His expansive wanderings take him to the outskirts of a village – small, superstitious, and forgetful of the old ways – but he's found he's ready to settle, should the woods around his small cottage accept him. The humble, stone home he wishes to rent is on the boundaries of the forest; his landlady informs him that the place has been empty for at least ten seasons – too close to the murk of the trees, too far from the safety of town – but if he wants to risk it, she's not going to stop him. Long as he pays his rent on time, she states slowly, sucking on her teeth and giving him a squinty-eyed once over, then he won't have any trouble from her.
Same can't be said of the rest of townsfolk, she mutters as he opens and shuts the wooden cabinets. She continues mumbling to herself, twisting a lock of dark hair around her fingers, as he lays his hand flat on the sturdy, oak table in the middle of the kitchen. He takes a deep breath, letting his eyes slide shut, as the smell of fresh rainwater and smoldering cedar smoke settles into his lungs. As he drags his palm over the grooves of the wood, he feels its memories of past owners – kind, hard workers, respectful of the earth. He hears the sound of children's laughter and a man singing a lullaby and a woman humming quietly under her breath.
Good people. Honest people.
There is no ill will in this house or the land beneath it.
He runs his thumb over a notch in the table and raises his head, unaware of the way his curls fall across his eyes and catch in the later afternoon sunlight streaming in through the windows. His landlady falls silent, stops in the middle of a sentence about the well and water pump behind the house, as a smile breaks out across his face. He reaches into his coin purse and retrieves two months' worth of rent, which she gladly accepts, mouth falling open.
“I'll take it.”
For the first four and twenty hours, he keeps the door locked and the shutters latched – he sits on the cold, stone floor, legs crossed and feet bare, until he feels the house accept him. It takes hours, but he is unhurried, content to rest his upturned palms on his knees, as the tension drains from his shoulders. A shiver cuts through the room, and the unmoving air shifts, goes warm and cinnamon sweet, so he unfolds his legs to stand. It's full dark outside, he recognizes, even if the windows are covered, and he's settled enough to get some rest. Just to be sure, he sleeps on his bedroll and eats from his traveling rations – he doesn't want to move too quickly or assume too much. It feels odd, almost like he's camping in his own home, but he is unbothered, snacking happily on roasted chickpeas and spiced bread.
His sister once described it as two cats meeting for the first time – each feline must be introduced to the other slowly, under specific circumstances, to discourage fighting and encourage harmony. She had explained it all to him while cuddling a small, white kitten in her lap; he remembers shifting his gaze between the slight scrap of cotton fluff and the black shadow of their family cat lurking ominously in the corner of the room. It had taken many a fortnight for the two to get accustomed to each other, but his sister had been diligent and unwavering. She kept them on opposites of closed doors, letting them learn each other's scents, until finally, the felines were loathe to part. He takes her advice to heart now – opening the windows one at a time, over the course of four days. The eastern window is first, followed by the southern, then the western, and finally the northern window, just as she had taught him.
Only after the fourth day does he let himself sleep in the bed and sit at the kitchen table for his meals. He starts taking walks around the woods, hands held loose at his sides, as he steps carefully through the underbrush. He spends a full afternoon watching the small stream that runs behind his house – it isn't until he feels a breeze tugging at his dark hair that he takes off his boots and rolls up his trousers to his knees.
“Thank you,” he whispers, head bowed, as the shallow waters roll over the tops of his feet. A rustling scampers through the trees above him; the branches bounce and a few leaves fall loose, drifting down to catch in his curls. He untangles them carefully, rubbing his thumb over the spindly veins and autumn red skin. With a smile, he presses them to his mouth and tips his head back. “Thank you,” he whispers again, and the woods fall quiet.
Three days later, he wakes to a single knock at the door. The house is grounded around him, quiet and peaceful, and he can hear the trees whispering sleepily to each other outside. After a moment, he hoists himself out of bed with a smile and reaches for a small, silk pouch he's kept tucked inside his traveling bag.
It's finally time to begin.
Slowly, he opens his front door to his predictably empty yard – overgrown with twisting clover and tumbling snowdrops – and bows his head with a smile. “Good morning,” he calls quietly, voice steady, as he lowers himself to sit cross-legged in the entry way to his new home. He cradles the silk pouch – rich, ocean blue fabric embroidered in gold thread by his mother – between his knees and gently loosens the ties. With deft fingers, he pulls out its contents and lines them up neatly on the threshold of his house, just as his mother had taught him and his siblings.
A white, polished stone, no bigger than his eye, plucked from the rock path at his parents' home.
A small satchel, the size of his palm, filled with rich, dark earth harvested from his older sister's garden.
A delicate, curving seashell, smaller than his thumbnail, gifted from his little brother's personal collection.
A wax candle, the length of his forefinger, purchased on the same day that he left his home country behind.
With a deep breath, he lights the candle and waits for the wick to catch. Something scampers through a tangle of bluebells – clumsy and ungainly, like a fawn figuring out its first steps – and he swallows a laugh. Resting his hands on his knees, palms up and open, he clears his throat and begins to speak in soft, lilting Arabic.
“Peace be upon you. I am called Yusuf al-Kaysani, son of Nadir and Fatima al-Kaysani, younger brother to Layla al-Kaysani, and older brother to Farouk al-Kaysani. I seek to do no evil, nor do I intend to malign the spirits of this earth. I wish to honor those who came before me and inspire those who may come after.” He pauses, licking his suddenly dry lips, and is soothed by the gentle scent of cinnamon the curls over his shoulder. “I endeavor to do no harm while I am here, and I only ask for the same. Please bring no ill will to my door while I live in this home and walk these woods. May Allah grant blessings to every twig, petal, rock, and creature in this forest.”
Yusuf exhales carefully, his breath a soft stutter, as he purposefully relaxes his spine and closes his eyes. The spicy weight of cinnamon remains – not unwelcome, not unkind... it's almost protective, he realizes with a private smile. It seems his home has readily claimed him as its own. Even so, he doesn't stir; he maintains his vigil with his eyes shut. Half an hour passes in silence, until a trickle of a breeze slips around him and extinguishes the candle. Blinking, he watches as the slight tendril of smoke is carried away by the wind.
With a smile, he wiggles his slightly numbed fingers and scans his front yard, looking for any sign that something has changed. He can't help but laugh when he sees the small cache of acorns piled next to a freshly killed pheasant, resting on his front step.
“Thank you,” he calls out, making sure to wait a few beats before collecting his bounty. He also retrieves the stone, satchel of earth, and seashell, though he leaves the candle. It's gone by the next morning. The pheasant is delicious, as are the acorns – and he doesn't forget to leave a small offering of acorn caps and feathers on his doorstep. Those, too, disappear from his doorstep. Every morning, he fixes his tea, and he takes care to pour an additional cup, which he places on his doorstep. The cup is always empty by the next day, and sometimes he finds a small flower or rock resting next to the saucer. He accepts the gifts with gratitude and begins leaving sugar cubes out with the tea as well.
The days melt into weeks, and the forest accepts him fully. Yusuf finds it easy to unpack his things – his journals and scrolls, his incense and prayer mat, his herbs – fresh, dried, and otherwise – until he looks around the small cottage and recognizes it as his own. He sets up his library – his father was a scholar before all things, and it was his wish that his children had worldly education. He made sure of it before he passed.
As such, Yusuf has French philosophy texts, Italian poetry, Russian folktales – a whole manner of books in a great many languages. He runs his finger along the spines of his books before turning to his last parcel left to unpack. With careful hands, he cradles a heavy bell that his mother gifted him the night before he left on his journey. She had wrapped it in fresh, white linen and urged him to hang it in an eastern window only after his home accepted him.
Now, he rubs over the ornate metal with his thumb and smiles as he thinks of his mother's eyes when she gave it to him – dark and shining with tears. He huffs out a watery laugh and studies the bell closely. It's engraved with a blessing in Arabic intended to bring balance and prosperity to the home, and he hangs it in the window in the kitchen. The sunlight catches and kicks off the polished copper at bright angles, and he admires the shine of it with a soft smile. He nudges it gently with a knuckle and delights in the soft, melodic chime.
He ventures into the town weekly – just enough to trade what he forages from the forest and collect what supplies he might need. The villagers are still wary of him, and though he finds their suspicions tiresome, he doesn't let himself dwell on it. They at least tolerate himself enough to conduct business with him and sell him what wares he needs. The baker's daughter – Cora Birch, at least, smiles at him when he buys bread from her – and he's almost positive the smiles are genuine. They trade stories of their families – she has a younger sister, where he has a younger brother, but they find camaraderie in the strife of older siblinghood.
Even with the loneliness – and he does get lonely, accustomed as he is to the chatter of his siblings and the fussing of his mother – he refuses to let himself be sad. Instead, he wanders through the woods around his cottage and follows the winding path of the whispering stream. He walks purposefully, minding his steps as he treks over tree roots and mossy stones, and keeps his hands in his pockets. He is a visitor; he must never forget that. This place is not his to touch. Often, he will hear singing, always just beyond the next hill and out of sight, which he acknowledges with an appreciative nod before turning back the way he came.
His mother taught him very well.
On one such walk – blessedly quiet, save for the wind carding through the leaves above his head – Yusuf finds himself straying from his usual paths. Something is guiding him, hooked under his ribs and tugging with an insistence that he dare not ignore. Whispers kick up around him – though they are not malicious, not hurting, not unkind just urgent, urgent, urgent – and he leans into the sound of hushed, fearful voices. The back of his neck prickles with heat and a shiver sparks up his spine.
quickly, quickly, save him, save him, save him, take the wrongness within the wrong and fix it, fix it, fix it.
Yusuf moves quickly, hopping over a rotted, over turned log, and all but skids to a stop. He doubles over, bracing his shaking hands on his unsteady knees, as he tries to catch his breath. The woods have gone silent – robbed all of sound – and he swallows thickly around the nerves suddenly choking his throat. Once he's calmed, Yusuf lifts his head to survey the slight clearing he's found himself in. His skin feels tight, stretched over bones that are suddenly too big for his body, and he can taste metal in the back of his mouth.
“Peace be upon you,” he stammers in hurried Arabic, pressing his urgently dry tongue against his teeth, “I endeavor to do no harm while I am here, and I only ask for the same.” Something skitters through the branches above his head, something with clicking nails and snickering beaks, and he raises his hands in supplication. “Please bring no ill will to my door while I live in this home and walk these woods.”
He steps gingerly through the grass, edging around a mostly decayed tree stump, when he sees it.
The poor creature is caught in a trap – it's not one of his, for he knows better than to trap in the woods, and it's not from the villagers, for they don't venture into the forest to hunt – and his heart seizes at the fear in its wide, gray green eyes. Unnatural eyes for a rabbit, he realizes, as he tilts his head to study it closer. Its little body shakes with terror, and it thumps at the earth with its back legs, delirious and desperate. Blood and sweat darkens its brown fur, and he sucks in a breath at how the coiled wire digs into its soft, animal flesh.
“I can help you,” he croons gently, and the rabbit blinks rapidly at him. “Let me get you out of this trap, and I can tend to your injury.” Slowly – so slowly – Yusuf reaches for the knife at his hip. He has never unsheathed his blade in the forest, and he glances around at the trees. “I only wish to help – is that all right?” A warm breeze shambles through the clearing, quiet and sweet, which he takes for permission. “I will do my best to be gentle,” he says to the rabbit and anyone else who might be listening, “but this might hurt a bit.”
He opts to wrap the struggling creature in his jacket, realizing distantly that he will likely never be able to get the garment clean again, and sever the tie closer to the ground. Once he gets the rabbit back to his home, he'll be able to free it from the coil around its middle. For now, he keeps it trapped in a tangle of blue fabric as he works at the wire. It's slow going, and his heart clenches with each time the rabbit spasms in panic, so he distracts himself with a steady stream of ramblings.
“Careful, dear heart, you're almost free – it's all right, I won't hurt you. You'll be free soon, I promise. I know, I know – this hurts, I know. I'm sorry, precious one, I'm sorry. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry.”
Selfishly, he wants to believe that his voice soothes the creature's frantic shivering, but it's more likely that the poor thing just surrenders to its fate. It slumps over in the dirt, panting and wheezing under the shroud of his jacket. Once he has cut the tether, he expects a frenzied scramble for freedom, but the rabbit doesn't fight as he lifts its limp body into his arms. He can feel its small heart beating against his hand – thrumming, rapid, terrified – as he walks slowly back to his cottage.
