Well, here I am once again. At this point, I think it's safe to say Blood+ has made me a true-blue fan; this is the longest I've ever been interested in any fandom. (Otherwise my maximum limit for anything—person, animal, place, thing—is around ten months. Any longer than that, and I consider it love. ;P)
This story is intended as a one-shot—but if readers are interested, it'll be expanded into a multi-chapter fic set in 1968, as suggested in the summary. At which point the rating will change for angst, bloodshed, and adult themes. Because let's face it, the PG-rating and I are not on speaking terms. XD
All comments and critiques are more than welcome!
Unvollendete: Schubert's famous 'Unfinished Symphony'.
The sound of birch-whip hitting skin echoed through the door.
"Damnation, sir. What did you mean by it?"
Joel's voice was controlled but furious. Livid waves radiated through the oakwood she was pressed against. She'd never heard him speak in such a tone before. But why would he? Gentlemen did not raise their voices before ladies.
Among two-faced sneaks—it was different.
"Are you aware of the damage your recklessness could have caused?"
A murmur, too soft for even her ears. The tone was apologetic, but not pleading.
No, of course not. Haji wouldn't plead.
Not even when punished for something entirely her fault.
Another craack of birch on skin. Saya pressed her fingers to her lips to smother a gasp. If she made a noise, the three men on the other side of the door would hear her. But if she couldn't stop them, couldn't intervene on Haji's behalf—
The third craack made her stomach shrivel, a salted snail gushing bile up her throat.
Haji made no sound, although she half-heard a muffled grunt. She could picture him hunched over the wooden flogging-horse, lily-pale in the basement's flickering gaslight. Joel standing over him with both hands crossed sternly behind his back, while the broad-shouldered stableman brandished the birch-whip for another vicious swing.
The stableman hated Haji—the little Roma boy who pranced in finery like his betters, who wined and dined among the Goldschmidts as an equal. Twelve-year-old Haji had once told Saya about his scathing glares and filthy remarks.
Five years later, Saya still remembered.
He's probably enjoying putting Haji in his so-called place now.
Rage filled her. The dim corridor with its damp granite blocks melted into crimson. Her fingers curled on the door's brass latch.
She had to stop them—tell them whose fault it really was.
It was me.
I'm the one who bullied Haji into sneaking us out of the Zoo. I'm the one who made him arrange for a carriage while Joel was away. I'm the one who convinced him to show me the village outside the grounds.
It was me.
She'd thought she was being so clever at the time. Slipping out without Joel's notice. She'd been confined to the Zoo for so many years. She so longed to see what lay beyond its walls. If only as far as the village twenty miles off—St. Emilion. Haji was sent there all the time on errands; he was familiar with the routes and people. He could show her around for a few hours, and take her back by the first shadow of nightfall.
It was child-simple.
Saya, we should not do this, Haji had said. Joel will be furious if he finds out.
He'd recited that litany as she haggled him into ordering a carriage. Repeated it as she stuffed her hair under a strawboater hat, slipped on the shirt and trousers she'd made him borrow from one of the kitchenboys, and blackened her upper-lip with cork.
The freedom of wearing trousers, and no corset, had made her giddy. Examining her reflection in the mirror, she'd remembered thinking, So this is what it feels like to be a man.
Haji's eyes had taken in her 'revolting appearance' with a wealth of misgiving.
Please, Saya. Lets forget about sneaking out. I have a bad feeling about this.
Stubborn, Saya had drawn the line. Haji—either you come with me, or I'll go by myself. But I am going to see that village, whether you approve or not.
Please, Haji. A coaxing smile. It would be better if you were there too. I wouldn't have as much fun by myself. Please?
She'd known he wouldn't argue after that. However much he objected to her ludicrous schemes, Haji was fundamentally incapable of denying her anything.
Even if his consequent punishment outweighed hers.
Of course, she hadn't thought about consequences then. It hadn't occurred to her that Amshel, who'd stayed behind in Joel's stead, would have men watching the grounds. That one of them would spot her and Haji at the Zoo's back entrance, by the gateway reserved for tradesmen. The man had wasted no time in informing Amshel. Who'd put two and two together in a twinkling.
Saya and Haji were waylaid before they'd even boarded the carriage.
