Renne giggled as she dodged down a back street, Joshua and Estelle having been left behind yet again in their quest to find her. Sometimes, on the bad days, it was a temptation to let them, but today she was perfectly happy to let them continue their fruitless chase. It was a beautiful day; she had seen Colin and his mother out shopping for dinner. Colin looked more and more like his mother every day, with his beautiful hair, red as blood…
Renne stopped smiling. She would get back to Jeorg and Pater-Mater and they would have tea and cake. That was as much family time as she needed. Estelle and Joshua and her bro—Colin were all toys, to be left on the floor when not needed, or sometimes broken and thrown away. Toys didn’t get the choice and neither would they. This was a good day. Maybe she’d break a toy or two. Jeorg could always make her better ones after all.
Her steps firmed as she turned onto the residential streets. She looked to the right. If she went this way she’d have to go past the Hayworths’. But if she went left, then that delightful little bakery on the corner of West Street probably still had tea cakes. They would be perfect for the tea party she wanted to plan. She let out another impish giggle. Just the regular kind of tea party, of course.
As she passed through the courtyard in front of the Villa Raisins her eye was caught by the stairs down to the Special Support Section’s offices and dorm. Should she invite them too? But no, they were likely too busy with their own new toy, and they were getting too close to Joshua and Estelle already. Playing with them was getting increasingly like walking a tightrope; it was fun, but sometimes exhausting. Perhaps today was not the day.
As Renne turned into Morge’s, she heard a high-pitched giggle. It seemed the SSS could not completely be ignored after all, not with the child they protected already cheerfully charming the city’s residents.
“Thanks, Mr. Oscar! KeA sure loves the shortbread you make!”
The young woman who also helped run the bakery pouted. “What about mine? I felt sure mine would win today.”
“Oh, Miss Bennett, the sandwich you made is delicious too!” the green-haired girl cried. “KeA can’t choose between them after all!”
“Oh, Oscar is not beating me this time,” Bennett grumbled, still holding her basket of samples. “Here, miss, try my sandwiches! I bet you’ll say they’re the most delicious you’ve ever tasted!”
Renne took one—a finger sandwich made for tea— from the basket Bennett eagerly shoved into her hands and munched. For a moment she remembered another time and place and a tea party shared with a friend. It was a very good sandwich. Perhaps, someday, she and Tita—no. Liberl was finished, no longer important. The plan was done, and so was Renne. Phantasma wasn’t important. What had happened there had no bearing on today. For now, she simply contented herself with smiling a bright, brittle smile at the bakery staff.
“It is delicious! Could I get a half-dozen, please?”
The young man at the register frowned in sudden doubt. “Are you sure, miss? Do you need to ask your parents first?”
Renne stopped smiling. For an instant, the bakery was reduced to ash and rubble by one swing of her scythe, a moment hanging in the balance behind her empty eyes. But no, he meant nothing by it. And they were good sandwiches. She wouldn’t rip them apart this time.
“No, my mama told me to bring back finger sandwiches,” she lied easily. Pater-Mater wouldn’t say no to them, in any case. “We’re having a little party this afternoon.”
“Ooh, KeA loves parties! Maybe Lloyd and the others might want to have a party this afternoon too?” The green-haired girl began browsing the bread on display with renewed interest, murmuring about who might like what.
Renne’s head slowly swung to KeA. A little doll for a guest? Oh, this could be a good game.
“You’re KeA, right?” she said, smiling sweetly. “I’ve heard so much about you from the Special Support Services!”
KeA nodded absently as she picked out cakes and cookies to take home. “And you’re Renne! I’ve heard about you too!”
Renne’s smile fell for a bare instant. She shouldn’t be surprised, she supposed. The dolls she had previously commissioned from Jeorg were orders of magnitude less complicated than this little work of art. This would be fun but she couldn’t underestimate this opponent.
For now, she contented herself with a wider smile. “Oh, good! Then we can be friends, don’t you think?”
KeA looked up. “Of course! KeA is friends with everyone!”
“Then come to my party, won’t you?” Renne took her hands, ignoring the discomfort of feeling someone else’s skin, and gave KeA the enticing smile she’d perfected long ago. “We’ll have cake and tea and a little chat! It will be so much fun!”
“Ooh, that would be fun…” KeA hesitated. “Don’t you want to invite Lloyd and everyone else? Food is better when it’s shared!”
Renne shook her head. “I want to know you better! We can have a little party, just the two of us! ...and my parents, of course,” she added for Oscar’s benefit.
KeA thought for a moment. “Well… OK! KeA wants to know you better too!”
For an instant, Renne’s eyes narrowed. Could this be a trap? Had she underestimated this doll after all? But KeA’s eyes were wide and innocent, hiding unfathomable secrets but, for now, showing only childlike simplicity.
“Ooh! Let’s pay and go play at my house then!” Renne threw down mira enough to pay for both her and KeA’s selections with studied indifference. She could buy this whole bakery if she wanted to; she could be generous to a toy if she wanted to too. She ignored Oscar’s protests and took KeA’s arm, snuggling in with a cat-like smile at the bakery staff as she led KeA out to the courtyard.
As they left the bakery, Renne led KeA through quiet city streets, considering how to avoid passing in front of the Hayworths’. Was it worth going through the central square and around via the Entertainment district? But two children would almost certainly get stopped, not to mention the added danger of running into the SSS or the bracers. When put that way, the five second dash past a house--where probably no one was looking out the window anyway!—shouldn’t be a choice. But Renne found her footsteps lagging anyway.
KeA said, “Where is your home anyway, Renne?”
