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Pittura Infamante

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            In retrospect, there were signs going all the way back to that winter in Harmonia.

            The first was one night when the two of you were on kitchen duty together. Teagan was making vodka sauce, and once, when you happened to look over at her, you caught her taking a shot of the cooking alcohol. That struck you as a little weird all on its own, but you figured it wasn't really any of your business. A few minutes later, though, all the usual rules about what was whose business were suddenly obliterated when she asked out of nowhere, "Doesn't it piss you off?"

            "Doesn't what?" you asked, turning away from chopping vegetables.

            "The way she goes around blabbing about things you'd clearly prefer be left private, and then laughs about how 'cute' you are when you get uncomfortable."

            For a moment, your voice deserted you. One of the few parts of your brain that didn't immediately shut itself off directed you to set the knife down carefully so that you didn't drop it or do something stupid while flailing around trying to hide behind your hands. Of course, that meant you couldn't go back to chopping to distract yourself, so you just stood there like a big, flushed idiot, helplessly staring at a tomato you felt sure you were coming to resemble more and more by the second.

            "I'm not like you," you managed to spit out finally. "Most people aren't."

            "No shit. I wouldn't be doing those things in the first place. But just because you like doing them doesn't mean you have to like talking about them to people you aren't doing them with, you know?"

            Your face and neck felt so, so prickly and hot, and it wasn't just that you were embarrassed. You were angry. Teagan was criticizing Alto behind her back again. Teagan was criticizing Alto behind her back to you, like she thought you would agree with her, like she didn't believe you would stand up for the most important person in your life. And you weren't standing up for her, were you? You weren't doing anything but blushing, uselessly tongue-tied.

            "If you can't even say the word 'sex,' you definitely don't have the right to be lecturing anyone about it!" you blurted out finally. It wasn't really the easiest thing for you to say out loud either, but you said it. You felt a bit cooler almost instantly, like your voice was some kind of heat exhaust.

            Teagan sighed in exasperation, but didn't respond. It took you a minute to realize what that meant. She'd shut up. You'd shut her up. You honestly hadn't thought you had it in you. Feeling wonderfully mature, you went back to cutting vegetables with a smile on your face.

            Which of course was when Teagan shouted "Fuck!" so loudly that you jumped about a foot in the air.

            When you recovered from the scare enough to think, the first thing you thought was that she was just trying to prove that she could say dirty words — as though that needed proving. But when you turned to look at her, she was leaning over the counter with her palms pressed hard against it, her back arched, her shoulders tensed to the point of shaking.

            "You aren't doing this again," you heard her say, and though you didn't quite know why, you could tell just about immediately that she wasn't talking to you. "You aren't. This is what you fucking get!"

            Then she straightened herself up and went back to mixing, as though nothing had happened. You spent the rest of the cooking session in a state of silent terror.

            The second sign was one that you probably shouldn't even have known about. It wasn't that you meant to eavesdrop. It was just that you'd been sitting outside the music room listening to Teagan and Meirin play violin together, and when they eventually went from playing to talking, it didn't occur to you until much too late that maybe you ought to stop listening.

            "Hey, can I ask you something kind of weird?" Teagan began.

            "Of course you can ask," said Meirin. "Though I reserve the right not to answer it."

            "Fair enough. I was just wondering if you see me as a friend." You thought her voice sounded kind of weirdly neutral, for a question like that.

            "What? Of course I do!" Meirin answered, with more the sort of emotion you'd expect.

            "Why?" Teagan pressed on, still placidly curious, as though she were asking for a technical explanation of some magical phenomenon that had caught her interest.

            "Why wouldn't I?! Don't you see me as one?"

            "I don't know. I don't think I really know how to be a friend to anyone. After everything that happened, I just feel kind of hollowed out. Lately, whenever I start worrying about someone, or getting angry on their behalf, or basically caring about them in any way, it's almost instantly exhausting."

            "Oh."

            "Yeah."

            "That's... pretty cold, isn't it? To just brush us off like that, after how out of our way we went to reach out to you?"

            That was about the point you realized you needed to get out of there — both because you were clearly listening in on something you shouldn't be, and because you were starting to feel weirdly panicky. It took you a minute to realize that was because you were imagining yourself on Meirin's side of that conversation. What would you say if Teagan asked you if you thought of her as a friend? Did you? Were you supposed to? Would Alto be disappointed in you if you gave the wrong answer?

            "Do you want me to be friends with Teagan?" you ended up blurting out to her as you lay beside her that night.

            "What," Alto answered flatly.

            "I mean, I know I'm supposed to be opening up to everyone, and I have been! But talking to someone and relying on them and letting them rely on you isn't necessarily the same as being their friend, right? Or... is it?"

            "You can be friends with whoever you want to," Alto said, her voice chilly.

            "You sound annoyed with me."

           "I guess I am."

            "But are you annoyed with me because you think I want to be friends with Teagan and you don't like that, or because you don't like that I'm depending on you to figure out what I should do?"

            Alto groaned and rolled over onto her side to face away from you. "Aubrey. Can you just not do this? Please?"

            "Okay," you told her. You still didn't know what you weren't supposed to do, but if you just stopped talking, you probably wouldn't be doing it anymore.

            The next morning, Teagan did not join you for breakfast. When Alto knocked on her door, she didn't answer, and when Alto opened the door, she and all her things were gone from her room.

            "Oh," said Meirin. "Oh, no. I didn't think she was just going to run off without even telling anyone!"

            "What do you mean?" Alto asked her.

            "Teagan and I had kind of, um, an intense talk yesterday." Alto's eyes flashed with anger, and Meirin quickly added, "It's not what you think! She wasn't bullying me again! She just... opened up to me about some things, and she mentioned that living here was making her feel kind of claustrophobic, and that a part of her wanted to get out and get some space for a while. I told her that might not be such a bad idea."

            "Did she say where she was going to go?"

            "Well, she did say she didn't have enough of her own money left to stay in hotels until the thaw, so she'd have to rely on the shelters. Maybe she's still at the one here in Bel Canto? She probably didn't go wandering out into the forest in the middle of the night. Maybe you shouldn't go chasing after her right away, though. I mean, if what she needs is some alone time, that's not going to help anything, no matter how rude she's being."

            "This is a little more than just 'rude,'" Alto said. "She can leave if she wants to, but I'm not going to let her just cut me out without so much as a word. I deserve better than that."

            No one could argue with that, so the four of you headed out together to the shelter, where you found Teagan sitting cross-legged on the floor and playing a game of cards with three other transients. "Well, shit," she said with a sigh when she saw you approaching.

            "What's gotten into you?" Alto demanded of her.

            "I was hoping Meirin would explain it to you."

            "Meirin is not your servant. Explain yourself."

            "Look. You know I'm not the greatest at being honest without being kind of a jerk in the process. I didn't want this to turn into a big confrontation, because I didn't want to end up saying anything needlessly cruel."

            "And you don't think it's cruel to just leave without saying goodbye? Like I'm not worth even that much?" Alto's hands were balled into tight fists. If it weren't for the gloves, her nails would probably be biting into her skin. You felt tempted to reach out and take hold of them and stroke them gently until she relaxed, but you knew Alto well enough to know that she would not have appreciated being soothed right then. She needed her anger for strength.

            "This isn't about you, or what you're worth. It's about me. There's something you've said to me a couple times now, something about how if I don't act a certain way, I can't be around you anymore. Now that the world's saved and you're doing so much better than you ever did with my piss poor attempts at helping, I think it's about time I took the 'not being around you anymore' option. At least for a while."

            "How long is 'a while'?"

            Teagan shrugged indifferently. "I think this is one of those things that I just need to figure out as I go."

            "And it can't even wait one more month, when we're all going to be leaving anyway?" Teagan shook her head. "Then how is that not about what I'm worth? Do you really hate me so much that you'd rather live out of shelters than share a house with me for one month? Can you look me in the eyes and tell me that you do?"

            "Knock it off, Alto."

            "No! Don't you dare talk to me like I'm the one who's being childish! Is your freedom to be a sarcastic, overly critical bitch to everyone really more precious to you than your ability to be close to me? If you can look me in the eyes and say that it is, then I'll leave you alone."

            "Alto, I haven't been close to you in a long time. Not really."

            "So you're just going to say that it's impossible to change that and give up on trying?"

            "You're the one saying it's impossible!" Teagan threw her cards to the ground and jumped to her feet in a flash of temper. "You're the one who's decided that you're never going to forgive me no matter what I do!" A part of you wanted to duck behind Alto to hide from the anger in her eyes, even though it wasn't directed at you. Another part of you wanted to step in front of Alto and protect her. You clamped down on both those impulses, rocking back and forth on your heels to relieve your twitchiness. "Why do you even want me to go back with you? You don't even like me!"

            "It's not that simple." Alto lowered her gaze, casting a shadow over her eyes. "Sometimes I wish that it were. But it isn't."

            To your amazement, Teagan's scowl melted into a bitter smile. "Tell me about it. I really do care about you, Alto. I've always cared about you. I stayed with you as long as I did because I'd fooled myself into thinking you needed me. But you don't."

            "Who cares about 'needing'?" Alto asked. "No one should really 'need' anyone else. But I want you to stay near to me. Isn't that enough?"

            "Maybe I don't want to be near to you right now. Isn't that enough?"

            "Teagan..." Alto looked back up at her, eyes shining with both unshed tears and defiance. "I care about you, too. God help me, but I do. It isn't just me you wouldn't be near anymore, you know? It's everyone. I don't want you to isolate yourself. It isn't healthy."

            "She's right, Teagan," Meirin added quietly, almost hesitantly. "I... I know I kind of encouraged you to do this, but maybe I shouldn't have. I didn't mean to push you away. I'm sorry. Please come home."

            "You know there isn't much point in arguing when Alto's made up her mind about something," Saki chimed in with a small, polite smile.

            Teagan glowered down at her feet and did not respond. There was a moment of strained silence, broken only when one of the other card-players cleared their throat. "So, uh... Hate to butt in, but I'm guessing the game's over, then? Do you want your part of the pot back, Almace?"

            Teagan laughed, short and harsh. "Keep it."

            "Miss Contralto Cantabile?" The manager of the shelter approached your awkward little group, apparently having noticed the commotion. "Is there anything I can assist you with?"

            "Hm?" said Alto, turning to face them. "Oh, no, thank you! Sorry for the disturbance, but we were actually just about to leave. Weren't we, Teagan?"

            Teagan hesitated for a moment, glancing around from Alto to Meirin to Saki to you to the manager, and then back to Alto. Maybe it was just your imagination, but there seemed to be something cold in her eyes. Something calculating. "Yeah. Sure," she said finally. "Leaving. Sorry for taking up a bed for no reason, I guess."

