The Jewels of Pandora

In the course of a year Watanuki has learned to never question where or how Yuuko’s customers find the shop — only that they do, inevitably and invariably. “Someone told me about it,” they say, and don’t quite look at anything as they do.

Maybe that’s how they justify it to themselves, that random twist of fate that brings them to the shop’s doorstep. He could be honest himself and say that some strange irresistible force dragged him in, but who’d believe something like that? Unless it actually happened to you.

There are guests and there are guests; some probably came while he was at school, but in the end they were all looking for the same thing: a wish come true.

-i. for i have touched the sky-

“I’m looking for the sky,” said the stranger who was already seated in Yuuko’s sitting room by the time Watanuki arrived. He’s dressed all in black, with his hood up so that his face is completely hidden in the shadows. Even seated and hunched over, there is a sort of coiled and restless danger to him. Watanuki steps as lightly as he can.

Yuuko exhales a plume of smoke, which coils around her like a lover’s arms. There is a solemness to her that goes beyond the gravity she normally has for customers. “You’re asking for something very great indeed,” she said. “Are you willing to pay the price of it?”

The man in black hesitates. “They said you could do anything,” he said. “Don’t you understand, if I don’t find that heart–”

“You might be the one who doesn’t understand, honored guest,” Yuuko says. “Finding any one heart of a thousand isn’t a small task — and for this heart of hearts, an equal price must be paid.”

The guest’s hands clench into shaking fists.

“What price is it worth,” she says, her eyes hooded through her veil of smoke, “to have the heart of the sky?”

He makes a pained noise in the back of his throat; Watanuki feels almost sorry for him. Yuuko’s customers are rarely so torn by the decision she offers them.

“… What sort of price,” the man says finally. The words sound like they’ve been dragged through his teeth. “My own is–”

“You don’t value your own heart enough,” Yuuko says, almost gentle. “It has its own worth, but it can only pay as much as you’re willing to allow it.”

The man remains silent.

“The heart of the horizon, perhaps–”

“NO!” It was a sudden sharp outburst, and seemed to surprise the customer as much as it did Watanuki. He slumps in his chair and covers his hidden face with one hand. “Not that. Not that.”

“I’m sorry,” Yuuko says. She places the pipe’s stem against her lips, exhales a ring that drifts to cloud around the guest. “If you cannot pay the exact price, I cannot grant your wish.”

He says nothing, getting sharply to his feet and striding out of the room; his shoulder bumps Watanuki’s chest for a moment, and Watanuki sees — not the sky, but a boy with tousled hair and blue eyes —

And the guest is gone. No door slams to punctuate his departure, but Watanuki is suddenly very sure he’s no longer in the shop.

“Watanuki,” says Yuuko.

“Yuuko-san?”

“Here is something that you might not know, if you’re not in business.” She tips her head back, and the long pale line of her throat is elegant and clean. “We can always refuse service if we deem it necessary.”

“… Hahhh?” Watanuki blinks.

“That boy’s heart would have been enough for what he wanted,” she says. “And he’s not so ruthless that he’d sacrifice someone else for what he wants. Do you know what happens, Watanuki, when someone loses their heart?”

“… you die?” he offers.

Yuuko leans forward and smirks; the clusters of tiny bells at her ears and throat chime with the movement.

“Worse than that,” she says. Perhaps it’s just a trick of the light that makes her sudden smile that much more sinister. “Much worse. Be sure to guard yours well, Wa-ta-nu-ki.”

For a moment he stares at her, mouth hanging open. And then from over her shoulder Mokona takes a flying leap and hits his face, clinging (“alien! alien!” Maru and Moro cheer) demanding tea, which Yuuko then amends to ask for brandy and Mokona says but we even have scotch, don’t we? and Watanuki is sent off to fetch it with the twins cavorting behind him, singing.

For a moment the storeroom is so cold it makes his bones ache, and he can swear he sees beady little yellow eyes peeking back at him …

The bottle of scotch falls into his hands, and he flees before he can see if that shadow can grow any larger.

-ii. alive, o alive-

There is a woman feeding ducks at the park.

In the spring, where tender buds are unfurling and all the world seems carpeted in soft green, she wears dark colors — navy and crimson and black — with a jeweled comb in her long hair. She carries a parasol, resting against her shoulder, and it casts her pale oval face into gentle shadow.

