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[ pos.pɾe'te.ɾi.to ] ([personal profile] pospreterito) wrote in [community profile] copreterito2012-04-06 05:48 pm

{bracketverse, 31_days} when we arrive alive at last

Title: when we arrive alive at last
Rating: PG13 for dramatic irony
Wordcount: 8,325
Story / World: bracketverse
Challenge: [livejournal.com profile] 31_days: January 11 2012, fine line between love and alibis
Other: Spanning from around Plenipotentiary to after There Are Bodies On The Ceiling And They’re Fluttering Their Wings to a bit before Chondrilla juncea, spoiling appropriately.
Characters: Arianna Castor, David Smith, Isaac Corwin, Margaret Lowes, Tania Clark, the Miriam, Ciel Noline, Tulio Huitrón, Zeke Cartman, Zöe Cartman, Marc Taylor, Ariadne Shaw, Cosma Noline, January Salt, Theresa Kyle, Arcturus, Catherine Jones
Notes: Look! Ensemble! (Look! Omniscient... narration...)


who will be there to catch us in his jaws when we arrive alive at last?
i can't hear you in the dark, wish i knew where you'd gone

none

It's not that no one cares to know what killed Arianna, not at all; she was very obviously murdered and their Aleph besides, and this was not to be permitted. But David showed up shortly after, a David, a David with wild eyes and a torn jacket and no watch at all. He'd said breathlessly to just let Arianna go.

The warnings of the Wanderer are not to be disregarded: this is as central a rule as that the Justice may have no allegiances or the Aleph may never, ever testify. It was dropped immediately, obediently, to Theresa's fruitless ire.

(More than anything, Isaac just looked stricken. Corwin didn't care about anything or anyone, everyone knew that, and indeed he seemed unfazed by what, in particular, could have taken of the lady and mistress of all knowledge and torn out her insides like the stuffing of a cheap rag doll. But a David with bare wrists who couldn't spare him a glance made him, for once, shut up.)

So Arianna might as well have died of the plague or a meteor strike for all the vengeance given, and eventually things returned to normal.

one

The Twelve, as a system, have analogues and backups. For the entire world, for all anyone knows the entirety of organised magic (there's threads to the stars and darker, more realistic things lurking promising behind them, but that kind of thing is a cosmonaut's prerogative), to rest under the shaking and disjointed hands of twelve ultimately unremarkable chalk-scale magical powerhouses stuck being inevitably dysfunctional human beings would be certain doom in the making. It's a repeating pattern, and a lot of them look alike, but the amount of people actually actively holding up the system worldwide -- not even passively, that's everything that breathes, fact and backbone knit inevitably into occupying the empty space in every atom -- is myriad.

Some patterns repeat, though. There's a hundred people doing the Columbine's job, the Metallurge's, the Weathervane. Someone's Aleph is tasked with wielding a fan in the name of fiction as well as themselves in the name of fact, or justice is left only to civilians and the Side that has actual explanations for everything, or the organisation's not transparent and embodied at all but fit into everyone's obligations with no central spotlighted figure to blame. Sometimes the people stuck being epitomes of function and concept get to stay on the sidelines or in the shadows or nowhere at all.

There are constants: magic works many ways, in human hands, but not infinite ones.

And the Miriam is everywhere. The same Miriam, recognised or not, named or not. She's there. There's no other way she could work; a biosphere can't be picked up in pieces quite as much.

Or, well, it could. She's just in no position to bother to.

Alone among the Twelve and their assorted equivalents the Miriam is immortal until replaced, with the emphasis on immortal instead of until. (She can see who's coming next, of course. There's a probable-looking girl with lopsided straight brown hair, but there's been probabilities before. She'll know when it's certain.)

Somewhere that mattered to quite a lot of people, the woman who held the post was named Miriam, and she got written down. The name has stuck for centuries while the various lopsided structures repeat and mutate down the years.

She's the fifth, counting the one whose name they all get as the first. Or possibly the fourth. It's hard to keep track, and absolute certainty isn't her department; to bring an Aleph's attention to any of her personal and impersonal daisy chain of history seems unneeded and slightly dangerous.

At any rate she's very old. Human brains aren't built for remembering that long: she forgets things, when not asked for long enough, such as her actual name.

It might have started with a V.

The Miriam isn't quite like any of the Twelve, and not the way none of them are like each other, either. She's not like anyone, and not just for the fact that she has to be everywhere almost at once. Named properly her title should be the Queen of Earth, counterpart to the Queen of the Sea, and this is a tell.

So is the fact that neither of them are human.

(The Twelve, her Twelve, that very specific group of misfits among their many iterations, though, they have a girl with a legitimate claim as the heir-apparent of Air among them. She wonders if anyone will ever notice, if anything will come of that. Insofar as she gives it any directional thought she near-desperately hopes, and what she hopes is the opposite; Air is a throne best done without, and alone among things currently breathing she knows what would be necessary to instate a monarch for it.)

