"Just don't stay outside by yourself for more than a moment!"

"I won't!"

Vocifer turned her head back forwards. Nophis was always worrying that she was going to do something reckless and get herself killed. Surely she could survive for two nights in a city she had already visited? Her cousin fretted over things too much.

For the first time in a while, Vocifer approached the humongous door of the mansion. She hadn't memorized the exact date she had left here before the year was over, but now that she was back she already felt as though she had been gone for an unimaginably long time. Back at her cousins' house, it didn't seem nearly this long.

Vocifer danced up to the door and paused in front of it. The pathway was still icy, though there hadn't been snow for a few days. Winter tended to do that a lot. If I stand here too long, I'll freeze.

With very little hesitation, Vocifer raised a hand to knock on the gigantic door. At first, nothing happened, and she was worried that she would have to go around the back way. Her worries proved wrong, though, as the door slowly creaked inward, and the unfamiliar shadow of a man slunk back into the darkness of the mansion. There were no lights on. In that sense, Vocifer was thankful for the graying sunlight outside, but there was something more disturbing about the mansion. Apart from whoever had opened the door, it was perfectly silent, and there was no movement anywhere.

She stepped inside, reluctantly closing the door. "Tristis?" she called. "Are you here?"

No answer, apart from the vague, hesitant echo.

"Tristis?"

Again, no answer.

She allowed her feet to start moving as her eyes scanned the darkened walls. "Tristis!"

At this point she gave up calling for anybody and let her mind work. Surely Drossel has to be here somewhere, right? Why isn't there anyone here?

She paused briefly, and then continued towards the door behind the stairs. They're not gone. He's probably just in the puppet shop, like always… but where's Tristis? If they were going on vacation or something, they would tell me before I got here…

Her pace quickened and she pulled open the door into the dark hallway. This routine seemed so familiar to her, and she remembered doing this so many times back when she was still lost. She couldn't explain her attraction to the puppet shop well, although she had a shadow of an idea forming in her mind that might blossom into the truth later.

She didn't bother to slow down much as she inched down the hallway. She wasn't sure whether her footsteps being loud was a good thing or not – if there was someone here, it might interrupt them, but at the same time she didn't want to startle anybody. Just to be carefull, she restrained her feet a moment before she could see the light of the puppet shop.

Light. Someone is what if it's not Drossel? What will I do?

After a moment's hesitation, Vocifer stepped into the room. At first, she didn't see anything, and relaxed herself, but then –

"Vocifer? Why are you here?"

A familiar, staccato voice came from her left, and when she looked her eyes showed her the colorful garb of the family butler.

"Drossel, you're here," she breathed, suffocated in her own relief. Before she could keep track of what she was doing, her arms were around his torso, and she could feel the hint of his warmth…

"Let go of me."

Vocifer snatched her senses and took a few steps backward. She lingered a moment to allow her thoughts to fall back into place. You idiot, he's a puppet. He doesn't know what that means. Think, Vocifer!

"What are you doing here?" Drossel asked slowly. Vocifer half-expected him to look frustrated with her, but, as always, his face showed nothing but calm.

She cleared her mind again for a moment before replying. "I was coming back to visit Tristis and the others, but they're not here, so I came to find you… where is Tristis?"

Drossel blinked thoughtfully. "She left to find her parents… and she never came back."

Never came back? Vocifer echoed inwardly, trying to register this in her mind. Her thoughts worked through themselves for a minute. Did that mean she wouldn't see Tristis again? How long had this place been practically empty?

"Drossel, you haven't been alone here since I left, have you?"

He nodded slowly, and Vocifer was sure she caught a glint of sadness in his violet eyes. "It's been lonely. Only the dolls kept me –"

Suddenly Drossel appeared to realize something. Either that, or he heard something Vocifer didn't, because his head snapped towards the door and his expression hardened.

Vocifer looked at him unwittingly. Perhaps she was just paying more attention than she had a while back, but… was Drossel being more emotional?