“I seek to do no evil, nor do I intend to malign the spirits of this earth. May Allah grant blessings to every twig, petal, rock, and creature in this forest.” He recites quietly, hoping to convince the rabbit of his good intentions. “Though, I don't even know if you understand me – can rabbits speak Arabic?” He mumbles to the bundle in his arms. “Even so, I do not wish to do you harm, and I hope you understand that, at least.”
Once he gets the rabbit back to his cottage, Yusuf fixes it a small dish of water, lavender, and valerian root. Dehydrated as it is, the poor thing is surprisingly resistant to drinking.
“I promise,” Yusuf whispers as he watches the rabbit twitch its nose, “I won't hurt you. I just want to help you, precious one. Please,” he begs, nudging at the water dish with his pinky, “let me help you.” The rabbit stares at him, flicking its whiskers with disdain, and Yusuf can't help but smile. It's a small creature – not much longer than the length of his arm, from wrist to elbow, with an almost negligible weight. The rabbit's ears hang long, practically dragging as it hops uneasily about his kitchen table. “Don't you trust me? Look,” he dips the tip of his finger into the water, “it's not poisoned.” He touches his finger to his tongue and smiles. “See?” The rabbit blinks its eerie, seafoam eyes but does not move any closer.
He sighs, resting his cheek on his folded arms, and looks at the rabbit sideways. “Am I less scary like this?” The question comes out as a mumble – he's suddenly tired in a way that has nothing to do with the minuscule dose of sleeping draught he's given himself. The rabbit blinks at him and hops awkwardly across the table – its left front leg is injured, Yusuf realizes – and begins drinking timidly from the saucer of water. “Well done, dear heart.”
It doesn't take long for the rabbit to succumb, and Yusuf watches as it flops over onto one side, finally asleep. He studies it for a moment, eye catching on its unnaturally bent left front leg, before retrieving tools he usually reserves for gardening and harvesting of herbs. He indulges just a little – petting over its soft, if filthy fur – and then works his fingers into the space between its small body and the snare constricting it. The wire pinches, and he grimaces at how it bites into his skin. He can only imagine how much this poor creature has suffered under its torture. Working quickly, he snips at the coil with a small pair of shears until the wire comes free.
Yusuf makes a soft, sad noise as he resumes petting over its flank. He can feel its ribs with every pass of his hand, and he sighs painfully as he studies the deep groove cut into its flesh by the trap. It's then that he remembers the rabbit's other injury – he cups his hand around the creature's back and examines the left foreleg. It's bent, the paw tucked under itself, and tied tightly with twine. Once he gets it free, he can go about bathing the poor soul. For now, however, he frowns, brows furrowed, as he reaches out with one finger to prod at the peculiar wound.
Three things happen at once, none of them pleasant.
The rabbit jolts awake, screaming – a high pitched, feral yowling that burrows sharply into his heart, like every pained noise this poor creature has made – as it rockets off the kitchen table and flees to hide under his bed. Yusuf is flung back, out of his chair, as a horrendously painful shock arcs up his arm and shudders through his skeleton; his nerves are on fire, and he curls helplessly into a ball on the stone floor of his home. He's gagging, choking on his own agony, and he can still hear the rabbit crying and mewling to itself in the next room. Stupidly, he flings an arm out in its direction, in a paltry attempt to offer comfort. In the eastern window, his mother's copper bell begins to ring.
Minutes pass, and Yusuf slowly regains control over himself. His stomach roils with bitter nausea, and had he eaten anything that day, it would likely be spilled across the floor. As it is, his mouth is full of metal tinged saliva, and he swallows with a grimace. Still shivering in pain, he carefully picks himself up from an undignified sprawl to a protective hunch. Face pale, he tips his head back and runs a hand through his sweaty curls. The bell continues to ring – a mournful, warning cry – and Yusuf sighs, rubbing absentmindedly over the silver ring on his thumb.
“So, it's a curse, then.”
Curses are not his domain. As a rule, he avoids them – sticks to blessings and bargains, things designed to bring balance and honor order. Curses, by their very nature, do none of those things. Despite this, he can still understand them – can parse out the particulars of their twisting and turning, their underhanded machinations. His mother had taught him that much, at least.
Disinclined to move from his place on the floor, Yusuf reaches out with one hand and grabs the ruined jacket and the severed wire – both touched by the creature's blood and scent. Bones still rattling with after bursts of pain, he lays his jacket out in front of himself and rests the coil in its center. He glances to his bedroom, where he can't see the rabbit, but he's sure it's watching him, before placing his hands deliberately and calmly on the blood stained fabric.
Yusuf inhales deeply, gratified by the sudden burst of cinnamon in the air, and lets his shoulders relax. There is no ill will in this house or the land beneath it. He holds onto that – the memories of past owners and his own good intentions – presses his fingers down, until he can feel the individual threads of his jacket slipping against his skin. The rabbit blood stains his hands in sad, helpless smudges, and he follows that sadness – doesn't shy away from the grief and confusion nudging up against his senses.
He remembers the rabbit's eyes – gray green, like sea glass or the winter sky after a storm – and how they studied him. How the rabbit studied him, distrustful but resigned, in a way no wild animal has regarded him before. Something tugs on his heart, sharp and unrelenting, and he twitches, leaning into the pull. It reminds him of the hooks in his ribs, guiding him through the woods to the cursed rabbit.
Who would curse a rabbit in the first place?
His arm still aches, bones and joints buzzing with the memory of white, sparking pain, and he shudders at its viciousness. Who would curse a rabbit and why would they protect that curse with such adamant cruelty? Take the wrongness within the wrong and fix it, the forest had said – he had assumed it was the snare that had been the source of the tree's ire, but maybe it was something else. Yusuf sighs, breath catching against the skip of his throat when he tastes the creature's blood in the air, mingling with the sharp spice of his home.
There's something not right about the blood – why is the blood not right?
He pitches forward, slowly pressing his forehead to his ruined jacket. The penny rich tang feels human – why does it feel human? It isn't his; he hasn't been injured recently. He pushes his tongue against the roof of his mouth, holding the taste of it there, and frowns. The only blood on the cloth should be from his recent rescue. Why would a rabbit have not rabbit blood? When is a rabbit is not a rabbit? The wrongness within the wrong – it wasn't the trap. The rabbit itself was the wrongness within the wrong.
The air shifts, goes suddenly cold and suddenly sweet, and he feels his ears pop as his eyes fly open. His new house guest is lurking on the threshold between his bedroom and the kitchen; it presses its small body into the wooden door frame as it watches him with something like suspicion twitching in its whiskers. Yusuf moves slowly as he rises from his crouch – the rabbit tracks his movements, ocean gray eyes fixed and unblinking, and he offers it a tremulous smile.
“Hello, my not-rabbit friend.”
Inept as he is at curse breaking, Yusuf excels at research. He brought the old texts with him, and now he spreads them out on his kitchen table. The not-rabbit watches him, and he only finds it polite to keep up a steady narration of what he's doing.
“The twine looks simple enough,” Yusuf explains, sipping at his tea, “but the fact that it's double looped concerns me. Really, you should try some,” he indicates the little saucer of tea he's fixed for his new roommate. “It's just black tea and ginger – nothing fancy.” As before, he dips his pinky in the blend and touches it to his tongue. “Not poisoned. Again.”
The not-rabbit huffs, but acquiesces and sips daintily from its saucer.
“Well done, dear heart,” he murmurs, flipping through a few pages, studying the notes his mother and sister have written in the margins. It's easy to imagine them here with him – his mother leaning over his shoulder, arm looped loosely over his back, half-mumbling as she reads aloud while his sister, Layla, paces behind him, one hand tucked close to her chest and the other gesticulating wildly as she talks through her theories. He can hear their voices, rising and falling as they speak over and around each other.
He misses them dearly – even Farouk who, for all his youthful disinterest in the family's traditions, used to sit with him while he studied, keeping himself entertained with paints and pastels. They had that in common – they were the artists in the family, and Yusuf used to spend many an afternoon with his little brother. He feels that urge now, and he retrieves a blank sheaf of paper and a spare piece of charcoal. His subject is his new roommate, and he sketches the not-rabbit with a few dark strokes. He captures the curve of its back and the gentle slope of its drooping ears with ease.
“Look,” he says, smiling, as he holds up the quick drawing. “This is you.” The not-rabbit hops closer, sniffing at the paper and getting smudges of black on its little nose. It looks at him, eyes shrewd, and flops dramatically onto its side. “I appreciate the feedback,” Yusuf laughs, reaching out slowly to rub his fingers along its spine. There's a distinct grimy feel to its fur, and he grimaces. “Maybe I should give you a bath – what do you think about that, precious one?”
The not-rabbit tolerates the idea, or at least it doesn't immediately bolt for his room when Yusuf begins to heat some water to a manageable temperature. He would hate for his house guest to think he was trying to cook it – they've achieved a tenuous peace, and the last thing he wants to do is compromise that – but he knows from experience that the well water is agonizingly cold. He takes off his rings, setting them to the side, and works a steady lather of cardamom-almond soap through its fur. The water turns gray with evidence of the poor creature's rough, open air life – the not-rabbit is still under his hands, its eyes shut in other relaxation or resignation, he isn't sure. He still struggles to parse out its various moods.
“When was your last bath, I wonder,” he mumbles, mostly to himself, as he pours a cup of fresh, warm water over its coat to rinse away the suds, “and how long have you been in this form, my little not-rabbit?”
Unsurprisingly, the not-rabbit has no answers for his musings. Though, it does nose softly at his fingertips, and Yusuf accepts the absentminded affection with an amused smile. Once he is satisfied with the animal's cleanliness – well, more like, once the not-rabbit begins to wriggle impatiently under his slippery grasp, he reaches for a towel and bundles the soggy thing up to dry. It looks pathetic, sodden fur clumped together and sticking up in odd patches, and Yusuf can't help but laugh at its truly ferocious stare.
“Yes,” he assures it, cuddling his miserable darling close as it struggles against him, “you're very fierce. We're all quite impressed.”
The research continues; he won't abandon the not-rabbit to its fate if he has the capabilities to assist. However, it doesn't take long for him to exhaust his resources – he's not ashamed to admit that he's out of his depths, and he doesn't have the family's library to guide him. Layla, on the other hand, is an absolute prodigy, and she isn't shy about doling out advice. Amidst his pile of notes and texts, he finds a slender tome – no thicker than his ring finger – bound in soft, worn leather. The pages inside are blank, for they never retain anything written upon them. He sets the book aside and reaches for his mortar and pestle – the handle of the pestle is engraved with a short prayer for harmony and honesty – with practiced hands.
His not-rabbit watches as he retrieves a dried pinch of jasmine, a fresh sprig of mint, and a cinnamon stick – the cinnamon is a new addition to his rituals, but his home seems to favor it, so he's not opposed. He grinds it all together, humming his father's favorite lullaby as he works, and lets it set as he writes a letter to his sister.
My dearest Layla,
How I have missed you so! I hope that you, Mama, and Farouk are well. Please tell Baba that I miss him very much, next time you go to visit him. I must ask you to leave an offering in my stead, if it is not too troublesome. You will be delighted to know that the spirits of these lands are very welcoming; I am grateful to have their acceptance and tolerance, as I go about making my home here.
I must confess, however, that I find myself in a difficult situation, with which I hope you can assist me. It is beyond my knowledge, but I believe you have expertise with conundrums such as these. I have, purely by accident, acquired a new house guest – a rabbit who, by all appearances is a perfectly average rabbit. However, upon closer (and painful) examination, I discovered that the rabbit was much more than a perfectly average rabbit. Plainly put, my darling sister, I believe it is a being that has been forced into the form of a rabbit, through unnatural machinations – what its original form was, I know not. And any attempts to free it from the ritual results in an unpleasant rebound.
The curse seems to be contained within a piece of twine, looped twice around its left foreleg. I've included a sketch, so that you can better visualize the affliction. I believe I have the beginnings of a ritual to neutralize the curse and minimize repercussions, but I wished to consult with you before going any further. Please review my notes and correct me where I have gone astray. Don't censor yourself – though that has never been an issue for you, my most beloved sister – for I endeavor to seek your honesty.
