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Chapter IX
The Duchess of the Orange Court

“Heartmaker: Little is known about this obscure profession and most accounts come from the patients themselves. What is known is this; all verified rules regarding magic do not seem to apply to them, and they are free to do anything they desire. They can turn the nonphysical aspect of a human heart into something corporeal, alterable, and mechanical. They can fix cardiac diseases using gears, and even replace a real heart with a manmade one. Heartmakers are rare, valued, and much feared.” – The Narrow Ways Encyclopedia

The next morning, settled in the comfortable bed in the fascinating room on the top floor, Catskill woke up to focus on a pair of staring brown eyes. Her breath caught, but she relaxed again when she saw it was Serendib, kneeling by the bed and watching her with unwavering focus.
    “You’re awake,” Serendib said in satisfaction, climbing onto the bed and pushing Catskill out. “Get up, it’s breakfast. We’re having waffles.”
    Serendib helped Catskill dress, even attempted to brush her hair for her but to no avail; Catskill’s black hair had a type of wild, natural curled wave that fought one another for which direction each individual tress should go. It wouldn’t tame.
    “You’ve grown since I saw you at the tavern. You must’ve grown four inches.” Serendib stated, giving up and heading downstairs. “You look your age now.”
    I look forty? Catskill thought tiredly as they reached the kitchen. She felt weightless now that her name had been returned, and took pleasure in the domestic scene before her: there was Bishop with his feet on the table, tea in one hand as he read a huge book engorged with pages and notes, Heretic cooking and slinging insults as Portcullis sang until he molted, and Milliner crouching on the ground, still managing to look debonair while he examined Yew.
    “Morning,” Bishop gave Catskill his crooked smile. “We’re making waffles.”
    “By which he means I alone am making waffles,” Heretic growled, before hurling a slur at the parrot.
    “Talkin’ ‘bout my girl…my girl,” it warbled
    “I swear to God he’s insulting me.”
    Waffles were put on the table in tall, crispy stacks and they all sat down. Bishop slathered jam onto his as he told his housemates, “I need to go see if I can find the Heartmaker. He moves around so I doubt Barghest has any idea where he is, but I’ll still ask.”
Milliner’s face tightened. “Hm. I can’t say I’m displeased that I needn’t go.”
    “Thank you, jack. Although I can’t say I’m thrilled to go…at least Lazarus is paying for the operation. Which brings me to my point; I’ll be gone for the bulk of the day, so I want you to see to Skill’s studies.”
    After Bishop left on his quest Heretic tended to the shop, Serendib went to go sleep on the roof, and Milliner took to the vast, scattered library available in the house.
    Catskill followed Milliner to a bookcase in the shop and cleared her throat.
    “Ah, yes,” he tugged his hand away from a shelf, “the lessons. I’ve never had an apprentice, though I’ve considered it; what does Bishop have you do?”
    Catskill picked up a book – Manipulation; the Art of Physically Altering your Surroundings – and answered; “Read, and ask questions if I have them.”
    “I wonder why I put off being a master for so long. It’s far easier than most people complain about.”
    They retired to the study and built couches from the cushions, reclining there for hours as they read in the last warm October day that filtered through the windows.
    When her eyes began to cramp and the words seeped into one another in an incomprehensible mess, Catskill closed the book. “Alright.”
    “‘Alright’ what?” Milliner swiveled his head, lying on his back with a book propped against his knees.
    “I want to try manipulation.”
    “If you so command.” Milliner scrunched his brow and looked around the study, “If memory serves, my master had me work on clay first.”
They rummaged around the room until Milliner opened a drawer on the workbench and pulled out a can of blue Play-Doh. He shook it out onto the workbench, resumed his spot on the cushions, and said with a vague wave, “Have fun.”
    She did. The book was straight-forward on the subject of manipulation, which was also her only example on how to work magic. ‘The first step is to concentrate the raw life that animates your body. This is easier than it sounds; imagine to yourself some aspect of being alive – most choose warmth to begin with – and try to trace it back to the rawest image of what you consider your ‘energy source’. If you succeed, you’ll feel an overwhelming sense of equilibrium; this is your ‘life’, or to be more precise, your magic. Once you’ve a hold of it, don’t worry about losing it; some find it difficult to let go – you’ll grip at it reflexively – so minimal concentration is required. Now work the magic away from yourself, which is counter-intuitive to your body so try hard, and you’ll be able to see golden-like tendrils. Only you can see them; they are your manipulators. Use them to mold what is around you.’
    Finding her life source was simpler than she had assumed. It was like trying to break through a wall to find it was made of paper. In a moment she felt a delicious sense of calm, ordered balance. Concentrating that delicious life away from herself, however, was as nonsensical to her brain as bathing in acid; it rebelled with violence at the idea of dwindling away the force which ran its host.
    It took effort, but soon Catskill mastered this psychological feet-dragging and watched with excitement as hesitant, sleepy tendrils worked themselves from her body. Golden was a poor description; they were like condensed sunlight, a beautiful mix of every fiery color. Coppery, on occasion, or so pale it was white.
    It was cumbersome work, but Catskill managed to mold the Play-Doh into a penguin. She was about to finish the left flipper when the door opened and Bishop stepped in, snapping what little concentration she required. This snap of magic had a whiplash effect that caused a sensation like static popping in her throat, making her fall into a fit of coughing.
    Recognizing the symptom, Bishop turned to the workbench. “What’s this then?” he asked. “Manipulation?”
    “It looks like a penguin,” Milliner remarked.
    Bishop ruffled Catskill’s hair. “Good job, Owl Eyes! Your first try too; and without help, I’ve no doubt, from the jack.”
    “Au contraire. My effervescent presence provided her with the emotional support she needed,” he answered, flipping a page. “Oh, by the way, did you find the Heartmaker?”
    Bishop soured, leaning against the wall and rubbing at his hair. “Yes and no. I know where he’s been last, and I have to go there to ask where he’ll be next.”
    “Which is…?”
    “He was tending to the ailments of the Duchess of the Orange Court.”
    Catskill watched Milliner’s mouth tighten. “Her?”
    “Ah, you are aware of her extreme misandric tendencies? She won’t answer any of my questions. I was thinking, if I bring Skill, that she might give out the information more readily…”
    “But she’s in the Orange Court! That place is hell and I should know,” Milliner snapped, bolting upright. Catskill wondered if she should leave, but instead withdrew behind the workbench, not wanting to be noticed.
    “I know that,” Bishop barked. “All the royals of all the Courts are unsafe! And I don’t want to drag Skill there anymore than you do, but–”
“Can’t you send Serendib? She’s a woman, and could get the information.”
    “Serendib isn’t royalty; she couldn’t arrange a meeting if she wanted to. I have to be present, which would lessen her credibility. Skill is not only female, but also young and nice; the Duchess won’t be able to refuse a direct inquiry from her, regardless of my presence.”
    “This is ludicrous! It’d be safer to mail Skill to Marshall; what if she gets killed? Lazarus would fire me if something happened to that girl’s heart, I’d lose my chance at being a courtier! If I’m not even allowed to be seen with you two, how can I protect her?”
    “Oh hell, I’m glad to see you’re so emotionally invested in her safety.”
    They were arguing loud enough to rattle the timepieces by this point. Catskill caught sight of Heretic and Serendib standing in the kitchen, just outside the door; their faces mapped their feelings on the matter, and it made her cringe to see them both looking afraid.
    Catskill gritted her teeth, and then cleared her throat, making both men stop and recall she was in the room. “If there’s no other option, then there’s no point in arguing. When do we leave?”
    “…I’ve arranged a meeting with her at eight,” Bishop said. “She has to see me – I’m royalty – but I rather expect her to have prepared a vat of boiling oil to pour on me when I arrive.”
    “Well, sounds like your plans for the evening are fixed,” Milliner remarked, his tone freezing the air. “And what am I to do? Disguise myself in a dress and pretend to be Skill’s nanny?”
    Bishop returned the cold look with one of condescension. “I sometimes think you’ve forgotten that there is a reason I’m Lazarus’s Archduke. But, if you’re so foolish as to still be concerned about my apprentice’s safety, I will let you and Serendib wait outside. We'll also bring Yew along; it’ll be chilly this evening.”
    The air in the shop was hostile for the rest of the day. Milliner was frustrated and infuriated, Serendib was mad at Bishop for continuing to use Catskill to simplify business, and Bishop was an insurmountable wall of superciliousness. Strange enough, Catskill discovered Heretic was her partner in seeking diplomacy; they both tried in vain to smooth things over, but ended up settling for keeping them apart.
    Hours stretched for so long that Catskill was actually relieved when the time came for them to leave. The moment the clocks sounded seven, Bishop flung Yew around Catskill’s shoulders, pulled on his coat, and stepped out into the cold of the October evening.
    “It’ll be a long walk,” he warned her, stepping back onto the stoop to let a group of people pass. There seemed to be a lot of activity that night; people could be heard walking or chatting in the alleys nearby, and all the lanterns on all the houses were brighter than normal. Everyone was busy, and had a vibe similar to spring cleaning, though Bishop didn’t seem to notice.
    They were stepping down from the stoop when the raucous clatter of wheels came crashing down on them. A giant greyhound, six feet to the withers, panted pungent clouds in Catskill’s face; Yew twitched, but resumed his faux-wrap guise.
    The greyhound had a massive horse harness strapped to his sleek coat, which led to an elegant hansom cab, and beyond his oversized head, leaning from the sprung seat attached to the back of the vehicle, a familiar bowler hat and eye patch showed itself.
    “Why hello, hello, Bishie and rodent-girl; your carriage has arrived,” Chaz called down. He was wearing a vast, heavy coat with numerous capes and collars; it bagged at his bony neck and wrists, making him appear skinnier than was possible.
    Bishop didn’t let this ruffle him; he opened the door and climbed in with Catskill, as though this was all prearranged. The black leather seat was piled with heavy blankets to defend against the open front that let in the wind. Behind them, a trapdoor opened and Chaz’s voice, no longer hindered by wood, came through; “I expect thanks for my unrequested carriage ride, Bish.”
    Bishop was a mirthless statue of gray tweed. He turned his head a fraction of an inch, sending a splintering look through the trapdoor and into Chaz’s unprotected eye.
    It was clear – even to Chaz – that Bishop was in no mood for his antics. However, if he thought this would dampen Chaz’s efforts, he was mistaken; they came through the trapdoor, louder and more insufferable.
    “Well well! Someone’s in a sour mood. Rodent, what happened? Did he finally discover that you’re smarter than him at everything? Which is sad, as you know, seeing as you yourself have no talent in any area. Or perhaps there was a tatzelwurm in his house this morning; terrible coward when it comes to tatzelwurms, is ol’ Bish…or anything at all. Aren’t you wondering why I’m here Bish-me-lad? Eh? C’mon, you can ask me; I’ll answer dishonestly, I unswear.”
    Catskill saw something flicker in Bishop. It dawned on her that any emotion, even anger, would shake him from his current faraway, superior mood; and if anger was called for, Chaz was the best man for the job. Catskill joined in; “He’s afraid of tatzelwurms? But I thought he had one on his back before…”
    Chaz grinned though the trapdoor. “Oh, you heard that story, have you? Funny one, that. Bish, being that sort of person – stupid, that is to say – made a bet with Quintal; if he, Bishop, let a tatzelwurm feed on his back for three days straight, he, Quintal, would let Bish read a one-of-a-kind book for an hour. Well, Quintal agreed and a half-starved tatzelwurm was attached to Bishie’s bare back. I was there, naturally; how could I ever miss an event where Bishop is acting like a dancing jackanapes? So I know everything firsthand. Where was I? Oh yes; That tatzelwurm was huge, and very soon so swollen with Bishop’s blood that Bishop could barely stand; oh, it was a hilarious sight! Bishop, weak and trembling, vomiting, glassy eyed; I swear his skin used to be notably pinker than it is now. And that was only in the first fifteen hours. Oh, I won’t recount the changes that occurred in the next fifty-seven, except for the final result when that bloated leech was ripped from his back. He had fainted many times by this point, and I think he had seizures at another, but by this time he was feverish and hallucinating and screaming. He won though, I’ll give him that. But now he’s so afraid of tatzelwurms that he twitches when he hears their name! Heehee!”
    Bishop reached his hand through the trapdoor, seized Chaz’s collar, and bashed his skull against the back of the carriage, his entire frame convoluted with suppressed rage. “Say another word.”
    “We’re going to crash! Let me drive, idiot!” Chaz squawked, kicking Bishop’s hand back down the trap.
    Huddled in his corner, Bishop was now so angry at Chaz he forgot to be in a foul mood with his housemates. He wrapped the blanket around himself and scowled at the greyhound’s haunches.
    “If it makes you feel better,” Catskill said with a smile, “I think you’re justified in being afraid of tatzelwurms.”
    Bishop opened his mouth; “Condescension! Since when have you teamed up with Chaz?”
    In return for his help with restoring – so to speak – Bishop’s mood, Catskill asked the question Chaz was dying to answer; “How did you know we were going to the Duchess’s house?”
    “Don’t encourage him,” grunted Bishop.
    His face lighting up, Chaz spilled forth his story. “Well, I, being royalty, heard it straight through Lazarus himself. He told me Bish had arranged a meeting with Miss Man-hater, and I thought ‘Now why would Bish want that?’ so then I thought ‘I’ll get the answer from him myself when I drive him there in a coach.’ And here I am, in a coach, about to ask him.” He cleared his throat and whined; “Bishop, why are you meeting with Man-hater?”
    Bishop suggested Chaz go to a place once described in great detail by Dante.
    “Would it, perchancehaps, happen to do with Rodent being the offspring of Pigeon?”
    “You found out.” Bishop sighed; “Oh God, I am having a long day.”
    “I don’t know for cold hard fact the reason, but it’s fairly obvious to guess once you know her heritage. Now, come come; why are you taking her to the Man-hater’s house? Aside protection.”
    Bishop raised his head; “Wait, perhaps you might be of help for once. I’m going to see the Duchess because I need to find the Heartmaker; do you know where he is? It would save me a lot of time.”
    “I’d love to know the information if only so I could withhold it from you, Bish, but unfortunately I have even less idea where the Heartmaker is than you.” Catskill noticed even Chaz said ‘Heartmaker’ with the same anxious irritation as Bishop and Milliner.
    Her skin tight with nervousness, Catskill asked, “What is the Duchess’s name?”
    “Ursula.” Bishop noticed her palms sweating.
    “And is there any protocol?” Catskill asked, steadying her breathing and trying to smile.
    “Protocol? Well, be respectful; that’s a must.” Bishop said, patting her head as though he was trying to soothe an animal. “But Narrow Ways doesn’t really have an elaborate system for emphasizing class distinction; they already know they’re below courtiers in authority.”
Too soon the coach pulled up in front of an impressive row house with elaborate carvings, bright windows and detailed gargoyles. The stoop, made of white stone, led to a door of polished black that shone like a mirror.
    “I’ll be here when you get back,” Chaz said, “but it’ll cost you what information you glean.”
    “We’ll see.” Bishop stepped from the coach, helped Catskill down, and went up to the doors. He was about to knock when the door was opened by a beautiful, hollow-eyed young man in a bright orange uniform and a pageboy haircut. He said, his voice odd and indistinct, “Milady is expecting you. Milady is in the parlor, waiting.”
    The luxurious interiors, all in amber and gold tones, dazzled Catskill; sparkling chandeliers, glorious carpets and hundreds of useless, breathtaking ornaments spread about on every available nook and surface.
    Everything smelled like spice and roses. Catskill inhaled deeply as they were shown down a hallway with intricate boiseries and low-glowing, golden lamps. The servant-boy opened a heavy rosewood door and bowed them in, announcing; “Milady, your guests have arrived.”
    A high, whining voice answered, “Stupid man, do you think I don’t have eyes? Get them seated.” There was a light rattle of chains which made the servant work with haste to escort them onto two antique chairs. The chairs stood to the side of an amber-colored room with high windows, veiled by velvet curtains to shield against the night outside.
    On a fainting couch sprawled the Duchess; the only blue thing in a sea of orange tones. Her silk dress, many-folded and over trimmed, engulfed every edge of her, except for a deep blue slipper peeping out from the hem, and her face, emerging from a tower of ruffled lace.
She was Caucasian with a small, delicate and round face; doll-like, with blue eyes and soft butterscotch-colored curls, a small, pouting red mouth and rosy cheeks. Yet her nose was pinched with pink, flared nostrils, giving her a contemptuous look, and everything about her was gaudy and overdone; the odiousness of compensating emptiness with riches.
    Besides even all this to distract the eyes, Catskill was side swept by the overwhelming wall of bitterness that flowed from the Duchess. Catskill obscured herself behind Bishop, chose a chair further away from the woman, and averted her gaze in an attempt to be more hidden.
    “Now Bishop,” the Duchess sneered, “What would you possibly think you could gain from this visit? Have I not made it perfectly clear that I believe society at large would benefit from your execution?”
    “Hello to you too, Ursula,” Bishop answered in a singsong voice, smiling wide. “And, no thank you; I’m well aware of your contempt. This is a personal call.”
    “You have to be joking,” the Duchess began when she noticed the young servant still standing by the door. In a smooth motion she raised from amongst the folds of her dress a long, thin chain and snapped it down on his foot. “Out.”
    Emotion didn’t seem to register on his face, but for a moment his dead eyes brightened with agony before he bowed and limped out.
Ursula’s lip had curled to bare her teeth, but she unruffled herself, replaced the coils of chain, and turned to speak with Bishop when she caught sight of Catskill and her expression deformed with surprise and sweetness.
    Lowering her voice, she wheedled, “Well hello there, shy darling; and who might you be?”
    An unpleasant epiphany struck Catskill; if there was any hope in getting information, it wouldn’t be achieved through Bishop.
    Looking down at her shoes, she said in a faltering whisper, “I’m…Skill.”
    “Oh, precious,” cooed the duchess. “Come to Auntie Ursie; do you like sweets? Come now, tell me.”
    Bishop nodded at Catskill, to her remorse, and she kept up the act as she crept forward. The Duchess made room for her by shaking some of the folds of her skirt onto the ground. Patting the cushioned couch, she cajoled, “Sit by me, sweetness, and come tell me what you’d like. Something to drink? Eat?”
    Catskill stared at the woman’s face, hating and vicious and smiling, unable to avert her gaze. Ursula terrified her, in a way that reminded her of Edom, though she couldn’t explain why. “Chocolate” She heard herself say, sweating down her nape.
    “The little darling.” The Duchess snarled over her shoulder, “Come!”
    Only when he moved did Catskill notice there was another person in the room. He was fifteen years old, maybe younger, and he stood to quiet attention behind the couch, dressed in an orange suit of a ripped and worn nature, which blended in with a tapestry on the wall.
He was so mutilated that Catskill had a difficult time trying not to stare. One eye was recently blackened, and the other side had a chain bruise running along his temple, over the eye, and down to his chin. A gash was on his lip, and a chunk of the skin on his jaw was missing, which had just healed over. There were cigarette burns across his neck and cheeks like freckles, and half of his honey-hair was ripped away, with a patch of burned skin in the center.
    And he was happy.
    He hastened around the couch and smiled at the Duchess, who snapped, “Sit.”
    He sat on his haunches next to the couch.
    “Are you deaf?” the Duchess inquired.
    “No, milady.”
    “Then why,” began the duchess, her pitch building, “didn’t you hear what she asked for! Why aren’t you getting the chocolates!” she swung the chain and struck him in the back of the head, sending forward on all fours.
    Bishop didn’t look surprised, nor did he say a word; he adopted an indifferent stance that was almost convincing, if it hadn’t been for his horrible smile. Catskill’s stomach heaved with nausea as she watched Ursula’s wanton cruelty, and she saw the boy’s eyes fringe with tears.
    Yet he looked at the Duchess with distilled pity, which sent the Duchess into a raging mood that would’ve been taken out upon the boy had not Bishop cleared his throat to say, “Can we get her those chocolates? She’s been looking forward to this visit.”
This swung the woman’s mood back again. “Yes, of course. Mutt, go and get her the sweets!”
    Mutt hurried away, trying not to clutch at the swollen, painful mess at the back of his head.
    “Who is this little angel?” The Duchess inquired in an almost civil tone to Bishop, petting Catskill’s tousled hair and making her cringe.
    Catskill wondered if Ursula had been the one to raise a hand to mutilate the face of that boy, and knew she had, could almost see it with her discernment. And she knew she hated Ursula. She’d never hated anyone before, and yet she looked at the doll-faced woman and wanted to hurt her like she’d hurt Mutt.
    Bishop responded in his casual way, sitting down, “Oh, she’s my little cousin. So Ursula, I heard your health hasn’t been good; what’s wrong?”
    Ursula glared at Bishop, on the verge of saying something vicious when Catskill grabbed her sleeve. Her boiling hatred was easy to direct into a manipulative vein, and she asked, turning the full effect of her eyes on the Duchess, “Auntie Ursula is sick?”
    “No, no, pet; it’s alright…” replied Ursula. “Just a little problem with my health.”
    “Did you get a doctor? Did he say you’ll be alright?”
    “Of course, the best doctor for hearts – get over here and give her the sweets!” hissed Ursula. Mutt hurried through the doorway, holding a glass platter piled with chocolates.
    He stood to attention next to the seat, holding the platter out for Catskill. Reluctant, Catskill accepted the truffle and gave the boy a slight smile, which he returned with pleasure through his maimed face, despite the pain afforded him.
    Ursula was outraged that the boy had even looked at Catskill, but Catskill took a large bite of the truffle and smiled up at the Duchess. “It’s good! Want some?”
    “Oh, darling angel,” the Duchess opened her mouth and Catskill put a truffle in her mouth.
    Recalling her lesson on manipulation, Catskill wondered how easy it would be to loop the strings of her magic around her neck. Trying to control her vivid mental fantasies, she said aloud “Did the doctor make you better?”
    “Oh yes. He’s a Heartmaker, and he fixed my heart right up.”
    Catskill met Bishop’s gaze a moment and said to the Duchess in a weak murmur, “Your heart? My heart is sick too.”
    Bishop’s eyebrows shot up, and the Duchess fell quiet. She said in a threatening tone; “Bishop? Why haven’t you fixed the problem with her heart?”
    Catching on at once, Bishop lowered his voice. “That’s why I came, Ursula. I know you hate me, and rightly so, but…I had to swallow my pride to ask for your help. I need to know where the Heartmaker is, for Skill’s sake.”
    They began discussing the matter, and Catskill couldn’t stand being near Ursula anymore. She drew away from the conversation, away from the horrible woman. She left the seat and went to the windows, looking out into the empty, dark alley below, and behind her she heard Bishop talking – earnest and sorrowful – with Ursula, who answered at intervals, terse yet concerned.
    Catskill decided to wait outside, the sound of Ursula’s voice making her madder with each word, so when she was unnoticed she slipped into the hallway. She saw Mutt, sitting with his back to the wall and pressing a wet cloth to the back of his head. He looked up with a smile when he saw her. “Hello, do you need anything, Miss?”
    Catskill let her discerning eyes scan him, trying to figure out what he really was.
    He was pale and slight, bought and sold by bogmen; he had no option to leave, he was a slave with a name owned by a sadist. She felt her hands tremble, and wished she knew more destructive magic than molding Play-Doh. “No, nothing, thanks. Are you alright?”
    “Oh, sure.” He dipped the rag into a bucket of water, replacing it on his head. “I’m fine.”
    Mutt’s sleeves were rolled up. A massive collection of cuts, burns and bruises coated his thin arms. Catskill was almost blind with suppressed rage, but she forced herself to sit down beside him. Taking the rag from Mutt, she dabbed at his head, grunting, “How can you put up with it? How can you stand her?”
    “Milady?” Mutt picked at the carpet. “Don’t think too badly of her, miss. Please.”
    Catskill’s eyes stung with tears. “She beat you with a chain. Is this Stockholm syndrome? She deserves to burn in hell!”
    Mutt looked up through a chunk of burnt bangs. “No, she doesn’t. I’m not saying what she’s doing is right; what she’s doing is wrong and she must be punished for it, I hope every day someone will stop her. But people don’t hurt others unless someone first hurts them. What does hating someone do but produce more hate? You don’t know what Milady’s father was like; you don’t know what he did to her. So I can’t hate her, I can only pity her. Please miss; if you can’t think well of her, at least feel sorry for her.”
    Tears, hot and large, boiled from her eyes as she gritted her teeth and dunked the rag in the bucket. Rubbing her eyes and nose, Catskill sat back against the wall, biting her lip.
    Mutt smiled in a shy way, holding up his forearms together and showing her the various wounds. “Look, it’s not all bad,” he said, indicating a long, wide cut on one arm, and a large cigarette burn on the other; “Doesn’t it look like a shooting star?”
    It was too surreal, but it was reality and Catskill felt her heart break. This ended up stopping her tears, but left her cold, isolated and exhausted. She turned away from the smiling boy called Mutt, pressed her face against the wall and couldn’t bring herself to move.
    The door opened and Bishop emerged. He called back to Ursula; “Ah, here she is, in the hallway. She’s…” he looked at Catskill’s expression, before changing his sentence, “asleep on the carpet. I’ll just bring her to the carriage then; sorry she couldn’t say goodbye.”
    That high voice grated on every nerve in Catskill’s body as it called back, “The precious girl! I’ll always tolerate your visits if you bring that child, Bishop. Mutt! Where have you slunk off to? Come!”
    Bishop picked up Catskill, to her confusion, and carried her down the hall. In the quiet of solitude he murmured to her, “There’s nothing I can do. Some kittens die, Skill; some can’t be saved.”
    Catskill clutched onto Bishop’s neck and wept onto his shoulder until her head was filled with nothing but the sound of her own mourning.
As if through a drug-induced stupor she felt the blast of cold air when they left the house, and heard the whining of the greyhound when they got in the coach. Bishop wrapped her in blankets and said to Chaz, “I found where the Heartmaker is. I’ll tell you later.”
    He shut the trapdoor on Chaz and let Catskill sob on his coat; but even her crying was quick in dying away, and stopped altogether by the time they rolled to a halt in front of their stoop.
    Bishop watched Catskill with concern, but her hair was covering her face; when they entered the shop front, she murmured something and disappeared upstairs to her room.
    Sighing, Bishop dragged himself into the kitchen and found Milliner drinking cocoa as he read. His brow was contracted; “Has Skill been crying?”
    “Weren’t you supposed to follow us?” asked Bishop.
    “I decided that being outside the building was virtually useless, and that you could probably manage several skilled magicians by yourself. So; has she been crying?”
    “She just found out something new about the Narrow Ways; things are evil and unfair. Ursula had a slave she used as a whipping boy to vent her hatred of men, and who legally belongs to her; it broke Skill’s heart.”
    Milliner thought this over, then stood up and opened a cabinet. “You need a drink.”
    He took out a bottle of old brandy and they sat at the table, drinking in contemplative silence. The house was dark and quiet; Heretic had early nights, and Serendib never slept for more than a few hours at a time and was out roaming the streets.
    “I thought it rude to ask,” Bishop remarked, settling on a subject as he swirled his brandy. “But I need to know. What on earth is Serendib? How is she like that?”
    Milliner smiled. “Her ‘grandfather’ is Genesis.”
    “The man who was executed by Marshall?”
    “You heard? I thought the purple court hushed that up. Well, the reason he was executed – so Serendib told me – was because of what he managed to create. He experimented with genetic splicing, but his major problem was that he couldn’t create enough of one creature to prevent interbreeding issues. He somehow managed to make a gene that wouldn’t be watered down by foreign blood.”
    Bishop’s eyelids flickered, flashing his eyes for a moment, and Milliner smiled; “Marshall became terrified of the idea that someone could make such a thing, so, uncertain of how to react, he had him killed.”
    “That does seem to be his default plan. So Serendib is Genesis’s splicing results?”
    Milliner nodded. “Her mother and father were the perfect results of the experiments, and so she’s the first generation to be born like this. Her design is faultless; superior hearing, smell, sight, speed, strength, agility. Serendib tells me the designs for her hips are something that took Genesis forever to get right; they can rotate so she can stand on her legs, and rotate again so she can be on all fours just as easily.”
“He certainly seems to have thought of everything.”
    “Don’t be so impressed yet. His original design was more animal, and the proportions were far more practical. He, however, realized that the chance of his creations being able to find regular human mates were low, so he redesigned them to be more appealing. He even chose particularly attractive DNA to ensure such precious genes wouldn’t be lost.”
    “It’s a shame such a mind was executed. I should’ve liked to meet him.” Bishop took a long drink. “How’d she start working with you?”
    “As my skills with charms became well-known, I’d gotten several revenge jobs. It also came to my attention, while doing such jobs, that I am entirely left in the open while they try to kill me if my charms are warded off. So Barghest introduced me to Serendib, and we’ve become business partners.” Milliner replied, staring into his brandy.
    Bishop mulled over that. “Forgive me if this is too personal, but are you two courting?”
    Bitter amusement pinched at Milliner’s mouth. “No, no, nothing of the sort. For one thing, she finds me hideous; and not even in a moral failings type of way. My canines are not pronounced enough, I am not skilled at walking on all fours, I cannot see in the dark…the list is endless.”
    “Are you saying if she did find you suitable–”
    “Oh God, I’m not drunk enough to talk about how pathetic I am,” he grunted, taking a large swallow of the burning liquid. He traced the table’s graining with a finger, and added “At a certain age, her human genes are supposed to find a balance with her animal genes. Over the past year, I’ve noticed her become more and more human, and I’m hoping soon…but what about you? Have you caught the eye of some bonnie lass?”
    “Let’s see…no.” Bishop snorted at the idea, letting his palm heat the brandy. “The only ‘female’ in my life is the komodo dragon hanging from my ceiling, and Skill.”
    “You know she’s in love with you,” Milliner said.
    “Of course I noticed, and she’ll get over it.”
    “I’m not sure. If she was a foolish person, I wouldn’t think twice about her passing crush. She admires you but doesn’t ignore your faults; it’s a sober love, quite unromantic.”
    “Does this have a point?”
    “She’s smart; I was considered a prodigy, but she is smarter at her age than I was. Imagine her in ten years – she’ll be quite the woman. You shouldn’t care what she ends up looking like, you should marry her…but by that time she’ll realize you’re old and ugly, so I suppose the idea is hopeless.”
    “Hm. That was the closest I ever came to marriage, and it was hypothetical, and it still didn’t come to pass. Can we stop planning a twelve-year-old girl’s future husband? Go get some of my wine and we’ll talk about the good old days; a popular drinking subject, I’m told.”
    “Where is it?”
    “Above the refrigerator, in that cabinet.”
    In this way they talked late into the night, sometimes about how they’d go about meeting with the Heartmaker, and the rest about how they’d all die if Marshall discovered what they were doing, which he would. They fell asleep at the table, the bottles drained and their hearts heavy with worry and swollen with brandy.
Learn more about this world here

