Chapter 1: Prologue: My Fantasy
In western lands beneath the Sun
the flowers may rise in Spring,
the trees may bud, the waters run,
the merry finches sing.
Or there maybe 'tis cloudless night
and swaying beeches bear
the Elven-stars as jewels white
amid their branching hair.
Though here at journey's end I lie
in darkness buried deep,
beyond all towers strong and high,
beyond all mountains steep,
above all shadows rides the Sun
and Stars for ever dwell:
I will not say the Day is done,
nor bid the Stars farewell.
~ J.R.R. Tolkien, “In Western Lands”
MV’s referenced: VIXX’s Voodoo Doll, Fantasy, and The Closer; Xia’s Tarantallegra; Oh My Girl's Windy Day; EXID’s Every Night
In a remote corner of a faraway dimension, there stood a mansion on a wooded island in the middle of a deep, dark, fast-flowing river. A man – tall, well-dressed, dark-haired – went about his business in the expansive workspace within the mansion’s basement, stirring a bubbling vial here, removing a beaker from a flame there, taking a jar out of a small freezer and emptying the contents into a bag which he then placed on a high shelf.
The man went by many aliases. Mobius. Pavlov. Pluton. Ravi. To most, however, he was known simply as the potion maker, his true name a mystery to all but himself, which was exactly the way he preferred it. His services were often sought out by all manner of cunning and powerful individuals for specialized potions, many of whom would jump at the chance to forcibly press such an innately skilled crafter into their service through the power of his true name. The potion maker had not survived as long as he had in such a potentially perilous industry by being injudicious.
A soft chiming of bells came from his left. “You have a customer, sir,” announced his watch-stone calmly. “Shall I send them in?”
“Too late! I’m already here!” proclaimed the dramatically posing figure standing at the top of the stairs leading down into the potion maker’s workroom.
“Xia,” the potion maker said flatly, folding his arms and leveling the faerie with his best unimpressed look. “It’s been awhile.”
“Indeed!” Xia swept down the stairs with the effortless grace befitting such an otherworldly being, bejeweled rings aglitter and necklaces clinking against each other merrily. “Too long, apprentice! I’ve missed you.”
The potion maker rolled his eyes. “Yes, I’ll bet you have. Here for a potion, I assume?”
“How do you know I don’t want to just spend some time with my favorite pupil?” Xia retorted, putting a hand on his heart dramatically. “You wound me, apprentice. Deeply.”
“So you don’t want a potion, good to know-”
“I didn’t say that,” Xia cut him off quickly. “I can come here for more than one thing, you know.”
“Then get to the point. I’m a busy man, and time is money.”
“Tsk. Impatient as ever I see. Well, it just so happens that Rain’s become too big for his britches recently. He seems to be of the erroneous belief that just because I helped him take care of Venus and her pets-” His lip twisted up into a derisive sneer, “-that means that he can encroach on my territory simply because it’s right next to his. That’s water elementals for you; give them an inch, they think they can trickle out and claim everything in a ten mile radius around them. I thought a water’s bane potion might do the trick to remind him why he shouldn’t be actively trying to piss off the local archfae. Alas, I’m all out of wyvern venom at the moment, so I’m having to turn to other sources, I’m afraid.”
“Ah yes, the Venus and Rain debacle, I do remember hearing something about that.” The potion maker thought for a moment and then gave Xia a narrow look. “That wouldn’t happen to coincide with the time you commissioned a polymorph potion and paid me in seagull feathers absolutely saturated with elemental magic, would it? Those aren’t something one just happens to stumble across by accident.”
Xia smiled, the expression baring every one of his teeth. “I’m a busy man, apprentice. I can’t possibly be expected to remember every transaction I make with my associates, can I? Speaking of which, my potion, please, and make it snappy.”
“I have previous orders waiting,” the potion maker said, irked at being ordered around so flippantly. “If I move this up in my queue, you’d better be making this worth my while.”
“Don’t I always?” the faerie grinned impishly. He gestured with one hand, and a small chest appeared at his feet. “I came prepared. Two pounds of turquoise, three of bloodstone, and a vial of phoenix blood up front, and I’ll throw in five ice dragon teeth when I have the potion in my hands.”
The potion maker considered this. “That’ll do.” He retrieved the chest, set it aside for later, and proceeded to clear a space at his worktable. He selected an empty beaker from a shelf and began rummaging around for the necessary ingredients, muttering to himself under his breath. “Water’s bane, water’s bane… let’s see, two tablespoons of malachite powder, fifteen milliliters of quicksilver, fifteen milliliters of arsenic, two sprigs of water hemlock, three ounces of wyvern venom, and something to bind it all together… ah,” He snapped his fingers in realization, “you’re in luck, I have just the thing.” He paused briefly when he saw that Xia’s brown hair had turned to a garish shade of salmon in the span of about three seconds while his back had been turned. Xia blinked back at him innocently.
Pointedly ignoring the faerie’s tomfoolery, the potion maker continued: “I recently got a hefty supply of aspendìr antlers as payment for making some awakening potions for one whose herd fell into a sleep curse. A very good deal indeed, too. If she hadn’t shown me her horn nubs, I would have taken her for a normal human girl; their home grove must be simply saturated in ambient magic to make them look so convincingly human. Their antlers have more concentrated wild magic than any aspendìr antler I’ve ever come across, since it’s all located there instead of spread throughout their bodies like so many others of their kind. In fact, I think I’ll need only one set to make the water’s bane potion, whereas it would normally take up to three.”
“How in the world did an aspendìr of all things find your humble little shop?” Xia asked amusedly, following the potion maker over to his worktable. “They don’t tend to be the most sociable of creatures outside their herds.”
The potion maker resigned himself to having an audience for the duration of the potion’s assembly and began rooting around inside a chest for some crushed malachite. “Referral,” he replied shortly, pulling a leather pouch from the chest. “Venus’ ‘pets,’ as you so succinctly put it.”
Xia let out a bark of laughter. “Well, how about that. Life comes full circle, it seems.” He looked at the taller man with something close to admiration. “Your business acumen is one of the things I like most about you, apprentice. I’ve never known you to turn down a deal if the price is right.”
“Well. There have been a few times. For instance, remember that psychotic witch I mentioned in passing awhile back?
“Ah yes. The one that kept breaking down your front door until you installed some security measures. I remember. Sounds like a character.”
“She offered me a dragon’s heart gem in return for a way to unfetter her soul-ties to her abode.” He snorted. “The amateur fancied herself an artist, apparently. Kept making such detailed, time intensive constructs and poured so much of her magic into them that she physically couldn’t leave her house anymore. She had to create an astral doppelgänger just to come see me. Can you even imagine any self-respecting enchanter so incompetent that they become soul-tied to a single building by accident?”
“Shameful, what passes for talent these days.” The faerie shook his head mournfully.
“Needless to say, I declined the deal, regardless of what she was offering. I have my professional pride, after all. She made her bed; she needed to lie in it or find a way out of it herself. Of course, she… took that news rather poorly.” He grimaced slightly. “Thankfully she finally seemed to get the hint after I installed some deterrents, but the fact that it came to that at all was irksome.”
“You know, I bet if she had offered you, say, five dragon’s heart gems you would have done it, professional pride or no,” Xia observed knowingly, grinning wider when the potion maker declined to respond except for a frosty glare aimed in his direction. “Anyways, you haven’t seen her since then?”
“No. Funny you should mention that, though.”
“Oh, do tell.” Xia rested his chin on his hands and leaned forward on the table attentively.
“Her magic tripped my security measure a little while back, but it wasn’t her that did it. Remember the aspendìr I told you about? There were some constructs accompanying her. Dolls.
“Dolls, you say?” Xia’s eyes glinted in acute interest. “Your witch started sending out her creations to do her dirty work since she couldn’t leave her house herself? Hm, apparently I didn’t give her enough credit.”
“No, you gave her enough.”
“There’s only two ways a woman like that would let any construct of hers wander about freely.” The potion maker glanced over at Xia, one corner of his mouth rising briefly. “Either she died, or they killed her.”
Xia snorted. “Given your description of her, I can’t say I'd exactly blame them if it’s the latter.”
“Hm. Well, regardless, there were two in particular that tripped the alarm. One was so drenched in binding hexes that I was honestly surprised it was even remotely lucid, let alone capable of coherent speech. As it stands, I’m sure it has some form of brain damage or permanent disability by now. Probably both. I’d almost feel sorry for it if I were given to that particular brand of sentimentality. The other… well, she apparently decided that if she couldn’t see me in person, she’d make an effigy of me instead.”
Xia laughed aloud. “Oh, this I simply must see. I know you still must have the phos-illusio recordings around; you were always paranoid that way.”
“Absolutely not. I would rather not have to look at that thing anymore than I can possibly help. The knowledge that such a creature is walking around wearing my face at this very moment is disquieting enough, thank you.”
“Don’t be that way, apprentice.” Xia grabbed one of the nearby chairs and perched on it, pulling his legs up to his chest and pouting up at him childishly. “I refuse to move from this spot until you show me.”
“Suit yourself.” The potion maker unhurriedly mixed a tablespoon of mercury into the beaker of crushed malachite, and could all but feel the glare the faerie was leveling at his back. A few seconds of blissful silence passed, and then:
“Oh eh oh, get up, into the bright light~” Xia’s voice rang out across the workroom, its usual bright, clear timbre deliberately distorted and discordant, like nails on a chalkboard. An involuntary shiver went down the potion maker’s spine, both from the sound and the telltale acidic broil of fae magic that began to fill the room.
“Oh eh oh, I will leap over my limits~” No. No, the potion maker knew exactly what his former teacher was trying to accomplish with this immature display of pettiness, and he refused to cave to it. He refused.
“Oh eh oh, the time is now~” The potion maker gritted his teeth, tipped a vial of arsenic into his potion beaker, and did his best to ignore Xia.
“Oh eh oh, spread your wings and wake up again~” Which was becoming more and more difficult as the fae magic grew stronger and stronger, until the potion maker could almost taste ozone and fermented berries on the back of his tongue. He knew what fae magic would do to his potions. And Xia knew as well. The potion maker lasted two more renditions of this before he finally snapped.
“Alright!” He slammed the beaker down onto his worktable and rounded on the smugly grinning faerie. “Alright, fine, before your sour notes turn my potions into unusable bottles of sludge.”
“I knew you’d see reason eventually!” the faerie proclaimed blithely, clapping his hands and rising from the chair as the potion maker went to a hidden hollow in the wall and pulled out a memoraim crystal. Conjuring up a simple lumos spell and projecting it through the crystal caused it to throw up a holographic projection of whatever scene he wished to see of his workroom within the last three months. The image of seven figures flickered into view around them. The one in front was a small girl in a red dress, the aspendìr, while behind her stood six tall young men in a piecemeal assortment of clothing. Two were frozen on the steps leading down into the workroom itself.
“There,” the potion maker said acidly, almost completely out of patience with the faerie’s accursed capriciousness. “Happy now? Can I get back to making your potion?”
Xia apparently couldn’t be bothered to answer, approaching the doll nearest him with a look of intense fascination on his face. The noisy, nosy one who talked far too much for its own good, if the potion maker remembered correctly. Xia circled the doll closely, looking it over head to toe before moving on to the next one, the shortest among them, who still had a considerable number of inches on the faerie.
“Are they as well made as they look?” he asked absently, reaching out a hand as if to touch the doll before seeming to remember that it was only an illusion and reluctantly withdrawing it.
The potion maker hesitated for a moment before grudgingly admitting, “Better. I don’t think I’ve ever seen constructs as well made as these, aside from maybe your Angel and the…” He coughed politely. “Well, the other one…”
“I don’t want to think about that particular thorn in my side right now, thank you very much,” Xia grumbled peevishly, deliberately turning away from the shortest one to move on to the ones on the stairs. “Looks like you had an admirer, apprentice,” he observed, approaching the shimmering illusion of the potion maker’s doll counterpart. “Your troublesome customer had quite the eye for detail. He’s the spitting image of you.”
“I see no reason to stand here and let myself be insulted,” the potion maker said disdainfully, making as if to return the crystal to its containment unit.
“Oh, come on,” the faerie said mischievously, holding up a hand in turn. “Aren’t you in the least bit curious what she wanted to use him for?”
“What she did with it,” the potion maker snapped, “is none of my concern, nor do I want it to be. Now, shall we get back to your potion order, or are you going to spend the next hour ogling a bunch of dolls?”
“Always so impatient,” Xia tsked, but he stepped back from the shimmering image of the closest doll regardless. Descending the stairs, he meandered across the room again, stopping for a few seconds to study both the freckled doll with a kitten on its shoulder and the tallest one. He then gave the whole set a final glance before he nodded to himself decisively. “Alright, I’ve made up my mind. I want them. All of them.”
The potion maker blinked. “…I beg your pardon?”
“I want them for my collection.” Xia fixed the potion maker with a shrewd look, one the potion maker particularly despised. “And I want you to obtain them for me, apprentice. Constructs this beautiful and intricately designed are a rare thing indeed. I don’t intend to let an opportunity like this pass me by, and I certainly don’t intend to let someone else beat me to it. Besides, it’s been awhile since my Angel has had some new playthings, and,” Xia walked up the stairs to stand beside the potion maker’s doppelgänger again, not breaking eye contact with his former apprentice, “I always have said a face like yours belonged in a museum, haven’t I, my apprentice.”
“Let’s get back to the first part of that statement,” the potion maker said frostily, dispelling the illusion with a curt wave of his hand and ignoring the involuntary prickle of pins and needles creeping down his spine as he replaced the crystal. “And the answer is no, you leave me out of this. I’m not your personal gofer. If you want those dolls that badly, you can go get them yourself.”
“Come now, be reasonable. You’re the one who knows where they come from, and even if by some chance you don’t, I know that you know where to find them. Plus, your girls are quite good at jobs like this, from what I’ve observed. I feel quite comfortable leaving the job in your capable hands.”
“First of all, they’re not ‘my’ girls-”
“Semantics.” Xia waved him off carelessly.
“Secondly, even if I did know where to find them, I deal in potions, not constructs, and particularly not in self-aware constructs. Plus, if word gets out that I’ve started to actively meddle in other realms, my business might start to suffer as a result.”
“Oh, I highly doubt that. You are quite smart for a human; I’m sure you can keep this somewhat discreet. Besides, I’m sure having an archfey referral on your resume more than makes up for any small inconveniences this might potentially cause.” Xia smiled, his incisors looking a little sharper than usual, his eyes a bit more luminous. “And fear not; I know better than anyone that you don’t work for free. I’d be sure to make this well worth your while.”
Another refusal was on the tip of the potion maker’s tongue… but he hesitated.
Xia continued without missing a beat: “It just so happens that I’ve recently come into possession of a hefty haul of mithril shards. I’ll give you twenty for every doll you procure for me.”
The potion maker froze. Finally, after a good fifteen seconds, he replied, “…Fifty. Fifty mithril shards per doll.”
“You must be joking, apprentice,” Xia scoffed. “Those dolls are valuable, but not that valuable. Twenty-five.”
“Forty, and that’s my final offer.”
“Done.” Xia clapped his hands once, looking like the proverbial cat that got the canary. “I’m glad we got that sorted out. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must away!” He turned on his heel and began ascending the stairs toward the exit.
“What about your potion?” the potion maker called after him, confused.
“I’ll be back to pick it up when you get me my dolls,” Xia replied, without looking around. “I have some new exhibits to start planning! Of course, nothing can be completely finalized until I see them in person and have the opportunity to gauge what they’d be best at, but I can still start putting some concepts together. Ah, this is so exciting, it’s been so long since I’ve had this many toys to add to my museum at once!” He seemed to remember something, and turned back to the potion maker. “Oh, make a few Lethe draughts as well, while you’re at it. Constructs who’ve had a taste of freedom tend to get ornery when someone else takes possession of them, and while it can be cute at first, it gets old very quickly. I prefer not to deal with the theatrics unless I absolutely have to.”
The potion maker pressed his lips into a thin line. “Would there be anything else His Majesty requires today, or will that be all?”
The sarcasm dripping from his every word flew entirely over the distracted faerie’s head. That, or he was just ignoring it. It was hard to tell sometimes with him. “Actually, there was one thing…” Xia stopped at the top of the stairs and fiddled with one of his rings, turning it around and around on his finger distractedly. The potion maker stared. If he didn’t know better, he’d almost think the faerie was acting… shy? “If you do call your girls to help you out… could you tell Hani-?”
“No.” The potion maker cut him off, holding up one hand. “Business is one thing, but I draw the line at getting involved in your personal affairs. You want to say something to Hani, you talk to her yourself.”
“Aw, come on!” Xia gave him his best approximation of puppy dog eyes. “I would, but Solji warded the entire facility against fey beings, and Hyojin threatened to stab me last time I was there if I ever showed up again.”
The potion maker raised an incredulous eyebrow. “Can’t say that I blame her, really. But since when have threats ever stopped you?”
Xia scowled. “You’re awful, apprentice, you know that? And normally they wouldn’t, but your girls are useful and I’d prefer to not turn useful resources into home décor if I can help it. Besides, Hani likes them. No accounting for taste, but we all have our vices.”
“They’re not my-!” The potion maker took a deep, calming breath. “My answer is still no. I’ll get the damn dolls for you, fine, but unless you plan to tack another fifty mithril shards onto your bill, your personal life is, frankly, none of my business, and I plan to keep it that way.”
Xia pouted, gazed off into the distance, and gave an explosive, dramatic sigh. “Fine, be that way.” He turned his gaze back onto the potion maker and smiled, the expression sharp and infuriatingly smug. “Well, it was a long shot anyway. Pleasure doing business with you today, apprentice. Don’t keep me waiting too long, now!” With that, the faerie was gone.
The potion maker watched him go. When he was alone in his workshop, he let out a long, silent breath and ran his hands down his face tiredly, already feeling the beginnings of a tension headache already building behind his forehead. What had he just gotten himself into?
Comforting himself with the thoughts of all he could accomplish with two hundred and forty mithril shards at his disposal (honestly, the mind reeled), he went to his worktable to make sure the water’s bane potion was coming along nicely, and then left the room for his personal office. Once inside, he rummaged around in a drawer, pulled out a vial, and went to the large scry crystal set on an intricate metal stand in the corner. He touched it and murmured a few words. The clear heart of the crystal swirled, shimmered, melted into the image of a stark, gray room. A worktable similar to the one in his workshop stood in the center, flanked by two glowing couches. A few moments passed, and then a woman dressed all in black and holding a red briefcase passed in front of the potion maker’s view of the room.
Before he could say a word to get her attention, she caught sight of him out of the corner of her eye and did an abrupt double take before a big smile spread across her face. “Ravi! This is a surprise. What can I do for you, sir?”
“Hani.” The potion maker allowed one corner of his mouth to lift in the briefest of smiles as the woman came closer to the shimmering portal that opened in the air in front of her. “I need to talk to Solji. It’s about a job.”
“Ooo, a job! Been awhile since we’ve had one of those from you. HEY JONGHWA!” she bellowed to someone out of the potion maker’s line of sight, making the man wince slightly. “COULD YOU GET SOLJI? RAVI’S CALLING ABOUT A JOB!”
“Must you inform your entire dimension of the fact?” the potion maker asked in disgruntlement as someone offscreen called an affirmative and the faint clack of high heeled boots retreated into the distance.
“But of course, sir!” Hani replied cheekily as a shorter woman in a bobbed haircut wandered into view and came closer as well, waving at the potion maker cheerily. “It’s a momentous occasion! So is the job for you or for a client?”
“A client. Xia, to be precise,” the potion maker said, before realizing what he’d just done and experienced the brief but powerful urge to smack himself on the forehead.
“Lord Xia came to see you?” Hani asked, leaning forward eagerly. Glancing to the side briefly, she said in a lower voice, “Did he mention me at all?”
The potion maker stared at her flatly. “…No.”
A wide, knowing grin spread over her face at that. “Oh, you can’t fool me, sir, I know he did! He did!” She grabbed the arm of the woman next to her and pulled at it, bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet joyfully. “He did, he did, he did!”
“Who did what now?” came a voice from out of sight, and a tall woman calmly strode onto the scene, followed by the other two members of the small cadre of chemists.
“Nothing Solji, nothing,” Hani said quickly, bowing her head meekly. She let go of her companion’s arm and stepped back to give her leader full access to the portal.
Seeing the potion maker within the shimmering rip in reality, Solji smiled slightly. “Hello, Ravi. Long time no see.”
“Hello, Solji. I’ll cut right to the chase. Lord Xia’s commissioned me for a job,” the potion maker began without preamble. “I thought you and your girls might want in on it.”
Solji frowned. “Ravi, you’re going to need to give us a very good reason to take any job related to that man.” She glanced narrowly at Hani, who had the grace to look sheepish. “You have thirty seconds before I dispel this communication and we go about our respective business.”
“I’m getting paid in mithril.” All five women went very still at that, their eyes widening to varying degrees. “And I’m willing to cut you in for thirty percent. Is that a good enough reason?”
Solji thought it over for but a moment before nodding, albeit reluctantly. “Alright. We’re in. What do you need us to do?”
“Well, first off, we need to track down the home dimension of the individual this-” He held up the vial of the aspindìr’s blood, which was still more than half full, and showed it to the five women, “-came from. Once we do, I can perform a tracer spell to locate some dolls that he’s apparently set his heart on and can't live without, and you can Door in and retrieve them, wherever they are.” He’d vaguely recalled the conversation the dolls had had with the girl before they’d parted ways, and had a sneaking suspicion that wherever she was now, the dolls wouldn’t be too far away.
“Dolls?” Hyojin said incredulously. “Mr. Lord High Archfey himself wants us to retrieve some dolls? Is that all?”
The potion maker shrugged. “You know how he gets about pretty things.”
She snorted. “Do I ever.”
“Hani will be over to retrieve the vial shortly,” Solji interjected, all business. “We’ll let you know the results when we have them. Hyerin and Jongwha can begin mixing up a new batch of knockout gas in while Hyojin and I ready our equipment.” She nodded to the potion maker. “You’ll have those dolls in your possession in no time, sir.”
The potion maker inclined his head in return. “I’ll be waiting.”
The potion maker’s aliases – Basically, the potion maker has Ravi’s stage name, and Cedar has his actual personality. Don’t get them mixed up, though; the potion maker is basically an OC while Cedar is Ravi’s actual AU counterpart. As for the potion maker’s other aliases, Pavlov and Mobius are taken from two of Ravi’s solo songs, and Pluton is the original Latin name of Hades’ Roman counterpart, and Ravi played the part of Hades in VIXX’s Greek gods-inspired Fantasy MV.
Rain and Shinwha – Shinhwa (aka Venus’ “pets”) have already made brief appearance in “Open the Door,” while Rain being a water elemental is a reference to his Rainism MV. I’d love to go into more detail about them, their conflict, where Xia fits into the whole thing, and why he refers to Shinhwa as their lady’s pets in the first place, but that’s another story for another day. Maybe at some point I’ll get around to it. XD
Xia’s hair colors – Xia changes hair colors and styles like 5 separate times in the Tarantellegra MV, to the extent that I honestly thought he was entirely separate people each time it happened when I first watched it. X’D So hey, faeries have glamours, right? Why not incorporate all of them instead of sticking with just one? ;D
Aspendìr – My “official” name for Oh My Girl’s fantasy species in this AU. They’re sometimes born from female aspen tree colonies that don’t have a dryad currently living there, and emerge from their trees as regular fawns at first. Later on, they retreat back into their trees for awhile, and then emerge a second time in a form that resembles a human woman. Most aspendìr retain visible traits of their deer heritage – such as antlers, spots, fur, rings around their eyes – and some even resemble a satyr in their lower half, with hooves and a tail and the like. Oh My Girl, however, just have antlers as the only visible remnant of their deer heritage because the place where their grove resides has far more ambient magic saturating it than usual, and thus they look almost entirely like normal human girls.
“Oh eh oh~” - I needed a song with a repetitive chorus for Xia to annoy the potion maker with, and “OeO” suited those needs very nicely.
Xia + Hani – Junsu and Heeyeon dated from 2015-2016 before breaking up due to scheduling conflicts, and since both artists' counterparts happened to be making an appearance in the same chapter, I saw the opportunity and took it. ;)
Chapter 2: Let Me Breathe
MVs referenced: Astro's Crazy Sexy Cool, Breathless, and Baby; EXID's Every Night
The room was as quiet as it never was when Sun was around. He had clattered out the door several hours ago to meet Junghwan for singing lessons (and, no doubt, a lot of noise and a little trouble), and the room had fallen into a peaceful stillness since then. Cedar and Kitten were playing a kind of puzzle game. Or rather, Cedar was playing, and Kitten was interfering in his laconic Kitten way. Starlight and Brother were lying side-by-side on their bellies and slowly working their way through a book together. Whatever mysterious process had granted them all their knowledge of words and things had given Brother some faint existent understanding of the letters and their meanings, and he and Starlight were learning the fastest.
Laughter was also learning to read, in a way, since there were books made specifically for people who couldn't see, but for that he needed someone who already knew how to read who could say the words aloud as he learned them with his fingers, and none of the dolls were that good yet. So he was sitting on a cushion below the window, where the warmth of the sun met the cool shade of the interior. Heart, on the windowsill, would occasionally reach a paw down and bat at his hair. It had grown, as hair did when given the chance, and since it didn't bother him to have it in his eyes the way it would the others, he hadn't needed to let someone near it with sharp-edged scissors.
He raised his head in faint interest when there was a burst of noise - Cedar batting away Kitten's hands with gruff-voiced scolding - and kept it up when the noise settled, because something was changing. He looked around the room, not able to tell any difference in the light or new sources of movement, and found it as pleasantly dull as usual, the only flares of magic the little globes that resided near the ceiling and gave light so that the others could see well.
Frowning slightly, he sat up and cautiously extended his senses. There was something like a growing source of magic near the door that led to the closet, and he frowned more and let himself slip sideways into one of the other planes to try and get a better look. He used to just call it ‘looking’, not knowing any better description for what he did when he tried to see things his eyes couldn’t. The magician Dongwoo was the one who had helped explain what it was he was doing: how their world, the physical place they lived and breathed in, was like a sheet of paper, and the whole of reality was like a book. There was different information on each page, and if someone could move from one sheet of paper to the other they could see things that weren’t visible from their own ‘page’. There were many of these ‘pages’, and they all did different things. There was one he reached for often that he used now, too; it gave him something a lot like a view of the room. There were more details and distinct forms; how a person with normal eyes would see, perhaps. It was from this perspective that he was able to see the closet door open, so quietly the others didn't notice, and multiple small objects come flying out.
He wanted to alert the others, give some cry, but it wasn’t always easy to disentangle himself when he got like this, and as he was still trying the objects hit the ground and disappeared into...something. Smoke. He could smell it, then, through the connection to his body and its senses. The others smelled it too, or saw it, or both; Cedar let out a hoarse inarticulate sound, and Brother tried to shield Starlight's face with his arm. Whatever was in the smoke (and it was strong, if he could smell it so clear, as detached as he was) affected them in no more than two breaths, and they started to grow still, and slump down. Laughter faintly felt his own body slide down against the wall, and heard Heart spit out a violent hiss as she scrambled out the window and away.
There was a moment of silence. Into it, from the closet door, stepped five people. Laughter could only watch, choked with fear and helplessly untethered from his unconscious body. They were women, he guessed, and each had something bulky around their mouth, presumably to filter out the smoke. They stood in a line and looked at the dolls slumped in their various positions around the floor.
One of the women made an emphatic gesture towards the closest, which happened to be Kitten, waving her arms strangely. The others looked at her for a moment, before one of them said in a muffled voice, "Are you trying to bring a plane in to land? It is difficult to hear through the masks, Hani, not impossible."
"They're big!" the one who had gestured, Hani, said. "He said ‘pretty’; isn't that a word for something small and delicate? These things are not small!"
"So everyone grab a leg or arm and we'll take them one at a time," said the one with the longest hair. "Hyelin can stand guard with the extra vial."
"Bossy," the smallest one said, but did indeed move to the center of the room with something in her hand, looking alertly between the slow-breathing dolls. The other four each grabbed one of Kitten's limbs and with much grunting and grumbling began shuffling him backwards through the door.
Laughter realized that he could see his own body as it shifted ever so slightly as though to reach for the door. The remaining guard's head snapped around to stare in his direction, the dark haze of the mask over her face obvious even in this half-sight. She moved closer to his body and squatted down, scraping his hair back out of his face with the end of the thing in her hand. She was still crouched there when the others came back.
"You're supposed to be watching," one of the others said. The guard stood slowly, head tilted down as she looked at him.
"I'd swear this one moved. And look, it's crying!"
"It can't move for-" The one speaking paused briefly, "-at least 10 more minutes. Now stop staring at it." She did as instructed, returning to the center of the room. The other four rolled Brother over from where he was half-covering Starlight, no doubt targeting the smallest of the dolls. They went through the door carrying him and the guard wandered in Laughter's direction again, lightly kicking his hand out of the way and standing at the window to look alertly out. What if Heart was right outside? But of course she wasn't, she was too clever for that.
It felt like a terribly long time passed, but probably barely enough for the others to get Starlight set down wherever they were taking him, when the woman standing next to Laughter’s body stiffened. She swore under her breath, wavering like she wanted to run to the door. As she was apparently thinking on it, the other women came back through the portal.
"There's people coming!" she said as soon as they had ears to hear. "Two of them."
"Why would they come here?" the tallest one said. "The only sound has been the vials breaking, and us talking. It's not like we're making a ruckus."
"They were running to the building awfully fast," the guard said doubtfully. Then they all heard the sound of pounding footsteps distantly in the stairwell. "There! See!" She shook the hand with the thing in it. "There's only enough in here to knock out one more person!"
"Quick, try-" The woman was crouching by Cedar and trying to pull him by the collar of his shirt. He moved only a very little bit, and the footsteps were closer now. She swore violently. "Two will have to be enough. Go, go!" They piled through the door, and it closed behind them as the front entrance banged open and Sun and Junghwan clattered through.
From his angle Sun couldn't see them all at first, and he cried, "Laughter!" as he rushed in, almost tripping over Cedar as he went. "Cedar! Kitten? Brother! Starlight?"
"This is bad," Junghwan said in the most serious voice Laughter had ever heard from him, as Sun was buzzing from doll to doll to pat at their cheeks and tug at their hands. "Don't breathe too deep, Sunny, you see the smoke in the air? Just a little now, but..."
"I don't see Starlight or Kitten!" Sun wailed. He squatted down by his most loyal admirer, shaking his shoulders. "Cedar! Wake up! Where is Starlight? Where is Kitten? Are you okay? Please, get up!" Heart came in as well, and Laughter realized with a surge of fierce gratitude that it was her who had brought the other two so quickly. She went to the closet that had been a Door a moment ago, drawing her claws down it with a grating noise that caught Junghwan's attention.
"We need the others for this," he fretted, and went to the window, pausing for just a second to check the pulse of Laughter's body and arrange it in a more comfortable position. He leaned slightly out the window and sang a short piercing phrase, in the language that Laughter was only just beginning to understand. It rang out into the heavy afternoon air, a summoning and warning sort of sound. He then walked past Laughter's point if view, close enough that Laughter thought he might notice something even though Laughter was little more than a wisp of consciousness a few planes removed... but of course he didn't.
(Heart did. She went to his body, brushing possessively against its out-flung hand, and sat with her tail curled around her paws, staring fixedly at the empty air from which he was watching all of this take place.)
Sun and Junghwan had time to gently arrange each unconscious form, laying them out carefully on the floor. Junghwan sang a single angry word that cleaned the ground with a tinkle of broken glass. Then Dongwoo was bursting through the door, his worried voice preceding him and saying, "Junghwan! Are you-" his voice cut off as he saw the scene inside. Laughter had never heard Dongwoo swear – according to Chanshik, he never did in earshot of those he considered 'impressionable' – but the cut-off sound that he made came very close. "Oh, gods. What happened?"
He did a rapid headcount, mouthing the numbers in a way that reminded Laughter miserably of Starlight, and grimaced when he only counted four. He crouched beside Cedar, the closest, and gently bent over to hold his ear over his mouth. From his shirt pocket, his little wooden construct scrambled free and clicked across the floor to join Heart in staring at the space where Laughter was watching. It danced in place with a rapid series of ticking noises, and Heart uncurled and stretched out to carefully sink her sharp little claws into Laughter's hand.
He found himself back in his own body, still immobile, the other planes inaccessible, and desperately stretched his senses out towards the Door. There was no Door. "They took them," he rasped out, his voice so rough and wrecked that it startled even himself. Dongwoo and Junghwan jolted in surprise, Junghwan losing his balance and thunking down onto his butt, and Sun scrambled over to hover over him.
"They took them," was all he knew to say. Sun was still, and he wasn't magical; Laughter could no more see Sun’s expression than he could see the surface of the moon.
He closed his eyes to it anyway.
Brother opened his eyes and found himself staring up at the high ceiling of the soda boys’ apartment. Now that was odd. Wasn’t he just reading with Starlight earlier? He didn’t remember falling asleep…
He bolted upright, recalling the acrid, red smoke that had filled the air earlier, the way his limbs had started to immediately grow heavy, the way the world spun around him even as he tried to instinctively shield Starlight from the worst of it. He looked around wildly, taking stock of his surroundings before something crashed into him, nearly bowling him over with the force of it.
“Brother!” Sun cried, his voice muffled by Brother’s shirt as he squeezed the taller doll tight. “You’re finally awake! Oh, thank goodness!”
“Sun?” Brother asked in bewilderment. “What happened? Weren’t you at singing lessons with… Jungwhan…?” He faltered, seeing Junghwan leaning against one of the metal bedframes, looking more grim than he’d ever seen him. Cedar and Laughter were sitting on the floor a little ways away, curled into each other, and Brother’s stomach clenched to see tears trickling down both their cheeks.
Heart, who had been sitting on Laughter’s lap, jumped to the floor at the sound of Brother’s voice. She circled him once, brushing up against his leg, before climbing back into Laughter’s lap. He resumed petting her mechanically, his face blank and expressionless aside from the tears that occasionally escaped his sightless eyes. Brother scanned the room again, noting the moonlit sky outside in concern (the sun had only just started to go down last he checked, how had it gotten so late?), and noticed that two familiar faces were conspicuously absent.
“Where are Starlight and Kitten?” he asked, a sick feeling of dread growing in his stomach. “What happened? Where are they?” When no one answered right away, he pulled back from Sun’s embrace and tried to look him in the face, but Sun looked away, his lower lip trembling slightly. “Where are they, Sun?”
“They’re gone, Brother,” Sun said, his usually loud voice barely more than a whisper.
“What?” Brother said, perhaps more sharply than he had intended if the way Sun flinched was any indication. “What do you mean gone?”
“He means,” Laughter said, his voice flat and heavy and hoarse, “they’re gone. They were taken. I saw it.”
Brother went very still at that, feeling as if a tub of ice water had just been dumped over his head. A dozen emotions flitted through his mind at once. Part of him wanted to scream. Another wanted to cry. Mostly, though, he just felt… numb. The entire situation felt unreal, as if it was a bad dream. The idea of an existence without Kitten’s special brand of quiet vigilance or Starlight’s unwavering guidance and support was as incomprehensible to him as the concept breathing without air. And yet here he was, with two vital pieces of his entire world unceremoniously ripped away from him and leaving only utter emptiness where they should have been.
“If they were taken... that means we can take them back, right?” Brother finally asked, his voice sounding foreign even to his own ears.
“We’re working on that part right now,” Junghwan responded, speaking up for the first time. “Dongwoo went back home to start analyzing the vials that knocked you all out with Jinyoung, so we can get an idea of who might have done this. We should have some results by-”
The door burst open, and Yoojung entered, her duck tucked under one arm and the rest of the soda boys piling in behind her. “What happened?” she demanded fiercely, taking in the scene at a glance. “Dongwoo didn’t say much when he stopped by, just that two of you were taken by some intruders. Details, now.”
Jungwhan filled her and the soda boys in on the situation, Laughter or Sun interjecting the occasional parenthetical occasionally. Most of it flew over Brother’s head entirely, as he was too preoccupied with the distant roaring in his ears and the tight, constricting ache in his chest to pay much attention to anything. Anything, that was, other than Sun’s reassuring grip on his arm, which was his only real anchor to reality at that point.
While Yoojung and Jungwhan continued to converse, Yoojung’s duck, Aroha, wriggled out of her arms and waddled over to where Heart sat alert and attentive in Laughter’s lap, giving a soft, inquisitive honk. Heart responded by pinning her ears back and giving a halfhearted hiss. Brother thought he saw Aroha’s eyes narrow for a split second before the bird unceremoniously clambered into Laughter’s lap as well. This apparently startled both doll and kitten so much that neither responded immediately when Aroha settled down directly on top of Heart, all but smothering the little black kitten in white feathers, and began to preen her head - the only part of the kitten still visible - with her beak. Heart squirmed and spat for a few seconds before evidently realizing that resistance was futile, and resigned herself to her fate. Apparently being fussed over by a duck was more therapeutic than it first appeared, though, because soft, rusty purrs could be heard not even a minute later.
Laughter tentatively patted Aroha on the head when it became clear she wouldn’t be getting up anytime soon. Judging from her pleased, quiet quacking, she seemed to approve of it, so he continued, a small smile gracing his lips. It wasn’t anything like his usual wide, dimpled grins, but the invisible vice that Brother’s heart seemed to be caught in loosened just a little at the sight.
“-did you get all that, boys?” Brother blinked, and looked over to see Yoojung crouched down so that she could speak to the dolls on their current level. The four exchanged brief glances, and then Sun spoke up for all of them.
She sighed, blowing some hair out of her face like she did when she was aggravated or annoyed, but her eyes were nothing but kind as she looked at them all. “Jungwhan and I were discussing what we should do in case those women come back for the rest of you. Or for my boys, for that matter.” She glanced over at the soda boys, who, Brother noticed, all stood a little ways away in a small knot, clutching each other’s arms or hands and gazing at the dolls in mute sympathy and sorrow. “So, this is what we came up with. We’ll open all the doors in the building except for the front door. It’s extremely difficult to create a Door anywhere if it’s already open, and I’ll stay over the night, too, so you all can get some sleep. Meanwhile, Dongwoo and Jinyoung can try to figure out who did this, and Jungwhan can canvass the town to see if anyone knows people who fit Laughter’s description of the women who took Starlight and Kitten.”
“What if they do come back while we sleep, though?” Brother ventured through the sudden terror threatening to choke him at the very thought. The notion of going to sleep only to find more of his brothers stolen away when he woke up frightened him more than he thought anything ever could.
“Not to worry, boys. If anyone does try anything-” A ball of multicolored lightning ignited in Yoojung’s palm, “-I can promise you, they will regret it. No one else is getting in here tonight without my say so. And if they do, they’ll be a harmless pile of ashes in no time.” The dolls perked up a little at her confident words and reassuring display of power.
“And we can keep watch during the night while you sleep,” Jinjin offered, stepping forward, Rocky’s hand held securely in his. “On the first floor, the third floor, and the attic, while Yoojung stays here.”
