The Cherry Key


Up for editing purposes. Please let me know if you find typos, bad grammar or any awkward spots, and you will be my hero. Thank you.


Menari cursed once more as he scraped his knee on the granite wall, something he was doing an awful lot of that evening. The cursing, not the scraping of his knees. His knees would be bloody and raw if he'd scraped them as much as he'd cursed. A loud shout came from behind him and he wasted no time, dropping the last ten feet off the wall to land heavily.

His legs throbbed their displeasure, but he didn't stop, darting off towards the darker end of the alleyway, and praying that it wasn't a dead end. It shouldn't be unless he was totally lost, something that rarely happened, but was a possibility, especially with the night he was having.

He didn't spare a breath to laugh as one of the guardsmen following him slipped from the wall and fell to the ground in front of him, groaning in pain as he landed harshly on his back. He was damn lucky to have not broken his neck, but Menari brushed it off and headed deeper into the dark alley.

It shouldn't have been a dead end, but they'd somehow managed to get a blockade up. At least two dozen guardsmen, bright torches flickering in their hands, stood at attention, peering into the darkness in an attempt to get a glimpse of him. But his eyes were riveted on one man – Special Investigator Roawn.

The guardsmen who'd followed him across the walls were pressing nearer now, so Menari couldn't stop and go back that way, but it was utter suicide to head into the two dozen waiting ahead–

The opportunity was almost missed, Menari barely catching sight of it – but he had caught sight of it, so it was alright – a darkened doorway, with a flimsy-looking door. If it hadn't been for the bright torchlight, he wouldn't have seen it at all. It was rather close to the guardsmen waiting at the end of the alley, but he had no choice. At least he'd be in the lead again, however scant that was. Menari picked up speed, heading straight for the torchlight, to the confusion of the guards behind him.

The clamor they were raising had surely announced their presence to the Special Inspector and his men, but Menari couldn't waste time thinking on that – they weren't moving, and that was all he needed.

His eyes locked with Roawn, and he caught the man's smug, triumphant look, before turning sharply and veering straight into the door. The flimsy thing either crumbled or buckled under the force of his lunge. He'd overestimated, and stumbled a bit but quickly caught his bearings and clambered up a nearby staircase, barely missing the children's toys scattered over the steps.

Shouts were raised behind him and he heard footsteps on the stairs behind him. Any of the guardsmen would've clunked ferociously, so that meant it was Roawn, his frantic mind informed him as he raced up the fourth – or was it fifth? – flight of stairs in his race to the roof. If he could get to the roof he'd be in the clear – he could jump the rooftops, but most of the guardsmen wouldn't, they were too afraid of falling. Roawn was his only obstacle – if only the persistent Investigator hadn't been roused.

Then – there, the rooftop hatch was just a few feet off, at the top of a wobbly looking ladder. Of course, it was then that his luck ran out, and something heavy collided with his back. His scraped and sore knee banged harshly against the thinly carpeted landing, and his shoulder with a nearby wall. Heavy breathing echoed in his ears, both his and his assailant's and then he was forced around to meet the angry gaze of Special Investigator Roawn.

Menari immediately struggled, desperate to get away, but he only managed to get in one good fist to the face that, instead of stunning the man, seemed only to make him angrier. A knee was pounded forcefully into his stomach, hard enough to bruise, and easily hard enough to drive the air out of him.

Menari flailed weakly, struggling for air as panic set in. Roawn was looking smugly triumphant again, and the thunder of footsteps on the stairs was steadily crushing any slight hope of escape that remained.

"Bring the irons." Roawn commanded, not moving from where he pinned Menari to the floor. Menari struggled harder at the words, though they were surrounded by guards, and there was no chance he'd be able to get away. Not now, at least. At that thought though – the prospect of an imminent escape, however caught he may be currently, he subsided, not wanted to waste his energy.

Roawn didn't move, just scowled down at him as he stopped moving. The panic was bleeding away too, leaving him better able to think. The transport to the gaol, the gaol itself, any point during the mandatory trial – much better opportunities to slip away untraceably. And after that, he was getting the hell away from this city and it's overly persistent Special Investigator.

"Where's your aemoh now?" Roawn hissed at him, and Menari leveled a challenging look at the Investigator, but didn't answer. Menari was a thief, a very good thief. He'd even eluded the Special Investigator, Roawn, the man from whom there was no escape, on countless occasions, leading people to believe he was aemoh­-touched, the common word for demon.

A sound blow to the side of his face was his reward, and he bit down sharply on his cheek, tasting blood and feeling his head spin, though he was firmly connected to the floor beneath his back. Then he was being yanked to his feet, warm coppery blood filling his mouth, his arms pulled sharply behind his back and cool metal bracelets fastened on his wrists.

"You'll like where you're going, aemohkin." Roawn smirked, grabbing Menari's jaw roughly, forcing the shorter thief to meet his gaze. Menari didn't answer, just raised an eyebrow mockingly. The bitter taste of blood filled his mouth, but he didn't swallow it. "Search him, retrieve the antique." Roawn ordered, nodding to one of the countless guardsmen crowding the landing on the stairs.

The man moved forward, and Menari held his grimace as his person was patted down far too thoroughly for his liking. He couldn't hold back the smirk when the guardsman came up empty, finding nothing at all hiding in or under his clothing. Well, nothing that would be a surprise.

Roawn narrowed his eyes. "Where is it?" He demanded, stepping forward threateningly. Menari just smirked, and he would've laughed had he not been hoarding his mouthful of blood carefully. If he could enrage Roawn enough…

The trinket was one of the king's most prized treasures, a pretty little life-size statue, made entirely of jewels and precious metals, of a small branch of cherry blossoms. Beautiful, and definitely worth the risk, and maybe even the getting caught. Roawn scowled. Menari didn't bat an eyelash, staring down the increasingly irate Investigator with steady nerves.

"You will tell me where it is!" Roawn threatened, grabbing his chin again, and Menari was sure that his fingers would leave bruises this time. Menari smiled a bit wider, and nodded agreeably, and Roawn into letting him loose, presumably to let him speak.

Menari took the opportunity, and spat the mouthful of blood onto the man's almost-pristine light blue uniform jacket. Why they would have such a light color for a uniform that was going to be seeing a lot of soiling, he didn't know. What he did know was that the crimson that he'd spat showed up marvelously, and he laughed a bit, until the furious Investigator's fist collided with his cheekbone.

It was still finny though, even though his cheek hurt, and the force behind the blow knocked him off his feet. He struck his head rather sharply on the railing against the wall, the end of it tapering off in a not-so-pleasant spot, at least for his head. His vision was really fucked up now, white and black spots dancing madly in front of his eyes, and he could feel his head spinning, though he was relatively sure he wasn't moving. He was only vaguely aware when the Investigator's furious yelling faded, and he slipped into unconsciousness.

xXxXxXx

Menari woke in a dark chamber. Surprisingly, it wasn't a dungeon in the gaol, like he'd expected. His hands were unbound, and he was laying on an extremely comfortable bed, with soft covers, and softer pillows. Stretching slightly, he couldn't reach an edge anywhere either, something that was discomfiting.

Sitting up didn't help, since the room was still dark. Luckily though, it wasn't pitch, as he could make out the soft impression of starlight through a window in the ceiling, which, if his eyes weren't playing tricks on him, was high up in the ceiling.

Menari decided to explore his surroundings before contemplating on how the fuck he'd gotten into an opulent room after being captured by the Special Investigator and his men. He didn't get far, barely to the edge of the bed, when the door opened. Bright light flooded the room, and Menari winced. There had been no warning, no footsteps, and the door wasn't too far away, meaning carpet or soft shoes, or both.

Menari didn't get up, partly because his head was spinning a bit, and partly because it wouldn't have done him any good to escape to a hallway of a building he didn't know the layout of, but had to be huge, if only because of the ceiling. He couldn't see wasting that much space on a ceiling unless the building was fantastically huge. Which limited the places he could be.

Two servants were scurrying around lighting lamps, slowly illuminating the room. Investigator Roawn was looking rather displeased, but Menari ignored him too, realizing with a hint of amusement that he was missing his clothes, and wearing a soft loincloth. Which meant most of his tools were gone. Running a hand through slightly long and shaggy hair, Menari smiled a bit as he found the lock picks he'd pinned into place there, letting the dark strands fall back into disarray.

The servants left, rather quickly, not that Menari could blame them, Roawn wasn't looking too happy at the moment. Probably over the king's jewels. He could look all he wanted, he wasn't going to find them, that hidey-hole was quite well hidden and rather inaccessible.

