RP Songbirds


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Alabama Swamps
“Alone at the edge of the universe humming a tune…”

Summer slept heavily in Alabama. The humidity pressed the darkness close, interrupted only by dreams of pale green light that flashed their non-messages into the air around them. And yet for her weight, summer did not sleep quietly. Where life could not be seen, it could be heard everywhere: cicadas, crickets, frogs, owls, mammals, and splashes of much larger, quieter things rolled around the overgrown yard of the little cabin.

It had not been lived in for decades, its previous owner much to enraptured in [font color="firebrick"]his
work to ever visit the place of his birth, his life, his first little death – death of self, not of body. A body long and thin and gnarled like the branches of the old tree across thick vegetation from the old cabin. Like the girl that lay across its branches.

It was not an apple tree, and never had been, and never would be. It was instead an oak, and always had been, its branches thick with Spanish moss and small living things, and apples, although it was not an apple tree. The apples were [font color="lightsteelblue"]hers[/font], had come with her, would go with her. The banjo her nimble fingers found was hers now, too, a gift from someone who was gone.

The Song was a gift, too, and the closed mis-matched eyes and the straw hair that curled around her shoulder in a thick braid. She wore torn blue-jeans and an unstained white peasant’s blouse with tattered sleeves. Her feet were bare against the damp wood, but she didn’t mind it. The cool felt nice against her skin.

“A siren sounds like the goddess who promises endless apologies of paradise, and only [font color="lightgreen"]She[/font] can make it right, so things are different to-night.”

And they were. Nineteen was such a strange age to be – stranger still was five. Which mattered, she wondered, the time or the body that passed through it? Or was it neither, but the black godsoul that writhed under it all? She rarely had space to consider such things – but sometimes she needed a night that slept deeply, far from Duskburg and her little church. Here outside a house that he’d never want her to See. But he was gone, and she had made her peace with the absence, and instead chose to bless the hollowed ground with hallowed presence.
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They can never go back.

They can go back, but never in the way that they were there. So they’re going somewhere else instead, and maybe it will ease the heavy ache in their chest.

At some point Lark might’ve crossed into a different state, they think, but details like that are too small to care about at the moment. All that matters is following the road under their feet and the stars over their head. The stars. Will everything remind them of her? When will it stop hurting? It must, but it takes so much time. Time they don’t-

The darkness doesn’t impede their sight much - their eyes have had plenty of time to adjust. They don’t exactly know where they’re going, but that’s never stopped them before and they don’t think it’ll stop them anytime soon. Nothing can stop them permanently, not until-

Thoughts for another time.

The road becomes more of a suggestion the deeper they forge, and they keep an eye on the deceptively still water beyond the path. It takes them a long moment to realize what they’ve picked up on, what thread they’re following, because it isn’t a sight that catches their attention.

It’s a song. A single voice, and some kind of stringed instrument.

Lark follows the music to its source, abandoning the dirt path and trudging across the marshy soil between half-drowned trees when the path winds in a different direction. Their boots are irredeemably muddy by the time the tree comes into sight. And along with it, the girl.

She looks older than them, by the physical metric. Her braided hair makes a part of their brain whine, wishing it to be a darker more familiar hue, but they try not to let it show. Rather than interrupt, they come to a trudging stop a few feet from the tree and take a moment to look around while the song winds to an end.

Alright Lark. Let’s try to act like someone who hasn’t just had their heart broken. They look up into the branches, tucking their hands into their pockets and trying on a smile that doesn’t quite reach their eyes. “Hello.”

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She knew, of course, that they were there, long before they spoke. Her Song did not distract her so much she could miss one who missed so much. It would seem her respite had ended – or would, when the last Note fell.

So perhaps she dragged it out, a little longer than was needed, but no less sweet.

“Bye, hi – sigh, Hawaii! We never meant to part, sublime, thy art.”

A moment’s pause, an ode– but all things come to an end.