On the scale she has to work on, everyone else seems very small. They're nice, but they're children, usually concerned with ultimately childish things, and she has to learn to make judgement calls. The Miriam belongs to everywhere and every spanning way; at any given moment she has a thousand places she needs to be. Or have been.

Time travel isn't hers either.

She can walk on water, if only when no one's looking. Not like it matters anyway, though. Not in the scheme of things.

But it does make things a bit easier.

two

More than anything else Zeke Cartman is a translator, a conduit: he is a path from point A to point B, even his title shows it, whether that's as harmless information (and now, ladies and gentlemen, the weather) or a warning (and now, ladies and gentlemen, what my sister actually meant).

They're effectively the same thing, from different angles. Which is more Corwin and Shaw's department than his, at any rate. Zeke just relays.

At any given moment there's a hundred ghost planes in the sky -- not their sky, not anyone's sky, the actual Earth's actual atmosphere, wandering around rotting off in pieces. Not counting places he can hold no sway at all, that is. Zeke has no way to plant his fingertips at poles and in the centres of the oceans, even if he's sure there's weather there. This is because the Twelve are limited, constantly, unfortunately, by what they are and what they're not.

They're human. It's chronic, and quite unpleasant. All trustworthy sources and reputable studies indicate that there is no possible cure.

So far.

Zeke's twitchy, people complain about it when they know him. When they don't they complain about the way he can sit completely still and just stare at them without blinking; his students say it's creepy, and also unfair. It's the least he can have, really, with only one eye left. (He tried stuffing cotton balls in the socket, early on, in case that would help. They just matted, impromptu scabs. Then Zöe laughed at him. She would have known better, probably; Zöe knows no actual medicine but she has more first-hand experience with wounds, and indeed her own face healed less... weird and blotchy.)

It's interesting, is the thing, the way people keep finding something to be annoyed about. He can use it to his own advantage, give them something to focus their irritation on and let them feel nice about it so they'll actually listen to the rest. Storms are good for that, sometimes, when he's being petty and wants to be petty on a larger scale than ought to be possible. So's Zöe, who he's been calling "Collateral Damage" since they were fifteen years old.

It's a bad nickname, of course, being as it is full exponents longer than her actual first name, but who even cares?

And so. He's the Weatherman. His job is treaties with the dead and teeming realm of Air the way Marc is the emissary to the alien kingdom of Water and it's the Miriam's endless task to walk the actual Earth while Tulio could probably negotiate with the bones of the planet if there was a need; he'd rather his own domain than any of theirs, but that goes without saying. He's not an avatar like the other three are, like the Columbine is, though, of the Cartmen (improper plural but he's always liked it) the avatar's his sister.

The Weatherman is meant to be a messenger. Zeke relays messages. From the air, from ruins, from the future when it builds up hard against his ears and he wonders irritably how no one else can possibly see (hear, smell, half of it's the taste of water on his tongue before it starts to hit the ground anyway) the way he does, not from people, that's Margaret, that's not his department. And it is a job. He has no obligation to like it, nor to like the people he has to be around while he does it. The duty weighing on his shoulders and his fingers and the tips of his toes when he walks is to execute a purpose, not to enjoy it.

If this vocation is going to weigh on him as heavy and obscure as dark matter he ought to at least be able to cram it into his empty eye socket, make both of them have a useful point for once.

So it's not his job to get along with anybody, but he takes to talking to Marc. Because it's easy, he tells himself, and it is; he doesn't have to point anything out, as far as a manic twitch of awareness goes that's something they can both pull off and then synchronise so Zeke for once doesn't have to waste time translating, rewriting, pointing things out. It's very easy, talking to someone he can keep up with.

Everyone else says Marc's fixation on the river is bizarre, but Zeke's seen people try to hijack the ghost flights, all he needs is a bird or a plane and he knows exactly where the Lord of Water is coming from with the way he panics when anything so much as looks a bit wrong.

Water is related to air more than anything (other than fire, and nothing lives in fire, and nothing stays around there after it dies; so it's not like there's one of them for it), but assuming that's why they get along is simplistic and Zeke doesn't like determinism, he doesn't like fate, that has a nasty aftertaste to it if anything does.

Of course, there's a downside to having a friend, and that's distraction. When he has to go play catch-up with Zöe it means he has to run all the faster. Literally and figuratively, really, but literally's easier, he can follow the nervous stares to whatever she's done now and then scratch it out in a civilian tongue and proceed to fix it. And Zöe, of course, will be halfway to somewhere else by the time he's picked up the pieces, but to his own constant annoyance it's not like Zeke actually minds.

