Title: Absolution
Author: Kiwi
Pairing: Cinder x William
Rating: G
Warnings: Spoilers for Book 1 of Little Red's Fairy Tales
Word count: 3,147
Summary: Cinder comes to terms with the guilt he feels over abandoning his step-mother and -sisters.

Notes: It bothered me ever since we wrote it that Cinder ran off with William without even so much as seeing to his step-mother's funeral, and didn't even really worry about his sisters either. Running away was, of course, a spur of the moment, intensely romantic thing to do, but it still bothered me. And I figured it would bother him too, once he started thinking about it. And thus this ficlet was born, exploded off the tail end of one of my 100-word drabbles. A bit of absolution for Cinder, and slightly more closure for both him and William. :3

Cinder rarely slept well after he'd run away with William. It wasn't because he wasn't tired - truthfully, between arranging things for their new life and William's very persistent attention, he was utterly exhausted - but because once the lights were out and William was breathing evenly, pressed close even in sleep, Cinder's mind would always turn to thoughts of his family. How could he have so easily abandoned his sisters? Guilt gnawed at him nightly, troubling his dreams when he did manage to sleep, but more often than not keeping him wide awake despite his complete and utter exhaustion.

William eyed Cinder suspiciously as they got out of bed one morning about two weeks after they had settled in Bella Notte, shoving his face close to Cinder's with a frown of concentration.

"What?" Cinder asked dryly, bemused. "Do I have something on my face?"

"Yes," William responded seriously. He lifted a hand and gently brushed a finger against Cinder's cheek, just under his right eye. "You look like a raccoon. Didn't you sleep?"

Cinder grimaced. He had hoped William wouldn't notice; it was Cinder's problem, after all, and he didn't want to bother his friend with his troubles. But he also couldn't just outright lie to him, either. "Ah, well," he started, "I didn't sleep too well last night, I guess." He hoped that vague answer would satisfy Will, but the blond frowned even harder than before and stepped back, crossing his arms over his bare chest and examining Cinder critically.

"Or the night before," he stated.

"Er...no."

"Or the night before that."

"It's no big deal," Cinder said, trying to wave off William's concern. William ignored him.

"Cinder," he said, scowling his best princely scowl. It didn't have quite the same effect as it might have were his face not peeling with the last of his fading sunburn, or if Cinder hadn't long ago built up an immunity to the expression. It did, however, let him know that William wasn't going to give up until Cinder told him what he wanted to know. Sighing in defeat, but secretly relieved that William had noticed, Cinder sat back down on the narrow bed they'd been sharing and cleared his throat.

"I know you'll think I'm being stupid," he began, "And...well, you probably don't want to hear this at all, and I wouldn't blame you..."

"Spit it out, peasant," William interrupted, rolling his eyes and shifting his weight impatiently. Cinder was briefly distracted by the play of skin over muscle and bone over Will's narrow hips, but swallowed and continued,

"I'm, ah...worried...about my sisters."

"Your sisters," William repeated. Cinder grimaced and nodded, sighing inwardly. William had had little love for his two step-sisters, Marie and Susan, before the whole debacle in Tempus where they'd very nearly seduced him against his will, but after that particular incident had all been straightened out, Cinder figured, rightly, that indifference had turned to active dislike or worse.

"I just left them all alone, without a word, after all...and I realize they weren't...well, at their best when you met them, but, even if they're still horrible harpies, they're also my family, and I just disappeared and left them to deal with Margaret..." His voice cracked and he trailed off.

That was the other thing that had been troubling him. He had not only abandoned his sisters, but left without even seeing to arrangements for his step-mother's funeral. And considering his sisters' habits during the month before he'd left, he wouldn't be surprised if Margaret's death remained undiscovered by them to this very day. The very idea brought tears to his eyes, and he covered his face with his hands and tried not to let them overflow.

