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Seven years, three lands.
Stone loaves, iron shoes, and mountains of glass.
Three transformations, three gifts, three nights.
For one mistake, one second of doubt.
The equation hardly adds up.
The punishing denominator outweighs the offending numerator.
This was not an eye for an eye.
It was a limb for a finger.

- a.m cousins
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Go Not Gently
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Chapter Ten - You Can't Go Home Again

I never remember much of what happens next.

Apparently flames licked at my bare feet as, flaring, Phoenix drops me limp on the roof of the palace of Alexandria. I am delirious; I am too tired to hold to anything, I do not know where I am, I do not know why I am. I have been flying for hours, the tears in my eyes burnt away before I can cry them.

Apparently they were shouting for the Queen the moment I crumpled down; they can hardly touch me, the guards on watch, my skin so hot it blisters the leather of their gloves as I roll on the cool tiles in agony. The only one to touch me is Garnet, and I burn her, and I leave ash on the pure ivory of her evening-robe as I fumble for her cheeks with smoke still rising from my hands.

And all I can do is mumble, and Garnet told me later that it chilled her more than anything to hear my words:

He's coming, he's coming, he's coming. I can't stop him.
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I woke up with a start quite early in the morning - before the sun rose, when the sleeping weed wore off. I think it was the bed that did it; soft down sheets and pillows that smelt like lavender-water and constant washing, silk embroidered coverlet smudged with the grey dirt of my fingertips and mattress deep and soft.

Clean, sweet. It didn't matter that my head was pounding and my throat felt like it was made out of volcanic rock. I wallowed.

"Aunt Eiko?"

I sat up and rubbed at my sleepy, puffy eyes with one wrist, staring at the apparition in the middle of the candlelit room. My psuedo-niece was there, short sword safe in one hand, lacy blue nightshirt tucked into a pair of breeches as she looked at me keenly. She tucked the sword into the scabbard-belt at her waist with a steel shiver, moving into a position of standing rest that I had often seen Beatrix assume.

"I'm standing princess-guard," Cornelia til Alexandros told me, solemn as a little owl. "I'm keeping you safe from the Lindblum Strangler. When he comes in here I'll do this - " she drew the sword, fluid, whirling around in an arc so that the blade sang through the air. Her long dark hair was still in sleeping-braids, tail wiggling behind her in anticipation as she gripped her sword in both hands, shadows dancing in the candlelight. "An' I'll chop him up here, from his gizzard to his gullet, and then we can go have breakfast." Having finished disemboweling her invisible enemy on the rug, she slid the sword back in its sheath, turning around to look at me. "Oh, Aunt Eiko, why are you crying? Aren't you happy to be home?"

I suddenly had my arms full of little princess as I pressed my face into her shoulder, toes in the thick carpeting at my feet as I pulled my legs off the bed. Our horns sawed together momentarily, hers so much shorter and blunter, me grasping for her eight-year-old long limbs as I clutched to make sure she was really real.

"I thought I'd never see you again," I gasped, rough and low-voiced. "I thought you were dead. I'm so sorry, Elia. I'm so sorry. I thought he killed you, but he told me he hadn't, but - oh, Cornelia."

"He didn't either," she said, bravely, loyally, so like her father in her mannerisms it made me want to laugh through my thick veil of tears. "He came into my room one night, and I screamed and screamed and I would've killed him dead with my sword but he was all clawing at me. Then Steiner burst in and he dropped me, and he shot fire at Steiner and there's still big scorch-marks all over my room, and then he jumped out my window and flew away. All that," she said indignantly, "just to pinch my necklace!"

I did laugh, then, throat a dry crackle. He never wanted your necklace. "We'll get it back for you, Elia."

"We have you back," she said, big blue eyes honest. "Isn't that the best present?"

"I'm not back five minutes and already you're priming me for sweets. You'll rot your teeth before you're nine."

"Aunt Ei-ko!" She moved back, scabbard swinging. "I'm already nine, anyway."

I stood up, looking desperately for a robe; my clothes were all in fragments. Cornelia helpfully handed me one, hanging over the back of a chair, helping me in as my arms moved numb and slow. Damn sleeping weed. My head felt like my brains were stuffed with grease. How much time had passed? "I missed your birthday."