“You need sleep, too, though,” Cedar said, sounding concerned. “You have work tomorrow.”
Jinjin opened his mouth to reply, but Yoojung beat him to it. “They can miss a day of work if it means getting to the bottom of this sooner. What’s important right now is that you all get some rest so that you can be ready to go after whoever did this.”
“It’s a good idea, but I don’t think I could go to sleep even if I tried,” Sun said glumly. He folded his arms over his middle and curled in on himself slightly. “My stomach is all jumpy and achy, and my mind won’t stop going round and round in circles.” Laughter and Cedar nodded in agreement.
Brother was about to as well, but then a possible solution presented itself to him: “My candle!”
“Your what?” Junghwan looked confused.
“The candle I made with S…” Brother faltered briefly (don’t think about it). “The candle I made.” He pointed to the shelf nearest the dolls’ row of beds, where they kept the few belongings they’d accumulated during their time in the Sash. “It’s magical. It helps people sleep.”
“The nice-smelling one you light sometimes before we go to bed?” Cedar asked in surprise.
Brother nodded. “Sta- some of us have trouble sleeping sometimes. I thought it might help. Auntie Cha helped me with it during our class. She said that candles we make in class aren’t magical, but when I told her what I wanted it for, she said she’d make an exception this one time.” Brother trailed off, remembering the understanding look in the old woman’s eyes as she’d come out of a back room with Brother’s container of melted wax, handing it back to him with a kind smile and a “No need to thank me, boy; strong young men like yourselves need their sleep, after all!”
“You never told us it was magic!” Sun pouted in disgruntlement.
“I knew,” Laughter said, a touch smugly, not even bothering to dodge the light swat Cedar gave his arm.
“I didn’t think it was that important,” Brother shrugged. “The point is, we could use that. Unless it would put Yoojung to sleep, too…”
“Nope, if I know it’s there, you won’t have to worry about me at all,” Yoojung said decisively, straightening up. “Sounds like a plan, then. Jinjin, you and Rocky can keep watch on the first floor. MJ and Eunwoo, you can go to the third floor; I think the door is unlocked up there, since no one’s using that room right now. That leaves the attic for Sanha and Moonbin. Unless anyone has any objections?” No one did. The soda boys departed to take up their posts, while Junghwan left to take care of his own mission.
Just forcing himself to move was oddly difficult, but Brother somehow managed it and got to his feet, helping Sun up as well. He felt like he was observing himself from somewhere outside his body, like this was happening to someone else, and Brother was glad for it. The pain, the fear, the fury raging inside his heart was too much for him to process right now, and his other brothers needed him; he couldn’t fall apart on them now.
Cedar was helping Laughter to his feet, dislodging Aroha and Heart from their warm nest in the process, much to their disgruntlement. After giving the two dolls a scolding quack, Aroha briskly patted Heart twice on her head with her bill and waddled back to Yoojung. The girl picked up her duck and retreated to the desk at one end of the room, rummaging through the drawers for pencils, markers, and paper, presumably to occupy herself through the night while she kept watch.
“Come on, the faster we go to sleep, the faster we can go find Starlight and Kitten,” Sun declared, tugging Cedar and Laughter behind him to their beds, not even bothering to change into their pajamas in their haste and leaving Brother to light the candle. Brother mechanically did so and got into bed. He curled around Laughter protectively while Cedar did the same to Sun on the opposite side, the two shorter dolls meeting in the middle and holding each other close.
Brother lay still, holding his breath as much as he could and taking in as little of the candle’s scent as possible. When everyone else had gone to sleep, judging by their soft, even breaths, he carefully disentangled himself from Laughter, pried Sun’s grip off his sleeve, and crept out of bed. With one last glance at his slumbering siblings, he retreated into the bathroom, remembering all the times he and the others used to do something similar when they were back in her dungeon. The times when, for whatever reason, they needed to be as alone as they could get for a while, whether because they didn’t want their brothers to see their inevitable emotional breakdowns when they hurt so badly that there was no other way for their bodies and minds to cope, or to express their displeasure with the others on the rare occasions they squabbled amongst themselves. Starlight would sequester himself behind his couch or wrap himself up entirely in the ratty blanket that always covered it. Sun would curl up in the rusty, dented tubs and barrels piled up in the back of his cell. Brother himself would hide behind the dead tree in the center of his cage. Laughter, who’d had nothing in his cell to hide behind, would simply sit with his back to the rest of them. Cedar and Kitten would do the same, since they were mostly in the same boat, having only loose piles of broken furniture and electronics, respectively, in their own cages.
In the absence of his tree, Brother decided the shower was his next best option. It was close enough that he felt like he could still keep an eye on his remaining brothers if he needed to, but isolated enough that it still felt relatively private, where no one could see him, no one would hear him. He closed the bathroom door, stepped carefully into the stall, squatted down in the furthest corner, buried his face in his knees, and began to tremble uncontrollably.
“Mrow?” Brother started violently, head snapping up to see that Heart had somehow slipped into the bathroom herself without him noticing and followed him into the shower. The sight of the little cat reminded him unbearably of Kitten, and every thought and emotion he’d been trying so hard to keep at bay flooded him all at once, threatening to drown him entirely. The taste of blood flooded his mouth, and he distantly realized he’d bitten his knuckle so hard he’d broken the skin.
“Wake up, you idiot,” he muttered around his knuckle, squeezing his eyes shut tight “Wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up-!”
But he couldn’t wake up. No matter how much pain he was in, no matter how much strong the taste of copper became on his tongue, nothing about the situation changed. Instead, it all just served to reinforce the fact that this wasn’t a dream, this was real, Starlight and Kitten were gone. They were gone, and for the first time in his life, Brother was forced to really contemplate what might happen if they were never found. He shook his head hard, trying to not let himself think so pessimistically, but he couldn’t help contemplating the possibility, couldn’t help imagining what his poor brothers might be going through, if they were lost and frightened, hurt and alone, with no one to save them or love them ever again.
As these awful thoughts were whirling around in his head, the horrible, piercing, phantom ache in his chest grew stronger and stronger until it somehow hurt worse than any physical pain he’d ever experienced. His breathing sped up to the extent that he was nearly hyperventilating, and he felt himself start to become lightheaded… and then something small and soft brushed up against his leg, snapping him out of it. He felt needle-like claws prick his skin as Heart scaled his pants’ leg so that she could sit on his knee. Once she was situated, she leaned forward and reached out a small white paw to insistently pat at Brother’s hand until he haltingly removed it from his mouth and allowed her to lick the blood away from his wounds with her little rough tongue. Once his hand had been thoroughly and meticulously cleaned, she rubbed her head up against it with a small, sad meow. Throat tight and eyes burning, Brother gathered her into his big hands and held her close to his chest.
After a few seconds, he huffed a short, bitter laugh. “I’m pathetic, aren’t I. I actually almost want to be back there in her dungeon right now. At least…” He swallowed hard. “At least we’d all still be together then.”
Her only reply was to nuzzle her cheek against Brother’s thumb and make more pitiful, mewling noises that sounded uncannily like a child crying. Brother abruptly realized that, technically, Heart was still a child when it came to her own species; it was something that was all too easy to forget, given her confident and independent demeanor.
“You must be missing them, too, huh?” he said thickly. “Especially Kitten.”
Heart’s mewling grew even more low and sad, and she hunkered down miserably in Brother’s hands, pressing her face into his shirt. Brother felt a drop of water trickle down his cheek. Then another. Then another. Finally, he curled in on himself, over the little, fluffy bundle in his hands, and leaned his forehead on his knees, his quiet sobs mingling with the kitten’s tiny cries as they shared in the same loss and grief.
When Brother had no more tears left to cry, he finally stood, feeling drained and spent, but strangely calm as well. His stiff joints and aching muscles twinged irritably at him with every movement, but he barely noticed as he returned to the main room with the exhausted kitten held securely in his hands. If Yoojung noticed his reddened eyes and tearstained cheeks, she made no sign of it, simply giving him a cordial nod as he passed her where she sat at the desk, scribbling incomprehensible diagrams and shapes on various pieces of paper. Aroha sat nearby on the nearest bed, head folded back and tucked under a wing.
Brother set Heart on the nearest pillow, and then crawled into bed again, the candle’s affects already making him feel drowsy. He nestled up to Laughter’s reassuring warmth, wrapped his arms around the slumbering doll’s waist, and pulled him flush against his chest, resting his cheek atop his head with a small sigh. Laughter didn’t even stir. One side of Brother’s pillow dipped slightly after a few seconds, and a warm, fuzzy body curled into the curve of his neck, accompanied by soft purring sounds.
Please be okay, Starlight, Kitten, he thought, just before sleep pulled him under to join the others. Just hang on. We’re coming. We’ll find you. No matter what it takes, we’ll find you.
MVs referenced: VIXX's Fantasy
Starlight regained consciousness slowly, feeling muzzy and sluggish. He stirred slightly, wondering when he had fallen asleep sitting up, when he registered tight, unyielding pressure around his arms, torso, wrists, and ankles. He suddenly felt very much awake, and his eyes snapped open in alarm.
A totally unfamiliar location surrounded him, a table covered with bubbling bottles and beakers and tubes to his right, machines and shelves packed full of books and boxes and unfamiliar objects to his left, a bright, harsh light above him. Dark curtains hung from the walls and ceiling all around, making the large, expansive space seem almost claustrophobic. However, Starlight barely registered any of this; the only things he could focus on were the pale, glistening ropes wrapped around his wrists, his arms and chest, each of his ankles, binding him securely to the chair he sat on. No. No. No, no, please no, not again, not-
(Thick straps, sturdy ropes, cold metal around his wrists, his ankles, his legs, his arms, his throat, restraining him, holding him down, cutting into his flesh whenever he tried to struggle, rendering him utterly helpless while those awful, hated, beautiful hands did whatever they wished to him, burning, branding, carving, slashing, gouging, using, taking, taking, always taking, and he couldn’t stop it, he couldn’t escape, he couldn’t move, he couldn’t do anything except lie there and take it, again and again and again and again and-)
Sharp pain around his wrists pulled Starlight out of the past and into the present, making him realize he had instinctively started to fight against his bonds while his mind had been elsewhere. He quickly came to the conclusion that such an endeavor was futile, however; the ropes were simply too tough for him to break with his own strength, and all he was accomplishing in the attempt was hurting himself. He shook his head hard, trying to force back the instinctual terror threatening to overwhelm him and focus on the here and now instead of things he’d rather not think about ever again. He couldn’t panic; he had to stay calm in order for him to get out of this. Now, what-?
A tiny, terrified whine made his head snap up in alarm. A few feet away, bound to a chair of his own, sat Kitten. As he watched, the other doll began to struggle against the ropes just like Starlight had, nearly knocking his chair over in his desperate attempt to free himself.
“Kitten,” Starlight spoke, trying to keep his voice low. Kitten either didn’t hear him or was ignoring him entirely, and continued to frantically thrash in his bonds.
“Kitten!” he said, louder, worried that Kitten might seriously injure himself if he kept this up. Again, he was ignored. Setting his jaw resolutely, the shorter doll began to lurch in his chair, sliding it inch by inch toward Kitten’s until he was finally close enough that he could nudge his knee against Kitten’s. The contact seemed to snap Kitten out of whatever dark place his mind had dragged him to, and he finally stopped fighting, panting hard. He looked up, eyes meeting Starlight’s own, and the look of sheer panic in their dark depths tore at Starlight’s heart. He wanted more than anything at that moment to wrap his arms around his brother and hold him tight, but he had to settle for smiling at him as comfortingly as he could.
“Starlight…” Kitten whimpered, the fear in his eyes beginning to subside just a little at the elder’s proximity. “What happened? Where are we? Where are the others?”
Starlight shook his head, opening his mouth to reply, when a hauntingly familiar voice answered Kitten's questions instead. “In order: I had my associates procure you for an interested client; in my personal workshop; still at large, regrettably.”
Both dolls whipped their heads to the side to see… Cedar. No, not Cedar, Starlight reminded himself forcefully. The potion maker the dolls had met when trying to find a way to wake Jiho’s cursed sisters. He looked at them in his usual cold, distant manner, a trace of disgruntlement showing through his carefully maintained neutral expression.
“Ah, do excuse the accommodations, by the way,” the potion maker mentioned, gesturing to Starlight and Kitten’s restraints as he stepped closer. “Part of my job is to ensure that my investments stay where they’re supposed to until I receive proper payment.”
“Payment?” Starlight parroted numbly, feeling completely off-balance as he tried to process the notion that someone who looked just like their beloved brother was the one responsible for their situation. “Payment for what?”
“You, of course. And I’ll be getting a pretty penny for even just the two of you, let me just say. So you’ll forgive me if I seem a bit more cautious than usual.” The potion maker casually leaned his hip against the worktable, regarding both dolls levelly.
“But why?” Starlight protested, still unable to comprehend the reason for this kind of treatment from someone who had previously helped them. “We weren’t bothering or hurting anyone! We weren’t doing anything wrong! Why would you do this to us?”
“Well, since that obnoxious witch who created you seems rather…” the potion maker trailed off, giving the dolls a shrewd, knowing look, “indisposed, shall we say, things like you just wandering around without a proper owner is bound to attract some attention from certain interested parties. I merely facilitated the request of one of those parties. For a price, of course. Very simple, really. Nothing personal.”
“We aren’t things,” Starlight spat, a familiar, seething anger beginning to simmer back to life in his gut. “And we don’t deserve to be treated like this.” He glared at the potion maker scornfully. “I already didn’t really like you before, but now I see that you’re no better than her.”
Silence fell for a few pregnant moments. A muscle twitched in the potion maker’s jaw. And then, almost quicker than the eyes could follow, he lashed out, grabbed Starlight by the hair, and ruthlessly wrenched his head back.
“Let me make myself as clear as I possibly can, doll,” he rumbled, looming over Starlight’s bound form threateningly. “I am doing my best to carry this conversation out civilly, but if you refuse do the same, then you are getting gagged as well as tied until my client arrives, because I am very much not in the mood for a lecture from an uppity, naïve, sanctimonious excuse for a glorified toy that thinks it has life all figured out.” His face was only inches away from Starlight’s, his usual stoic expression briefly exchanged for one of contemptuous, icy ire. Seeing such a familiar, beloved face wearing such a foreign, terrifying expression frightened Starlight more he cared to admit, and he could not contain a reflexive flinch at the rough handling.
“I do hope you’re not damaging the merchandise, apprentice!” a jovial voice called out. As one, the potion maker and the dolls turned to see a new figure step out of the shadows. The man was slightly on the shorter side, wearing elaborate, opulent clothing festooned with lace and feathers and glittering jewels. The hair that framed one side of his ethereally beautiful face was so pale it looked almost white. The longer Starlight looked at him, though, the more things just seemed subtly off about him, and the more uneasy the doll became: the ears that tapered to a soft point; the otherworldly grace with which he moved; the sheer, raw power radiating off of him in near tangible waves that made the hair on the back of Starlight’s neck stand on end.
“He’s fine,” the potion maker replied, letting go of Starlight’s hair and taking a step back. “You, however, are late. You were supposed to come inspect and collect them before they woke.”
“Oh, you know how it is.” The other person shrugged carelessly. “Something came up, and I had to deal with it. But now, what do we have here?” He approached the dolls eagerly before stopping short.
“Apprentice,” he said in a disapproving tone. “I distinctly remember there being six dolls I told you to procure for me. Why are there only two sitting here?”
“Technical difficulties,” the potion maker replied brusquely. “Just a minor delay. The others will be collected shortly. Another day or two at most.”
The man clicked his tongue reproachfully. “You know I don’t like to be kept waiting. Don’t tell me your girls are losing their touch. Ah well, at least you were able to give me something. Goodness, you’re even lovelier in person, aren’t you,” he observed, turning his attention fully to the two bound dolls. He reached out a perfectly manicured hand toward Kitten’s face, who immediately leaned as far away from the intruding appendage as he could, glowering at him.
The man stopped, then smirked. “I see you’ve got spunk. Don’t worry, you’ll be cured of that soon enough. Ah, but where are my manners? I am Xia, Lord of Yesterday’s Flowers, and your new master. You will refer to me as such from here on out. Get yourselves presentable, we’re leaving soon.” With a careless wave of the man’s hand, the ropes binding the two dolls loosened and fell away. The instant Kitten was free, he grabbed Starlight bodily out of his chair and pulled him protectively behind himself, glaring coldly at their captors.
“We don’t need a master,” Starlight declared defiantly, peering around Kitten’s broad shoulder. “And we’re not going anywhere with you.”
“Aren’t they cute?” Xia said amusedly to the potion maker, nudging him in the side, which the taller man looked none too pleased by. “They think they actually have a choice in the matter.”
To Starlight he said, as if talking to a particularly slow child, “Of course you need a master. You are a magic-built being; you need to belong to somebody. You can’t seriously think you can possibly survive on your own. You need someone like me to really bring out your full potential. If anything, you should be grateful I’m taking this interest in you.”
“We belong to ourselves,” Starlight retorted, placing a calming hand on Kitten’s shoulder as he felt him bristle at the man’s condescending words. “And we’ve been doing just fine on our own so far. We don’t need your help. Now let us go. We don’t want to be here.”
Seemingly having grown bored with the conversation, Xia spoke to the potion maker instead. “Alright, apprentice, I’ll take them. Your payment for these two will be sent over shortly, with the rest forthcoming after you hold up your end of the bargain and get me the rest of them. How long did you say it will take again?”
As the two spoke, paying no more attention to the two dolls than if they had turned into an extra set of chairs, Starlight felt a growing sense of dread coil around his heart as he finally began to fully grasp the reality of the situation. These men treated them like she had; as if they were mindless things to be bought and paid for and used like the candles Auntie Cha sold in her shop rather than thinking, feeling, living beings with their own burgeoning dreams and aspirations. It had been so long since anyone had treated them like things that Starlight had almost been able to forget what it felt like, and the reminder was like a cold glass of water being thrown in his face even as another sudden realization made his blood run cold.
Starlight thought of the voracious way Brother pored over the books Moonbin steadily supplied them with, his clever mind eagerly soaking up the pictures and words he could already understand, desperate to learn all he could about the world around them.
He thought of the way Laughter lit up in joy, his broken eyes wide with wonder, as Sanha patiently guided his fingers over the strings of his guitar, coaxing beautiful sounds from the wood and the wire that he didn’t need to see to appreciate.
He thought of the delighted, overwhelmed tears that welled up in Cedar’s eyes when the girl at the animal shelter a few blocks down from the apartment had placed a tiny, wriggling, white puppy in his arms, how his legs had all but given out beneath him when the little thing had licked his chin.
He thought of how Sun had bloomed more than he’d ever thought possible with ample freedom and kind, friendly company, glorious bursts of color flowing from MJ’s markers and pencils and covering so much of the walls behind their beds that there was hardly an inch of bare brick to be seen anymore underneath all the paper.
He thought of the way Kitten smiled now, the way he laughed, how the emotions that had nearly always been tightly locked away inside his poor, battered, tender heart freed and healed and expressed themselves little by little, more and more with every passing day.
Starlight thought about all that, all the progress they had made, and realized that all of it would disappear as his brothers were captured, bound, and locked away, perhaps never to see each other ever again, to be gawked at and used however this person saw fit. He felt sick to his stomach, and helplessness and despair threatened to overwhelm him before he caught sight of a traitorous wobble of Kitten’s bottom lip as he watched their captors converse. Instantly, those feelings vaporized in the wake of the sudden rush of anger and determination that filled him. His hands clenched into fists. No. No, he would not let this happen again. But… what could he do? He had no magic, nothing to bargain or fight with, no-
Starlight’s mind stuttered to an abrupt halt as an idea - a terrible, horrible, awful idea - occurred to him, so awful that his first instinct was to reject it entirely. No, surely there was some other way to get them out of this, some way that they could free themselves without resorting to… that. But as his mind continued to turn over all the options available, the more he realized that this… this was their only option. The only way his brothers could still live their lives freely and continue to heal from the horrible things she had put them through all their lives. And if that was the case, then Starlight knew that he would do anything, anything at all, to preserve that.
Giving himself no time to second guess his decision, he ducked out from behind Kitten, facing their captors head-on. “Wait!”
The two men turned to glance at him, the potion maker with an expression of clear annoyance, and Xia with one of indulgent amusement.
“Take me instead, and leave the others alone,” Starlight said, trying to ignore the stab of guilt and sorrow that shot through his heart at the soft gasp from behind him. I’m sorry, Kitten. Please, forgive me. This is the only way.
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but you’re already here. Taken, giftwrapped, and delivered. It’s a little late for noble sacrifices, wouldn’t you say?” Xia replied patronizingly.
“Something freely given is worth more than something you take by force, isn’t it?” Starlight retorted. At Xia’s sudden thoughtful look, he plowed ahead. “Well then, I’m giving you myself, in exchange for my brothers’ freedom. As long as you leave them alone, as long as you don’t try to take them, too, you won’t have to use chains or ropes or bars to keep me with you; I won’t ever try to escape. I will go with you willingly, wherever you lead. And you-” Starlight swallowed hard, “-you can do anything you want with me, and I won’t resist. You have my word.”
Xia smiled. It was not a reassuring expression. “Anything?”
Starlight closed his eyes for a moment and gathered every ounce of courage he possessed before replying. “Yes.”
“Tell me, doll. Does what you are proposing frighten you?”
Starlight saw no reason to lie at this point. “Yes.”
Xia looked intrigued. “And yet you still would surrender yourself to me willingly? Even though you’re clearly terrified out of your wits and have no idea what I’m capable of? How much I could hurt you if I so chose, in ways your fabricated little mind probably can’t even fathom?”
“Yes,” Starlight shot back without hesitation. “If it meant that my brothers would still be free, then yes.”
Xia seemed slightly impressed despite himself, and actually paused to give this serious consideration for a moment, before shrugging. “Sorry, but even freely given, you are simply not worth five of your kind. Two at the most, perhaps.”
“Four.” Long, slender fingers closed around Starlight’s. Startled and dismayed, he looked to his right to see Kitten standing shoulder to shoulder with him, staring at Xia resolutely. “We are worth four.”
“Kitten…” Starlight breathed sorrowfully, feeling Kitten’s hand tremble in his grip, betraying his calm, cold expression. However, when the taller doll glanced down at him briefly, in that split second, all Starlight saw in his eyes was hardened resolve and a love so pure and profound that Starlight had to physically fight back tears at the sight. Yes, there was fear there also, the more Starlight looked, a deep, visceral terror that Starlight knew was reflected in his own gaze, but the love, the overwhelming need to protect their other brothers, the four beings who meant more to them both than anything else in the entire world, overpowered it entirely. All the words Kitten had always wanted to give them, give him, but was never quite able to was contained in that one, single look, but Starlight, as always, comprehended it perfectly. His heart welled up with so much answering gratitude and affection that he could barely stand it, squeezing the other’s hand tighter in understanding, acceptance, and solidarity.
After exchanging that one, brief, lingering look containing a lifetime’s worth of heartache, kinship, and love, as one, the two dolls turned back to face their captors, united in purpose and intent.
Xia was regarding them with an enigmatic expression. Even though his genial smile was still fixed firmly in place, an intense, rapacious hunger had appeared in his dark, glittering eyes as he observed Kitten and Starlight’s wordless exchange. Finally, he spoke. “You’re actually serious about this. Aren’t you.”
It wasn’t really a question, but both dolls simultaneously nodded anyway. Xia regarded them for another long, tense moment… then abruptly burst into peals of delighted laughter. While it wasn’t technically an unpleasant sound, something about it sent shivers down Starlight’s spine. Neither he nor the other two remaining occupants of the room moved a muscle as Xia continued to laugh like he’d just heard the world’s best joke. Finally, his laughs died down to chuckles before subsiding entirely.
“Do you have names, dolls?” he asked after composing himself.
“We are Starlight and Kitten,” Starlight answered for the both of them.
“Very well then, Starlight, Kitten. I accept the conditions of your proposal. The deal is made.” With that, Xia raised his hand and snapped his fingers. There was a subtle but marked shift in the charged energy flowing through the air around them, and Starlight felt nearly lightheaded with the rush of sheer relief that flooded him at the thought that they’d done it. Their brothers were safe.
And then Xia was striding toward them and the terror came rushing back as Starlight remembered that he and Kitten definitely weren’t. Kitten squeezed his hand hard enough to hurt, and Starlight was sure he was squeezing back just as hard. Neither could suppress an instinctual flinch as the man reached out with both hands and cupped the sides of their faces. Xia’s smile widened at the dolls’ reactions, and took on a decidedly predatory edge, matching the glint in his eyes. He looked so much like her in that moment that it took every single iota of Starlight’s willpower to hold his ground and endure the unwanted contact instead of jerking his head away like he so desperately wanted to. This was for his brothers. For Sun, for Cedar, for Laughter, for Brother. He could not, would not give in to fear now. No matter what, he had to be strong.
Xia leaned in so close his face was barely inches from theirs. When he spoke, his voice emerged as a low, satisfied purr. “Oh, my dear dolls, you have no idea what you just gave me, do you. No idea. But no matter; since there’s only two of you now, it just means that I have even more time to pay you the oh-so-special attention the both of you so deserve.”
His smile grew even wider, if that was possible, at the involuntary shudders that traveled through both dolls at his words. “Ah, we’re going to have such fun together, my pets. You will be icons once I’m through with you, just you wait. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. For now…” His fingers crept up to lightly brush against Starlight’s temple.
“Sleep.” The single word that emerged from Xia’s mouth reverberated with authoritative power, a simple, irrefutable command that Starlight found he could not disobey. His eyes closed of their own accord, and he knew no more.
The faint, golden glow around Xia’s fingertips faded, and the two constructs’ trembling, rigid bodies went lax, the tension draining from them as their eyes slid shut and they fell into a deep, dreamless slumber. Their subconscious minds remained alert enough to keep them standing, hands still clasped tightly between them as they slept. Meanwhile, Xia continued to explore their features in more detail now that they were unable to resist him, eyes not leaving their faces even for a second.
“Absolutely exquisite,” the faerie murmured appreciatively, brushing his thumb over the freckles dusted across the pale cheek of the one that called itself Kitten. “And you’re mine. All mine.”
The potion maker coughed meaningfully. “I have the Lethe draughts prepared, Xia. Now that you’ve inspected them, it would be best for you to give it to them now, so that you’re the one they imprint on when they wake up.”
“No need,” Xia replied, lightly caressing Starlight’s jawline. “The Lethe potion erases all traces of the subject’s original mind and personality, and I don’t want that for these two.”
“But you said-”
“I know what I said.” The potion maker shut his mouth with a snap at Xia’s sharp tone. “Am I not allowed to change my mind on occasion, apprentice?”
“Of course you are,” the potion maker said stiffly. There was no arguing with his former teacher when he got like this. “I’m just… curious… about the logic behind letting them remember the circumstances behind their internment with you, that’s all.”
“Who said anything about them keeping their memories? No, they won’t be needing those,” Xia sniffed. “I want them to be happy with me, after all. No sense in having them pine over their precious ‘brothers’ every second of every day. However… I can’t remember the last time two prospective exhibits tried to bargain with me and were actually successful.”
He chuckled, running his palm down the shorter doll’s neck, across its chest, and around its shoulder as he circled behind the two comatose constructs and possessively draped an arm around each of their necks. He glanced back at the potion maker between their shoulders with a sly grin. “Reducing them back to mere automatons seems like a waste. Letting them keep their personalities definitely would make them far more interesting, don’t you think?”
“Well, when you put it that way…” the potion maker grudgingly admitted. “How are you going to handle this, then? Memories are a complicated thing. Experiences do shape personalities, you know.”
“Very true. A venture like this requires… finesse.” Xia reached up, black-painted nails tapping the dolls’ temples in unison. “Locking away all those troublesome memories while still keeping the core personality intact will indeed be tricky. However, given enough time, I believe I can manage it well enough. Plus, they gave themselves to me of their own free will; their minds cannot resist me now even if they wanted to, which will make the process considerably easier than it would be otherwise.” He turned his attention back to his new trophies, circling around to Kitten’s right side.
“I’ll also need to do something about their hair,” he muttered to himself distractedly, reaching up and fondling an uneven, shaggy lock between his fingers. “And they’ll need new clothes, of course, yes, yes, and this one needs a new name. ‘Starlight’ suits this one well enough-” He stepped around to their front again and delicately brushed some of said doll’s hair out of its closed eyes. “-so I will permit him to keep it, but ‘Kitten’ just doesn’t become the other at all. I’ll have to think up something suitab- oh my stars, what did you do to your hands?”
With that dramatic wail of consternation, the faerie snatched up Kitten’s free hand, finally having seen what the potion maker had previously observed while securing that particular doll. Multiple rough scars disfigured the pale skin of the doll’s hand, and two of its fingernails were partially missing, only about halfway grown in. Needless to say, the sight was not a particularly pleasant one.
“That brute,” Xia growled, dropping the doll’s hand and circling around to the other, pulling up its sleeve to reveal more scars marring its skin as well. “Someone should have gone in and taken your psychotic witch’s playthings for themselves a long time ago, apprentice. The very idea that someone would dare deface such beautiful works of art… barbaric, simply barbaric. No rhyme or reason to this at all, either; if you’re going to mutilate your property, you might as well make it aesthetically pleasing. This? It’s disgusting, that’s what it is. ‘We’ve been doing just fine on our own’ indeed.” He thought for a long moment, then snorted.
“No wonder they were so terrified of coming with me, if this is what they thought they had to look forward to.” He dropped the doll’s hand, where it hung limply at its side, the sleeve falling to cover the nasty marks once again.
“Ah, what a mess.” He heaved a theatrical sigh. “I have my work cut out for me, it seems. Still! I like a challenge. It just makes it all the more satisfying when everything comes together in the end.”
Without further preamble, he bent down and swept Starlight up into an effortless bridal carry despite the doll’s taller stature. He motioned with his head toward Kitten. “Bring him. And be careful about it, I don’t want my property getting damaged any further.”
The potion maker barely suppressed an annoyed eye roll at being ordered around, but moved to do as he was told, before abruptly stopping in his tracks.
Xia let out another put-upon sigh. “Oh for heaven’s sake, he’s not going to bite you, apprentice. That sleep spell will last until I personally bring them out of it.”
“It’s not that,” the potion maker retorted. “Look.”
Xia followed his line of sight down to where the dolls still clung tightly to each other despite their unconscious states and Starlight’s abrupt change of position. The potion maker could all but see the wheels turning in Xia’s head before the faerie gave a brief, darkly amused chuckle.
“Sentimental things, aren’t they?” With that, he violently ripped Starlight’s fingers out of Kitten’s with one forceful wrench and twist. The sudden, fierce movement nearly caused the taller construct to topple over, though the potion maker managed to catch it in time. Now unencumbered, he lifted the doll’s lanky body and slung it over his shoulders in a fireman’s carry.
“Now come. There is much work to be done.”
Chapter 4: I Will Find You
Sun woke to his namesake shining in the beautiful blue sky. He smiled groggily, contently snuggling closer to Cedar’s sturdy warmth behind him. Happiness welled up within him the way it always did every morning, as he relished the feeling of not being in pain, of being free, of the close, reassuring press of his brothers around him, and- Sun’s eyes widened, any remaining traces of sleepiness instantly leaving him as all the events of the previous day came flooding back to him. His happiness dissipated completely, replaced by an unpleasant combination of guilt (I forgot, how could I forget for even one second, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry), anger (how dare they, how dare they steal my brothers from me, how dare they), fear (what if they take the others next, what if they take me), and sorrow (they’re gone, how can they be gone, I miss them so much, so much, it hurts, I want them back, it hurts, how can we go on without them, it hurts, hurts), and an unconscious whimper escaped him as his stomach started to tie itself into anxious, painful knots again.
He immediately sat up and began shaking his brothers awake, all but vibrating with impatience to get to Sweet Girl so they could see if the magicians had found anything that would tell them where Starlight and Kitten were. Brother was alert almost instantly, but Laughter and Cedar took a little longer to rouse, as did Heart. The kitten looked displeased at being so rudely awakened, and glowered at the world at large from the crook of Brother’s elbow as the four dolls moved off the beds.
Yoojung was still wide awake at the desk, nearly all the space both on the desk and the floor around her completely obscured by sheets of paper filled with scrawled pictures and writing. She didn’t even turn around or acknowledge the dolls as they gathered in the middle of the room. Aroha was still a snoozing, white lump on the bed beside her. The four dolls exchanged glances.
“Good morning, Yoojung,” Sun eventually ventured. “We’ll be going to Sweet Girl now. Did anything happen last night?”
“I have transcended this mortal realm,” was the terse, more than slightly manic response. “Sleep is a cage that imprisons the mind; reality is an illusion, the universe is a hologram, buy soda, bye!” She raised one arm and gave them a brief wave, not taking her eyes off the piece of paper or stopping her frantic scribbling.
“So… that’s a no then, right?” Laughter inquired dubiously.
“Can’t stop, can’t stop, almost got it, almost solved it!” Yoojung tossed the piece of paper over her shoulder, where it fluttered down to join the growing pile behind her, and grabbed a fresh sheet.
Cedar was starting to look vaguely worried. “Are you… okay?”
“I feel so alive!”
“Um… well, alright then,” Sun replied, as Brother started to wordlessly herd them all toward the door in a way that reminded him of Starlight (Sun’s insides tied themselves into another knot). “We’ll come back soon!”
The dolls quickly arrived at the mostly-empty first floor, where they found Jinjin seated under a window on one of the rugs the previous owners had left behind. Rocky was curled up beside him with his head resting in his lap. Jinjin smiled tiredly at them as they approached, and gave them a little wave.
“We took turns staying up during the night,” he explained as soon as the dolls were close enough for him to speak without waking his brother. “All quiet here, though. I assume you’re going to Sweet Girl?” At the dolls’ nods, he smiled at them sadly, sympathetically. Seeing the expression made Sun feel just a little bit better; it was… reassuring… to know that they weren’t the only ones who missed Starlight and Kitten. “How are you all holding up? Are you okay? Well,” he amended himself with a grimace, “as okay as you can be under the circumstances, I guess.”
“We’ll be better once Starlight and Kitten are back where they should be,” Brother said firmly, Heart grumbling her agreement as she clambered up his shirt sleeve to perch on his shoulder. Jinjin nodded understandingly, and the dolls started to head out, when Sun stopped and turned back.
“Ah, about Yoojung. She’s… um…” he faltered, not quite knowing how to describe what had seemed to come over the soda boys’ creator.
“She gets like that when she doesn’t get enough sleep,” Jinjin replied with a knowing smile that was equal parts long-suffering and fond. “It can be alarming if you’re not used to it, I know. We should have some spare soda around here someplace; that should snap her out of it, at least temporarily. Thanks for the head’s up, though.”
Sun nodded, and allowed Laughter to take his hand and tug him behind him and Cedar as Brother led them out into the bright morning sunlight.
The dolls reached Sweet Girl in record time, Cedar and Sun holding tight to Laughter’s hands so he didn’t trip, and Brother and Heart leading the way. The front door was unlocked, thankfully, and Brother let them in. Chanshik was behind the hostess stand, flipping through a book. He jumped to his feet as soon as the dolls walked in the door.
“Guys! I’ve been waiting for you to get here.”
“All night?” Cedar asked in concern.
“Oh no, no, I got some sleep, don’t worry. Now, Junghwan-hyung, on the other hand” He grimaced slightly, “not so much, but! Speaking of Junghwan-hyung, he got back a little while ago, and I think he might have found something. He’s back talking to the others.” He ushered them down the hall with all the Doors that led to the establishment's special, enchanted entertainment rooms (Sun’s favorite was definitely Jungwhan’s; he loved the swings and all the edible, fluffy clouds) and to the workroom where the five magicians made charms and potions and other magical items. Sure enough, Sun could hear Junghwan’s loud voice through the door even before Chanshik had opened it.
“-but why do you think he would even-?” Junghwan stopped in mid-gesticulation as all four pairs of eyes in the room turned to look at the newcomers. “Ah, just the dolls we wanted to see!” he exclaimed, motioning them all inside with markedly less energy than usual.
“Chanshik told us you found something,” Brother said, cutting right to the chase. “What is it?”
“Ah, yes.” Jinyoung motioned to the pile of smashed glass in the center of one of the tables, surrounded by a complicated network of bottles and tubes and burners. “We think we found out who those women were. This particular concoction that knocked you all out contains, among other things, lava wyrm bile, sleetweed, and powdered tachylite. Now, what’s interesting is that instead of crystallizing, like it usually would if someone tried to mix those things together, this mixture somehow managed to remain a liquid until it was exposed to air, where instantly vaporized. From this, we can deduce…” He trailed off, seeing the dolls’ uncomprehending looks, and made a face. “Alright, fine, long story short, that technique to make a knockout potion or gas with those ingredients without the elements turning into a solid is extremely difficult, and is only used by a few high level crafters from a few high level magic universities. Junghwan went and asked some of our contacts in the Sash if they had heard of five women who used those techniques in their products who matched Laughter’s description.”
“And,” Junghwan continued once Jinyoung had paused for breath, “turns out they’re a group of chemists that are kind of notorious for doing almost any kind of job if you pay them enough money.”
“Well, what are we waiting for?” Cedar growled. “Let’s go find them and get our brothers back.”
“Hold on, Cedar, not so fast,” Jungwhan held up a hand. “After all, you’ve never met these women before, right? Why would they come after you out of the blue? Something doesn’t add up. So I did a little more digging, this time about any associates they might have or people they often work with. Well, come to find out, they have a pretty extensive contact list, so I was getting rather worried, I’m not going to lie. But, when I was talking with the guys from the SHINee Emporium, Taemin mentioned something interesting. He said he'd heard that the chemists often get job commissions from a potion maker called Ravi, who he'd actually worked with on a couple occasions for some custom orders for the Emporium. When he mentioned that, I remembered what you’d told me about the potion maker who helped you wake up the deer girls, Sun, how he looked like Cedar. So I asked Taemin if he knew what this potion maker looked like, if he would be able to recognize him if he saw him again, and he said yes. I showed him a conjured image of Cedar’s face, and asked him if that was the potion maker in question. He said yes, it was.” Sun’s breath caught in his throat. For a moment, none of the dolls spoke, as they all came to the same conclusion simultaneously.
“But that doesn’t make any sense!” Sun blurted, confused and angry and unbelievably frustrated. “The potion maker didn’t want anything to do with us! He said he was too old to play with dolls! Why would he want us now all of a sudden?”
“Who knows?” Seonwoo replied from his perch on one of the counters, shrugging one shoulder. “Magic users can be… eccentric sometimes.” Studiously ignoring the four amused/exasperated looks his four associates gave him, he continued, “But it’s the only lead we have, and he’s the only potion maker you’ve had contact with thus far aside from us and Krystal. Too many things add up for this to just be a coincidence. Even if it turns out he’s not the culprit, he knows those women better than we do, and could possibly point us in the right direction to get to the real one.”
