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Shijiukara: When The Chickadees Cry

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 The harbor was remarkably quiet on a day like this.

Were it a nice summer day, then there would be people out and about. Waiting for harbor tours, whale watch tours, ferries. It wasn’t a nice summer day at all. It was an especially warm March day, with the snow from winter still melting on the ground and revealing mud-caked bits of forgotten clothing. Not only that, but the weather report looked sour. It was going to rain, hard, and as night fell and the temperature dropped it would transfigure into the particular horror that only those in New England truly understood; An ‘ice storm’.

So why was she here? What purpose had brought Regan Hamilton to the harbor on a day like this? If only she understood it herself. After four years on the outside, four years having escaped from this family, she was back. Not just back to the family she’d escaped from, but back to the Hamilton Family. Capital H, Capital F. The whole family tree that stemmed from her esteemed grandmother. One would have thought a matriarchy like that could have been kind to Regan, but she’d hardly ever met her grandparents in the first place. She was only here now at special request from Beth and Francis, that they wanted to have every member of the family present for this year’s family conference. They promised she could have her own guest room, feel free to lock it, and at the end of the conference they would ensure that she was safely returrned to the life she’d built for herself in Nevada.

As the eldest of the ‘cousins’ at the age of twenty-four, she’d long had the right to proclaim herself ‘not a Hamilton’. Even so, her grandparents wanted her here. Even so, she hadn’t actually been disallowed to wear the family crest of a silver nautilus shell, a right that she actually held over one her uncle.

Even so, as the first one here, followed by her immediate family, it was as if she really had returned to them after all.

“Regan!” Fleur, her mother and her hated father’s wife, offered an olive branch as she dropped herself onto the bench besides Regan. Regan, however, didn’t turn to look at her, keeping her eyes on that father. Staring at him, giving off exactly the impression that she intended. At the end of this conference, even if somehow he even became head of the family, he will have lost something. Regan was going to steal it from him. She wouldn’t let her return end with a gain for Samuel.

“...Regan?” Fleur repeated, then sighed and continued on to what she planned to say anyhow. Holding a conversation with her daughter was a challenge that even those far more skilled in speaking to the petulant than her would balk at, “Aren’t you excited to see your cousins?”

“I suppose,” Regan answered, not moving her eyes. “Hm. I bet that I can guess how Viola answered that question, that you’re so unsatisfied you’re asking me. She said something like, ‘Delaney, Declan, and Eli are preps, and Damien is an annoying little brat’.”

Fleur smiled, “Yes, just about word for word. She hasn’t changed much since you left. I was hoping you’d at least have something nicer to say, dear, when you haven’t seen any of them in years…”

“I’m really not suffering for that.”

“Can’t you just be friendly? For one weekend in four years?”

“What, for those kids who eat up all the…” Regan was about to continue being sarcastic, but thought better of it and stopped herself. Her mother certainly didn’t deserve that. After all, Fleur had gotten over her pride as a mother and helped Regan in her initial escape, back then. Regan didn’t honestly have any disdain in her heart for that woman, and so, “Well, okay. I’m allowed to wear the nautilus shell, after all. It’s one day. I guess I can try to act in a way befitting of my upbringing.”

“Befitting of your upbringing?” Fleur questioned, then spoke in a harsh and hushed tone, “No, dear, you mustn’t do that. Act in a way befitting of your name.”

“Hah, so you saw through that?” Regan asked with a short and sharp cackle, but then spoke as quietly as Fleur, “Very well. I’ll try to act in a way befitting of my name.”

“I should hope so,” Viola chimed in, now standing directly in front of Regan and blocking her harsh stare towards Samuel, who was approaching an arriving taxi, likely to greet somebody. “Regan. Long time no see.”

“Hi, Viola,” Regan greeted her, and there was a tension between them. Of course there was. As much as everyone present knew that Regan’s escape was the best possible thing for her, there was that survivor’s guilt in the air. Viola had been abandoned to bear that fate alone.

“What’s… Your coffee order?” Viola asked.

“Huh?”

“Your coffee order!” Viola snipped, “What sort of coffee! Do you drink! I’m going to get you a coffee!”

“Right…” Regan said, “Sorry, that caught me off guard. Um, dark roast, with one cream. Caramel syrup if the shop has it. Hot.”

“Cool,” Viola said, then walked away.

“She’s trying, honey,” Fleur told Regan.

“I kind of expected she was going to hate me,” Regan said, “Not buy me a coffee…”

“Well, then she has changed a bit since you left. She’s matured,” Fleur said, “She’s really just happy to see you again.”

“Matured, or just…” Regan felt a lump in her throat. “Got used to it?”

“Does that matter? She isn’t holding it against you. You’re her precious older sister. And, to be honest, that doesn’t need to come up during this conference.”

“Sorry. I guess that being away for four years made me more bitter and less secretive.”

“That is good. It means you’re moving forward. At the same time, though, we don’t need to start any unnecessary conflicts, right?”

“Right. Yeah. I’m just here because Grandma and Grandpa asked me to be. I’m an adult. I don’t need to cause a scene.”

“Hopefully, nobody needs to cause a scene.”

“Why am I here?”

“Francis expects to die within the year. He’s planning to revise his will after the conference. If you want anything, then behave!”

“I don’t. Is that a pass to misbehave?”

“It isn’t.”

“Thought so. Hey, Mom?”

“Yes?”

“Do you really think Dad could end up the family head with this revision?”

“I hope not. But it’s possible.”

Fleur and Regan’s conversation wound to a close, and they both looked to see the new arrivals from the cab. There were only a few options, and it turned out to be Uncle Marv. Marv, and his daughter Delaney, and somebody that Regan didn’t even recognize. A young man who may have even been younger than she was, with shock-white hair. He clung to Marv’s arm. None of the three stepped any closer to greet either of the women on the bench.

Regan wasn’t about to take the initative, so Fleur stood to approach them. Samuel already greeted the group when they arrived, so Regan stood up, leaving no opening for him to trap her in a conversation, and listened in on Fleur’s.

“Marv! Lovely to see you, I’ve hardly heard a thing since last year’s conference. And you even brought Delaney, and… Well, who’s this?”

“Dad’s been spending a lot of time working on his business in Japan…” Delaney warned.

“I’m Etsuko!” The guy exclaimed in somewhat awkwardly pronounced, but grammatically sound english,”Nice to meet you!”

“Ahah…” Marv chuckled nervously. “Um, yes, this is, Etsuko. He’s my partner. I’ve already been told I can’t wear the nautilus shell, so, what’s the worst that could happen?”

“Mm. Yes, I understand. You’d probably sweat yourself to death at the conference without some sort of arm candy. Although… Just how young is he?” Fleur questioned, a devious smirk finding its way onto her face. It wasn’t as if she didn’t feel at home in the rather venomous Hamilton family; She surely couldn’t have put up with her husband’s bad behavior for so long if she didn’t have fangs of her own.

