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When Miri wonders why Daine smiles less frequently as the days shorten, she shrugs and grumbles that the cold makes her bones ache more now that she's no longer a girl.

When Sarralyn and Rikash demand why Ma is always so grouchy this time of year, she tickles them until they beg for mercy and reminds them that she ought to be hibernating with the other beasts.

Numair alone never asks a thing; he already knows that the bandits of Snowsdale always attacked just before the year's first snow.

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He tries everything at first: dancing the tango at a black-tie charity auction ("Chuck," she asks, blinking a little, "why are you dancing the woman's part?"), riding shotgun on one of Casey and Verbanski's missions (...and given that Casey and his girlfriend are apparently now at the stage in their relationship where they're unfamiliar with the concept of TMI, Chuck and Sarah are never doing that again), using a zip line to escape the Buy More (okay, okay, in retrospect, that was a completely stupid idea, just like Sarah had said from the start).

After all that work, they're just standing at the sink washing dishes on a Saturday night when Sarah bites her lips and tells him her middle name once again.

(Chuck doesn't care.)

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Sounis sends him a map of the known world: a joke from an old friend--or is it a rebuke? Difficult to be sure, between Kings.

Gen stares at it and then, for some time, the crown that binds him as firmly as a leash does a dog; he cannot smile until he hears the rustle of skirts that marks Irene's approach, until he feels the brush of her warm lips against his skin.

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Andromache is slumped dry-eyed in a corner, still clutching Astyanax's swaddling clothes, and Helen, Queen once more when the rest of them are slaves, looks blankly out the window towards Sparta where her daughter waits.

Hecuba wants to shake them both for their insolence, to demand how they could dare think their grief greater than her own; but instead she goes to her daughters-in-law, and gently strokes their hair.

She has lost her sons already; she will not lose her daughters, too.

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By the fifth time he sees her before him, he's guessed the truth; the vision of Cassandra, loveliest of the princesses of Troy, is as beautiful as he remembers, but its eyes are sad and far more lucid than they ever were in life.

He means to say, first my Creusa, and now you?, but instead: "I wish I could have saved you."

The phantom laughs (and that, oh that, is exactly as he remembers) as it--as she whispers in the shell of his ear: "Then survive, my Aeneas; tell my story to the rest of the world, and let me live through you."

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A princess of Achaea must have certain expectations for her heart: it is to be spacious, so as to accommodate her husband and his hall and every last one of his flaws; it is to be hard as stone, so as to never allow distractions to enter; and it is to be steady and immutable through all the years, so as to never change in a way her family dislikes.

Under no circumstances, Helen knows without having to ask, is it to value gossiping in the gardens with her cousins and sisters over sitting in silence beside her husband; nor is it to seek to make her Hermione more than just yet another trophy to be exchanged for land, wealth, or power; nor is it to yearn for things unknown and untold.

Her flight with Paris is due far less to fickleness and far more to despair than anyone ever suspects.

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Every few decades, she finds someone who reminds her of Merlin--sometimes it's as simple as noticing something about the ears, sometimes as devastating as finding poison behind a puppyish facade--and when she does, she always, always helps them along their destiny.

"Promise me," she urges this latest version, a tall thin lad named Andrew, " that you'll burn it once I'm dead"; as he swears an oath he clearly has no intention to keep, it's all she can do not to smile through her ailing, decrepit glamour.

(The easiest way to have your revenge on someone is to give them the tools of their own destruction and then do nothing--Merlin taught her that all too well.)

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Despite what his brother might think, Christopher is not as hopeless at matters of romance as one might expect; he spends hours in the carriage back to Elvenwood Hall planning out what he might say to Kate when he sees her again and debating with Alicia over the relative merits of starting with you've ensnared me beyond all hope and reason as compared to I don't suppose I'll find another woman willing to build the manor up from nothing, so why don't we accept the inevitable?

Before he realizes it, they've arrived, and Kate stands before him in sapphires and bronze: this extraordinary woman who saved him in more ways than one, this champion who even the Fairy Folk fear, this marvel who he's belonged to since the day he met her.

His fine words turn to dust before her.

