Post Wed Aug 31, 2016 1:00 pm

The Morning After

"Un poète doit laisser des traces de son passage, non des preuves. Seules les traces font rêver." - René Char
Location and Time: Alcheringa, Night after "Dead By Morning"
Character(s): Saeko, Aneko, Yuki
Author(s): CantoAnathema, Sareth


She opened her eyes. No, that was wrong. Her eyes were already open. She just became aware of her surroundings and of using her eyes to do so. As she came to her senses, she found that she stood at, or rather, within the archway of some medieval gatehouse. It was a shockingly sturdy thing, constructed of heavy pale-brown stone and mortar, especially for one who had grown used to modern lightness and particularly Japanese aesthetics. She stared at it, scrambling to explain it to a mind used to wooden torii and paper walls, and promptly failed to accomplish anything more than a state of substantial confusion. Yer here she was--within the archway of the gatehouse, the doors already open to admit her, and she was already passing through them without realizing she'd ever moved to enter.

Stepping out of the weighty shadows of the gate, she was struck by an overabundance of warm, gold light- the sort that spring days bring if the sun is overenthusiastic. In the sudden wash of illumination, she staggered to a halt. Momentarily unable to see, her other senses groped out instinctively: the smell of flowers, the sound of light laughter, the taste of copper in her mouth, the feel of the dirt path between her toes. Most important of all, the taste of two sets of emotion. Both were faint, as though they were but memories, but their sweet and fresh allure was close at hand for all that and she grasped at them like a chain to an anchor. As her eyes grew accustomed to the daylight, they fixated upon two companions at a table, chatting and laughing together with a bottle like a mirror between them. In the height of a laugh, one of two noticed her.

"S----," the Mother called out, giving a wave.

"Ah..." she whispered softly, though even she could not explain the meaning of the sound. Summoned, she drifted to the side of the table, hands clasped before her demurely, eyes downward. Standing there and looking down at the table's wooden surface, she opened her mouth to speak, only to realize that there was nothing for her to say.

"We were just talking about you!" The Mother explained excitedly, as the companion across the table poured a glass from the bottle and passed it to her. "Or, rather, us." A blush spread like fire across the Mother's cheeks and down the neck, between her breasts and danced about her hips until, with a sweep of her black hair, it was dispersed.

"My sister has been particularly vulgar." The companion - the Sinner that he was - complained.

"Ah," she said again, still confusingly lost for words. She glanced to the Sinner, knowing that somehow he wasn't supposed to be here. No, he wasn't supposed to be at all. Yet over that confusion was something else. Fear. And desire. An intoxicating mix of poison and addiction. She started to reach out, but again, her hand stopped short, her will wandering. She glanced back to the Mother as if seeking help, but unsure what she needed help with, only that the Mother represented something she could trust.

"Oh! I'm sorry, love, I'm sorry! I was so excited I forgot everything is new to you," the Mother apologized, a venerable hand reaching out and taking hers. Though knotted and wrinkled like an old hardback book, the Mother's hand was strong and warm, unbowed by the decades. The smile was the same. "It's alright. You're home."

The dry, paper-like skin of the hand holding her brought comfort, and release. She gasped in surprise as she felt something unlock within her. "Home," she whispered, almost afraid the sound would lock her inside herself once again. When she felt herself remain free, the word safe to use in this place, she smiled and spoke again. "Tadaima, oku-nee."

"Okaeri, yome-chan."

She turned her openness to the man. "Tadaima, otto-san."

The Sinner smiled, the black skull-like face unable to do otherwise. "A------." She could not find an easy way to describe the way the word felt on her ears yet it was so simple. So remarkably and stupidly simple that she found herself smiling back, his utterance more than overcoming any trepidation she felt.

Her gaze drifted to the mirror-like bottle on the table, whereupon she froze, caught unaware by what she saw of herself reflected back from its surface. Between a very young woman (her youth competing with an adult-like seriousness, responsibility splotched messily across her pale, oriental face) and a young boy (ruddier but only just; the withdrawn demeanor weakening his physiognomy) was a little girl, hardly older than her own daughter. Like the two next to her, her heritage was difficult to place but, if demanded, the girl more resembled the young woman at her side. Their black hair was the same, as was the slope of their cheek and brow. The girl's eyes, though, matched the boy's; dark and sullen, with a particular intensity. A gaggle of cute siblings: eldest, middling, and youngest.

She stared, enraptured at what she saw. Her free hand rose to touch her cheek, and in the bottle the motion was mirrored by the littlest girl. "I look like..." She turned to look at the woman beside her, and then the man. "I look like you."

"You always have at heart," the Mother assured, "it just is plainly seen here."

"Forms are malleable. If you desire what you see here, you will carry it with you outside," the Sinner confirmed.

"It is enough to know that you see me this way here," she replied. "Though..." she touched her cheeks.

"Ha! The little miss is considering it now," a burly voice laughed, with the suddenness of stepping out from the shade into the summer's worst. A man and a woman stepped out from the arched walkways leading to the house - as with the gate, they were built with time and weight, passing from shadow to light. Immortal and Undying. "No shame in that. Tis a perk! A service!"