(Later, his sister is killed and left in an unpleasant, young-looking heap with a blanket drawn up over her permanently stilled limbs; Zeke stops talking to anyone. For the interval, though. It isn't long. After that he doesn't talk either, but at least it takes no effort on his part.)

three

In the end Ariadne is the only one left, in several senses. She doesn't have peers, any more, even if she's not entirely alone.

No one knows her any more, which should be comforting and isn't, instead. She misses it. She misses everything. It was perfectly horrible and flawed and never should've been at all, she should have seen and tried to fix things -- she was structure, her system was built on shoddy foundations, she could've at least tried -- instead of folding herself up in a poisonous awful mess like it was a blanket.

She could've saved someone other than herself. That would've been an idea, certainly.

But Ariadne is -- was -- is, damn it, is now and ever of mazes and lies, honesty and uncomplicated benefit to others is alien to her. She knows she doesn't have an excuse to be a horrible person, she knows, she knows, but she can at least hide in her aspect and claim there's not much she could've done if she even tried.

There's gravel in her hand, the same kind she always makes, same shape and colour from the driveway at home as ever. (If she'd made an effort, maybe she'd have Isaac conveniently here to throw it at.)

When David turns up, grinning and obviously young, from before she fled even so how did he find her, what does he know, she screams outright -- and, for the first time in an age, feels not the slightest bit guilty about anything.

It doesn't last, but novelties don't, she's used to that.

Her name's Ariadne Shaw, she's still the Mother of Lies, and Wanderer in front of her or no Wanderer, Aleph living uncomfortably close to the name, all her friends are dead and she's alive: that has to count for something, in the scheme of things, inevitably against her. Everyone she knew is dead or changed.

"You're looking like a retrospective," she spits out, and finds herself unsurprised by that David already knows what she means.

So there's two of them to blame, then.

four

There is no specific Lord or Lady for the Healers; they are expected to know a little bit of everything, and there's already people for doing that. They're also treated more like a cross between fixture and public service than actual magic-user, in truth, and there's enough of those among the Twelve already too.

This doesn't stop Marc from poking around healing as much as he can, when he can, when he's not embroidered in territorial disputes or rerouting underground streams or dragging local magical subtype sorts into some kind of agreement so that they'll stop dumping bodies in his river. His fellows consider him practically a child, of course, and he knows this, of course -- Marc isn't stupid, he's fast and sluggish as running water, dull and bright by swirls of dust in turn, it's just that humans don't usually go by that kind of time.

Their loss, he figures.

After what he'll only call an adventure, with a small bright smile hanging lopsided from eyes that never focus on who he's talking to, he ends up having to hunt down the first apprentice he can find for what feels like the most mundane injury he can think of. Marc has found things, trial-and-errored things, to do to get himself out of immediate danger wherever there's bloodflow, but as-is all he can tell with slightly inhuman accuracy is that there's a crack running down the bones of his left hand and there's not much he can do about that.

The first apprentice he can find is white as foam and starlight and has eyes slightly odder than his own, by most average scales. She recognises him, they both know it in the flinch backwards when he calls out awkwardly, an obvious and pretty common tell. She's also covered in ribbons.

Several of them make their way into his possession by way of being used to make a splint. The pale wisp of a girl admonishes him not to do whatever left his fingers useless and bruising ever again, which would be better advice if Marc knew what it was he did.

Anger royalty, maybe. But it's not like that's going to stop happening.

From then on he takes an interest, just on selfish principle, in the Healers among the students who scuttle around underfoot so much, in one copper-wire young man he keeps running into when he goes to settle border disputes on behalf of a river that leads to the sea, in one chalk girl in particular.

She does well even accounting for him watching over her. That's nice.

(There's not much even Healers can do for broken necks and scoured veins, but that comes later, in a future far, far away. He walks into it unknowing. They all do. Nothing less could be expected, really.)

five

By all accounts David should be better at math and more measured in his movements, less catastrophically clumsy, more calm and collected, less prone to asking what the date is in relation to where he's currently from or at least not while wearing such a dorky grin.

Fuck all accounts and let them slink off and die somewhere that won't trouble him, he figures, if they want Isaac that badly they can go ask Isaac. He's been mistaken for the Wanderer before, between the pretentious self-possessed precision he holds himself to and the anachronistic tastes in fashion. He looks more like what people want to see than David does.

David can figure out the time to more than the millisecond, of course he can, and he has something of a gift for history as his post doesn't so much ask as require on pain of death, but he has no precision in his soul and sees everything a bit twisted (he's told that's actually astigmatism, the fish-eye lens tilt to his thoughts coming from the backwards turn to everything he sees, but glasses seem like the kind of thing he'd lose very easily). What he can't do is work out his own personal timeline for anything.

Not outside of his head, anyway. He knows enough to duck around himself, knows where the loopholes are when he really needs them, has learned trial-and-error where he'll only feel like an abandoned dog or something because no one knows him yet. David likes people, after all, they just keep dying on him. Or pre-emptively forgetting.