"What's wrong?" she asked quietly, her eyes slowly wandering down to the same table that had always been in the middle of the room. Perched on it was the same box from a while back, with the same familiar blue marking. Again, Vocifer knew she had seen it before. She pondered it briefly, and then the answer came to her.

"Intruders." He looked back at Vocifer, and she returned his glance. Sure enough, she glimpsed the blue marking, just beneath his right eye.

Her gaze drifted for a few moments. His face is so perfect…

Drossel moved towards her, and her mind switched back to the physical world. "What? What do you mean, intruders?"

"Come this way." He stepped past her, evidently determined to leave this room. He appeared as though he had some sort of plan forming, although Vocifer couldn't guess what it might be. She followed him quickly back into the dark passageway.

He shoved open the door into the strange room Vocifer had only seen once before, though this time he clearly wasn't worried about concealing anything. Vocifer paused in the doorway, her eyes wandering the strange, dark room. It looked as if it was designed to be underground, but she was sure that she was breathing the sky's air right now…

Drossel suddenly stopped and turned around, speaking urgently once more. "No. This way."

"Huh?" Vocifer hesitated and followed, pulling the large door closed behind her.

She tailed him out to the main part of the mansion, still as empty as ever. At first she thought that he was leading her to the bedroom she had stayed in when she first came here, but he turned at a different point. There was another small door here on the second level, identical to the one below that led to the puppet shop. Where did this one open to? Phyiscally, it would be somewhere above the other room we were just in…

Drossel tugged the door open and looked at her purposefully. Vocifer stared back for a moment, and then hurried beyond the threshold when Drossel did so first.

As the room before her opened up, she glanced down and to her right. From the looks of this place, it was the strange room from before, although the duo was standing on a sort of upper level. The floor of the room waited far below. From what Vocifer could see, there was no wall or anything protecting her from falling off this upper ledge onto the floor below. Just the thought of it made her bend her knees and almost touch her fingers to the ledge to avoid falling off.

Drossel glanced backwards over his shoulder without relaxing. "Stand up," he told her, and to her surprise he offered a gloved hand for assistance. After a moment of stabilizing herself, Vocifer grasped it tightly. Clearly he had been up here before – otherwise he wouldn't be so confident.

He led her to a corner of the upper ledge so that she could see the large door on the left side of the room. She did not allow her fingers to open, not even when Drossel stopped moving and knelt down, apparently studying either the door or a particular section of the floor. Vocifer followed his gaze, but then drew her eyes away to a wall instead. Just the thought of putting one foot over the edge frightened her, and she followed Drossel to the edge, careful to inch back somewhat from the precipice. Thankfully there was ample space between here and the wall behind her. In response to this, she reluctantly let go of Drossel's hand, instead occupying herself with staying at least a decent third of a meter from the edge.

"Who are the intruders?" she queried quietly, her eyes drifting to Drossel.

He only returned a glance, and then his gaze went back to the room below. He never answered the question, for he was apparently waiting for something.

He's not going to jump down, is he?

A few minutes passed just about as slowly as an hour, and Drossel didn't move an inch. Vocifer watched the room intently, unable to keep her eyes in one place. Then a smaller door she hadn't noticed before swung reluctantly open, admitting three people she couldn't quite see in the light of a small lamp. One was tall and dressed entirely in black and white; the next was shorter and very hard to discern from his surroundings. The third was clad in red from head to toe, and that was all Vocifer could see from this distance.

Those must be the intruders, then, she told herself. But what are they here for? How did Drossel know they were coming? They don't look very extraordinary…

The short one split off from the rest and headed towards the spot where Drossel was perched like a hawk. At first Vocifer worried that the two of them had been spotted, but the short one was focused on something against the wall rather than what was above him.

Nervously, Vocifer peered over the edge, and noticed a strangely colorful object that somewhat resembled a girl in a frilly dress. It was difficult to see exactly what it was from this distance in the dark, though.