Behind her, children sighed with the air of the long-suffering and conspiratorially stowed their words between themselves. As the chilly wind of their reception passed him, the Undying looked dejectedly to her--but he could no more easily hide his good humor than he could his smile.

"See how they mistreat me?" He persisted, playfully adamant.

She glanced behind herself to see that those once old next to her now were no older than she, a delicate boy-child and an even more delicate girl-child, sighing and avoiding the gaze of the newcomers. Surprised, she turned back to face the two newly arrived figures.

He was larger than life, an edifice of confidence and unaffected machismo. A turban crowned his head, elaborate in its design, but his suit would not have been out of place during a visit with Umberto at the Palazzo Reale di Torino. He was shrouded with a halo of light, a radiance surrounding a darkness, a shadow that radiated illumination. He was ancient beyond words, and yet life could not have been more evident in the energy of the man, as it rumbled with a laughter through his chest, arms, air, legs, and ground.

Within his orbit was her slight figure. Her grey hair was neatly bound behind her as the woman followed him, her hands held demurely before her. The kimono was the wisest of black silks, its crest embroidered by the deftest minds of ages past. Yet all of the details were somehow not quite there and her description faltered, as the archway behind them was hinted at through her form.

She bowed to the two figures - the Undying man and Immortal lady - presently aware that her childlike appearance was more than just an affectation in their presence.

"Oh, don't stand on ceremony inside the house," the Undying decried with another laugh. As if to insist, he sat down right as he was, as quick and heedless of the earth as a lightning bolt. Smacking his thigh encouragingly, he chortled, "Come, sit, my gir-ack!"

His invitation for her to sit upon his lap was cut short by the most gentle and tender application of an oil-paper umbrella to the back of his skull. With the man curled over and clutching his head, the Immortal lady raised the weapon up and turned it out against the bright light. Thus shaded, the serene woman offered a slight tilt of her head as bow.

When the lady spoke, in her own time, "Welcome, child. My daughter tells me you are a proper young woman, so please disregard my husband's foolishness"

She felt a bubble of amusement well up inside of her and, in spite of her intentions, it burst forth, a girlish giggle matching her appearance. She knew there was import to this, even though what it was escaped her. But she simply couldn't maintain a sense of gravity in the presence of the pair's sport.

"Aha!" The Undying alighted, reaching over with a mighty hand and tousling her hair. She felt the mass of scars that made up his flesh and form, secured his bones, as if he were made of injuries held together not by virtue of healing or recovery, but merely forward motion - a supreme act of anima. "See, the girl isn't all stiff and proper! She has a laugh in her!"

"You incorrigible Jesuit," was the wifely retort, as the Immortal folded the hems of her kimono and sat upon the mat set before her. "She is here to learn, to be a proper bride to us, and you would have her act shamefully."

"Ideally, yes!"

Despite the desire to giggle again, she composed her face into something more proper. Her knees folded beneath her and she sat in much the same fashion and attire as the Immortal, hands demurely in her lap and eyes attentively on the grass just in front of the untimely woman. The Immortal, in turn, watched contemplatively, her slender fingers tapping along the shaft of her umbrella with the clicking sound of scarabs.

When the lady spoke, in her own time, "You follow the way of the gods, do you not?"

"Yes," the girl replied. "I was even sheltered in a shrine for a time."

"Those gods will forsake you, should you be embraced by our family," the Immortal said, "None of their kind will reach out to you. We are naught but the greatest impurity to them."

"I was a thing of death and corruption before first I drew breath." There was challenge in her eyes, proud and unshirking, as she brought her head up to face the Immortal. "I have worshiped what I could never claim hold of."

At first, the Immortal merely shook her head, as dimly as a mountain might overshadow the climber. But, with such appeal did she face the ascent that, in time, more words followed: "Let that be the concern of leather-workers and butchers. If you are to be one of us, do not sell yourself short. If the kami turn away from you, it is because we serve beyond their pantheon." She tasted the rot in the words, emptying the sweetness of her giggles as a plague empties temples, buries cities, and ends dynasties. In the stern expression of the Immortal was the herald of the mandate of heaven; when the time was just for an era to end, such as she would see to it that order was obeyed.

Yet, all of the sudden, the Immortal smiled--the sight of it plenty enough to snatch a heart mid-throb--and called, "F----, come."

The little girl left off playing with her brother for the moment and rushed to her mother's side, bearing the scent of the garden's flowers.

"Tell me, my little kitten, what are we to mortal man?"

"We are the monk, come to perform the funeral rites."

"Tell me then, what are we to the long-lived youkai?"

"We are the sage, the priest, come to erase their pride."

"And what of the gods, kami, and divines?"

The girl laughed lightly and could no longer restrain herself, wrapping arms of shimenwa around her mother, "Even the eye that birthed the August Queen has seen us take from him and not return."

Pressing a kiss to the girl's forehead, the Immortal cooed, "You remember well, my dear. You may go." With a bow, the flower girl departed, trailing paper charms on strings and white butterflies. The Immortal watched with a warm approval, before turning back to her, "Do you understand, child? Do not bow more than is proper. We are not to put our foreheads to the ground for foreign gods."

