smokescreen

Yuuko trades him trinkets and baubles for opium: brightly-colored bejeweled combs plucked straight from her hair, or slipped off her long thin wrists, a butterfly pin over her heart. He can give these to Sakura one day, she tells him, and laughs. He likes the sound of it, rich and low and knowing: Yuuko understands that power comes as much from a person’s belief as anything else, and it shows in her confidence, her posture and smile and the tilt of her head. He likes how she presses herself up against Kerberos’s flank and curls her arms around his neck, the woman taming the lion with only her fortitude and her smile.

He brings her tobacco, sweet-smelling and rich, and she unfastens her necklace and pours it into his hand. Her fingertips against heel of his palm are cool and do not warm for the long seconds she holds them there.

They drink together, small cups of ice-cold sake that she seems to pull just from the air. He sits within the embrace of a deep plush armchair that’s the color of the deep ocean and has a jumble of old spells twined up and down each side. Yuuko lounges, proud as a queen and regal as a cat, and the long dark fall of her hair pulled over one shoulder and the thick white cloud of her smoke wreathing the other half of her face. Her eyes are narrow and clear, the same color as her Cheshire-cat’s smile. In his hand the necklace is now skin-temperature, a delicate golden chain strung with a fused pair of tiny stars, each set with a diamond at the heart.

“Give that one to Sakura-chan,” she says. “When she’s old enough for it.”

Another woman, he thinks, would rage and scream for what he means to do; another woman might look at him in cold betrayal and preemptive dismissal. Another woman might fight him, as both Yue and Kerberos have, to try and make him change his mind. He’d had a thousand excuses and explanations, justifications he’d already successfully used against both of his guardians, and all he needed to do was wait for her anger.

But Yuuko had just laughed and given him a pair of earrings — a tiny crescent moon cradling a single star — and folded his fingers over it. “She’ll like those,” she’d said. “Give them to her when the time is right.”

He’d put them in his pocket and tilted his head. “Is this fated as well?”

“Everything is,” she’d agreed, and placed her cool palms against his face. He remembers the strange soft pressure of her lips to his forehead, like benediction, like prayer, like forgiveness. And she’d drawn him back into her chamber, where smoke always hangs low in the air, and talked to him about wishes that couldn’t be granted and the quiet certainty that is as much a part of her as her shop.

He brings her the tobacco she likes, the opium she favors, and she gives him small presents to pass on for later. He drinks priceless alcohols from worlds whose names he will never know, talks with her about things that haven’t yet happened and past events that no longer have come to pass, and he and watches as she tilts her head back and exhales sweet-smelling smoke and wonders how much of this distance he’ll remember when he’s gone.

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