'Oh. H-hello there. Um, w-won't y-you come in?'
'Don't mind if I do,' I said.
'A-and d-don't f-forget your friend.'
'My friend?' I blinked. I'd come here alone. So who-?
I looked around.
Crawling up the stairs was a toddler with long black hair tied behind the head in a ponytail, and wearing a tiny okonomiyaki chef's outfit.
Which pretty much told me who it was straight off. Only one toddler around here /I/ knew was likely to wear that outfit.
'Hey. Need a flipper?'
She looked up at me and blinked. 'Oh, so /you're/ Adult Frobie...'
That sentence alone told me a hell of a lot more than I really wanted to know, you know?
'Are you here for a story too?'
'Yeah. Yeah, I suppose I am.'
She looked around, taking her surroundings in: the mist she'd just crawled through, the two old, mock-Victorian houses standing side by side, the only houses within the mist, looming like all the Bad Places in those cheesy B-movies.
No. No, that wasn't true. It felt... It felt like the houses were /watching/ you, scrutinising you, taking in every last detail of your secrets, your mysteries.
Somehow, it wouldn't surprise me if they were.
Especially given what - and /where/ - these houses were.
And who the guys who looked after them were.
'Hmm. Not /quite/ as scary as Story Time.' She pouted. 'Awww...'
'Come on.' I said. 'And you can fill me in on the architectural appreciation /later/, got that?'
Ukyou blinked. 'Archietext? Who's Archie?'
It's hard for a penguin - or a Whifferdill in the shape of a penguin - to facefault.
Still did it, tho'.
'W-would you l-like some t-tea? A s-sandwich? B-biscuit?'
'Pilchards, if you've got any.'
'Bottle of milk.'
'I-I'll just g-go and s-see what G-Goldie's got in the k-kitchen...' the fat man managed to get out.
Minutes later, he came bustling back through the door. Followed by a tiny golden gargoyle struggling with a bottle bigger than she was.
'I'll take that,' I said, passing the bottle to Ukyou.
'Meep.' the gargoyle - Goldie, presumably - said.
'S-so... Umm, h-how c-can I help? Most i-investigators s-start at C-Cain's house...'
'I'm not after a mystery.' I said. 'Most crimes aren't mysteries, they're /secrets/. When you find a body in a locked room, only the killer knows how they did it. That makes it a secret, not a mystery. 'Course, murder secrets doesn't sound so good.'
'P-part o-of our c-contract...' the fat guy said. 'C-Cain's b-been c-complaining a-about it ever s-since they started u-using it, but h-he l-likes it r-really. Umm.. s-so w-what s-secret are y-you after?'
'My dear brother, about to offer up another of his oh-so-precious secrets to the first... the first penguin who asks his fat, blabbering mouth.' The tall, thin bearded man leaned on the back of the chair. 'No need to announce me, Abel - not that you're any more successful at /that/ as you are with anything else. Including keeping that monstrously huge orifice you call a mouth closed...'
'C-Cain...? W-We were just t-talking a-about you...' Abel, the fat guy, said.
'And *you* were just about to tell another secret, weren't you, /fatboy/?'
'Hey!' Ukyou said. 'He just wanted to know what secret we were here for!'
'And then my dear brother, unable to keep anything a secret for half a second, would have spilled his overfed guts to you. Maybe I should try that, Abel, hmm?'
'When *are* you going to learn, you pathetic little tub of lard? You /do not/, do *not*, tell a secret! /Never/! Otherwise, it's no longer a secret, is it? Is it? And it no longer has any /power/, does it? And /you/ are supposed to take care of the things...' Cain shook his head mockingly. 'Dear oh dear. You never change, do you, Abel?'
'I-I /do/!' Abel protested. 'And so do you, and Eve, and-'
'Careful, lardboy...' Cain said, reaching for a candlestick. 'You're about to tell a mystery. And mysteries are /mine/, remember?'
