Summary: To be human is to be weak. At the age of seven, Lucciano lost his faith in humanity – and it was all thanks to the body in the basement. Written for the WA Comfort Zone challenge.
Rating: T/M – the subject matter may be rather sensitive for some people.
Notes: As a Gin trademark—expect character torture and speculation. The events of this story will probably have long-reaching implications for the Parts!verse series of stories. If there's something in them that doesn't map to canon, the answer will probably lie in here. Knowledge of the other stories is completely unnecessary, however.
(Rhea: I've taken the liberty of straying into hurt/comfort as well, being this is also an out-of-"comfort zone" for me and is required for the story to work. I hope my interpretation of the prompt "mystery" isn't too far removed from the genre, either!)
Metamorphosis – noun, 1) a complete change of physical form or substance; 2) a complete change of character, appearance etc.; 3) a person or thing that has undergone metamorphosis.
(Definition comes from the Collins English Dictionary, tenth edition.)
It started – and ended – with a body in the basement.
Plácido and José kept secrets hidden away from him, endless reams of knowledge that hovered like unreachable phantoms. Soon those secrets would unfold at his feet. He would learn their mysteries; unravel them like a spool of thread, red pooling on the floor, a guide-rope in a tumbling lair, a labyrinth.
It started, then, with the body in the basement.
Or maybe it started before.
He flopped back onto his bed, studying the ceiling – a blank white canvas. Everything in this world was white, white, white, and even the pigment of his skin was slowly being sapped from him into the bleak whiteness of Iliaster. Plácido told him the word's meaning, once. One part had always stayed in his mind: The first chaos in the matter of all things. Chaos. Such a wonderful word. Without their power of Iliaster, Plácido said, his voice strong with the rapture of one enlightened, this world would foolishly pursue a path of self-destruction. It was within humanity's nature, forever doomed to tread the same path, no better than the humble worker bee – but they, the three chosen by fate, could transcend the bee-like nature of the common man and become so much more.
Plácido was seventeen; Lucciano, a child of barely seven. They shared a closeness stronger than any blood-tie. Lucciano laid there, eyes tracing something beyond the empty white ceiling, and using his mind's eye as a brush he painted his canvas with the colours of family while wondering if this was what it meant to be loved.
Castillo. He breathed out across the glass, emblazoning letters through the fog of condensation in a clumsy hand. Ka-su-chi-yo, he wrote below it, trying to make sense of the katakana replacing western letters. They were harsh, and ugly, and he didn't like them all that much. Too many angles.
He tried his birth name, Ru-chi-aa-no, and scribbled its western equivalent alongside. Spelt with two cs. Plácido once told him that was wrong; it should have only one. Lucciano had laughed at him and persisted with the way he'd always spelt it, knowing how irritated his older cohort became whenever someone dared to miss the accent off his name.
"Hypocrite," he threw into the silence, loving the sound of syllables tumbling over his tongue.
Lucciano hoarded knowledge, stashing it away in the corners of his mind. It was a blessing, a constant source of frustration. Some days it felt like he could store it all away, everything the world had to offer, but others – in the dim and murky twilight of doubt – he wanted to flee and hide in ignorance. Following the twisted and tangling threads of history, tracking them through the pages of recollection… it was all so hideously complicated and his brain ached with the enormity of the challenge. And José made it look so easy to understand. Plácido too. Some days Lucciano wondered if he'd ever be capable like them, strong like them. He wanted to serve to the best of his ability, and his current state wasn't good enough.
More. He needed more.
Her name was Matsumoto Reiko; at least, that was the name embossed in the leather of her briefcase, kanji, "wise child". Lucciano stole a peek inside while it lay unattended. Leiko Matsumoto, her passport proclaimed, Japanese nationality (debatable, vague); another document referred to a child, obviously hers, with the same dark hair and eyes, one Sly Castillo Yamamoto (dual nationalities, Spanish, Japanese).
Sometimes, Plácido addressed her with the familiarity of a son. Lucciano refused to acknowledge her as family. She was a stranger on the periphery of his life, inconsequential.
At least, she was inconsequential until that hateful word exploded into the calm of their plans. It started with Plácido's illness, which he'd grimaced at and initially dismissed as influenza – for the five days of its duration he holed himself up in his room, refusing to talk to Lucciano (so the boy stole a text on mechanics in a fit of pique, carted it off, hid it in the corner of his room in the hope it would provoke a reaction, anything but being ignored). For a time Plácido had got better, but within the past three days, his condition seemed to deteriorate. He'd barely eaten since the illness began. His skin cycled between a sickly pale shade, and the flush of fever. Still he insisted it would pass, it was just a temporary illness. There was no need to involve doctors (Plácido had always possessed a hefty distrust of the medical profession, which Lucciano found singularly stupid).