Most of the well-bred ladies and gentlemen strolling through the park give her a wide berth; she’s foreign, she’s from the Orient, with her milky skin and straight dark hair; her presence enough was strange without inviting more. A few stop to whisper behind their gloved slim hands, watching her as she tosses small pieces of bread into the pond, as the ducks fight each other for her crumbs.

And then:

“Oh!” says a young girl, golden-haired and bright-eyed. “How wonderful! Could I try?”

The woman turns her head. Her eyes are hidden, but her smile is painted red, and it purses into an attractive bow.

“If you’d like,” she says, in perfectly unaccented English. She hands her bread to the little girl — coarse dry stuff, which flakes a little on the girl’s fine gloves. The little girl hardly takes heed, dashing to the edge of the pond and throwing pieces ripped from the whole; she laughs freely and unfettered, no matter the disapproving stares around her. The ducks do not particularly care what hand feeds them, as long as the meal continues.

But when the bread is gone, the girl looks at the woman, who is still standing there, her face half-hidden. Belatedly, she drops into a stiffly-practiced curtsy. “I apologize for my rudeness earlier,” she says. “Oh, you won’t tell my brother, will you? He’s still trying very hard to raise me as a lady.”

The woman chuckles. The sound is rich and low. “It’s better for children to be children,” she says, still without hint of an accent. “Your secret is safe with me, young Miss Hargreaves.”

“Oh,” the girl says, then pauses. There is a sudden uneasy wariness to her; she backs up till she’s backed right up to the duck pond, her small body tensed for flight. “… how did you know my name? It’s not fair, if you call me such, and I don’t know who you are.”

“Please don’t worry,” the woman says. She tilts her head back, but her eyes are still hidden. “I’m merely a witch. You should know about that sort of thing, Fortune-telling Merryweather.”

Merryweather covers her mouth. “How did you–”

“I am a witch, after all.” The woman’s smile widens. “Shall I prove it further?”

“Prove it,” Merryweather echoes, still tense. The park is reasonably full with strolling couples; a few have stopped to watch their exchange, though none are yet close enough to properly eavesdrop. “How would you do that?”

“I shall grant you a wish,” the witch says. “But only if you can match the price I ask.”

“Ah! Are you trying to trick me, then?” Merryweather pouts, and winds her small fingers into her skirts. She relaxes a little, less concerned and more indignant now. “You are simply trying to get me to give you money!”

“Oh no,” says the witch. She laughs, and the wind picks up, so that her long dark hair floats around her, and the heavy sleeves of her kimono flutter just a little. “Not money, little fortune-teller. A price. Something that is exactly the worth of the wish. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Merryweather stamps one little foot. “Well, that’s easy!” she says. “I wish for Father and the rest of his organization to leave my brother and I alone! That is what I wish!”

The witch tilts her head a little. “That is a very expensive wish, little Merryweather,” she says. “Are you willing to pay its full price?”

She wrinkles her nose. “Of course! Whatever the price is, I–”

“Even,” says the witch, and her smile is gone now; her mouth is suddenly hard and flat, like a bloody slash in her white face, and the very air around her seems to grow cold, the sun darkening, as though she is sucking all light and heat into herself, “if it comes at the cost of your beloved brother?”

Merryweather recoils. “What! That can’t be fair, Brother Cain shouldn’t have to die just so–”

“Nothing in this world happens without a reason,” says the witch. “To change the inevitable means you must take the burden of that onto your own shoulders.” The wind picks up, harder and stronger, but now nothing of the witch moves at all, as though she has become a stone fixture, caught in place. “Are you willing to pay with a life without your brother by your side, so that he may have his freedom?”

Struck mute, the girl only stares. She trembles a little, though whether in fear or cold it is difficult to gage, and her little fingers are white-knuckled on her skirts. The witch’s parasol tips just so, and her eyes are dark and something in them is almost like regret. Merryweather’s lips part without breath.

“Merry!” a man’s voice calls. Merryweather starts, her eyes blinking suddenly clear.

“That would be your honored brother,” says the witch, as the man cries again, Merryweather, where are you! not quite worried yet. “You should go to meet him.”

