__________________

"somewhere it is Spring and sometimes
people are in real:imagine
somewhere real flowers,but
I can't imagine real flowers for if I

could,they would somehow
not Be real"
(so he smiles
smiling)

- ee cummings

__________________

Go Not Gently
__________________

Chapter One - Those With Black Faces

It was kind of like the second you get when you wake up from a nightmare and you can't exactly remember what it was about, but then the second after, you remember everything; only this time, with the third second, I couldn't banish the demons away.

I'd been bloody kidnapped.

Wherever I was it was dark and musty and there were absently rotting floorboards beneath my body; over me was a blanket, soft cotton but as dank and old as everything else in whatever horrible place I had ended up. I had obviously passed out after the trauma of being tugged through somebody else's portal, their magical signature overwhelming mine. Okay, so I hadn't meant to and I'd kind of kidnapped myself, but still - damn damn damn!

My eyes adjusted to the area around me and for some reason it felt familiar. I was in a high-ceilinged room, the rafters dark and looming and the air thick with age. Thick, but dry; I'd tasted that dryness before. It was cool to the point of an uncomfortable, sunless chill - little moisture in the air, my mind thought clinically - possibly somewhere up in the snow, though wouldn't the air temperature be colder still, somewhere above sea level -

Sod the climate, where the hell was I?

I bounded to my feet, dizzy and my heart beating hard, and my hand caught an object close to my place of rest - a table. My fingers groped the wood uselessly, squinting; the floor was drenched in pieces of parchment, pages ripped from books in languages I couldn't quite recognize, rather new messiness instead of the clunk and ancient litter I had halfway expected. It smelt like perhaps somebody had died here, though, blood and gore -

A candle was lit, a slightly hissing flare ahead of me in the long enormous room, grasped in a dark leather glove that flickered orange light on ragged ebony feathers and a hat. Brighter still were the golden eyes that burnt within the trappings, enough to chill my blood even further.

I think I felt like Mama must have done, telling me the story - the prisoner of Kuja, coming face-to-face with her captor. "For a moment I wondered what on earth I was afraid of," she'd remembered softly. "He had such a pretty smile."

Wax dripped over the fingers. "Tell me," he intoned, "why I shouldn't kill you."

I drew myself up. "I am Princess Eiko of the House of Fabool," I crackled at him imperiously. "Killing me would be a mistake on your part, sir."

"I am Lady Hilda Fabool, minister and wife to the Regent of Lindblum - and I don't advise coming any closer."

"Because I'd kick your scrawny Black Mage rear, you murdering son of a whore."

(When the time comes to collect all heroic and rousing speeches from women of the ages, my name will not be among them.)

He just stared at me for a moment, lifting the candle higher. I could see the bookcases lining the shelves now, some half-empty, some still packed full with fat tomes; I was obviously in a library, and one where the windows had been completely draped over with thick heavy sacking. It was as dark as night.

"I doubt they'd find a body." His voice wasn't even menacing; he was just stating a fact. "You would just be one of the many victims of what happened to your city."

Oh. Oh. My eyes filled with tears; my city, o my homeland, o my people. How many people had died in those crashes? "Why?" I snarled. "Why? Are you trying to spark off a war? Why did you have to murder all the civilians? Why didn't you go after our military, instead of - of - the tugs?" I felt my voice rise on a hysterical note. I was trembling. "Why?"

"The military installations have less people."

"So you wanted hundreds to die?!"

"I exist only to kill," he said, simply.

That made me furious. My voice shook with anger, half in tears. "Garnet. Queen Garnet of Alexandria's going to find you and kill you for this, just you wait. She and Zidane, it doesn't matter if I die, they'll pull the feathers off your wings one by one and torture you to - "

"Zidane will do nothing," he snapped, the first sign of emotion I'd seen from him. His golden crescents of eyes narrowed. "The people die. The cycle goes on. They sleep, and noises are made, and they will be the ghosts of memories in ten years' time. They will be forgotten by your city and forgotten by your Zidane."

"What does Zidane matter to you?"

"Traitor-bastard-genome." If he'd had lips, they would have curled. "I hope his children all come with tails and won't be able to survive out of the tanks of Bran Bal. I hope they all die. I hope he sows his wife's womb with salt every time they fuck."

Had the other Waltzes been like this? No wonder Zidane killed all three of them in quick succession. An almost-leer of smug self-righteousness crept as easily over my face as my rising blush as I stared him down, one hand groping back. Maybe there was a weapon to kill this winged rat with. Something. Anything. "They have two children," I said sweetly. "The queen will have her third come summer. The Princess Cornelia - she's eight and their eldest and beautiful, and you'll never touch her, you bastard."