José was sensible; José held no trust for this self-diagnosis; that evening, Lucciano hid himself in a niche overlooking their conversation, José and that Leiko woman's, and searched for answers. He was a child, they would tell him nothing. He had to rely on his own smarts to dig out the secrets they kept.
He spent most of that session glowering at the Japanese woman rather than fishing for information, hating the way her hand would linger over José's sleeve in an awful, intimate gesture. Whore, his thoughts spat, harlot, shameless. Lucciano had little experience with adult women beyond the faintest memory of his mother and the occasional glimpse of painted girls getting into cars with strangers, older men, their simpering faces twisted and ugly in the harsh glow of streetlamps. But the hatred warred with a sort of respect. This Leiko knew what his abuelo was, a man more mechanical than flesh, yet she treated him no differently. Her eyes saw the scars, and past them. Lucciano shrank back into his hiding-place, confused, as the pair conferred in whispers. Never had he seen José so open, so human. Who was this woman, this Leiko? That became a question more pressing than the maybe-maybe-not of Plácido's condition. He had to know. Needed to know.
She wore a simple ring on her left hand, fourth finger. Upon noticing this detail, Lucciano retreated further into himself. For the first time he wondered if he truly belonged here. If thinking of José and Plácido as family was a sin.
Sly was a thinker, not a doer. He was his father's son in that regard. Lucciano initially responded to the presence of another child with interest (despite how Sly initially thought he was a girl—he'd allow the mistake this once), but whenever he saw Sly and José together, something like fury clutched his heart in vicious claws. Jealousy. The thought was ludicrous, its existence mere proof of his weakness.
Sly thought himself inadequate. Lucciano would give anything to be the one receiving the subtle signs of pride he read in José's eye whenever Sly wasn't looking.
Why, he wondered, why couldn't he be José's son too?
It felt like he'd swallowed a stone and it now sat heavy in his gut, an uncarriable weight—was that even a word? he didn't think it was but could think of no other to describe the ache that tied him in knots and made fear climb his throat like bile.
Plácido was gone. Gone. The word echoed with terrible finality around his head, around the room, down the white, white corridor. Lucciano ran, pursuing the shadows of ghosts. Voices murmured in his ears, José, Leiko, Plácido, Sly. When he whirled to locate them, their phantoms vanished.
He called out. Only echoes answered. He clattered down a flight of stairs, burst through into the main room with its high vaulted ceiling, braid thumping heavy against his chest as his head whipped from side to side. The names leapt from him in a yell, but still there came only silence in reply. Panic clawed his heart. Alone, the shadows taunted him, you're alone. Powerless, kept in thrall by the silent terror of the unknown. The white shape that flickered in the corner of his vision at first drew a frightened whimper, which soon faded into a fluttering relief as his eyes focussed and recognised the huge figure stepping over the threshold. Lucciano flew to him, seeking the second figure that surely stood at José's shoulder—
"Where's Plácido," he demanded, fearing another figure vanished from his life. He tangled his fingers in the loose cloth of José's sleeve, clung to him like a limpet. "Where is he?"
José looked at him, his sole eye creased with some indecipherable message, before the calculative gaze slid past him to settle on a wall. "You need not concern yourself with his whereabouts. Merely rest assured that he is in the presence of those who can help him."
"Tell me!" His voice crackled with youthful authority. He released José's sleeve and took a step back, glowering up at him with the haughty arrogance of an Emperor. Danger flickered across his tongue like a serpent's hiss. "Tell me where my brother is."
The eye slid across, and down. Lucciano tried to match his stare. Tried, and found himself unable. He dropped his gaze to avoid the instinctive retorts rising on his tongue, reduced again to a child shuffling under parental disapproval. "Where is he?" he whispered.
José walked away, leaving the question an unanswered blank between them.
"I want to see Plácido."
"Can we visit Plácido today?"
No, no, no. Each variation of the plea, no matter how far apart he spaced them, met with the same brusque reply. Lucciano hurled himself onto his bed, buried his face in the pillow, and screamed. Mouth open, eyes screwed shut, clutching the sides of the pillow until his fingers ached in protest. The synthetic filling suffocated his frustrated yells before they even had a chance at freedom, and before long he found himself forced to pull back, coughing. The cover was damp when he touched it, damp from the fog of breath he'd spilt over its surface.