'Sorry to break up the family squabble...' Sorry? Hardly.
'Ah. Your guests. Can't leave them unattended now, /can we/?' Cain said. 'And who do we have here? A private detective, no doubt searching for the answer to some ancient, dessicated crime lost in the history books, and driven by his sense of guilt to come to my /brother/. More intelligent than /most/ of that kind who pass our way... and a little girl, on the lookout for one of the big secrets - the truth about Santa Claus, the piano of glass and air, the songs the monsters under the bed sing to themselves, in times of quiet, the memory of your face before you were born.'
He hunkered down. 'Go home, both of you. Brother dearest won't be doing any tale-telling /today/... and if he were, do you /honestly/ think you could bear the secret's weight?'
'Yes.' Ukyou said.
'Think I could manage,' I said. 'One more secret's not gonna make much difference...'
Cain raised an eyebrow. 'Ah. *You*. Well, now...'
'N-no, C-Cain! They're /my/ g-guests! You're not s-supposed to t-tell their s-secrets!'
'Now, would I?' Cain said. 'Frobisher's personal reasons - the /true/ personal reasons - for staying in the shape of a penguin? Ukyou's little feelings for Ranma - and Akane? Of course not. That's /your/ job, isn't it?'
'MEEEP!!' Goldie screeched.
'WRRAAGHH?' a voice rumbled from the hall.
'/Quiet/, Gregory, you sad excuse for a handbag!' Cain commanded, turning on me. 'Your little universe has been churnng out secrets and mysteries at a rate of /knots/ - the true identity of Gallifrey's enemy, where Izzy /really/ comes from, and Destrii's own set of secrets, that little living TARDIS of yours, almost a house in her own right, or that Georgian superspy, with her own so special collection of the things... then the bargains Rassilon made, and the Doctor's origins - all of them - and the other faces he wore, before his current eight... and we're not telling /any/ of them.'
'Good. That's not why I'm here.'
'Ah. This is about /Gallifrey/, isn't it? That little secret your Mr Kreiner's trying so desperately to hide from the Doctor...'
I closed my eyes. 'No. No, it's not. We all know... but the Doctor doesn't know. Won't, maybe for a long time.'
'H-he's keeping it a s-secret from /h-himself/.' Abel stuttered. 'K-knowing what he d-did, d-destroying his h-home-'
Cain's face froze.
'E-even if y-you d-did tell h-him, he'd l-lock it away a-again until i-it w-was time.' Abel said. 'S-so it's not h-here - it's w-with Eve in the Cave of Nightmares, b-because i-it's buried only f-from h-him, b-buried guilt a-and n-nightmares...'
'That's Doctor-sama.' Ukyou observed. 'Even if the Supervisor /did/ replace the playpen...'
'Don't tell me,' I said. 'Your Eighth Doctor broke the Gallifreyans' playpen, right?'
I shook my head. 'These things are entirely too close for comfort sometimes...'
A flapping of wings.
Something landed on the windowsill.
A raven. A /white/ raven.
'Oh joy,' Cain muttered. 'Old Woman Guilt paying us a visit?'
The raven blinked. 'Who?'
'C-Cain m-means Eve, T-Tethys.' Abel said.
'Oh?' The raven, Tethys, tipped her head. 'No, she is at the cave. I wanted to speak to Goldie...'
'Meep!' Goldie said.
'F-Frobisher here i-is a-a penguin,' Abel explained. 'A b-bird which s-swims, rather t-than f-flies.'
Tethys' eyes widened. 'A bird that /swims/...?'
'Nothing to get excited about.' I said.
'A bird that knows the Depths... /and/ Above?' Tethys whispered. 'Was this a gift?'
'Not unless you count shapeshifting as a gift...' I said. Discomforting, this. It was like even the /idea/ of a penguin was something new to her.
'It was for me,' Tethys said. 'I had only dreamed of Above... and then I saw it, and I was free... and then...' She looked down, meeting no-one's gaze. 'Then my Lord asked me to be Eve's raven, after Matthew... and now I am here, Above.'