It is here that he outlines his progress – keeping his thoughts thorough and precise, so that Layla has a full understanding of his process. He also gives an in depth description of his and the not-rabbit's pain from when he prodded at its bound leg. She is smart, his sister, and he knows that she will have the answers he seeks. The not-rabbit twitches its whiskers, and Yusuf scrunches his nose teasingly. Decidedly disinterested, the not-rabbit shifts around to reward him with a view of its soft, cotton tail. Smiling to himself, he concludes his letter with the promised drawing of the not-rabbit's foreleg, pinned back by the piece of twine.
I hope that you and our family is safe. I miss you all so very much, with every beat of my humble heart. Please know that I think of you often and fondly. I look forward to your response and any advice you have to give me.
Your most well meaning brother,
Now, he reaches for the mortar of ground herbs and the small pack of matches – he lights one and ignites the fragrant mixture. His kitchen fills with the scent of a fresh spring morning, and he smiles to himself. As it burns, he unsheathes the knife at his hip and cuts a slit into the tip of his thumb. The not-rabbit watches him now, something like concern on its small, furry face. He presses his injured finger into the paper, letting the blood soak fully into the fibers of the page. The not-rabbit hops over, nudging at his wrist with its little nose, and he makes a soothing sound in the back of his throat.
“Worry not, dear heart,” he croons, waiting until the herbs are no longer burning to remove his thumb from the paper. He holds out his hand, letting the creature sniff over the wound. An easy quiet settles over the kitchen, and he watches as the words in his letter slowly fade into nothingness – no doubt appearing in the pages of the tome in his sister's care, identical to the one he's just finished writing in. The not-rabbit continues its investigation of his cut, and he clicks his tongue.
“Really, I'm all right,” he shifts his hand, smoothing over the not-rabbit's fur and cupping his palm around its spine. “You know, I'm not even sure you can understand me – do you speak Arabic, dear heart? Maybe that should be our next task – figuring out what languages you do speak. My baba ensured that my siblings and I learned many. Let's hope we have one in common, hm?”
He tries a few simple greetings in English, French, and German but gets no reaction. (Truthfully, he's a bit grateful – his French and German are overly formal dialects, and, while his grasp of English is near perfect, he'd rather not speak it more than he has to.) As it is, he continues narrating to the not-rabbit in Arabic, talking it through his routine as he goes about his days.
The problem with taking in a curse, he slowly comes to realize, is that it attracts other things as well.
First, come the spiders. He finds one spinning webs in his cabinets and thinks little of it – it's small, no bigger than his pinky nail, but he knows his kitchen isn't a safe home for a spider. Instead, he collects the tiny arachnid and ushers it outside. The next afternoon, he finds two more – skittering around the books of his personal library. Again, he cups them in his hands and deposits them in the front yard.
This goes on for a few days, until he loses his patience.
“No thank you,” Yusuf mumbles under his breath, stuffing hollowed out chestnuts with a combination of ground rosemary and star anise. He ties the chestnuts to varying lengths of fishing wire and hangs them throughout the cottage. Satisfied with his work, he posts up at the kitchen table and watches a mass exodus of spiders from his home. His not-rabbit sits with him, loathe to be on the floor with the creepy crawlies, and he pets its flank absentmindedly.
Of course, it doesn't end there – one morning, Yusuf wakes to find his home unnaturally shadowed and sickeningly quiet. He takes a deep breath, gagging at the sharp tinge of metal and burnt caramel. Eyes pinched, he shudders at the black flies – corpulent and bulging – congregating on the outsides of his windows. Their thick bodies and violent buzzing effectively blocks out the sun that would otherwise be streaming into his kitchen.
He stands at his table, mouth covered with the back of his hand and listens to their vicious hissing. His stomach roils in protest, and he shakes his head with determined disgust. “I don't think so,” he grinds out, reaching up and knocking one knuckle against his mother's bell, “you will find that this house is protected, my malignant friends.”
His not-rabbit sits at his feet, peering up at him as he prepares thimbles stuffed with orange peel shavings and crushed cloves – it's a recipe from his father's family, and it's yet to fail him. The bright scent of citrus serves to put his belly at ease, and he's already feeling better. His house guest sits up, settling onto its back legs as it presses its right forepaw against his shin. He grins down at its furry face, reaching down to tap at its quivering nose.
It follows him, as has become its way, as he moves from window to window, leaving behind his talismans. After only a few hours, his insect invaders retreat, repelled by the citrus and spice, and Yusuf can't help the rush of satisfaction. He only hopes that the next ill omen to find his hearth is as easily dealt with. “What do you think, dear heart?” The not-rabbit is waiting at his feet, and he glances down at it with a smile, “have we successfully defended our home?”
It thumps its back leg once, and Yusuf laughs into his cup of tea.
Layla's response to his letter arrives by the end of the week, and he reads it thrice, laughing and taking his own notes on her suggestions. The not-rabbit insistently buts its head against his elbow, and he relents – reading it aloud, though he still doesn't think the creature can understand him.
My most troublesome brother,
How lovely to hear from you! You write such flowery letters; it's hard to believe that you are the same brother who used to smash orange pulp into my hair. How grown you are now, my dear brother. Fear not, for I have passed your kind wishes to Mama, Farouk, and Baba. Mama has bid me to tell you that she loves you very much and is grateful to hear of your safety. Farouk is already begging us to arrange a visit, so do keep that in mind.
I can't believe it took you so long to write, but I am grateful for your letter. Even if its contents are troubling. You've done the right thing in reaching out to me – it's clear that you're in over your head. Thankfully, your wise older sister is here to help. You'd be absolutely lost without me, my best beloved brother. Fear not, for I recognize the plight that you are facing, and certainly have some advice on how to proceed.
The double loop of the twine concerns me, however I don't believe it will prove too difficult to combat. Have you considered adding yarrow – I believe it is called, in that part of the world – to your ritual? I think it would blend well with what you are trying to accomplish with the saffron and cinnamon. Cinnamon, Yusuf! What an interesting addition to your craft, though I understand where you're coming from. As soon as I read your notes, I was able to follow your train of thought perfectly.
What a clever little brother I have!
I would also suggest conducting the rite at either sundown or sunup – just on the cusp of transition from day to night or night to day – to aid in the change from rabbit to... whatever it was originally. I would also recommend discovering the creature's first form before attempting any sort of transformation. You are doing this being a favor, my tenderhearted brother – be sure you understand who (or what) you are bringing into debt.
I miss you as well – with every beat of my not so humble heart – and wish you only success and prosperity. Please let me know if you need further assistance. I eagerly await your next letter.
Your most accomplished sister,
The not-rabbit tucks itself under his arm as he reads, perhaps to get a better look at the paper, and Yusuf eyes it curiously. His sister's warning rings in his ears – it wouldn't hurt to try and figure out what his not-rabbit was before it became a not-rabbit. Carefully, he scoops the animal up in his hands and holds it up to his face. It kicks weakly at the air with its hind legs before going limp, regarding him warily with its unsettling eyes.
“I can't believe I didn't see it sooner,” he muses idly, tilting his head from one side to the other, “no rabbit has eyes like yours, dear heart.” Humming under his breath, he tucks it into his arms – cradling it like a baby, the way Layla used to when she would dote on the family cats. The not-rabbit tolerates this new indignity, twitching its velvet nose and flicking one ear. “There you go,” Yusuf mumbles, swaying from side to side as he goes about tidying up the kitchen, the not-rabbit cuddled close to his chest.
Not long after receiving Layla's first letter do the dreams start – unlike the rest of his family, Yusuf's dreams have never been particularly prophetic. Now, however, there's a shift. He begins to dream of pale hands with slender fingers; of dark brown hair gleaming in the late afternoon sun; of soft bursts of quiet laughter, barely more than exhalations; of sleepy, sea glass eyes, squinting in a rare splash of happiness. He startles awake, rolling onto his side to peer down at the not-rabbit, dozing on a small cushion on the floor beside his bed.
“Is that you, my precious one?” He whispers, already putting the puzzle pieces together in his mind. The hair is the same color as the not-rabbit's fur, and he can't ignore the similarities in the eye color either. “Are you in my dreams, now?” The not-rabbit, as is its custom, has no answers for him.
The days pass slowly, and he maintains a correspondence with Layla. They move steadily forward with their research, tightening and perfecting his ideas into something actionable. His not-rabbit watches him write his letters, always hopping close to rest its little head on the back of his wrist when he presses his bloody thumbprint into the page. He pets over its skull with his free hand, relishing in the soft slide of its downy fur as he strokes a line between its eyes. “I'm all right,” he whispers, “don't fret, dear heart, I'm all right.”
Yusuf continues to dream of his not-rabbit – the broad slope of strong, unclothed shoulders; the subtle quirk of amused lips; a closely trimmed beard, barely concealing a mole; and the eyes – always the eyes, heavy-lidded and sometimes solemn, sometimes sweet, but always clear and focused. He's seen enough to identify that the not-rabbit is male and passably attractive. He was slender, but strong, with sturdy arms and capable hands. Most mornings find Yusuf breathless and gasping as he shudders awake, flushed and interested in a way he hasn't felt in a very long time. It takes him a few moments to regain his steadiness, and he runs his fingers through his tangled curls.
“You were quite good-looking, weren't you?” He whispers to the not-rabbit slumbering on his bedroom floor. Its – his right foreleg twitches in his sleep, and Yusuf can't help but laugh. “What are you dreaming about, my handsome little friend?”
They still haven't settled on a common language; the not-rabbit seems to accustomed enough to Arabic now to at least recognize when he's being addressed, though not much else. Perhaps that works in Yusuf's favor – the creature doesn't need to know the intricacies of his endearments and poetic whispers. Layla wasn't wrong about his heart being tender, though he would rather that not be telegraphed everywhere.
Even with his criminally pleasant dreams to look forward to, his nights drag on as he finds himself staying up later and later, studying notes and practicing runes. With Layla's guidance and advice, he surmises that he's perilously close to successfully crafting a ritual and accompanying array to break his not-rabbit's curse. This also means that he doesn't drag himself away from his kitchen table until long after midnight – usually when his roommate paws at his ankles. While Yusuf toils in his papers, the little creature has made it his personal mission to keep him somewhat rested by nipping at him until he finally retires to bed.
One such evening, he finds himself preoccupied by a sudden onset of nerves. Even though he knows that his ingredients are compatible – unlikely to cancel one another out or cause a rebound – for his grasp of herblore is beyond reproach. Nevertheless, he finds himself flipping through pages, studying diagrams and analysis of botanical properties. Outside his kitchen window, a storm rages on, lightning cracking the sky and rain pelting the roof. It's a surprisingly soothing accompaniment, despite the violent sheets of wind assailing the windows, and he finds himself smiling as he glances down at the not-rabbit, nestled against his ankle, happily asleep. Luckily, the storm doesn't seem to be disturbing his snooze.
Sighing to himself, Yusuf flips listlessly through his notes, unsure of what he's hoping to find. The air in his cottage has gone damp and heavy with the weight of the tempest outside, and he rests his head down on his folded arms. Just a moment, he reasons, and then he'll have fresh eyes to resume research.
All too suddenly, he jolts awake to a frantic pounding at his door. His heart is making a valiant effort to escape through his throat, and it takes an embarrassing moment to center himself. Sunlight is streaming in through the window – the storm has passed. He's still at the kitchen table, the not-rabbit slumped over his foot, and he rubs at his face – there's a spare piece of parchment stuck to his cheek – in confusion. The air feels sticky and slow, like molasses or licorice oil. The pounding at his door continues, and he recognizes it as distinctly human in nature.
“Mr. Yusuf?” A voice calls out for him, and the not-rabbit spasms awake. “Mr. Yusuf, are you there? I'm so sorry to wake you, sir, but I need your help.” It's Cora Birch – the baker's daughter – and her voice is pitched hummingbird fragile, quavering and scared. “Mr. Yusuf, please.”
“I'm here, Ms. Cora,” he shouts, clearing his throat with a grimace. “Just a moment – I'm, I'm here.” He peels the paper off his face and runs his fingers through his hair, vaguely aware that his furry companion has booked it to his bedroom for safety. It's like he's walking through syrup as he crosses to his front entrance. “Good morning, Ms. Cora,” he props himself up in the door frame, not fully awake, despite the adrenaline kicking through his veins. “What can I do for you?”
“I'm so sorry to bother you sir,” she sniffs, green eyes rimmed with red and tear tracks on her freckled cheeks. “It's just, my sister – Emmaline, I've told you about her – well, she's wandered off sir. And what with the storm and all, I'm worried that something might have happened to her.”