"He's twenty-two," Delaney once more answered in her father's stead, deadpan, as if it wasn't something she cared about either way. Shouldn't a child care if a potential step-parent was less than a decade older than them, or in this case, only three years older? Fleur looked several halves her age, but she wasn't a true example of robbing the cradle. Her husband was only seven years her elder. Unlike this boy, who was nearly half Marv's age.

Of course, at least Marv and Etsuko were both adults. Fleur had, admittedly, been only fourteen when she met her husband, a man who was old enough to buy alcohol for her. Fifteen when they got involved. And, while Samuel was twenty-five, a perfectly respectable age to start a family, Fleur had given birth to Regan when she was just barely eighteen. Those at the hospital needed to be bribed away from reporting what clearly constituted as statutory rape on Samuel's part. If his wife had turned eighteen two months before delivering a baby, she'd been underage at the time of conception.

That was just one of the many things that made Regan resent her father.

One of the many things which had made Regan take the first chance she got to distance herself from the family, to run away and try her level best to become somebody who wasn't allowed to wear the nautilus shell crest. Maybe being so far away had saved her from the scrutinous eyes of her grandparents, and that was why the insignia was still proud and shining on the lapel of her jacket.

"Hi, Delaney," Viola greeted as she returned, her hands full with the cardboard drink carton which held several coffees. She held it towards Regan, who identified and claimed her own beverage, before holding it out towards Delaney.

"Thanks... Viola." Delaney's previous sarcastic tone gave way to one quiet and timid as she took her drink from the tray, a small black coffee. A bit of a waste to get that sort of drink from a fancy coffee shop with all the fixings, wasn't it? Then again, Regan never presumed to understand Delaney, even when they were all still growing up. Now, Viola was twenty, Delaney was nineteen... The only members of the family who still hadn't crossed that threshold called adulthood were Eli and Damien, at seventeen and nine respectively. Even so, that threshold existed only in numbers.

From where Regan stood, only two of the cousins had actually become worthy of being called 'adults'. She considered herself an adult, since she made her own money and lived in her own home. In fact, she was making a comfortable wage, all by her own power. Amassing wealth wasn't interesting to her, but that just cemented the fact that she was an adult separate from the Hamilton family. Similarly, the last generation... Even Marv, had been married by her age. Even Marv. That was a strange statement, wasn't it? He already had Delaney when he was Regan's current age. He was the most proficient at home-making of anybody in the family, by that measure.

Regan honestly didn't know how or why she kept track of all these things about a family she wanted to keep far away from.

The other adult from this generation would be Declan. Regan wasn't fond of Declan, though not for the reasons that the rest of the family disliked him. He wasn't permitted to wear the nautilus, or even to use the last name of Hamilton. Because his father... Was Aunt Alexandra's second husband. Her first had never managed to impregnate her. They'd divorced when Alexandra was thirty, she had Declan when she was thirty-one, and she married Tyrone at age thirty-two. A bastard child could never hope to be the Hamilton family head, and so, he constituted a mere tag-along, no better than Marv's Etsuko, to each family conference.

Declan still lived with his father, but Regan had heard enough to know he was the household's primary breadwinner. So, he was certainly an adult. Unlike her own job as head teller at a chain bank, his position not only paid well, but carried weight if he were to brag about it. Senior management at an up-and-coming company, in which he'd saved up and bought a substantial amount of stock in. It wasn't a poor business move at all, Regan could acknowledge that. If he had faith in his own management abilities, he could have faith that the value of his stock would continue to grow. That wasn't a risky bet, but it certainly constituted the sort of gamble that Regan would be just a bit too hesitant to make for herself.

Speaking of that devil, another car pulled up. This one was no taxi. It wasn't a limousine, that was much too flashy, but it was an expensive hired vehicle. From the front passenger seat came Declan, wearing sunglasses despite the lack of bright sunlight today. He didn't dress like an up-and-coming businessman. Truth be told, Regan thought that he dressed like a clown, especially compared to the way everyone else had dressed up for the occasion. At least he never tried to wear the crest he wasn't qualified-

What was she thinking? The qualification of wearing the nautilus shell shouldn't have meant anything to her. Technically, she should respect Declan more if he wore and disrespected the crest. Those years she'd spent on the inside were still under her skin in some ways.

Then, from the backseat of the car, came the others. Declan's father, Tyrone Jenkins, appeared first. He was dressed nice, unlike the son who shared his last name. From behind him, Damien. And that was it. Alexandra wasn't here, and neither was Eli. Those two wouldn't be appearing, though. Those two lived on that island.

Francis. Beth. Alexandra. Eli. Those four composed the core of the family, and lived year-round on the island where the conference would be held. It was far enough off from Boston's shore that none of the harbor islands could see it on the horizon, excluding maybe two especially clear days out of the year. As a private island, it didn't need to have a name, but Francis Hamilton had given it one anyhow. "Oxhampton". It wasn't a surprising name for a man with no concept of wealth to name an island that he owned.

Francis Hamilton was the family head. He was a fickle man who gave off the impression of being wealthy and full of the associated form of honor, but he never really thought about these things. When Regan said that he had no concept of wealth, she meant that he never knew anything other than being comically rich. He never worked for it. He received a hearty inheritance, and then it was out of his hands. These days, though they'd hid it at first, everybody knew the truth. Beth Hamilton, his doting wife, was the one who multiplied that inheritance tenfold. She'd invested it in the stock market during the day while she watched the house, and Francis went to sit in an office, earning a salary without much thought and providing at the least a safety net if the day trading fell through. It didn't fall through. Beth was a genius at investing, and never seemed to take a loss. Some said that she must have had some sort of preternatural assistance, but Regan didn't believe that for a second.

It was thanks to Beth's success that Alexandra, the eldest child, was granted the ability to inherit the headship at all. Had the fortune been built only on Francis's meaningless salary, then Samuel would receive everything. Even now, everybody suspected that an adjustment to Francis's will could retcon the decision he'd been pressured into by his dazzling wife. Currently, however, Alexandra would receive the role and the island. Other matters of inheritance would most certainly be spread between those family members who were still considered Hamiltons. With the promise of the mansion and the island it sat on, it made sense that Alexandra would live there. That woman, too, had also decided who would one day succeed her.

Damien had too many behavioral problems, and Declan lacked even the proper surname. Thus, Alexandra's future successor lived there with her as well, Eli. Eli, who had only been relocated there one year ago after completing all of his high school credits which were non-negotiable on the question of whether he could complete them remotely. Regan had heard all of these affairs around the time of the last family conference. She obviously hadn't attended, given the weight of her current return to the family, but it wasn't as if all contact was cut. Viola sent her cold and clinical updates on anything that she ought to know after she'd gone. Those updates had additionally given Regan reason to believe her sister might hate her. Any attempt at real conversation was met with silence. Maybe Viola just didn't have anything to say, or maybe she disliked communicating over the phone.

