door and finds Arthur awake, in nearly the same position he’d been the night before, seated in his chair and facing the fire. Merlin hovers, unsure suddenly of his welcome–in the short distance between the doorway and the chair, he can see a thousand opportunities wasted, and all the ways things could still go incredibly wrong. When he blinks, he sees that cold muddy field again, and the steel-shot iron of Arthur’s wet hair. He thinks–he knows–he could be there, and he could stop that from happening, but only if–

“Merlin,” the king says with a sigh. “Just put it down and leave it, will you?”

Timid, Merlin creeps forward, to do as he’s asked. He lingers after, blinking away the cobwebs of visions. Though he hesitates to call what he’s doing hovering, he knows it’s pretty much the same thing, and he knows that in a moment, Arthur will notice and be irritated. Before that moment comes, he takes a deep breath. “Arthur,” he says. “Arthur, there’s something you need to know–”

Arthur laughs; it’s a short rough noise, but it’s mostly amused. “There’s lots of things I need to know,” he says. “Who’s going to gun for war next, how well the grain harvests will do this year, what to do with that boy–what is it this time?”

Merlin licks his lips. “I,” he starts to say. He stops and shifts his weight. His restless fingers find the knife he brought with Arthur’s breakfast and begin to fiddle with it. “You know, I know I should have said before, I just–it’s just that I–there were things that kept coming up, and–”

“Merlin,” Arthur sighs. “Just get on with it.”

“I know you want to do things your own way,” Merlin says in a rush, fast enough to make himself breathless, “and that’s good, that’s great, I just want you to know–it’s not just your knights that you have at your disposal, all right, anything that I can do, whatever you want, I–” He falters when Arthur’s gaze lifts to his, and there is no reading that expression, dark-eyed and flat-mouthed. “… Whatever you want. Sire.”

“Whatever I want,” Arthur echoes. His voice is very soft. “That’s a dangerous thing to promise, Merlin.”

“If you want it,” Merlin says, equally quiet, “I’ll do it. I swear, Arthur, it’s all for you–”

Arthur holds up a hand. Merlin shuts up immediately.

“Your timing is shite as your skills as a manservant,” he says. “Not that I don’t understand why, but–”

“I wanted you to know,” Merlin protests, unable to stop himself. “More than anyone else, I wanted to tell you–I don’t want you to think it’s because I didn’t trust you, and I mean, I guess I was afraid, but it wasn’t of you, it was just–”

Arthur sits back in his chair, hard enough to send it skidding back a little, covering his face with one hand. Merlin continues to hover, anxious and afraid, and then he sees the smile that peeks out from under his fingers. It’s unexpected and staggering, the relief that rushes through him and leaves him weak-kneed, leaning heavily against the table for support. Arthur doesn’t laugh–he hasn’t really laughed in over a year–but there is something friendly and wry and knowing in his look, as if he does understand, and he forgives Merlin’s part in his ignorance.

What he says, though, is just, “You’re still mine, then?”

“Till the day I die,” Merlin says, and adds, “Arthur,” for good measure.

“Well then,” Arthur says, and doesn’t bother to hide how pleased he is by that, “I suppose that’s enough for me.”

+++

In the east tower, only two doors away from what had once been the Queen’s personal chambers, is another small set of rooms. Albion claims these for his own, when checking the records discovers they had once belonged to a Lady Brighid, whose family and house were unrecorded, but who had apparently stayed in those chambers until shortly before the Queen’s pregnancy. Albion’s mouth does a moue at the mention of the woman’s name, but he repeats his claim until the king formally invites him to stay. He takes no human name and prefers to keep to himself, emerging only to trail like a ghost after Arthur into council meetings. If the nobility find him peculiar, none can really seem to bring themselves to genuinely protest his presence.

On Midsummer’s Eve, when the last of Uther’s bans on magic have been formally lifted, Merlin finds king and country both on the battlements, looking out over Camelot. Fires burn in the distance, but as symbols of celebration rather than fear; even this far away, the sounds of singing and celebration can be heard. Neither of them speak or look up at Merlin’s approach, two fair heads bent not quite together in their vigil, but it is a comfortable sort of silence rather than anything strained. Merlin takes up a spot to Arthur’s right, and says, “Nice night.”

