I dreamt of you.
I dreamt of the flowers of spring you’d braided so delicately into my hair I didn’t dare refuse, delighting in the warmth of your beaming smile: saffron as sunlight, precious as silk. I dreamt of the sunsets of summer you’d beg me to watch with you, as I grumbled good-naturedly all the while. I dreamt of the leaves of autumn that cascaded down, piling like snowdrifts you’d dive into without hesitation, the red matching the ribbons tied daintily in your shining seafoam hair.
I dreamt of the snow of winter you’d stared at me with eyes hollow with hunger, curling up by my side: as if someone had carved out your soul and left only the remnants. I remember your eyes: so empty, so frail, so vulnerable, so full of despair.
I remember the desperation and howling wind, wondering how much longer we could go on like this.
We couldn’t afford the price of bread, worse, we couldn’t even afford the price of living. The price tags and bills blurred before my eyes, refusing to come into focus. Our parents were doing their best, but it wasn’t enough. It was never enough.
Suddenly the resolution came to me - clear in spite of the dizziness that threatened to make my knees buckle, weak at even the prospect. I had to lessen the burden. I had to save you.
I couldn’t let my family starve. I couldn’t watch you fade away, slowly yet oh so surely, crumbling into a mere shadow of the you who had been filled with life: all vitality and verve, boundless with curiosity and wonder.
I came home that night fundamentally changed: broken down and restructured, but not quite put back together again - not quite the same. But I came home and we could afford living again. I came home, and brought you back to your former self. And you were happy. We could afford happiness, and that was all that mattered in that moment.
I tucked you to bed with hands that had been stained with blood only hours ago, listening to your drowsy murmurs with ears that had heard the name of the target I was to kill. I became a mercenary, of sorts, as a child - the sort of killer you wouldn’t suspect; therefore, I was all the more valuable to them.
I washed away the stains and wept alone.
Ah, yes. I remember the first snow of winter, stained with blood - but how could it be you? No, no, no, couldn’t be you. You’d be waiting for me with a welcome home and a laugh, teasing me about what dessert I was learning to bake next, ensuring I still had the ribbon you’d given me - securing my plait with style. I had been so careful. I had covered my tracks, only giving out my alias. My disguise may as well have been another person entirely, daring with a bravado I did not possess - knives tucked from sight in oversized sleeves until it was far too late.
Seems like anything I do only comes back to haunt me. I’d only extended the expiration date for our happiness, it seemed. Karmic justice, I mused bitterly.
I came back to a home with floors dyed crimson.
It wasn’t a new paint job, I had mused to myself, bordering hysteria. After all, what paint smelled like the tang of sickening copper and rusting iron?
It couldn’t be called home anymore.
After all...What was a home without a family?
To the hollow boy, it was little more than useless: only a memorial left for him to play pretend with echoes of the past left to haunt him.
To the mercenary, it was far too dangerous for him to linger any longer. It was better to leave no trace - let them assume the erasure of yet another kid who thought he could play with the adults in a business so ruthless, discarded like roadside trash: worthless.
So he burned it down. He burned the building he couldn’t quite call home, reducing it to ashes. Ashe, turning his house to ashes. Hilarious, wasn’t it? After all, cremation was all I can afford, he mused darkly, laughing but with little mirth.
So he decided to run far away where not the police, a single mercenary, nor any relatives of his targets seeking vengeance could find him.
He decided to embark on a journey to search for a way to bring them back - near and far, through every hill and vale. Hearsay and rumor, rite and ritual - he’d try them all, if only to see them, smiling once more.
If only to see his father, regaling with another story of his travels with grandiose gestures and a booming laugh as they’d listen, enraptured. To see his mother, the scent of her cooking drifting from the kitchen as she shooed him out the kitchen before he tried asking for an early sample before dinner. To see his sister, coming to compromise over disagreements, always calling him to dinner after he’d dozed off, and welcoming him home with open arms.
He’d do it, if only to beg for forgiveness, for painting the targets on their backs crimson. It was all his fault, wasn’t it?
When he heard of the Witch’s Heart, he’d scoffed at first - believing it nothing more than the children’s tale he’d tell to his younger sister. But it was enough to pique his curiosity, to wonder...to think. This could be it. Maybe...with this, we could meet again.
If only things were that simple.
Years Later: Present
Nine-hundred twenty, nine-hundred twenty-one, nine-hundred twenty-two…
"Hm? Ashe, what’s that?" Claire peered over his shoulder on the tips of her high-heels, wobbling precariously: their velvet blue was like a night studded with stars.
Ashe only turned from the subject of his intense focus after smoothing a crease fully and doing the same to the other side with a pleased hum, setting the colorful paper square down on the kitchen table.
“Ah, Miss Claire! This is the art of paper-folding,” Ashe explained distractedly as he folded the square into a triangle and back again, smoothing it over, “called origami.”
“Wow! Origami, huh… what are you making, then?” If she were a puppy, her ears would have perked up in intrigue, her tail wagging with enthusiasm.
“Hm, well - have you ever heard the story about paper cranes? Did you know they are believed to live for a thousand years?”