I'm not sure why I always include a drinking scene in all of my stories. I think I find drunk people funny.
   Weirdly, I only started to like Milliner as a person after this; because in loosing his cool and admitting his obvious selfish motivations for protecting Skill, then being a drinking bro, and being unreciprocated in the kitty love department, he becomes strangely vulnerable in my eyes. I don't like invulnerable characters.

Also, for those of you who don't mind, here's a portrait of Mutt to get a full idea of the Duchess's cruelty: Fragile

Thanks for reading! All critiques and corrections wanted!
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Interview with `loish


<thefluffyshrimp> ~MemoiresDuneFille asks "Loish, what inspired you to become an artist?"

<loish> I can't say that anything specific really inspired me. It was more a natural progression. I have been drawing since I was very young and honestly do not remember when I even started doing it, but I do remember always enjoying it and seeing it as my 'talent' throughout elementary and middle school. By the time I had to make a career choice in high school, I decided to do pursue it professionally because I just couldn't stand dividing my time between schoolwork and making my personal drawings. It was torture! So I felt I had to do it in order to stay sane :] That's pretty much how it went!

<thefluffyshrimp> *merry-zazoue asks "You're doing both animation and illustration, how can you manage to have a good level in both? I'm an animation student and I love illustration too, do you have any advices? Aside working like crazy of course! I'm already doing it ^^"

<loish> I think the main reason I do both is because I started out as a digital illustrator, and decided to pursue animation afterwards as a way to enhance and supplement my illustration skills. Making pretty pictures is pretty fundamental to what I do, art-wise, and I could never let it go. However, I never felt that my illustration skills were strong enough to be my only career choice, so I felt compelled to pursue something that challenged me on many different levels. As a result of studying animation and always having made illustrations, I identify myself as both! As for how I manage to have a good level in both... It is a question of taking everything you learn from animation and integrating it into your illustration work, and vice-versa. Since these two areas overlap quite a lot, you can learn so much from both of them. I have learned almost everything I know about palette and textures from digital art, and a lot about adding movement and shapes to my drawings from animation. It's important to stay on top of everything you learn and keep it well integrated in everything you make :]

<thefluffyshrimp> ~k-telyn asks "Loish, did you ever get discouraged when you first started publishing your artwork online?"

<loish> When I first started drawing digitally and maintaining a website with my art, I basically felt discouraged every time I stumbled across artwork that I found so awesome and inspiring that I doubted whether I could ever reach their skill level. I felt motivated to improve but it seemed impossible and was happening too slowly for me. I would just draw and draw, but be frustrated with everything I made! I recently found some old painter files with angry scribbles all over them, haha. At the same time I've always been a part of art communities that had many encouraging and kind people participating as well. Their feedback always gave me a glimmer of hope during that time :]

<thefluffyshrimp> ~sekeedil asks "What is the best advice you can give to a growing artist? :3"

<loish> Based on my own experience, I think the best advice I could give is to maintain an online presence and share your work with others.

<thefluffyshrimp> ~Kiason asks "Was it hard for you to find a job in your field?" and ~Andrei-Sitari asks "What is your internet marketing strategy? And what is your advice on how to present your work better to the world ?"

<loish> Getting feedback from people really encouraged me, as well as helped me to gain a following. By showcasing your work you learn how to present it in an appealing way, take part in communities that will help you learn, and keep you motivated! As for whether it was hard to find a job in my field, It hasn't been that difficult yet, but this is because I work in a few overlapping fields. I make concept art and character designs, I've worked on larger animation projects as well as smaller ones, I do personal commissions, etc etc. As a freelancer with a distinct style and experience with creating art for different projects, there's always been something interesting for me to work on, fortunately.  I have to point out that being a freelancer in the Netherlands is quite easy. It's not difficult to get the paperwork done and it is very common to approach an artist to do freelance work. This probably contributes quite a lot to the fact that I've had enough work since graduating.