Arthur snorts, but the sound is amused. “Master of stating the obvious, aren’t you.”

“Oy,” Merlin protests without heat. He jostles Arthur’s arm a little with his elbow, halfhearted. He glances sideways and sees Arthur looking back and Albion leaning against the cold stone, apparently fascinated by the shadowed countryside. “I’m glad,” he adds, almost shy. “About everything that’s happened today.”

“Flexibility is an important quality in a ruler,” Arthur tells him, and it’s not his kingly voice but his voice, slyly magnanimous. “Despite some people insisting on never seeing things in a different light, I pride myself on being observant and adapting with the times.”

“Prat.”

“Idiot.”

“Look!” Albion cuts in, and he’s leaning so far against the stone that he seems nearly in danger of toppling forward, but hardly seems to notice, even when Arthur hooks fingers into his shirt and drags him back. He points to a spot in the distance, towards where the sun had set just a short hour before, in the direction where Merlin knows the Isle of the Blessed lies hidden. There, beyond the bonfires of revelry, below the spread shimmering blanket of stars, between the tall sharp spires of trees, is a single globe of pure white light. It holds steady and easy, never flickering or fading, and Albion’s face glows like that of an excited child. “That’s Mother,” he says, turning to look at Arthur and Merlin both, bouncing a little on the balls of his feet. “Mother must know what’s happened, she must be so happy.”

“Nothing’s really happened,” Arthur says indulgently. “We won’t be seeing herb-witches in the street tomorrow, or for a long time yet. It’ll take the example set–” and here he reaches out, tugging at the pendant around Merlin’s neck, symbol of his new position–“and work before it really it’s really anything the people will believe. It’s a sign of goodwill, but it’ll be our actions that give it any meaning.”

But Merlin catches Albion’s eyes and understands that flicker of excitement he sees–something has happened, though it is a step forward whose reverberations will not be felt for a short time yet. The time will come, though: sorcerers and their kin will stop shunning Camelot’s borders, and as with the men who come to lay their swords at Arthur’s feet, so there will be witches and wizards who will swear fealty to this proud young king, whose acceptance and determination will only expand the boundaries of his country further and further, until the entire country kneels before him. That is the promise embodied in the boy who looks up at Arthur with shining green eyes–the destiny implied in this country’s foresworn fealty.

Merlin moves a little closer to his king–they both do–to this flickering brilliant warmth (best and most beloved) who looks at them with quizzical affection. He says, “But things will happen.”

“Of course they will,” Arthur says at once, easy instinctive confidence in every word. Failure is not an option with him; it never has been. “We’ll make sure of it.”

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the doctor and the rope

Albert was born too hungry, his mother always said: too small, too skinny, too smart to be anything but trouble. She worked and his father both worked in the factories, which was where they’d met, man and woman both lean and hard and barely able to scrape together anything soft between them. He certainly wasn’t anything like that, scraping in the dust and cobwebs in a forgotten corner, watching the way mechanical parts fit together and moved, taking apart old machines and rebuilding them into something new. In this, Albert’s size helped, because even as the foreman stalked up and down the rows of hunched-over workers, he never noticed the boy who watched with burning unblinking eyes.

What he always wanted was more: he licked his plates clean of grease not so much because he enjoyed the taste but because the knot in his belly still felt hollow and hungry; he stuffed his pockets full of dusty nuts and bolts and broken machine parts from his mother’s factory and polished them to a dull shine so that he could have something to fill the empty space of his windowsill. He stole books and tore off corners of paper to scribble his notes on–and when there was no more room he would sketch the curvature of mechanical arms and the elegant way gears fit together. Albert didn’t like empty spaces and he didn’t like messes, so he organized and dreamed and sold odd little welded bits to scrape together what he needed for school.

There he met Tom Light.