She glanced sideways at Drossel, whispering quietly, "What is that?"

He evidently had no trouble keeping his volume down in his reply. "It's one of my puppets." As if in response, he lifted one hand slightly, and Vocifer noticed glinting strings wrapped around his fingers.

Those must be puppet strings, she told herself. Her eyes flicked back down to the three intruders, and then back upwards to Drossel. "What are you going to do?"

"Lure them in." Slowly he rose to his feet. Vocifer could just imagine him saying something along the lines of let the games begin.

But what does he want with them? Wouldn't he try to lure them out?

Vocifer stayed close to the ground, waiting as Drossel paused for around ten seconds. Then he gave the strings a sudden jerk, and whatever they were connected to evidently moved; the three below now cast their eyes somewhat more upward. Vocifer shrank back, but they still seemed oblivious to her presence, and she relaxed gradually.

What is he doing? she asked herself, her eyes flicking back to Drossel. He is a little bit strange, but… that's all right. I'm sure he has a reason for what he's doing with this three.

Drossel raised his voice, evidently focused on the intruders. "That is strange… why does she move against her will?"

Is he taunting them with that puppet? Vocifer concluded that Drossel must have had an idea of what he was doing for a while. He may have been a puppet himself, but that, in addition to many other things she had noticed, made him seem irrefutably human.

He continued to manipulate a rather chaotic scene that went on below, consisting of the three intruders dancing around the room attempting to evade the slices of a large, sharp thing that the frilly puppet was clutching. It looked strangely comedic, and yet disturbingly horrifying.

And was the frilly puppet screeching? Making noise? Is it alive like he is?

Vocifer stared at Drossel again. Once more, his face had regained its stolid expression, and he appeared to have no reaction to what was occuring in the room beneath him (even though he was running the whole thing in the first place – which was strange in itself, since butlers usually weren't the ones running things). Another live puppet? What did that mean?

"Drossel?" she murmured. "Did you make that… out of a real person?"

He only glanced at her briefly, and then continued watching his chaos. Even so, his answer was clearly a yes. This made Vocifer feel an odd frustration with him, and her mind worked furiously to determine how to react. With nobody to keep him company in a small puppet shop, did Drossel really resort to creating things that shouldn't exist? Could he really have found a random little girl out of whom to make… a puppet?

That must be why the intruders are here, Vocifer realized, studying the now somewhat abated havoc beneath her.

She then gazed up at him again, gradually rising to her feet. "You shouldn't do that," she said slowly. "That means you caused this, didn't you?"

His eyes flicked towards her, and he let the string fall from his hand (the scene below had completely calmed down now). Even though the lively fire had returned to his eyes, he didn't respond.

"You knew I was coming back!" Vocifer seethed. "You could have—"

A voice from below interrupted her mid-sentence. "Up there!"

Her head snapped to the room beneath her. Now all three of the intruders were staring at her and Drossel. Instantly she realized why; in her irritation, she had forgotten to keep her voice down, and had revealed their location.

Vocifer's heart sank. Helplessly, she looked back to Drossel, who was glaring at her accusingly. "You blew it," he whispered sharply.

"I… I didn't mean to," Vocifer stammered, her eyes falling to the floor. "I'm sorry, it's just…"

"You're troublesome," the voice from below interceded again. Vocifer looked down; it belonged to the tall one in black. Vocifer looked down; apparently he was referring to Drossel, not her. Vocifer said nothing in response.

At least Drossel wasn't glaring at her anymore. He was peering intently at the tall one wearing black.

"Here, take this," offered the tall one wearing black. Vocifer still couldn't see clearly from here, but he had picked up the big sharp thing, and –

Wait.

No, he can't!

Her eyes flew to the side. Drossel had stepped back, but nothing more.