"Yeah." She tied it at the waist, neat and quick with her fingers as ever. "But, guess this, Uncle Amarant came and he gave me - "

I remembered my ninth birthday, with Amarant. "Some antifreeze, a potion and a doll's tea-set?"

"Close," she said practically, with the air of someone who had also grown up with 'Uncle' Amarant's presents. "Two potions, a bag of liquorice strips, and this wicked-cool bomb thing that Mother took off me but Father says we can go and detonate it down at the lake when the weather's cooler."

I was home. I suddenly got that sense, standing in the midst of one of the suites in Alexandria, the familiar smell of polish and the wind that came off the lake. The smell of the faintly lemony beeswax candles, fragrant, unlike the tallowy tapered stubs made with rosepetals that Kuja had obviously favoured. A powerful wave swept over me; deep, unbidden regret.

"Shouldn't you be in bed, Elia?"

"Mother and Father let me watch you." She looked inordinately pleased at the prospect. "While they were making arrangements and things - telling Great-Aunt Hilda and Great-Uncle Cid, and they're coming over now, and Mother was also fit to burst over wanting to call Freya'n the others - don't know why, since there's Beatrix and Steiner and me, and once Strangler's here - pow, slash, let me at 'em!"

"And what were you supposed to do the moment Aunt Eiko woke up?"

Cornelia looked crestfallen at the heartbreakingly familiar voice in the doorway; my knees shook at how much it had become stranger to me. "I'm sorry, Papa."

I couldn't help myself. I ran to him. I clung to Zidane Tribal - Zidane til Alexandros, Prince Consort Zidane, deathslayer Zidane, hero Zidane - and wept my third round of tears that night into him. I was well-versed in weeping, now, shaking and sobbing hysterically into his chest as he carried me as if I was still six. Cornelia stood stock-still by the doorway as he cradled me, calm and fierce, arms wrapped around me in tight embrace with the inherent promise of protection.

"Shush-a-shush," he murmured. "Ow - don't move your head that way, you're gonna poke my eye out with that damn thing. I'm here, Eiko. Don't worry, now. You're safe with us. No more. You've had a long while of it."

"Shit," I sobbed. "No, no, don't - don't let me cry - can't 'ford it, Zidane. He's coming."

"Where'd the bastards hide you, Eiko?" He gripped my shoulders, looking into my face, golden hair falling and feathered over his forehead. "We almost gave you up for dead 'till the bastard came to try to do in Elia, we scoured half the world looking again, pulled it damn near apart - "

"We were in the desert, that doesn't matter - "

"Who is he?" The blue eyes were intense. "Steiner said it was a Black Waltz, true as he'd ever seen it - "

"Zidane." I stopped him, our babble, trying to take a breath on the situation. "How are my parents? Are they..." Are they alive, Zidane?

He softened. "Cid and Hilda? They're alive and well and kicking." Thank the Gods. Thank you, Madeen. Thank you for answering my prayers. "'Course, Cid had his arm broken when Lindblum was attacked, but he's fine otherwise. But..."

I pulled myself tight. One broken arm. "I want to know everything."

Zidane bit his lip, then looked back at me, calloused hand slipping into mine. He obviously hadn't changed for bed, or made it to bed; he looked tired and harried and suddenly - old. I remembered Vivi's words, and they bit. Zidane is too old and soft to be Gaia's hero any more. "Artania - Artania died in the attack. We lost too many good people that day. I'm sorry."

I stared, unblinking, into the empty space above his shoulder. Heavy with our grief, he rubbed the back of my hand, standing up and pacing back and forth in a familiar action as his tail swished like a cat's. "We'll kill him, Eiko," he said lowly, in a cold hard tone that I had seldom heard from the ex-thief. I suddenly remembered the chill underground tunnels of Bran Bal. "We'll get him for everything he's done."

It was on my lips; It's Vivi, Zidane, can't you see? Why couldn't I see? Why didn't we know? but it died stillborn. I opened my mouth and shut it again.