<loish> As for the question about my internet marketing strategy, I guess I could describe it as participating in community websites as well as maintaining a portfolio website. I want to be able to present my portfolio as a whole through my site but make sure to stay active on sites such as tumblr and deviantart. Not only do I really enjoy that but it also generates interest in my work and gets people to spread the word about it. (note that this was never a conscious decision I made, but something that developed organically from having been active on these kinds of sites from a very early point.) I also put a lot of time into making web designs and graphics so that I have a certain 'identity' on the internet. Of course, at the end of the day, I have always been pretty internet addicted and now I have a good excuse to sit behind a computer all day because it's such an important part of my job :b

<thefluffyshrimp> ~teepott asks "What do you think started your career as a professional working artist?" and ~Falceto-Rekuri asks "What made you choose this career?"

<loish> My career as a professional working artist officially started when I graduated, I guess! At that point I really had no choice but to work, haha. But it actually sort of started before that, by doing lots of commissions and a few freelance jobs during school in which I learned a lot about what making art for someone else is like. As for what made me choose this career, as I mentioned before, it had a lot to do with searching for a line of work that would cover many bases commercially. I was worried about not being able to make a living off of just illustration work, so I searched for a line of work that would allow me to do many different things. Besides already having an interest in animation, I chose it because as an animator, you can sketch, make storyboards, come up with concepts, draw background art, design characters, etc etc. I felt like this was the 'safe choice' to make.

<thefluffyshrimp> *Topicality asks "What is a typical day as Lois van Baarle like?"

<loish> A typical day as Lois van Baarle is pretty boring actually, haha. I usually get up slightly too late, go jogging, bike halfway across town to my office, and sit down behind my cintiq for a good 8 hours or so. Then I go home! I try to do most of my drawing within work hours on weekdays now, just to maintain my sanity and give myself time to take care of other things as well. I learned to do this the hard way - I spent my first 1,5 years as a freelancer glued to my computer, usually throughout the whole night, in the midst of an enormously messy house, eating pizza for dinner and neglecting my fitness entirely :b This is not the way to go! At least not for me. :]

<thefluffyshrimp> ~ReignOfTheWolf asks "Do you often have an idea in your head of what you're about to digitally paint before you begin, or do you just start painting and see what comes out of it?"

<loish> I usually have an idea in my head, but it is never a very specific idea. It's usually something like "I want to draw something with yellow and blue." or "something with an anxious mood." Most of the time I'm not very attached to this idea and if it's not working, I just change it entirely.

<thefluffyshrimp> ~frameadvance asks "I'm always impressed with your color choices. What is your method when it comes to color?"

<loish> My process with colors is pretty intuitive, or at least it feels that way to me, so it's always very hard for me to describe how I really do it. Colors are a really huge priority to me and often my starting point for a picture, as I mentioned in the previous answer, which means I really need to get the colors down properly and have a good feeling about them before I feel like the picture is heading anywhere. I tend to keep things very messy and rough and go crazy with "color balance," "replace color," "selective color" and "hue/saturation" tools until I am getting the effect that I want. I notice that adding red/yellow tints works quite often to pull things together. I also like to have a lot of neutral/reddish hues with bright color accents that 'pop'.

<thefluffyshrimp> ~JammyJen asks "What is your favorite medium, and how often do you use it?" and `anako-art asks "How would you rate your workflow after buying a Cintiq? Did it speed up your drawing process? Would you recommend it for other artists?"

<loish> My favorite medium is Photoshop! Actually I don't think that officially qualifies as a medium, but this is absolutely my favorite way to work. I use it almost every single day! Combined with the cintiq, it feels like the most natural way to draw to me. Outside of digital media, my favorite tool for drawing is a mechanical pencil. Always nice n' sharp :]

<loish> I am not sure if the Cintiq sped up my workflow. I spend equally long on a picture but take it to a greater level of detail now. So I guess you could say that it did speed things up and gave me more room to focus on details than before! I would definitely recommend it for any artist that draws digitally. Lineart, sketching and painting details are a completely different and entirely more enjoyable experience with a cintiq. It is really the best investment I've ever made!!

<thefluffyshrimp> ~HybridBird asks "What did your parents think of you following an art related career?"

<loish> My parents never had a problem with me following an art related career. I think they always trusted that I was a hard worker and very motivated to succeed, so things would work out. I also got good grades in other classes in high school, so they probably felt like, if things didn't work out in art, I would find something else to do. They definitely gave me the freedom to choose a career myself and supported me in anything I wanted to do :] And they continue to do so to this day! I'm so happy for that.

<thefluffyshrimp> ~Kozysolanos asks "Was there any time you thought that your art was really bad and you just wanted to quit? Ever felt doubt of becoming an illustrator/animator?"

<loish> I definitely had times that I was not pleased with my own skill level and felt like improvement was impossible. I actually still feel that way all the time, especially when I have to step outside of my comfort zone and draw things I normally wouldn't. I have absolutely never wanted to quit, though. I always feel that, even though I feel like I have a long way to go, I am still able to enjoy what I do and able to make a living. I also have way too many kind, generous and encouraging fans to ever want to quit! I'm very lucky :]

<thefluffyshrimp> ~ithuling asks "How did you find the transition from simple illustration to animation? You'd have to draw each frame, but as you've done it, have you found any tricks along the way to make it less frustration?

<loish> There are definitely a lot of tricks to make the animation process easier, like duplicating frames/modifying them, copy/pasting various elements, etc. At the end of the day, animation is just a very frustrating activity and you need to be really motivated and excited about your end result to keep doing it, haha. A tip that helps make it less frustrating for me is to put on a good movie/documentary in the background to keep me entertained while drawing. :]

<thefluffyshrimp> ~PunkBunker asks "Hi Loish! How did you develop your artistic style?"

<loish> I developed it by mixing my different influences together. My first digital illustrations were very heavily manga influenced, and I slowly started integrating more Disney-inspired styles and discovered the work of Aurore Blackcat (*auroreblackcat) and bara-chan (~bara-chan) which influenced my art enormously. I also drew very often, making about three illustrations a day, which helped me develop my own way of working and approach to digital painting. The final result was my own style!

<thefluffyshrimp> ~Roespls asks "Why do you use aquatic life/themes in a good amount of your artworks?"

<loish> I just love the surreal effect it creates. The weightlessness of water and the pretty-but-weird appeal of aquatic creatures make for a really nice atmosphere! Also I love the color blue and things that are flowy and semi-weightless. I just have a natural preference for aquatic/underwater themes, basically :]

<thefluffyshrimp> ~Sheemple asks "Loish, your digital paintings are always so dynamic and full of life. Do you have any tips on poses or gesture drawings?"

<loish> Thank you! It really helps to draw your initial sketch very rough and loose. The looser you sketch, the more you'll come up with interesting and dynamic poses. In these loose sketches, try not to focus on anatomical precision - add that later as you start to refine and tone down your sketch a bit. Adding some details like bouncy hair or having the character stand in mid-step help bring the drawing to life.

<thefluffyshrimp> ~Fisharto asks "What keeps you motivated to create art?"

<loish> On one hand, the main thing that keeps me motivated is the fact that I really have no other choice. I have to work to pay my rent, basically, and I need to keep moving forward in my career. It's pretty uninspiring, but true. On the other hand, I have occasional bursts of creativity in which I discover something new and inspiring and suddenly feel immensely motivated to improve and grow. Right now, for example, I'm really inspired by vintage Disney background art and really want to improve my skills in drawing more detailed settings.

<thefluffyshrimp> ~BO0Radley asks "How do you handle taking on art projects as your career, without letting it impede your creative spirit? As an art student, I sometimes find myself being bummed because I hate people forcing me to do things I don't like." and ~Kojireru asks "Has doing art as a career ever negatively effected your artistic passion?"

<loish> Personally, I've always found that a balance between freelance work and personal artwork works best for me. When I finish doing a project for a client, I'm usually bursting with ideas and energy for my own personal art. But after a while I start to crave the structure and challenge of paid work, in which I usually am asked to draw or do things I wouldn't normally think of myself. I need a bit of both to keep growing as an artist. Taking on varied projects and trying different things really help to prevent the paid work from impeding my creative spirit. I also try not to take on projects that are very long-term, so that I can get back to my own stuff within a reasonable time frame.

<loish> Doing art as a career hasn't negatively effected my artistic passion, but it has changed my way of working. I used to draw all the time, every day. I would draw all night and, the moment I woke up the next afternoon, get right back to it. I don't do this anymore, and I don't improve at the same rate I used to, but at the same time I don't think such an approach to drawing is sustainable, especially not for a lifetime career. Eventually you'll get a burn-out or an art block that will just cripple your inspiration. I work in a more structured and regular way now, which is perhaps slightly less passionate than before but probably the safer choice.

<thefluffyshrimp> ~Pepper-Dragon asks "Are there any artists on DA that you really admire?" and ~Ca-roline asks "If you could work with some famous (the one you don't know and feel too small to ever talk to) illustrator, animator or even musician (eg to make the soundtrack for your animation) Who would that be?"

<loish> There are many artists on dA that I admire. I'll keep this answer short and say - check out my deviantart favorites! My absolute favorite artwork on this site can be found there. I'm very picky about what I add! Wow, who would I work with, out of anyone? The idea scares me! But I would love to work with a musician that I really love, to make a CD cover or music video or something like that. Right now I'm a huge Matthew Dear fan, collaborating with a musician like that would really make my life feel complete! Haha.

<thefluffyshrimp> *Papierpilot asks "Are you shy having your work watched while in progress or do you not mind someone looking over your shoulder?"

<loish> If I had a choice, I'd rather not have anyone looking over my shoulder :] I feel very self-conscious when someone's watching me draw and have a hard time working intuitively. But I have been forced to draw with someone watching the process quite a few times, and I have to admit that it is a better, more efficient way of working, especially if you're working in a team of people and you need to communicate often and quickly. It still feels very unnatural to me though!

<thefluffyshrimp> ~SuziemyPuma asks "I find your art very elegant and fun to look at. However do you ever do work that is Hard edge and rough?"

<loish> Thanks! I don't often draw art that is a bit rougher or darker in terms of subject matter. When I do, I really enjoy it and I notice in the feedback that people enjoy the variety from what I usually make! Also, much of the work I admire is more edgy and more roughly drawn, such as Sergey Kolesov's work which I recently discovered. It's definitely a goal of mine to try this sort of stuff more in the future!

<thefluffyshrimp> =BuggyCashew asks "Do you have any little quirk that you do when you draw? Like for me, I have to drink tea."

<loish> I always have to have something entertaining on in the background, because when I draw, I become very aware of what is around me and my mind sort of clears. I listen to every sound I hear. For that reason I often have either the radio or a documentary/movie/TV show on while drawing. I just can't draw in silence! Also, the more coffee, the better. :]

<thefluffyshrimp> ~humphreycat asks "What would be your dream personal project you would love to work on in the near future? For example, visual novel orÖ?"

<loish> Right now, my dream personal project to work on would be something along the lines of what Patrick Hanenberger and Christian Schellewald did for the book Kolonie: The Forgotten Empire. They came up with a concept for a futuristic universe, and then created all sorts of concept art for it, including character designs, vehicle designs, scenes and settings, etc. I would love to spend a few months just coming up with concept art for a universe that I might never actually make into anything finished - without worrying about limitations of any kind, just with a mind to create great and interesting artwork.

<thefluffyshrimp> ~lishenets asks "How important is it to network in person with other artists or with people involved in art?

<loish> I think it's really important to have a network of artists and people who work in the creative industry around you, because often, a client who needs an artist will ask around whether anyone knows a good artist who is available. They might ask someone that you knew from school or somehow stumble upon your work through the network that you have. If someone knows you in person they are more likely to recommend you. However, I found that having a network evolved very naturally from going to art school and keeping in touch with classmates and teachers that you met there. I don't actively introduce myself to anyone purely for the purpose of expanding my network - it is something that just happens when you spend enough time studying and working in a certain industry, at least in my experience. Then again, Holland is a small country and most of the animators here all know each other :] It could be different in a bigger country.

<thefluffyshrimp> ~Sciience asks "What influences your subject matter?"

<loish> I'd say that Disney and art nouveau are my biggest influences in terms of subject matter. I love female pin-ups that have a decorative quality and have a soft, feminine feel. I also love artwork with a slightly surreal touch, such as Eric Fortune's drawings, which influence me a lot.

<thefluffyshrimp> ~Gnuchi asks "Do you have any practical advice for someone wanting to be a freelance artist, such as finding clients?"

<loish> Definitely promote yourself online and try to get your work out there. Many clients browse the web for something they like, and it's good to make sure your work is likely to be stumbled upon! Make a facebook page or blog next to a good portfolio site. And stay in touch with any artists you meet in real life and online who are in the same line of work as you - make yourself known to the world, basically!

<thefluffyshrimp> *simplychen asks "If you were allowed to travel back in time and change one thing in the past about yourself, what would it be?"

<loish> Wow. That is a very personal question actually. I spent a lot of time and energy on someone who was very bad for me in my early 20's, I would probably go back in time and make sure I never got to know that person at all :] It was definitely a huge waste of many months of my life. I do think that all of the bad things I went through helped me to grow and learn, I can't imagine what I would be like without all of the mistakes I've made :] So I find that a very hard question! This is the only way I can answer it, I guess :]

<thefluffyshrimp> *HeroGear asks "Do you find that there's a difference between commission & freelance work between individuals and studios? What channels do you find most useful when pursuing either?"

<loish> I do think there is a huge difference, yes. Usually studios/larger companies are more practical and have a better understanding of how to get things done. Individuals are much more specific in what they want and usually have more feedback. The commissions I do are strictly non-commercial, though, so the experiences I have with them are extremely varied. I find that deviantart is the best place to announce commissions, I have many watchers here and slots fill up fast :] Having a lot of exposure for my work on the web has been the most successful method for me to find clients for commercial work.

<thefluffyshrimp> *joshuaotero asks "Usually how long does it take you to do a really complex piece? And do you collapse all of your layers when doing so or keep them up?"

<loish> A really complex piece takes me about 5 or so days to make. These days are usually quite long as I can get pretty motivated when I'm working on a personal piece, so let's say each day consists of a good 10 or so hours. I collapse the layers constantly as I go along - sometimes I start something on a separate layer, for example if I want to change the face but am not sure if my approach is going to work out. If it doesn't work, I just delete the layer; once it starts working, I merge it all together. Too many layers feel cluttered to me so I try to keep it at a minimum!

<thefluffyshrimp> Alright everyone! It's been 2 hours, and the official interview with `loish is now complete! I want to thank you all for joining us today and for supporting the ASKtheARTIST project.

<thefluffyshrimp> Thank you again,  for the privilege to interview you today, and for your patience and dedication in answering a record number of fan questions for our ASKtheARTIST event!

<thefluffyshrimp> To be notified of when the recorded interview is posted, AND to be informed of all upcoming interviews, please watch us at #ASKtheARTIST, or follow us through Tumblr/Twitter (username: askartists) and our Facebook page --> [link]

<thefluffyshrimp> We also will be interviewing the following artists soon: . Watch our group for the notifications and times!

<thefluffyshrimp> And a special thanks goes out to tonight's moderators who record the interviews for us, ~Melancholy-Minds, *Slinkers, and ~Surprised-Nightmare!

<thefluffyshrimp> Thank you all again for supporting the ASKtheARTIST project! Let your friends know about us!  And if you have any recommendations for more artist interviews (other artists that you would like to see us interview here), please note us!
a transcript of my interview with #AskTheArtist for those who missed it! it was a live chat interview and a lot of people showed up, as always i am very flattered and thankful for the interest you guys have in my work and what i do!! seriously.

be sure to follow #AskTheArtist for future interviews, they have some great artists lined up and it's a wonderful opportunity to get in touch with artists here on deviantart.

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Chapter 2


"Wait! So that means Caleb is going to be at the club when I'm there?!" Danni giggled as she slammed the car door, making Alec gasp in alarm.

"Hey! Easy on the car," He hissed, putting his hand on the hood and rubbing it tenderly, sticking out his bottom lip. "It's okay, baby. I won't let her hurt you anymore."

"You're so lame," Danni murmured, grabbing her fencing bag.

They walked up the steps and pulled on the insanely heavy door. As it opened, air rushed into Danni's face, making her braids flutter backwards. Alec noticed her eyes widen as she saw Caleb walking out of the locker room, his mask tucked under his arm and his sabre in hand. He seemed to be in a deep conversation with the Asian man that was yelling at him at the tournament. He glanced up from their discussion and waved at Alec and his sister. The hazel-eyed boy smiled warmly and waved back, Danni in too much of a daze to respond. Her brother smirked and grabbed Danni by the arm, dragging her toward the fencing sensation.

"W- What are you doing?!" Danni stuttered, stumbling behind her brother.

"We're going to say hi," Alec grinned, looking back at the blonde. "What else would we do?"

"Well, you could let me go so I can go warm up."

"You don't want to see the hot and dreamy fencing star?" Alec gasped, dramatically.

"Shut up," Danni mumbled, grouchily. Before she could get out of her brother's tight grip, they had reached Caleb and the irritated looking man.

"Hey, Caleb," Alec smiled, a starry look in his eyes.

"Oh hey, Alec! Hey, Danni! Instructor Delacruz, can you give us a moment?"