Menari smiled happily at Roawn, who scowled rather formidably. The Investigator had the bright blonde hair of the people of the north, and clear blue eyes that were currently darkened with anger – and was that a bit of fear? Fear of the aemoh-touched or fear of the king? Perhaps both.

Menari decided that though this luxurious prison was nice, he was still going to confuse the putaka out of the Investigator. With that thought in mind, Menari opened his mouth and started to softly sing, ignoring Roawn and looking around the room carelessly. The words were not the language of the north, but rather the words he'd grown up speaking, the language of the south. The tune was an old prison row song he'd picked up, upbeat and repetitive, and it was great fun to watch the Investigator turn slightly purple, managing to look enraged and confused at the same time.

"The hell." Roawn actually looked contemplatively at him for a moment. "Fucker probably doesn't even understand a word I'm saying." Roawn was watching him speculatively, probably searching for signs of recognition to the words he was saying. Menari just smiled a bit wider and hummed along to a tune no one else could follow.

Roawn watched him steadily for a moment or two more before turning sharply on his heel and leaving the room. Menari smiled for a moment longer, before abruptly dropping the expression. Standing, he took in the room quickly. A thick wooden dresser, two sets of doors, besides the one Roawn had come in and left out, the huge bed, and large, clear mirrors that towered high over his head. The ceiling, like he had thought, was tall, maybe three stories tall, and had a plethora of skylights. Two large windows were set into the walls, and covered by thick curtains. The whole room was done in the odd theme of berries. Blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries, to be exact.

The first door proved to be a closet, holding only a few thin and wispy and totally impractical outfits. The dresser drawers were empty, and the third door was to the bathroom. He didn't trust the hallway not to have guards, and that left the windows.

He'd either been unconscious for two hours, or twenty-six, from the position of the stars, though from the throbbing in his head and the taste of blood still in his mouth, he'd assume it was the former. Which meant he couldn't be too far from the city, if he was outside it. Searching the closet again, he picked out the least flimsy pants, though they had dreadfully loose legs that could and probably would get caught on things inconveniently.

A search of the room turned up no shoes, or sandals, or slippers, which wasn't a good thing. Wall-climbing wasn't a great thing to do with bare feet. It tended to rub the skin raw and make it harder to run if it came to that later.

There really was no time like the present. Menari had no idea when Roawn would be showing back up, nor did he care to find out, and so he took some of the sturdier shirts and swathed his feet in them, doing the same with his hands. It would provide a bit of protection, until he could find some real shoes, in any case.

The windows were as he'd expected, wide and easy to open. And, as he'd expected, they were a few stories off the ground. Higher than he'd care to jump – maybe four stories up? And then another three stories for his room? That narrowed the buildings in the city down a good deal, to four, but only three were this opulent, and Roawn wouldn't house him in the king's sprawling mansion, would he?

In any case, he was currently wasting time that could be spent climbing out of here. They were idiots to not have guards on him all the time, but he wasn't going to contest it as he slipped out the window to the four inch wide ledge that ran around the building, just slightly below the floor level in the room he woke up in.

Menari quickly realized a few faults in his plan. For one, there was very little way to get down to the next story, the ledge far too skinny for him to drop to easily. For another, Roawn must've hit him harder than he'd thought, because he was having problems staying on the ledge he was on, and only by moving slowly could he make any progress sideways.

Menari sighed. Well, he wasn't going back to that room anyway. Where was the next window? He could conceivably crawl in there, and make his way out that way. But he'd have to find better attire – he couldn't run around shirtless and expect to stay unnoticed. A glance to the left showed a balcony, but it was on the other side of the window he'd crawled out, much too far. A glance to the right and he had his destination in the form of another balcony, this one much closer, with a few short, well-groomed trees on it.

There was a faint light coming from behind the trees, but Menari headed slowly towards it anyway. It wasn't as though he had much choice, really. Though he could imagine the look on Roawn's face quite well, when he discovered Menari was missing. Menari smirked, but turned his full attention to keeping his footing. It wouldn't do to fall to his death now.

It took him only a few minutes more, minutes that stretched out for longer than they should have. But finally he was on the balcony, squatting down next to the railing to both catch his breath and his balance. The dizziness had gotten a bit more severe, but he'd managed nonetheless.

There were soft, shapeless curtains covering the door's windows. They let out the light a bit, but nothing more. Menari contemplated staying on the balcony, but he was sure to be discovered at some point, and he'd rather it wasn't when he had no option but down. Besides which, it was summer, and the balcony was likely to be very popular.

Besides, if nothing else, he could learn where exactly he was. Menari grinned, and padded quietly over to the door. Even the fixtures looked expensive, and it only heightened his suspicions. He was either in The Palace, or the king's castle, neither of which made much sense to him. But it didn't matter that much now, and it shouldn't take much to find out where he actually was.

The doorknob turned easily under his hand, and Menari poked his head in, half expecting a score of guards to come tumbling out of any of the hidden corners. But there was nothing forthcoming, not even a startled exclamation about a head sticking in the balcony door.

The room had a high ceiling like the one he had just left, and the same thick, granite walls. Curtains were draped from the ceiling, fastened in some obscured way. Menari had to fight the itching urge to test how strong they were, to see if he could perhaps climb them. Various tables and candleholders held the room's source of light – hundreds of lightly scented candles burned brightly, showing off the red, violet and pink hues of the curtains and floor. In the very middle of the large, open room was a huge bed, much like the one he woke up on, piled with an explosion of pillows. There were curtains that, again, dangled from the ceiling, obviously meant to pull around the bed, but were pulled into a knot at what he assumed to be the head of the bed, but really, there was no way of knowing.

And on the bed rested the single occupant of the room. She – Menari assumed by the long, unbound hair that cascaded over the pile of pillows – had her back to him, and was ensconced in a few layers of loose covers, her attention riveted on something in her lap. Menari smirked, and slipped into the room, shutting the door with a soft snick behind him. The girl didn't move.

Menari almost laughed, but didn't want to announce his presence quite yet. He padded over on the soft carpet, soundless in the quiet room. The sound of paper moving against paper caught his attention – she was reading. He got close enough to peer over the young lady's shoulder, absently noting that flat chest meant she was a he, and studied the writing for a moment.

"Is it real interesting?" Menari asked, keeping his voice in a whisper. The boy blinked, pulling his eyes from the page almost absently to settle on Menari. The pretty bright green eyes widened in shock, and the slender boy let out a small 'eep'.

Menari laughed, delighted. The boy was beautiful, there was no denying that, and it only furthered his suspicions that he was in The Palace, though why Roawn would've brought him here, he had no clue. The redhead couldn't have been older than fourteen, though, his face having an almost childlike aura to it.

"Who're you?" The voice was beautiful too, soft and lilting.

"Menari." The thief replied candidly. "Who're you?"

"…Cerise." The boy answered quietly, after a second's hesitation. "What – why are you here?"

"No reason, really." Menari replied playfully. "Why're you here?"

Cerise seemed absolutely dumbfounded at that. "I… live here?" He offered weakly, blinking those wide eyes a few more times.

"Hmm… well, that's good enough for me." Menari replied, flopping over the pile of cushions. Cerise managed a smile, and Menari beamed back, thoroughly amused. "Where am I?"

"The Palace." Cerise offered, quietly. "How –"

A knock on the door cut him off, and Menari froze, before jumping to his feet and hiding behind the high-stacked pillows on the bed. The door swung open a moment later, and Menari could hear Cerise shuffling a bit on the other side.

"Cerise." A man's voice sounded, slightly ominous and vaguely reminding him of Roawn, but not, it didn't have Roawn's inflections.

"Sir?" Cerise murmured, and his tone demure and quiet.

"Have you had any disturbances this evening?" The man asked, and Menari tensed. Well, at least he'd confirmed his suspicions.

"No, sir." Cerise replied, and Menari almost gave himself away out of shock.

"Alright. You're to have a new master on Friday, so prepare yourself." The man said and Menari heard the door click shut loudly behind the man. Cerise didn't move, or say anything, and Menari was utterly confused at this point. Why hadn't the young man given him up? And how had he missed the fact that the young man was one of the Palace Keys?

Menari tumbled up and onto the bed, sprawling onto his stomach sideways to the boy, blinking up through dark, tangled hair. Cerise wasn't paying him any attention though, tears filling his bright green eyes.

"Cerise?" Menari questioned, keeping his voice soft and free of the playful tones. A little sob escaped, and Menari's confusion skyrocketed. "What's the matter?"

Cerise just placed one small hand over his mouth and shook his head, tears spilling down his cheeks. Menari raised an eyebrow, and sat up, close enough to touch his knee to Cerise's thigh, covered in layers of sheets as it was.