The girl bowed her head. All things had their place. When the prideful were to be laid low in their graves and the lowly raised to the heavens, it was because it was their place to do so. When the ancients were to finally leave this world, it was because it was their place to do so. Those there with her, they, too, had a place, as the agents who returned those who had sought to avoid the place that all were fated to find. Even--

"Even the kami die."

"Aaaand she's lost her laugh again, the poor little lass." In contrast to the sacred rope which lingered about the Immortal, the Undying wore a coat of police tape and hazardous material warnings, which shone like sirens as he shook his head in what seemed to be sadness if not for the not-so-stifled chortling, "There's no need to be so grave about it all."

"Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh," the girl quoted. She smiled at the Undying and his peculiar new outfit. "A time to cry and a time to laugh. A time to grieve and a time to dance," she added, a second quote. "There is time enough for both gravity and laughter." She arched a girlish eyebrow, equal measure to his stifling.

"A poet and scholar then! Ha, I shall answer you in kind then! For it has been said: to move wild laughter in the throat of death? It cannot be; it is impossible: Mirth cannot move a soul in agony. But I defy that! For here is the throat of death," to this he pointed extravagantly to his own, "and here it's wild laughter," to which he, rather unexpectedly, burst out into great shaking fits of laughter, rattling the frozen blocks and bottles that sat around him - a dead man making a joke at his own wake.

"Shakespeare," the girl identified. She turned back to the little boy and girl behind her. They were distant now, out-placed in the moment as they always were. At arm's length with everyone but themselves. Still, for the first time, desperation did not claw its way up her throat from her heart. The feeling could pour out safely. "I like them," she whispered in faux-conspiracy.

In what was too loud to even be mockingly called a whisper, the Undying confided, "I have my suspicions that they like you too. Particularly that moody girl of mine. She's always been a little whoo~oo~psie, if you know what mean!"

She parked her fists on her hips in all of the mock seriousness only a little girl could create. "I am perfectly fine with whoopsie," she chided.

"Well then, have at her! Finest model of diligent, devoted, diabolical daughter around!" A century's worth of subterfuge could not be undone by a father's pride but she understood. "Nonrefundable. We'll throw in the son too. A service!"

"Deal!"

"Ha!" With another great burst of mirth, he took her white-gloved, sold-sticker-ed hand. "You're straight as a lightning bolt with me, girl, and that's fine in my ledger! Now up ye go; get on into the house lest you keep the old folks waiting."

The young woman reached down and lifted the hem of her dress, carefully kicking the train behind her as she turned towards the house. She ascended the stairway towards the door, mindful of the stones and careful with her slippers.

"One last word," the Undying said, calling her back. She turned and lifted the veil, looking at the boy - no older than her daughter - and his tiny frame, bulbous with purple and black swellings. Behind him, the Immortal loomed, dry hairs hanging from dry skull and scythe in hand. Such a creature had no eyes for her, not with this form or ever. The fullness of an infinite affection, deeper than perhaps any she had known, was brought to bear on this tiny, dying child.

When the man spoke, in his own time, "Mortal man is afraid of death. To them, it is a place of loneliness and despair, and then with all our power, it is too easy to be the cruelty they fear. So, I say, be kind."

Silently, for she could taste no answer on her lips, the young woman bowed, then turned back and entered the house.

By this point, the weight of the construction - fashioned out of countless repetitions, brick and brick, life by life - had ceased to burden her senses. Now, she had adjusted to the pressure and the cool embrace of the interior was actually rather pleasant. It was an eclectic mix, between stone and brick structure, toned plaster, and aged timber. Paintings and tapestries came and went--appearing and decaying as she drifted by, wandering without a guide as a forlorn guest might. As comfortable as the place might feel, it still seemed that she had merely been turning the same corner for the past hundred turns. Or perhaps the house was indeed sprawl away from her every step and the various rooms shuffled themselves about her, as if they had reconsidered what best use they might be put to and where they were needed for it.

Her steps moved a bit faster, at first, just to catch a door before it closed. Then she hurried a bit more, her breath catching and her heart beating, as she heard voices and movement. Then she ran. Her heels clacked against the stone tiles, her whiteness dashing about more than a bit madly. She felt a breeze twirl about her and the scent of wood dust scattering and she rushed straight into the arms of a bronzed man, as sturdily built as the home itself.

Once they had disentangled and she had been set right upon her feet, he bowed and, when he spoke, it was with heavy words, each laid slowly and with care. "Steady, little beti. No sense rushing. Not in a place of memories."

"Memories of what?" she asked. She had grown adjusted enough to this place that it mattered little that the speaker was both animate and not; the arms that had caught her were joined-beams, his legs as stonework balusters, and the face that shifted to speak could have adorned a door knocker as easily as it did his visage. All that mattered was that it spoke.

"Of ours," it answered. "Whole lifetimes of memories. Enough to take root and foundation. To be home for us."

"Is this where..." The bride paused, a surprised up-welling of emotion taking her. She lifted her veil to angrily wipe a tear from her cheek. "Is this where the ones I love come, when they aren't with me?"