The other man was an oddity, a blip on a radar that had never acknowledged anyone else before. He had heavy dark brows that often beetled together when he was thinking, and he was easier to read than anyone else, but he was brilliant and he was earnest, and that made him an acceptable person to befriend. He spoke softly and with emotion and always with a vision of the big picture. He wanted to build a new world with a skeleton and nervous system of steel, and Albert was fascinated. He thought about the factories he’d grown up in and his mother’s pinched face and his father’s weathered bleeding hands. There had been little room for anything soft between them. It would change nothing–it would change everything.

“It’s hell in the mines,” Tom said, his plain earnest face so utterly serious. Albert liked that, liked how everything was a matter of grave importance to Tom; nothing was too small or petty for his brilliant mind to consider. “It’s inhuman, the hours they make them work, how dangerous the conditions are. Survival is the lowest standard. There are things that men cannot do, and yet they must do, unless you want to be cut loose, with nothing to feed your wife and son.” Then he looked abashed, because he always looked embarrassed when he allowed personal things to slip. It was charming in the way small soft things were charming. It was something that Tom would have to grow out of, someday, but for now, Albert indulged him.

“We’ll build miners, then,” Albert said instead. He could imagine them clearly: lovely clean lines of steel and sharp edges, cutting through all the places that muscle and bone could not. He thinks of an entire army of them, a thousand bodies policed by his one will, filling up the empty places within themselves by rights of strength and skill. “Stronger ones, bigger ones–ones that won’t suffer if the shaft collapses on them.”

Tom forgot his embarrassment long enough to smile. It wasn’t a bad one, as smiles went, but it could be more than it was; there could be more to it. Tom was a man who had all sorts of untapped potential that, in the right hands, could be made into something truly amazing. Albert smiled back and shook Tom’s hand with warm confidence. He said, “I think we’ll do amazing things, Tom.”

“We will,” said Tom and smiled again. “The world will remember our names forever.”

Albert tested the sound of that aloud later, the world will remember our names forever, and found he liked it, and very much.

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starts like this

It starts like this: Haruki kisses Kazuki first.

It’s late afternoon in the student council office. The other members have long since gone home, and even Yuki has left early, muttering something about a family dinner and looking about as pleased as a man heading to his final supper. Except for the gentle scratch of pen against paper, the room is quiet: Haruki is involved with something-or-other, and Kazuki is somewhere hovering on the edge of sleep, his arms folded on the edge of the desk and his cheek pillowed on those arms. He’d given up on trying to convince Haruki to play hooky after the fifth absentminded “what?” and now, he’s just waiting.

He likes this, though, the quiet minutes that he can spend near Haruki without anyone else. He doesn’t resent sharing with Yuki (much), but his favorite times are when it’s just the two of them–even if Haruki is working, or reading, or not even paying attention at all, it’s a space where only the two of them exist.

The sounds of the pen stop. “Kazuki,” Haruki says.

Kazuki looks up. He blinks a few times. Haruki’s glasses are doing that thing where they look opaque, hiding his eyes. “Haruki–?”

It happens like this: Haruki leans forward and kisses him.

As first kisses go, it’s nothing spectacular. There are no fireworks going off, no swelling romantic music, no heartbeats synchronizing as one. Haruki’s mouth is soft, but a little chapped, slightly cooler than Kazuki’s own; he smells like the same brand of soap and shampoo he’s used since they were brats–there is nothing new to learn, because they already know everything about each other.

Well, except maybe for this.

Haruki also pulls back first. His glasses are still reflecting the light, and his brows are drawn together in that particular way he has when he’s on the verge of solving a problem that’s been puzzling him for a while. “Hm,” he says, and starts to gather his papers together. It’s like nothing even happened, for all the reaction that’s showing on Haruki’s face: as always, he’s calm and he’s in control. He opens his mouth, and instead of anything like explanation, he says, “We’re having nabe for dinner tonight. Grandmother said to invite you.”

It pisses Kazuki off. This was significant! This was important! And Haruki’s grandma’s nabe was really good, but some things had more priority!

“Haruki,” he says.

