i. Zombie Jamboree [Halloweentown’s annual burning]
In previous years, Jack’s return had always been greeted by the robing ghosts, who would swaddle him up and hoist him onto the signpost, to wait for the Burning. They were pleasant as ghosts went, smelling comfortingly of mothballs and the cool dark places where five-tongued acid-spit salamanders crooned strange bullneck songs. This year, however, Sally stood in the halo of torchlight with the strawman coat in her hands, and she gave him a sweet stitched smile at his approach.
“You’ve done well this year,” she said. “The bats with hearts were a clever touch.”
“Our most terrifying yet,” he said — and he said it every year, but ever since That Year, he’s meant it. Sometimes a little nudge was all it took to get the creativity going again. He ducked so that she could settle the coat around his shoulders. “I’ve already got ideas for next year.”
She smiled, ducking her head as she began to sew him into his corpse-rags. “This is what you do best.”
He puffed out his bony chest, holding still until the last edges were sewn tightly shut. “Fear is an essential part of life,” he said, as the two of them began to stuff handfuls of straw into his coat. “If you don’t have it, you can’t have joy — you wouldn’t know what to compare it against! Why, even Sandy Claws needs to be reminded of this now and then–”
Sally ducked her head, smiling; this, he said every year as well. It would culminate in a package being sent over to Christmastown to wait on Sandy Claws’ doorstep until someone noticed and opened it. “You’re ready.”
Jack tugged at his cuffs, shedding straw, and beamed at her. “I’ll see you after the ceremony.”
She stretched up onto her toes to kiss his cheek before she helped settle the mask over his head; her breath had the pleasant cool edge of graveyard dust. “I’ll be waiting,” she said, and melted into the shadows, heading for the Town Square, where the excited voices of the citizens had risen into a truly horrifying cacaphony.
At any moment the Behemoth would be arriving, cart in tow, to take him to the Burning.
Jack Skellington ascended to the signpost and draped his arms over the arms and settled to wait.
ii. Crooked House [KH2; Naminé and the skewed nature of control]
One night as Kairi sleeps, Namine sits on the side of the bed and holds a phantom sketchbook — the idea or the memory of a sketchbook — to her ghostly chest and wonders: If they had been more alike, Somebody and Nobody, could things have gone in a different direction? If she’d been bold enough, or strong enough, to go chasing after Roxas when she’d first heard of him, or perhaps after he’d left the Organization — if she’d gone to him, would that part of him that was Sora recognize the part of her that was Kairi?
And even if he hadn’t, even if he hadn’t wanted her to go with him, she could make him change his mind; she knew how. The memories of Nobodies were so much easier to pick apart — there was no heart to act as foundation, and they crumbled like sandcastles at the ocean’s edge.
She could have done it, she thought, hugging her sketchbook. And if she’d been more like her Kairi, if she’d had a fraction of the heart of a Princess — the strength without the purity — maybe she would.
In her sleep Kairi rolls over, and Namine closes her eyes, breathes slowly without the need to, and lets it go.
iii. Penny Candle [GetBackers; Maria Noches remembering]
Without fail every year, Maria lights candles:
One for her teacher, her mentor, the Witch-Queen with the Evil Eye, who’d forseen disaster and the world after that, and so sent her a frightened, sullen little boy already bowing under the weight of the creature sealed in his flesh.
One for Lucifer, her long-ago lover, who’d never told her the name of his daughter’s mother, and that for Angela as well, whispering of happiness in her father’s ear.
One for the GetBackers themselves years before she met them, little boys growing up into their final roles.
The final one, for herself, she leaves unlit.
iv. The Den of Lions [KH2; Organization XIII in the Pride Lands]
A recoinnassance mission to the Pride Lands is an interesting experience: Four legs are more difficult to manipulate than they first appear. Axel moves slowly, cautiously, trying to adapt his usual saunter properly, adjusting to the new placement of his hips and shoulders, and the presence of a tail against his ankles.
His only consolation is that he’s partnered with Demyx for this assignment, and negotating new legs is nothing compared to figuring out wings. So he and Demyx didn’t really look at each other as he figured out one foot before the other before the third and then the last, and Demyx worked out the mechanics of flight — and neither of them had been scientists in reality, so it took embarrassingly longer than they would admit.