"He's coming," I murmured, my voice queer and high in the night. "He was already coming six hours ago."

"Shi - sugar." The epithet sputtered out as Zidane gave wry eye to his daughter. "Damn. Garnet'll need to know. You feeling well enough to come along? She's called in the cavalry and all the fine horses and all the fine men, and last time I heard even Quina was sharpening all the forks in the kitchen and asking if this guy was good to eat. We set up war-room in Dagger's firsthall and we could really use you right now. How many is he gonna bring?"

I almost laughed, shaking my head back and forth, an unhappy smile on my face that was somewhere near pride and somewhere near pain. "There's only ever him, Zidane. Nobody else."

It was his turn to open his mouth, then close it again, like a fish. "Goddamn," he hissed slowly. "You sit right here, okay? Cornelia, you go off to bed - "

"Papa!"

" - or on second thought, you stay right where you are, too, sweetness." He jogged wearily off into the doorway again, and then doubled back almost instantly.

"Eiko?"

"Yes?"

He smiled, tender. I would always be a little girl to him; I was glad I was that little girl. Zidane would always love me. "I'm glad you're back."

Then he went, barking orders to the guards, voice disappearing down the stone corridors. "I want double you guys outside here! Get the Pluto Knights on it, okay? And someone get me Beatrix!"

I sat down on my bed, wanting a hot bath and a hot meal and to go back to sleep and in the morning, some bewitchment would mean that everything was all over. Minister Artania. Vivi had killed Arty.

Cornelia sat down beside me, her hands fluttering down in her lap like butterflies until one hand gripped the safety of the black worked scabbard by her side. There was silence between us; I was far away.

"What's his name?"

She brought me back down to Gaia, and I blinked. "Who?"

"The man. Who strangled me." She wouldn't meet my eyes. "He said I was... the prettiest little girl he'd ever seen. I think he was sort of... Sad. But then he started strangling me. I think he's crazy."

"His name is Black Tango."

She thought about it a while. "That's a silly name."

This time, I smiled. "He knows, my little love. He knows."
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Five months, two weeks, three days. He had stolen over half a year of my life. Weeks had bled into months. Half a year. No wonder they gave me up for dead.

Half a year. It had felt like three weeks; three months at most. Half a bloody year.

And all of it gone in a few hours. It was four in the morning; I ran to a hot bath and allowed myself twenty minutes of pretending that I was back in the Desert Palace with Rain's patiently folded drycloths on the cool marble. The fuzzy, fluffy towels broke that particular spell; I dressed myself without any particular care to how I looked.

My blossom-wand was on the table, where some kind soul had left it, gently puffing little breaths of sparkling powder into the air as it happily sat and soaked up the moisture of Alexandrian air. I took it and tucked it into my petticoat, with nobody seeing, and I gripped Cornelia's arm as I teetered up the cool stairs of Garnet's halls.

Every soldier saluted me as I passed, which was odd, because I was the thing farthest from a hero that night.

Or morning. The sun was rising as I was finally seated in Garnet's firsthall; before I was seated next to Garnet, who held my hand, who was almost too beautiful to behold. I tried desperately to hold on to the things that happened then; the Queen's soft, pretty welcome-home, the refusal of everyone to lead my side, the protection and the warmth and the love.

It was only Garnet and Zidane and Beatrix in the firsthall; and a handful of soldiers, and stubborn Cornelia dozing in the hard seat beside me as I sat down. Everybody seemed to be preparing for all-out war; I nervously poked at the porridge that somebody had brought for my breakfast. Rain keeps it hotter.

"All right, Princess." Princess Eiko once more; Beatrix sat down opposite me, looking as if she'd rather be standing. "Your mother and father have been grounded."

My heart raced, porridge immediately ash in my mouth. Artania's death had still not sunk in; nothing was sinking in. Everything was just a parade of worried faces, of tiny short-lived joys. My arrival home was relief for everyone - I wasn't dead, that was a nice first step - but I had left a trail for the wolf coming home. "What? Why? Are they all right?"

"Sentries spotted something flying near the transport," she said crisply. "They're not risking the Regent; they landed and they're proceeding on-ground for a while. They're fine. You are not. We need to know everything about this man, now."