He lied to Isaac; this is common. His own watch tells his own time, not anyone else's, alone among all the others.

In hindsight, he maybe could've managed multi-purpose enchanted clockwork, but then Isaac would definitely have noticed. And there's one thing about David everyone does manage to accurately expect, albeit more an attending required characteristic of being one of the Twelve than anything: he is proud. He really, really doesn't like losing.

So he tends to borrow Ariadne's, instead. It makes Isaac angry. That's a bonus.

Some times are still a mystery, no matter what he does. He'll have to wait and see what happens and hope it makes sense then, go find an older version of himself if he can and ask an explanation -- that almost never works, because he has to have remembered telling himself something to be able to tell himself something, obviously, stable loops are the only kind workable, but he keeps trying -- and sniff out every potential indication in the present beforehand.

It's frustrating. He's explained it to Tania, once, inadvisable and unthinking; she rolled her eyes and asked if it was reasonable to expect anyone to manage to read a story with all the pages shuffled like cards. It almost sounded like she felt sorry for him.

The analogy was and is still terminally flawed, of course, but certainly the kind to expect from the holder of the Fan. Time isn't a story, at least not on the scale that David gets to work with. The whole of history might fold itself into something that actually makes sense -- maybe an Aleph teetering at the brink of the death of the universe could look back and see that progression -- but they're a rambling footnote to it, one in which he's forced to jump from letter to letter at random poking at the kerning and pruning the commas.

Maybe the idea of everything being a written work wasn't that bad, he's since conceded. Not that he's bothered to tell Tania. He asked Ariadne to tell Tania, he's not unkind, but that's like asking a string of Christmas lights for rain, about as likely and about as logical.

If the lot of them could just co-operate, if they didn't behave like children all the time, the future would be an open book, easy and manageable.

David doesn't give too much thought to that idea, though. He's perfectly aware that, caught up in the twisty Möbius strip of his future-slash-past and his own attempts to figure it out in an ultimately narcissistic fashion, he's part of the problem.

six

The Twelve have been translated in and out of many languages and almost as many cultures in the time the system has existed, which isn't actually that long -- the Aleph could give a reasoned figure, the Miriam a specification that would actually mean anything without being prompted -- picked apart and put together by various and varying hands like a religion. It's no wonder that certain things would slip through the gaps.

Theresa used to wonder, when she was a lot younger, what language or what person it was who decided to pay everyone an unwanted compliment; the proper name of her post, long ago, before it filtered like poisonous silt into English, was closer to the Vengeance than anything.

The degree to which that differs, in execution, from being the Justice isn't that great, but it matters.

Everything matters.

She never learns that, and never asks someone who could know. It seems unfair on all counts, and her fellows are ostensibly busy, even if what they're busy with seems frequently to be adolescent pursuits like throwing gravel at each other as a primitively inept flirting method. (She means the Cause and the Lady of Mazes, obviously. Lately they're kind of a spectator sport. Theresa does try not to show fondness or preference, it's bad form, but they're honestly funny.)

Over time she learns a lot of other things, but most of them are functional or unwanted: the amount of time it takes to build up the necessary layers of calluses to wield a sword more than half her height without a wince, for example, or the degree to which it ends up unexpectedly playing an unpleasant refrain of havoc on her wrists. Who she can trust and be friends with, which is effectively no one. The reasons behind the steady and consistently low population of the Side, which itch and burn at her with incorrectness.

(Eventually she even finds out what Arianna actually looked like, but it's not like she'd ever asked. The Aleph is the only person who is forbidden from reporting to or ever testifying for the Justice, they can't witness or defend themselves or ask anyone else for retribution; that wiry near-Fae maniac was actually something approaching safe.)

Sometimes she lets herself think, blank and purposeless, which honestly she shouldn't either. Among the things she's found out is that executions are a lot harder than they look, although at least she's had practice. There's a vindictive childish pointless bit of her that evaluates it whenever she's introduced to anyone, the ultimate probability that someone would make it up to around her level making the likelihood that they'll end up breaking an essential law burn upwards like a fuse, how easy they'd be to decapitate if the law required her to.

Theresa herself would be a particularly easy case. That's something like irony, perhaps. Or just pointless coincidence.

She doesn't think it over to decide the difference for herself, and in fact only notices it, knee-jerk automatic, when she passes by mirrors. More-than-momentary distractions are to be avoided, after all. She's got a lot of work to do.

some

Ciel Noline is wrong in all respects; this was never something he didn't know. His own efforts to correct this (sardonic quirk, sarcasm, et cetera, for a solution most tilts would never give consideration to, and for good reason as well) only made it worse. By the modern day he has stopped trying.

There's something to be said for being honestly and personally acquainted with what you personally are meant as anathema to, he's said. (Quietly, and to his sister.) There's some worth in having a fine example of what's not to be tolerated falling in front of your face whenever you lean forward, just in case you forget.