The brunette's instructor glared at him for a second and then nodded, walking away, briskly.

"So Alec, are you staying the whole time to watch Danni fence?"

"Yeah!" Alec said, enthusiastically.

"Whoa, really?" She turned her head to look at her brother in astonishment.

"Yeah, I think fencing's interesting."

"Since when?!"

"Since the tournament. It was… entertaining to watch."

Alec looked away innocently as Danni glared at him with suspicion.

"Riiight," She squinted her eyes and picked up her bag. "Well I'm going to change. See ya!"

Alec watched as his little sister ran to the locker room, disappearing around the corner. He looked up at Caleb who was staring at him with a raised eyebrow.

"What?!" Alec snapped, his face flushing.

"Nothing," The brown-eyed teen replied, putting his hands up innocently. "It's just, heh, never mind. I gotta go warm up. I'll talk to you later."

"Ok, I won't hold you up."

Caleb smiled, shyly, and hesitantly walked onto the strips to begin his practice. Alec watched as he ran up and down the strip, occasionally performing high knees, side steps, frankensteins, and other different leg warm ups, his body relaxed despite his intense speed. He stopped and began stretching just as Danni's class began.  For some reason, no matter how much Alec wanted to, he couldn't keep his eyes off Caleb. He sat there, mesmerized, as he watched Caleb go through the different exercises.

"Leader Follower." Delacruz said, walking onto the strip as Caleb drank from his water bottle. He nodded and grabbed his mask and Sabre, stepping onto the strip across from the instructor and mirroring his position. Alec watched as Delacruz stepped forward and Caleb retreated backwards, the space between them remaining consistent as they moved simultaneously up and down the strip. Their feet flew until Delacruz lunged forward his blade missing Caleb's chest by millimeters as he jumped backwards and lunged back at him while Delacruz recovered into his ready position.

"Good, now let's get serious," Delacruz ordered through his mask. Caleb nodded and they resumed their game, traveling the strip, their feet blurs and their blades clanging. The brunette's head turned slightly towards Alec as he took a step forward, his sole dragging too low to the ground, causing him to stumble headfirst, toward Delacruz's blade. He fell to the ground as his instructor's sabre came in contact with his shoulder, easily hitting his target.

"You need to focus," The Asian instructor demanded, crossing his arms. "Twenty push-ups."

Caleb exhaled with aggravation, sitting up as he ripped off his mask, his eyes shooting daggers at Danni's class full of students watching him. They quickly resumed their practice. Alec stared at him with wide eyes. He'd never seen Caleb so angry. The prodigy got back onto his knees and straightened his legs, his arms bending, lowering his body to the ground. As he pushed himself back up, sweat dripped from his face into a puddle on the floor, his breathing heavy and irregular. Alec's cheeks were burning as Caleb's biceps bulged with every push-up. After doing what his instructor ordered, he picked himself up off the floor and put his mask back on, continuing his lesson. His eyes stayed trained on Delacruz now, not making another mistake for the rest of the 45 minutes.


Alec looked up as the door to the club opened and his mom walked in, running a hand through her windswept hair. She sat beside him in the spectator's area, conversing about random stuff as they waited for Danni to shower and change. The hazel-eyed boy looked up when he noticed Caleb and his sister come around the corner together, his sister's face bright with excitement.

"Mom!" She ran up to the blonde woman, dragging Caleb behind her by the sleeve. "Mom, this is Caleb Muran. The fencer I was telling you about!"

"Oh, really?" She grinned, glancing over at Alec, who was mesmerized by Caleb's still-damp hair that was dripping onto his clean, yet wrinkled t-shirt. "I'm Elaine Valencia. But you can just call me Mom..."

He stared at her awkwardly.

"O...kay... Mom."

"Say, Caleb," Elaine said, her face lighting up as she exchanged glances with Danni. "What do you say to coming over for dinner tonight?"

Caleb stared at Alec's mother for a moment, as if taken aback by the offer. He smiled nervously, rubbing the back of his head.

"I- I don't know," he stuttered, looking away, his cheeks flushed. "I don't usually get invited places like friend's houses. But I'll call home and ask."

Caleb backed up uncomfortably and walked out the door, pulling a cellphone out of his back pocket. Once he was out of sight, Alec turned to his mom, his breathing suddenly rapid and his eyes wide and pleading.

"WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!" Alec squealed, lifting his hands up in misperception. His mother laughed inwardly, her eyebrows creasing in amusement.

"Doing what a mother does best," She giggled. "Embarrassing her single, gay son."

"You're so mean," He whined as Danni and Elaine began laughing up a storm. "You know, don't you?"

"What, that you like the kid? Of course. It's pretty obvious…" her voice dropped slightly and her eyes shifted to the side. "And your sister told me," She muttered, returning her attention to Alec with an innocent smile.

"Why must my sister share your evil personality?" He asked, grimly.

The Valencia's looked up as Caleb walked back into the room, stuffing his phone back into his pocket.

"I can go," He chuckled a bit, smiling slightly.

"Ok! We drove separately," Elaine said. "So you have the choice to ride with the amazing me and the gorgeous Danni Valencia. Or you can ride with that loser, Alec."

She laughed and jokingly elbowed Alec in the side, the golden-haired boy shooting hazel daggers at his mom.

"I'll go with Alec," He laughed quietly, keeping his eyes on the floor.

"Then it's settled!" Elaine snorted, grabbing Danni by the wrist and dragging her out the door.

Alec and Caleb walked into the parking lot, Alec opening the passenger's side door for Caleb as the brunette admired the mundane vehicle. He sat in the seat, his back rigid and his eyes fixed on the road ahead. Alec glanced at him from the corner of his eye, his slouched position and habit of driving with only one hand on the wheel feeling improper and lazy compared to Caleb. He shifted uncomfortably, his eyes focusing on the road.

"So…" He muttered his head tilted away from Caleb's turned gaze, "Why'd you come in my car?" Caleb stared at him a moment as if he was trying to come up with a plausible answer.

"The rest of your family… uh… that I've met at least…" he muttered looking away, his face flustered, "scares me…" He shuddered slightly.

Alec stared at him then burst out laughing. Caleb looked at him, astonished. "I know right!" He gasped for air. "They're horrifying!" He struggled to keep driving straight as he wiped the tears from his eyes. Caleb laughed along with him, doubled over in his seat.

"I can't believe you agreed with me!" Caleb blurted between giggles.

"Are you kidding? Everyone thinks that about their families," Alec stated without thinking.

"I don't. My parents are very admirable and work hard day and night. I don't see them enough to have much of a say on their personality."

"Seriously? You don't know what your parents are like?"

"They're always busy with work, just like I am with fencing. We don't see each other unless it's some important event."

"Well then who takes care of you?"

"Oh, my butler. But I usually fend for myself. I don't like to demand things from the staff."

Alec smirked and kept his eyes on the road.

"Butler? Staff? What are you, rich or something?"

Caleb looked over at Alec, shrugging a bit.

"I- I… guess… you don't have those things?"

"Pfff… I wish."

Caleb looked down, his eyebrows furrowing and his cheeks flushing with embarrassment.

"Oh," He whispered, weakly. "Sorry."

The golden-haired boy smiled warmly.

"Don't be sorry," he chuckled.

He's so cute, Alec thought to himself, his cheeks reddening.

After a few moments, Alec pulled into the driveway of his house, putting the car in park and removing the keys. He climbed out and guided Caleb to the front of his home, the bright red door standing out against the pale body of the structure. Alec walked into the building, getting a whiff of meat and vegetables being cooked.

"Steak and 'taters for dinner!" Alec's mom yelled from the kitchen. Caleb's eyes widened as he entered the house, a wide grin stretching over his face.

"Aww," He giggled, putting a hand over one of Alec's baby pictures hanging on the wall. "This house is so quaint and homey."

Looking up from her book, Danni announced, "We have to go to Dick's Sporting Goods tomorrow."

Alec exhaled, slowly, his shoulders slumping.

"Whyyyyyy?" He complained. "Can't mom take you?"

"No, she has to work and I need new sports bras."

"Fine," He sighed, dropping onto the couch next to Danni.

Caleb stood awkwardly in the doorway, his hands behind his back as he let his eyes wander.

"You know you can sit down," Danni told Caleb, staring at him with a raised eyebrow. "It's not like we're the King of England's family."

Caleb smiled a bit before hearing the door swing open, a man striding in, his black, messy hair and wrinkled clothes covered in grease.

"That smells amazing, Lainer, is that steak—?" Alec's dad froze, mid-sentence, his eyes landing on Caleb.

"Who's this?"

"Hello, Sir," The tall brunette put his hand out for him to shake. "My name is Caleb Muran."

"I'm Bryan. You don't need to call me, Sir or Mr. Valencia for that matter. Makes me feel older than I already am."

Caleb smiled, his awkwardness slowly fading away and dropped his hand.

"Ok, Brryyann," He said, slowly, as if testing out the name, making everyone in the room burst out laughing.

Alec stood up and walked over to a set of black, spiral stairs, motioning for Caleb to follow, the metal of the steps resonating as they climbed them, reaching the top where a loft was. On the left was a queen sized bed with a flat screen TV across from it, sitting inside an armoire. Caleb followed Alec straight ahead, coming up to a closet as Alec pushed the door open.

Caleb hesitated a moment as he watched Alec walk into the closet, disappearing behind hangars of clothes.

"You coming?" Alec asked, his voice drifting from inside the space despite the fact that he had vanished from sight. Caleb walked into the closet, behind the hangars and came out into a small area. He ducked, his shoulders hunched over as he walked over to Alec sitting on the ground, his back against the wall.

"Why are we in here?" Caleb asked, his eyebrows creased in wonder.

"The hiding spot."


"It's where I come when I want to get away from everything. When my parents and Danni are driving me up the wall, I escape to the hiding spot. It's my bat cave!"

Caleb snorted, taking a seat next to the shorter boy.

"So why are you showing me?"

Alec laughed a bit, shrugging his shoulders.

"I dunno," He mumbled, a crooked smile on his lips. "Just 'cause."

"Well that makes me feel happy," Caleb said, fiddling with his fingers. "I'm glad…"

Without warning Caleb's arms wrapped around the golden-haired boy's shoulders, his face smothering Alec's shirt.

"W- Wha—?" Alec gasped slightly, his hands gracelessly in the air. He sighed and wrapped his arms around the brunette's waist, a small smile forming his lips.

"That's what friends do right?" Caleb lifted his head to whisper in Alec's ear.

"What do you mean?"

"I- I don't have many friends," He murmured, not releasing the golden-haired teen and resting his chin on Alec's shoulder. "You're my first actually."

"Really?" Alec pushed Caleb back to stare into his dark eyes. "You're serious?"

"Y- Yeah. I don't go to public schools and I am so busy with fencing that I don't have the time to make friends. So yeah, you're my first."

Alec gawked at Caleb.

"Aw," He pouted, slowly bringing his hand up to caress the prodigy's face, his eyelids lowering. His face moved closer to Caleb as he closed his eyes, his lips parting slightly.

"A- Alec," Caleb stuttered, causing the hazel-eyed boy to freeze.

Shit, Alec quickly leaned back, dropping his hand to the side. What am I doing?

He looked up at Caleb, the boy motionless, his eyes wide and his cheeks a deep crimson in the dim light.

"Sorry," Alec chuckled, raising his eyebrows in bemusement. "I was just messing with you."

Caleb laughed and punched Alec's shoulder, playfully, shifting his position on the floor.

"Boys?" Elaine called from the bottom of the staircase. "Dinner's ready!"

Alec and Caleb emerged from the closet, laughing and jostling each other as they raced down the stairs, taking a seat next to each other at the dinner table. After everyone had sat down and had filled their plates with food, the room was submerged in an awkward silence.

"So... Caleb," Alec's mom said, breaking the quiet and staring at the boy in wonder. "Are you gay? Alec is."

Alec dropped his fork inches from his mouth, the loud din of the metal crashing onto the ceramic plate making everyone wince.

"Mom!" He yelled across the table at her, between clenched teeth.

"What? I was just wondering," She pouted, sticking out her bottom lip.

Caleb smiled a bit and leaned forward.

"No, um…" He glanced over at Alec. "I have a girlfriend."
Chapta 2 :iconilikeitplz:

V-chatting all night with ~randomperson77 LOL. We always seem to work on this when it's late at night. xD
Don't take that the wrong way -3-;;




ANYWAY. Hope you like x'D

Oh and guys, Look! Our new Icons:




Chapter 1: [link]
Chapter 3: [link]
Chapter 4: [link]
Chapter 5: [link]
Chapter 6: [link]
Chapter 7: [link]
Chapter 8: [link]
Chapter 9: [link]
Chapter 10: [link]
Chapter 11: [link]
Chapter 12: [Coming Soon]

Story (c) ~Demyboilover and ~randomperson77
Character designs (c) ~Demyboilover
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DISCLAIMER: I do not own Persona 4 or its characters, nor do I seek monetary profit from the writing and presentation of this story.


Persona 4 FYL (Five Years Later)
Chapter Eight: Yukiko

"I'm gonna go ask her."

Yosuke blinked as Chie whispered next to him as the group continued to march toward the Rift. "What? Now? But Chie... What if Yukiko doesn't wanna talk?"

"She won't have a choice," Chie insisted, folding her arms over her chest. "I'll slap her silly if she gives me that bull about her problems not being important again!"

Yosuke appeared anxious, but nodded. "Alright. I guess I'll keep my eyes open for the big ugly, then."

"You do that." Chie grinned. "But don't be a daredevil, okay?"

"Hey, that's my line!" Yosuke winked.

"I know." Chie winked back as she moved toward Yukiko in the line, bounding between Teddie and Rise, who were busy looking for the penguin in their animal cracker boxes.

"Hey, Rise-chan? What's a penguin?" asked Teddie, genuinely curious.

"Oh!" Rise blinked, unprepared for the question. "Well, um... It's a bird that... swims?"

"Ohhhh..." Teddie nodded. "What does it do to dry it's feathers off?"

Rise giggled softly. "They don't HAVE feathers, silly!"

"Then how come it's a bird? Birds are supposed to fly, right?" Teddie scratched his head, confused.

"Not all birds do, Teddie!" Rise replied. "Ostriches don't fly! They walk, even though they DO have feathers."

"I bet ostriches still want to fly, though..."

Chie blinked as Yukiko spoke, her insides lurching. I knew it... Souji-kun, I hope you're listening to this... "What do you mean, Yukiko?" she asked slowly, wary of provoking her friend too early.

"I mean," said Yukiko, turning to Chie and gazing at her sourly, "that ostriches are probably jealous of other birds."

"..Jealous?" said Teddie, his curiosity piqued even further.

"Jealous of the fact that others can fly, while they're stuck on the ground without any means of escape." Yukiko's eyes were piercing her best friend to the core, and Chie felt vulnerable under the steady, unwavering gaze.

Everyone stopped to turn toward the two women, and Souji cursed under his breath as he realized what had happened. He nodded to Yosuke, who nodded back, and their hands drifted toward their weapons instinctively.

"Wait... me?" Chie shook her head, perplexed. "I'm not... Yukiko, what's WRONG with you?!" She couldn't hold back her frustration any longer, and the question had fled her lips before she could catch herself.

The red light flashed, followed by the clap of thunder. Yosuke cursed vehemently to the graying landscape as he realized what had happened, but Chie and Yukiko stood facing each other, the black-haired beauty yelling at her over the rush of sound.

"What's wrong?! I'll tell you what's wrong, Chie! I'm SICK and TIRED of being stuck working at the Inn, day in and day out! I'm sick to DEATH of having NO time to myself, of having to wait hand and foot on people who are smart enough to help themselves!"

"Whaa??" Chie stammered, clearly at a loss. "Yukiko, I-"

"Shut up, Chie!" Yukiko shot back at her, her temper rising. "Just shut up! What do YOU know about how I feel? Just go back to getting cozy with Yosuke, and leave me alone!"

"Is THAT it?!" cried Chie, positively dumbfounded. "You're jealous of-"

"YES, that's it!" snarled Yukiko, causing Chie to take a step back. "You're FREE, Chie! Free to have those moments of happiness! Free to enjoy the simple things in life! I'm STUCK, Chie! I have NO freedom! AT ALL!" She stomped her foot, a small cloud of dust rising from the gesture, her eyes glistening with newly-formed tears. "So just go back to Yosuke, and have all the fun you can possibly-"

".....I can see....."

Chie squealed in shock as the indistinct, rasping voice thundered over Yukiko's, stumbling back further as the black-cloaked horror seemed to materialize in a cloud of black vapor. Yosuke caught her before she fell completely, trying his best to steady her. Souji made his way around the other side of the line as Yukiko's eyes widened, her pupils dilating, her body forced to turn toward the faceless specter as it began to shift and morph... The hair was long and flowing, yet ragged and unkempt, held in place by a hairband across the top of the scalp. The round face became hollow and thin, the eyes sunken and nonexistent, the piercing beads of red light flaring to life.

Yukiko screamed as she beheld her ghoulish copy, compelled to do so against her will, unable to look away from the grisly, black Yukiko that grinned at her with an air of superiority.

"Poor, poor Yukiko..." sneered the double, its sharp teeth bared as Yukiko's beautiful voice was mangled by the rasping undertone, forcing it to resemble the wail of a banshee. "Stuck in a downward spiral with no way out. How pitiful can you get?"