Now, Saya flinched at the sharp craacks sounding behind the door. Her sweaty fingers tightened on the latch.
She'd played witness to Haji's thrashings several times before. In his early months at the Zoo, before domestic docility had yet to sink in, he'd been more difficult to restrain—surly and disobedient. He'd enter without knocking, leave without dismissal, ignore direct orders, and talk back to his betters, all with blunt insolence. More than once, Amshel had ordered the boy whipped for impertinence; tutors would apply a tawse on him if he ever acted up; the cook would give him a smack or two to knock the stubborn cheek out of him. But in each case, the measures were seen as correctional, never cruel.
Unlike servants' children, who had the fearful veneration of master and home trodden into them at an early age, Haji was raised as a rootless gypsy on merciless ever-changing streets.
In his world, defiance was not an act of malice—but simple survival.
That boy is not so easy to break, she'd once heard Joel remark to Amshel.
True, Amshel said complacently. But there are simpler ways of breaking someone.
Saya's eyes narrowed. She could hear Haji's ragged breathing on the other side of the door. The basement pulsed with waves of debasement and pain, like the inside of a torture-chamber.
Suddenly, she realized what Amshel meant.
I have to stop this.
A vast shadow fell across the door.
Startled, she spun. "What—? Oh."
Speak of the Devil.
Amshel loomed over her, hands clasped behind his broad back. The lamplight cast half his face in shadow, highlighting the other half in red. His gaze was cool as flint.
"You know perfectly well you are not supposed to be here."
She ignored the warning in his tone. "I need to speak with Joel. Haji had nothing to do with this!"
Amshel's eyes narrowed, disdain in every lineament of his face. "That idiotic boy caused more damage than either of you realize yet. His punishment is but half of what he deserves."
"But it was my idea to—"
"Regardless. It is his responsibility to watch over you. Not encourage such indiscretions. He must be taught the importance of duty."
As if to underline that, another craack rang out. And Saya heard, distinctly, Haji's howl.
Flinching, she spun to the door. Automatically, Amshel took her arm. The grip was polite but firm. "You are not supposed to be here. Come away."
"His fate is not upto you to decide."
"B-but—" Her lower-lip quivered. "But what if—?"
"What if Joel sends him away?"
The idea held a powerful terror for her. She'd grown so used to having Haji at the Zoo, in her life. The thought of his absence was not unbearable, but anomalous.
Amshel sneered. "No doubt Joel might. It would be a fitting sentence."
"But it wasn't his fault!"
"That is up to your guardian to determine. Not you. In the meantime, I will escort you back upstairs. And please have the maid help you out of that disgusting outfit."
At his scornful glance, she realized she was still wearing the shirt and trousers Haji had given her. Her hair hung disheveled, and half her face was still smeared with cork. Any other lady would've been mortified with her own slovenly appearance.
Saya just tipped her chin up and met Amshel's gaze, as good as she got.
She always hated the way he looked at her. Like she was an animal from Joel's menagerie—undeserving of any sentiment. A handful of years later, she'd learn the true basis of his contempt. Which would make her hate him all the more.
"Is there something you find amusing, Amshel?"
"Not at all." Amshel's tone was bland. He offered her an arm, but made it clear, the way he held his elbow for her to crook her hand into, that he did not want her walking too close to him.
Saya didn't move. "But Haji—"
"He must be taught not to put caprice before duty. As must you. I doubt Joel will regard your actions favorably."
She knew he wouldn't—in fact, the idea of what he might say or do was already forming a knot in her stomach. But Amshel's cold eyes were on her, probing for the slightest signs of dismay to feed on. She would give him none.
"That is up to my guardian to determine. Not you."
Amshel's lip curled. "Of course."
He took her by the arm, and she let herself be steered away, even as her eyes flitted to the door. The last thing she heard, as Amshel and she ascended the staircase, was another craack, and the echo of Haji's cry.
Her heart sank.
The maid helped her wash up, put her in a nightdress and peignoir, and combed her hair at the dressing table.
Dazed, Saya stared past her own reflection, at the pink rose in its dainty vase. The ones Haji always brought her in unspoken tradition—like a fragrant hello. She imagined Joel sending Haji away, and the vase left bare thereon. It seemed a dreary embodiment of her life at the Zoo itself.
