He woke, over and over, that first night. Each time, he thought he was still dreaming. Each time, he rolled over and went back to sleep.
He woke for the last time at dawn. He was cold; he had kicked off his quilt during the night. His toes felt icy and strange.
He sleepily sat up and tucked his feet against the back of his knees, just like one of the noble savages he'd seen in textbooks. It was the feeling of cold skin against warm that finally broke the sense of dreaming. Marche woke up.
Later, he would be ashamed to remember his first response. He did not cry for his mother. He did not pull the quilt back over his head. He did not pretend he was still dreaming. In short, he did not do anything expected of a boy torn from everything he knew and abandoned in an alien land.
Instead, he stumbled to the window and pushed it open. He was as eager and clumsy as a puppy.
A hundred rooftops, domed and peaked and sloped, lay before him; a hundred chimneys thrust up against the purpling sky. On the street far below, he could see people moving. Only they weren't people. A bulky scaled creature -- a bangaa, Marche remembered -- trundled behind a wheelbarrow full of cabbage heads. Something in a suit of armor rode a giant bird in the other direction. Two women stopped to fill their canteens at a small fountain. One had a blue handkerchief around her hair, and the other wore the ears of a rabbit.
Marche looked over the city of Cyril. Before yesterday, he had never known this city existed. But, then, Cyril did not acknowledge his hometown either. Marche's home was not to be found on any of the creased maps for sale in Cyril's bazaar. Marche knew; he had looked.
Somewhere to his left, a bell began to chime. At the same moment, as if waiting for that signal, the sun crested the horizon, and Cyril blazed into color. More bells were chiming now, and other bells were dying out, and the sound mingled with the creak of wagon wheels and the babble of voices from the street.
Marche could have stayed there for hours, watching the morning erupt with his head thrust out the window. It was the rising smell of baked bread that called him back to his heart and his stomach. He ducked back into the room, which was now revealed to be golden and snug. The ceiling was sharply slanted; he could only stand up straight on this side of the room. There was a low-lying bed with its discarded quilt -- or was it a rug? -- and there was a small trunk with a pitcher and a basin on top of it. There was the window, and there were Marche's shoes. There was a sword within a scabbard leaning in the corner. There wasn't room for much else.
Marche had slept in his clothes. He had no others, so getting dressed required only that he lace up his sneakers. It didn't quite feel like enough; in fact, it felt a little like cheating. So he put his hand into the porcelain pitcher and slicked down his hair with cold water. He dipped into it again and self-consciously washed the back of his neck and behind his ears. His mother always wanted him to clean behind his ears.
He froze at the thought, and the water slid down to his shirt collar. He suddenly saw this golden morning arched over his own house. By this time, he would have been walking to school and watching his own breath turn to fog. Mr. Peters, who lived at the corner, would be trying to start his car. Men in overcoats and fedoras would steam past Marche, and he would march in their wake, cheerful to be following them to some great shared destiny.
Marche had always liked mornings. Afternoons were worn and stained by all the disappointments that piled up by lunchtime. But mornings were clean and hopeful. Walking to school, Marche would inhale until his lungs ached with cold. He would exhale until his breath hovered around his head like a ghost.
For the first time, standing there with a miserably wet collar, Marche wondered if he was dead. Is this what happened when you died? You went to a place with domed cupolas, bangaas, and a hot sun? And if so, was this place heaven or something worse?
At least, he thought as he hugged himself, the dying itself hadn't been too bad. He didn't even remember it.
More bells were ringing outside his window now, or perhaps they were the same bells returning after a hushed rest. Marche straightened from the basin and, still feeling blank and numb, scratched an itch on his chest. His fingers found a hole in his shirt, right above his heart, and he looked down in confusion.
It took him a moment to recognize what he was wearing. His T-shirt was green and soft, and it had a yellow lion on the front. He remembered the hole -- and, yes, there was another one under his right armpit -- but he had forgotten how the holes had happened. This shirt had been his favorite shirt, his lucky shirt, until he lost it a year ago.
No, he hadn't lost it, he remembered now. It had happened when his brother was staying in the hospital overnight for some tests. Doned had wanted to wear Marche's lucky shirt. Marche would have put up a fuss -- what if Doned drooled on it during the night? What if the doctors got it bloody when they did whatever they did? -- but one look at his mother's expression had silenced Marche. So he silently watched his mother dress Doned in his lucky shirt, and he stayed grimly mute as Doned was wheeled away into the depths of the pediatric ward.