'Land-dweller all my life, kid.' I said gently. 'Sometimes, I've been in some very /deep/ places - but on land.'
I hesitated a moment. Maybe... maybe I /should/ introduce her to Izzy. She might know where Izzy was coming from - the other way around, maybe - but perhaps...
Abel apparently decided to change the subject. 'A-and h-how's Mel?'
'Actually...' Ukyou and I chorused.
'Wrong Mel, lackbrains.' Cain said.
'M-my s-sister, J-Jumella.' Abel explained.
'Why not ask her yourself?' another woman's voice said from the door.
'YOU!!' Cain screamed.
The woman in the doorway was slim, with long brown hair and blue eyes. Her clothes looked like they'd been ransacked from an art deco store - a fur-edged coat and a long, pale green dress.
And something about the way she held herself was sending shivers down my spine. Little nuances, tiny little social expressions - they weren't there, had been eroded away - or had never been there. Something about her was badly wrong - and I didn't think I wanted to know what.
'Oh, do we have family?' Jumella continued. 'One of my nieces... it's so nice to meet one of them here, rather than at the cave...'
'I'm not your niece, you loony!' Ukyou protested.
'Oh, I am insane. I should be, knowing that my /brothers/ chose my /sister/ over me, even my own /twin/ - because I was fat, and slow, just like /my/ twin...'
'M-Mel...' Abel stammered.
'Fall of the House of Usher,' I murmured. 'What I really, really didn't need to get into.'
'And /then/, locked in the attic for millennia. Hurting. In pain. And yes, insane. Locked away by my husband, by my own /brother/...'
'This is /not/ the time, Jumella...' Cain hissed.
'You /are/ my niece,' Jumella said. 'And Cain's, and Abel's, and Aclima's... how is my sister, Cain? Locked her in any convenient attics yet?'
'You are my niece, because you are one of the Children of Seth. One of my /other/ brother's children. Even if it was only a dream - or a symbol - still, you are family.'
Ukyou looked at me. 'And Ranchan's folks were weird...'
'Jumella?' Tethys said softly.
'Yes. Yes, Tethys.' Jumella said. 'I had come to see Aclima - I didn't want to, but I had to, see how far her claws sank into you...'
'You will not speak of my wife like that.' Cain hissed.
'Your /wife/, is it? And here I thought we were still bound...'
'Let me get this straight...' I said slowly. 'You're Abel's twin, Aclima's your sister - Cain's twin?'
'And Seth's your younger brother. /But/... you're also Cain's wife - and so is Aclima.'
'She was Abel's wife, too.' Jumella said softly.
'Good thing I had that classical education,' I murmured. 'Otherwise, I'd be freaking. It's an /old/ story... the Egyptian and Greek gods did the same, marrying their siblings. The family line held the power... and we wouldn't want that line mixed with someone else's. Couldn't risk a lessening of the power.'
'As you said, flipperboy. It is a /very/ old story.' Cain said. 'Blood and magic... that's what the oldest stories come down to in the end. Blood and magic. Life and death. And before you start complaining that these stories are not suitable for children... Hansel and Gretel shut the witch in the oven. Red Riding Hood's wolf ate her grandmother - and at the end of Snow White, the /earlier/ versions, before it got rewritten... the stepmother is made to dance herself to death in red hot iron shoes... and they are not even the worst. /Those/ are children's stories. Old stories. Think on that a while!'
Ukyou was listening, her eyes wide.
/Fascinated/ by the stories.
Time to step in.
'Yeah. And I've got an old story for you.' I said.
'Once upon a time... there were two people. Boon companions, people thrown together by fate... you know the drill. Not even death could part them. Or that's the way it seemed.
'Then, one of them's called upon to make a sacrifice. A /big/ sacrifice. And this sacrifice ends up costing him his life.