A bolt of terror seized her. She nearly shoved the maid aside, ready to race down to the basement and find her friend.
There was a knock on her door. "Saya?"
Pulse leaping, she turned. But in the time it took the maid to open the door, she'd recognized the voice.
Her guardian stepped in without meeting her eyes. He was still wearing his formal tailcoat and gloves, a pearl tack glittering mightily on his silk puff tie. After Amshel sent him news of Haji's and Saya's spree, he'd returned from town directly, and gone upstairs to see Haji, locked by Amshel in the study. Saya had tried to hound the butler into letting her see Joel, but been refused.
Beg your pardon, mademoiselle, the butler had harrumphed, but it's the master's orders.
This had chilled her. The first face Joel always requested to see, upon returning home, was his little darling's.
The fact that he hadn't made her understand something was terribly wrong.
Dismissing the maid, Joel shut the door behind him. The pale lamplight accentuated the fine wrinkles on his face, but his expression was difficult to read. Nervous, Saya watched him from the corner of her eye.
She'd never felt afraid of him in her life, but she was now.
Until he drew closer, and she saw his face. He did not seem angry or upset. Just… tired. More tired than she had ever truly seen him.
A smile, wan but warm. "You mustn't look so frightened, Saya. I am not here to chastise you."
Relief expanded her lungs. Leaping up, she ran to him. His hug was secure, familiar; the tweedy scent of his coat touching a part of her memory from long past. For him, she'd always be the little princess who flounced around the mansion in a cloud of frills and laughter—above all rules or blame.
"My girl, my girl," murmured Joel. "You put me through quite a shock today. You know better than to frighten me this way at my age."
"I-I'm sorry, Joel."
"Yes. I know you are." He draw back to study her. "Amshel told me that you were down in the basement earlier. Is it true that you orchestrated today's mishap?"
"Yes. It's all true. Haji had nothing to do with it! It was my fault, Joel—I'm sorry!"
He sighed. "I suspected it was your idea. Haji would not breathe a word, but I could tell."
"You shouldn't have punished him! He had no reason to take the blame for what I did!"
"I disagree. He was charged with the duty to look after you. He knows better than to let you run amok this way."
The same word Amshel had used earlier. The sound of it made her feel ill.
"He was only going along with what I wanted! He didn't deserve to be thrashed!" A lump knotted her throat. "Please—where is he? Is he all right?"
"He'll be fine. He's young and strong. He'll recover with some beef tea and rest."
"May I see him?"
Joel shook his head. "You'd be best to leave off for tonight, Saya. See him in a few days, when he's more presentable."
Presentable? In their childhood, Haji had seen her prance around the rain-dripping barn in naught but her chemise and knickers. And Saya had been privy to several bedside visits when he'd caught that bad case of chickenpox three years ago, and was covered all over in lurid red spots. There was no such concept as presentablility between them.
"Now now. I am sure you can afford to be patient. In the meantime, I think we need to talk." He gently clasped her hands in his, guiding her back to the vanity. When she was seated, he leaned against the dresser on gloved palms, regarding her intently. "Why did you want to sneak out of the Zoo, Saya? What was this nonsense all about?"
"We—were only going to the village beyond the grounds, Joel. We planned to come back before nightfall."
"The village? Do you mean St. Emilion?"
"Yes. I just—wanted to see what it looked like. I wanted to be someplace new, outside the Zoo's walls."
"Did it perhaps occur to you to request my permission? I could have arranged for Amshel to accompany you and Haji on your sojourn."
"I—" She wasn't sure what to say. How could she explain that she'd wanted to make this journey independently? Just her and Haji—free to blend in with normal people. "It wouldn't have been the same with Amshel, Joel. It just wouldn't."
"Oh?" Joel's look was gentle, but appraising. "You weren't planning to run away with Haji, were you?"
She sounded so flabbergasted that Joel smiled. "Nothing, really. Just something Amshel mentioned. I should've known not to believe him."
"Joel, can't I please see Haji? Amshel said you were going to send him away. You aren't, are you?"