"...Are you... me...?" Yukiko felt cold sweat against her skin, her entire body shivering from the surge of emotion within her.

"Nope. Sorry!" The Fear Yukiko laughed. "Not that easy this time! Poor little bird's still stuck in the cage, and no Prince is going to come and save you this time! And even if one DID, he wouldn't be able to break the chains holding you to the Inn!"

"Ch-chains?!" squeaked Yukiko feebly.

"Chains!" Her dark self repeated again, clearly enjoying itself. "Never participating, doomed to be an observer for ever and ever! All those happy couples who come into the Inn, all those tourists on vacation! When was the last time YOU enjoyed a vacation, Yukiko??"

"...I... not..." Yukiko couldn't speak, her heart heavy with anguish.

"Even CHIE'S got more freedom than you! Face it, Yukiko! Your efforts to become independent have FAILED!!" The cloak shrunk once more as the specter landed on the ground, transforming into a black dress of morbid elegance. "All those certifications, all that practice with cooking, for what?! To be TRAPPED at the Inn like the caged bird you're doomed to be! Doomed to REMAIN!!"

"NO!!" Yukiko screamed the word, hugging herself tightly as she fell to her knees onto the frozen gray grass.

"Just accept it!" the black-clothed doppelganger insisted. "You haven't changed!!"

"....I... I have...." Yukiko wept bitterly, staring up at her wasted self pleadingly. "...I did..!!"

"Shut the HELL up!" shouted Chie as she rushed forward and stood between the two Yukikos, her arms outstretched. "Leave her alone!"

"Ch-Chie...?" Yukiko stared at Chie's back in disbelief. "..Even.. even after I..."

"Ahhh... the prince comes at last, huh Yukiko?" the black-cloaked menace taunted, her laughter almost a screech now. "This it exactly what I meant! Undeniable proof that NOTHING has changed at all! So go on, then! Let your bitch-prince protect you while you hide behind her like a-"

"That's... enough..."

Yukiko forced the words from the tightness of her throat, her hand drifting to the closed fan at her side. "What... gives you the right... to degrade my best friend like that...?" She glared at her shadowy mimic with grim determination. "She doesn't deserve such treatment! Not from me, not from you, not from anybody!"

"Then come at me, Yukiko!" grinned the ghoul, withdrawing a wicked looking black fan with Mudo runes carved upon its angular, metallic surface. "Come be HER prince for a change, even though you'll undoubtedly FAIL!"

"Failure's not an option I'm willing to consider!" shouted Yukiko as she threw her fan at her monstrous self. It bent backward, somersaulting to evade the attack as the fan returned to its owner. Yukiko jumped to her feet and charged after her opponent, determined not to lose.

"Let us handle it this time, guys!" said Chie to Souji and Yosuke, who had come up behind her. "We should be able to handle-"

"No way!" said Yosuke firmly. "You two aren't the only ones who wanna change!"

"And besides," added Souji with a smile, "what kind of friends would we be if we just stood and watched?"

Chie couldn't suppress a smile.

As the three ran forward to help, Yukiko and her vile mimic were at a stalemate. For every attack Yukiko threw at it, the doppelganger managed to dance and swerve around the blows like a demonic ballerina, arching its back and bending its limbs in ways that resembled a contortionist's performance. The impasse was broken, however, when Yukiko's guard was overextended and her opponent sliced at her with the metallic fan, ripping a long gash into the sleeve of her red sweater.

"No! Yukiko!" Chie approached from the side, her left leg thrusting outward. The dark Yukiko dodged it, but Chie persisted with rapid combinations of front, round and heel kicks, pushing her backward even though nothing landed successfully.

"Are you alright?!" yelled Yosuke, reaching to examine Yukiko's sleeve.

"I'm fine..!" gasped Yukiko, holding a stitch in her side. "It didn't draw blood!"

Chie snarled, frustrated that her attacks wouldn't connect. Calling forth the tarot card, she smashed it with a well-placed spinkick and called Suzuka Gongen into being, who lashed out with its naginata. The specter parried one of the blows, but was knocked off-balance by a second strike, forcing it to flip backwards out of range of the Persona's strikes. Yosuke summoned Susano-O, who threw a massive Garudyne attack in an attempt to capitalize on the situation, but the gaunt creature waved it's fan confidently and deflected the surge of air into the skies above.

"What's WITH this thing?!" shouted Yosuke in irritation.

"Were those PERSONAS?!" cried Yukiko in disbelief. "How did you two get them back?!"

"We'll explain later!" shouted Souji as he rushed forward and thrust his sword at the metal fan in the doppelganger's hands, trying to disarm it. But the dark Yukiko twisted around again, leaping into the air and throwing the fan down at Souji, who was forced to dive out of harm's way. Landing on his back, he summoned Izanagi and directed it to surge a Megidolaon spell toward the airborne enemy. The shimmering energy exploded around the banshee, causing her to plummet to the ground and land hard in a cloud of smoke and sparks.

"This one's mine!" shouted Chie, who rushed forward without thinking. "I'll stomp its face in and end it now!"

"No, wait!" shouted Yosuke in alarm. "Yukiko needs to-"

But as Chie brought her sandaled heel down at the dark Yukiko's exposed face, it caught the attack in her clawed hands and twisted, causing Chie to lose her balance as she spun rapidly around, falling to the ground with a yelp.

The ghoul stood quickly, raising it's fan high in the air as it prepared to bear down upon the stunned Chie. "Good night, sweet prince!" it cackled shrilly.

But it screamed as something clung to its hair and spun it around on the spot. Yukiko had come up behind it, and she glared at it with the most intense look she could muster. And without a word, she slammed her clenched fist into the doppelganger's stunned and confused face, her closed fan clenched tightly between her fingers. She followed it up by yanking down hard on the hair in her hands, pulling her dark copy's head with it. At the same time, she quickly raised her knee, slamming her opponent's head into it with a loud crack.

Covering it's face in it's gnarled hands, the creature began to deteriorate as it stumbled blindly away from the battle, wisps of black smoke rising from it as it fell to it's knees. Yukiko's voice was gargling harshly from within it's throat, fading quickly as it raised a clawed hand to the gray heavens, leaving behind the harsh, rattling voice it had started out with.

".....fff....fffffeeeearrr...." It fell forward and exploded in a cloud of black vapor, the bulk of it's body melting into the grassy soil beneath with a loud hiss, vanishing without trace. The stillness returned, broken only by Yukiko's heavy breathing.

"..What a.. ham..." said Yukiko softly, causing herself to giggle at her own joke. She fell to her knees next to Chie with a heavy sigh.

"Yukiko... That was awesome...!"

Yukiko turned around to see Chie lying on the ground and staring up at her in awe.

"You.. really think so?" blinked Yukiko, blushing slightly. "I... I only did what I thought you would have done, Chie.."

Yosuke and Souji moved over to the girls and knelt beside them, Yosuke by Chie, and Souji next to Yukiko.

"Are you hurt?" asked Yosuke as he helped Chie sit up.

"No, I was just... winded, that's all.." Chie hugged Yosuke tightly, taking a deep breath to steady her nerves. "Thanks, though..."

"How about you?" said Souji, resting his hand gently upon Yukiko's shoulder. "How do you feel?"

"I... I'm not sure..." mumbled Yukiko, who embraced her friend and kissed his cheek. "Thanks for being there for me, Souji-kun..." The two friends released each other, and Yukiko turned to Chie with an expression of deepest regret. "I.. said some awful things to you, Chie... I'm so sorry..."

"Oh, Yukiko...!" Chie crawled forward and threw her arms around her best friend, who returned the hug with equal measure. "How can I be mad at you when you just saved my life..? I mean, I should have protected YOU.. but it was the other way around! I failed-"

"You DIDN'T fail!" Yukiko pushed Chie back far enough so that she could look into her eyes. "Chie, you DID protect me! You protected me by making me realize I needed to make a CHOICE... And.. I chose to protect YOU for a change!"

"I.." Chie sniffled as she embraced her dear friend again. "I'm glad... I can count on you to be MY prince, too!"

"But you already HAVE a prince, Chie..." Yukiko looked away with a sigh. "You can't have two princes, you know."

"But.. I love both! One as my best friend, and the other... Well.." Chie turned and gave Yosuke wink. "One who'll buy me steak!"

"Yeah, I'm REALLY looking forward to THAT," muttered Yosuke, causing both girls to giggle. He winked at Souji conspiratorially, however.

"Are you in the mood to talk, Yukiko?" asked Souji as he got more comfortable where he sat. "I'm sure you have a lot you need to sort out..."

"If... if that's okay..." Yukiko looked nervously around at her three friends. "I.. didn't want to be a burden."

"You're not a burden!" exclaimed Chie, holding her friend's hand. "Come on, start from the beginning. We'll sort this out in no time."

"A-alright..." Yukiko sighed, closing her eyes and gathering her thoughts. "Well... as you all know, I was thrilled to take over the Inn once I was finished with high school... I honestly WANTED to do it, because... well, I loved the people, and I loved the experience.." She ran her hand through her long hair, her face becoming pained. "It was... even FUN at first... I never felt so fulfilled in my life!"

She shook her head, looking at Chie in utter confusion. "But.. what happened to me?"

"Only you can answer that, Amagi-san."

Yukiko let out a yelp as she looked up to see Hotei standing nearby. Chie and Yosuke both beamed at him, glad that he was there with them again.

"Uhh... m-may I ask your name, sir?" Yukiko said hesitantly, trying to sound polite.

"You may indeed," smiled the old man. "My name is Hotei."

"Hotei...?" Yukiko blinked. "The god of happiness and contentment..?"

"Oh, no, my dear!" Hotei chuckled softly, his eyes twinkling. "I am by no means a god by any stretch of the imagination. I was named after the deity, however, because my parents hoped that it might grant me good fortune, and a full, joyous life."

"Did it?" asked Yosuke, genuinely interested.

"Well, my boy, I daresay it did!" grinned Hotei. "But this moment isn't about me - it's about Amagi-san."

"Oh! You... came to help me?" Yukiko cocked her head to the side slightly.

"Sure he did!" Chie smiled broadly. "He's helped us all so far! And now it's your turn!"

"Go on, my dear," encouraged the elderly gentleman in a gentle voice. "Continue with your reflection."

"Mmm..." Yukiko closed her eyes, looking within her memories. "We all lost touch with each other two years ago, as we've discussed... But.. I guess it was harder for me to cope with than I expected... Everyone was busy living their own lives... You too, Chie.. The police department kept you busy so much that we could only leave voice messages on our cellphones..." She hugged herself, her eyes shutting more tightly. "I... was lonely, and... work dulled the pain... so I immersed myself in it... I guess I went so far as to drown myself in my job..."

"Wait..." Yosuke snapped his fingers as a thought entered his mind. "My music... and Chie's training... and your job? We all set up walls to block out the pain?"

"...It seems that way." Yukiko sighed deeply as she bowed her head. "But.. that's no excuse... We should have been able to talk about our pain.. We should have been close enough to not have to resort to putting up walls..."

"Forgive me, Amagi-san," piped up Hotei as he moved closer to Yukiko. "Did you always wear your hair in a bun?"

"Huh?" Yukiko gasped, startled. "N-no... I only started it after I took over the Inn... It's easier to manage this way, and it doesn't get in the way."

"Would it be too much trouble for me to examine your hairband?" Hotei asked softly.

"I'd... rather you didn't," said Yukiko softly. "It's... difficult to put it back up once I remove the band..."

"Ahhh, I see..." Hotei's eyes twinkled. "Well... maybe it's high time you 'chose' to let your hair down, hm?"

"No, that's not..." Yukiko began, but stopped for a moment, considering. "...Wait... 'chose'...?" She spoke more to herself than to anyone else, her hand rising to touch the tight bun on the back of her head. "I can... choose... Of course.. I should have known..."

"There are very few times in our lives where we cannot choose which direction we can walk," said Hotei gently. "If we allow ourselves to ride the rising and falling waves of Fortune, then we do nothing to better ourselves or those we care about. Actions always speak louder than words or intentions."

"Actions..." murmured Yukiko, her eyes shining with understanding. "I didn't choose to act.. so I was at the mercy of things I could have controlled..."

"Yosuke and I were the same way, Yukiko..." whispered Chie. "We had the ability to choose, but we never did..."

"Yet choice is only one step on the path," continued Hotei. "You must commit yourself to walking that path, and move forward with your head held high."

"Then that's what I'll do." Yukiko smiled brightly, looking at everyone in turn. "I'm needed here right now... The inn can get along without me for a little while. And then, once everything's settled down... I think I'll go on a vacation!"

"Good for you, Yukiko!" said Chie happily. "I'll help, if you want!"

"Me too," grinned Yosuke. "Although this really isn't the season for a decent local vacation."

"It doesn't have to be exotic," said Yukiko with a slight giggle. "Just... time away from work with my friends will be more than enough..." She looked up at Hotei and smiled, and he returned it easily. "I always had a choice, even when I believed I really didn't... I depended on the others to make the first move when I should have taken the initiative. We all share the same pain, it seems. But that's all the more reason for us to cope with that pain, and cope together as a group." She nodded firmly, looking at Souji with affection. "I chose to go back to the way I was without realizing it... But now I choose to move forward instead, and keep my mind focused on the here and now."

Yukiko's face was suddenly illuminated with a soft blue light as a tarot card began to materialize in front of her. She gasped at it, unable to look away as she reached out her hand to touch it... It shattered, the mystical flame rising into the air and forming into a being of pure light that radiated warmth down upon the entire group, easing the tiredness and fatigue from their bodies.

"Amaterasu..." whispered an awestruck Yukiko.

"The chains have been severed," said the Persona in a gentle whisper. "Your heart has once more been opened to the truth."

"...The truth..." repeated Yukiko in amazement as Amaterasu vanished in a blaze of blue flame.

"Pardon me for asking," said Souji to a beaming Hotei, "But do you know why the enemy's going after us in this particular order?"

"You mean the order in which your group obtained their Personas?" grinned the old man.

"How-" began Yukiko, but Yosuke interrupted her.

"You see?" he laughed. "I told you he knows way too much!"

"I would rather say I know enough, Hana-san." Hotei's eyes shimmered vibrantly as though lit by their own inner light. "But I should correct myself. The enemy is attacking your friends in the order which you forged your hearts' connections."

"Then I was right..." said Souji coolly. "It's trying to sever our bond with each other."

"But I do believe it has underestimated you," said Hotei seriously. "Your own heart is strong, Seta-san, and so it cannot truly combat your friends at its full strength. Their connection with you remains palpable, even if the others within the circle have been partially sealed."

"Then we need to make sure the others are protected, too!" said Yukiko firmly. "We'll help them repair their connections! Right?"

"You got it," said Yosuke with a nod. "We can't let them deal with their problems alone."

"But we need to get out of here first!" said Chie as she turned back to Yukiko. "C'mon! Throw your limits away!"

"Huh? What are you talking about?" Yukiko shook her head, confused.

"She means you need to throw away the item you have on that symbolizes your personal limitations," sighed Yosuke. "You could have explained it better, you know, Chie."

"You have no room to talk, buster!" retorted Chie, fuming slightly.

"My limits..." Yukiko reached up to touch the red hairband that held her bun in place. "...I had this since high school... I always wore it that year. Remember, Souji-kun?"

Souji nodded, remembering the hairband's constant presence on Yukiko's head throughout his hectic year as a transfer student. "A lot of memories tied to it, huh?"

"But... that's your favorite one, too..." sighed Chie. "I got that for you because it was red, and it looked good on you!"

"I remember!" giggled Yukiko brightly. "But I have others like this one, too. And besides... I need to make some new memories, anyway."

Yukiko pulled the band from its place around the bun, allowing her hair to tumble down her back in an ebony cascade. She stared down at the accessory for a few moments, and then tossed it over her shoulder with a soft smile.

Yukiko, Chie, and Yosuke became as gray as the others in the group, leaving Souji and Hotei alone in the frozen world.

"I apologize, Seta-san," said Hotei gravely, "But I needed to speak to you a moment in private."

"Is it about the next trial?" asked Souji, and Hotei nodded affirmatively.

"It is not a test that is centered around one of your friends, however. The enemy is beginning to realize the danger you represent to its mission, and it is sending an aspect of itself specifically for more direct combat."

"Which aspect is it?" said Souji, concerned.

"It is the aspect of Anger," said Hotei. "You must pit your current strength against it and defeat it without fail. It may very well turn your own friends against each other, but you must remain vigilant and find the connection that will bring about it's end."

"A connection? With us?"

"Indeed. All of you are deeply connected to this entire ordeal, as I'm certain you've deduced by now."

"And how deep is this connection with Naoto?" Souji couldn't refrain from asking. He had to see how much the old man knew.

He didn't expect Hotei's face to soften, or his voice to falter, and yet they did. "...She is at the heart of the matter. A great pain has infected the very core of her being, a pain that she foolishly desires to carry alone." Hotei stared firmly at Souji, his eyes unusually serious... and somehow familiar... "Only you can set her free, Souji."

"I understand," said Souji, rising to his feet.

"Very well, then..." Hotei smiled again. "I wish you luck, my dear boy... Godspeed."

And Hotei was gone once more, color flooding the TV world yet again as time returned to its normal state.

"H-hey!" said Kanji in alarm. "How did you all get over there?!"

"Yeah!" exclaimed Rise. "You were in front of me and Teddie a second ago! Then you just popped up over there!"