The lips turned into a smile, slow and certain as carving would, "You may consider it so. Yet only for kin. Our faith is a narrow sort."

"I know," she acknowledged. "Those who choose this path may never share eternity with those who do not."

Even here, wet with newness as she was, she understood the subtle divide that broke this place off from the rest of the world. Even her most beloved faces could not be summoned here, nor could she pull their names to her lips.

At once, cracks unseen with its animation and voice became noticeable, along with the discoloration of age and dulling of the man's fine features due to weathering. Care for it could only do so much against the centuries. A cold gust swept through her, white fabric scattering like dead leaves, and her combat boots felt hard and coarse on her feet and on the stone beneath them. Her clothes and skin felt constricting and a lifetime-ago-old, as the figure before her shook and broke apart, opening to a room beyond that was much in need.

"Eternity?" chimed the rain, that dropped from the patchwork of the ceiling. Forever and ever, it repeated as it dripped and splattered, finding a shape. With each trickle, the shape of a man, bare-headed and shackled, became visible. Seated among the timber, stone, and tools, he spoke with the same weight.

"I thought that. At the start. Forever?" The man raised his head, his eyes catching hers. She felt the callouses in his voice as he reached out. "I am not mistaken, am I? You are - were - a soldier. My granddaughter did not use that word but close." He paused, pensive. As the rain that gave him division from the house ran red, she knew him and he, her. "Ah... not soldier. Not you."

"Soldiers fight as part of a disciplined unit, each sacrificing for one another, and for the whole, completes the mission, and then awaits new orders. A warrior, even in the largest of battles, always fights alone, until she is victorious or cut down." She smiled as she tossed her helmet to the ground. "I am no soldier."

A hound's barking shook the water from the shape, leaving only the the Warrior. A figure of flesh just as bronzed, just as sturdy as before, and it seemed to her that his shackles carried more in weight of protection than of punishment.

"Well said. True words by one who knows them. Then let me speak the same. No, not eternity. We wait here for the end times, by whatever name you know it. We wait not as freemen soldiers. Not us. Chained warriors, hungry and ready. At our master's horn, we shall bring battle to the gates of heaven, storm the fields of Elyisum, and set fire to the wheel of samsara. When we are done, there will be nothing." He breathed deeply, "Not even ourselves."

"Ragnarok," she replied, a smile on her face. "A suitable end to everything, I think."

"A purpose and a place suitable for you, I understand."

"I want to belong." She paused, then shook her head woefully. "No, that isn't correct. I need to belong. With my whole being."

The Warrior laughed and she discerned the shades it differed from the Undying, whose laugh was rich with vitality and affection for the world. The Warrior laughed the way a man does when he has learned such feelings late in life. Offering his arm, he said, "Come; you are a granddaughter for me."

She placed her hand in the crook of his arm, the feminine gesture not suiting the stomp of her boots on the floor, yet somehow both fit in as perfectly as finding your own room. She stepped with him out of the hall, the architecture collapsing behind them as some distant memory of shell-fire scorched the air. Yet for each destruction, she felt the the certainty in their steps increase until they paused before a kitchen door, as notched and stained as a chopping block.

"Be aware; my wife is very different from you and I," the Warrior cautioned and, when she looked for his smile at saying so, she found there was none.

"I should hope so," the Healer said.

She turned back from her glance at the Warrior to see a small frame of a woman before her, holding the door open. This wasn't the diminutive, yet spiritually imposing woman that the Undying had been, nor the childlike yet deadly power of the Mother. No, this was an utter lack of any strength, any sense of threat. Just a simple, weak, in truth almost unnoticeable woman. The Healer was the quintessential no one.

Naked before the Healer's gaze, she knew that the seeming insignificance was the greatest lie ever told. She tried to hide herself behind her hands, but knew that the Healer saw every blemish, every flaw, and every sickness despite all her efforts.

The Healer shook her head, "Can you imagine this place in a few thousand years? It's going to be very crowded if we keep up at this rate."

"I don't..." she shook herself. "But if we change when we are here, cannot this place also change?"

"Ha! A good answer," the Healer said and turned her attention to the fire in the stove, poking it with a long bit of iron. As it flared, the warmth of it filled the kitchen. Smiling a bit, the Healer gestured, "but not quite right. We don't change when we are here. Everything you have seen is our proper form."

"But people here have changed, even as I watched. Oka-nee and otto-san both changed as I watched," Her protest was less an act of defiance, and more a plea for understanding.

"A blushing young wife, a century-old hag, and a little lady fussing over her little siblings - they are the same at heart," the small woman assured, her dark hair shifting as she shook her head, "it just is plainly seen here. The same might be said for you."

"Me?" She felt a bit of a shock ripple through her. She had seen herself change as she met each new figure here, but had not taken the time to consider all of the implications each had brought forth.

"The youngest sister, the little girl before her elders, the bride-to-be, and a maiden of battle - they are the same at heart, plainly seen. However, that does sound rather unfair to you. Come, impress your grandmother. Show me that side of yourself you are most proud of."