"Send him away? No. Not at this point. Although I am very disappointed in both of you, Saya. I expected better."
"I—I'm sorry." She dropped her gaze, both to seem contrite, and hide her relief at the news of Haji's excusal. Inside, she was already calculating the best opportunity to sneak out and see him. "I promise, I won't do anything of the sort again. Honor bright."
"Honor bright, hm?" Joel sighed. "You say that every week before I catch wind of more mischief. When will you mend your ways?"
She put on a guilty look and did her best to blush. "This is the last time. I swear."
"If I had a franc for every time I heard you say that…" Smiling, Joel touched her cheek. His manner was all warmth, no signs of that steely anger she'd sensed when he was chastising Haji in the basement. It made her realize, with a shock, there were far more sides to Joel than the paternal tenderness he lavished on her.
And made her wonder if she'd care for him at all, if she hadn't done so all her life.
"Now, Saya. It's late and you must go to bed. Shall I send for the maid in case you need anything?"
"I—no. It's all right."
"Very well." She let him help her up, then tuck her into the four-poster bed like he'd sometimes done when she was very little. Drawing the covers to her chin, Joel paused, serious. "I want you to promise you will be more careful, Saya. The idea of you wandering around town unaccompanied—it is extremely distressing to me."
"I promise, Joel. I'll ask your permission the next time."
"Good." He smoothed her hair. "You must understand, Saya. There are… dangers beyond the Zoo's walls. Dangers you are completely unschooled in dealing with." It might've sounded patronizing, if his tone weren't so earnest. "I know if you ventured out there, you'd have a friend in Haji. But Haji is, in many ways, still a boy. There are certain things even he could not defend you from."
"Joel—" She couldn't think of a time he'd spoken so candidly to her. Not as a vivacious princess or spoilt little puss. But just as… herself.
"I do not say this to upset you, Saya. Just to warn you. Time marches relentlessly for me, and I fear I cannot always be there to protect you. I only ask you to remember something. The world outside is not the same as the Zoo. And the people you meet there will not be the same as myself. Nor will their intentions."
Unbidden, Saya thought of the unpleasant gleam in Amshel's eyes.
"I—I understand, Joel."
"I hope so." Smiling pensively, Joel straightened her blankets. "Now go to sleep. Tomorrow, when I find the time, I'll accompany you to St. Emilion myself."
This appeased her. She settled back in her pillows. "May Haji come along?"
"Not so soon. Give him time to rest."
She watched him extinguish the candles on the dressing-table, then heard the soft click of the door opening and shutting. Lying in the dark, she waited for the soft tread of his footsteps to fade.
Then, once the coast was clear, she leapt out of bed, slipped on her peignoir, and snuck into Haji's room.
Joel had shifted Haji from the servants' quarters to a room in the east wing four years ago. Said room was a flight of stairs above Saya's; connected by a corridor where candles burned between rows of paintings. The location put it, in a word, ideal for sneaking out of and into. (Years later, upon learning why Haji was shipped to the Zoo, she'd realize how deliberate this was.)
Pausing barefoot at Haji's door, she knocked quietly. In the past, she'd forgone such nicety and burst in unannounced. But when Haji had turned fourteen, he'd mysteriously begun locking his door at night. And whenever she'd badger him about it in the mornings, he'd blush and stammer so defensively she became convinced he was doing something terrible and riddled in guilt. She'd been tempted to tell Joel, but that would've invited questions on what she herself was doing out of bed so late, so she'd let the issue be.
Nowadays, Haji left the door open until a quarter past ten—all the while mumbling unconvincingly about how improper it was for her to keep sneaking into his room this way. They'd sit up half the night swapping ghost stories and playing poker, or tiptoeing to Amshel's study to take puffs from his imported glass-bellied hookah, which boasted hallucinogenic effects, but which only made them cough and taste dead grass in their mouths, or else creeping to the kitchen to steal leftover tarts and eat them hidden between the library's bookshelves, poring through Joel's untouchable medical volumes at illustrations of cadavers and making up horrifying meanings for the scientific terms they didn't know.
Tonight's visit was more urgent.
"Hello?" She rapped her knuckles softly on the wood. "Haji?"
