Bedtime Stories

by H. Kiyosumi
illustrated by baby_pen

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/12088.html)

A

In the land of A. was an Elven lord whose wife delivered a child during the third hour of the winter solstice, and in accordance with the stars they named this child Anotsu —

Well, it’s not my fault you didn’t want to hear about a proud and dashing cult leader in Edo Japan, is it?

They named him Anotsu, which in the language of the elves meant ‘He Who Delights The Heavens’, though in the language of the dwarves it meant ‘He Who Worships Chicken Wings’. Thwarting their expectations as children do, he grew into a reserved, sulky boy who preferred reading to singing, shooting at furry animals to dancing — but perhaps this was for the best, after all, for by the time he came of age, he was a nimble runner and an accomplished archer to do the Elven society proud.

Anotsu spoke little but thought big, and after breezing through his rite of passage and assuming the position of an Elven Scout, he left his bewildered parents to strike off on his own and take over the world.

You see, little brother, the kid sitting peacefully in the corner may not say much or do much, but you never know what he’s thinking, and that’s the most dangerous quality of all.

So Anotsu left to seek fortune and glory with nothing but the armor on his back, a regulation bow and dagger, a few gold coins in his pocket — he was, after all, the son of a lord — and a head of perfect, shiny blond hair.

To his dismay, he found the land of A. harsh on novices and overflowing with ambitious youths of all species, its gods with little reason to smile down on Anotsu, who wasn’t even the seventh son of a seventh son, nor fleeing from a cruel, unfeeling master.

He wasn’t given a vision that led him to pots of gold, or a magic sword that sliced through steel like water, or a king’s summons to save the kingdom from a vicious dragon.

Instead, like all the other young men and elves and dwarves and orcs that populated the land, he found himself hacking at the toenails of evil, picking off skeletons and the occasional bugbear to hone his skills, waiting for a glimmer of his big break.

This was how he met Mau.

Mau

Mau was human, and short, and often seemed to be a few arrows short of a quiver. Anotsu met him at the entrance to the undead ruins, gazing thoughtfully into a puddle of water as if it held the salacious cave-paintings of the Turek orcs.

When Anotsu caught sight of Mau, he had just led a train of skeletons out the gate, bleeding and exhausted, carrying a bag of bones that could be exchanged later for money only if he made it alive to the city, so the details — thin, sharp chin, bony wrists — skimmed through his mind and were lost. All that retained his notice were the flash of brown clerics’ robes and the growing forest of calcium at his back.

“Some help?” he managed after a bit, striking a hollow-eyed skull to the ground only to be sandwiched immediately between four others.

The human gave a start.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you were doing so well,” he said, sounding surprised.

Anotsu immediately classified him as another of the bloody-minded opportunists overrunning A. (the dwarf who had stabbed him in the shoulderblades and stolen his bones, the archer who’d stunned him before stripping him of both money and gear), but as he dropped his bow, useless at close range, a flow of mana washed over him like the sea wave, spreading through his limbs, and he felt his strength return.

“Would you mind if I took a few?” the human added wistfully.

Anotsu sliced through a spine with his dagger and hissed with the effort of staying alive. “As many as you please.”

From the human’s position came a flash of light to lure away three of the shambling undead, leaving three less for Anotsu to dispatch. He took advantage of the proceeding lull to catch his breath while watching the human freeze the skeletons, run a distance, hit them with wind as they defrosted, and then follow it up with another ice spell.

It was an effective process but laborious, affirming more eloquently than words that this human cleric was as new to the adventuring profession as he was himself.

“What are you called, human?” he asked after the healer trotted back to the gates with scattered bones in tow.

“Mau,” said Mau, breathing heavily. Roses bloomed in his cheeks from the exertion.

Anotsu fingered his bow. “Would you like to travel with me?”

He watched as Mau mulled this over with a grave expression, brows contracting. They were the strange dark-reddish color that only humans and dwarves could achieve, and Anotsu found them exotic, if unsettling.