"What's going on?" said Naoto crossly. "What are you all doing that's causing this to occur?"

"Nothing!" said Yosuke. "It's that.. fear-thing! It's... stopping time or something!"

"...Stopping time?" said Teddie. "...Hm. Interesting."

"Wait! You believe them?!" said Kanji, his temper rising.

"...Well... they wouldn't lie to their friends," said Teddie simply. He turned to Souji and smiled. "Right, Sensei?"

"Right," said Souji with a smile. "But I think we need to-"

"We NEED to talk about what's happening!" said Rise irritatedly. "Don't just blow us off, Souji-kun!"

"Damn straight." Kanji walked forward toward Souji, his face reddening as his anger began to peak. "You're gonna tell us RIGHT now what the HELL else has been going on!"

"I have to admit, I'm curious about this, as well," said Naoto calmly. "We can stop here for a moment while you explain, Seta-san."

"...Seta-san?" said Souji, dumbstruck. He hadn't heard Naoto call him by his last name in a long time, and it shook him further to see Naoto look away, seeming to realize the same thing herself. But he felt that something else was wrong now... something that made his entire body feel uncomfortably warm... almost TOO warm...

"Uhhh.... guys?" Teddie's voice was nervous. "I... think we need to-"

"Shut up, Teddie!" yelled Kanji, a vein pulsing in his temple. "We're gonna get to the bottom of this right no-"

"...It's too late!" cried Teddie. "Run for it!"

Souji looked up, his attention drawn to what appeared to be a fiery meteorite that was plummeting straight toward the group's position. Instinctively, he grabbed Kanji around the arm and pulled him along with him as the ball of red-hot flame swerved at the last possible moment, arcing back upward into the sky, a tail of flame trailing along behind it.

"What IS that thing?!" cried Yukiko as she moved closer to Chie, who stared grimly up at the fiery comet.

Souji placed his hand on his sword and tightened his grip. "This... is our first REAL test."
Considering the fact that Chapter Seven was mostly exposition, it was difficult for me to transition into this chapter at the beginning. I'm not sure what I could have written to help smooth that over at the first part of the story, so any suggestions would be helpful.

More connections, and more plot-twists! Yay! Things are getting heated, too! *cough*

As usual, please comment! Well-rounded critiques are always appreciated!
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"...Naoto-chan, I think you should stop," Rise Kujikawa mumbled quietly, wincing as she watched her blunette friend stuff yet another forkful of cake into her gaping mouth. All of the dirty plates were really beginning to pile up.

Naoto let out a tiny unladylike burp; she didn't even bother to say 'excuse me'. "Why should I...?"

Rise pointed down at Naoto's stomach, which was already starting to peek out from underneath her shirt. "You're getting kinda big..."

"Hmph," Naoto placed the now-cleaned plate aside and snatched up her tenth piece of vanilla cake, "I'll eat as much as I want, Rise-chan..."

Rise sighed. Ever since their last venture into the TV world, Naoto had been afflicted with a new status effect known as 'Extreme Hunger'. How to cure it and just how long it lasts was still being studied up upon by Souji, Yosuke and the others; Rise was left behind to make sure that Naoto was kept full and happy until they found the antidote. So, Rise had ordered three large wedding cakes to be brought over to her house for Naoto to feast on. Of course, Rise hadn't expected Naoto to actually finish them all, and yet, as she watched Naoto's gut swell and swell, she was beginning to think otherwise.

Naoto reached down and patted her belly. "Mmm...this cake is very delicious, Rise-chan. Where did you get it...?"

Rise shrugged and replied, "I dunno...from that little bakery two blocks down from here..."

"Ah, I see! Well, if you ever happen to go there again, please give my compliments to the chef!" Naoto smiled widely; her face looked a bit rounder, and her cheeks were becoming puffy.

"...Okay..." Rise sighed again.

Taking another piece of cake, Naoto gave up on using her fork and simply shoved the whole thing into her mouth. Rise's mouth fell open as she watched Naoto greedily stuff herself like this. It was so incredibly awkward, seeing her usually serious and sophisticated friend act in such an undignified manner. Suddenly, there was a loud snap, and Naoto glanced down. Two of the bottom buttons of her shirt had snapped off, allowing a swollen flab of pudge to pour out onto her lap. Both Naoto and Rise gasped in unison.

"Oh dear...this isn't good..." Naoto remarked, pressing her slightly chubby hand against her slightly chubby face, "These school uniforms are expensive..."

"Hmm," Rise scratched her chin, "Maybe it'll be best if you stop eating for now, don't you think?"

Naoto scoffed. "Hah! Oh, Rise-chan, don't be so ridiculous! I'll just take my shirt off so it won't be damaged any further!"
Rise smacked her palm against her face. 'Ugh...'

Naoto unbuttoned what remained of her shirt, and tossed it over her shoulder, leaving her wearing only rather tight bandage wrappings from the waist up. Rise could actually see Naoto's huge breasts begin to pour out over the sides of the wrappings as they grew fatter and fatter from all of her eating. When the first cake was more than halfway done, Naotos pants began to tear, so she removed them as well. Now, the blunette was busy stuffing herself with cake while sitting in her rapidly-shrinking underwear. Her panties could barely be seen, hidden within the flab of both her gut and her widening thunder thighs. Her belly now looked like she had swallowed a soccer ball; large, round and swollen. Once all the fat began to spread out, however, it would surely take on a more flabby form.

'Hmm...but that'll take at least until tomorrow, won't it?' Rise figured. Then, just as she had thought that, Naoto's body began to fatten all over. What was really freaky about it was that Rise could actually see the fat spreading out within Naoto, causing every inch of her body to grow larger. Naoto was completely unaware as she continued to eat. She lowered a chubby hand and scratched her belly, which jiggled slightly at her touch. Her bloated butt cheeks were pushing into the handles of the chair, and her breast wrappings were already near the breaking point. Naoto belched again, this time much louder. Her cheeks were really puffy now, and a double chin was becoming visible.

'Oh my god...does this 'Extreme Hunger' effect quicken the speed of fat spreading within the body, as well?'

This continued on late into the night, and Rise was eventually forced to knock Naoto out with a frying pan to keep the fattening girl from eating herself to death. Souji and the others had still yet to return with any good news, and while Naoto was lying unconscious, her body still swelling with fat, Rise decided to just try a little bit of the cake. However, little did she realize that because she was using the same fork as Naoto, she would get any status effects that the blunette had possessed...including the 'Extreme Hunger' effect...
A Persona 4 Naoto Shirogane WG fic, featuring Rise on the side.
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Rise Kujikawa could easily tell that Naoto Shirogane was breaking. She could see it in the bluenette's face. It was subtle, and the detective prince barely ever allowed herself to falter in public, but Rise knew what was happening behind that facade of intellect and cold attitude the 16-year-old girl had developed at an early age. All of the pressure, all of the pain, all of the stress that comes with life, and topping it all off with Souji dying in a train accident on his way home...Naoto was falling to pieces before Rise's very eyes. It only got worse when she was let off her job for failing a recent murder case, and that was because she was still badly affected both mentally and emotionally by learning that her boyfriend had been killed only mere hours after she last saw him. No one, not Yosuke, not Chie, not Yukiko, not even Kanji, her closest male friend next to Souji, saw how badly Naoto was truly hurting inside. They knew she was suffering from depression, but it was growing dangerously close to suicide. Yet, none of them knew this. Not one of those so-called "friends" of hers. Except for Rise. She felt like she was the only one who actually cared about Naoto now.







When Rise had gone to Naoto's large mansion estate to speak with her privately, the redhead didn't even seem to recognize the bluenette at first. Naoto's skin had lost its lively color, now a deathly pale. There were black circles around her eyes and she looked like she hadn't eaten in days. She was breaking down into a mere shell of the strong young woman she had once been. It made Rise's heart ache to see her dear friend in such a pitiful state. She was beginning to realize that her worst fears were coming true; if she allowed this to continue on, Naoto might end up hurting herself.

Naoto asked if Rise wanted to come in.

Rise nodded, and said yes.

As they headed upstairs to Naoto's room, Rise kept her eyes glued to Naoto's back. She had to think of a way to help Naoto escape this pit she was falling into, to keep her from making a drastic decision that could possibly take her own life in the process. She was willing to do anything in her power to save Naoto. It was much more than enough to have lost someone like Souji Seta; she didn't want to lose another dear friend, especially not Naoto. When they entered Naoto's bedroom, Rise immediately looked to the counter. There was a pistol lying there, with an unopened packet of bullets next to it. Rise could feel the fear for her friend's life swelling up in her chest.

Naoto sat down on the edge of her bed, and offered Rise if she would like a drink or a snack or something of the like.

Rise shook her head.

Naoto then asked Rise what it was that she wanted exactly. For some reason, her voice sounded rather shaky.

Rise took in a deep breath before she began to speak. She told Naoto that she knew how she was deeply depressed over everything that happened, and she was worried for Naoto's state of mind. She avoided directly stating anything concerning suicide, since she didn't want to come off as possibly judging the bluenette's emotional strength too quickly. Rise finished it off by saying she would do anything she possibly could to help her friend get through this tough time in her life. There was silence, and then Naoto sighed heavily in response. A moment later, she began to cry. She was screaming and crying, flinging her arms around like a child throwing a tantrum.

Rise ran to the girl's side, and planning to hug her, when instead it was Naoto herself who grasped tightly around the redhead's waist. For a moment, Rise was afraid that Naoto was going to kill her. She was almost ready to burst out screaming herself. However, Naoto began to speak. She spoke of many things, like how she and Souji would go on walks around the city together, and how her father used to take her out for ice cream when she was a little girl. She spoke of so many things, all of them unconnected in any way. Then she began to focus on what Rise had told her, on how the redhead had told her that she was going 'insane'.

Naoto stared directly into Rise's eyes as she whispered with a maniacal grin and tearing eyes about how she wasn't crazy, she wasn't going crazy or anything silly like that, all she really wanted was some love, just something warm and real to make her feel alive again, something like what Souji had given her back on that cold winter night on Christmas Eve. That was all she needed, she wanted to be loved by someone again. Rise immediately understood, and without even a hint of hesitation, she slammed her lips against Naoto's. Naoto groaned as she slid one hand down Rise's skirt and the other up her shirt. Rise fell forward, taking Naoto down with her as their lips remained connected in a passionate embrace...


Not once during that long night did Naoto ever say Rise's name. All she cried out was 'Souji, Souji, Souji' over and over in eternal despair...her howls echoing in the starry darkness...


In the twilight of the morning, a loud bang was heard radiating from within the mansion's walls, and then there was silence...a scream followed close behind.




@ Atlus/Shin Megami Tensei.

It's written like this on purpose, just so you know. To make it seem more speedy and dramatic...or something...
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Uciekający przed ulewą młody mężczyzna wpadł do ciepłego wnętrza restauracji i przeczesał palcami włosy, strząsając z nich krople wody. Zauważył kręcącego się w głębi lokalu kelnera i pomachał mu.
- Ej, Francis! – zawołał, nie zwracając uwagi na karcące spojrzenia nielicznych o tej porze klientów restauracji. Sam rozsiadł się przy wolnym stoliku tuż przy panoramicznym oknie, rozpinając skórzaną kurtkę. – Daj mi piwa, tylko szybko! Zmachałem się, wiejąc przed tym deszczem.
Kelner uśmiechnął się przepraszająco do poruszonych gości, a ociekającemu wodą mężczyźnie posłał groźne spojrzenie. Tamten tylko uśmiechnął się szeroko i machnął ręką, dając do zrozumienia, że łaskawie poczeka.
Niedługo potem zroszony od zimnego piwa kufel stuknął o blat przed hałaśliwym gościem.
- No nareszcie! – rzucił tylko, nim przyssał się do napoju. Oderwał się od niego, gdy na dnie kufla pozostało jedynie wspomnienie o piwie, i wytarł usta wierzchem dłoni. – Tego mi było trzeba.
- Podać ci jeszcze jedno, Gilbert? – zapytał kelner, unosząc jedynie brew na popis przyjaciela.
- Nie, dzięki. Zaraz muszę lecieć.
- Dawno cię tu nie było. Wpadłeś po skuter?
Gilbert na chwilę sposępniał. Zaplótł dłonie na stole i wbił w nie spojrzenie.
- Taa… - odpowiedział w końcu. – Ale w taką ulewę sam rozumiesz, nie warto.
Francis sięgnął po pusty kufel.
- Jego rodzina może chcieć go sprzedać – powiedział. – Nie powinieneś kazać im czekać, skoro sam się zgłosiłeś, że im go dostarczysz.
- Nie musisz mi mówić. Tylko to wszystko jest jakieś takie…
- Wiem, Gilbert. Mnie również jest ciężko.
Francis odwrócił się, chcąc odejść, gdy naraz Gilbert zapytał, siląc się na wesoły ton.
- A co poza tym słychać? Jak ten twój brytyjski kolega, zaczęło wam się w końcu układać?
Francis przystanął, zaciskając palce na uchu kufla.
- Już tu nie pracuje – odpowiedział, nawet się nie odwracając, i odszedł, by zniknąć w kuchni.
Gilbert spochmurniał. Zdecydowanie zbyt długo nie widział się z przyjacielem. Ale od tamtych wydarzeń nie potrafili ze sobą rozmawiać. Każdy z nich radził sobie z nimi na swój sposób.
Przeniósł spojrzenie na ulicę za oknem. Strugi wody spływały po szybie, przez co świat za nimi był rozmazany, a nieliczne przemykające w deszczu sylwetki ludzkie przypominały ciemne zjawy.
Jedna z nich tkwiła w miejscu, z lekko uniesioną głową wpatrzona w szyld restauracji. Woda rozmywała twarz, sklejała włosy i moczyła ubranie, ale stojący w deszczu mężczyzna zdawał się nie zwracać na to uwagi.
Gilbert zmarszczył brwi. Znał tego człowieka. Przysunął twarz do szyby, niemal rozpłaszczając na niej nos, spróbował przyjrzeć się uważniej stojącej po drugiej stronie postaci.
Wtedy ich oczy się spotkały. Przez krótką chwilę, nim tamten odwrócił twarz, Gilbertowi zdawało się, że płakał.
Choć pewnie był to tylko deszcz.
- Ty tęsknisz za nim najbardziej, prawda? - mruknął Gilbert, odsuwając się od okna.
Mężczyzna po drugiej stronie pospiesznie odszedł, znikając w strugach wody.

- Francis, to tylko moje wrażenie, czy ostatnio chodzisz przybity?
Francuz spojrzał w oczy siedzącego naprzeciw niego Antonia i westchnął lekko. Naprawdę musiało być z nim nie najlepiej, skoro nawet niezbyt lotny w tych sprawach Hiszpan wyczuł jego kiepski nastrój.
- Niech zgadnę – odezwał się Gilbert, który razem z nimi przesiadywał przy stoliku w restauracji Francisa. Wskazał na niewysokiego mężczyznę o marsowej minie, który właśnie zniknął na zapleczu po skończonej pracy. – Chodzi o niego, tak?
Rolety w oknach były już opuszczone, a dorabiający po godzinach student postawił krzesła na blatach stołów, by zetrzeć podłogę. Poza nim i trzema przyjaciółmi w restauracji nie było nikogo.
Francis zignorował zaczepkę Gilberta, ten jednak drążył dalej.
- Pewnie znowu wpuściłeś go do kuchni i ludzie się potruli – mówił, zawzięcie stukając w klawisze swojego telefonu. – Pamiętam, jak raz ciebie nie było i on poczęstował mnie swoim „specjałem". Jezu, to był koszmarny wieczór…
- Zawoziłem cię wtedy do domu – odezwał się Antonio, uśmiechając się krzywo. – Zrzygałeś mi się na plecy, a potem omal nie zleciałeś ze skutera…
Gilbert puścił tę uwagę mimo uszu, wciąż nie rezygnując z tematu.
- Widzę po twojej minie, że trafiłem – zwrócił się do Francisa. – Ten angol struł ci klientów i teraz masz na głowie kłopoty…
- Doskonale wiesz, że nigdy nie wpuszczam go do kuchni – przerwał mu rozdrażniony Francuz. – Nie o to chodzi.
- A o co?
Francis rozejrzał się po sali, by upewnić się, że jest pusta, i odetchnął głęboko.
- Sypiamy ze sobą – powiedział w końcu.
- Co?
Na chwilę zapadła cisza. Francis wykorzystał ten czas, by dopić resztkę wina ze swojego kieliszka.
- Ale on jest kilka lat od ciebie młodszy - odezwał się Antonio. – I mówiłeś, że kogoś ma, prawda?
- Taa, takiego rozwrzeszczanego maturzystę, o ile dobrze pamiętam – dodał Gilbert. – Przyprowadził go tu kiedyś, jak akurat byłem na piwie.
- Obaj są już na studiach, ale chyba na różnych uniwersytetach. Arthur mówił, że nie najlepiej im się teraz układa  – powiedział Francis, sięgając po papierosa. W jego restauracji nie wolno było palić, ale miał to gdzieś. Był przecież cholernym współwłaścicielem. – On go wciąż kocha.
Dym z papierosa uniósł się cienkim pasemkiem do góry i rozlał się szeroko po suficie.
- A co z tobą? – zapytał Antonio.
- Ze mną? – Francis uśmiechnął się krzywo. – Ja się świetnie przy tym bawię.
- Właśnie widać.
- Dlatego uważam, że wiązanie się ze smarkaczami nie ma sensu! – rzucił Gilbert. – Są nieodpowiedzialni, nie myślą racjonalnie i nie liczą się z nikim, poza samymi sobą.
- Tak jak ty, Gil – mruknął Francis. – Nic dziwnego, że jesteś sam.
Spojrzał na Antonia, szukając u niego poparcia, ale Hiszpan zdawał się być głęboko zamyślony. Nie zwracając na nic uwagi obracał w palcach kieliszek, by po chwili zdecydowanym ruchem odstawić go na blat. Wstał.
- A ty dokąd? – zapytał Gilbert, wciąż zły za uszczypliwe uwagi Francisa.
- Mam coś jeszcze do załatwienia – Antonio uśmiechnął się przepraszająco. Francis nie spuszczał z niego uważnego spojrzenia.
- Ostatnio często rezygnujesz ze wspólnych wypadów – zapytał, gdy Hiszpan sięgał już do klamki. – Coś przed nami ukrywasz?
- Nie, skądże – odpowiedział po króciutkiej chwili wahania. Chwili, która nie umknęła uwadze Francisa. – Na razie, chłopaki.
Gdy wyszedł pustawą o tej porze ulicę, odetchnął głęboko zimnym wieczornym powietrzem. Zapiął kurtkę i wsunął dłonie do kieszeni, po czym ruszył niespiesznie w stronę domu.
- Długo mam tak na ciebie czekać? – usłyszał zza rogu budynku. Uśmiechnął się lekko i skręcił, stając przed skrytym w cieniu młodym chłopakiem.
Nie wyglądał na więcej niż 18 lat. Musiał stać tu już dłuższy czas oparty o mur, bo chłodne powietrze zaczerwieniło mu policzki. Jego gniewna mina i skrzyżowane na piersi ręce rozbawiły Antonia do reszty. Wybuchnął śmiechem.
- Co cię tak bawi? – warknął chłopak. Gdy Hiszpan wciąż zaśmiewał się do łez, wściekłym ruchem oderwał się od ściany i ruszył przed siebie. – Idiota!
Antonio wyciągnął rękę i chwytając go za ramię, przyciągnął do siebie. Ujął w dłonie jego twarz i spojrzał w pełne złości oczy.
- Cieszę się, że cię widzę, Romano – powiedział. A potem go pocałował.
Tytuł inspirowany kawałkiem Briana Craina: [link]
A dokument w Wordzie nazwałam "spamano fail", więc to wiele mówi:iconotlplz:

