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The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,
And arbitrary blackness gallops in:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed
And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

God topples from the sky, hell's fires fade:
Exit seraphim and Satan's men:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I fancied you'd return the way you said,
But I grow old and I forget your name.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

- sylvia plath
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Go Not Gently
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Chapter Eleven - Straining Towards Apocalypse

Two small figures sit silhouetted in front of a campfire, modest and smoky, stomachs full of bread and meat and cheese as they half-doze in the guise of keeping watch. Garnet, who gives in to their pleadings to watch like the older members of the party, sits a little way away so that the fire doesn't get into her eyes and patches up an undershirt. (She is kept up merely for the fact that repairing a tear is nothing like stitching a sampler, and her reddened fingers pick out knots over and over again from the rough canvas. In the morning Zidane will take it, nimble fingers dancing with the needle until the rip is invisible in the cloth.)

The first is awoken by the feel of the little black mage's hat falling upon her hair, tilted back by gravity, startled into clarity and anxious to prove that she has not in fact been drowsing. "Issat a dragon?"

Vivi is also startled out of ash-smelling dreams, squinting and panic-stricken at the dragon that turns out to be an owl searching for supper. "... T-That's a bird, Eiko."

"... It might have been a dragon. You're not watching properly!"

"It's got feathers!"

"Some dragons might have feathers," is announced in the pitying tones of the knowledgeable to the ignorant.

"That would be b-bad," Vivi says after a while. "Then they would look like birds, not dragons."

"They could hide in birdflocks," Eiko says thoughtfully. "Mmmm, crunch."

"Eiko!"

Mog squirms in the front pocket of Eiko's coveralls, a snug bundle of fuzz and bobble and exquisitely minature wings, curled into a tight ball against her full stomach. "You can sleep if you like," she offers generously. "I'm watching."

It has been a long day. Vivi flops undignifiedly into her lap, head next to Mog, close enough to hear the little motor of her heartbeat as Eiko looks down into her eyes. He smiles at her, sleepy-sweet, his golden eyes little tired crescents; he gives everything, he has always given everything, nothing exists that he would not rip off himself and offer to her in the clumsy leather rounds of his mage's hands. "Goodnight. I love you," he adds officiously.

Vivi loves everyone, but Eiko looks around with red cheeks in case anybody has heard. There is only Garnet, unpicking threads, hair hiding a grin at Vivi's words. "I love you," the white mage mutters, hot-faced. "Mostly. Sorta. Yes. Go to sleep."

He's already sleeping.
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Do not ask me why I did it.

I woke up only in morning - afternoon - the sun was high in the sky and I could not recollect - with a great sterile emptiness inside me, large as the darkness at the end of all things and a yawning gulf of nothing as I desperately attempted to feel. I spent ten minutes pushing, trying to despise him - trying to love him - and closed my eyes, exhausted once more back into that silence.

There's words they use for girls who make themselves willing lovers of their captors, and they're not nice ones. I called myself all of them until I had run out of similes, metaphors and foreign languages, and drifted in and out of consciousness listening to his breathing and the unsteady pit-a-pat of his heart.

Oh -

Call it violent. Call it angry. Call it unhealthy, call it sick, call it anything - but call it willing, because that is what it was. It was almost relief, in a way, thrashing about on the angry waves to finally be sucked down to lie at rest on the cool ocean floor. I had fallen without flight, but there was no longer any reason to uselessly flap my wings against it all.

Better to freeze than to burn, Eiko.

"You're back, Mother," Rain said, and that was that.

Mother. Yes. I was Mother. Defiled by your father, sweet boyos, yes, crowned your queen in the more violent and rotting of boiled marriage beds. They gathered around me as I appeared in the hall late that morning, still stumbling and delicate and bruised, wobbling on my two feet and nothing queenly in my ripped cotton frock.

When I had finally and fully come to consciousness, he had lit candles. It was no breakfast in bed, no roses, but he brought me light. I grabbed that lashing furred tail in the flickering orange gloaming; that thin white-haired boy-scarecrow had squawked like a bird, then laughed, both of us suddenly laughing and laughing and laughing like drunken teenagers falling down into the rotting blankets among the deep hot musty darkness and the feather-smelling blankets. We were all bodies against each other, feathers against skin and summoner's horn, tickled and tangled - Vivi's laugh had been warm and sweet and vibrant and it had stopped abruptly at my over-tired tears: born of laughter, half-there because I'd fallen without flight. He'd then withdrawn - quiet and cold and the man again instead of the boy - and left.