            The five of you returned to the Cantabile mansion together, and you spent the next month trying to conceal your unease around Teagan. Alto and everyone else were acting as though everything had been resolved, but you felt like you were missing something. Teagan had just started acting weird out of nowhere, and now maybe she wasn't acting as weird anymore, but that didn't necessarily mean she wouldn't suddenly start doing it again, because as far as you could tell, nothing had actually changed. Alto knew Teagan much better than you did, and you knew that you really ought to trust her on this, but you couldn't help feeling like there was another shoe waiting to drop.

            But spring came around without her causing any more problems, and when Alto asked you all to stay with her to help her confront her family, Teagan not only agreed, she actually sounded kind of enthusiastic about it. So, you decided to stop worrying about her — and now that you all had a goal to focus on again, that was easier to commit to than it had been when you were just living leisurely at the mansion.

            Besides, Alto seemed so much more confident than you'd ever seen her before. Not only did that make you happy for her, it was even a little contagious.

Chapter Text

            "So what's our plan of action, anyway?" Teagan asked as the five of you took breakfast in your cabin the last day on the ship. "We've talked a little about some stuff, but I guess I was expecting we'd have some kind of big, final strategy meeting by now."

            "Hm," said Alto. "I guess I don't really have a 'plan of action'. I know I need to confront my family. I know I need to tell them what Arietta said. I know that if they don't listen to me, I have to make them. Beyond that, it's really just a matter of following my intuition. Think of it less like performing a score, and more like a jam session. You're rolling your eyes, Teagan."

            "Oh, am I?" asked Teagan, rolling her eyes.

            "Is there something you'd like say?" Alto asked her, voice and smile dangerously sweet. "Please, don't hold back on my account!"

            "I just don't like the sound of trying to 'make them listen,' okay? If you beat up and scream at people until they agree with you, they're just going to go right back to doing what you didn't like the moment you're too far away to keep beating and screaming. It doesn't work."

            "It worked for you!" Alto pointed out cheerfully.

            "I am not your parents, Alto. If we're going to do diplomacy, we need to commit to diplomacy. If we're going to do violence, we need to commit to violence. Waffling is just going to get us in trouble."

            "What do you mean by 'committing' to diplomacy or violence?" you asked, hoping you didn't sound as nervous as you felt. Historically, Teagan committing to things had generally not worked out well for any of you.

            "Well, you'd have to ask Saki about diplomacy," said Teagan. "He's our star player there."

            "Am I?" asked Saki, smiling. "My, how flattering!"

            "As for violence," Teagan continued, "the way I see it, we have three options. Keep in mind, I'm not making an argument for any of this. I'm just laying out the things we could try that might actually work. Obviously, Alto's the only one here with the right to say whether any of them are acceptable."

            "I'm listening," said Alto.

            "Good. Basically, your dad is the last link in the Cantabile chain. If we want to break that chain, the simplest solution would just be to assassinate him. Short of that, option two is we find a way to coerce him into castrating himself."

            "We're definitely not doing that," said Alto. "That's eugenics, and it's disgusting, and I am tempted to revoke your right to speak to me for even suggesting it."

            Teagan lifted her hands into the air in an exaggerated shrug. "Oh, I'm sorry. I thought the whole idea here was to make sure your parents don't have any more kids."

            "It really, really isn't. They can have as many kids as they want, as long as they don't abuse them."

            "Okay, that brings me to option three. Option three is we hold off on acting until we know for sure that there's even a reason to act. Your dad is getting old. Not so old that he's not going to be able to have another kid, but old enough that he might not be in any condition to 'educate' them by the time they're old enough to start 'learning'. Especially since his hands are already messed up and just getting worse, and he's the only one who can teach bowing. We could all just go on with our lives like normal, not giving them any reason to be suspicious of us, but making sure at least one of us is always keeping an eye on the Cantabiles. If they do have a kid, and it looks like that kid might be in trouble by the time they're a few years old, we grab them and run. That will set your dad back even further and make it even less likely he'll be able to raise up a replacement."

            "Oh," you said, before you could stop yourself. It was selfish, it was incredibly selfish, and you knew you shouldn't pressure Alto into anything, but you loved that idea so much you couldn't help it. "Alto, I would do it. I would be so, so happy to do it. We could raise a child together, and they would even look like you, and be like you, and... I would do it."

            "Hm," said Alto. "I'm not necessarily opposed to that as a backup plan, but I don't feel right about just leaving things as they are and hoping for the best until then. Arietta asked me to get involved for a reason. If it's possible, I want to make them understand why they were wrong. Saki, any thoughts? Teagan's kind of right about you being the best person for that."

            "Oh dear, I've been put on the spot!" Saki took a thoughtful sip of tea before continuing, "I suppose one thing to keep in mind is that, for most people, being wrong is easier to accept than being meaningless. Recall what Arietta said to you about your initial failure leading directly to your ability to meet with her. Using that same logic, you could suggest to your parents that perhaps your family needed to hit rock bottom before it could turn itself around. Your father and grandmother were raised the same way you were. They cannot be entirely happy about that. Validate any lingering feelings they may have that their pain was unjust while persuading them that the pain they inflicted on you was likewise, but emphasize that their sacrifices were not in vain."

            Alto wrinkled her nose. "What, so I should be all groveling and conciliatory and say that in some ways it's kind of a good thing that they hurt me?"

            "As Teagan said, none of these suggestions are about what you 'should' do in any moral sense. If your goal is to genuinely change their minds, some level of conciliatoriness may be necessary. That doesn't have to be your goal, however."

            "Hm," Alto repeated. "I guess I'll keep that in mind, but... I don't know. A lot about this is still confusing and overpowering and difficult to articulate. I feel like I'll have a much better idea of what to do when I'm actually there."

            "Fine." Teagan sighed theatrically. "I guess winging it worked out well enough with the World Tuning. You know, after it almost got us all killed multiple times. But all's well that ends well, right?"

            "You're being sarcastic," said Meirin. "But it's the truth."

            "Yeah, I'm not arguing," Teagan assured her. "Can't say I'm overly optimistic, but that's probably my problem. I am going to insist you let me talk to my family before we go charging in, though. I'd like to set things right with them beforehand, just in case we end up burning down your estate with ourselves still in it, or something."

            "Hm. Actually, maybe we should all go to your house first. I'd like to see your family again too, and it might be a good place for all of us to stay — a sort of base of operations like the mansion in Bel Canto was."

            For a second, Teagan stared at her, blinking in disbelief. Then her shoulders arched and her eyes narrowed. "Hell no!"

            "What do you mean, 'no'?" Alto mirrored her aggression right back at her.

            "I mean no! At this point, I'm going to end up a target for the Cantabiles no matter what. I'm okay with that. I signed up for it a long time ago. But we're not getting my parents or my younger siblings any more mixed up in this than they already are."

            "What do you mean, 'a target'?"

            "I mean that they're rich and noble and I'm neither, and they can easily make my life hell if they want to! And unless you decide to take Saki's approach, they definitely will want to when they find out you've gone rogue while travelling with me."

            "You're being paranoid," said Alto. Her posture relaxed, but her voice retained its edge. "This isn't about you. It never has been and it never will be, and anyway, they're not going to make anyone's life hell ever again. I've already decided that. And it's up to your parents who gets to stay at their house. Not you."

            "They can't say no to you if you ask them. You're a Cantabile."

            "That's not really an issue. They wouldn't want to say no, because they like me as a person." She smiled, sweetly mischievous. "Besides, how else am I going to be sure that you apologize properly to Tristan?"

            Teagan shot up to her feet and leaned over the table like she was about to leap across it. Before you could stop yourself, one of your hands jumped to Alto's arm — for your own comfort, or out of protectiveness for her, you couldn't even tell. "You will not have anything to do with that! I am not going to make it into a big self-flagellating production for you!"

            "Now, now," said Saki. "There's no need to react so violently to light-hearted teasing! You should know Alto better by now than to think she would step on your boundaries like that. Shouldn't she, Alto?"

            "Seriously," said Alto, still smiling even as she rolled her eyes. She patted your hand affectionately, her smile softening as she turned it on you, and you couldn't help but return it. Teagan sat back down, abashed, and agitatedly shoved a croissant into her mouth.

 

            The sun was setting by the time you reached port, and your party walked to the Almace residence under cover of darkness. Teagan's parents greeted her with crushing hugs and exclamations of relief, which she accepted with stoic assurances that she had been perfectly capable of handling herself and a small, genuinely warm smile. Her siblings swarmed you all like a pack of friendly dogs. The youngest clung to Teagan's waist and babbled excitedly about going to be as good as you someday, Teagan, come on, you have to listen to this one I've been practicing, I bet you'll recognize it! Someone maybe just a little younger than Meirin started enthusing about how much they loved her clothes and hair and eyes, wow, are those contacts?! One of the middle children attempted to introduce everyone, but in all of the chaos you could barely tell which name went with which kid, let alone have any hope of remembering them all. The oldest — Tristan? — approached Alto with a kind of casualness that just about gave you heartburn, told her she was looking well and he was glad to see her back safe, and asked whether she'd succeeded at that thing you set out to do.

            "It's called the World Tuning!" you squeaked. "And you'd know if she didn't succeed at it, because you'd all be freezing to death right now!"

            "Oh, Aubrey," Alto said, giggling at your outburst. You realized you were pouting and puffing out your cheeks. At least she thought it was cute and not just annoying?

            The house was larger than your birth parents' but much, much smaller than Father's, and with the addition of your party, the number of people in it was closer to the latter. When the question of where to take everyone's luggage came up, Teagan's mother at first suggested that "the girls can sleep in the girls' room and the boys can sleep in the boys' room," but Alto sternly corrected her before you even had a chance to open your mouth. That made you really happy. Being in the midst of this large family you'd never met before was at once achingly nostalgic and frighteningly strange, but you felt safe with Alto.

            While sleeping arrangements were finalized — Teagan in her own room with her sisters, the rest of her party in the master bedroom, Mr. and Mrs. Almace temporarily displaced to the living room — Teagan slunk off quietly to "the boys' room," where her three oldest siblings had retreated after she'd come into the house. When she emerged later, she announced that she was going to bake dessert for everyone, and roped Saki and Meirin into the kitchen to help her. Tristan and the other boys followed her out and joined you, Alto, and the rest of the Almaces in the living room.

            It was a little overwhelming. Alto talked about your adventures, and the Almaces talked about how her home town had fared over the winter, and you did your best to talk about anything at all, to not just cleave uselessly to Alto's side and try to shut out all these too-familiar strangers. Then, out of nowhere, Tristan cleared his throat and asked Alto if he could speak with her in private for a few minutes.

            "Is it really something I can't be there for?" you asked reflexively.

            "Aubrey, come on, don't be like that," Alto scolded you gently. "You're safe here. You can trust me, and you can trust Teagan's family. I've always been able to."

