II.

Impressions
In route to Bratislava, Czechoslovakia - Late Winter, 1921

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"He was there, in the station, looking for me before we boarded," she says.

The fox kit curled up in her lap lifts an ear at the sound of her voice, distracting her from the monochrome landscape chugging by through the train compartment's window.

"I've missed something, Belle."

Stretching, the kit extends her tail and yawns, exposing a row of sharp, albeit young, teeth. The gray sunlight catches the fire beneath the black of Belle's fur. In all the years they spent together, Belle hasn't shed her newborn, black-toned overcoat for the adult red one hiding underneath. She hasn't grown a centimeter, as though time, and not Charlotte, massages the fuzz between her little ears.

"Maybe he's getting better," Belle says as she scratches her jaw with one of her hind legs. Her large, black eyes peer up at Charlotte, aflame with an intelligence absent in most of the human gazes Charlotte has encountered. "Maybe you're losing whatever touch you think you had, Charlotte."

"I must have missed something—some trail I'm not aware I'm leaving. He's never been this close thrice within the decade."

Belle twists onto her back, exposing the white of her stomach to Charlotte's fingers. Yet, Charlotte stills, holding her fingers just out of Belle's reach. The kit paws at them, her black pupils gleaming chatoyant as she plays.

"He's learning your patterns, child."

Charlotte pulls her eyes from her companion to gaze out the window once more. "Then I need new patterns."

"So you pick a train heading southeast to Pressburg?" Belle asks. Charlotte feels the animal curling back into a ball on her lap, probably bored of her teasing. "You want him to find you."

Charlotte's fingers fall back to Belle's coat, habitual.

"He could be on the next train. He probably will be once he asks about the schedules and sees that there was a train leaving for Pressburg."

"Bratislava," Charlotte corrects. "They changed the name officially two years ago."

"That will not confuse him. Henry is smarter than you remember."

Charlotte digs her fingers into the kit's skin. Belle growls and swipes her nails against the flesh of Charlotte's hand before leaping to the opposite, empty seat. The compartment is theirs alone. Charlotte made sure of it. Should someone peer inside, seeking a seat, they would see four grown men, one reading a foreign newspaper with a warring headline, one sleeping beneath the brim of his top hat, one fussing with the golden buckles on his briefcase, and one tapping his fingers against the windowsill, impatient. No conversation. No room for more people.

"Even simple magic leaves traces," Belle says as she licks the skin from beneath her claws. "He's following those traces to learn your habits. Going east is habit when you feel trapped. Going homeward always is."

Belle snout doesn't move when she speaks—her voice floats through the air, only touching the ears of those attuned to its frequency. Charlotte has never met someone other than Henry who can hear her kit speak. She quite likes it this way. It binds her to the kit, and the kit to her.

The train jerks along prewar tracks at the foothills of the Alps.

"We'll have a two days' head start," Charlotte says. "The next train for Bratislava doesn't leave until the 11th. I made sure of that."

Belle wraps herself in the fluff of her tail. "How? By leaving more traces of magic for him to follow?" She curls up again, the tip of her nose hidden beneath her fur. "Admit that you want him to find you, Charlotte."

Charlotte pulls her wool coat tighter around her body before resting her forehead against the frozen windowpane. The chill seeps into her skin, numbing—but it doesn't matter, doesn't reach deep enough to kill the memory of Henry. He will find her again. She can feel it. With every ticking movement, the train leaves a trail of magic on the horizon she knows he can smell.

"There's nothing wrong with being in love with him, child," Belle purrs. "I am a reflection of you."

"Why are you a fox?" Charlotte asks as she lifts her head from the glass to look at Belle. "I have always felt like a rabbit—too curious yet, afraid to be so curious."

"You may feel like a rabbit now," Belle says as she lifts her snout. She shakes her ears before pawing at them with a hind leg again. "But one day, you'll know what it means to be a fox." She settles, straight, tall, her tail coiled around her black-boot paws. "Cunning comes with time, with experience, and with accepting."

"I don't love him," Charlotte mutters, slumping against the window once more. "I can't. Putting down roots means they'll find me again—they're chasing him chasing me because he's like me—he has to be. He's been alive all this time, too. He probably looked through that window, just as I did. He's cursed. He has to be."

"You've never stayed long enough to ask him."

"Why should I? They're chasing him, he's chasing me—that means they are chasing me via him." She drops her gaze to the carpeting. Threads snake golden leaves through a red base. "Regardless of intent, he's leading them right to me."

"You could always go home," Belle suggests. "Really go home. Live in that cottage on the edge of the mountains with him. Hiding, not running, biding some time, building some semblance of the life you have refused to live, even if you're both cursed." She spreads her toes and licks between them, preening. "You might find you like hiding more than running."

Charlotte slumps against the velvet wall. "That memory is so old. Out of focus." She only sees the impression of the cottage, all color and movement backlit graceful with sunshine. Nothing specific to hold on to. Nothing specific to search for. Just a haystack among thousands of other haystacks.

Exhaling, Charlotte watches her breath crawl cold across the window. Belle curls up behind her tail and pins her ears against her head. She has nothing left to say.