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When the news comes that her husband has fallen in battle, Clytemnestra rocks her son to sleep for the last time as the most loyal of her servants wait for her command; she knows all too well what happens to the sons of vanquished men, and the only way she will survive this is if even she forgets that the child had once been hers.

When Agamemnon bursts into the hall of Tantalus, Clytemnestra is warm and gracious; when he asks her to marry him, she is coy but receptive; when he begs her to forgive him, driven by wine and guilt, she smiles.

"Don't you want to know his name?" she asks him only once, months later when her belly swells again, and, without waiting for his response: "I called him Orestes."

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"And they lived happily ever after," Fiona quotes the night Polly phones her about the engagement.

Polly stiffens, a childhood full of Hero and Tan Coul's adventures having taught her how to properly interpret that phase: happily even though they'd be better served accepting their worry and grief, happily even though their artificial delight led each to grow to hate the other, happily even though Laurel lured them both into her clutches again.

"Not in Nowhere," she says firmly.

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"Can you not think what people would speculate were the Prince's widow to marry again?" Despite his assurance, George cannot meet his brother's eyes. "No; what's best for her--for all of us--is to live out her years with me and Isabel."

But Richard remembers Anne's smile, her quiet understanding, the delicate bones of her face; and, try as he might, he cannot agree.

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Her hair is matted, her face is dirty, her eyes are wet with tears, and still something about her calls to him.

The worshippers at his temple chatter about Ariadne, traitor to Crete, utterly undone by shame and grief; he had sought her out only to satisfy his own curiosity, to see for himself how such a woman might be, but now--now things are very different.

He takes a steadying gulp from his winecup and holds out the rest to her, to take if she so chooses: "Drink deep, my girl."

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Once they arrive, those who follow the pitiful princess, stripped of birthright and bridal bed by her wicked brother, are surprised at how capably she rules; not flawlessly, of course, but their Queen remains impervious to every setback, learns quickly from her mistakes, even has the wits and the equanimity to carry off the trick of the oxhide.

They shower her with compliments, and in return she forces the smile she's long forgotten how to make with any real sincerity.

Acerbus is dead, and, somewhere along the way to Carthage, so is Elissa; only Dido remains.

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Even as a child in Dardania, Aeneas had heard of his (fortunately, his father grumbles whenever the tales of her latest tantrum arrive) very, very distant cousin Cassandra, so often that he could picture her wild dark hair and the angry curl of her mouth without ever seeing her, and now, seated at Priam's own table at the wedding feast of Hektor and the Princess of Thebe, he cannot be blamed for his curious looks in her direction.

As he watches, Cassandra twists away from the tight grip of her unsmiling brother Deiphobus and dances to the groom's side, keeping her face serene as Hektor sneaks her extra sweetmeats; when she meets Aeneas's gaze, her eyes sparkle with the silent shared joke.

Aeneas swallows and quickly reconsiders his preconceptions about the Princess of Troy.

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Once they've been introduced, Cassandra takes his hands and spins him around in a wild circle; she says, "You'll marry, and marry, and marry, but you won't marry me."

Aeneas gives a startled little cough--it's ridiculous, of course, he doesn't intend on taking more than one wife, and certainly not the pitiful mad princess (even if she is less pitiable and less mad and more charming than he had expected) and gods help him, he is still holding Cassandra's hands.

"I wish you would," Cassandra whispers, her eyes wide.

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Going into it, Rick knew a life with the Carnahans would be rather less soothing than a retired ex-Legionnaire who's seen his fill of war might want; if it's not Jonathan pissing off the law, the criminal underworld, usually both at once, it's Evelyn stumbling across the one scroll in the entire country that sets off a centuries-old curse that brings on great calamity, the goddamn apocalypse, blah blah blah, and usually also means they have to put up Ardeth Bey for a few days until the fate of the world is no longer in danger.

It's just--when Evy tells him she's pregnant, Rick has a few months to imagine his kid as the only other sane influence in this family; admittedly, he grew up in a hellhole of an orphanage that he escaped as soon as humanly possible, but he has some faint impressions of normal children doing things like playing ball and skipping school and saying "Dada" a whole lot.