With everybody now gathered at the harbor, Regan took a look around at everybody present who was actually invited. Those who wore the nautilus shell. Herself. Viola. Delaney. Samuel. And Damien. That was it. Spouses could never wear it, Marv had the right stripped from him, and Declan was not a Hamilton. It was an archaic way of doing things... But Regan supposed that the upper-crust could get away with it. The life she'd made for herself, away from these people... Every one of her friends and coworkers would scoff at the idea that these sort of things could exist in a modern world. Family headships, a crest that only certain people had the right to wear... But Regan had fallen back into this world again. This world of the absurdly wealthy. She'd hardly even stumbled as she made the drop back into this pit. She still knew who all these people were. She still knew all the complicated politics between them. It was miserable to think that way. Had she never even escaped in the first place, if she could slot herself back into a life like this so easily?

She was brought back to reality when she saw Viola approach Damien, and hand him the fourth and final cup from the tray. Her own, Regan's, Delaney's, and now something for Damien?

"Here you go," Viola said to the littlest cousin as he took the cup, "I'm sorry, it's probably still too hot for you to drink. I thought that you'd be arriving a little later..."

"Haaa..." Damien made a strange sound that reminded Regan of a drawn-out gasp, but with a bit more voice to it. "Don't worry, Vi! It's hot chocolate? Hot chocolate?"

"Yes," Viola confirmed, then reached out and tapped him on the head with the now-emptied drink tray. "Hot chocolate with cream. Just the way you like it..."

"Or," Viola continued, "Is that, just the way that Annie likes it?"

"Annie's favorite!" Damien proclaimed, "So it's Damien's favorite too..."

"Annie..." Regan couldn't help but voice the name. Annie had always gotten along well with the children. She was an especially youthful friend of Beth's who often attended the family conferences, and always spent time with the kids. She regaled them with stories and shared the movies that she'd appeared in with them. Unfortunately, this was all in the past tense. Annie Rideout died in an accident a few months after the last family conference that Regan had ever attended. Damien would have been four at the time, so it wasn't especially shocking that he'd be struck by the sudden death of somebody who had been such a precious friend to him, and the idea that he would have then created an imaginary Annie to fill that void wasn't at all unusual...

But, a full four family conferences passed since then, and Damien was nine years old now. Was it usual for a child of that age to still have imaginary friends, even an imaginary friend of this nature? Regan felt her heart swell up with pity for her young cousin.

"Yes, Annie! She's my best friend," Damien said, "Do you wanna see her? Do you wanna? She lives in the TV, and when she leaves, she wears a lot of special makeup so she can be invisible, but she's still here!"

"Tch..." Declan complained, staring down at the top of Damien's head, "Girls, please. Don't encourage him."

Regan narrowed her eyes at him, "I'm a year older than you, for one. For another, isn't it harmless? It sounds to me like Annie's doing a great job at keeping Damien company. Isn't that what her job's supposed to be, Declan?"

Keeping Damien company. That phrasing was more confrontational than anybody outside of the family would have expected.

It was Annie's job, though. Her job as assigned by Beth. Beth Hamilton knew full well that wealth and power were surefire ways to dig out the worst, blackest peach pits from the center of a soul and expose them to the world. Not just for men, but for anybody. Given the belief that there could be no consequences leveled against them, a person with the smallest hint of a bad seed planted in their heart could be transformed into a monster... No, not a monster. To compare the most disgusting of humans to monsters was an insult to the latter, because at least monsters had the common courtesy to make it clear from a distance that they were dangerous to be around. Thus, during the family conference, Annie had been assigned to supervise the children.

Beth would turn a blind eye to rotten acts in her family tree, but that didn't mean she would tolerate such things happening under her own roof, and it certainly was her own roof. The house where Beth had raised her children, the house where Regan grew up and where the rest of her immediate family still lived... Was not Beth's roof. It had been Francis's. The mansion on Oxhampton was a home to Beth, and so, Annie stood between the children and any misfortune for that time. Growing up, Regan could recall the family conference being one of the happiest weekends... No, the happiest weekend of the year. Holidays were often held on Oxhampton for her as well, with her family home in Boston just a ferry ride away, but they were never as nice. Christmas stunk of bribery from her father, and the Fourth of July barbecue was never any fun. Regan wasn't especially fond of fireworks, and even less so when Delaney happened to be there and she'd scream and scream about how the fireworks were 'exploding in her brain'.

Maybe... It was rude, to look back on something like that with annoyance, though.

No... That wasn't quite right.

It wasn't 'rude' to look back on something like that with resentment, not at all. Rather, it went beyond rude. Transcended a basic idea into one that became more complicated when held up against rational thought. Regan needed to be better than that. She couldn't hold it against Delaney, for suffering. Everyone was going through their own variety of troubles, and Regan could even personally understand how fireworks could be a special hell for somebody with headaches, sensitive ears, or any other host of minor problems that could exacerbate the situation.

"What her job's supposed to be... Don't tell me you're actually buying into that bullshit, Regan," Declan shook Regan from her thoughts once more, dismissing her statement on Annie's supposed presence, "Annie Rideout is dead. You didn't even come to the funeral, though, so are you just taking any opportunity you get to deny the truth?"

"Deny the truth? No..." Regan kept her composure as she answered him, a soft smile remaining on her face, "The truth is a friend of mine. I hardly ever tell lies, so we could say that I'm a better friend to truth than most anyone here. I'll deny any untruth. But, if Damien says that Annie is still watching over him, I'll believe him. Her memory's strong enough to do something like that. It's unrealistic, but no, I don't think that it's entirely untrue."

"You can say that, but I think your words are empty as they come."

"Ah, is that so? Then is anything that I say, hollow, and a lie? In that case, I'll put the age-old question to rest. Declan Jenkins is an upstanding young man, who all should aspire to be like. If everything I say is a lie, then the opposite is most certainly true!"

"I see that abandoning the family for four years hasn't made you any less insufferable."

"Yes, and I see that being abandoned by your mother to the fate of being a Jenkins rather than a Hamilton has done nothing to give you a sense of responsibility. I guess in that way, we're even. Neither of us have any real stock in this year's conference."

"And yet, you're here."

"Yes... I am. Grandfather and Grandmother specifically requested that I be here. I haven't the faintest idea why. I obliged them, just this once. I haven't a clue why you're here, though."

"Mother invited us. Something about wanting every guest room filled this year. Sentimental crap... If she really feels that way about family, then she could invite the rest of us over there a bit more often!"

"Odd. Neither of us should have any reason to be present. Your father, I would understand, as somebody needs to bring Damien. But you... Have no reason to be present at a Hamilton family conference. And neither do I. Should I ever be asked to come again, I'll refuse."

