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In the forest primeval
A school for Good and Evil
Two towers like twin heads
One for the pure
One for the wicked
Try to escape you'll always fail
The only way out is
Through a fairy tale
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Vivi Yukino had waited all her life to be kidnapped.
But tonight, all the other children of Tempo writhed in their beds. If the School Master took them, they'd never return. Never lead a full life. Never see their family again. Tonight these children dreamt of a red-eyed thief with the body of a beast, come to rip them from their sheets and stifle their screams.
Vivi dreamt of the very school they were all terrified of instead.
She had arrived on her first day as an honorary student and stepped into the foyer to find it filled with every manner of fairytale creature, both Good and Evil. For the first time, she was finally in company of the very subject of her obsession, and she found herself rooted to the floor, eyes flicking around frantically, unable to settle on any one target. Werewolves, fairies, goblins, princesses, and any number of sentient animals bustled around the foyer, chattering amongst themselves and shooting coloured spells from pointed fingers. She stepped forward, excitement buzzing as she readied herself to dive headfirst into the clamour, when the crowd parted and she stopped. Standing at the far end of the foyer was a tall, beautiful woman, skin ghostly pale against her jet black hair. When she turned to face her, Vivi was struck by her dazzling green eyes, cold but lilted with mischief. She was almost angelic. Vivi took a step towards her, reaching out—
A hammer broke through the walls of the room and smashed the occupants, and the dark-haired angel, into shards.
Vivi's eyes opened to morning. The hammer was real. The woman was not.
Rubbing her eyes, she pushed herself up in bed, squinting over at the window. ". . . Father? What are you doing?"
"Everyone in town says that you're to be taken this year," her father said, nailing a misshapen bar over her bedroom window, now completely obscured by locks, spikes, and screws. "But no one's getting in here tonight. I'll make sure of that." He pounded a deafening crack as exclamation.
Vivi flinched and gazed curiously at the once-lovely window, now something you'd see in a witch's den. "I'm sure we don't need all that. Why not hang a few charms around the windows and circle the house with salt?"
Her father scoffed. "Vivi, I appreciate your love of our culture but not everything your grandmother did was effective. If this School Master has the power to drag kids out of their homes and into the woods, I doubt he's some simple yokai with an aversion to salt. This, on the other hand—" he tapped the window— "Will keep anything and everything out. And you'll be safe."
Vivi hid a frown. The hopelessness of her grandmother's charms against the School Master was what she had been counting on. Of course, she loved her family, but she had been dreaming of attending the School all her life.
A weight settled by her feet and she looked up to see her father sitting on her bed, resting a reassuring hand on her knee. "I'm sure you'll be safe this year. I know it's awful to wish kidnapping on another person's child, but the School Master will probably choose Mala or Tabitha. They're good girls."
Vivi tensed. Mala was the village's golden girl; if anyone was Good, it was her. But she hadn't waited all her life like Vivi had. She hadn't hung her hopes on this opportunity like she had.
He father looked at her, adjusting his glasses, and smiled sadly. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't be talking about this in front of you." He leaned forward and planted a kiss on her forehead, standing up. "Don't worry. We won't let anything happen to you tonight." And then he slipped out the door.
Vivi sat in bed for a moment, eyeing the grotesque window, and made up her mind. She threw the covers back and got dressed, pulling out her research and planning what to follow up today. Her last day.
After dog-earing a recently-bought storybook and charting up its links, she took a break by sitting down and reading one of her older ones, The Goose Girl, skipping to her favourite part of the story, where the wicked hag is rolled down a hill in a nail-spiked barrel, until all that remains is her bracelet made of children's bones, the deceiving gold plating long since rubbed off. Gazing at the gruesome bracelet, Vivi felt a little flicker of righteousness. Served her right, she thought, the wicked thing.
She didn't allow herself too much time to rest and was soon back on the floor, kneeling amongst her papers. Sitting up, she looked around at the carnage and frowned. She would undoubtedly be taking her research into the woods with her—but how would she fit it all in her luggage? She could borrow another bag, she supposed, but she'd never heard of the School Master sending a carriage or footmen or anything of the sort for his students' bags. Maybe it would be best to only take one, one she could hold onto.
