"We need a big chicken - Shannon are you writing this down? - and we need sweet corn and carrots and nails and miso and and sugar candy and lemon candy and oranges and flour and a Year's End Cake. You have to pick out the biggest, prettiest one you can find. I need a Year's End Cake."
"You need a diet," said Shannon Casull, and was immediately beaten around the head and shoulders by his younger sister. His elder was carefully doing up the buttons on his thick outdoor coat and his oilskin, skillfully shifting out of the way so that Pacifica's blows could land unimpeded by her working there. The only other woman in the house, a computer program thousands of years old, calmly continued eating the porridge that the girl abusing him had burnt.
(Sometimes Shannon Casull wondered - fairly contentedly - how the hell he had gotten there.)
"You are the horriblest brother - "
"Are you sure you don't want to take Dragunov too?" said Raquel.
Grunt. "She can't be away from the colt."
" - hope you get stung by a killer bee and die - "
"I'm just worried about all this snow." (Shannon and Raquel shared an eye conversation as Pacifica pummelled his elbow, a brother-sister bond as old as time: Shannon's eyes said I Will Be Fine. Raquel's eyes said Make Sure You Are.) "It'll be three days on horseback - "
"I needed to deliver the swords anyway." (Eye conversation: You Are So Sweet, Dear, said Raquel's. Shannon's said: Shut Up.) "I'm going."
The abuse immediately stopped so that Pacifica could hug him around the middle, golden curls falling into the folds of his coat. She pressed her face into him until he sighed and cupped the back of her ponytail; nothing loath, his other sister wrapped her arms around his shoulders. Zefiris kept casually eating her porridge, finishing the first bowl and then swapping hers for what he had left in his own.
"Come back soon," said Pacifica, all muffled into his coat. "Don't miss Year's End."
"If the roads get too bad, Shannon - "
"I know." He looked down at the little flaxen head and considered it, and considered her list, which had changed so arrestingly from the other Year's End requests before their father had died that it nearly hurt him a little. She'd asked all things for the house: food things and towels, damn towels. She still complained like a teenager at every opportunity but the Scrapped Princess would also work in the armory blowing bellows for hours with not one word of complaint, until her hands were raw and chapped. She would milk the cows and fight viciously for the privilege of weeding the kitchen garden and despite all their best-laid plans had never turned into a normal teenager anyway: sometimes he would find her in the stable with her head pressed into Makarov's neck touching that bath token she wore at her waist over and over and over again, mouth and eyes somewhere far away, and found that he himself was terrified. "What do you want for your Year's End present?"
She stopped at the question and looked up at him with her big blue eyes, all sweet and gentle and shocked as though his little sister had never thought he would ask that question: his heart melted for her, until -
"I want an extremely cute purse! Not a cheap one, either!"
The more things changed, the more they stayed the same. Sort of.
Pacifica Casull was nearly seventeen, which was pretty much a miracle in anyone's books.
She lived in the house that attached to the armory with her big brother and her big sister and Zefiris, who could have a label of 'little sister' had Zefiris not had all the love, warmth and generosity of a rock. And been about a 'billion years old,' in Pacifica's own estimation, and spent way too much time with Shannon so that both of them now could raise their eyebrow in mean and cruel ways. Since the release of Mauzel and the seal, Zefi's programming had taken unexpected and blurry turns (eating had been the first tip-off), which meant that she had grown a full inch and taken on a look not unreminiscent of puppy fat. They had made her a new dress, too, and cut down some of Pacifica's old ones, and she had a best dress that she had picked out herself with Shannon: to punish him she had chosen yellow material with daisies, and to punish her he had let her. She wore no expression that any twelve-year-old had any right to wear on her face, and there was something openly anxious in her hands every time Pacifica squealed and hugged her. Zefiris was less of a girl than the appearance of a girl, but the Casulls took what family they could get.
Pacifica stood at the gate of the armory every day and watched the girls go down into the village to go to school: she had books and pencils and a book-bag and the horrible shift that was the uniform all ready in her room, but never made the transition from looking to going. For something she had wanted with all her heart, Raquel couldn't understand why she was loath now, and tried to teach her her numbers and figures and how not to mispell her letters to Winnia. Winnia sent constant, ceaseless letters, and Pacifica was always stuffing the mailbox full with letters back, and only once quite soon after the coronation had a letter come with the royal seal from Forsythe. Pacifica had taken that letter into her room and locked the door, and never after said a word about it.