For a moment she wondered if he was asleep. Guilt pierced her. He'd been through so much today already. Perhaps she should heed Joel's advice and let him rest.
She was about to go, when she heard a croaky voice call, "…Saya?"
It was a magic incantation. Whirling, she grabbed the latch. His door was unlocked; a single candle burning at the nightstand threw huge shadows on the walls as she burst in.
Compared to the opulence of the mansion, Haji's room was astonishingly simple—a single bed, a dresser, and a desk. On his washstand were a set of straight-razors, the bay-rum soap his hands always smelled of, and a silver-backed comb she'd given him two years ago as a gift. Three plain collar-studs and a pair of gloves—both hand-me-downs from Joel—lay on the dresser. The desk was stacked with old books and sheet music.
Virtually nothing in the room, save for Haji's blue hair-ribbon, belonged to him personally. But while it should've given the room a gloomy transient air, it just seemed neat. Saya often asked Haji if he'd like personal trinkets to liven the room up with. But Haji had replied, in an embarrassed sort of way, that he had everything he needed, at least until he was in a position to somehow repay Joel for taking him in.
Her friend was like that; concentrating more on what he could do than what he couldn't. His quiet pragmatism, born from a childhood of ruthless change, often made Saya embarrassed of the petty grudges she tended nurse over little things like ill-fitting dresses or strict governesses.
Indeed, in the years of the war, it would make her wonder if a sheltered childhood was a disadvantage, insufficient at toughening you up for a brutal world where more exposed people found it easier to stay whole while you yourself fell apart.
She found her friend propped up in bed with a pillow. He was bare from waist-up, chest swathed in stiff-looking bandages, hair falling undone around his face. A small fox-ear book dangled from his pale fingers. In the plain narrow room, he seemed too tall, too well-cut—more a surreal centerpiece than a person.
At seventeen, he was already a head taller than she, and Joel said he would grow taller still. He barely resembled the surly ragamuffin Amshel had whisked off the streets five years ago—which was what startled strangers the most. Everything about him, from his immaculate poise to the consummate elegance of his appearance, seemed to stem from a lineage of decadent aristocracy.
Often, Saya fancied that her friend was no gypsy, but the cast-off son of some faraway tsar. Often, cynical adults murmured that Haji was not Joel's adopted ward, but his illegitimate son by a former mistress.
Whatever his mystifying origins, his looks were beginning to startle. These days, Saya noticed how young ladies would coyly flirt with him at parties; older matrons would pause to discreetly watch his progress across the ballroom; gentlemen would politely inquire what title his family held and where their estate was based—none of them realizing that this was the same boy who, five years ago, had stood invisible in a corner serving refreshments.
No doubt someone with a shrewd social acumen would've noticed one or two slips of etiquette and realized Haji was not a born Goldschmidt. However his bearing was so perfect, his conduct so precise, that no once could quite believe relentless rumors of how Amshel had bought the boy off a family of street-musicians either.
"Saya!" Seeing her, Haji started to rise—or perhaps grab a shirt. Just as quickly, he slumped back, the book dropping with a thud. His voice was strained. "Saya—wh-what are you doing here?"
"I came to see you, stupid! Are you all right?"
"Saya, you should not be out here. You'll get into worse trouble if Joel finds out—"
"Joel doesn't know I'm here. Stop worrying so much." She sidled closer. "Are you all right, Haji? You don't look all right at all."
He dropped his gaze. "I-I'm fine. The cuts do not require stitches."
"Cuts?" Belatedly, she noticed faint red bloodstains on the bandages along his back. Her heart shot to her throat. "Haji—how hard did the stableman hit you?"
"Not nearly hard enough." A faint smile curved his lips. "I once cracked two ribs as a boy, when I was caught buzzing from a fruit vendor, do you know? Compared to that, this is nothing."
He was putting on a brave face. But even she could tell he was in pain.
"The… cuts must sting you, though."
"That will stop soon. I simply have to ensure that they breathe through the bandages, and wait until they scab over. At any rate, they don't sting as much as during the whipping. The stableman soaked the birch rod in brine."
"Brine? That's disgusting! Why would he do that?"
"Apparently it prevents infection that way. But… I really think it's to make the blows smart worse."
"D-did you order someone to fetch you a doctor?"