A year and a half later, though: "Ramesses," pronounces baby Alex with a look of great contentment when it comes time for his first word, and Rick abandons any hope for a normal life.

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She finds him on a balcony, the night before the wedding, and comes to stand beside him. "Creusa is my favorite of my grown-up sisters," she tells him gently, "you will love her very much."

She's not you, Aeneas wants to but cannot say; and he hates himself for it all the more.

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Not for the first time, Jonathan considers locking his baby sister and her husband in the brig and making a run for it.

"I'm sorry," Rick barks from one side of the airship, "you pick now, after we've just escaped with our lives--" (from mummies, Jonathan supplies) "--after you returned from the dead--" (fortunately not as a mummy) "--to tell me you kissed...him--(oh, another mummy; what a surprise!) "--back in the desert eleven years ago."

Evie just raises her chin and retorts, "It seemed like a good idea at the time."

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Here and now, on a rare picnic with Aeneas as he describes the strange sights he saw on his last campaign, she’s safe.

He turns to her, takes her hand, smiles (and oh, how it warms her heart, but he will smile like that, in that sad, uncertain way, at Lavinia when he searches for her face in the crowd after he’s slain her intended, at Dido as the first winds fill his sails to take him away from Carthage, at Creusa when he stretches out a hand towards her phantom amidst the rubble of Troy, oh her sisters, oh her city, oh, the Achaeans approach and with them, Agamemmon of the blood-stained hands and Iphigenia’s hungry ghost and the rage of Clytemnestra and the bathing hall and the labrys)—and asks, with the undercurrent of fright that never fails to remind her where they will always go wrong: “Cassandra, what is it?”

“Nothing,” she replies, because she is always safe and never safe, always truthful, always a liar, “tell me another story, my friend.”

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When Eris comes to her and demands how best to avenge the insult, of course Psyche gives her the idea for the apple, for she has precious few allies among her husband’s family as it is, and his aunt, though unpopular, is not one to cross; only later is she able to force herself to reflect on what must come next.

She’ll have to introduce a human into the fray to divert the gods’ attention and draw their anger, of course; the war to come will be thick with the stench of bones and the drip of blood, -- but how much more terrible to imagine the same horrors descending on pristine Olympus!– and far better, she thinks, to destroy one city rather than the world.

Psyche hides her face with her hands for shame and wonders when she began to think as an immortal.

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When things are simple, when she is the best healer on Mount Ida and he the impudent shepherd who would injure himself for an excuse to come see her, she laughs off his protestations of undying devotion. As the years go by, and their love withers, she wonders if it would not have been better if she had accepted him at first, if she could have given them more days of happiness together before he chose a princehood and a goddess instead of her, if she might have saved them the pain that was to come; she will not let herself blame him because there, she knows, her destruction lies in wait.

But when things are simple again, when he is a patient in need, and she bound by her vows of impartiality, she refuses him once more; this time, she betrays her own ideals, and that she cannot forgive.

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The jangle of Trojan-made bracelets warns her of the visitor to her cave, but Oenone, busy at work, doesn't look up from her mortar and pestle.

"If this is about Alexandros," she drawls instead, "I have to warn you that I don't accept returns from unhappy customers."

A laugh, and: "Not at all," says Helen of the graceful hands, pulling her shining veil from her face, "they say you're unmatched when it comes to healing, and so I've come to learn what I can."

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When you're the eldest of three sisters, you run a disproportionately high chance of making bad choices and coming to worse ends, most ly caused by years of having to set a good example for your younger siblings; Rosa Montana, having received an excellent education and in possession of a horde of undignified scamps for brothers and sisters and cousins, is well aware of this fact and all the more determined to avoid it.

She says her prayers every night, makes sure her clothing is arranged just so, never takes it into her head to sing a spell she can't pull off alone; she washes behind her ears, tries to only be sarcastic to those who deserve it, and never conducts herself in a manner befitting a Petrocchi.

It's not until the Old Bridge, when she catches a glimpse of her fellow--her rival worker, that she thinks: Well, if I must-- what a way to go.