After selecting today's papers and packing the rest into her reserved leather bag, she downed a light breakfast and left the house in a breezy blue dress and a basket on her arm, long hair flowing in the wind. She had one last day before the School Master's arrival and planned to use each and every minute to remind him in a last-ditch effort why she, and not Mala or Tabitha or Sabrina or any other impostor, should be kidnapped. This was her lifelong dream, after all, and she was not about to give it up easily.
Vivi's best friend lived in a workshop on the outskirts of town. To get there, she had to walk nearly a mile from the bright lakeside cottages, with green eaves and sun-drenched turrets, towards the gloomy edges of the forest. Sounds of hammering echoed through cottage lanes as she passed fathers boarding up doors, mothers stuffing scarecrows, boys and girls hunched on porches, noses buried in storybooks. The last sight wasn't unusual, for children in Tempo did little besides read their fairytales. But today Vivi noticed their eyes, wild, frenzied, scouring each page as if their lives depended on it. She almost laughed seeing the children's futile attempts at salvation—four years ago, that had been her, not yet past her twelfth year but still searching for a way to get out of the town. By now, she had scoured every storybook available to her and mapped out dozens of connections between them, establishing common links between the kidnapped children in an attempt to maximise her chances of being taken.
And now, it was her turn. At sixteen, she could no longer disguise as a child in the School Master's eyes, but that didn't matter. She was ready.
As she descended the slope on the edge of town, picnic basket in hand, Vivi mused at the way her thighs no longer burned at the strain. These treks had made her fit and capable—something she'd need in the Woods. She had taken other measures to prepare as well, alongside her research—though she knew she was Good and a likely candidate, she had been undertaking charitable deeds the past year in order to ensure her place at the School. Fundraising for the orphanage, donating to struggling businesses, volunteering work at short-staffed shops, and buying birdfeed off the homeless hag in the square, even if she didn't use it. At least she was giving her some income.
"Are you going to see the witch boy?"
Vivi turned. A small group of children frolicked nearby on the hill. The eldest boy was standing and looking at her.
"He's not a witch," she said, frowning.
"He has no friends and he's queer. That makes him a witch." The boy thought for a moment. "And he's a bastard."
Vivi felt a pang of anger. That was hardly his fault. Seeing as his parents were no longer alive to receive the scorn, it had fallen on him and his uncle instead.
"You shouldn't judge someone by things out of their control," she replied, voice cold. "And I can think of many queer, friendless people that aren't branded as witches."
The boy shrugged. "He's just different."
She rolled her eyes and turned her back on the ignorant child, restraining herself from lecturing him. As if he knew any better; rumours were perpetuated by adults and passed onto their children. If she were to take her own advice, she shouldn't hold that ignorance against the boy.
But on the other hand, she certainly wasn't going to waste her time trying to make the children of Tempo see reason. It was a fruitless endeavour.
"You'll need to find a new friend when he's taken."
She wheeled around again, indignant. "The School Master takes two."
"He'll take Mala for the other one. No one's as Good as Mala."
Vivi's jaw clenched. All her research, all her hard work, and they thought Mala deserved to go?
"We'll see," she muttered, and turned away.
By now she had transitioned onto the faint, gravelly path leading up to the Kingsmen workshop. Despite its prime position at the bottom of the slope as a vehicle repair station, it hardly received any visitors, and it showed. The paint was flaky and the tiled roof in need of repair, with windows sitting crookedly on broken hinges. She guessed the lack of business was due to its close proximity to the village cemetery, marked by a rusted iron fence a few paces behind the dwelling, but it hardly bothered her.
Approaching the front door, Vivi screwed her nose up as the usual smell greeted her—the strong tang of oil, grease and wood shavings. Casting a quick glance to the open workshop to find it empty, she knocked on the door and prepared for a confrontation.