He's already shouldering into his coat – unaware of when he even grabbed it – as he takes a deep breath of the early (and it is early, brutally early) morning air. Wet with the memory of rain and bitter with a sting of nettles. Cold prickles up his spine, a knife slip of fear, and he finds himself looking south.
“I'm on my way to check the orchard,” she stammers, “I know she likes to play there sometimes, but I...”
“I'll check the creek, Ms. Cora,” he forces a smile, and he hopes it looks reassuring, as something like a fishhook digs into the ladder of his ribcage and starts to tug. “Don't fret. I'm sure we'll find her safe and sound.” Cora reaches for him, hesitates just a moment, and then rests her hand on his. He squeezes her fingers tightly, trying to loan her some of his warmth. “We'll find her.”
She nods, eyes welling up with fresh tears, and rushes off in the direction of the orchard. Yusuf watches her go before taking off on his own search, buttoning his coat as he walks. The tether in his bones is leading him towards the south end of the creek, where the water flows deeper and faster than the slight stream behind his cottage. His mouth has gone sour with nerves, and his fingers and starting to tingle with numbness.
“May Allah grant blessings to every twig, petal, rock, and creature in this forest.” He whispers under his breath, “and every little girl, too.” Rain sodden leaves hang in his face and thorn rich brambles tug at his pants as he passes. Something unhappy and petrified twists the pulp of his heart, and he almost stumbles. There's a scampering in the trees above his head, bouncing from branch to branch with a frenetic energy that matches his own anxiety. It takes no time to reach the creek, and he looks over its brown, roiling waves with a sick panic. It's considerably wider than the trickle on his property – easily ten feet across – and raging with water from the recent storm.
quickly, quickly, quickly, you're running out time, you have to save her, save her, save her, she isn't safe here.
“Emmaline!” His voice is hoarse and pitchy with nerves, “Emmaline, where are you?” There's no response, save for the rushing of the storm flush creek, and Yusuf sucks nervously on his teeth. “Where are you, my darling? Yell if you can hear me!” He's never met the girl, but he imagines she looks like a smaller version of Cora – tangled, red hair and bright, emerald eyes – and he scans the lush greenery and mud churned water with frantic eyes. “Emmaline!” He cups his hands around his mouth and shouts. “Emmaline, can you hear me?”
“I'm over here!” She sounds tired and frayed, like antique lace snagged on a nail, “please, I'm – I'm over here!” He turns, heads further south down the stream, desperately searching the banks and waves, terrified of what he might find. “Help me!” He almost doesn't see her – she's so small against the strength of the water – where she's clinging to a thick tree branch – so thick that it's practically a tree trunk – that has fallen across the creek.
“Hold on!” He struggles out of his coat, draping it over a nearby stump, and skids down the creek bank. The mud squelches under his boots as he stumbles towards her, “Emmaline, I'm coming!”
Her head whips in his direction, drawn by the sound of his cries, and something like relief blooms in her scared, little girl eyes. She looks remarkably like her sister, as he imagined, with red hair plastered to her terrified face. He tries to smile, though it's unsteady and wan, and reaches out with one hand.
“Don't move,” he reassures her, “I'm coming to you, all right?” Even though she bears no resemblance to Farouk – skin paler, face rounder – he can't help but see his little brother in her fearful gaze, in the way that she watches him like he's the only thing in the world she can rely on. And in that moment, as he edges around the tree branch, it's probably true. When he gets close, she reaches for him – stretching out her fingers, even though there's at least three feet between them – and it leaves her holding on by only one, trembling arm. “Emmaline –”
He knows it's going to happen – can already see the cruel machinations at work as her hand slips on the slick, black bark. Her eyes go wide, and her mouth drops open with a silent scream, as the water sucks her under.
And Yusuf dives in after her.
The water is frigid and unforgiving, intends to punch the air from his lungs as it rips over his head and slams into his spine. It is thick with silt – the grit burning at his eyes – and he struggles as the waves try to pull him down and keep him.
“Peace be upon you. I seek to do no evil, nor do I intend to malign the spirits of this earth.” He thinks, even as he fights against the current, kicking towards the surface. “I endeavor to do no harm while I am here, and I only ask for the same.” Something brushes against his hand – warm and well meaning, as it twines around his fingers – and he breaks the surface of the water, heaving in gulps of air.
“Thank you,” he gasps, treading his arms and scanning the violence of the creek for any sign of Emmaline. “Can you bring me to her? Grant us passage to safety, please?” There's a chirping from the reeds along the creek bank as something rustles through the crocuses, keeping pace with him as he fully surrenders to the current. Yusuf struggles to keep his head above the waves, taking in mouthfuls of grainy water, when he notices a tiny, pale hand almost disappearing into the churning creek. “Emmaline!”
Her head emerges, and she catches sight of him – she tries to swim, battling against the flow of the creek. She's a frantic, hysterical creature, fighting uselessly to get to him. If he doesn't reach her soon, she'll exhaust herself and succumb.
“Don't swim!” He tries to shout to her, choking and gagging, “I'm coming to you, Emmaline, but you mustn't swim!” His clothes are unfathomably heavy, and he's beyond grateful that he took off his coat, and he works his arms and legs tirelessly. The water is so thick and so cold, and his muscles burn with the effort. The child is still a ways beyond his grasp, though closer than before, and he pushes himself hard.
Emmaline reaches for him, her fingers stretching out, and he leans into the pull of the current. He flings out one hand, manages to grasp her wrist, and pulls her close to him. Her skirts are tangled around her legs, weighing her down, and she scrambles to wrap her thin arms around his neck.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” she whispers, clinging to him, as he loops an arm tightly around her back.
“It's all right,” he tries to soothe her, even as he struggles to believe his own words, “I've got you – you're going to be all right.” With only one arm free – the other clutching the child close to his chest – Yusuf tries to bring them closer to the creek bank. He doesn't know how much longer he can keep this up; he's drained from his sudden bout of late nights, and the current promises to pull them both down into the muddy depths. Emmaline's eyes have fallen closed, though he can feel her breathing, where she is holding onto him.
“Please,” he begs, as he struggles to keep them both from drowning, “please grant us safe passage from your waters – we do not wish to bring harm and we do not wish to cause offense.” And he knows – he knows he should be thinking of Emmaline, who reminds him of his little brother, who is still so young and has so many years ahead of her – but all he can think of is his dear heart, his precious one, his not-rabbit with the soul and smile of a man. “I'm not ready to die.”
There's a surge behind him – a sudden press of water that propels him and Emmaline to the bank – and he tucks the girl's head under his chin to protect her. A wave crests over them, sending them tumbling and twisting onto dry land. Yusuf flops onto his back, chest heaving, as Emmaline curls up on her side next to him, hacking up creek water with weak, gasping coughs. He presses the back of his hand to his forehead as he stares up at the chilly, gray sky.
“Thank you,” he wheezes, barely audible, before sitting up, bracing himself on his palms. A warm breeze plays through his soaked curls, and he can't help but smile. “Are you all right?” Yusuf glances down as Emmaline nods silently, her eyes clenched tight. “That's good,” he sighs, suddenly overcome by a soul deep exhaustion, as he glances up and down the length of the creek. They're only a few dozen yards down from the branch – so the current hasn't carried them very far.
“Are you all right?” A tiny voice asks from his left. “You're not injured, are you?”
“No,” Yusuf laughs, looking down at Emmaline with a bright smile, “I'm perfectly fine. I'm just glad you're okay.” She nods again, and she starts shivering, tightening up into a little ball with her fists pressed under her chin. “Let's get you back home – Ms. Cora is very worried about you.”
“Cora?” Emmaline cracks open one eye, and he nods. “Oh, she's going to be awful mad at me, sir.”
“She won't,” he assures her, standing up and opening his arms to her. “She'll just be happy that you're all right.”
“I promise,” he says, hoisting her up in one arm. She tucks herself close to him, no doubt seeking warmth, and he hastens up the creek bed, making sure to retrieve his coat, which he drapes over the both of them. “You know, I have a little brother about your age. And I can say with utmost certainty that, if he had wandered off, my one concern would be his safety.”
“You have a brother?”
“Mhmm, his name is Farouk. He likes to paint,” he pauses, privately amused when she repeats Farouk to herself under her breath. “He and I used to sit together – I would sketch, and he would practice watercolors.” They're nearing the edge of the forest, and he can start to hear the telltale sounds of village life; even so, he doesn't stop talking to her, keeping up a steady ramble to help her stay awake.
They're about to reach the outskirts of town, when someone calls out for him.
“Mr. Yusuf, have you found – Emmaline?” He turns, hitching his slight passenger higher on his hip, as Cora stumbles across the grass to them. “Emmaline, is that you? Did you find her, Mr. Yusuf?” Nodding, he raises one arm in confirmation, unwilling to shout when Emmaline's small ears are so close. She begins tapping insistently on his shoulder, and he glances at her out of the corner of his eye.
“You're sure she won't be mad?”
“Why don't you go and find out?” She nods, suddenly eager, and all but launches herself out of his arms. He watches the sisters reunite – Cora kneels down to Emmaline's height, and they crash into each other, tumbling into the damp grass. Their voices mingle and meld, a beautiful symphony of sisterly tears and gratitude. He lingers for only a moment before surrendering to the growing awareness of his own chill. Turning his collar up, Yusuf buttons his coat tightly and stuffs his hands in his pockets before heading back in the direction of home.
Halfway between his cottage and the edge of town, Yusuf glances over to his right, eyes snagging on a patch of dainty, yellow flowers not a dozen feet away. Despite the fatigue plaguing his bones, he laughs in delight as he lopes over to the flora and crouches down to inspect the bushes.
“Thank you,” he says, bowing his head, as he collects a healthy bouquet – he can already tell that Layla was right. The yarrow will blend well with the ritual; its sturdy protection will help insulate the curse’s backlash.
The rest of his walk passes quickly, and he feels every step tenfold, as he becomes increasingly aware of the cling of his uncomfortably wet clothes and the film of grime coating his skin and hair. Though he knows he should take a bath upon arriving home, he knows he's going to fall into bed to sleep for at least a month. Possibly longer, if his not-rabbit permits.
“I'm back,” he calls out in a slur as he nudges open the door, “have you wandered off, my little furry friend – all right, all right.” He laughs, taking a slow step back, as the not-rabbit all but charges him, tracking circles around his ankles with a single minded determination. “Did you miss me?” Reaching out one hand, he drops down to his haunches. The not-rabbit jumps backward, just out of his grasp, and fixes him with what he can only describe as a furious stare. “Are you mad at me, dear heart?”
The not-rabbit latches onto the leg of his trouser with his not inconsiderable teeth, tugging on the fabric until Yusuf can't help but laugh. At his mirth, the creature only tugs harder, until he's certain the seams will rip.
“I'm fine,” he grins, slowly reaching out once more and waiting to see if the not-rabbit will evade his touch again. He doesn't, so Yusuf rests his palm carefully on his furry back, cupping over the bumps of his delicate spine. “Really, precious one, I'm all right.” He holds out his other hand, allowing him to sniff at his fingers – he can't imagine that he smells very pleasant, likely stinking of creek water, but the not-rabbit nudges at him curiously. “See? I'm all right.”
It takes a moment, and the not-rabbit thumps his back legs twice before hopping away with what little, woodland dignity he has left. Yusuf watches his retreat in disbelief.
“Oh, you're punishing me now? Dear heart, you're being unfair!”
Predictably, he gets no response. Shaking his head, he drags a hand through his hair and immediately shudders at how filthy and tangled his curls have become. Drained as he is, he manages to muster enough energy to prepare himself a bath. His feet drag as he collects water from the pump in the back, and it takes far too long for it to heat to an acceptable temperature – but he's willing to wait; just the memory of being submerged in the near-freezing creek is enough to inspire patience.
His not-rabbit maintains a reproachful distance – simultaneously unwilling to come closer and unwilling to leave him alone, always staring at him with those sea glass eyes. Yusuf tries not to tease the creature too much; it's become clear that the little fellow has developed an attachment to him, not that Yusuf, himself, can deny similar feelings. It's only when he begins to strip down for his bath that the not-rabbit literally turns tail and flees to the kitchen.
“Suddenly shy?” He calls after him, laughing when he hears his four legged friend skidding on the stone floor.
He takes his time in the small, metal tub – scents the water with orange and clove oils and lets the steam roll over his sore muscles. It's only after repeated scrubbing with his cardamom-almond soap that he begins to feel remotely human again. Washing his hair has never felt like such a luxury. His fluffy roommate refuses to enter, sequestering himself to the kitchen and pointedly granting him privacy. Inhaling deeply, he lets himself sink beneath the water until he is fully submerged, all sound muffled and mumbled.
