Season's Greetings
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The man who would be Spring landed in the town square on the charred remains of the fountain. The woman who would be Winter was there to welcome him. She was tall, and wore a colourful patterned coat, and her hair was white as the sky. "Oh, don't be so dramatic," she said, seeing her brother's scowl. "What's a woman with no body gonna do? Of course I got it dyed for the occasion. Found a bunch of folks in Alice Springs - last hairdressers on the planet. You don't like it?"

"Sure, long as you manage to keep it that way for the next hundred years," he replied. With nary a further glance he folded his wings behind him and skulked down the main street. "Where's the other two?"

"Our sister's got everything all set up. Our brother's said he's on his way. Are those cormorant wings, my dear? What, off scaring little children again?"

He ignored her. "Got anything to drink? One of us here's just flown five thousand klicks through space and time, and he hasn't had a drop since morning."

She skipped ahead of him. "Oh, grow up. We're all tired. It took a lot to make this meeting happen, you know. How was Winter?"

"Marvelous. It was still as a grave. And I had to watch a dog die of frostbite."

"So you liked it, then?"

"Oh, fuck off." He pulled his wings over his head. "Let's just get this done with."

"Can never tell with you," grumbled the woman. "Myself, I always like it when I'm Winter. It's like Christmas for a hundred years."

"That's because you don't feel the cold."

"Can't feel the cold, dear brother. There's a difference. You should learn to be more sensitive."

The man chuckled, fluffing his feathers up. "A strange thing to say for a woman who don't feel nothing no more."

She socked him in the shoulder and laughed. Together, they left wet footprints down the ash of Main Street. At the end of the street was a church, or the remains of one. The roof had caved in a long time ago, and from the altar grew the roots of a fledgling banyan. There was a buzzing hum of a generator somewhere, and wires ran from behind the altar to a trapdoor located just beside the nave. The woman in the coloured coat stopped in front of the trapdoor, squatted down, and opened it a crack. "I found him," she called.

"Come in," called the voice from within. The woman crawled down the ladder into the fluorescent-lit crypt below. The man followed, cautiously, feet-first, taking care not to brush his wings against the door or the ground. "And keep that damn thing closed, you'll let more of the ash in."

"Sorry," mumbled Second Brother, gently letting the door fall shut. His feathers twitched uncomfortably. After all the trouble of setting up the lights, hadn't his sisters thought to run a fan down here?

"Where'd you find him? Where's the other one?" asked Little Sister as her brother and sister clambered down the stone steps. She was small and wrapped in a shawl, and wore thick jade-coloured glasses that hid her eyes. The shawl had been patterned with orange leaves: in a few hours she would be Autumn.

"He said he'd be on his way. You know how he is, with his friends," explained Big Sister.

"Well, he and us need to have a word," sulked the girl.

"I'm sure he'll be along soon enough." The tall woman ambled down to the center of the crypt, where a rough wooden table had been placed. On it was a hot-water-kettle and four cups, as well as a black leather case. There were four chairs around the table - the same ones as the last time, observed Second Brother with pursed lips - scavenged from the ruins of the city, and Little Sister was sitting in the largest one, an upright office swivel chair inlaid with cushions, only lightly singed, and with twin holes cut out in the back. In her lap was her book, thick with ink and growing thicker by the day.

"That's not your chair, you know," he said.

Little Sister pouted. "I need to take notes."

"Well, eff off. If it's that heavy you can take notes on the floor." He stretched in the confined space, brushing the ceiling with his elbows, and his back clicked like a zipper. Then he pulled out a chair and turned it around and sat with the backrest between his legs, letting his wings hang free. He hated these meetings, necessary as they were, if only because they were hosted mainly by Little Sister, because she had always been the most punctual of them all, and she was neither pleasant company nor a good host. If it weren't for the extratemporal requirements, he would rather have picked a better place than the old crypt in the Silent City - perhaps an abandoned penthouse in old Dubai, or the absolutely stunning Hilton ballroom of the Brightly-Lit City - redecorated, of course …

"Hey, c'mon. We're family here." Big Sister slid a steaming cup of tea across to him. Second Brother shook his head with a disagreeable frown, but took the cup anyway. The smell was disagreeably non-alcoholic, and stung his nose. He took a cautious sip. It was some barely-palatable blend of ginger and jasmine. No doubt one of Little Sister's latest ideas. There was something not quite right about the taste - too squarish? too flowery? He produced an old cotton hankerchief from a pocket in his coat, pretended to dab his mouth, and discretely spat the infusion out.

