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She’s five when she first sees him.

She’s all by herself, because she’s in the process of running away from home. She has her school back-pack on her shoulder with an extra set of clothes. It did have food in it when she started, but she had gotten hungry not long after she left. Now she’s hungry again, and a little bit cold, and starting to think that maybe running away wasn’t the right thing to do.

The boy walks by her while she’s sitting on the edge of the sidewalk, trying to decide what to do. He’s bigger than her, but that’s not hard. Most everyone is bigger than her. He’s wrapped in layers of clothes, though, a scarf and a hat and two jackets and mittens, and all she can see are two brown eyes peeking out at the world.

He walks like he’s scared. His eyes stare down at the ground, and he’s hunched forward, arms clutching the grocery bag in his hands tight to his body. It’s a position she knows, because she’s used it herself many times.

She doesn’t mean to watch him. But it’s fascinating, seeing someone so big looking so frightened, and so she finds herself staring at him as he continues on down the street.

The gust of wind is cold, the first edge of winter in it. It grabs the boy’s scarf, drags it up over his eye-holes, and he drops one of his packages as he reaches up to remove the offending cloth from his eyes.

Rushing forward, she starts kicking apples, oranges and potatoes back towards his bag before they can run into the street.

It takes the boy a good minute of fighting with his scarf before he has it properly positioned again, only his eyes peering out at the world. By that time she’s gathered most of the food into a small pile, and is in the process of putting it into his bag again.

“You have to be careful, big brother.” Smiling up at him, she continues to add the rolly escape-foods to the bag.

“Ah… ah…” The boy lifts his right hand hesitantly, pointing at her. The sound that comes out of his mouth is more than a gasp but less than a scream, a sound she’s never heard before.

“Don’t worry.” Adding the last of the food to the bag, she carefully stands up and hands it to him. “It’s all here.”

“Ah…” The boy stares between the bag and her, head moving in jerky motions.

He’s afraid of her. The realization is earth-shattering. No one’s ever been afraid of her, and she was quite certain no one ever would be.

For a long moment they simply stare at each other, trapped in their own shock.

Then she gently presses the bag against his chest, grabbing the arm that’s pointed at her and wrapping it around to hold the bag in place. “Don’t worry, big brother. I won’t hurt you.”

He doesn’t answer, clutching his food tight to his chest and running off.

She trots after him, for a little bit, because she’s curious and because she has nowhere else to go. She’s not quite cold enough to go home, and finding the boy has made her growing fear evaporate.

Sitting down on the curb outside the house that she thinks he ran into, she bites down on the apple that she saved for herself.

It wasn’t technically stealing, since she did all the work to get everything back in the bag.

Munching on the tasty treat, she wonders if he’s going to come out and thank her properly for all the help she gave him.

***

“Wataru.”

Kivat flutters around the bathroom, darting between the window and where Wataru huddles in the far corner of the tub.

“Wataru, it’s all right.” The tiny kaiju finally settles down on his floating perch in the water, watching his ward carefully. “You’re all right.”

“G… g… girl.” Wataru stumbles over the word, hugging his knees tight to his chest.

“Yes.” Sighing, Kivat wonders exactly where he went wrong in raising the boy. “She was a girl. She’s human, though. The Bloody Rose would have told us if she wasn’t.”

“S… s… safe?” Wataru stares up at him, brown eyes wide and scared behind long lashes.

“Yes, Wataru.” Reaching out with one wing, he gently touches the boy’s hair. “She’s safe.”

“Why did she… do that?” Uncurling slightly, Wataru stares at the door to the bathroom.

“Why did she help you?” Shaking his head, Kivat laughs. “Why do humans do anything they do? I couldn’t tell you, boy.”

“Safe, though.” Settling down with a long sigh, the boy smiles slightly. “Small humans can be safe?”

“Some of them.” Kivat hesitates before continuing. “Some humans are dangerous, though, small or not. They can tell people about you—about who you are, what you are.”

“Oh.” Sinking back down into the water, Wataru nods. “All right. I’ll keep avoiding them, then.”

“That isn’t…” Except it is. It’s exactly what he had wanted to teach Wataru to do, once, because it was the only way to ensure that no one would find out who and what Wataru was. “Ah. That’ll do for now, I guess. You’re a good boy, Wataru.”

Wataru grins at him, pleased and happy. “Thanks, Kivat.”

Sighing, Kivat flies over to the boy’s shoulder, giving him the only semblance of physical contact he’s ever had with another living being.

He’s the worst Fangire ever. He’s afraid of everything, completely inept at interaction with any other Fangire or even human.

But he’s alive.

Kivat’s certain it isn’t the life Maya would have chosen for the rightful king of the Fangire, but at least it is a life.

Nobody could reasonably ask any more of him.

***

She watches his house, off and on, for the next three years.

He’s the one constant in her life, the strange boy with the brown eyes. When Mother dies, when Father moves, when Grandmother takes her in, the frightened boy is there, wrapped in his layers of clothes, only leaving the house once a week.

He shops on Monday.

He does his laundry on Wednesday, hanging it out to dry.