"That makes one thing we agree on."

"Hey!" Viola interrupted with a bit of a hiss to her voice, grabbing at Regan's elbow, "The conference hasn't even happened yet, you can't make a claim like that right off the bat... Aren't you two supposed to be more responsible than this? You're real adults, after all."

Viola was legally an adult, sure, but she was still a child by any other measure. She'd expressed a desire to go to college, which had been denied to her. Regan had been in that same position, four years ago, and it was only by some miracle that she'd gotten out. Another archaic factor of this family... Was that of a woman's duty. Even while Alexandra was going to inherit the headship, Samuel upheld that ancient idea that a woman existed to support her husband. Further education was unnecessary. A career was unnecessary. Just sit and wait until a suitable husband is chosen

Regan... Had no desire for a husband, none whatsoever. One could even say that more than anything else in the world, it was an objective fact that she would prefer a wife to a husband. This was something she had never spoken aloud, even in an age where it was possible to do such a thing, thanks to her upbringing. Denying and repressing the most objective of personal facts... Was a common thing in these sorts of families. Even after escaping. So it wasn't that which had spurred her mother to help her escape just enough to run, all the way to Nevada. It was the fact that Fleur could see in Regan a fierce wit that would be wasted on 'supporting a husband'. In fact, Regan almost got the impression...

That her mother had some secret desire that she, the deserter, ought to become the family head.

"You're right, Viola." With that thought in mind, Regan composed herself, the undignified glare she'd had settling into a look of pity in Declan's direction. "We certainly should be more responsible than this. And I guess it is too early to say something like 'I'll never go to Oxhampton again after this conference'."

"Of course. There are plenty of reasons you could end up there again, right, Regan?" It seemed that even Viola had picked up on the idea that Regan was somebody who didn't desire but was certainly deserving of the title of successor. "Anyway, do you like your coffee?"

"Yes, it's really good. Thank you," Regan said, then took another sip of it. She knew that Viola prided herself on having good taste in restaurants and cafes, so telling her that the coffee she bought was really good was probably as much of a compliment for Viola as telling her she did a good job at making cookies from scratch.

"Delaney? Damien?" Viola turned to direct the same question to her cousins who had received beverages from her.

"It's kind of hard to screw up black coffee. But I guess this place has nice beans," Delaney answered and took another sip of hers, "I've never really understood, having a favorite coffee shop or anything. Sometimes the cheaper places are better than the more expensive ones, too."

"This is a mom and pop place," Viola said, "The prices aren't as high as certain chains, but the quality is higher. They're an upfront and honest store. It's just a few blocks from the harbor. If it weren't there, I probably would have offered pastries instead of coffee. Two more blocks away is a very nice bakery."

"Wow!" Damien exclaimed, "Vi knows all about the city! And got this great hot chocolate!"

"I do know all about the city," Viola said, holding her hands over her chest, just a bit too high up. They were closer to her throat than they ought to be, as if she were preventing herself from speaking certain words.

Regan didn't press for any more information, and nobody else did either. Even Damien, nine years old and lacking in the sort of common sense that came with age, could read the room well enough to know that asking too many questions of Viola was a mistake.

And why would it be a mistake to question Viola any further? It wasn't like she'd get angry and blow up at anybody for it. On the contrary, the problem was that Viola Hamilton never could and never would do something like that. She was the sort of person who could never deny anybody anything and never stand up for herself. To an extent, all of the children were. Damien could be vocal about what he wanted, but rarely about what he didn't want. And Delaney... Well, Regan couldn't understand her much at all, but it was obvious that she bit her tongue over and over.

So in that way, Regan and Declan continued to be cemented as the true adults present. They were the ones with backbones, and of course, to have a backbone meant to be an adult and to be awful by comparison. Regan didn't like Declan, but looking at him, she couldn't rightfully call herself superior in any way. They were on a similar level. Adults, with backbones, and rotten to their cores. She had hurt Viola in unimaginable ways by exercising that backbone to run away. Now that she was back, though... She needed to take a chance. To bet it all on black and use that backbone to help somebody for the first time. She wouldn't allow her presence at this family conference to be meaningless.

If there was one truly fitting trait for a family head, it was willpower. The ability to steel oneself against all qualms and commit to a single goal with strong resolve. Even if that goal was in opposition to the family itself, Regan knew that she did possess that quality. Perhaps that was why both Fleur and Viola seemed convinced that she stood a chance at usurping the position.

"The boat should be arriving soon, shouldn't it?" Marv's voice was the next in line to shake Regan from her introspection as he addressed everybody waiting in the harbor. His voice was surprisingly clear, and easily reached everyone present. It seemed that when he did get up the nerve to speak, he could do so with particular clarity.

That, Regan thought, was a man who had never developed any backbone, and could scant be called an adult. No, he certainly couldn't. And the young man nearly half his age who decorated his arm... Could, possibly, be considered more of an adult than him. Regan would have to get to know him to figure it out.

"Yes, Marv," Samuel answered, a bit exasperated, "It should only be a few more minutes before we can begin the trip to Oxhampton."

"That's good," Marv said, wrapping his free arm around his own chest. "It'll be nice to see mother and father again."

"Will it?" Samuel questioned, "I seem to remember that you, just like my oldest daughter, only even came this year at special request. You were planning to bail just like last year, weren't you?"'

"I..." Marv's clear voice faltered and became much more quiet. Regan had to strain to hear what he said next, "It's kind of a pain, to come all the way out here when my business has me in another country, you know..."

"Yes, of course, your business." Samuel's voice reeked of condescension. As if he was refusing to recognize Marv's hard work as being present.

"Hey!" Etsuko shouted out from where he stood next to Marv, "His business is really good and successful, you know!"

This was the truth. Though Regan wasn't actually aware of what Marv's business was, and all signs seemed to point toward it being something frivolous or unsuccessful, he was probably fulfilling the role of entrepreneur better than anybody else in the family. He'd bought up several beloved family restaurants in Japan and implemented a very western idea of a 'points system' between them, where spending money at one restaurant would offer a discount at another. This encouraged more people to eat at all the restaurants in the group, and the increase in profits alone had ended up producing enough money to open up another new restaurant for the group without getting a loan or anything of the sort. Marv was intelligent enough with his ventures to put money back into them, living a modest upper-middle-class styled life rather than one of wealth so that he could further grow his business and support his employees.

The individual owners of these restaurants were his closest friends, after all.

"Like somebody your age could understand business enough to say that a guy like him is doing well," Samuel taunted Etsuko, and a flash of indignance went across Marv's face, only to dissipate at a well-aimed sneer. "Well, it really was kind of you to join us, though, Marv. I have missed the company of my precious little brother, you know."

