The time had come. Taivuttaa sat on the floor, his father's favorite book lying in his lap, open to a rather inauspicious page about badgers and communities that had been based on their cultural lifestyle. He'd promised, and if he didn't keep that promise, not only would he feel guilty, Shoe would look sad at him. Besides, he was getting tired of thinking up excuses not to go. He only had one left, and it was a pathetic one without any sense. It would be full of whatever made Shoe happy, which in Taivuttaa's opinion was most likely quite obscenely silly or humiliating for him, Taivuttaa. He shut the book and got up to put on his coat.
He had been officially living with Novi for three days, and Shoe had not once failed to visit. In a way, that was a good thing. Taivuttaa rather liked the odd, noodly man, even if he was enigmatic and a bit selfish. And the regularity of his visits was as homey as the living arrangements themselves. However, his attitude towards Novi hadn't changed at all.
Taivuttaa looked up from his shoelaces and cocked his head the way he had see dogs do when they wanted to hear better, or simply intended to look busy and alert to impress people without actually doing anything. It probably didn't improve his hearing, but it did make it harder to ignore what he could hear. The 'witty' bickering that was going on outside the door made him roll his eyes, although he did suppose it was his own fault. That logic was childish and a bit loopy, but Shoe could be like that. Taivuttaa had let Novi buy him sneakers, and now Shoe insisted he must buy the boy clothes.
He wondered if it could be called a fight between uncles, then decided that a yes would be too disturbing. His shoes were tied, his coat was zipped, and he had no way to stall further. "Right. Off into the wilderness," he muttered, attempting jauntiness and merely achieving embarrassed anxiety. "Hemetti."
When he pushed the door open, he was surprised to see that Shoe was alone. The man looked smug, like a cat that had just captured an icebox-ful of fresh cream and intended to eat the lot. "Ah, nallekarkki," he said, leaving behind the smugness for a welcome, genuine smile free of visible negative thoughts. "I see you're ready to go."
No, I'm not, Taivuttaa whispered in the privacy of his mind. "Heh, yeah," he said out loud. "I should say goodbye to Novi, thought."
"Sorry, knabeto, he's with a patient now." For a moment, Shoe did indeed look remorseful. It was jarring. "But he said to have a good time and let me have my way in everything but actual fashion."
The honest bits of that statement were easy to extract and pay due attention. Taivuttaa lead the way to the back-stairs, resolving to enjoy his time with Shoe, at least. "You're going to insist on paying, aren't you?"
"Well, I am a gentleman. And male or not, you're a lady."
Taivuttaa gurgled a foul word at the back of his throat and nearly tripped over his own shoes on the cement stairs. It was dry in the stairwell, but it would be wet and even colder outside. He took a moment to compose himself and pretended to adjust his coat and hood. There was no fooling Shoe, though. After a few seconds under the leering, chortling stare, Taivuttaa caved and said, "I'm not a lady, you oaf. It is a rather gender-centric lable."
"Didn't I just refute that claim on your part?"
"It doesn't count. I hadn't made it yet." He might have stuck his tongue out, but that was the moment in which the door was pushed open. Ran shoveled itself in through the rectangular opening, shapeless and natural as any rain he had seen before the eventful morning. It was welcome and relaxing for all of three seconds, and then his teeth started chattering.
He didn't shrug off the arm that dropped over his shoulders. It was warmer than his own, after all. "My observation still stands," Shoe said, his own teeth clacking just a bit. He steered them straight to a street corner and flagged down the first cab that came into view. It was raining in that heavy, uncomplicated way that had always made Taivuttaa think of heavy linen. There was a thick smell of dirt and trees mixed into the water that suggested this particular storm had rolled down from the western mountains. He hid under Shoe's arm with his own arm raised for extra protection, and then allowed himself to be tucked into the backseat of the cab.
"Do you know about the mountains, Shoe?" he asked once they'd both settled and manacled themselves to the creaky, stale-smelling seats.