At once urged, she started to draw power into herself, to darken the air, to draw a blade, or to in some other way show her might and strength. It would be easy, here, in this place that bent so easily to her feelings. She felt she could blacken the sun in the sky, show that hers was a pride that came from indomitable will.

Then all that surging power frittered away.

It was not really what she was most proud of. It was a useful tool, an influence she could exert to move the world. But it wasn't really what she felt good about at the end of the day. Instead, what truly moved her, what had sustained her during her lowest moments, was--

She stepped forward, naked and unafraid, and wrapped her arms around the one before her. Whether it be daughter, sister, mother, or this short and slender grandmother--from any angle, this was what she held most deeply and most dearly.

"Oh, you sweet little sparrow," the Healer sighed with the warmth of the firepit and the gentleness of a good blanket, embracing her in turn. So comfortable and unassuming that the first cause of alarm was the pain from fingers sinking into the bare flesh of her shoulders, as the matron spoke as if all was the same.

"Now, let us see your most shameful sides."

As she gasped and tears broke her eyes, the Healer's hands took hold of something deep within her body and, with a sharp exhalation of delight (on the other's part) and agony (most certainly on her's), pulled it free. The fire hissed madly and went out as loosed viscera and blood splattered atop it and, in the now darkened room, two massive wings unfurled. The walls themselves accepted the scene, bullet holes and scorch marks appearing where the gore struck. The Healer herself was unstained but her unassuming visage slipped free like a dream at mourning. The simple traveling-dress and tightly braided hair were insufficient by themselves to cover up the delighted expression upon that face.

The littlest sister, the bride-to-be writhed there on the floor with twisted flesh and twisted spirit. Her eyes oozed, dazed, as sutures crossed her body, making her appear like some horrible, mistreated doll. Her wings lashed about, disjointed and broken as she gave gasping shrieks in unimaginable pain.

From the bullet holes her blood had rent in the walls, vapors entered the room, wafting about before congealing into half-seen figures, women and girls shrieking counterpoint to her song. "Monster," they wailed. "Beast," they cried. "Murderer," they accused. They began reaching out, vague arms latching onto the tortured black wings. "Give them back! Those are ours, demon, not yours!"

Unheard among the wailing, sinner and victim alike, dallied another little voice. "A homunculus then? Oh, it seems the nature of things has not changed all that much since I last walked the world. Then there are these," here the Healer touched the phantom figures with interest, stroking their outstretched arms and grimacing smoke-like faces, "magical girls, I think? To think that so many would be required to craft a single creature. How messy!" The Healer looked past the horror, to the Warrior who had been standing silent witness to it all. "Did you know of this?"

He nodded and the Healer knelt down alongside the stricken woman. With a gentle turn of her hand, she scooped the blood, mist, ghosts, and screaming from the air. Then she took it all--as a smoked, red marble--into her mouth with a quiet, suckling pop. Another turn of her hand smoothed out the sutured skin and turned the wings back inside their shoulder-perches, allowing the moment to seep back into the woman.

The mewling and crying took more than a few seconds to end, and it was several seconds beyond those before she began to uncurl. She slowly straightened and stood, face toward the floor, where lay the outline of her form still lay. The Healer looked at her, saying nothing. Either watching or waiting, both carried a certain amount of dread. Yet nothing was forthcoming; she was bloody with embarrassment and horrified at the visage she had shown. Furthermore, there was something uncanny about the Healer, although that word failed to capture the horrible nature of the now-healed encounter. Eventually the Healer's expression turned petulant and returned to her chair; restarting the fire with a quick stab.

With that monstrous gaze turned aside indifferently, the trembling patchwork girl came to realize that this too was a member of the family. The same way the wires-within (tyrant, that it was) were a part and black-skull (murderer, that it was) were a part. As each of them wore a human form, as mother-wife and brother-husband, so too did each of them have a tenebrous face as well.

The Healer, for all her simple smallness and ever-watchful eyes, had simply forgotten which was which.

The door closed and she was alone. It tasted bitter and she felt her wings ache deep within her chest.

"S----," a concerned voice called. She turned and a small, familiar hand took hers.

Immediately the butchery of the kitchen faded and she found herself in a similarly small bedroom, with faint light drifting in from the misted windows. Dolls looked kindly on from their shelves, mirroring the expression of their owner.

"Ah!" She gasped, her emotions whipped sawed from her shame, to relief. "Oku-nee!" Her hand clenched that of the other girl, and she buried her face in the Mother's shoulder. "I'm sorry. I became so frightened..."

The Mother said nothing herself, only reached about and wrapped the other up as one might put a note from a lover in their coat pocket, sheltering it from wear. The dolls whispered darkly. The grandmother was different, no, she meant well, no, she had forgotten pain, no she was dangerous and scary, no, the new daughter should not have been left alone, no, no, it was her fault, her fault, sorry, so very sorry for not going in with her. "Shh," the Mother murmured and there was silence.

They clung together like that for a time. It may have been seconds. It may have been days. It was impossible to say which. But after a time she leaned back. While her hands still held the Mother's shoulders, she pulled far enough to issue a small, weak smile. "I'm okay now, Oku-nee. Thank you."