“Would you cook dinner tonight?” was his eventual response, and Anotsu refrained from blinking only because he was Anotsu, and blinking was not for future conquerers of the world.

“Yes,” he said. He was no gourmet chef, but he could roast a good bearsteak and his mushroom soup was a thing of beauty, if he did say so himself. He had never had a companion to tell him otherwise.

“Then yes,” said Mau.

Three

In the months after that meeting, they begun gradually to adjust to each others’ eccentrities — or, as Anotsu would tell it, he adjusted to Mau’s eccentrities, while Mau began to learn common sense.

Mau was a talented young cleric, though somewhat absentminded, and Anotsu was a talented young archer, though somewhat imperious, and soon they could comb the undead ruins as if on a morning stroll through the Elven gardens — and indeed, from Mau’s attitude, it would be difficult to suppose them otherwise occupied.

Anotsu had determined it was time to move their base of operation elsewhere, and so passed his daylight hours wandering the city and neighboring hamlets in search of well-paying commissions.

In the meantime, Mau remained at the inn and entertained himself. Sometimes Anotsu returned to find him in the exact same position in which Anotsu had left him, curled up on one of their room’s narrow platform beds. Sometimes he would return to an empty room, resigning himself to ignorance when Mau walked through the door the following morning, yawning, saying nothing more of his whereabouts than ‘somewhere not here’, attaching no importance to the knowledge and likely forgetting it himself. That was Mau, and there was nothing to be done for it.

He had more than enough on his plate to distract him. As the range of his travels widened, he came across creatures of all races and nationalities, and by learning more of them than had been taught in his tree-bower classroom found it necessary to adjust his own views accordingly.

The dwarves from the North were solid and practical, humorous with friends, suspicious with strangers, close-fisted with both from cradle to cane. In the town of Gl. he haggled for an entire day with a girl whose chin reached his waist and twisted hair cones reached his chin over the price of a Gastraphetes bow, walking away with the uncomfortable suspicion that he’d been swindled.

In comparison, Mau’s kindred lived with a surprising joie de vivre despite their inauspicious beginnings, and this he considered with surprised approval before learning that they had re-written their own history to become the blessed of the gods rather than the forsaken. (No wonder, he thought afterwards, that the other races were wary of them, as truth flowed through their fingers like water, nor that they had conquered the greater part of A.)

Their ancient orcish enemies watched the world from under wrathful, beetling brows, but were too civilized to resort to brawling in the streets as the stories claimed they would. No human or elven town would house them, but they formed their congregating waterholes all the same, where they could be found huddling together in twos and threes of muted green.

As for those lower than the lowest orc, offspring of the race that had turned from their Goddess and chosen the deity of chaos —

Though consorting with Dark Elves was frowned upon at best, punished viciously at worst, it was impossible not to stumble across them while traveling. Their intemperate sexual practices ensured a steadily growing population (so elven elders intoned to fresh-faced students) and they were easy to pick out in a crowd, with their dark skin and monochrome hair and eyes glittering like black jewels, haughty and aloof while they strode about the cities as if the hand of every man were against them, and theirs against every man.

Anotsu gave them wide berth and was pleased to have the favor returned, until the day he came back to his room and found his bed occupied a dirty, scruffy, bleeding specimen of his dark cousins.

Mau appeared unconcerned, flipping through a page of The Travels of J. Farwalker, scrunched up on the windowseat with his chin on his knee. “Mmm,” he said by way of greeting.

The dusky form under Anotsu’s covers didn’t stir.

Anotsu drew his dagger from its sheath and walked over. The sheets and quilt would have to be burnt — possibly the mattress as well — with slight hope of reimbursement from the dwarven proprietors of the inn for new ones, and it was all very irritating.

“Why — ” he said, “why,” and waved his hand meaningfully.

Mau looked up at him, and blinked. “Oh, well, I was tired when I got back, so I slept a bit, too, and there was nowhere else to put him.”