Weak. Why is the human body so weak? he wondered as he struggled to bring his breathing back under control. With the venting of his passion, part of his mind skittered back towards the familiar territory of analysis and questioning. Huddling in the corner with his legs pulled up to his chest, he tried to forget the ache of refusal and focus on reforming, re-forging his plans. There was always tomorrow. Always another chance. Always.
"You look like him. Sort of."
"You mean you don't know?"
"What are you going on about?"
Sly cast a wary glance at the ground below. The two boys were perched in Lucciano's secret spot, the cavity in the ceiling he could only reach by climbing. It was spacious for one child, but with the addition of a second, the space became cramped and claustrophobic.
"There's a Castillo nobody mentions," he said, keeping his voice hushed. "He had red hair. Like you."
Lucciano scoffed. "Plenty of people have red hair. That doesn't mean anything."
Shrugging, Sly turned his attention back to the mechanics text they were still attempting to decipher. He muttered something in Japanese, a phrase Lucciano had yet to learn. The red-haired child tried to concentrate on their pilfered book but couldn't. He knew, of course, who Sly was referring to. The son no-one spoke of. Divine. In a face that was mostly his mother's, only his hair and eyes betrayed any clues of paternity. He couldn't remember his father's face, at all. It had been lost in the hellish fog of the past. Future. He didn't know anymore. The red was different, the green of his eyes less yellowed, but the shape of them and the thin lines of his eyebrows were disturbingly similar to Divine's... He'd noted this before, but dismissed it as coincidence. For all he knew, it could mean nothing.
For all he knew, it could mean everything, too.
He wished Sly had stayed silent. Hadn't dispensed with the awful possibility. The sins of the father were inherited by his son. It was a truth Lucciano accepted at a young age, a truth like the evil of the Synchro. If… if Sly was right…
Lucciano wanted to be a part of the Castillo properly. Not like this. Not through a – a patricidal monster!
"You can't do this to him."
Leiko stood in the doorway, clutching a sheaf of paper to her chest. She was dressed for the office, smart grey skirt, a plain white blouse, but her demeanour seemed distinctly unprofessional – motherly, almost. Lucciano scowled, hidden in his niche in the ceiling where he'd been trying to decipher another stolen book, this one José's. He didn't need a mother! He didn't need her at all. "He has to see his brother soon, dear…"
José made a small sound that might have been a sigh, and said in a voice low and even, "Lucciano is still a child. He has no focus. I will not permit him to visit Plácido until he can demonstrate that it will not distract him from our task."
"The longer you keep them separated—"
"Leiko, stay out of this." The stern eye José turned on her was enough to make Lucciano reach for an apology, or a denial—even though he'd done nothing wrong. He leant closer to the edge of his hiding place, trying to make out the woman's expression. Dark eyes gazed at the man, her frustration thinly veiled.
When she next spoke, her words were hushed. "When will you realise that people aren't as simple as you'd like them to be?"
José stood, towering over her – Leiko might be tall for a Japanese woman, but José dwarfed anyone. "What happens is none of your concern. Go home."
"Not until you tell me—"
Lucciano retreated into his shadowed niche when José's eye lifted to the ceiling. A rare display of exasperation. "Leiko. Everything is under control."
"…Oh, but of course. He's fine. They're fine. You're fine, I'm fine, everything is just – just fine!" Anger crackled in her words, like static leaping from a metal surface when fingers touched it. She seemed oblivious to the creases folding into her papers from her too-tight grip. A wisp of smoke curled from one blackening edge—she was a Psychic? Lucciano never realised that before. "Sometimes… sometimes I look at you, José, and I can't help but wonder. Where did he go? Where's the man I married? Sometimes I think he died seven years ago and I've been loving his shadow all this time—!" Her breath hitched with immediate regret, and the paper scattered from her arms like oversized moths as a hand flew to her mouth. "Oh, God… José, I'm sorry, I didn't mean it…"
"No. You did." He sounded resigned, and the creases of age around his eyes seemed to chisel themselves deeper into his flesh. "Leave."
"I truly am sorry—"
He could see the reluctance clouding her eyes, however, and the boy felt like an intruder into some private ceremony when José sat with a weary groan, leaning his head into his hands, defeated. A display of weakness he would never show if not alone.
Lucciano wouldn't ask again.
It was a month before Plácido came home (he never did get to visit him.) A long thankless month characterised by periods of deep-seated boredom; steadfast avoidance of triggers, like the Leiko mess and José's subsequent coldness; and the occasional moment of panic when he would wake up in the basement, cold metal covering his eye, to find himself lying in the sinister shadow of a white-draped bench.