"Are you certain?" It was clearer concern than she had ever seen the Mother wear, as if she had been holding back a bit in another life.

A small dampness formed in her eye, one that had nothing to do with what had happened before. She gave the Mother a squeeze with one hand, still resting on a shoulder. "Yes," she said.

With a slight nod, the Mother seemed, if not satisfied, at least placated for the time being. The dolls tittered quietly between themselves, shaking their heads, then gesturing towards the door. The Mother sighed deeply and, together, they rose to their feet, knowing that there was one more generation yet to meet.

Nodding, she took a deep breath. Ignoring the chattering dolls she stepped forward toward the only door she had not yet passed through. She hesitated at the threshold for just an instant, but steeled herself and passed through.

Despite herself and everything that had happened, she almost thought she had the wrong room.

It was fair though. It was a simple sitting room, with the light adornments of tapestry and candles seeming to hold back the weight of the building. Even the bookshelves were low and unimposing. Most of all, however, was the girl who sat at the circle-table. No older than the Mother reflected in the bottle and dressed simply, with layers and furs against the chill of the room. Plus, the girl was blonde - the most startling snow-white blonde.

"Come in," the Lady bade, the voice more than suiting the name.

Obedient, she did so, her own gown trailing behind her. She held her hands over her stomach, as a demure and well-mannered child would. Her slipper-clad feet took her to the side of the table where she stood,awaiting further instruction.

"I must apologize for my daughter," the Lady said, with unbowed head, "who was forceful and impolite to you. She has not yet learned to balance her curiosity with her responsibility."

"There was no harm done, Lady. There is little to apologize for. My reaction was my own faulty nature, not hers."

A moment passed in silence, for no other reason than because the Lady did not saying anything, until, "I see. Your own faulty nature?"

"I am so very far from perfect. I have weaknesses and failings. I have flaws that can cause me to err badly. I am a faulty creature." Her eyes were cast down to the floor, but after a pause she brought them up to look at the Lady. "But then, which of us is not?"

"Which of us, indeed." the Lady echoed again, as if unmaking and recreating the rhetorical nature of the question. "So you seek to enter our family, despite knowing your unworthy station, your myriad flaws, and a birthright which mention of turns you all meek and shivering."

With each word, her youth shed a petal-like layer, though age did not touch her. Merely her rosy cheeks turned pale and cold, her lips of red frosted, and her eyes black against the snow-white of her hair. Beautiful and pristine. Unblemished by mere mortality and human vice. The first of their family and beyond reproach.

"My great-granddaughter, willful as she may be, is heir of noble blood. If lady she must have, she could have from a match suitable to her station. I have heard her speak of such a one as well."

Phantoms hovered at the edge of vision, filling the previous simple and unimposing corners with their servant stares, from beneath their ghostly shrouds. Each lady-in-waiting, a deceased worthy. Each wondering, dares this one stand before their lady? The chilly air might as well have been their breath, hissed out between clenched teeth.

The Lady looked at her, and asked.

"Tell me then, why you?"

Her thoughts were furious and confused within her. She wanted to lash out, to beg, to scream, to plead. She wanted to prove that somehow she was worthy, that she had merit, that there was value to her, that even flawed she was still something of considerable use for the family. As if already informed of all of the above, the Lady lilted, head shifted slightly up and she knew that the startling white of the mistress' hair and throat had spilled more blood than she had ever known. Standing upon the icy stone, a cold and unquestioned dominion meant for knees and brows, she wondered what might possibly suffice in answer.

But then her lips parted, and she simply, softly spoke. "Because it is what she wants."

A slender, pale finger touched the winter lips, thoughtfully but indifferent, "Why would she want you?"

"I don't know," she whispered, gentle but firm. "It is enough for me to know that she does, and that I would be hers for as long as she would have me."

The collection of phantoms bowed.

The Lady gave wave and they dispersed.

"You are humble, I grant you."

She stood there unbowed, content. She had answered what she had been asked, and knew what she had answered had been the honest admission of her feelings. She would be accepted, or she would be denied. Either way, when her love called, she would be there. When her brother-husband needed, she would respond. They would require, and she would serve.

"Very well," the Lady commented, as if by delayed acknowledgement, "I shall permit you meet my lord and, if he is kindly, I shall count you among my kin."

At another gesture from the Lady, she turned and found herself looking over hills underneath thin snow, beneath grey skies; mountains in the distance and black scratches against the landscape, perhaps rows of trees further out. Almost instinctively, her wings wrapped about her, against the cold. The long gallery was covered but still exposed, heavy arches bearing away little of the elements.

She felt the Lady's hand touch her wings; an unexpected, slight brush of fingertips against her feathers startling her.

Surprised, she turned back for a moment, towards the Lady who withdrew her fingers and turned them out towards the snow, as if shaking free whatever warmth had been gleaned. She stared at the woman (her eyes could do nothing else) and in doing so caught the distant cry of a newborn, the faint smell of oranges drifting on the frozen breeze, and the quietest of jealous weeping. The Lady still said nothing. So she then nodded politely and began moving forward, out of the narrow city lane and into that far country.