“She was planning on making dango, too,” Haruki says, as he snaps his bag shut. “It’s been a while since you’ve come over, so she misses you–”

Kazuki grabs Haruki by the collar, hauls him in close, and kisses him. Because it’s only his second kiss, it’s rough and unpracticed and their noses mash together at a bad angle and he’s not sure whose teeth bashed against his lip, but it’s pulled Haruki off-balance–he’s making a few startled noises, his hands fluttering before they come to rest on Kazuki’s shoulders. His fingers flex and relax, and it’s not hard to read him (it’s never been hard for Kazuki to read him)–no, stop, I should say something, we can’t.

“We can,” Kazuki tells him, only since they’re still kissing, sort of, it comes out more like “wwwgnn.” We can, it’s all right, it’s you and it’s me and I don’t care if you’re ahead right now, because I’ll always catch up, and we’ll go together. It’s a lot to put into a single sentence, but since it’s Haruki, he understands. He pulls away, and now his glasses are askew and his face is red and his eyes are wide. Kazuki can see himself reflected in them.

“You’re the smart one,” Kazuki says. “But I always catch up in the end. You’re not allowed to go anywhere without me.” He lets go of Haruki’s collar and reaches to tug his tie free instead, wrapping the end of it around his fist, then grins widely. “Besides, you’d worry if you tried to leave me.”

“Kazuki,” Haruki says softly. His voice cracks a little, and he looks so bewildered; Kazuki softens a bit in spite of himself. “I’m s–”

“I’m not,” Kazuki says, and kisses him again. This time he doesn’t rush it, so he avoids the nose obstacle and the teeth problem, so he’s pretty proud of himself. He even wins another little sound from Haruki, this one softer than before, which gives him as much of a thrill as getting the first perfect score on a new arcade shooter does. Maybe even more of one, because if it’s a game, it’s one Haruki will actually play with him, instead of hanging back to watch.

When this kiss ends, Haruki is still red, and he still looks bewildered, but he’s smiling now too, the same small private one that’s only ever belonged to Kazuki. He readjusts his glasses, but doesn’t try to pull his tie free, and he says, “If we don’t hurry, we’ll be late for dinner.”

“–Ahh!” Kazuki lets go finally, yanking back to grab his own bag. “Does this mean they’d start without us? They wouldn’t do that, right?? Wait for us, nabe! We’re coming!” He grabs Haruki’s wrist with his free hand and runs for it, dragging Haruki along the way.

“–Kazuki–!”

It starts like this: Haruki kisses Kazuki first.

Wherever it ends, though, Kazuki thinks, it’ll be fine. Because no matter where they go, they’ll be there together.

“Kazuki, my keys are in my bag, they’re back in the council office–”

“Ehhhhh?! Why didn’t you say so before?!”

“I was trying to! You weren’t listening!”

“WE’RE NEVER GONNA HAVE YOUR GRANDMA’S NABE, ARE WE!”

“Kazuki, honestly–”

“I’m going to die! I’ll die of hunger right here! Harukiiiii!”

“You …”

“It’s a race now! We have to run! Ouuuu! Ready, GO!”

“KAZUKI!!”

Together’s better than apart.

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in the name of the king

The smell of blood is heavy in the air–the taste of it is metallic on Haruki’s tongue each time he breathes in. If he looks down, he can see the young woman who’d tried to stab him to escape from the game, her throat slit and her eyes wide open and staring–so he can’t look down, he doesn’t look down; he looks up instead, first at the ceiling, and then closing his eyes tightly. He can’t stop shaking.

“Haruki,” Gara murmurs to him, and his hands are both rough and gentle as they pass over Haruki’s hair, across his face, down his body. “Haruki, you’re all right, you’re all right–”

A noise like a sob tears from Haruki’s throat. He throws his arms around Gara’s shoulders and presses his face into the man’s chest. Here it smells like sweat and leather, and it’s almost–almost–enough to drown out the stink of blood. He gasps for breath and claws at his Bishop’s shoulders, his own legs suddenly too weak to hold himself up.

“Haruki–?!”

“Please,” he gasps, and he’s not quite sure what he’s asking for. “Please, please–” He forces his eyes open and finds Gara’s face stunningly close, so close that if he stretches just a little, they can touch.