            "Actually, it's not a problem if they want to come along," Tristan reassured you both. "If anything, that might be more appropriate." Relieved, you followed him and Alto back to his room. "I know I said this earlier, but you seem like you're doing really well," he told Alto once the three of you were alone. "I think we were all hoping you would come back at least a little different from how you left, but I certainly wasn't expecting this kind of transformation. I'm happy for you."

            "Hm? But I haven't transformed at all," Alto said. "I've grown a little, but I'm still just me."

            "From everything I've seen, and everything Teagan just told me, it seems like you've grown a lot," Tristan replied. "But I guess no one can stop being themselves."

            You rocked back and forth on your heels, impatiently waiting for him to get to the point. You didn't like this person you'd never met acting so familiar with Alto. You didn't like that he had a history with her going back to her childhood and knew her in ways that you never could. You didn't like that he had apparently been about to invite her into his bedroom alone if you hadn't invited yourself along.

            You didn't like that you were such a terrible, jealous partner.

            "I take it she finally apologized?" Alto asked.

            "Yes! I think things are really going to be okay now, and it has a lot to do with you. This whole stupid fight started because she was afraid I was going to get hurt and thought that she knew what was best for me. After everything you said, she did some soul-searching and finally figured out that even if she were right, pushing me away wasn't going to help anyone. She said she wants to work on being more accepting and supportive so that if I ever do have a problem with my job, I can come to her for help without worrying about being victim-blamed or hit with 'I-told-you-so's. And then I apologized for retaliating by purposefully saying things that would freak her out, and we hugged and made up."

            Alto cocked her head, like she wasn't sure she'd heard that right and wanted to try again from a different angle. "What do you mean you apologized? Everything you said back then was perfectly understandable."

            "Well, yes. But it's still the reason she went from talking to me angrily and condescendingly to... well, not talking to me at all. It wasn't particularly mature of me, either. If something really is just a paycheck, then it can't also be ammunition for triggering your sister's repulsion until she shuts up and leaves you alone."

            "Hm. Well, you're entitled to your perspective. But for the record, I don't think you did anything wrong."

            "I appreciate that! But I've gotten off topic. I pulled you aside in the first place because Teagan wanted me to give you an opportunity to ask any questions you may still have in private, so that you wouldn't feel compelled to ask them in front of other family members later."

            "Wow, Teagan. A little late for that." Alto laughed in a way that sounded like she found something about this genuinely funny. You didn't have enough context to be sure, though. "And still so bossy. But at least she's trying, I guess? Hm, I don't think I have any questions. I've talked a lot with Meirin and Saki already, and it hasn't been that hard figuring things out as we go. What about you, Aubrey?"

            "What about me?" you asked, confused.

            "Any questions?"

            "Questions about what?"

            "Questions about sex!" Alto replied cheerfully.

            You could pinpoint the moment your blush became visible based on when she started giggling in earnest.

            "No thank you," you said quickly. "I am perfectly fine on that front."

            Apparently picking up on your discomfort, Tristan ushered both of you out of his room promptly but politely. You returned to the rest of the Almaces, and soon Teagan, Meirin, and Saki came in from the kitchen, carrying trays of strawberry-apricot tarts (with no nuts). The conversation, already lively, turned hectic. You wanted to participate, you really did, but every time you thought you'd found an appropriate lull in which to say something, somebody else spoke before you could quite work up the nerve. It felt like trying to jump into a game of double-dutch.

            At least the tarts were delicious.

            "Teagan's family are really nice, aren't they?" Alto asked as the four of you packed together like a horde of hamsters in the queen-sized bed that night. You, Saki, and Meirin all agreed. "This is what family should be like. I mean, aside from the obvious... being an only child is really lonely, you know?"

            You hadn't often felt lonely as an only child. You had felt lonely as an orphan — but that was your own fault, wasn't it?

            "You won't ever have to be lonely again," you said instead of any of that. "I promise." Alto pressed her forehead against yours affectionately, and drifted off with the most beautiful smile on her face.

            You didn't sleep very well that night, for reasons you couldn't quite pin down, but you were glad to see that Alto did. She would need all of her strength for the day ahead.

Chapter Text

            The Cantabile estate was huge, and following Alto through its gardens made you feel very, very small. She assured you that it wasn't all that big by continental standards, but its grounds still easily dwarfed your father's. The mansion at its center was about the same size as the Bonheur mansion, but from what Alto had told you, there was only a family of four and their servants living in it. Or a family of three, with Alto gone, and apparently Lady Amaryllis did little more than sleep there. What did Alto's father and grandmother even do with that much space?

            Now that you were thinking about it, what had your father done with that much space before he was your father? Even trying to imagine it made you feel lonely. The silence must have been agonizing. No wonder he had wanted so badly to fill it with children and music.

            The party clustered tightly around Alto as she strode up to the threshold. Teagan balled her fists and bowed her head. Saki and Meirin pulled close enough for the backs of their hands to brush against each other. You stood tall, back straightened against the shaft of your father's scythe you had strapped to it. Alto took a deep breath and knocked resolutely on the door.

            An exceedingly tall footman answered with impressive promptness. "Lady Contralto," they said with a bow. "Miss Almace." They nodded their head in Teagan's direction. "Welcome home." Their voice did not sound more than perfunctorily welcoming. "Shall I alert Lord Baroque of your return?"

            "Yes, please," said Alto. "And my grandmother too, if you would."

            "Lady Fioritura is resting," said the footman. "Pardon me." They bowed again and closed the door. When they returned a minute later, they had with them three other people: a second footman in livery, who might almost have been the twin of the first; an older servant, probably the butler; and, standing in the center of all of them just as Alto stood in the center of your own group, a gentleman who could be none other than Lord Baroque Cantabile.

            He was only slightly taller than you, with a build as soft as Alto's, only his weight centered more on his stomach than on his hips. His clothes were smartly tailored, but otherwise unremarkable. He wore gloves and had Alto's eyes.

            You didn't know what you'd been expecting, exactly. It wasn't as though you thought that there was a specific way that evil should look, or were unaware that family resemblance was a thing. Still, seeing him, you felt strangely... underwhelmed? Uneasy? Something dissonant, anyway.

            "Is it done?" he asked Alto.

            "Yes," she responded simply, her face blank and her voice unreadable.

            Lord Baroque nodded once, exhaling slowly. "Good." He glanced around at the rest of you, his nose crinkling slightly. "Your ensemble, I suppose?"

            "Yes."

            "Miss Teagan Almace, and?"

            "Totoki Saki. Otowa Meirin. Aubrey Spica." Alto nodded at each of you in turn. You felt a small chill stab into your heart, hearing her speak your name so dispassionately.

            "Otowa? Would that happen to be..?" You caught a flicker of something like interest in his eyes, but it vanished almost as quickly as it had appeared. "No, I suppose not, not with those clothes." He sighed wearily. "Magic. There's no accounting for nature's whims. And now they'll all want payment, is that it? You couldn't manage the money we sent with you well enough to cover it on your own?"

            "Is nothing ever enough for—?" Teagan began to blurt out angrily, but Alto held up a hand, and she fell silent.

            "It's not about money," Alto said. "Some unusual things happened in Harmonia that I need to tell you about. They're my witnesses."

            "Very well. We will speak in my office. You may not bring weapons into this house." He turned and retreated into the mansion. The butler stepped forward to take his place between the two footmen, blocking off the entire width of the doorway.

            "Alto?" Meirin asked.

            "It's fine." Alto nodded, smiling obscurely. "Do it."

            Meirin took her rings from her belt and dropped them casually at the servants' feet. Teagan unbuckled her gauntlets and pressed them into the butler's hands. As one of the footmen bent down to retrieve the chakra, the other gestured silently at Luthier. You took an involuntary step backward.

            "It's an heirloom," you told them.

            "It will not be damaged," they assured you.

            "I... really don't feel comfortable just handing it off to a stranger."

            "Then you may wait out here."

            You looked to Alto for guidance, but her face was only a mask of placidity.

            This was a little pathetic even for you, wasn't it? Obsessing over Father himself had been bad enough. Luthier wasn't him. It was just a thing. A thing you would get right back, even. You wouldn't be fully disarming yourself — no one could take your voice from you, after all. Meirin could cast without a focus, Teagan could fight without a weapon, and Saki probably had his cards tucked into his clothes somewhere. The only one of you who would really be walking into this defenseless was Alto, and she had the most reason of any of you to be anxious.

            You didn't think about it any longer than that, because the longer you thought about it, the more you would work yourself up. You just did it. It was off of your back, and then it was out of your hands, and then you were drifting down a hall, and everything was fine because Alto was walking purposefully next to you.

            In Lord Baroque's office, Alto briefly told the story of meeting Arietta in Uncommon Time. Your awareness of her exact words came and went as you focused on the sound of her voice and how perfectly fine it made you feel. You nodded or made vague noises of agreement when prompted. The other party members said a few things too, but they registered even less. You wondered where the footman had gone. Were they holding onto Luthier personally, or was there somewhere they would have put it, like the armory equivalent of a visitors' coat closet?

            "Even if any of this nonsense were true," Lord Baroque said eventually, "I'm not sure what you think it would change. Lady Arietta was the founder of the Cantabile system, but that hardly gives her, let alone some dubious magical copy of her memories, absolute authority over it. I notice your 'Lady Arietta' offers us no alternatives to continuing as we are besides allowing the world to spiral into destruction. Couldn't she come up with anything better than that in the millennia over which she has apparently had nothing to do but watch and ponder over everything? It all sounds more like the invention of a foolish, tempestuous little girl than the imparted wisdom of a seasoned genius."

            Alto hooked a finger under Archetier's chain where it hung around her neck, and fished the pendant out from under her clothes. "Arietta gave this to me," she said, her voice quiet but trembling with passion. "She was real. It was all real. I won't ever forget that it was real."

            "That's..." Lord Baroque's eyes widened. "What in the world is that? Where did you get it?"

            "Arietta gave it to me," Alto repeated.

            "Old magic," Lord Baroque muttered, squinting at Archetier. "Very old magic. Old Cantabile magic. And something else, something I've never even..." He bristled. "Hand that over immediately. Whatever it is, it does not belong in the hands of a child like you."

            "Arietta gave it to me!" Alto erupted. "You never let me have anything of my own when I lived here, and it wasn't because you really thought I was irresponsible. It was because you didn't want me to think of myself as a person who could have things. Well, Arietta did! She gave this to me — not to you, and not to Grandmother. Now the most beautiful, valuable, magical thing in this whole room — in this whole house — is mine. And you will not take that away from me! No one will ever take anything away from me ever, ever again!"

            Abruptly and with absolute casualness, Lord Baroque reached across his desk, grabbed Archetier's chain, and yanked Alto toward him by the neck. Alto cried out chokingly as her feet left the ground and her chest slammed into the desk's surface.

            Before anyone else could react, Teagan leapt forward and punched his nose in.