“One light, higher than the sun, invisible to some until it’s Time...”

She idled with the Strings for several more seconds before the Song settled in fin. And then, fin-ally, Her Eyes (his eyes) opened, sky blue and a paler green than Her guest’s.

“Well, hi there.” The accent that never existed in singing stuck out now, sore as love lost, strong as the knowledge of tragedy when a song begun again. And yet her moon-sliver smile crooked up at an angle, and those eyes glinted – not with his genius, but with a kindness she’d found despite, despite, despite…

“Yer a long way from the beaten path, friend. Ya Lost?”
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While the musician continues her playing, Lark studies the tree. There are apples on it, which is an observation that makes their heart sink a little lower in their chest, but it isn’t an apple tree. They would know, with how often she talked about them.

The tree is suddenly much harder to look at than the woman, so they refocus on her just as she turns to acknowledge them. Of course she has blue eyes, a little hysterical voice complains within their mind. They push past it, blinking hard and perhaps meeting her green eye more than the other.

Then she speaks, and it just isn’t fair. They’ve come all this way. All this way. It’s a bitterly uncharitable thought, that her smile is mocking them, that the accent that rings familiar-but-barely-not in their ears is another slight to make them regret their decision to ever leave at all. They could’ve stayed for winter, lent an extra hand-

But then they’d never leave, and that wouldn’t be fair to anyone. It just couldn’t happen any other way.

Lark has been staring for much too long. For a moment they almost forget how to speak, like their voice is as lost as their heart. They clear their throat and scuff a boot along the ground in a vague attempt to wipe off some of the mud clinging to their shoes.

“Lost would imply I have someplace to be,” they answer after too long of a pause. “So no, I’m not lost. Right now I’m just a wanderer. I heard your singing - it was… very nice.”

‘Nice’ falls flat, but it’s all they can think of. They couldn’t say what made them follow the song to its source, other than the curiosity they can’t seem to shake. At least they know it won’t kill them, ha.

“Do you live here?” They glance doubtfully at the overgrown cabin. It doesn’t look very liveable, but it would explain why she’s out here. And right now, conversation is easier than dwelling on what could be and what was and what is-but-is-not.

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The sadness came in waves, a gentle crash and flow that crested and fell, as it seemed no part of Her was without pain for them. And their sadness found itself reflected back from Her, not impatience or anger at the long soft stare that saw someone else who was gone sitting there. And they were very lost, but they were wandering away from the loss in hopes of outrunning it.

How familiar.

“Thanks. It’s my dad’s.” Her voice still his voice despite the suffering, her Song his Song despite the joy it could perhaps bring.

And then she’d always been there beside them at the foot of the tree, tall with strings slung back and a staff in hand, his hat low over her eyes that could also be his eyes, or her eye and their eye, but were really just Hers and always had been. And the tree had never had apples, because it had never been an apple tree, but there was an apple in her hand because it was hers and always had been and always would be.

“Nawh, I don’t. This was his home, a long while back. I still make sure to check up on the place now an’ agin.” She sighed, and there was the softest rustle among the trees under the sound of all the life the swamp had to offer. She leaned gently on the staff as her Eyes turned to what remained of his childhood, what might in a different world have been his home still. Ah, but that was wishful thinking, and even a goddess didn’t need to waste her time with that. “I could spruce it up if ya wanted a place to put yer feet up for a bit. Ain’t nobody else usin’ it right now, and We ain’t got nowhere to be.”

She tapped the ground with the butt of her staff, and the mud would be gone from their boots – not completely, perhaps enough that it could have been wiped off if the whole floor wasn’t the same clinging dirt and rotten organic matter. She suggested, and didn’t command, but wasn’t the wanderer tired after such a long time traveling? The cabin might be empty, but it had once been a home, and perhaps a little loving care could make it that again.
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The song is her father’s? That doesn’t scan right to Lark’s tired mind, but they only have a brief moment to puzzle over it before reality falters, folding over itself neatly so that the girl disappears from the tree and reappears on her feet beside them. Lark jolts, wrenching at the fabric of time on instinct, but they only pause it for a moment before releasing it again.