When Plácido returned to them, the change in his proud, indomitable brother disrupted Lucciano's faith in the world – he'd thought Plácido went into hospital to get better, but he returned looking pale, and sicker than before. The disease, Plácido told him, was in remission—for now, at least, but the boy didn't risk hoping. Not when José, who watched their reunion with typical detachment, wore a bleakly calculative look, like half their plans had come unravelling from their fixing-points with one misfortune.
But for all the pessimism haunting the shadows of their lives, Lucciano finally found spots of joy bursting out of the white, like the dim memory of fireworks patterning the night sky with stars.
Plácido kept a secret in the basement, the dark and cramped space he'd taken as his own. The day he invited Lucciano to survey this domain, the boy had foregone wearing shoes; the basement's concrete floor was cold against his skin, and he shuffled his feet against the unpleasant itch of cold. Plácido fixed him with a frown. He stopped fidgeting, and Plácido drew back the white cloth draped over a workbench – the same bench Lucciano had so often found himself beside with no memory of how he got there. He braced his hands on the edge, balancing on tiptoes, and peered at the strange shape whose carcass – nerves, tendons, ligaments – littered the surface in indecipherable patterns.
"Look carefully," whispered Plácido, reverence lining his voice, "this is the future. It's magnificent, yes?"
It looked like junk to Lucciano's eyes, and he repeated this aloud. "Like you're working on some mechanical Frankenstein," he said as an afterthought. Some people might have considered the remarks an insult. Plácido merely laughed, low and steady. The white cloth formed a puddle at their feet. A fervent glow illuminated his face, driving the weariness further and further away until he seemed almost healthy.
"This is only the beginning, Lucciano. Look at José. Yes, they saved his life back then – but they used an imperfect method, so while part of him has advanced the rest remains trapped in the cycles of humanity. He's too old for the process to succeed now. Être humain c'est être faible – to be human is to be weak. Do you understand?"
"I don't," Lucciano said, sneaking a wary peek towards the stairs in hopes of escape. Plácido's sudden fervour set rational thought on edge. "Plácido, I can't. You're making no sense."
Plácido shook his head in amusement. "No, Lucciano, you just can't see it yet. But the future is here—right here—in our grasp—if we're brave enough to take it."
The dichotomy of child and adult blurred across his face. Soft flesh, harsh metal. Flinty eye, dulled hair. His visible eyebrow slashed down, a thin diagonal, pulled into a frown. He liked it. Just by adding the eyepiece, his features were transformed into something more befitting of an Emperor.
Then came the clatter of crutches slipping from shaking hands, and the low, angry mutters trickling from Plácido's tongue, curses, half of which sounded unfamiliar and a few he recognised. Lucciano snatched the metal away from his skin with a guilty start, dropped it into his pocket. His brother always saw him as a child, nothing more. Lucciano didn't have the heart to shatter that illusion.
But Plácido, a constant shadow on the periphery of his actions, was incapable of stopping him. Lucciano couldn't explain the peculiar affinity he felt for the device. Something in its power, the blessings bestowed on him by God, tempted him down the path towards true enlightenment. With it, he could twist his appearance into the forms of other people, catch glimpses of events half the world away, probably even communicate with José and Plácido – he'd yet to try that, since he was keeping the experiments to himself. He considered the eyepiece as a tool and nothing more.
Until the night he tried to peer into Godwin's office and instead found himself seeing the streets of some Japanese city. Blood filled his vision, the horror of human incompetence playing out in front of him like a ghastly play.
No, no! This couldn't be happening. He clawed the eyepiece away from his face and hurled it across the room – no, no, please no, oh god no. He could still see the blood. "José," he shrieked (sweat and tears blurred his vision, and his face felt sticky where fingernails had snagged against skin), "José, she's—!"
No, his heart clamoured, no, no, nonono! But the truth still burned behind his eyelids. He lurched to his feet, grabbing at the wall to steady himself. The eyepiece stared up at him, its symbol of infinity a mocking grin. It wasn't a tool. It controlled him, not the other way round. And it decided that scene was to be known to him. Them. The Emperors.
The light, he remembered, had been green.
Both of them had been green.
The bicycle never stood a chance.