“Please,” he whispers again, then lets his weight hang on his arms, off Gara’s neck–lets himself go limp as Gara makes a noise akin to a growl and moves finally. Haruki’s always been aware of Gara’s strength in a distant way–under the heavy black coat, his arms are solid with muscle–but he is now acutely aware of it in an immediate sort of way as he is lifted, his back pressed up against the wall. One of Gara’s hands slides down low on his back to support him in the fumbling seconds it takes to wrap his legs around Gara’s hips, and then he is being kissed, hard enough that he tastes blood again–but it’s his blood, sharp on his lips in the seconds before that small injury heals itself, and Gara’s other hand is in his hair, clenching so tightly it very nearly hurts.

Haruki has been kissed once before–in his last year of middle school, on the last day, a girl had left a note in his locker and met him behind the school. She had been lovely, soft and delicate and smelling of vague florals, and Haruki had genuinely regretted turning her down–she’d accepted with grace, but as she had walked past him, she’d stopped long enough to stretch onto her toes, kissing the corner of her mouth before fleeing. It was something he’d told Kazuki about later, as they walked home, and Kazuki had just laughed.

“It’s ’cause the guy is supposed to kiss the girl,” he’d said, with his normal breezy confidence that the world would resolve itself the way he wanted. “Otherwise it’s just too weird! You’ll have to take the initiative next time, Haruki! –But only if the girl’s worth it,” and Kazuki had frowned then, as if the implication was suddenly just sinking in. “It has to be someone special! All right? Don’t kiss any girls unless I give them the okay, first!”

At the time, Haruki had laughed it off, somewhere between fond amusement and exasperation. It had never come up again, and though other girls had confessed during their first year as highschoolers, none had ever been as daring as that first.

And that girl had been nothing like Gara now, muttering things into Haruki’s mouth that weren’t even exactly words, but low rough expletives; he pulls away only long enough to yank off his gloves with his teeth, so that the hand he drags down Haruki’s chest, ripping several buttons on the way, is bare, so that it’s naked skin on naked skin as he kisses Haruki again, making a low rumbly noise of pleased encouragement when Haruki slides his own hands into Gara’s hair and holds on, kissing back with the clumsy eager desperation of the inexperienced.

“Please,” he gasps again, and makes a strangled noise when Gara gets his pants open, when fingers callused by knives and swords wraps around his cock and pumps hard and fast. He squeezes his eyes shut again, tightening his legs around Gara’s hips. “I want–”

“Not like that,” Gara rumbles; his voice is nearly unintelligible, a growl against Haruki’s mouth. He lets go, takes away that lovely harsh pressure as Haruki’s hips pitch and roll desperately. “No, Haruki.”

Haruki snarls himself and yanks at Gara’s hair. “I said–”

“S’gonna hurt,” Gara mutters, shifting to do something with his free hand, with one cupped under Haruki’s ass to keep him up in the air. “Not gonna.”

“I’ll get better,” Haruki nearly shouts, and even in his fogged state, he can hear the tinge of hysteria to his own voice. “I’m your King, I’ll get better, I’m order–”

Gara kisses him hard again, biting down hard on his lower lip and worrying at it, and then his hand wraps around Haruki’s cock again. There is another presence there, smooth and hot and hard, and Haruki realizes with a start that it’s Gara’s cock pressed up against his own, moving with him when he rocks–and then Gara’s hand moves again, fast and rough, kissing away the cries that Haruki can’t help but let out. It hurts in a way, but he wants more of it–he wants things that make him forget the smell of someone else’s blood, or the empty-eyed people whose bodies scatter the floor around them–the more it hurts, the better it feels, and the less he can remember how Kazuki’s eyes looked that one summer afternoon, when he’d promised to screen any girl who’d try to get close to Haruki, and all Haruki had wanted to do was wrap himself around his friend and never let go–

He comes with a force that startles him; he slams his head back hard against the wall and the name that escapes him is more a sob than anything else. He twists his fingers punishingly hard in Gara’s hair, then lets himself go completely limp. The adrenaline and desperation of the moment fade, and he’s suddenly so tired that it’s an effort to keep his arms and legs hooked in place around Gara’s body. He tries–he does–but the strength leaves him, and as it does, strong arms wrap around him again, cradling his body with a tenderness out of place from the violence of before. The kiss that is pressed to his lips is delicate, worshipful.