But eventually he feels like he’s mastered the basics of a menacing saunter, shoulders up and tail low, and Demyx can at least glide from one rock to the next.
They look at each other silently for a moment, then continue on, past the tall noble rise of Pride Rock, to the Elephant Graveyard beyond. Reports say that the King’s brother is susceptible to darkness, and if they can just encourage the events that will cut Mufasa down, this world will be open for the taking.
Axel’s lips pull back from his teeth, and he resists the urge to cackle as they make their way.
v. Not a Blanket Story [tactics; Kantarou’s cold]
“It’s cold,” Kantarou said.
Haruka didn’t even look up. “Then get away from the window.”
“… It’s cold,” Kantarou repeated, his voice rising just a little; it was a cue, if Haruka chose to take it.
And he would eventually — just not right away.
“… Harukaaaaa,” Kantarou whines, and huddles in on himself, attempting to make himself look pathetic and small. His eyes were large and wet with crocodile tears. “Haruka, it’s cold.”
For a moment Haruka ponders his reflection in his bowl; his brows have drawn up enough to slant, and that tells him he’s already agreed. He puts the cup down and stands.
Kantarou perks up visibly, wriggling. “Haruka!”
“Move over,” Haruka tells him, not quite resigned, and they crowd on the window sill. It is cold outside, but the night smells good, and it’s the sort of chill that would slide cleanly through his feathers. Haruka puts an arm around Kantaoru’s shoulders. Surprisingly, Kantarou actually is shivering a little, though he immediately leans into the warm space that curves along Haruka’s arm and side.
“Better,” Kantarou says, beaming up at him.
“You could have gotten a coat,” Haruka points out. “Or a blanket.”
Kantarou pretends to consider this, then just thunks his head down again. “I could,” he says, “but Haruka is much warmer!” And then, like making a point, he closes his eyes and pretends to sleep, his breath soft against Haruka’s neck.
Haruka blinks down at him, then shrugs and moves in such a way that it tucks Kantarou just a fraction closer. “… Idiot,” he says, through a smile.
vi. O Rose [Jigoku Shoujo; O rose, thou art sick]
The young miss comes with a rose, the petals cupped between her fingers and the thorny stem hanging down beneath.
“Ojou,” says Hone-Onna, surprised. “Where on earth did you get that?”
“Mn.” Enma Ai tilts her head, so that her long dark hair slides in a cascade across her small face. “A man gave it to me.”
“A man?” Hone-Onna clucks her tongue. “Should we be worried, that he’s giving you such gifts?”
Ai ponders. It had been a quiet man, deep in thought, who would go home to find his beloved wife missing; in a week, he will find his way to an Internet cafe and ask to ferry the soul of her murderer to hell.
She closes her fingers, crushing the rose; one of the thorns presses deep into her thumb. “No.”
vii. Matchstick to Smoke [KH2 – Alexverse; Alex and dreaming] — part of the Alexverse KH2 continuation AU I’m working on
Sometimes Alex dreams — they’re always a confused jumble of memories, before-during-after losing his heart. He remembers the swarm of Heartless that had bloomed out of tree shadows, scattering the whole troupe and how he’d picked the high ground to stand his and brandished torches to keep them back, sweating despite the chill. But eventually those fires had guttered out and as the dawn peeked over the edge of the countryside he’d been pulled down, plucking ice-cold dark fingers pressing and prodding and reaching into him, drawing out his heart and holding it up so that the first rays of the sun spiked right through it.
And then: waking up naked and shivering on the hillside, alone and confused. His fellows had been nowhere, and neither were the Heartless.
Or his clothes for that matter, but hell, what was one more strange thing in a collection?
At that point the dream will fade; he’ll be in the World That Never Was, utterly familiar with its dark labyrinth of hallways, always tracking that one bright spot in the darkness, keeping an eye on the Key of Destiny at the Superior’s orders, but also because the kid was so damnably hard to crack that he can’t help but be fascinated.
The one thing he never dreams about, though, is dying or … what happened after.
Whenever he starts to remember the seeping cold, the aching bone-deep chill that was so foreign after an existence molded into fire, whenever he recalls the blackness that had begun to creep into his vision in hazy tendrils, like the smokey fingers of the Heartless, he wakes.
Sometimes he’s lucky and Roxas is there, snoring faintly, but it’s equally likely that the space beside him is cold.