The door swung open to reveal a gangly figure in oil-stained clothes, eyes bulging and cheeks sunken, spiked blonde hair stained blue at the roots. "What," Arthur said, sounding annoyed.
Vivi winced. "Still hasn't come out?"
"Does it look like it?" he huffed. "I look ridiculous."
"Well, no one's gonna see you, anyway," she joked, humour falling flat as he frowned. She cleared her throat. "Uh, look, I'm sorry about the. . . dye."
He crossed his arms. "At least it looks good on you."
She raised a hand to her own cyan hair, perfectly coloured through. "I thought we could match!"
"Mhm," he grouched. Silence.
A chittering squeak, and Vivi looked down to find a hamster by her feet, hips suspended with a miniature wheeled cart. She kneeled down, stroking the animal. "Hey, Galahad."
Arthur flushed and scooped the pet up, setting him inside. Vivi smirked at him. "What, embarrassed?"
"No," he grumbled, scuffing a shoe in the dirt. "I just don't like people touching him."
"Right." Another pause. "You wanna. . . come for a walk with me today?"
Arthur leaned against the door. "I'm still trying to figure out why you're friends with me."
"Because you're sweet and funny," said Vivi.
He looked away for a moment, tinged with red, before clearing his throat. "Alright, well. . . it's not like I have much else to do." That was a lie, and Vivi knew it.
She flashed him a bright smile. "Good you have me to keep you occupied, then."
The dreaded 13th day of June had arrived, falling as it often did every four years on a Friday. Beneath waning sun, the village square had become a hive of preparation for the School Master's arrival. Fathers barricaded doors and boarded windows while the village mothers lined children up and set to work. Handsome ones had their hair lopped off and their teeth blackened, homely ones were scrubbed and dressed in bright colours. The best children were begged to curse or kick their sisters, and the worst were bribed to pray in church, all in hopes of confusing the visitor into, perhaps, taking none at all.
Fear swelled into a contagious fog. In the alleyway, the butcher and blacksmith traded books in hopes of finding clues to save their sons. Two sisters sat beneath the crooked clock tower, listing fairytale villains to search for a pattern. A group of boys chained themselves together, a handful of girls hid on the schoolhouse roof, and a masked child jumped from bushes to spook his mother, earning a scolding on the spot and a barely veiled threat that maybe the School Master would take him instead tonight. The boy sobered up after that. Even the homeless hag got into the act, hopping around a meagre fire and shouting, "Burn the books! Burn them all!" But no one listened and no books were burned. If anything, villagers hugged their books tighter to their chests and avoided the man woman.
Arthur gawked at all this in disbelief. "How can a whole town believe in fairy tales?"
"Because they're real."
Arthur dug the heels of his hands into his eyes. "Oh yeah, I forgot about you."
"You can't deny all the evidence! There are just too many patterns for it to all be a coincidence. And don't even start on your man-eating wolves story," she said quickly, before he could interject. "That is the weakest explanation I've ever heard."
"Look Vivi, honestly, I've tried to humour you. I've read all the storybooks. But it's just . . ." he gestured vaguely. "It's not real."
"Well I'll prove you wrong when we're taken tonight," she replied.
He stopped walking. "We?"
She stopped ahead of him and turned, realising her mistake. "I—didn't mean it that way."
Arthur's gaze flicked pointedly beyond her and then back. "Sure you didn't."
She followed his glance, settling on the villagers in the square. The crowd was staring at them like a solution to a mystery. Popular and outcast, Good and Evil, standing side by side. The School Master's perfect pair.
"Can we go?" came Arthur's voice.
Vivi turned. His eyes were once again locked on the mob.
He avoided her gaze. "Just . . . away from people."
As the sun weakened to a red orb, bleeding into the sky, two friends sat side-by-side on the shore of a lake. Vivi scribbled notes on her papers, finalising her research, while Arthur scrubbed away at some gismo he'd pulled out of one of his many pockets. Vivi snatched a sideways glance at him. He was always pulling tools out of that thing like some eccentric magician. What looked to be a burnt-orange worker's shirt, hanging down to the waist and torn off at the sleeves, and sewn with a myriad of capped pockets. He defended the rag as an apron, but that never prevented copious amounts of oil and grease from staining the white shirt he wore underneath.