“You could have put him on the street.”

“But he helped me, and gave me a chicken drumstick, and it wouldn’t be very polite to make him leave after that, would it?”

Staring into Mau’s long-lashed come-hither eyes, Anotsu read indifference, incomprehension, and the desire to return to Farwalker’s exploits. He re-sheathed his dagger. “Tell me what happened.”

It seemed that on his usual afternoon stroll Mau had come across some humans who wanted to show him their recipes, and when he assured them that he wasn’t particularly interested in recipes at the moment and really just wanted to nap a bit, they’d cut up rough and one of them had grabbed Mau’s arm.

There was a mark there already beginning to purple, tightening Anotsu’s mouth.

That was when the dark elf (“He didn’t mention his name,” said Mau, which Anotsu interpreted as I’ve forgotten it already) stepped in to beat up the humans, except he’d been beaten up a little in the process, too, and after a while he had grabbed Mau’s hand and fled.

Afterwards, as Mau healed his wounds, he’d taken a meal out of his pack and shared half of it with Mau, and when Mau said, I’m tired and going back to sleep, the dark elf had said, Me too, and that was how they’d ended up in the inn staining Anotsu’s sheets with impure blood.

“And what are we supposed to do with him now?” said Anotsu, to which Mau shrugged with beautiful unconcern, flipping a page, and it was at this point in both Mau’s story and mine that the stranger yawned and opened his eyes.

He was not an ill-looking specimen of elfkind, and as he sat up, propping his palms on Anotsu’s mattress, there was a languorous quality to his movements unknown to the room since Mau and Anotsu had moved in.

“Mau,” he said first, happily, one syllable to confirm that Mau’s indifference was not reciprocated. Mau smiled at him for a second before returning to his book. Nothing to do with me anymore, said his posture.

The stranger’s ears acquired a crestfallen tilt as he moved his gaze around the room, and Anotsu was recalled of the long-tailed pets humans kept, who never seemed to be able to tear themselves away from Mau’s ankles. The comparison seemed a profoundly improper one to force on a member of the traitor race but refused to be dismissed.

Then the stranger’s gaze reached him, and settled.

His eyes didn’t immediately narrow, as Anotsu had expected, or begin to glare; instead, they turned wary, the resemblance to the wolf-imitations shifting for an instance into true lupine similitude before they brightened again, like a dusty surface wiped clean with cloth. “You’re Mau’s friend?” he said, and then, without waiting for Anotsu to answer, he added, “You’re quite pretty, too.”

That was Ryuuku.

No

“No,” said Anotsu, facing the two of them across the room. He had been born with naturally slanting brows that could give the impression of displeasure without additional effort on his part, yet was making an effort now for truly alarming results.

“Why not?” A promise of more chicken in his pack had been sufficient to bribe Mau across the line to Ryuuku’s side, and he met Anotsu’s glare with the serene innocence of a sheepdog masquerading as a sheep to lure the wolves within throat-tearing distance. “It would mean less work, and less work would be nice.”

Ryuuku had no place to sleep, he’d said, so Anotsu had replied, “I’m sorry to hear that,” and indeed he was sorry, for if Ryuuku had had a place to sleep, Anotsu would have had a place to kick him towards.

As it was, Ryuuku had spent his time acquainting Mau with all the wonderful obscure eateries of the town, how to sneak out from back alley exits slightly more heavily-laden than when you’d entered, and Mau had fixed Anotsu with the look that said, Can we keep him, please please?

“I’m an enthusiastic worker,” Ryuuku nodded, also an enthusiastic nodder.

Anotsu snorted. “Is that why you can’t afford a roof under which to spend the night?”

“I can afford plenty of roofs.” Ryuuku’s mouth slanted to the side. “I can afford a roof as big as the sky, even.”

“I suppose that would be the sky?”

“It’s priceless,” said Ryuuku.

“Isn’t it?” said Mau.

“No,” said Anotsu.