Merryweather starts to shift her weight, ready to run, then looks up at the witch, her small lips trembling.

“Would my brother be happy,” she says, “if we were parted? If we could never see each other again?”

“That,” the witch says, “you already know.”

“Merry!” The man’s voice is closer now, and then there is another, a deeper voice that says “Miss Merryweather!” and from over the witch’s shoulder, there are two men walking towards them, one slim and dark-haired and the other taller, broad-shouldered, his hair gleaming almost white in the sun.

“Will you make your wish, then?” The witch’s eyes are suddenly hidden again, and the pressure around her abruptly fades, her mouth tilted into an impish little smile. “The wish for your brother to be free?”

Merryweather closes her eyes. “I want my brother to be happy,” she says. “If he’s happy, that’s all I want.”

Then she flees, around the witch and towards the men approaching; she throws herself into the dark-haired man’s arms, too far away to be overheard. The witch does not turn, but she pulls another heel of bread from her long sleeve and begins to feed the ducks again. Around her, the wind almost sighs, lifting her dark hair as it brushes past.

Behind her, a man says: “That’s not like you, dearest.”

The witch snorts and tosses her head. “And what is ‘like me,’ then?” she asks. Her language is suddenly much more relaxed, and there may even be a trace of an accent in her irritation. “I met with the client, I made the offer — it’s a business transaction, that’s all! Business! What else do I do?”

“Meeting someone out in the open, rather than in your own shop,” the man counters and walks to stand beside her. He pushes his glasses up his nose. “Not taking her for her word when she said she’d pay anything — warning her about the price, and for what? That boy will still–”

“Oh, be quiet,” the witch says irritably. “What do you know of business, anyway?”

“I’m not that naive, dearest,” the man protests. He puts a hand over his heart, as though wounded. “Really, can’t you give me more credit than that?”

“I will when you deserve it!” The witch huffs. “There’s only so much I can do, within my limitations. What they make of the inevitable after this is their own choice.” She takes the arm he offers to her, tips her face up to look at him. “Buy me an expensive dinner, for dragging me all the way here in the first place.”

“When my lady asks,” he says, jovial, “how can I refuse?”

As they leave, they pass a young gentleman in a suit, trying to comfort his upset little sister. As they walk by, the manservant beside them straightens and watches them go, his brow furrowed. The witch looks at him from under her parasol, offering him a fleeting ghost of a smile, and then she and her companion are gone.

-iii. for want of a horseshoe nail-

The Muthruu Bazaar is always changing, even from one hour to the next; except for the very oldest stands and stalls, where merchants have staked out their own territories and guard them fiercely as any wild beast, everything shifts and changes — someone who was on the east end one day might set up by the entrance the next; wherever the people gather one day, the Bazaar’s merchants follow.

On his way back from the Clan’s provider, Vaan notices a new stall, one he’s never seen before. The woman who sits on the other side is swathed in dark red silks, with a veil over her mouth. No one else seems to notice her, but she watches everyone with a smile, as though the entire world is some passing enormous joke. Vaan stops and then suddenly she looks straight at him, meeting his eyes and crooking a finger, come.

Not sure why, Vaan does.

“Young man,” the woman says. Her voice is low and smoky. “Do you have a wish?”

“Huh? Well …” He stops, rubbing the back of his neck. “Doesn’t everyone?”

“Ah,” the woman says, “but you have a special wish. You can see me after all, can’t you?”

He blinks. “Sure. You’re right there. Why wouldn’t anyone–”

“My wares are rather … specialized,” the woman says, and gestures. “Why don’t you have a seat?”

Vaan jumps a little; he could have sworn there was no chair beside him before, but there it is, and there’s even a tasseled cushion on it, like something made for a noble’s ass instead. And around them, even though the Bazaar is densely crowded as always, people flow around them, like they’re not even there.

He looks at the woman. She smiles and points.

He sits.

“So,” the woman says, and leans forward, onto her elbows. “You have a wish.”

Vaan squirms a little. “Nah,” he says uneasily. “It’s not that important. There are other things, look, I really should be going–”

“My prices are very fair,” the woman says. She lays a finger to her lips, still smiling just faintly. “You get exactly what you pay for.” She reaches out then, putting her fingers to his chin; despite the heat of her day, her skin is icy. “You didn’t find me by coincidence. Tell me: what do you wish?”