Shoe did not look physically comfortable. He was always, first and foremost in any beholder's eye, a tall man, but he seemed to take the description more seriously than the average tall man. With his spindly limbs, impossibly long thin fingers, and even the whip-like black braid that traveled far down his back, he gave the appearance of a human spider. Tervetuloa was not built for a man of Shoe's proportions, and Razorlift was only a small part of the city. Still, the man smiled and folded himself with an ease the bespoke skill and years of practiced effort. "The mountains?" he asked, as though he hadn't quite heard. "Everyone knows things about the mountains. They're there to be mystic."
"Usually it's someone's granny who tells them a story when they're little." That had been Taivuttaa's case, and he knew it was the same for what, sadly, had to be called his 'school chums'. For most of his childhood, he had thought this was a universal event shared by everyone ever, but there had also been a time in his childhood when he'd been convinced that all fathers had beards. Then he'd met Far-sight Semolina, whose fathers were both clean-shaven. Some beliefs were turned over very simply, and with little or no upset.
The cab rumbled down the road, apparently toward somewhere other than the nearby mall. "I didn't have a granny," Shoe said, in a surprisingly soft voice. Then, possibly because this turned the conversation's color into a bright shade of Awkward, he added, "I also didn't have much of a mum. My last name is Razorlift." He coughed.
Razorlift. The name of the town. Wards of the state were always given the town's name in the place a family name would have taken. It was tradition, and was only ever turned over if the ward chose to keep the name of an adopted family, and almost all of them did. Once, the world had been scraped and scarred with abandoned, lost, and left children, but sense and good people had ended that. No one went through life without somewhere to belong.
Taivuttaa slid deeper into the backseat to get a better look out the window. They were heading to the north edge of the town, everything they passed seemed to increase in poshness by a factor of four. "So who told you about the mountains?"
"My best dad. He said people still live there, but they're all far too giant to live in this little place, so they help us by sending rain all summer." A tiny smile played with Shoe's mouth for a moment before leaving him alone. "The mean ones are responsible for snow in the winter."
Taivuttaa grinned. "My granny was gloomier. She said that there are a lot of ghosts in the mountains."
"Could be. There are plenty of ghosts here."
"I meantfor serious, the real kind that show up and woo-woo noises." After he had said this, Taivuttaa could feel his face getting hot, but there wasn't anything he could do about it.
"Right. There could be anything in the mountains," Shoe said, as matter-of-fact as a professor of law, "which is why nobody goes there. Here we are, hop out, my lad."
Taivuttaa stepped nervously onto the freakishly clean street, further unnerved by everything his senses were reporting. The air had the same earthy mountain scent that he'd noticed before, but it was fainter in this part of the city, and it mingled with expensive smells like leather and aftershave. Even the sounds were laced with gold embossing and high society accents. He was afraid to open his mouth, and resolved to keep any vocabulary down to things like, "Oh." His sneakers squeaked as Shoe herded him onto the sidewalk.
"It's not that impressive," Shoe reassured him. "People here don't know how to do anything practical at all."
After gulping down some of his agoraphobia, Taivuttaa tried on a smile. It fit quite well. "Practical? You mean things like laundry?"
"Exactly. Just another meter or two, and then we're in."
It wasn't a mall. It was not even a department store. The sign was almost entirely holographic, with only a white backdrop to provide solid materials. The name of the shop was definitely French, and all of the exterior décor suggested that they not only supplied attendants, they also served cocktail-styled coffee and referred to their customers as 'the clientele'. He nearly turned around and ran.
Instead, he glared up at Shoe and poked the man with an indignant finger. "You chose this place on purpose."
The grin on Shoe's face could have been seen in orbit. He nodded and returned to prodding his young, now quite angry friend into the boutique. It was even more elaborate on the inside. Taivuttaa felt like he was walking into the costuming department of a film set. There was even an area for styling hair.
A nervous hand, regrettably his own, shook at his side, threatening to reach up and grab his hair. He sighed, forced a smile, and looked for the fun part. Shoe had told him not long agohad been absolutely insistentthat inside every situation was what he called 'the fun part', that bit that was worth all the nasty parts. This one threatened to be well-hidden.