The candles had blown out in his wake.

"We looked and looked and looked for you," Sunny said, anxious, brimming over with excitement and relief. None of them had Stopped, I learnt, died from the rage Tango had gone into, died from fruitlessly searching the basements for me where things still lurked. Shiny had gotten flung against the wall by his father and hurt his arm, but that was bandaged and easily mended. All our hurts, packaged away in a tiny little box to be thought about later. We're not dead, children; we can be fixed. "We didn't mean to lose you, Mother, we're sorry - "

"She's back."

Vivi, from the rafters. He sailed down like an overcrown crow, no blackmist, resuming his proper place at my side among the sea of pointed hats. His arm looped around my waist as his wings spread out, peacock, dominant of the pack. "She is Mistress here now."

The Black Mages stamped their boots as he tilted my chin and kissed me. If my lips moved against his, it was out of their trembling.

You fucking bastard, so the cock o'the walk -

"Go about your duties," he ordered, imperious, the loving emperor. Kuja himself could not have drawn himself up with such dignity and prestige. "Your mother and I have work to do. We shall be in the library. My son - " he gestured at Rain - "attend me. The rest of you, we will not be disturbed."

The Black Mages murmured assent. Each touched my skirt as they drifted past, the soft whisper of cloth against cloth as their gloves brushed it.

"We have work to do." The whisper in my ear was not of the impertinent king of the realm. It was Black Tango, sing-song. "Come now, my love. You shall look at my equations as we down down death and together we will do this thing. You're mine now, Princess, mine mine mine."

I turned my head away, feeling helpless, and feeling helpless made me angry. Something simmered like hate between us as if he was tinder and I was flint, sparks falling like slow rain. "You've got one hell of an ego on you, Vivi."

"I'm older," he said, strange childish half-squabble. "I get to say what's what. Now kiss me properly, Carol, until your lips bruise."

I did. His mouth was submissive against mine, soft and pliant like a girl's, my horn scraping his forehead as I deliberately sawed it close and hard and painful as my kiss. I'm no more yours than you are mine, Tango. Pulling away, my erstwhile lover only smiled.

"Come on," I muttered again, too aware of Rain's eyes as I started to limp off. His kisses felt like public shaming, exposed, stripped bare and charred. No courtship, this. "We haven't got the time for these foolishnesses."

I had no more limped a few steps than he had scooped me up in his arms as if I was a cripple. He carried me to the library in that cradle, with Rain padding behind us all the way.

There was nothing louder than the damning quiet of my Eidolons. The Gods themselves had turned their faces from me.

- I don't know why I did it. Don't ask me why I did it -
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His writing was like chickenscratch. Black Tango had filled books and books and books of it, little blotted diagrams with a quill of one of his own feathers dipped in the beautiful blueviolet ink Kuja must have favoured as he calculated the rebirth of the God of Death.

I, engineer, mathematician, could only understand half of it. Whether that was due to undue genius, undue insanity or the fact that Vivi's penmanship could have been one-upped by a Trick Sparrow with its claws dipped in mud was beyond me.

"I calculated death," he told me, enthusiastic. We were in one of Kuja's old libraries; he had collected books, thousands of books, light falling heavy on the dusty old tomes as we sat at a desk piled high with them. They were choking-thick. "I measured him, linden-bloom, high to the quadrant and scope, triangulation, mapping-marking. Terra was smaller than Gaia. The destruction was less. We need not touch the core - "

Vivi's scales were heaped with death and destruction. "But how much?"

(He gave me a map of the world. It was almost entirely spotted out in ink.)

