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(we could have had) Another Story

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When he's is all grown up, Rupert thinks, he's not going to have the kind of lame parties where you pay someone to play piano and all the food is tiny and people talk about logistical applications. Both Gran and Father say it's very important that he acts proper at this stupid lame party though, because it's a stupid lame party for Watchers and he has to make a good impression 'cause he's gonna be one someday. (But he's going to be a cool Watcher, Rupert thinks, not like Mr. Jenkins who is telling the story about the fencer and the polgara demon for the fifth time since four o'clock.)

So he's making a good impression by eating exactly one of everything and sitting out of view, because when people say children should be seen and not heard they generally mean they shouldn't be seen or heard unless someone summons them to make a point. At eleven, he's got a pretty good grasp on what people mean when they say things and how there's usually not much overlap between one and the other.

"It simply strikes me as impractical," a tall and severe-looking woman is telling his gran. "Even the most rudimentary examination of the data available would suggest rogue actors can often be caught before they, er, act." He's not sure what a rogue actor is, but it sounds interesting so he leans around the potted plant for a better view.

"Mina, I understand your concern," says Rupert's gran. "But it is simply a matter of logistics on our end. There are those on the Council who would not consider it a worthwhile use of our resources—" The woman, Mina, makes a sound that's midway between choking on her champagne and the name Roger, and Gran hides a smile. "Are you quite alright?"

"Of course, pardon me," says Mina, who is very much no longer choking. Who's Roger? Rupert only knows people by their last names, if that.

"As I was saying, some on the Council consider it best to deal with rogue actors in a more...final manner. Is there something or someone in particular that has given you cause for concern?"

"All I mean is that a stake and a bullet after the fact does nothing to prevent a rogue action from occurring," says Mina. "Prevention against cure, I suppose."

"But were the Council to prioritize prevention, the point would turn to liability," says Gran, and she and Mina sweep into the crowd. Whatever. It wasn't that interesting anyway, whatever they were talking out, and oh gods Mr. Jenkins is heading for the tiny quiches, Rupert knows better than to make eye contact there. Apparently someone else doesn't, because a moment later he hears Mr. Jenkins say entirely too joyfully:

"Say, Mr. Wyndam-Pryce, have I told you about—"

"Yes," says another man coldly. "You have told me, you have told everyone in the room, I would suggest you refrain from telling us yet again."

"Do be polite, Roger," says a man Rupert thinks might be called Mr. Travers. Mr. Wyndam-Pryce (same Roger?) looks murderous, and Rupert decides it's a good time to make himself scarce (with the entire plate of tiny quiches, though, it's not like anyone's going to be eating them if there's an argument).

He escapes out the door to a back stairwell, where there's couple kissing (ew). They break apart at the sound of the door opening, and the woman (girl? she looks young. maybe they're trainees, he wasn't introduced to trainees) makes a shushing gesture.

"I'm just going downstairs," he tells her. "Do you, um, want a quiche." Neither she nor the young man do, possibly because they want to continue kissing each other (...ew) and Rupert beats a hasty escape down the stairs and out the back door.

Outside, the wind sends a chill through him, but it's November, what does he expect. It's quiet, too. Not the same kind of quiet as at home—from his place in the alley he can hear cars on the street and distant voices and footsteps, but it's quiet in its own way. He wishes he were dressed for exploring, not for lame parties, and vows to be the sort of cool Watcher who doesn't wear shiny shoes and a waistcoat ever in his life of his own free will. If he weren't in his stupid nice clothes, he thinks, he'd run out into the London street and be swallowed by it, vanish into the quiet noise and never hear a lecture or the word logistics again. But he can't, and also he's getting really cold just standing there so he retreats into the doorway (less wind) and shoves an entire tiny quiche into his mouth.

And then chokes on it, because something makes a clanging sound really close by. (So maybe Gran is right about Watchers being careful with their food, oops.) He tries to not-die but also not stop paying attention to whatever clanged which ends with him sitting on the doorstep awkwardly coughing into his elbow while watching the alleyway for any signs of motion.

For a moment there's nothing.

Then the shadows under a balcony shift and Rupert makes direct eye contact with something—someone, someone, it's a person— Rupert blinks and suddenly it's just a kid, a skinny kid around his height with big black eyes and a tattered coat.

"H-hi," Rupert manages after a few attempts. The kid blinks at him silently, and something reads wrong (maybe it's the coat not fluttering in the wind, maybe it's the eyes that are magic-black and glassy, maybe it's a gut reaction to the magic that hangs around the kid like a dark cloud that Rupert can't quite see). "Um. I—I didn't know you were there." More silence. He thinks maybe the noises from the street have stopped, or maybe he's just stopped hearing them (or maybe he's fallen through a doorway into a Dreaming court, and the kid facing him is something from the more than one sort of outside, a changeling-child or worse), but he doesn't like this kind of quiet. "I—"

But you're not supposed to tell them your name. You're not supposed to eat their food or drink their wine or dance to their music, and you're definitely not supposed to sleep where they can snatch you up or follow where they lead. But there isn't a rule about offering them your food, Rupert thinks abruptly, or playing a song for them or asking their name, is there? There isn't a rule for when they sleep, if they sleep. (There aren't generally rules about tiny quiches, either.)

"Are you, um, hungry?" Rupert asks warily, holding the platter out in front of him. And that's how he learns two things: yes, the kid is very hungry, and no one and nothing in the world can look ethereal and mildly frightening while aggressively stuffing its face with unnecessarily fancy pastry. (That may be why there aren't rules about tiny quiches.)

And there's no rules about letting something from a Dreaming court follow where you lead, so once the kid's demolished all the quiches Rupert pulls open the door again and offers the kid a cup of tea because that's all he can think of to do. (They're a bit young for wine, aren't they? Up close, he thinks the kid's a bit younger than him, even.) He still doesn't get an answer in words, but the kid grabs his arm with cold, thin hands and doesn't let go, which is almost a yes.

--

Half an hour later, once Rupert has safely barricaded them in Mrs. Galveston's really big and currently really empty kitchen with tea and more food, the kid says thank you very quietly and Rupert just about falls off his chair in shock.

"You can talk!" he yelps. "I mean, you're welcome. Are, um, are you feeling better?"

"Better?" the kid echoes. "...Better. Yes." The silence isn't exactly comfortable.

"What's your name?" Rupert asks, because there's no rule about asking them, it's technically not wrong.

"I don't—" the kid starts uncertainly, then stops. "...I'm, I'm called Ethan. Who are you?" (And you're not supposed to tell them your name, but curled up in a kitchen chair two rooms away from a lame Watcher party Ethan looks human and sick and scared, and he's shaking in his too-big coat and his eyes may be magic-black but there are bags and bruises under them.)

"I'm Rupert." He smiles and (are there rules about handshakes? there are rules about bargains.) offers his hand properly, like a Watcher should. Ethan's hand isn't cold anymore, but he's so thin Rupert thinks (distantly) that a particularly strong yank could snap his wrist. "It's nice to meet you."

"Is it?" Ethan asks, and then he collapses into hysterical giggles. (And collapses is exactly the right word, because he slides off his chair and sinks to the ground and flops limp against Rupert's shoulder, laughter turning to sobs, when he tries to shake some sense into him. That's how they're sitting when Gran finds them, which turns out to be the least of the problems Ethan brings with him but that's another story.)