From there, everything took place in a split second – at least, that was how Vocifer perceived it. She knew what would happen; the one in black was going to try to hurt them with the sharp thing. In her mind lingered a terrible thought – she knew who he was aiming for.

But she couldn't find her voice. She was too frightened. She could only try to dodge away from the dangerous sharp thing, try not to let herself get hurt. That was the moment she realized she was doing the wrong thing, but the next thing she knew the moment had already passed. Nothing she could do now.

When she looked up again, the three intruders had grouped to one side of the room, worrying about their own puppet. The sharp thing was nowhere to be seen – probably somewhere on the floor below.

Then Vocifer remembered why she really had been so worried. She didn't want to believe that any of this was happening, but this was real… and that was the problem with it.

She turned her head quickly, and her worst fear came true: Drossel was collapsed on the floor (of the ledge, fortunately), and there was a long gash splitting one side of his face where the sharp thing had connected, barely missing his eye. Of course, there was no blood because Drossel didn't have any,but to Vocifer it was still an equally horrifying sight. All of the strength evaporated out of her limbs, and she fell forward next to him, barely supporting herself on her knees. His violet eyes were staring, lifeless, as though he had been a puppet the entire time.

"Drossel, no," she breathed, barely aware of the tears on her own face. "You can't… please don't leave."

She felt as though she would choke on her own existence. She sought comfort, but when she tried, she realized that her most important source of comfort was paralyzed in front of her.

The last thing I did was yell at him…

"Oh, Drossel, please don't die…"

She wasn't sure why she was speaking out loud. Perhaps it was the only thing she could really do now, until something happened to lift her out of this nightmare. Now that she was forced into this bad dream, all she had wanted to do was to be close to him, to feel what little warmth he had…

She leaned in closer, until she could sense his face just beneath her own, trying to scrape out what little warmth she still could from his fading presence.

"Drossel, please stay… you're too talented to leave… and I need you…"

She caught her breath quickly, and went on: "Drossel… I love you."

She pressed his face into her own and kissed him – she didn't care whether he was made of wood or whatever it was; she just wanted her poor heart to stop breaking apart.

What seemed like an hour passed, and she couldn't suppress her pain even by that touch. Reluctantly, she finally drew away. If that was hopeless, then perhaps nothing could stop her tears from flowing. For a last goodbye, she wrapped her arms around him one more time, clutching him as close as possible. The only problem was that she wasn't sure she would ever want to let go.

She was startled out of her breath when she thought she felt Drossel move.

No, that's impossible. Despite her own thoughts, she loosened her grip a little. A few seconds past, and nothing happened. Indeed, it was impossible. She was sure she had witnessed Drossel receive a terrible blow to the head with her own eyes.

Just as that sentence was finished running through her mind, Drossel moved again. This time she was sure that he wasn't dead anymore. But… how can that be?

Vocifer straightened herself, hesitantly returning her arms to her sides. For sure, Drossel had moved – he was kneeling on his own, and before her own eyes he raised one hand to his head. Evidently he was aching there…

"Drossel … you're alive?" She wasn't sure whether to be relieved or skeptical.

Wait. That's not right. Drossel couldn't physically feel pain. He was a puppet, wasn't he?

Once more, she leaned closer to his face. In reaction, he lowered his hand, and looked at her strangely. "Vocifer, what is it?"

For a moment she stopped breathing. There's something different about his voice. It was difficult to think right now, and it was difficult to see in the dim light, but an odd possibility entered her mind. Why would Drossel speak differently like that? He had always sounded hesitant and forced… something about his tone was considerably more relaxed. Considerably more…

Natural.

Her mind paused for a moment, attempting to calculate whether this whole thing was real.

That's not possible… what's going on?

It may have been a crazy idea, but it was the only explanation she could think of. Drossel watched her intently as she lifted her own hand, gently caressing his face with her fingertips.

As before, her breath caught in her throat.