"I saw that, asshole." Little Sister sighed, staring at her book. "For a big brother, you sure don't act like one."

"Now listen here - " snapped Big Sister, before her voice was drowned out by a gurgling in the wall. The limestone flexed, and cracked, and something in the shape of a man coalesced from within, pouring out like spilt ink. He took a moment to dust himself off, and adjusted the lapels of his coat. In a moment he was seated and regarded the other occupants of the crypt with a smile that uncomfortably reminded Second Brother of a brand new piano. Second Brother rolled his eyes and turned away, involuntarily taking another sip of the aggressively bland tea. Yes, that was it - aggressively bland. He decided that he would never get used to that taste. Or his brother's smile.

"Third Brother," greeted Little Sister through clenched teeth.

"I'm glad we could finally get this together," rasped Third Brother, ignoring the chill that had set into the room.

Big Sister curtsied. "And I'm glad you could make it after all. You are a busy man."

Third Brother slicked his hair back. It was wet with something dark. "People to meet, things to do. Shall we get to business?"

Big Sister slid him a steaming cup over the table. He received it graciously with both hands and took a long, loud sip. If the tea was unpalatable he showed no signs of it. "So how was Spring?" she asked, cordially.

"Oh, it pretty much ran itself. I'm not one for these warmer weathers. I did meet the nicest pair of people down in Boston, you wouldn't believe the things they've done to their town - "

"Spring isn't that warm," murmured Little Sister.

"- and Route 40's absolutely amazing this time of year. Simply the best people you'll ever meet - and places too. Brother, I should bring you and Big Sis sometime, show you the sights -"

"You always say that," observed Second Brother.

"- of course, you always like your parties demure, don't you, so anyway, what's the order of the day?"

Little Sister sat up and adjusted her glasses. She flipped backwards through her book and, with great effort, heaved it onto the table so that the pages were square with Third Brother beside her. "Order of the day is someone's not been doing their job. 'Ran itself', my ass."

A look of concern crept across Third Brother's face. "Oh dear. Well, would you mind telling me what happened? I left my reading glasses at a wrong turn in Albuquerque."

Little Sister tapped on the small raised symbols with her finger. "The frost didn't stop in fifty-seven cities this year. London didn't see the sun until June!"

"London never sees the sun," observed Third Brother. "Anyway, I couldn't very well turn down my invitation. It simply doesn't do to turn down an American."

"Who was it this time? The High Court? The City Fae?"

"Nothing quite so pretentious. Just Empress Fear and her consort Loathing. A pair of fine ladies, all things considered." He looked down at his manicured hands nervously. "Listen, the Europes are pretty much a ghost town these days anyway."

"Ghost town my ass. Stetsonburg wants his lost sunshine back. As do Paris, and Kosice. That's a whole load of pissed-off cities, brother."

"And not unimportant ones too," added Big Sister sternly.

"It's only a one-time thing."

"It is so not a one-time thing. I thought to check the records more closely this time and turns out you've been pissing off almost every year of the last cycle. And the one before that, too! Two years ago you missed the Urals! The year before that, Cebu and New South Wales!"

"They aren't big on Christmas down under, dear."

"Don't dear me. I've got logs of you skeeving off for pages and pages. It's like - it's like you don't even give a shit about clearing the Contract any more!"

"Ah, knock off the act," sighed Third Brother. He coughed, a hacking, prolonged cough, and smoke escaped his lips With the palm of his hand, he waved it away. "Y'all chewing me out for missing a spot or two, and none of you thought to cover me?"

Second Brother set down the tea and looked him in the eye. "We all have our arrangements and responsibilities. You and me ain't one for loving the job, but we at least ought to get the essentials done. We can't cover for one another. Our Contract still stands, whether you like it or not."

Little Sister nodded. "And some of us ain't exactly been sitting easy these couple hundred years." Carefully, she set the book down on her lap, and removed her glasses with both hands. Her bone-white eyes gleamed in the crypt's electric lights. "Contract's only up when it says it's up. And the only way it's up is if we all do our job right."