"Is your house just . . . a tar pit?" she joked, counting up the black streaks over his clothing. "I never see you clean."
Arthur glanced up at her, looking offended for a moment, then returned his focus to the thing in his hands. "I guess you wouldn't know what hard work looks like."
Despite knowing it was only a playful jab, Vivi's ears burned. "Excuse me!" She promptly thwacked him with her papers.
Arthur only chuckled, hands steady over the gadget in his lap, and she craned over to look. "What are you working on today?"
He shied away immediately, almost dropping the thing into the water. "No— Nothing!"
"Well, that's highly suspicious," she teased, easing back into her research. They were silent for a moment, listening to the chatter of geese on the far side of the lake, until she spoke up again. "You know, everyone thinks Mala is going to be taken this year."
Arthur scoffed. "I hope."
Vivi was offended. "Taken for Good!"
He scrunched his nose up. "What? Mala? Mala Kostakis?"
"That's the one," Vivi sighed. "Everyone loves her."
"She's a master manipulator," Arthur shot back. "They can't help it. She's got the whole town wrapped around her finger."
"Oh, c'mon, she's not that bad."
"She puts up a front around everyone she sees as useful," he said, face etched in a deep frown. "Because I'm of no use to her, I see how she's really like. She's a scornful, snarky beast."
Vivi heaved a sigh of relief. "So you think she'll be taken for Evil instead?"
A beat of silence. When Arthur spoke again, he sounded hurt. "Why do you want to leave so badly?"
Vivi paused, choosing her words carefully. "I'm . . . just not meant to be here. I can feel it. Obaachan was the same. Some people are just born . . . different."
"Do I . . . matter to you?"
Vivi whirled, alarmed. "What kind of a question is that?"
"I dunno, just . . ." he hunched in on himself. "You seem really happy about the idea of leaving me behind."
Vivi gazed at him, softening, and then laid a reassuring hand on his arm. "I'm not . . . happy to leave you behind. I'll really miss you." She thought for a moment. "Maybe he'll even take you too, and we can still be together at our new school."
He yanked his arm away. "And why are you so confident that he'll take you, if he's even real? What makes you so good and perfect and worthy of a fairytale life?"
Vivi felt her face redden. "You think I'm . . . worth less?"
"I don't know, probably!" He flung his arms out, raising his voice. "It's not like you're purer than everyone else! Every other ordinary person in this town! Every other loser like me!"
"Oh-hoh, is that what you think?" she spat back. "Well, I am better than everyone else here."
"Prove it," he hissed.
"I became friends with you, didn't I?"
Arthur stared at her, shocked. Words registering too late, she clapped her hands over her mouth in horror. Silence descended.
After a long time, Vivi reached her hand out. Arthur smacked it away and stood up.
"Arthur, please," she pried. "I'm sorry—"
"I can't believe it," he muttered. "I can't believe I let you in. I knew it. No one here likes me at all. I'm just . . . a means to an end."
He trudged off across the banks, leaving something behind in the grass. Vivi leaned over and took it carefully into her hands.
It was the trinket he'd been working on—a silver music box, freshly polished. She opened the lid nonetheless to find a delicate blue orchid inside, composed of tiny, flake-thin metal plates, turning slowly along to a jingling lullaby. Something caught her eye and she squinted closer.
Her name, engraved on the inside of the lid.
Her head jerked up urgently, but he was gone.
As the sun set, she sat alone on the grass, music box twinkling with the last rays. She stayed there as the last notes of the song petered out, leaving her in silence, and she stayed there as the light dimmed completely, leaving her in darkness. It was only when the first fathers emerged from their homes, locking doors behind them and wielding torches, that she dragged herself up and slogged back to her house, fingers stinging against the ice-cold keepsake.
All direct similarities between this AU and the original books, including excerpts and characters, have been included as artistic choice.