Lucciano wouldn't be certain what happened that evening, ever. The events were shadowed with a haze. He couldn't even recall his garbled confession of the scene. The only thing that stood out past the fog of forgetting was José's return, long after midnight – the old man had left after prising the information out of him, pausing only to render his appearance more acceptable to the conventions of the human. His absence stretched into hours until the weary sound of footsteps signalled his presence. Lucciano remembered squirming out of Plácido's hold, careful not to disturb the sleeping young man, and padding to meet his abuelo in the shadow of the room where, two weeks ago, Leiko had walked out of their lives. He'd always thought she would come back.
Unable to complete the sentence, Lucciano stared at the broad-backed figure standing in front of him. "Abuelo?"
"She is dead."
Lucciano's eyes closed in the manner of a silent prayer. "I'm sorry…"
Stony silence. Only the low, steady rasp of the Emperor's breath tickled the unnatural hush. Lucciano stayed until he could bear it no longer, bare feet shuffling a retreat, but he looked back despite himself.
Anything would have been better than the stoic statue left in tragedy's wake.
The plan was only as strong as the sum of its parts: that is, the triumvirate of Emperors who, to date, were the only ones in existence who had heard the voice of God. Perhaps there was some divine influence at work in his revelation, though José (never in earshot) would be the first to acknowledge the boy's precocious insight as something entirely his own; it was Lucciano, the youngest, the most inexperienced, who recognised their fundamental weakness.
Though powerful in influence and cunning, though focussed on the preparations for their task, though each strong in his own right – Plácido had been strong, once – yes, despite all this, they were still only human. Mortal. Disease could ravage their bodies; age, eventually, would catch up to them. The human disposition towards companionship was an effort in futility, because those same companions would only leave you in the end. Turn you into a shade of the person you once were.
Lucciano puzzled over this insight into the human curse, trying to understand just how he could shed the shackles of "humanity". The shadows of his upbringing still haunted his beliefs. What, he wondered, were the most important things in the twisted system of morality? he had to know, had to find out, so he could break free from the chains holding him back. He had to find a way out before he met the same fate as his fellow Emperors.
"Are you certain?"
Lucciano nodded, face tiny and solemn. "Just do it."
The floor was cold and uncomfortable, and kneeling like this made his knees ache. Cloth whispered as Plácido settled behind him. Lucciano bit down on his lip, teeth pearly white against the grey tinge of his skin. The process was complete. Iliaster had sucked him dry, and the emptiness yawned like heartbreak. A small whimper spilled from his mouth, metal brushing against the back of his neck with the same finality as an executioner's axe. The corner of a mirror peeked out from behind the door. Lucciano locked eyes with this glimpse of his reflection, and forced himself to watch. He could find enough resolve for that.
Snip, the scissors murmured, snip. A gentle tug against his scalp as Plácido gathered stray strands into clumps. With each hushed snip, another chunk of hair tumbled down his back to pool in the space between him and Plácido. A sea of vibrant red, red like the diseased blood in his brother's veins.
"Keep still," Plácido chided, "I'll cut it too short if you fidget."
The thought of losing it all, the only colour outside of his eyes that Iliaster had allowed him to keep, made Lucciano freeze. Plácido's breath tickled his neck in a sigh. The sensation was foreign and terrifying. He had never felt so exposed in his life. The boy wanted to close his eyes, pretend that this was only a figment of his imagination, but the steady snip, snip of Plácido's scissors and the lack of a comforting weight down his spine reminded him of reality. One stray lock cascaded over his shoulder, settling like a stain across his white trousers. Lucciano studied it, draping apathy over his shoulders like the cloak he'd forgone. It would grow again. This was just the first act in his path to being a true Emperor. Did it say anything, he wondered, that in the end he'd not the mental fortitude to carry through? (He wasn't certain exactly what those words meant, but presumed they meant "resolve". Besides, they sounded good. Sophisticated.)
"There." The word barely counted as such – it felt more like an exhalation, gentle warmth ghosting across his neck. "…You look different."
He looked like a stranger. Lucciano leant forwards, bracing one hand against the floor to steady himself, and nudged the door shut so he could see his reflection in its entirety. The red twist across his thigh slid limply to the floor, joining the rest. His hair still extended almost to his collarbone, two shorter strands dangling in front of his face (he lifted a hand to brush them away, hating the change already). His head felt funny. He missed the weight of hair cascading down his back. Lucciano stared at the strange androgynous form in the mirror – Sly was right, he did look like a girl – and traced the shadows his newly-cut hair cast across his face. What would José think, he asked himself, absently fingering the ends. They curled inwards, towards the ashen pallor of his skin. In contrast, the colour of his hair seemed unnaturally bright. His gaze drifted back to Plácido's face, ghost-pale in the mirror's silver depths. Red eyes, rich, like the colour he'd shed so wantonly. They seemed luminous under the shadowy folds of his cowl.