His mind begins to drift, soothed by the sweet smells of citrus and spice, until he finds himself thinking of his precious one. Despite the consistency of his dreams, he still doesn't have a full picture of his face – just the obscene slope of his nose, the pale stretch of his neck, the sculpted muscles of his back... Yusuf shivers, his whole body shuddering, as an interested heat spools and uncoils between his thighs. It seems indecent, indelicate, to consider his house guest in this way. Even so, he arches his spine, slipping one hand down his chest to just under his navel...
And a sudden tap-tap-tapping to the side of his bath has him jolting upright, water sloshing onto the floor. Yusuf gasps, pushing his sodden hair out of his face, as he peers over the edge of his tub. The not-rabbit stares up at him, his ears pinned back, as he thumps his back leg solidly against the floor. His fur is slightly damp, no doubt as a result of Yusuf's awkward splashing.
“Were you worried, dear heart? I'm quite all right.” He can't help but ask, eyes sparking with mirth. The not-rabbit twitches his nose, whiskers flicking with displeasure, before scampering back to the kitchen. “You're already wet – why not join me?”
After his bath, Yusuf selects a book from his small library – it's been so long since he's allowed himself time to read for pleasure – and he figures he's earned a few hours of leisure. His fingers land on the small volume of Italian poetry, and he takes to his bed to read. He settles back, his free hand tucked behind his head and his left leg bent at the knee. It's not his most dignified sprawl, but he's seeking comfort over composure. He's halfway through his favorite passage when he hears a desperate, rhythmic tamp-tamp-tamping from his doorway.
Rather than answer, the not-rabbit launches himself across the room, jumping up into his bed and landing on his chest. Yusuf laughs, startled and delighted, as the not-rabbit pounds his right forepaw against his sternum. He tries to settle the animal, putting down his book to cradle him in both hands, but he squirms, twisting under his grasp.
“What is it?” He can't help but crow, far too amused by the not-rabbit's impertinent distress. “What seems to be the trouble, dear heart?” His book is knocked to the floor in the commotion, and Yusuf reaches for it with one hand. “Hold on, now,” the animal nudges at the volume, catching a page between his teeth and pulling. “Well all right, just because you're not a fan of poetry –”
A sudden knocking at his front door interrupts his lecture, and Yusuf gently frees the book from his not-rabbit's incisors. “We will finish this,” he promises, pointing at the furball dramatically; he twitches his whiskers, clearly intimidated. He takes the book with him, holding it protectively to his chest, as he crosses the kitchen to his entryway.
Sparing a moment to straighten his unruly curls, Yusuf takes a deep breath and opens his door. Cora Birch, eyes bright and cheeks rosy, stands on his front step, cradling a basket in her hands.
“Hello Mr. Yusuf,” she greets, ducking her head with a smile, “how are you doing?”
“I'm fine, Ms. Cora,” he nods, slipping his free hand in his pocket. “How is young Emmaline? Is she all right?”
“Yes – thanks to you,” she bites her lip, pausing to collect herself. “I don't know what I would have done if she hadn't been all right. I can't thank you enough, Mr. Yusuf.”
“I'm just pleased to know that she is unharmed,” he assures her, shrugging needlessly, “it's a relief to know that she is safe. And I'm glad I was able to help, truly.”
“Yes, of course,” she glances down, blinking rapidly as if she's suddenly remembered the reason she stopped by. “I just wanted to give you this –” A bit frantic, she shoves the basket at him. “As a token of our appreciation. My father made them fresh. I hope you like them.”
“I, well –” Yusuf scrambles to accept the gift without putting down his book. “Thank you. You're too kind, Ms. Cora. Please extend my gratitude to your father as well. I'll return the basket next time I'm in town.” She waves a hand aimlessly, attention drawn to the volume of poetry.
“Is that... Italian, Mr. Yusuf? You can read Italian?”
“Yes,” he tilts his head to one side, only a little embarrassed. “My father wanted me and my siblings to learn many languages. Italian was just one of them...” Squinting, he looks over his shoulder to his bedroom, where he left his not-rabbit. Realization dawns with a humiliating slowness, and he laughs at himself.
“That's really quite amazing – I wish I could speak a different language,” Cora admits, tugging at her sleeve.
“I, yes, of course,” he murmurs, distracted and unfocused. “I'm so sorry, Ms. Cora, it's just... it's been a rather trying day. I find I must retire.”
“Oh! Yes, of course – I'm sorry, sir. I didn't mean to disturb you.” Her face flushes, and a pang of something like regret curdles in his belly.
“Really, it's not a problem. You've been very kind to bring me this,” he gestures to the basket, “thank you, Ms. Cora.” She smiles, bobbing her head, and retreats down the path back to the village. He watches her go, waiting until she's well out of ear shot, before closing the door.
“Is this what you wanted to tell me?” He calls out in perfect Italian. The not-rabbit comes tearing out of his bedroom, sliding to a stop at his bare feet. “Hop twice if you can understand me,” he says, half-joking, until the not-rabbit hops. And then hops again. “Turn in a circle if you can –” the words are barely out of his mouth before his not-rabbit is twisting around to chase his tail.
Thrilled beyond measure, Yusuf drops to sit cross-legged on the floor; the not-rabbit jumps into his lap, pressing his front paw against his chest as he twitches his soft, little nose.
“I'm sorry I didn't realize it sooner. I'm sorry it's taken me so long, my precious one.” Even as he babbles in Italian, he can't help but slip into Arabic for his incessant endearments. The not-rabbit lets him pick him up and hold him close to his face, sage green eyes shimmering with something like hope. “How did you come to this place? How did you become a rabbit? There are many questions I have to ask of you, dear heart. The day is coming when you will soon be able to answer them, I think.”
The not-rabbit squirms close to him, pressing against the curve of his neck, and Yusuf can't help but lean into his inconceivable softness.
He keeps his downy friend tucked close as he examines the basket from Cora – she's gifted him with a delectable spread of custard and fresh berry tarts. Immediately, before even taking one for himself, he ducks outside and leaves a pastry on his front step. The forest was far too forgiving this day; it would have been much easier to take and take and take and instead, it let them go. He isn't going to take that mercy lightly. He spends a long moment in the open doorway, breathing in the damp, fresh air of the early evening.
“Thank you,” he whispers, letting his gratitude linger.
The rest of the tarts, he stashes for safe keeping – but not before leaving one to the side for himself. He picks off a few of the berries and puts them on a small plate for his not-rabbit to share. The furry creature sniffs at them curiously and, after a few moments, begins to nibble daintily at the treat. Yusuf watches him with a soft smile, licking custard from his fingers – even with the not-rabbit's likely modified physiology, he's been careful to feed him only the healthiest of snacks. He would hate to be the cause of an upset tummy. As it is, he is content to look after his diminutive housemate, far too amused by the bright, red berry juice staining his little face.
Now that they've discovered a common language, Yusuf trains himself to narrate his streams of consciousness in Italian; he glances down at his fluffy shadow periodically as he talks and is gratified to find a set of alert, sea glass eyes fixed on him with attentive delight. He updates him on his progress, now that he is sure to be understood, and informs the little not-rabbit that he and Layla have nearly completed the scaffolding for the ritual.
The not-rabbit seems particularly enthused by this, flitting about his feet and tripping over his toes, when he tells him that everything should be ready by the next evening.
Morning dawns with tepid, gray sunlight and a chill that presses its cheek to the windows of his house. The unexpected bitterness has him shivering in the kitchen as he takes his morning tea. The not-rabbit huddles close to him, hunkered between his feet, and he studies the quivering creature with a fond, quiet smile. He crouches down, scoops him up in one palm, and cradles the not-rabbit close to his chest. Whiskers twitching, he burrows into the slight warmth of his sweater, and Yusuf resigns himself to spending the rest of the day with only one hand free.
By early afternoon, the cold hasn't abated – if anything, the temperature has dropped even further. Yusuf sits at his table, preparing for the ritual; he wraps his hands around his cup of tea, peeking down at the not-rabbit curled into a tight ball on his lap. The frigid wind isn't necessarily unexpected – they are due for a shift in the seasons – but there's something cruel, something untoward in the frost coating the grass. Frowning, he pets over the delicate fur behind his not-rabbit's ears with one finger; his unease is momentarily banished as his fragile ears twitch and his bright eyes blink open.
“My apologies, dear heart,” he rumbles, “I did not mean to wake you.”
The not-rabbit squints, shaking off a full-bodied shiver, and burrows closer into the coziness of Yusuf's stomach. He settles a gentle hand on the creature's back, rubbing over his little head with his thumb, and resumes his preparations. The array isn't overly complicated – he's practiced it a dozen times over by now, and he's gotten to the point where he sees it in his dreams. His mother would take that as a sign of his readiness. Layla would take it as a sign that he needs to take a break.
They would likely both be right, he acknowledges with a wry twist of his eyebrow.
He runs his fingers over the yarrow's delicate yellow flowers – Layla had been very pleased when he told her of his discovery, and she was even more impressed by the way he's incorporating it into the ritual – and holds up a small, clay dish of ground saffron. All of his components are pure and properly prepared, but he can't shake the spike of nerves in his heart. The back of his neck is frigid in a way that has nothing to do with the weather, and his tongue is suddenly thick with an acrid sweetness. The trees outside have gone still and breathless, and he rubs anxiously over the silver ring on his thumb.
A sudden screeching from outside has him jumping, nearly upsetting some of his ingredients. The not-rabbit in his lap startles, tumbling to the floor and taking off to his bedroom. He whips his head to peer out the window, and he can't help the icy spark of fear in his belly. A massive, black crow with glossy, red tinged feathers perches on a branch, its wide, empty eyes fixed on him.
That's the problem with taking in curses, he remembers, slowly rising from his chair – they attract other things as well.
The crow clicks its beak at him, and Yusuf forces himself not to glance in the direction of his bedroom. Instead, he shifts carefully around his kitchen, fully aware of the weight of the bird's stare on his back. He gathers a handful of willow bark shavings with dried watermint flowers in a shallow, gold plated bowl. A menacing flutter of wings makes his hand shake just a little as he douses the mixture liberally with almond oil.
Clearing his throat, Yusuf takes a steadying breath and sets the whole thing alight with a match – to which his corvid companion expresses its displeasure with a high pitched whistle. Humming quietly under his breath – more to comfort himself than anything else – he begins walking in uneasy laps around his house, until the whole space is filled with a sweet, hazy smoke.
On his final pass through the kitchen, he lifts the bowl and knocks it against his mother's bell. At the low, somber ringing, the bird hisses and takes off in the direction of the village. Yusuf stands there for a long moment, hands cupped around the smoldering dish, and stares out the window, half terrified that the foul beast will come back. Already, the small cottage feels warmer – less fraught, less dire – and he gives himself permission to feel a little bit proud of that.
Something soft bumps against his ankle, and he glances down to find the not-rabbit staring up at him, eyes wet and nose wiggling. He settles back on his hind legs, prodding carefully at him with his right forepaw, and Yusuf just raises an eyebrow at his antics. When he doesn't immediately bend down to pick him up, the not-rabbit huffs, dropping down to the floor and thumping his back leg in frustration.
“Darling, my hands are full,” he tilts his head to indicate the bowl that he's still carrying. More leg thumping and more huffing. “My most sincere apologies,” he teases, “I simply don't know what you expect me to do about it.” At this, the not-rabbit latches onto his trouser cuff and begins tugging, insistent and annoyed, until Yusuf all but doubles over in laughter. “All right, all right,” he carefully deposits the bowl on the counter and stoops down to scoop up his vexing little roommate. “Is that better?” He asks, burying his face in his fur as he cradles the creature to his cheek. “Is that better, my precious one?”
For the rest of the day, he holds the not-rabbit close, loathe to put him down for any reason at all.
The rest of the day is spent preparing for the ritual; he keeps his mind busy, playing through the steps over and over until he feels like he is going mad. He fixes half a dozen cups of black ginger tea in what passes for his best china – less elegant than his mother's, but still a beautiful set – all of which he places on his doorstep with a feast of sugar cubes, arranged in the shape of a rudimentary mandala. In each cup, he adds a cinnamon stick and vanilla bean. The not-rabbit perches on his shoulder the whole time, nosing and nibbling thoughtlessly on his curls.