To właściwie wstęp do nieco dłuższego AU (czy może raczej króciutkiej serii), ale chwilowo nie będę mogła pisać dalej. Powód? Jestem bezdomna - moja własna uczelnia mnie, brzydko mówiąc, wyruchała i nie przyznała mi akademika, o czym dowiedziałam się wczoraj. Na dzień przed rozpoczęciem roku akademickiego. Dziękuję paniom z dziekanatu!
Jako że będę się teraz tułać i żyć na walizkach przez bliżej nieokreślony czas, postanowiłam wrzucić to, co mam (mam jeszcze pół rozdziału 'United', ale to może zaczekać).

Depresja wciąż trwa. I jestem okropną królową melodramatu, zdaję sobie z tego sprawę.

Następny rozdział: [link]
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- Posłuchaj mnie… nie możemy…
- Dlaczego?
Był późny wieczór. Na ulicach wciąż kręcili się ludzie, złaknieni nocnego życia i beztroskiego szaleństwa, ale w ciemnej bramie parku, gdzie stali, nie było żywego ducha.
Włochy patrzył na buty Ludwiga, w oczach kręciły mu się łzy. Niemcy przywykł już do takiego zachowania, ale dzisiaj po raz pierwszy nie wiedział, co ma w takiej sytuacji zrobić.
Włochy po raz pierwszy nie przepraszał. Ale nie tylko przez to Ludwig był taki zdezorientowany.
Parę godzin wcześniej dał się namówić na wspólny wypad po klubach w ramach odprężenia po długim posiedzeniu na międzynarodowej konferencji. Szybko okazało się, że niemal wszyscy ochotnicy z niewidomych przyczyn się wykruszyli, a został jedynie Ludwig, Feliciano i Lovino. Romano, choć nie w smak było mu towarzystwo kartofla, postanowił przypilnować brata, ale szybko zaginął w którymś klubie. Kiedy Niemcy zwrócił na to uwagę Feliciano, ten tylko wzruszył ramionami i z radosnym uśmiechem zaciągnął Ludwiga do parku.
A potem go pocałował.
Zaskoczony Ludwig  próbował się odsunąć, jednak Włochy przywarł do niego mocno, wczepiając palce w jego marynarkę. Niemcy niemal siłą go od siebie odepchnął.
Tak właśnie znalazł się w sytuacji, w której po raz pierwszy od dawna nie wiedział, co powinien zrobić.
- Nie możemy, bo… - zaczął powoli, gorączkowo szukając przekonujących argumentów. – Jesteśmy państwami, Włochy. Nie wolno nam.
- Nieprawda. Przecież moglibyśmy…
- I jak ty to sobie wyobrażasz? Nie możemy rozporządzać sami sobą. Mamy obowiązki. Kiedyś możemy być zmuszeni, żeby stanąć przeciwko sobie. I co wtedy?
Włochy gwałtownie poderwał głowę.
- Ja nigdy nie stanąłbym przeciwko tobie, Niemcy! Ja…
Ludwig zawahał się, dostrzegając w jego oczach szczere oddanie. Serce zabolało go na myśl, co powinien teraz zrobić, by oszczędzić im obydwu późniejszych rozczarowań.
- Myślę… - zaczął i na chwilę umilkł. Niezrozumiały ból ścisnął mu krtań. – Myślę, że powinniśmy ograniczyć nasze kontakty do minimum.
- Do minimum? – Feliciano patrzył na niego nie rozumiejąc.
- Powinniśmy przestać się spotykać. To dla twojego dobra.
- Dla mojego dobra? – Niemcy patrzył, jak na twarzy Włoch odmalowuje się nigdy niespotykane tam uczucie: wściekłość. – A może dla twojego? Wiesz co, Niemcy? Jesteś tchórzem!
Szybko zdał sobie sprawę z tego, co powiedział. Przerażony zakrył usta.
- Włochy… - Ludwig urwał nie wiedząc, co powiedzieć.
- Przepraszam – rzucił Feliciano, odwrócił się i ruszył w stronę hotelu, w którym zatrzymały się państwa na czas konferencji.
- Poczekaj, odprowadzę cię.
- Nie – rzucił przez ramię Włochy, nagle przystając. – Masz rację, Niemcy. Nie powinniśmy się już spotykać. Przepraszam.
„Przeprosił. Przeprosił i płakał. Jak dawny Włochy", pomyślał Ludwig.
Wcale go to nie uspokoiło.

Do hotelu powrócił dopiero nad ranem. Długo włóczył się po mieście, rozważając nawet wypicie kilku kolejek, ale zbyt dobrze wiedział, że o jedenastej czeka go kolejna sesja międzynarodowych spotkań i że powinien być na niej w miarę skupiony. Choć po wczorajszej scysji z Feliciano o żadnym skupieniu nie mogło być mowy.
Wysłuchał uwag recepcjonistki i wściekły ruszył do swojego apartamentu, który wynajmował razem z bratem. Gilbert jako emerytowane państwo nie brał udziału w konferencji, ale zawsze przyjeżdżał z Ludwigiem, żeby spotkać się z kumplami. Zupełnie nie przeszkadzało mu to, że widuje się z nimi niemal codziennie, a ich pokonferencyjne wybryki odbijają się na psychicznym zdrowiu Niemiec, który wciąż musiał tłumaczyć się za brata i płacić za szkody przez niego wyrządzone. Tym razem nie było inaczej.
Już wchodząc do pokoju Ludwig omal nie wpadł na ogromną palmę w doniczce. Niemcy był przekonany, że takie palmy stały w foyer przy recepcji. W jaki sposób jedna z nich znalazła się pod drzwiami do jego pokoju?
Odpowiedź znalazł niemal natychmiast. Na podłodze w saloniku, obstawiony pomarańczowymi pachołkami drogowymi, w najlepsze spał Gilbert. Tuż obok niego, świecąc gołym tyłkiem, pochrapywał Francis, ściskając w ręku dwie brytyjskie tablice rejestracyjne. Niemcy przez chwilę zastanawiał się, gdzie podział się zawsze obecny przy tego typu wyskokach Hiszpania, ale szybko go odnalazł w używanym przez pokojówki wózku na pranie, który nie wiadomo jakim sposobem znalazł się w apartamencie Ludwiga. Antonio leżał na brudnych ręcznikach spity równie mocno, jak reszta towarzystwa. Choć jeszcze niedawno musieli być całkiem rześcy, skoro przytaszczyli z parteru na dziesiąte piętro olbrzymią palmę.
- Prusy! – wrzasnął Ludwig, za nic sobie mając niewątpliwego kaca u brata i jego przyjaciół. Francja zerwał się jak oparzony i szybko zwiał przed wściekłym Niemcy, porywając wózek z brudami i zdezorientowanym Antoniem. Na polu walki został tylko Gilbert.
- Czy musisz się tak drzeć? – jęknął, z trudem wygrzebując się spod poprzewracanych drogowych słupków.
- Czy ja muszę się drzeć? Każdy by się darł, gdyby po swoim powrocie do pokoju zastał coś takiego!
- Nie przesadzaj.
Ludwig się żachnął, a Prusy, uwolniwszy się od pachołków, wyruszył na poszukiwania czegoś do picia.
- Możesz mi wyjaśnić, co się tutaj wydarzyło? – Niemcy nie dawał za wygraną.
- Długa historia, a z tego co wiem, ty za niedługo masz konferencję. Nie zdążyłbym ci opowiedzieć.
- Recepcjonistka mówiła mi, że straszyliście gości w windach.
- Nikogo nie straszyliśmy, tylko chcieliśmy się z Francisem ogolić. Po prostu w windach są lepsze lustra i światło.
- Gilbert, miałeś w ręku olbrzymią brzytwę starego Fritza.
- Bo goli najlepiej.
Ludwig westchnął. Czasami zastanawiał się, który z nich dwóch był starszy.
- Idę pod prysznic i wychodzę na konferencję. Jak z niej wrócę, ma być tu porządek. – Ruszył do łazienki.
- A jak tam sprawa z Feliciano? – zapytał niby od niechcenia Prusy.
Niemcy niemal się potknął.
- Co takiego? – zapytał, odwracając się do Gilberta, który odsuwając pachołki, starał się dotrzeć do kanapy.
- Zrobił to? Bratu możesz powiedzieć.
- Co zrobił?
- Nie udawaj głupszego, niż jesteś – Prusy z westchnieniem ulgi opadł na kanapę. – Wyznał ci miłość?
- Nie mam pojęcia, o czym mówisz.
Ludwig czuł, jak cała jego twarz szybko robi się purpurowa. Odwrócił się do drzwi, ale jego brat zdążył zauważyć.
- Czyli jednak nas posłuchał! – zawołał triumfująco, wznosząc butelkę z wodą sodową w niemym toaście.
- Was? – Niemcy znowu spojrzał na brata, marszcząc brwi.
- Podpuściliśmy go trochę z Francisem. Gołym okiem widać, że coś do ciebie czuje.
Ludwig powoli odsunął się od drzwi łazienki i jak w transie ruszył w stronę brata, omijając słupki.
- Oczywiście, najfajniejszą częścią było załatwienie wam prywatności. Tylko ten mały Lovino się wybił, Hiszpania musiał go gonić po klubach i zatrzymać. Szkoda, że tego nie widziałeś. Później chciałem was śledzić, ale Francis gdzieś przepadł i… Hej! - zawołał Gilbert, gdy Ludwig poderwał go na nogi, ściskając za koszulę. – Zwariowałeś?
- Wydaje się wam, że możecie się bawić czyimiś uczuciami? – syknął Niemcy, ledwo hamując wściekłość. – I to jeszcze uczuciami takiego naiwniaka, jak Feliciano? On zrobiłby niemal wszystko, co by się mu powiedziało!
- Lud, co ty…
- Nigdy więcej mu tego nie róbcie. Zostawcie go w spokoju.
Niemcy puścił brata, gwałtownie się odwrócił i ruszył do drzwi wyjściowych, porzucając myśl o prysznicu.
- Bracie, czy ty też coś… - zapytał Gilbert, ale Ludwig już nie odpowiedział.
Gdy trzasnęły drzwi, Prusy uśmiechnął się do siebie.

Niemcy kręcił się na konferencyjnym krześle, przez co wzbudzał niemałą sensację wśród siedzących po sąsiedzku państw. Austria popatrywał na niego krzywo, od czasu do czasu chrząkając wymownie, z kolei Ameryka nie omieszkał kilkakrotnie szturchnąć Ludwiga łokciem i głośno zwrócić uwagę, że zachowuje się jakoś dziwnie.
„Dziwnie to zachowuje się Włochy", pomyślał Ludwig. I rzeczywiście, Feliciano zdawał się być kimś innym. Aktywnie brał udział w zebraniu, a jego wypowiedzi były przemyślane i związane z tematem. Ani razu nie spojrzał na Ludwiga, ani nie wspomniał o jedzeniu, co wzbudziło ogólną konsternację.
Ameryka po raz kolejny nachylił się do Ludwiga.
- Coś tu nie gra. O co wam poszło? – zapytał tak teatralnym szeptem, że odwróciła się w ich stronę połowa zebranych, a Feliciano zaciął się w połowie wypowiedzi. Włochy poczerwieniał i wbił spojrzenie w stół.
- Mam tego dość – powiedział Ludwig, gwałtownie odsuwając krzesło i ruszając do wyjścia. Miał dość wymownych lub ciekawskich spojrzeń skierowanych na niego, tych wszystkich spojrzeń, które nie należały do jednej osoby. Osoby, która właśnie podniosła wzrok, żeby zobaczyć plecy Ludwiga znikające za drzwiami.

W parku kręciło się sporo ludzi, głównie matek z małymi dziećmi i osób starszych. Chciał przez chwilę pobyć sam, więc zręcznie wymijając dziecięce wózki i brzdąców grających w piłkę, zagłębił się w rzadziej uczęszczaną część parku.
Mógłby wrócić do hotelu, ale doskonale wiedział, że w jego apartamencie przebywał Gilbert, a nie miał specjalnie ochoty na spotkanie z bratem. Wybrał więc park, w którym wczoraj doszło do tej niezręcznej sytuacji, jakby starając się ukarać za to, co wtedy powiedział Feliciano.
Postąpił słusznie, był o tym przekonany. A raczej był o tym przekonany jeszcze wczoraj. Dzisiaj nie był pewien niczego.
„Bracie, czy ty też?". Głos Gilberta brzęczał w jego uszach. Ludwig potrząsnął głową, jakby to miałoby wyrzucić z jego myśli zarówno natrętne pytanie Prus, jak i sylwetkę Feliciano, tak odległego przy konferencyjnym stole.
Kim dla niego był Włochy? Przyjacielem, towarzyszem broni... Taka byłaby jego natychmiastowa odpowiedź na to pytanie. Ale wczorajszy pocałunek zmienił wszystko.
„A może nie zmienił nic?", prychnął Gilbert w jego głowie. „Może po prostu otworzył ci oczy na coś, co podejrzewałeś od dawna?"
Niemcy dotarł do starej odrapanej ławki w nieuczęszczanej części parku. Usiadł i popatrzył na rozlewający się przed nim staw, który niedługo skują pierwsze mrozy. Zatarł zmarznięte ręce.
„Tak będzie lepiej dla nas obu. Nikt nikogo nie skrzywdzi", odpowiedział Gilbertowi.
„Wiesz co, Niemcy? Jesteś tchórzem!"
W wyobraźni ujrzał wściekłe spojrzenie Feliciano.
„Masz rację, Włochy", odpowiedział mu. „Jestem tchórzem"
Ukrył twarz w dłoniach, starając się wypchnąć z pamięci obraz łez w oczach Vargasa. Łez, których powodem był po raz kolejny on.
- Niemcy!
Ludwig poderwał głowę i spojrzał na przeciwny brzeg stawu, na którym stał Włochy, szaleńczo machając ramionami.
- Włochy? – zapytał nieprzytomnie. Co Feliciano tutaj robi? Przecież mieli się już więcej nie widywać.
- Niemcy! Idę do ciebie! – Włochy krzyknął jeszcze raz i ruszył pędem wzdłuż brzegu. Jednak jeden zły krok spowodował, że Feliciano poślizgnął się na błocie i z krótkim okrzykiem wleciał do mętnej wody.
- Włochy! – wrzasnął Ludwig, zrywając się z ławki. Wbiegł do stawu i chwycił szamoczącego się przyjaciela, który ze strachu nałykał się sporo wody. – Włochy, nic ci nie jest?
Feliciano zanosił się kaszlem, nie zwolnił jednak Niemiec z kurczowego uścisku. Wczepił się w niego, jakby był ostatnią deską ratunku.
- Nie… - wymamrotał z twarzą wtuloną w kurtkę Ludwiga.
- Boli cię coś? Uderzyłeś się gdzieś? – Zaniepokojony Niemcy chwycił Vargasa za ramiona i delikatnie od siebie odsunął, poszukując widocznych uszkodzeń na jego ciele.
- Nie… nie zostawiaj mnie! – zawołał Feliciano, drżąc z zimna. Ludwig patrzył na niego zaskoczony.
- Proszę, nie zostawiaj mnie – mówił dalej Włochy, spuszczając wzrok i ledwo powstrzymując szczękanie zębami. – Ja nie chcę, żebyś odszedł ode mnie tak jak we śnie.
- We śnie? – zapytał Niemcy i nagle sobie przypomniał. „Ach, w tym śnie".
- Kiedy wychodziłeś z sali konferencyjnej… to wyglądało tak jak w moim śnie… widziałem twoje plecy i bałem się, że jeśli zawołam, to się nie odwrócisz…
- Włochy… Feliciano, przecież wiesz, że nie mogę cię zostawić – powiedział Ludwig, łagodnie się uśmiechając. Vargas spojrzał na niego zaskoczony.
- Ale przecież sam mówiłeś, że… nie powinniśmy się spotykać…
- Obiecałem ci, że nigdy cię nie zostawię. Chociaż czasami jesteś nie do wytrzymania.
Feliciano stropił się po tych słowach. Ludwig westchnął i przyciągnął go do siebie.
- Ale bez ciebie chyba bym nie wytrzymał – odparł, przytulając go mocno. – Dlatego nie oddalaj się ode mnie.
„Wiedziałem", powiedział głos Gilberta w jego głowie, ale Niemcy szybko go uciszył. Nie był mu teraz potrzebny.