On and on through the day the stalemate continued, until the sun dipped down and the crescent moon arose and the sound of dinner rowdiness filtered through from the common room below, and still the issue remained unresolved until Mau decided that the negotiations were taking too long, and that hunger had made him cross.

He yawned and crossed his legs on the bed, and then he opened his eyes very wide.

“Anotsu,” he said — he rarely spoke a name out loud — “It would mean less blood. He doesn’t bleed as much as you do, and he can spare most of it, anyway.”

“Blood is a gift from our Water Goddess E., and should never be avoided,” responded Anotsu with unblinking hypocrisy.

“It would mean less running. You could stay still, and I could stay still, and we could watch him run. He’s quite good at it.”

“I’ve heard it said that a bit of exercise is quite good for the digestion.”

“It would mean someone to take down the golems you can barely scratch, and the spiders you can’t outrun.”

“Funny thing, I was thinking of starting on treants just this morning — ”

“It would mean,” Mau drew this out with the air of one playing his last card, which is the ace of spades, “cleaner clothes.”

Anotsu paused.

You see, one may be cold and ambitious and idealistic and ruthless in the pursuit of one’s goals, but sometimes the desire to be free of stink and sweat can stagger the strongest of men.

“On a trial basis,” he said finally, tapping a finger against the hilt of his blade. “And from now on you can send him to do all your errands.”

And that is how you resolve a deadlock.

Sweet

Even in those first days Anotsu couldn’t deny that Ryuuku made a congenial companion. He was amiable and eager to help, strong and quick, and if he was also occasionally a little bit lazy, a little bit careless, well, that was small price to pay for a willing meatshield or a comrade who could tease Mau into laughter, sweet surprised hiccups in gravity.

Anotsu was accounted good with words but unsuccessful at mirth, and around the campfire at evening he used to hone his dagger and polish his bow and categorize his inventory while Mau stared off into the stars with a dreamy far-away look, occasionally attended by the rumbling of his stomach — very peaceful, uneventful gatherings.

Now he still honed his dagger and polished his bow and categorized his inventory, but it was accompanied by the soundtrack of Ryuuku’s “Why, Mau, why?”, Mau murmuring something dismissive, Ryuuku’s speech growing quicker and more plaintive until finally he plopped out something outrageous enough to earn approval from Mau, upon which he’d retire, satisfied, for about five minutes. Then the next round. He would wrap himself around Mau, a big, warm, shadowy blanket, and Mau would toss him off, usually, except when sleepy enough to allow it, huddling together like two kittens and it was so cute, when Anotsu had never been a supporter of cute.

Mau was his healer. Anotsu was a supporter of that.

Yet it made sense when it was Ryuuku who got up close and personal with the beasts of A. while Anotsu let fly his arrows from safe vantages that it was Ryuuku Mau concentrated his attention on, Ryuuku on whose Mau’s gaze was fixed when it was fixed on anything solid and inedible.

Ryuuku took to bringing Mau delicacies he swiped in his ambling walks, making Mau’s cheeks flush pink with excitement and his hazel eyes shine. Anotsu made them return a slab of salted pork after the shopkeeper it belonged to found his way to their doorstep waving a skillet, earning himself three days of Mau’s cold shoulder.

“He would have called the guards,” he snapped, barring the door after a trail of diminishing invective.

Mau eyed him coolly. “We could have eaten the evidence.”

So when the news came of a caravan of treats headed east along the Deathpass at such and such a time, it is not to be wondered at that he dispatched Mau and Ryuuku with vague excuses, or that he set off alone with bow and quiver and determination to prepare an ambush.

The sun hung high that day while the clouds tucked themselves out of sight, and Anotsu enjoyed the afternoon: the thrill of the fight and the victory, the anticipation of Mau’s expression when he came home laden with good things, and Ryuuku’s face of disappointment, where his lower lip would push out and decrease his age by two decades. He would have hummed to himself as he trotted back, if he were the type of elf who hummed.