“I hate the idea of going to that place again,” Laughter muttered, grimacing. “But you’re right. He must be connected to this in some way.”
“So then, I suppose the first course of action would be to find his Door again,” Brother said.
“I can take care of that,” Dongwoo offered. “My Doors normally remember the places they’ve linked to, and Jiho used one of my Keys on a door near his. Getting to his domicile shouldn’t be a problem.”
“But,” Chanshik cautioned, looking grim. “You can’t just go barging in there willy-nilly. If he does have Starlight and Kitten, you would need to get in and out quickly, preferably without being noticed. People like that… they tend to be very powerful. It could go badly for you if he notices that you’re there. You could end up being captured yourselves, or worse, and then you'd be in the exact same boat as your brothers.”
“What do you suggest, then?” Laughter asked.
“That’s actually what we were talking about when you came in,” Seonwoo said, hopping off the counter and coming to stand beside Jinyoung. “We’re going with you.”
“All of you?” Cedar exclaimed, looking as surprised as Sun felt.
“No, unfortunately,” Dongwoo said, with a rueful grin. “Jinyoung and I… well, we can’t really… leave here.”
“I’ve seen you go outside before,” Sun spoke up after a long moment of confused silence had passed. “And haven’t you been to the witches’ for tea?”
“What he means is,” Jinyoung explained, “the two of us are kind of… tied to this place. When you perform certain types of magic in one location for a long time, especially if that location belongs to you, you start to become… linked, symbiotically. Your magic gets tied to the physical location; it permeates the building materials, the furniture, sometimes even the air. This can be a good thing, as it gives you a massive home base advantage if someone trespasses on your territory, but it can also be a bad thing, since you can’t really leave it for long periods of time, especially if you don’t know where you’ll be going or how long you’ll be there. No, we were thinking Seonwoo and Chanshik would go with you. Channie is more about finesse rather than raw power when it comes to his magic, so he’s not as tied to this place as we are, and his sixth sense might be of some use to you, too. Seonwoo… well, he’s more… immune to certain types of magic than most people, let’s just say, which could be helpful when facing off against someone like the potion maker or his associates.”
“And of course, I’m coming, too!” Junghwan declared, smiling his usual brilliant smile at them all. Sun perked up at that and found himself smiling back despite himself. Junghwan was good company, and an extremely powerful magic-user to boot; Sun occasionally still thought about the time he’d shattered four entire windows with one particularly loud scream (he’d immediately rushed to fix them and they’d been good as new in a matter of minutes, but still). Surely, if they had Junghwan with them, he could take care of the potion maker in short order!
“No, you’re not,” Laughter said flatly. All the dolls looked at him in surprise. He seemed to sense their eyes on him and snorted. “I might not be able to see it, but even I can hear how tired he sounds. He was up all night running around town. When you get tired, you can barely think straight. What if he gets hurt or something? What if he gets like Yoojung does when she hasn’t slept for awhile?”
“Hey, I’m not that far gone!” Junghwan protested, looking deeply offended. Sun was about to also speak up, indignant on his friend’s behalf, when Chanshik cut them both off.
“Laughter’s right, hyung,” he said quietly. “If he hadn’t said something, I would have. Your magic gets unpredictable when you’re tired, you know that. It’s okay.” He placed a hand on Junghwan’s shoulder. “You’ve done more than enough. We can take it from here.”
Junghwan pouted for a moment, looking like he wanted to argue the point… and then he visibly wilted. “Alright, fine,” he muttered, sulkily. “But I’m not happy about it.”
“It’s okay, hyung, you don’t have to be.”
“Now that that’s settled,” Baro remarked, running small wooden carving on a string around his neck between his fingers. “We’re still going to need a few reinforcements before we go to the potion maker’s. I’d like to stop by to see Amber and the others first to tell them what’s going on, and if they can come along, so much the better. If you all have any items, magic or otherwise, that you want to bring, now would be the time to go get them.”
“Alright.” Brother nodded. “We have to go tell Yoojung and the soda boys what’s going on anyway.”
“Speaking of magic items,” Channie spoke up from where he was rummaging around on a shelf filled with vials and bottles of various colors and kinds. He selected one filled with a clear, glittering liquid and pressed it into the blind doll’s hand. “It’s a potion of clear-sight. I have a hunch it could come in handy if an urgent enough situation should come up. Hopefully you don't have to use it, but better safe than sorry.”
Laughter, who knew as well as any of them by now that Chanshik’s “hunches” should usually be listened to, looked touched at the gift. He curled his fingers carefully around the vial and slipped it into one of his many pockets. “Thank you, Channie.”
As they were speaking, Sun sidled up to Cedar and wrapped his arm around the taller doll’s. “Will you be okay?” he murmured. “You didn’t like seeing the potion maker last time. I don’t think any of us did, but you especially.”
“Don’t worry about me, Sun,” Cedar replied, patting his hand. “I would be willing to face down her again if it meant getting Kitten and Starlight back. The potion maker is nothing compared to that.”
Sun shivered at the thought. “Well, I suppose when you put it that way…”
“Alright, all,” Jinyoung said, clapping his hands to get everyone’s attention. “Let’s plan on meeting back here in fifteen to twenty minutes. Dongwoo will have the Door to the witches’ house ready by then.”
The dolls all nodded and began filing out of the workroom. Brother lead the way, guiding Laughter behind him by the hand, and Sun brought up the rear, still holding tightly onto Cedar’s arm. As they passed Junghwan, Sun reached out and gave his fingers a brief squeeze. “I still wish you could come with us,” he said. “I think you’d be a great help, regardless of what Channie and Laughter say. But you do look really tired, and going too long without sleeping is never fun.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Sunshine,” Junghwan replied, pressing back before letting Sun’s hand go.
“Save the mushy stuff for later, you two,” came Seonwoo’s amused rejoinder from behind them. As one Sun and Junghwan stuck their tongues out at him… and then Cedar turned the corner, pulling Sun with him, and the five magicians disappeared from his sight.
The first thing Sun noticed when the dolls returned to the soda boys’ apartment was that Yoojung looked remarkably more settled than she had previously. He suspected that the two empty soda bottles on the desk next to her might have had something to do with that. Her constructs, who all sat or stood around her, looked varying degrees of exhausted, but they immediately perked up when they registered the dolls’ presences.
“Ah, you’re back finally!” Yoojung said, waving the dolls over when she caught sight of them as well. “Sorry about earlier; I was working on a ward charm for the whole building so that no one can Door in or out of here anymore. Just in case. I, uh,” She rubbed the back of her neck sheepishly, “might have gotten carried away just a little bit. I’m better now, though!”
“You sound better at least,” Laughter observed, sounding oddly pleased.
“Thanks. Amazing what soda can do for a person. So anyway, what did you learn? Tell us everything.”
Brother obliged, and the other dolls chimed in from time to time as well as they gathered a few items from the meager stash of belongings they managed to accumulate during their time in the Sash. “So,” he finished. “Do you want to come with us? Jinyoung did say we needed more people, so.”
Yoojung’s brow was furrowed in thought. “You said this potion maker is in a different dimension?” Brother nodded. “And you don’t know how long you’ll be gone?” Brother nodded again. “And you have to leave right now, don’t you.” It wasn’t a question, but Brother nodded anyway. Yoojung sighed, looking somewhat crestfallen. “Sorry, then, guys. I don’t think I’ll be able to come with you. Would I be correct in assuming Jinyoung and Dongwoo aren’t going with you, either?”
“Yes,” Cedar replied, a look of realization crossing his features. “You mean, you-?"
Yoojung inclined her head. “I’m the same as them, yes. I’ve sunk so much magic into the D.Store that I really can’t go that far away from it anymore. If I had time to prepare and knew how long I would be away, I could manage it, but on such short notice, I’m kind of stuck, I’m afraid.” She shrugged and offered them all a rueful smile, the bags under her eyes suddenly looking much more prominent. “Besides, I don’t think you’d want a sleep-deprived Choi Yoojung on your hands on such an important, top-secret rescue mission anyway. I’m running on fumes and soda right now; once those run out, I’m going to crash, and I doubt you want that to happen right in the middle of enemy territory.”
“Well,” Moonbin piped up, obviously trying to lighten up the glum mood in the room, “even if Sis can’t go with you, a couple of us could always go inste-”
“Absolutely not,” Yoojung cut him off, startling all ten constructs into silence with her sudden sharp tone. “Nobody in this room who used to be a bottle of soda is going anywhere near those people.”
“No. And that’s final, Moonbin.” Yoojung took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and pinched the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger for a moment before opening her eyes and regarding them all levelly, more serious than Sun had ever seen her.
“I don’t know how to say this delicately, boys, so I’ll just be frank. This situation has the potential to get dangerous very quickly, and if someone wanted to hurt you – really hurt you – and succeeded, my boys would not be able to recover from it. Remember when Rocky broke his arm when he crashed his bike?” This was addressed to the soda boys, and they all nodded and made little noises of affirmation. “Well, imagine that, but worse. If that happened… I wouldn’t be able to fix you. No one could.”
“But then… what about them?” Eunwoo spoke up tentatively, pointing to the doll nearest him, which happened to be Laughter.
“They’re different. They were built to be very tough, to endure a lot of… breaking… without it permanently affecting them. Weren’t you, boys?” She gave the dolls a meaningful look, and Sun found himself nodding along with the rest of his brothers, a growing sense of realization niggling at the back of his mind. “I’m sure you’ve noticed that you need to eat and drink occasionally, too, instead of just doing it for fun like my boys do sometimes, haven’t you? Without your creator’s magic, you need other sources of energy to function. My boys aren’t like that. My magic is currently the only thing capable of sustaining them. If they were separated from me for too long, even if there was food around for them to eat, they would eventually run out of energy and… cease to function, let’s say. Again, if I had more time, I would be able to find a temporary workaround for this no problem, but as it stands, time is the one thing that we don’t have right now.” Her shoulders slumped, and she suddenly looked… very small. “I’m sorry, guys, I really am, but my boys and I are going to have to sit this one out.”
“It’s okay,” Cedar spoke up. “If you can’t come, then you can’t come. We understand.”
“Especially if you could get really hurt,” Sun added earnestly. “We wouldn’t want that.” Just the thought of any of the soda boys having to endure something like her branding iron or favorite serrated bone saw made his stomach go all flip-floppy and achy again.
“Thank you, boys,” Yoojung replied, looking both relieved and grateful before her expression turned frustrated. “Ah, I wish there was something we could do, though, something we could give you! Even if we can’t go ourselves, it’s not right to send people off on quests without at least contributing to the adventure in some way. And I don’t have time to make you anything, either, you have to go right n- oh!” She snatched up one of the papers she’d filled with drawings and writing during the night off the desk and gazed at it as if it held the secrets of the universe. “But I do have something!” She rummaged around in one of the many pockets in her overalls and pulled out a marker, displaying it to the dolls with a flourish.
“This is the Draw On Anything And It Always Shows Up marker!” She paused and wrinkled her nose slightly. “Okay, so I never got around to a proper name for it, but here, see…" She uncapped it, bent down, and scribbled a lopsided little heart on the concrete floor, where it gleamed slightly iridescent. She then then grabbed a bunch of the papers she’d drawn on during the night and unceremoniously scattered them all over the floor. The concrete was fully obscured, but the heart stayed visible even through the layers of paper covering it. "Like so! It works on glass, carpet... butter... it's supposed to work on air, too…" She scribbled in the air, a smiley face briefly visible before it dissolved into a fine ink mist and disappeared. "But yeah. It's pretty cool. I still haven’t figured out how to make an eraser for it, but it comes in handy for projects sometimes. Maybe it’ll be useful to you at some point!
“Give it to Sun!” MJ suggested eagerly. “He likes drawing, and he’s good, too.” He pointed up at all the drawings that Sun had taped up above the dolls’ row of beds. Yoojung beamed and obligingly held the marker out to Sun. Sun took the marker carefully, unable to suppress the pleased blush that crept up his neck at MJ’s praise.
“Are you sure?” he asked, hesitating before putting it into his pocket.
Yoojung nodded firmly. “I’m sure. I can always make another, anyway; I still have the specs around here somewhere.”
“Okay then.” Sun slipped the marker into his pocket and smiled as brightly as he could for her. “Thank you! I’ll take good care of it, I promise.”
“I know you will.” Yoojung beamed and stepped back, flapping her hand at him and the rest of the dolls. “Now get going, you have some brothers to rescue.”
“Not without saying goodbye first!” MJ declared, marching up to Sun and holding his arms out, motioning him close with his hands invitingly. Sun hesitated briefly; he very much enjoyed being around other people, but letting someone other than his brothers touch him was quite another matter entirely. He always found himself freezing up or flinching away from sudden physical contact. However, if he could choose to initiate the contact instead of having it foisted upon him, then he did much better with it. MJ had evidently noticed this and taken it to heart. Sun was nearly overcome by a sudden rush of gratefulness, and on impulse, he stepped forward and allowed the shorter construct to enfold him in a cozy hug, tensing only the slightest bit before relaxing into it. MJ’s hugs were so different than those of his brothers, but almost as nice; he was just so small and soft and solid, smelling faintly of citrus and sunshine. It was impossible to not feel at least a little bit better after an MJ hug, and this time was no different.
“We’ll be back before you know it,” Sun promised his friend, patting him on the back in what he hoped was a reassuring manner.
“You’d better,” MJ replied, stepping back and clapping a hand on his shoulder, giving him a trademark, toothy grin. “I’ve gotten used to singing as a trio with you and Junghwan.”
Rocky, who had been hovering near the two, stepped up and slipped his arms around MJ’s waist, gazing up at Sun plaintively. “Bring them home soon, okay? I was going to teach Kitten how to make ramen at Amber’s later this week. That is, if she even lets us back in her kitchen after Brother nearly burned it down last time.” He shot a disgruntled side glance at the taller doll, and Sun had to fight back a smile at the memory. All the dolls enjoyed food, but Starlight and Kitten were the only ones that seemed to have any sort of knack at actually creating it. Kitten especially seemed very fond of the cooking process (mostly because it meant he got to eat it at the end, but still), which had endeared him both to Amber and to Rocky in short order, them being the resident cooks of their respective groups, and they’d quickly taken him under their wing.
“We will,” Sun replied, trying to inject as much confidence as he could into his voice.
Nearby, Brother was speaking to Sanha. “Hey, um. I was supposed to go see the brownies at the April Story today. They were going to show me how to wire a circuit. If you have time…”
“I’ll stop by and let them know what happened, don’t worry,” Sanha promised, pressing Brother’s hand tightly. “I can stop by the candle store that Starlight likes and let the auntie know he won’t be coming by for a while, too.”
“Thank you,” Brother said, looking relieved. “I’m sure he’d appreciate it.”
A little ways away, Cedar and Laughter were finishing up with their own farewells to Eunwoo, Jinjin, and Moonbin, and then the two groups reconvened once again. With one last thank you and goodbye to Yoojung, the dolls departed. As they went, Sun thought he heard Eunwoo murmur, "Um. Yoojung. Does our floor have a heart on it forever now?"
“Reality is an illusion!” – Yes, this is a Gravity Falls reference. No, I am not sorry. :P
B1A4 recap – For those of you who might not have read the fic “Tipping Point,” which goes into more detail about the origins of the 5 magicians from Sweet Girl: Junghwan/Sandeul is a spellsinger (aka someone who sings their spells instead of says them) . Chanshik/Gongchan is mildly psychic/precognitive. Seonwoo/Baro was born with deformed chi pathways and reduced mana reserves, leading to weakened and unpredictable results when he tries to perform magic himself; however, this also means that he is more resistant to magic than the others, making him a logical choice to go confront a magic user.
Cooking with Kitten, Rocky, and Amber - Leo and Rocky are the Designated Chefs of their respective groups, and apparently Amber's no slouch when it comes to cooking either. I thought it would be cute if they were all cooking buddies here. :3
Chapter 5: Friend
MVs referenced: VIXX LR's Beautiful Liar; BTS' Wings Tour Trailer
There was a man in front of him. A shorter, pale-haired man wearing red, flowing clothing, with his arms folded across his chest. The man had a satisfied look on his face, and he found that he didn't like it, didn't like being stared at.
“Well, hello,” the man said jovially. He didn't reply. “Don't you want to know who I am?”
He did not.
The man squinted at him, looking more annoyed than satisfied now. “Recalcitrant thing. I am Xia, your Master. And you are Leo.”
“Leo,” he murmured. The sound of his own voice was strange to his own ears, and he blinked helplessly.
“He speaks!” Xia said, sounding cheerful again. “Good. I am about to teach you to use that unusual voice of yours, my Leo. Are you ready?”
Leo didn't know if he was ready or not. He let his head droop down and shrugged a tiny shrug.
“We'll work on the performance aspect later. First, you are going to learn how to breathe.”
“I am breathing,” Leo protested, and Xia laughed, a friendly and boisterous sound that sent an inexplicable pang through his heart.
“Not in a way that can hold a note, you're not.”
He showed him the ‘right’ way to breathe, and again and again. Leo obediently followed along, heaving in ‘correct’ breaths; first deep and slow, then faster and sharper, holding, letting out, dragging in sips even when he didn't think his body could hold in any more air. After a while his belly and chest were tired and aching, his head swimming, and he wavered and blinked for a second until Xia huffed impatiently and snapped his fingers. At the snap, all of Leo's tiredness vanished like it had never been, and he inhaled sharply in surprise.
“I'm waiting,” Xia said, and he started again.
He tired and was refreshed several times before Xia decided that he knew how to breathe well enough. “That will do,” he said, and reached out towards Leo's face. Leo shrank back instinctively, and Xia's face hardened into cruelty in an instant. “Forgetting who owns you already, doll?”
Doll. The word resonated strongly somehow, more than the name he had been given, and as he turned it over and over in his mind, Xia's fingers cupped his jaw and manipulated it. He couldn't help the shiver that went through him at the harsh, intrusive touch, but he knew not to flinch away now as Xia adjusted the position of his jaw, neck, mouth.
“Good enough,” Xia said, and stepped back, to Leo's internal sigh of relief. “Now. Repeat after me.” He breathed deeply, and sang a clear, pure, high sound out. Leo's eyes widened with his shock, and Xia looked smug. “You won’t be that good, of course. That’s what you’re here to learn. Now. Go.”
Leo inhaled, carefully, as he’d been taught, and tried to imitate the sound. It was a little like… but only a little. It was shaky, uncontrolled, wavering up and down as he tried to make it match the note the other had made. He stopped, uncertain, and Xia shuddered.
He tried again, and again, and again. Xia made him sing softer, reached out at intervals to adjust the set of his jaw, offered sharp corrections when the note wasn’t exactly correct. After some time Leo had gotten the hang of that one note, and he noticed that Xia was looking a little distracted. He caught his breath after the latest note, and offered quietly, “Now what?”
“Hmm? Oh.” Xia snapped his fingers, and this time a misty, faintly-glowing ball appeared over his hand. He gestured, and the ball shot out into Leo’s chest. Leo flinched, even though it didn’t hit with any real impact, and twitched as he felt it fill him with a rush of hot, anxious energy. “That should hold for a bit. Practice that note until I’m back. Longer, shorter, louder, softer. The same note, mind you, or we will have words. Here.” He snapped again, and this time a sort of image appeared in the air, a set of lines with markings on it, and one of the markings was brighter than the others. “That note. You’ll need to learn to read them as well.” He wagged his finger. “Until I’m back.”
“Until-” Leo started to say, but before he could get the whole word out Xia snapped once more and disappeared in a flash. Leo stood and blinked at the spot where he had been for a moment; but there was nothing to do but obey, so he did.
He practiced his note for...he had no idea how long. He felt himself tiring, a couple of times, but each time the hot sphere in his chest swelled and sent a rush of energy through him that let him keep singing. It seemed to start to fade after he had gone long past boredom and into a kind of manic focus. He was trying to draw his note out as long as possible now, pulling in his hard-learned proper breaths and drawing out the sound as long and as strong as he could manage. There was a kind of satisfaction in it, he found, in the feel of his body taking in the air and pushing out the note, in the contraction of his throat and belly muscles, the feel of it on his tongue...eventually the borrowed energy faded entirely. He kept going, for lack of other options as well as out of a level of enjoyment in what he was managing, until the tiredness dragged him straight down to the floor. He sat there and still sang awhile, until the growing tight ache of his throat locked down entirely and he could no longer eke out a single note. After that he just sat for a while, panting, about to waver sideways into the floor, when Xia reappeared with a flash.
“Slacking off?” he said, but he didn’t sound angry. Maybe he could tell that he had worked himself down as far as he possibly could. “Can’t have that.” Another snap, and Leo lurched to his feet with a fresh surge of energy. “Well, come on, then. Show me what you’ve practiced.” He did, and Xia looked like he was trying not to show just how pleased he was. “Well then,” he said after a minute, “It seems I chose well again! You might yet amount to something, my Leo. Now. How about another note?”
He learned another.
Xia left and returned several times. Leo felt no love for him, and hated the possessive way he would touch and position his face or mouth or body, but the void was so incredibly empty when only Leo and his own voice were in it. He sometimes almost thought he heard a sound in the silence, like voices in the distance, but they were always only in his imagination; what could he be imagining, anyway? This was all he knew. All he was. Him, and the void, and his voice, and Xia, and the lines and markings that told him which notes to sing when.
Finally Xia came back one more time and had Leo demonstrate what he had practiced, and listened to the very end with his hands steepled in front of his mouth. At the end there was a long, long pause that Leo had no desire to fill with words...until suddenly, Xia started clapping, slowly, his mouth breaking into a wide, delighted smile. “There we go! I knew you had it in you, my Leo. Well? What do you think of your work?”
Leo thought for a bare moment, knowing he would not be allowed to stay silent long. “I like to sing,” he said finally. That didn’t feel exactly right, but it was close enough, and all he wanted to share with Xia. “When I sing for a long time, my throat hurts, but it feels good. I can make the sounds do what I want now.”
“Artistry can come later,” Xia said, reaching up and patting Leo’s head. Leo very well knew not to draw away, no matter how much he wanted to. “Ready to go to your new home?”
“Home?” The word was one Leo knew, but it felt distant, unconnected. He nodded uncertainly, and Xia patted his head one more time. Then the void around them disappeared with a snap.
The world appeared with an unpleasant jolt, and the contrast between the stark, white void and their new environment was so jarring that it took Leo almost thirty full seconds to pull himself out of the sudden sensory overload caused by the dark lighting, the steady, dull roar of noise all around, the wind that tousled his shaggy bangs every which way. Once he'd gotten a hold of his senses, he tentatively removed his hands from where they were firmly clasped over his ears and found himself standing on soft, tiny particulates of rock. Sand. Scattered here and there on the sand were larger rocks of varying sizes, a few even bigger than Leo himself. The rocks and sand disappeared into a nearby huge expanse of black water that steadily crashed up against the sandy ground again and again. This seemed to be where the distant roar originated, which had quickly faded to become background noise in Leo’s ears. This also seemed to be where the wind came from, as it blew in from that direction, and Leo was suddenly glad for the warm jacket and pants he’d been wearing when he first became aware of himself. He suspected it would quickly become unpleasantly chilly here without them.
The only light in the entire area came from two, small lamps resting on either side of an odd, upright, boxy structure with a stool placed in front of it. Next to it was another, larger structure, this one covered in a riot of chaotic colors as opposed to the first’s red and brown palette. It was also very clearly broken, whole sections of paneling ripped off and lying strewn closely about or propped up against it. Some ways in the distance, there was also a rectangle of light hanging in space about four feet off the ground. Leo thought he could see a room inside the rectangle, but before he could see anything else, Xia spoke up.
“Well, you are now officially part of my museum, my dear Leo. And this,” he gestured grandly to the barren expanse around them, “is your painting. So? What do you think of it?”
“It’s… very dark.”
Even in the dim lighting, the roll of Xia’s eyes was clearly visible. “Clearly you have a lot to learn about aesthetics, but yes, an acute observation, that. Not to worry, your eyes will adjust soon. Now, I have to attend to other matters at the moment, but I’ll be back later to hear you sing. You can amuse yourself however you like in the meantime, but I expect you to practice your song at least ten times through from beginning to end before I return. Understand?”
Leo nodded, absently fiddling with one of the engraved silver rings on his fingers.
“I can’t hear your head rattle, doll.”
“…Yes, Master. I understand.” Xia had taken great offense to the first and only time Leo had tried to call him by his name instead of his title, and Leo would not be making the same mistake twice. Xia, however, seemed pleased by this obedient response. He caressed the side of Leo’s face briefly, almost affectionately (Leo only barely suppressed a shudder), and then disappeared with another snap of his fingers. Leo, once again, found himself completely alone.
He stood in place for a few moments, staring silently at the spot where his Master had once been. Then, no longer able to ignore his curiosity, he made his way over to the floating light rectangle that still shone steadily out onto the beach. As he got closer, he realized it was a window of some sort. It looked out on a room with a dark, uneven stone floor. An abstract painting in contrasting tones of green and red and yellow and orange - that looked vaguely like two faces the longer Leo stared at it - took up the entire far wall, while the other two walls were stark white, each with a large, closed door in their center.
Leo looked at the room for a long time, taking in every possible detail he could. On impulse, he reached out to touch the intriguing image, part of him hoping he would be able to pass through and explore the other room in person. However, his hand pressed up against an invisible barrier, and no matter how hard he pushed, he couldn’t get through. Vaguely disappointed, he circled around to the back of the portal, only to find to his surprise that from the back, it was completely invisible. The only indication of its presence was the light it cast on the sand in front of it.
He then went to look at the black, churning water (ocean) that bordered one edge of his world, squatting down and watching the waves roll up almost to the tips of his shoes, and then recede back, carrying bits of sand and smooth stones along with them, only to do it all over again. Hesitating briefly, he reached out and let the water wash over his hand… only to jerk back when it splashed up higher than expected and drenched his jacket sleeve. He stared at the sodden fabric, feeling the chill from the wind and the water leech his body heat away. He decided then and there that he didn’t like water all that much.
After putting what he felt was a respectable distance between himself and the ocean, Leo decided to see how far the beach went. He began walking past the portal and away down the rocky shore, glancing behind him occasionally to see how far he was getting from the lights. After a few minutes, however, the light got no further away, no matter how much he continued to walk. Suddenly feeling desperately lonely and also somewhat spooked for no reason he could readily discern, he turned around and returned to the lights. He reached them far faster than he remembered walking away.
He resolved not to think any more about it, and instead focused on how much better he felt being back in the comforting light from the lamps on the object his mind now told him was called a piano. With nothing else to explore, he turned his attention to the two pianos, circling them once and then sitting hesitantly on the bench placed before the one with the lamps. He ran the fingers of one hand lightly down the colorful keys that extended the whole length of the object, and then depressed one to see what would happen. His eyes widened as a sweet, clear note sounded out, so different yet so similar to the music his own voice made. He pressed key after key, listening to the sound each made. After awhile, he attempted to match his voice with the sounds, and eventually graduated to trying to find the notes in the song Xia taught him for lack of anything better to do.
Movement out of the corner of his eye almost made Leo jump right off the piano stool, and he looked up to see a small, yellow shape flitting back and forth around the piano. An insect, his mind supplied helpfully. A butterfly, to be more precise. As he gazed at the tiny creature, the first other living thing he’d seen aside from Xia, he heard a voice.
“Not bad, newbie.”
This time, Leo did jump. His eyes darted around wildly, trying to find the source of the voice, before coming back to the butterfly. Did it really just…?
“Kinda jumpy, aren’t you?”
Leo started again, though perhaps slightly less violently this time. The voice was very clearly male; low-pitched, somewhat gravelly, with a slight drawl elongating and rolling some of the vowels. And it was obviously coming from the butterfly’s location.
“Yikes, okay, relax, I promise I don’t bite.” The butterfly fluttered down and perched on the back of the piano directly in front of Leo. Leo got the distinct impression it (he?) was staring straight at him.
“Sorry for interrupting you, by the way. I just couldn’t help but notice that you don’t really seem to know how to play this thing properly.” Leo felt his lips turn down into a small frown, and his cheeks began to burn. He withdrew his fingers from the keys to tuck them under his armpits self-consciously, when the butterfly’s next words stopped him cold. “No shame in that, though; we all start at the beginning at one point or another. And if you actually want to play it properly… well, I could probably manage to teach you.”
A long silence fell, only broken by the distant roar of the ocean as Leo turned the words over in his head again and again. Finally, he guardedly asked, “…Why?”
The butterfly seemed to catch the multiple meanings to his question with little issue, however. “Because, I am, frankly, bored as hell right now, and I’m willing to bet you probably will be too after enough time goes by. Sure, you can continue to pick out notes one by one on the keyboard, but you’ll get nowhere fast using that method. But I mean, I’m certainly not going to force you into anything. Not like I'm capable of it anyway. If you don’t want me here, I’ll turn right back around and leave the way I came, and you’ll never have to see me again.” The butterfly beat his wings, once, twice, clearly preparing to take off should Leo say the word, and something in the doll’s chest wrenched painfully.
“Wait!” he exclaimed, a deeply buried, primal part of him crying out silently even as the word left his lips. “I… yes. Stay. Please.” Please don’t leave me here alone.
“Well then, since you asked so nicely.” The butterfly, which had begun to hover an inch or two above the piano’s surface, settled back down, and Leo breathed a soundless sigh of relief. “So, before we start, you got a name or something? I mean, I’m fine with just ‘Hey You,’ personally, but most people tend to take offense to that for some reason, so.”
Leo weighed his options. “The Master calls me Leo.”
“Good to know. The Master calls me Gloss, in case you were wondering. And this,” He fluttered down and delicately perched on a key in the center of the instrument, “is what we musical types call Middle C.”
So, Leo proceeded to learn Middle C, and then the rest of the notes in a scale. He learned about sharps and flats, about octaves, about how individual notes could be combined to form a chord. Despite his brusque, blunt manner, Gloss turned out to be a surprisingly patient teacher, and never got angry or curt when Leo inevitably made mistakes or required additional clarification on a musical term. Somehow, his short Good jobs and There you go, you’ve got its encouraged Leo more than any of the extremely rare times Xia had praised him.
Once Leo had gotten what Gloss called “the basics” down, the butterfly proceeded to teach him his first song. He patiently flitted from key to key while Leo dutifully followed, until finally, Leo was able to play the whole short musical phrase by himself.
“I’m impressed,” Gloss said after Leo finished the whole thing without making a single mistake. Leo ducked his head shyly, wondering why he suddenly felt so warm despite the constant breeze. “You’re a fast learner. That song you just played is called Clair de Lune, by the way. Light of the Moon. Between you and me, it’s one of my absolute favorites.”
Leo chewed at his bottom lip before his curiosity finally overcame him. “What’s… a moon?” he asked tentatively.
Gloss was silent for a long moment, and Leo was beginning to wonder if he’d said something stupid, when: “Let me guess. Your first memory is of the void, and the Master telling you your name and what you’re going to be doing with the rest of your life. Correct?”
Leo blinked and then nodded slowly, unsure of what that had to do with his question and more than slightly discomfited about how Gloss seemed to know so much about him when he felt like he barely knew anything at all.
Gloss sighed. “Thought so. You can never be too sure, though, so I just thought I’d ask. Anyway, to answer your question… a moon is… like one of these lamps. Except it’s silver, up in the sky, way bigger than these lamps, and it only comes out at night.” He flew up and in a choppy circle to demonstrate, a pale speck silhouetted against the inky blackness of the sky.
“It sounds pretty,” Leo ventured after trying his best to imagine such a thing.
“Believe me, it is.” Gloss sounded… wistful as he landed back on the piano. Wistful and maybe even a little bit sad. “I’ve forgotten a lot of things by now, but how the moon looked during a cloudless night isn’t one of them.”
Leo had never heard anyone talk about anything the way Gloss talked about the moon before. He wondered what would cause him to talk about something in that way. “I wish I could see the moon someday,” he found himself saying.
“Yeah, and I wish I was king of the Feywild, but life doesn’t work that way, unfortunately,” Gloss replied bitterly. He was silent for another long moment. Then, almost too quietly to hear, he added, in a much softer tone, “But, for what it’s worth… I wish you could, too.”
For awhile, the only sounds that could be heard were the crash of waves on the beach, the whisper of wind, and Leo painstakingly picking his way through Clair de Lune again.
“Uh oh,” Gloss suddenly muttered tersely, wings beating in agitation. “Sorry Leo, gotta go. Good first lesson, though, you show potential, practice makes perfect, etcetera.”
An acute sense of disappointment welled up within the doll at this abrupt proclamation, and he was taken so off guard by it that he actually dared to voice a protest. “But-”
“I’ll be back later, don’t worry,” the butterfly said distractedly, right before his body unceremoniously dissolved into a shower of tiny yellow flakes, which the wind scattered atop the piano. After he got over the initial shock, Leo tentatively reached out and touched two fingers to the flakes, rubbing his thumb against them curiously. They crumbled into dust at the motion, and Leo’s painting suddenly felt very, very empty.
To distract himself from the overwhelming emptiness, Leo threw himself back into his music, going over the song Xia had taught him again and again in addition to Clair de Lune. Eventually, his voice started to give out, and his eyelids began to droop tiredly. The intense desire to lie down grew stronger and stronger until he could no longer ignore it, so reluctantly, he finally slid off the piano stool and wandered around to the back of the instrument. Squatting down, he noticed with some satisfaction that he could now barely feel the wind. He delicately poked the sand with a finger, finding it dry, cool, and soft to the touch. There were a few rocks and pebbles buried here and there in the sand, and Leo quickly dug them out, placing them into a loose pile near the other end of the piano. Finally, after scooping out a small, shallow depression in the sand, Leo crawled into it and curled up on his side, pillowing his head on his arm with a weary sigh.
He didn’t even remember closing his eyes, but the next thing he knew, a boot was nudging him sharply in the side. “Slacking off again, are we?”
Leo blearily cracked open his eyes to see Xia looming over him, hands on his hips and a stern look on his face. The doll scrambled to his feet as fast as he could, blinking sleep from his eyes. “I’m sorry, Master.” His voice was whispery and raspy from overuse. “You didn’t come back, and I practiced so long…”
Xia clicked his tongue disapprovingly as he dusted the sand from Leo’s skin, clothes, and hair. “That’s no reason to let yourself get this dirty. I’ll let it slide for now, but I expect you to make yourself presentable before I arrive next time. Now.” He snapped his fingers, and Leo felt the tiredness evaporate from his muscles, the residual pain in his throat melting away. “Time to show me what you’re really capable of.”
Xia left Leo to stand behind the piano while he circled around to the front and sat himself down on the stool. He snapped twice in quick succession, and the piano began to play itself. It was nothing like the hesitant, single notes that Leo had played before; this was a soaring, harmonious amalgam of many different notes, all played in tandem and coming together to form one grand, glorious sound. Leo wanted to simply stand there and let the beautiful noise wash over him, but he recognized the music as the song that Xia had taught him, and almost without realizing it, he had begun to sing along with the music. The piano blended perfectly with his voice, supporting it, amplifying it, making it so much more than it could ever be by itself.
As he sang, Leo began to wonder. Could he learn to play like this? Could Gloss teach him how to make all these beautiful sounds himself someday? He found that he desperately hoped so. A heady rush of exhilaration filled Leo as he continued to sing, a feeling of pure contentment and delight. Joy. This was joy. He loved it. He loved this feeling. He never wanted it to end.
And then the piano switched to another song, one that Leo had never heard before, and he experienced a brief moment of alarm before his voice automatically followed the music, and he sang as if he’d sung it a hundred times over. After that, Leo forgot everything else around him, losing himself in the music and his voice. He sang and sang and sang, pouring every ounce of his being into his voice, until his strength began to wane and his voice began to give out. Just before it could, however, another snap was heard, and the final notes of the last song faded away, leaving only the sound of the wind and the waves once again.
As Leo stood there, panting, knees wobbling unsteadily beneath him, yet feeling more alive than he ever had before, Xia began to clap. Not the slow, steady clapping he had done when he determined that Leo was ready to move to his painting, but a rapid, frenetic expression of pure satisfaction.
“Congratulations on exceeding every single one of my expectations and then some, Leo. It’s not often that my exhibits surprise me, but you somehow managed it. I struck gold with you, and no mistake.” Something inside Leo warmed at the unabashed delight and pride on Xia’s face, in his voice. He’d pleased his Master, and he realized for the first time that this… this was what he was meant to do. His purpose. And he’d fulfilled his purpose. It was… a nice feeling.
“But,” Xia continued, rising to his feet and circling back toward Leo, “we mustn’t become complacent. I can have you sing anything I please when you’re synced with the piano, but I already know that there will definitely be times where I want you to sing solo, and for that, you will need to learn the songs manually. I’ve included some sheet music in the piano stool, and I expect you to go through them soon.”
Leo’s heart leapt within him at the thought of this wonderful prospect, but he kept his face impassive as he nodded dutifully.
“Good boy.” Xia reached toward his face. Still caught up in the adrenaline and excitement of the performance he’d just finished, Leo flinched unconsciously. Then, realizing what he’d done, he froze. He was almost too afraid to look at Xia, but forced himself to anyway. When he did, the expression on Xia’s face made him wish he’d kept his eyes averted.
“I do so hate,” Xia began, his voice disturbingly calm, “having to teach the same lesson more than once. What will it take, I wonder, for you to finally understand that defiance is something I do not – cannot – tolerate when it comes to my property?” Xia’s dark eyes briefly flashed bright, slitted gold, and Leo couldn’t help but flinch again. “Do I need to take your piano away? Hm? How about the music that I so graciously gave you? Will that be enough to teach you your lesson once and for all, doll?”
The burst of absolute panic this threat produced in Leo was enough to galvanize him into action. Before Xia could say another word, Leo bowed his head contritely, leaned forward, and pressed his cheek into Xia’s outstretched palm.
“No,” he begged hoarsely, his voice so wrecked that it took concerted effort to force even that one word out. “Please… please don’t. I’m sorry. I won’t… I won’t do it again. Please, Master.”
The furious glare faded from Xia’s expression at Leo’s whispered, desperate entreaty, and he seemed to soften just the slightest bit. Finally, he said, “Well. Since you asked so politely, I suppose you can keep the piano and music. Honestly, you’re very lucky that you belong to such a kind and agreeable Master. I can’t let you go completely unpunished for this, mind, but all in all, I’d say you’re still getting off lightly.” He cupped Leo's face in both hands, and a satisfied smirk curled the corners of his mouth as the doll submitted fully to his touch even as he trembled with exhaustion and dread.
“Yes, now that’s more like it, my pet,” Xia purred, reaching up to brush some of Leo’s bangs out of his eyes with one hand while the other slid down to caress his throat, lightly stroking a thumb over his aching vocal cords. “It’s good that you’re finally learning your place. It will make things much easier for you in the long run.”
His hands cupped Leo’s face again, and the doll gasped as sharp fingernails dug shallowly into his flesh, not quite enough to scratch or bruise, but still enough to sting. “I do hope you’ll remember that the next time you think about defying me. For your sake.”
