The summoner suddenly noticed the fox's arm had somehow found its way around her waist. When did that happen? She wondered, looking down in alarm. She was beginning to feel dizzy, flustered. She's getting entirely too- her mind went blank suddenly as she looked up and found Ahri's face just inches from her own. close... came the strangled end of the thought.
"What's wrong, summoner?" Ahri asked, the smile on her perfect, red lips somehow just a touch predatory, "Don't you trust me?" The summoner pulled herself away quickly, jumping to her feet and backing away from the park bench where the two of them had been sitting.
"I-I-I have to..." she stammered.
"Go cool off?" The fox said. She looked up into the summoner's eyes and suddenly the young summoner wondered if she would need to sit down again.
She's so beautiful. She thought. Why do I find her so beautiful? I...I've never-
"I understand." Ahri said then locked her fingers together and raised her hands above her head, stretching her back. The summoner found her eyes dropping a foot or so and blushed furiously. "Just let me know when you're ready to warm things up again, and don't be so nervous. I don't bite..." She said trailing the sentence off then catching the summoner's eyes again and giggling, "Unless you want me to."
The summoner fled.
Ahri gave a contented purr and stood to tumble around. She was sure she would hear from the latest object of her affections before the week was out, which made today a good day, and the coming one an even better one.
"You were being mean." a familiar voice said from behind her. She spun to see Tibbers and Annie a short distance away, Annie wearing a stern look on her face.
"She looked scared and her face was all red and you made her run away."
Ahri laughed. "She was scared, true, but I promise I did nothing mean, and it wasn't me she was scared of."
Annie seemed to consider her words for a moment and finally harumph-ed but gave no further comment. Tibbers grinned and gave a sound that many might have found menacing, but Ahri recognized as happy.
"Well, you're in a good mood today, Tibbers." Ahri said. "Did something special happen?" She had learned to read Tibbers moods very early in her time in The League. Despite having never grown very close to Annie, she and Tibbers had become fast friends. At first it was jarring seeing the enormous shadow bear unbound by the restrictions of the matches, roaming freely for as long as he wished and Annie allowed, but Ahri had since become glad that he was not reduced to living as himself for only moments at a time throughout the day. She was sure the magic he had been exposed to throughout his life had shaped him in ways similar to how it had shaped her. How else could a shadow bear host tea parties without ever spilling a drop of tea?
"He got to scare away some nosies!" Annie said happily.
Nosies. Journalists. She supposed she owed them a debt of thanks. She wouldn't have wanted rumors flying about her and her new romantic interest. While champion-summoner relationships weren't expressly prohibited, she suspected that might simply be because no one thought to expressly prohibit them yet. "Was that what that ruckus was?" She said simply, deciding she would mention thanks when she had thought of a way to thank them. "I was a bit distracted at the time."
Tibbers gave a sedate growl.
"Hm? Oh no. Gerard and I broke up a little while ago. He was far too stodgy. I don't think either of us really thought it would last, but still, we had some good times."
Tibbers gave a muted roar.
"Oh, you meant Hana! Oh, no. She...well her arranged marriage finally came around. She was delightful. I still miss her, but there was nothing to be done. She would never ignore an obligation. It's part of what drove me crazy about her. On the one hand, she was painfully respectful to authorities. One the other, she was very good at following instructions."
Tibbers roared. Ahri suddenly remembered the age of her company.
"Oh! I'm sorry Annie. That's, um, these grown up things are probably terribly boring for you."
"No, I understand. Tibbers is really good at following instructions too."
Tibbers roared softly.
"I am glad her parents aren't here."
"They are!" Annie said happily. "I'm having lunch with them! They're visiting cause I've had so many judgements so it's been awhile since I've been home." Her smile fell and she paused a bit, then continued glumly. " I wanted them to meet my friends but Amumu's getting his bandages changed and Lux is busy in a Judgement."
"I didn't know you and Lux were close."