A smile, ironic and a little resigned. "It is not as bad as it looks. And I am really in no position to summon a doctor the way one would a footman."
The double-meaning wasn't lost on her. It struck her that the thrashing hadn't been a disciplinary measure so much as a reminder of Haji's place. He may have been treated, ostensibly, as a family member. But he would never be allowed to forget the degradation he'd been taken out of, and might easily be thrust back into if he overstepped his bounds.
Saya felt a burst of rage.
This isn't fair.
Haji stared at her. "What?"
"This—this is so unfair! You did nothing wrong! They had no right to punish you!"
"Saya, it is not a question of right or wrong. I was brought to the Zoo to watch over you. If Joel feels I strayed from that purpose, he is perfectly within rights for being angry."
"Perfectly within rights? You're actually condoning what happened?"
He hid a wince. "I am condoning nothing. But it is not my place to argue. I hold no status in this household, and I live on Amshel and Joel's sufferance. Until I've reached a position to enforce my own will, I must do as I am told."
He sounded, thought Saya, like a music-box saying that. A motorized monotony of sound. The sudden urge to shriek at him, kick him, made her head buzz. "I can't believe this! The least you could've done was told Amshel the outing was my idea!"
"It would have made no difference. If your word were weighed against mine, whom do you think Amshel would have believed?"
She stamped her foot. "He would have believed you! You're always more truthful than I am!"
"Truthfulness had little to do with it." He hesitated. "You understand what is meant by 'saving face', don't you?"
She nodded, even as she wasn't sure what he meant.
"Saya—the fact that we almost snuck out of the Zoo, that we did something so seditious under Amshel's nose—he would never let it go unpunished. Otherwise, it would mean he was losing control over the mansion in Joel's absence. Therefore an example had to be set. But Amshel would never vent his anger on you."
"On me?" she huffed. "Oh, I should like to see him try."
The corner of his mouth twitched. But his face remained serious. "Saya—I live here under Joel's charity. He can easily take away my privileges if I cross my limits. But that isn't why he had me reprimanded. He did it to ensure that Amshel would not take the matter into his own hands. It was about soothing his ego, not keeping me in line."
She hadn't considered it from that angle. The fact that Haji's punishment could be born from calculation, not righteous anger, was unthinkable. For the second time today, the fabric of her enchanted dollhouse ripped open to show a glimpse of a pitiless adult realm.
"Y-you could have at least tried to plead your case!"
"Arguing with Joel would only have made things worse." Haji's head fell back on the pillow. The brief burst of energy faded; his half-lidded eyes slipped shut. Saya realized what a strain he was putting on himself, talking to her this way. She remembered Joel once saying how some people withdrew into themselves during crisis. Haji had always been one of them.
It reminded her of those tiny armadillos scuttling around the gardens—how they rolled into their shells upon attack, conserving strength by not fighting against what they believed to be impossible odds.
She wondered what past atrocity had beaten such a quality into Haji.
"Did… Joel speak to you, after what happened?" Haji asked then.
"And? You are not in trouble, are you?"
"No." She dropped her gaze. "I'm not."
Apparently, venting their displeasure on you was enough.
He let off a sigh. "I'm glad. There is no reason for you to take the brunt of this punishment."
"Even if it was my fault?"
"It doesn't matter. I was brought here with the duty of looking out for you."
"By that, you mean Joel expected you to play my constant scapegoat?" She intended caustic criticism. But what came out was wrath.
Haji's eyes opened. "What?"
She couldn't answer. The room was a sudden cauldron; boiling her temper into the heights of rage.
Uneasy, Haji leaned forward, long legs tenting the sheets. "Saya—what's the matter?"
"Nothing." Even as she struggled to tamp her fury, she realized which word of his singed her so. Duty. It was a side of Haji she was becoming aware of. A side she'd seen on Joel, on Amshel, and on every man she came into contact with. That unspoken layer of distance, of grown-up reserve, as if they were dealing with a pampered angel—but not, in any way, an equal.
Turning her back on Haji, she spat, "You talk as if you were under some agonizing obligation to keep me out of trouble, do you know that? As if I'm an idiotic child. I'm old enough to carry my own blame. You have no reason to defend me."