Third Brother shifted in his chair. He had nothing to say.

"That means you, little brother," said Big Sister. "It's the dawn of a new cycle. I know we don't see each other much, and whenever we meet it's never exactly smiles and games, but we've got a duty to each other. As family. Okay?"

"Mmph," he muttered.

Second Brother cleared his throat. "Now that that's out of the way, shall we get on to more pressing matters? I didn't come five thousand klicks through stasespace into the Silent City just to hear y'all chew our dear brother out. The handover, if you please, Big Sister?"

Big Sister nodded. "Yes, yes, the handover." She carefully moved the hot-water kettle and the teacups to the edge of the table and reached over for the black leather case. Its catch was in the shape of a double-snake; she undid it, and the two halves slid open with an audible hiss. Inside, the new cycle's Contract gleamed bleach-white. Carefully, Big Sister removed it from the case, holding it by the corners, and laid it flat on the rough wooden table as best as she could, with each quadrant of the exquisitely decorated square oriented towards each of them.

"Now, remember. We're in this for the next hundred years together. We're not just survivors. We're chosen. And this is not merely our compensation, it is our sworn duty - whether we like it or not. Little Sis, if you please?"

She passed a half-filled teacup to the blind girl, who picked it up between her thumb and forefinger. Delicately, she splashed a drop of tea on her thumb, and called in a voice high and clear:

"I, Summer, of the midday noon, do swear upon the warm monsoon, to take up the mantle of Autumn's glow."

Ceremoniously, she felt for the corner of her quadrant, and pressed her thumb down with a resolute finality. "Let's not fuck it up," she added.

Big Sister nodded, and took the teacup from Little Sister's hands. She dabbed a finger in the teacup, smeared her fingerprint on her quadrant, and spoke in a voice measured and calm:

"I, Autumn, of the falling leaves, do swear upon the sunset's eaves, to take up the mantle of Winter's gloom."

Second Brother wet three fingers in the cup, shook them half-dry, and recited in a voice low and loud:

"I, Winter, of the midnight chill, do swear upon the snowy hills, to take up the mantle of Spring's young light."

He pressed his three fingers down on his quadrant, and passed the teacup carefully to Third Brother, who glanced around the table. Big Sister met his eyes, and motioned for him to continue. Little Sister sank into her seat with folded arms and watched him with a wary gaze. Second Brother simply sat and shrugged. "If this were anything else," he explained, "I'd advise against signing to a promise you can't keep. But this ain't the kind promise you and I don't keep, brother. This is the only way we can be free."

In a lower voice he whispered, "If it ain't for you, then do it for them."

So Third Brother stood up, dipped his thumb into the cup, and spoke: "Alright. You all got me. I've had my weaknesses, my fair share of mistakes. If I mess this up again, you all have the right to crucify me. Deal?"

There was no reply. So Third Brother continued, in a voice that was like a song:

"I, Spring, of the rising sun, do swear upon new life begun, to take up the mantle of Summer's blaze. And there we go." The sigils on the Contract shimmered, and it made a sound like a sigh.

The new Autumn stood up first, clutching her book to her chest. "I'd love to stay and catch up on the good times, but I have a ride I can't miss" she said. "Not all of us can fly, you know." With a twirl of her shawl, she was gone, taking the hot-water kettle with her and leaving behind a smell of jasmine and ginger and warm cider.

The woman who was now Winter started packing the case under the table. "I'm sorry she was so harsh on you, brother. But you understand how much finishing the Contract means to her."

Spring rose to help her. He pushed in the chairs and emptied the teacups. "It sure means a lot to you too. Even if you don't often show it, I can tell."

Winter's clothes shifted. "Well, my condition, I've come to terms with it. Learnt to live with it. I've got my ways. She hasn't, you understand. She's too young, still remembers what it was like before. Before the storms, and the disappearances, and - all this." She swept her hand around the room. "She misses it. For all we know, the man lied to us, and this Contract thing is a full-time-job." Spring discerned the faint hints of a blush - or what passed as one, anyway, for someone like his sister.