“You are my King,” he hears Gara’s voice murmur. “But there are still some things I can’t do.”

Those rough hands are gentle now, holding him like he’s something precious, and Haruki moans once, and lets himself sleep.

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Cendrillon

The clock-tower struck midnight in slow, steady beats. She counted them with the beats of his heart: one … two … three …

She needed to leave. Someone was bound to come looking, more likely sooner than later, and if she was found–

(six … seven … eight …)

A wet red bubble swelled on his lips and popped. It left a faint pattern against his white cheek. She touched it with a fingertip and traced down; the corners of his mouth still remained turned up, and his eyes are like pieces of frosted blue glass. Her other hand ached; she couldn’t make them let go.

(eleven … twelve. Silence.)

Voices echoed in the hallway, slowly approaching. She leaned down in a careful arch until her forehead touched his and smiled.

“It’s stopped,” she whispered. “All of it, just for you.

I hope you find your princess, someday.”

They didn’t kiss: it wouldn’t do if he woke, somehow. He might ask her to stay (she would), or he’d offer to go with her (he would), and midnight was already past. The magic spell was broken.

“Good night,” she said, and finally let go of the knife.

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sex and violence (a horror story)

It may be said that she had a very long white neck and that it was quite lovely.

+++

The weight of the folds and layers of the wedding-outfit were still familiar to her, even if the color was different. Red wasn’t a bad color, though, and one she was very familiar with. Against her white skin, it was rather striking.

Her first wedding had been tense. She still remembered the looks from her husband’s family and their whispers behind their hands. Her mother groveled the whole ceremony, terrified she would be thrown away at the last moment. Perhaps those tears had been genuine, but perhaps not: her mother was quite the actress.

She can’t remember how she actually felt at the time, though.

+++

Her first wedding night had lasted a long time. Or maybe it had just seemed like that, watching the moon veil and unveil with clouds itself through the window. That man had been very heavy, and his breath stank of sake. He’d pawed her breasts free and squeezed them like he intended to see them burst; he’d laughed to see how red her skin turned. It had been easy to lie quietly and let him finish–twice, and he complimented her for being good and obedient. When he slept, it was with his back to her, and she’d stared up at the ceiling and counted breaths until the ache between her legs faded into the rhythm of her heartbeat.

She had no second wedding night.

+++

“Ochou-san has such pretty white skin, I’m jealous. Ahhh, give some of it to meeeeee.” Long sharp nails stroked across the nape of her neck. It stung. She shivered before she could stop herself.

“Ah! Look at that! Look at that, with just one touch! Brother, what sort of woman have you married?”

She closed her eyes and moved away. The sake was nearly gone. She lowered her head and went; their laughter followed her to the kitchen.

+++

To her, the fox-mask had been more lovely than anything. A thought bubbled up and dissolved, that she could wrap herself around it and hold it warm and safe. She could take him into herself. If she opened the door, then it would be an invitation.

The mononoke’s hands were long and elegant: a scholar’s hands, her mother would have called them. His skin was cool and dry, like the smoothed edges of a mask.

She would have liked to feel them on her neck, just once.

+++

“Was I really married?” she asked. She bowed her head forward. The breeze was cool against her neck, and the close presence behind her stung like the sun’s heat. “Did it happen?”

“If that is your belief,” he said, “then perhaps that is the truth.”

“But was it really?”

Long nails traced across the nape of her neck. She arched into it willingly. A hard hot hand pressed low on her throat. There were sword calluses across the ridges of the palm. Briefly a thumb pressed across the dip of her collarbone, then skittered away. When she closed her eyes, fingers shaped themselves almost gently across her breast, then let go.

“Well … perhaps–not.”

+++

It did not hurt.

