Disclaimer: Not mine.
AN: To MyraHellsing with love.
It was a room full of a thousand, blank, unmoving eyes.
They were arranged according to color, to size, to material, and then to age. There were red ones, blue ones, gray ones, and there were the rarer colors like violet and yellow. And there were glass ones, ceramic ones, wooden ones, and even ordinary buttons. Some were old and chipped and cracked and dusty. Others were gleaming new from those industrial factories. And each was carefully balanced in its own miniature box-like shelf on the walls. The room extended like a long hallway, wooden boxes all in neat little rows.
There were no lights here. And carved on the solitary door for that long room, was an eye, keeping watch.
Mukuro the doll-maker came in, holding a gas lamp.
He walked slowly, elegant leather shoes tip-tapping on the worn limestone floor. His white gloved fingers drew a line steadily across the ledges of boxes. He stopped at a particularly green pair. Like wet grass in spring.
He smiled indulgently at them and picked them up.
Chikusa sat primly on the upholstered armchair in Mukuro's workroom. Around him were various sized tables held aloft by thin chains connected to the ceiling. And on them, like half-finished surgical victims, were dolls and dolls in various stages of being finished. They hung around him like corpses ready for the physician.
He clutched the files in his hands.
He hated staying in this room. It was the reason why Mukuro often talked with him here instead of the many drawing rooms in the east wing.
If that hadn't been enough to spark his claustrophobia, the number of dark wooden cabinets and bright red Chinese drawers around the room practically suffocated him. Even opening the seven austere windows didn't help. It merely threw the room into sharper focus, deepening the depth of the shadows and blinding Chikusa with the glare from the white limestone floor.
Finally, Mukuro came in by a side-door carrying a sleek black box.
He stood up and greeted his friend.
Mukuro nodded at him, smiling. And even though his face pulled the right muscles and tendons, Chikusa couldn't help but worry a bit. That smile…
"Here is the order that cute little weasel in the city ordered. Vero-something—" Mukuro gingerly handed it to Chikusa.
Pained at Mukuro's complete disregard for names, Chikusa continued for him, "Her Grace the Duchess of RedHook."
"Yes, yes. Enough of that green-eyed whore, you have more orders for me?"
Chikusa frowned at his friend but handed the thick folder over anyway. Mukuro grinned, all sharp teeth.
There it was again, Chikusa thought. It wasn't the sight of the teeth that bothered him, but… "Listen, Mukuro…I think…you need to get away from this house for a bit. Have some time off, you know? You know you…You look…a bit tired."
Mukuro flipped though the papers, barely listening to him but nodding anyway. Chikusa, encouraged at this persisted, "I mean, you haven't mingled for a while at the court dances. Why don't you go with me tonight? It isn't very healthy to stay here, cooped up alone—"
The doll-maker slapped the file on a nearby empty table. He gave Chikusa a disgusted glare for that suggestion and said, "…Those filth won't know culture even if it danced on their powdered, fat cheeks. So, I'm afraid you'll have to brave those pigs tonight by your lonesome self." With that, he waved Chikusa a dismissal, already planning the next set of dolls he would be making.
Chikusa left, glancing worriedly at Mukuro.
He picked up a sable filbert brush, between two pianist's fingers that stayed steady in the air. He swiped it against the pile of coral red and thinned it with a bit of turpentine at the side. He leaned forward, eyes peering at the dismantled doll in front of him. Currently, it lacked all four limbs and the lower pelvic region. They would be attached later, until the upper torso was painted already.
The room was dark and behind him, the seven windows were closed shut. Those cherry trees outside were in full blossom, already pregnant with tiny bouquets of light pink flowers. Some were even tumbling down by this time of the year.
He leaned forward, brush in hand—
Feet shuffled behind him.
He ignored it and swept the tip of the brush across the curves of the torso. There were no servants here and currently, he was not receiving anyone. He heard it again, the tread of cloth against the floor. He kept painting and did not turn around. Behind him, the cherry flowers fell.
Minutes passed. He heard no more.
Finally, he turned around.
There was no one there. The windows were shut tight. And all his unfinished projects were accounted for around the various hanging gurneys. The room was still suffocated with shadows. It had been his imagination, again.
He turned back to his doll, not seeing the trail of cherry petals on the window ledges and on the floor.
I see you.
There lived the greatest doll-maker of the world in these woods. His dolls were so finely made that one could see the dusting of freckles and fine hairs on them. His dolls were so exquisitely detailed that one could identify each doll from the palm lines on their hands. His dolls were so breathtakingly life-like that one could almost see them watch and stare and blink at their owners. People whispered that it really was the dolls' eyes.
They looked too forlorn.
But the doll-maker had gone into seclusion within these woods. Oh, he still provided orders, still created doll after doll but nowadays…people avoided him.
Dust motes danced in the air in front of him as Mukuro slid his eyes open.
He extended a hand and patted the cabinet beside the bed, looking for the blank papers he kept reserved. His hands met silk. He sat up and turned. There were flower petals strewn across the top and they led to the open door.
He kept the windows always closed. He kept the manor doors tightly locked. And he kept all the doors in each room closed every night.
He'd always placed blank papers neatly in a pile on top of the cabinet. Every night, regular, clock-like.
He found them scattered underneath his bed.