Leo nodded again and shuddered, not missing the cruelly pleased glint in Xia’s eyes as he did. But, through sheer force of will, Leo remained still and refused to pull away, resolving then and there that he would put up with Xia’s unwanted touches and any other punishment he saw fit to give without complaint if it meant he could keep his piano and music.
“Well, I would say that all in all, this has been a very productive day,” his Master stated cheerfully, his voice bright and easygoing once again, as if the last couple of minutes hadn't happened at all. He removed his fingernails from Leo’s skin and gave his cheek one last pat before stepping back. “Until next time, my dearest Leo.” And with a snap of his fingers, he was gone again.
Leo stood there for a few seconds, breathing hard, trying to steady his nerves and work up the energy to circle around to the piano stool, to see the music Xia had left for him. However, when he took a single, wavering step forward, the last of his depleted energy reserves finally ran out, and he pitched forward, landing heavily on his hands and knees. He barely managed to muster the strength to crawl the few paces to the hollow behind his piano, before he collapsed onto his side, unconscious before his head hit the sand.
Leo awoke gradually, feeling stiff and sore, but still much more rested than he had previously. He groaned and curled in on himself, unwilling to fully open his eyes just yet.
“Morning, sleepyhead. Finally awake?”
Leo’s eyes shot open to see a small, yellow butterfly perched on the edge of his sleep hollow, and a burst of unexpected warmth spread through him. “You came back,” he whispered, still somewhat groggy, wincing at the lingering rough scratchiness of his throat.
“Well, duh. I said I would, didn’t I?”
Leo felt a corner of his mouth turn up just the slightest bit. “You did.”
A particularly strong gust of wind swept in from the ocean right then, enough to be felt even behind the piano, and Gloss light, tiny body was nearly carried away with it. Yelping in surprise, he frantically beat his wings and grabbed onto one of Leo’s fingers to save himself, crawling onto his palm and clinging with his six little legs. Leo started at the soft, feather-light tickle brushing against his skin accompanying the butterfly’s every movement.
“Ah, sorry.” Gloss sounded rather flustered. “Stupid wind caught me off guard, I’ll just be-”
“No.” Gloss stilled, as if surprised, though whether it was because of what Leo said or how hoarse his voice sounded when he said it, the doll wasn’t quite sure. “No, it’s okay.” Leo sat up slowly, carefully cradling the butterfly in his palm and shielding him from the wind with his other hand, remembering how easily he had crumbled away last time. Obviously, it hadn’t hurt him, but better safe than sorry.
“Um. Well, thanks, I guess? Oh, you got something on your…” Gloss gestured to the side of Leo’s face.
Leo reached a hand up to feel that his face was crusted with sand. As he dusted himself off (gently, so as not to spray sand everywhere), he asked, “Why didn’t you wake me up?”
“The very idea!” Gloss scoffed indignantly. “Sleep is the greatest thing known to man, aside from meat and pianos, of course. Why would I deprive you of it? It’s not like the piano’s going to get up and walk into the ocean if you don’t wake up the second I get back, sheesh. What do you take me for, some uncultured philistine?”
The mental images of the piano shuffling clumsily into the water amused Leo so much that a giggle bubbled up out of him before he could stifle it.
“Well goodness, you can smile!” Gloss sounded… strangely pleased. “I was beginning to wonder. Granted, there’s not a lot in this place to smile at, but still. So. Want to continue where we left off?”
Leo nodded eagerly and surged to his feet as fast as he could. As he stood, he noticed that there were still a few little yellow flecks that had managed to cling to the top of the piano, and stopped, confused.
“You… crumbled. Earlier. Now you’re here again, but so are the flakes.” Leo pointed at the scattered little specks atop the piano. “How can you have two bodies?” To his surprise, Gloss laughed.
“That wasn’t my real body, Leo. Neither is this, for that matter.” Leo blinked in utter bewilderment. “Come on, you expect me to play the piano like this?” Gloss stamped one of his little forelegs with all his might. Leo barely felt it. “Nah, these bodies are connected to me, sure, but they’re not me. They’re just extensions of myself that I use to explore, and I happen to be able to talk to you through them.” The butterfly poked Leo’s finger with a foreleg. “It’s like your finger is a part of you, but it’s not you, and your thumb can be doing something completely different to your pinkie finger while you’re still in control of both. Make sense?”
Leo tried to wrap his mind around everything he’d just been told. “So… you’re not part of my painting, then?”
“Alas. Sorry to have to break it to you like this.”
“Oh.” Leo suspected he probably shouldn't feel so disappointed at this, yet he couldn't help it. Then something occurred to him. “How did you get in, then? I couldn’t get out when I tried.”
“Insider secret. I can’t teach you how, though, sorry. You need a special brand of magic for that, and I can already tell you don’t have it. Don’t feel too bad about it, though.” Gloss patted Leo’s palm. “You’d probably get lost in this place even if you did get out, and it’s not exactly what you’d call welcoming, either.”
“Is it… very big?” Leo wondered.
“Huge. But, thanks to my butterflies, hardly anything happens here without me being aware of it,” Gloss said proudly. “How do you think I was able to find you so fast? In fact, as we speak, I’m also keeping an eye on a new blown glass exhibit, hanging out on a rose in one of the flower rooms, watching the music boxes have another dance battle, and… ah yes, one of the puppets is having tea with her painting friends. It is about that time.”
“What else is out there?” Leo asked, deeply intrigued. He’d never considered what might lie beyond the doors in the room outside his painting, but now he desperately wanted to know more.
“I’ll tell you soon, but first, how about we start your next lesson?”
“Oh!” Leo remembered what Xia had told him about the piano stool, and scrambled around the piano so fast that Gloss almost went flying out of his hands.
“Woah! Geez, Leo, where's the fire?"
“Master said there was more music in the piano stool,” Leo explained.
“What?! Why didn’t you say so before?” Gloss demanded, taking off and fluttering around Leo’s head animatedly, more energetic than Leo had ever seen him. “Open it, open it!” Leo slid his fingers under the rim of the stool and cautiously tugged upwards. The top of the stool lifted off smoothly, swinging back on a hinge to reveal stacks of sheet music arranged neatly inside. Gloss swooped in, flitting from sheet to sheet in delight. “Now this is what I call riches right here,” he said with immense satisfaction. “Come on, pick one so we can get started.”
“Me?” Leo croaked, startled.
“Of course. You’re the one who’s going to be playing it, after all. Whichever one you pick, I’ll be fine with it.”
Leo paused. No one had ever asked him what song he wanted to learn before. After a moment’s deliberation, he picked a small sheaf of papers tied together with a faded pink ribbon, and carefully closed the lid on the stool. He turned to the music stand on the piano, worried for a moment that the paper might blow away with the wind, but then he noticed the clasps that were built in to hold the music in place, and breathed easier. Following Gloss’s instruction, he spread the papers out on the stand, making sure they were firmly held in place, and began to play, carefully following the notes on the paper that showed the melody. He desperately wanted to sing along, but his voice was still too strained, and all that came out when he tried were raspy, discordant squeaks.
From his perch on Leo’s shoulder, Gloss suggested that he just work on the piano melody and save the vocals for later until his throat had had a chance to recover, and Leo did his best to follow his instruction. Still, he couldn’t help but try to sing along sometimes despite the pain when he remembered how it had sounded when he’d sung with the piano before. He wanted that feeling back. He wanted that sound back. And he just kept getting more and more frustrated with his slow progress until, about two thirds of the way through the song, he slammed his hands on the keys out of sheer frustration. His shoulders slumped, and his hands slid off the keys, hanging limply at his sides as he finally accepted the fact that he just couldn’t do this.
His eyes began to burn when he realized that this must have been the punishment Xia had spoken of. He’d hoped Xia had forgotten about it when he’d left without doing anything earlier, but he should have known the Master wouldn’t let things go that easily. Without Xia to maintain his voice, he couldn’t sing at all. He couldn’t fulfill his purpose. Not until Xia returned, and who knew when that would be. Unable to stand it any longer, Leo dug the heels of his hands into his eyes and drew in a harsh, shuddering breath as his shoulders started to shake.
“You know it all, you’re my best friend, the morning will come again~”
Leo stilled in shock, recognizing the part of the melody he’d just been trying to sing.
“Because no darkness, no season can last forever~”
“You sing, too?” Leo blurted in surprise, removing his hands from his eyes to stare in unabashed astonishment at the butterfly on his shoulder.
“Good grief, no, I'm a pianist, not a vocalist,” Gloss replied flatly. “But you spend enough time around music, you pick up a few things here and there, especially in a place like this.”
Leo didn’t know if he shared Gloss' opinion. Certainly Gloss’ low, mumbled, gravelly voice was nothing like Xia’s clear, full tone or Leo’s own high, focused timbre, but there was something… soothing about it all the same. Leo was almost sorry that Gloss had stopped.
“But that’s neither here nor there,” Gloss continued. “Listening to you tear your throat up even more is giving me anxiety, so from here on out, I’ll be filling in for you until you heal enough that you don’t sound like you just gargled glass. Now, to be fair, I’m not going to sound much better, but at least I’m not going to strain something in the process. At least, I hope not.”
Leo opened his mouth to reply, shut it, then hesitantly placed his hands back on the keys again. True to his word, Gloss accompanied him until the end of the song, and Leo actually found himself enjoying the experience, especially because he actually sang words, not sounds like Leo did. Once they’d finished, they sat in silence for a moment before Leo spoke up, careful to not speak above a whisper so as not to damage his voice further.
“What is a friend?”
“In the song. I don’t know the word.”
“Well… hm. A friend is… someone who understands you, who’s honest with you. Someone who keeps you safe, looks out for you, keeps you from getting hurt, being lonely. Friends teach each other things, and always try to make each other better, not because they have to, but because they want to.”
“So… like the Master, then? He taught me to sing.”
Leo wasn’t quite sure how a butterfly managed to snort, but Gloss did. “He also made you sing until you can barely speak. I doubt he asked you whether you wanted to learn to sing, either, or wanted to be dumped in this painting all by yourself. Does that sound like something a friend would do?”
Leo’s brow furrowed in thought. What Gloss said was true. Xia never asked if Leo wanted to do anything. He ordered, and Leo was expected to immediately obey, to sing and sing until his throat ached and his lungs burned, to endure his intrusive touches and manhandling even though he hated them. Because Xia was his Master, and his purpose was to make his Master happy, no matter what. Leo didn’t necessarily like it, but he supposed that was just the way things worked.
“No,” he finally admitted, very quietly. “It doesn’t.”
“Bingo. There’s a big difference between and owner and a friend, and the Master is most definitely the former.”
“You can’t be both?”
“Not in my experience, no.”
Leo mulled this over for a moment. “Then… are we friends?”
Gloss didn’t reply immediately. “I guess that depends. Do you want to be?”
This time, Leo barely even had to think about his answer. He never felt lonely when Gloss was around. Gloss taught him to play the piano, and didn’t ask for anything at all in return. Gloss never forced him to speak, to touch, to obey. He sang in Leo’s place to keep him from straining his voice further, even though his voice wavered and cracked the way Leo’s had when he first started singing.
“Yes,” he said, more firmly than he’d ever said anything before, even though his voice currently couldn’t go above a whisper. “Yes, I do.”
“Okay then.” Leo couldn’t be sure, but Gloss sounded like he was smiling. Leo smiled back anyway, just in case.
Gloss – I am betting you already know who this is, but just in case. You get a cookie if you can tell me in the comments section the obscure bit of BTS trivia that explains why his name is Gloss in this AU. ;)
Leo’s constant vocal strain – A criticism I’ve seen directed at Leo when it comes to his live vocals is that he tends to sing in a way that has a very high risk of straining or damaging his voice (though to be fair, those criticisms have gotten markedly less frequent over the years, especially since he began doing musical theater). I figured that if you can just magic away vocal strain with a snap of the fingers, then it wouldn’t be super high on Xia’s priority list to exercise caution or restraint when it comes to taking care of his newest pet’s voice (RIP Leo’s poor vocal cords TT TT).
Clair de Lune – Clair de Lune is featured prominently in multiple BTS videos, namely “on stage: Prologue” and “Euphoria : Theme of LOVE YOURSELF 起 Wonder.”
“You know it all, you’re my best friend~” – Lyrics from Spring Day, XILVerify's favorite BTS song (and favorite Kpop song period). This is what I imagine the piano sheet music that Leo is learning sounds like when played properly. (As an aside, I imagine that Leo sings in vowel tones and melody rather than words at the moment unless he's synced up to the piano, because he can't read and there's no way for him to learn the sheet music properly otherwise.)
MVs referenced: BTS’ Blood Sweat & Tears; Henry’s That One (Bonus: Lindsey Stirling’s First Light)
There was a man in front of him. A shorter, pale-haired man wearing red, flowing clothing, with his arms folded across his chest. The man had a satisfied look on his face, and he found himself staring back curiously, intrigued about this being and what he wanted.
“Well, hello,” the man said jovially.
“Hello,” he replied automatically, starting slightly at the unfamiliar sound of his own voice before he rallied and continued. “Who are you?”
The man looked even more pleased than he had previously at the question. “I’m Xia. To you, however, just Master will suffice. And you are Starlight.”
“Starlight…” he repeated, testing the word on his tongue and finding that he liked the way it sounded, the way it fit him.
“Indeed. But let’s get down to business. You are here to learn how to dance. It’s high time someone taught you to put that natural poise of yours to good use, my doll.”
“Dance?” Starlight parroted interestedly. “Doll? What are those?”
“My, aren’t we chatty,” Xia said, sounding amused. “A doll is what you are. My doll.” He reached out and patted Starlight on the head. Starlight flinched on reflex, but stilled, eyes wide, as Xia’s hand stroked over his hair, leaving a warm, tingling feeling in its wake. He… he liked it. He wanted Xia to do it again. But before he could even think to ask, Xia had retracted his hand. “As for dancing, I think it will be easier to show you what it is than to tell you.”
With that, Xia snapped his fingers, and a sweet, beautiful sound began to reverberate through the white void where the two stood. Starlight could have just stayed there and listened to it for hours all on its own, but then Xia began to move along to the sound in graceful, fluid motions, his whole body twirling and spinning, rising and falling, almost as if he and the sound were one. Starlight stood transfixed, mesmerized by the lovely noises (music, his mind told him) and Xia’s movements, until finally, the music faded away, and Xia came to a stop right in front of him, breathing a little harder than usual, but otherwise seeming completely unaffected.
“You’ll catch flies, my Starlight,” Xia chuckled at Starlight’s expression, tapping his chin, which the doll hadn’t even realized was hanging open. He closed it wordlessly. “That is dance. It’s what you are going to be doing from now on.”
“I’m going to do that?” Starlight blurted, entranced at the thought of making all those beautiful, graceful movements himself.
“Certainly. You won’t be nearly that good at first, but practice makes perfect. Shall we begin?”
They began with just a few steps. Xia counted them out slowly, demonstrating where Starlight’s hands and feet should go on each count, and brusquely correcting him when the move wasn’t exactly right. Sometimes, when Starlight’s position wasn’t exactly right, Xia would reach out and grab his ankle, leg, arm, or wrist, and move it forcibly into the correct pose. Starlight found that he didn’t like this, didn’t like being manhandled, didn’t like the harsh, intrusive touches, so different from the gentle pat Xia had given his head before. However, the first and only time Starlight had tried to jerk his hand away when Xia had reached for it, the wordless, thunderous look Xia had given him stopped him cold. He let his Master do what he wanted with him from then on, even though every unwanted touch made him shudder inside.
He practiced the moves again and again and again, until he began to tire, his movements becoming sloppy and careless as his muscles ached and his lungs burned. Seeing this, Xia huffed and snapped his fingers, and all the tiredness in Starlight’s muscles vanished instantly. Starlight froze in bewilderment, until Xia coughed pointedly, and the process began all over again.
Xia had to refresh him a few more times until he decided that Starlight had gotten that move set down well enough for his liking. He showed him another set.
As Starlight completed his third set of moves, Xia began to look increasingly preoccupied. He showed Starlight the fourth set of moves, then snapped his fingers again. A small, glowing orb appeared over his hand. He gestured at Starlight, and the sphere followed his movements, shooting into Starlight’s chest before he could even think to dodge and filling him with a hot rush of energy. Xia snapped again, and a wall of glimmering surfaces materialized out of thin air. Mirrors. Suddenly there were two Xias, and a taller, barefoot figure clad in flowing layers of shimmery white fabric. It took Starlight a second to realize that must be himself. “Here. Those are for you to track your progress in until I get back. Remember, one and two and three and pivot, dip, and turn and jump. I expect you to have it committed to muscle memory before I get back.”
“You’re leaving?” Starlight asked in dismay. But Xia was already gone. Starlight glanced around him, suddenly feeling extremely alone, before the figure in the mirror that perfectly mimicked every single one of his movements drew his attention. He walked closer, and so did the figure, until finally, he was close enough to reach out and touch the flat, cold surface.
“Is that really… me?” he wondered aloud, his voice seeming small in the vast white void around him. He cocked his head to one side, and so did the tall, slim, dark-haired young man standing in front of him. He reached up and delicately touched his cheek, then the long, glittery, silvery-white strands dangling from his earlobes, giving an experimental smile. The sight of his reflection doing the same startled a delighted little laugh out of him, and he proceeded to make dozens of faces at himself in the mirror before he remembered that he was supposed to be practicing.
So, Starlight practiced. He practiced and practiced, with no way of knowing how long he was doing it for. Every time he began to tire, the burning orb in his chest flared to life and lent a fresh surge of energy to his muscles, allowing him to continue on. He would have grown bored long ago, but he was so focused on the dancing that boredom never really even crossed his mind. He found that he enjoyed it, the process of getting his muscles and limbs to listen to him and do what he told them, following a sequence of moves and executing them as flawlessly as possible.
Finally, though, his borrowed store of energy eventually ran dry, and he unceremoniously collapsed to the floor, panting, his arms and knees barely able to support his weight before giving way entirely under the strain. He curled onto his side with a groan, his entire body aching with fatigue. He tried a couple times to get up, but his body refused to listen to him any longer, pushed to the very limits of its endurance, and he was forced to lie there in the blank, white void, completely, utterly alone. He had just started to drift off to sleep, too exhausted to stay awake any longer, when Xia reappeared with flash.
“Sleeping on the job, are we?” Xia observed mildly before Starlight had the chance to say anything. He snapped, and Starlight felt his fatigue dissipate instantly.
“Master!” he cried delightedly, pure relief filling him at the sight of another living being. “You’re back!” He sprang up and bounded over to Xia, reaching out a hand to pat him on the head the way Xia had patted him before. Before his fingertips could do more than brush against a couple white-blond strands of hair, however, he felt deceptively strong fingers close around both his wrists. They were then forced down to his sides and held there, the grip on them punishingly tight.
“Listen to me very carefully, doll,” Xia growled, his beautiful face twisted into a furious snarl, his once brown eyes now a glittering, eerie gold color, “because I will only say this once. You do not presume to touch me without my explicit permission. Ever. Do I make myself clear?” His grip tightened on Starlight’s wrists even more, eliciting an involuntary whimper from the doll.
“Y-yes, Master,” Starlight stammered, quaking under Xia’s intense, golden glare. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you angry, I was just so glad to see you that I…” He trailed off, his eyes filling with confused, frightened tears.
At the sight of the shimmer of tears in Starlight’s eyes, the gold in Xia’s own gradually shifted back to brown, his livid expression softening into something approaching mollified. “I’ll accept your apology this time, my Starlight,” he finally said, letting go of Starlight’s wrists and cupping the side of his face with one hand. Starlight didn’t know whether he should flinch away from the touch or lean into it. He settled for standing as still as possible. “But see that you never do that again. Tsk, don’t cry now, I can’t bear to see you spoil that pretty face of yours.”
Starlight nodded, not trusting himself to speak.
“Good.” Xia patted his cheek, and this time, Starlight did flinch, just the slightest bit. “Now that we’ve established personal boundaries, let’s get back to work. Show me what you’ve practiced.”
Starlight did, feeling something in his chest swell at the brief look of approval he saw cross Xia’s face at his progress before they moved on to the next lesson. He learned more steps, more moves, more terms and words and ways to bend and contort his body and limbs into the graceful or powerful shapes that his Master desired. Xia came and went as he pleased several times, and each time he left, Starlight had to physically restrain himself from begging him to stay. It was just so unbearably lonely in the void with only his reflection for company. He found himself longing desperately for his Master to return the second he left, and pushed himself as hard as he could in the hopes of kindling that pleased glint in his Master’s eyes when he came back and saw his progress, of receiving a coveted word of praise or, better yet, the exceedingly rare pats he gave Starlight’s cheek or hair when he was especially satisfied with something the doll had accomplished.
Finally, Xia returned once more, and had Starlight demonstrate everything he had learned thus far, snapping his fingers to bring back the music Starlight had heard what felt like so long ago. Starlight was almost too distracted by the music to remember to dance, but he managed it in the end. He looked at Xia expectantly after he’d completed the steps he knew, wilting when Xia looked inexplicably dissatisfied.
“Did I… do something wrong, Master?” Starlight asked meekly, nervously pulling at the semi-transparent, shimmery sleeve of his shirt. “I remembered all the steps, just like you taught me…”
“It’s not that.” Xia waved his hand distractedly, rubbing his chin with the other for a moment before continuing. “One thing you have to remember about dancing, my Starlight,” he said slowly. “Is that you’re not just completing a set of moves or steps. It’s about expressing the music through every action you make. What does the music make you feel? Absorb that feeling; let yourself become drunk on it. Let your body express it without inhibition.”
At Starlight’s blank, uncomprehending stare, Xia gave a dramatic sigh. “Here. Listen again. What does the sound make you feel? Don’t think about the steps. Just listen and feel.” He snapped, and the music returned a third time. Following Xia’s instructions, Starlight closed his eyes and let the music wash over him, trying to figure out what Xia wanted him to feel. And then, as he listened, he felt… something. Sorrow. Longing. A soul-deep ache for something that he had no name for, and he felt his eyes begin to water strangely. As the song ended, he opened his teary eyes to find Xia gazing back at him in satisfaction.
“There you go. Hold on to that feeling. Music is all about feeling. Don’t let hesitate, don’t let yourself think; just throw your body into it. One last thing,” Xia held up a finger, reached into his pocket, and drew out a thin strip of cloth, made of the same white, glittery fabric as Starlight’s clothing. He beckoned Starlight close, and wrapped the strip of cloth around his head. The blindfold covered Starlight’s eyes entirely, and while he could still faintly see light through the cloth if he opened his eyes, everything else was completely obscured. “There we are. Your final test.”
“What’s this for, Master?” Starlight asked, reaching up to prod the fabric curiously. “I can’t see anything. How am I supposed to dance with it on?”
“If I taught you as well as I suspect I did, then the fact that you can’t see anything should be of no consequence. Your sight doesn’t matter. Only the music does. Now. Try it again.” Another snap, and the music began again.
Even though the sudden obstruction of his sight was more than slightly disquieting and disorienting, Starlight was determined to do his very best regardless. Surely Xia wouldn’t ask this of him unless he thought he could do it. So, Starlight closed his eyes, reached for that feeling of grief and yearning that he’d felt before, and let the music sweep him away. Every step had been ingrained into brain so deeply at this point that it let him concentrate fully on expressing the emotion the song evoked through his movements.
Once he finished and the music faded away, a prolonged silence fell. Finally, Starlight couldn’t stand the suspense any longer, and tentatively tugged the blindfold off one eye, peeking out from under its edge to see Xia staring at him thoughtfully, hands pressed together in front of his mouth. As he watched, a wide, satisfied smile spread across Xia’s face, and he clapped his hands together, once, twice, three times.
“And that’s how it’s done, my Starlight. I must say, I’m impressed. So what do you think, now that you’ve completed your first real dance routine?”
Starlight blinked, startled at the unexpected question. Xia had never asked his opinion on anything before. He tugged the blindfold off, running the silky fabric between his fingers as he thought. Finally, he said, “It’s amazing. Dancing, I mean. Hearing the music, and expressing it with my body. It makes me feel… alive. I love it.”
Something Starlight said seemed to have pleased Xia deeply, and his smile grew even wider. “Spoken like a true performer,” he said, crossing the few steps to where Starlight stood and taking the blindfold back, folding it up and thrusting it back into his pocket. “Yes, I think you’re finally ready.” He gave Starlight as brief pat on the head, and Starlight beamed at his Master’s obvious approval. “Now come. It’s time to go to your new home. Someone’s there waiting for you, and we mustn’t keep him waiting too long.”
Starlight nodded eagerly. He didn’t know what a home was, not really, but the thought of meeting someone new excited him greatly. Xia smiled again at his enthusiasm, snapped his fingers, and the void vanished.
The environment that rematerialized around them was so much darker than the void that it took Starlight’s eyes a few moments to adjust fully to it. When they did, he saw they were now at the center of a large, dark room, lit by harsh white lights overhead that cast small, focused circles of light on the floor. As Starlight watched, the lights faded to a gentle shimmer, throwing tiny specks of silvery blue light everywhere instead of the harsh spotlights they’d previously been. Long strips of semi-transparent, shimmery white cloth hung from the ceiling at regular intervals, the extra fabric pooling on the ground, while large black curtains draped all four walls. At one end of the room, the only part of the walls not hung with the thick, black curtains, a large, boxy protrusion extended from the wall a few feet, with a tall, white door set directly in the center. Thick metal pillars were spaced at regular around the walls, holding the ceiling up high above them, sheets of the same shimmery white cloth hanging from them as well, obscuring the black-swathed walls behind them. Starlight privately thought it was a beautiful, if rather austere, environment.
Xia, meanwhile, was glancing around, as if trying to find something. His brow furrowed when he didn’t see what he was looking for. “Where did that boy run off to?” he muttered under his breath, before raising his voice and yelling, “Moonshadow! I’m back!”
Starlight detected movement from the ledge above the large door. As he watched, a small, dark form, nearly invisible against the black walls behind it, unfolded itself into the shape of a person. It confidently stood and walked a few paces to one edge. Without missing a beat, the figure leapt off, grabbing onto one of the nearby strips of white cloth hanging from the ceiling, and slid down, gracefully landing on the floor in a half crouch. As the figure straightened, the lights changed again from the soft, tiny illuminations back to strong, harsh spotlights, and Starlight could now see that the person was a blindfolded young man – a boy, really – dressed in an outfit identical to Starlight’s except for the color, which was black instead of white. His hair gleamed a pale, iridescent silver under the light from above, almost the same color as his fair skin. As he approached, Starlight saw that he was small, too, smaller even than Xia. He was undoubtedly beautiful, but the boy’s features also possessed a certain softness that Starlight had never seen before, either in his own face or Xia’s. Cute was the first word that sprang to Starlight’s mind upon seeing him clearly for the first time.
“There you are,” Xia huffed sternly as the boy finally got close enough to speak normally to. “Who told you you could run off? I specifically told you to wait here.”
“The same person who didn’t say I couldn’t run off, Master,” the boy replied innocently in a light, expressive voice. “I believe your exact words were ‘Wait in this room until I come back.’ Isn’t that what I did?” The youth spoke in a perfectly respectful manner, but his tone was so innocuously cheeky at the same time that Starlight couldn’t help but smile, hiding it behind a hand.
Xia looked briefly annoyed before he seemed to see the humor in the situation and smiled as well. “So it is. But now, there’s someone I want you to meet.” He glanced at Starlight and gestured with a flourish to the youth. “Starlight, Moonshadow. Moonshadow, Starlight. Go ahead and say hello, you two.”
“Hello, Moonshadow,” Starlight said, smiling even though he knew Moonshadow couldn’t see him, happy to finally have a name to go with the new face. Moonshadow perked up immediately at the sound of a new voice, standing up straighter and turning his head to face the direction the sound came from.
“Hello, Starlight,” he replied, looking intrigued and also a little shy.
“The two of you will be partners from now on. A joint exhibit. Now, Moonshadow.” Xia placed a hand on Moonshadow’s head, and the boy went strangely still and rigid under his touch. “Starlight’s new, so it will be your responsibility to teach him how things work around here.” Xia moved even closer to the boy, close enough that there was barely an inch of space between their bodies. He reached up with his other hand to run his fingertips over Moonshadow’s round, full cheek, before they crept up to trace over his blindfold. “We wouldn’t want him to wind up making your mistakes, wouldn’t you agree?”
Moonshadow stiffened even more at the contact, suddenly looking small and scared and so very vulnerable, a far cry from the confident, curious youth that Starlight had first seen. A tiny part of Starlight’s hindbrain bristled reflexively at the sight. “Y-yes, Master. I’ll do my best.”
“That’s what I like to hear.” Xia beamed beatifically and patted Moonshadow’s cheek. “Now, before we get started, I need to make some modifications to your new companion.” He turned his attention to Starlight.
“Starlight, if you’ll come here.” Starlight stepped forward dutifully, and Xia turned to face him. “Close your eyes.” Starlight obeyed. “Keep them closed, understand?” At Starlight’s nod, he felt Xia position his hands on either side of his head, placing his thumbs over his closed eyelids and pressing lightly. The places where Xia had placed his hands began to tingle, and a strange, constricting pressure built up behind Starlight’s eyes. Just before the sensation could become outright painful, however, it stopped and then vanished as if it had never been. “There we go. The synchronization spells will take much easier now. That wasn’t so bad, was it?” The doll heard Xia shuffle around, and the light, silky material of Starlight’s blindfold covered his eyes and wrapped itself snugly around the back of his head.
“Alright, now that you properly match with the aesthetics of the exhibit…” Xia’s hand closed around Starlight’s wrist. His hand was uncommonly warm, the places where his skin pressed against Starlight’s tingling even more intensely than they had previously. Before Starlight could process anything else, his hand was unceremoniously pulled forward until his palm came into contact with a smaller one, and a sudden jolt of hot, buzzing energy ripped through him. It wasn’t painful, per se, but was definitely not pleasant, and he and Moonshadow yelped simultaneously. They both reflexively tried to pull away from each other, but found they were unable to break free of Xia’s inexorable grip on their wrists until the buzzing sensation fully faded away.
When he finally let them go, Starlight yanked his tingling hand back toward himself, cradling it defensively in his other hand. Confused and indignant, he was just about to open his mouth to ask what in the world had just happened… and then he realized he could sense another presence in front of him. Instead of merely knowing Moonshadow was there, he felt it, a light, warm, persistent tugging on his consciousness that plainly, if wordlessly, said “I’m here!”
“Alright, visual impairment in return for auditory and reflex enhancement, check. Skill synchronization, check. All that’s left to do now is see how well it all works together. I don’t have time for a full demonstration at the moment, I’m afraid, but I think we can manage one dance before I have to leave. Do me proud, my pets.” A snap, and suddenly music echoed all around them, seeming to come from everywhere at once. It was a different song than the one that had played in the void; brighter, faster, more energetic. Starlight liked it immediately, but was bewildered about how to proceed, since he’d never learned a dance for this song. However, after the first few bars of the song played, he found himself moving along to it, as if his body was remembering what Xia had taught it and moving to the beat of the music automatically, rather than by any conscious decision his brain made.
Even though he couldn’t see it, he felt Moonshadow mirroring every movement he made across the room through their new connection. The two danced in perfect sync together, as if they’d known each other for years and years instead of meeting mere minutes ago, and Starlight felt a wide smile spread across his face as the dance progressed. As the song became faster, more joyful, Starlight felt himself and Moonshadow move closer and closer together as they danced, until finally, when they reached out toward each other, their fingers touched, wrapping around each other instinctively. They spun each other around the room, first Starlight leading, then Moonshadow, and then back to Starlight again, moving almost like one single unit instead of two disparate individuals. Starlight had never felt so utterly alive or as happy than he did right then, buoyed by the music and the movement and the thrill of being so in sync with another living being, and he would have been perfectly content had that dance never come to an end.
All too soon, however, the beautiful, exhilarating music finally faded away, and Starlight and his partner came to a standstill, leaning against each other in a graceful, frozen tableau, Starlight holding up both his and Moonshadow’s full weight. They stayed that way for one, two, five seconds, and then the sound of clapping came from Starlight’s right.
“Bravo, you two!” Xia told them, sounding immensely pleased. “I knew you had it in you. Now, I have a few things to take care of, but I’ll be back soon to properly put you through your paces. Get to know each other in the meantime, and stay out of trouble.”
A snap, and Starlight knew the two of them were alone. Not a moment too soon, either, because the traction between Starlight’s foot and the tile chose that exact moment to finally give out under his and Moonshadow’s combined weight. He went crashing to the ground in an ungraceful heap, his companion falling on top of him heavily.
“Are you alright?” Starlight asked once he was able to draw enough breath into his lungs to speak, worried that he’d somehow injured the boy. “I’m sorry, I’m not used to…” He trailed off, because he suddenly registered that the other dancer was laughing. The sound was so charming that Starlight could do nothing else but just lie there and listen to it, feeling a smile spread across his own face in response.
“Dancing on tile barefoot is pretty difficult sometimes,” Moonshadow said finally, still giggling. “No harm done. You did a good job if this was your first time! I really liked dancing with you!”
“I liked it, too,” Starlight responded warmly. And he did. He liked it very, very much. “I guess we’ll be doing it a lot from now on, huh?”
“I guess so!” the youth replied brightly, rolling off of Starlight and grabbing his wrist to help him up. They stood side by side in the middle of the large room for a couple seconds, not really knowing what to say next, when the boy offered bashfully, “Do you… want me to show you around? I was able to do some exploring while I was waiting for the Master to bring you. This is such a big room! My old ones weren’t nearly this big.”
“Sure,” Starlight said agreeably. The other dancer latched onto his hand and set off eagerly, counting the number of steps it took to get from one side of the room to the other both for its length and width. It was quite a sizable space.
As they stopped beside the far wall of the room and turned to go back, Moonshadow stopped and spoke up, suddenly tentative. “Could you…?” He trailed off, and Starlight could hear him shyly scuffing his foot against the tiles. “Could you tell me what you look like, Starlight? That is, if you know. If not, that’s okay. It’s just that the Master likes to collect pretty things, so I’m guessing you’re very beautiful, if he brought you here.”
“Well, I’m not sure if I would say that,” Starlight replied, both flattered and a little flustered. “But sure, I could tell you if you want me to. Couldn’t you just take off your blindfold if you want to see me, though?”
“Well, I could, but it wouldn’t do me much good.”
A rustle of cloth, and the boy gently took Starlight’s hand and pulled it to his face, now free of its blindfold. Starlight grimaced slightly as his fingers came into contact with rough cracks and lacy, delicate furls of slick tissue (scars) all around Moonshadow’s eyes, remembering the way he’d flinched when Xia had run his fingers over the blindfold earlier. But what did this have to do with Moonshadow’s previous statement?
“I… don’t understand,” Starlight finally said, still at a loss.
“I can’t see, silly,” Moonshadow explained, sounding slightly amused. He reached around and tugged at the end of Starlight’s blindfold. “Same as you.”
“What? No, I can see,” Starlight protested, pulling his fingers away from Moonshadow’s face to untie his own blindfold. “There were lights earlier, and those long strips of cloth hanging from the ceiling, and…” His voice died in his throat as he pulled the blindfold away from his eyes and opened them… only to find nothing but pitch blackness all around him.
“I don’t…” He looked around wildly, trying to find some light, any light for his eyes to latch onto. “There were lights earlier; I saw them, I know I did! Where did they go? What happened? It’s just dark now. I don’t…”
He closed his eyes and opened them again and again, but whether they were shut or open made no difference. Even when he’d been blindfolded before, there was still light that shone through the fabric if he opened his eyes. But now, there was just… nothing. A complete vacuum of anything except the oppressive blackness pressing in on him from every side. It seemed to grow heavier and heavier, and Starlight finally dropped into a crouch under its intangible weight, clutching his blindfold so tightly in one hand that it hurt.
“Starlight?” Moonshadow said worriedly from somewhere above him. “Are you okay? What’s wrong?”
“I can’t… I can’t see,” Starlight whimpered, eyes wide. “Why can’t I see anything? Why is it so dark? I don’t… I can’t-!”
“Breathe, Starlight, breathe.” A hand touched Starlight’s shoulder and he instinctively reached up and clutched it like a lifeline. Small fingers curled around his, the way they had when they were dancing, and the memory calmed Starlight a little even as Moonshadow’s other hand began to rub his back comfortingly. “It’s okay. I know it’s scary, I know it’s dark, but it’s okay, you’re okay. Just breathe. I’m here. It’s okay.” As Starlight took in shaky, shallow breaths, he heard Moonshadow mutter to himself, “So that’s what he meant by ‘modifications,’ I wondered about that. I’m sorry, Starlight, I thought… well, never mind what I thought. The point is, you can’t see anymore.”
“What?” Starlight exclaimed in dismay. “I can’t see anymore? At all?” The thought of never being able to see colors or shapes or faces again made his eyes well up with involuntary tears. “But why? Did I do something wr-?”
“No.” Moonshadow cut him off immediately, gripping his shoulders firmly. “If you were being punished, the Master would have definitely let you know. You didn’t do anything wrong, I’m sure of it. Didn’t you hear him earlier? The spell that links us to each other and the music must work better if we can’t see, which helps us dance better. Dancing is what we’re meant to do, so anything that helps us do it better can’t be all bad, can it?”
Starlight didn’t feel helped. He felt like a piece of himself had been unceremoniously ripped away, and said so. “I don’t like it,” he added plaintively. “The dark is awful. I hate it.”
“So do I,” Moonshadow replied, hands sliding down to give Starlight’s a comforting squeeze. “But the light is still there, you know. It didn’t go away just because we can’t see it.”
“That’s true…” Starlight agreed slowly, finding some measure of comfort in that thought.
“Besides,” Moonshadow continued. “I would much rather be blind with someone else than alone with my sight. Wouldn’t you?”
Starlight thought about the crushing emptiness of the void, the times when Xia had left him and he’d only had his reflection for company. There was no contest; he knew immediately what he would pick if he had the choice. “I would.”
“There, you see?” There was a rustle of cloth as Moonshadow leaned back, sounding pleased. “I know it seems scary now, but you’ll get used to it eventually, I promise. I can even help you, if you want.”
Starlight was briefly struck speechless by this offer, given so freely and earnestly, and a wave of thankfulness and longing and other things he had no ready name for crashed over him. Without really realizing what he was doing, he impulsively leaned forward and gently enfolded the young man in his arms, pulling him close to his chest. Moonshadow went oddly rigid as Starlight’s arms encircled him, and a choked whimper escaped him as their chests pressed together. Starlight abruptly realized what he had done and jerked away, an apology already on his lips as he remembered Xia’s reaction to touching him without permission… but before he could do so, Moonshadow wrapped his arms around Starlight’s waist in turn, keeping him close. Starlight stilled and then tentatively draped his arms around the boy again, and Moonshadow relaxed, melting into Starlight’s embrace with a long, content sigh.
