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and how do you think I like it
when you tell me what to do
and your mouth opens
and you look straight through me?
do you think I mind
when the blank expression comes
and you set off alone
down the hall of collapsing columns?


- hugo williams

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Go Not Gently
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Chapter Twelve - Like We Could Die

"Today?"

It had turned to rain season. We would lie side by side in the threadbare blankets, only our knees touching, one long bony finger occasionally reaching out to me to touch my bandages. Sometimes he would prod the wounds until they opened, and I would wince, and he would leave off the growing spread of crimson until I lay very very still and the shifting splotches stopped happening.

We would talk. We talked often. Sometimes we would talk about nothing at all; sometimes it would be more him talking than I, soft meaningless babble to the ceiling, sing-song chant that he must have sung to himself many many years ago without the mages as a younger teenager so that he did not forget conversation. Sometimes we both whispered mathematical calculations - oh, Gods, he was brilliant, sharp as needles - as our hands traced the numbers in midair.

I never had enough energy in me to do any healing, at the end of the day, except for a single shift of the cool netting of regeneration over my skin to lie in Tango's bed and feel myself knit up. He would kiss down my hairline, mouth over the fractures like a baby with a nipple, rooting over my skin with a smile on his lips. "You taste like green, linden-bloom," he would whisper. "You taste like eucalypts. You taste like cell-buzzing, and springtime, and cuts closing."

His face was always close to mine. I would watch his eyes, that shifting play of amber in the dark and violet in the light, like the sky of an alien world, until I was dizzy. He was like an eye-trick book, colour-mixing until I was faintly nauseous. I could see the shine of him even without candles, the flicker of his eyes; I liked it best when it was black and I couldn't see him, only kiss him, move myself over to suckle roughly at some flesh over bone that might be his cheekbone or the juncture of his neck to shoulder.

"What do I taste like, Eiko?" It was in the dark that I heard Vivi's voice, the man that was the boy, that beautiful clear otherworldly tenor. I drank that voice, without the face: could have sat up and begged for more like a dog. I wallowed in the occasional stutter, bathed all over in every sentence hesitant because he was thinking carefully of what he was saying. "You break my skin."

"You taste like dead peppers."

When he laughed, I could pretend. He was Vivi Orunita, brilliant scholarship student to the University of Lindblum, revered saviour of Gaia along with Prince Consort Zidane and Queen Garnet of Alexandria and the beautiful yet modest Princess Eiko of their very own regency, whom he danced with at balls despite both's inability to dance. Steiner would come to see him every second Sunday, because he loved Adelbert Steiner, who was like second father to him. Nobody could help loving Vivi. He studied cosmology; he studied magics. My own father thought him wonderful. I would sneak into his room at the university constantly, though I still apprenticed under my father and the Regency Engineers; and it would be dark, like now, and we would make love because it was right and nobody expected anything different except my mother and we were going to marry anyway the moment I had built my first grand flagship. Nobody cared, nobody minded, and it would be dark and he would kiss me, and he would laugh -

Of course I was going mad. It was the only way I could cope. Every day I battled a dozen Eidolons, with will and words and all too often my wand, and came away bloodied and bleeding and more than half-dead. I no longer went to my old room; the mistress slept in the master's chamber. The bed had been boiled new, and the stuffing replaced; I did not want to sleep there with the thought of catching Tango's old everything. I wept there too often anyway, without fleas and lice.

He broke the spell, as he always did. One of his fingernails scraped down the fresh wound again, on my shoulder; it broke and seeped, before the regenerative spell took it again. It was dawn. We always went through this.

"Today?"

"Not today." I closed my eyes, exhausted, and begged sunrise not to come. It wouldn't; the rains would start at dawn, and the sky would be dark as the clouds vomited rain and all the little mages hurried about to get things done and keep out the wet. Vivi hardened like sand in a furnace; I sickened, took ill, watched myself go grey in Kuja's ornate mirrors. "Maybe tomorrow."

"Time is shortening." Only malicious in the blunt statement of fact. "Ixion beat you near to death, linden-bloom, petal-princess. He would have speared you through."

Worry, from him? No. His voice was light, methodical, already measuring my torso hanging off the horn of that lightning-horse. "But he didn't."

"Who is it today?"

I don't even know any more. "Don't worry about who it is, Tango. It won't interfere with your precious equations."

He laughed at that, brittle and light, two of his fingers curling in my hair and tugging until my scalp fizzed. "Put your little kitten-claws back in, Carol. You'll scream yourself hoarse against nothing."

"I am screaming myself hoarse against the nothing. The big Nothing. The last Nothing."

He ignored the vaguely tearful reproach in my voice. One of my hairs was plucked out; he wound it round and round and round about his fingers in the darkness, me feeling the motion of it rather than actually making it out. "Who is it today?"

So dead tired. Dead tired, dead feverish, dead pathetic. Will - w-will you be my partner at the Winter Ball, Eiko? I asked your father, he hasn't promised your hand to anyone else, except Zidane saying he was going to sit on your dance card - - like I'd go with anyone else, Vivi. You wear a pretty dress, I'll wear my best overalls - "How can you make love to me every night and wait for me to fall every day?"

The lazy languid warmth, him snuggled up to my shoulder smelling like gristle and soap, chilled noticeably. He was quiet for a very long time; when he spoke again it was with that rather disconcerting sanity, none of Tango's welling-up laugh behind his words. "Did you know, linden-bloom, that I feel it like a burn when my children die? Not like fire burns. Like ice in the mountains. I can feel them going and I get colder and colder and colder..."