"Where do we start?" he asked, taking his sense of bewilderment by the hand comforting the poor thing. The last time he'd bought new clothes, his parents had still been alive. For all he knew, there may have been a connection. He decided not to think about it.
A curvy female attendant with dimples and an altogether too-perky ponytail bounced into view in a manner that would have made Galahad run for a cold shower. "Good afternoon, sirs," she chipredand it was a chirp. The woman could have learned how to speak from birds, Taivuttaa thought. "Welcome to Coal Black. How may I help you?"
Shoe, who could have expected everything about their current encounter down to the young lady's shoe size, nodded in a lordly greeting and indicated Taivuttaa. "My little brother here needs to get a clue. We're starting with a new wardrobe."
While his face and ears flamed in competition with his hair and the attendant's strangely modest yet provocative blouse, Taivuttaa politely submitted to a lengthy examination. She even reached out to touch his shoulder and commanded him to spin. "Well, I think I know what you mean," she conceded gently, "but it's going to be hard to figure his sizes with all this bagginess enveloping the poor boy."
"Oh, I can get him too"
"I could just tell you!" he nearly shouted. "My sizes, I mean. Please." He had not considered the possibility that he might actually be measured.
For a moment, it seemed that his plea might obtain the desired effect, but then Shoe clapped him on the back. "Come now, knabeto, you can't avoid the experience of a young woman fascinated by your dimensions. I dare say you could with a few such experiences. Now go on with the nice lady, there's a good boy."
Even though he held back at what could have passed for a respectable distance, it was obvious that Shoe was trying to remain in careful hearing range. He rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet until he disappeared from Taivuttaa's vision. At that point, he was shoved into a little booth with a dark red curtain. The attendant beamed at him, then reached for a tape measure that hung from a black hook on the wall. "My name is Kiskot," she said, whipping out the tape measure. "Lift your shirt, pleast."
"Is that really necessary?"
"Unless you want me to get everything several sizes too large
Taivuttaa gulped and repressed the sudden, very strong need to back away very quickly. "Actually I wouldn't mind that"
"Basura. Now lift your shirt."
There was never a point in the process of being measured that involved actual nudity, for which Taivuttaa was immensely grateful. However, he couldn't prevent himself fighting every step of the way, and the amusement this seemed to cause Kiskot did nothing for the heat in his face. After she'd finished measuring everything relevant to the subject of trousers, he had to stumble to the bench and catch his breath.
It didn't help that she was laughing at him. "Oh dear
any casual observer would think I was trying to molest you." She giggled until he hid his face. "You're a sweet little guy, though." When she started giggling again, he had to look up and attempt a glare, with pathetic results. "Although the word 'little' really should not get a look in when people describe you
He might have asked her to stop, if he hadn't been positive that any intended speech would have emerged as breathless squeaking. He dropped his gaze to his socks and wondered where the rest of the day meant to lead.
Kiskot seemed lost in a mixture of her own mental universe and a kind desire to include him in it. "I tell you, if I wasn't half-certain your friend out there has sugar-daddy designs on you, I'd try to snag you myself."
He snapped his head up in time to catch her winking at him. "You what?"
"Oh, I could be wrong about his intentions, but I am not dumb enough to believe you're brothers."
And down went his head once more. "We're both adopted." Of course, this was true, though not remotely relevant. But it was convenient, overall. There wasn't a quicker way to explain Shoe.
It had the effect he had hoped for, at least. Kiskot transformed from a giggling tease into an understanding young woman. "So that's your story. They must have saved you fair fast. Wards don't stay sweet long, left unattached." She erased any opportunity to further the discussion by sweeping back the curtain and saying, "I'll send a fashion consultant back here to force you into something I pick out."
Taivuttaa sank against the wall, wishing Shoe hadn't stayed out of sight. He would have made many, many comments, but he was himself. It would not have been so unexpected and difficult to deflect.
