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Wind Up

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The Engraver sees countless faces and bodies pass through his domain, each one unique -- at first. Over millennia they blend together, young turning to the old, eyes and noses and mouths repeating under his hands. And although the Engraver is supposed to be impartial, he begins to develop... favorites.

The young general, for instance, who gains a nick along his jaw that takes off a chunk of his ear, that the Engraver needs to allow for when he carves with his burin. Two hundred years later his features turn up again, this time in a doctor with burns over his heart, wet tears still shining upon his cheeks. The Engraver nearly touches his fingertips to one, disrupting the perfection of the welling water, but remembers himself just in time. Another hundred years and the man turns up again, a warrior holding a sword in the midst of battle, mouth twisted in a snarl while blood flecks his hands and hairline.

The Engraver always spends a little more care with him: the schoolboy, the monk, the police officer. Sometimes he has a beard and the Engraver gets to paint individual hairs grey, eyes carefully averted from the plush redness of the mortal’s lips; sometimes he has glasses, and the Engraver will carve frown lines between his brows as a consequence of nearsighted squinting.

“You’ll end up blind that way,” he scolds absently, plucking the glasses off the mortal’s face and resting them atop his own head. He needs a particular angle to access the bridge of the man’s nose.

Of course, his subject doesn’t answer. But the Engraver is arrested by the clear brown of the man’s eyes, somehow brighter without the warping glass in the way; he can almost imagine that he is seen. The Engraver hasn’t been seen by another being in nearly three hundred years.

Several human lifetimes later, he spots the man again as he is on the way to pick up another assignment. It’s a surprise because he hasn’t touched this particular mortal before, for all that he is clearly affected by the Engraver's domain; wrinkles curve along the corners of his eyes when he smiles, and there are fine lines tracing the backs of his hands over winding blue veins. The Engraver nearly walks out of the mirrored surface of the restaurant’s timepiece reflected in the window without freezing time first in his shock.

He takes the indulgence to study the craftsmanship of the age lines on his favorite mortal’s face. They’re fine work, delicate without being overly timid, smooth but with enough roughness to enhance mortal imperfection instead of hide it. It could be Mao, or perhaps one of Lord Night’s apprentices; he knows that they like to dabble.

The curiosity eats at him. As a physical embodiment of Time, he obviously can’t touch every mortal directly. Instead he works with his own hands on a select few, and through them effect change on the majority of the mortal world. Even so, he at least has an impression of all of his subjects and he’s followed these particular features for quite a while, so he ought to have known that the young man existed. Only another entity’s claim would overwrite such awareness.

He starts visiting. It isn’t quite surveillance -- he only goes when he has no urgent work, or when he gets too restless, leaving plenty of moments free of his presence -- but it’s more attention he’s paid to another being in millennia. Yue Tu comes and finds him during the day when she’s free and discovers him lurking at an empty table.

“Wow,” she says, propping her chin up with one hand. The small silver moon charms of her bracelet clink together. “Shi-gong, you’re out of your tower. It’s a miracle.”

“I do leave occasionally,” the Engraver protests. He tries to keep his eyes away from the mortal he’s here to watch. “It’s been a while. How is the moon? Did you need something from me?”

“Can I not just come and see my friend?” Yue Tu pouts. “The moon is fine. Still there, still full of alchemical labs, still boring. Chang’e is in one of her moods again, you know, so I decided to come to Earth for a visit.”

“Ah,” says the Engraver. He understands. “Then--”

“Excuse me?”

The Engraver jolts and nearly falls out of his chair. The mortal gives him a concerned look, hands holding paper-pad and pen reaching out to hover in the air between them.

“Sorry, sir, I didn’t mean to startle you. Are you all right?”

The Engraver freezes. He was invisible to mortal eyes, he knew he was. Except. A sideways glare at Yue Tu reveals an unrepentant smile framed by the twin white ribbons on either side of her face.

“I,” the Engraver stutters a little. “I’m fine, thank you. I wasn’t paying attention.”

“No problem!” The mortal smiles sunnily. “My name is Bai Yu and I’ll be your server today, are you ready to order? Or would you like a bit more time with the menu?”

“A bit more time, please,” the Engraver manages. Bai Yu smiles at him again, nods, and saunters off. Yue Tu laughs.