The question had not occurred to Renne, and she cursed herself for a fool. The answer that she didn’t have one could not be countenanced. That way lay confusion and far too many protestations of caring by people who had no business doing so. But the Doll Studio was no home, although Pater-Mater helped make it a little more like one. It was just a place to stay for now, until she had to run again.
“You know what? Let’s go to the waterfront park instead!” She said for now, with a bright giggle. “It’s a beautiful day for a picnic, don’t you think?”
“A picnic!” KeA wriggled with the sheer joy of the idea. “That sounds so fun! Let’s go!” She took off running, her bag of treats bumping along beside her.
“Hey, wait!” Renne said, paralyzed for just a moment. What if someone saw them running through the city? But it had been so long since she could just be a girl, talking with a friend, eating cake together. She had the sudden premonition if she didn’t do this now, she’d never get this opportunity again. And so, she ran too, chasing the green-haired comet through Crossbell, knowing with every step that Estelle would come crashing into her at any second.
And yet, when they reached the waterfront, KeA laughing like a loon and Renne panting and badly out of breath, all was peace. The tranquility of the lake, lapping against the quay, was a balm to Renne’s constricted soul. She pointed at the lighthouse. “How about we sit on the dock over there? We can eat and talk?”
KeA looked at the much more conveniently-placed benches of the park and Renne’s delicate dress with a slight frown, but allowed herself to be led to the water as she peeked into her bag. “Aww, KeA accidentally crumbled all her bread…” She shrugged. “Oh well. It will still be tasty!” She sat with a bump and swiped dust off the wooden dock with a hand. “There you go!”
Renne looked around. Yes, this was nice and secluded. She sat too, not caring about her dress. She could always get more dresses, after all. She picked a crust off her sandwich and tossed it into the lake, watching carp cluster under the water while she picked her conversational gambit with care.
“What’s it like living with the SSS?” Renne blinked. She hadn’t quite meant to ask that, but the question hung in the air. She hated how vulnerable it sounded.
“It’s wonderful! KeA loves living with Lloyd and Randy and Elie and Tio and Zeit and Koppe…” Renne let KeA prattle, picking at her food. This tea party wasn’t as fun as she’d thought it would be. Her sharp ears, always on the alert, pricked. They were here. They’d followed her after all. This had been a mistake.
“…xcuse me… have you seen two little girls…” Renne could hear Estelle asking the noodle-cart vendor and the mailman who always ran through here about them. What to do? Where to go? They couldn’t catch her, not now. Should she call Pater-Mater? But that would give her away. She looked over at the water-bus port to Michelam. It wasn’t there right now—she didn’t have time to wait for it. Maybe she could swim for it.
Right at that moment, the SSS entered the park from the other road, presumably about their afternoon patrol. Renne strained her ears as they greeted each other and talked pleasant nothings, neither willing to burden the other group with their ongoing situations. Still talking, the group left the waterfront together, heading for the bank.
Renne couldn’t help breathe a small sigh of relief and she bit into her sandwich with savage satisfaction. She had their toy and she was still hidden. She was winning this game of cat-and-mouse.
KeA had fallen silent. “Renne… are you afraid of the bracers? Are they bad people?”
“What? No! I’m not afraid of them. I just hate them.” Renne said with great vehemence and assuredness. “As long as they stay away from me we’ll all be fine.”
“…that’s too sad for KeA to understand.” KeA tossed a piece of bread into the water, her face drawn into an unaccustomed frown. “They love you but you hate them?”
“What…” Renne stared at the little girl next to her, blinking. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. Be quiet before I push you into the lake.”
KeA turned her huge, innocent eyes on her. They were round and clear, green as grass but with the blue depths of the ocean lurking far underneath. For an instant, Renne saw Colin in those eyes, but there was sad wisdom in KeA’s gaze that no child should have, and no doll either.
“You forgot what happened before, but KeA forgives you. This time will be better.” Her voice was distant, oddly echoing, as if it didn’t really come from the child in front of Renne but somewhere else.
“What do you mean?” Renne folded her arms, drawing herself in. This wasn’t fun anymore. This game was no longer entertaining. She shivered. Ouroboros’s plans still held sway. She wouldn’t go back, could never, but she almost saw the plan laid bare before her questioning mind, almost saw what could happen, were things different… for just the barest, whirling instant, Renne stood with a blonde haired woman at the crown of an azure tree, overlooking a continent subjugated to Ouroboros’s will, knowing that everyone who’d ever tormented her with notions of a life lived with love and a caring family was gone and would never come back…
“What?” KeA blinked, and came back to herself. In her eyes was only limpid innocence and nothing more. She looked up at the darkening sky, the sunset red as blood or Colin Hayworth’s hair. “Oh, no, it got so late! KeA has to go get dinner started!” She jumped up and curtsied, giggling. “KeA had a lovely time at our picnic. Let’s do it again some other time!”
She ran down the dock, hair loose and streaming after her as she shot through the park and into the streets leading to the Eastern Quarter. Renne looked after her as she ran, considering toys and breaking. She had thought it would be so easy to break a thing like KeA, but she had come with seconds of breaking instead. It wasn’t fair, and she wouldn’t let it happen again. This was a good day, she reminded herself. And it would be a good evening, if she could just get home without any more reminders of what she couldn’t have.
The water-bus, slowly chugging into port, caught her eye. She would go to Michelam for the evening then, watch the fireworks and lose herself in the crowd, and when it was dark, the only papa and mama she needed would come to pick her up and fly her home. She didn’t need toys, didn’t need Estelle’s strong arms or Joshua’s kind, sad golden eyes or KeA’s uncomfortable wisdom. She only needed herself, walking through the world and never allowing herself to touch or be touched. She was enough and she would spend the rest of the evening proving it to herself, if no one else.