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"Can I give you a lift?" asks the Count once class is out, sticking his terribly handsome head out the window of his sports car.

Anthea bites her lip, considering; she already knows what Mum would say, but anyway, she's not Mum (thank God!) and Robert seems a decent sort who didn't give her up earlier when he noticed her doodling sketches of evening gowns in the margins of her notes, not to mention the fact that she's got a meeting with a famous dress designer on the opposite side of town in fifteen minutes that she can only just make if she keeps on walking.

"Only if you're fast enough to suit me," she says, and smiles.

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"Othryoneus of Cabesos has promised us his allegiance," Aeneas pauses, struggling to find the right words to announce this diplomatic triumph, " in exchange for the chance to make his regard known to the Princess Cassandra."

Priam's eyes shine with triumph; his daughter Creusa's smile (...and how had Aeneas never noticed her before, as kind and good as she is?) wavers with sympathy; and Cassandra's expression is as inscrutable as it has ever been.

"I will also," he adds as an afterthought, "return to Dardania with the morning tide."

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After the coronation, Perseus turns to her with an expression of pure panic; he was raised to be useful in a fisherman's hut, her husband, and when he speaks, she already knows what to expect: "I--I don't know what to do now."

But unlike him, Andromeda was born the daughter of Cassiopeia of Aethiopia, who took the forgotten port of Joppa and turned it into a marvel that even the gods envied; who encouraged her sturdy ships and brave captains to explore every corner of the known world; who married an insignificant son of Egypt and transformed him into a king worthy to sit beside her.

"Fortunately for you," she says, smiling, "I do."

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"Don't worry," he assures her, slapping his hand on the stones below to emphasize his point, "the walls of Troy will never fall as long as Priam rules, as long as Hektor lives, as long as I fight to protect you--to protect all of you."

Cassandra flinches from his words as though from a physical blow.

"Be that as it may," she says, in an unhappy, urgent voice, "the day they do--if they do--swear to me you'll take your wife and your son and anyone else you choose and you'll run"; he cannot understand (he rarely does, when it comes to her) but then again, she has never asked him for anything else before.

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Cassie has: a house empty of brothers, a mountain of student debts, a face that no longer belongs to one of the most beautiful women in the world.

Cassie has: a head empty of visions, admission to graduate school, a boyfriend who lets her spin him around in the year’s first rain and never lets go.

Cassandra is content.

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Sophie likes her new brother-in-law very much, if not quite as much as Michael, but she has to admit it is sometimes rather awkward trying to start conversation with someone you first knew as a man-turned-dog you'd adopted--or rather, half a man-turned-dog. Sophie, though, is far too strong-minded these days to balk at awkwardness, and besides, Ben is a wizard who comes from the same world Howl does and might be able to shed some light on their strange customs.

"Do you spend two hours every morning getting ready in the bathroom too?" she asks frankly.

Ben raises his eyebrows with an air of polite befuddlement, and Sophie can't help but groan; only her wizard, it seems.

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The new lords of Prydain think of Queen Eilonwy exactly as she once used to think of her bauble: proof of a royal heritage, an excellent way to start a conversation about golden beauty if you couldn't think of anything else, but, ultimately, rather useless. At night, she fumes, "It's like asking for beeswax and getting honey instead!"; her husband, still looking rather overwhelmed from the sums necessary to determine the state of the treasury, only nods in reply.

It's not until Taran goes south to supervise the final stages of rebuilding of Mona, leaving Eilonwy in charge, and a ragged troop of bandits attacks that she is able to show them what's she's truly made of; then, rather enjoying the looks on their faces as she lowers her sword, Eilonwy says, very sweetly: "Please don't worry, my lords; your lives are safe in my hands."

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He considers, once, what it would mean to ask Priam for his daughter's hand (as a mere hypothetical exercise), outlines in his mind the endless negotiations of what Dardania might bring to the alliance and what Troy might grant in return, prepares his vows of eternal love for their princess. That would be the easy part, of course; far more difficult would be explaining his choice of bride to his father, declaring with an assurance he did not feel that her madness would not pass on to their children, praying as he presented his wife to his countrymen that one of her strange fits would not overtake her--far more difficult, and far more painful.