"I'm too little right now, but when my hair grows back to the length it was? I'm gonna become like José, and you," Lucciano announced, allowing the sincerity of his words to register in Plácido's ears. "When my hair's long I'll be old enough that José can't say 'No' again. That's a promise."
"What if you change your mind?" Plácido put the scissors aside. His hand settled on Lucciano's shoulder, thin and shaking, skin stretched taut over delicate bones and the knobble of joints. The boy reached up and meshed their fingers together. Careful not to squeeze too hard, afraid he would leave bruises if he dared.
Lucciano flashed a grin in the mirror, and something of his original self shone through the stranger's face. "I'm me, remember?" he said brightly, keeping his eyes on Plácido's reflection and not the locks of hair scattered around him like leaves in a gale, or scattered sedge. "Takes a lot to change my mind. A promise is a promise, right? So you'd better be there…"
Plácido managed a flicker of a smile, but the weariness in his eyes betrayed him. "You've been reading too many crappy shonen manga, mouse." (Lucciano scowled at the nickname; at least it wasn't gutter rat, the original version, 'cause he'd grown out of that life months ago.) "'A promise is a promise.' Who speaks like that in the real world?"
"I do," he said. He didn't fail to notice how Plácido evaded the plea for him to live. Fatalistic, he thought the word was. There was a fine line between realism and pessimism, and Plácido seemed intent on straying into the "pessimist" side of the equation. Lucciano drew in a shuddering breath, lowered his head so the older boy couldn't see the tears threatening to fall.
Later he would be unable to relate just how it happened, but somehow he ended up curled into Plácido's arms, leaving his heart in tearstains across the soft white of fabric. Time became irrelevant. There was nothing more important than this moment. The slow plink of moisture dripping onto his hair. The fragile beat of a heart pressed up against his ear. Two boys, brothers, clinging to each other on the bathroom floor, while the thread of his hair painted a tapestry of promises around them.
Three days later, Plácido turned eighteen.
Four days later, he was rushed back to hospital. Relapse, they said. Incompatible with a transplant, they said. Not responding to the therapy, they said.
Terminal. The most important word of all, the one word they left unsaid.
Anger was an easy solution, one which scared him with the virility of its growth.
He waited for José to notice him. When the recognition failed to come, bitterness stoked its embers higher.
He sat by Plácido's bedside, hoping that his brother's eyes would open again. When that failed, something inside him caught in a painful lump, and froze there.
Three weeks ago – five days after the death – he snuck out into the daylight. Stole Plácido's sword, which was longer than he was tall. Found a way to Japan (after using the eyepiece, worn specifically for this occasion, to render his appearance more normal). He had to find Sly, the boy he counted as a friend. Having just one person to talk to would help alleviate some of the pain. Only, Sly didn't remember him. He looked at Lucciano with dark suspicious eyes, and claimed – with not a trace of deceit – that he'd never met anyone with that name.
The sun beat down on him, angry against the nape of his neck. Lucciano managed to stumble away from that terrible place before his legs gave up on him (he never saw the fleeting concern across Sly's face, the half-shadow of recognition). He made it to an alley, which was dark and cramped and hauntingly familiar, like homesickness, before his knees crumpled under him and the earth trembled – but it was he who trembled, not the earth, and the people passing by who spared not a glance for the tiny form crumpled in the shadow of a trashcan remained casually oblivious to the shaking, roaring ground. The quake that tore through his mind ruptured the dam holding his emotions at bay. Lucciano squeezed his eyelids shut, a last desperate barrier against the hot, frustrated tears flooding his cheeks. He bit down on his lip to keep any sounds inside, bit so hard a sharp bitter tang filled his mouth with salt-warmth.
Now, lost, alone, Lucciano entrusted the fragments of his trust to the wind. Because the wind could never be tamed, and it would show him a path into the future that nobody would think to envision.
Lucciano hovered over the threshold, staring through pained eyes at the bedridden form. He couldn't bring himself to step over that boundary and see the hopeless expression his brother wore. It was selfish of him, he knew, yet for all his attempts to garner knowledge and his desire to attain the lofty status of adult, the secret core of him was very much a child.
Because knowledge without the capacity to use it was useless, and Plácido was still going to die.