Of course, Drossel quickly pulled away, but that one touch had been enough…

No, this isn't possible, but…

More nimbly than she thought was possible, she seized one of his hands in her own, using her other to pull off the glove that was still there…

And Vocifer gasped. Though she had told herself it wouldn't happen even in her wildest dreams, it did. Here, in front of her, Drossel's hand was real, flesh and blood, and he looked just as baffled as she was. It still retained all the nimbleness and grace it had as a puppet hand, but it was real.

She let him go and lifted her eyes to his face again. She wasn't sure how this could be happening, but it was, and she definitely wasn't disappointed.

But there's one more thing…

Drossel didn't say anything, so she pressed herself to him again, except this time it was her head to his chest. Thankfully, he still didn't react – Vocifer focused herself, and –

At first, it was a light sense, and then as she wait it, she heard it closer. Never did she think she would be so relieved to hear such a thing. It was the most relaxing thing her ears had picked up in a while, and she actually sighed.

Somehow, Drossel had acquired a heart, and it was beating slow and strong, and it made Vocifer want to cry just thinking about it. But she had had enough of that lately, and so she settled with burying her face in his neck, holding him close once again. And for once, she felt him relax just a little at her touch.

Eventually, her own pulse calmed back down to what it had been before any of this happened, and she allowed herself to back away. Slowly Vocifer was able to rise to her feet, albeit shakily. Drossel quickly followed suit, as easily as he ever had, and swept his fallen hat back upon his head.

Finally, Vocifer's eyes drifted back down to the room below. Where had the intruders gone? Evidently they had left a long time ago. Vocifer had no idea how long she'd been in this room, but with all that had happened, it felt like hours. Oh, well – time didn't seem to matter so much anymore.

Then she recalled that, in this whole mansion, she and Drossel were the only two significant people. What would happen next? Nophis wasn't coming back to get her until the next day at the earliest.

She glanced at Drossel, who was brushing himself off nonchalantly. Well, she wasn't alone in this place. She always had a talented butler with her. Time to get started.

"Drossel," she said sharply, and the butler looked up hurriedly. She smiled; now his fiery violet eyes went with the rest of him: pure and alive. She continued, "My cousins aren't coming back for me until at least tomorrow. Until then, I'm going to need someone to look out for me. Can you be that someone, please?"

Drossel paused for a moment, clearly not expecting the request. But after he had time to register it, he simply allowed himself to genuinely smile, bowing low at the waist. "Yes, milady. I will."

"So then who's this?"

The outside light was warm and welcoming, even though it only barely penetrated the clouds. A soft and comforting fall of snow was descending upon the city. As expected, Nophis had returned to the mansion for Vocifer the next day, although she hadn't anticipated her cousin bringing an unfamiliar man with her.

Vocifer only smiled. "This is Drossel," she explained to Nophis. "He used to be this family's butler, but unfortunately they've all seemed to up and vanished. He can't just stay here alone."

Nophis looked concerned. "But we don't have… accomodations for a butler at our home. There's room in the carriage, of course, but… what are we going to do with him?"

Drossel didn't appear the slightest bit offended. He only glanced at Nophis, slightly confused, and then his eyes went back to Vocifer.

"I actually haven't thought about it much," Vocifer lamented truthfully, not letting her gaze fall to the ground. "But I might have a vague idea."

She looked up at Drossel, into his eyes. She couldn't make it work without his true acceptance, though. Over the last day, he had more than tolerated her; at one point, he had allowed her to bring him close for a moment. Then, a little later, to Vocifer's surprise, he had clutched her in his arms himself, although she couldn't tell what he was really thinking.

Nophis wouldn't mind, would she? No, if she does, Nophis doesn't matter. We can be alone. At this time, Vocifer was so perfectly at peace that she couldn't stop herself from standing up tall just to kiss Drossel one more time…

That's right. All I need is to be close to him. Just to feel him here with me…

She stood on her toes to whisper one thing into his ear, so quietly that she could only hear herself breathe it.

"Drossel… I love you."