Letters also came from Leo. Letters always came from Leo. (Letters also quite suspiciously came from Kidaf and Pacifica was certain Raquel never read them all out at the breakfast table, and when cross-questioned Raquel only said "Oh, you!" with nothing but tranquility in her dark eyes and packed them away somewhere which Pacifica could never find. She found this horribly unfair.)
Dragunov had had her colt, who they called Walther. It was dark with a white blaze on his forehead and in a lot of lights looked suspiciously like Leo's Parabellum, which Pacifica scolded the horse for. ("You are not dating his horse," she told it. "It gives him ideas.")
Raquel and Shannon never changed. Shannon put on their father's old clothes and went down and worked too many hours in the armory, and Raquel tied her hair back and sometimes went down to the village to teach lessons in-between scrubbing the floors and being the type of proxy housewife who never burnt anything, and knew the mysterious secrets of how to get the omlette from the pan to the dish without it suddenly turning to the consistency of rubber. Raquel and Shannon were her Raquel and Shannon, and sometimes she looked at them and loved them so much that she thought she might die of it, and choke on not knowing how to say it well enough. She herself was changing so much that sometimes if she passed by a mirror unexpectedly she would start and feel as though she had to greet the stranger in the glass.
They all felt a little desolate after the door had been shut and Shannon had left, except for Zefiris, who placidly sat eating the rest of the porridge and would not know the word 'desolate' in conjunction with her D-Knight if she tried. Raquel looked at her little sister's glum face and smiled cheerfully: Raquel always smiled cheerfully.
"You should keep reading your letter," she said. "Baby Christopher has a cold?"
"That's still a horrible thing to name a baby," Pacifica groused. "I know he made her do it. It was going to be 'Baby Pacifica' - " ("A boy cannot be Baby Pacifica," said Zefi.) " - she does whatever he says. It's his fault they got married without me. I was going to be her maid of honour and wear rose pink with lace trim, and he ruined it. Now I'm never going to get to be a bridesmaid."
"You could always be a bride, dear," said Raquel, and horribly, she even tried to wink.
"'Baby Leopold' is an unattractive name," said Zefiris.
"Please shut up you sound just like Shannon."
"Zefiris," Raquel exclaimed, delighted, "was that a joke?"
"I am so proud of you!"
"Could we get back to the subject?"
The problem with Leopold Scorpos, thought Pacifica over the breakfast dishes, was not just that he had a name like 'Leopold Scorpos' but the fact that when she slapped him she always felt momentary regret for doing it so hard. It was the fact that he lost her bets and made little uneven furrows in the kitchen garden and broke the sod for her, and went to get all the eggs from the chickens, and generally when he visited do everything with a little furrow in-between his brows of concentration as he had never done anything like that before but kind of was having fun doing it. 'Leo' was a very different animal to 'Leopold Scorpos', heir to the Duchy of Scorpos, knight errant and her wannabe groom. Or, as Shannon called it, her wannabe bride, as though Shannon spent every morning thinking up new ways to get her to throw the dirty bathwater at him.
But Leo was - just Leo, which was the problem in itself. When Leo was there it was normal and natural as though he was always there, helping Raquel pin up the laundry, and when Leo wasn't there she sometimes thought about how Leo was doing and then had to pinch herself hard. Tragically, with Winnia caught up with her obstinate brown-eyed husband and her new baby and court life, Leo had also stepped in to being her best friend. A best friend who asked to marry you about every two weeks, and only hopped around and said 'ow' plaintively if you kicked him in the shins.
She would never be a bridesmaid in rose pink with lace trim. Not even for Shannon or Raquel. If Kidaf suddenly took leave of his senses and asked Raquel to marry him Shannon would take him kindly around the back of the house and then bury him somewhere where nobody could find him. When she told Raquel this, Raquel just laughed.
"I don't think I could marry him if he couldn't dig himself out!" she said. (Which was a little creepy.)