As the sun begins its descent, Yusuf gathers all of the necessary materials. He spreads them out on the kitchen floor and fixes the not-rabbit with an unusually serious stare. In response, he hops closer, resting one paw on the notch of his ankle.
“Once I start this,” he says in crisp Italian, bringing a hand down to smooth over the creature's spine, “I won't be able to stop. So no matter what happens, you have to stay in the circle. I mean it,” he leans forward, practically nose to nose with the not-rabbit. “No matter what happens to me, you cannot move. Is that understood?”
The not-rabbit blinks, slow and deliberate, and he chooses to interpret this as acceptance.
First is the chalk – he called it a circle, but it's really an octagon, about half a meter across. On the eastern facing side of the polygon, he writes PEACE in precise, scrolling Arabic. On the southern facing side, he writes HUMILITY. On the western facing side, BALANCE. And, finally, on the northern facing side, RESPECT. At each of the octagon's eight vertices, starting with the point directly the right of PEACE and going in clockwork direction, he writes in much smaller script: fire, dry, earth, cold, water, wet, air, heat.
He settles both palms down on the floor in the center of the array, lets his head fall forward and as his eyes close, and he breathes. His lungs press against his ribs, deep and grounding, and he exhales slowly, dragging all the stale air out of himself until he is ready.
He is Yusuf al-Kaysani, son of Nadir and Fatima al-Kaysani, younger brother to Layla al-Kaysani, and older brother to Farouk al-Kaysani. He may not be of this land – was not born under its branches and above its streams, did not grow up learning the stories of its forests, has only just begun to walk its paths – but that does not mean he is a trespasser. He has earned his place in these woods, has earned recognition from its rivers, has earned trust from its trees. He carries with him only kindness and the hope to do good.
Bolstered, he sets the satchel of earth from Layla's garden over HUMILITY – for he is never ashamed to acknowledge his sister's prowess over his own abilities, and he delights in watching her excel. Then, he gently places the seashell from his brother's collection over RESPECT – for he always endeavors to be worthy of Farouk's esteem, and he never wishes to comprise that steadfast faith. Finally, he cradles the smooth stone from his parents' house in hand, rolling it over in his palm before laying it on the floor above BALANCE. For his mama and baba taught him well to honor the equilibrium of this earth, to never tilt too far to one side, lest he lose sight of himself and compromise his morals.
With sure, unshaking hands, he gathers up the not-rabbit and buries his face into the softness of his fur, inhaling the sweet, animal scent of him. Before he can stop himself, he presses a kiss to his little rabbit face, right between his shining, sea glass eyes.
“I won't hurt you,” he thinks as tears trail down his cheeks, “I swear to you, precious one. You are safe in my care. I will do anything not to hurt you.”
Sucking in a noisy breath, he settles the not-rabbit on the floor, in the exact center of the octagon. He can't stop himself – he lets his hand linger, pressing against his soft, fragile spine for a long a moment, before drawing away and reaching for the next component. He places a circlet, about fifty centimeters across, of interlaced yarrow flowers around the not-rabbit. In theory, which his sister corroborates, it will act as insulator against any potential rebounds. Not that he's expecting any such reaction.
The kitchen has gone shaded scarlet, out of reach of the setting sun's rays, and Yusuf retrieves the next piece of the ritual – a small pot of honey mixed with saffron. He smears some across his lower lip with his pinky and then dabs a smudge on the not-rabbit's face, just between his drooping ears. He twitches, whiskers flicking with nerves, but doesn't move. Yusuf can't help but wink.
Next, he reaches for his knife and gently pulls it from its sheath – he went over this part many, many times with his not-rabbit, but he knows the creature loathes to see him hurt. But, at his core, he knows this ritual won't work without a modicum of sacrifice, of pain, and he wasn't about to ask the not-rabbit to suffer in his stead. With a reassuring nod, he bites down on his lower lip and drags the blade across his wrist. It's slow, skin bunching and catching under the bite of the sharpened metal – the not-rabbit stiffens, muscles tensing, and he smiles around his clenched teeth.
“Stay where you are, dear heart,” he thinks desperately, letting the blood drip from his arm to collect in a stone carved bowl. The cut is shallow, not intended to be fatal, and after a few moments, he sets the bowl down and wraps a bandage of clean, white cotton around his wrist. In the morning, he will tend to it with herbs, but it will keep for now.
Already, he can feel a change. His skin has gone tight, as if it is stretched over his bones; he is too big for his body, and his blood is thrumming in his veins with an electricity he's never experienced before. Everything feels heavy with a potential, like a storm is brewing in his home – the clouds are gathering, thick with rain, and they are ready to break open.
The air in the kitchen has gone sharp, brittle with purpose and intention, and the walls are leaning in close around him, trying to observe his work. It's so different from the energy in his parents' house – salty and breezy and bright – but he lets the pine thick shadows curl over his shoulders like a protective ghost.
He will never be afraid in his own home.
To the dish of blood, he adds crushed cinnamon sticks, freshly shredded mint leaves, a pinch of coarse sea salt, and a spoonful of coconut shavings. Grinding the mixture together with his prayer protected pestle, he keeps his eyes on the not-rabbit; the animal is watching him with a fresh wariness, and he offers him a tight smile, in the hopes of calming him. The not-rabbit blinks slowly, flicking his pale whiskers, but otherwise settles into the protection of the yarrow.
Licking over his suddenly dry lips, Yusuf lets the taste of saffron-tinged honey linger on his tongue. It's a reminder that he's not alone – he is descended from a long line of practitioners, and he carries their wisdom within himself. His hands are guided by the hands of his mother, his father, and their mothers and fathers before them, and their mothers and fathers before them. He intends to do right by them and by the not-rabbit in his care.
Everything rests on him – if he doesn't get this right, if something goes wrong, and his not-rabbit gets hurt or worse by his failings... He pushes down on the anxiety suddenly gripping his insides, twisting and tightening his stomach into an unrecognizable braid of angst. Part of him wants to fling himself away from this ritual – wipe the kitchen floor clean of all evidence. He can keep the not-rabbit safe and comfortable in this form. It would not be such a bad life, Yusuf tries to convince himself, even as he knows it isn't true.
The not-rabbit stares at him, eyes wide like the first time they met, and Yusuf remembers how that small body quaked in fear as he worked to cut the trap's tether. He remembers the wretched surrender, the exhausted resignation, as the creature lay limp on its side in the unsettled earth. He takes that misery and tucks it deep into his heart, lets it fuel his urgency.
There is no excuse, no reason, to leave his not-rabbit friend in this condition if he can do something about it.
Inspired, he sets the red stained contents of the stone carved bowl alight with an incense match and holds it aloft, directly above the not-rabbit. His arm twinges, but the pain is more than bearable, and he silently cradles the dish for a quarter of an hour until his elbows threaten to give out. Rolling his neck and releasing the tension coiled in his shoulders, he begins to speak.
“Peace be upon you,” he recites, with a slow precision, holding each sound and syllable in his mouth, “I am called Yusuf al-Kaysani, son of Nadir and Fatima al-Kaysani, younger brother to Layla al-Kaysani, and older brother to Farouk al-Kaysani. I present myself as an earnest steward of this land and only wish to honor the existing energies of this earth. I humble myself beneath the warmth of the sun and the calm of the moon and surrender myself to the whims of the stars.” Sweat beads on his brow, despite the cold shivers skittering up his spine.
“I entreat you all, in your most infinite and endless wisdom, to grant me the grace to undo what has been done – to take the wrongness within the wrong and fix it.” Here is the greatest risk – quoting the forest back to the forest, and he pauses, mouth dry. But he knows this will give them the chance at fighting the double loop in the twine. “Please,” Yusuf thinks, chest tight, “please carry me through this.”
He hears the tinkling of laughter in the branches outside his house, as something flits from tree to tree, rustling the leaves in delighted mischief. The air in the kitchen shifts, goes spicy sweet and warm, and he feels a desperate buzzing in the back of his mouth. “Let me take the wrongness within the wrong and fix it,” he repeats, moving his hands in a slow circle to encourage the scent of cinnamon and mint to spread through the space.
The not-rabbit perks up, lifting his head and pinning his ears back, and he glances down, noticing that the twine around his left paw has started to loosen. Invigorated, Yusuf continues his recitations – they're so close, he knows they can do this. The not-rabbit has put so much faith in him, in his abilities, and he won't let his precious one down.
“I do not mean to ask more than I am owed or do more than I am capable. I only wish to seek –” what he wishes to seek is interrupted by a sudden, vile shrieking echoing from outside the house. The crow is back, its cruel eyes gleaming in the gloom of early dusk, and it flings its body against the window. The glass pane rattles with every blow, and Yusuf swallows thickly around a mouthful of bitter saliva. The not-rabbit startles, sides heaving with his rapid, panicked breathing, and Yusuf silently urges it to stay in the circle.
“Do not move, dear heart,” he thinks, squeezing his eyes shut as he tries to block out the sounds of the bird's heinous assault – the sickeningly wet thuds as it repeatedly throws itself against the window. “Please, do not move.” Layla had been adamant that the ritual needed to be conducted slowly, without interruptions, for it would take a considerable amount of time to press his will against that of the curse. He was not to hurry things, she stressed many times across multiple letters. At the time, he had assured her that he understood – he would grant the ritual the respect and room it deserved.
Now, however, with a massive bird threatening to invade his home, he does have the luxury of patience. The window pane rattles with every blow, and the glass begins to crack, threatening to shatters under the blood smeared assault.
“I only wish to seek a return balance to a life unbalanced. I seek to do no evil, nor do I intend to malign the spirits of this earth.” He says quickly, each word crisp despite the speed at which he speaks. “I do not bring offense with my request, and I offer myself as a conduit to those more powerful than me, who may accomplish that which I cannot.” He's going too fast – he knows this, as pressure builds behind his ears, but he can't afford to stop. The back of his neck burns, and his vision begins to blur.
“Please...” he pauses, licking over his lips and tasting blood. “I cannot do this alone, but I cannot leave him trapped this way.” His head is pounding, a steady pulse of agony at the base of his skull, and he nearly pitches forward under the weight of it. “Please honor my prayer –”
Three things happen at once, none of them pleasant.
The window succumbs, shards and splinters of glass spraying through the kitchen, and the crow makes one last, valiant attempt to invade. It careens about the room, screaming and bouncing off the walls in a blind, ferocious cruelty. Reacting on instinct, Yusuf dives to cover the not-rabbit with his own body. He hunches over his darling, his dear heart, burrowing his face in his arms. The bird continues wailing – every piercing cry compounds the torment vibrating through his temples, and he clamps his eyes shut tight against the torturous noise.
In the ruined carcass of his kitchen window, his mother's bell begins to ring.
Yusuf peels his eyes open, glancing to his left, where the upended bowl of smoldering herbs rests listlessly on its side. Its contents are spilled across the floor, useless, and tainted by splatters of blood from the wounded bird. He stares at the ruined concoction, shame constricting his ribs and fresh tears burn behind his eyes. The crow, its heinous plot seemingly realized, perches on a rickety, wooden chair, clicking its beak and picking at its tacky feathers.
Inhaling shakily, Yusuf slowly lifts himself up, wiping his bleeding nose on the back of his hand and staring down at the not-rabbit. He can't bear it – the creature is staring up at him in confusion, his whiskers twitching, as he rests both of his tiny front paws on his bent knee. He blinks curiously, his eyes the color of early morning mist, and Yusuf almost reaches for him – wants so desperately to pet over the soft fur of his back – but he doesn't deserve it.
He doesn't deserve it.
“I'm sorry,” he sobs, choking and gasping on his own grief, “I'm so sorry, my precious one – I've ruined it, I've ruined everything. I never meant for this to happen.” His words are lost in a pitiful, cringing whine, and a sudden stab of pain rolls over him, digging into his mind and sending his vision sparking with white. Speaking is difficult – his tongue thick and clumsy – and words are suddenly out of his reach. The room wobbles, and his stomach swoops with vertigo. “Forgive me,” he slurs, his eyes slipping shut as he lists to one side. “I've let you down...”
The darkness is a balm that his wretched soul does not deserve.
For the first time in weeks, his dreams are nothing but darkness.
The loneliness carves him open, leaving him empty and sad, but it's a punishment that he knows he deserves.