It's not just life, he explained, deeply excited so that the hat on his head quivered as he stuck bony leathered fingers down in the crinkled parchment. Well, it is life. (Do you not see, Carol?) The entire world was composed of life. The rivers ran right through it, and Necron fed of the death of it. The burning sacrifice of this, this, this - (you burn the world itself, linden-bloom, wound it, offer it beating in your hands) - with this and it comes -

In my mind's eye, I saw Vivi through the flames, all in black as he dug a bloodied sword down into Gaia. It wrenched and screamed; green tendrils grabbed at his ankles, his wrists, dragging him downdown -

It was too hot. I mopped my forehead, fingers brushing against my summoner's horn. "Which is why we can't take that path, Vivi. We can't destroy that much. We can't. It's slash-and-burn tactics, with nothing left. Where do we go once everything is dead?"

Leather-clad fingers strummed on the wood as he pondered his calculations, feathers bristling in his chair. Suddenly I mourned the passing of him as an intellectual; a stuttering young white-haired man going through the Lindblum universities, tragically brilliant, buried in books. We might have gone through my father's university together, Vivi and I, and that particular thought brought me to my knees forevermore. "Magic," he muttered, "magic and mathematics. The Summoning might rend the world apart, Carolthing."

"In the case of a 'might' and a 'will', I'll go with 'might', don't you think?"

"Then let us do this thing together." He looked as smug as if he had worked just to get to this answer, and I downed the urge to plant my fist in his self-satisfied face. Vivi stood, the tattered remnants of that coat washing about his ankles as he went to a dusty shelf. One of those leatherfingers traced down spines, almost in caress, something that made every toe on my feet curl in on each other in strange icereaction.

"I have books," he said, which was painfully obvious. "Books, books, books. There were pictures. I had seen them - " He drew one out, hefting it in his hands. "Here are your Eidolons, linden-bloom. Here are your monsterparents."

The unbelievably heavy tome landed with a crunching thud in front of me. The pages spilled open; I saw a painstaking drawing - barely the size of my two first fingers - of a bird with spread wings; the ink was all faded to dusty violets and ochres and saffrons, the writing spidery and archaic and hard to read. Palliadoer, I made out.

"Write your letters, Carol." One of his gloved fingers trailed down my neck, slow with either hesitation or promise, I didn't care which. "Pray that they reply."

I muttered something that contained distinct overuse of fucker. The chair scrabbled on marble as I stood up, away from it, Rain quietly hovering around my nonexistent skirts as I held my head imperiously high. "I will research my options alone."

He didn't call out for me as I left the library with the heavy book clutched to my bruised chest, his hands already tracing through his precious equations - not even calling for Rain as the little mage padded after me with his big feet. We each stood wreathed in fog to each other, hands all curled with pain and hate and violence, losing our footing every moment as we indecisively changed our minds to fumble to each other or oblivion.

The honeymoon was over. Funny, it hadn't ever begun.
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"This one's got a funny name," Rain announced, patiently scribbling down all the names I told him to as I lay on the other side of the polished ballroom floor. A mouldering cushion was beneath my hips as I flopped flat; one of them was beginning to ache terribly as if it had been wrenched, and I was loath to cure and lock a possibly twisted muscle in position. The only thing that could touch my parched lips and not make my stomach churn was water; I gagged on milk.

"What is it, my love?"

"Quet - zakoaty - I can't say it. It looks like a smooth bird with no feathers or eyes. He governes oer lighteneng - Do I write him down?"

"I don't think so." My wand was lying in a puddle of sunshine, soaking up the light. "All these wretched lightning kings! Read to me how many Eidolons the book said ruled Holy, my sweet - they also call it diamond-drop, or pearl... "

Rain cleared his little throat, featherscratch pausing. "Alexander Ayerith Ragyniork Etain Unicron... Um - "

"Keep on looking." A headache had started to form. The light hurt my eyes so that I couldn't put on my glasses without wanting to be ill, and with their closing all I could see was a dim face with eyes that flashed violet and hands that bruised my hair with their tuggings. I was exhausted; terrified of what I was going to do, terrified of what I had done. If I walked with a heavy step into the dark and murky world of summons, mind moving beyond the lights of my eidolons and past the shadowy veil that covered the tunnel into nothing, I could fall back with my face rearranged to be on both elbows and my flesh and skin spread out to smear against every square inch of the ballroom. I was an engineer; I had to quantify this, boil it down to steps and numbers. Walk through, reach your hands out, fingers to thumbs then call their name and wait for equation... "Don't even open that horrible chapter about Odin and Gilgallahwhatever, it makes my brains hurt."

