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Title: In a Yellow Wood
Author: Ceaena
Fandom: xxxHOLiC/The Last Unicorn
Chapter: One-shot
Warnings: PG, probably. Not intended to be actual femmeslash, but if you're violently allergic to that, you might have issues with this.

She met the witch in a yellow wood, leaning up against a poplar tree on the riverbank.

Molly was not sure how she knew the woman was a witch; the witches in the plays put on sometimes in the town square were always misshapen, twisted and gnarled in on themselves, while this was the most beautiful woman she had ever seen, with pale, pale skin and hair falling down her back in great dark strands like the lines of words across the pages of Molly's fairy tales. Rather than ragged, mismatched scraps, she was draped in a long garment the color and texture of deep water; it might have been the raiment Venus lost when she rose from the sea. She was flipping idly through a magazine.

Molly lingered at the edge of the road, knowing that she should continue walking as though she had seen nothing unusual but unable to convince herself to act on it. Her mother and her mother's mother and the plays in the village square on feast days were all drearily matter-of-fact about what young maidens who disturbed witches could expect for their foolishness - transformation or death for those who failed to please them and the loss of one's soul for those who succeeded - but even so, she hesitated. Took a step toward the bank, then back. Shifted her basket to the other arm. Hesitated again.

The witch raised her head from her magazine, one eyebrow raised. "Would you just get down here already?"

Rejoicing silently even as her hands shook, Molly hurried down the slope to the bank, pleased to have herself absolved of responsibility for the action so neatly; she could perhaps be condemned for approaching a witch, but only the most foolish would ignore a witch who had approached her. Once in front of the witch, however, years' worth of tales illustrated by flickering candlelight shadows - as well as a good smattering of plain common sense - froze her tongue and made her take a sudden interest in the corner of cloth sticking out from her basket.

Molly risked a glance up at the witch and, seeing that the other was clearly waiting for her to begin, quickly racked her mind for something to say, something to keep the witch's attention, even if it were only for a moment. "Did you have business with our village?" Molly asked faintly, forcing her tongue to form words that suddenly tasted foreign in her own mouth. She resolutely put aside the thought that the witch may have laid an enchantment to give them a common language; she would be able to think on it for nights and nights to come as she waited to fall asleep, but later.

A muscle twitched in the witch's cheek, and Molly feared that perhaps the question had offended her, but she remained resolutely where she stood, and the witch made no move toward her. "I was visiting a wizard."

"But this village has no wizard, have we?" Molly inquired as politely as she knew how, unsure of whether it was worse to contradict a witch or to deceive one.

"That's why I'm here now," the witch snapped, turning a page in the magazine so violently that it ripped, and Molly, thinking there was nothing to be said to that, said nothing. A silence that should have been uncomfortable fell as Molly stood and watched the witch page through the magazine, scowling down at it as though contemplating whether or not it could be used as a substitute for the wizard himself, and how long it might last if it could.

"Well?" the witch finally asked, her tone still colored with annoyance as she cast the magazine aside with a final theatrical flourish and fixed Molly with a steady gaze.

"I'm sorry?" Molly stammered, feeling that it was a good thing indeed that she'd entered the conversation with no expectations of being able to keep up.

"Hitsuzen," the witch shrugged, using the unfamiliar word so expectantly that Molly almost felt she understood her meaning with no further explanation. "If you came here, it's because you have a wish." She rose, righting her skirt with a careless brush of the hand before stretching as though she'd just woken from a dream and sought to reacquaint herself with the limits of her body. "Of course, if you expect me to grant it, you'll have to provide a proper payment. Nothing unreasonable." She grinned.

Well, that's the end of that, Molly thought regretfully, and bowed awkwardly, with no more idea of how to end a conversation with a witch than she'd had of how to begin one. "I'm sorry. There's nothing I need," she began haltingly, but without stepping back.

"But you want something," the witch asserted in a tone that brooked no argument, and hearing that which would have been an accusation anywhere else turned into a simple statement of fact was enough.

Molly hesitated only a second longer before deciding that if she were in any danger, it was almost certainly too late to simply walk away now, and if she wasn't in danger yet, it was not likely that simply hearing the price could put her there. "I want to see something out of the very oldest stories and legends. A - a unicorn," she declared, deciding that if she were going to do the thing, she would do it properly. "What would you charge for a wish like that?"

