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With much thanks and love to the kind and competent betas who took time from their busy schedules in a brave attempt to save me from myself.
For a time after C left, there were no mirrors at all. A broke them all the day C walked through one and left only his likeness behind, and again when C refused to return.
There are mirrors again, now. Just because C wants to stay Outside doesn't mean that A doesn't want to see him still. They have their disputes and their differences, but they are A and C. That much cannot be changed.
After a time, greatly daring, A reaches through the glass and rests his fingertips lightly on C's shoulder, looking through him at the new prison C has made for himself.
"It's hardly comparable to the place They provided for us," A remarks, scornful and amused. "One room to sleep in, a kitchen, and one room for visitors to gawk at you in." Not that C and the Two-Leaf have many; the Two-Leaf was never given to entertaining, even before the passing of the other Clovers.
"Even so, it is mine," C says, fondly regarding a dimly glowing lamp by the window. A thinks it is rather too far from fulfilling the function of a lamp for a possession C takes such apparent pride in.
"I could repair it for you," he offers. C can do it himself, of course, but C likes such little gestures.
A door opens and closes in the next room. C brightens at the sound. "I like it as it is," he says, and turns away. "Gingetsu."
"Who were you speaking with, Lan?" asks the Two-Leaf, having returned from whatever it is Two-Leafs do Outside.
"I was speaking with A."
"Ah." The Two-Leaf's careful non-expression is quite eloquent, A thinks, and very amusing.
They have put a new songbird in the garden. A noticed it only by the flash of brilliant colour across the skylight as he turned his head. Only after seeing it does he recognise the new song among the twittering of the other birds in the garden. He'd thought the singing had been one of the others he and C pretended to not know of, before remembering that both those songbirds are now dead.
A beckons the songbird down to him and examines its perfect artifice - the cool metal feathers, the bright glass eyes, its head cocked alertly in faultless imitation of life. He feels the effort is rather wasted on him. It is not his nature to appreciate the addition of differently patterned bright feathers, nor does he care for their chirping, but They had never cared enough to notice the difference between A and C.
A has never left the chambers They designated as his quarters, but he has never felt it was a prison. It is not a conscious thought, precisely, but somewhere in the back of his mind, he knows he can kill them all and leave any time he wishes. Therefore, he stays because he chooses to. Outside has nothing to offer him; there is nothing he cares to see or experience that he cannot discover by extending his consciousness through the power grids. There is nothing he wants that belongs Outside.
"That Two-Leaf can afford to buy you a real bird," he'd taunted C after the doomed One-Leaf's visit, echoing her companion's words. I can make you one, he didn't add. But of course C didn't want a bird, real or artificial. C didn't want anything except what he couldn't have.
In this respect, A is not so different from C.
The A-B-C of cruelty
His grip has tightened unknowingly over the bird. Its tiny, mechanical heart races against his palm in artificial terror. When he breaks its neck, it is mercy.
Of the three Three-Leafs, C is the coldest, his heart the hardest. C is the one who walked out and killed all those in his way. C killed how many - eight? of Them just to get away from A, but They only remember that A killed B, because B is a Clover and They are nothing, as replaceable as the toy birds he destroys.
They fear A, but C is the one who is cruel; A only wants to be loved.
"C," he calls, and C does not answer because in his heart, C thinks of himself as Lan. "How could you kill B?"
"But you did," C protests.
"I only killed his body, but you would erase his memory. Without C, there is no place for B; there is only A."
"Come back, C." More a plea than command, because A knows C well enough at last to understand that nothing he says can change C's mind.
"B is dead, A. It's too late for me to go back now."
"Who are you talking to, Lan?" The Two-Leaf sounds resigned, but A doesn't want C to answer.
"It doesn't matter, Gingetsu."
"C, don't leave me," he begs.
They don't know if the Clover designs on their shoulders are birthmarks or something given to them, tattoos of some sort. C has always felt it like a brand, reaching back and clutching at it as though it pained him, every reminder of what he is reopening the wound afresh.
But it won't bother him for much longer now. C is dying, his body aging at an accelerated pace, disintegrating under the stresses of living Outside.
He'd told C it was for attention, because C was paying B too much and A not enough, but really, A doesn't remember clearly why he killed B. That isn't important now, if it ever was. The important thing is, the act served as an impetus for C to leave, to go Outside seeking his own place, because C never wanted to be Here.
In retrospect, A thinks he might have killed B for this reason, to force C to leave the secure sanctuary They provided. C was always and already dying inside while he was Here. If now, Outside with the Two-Leaf, he began to die outside as well, at least C is happy.
"C," he says, and C answers - What is it? - because he can't hear the Two-Leaf anymore, over the demands of his failing body and the noisy machines sustaining him. "Let me do something for you. Please."
Sing a song for me, C offers.
A doesn't know any of the songs that C likes so much, nor can he sing well, but he remembers the stolen lullabies he'd heard those Outside singing to their children, and hums them to C. They lie in bed, together and apart, listening to the arrhythmic beat of C's heart as it slows.
When C is dead, A thinks he might start dying too. When C is dead, there will be only one Leaf left. Then, all his power will be to know the time of his own end.