"She teaches me the best spells! Look! Look!" She cried, and with a word and a gesture ribbons of light exploded from her fingertips like living, prismatic fireworks and swirled around her as she spun and laughed. Ahri giggled as she watched, infected by Annie's enthusiasm. After a few moments, the lights began to fade and Annie collapsed on her back, lying in the grass as the swirling lights died out above her.
"Shouldn't her judgement be done by now?" Ahri asked. Annie made a disgusted noise.
"It's against Noxus. Demacia-Noxus judgements always take a long time." Ahri paused. She had never grown very close to Annie, but she did feel a special fondness for the young champion, a fact she was now sure Tibbers knew.
Ahri looked up at Tibbers. You set me up, didn't you? She glared. Tibbers' grin widened.
"Do I count as a friend? I know I spend most of my time with Tibbers, but- "
Annie shot to her feet beaming. "Any friend of Tibbers is a friend of mine!" She said and grabbed Ahri's hand. "This way!" She called and began to lead Ahri to her house. As she led Ahri away Ahri glanced at Tibbers and saw his grin hadn't faded.
Well, she thought, I suppose this explains what Rammus was doing in a bunny suit on Easter.
The house didn't look how she expected. Frankly, though, that wasn't saying much. The images she'd formed in her head were varied and nebulous, but none of them even vaguely resembled the modest, perfectly normal manor in front of her. She couldn't help but be a little disappointed.
"Boring, isn't it?"
"Well, no it-" Ahri began to protest before noticing the knowing look on Annie's face. "Yes. Yes it is, It's nice, but I was half-expecting a faerie castle."
"Lulu said she could turn it into a faerie castle for me once, but I didn't think that was a very good idea."
Ahri giggled imagining variations of gingerbread walls, leaning towers and impractical parapets, or knowing Lulu perhaps just a castle that was one enormous fae creature. "Tempting, but no, I don't think it would have been a good idea either. I'm sure it would have been a lot of fun to play in, but you probably wouldn't want to to go to sleep in it."
Annie nodded sagely and opened the front door. Gregori and Amoline Hastur stood directly behind it. Amoline beamed at the sight of her daughter. Ahri's smile died instantly, her eyes growing wide in alarm for a moment before she regained her composure. "I thought I heard you approaching," Amoline said as she scooped Annie up into a hug. "Oh, my darling girl, how have you been?"
"Mooom!" Annie fussed, "stooop! I'm not a little girl anymore!" Amoline gave a soft laugh and put her daughter down.
"No, of course you're not," she said apologetically. "Oh, forgive my manners. Would you introduce us to your friend?"
Annie smiled and nodded. "Mama, Papa, this is my friend Ahri. Ahri, this is Mama and Papa."
At this Annie's father extended his hand. "Gregori Hastur." He said simply.
"Charmed." Ahri said as she took his hand and kissed it as a gentleman would a lady's. His eyes narrowed.
"And here I presumed that was your habit." Their eyes locked.
"Only in judgements." Ahri said. Amoline cleared her throat. Gregori and Ahri looked away from each other.
"I'm Amoline. It's a pleasure to meet you." Ahri took her hand and kissed it as well.
"The pleasure is all mine." She purred. Amoline laughed.
"Annie speaks so highly of her friends. It's always so nice to meet new ones."
"Meeting is always nice enough, but it's getting to know me that's the greater experience."
"You scoundrel," Amoline replied, laughing again. Gregori glared. Annie glared back. Gregori gave a resigned sigh.
"Come," he said. "Lunch is waiting within."
Lunch proved to be a more sedate affair than Ahri had imagined involving five courses, pleasant if staid conversation punctuated by the occasional bit of magic, and sitting still far longer than Ahri was comfortable with. The last did not go without Gregori's notice.
"Restless?" He asked, his voice betraying nothing but a fatherly note of concern Ahri was unconvinced by. "You should find some outlet for all that energy lest it go to poor use."
"Less excess energy and more my nature." She answered. "Even you wouldn't begrudge an active nature, would you?"
"That depends on what activity the nature is disposed to." He said, never taking his eyes off of his lunch.