- Niemcy?
- Hm?
- Śmierdzisz mułem ze stawu.
- Wiem. Ty też.
Prawidłowy tytuł powinien brzmieć 'Ławka', ale cóż, dA i polskie znaki w tytułach się nie lubią.

Jak byki szarżują, to krzyczeć!

Motto tej historii (tudzież następnych w serii, o ile powstaną)? Heca zaczyna się zawsze wtedy, gdy Bad Friends Trio zaczynają imprezować...

Dawno temu obiecany fic dla :iconfanrubygloom: Wybacz, że nie FrUk, ale planuję zrobić z 'Ławki' miniserię, w której i dla FrUka miejsce się znajdzie. I wybacz, że tak późno, ale to właśnie ja i moje zabójcze tempo pisania^^;
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Nienawidzę świata. Jest zimny. Pusty. Okrutny.
Może gdybym był człowiekiem umiałbym docenić życie. Tak. Żyłbym krótko, intensywnie, bez hamulców. Bez wiecznego kontrolowania się. Bez strachu, że wszystkie moje błędy obrócą się przeciw mnie. Bez tego wiecznego bólu w sercu.
Nienawidzę świąt, jakichkolwiek. Każde ma ten sam cel. Jednoczenie, wspólne spędzanie czasu. Jakbym miał z kim.
Tego dnia było zimno. Wychyliłem się tylko by przegonić natrętnych smarkaczy i od razu odechciało mi się wychodzić. Wkurwiające bachory. Zawsze to samo, robią słodkie oczka i jak nie spełnisz ich zachcianki to paskudnie się mszczą. Zatrzasnąłem drzwi. Niech robią co chcą. Przyzwyczaiłem się, że wszyscy wybitnie uwielbiają mnie drażnić.
Nieprawda. Ciągle boli tak samo.
Miałem pracę. Kolejne bezwartościowe papiery. Jedyne, co pozwalało zapomnieć. Wyzyskiwali mnie, wiedziałem. Arthur zrób, Arthur podpisz, Arthur, Arthur, kurwa mać. Obopólna korzyść. Mogli grzać dupska na fotelach, a ja miałem zajęcie. Chociaż na chwilę mogłem zapomnieć.
O tym nie da się zapomnieć.
Kolejny zasrany dzwonek do drzwi. Niech oni wszyscy się odpieprzą. Niech zostawiają mnie w spokoju. Niech bawią się w swoim zasranym towarzystwie i nie raczą mnie tym widokiem. Takie szczęście, że aż mnie mdli.
Wychyliłem się z okna segmentu, nie mając zamiaru zejść. Akurat obok stała doniczka z pelargonią. I tak mi niepotrzebna.
I sru.
Chmara dziko wymalowanych gówniarzy rozbiegła się, wrzeszcząc.
- Żebym was więcej nie widział, gnoje jebane!
Jeden smark wystawił mi język. Bezczelny, mały sukinsyn. W odpowiedzi wytknąłem środkowy palec. Niech nie myśli, że mu wolno.
Ogólnie nienawidzę dzieci. Paskudne, małe kreatury. Obrzydliwie niewdzięczne. Jakkolwiek się nie starasz i tak swoje zrobią. Odejdą. Odejdą i zostawią, jakby nigdy nic.
Alfred dorósł. Muszę się z tym pogodzić.
Za każdym razem. Za każdym razem każde przebrzydłe smarkate uciekało.
Peter mnie nienawidzi. Matt też. Victoria kiedyś powiedziała, żebym się odpieprzył i przestał być taki cholernie zaborczy. Oni wszyscy mają rację.
- Na miłość Boską, Arthurze, nadal ci się chce?!
Zawsze poznałbym ten głos.
- Czego?! - nie mając zamiaru ruszać tyłka z ciepłego fotela uraczyłem Francisa zachrypniętym wrzaskiem.
- Wpuścisz mnie? - spojrzał na mnie z dołu, kokieteryjnie zaciągając niesforny kosmyk złotych loków na ucho. Sam się wystroił jak kretyn skończony. Pewnie miał nadzieję, że mnie zdziwi.
Przyszedł do mnie. Może i tylko dogryźć, ale sama świadomość, że Francis tu jest wywołała przyjemne ciepło. Chwilowo. Potem przeszywający ból. Nie mam do niego żadnych praw. Nie jest mój.
Nieco ostrożnie wysunąłem nos zza drzwi.
- Wchodź.
Zupełnie jakby się ucieszył. Wszedł, a raczej wpłynął tym swoim tanecznym krokiem do mieszkania. Miałem okazję przyjrzeć mu się z bliska. Uwielbiałem, kiedy wiązał włosy. Zwłaszcza tak jak teraz, aksamitną wstążką z boku głowy tak, że zawijasy płynnego złota muskały odsłonięty obojczyk. Moją uwagę przykuły okulary z łańcuszkiem.
Cholernie seksowne.
- Nie pytasz, po co przyszedłem? - spytał niewinnie, a ja zatrzymałem przypływ zimnego powietrza zgrabnym trzaśnięciem drzwi. - Nigdy nie widziałem tego domu.
- Niedawno się tu przeprowadziłem. - wymamrotałem cicho - To raczej nie ma znaczenia. Mam szarlotkę. Rozgość się. Salon jest na górze. I nie zdejmuj butów.
Trochę się zdziwił.
- No co? - odwróciłem wzrok nieco zmieszany. - Herbaty?
W odpowiedzi Francis pokiwał głową tak energicznie, że prawie zrzucił okulary, po czym ostrożnie podreptał na górę.
Nic w tym dziwnego. To chyba normalne. Zrobię mu herbaty.
Po co..? Czemu? Czemu do cholery ze wszystkich miejsc na świecie wybrałeś mój dom do nawiedzania? Mógłbyś chociaż to uciąć. Te podchody. Nadzieja tak bardzo boli. Nic nie mogę zrobić.
Dolałem nieco rumu do swojej filiżanki.
- Też chcesz?
- Już piłem.
No tak. Jak zwykle wszyscy bawili się beze mnie. Podsunąłem Francuzowi filiżankę z gorącą herbatą i nieco już zimną szarlotką. Wyglądała bardziej jak jabłkowa breja, ale smakowała całkiem dobrze. Blondyn zajął się dłubaniem w cieście, podczas gdy ja zatopiłem się w nadal ciepłym fotelu. Rum przyjemnie rozgrzewał.
- Więc? - starałem się być sceptyczny.
- Co więc? - wreszcie wziął kawałek ciasta do ust.
- Po co tu jesteś.
- Mówiłeś, że to nie ma znaczenia.
- Bo nie ma. Jestem tylko ciekawy.
-Ach. - rzucił okiem na stertę Bardzo Ważnych Dokumentów, dumnie prężącą się na stoliku. - Przeszkadzam?
- Nie. Przecież wiesz, że ty nigdy... - urwałem. Oboje odwróciliśmy wzrok.
Cholera jasna. Powiedziałem to. Na głos.
- To.. To miłe. - rozdłubał już całe ciasto, chyba całkowicie zapominając o dobrych manierach. - Przyszedłem cię odwiedzić.
- Mówiłeś, że nie znasz tego domu.
- Bo nie znam. Na szczęście twoi sąsiedzi tak. - upił łyk z filiżanki. - Każdy w promieniu pięciu kilometrów zna ex-punka Kirklanda.
- A skąd to wiesz, co? - naburmuszyłem się.
- Pytałem po ludziach. Tylko dzieciaki się ciebie boją. Chociaż po dzisiejszej akcji chyba wiem czemu.
- Paskudne smarkate. - fuknąłem. Zaraz, zaraz. - Pytałeś? Kogo? Gdzie? Kie..-
- Twoich byłych sąsiadów.
Wypytywał o mnie. To nie mogło być prawdą. Spojrzałem w swoje odbicie w resztce już chłodnej herbaty. Do oczu mimowolnie napłynęły łzy. Cholerny alkohol.
- Zniknąłeś bez słowa. Martwiłem się.
Francis się o mnie troszczył...?
Nie mogłem się już dłużej powstrzymać. Gorące, słone łzy powoli kapały z moich policzków. Rozryczałem się jak dziecko.
- Arthur...
Poczułem, że klęka przede mną. Miałem ochotę krzyczeć. Żeby się nie zbliżał. Żeby nie podchodził.
On nie jest mój. Nigdy nie miałem odwagi mu tego wyznać.
Już było za późno. Trzymał mnie w objęciach, mocno, stanowczo. Resztkami sił odepchnąłem go lekko nie umiejąc wykrztusić słowa. Patrzył na mnie. Wyraz tych oczu rozrywał mi serce.
Tak bardzo cię skrzywdziłem.
Z transu wyrwał mnie dotyk ust. Przyjemne, mokre ciepło na wargach, wchodzące coraz głębiej, głębiej.
Całował mnie. Najpierw ostrożnie, czule, potem coraz bardziej stanowczo, łączyliśmy się razem i odrywaliśmy równocześnie, jakby każdy z nas nie był pewny. Po chwili jednak przyssaliśmy się do siebie.
Jego język był miękki, aksamitny.
Oderwaliśmy się zbyt szybko. Łzy nadal spływały.
- Przepraszam..
- Nie płacz, Arthur. Nie płacz.
Zetknęliśmy się nosami.
- Francis...
- Już nigdy więcej nie będziesz samotny. Obiecuję. Przyrzekam na Boga, Arthur, że nigdy więcej.
- Ja... - nie mogłem tego wykrztusić.
- Dokończ. - wyszeptał. - Razem dokończmy.
Kocham Cię. Od kiedy pamiętam.
Świat się kończy, bo Rin sobie ff napisała. Znaczy, żadna nowość. Zwykle beksa pisze po nocach na komórce i chowa to przed światem, bo te świstki nie są jak to łanie ~namelessyuki ujęła, "odpowiednie" na polskie standardy ff", bo ludzie są za mało rozwojowi w tych kierunkach. Tak, nadal się z tego śmieję.  Ale trzeba. Kurczę, trzeba. Tak mało FrUKów w tym Internecie, trzeba rozwijać fandom. Bo liczą się chęci, prawda..?

Bluźnierstwa są, więc jak ktoś ceni polski język, niechaj ucieka. I wali fluffem.

Wee, nieważne. Enjoy..~.
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- Znowu pada – burknął Feliks, stojąc przy parapecie i przyklejając nos do szyby. Po chwili i tak już niewyraźny z powodu deszczu obraz zakłóciła mu mgiełka, którą spowodował własnym oddechem. Westchnął głęboko, przy okazji oznajmiając jak bardzo jest tym faktem niezadowolony i odwrócił się do wnętrza pomieszczenia. Mały salonik nie można było uznać za idealnie czysty, ale bałaganu też nie było. Pod stołem typowo stały dwie puste puszki po piwie, kilka butelek po wodach z Biedronki i zapomniana skarpetka, której nie mógł od dawna sparować. W wejściu do pokoju leżała skórzana kurtka i jeden glan, w dodatku przewrócony. Zielony wzrok w końcu przeniósł się na szkodnika, zalegającego na kanapie i kradnącego mu bezczelnie wi fi.
- Dlatego nie mam generalnie serca, żeby cię stąd wyrzucić. Nie myśl sobie.
- Tak, tak – Gilbert machnął oszczędnym gestem ręką, nawet nie odrywając wzroku od ekranu telefonu. Feliks przewrócił oczami. Dla niego te wszelkie nowinki techniczne nie były aż tak zajmujące. Router to ma tylko dlatego, że mu Elka kupiła i osobiście stała nad jego karkiem, kiedy go podłączał. Powiedziała wtedy, że należy iść z duchem czasu czy coś w tym guście. Zaraza by wzięła tą całą elektronikę. Może i była przydatna, może i ułatwiała w pewnym stopniu życie, ale Polska wolałby mieszkać w drewnianej chacie, palić w kominku i gotować nad nim strawę niż siedzieć na dupie i obrastać w tłuszcz.
- Ale nogi na stole to sobie możesz totalnie wybić z głowy! – tylko to powiedział i już był przy Prusach, by brutalnie strzepnąć te śmierdzące kończyny z jego stoliczka – Kto cię wychowywał, wiewiórki?!
- Blisko, Polen. Polaki – Felek nie mógł w to uwierzyć. Gilbert nadal nie podniósł wzroku znad telefonu. No jak on tak może rozmawiać, nie patrząc na człowieka?! Z prychnięciem usiadł obok, w bezpiecznej odległości od albinosa i ponownie wgapił się w okno. Szaro, buro i jakoś tak do dupy. Świetnie.
- Czemu tu się przywlokłeś, tak właściwie? – rzucił ni z gruchy, ni z Pietruchy, dłubiąc małym palcem w uchu i oglądając, co tam z niego wygrzebał. – Mało masz po drodze kumpli?
Czekał na odpowiedź. I czekał. I czekał. Po pięciu minutach ciszy zirytował się na tyle, że zasadził Prusakowi sójkę w bok. – Słuchasz ty mnie?!
Ciężkie powietrze w polskim salonie przecięło kilka przekleństw Gilberta.
- Mam lepsze rzeczy do roboty, Polaczku – burknął, niemal pożerając wzrokiem ekranik. Feliks zmrużył oczy, by szybkim ruchem wyrwać mu telefon i równocześnie odskoczyć. Prusy przez kilka sekund trzymał rękę w powietrzu, jakby cud technologii nadal w niej był, a po chwili…
- Dobrze ci radzę. Oddaj to – blondyn znał ten ton głosu, oj znał… Wyobrażacie sobie nazistowskie szczekanie nazistowsko wściekłego nazistowskiego doga? No to właśnie tak warknął Prusy, powoli podnosząc się z kanapy. Felek zadziałał instynktownie – rzucił się do ucieczki w swoim własnym domu, ściskając komórkę w garści. Mieszkanko nie było duże, toteż pogoń trwała bardzo krótko. Zbyt krótko, by Gilbert się zmęczył i dał sobie spokój.
Polska wpadł do łazienki. Kiedy chciał zamknąć się od środka, stało się coś, czego się obawiał. Prusy popchnął z całej siły drzwi i wparował do pomieszczenia. Polak przełknął powoli ślinę,  chowając ręce za siebie i postępując kroczek do tyłu.
- Oddawaj – znowu szczeknięcie, poważna sprawa. Blondyn pokręcił przecząco głową. Pruskie oczy zapłonęły bliżej niezidentyfikowaną emocją, a dwa uderzenia serca później Polska był przygwożdżony do ściany. Nie, żeby narzekał, ale centralnie w łopatki wbijał mu się haczyk na ręczniki. Uśmiechnął się, próbując się wyswobodzić. Figa z tego.
- No i co teraz mi generalnie zrobisz? – Prusy wygiął wargi w nieprzyjemną parodię uśmiechu i zbliżył swoją twarz do jego. Powoli, bezlitośnie gapiąc się w zielone latarynki Polski. Kiedy ich nosy się zetknęły, Felek miał oczy szerokie jak pięć złotych. Cały się spiął i zapomniał, jak w ogóle się znaleźli w tej sytuacji.
I to był jego błąd.
Parę minut później wyklinał w myślach, że tak łatwo dał się podejść.
- Oj Polen, Polen. Kiedy ty w końcu przyznasz, że tego chcesz~ - albinos śmiał się, stukając z nieprawdopodobną szybkością w ekran smartphone’a.
- Jak piekło zamarznie, a świnie zaczną latać. W najbliższym  czasie nie wyrosną ci skrzydła – odburknął. Siedział na parapecie – jak najdalej się dało od Gilberta.
Za oknem już tylko kropiło. Nadal pogoda okazywała, jak bardzo ma ich w dupie, nie pokazując słoneczka, ALE! Teraz miał pretekst…
- Zostajesz na noc?
- Pewnie.
Tytuł z dupy wzięty [*]
Takie tam... na październikowy theme? .3.

Zabijcie mnie kiedyś za takie maleństwa, błagam ; ;
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