How many people had died at Lindblum? It must have been some kind of massacre. Of course it would have been some kind of massacre; I was a fool for thinking otherwise. Not for the first time, there was a lump in my throat when I thought about the deaths on the head of Tango. Vivi. Tango.

"Do we really need this?" Garnet's voice, low and velvety. "Eiko has barely collapsed on our doorstep and already we're submitting her to, to - interrogation."

"It's fine." I stepped in before Zidane could open his mouth and instigate a matrimonial blow-up. "I'm... I'm all right. There can be time for letting me sleep later."

Beatrix nodded in approval at this sentiment. She was still ice-cool and noble and impeccably lovely; the girlish chestnut hair that had once hung down in glossy waves had been severely braided back, pinned up to the back of her head, only a little bit of premature frost touching the temples. The cloth of her eyepatch had been wrapped around her head so tightly I thought it might break with every shift of facial expression. "He is a Black Mage?"

Obviously. "Yes."

"A Black Waltz, Eiko," Zidane supplied, and I almost laughed; of course I knew that. "Isn't he?"

"Yes." Helpless at my one-word answers, I cleared my throat. "I think so. He's... He's sentient, Zidane, he's no monster. He..." I drew the coffee up to my mouth, saviouring the Burman grounds before I sipped deeply. "He talks. He knows what he is doing. He..." He's the little mage who slept beside me all those years ago, you fools, all of us fools. I used to watch him skip with a rope for hours, little girls calling out the numbers, big feet surprisingly deft with the rhythm. This is our murderer. "He's got a plan," I finished lamely.

Garnet's hand was suddenly squeezing mine, so tightly I knew her knuckles would be white. "What plan, Eiko? What plan?"

"He's got some little Black Mages," I mumbled, into my mug, feeling perilously close to tears. "He wants to wipe out all the other races so there's a home for them."

"He can't." Beatrix's smooth, smoky voice was thrown off momentarily by her confusion. "He can't possibly be that powerful."

Bet you a gil? "He is that powerful."

"He's got the ability to teleport, hasn't he?" Zidane pressed both his hands down on the table, blue eyes desperate for anything as he looked at me calmly eating my porridge. "Why's he taking so damn long, then?"

"He's looking for me. He doesn't know where I am."

"Why does he want you, Eiko?" Beatrix again, quizzical. "I cannot fathom why. What do you offer him?"

Some days I wonder that myself, Beatrix.

The faint rays of the early morning sun shone through the window facing the table; I stared at the glass panes, sipping my coffee, voice dull. "I don't know."

There was a long silence. Zidane sat down on the table, without recrimination from his wife or Beatrix or me, staring down at his hands; there was a dreadful haunted look on his face. "Little Black Mages," he mumbled. "Real little Black Mages?"

"They're so beautiful." My voice caught.

Garnet was looking at me, and I could see her out of the corner of one eye. My hand trembled with the coffee; I buried my mouth in it, anything to steady myself from the expression on her face. She could see inside of me like I was as transparent as the window, and I was surprised that she couldn't see the truth of the matter written all over my face in black ink.

How could you, Vivi? How could you? Oh, Gods, Artania, Arty, all those people, oh, Lindblum. It's all you deserve if you die here, come into the rat-trap, get your head snapped o - don't die, please, not just yet. Not just yet. Please. Our purpose is not finished.

"What aren't you telling us, Eiko?" her gentle voice was more killing than anybody else's in the room. I could hear the faint march of guards outside; there was a bellow, Steiner, organizing them into lines. "What's wrong?"

I dropped the mug, then. It fell on the table, spilling the last dregs of its contents on the polished wood; I rose, rubbing at it with a napkin, face bright red as I mopped up the puddle and muttered apology. Nobody was listening to it; Zidane and Beatrix's eyes were fastened on me like buttons, unforgiving.

"You don't understand," I suddenly burst out, causing the Queen to start, staring in misery down at my food with unseeing eyes. "You don't, you don't - oh, shit, we all fucked up so badly, we've made our bed, we have to lie in it. It's our fault, you know, this is all our damn fault!"

