When Rachael finally arrives some hours later, Leo is busy playing with a tumble of Lego blocks. They're not the result of the same unpremeditated shopping spree that saw him abruptly acquire comic books and a 3DS - rather, they're something Angel found in a plastic bucket at the back of a cupboard, when she thought to go looking, from when she was a kit herself, and he cherishes them all the more for it. A brand new set of Legos never has quite that same feel as a well-worn mixture that has been used to make any number of structures in the past.
He's toying with the limitations of the pieces, connecting a single corner edge-spur one above the next to force them to unexpected arrangements of hexagons that hold themselves together, when an unexpectedly loud knock rings out. Rachael apparently has no compunctions about giving the door a decent level of what-for, like a muscular Mary Poppins without the umbrella.
Angel, who has been waiting in the living room for her friend to return, gets the door well before he can, even with a burst of speed that leaves unstable hexagons crumbling downward to carpet behind him. Leo is really eager to see her again for reasons he couldn't quite enunciate even if you asked him, mostly having to do with seeing her as a friend-by-proxy, who is therefore coming over to play with him in a sense, even if it's due to being friends with his new mum first.
Rachael is looking unexpectedly spritely, a gleam in her eye, despite earlier assertions regarding mares from Marevalley and their proximity to draft-horses. She has a casual pale brown vest over dark green and black camo trousers, and reminds Leo of one of the Spice Girls, although naturally he can't recall which one, because that was before his time, and any association is through music video re-runs to which he wasn't, really, paying much attention. Exercise seems to agree with her, and though she's clearly changed into something casual, she's still feeling it.
"Glad you could make it sister," exclaims Angel, one step away from a secret handshake. The lioness smiles and Racheal grins back with that incorrigible expression.
"It's the least I can do for ya. How's the kid?"
"Oh, he's good. Isn't that right Leo?"
"Hi Miss Rachael!"
"Heya Leo, it's good to see you again," she replies sincerely. "We are totally gonna have fun."
"I'd best be off to that meeting now," interjects Angel hastily, sweeping up over her arm a pale, bark-leather carrying bag, purse meets satchel, that she uses to carry documents for these slightly more formal sorts of events. "You have fun Leo! And Rachael, don't get him into too much trouble, okay?" She backs hastily out the door, but it's clear she's not really serious.
Leo gets half a hug from her spare arm, then waves good-bye after they're parted as long as she's still in sight. He hopes that her meeting doesn't take too long, even if it does mean that he gets to hang out with Rachael, because she is the best mum ever and shouldn't have to go to meetings.
Once she's out of view, he looks up at the adult canine who's been left in charge. "Thanks for coming over here to look after me," he says in a very sincere, grown-up way.
"You're welcome kiddo. Now how about we watch a movie together, eh? Or instead we could go for a walk in the park if you like, it's still early."
"I'd rather watch a film," suggests Leo. The park is an unknown quantity, if he's going there for the first time he was rather it was with Angel, during the morning. Maybe next weekend.
"A film it is then," she responds solemnly. She's not run into an almost twelve-year-old who calls them films instead of movies before, but maybe he takes his cinema seriously.
Angel has a mid-sized collection of old DVDs from the days before movie streaming, so as Rachael settles herself comfortably on the couch, he makes his way over to the bookshelf and has a look at the available titles. There's a copy of 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit?', an animated classic that nearly drove its basset-hound detective, acting opposite an unseen imaginary cartoon rabbit, completely batty. Leo feels it draws interesting comparisons with 'Donnie Darko' which he isn't supposed to have seen on account of being too young, for reasons no-one seems to be able to precisely explain. As with the Akira comic books, he managed to watch it anyway and enjoyed the crazy. And then of course there's the black and white 'Harvey' which could be said to be the genesis of both.
"Oh, good choice kid!" Rachel applauds, not quite literally. "That was one of my favourite movies back when I was a cub. Good times."
"Same miss," replies Leo, but sniffles slightly, and hides his face against his sleeve. "I used to watch this film a lot with my dad... before he left..."
"Aw, I'm sorry to hear that honey," Rachael sighs sympathetically, and places her arm round his shoulder as he climbs back up onto the couch and nestles up next to her. The DVD player whirs as it draws in the disc and loads the selection screen. She gives him a look of infinite understanding.