She gave no indication for or against this thesis having made a difference to her. The definition of correct, of course, burned in her veins, as well as (arteries) the actual applied and applicable meaning. The Aleph is, unfortunately for many involved, pure truth, condensed and decanted into human form (if anyone is to be chalk it ought to be him). Alighting just on that kind of defeats the point.

Absolute truth can be as much of a blinder as ignorance; the Untitled is if nothing else pragmatic, and Cosma is many things.

At any rate her end reaction was exasperation: she bounced her knuckles off her chin in an aborted attempt to look thoughtful, beamed at her brother, and said "But that aside, you still need to cut your fucking hair."

(It was a long time later, after what only someone very ignorant would dare to call a war, that either of them actually gave any thought to the matter, as opposed to arguing about it.)

seven

If anyone is made for their post it ought to have been Margaret. Her mind's made for secret-keeping and her legs stretched out for running; she's easy to find in a crowd, impossible to confuse once seen, and for all that also difficult to catch.

She's also kind of the exact opposite of the Miriam, in appearance and function, which she noticed not first but at least second and before everyone else. Isaac pointed it out, actually, with his face all obnoxiously still to give her no chance at figuring what he actually meant.

But it's true, even. Margaret's for distance and secrets and rule-breaking and death. She's tall and blonde and people keep telling her that she looks like a ghost, it is in fact one of the easiest tells for her, simplest way to figure out who in her acquaintances has no experience with spirits and should maybe be spared it. Their Miriam doesn't quite come up to her shoulder, among other things.

(Their Miriam's one and only, Margaret knows it even if everyone else steadily ignores it, and there are other Columbines and people who do their work. But Margaret's for here, and the Miriam has to hold everywhere in her hands, so there's that as well, in her benefit -- which her? Who knows.)

The Columbine is a love letter to her purpose, wrapped up in flesh and human being as an afterthought. Alone among the Twelve she's neither trained by one of them nor picked by a predecessor or someone else qualified. The Aleph isn't trained, but there's only ever one person who could suit, and they shine in obvious certainty like light, and there's rumours the one before gets to try their hand at picking; most posts get to choose apprentices among what realistically must be dozens at any given moment with the right affinity who are bright enough. The requirements aren't that esoteric. The Twelve aren't actually that special, as far as comparing them to their peers before they're actually the Twelve goes.

Unlike the rest, though, a Columbine is born and suited to her post almost from then, and is picked out by no mortal hand. Death points her out, instead. Pretty polite of him, Margaret figures.

(Sometimes she wonders why he picked her. As far as humans go, fast and clever and secretive isn't that hard to find. She's seen ghosts ever since she could see, but there's no way of knowing that's rare at all, either. So she stays awake, sometimes, because sleeping is overrated and it seems that her circulatory system mistakes adrenaline for haemoglobin fairly often and leaves her reeling into insomnia, and she wonders.)

There's a million and a half euphemisms for Death and Margaret has even bothered to learn some of them. Some are specific to the Side, others to where they are. She can hop from name to name and come up with a hundred different people picking up souls like forgotten beads or cutting them down themselves.

She's met Death at least once, the aspect she knows to recognise, when he bothered to introduce himself. So probably a lot more than that, but she doesn't know, so it marks no difference for her other than something to wonder idly about.

He picked her out. Whoever he is. (She remembers violet, the colour, and glass; that's almost it.)

Margaret would thank him if she could find him.

eight

As it happens, the Weatherman is right: Tulio Huitrón can talk to the bones of things. Not people, obviously, and not other animals. That's calcium and breath, not his department, entirely Miriam's and she's welcome to it. But buildings and cityscapes, yes, infrastructure etched out in his mind like a map the way Corwin must see the world, not even having to ask, even if the actual information would do more good in Shaw's hands because she can find it for herself. Landscapes in the purer sense, too.

He's only had to eke out the actual domain of the planet once and when asked he'll never say he regrets this, seeing as that would be graceless of him. He will say that it was worth it at the time and generally doesn't make a difference. It only takes about half a generation for the people who saw the consequences to filter out and pass his words or at least the fact that if you ask Huitrón he'll bore you out through their grapevine: people stop asking.

It's not a relief, but it is a lack of annoyance.

If he's giving himself too much credit he could point out that the Metallurge works permanence in a way that the rest of the Twelve simply don't. Anything they have will die with a single person, a generation, or an object.

The things they do will pass away at human action or at its absence -- the extinction of species, for example, for the Miriam, who must let such things take their course whether she wants to or not. Book-burnings, another example, for the more theoretical among them. He actually does point this out to Tania, sometimes, when she is very and erroneously enthusiastic about the longevity of the spoken and written word, because she always seems to feel strongly on the subject at such a high volume and so it's only what she deserves. Sometimes he marvels at her, though, offhand: she's self-consciously fiery, it's silly, but still it's odd to see that little barefoot girl he knew have grown up almost to the point where she can look him in the eye. She's pretty good at looking him in the left ear, which to most people would be close enough to make no difference. Her accent has stayed exactly as abhorrent, but he never expected anything better of her.