Either way, though, whenever Alex dreams, he doesn’t get much sleep.
viii. Only Today [tactics – reincarnation storyline; Haruka’s firstborn son]
“Well,” says Youko briskly as she emerges from the bedroom, drying her hands. “That went better than I thought it would.”
Haruka is on his feet in an instant. “Is she–”
“They are sleeping,” Youko says, then fixes him a stern look. “If you’re going in to see them, Haruka-chan, be quiet. Kagura-chan worked hard.”
He nods, his heart in his throat and pounding loudly in his ear. “I know,” he says, and surprises himself by repeating it, “I know, I know, I –”
Youko’s expression melts after a moment, and she smiles and moves aside. “Go on, then,” she says. “Quietly.”
Haruka nods, and slips past her into the bedroom. It smells of blood and sweat and other fluids, but that is already clearing away, chased off by contentment. Almost hesitant, he makes his way to the bed and sinks down onto its side.
After a moment, Kagura’s eyes flicker open and she blinks at Haruka before she smiles, quiet. “… Haruka.”
He nods and starts to reach out, hesitates, then forces himself to complete the motion, brushing hair from her cheek, then tracing the line of her arm to what she holds against her breast.
The baby stirs and makes a squeaky noise of protest; it looks almost too old for a newborn, too large and well-formed, and the labor had been long. He has his mother’s red eyes and his father’s dark hair and a strange blending of ki, youkai and human both. He thinks that Kagura will insist on naming it, but he finds he doesn’t terribly mind.
She smiles gently at him, and he realizes he must also be smiling; his face feels strange, soft and warm. “Haruka,” she breathes. “You’ll stay?”
He looks at her, at their son, and he nods without a word; she doesn’t move, but he lies to spoon behind her, putting one arm carefully over her and the child too, and listens to them breath in the quiet blood-warm stillness, and he thinks that perhaps, somewhere, somehow, this might be the shape and feel of bliss.
ix. The Hungry Ghosts [Shadow Hearts; the blood of a Harmonixer — Shadow Hearts 1 bad ending spoilers]
Family legend claims that the first Harmonixer was a woman whose mother had loved a youkai, or perhaps had been raped by a youkai (it depends on who tells the story), who had been born with a human appearance, but with her nature tucked securely in her breast, flowering free when she came of age. From there, her children and the children of those children had spread, some carrying the seed and others carrying the potential, spreading far and wide before they were slowly winnowed down again. It has never quite died out, however; whatever seed originally created the creature that is the Harmonixer, it is tenacious and it is determined; it just needs a single vessel from the original Hyuga stock to continue.
Yuri sits on the porch of his aunt’s home, staring at the stars and wonders, idly, what Alice would have thought of a brat that could turn into a monster when upset — one that perhaps wouldn’t even look remotely human, given how some of his fusions manifested …
“It’s your child,” he hears her say suddenly, and so clearly, as though she sits beside him and is murmuring in her sweet voice. “And my own. Of course I will love it.”
Something soft touches his hand and his wrist — something like slender fingers cuffed in thin lace.
He starts up and looks around wildly, his heart beating loudly in his chest.
But of course, there’s no one there.
x. The Solid Heart [tactics; Youko/Kantarou]
There are certain nights where she goes and creeps under Kantarou’s blankets in fox-form — usually when he’s returned after another useless set of weeks, searching for the Oni-Eating Tengu, and Youko will never stop scolding him for that silly dream, but she can still feel sympathy when he returns dejected, though he’ll never say as much aloud.
He’s a petty selfish man, her master, mostly concerned with his own desires and following his impulses without second thought — but he is not a bad man. Sometimes if she watches from the corner of her eye, she can see the tightness in the corners of his eyes; he is not getting younger, but he is still no closer to finding his admired tengu. So she comes to him, wriggling under the blankets and nosing his shoulder, and he curls around her, cuddling like she’s a stuffed fox.
And once in a very, very rare while — only three in nearly five years — she comes to him in human form, and holds him in turn.
Kantarou is a very clumsy lover, with shaky hands, but he’s still very genuine; he might have given his heart to the Oni-Eater years before they even met, but he still loves her too, and he tries to take care of her. He might make all sorts of demands in the daytime, whining and ordering and even throwing a tantrum when it suits him, but in bed he’s almost shy, asking permission for everything. Youko usually lets him get away with it, and then afterwards, pets his hair as he shivers in his sleep.