"At least I have Angel and her family to look after me now, right?" he tries.
"You can count me in love. I'll help look after you however I can."
They spend the evening watching the film. Angel, it turns out, does have popcorn, although Leo is certain that she would not approve of the melted butter and dusting of caster sugar that Rachael lets him have, although she doesn't indulge in the added toppings herself.
Best, perhaps, to conceal the evidence by eating it. But maybe not while laughing at Roger Rabbit, in case you inhale the powdered sugar.
Leo falls asleep after the popcorn but before the end, possibly from the excitement of the day and the unexpected amount of swimming he found he was capable of. He's seen the film often enough not to have missed anything, but when he wakes again some indeterminate amount of time later on, nuzzled into the crook of Rachaels furry shoulder, he's indescribably grateful that she would be willing to just stay still for so long and put her arms around him, not even disturbing him after it was all over. "I love you aunt," he says stupidly whilst he's still fuzzy from sleeping, then feels all embarrassed for just blurting it out like that. "I'm sorry, that was silly."
Rachael is surprised at first, but then just goes with it and sort of rocks him gently a little bit.
"You're welcome. You can call me your aunt any time you like.".
It seems he's rubbing off on her. If Angel is going to be his mum, why shouldn't she be his aunt? It isn't something she's seriously considered likely, having children at some point, she'd need to find a male who wasn't an idiot and it would probably wreck her figure, so it's always been something that might happen later on, not now. But Leo answers all objections, and since it's Angel who has decided to jump in the deep end first and adopt him, maybe she can call him practice for that later on, should it ever happen.
He gets all blushy and smiley at her acceptance, and it's hella cute.
He's still looking a little out of it, though, and so when he lets out a small yawn and curls drowsily back into her shoulder, she gives him a friendly nudge.
"How about you go get some shut-eye?" she suggests. "It's getting late."
Leo glances at the living room clock, which has somehow wound its way around to a nine o'clock right angle without him even noticing. "Yeah... I'm a bit tired... kind of a busy day..."
Though it's not something she'd do every time, she leads him back up the stairs to his bedroom and encourages him to get changed, mainly to make sure that he doesn't fall asleep again halfway through taking his clothes off, or some other 'Funniest Home Videos' type silliness. Plus, she'd feel kind of bad about waking him up again, just to get him into bed.
"If you want, I could read you a story before you go to sleep," she hints, figuring that this will hold his attention long enough to get him tucked in.
"Uh... yeah... I'd really like that. Thanks Rachael!"
"You get changed now. I'll be back up once I've found us a book!"
Leo still has enough presence of mind to shamble into the bathroom to brush his teeth, removing little fragments of popcorn out from between the fangs, and give his mouth a thorough rinse. The yawn in the mirror shows him they still look good, so he wanders his way back into his bedroom and fumbles on his pyjamas, missing a button.
Rachael knocks gently and politely this time, showing all the restraint skipped over on her initial entrance at the front door. Because rationalizing his way through fixing the sequence of buttons is just too hard at this point, he settles for kicking some of the stray Lego blocks from earlier hastily under the bed so she won't step on them, though the bucket sitting there overflowing with bricks is not exactly something anyone could miss.
"Come in!" he replies, giving his head a quick shake to stay alert, and starts climbing in-between the covers, to try and at least look like he's reasonably organized.
There's a chair next to his bed and a desk that he can use for homework and the like, so Rachael re-arranges the layout slightly to seat herself at a comfortable angle overlooking his shoulder.
"You comfy little one?" she checks before she starts reading. He fluffs the sheets up and down one or two times, to get everything all airy and light, then nods his head for her to begin. "Which book would you like me to read?"
The books she's found are a couple of perennial childrens favourites, but then Leo surprises her by reaching under his pillow and pulling out a far more worn and tattered, obviously well-loved volume called 'Tales of the Animal Kingdom."
She's heard of it, but never read it personally, so she takes the cracking spine carefully between two fingers and reads the blurb on the back, thinking that she should at least have some idea of what sort of story she'll be telling.