The curtain was pulled aside, but Taivuttaa didn't look up. It was a mildly reassuring sound that could have meant that Shoe was checking in, or another attendant had arrived to make the trip a little shorter. He closed his eyes and relaxed against the wall, letting his feet slide on the carpet and stretch out his legs, waiting for the visitor to announce its presence.
"Comfy, are you? Looks like you're adjusting to a your situation."
He jerked up out of his all-too-shaky comfort, eyes flying open. There, standing between him and the curtain and holding an armful of clothing was Benjamin Barrett. The young man grinned like a feral dog baring its teeth. Taivuttaa leapt clumsily to his feet and held up his hands and arms in a defensive posture. "How did you get in here??"
Benjamin didn't seem to hear, or even to take notice of uncertain fear in the air. "As a matter of fact and quite possibly pride, I work here."
"I don't believe you
" Taivuttaa lowered his arms anyway, watching the other boy warily. "How did you get into that changing booth the other day?"
"Nimble limbs and lissome ways, my dear teddy bear." The clothes Benjamin had carried in fell on the bench with an oddly heavy-sounded thwump. He took a shirt off of the top of the pile and unfolded it, then held it out. "This is not the place for intrigue, thought. I'm on the clock, after all." His grey eyes were dancing in the subdued light, but there wasn't the a significant amount of danger evident in his features. It seemed more like he was simply having fun, admittedly at Taivuttaa's expense.
Taivuttaa held his ground, although this involved getting his back to a wall first. "This is a trick, right?" He knew he didn't feel sure of it, but he hadn't meant to sound so doubtful.
Before he could even squeak, his shirt had been pulled up and over his head. Benjamin folded it neatly, grinning like a child that had discovered a shortcut to the unguarded cookie jar. He set the shirt aside and made a few clicking noises with his tongue. "You must be terrified of other people finding you attractive. That ensemble would have even a close observer believe you're a chubby sloucher."
Taivuttaa tried to argue that that was certainly one of the things he was, but there was too much physical evidence ready to contradict him the second he opened his mouth. He crossed his arms over his chest and stomach, wishing for a way out. "Why did you write that on my head the other day?" A change of subject could possibly save himhe hopedand he was curious, as ever.
"Write what? That letter?" Benjamin rolled the shirt in his hands so that it became a ring of fabric with clear access to the collar-hole. "Nothing mysterious about that." He pushed the shirt-ring down over Taivuttaa's head, then started fighting his arms into the loose sleeves. "V for vesi," he said, smiling brightly as he pulled the shirt taut, straightening out wrinkles and stealing acres of personal space.
Redness flowed unbidden to Taivuttaa's ears and cheeks. "Just
water. That's really the reason?"
"Can you think of another?"
Rather than let himself be cowed into further blushing, Taivuttaa struggled free and tugged at the hem of the shirt, wishing he had fought the 'help'. "Yes," he said curtly, barely trusting his own voice. "Something that I figured you would be more likely to think of."
Benjamin simply laughed and reached for a pair of trousers. When he noticed that Taivuttaa was making a similar move, he forced the other boy back with a gust of warm wind that originated from the vent in the ceiling. "Let me do my job, ducks," he chided, some of the familiar menace peppering his tone and stance.
"It isn't your job to dress me," Taivuttaa snapped. The effect was markedly diminished by the fact that he was holding onto his belt with both hands. "Go away before I"
"Before you stutter and struggle to flirt?"
"You were doing that with Kiskot, and I'm the same as her." Something about the change in the tilt of Benjamin's grinning face hinted at something more wistful than teasing as he spoke. "Or do you hold grudges?"
A grumpy, hiccupping sigh pushed its way out of Taivuttaa's throat, summoning the redness back to its former place. He ignored the inevitable reaction and reached for the trousers he wasn't already wearing. "I don't know what you think of yourself, but I do know that you're mixed up in dangerous politics." It took a bit of effort not to look surprised by his own words. He hadn't known that, not consciously, but now that he'd said it, he could feel it finding some sense of truth. Perhaps being surrounded by danger could make a person only seem dangerous himself.