He half-flew, half-leapt the gap between us, the candle in his hand raised and ready to strike. My hands had found a heavy book and I flung it up at his face, even as his hand came down; it lessened the blow but I still got a stinging backhand, metal nubs on the back of his gloves slicing open my cheek and sending me back against the table. I hit it hard, wincing, him stumbling back as well and the candle falling in a soft waxy mess on the floorboards, small light crumbling out as there was another long silence - the only noise was my breathing. It wasn't as bad as it could have been. Hell, I was an engineer - I'd been in worse drunk barfights, though those had stopped when I was eighteen and my mother had threatened to put me in the stocks. I raised my hand to my cheek, the wound stinging terribly, eyes closing again. There was no noise from him, either.

"So," I said, after a long while. "Tell me. Why aren't you killing me?"

The silence again was even longer, until there was a noise from him that sounded like an indrawn shuddery breath. "Because your heart beats," he murmured. "Because your heart beats and I'm - so lonely here - so lonelylonelylonelylonely nobodynever ever - " Another shuddery breath and a sob, and he was crying.

My face contorted in disgust. A murderer. A wussy murderer. "Kill me now," I demanded, voice drunk with contempt. "I'd rather die than think that a whiny magical crybaby killed all those people. I'd rather die than sit here listening to you. I'll do myself in if you don't stop."

The crying stopped almost as abruptly as it had begun. I realized that, quite possibly, I had a loony on my hands aching for a bin. It wouldn't surprise me. All Black Mages - this one must have been a leftover - were pretty much insane clockwork toys, only granted sentience by their own grace. This one had gone the opposite way of grace and was probably dancing in his own little world with half the lights on and the other ones flickering funny colours. "Maybe I will," he said. "Maybe I'm toying with you, like a cat, and I'm going to eat you later."

"Good. That's a relief." I folded my arms, the bleeding slowed to a halt. I may have not had a staff, but curative magic flows through a White Mage's fingertips like water. "I'm bony. You may want to boil the meat off first."

Another long silence. My head was beginning to ache.

"I want to go home," I said again. "Look, I'll make it fair. You blindfold me, take me home, and I'll have to hunt to kill you instead. It'll take, oh, five minutes longer."

"Quite a feisty one, aren't you, Princess?" A touch of - something - moved into his tone. "Coming along was your own stupid fault, little girl, because you are boneheaded and stupid and like all other humans on this earth and you see the situation like a glass sphere - you can't see into it properly, just your distorted reflection."

Not a rant. I didn't need his lunatic mutterings. So much for thinking him lucid for a moment. "Look. Go tell your excuses to the old stove in the corner, I couldn't care less about your reasons. Who are you?"

A rustling. The candle was retrieved, but not lit; the touch in his voice grew, and the tone was of bitter irony. "Tango."

"What?"

"Tango. Black Tango." A rustle - he stood, sounding like a birdflock - and lit the candle again with his own fingers, straightening the wick. Magic still radiated off him like the warmth from a star, only now I knew he was more dangerous than I'd dreamed - a sentient-insane creature, no clockwork.

I was stunned. "You have got to be kidding me."

"No. I am - "

"I mean, that's the stupidest name ever. All right, I get the three and the Waltz, but what's up with Tango? What's your brother's name, Black Hokey-Pokey? Black Swing? Black Samba? Black Chocobo Dance?"

There was another breathless silence, and then Tango laughed. It was not a happy sound, but he laughed.

"I like you," he said eventually. "I won't kill you tonight."

"Thanks ever so."

"I'll keep you here," he whispered. "I sometimes bring little alive things up here because I like the pulse, but I forget to feed them on purpose and they die. Everything dies. Sometimes it's kinder not to feed them anyway so that they don't have to be in pain from living. Don't you think?"

"I think you need one of those jackets that gives you a hug from around the front and leather straps to tie you to a bed," said I, Eiko 'Kind And Caring And Not Inflammatory To Lunatics' Carol.

"You even tell jokes." He stepped away, leaving the candle on the arm of a chair behind him. "Maybe it will be tomorrow night instead."

No. I didn't want tomorrow night. I wanted my mother and this creature was making my heart clutch up. "I hate you," I spat at him, tired and upset and helpless.

"No," Tango said. "I hate you more than you could possibly imagine, Eiko Carol."

He strode over to the side of the library, flinging open a door. Immediately a rush of hot air and bright light filled the room, letting me gawk; it wasn't a door, it was a huge makeshift window, and yellow sand stretched out for all the eye could see outside. A few grains even blew into the room from the hot wind; we were high-up, that much I could discern. Not even bothering to look back at me, he leaped out the opening.