The witch tilted her head back and exhaled in a long, steady stream, as though she were either smoking a pipe or wanting one very badly. "You couldn't afford it. For all practical purposes, unicorns disappeared long ago."

"You mean... the unicorns are gone? Forever?" Molly asked, not bothering to swallow the tremor in her voice, for it was one thing to be told so by villagers who only cared about magic if it interfered with the crops and quite another to be told so by a beautiful witch while a haze of summer heat blurred the fine lines of the familiar scenery around them.

"I didn't say that," the witch corrected, her expression one of something that Molly might have taken as amusement had she not felt the unexpected urgency of the situation pressing in on her until it was nearly intolerable.

"Then if I changed my wish? If I wanted there to be unicorns again?" Molly half-pleaded. It had been some time since she'd been child enough to feel that the world rested on the answer to a single question, and she had forgotten the sensation. She thought perhaps she understood why people had to outgrow it.

"There is no way you could afford the payment for that wish either," the witch replied without hesitation, and for a moment Molly also understood precisely what one could lose in dealing with a witch. Before the impression could gain any more substance than the fitful threats of the shadow witches, however, the witch continued. "The price must be equal to the service provided. A wish as extensive as that leads to a very large payment indeed."

"Then what can I afford?" Molly asked wretchedly.

"The whole story would be a bit much, but you can begin it, at any rate," the witch smiled. "However," her tone changed abruptly, and while she did not exactly move, her posture subtly shifted, "it is entirely possible that whatever effects come of it may not take place within your lifetime. Even if the unicorns did return, and did so while you still lived, there is no guarantee that you will ever see one. You may yet find that you would prefer it that way." The witch held Molly's gaze a moment longer, then smirked. "Do you want to know the payment?"

"No." Molly shook her head, allowing the painful grip she'd had on her basket to loosen, for the witch's warnings had steadied her; if even true magic must abide by its limitations so strictly, it was not something so foreign as to be overwhelming. "Because, well... there must be unicorns in the world, mustn't there? That's the only thing that matters. If I can do something, take what you will."

The witch stepped close, the motion fluid with the unself-conscious ease usually found in only the wildest creatures, who have never known safety and so do not bother with fear, and lifted Molly's chin up with a finger, looking into her face with great interest. " 'I'll sacrifice anything.' That certainly sounds romantic, doesn't it? A great many things do, when said like that. Unfortunately, the reality of the repercussions is rarely quite as glamorous." Her eyes fixed on Molly's expression for a moment, then her lips twitched ruefully. "Of course, I'm just talking to myself now." And the witch kissed her.

The witch's lips against hers were very like the witch herself, firm and expectant without harshness, and Molly, with a jolt of detached amusement, realized that she could no more imagine herself questioning her in this than in anything else that had occurred. She began to respond, and at first her lips were as clumsy as her fingers had been in picking up a pen for the first time, but she willingly followed along with the witch's slow, patient movements. The instant her lips parted, however, a small sound like a marigold's glory caught in the back of her throat, the witch's warmth disappeared, and the air Molly breathed was her own again.

The witch tapped her fingers against her lips thoughtfully. "These days it's all about specialization and division of labor, but it used to be quite the cliché, you know," she sighed, shaking her head in mock-disgust at the world's inconsistency. "The power of a maiden's first kiss was something of a cure-all - breaking enchantments, altering the course of a life, discharging gambling debts, and the like." She paused. "Of course, so were unicorn horns," she added with a shrug.

Molly, who had not the faintest idea what she had just gained or lost, only that she had, did not respond.

The witch did not seem to mind. She put her lips to her palm gently and without urgency, as one paying their respects to the god their parents believed in when they were young, then blew a breath lightly across it. Molly saw nothing, but she stared up after it until the golden light of late afternoon dulled and lost its radiance, and the witch left her alone.


In a faraway tower, a butterfly tumbled out of a tapestry. The abruptness of it all seemed not to bother him; he somersaulted three or four times more than necessary before straightening out one wing, sending himself careening to the side and out a window. He breathed in, inhaling until he nearly split his skin like a chrysalis. "Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle," he sang, freefalling for a moment before extending his wings and letting the breeze carry him along. "The owl and the pussycat too; journeys end in lovers meeting. Oh Amie, come sit on my wall..."
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