William sighed quietly and seated himself next to Cinder on their tiny inn bed, draping an arm around his shoulders and pulling him close. He said nothing for the moment, merely allowed Cinder the time he needed to regain control. As much as he disliked Cinder's sisters, he disliked seeing his friend-turned-lover upset even more. And if thoughts of his family were what was keeping him awake at night, William was determined to find a way to absolve his guilt. So as Cinder pulled himself together, he thought idly about possible solutions to Cinder's problem. And just as Cinder sighed and straightened, an idea struck him.

"Why don't you write a letter to that green-haired woman...Arachne?" he suggested. "You can write, can't you?" he added, teasing, though he knew very well Cinder was quite literate. Cinder snorted in amusement at the implied insult to his intelligence, which was what William had been hoping he would do, and nodded slowly.

"I could do that," he said carefully, considering. "But I don't particularly want anyone to know we're here, either."

That idea made William uncomfortable as well, though for the moment he would remain quiet on the subject in favor of being encouraging. "Well...can she keep a secret?" He highly doubted this. His opinion of the female species being built exclusively on the women in his own immediate family (Mother: Not Quite Right in the Head. Sister: Psychotic Nymphomaniac in Training) and his sister's godmothers (each more critical and judgmental than the last, going from red to green to blue), he had no inclination to either trust or associate with one. But he knew Arachne had been friends with Cinder for years...for longer even than William had known him, so that had to count for something...right?

"She can, if I ask her to," Cinder said immediately, in response to his question.

"Then do it," William urged. Not that I really want you to, but for your own peace of mind...

"I'll...I'll think about it some more," Cinder said. He turned to William then, sliding his arm around Will's slender waist and tugging him closer, kissing him briefly but thoroughly before pulling away and standing up. "Thank you," he added, smiling. William smirked and stood as well, reaching up to pull Cinder's face once more near his to steal another kiss.

Cinder composed and mailed a letter off to his friend a few days later, and William thought he seemed to be sleeping a little better for having done it, which pleased him. Of course, now Cinder was nervous and twitchy on top of being guilty and mopey, so it wasn't exactly a fair trade. But it should end soon enough, as long as Arachne was quick in her reply...though of course, it belatedly occurred to William that while her response to his letter might ease Cinder's guilt, it could also just as easily add to it.

A week passed with no word, and then two, and with each passing day Cinder's nerves frayed a bit more, and sleep was a little harder to come by.

The two men had sold the horses they'd ridden on as well as the three gold rings William had had on his person the night of their elopement, and had collected enough money to purchase a small plot of land on the bay north of town and materials to build a cottage. Will had been somewhat surprised when Cinder demonstrated considerable skill at drafting - he had designed the house they were building for themselves on his own, with no help from anyone, though he'd modified his initial draft and neatly added in several suggestions made by William. Their days were now occupied with the construction of their new home, which was quickly nearing completion. William did the best he could, but, being as unused to such work as Cinder was familiar, he often found himself more hindrance than help - though he had improved greatly since they'd begun, and was now nearly as competent as Cinder at the whole "manual labor" thing.

Sometimes, though, Cinder would ask him to go into town on an errand -- "We need some more three-inch nails," or "We're nearly out of wood-glue," or similar requests designed to get him out from underfoot for a time without damaging his pride. William was striding through the streets of Bella Notte on his way back from one such errand when an unfamiliar voice called his name. Thinking at first that it was a request for someone else similarly named, he continued on his way, but was startled moments later by a hand on his shoulder.

"William?" a calm female voice inquired. He turned to address the woman, and was momentarily stunned by the vision of bright orange hair swinging in elaborate curls which framed a cheerful, pleasant face.

"I thought it was you! You look a lot different than I remember! I'm Arachne, by the way...Cinder's friend? Maybe he's told you about me, but I wouldn't put it past him to have neglected to mention me entirely, the brat," she paused and smiled fondly, emerald-green eyes glinting in the bright summer sunlight. "How are you, your highness?" she asked softly, kindly, lowering her voice so that passersby wouldn't overhear.