            Lord Baroque stood and staggered backward with blood dripping down his face, his chair toppling over behind him. As you took Alto by the arm and helped her to her feet, he produced a bow from beneath his desk and slashed the air with it. There was a burst of flame, and Teagan was thrown back against the wall, her head connecting with a loud crack. She tried to lunge for him again, but stumbled and had to fall back with her shoulder to the wall to keep from collapsing.

            Lord Baroque rang the handbell on his desk three times in quick succession, and the butler and two footmen appeared in the doorway, one of them still holding Luthier. "Detain Miss Almace, and escort our other guests to the gate," Alto's father commanded. "Contralto, you will have no more contact with commoners. I see we are even more behind than I'd feared in preparing you for your social debut."

            "Debut?" Alto repeated, as though the very word amused her. She grinned crookedly, her eyes alight with malice, then took your hand in hers, twining your fingers together triumphantly. "Oh, I'd say I've already debuted!"

            Lord Baroque went deathly pale. His ultramarine eyes, the only color remaining as the red drained from his visage, locked onto your interlaced hands.

            This was it, then. You were going to die. If Alto's father didn't kill you, your own boiling blood would cook you from the inside.

            Behind you, the footman not carrying Luthier punched Saki in the gut as he tried to get to Teagan to heal her. He crumpled over, wide-eyed and gasping, and almost hit the floor before Meirin caught him.

            Meirin's green eye flashed, and a powerful gust of wind bowled the servants over. With Saki leaning heavily against her, she charged through the breach. Alto, still clasping your hand, pulled you after them. Teagan pushed off from the wall and lurchingly followed the rest of you.

            It took several seconds for your thoughts to catch up with everything unfolding around you. When they did, you dropped Alto's hand and turned on your heels. "Sorry, but I have to get Luthier back!" you shouted without so much as turning your head over your shoulder. "Sorry, sorry, sorry!"

            "Aubrey, no!" Alto called out, voice sharp with worry and exasperation, but you couldn't stop, not even when you heard her footfalls striking closer and closer on the tile behind you.

            "Fuck," you heard Teagan groan. "Fuck, fuck, fuck." She chanted curse words like invocations as she chased after Alto chasing after you.

            The servants were chasing in the other direction when you almost literally ran into them, and the one carrying Luthier nearly took your head off with its blade. Alto caught up to you, grabbed your arm, and attempted to drag you away again, but your feet wouldn't move. You needed to sing an attack spell, but you were panting from running back and forth, and you didn't have your chimes to fill in while you caught your breath. You barely managed to gasp out a slight chill in the air before the unarmed footman seized you and covered your mouth. The butler took hold of Alto and attempted to pry away her grip on you. "Lady Contralto, what in the world has gotten into you?" they admonished her.

            "The tiniest fucking sliver of fucking sense!" answered a shout from the hall behind you. Teagan appeared from the door of a side-room and rushed toward you, hefting a massive club overhead.

            Or, no, wait — that wasn't a club at all. It was a cello. Its wood glowed dimly with earth magic in her hands. The polish flaked off as you watched, and sharp, spike-like knots sprouted green before browning over as they hardened.

            Teagan charged by you and Alto, grazing your captor's arm so that they cried out and released you, and kicking the butler's legs out from beneath them as she passed. The body of the cello connected with Luthier's shaft as the footman wielding it attempted to bring the blade down on her. Teagan, her teeth grit in effort and fury, pushed back with all her wounded strength and paltry magic. The cello creaked and cracked beneath the strain.

            Marshaling your racing breath back under control, you sang out a handful of clear, perfect notes. A small mass of ice condensed out of the air above the footman and came crashing down on their head. They reeled back dazedly and lost their grip on Luthier just as the cello shattered in Teagan's hands.

            "There's your stupid scythe," Teagan snapped as you rushed forward and seized it to your breast. "Here's a goddamn bow," she continued, shoving one that must have belonged with the ruined cello into Alto's hands. "Now move, move, move!"

            "That was..." Alto muttered distantly. She dropped down onto her knees and began gathering together the shards of wood. "The cello that I... The one they said was... The first thing I ever really..."

            "Alto? Alto, come on! Oh, fuck." Teagan sighed. "She's out to lunch. Aubrey, grab her and let's get out of here!"

            "Alto? Please get up." Alto did not respond. You really, really didn't want to lay hands on her without her permission, but the servants were regrouping a little ways down the hall and eyeing you all up with cautious calculation. You took her arm and pulled her to her feet as gently as you could, and she followed you out of the mansion and through the gardens without resistance.

Chapter Text

            You caught up with Meirin and Saki outside the gates. He was half-conscious, propped up partly against a tree and partly against her shoulder. "Which way was back to your house, again?" Meirin asked Teagan.

            "We are not going back there," Teagan told her. "That's probably one of the first places the Cantabiles are going to look for us, and for my family's sake, we had better not be there when they do." She took hold of Saki and lifted him up bridal style.

            "My, how dashing," Saki murmured deliriously.

            "Should you really be doing that with a head injury?!" Meirin fretted.

            "I'm already better enough for this," Teagan assured her. "My magic's no good for healing anyone else, but it works well enough at patching up my own body."

            "Oh, thank goodness." Meirin sighed. "Okay, Saki needs somewhere he can rest safely. Alto might too, for different reasons," she added with a worried glance in your direction. "This is your hometown, right? Any ideas?"

            "I really can't believe I'm saying this, but..." Teagan squeezed her eyes shut and paused a moment to just breathe, before continuing, "Tristan should be at work right now. He might be able to hide us somewhere in the red light district."

            "All right, that sounds like a good plan. Do you know the way?"

            "You have no idea how much I wish I could tell you I didn't," Teagan answered drily, and took the lead as the five of you headed into town.

            Alto remained quiet and sullen the whole walk. You and Meirin both made an effort to comfort and encourage her and get her to open up about what she was feeling, but it soon became clear that what she wanted most just then was some emotional space to work things through in her own head. She did let you hold her hand, at least. You hoped that closeness helped her even with the thickness of a glove separating your skin from hers.

            Tristan, when you found him in the red light district, was every bit as kind and mild and accommodating as he had been the night before, though the shock and concern were evident on his face. He didn't even ask many questions before ushering you into an unused room. You really had to wonder just how hard Teagan must have pushed to spark off the kind of fight she'd apparently had with a person like this.

            The room was barely big enough to hold more than the bed, and the bed was barely big enough to hold more than two people, but somehow, you made do. Teagan laid Saki out gently, and Meirin curled up next to him, holding his hand. You and Alto perched together on the foot of the bed. Teagan stood apart, as far away as she could get from both the bed and the walls of the room, hugging herself and curled over slightly like she was trying to make minimal contact with the air itself. Tristan attempted to talk to her, and she made some effort to talk back, but her answers to his questions were even more terse than her usual manner of speaking, and eventually he gave up and excused himself. After that, there was a long silence, which Alto eventually broke by asking, "Is Saki going to be okay?"

            "All in due time," Saki said, smiling weakly. "That hulking brute managed to strike some things that were already weakened by prior damage, though I doubt he was aware of that. It will take care and patience to set myself right, but I'll manage."

            "I'm really sorry."

            "Oh, don't be! We all knew the risks going into this."

            "Don't tell her that," Teagan said. "It's not like none of us could have predicted that charging in without a plan would end badly. It's not like none of us offered alternatives. And it's not like any of us would ever have done what we just did if she hadn't asked us to, let alone done it so stupidly."

            "I never asked you to hit my father for me," Alto said icily.

            "Oh, sorry! I kind of assumed that 'come with me to provide support and protection' didn't mean 'stand around uselessly while someone physically assaults me'. But I guess you'd be so much happier with me right now if I'd done that instead, right?"

            "Or maybe you could have tried helping in a way that didn't just escalate things further. Food for thought."

            "Maybe I would have been able to do that in the heat of the moment if we'd prepared a plan with contingencies!"

            "Teagan! Just knock it off, okay?" Meirin cut in. "There are more important things than being right!"

            "Yeah." Teagan squeezed her eyes shut and curled in on herself even further. "Yeah, you're right. There are. Sorry for snapping at you, Alto. I guess I can see why you felt like you had to do that. But you get it now, right? Of course you were going to start making weird, erratic decisions when you got back in that house. It's like trying to think straight while breathing poison."

            Alto rolled her frosty eyes. "'Sorry for talking to you like I think you're crazy or an idiot, Alto. It's just, you're a crazy idiot.'"

            "That is not what I—! Ugh. Whatever. More important things than being right, fine, I know. I'll shut up about what just happened as long as you're willing to talk seriously about what happens next. Personally, I vote for plan 'fuck off and leave them to stew in their crazy until we know that intervention is actually necessary.'"

            "That's funny: I don't recall saying that what we're going to do about my family situation was up for a vote."

            "That's..." Teagan finally lifted her head enough to meet Alto's eyes. From the way the two of them had been sniping back and forth, you'd expected to see at least enough fury in her expression to match Alto's, but she looked almost more confused than angry. "There was definitely a plural pronoun in that sentence. Did you even notice that? It didn't disappear just because you focused all your emphasis on the singular. Other people's pain and struggles don't disappear just because yours are worse or more immediate."

            Alto laughed, short and heavy and more compulsive than carefree, like snow sloughing off of a rooftop and crashing to the ground under its own accumulated weight. "Go ahead then, Teagan! Why don't you tell me all about your pain and your struggles! I'm listening! I'm sure it's so hard growing up with a big, happy family full of people who love and support you and let you make your own choices! I'm sure it hurts so much being able-bodied and not literally in pain all of the time!"

            "This is exactly what I'm talking about," Teagan said. "Seriously, Alto, you've done a great job figuring out that you have feelings. Now maybe you could work on realizing that other people have them too."

            Alto's laughter became an avalanche. "Thank you for your wisdom, oh compassionate queen of empathy!"

            "Would both of you please either stop arguing or go somewhere else?" Meirin snapped, jolting upright from where she lay. "Saki needs to rest and concentrate on healing. Neither of you are helping."

            "We sure aren't!" Teagan threw her hands up in the air in exasperation. "Nothing I do helps. Ever. Honestly, I don't know why I'm even still here."

            "You helped me get Luthier back," you pointed out. "That... that was really important. At least, it was to me, so... thank you." This was probably not the best moment to be saying nice things to Teagan, but it'd suddenly occurred to you that you should have thanked her a lot earlier. As awkward as the timing was, putting it off even longer would have been worse.

            Or, at least, that was what you thought — Alto apparently disagreed. "Don't encourage her," she rebuked you, sharp and cold enough to make you flinch. "We could have handled that on our own if we'd had to. And we wouldn't have carelessly destroyed something beautiful just for a bit of dramatic flair."

            "It doesn't take a sense for dramatic flair to not want to go after someone wielding a polearm with nothing but your fists," Teagan countered. "It just takes not having a death wish. And I'm not sure I'd call that worn out, beaten up old instrument 'something beautiful,' either."