Things wrought by the hands of the Metallurge are much more permanent. He could wrench a planet out of its rotation, actually, he's fairly sure, although it would take some thinking and possibly someone else to give him a helpful starting shove (Corwin has a title for a reason, every now and then he lives up to it, after all). It wouldn't even have to be their own.

Might be easier if it wasn't. If he had the spare time maybe he'd work out how on principle, except it's not like anyone would care or know the difference.

This is a habit, apparently, more of the old guard than anything, which speaks either badly of the current generation of the Twelve (who keep looking more like children, he wishes they'd stop, it's disorienting) or of their predecessors' imparted priorities when looked at through a lens of modern psychology (which gives Tulio a headache, so he doesn't). The habit being that he does not actually waste time.

Much.

He does make mistakes, though, and they show: the permanence of anything cast into non-organics, things that won't rot or die on you, stands for when they're done wrong as much as anything. And when he was younger he was impulsive, Theresa always pointed it out (with, generally, a condescending kick or elbow somewhere to draw his attention, she was always one for making excessively kinetic points). When he's wasting time as he manifestly doesn't, he regrets it.

If he'd thought to test on something smaller, for example. If only. Limps are the kind of thing pretty much everyone asks about, but at least he has a built-in prosthetic right out of the figurative box, no extra effort needed.

His generation is dying off, naturally insofar as the Twelve ever go naturally, and it's getting more difficult to walk in ways that suggest hazardous risky excuses for maintenance are in order: both of these facts are irritating.

As is the matter that he doesn't even get a preternatural sense for oncoming trouble out of it all. That went to someone else.

(It's possible that he could have taken retroactive comfort in that, even knowing what was coming, he never would've been fast enough to dodge it when it finally showed up. Not with that leg, anyway. But there was no way or reason for him to know. So he didn't. Then he died. Much like many other people, as it happens; that particular progression is astoundingly common, as far as the plots of human beings go.)

nine

Tania Clark can find a way out of a maze faster than her room-mate, sometimes, than the actual Mother of Lies, and sort out crimes before the Justice if she looks at them right. She could never impose on one of the Lords or Ladies of physical phenomena, and will back away hesitantly as anyone from the Weathervane and her carrion smile. She's simply human, next to the informational splendour and absolute abundance of correctness that follows someone tasked with absolute concepts around.

The Aleph, for example. Tania never got along with Arianna, and maybe that was why: too many strong feelings about the purpose of fiction, dash of creative expletives, nowhere near enough room (several solar systems may have gotten them far enough away from each other to stop arguing). Ciel seems easier to deal with, so far, a matter she regards more with cross-eyed appraisal of its existence than with anything resembling relief.

She writes mysteries, in her spare time, insofar as she has spare time. In practice it's mostly carved out of minutes and hours where she should and would be sleeping, as she's enabled by the consciousness that the Twelve rarely die of natural causes and her mornings are generally a one-way ticket to coffee anyway. (They all die very young or very old, and never quite right. She knew her predecessor, after all; the bearer of the Fan, unlike certain people, actually has to be taught.)

Despite stories erroneously told to her by family members, Tania makes it almost to her death without ever actually having broken a bone, even if she believes otherwise. She has fingers long enough that they fold up awkwardly on small keyboards and break like twigs in the right young man's bloodied hands, and tends towards leaving more smears of bronze nail lacquer on her battered laptop than ends up actually on her nails. There's something she does with fingers and toes and teeth, a full-body gesture, only when she's lying, and she doesn't know. She won't ever know.

She won awards before she dropped lower on the grid of the other Side. If asked she says it doesn't mean anything. She keeps them under her bed, though, taped to the bottom of the mattress; Ariadne has, of course, found them.

There's backstory she could take out of the background of her twisty little stories and make an epic tale in itself, of course, because this is Tania's writing and her tolerance for simplicity in anything she does is flitting around rock bottom hand-in-hand with her tolerance for Zöe. She never will, though. It looks a bit too much like the streets that stare her in the face when she goes and hangs her head out of the window.

(It's a habit she picked up from Ariadne, for clarification and a slap of reason to the face; she used to just go dunk her face in a sink, but outside air's a more informative and less drippy sort of poison.)

So Tania just keeps doing what she's doing: knits together other people's problems and traces why whether anyone wants her to or not by day, entertains anyone in the vicinity by evening, stays up nights trying to carve coherent tales out of the felt and gelatin that she considers her own prose style to be. Ariadne tests her, sometimes, at random and with a glossy brush of innocent spite over it -- no harm meant, but incomprehension turning to anger anyway.