"What are you talking about?" Garnet rose to her feet, hands gripping my shoulders, surprisingly strong. Her porcelain face was tight and drawn, more grey china than cream, a blur as I shook my head over and over again. Zidane was behind me, hands on my arms as I tried to push Garnet away, holding me fast as Cornelia roused herself up out of her sleep.

"Eiko, snap out of it," he hissed. I heard their voices as if from underwater, bubbly, thick and murky and rattling around in my head like pieces of lost metal. "Eiko, it'll all be oka - Dagger, you don't think she's under some kind of spell, do you?"

"None that I can detect - Eiko, please - "

The clanging of bells roused me from my stupor, and Zidane and Garnet's hands stilled on my shoulders. With a bark from Beatrix, the soldiers standing at ready fled the room, slamming doors as they went.

It was only then that I broke away from myself, hating myself for behaving as if I was sixteen. I was an engineer. I'd never known what to say with my mouth.

"That's sure as hell not Freya," Zidane snapped. An explosion suddenly rattled the cups on the table; my blood went cold, and I broke away from them to press my cheek against the cool stones of the wall.

I knew it couldn't last.

I don't know if I wanted it to.

Shouts, now, and screams. Cornelia had awoken and her sword was in her hand, immediately flanking her mother; her father looked at her with dread. "Beatrix, take Cornelia and Garnet somewhere safe," he immediately demanded.

"Like hell," Garnet spat. "Beatrix, please take Cornelia somewhere safe."

"With all due respect, your majesty, I think the safest thing is to stay here," she said coolly. She had unearthed her wicked greatsword from the sheath constantly on her hip, Save The Queen, and whipped the tablecloth off the table with a clash. "I think it would, perhaps, also be wise to barricade."

"Like that'll stop him," I snapped, pulling my wand out of my blouse with a flourish. "He'll blow the castle to pieces and he's busily killing all your guards!"

I could see Steiner almost flash through her head; her lips tightened, resolve in her face, glacial determination. Her husband was out there with - with Vivi, oh, Gods, Vivi, Vivi wouldn't kill Steiner, would he - with a murderer, with a destroyer of cities, and she was inside playing bodyguard.

"If you have any suggestions as to where he is weakest, I pray you give them now," she said icily.

Zidane had opened the cabinet to the side; he pulled out two daggers, stuffing them in his belt before throwing a rod to Garnet. She deftly caught it, businesslike.

"You can't." My voice rose on a hysterical note. "You can't. He'll kill you. Please, Zidane, he wants to kill you!"

"He can get in line, then, can't he?" He checked over the daggers. "Damn, but why did I donate Orichalon to that museum? Garnet, sweetheart, get Cornelia to hide under the table."

"I am not hiding under the table!"

"Zidane - "

He whirled to look at me, thoughtful. "You're not the same girl, Eiko," he murmured. "You've come back different and, hell, I don't blame you, and I don't know what happened, but we don't have time and we're not gonna give you up again."

One of the doors splintered open; Zidane had jumped on top of the table, daggers ready, before I could even stumble back. A large green hand, claw-armoured, pulled away the rubble. This allowed a dainty crimson-clad Burmecian warrior access, doffing her helmet as her enormous redheaded partner pushed through after her.

"Dreadfully sorry I'm late," Freya Crescent said sardonically, and my hands shook on my wand. Are you outmatched, now, Vivi? "Amarant wanted us to stop and eat."

"Ha fuckin' ha." He looked at the wreckage of the door. "Zidane, you do know your guards're being slaughtered like goddamn flies up there? What are you doin' in here? Hey - " Amarant's face cleared, eyes focusing on me, stretching up to his full lumbering height. "Brat. You really didn't cark it."

"You can tell her how much you missed her later, Amarant." Garnet's eyes were on me, begging. Let there be a later, Eiko, they said. Please let there be a later. "How on earth did you get here so quickly?"