            "Fuck you too, Teagan." To your alarm, Alto welled up with tears. "You know how I feel about that. You know."

            "Yeah." Teagan hung her head, sounding suddenly weary. "Yeah, I do. That was stupid of me to say, and I'm sorry. But you aren't a thing, Alto. Things aren't the same as people. It isn't evil to sacrifice a thing."

            "It wasn't yours to sacrifice! It wasn't mine either, not really, but it was the closest I ever had before I left home. There are so, so few things that have ever been mine that I don't care how ugly or broken they are. They're meaningful to me, and I don't ever want to lose or let go of them."

            "Oh," Teagan said, maybe more quietly than you'd ever heard her say anything. She blinked dazedly, like she'd just woken up from a dream. "Huh." She straightened herself up with a lengthy sigh. "Well, speaking of things," she continued, voice carefully casual, "I should go get ours from my family's place. Meirin's right about the arguing, and I don't think it's going to end as long as we're cooped up together like this."

            "Fine. Go. No one's going to miss you while you're gone." Alto made a shooing motion with her hands. Without another word, Teagan turned and trudged out the door.

            "I'm going to see if she needs help," Meirin declared, and kissed Saki's forehead before slipping out of bed and after Teagan. Just a couple minutes later, though, the door opened again, and she was back. "Never mind, Tristan is going with her," she said before flopping back down. There was a strange undertone of misery to her voice — or maybe not so strange, since all of you had plenty of reason to be miserable right then.

            Hours passed. Saki slept, and Meirin kept watch over him as though he might stop breathing if she glanced away. You sang a few healing spells over him, but it didn't seem to do much good. Alto stood up and paced, which was all the more unsettling to watch because there was only enough room for a few strides in any direction. You kept getting a sense that she was about to burst out with some stunning declaration any second, but she just continued on in silent, contemplative motion, and the suspense built and built without breaking.

            Finally, the door swung open. Tristan and the next oldest Almace brother — Innis? — came in to hand you all your luggage.

            Teagan was not with them, and neither was her pack.

            Meirin was the one to ask, "Where is she?" The brothers averted their eyes from her, frowning. Meirin's small fists curled around the bed sheet, twisting and crumpling it. "Where is Teagan? Is she all right?"

            "She left," said Innis bluntly.

            The sheet fell from Meirin's hands as she covered her mouth to stifle a sob.

            "What do you mean she left?" Alto asked, calm and controlled. "Where did she go?"

            "I don't think we should tell you that," said Innis.

            "She said that she tried to leave twice before," said Tristan, "and you didn't let her. Is that true?"

            "Of course we didn't let her," said Alto. "We needed her for the World Tuning."

           "The first time, yes; she said as much," Tristan admitted. "But wasn't the second time afterward?"

            "Well, yes, but... hm. That really wasn't the same thing at all," Alto explained. "The first time, we got in a big, physical fight. The second time, we just asked her to come back, and she did."

            "What did you expect her to—?" Innis began, but Tristan laid a hand on his shoulder and shot him a warning glance, and he fell silent.

            "Alto, I am truly sorry for the trouble my sister has caused you, and especially for any contribution my own behavior may have made to her... uh... cantankerousness. But she doesn't want you following her this time, and I have to respect that. Please, stay here as long as you need for your friend to heal, but be ready to leave once he's recovered. We have only so many rooms, and it will come out of my pay if we have to turn away customers." He nodded to each of you in turn, then exited the room. Innis followed, glancing uneasily over his shoulder as he went.

            "Damn it, Teagan!" When they were gone, Alto slammed a gloved fist into one of the pillows. "What is her problem?"

            "Isn't it obvious?" Meirin asked, voice strained.

            "No, it isn't. Unless you know something we don't," Alto added, rounding on her. "What did you say to her when you followed her out of the room?" Meirin sat in silence, wet-eyed and tight-lipped. "Meirin?"

            "I said that you have the right to be angry, but that I personally thought what she did back there was pretty cool." Meirin sniffled a little, but held her head high.

            "Hm. Okay, I still don't get it. Explain what's so obvious."

            "She doesn't belong with us," said Meirin. "She has never belonged with us. She just doesn't fit in this group."

            "That's not true," said Alto. "I know she can be controlling, and arrogant, and thoughtless. I know that better than anyone. But she's also strong and dedicated and brave, and she'll always have a place here if she wants it and is willing to work for it."

            "She doesn't want it," said Meirin. "That's what you're not getting."

            "You're right. I don't get that at all."

            Meirin rubbed at her eyes. "Look, Alto, I like Teagan. I probably like Teagan more than you like Teagan. I've tried, and she's tried, and I care about her a lot, and I'd like to think that she cares about me too, but this friendship isn't working. Sometimes something just doesn't work."

            "That makes some sense, but... why are you the one telling me this? If she really hates being here that much, why couldn't she just say so instead of running off without so much as a good bye?"

            "She has said so! She's said so in so many different ways, at so many different times, and none of us have ever listened to her! Maybe there was something else she could have done. Maybe there was something else she should have done. But she's also allowed to leave without doing it, at any time and for any reason. It sucks, and it hurts, and it isn't really fair, but things have to be that way, because anything else would mean making relationships into cages."

            "Maybe it's because you're getting ahead of yourself, but I'm confused again. I don't have any interest in keeping Teagan in a cage." Alto wrinkled her nose, seemingly just at the thought of it. "I'd barely even call what we have a relationship. We aren't friends anymore. Allies, maybe, but not friends. I don't even care if she leaves. I just want her to show me some minimum amount of respect."

            "How?" asked Meirin.

            "Hm?"

            "How, exactly, do you want her to show you respect? What specific words or actions do you want from her before she cuts ties forever?"

            "I guess... Hm. I guess it's not really anything specific. But I'll know it when I see it, and as of now, I haven't seen it."

            "That's not good enough, Alto," Meirin told her. "If you can't think of even one thing you'd definitely accept, that leaves open the possibility that you'll never accept anything."

            "Feelings don't work like that, though," Alto countered. "People, relationships, basic human decency... None of them work like that. You can't just... go through the motions. It's like dancing: even if the steps are all there, without the right feeling behind it, it's incomplete."

            "Okay," said Meirin. "But you shouldn't force someone to dance with you."

            "That's not fair." Alto's face flushed — whether out of anger or embarrassment, you couldn't tell. "Playing with words like that, being clever like it's a substitute for being reasonable... It's not fair. You know I'm not good with words. You don't get to invalidate my feelings just because I phrase them in a weird way."

            "I wasn't trying to be clever," Meirin said, sounding utterly exhausted. "I was just... trying to speak your language, I guess? I don't know. I just know I can't do this anymore."

            "Can't do what?" you asked, when Alto didn't respond for a moment.

            "Teagan. Fighting with Teagan. Making up with Teagan. Being around Teagan." She wrapped her arms around herself in a desperately lonely hug. "Liking Teagan."

            "That much, huh?" Alto asked quietly.

            "So much," said Meirin. "So, so much. And I hate it, because if she knew the sort of things I think about her, she might never feel comfortable around me again. But I can't just turn it off. I've tried."

            "If she ever even considered being that cruel to you—" Alto began.

            "It's not about being cruel," Meirin said, cutting her off. "It's about feelings that she can't help either. I'm sure she'd try to be nice. I'm sure she wouldn't hate me or blame me for it. But things would be different, and it would hurt. And everything already hurts. It hurts when she's around. It hurts when she leaves. It hurts when she comes back." She curled her knees up to her chest and buried her face in them. "I don't want her to come back."

            "Okay," said Alto. "I understand that. But... I want her to come back. I'm sorry, but I have to at least try. Maybe it won't work, but I can't just give up without trying."

            "I know," Meirin sniffled, not looking up. "You're Alto."

            "I won't ask you to come with me. You should stay here and look after Saki anyway."

            "I know," Meirin repeated.

            Alto turned to you. "Aubrey? You've been really quiet. How do you feel about all of this?"

            "I just want to help you," you answered honestly.

            Alto hugged you at that, briefly leaning her chin on your shoulder and brushing your cheek with her hair. You found yourself wishing that you were a strong enough person for her to really lean on.

            As you followed her out the door, you glanced back over your shoulder to see Saki reaching up to stroke Meirin's arm. Distantly, distractedly, you wondered when he'd woken up.

Chapter Text

            Alto's hometown was located at the tip of a peninsula, which meant there were two ways out of it: land, or sea. A quick bit of reconnaissance at the docks confirmed that no transport vessels had departed in the hours since Teagan's disappearance. "That just leaves the southward land route," Alto concluded. "But... it's a pretty wide route. Even if we manage to make up for her head start, we could easily miss her."

            "Is there a lot of cover?" you asked her.

            "Hm?"

            "You know, from above. Is it heavily forested, or really rocky with lots of caves and canyons?"

            "I don't know," she admitted with a small, bitter smile. "I've seen maps, but I've never actually been there. Or anywhere but here and Harmonia."

            "Oh..." Of course she hadn't, stupid. "Um... I just... I only asked because, well..." Giving up on words, you unstrapped Luthier from your back and held it out horizontally. "Do you want to at least try? Together?"

            Alto tilted her head in confusion, and your heart fluttered absurdly. Why was this of all things so hard for you to just spit out? Mercifully, her face lit up with understanding before you could start stammering again. "Oh, right! I'd forgotten about that! That's a really good idea, Aubrey! Have you ever tried flying on it before?"

            "I've... hovered, a little? There's never been anywhere I really needed to fly to." You'd thought about it, of course. You'd considered it practically every time you'd had an errand to run somewhere outside of Bel Canto. But then all the perfectly innocent questions you'd have been bound to get from curious bystanders who spotted you would start slithering through your head, and your nerves would fail you. Even if you somehow lost everything else, you would still be the only living person who really knew Altair Bonheur, and that knowledge was a treasure far too precious to share with random nosy strangers.

            "Well, there's no time but the present, right?" said Alto.

            "You mean 'like the present'?" you asked like an insufferable little pedant, and winced as soon as the words had left your mouth.

            Fortunately, Alto did not appear offended. "Yeah, that!" She laid her hands over your own to steady herself as she hopped up onto the shaft of the scythe. Once she was settled, she looked down at you with an encouraging smile and held out a hand. You took hold of it, and Alto helped you pull yourself up in front of her, then wrapped her arms around your waist. "All right, I'm ready!"

            Its magic ignited by the spark of a mental command you were barely conscious of making, Luthier lifted the two of you up into the sky. The sudden rush of air ripped a startled shriek from your throat, while Alto just giggled slightly and pressed in closer against you. You couldn't help thinking that that was the opposite of how this sort of thing was supposed to go, but of course not even the advantage of familiarity with and control over a novel situation could make you the cool and composed one in this relationship.