“I’ll take that as a yes, then,” Moonshadow murmured wryly, which elicited a smile from Starlight. The two of them wound up nestled comfortably against the curtained wall and each other, the boy’s smaller body tucked into Starlight’s side with his arms around his waist and his head resting against his shoulder. They sat in silence for a good long while, Starlight content to just savor the simple touch of another’s skin against his, relishing in the warmth and the closeness. He knew right then that this was what he’d been craving from Xia all this time, and now that he had it, he never wanted to let it go. Eventually, however, the silence became just a little too loud, and he found himself wanting to break it, to strike up a proper conversation for once. Xia never tolerated his questions for very long, but perhaps Moonshadow would be different with that, too.
“So… before the Master brought me here… did you have to wait by yourself a very long time?” Starlight hoped not. Being by oneself for too long felt horrible, and he didn’t like the thought of Moonshadow feeling like that.
“Mmm, not really? At least, I don’t think so. The Master took me from my old exhibit, gave me these new clothes and my new name, put me in here, and told me to wait for him to come back. It didn’t feel like too much time went by, but I’m not really a good judge of that anyway, so I’m probably not the best person to ask.”
“You weren’t always called Moonshadow?” Starlight inquired curiously.
“Oh no. I was someone else before I was Moonshadow. And I was someone else before that. The Master likes to repurpose exhibits sometimes, it happens. I can’t remember what I used to be called originally. J… Ji… Ji-something? Maybe? I think? I like being Moonshadow, though. It goes with you: Moonshadow, Starlight. I like going with you. I like having company.” He snuggled closer to Starlight, and Starlight’s heart welled up with a sudden, unexpected surge of warm affection.
“You mean you didn’t have company before?”
The little dancer shook his head. “Not really. I had a cat plushie, once, back in my white room by the sea, the place where I had my first name. She was so soft and fluffy, almost as good as the real thing, and she was such a good listener, even though of course she couldn’t really hear me when I talked to her. The Angel told me that she’s still there, but I wish I could hold her again. I haven’t for… oh, so long.”
Moonshadow went very still against him, and Starlight was just beginning to wonder if he’d said something wrong, when Moonshadow spoke, his voice artificially bright and energetic, like he was smiling, but he didn’t really mean it: “Let’s talk about something else, okay? How about games? Do you know any games, Starlight?”
Starlight frowned at Moonshadow’s sudden change of demeanor, but decided it would be best to just let it go. “No. Do you know any?”
“Lots! Do you want me to teach you?”
“Sure,” Starlight agreed easily. “Did you have something in mind?”
“How about the ceiling hangings?” Moonshadow suggested. “I know how to do a bunch of tricks with those.”
“What kinds of tricks?”
“I’m so glad you asked!” Moonshadow jumped up eagerly, pulling Starlight with him. After they retied their blindfolds, Starlight felt himself being led over to the nearest strip of cloth hanging from the ceiling. “Now, pay attention. We’re going to start with a foot lock swing, and then go from there.”
What followed was a few minutes of Moonshadow explaining to Starlight how to wrap his foot in the strand of fabric so that even when all his weight was held up only by the fabric, it would still support him when he stood on it. When Starlight was situated to Moonshadow’s satisfaction, balanced on one foot a couple feet up in the air, hanging tight to the cloth with both hands, the boy unceremoniously grabbed part of the cloth Starlight wasn’t holding onto, tugged it back a few paces, and then let it go. Starlight experienced a brief moment of utter panic when he first swung blindly through space, his stomach leaping inside his middle nauseatingly. But, as he continued to fly weightlessly thorough the air, his hair whipping about his face in the wind, he almost immediately grew to love the sensation. It was almost as good as dancing. And when Moonshadow gave his back a push, propelling him even faster through the air, he laughed aloud, something deep inside him giving an elated jump when he heard the boy’s answering giggle.
They swung on that one strip of fabric for a good long while, trading places occasionally, before Moonshadow decided that Starlight had gotten that down, and proceeded to teach him how to climb up the fabric so that they could race to see who could reach the top faster. This proved to be a much more difficult challenge than swinging had been.
“You make it seem so easy,” Starlight panted, after trying and failing to make it up to the top of the strip of cloth the fourth time in a row. He kept losing his place on the fabric and sliding back down, still unused to interacting with the world without his eyes, and it was so frustrating. He also really didn’t like the sensation of falling so far. At all. It nearly caused his heart to stop beating every time, even though he never got high enough for the falls to actually hurt him.
“It does take some practice,” Moonshadow said, patting Starlight on the shoulder sympathetically. “My old masters used to have me do this as a side act for a little bit before they decided that I should just stick to regular dancing. So my body already knows the motions, even when I’m not looking at what I’m doing. We can go back to swinging for a bit if you want.” Starlight liked this idea much better, and as he got into position, Moonshadow exclaimed, “Oh! That reminds me. So, the Master said you were new here. Where were you before he brought you to the Museum? If you want to talk about it, that is. I understand if you don’t.”
“Before?” Starlight repeated, confused as Moonshadow began to push him again. “I… There was no before. I woke up with Xia, he told me my name, said I was a doll, and then taught me to dance before bringing me here to meet you. That’s it.”
“Wait, wait, wait, you’re a doll?” Moonshadow gasped, delighted. “So am I! Well, technically, I’m a figurine, but that’s still a type of doll, so it counts. That’s so cool! We’re like distant cousins!” Before Starlight could ask what a “cousin” was, Moonshadow had moved on. “But anyways, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen another doll. I knew the Master had some, of course, but I never met any. You said he taught you to dance?”
“Didn’t he teach you?”
“Of course not! I’ve always known how to dance. It’s what I was made to do.”
“Oh.” Starlight’s brow furrowed. “Does that mean dancing wasn’t what I was made to do?” He hoped not. He loved dancing.
“Not necessarily,” Moonshadow hastened to reassure him. “If the Master wants you to do something, then it’s your purpose, whether you were made knowing how to do it or not. It could just be the Master wanted to teach someone how to dance and commissioned you for that purpose. Who knows, really. The Master does a lot of things that don’t make sense, but it’s not our place to question them. You’re lucky, though.” Moonshadow suddenly sounded almost… envious. “That you’ve never belonged to anyone else before the Master. The world Outside can be so cruel to our kind. Most Real People treat us like trash, but the Master, he treasures us, appreciates us, and his Angel protects us from anyone who would try to hurt us or steal us. And all the Master asks for in return is that we stay in our exhibits and do what he says when he says to do it. Very reasonable, really.”
There was quite a lot to unpack in that statement, so Starlight started with the thing that seemed most pressing. “His… Angel? I haven’t met anyone with that name yet.”
“You will eventually. Everyone does. He’s almost more like the Master’s partner instead of a proper exhibit, and he’s the only one allowed to roam the Museum freely so he can keep an eye on everything. He has a lot of exhibits to take care of, though, so we probably won’t see him very often. He can be… intense sometimes, especially when you first meet him. But he’s very nice once you get to know him… unless you break the rules or try to leave your exhibit.” Moonshadow placed a hand on Starlight’s back to push him again, and Starlight felt him shudder slightly before he continued. “But, if you are good, he will talk to you, tell you what’s going on in the Museum, sometimes he’ll even play with you if your exhibit has the room for it. The Angel knows so many games, even more than I do. Oh, and speaking of games! There’s a few more tricks you can try on the fabric instead of just swinging and climbing, here, let me show you…”
No more was said about the Museum or Xia or the enigmatic Angel as Moonshadow proceeded to teach Starlight a number of tricks and holds and wraps he could do while suspended on the fabric. Thankfully, they weren’t too far off the ground, so Starlight proceeded to enjoy himself immensely despite the difficulty of the moves. Moonshadow proved to be a much more lenient and encouraging teacher than Xia had, as well, and the time flew by, until the two dancers had tired themselves out completely. Starlight was just about ready to sink to the floor and curl up right there, but Moonshadow wouldn’t hear of it, and instead led the taller dancer to a small alcove near the far right corner of the room that he’d found while exploring earlier.
“It would be much more fun if we played hide and seek to find it,” Moonshadow was saying as he led Starlight across the room. “I’d hide, and you could see if you could find me. Unfortunately, our connection would make that unfairly easy. Like shooting fish in a barrel, as they say.”
“Fish?” Starlight asked, tired but intrigued. “What are those?”
After a bout of incredulous silence, Moonshadow said, “…Fish are little creatures that live in water. Though some of them are really big, too. But seriously? You don’t even know what fish are? You must be younger than I thought. What about birds? Do you know what those are?”
“I don’t,” Starlight said, just as they reached a corner of the room where two walls met.
“Watch your head,” Moonshadow cautioned, crouching down and prompting Starlight to do the same. “It’s a bit snug in here, but I think we’ll both fit.” He crawled forward, and Starlight hesitated a moment, reaching out with one hand curiously. The cold metal from one of the pillars met his fingertips, and as they slid over the metal, they met cloth. After a few more seconds of tactile exploration, Starlight discovered that draping curtains on the wall and the presence of the nearby pillar hung with its own adornments formed a little nook between the cloth and the wall.
“So how about stars?” came Moonshadow’s slightly muffled voice from within the alcove. “You’re named after them; surely you must know what those are.”
“No,” Starlight said, feeling… remorseful, for some reason. He finally crawled into the alcove himself and sat next to Moonshadow, their backs to the wall. “The word… seems familiar, like I know it, but it has no meaning.” It was indeed a rather snug fit, but with Moonshadow pressed tightly against Starlight’s side, one of Starlight’s arms wrapped around his narrow shoulders, the two tired dancers somehow made it work.
After they had gotten comfortably situated, Moonshadow hummed to himself thoughtfully before speaking up again. “I can see why the Master wanted me to look after you. You really do have a lot to learn; you don’t know how the world works at all. You’re so… innocent. Like a child. It’s adorable.”
Starlight couldn’t find it in himself to feel offended at Moonshadow’s first observation. He certainly didn’t feel like he knew much of anything at all; he didn’t like it, but there was no point in denying the obvious. As for the second… well. If Moonshadow thought he was adorable, than who was he to object?
“A child?” he said instead, focusing on the part of the sentence he had no context for. He knew the question would just prove Moonshadow’s point, but the new word made him too curious to stay quiet.
“See, you don’t even know what children are!” Moonshadow said triumphantly.
Starlight rolled his eyes and jabbed lightly him in the side with a finger. “Enlighten me then, oh learned one.”
Moonshadow started violently at the playful poke, but then gave a surprised, delighted laugh and immediately jabbed him back. Starlight felt the intense urge to retaliate further, but he supposed that he wouldn’t get an answer out of the figurine if anytime soon if he did, so he decided against. Moonshadow eventually calmed down as well and hummed thoughtfully again as he thought about Starlight’s question, eventually saying, “Real People… aren’t like us, Starlight. When they make us, we stay the same, forever. We can learn things, sure, but we don’t really change too much. But with Real People, they start out not knowing anything, not even how to talk. They also are very small at first, and need a lot of protecting so that they don’t hurt themselves or get hurt by others while they’re busy learning and growing until they’re big and know everything they need to. The small stage is when they’re called children, and when they’re big, they’re adults. Children are so cute, Starlight, I wish you could see one sometime. They’re just so tiny!”
“Like you, you mean?”
Moonshadow gasped in indignation, reaching up and tugging at a lock of Starlight’s hair, and Starlight couldn’t contain his laughter any longer. “I am a perfectly respectable height, mister! It’s not my fault you happen to be so much bigger.”
“You’re still small compared to me,” Starlight replied, still smiling. “That means you need to be protected, too, right? You seemed… sad earlier,” he continued quietly, the smile disappearing from his face as he remembered the look of vulnerability and dread on the boy had worn when Xia had touched him earlier. “And scared. I don’t want you to be sad or scared. It… doesn’t feel right. You shouldn’t feel that way.” Even as he said the words, the truth of them resonated deep inside him. Yes, small things should be protected, little ones should be happy, not sad, not scared. That was the way things should be. He felt around for Moonshadow’s small hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. “I want to protect you from that.”
Moonshadow was speechless for a good few seconds. Finally, he said, in a slightly strained voice, “That’s… not how it works, Starlight.”
“Why not?” Starlight said stubbornly. “Alright, we can take turns looking after each other, then. How does that sound?”
Moonshadow let out an odd little laugh. “Well, it sounds like you’ve already made up your mind, and there’s no use arguing with you. I guess we’re stuck with each other, then.”
“Yup!” Starlight said smugly, before deflating slightly, doubt creeping up on him. “Is… that a problem?”
Moonshadow’s hand tightened briefly on his, and Starlight could hear the smile in his voice when he replied, “Not at all, Starlight. Not at all.”
Starlight didn’t remember falling asleep, but when he opened his eyes, he was curled on his side, a warm, reassuring weight pressed up against his back. Gentle, even breaths tickled the back of his neck. For the briefest of moments, Starlight was transported to another place, another time, wanting to call the person curled around him by a name that he did not know and could not think of… and then-
“Ah, good, you’re awake.”
Starlight’s whole body jolted at the sound of that familiar voice, and the inexplicable feeling of déjà vu vanished as quickly as it came as he became fully alert. “Master!” He scrambled out of their alcove, pulling a groggy and disoriented Moonshadow along with him.
“Well, it looks like you two have gotten quite chummy while I was gone,” Xia observed as the two dancers stood before him, sounding amused and… strangely pleased. “Enjoy your nap?”
“Yes, Master, it was very nice,” Moonshadow answered guardedly from somewhere slightly behind Starlight’s right shoulder. Starlight nodded in agreement.
“Good, good. How are you holding up, Starlight? Acclimating to your new home? Has Moonshadow done a good job of informing you about how my humble Museum operates?” Xia asked, stepping closer. Starlight felt hands adjust his clothing, brush his fringe back from his face, straighten his blindfold, which had become loose while he slept. His blindfold… his sight…
Starlight felt the hurt and the grief come flooding back, and for a brief second, the demand for an explanation, for Xia to give his sight back was on the tip of his tongue… and then the words died before he even said them. Because Xia had taken his sight away… but he’d also given him dancing. He’d given him Moonshadow. Weren’t those worth more than his eyes? So, he held his peace, and instead simply said, “Yes, Master, I’m learning a lot.”
“Hm. That’s good to hear. Tell me though… has he told you about his little mistake?”
“Mistake?” Starlight repeated in confusion, feeling Moonshadow stiffen beside him.
“That answers that question. Though it does raise another. Why might that be, my Moonshadow?”
“I…” the figurine stammered, caught off guard at being directly addressed so suddenly. “You just said to tell Starlight about the Museum; I didn’t think it was necessary, Master.”
“Ah yes. Thinking. A bad habit of your kind, but one that unfortunately can’t be broken without losing other important faculties in the process.” An inexplicable feeling of dread grew in Starlight’s middle as Xia continued speaking, and the doll got the distinct impression that he was missing something extremely important. “So, since you seem to be doing a surplus of thinking lately, apply a few of those hardworking brain cells to this situation, Moonshadow. How is our dear Starlight to know how to avoid your mistake if he’s not even aware of what it is?” Moonshadow evidently didn’t reply fast enough for Xia’s liking, and the man let out a loud, explosive sigh. “Alright, I guess I’ll just have to be the one to-”
“No!” Moonshadow’s panicked outburst took Starlight completely aback, and he instinctually reached out and took hold of his companion’s hand in an attempt to calm him. Moonshadow’s trembling fingers were icy to the touch as Starlight’s wrapped around them. “No, please, Master, I’m sorry, I’ll do it, I will.”
“Are you sure?” Xia said, his voice a low, silky, satisfied purr. “You know I only want what’s best for all my precious exhibits, and that includes you, my little pet; if telling him yourself would upset you, you need only say so.” Something in Xia’s tone rankled at Starlight. He didn’t understand what was going on or why, but he knew that he didn’t like it. Couldn’t Xia see that he was already upsetting Moonshadow by talking to him like this?
“No, I can do it, Master, I promise,” Moonshadow insisted, though he sounded anything but confident.
“Very well then. Of course, now that you’ve given your word, if you break it...” Xia let his sentence trail off and hang meaningfully.
Moonshadow swallowed audibly. “Y-yes, Master. I understand.”
“Good boy.” Starlight couldn’t see it, but he knew Xia was patting the figurine on the head. “Remember, this is for Starlight’s own good. You wouldn’t want to let him down, would you?” Starlight was quickly getting very tired of Xia talking about him like he wasn’t standing right there.
“Excellent.” He clapped a hand on both their shoulders (neither could contain their instinctive flinches) and began marching them back towards the center of the room. “Now, it’s finally time for that demonstration I mentioned earlier. I’m quite eager to see what you have in store for me after that performance you put on previously.”
Dancing with Moonshadow was as incredible as it had been the first time, and Starlight didn’t think being praised so heartily by their Master would ever get old, but there was an almost tangible tension in the air the entire time. Once Xia had told them that the music would come and go occasionally even when he wasn’t there to keep them in practice and then disappeared again, the two dancers stood side by side, the sudden silence between them loud and uncomfortable. Starlight was just about to open his mouth to ask Moonshadow what was going on, when the figurine wrenched his fingers out of Starlight’s and took off.
Starlight went after him, confused and worried and feeling suddenly very alone and vulnerable in the darkness without someone to hold onto. He blundered into a number of the ceiling hangings on his way, but ignored them as best he could, following the insistent tugging on his consciousness that led him back to the small alcove where he and Moonshadow had slept before.
“Moonshadow?” he asked worriedly, crouching down outside the alcove. “What’s wrong? Can I come in?”
There was a very, very long silence, and Starlight had begun to think that Moonshadow would just stonewall him entirely, when he heard a very quiet, “…Okay.”
Starlight carefully crawled inside, finding Moonshadow huddled at the far end of the alcove, resolutely facing away from him. He flinched when Starlight reached out to touch his back, and the doll withdrew immediately. “Look, I… I don’t know what’s going on, exactly, but I know it’s upsetting you. You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to, Moonshadow. I don’t mind.”
Moonshadow let out a long, shaky breath. “I do, though, Starlight. The Master’s right, I’m being selfish, but I… I just…” His shoulders abruptly slumped in defeat, his voice tinged with despair. “I didn’t want you to think less of me.”
“Why would you think I would think less of you?” Starlight asked, concerned.
“Because, I…” He faltered, seeming to struggle with himself before ultimately deciding to proceed. “I did something terrible,” he whispered.
Starlight, unable to believe that this kind boy was capable of anything even remotely bad, denied it instantly. “Surely it wasn’t that-”
“It was,” Moonshadow cut him off plaintively. “Master said so. I protected Hope from him.”
Moonshadow explained: “Master calls him a rogue exhibit. He doesn’t care what the Master says or about his rules, and he just does what he wants all the time. He can’t leave the Gallery, but he’s the only one of us who is able to roam about like he pleases like the Angel, unless the Master catches him. He goes and visits the exhibits sometimes, brings us news, lets us know what’s going on, keeps us company, plays with us, just like the Angel does. I’ve heard-” His voice quieted to barely above a whisper again, “-that he’s even helped a few exhibits leave this place, although I’m not sure why. I don’t know why anyone would want to leave; it's so much better in here than Outside, and the Master and the Angel take such good care of us that I’m sure it hurts their feelings a lot that anyone would choose to leave them.
“Despite all that… Hope really is very kind, and very funny, too. I know he just wants to help us, same as the Master and the Angel, even if he may be misguided in the way he goes about it. But, because he beaks the rules and defies the Master constantly, he has to be punished. That’s how it works. He has these awful marks because of it.” Moonshadow turned, and with his finger, he traced lines over Starlight’s arms and chest to demonstrate.
“But Hope doesn’t ever learn his lesson; he never stops. I don’t know why, but he doesn’t, even though being punished hurts him so much. He was visiting me one day, in my yellow and white room by the sea, and the Master came right after he left. He asked if I had seen Hope recently, since he’d gotten out of his exhibit again, and I didn’t want Hope to get in trouble and be punished, so I… I lied. I said no. But Master already knew that Hope had come by, see. He was testing me. And I failed the test.
Moonshadow had to swallow hard before he could continue. “I’ve… I’ve never seen him so angry, Starlight. He was so, so angry. But I understand why. I broke the rules. I was selfish. I lied to him. So I had to be punished, too. I was taken to a smaller room, far away from my old one and without any other exhibits close by, because liars deserve to be alone. Even the Angel stayed away all but once. My sight was taken away, to remind me that my role is only to listen and obey, not to look. I couldn’t even dance most of the time; my blindfold tied me to the wall. Sometimes the water would come, and get so deep I would nearly go all the way under before it went away again. There were the snakes, too. They were worse than the water. But not worse than being alone.” He trembled, and when Starlight reached up to comfortingly cup his cheek, he found it wet with tears.
Starlight’s heart clenched painfully at the description of this punishment, the sheer cruelty of it, and some deep, forgotten part of him that knew exactly what that brand of cruelty felt like cried right along with the poor figurine. Why anyone would feel the need to cause anyone this much pain simply for trying to help someone he cared about, Starlight didn’t know, but he did know it felt wrong. It felt very, very wrong.
“I’m so sorry, Moonshadow,” he told the other softly, combing gentle fingers through silky-soft hair. “You didn’t deserve that.”
“But I did,” Moonshadow protested, pushing Starlight’s hand away. “You don’t understand, Starlight. The Master… he saved me. My old masters… I tried so hard to please them, to make them proud of me, to dance my very best for the patrons, but all they did was ignore me. Even when some of the clients would… look at me. When they’d hit me or trip me or t-touch me.” Moonshadow shuddered violently and seemed to shrink in on himself. “But the Master, he took me away from all that. He praises me when I dance well and doesn’t yell or hit me when I make a mistake. He protects me, keeps me safe, and when I’m punished, I know it’s always because of something I did, not because he wants to punish me. This was my fault, and I need to own up to it.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you all this earlier. Please, don’t think I was trying to deceive you, I just… I was so lonely… I didn’t want you to be disappointed in me like everyone else. Or think less of me. Maybe even hate me.” His voice broke, and he drew in a deep, steadying breath. “I understand if you do, though. I wouldn’t blame you.”
Oh. Starlight felt like he’d just been punched in the gut. That’s why Moonshadow was so scared. He thought… he really thought…
Moonshadow gave an undignified squeak of surprise as Starlight unceremoniously pulled him onto his lap, wrapping his arms around him tightly. “S-starlight? What-?”
“Listen, Moonshadow. I don’t understand a lot yet, it’s true, but I do understand that you didn’t mean anything bad by what you did,” Starlight said with utter conviction. “How could I be disappointed in you when you were just trying to help someone? So please, don’t be afraid anymore. I’m not angry. I don’t hate you.” He tucked the figurine’s head under his chin and stroked his hair comfortingly, adding in a softer tone, “I don’t think I could never hate you.”
The tension bled out of Moonshadow’s body at these words, and he slumped against Starlight, arms coming up to circle the doll’s neck as he buried his face in his shoulder. Tears started to soak the gossamer fabric of Starlight’s clothing as the figurine’s entire body shook with the force of his quiet sobs. This was the exact opposite reaction of what Starlight had hoped would happen, and he quickly began to panic, thinking he’d said something wrong, that he’d somehow upset Moonshadow even more. “Oh no, I’m sorry, Moonshadow, please don’t cry, I didn’t mean to make you sadder, was just trying to-”
“I’m not sad, silly.” Moonshadow gave a watery little laugh, and turned his head to the side so his voice wasn’t muffled in Starlight’s clothing. “I’m happy. So, so happy. I never thought I could be this happy ever again. It’s more than I ever dared to hope for. Instead of abandoning me or giving me back to my old masters, Master found a new purpose for me even after my punishment; he gave me a new name, a new exhibit, a second chance to make him proud. He gave me someone like you.” He nuzzled his cheek against Starlight’s shoulder trustingly, and an inexplicable, bittersweet pang went through Starlight’s chest as the small figurine sighed contently. “I’m so glad.”
Though he still couldn’t shake the feeling gnawing persistently at the back of his mind that something was deeply amiss… Starlight found that he was glad, too.
OK but why N and Jimin specifically? – N and Jimin collaborated on this special stage for the 2016 SBS Gayo Daejun together, and N gave this (frankly adorable) interview talking about their experiences working together and what a good time they both had. They also have both done blindfold dances and have personalities that are quite similar/complementary in many respects, despite Jimin being a few months younger than VIXX’s own maknae. It seemed only natural to make them a duo after considering all that.
Music reference – While you’re free to imagine any song you like in the dance sections of this chapter, I personally envisioned “Guts” from the Berserk OST for Starlight’s first dance, and “First Light” by Lindsey Stirling for Moonshadow and Starlight’s first duet (the MV for that song also greatly influenced the look and feel of their exhibit along with Henry’s “That One,” namely the star lights and the additional drapes and pillars; I'm not going to make a habit of referencing non-Kpop MVs in this thing, but that particular one has a lot of special significance to me, and I couldn't find a Kpop MV that had exactly what I was going for with the environment, so I had to get creative).
“Caught in a lie” – A common trait of faeries in their lore is that they are incapable of lying. Therefore, it’s quite an easy extrapolation to assume that that lying to a faerie’s face would be one of the fastest ways of getting on their bad side, hence the disproportionate retribution poor Moonshadow faced for lying to Xia.
Dolls vs. figurines – Basically, the difference can be summed up as “all figurines are dolls, but not all dolls are figurines.” While there are all sorts of magical construct types created for any number of purposes, in my mind, “doll” is the umbrella term given to constructs specifically made to be toys, pets, or entertainment. Of course, under that umbrella term would also be specialized subtypes of dolls, such as puppets (aka dolls made of animated inert materials like wood or plastic instead of flesh and blood and are normally exclusively used for entertainment purposes), or figurines (aka dolls made predominantly for display and decoration that tend to be extremely pretty, but also more physically fragile than most of their more durable cousins, as they’re meant to be eye candy, not hands-on playthings. Moonshadow actually leans toward the larger side of the size spectrum for figurines; most tend to be quite smaller).
Clothing reference! – If you want to see what Starlight and Moonshadow’s outfits look like, I commissioned an artist to design them; you can go view them here. :>
Chapter 7: Give Yourself Back to Me
MVs referenced: f(x)'s 4 Walls; Oh My Girls' Windy Day; Shinhwa's Venus
They could only go through the door one-by-one, and Brother insisted to take the lead. Seonwoo was right behind him, followed by Cedar. Laughter was next, and Chanshik behind, and both Cedar and Channie held Laughter’s hands. Sun brought up the rear crowding on their heels. They piled through in a rush, and came out in a ragged line into the warmly-lit kitchen of the witches’ house. There was no one in the room, at first, but then one of the witches stuck her head in from the hallway. It was the one that Cedar didn’t know hardly at all, which meant it was-
“Krystal!” Sun called from his place at the back of the bunch. “We need help! Where’s Amber?” Krystal, wary, pointed a (somehow condescending) finger at the door they’d just piled out of. “Oh! Which one? The book room or the food closet?” Sun shoved everyone busily ahead of him, further into the kitchen, and kicked the door shut.
“The study,” she said.
Sun screwed his face up in concentration, muttering, “Book room, book room, book room….” before re-opening the door to show a cluttered study rather than the blue-lit interior of Sweet Girl. “Amber!”
“Are the others around?” Cedar murmured quietly to Laughter, who tilted his head to the side slightly before shaking it. “Thanks.”
“Where’s the fire?” Amber’s amused voice preceded her out of the study, and she gave them her cute, crooked smile as she came out. “Hey, Sun,” she said to the doll who was right beside her, practically vibrating in his impatience, but then Sun often vibrated so Cedar understood why she took it in stride. Something about the rest of them clearly showed their distress though, because the amusement quickly was swept away by concern. “Wait. What’s wrong?”
“The potion maker took Starlight and Kitten,” Brother said immediately. Heart, who had claimed his shoulder as perhaps the tallest vantage point, yowled in angry emphasis. Her mother, and a brother or sister, appeared at the sound and demanded her attention, and she lightly leapt down and let herself be fussed over.
“Which potion maker?” Krystal put in professionally. Right, wasn’t she the sister who specialized in potions?
“The one who made the potion to wake up the deer girls,” Brother said. There was a copy of Sun’s map pinned up on the wall, and beside it a much more detailed and less understandable map of the patch of woods the cabin was in. He took a long stride over to it and slapped his hand down over the picture of the potion-maker’s lab. “Here.” And he quickly explained what they’d learned so far.
There was a brief pause as Amber absorbed everything. “Well.” She breathed out sharply. “Well. I take it we’re doing something about it.” She craned her neck and took them all in. “Is this it?”
“Jinyoung and Dongwoo can’t go far from their place,” Sun counted off on his fingers, “Junghwan was up all night helping figure out who took our brothers, and also somebody-” he glared at Laughter, and crowded in close enough to pinch him, because of course he couldn’t see the glare, “-said he shouldn’t come. And Yoojung can’t go far from her place, and the soda boys can’t go far from Yoojung.”
“And Luna is in the woods looking for reagents, and Victoria is protecting Luna,” Amber said. She pursed her lips. “You said there were five people in the group that took them?” Laughter nodded. “Plus the potion maker. A magic-user in his own place. We need to be a small enough party to get in and out of Doors quickly, but I’d like to outnumber them by more than this. Krystal, would you-”
“Yeah, I got it,” Krystal said, and disappeared from sight. Soon after there was a bright clear ringing sound from the direction of the door, that Laughter, Cedar, and Seonwoo all startled to hear.
Amber patted Cedar, who was closest. “Since Seunghee and Hyejin are going to work at Sweet Girl a couple of days a week they use our Door, and some of the girls suggested that we should make a way to call them over from their wood if we needed to suddenly. Hence the bell.”
“They can hear it that far away?” Sun asked.
“It’s magic,” Laughter and Chanshik chorused, both chuckling, and Sun went sulkily to hang off of Brother’s elbow.
“So what’s the plan?” Amber started to bustle around the kitchen, in and out of the study, pulling mysterious bits and pieces out of this and that shelf, gathering them together in a backpack or slipping them into various pockets of her sturdy pants. “I can’t say I’m looking forward to a long hike if there might be a fight at the end of it. Is there a shortcut?” She paused in her preparation to make a rueful face at them all. “I don’t know if I understand which door goes where on the map.”
“We can go back home,” said Seonwoo, and Cedar supposed ‘home’ meant ‘Sweet Girl’. “Dongwoo-hyung can make the doors there go just about anywhere, as long as the person going through has been there before.”
“Right,” Brother said thoughtfully, “And we went with Hyojung and Jiho straight from the tunnels outside the potion-maker’s door to Dongwoo’s place, before, so wouldn’t it be easy to make the door ‘remember’ that?” Speaking of Dongwoo must have reminded him, because he turned to Amber and asked diffidently: “But, are you able to go far from your home? You shouldn’t come if it would hurt you.”
“Why would it- ahh,” Amber said, and the returning Krystal butted in.
“We don’t use that kind of magic. Our style doesn’t really tie you to a place.” She gave Brother a very small smile. “Every system has its downsides, but ours doesn’t have that particular one.”
“Oh, that’s right,” Seonwoo said. “You’ve come by the Sash before, right? Mostly because you hit it off with some of the mannequins at the Emporium, right?”
Krystal smiled a little more. “Yeah.” Her smile quickly morphed into a frown. “Are they okay? Does anyone think those people will come back to try and take more constructs? Someone tried to take Taeyeon once, you know. Just walked in, grabbed her wrist, and tried to drag her out.”
“I remember that,” Chanshik said. He hadn’t stopped holding Laughter’s hand, and Cedar thought he squeezed it a little tighter. “It was just after we came to the Sash. Sunny saved her, right?” Krystal nodded, and Chanshik nodded back soberly. He gave Cedar a sideways, sad smile. “I’m sorry we couldn’t save Starlight and Kitten.”
“We’re going to save them,” Cedar said, trying to be sturdy and confident and not at all as shriveled and trembling as he felt inside. “With everyone’s help.”
“Of course we are,” Amber said firmly. She gave him a very grave, kind look. “Are you all alright? Were you able to get any sleep?”
“We slept,” Sun said resentfully, glaring at Brother.
“I lit a magic candle,” Brother said, unperturbed by the glare.
“And our friends kept watch,” Cedar contributed.
“Of course.” Amber patted him on the arm, then stepped away.
“They’re coming,” Laughter suddenly spoke up, and after just a moment everyone heard the front door bang open.
“What’s wrong?” Jiho’s brash voice rang out from the front. “Who’s here! What is-” a waterfall of deer girls poured into the living room, Jiho at the front, and almost knocked each other over as they suddenly pulled up to see the space so full of people.
“We were worried,” Hyojung said from the middle of the bunch, and wriggled her way forwards to go to Amber and look her over, evidently to see if she was okay. “Seunghee and Hyejin are here with us so what could-”
“Kitten!” Jiho cut in. Her sharp eyes swept over the room again, as if she could have missed them somewhere. “And your eldest. Where are they?”
Cedar tried to answer, but found that there was a lump in his throat that prohibited it. He tried to swallow it down, and realized that his cheeks were wet. Laughter slipped up behind him quietly and re-claimed his hand. “They have been taken. We need to go get them.”
There were various noises of dismay, and a half-dozen questions asked at once, as Amber tried to summarize the situation as quickly as possible. She only got about half-way through when Jiho pushed through the crowd to stand next to Cedar and briskly pat his shoulder, which she had to reach up in order to do. “Let’s go, then, let’s go, all of us.”
“If it’s going to be a fight then our Yewon shouldn’t go,” Hyejin piped up, standing beside the taller youngest protectively.
“I’m not a fawn anymore,” Yewon protested, though meekly.
“Not everyone can go,” Seonwoo put in. They all looked over at his deep voice. “If we have to get in and out it becomes much harder to get through the Door quickly. And if he’s the kind of magic-user who can cut off portals in the middle, there could be people left behind.”
“Jiho shouldn’t go,” Amber said, and endured the offended look she got in response with aplomb. “The potion-maker has her blood; she would be very vulnerable to him.”
Jiho started to protest, and had her mouth covered by the only sister that had pale hair instead of dark. “I’ll go,” she said. Cedar thought her name was Mihyun. “I’m good at this sort of thing.”
“Good idea! And Yoobin is smart, so she should come too.” It was Seunghee who spoke, and Yoobin looked a little shocked to be volunteered so abruptly. Cedar recognized her as the short-haired sister who had been trapped in the mirror. “And me. I work at the shop so I’ve met a lot of your kind, I can definitely help if I come along.”
Hyojung smiled at her. “Good. So Jiho and Yewon are staying behind. Seunghee, Mihyun, and Yoobin are going. Of course, I’ll go-” She was cut off by an indignant outcry by her younger sisters, which Cedar was relieved to see. The deer girls were all small and fragile-looking, but Hyojung was the smallest and the sweetest, and he couldn’t bear to think that she might come along and be hurt. He didn’t think Starlight or Kitten would like it either. He was sorry Jiho couldn’t go; she could take care of herself, he knew very well, and wouldn’t need any kind of protecting, even if she would have accepted it.
“So Jiho, Yewon, Hyejin, Shiah, and Hyojung are staying behind,” Seunghee said cheerfully. Cedar wasn’t sure how it had been decided, just like that, but there wasn’t any protest against her proclamation except for some grumbling. “Good! Should we go? It’s a pretty long run, and I don’t think your kind runs as fast as we do.”
“I know we don’t,” Amber said drily. Finished with her preparations, she took a scrap of paper and wrote a note to the absent witches, placing it on prominent display before handing a pack to Krystal and shouldering her own. “Okay. Eleven people. I think that’s a good number for what we’re going to do.” She went to the Door and after a second, opened it to show the interior of Sweet Girl. “Let’s go grab Dongwoo to reset a Door for the underground tunnels we’re heading for.” She stepped through, and Krystal saluted them sardonically.
“To Grand Central station,” she said before following her sister.
“That’s not it’s real name,” Sun said indignantly, and then they were all piling through.
They emerged in the long, stone tunnel that led to the Door that in turn led to the potion maker’s workshop. Cedar could already see the red sills of it in the distance, and his stomach churned with anxiety.
“Okay,” Amber said authoritatively. “Gather around, everyone. Let’s lay down a plan of attack before we go crash the potion maker’s party, shall we?”
“Certainly,” Seonwoo replied, as the group formed an uneven huddle a few paces from the Door they’d just come through. “No point in just charging in and hoping for the best, especially on a powerful magic user’s home turf.”
“Why not?” Sun pouted, looking like he very much wanted to do some charging right then. “We outnumber him, right? Why can’t we just make him tell us where Starlight and Kitten are?”
“I’m down with that,” Seunghee stated, earning herself an approving look from Sun. “We just all rush in and-” She smacked her fist into her open palm. “He won’t even know what hit him.”
Amber grimaced. “I don’t know, guys; depending on this person’s power level, that could go very badly, very fast.”
“I have to concur with the young lady,” remarked an unfamiliar voice that echoed from all around them. “That sounds very unwise.”
Cedar started violently, and pushed Laughter behind himself to the center of the huddle, facing outward at the tunnel around them. Brother did the same with Sun, and Mihyun and Seunghee did the same with Yoobin, who looked rather disgruntled at the coddling.
“It’s impolite to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations, you know,” Amber called out after a moment of tense silence, her right arm raised in front of her defensively. She sounded far more composed that Cedar thought he would in such a situation.
“My apologies. This does happen to be my tunnel, however. Not much happens here that I’m unaware of.” With that, a man materialized out of the concrete wall, stepping between them and the red-silled Door. He was short – only slightly taller than Amber, who was herself the tallest female in their group – with dark hair, sharp, intelligent eyes, and a small mouth that looked like it usually spent a great deal of time smiling. “There now. Better?” Something he saw in their expressions must have amused him, because he broke into brief chuckling fit before composing himself. “Ah, forgive my dramatic streak, my friends. It gets the better of me sometimes. I couldn’t help but overhear, however, that you were planning on paying our potion maker acquaintance a little visit, and it didn’t seem like it would be a friendly one. I am just curious as to why you would do such a thing, especially if the last time you saw him, you were asking for his help.” He looked straight at the four dolls as he said this, and Cedar felt a chill go down his spine at the intensity of the man’s gaze.
“How do you know about that?” Sun demanded, suspiciously peeking around Brother’s broad shoulder. He sounded as unsettled and indignant as Cedar felt. “Who are you, anyway?”
“I witnessed your prior conversation with my fire complement about where to find the potion maker through his eyes, the same way he and our other complements are currently watching this one through mine. As for who I am… our Lady calls me Minwoo. You may call me that as well, if you wish. Your kind does place such emphasis on labels. It’s rather endearing.” The man, Minwoo, smiled at them all indulgently.
Cedar thought this didn’t explain much at all, and neither did his brothers, if their stymied looks were anything to go by. “It’s an elemental thing, just go with it,” Amber murmured to them out of the side of her mouth. Louder, she said, “Are these your tunnels then?”
Minwoo inclined his head, still smiling. “This particular section, yes. Most of the tunnel network belongs to our other earth complement, but this stretch is adjacent to my caverns, so it’s considered part of my territory.”
Chanshik bowed to him respectfully. “We weren’t trying to intrude, sir. We were just passing through.”