"Being lit on fire and mauled by a bear this morning, mainly, as I'm sure you know. It's always strange having to rethink my relationship with fire when I'm already part fire myself sometimes." She said with a smile then shifted to perfect seriousness. "Either way, your honor" She said, her tone becoming exaggeratedly officious, "I submit my participation in league matches as proof of my good nature."
"I suppose this makes Nocturne and Kog'maw perfect innocents, then."
Annie made a disgusted noise. "Kog'maw's really gross, not innocent. I always have Tibbers take care of him if I can. He really stinks when I light him on fire."
Gregor opened his mouth to reply, but Amoline interrupted. "Dessert should be just about ready now, I believe."
"Allow me," Ahri said, and with a streak of foxfire and a flourish she had collected all the empty dishes from the table.
"Oh, no." Amoline protested. "I couldn't have a guest serve us. Give me a moment, and I'll summon the servants."
"Oh, but it would be my pleasure." Ahri responded. She gave a sweeping bow, spun and disappeared into the kitchen without rattling a plate.
As the door closed behind her she immediately slumped. She stood in the quiet for a few moments, staring at nothing in silence and breathing deeply in fatigue when the door opened behind her. She tensed. The moment the door closed again, Grogori spoke.
"Christoph is dead, isn't he?" He asked plainly. She paused, fought down the lump in her throat that had suddenly risen.
"Yes." She answered finally. She placed the dishes in the sink and found her eyes drifting again to the floor.
"You remember who he was then, out of all the others you took to their deaths? I must admit surprise."
"I remember all of them. Every single one. I won't let myself forget. I can't ever let myself forget."
"And you know who he was?"
"I do now." she said and looked up, staring through the door, the deck and the trees in front of her and into the past. "Annie was so young when they made the painting. I never recognized her," She turned to face him then, tears streaming from her eyes. "but I recognized you and Amoline the moment she opened the door today. Christoph was always so proud of his family, especially his brother...I'm sorry for what I did. I'm so, so sorry."
"It's true, then. You have changed."
"I was different then. I didn't-" He placed a hand on her shoulder to stop her.
"I understand. It's I who owe you an apology, then." He said and offered her his handkerchief. "It was not right of me to mention it...I have behaved very poorly toward you today."
"You had a right to know whether or not your brother was still alive." She said as she wiped dry her tears. He sighed and looked up at the ceiling. They stood silent for a moment, and when he lowered his head to speak he withdrew his hand from her shoulder as well.
"Truthfully? I never truly doubted he was lost to us. He wrote of you, you know. Gushing, florid prose from a man of reserved emotions. He was completely in love, described you in great detail, excepting your tail and ears, called you the woman he would marry and wrote eagerly of our meeting you. When he suddenly fell silent shortly afterward I had little doubt what had happened. I only couldn't understand why it had taken so long. As a victim of someone who was rumoured to take the lives of others in a single night of lust, I didn't understand how he had been allowed the time to write such letters. I allowed that to give me hope at first, but even from the start I knew it was a false one."
"He was the last one." Ahri explained. "I was...fond of him, and aware enough of my actions to question them by then. I remember hesitating a long time, but finally one night, after seeing some of the humanity I had desperately stolen for myself fade, I decided I was being foolish. I've regretted that decision ever since."
"Thank you." Gregori said. "It means much to hear that. Perhaps it is imprudent of me to ask, but if you remember them so well, have you considered finding their families and letting them know what became of their loved ones, of the sorrow you now feel? Surely some would derive comfort from your apology, if nothing else. Certainly there are some who are uncertain who would yet want to know."
"I did. I wanted to. I...I tried...I don't know what I was expecting, but early on one of the families lashed out at me. I had to fight my way to safety. I don't blame them, but I hurt some of them in the fight. One of them seriously, I think. He wasn't crying in pain anymore when I finally got away. He was just lying there. He was still breathing, but I don't know if he survived. I decided it wasn't worth it after that, but maybe I should just switch to letters."
"They would safer for all involved." Gregori regarded her a moment before he spoke again.
"Power outstripping your humanity." He said softly to no one. Unbidden accounts of the rogue mage Syndra drifted into his mind. "I'm glad you're friends with my daughter. I think you will have much to teach her in time."
