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Jul 06, 2022 10:00 PM
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Marianne Belor is a clerk at Wells Fargo and it isn't her fault.

That's the lie turning over in her head like a brick in a laundry machine. She clocks out. The silver and glass doors click together tidily behind her. The muted chatter and air conditioning gives to the deeper chill of evening and whistle of cars.

You must see: Marianne was told to leave her home at eighteen. She had no one to pay for her college. She had untreated attention deficits (and six other things), top single percentile intelligence, and no job experience. And she had no friends, no family to help her. Worse than no family—

(A dandelion trembling and solitary in the wind. Fraying, a shawl pulled to threads by an idiot classroom. A darling toy lying on its side at a garage sale. There was no particular reason why Marianne Belor ought have picked it up when she had already passed by so many others. There wasn't any thought in bending down to hold it, only the glimpse of a fault in the world and an impulsive wish to fix it. The dandelion calls itself Isabel Lillian Amber.)

—if other people had everything they wanted and she was the meek servant of something despicable, well, she had just started out with disadvantages. Her parents that ruined her high school years and handicapped her for the rest of her life. The girl at her apartment that needed daily hours of affection, hands stirred over her skin and whispers composed. There were constraints on her. She would pull through and get the things she wanted. Somehow at sometime, because she was smart and that was what she did.

 

It's not going to happen tonight. Which is fine. It's not urgent on a scale of days. She tells herself she'll set aside the weekend and come up with a plan, and she can almost force her to believe that she'll follow through on that. Right now, her feet hurt and she needs to walk home so she can lay down and not think.

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Lily takes care of the apartment, all the little tasks that Marianne would rather not think about. She comforts Marianne when she can; she is, perhaps, the only comfort Marianne has. 

It's a small life. She does the errands, sees the same clerks every few days, pays money that Marianne earned for her. It burns in her gut that Marianne is forced to support them both. Lily has tried to secure employment; she is not particularly good at keeping it. She, too, has half a dozen things wrong with her. She tries her best and sometimes, achingly, when Marianne holds her and whispers to her and they're close and the world is faraway, she can believe it's enough, and be content. Sometimes she can even feel like she's earned it, somehow. 

(All the other people that Marianne could have bent down to grasp, to help, to hold - why should she be special?)

She wants, more than anything, to fix it. To be useful. To be able to extend a hand to someone else, the way that Marianne did for her. 

Maybe one day. Right now she has to do the dishes and make up both their pill strips for the week and work on her stack of job applications. If she can just make some money, if they can just save and hold on long enough, eventually there will be enough saved for someone to get a certificate and from there a less bullshit job and then - 

She's getting ahead of herself. Right now, there are dishes. And then Marianne will be back, and she'll have to tend to her. She's always exhausted after work. 

There will be time for job applications at some point.

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The scrape of shoes and the clutteriness of keys, then the clickthud of the lock pivoting and the squeak of hinges.

Marianne has already started taking off her suit while fucking with the door.

"Liiiiillian." Her trill is somewhat strained and quiet. The sound of running water processes and she doesn't call again. Pants slip off inside the threshold and go crumpled up and scratchy under her arm.

She dumps everything on the floor, finishes taking off her shoes in bed, and submerges herself in the indulgence of sightlessness and stillness. She'll pretend to be asleep if Lillian comes in, she decides.

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Lily hears her. Of course she hears her. She turns off the water and goes out to the bedroom. 

Seeing Marianne flat on her face in bed, Lily gathers up her discarded clothes, uncrumples them, folds them, and sets them aside neatly for tomorrow on the side table. Marianne - they - can only afford one good suit. 

Then she sits by the side of the bed and reaches out, gently clasping Marianne's hand. She doesn't speak.

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Her hand is cold and clammy, flesh that secretes salt water. One of her fingers twitches involuntarily.

 

"Did we get a package today?"

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Lily shakes her head. "No."

And then the doorbell rings.

She sighs. "I'll go get that."

Back out to the front of the apartment. She opens the door a crack.

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There's an unfamiliar woman in a suit outside. 

"Hello, Ms. Amber," she says. "Apologies for the interruption. Please observe for a moment." She holds out her hand towards Lily, and the skeleton of a mouse emerges from her sleeve, standing up on her palm. She turns her hand over slowly, and the mouse skeleton climbs over and onto the back of her palm. 

"I mean you no harm. I have a unique opportunity to offer you and Ms. Belor. May I come in?" 

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Thaaaaaat should not be possible. 

"Please give me a moment." She closes the door in the stranger's face.

She turns around and goes back into the bedroom and grabs a one-piece dress from the closet and tosses it on Marianne. "Marianne. Get some clothes on. I need you to come to the front. It's important."

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You really can't manage it? she doesn't say because that wouldn't be helpful.

Forty five to ninety seconds. That's her estimate of how long it'll take to deal with the person at the door, assuage Lillian, and get back to bed.