Later that night, he asks Cassandra for nothing more than her company at dinner.

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Lily's not entirely sure why the Head Girl has to be the one to personally guard one of the paired mirrors that Dumbledore wants to study over Easter holidays, but Professor Flitwick asked himself, and he's such a darling that she can't possibly refuse him, any more than she can help ignoring his warning and taking a peek at what this fabled mirror has to show once she's alone.

She sees: an underfed little boy in pajamas, with James's face and her eyes, standing all alone, face pressed to the glass--staring back at her as though at a stranger.

With a shudder, she covers it again.

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Joanie gets straight As and smiley-faces on all her report cards, but sometimes she gets other notes, scrawled into the margins for her parents to read; she looks anyway, since no matter how much her teachers tell her it's not polite to snoop, she figures it must not count if it's about you. It's nothing real interesting, just more about how Joanie needs to work on minding her manners (by which they mean she pointed out Miss Thomas was going to have a baby soon, seeing as how she keeps on smiling at baby pictures and carrying tiny socks in her bag and throwing up an awful lot, just like Mama did before Oren was born), and she knows Mama and Daddy will give her another long lecture on the subject when they get home.

"I was kind of a weird kid," she admits with a laugh years later, "it's probably a good thing I grew out of it" (and no one, except maybe Sherlock, notices that she can never meet their eyes when she does).

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"All right, Tonks?" calls Savage with real concern as Tonks gets up from her seat at the Leaky Cauldron. "You've been looking peak...ier recently and you felt warm; don't tell me you've chosen now to come down with 'flu!"

Tonks ignores him as she heads up the stairs, having more important things to worry about than Savage's hypochondriac tendencies; Remus might not want to be with her anymore, fine, but he could let her know Greyback hasn't torn his mind, body, or soul apart yet; and even if he doesn't owe her that much, he could at least send word that he's survived another full moon.

She is surprised but not alarmed to find the twin to her own Patronus waiting for her in her rooms, and disappointed but not surprised that its only words are a warning about the impending attack on the Montgomery house; as she turns away to grab her cloak and Apparate, however, it lunges near to nuzzle her cheek before it disappears.

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Cassandra is her favorite sister, which is not an uncommon opinion amongst the children of Priam--almost everyone wants to be known for their kindness towards poor, tormented Cassandra, but only Helenus and Hektor and Creusa manage it with any sort of sincerity; they are old enough to remember Cassandra before the curse settled upon her, before it turned her expression hard and distant and her smile a rare and cutting thing.

Creusa knows this and pities her sister, but there are times she envies her, too, resents with uncharacteristic fury the passion that illuminates Cassandra's face, the way all eyes follow where she goes, and most of all, the way immortality hangs over her; as long as men live, they will remember Cassandra, and as long as other lovely maidens are present to adore, they will forget Creusa.

"You deserve better, sister," Cassandra says, in that sweet simple way of hers, and Creusa thinks no, no, she really doesn't.

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With her name, she is consecrated to the ways of the wild, to the love of the hunt and the chase of a challenge--and she finds all her longing fulfilled on the battlefield: her namesake pursued animals, and she runs her enemies to ground; her namesake was unrivaled in honor, and so she longs to be; her namesake expects great things of her, and so too will she.

"We commend your devotion," proclaims Xerxes, shining in his armor, and she sees he imagines all her service is done only in his name; that is all that gives him the confidence to dismiss her counsel about how to deal with the Greeks as though it had no worth in his eyes.

How fortunate she has more demanding patrons to please.

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When she was a young princess in her father's court, her mother spoke to her of honor, and it seemed to her a fragile thing, to be sheltered from the world outside at all costs, until the day her husband and her family would claim it for their own. She had always been a clever child, if nothing else, and had been able to interpret her mother's words accurately: don't cause trouble, my dear, or the world will look at you askew.

Now, however, her honor seems to her a sharper, stronger thing, one that matters because of how it appears to her own eyes rather than those of others, and she protects it because it is hers and hers alone; the thought gives her courage, and she leans forward and snaps: "My terms are simple, guardsman: his life, or yours."