Yusuf wakes slowly – the tenderness of his bones has him wincing and moving gracelessly – and blinks at the cotton soft slants of sunlight across the ceiling. He's in his bedroom, he realizes suddenly, and he wipes at his face in confusion. Gone are the smears of blood and honey – did he somehow clean himself before dragging his broken body to bed? He catches sight of the fresh bandage on his wrist. It's much more precisely wrapped than when he did it and it smells like – he lifts his arm to his nose, inhaling slightly – turmeric, of all things.
He would definitely remember treating his own wound, he thinks, prodding at the injury with furrowed brows.
“Please stop,” comes the quiet admonishment from the doorway, “you're going to undo all of my hard work, poking at it like that.” The voice – solemn and softly accented – is one he has never heard before but recognizes immediately. Yusuf whips his head around, drinking in the sight of the man propping himself against the wall. He's tall and lean – a delectable spread of pale, white skin, decorated with constellations of moles – and his dark brown hair flops carelessly into his stunning, sea storm eyes. He doesn't even try to hide his smile as he sips delicately from one of Yusuf's teacups. He's also wearing a pair of Yusuf's pants.
“Those are my pants,” he comments helplessly, slipping into Italian without thought.
“Hmm,” the former-rabbit hums, “it seemed indecent to wander around unclothed. Though,” he raises his eyebrows, peering at him over the rim of his teacup, “I can take them off if you'd prefer.” Yusuf huffs out a laugh, delight bubbling in his chest, as he drags his hand through his curls. “You were so flirty before – where has your bravado gone?” He looks down at himself, frowning in faux-contemplation. “Did you prefer my other form more, Yusuf?” Yusuf bites his lip, face going hot, as he scratches idly at his cheek and tries not to fall too in love with the sound of his name said in that voice. Clearing his throat, he does his best to regain control of the conversation.
“So, you're all right, then – you're unharmed? The ritual –” he gasps, sitting up suddenly, as everything comes back to him. The crow interrupting them, the bowl falling to the floor, the not-rabbit, still in his furry form, staring at him – all of his failures overwhelming him, until his eyes begin to burn with humiliated tears. “I thought I failed you,” he admits, voice small, and he finds himself reaching for his darling, his precious one. “Oh, my dear heart, I thought I had let you down.”
“You didn't,” he sets the teacup down on the bookshelf and crosses the room in just a few long strides. He drops to his knee beside the bed, “you didn't, I swear – you were perfect. Everything was perfect.” He captures Yusuf's hand in his own and presses his palm to the bare skin of his chest. “See? I am whole.” They freeze, captivated by each other, by this first moment of flesh against flesh, and the former-rabbit tilts his head, lips parting, as his cheeks flush. “I am whole,” he murmurs again, ducking down and pressing their mouths together.
They fall into each other.
It is so easy.
Yusuf slides his hands over his precious one's sides, keeping his touch soft and tender, as he lays back on the bed. He follows, easily led, as Yusuf pulls him between his thighs, bracketing his warmth with his knees. They kiss, uninterrupted and unhurried, lips parting as they lick into each other's mouths. Yusuf loses himself in the slick, holy sweetness of his dear heart, gratified by every purr, every sigh, every sound he can draw out of him. A delicious friction builds between them, as their hips roll together in a sinuous dance, until they are both hard and wanting, and Yusuf has to break the kiss, taking in deep lungfuls of air.
His handsome former-rabbit leans back, peering down at him with those unfathomable marble eyes – he smiles, and Yusuf's breath catches in his throat. It's a beautiful sight, radiant and unashamed, and he bites his lip against the sudden, overwhelming joy. His new bedmate laughs quietly, like he's still mapping out the space of himself, and leans down to rub their noses together, nuzzling against Yusuf's unshaven cheek.
“Wait,” Yusuf gasps, suddenly realizing something, as his darling blazes a trail of teeth and tongue down the slope his neck, “hold on – just, wait.” He pauses, pulling away and settling back on his knees – his mouth is unfairly red, and his pupils are blown wide and dark. Yusuf makes an unbidden noise in the back of his throat, wanton and whimpering, and his damnably attractive bedmate quirks an eyebrow in response.
“What is it, my treasure? My beloved? My sun and stars? The other half of my soul made real?” Yusuf can't help it – he breaks, shoulders shaking with the force of his laughter, as he rolls his eyes.
“So that's what I sound like to you? My darling, my precious one, my dear heart?” He deepens his voice, waving his hands around teasingly, but his bedmate catches his wrist and pulls it to his face. Yusuf can't help it; he cups his cheek, rubbing his thumb over the warmth of his skin.
“Is that what you've been calling me?” Yusuf realizes too late that it's the first time he's actually said the endearments in Italian; he'd been hiding behind the veil of his native language, secure in the knowledge that he hadn't yet revealed the depths of his affection. His bedmate raises his eyebrows with a smirk. “I knew they were pet names, but I had never thought... Is that how you think of me? As your darling? Your precious one? Your dear heart?”
“Ah, well,” he shrugs, deliberately looking away, “I couldn't exactly go around calling you rabbit all the time. That hardly seemed polite. I realize now that maybe I was a bit forward.”
“I cherish all the names you have given me,” he interrupts and tilts his head, pressing a kiss to the center of Yusuf's palm. “Such gifts – all I want is to be your dear heart.” He leans forward, pressing their chests together as he winds his arms around Yusuf's back. Shifting his hips, he grinds down hard, heat against heat, until Yusuf's head is tipping back. “Please,” he begs, licking over the length of his throat, “please let me be your dear heart, your precious one, your darling.”
“You've been so good to me,” he continues, his voice a lilting burr, as he wraps a hand around Yusuf's knee and hitches it high over his hip. “So kind, so sweet. Yusuf, you saved me – let me do this for you, let me be good to you too.” Something in his poetic rumblings pierces the molten haze clouding his mind, and Yusuf braces his hands on his bare shoulders, pushing slightly.
“Hold on,” he rasps, “do you think you owe me?” Something cold and pitiful unfurls in his chest, slinking over his ribs with a single-minded cruelty, and he shoves harder, until his bedmate relents. He swallows, mouth suddenly dry, as he scrambles back to press against the headboard. “I didn't help you so that you would –” The words escape him, stolen by a sudden rush of shame, and he gestures uselessly to the scant space between their bodies. “You have to believe me – I would never...” his voice breaks, and he wraps his arms around himself, embarrassingly aware of his own arousal.
“I'm here,” his darling whispers, “because I have fallen in love with you.” He moves, slowly and deliberately, reaching out until just his fingertips brush against Yusuf's cheek. “Because I saw your decency – I saw your worth, and I was instantly lost. It would have been so easy to leave me in that trap to die, but you saved me. You bled for me. How could I not fall in love with how unfailingly good you are?”
Yusuf sobs, breath hitching painfully in his chest, and he wipes furiously at the tears blurring his vision. “I don't even know your name,” he bawls, feeling so helpless and stupid, even as he gathers his nameless beloved in his arms. “How can you love me when I don't even know what to call you?”
“Nicolò,” the name is whispered against his lips, practically inside his mouth, as his dear heart crawls over him, pressing him deep into the bed with the weight of his own body.
“Nicolò,” Yusuf repeats, testing the taste of it his mouth, and the former-rabbit nods, shifting over him until their legs are tangled. Humming in the back of his throat, Yusuf squirms against the knee nudging between his thighs.
“Say it again,” Nicolò begs, “it's been so long since anyone's said my name – please.”
“Nicolò, Nicolò, Nicolò,” Yusuf recites, like it's an oath, an incantation, a prayer to the lost gods, and Nicolò groans as he does his best to map out the inside of Yusuf's mouth with his tongue. It strikes him, then, how lonely it must have been to be trapped in that form – the condemnation of being never understood, never heard, never spoken. Yusuf works his arms around his neck, holding him tightly to stave off his own tears at the thought of that abandonment. He keeps chanting his name, hoping to sooth his misery with the swelling of his voice.
They sink into one another, hands steady and reverent, and Nicolò uses the grip on Yusuf's hips to pull them tightly together. Yusuf's breath hitches into a moan, his cock trapped in the rolling, unbearable friction of their bodies moving against one another – he can tell that his Nicolò is suffering a similar torture, based upon the truly impressive line of heat pressing ardently against his thigh.
“Can I touch you?” Nicolò pleads against the skin of his throat, sucking a dark red bruise into the tanned skin beneath his teeth. “Let me touch you, beloved.”
“Well, when you say it like that,” Yusuf quirks his lip into a smile, dragging his hands through Nicolò's shaggy, brown hair and pulling his face close for a kiss. He plunges his tongue into his already open mouth, tightening his fingers around soft, fistfuls of hair, until Nicolò is keening against his teeth. Lungs burning, Yusuf rears back to take in deep gulps of air and to study his dear heart's face. He searches his eyes – stormy and alight with a ferocity that leaves him breathless – for any sign of reluctance or fear. He knows what those eyes look like when they are scared, and it would shatter his heart to see that now, here, in his bed.
“Promise me that you want this – that you aren't here because you think you are obligated. I can't do this unless I know –” he cuts himself off, and Nicolò smiles – a soft, private grin meant only for the two of them. “I won't force you,” he says at length. “I would rather die than do you harm.”
“I know,” Nicolò sighs, rubbing over his cheek with the backs of his knuckles. “I want this – I want you. As long as you want me?”
“I have wanted you,” he punctuates his proclamation with a short, hard kiss, “since I first saw you in my dreams.”
“Oh?” Nicolò leans back, granting him the space to drag his loose, linen shirt over his head. “You've been dreaming of me, then? I hope I live up to your expectations.” Yusuf grins, rolling his eyes as he tosses the garment aside – now the playing field has been leveled, and Nicolò's teasing is momentarily derailed as he tracks his gaze over the exposed flesh of his chest. “I would hate to disappoint...” he trails off, breathless, and Yusuf can't help but preen under his appreciation.
“My dreams pale in comparison,” he assures, hoping to make him blush, as he stretches and folds his arms behind his head, “you are a vision – your beauty is beyond words. I am bewitched by you, precious one. To have you with me is more than I could have imagined. You are a work of art, my Nicolò, a masterpiece.” Yusuf is proud to see a flush of pink spread across his cheeks, as Nicolò nibbles on his lower lip; his bashful smile only spurs him on. “The stars envy your light, for you glow with a brightness, of which the world is undeserving of. I may not understand the forces that brought us together, but I will always be in their debt. Nicolò, I adore you.”
Any further of his poetic musings are swallowed, quiet literally, by Nicolò smashing their mouths together. His teeth catch on Yusuf's lower lip, and he tugs, drawing a breathy gasp from the depths of his throat. “Please,” he begs against Yusuf's tongue, “let me have you bare. Please.” Yusuf nods, frantically pulling at his trousers, as Nicolò does the same. Undressing is a tricky endeavor, as they are loathe to part from each other. They tangle together, bumping and laughing, until they are both fully free of clothing.
“We will need oil,” Yusuf blurts suddenly, as Nicolò licks a blazing path down his chest to his hipbones. “If we are to – that is, if you want –”
“I want,” he promises, retracing his steps back up to Yusuf's clavicle, where he entertains himself with sucking a magnificent bruise into his collar bone. “I want whatever you will give me, my sun and stars.”
“Absolutely not, you will have to find something else to call me.” He laughs, shaking his head, as he gropes around under his bed – he knows he left some spare components there. It's a terrible habit of his to scatter them randomly about the house, but it works in his favor this time. Flailing only the slightest, he retrieves a small, corked bottle of pale amber fluid.
Nicolò watches all of this unfold, perhaps more concerned than he should be, given how often he's watched Yusuf handle components before. He makes a distressed, humming sound as Yusuf opens it, sniffing its contents with the only barest hint of trepidation, and dabs a little bit on his tongue.
“Oh good, it's hazelnut oil,” he pronounces with a bright grin, and Nicolò huffs a laugh of disbelief. It's not an unfamiliar noise, and Yusuf stills, staring at him with shimmering eyes. “I've heard that sound before,” he admits, cupping Nicolò's face with his unoccupied hand, “I've heard that sound in my dreams. Dear heart, I can't believe you're here – what could I have possibly done to deserve you?”
“Don't you see?” Nicolò wraps a hand around his wrist, rubbing over the delicate skin with his calloused thumb. “You were kind.” He punctuates his declaration by stealing Yusuf's lips in a kiss, licking into his mouth with a determined tenderness that scoops out Yusuf's heart and leaves him raw and yearning.