“You don’t have to grovel, boy; I don’t mind the company,” Minwoo assured him good-naturedly. “On the contrary, I enjoy traffic in my territory. Before we relocated here, we used to get a lot of it, and I rather miss it. As long as you don’t plan on breaking out any jackhammers, you’re fine. But now, back to my original question: What do you want with the potion-?”
A strident mewl cut him off, and he and the rest of the group looked down to see that Heart had somehow gotten away from Brother while the others had been speaking. The little black cat was currently sitting close beside the strange man’s left shoe, looking up the tunnel intently at the potion maker’s Door.
“Ah!” Minwoo’s face lit up with pleasure at the sight of the kitten, and he immediately dropped into a crouch, holding out one of his hands invitingly to her. “Hello, little one! What brings you here? Making sure your humans stay out of trouble, I assume?”
Heart sniffed at his fingers politely, but pinned her ears back, still not looking directly at him.
Minwoo’s face suddenly became grave. “What do you mean by that?”
“We-” Sun began, but without even taking his eyes off the cat, Minwoo held up his other hand in a very clear “keep quiet” gesture.
Meanwhile, Heart very lightly nibbled on one of Minwoo’s fingertips, before padding fearlessly up to him, going up on her hind legs, placing her paws on his knee to steady herself, and looking him squarely in the eyes, her face mere inches from his. They held each other’s gazes for a long second. Heart was the first to look away, sniffing at a random spot on his pants.
“Are you sure, little one?” Minwoo finally said, looking very serious.
Heart looked up at him, leaned forward, and very deliberately touched her tiny nose to his. Minwoo blinked in surprise as the kitten pushed off his knees to sit at his feet, beginning to wash her face. He sighed, giving her an oddly fond look.
“Yes, I do suppose you’re right. Well, then.” He scooped her up in one hand, tucked her into the crook of one arm, and got to his feet in one smooth, graceful motion. He turned his attention to the rest of the group, his face serious once again. “If the little one is correct and the potion maker truly has stolen two of your cohort from you, then what the young lady and I said earlier still applies; fighting your way in as a group will get you nowhere. The potion maker has multiple security features installed as a matter of prudence.”
“Do you have any suggestions, then?” Seonwoo asked as Minwoo deposited a strangely placid Heart back into a startled Brother’s hands.
“A diversionary tactic would probably work best. Split your party into two or more groups, with one going to distract the potion maker and the other going to search for the lost ones. I sense magic users among you, so if one of you knows any cloaking, camouflage, or invisibility spells, now would be the time to use them. The stronger the better, too. Less chance of you tripping any warding or aegis charms he might have lying around that way. Also, you will need to go through his workshop in order to reach his actual house; the place where customers can come and go is very isolated and heavily shielded. If I recall correctly, the real entrance to his dwelling is a small black door near the back of his workroom. It’s easy to miss, but if you’re looking for it, you should find it without too much trouble.”
“Why are you telling us all this?” Laughter asked as Minwoo paused for breath, not even bothering to attempt to hide his suspicion. “Especially when the potion maker’s helped you in the past?”
“Not,” Mihyun hastened to add diplomatically, “that we’re not grateful for your assistance or anything.”
Minwoo didn’t seem offended, however. “Just because we transacted with him in the past doesn’t make us friends. If there’s even a chance that he is responsible for the disappearance of your two companions, then who am I to stop you from looking into it? Besides…” He reached up to absently run a finger over a single black and white feather pinned to the lapel of his jacket that Cedar hadn’t noticed before. “I know what it’s like to have someone you love stolen from you.”
“Did you ever find them?” Cedar found himself asking.
The man’s smile was sadder than a frown would have been. “No,” he said simply. “Even though I searched and searched, there is a limit to how far my reach extends from my rock and stone and steel. I never found the fiend who took my precious little hatchling away from me. I fear he is lost to me forever now.” A moment of somber silence passed, and then Minwoo seemed to rouse himself from the reverie he’d fallen into and gave them all a cordial nod, his dark, searching eyes lingering the longest on the four dolls. “However, I sincerely hope the same isn’t true for your missing brothers. Best of luck to you all.” With that, he turned and walked back into the wall, the concrete absorbing him like he'd simply stepped through a door instead of into solid stone.
“Thank you!” Sun called after him. Minwoo’s only response was to toss a small grin at them over his shoulder before the concrete swallowed him back up. And then he was gone. After a moment or two more of subdued silence, the group headed back up the tunnel towards the potion maker’s door, stopping a few paces away.
“Alright,” Seonwoo began. “In light of recent information, if one of you other more magically-inclined types can whip up a cloaking spell, I’ll volunteer to go search for Kitten and Starlight while the rest of you distract the potion maker. Any traps or curses the potion maker might have set up as security measures won’t affect me as much if I happen to trip them, and I loaded myself down with protection charms before we came besides.”
“I’ll come with you,” Krystal offered immediately. “If they’re under the effects of any potions or elixirs, I can nullify them.”
“I’m coming, too!” Seunghee interjected, bouncing up and down excitedly. “If we have to fight, I’m good at that, but if we have to sneak, I’m good at that, too!”
At the others’ incredulous looks, Mihyun evidently felt the need to vouch for her sister. “She is, actually. She would be a good choice to bring along.”
“Hey! What do you mean, ‘actually’?” Seunghee pouted.
Sun opened his mouth, apparently all ready to volunteer to go as well, when Chanshik said, “I think that sounds like a plan. I grabbed a handful of whisper charms before we left, just in case.” He dug into one of his pockets and produced a loose, tangled ball of string and carved wooden pendants. “We can keep in touch this way, even if we split up.”
“So does that mean the rest of us are going to see the potion maker?” Laughter asked dubiously.
“I think that would be best,” Amber said, rubbing her chin thoughtfully. “It would be good to make him think we have a smaller party than what we came with, so that he doesn’t suspect that there are others searching parts of his house. It will make him think he’s got us outgunned, if not outnumbered. I can come with you for backup so he doesn’t nab you the second he sees you. You look like you’d be good in a fight, Mihyun, so you can come, too.”
“Wouldn’t it be better if some of us went with the others?” Sun finally interjected, still vibrating in his impatience to spring into action.
“I think it’s better that you all go where he can see you,” Yoobin said pragmatically. “They came after you specifically. If you’re all together, he’ll be less likely to think about what’s happening in other parts of his house.” Cedar had to concede that she had a point. “But then, what about myself and the tall magician? What shall we do?”
“Actually, I had an idea about that. If Chanshik can manage an extra cloaking spell, you two can sneak in with us when we confront the potion maker, and be our backup backup in case things get hairy.”
“Good idea!” Chanshik said, giving Amber an approving look. “I can only manage a couple cloaking spells at a time, but I did bring an invisibility ward along with the whisper charms.”
“Let me guess. Another of your ‘hunches’?” Seunghee asked cheekily.
“But of course,” Chanshik replied, smiling serenely.
As the others discussed the last details of their plan, Cedar leaned in close to Laughter, who he hadn’t let go of since they’d left the witches’ house, and murmured, “Will you be alright in there? You had to close your eyes last time because of the magic. If there’s a fight…”
“You’ll protect me,” Laughter finished, fingers tightening on Cedar’s. He looked up at the taller doll and smiled, the expression tight and somewhat forced, but Cedar could see the sincerity there as well. “Right?”
“Right,” Cedar replied, and then Chanshik was pressing a wooden pendant in the shape of a seashell into his unoccupied hand.
“I didn’t bring enough for everyone, so we’re going to have to share,” the magician explained. “You activate it by tapping it twice with your pinkie finger, and turn it off by doing it again, like a light switch. Even if you’re not wearing one yourself, you can still listen in if you’re touching the person wearing it, so that’s one for you two, one for you two.” He passed off a charm to Sun, who stood close to Brother. “I’ll keep one for myself and Yoobin, Amber and Mihyun can get one each, and then the last two can go to Seonwoo and Krystal, and Seunghee can listen in on whichever one she’s closest to if she wants. Now, search party, gather around, and I’ll cast the cloaking spells.”
As Chanshik got to work, Amber wandered over to stand near the dolls. “You guys ready?” she asked them, rolling up her sleeves to expose the black, intricate, arcane symbols inked around her right wrist and forearm. Even though he’d seen them before on different occasions, Cedar couldn’t help but stare in fascination. She was the only other person he’d ever seen who had tattoos like himself, but he he’d been astonished to discover that unlike him, she’d gotten them willingly, both because she found them aesthetically pleasing and because they helped her cast certain types of magic easier. His respect for her had risen considerably after learning this.
“As we’ll ever be, I guess,” Brother answered for them all, scratching Heart under her chin while Sun latched onto his other arm.
“This is so cool,” came a disembodied voice near Mihyun’s left shoulder. The taller deer girl started violently and gave the empty air beside her a deeply unimpressed look. “Just think of everything I could do if I could turn this on and off at will!”
“I am thinking of it, and I think I just got about five grey hairs,” Yoobin replied wryly, taking Chanshik’s proffered hand. The two waved at the visible members of the group briefly, and then the magician pressed his finger to a bracelet on his wrist, and they also disappeared from sight. “Though... okay, I do have to admit, this is pretty cool.”
Personally, Cedar thought it was rather unsettling. He knew there were ten other people standing around him, but the fact that he could only see five was a disturbing one for reasons he couldn’t quite put into words.
After everyone had activated their whisper charms, Amber glanced at them all and nodded decisively, pushing the Door open. “Alright, people, let’s get this show on the road,”
The corridor and walls beyond the door looked exactly the same as Cedar remembered them. Laughter shuddered violently as they stepped through, squeezing his black-crossed eyes shut as tightly as he could get them, and Cedar made sure to keep a very secure hold on him as they walked. Like they had done when they came here with Jiho, Sun announced them to the red-draped room as clients, and, as before, the figure that formed from the curtains pointed them toward the workroom, saying that it would notify the potion maker.
As the party warily stepped into the next room and started down the steps, Cedar waited with baited breath for the spell that had trapped him and Laughter last time to trap them again… but they were able to reach the bottom unimpeded, just like the rest of them. True to Minwoo’s words, there was indeed a small, black door near the rear of the room, almost completely hidden behind a shelf. As Cedar watched, the door moved open a little more on its own, just wide enough for a person to slip through.
“Nice place he’s got here,” Mihyun observed, glancing around at all the boxes, shelves, tables, and bottles crammed into the large space as they waited tensely in a small huddle at the foot of the stairs.
“Thank you,” said that eerily familiar voice Cedar had hoped to never hear again. The potion maker appeared before them at the other end of the room, looking down on them with Cedar’s face, his usual cool expression firmly in place. “Now, what brings y-?” He stopped mid-sentence as his eyes brushed over Cedar and then the rest of the dolls.
“I think you know why we’re here,” Brother finally broke the terse silence, his voice dangerously calm. From her perch on his shoulder, Heart let out a low growl.
The potion maker stared at them all for a few more seconds, and then one corner of his mouth quirked in a smile that was utterly devoid of humor. “I suppose there’s no point in pretense, is there. I have to say, if I’d have known it would be this easy to get you to come to me, I’d have tried it sooner. Would have been far more lucrative a prospect than the one I ended up going with. But alas, no use crying over spilt milk. I am curious, though. How did you know to come here?”
“We have smart friends,” Sun bit out before anyone else could reply. “Now give us back our brothers. Now.”
The potion maker huffed, shot Sun a look of icy disdain, and began to leisurely amble down the stairs. “That is simply one request that I can’t fulfill, doll.” As he moved into the room, he noticed that the small black door was still ajar, frowned, closed it, and took out a small, silver key to lock it.
The potion maker’s nonchalance infuriated Cedar so much that he couldn’t stay silent any longer. “Did that sound like a request? Because it wasn’t. If you won’t give them back, then we’ll take them. One way or another.”
“I suggest you do as he says,” Amber added, her pleasant tone belaying the hints of steel underneath as the inked wards on her skin began to glow with a pale, silvery light. “That wasn’t an idle threat.”
“Oh, I’m sure it wasn’t.” The potion maker finished locking the door, and turned to face them, regarding them all coolly. “But the fact remains that I can’t give them back to you, the simple reason being that I don’t have them.”
“Well, then who does?” Laughter snapped, speaking up for the first time.
“My client. I doubt simple dolls like you may have heard of him, but perhaps your esteemed companions,” The sneer in his voice was evident even though there was no sign of it on his face, “might. Does the name ‘Xia’ ring any bells to you?”
“Nope, never heard of him!” Mihyun replied cheerfully, even as Amber paled next to her.
“Don’t tell me,” the witch murmured faintly, as if in shock. “Archfey Xia? The Lord of Yesterday’s Flowers? That Xia?”
“The very same.”
“Who cares who he is?” Sun broke in impatiently. “If this guy,” He pointed a finger at the potion maker, “doesn’t have Starlight and Kitten, then will just find this Xia person and make him give them back.”
“You cannot make Xia do anything, doll,” the potion maker retorted, looking almost amused. “He’s one of the most powerful archfey currently operating in the Feywild; what he wants, he gets, period. End of story. And he wanted the six of you. The only reason he doesn’t have all of you instead of just the two you’re looking for is because they freely gave themselves to him to save you. There’s no way he would give them up now, and you four should count yourselves lucky you can still walk around freely. I took a massive pay cut because of that ridiculous deal they made, too,” he grumbled, almost under his breath. “All that trouble and I get a third of the pay I agreed to do the job for.”
Cedar felt like the world had stopped. He could barely breathe. Starlight and Kitten had… for them…? No. No, it couldn’t be real. This had to be some sort of deception, a trick.
Sun, predictably, was the one to speak up and voice what they were all thinking, albeit in little more than a whisper. “You’re lying.”
“Am I now?” The potion maker strode purposefully to a hidden nook in the wall and pulled out a large crystal, about the size of his hand. He stared at it intently, swiping the thumb of his other hand across one of its many facets, until he seemed to find what he was looking for and glanced back at the party. “Maybe this will convince you.”
With that, the crystal lit up, projecting the images of the potion maker conversing with another man who they had never seen before, and-
“Kitten! Starlight!” Sun called out desperately, taking a single step forward before Brother’s arms wrapped around his waist to restrain him. Cedar couldn’t blame Sun for his reaction; were it not for the faint transparency to their bodies, he himself might be convinced their missing brothers were standing in the same room as them. Kitten was shielding Starlight’s smaller body with his own, and both looked terrified, though they were doing their best to hide it.
The potion maker gave them a moment to take in the scene… and then the images started moving and speaking. They watched Starlight duck out from behind Kitten to face the potion maker and the other man directly, offering himself in place of his brothers despite his obvious fear. They watched as the man, who must have been Xia, declined his offer, said Starlight alone wasn’t worth five dolls, and then watched as Kitten stepped up and offered himself as well, holding Starlight’s hand so tightly both their hands shook and their knuckles turned white. They watched as Xia laughed delightedly, and then agreed to the deal with a snap of his fingers, the sound of which was like a knife to Cedar’s heart.
With that, the scene froze again, and then disappeared back into the crystal the real potion maker held. “There you have it. Your ‘brothers’ are now exhibits in Xia’s Museum, living quite comfortably, I expect, now that they have no memory of you or their lives before their time with their new owner. So, I suggest you make good use of their noble sacrifice and go off to live your lives. Preferably far away from here.”
Cedar barely heard him. He was too busy trying to keep from breaking down entirely in tears. He had known that Starlight and Kitten had loved him, loved them, but he never knew quite how much until that moment, and his chest ached unbearably under the weight of his grief. Without even really processing what he was doing, he grabbed his arm and began to dig his fingernails into his skin, harder and harder, until they would be sure to leave bruises later. How were they supposed to go on without Kitten and Starlight? How?
“No…” Cedar glanced over to see Sun staring into space, staring at nothing, shaking his head repeatedly. His eyes were wet, but instead of looking crushed or defeated, he looked furious. His eyes suddenly sharpened, and he looked directly at the potion maker defiantly. Louder, he said, “No! I don’t care if Starlight and Kitten gave themselves to someone; he can’t have them. They’re ours. We’ll get them back. We will.”
The potion maker let out a disbelieving bark of a laugh. “You don’t get it, do you? Didn’t you hear what those idiot dolls offered as bargaining chips? Themselves. And they didn’t add any caveats on that offer, either, which means they gave Xia everything. He owns them completely, utterly, body, mind, soul, and every drop of quintessence that runs through their veins. If you think an archfey would ever give a prize like that up willingly, you’re even denser than I thought.”
“Who said it was going to be willingly?” Sun retorted, fists clenched at his sides, visibly vibrating with rage and looking like he was going to rush off and punch something any second now.
“What he said,” Mihyun chimed in, hand resting on something clipped to her belt that looked alarmingly like a knife.
The potion maker’s face was a study in incredulity. “You can’t actually be-”
“Just shut up!” Laughter bellowed, eyes still squeezed tightly shut, but not tightly enough to keep tears from escaping them. The fingers of one hand were fisted in his hair, and the other was clutching Cedar’s arm so tightly that it hurt. As Cedar immediately began prying Laughter’s fingers out of his hair worriedly so that he didn’t actually hurt himself, the shorter doll spoke again, quieter but with no less vehemence. “You’ve said enough. Just tell us where to find the person who took them, and you’ll never have to see us again.”
“Laughter…” Amber began.
“This is his fault,” Laughter growled, cutting her off. “The least he can do is tell us where to find our brothers!”
The potion maker seemed to mull this over for a moment, eyes going distant. Then, they sharpened, and Cedar did not like the look he saw in their depths. The fact that his own face could be capable of making such an expression chilled him to the bone.
“Actually, I’ll do you one better: I’ll give you a Door straight to Lord Xia’s palace in the Feywild, free of charge. By all means, please, go force him to give your brothers back to you.”
“Really?” Sun said, voice torn between suspicion and heartbreaking hope.
“Anything to get you lot out of my workshop. Preferably for good. Besides, if you really want to see him that badly, then who am I to get in the way of that? Least I can do, really.”
“As kind as your offer is,” Amber interjected, taking hold of Laughter and Cedar’s elbows. “Could you excuse us for a moment? We need to have a little chat.” She began unceremoniously tugging the two dolls with her toward the other end of the workshop, while Mihyun followed, herding Brother and Sun along ahead of her, shooting dirty looks at the potion maker behind her shoulder the whole time.
“Take your time,” the potion maker called after them. If Cedar didn't know better, he would have thought the man sounded amused.
“Everyone gather around,” Amber ordered, sequestering the group between the side of the stairs and a large bookshelf. Her tattoos glowed brightly, and a shimmery, silvery dome of energy appeared around them. “Okay, this should be completely sight and soundproof, so we should be safe from any prying eyes for awhile.”
“Ah, well, in that case,” came Chanshik’s voice, and he and Yoobin reappeared right beside Cedar’s left elbow, and he nearly jumped out of his skin in surprise. Mihyun immediately went over to wrap the shorter deer girl in her arms, and Chanshik gave Cedar an apologetic, sad smile before moving to stand closer to Amber, surreptitiously wiping some suspicious dampness from his eyes. Cedar was surprised to see that their friends looked almost as grieved by Starlight and Kitten's situation as he was feeling himself. Silence fell for a brief moment, before a quiet sob from Cedar shattered it, the doll unable to hold back his emotions any longer.
With a long, silent sigh, Amber reached for the whisper charm that was tucked out of sight under her shirt, and spoke to it. “Did you guys get all that?”
“We did,” came Seunghee’s voice over Cedar’s own charm, her normally bright, expressive voice sorrowful. “I’m so sorry, guys.”
“I meant what I said, earlier,” Laughter said, giving Cedar’s hand a comforting squeeze. “We’re going after them. This isn’t over yet.”
Seonwoo sounded incredibly pained, even over the whisper charms. “Laughter… I hate to say this, but it kind of is. Faeries are not beings to be trifled with, especially when one of their Deals is involved. They’re dangerous, they’re powerful, they’re unpredictable, and they’re smart. Especially Xia. He didn't get to be an archfey by accident, you know.”
“Not to mention that the Feywild itself is one of the most volatile planes we know of,” Krystal added. “Time… doesn’t work there the same way it does in most dimensions. Most planes have a synched linear flow of time, with few exceptions when it comes to specific locations, like the room the stuck Door in Sweet Girl led to. Starlight and Kitten could already have been with Lord Xia for weeks, maybe even months, and we would have no way of knowing.”
“She was dangerous, powerful, unpredictable, and smart,” Laughter retorted stubbornly, even as Cedar’s heart sunk within him at Seonwoo and Krystal’s words. “And we got away from her.”
“Guys, please, think about this,” Amber pleaded. “Starlight and Kitten gave up their freedom so you could still have yours. Would you really just throw that sacrifice away so flippantly?”
“We didn’t ask them to do that!” Sun cried, heartsick and furious. “I hate that they did that! I hate it! How could they think we would want to be free if they can’t be free, too? We can’t just leave them there! There must be something we can do!”
Amber raked a hand through her short, silvery hair in frustration. “Well, unless you give me an actual, coherent plan, boys, we’ve reached a dead end. I won’t pretend to know what you’re going through right now, because I don’t, but I am not about to let you go gallivanting off to someplace as dangerous as the Feywild without any semblance of a solution to this problem. Namely how you’re going to retrieve Starlight and Kitten in the first place. You heard what the potion maker said; there’s nothing you have that could possibly tempt an archfey into giving your brothers back to you, not after the deal they cut with him.”
Cedar absolutely hated to admit it, even to himself, but she had a point. He wanted to get Starlight and Kitten back just as much as the others, but how could they, with the odds stacked against them like this?
And then Brother spoke for the first time since the potion maker had stepped into the room. “Yes. We do.”
“I don’t know, guys,” Amber finally said doubtfully after Brother finished explaining his plan. In fact, all their friends all looked both concerned and dubious. “It’s a long shot at the most. And if you fail…”
“It’s a chance I’m willing to take,” Brother retorted fiercely. “I can’t just sit back and do nothing. I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t at least try to save them. We belong together. All six of us.”
“I agree!” proclaimed Sun with no hesitation, going over to wrap his arms around Brother even as Heart meowed approvingly and nuzzled his cheek, and Laughter reached over to squeeze his hand in solidarity. “It’s a good plan, Brother. I think we can do it!”
“It’s alright if you don’t want to come,” Cedar told the others earnestly as he tightened his hold on Laughter’s other hand, feeling hope stir in his heart for the first time since the potion maker’s recording had ended. “Like Amber said, it will be dangerous. We wouldn’t want you to get hurt, too. We can go on ahead. Like Brother said, we have to at least try.”
Amber rolled her eyes toward the ceiling and let out an explosive breath before glancing at Chanshik and the deer girls. At their nods, she looked back at the dolls and smiled. “Not getting rid of us that easily, boys. Someone needs to have your backs in there. Although…” She tapped her chin thoughtfully. “We do need to be smart about this. Kitten and Starlight’s deal may protect you four, but it’s not going to do much for the rest of us. Hey, Krystal?”
“Yeah?” came the other witch’s voice over the whisper charm.
“The potion maker locked the door you three went through. You won’t be able to get back without him noticing. At least, not in time to catch up with us before we leave. I think… you’re going to have to sit this one out, unfortunately.”
“Awwww!” came Seunghee’s disappointed whine. “You’re telling me I can’t go kick faerie butt?”
“Unfortunately. Though, Krystal, your paternal grandmother was a faerie, correct?”
“Oh…” Krystal sounded grim. “Yes, she was.”
“Thought so. It’s best you’re not going, then, anyway. Can’t risk this one taking an interest in you because of that. In fact,” She turned to the rest of them, “Anyone who’s vulnerable to mind magic, suggestion, or illusions should probably stay behind as well. Faeries – especially archfey – should never be underestimated.”
“It’s good that Seonwoo can’t come either, then,” Chanshik said. “His condition may make him immune to certain types of magic, but fae magic isn’t one of them. He’d be especially vulnerable if this Xia tried to pull anything.”
“If it’s that serious,” Yoobin said, looking pensive. “Then…” She glanced at Mihyun, chewed on her bottom lip for a moment, and then plowed resolutely ahead. “I think Mihyun should stay behind as well.”
“I was just about to suggest the same thing,” was the immediate response from Seunghee, even as Mihyun gave Yoobin a shocked, betrayed look. “You’re too gullible to be put in a room with a faerie, Mimi. You take things too much at face value. Remember when that merchant was going to charge you your entire purse full of money for that set of colored pencils you wanted, and you were just going to hand it over to him without a second thought before Jiho stepped in? If faeries are way trickier than that-” (“They are,” Krystal and Amber interjected simultaneously.) “-Then you won’t stand a chance."
“But… but then I won’t be able to help! I’ll have come along for nothing.” Mihyun looked so crestfallen that Cedar felt sorry for her.
“You can still help,” Yoobin said pragmatically, patting her despondent sister on a slumped shoulder. “If you stay behind, you can make sure the potion maker doesn’t try anything after we leave, like alert the archfey that we’re coming or anything like that.”
“You can go and be the first one to tell everyone else what happened, too, if you stay,” Cedar found himself adding.
“There, you see?” Yoobin said, shooting Cedar a grateful look. “Just because you can’t come with us all the way doesn’t mean your contributions aren’t important.”
“She’s right,” Seunghee said thoughtfully. “Like, I can’t come with you guys, but that doesn’t mean I can’t carve ‘toadstool’ into this antique mahogany table a few times before we go. Along with maybe a few other things.”
“I like the way you think,” Krystal said, actually sounding impressed. “And now that I think about it, that bookshelf looks very flammable.”
“Just don’t burn down the entire building, okay guys?” Amber said wryly. “Keep it subtle.”
“Subtle is my middle name, Amber.”
“Really?” Sun asked interestedly. “I didn’t know you had multiple names, Krystal!”
“It’s an expression, Sun,” Chanshik explained gently.
“So how about it, Mihyun?” Yoobin was saying quietly to her sister as a brief argument erupted over the illogicality of having multiple names when one would suffice. “Will you stay?”
Mihyun still wasn’t entirely convinced. “Who’s going to take care of you if I stay? Seunghee already can’t come. You know you work better in a group than by yourself.”
“And I will still be in a group,” Yoobin returned calmly, though Cedar also thought she still looked a bit nervous despite her confident words. “I’ll be with Amber and Chanshik and the rest of them. I know you and the older girls still think I’m a faun, the same way you do with Yewon, but I’m a grown doe now, and I’m fully capable of taking care of myself if I need to.”
Mihyun blew a lock of pale hair out of her face peevishly. “Alright, fine. But you’re taking my knife for protection, no ifs ands or buts.” She unceremoniously unbuckled the belt around her waist and looped it around Yoobin’s. Cedar had noticed most of the deer girls wore belts with similar attachments, but he’d never really looked at them closely before. A small sheath hung from it, almost too small to be noticed at first glance, with a handle that looked like it was made of bone or antler protruding from it. Cedar couldn’t help staring, or fully suppress the instinctual shiver that traveled down his spine at the sight of the weapon. No, Cedar reminded himself firmly. Knives had other purposes and uses aside from hurting people. There was nothing to be afraid of. Nothing at all.
“Mihyun, I already have a knife,” Yoobin protested.
“Don’t care,” Mihyun said firmly as she finished cinching the second belt snug around the shorter girl’s waist. “If I can’t go, at least I can still protect you this way.”
Yoobin rolled her eyes. “What about if you have to protect yourself, genius? What will you do then, huh?”
“I’ll improvise,” Mihyun said coolly. “Did you see how much glass is in this place? Protecting myself won’t be a problem.” She straightened the two sheathed knives at Yoobin’s sides so that they were level with each other and made a great show of putting her dress to rights before she noticed something outside Amber’s barrier. “Hey! What’s he doing?” she asked, pointing at the potion maker, who was heading into another room leading off of the one they were in.
The others stopped talking and followed her finger. Amber narrowed her eyes. “Whatever it is, it better not be what I think he’s doing.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll keep an eye on him!” Mihyun volunteered before anyone else could speak, stepping through the barrier before anyone could stop her and striding purposefully after the potion maker.
“I think we should wrap this up soon,” Chanshik murmured as the potion maker turned toward the short girl with an annoyed look. “Best not to test how long his magnanimous streak holds out.”
“Right.” Amber shrugged off her backpack and rummaged around in one of the pockets. “Seonwoo, Krystal, Seunghee, are you guys ready to sign off?” At the three affirmatives that filtered over the charms, she nodded. “Alright. Stay safe, guys.” As the search party’s connection cut out, Amber finally pulled a small, flat, circular object out of her bag. “So I was planning on using this to help find Starlight and Kitten, but I think you should hold onto it, just in case.”
“What is it?” Sun asked, leaning forward to get a better look.
“A compass,” Amber explained, holding it up so they could all see it. “A magical compass. Helps you find specific objects. Here.” She offered it to the closest doll, which happened to be Brother. Heart clambered down his shoulder and stuck her little neck out to sniff at the object curiously. “I’ll show you how it works.”
“Hey.” Something nudged Cedar’s arm, and he looked down to see Yoobin standing near him, holding one of her sheathed knives out to him. At his inquisitive expression, she shrugged. “I saw you looking earlier. Mihyun gave me hers, but you can have mine, if you want. It’s not like I can really use two at the same time, anyway.” She continued to hold the weapon out until he gingerly took it. “They’re made of our antlers and pure iron, so they can affect magical things, too. Pretty cool, huh?” She folded her hands behind her and rocked back and forth on the balls of her feet shyly, and Cedar felt a rush of gratefulness course through him. Yoobin didn’t have to be here; all her sisters were safe, and she barely even knew Cedar or his brothers, and yet here she was, lending them her aid regardless.
“It is,” he told her truthfully, clipping the sheath onto his own belt. Its faint weight on his hip was both disconcerting and oddly comforting. As Amber finished her explanation about the compass, he took Laughter’s hand again and managed a small smile for Yoobin. “Thank you.”
She beamed up at him. “It’s the least I can do, considering how much you and your brothers have already done for me and my sisters. You… really don’t know how much it meant to me, when your brother saw me in that mirror. I had begun to give up hope that anyone would ever find us, and I would be trapped alone there forever. But then you all came by, and your brother saw me. He saw me. Your other brother talked to me. You all seemed sorry for me. You gave me hope again. You gave me back my sisters.” Her large, dark eyes were wide and earnest. “So I want to help you get your brothers back, too.”
“Well. Let’s go find them then, shall we?” Cedar replied, once he could trust himself to speak again.
“Mmm!” Yoobin gave a decisive nod, slipping her small fingers into Chanshik’s as he activated his invisibility ward once again.
And with that, Amber dropped her barrier.
“Someone tried to take Taeyeon once, you know.” - Definitely inspired by that psycho who walked right on stage during an SNSD performance and tried to drag Taeyeon away.
Minwoo and Heart – Partially inspired by this one video of Minwoo playing with a cat in Shinhwa’s recording studio.
Chapter 8: I Can’t Run Away
This cover of Blood Sweat & Tears by BTS has been this fic's unofficial theme for over a year, and this seems like an opportune place to include it, so here you go.
Definite trigger warning for this one folks. No means no.
Starlight’s life quickly fell into a predictable, comfortable routine. He and Moonshadow danced when the music came (sometimes Xia was there when it did, most of the time he was not), played or talked when it stopped, and slept curled around each other in their little nook by the wall when they got tired. Starlight still missed his sight, but every time Moonshadow’s small, warm fingers slipped into his, every time Starlight succeeded in eliciting one of those melodic, bubbly giggles, the ache became just a little easier to bear. Starlight didn’t think he would ever get used to the fact that he had someone he could talk to and hug whenever he wanted, barring when they were dancing of course. It was a gift he would never take for granted.
But, every so often, something Moonshadow did or said or even just the warmth of his hand in his would send an inexplicable pang of longing through Starlight’s heart, like he had forgotten something (someone?) very important. He almost brought it up to Moonshadow a couple times, but ultimately decided against it. It wasn’t like he got these feelings all the time; they were quite rare on the whole, actually. And besides, the thought of causing his companion any sort of worry or distress made his stomach tie itself into painful knots every time. No, it was better that he just kept this to himself and didn’t spoil Moonshadow’s happiness with his silly, fleeting, incomprehensible feelings. Surely they would go away for good soon.
At present, however, it was very hard to ignore them, given that Starlight and Moonshadow were currently dancing to one of the slower, sad-sounding songs, the ones that never failed to elicit all those heavy feelings of longing and sorrow that took up residence in Starlight’s chest and didn’t leave until the music had died out entirely. Still, those feelings did help him dance better, so they weren’t always a bad thing, all things considered.
As the music finally faded out and the two dancers came to a standstill, near to each other but not quite touching, Starlight sensed a presence in the room with them. He turned toward it just as someone broke into applause. Starlight couldn’t hide a pleased smile, and straightened attentively, hands clasped behind him, waiting for their Master to either critique their performance or praise them for a job well done. From the enthusiastic clapping, he hoped it would be the latter. However, when the presence finally spoke… it wasn’t Xia.
“That was beautiful!” a deep, resonant voice exclaimed from somewhere… strangely high above them. “And what a pretty pair you make, too!”
Moonshadow made a shocked, delighted noise and ran toward the direction of the voice. “Angel! You came!”
“But of course!” Moonshadow broke into a sudden fit of giggles, and it sounded like they came from the same strangely high place that the voice had. Starlight cocked his head slightly to one side in confusion. It sounded almost like Moonshadow was being picked up and spun around. Just how big was this new person, anyway? “It’s not like I could stay away for too long with a new presence in the Museum, after all. And the Master finally decided you learned your lesson and repurposed you, I see. About time. I missed coming to see you, Liar.”
“I missed your visits, too, but that’s not my name anymore, Angel,” the figurine corrected with great dignity as his bare feet came back in contact with the tiled floor. “It’s Moonshadow now.”
“Ah, that’s much prettier. I approve. But now, who is this?” Starlight could almost feel the other presence’s attention turn on him, and he involuntarily took a tiny step back under the intangible weight of its scrutiny.
“This is Starlight,” Moonshadow said, taking Starlight’s hand and putting himself bodily in between the taller doll and the new voice. “He’s my dancing partner, and he’s so new that he doesn’t know how everything works yet around here.” His voice became stern. “So be nice, okay? Don’t scare him.”
“Still so feisty even after all this time, little one,” the Angel replied, sounding amused. To Starlight’s relief, the intangible, scrutinizing feeling bearing down on him lessened until it disappeared entirely. “But not to worry; I have no intention of scaring anyone at the moment, much less your dancing partner. Starlight, was it?”
Starlight nodded, mustering a brave smile. “Yes. Hello, Angel.”
“Well, hello to you, too.” A rustling of cloth could be heard as the Angel took a seat on the floor in front of them. “I have to say, you don’t seem scared.”
“No…” Starlight replied slowly. No, he hadn’t been scared, per se, the Angel’s undivided attention had just been… intimidating, that was the word. “Just… it was intense.”
The Angel laughed, a hearty, lively sound that made Starlight smile wider. “I get that a lot. I suppose getting observed by me can be a little overwhelming if you’re not used to it, but it is my job, and I happen to take it quite seriously. See now, Moonshadow? No harm done. Now, give us a little space so I can properly meet your little friend, there’s a good boy.”
Moonshadow huffed, but gave Starlight’s fingers a parting squeeze before obediently stepping aside from between Starlight and the newcomer.
“Come here, little stardancer. Let me get a proper look at you.”
Starlight stepped forward a few paces… before two huge hands grasped his waist and lifted him bodily into the air. Starlight yelped in surprise, clutching the hands with his own instinctively.
“Easy now, Starlight, I got you,” the Angel rumbled soothingly, setting him down on what felt like an oversized leg. Starlight wobbled unsteadily, discombobulated and rather intimidated, before one of those gigantic hands curled around one of his, stabilizing him. “Steady there now, wouldn’t want you to fall.”
“Woah…” Starlight breathed, awed by how huge the Angel was. Just his hand was large enough to wrap around Starlight’s entire forearm from elbow to wrist. “You’re… really big.” Not the most eloquent of things to say, perhaps, but Starlight was too dumbfounded right then to think of anything better.
The Angel chuckled indulgently. “I think you’re just small.” A large hand cupped the back of Starlight’s head and ruffled his hair. He noticed that the Angel’s skin was strangely cool to the touch. Not cold exactly, but still much cooler than Xia’s or Moonshadow’s. It wasn’t unpleasant, though. In fact, it felt quite nice. A finger hooked under Starlight’s chin and lifted his head up, and Starlight didn’t fight it as the Angel gently tilted his head first to the left, then to the right.
The giant gave an approving hum. “I can see why you caught the Master’s eye. You complement our Moonshadow’s talents extremely well, too, I’m impressed. Oh, speaking of which.” He let go of Starlight’s hand and bent over.
“Finally remembered I exist, huh?” Moonshadow grumbled from somewhere below them.
“Aw, don’t be like that, Moonshadow,” the Angel cajoled, picking up Moonshadow as well and sat him on his other leg. As he did so, something soft and fluffy pressed lightly into Starlight’s back. It couldn’t be the Angel’s arm, so what…? “You know I could never forget about our cutest little resident dancer.”
“Flattery will get you nowhere, Angel,” Moonshadow sniffed primly, though Starlight could hear the pleased smile he was trying so hard to suppress.
“Can’t blame a body for trying.”
While the others bantered, Starlight reached behind him to curiously prod the soft mass that was still pressed up against his back. His fingers sank into a feathery, downy mass, and he couldn’t resist running his fingers through it, captivated by the sensation.
The Angel let out a sudden bark of surprised laughter, and the softness disappeared from under Starlight’s fingers, along with a rush of displaced air. “Don’t do that, Starlight, my wings are ticklish!”
“Wings?” Starlight asked in fascination. “What are those? Why are they so soft?”
“Told you he didn’t know much,” Moonshadow commented, earning himself a light kick from Starlight.
“Ah, right. The blindfolds.” The Angel thought for a moment as a brief kick fight broke out between the two dancers, before the giant snapped his fingers. “I got it! A friend of mine taught me this trick. I’m nowhere near as good at it as he is, but it should suit our needs well enough.”
Silence fell in the room, and Starlight waited expectantly for something to happen. Just as he was about to start fidgeting, he smelled something, something faintly sweet and bitter. As he inhaled, shapes and colors began to formulate themselves in his mind, even though he was still blindfolded, and his eyes were still closed like they almost always were now. Vividly blue eyes stared intently down at him out of a breathtakingly beautiful face crowned by a head of short, golden hair, and over the shoulders of a blue and white striped robe, there extended two large, black, feathery appendages that curled around the three of them sitting there, which must have been the wings the Angel had spoken of earlier. Almost as soon as the image appeared, however, it vanished, and Starlight couldn’t keep his heart from sinking a little within him as his vision was plunged into darkness once again.
“So?” the Angel asked expectantly. “Did it work? Did you see me? How did I look?”
“Awful,” Moonshadow deadpanned before Starlight could even open his mouth. “Very bad. You’re letting yourself go, Angel.”