In time he found the courage to move. He crossed the room with light, faltering steps, clambered onto the mattress to perch beside his brother. Plácido slept on. It seemed as though he was always asleep when Lucciano came to visit. These days, they spoke more through letters than in person. It was a simple, practical solution – Lucciano would leave a letter on the bedside, and a reply would be waiting for him upon his next visit – but it was so much easier to keep secrets when your words were premeditated.
One of these letters rested nearby, his name leaping off the crisply folded paper in emerald green ink. Lucciano snatched it up, unfurled the page with such vicious delight that one edge tore. His eyes wandered over the spidery text, feasting on Plácido's words like they were the only sustenance he needed.
…the names are clear to me now, Lucciano! And in his great wisdom our guide has shown us the true path. We must trust in Yliadus. We must look to the Ark Cradle, and for one named Aporia, as they shall herald the destruction and rebirth of this world. The Circuit must be com…
He crumpled the letter in his hand, shoving it into his pocket before frustration could take over. Usually he trusted Plácido's dreams and visions, as he was mindful of the signs and most of all accurate, but this time… these words stirred a sense of doubt in his heart. They sounded like the fever-ramblings of a deranged mind, not the stunningly calculative observations Plácido had imparted in the times before the disease.
Lucciano resolved to ask José about the letter, and these strange marvellous words Plácido plucked from nowhere and everywhere. First he had more pressing concerns. Like mapping the angles and shadows of the sleeping face beside him, carving it deep into memory alongside the whisper of a heart and the definition of family.
How soon until Plácido replaced the body currently inhabiting the basement, Lucciano wondered. How soon indeed. He wasn't sure he liked the thought of being Number 2.
"Te quiero mi hermano,"he whispered, lightly tracing the veins standing stark under pale skin. I love you, brother.
Plácido didn't respond, but then again, Lucciano didn't expect him to.
That night, he dreamed of darkness and a strange voice which spoke to him from a burning sun. It was a warm voice, in the way he imagined a father's voice would be. It was a question mark too – the voice gave no name, only a warning: if history continued on its current course, then all they hoped to achieve would scatter like dust in the wind, ashes under the…
"Eh, José, you ever heard of the Final Momentum?" he asked later, absently toying with an apple. He rolled it between his hands, polished it against his sleeve until the red skin shone like a blush and his shadow reflected in its surface. Then he punctured the skin, tore a chunk away. The pale flesh glistened like an open wound.
"Where did you hear those words?"
"A dream." The boy shrugged nonchalantly. "Plácido learns things from them all the time, so I thought…"
"Whaaat?" he drawled around another mouthful of apple, swallowing when José fixed him with one of those awful stares. "Okay, okay, whatever… so you don't know."
José made a small sound that might, from any other man, have constituted a sigh of irritation. "Explain yourself."
"I can't. Okay? I don't do these dream… vision… things. It's Plácido's job, not mine."
He studied the surface of his apple, contemplating the pitted scars his teeth had gouged into its flesh. Finally he gleaned a scrap of inspiration, and spoke. "There was a voice. It might have been our God's voice. I don't know, I've never heard Him before, really – but there was a warning, of this thing called the Final Momentum. It'll destroy everything. We can't trust humanity, can we? They just go building all this crap and act surprised when it blows up in their faces."
"They are selfish," José agreed, "but that is why Iliaster—"
"We have to stop it." Later he would realise what he'd done – he'd interrupted him! José! something he'd never before considered possible – yet for the moment, his only concern was the mystery of the dream. "There was a sun, too. A huge burning sun, and the voice came from inside the sun. Red and black energy. It wouldn't stay still. All restless and shifting, like it wanted to uncurl and … I don't know what. But Plácido's written about that sun before, I'm sure of it!"
José's regard settled on him, and Lucciano realised with a jolt that something like pride was lurking in the tarnished-gold depths, twisted, warped. Calculation. The one time he'd not sought out his abuelo's approval... typical it was now, of all times, he received it.
"So he has."
And Lucciano didn't know why those words cut through him, and left his heart shivering with fear.
"I'm not staying here."
"You are being unreasonable—"
"I'm dying anyway! What the fuck does it matter? If I die here, or back home?" he spat the last word like it was a curse, eyes feverish and bright. "I'll still be dead won't I, José?"
"Please," he said in a voice scarcely louder than a whisper, oh god, he was begging, Plácido never begged for anything, "José, please. I don't want to just… waste away here. Not when there's something I can still do."
And Lucciano knew what. Sat quietly in the background, the child stared at the fragmented remains of his family (but they'd never been a family), the huge figure of José, the frail and bitter Plácido. He darted over to José's side and whispered frantically in broken Japanese. He knew he was getting words muddled but didn't care. Plácido knew less of the language than he. The idea – the fundamental meaning – remained safe.