"Oh, Mother," Rain said worriedly. "Can't I get you some tea? Does it hurt very bad? Should we stop? Do you mind it when I call you 'Mother'?"

"No, Rain," I said slowly. "I don't." I should, I should, I should. I'm in so deep. "I'll be fine. Keep on reading, ducky."

"Are you really going to Summon all these?"

I closed my eyes. My hips ached again. I had been calling to my Eidolons all morning like a lost soul; Fenrir, Fenrir, please come out, I'm sorry. Madeen, talk to me. Talk to me! Anyone! Please! Please! Oh, God, I'm so lonely, I can't bear this, please, oh Mama god shit fuck mama mama mama I left without seeing you, I had to, I'm sorry. I'm a bad girl, a horrible girl, he drew back the blankets and touched me here and inside and - "I wish. No, I'll be calling out their names. Sort of like standing in a long hallway filled with doors and yelling and making their doors open."

"Don't they get mad?"

"Yes." An inadvertant shiver ran through me. Only the unwary, the courageous, or the stupid could do this. I could not have fear. Stupidity, I could have bushels of. "But it'll - it'll put my mind in a special place, when the doors open on the Eidolons who are very very old. I have to get lucky. They have to grant me passage. I'll get drawn down, past the doors, past the holes, past everything, until I can see the words of trees and flowers and bugs and people and cells and the living things and then the dead things..."

"How do you come back?"

I don't know.

"Maybe I will have some tea, little love," I said decidedly, changing the topic, shifting the cushion. "Please? My head aches."

That made him bolt from the room like a bee in the want to please me. Now that I was 'Mother' Rain dogged about me anxious as a puppy; all my needs and wants had to be catered for before I knew I wanted or needed them. I couldn't decide whether it was adorable or whether it made me want to weep into the musty damask of the cushion beneath me.

It was going to be agony, the next few weeks. I was like a dancer in the wings of some hall, all eyes upon her as she readied herself for a dance she did not in fact know the steps to. All I could do was strain my ears towards the music and hope that the steps I made up on the spot fitted it enough to not break the rhythm; breaking the rhythm and dancing out of place meant death. Dancing correctly meant apocalypse.

I was a tiny girl when I fought Necron, opinionated enough to be an old lady, all my hopes and dreams funnelling into Zidane as we all stood and faced the death and ending of all things. I was so frightened it could have driggled down my legs, everything all blue and the foothold beneath us ephemeral as air as we faced screaming disembodied death so thick with something like magic my hair curled into little frizzy snarls. I remember hands; I remember Amarant tossing me up in the air as heat blasted me, I remember Zidane spitting blood. My mind had gently folded up the memory into a white linen tablecloth and buried it beneath the bones in my head so that I could cope waking up in the morning without screaming until my throat cracked at the image haunting me.

Please don't leave me alone for this. Somebody hold my hand. Failing doesn't just mean I die; failing means Vivi standing at the top of Mount Gulug, seeds of fire bursting from his hands as he makes the skies explode and the earth creak in agony and every voice screaming out for mercy as he offers Gaia on a plate to the Last Nothing. Imagine Rain and Sunny and Shiny huddled up underneath a bed, listening to the yelling, listening to the antlions frying in their pits - you will do this, you will do this, hand held or no.

A gloved hand touched mine; when my eyes flew open, startled out of my reverie, Vivi was there kneeling beside me with a cup of fragrant peach-smelling liquid in his grasp.

"I brought you your tea, linden-bloom," he said.

Sitting up, the useless threads of my ripped dress falling open at my flat boy-hips and slipping off my bitten shoulders and the buttons at the back tangling with the too-long locks of my violet hair, I did not bother to right my clothes. His head just bowed like one supplicant until that long white mane brushed my arms; I took the teacup with both hands and drank at it in long greedy gulps until hot trickles ran down my cheeks and jaw and throat. Mouth stained herbal, I set it down; then I laid my cheek down on his thin-thighed, leather-parched lap and did not leave it until the sky was dark through the cracked windows of the Desert Palace.

Hand held or no.