In the common room of the inn he exchanged greetings with the innkeeper’s wife and nods with the other occupants before ascending the steps. Mau and Ryuuku might not be in, but so much the better, he thought, if he could arrange his surprise to more striking effect.

It was equally likely that they were in but in bed, keeping Anotsu quiet as he unlocked the oaken door and pushed it open. The hinges, oiled daily by Ryuuku at his command, refrained from whispering, and his soft lionskin boots made even less sound on the wooden planks of the floor under his careful ranger’s tread.

He didn’t make any sound at all when he stopped.

They were in and in bed, and not asleep. Neither seemed to notice his entrance, their eyes turned away, but movement and noise could tell their own tales, and at the moment they babbled with a vengeance.

Ryuuku had a passion for apples; he would eat them one by one with head tilted back, sighing, a blissed-out expression of satiation uniting his features, as if there was very little the world could do to improve on itself. Can I have another one? he’d blink at Anotsu piteously, and if Anotsu refused his ears would droop, and if Anotsu relented he would smile like the flickering colorburst of a rainbow after rain.

He sounded now as if he were eating an apple, though Anotsu didn’t allow food on the bed, and knew Ryuuku held to that rule.

But Ryuuku liked Mau as much as he liked apples, and in his bed he’d peeled Mau like an apple, touching his lips to Mau’s skin again and again; Mau’s robes made a flower on the floor, his arms twining around Ryuuku’s neck as white as an apple’s flesh untouched by oxygen.

Leave, muttered the elven propriety born and bred into Anotsu’s bones; quickly, quietly, now.

Yet he had wondered at times — idly, and never with impure thought — at what Mau might look like underneath those billowing robes, the chin-high collar, extracted from his shell of detachment, and now the answer lay spread out before him.

It was pure scientific curiousity towards a member of an alien race (Ryuuku’s race was just as alien, though with him there was never any need to wonder; the trouble was to get him dressed again), just as it was pure scientific curiousity that kept him rooted in the doorway, watching Mau’s body bending pliantly like a dog-tail reed, like Mau himself, soft and giving and impossible to coerce, watching Ryuuku’s hands make spider-legs on his skin, and the fall of Ryuuku’s hair, damp with sweat.

In the past he’d assumed that Mau’s expression on viewing a ten-course meal was the face Mau showed to his lovers, but actual Mau in the clutches of physical desire looked as if he were in pain, straining for air with knotted brows and open cherry mouth, and Anotsu would have lifted his bow if it weren’t for the way Mau’s fingers scrabbled to draw Ryuuku closer, to and not from.

Ryuuku had his fingers around Mau’s thighs, he was spreading them open, bending Mau almost double as he pressed himself forward, and it couldn’t be comfortable, from the way Mau shivered and twisted it couldn’t be, wasn’t, but still he wasn’t pulling away, and Anotsu was familiar with the extent of Ryuuku’s strength, could recognize the application of it, and he knew that this was Ryuuku at his most considerate, as far from intent to harm as possible.

And then Ryuuku lifted his head.

Anotsu fled. He tossed his bounty to the innkeeper’s wife (“You know this won’t come out of your rent,” she shouted after him) to spend the rest of the day pummelling zombies, full of wrath at the gods who had passed over him to grant their favor and fortunes on others less worthy.

When he returned the moon was already giving way to dawn, Mau and Ryuuku back in their respective beds, and their faces were composed and serene as they dreamed, like children who had not yet learnt to be afraid of the dark.

Mm? Did you have something to say?

Let me get some water, then, and we’ll continue.

Water

The event lay there in the following days like a stone at the bottom of a lake, unseen but present if only to the flounder it had landed on.

It was possible that Ryuuku had been too blinded by lust to notice him; it was probable that Mau had been too blinded by being Mau to notice anything other than — well.

In any event neither spoke of a change in relationship, and if Mau noted anything off in Anotsu’s late grumpiness, he made no indication of it.

