These Songs Still I Hear

There was a song his mother used to sing in her high lilting voice, a story about two children lost in the woods, who walked hand-in-hand until they came to rest in the shadow of an icefruit tree and lay down to die. The snow covered their bodies and transformed them into statues of ice, curled together like secrets, so that no one, by might or magic, could separate them. She sang this as she did her embroidery, her eyes unfocused and staring, and their father would smile at the sound of her voice (though something was always pained in his eyes, something in them always remained unhappy, remained cold, and none of the great fires could touch that) and sometimes he sang along as well, his voice lifting and bolstering hers, until the servants were peering in as well, admiration shining on their faces for their lovely lady and their handsome lord.

He remembers also the weight of his brother’s hand in his own. Even that young, his fingers had been strong. They had sat crouched by the hearth, and the firelight on his face had given it shadows that made him look older. When he saw that, he closed his eyes and pressed close to his brother’s side. They stayed close together, not quite huddling, until their father could guide their mother from the room, and the sound of her voice (thin and high and full of things as brittle and sad as their father’s eyes) echoed off the smoothed stones.

There was another song his mother had sung, about a pair of perfect dolls who moved and breathed and acted like real children, but who didn’t love and thus didn’t live. Such pretty smiles their red mouths had, but their eyes were cold as Queen Winter’s throne, oh little children without hearts of their own.

Their father never sang with that one. He would stare at her instead, with his smiling mouth and unhappy eyes, and he would say nothing as her voice warbled, high and pretty and not strong enough to stand alone. More often than not he turned away before the song ended; if he saw them, he never gave any indication. Their mother would sing and sing until her voice cracked and faded into whispers, but she always watches them, and their reflections in her fever-bright eyes are distorted and strange.

And then Fay’s hand would be in his, squeezing until it almost hurt, genuine where their parents were not. They’d escape — outside if they could, to escape prying eyes altogether, and to their own rooms if not. Fay would push his head down, so he could lie with his head in his twin’s lap, and he would sing too: and he was neither as sweet as their mother nor as steady as their father, but somewhere in between, a steady piping child’s voice that rambled through a whole glittering storybook of characters — giants and clever cats and the Winter Queen, her pale eyes flashing and her blue teeth curled in a smile. He’d closed his eyes and he’d picture those things that Fay sang of, and always there were two boys who ran through the stories, hand-in-hand, straight through the cold night and into the rose of oncoming day.

He never sang himself, though; he thought his voice might be weaker than his mother’s, if he tried.

+++

Princess Tomoyo has a lovely clear voice that rings with the same effortless beauty of birdsong. She sings one piece, which speaks admiringly of cherry trees in full bloom — and this obviously for Sakura, who is dressed in a white kimono embroidered with her namesake and smiles wanly at the praise.

And then Tomoyo turns to Kurogane, who balances a sake cup in his one hand. She holds out a hand to him. “Now you too,” she says. Her smile is lovely as her voice. “I bet your wonderful friends never knew you could sing.”

Syaoran sputters into his drink; Sakura puts her hands to her mouth and looks surprised; Mokona leaps at Kurogane, protesting that he’s mean, so mean, such a meanie! for keeping that secret.

Fay tilts his head. He says, “Ah, is that so?” He looks at Princess Tomoyo, who is looking right back at him and smiling. In spite of himself he smiles back; she’s a pretty girl, and he likes her quite a bit. “I’d like to hear.”

Tomoyo’s eyes gleam. “Did you hear that?” she says. “Kurogane, he–” and she turns, but Kurogane is actually already on his feet. He’s a little off-balance with the missing arm, but still walks with the same rolling ready gait, like he could take down an entire battalion of angry soldiers without batting a lash. The princess, for her part, only raises a single brow. She looks at Fay again and smiles, and gestures to the waiting musicians. They strike up a simple piece whose melody he actually recognizes. He almost drops his cup before he recovers and manages to hold it steady as Princess Tomoyo and Kurogane sing his mother’s song about two heartless dolls–

Only the story is different; a young man walks into the story at the beginning when there was none before, and falls in love with one of the dolls. When one is destroyed in a fire, the man offers his own blood to the remaining doll, and the jointed unloving creature looks upon him and finds itself moved to take his hand, and its smile was real — such a pretty smile on its red mouth, and its eyes reflected the light of Queen Summer’s fire — as they walked away.

Fay doesn’t quite know when he stopped looking, staring down at his own obscured reflection in the alcohol’s surface, but he knows when the music comes to a stop. He hears the surprised respectful clapping from Sakura and Syaoran both, and Mokona’s admiring cheers; it’s all drowned out by the sudden roar of blood in his ears.

When something brushes his arm he almost throws himself back, out of the way of all contact. In the split second before he does, Kurogane says, “Next time, you think you can do better, idiot mage, you do it.”

He looks up, through his loose hair. Kurogane is scowling, but it’s reflexive — his face is long-accustomed to the way it has to settle for the downward slash of his mouth. He pours himself more sake with surprising grace and looks askance at Fay. Fay stares back and tries to remember the sound of his mother’s high sad voice; instead, all he can hear is Princess Toyomo’s delicate soprano. He tries and tries, but even the memory of the original song is fading.

“I like yours better,” he says. He smiles and sees Kurogane’s eyes go wide for just a moment, and he thinks that it’s been a long time since he meant it. It feels good.

“So next time,” he goes on, “sing for me again, all right?”

Kurogane snorts at him, and mutters something about idiots and stupid demands, but he doesn’t actually say no.

Fay pours them both more to drink, and settles to listen as Tomoyo pulls Sakura up with her next, and thinks next time, maybe (just maybe) he’ll let himself be talked into singing as well.

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