            You struggled to stay present enough to steer as you flew south over the peninsula. You'd always felt a little light-headed with Alto draped around you, and having a two-hundred-foot drop on all sides did nothing to help with that. Along with the vertigo, you were struck by a burst of deja vu; even knowing with absolute certainty that no such thing had ever happened to you, you could vividly recall holding tight to Altair and gradually falling in love to the rhythm of the wind whipping your own chestnut hair into your eyes.

            The landscape below you was all smooth hills and sparse, open forest. Only your muddled state of mind interfered with your ability to scan it effectively, and Alto had no such difficulty. "There!" she called out before too long into the flight, and pointed down at a tiny figure like a thin, green-shelled beetle. You shook yourself alert and swooped toward it, watching it grow more and more distinctly Teagan-shaped as you approached.

            "Teagan!" Alto called out as you pulled up just a little ways out of arm's reach.

            Teagan jolted to a halt and spun on her heels to face you, eyes wild and teeth bared. "No! Just no, Alto!"

            "'No' what? What are you even doing?"

            "Following my own damn advice for once!"

            "What advice?"

            "That you should drop any supposed responsibilities that are actively destroying your health!"

            "What?" You couldn't turn your head quite far enough to see Alto's face, but you felt her arms tighten around you. "Since when have you advised anyone to be less than one-hundred-percent serious and responsible literally all of the time?"

            "Since when I'd basically just met you and I asked whether you could break the glass of your window and run away from home!"

            Alto's grip tightened further, enough to be uncomfortable and almost crushing. "There were bars on the window."

            "Yeah, I learned that just today when I ended up inside your room! But you never told me back then. You never told me anything. It was never, 'That won't work, but this other thing might if you just do X and get me Y,' or even, 'That won't work, but can you help me think of something else that will?' It was always, 'No, Teagan, running away isn't the answer! My life isn't all that bad! I can cope with it right where I am!'"

            "I had to say those things." Her voice was forceful but unusually hushed, and her hands clenched around fistfuls of your blouse. You cupped your own hands around them in wordless reassurance. "I had to tell myself all of that just to survive."

            "Well I understand that now! That's why we should get the hell away from each other: the things we each need to do to stay relatively sane are never going to be compatible."

            "What sort of things could you possibly need the way that I need—?" Alto's arms went suddenly slack, slipping from your waist and dropping heavily to her sides. "Wait. Following your 'own advice' from back then? Are you seriously comparing what you've done since 'taking responsibility' for me to everything I had to go through to prepare for the World Tuning?"

            Teagan flung her hands above her shoulders, palms up and fingers spread, in a gesture that seemed to say, There you fucking have it!

            "I don't believe this. After everything we've been through... After I told you how you hurt me... What the hell is wrong with you?!"

            "Way too much for us to fix," Teagan answered flatly, then turned her back on the two of you and started to walk away.

            "Stop it, Teagan! Just stop doing this to me!" The sudden hoarseness of Alto's voice told you that either she was crying or would be soon, but Teagan did not turn around even for that. "I am so, so tired of this bullshit!" She leapt down from her perch on Luthier and strode purposefully after the other girl. Teagan's only response was to walk faster, but Alto picked up her own pace to match. "Teagan, I am asking you to stop!"

            Without so much as glancing over her shoulder, Teagan shrugged her travel bag off onto the ground and broke into a sprint.

            Alto bent and tensed her legs as though she were about to take off running herself, then suddenly stopped. She collected the discarded bag and brought it to you. "Can you fly while carrying this?" she asked. Her face was a mask of grim determination betrayed only by the slight wet shine of her eyes.

            "I don't see why not." It almost certainly weighed less than Alto did, after all — and you were a little irritated with yourself for somehow having the presence of mind to not say that out loud when you kept thoughtlessly blurting out other things it would have been much more in-character for her to take the wrong way.

            "All right," she said, depositing the bag into your arms, "you fly ahead of her and try to cut her off."

            "While you follow behind?" Alto gave a single curt nod. "Will you really be okay on your own right now?" Her only answer was to nod once again. Then she leaned in and pressed a brisk, soft kiss to your lips before turning and loping toward her goal.

            Flying low to the ground was a bit slower going than your trip out here had been, what with all the trees to dodge and hills to crest. Even so, it did not take you long to outpace someone on foot. "Teagan, please just stop and hear her out," you begged as you pulled in front of her.

            Teagan did not stop, but pivoted at a forty-five-degree angle and redirected her mad dash toward the west. You tailed her effortlessly, and a little ways off, you could see Alto starting to gain ground on both of you. There wasn't far to run in that direction, and before long, you and Alto had Teagan cornered on a bluff jutting out above the ocean. She skidded to a stop and stared silently down into the crashing waves for a good few seconds before turning to face you.

            "Just where were you planning to go without anything but the clothes on your back?" Alto asked her as she caught up to your side.

            "Anywhere that isn't back with you," Teagan answered, her expression as hard and dull as stone. "Take my stuff, scream at me, beat me — I don't care. I'm not going back this time. I'm done."

            "Beat you?" Alto's face twisted in disgust. "What kind of person are you trying to imply I am?"

            "The kind of person who already did that to me once."

            "I fought you because you were fighting me!"

            "No! You chased me down while I begged you to leave me alone. You cornered me. And when I tried to knock you out of my way to escape, you and your real friends beat me up four-on-one. You hit me, and I hit you, and I had this horrible, evil thought that I was never going to be free unless I—" Teagan's teeth clenched into a snarl. Her hands curled into fists, and one of them she pounded against her breastplate hard enough to crack open her knuckles. "I hate knowing that I have this inside of me! I hate that I spent these last few years holding myself together by objectifying you! If you were too broken to understand feelings, if you were too stupid to notice the obvious, then I couldn't blame you for shutting me down whenever I tried to express how anxious and exhausted I felt all of the time. And when you kept insisting that what your family did was necessary and there was no way out for you even when you came of age and they couldn't legally make you do anything anymore, when you went so far as to imply that you were going to bow to the pressure to have a kid of your own and do all the same awful things to them even when your dad and grandma were helplessly old and feeble, even when they were dead — that had to just be brainlessness on your part, right? Because if it wasn't, then..." She shuddered. "I'm trying to be better now. I'm focusing as hard as I can on looking at you as a person and not a thing. But when I do that, the person I see isn't a person I think I want to be around. And I'm not a person you should want to be around either."

            "Do not tell me what I should want," said Alto, her voice low, her eyes bright and cold.

            "Don't you get it? I was going to kill you!" Teagan howled. "The last time we were here, I was seriously going to kill you! While we were fighting, I was already justifying it to myself with the same damn cruel lies as always. I could barely even imagine doing anything for myself anymore, so it had to be something I was doing for you. It was sick!"

            You felt the sour sting of bile at the back of your throat. A strangely vivid image flashed into your head of yourself flying straight at Teagan and knocking her off the cliff.

            For a moment, Alto was shocked into silence — but only for a moment. "Well, I hope you feel better having gotten that off your chest, because knowing it doesn't do me any sort of good at all!"

            "How could I possibly feel better about this? I never will, and I never want to!" Her short nails clawed absently and uselessly at the armor over her heart. "But I don't know what else I can say to make you understand that you need to give up on me!"

            "I won't give up. Not on you. Not on anything I've chosen for myself." The corners of her mouth curled like fern frost. "Do you really think you scare me? Do you really think I give a damn about the secret inner darkness of your heart? Do I strike you as someone with any patience left for melodrama about shameful desires and inherent evil?" She took a step forward, and Teagan took a commensurate step back. "If you want to kill me, then go ahead and try it." Another step forward. Another step back. "If you don't, then stop posturing and just listen!" Forward. Back.

            "I'm listening!" Teagan insisted. "Say whatever you want, but don't come any closer!"

            "Or else what?" Alto asked, and took one more step.

            Teagan lurched backward, her movement suddenly bigger and less controlled than it had been. Her foot came down on air, and she cried out and pinwheeled her arms as she tilted precariously over the drop to the sea.

            Alto's smile vanished. "Teagan!" she shouted, and closed the distance between them in a single bound, reaching out to grab her.

            Their eyes connected briefly as Alto's fingers brushed against and scrabbled to close around Teagan's wrist. The fear in Teagan's face went instantly cold and dim. Wordlessly, she slapped away Alto's hand — and pushed herself off-balance in the same motion. She disappeared over the edge of the bluff, and the splash that followed like thunder after lightning reverberated with the clang of her heavy armor.

Chapter Text

            "Alto?" You dropped Teagan's pack as you dismounted Luthier and raced to her side. Looking down over the cliff, you realized the fall was shorter than you had feared — ten feet down, maybe, or twelve at the very most — but the surface of the water was well out of your reach, and Teagan's motionless body sunk steadily farther beneath it. "What should I do?" Alto did not so much as turn to look at you, but stared silently ahead in shock. "Alto! Should I try to save—?"

            Wait.

            What were you doing?

            Nothing, of course. You weren't doing anything. You never could do anything without knowing that it was what Alto wanted from you — unless it was about Altair.

            You really hadn't changed at all, had you?

            You felt your eyes start to sting, but you knew that you couldn't allow yourself to cry just yet. Crying would mess up your singing. Right now, you needed to sing.

            You took a deep, steadying breath of ocean air, then let your voice ring out over the waves. The notes struck through the water below, shaking out the salt and coalescing a crystalline raft of ice just beneath where Teagan drifted limply in suspension. The ice floated to the surface, carrying her with it, and a waterspout rose with your melody, con portamento, to lift both it and her even higher. Once Teagan was within reach, Alto grabbed her by the shoulders and dragged her, still and unresisting, back up onto the cliff. You stopped to breathe, and the ice raft crashed back down into the sea, shattering into rapidly melting shards.

            "Teagan?" Alto shook her, and was answered with a rough sloshing sound from deep in her throat that might have been an attempted cough. "Come on, come on..." She rolled Teagan onto her side.

            Teagan stirred slightly, then shuddered and retched. Her eyes flew open, and her hands pressed against the ground in an attempt to brace herself as water and bile poured from her mouth, spattering the grass and dribbling down her chin. Even once her lungs and stomach seemed to be empty, she continued heaving for a good two minutes, choking on nothing but air and her own spasming muscles. When her breath finally steadied, she attempted to push herself up with a pained groan, but quickly collapsed. She groaned even more loudly as her back struck the ground.

            "Fuck," she rasped. "I give up."

            "Thank goodness." Alto sighed in exhaustion and relief. "Aubrey, could you go see if Saki is ready to move, and then bring him and Meirin out here?"

            "Huh?" You must have just been missing something. Your head spun, and you felt wobbly and off-balance. You hadn't thought you'd used that much magic.

            "I don't think it would make sense to try to get all of us back there," Alto explained, "since we're going to have to relocate soon anyway. I'll stay here with Teagan. It seems like there are some things I need to talk to her about."