"I don't believe that." Menari chided, but gently. There was something about Cerise that just seemed fragile. With only a second's hesitation, Menari stretched out an arm and wrapped it around Cerise's shoulders, pulling the slender boy into a half-hug. "Eh, just cry it out, whatever it is. I've been used as a tissue for such things before."

Cerise half-snorted, but the tears kept flowing. Within a few moments, Menari's shoulder was damp with the cried tears, Cerise making adorable little hiccups that sounded utterly miserable. Menari marveled at the odd position he was in, but didn't scrutinize it too much – if he did, he'd probably wake up. Things like this never happened when he was awake.

Cerise finally calmed a few minutes later, the little hiccups smoothing out, and Menari honestly couldn't tell if he'd stopped with the tears, his shoulder was too damp for that.

"You good now?" Menari questioned, but he was smiling. Cerise nodded a bit, pulling away.

"I'm sorry." The redhead murmured, and Menari could see that the boy's cheeks had gone a delightful pink shade.

"It's perfectly alright. I told you, I'm a human tissue." Menari reassured the boy, ruffling his hair a bit. Cerise scowled, quickly moving to right the damage done to his long hair. "So what got you so upset?"

Cerise paused in his movements, blinking wide eyes at him, and countered with a question of his own. "Was he looking for you?"

Menari grinned. "And if he was?"

Cerise blushed a bit again. "It doesn't matter. I was just curious." He said quietly, looking his fingers fiddling with the covers.

"Well, I suppose I could be called a disturbance." Menari replied, laughing a bit. Cerise blinked up at Menari shyly. "So yes, he was. Why didn't you give me up, anyway?" Menari asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Oh!" Cerise blushed again. "Um, well, I was curious." Cerise repeated.

"Well, that's fantastic." Menari replied, cheerfully. Cerise blushed again, and he laughed, resisting the urge to ruffle the redhead's hair again. "I have to admit, I'm curious about you too."

Cerise blinked. "Me?"

"Yep. How about a trade-off? You ask me something, and I ask you something? We can sate our curiosity easily that way." Menari suggested pleasantly.

"Really?" Cerise asked, his tone almost disbelieving.

"Really. Go ahead, ask whatever you want." Menari grinned.

"How did you get in here? The door is always locked." Cerise asked, making a half-gesture towards the ornate door on the other side of the room.

"The balcony." Menari smirked a bit. "How can you stand your hair that long? I had mine like that once, and I was always getting it tangled in things."

"I like to brush it, and I'm careful, so I don't get it tangled in things." Cerise smiled a bit, almost laughing at him, and Menari laughed. "Um… where did you come from? Besides the balcony?"

"The room next door. That damn ledge is rather small." Menari made a face. "You're a Key?"

Cerise blinked, then nodded. "Yes." He looked rather upset again, and Menari chided himself to have more tact. "Are you?"

"Am I?" Menari repeated, confused.

"Are you a Key?" Cerise asked, looking rather adorably confused.

"No." Menari grinned. "At least, they hadn't told me that yet." Cerise scowled.

"You're doing that on purpose." Cerise scolded.

"Doing what?" Menari asked innocently.

"Not giving me proper answers. I get more questions with each one!" Cerise pouted, and Menari cooed mentally. The boy was charmingly cute.

"I'm so very sorry." Menari replied solemnly, but grinned after a moment. "Well, I suppose you'll want to hear the whole sordid story, then?"

Cerise nodded, then blushed a bit. "If you would?"

"I would be delighted." Menari grinned. "Well, let's see. Tonight… well, I suppose you need to know a bit about me first. My name's Menari Tythus, and I'm a thief." Cerise's eyes widened. "Yes, a thief. I'm evil, hang me." Menari entreated, and Cerise giggled, one slim hand going up to cover his mouth as the sound escaped. Menari grinned.

"Anyway. I like to collect pretty things. And well, the best pretty things aren't mine." Menari winked. Cerise blushed a bit. "In any case, the king has this particular trinket. It's very pretty, a small branch of a blooming cherry tree, made entirely out of precious gems and metals." Cerise had an odd look on his face.

"What?" Menari tilted his head.

Cerise smiled a bit. "I'm the Cherry Key."

Menari blinked, then laughed himself. "How deliciously ironic." Cerise giggled again.

"Well, in any case. We must introduce the villain in this story." Menari paused, dramatically, and Cerise watched with rapt attention. Menari pretended to check the corners of the room before whispering, "The Special Investigator." Cerise smiled, bright green eyes staring unwaveringly at him.

"The Special Investigator had it out for the thief. The thief was the only one who had ever gotten by him. And on many an occasion too. Thus, the Special Investigator set into action a plan, a nefarious, ingenious plan. He borrowed the King's pretty trinket, and set a trap."

Cerise gasped, and Menari almost laughed, but contented himself to smiling. "Now enter the daring, the dashing, the handsome – don't laugh, it's all true." Menari pouted as Cerise giggled again. "Ahem. In any case, enter the thief. Oh, he wasn't a stupid thief, he knew it was a trap. But the trinket was so pretty. And it didn't hurt that if he pulled it off, it would be a great blow to the Special Investigator's credibility."

"And the thief did manage to snatch his prize, right out from under the noses of four dozen-" In reality it had been perhaps one dozen. "-guardsmen, hand picked by the Investigator himself. But on his way out, he slipped up," Menari sighed dramatically. "Unable to resist tweaking the feather in the cap of the Investigator himself, he was caught."

Cerise gasped again, his hands going up to cover his mouth, his eyes dancing. Menari grinned again. "So of course, he did what any respectable thief would do. He ran." Cerise laughed, looking delighted.

"And so the chase was on – down dark alleyways, up the sides of buildings, across the rooftops –" Menari stopped. Cerise blinked at him. Menari smirked.

"Until finally, they cornered him." Cerise watched, avidly, his eyes wide. "It was a dark alley, guards behind him, guards ahead of him, and no chance of escape. Except! Wait! Was that a door, hidden in the shadows?!" Menari asked, his eyes wide. Cerise jumped, and then giggled again. Menari sighed.

"Okay, I give up. You keep giggling at perfectly serious parts of the story." Menari said, pretending to be sad. Cerise pouted.

"Please?" He asked, and goddamn if he didn't look like he was about to cry.

"Arg." Menari protested, futilely. "Fine, fine, just stop with the sad face." Cerise beamed, and Menari rolled his eyes, laughing as the boy stuck his tongue out at him.

"Ahem. Where was I? Oh, yes, the barely seen door. The thief shot threw the door, and scrambled up the stairs, hoping to get to the roof, where he could play tic-tac-toe – fine, where he had a decent chance of escape." Menari grinned.

"Well, he made it four of the flights up. But the fifth one, the enraged and angry Investigator caught up to him, demanding the return of his feather. Oh, and the king's trinket. Can't forget that." Cerise looked suspiciously like he was trying not to laugh, but Menari graciously ignored it. "The nefarious Investigator was furious when the Thief couldn't produce the goods, having deposited them in a safe nook a few rooftops into the chase."

Menari paused, collecting his thoughts, and breath. "Well, that didn't go over well with the evil Investigator, upstanding citizen and the like that he was. That and the king wouldn't be pleased to know that the pretty trinket had been lost to the thief. The Investigator, in a fit of pique, pulled the rug out from under the Thief, sending him tumbling backwards. Now normally, the thief had lightning quick reflexes, but he'd been caught off guard, and thus, stumbled." Menari leveled a mournful look at Cerise, who was trying to hide his smile behind his hand.

"The thief toppled back, and thwacked his head against the wall. And his last thought, before he lost consciousness, was, 'alas, shall I never see my pretty trinket again?'" Menari swooned, falling over dramatically. Cerise giggled madly, and Menari smiled, sitting up again, quickly enough to make his head spin.

"Of course, this is not the end of the tale. For the thief does indeed wake up, though in the most puzzling surroundings. Opulence, definitely fit for the thief, surrounded him. Of course, then the charming paradise he woke up in had to be ruined by the arrival of the Investigator, who attempted once more, to wrestle the location out of the thief. When that didn't work, the Investigator left, disappointed once more. And the thief crawled out his window and into the next window over." Menari grinned. "Where he met the most charming young man, who promised to keep him as a pet, feeding and bathing him when necessary."

Cerise giggled at him again, and Menari decided he liked the sound and smiled widely in return. "The end."

"Thank you." Cerise smiled widely at him.

"It was my pleasure, milord." Menari winked. Cerise giggled, pulling his hair over his shoulder and threading his fingers through it to work out the tangles. "Your turn."