Marche never saw his lucky shirt again. Doned, of course, returned; he seemed unchanged by the hospital. Except that he was wearing a hospital gown. Marche's shirt could not be found. Marche had his mother ask the nurses, but no one seemed to know where Doned's other clothes had gone. Marche choked down his indignation in the face of his mother's weariness. She was busy with Doned.
But now Marche's lucky shirt had impossibly returned to him, and despite standing adrift in an alien land, he began to cheer up. For whatever this place was, it couldn't be that bad. It had sent him here in a lucky shirt -- along with a sword, he remembered.
The sword, sheathed in its scabbard, was still leaning against the corner of the room. Marche regarded it a bit warily. Before yesterday, he'd never seen a sword in his life. But when he had opened his eyes and found himself in Ivalice, the sword had been buckled around his waist.
He had been asleep before that, he remembered now. So maybe this is all just a dream, he thought, but without any certainty or anxiety.
Marche brushed back his hair with his fingers. The bells were ringing for a third time as he opened his door and stepped out. He left the sword behind.
Marche's room was at the top of the inn, although he had been so tired last night that he hadn't really noticed. He had only paid attention to the never-ending steps that kept appearing under his feet. But now, awake and alert, he peered over the banister to see the spiral of stairs beneath him. He was at the top of the inn, and the inn was very tall indeed.
It took him ten minutes to climb down all those stairs, and as he went, he passed other people coming and going. There were maids burdened down with linens, and bangaas buckling sword-belts, and blue-skinned, blunt-nosed creatures wearing tall, floppy hats. These last looked like a cross between a dog and a seal, and they respectfully nodded as they passed Marche. Remembering yesterday's mistakes, Marche tried not to stare.
He reached the base of the stairs, and now the smell of baking bread and fried butter was thick and mouth-watering. He wasn't sure which way to turn, so he took a left, which proved to be the correct decision. He found himself in a large room with high ceilings and many tables, filled with people eating breakfast.
Marche looked up and saw Montblanc waving. Marche waved back.
The little moogle was sitting at a corner table under a window. He was a more welcome sight than food, despite Marche's hollow stomach. Montblanc looked a little like an over-sized teddy bear, and he behaved just as a living teddy bear might have, Marche privately thought. Between his rabbit-like ears, he had tufts of golden hair and a fuzzy sphere, the same color, wavering from a single antenna. He had little, red wings. He was the first friend Marche had found in this strange place.
"Hello, Montblanc," he said.
"Good morning, kupo!" Montblanc said. "Did you sleep well?"
"Yeah," Marche said. "I did."
"Good," Montblanc said. He eagerly gestured for Marche to take the seat opposite him. "This inn is much more crowded now than normal. When we had to rent your room on such short notice, I was afraid they were going to put you in a broom closet or something."
Sitting down, Marche thought about his tiny attic room, its sparse furnishings, and its wreath of ringing bells. "No," he said. "It's great."
The corners of Montblanc's eyes creased as he smiled. "Now, Marche, what would you like for breakfast?"
"Oh," Marche said. He wasn't sure what kinds of food were available in Ivalice, but he had the strong suspicion that cereal and cold milk were not common fare. But what about muffins? Or fried eggs? Bacon? Pancakes? But surely everyone ate pancakes?
Montblanc was eating something that looked like little fish on top of fried tomatoes. Marche couldn't quite tell what the people at other tables were eating, but their breakfasts didn't look pancake-like.
He felt a shadow of his misery from upstairs. He wanted the kind of pancakes his mother made.
"Kupo?" Montblanc said, and Marche looked up to see his friend watching him with friendly concern.
"Um," Marche said. "I don't know. What would you recommend, Montblanc?"
"Hmmm," Montblanc said, pursing his lips. "Well, have you ever had churros?"
Marche looked at Montblanc's fish and tomatoes dubiously. "I don't think so. What are churros?"
Montblanc grinned. "Not this; these are kippers. Churros are sweet, fried bread. You eat them with hot chocolate."
"Oh," Marche said. "Well, that doesn't sound too bad."
Montblanc called a maid over and gave her Marche's order as Marche avidly watched the window next to the table. The street outside was crowded now with all sorts of interesting people.