"'Tales of the Animal Kingdom' is a literary classic by Chinese scholar 'Five-Fold Wolf' also known as 'he of the three thousand characters' in some sources, a reference to his desire to re-tell traditional stories simply and without the unnecessary elaboration of many of his fellows. Because of this simple style, resembling a script or play, his works are a favorite for translation to Western languages and are well known internationally."
Well, this seems interesting. She reads on.
"'This book is an anthology that collects several related stories occurring in past dynasties, during a period of time approximately equivalent to the European medieval era. Because of this, the stories are often translated as though they were occurring in this context, with the main character, 'Eight-Lucky-Lion' usually rendered in Romance languages as 'Leonardo the Knight'."
Ah, so that's why Leo likes it so much! It has him as the hero of his own manga, engaging in deeds of derring-do and fighting dangerous monsters.
"The most famous of these is 'Tale of the Wolf Warrior who fought Demons' which seems to reflect certain originally Japanese influences, especially in the code of honorable single combat known as bushido, with its similarities to concurrent Western chivalric ideals."
The rest of the blurb is not very interesting - such and such is a scholar at Cambridge specializing in Oriental Studies and has also translated whatever - so she cracks open the book itself and has a quick look at the contents. It seems unobjectionable enough, in that scholarly translation way that glosses over anything a little too explicit with tact and implications only.
The volume falls open naturally at 'The Wolf Warrior who fought Demons' even before Leo gets a chance to tell her that's the story he wants, so she makes sure he's snug and starts reading. When she forgets that she's narrating, her voice has a thrilling depth and growl that gives the tale a real stir, like something told on a dark night after the poetry contest fizzled, and everyone ordered hot sake instead and sat down to listen to the white-haired old wolf in the corner telling truly epic lies about adventure in his long-ago youth.
"Could you...um, maybe...uh.." interrupts Leo hesitantly.
"Yes, honey?" she suggests, trying to get him to open up.
"Do you think you could maybe, like... cuddle up next to me?" Leo suggests, and then blushes just slightly in a way that reminds her once again that for all his attempts to be grown up, he's still just a kid and there's not even the slightest trace of innuendo there. Rachael chuckles to herself.
"It's fine love, honestly I don't mind at all."
She moves the chair nearer to the bed, and and he wriggles over sideways to the edge so they can get closer together. It puts her tail into easy reach and he snuggles up to it, sort of like a comforter or a toy animal, clutching at the tip with both hands up against his shoulder. She smiles warmly at him and begins again from where she left off, adjusting the length of narrow ribbon that functions ineffectually as a bookmark, to free up the loose pages.
The story seems to start at the end of a previous mission, like a medieval James Badger. Leonardo the mighty slayer of demons has just taken down a terrifying creature escaped from the seventh hell, complete with a picturesque description of the cuts which have finally killed it, how its blood burns the earth, and strange patterns of scaly skin like a snake which can be seen where plates of its armour have been torn. He is being aided in patching up his own injuries by his ally, a celestial lioness who is described in translation as an angel but seems to have all the attributes of a lesser goddess, including luminescent fur that glows like sunlight, and a dress made from a single broad length of silk that winds itself around her of its own accord as though alive. She 'descends from heaven at his impassioned plea, that he may be victorious through his prayers.'
She can see why the medieval translation was tempting. It aligns nicely with the mindset of those times. But she's starting to feel a real sense of recognition, as though she read something like this before or it was told to her, only sort of softer and with fewer details. Perhaps some sort of heavily reduced and redacted kids version of the same, in that enormous Treasury of Stories that she had when she was little? It had at least a hundred well-known childrens stories in it, trimmed to their absolute minimum to fit, some from very far afield. She remembers a few of them, 'The Cub Who Painted Cats' with its prototypical lucky cat from Japan, and 'The Tale of the City of Brass' with its early archaeological expedition in the Arabian Empty quarter. They stuck with her because they were so very different from the usual 'once upon a time' nonsense, just like this.
Her mother used to read her some of the stories. Perhaps that's where she remembers it from?
Leo falls asleep only a couple of pages in, but she keeps reading, trying to track down a memory. A faint "....g'nite aun Ra'chl," followed by the sounds of slow and steady breathing suggest that he's safely off to dreamland and no longer listening, but she finishes the first part aloud, just in case he can still hear her. He still has a grasp on her tail and she wants to let him settle.