"My turn?" Cerise looked away from his hair for a moment. "For what?"

"A story." Menari replied. "Like, what had you so upset earlier that you were willing to use me, a perfect stranger who'd snuck into your room with motives unknown, as a human tissue?"

Cerise's face abruptly crumbled from happiness to sorrow. Menari's heart twisted, and he hoped the boy never learned to act, because he could be devastating if he did.

"I'm a Key, right?" Cerise asked, mournfully. "Well, I'm not really a real Key. I don't know anything about being a Key, because of Jemmy." Menari raised an eyebrow. No wonder then, that Cerise seemed so… well, innocent, for the lack of a better word. "Jemmy bought my key ten years ago, and he's the only master I've ever known. Though he makes me call him Jemmy. He'd visit once a week, at least, but he hasn't been here for almost a month. And now Percy's told me I'm going to have a new master, and I don't know what's happened to Jemmy, because Jemmy would never sell the key." Cerise was crying again when he finished, and Menari almost felt sorry for asking.

Almost, because now he had something he could help Cerise with, and Cerise could help him escape. Menari played human tissue for a few more minutes, until Cerise had calmed down, pulling away, to mumble another apology at him.

"Nah, it's alright. But I do have an idea, if you're willing to hear it?" Menari tilted Cerise's head up with one finger, bringing the still-watery green eyes to focus on him.

Cerise nodded, looking a bit curious. "How about I take you with me when I leave?" Menari asked. "We can go find out what's wrong with your Jemmy, and you won't have to worry about your new 'master.'"

Cerise's eyes widened. "Really?"

"Really." Menari replied solemnly. "But you'll have to help me get out, because I don't know anything about the Palace innards."

"Oh." Cerise looked horribly disappointed.

"What?" Menari asked, as Cerise's gaze returned to the bedspread.

"I haven't left my room in almost all of the time I've been here. Keys don't leave." Cerise said, sadly. "I can't help."

"Oh. Well, I'll still need your help." Menari decided. Cerise blinked at him blankly.

"How?" Cerise asked, wide-eyed.

"Well, I obviously can't leave tonight. They're still looking for me. So you can house and feed me. Do you have any shoes? And perhaps a shirt that isn't quite as flimsy as the ones I found in that room?" Menari gestured to the room he came from.

"You'll still take me?" Cerise asked, meekly.

"Of course." Menari said decisively. "We still have a few days before your next master comes, come on, don't cry." Menari ruffled Cerise's hair, earning a small, indignant yelp. "We'll have to leave at night. We can go tomorrow night, I'm sure you're anxious about your Jemmy." Menari decided. "We can go out the balcony, if we can get some of these curtains down. Does anyone come into these rooms at all?"

"No, only the pages, to bring me food." Cerise replied. "The curtains only come down if you yank on them a certain way, and then the pages get mad at me because they have to put them back up."

Menari grinned. "Don't worry about it, we'll take 'em down tomorrow after the last page has come in."

"Okay." Cerise replied, looking rather overwhelmed.

"We won't be able to go find Jemmy that night though. We'll stop at one of my hiding places overnight. Do you know where to find him?" Menari asked, and Cerise nodded, fishing the bookmark out of the book he was reading. It was a letter, obviously old and well-worn. Menari skipped over the text, pausing at the small indented paragraph halfway down the page.

Chancellor Jemior K'lathor

Derchain Street, Raht'en Sector

"Well. That explains that, at least." Menari said, handing back the letter.

"Explains what?" Cerise asked, tucking the letter back into his book.

"How someone could hold onto a Key for ten years, you said?" Menari replied, a bit absently.

"Yes." Cerise blinked. "What?"
"Your Jemmy is second in command of the city. Though I haven't heard about anything bad happening to him. Perhaps it was recent though." Menari said thoughtfully. "Oh well, we'll find out soon enough."

Cerise was looking decidedly morose again, and Menari watched him thoughtfully before shifting to a position he could pounce from. Cerise let out a squeak of surprise, his back hitting the pillows behind him before they scattered across the floor and the bed. Menari grinned wickedly, flexing his fingers. He ran them lightly up Cerise's sides, laughing delightedly when the redhead squirmed, his face contorting amusingly as he tried in vain to keep from laughing.

After a few minutes of this treatment, Menari paused in his spot, sitting with great aplomb on Cerise's legs. Cerise gulped in air, leveling a hurt glare at him after he caught his breath, pushing at Menari with a small pout. Both of them were surprised when Menari actually toppled, losing his balance and toppling over to the side.

Menari shook his head, but that just made it spin, the forgotten knot at the back throbbing its irritation. Menari frowned, but let his eyes slip closed, resting on the comfortable pillows. He felt Cerise move closer, and then something was poking his nose.

"Menari?" Cerise whispered, and the thief slatted one eye open to see Cerise's wide eyes inches from his face. "Are you okay?" Menari groaned, stretching.

"Menari's not home." He grumbled, hearing Cerise giggle.

"Oh, you got my hair tangled." Cerise scolded, and Menari laughed, sitting up again, though his head whirled.

"Poor dear." Menari smirked – Cerise's hair was indubitably tangled, rather horribly too. "Oh, wow, I suppose I did. Do you have a brush?"

Cerise nodded and stood from the bed, crossing the room quickly. He was wearing silk, billowy loose pants and a matching billowy loose robe. The tangled hair reached his waist, and Menari winced. It must take forever to take care of.

The brush Cerise brought back was an ornate, silver-plated thing. It had rubies embedded into the cherry carving on the back, and was quite pretty. Menari resolved to bring it with them as he plucked the thing out of Cerise's hands. Cerise didn't protest, sitting dutifully with his back to Menari. Menari began the slow process of brushing out the long locks, Cerise relaxing into the brushstrokes in front of him.

xXxXxXx

The night was moon-dark, and thick, roiling clouds blocked out any starlight that might've lit their path even the smallest amount. The only light came from torches that glowed, set apart at steady intervals around the building. Luckily, Cerise's room was between two torches, and the balcony shadowed the roped curtains as they slithered down the wall.

The curtain rope reached almost to the ground, and the curtains were from more discrete parts of the room, where there was more than one layer. They'd also lumped together some pillows in the middle of the bed, in a passable facsimile of a sleeping person, buried in blankets. With luck, Cerise wouldn't be noticed missing until noon, when the page came with the lunch tray and noticed the untouched breakfast tray. Cerise had told him that the pages were trained to not talk much to the Keys, only what was necessary, and that the first page would just leave the tray there, maybe even the second one.

Menari had already warned Cerise to be as quiet as possible, not knowing what kind of security the Palace had. It was an extremely expensive establishment, and he knew what people were capable of when it came to expensive things.

"I'm going to go first." Menari whispering, in case there was someone nearby who would be attracted by the sound of voices. "That way, if the rope isn't secure enough, you don't fall, and if you do fall coming down, I can catch you." Hopefully. Cerise nodded, looking a bit pale, but determined nonetheless. Menari flashed a quick, reassuring smile, and swung nimbly over the side of the railing, swarming down the rope like he'd been born on it.

He reached the bottom, and quickly took in the surrounding areas. He'd spent a bit of time on the balcony, late in the afternoon, and so had a vague idea of where they were going. The gardens surrounding the building were beautiful, but lacked any real cover, a good and bad thing. Good, because they would be able to see any guards coming from a good ways away, bad because any guards could see them coming from a good ways away.

There was no one around though, and Menari breathed a bit easier, tugging the curtain rope a bit to let Cerise know he could clamber down. It took the redhead a good deal longer than Menari to make his way down, not used to climbing anything, really. They both wore soft sandals, the only shoes Cerise had in his room, and they didn't help much. But finally he was down, and Menari quickly moved, tugging down the rope from its complicated knot. He bundled the fabric up and hid it in a rather thick flowerbed, where it hopefully wouldn't be noticed for some time.

Cerise was waiting mutely, barely distinguishable in the indistinct torchlight. Menari grinned into the darkness – this would be fun. He practically skipped over to where Cerise stood, taking the boy's hand, so as to not lose him in the darkness, and to easier lead him. Cerise gripped his hand back rather tensely, letting the thief know that he was much less optimistic about their escape.

Cerise had been tense all day, but had obviously tried to keep from letting it show. But Cerise was not a consummate actor, and it had been rather obvious, as the day had worn on. Menari had tried to keep him distracted, telling florid tales of the city, and keeping him focused on seeing Jemmy again, not their imminent escape attempt.