The Angel let out a dramatic, dismayed gasp, and the sound was so comical that Starlight laughed aloud, even though he tried his best to hide it behind a fist. “You wound me, Moonshadow. Deeply.”
“I thought you looked nice,” Starlight offered, still giggling but patting the giant consolingly on the arm.
“That settles it, Starlight is now my favorite, I’ve decided,” the Angel proclaimed loudly, wrapping his arms around the doll and cuddling him fiercely. Starlight wheezed faintly as the tight embrace pressed the breath out of his lungs, but he felt a large smile spread across his face regardless at the snug, comforting contact. He made up his mind then and there that he liked the Angel a lot. He was so different from – so much nicer than – Xia. He even gave hugs.
“Well then, I suppose you won’t mind teaching your new favorite how to play a game or two?” Moonshadow asked mischievously. “I did tell him you knew the best ones.”
“What a great idea, Moonshadow,” the Angel replied sweetly. “Games are a wonderful reward for respectful exhibits. So you can just go sit right over there while we get down to business…”
“Aw, come on, Angel, you know I was only teasing!”
“What do you think, Starlight? Should we include him?”
“Hmm.” Starlight played along. “I don’t know, Angel. He has been more of a brat than usual today…”
“Har har, very funny, both of you,” Moonshadow pouted, scrambling off the Angel’s lap and tugging at his arm until he unfolded it from around Starlight and allowed the little figurine to tug him to his feet. “Now stop clowning around and let’s play already.”
“Alright, alright, hold your horses, little moondancer.” The Angel laughed and set Starlight down carefully on the ground. Starlight wobbled a little as his feet came back in contact with the tiled floor, again struck by just how gigantic the Angel was. While he couldn’t be absolutely sure, he thought he came up only to about the Angel’s waist at most. He was sure Moonshadow wouldn’t come up even that high.
The Angel then explained the rules of his game, which seemed simple enough. Starlight and Moonshadow simply had to make it from one end of the room to the other without getting caught by him, and if they managed it, then they would win. However, while it seemed simple in theory, in practice, it was quite a different story. Even though the dancers tried multiple different strategies to get around their pursuer, he always managed to catch both of them before they reached the other side of their room.
“Time out!” Moonshadow called finally, sounding both winded and frustrated. Without waiting for the Angel’s response, he tugged Starlight into the nearest corner, and the two put their heads together. “Okay, new plan,” he said in a whisper. “At least one of us is winning this thing today, so here’s what we’ll do. I’ll distract the Angel, and while he’s going after me, you just run to the other end of the room without stopping. You’ll be sure to win that way.”
“Good plan, but are you sure you want to be the bait?” Starlight asked, knowing how competitive Moonshadow could get. “I wouldn’t mind-”
“No, I can do it,” Moonshadow said stubbornly. “I’ve been blind longer than you have, and I know exactly how big the Angel is, since I’ve seen him before. I’ll have a better chance of outrunning him for longer. Besides, if you win, I win, simple as that.”
“Can’t argue with that logic, I suppose,” Starlight replied, smiling. “I’ll do my best, then.”
“I know you will,” Moonshadow said warmly, and Starlight couldn’t resist giving him a quick hug before they got into position.
Once the signal was given, Starlight waited two seconds for Moonshadow to make his move before he was off as well. He knew where all the ceiling hangings were by now, and weaved in and out of them effortlessly as he ran at full tilt across the room. Distantly, he heard a triumphant “Gotcha!” followed by a loud, playful shriek, and willed his legs to move even faster. And then his outstretched hand came into contact with a curtained wall, and an exultant laugh bubbled up out of him.
“I did it!” he cried happily, panting and flushed with his victory. “I did it! I won! Moonshadow, Angel, I won!”
Starlight stood there in confusion. Where was-?
“Boo.” Starlight gave an involuntary squeal of surprise that got strangled halfway up and emerged as an undignified squeak as he heard the Angel’s deep voice suddenly right next to his ear. He instinctually tried to bolt, but the Angel’s other arm snagged him around his waist and lifted him bodily off the ground.
“Hey! What’s the big idea, Angel?” Moonshadow protested somewhere to Starlight’s left. The doll guessed the Angel had him tucked under his other arm, and had covered his mouth so he could sneak up on Starlight. “That’s cheating! Starlight won fair and square!”
“So he did, so he did,” the Angel said blithely, carrying them both back to the other end of the room. “That doesn’t mean I can’t catch him after the fact, though. Besides, he makes the cutest sounds when he’s startled. By the way, congratulations on getting away from me this time, Starlight. I caught you in the end anyway, of course, but still, not many can even manage that much. I’ll have to make extra sure that it doesn’t happen next time.”
“Thanks…?” Starlight wheezed breathlessly, still trying to calm his racing heart, his arms and legs dangling underneath him in empty space as the Angel carried him. He knew he should probably be afraid, but the Angel’s firm grip around his middle reassured him.
The Angel set them down somewhere near the door, judging from how many footsteps he took before he stopped. “Well, it’s been very fun, you two, but I think our time is just about up.”
“So soon?” Moonshadow protested, sounding as dismayed as Starlight felt.
“Unfortunately. I have other exhibits to look after, too, after all. But, before I go, there is one thing I do need to take care of first. Starlight, come here a moment.”
Puzzled, Starlight stepped forward, only for a tug on his hand to stop him in his tracks.
“Angel…” Moonshadow began hesitantly before the Angel sternly cut him off.
“Just Starlight, Moonshadow.” Starlight winced slightly at the sudden, pointed change in the Angel’s tone, so different from the easygoing drawl it had been just a few seconds ago. He sounded… almost harsh. Almost like Xia.
“Moonshadow.” The Angel didn’t even raise his voice, but the figurine flinched as if physically struck. After an uncomfortable, pregnant pause, Starlight felt the boy’s fingers tighten on his own for a brief moment before they reluctantly slid away. The sound of approaching footsteps pulled Starlight’s attention back to the matter at hand, and he straightened unconsciously, turning to face the Angel’s direction again.
“What is it, An-” The rest of his sentence was cut off by a startled intake of breath as large fingers unceremoniously grasped his chin and tilted his face upwards. Before he could process anything more, a cool mouth pressed itself against his.
Startled, Starlight instinctually tried to pull away, his hands coming up to push the Angel off. The moment he tried that, however, the Angel’s other hand immediately engulfed his wrists, pulling them down and securely pinning them together in front of him. The Angel’s grip on his chin tightened, holding him fast, ensuring there was no possible way for him to escape.
The frigid, unyielding pressure on his lips increased until it was bruising in its intensity. Bitter cold crept into his mouth, down his throat, and coalesced into a small sphere of icy fire in his gut. It… it hurt, Starlight realized with a jolt of dismay. Why did it hurt? Why was the Angel hurting him? He’d seemed so nice, what was going on? Had he done something wrong? He felt tears prick at his eyes, and he whimpered involuntarily. He didn’t like this, it felt bad, it felt wrong. He wanted to get away, he wanted it to stop.
After what seemed like hours, but was probably only a few seconds, the Angel’s mouth finally withdrew from his, though the hands holding his chin and writs remained. “There now. That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
“Wh- wha-” Starlight stammered breathlessly, still trying to comprehend what had just happened and why. He coughed reflexively, trying to dispel the ice that blocked his airways, and tasted a faint trace of iron on his tongue. His mouth and throat tingled unpleasantly, painfully, and the orb of cold residing in his middle burned.
“I just marked you, little stardancer,” the Angel stated matter-of-factly, sounding extremely pleased. The hand gripping Starlight’s jaw moved to cradle the back of his head, curling possessively around the curve of his neck. “You’re officially part of the Museum now. And the Museum protects its own.”
“P-protect?” Why couldn’t his tongue seem to function properly? What was wrong with him?
“Of course, silly,” the Angel chuckled indulgently, his cool, smooth thumb stroking Starlight’s cheek. “Something as beautiful and fragile as you deserves to be protected, to belong to someone who will take proper care of you. That’s where I come in. Anyone who would dare try to threaten or steal you from the Master has to answer to me. You obviously didn’t realize what was happening, so I’ll forgive you for struggling this one time, but…” The thumb caressing the side of Starlight’s face suddenly slid under his chin and forced his head back up, baring his throat completely to the giant. Unlike before, Starlight suddenly felt very small and very vulnerable, and he did not like it whatsoever.
“There’s no need for that kind of nonsense anymore. I’d never let anything bad happen to you, Starlight.” The Angel’s deep voice was almost a purr, and the sound reverberated through Starlight’s whole body. “You’re completely safe here with me, with us. You never have to struggle or fight or feel scared when I’m around. Do you understand that now?”
No! He didn’t understand! The Angel had hurt him! He didn’t feel safe, he wasn’t fragile, he certainly didn’t appreciate being trapped and touched like this, he… he… … he knew that the Angel only wanted what was best for him. That the Angel cared. He could trust him. He could. He could. There was no need to be upset. He was safe. Perfectly safe.
“Yes…” The word left Starlight’s mouth unbidden, almost like it was said by someone else. His tense, rigid muscles began to relax of their own accord.
“Wonderful.” The Angel’s other hand released his wrists and cupped the other side of his face. He gave Starlight’s cheeks a light, affectionate squeeze between his palms before withdrawing entirely. “Now, my time really is up, I’m afraid. See you soon, my little celestial dancers. Be good.”
The door closed behind the Angel, but Starlight still didn’t move from his spot on the floor. It was like he was rooted to that one tile. Then, small fingers brushed his sleeve, and he started violently.
“Sorry!” Moonshadow immediately apologized, shuffling back a couple steps. “I’m sorry, Starlight, I just wanted to check on you.”
“It’s alright, Moonshadow,” Starlight returned in relief, reaching out blindly for his companion’s hand and feeling something uncoil inside him slightly as his fingers closed around warm flesh. “Thank you.”
“Are you okay?” the figurine asked worriedly, coming closer and wrapping his other hand around Starlight’s arm. “I know… that part… of meeting the Angel can be… upsetting. I wanted to stay with you, but… well. If it makes you feel any better, he does that to everyone when they first come. You have some of his magic inside you now. It’s how he puts it there. It helps him protect you. I know it’s unpleasant; I didn’t like it when it happened to me, either. But it’s to help us. Like he said, now that he’s marked you, if anyone tried to hurt you or take you away, then he would know, and he would stop it.”
Starlight struggled to process this. Finally, in a small voice, he asked, “So he didn’t… I didn’t do anything wrong? He didn’t want to… make it hurt?”
“Oh, Starlight, no, not at all!” Moonshadow cried, moving closer to hug Starlight tightly around the waist. “He’s not that kind of person! If he hurt you, it was an accident, I’m sure. He was just trying to keep you safe because he likes you. You made a really good impression on him, I could tell.”
Starlight perked up a little at that. “Really?”
“Absolutely. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t even bother claiming you as part of the Museum,” Moonshadow explained, rubbing Starlight’s back comfortingly.
“I… see…” Starlight replied, still trying to reconcile the memory of crushing pressure against his mouth, a hand wrapped possessively around his throat, with deep, hearty laughter and a tight, reassuring embrace. All the while, his rational mind was persistently telling him that the Angel only did that to him because he cared, that there was absolutely nothing wrong and he should get over himself already, and a deep, pounding ache started to build up in his skull. Before it could get too painful, however, the first strains of a soothing melody began to waft through the room.
“Ah! It’s almost time for us to dance again, Starlight, let’s go, let’s go!” Moonshadow tugged at Starlight’s hand and skipped toward the center of the room eagerly.
Starlight followed him gladly, keen to leave behind the conflicting feelings chasing themselves in circles around his mind, and studiously ignoring the fact that a place deep inside his heart that had only just begun to scab over and heal was raw and bleeding once again.
“Leo, for the last time, there’s a reason I’m a pianist, not a vocalist,” Gloss stated, pacing back and forth down the music stand on Leo’s piano agitatedly. “I mean, not that I don’t appreciate the gesture, it’s really very sweet of you to offer, but I just don’t have the-”
“If you finish that sentence with ‘talent,’ Gloss, I’ll laugh at you,” Leo cut him off quietly but firmly. “Your voice sounds very nice, it’s just untrained. You’ve…” He trailed off and glanced down at the sand beneath his shoes, cheeks heating slightly. “You’ve done a lot for me. I want to do something for you.”
“Leo…” Gloss sounded touched, but still uncertain.
Seeing his chance, Leo persisted. “Please, Gloss? If you really don’t like it, we can stop.”
Gloss let out a long sigh. “…Okay, fine. But if I make your ears bleed, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“Duly noted,” Leo replied, hiding a smile. “Okay, first you need to learn how to breathe.”
“But I am-”
“In a way that you can sustain a note,” Leo finished. He demonstrated how to do it the same way Xia had shown him all that time ago. It took a little while, but Gloss turned out to be a pretty fast learner.
“Okay,” the butterfly finally said. “I think I’ve got it. Now what?”
“Now we pick a note, and you see how long you can hold it.” Seized by a sudden fit of mischief, Leo played a high G, something he knew would be very much out of Gloss’ natural vocal range. Gloss froze in the middle of fanning his wings, and Leo got the very distinct impression he was being incredulously stared at. He stared innocently back, until…
“Why, you-!” Gloss flew at him, buzzing around his head and bumping against his face and hair. “Oh, you think this is funny, huh? Think you’re a real wise guy?” The laughter in Gloss’ words undercut any bite they might have otherwise had, and Leo could no longer contain his giggles in turn as he held up his hands to fend off Gloss’ ineffectual attacks. Gloss sounded like he wanted to continue berating him, but he suddenly stopped, hovering in the air for a moment, before zooming down to land on Leo’s shoulder with an exasperated groan. “Aaah, he always does have such perfect timing, doesn’t he. Sorry, Leo, I got company. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” With that, Gloss’ fabricated butterfly body disintegrated into the usual puff of little yellow paint flakes.
Leo brushed the flakes off his jacket with a melancholy little frown, but he was used to Gloss being called away at the most inopportune times by now, and simply went back to practicing his latest song, trying his best to ignore the pangs of loneliness that kept spearing his heart. The satisfaction he got from how much easier it was to pick his way through a song than it used to be helped with that, though, and he contently ran through it a few times, before switching to vocals only… when the peculiar feeling of something watching him crept up on him, causing an involuntary shiver to run down his spine and the sounds to die in his throat. As he tried to shake the feeling off, a noise from the room beyond the window of light in his painting made him whirl around in surprise.
A large figure was crouched on the other side of the window, peering in at him intently with wide, blue, blue eyes. As Leo’s eyes met his, the figure smiled invitingly, boxy and wide, his vibrant eyes crinkling almost completely shut.
“Can I come in?” he asked, voice deep and echoing through Leo’s entire painting, seeming to originate from everywhere at once instead of from the direction of the window. It occurred to Leo that this was the first time someone had actually spoken to him from the other side. When he got no immediate response from Leo, the figure shrugged, grabbed the edge of the window, and casually ducked through it, stepping fully into the painting as if the barrier separating the two environments simply wasn’t there. Once he was all the way through, he straightened up to his full height, the two black, feathered appendages on his back (wings, those were wings) extending out to either side of him. He towered over Leo as he approached, his wingspan completely blocking out the light from the window, and Leo instinctually shrunk in on himself.
Seeing Leo’s trepidation, the giant quickly dropped into a crouch again as he approached, like someone approaching a skittish animal. “Hey there,” he said, his low voice warm and friendly. “I’m the Angel. Nice place you got here.” Leo’s brow furrowed slightly as the Angel introduced himself. Hadn’t Gloss mentioned an “Angel” before at some point? The details had been rather sparse, though, aside from the fact that Gloss hadn’t seemed very happy when he spoke about him. However, Gloss often spoke in an unimpressed, slightly grumpy tone unless it concerned music specifically, so it was sometimes hard to tell when he genuinely didn’t like something or if it was just the mood he was currently in.
While Leo was thinking this over, the Angel had been making himself at home, taking a seat on the sand next to Leo’s piano and looking out at the waves beyond, the wind tousling his golden hair. After a prolonged period of silence that Leo had no desire to break, the Angel exhaled a loud, explosive breath and glanced over in his direction, a grin upturning one side of his mouth. “So. Do you have a name?”
Leo stared at him for a long moment. Finally, he said, in a voice so feather-light that the wind almost carried it away entirely, “…I’m Leo.”
The Angel nodded sagely, as if the name didn’t surprise him at all. “You do seem very cattish. Which,” he added, as Leo eyed him suspiciously, “is not a bad thing. Kitty cats are very cute.” Leo blinked in bemusement. Did… did this strange giant just call him cute? “So tell me, kitty cat.” The Angel reached over and delicately tapped one of the keys on the piano with a fingertip, drawing a single, sweet note from the instrument. “I heard you singing earlier. Do you play?” Leo lifted one shoulder in a half shrug. “Could you show me?”
Leo could… but he wasn’t sure he wanted to. Instead, he asked, “Why are you here?”
“To check on you, of course!” the Angel exclaimed, as if it were obvious. “It’s my job to make sure you’re okay and that everything is as it’s supposed to be. Now.” He tapped the piano again. “Come on, show me what you got.”
The Angel smiled at him so invitingly that Leo found himself obeying, running through a quick song and singing along. The Angel seemed very impressed afterwards, clapping so enthusiastically that Leo couldn’t stop the pleased smile that spread across his face, ducking his head to try to hide it. Apparently he wasn’t fast enough, though.
“Ah, he smiles! It looks very nice on you.” Leo instinctively brought his hands up to hide his cheeks, which were flushed a self-conscious pink. He’d never quite gotten a handle on how to accept complements, even though he did love them. A deep chuckle resonated through the air at his reaction. "Cute."
Once Leo had collected himself enough to finally look up again, the Angel spoke once more. “Not very chatty, are you?” As Leo’s mouth turned down in a small frown, the giant held up a calming hand. “Hey, that’s okay. I’ve often been told I can talk enough for five people, so I think we balance each other out.” He reached out and delicately plucked a stone out of the sand next to him, bringing it up to the light of the lamp nearest him to examine. It sparkled and glittered in multiple colors, and despite his wariness, Leo leaned forward to get a better look.
“Red granite, I believe,” the Angel observed, tossing the chunk of rock into the air and catching it again effortlessly before holding it out to Leo with a flourish. “Do you know how granite is made, Leo?” Leo shook his head wordlessly as he took the stone, rubbing his fingers over its shimmering surface, worn to a smooth finish from being pounded against the sand again and again. The Angel’s eyes crinkled. “It’s really quite fascinating. It actually starts as molten rock, so hot that it’s liquid, deep, deep under the earth.” As he talked, the Angel began piling up the sand between his long legs into multiple hills and shapes, decorating them with other bits of rock and shell. Leo watched him curiously, enjoying letting the words wash over him without ever having to feel pressured to respond.
Once he finished talking about rocks, the Angel moved onto other subjects, jumping from one to another randomly and abruptly as the mood struck him. Leo found himself intrigued despite himself. Gloss’ topics of conversation were usually limited to music unless he was answering Leo’s questions about the Museum, and the Master only ever wanted to hear him sing. But something about the Angel’s, rambly stream of unbroken chatter was… familiar somehow. Comforting.
Finally, the Angel stopped talking, leaned back, and gestured dramatically to the extensive collection of mounds and hills he’d created out of sand. “Ta-da!”
“…What is it?” Leo eventually asked.
“It’s a sandcastle!” the Angel said with great satisfaction. “Hmmm… but it’s missing something…” He rubbed his chin in thought for a moment, before he snapped his fingers. “I got it! Here.” He held his hand out to Leo expectantly, who gingerly deposited the piece of red granite back into it. “Like so, and…” The Angel delicately placed the rock atop the highest peak. “There! Perfect!” He beamed at Leo happily, and Leo tentatively smiled back. “Thank you for your help, Leo. This was fun. We should do it again sometime.” He stood up to his full height, careful of the sandcastle, and began dusting sand off his clothing and shaking it out of his wing feathers.
“You’re leaving?” Leo asked before he could stop himself, surprised at how upset he felt. The Angel was… kind. It was nice to just sit with someone who could actually visibly emote unlike Gloss, who didn’t demand anything of him like Xia, and who could make interesting things like sandcastles and talk about anything at all. Why did everyone always have to leave him?
“Afraid so. There are a lot of other exhibits just like you that I need to visit, too. But don’t worry! I’ll come visit you again, hopefully soon. Ah, but before that, there’s one more thing we need to do first.” The Angel bent down and reached out a hand toward his shoulder. Without thinking, Leo ducked away.
The Angel blinked in surprise before a slow smile crept across his lips. Unlike his other ones, though, Leo didn’t like the look of this one at all.
“Awwww,” the Angel drawled, sounding far too amused for Leo’s liking. “Scared, kitty cat?”
Mouth tightening into a thin line, Leo wordlessly shook his head, inching further away on the piano stool until he was as far away as he could get from the giant while still sitting on it. He didn’t know exactly why he disliked being touched so much, but even the mere idea always made a small, instinctual part of his brain start to panic, and this time was no different.
“Little word of advice, Leo.” Faster than the eye could follow, the Angel lashed out and wrapped one large hand around Leo’s forearm. Leo could feel the chill of his skin even through his jacket sleeve. The smile had disappeared from the Angel’s face, leaving only an intense, disapproving glare that made the doll quail internally. “Don’t try to run from me. I will always catch you.”
The Angel moved to kneel before him and bent down, hand still wrapped inexorably around Leo’s arm, face mere inches from his. The fingers of his other hand brushed Leo’s cheek before sliding back to tangle themselves in his hair, holding him still. No. No, no, too close, too close, he was trapped, trapped, trapped, he didn’t want this, he didn’t like it, stop touching him, stop touching him, let him go, stop it, stop it, stop it, no, no-
“No…” It took Leo a moment to realize that pitiful whimper had come from his own vocal cords.
One corner of the Angel’s delicate mouth curled into a tiny smirk. “Sorry, little kitty cat, but you don’t get to tell me no.”
Before Leo could even blink, icy lips sealed themselves over his, and the entire world seemed to freeze. The hushed roar of the waves on the beach faded away until the only thing Leo could hear was the deafening sound of his own pounding heartbeat. The Angel tugged back on the fistful of Leo’s hair he held, forcing the doll to tilt his chin further up. The change in position caused the intrusive contact to become even more forceful and dominating, as if emphasizing the fact that the Angel was unequivocally the one in control here, and there was absolutely nothing Leo could do about it. Something inside Leo quietly broke at that realization, and the burning chill emanating from the Angel’s lips seemed to spread through his whole body.
After what seemed like an eternity, the Angel finally pulled back, his chilled breath ghosting over Leo’s tingling mouth. When he spoke, his voice was a deep, rumbling whisper, a simple, irrefutable statement of fact: “Mine.”
Leo simply sat numbly for a few seconds, staring blankly up at the Angel, body frozen in place the same way his breath was frozen in his lungs. Then he choked, coughed, exhaled a cloud of tiny ice crystals into the air as that foreign, bitter chill continued to burn away at his insides and his throat and mouth felt like they’d been scraped raw. Something cold and wet trickled down his cheek, but he couldn’t seem to move to wipe it away. The Angel’s expression gradually shifted from satisfaction to concern, and he released Leo’s hair and arm so he could gather him into his arms, settling down cross-legged on the sand to cradle him in his lap. Leo flinched at the contact but did not resist, sitting limply in the Angel’s embrace as one large hand carefully wiped away the salty wetness from his cheeks.
“Oh, Leo,” the Angel murmured sorrowfully, tucking Leo’s head against his chest and petting his hair comfortingly. “Shhhh, kitty cat, shhhh, I’m sorry you didn’t like that, but now that you’re part of the Museum, part of me, I’ll never have to do it again, I promise. I had to do it to protect you, see? To make sure you never get lost or stolen. Isn’t a little temporary discomfort a small price to pay for that? I just want you to be safe, Leo. I just want what’s best for you. Don’t you understand? I care about you. There’s no need for you to keep feeling like you have to escape from or resist me. You’re safe with me, Leo. You’re safe.”
Leo found himself nodding slowly against the giant’s chest as he cuddled him close. The Angel only wanted him to be safe. He knew this. He did. He did. He had nothing to fear from the Angel’s touch, the Angel would never truly hurt him. He could stop struggling now, stop being so afraid. Everything was fine. Everything was fine.
“I’m glad you understand.” The Angel patted Leo’s hair again and gently set him back on the piano stool. “I wish I could stay longer, but I really do have to go now, I’m afraid. Take care, my little kitty cat. Make a couple sandcastles for me, okay?” With that, the Angel briefly cupped the side of Leo’s face in his hand and then departed, ducking out of the picture frame and back into the museum with practiced ease.
Leo simply sat where he’d been placed, still as one of the many stones littering the beach, staring out into the distant ocean and letting the roar of the waves drown out the turmoil in his heart.
A small pale shape eventually flitted into his painting, shattering the numb silence with, “Hey, Leo, sorry I’m late. Our esteemed Master didn’t leave for four entire hours; you’d think he’d just buy a record player at this rate instead of bugging me every time he wants to listen to the piano. But anyways, that’s neither here nor there. You ready to pick up where we left off last time, or do you want to try the full version of Clair de Lune again first?”
Leo didn’t acknowledge the words. He didn’t think he even could.
“Hey, earth to Leo, we don’t have all day,” came Gloss’ impatient voice from behind him where he was undoubtedly perched on the piano.
Leo ignored him.
“Leo, for the love of-” Gloss fluttered over to hover in front of Leo’s face. “Is this another one of your jokes, is that…” He trailed off, finally getting a full view of Leo’s expression. “Leo?” Gloss actually sounded worried now. He fluttered closer and perched on Leo’s knee. “Leo, come on, what happened? I’m not a mind reader; you gotta use your words.”
After a prolonged period of trying to find the place his voice had hidden itself away, Leo finally whispered, “I… I told him no.”
“He was so nice at first. And he was so nice after. So why didn’t he stop when I told him? He’s not my Master, so why… why did he treat me like that after being so kind?” Leo’s lower lip started to wobble as he finished, the conflicting feelings inside him beginning to war in earnest now that he was forced to think about them again.
“You mean you hadn’t… oh. Oh.” Gloss immediately crawled into Leo’s hand, which rested upturned on his leg. “Oh man, Leo, I’m sorry, are you okay? What am I saying,” the butterfly muttered under his breath, “of course you’re not okay, someone like you wouldn’t be if that oversized simulacrum did what I suspect he did.” With a frustrated huff, the butterfly fell silent and simply sat there, stroking a foreleg over Leo’s palm; the touch was so light that he could barely feel it, but it was the most comforting thing he had ever felt. Gloss’ silence said more than his words ever could, and Leo was nearly overwhelmed by the rush of gratefulness that filled him at his friend’s presence. He drew his cupped hand closer to this chest, curling over it a little.
After an indeterminate amount of time had passed, Gloss finally spoke again. “Feeling any better?” When Leo mutely shook his head, he harrumphed and hunkered down further in Leo’s hands, folding his forelegs the same way a human would fold their arms. “Thought not. I swear, for someone so smart, our resident warden can sure be an idiot sometimes. I’d give him a piece of my mind if it wouldn’t create more problems than it solved, but – take it from someone with firsthand experience – he doesn’t tend to take too kindly to constructive criticism. He takes after our Master that way.”
“He said…” Leo spoke up tentatively, glancing over at the sandcastle he’d been so studiously trying to ignore this whole time. The piece of red granite still sparkled as brightly atop the highest tower as it had when the Angel had placed it there. “He said he only did it because-”
“Because he cares, right?” Gloss interrupted knowingly. “Yup. And that’s the worst thing about it. He's not lying. He does care. It’d be easier if he didn’t. But he does. In his own way. And look at it this way: you’ll have someone else to come visit you when I can’t be here, so you won’t be as lonely now.” Gloss patted his palm again.
“I don’t want him to come visit,” Leo said stubbornly, even though a traitorous part of his brain protested that sentiment vehemently, telling him he was overreacting to this whole situation and longing to be held again, to hear that deep, larger than life voice talk about anything and everything again.
“You will,” Gloss said enigmatically, suddenly sounding very tired. “Trust me. You will. Now.” He fluttered up to perch on Leo’s shoulder. “Come on. Let’s not let this spoil our fun today, okay? You still have to teach me how to sustain a note, remember?”
Leo felt the dull ache in his chest lessen, just the slightest bit. “I guess I do.”
“Well then, let’s get started.”
MV’s referenced: Xia's Flower; Red Velvet's Dumb Dumb
The golden golem head thudded to the floor with an air of cold finality. The severed cables in its neck still sparked as it rolled over a few times before finally coming to rest a few feet from Xia’s throne. It stared vacantly into space, leering up at him with that skeletal grin the archfey remembered all too well.
“Behold, Storm Singer!” bellowed the tattooed barbarian who had thrown the head, sharp teeth bared behind his leather mask, his single visible, silver eye burning with passion. “After twenty-two seasons, we have finally brought you this: the last of the Golden Gods of the Sun Moon Emperor. Dozens of our warriors were lost during the battle, but here we stand, victorious. Will you now hold true to our bargain?
Xia courteously inclined his head, gracing the chieftain with a smile. “One good turn deserves another, Ceejus. Rest assured, your tribes will be rewarded handsomely for your troubles.”
A triumphant, avaricious smile spread across the human’s face, and he and the other two masked men in his entourage clapped a fist to their chests in salute. “You are truly gracious as well as wise, Storm Singer.”
“You flatter me, my friends.” He gave a careless, lackadaisical little wave of his hand. “Now, if you will follow Shindong here into the antechamber, you will receive your promised compensation for your services.”
As the barbarians departed, accompanied by one of his servants, Xia nodded to himself in immense satisfaction. Everything had gone exactly according to plan, as he’d known it would. The barbarian tribes were violent, crass, and primitive, as mortals were wont to be, but their use as attack dogs far outweighed any other negatives of working with them, and they were so easily manipulated by the promise of mere scraps and trinkets besides. Plus, it also took a very special breed of mortal to not only survive but thrive in such a capricious and inhospitable environment as the Feywild, and that deserved a certain degree of respect regardless of Xia’s personal feelings towards mortals as a whole.
The archfey gestured to another aide, who scurried to pick up the severed golem head and bring it to him. The faerie took it and studied it for a few moments, a fierce smirk playing around his mouth. He’d waited decades for this moment, and he would damn well take his own sweet time savoring it.
“Finally,” he murmured, almost to himself. “I have you all. And none of you will ever touch us again.”
A crack, a wail, soft, broken sobbing. “Hurts, Yunho, it hurts…”
“Shh, Changminnie, just be still, it’ll be okay.”
“Nothing about this will ever be ‘okay.’”
“Not helping, Yoochun...”
“Silence, all of you! May I remind you that the brat still has two hundred intact bones in his body; I wonder how many we can go through before you ungrateful little whelps promise to never pull a stunt like that again.”
“D-don’t, I’m not worth it, you k-know what he’ll do if you p-promise tha-”
A loud snap, another wail. “One hundred ninety-nine.”
Xia blinked, suddenly registering the strong smell of ozone in the air, the way sparks had started to dance across the surface of the metal skull. With great effort, he controlled himself, quelling the wild magic that threatened to boil out of him and unleash a squall of epic proportions.
“Yesung.” The servant near him snapped to attention.
“Take this to my chambers. I have a special spot on my wall reserved for it. I’ll be along shortly.” First, it was time to go crow to Yoochun and Jaejoong about this. They were long overdue for a visit, anyway. As the servant hurried off with Xia’s prize in hand, one of his own custom artifice golems entered the throne room, curtseying respectfully.
“What is it, Irene?” Xia impatiently asked the small, red and white clad automaton as she came to stand at the bottom of the small dais his throne was placed upon.
“I apologize for interrupting, Master,” she replied diffidently, folding her hands in front of her worn pink apron. “But while performing our routine maintenance duties, we encountered five guests wandering the east wing library hall. They appear like they came from Sir Pluton’s Door.”
Xia raised one eyebrow. He definitely wasn’t scheduled for additional guests at this hour, especially ones from his apprentice. “Where are they now?”
“They demanded to see you, Master, so Wendy and Yeri stayed behind to continue cleaning while Joy, Seulgi, and I escorted them here, as per your previous instruction. They are waiting outside as we speak. Shall we show them in?”
Xia briefly considered this, and then decided that his gloating could wait a little longer. “Why not? This could be fun. And if it’s not, I can always deal with our unexpected guests the old fashioned way.”
“Very well, Master.” The golem departed and quickly returned, leading a short-haired woman, wisps of potent magic ebbing and flowing around her like ocean waves. A set of inked wards tattooed around her forearm glittered, a clear warning sign that she was ready to throw down at a moment’s notice if anyone crossed her, the magical equivalent of a dog with its hackles raised. Four tall men followed on the enchantress’ heels, the tallest with a (ugh) cat perched on his shoulder.
Xia’s disgruntlement about the feline was briefly pushed aside in the wake of the surprise that filled him as he realized that he recognized those men. Or rather, dolls. A brief brush of his magic against them confirmed their status as constructs, the same basic makeup as his own Starlight and Leo. Xia took a moment to digest this fact… and then began to laugh disbelievingly at the sheer irony of it all.
The dolls and the enchantress exchanged incredulous glances before the doll radiating black sorcery everywhere like a miniature blast furnace spoke up. “What’s so funny?”
“Ah, just the fact that fate does so love to throw curveballs my way occasionally,” Xia answered, finally composing himself. As he spoke, he gradually became aware of a faint waft of magic coming from beside the tall, tattooed facsimile of his apprentice, so faint as to be almost imperceptible, but he knew the tell of a cloaking charm when he sensed it. He leveled the air next to the doll with a keen, piercing stare. “It’s impolite to eavesdrop, you know. If you cannot show common courtesy in my own domain, then I’m going to have to politely ask you all to leave.”
There was a moment or two of profound silence, when the air shimmered, rippled, and a tall man flickered into view, a short girl holding his arm and hiding partially behind him. His magic felt more subdued than the witch’s. Gentler. The controlled flicker of a campfire’s flames instead of roiling ocean waves. The girl’s presence confused Xia, as she had no magic ability to speak of whatsoever, but then she tilted her head and the light reflected off two small horns on her head, barely visible among her thick hair, and everything clicked into place.
“Ah yes, there we go, much better. Now, care to tell me what you were doing skulking around my domain with this lot?”
“We meant no offense , milord,” the magician said, dipping into a slight bow while the aspendìr tucked herself further behind him, eyeing the faerie distrustfully. “Surely you can understand our caution, given the circumstances of our visit.”
“And what circumstances would those be?” Xia asked coolly.
“You kidnapped our brothers!” the freckled doll exclaimed furiously, the other three mirroring his expression while the cat gave a low growl.
“Ah, so that’s what this is about.” Xia feigned nonchalant surprise, though the revelation didn’t shock him in the least. Anything prone to sentimentality was so predictable, and that included constructs. “And correction: I didn’t kidnap anyone, and your so-called ‘brothers’ gave themselves to me of their own free will. I presume you’ve come all the way here to demand that they be returned to you, since that’s how it usually goes.” He crossed one leg over the other and regarded the four constructs serenely. “You even had the foresight to bring backup, such-” He glanced at the two magic users, the aspendìr, and the cat with an unimpressed eye, “-as it is. I must say, I do have to admire your persistence, misguided though it may be. Unfortunately, you’ve come all this way for nothing, dear dolls. They are far beyond your reach now, and they’ll be staying that way.”
The doll that had spoken opened his mouth to angrily retort, when a hand on his shoulder restrained him. “The potion maker,” his apprentice’s doppelgänger spoke up. “He told us… he told us that our brothers have no memory of us anymore. Is that true?”
“Mmm, yes, that is correct. Oh, don’t look so horrified,” he added amusedly upon seeing the dolls’ stricken expressions. “Goodness, you act like it was a fate worse than death. On the contrary, they’re much better off this way, able to enjoy the new life and purpose I have given them without regret or inhibition. I’m sure you know by now that I consider myself a collector of the rare and beautiful, and rest assured, my dear dolls, I take very good care of what is mine. In my service, they will be stars that will shine for a thousand years, treasured, protected, and admired long after the world outside my courts has decayed and returned to dust. Is that such a bad thing?” He smirked faintly. “Honestly, I’d say they did you a disservi-”
“Oh, will you just shut up already!” snapped the freckled doll. “And here I thought I liked to talk! I don’t care what kind of fancy words you use, they’re still your prisoners; they wouldn’t even be here if you weren’t such a greedy bastard, and they don’t deserve what you did to them!”
Xia frowned at the doll’s impudent outburst and narrowed his eyes, the long, silver fingernails of one hand beginning to drum agitatedly against the armrest of his throne. “Careful, little doll,” he said quietly, in the tone of voice wise people knew to run from. “You forget your place.”
The doll scoffed wordlessly and rolled his eyes, and Xia could see a couple of the other dolls mimicking the action.
“You really don’t know who you’re talking to, do you?” he observed, eyes narrowing even further, fingernails tapping faster.
“Sure we do; you’re the person who took our brothers from us,” the blind doll retorted snidely. “Why should we care about anything other than that?”
“I’m so glad you asked. Allow me to enlighten you.” Xia leaned forward in his throne, letting his glamour slip the slightest bit and his wild, crackling magic billow out to fill the entire throne room. The hexed doll winced, his broken eyes squinting almost completely shut, overwhelmed by the sheer amount of magic filling the room, much to Xia’s satisfaction. “I am the protector of this realm, the Lord of Yesterday’s Flowers, the Sun and Moon Exile, the Storm Singer, the Day Thunder and Bringer of Rain; I carved out my place in this land with lightning and blood, and while you stand in my halls, you will address me with the respect I deserve, construct. I would have thought that no-name amateur would have taught you lot manners, but apparently not. So here’s lesson one, free of charge: Do not presume to lecture me about anything, particularly about what things like you do and don’t deserve. Your brothers offered themselves to me. I took them. Simple as that.”
Having said his piece, Xia leaned back in his throne again, though he didn’t bother to rein his magic in whatsoever, enjoying seeing the two magic users and the hexed doll squirm in discomfort. After a moment of loud silence, the freckled doll spoke up again, clearly shaken by Xia’s tirade but not completely cowed. “But they aren’t yours to take! I don’t care if they gave themselves to you, you can’t have them. They’re ours!”
“Junsu, please, don’t do this! They’re our-!”
Something inside Xia snapped.
“They are mine!” he snarled, rising from his throne in one smooth movement. For a split second, his glamour dropped entirely. Both the magician and enchantress flinched violently while the hexed doll’s eyes snapped shut, his face contorting into a grimace of pain, and he instinctively dropped into a crouch, quivering, hands fisted in his shaggy hair. “Everything they are, everything they will ever be, I own it all. They. Belong. To. Me! You lost any right to call them yours the second they became my property. That’s how this world works. If you aren’t strong or smart enough to keep something, then you have no one to blame but yourself when it’s inevitably taken away from you.” He took a deep breath, composing himself, before he looked back down at the intruders with an icy glare. “The sooner you all accept that, the easier it will be for you. You’re lucky you’re under the protection of the others’ deal right now, or I would have some choicer words for you. As it stands, if you have nothing more to say to me, then I do believe we are done here.”