Churros, it turned out, were a bit like slightly crunchy donuts, if a donut was stretched out long and straight. They tasted hot and sweet, especially after Marche dunked them in his hot chocolate, which was how Montblanc said churros were supposed to be eaten. Pancakes passed completely from his mind.
"So, kupo," Montblanc said after he finished his kippers and patted his mouth with a napkin. "I asked around, last night. And nobody in our clan knows how you could get home."
Marche paused in mid-dunk. He'd momentarily forgotten that he was trying to get home, and that he had told Montblanc.
"But don't be worried!" Montblanc said, misunderstanding the look on Marche's face. "We're only a small clan so far, but I sent out the word, and now everybody knows about it. And they'll ask other clans, and we'll keep looking, and I'm sure we'll turn up something soon."
"If I can get home," Marche said hesitantly. "Montblanc, I've been thinking--"
"Kupo! You have to keep a positive outlook," Montblanc said. "However you got here, I'm sure you can return the same way."
Marche considered telling Montblanc his thoughts -- that Ivalice was a dream, or death, or something else unreal -- but that would mean that Montblanc himself was a dream, and Marche didn't know how you went around telling dreams that they didn't exist. Maybe they would take it the wrong way. And, anyway, Montblanc didn't look like a dream, despite his teddy-bear appearance and golden antenna.
So, instead, Marche smiled and kept eating churros.
"The first thing you should do," Montblanc said solemnly, "is visit Claude's."
"Who's Claude?" Marche asked. "Would he know how to get home?"
"Oh, no," Montblanc laughed. "He runs a shop and sells clothing and armor and such."
"Clothing? What's wrong with these clothes?" Montblanc said, pressing a hand defensively against the hole on his lucky shirt.
"Nothing, kupo! But you might want a change of clothes or a spare pair of boots!"
Marche stared down at his hot chocolate. "Montblanc," he said slowly, "I don't...have any money. I can't even pay for breakfast, or my room, I guess." In the frenzy of the last twenty-four hours, Marche hadn't even considered his lack of money, but now he felt a slow, spreading panic across his chest.
"Oh, don't worry about it! You're part of our clan!"
Marche blinked at Montblanc.
"Remember, kupo? We elected you last night. And the clan pays for all its members."
Marche had not really considered the technicalities of joining Montblanc's clan. Coming at the end of yesterday's blur of events, it had seemed inevitable and unremarkable. Montblanc had brought him along to a jolly tavern, which had been filled with Montblanc's jolly friends. They had fed him fried potatoes and apple cider, Marche remembered. They had all seemed as cheerful to see Marche as Montblanc was, and so he had been happy to join their club. And then they had started telling one another strange and exciting stories about ghosts and magic stones, only Marche had been so tired and so full of cider by that point that he had fallen asleep twice before Montblanc had dragged him down to this inn.
"So," Marche said, "what do I have to do, as part of your clan? What are my responsibilities?"
Montblanc shrugged. "We take missions and run errands for people. They pay the clan, and the clan pays all our bills."
"What kind of missions?" Marche asked as he swirled his last churro in his hot chocolate.
"Well...right now, it's just small things," Montblanc said apologetically. "We find lost cats and deliver love letters. Once, we had to bake a three-layer cake for a party." He coughed delicately. "We're still just starting out, you see. But, soon, we'll take bigger missions, like...saving princesses and fighting sky pirates."
"And you think I can do things like that?" Marche said.
Marche determinedly swallowed the last of his chocolate. "Okay, then. I will."
Montblanc paid their bills as Marche sprinted up the inn's stairs. His room looked as he had left it -- small and rumpled -- but Marche felt like he would miss it tonight, when he and Montblanc stayed at some other place. He paused to stick his head once more out the open window. It was mid-morning by now. Under a perfectly blue sky, Cyril looked clean and complicated, like revolving clockwork gears or an undisturbed ant hill.
He shut the window, grabbed his sword, and thundered down the stairs.
"I'm ready," he said.
"I should warn you," Montblanc said, "that I have a few errands to run first."
They ended up stopping in half the shops in Cyril -- or, at least, that's how it felt to Marche. He tagged along patiently as Montblanc visited blacksmiths, glass-blowers, scribes, seamstresses, and rat-catchers. Most of the time, Montblanc didn't even make a purchase. Sometimes Montblanc would poke around a shop, but most of the time, he was only pausing to chat with the owner about Cyrillic politics or new sky-ship designs.