"Er..." feeling momentarily speechless from the onslaught of friendly chatter, William blinked and pulled his thoughts together, unconsciously straightening his shoulders as he did so. "I am well. We weren't expecting you to come out..." he had no idea what to say to the bizarre orange-haired woman, friend of Cinder's or no.

"I wasn't expecting to either, to tell you the truth. But try as I might, I couldn't organize my thoughts coherently in a letter, so I figured I might as well come out and tell him in person. And also berate him for running off like he did - he didn't even have the decency to say good-bye! And after all the effort I put into sneaking him into the masquerade..." she sighed dramatically, though William didn't think she was too put out...especially since her expression shifted smoothly from forlorn to mischievous in the next instant. "Not that I really blame him," she added, quirking a fine dark eyebrow and smiling saucily. "I probably would have done the same thing in his place, given the right incentive." Under his sunburn, William blushed. Then he scowled, trying to hide his embarrassment. If Arachne noticed, she didn't let on.

"Where is Cinder, anyway? Is he nearby?" she continued, changing the subject.

"He's up north along the bay," William told her. Then, because decorum had been so thoroughly drilled into him it was as difficult to ignore as the need to breathe, he continued as chivalrously as if he actually meant it, "Would you like me to escort you to him?"

"Oh, would you mind?" Arachne asked. Even through his burgeoning dislike of the woman, he couldn't help but notice how grateful she sounded. "I would truly appreciate it."

"Then allow me, my lady," he said, somewhat stiffly, offering her his elbow. She smiled and placed her fingers on his arm, and he began leading her, steeling himself against more of her inane, apparently inevitable chatter. But, for one reason or another, she fell silent as they walked, and didn't speak again until they had crossed the sandy expanse of beach and reached the near-completed house. William was grateful that she had stepped away from him before shouting, but still winced at the volume nonetheless.

"Cinder Montblanc!" she shouted, striding up to the front entryway in a most unladylike fashion. "Get your bony rear-end out here this instant, you brat! I want to have a word with you!"

"Arachne!?" Despite the threatening tone of her voice, Cinder sounded absolutely delighted. He appeared in the entry moments later, grinning happily.

"Cinder!" Arachne squealed, causing William to wince again. Women. She all but flung herself at Cinder, wrapping her arms around his neck in a very demanding, very violent-looking hug. His arms went round her waist, and he spun her around several times before returning her, breathless and laughing, to her feet.

"What are you doing here?" Cinder asked. William fought a little surge of jealousy - he hadn't seen Cinder look so delighted in weeks, not since he'd first begun moping about his sisters.

"I came in response to your letter, you silly," she responded, patting his face once before pinching his cheek and tugging mercilessly while Cinder begged her to stop.

"I'd invite you to come inside, but there's nowhere to sit..." Cinder said once she finally let go of his face. Arachne laughed.

"Here will do just fine. The weather's so lovely today it'd be a shame to go inside, and besides, the view is fantastic." And she seated herself on the steps of the still-unfinished porch without another word. Cinder shook his head with a smile and sat next to her. After a moment's hesitation, William joined them, sitting on Cinder's other side. He was inexpressibly reassured when Cinder immediately took his hand, twining their fingers together, and then annoyed with himself for needing to be reassured in the first place.

But he didn't let go.

"I got your letter at the beginning of last week," Arachne said, propping her elbows on her knees and her chin in her hands, staring out at the calm, sparklingly blue bay. "Like I was telling Prince William, I tried to compose a response, but nothing I attempted seemed to make much sense, so I thought I might as well come out and see you."

"Is it alright to take time off from the shop?" Cinder asked; he knew Arachne's mother had long ago turned the running of the place over to her daughter, who was - to put it delicately - a lot easier on the eyes than her mother. Arachnia still dealt with patrons after hours, but during the day-time, Arachne was in charge.