She doesn’t seem dangerous, but they still have to let their heart settle before answering. Is this how other people feel when they see Lark glitching around the place? “Ah.”

When they straighten again, they find with another moment of surprise that they don’t have to look down to meet her eyes. She’s the same height as them, give or take a few inches. Something about that settles their nerves a little, enough to look past the blue and the braid and the voice. They note the apple and staff now in her hands, and-

Ow. A small spike of dissonance makes them wince as their memory and consciousness feud over whether she’s always had those props. They look to the tree again, and the apples are gone. Another spike. Were there apples there? They thought there were, they remember the sight and the sadness and the oddness, but something tries to push back on the memory.

They try to let it pass, turning their attention to the house instead. “I wouldn’t mind taking a look around. I can’t stay for too long, but I can help fix it up if you’re interested.”

It’s a familiar offer, for all that they’ve only been at this for a few years. When they were younger they were too caught up in themself to look for places to help others, but keeping busy makes it easier to forget why they’re keeping busy. A couple hours of repairs is time better spent than any amount of time thinking about the timer counting down, the one they can’t silence or forget.

They step towards the cabin with cleaner boots, reaching out to trace their fingers along a vine that’s grown over the door. They learned some about repairs from-

Their thoughts stutter over the name, turning in familiar circles. Did they really have to leave? Will they ever stop thinking about her? … Will she miss them, when they never show up again?

Frustrated, they curl their fingers around the vine and attempt to tear it down. Anger is easier. It’s more familiar, at least.

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There was a dis-chord, discordant and discarded as fear turned to not-quite-Curiosity, but caution. There was a twist at the edges of time, which was not Her domain but still dictated the beat at which She could Be. Then it returned to as it had always been; and She was left with a faint hum, the sort She could feel like the rumble of engines along an iron set track.

They offered to help. It was a sweet thought, and refreshing, for She rarely needed aid these days, but that undercurrent beat that lapped like waves radiating out from them into Her still rattled against her bones until it reached a crescendo –

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

The vine snapped easily. Curiosity looked upon the destruction with a tilted head, and breathed out a sigh. There was tension in the air, heavy like the humidity, and the sigh blew gently through the leaves almost like a breeze. But the weight did not stir, even as She knocked twice upon the door with the Crook’d head of her staff, even as the sound rippled through and out into the world and it changed in reply.

“Nonsense.” She smiled, not-his-smile-and-never-had-been, and his voice faded from the edges of Her Voice. “You are My Guest. This is a place of rest. It’ll be a haven until you’re ready to move forward.”

Guest echoed strangely in the tension of a tether pulled taut – not binding Lark but an oath that held Her to them, until such time as Her hospitality was rejected or they were ready to travel again.

She was humming, softly,
an old song; an old tale from way back when; a sad song, a tragedy.

Only the beginning, again. Feet planted where it all began and yet She did not thinking of him now. They were not the only one who could hide behind helping, to avoid their own sorrow.

She was inside the house, because that was what befit Her role upon the greater stage. The door opened outward – that one was impossible to say whether it always had, or if She had chosen it as a gesture of outstretching – and outward wafted the smell of apples and cinnamon and a warm golden light. Her shadow did not fall over the traveler, even if the lit fire was behind her, driving away not the cold but the damp and never becoming overbearing in its warmth. Her hat was hung, and her staff had been set aside to lean upon the wall beside the door. Golden hair flowed down her back and across Her blue eye, leaving only the soft green of spring and summertime.

“Come in, and have a drink with me.”
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There’s something there, something they can’t quantify but can feel in their teeth. It curls in the back of their mind like a stress headache. Lark clears the rest of the vines from the door with more method than madness, and it only helps a little.