"I hope not." She said, wry humor, sadness and worry all mixed together on her face as she spoke.
"I hope she will never be in a position to need such lessons," Gregori understood.
"I...Pardon me. I should return to my family."
Ahri nodded and turned away.
He returned to find Annie in an energetic recounting of some sort aided by Tibbers that seemed to involve an alchemist exploding into flames. He stood silently by the door, not meaning to disturb, but Annie noticed him in wait and turned to him curiously.
"My apologies, my dearest student, I didn't mean to interrupt, but perhaps you should go speak to your friend." Annie's face darkened at once.
"What did you do, Papa?" She asked, her voiced equal parts exasperation and reprimand.
"I was unfair to her."
"Dear?" Amoline asked, the rest of her question clear though unsaid.
"We should go."
"Of course. Will you still be available for breakfast tomorrow, darling?" She asked Annie. "I would love to see you again before we go."
"Mm-Hm!" She answered cheerfully, then walked dutifully toward the kitchen, Tibbers in hand. Amoline picked her up and hugged her en route once more as Annie revolted and protested, and then they parted.
Ahri sat on the back deck staring out through the trees behind the manor, remembering her days as a fox. Her days before humanity. She would never have questioned herself then. Those she killed would have never earned a second thought from the fox, would never have burned a list into her heart that snuck into her thoughts accusingly during the quiet moments of the day. The fox never suffered from this conscience. She remembered the fox too well, sometimes. They weren't strangers. Remembering her wasn't looking back at some person she no longer recognized. Remembering her was looking within. The fox was a part of her even now, a part she had to reign in every day to be worthy of her humanity. Some days she wondered if she was right to. Those were the days she feared the most.
"I'm sorry." She said softly to Christoph, to Eustice, to Jayasri, Marcus, Leilani, Anton, Achibner and all the others. "I'm sorry for what I did. I didn't know another way, then. I didn't..." Her words trailed off. It was the same apology she had made a thousand times, but today she felt it a false one. She was sorry she had taken their lives, yes, and she would never do such a thing again, but if she was offered the chance to bring them all back by sacrificing her humanity, she wasn't sure she would. She hugged her knees and curled into a ball, intent on staying that way until the eventual death of the universe when a small pair of arms enfolded her in a hug.
"Don't be sad." Annie said. "Daddy's really smart, but he's really good at being dumb." Ahri gave a small laugh and relaxed a little.
"No, he was right."
"About mistakes I've made."
"Mommy always says making mistakes isn't bad. It's making the same mistakes again and again that is."
"But what if the mistake was a really bad one?"
"Then you should talk about it. I always feel better when I talk about things. This one time when I was really little I was by myself for a little while and practicing my magic and I burned a tree down. Mama and Papa were really upset a tree burned down, but I didn't say anything so they didn't know who did it, and I felt really bad. I was scared to tell them I did it, but I did and felt a lot better even though I got punished after. So you wanna talk about it? I can listen. I'm not always a really good listener, but Tibbers always is. "
Ahri looked at the small child beside her. Just hours ago they were charming, taunting, slashing and incinerating each other, and now here the same child was, exposing her own heart to try to comfort her former adversary. No, not her former adversary, Ahri realized. Her friend. What strength she has. Ahri marveled. So many others I know carry resentments born on the Fields of Justice to their lives outside it, and here she is, so young and putting them aside like they didn't exist.
"No, that's all right," she said. She returned Annie's hug then gently disengaged herself to stand. "Thank you." She stood, stretched and looked off to the distance then back to Annie with an arch smile on her face.
"You know," She began, her voice full of mischief. "I've never found out how long I can spirit rush outside the Fields of Justice." Annie's eyes widened with excitement. "Care to help me find out?"
"You bet!" She cried.
"Hop on." Ahri said as she dropped into a crouch. Annie hopped onto her shoulders, Tibbers in hand, and with an explosion of Foxfire the three of them were off, zipping through the grounds of the Halls of Justice and trailing laughter behind them.