As her bare feet turned raw and blue within the snow, she lost sight of the walls and roofs of the home. Gradually, she gained the sort of lost one finds in among bare trees and thick blanketed snow. There was no sky to discern, nor sound or sight to mark how far she wandered. Her footsteps were barely indented before they filled again, and so offered no recourse. A short step from utter abandonment, she found the Knight.

A man neither old nor young, dressed for laborer's warmth with a logging axe at the side of his tree stump seat. This man waved her over with something like a smile.

"I felt like taking in the winter a bit." He said, by way of explanation, and one such as her immediately noticed his polite but informal words, whatever the language. "It seems I made you walk a ways."

"It's a beautiful day,"she replied quietly, taking in the view of hoarfrost covered tree branches. "It was well worth the trip."

"You have not yet been to this place, in the waking world, is that right?"

"I have been so few places in the waking world." She lowered herself down so that she half reclined in the snow as though it were a fainting couch and not bone chilling ice. Her eyes continue to gaze upon the crystalline scene. "I have never been to a place like this."

"Honestly, you might not be able to, outside of this place. I have no idea how much or how little the places around our village have changed. A thousand years, about? I can't even imagine."

She nodded. "If there is only one thing that remains the same, it is that change happens."

"Too true," he laughed, warm and weary. Rising from his perch, he dusted off the accumulated snow from his leggings. "Now then, I assume you have been tried and tested by my kinsmen, so let me be the first to ask if you're confused about any of this dream."

"No more so than by life in general. It is what it is." She shrugged and rose, turning to face him. "Will it be like this every time I come here?"

"It's always the house, at least; centuries of accumulated memories or something like that. Finding your way around will become easier though. Other than that," he tapped the side of his head, near his brow and eyes, "I don't know what exactly you see."

"I see a sort of paradise, I suppose. One steeped in both tradition and a history of familial comfort. It's a good place. I suppose the details are unimportant." She smiled at the Knight, one corner of her mouth quirking higher than the other in amusement.

"Ah, that they are. Or rather, they only make sense to the one who sees them, so it's not worth the worry. I don't know if I'd call it a paradise but it is certainly our home, make of it what you will" shaking his head, he gave gesture to the shift in conversation, "Now, I suppose my wife wants me to determine your valor and worth as a bride to my great-some-daughter?"

She nodded. "Yes, I suppose she does." Somehow, though he was the eldest yet, she felt little concern. His presence, rather than feeling threatening, felt comforting somehow. Far from the tension of the Lady or the terror of the Healer.

The Knight gave another little laugh and brushed a hand through his snow-laden hair, shaking the white from black. As he did so, she noted the ring--embossed with a proud lion-- and recognized it from the hand of the one she adored. A small thing but it distracted her momentarily, so that his words came as a start.

"I just need to know one thing."

She nodded again.

"Is she the most important person to you? More than yourself or anyone else?"

A simple question; even more obviously answered. Yet in the back of her head, near the darkest part of her hearing, a certain man told a certain child a story, saying that if love could stave off illness and misfortune, she would have lived forever – as would you, my little one. All around them, half-covered in snow, were sticks crossed together. All the tress, cherry blossoms dyed red. She saw him, as he was: noble, kind, and sincere unto sadness, a soldier true and forthright. Which is to say more opposite and worthy than any she had ever known.

No answer was necessary. He already knew what it was simply by the way she held herself, regal in her darkness, stained and torn, but proud, the warrior to his soldier, the trickster to his nobility, the devious to his truthfulness. They were opposites who, in the moment, understood one another in a way no others could, and found a thing in common.

"I'd make the same sacrifice for her you once made."

He nodded this time. There was, of course, no more point in warning her than there was in talking to himself. She had known the moment she saw him that a thousand years had not recanted his choice.

"That will do." The season faded away around them, leaving a misty forest that was either a breath away from budding anew or a quiet moment from decay. The Knight brought his hands together and, in doing so, brought forth each of his family from the grey. Of them, the Knight asked, "What say you?"

"She is obsequious," said the Immortal.

"A bit on the angry side," the Undying added.

"Battle-hungry," the Warrior confirmed, though not unkindly.

"Brittle bones and spirit," the Healer said.

The Mother enveloped her hand with both of her own, by way of answer.

"My children speak true and direct," the Lady said, taking her place at the Knight's side, "and should my lord wish it, we shall accept her."

She looked at each of them, nodding in turn, acknowledging their words that seemed pit against her. She turned to the Mother and placed her yet-free hand in hers. Plainly seen.

There was no whispered conversation in reaction. No, they had years enough to know their thoughts without such gossip. The Knight gestured to his youngest and the Sinner bowed.

As a moment passed, he said nothing. Then, when he did speak, it was quiet and cradled an empty space, where tenderness might go.

"My sister tires," she felt the fingers she shared go cold and tighten, betraying themselves as only he could, "and if this one eases that, I ask that you accept her."

She squeezed that those other fingers with her own, a reassurance, and a promise. They were small hands and the warmth in them so fragile, like an ember which had burned more diligently than could be reasonably expected.