He plays the violin every day of the week.

It’s a beautiful sound, wonderful songs, and she falls in love with them.

She tries to approach him, a few times, but he always runs from her. He always runs from everything and everyone, and she realizes after a little over a year that she’s never seen any adults enter his house.

She should have noticed it sooner, maybe, but adults have come to mean very little in her own world. It hadn’t really surprised her that they didn’t help this frightened boy, either.

Maybe they were even the reason he was always so frightened of everything. Mother had been kind to her, before the illness, and Father had only ever been neglectful, but she had heard from other kids that adults could do awful things. Adults could make you afraid of your shadow, and the sun, and absolutely terrified of anyone reaching out to you.

She gives up approaching him from the time she’s six until she’s almost eight. It’s too painful, watching him flinch and run and try to get away. That’s not what she wants him to feel from her. That’s not what she’s trying to tell him.

She asks her father for a violin for her eighth birthday. He doesn’t come to town to deliver it, but she doesn’t care all that much. She’s too old for him to hurt her anymore.

Really.

She knows a little bit about violins. She’s looked them up a lot on the Internet, using them for any school project she could get away with. Grandmother had offered to pay for lessons for her, once, but she had refused.

She’ll teach herself how to play.

Or, hopefully, have a better teacher than anyone else she’s ever heard.

He comes out only five minutes after she starts dragging notes from the instrument. He has on all of his clothing, as usual, but his scarf is slightly crooked, his hat not quite sitting right, and his gloves don’t match.

“Stop.” He says the word clearly, rushing up until he’s only about a meter away from her. “Please stop. Don’t hurt it.”

“Hurt it?” Staring at the instrument in dismay, Shizuka shakes her head. “I’m not hurting it!”

“You are.” Reaching out to touch the wood of the violin, he shakes his head. “It’s such a nice one, too. You really need to be nice to it.”

“I’m really very sorry if I hurt it.” There are tears pricking at her eyes as she stares at the instrument, and she dashes them away with one hand. Ridiculous, that he makes her cry over something as stupid as an instrument. “I just wanted…”

“Wanted?” His voice is more hesitant now, and he takes a step back. “W-wanted what?”

“Teach me.” She blurts the words out, fixing his eyes with hers. So familiar to her, and is this really only the second time they’ve talked? “Teach me how to play it right, then.”

The boy stares at her, and she doesn’t know how she can tell but she knows that he’s terrified.

“Do it.” The voice comes from beneath the boy’s hat, and Shizuka stares at it incredulously. “She’s not dangerous, Wataru. Invite her inside.”

“In-inside?” Wataru’s voice breaks on the word, and the panic is even more evident as he backs away.

A huge yellow-and-black bat shoulders into way out from underneath the boy’s crooked hat. “Inside, indeed. Come on, girl. You’ve earned it, and if I don’t start getting the boy some non-Kivat contact the whole point of keeping him alive is going to be null and void.”

“Oh.” Staring at the bat, Shizuka wonders if she should be afraid. There’s a talking bat on top of the head of the boy that she’s been stal—following for a long time. “I guess… I mean… no. I want you to invite me in… Wataru, was it?”

“Wataru.” The boy hesitates, staring at her, hunched over in the posture that meant you were sick with fear. “That’s my name. But we can’t invite her inside, Kivat! You said if things get close to me I’ll die! I don’t want to die!”

“That’s just silly.” Crossing her arms in front of her chest, Shizuka glares at the bat. “I’m obviously not going to kill you. We’re talking right now, aren’t we? And you’re not dying.”

“I don’t know.” Wataru looks even more panicked, if that’s possible. “Is this dying?”

“Do you feel dizzy, and like your stomach’s trying to go out your mouth and your feet at once, and like your hands and feet are all icy and numb but also hyperaware and sweaty?”

Wataru nods, staring at her incredulously.

“You’re not dying.” She reaches out to take the boy’s hand, and he flinches away. “You’re just scared. It can feel a lot like dying, though.”

“You’ve felt like this before?”

Lots of times. More times than she ever wants to remember, but Wataru doesn’t know that and Wataru doesn’t need to know that. “Not for a long time. And you don’t need to, either. Let’s go into your house, and you can teach me how not to make my violin sad.”

Wataru hesitates for a long moment before finally nodding. “All right.”

He doesn’t take her hand. He doesn’t touch her at all for almost a half a year, gesturing and gesticulating to tell her how to hold her hands, to touch the instrument, to hold the bow.

But he’s real, and he’s talking to her, and she’s helping him to escape his fears for at least a little bit of every day.

For an eight-year-old, it’s more than enough.

***

When she’s eleven, she learns that monsters are real.

It doesn’t surprise her, really. If magic is real, and given Wataru and his talking bat it must be real, then monsters would, of course, also be real.

It hurts. The stingers are almost invisible, crystal shards of rainbow in the sunlight, but it feels like her heart and soul are being yanked out through them.

She screams, because she doesn’t want to die silent. She doesn’t want to die afraid, either, but there’s no helping that. Fear and loneliness were the only constants in the world, after all.