Menari had learned a good deal about his charge – and he snorted lightly to think of Cerise that way. Cerise was only sixteen, to his nineteen, and had been at the Palace for most of his life. He couldn't remember his parents, or where he lived before his time at the Palace, and had only ever been out of his rooms the one time he was sick enough he might've died. Jemmy had kept him well-supplied in books, and Cerise was surprisingly well-read, something Menari had been amused to coax out of him. They'd spent almost two hours going over Cerise's books, only three of which had made the cut to come with them.

The books, Cerise's pretty hairbrush, a few other expensive looking trinkets, Jemmy's letter, and a few of the more practical outfits had come with them, and were currently residing in a makeshift pack on Menari's back.

The gardens were quiet, the gates not too far distant now, as Menari led Cerise carefully through the flowerbeds. There hadn't been any sign of guards, but they were out there somewhere, especially if the Palace was being used to house criminals, like himself, something he still didn't understand.

The soft scent of flowers followed them everywhere, and Menari almost laughed. They'd smell like a perfumery when they were on the streets. Cerise's hand tightened its grip on his, and he froze, berating himself as he belatedly caught sight of the figure striding towards them confidently.

They'd obviously been seen, the person veering off their course to head in their direction. The man was obviously a guard, a shuttered lantern swinging by one leg, and a sword scabbard loose by the other.

The guard gave a curt nod in greeting, staring for a few moments before continuing past without stopping. Menari almost stumbled in disbelief, only Cerise's tight grip on his hand keeping him steady as they continued to walk towards the walls.

"What just happened?" Menari hissed, though he wasn't sure if Cerise would have the answer to that.

"I think he thought you bought me." Cerise mumbled, and Menari paused, then laughed.

"Well, there's a fantastic excuse for us to be out and about." Menari rationalized. Cerise didn't answer, just tightened his grip a bit on Menari's hand. "Come, my beautiful lover, let us go frolic in the flowers this dark evening."

Cerise's grip relaxed a second, a startled giggle escaping him, and Menari grinned into the darkness, continuing on with a bit of a lighter step. They passed a particularly fragrant bed of flowers, and Menari smirked, pulling Cerise into an impromptu little dance that left the redhead giggling as he was pulled around the garden. Menari caught sight of another guard, but this time the man didn't even veer close to see what they were doing, Cerise still giggling as Menari wrapped an arm around his slim shoulders.

"Act all natural, mmkay?" Menari whispered, keeping a light tone. Cerise nodded, shifting a bit in the comfortable half embrace so that his face was inches from Menari's.

"All natural, as in my natural, or Key natural?" Cerise questioned softly.

"How about a little of both?" Menari suggested. "Just, don't do anything too overt."

"'Kay." Cerise murmured, stepping closer. It was dark enough that Menari couldn't see the expression on the redhead's face, but he fancied Cerise was blushing, from what he knew of the boy. Soft sleeves brushed the back of his neck as Cerise wrapped his arms behind Menari's head, closing the last of the distance between them and resting his head on Menari's collarbone.

"Good." Menari soothed, stroking the long braid Cerise had wrapped his hair in before they'd left. "Just a few minutes now, and then we can leave."

Cerise nodded against his chest, and Menari smiled, wrapping his free arm around Cerise's slender waist.

"How come we didn't think of this before?" Menari whispered, half to himself. Cerise just shrugged, letting his arms fall free, embracing Menari's chest instead. "Come on, let's walk some more."

Cerise detangled himself, but didn't resist as Menari pulled him close, wrapping an arm loosely around Cerise's waist. They saw another guard as they went about their stroll, but the man didn't stop them either, just walking past as Cerise giggled, Menari whispering amusingly debauching comments about the man's mother.

The walls would be the tricky part. They were wrought iron, a good three or four feet higher than Menari, and with vicious spikes across the tops. The bars were spaced about a handspan apart, and there were but two horizontal bars – one a foot from the top and one a foot from the bottom. It wouldn't have been much of a problem with only Menari, but Cerise had no climbing experience, and the sandals weren't exactly cut out for climbing.

"If you lift me up, I could grab the top bar." Cerise suggested, green eyes illuminated by the torches lit up on the walls.

"Can you lift yourself over without getting caught on the spikes though?" Menari asked, frowning.

"I… don't know." Cerise said, with a bit of hesitation. "But do we have another choice?"

"We could try the front gate. Distract the guards and slip out that way?" Menari suggested.

"Distract them how?" Cerise asked, staring at the fence. "Isn't this safer? I shouldn't have too much trouble with it."

Menari scowled. "You make too much sense." He complained. Cerise smiled, stepping up to the fence, balancing on the bottom bar.

"I could use the momentum you give me to swing over." Cerise murmured. "I'd fall, but it's the only way I'd get over."

"You'll scrape yourself up." Menari warned, stepping up to the fence himself. A quick look around proved that the guards were nowhere in sight, but he didn't know how long that would take to change.

"I know." Cerise replied, quietly. "Just, do it, okay?"

"Okay." Menari smiled a bit, bemused. "Here." He cupped his hands, and Cerise stepped into them, getting a grip on the upper bar, having to stretch to reach. "On three. One, two, three."

With a soft grunt, Menari gave Cerise a boost. The redhead pulled himself up at the same time, the momentum carrying him up, where he got a knee in between the bars. He wavered for a moment before catching his balance and getting the other knee up, a spike in a precarious position between them. Cerise hesitated a moment, before half-standing and pushing off, almost daintily. Menari winced, Cerise landing on his knees on the pavement beyond.

"Cerise?" He asked, when the boy didn't move for a minute.

Cerise took a deep breath, turning from where he was crumpled on the ground. "I'm okay." He murmured faintly. Menari didn't believe him, but he couldn't concentrate on that, he needed to get over the fence himself.

Menari had spent the better half of his life doing tumbles with his family, and so it wasn't too hard for him to get a grip on the upper rail and slowly flip himself over the spikes. He landed neatly next to Cerise, who was staring wide-eyed at his bloody palms, still sitting on the ground.

"Ow." Menari murmured, taking Cerise by the elbow and helping him to his feet. The knees of his loose pants were torn too, and the skin there was scraped too, much worse than the skin on Cerise's hands. "Come on, we'll take a shortcut and be at my place in a few minutes. We can get you fixed up there."

Cerise nodded, looking slightly miserable as Menari wrapped an arm around his shoulders, leading him across the street. Menari stayed alert, waiting for an outcry behind them, and was relieved as they turned a corner, the tall walls of another building hiding the Palace from sight. Cerise was looking around wide-eyed, for all that there was very little to see, the night obscuring most details and the torchlight revealing few.

It didn't take them too long to reach the place, it was in the fairly upscale part of town. Which was often useful when he pulled heists in the neighborhood. And would be useful in the morning when they went in search of Jemmy.

The place was little more than the attic of a small, upscale house. The owners rented it out to him on the conditions that he didn't make noise, and was never seen inside their house. The elderly couple was having troubles making ends meet, and so, shamefully, had had to lease out their attic. Menari was fond of sneaking into the main part of the house and leaving little stashes of money in odd places.

He brought Cerise up the back stairs, nodding a greeting to the curious cook as she banked the fire, grabbing a lit candle from the table. She gave a nod back, her eyes trained on the wide-eyed Cerise throughout the entire exchange.

"Don't worry about her, she's a nosy old girl." Menari whispered, as Cerise made his way up the stairs. The redhead was going slowly, hesitating to step up on his right leg, Menari noticed. Cerise made some vague noise of agreement, stepping up another few stairs, until finally, Menari gave up, and tapped on his shoulder.

"What?" Cerise blinked, half-turning on the dark stairs. Menari smirked, and handed the candle to the boy.

"Careful now." Menari said, before scooping the redhead off the stairs. Cerise squeaked, a sound that reminded Menari of when he'd first startled the redhead when he was reading, the other day. The candle stayed lit, and in it's holder, surprisingly, and Cerise glared reproachfully at him as he carried him up the stairs.

"What?" Menari asked, grinning.

"Warn me, next time!" Cerise scolded, pouting. Menari's grin grew a bit.

"And where's the fun in that?" Menari asked, marveling at how light Cerise seemed to be. It only took him a few minutes to climb the rest of the stairs, setting Cerise gently down on the landing to the attic. He didn't have the key to the lock, but since when had he needed a key? Fishing a few of the lock-picks out of his hair, he set to on the lock and had it open rather quickly. The lock was mostly ornamental, meant to keep out the nosy cook. He didn't keep anything valuable here, unless he was here with it.

"Come on, let's get you fixed up." The attic didn't have running water, but Menari was sure he had a few pitchers of water around from the last time he was here, more than enough to get Cerise's knees and hands bandaged. He lit the candles and lanterns around the large, unbroken space that was the attic, sitting Cerise on a comfortable, if ugly, chair.