"Goodnight," he informed me, wings spread, slammed the door shut and me into darkness and was gone.

I sat down in the darkness, and wondered where the dead little corpses were, and I shivered at the echo of his voice on my name.
__________________

When I was young and my mother and father were teaching me to read again - my Grandpa had done all he could, but I got lazy after he died and was incredibly rusty where long words were concerned - my mother thoughtfully gave me a huge pile of books she thought a young girl would like and let me sort through them. These books all went along the same awful themes - young romantic women in distress who tripped over willing young men on white chocobos and couldn't save their lives if you handed them a manual and all the right parts.

I always thought that was the reason I wouldn't make a good princess at first. I wasn't good at fluttering my eyelashes and swooning. Sure, I was excellent at falling in love melodramatically, but I couldn't possibly imagine being holed up and kidnapped in a high tower and held for ransom.

Then I realized, 'Hey, Dagger never had to do all this crap,' shelved the romance novels and went back to reading 'The Physics Of Flight' by Sextans Zazaria. Actually, I think that illustrates most of my pre-puberty life with my new mother and father.

So, stuck in a tower that was possibly hundreds of feet high up, with only a flickering candle to guide me and the promise of a Not All There genocidal winged bastard who had bad choice in names, I was not going to sit down like a pretty pretty princess and whimper. How embarrassing, to be kidnapped in the first place, even if it had been my fault. Bloody hell.

"Right, Eiko-my-girl," I said cheerily, my voice a miserable little nothing in the dark oppressive library-tower. "Let's just get you down from here, and everything will be a box of birds." If Tango doesn't catch me. If I don't get eaten by an antlion at the bottom.

And once I'm down there, how on earth do I survive in a desert? What if we're a million miles from nowhere? We probably are a million miles from nowhere! We're in a desert!

"Summoning," I muttered to myself. "Right. You can summon. You're going to have to do the old stick-circle-chant job, and even Madeen's going to be angry and feeling unloved, but they know I still love them even though we haven't Called each other, right?"

There was a dreadful silence in that library. There was a dreadful hungry darkness, too. It was a circular tower room, with bookshelves lining almost every part of the walls, and a few tables scattered about - most of them with open books. Torn-up books and pieces of paper fluttered uselessly about, and there were dozens of candles melted down to stubs. I grabbed quickly a few of the bigger ones and lit them from the candle Tango had held, that - miraculously - hadn't been blown out by his exit. They didn't exactly light up the gloom, but they let me see my way.

I craned my neck, reaching down inside my dress for my hankerchief-wrapped glasses before realizing - to my horror - that I didn't have them. Doing the dance that every glassers-wearer immediately does - patting their face, patting their head, patting in vain their neck - I noted, in misery, that they were gone. So much for seeing my way. Oh, well; I only needed them really for reading documents, and as useful as it would be to have the room thrown into extra-sharp relief I would have to make do. Maybe I didn't exactly want to see what lay in the corners anyhow.

Black Tango. Just another monster in the lineup cast of thousands I'd seen in my short life. The way he talked unnerved me, though; there was something solidly sentient in his whimperings about loneliness, in the way he'd talked, in the way he'd insulted. I felt a hot flush rise to my cheeks again when I recalled his incredibly crude, heated curse on Zidane and Garnet; that was enough to turn any puzzlement I'd had into just hatred again. What if he was going after Alexandria right now? My heart thudded at the thought. Explosions in the castle, Dagger unable to do anything in time, or maybe the summoning of Alexander once more to drown this foul clutching crow in Holy -

I shivered miserably, sitting up on one of the tables and casting my eye about hopefully for any equipment or metal or rope. Nothing; less than nothing. My stomach rumbled - I was thirsty and I'd missed breakfast this morning and I'd been really looking forward to lunch.

Trapdoor. Maybe there was a trapdoor.

Jumping up, my heavy skirt rustling about my ankles - damn dress! - I began to conduct a thorough search of the area. Tango was right in one respect; instead of helpful exits, I kept on finding little bony corpses, rotted skeletons and feathery little bundles of decomposing flesh. I resisted the urge to gag, not in any way hungry by now, and continued my fruitless search. The floor was made out of wood, a strange thing out in the desert areas, and there was sometimes a few ragged remnants of floor coverings that must have mouldered away. The room was filled with old death.

I searched until I finally found what I had been looking for; a handle, and once carefully rubbed, the old outline of a square trapdoor. With all my might, I immediately heaved and pulled and tugged at the iron staple, but it wouldn't budge for love nor money. Obviously, and to my fierce disappointment, it had been rusted shut. Another fruitless search began for something to prise it open, but there was nothing - less than nothing. Just books and candles and darkness.