Ryuuku noticed, if only for the sudden dearth of apples, and he took to peeking at Anotsu with the watchful, puzzled eyes of a horse whipped for obeying its commands to perfection, which only served to fuel Anotsu’s bad mood.

It wasn’t as if he were the one engaging in lewd acts of debauchery in his free time.

Four months to the day after Ryuuku’s adoption, Mau pleaded drowsiness to opt out of a raid on the lizardmen, sending Anotsu and Ryuuku off towards the Forest of M. on their own with a handpacked hamper of juice (squeezed by Ryuuku) and sandwiches (pressed onto Anotsu by an inn patron accusing him of ‘getting bony’).

After the afternoon sweep had been completed and they had eaten underneath the shade of an ancient elm, scattering crumbs for the birds that flocked around them to scold them for their intrusion, Anotsu stood and continued on the upslope pathway to the east. At first Ryuuku followed cheerily, whistling imitation birdcalls with his blades swinging at a jaunty rhythm, but eventually even he seemed to notice something amiss.

“You’re not supposed to go that way,” he said as the murmur of the falls in the distance grew more distinct, “we’re not well-equipped enough for this district, you said, and Mau’s not even here,” but Anotsu ignored him and continued on.

“You can return now, if you please. I just need to extract an item from the Tiger King.”

“But — ”

Leave, Ryuuku,” Anotsu said, using that certain inflection and tilt of head that could halt jackal warriors in their tracks, and Ryuuku didn’t respond after that, though he clung to Anotsu’s heels with silent obstinacy.

They reached the A. waterfall well before sunset, its crags jutting from a graceful foaming veil like the horns of a rhinoceros herd on stampede, and as he looked back he saw Ryuuku squint with eyelashes trembling under the weight of bright liquid beads. Ryuuku opened his mouth to speak, reaching out a hand, but Anotsu turned away before a word could pass and stepped over the edge of the cliff’s outhanging lip, twisting in the air so that his hands made his body an arrow shooting into the depths below.

The roar of water drowned out all sound. When the surface came it hit like the swipe of a wyvern’s claws, knocking the breath from him even as the charm his teachers had given him activated underwater and his lungs began processing liquid as air.

The way to the Tiger King’s lair was sketched out in his mind, underwater passages and turns marked down, and as he opened his eyes to the rippling marine landscape the map in his head superimposed itself on the image so that the two blurred into one. There was a submerged tunnel to the left, leading to the grotto where the Tiger King held his ghastly audience.

Before he’d crossed half the distance, his vision exploded in foam as another object came hurtling down from above. By the black on black on black and by partner-sense he recognized Ryuuku being a fool — not just a fool, but a disobedient one, and one who’d catch a talking-to when they were back on land, he thought with acidity.

He waited for Ryuuku to catch his bearings before swinging him around by the shoulders so that they were face to face, not bothering to be gentle. Go away, he mouthed, spilling bubbles into Ryuuku’s eyes that fanned between them. Paused when they cleared.

On land Ryuuku’s eyes were clear and transparent as a child’s, but the water made them murky, the inside of a cave without torchlight, and so Ryuuku’s arm clamping itself around his waist caught Anotsu by surprise, along with the weight of Ryuuku’s armor, dragging them both down towards the bottom of the pool.

When he tried to pull away with sluggish waterlogged limbs Ryuuku’s grip tightened, for once the sheep’s disguise flung away. Anotsu looked at Ryuuku and saw the predator of a hundred elven fables.

Tumbling downwards in slow motion, he was almost pleased by the end of anticipation — so Ryuuku would return to Mau with tales of how the Tiger King had unleashed its deadly wrath, and Mau would believe him or not but would certainly not drive Ryuuku away, even if he suspected, as long as he was regularly fed and pampered.

No, he said, but the sound was lost in the environment and in Ryuuku’s mouth, as hot as he had imagined, even with the water drawing heat from their bodies, with the coldness of dark elven hearts and eighteen generations of ancestors turning in their graves.