Cerise looked around with wide eyes as he finished lighting the last lantern, his hands resting palm-side up on his lap. Menari rummaged through a chest, quickly removing a few strips of long, white cloth and a wash towel. He grabbed the water and one of the brighter lanterns and returned to where Cerise was sitting.

"Let me see your hands." Menari ordered, kneeling in front of the chair. Cerise complied, uncurling his fingers and holding them out for his inspection. "This may sting." He warned, taking up the right hand, wetting the towel and rubbing the dried blood off carefully. Cerise winced, but didn't complain, and Menari quickly bound the hand with one of the cloth strips.

The left hand was a bit worse, but easily taken care of, and then Menari focused on Cerise's knees. As he'd thought earlier, the knees were much worse off than Cerise's hands had been. Menari grabbed a switchblade from a nearby drawer, and cut off Cerise's ruined pants a few inches above the knees, frowning at the trails of blood that had snaked down the front of Cerise's lower legs.

"Ouch." Menari murmured, taking up the towel that had been turned a pale red in some spots. When he was finished with Cerise's knees, he was quite sure that the redhead had forced grooves into the chair's handles, but he hadn't said a word of complaint.

"Finished." Menari announced, standing up. Cerise nodded, a bit paler than he normally was. "Come on, we'll get some sleep, and go see Jemmy tomorrow." Menari decided, pulling Cerise to his feet. Cerise just nodded his agreement, yawning cutely, his nose scrunching up.

"We'll do a tour too, okay? Since you haven't seen the city. After we visit Jemmy." Menari grinned, guiding Cerise across the room towards the comfortable, low pallet in the corner. Cerise turned.

"Really?" A small smile lit his face, and Menari grinned.

"Yeah, really. Get some sleep." Menari gave Cerise a push towards the pallet, and the redhead obligingly sat down, slipping off his sandals. Menari tucked the blankets around Cerise, and then wandered off, heading to the desk across the room. He blew out most of the candles and lanterns, leaving only a scant few lit.

Sitting at the desk, he wrote out a short note, painstakingly crafting the letters in the ornate style of the nobles. He had an unadorned messenger outfit somewhere, and Cerise could wear one of the outfits they'd taken from the Palace as they escaped. He'd have to warn Cerise not to mention his profession though.

Menari yawned, but shook off the sleepiness that was trying to lure him off to bed. He still had a trinket to recover. Smirking, he shucked off the sandals and loose clothes he'd borrowed from Cerise, and dressed in the tight-fitting black outfits that were perfect for nightwalking. He gathered together some rudimentary tools, just in case, scowling when he thought of the set he'd lost to the Investigator.

Slipping on thick, soft-soled boots, he grabbed a small, dark bag, and headed to the window, checking to make sure Cerise was still sleeping. The redhead was, curled and facing the room, his face almost childlike, relaxed in sleep. Menari smiled, and slipped out onto the roof.

He hadn't left the trinket too far away, but he needed to find the news, too. He was probably going to have to leave the city, after this last escapade. Roawn was getting too close for comfort, the last few heists he'd gone on. Menari frowned, crossing the rooftops mechanically.

He'd have to go see Bastien – actually, he should go before he picked up the jewels, so Bastien wouldn't get a hold of them. Menari changed directions mid-roof, heading towards the most decrepit part of the city. He didn't clamber off the rooftops until after he was far enough in that no one would question his attire, or any guards were around. There was no telling if Roawn had gotten a composite sketch out of him yet. Another reason he'd need to high-tail it soon.

Bastien's lair was a dark, seedy bar, Bastien himself doing business in the back room while his sister or wife, an ugly girl, tended bar and strong-armed any rambunctious customers. Menari skirted the tables with ease, though he couldn't avoid the floor as easily, his boots sticking slightly as he made his way up to the bar.

"'ey, Packrat." The woman greeted. Menari had never been sure of just how old she was, her hair dirty with soot and all manner of other things, her thick body having that ageless quality about it. "Bastien was expectin' ya'd show. ' e's almost done with the riffraff, if ya'd care ta wait." The woman drawled out, setting down three mugs of ale to the three bronze coins on the counter.

"Alright." Menari acquiesced, taking up a position at the darker end of the bar, near the door that led to Bastien's office. It wasn't too long of a wait, Menari glaring icily at whoever walked close enough.

A thick man came barreling out of Bastien's office, glowering at all and sundry before sitting himself down heavily at the bar, slamming a large gold coin on the less-than-clean wood in front of him, where it was exchanged for three pitchers of ale and a large tankard.

Menari didn't give it a second look, slipping into Bastien's office before the door shut, smirking a bit as he took in the room.

Bastien's office was the only clean and tidy room in the place. It was also more than opulent, and rather heavily guarded, two large, burly men stationed at all times by the door, inside the room. Bastien was a short man, a few inches shorter than Menari, but much wider – all muscle, though – with a balding head and a thick beard.

"Packrat." Bastien greeted solemnly, calling Menari by the name he'd gifted the thief with, half an hour after meeting him. The name was based on Menari's tendency to hoard the more atheistically pleasing jewels to himself, instead of selling them.

"Bastien." Menari returned, perching nimbly on the backrest of one of the chairs. "What news?"

Bastien appeared to be chewing something over, his jaw working a bit, until he finally smiled. "What news indeed, Packrat." Bastien stood with a bit of a smirk. Menari didn't move.

"It seems that, two days back, someone stole the King's precious cherry blossom trinket. A feat for the morbidly stupid or the aemoh-touched, only. And the thief actually got away!" Bastien exclaimed, and Menari smirked. "But not without being seen, apparently. There's to be a sketch out in the next day or so." Bastien turned deadly serious. "With great reward too."

Menari nodded. It was no less than what he'd expected. Bastien sighed. "I don't suppose you'd be interested in selling it to me?"

"No, sorry." Menari laughed, not sounding in the least apologetic.

"You know, I can hide you." Bastien started, meandering around the desk. "I wouldn't ask for much in return." Bastien leveled a suggestive look at Menari.

"That's quite alright." Menari laughed again. "I've got my own plans. Thanks, Bastien." Menari tossed the fence a small pouch. "For the wonderful time we've spent together." Menari winked. "I probably won't be seeing you, but who knows."

Bastien sighed. "Well, it was good doing business with you."

Menari smirked. "The same." Menari stood, slipping out the door, with a salute to the bodyguards.

Menari scowled, on the rooftop a moment later. A composite sketch meant the guards at the gates would be looking for him. At least the sketch hadn't gone out yet, though. He could drop Cerise off at Jemmy's tomorrow, and start gathering his things together, carefully. He'd have to leave the places where his face had been seen first – the apartment Cerise was in, and a few other places.

He didn't necessarily have to leave tomorrow, though it would be safest. A hair dye, some concealing outfits, it wouldn't take much for a disguise. Menari growled, upset. He didn't like the thought of leaving this city, there were still a few things he hadn't finished up. But he could always come back later, once the trail on him had gone cold. Frowning, Menari started off once more, heading towards the hidey-hole halfway across town that held a masterful work of art and one foofy grey feather.

xXxXxXx

Menari woke up the next morning in a bad mood, but he attempted to hide it, not wanting to upset Cerise. He burned his thumb on the frying pan, stubbed his toe and accidentally knocked over a vase that was moderately expensive. One that he would've had to leave anyway, but it still rankled.

"Menari?" Cerise asked, wide-eyed.

"Yes? Fuck!" Menari cursed as he sliced his finger on a particularly sharp shard of glass.

"Are you okay?" Cerise knelt down next to him, gingerly picking up pieces of the vase and setting them into the little bin Menari had brought over.

"Peachy." Menari grumbled, almost pouting. Cerise giggled at him.

"Are you sure?" Cerise asked, sweetly, pulling out a kerchief and wrapping it around the cut.

"Yeah, sure enough." Menari decided, flashing a tired smile at the redhead.

"Perhaps you shouldn't have been out so late?" Cerise suggested, giggling when Menari scowled.

"You were asleep." The thief accused, and Cerise laughed again.

"I woke up." Cerise confessed.

"Oh." Menari frowned as the sudden thought that he'd miss Cerise passed through his head. "Sorry."

"It's okay." Cerise smiled. "Did you get the feather?"

Menari blinked, then laughed aloud. Cerise beamed, his face lighting up. "Yep. Want to see?"

"It's here?" Cerise went wide-eyed.