Fear, loneliness, and Wataru, because somehow she hears his voice over the sounds of her own desperate whimpers.

“Shizuka! Shizuka!” Hands grasp her shoulders, lift her head until it’s cradled against someone’s chest. “Don’t be dead. Please don’t be dead.”

“Calm down, Wataru.” Kivat’s voice rings in her ears. “She’s alive. Let’s take her home. She’ll be fine in a few hours.”

She doesn’t know how Wataru carries her back to his home. Then again, he is older and bigger than her, just like he always has been.

He makes tea for her, and Kivat perches upside-down on the edge of a lamp next to the couch, watching her carefully.

Between the tea and the warmth and the familiar surroundings, carefully cleaned and maintained by her hand, she starts feeling almost human again within a few minutes.

“You’re all right?” Wataru hovers over her, looking very human and vulnerable in just his jeans and long-sleeved shirt.

She loves seeing him like this, in his own house, comfortable. Smiling at him, she nods, blowing on the tea though it’s already cold. “I feel all right. You weren’t hurt, were you?”

A curious expression crosses his face, and he shakes his head. “No. I’m fine. You’re not…”

“Scared? Traumatized?” Shrugging, she cuddles down further into the blanket he wrapped her in. “No. Not as much as I thought I would be, at least. I’m all right now. You rescued me.”

“I did?” He seems confused by the concept, looking to Kivat for help. “Did I?”

“You did, Wataru.” Kivat smiles at the boy, giving her a wink as he turns back. “You carried her back here. I think that counts as a rescue.”

“What was the monster?” Staring down at her drink, Shizuka tries to remember as much as she can about it. “I think… it was pretty. Like stained glass, but it hurt so much…”

“You don’t have to worry.” Wataru’s hand touches hers, just briefly, a flash of warmth and comfort. “You’re safe here.”

It doesn’t make sense. There’s no way that his door could keep a monster like that from getting to her.

Just like it doesn’t make sense that she found a boy, scared of humanity and raised by a talking bat.

She loves one fantasy enough to trust to another, she supposes.

Squeezing his hand, she smiles at Wataru. “I believe you.”

Sitting down with a sigh, Wataru nods.

“That doesn’t mean I’m becoming a hikikomori like you, though.” Forcing herself to sit up straighter, she puts on her most determined face. “After all, I have to take care of you. If I didn’t, who would?”

Wataru actually considers the question for a moment. “Me?”

Shizuka can’t help but laugh, though she stifles the sound at the hurt expression on Wataru’s face. “I think that would be a very bad idea. You’re not really good at taking care of the house, and you’re absolutely awful at talking with anyone. You’d never get any bargains at the store, and you’d certainly not have nearly as many commissions for violin work without me!”

“Well…” Smiling hesitantly at her, Wataru inclines her head. “I suppose that’s true.”

“It’s definitely true.” Reaching out to take his hand, Shizuka finds herself grinning. He doesn’t flinch from her touch. Not anymore. “We’ll make each other a deal, then. You’ll protect me from the non-human monsters, and I’ll protect you from the human ones.”

“I don’t know if that…” Frowning, Wataru turns to Kivat. “What do you think?”

Flying in a brief circle around them, Kivat makes a considering sound. “Well… I suppose that’ll work, for now.”

“Then it’s a deal.” Shizuka stands, though she has to sit down almost immediately as the world goes all tilty. Wataru’s hands touch her arms, though, musician’s hands with their mix of soft skin and rough calluses, and any fear she had felt evaporates.

Maybe the monster had actually done her a favor, bringing her and Wataru even closer together.

“I’ll be your mom.” She smiles at Wataru, taking one of his hands in her own. His hand dwarfs her, as he’s always dwarfed her, but she doesn’t care. “And you’ll be my scaredy-cat knight. Running away from monsters faster than anyone else ever!”

Wataru gives her an inscrutable look, and she gets the strangest feeling that she’s missing something. “You really don’t mind that you were attacked by a monster?”

“No.” Squeezing his hand again, she smiles at him. “I don’t mind, because you were there.”

Wataru stares at Kivat, and the bat gives a small shake of its head. This results in its whole body and wings shaking, and Shizuka fights the urge to laugh at the strange thing. Wataru doesn’t appreciate anyone laughing at his father-bat.

“All right.” Smiling at her, Wataru gives her hand a brief squeeze in return. “You’ll be my mother, and I’ll be your knight. I like it.”

Warmth curls up from her stomach, floods through her whole body, and Shizuka doesn’t think before throwing her arms around Wataru. “You’re amazing, Wataru. Don’t ever change.”

It’s a cruel thing to say, and she realizes that as he stiffens slightly under her hands.

“I mean… you can be less afraid.” She pulls away, gazing earnestly up at him. “Maybe one day you won’t be allergic to the world anymore. But don’t ever change the part of you that’s you.”

Ruffling her hair, Wataru nods and smiles again before standing up. “Don’t worry, Shizuka. I’ll always be your knight.”

It’s the type of promise adults always made and broke.

It’s the type of promise she had determined she was never going to believe in herself.

But coming from Wataru’s lips, it’s a promise she can believe in.