She sits up, burrowing into the fabric until her appendages are sticking out of holes. Is it a police officer? Did she... forget to toggle her VPN or something? Fuck her cunt.

 

Hurried footsteps. Wide bleary eyes. "Hello?"

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"Hello. Please have a look at my mouse." 

The stranger extends the hand with the skeletal mouse on it, and it raises its forepaws and waves. 

"You may handle it if you wish."

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"Your—"

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Moments of shattering pass, then moments of reconstruction.

 

"Okay. Sure." She holds out a hand for the mouse to skitter along. "Was that all?"

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The mouse dutifully skitters over to Marianne's hand. "I have a unique opportunity for you and Ms. Amber, but it will require some discussion that should not be done in the hallway. May I come in?"

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"Conditional on your lack of vampirism, yeah."

Holding her arm to her chest as a level perch for the mouse, she leads the way back into the apartment. Her head is bent over, trying to figure out if it's what it looks like. It didn't move or look at all like a robot, but she intends to make super duper sure. Marianne's apartment has both of: couch, relatively clear floor.

Marianne cannot quite force herself to sit down. There is a bright and sudden animus in her and with it a ridiculous sense has settled over her that — she not only knows exactly what is going on but has been waiting for it for a long time.

She has to manually move her lips to produce words and it is hard. "—what is going on?"

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Lily has taken a seat on the floor rather than on the couch, and is waiting patiently.

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Penelope steps into the room, closing the door behind her, and with a gesture her suit is replaced with long robes and a matching truly enormous hat. She's holding a long staff in one hand now. 

"I'm here because the two of you have latent potential to become witches capable of wielding magic. I am employed by a broad alliance of witchdom to seek out potentials and help awaken them, rather than allowing them to go through the process of natural awakening in an uncontrolled fashion, which could reveal magic to the human world."

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The mouse seems to be made entirely of bone. It's smooth and cool against her skin. It definitely does not appear to be a robot.

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"... And you would do this for us for free?"

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"This is routine for me. I'm paid to maintain the masquerade. If, after our discussion, you feel grateful to me, then you are free to pay me back in whatever way you wish."

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Yeah. Yep. That's it. That's exactly it.

Goosebumps swell down her arms and legs. Blood leaves her cheeks and she stands straight as a scarecrow. She digs her fingers around in the mouse feeling for motors or seams of plastic, but she is perfectly aware that there is nothing.

Nothing else matters but how she comports herself now. Not her job, not her money, not her apartment — Lillian still matters, but that's it. She's going to ignore the question of why (she takes a moment to cache the word) 'witchdom' maintains a 'masquerade,' because it sounds really expensive—

—also is that a polite way of saying 'I expect you to feel grateful to me and repay me and if you don't that is an enormous slight.' Questions substantiate by the dozens and are frenetically tossed out, searching for what's most urgent—

 

"What does it cost to become a witch? What is taken or lost? What might cause regret?"

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"In your case, you are two witches sharing one awakening. There is a mana bond between you, and once you awaken you will need each other's presence every bit as much as you need to eat or drink, on pain of death. Lillian is of a cursed witch line; once she awakens she will need to drink blood to survive and to cast magic, though blood from an animal is sufficient if weak. Marianne, you will share in the Witch's weakness to fire; you will burn like straw should you be set alight.

All wakened witches are bound by Witch Law not to break the masquerade, on pain of torture, curses, or true death in extreme cases. You will know less peace; Witchdom is more violent and less safe than Earth, and there are some fates possible within it that death is preferable to, though they are rare. You will have to guard your True Names, which will become known to you on awakening. 

Those are the primary drawbacks."

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Of course. 

Of course she'll keep being a burden to Marianne. 

Even magic isn't enough to change that.

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The skeletal mouse has neither seam nor imperfection, and in fact retains its shape despite the fact that some of the bones are not even touching the others. She can pass her fingers completely around several of them. There is no glass or string holding the mouse together. 

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"—why do we have a mana bond. No seriously, what?" That sends her ricocheting towards the idea that she is being duped somehow. It sounds — it sounds fake. She knows that sounding fake isn't sufficient to make something fake, but she's having trouble grasping the idea. She has never done any magic in her life and feels she ought to have a clean slate.

"Can the Law make positive demands? If I hear someone is going to tell their neighbor about it, do I have to stab them? Or if I think there's a five percent chance that an action I'm considering could pierce the bubble—"

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"Your ancestors many centuries ago were lovers. Their lines are intertwined even now. It's a form of fate, you could say.

Actual violations of the Masquerade are immediately punished through Covenant magic, proportionally to the severity of the breach. Usually this is through the infliction of pain or debilitating curses. You are free to risk punishment as you wish. You are not required to report your neighbours and in fact would be likely to attract ire for doing so. The Law does not make demands on the whole. If you wish to avoid the Masquerade my advice is to simply leave Earth."

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