"Saya. You know that is not what I meant. But it is my duty to—"
"Duty?" Again, the word bit like a lash. A burning congestion filled her eyes. "Is that all you see your time with me as? Some sort of stupid obligation?"
"No—that isn't what I meant. I only—"
"What? You admitted that you only endured the thrashing because you had no choice. Without Joel's sufferance, you would be nowhere. Is that the only reason you put up with me too?"
"Saya." Shock vibrated in his voice. "You're misconstruing everything I say. You know perfectly well I don't—"
"I don't know anything!" She whirled to face him. In the flickering candlelight, her eyes swum with tears. Haji flinched, and she felt a flash of shame at feeling so small before him. Her voice sounded to her like a child's. "I understand your life before coming here wasn't easy. Who could blame you for—for wanting something different? B-but if that's the only reason you tolerate being my friend—"
"Saya—no! How could you think—?"
Her tears fell in a spasm. "Because before you came to live here, no one but Joel would come near me! The servants are afraid of me! I scare off all the animals! Even Amshel keeps his distance—but I've never liked him anyway, so that's just as well! Except I can't understand why! Do I scare people off because I'm not—normal? Or—"
"Saya." He reached for her. She stiffened, tears rolling down her face as pride roiled within. Too distraught to see the parallels of this moment to another, years ago. When a small boy with resentful eyes and tear-stained cheeks had stood just as rigidly as she. Inviting first pity, then a painful understanding in return.
Haji's hand clasped hers; his grip was wonderfully tight. He drew her down to sit beside him. No one in the entire household—not even Joel—was as sure of her as he was. Sniffling, she pressed her face into the crook of his neck. His skin smelled salty, with a pungent undertone of herbs. His arm came around her, first tentative, then tight as a rampart.
Five years ago, he'd been small enough to fit in her lap, with narrow boy-shoulders and hands like seashells. Now, it was the opposite. Curled against him, she felt like a fairy-wisp from a Richard Dadd painting. Pocket Venus, Haji sometimes teasingly called her, and she'd be too miffed to catch the subtle compliment.
He was growing up, and the knowledge gutted her, reminding how she remained stoppered in time. In the past, she'd simply taken this for granted, and child-Haji had done the same. But he wasn't a child anymore. Soon he was bound to notice her abnormalities. Already, she could see the wariness building in his eyes when animals fled from her path. Twice now, she'd overhead him questioning servants about the blood served to her every evening, and where it came from.
The situation would worsen as he grew. Soon he'd want to know the truth about her origins. And it chilled that she'd have no answer to give him.
How could she explain why she was this way, when she didn't know herself?
"You're an unusual person," Haji murmured then. "Some might even call you odd."
Stunned, she looked at his face. He could read minds now?
But he was only replying to her earlier outburst. "Saya—its true that certain things about you … are strange. But no one in this household is normal to begin with. Look at me. Loud noises give me headaches, the ladies at parties bore me, and I'm more interested in cello than I am in going hunting. Joel dips a ball of dough in all his drinks and feeds it to the dogs because he's always afraid of getting poisoned. Amshel has an unnatural fear of dirt and keeps washing his hands every time he touches someone—even if it's by accident. Doesn't that strike you as strange? I'm sure that in most families, there are one or two relatives who are utterly insane. But here, the madness is divided equally. You have no reason to think there is something wrong with you. There really isn't."
In any situation, Haji was prone to few words. So this, coming from him, was practically a speech. Saya opened her mouth, but no words came. A strange pressure cramped her throat. For a moment she thought she might cry. Then something bubbled past her lips, curling and splitting them open, and she realized what it was.
Caught in a giggling fit, she pressed her forehead to Haji's shoulder. Unsure where this hilarity surged from; unable to do anything but let it unravel the tension of this horrible day. Haji chuckled too, low in his throat, but stopped when it hurt the wounds on his back. His hand came up to brush the hair from her face.
"I am glad you find the idea of living in a madhouse so cheering."
"It—it's not that." She tried in vain to stop laughing. If she was too loud, a servant might hear. "Just—is all that really true? What you just said about Joel and Amshel?"
"Amshel—is afraid of dirt?"