Marche spent the time peering at the merchandise, fingering the weapons, and prodding exotic objects. At one shop, a mad-eyed parrot nearly bit off the tip of his finger.
"And who is this young man?" asked the nu mou at one shop. "I don't believe I know him."
"This is Marche," Montblanc said. "He's my clan-brother. He's just arrived in Ivalice."
"Really?" the nu mou asked. "New to Ivalice? But where are you from originally, Marche? Not the southern isles, surely? You don't have the tattoos for it."
"No," Marche said and paused, not sure how to go on. But Montblanc smiled encouragingly at him, and Marche said slowly, "I'm from...far away, I guess. From another world, maybe. Or something. Yesterday, I found myself here. I don't know how."
The nu mou blinked at him.
"It's the truth," Montblanc said cheerfully, although Marche had never given him any evidence or proof. Maybe Marche's complete ignorance of bangaas yesterday had proven it.
"This sounds like quite a story," the nu mou said dryly.
"It is, kupo."
"Then this calls for tea," the nu mou said.
Which is how Marche found himself sitting cross-legged in the shop's backroom, his scabbard in his lap, as the nu mou poured steaming tea into tiny black cups. There was a tiny lacquered table that came up to Montblanc's chest as the moogle sat next to Marche. (The nu mou's nephew had suddenly materialized to mind the front of the shop.)
Marche let Montblanc tell most of the story. There wasn't that much to tell. Minutes after finding himself standing in a strange city, Marche had inadvertently insulted a bangaa mercenary. Montblanc had come to his rescue. Afterwards, the little moogle had listened to his story and promised to help him.
But listening to the story under the nu mou's skeptical eye, Marche felt a sudden relief that Montblanc had been the one to find him yesterday. Not everyone in Ivalice would have adopted him so easily.
"And we spent the afternoon visiting the cartographers in the bazaar," Montblanc said, "but Marche didn't recognize any of the lands on their maps, and none showed his hometown."
"Ah," the nu mou said.
"So now we're just looking for more information, kupo," Montblanc said. "And until we can figure a way for Marche to get home, he'll go on our clan's missions."
"And so you think...it was magic that brought you here?" the nu mou asked Marche.
"I don't know," Marche said, suspicious that the nu mou was mocking him. "Does that happen a lot here?"
"In legends, yes," the nu mou said. "In stories, all the time. Do you feel like a story, Marche?"
"No," Marche said sullenly. "And I don't feel like I'm dreaming or dead."
"Well, the three states aren't that different," the nu mou said. "And that does remind me of a story..." He trailed off, tapping his lower lip.
"About someone from another world?" Montblanc said.
"No, no," the nu mou said. "Just a fairy tale. Some story about a princess in a tower. She watches the outside world through a mirror in her room."
Montblanc and Marche were politely and puzzledly silent.
"In some versions of the story, she's dreaming or dead or something," the nu mou explained. "But in a version I heard once, it turns out that the mirror is really a glass window, and one day she finally screws up the courage to open the window and leave the tower."
"A genius princess," Montblanc said dryly.
"Maybe it's after she goes out the window that she becomes dead or dreaming or something," the nu mou said vaguely. "It's all a metaphor or an allegory, but I've forgotten how. But what were we talking about?"
"Returning Marche to his home," Montblanc said.
"Ah, yes. Did you arrive with anything peculiar?" the nu mou asked. "A device or a wand? A secret sigil? Markings of power?"
"Um," Marche said. "I did come with a sword."
"Kupo?" Montblanc said suddenly. "You were such a good swordsman yesterday, I thought the sword was yours."
"No," Marche said. "I've never had one before. I just hit things with it. I was good? Really?"
"Quite," the moogle said, and Marche flushed in pleasure.
"May I see the sword?" the nu mou said patiently.
Marche handed the sheathed blade over the table. The nu mou muttered softly as he turned it over in his hands. Pulling out the sword, he squinted at the blade. For a moment, Marche felt the lights in the room dim and the hairs on his neck rise.
And then the lights flickered back to normal and the nu mou handed the sword back with a slight smile.
"It's a very fine sword," the nu mou said, "but I'm afraid that it's perfectly ordinary. You won't be able to use it to return home."
"Oh," Marche said. "Then I'll just keep looking, I guess."