He just grunted; Freya grinned and walked over to the table, him trailing behind her. She looked cool as a cucumber, and the hands on her Dragon Hair were ready for death. "Thankfully, we were in the same area as each other when the message came out, and we slogged for hours - not the most entertaining jaunt, though all right, it's amusing in retrospect. After we kill this little upstart bastard, I'll tell you the details."

I noticed the way they were moving; Cornelia was by my side as they all ringed me, pressing close, almost in formation as they faced the doorways. There were more screams, now. "Why am I in the middle?"

"Because he's trying to get at you, Eiko," Zidane said dryly, having hopped down from the table and backing me almost into it. "Because, honeychile, you're the one he wants."

I was the anti sacrificial-victim. The table pressed into my hip.

"Where's he going to come from, Zidane?" Freya's voice could almost match Beatrix for sheer crispness.

"Right door." He nodded his head. "Closest to the stairwell."

"You're all fuckin' idiots, you know," Amarant grunted, looking over his shoulder furtively, shoulder to shoulder with the dragoon as Cornelia goggled in bliss at the lack of a censor board. I was already turned around, facing the other way, both hands gripping my wand as if that would maximise its power. I knew; he knew I knew.

Garnet, still wrapped in her morning robe. "Why's that?"

"Because the bitch can fly!"

Sunrise streamed through the window, and Black Tango with it as it exploded in thousands of golden fragments. My niece screamed.

I have seen frightening things. I have seen Necron. I have seen Kuja, I have seen Kuja in full majesty and anger and glory as he laid utter waste to a planet. I have fought hideous monsters. I once saw a hapless man sucked into an airship engine, turned into a fine tapestry of flesh and bone and guts. I've been down in the darkness of the earth since I was six.

Those things all paled in comparison to a Black Mage, a fully-grown Black Mage Tranced with every feather of his outstretched wings glowing technicolour pulling himself to full height on the other end of the long table. There was not just one pair; there were three, framing him with feathers, almost hurting my eyes as I took him in. Vivi practically crackled and snapped with anger and power, smelling of blood and flames and black leather blowing gently in the wind of his own magic as he glared.

His crescent-thin eyes were not golden. They were red.

I clambered up on the table before anyone could stop me, facing him. The fine cotton of my dress blew in the draft, me almost choking from the heat of him, palms slick against my wand as all I could do was stare, stupidly.

"Come to me now, linden-bloom." His voice was soft, coaxing, as if there was nobody in the room but him and me. "Come to me now and no more people die."

"You killed Arty." I found my feet, curling my toes into the table. "You killed Artania."

"Why should that matter? I've killed thousands, Carol. One soul among the many makes me fouller to you?"

"This ends now." Zidane, up on the table between us, daggers in his long thin hands as his body fluidly moved into a defensive position. "You almost killed my daughter, you son of a bitch, you killed tens of thousands in Lindblum, you're gonna kill Eiko if you keep this u - "

The Black Mage stretched out his hand; it was Garnet who screamed this time as Zidane was struck with white-hot lightning, body seizing in agonyspasm as he was struck once, twice. Doublemagic, Vivi's specialty, yes'm, and now making Zidane's eyeballs smoke in his skull as he collapsed in a smoking heap down on the table.

"Too theatrical, Tribal," Tango hissed, eyes no longer concealing his dreadful hunger. "I have been thirsting to do that for years."

Freya leapt. Vivi swept his hands out; I hit the table and clung to it as everybody was blown backward, smacking heavily into the wall. Amarant caught Cornelia before she was blown through the smashed-open doorway, pulling her painfully against him as they too collapsed to the ground.

"Don't move." His voice was silky. "I don't like it when you move."

He plucked the daggers from Zidane's twitching hands, throwing them away out the window. Fried and choking, the Prince Consort of Alexandria rose to his feet again, swaying as he stepped away from Black Tango to sway gently as he moved back into position. The winged mage didn't bother with spells this time; he hit Zidane across the mouth with his wizarding staff, snapping back his head.

Zidane spat a mouthful of blood; it rained crimson at the Mage's feet. "Who are you?!"