It doesn't speak very well for her, that the Lady of Mazes can't figure out why, but maybe she's just too used to untruths. At this point it's not like Tania would elaborate even if asked.

But she solves Ariadne's puzzles faster than their maker can and with less dramatic scarf-based gesturing not because she knows solutions at all. Tania knows Ariadne, that's it, that's better.

Obviously.

ten

Isaac Corwin has been called, in several different contexts, a genius, a bastard, a bloodsucking spidery excuse for a human being, an awful teacher, an awful person, and alternately a perfect fit or an incredible dishonour to his post. He files basically everything away when it's said to him, or likes to pretend he does. In practice he's a good deal more forgetful than he would like.

He should've been an aborted attempt at an engineer, really. Magic happened to him when he wasn't expecting it, and now he's just stuck here when he thinks he'd be happier designing bridges to hold cars up than worlds. At the slightest provocation he will inform anyone, doing his best at clipped and formal, that he hates his job.

Well. Profession, vocation, and lifelong obligation, now. Maybe post is a better term, even with its associations of mail.

Among actual achievements that are worth something or have been currency before stands the fact that he can eyeball angles to a slightly jarring degree of accuracy (he puts it like this, always, and has only met one person who would throw an eraser at him or otherwise reprimand the pun, so he's made extra sure to keep up with her). In retrospect it should've been a hint. In practice he should use it on something other than the weird arc of Ariadne Shaw's trickster's smile, people will think he's in love or something.

He is, of course, with several people who deserve it or a great deal more, but that's effectively irrelevant.

Due to various assumptions he's had a lifelong apparent obligation to teach. As tends to happen with people required to from a very young age -- he keeps track, he's not stupid or single-topic the way he's seen other people like him go, even if what he looks at in other people most immediately is whether they're threatening to be more intelligent than him and then the probability that they'll hurt him -- he also absolutely hates teaching. He has continued to be asked to, a great deal. It's one of the obligations of the Twelve, and handily gives him something else to despise.

Oddly enough in casual conversation he doesn't teach but he does explain, inform, chronically, and people seem to actually like that, a few people, a few people whose opinions he actually values -- it's bizarre. He's sure he'll never understand. (Tania says he trails gold spider-web from his fingertips and that it's adorable, and this assessment is unfair, really. He's a good deal older than Tania, after all, even if the world seems determined to keep him from managing dignity to go with it.)

Every now and then, he sees flickers of what Tania's talking about, but only in other people. Even more rarely he sees it in students.

People complain about him less, with practice, at least as far as the -- public relations sort of thing that comes with his post goes. His actual work has always been flawless, of course. He can't really do much else than that.

There have been certain moments, even as his skin prickles with annoyance at having his hands out of disposal, when Ariadne digs her nails into his wrist and David tries to break the fingers of his other hand and they actually manage to raise up something worthwhile, impossible and precisely beautiful and yes, blueprints behind his eyes in gold thread, maybe he does know what Tania was talking about --

Isaac's never had any kind of gift for sentiment, and he hates his post, everyone gets to hear about that. But it's certainly worthwhile. Sometimes.

(He wouldn't give it up for the life of the world; he is a precise and greedy and selfish young man, after all. And he has been asked. But it wouldn't do for anyone to know.)

eleven

Zöe Cartman thinks all in fragmented colours as sharp as her elbows and sharper than her teeth. She has described them to Zeke, although thankfully for her he doesn't particularly need the description.

He said it sounded like she was just born on drugs, then.

She may have thrown ice at his head, manifest out of nowhere just for the purpose, but no one's ever called Ariadne Shaw a good influence so blaming her seemed favourite.

Everyone knows that she speaks in short sharp sentences and that she's fairly frightening. That seems to be useful, so she encourages it when she remembers to, and unintentionally does better at that when she doesn't.

She ought to die, end up dying, or have died -- tense in omniscience is not a pretty sight, and Zöe herself is not at all linear, which compounds the issue -- in sharp edges and fire and ice, it would've fit her.

Certain people prefer irony to honour, though.

It's not like she was in any position to notice, but there's a case to be made that Zeke was more furious about the dishonour to her by method than the actual dead body of his actual sister, lying there smaller and softer than she'd ever seemed alive.

Appropriate reactions had never exactly run in the family, though.

They'd been each other's peripheral vision, more than support or siblings in the conventional sense; it was no wonder he was later blind-sided, after that.

(There's at least three people with legitimate brands thanks to her, not just scars of frostbite or burns from her fingers wielded carelessly or with too much care altogether. In a moment of actual coherence she's snapped that if anyone didn't like their sigil enough to not mind it being etched onto their skin for their trespasses they just should've chosen better.)

twelve

It ought to be the Untitled who doesn't have a surname. Having the one bereft of names be the Unknown takes some of the sting away, as if the posts fought over by the fifteen most prominent if not specifically most promising of any given stretch of time and circumstance weren't decided just by narrative casualty and ease of puns.