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When she complains, as a child, of her dancing lessons, he tells her she must learn, so as to dance with him on their wedding day; it is a joke, in a very Richard-like way, by which she means that he says it in so dry a tone that nearly three-quarters of the ears set to listening to all they say (far too many, here in the Earl of Warwick's household) believe he's serious, no matter how outrageous his words might be.

But joke or not, he says it nevertheless, and implies a world of possibilities with his words; if ever Anne had any fault (and she does, she does, too many to count), it has always been to believe Richard wholeheartedly, come what may.

Years later, when they clear the dishes away from the wedding feast, and Edward reaches expectantly for her hand, she can't help but look for Richard, foolish though it may be.

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"How does it feel," Lily asks from her comfortable sprawl on the other end of the sofa, "to be madly in love with an older woman?"

"Older?" James snorts, out of habit rather than derision; this is a familiar joke between them, after all. "Last time I checked, Mrs. Potter, you're only twenty-one, same as me."

"I'll be twenty-two in just three months, thank you very much, and tonight I feel it," she says, sitting straight to kiss him on the nose; it's hardly surprising, this mood of hers, since Halloween has always been Lily's favorite holiday, "Now watch Harry for a bit while I run upstairs, won't you, love?"

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Cassandra is, objectively, the wisest person he knows; never does she perform any action without calculating every consequence,weighing any potential advantage that might be gained. This is why it is such a surprise when, the night before Paris is due to return from enjoying the Spartan king's hospitality, she finds him, clutches his hands, and begs: "Stay with me tonight."

They sit by her hearth together--and that is all, or at least all that those who hope for gossip would be able to see--talking of nothing until the sky pales and Eos rises; he does not ask the question, but still she breathes, "This means more to me than you will ever believe."

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After losing Creusa, he thinks, she will never forgive me; after deserting Dido, he thinks, she would never approve of this; after turning his courtship of Lavinia into bloody warfare, he thinks, she would have found a better way.

It is only when he founds his small city and protects his people that he feels himself again: that shining Prince Aeneas that she knew and smiled to see.

This is what Cassandra becomes to him, in the end: not wife, not lover, but instead that unattainable pinnacle by which he measures his own worth.

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"This official meeting of the Meat and Sarcasm Society will now come to order," announces the bloke with the ponytail, tapping a gavel on the table before him even though it's just the two of them there, and Ron tries not to feel as though he's been bamboozled into joining the interdimensional equivalent of S.P.E.W.

Sure, the food's not bad, and table manners don't seem to matter much, but mostly, this bloke--Sokka--has the best head for strategizing he's ever seen, even though he doesn't seem to have heard of chess before; Ron hasn't enjoyed a game more in years, particularly not since his primary pool of competitors became Harry and Hermione, who, clever as they are in other ways, have yet to come up with a gambit Ron couldn't outthink in a matter of minutes.

Still. The moment Sokka pulls out that fake beard again, Ron's leaving, brilliant chess games be damned.

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A strange soldier stands in their hall, twirling an arrow in his hands lazily, and her uncle frowns when he catches her noticing him; "Signor Benedick of Padua," he explains in response to her questioning look, "from whom you'd best stay away, niece; he has a tongue sharp enough to wound the most stalwart of men."

But Beatrice has been coddled and protected as long as she can remember, the only remnant of the great romance between Leonato's brother and his pale, sad-eyed wife, and if this Signor Benedick will speak plainly if roughly to her, so much the better; she tires of pity in the eyes of all she meets, tires of gentleness afforded to her simply because she is her generous uncle's unfortunate niece, and so she shrugs away Leonato's restraining hand on her shoulder: "Let him say what he likes to me, Uncle; I'll return it to him doubled."

She's young enough to believe her own bravado.

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"This can never happen again," says Cassandra solemnly once she has enough breath to speak, but her lips betray her with a smile.

"Absolutely not," Aeneas agrees, and in contrast to her, guilt still lingers in his expression--this should not be happening, and certainly not with Cassandra; "for one thing, your father would never forgive me, and for another--"

"There's Hektor," she finishes with a laugh, and they turn their attention back to the problem of how to return the horses they borrowed to the royal pastures in companionable silence.