Marv let out a strangled sort of squeak at those words, at which Etsuko reached up and tapped the top of his head, a strangely gentle motion made even more odd by witnessing the younger of the pair comforting the elder one as if he truly was more mature. Still, it did seem to be a legitimate comfort to Marv.

"What about you, Tyrone?" Fleur called attention to the father of Damien and Declan with similarly sharpened words, "You must be looking forward to spending a night in the same bed as your wife, yes?"

"Huh? Well, of course, but it isn't like that's unusual..." Tyrone defended himself, "Just because we're living apart right now, doesn't mean that I don't see her often or that our relationship's suffered at all!"

"Still~" Fleur continued, "I bet that you're just holding your breath for father to die, aren't you? After all, once he's out of the picture and your wife has the headship, you'll be welcomed onto Oxhampton as a resident rather than as a guest, hm?"

"O-Of course not! I would never dream of hoping that somebody would die!"

"Hm? Ohh, what an upstanding man you are, then. To never betray your wife, and never wish that the one standing between spending each night with her would drop dead? It's an impressive feat."

"I... Just what are you implying?"

"Now, now, Fleur," Samuel stepped in, "Let's not be overly scrutinous of my dear big sister's taste in men. I'm sure after one failed marriage, she became an expert at such things."

"Dad," Regan intervened, getting tired of watching her parents come up with one way after another to taunt these men who weren't even permitted to wear the nautilus shell. "I saw the boat. Let's board first."

"Huh? Oh, yes," Samuel said, then followed Regan onto the boat and below deck. The others were going to take a bit longer to board the ferry, so for the sake of those men, Regan had isolated herself alone with her father.

"Dad," She addressed him directly for the first time since she'd arrived here. In fact, wasn't asking him to board with her the first words she'd spoken with him in four years? "I don't like seeing that sort of thing, you know."

"Really? And here I thought you'd come back because you missed me-" As he spoke, Samuel had reached out and wrapped the whole of his relatively large hand around Regan's slender wrist, but...

-Thud-.

He found himself on the floor, and unable to process exactly how he'd gotten there. Although it had just been a self-defense move on Regan's part, she had executed it so immediately and flawlessly that it gave off the impression that she had some sort of forcefield against him across the surface of all of her skin.

"You know, you can't touch me anymore," Regan chided him, "There isn't any reason for that to be allowed. I'm stronger than you now. And I rely on you for nothing. You haven't got a single scrap of power over me. Understand?"

"Regan..." Samuel's voice was strained.

"We can be civil, can't we?"

Those words were the most important ones she could speak. Those words were Regan telling her father, directly, that she could still look at him as if he were a human, after all he'd done to hurt her and all he was surely still doing to hurt Viola. Hearing those, Samuel certainly couldn't deny their importance at all.

"...Yes, we can be civil." Samuel gave in to Regan's demand, and stood from the floor. "Of course we should be able to. As father and daughter, reunited after four years, we should get along splendidly."

"We should, shouldn't we? After all, that's the only relationship you and I have ever had."

"In... Indeed. The only one, of course. And I'm overjoyed that you've come for the family conference."

"I don't like hearing you be cruel to other people. But, I guess that since you've never had a life-sized doll like me to take your frustrations out on, it can't be helped if you're a bit cruel. Still, don't make me see it, okay? It's easy enough to make sure somebody's not in the room for a conversation they have no need to hear."

"I understand. I'll be... Civil to other people, too, around you."

It wasn't forgiveness. Both of them were well aware that this was certainly no form of forgiveness between them. Regan wouldn't forgive him, however, she could pretend as if there was never anything to forgive. Just for a day.

The conversation that seemed to take place in a bubble only these two could enter was finished. Both of them were standing up, and there was no sign that they'd just spoken of something so serious. Their faces were resting, default even. Neither of them had let the situation show in any manner, not through tears or furrowed brows or reddening cheeks. They were both skilled at hiding things and keeping secrets, and especially in hiding things and secrets between the two of them. Samuel for his honor, Regan for her safety... They'd hidden many things, even as much as Regan always wished that she were worse at it. Like she could have stood a chance if ever somebody had actually noticed. These days, she knew that wasn't true. Money bought any concerned eyes' blindness.

"Hi." Delaney was the first person to join them below deck on the ferry, just moments after the resolution of that odd conversation.

"Delaney," Samuel greeted her, "What brings you down here? Don't you want the fresh air of riding above deck?"

Delaney wouldn't make eye contact as she answered, "Bright sun all directions... Cold wind hurting my cheeks and being loud in my ears... The sound of the engine... Does any of that sound pleasant to you?"

"I guess it doesn't," Regan admitted. The way that Delaney worded it, it sounded awful, but... "I'll go and put myself through that Hell anyway, though. It's been four years since I did, so it's a rite of passage in some ways, isn't it?"

"I guess so," Delaney said, then sat down in one of the seats and pulled her knees up to her chest, burying her face in them. On anybody else, that action would seem like some form of lament. On Delaney, it was the opposite, as she released a contented sigh as soon as she was curled up in a ball. Regan gave Samuel a long, meaningful look, and he followed her above deck to leave Delaney to her comfort.

Above deck, Tyrone and Damien were the only people not yet aboard. Regan could see that Tyrone was struggling to convince his son that the slightly wobbly metal walkway between the dock and the ferry was safe to walk on. She walked up to Viola and tapped the side of her arm, which let Viola understand. Of all the cousins, Damien seemed to trust her the most, right? So she could convince him.

With that prompting, Viola stepped forward, then gave Damien a soft smile and walked back across the way, quickly and with confidence, then leaned down in front of him. "You're used to a wooden board, aren't you? Don't worry, this one's fine too. Do you want to hold my hand?"

Damien didn't answer with words, just nodding back at Viola and grabbing her hand. He started crying as they took the few steps across the walkway, but he still made it onto the boat. Tyrone followed, then clapped a friendly hand against Viola's shoulder.

"Thanks for that! You're right, we usually have a wooden walkway. I think that the sound it makes was scaring him."

"I thought so too," Viola agreed, turning to look up at Tyrone. "Kids don't like to look uncool around other kids, you know. So he might be too scared to listen to you, but he wouldn't wanna tell me he was scared."

"Damien wasn't scared!" Damien confirmed what Viola had just said, wiping the bits of tears out of his eyes and taking deep breaths to recover from his brief trouble.

"He wasn't, huh?" Tyrone asked, then ruffled Damien's hair. "Well, that's good! You're nine years old now, you shouldn't be scared of too many things by now."

"Yeah..." Damien admitted, "I'm halfway to grown-up!"

"Halfway to grown up?" Viola asked with a small giggle, "But I'm more than twice your age, Damien, and I'm still not grown up."

"Vi is grown up, Vi drinks coffee!" Damien pouted, balling his fists up. "Only grown-ups drink coffee, you know, Vi."

"Huh? Then, could you become a grown-up if I gave you a sip of my coffee right now?"