The tallest doll, who had just finished helping the hexed doll to his feet, one arm wrapped protectively around his shoulders, straightened up to his full height and regarded Xia levelly. “Alright then. Since you won’t give them back willingly, we propose a wager.”
Xia scoffed loudly. “There is nothing you could possibly offer-“
Xia froze mid-sentence, staring disbelievingly at the tallest doll.
“Four more dolls, just like the two you currently own, who belong to you just as utterly. That is what we wager, if you’ll just hear us out.”
Well. This was certainly unexpected. Curiosity piqued despite himself, Xia slowly replied, “…I’m listening.”
“You let us into your Museum, give us the chance to go and find our brothers and convince them to come back with us. If we fail.” The doll shrugged, jostling the feline crouched on his shoulder. “Well, you get what you originally wanted. But, if we succeed, then you give Starlight and Kitten their freedom and their memories back, let all of us walk free, and never bother us again. After all, like you said yourself, if you’re not strong enough or smart enough to keep them, then we deserve to take them back, now don’t we?”
Xia couldn’t contain an incredulous laugh at this. The sheer nerve of these dolls. He supposed the proper thing to do would be to throw them all out simply for suggesting such an outrageous thing… but somehow, he just couldn’t bring himself to. The mere thought of owning the complete set of all six of these intriguing, infuriating, beautiful dolls… But no, Starlight and Leo were his. His. He had to keep them. No matter what. Oh, but just think of all he could do if he had all six. All six.
As Xia wrestled with himself, torn between his intense desire to keep the dolls he already possessed and the lure of having ownership of the full set, another thought occurred to him. Would his deal with Starlight and Leo even permit him to make this sort of contract with the others, even if he wanted to? He mentally went over the verbal contract, and found to his intense satisfaction that the two (stupid, stupid, naïve) dolls had only specified that they wouldn’t try to escape if Xia didn’t try to take the others. Nothing had been said about the possibility of them giving themselves to him willingly.
Besides… even if the four dolls before him did somehow manage to find Starlight and Leo in the vast labyrinth that was his Museum… what hope would they possibly have of convincing them to leave their exhibits, anyway? Leo had seemed so passionate about his so-called brothers before, but once his memories of them had been blocked, he’d become little more than a stone-faced statue that cared for nothing and no one other than his precious music. As for Starlight... well, Xia was even less worried about Starlight than he was about Leo; Moonshadow would keep him in his proper place more surely than any chain or rope or spell ever would.
As Xia pondered these things, the freckled, cheeky doll spoke up, evidently worried at his prolonged silence. “Why aren’t you saying yes? Don’t you still want us? I thought the whole reason why you wanted us is that we’re unique, isn’t it?”
Xia had to smirk at the thing’s naiveté. “Oh, please. Creatures like you? You’re a dime a dozen. Any amateur magic user can give their figments of imagination substance if they know the right process. The only things that made you lot even slightly worthy of my notice in the first place is that you happen to be prettier and better made than most. However…” He turned his attention back to the tallest doll. “What you have proposed… the stakes are quite high, but I must say, you’ve actually managed to intrigue me. Nevertheless, in the spirit of full disclosure, I feel I must warn you that my Museum is a very dangerous place, even for sturdy dolls like you. It has a mind of its own, you see. And it doesn’t take kindly to intruders. Once you are inside its sphere of influence, there’s no telling how it may react. It may try to split you up, throw other obstacles in your path, and that’s not even mentioning the other more… lethal things… that call it home. Even if I allow you to go in, there is a strong chance none of you will be coming out again.”
“That’s a chance we’re willing to take,” the tallest doll replied without even blinking, and the other three nodded decisively. Xia shrugged. Well, no one could say he hadn’t been forthcoming. Besides, if worse came to worse and the dolls were broken irreparably… he supposed that he could probably fix them enough that they would be suitable for display. Nothing said they had to be animate, after all. He’d prefer it, of course, but one couldn’t have everything. Just having them in his possession at this point would be enough.
“Alright. Fine.” Xia began slowly descending the steps of the dais like a predator stalking its prey. Flames flared and waves crashed to either side of him, but he ignored the clear warning in favor of keeping his eyes fixed on the four constructs in front of him, letting his mouth stretch into a predatory grin. “As I said, you’ve managed to intrigue me, dolls. Let’s play your little game. So here is what I offer. You may indeed venture into my Museum, just the four of you, with any items that you happen to be carrying with you. If you can find the two who used to be your brothers and somehow convince both of them to come back with you of their own free will, then I will restore their memories free of charge, let you all go free, and never trouble you again. If not, then all six of you will be permanent exhibits in my Gallery. Forever. This is my offer. Take it or leave it.”
“What about our friends?” his apprentice’s clone asked in a concerned tone.
“Did I stutter?” Xia snapped impatiently, finally coming to stand just a scant few feet away from the party. “This is between the four of you and myself. Anyone else you might have happened to bring along with you has no business with me.”
“It’s fine, Cedar,” the enchantress spoke up for the first time before the doll could reply. Her tattoos swirled and flickered on her skin, and her ocean eyes were guarded and steely. “I expected this. I’m more concerned with how much leeway you,” She turned to address Xia directly, “just gave yourself with how you phrased your deal.” She stepped forward, bodily putting herself in front of the dolls protectively. “I know your type. You’re stacking the deck so you’re sure to get what you want. You could interfere with your Museum at any time and prevent them from finding their brothers. These dolls – these boys – are my friends, and the least you can do after all you’ve put them through is give them an actual chance of succeeding. If you’re going to give yourself room to cheat this blatantly, you might as well not even bother making a deal in the first place.”
“Besides,” added the magician pragmatically, stepping in front of the dolls as well, closely followed by his aspendìr shadow. “Wouldn’t it make things more interesting if you let things play out naturally?”
Xia glowered at the two troublesome magic users, but begrudgingly had to admit that they might have a point. After a moment or two of deliberation, he let out a loud, explosive sigh. “Very well. You have my word that should these dolls accept my offer, I will not enter or interfere with my Museum until their search is complete, one way or another. Does that satisfy you, witch?”
“It’s better than nothing, but the others and I are still staying. I don’t trust you – or any faerie, really – farther than I can throw you, Mr. Collector.”
“They stay, or no deal,” the tallest doll piped up, voice firm.
Xia shrugged carelessly. After all, what chance did these two-bit conjurers and their little pet stand against him and his entire court if things decided to get truly dicey? “Do what you want, then. Just stay out of my way.”
The enchantress opened her mouth to reply, when the hexed doll, who had evidently recovered enough to speak coherently again, asked, “Quick question, but provided we do end up going in, how are we supposed to know how to get out? Are the exits marked or something?”
Emboldened, the freckled doll chimed in with, “Yeah, and what if Starlight and Kitten have already left with someone else and one of us leaves late? What then?”
Damn that doll in particular. If he survived this, Xia had plans for that one. Xia kept every trace of disgruntlement carefully concealed, however, and instead simply held out one hand, projecting an image of a simple door above his upturned palm. The door was divided into four equal quadrants, colored blue, green, red, and yellow. “These Doors are scattered throughout my Museum, and all lead back to the main Door that I installed here.” He motioned with his head over to a normal-sized door tucked in an out of the way corner of the throne room behind a pillar, normal-looking except for the four small, colored squares in its center. “If you leave without being accompanied by at least one of the dolls you are going there to find, then you automatically forfeit your freedom to me, unless they have already been found by someone else, in which case, you will be allowed to leave with them.”
“Basically, try to stay together, guys,” the aspendìr said quietly, taking hold of the tattooed doll’s hand and squeezing it reassuringly. “Safer that way.”
“Indeed.” Xia let the illusion of the door fizzle out and folded his hands behind him. “So then, dear dolls. Do we have a deal?”
The four dolls glanced at each other, than back at him. The tallest doll nodded resolutely. “Yes. We accept your terms.
A slow, wicked smile spread across the faerie’s face. “The deal is made, then.” He snapped his fingers, the sound echoing like a gunshot through the throne room. The hexed doll flinched violently at the action. “Whenever you are ready, I will transport you to the Museum.”
As he turned on his heel and ascended the stairs back to his throne, the natural (or supernatural) grace of the faerie was the only reason he didn’t trip over the damn cat. She was right between him and his throne, and he had to step over her. She was a skinny, adolescent little thing, but had ignored him with the panache of a much older creature, and that was deserving of a certain amount of grudging respect…
...even as he sat in his throne, and she casually wandered after and sat right against his feet. He gritted his teeth and exerted his considerable good manners to restrain himself from punting her off the dais and across the room.
“What do you want?” he hissed at her. She finished cleaning the claws of her right rear paw and looked at him, though not straight in the eyes. Some amount of sense, then.
“You have taken my boy. I will have him back.”
He threw his head back and barked a laugh at the ceiling. “Hah! Your boy, is it? The one with the absurd name, I assume?” He graced her with a smile. “I am sorry, my dear, but he is mine now. I took him, fair and square.”
“He named me. He sleeps on my pillow. He pulls burrs from my fur, from the hard-to-reach places. I did all the rituals: I drew his blood, and licked it away. I circle him three times, every time he lies down, before I lay down myself. I have made him smell like me.” She met his eyes, and if she had been any other sort of creature that would have made things very much harder for her, but she merely looked at him for a moment, then away. “Unless you have done all of that, then he is still mine in every way that matters.”
His lip curled, and his manners weren’t enough to halt the kick aimed in her direction this time. She dodged enough to miss the full force of it. The kick still clipped her in the side, but she made no sign of pain, settling down again slightly out of reach with an insouciant flick of her white-tipped tail.
“Fine!” he snarled, and pointed at her. “But only the one that picks your burrs, you understand, moggie? If you catch even a whiff of the other one, you will turn around and go the other way.”
“Certainly.” The lash of her tail was wider now. “My boy’s littermates will find him, anyway.”
Xia curled his pointing finger into his fist and seriously thought of cursing her. Just a little one, hardly enough to matter… but there were some things one just didn’t attempt with cats, especially familiars. “Believe what you will,” he replied coolly. He raised his arm so the lace cuff fell back from his hand. “But if you fail, you will not be kept in the Museum. You will not be kept at all.”
She didn’t reply. And he snapped his fingers.
Their business concluded, the cat leisurely trotted down the steps and bounded over to the tallest doll, permitting him to bend down and scoop her up in his arms.
“Does this mean Heart’s coming with us?” asked the mouthy doll delightedly, reaching over to chuck the cat under her chin. She bit his finger good-naturedly.
“It would seem so,” Xia replied tersely. He surveyed the party impatiently as they said their goodbyes, and raised his eyebrow as the four dolls (and cat) stepped forward. “Well? Does this mean you’re ready?”
“As we’ll ever be, I guess,” said the tallest doll, squaring his shoulders resolutely and holding tight to the hand of the blind doll next to him.
Xia’s only reply was to smile, teeth sharp, eyes gold, and snap his fingers once more. The dolls and cat vanished as they were transported to the Museum, and Xia’s smile only grew wider as he felt it stir to life and pluck deftly them out of his magic’s grip.
This was going to be fun.
“Isn’t this fun, Leo?” the Angel said brightly, unable to resist pulling the doll on his lap a little closer to his chest as they both sat staring out at the dark sea in his painting. “I’m having a lot of fun.”
Leo simply leaned back into his chest and let his head fall back with a small, content sigh, and the Angel’s heart sang with happiness. Only a couple visits in, and his little kitty cat was sitting obediently on his lap and letting himself be cuddled without even a peep of complaint. He even seemed relatively relaxed about it to boot, and the Angel felt very proud of this accomplishment. He’d have to see if Leo possessed a playful side as well, eventually; it would be so fun to teach him some of the games he played with the other exhibits when he had the time. However, he was content to keep their interactions to talking and cuddling and sandcastles for now. Baby steps.
He’d seemed so jumpy when the Angel had first met him, too, poor thing. That kind of reaction didn’t come from nowhere, either; wherever the Master had procured him, the Angel was willing to bet that Leo hadn’t been treated kindly. The Angel growled low in his throat at the thought of anyone daring to lay even a finger on his Leo, but he immediately stopped when the doll flinched reflexively and tensed, pulling away and curling in on himself slightly. Stubborn kitty cat.
Relax, he whispered soundlessly to his ward, holding his head close to his chest and rocking him back and forth. You’re safe, you’re happy, you’re mine mine mine, I’ll protect you, you can trust me.
Leo had begun to relax again at the subtle mental suggestions, but not fast enough for the Angel’s liking. He frowned slightly and dialed up the intensity a few more notches, along with a stern, wordless Trust. Me. After holding out a second or two longer, Leo finally obeyed and went limp against him, melting fully into his embrace.
“Good boy,” the Angel purred in satisfaction, brushing some of Leo’s shaggy black hair behind his ear. “You’re making such great progress, kitty cat. I’m so proud of you.”
A soft snore was his only reply. Looking down in surprise, he found that the doll had actually fallen asleep in his lap.
“Seems I overdid it a little,” he chuckled to himself, carefully shifting his grip on Leo to cradle him in his arms like the doll he was. He bent over to gently touch his nose against Leo’s, warm affection filling him as the doll shifted slightly to curl into his chest. “Not that I’m really complaining. You’re so cute like this.”
He spent a couple minutes more admiring his charge, brushing a thumb over a pale, freckled cheek here, smoothing a hand over windswept black hair there, before he decided that he should probably be moving on to visit the next exhibit on his list. Lifting Leo’s slumbering body as delicately as if he were made of glass, the Angel carefully stood and gently deposited the doll on the soft sand behind his piano to shield him from the steady ocean breeze. As he did so, he felt an insistent tug on the back of his consciousness.
Intruders! the Museum whispered into his mind urgently.
The Angel snarled low in his throat at this information, at the trepidation he felt radiating over the bond. How many?
Five. Peculiar… A brief sparkle of curiosity broke through the dark cloud of anxiety the Museum was exuding, and the Angel frowned.
I’ll take care of them, he replied wordlessly, simultaneously soothing the Museum’s unease and sternly chastising it for its interest. It should know by now that no one that came in without the Master’s express permission should be anything other than swiftly dealt with. Where are they?
Scattered. The Angel wasn’t surprised. Scattering parties of intruders to the four winds was the Museum’s go-to defense mechanism if they tried teleporting in.
Unknown. The Angel felt a trace of sheepishness filter over the bond. Panicked.
It’s alright. I’ll find them eventually. Go back to sleep, I’ve got this.
The Museum gave a nonverbal hum of acknowledgement before obediently sinking back into its usual state of languid ennui. The Angel felt the bond gradually go dormant once again, leaving him alone with his thoughts and the unconscious doll before him. He absently patted Leo’s head one last time before standing to his full height, his azure eyes flaring briefly as he did so.
As enraged as he was by the news of five intruders encroaching on his territory without permission, no doubt to steal themselves an exhibit or two (his hands clenched into fists reflexively at the very thought)… the Angel couldn’t deny that he also felt more than a little excited by the prospect as well. It had been quite a long time since they’d had any unwelcome visitors, and even longer since he’d had a proper hunt. With that thought in mind, he briskly made his way over to the painting entrance, and slipped through easily, smirking darkly as he emerged fully on the other side.
Let the hunt begin.
And with that, we've reached the end of Part One! \o/ This fic will be going on a brief hiatus so that the authors can work on some other fic projects that have been clamoring for our time, but we'll be back to update before you know it. ^^ If you haven't commented or left kudos yet, now would be a great time to do so.
P.S. Anyone who can tell us what Amber's usage of "Mr. Collector" is a reference to gets an entire box of cookies. I'm interested to see if anyone can get this one.
Chapter 10: Sun Part 1: Wide Awake
MVs referenced: BTS’ Blood Sweat Tears MVs referenced; B1A4’s What’s Happening; Lee JungHyun’s V; Ladies’ Code’s Hate You
Sun was alone. He opened his eyes to a smallish room, almost cave-like, with filtered light creeping weak and blue through dozens and dozens of strange glass statues. Neither his brothers nor their friends were anywhere to be seen.
During his time since they got away, he had learned a lot of bad words, which was a strange concept, since most of them didn't seem like they should be called bad - not if they didn't stand for bad things, of which there were plenty - but most of them were full of sounds that were satisfying to say. He said them now, all of the ones he knew, in a long and gradually crescendoing chain that ended with the last one being shouted up to the ceiling at the top of his lungs as the glass shivered around him. He panted afterwards, pacing a tight circle of frustration… then he heard something. He thought it was a laugh, probably, but the strangest laugh he'd ever heard. There were three doors in the room, he saw, and one of them seemed to be the source of the noise. There was a kind of label on the door, a metal plate with letters on it, but he didn't recognize the word.
"I guess one is as bad as the other," he said bracingly to himself, and went to the door with the laugh behind it. He eased it open cautiously… and found his caution was for nothing, since the source of the sound was a person not two feet beyond the door, looking right at him with a crooked grin.
"That was quite an entrance!" the stranger said brightly. "There were some gems in there I haven't heard for… oh, a long time!"
Sun eased through the door cautiously, trying to look around the new room. "Oh! Ah. The 'bad words'? I was so mad I felt like I would burst, and saying them helped, strangely. I'm Sun. What's your name?"
"I don't know if it matters," the man said. He was still smiling but some of the energy drained out of his voice. "It's been a long time for that, too. I think there was a 'Jin' in there somewhere?" Sun noticed that his expressions were only really on half of his face; the other half seemed immobile, and there was some kind of strange, sharp scar running down under his eye almost to his mouth.
"Jin sounds like a name, I guess, I'll call you that." Sun didn't judge Jin to be too terribly dangerous on first look, but went ahead and folded his arms across his abdomen (where most of the important organs lived, and an extra layer of protection could reduce the damage an unexpected blow caused).
"You can call me just about anything, as long as it's not 'late for dinner'," Jin replied, sounding chipper again. "Are you a new exhibit? I know the room adjoining is the glass display right now, and I don't think you really go with that. Aesthetically speaking. Are you a traveling exhibit?" He jerked slightly, half-turning as if to look over his shoulder. "If not, you should go back. They don't like it when exhibits get loose, you know."
"Well, they're not gonna like it, cause an exhibit's gonna get loose," Sun said with a scowl. "That Xia guy - I don't know a word bad enough! - he took two of my brothers for his 'collection'. They are not going to be owned by someone one minute longer than they have to, so me and my other brothers - Laughter and Cedar and Brother - are looking for them. When we find them, we'll all leave together."
"Ahh." Jin shook his head, with a wry twist of his mouth. "Sorry, friend. No one gets to leave here." His hand rose up, maybe unconsciously, and traced the line under his eye. "Not once they've been put in place."
"No one got to leave where we were made, either. But we did." Sun’s crossed arms moved from his abdomen to his chest, and he looked at the other through narrowed eyes. It was a good face. Honest. There were laugh-lines faint beside the eyes. It could have been the face of a friend. "So I'm looking for them. And you can't stop me."
Jin raised his hands in surrender, pulling an exaggerated expression. "Not going to! Just saying." Sun nodded to him and started wandering through the room, looking at all the decorations: the armchair with statuettes, the various paintings.
"He changes the displays in here regularly," Jin commented, following a few steps behind him, light glinting off the strands of his pale pink hair. "So I don’t get bored, he says. Kind of him, right?"
The way he said it, Sun didn't think he found it kind at all. The statuette in front of him was carved wood, sharp-edged, like the little wooden creature that lived in Dongwoo's pockets, but unfriendly somehow. He stuck his tongue out at it, and turned to look at the walls for the ways out. "Where do those go to?" There were two doorways in the room, besides the one he'd entered from, one with very large and ornate double-doors and the other rather smaller.
"It’s hard to say."
Sun looked at him narrowly. "...I need to leave to try and find my brothers. How about the big door, is it alright?"
"No, it's half left!" Jin crumpled into knee-slapping laughter, and even though the situation wasn't any better Sun felt himself smile a little in return. It was a very infectious laugh. Not as much as Laughter's, he thought, but then probably nobody's was.
He waited for the laughter to die off, sinking down into the armchair with a huff of relief. When the room was quiet again, he said, "I don't know if you're trying to stop me because you are on Xia's side or not. But I am going to leave. I have to." There was a square-shaped scar on the ball of his thumb, a shiny burn-mark. Cedar had one just the same. They didn't fade away over time completely, anymore, the way they had when they were still tied into her magic. He rubbed at it with his fingers. "Can't you give me at least a hint of which direction to go?"
Jin sobered gradually, and sat on the rug in front of the chair. He rested his chin on his hand. "There isn't anywhere that's safe to go, really. You could stay here for a while. Wouldn't it be fun to talk? I have plenty of good stories to tell; I didn't last this long as the oldest for nothing." He touched the scar on his cheek lightly again. This close, it looked deep, like a crack in glass. "He'll come eventually, and he won't react well to you being here… but he doesn't destroy the Master’s things flagrantly, and I can put in a good word for you besides. I’m his favorite, you know; if I ask him especially nicely, he’d probably just take you to an exhibit instead of… well. Never mind what he’d do instead. You're handsome and interesting; I bet there's an exhibit that would suit you. What are you, exactly?"
"I'm a doll," Sun replied. "But I don't want to be an exhibit."
The left corner of Jin's mouth lifted in a tiny, wistful smile. His dark eyes suddenly seemed tired and old, too old for that ageless, otherwise immaculate face. "Couldn't you stay for just a while? It’s been so long since I’ve talked with anyone other than him. I know plenty of jokes, too. We could have some laughs."
"I like to laugh," Sun admitted. "And there's so many things to laugh about. My favorite is, did you know, if you say something that's not true it's a lie… but if everyone knows it’s not true, it's funny? Like if I say, this is a great place! I'm so happy to be here! Xia is just super kind and nice!"
Jin snorted, then laughed, and so did Sun. "Aren't we all happy? It's just great!"
"I'm so glad I got to see this place," Sun shouted towards the ceiling, his hands cupped around his mouth. Jin sobered again, although he was still smiling faintly, and scooted forward on his knees to give Sun a warning sort of pat on his leg.
"It's best not to be too loud, Sun. You might draw the attention of… things."
"I’ve never liked suffering in silence," Sun grumbled. "I don't want to start now." He stood, with finality, and offered Jin a hand when he had a little trouble getting to his own feet. "I'm sorry I can't talk with you, Jin. I think we could be friends, even. I have quite a few friends now; they're a good thing to have! But if you have to stay here and I have to go, then that's that." Jin didn't reply. Sun nodded at him, his lips pressing down into a determined line, and headed for the big double doors.
"Hey!" Jin's voice rang out behind his back, before continuing more quietly, almost secretly. "You said you're a doll. Your brothers are too?" Sun nodded, and Jin went to sit in the armchair, folding his hands in his lap and looking innocently up at the ceiling. "So it's probably a good idea to go through the big doors. If you went through the other small door and then the right-hand door in that room, you'd be entering the Doll Wing, and any wandering doll like yourself would probably be put in there as a new exhibit."
"Any doll?" Sun said sharply.
"Oh, for sure. So you shouldn't go there. It would be like a belt with a clock on it." He paused, looking out the corner of his eyes to see Sun's confusion, and added: "You know… a waist of time."
Sun snorted, and made his way casually towards the smaller door. "I'll just know to be careful about that, then." He reached out to open it… and hesitated. He glanced back over his shoulder, at Jin sitting in the armchair, face turned away from the door and staring vacantly at one of the many paintings on the walls, the long scar on his cheek prominently on display. Sun recognized that look. Starlight had worn it a lot, back with her, especially in Sun’s earliest memories of him, hazy with time but still clear enough where it mattered. Jin looked… lonely. Yes, that was the word. So very lonely.
I’m his favorite, you know.
His favorite. Just like Laughter had been her favorite, once. It hadn’t been an enviable position. Laughter was damaged irreparably because of it in ways that the other dolls weren’t, with his eyes that didn’t work as eyes should and mind that constantly went where his brothers could never follow. But Laughter had still had them when his mind came back, to guide him when his eyes failed, to talk to him, to ground him, to reassure him that he was loved. Who did Jin have? Just “him”? Whoever “he” was? Sun involuntarily envisioned only having her to talk to back in her edifice, all alone, the rest of his brothers nowhere to be found, and a sudden, violent, convulsive shudder traveled from the crown of his head all the way to the soles of his feet as his throat tingled unpleasantly.
He turned away from Jin and stared at the door in front of him, hand twitching at his side. He wanted to leave. He really did. He had to find Starlight and Kitten. He had to. Nothing else mattered. But… but…
He remembered Kitten’s concern over the deer girls when they found them in their cursed sleep in the enchanted garden, how he had been the first to stop to check over them, to see if they could be woken up, even when the rest of them had been so preoccupied with finding the apple to cure Cedar’s eyes. He knew that Kitten had wanted Cedar to be cured just as much of the rest of them had. But he had still stopped and lingered briefly to see if there was anything he could do to help other people who needed it.
Sun bit his lip so hard he faintly tasted blood, practically vibrating in place for a good few seconds. He then turned abruptly on his heel, stomped over to a startled-looking Jin, and plopped down on the rug in front of the armchair.
“Alright, fine. One story. But then I really do have to leave, okay?”
Jin’s eyes had turned glossy and soft as Sun spoke, and the smile that spread across his face in response to his words told Sun he’d definitely made the right decision.
After Jin had finished his story (which had been about a funny little creature called an “alpaca”), he looked remarkably happier than he had previously, even when he had been laughing and cracking jokes. Sun was almost sorry that he had to leave, but he knew he couldn’t wait any longer to start searching for his brothers. With some reluctance, he stood and made his way back over to the door. Just as his hand grasped the knob, Jin spoke one more time.
“Hey, Sun.” Sun turned to look over his shoulder. Jin stared back at him, his mouth lifting into another small, lopsided grin. “Just… thank you. For listening.”
Sun smiled back, as widely as he could. “You're welcome. Thank you for the story.” As he opened it, he called back over his shoulder. "If you ever get to leave this place, and we meet each other again, I definitely want to hear more of them." And then he stepped through the doors, and Jin disappeared from his sight.
The big double doors in the next room had another metal label beside them: and this time Sun did recognize one of the words, and he ran his fingers over them like he was Laughter reading his special raised letters.
“D-O-L-L,” he sounded out carefully. “That’s us.”
The door opened easily and he slipped inside before he could change his mind. It closed behind him just as easily, and the room lit up as he entered it. He looked around, full of unease: it was a pretty nondescript room, white walls and sparse white furniture. There were four doors, one each to his left and right, two on the wall in front of him. He scowled at them.
“I don’t have time for this!” He swiveled back in forth for a moment of indecision before shaking his head vigorously. “Forwards!” he told himself, and chose the rightward of the two doors.
Before going through, he thought to mark the door, and pulled out his marker to scrawl a shiny X near the knob. On the other side was a much smaller room, the ceiling so low he had to crouch to not hit his head on the ceiling. He turned around, to mark this side of the door as well, and saw that the door was suited to the room...which meant it only came up to his knee.
“How did I go through you, then?!” he said irately, drawing another X across the whole thing.
At first he thought that there was no other door, and he would be trapped in that tiny space--the thought threatened to close up his throat, and he had to bite down hard on his lip to ground himself. The wall across from the tiny door on closer inspection had a line running within its borders, like the whole thing had once opened but been filled in. He wriggled himself around, and drew his knees to his chest, steeling himself before unfolding to kick both feet into the wall. They thudded with a jolt that made his knees ache, but there was a crack sound that wasn’t from him. Encouraged, he tried it again, then again. On the fourth kick, the whole wall gave way and he awkwardly squirmed through feet-first. It took a moment for the dust to clear, and then he found himself in a new room, regular-people-sized. Of the wall he’d knocked out there was no sign, instead a closed door where he would have come through, looking as innocent as a door could. He said a bad word at it, and made his marker-X much larger than it needed to be.
The next room was yellow, and empty except for a huge black hole in the center of the floor that he skirted around carefully. Then there was a room with pink table and chairs, and several pairs of shoes piled in the corner: after that, a long narrow room with its right-hand wall made of clear glass and showing thick greenery through it. He went through that room slowly, savoring the sight of the fine big living trees. The next room was full of broken furniture and scraps of cloth: on the table in the center there was a head, face-down and with fake-looking pale hair. It wasn’t bleeding or anything, so it hadn’t probably come from a living doll, but he steered clear of it anyway. The next space was very clean and sterile-looking: one door was clear glass, dimly showing a tiny space beyond, and the other was more normal.
“Forwards…?” He tried, not very confidently, and eased open the door that was solid.
He stopped before going through the door, because what was behind it was very different from where he was. All the spaces so far had seemed very similar, even with their distinguishing features: they were brightly colored, simple, square-edged and easily viewed. This new place was much more darkly colored, with dark wood furniture and plain grey or brown walls. There were paintings, and potted plants, and a small table directly across from the door held a display of a kind of miniature room, with tiny duplicates of the furniture and a small stiff doll standing just inside it. The doll had been facing him when he opened the door, but as he watched, it rotated slowly. He leaned forward unsteadily, holding the door frame, and his eyes widened in fear as the little doll also bent forward to echo his posture a bare moment later.
“Oh, no,” he said. He dragged himself back upright, still clinging to the doorframe, and it was much harder to move than it should have been. “Oh no !” he shouted, feeling the magic of the thing trying to get its hooks into him almost exactly as the little white doll used to have. He screamed. But it wasn’t just a scream.
The lessons that Junghwan had been teaching him did not include magic, as such, just the bare mechanics of singing - how to breathe, how to shape your mouth, what the notes felt and sounded like - but singing was magic to Junghwan, and Sun had picked some things up by simple absorption. More than anything else he knew a short, sharp little phrase that Junghwan seemed to sing several times a day. When a bottle was about to fall off a table, when something started to burn, when Jinyoung got a little too free with how he pinched and squished Junghwan’s cheeks. It was a sort of no, as Junghwan explained it, a stop it, you, a way of halting something in its tracks.
The No song-spell was used for small things, and this did not feel small, but Sun didn’t have time to think of a better solution, and he sang it out at the top of his lungs. The half-bent doll froze in place as he sang it, and he panted afterwards... then he was blown backwards and the door slammed closed near enough to snapping on his fingers.
He lay in the center of the room for a minute, catching his breath.
“No,” he finally said stridently. “No! No thank you!” He scrambled back to his feet and gingerly, from as much of a distance as he could manage, scrawled one, three, twenty Xs on the door panels. That of course left the glass door, and he had to psych himself up for a little while before he could go in. The space behind seemed very small.
“If it were Cedar, he couldn’t do it,” he told himself, “He hates small spaces. So if this is the way to go, he wouldn’t be able to do it. So I have to go and look, myself. Come on!” The door slid open as he approached it, and he entered the space cautiously. A light came on and illuminated the small space, and the door slid shut, then there was a grating rattle sound and the whole room shook. Sun yelped and dropped into a squat, balancing with both his hands and feet, and watched as the room beyond seemed to sliiiiiide down… then he got it.
There was an elevator, in one of the shops in the Sash, that went up to the top floors for people who didn’t want to take the stairs. Cedar had outright refused to step into it and Kitten had stayed with him out of solidarity, but all the other dolls had ridden it at least once. Sun hadn’t particularly liked it, but he’d understood how such a thing could be useful. This one was going up, quite slowly, as the previous floor with the No door was disappearing. When the floor above slid into place, the glass door opened and Sun darted through it. The elevator didn’t have buttons like the one in the Sash did, and he didn’t want to think where it would decide to take him without being asked.
There were more rooms like had been downstairs, and he wandered through them, increasingly frustrated. Some of the rooms were too small to enter, and for some he only opened the door before deciding No thank you; there were a lot of plain rooms, colored in one color each and with minimalist furniture. At one point the only option was a small room, and he noticed with interest that it had a round head-sized hole in the low ceiling. He stuck his head up through it and into a small yellow box. He spun around slowly, and saw that on one side of the box was a tiny door marked with an even tinier iridescent X.
“Wait a second,” he said, indignant. “If the room I’m in is below that room I was in before, how is it here when the elevator went up?”
He withdrew his head and resolved not to think of it any more.
The next room was quite large, with several doors. He bit at his thumbnails and thought, trying to decide if one would be better than the other, when a glint of metal caught his eye.
“Ah!” he scurried over to the glint, which was from a metal plate beside one of the doors. “A label! None of the others have labels. Doesn’t that mean it’s labeling a new place?”
This label had the word ‘doll’ in it as well, along with other words he didn’t know. He gently touched the letters that he did know, and made up his mind. The door opened easily, and he went through it.
Sun turned the corner of the corridor and froze with an unhappy whine. This hallway had no paintings on the wall, but rather clear glass display cases. And inside the cases were row upon row of strange dolls.
They were old- and new-looking, strangely flesh-colored; their false skins seemed to be made of plastic or something that cracked like tile, and most of them had odd thick hair, curly and straight, dark and pale. Their eyes were the most unsettling, blank and glassy and occasionally half-missing, and all the more unpleasant for slightly resembling human eyes the way the sewn circles or buttons he had seen before did not.
"Oh, I don't like you at all," he whined. "At all! Do I have to go this way? Maybe I can just go back."
He looked behind himself and wilted to see that it was unchanged. There was no way back there that was a way forwards, and he squatted down in the entrance to this awful hallway and dug his hands in his hair. It reminded him of Laughter, and he missed his brothers awfully, passionately, desolately.
"But my brothers include Kitten and Starlight," he told himself. "And they need me. That's why I'm doing this. I have to do it! Don't be stupid, Sun!" He scrambled gracelessly to his feet and hastened down the hallway, torn between needing to look at the staring faces behind the glass and wanting no part of them. He was so unwilling to look, in fact, that he didn't realize that something had changed until he heard and felt a crunch beneath his shoes and looked down to see the floor scattered in broken glass.
"What are you doing there?" he asked it, and without thinking about it, looked to his right. There a glass case was broken, and two to his left, and the two beyond it as well, and beyond there were no more cases but just a cracked door. Beside the door something caught his attention, and he hummed in interest and went to grab up the sledgehammer. He liked its yellow handle, but not its blunt head, since something very alike had once crunched into Brother's hands until they were flat and formless.
"You broke the cases, huh?" A horrible suspicion made him look at the cage beside him. It was empty, except for a few forlorn detached limbs and one split head.
"...Good!" he decided after a long, staring moment. "Good! I hate glass cages! It's good that they were broken, whoever did it. I'm glad they did. It was well done." He looked back down the hall at the unbroken cages, and cringed and stuck out his tongue, for several of the dolls' heads were turned and looking directly at him.
"You are very creepy," he told them severely, then bit his lip and thought. "...but I did say it was good, just now," he finished, and stepped four long steps forward and swung the hammer a long, satisfying arc into the glass pane.
It smashed, gloriously, and the next one, and the next, and the next, and then there was a distant but horrible booming roar that made him freeze and cower like a mouse had once cowered under the table in the round room where she played with her toys. He froze, quavering, sick with anticipation… but the roar did not sound again, and there was nothing like a sound of something approaching. Still, he had taken the hint, and lowered the hammer before smashing into another case.
"I'm sorry," he told the blank, expectant faces inside. "You heard why I had to stop, right?" He sighed. "I am sorry. You are still creepy, but I am sorry. Here, how about this..." He propped the sledgehammer carefully outside the last freshly-broken case. "It is very heavy, but if you can move, if you all work together you can probably swing it? Just give it some time for that whatever-it-is to look somewhere else then smash." He patted the yellow handle and nodded at the dolls in the case. He had seen none of them move, but now one of them had its face turned down in the direction of the hammer. "Good luck," he told them, and went to the door.
The room beyond the door looked as if it had been a beautiful space, walls covered in roses from floor to ceiling, and an elegant table with beautiful dishes upon it on display in the center: now it was a wreck, scattered with the little plastic dolls both whole and in pieces. All the roses had been torn away from one corner of the room, revealing bleak white walls, and the shreds of them scattered dry and dusty across the floor. There were also five dolls more like himself, person-sized and person-seeming. They looked like girls, and as he entered all nine of their eyes looked at him with blank dislike.
The door closed behind him.
"Hello?" he said, trying to be brave. "Are you...um...do you know a way out of here?" They didn't answer. "Will you show me the way out of here?" he tried again.
"No," the doll with long white hair said.
"...why not?" he asked. The door was living-warm at his back and he felt all the bones of his spine as he pressed back into it.
"We hate you," all five dolls chorused.
He squawked, and danced unhappily in place. "Why?"
"We hate everything," another of the dolls said.
They didn't answer.
"Were you created to hate everything?"
"...no," the one in the corner answered him finally. "We were created to feel nothing at all."
"Now we hate," the second doll seated at the table said. She said it as they all had spoken: factually, with none of the anger he would have associated with hate.
He edged away from the door and the dolls, watching them warily to see if they would react. "Well. That's good then? I guess? It's terrible to not feel anything, so it's good that you feel something. Even if it's hate. That's really all you do is hate?"
They did not answer, but the white-haired one ripped the hair off the head of the small, stiff doll in front of her and he flinched.
"Are you going to hurt me?" he demanded, shrill.
There was a long silence.
"No," they said together, finally.
"But you won't help me?"
"I hate you," the one nearest him said in a conversational tone. He shuddered.
"You said that before," he grumbled. He was loath to turn his back to them… but he had to find a way out himself if they did not show him, and so he faced the wall and began inspecting it, inch by rose-covered inch. They told him they hated him, every minute or so. He ignored them at first, then couldn't stand it anymore and started to reply. He asked them why, again, asked them about the room, about the dolls, about whose blood was rusty on the thorns in front of him. Eventually he ran out of things to say and began to just reply, "I don't hate you."
After who knows how long, halfway through his painstaking inspection of the room, he answered "I don't hate you" and one of the dolls asked:
He spun around, shocked, and saw that it was the smallest one that had spoken. "Why don't I hate you?" He made a face. "Well, why would I hate you?"
"We aren't showing you the way out," another replied.
"That is very annoying," he said, frowning at her more deeply. "Very! I don't like it! But it's not worth hating you over."
"Are you not able to hate?" the small one said. The one at the table was making a faint but awful sound, scraping the tines of a fork across a silver plate.
"Oh. I sure can. But...." One of the roses above his head dropped a petal: he caught it in his mouth and let it dissolve on his tongue as he thought. "...hating is exhausting," he finally said. "I can do it. I've done it a lot. Sometimes it's necessary. But it makes my throat hurt. And my ear canals, and my teeth, and the space between my eyebrows. It's uncomfortable. I'd rather like things." All of the dolls but the white-haired one were looking at him then, and he roused his bravery and smiled at them, his best smile, the one that made Brother smile back, and Starlight and Kitten latch on, and Cedar stand tall, and Laughter laugh as though he could see it. "You should try it. If you can."
The dolls didn't respond, for so long he thought that they probably couldn't. Then the white-haired one rose smoothly from the table and looked at him with level eyes. "I hate you," she said.
She had said it passionately that time.
"That's okay," he replied, and kept smiling at her.
"I'll show you the way out," she said, and set her plastic doll down almost gently on the silver plate.