"Sure ain't seeing anyone else around here to take it up," muttered Spring. He got up and stretched his wings. "I think you should be on your way. Don't want to miss your first frost in three hundred years."

"Do I ever?" Winter laughed, sleighbell-chime. "We should leave more time for our next handover. It would be much more comfortable so." With that, she faded into her clothes and disappeared.

And then the brothers were alone.

Spring turned to the new Summer. "You were lying," he said. He eased himself onto the table. "Fear and Loathing don't go to Boston, not when it's Spring season. Far too sunny for their liking. What's wrong, brother?"

Summer undid his coat, letting the dark folds of fabric fall to his feet. He eased himself against the wall, letting his form spread gently into the gaps between the stones. "There are bigger things in Boston than Fear and Loathing, brother."

Spring tilted his head. "You were searching for sonething."

"No, not quite." Summer let his smile extend. "I had been searching for quite a while. Last Spring, you see, I finally found it."

"Found what?"

The smile was intolerable. "A way out."

Spring glanced over his shoulder. There was nothing else left in the crypt; it was just he and his brother. At the look of his brother's face, Summer cleared his throat and continued:

"I met Death in Jerusalem, a couple cycles ago. The new one, with zer own Contract and Compensation and everything. Nice lad. We go a ways back, don't you know? Why, I remember still the very night we - just the two of us - "

Spring waved his words away. "Yes, yes, I know all that. What's next?"

Summer flexed his form, and scratched behind his ears. "Well, ze used to be a florist, did you know that? That's how ze keeps the world in line. I was Spring when I first met zer, then and there, and over coffee on the top of the Masada ze handed me a bundle of four fresh bulbs, tied together with string. Ze said that they might've been of interest to me. I told zer thank you, but I wasn't the gardening type, never had the green thumb. Ze shook their head, and said that I misunderstood. You see, dear brother, the bulbs hadn't aged a day since they'd been plucked."

Spring's jaw dropped. "That can't be right."

"Exactly." Summer's smile ran wide against the walls. "Somehow or other, my good friend Death happened to chance upon the last four Unclaimed in the world."

Realisation dawned. "Four of them. Four of us."

"That's right, brother-of-mine. They're under Boston."

"Why Boston? It's hardly the most magical of places."

"Not on the surface. But beneath, there's old stuff, the good old stuff, the stuff that came before we did. Rich stuf, tunnels beyond time. Raw stasespace. The subway didn't go like the rest of the city did, you see. It's got memories in it. A history. When the singularity hit, it snaked and thrashed and refused to be part of the new world. Now, there were four people in one of those trains at that time, four people, a family, just like us - and so there they remained, trapped between the stations, trapped between the hours… "

"A family, huh? How convenient." Spring gazed thoughtfully at his brother's shadow. "How do I know you're not shitting me?"

Summer approximated a shrug. "These tunnels, it's not the easiest thing in the world to go down them and come back up. Even for folks like us, with our wings and wraith form and all? See, I wager Death zerself knew exactly where those folks were, the moment ze picked up their flowers - what good is being Death if ze couldn't otherwise? - even ze wouldn't have touched them. Believe me when I say I've been down there a couple times or five." He parted a fold in his form that hadn't been there before, and the shadow beneath was withered and worn thin like tracing paper. For the first time, Spring noticed the faint pallor in his form and the tiredness under his eyes.

"So… what do you reckon you're gonna do?"

Summer composed himself, reached inwards, and produced a small, wrapped bundle. "Try as I could, being Spring apparently isn't good enough for blooming them." He let the bundle fall open just enough for Spring to see the bulbs wrapped within, and Spring caught a faint whiff of grass and desert sand. "Maybe I'll catch better luck this time."

"You didn't tell our sisters."

"You know how they are."

"Right, right. You gonna go on your lonesome?"

"You're not going to stop me?"

Spring smiled and hopped off the table. "That's not what a brother would do. And you likely won't want my help either."

"You know me too well." Summer returned the smile. It seemed a little less straight, and a little more worn. He reached out a hand, and Spring shook it. "Take care."

"You too."

There was a flapping of wings and a puff of smoke, and the crypt was empty once again. Above the space that once was, twilight shone on the ruins of the Burnt City.

And so the seasons went.

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