"And now we should be going," Montblanc said serenely. "But thank you for the tea!"
"But what would you choose?" the nu mou asked as Marche stood up. "If you had a choice between a dream, death, and a story?"
"Why?" Marche asked, tired of the nu mou's amused smile. "You said they weren't much different."
"But there is a difference in how they end," the nu mou said.
Marche slid the scabbard through a loop in his belt. "A story," he said finally. "Not that it matters."
"A story with a happy ending," Montblanc added as he pulled Marche toward the front door. For such a small figure, he was surprisingly strong.
Once they were back on the street, walking away from the nu mou shop, Marche asked, "Was that magic? When he held my sword?"
"I'd imagine so," Montblanc said. "The nu mou tend to be gifted wizards."
"I've never seen magic before," Marche said, slightly disappointed. For magic, it hadn't seemed very impressive.
Montblanc coughed gently. "Well, kupo. I happen to be a wizard myself."
"Really? So you can do magic too?"
"A little," the moogle said absently. "I'll show you sometime."
"I'd like that," Marche said with feeling. "Do you use secret ingredients? Do you say magic words?"
"If magic words are necessary," said Montblanc, only half-listening. "Sometimes words aren't needed."
"But it's more impressive with words, I'd think," Marche said.
"Was it around here?" the moogle asked. "Or has it moved?"
"What?" Marche said. "What are we looking for?"
"One of my cousins owns a shop on this side of town," Montblanc said, peering down the street. "But I don't quite remember where it is."
Marche, who was growing tired of shops this morning, sighed, but Montblanc gave no sign of hearing.
"Maybe it's two streets over...?"
"What's the name of the shop? Maybe we can ask around, and someone will know where it is."
Montblanc gave him a blank look.
"Wait," Marche said. "You know the name of the shop, right?"
"He changes it a lot," Montblanc said. "He gets bored easily, kupo. Or he's avoiding creditors. I don't know. Last I heard, he was calling it the Orange Emporium. Or was it the Cloud-Kissed Castle?"
"How would you recognize his shop, though?"
"The smell," Montblanc said. "He's a confectioner. He runs a candy shop."
"Oh," Marche said, perking up. "Well. We definitely should find your cousin, not matter how long we must search!"
"But I don't remember..."
"We could split up," Marche offered. "Like...you can look on this street, and I'll take the next one, and we'll meet up at the next block."
"Oh," Montblanc said. "That sounds like an excellent idea, kupo!"
They parted at the next street, and Marche prowled beside the shop windows and stalls. He didn't always recognize the writing outside the buildings, so he had to stick his head in half a dozen doors. He found fish-sellers and psychics, taxidermists and law clerks, but no scent of a moogle's candy shop.
Montblanc was waiting at the end of the street; he'd had no luck either.
"But he's definitely somewhere close," Montblanc said.
"Well, let's check the next two streets," said Marche, wiping the sweat from the noon sun from his forehead. They parted at a fountain with marble mermaids spilling water eternally from barnacled basins.
The next street was crowded and noisy. It also curved deceptively away from the neighboring street Montblanc was exploring, and so at the next intersection, Marche found himself in a strange new part of Cyril without any sign of the little moogle.
"Darn it," Marche said, shielding his eyes as he peered around. He didn't want to be separated from Montblanc, and he had just decided to re-trace his steps to look for his friend when he heard an ear-splitting whistle.
It took him a moment to recognize the sound, and by the time he did, it was too late.
He turned around and saw the gleaming Judge astride his terrifying giant bird. The Judge was in the middle of the street Marche had just explored. Marche gave an involuntary cry and started forward, but he found his way barred by the packed crowd pushing him back. There was a space around the Judge, and it was rapidly widening as everyone collectively moved away.
"Damn it," a thunderous voice hissed at Marche's left as the crowd surged back. "Who now?"
"Clan Hyacinth found some young bloods from Rhododendren drinking on their territory," came a woman's amused voice from his right. "They demanded satisfaction."
"Psssshaw," Marche's left said. "It's too hot to fight."
"But their honor demanded it," Marche's right said, laughing as the crowd stumbled away from the Judge. "Don't you know chivalry, Zutber?"
"I know a set of meaningless rules when I hear them," Zutber said. "That's why they threw me out of the priesthood, Dulana. But, speaking of rules, what are--"
The man in front of Marche stepped on his foot, and Marche nearly stumbled under the frenzied masses pressing back. But there was a growl to his right, and Marche found an enormous, scaly claw steadying him on his left shoulder.