Leonardo, meanwhile, has attracted the wrathful ire of a demon queen, who is seemingly slightly attracted to him in a very tsundere sort of way. It's all very 'la dame belle sans merci' which again flows nicely into the medievalist translation. Unable to defeat him in combat, the demon queen is sneaky instead and lures him into a castle, using his courtly manners against him, demanding that he join her at table for drinking and feasting to daze his senses, insisting the he escort her back to her bedchamber as befits a lady, finally biting him and 'squeezing her venoms insidiously into his very veins, laughing as he falls and crawls and struggles but cannot escape.'
The wolf warrior, being a most pure and noble knight, calls upon the heavens to save him and his angel appears in a flash of daylight, banishing the darkness of the windowless stone hallways that the demon queen has drawn him down. She 'shrieks with fury as the light burns her dark-adapted eyes' and then escapes, vanishing in a burst of sulfurous flame.
The poisonous ichor is already in the knights veins, however, and there is no way for the light to reach it all. The lioness angel has an idea, however - she will make him 'once more a child, that the light of purity may course through your heart, and shine unhindered from your face.' Leonardo, in terrible pain, has no choice but to agree and is transported to a celestial and heavenly kingdom, as 'the pure light shines through his flesh, like a man may cup his hand about a fine candle, or shield his eyes with his palm against the sun, and see the bones of his mortality behind.'
In the heavenly realm of the lioness angel, there what's basically a training montage. Having been reverted into a child just short of adulthood and thus pure in a very specific sense, Leonardo must grow up all over again and regain his full strength. Which is not as challenging or even as long as it sounds, given that this is a archaic era, where being in your early teens is sufficient qualification to rule over a kingdom, enter the field as a warrior, or be given or taken in marriage.
The lioness angels' family help to train him this time around, another clue as to the origins of the story in lineages of celestial gods instead. They teach him devastating secret techniques to impart a 'full philosophy of combat, a discipline worthy of a man of arms, not that gambled accumulation of crude learning which departs a soldier the day his resolve finally fails him.'
Fully grown once more, but now without any of his many injuries and scars, Leonardo returns as youth to the earthly world, climbing down a ladder made of spiders silk that will not bear the full weight of mortality. The last few rungs break as he reaches the ground, and it is not possible to climb back up. She detects a hint of Holy Grail legend, that 'all his wounds may be made clean' and 'the light of the divine will shine from him who is worthy.'
The final battle with the demon queen has an oddly anti-climactic quality, as though it's just an afterthought. The heavenly near-death experience seems to be the real focus of the piece, if that's even a reasonable way to look at it. Leonardo approaches her in her castle, which has gained a fell and terrifying reputation with travellers in even the short time he's been away, and all the lesser demons fall back before his celestial light. Although 'the purity of the heavens may be held by the mortal for only a short time, as long as it might take a scholar to walk the path of the stars' this is all he needs, and he confronts the demon queen on her throne, ascending the fine-woven and gilt-edged length of red carpet that spills from the dais like a waterfall of blood.
The demon queen 'rises as a cobra ascendant and falls upon him' but this time her needle fangs cannot pierce his skin, which is imbued with light. He traps her 'in an inevitable embrace, which like the will of heaven, cannot be escaped' and kisses her forehead, infecting her with illumination that spreads uncontrollably throughout her body, shining from the spaces between her scales and consuming her from the inside out.
The light spreads throughout the ancient castle, turning 'walls translucent like polished mirrors, eating away at the mortar of shadows that keeps the stones standing beyond their time.' Demons run around in a panic and try to flee and are consumed as the light propagates like fire. Leonardo, now fully mortal again, fights his way out and makes it to the castle portcullis, which is crumbling even as he reaches it, the vertical iron spars dislocating along existing fractures and 'falling heavy, like broad spears dropped from above, piercing flagstones as they fall.'
As any good action hero must, Leonardo escapes across his precipitous sword bridge to tell the tale, back to where he started, and hits the road again in search of another adventure.