In that house, the rooms were full to bursting with cupboards, drawers, and chests and boxes. All the rooms were full, bursting to the seams. If there was anything, Mukuro could not stand—it was emptiness.
All the rooms—but one, in the attic.
It was locked and the key had long gone missing. Inside this room, the walls were stripped bare and the skeletal framework of the house could be seen. The floor too was ripped, wooden gaps like toothed maws waiting. And there was a chair, leaning drunkenly on its side as one leg was broken. In front of it, was a half-finished brick wall. It covered an adjoining recess in the room, about the size of a small child. Inside, it was empty.
Mukuro blinked sharp blue eyes and stood up from the nest of white blankets. Several cherry petals drifted down from him and joined their other compatriots on the bedcovers. He surveyed the checkered black and white floor. It was early morning and the light had barely crept in his room. But even in that darkness, he could see the track of flowers. They led to the inside of an iron bronze birdcage, elaborately wrought with leaves and vines. So, his trap had worked.
He stood up, his feet steady on the cold floor.
The birdcage rattled. Cloth rustled as the doll-maker stalked towards his captive.
As dawn streamed through the windows, Mukuro clenched the metal rod between clammy fingers.
And then inside the prison bars of the birdcage, he saw a threadbare ragdoll lying by the walls of the trap. Furious at himself, Mukuro rammed the rod through the cage. Sparks flew and the bars screeched and protested and finally bent aside.
The ragdoll flinched as the rod stopped an inch from its face.
It was an old ragdoll, Mukuro could see. It was missing one brown button eye and its skin—or the cloth weave that made its skin—was tattered and falling apart. Even the right stump of its leg had a tiny hole. Mukuro lifted the doll to look at the damage at the foot. Three cherry petals slipped from the hole to the floor.
Mud-colored yarn flopped to the side as the doll regarded him, its head tilted.
The man stood up and carried his patient to the room across the hallway. There, amidst a city of drawers and chests and stacked boxes, he picked a blackwood one with a grinning knob. He pulled it open and inside there were various sized needles arranged along rows on dark dusty velvet. He picked one and pulled another drawer free, this time oak with small square knobs. He took a spool of thread, the color of cinnamon for the doll.
Looping the thread through the eye of the needle, he deftly stitched the hole on the ragdoll's foot.
All the while, the doll looked at him with one lone button eye.
After he was done, the doll rubbed insistently at his index finger and slapped its hand against its face at the spot of the missing eye. Mukuro shook his head and murmured, "I am sorry, little one, but…I don't have that shade of brown in any of my buttons." It was true, that brown hue was…eerie.
Like old blood.
The doll drooped and hid its face against his knuckles. As its yarn-hair flipped over, Mukuro saw a word scrawled across its neck in spidery writing. Tsuna.
Its name was Tsuna.
On the study desk next to a bust of some unknown artist, there was a blue and white china bowl full of cherry blossoms. Mukuro watched as Tsuna tottered over to the rim of the bowl and scoop up several petals. A slit opened in his face and the ragdoll stuffed them in.
Flowers. The ragdoll ate flowers. Mukuro chuckled as Tsuna greedily chomped on his food. Shredded pieces of pink petals fell like confetti around the ragdoll.
Midnight struck. The man looked up, astonished as the main grandfather clock echoed from the main hall. The day had gone by that quickly? He'd barely done anything but watch Tsuna. Oh well, he thought to himself. Something far more interesting happened today that deserved his undivided attention.
A doll that was completely alive.
Staccato piano notes began to echo through the labyrinthine hallways of that mansion. Mukuro turned his head sharply towards the closed door. Tsuna halted eating and placed both hesitant hands on the doll-maker's larger one. There was someone else traipsing around his home and it made Mukuro's blood boil and his teeth gnash.
Tsuna pressed harder against Mukuro's wristbone, insistently.
That music…Why did it tug at Mukuro's memories so violently? He'd heard it before, he knew. A desperate piano piece that changed its pace as swiftly as a hurricane. Mukuro bit his lip and it bled slowly down his chin.
Then Mukuro realized that something was clutching at his thumb quite anxiously. He looked down to Tsuna who was shaking his head—no, no, no.
He humored the doll, "I won't. I promise. I won't go outside my room when that piano plays."
The notes slurred into one as Mukuro bent down and gave a butterfly kiss to Tsuna's upturned face.
Flooded with shadows and feathery whispers in small corners, Mukuro turned in his bed with eyes wide and unblinking. He could not sleep. Not with all this noise at night.
Through the hours the clock hand pointed at, music flew in a crescendo and its notes kept switching, forte! One forte, two forte, three fort—No, pianissimo, softly so very softly! Ghostly voices argued and disputed and footsteps as light as ballerinas tap-tapped on those limestone tiles. There was no one in the house, no one but Mukuro and Tsuna. And that ghostly feast thundered and murmured throughout the empty rooms.
Mukuro wrapped two lanky arms around himself, eyes red and wide.
And the moon was grinning ear-to-ear, laughing to see such a spectacle.
Underneath all that noise, there was a plaintive voice in the attic—sotto voce, sotto voce. A quiet voice, a silhouetted plea unheard in that midnight revelry.
And that scent of cherries in the air was heavy like blood.
The doll-maker laid awake, watching guard over a sleeping Tsuna.