            Her words thudded flat in your ears. "You... want me... to leave you here... with her?" Your own voice flowed oddly, viscous and heavy like molasses.

            "I'll be fine! I think she's calmed down now, and she couldn't hurt me even if she did want to."

            "But... that doesn't... Alto?"

            "Hm? Are you all right, Aubrey?"

            "No... no, I don't think I..." You looked down at Teagan, who lay with her head turned toward the ocean and away from both of you. "Teagan? Are you all right?"

            Teagan sputtered out something half-way between a grunt and a short, bitter laugh.

            "No, of course you aren't." The tears you'd held back earlier came spilling out without warning. "You just tried to kill yourself. Alto, she just tried to kill herself!"

            "Aubrey." Alto spoke calmly, but with her eyes squeezed shut. "I can't deal with you breaking down too right now. Can I talk to you about this later? Please?" She wasn't all right either, then. None of you were all right.

            You choked down the lump in your throat and began to sing a healing spell over Teagan, kneeling beside her and taking her hand in yours to better focus the flow of your magic into her bruised, chilled flesh. With the feel of her bare skin against your fingertips, you realized distantly that her gauntlets had never been retrieved from the Cantabile mansion.

            "Aubrey, you don't have to do that," Alto told you gently. "She can heal herself. She's the one who did this to herself in the first place."

            She'd done it to herself trying to get away from you — or from Alto, really, but even now, could you honestly claim to be much more than an extension of her? You kept singing until Teagan took hold of you with her other hand as well and pulled herself up into a sitting position.

            "Thanks," she said brusquely.

            "Teagan," Alto admonished her, "Aubrey just saved your life and poured a bunch of extra magic into making you feel better when they were already exhausted. Do you maybe want to try that again and not be sarcastic about it?" Teagan just turned her face away and grunted. "Teagan!"

            "Alto, stop!" you broke in. "I don't want... Not on my behalf. Please. I'm not the only one here who's tired. I'm not... I'm not tired of living!"

            "Aubrey." Alto turned her glare on you. "Do you of all people really not see how manipulative that was?"

            "Me of all..?" Oh. No. "You really think I..?" Not from her. You could take this from anyone else, but not from her, not from her. "It's... Alto, it's not about getting a reaction. Even if there is one... even if you kind of like the idea of it... you're never going to see it. And you know that, so..." She had to understand. If she didn't, you had nothing. If she didn't, you were nothing. "It's about feeling like there's nothing else left."

            "Do you really think you're talking to someone who's never been suicidal?" You could hear no trace of mercy in her voice.

            "Well, no, but... but I'm the one who should know better? Me, 'of all people'? Is that what you really think of me? That everything I do is about... about trapping and hurting the people I love?" She didn't answer. You were almost ready to go over the cliff yourself. Even more than that, you wanted to just lie down and close your eyes and never do or say anything ever again. First, though, there was something you had to say, something that you'd never before allowed yourself to say even in your own head. "I know there have been times when I've gone too far with seeking attention. I know how much damage that can do to other people. But the person I've damaged the most is still me!"

            "Aubrey. Later. Please. I can only handle one crisis at a time."

            "Teagan isn't a crisis you have to handle! All you have to do is let her go!"

            Alto reeled backward from you, raising a hand as though unconsciously preparing to shield herself from a blow she had no reason at all to anticipate. "Don't try to manage my relationships for me! You don't get to control who I can or can't be around!"

            "No..." You hadn't meant that. You hadn't meant it, but you'd still said it, and now you were choking on shame and unable to say anything else. Alto being angry at you was horrible enough, but you didn't know if you could live down her also being afraid.

            You felt a sudden pressure on your hands. "But Aubrey has to be around the people you've chosen as friends, because that's what's healthy for them?" Teagan asked. "But I have to be around you?"

            Alto tossed her head as though she were seconds away from howling at the sky in frustration. "I have never said any of that! Don't put words in my mouth!"

            "I'm more worried about your actions than I am about your words." Teagan kept on squeezing your hands, holding you tightly. Even coming from her, it felt strangely reassuring. You turned to look at her and found her looking right back at you, her eyes full of desperation to understand and be understood.

            "My actions aren't something for you to—" Alto began, but stopped suddenly when you rose to your feet, pulling Teagan with you. You led her away from the cliff and back to where you'd dumped her bag, which she let go of your hands to pick up and shoulder. "Aubrey, what are you doing?" You couldn't stop to talk. You couldn't even stop to think. If you did, you would lose your nerve. You set Luthier hovering and climbed up onto it, then nodded for Teagan to climb up behind you. Just as she did, Alto rushed forward and grabbed ahold of your sleeve. "Wait! You can't just—! What are you—? Why are you—?"

            "Please just pause for a moment and look at what you're doing," you managed to say a little above the volume of your own breath. "Just... what would you think of this if it were anyone else but you?" It took a few seconds, but then Alto's eyes widened, and she released you and backed away. "I... will probably be back, so please don't—" You were on the verge of telling her not to worry, but you knew that wouldn't be fair. "Alto, I do still— I don't know. I'm sorry." Before you could make any more of a stammering fool of yourself, you took off into the air, keeping your eyes fixed on the skyline to avoid glancing down and seeing the one person who mattered more than any other fade into a faceless, vaguely human shape.

            Teagan did not hold onto you as you flew — which was good, because you suspected that if she did it would scramble your brains even more. Instead, she wrapped her fingers around the handle of the scythe itself. At one point early on in the flight, she attempted to start a conversation, but too many of her words wound up carried away on the wind for it to go anywhere. She only spoke again when you came within view of a town and started to descend: "No. Not that one. The next city to the southwest." A little uncertainly, you adjusted your course and soared on. When Teagan's intended destination at last appeared on the horizon, she suggested you land in the wilderness outside city limits and take the last leg of the journey on foot to avoid drawing attention. It sounded like a good idea to you, so you complied. By the time you reached town, the sun was about to set, and Teagan's clothes were almost entirely dry.

            Teagan headed straight for the inn. She didn't explicitly invite you along, but she didn't seem unhappy about you following her, either. You couldn't think of how else you were going to get any sleep that night, and you desperately needed sleep, needed the chance to close your eyes and close yourself off from all the dread and emptiness that seemed to hang in the air of the world around you. The room she paid for was smaller than any of the rooms you'd stayed at in Harmonia — maybe because more people tended to pass through mainland cities, or maybe because the inns here did not have to compete with free shelters. The bed was just big enough that two people could theoretically sleep in it without touching, as long as they didn't toss and turn too much throughout the night, but Teagan let you have it all to yourself, opting instead to sleep in her bedroll on the floor.

            "Why this city?" you asked as you lay in the dark.

            "What do you mean?" Teagan's voice answered.

            "You wanted to go here in particular, and I thought maybe that was because you knew someone who lived here. But we're staying at an inn, so..."

            For a moment, there was no response but the rustle of shifting fabric. Then: "I can trust you, right? You won't tell Alto? You won't tell anyone who might let it get back to her or her family?"

            That was a dangerous promise for you to make — but none of the decisions you'd been making lately felt particularly safe. "I won't."

            "There's a science academy. I've been reading up on the work of certain researchers here on reforestation as a method of manipulating magic reservoirs. Natural objects are connected to the flow of the world's magic, so physically altering natural landscapes should be able to alter that flow in good ways as well as bad ones. Or that's the theory, anyway. Even if it works, it wouldn't be anything as dramatic as the World Tuning. You wouldn't be able to just let everything deteriorate until it's about to fall apart completely and then fix it at the last second. Keeping the world in balance this way would take constant monitoring and maintenance."

            "So, you're going to..?"

            "Offer up everything I know. Not many living people have gotten as close a glimpse as we have at the magical guts and gears underlying the universe. Or if picking my brain is of limited use to them, maybe they could use a bodyguard or particularly tough research assistant for making field observations and collecting specimens in more dangerous parts of the world. Because as much as I hate to give the Cantabiles any kind of credit at all, they really were the only thing holding the world together for the past couple of millennia. It's not enough to just point out that their system is sick and needs to be taken down. Someone has to get working on a viable alternative."

            "Oh. That might take some of the heat off of Alto, too..." Teagan grunted noncommittally. "Even now, you really want to help her, don't you?"

            "As long as I don't have to be anywhere near her to do it? Sure. She deserves help as much as anyone. And I... Well, you know the story. I was a stupid kid who picked the wrong battle and made her awful life even worse. But I'm older and stronger now. I think I can do a little better, both at picking my battles and at fighting them. I probably owe her that much."

            "Do you think I owe her anything?"

            The silence that followed lasted long enough that you started to wonder whether Teagan had decided to just shut you out and go to sleep. When she finally spoke, her voice sounded muffled as though by clenched teeth. "I don't know anything about that. But you're strong enough to make your own decisions. That's my honest opinion, after today."

            What a strange thing to hear said about you — by anyone, really, but particularly by Teagan. "Thank you," you said, because you doubted you could come up with an appropriate response any longer or more complicated than that.

            "I haven't done anything you should be thanking me for. Now get some sleep." That was the most welcome advice possible at the moment. A few minutes later, you had already begun to drift off when you heard her add softly, "And... thank you."

Chapter Text

            You woke up before the sun, feeling well-rested but tempted by the lack of light to return to sleep anyway. Then you remembered where you were. Then you remembered where Alto was — or, rather, where she wasn't: anywhere nearby.

            In your haste to get out of bed, you accidentally stepped on Teagan. "Sorry!" you squeaked.

            "Aubrey?" Teagan yawned and stretched as she sat up on her bedroll, and the yawn quickly became a groan. She must still have been sore from the day before. "Are you really going back to her already?"

            "Um... yes."

            "Well, good luck." You could guess from her tone that she was just barely restraining herself from adding, You'll need it. "If you change your mind later, and for some reason can't think of anywhere better to turn to, come find me, all right? I owe you one."

            "Thank you." You picked up Luthier and made it almost to the door before succumbing to the urge to add, "Sometimes I almost envy you. Just because of the way you naturally are, you don't need anyone else."

            Teagan snorted. "Is that what you think it's like being ace?"

            "Um, not necessarily, but... It does seem to be what it's like for you. Am I wrong?"

            Teagan's voice was unusually soft and contemplative as she answered, "I really would like to have a real friend someday." You didn't know how to respond to that. A moment later, she broke the silence by adding, "Well, hell. If that isn't the most disgustingly self-pitying thing anyone's ever said, I don't know what is."

            "Uh, probably something I've said at some point," you reassured her. "I'm sorry. Both for asking you something so thoughtless, and for never managing to really be your friend."

            "Let me rephrase that: someday, I'd like to be someone's best friend for real. You've been about as kind to me as I could reasonably ask of you, so don't worry about it too much."