Ryuuku’s fingers were pressing against his cheekbone, insistent the way Ryuuku begged for apples with downturned ears and pleading whine.

Anotsu turned away. His boot touched the rock-formed side of the pool and he tried to gain leverage to push away, but Ryuuku merely held on, sending them both spinning dizzily towards the center of the pool. The current moved them up and down.

Ryuuku opened his mouth, sending bubbles in place of words, and his hair floated around his head like seaweed; he held onto Anotsu with a desperation that felt less like passion than a little boy clutching close a favorite toy, unwilling to let it be sacrificed to the dustbin.

Stop, Anotsu said as Ryuuku’s dark fingers moved down to undo the high collar of his armor, slipping aside buttons and clasps with dexterity as if this were familiar territory and the path to a Light Elf’s body not so mysterious, after all; Don’t, but the words rippled away again into nebulous sound, and not even Anotsu could identify them.

His jaw, his shoulders, the nape of his neck. The leather jacket slipped off into the current. Anotsu spasmed as the water sluiced directly over his skin, but then Ryuuku was there, holding off the chill, Ryuuku whispering into his ear.

This time, Anotsu didn’t try to push him away. Ryuuku’s own armor was decorated with fin-like protrusions, the most delicate dwarven filigree, and he curled his hands around those, gripped them like the reins of a horse. The sunlight wavered above them.

It hurt. Ryuuku’s teeth were white and sharp, with pointed canines like a little baby tiger. When he grazed Anotsu’s chest with them Anotsu hissed and bucked, and then he stretched up and bit down on Ryuuku’s ear.

Ryuuku made a sound that encouraged him to do it again.

In his mind he sketched out the warnings, They’ll lead you down the dark paths, his parents’ horrified O’s of shock, his fellow classmates full of scorn. Mau’s lazy full-body shudder, the gentleness of Ryuuku’s hands. He didn’t know what Ryuuku was thinking; he didn’t know if Ryuuku was thinking at all.

When Ryuuku pried apart the knot of his breeches, he closed his eyes. The pad of Ryuuku’s thumb brushed over his eyelashes, across the dent beneath his lower lip, but his other hand was moving, too, and Anotsu knew that if he let go now something would be released, lost — given, without hope of return, when he didn’t make unprofitable trades.

And then Ryuuku kissed him again, like princes did in stories. Like the stories said dark elves never did, and it was — it was —

Anotsu had learned the flute at six, memorized the Book of E. at ten, taken the ladies of elven society by storm at sixteen, mastered both bow and dagger by the age of twenty, and on that afternoon, trapped by water and his own pride at the hands of his race’s most hated enemy, he burned; he learned the secrets of love.

Oh, shush. I told you you should have chosen the one about books of death and apple-eating shinigami.

The Chicken and the Egg

He made Ryuuku dive to collect the scattered articles of armor, promising dire punishment should a single thread go missing: the wet clothes would attract attention but not overmuch — adventurers were well known for assaying into oddest terrains in search of beasts and treasure, and they would have drawn little curiousity had they been charred from head to toe — but bare-chested Light Elves were something else again.

They walked in single file, Ryuuku following behind him carrying bits and pieces of discarded plate and leather, and as the wind blew Anotsu shivered, and as Anotsu shivered he sneezed, and as Anotsu sneezed his temper burned hotter and hotter.

When they reached the turn in the road that would take them back to G., Ryuuku ventured to speak.

“Does this mean everything will be okay now?” he said, and even in the clutches of rage Anotsu couldn’t miss the naked hopefulness in his voice.

He stopped in the middle of the road. The wind whistled through the trees, then died away as if trying to make itself scarce.

“Why,” he said steadily, “would everything be okay now?”

Ryuuku offered him a hesitant wavering grin. “I thought you wouldn’t be mad anymore.”

“Why would I not be mad?”