"Who am I?" Tango hollered back. Another slash with his staff; Zidane blocked it, wiry arms smacking it away with all the force he could muster. "Who am I, Tribal, who am I, that is the question I ask myself, alone in the night I ask: 'Who am I? Perhaps Zidane will know - Perhaps Zidane will know who I am!' What is the meaning, Zidane? What is the meaning of my existence? Do I even exist? I don't exist to you, Zidane!"

"Who the hell are you?" Zidane asked, low, his tail thrashing. I knew he was angry. "I've never met you!"

"You left me!" Vivi hollered, screaming, voice cracking like glass and so loud I thought my ears were going to pop. He ripped off his hat; the locks of hair that spilled out floated out to halo around his head were as red as his eyes, red like blood, red like hate, red like fire. Trance. "You left me to die and you ripped out my heart and you left me to die, you left me to die, they dieddieddied because of you all gone always you imperfect, imperfect, imperfect, I require a new angel of death - "

I did not blame Zidane for falling to his knees. I did not blame him for grasping the rim of Vivi's cloak, and for looking up at him, with my first thought that I had ever had on his lips; it was said with such weeping grief that my heart broke, again, again and again. "Brother - "

I knew better Vivi's reactions than Zidane would. My hands raised slightly quicker than my maddened mage's, spells hissed from my lips quicker than his fingers could expel death. Zidane exploded in fire only a second after I drowned him in a reflection-spell. Reflection; protection; Shell. Only a second, but it was enough.

Zidane rose unhurt; Vivi slammed his staff into his side, knocking him off the table, his eyes all on me.

"You know what he did," he hissed, like a furious cat. "You know what he did, you know what he touched, I'll rip the Genome's dick off and tear out his heart with my mouth and teeth and feed it to my children, a baby bird, I'll rip him to shreds, then you'll know the meaning of scarecrow - "

"Vivi," I said, through clenched teeth, "no. No. It's over. They're dead and it's not Zidane's fault, goddamn it all, Bibi and the others died because of nobody! You can't bring them back by killing him! You can't bring them back!"

His howl was that of an animal, and it chilled all my bones to petrified amber. My own Trance rose out of my fear like a fish in a pool, out of watching his agony, my tongue already spelling my Reflect as I raised my arms and spread my wings and was engulfed in a pillar of ice.

The shards melted and puddled around my feet as I broke out of them; both of us glowed like stars as I rushed him, bore him out the window, both of us tumbling into midair as we flapped strongly away from the firsthall. The others could not help me now.

I exploded, again and again. I felt the threefold kisses of fire and thunder and ice, all of them dripping off me like powdersnow. My whitewashed wings beat slowly in midair, unable to take my eyes off him. We were both weeping; both of us, like tired children. There were fine traceries on his scarred face, like some demonic tribal tattoo, stark against the snow of his skin. His hair looked like burning tentacles, like some Medusa. It was never meant to be a duel.

"Dead!" Firaga.

"Deaddeaddead, everything dead - " Thundaga.

" - all-around dead, everything surrounding - " Blizzaga.

"Why can't I die, Eiko? Let me die, let me die, let me die. I exist only to kill. I exist only to kill. I exist only to kill - "

I saw his hands raised, saw the glimmering ball of death within them. Doomsday. At his power level, at his strength and speed and suffering, he could take out the good chunk of Alexandria that lay below us. I opened my mouth in readiness to pour out Holy from my hand, my wand, my body -

An earsplitting roar stopped both of us in our tracks, and I thought that the shadow that immediately engulfed us was the end. But the spell had spluttered in Vivi's hands.

Standing on the balcony was Garnet, robe whipping in the wind, the eidolon Kingdragon Bahamut stretched up over Alexandria Castle in eye-defying enormity. He roared again, and it shook the foundations of the city; it shook me to the core.

Vivi immediately grabbed me, both of us struggling in midair, his staff stretched over my neck as I tried to beat my wings against him. I kicked helplessly.

"Vivi!"

It was Garnet's voice, anguished, loud and clear and heartbroken. "Vivi, stop this! Please! Vivi!"

Both of us spiralled down to earth, down to the deathly emptied town-square of Alexandria, the crescent-city. His Trance had burnt out like a lamp, and mine with it; when we collapsed together on the cobblestones, the hair that fell over my shoulders was white.