Talking falls by the wayside as they rut against each other, delighting in the feeling of nothing between them but heat and sweat. Yusuf takes his time, sweeping his hands along the curves of his bedmate; he digs his fingers into the slope of his ass, leaving behind half moon indentations, as Nicolò shivers and moans. He is captivated by the sight of their bodies tangling together – his dark skin complimented by the pale flush of his former-rabbit's flesh.
Nicolò does not relent; he weaves his fingers through Yusuf's hair, delighting in the soft sweetness of his curls. He tries to pull as many noises out of him as he can – unspooling sighs, mewling cries, half-choked curses – as he presses a knee between Yusuf's thighs. Their kissing grows sloppy and desperate, spit slick and breathless, until Nicolò tugs urgently at the vial still clasped in his hand.
“Will you?” He begs, staring into Yusuf's eyes, “please? I want you.”
He is swept away by the sight of him – pupils blown fathoms black, mouth swollen and cherry bruised, hair alluringly mussed and deliciously rumbled – and Yusuf reaches for him, tracing the curve of his cheek with just the tips of his fingers. His gaze lingers on the mole just below the corner of his lips, and he can't resist – he dips his head and presses a kiss to to the tantalizing beauty mark.
“Lay back,” he whispers against the skin under his mouth.
Nicolò's body yields beautifully under his touch; he works him open with slick, sweet oil, until his back is bowed and his head is tipped back in enchanted agony. His cock stands proudly against the jumping, quivering muscles of his stomach, and his hands twist uselessly in the bedsheets until his knuckles are white and straining. Yusuf sucks over the column of his throat, entranced by the line of purple-red bruises he leaves behind. Nicolò keens as he crooks his fingers, spreading his legs further, as he hitches his hips to move with each one of Yusuf's caresses.
“You take such good care of me,” he slurs, mouth catching open in a purr. “My treasure. My beloved. You say I have bewitched you? The reality is, my sweet, my one and only, my sun and stars –” here, he keens, toes curling, as Yusuf twists his fingers in a particularly cruel way. “It is I who have fallen under your spell. You say I am a masterpiece? My love, my angel, my reason for living – the poets of old would be rendered speechless by your beauty. You rob me of all thought and purpose, until all I want to is to be here, in your arms, in your bed, under your touch. Let me stay with you, my guiding light. You brought me home, now let me stay.”
“How can I deny you, when you ask so sweetly?” Yusuf kisses him, settling over his body and nudging his thighs apart. “Are you ready for me?” He asks, even as Nicolò nods feverishly, “I don't want to hurt you – I don't ever want to hurt you.”
“You won't hurt me. You could never – please, let me have you, my treasure.” At his beseeching words, Yusuf slides his hand, slippery with oil, between their bodies to slick over himself. He clenches his teeth, hissing an oath, and Nicolò huffs out one of his half-aborted laughs. “You make such delectable noises, my love.”
“Don't tease,” Yusuf admonishes in a tight voice as he drops his forehead to press against Nicolò's sweat-slick collarbone. “It's most unbecoming of a man in your position.”
“Is that so?” He laughs, shifting his shoulders and sinking deeper into the mattress and bedding, as he loops his arms over Yusuf's back. “And what position is that –ah!” His hoarse cry is muffled, swallowed by Yusuf's mouth, as he pushes into him, bracing on his knees and holding both of Nicolò's legs open with sure and steady hands.
He sags forward, the air punched out of his lungs by the sheer divinity under him. Nicolò is an inferno – all molten fire and wet, dripping heat as he tightens around him, nails digging and dragging over the skin of his shoulders. His head drops back, stretching out the obscene line of his throat, as he arches his spine and groans.
“You are all right?” Yusuf asks, breathless, as he tries to give him a moment to adjust – he wants so ardently to dive into him, to lose himself in the shameless offerings of Nicolò's body, but he restrains himself, arms shaking with the effort. “Dear heart, are you –”
“I have never been happier,” he gasps, rolling his hips with a drunken smile on his face. His skin is flushed, a sugar dusting of pink across the bridge of his nose, and Yusuf nuzzles a kiss to his cheekbone. “Though I wish you would move, my beloved. If it's not too much trouble.”
“Not too much trouble,” Yusuf repeats with a laugh and shakes his head, inadvertently tickling Nicolò's ear with his curls, “of course not, my precious one. How is this? No complaints, I hope?” He thrusts into him, the angle deep and the pace punishing – Nicolò makes a noise halfway between a mewl and a growl, and his nails score lines across the breadth of Yusuf's shoulders.
“That's good. It's so good – Yusuf, you feel...” he chokes on his own praise, words stolen by nonsensical moans and high pitched keens. Yusuf groans, flinging out one hand to brace against the headboard as he loses himself in the holy beauty of Nicolò's body. His blush spreads across the planes of his chest – a rose bitten bounty of sacred flesh that Yusuf is privileged to taste. The feeling of him – tight and wet around his cock upsets his rhythm until his thrusts become desperate and jagged.
Nicolò's own cock is trapped between them, no doubt throbbing and neglected, and Yusuf reaches between their bodies to paw at him. Nicolò sobs, sliding one hand up to cradle the back of Yusuf's head – he tangles his fingers in his dark curls, dragging him down for a kiss. It's clumsy and undignified, as they lick into each other's mouths, pressing their tongues together and panting against each other's lips. Yusuf works him slowly, dragging his hand over the length of him roughly and twisting his wrist in a mimicry of earlier – when he was working Nicolò open on cruel, twisting fingers.
“Please, please, please,” Nicolò begs, until Yusuf speeds up, grips him tightly. He relishes in the drag of skin against skin, and he does his best to match his rhythm to that of his hips, as he fucks Nicolò with all the love he can muster in his heart. For it is so much love.
“I adore you, my precious one,” he promises, sinking his teeth into a bruise on Nicolò's clavicle. His former-rabbit, his darling, his dear heart shouts, back bowing in a perfect arch, as he spills between them. Eyes hazy and sweet, he lets his arms fall back against the bedding as he goes lax. Unrelenting, Yusuf shifts his hand to grip his knee, hitching it high over his hip as he deepens the angle of his thrusts. Heat spools and unwinds in his belly; he knows he won't last much longer. Nicolò makes a high pitched, helpless noise in the back of his throat as he can do nothing but ride out whatever Yusuf will give him.
He clutches at him with uncoordinated hands, digging his fingers into his ribs, as he bites hard on his lower lip – he is powerless, surrendering to Yusuf's whims.
“I love you,” he mumbles, words smearing together as his face breaks into a sleepy, giggly smile. Yusuf nods, smudging a kiss to the high crest of his cheekbone before burying his head in the sanctuary of his neck. He can't help it – the feeling of Nicolò laid out around him, all pliant and giving, has tears welling in his eyes. “Come on, beloved – come and be with me.”
Chest heaving, he finds his own release – it crests over him in waves, shocking and dragging him down until his forehead is pressed against the hollow of Nicolò's throat. He feels him petting lazily over the length of his spine – long, gentle sweeps of his hand – and he drops a kiss to the still feverish skin under his mouth. Distantly, he can hear Nicolò laughing, quiet and only a little wrung out.
They doze together, blanketed by the sunlight pouring in through the window and the ever present scent of cinnamon lingering in the air. Nicolò musters the energy to crawl out of bed, dragging his body over Yusuf's with just the slightest hint of teasing intention, and retrieves a damp cloth to clean them both.
“It's cold,” he warns as he drags it over Yusuf's skin, and Yusuf hisses, flesh tightening against the frigid assault. “Sorry,” he apologizes without remorse and settles back down on the bed, draping his arm over Yusuf's now clean chest.
“Thank you,” Yusuf thanks him, still pouting, and reaches for his hand to link their fingers. As he does, he suddenly remembers the bandage around his wrist. “And thank you for this,” he holds up his arm, and Nicolò chuckles into his hair. “How did you know to use the turmeric?”
“I've seen you use it before – though I didn't know exactly what it was. I had to go around smelling all your little jars until I found the right one. My eyesight as a rabbit was,” he scrunches his nose and tilts his head back and forth – Yusuf smothers a smile at the look on his face, “passable, I suppose. But trying to piece it all together as a human was very strange. Like remembering a dream, sort of. Your kitchen table seemed much bigger.”
“You were very low to the ground,” Yusuf reminisces, “I might miss carrying you around in one arm – that was a very handy little trick.” Nicolò smacks his chest, his ocean wave eyes shimmering with amusement, and Yusuf clicks his tongue in reproach. “Don't fret, my darling, I much prefer you like this.” He threads his fingers through his loose hair and pulls him close for a kiss.
They lose time, kissing and holding each other in the warmth of his bedsheets. The trees outside are content, as a blessed breeze trickles through their branches, sending the leaves tumbling and dancing. The inside of the cottage is light and citrus bright, now free of the burden of Nicolò's curse, and Yusuf relishes in the cotton clean air. He stretches, smiling against Nicolò's mouth, and trails his fingers over the delicate notches of his spine. Humming happily, he shifts, cradling Nicolò in the bracket of his thighs, when a thought suddenly occurs to him.
“Wait,” he says, sitting up and almost sending Nicolò tumbling to the floor. “The window – the crow! What happened to the bird?”
“I took care of it,” Nicolò shrugs, dragging a hand through his hair.
“What does that mean?” He asks flatly, already conjuring visions of a corvid carcass with broken bones and mutilated feathers.
“What do you mean, what does that mean? It means I took care of it.”
“Nicolò, if you hurt that animal –” Nicolò interrupts him, shaking his head and reaching for his hands.
“I spent many weeks following you around and learning your ways – Yusuf, I watched you capture venomous spiders in your bare hands and relocate them to the bushes outside. Do you really think I would hurt a living creature, knowing that you live as you do?”
“Venomous spiders?” He repeats, brow furrowing, because he can't let himself dwell on the knowledge that Nicolò spent their time together studying his habits and filing them away. “What venomous spiders?”
“The ones on your library,” Nicolò gestures to the shelf housing his books. “When you made the hanging chestnut charms.”
“That's not what they're called,” he hastens to correct him, but his most cherished former-rabbit continues on, as if he has said nothing.
“When you made the hanging chestnut charms – those were very, very dangerous spiders, Yusuf. I thought for sure I would come in here one day and find you dead. It was a very stressful time for me.”
“You were a rabbit. Everything was stressful for you. A knock at the door made you hide under my bed.”
“It was very loud knocking,” Nicolò insists, perhaps a little protective of his former self, as he twists his fingers together in agitation. Yusuf can see he's fighting a smile – badly – so he leans forward and drops a kiss to the mole on his cheek. Nicolò touches his face, blinking rapidly in surprise, so Yusuf does it again and lets his lips linger for just a moment.
“What happened to the crow?” He tries again, voice easy and free of accusations. Nicolò smiles, rolling his eyes.
“I did what you did – put the herbs together and set them on fire. Oh, and I rang the bell – I was worried that it would wake you, but you barely stirred.” He looks away, suddenly bashful, and he shrugs one shoulder. “I think I used the right ingredients. Like I said, it's a little difficult to translate what I saw as a rabbit to –” his ramblings are cut off, as Yusuf pushes him onto his back and straddles his waist.
“You,” he begins, ducking down and kissing him soundly on the lips, “are the most wonderful, blessed man I have ever met.” He seals their mouths together, pushing his tongue past his teeth and doing his dead level best to steal the very air from his lungs. How else can he convey the depths of his devotion? That this man – when he wasn't even a man, but a cursed not-rabbit – watched him carry out the teachings of his faith and family and found those teachings worthy enough to learn and emulate on his own is... it is beyond measure. He has been an outsider for so long, yearning for companionship, for someone to belong to. And now he has it.
“My darling, my dear heart, my precious one – I love you with the whole weight of my being and soul.”
“My treasure, my beloved, my guiding light,” Nicolò recites back to him, his captivating eyes shining bright with unshed tears, “I will spend my whole life proving myself worthy of your love.”
“Already done,” Yusuf promises him, voice catching against the hitch of his throat, “you've proven yourself worthy of all and more.”
Nicolò reaches for him, pulling him down and rolling over until he is trapped beneath the solid, sturdy weight of his body. Yusuf grins, licking over his suddenly dry lips, as Nicolò nudges their noses together. He can taste cinnamon on the back of his tongue, and his nerves are buzzing bright with an undefinable joy. Everything in his life has led him to this moment – every step he took on his journey, every minute he spent learning the ways of the forest – and he dare not miss a second. He is living on the edge of a happiness he has never known before, and he can't wait to prove himself worthy of it all.