"Disgusted. Why do you think he carries that customized fork and knife in his coat? He cannot stand the idea of anyone's mouth on his cutlery, save his own."
"But then—" A naughty idea bloomed. "Haji—as soon as you're better, let's get some fertilizer from the garden. We'll take it upstairs in a gunny-sack, stand by the window until Amshel comes back from his evening stroll, and then we'll—"
"Sa-ya." He always had a talent for injecting disapproval, irony, affection, or any other emotion on the spectrum into that word.
She pouted. "Fine. No doubt it's too much to hope that Amshel will catch the burner from some bleached mort in Paris instead."
Haji grimaced. "Saya—you know better than to talk like that. Its no language for a lady to use."
"So claims the boy who taught me every syllable and worse, at the tender age of twelve."
"I was very young back then. I had no sense of propriety. Besides, you know Joel hates it when you speak that way."
"What Joel doesn't know, won't hurt us."
"Yet here we are now."
She laughed again, but stopped when she realized this wasn't funny at all. He'd been severely thrashed for something entirely her fault. Remorse resurfaced in a wave. Her eyes burned.
Haji frowned. "What's the matter?"
She couldn't answer. Without meeting his eyes, she starfished her hand across his chest. His skin was warm under the scratchy fabric of bandages. She felt sliding muscle and a corrugation of ribs there, well-defined in a way they'd never been before. Without thought, she stroked lower, across the pale shoal of sternum. Not noticing how he tensed beneath her touch, how his breath quickened in an audible triad to his pulse.
She'd never noticed how white his skin was. The color put her in mind of shadows in fresh snow. The idea of that boorish stableman whipping him back-and-blue put a sour taste in her mouth.
"Do… the wounds hurt a lot?" she whispered.
"Only—when I breathe too hard."
His voice was absent its usual equanimity. Bordering nearly on hoarse. Bemused, she looked up, taking in his flushed cheeks and dilated pupils. His pulse ticced in his throat like a trapped bird.
"You are breathing too hard."
Haji dropped his eyes, swallowing with an audible click. "Saya—p-perhaps you should go now."
She hesitated , then sulkily relented, sliding off his bed. He probably wanted to sleep off today's ordeal. But she wouldn't let him off so easily. "Don't take too long to recover, do you hear me Haji? I won't forgive you if you're laid up for more than three days."
"Yes, your highness," came the dry reply.
"And once you're better, I'll show you this huge apple tree I found in the grounds. The branches there are perfect for climbing. We'll have a contest to see who can pick the ripest apples on the top. The loser must eat all the ones with worms in them."
"All right." A flash of white teeth, brief and startling. "I hope you like the taste of worms, Saya."
"I doubt it. You're the one who's going to eat them. Oh, and then we'll get the gunny-sacks and—"
"Saya, I will not haul dung into the mansion with you."
"Fine. Killjoy." She stuck her tongue out at him, and he rolled his eyes. Both children again; eternal comrades-in-arms. But both sensing a mercurial shift in the temperature of their sunny world. The chilling uncertainties that bloomed with adulthood.
Saya moved to quit the room, then, on impulse, stopped. Turning, she leaned close to Haji, her long soft hair brushing his face.
And she kissed him.
Haji jerked as if struck with a riding crop. His lips were warm and a little chapped, but surprisingly soft on hers. It was a brief peck, almost childlike. But when she drew back, his face was brilliant red. The mirror at the dresser showed her own flushed countenance, a guilty little smile tugging the corners of her lips.
"Thank you. For… looking out for me. I wish I had some way to pay you back for it."
"You—never have to thank me for something like that, Saya," he stammered.
"Why? Because it's your duty? It can't be all there is to it. You looked out for me even when you could've decided not to. Why?"
He averted his eyes. "Why did you cry when you thought I was only with you out of duty at all?"
There was an answer in his question. One, Saya realized as she returned to her room with birch-whips and bandages still weaving through her mind, that she already knew. Falling asleep that night, she wouldn't escape the disquieting sense that, with this incident, the final chapter of her childhood had been written.
And that, on the catalyst of that word, duty, it was fated to come to a portentous close.
If you're interested in this snippet becoming a story, don't hesitate to review. Feedback is Yummeh! ;)