Though she scoffs, she is pretty sure that someday Kantarou will find his Oni-Eater, and then even sleeping together as a man and a fox will be too awkward — but until then, she sleeps quietly beside him, soothed by the pass of his fingers through her fur.
xi. Evermore [Princess Tutu; the prince’s ever-after]
The Prince’s castle is like nothing the raven-girl has ever seen before: white, white, white, crystal hallways and frosted doorways and all things that might be very well-suited to a swan. But when she would have hesitated and her heart failed her, the Prince took her hand and led her over the threshold.
“This is where I have lived,” he says. “This is where I met the Hordes of Darkness, where I fought the Howling Abyss, where–”
“You first met my father,” she says. His hand is very warm in hers. “Where the story began.”
The Prince looks at her with his bright-gold eyes, and catches her wrist to draw her close. His expression is calm, but not wooden; this is the Prince who has regained his Heart.
“And here,” he says, lifting their hands so that she spins, automatically taking his cue, “is where the story will end ever after.”
xii. Faces of Celebration [KH2]
In the Land of Dragons, there’s a belief that one’s ancestors, upon reaching a certain spiritual age, become family guardians that watch over the pride and health of the family. These ancestors must also be appeased and respected, because their displeasure can result in disaster and eventual ruin for any individual — sort of like deadwood being pruned from a healthy tree — so once a year, as it grows cold, elaborate feasts are prepared and laid at the tombs of the ancestors, so that the spirits of humans can eat the spirits of food and be satisfied.
In Port Royal, when the first shards of frost touch the grass and the ocean turns an ominous green-black, Tortuga comes alive, with even more laughing and dancing and fighting in the streets than normal; throughout the population about half of the pirates and whores alike dress all in black, with white beaded onto their sleeves to resemble long arm-bones, strings of beads hung round their necks.
In Halloweentown, the costumes are alive and trick-or-treating is the same as a day-job; Jack spends his days planning, designing new monsters and revamping others so that the same yellow-eyed black hellcat is just a little sleekier, a little scarier, than the year before.
In Radiant Garden reclaimed, there are still too many Heartless wandering the streets for the children to be safe, so Merlin magicks an impossibly large room as addition to his house, and families bring their children there, as the Restoration Committee — in full costume, of course, at Aeris’ insistance — hands out candy and keeps a watchful eye on the door, in case some true dark thing is drawn by the cluster of warmth and defiant light.
And on Destiny Island, a young hero walks behind his two closest friends, a hand on each of their backs to urge them along, because if they don’t hurry, all the good candy will be gone because all that’ll be left is the old lady who hands out apples and small sample tubes of toothpaste, and it’s Halloween, guys, worrying about the rest can wait for another night.
xiii. Truth of the Matter [tactics; Raikou and the Oni-Eater’s resting place]
The shrine where the Oni-Eating Tengu had been sealed stood in bad disrepair, as though whatever magic preserved it had faded when its legendary prisoner had spread his wings and fled.
Minamoto Raikou walked around the perimeter of the rock, with its rotted ropes and charms, then paused to kick a scattering of rock fragments — not pebbles, but shards that had chipped free when the seals had come undone.
“Raikou-sama,” Sakata said, shivering a bit in the cold. “What are we looking for here? The youkai’s gone.”
Raikou leaned forward, one knee on the stone, to pick up a small wooden plaque, which says tenkou, heavenly fox, and then turned his eyes upwards.
A single crow shot across the sky through a gap in the branches, croaking hoarsely.
“I was right,” he said, and tucked the small dirty thing into his coat.
“Ah, I’m bored now!” Raikou turned away, folding his arms behind his back and walking past Sakata, who sputtered and then about-faced to follow after him. “Idiot Sakata, did you enjoy that little sidetrip?”
“R-Raikou-sama?” Sakata still sounded confused, the poor moron; he remembered the encounter with the tengu from the mountains a week previous, but he still couldn’t put the details together.
No matter. He had his confirmation now, and the Oni-Eater had been dressed sharply, in clothes too new and modern; he could not have gone very far.
Pleased, Raikou smiled.
Finding a legend in sleep had been difficult — but a living, breathing target was something he specialized in hunting.