And then maybe the actual problem was growing up. Sometimes she read over Winnia's letters and felt hot and cold all over with something close to despair: that sweet freckled redheaded Winnia was a wife and a mother when she had no right to be, which was again all Christopher's fault. If Winnia was a wife and a mother (and they had both promised each other that their first-born girl would be Winnia and Pacifica, again foiled by Christopher Armalite) then that meant that Pacifica could ostensibly be a wife and a mother. It meant everything was over: it meant that everything had actually happened, that the world was moving on, when she didn't know if the world had a right to move on either.
She had been given the chance to - to become. She didn't know what to become, but she had every chance of doing so.
Raquel and Pacifica made Year's End cookies. When the time came to ice the little men with expressions and clothes, Pacifica's came out all wrong, with very few of them not having lazy eyes and confused expressions. Even more frustratingly, when she threw down the piping bag in despair, Zefiris took it from her hands and gave every single one of the cookies perfect and even expressions and flawless accessories. "This is not difficult," she said. "It is simply an act of symmetry."
"You should give them little smiles, Zefiris!" said Raquel. (Raquel's were also perfect, but Pacifica suspected magic.)
"They do not require smiles," said Zefiris.
"I always require smiles!"
Fascinated despite herself, Pacifica craned her head over the little computer program's shoulder. The little cookie men did, in fact, look more than slightly grumpy. "They look like Shannon!" she said, charmed, whereupon Zefiris frowned and gave them all little watery smiles that made them look like axe murderers. This made Pacifica laugh so hard that she gave herself the hiccups, and had to sit at the kitchen table drinking a glass of water upside-down and trying to write Winnia back a letter at the same time.
The snow kept falling down. It drifted up against the doors so that Pacifica had to slither out the window and dig it away, and even though Raquel stoked the fires with her fingertips they wore their thickest winter clothes indoors. Pacifica trudged through the ice to milk the cows in the morning and rubbed Dragunov and Makarov down with wool, and Walther buried his face in her shoulder and made little whickering noises of discontent before hiding next to his mother. Even the hens clucked discontentedly as she got the eggs for their breakfast, and little cold icicles of worry formed in her stomach as the third day came to them and no Shannon appeared. She sat at the window with one of the Shannon cookies and watched for him long into the evening, and when the next morning came and still no Shannon it was Raquel who had fine, patient lines of worry at her mouth. The snow poured down in fat, heavy lumps and froze the water for the horses and cows, all for the next day, and still no Shannon.
"Someone will have taken him in," said Raquel.
Zefiris looked at both of their worried faces and raised one eyebrow, as if surprised that they had even worried in passing: "The D-Knight cannot be stopped by a blizzard."
The days were long and ceaselessly boring, and even with Year's End two days on the horizon nobody could dredge up any excitement. Raquel tried as best she could, but it was impossible to excite Zefi in any way, shape or form and Pacifica was listless. The youngest Casull hated housework, loathed it at the best of times, dusted out Shannon's already perfectly dusted room and sewed up the rents on Shannon's shirts and socks and very carefully took to her bed to keep knitting his Year's End scarf underneath her blankets. Winnia had been trying to teach her how to knit through the letters, and the scarf kept muddling itself up so that Pacifica had to pick out endless stitches. When it was finally finished it looked as lumpy and disappointed as she felt, but she wrapped it in paper anyway and put it on the table for the Year's End presents. She rattled them and made exclamations solely for Raquel's benefit, and lied to herself in Winnia's long letter:
Brother Shannon still isn't back yet, but nobody is worried. Nothing can stop Shannon!! The only thing that could be keeping him away is if he forgot my present!
Then she thought that that might be true, and felt horrible.
She never liked being parted from Shannon: she never liked being parted from Raquel. Sometimes in the night she would still wake up in a cold sweat and see her sister's face in front of her, sweet pale face raw with tears, dark eyes huge with a panic she couldn't soothe as her sister held her and wept over and over and over again. And sometimes she dreamt things that she couldn't remember but in the morning thought she had seen a face like Shannon's, but somehow it wasn't, and she held the bath token over and over and over again until she got splinters from it. Pacifica woke up the morning of Year's End and for only the briefest of moments was excited until she remembered that Shannon wasn't there, and that fact wrung out her heart like an old dishcloth.