"Stop shoving, you morons, or I'll fight you after this," shouted the dark-furred, rabbit-eared viera on his right. "Did those young idiots really have to pick the busiest street in Cyril to issue their challenge?"
"Chivalry," Zutber said mildly. "But what are the rules for today, Dulana?"
"No biting," Dulana said. "Nothing purple. And handclaps are forbidden."
"Psssshaw," Zutber said.
In front of them, the radiant Judge raised his right arm, and the crowd went still and quiet. There was a considerably large space around the Judge, Marche could see, but a few people were now peeling away from the crowd and approaching the armored figure. He was about to see a fight start, he knew.
He'd been in such a fight yesterday.
But it was different watching it from the sidelines as he stood between a viera and a bangaa. Yesterday, he had been confused and disoriented by his sudden awakening in strange Cyril. Yesterday, he'd barely had time to find his bearings before he'd been challenged, and then he'd been caught up with hitting people with his new sword. Yesterday, he'd had Montblanc. Yesterday, the battle had been magnificent.
Today, the battle just looked small and distant, a little strange and a little sad. It was barely a contest. Within ten minutes after the Judge's second whistle, half the combatants were groaning on the field as Clan Hyacinth thoroughly defeated them.
"They'll pick their drinking spots with more care in the future," Dulana said.
"Chivalry," Zutber sighed.
The Judge whistled for a third time, and the fighting ended. The bleeding losers picked themselves up gingerly; the smug winners sheathed their blades and unstrung their bows. There was some desultory hand-shaking between the combatants, but not much.
Released from its boundaries, the crowd flowed back into their former positions on the street. Marche's viera and bangaa left him, but he could hear them needling one another halfway down the street. The losers were crawling off to lick their wounds; the winners were sashaying into a nearby tavern.
The Judge wheeled his mount around and took off, up the street, at a gallop. He passed so close to Marche that the boy could smell the oiled armor and the hot bird. And then Marche was alone on the busiest street in Cyril.
Marche adjusted his scabbard, which had gotten twisted around in the crowd's push, and then he set off down the street, hopelessly.
He wandered, lost, for nearly half an hour before he recognized the fountain with the marble mermaids where he had left Montblanc. It took him another ten minutes to explore the street Montblanc had gone down. There was no sign of the little moogle.
With a sigh, Marche returned to the marble mermaids. He put his hands into their clear water. Lifting his cupped hands, he spilled some of the water over his sweating head and damp hair. It was past noon. Marche was hot, tired, and hungry. And lost.
It wasn't that bad, he told himself. He still had options. For one, he could try and find his way back to the inn where they had slept. Or, maybe, he could start asking around until he found where the headquarters for Montblanc's clan was located.
"But what was the name of our clan?" Marche asked aloud, suddenly stricken. He didn't remember. He hoped it wasn't Rhodedendren.
But Montblanc would be looking for him, he felt certain. He was certain. He had known the little moogle for less than a day, but he knew Montblanc would never abandon him.
He climbed up on the lip of the fountain and sat down, swinging his legs over the side.
"Montblanc will find me," Marche said. "We missed each other at the meeting place, so he'll know something went wrong. And he'll look for me. Even if he's already looked here, he'll come back."
Saying it aloud made it real, Marche thought vaguely. Out loud, the words felt true.
He had done the same thing when he was younger, sitting up in bed and whispering, in a steady incantation, that his mother would come to him. He had nightmares frequently, but he knew better than to wake his growling father with them. He wouldn't cry; he wouldn't run down the hall to his parents' room. But if he said his mother would come and believed it, then she would come. And so, in the dark and in the cold, he had whispered the words over and over.
But he had not been that young in quite some time. His father did not live at home any more. Marche no longer had nightmares. And his mother was busy with the whispered incantations of his younger brother as Doned wheezed his way through a succession of hospital beds.
Marche was not cold now, sitting on the lip of Cyril's fountain in the early afternoon. He was not home now. And he wondered where his mother was and what she was doing. Sometimes, after a bad night with Doned, she would tumble back into bed five minutes after she woke Marche for school, and he would come home in the afternoon to find her still sleeping. On other days, better days, she would sit in the kitchen and smoke as he made his lunch. The smoke hovered around her head like a ghost.