They’re aware of her presence at their back, but the voice of paranoia is muted for once. It isn’t like she can kill them, and she doesn’t seem the sort to want to. They’re usually able to pick up on that. They still shift out of the way as she approaches the door, watching as she raps her staff against it.

And the world knocks back, in a way. Something shifts, something that sends Lark just slightly off-balance. They stumble while standing still, one hand going to the doorframe for support.

“I don’t need-” their breath catches, not quite able to voice the lie. They’ll get better at that, in time, but this time is not that time. Not yet.

She isn’t beside them anymore. Lark closes their eyes for a moment, breathing out and around the wrongness, and when they open again the door has silently opened before them. They smell apples and spice, and their eyes water for more reasons than just the change in temperature. She must have noticed them staring - the blue is gone, the braid is gone, the apple might as well have never been there at all.

“You don’t have to-” they try again, voice breaking. They take another moment to compose themself, digging for older memories beyond apples and braids and barns and nights under the stars and-

Old green eyes. Darker than hers, though the wiseness within each is incomparable. Lark finds enough steadiness to take a step inside, enough brittle humor to crack a smile. “A drink? How old do you think I am?”

It’s half question, half test. Outwardly they’re just a teenager, and inwardly they haven’t even bothered to count.

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Her smile became his smile for a flickering moment, a splitting grin bright and crooked as the full moon on a clear night. The objections were anticipated, but the joke as they came across the threshold and truly became Her guest.

The smile unraveled, somewhat, as the thread resonated in response. There was familiarity in the exhaustion beyond years, the time never spent and yet suspended like a sword of Damocles.

“Older than you deserve to be.” There was no teasing, no derision, no insult in the tone. Such would be unfitting of the Host in the role and home She had inherited from him. It’d be hypocritical, anyway – not like they would know that part.

The cabin was two large rooms, one with a bed and desk and shelves that had been hurriedly sorted and cleared of all mildew, which would be seen through an open doorway; the other a living space with a fireplace and stove that, unlike them, should be older than it was, an armchair, and a small table with its own wooden seat. There were no carpets on the oak floor, but something else – a dark pentagram set in what should be onyx, or obsidian, and would have been uneasy to look at had She not been here to render the house welcoming. The wallpaper was faded, even in its renewed state, but time had rendered it from the warm crimson of something undesirable to the softer shade of something like a home.

She stepped aside as her Guest stepped inside. A moment later She was beside the stove, head and one hand in one of the cabinets.

“Pick your poison, I guess. I got teas, hot cocoa, cider –” She decided not to offer the coffee, but did pull out a different jar with rust-colored powder that She sniffed – “and ah, somethin I wouldn’t recommend. Prolly for rituals.”

Maybe. She didn’t exactly Know when he’d taken to the simpler method of using his own blood for that sort of thing.

There was a kettle hanging over the fire, which had never had rust on it, because She had decreed it so. It was full of water and was just beginning to steam like – well, a teakettle. It certainly didn’t whistle like one, though. It warbled, which might seem strange. Two mugs were set on the table with the wooden chair, simple sleek black that would behave as porcelain should under Her supervision.

There was a radio behind them, too old for CDs or maybe even cassettes. It was switched to off, although perhaps it might not be, once it caught Curiosity’s attention.
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Her response stings. Lark looks at her too quickly - their head gives a pang of protest. So she knows, or she can tell somehow, but she doesn’t Know. Though her tone is understanding, the words dig a little too deeply. Or maybe it’s just the embers of their fire looking for an excuse to relight.

Still, they’re too tired to deny the comforts offered, and they drift along after her with light footsteps. They start to look for a mat to wipe their boots on, but upon looking down discover their boots have already been wiped. Sure, why not.

They shrug it off and edge around the pentagram to hover near the table. “Anythin’ is fine.”

Her accent makes their own rear its head, and they try not to be too embarrassed about it. She would tease them about it, but she isn’t here. They’ll never talk to her again.