If nothing else it would probably make as good of matches as actually turn up.

There were rumours, several times over and several exponents of time back, that an Unsworn Lord had finally, fatally turned up. In a manner of speaking, this was true, if the Unsworn spoken of and (guiltily, treason on anyone's lips and neurons) hoped for would be all right as two teenage girls, one with blood on her lips and one with blood in her eyes.

It wasn't.

So a young man who did make a difference, in the end -- not enough to shake the Earth, just enough to make it not worth shaking after all, which in the end might be the worst option available -- died unclaimed and half-named and shaking with cold and residual fear, alone on a rooftop.

Before he died his legs were broken exactly where the bones had previously been knit together. The culprit was a pedant, in both cases.

all

After a while she picks up a habit of exploring. Half the Side these days is condemned in truth, if it wasn't before -- if plain, useless nostalgia isn't blinding her to things having always been as decrepit and ugly, always -- and so her stomping grounds are larger than they ought to be.

She picks up should and ought from her brother, obviously, and drops them when she notices they're there: what good has that done anybody, lately?

(In truth the Side is just as ratty and choked with dust as it has ever been, with very little going either way, and the end analysis of benefit versus harm would be incredibly difficult to calculate even from one specific position, hard to sum up in things other than simple tautologies. But the survivors are alive, the victims are dead, and where one stands depends on which feels closer, as a rule.)

People keep wanting to talk to her, which is at least proof that even as she feels adrift in an empty grey fog of being alone everyone else is moving on with their lives. A while ago, Cosma went through a period of cultivating a prodigious memory for names, so that she could show it off.

Suffice to say it's gone now.

As long as she's finding buildings no one's in more than she used to (previously Cosma always had an actual destination, after all, even if she prefers to attribute it to systemic rot) she takes to ducking into them and looking around. Anything that makes her less ubiquitous is a blessing; curious people can go find Ciel, that's what he's for.

Cosma still wears skirts all the time, so when a particular day's dusty torn-up house turns out to have no floors down to a dark indistinct basement it's her shoes and her knees that scuff hard against the awkward several-story fall of it, black cloth falling gently around her in the dust. If she forgets names of people and names of things she's been taught and who taught her the things she's forgotten the names of she still at least remembers everything worth learning that she's learnt (according, at least, to her): casual authority lets her leave a smear of scraped-knee mess against the floor and get up in an almost-unharmed fluid movement, years of habit make the darkness light up orange-red when she tilts her head to make it so.

There's nothing particularly, inherently interesting. Subjectively, yes -- she could care about who used to live here, it feels familiar in a multicoloured twining-ribbon way, or what on earth actually happened to slice out floors that ought to have been there and leave the upper levels of this modest has-been apartment building intact.

(Architecture, probably, a thought that would bring a guilty twinge of red-orange pain to her right temple if she were conscious of it, and that she fails to associate with the sudden onset of a headache instead. She's much better at dicing and piecing together and tearing apart other people's lives than her own, has always been: this is not news, except perhaps to her, and no one's going to let her know in a language she'll understand, so it doesn't matter.)

Something gold catches her eye, though, in concept more than in execution. In the fiery reddish light her mind doesn't quite make up her surroundings but it does seep into the cracks, flow evenly over everything and light it up in ways she understands rather than in absolute truth: the brooch she picks up with a casual twist of her wrist is cold-coloured, almost white, and somewhat tarnished in real life, but the way she sees things alights on the fact that it's white gold and makes it more resemble the visible surface of the sun than its actual counterpart in the moon.

In her own dialect, anyway. Appropriately enough, the sun from outer space shines a reasonably star-bright white. By her name she really ought to know this.

The brooch she's picked up looks a bit like a child's drawing of the sun, and once she hauls herself by clumsiness and impossible feats with regards to physics and eventual brute-force magic up two absent floors to the front door and looks at it in proper light it will more closely resemble something she knows very well. Prodigious memory for anything she actually doesn't need to pretend to care about, again: the Queen Navegant is a relative of the Island Star, and Cosma knows magical heraldry.

A bit.

Insofar as it relates to her childhood sigil, anyway.

When Cosma finally makes it back to street level, hair haphazardly stuck to her face with a seasonally inappropriate sheen of sweat and knuckles white, she's too busy looking down to notice anything other than what she's just come up with and ways to twist her finding it by chance and technical theft into something she can use.

Outside of the building where January Salt lived until bare days previously, with her forgotten predecessor's sigil clutched tight and ignorant in her hand, Cosma then proceeds to walk head-on into -- almost trip over, in fact -- a girl in white, all skin and wide-set bones.

The open-faced scarred signs under the glassy eyes she looks up with -- of course, of course -- make it a hat trick.

Not, of course, that anyone's counting.

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