Nothing, he wants to say, but what comes out instead is, “How much?”

“That depends.” The woman tips his face up, leaning over him; her dark hair falls forward, over her shoulders and around Vaan’s face. “On what you ask for.”

And for a moment his mind reels with possibilities: Dalmasca restored, Ashe on her throne as the rightful Queen; a peace that stretches across all Ivalice and shadows are banished forever; Penelo’s parents to be alive and well, like it could erase the memory of her crying face; his own brother–

Vaan opens his eyes. He’s not sure when he closed them, but he looks up into the woman’s face and though she is smiling at him, so close that her breath is cool on his cheek, her eyes are — flat. They reflect nothing but his own face, hard glass pieces in a smooth white face.

“… I’d like it if we could find the Ring Wyrm,” he says. “I don’t suppose you could set up a sandstorm or something? You know, so we don’t have to camp around forever waiting for it.”

The woman blinks. For a moment her eyes are completely normal: they don’t look like glass chips, or jewels, or anything but normal human eyes, and Vaan’s not ashamed to admit he’s a little relieved at that. The past few months have taught him quite a bit more healthy respect for magic and its ilk. Of course, there’s the chance he’s just pissed off a djinn or something (because who else randomly offers wishes like this?), and he won’t be going back at all, but …

And then she laughs.

She laughs and laughs and it’s maybe even a little insulting, but she wipes her eyes and smiles at him, and he gets the feeling that she might still be laughing.

“Very well,” she says. “A sandstorm for you, for the next time you set foot in the Wyrm’s lair.” Then she holds out her hand. “In return, give me the stone you carry.”

Vaan blinks, and puts a hand to his pocket. He fumbles for a bit, then pulls out a large chunk of wind magicite. “This?”

“That’ll do,” she says, still holding out her hand. “Something like that will fetch a nicely-sized windstorm indeed.”

He hefts the weight of the magicite for a moment, then shrugs and hands it over. “I was going to sell it anyway,” he says. “This’ll work, right?”

She tucks it away, and waves. “I promise,” she says. “When you go, it’ll be waiting.”

Vaan nods, and gets up. As he threads his way back into the crowd, a chill runs down his back, feeling line fingernails tracing his spine, and his arms break into sudden goosebumps. He turns slowly, glancing over his shoulder.

The woman and her stall are gone.

-iv. and immortality-

“You’ll owe me for this,” she says, the moment he enters.

For once he doesn’t try to joke with her. She hears him walk — with deliberate weight, since he’s got catfeet normally, the bastard — to her side. He does not touch her. It makes him less real already.

“I know,” he says. He is apologetic, but not regretful; he’s not the sort of man who takes back his decisions.

“I don’t want to do this,” she says. “I never liked bearing your weight.”

“You won’t, completely.” His hand curves above her shoulder, not touching. “I can take some responsibility for myself.”

“I should sell all of it,” she says. “Everything to the most greedy and pigfaced people I can find. All your fancy art — I could sell it to a village for kindling.”

He winces. “That’s just uncalled for.”

She drains the rest of her glass in a swallow, then slams it down. “I should.”

“I’d rather you didn’t.”

She glowers at him. “You’re in no position to talk.”

“My dear–”

She spins to face him, rising to her feet in the same smooth motion. “You are always so irritating,” she growled. “Why am I doing this for you again?”

He smiles at her, wry, affectionate, sad. “I’m glad you are,” he says. “Thank you.”

She stares for a full minute, not speaking, then turns again. Her shoulders are set very stiffly; she’s angrier than she can ever begin to express. Because he knows what he’s asking from her — more than anyone else in this whole world, he knows — but he won’t back down from it either, because he’s a stupid thickheaded magician who never stopped smiling

“Darling,” he says, “–Yuuko–” and his hands touch her arms gently, light as a ghost’s passing, and she closes her eyes.

“Let’s do this already,” she says.

+++

There is no grave for Clow Reed; too many people know about him, and would come sniffing around for anything he left behind. Only Yuuko knows exactly where he went and what he didn’t take with him, and this is something she will never tell.

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