"Yeah, I like it. I stashed the other elsewhere." Menari stood, ruffling Cerise's hair, which was starting to come out of the braid, and was a real mess. Cerise yelped, scowled briefly before following Menari across the room. Menari drew out the feather slowly, the grey plumage shimmering a bit in the morning sunlight.

Cerise stared in awe, a faint smile hovering about his lips. "It's pretty." He murmured, and Menari grinned. Cerise blinked, then blushed.

"We'll get you a hat." Menari decided. "And you can wear it, and claim you met the greatest thief ever."

Cerise giggled, but accepted the feather when Menari handed it to him, twirling it in his fingers.

"Let's get dressed, and then we can go." Menari shooed Cerise off towards his pack. "Choose the flimsiest you've got, Cerise." Cerise nodded, heading across the room while Menari pulled his own outfit out of the bag in front of him. He stripped quickly, pulling on the outfit and carefully adjusting it so that it looked to fit well. He pulled on the uncomfortable, shiny shoes that went with it, and fixed his hair so that it fit under the cap neatly, making sure the lock picks he had secured there weren't loose. By the time he finished kitting himself up with the rest of his daytime tools, Cerise was changed.

The redhead wore a pair of loose, translucent pants in a dark red tint that clearly showed the outline of his legs beneath, the only concealment a matching loincloth, underneath the pants. The shirt was made of much the same material, with little crystals winking in the light throughout it. Cerise had unbound his hair, presumably to manage the tangles, but he hadn't rebraided it, and that was a good thing in Menari's opinion. And so Menari stared, heedless of Cerise's blush.

"That'll work." Menari managed, finally. "Here." He grabbed a cloak, and draped it over Cerise's shoulders. "Keep the hood up, you're a covert present, okay?"

Cerise nodded, still blushing as he pulled the hood up. "It also means you can look around as much as you like as we walk there, without attracting any undue attention." Menari smirked. "Hold on, let me fix your hair."

Moments later they were on the sidewalk, having snuck out when the cook, the only servant in the house, had turned away from her cooking for a moment. Cerise was taking him up on his offer, watching the busy streets with wide eyes. Menari watched the streets as well, keeping an eye out for guards who might recognize him, and possible pick-pockets, any detriment to their little adventure. Cerise's arm was firmly in the grip of one hand, the other holding a neatly rolled scroll with a dark blue ribbon.

They weren't stopped, however, a relief, but they were approaching the Chancellor's gates now, and this was where the plan had the most potential to go wrong. For if Jemmy really was sick, or injured, then they wouldn't be able to get in to see him.

"Urgent message, sir." Menari chirped at one of the gate-guards, waving the scroll a bit, his grip on Cerise's arm never faltering. "From the Lady Gemina." Menari waggled his eyebrows. The guard scowled, his eyes drifting to Cerise's cloaked form.

"And that?" The guard demanded, gesturing to Cerise.

"A gift, sir." Menari smirked. "One the Lady Gemina felt would be greatly appreciated." The guard scowled, stepping forward. In one swift movement, he yanked the hood from Cerise's head. Cerise blinked owlishly at the bright daylight, looking up at the guard curiously.

The guard only scowled deeper. "Weapons checked here." He stepped back to his post and Menari handed over the ornate dagger from his belt.

"I'll be expecting that back, it was a gift from the Lord Carmal." Menari sniffed indignantly, and the guard rolled his eyes openly.

"Get in," The guard commanded, opening the gate. "Sergeant, escort them to the chatelaine."

"Sir." One of four guards on the inside replied, and Menari's eyebrows rose. Security was certainly up. They were escorted straight to the busy young man, who was ordering around two dozen kitchen workers, while avoiding getting anything on his expensive looking outfit.

"Your business?" The man asked, scowling as a young boy tripped, barely righting the bowl he carried.

"I have a message and a gift for the Lord Jemior." Menari said, sniffing disdainfully. "I must give it to him, and him only."

"He's busy." The chatelaine scowled. "You'll give me the message or it won't be heard."

"My mistress would slaughter me if she heard that." Menari scowled back. "I will see the Lord."

"And I said you will not." The man paused, shouting at the same hapless young man when he tripped again.

"Please?" Menari froze, cursing himself, whirling to see Cerise looking entreatingly at the young chatelaine with the 'I'm about to cry' pout. "It won't take but a moment, I'm sure."

The young man scowled for far too long for Menari's liking, but finally sighed. "Fine. But only a moment, and then you're out of here." With that abrupt agreement, the chatelaine snapped off four more orders, and led them out of the kitchen, taking three flights of stairs and two hallways to stop in front of a thick, oak door. The chatelaine knocked lightly, opening the door with a hushed admonition to stay there.

The door shut behind him, and Cerise bit his lip, his hood back in place. "I'm sorry, I know you said to stay under the cloak-"

"Nah, it's good, I wasn't getting anywhere. Diplomacy isn't my strong point." Menari reassured the redhead. The door opened then, and a displeased looking chatelaine appeared.

"Go in. You have two minutes." The man scowled, opening the door widely to let them in.

Menari stepped in first, and immediately noted the sickly smell of someone ill, and the fact that they were in a bedroom and not an office of some sort. The man on the bed was ageing, past his prime, with grey thinning hair and quite prominent wrinkles. But the scowl and the sharp eyes that followed Menari into the room were anything but old and wizened. The man didn't look extremely ill, but he did look really old.

"Jemmy!" Cerise exclaimed, and Menari smirked, watching the eyes go from irritated and tense to surprised and shocked as an excited redhead practically threw himself at the bedridden man, to the shock of the chatelaine.

"I'm guessing we get more than two minutes." Menari grinned at the chatelaine, who scowled and stormed off, the door shutting loudly behind him. Cerise was chattering excitedly, sitting on the bed next to the ailing man, and Menari took the opportunity to sit in a nearby chair, propping his feet up on a small table.

"But how did you get out? And here?" The chancellor was asking, and Menari froze – he had forgotten to tell Cerise not to mention anything about that.

"He helped me." Menari found himself at the end of a very surprised and slightly confused gaze.

"Why?" Jemior asked, still looking at Menari.

"Because-"

"Because I wanted to." Menari cut off Cerise, who deflated a bit, but was looking rather happy all the same.

"They were going to give me a new master on Friday!" Cerise exclaimed, wide-eyed. "I was so afraid I'd never see you again."

"OhCerise, I know." Jemior hugged him. "I am sorry, I tried everything in my power to keep that key in my possession."

"But you're okay, right?" Cerise asked, looking worried.

"Just a bit of a cold." Jemior replied, stroking the hair out of Cerise's face. Menari frowned. If it was just a bit of a cold, why was Jemior still abed?

Cerise was animatedly describing the trip here, and what he'd seen, Jemior patiently listening. "-and then Menari talked the guards into letting us in –"

"So your name is Menari?" Jemior cut in, quirking one corner of his mouth up as Cerise pouted a bit.

"Yes." Menari replied cautiously. "Why?"

Jemior reached out an arm slowly, snagging a piece of paper from the side table, which he handed to Cerise. Cerise blinked at it for a moment. "His nose is too big."

"What?" Menari questioned, swinging his feet to the floor and crossing over to the bedside. On the piece of paper was a fair likeness of him, though Cerise was right, the nose was too big, and the hair a bit shorter than it was in reality. "Fuck."

"Cerise, in that room over there, there's a bookshelf, go find me 'The Quintessential Guide to Altacia.'" Cerise frowned, but stood up anyway, disappearing into the next room.

"Well, this was not what I needed. In any case, you've got Cerise, I'll be leaving." Menari said, nonchalantly.

"Oh, no." Jemior lost all of his good cheer. "I don't think so."

"Yes, I rather thought not." Menari agreed. "You'll have a hell of a time trying to catch me though, and Cerise won't be too happy with you."

Jemior laughed a bit, though it was a harsh sound and degenerated quickly into hacking coughs. "I'm not going to try and catch you. I need a favor."

"What?" Menari scowled. "Why?"
"I'm dying." Jemior said, solemnly.

"Well, fuck." Menari sat down heavily.

"The man I gave the key to was supposed to visit sooner, and let Cerise know. But he wasn't able to, and now Cerise is free, which is all for the best, I suppose, except he'll have no one to look after him. And he'll need someone to." Jemior stated.

"You can't be thinking what I think you're thinking." Menari scowled.

Jemior's face crinkled into a smile. "He likes you, he trusts you, and you haven't hurt him yet. You didn't even demand a ransom for him."

"Well… fuck." Menari cursed. "I have to leave town, today or tomorrow, you know that." Menari shook the paper with his likeness on it. "I don't know if I can afford to keep him, it will make it easier for me to be caught."