And for some reason he couldn't begin to guess at, Benjamin appeared to be less
chaotic than he had previously. Not so detached from the familiar comforts of regularity and teatime. He seemed almost relaxed
But there was an edge to it. As though it were entirely intentional, and he was merely keeping it on a very short leash, like an attack dog. He handed over the trousers. "You like to tell yourself stories, don't you?" he asked. It didn't sound quite like a rhetorical question, but he didn't wait for an answer. "You know, I could tell you one."
Taivuttaa gulped audibly as a thin, shortish nose met the tip of his own. He had to cross his eyes to see anything clearly, but it made his head hurt. He let out a very shallow breath, but could think of nothing to say, witty or otherwise.
"Yours will be a cautionary tale. You've heard of the consequences of playing with fire. Soon enough you'll bear the scars. He won't take care of you, nallekarkki." The nickname became cruel and mocking in its present context, and the pressure on his nose was beginning to hurt. "You'll end up alone, and then you won't know which way is up." Benjamin glided back, barely moving his feet. "I suppose it's not so much a story as making myself the opportunity to say 'I told you so'. Ah well, we all take what we can."
He reached for the pile of clothing he had brought in, then handed them to Taivuttaa with a bright employee of the month smile. "Do ring if you require additional assistance, sir. I shall send someone more suited to your sensitivities straight away." He winked, then backed out of the curtained-off booth.
For a few seconds, Taivuttaa stood still and felt extremely lost. He had the nagging feeling that some part of his brain had observed something important, or perhaps several disconnected parts had noticed several things. It should have been a mere matter of lining up the synapses, but it was more like searching for specific people at a crowded party. There was no telling where they might wander off or if some of them had already gone home in a cab. He held his head in his hands for a moment, then looked up. The tape measure, of all things, caught his eye first, forcing him to relive the more previous of recent events.
He shuddered and hugged himself, wondering if he ought to feel ashamed for being so easily embarrassed. Part of him never wanted to wear less than ten layers of clothing for the next month at least.
The world brightened considerably as Shoe's face entered the booth, dispersing the confused atmosphere. "Did you survive?"
"Ha ha." In spite of the head-splitting grin, Taivuttaa managed to sound marginally reproachful. "Have you got any idea
no, of course you don't. You love things like that."
"I do. What happens now? Do I get to find you a pretty church dress?"
Taivuttaa set his mouth in a grim line. "You are not funny."
"Yes, I am. Now stop pouting, we're going somewhere special after this."
The word 'special' tended to have frightening definite when Shoe used it, but there was no impish glint in his eye as he watched Taivuttaa pace about the booth. In fact, Taivuttaa couldn't help thinking, the spidery man looked the way he did when his mood was unusually gentle. It was the kind of thing that would have put a neurotic postal worker at ease. Taivuttaa let his personal gates unlock and offered up a very affectionate face he'd once thought fit for none but his granny.
He had to grasp that moment with twenty metaphorical hands throughout the rest of the shopping trip, especially when he found out that Shoe had brought a single-session camera. They didn't leave until it clicked and flashed the orange 'full card' light, just before Shoe bought more clothing than Taivuttaa could imagine needing in fifty years. He repressed the urge to argue by hanging onto the earlier moment, and by examining the calm look of satisfaction on Shoe's face. It was not the grin of mischief achieved, but something with a different source entirely.
Once they were out on the sidewalk again, they were greeted by a bit of weak sunlight and a wet chill. Shoe had opted to have the purchases delivered to the office, which let them as physically empty-handed as they been upon their arrival. He looked up at the sky and swore.
Taivuttaa, who'd thought things had begun to look up, pulled back the hood of his coat and held out a hand. No rain, not even actively threatening to fall later. "What's the matter?"
"Oh, I was hoping we'd have plenty to work with," Shoe grumbled. "It rains so much this time of year, you ought to learn how to use it to your advantage." Then he sighed, although it held shades of another curse. "Come on, I think the city limits are just a short walk away from here."