She got up and crept on numb feet to Raquel's room, and she slid under the covers. Her sister just murmured, "Happy Year's End, my darling," and tactfully gave her little sister most of the pillows so that Pacifica could cry in private. After about ten minutes, the little lavender-haired dragoon came into the room and slid into the covers the other side of Raquel, which shocked them both into silence until Zefiris said: "Is this a tradition?"
"Not really," said Raquel.
"Then can I leave?"
Pacifica made wet, miserable noises into the pillow. "No," she said, muffled. "You can't."
"I see," said Zefiris, who obviously didn't. Or maybe she did - "I won't leave you."
The Scrapped Princess snuffled into the porridge that morning: although it didn't burn, she cried into it far too much for it to be hygenic, and she and Raquel both picked at their bowls until Zefiris methodically ate both their portions. Pacifica felt grateful that Raquel didn't try to make a celebration out of it: just cleared the bowls away as normal and didn't touch the little mountain of presents and just let her do what chores she liked. She nibbled at one of the Shannon cookies without thinking about it and shrieked when she saw what she had done, and in the end Raquel wrapped her up in a blanket and put her by the fire so that she could stare dully into the flames.
"What if he doesn't know how much I love him?" she said.
"He does, darling."
"What if he - and he doesn't - "
"He does, darling."
"But I - and I kicked him, and - "
"It is my opinion that the D-Knight enjoys physical punishment," said Zefiris.
"That's not comforting, Zefi," said the window. "At all."
"I'm trying to comfort with fact. It is merely part of your many defects."
"Don't you dare say horrible things about him!"
All the girls - well, two-thirds of them - realised at once that the window had talked in Shannon's voice: he had cracked it up and they could see one wrathful eye and a lot of frozen unimpressed eyebrow as he peered at them. Pacifica was all thumbs as she tried to lift the latch and force the door open, and Raquel was laughing with giddy relief, and when the door finally let in the snow and Shannon there was another frozen figure next to him with snowflakes in its auburn hair.
"Happy Year's End," said Shannon, and pushed Leo at his little sister. "I got you a present."
"I wanted a purse!"
It was up to Pacifica to make sure that Leo had all of his fingers and all of his toes. She made only a cursory examination, which at least gave Raquel time to put the overly frozen chicken in the oven and start the Year's End dinner, and thawed him out by the fire with endless cups of badly-brewed tea as she smiled herself sick. She could hear Shannon mumbling to himself and cutting carrots in the kitchen, harmonised with Zefi's displeasure, and she felt so right with the world that even Leo and Leo's big brown eyes were beautiful. Her smile sparked off his and they sat there, smiling stupidly at each other, his tastebuds not even tasting the tea as he watched her glow like a fistful of candles.
"Happy Year's End, Pacifica," he said.
She just laughed. "The next time you come, don't get yourself stuck in a blizzard eating your Year's End candy," she said. "What would we do without you?"
"You look so - so happy," he said and she knew that when he said happy he meant beautiful because he was Leo, and she blushed despite everything. "Are you happy yet, Pacifica?"
"You asked me that before." She looked towards the fire and her smile didn't fade: it just rested, warm and satisfied, long locks of her hair falling out of her heavy ponytail and down to brush her shoulders. "I still don't think I'm ready to answer. I don't think any of us can be happy forever. Happy is difficult. But - "
"But I'm happy right now," she said, and she reached out and patted his cheek with very gentle fingers. "That's enough, right? To ever be able to say that you're happy, right at this moment?"
Before he could help himself, just like sneezing, Leo blurted: "I wish you'd marry me."
She looked at him for a very long while. Suddenly she seemed all of her nearly seventeen: dignified and radiant, to him, blue eyes fathomless and serene as the sea, looking at him as though he were the only thing in the room and suddenly everything in focus - Raquel measuring the flour out loud in the kitchen and Shannon repairing the slightly squashed biggest and prettiest Year's End cake, the ex-computer program's penitent sighs, the wind howling outside and the cup in his hands and his heart having never beat so hard. Then she broke the spell and stomped on his foot.
"Well, I wish I had a purse!"
You become degree by degree.