            "You've been kind to me too, though! Bringing me books... Rescuing Luthier... I don't think you're a bad person. The whole thing with Alto was..." The whole thing with Alto was still inexcusable, especially after what Teagan had told you yesterday. Even so, you couldn't shake the wistful feeling that she was the sort of person you might have liked to be friends with, if only you'd met under better circumstances. "Well. It was a thing."

            "It sure was." Teagan grinned wide enough for you to make out the white of her teeth even in the dimness of twilight. "Huh. I never knew it was possible to feel so good just about using past tense."

            Maybe it was a little inappropriate, but you couldn't help smiling back. "I guess this is it, then. Take care of yourself, Teagan."

            "You too, Aubrey."

            With that, there was nothing left to say. You walked out of the door, and most likely out of her life.

 

            The stars were already beginning to fade by the time you entered the sky, but your namesake was one of the brightest. Your eyes traced the curve of Ursa Major's tail until they caught sight of its familiar blue-white glimmer. Virgo hadn't changed at all in two-thousand years. Even the spike of grain she carried showed no sign of wilting. If that Spica could be so steadfast in the face of all the birth and death and love and loss it had witnessed in the course of its unimaginably long life, maybe you ought to try and muster up at least a little more personal resilience.

            You had never understood why you couldn't just be Aubrey Bonheur. It felt almost cruel of Father to have held you all at arm's length by naming you according to a theme, like a litter of stray kittens, instead of formally acknowledging you as his own family. With the way things had turned out, though, you were a little bit glad to have a name all your own. Even if Father had given it to you, just like he'd given you your knowledge of the stars and the power to fly this close to them, gifts rightfully belonged to the person they were given to and not to the person who gave them.

            The sun rose on your right, lighting up the morning's few soft wisps of cloud in enticing sugar-pink and gentle, muted purple. The dark, sober navy of the sky lifted like a curtain to reveal a friendlier eggshell blue. The piercing chill of the night dulled to a pleasant briskness. You were alone with all the glory of the heavens, hundreds of feet above everything and everyone else — and, just for the moment, you could maybe see the beauty in that.

 

            You spotted Alto camped out in a small clearing amid a thicket of bushes at the top of a hill. If you hadn't been looking down from above, you never would have found her there. As you landed beside her, she glared up at you with eyes ringed in puffy red.

            "Um. Hi," you said, mentally kicking yourself for having been too wrapped up in watching sunrises to prepare for this conversation. You thought about how Alto sometimes spoke enviously of how much of a gift with words all of the people around her seemed to have, and then only half-jokingly worried aloud that it put her at a disadvantage. You wondered whether she just never noticed when the rest of you were struggling.

            "Hi," Alto answered, still glowering.

            "Um..." As you floundered about helplessly for something to say, it gradually occurred to you that Alto was sitting on her bedroll, and both of your travel bags were piled next to her. "Oh. You went back already? Is Saki feeling any better?"

            Wordlessly, Alto pulled a thin, folded up sheaf of papers out of her pocket and handed it over to you. Unfolding them, you recognized Meirin's handwriting on one of the pages and Saki's on the others. Since Meirin's letter was significantly shorter, you decided to read it first:

Dear Alto and Aubrey,

I really am sorry to leave you like this, but I honestly feel that it's the best thing I can do at this point. I've realized that as much as I've been trying to put off dealing with my family, my issues with them are much less complicated than your issues with yours. And at least one of the two of us has to win our personal battle quickly, or Saki won't have any hope at all of winning his.

I know that you'll want to follow us, but I'm going to ask that you please, please don't. By the time you get this letter, I hope that we'll already be on a ship back to my home. I've sent a message ahead to my family, and if all goes well, Saki will be starting treatment almost immediately when we arrive there. He can't deal anymore with the stress and unpredictability of the way we've been living up until now. It could seriously kill him.

If Teagan is with you, I'd like for her to know that I wish her the best, but I don't want to see her again. Since it's Teagan, I don't think I have to sugarcoat that for her to understand.

Please take care of yourselves and each other.

Your friend even now,

Meirin

            When you'd finished, you wasted a moment staring blankly at your name at the top of the page, then reread the letter searching for any trace of a message that felt specific to you. Meirin had mentioned Alto's family, Alto's personal battle, Alto's likely reaction to finding her gone. Was there anything of your own that she even could have mentioned? Had you ever once had a conversation with her that wasn't mostly about Alto?

            Saki's letter was longer and less blunt, but also obviously directed mainly at Alto. He apologized repeatedly and profusely for selfishly pulling Meirin away and being so weak as to need her at my side for this upcoming ordeal, but between the argument Meirin had gotten into with Alto yesterday and the contents of her letter, you had the sneaking suspicion that this whole thing was largely her decision, and that Saki was piling it on thick to cover for her.

            "Alto," you said warily, "you're not planning on ignoring their wishes and going after them, right?"

            "I'm not planning anything," Alto replied. "I didn't know what to do about that, so I decided to find you first and take it from there. Things usually work out in the end when I just take them one step at a time."

            "So... what's the next step?"

            "I don't know. Teagan would probably be the next easiest person to get to at this point, but..."

            "I'm not helping you catch her," you said, surprising yourself with your sudden boldness. "If you try to chase her down, you'll end up having to chase me again, too."

            "I don't even know that I want to anymore, if Saki and Meirin are really gone," said Alto. "I'm not sure that I want her back if she isn't... hm."

            "Happy?" you suggested. Alto laughed curtly and shook her head. "Willing, at least?"

            "That's not it," said Alto. "Actually, the word I'm looking for is something closer to 'outnumbered'. I was just trying to think of a way to say it that sounded less... bad."

            "I don't think there is one," you said.

            "Maybe not. But that's honestly what I need to feel safe around her."

            "Teagan doesn't feel safe when she is outnumbered," you admonished her as gently as you could. "I think that's part of what she meant about your needs being incompatible."

            Alto snorted. "Like she has any reason to not feel safe." Then she sighed and hugged her legs to her chest, curling in on herself like a pillbug. "But I guess the reason doesn't matter that much, in the end."

            Maybe she was never going to be able to see this disaster of a friendship from Teagan's point of view. On the one hand, given everything Teagan had put her through, you couldn't really blame her for that. On the other hand, if Teagan had the moral courage to face her own darkness head-on and denounce it, it didn't seem entirely fair that Alto refused to do the same. Fair or not, though, as long as the two of them stayed separated, things would probably be mostly all right.

            "I think a part of me really believed that I could make it last forever," Alto murmured into her knees.

            "Make what last forever?"

            "You know. Winter."

            Or maybe nothing was going to be all right at all. "Um..! That's a little..!"

            "I mean our winter," Alto clarified, "with all of us together in Bel Canto. It was the first time in my life that I'd ever been happy. That's what I did the World Tuning for, you know: you and Saki and Meirin, the people I care about. Nothing else. After all of the horror I've seen and been through, I can't fully bring myself to believe that there is anything else of value in this world."

            "I guess the lesson here is that having a support system of more than literally just one person isn't exactly a cure-all."

            "I don't really care about learning lessons right now, Aubrey."

            "Well, I do. For myself, I mean." You flopped down onto your knees next to her, putting yourself on her level. "I have a confession to make. Back in my Uncommon Time, you had a lot of good and smart things to say about why I needed to try to work through my dependence issues, but only one of them really got through to me. I didn't want to hurt or inconvenience you or chase you away, but instead of making an honest attempt to heal the feelings underlying my behavior, I just focused on not behaving in ways that would be a burden to you. I felt like I could get away with continuing to be emotionally dependent as long as I wasn't harming anyone but myself. Because I don't matter."

            "Oh," said Alto.

            "And it was really stupid of me," you continued, "because my problem has never been taking too much from others and giving nothing back. It's always been giving too much of myself to one person, until I fall apart and damage everything around me."

            "You do matter, though. To me, you matter a lot. If you need to hear that from me occasionally, I guess that isn't too much to ask." Slowly, cautiously, Alto lifted a hand from where it rested on her knee and laid it on your knee instead. "But is it really going to be all right for you to stay with me after this?"

            "Why? Do you not feel safe with me unless I'm outnumbered, either?" You did your best to not be audibly upset by that possibility. If Alto did feel that way, it was only because she couldn't help it.

            "Not exactly. It's more like... is it really safe for either of us, if we're the only ones?"

            "Alto, making friends with your social group was never going to help me," you pointed out. "If anything, it just bound me to you even more. You were the leader, and if there had ever been some sort of serious conflict between us, Saki and Meirin would have fallen in line behind you. Teagan probably would have too, if only out of feeling like she owed it to you. Going against you could have meant losing not just my one most important person, but everyone I even sort of knew and cared about. And that... well."

            "Yeah," said Alto. "That's not really something you have to explain to me right now." She screwed her eyes shut, and her fingers curled against your thigh, rumpling your skirt. "I really wanted to keep us all together, if only for a little bit longer. Arietta said it would be fine if I just broke the cycle by getting myself out. Even Teagan said that would probably be enough. But I thought that if I could give us another common cause, it wouldn't have to be the end."

            It hadn't been a common cause, though. Even if on some level Saki had been hoping to get paid, and Teagan had been hoping to get revenge, and Meirin had been hoping to put off dealing with her own family, all of you had mostly been in it to help Alto.

            "Um," you began, "about breaking the cycle. I think that means more than just... well."

            You were a little afraid to say it. You were a little afraid of Alto. Once upon a time, you had fallen in love with her for the kindness she'd shown you and proceeded to willfully ignore every hint of her capacity for cruelty. Once upon a time, an apparition of the Herald of Winter had frightened your ensemble, and when Alto had reassured you all that she's still just me, it hadn't even occurred to you that those words held at least as much threat as comfort. Once upon a time, you would have believed without question or reservation that anyone she chose to hurt must have had it coming. You would have believed it even if she'd chosen to hurt you.

            Your feelings didn't seem quite so invincible anymore — but they weren't dead just yet.

            "Part of it is," you tried again, "being able to let go of things, being able to let go of people... I think that's a necessary skill for both of us to learn. It's like Meirin said. I don't want to end up putting anyone in a cage, or... or a bedroom with bars on the window. And I don't want to watch you do that, either."

            "You're probably picturing it a little wrong," Alto said. "It was stained glass. It was beautiful." She opened her eyes and shuddered. "I don't want that. Of course I don't want that."

            "Then let's try to be a little better." You laid your hand over hers. "There are some things that can't be fixed, but... I'm not ready yet to say that this is one of them."

            You felt your heart racing as though your whole future hung on this moment, but that feeling didn't make it true. You wouldn't die if she said no. If she said yes and then stopped listening to you later, you wouldn't die or even be trapped. You could fly now. You could fly away in the middle of the night and follow the stars anywhere in the world, then hover above the tallest trees or buildings and watch the sun rise just for you.

            If you were being perfectly honest with yourself, you didn't even know anymore which outcome you were hoping for.

            Alto turned her hand over and laced her fingers with yours. "All right," she said. "I'll try."

            Maybe it was a start.