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and they won’t call me mother, or sister, or wife

“I’m not afraid,” she whispers. Her voice is rough-edged, but when it’s this quiet it sounds soft. Gentle. She stares ahead into the darkness with her hands folded in her lap, and she doesn’t tremble. “If I am to die, then that is God’s will.”

“My dear,” he says. He can’t keep his own voice down. It cracks embarrassingly, but there is no one else to hear, and she would never let this slip. “If you but asked, I could–”

“No,” she says. There is finality in her voice, like the snap of a sword breaking, or an arrow sinking into a man’s heart. She smiles faintly, her cracked lips pursing up. “This is what I have been called to do. This is how I will be remembered. In this way, though men today may declaim me, in the eyes of God, I will be remembered.” She closes her eyes for just a moment, and her plain rough features are more beautiful than anything else he’s ever seen–more than anything he will ever see, he knows, however long he remains. When she turns to him again, her expression is soft. She’s already looking through him. “My dear friend, do not weep for me. I return to the arms of our Father, and in His kingdom I will dwell forever.”

But in mine, you are already gone, he does not say, and if he weeps a little, at the door of her cell, she does not chastise him for that grief.

+++

She walks with her head up and her eyes clear. He has always loved her for this, since she was a tiny child and had looked upon his face and known him for who he truly was.

(“I will see you freed,” she whispered to him, with her small palms upon his cheeks. “This I swear to you, before God and all His angels–“)

The crowd is loud. They always are. Most of them jeer with ugly words in their crude awkward language; they bastardize her name to fit their clumsy mouths, and not a few cross themselves as she passes. It makes him angry, angry enough that his throat aches and his face burns with the force of it. If he could, he would draw a blade here and cut down the lot of them–and gladly, consequences be damned alongside her–

His hand falls away from the hilt of his blade. He watches, unmoving, unblinking, as she is tied to the pillar. He sees her speak, though he cannot hear her voice over the crowd, and his breath catches when one places a crucifix into the folds of her clothes.

The fires are lit. She does not scream or cry, even when the crowd falls silent and the crackle of fire fills the sky. For just a moment, she looks and meets his eyes. Though she does not smile, he sees that she is content with this, her martyrdom in his name. He blinks out tears, and in that split second, she goes still, her head falling forward at last.

+++

No one argues when he takes the ashes. Perhaps they can see something in his face, though he does not speak–or perhaps Charles finally came through, or perhaps they simply just think that he’s there only for this reason. They aren’t his people anyway; their mouths make the same ugly noises as the majority of the crowd. He looks at them coldly, with perhaps a fragment of pity: they are small, small creatures; they do not know what they have destroyed today.

I would take you home to rest, my dear, he thinks, pressing the urn over his heart, staring down at the water that rushes around his ankles. Forgive me.

He casts outward and upward, watching as the wind and the water catches her and spirits her away, and likes to fool himself into thinking he hears her laugh. For this, he does not weep, but he breathes against a raw metal taste in his throat, and does not move until that has mostly–mostly–faded away.

+++

“If we were normal men, my friend, I would hate you very much, right now,” he says. “Ah, another, I want another. I want to spend the rest of this war drunk as possible.”

“Hear hear,” his companion mutters, and slides a bottle to him. It is soldier’s beer, warm as piss and tasting as acidly sour, but he drinks until it’s empty. “Someone will be looking for us soon.”

“Let them look,” he says. He leans until his forehead is pressed against the rough wood of the bar and breathes; even now, he can taste smoke in the back of his throat. “I care not, at this moment.”

He doesn’t know when he is left alone, but he knows it happens, and he stares blankly at the too-close wood, trying to remember the look in her eyes that one last time.

+++

In a wide open field, under cloudless skies, a little girl stared up into the face of her country and held her breath. “Why are you here?”

The man smiled. “I came here because I was supposed to,” he said. “Sometimes, if that’s where I have to be, I’ll be there.”

“Just like that?”

“Just like that.” He knelt before her. “And what is your name, little maid?”

She met his eyes, and she said, “I am Jeanne.”

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