The Knight rose from his seat, at the head of a table she had not realized she realized she stood before in a hall she had not entered. "Then so be it," he announced and then, after a moment had hung in the air, laughed, "My children, perhaps we have grown too proud in our long years. Perhaps this humble little lady is what is best for our family, and for our children. She will obey and bow as is proper but she will serve with a devotion and love that is rare."

Just before she might have expected that to suffice in answer, the Knight turned to his Lady and, kneeling, asked.

"Will you accept her?"

It was not chivalry that obliged his question, but something older, something more fearful than such a young code knew. With only the stories she had heard, she understood that she had no say, not now; nor could any of them have any say, to persuade the first among them.

As the Lady willed, so willed their master.

The Lady looked to him, then to her, who remained standing at the distance. The matron's usual, cold indifference suddenly filled her with a formless, nameless dread. With contemplative lingering, the Lady's lips slowly stretched across her face and--as if to her own surprise--she caught a name in them. Eyes alighting, the Lady spoke it, quietly. Despite the distance, her legs gave out at the Lady's utterance.

Once, then again. And oh, the sound of it was almost unbearable, dragged between those teeth as white as snow and contemplated by that songless tongue. Even though she could not quite grasp the face to which it belonged, each beating of its two syllables was like watching a pick driven into her chest, carving out something deep and vital to her. It was a familiar, no, unforgettable pain. She wished to plug her ears but, as she went to do so, caught herself. She could not--or would not--release the Mother's hand, not now.

Seeing how the word had indeed affected her, the Lady merely smiled (as the earlier shape could not be called such, by any stretch) and answered,

"I will. As a mother ought."

At once, the tension that held the other kin at bay was swept away and the conversation spread from every spot at the table. The Immortal could be heard to share that it would be nice, at least, to have another of her countrymen in the family. The Healer had turned to her son, inquiring animatedly about the progress of alchemy and darker arts in the past centuries. The Undying merely laughed - a lot and very loudly. The Warrior was patting the Mother on the head, expressing his surprise that she had somehow charmed such a firebrand. The Mother, although her grip relaxed it did not break, quickly turned to defend herself and her ability to charm women.

As she rose back to her feet, suddenly in among them, she found herself a mere pace or so from the Lady. Whatever cruelty had manifested moments earlier had dissipated, or been subdued. The far older woman considered her for a moment before her lips parted; when she spoke, the clamor and light around them dimmed, as if she desired a world for only the two of them for a moment, to speak a little more.

"S----," she said, as if saying the name for the first time.

"C------", the Servant replied with a smile.

"You called yourself a faulty creature." The Lady spoke with her earlier nobility, the eldritch part of her dismissed. Still, her words seemed to trail a bit, uncertain of how best to arrive, "I should... no, I wish to tell you that such is hardly an impediment to our kind. Your personality and spirit would certainly benefit from polishing, but your body will be refashioned anew." A child laughed in the distance, "You will be made as you ought to be."

"Thank you," the Servant replied. "Though the sins were not mine, they have burdened me. Knowing I am made a new creature..." She closed her eyes, the smile on her face gentler. "Thank you."

In that darkness, she heard them all respond, "You're welcome - and welcome to our family."

------------------------

Saeko stretched languidly as she awakened. She had dreamed, though she knew no what the dreams had covered. That was not uncommon, so she thought little of it. She began throwing the blankets off of herself, but quickly discovered that she was thoroughly entangled, not just in blankets, but in something more substantial.

She blinked, startled, though there was a very comfortable and warm fuzziness over it that made it not particularly worrying. She began to explore the issue further, her hands sliding down her bare skin to discover a hand on her breast, a leg over her thigh, small breasts pressed against her ribs. "Oh," she said. "OH!" as the previous day, the ship, the conversation, and the decision flooded back into her. She rolled her head to the side to stare at the woman cuddled up to her. "F----" she whispered, then blinked, unaware that she had known that name. But then she smiled and pressed her lips to the young looking woman's forehead. "Ohayo, oku-nee."

"Hrrmmmphurble," was the disoriented reply, as the small woman's face scrunched up like a cat trying to sneeze. A moment later, she answered properly, "Ohayo, yome." Only then did her heavy eyelids push open, black eyes blinking against the morning.

Black eyes stared into black eyes, and Saeko giggled. She gave Aneko a quick peck on the cheek, then snuggled in tightly.

At the door, Yuki was blinking and yawning. "Okaasan?" she asked, her voice curious but still not fully awake.

"<Good morning, Yuki-chan,>" Aneko greeted, waving at the girl from the futon. "<Your mother is occupied, I'm afraid.>"

This elicited a giggle from Saeko. Yuki, evidently unaware of what the phrase implied, walked into the room, then crawled onto the top of the futon blankets and curled up on top of the two adults. She yawned, then promptly fell back asleep.

"Well..." Saeko shrugged gently. "Looks like we may be trapped here for a little bit."

"She doesn't have preschool today, does she?"

"No, not today."

Aneko gingerly caught a bit of the child's hair, running the black strands between her fingers. Although just yesterday such a gesture would have caused distinct concern in her mother, this morning it seemed nothing but gentle affection.

Saeko sighed and smiled. "<It's good to be family.>