'Then later, when /both/ of them have passed beyond, stepped Outside... something odd starts happening. The one who /didn't/ make that big sacrifice... they start killing the one who /did/, over and over. /And the victim keeps coming back/. He /can't/ leave - he has duties, responsibilities... but deep down, he can't stop loving the one who's become his constant murderer. Maybe can't explain why, but still...
'The victim here - the victim always comes back. Always stays near his murderer. And no-one can - or /will/ - touch his murderer. Something always seems to stop anyone calling the poor guy's murderer to justice.'
'Maybe I'm talking about Cain and Abel. Maybe I'm talking about Nyssa and Adric.
'You tell me.'
'Kami-sama...' Ukyou whispered. 'Nyssa keeps trying to wedgie Adric... and he doesn't know why. He doesn't /know/ why Nyssa doesn't like him - he never met her before he came to the playgroup - but she's been trying to wedgie him ever since they met. And he's never changed playgroups... never even thought 'bout it...!'
'What are you suggesting, you Antipodean reject?' Cain demanded. 'That there's some cosmic - some /narrative/ - connection between us and /your/ crazy soap opera? Or are you going to try and claim that there's /no/ connection, that it's pure chance?'
'I'm pointing out the similarities,' I said. 'Oh, there are differences - /you/ killed your brother, the first time, but Adric sacrificed himself-'
'Of course, you haven't asked for what Adric actually sacrificed himself.' Jumella said quietly.
'I know. You and Abel are brothers, while Nyssa and Adric were, might have been, friends, fellow companions; Cain's mark stops anyone - anyone in their right mind - from hurting him, because if they do, they'll get his curse back sevenfold. We don't know why no-one's tried bringing Nyssa to justice - which is interesting... And there are other people caught up in the web. Your sisters-' My flipper indicated Jumella. '-the gargoyles, the houses, even Dream himself - when he created your contracts. In our case, the ADF, the WANKERs, Lucas, Wesley and Ryoko, even that cigarette-smoking guy.'
My beak tried a grim smile. It worked pretty well.
'Because Izzy lent me a copy of The Sandman. Said I might enjoy it. Not quite my kettle of fish, I'll admit... but a couple of things struck a chord. Especially when I read about /you/ two. Seemed /very/ familiar...
'I am - used to be - a private eye. Looking into secrets and mysteries is almost my job description. But no one said I /had/ to do it - or actually find an answer. But that's what's expected, if I wanted to get paid.' I added. 'Bringing them to light, on the other hand... that /always/ stays the same.'
' 'Sides,' Ukyou said. 'Adric-kun's a nice guy.'
'Yeah. And I can't help feeling a /little/ sympathy for a guy who gets trashed so often.'
'Once it happens the first time - well, if you want to, if you can, and everyone's 'xpecting you to - it's easy to do it again. And again. And again...' Ukyou said. 'Like walking.'
'Not quite the metaphor I'd have used,' I said. 'But you get the idea. There's a secret - or a mystery - in the fact you're so alike. Even if there is no connection, that's an interesting mystery in itself. I've brought it to light - don't have an answer, didn't claim I did. That wasn't why I came.'
'Then w-why d-did you come?' Abel asked.
'To tell a story. To tell you a story.'
'To /listen/ to a story.' Ukyou added.
'Yeah. Story for a story. Jumella's told hers, and I've told mine. Fair, don't you think?' I said.
'Fair?' Cain said quietly. 'Mystery and secret have little to do with fairness...'
'We're dealing in stories here, Firstborn. And stories have /always/ been traded.'
'H-he's right, y-you k-know, Cain...'
'Well, then. And very well.' Cain said. 'You have traded - so /leave/! My brother and I have business to attend to.'
'I will see /myself/ out, Cain.' Jumella said coldly.
I jumped down off the sofa. 'Coming?'
'But it's going to get messy!' Ukyou protested.
'Yeah. Sort of why we're leaving. We'll let the gargoyles out.'