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Collateral damage, they call her in Carthage; whisper about how the King of Mycenae returned with his war-prize to his embittered wife, how the Trojan bondslave bore the consequences of Clytemnestra's rage along with Agamemnon, and he wants to shout to the skies just how much she mattered to Troy, to the royal family, to him.

Victim, repeat the rumors in Latium; they warn of her curse, how she offended the gods and was betrayed by them, how she spent her every lonely hour waiting for Troy's doom to descend, and he wants to remind them of her smiles, of her laughter, of the fact that he himself eventually learned to see beyond her madness, if late, too late.

Heroine, he says when he grows too old for the battlefield and the children demand a story of his youth; he tells of a woman who made it her business to live because Troy would not, who was never believed but saved as many as she could, whose name even he is hardly worthy of uttering (whose name he will never forget, no matter how much it hurts).

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Moonlight quotes John Foster at him as they sit by the brook, almost as though she can't help it; very likely she can't, though her passion deserves words from a nobler pen than that of an embittered apothecary's son. But all the same, what harm can it do? he thinks; Valancy has had all too few joys in her life, and if this moment reciting the prose of a man who doesn't exist by cool water will make up one of them, he can spare it easily enough.

Barney closes his eyes, his head resting on her lap, and tries not to remember how many moments make up a year.

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When he tells her in a broken whisper that he can't live without her, his wife, the one Gallifreyan in known history with the cheek to refuse the Academy's invitation, grumbles, "You Time Lords, always so sure you're the only ones who've unlocked the key to immortality,"--and if her voice is soft these days, the tone of irritation he hears in it is not; "I will," she says, with a faith he can't understand, "always be with you."

Immediately after the funeral, he takes a TARDIS and his granddaughter and sets out into the universe to find her, and find her he does: in Romana's asperity and Sarah Jane's endurance; in Jamie's loyalty and Jack's determination; in Grace's cleverness and River's shameless flaunting of the rules, and after all, she always loved roses.

She is right (she is always right): he is never alone.

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At first she jokes she left her job because she was tired of explaining that her name was Joan, not Joy; and when that doesn't work, she tries to pretend it's her life's new calling to help new trainers master their Pokemon--better that than trying to explain the crippling guilt of watching a patient fade as its ten-year-old trainer watches in horror.

And then she meets Sherlock, scion of Celadon City's wealthiest family who's left home with his Squirtle to make a name for himself thirty years late; or at least that's what she thinks until, outside Viridian City's deserted gym, he breaks his sulky silence to pull out a lockpick and pronounce: "Well, here we are."

She just looks at him in surprise, and Sherlock huffs out an exasperated breath; "Don't tell me," he demands (and some tiny part of Joan recognizes, even then, that her life will never be the same again), "you haven't heard of an organization called Team Rocket?"

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Richard is proud of his Emboar, and well should he be; the Lancasters's Pokemon all bear the marks of its claws, and he owes every one of the hard-earned badges pinned to his shirt to Emboar's resilience. Even Ned's Sunflora, splendid as it is in high noon, takes some effort to challenge it; and the less said of George's Tauros, the better.

But sometimes, between battles and contests, he remembers his Tepig, still small enough in those days for Anne to hold in her arms and absentmindedly caress as she listened to him describe his ambitions for hours, and he feels just the slightest pang of longing.

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He's known what to expect of the Elite Four as long as he can remember, his one goal to defeat them before they destroy his family: there's Edward, who favors Fighting Pokemon, William with his affinity for Ice and Water, Somerset, who's never met a Psychic Pokemon he couldn't twist to dangerous ends, and last but certainly not least, Margaret and her carefully trained team of Dark Pokemon.

This is why it is such a terrible surprise when he steps into the hall of his final challenger before he can be declared Champion, and finds the one woman he never expected to see in this Lancaster-infested building staring back at him.

"I'm sorry," mouths Anne as she fumbles at her belt, or perhaps he only imagines it; either way, it doesn't matter: her Rapidash is free of its Pokeball and furious, racing towards him with its horn pointed at his heart.