Bemused, but game to try out anything that didn't promise to be immediately embarrassing, Taivuttaa fell into step behind him, and felt rather like a toddler. "Why?" it seemed best to sum up all of his questions as succinctly as possible.
Unfortunately, although it was indeed succinct, it was the densest question he knew. Shoe was silent a long while before answering, and was justified in doing so. "There's a field past the city limits. Nothing for a few miles, and even then, you'll only hit farmland. Besides, it'll be evening soon enough. Nothing but businesses this close to the limits. After they clos, we'll have the area to ourselves."
Although possibly a vital clue, this information did not solve the mystery. Taivuttaa followed his friend at a loyal plod until they passed the large electronic gates. "Why haven't they ever torn these down?" he asked, repressing a shiver.
Shoe looked up at the aging technology and shrugged. "Probably there are historians who complain every time it's officially suggested. They did tear the walls down."
"Thank the grace of uncommon sense," murmured Taivuttaa. They walked between the ever-open gates, and the hiccupping heavy whir of the miraculously still-moving parts made his skin crawl. Generations had ticked over several times since the gates had been built, but they had been built everywhere. Some cities had kept the entire system of walls and gates, although none of them were used the way they originally had been. As far as he knewwhich, thanks to his father, was further than mostnone of the gates had ever been torn down. It was as if city officials and other such individuals expected they would be needed again. "Do you know anything about the invation?"
"I know it's an unpleasant subject."
The sky crackled, but not very enthusiastically. It wasn't likely that the rain would renew itself until morning, even if Shoe growled at it. Taivuttaa wanted to ask his question again, or at least nudge the matter onward, but there was something in the way Shoe went on walking that implied that the topic was behind them, the door firmly shut. He walked faster after they'd cleared the gate, and seemed quite certain of his destination.
They marched through yards of muddy yet almost freakishly verdant grass, neither speaking. Taivuttaa looked about the countryside and tried to pick out the lights of Foie Lien or Toivottavaasti, the nearest visible cities outside of Tervetuloa. He'd nearly caught a glimpse of one when he walked into Shoe's back.
"This place looks fine. Plenty of mud, and it's mostly soupy."
After pushing himself back, Taivuttaa looked around, straightening his coat. "It looks like a bunch of outhouses exploded."
What are those then?"
He decided not to explain. Instead, he crouched and examined their stopping point a little closer to the mud. There were things in it, his senses told him, and one sense that seemed new and nervous, insisted that something in the thin, diluted soil was reaching out to him. "Why did we come out here?"
With the height of his head so severely diminished, hearing Shoe talk was like listening to a very serious deity casually dictating lifestyle decisions to be nicked into stone for his people. "You told a bucket of water it ought to be a dog, and it loved you even though the terrifying confusion of forced sentience. That is not the kind of power that should be allowed to work through accidents. You need control."
Taivuttaa looked down at the mud. A thin pillar had risen up, and the dirt components of the mixture were dropping off in tiny, dry clods. He sighed. "I know. That's not on purpose, by the way."
The grass crunched and the mud splotched, but gradually the sound faded. When Taivuttaa looked up, he saw that Shoe had walked away, putting an unexpected amount of distance between them. "Try to do something then," he called out. "On purpose, as you say."
"I don't actually care, specifically. Just do something that you intend to do." Shoe backed up even more as he shouted, voice raised over the wind.
Taivuttaa looked down at the mud and sighed. He hadn't done much on purpose since
long before this had all started. That sort of thing required a solid direction. And direction meant 'pull'. He didn't feel pulled anywhere, or by anything, except perhaps politeness. He decided it would be rude to let Shoe down, and so he pushed himself to his feet, gopping mud all about his fingers. It dripped and felt terribly cold, colder than the rain had been. He curled his fingers, then straightened them gently to avoid spraying mud droplets outwards. Do something you intend to do
The mud peeled slowly off his fingers, dirt clods dropping silently away, and the more liquid components continued to curl and uncurl, without apparent physical aid. He didn't smile. It was only a start.