"I know. I know I'm asking a lot, but you're not the only one that he'd trust, and a lot of people would take advantage of him, he's not exactly experienced when it comes to people. You haven't." Jemior's voice grated a bit at the end of his short speech, and Menari cursed again.

"Fine, fine." Menari snapped. "Great. Fabulous. Alright, dammit."

"Thank you." Jemior croaked, and Menari fetched a glass of water from it's spot on a table across the room. The Chancellor drank it gratefully. "Fetch him from the other room, would you?"

Menari snapped off a mock salute and crossed the room, opening the door. Cerise was sitting on the floor, his back to a bookshelf, tears running down his face. The little hiccupping sobs made the scowl melt off Menari's face, even as Cerise smothered his mouth with his fingers, blinking wide, tear-filled eyes at him.

"Oh, Cerise." Menari crossed the room quickly, dropping to the ground next to the distraught redhead. "It'll be okay." He murmured, hugging Cerise to his chest. Cerise sobbed again, throwing his arms around Menari, and burying his face into Menari's jacket front.

Menari didn't know how long they sat there, Cerise crying into his chest, but eventually he pulled the still sobbing redhead into the other room, where he proceeded to cry some more, obviously distraught as he curled up on the bed, next to Jemior, Menari sitting next to him.

xXxXxXx

The room was eerily quiet, the only sound Cerise's quiet breathing as he lay there, curled on the large, soft bed in the room Jemmy had allocated for him. It was only a few doors down from the older man's room, and he was to share it with Menari, but he didn't really care much about either of those things.

The tears had long since disappeared, leaving in their wake grief thick enough to choke him if he dwelled to long on it. Cerise wasn't sure what was worse, imagining that horrible things had happened to Jemmy or knowing for a fact that something was wrong with the man he'd known since he was a child, the only family he knew.

Menari had left him alone in the room, not long after Jemmy had fallen asleep, the chatelaine ushering them out without a word. He'd mentioned something in passing about supplies for their trip – another thing Cerise didn't really want to think about, because leaving meant leaving Jemmy, and he wouldn't see him ever again.

Menari, though, was a safe topic to think on, he mused idly as he picked at the pale sheets he laid on. At least he had Menari, for now at least. He'd never met anyone quite like the energetic thief, though, as he'd met few enough people in his lifetime, that was no mean feat. Still, he rather thought Menari was unique.

Cerise wasn't sure how Menari could be a thief, though. It seemed so at odds with his personality, the way Cerise saw him, anyway. Menari had been selfless and caring, and put Cerise in mind of a more energetic and vivacious version of Jemmy. He wasn't sure how he could ever pay Menari back, for taking him away from the Palace, helping him get to Jemmy, and for being there, just as a shoulder to cry on. And Menari was taking him away, to look after him in Jemmy's stead.

Cerise was terrified.

He hadn't much thought past seeing Jemmy, when Menari had offered to get him out. Cerise had been perfectly content to stay in the Palace, before. And when they were still at the palace, and really, up till he'd overheard Menari and Jemmy's conversation, he'd thought that he'd end up living with Jemmy. But that wasn't to be, because for all that he'd imagined the worst, he'd still harbored the optimistic hope that Jemmy was okay, he was just injured, but nothing that would take the man away forever.

They were leaving tomorrow morning, early, according to Jemmy, who was giving them two good horses and messenger livery for the trip, to get them through the gates. He had also made sure that Menari had money enough to buy Cerise provision for the trip, and then some.

A quiet snick drew Cerise out of his thoughts, the door slipping open quietly to admit Menari, a large parcel and a bulging bag balanced on one arm as he manipulated the door with the other. The thief's unruly black hair was tangled viciously, wind-blown Cerise fancied, his usually bright silver eyes a bit muted as he stepped in, setting the bags down carefully on the large table by the fireplace.

"Hey." Menari greeted, his voice quiet as he rooted through the bag, pulling out a small, paper wrapped parcel. Cerise attempted a smile, but his efforts fell flat, as he sat up, leaning against the wall.

"Here." Menari handed Cerise the paper-wrapped parcel, hoping Jemior had been right in his assessment, and that the little present would cheer the redhead up, even a little. Cerise took the package a bit hesitantly, sad green eyes peering a bit curiously at him. Menari smirked a bit. "Open it, it shouldn't bite."

Cerise turned his attention back to the small parcel, slowly unwinding the ribbon that held the top together. The paper wrapped around it crinkled as he lowered the edges of it, and revealed a handful of candies, chocolates. Cerise smiled a bit, meeting Menari's eyes. "Thank you."

Menari smiled back, flopping down on the bed next to the quiet redhead. "Jemmy suggested them." Menari watched knowingly as Cerise flinched at the name, one slender hand going to cover his mouth.

"It's hard." Menari stated. Cerise nodded miserably, taking one of the candies. Menari snagged one as well, a bit amused when he tasted the cherry beneath the chocolate. "At least you were able to say goodbye." Menari murmured, his voice a bit distant. Cerise didn't notice, though, turning so that he faced the thief.

"Thank you, Menari. You shouldn't have to do this." Cerise said quietly.

Menari sighed. "Do what?"

"This whole thing. Taking me to Jemmy, taking me away from the city, taking care of me, this." Cerise said, vehemently, tears coming to his eyes again.

"I don't have to." Menari agreed calmly. Cerise sagged, wiping at his eyes. "I want to."

"Why?" Cerise asked, mournfully.

"Let me tell you a story." Menari said, by way of answer. The thief sat up, scooting backwards until he hit the wall. "How much do you know about the land of the south?"
"Just what history says. Though Jemmy says the books are biased." Cerise said, frowning a bit thoughtfully.

"Well, the south is generally a peaceful land. Artistry is what the people revel in down there. Weaving, painting, sculpting, clothing, everything is art. Performances were one of the highest such arts, including the acts of aerobatics." Menari explained. Cerise nodded, looking less sad and more curious. Menari stowed that away for future reference.

"There was a family, in the south, known for such things. It was their trade, their livelihood, and they were good at it. They performed all throughout the south, to sold out shows each time. There were five of them – the parents, and their three children, two boys and a girl.

"They were artists in the true sense of the word – they did it because it was beautiful, and because it fulfilled them, not because it netted a good deal of money for them, which it did. Eventually they decided to expand their travel route, since there were a great many areas that had never seen aerobatics. And so they came to the north.

"Their show was a knockout, as usual. Sadly, though, one of the sons, the youngest, at twelve years old, had gotten sick and couldn't perform. He stayed at the inn, while the rest performed. The officials of the city, had caught wind of the performance, and had gone to investigate this new spectacle. They watched, and were impressed, many of them thinking that the stunts couldn't possibly be performed by mere people.

"The officials somehow caught wind of how lucrative the show had been, and decided that such wealth was wasted on traveling performers. They declared the group thieves, and worse, aemoh-touched. They were told to denounce their ways and pay the city a hefty fine. The performers were nothing, however, if not dedicated to their craft, and refused."

Menari paused, taking a deep breath. Cerise was watching with wide eyes, chocolates forgotten in his hand.

"What happened?" Cerise asked, looking extremely vulnerable with his wide eyes and tear tracks still visible on his cheeks.

"They were put to the death." Menari almost whispered. "All except the youngest, sick at the inn. He was warned by one of the wagon drivers and was able to escape."

"What then?" Cerise did whisper, looking upset.

"The youngest vowed revenge. He became a thief to survive." Menari replied simply.

"Menari?" Cerise asked, disbelieving.

"Yeah." Menari confirmed. "I can't just leave you, you see. No one deserves to be left alone like that."

Cerise set the chocolates down carefully on the table next to the bed, and scooted back against the wall next to Menari, leaning against the quiet thief. "Thank you."

Menari smiled a bit, resting an arm around Cerise's shoulders. "You're welcome."

xXxXxXx

Menari sighed, feeling quite melancholy. There had only been three left, too. Well, two now that Jemior was dying. Well, they'd get a bit of a reprieve then, until he could come back and finish the job.

Cerise was sleeping, his head resting on Menari's shoulder, looking much calmer than he had earlier. Menari didn't blame him though, it was a great shock to find out that your entire family was dying. Jemior was right though, Cerise was far too naïve to let loose on his own, and Menari couldn't do that, not now. He cared too much for the little redhead he'd stumbled into a few days ago.

Sighing, Menari rested his head on top of Cerise's. "I'll take care of you." He murmured, quietly, stroking a few loose locks of hair from Cerise's face with his free hand. Tomorrow they'd be leaving, and tomorrow would mean a fresh start, for Cerise, at least. Menari was determined, it would be a good day.

End.