"Yes. But... Don't wanna."

"Good. If we gave you coffee, then you'd just be bouncing off the walls the whole conference," Tyrone laughed, "That would annoy the adults, wouldn't it?"

"Yeah... It would be super annoying," Damien agreed without hesitation, "Kids gotta be quite in Ex-Hampon. Grandma doesn't like it when we're loud."

"Exactly. But if you behave well, then Grandma will give you lots of candy to eat after we leave," Tyrone assured him, "So just don't be annoying! And everything should be fine. Just at dinner, though. You can be loud if you want when you're far away from Grandma."

"Yeah! But don't destroy anything!" Damien agreed, then turned to Regan and Viola and put on an exaggerated glare. "No trashing allowed! Be good kids! Good kids!"

"Huhh? What if I want to trash something?" Viola teased him, "What if I want to smash Grandma's favorite vase on the- Oww!"

"Viola!" Samuel reprimanded her, the hand he'd clocked her on the head with not moving away, instead gripping her scalp, "Don't make jokes like that. It's disrespectful."

"I'm, sorry..." Viola didn't try to complain that she was only teasing Damien, given that it was very unlikely that of the cousins she would be the one to break something. She only apologized pathetically. Standing up for herself was something which she had long ago learned had no point, ever. Whether at home or at school or among strangers, there wasn't any reason to do anything other than nod and agree and apologize.

"Hey, you know," Regan changed the subject, addressing Damien, "If anyone was gonna misbehave, I bet it'd be your big brother!"

"Mm. Yeah..." Damien agreed with her, "Declan likes to break things. It's rude!"

"I do not like to break things!" Declan protested from where he stood, having overheard. With the shift in the conversation and another glare from Regan, Samuel moved on, going to stand next to Fleur by the ferry's railing. "I just sometimes have to! What's rude is you telling lies about me, you know!"

“Well, you won’t break any of Grandma’s things, right?” Viola asked, looking up to frown in his direction.

“Of course not!” Declan assured her, rolling his eyes, “What possible reason could I have to break anything belonging to her?”

“Mm. You better not break any of El’s stuff!” Damien said, and punched Declan in the leg.

“Hey now,” Tyrone chided him, “Damien, we don’t hit people.”

“The little snot can hit me all he wants, long as he doesn’t expect I won’t hit him back,” Declan said, and imitated the blow to the head that Samuel had just given Viola minutes earlier. “Stop calling him El. Eli is not such a short name that you gotta shorten it!”

“But… Viola is Vi… And El likes it when I call him that!”

“Viola is three syllables, so a nickname makes sense. Show some respect to your big brother’s name!” Declan said, and hit him again.

Tyrone reached out and grabbed Declan’s arm. “One was retaliation. Two is just mean. Good grief. Why do I need to keep such a close eye on the two of you to make sure you behave? What the Hell sort of things do you get up to when I’m not around?”

“D-Damien behaves when he’s alone…” Damien defended himself, “When Dad and Declan are at work! Damien is a good kid! A good kid!”

“I’m sure you are,” Regan’s words were in response to Damien, but she had a smile aimed at Declan while she said it, reminding him that more people here would be on his little brother’s side than would be ready to agree with him, even if some topic came up in which he was objectively correct.

“Ha, well, I can’t deny that.” Tyrone laughed a loud and boisterous laugh, scratching at the back of his neck. “I’ve never come home to the house in disarray or anything!”

“Yes! Cause Damien is a good kid!” Damien agreed with his father, “Damien behaves and does nice things for his family! A good, good kid!”

“You sure are.” Tyrone reached down then and lifted Damien up by under his arms, without any difficulty. He was really quite strong, and if worst came to worst he could have technically carried Damien onto the boat easily. Still, it was better that Viola had convinced him to walk across with his own two feet. “A really good kid!”

Declan side-eyed this scene and silently scoffed to himself.

Regan, meanwhile, couldn’t help but be a little envious. There wasn’t a single time in her life when she’d had the sort of relationship with her father that such an interaction could ever seem genuine to an observer. As good as they were at lying, this was the type of thing that couldn’t be easily faked.

Viola was clearly thinking along the same lines, so Regan reached out and gave a feather-light gentle caress to her head where their father had hit her earlier. So light that it couldn’t possibly make any bruise left behind throb with pain, but it was there, and a show of solidarity between the unfortunate sisters. And in doing so… She noticed her wrist.

In spite of how quickly and perfectly she’d executed that move, he had still grabbed it. And in fact, throwing him the way she did put quite a bit of strain on her own wrist. It wasn’t, in concept, a surprise that there would be purpling specks around its circumference. Even so, she was a bit put off to see it. It was the first time he’d given her a bruise that other people might be able to see. Because, any other time he’d grabbed her by the wrist, she hadn’t bothered trying to struggle away. There was no reason for a bruise to form without tension.

Still, she’d drawn Viola’s attention in stroking her hair, and she noticed it too as soon as Regan pulled her arm away.

“...Are you kidding me?” Viola questioned under her breath, then started to walk away from the group. Regan followed, understanding that was a cue to find some time alone and talk seriously for the first time since Regan had returned. She could only stave it off for so long, especially with this glaring evidence on her skin. Once they were thoroughly out of earshot, Viola spoke again, “I don’t know which would be worse. If some guy out in Nevada did that to you, or if…”

“It was Dad. And, myself. Don’t worry about it. You know him… It only bruised because I fought back.”

“Fought back?”

“I threw him on the ground and gave him a piece of my mind.”

“Okay, good. I’d hate for ‘fought back’ to mean that he got to you anyway. When’d you ever get that strong?”

“No more financial reliance on him, basically. The willpower to do it, and the control over my own finances to take self defense classes.”

“Your own finances… Yeah. How much money do you make, anyway?”

“It’s decent,” Regan said, then threw a look around the boat to make sure they really were out of earshot of anybody who might listen in. And with that, she revealed her secret motive in coming to this conference, “Decent enough that I could support another person, living modestly anyway.”

Viola stood there staring for a few moments, processing what her sister had just said, then clasped her hands together and whispered, “Is that really true?”

“It is. You didn’t honestly think that I’d leave you behind, right? All you have to do is survive this conference, and then, you’ll come back to Nevada with me. You don’t have anything you really want to bring with you, right?”

“No,” Viola answered as Regan expected. She had a lot of things, but none of them had any emotional attachment for her. “As long as there are still spiders in Nevada.”

“There’s plenty of spiders, hon.”

Regan laughed, and Viola started to turn red at having asked such a silly question, but instead started to giggle along with her sister. It was hard to actually feel embarrassed when her heart was soaring. Her sister really was like a knight in shining armor… All she had to do was make it through one more weekend. One last weekend.

That wouldn’t be hard at all!