“Well, it makes me mad when I don’t have anybody to sleep with for a long time, and even madder when I don’t have anybody to sleep with but other people do, and you were awfully mad that time you saw me and Mau together, so I knew you wanted to have sex. And I thought Mau should do it because he’s known you longer and you like him more, but he said it was such a bother. And then I thought we should wait for you to find someone, but then you went off to find the Tiger King, and I’ve heard some bad things about him, so I thought it would be better to — ”

The blood had been coming and going from Anotsu’s face, but now it all headed straight to his temples in one tremendous rush. “You thought I was going to the Tiger King for a tryst?”

“Oh, it’s nothing to be ashamed about. My own cousin Minagawa had him once and said he was all bluster and brag, rough-and-tumble at the outset but really quite a softie if you’re firm enough to stand up to him, except I thought with you being not too good at it and all — ”

Ryuuku stopped talking when Anotsu turned around.

He took a few deep breaths, and placed his bow down on a nearby rock; after a bit of thought, he placed his quiver down beside it, and from underneath his clothes he extracted his dagger and added it to the pile. Then he walked up to Ryuuku.

“You,” he said, “are a disgrace to your family and race,” watching for Ryuuku’s flinch. “You’re a disgrace to my race in sharing common ancestors millenia back. I have never met any creature on A. as lacking in intelligent thought as you — and in my travels I have met many creatures, including an orc who did a happy dance over a dwarf’s not-yet-expired body and elves who stepped without preparation into a crowd of Susceptors. You have no restraint or decency, no notion of right and wrong, and what do you mean by Mau saying it would be such a bother?”

Ryuuku blinked dazedly.

Anotsu glowered back.

“Well, you know how Mau is,” Ryuuku said, slowly, with cautious sidelong glances, as if noticing just now that he was standing on a lake and the ice was cracked. “He has to be umm reminded that he’s interested in sex.”

“He seemed interested enough in you.”

“I cheated,” said Ryuuku, and when Anotsu lifted an eyebrow at him he hummed and looked towards the sky. “But he likes you a lot,” he added when Anotsu had begun to turn away, “he’d like it if you cheated too, you know.”

“You don’t look as if you cared.”

It was only halfway vindicating that Ryuuku appeared equally confused. “I like you a lot, too.”

“And you don’t think he’ll mind that we just,” he searched for a word, “fraternized?”

“Well, no.”

“But why?”

“Well, we’re like — hens.”

Anotsu paused. “Pardon?”

“Because Mau likes chicken drumsticks, and if you were a chicken drumstick and I had eaten you up, that would mean no drumstick for him, and he would be mad, right? But you’re not a chicken drumstick, you’re actually a hen, and it’s like I ate one of your eggs, which means you can still lay eggs for him to eat, so it doesn’t matter.

“Only I’m not sure if he likes you quite as much as chicken drumsticks,” he added apologetically after a few seconds.

Which was only to be expected, as there was very little in the world that Mau liked better than chicken drumsticks, and somehow it almost made sense as he turned away and started walking again.

“This is all wrong, you understand,” he said after a bit, as the chimneys of G. came within sight, wreathing the flaming sky in gray. Mau was waiting for them there and Ryuuku was with him here, and there was such a long road ahead of them, a distance counted in years to Anotsu’s vision of what the world should, would, be.

“Yes, boss,” said Ryuuku, more sober now, as if he had caught a whiff of Anotsu’s dream like the scent of apple pie.

“I’m not condoning any of this.”

“Yes, boss.”

“I expect you to give our clothes a good scrubbing when we get back.”

“I got you, boss,” mournfully.

“But eggs are all right. On occasion. Sometimes. I hear they’re nutritious,” and he stared straight ahead while pretending not to hear Ryuuku’s celebratory whoop.

He was young and strong and out to conquer the world, and sometimes, sometimes, you forged propriety with your own hands.

They headed home together.

~The End~

Good night, Yuu-chan. I hope it’s been an entertaining night?

Sleep well, and sweet dreams.

illustrated by baby_pen

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