“More time, that’s a good one. You’re out of practice talking to people, Shi-gong,” she teases. “Especially cute mortals like him. Hey, now that he knows we’re here, how about I treat you to a meal?”

The Engraver frowns at her. Does she know about his... interest... in this mortal? Or is she just here to socialize?

As Yue Tu points to a couple of items on the menu, he sets his suspicions aside. It’s nice to talk to somebody who can hear him, who will reply to his statements and hold a real conversation. Bai Yu comes back and takes their order with a friendly wink, and the Engraver has to fight not to reach out and touch the flex of his cheek, the small dimple that presses at the corner of his mouth and the crinkle at the corner of his eye.

“Don’t stare so,” Yue Tu nudges him in the ribs. “Mortals get uncomfortable if they notice you doing that. It sets off their danger sense.”

“I’ve never noticed mortals having any particular danger sense,” the Engraver says. In fact they seem to have an anti-danger sense: they get into all kinds of trouble that could kill them. And they seem to like it. “Quite the opposite, really.”

“Yeah, but that’s on their terms, see? When other people are dangerous, they don’t enjoy it.”

The Engraver bows to Yue Tu’s expertise. He only ever catches glimpses of mortal lives, all focused around times of intense emotion. As a more embodied concept, Yue Tu understands human beings better than he does.

“Thank you for your patronage at KFC!” Bai Yu smiles at them as he gives them their bill. “I hope to see you again.”

His eyes linger on the Engraver a little as he says it, a rich warm brown the Engraver knows that in sunlight lightens to a honeyed gold. The Engraver realizes he’s staring again and averts his gaze. He whisks himself and Yue Tu a half-step away into incorporeality, blurring Bai Yu’s perception, and watches as he blinks and shakes his head.

“Aww.” Yue Tu grins at him. “I think he likes you.”

“Impossible,” the Engraver says brusquely. “Now, tell me what you really came for.”

“I truly did want to share a meal,” Yue Tu widens her eyes, and the Engraver softens.

“All right, I believe you. But you did have something else to tell me...?”

Yue Tu sighs. “Shi-gong, I can never get anything by you. Yes, there’s going to be a celestial gathering on the next eclipse, and you’re invited. The emperor is trying to reconcile the mistress with his wife.”

“Again?” The Engraver raises his eyebrows. “That didn’t work out very well last time.”

“I know!” Yue Tu laments. “And because I live with Chang’e, I have to deal with the fallout. Please, Shi-gong, be there. Maybe you can talk some sense into them when they all start arguing.”

“I don’t know about that. But I will be there.” He touches his fingertips to Yue Tu’s shoulder. “I promise.”

“Thank you.” Yue Tu looks up at him with shining red eyes. “Really, Shi-gong, your presence will help. They won’t want to embarrass themselves too badly in front of someone as esteemed as you.”

“Who’s esteemed?” The Engraver waves a hand and ducks his head. “I took on embodiment to get away from all that. I’m just a craftsman.”

“Suuure.” Yue Tu takes on her true form, a shining rabbit made of moonlight, and thumps her foot. “The most esteemed craftsman in all the realms! The oldest entity except for the Eternal Chaos. The--”

“Enough, enough!” The Engraver laughs. “Shoo. I’m sure you have others to convince.”

“I do, but can you talk to She-jie and Hu-ge for me?”

“Very well.” The Engraver supposes it’s asking a bit much for a rabbit to get along with natural predators like tigers and snakes, even after several thousand years. “And what about Mao?”

“Oh, he already got his invite. Don’t worry.”

“I won’t, then.” The Engraver reaches out and Yue Tu nudges the side of his hand with her head, moonbeam fur cool and soft. “Safe travels.”

“See you later!” She turns into a streak of light and darts away, arcing up into the sky with a bounce. The Engraver shakes his head. Young people have such energy.

He casts a glance back into the full glass windows of the KFC, but Bai Yu is gone. No matter. The Engraver has all the time in the world to indulge.

He hooks his thumbs into his suspenders and wanders back to his tower, whistling. A charming yet mysterious mortal, the promise of celestial drama, and a reunion of the zodiac -- the next century is shaping up to be interesting indeed.