--

Francis Hamilton had plans for this weekend. Just a few plans, anyway. He was going to revise his will, since it had been years. In that old will, the disinherited Marv still stood to gain inheritance, and none of the grandchildren were accounted for but Regan and Declan. The conference would serve also as a way to see everybody who stood to gain from his will, and determine what revisions should be made.

But… Why must that responsibility be mine? Though I am the Hamilton Family Head, the fortune is my wife’s. For that matter, is there any reason that my will should even exist? Give my entire fortune to Beth, and she can decide what will happen with it when she dies, when the woman who’s built the family to what it now is dies. She deserves that much…

And yet, she refuses me. She says that if the will were hers, she couldn’t bear to leave Annie out of it. Annie, my wonderful friend; Our wonderful friend and closest confidant. She could even be called a third partner in the business which is this family. Such a good friend that I’d consider her a second mother to my children, a second grandmother to those lovely grandchildren. With Annie dead, Beth has no desire to be the one drawing up a will.

So I’m the one stuck with the responsibility of bequeathing nothing to the woman who deserves the most?

Oh, Annie.

Why did you have to leave us? And how, how could you? I cannot understand. I fail to understand why and even more to understand how. How? For an unaging woman to perish, I can’t imagine it. I believed in your magic while you lived, you must know that. It’s impossible for a woman I met at the age of twenty-four, looking not a day older than sixteen… To maintain that appearance, and that claim of her age, for fifty years more. I had no choice but to believe magic was the root of that agelessness.

So, Annie Rideout, can you answer me?

How did you die?

How could somebody with magic on her side, drown against the jagged rocks? Shouldn’t sharp objects bounce off against your skin? Shouldn’t your lungs convert water to air? Shouldn’t somebody like you live for all time… Unless…

Did you somehow want to die and leave your closest friends to rot in our mortal old age?

No, I shouldn’t say it like that, now that I do, perhaps it’s understandable. Outliving those you love is a particular Hell. Maybe you really did wish to abandon your immortal life in a selfish desire to avoid witnessing our deaths. It may be self-centered to assume you’d do such a thing for two mere humans, but as close as we were, I never claimed to understand your motivations.

You, the beloved witch of Oxhampton.

Annie.

Will my revision of the will win out… Or will Beth’s belief that you’ll return?

Either way, there will be nineteen people on Oxhampton tonight.

And tomorrow…

Ha, we’ll just wait and see.

--

The boat arrived to Oxhampton, and there were two servants there to welcome them. The Hamiltons employed a great number of servants on different shifts, but the most esteemed of them always seemed to work the weekend of the conference. The pair who greeted the family were siblings. Cedric Lear, who was twenty and had been employed for ten years now. And his sister Cordelia, eighteen, and employed for eight years. Technically, child labor laws were being broken by hiring them that long ago.

But, technically, it didn’t really matter. They got around the laws without trouble, though nobody seemed to actually know how, or at least, wouldn’t reveal it when any of the servants or children asked. At this point, though, the reliable servants who worked the conference were, with Cordelia’s most recent birthday, all adults. These two always had a smile for the arriving family.

“Welcome!” The two of them greeted those disboarding the boat in tandem, then Cordelia continued on, “It’s lovely to see you all again.”

“And to meet you if you haven’t been here yet!” Cedric added in, putting a hand on his chest as he started with a half-bow, “That would be you, sir.”

“Oh! Yes, me. Nice to meet you!” Etsuko answered, removing one of his arms from its embrace around Marv’s to wave enthusiastically, “I’m Marv’s partner, Etsuko Yushu.”

“Hm,” Cordelia made an odd noise, and her giggles moments later revealed it was her attempt at stifling her laughter. “Like father like son, I suppose. The master has a thing for the Japanese, himself, doesn’t he?”

“That’s disrespectful, Cordelia!” Cedric stage-whispered to her, then turned back to Marv, “I am, very sorry Marv. Cordelia is still learning of the proper times to bit her tongue.”

“It’s not like she was telling a lie, though,” Fleur cut in, coming up behind Marv. “That other servant girl… Miss Watanabe, hm?”

“He’s… A product of the times, you know. When he was growing up it wasn’t at all uncommon to pick employees you were attracted to… Or to be attracted to Asian women by virtue of them being Asian…” Cedric gave a lukewarm defense of Francis, “In any case, it isn’t something that Cordelia needed to bring up!”

“I didn’t think it was that weird…” Cordelia said, pouting, but momentarily regained her usual composure and dignity to be expected of a servant under the employ of a rich family, “Anyhow… Please follow us to the mansion.”

Cordelia and Cedric turned and began to walk, leading the way with confidence that the family was following them. In fact, the servants were so diligent in leading the family, that several of them didn’t even know the way from the docks out to the mansion. The island was forested in some places, and had ruins of old military forts, but in general it all looked very much the same. There was one path which led to a small apple orchard, and one path that led to the best beach for swimming, besides the path which led to the mansion itself. It would be easy to get lost on Oxhampton if not for the expert knowledge the servants had of the entire route.

Of course, some of the family would know the route between the mansion and the docks, if they were the type to pay attention anyway; But generally speaking, if being led somewhere by somebody, most people wouldn’t bother to internalize the directions at play.

It wasn’t an especially long path, though, and nobody was even starting to become winded by the time that they reached the mansion. It was fancier than it needed to be, but shaped in a very strange way. There was a long corridor jutting out from one side’s second floor, with another, smaller mansion at the end of that hallway. Technically, this was the guesthouse. However, in New England, it would simply be cruel to require a guest to leave the main house following dinner to reach their room. Thus, there was a passageway between them, held up by elaborate pillars so as not to obstruct the ability to walk through the elaborate gardens that decorated the grounds. Most of them were perennials, though. Maintaining annuals was just too difficult when a number of the perennials would need to be replaced due to weather to begin with; It was a stroke of luck for every flower that lived to bloom another spring.

Cedric’s job wasn’t related to those flowers, though. The only gardening task he was given was to help with the apple orchard; Primarily, the job of gardening fell to the eldest of the trusted servants, Nate. Cedric wasn’t the only one who was ever assigned as a helper, of course, but Nate honestly held the position of ‘gardener with additional duties’, compared to the way that most of the employees were ‘all-purpose’. And Cordelia wasn’t ever asked to garden at all, always assigned to entirely different tasks.

Even so, they both knew the most scenic route through the gardens, and made sure to follow it so that the visiting family would be able to see it. In spite of their efforts, nobody commented on the quality of the garden as they walked through it…

It wasn’t that nobody had noticed that the garden was beautiful, and everybody silently appreciated the efforts of the servants to show them something like this. Of course it was beautiful, and of course they thought that it was. The problem was the tension in the air. It felt somehow inappropriate to mention how nice the garden looked, after that boat ride. Maybe once they were inside and all together, tempers would calm and insults would stop being passed around the visitors. For now, though, everybody had something on their mind to keep them from voicing their compliments to the flowers.