And chill, in the shadows. I pulled the blanket over my shoulders and sat on a table, not wanting to be near Tango's old 'friends'. I had no exceptional desire to become one, either. After a few restless minutes of indecision, I went over to the door Tango had left through, and pushed it open.

An immediate blast of wind rocked me, and I held on for dear life; it was a long, long, long, stairless, smooth-wall-way-down.

I closed the door. Hell, damn, hell-damned Hades. There was nothing to do but wait; wait for somebody who would possibly never come. I couldn't even make a good attempt at killing Tango; he was my only way out of here. Garnet and my father and Zidane would come for me. Eventually. I'd just have to survive until I could get away or give time for them to come for me.

I shivered. I've always been afraid of the dark. It wasn't one of those childhood unexplainable fears that come deep from your subconscious; it was a later fear, a fear fostered around a campfire's ashes when you lay huddled underneath a travelling blanket and wondered if you'd live through the night's monsters. They always used to tuck me and Vivi up close together in a tent - no matter how much I protested that I wanted to be near Zidane - and I would spend the night back-to-back with him. I quickly learnt that Vivi, the pretty little firemage that he was, had one of the warmest bodies out of all of us and that cuddling close would allay the chill. Back when Mog was still with me, curled up tightly in the front pocket of my overalls, there were three steady heartbeats. Him asleep and me curled up behind him, I'd watch whoever was sitting by the campfire as nighttime guard through the flap of the tent. I remember, still to this day, exactly the way Amarant looked when he was haloed by the campfire and sharpening his claws, and Quina, huge fork-weapon poking at potatoes she was cooking in the ashes.

The smell. I remember the scent of all of them. Vivi smelt like ashes and smoke and raspberries.

Somehow I managed to sleep. Curled up uncomfortably on the top of the table, too afraid of sleeping on the dank floor, I restlessly and uncomfortably wavered in and out of consciousness. I'd picked up an awful bump on the head from somewhere; probably Black Tango manhandling me. When he finally came back, I was huddled up and half-asleep, sitting and blinking at him owlishly as he shut the door behind him. It was dark outside.

"This is no place for a lady to sleep," he said. Or, at least, a voice said - the candles had burnt down and he was invisible in the darkness, just a pair of eyes.

"Who said I'm a lady?"

He was amused. "This is no place for a woman to sleep, then. You can't stay here, Princess - "

"Damn right I can't stay here! I want to go home!"

Skillfully, he ignored me. "I'm taking you down. I still don't know what to do with you, Eiko Carol. Not killing you, not yet. The time for death is not yet come."

Time for death. I shuddered. "Where were you?" I demanded. "Back attacking my city? Back attacking Alexandria?"

"Alexandria?" He laughed, hollow. "No. Never-not-yet. I need to be stronger."

He thought he could get stronger? After that display?

"I still know Garnet is going to kill you."

"I exist only to kill." Not that again - but then, he added, soft, "And I exist only to die. Not her job, no, not readily."

I recoiled from his touch, remembering that he was still crazier than a trick sparrow. "I don't want you to take me anywhere. Where's 'down'?"

"Not here." How helpful. "And no, you can't stay up here. You're interrupting my work."

"I am so sorry to be inconvenient!" I should have burnt the books when I'd had the chance, never mind the taboo of destroying knowledge. I backed up even more as he reached the end of the table. Great gods above, his wings were enormous! "I'll make a formal apology!"

The eyes narrowed, calculating. "Are you frightened of me?"

What to say? Yes, I was frightened of him, Eiko the highly-strung engineer, Eiko who hadn't had blood on her hands in years and had been very happy to do so. I'd forgotten the fear that had come with possible death and oh, how bitter it tasted. "Frightened? Of you? Don't make me laugh. I've been more frightened of my own sandwiches."

"That's odd." Odd? His voice was odd. It wasn't like the other Black Mages, uniform, sweet, warm, odd inflexions - it was light and cutting and expressive. This Black Tango was confusing the hell out of me. "They're usually all frightened, quivery little claws, birds flapping - sometimes they break their wings, you know, and they hurt themselves."

"You," I said flatly, "aren't frightening. You're just sick."

"Yes, yes. Sick. I've always been sick. The entire world is sick. You're sick."

I rolled my eyes and scooted forward, landing on the ground. The sudden action made him spring back like a frightened cat; he was even more highly-strung than I was, obviously. "All right. I'm tired of this place. Take me wherever."

"As you wish, milady," Tango said sardonically, and backhanded me casually so hard it all blanked out into a red burst of nothing.

And that's all I remember of that.