"Mother and I both agreed it would be fine. We made so much money after the masque - which was lovely, by the way," she turned briefly to look at William with a smile and a nod, before her green eyes drifted once more to the sandy beach, "we both agreed business wouldn't be hurt at all if we closed up shop for a few days while I came out to see you. Besides, there's nothing preventing Mother from filling orders we've already taken while I'm away, so no worries." She beamed at Cinder.

"Anyway, about your sisters - long story short, Red found them in the wee hours of the morning after the masque. They'd gone back to the way they were...before, and were confused and scared out of their wits."

"They've gone back to normal?" Cinder repeated, not quite daring to believe it.

Arachne nodded, bright orange curls bobbing with the motion. "And didn't remember a thing of the past month, poor dears. And then it came as quite a shock to them both when we discovered Margaret..." she trailed off briefly and glared at him accusingly. Cinder winced, shrinking back slightly. He started to stammer an explanation, but Arachne cut him off.

"I suspect you ran off in the heat of the moment, love. I certainly can't blame you for it, even though I think it was a singularly stupid thing to do."

"Er..." Cinder managed. William squeezed his hand reassuringly and glared at Arachne, who didn't seem to notice.

"But really romantic...that's the stuff of stories, you know, running away to elope with the handsome prince..." she sighed and trailed off once more, her thoughts taking yet another unexpected turn. "Anyway," she went on, before William could work up too much disgust at her singular lack of attention span, "Red helped Mother and I take care of Margaret's funeral. We sent word to the girls' Aunt and Uncle, and they came along and took the poor dears home with them to Russet Town, south of Abel. They keep in touch, and last I heard, Marie's gone sweet on a baker, and Susan just got a proposal from a candle stick maker."

Cinder sighed in relief as Arachne finished speaking.

They chatted for a long while about inconsequential things, attempting to draw William into their conversation. He grudgingly allowed them to do so at first, but he eventually began to enjoy himself. When the sky began to darken as the sun started its descent behind them, Arachne proclaimed she was hungry and announced that she'd treat them to supper. So the Cinder and William set their tools to right inside their as-of-yet unfinished home and escorted their visitor back into town, where they all sat down together at a tavern the two men had come to favor. They spent a very nice evening together, and walked Arachne to the inn she had reserved a room in before they returned to their own temporary accommodations.

Cinder slept better that night than he had since they had arrived. William noticed the difference immediately upon waking up the next morning, and was so glad for it he couldn't even work up much annoyance at the fact that Cinder had arranged for them to meet Arachne for breakfast. She had brought about this change, after all; he could more than tolerate a few more hours in her company.

The blond prince wasn't disappointed when she made her good-byes and took off for home about an hour before noon, however. In his most private of private thoughts, he very quietly admitted to himself that he might, possibly - given enough time - grow to maybe not dislike Arachne, despite her unfortunate female-ness. But in his not quite as private of private thoughts, was equally glad that she was leaving before he had the time to come to terms with the more subtle, quieter workings of his mind.

Mostly, for all intents and purposes, he was just glad to see her go.

Cinder was, understandably, quite a bit less glad to see Arachne leave, but he let her go without a fuss. She had obligations at home, after all, and really, it had been far more than he had dreamed that she would come out to see him in person at all. Naturally, before she left she had extracted a promise from him that he would write occasionally, and informed him of her intention to do the same. Even as he cringed at the thought of reading any letter she might pen (her rambling way of speech became ten times worse when she tried to set her thoughts in ink), he was also glad for her promise, and very much looked forward to hearing from her.

While his feelings of guilt over the abandonment of his family never disappeared completely - he would have felt terrible if they had - the knowledge that things had worked out despite his abrupt departure allayed most of that. His shame was still there, would undoubtedly always be there, but it no longer troubled his sleep and kept him awake at night.

The same could not be said for the handsome man who shared his bed.

But that was alright too.

[End