Goldie looked back. 'Meep?'
'This one w-won't take long, G-Goldie.' Abel said.
'Oh, I wouldn't say /that/, brother...' Cain said.
There was something huge, hulking, and green in the hall.
'Gwaar?' it said.
'Meeep meep.' Goldie said.
'Meeep...' Goldie shrugged her shoulders.
'Come along, Gregory.' Jumella told the gargoyle.
Grumbling, Gregory followed her.
The door closed behind us.
'NO. NO. Akk-! NO!! CAIN, PLEASE- AAAAAGGGGGHHHHH!!'
'It will take a long time, if ever, for him to forgive himself.' Jumella said, after a while. 'Easier to kill, and kill, and kill...'
'Cain?' Ukyou asked.
'Mm. He came to terms with his house's death. That was... unexpected. Abel's death, on the other hand...'
'Mmm- His house /died/?'
'It burned itself down, rather than live with him.' Jumella said. 'They built him a new house, a new House of Mystery... well, we will see how he treats it, won't we? Yes... yes, we will.'
'This /is/ the Dreaming,' I commented.
'But he remembers his duties well enough. Especially to his mysteries.' She shook her head. 'Duty...'
Blames himself? I wondered. Hmm... what would happen if, just as an example, if a constant murderer finally had to deal with blame?
Mel getting /angry/ with Nyssa for killing Adric - when Adric had stood up to her, told her he wasn't going to be a victim... when he'd told her where her multiple murders were taking her, making her a /shell/...
Cain's house burning itself down, because it couldn't live with him any more, with his millennia of spite and hatred. Not his fault - but his responsibility. Having to live with someone else's death...
Tethys came in to land on Jumella's shoulder.
'Well. And well done.' Tethys said.
She frowned. 'Strange. I would at least have thought they, either of them, would offer you the question of how the Dreaming and the Outside Dimensions relate...'
'We already know.'
Jumella smiled, very, very slowly. 'Good. They have had entirely too much amusement with that one...'
We walked down the path.
'How deep did Aclima get?' Ukyou asked.
'Deeper than I hoped, less than I expected.' Jumella said.
A prickling. The feathers on the back of my head rose.
On the porch of the other house, the house on our left, a slim woman, her brown hair swept out behind her head, and a pince-nez on her nose, watched us leave. She looked like an old school librarian.
But there was something...
This woman was dangerous, far more dangerous than Jumella could ever be, even in the depths of her madness. She knew what she did - and why.
I burrowed deeper into my coat.
'Secrets. Mysteries. Madness. And...' Jumella trailed off.
'Yes, it is... but don't look. Please don't look. Not unless you want her nails digging deeper, and deeper, clawing...' Jumella whispered.
'Want us to help you back?' I offered.
She shook her head. 'No. No, Tethys can guide me, will guide me...'
The raven dipped her head. 'Jumella will be alright. Little here - where we are - would dare touch her.'
She hesitated. 'And when you come again, might you come to visit the cave?'
She'd almost said 'visit us', I realised.
'Maybe.' I finally said. 'But you could always visit us.'
'I...' Jumella began.
'I...' Tethys began.
'Meep,' Goldie interjected.
Jumella half-shrugged. 'Why not? From what you said... who would notice one more madwoman around?'
'And Eve...' Tethys hesitated. 'Eve may decide to come herself, to leave the cave. I don't know. But the Night Terrors are sated for now... nothing there to stop her.'
A definite undercurrent of hope there. She /wanted/ Eve to leave the cave, because that meant /she/ would be able to, too. Or at least feel /allowed/ to - Allowed to. A responsibility? A responsibility to Eve... and also to Dream. A responsibility she didn't want to - couldn't - relinquish... but if /their/ responsibilities led them-
The scream echoed in the fog.
'But leave those two at home.' I added. 'The last thing we need is Nyssa getting ideas.'
'That, I think, we /can/ manage....'
Copyright 2001 Imran Inayat