It's not exactly drifting downriver with a hot vixen in an escape barque, but the literary structure is the same. She can see why this guy appealed, and why his more pretentious colleagues looked down their muzzles at him for writing what is basically an action-adventure story.
Inspired by the story, she leans over and gives Leo a little kiss on the forehead. "Sleep well honey," she whispers sincerely. "You can call me your aunt anytime you like."
She carefully draws her tail from his grasp, leaving a hair or two behind, and flips the light switch for him before closing the bedroom door behind him.
Unseen, Leo snuggles closer into the warm bed sheets, thinking vague and happy thoughts about swimming mixed with an overwhelming sense of good fortune. For just this once, everything is all perfect, and he doesn't want to risk waking even a little and spoiling it.
Since Leo is well and truly out of it, fast asleep and dreaming (no doubt) of mighty battles, Rachel excuses herself quietly and heads downstairs, to make more red bush tea, and hold down the fort until Angel gets back, whenever that finally happens. She sits at table and blows on her tea just a little to cool it, musing on definitions of heroism in different cultures.
People make assumptions sometimes, if you're in the fitness industry and sporty, thinking you're not perhaps going to make a particularly deep study of anything, but she took first-year English and Literature around a Fitness Education course, and she knows all sorts of stuff. That's how she understands all the meanings behind Leo's favorite story, even if it was never directly the topic of discussion in any of the classes. It is, in its way, ambitious that something so impossibly aspiring reflects his hopes and ambitions. He clearly wants to be far better than what his upbringing has made him, even if he's too young as yet to quite be able to express it directly that way.
The sound of a key skittering against the front door lock distracts her from contemplation, and she straightens up to welcome Angel home, just as soon as she enters.
"How's Leo? Is he asleep?" are the first words out of her mouth just as soon as she's inside. She's anxious about having left him alone for the first time in a new house, even with her sister there.
"Last time I checked on him he was sound asleep," Rachael soothes her. "He was extremely polite and very talkative, and I enjoyed almost every minute of his company."
Angel, tired out by the long and grinding meeting, dumps her carrying-bag on the table and drags a palm across the crease of her muzzle to straighten the fur out. "Well, that's good to hear. Do you want to catch up again next week, maybe at the leisure center again? We can go swimming again, maybe. I think he'll probably want to do that again a few more times before the novelty wears off, if it ever does," she jokes wearily.
"I'd be up for that," agrees Racheal. "I wouldn't want to deprive him of a chance to hang out with his new favourite aunt." She presumptuously flashes her hyena grin.
"Oh, well," Angel yawns, "we can sort out the details tomorrow. Sundays for everyone. I'll see you round, sis, and thanks for helping me to look after him on such short notice."
"What are sisters for, right? See you around too. Good night, Angel."
Rachael is tactful about her exit and abandons the tea unfinished, closing the front door carefully and quietly behind her on the way out. She knows that Angel hates meetings, meetings called on a weekend, and meetings called on a weekend late in the evening in order of increasing severity, so it seems wise to maybe just call it a night and let her sleep it off.
Angel, for her part, makes her way upstairs and splashes some water on her face to restore a few moments of alertness, then brushes her bared fangs one at a time with careful attention to detail and a firmly bristled toothbrush. She scowls at her reflection in the mirror.
All these meetings are more exhausting and physically draining than even the most intensive day of physical training. But then she perks up. Leo is here! And even if he's asleep right now, she's not alone and there'll be someone to talk to in the morning, and the rest of the day, and the day after.
She watches as the scowl relaxes into a shining smile, then flicks her nightdress up off of the hook behind the bathroom door, and wanders down the hall to look in on the little wolf, just for a brief moment. He is, as Rachael insisted, fast asleep and safe and well, so she closes the door again.
Heading back to her room, she gets changed for bed, slides under the covers herself and is asleep within minutes.
A few hours later, the lioness awakens to feel a warm furry body pressing against her chest. In the darkness she identifies the figure to be Leo, who she guesses has had trouble sleeping again. Angel honestly doesn't mind Leo doing this, because she acknowledges that he'll only be a cub once and through her motherly instinct, she enjoys comforting him. Gently wrapping her arms around her cub, Angel drifts back to sleep.