Delaney had been uncomfortable since arriving, though nobody knew why. Maybe it was because her father, too, wasn’t having a nice time. He was the youngest sibling, readily insulted by Samuel and his wife. Etsuko was concerned over this, having witnessed for the first time in their relationship a Marv who hadn’t even the slightest hint of confidence.

Samuel was in a rotten mood because his daughter had stood up to him, and Fleur’s mood was sour by nature of their closeness, his aura seeming to always rub off on hers; And these sour moods only made them more openly cruel to those they could get away with insulting. In this case, anybody but Regan had become fair game.

Tyrone and Damien were in perfectly fine moods, but the stifling atmosphere kept them both quiet; Declan, meanwhile, only seemed to open his mouth to make fun of others, so if nobody else said anything, he’d have no content.

Viola wasn’t in an unpleasant mood at all, though. Despite the throbbing pain at the top of her head, she was in a very good mood. This was the sort of good mood to inspire silence just as much as a sour mood, though. Regan’s offer would only work out if Viola was able to keep her mouth shut, after all, and even that had a double meaning. Viola couldn’t give any indication that she wasn’t expecting to return home with her parents at the end of the conference, and she couldn’t make a misstep egregious enough that she’d have too many of her freedoms taken away to be able to slip away with Regan when the ferry returned to the Boston Harbor.

As for Regan herself…

She wasn’t like Tyrone and Damien, who would have commented on the garden if the atmosphere wasn’t so unpleasant. She didn’t really care about atmosphere, to be frank. If she wanted to comment on the flowers personally, then she would have.

The thing was, she still couldn’t shake this awful feeling.

Just being around these people again was unpleasant, sure. And the fact that her father didn’t even hesitate to show that he was still the same person he used to be. The venom her parents were showing to anybody who was vulnerable to it. Even so, that wasn’t enough that it would have kept her from saying, at the very least…

That the hydrangeas were such a lovely shade of blue this year.

But she didn’t say it. There was a choking feeling all around her. Hydrangeas were wonderful but why should she say that when something deep in her heart whispered a most unsettling passage? Somebody will die this year. Somebody will die here.

It was ridiculous. Regan didn’t think that, logically, there was any reason somebody would die over this weekend. Even so, that feeling from deep within her heart was so strong that it kept her from breaking the tension with even the smallest comment on the lovely garden. It was waking up for the year, but the sudden chill tonight would likely kill all of these blooms, and it would be weeks again until there were more. This was the only opportunity that could be had to compliment the garden; And nobody took it.

And then, they were indoors.

The foyer of the mansion was exactly what somebody would expect from a foyer. It was wide and empty and it wasn’t very well-decorated at all, which was fine. There were plenty of opportunities for interior design elsewhere, and the tiled floor combined with the wallpaper gave it a regal appearance anyhow. There were only two things in the foyer which stood out. The massive staircase, and that which was set upon the wall near its base. A massive movie poster, in a frame much too elaborate for its content. Regan recognized it immediately.

This was the first time that Annie had gotten a role so prominent that she’d be front and center on the poster. Beneath the poster, there was something engraved in the frame. Regan didn’t hesitate at all to step forward and read it.



~In my quiet youth, I stood before a canyon.

A beginning lay before, and a beginning lay after.

I skipped a stone to the end, took two steps, found another beginning, then immediately another end,

Where I found the key to the golden land.

The key demanded of me ten twilights.

On the first twilight, halve and halve the living.

On the second twilight gouge, on the shell;Living or dead.

On the third if you lie, it’s your love which will suffer.

Share your pain, and die as the fourth twilight.

The fifth twilight will gouge over and over, legs and head.

Take the sixth off, lie in a precious small moment’s peace.

The seventh twilight’s stake in stomach is buried, omit a memento of the killed.

To stain the eighth twilight red, enter the arena of the dead.

On the ninth in the arena, none have survived.

On the tenth twilight currently, revive with euphoria the burning witch’s will.

The number of the witch’s name will open the door.

And these five treasures will be offered.

One, everyone who has died.

Two, more money than could be imagined.

Three, interference in all complex matters.

Four, love that was never there.

Five, I will never return again.

After all is done... life will be fulfilled.~



Oh.

Regan understood her bad feeling now.

This was going to be a very interesting weekend.

~~~~

“So?” Marsred asked, “What do you think? Lady Bernkastel? Lady Lambdadelta?”

“Why are you asking me that already?” Bernkastel questioned, turning to glare at her furniture, “The characters haven’t even all been introduced yet.”

“Well!” Marsred waved her hands in front of herself in her own defense, “Yeah, I know! I thought you’d like it better that way, though! If I can show you a gameboard that doesn’t have all its pieces established yet, then you still have the opportunity to add some…”

“Heh… Remember, Bern! Your furniture is still a wandering witch just like us! Ask her to find us a gameboard to watch on our lovey-dovey honeymoon, and she’s just gonna find the kind of gameboard she wants to play with!” Lambdadelta gave her input, then floated over and wrapped her arms around Bernkastel’s neck from behind, a movement that appeared somewhere between malicious and doting, “But… We are just planning to spectate this one, so maybe we can cut her some slack with one that she wants to participate in…”

“I can be a player or a piece,” Marsred said, “Whatever you wish of me, Lady Bernkastel. I can only imagine you’d rather I wasn’t present for you and Lady Lambdadelta’s, err, ‘Gameboard and Chill’. I do have… One request though…”

“Insolent,” Bernkastel said, and left it at that.

“I’ll hear it!” Lambda proclaimed, dropping into Bern’s lap and sticking a leg out in a theatrical pose. “What could the Witch of Innocence, Marsred, possibly desire?”

“It’s a request that you can answer, Lady Lambdadelta,” Marsred said, then knelt before the witches. “I’d like… Her. To be placed onto the board in some way. If you could.”

“Her? Oh! I mean, I don’t see why not? Yeah, Bern? Don’t you think that would be fun?”

“Mm…” Bernkastel thought for a moment, then one of her awful smiles spread across her face. “Yes, that would be quite interesting indeed. I suppose we’ll witness this gameboard after all. Of course, we haven’t even determined the primary meta players yet, but once we have… Marsred. You will serve as an additional player on the human side.”

“Ehh? On the human side?” Lambda questioned, “That’s a huge handicap, isn’t it? Doesn’t the power of the human side lie in blue truth? Sounds like fun!”

“Yes…” Marsred confirmed, slowly returning to her feet. “I, Marsred, the Witch of Innocence… Can use neither blue, nor gold, nor even purple. I am restricted to the use of red truth. Even so, I am eternally grateful for this chance, Lady Bernkastel, Lady Lambdadelta.”

--
Tips: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1kkxJK9vCl6C80pOwU7Ys317zeJOyvR4EJ37HJgfkRIc/edit?usp=sharing