Because Lucciano knew the secret. Lucciano knew about the dreams, and the body in the basement. Lucciano knew. He didn't want to, but he knew. Knew how vital it was that Plácido returned. His brother wouldn't stand a chance otherwise.
José relented. Plácido came home. It solved everything, and nothing. Plácido threw himself into this final chance, but away from the hospital environment and the tethers to survival, his condition continued to deteriorate until it seemed only sheer tenacity bound him to life.
Time. If their God were to grant him one wish, Lucciano would ask for more time. More time to understand the enormity of the fate spiralling out of their control; more time to grasp the threads and attempt to fasten them together; more time to prepare for the possibility of that last goodbye. Or maybe he would ask for a way of prolonging Plácido's life without resorting to the dangerous alternative his brother gambled on. Or—he could ask to help. Offer himself as an intercessor between their realms – the eyepiece allowed it after all. He was young, his fingers small, eyes sharp. Lucciano could complete the task in his brother's stead, he knew he could.
He cast his wishes like stars into the silence of the void. Still the prayers went unanswered. Most would take it as a sign that nothing was out there – but Lucciano saw the truth. Their God gave no answer, because there was no answer to give.
So subtle a lie, such a comforting thought. Lucciano's inability to deceive found its one exception: himself.
It started – and ended – with a body in the basement.
Plácido's eyes were still open – dead, flat puddles of blood – and on his lips lingered a smile, a last triumphant song too beautiful for the world to hear. Lucciano tumbled down the steps. His legs didn't want to cooperate. In his heart beat the stirrings of denial. How could his brother just lie there? How… how dare he wear the face of a victor when he'd lost the battle!
I hate you, shrieked the dizzy rush of vertigo in his ears, I hate you, I HATE YOU!
Come back, the child-part whimpered, I need you, I love you, come back.
"So this is humanity," the Emperor said. He quashed the clamouring voices in his heart. The hatred perished immediately, a flame quenched by ice-cold water; the child's dazed whimper clung on, starved of oxygen but desperate to leave behind even a seed, an ember, a parasite.
That voice – it was beautiful and scratchy and there. Lucciano tore his fascinated gaze away from the corpse, peering into the darkness to uncover the secret it withheld: the Frankenstein of junk, now looking far more realistic and complete than when he'd initially laid eyes on it, though the trailing wires and half-exposed interior spoke of its creator's haste to escape the shackles of the human before his body condemned him to oblivion.
It had started with a body in the basement. Now another took its place. The spool of thread ran out, abandoned long before (long red hair painting the tiles with promises), and Lucciano stood with no means of finding a way back.
He didn't want a way back.
"And I'll become like this too?"
"Once the Circuit is completed. No sooner."
He grinned, savage, leering, and there was nothing childlike in his eye. Metal concealed the other from view, metal of the eyepiece he wore like a crown. He stood, hair shivering around his neck. The last of his innocence died with the body folded neatly on a workbench. The sanctuary turned into a morgue around them, and it was beautiful.
"…Good," said the boy, unable to keep the excited tremor out of his voice, and as Plácido looked on from his new, would-be perfect form, Lucciano threw his head back and laughed.
A/N: …Excuse me while I go and hide in a corner. It wasn't meant to be quite so bleak, I promise.
Shout-outs and references: The idea of the basement as Plácido's retreat was borrowed, with permission, from 3m0k1tty on dA.
"scattered sedge" – an image borrowed from Book 1 of Milton's Paradise Lost.
"A promise is a promise" – allusion to Naruto's "promise of a lifetime", namely because of the folly in making promises you might not be able to keep. The 'crappy shonen manga' line, I realise after writing, reads rather similarly to a line in Masterdramon's My Dark King; this is coincidental and in no way did I intend for this similarity. (Nor am I insulting Naruto - it's just that Plácido doesn't have much patience for such childish pursuits.)
Abuelo means grandfather; hermano means brother. Lucciano is not a Spanish name, but Italian; yet since he is affiliated with two Spanish-named figures, I've taken the liberty of having him be Spanish too but with a deliberately 'other' name. Also, I don't speak any Spanish – so apologies if I've made any glaring errors.
I'm fully aware there are more questions than answers, but that's just the way they told me the story. Some things are supposed to stay blank. After all, Lucciano's just a child - as he himself acknowledged, he can't hold all the answers no matter how he tries.