It was Marche's self-appointed job to make her laugh during those mornings. He liked to tell her jokes and riddles. What can you put in a barrel to make it lighter? What goes in circles but always straight ahead? How is a raven like a writing desk? How can something be two or three impossible things at once?
If this was a dream, then she would be sleeping down the hall. If this was death, then she was far away and weeping.
"It's not that bad," Marche said to the mermaids. "If this is death, I mean. It's not worth crying over, I think."
The mermaids said nothing.
"And if it's a dream, we'll all wake up soon," Marche continued. "And if it's a story... Stories can't go forever, can they? Stories have endings."
The mermaids still said nothing, and Marche felt depressed all over again. He twisted around and peered down into the fountain's water. The ever-spilling basins kept the water from becoming smooth and flat, but Marche could still see a splintered, rippling reflection of his own face peering back. He could also see through the water: there were coins and small rocks collected at the bottom of the fountain.
Marche felt a sudden temptation to plunge in, head first, after them.
He laid his palm against the moving surface of the water. "What," he asked the mermaids, "is a mirror, a window, and a door?"
Marche's hand broke the water's surface; the rest of Marche nearly followed in his surprise. But he caught himself and swung around to see Montblanc standing before him.
"There you are!" Montblanc said cheerfully. "I was afraid something had happened, kupo."
"No," Marche said, and his voice went a little squeaky with happiness. "I got a little lost. And there was a fight."
"Ah, yes, I heard the commotion," Montblanc said. "But you'll never guess what I found?"
"What?" Marche asked. He pushed off the fountain's lip and dropped to the ground.
"My cousin's candy shop," Montblanc said. "It's now called My Sainted Marie, by the way, although he says he'll be changing it by the end of the week. But he sent along something, kupo!"
Marche saw that Montblanc had a paper parcel in his hand, which the little moogle eagerly opened for Marche's inspection. Within the paper wrapper, there was a mouth-watering scent and a tumbled assortment of--
"Chess pieces?" Marche asked.
"Not just chess pieces," Montblanc said, and he popped a white pawn into his mouth.
"Oh," Marche said, feeling slow and stupid. "They're candy."
"Go ahead," Montblanc mumbled around his mouthful, "take one!"
Marche selected a black knight with an elaborately designed mane. It was not heavy in his hand, but it was thick and sweet and slightly crunchy in his mouth.
Marche wiped the back of his mouth and looked up, where some shop's window reflected the two of them, boy and moogle, standing beside the marble mermaids and eating sugared chess pieces. Looking at Montblanc, Marche felt a surge of relief. Montblanc wasn't the first friend Marche had met in Ivalice; he was the first friend Marche had ever met, and Marche was grateful, regardless of whether that friend had been found in heaven or hell.
To Marche's faint disappointment, the white bishop seemed just like the black knight to his tongue.
"It's made from marchpane," Montblanc said cheerfully. "You can cast it in any shape, but it still tastes the same."
"Montblanc," Marche said, wiping his fingers against his shirt, "why did you save me yesterday?"
Montblanc blinked in surprise. "But I had to, didn't I? I couldn't tell if you would be able to save yourself or not."
"But, it must have been..." Marche said helplessly, thinking of pathetic Clan Rhododendren. "It must have been a hassle."
"Not really," Montblanc said, chewing on a rook. "It was hardly out of my way. And besides, you reminded me of myself."
"Oh, yes. I have not always been the cosmopolitan moogle you know, kupo. I might have done something as stupid as insult a bangaa myself, once. So, when I saw you, it was like looking into a mirror," Montblanc said. "A slightly tall mirror."
"Oh," Marche said, pressing his hand against his forehead. "Oh."
"It's just...you know...I've never been in a story before," Marche said incoherently, and despite his relief and resolve, he started to cry.
Montblanc managed a puzzled, brave smile. "It's all right," he said, gripping Marche's hand with his paw. "It's all right. Is this about what that nu mou said?"
Marche gulped helplessly. It was hard to stop crying in mid-sob, but he manfully tried.
"Here," Montblanc said, and pushed a handkerchief into his free hand.
Marche pressed the cloth to his sticky face and closed his eyes against the mermaids, the windows, and the sun.
"And if it's a story, we'll share it," Montblanc said. "I'm sure it's big enough."
All That Glitters Is Cold 3 Fanfic Competition
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