"They're dead," he sobbed, into my shoulder, staff clattering on the ground. His arms wrapped around my waist, holding on to me for dear life, desperate for an anchor. "They're dead dead d-dead, Eiko, I couldn't stop it, I never could stop it, I never will!"

"No," I soothed, desperate. "You will. You will, I swear it. I promise. You will."

His teeth bit down on my shoulder, more for staunching his pain than causing mine. I hissed, gripping down on his hands.

"Rain Stops in a matter of months," he hissed into the bitemark. Everything within me liquefied, my soul screaming at the thought. "Your precious Rain, your precious Sunny. Same batch, my little linden-love, same slowing-down and drawing-down. Red rain. Out goes the sun; it is dead, it is finished, it is perished. My little children, my little fresh-blown sweets." He wailed again, high and anguished.

I wrenched myself around in his arms, gripping his scarred face. My fingernails dug into it, forming little white crescents in the flesh. "Over my dead body, Vivi Orunita!"

"Maybe it'll come to that. Maybe, maybe." He pressed his forehead to mine, a broken toy now. "We exist only to kill. Why do I need you so much, Eiko Carol? Why did I come for you? When have I ever needed you so much? You and your hair and the way your spine fits in your back, lindenbloom, my Eiko-fool, my meadowsweet and broom, my blood and bile and bone - "

"I'll go back with you." I have needed you since I was six years old, Vivi. "I'll go home and we'll finish what we've started."

I bound my own fate, there in the almost-morning on the cold cobblestones, the one I knew I had been chained in long before. I think my Eidolons wept as he kissed me.
__________________

The Portal back was swift; he was on familiar terms, no more looking, no more tracking my magical signature through the dark hills of Treno and Lindblum and Burmecia. Night fell again, because it was still night in the desert, because he took me to a room where the windows were half-boarded up and thickly curtained and it would have been night there even if it had been day.

His mouth still tasted like he drank the congealed blood of dead things. Fingers pulled off coats, shirts, all black and whispery and falling to the floor like the shucked-off-skin of a caterpillar. Belts, three of them, looped around like vines with my dress open at the neck. He hit me when I touched his skin, full on the mouth, my lip cracked with my teeth and swollen with the blood; I punched him back and scrabbled like an animal at him, at trousers and cloth and more skin stained all over with his scars. He was pitted and scratched like an old rock that the sea has never touched. He had done it all to himself. There was a knife in that room that had read his body over and over again that I would never find.

Mouth to mouth; the first kisses we had ever seen had been Garnet's and Zidane's, and we had forgotten those long ago. His mouth was gentle where his hands were rough, pulling away cotton away from lace in the frenzied search to find my skin. Then his mouth forgot gentleness where his hands learned it, and I pawed at him. I got handfuls of feathers, and then handfuls of hair, then a handful of fur from a tail that he had hidden so long that I had no idea that it had even existed.

Then I remember tears like fire, dripping on my stomach. No words; broken noises and he spoke with his hands, and his hands were just as mad as the rest of him. The blanket smelt like mildew and sweat and the pillows were long gone but the feathermattress was soft and deep. We didn't know what we were doing; we didn't want to know what we were doing, as if we were still six and nine and doing something unutterably taboo. It was all in the dark; I could hardly see my hand in front of my face. There were ancient hard muscles in his back, from his wings, deep cuts from where he had tried to lever them out with a dagger. His mouth brushed summoner's horn, brushed collarbone, brushed the scar on my shoulder from where I had been jabbed from an engineblade when I was fifteen and oh Madeen nipple and navel and thigh to knucklebone in oppressive breathbare silence and the room was an abyss.

And then my thin unlovely legs were wound stuck around his thin unlovely hips, and I lay too exhausted to move my mouth. His hand still cupped around the curvature of a breast, mouth buried at the hollow of my shoulder as his black wings covered us both. Vivi and I. I and Vivi, bad grammatically but it still worked. Whitemage, blackmage. There was no white in that room.

His first and last words were all I heard before I succumbed to nothingness.

"And I crown thee my angel of death, linden-bloom."