Lark sits at the table as the revelation hits them all over again. While the woman’s back is turned they take a moment to breathe, pausing time for a few seconds. It’s old instinct, instinct they’ve been ignoring these past few months, and it brings them more comfort than they’d expected.

To external eyes, they’re sitting up in their chair one moment and slumped on the table the next, their head pillowed in their arms. Something about this place is… nice. It reminds them of home, all the ones they’ve been running from and all the ones they’ll return to and all of the ones they’ve yet to discover. It’s old-fashioned, but they’re used to old-fashioned by now.

“If you have anything local that’d be nice, but I’m not picky,” they clarify, since the conversation hasn’t had time to move on. Then, “What do you mean by rituals?”

Their eyes scan the room again, from the pentagram to the cabinets to the fire.

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There was a moment that suspended itself.

She did not seem to See, even with [font color="lightgreen"]his eye[/font]. In that moment the body was suspended, as all else was. But as Lark settled themself at the table, another set of Eyes turned to look at them. The face was small, the Child to whom it belonged clinging behind Her legs shyly. At a glance She was as a younger Self, tinier and tidier, too old to be a toddler yet far to young to be truly Her. Her hair was in a braid, pulled tight and neat and perhaps French, still the yellow of an autumn harvest left in the sun. Yet the eye that stared out was not the winter blue or the spring green of his, but a solid black set with silver where the pupil should be. She moved, in the moment that wasn’t, peering past Her Self to watch Their guest in their moment of rest.

And it passed, as the moment did, in a nonexistent instant, and when She returned to one Self She recalled and did not ask. Even if She had seen, She could let them have their privacy.

She selected a handful of leaves from a jar in the cupboard, and pulled out the chocolate for Her Self. Her other hand took a honeybear that had certainly always been there.

“Oh, y’know. The ancient, unknowable sort that drives most folks to madness.” She gestured idly to the pentagram on the floor as She stepped through it – too much him to be caught in it. She collected the kettle – had She always had the leaves and chocolate and honey in one arm? – and poured the water into the mugs that were sure to continue to be such. She held the leaves above the water, and there was tea, which had steeped nicely into a healthy consistency. She set the bear beside the mug, and then began to prepare her own.

There was one place where She did not look, even as She paced about the room attending a Host’s tasks. Upon the hearth above the fire was a single photograph in a plain frame – while he had been proud of his power, he had never really been vain. He was not a pretty man, as he had always known. But the photo was of a young man, long and gnarled with a crooked smile and mismatched eyes, and the life and joy made up for the resemblance even his face shared with a scarecrow. He grinned over a bar with someone She had never known at his side, though She doubted he had loved her. His hat (her hat) sat on the bar beside him as he held up a glass, and the head of a banjo, his one true love, could be seen peering over his shoulder, as it did over her shoulder and always had.

Still, the radio stayed silent.
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The cottage is cozy. Some part of them thinks it might be almost too cozy, designed like a blanketed trap to lure them in. But if that were the case, an older Lark would already have whisked them away.

Still, there’s something that sets them on edge. Lark sits up a little more in their chair, trying to work out what it is they felt or noticed or…

Their eyes drift to the photo on the mantle, studying it while their host walks over with the tea. It’s easier to ignore the blips if they don’t look at her, if there aren’t any memories to argue with the reality she weaves. Maybe it’s reckless, letting their guard down, but they’ve never been accused of an overabundance of caution.

“Is that what happened to him?” they can’t help but ask. They wrap their fingers around the mug of tea, pulling it closer though they don’t need much warming with the humidity and temperature of the air outside. The mug isn’t quite the right temperature for just having boiling water poured in it, suffusing them with a steady warmth instead of burning their fingertips. They raise it to their face, trying to determine the flavor by smell.

All the while, they keep their gaze on her. Watching for… something. Not precisely something to pounce on, but something to distract. It’s easier to poke at the troubles of others than remember their own.

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