At the indication of the negative, Ashe brightened at being able to teach someone about a long-lived tradition from a country he’d once visited on his travels.
“That’s why say if you fold a thousand paper cranes, the gods will grant you a wish. Senbazuru, they call it, threading them together with string. How beautiful, to think - the wings of a crane are also said to carry souls up to heaven.”
He remembers fingers cramping from the colorful swatches littering the floor, colors so cheery it was as if they were mocking him - spilling every which way as he frantically folded the night hours away. He’d startle awake suddenly as he found himself surrounded by a flock of his own making; he’d listen to the snick of scissors as he cut thread to connect them, the sound like a rope snapping as if to say there was no going back.
“Hm...What would you wish for, Ashe?” Her voice was pensive - a stark contrast to her usual exuberance.
Nine-hundred twenty-five...how long had it been, since then?
He remembers teaching his little sister, seaglass-teal hair done in twin ribbons, bouncing with her every step. “Teach me, Ashe! Pleeeeeease?” My favorite student, he’d joke while ruffling her hair as she attempted to escape her hair in disarray - to no avail. She’d pout and sulk, but not for long.
Puppy-dog eyes in glimmering gold would have weakened his will, like stardust and fairy kisses on the nose - glitter gleaming in the dust-soaked air.
“My, oh my! What a question that is to answer…”
He had taught her, crease by crease, fold by painstaking fold. Several attempts later produced a somewhat lopsided crane: one wing longer than the older and slightly crumpled with a tiny beak. “My, my, my! A perfect crane from my perfect little princess,” he’d cooed, ruffling her hair again despite her protests.
As he cradled it in her hands, intending to return it to its creator, his little sister had shaken her head - lips pursed in a childish pout.
“No?” Ashe murmured, momentarily confused at her intentions.
“For you!” She insisted, gently pushing the bird that had certainly seen better days back in his cupped hands.
Ashe had beamed, slipping the gift into his pocket and never letting it leave his sight. Whenever he was feeling particularly alone, he’d run his hands along the clumsy creases and remember that gilded memory of her among their dusty house.
Nine-hundred thirty...Nine-hundred forty...Nine-hundred fifty-six...
“Why, Miss Claire!” He pressed a finger to his lips, voice lowering theatrically, “That’s a seeeecret ~!” Eyes sparking with amusement, he folded all the while, almost obsessive in dedication to his task.
“Ah, I see! I understand! It’s probably something personal, right? That’s perfectly fine!” Miss Claire really did ramble on at times. It was almost comical, truly… endearing, perhaps.
Ashe kept counting and counting, running his fingers over creases, sipping at Luvan wine to settle his frayed nerves. He felt sick, ill with equal amounts anticipation in dread - so much that he was taken surprise by Miss Claire, witnessing him shaken at the kitchen sink. Her kindness made him sick. He should feel guilty, really. But he had lost normal human function long ago.
Ashe was burning. Ashe was burning up with every word, every lie because Claire ate up, the same way with anything she accepts from him. It sickened him to the core. How much of a fool did she have to be?
He despised her. How dare she? How dare she make him waver. How dare she show him such warmth that makes him almost believe in happiness. And oh, how dare she be so infuriatingly kind. Why did it have to be her?
Why did he have to lose yet another of the few people that had shown him kindness? Fate had never smiled upon him. Not even now, on his blood-stained hands even when he'd scrubbed them raw and tender.
He was undeserving of such kindness from the one person essential to a wish - one that even a thousand paper cranes couldn't grant.
Time was almost up. Shadows settled beneath his eyes and an ache in his chest, hollowed until every sense of feeling drained him, sapped him of what little resolve he had left.
He remembered apologizing suddenly, surprised at his own mouth’s sudden betrayal. The words had spilled out so quickly he couldn’t snatch them back with his clenched-tight fists, nails digging into palms and heart in his throat and Claire had looked at him - truly, seeing his state, he must have looked quite pitiful - and laid a hand on his shoulder, firm yet gentle.
She was the strongest girl he had ever met, exchanging blows with monsters without hesitation nor fear in both a dress and high-heels, something that commanded respect.
So why didn’t she fight back? She didn't struggle, nor did she shout.
Not one hand did she lift against him. To strike him back to sanity, to beg him to stop.
Not one word from her against him was spoken in anger. Her eyes were instead imploring, beseeching - why? Why? WHY?
“Miss Claire…” the gleam of a knife, so sharp against the dull look in his eyes, “You’re just too kind.”
His hands fumbled for his pocket, shaking so hard that it was difficult to perform such a simple task. Here was the lopsided crane: a cherished treasure, his beloved memento.
He laid it gently at Claire’s bedside. Truly, she had reminded him of his little sister…Ever so excitable, and altogether far too trusting. So fond of kaleidoscopes that it would have kept them entertained for hours, dazzling lights like the stars in their eyes slowly dimming.
“Good night, Claire,” he whispered in a voice that could not bear to speak any louder. Almost as like a reverent afterthought he sobbed, “Good night, my dear little sister.”
May its wings carry you up to paradise.