A shiver ran down my spine.

"Colder and colder and colder," he repeated. "It is going to be a cold winter, Princess."

"Do you think I don't know they're dying, you arse?" Seven little Mages, unnamed but loved, had fallen over the past week. He had obviously made a batch of them at this point in the past, the way the bright-eyed loaves were staling. "Don't you dare use the Mages against me, Vivi, you know it's them I'm fighting for - "

"A cold winter," he murmured. There was something deeply, greasily horrid in his voice. "A cold winter in summer. It must be all the rain."

I stumbled out of bed, naked, nauseous, knocking my shoulder against some desk as I pulled my shirt around my middle and tied a grubby rectangle of cloth around my hips. I only did up a few buttons on the shirt before I left it in my mad rush, arm groping for my wand scattered somewhere on the floor. Vivi's laughter danced me out of my exhaustion, my blood all acid.

"You're a fool, Eiko," he said quietly, the laughter stopping as suddenly as it had begun. "You're a fool and sometimes I hate you for playing out this pretense that you can do this."

Wand wedged at my hips, shedding white over everything as I pulled my glasses off the desk I had injured myself on. "How long does he have?"

"You should have gone with my original plan, Eiko. I could have held you in my arms while everything went on a-burning."

"I hope your children hate you, you rat bastard, you cruel idiot, foul and misbegotten and - and - "

Thin arms around my shoulders as I shook with tears, again, collapsing with my face on his shoulder out of exhaustion and anger as I impotently beat my fists on his chest. Eventually I stopped, my wrists all hurting, and just flung myself into his naked thin self and cried.

"You're very tired, Carol."

"I hate you for doubting me."

"I hate you for going in that room every day, linden-bloom. I hate the way you close your eyes and wriggle in your sleep, restless, waking up listless still, the way they cut you until your organs fall out all slippery-purple and you hold them in with one hand while you knot your skin back up - "

"Tango." I was startled out of my tears; they were never really tears, these days, just fits that came and went wetly and stormily. I stared up at those eyes, in the dark, fingernails digging in bitten crescents to his skin. "Are you trying to say you're worried about me?"

He moved away from me, slipping back into bed, flopping down gracelessly with his wings a heavy weight and a whumphf as he stretched in the warmth from our bodies. "Three days, princess. Maybe four. My poor little mother, losing all your children before you even birth them."

It took a couple of swallows before I could speak; then my voice was leaden, crouching down to the trapdoor that would lead me out. "Today I'm fighting Terrato."

"Don't lose, meadowsweet."

"I won't."

----------------------------

I didn't.

I'd once eaten snake at a party; my father generally ate everything that was suitably blanched and put on a tray with a little sprig of parsley, much to Mama's voiciferous disgust, and though my proclivities didn't run quite that far we had a grand old time eating boo-snails and mu-pudding and grue-pie or whatever we used to down. Once he offered me snake; I thought about ballrooms and lace shifts and jewelled hair-pins when chunks of Terrato finally crashed to ground. The earthly forms of the Eidolons never lasted; whatever mangled corpses I created in that spacious hall would disappear the next morning, leaving only the faint smell of boiled bones.

I always imagined my Summoning as a very long dark corridor with cool rock walls, a sort of cave with deep recesses. Garnet had once told me, in murmurs, that her Summonings had been from a deep pool which she swam down in; the summoner would always go deeper, darker, thicker, more claustrophobic and terrifying with your hands grazing hard roughnesses and groping into cavities and the silt clogging your nose as you blindly grasped the water and bang -

The contact, over and over, with each howling spirit, just about wrenched me apart. I preferred it when they didn't talk.

so you are the summoner - on the doomquest - you have bested the others - you will not best me - i am the zolom - you will not be my mistress - our bodies will bar the way -

The deeper I would go, the less I found only Summons riddled in their pockets of the spirit-world like a particularly nice fruit-cake. I would flail wildly, trying to go deeper, like seeing your hands in your dreaming - and end up talking to a bloody mountain or something hideous that was shaped flesh and eyes and no head or a cackling hag-witch with glittering jewels on her deathmask.

you will not destroy the world - the dark king will not reign with the white queen - it is fruitless, useless -

The spells came easier nowadays. Holy slipped from me as easily and naturally as drying your tongue and waiting for the spit; not the princess of elemental magic, sometimes they would not fall immediately, but shrouded in my own Reflect and hardly even flinching any more as claws and teeth and spells thudded around me I would hit them and hit them and hit them until they slunk off. There was hardly ever any strategy to it; it was only obscene amounts of patience and stamina. Float made me stand awkwardly and my muscles would crick; usually I would think very hard on how forward I was looking forward to a backrub and a cuddle with the Black Mages. Then it would be back again, down into that dust-choked cavern, trying and trying and trying to go down to a darkness I couldn't reach and a tightness I knew, somewhere deep inside me, I could never fit myself into -

aarrRRGhghhHRHHGgggh

Chunky, steaming snake bits, a lá Carol. Serves ten.

urk

"Mother?"

Rain always had towels ready, afterwards, powder to fling across the room to dry all the blood. (Lots of it was often mine.) He would pass me one and waft about and then cling to my leg like a small limpet; with great difficulty I hoisted him up to my back, and though he hesitated for a moment, he laughed at the treat.

"You shouldn't," he protested. "You're hurt."

"I'm used to it by now, Rainy-Rain."

"I think this is pretty undignified."

"I think you're pretty right." I let him off down the corridor, away from the stench of fresh summon-corpse; I was getting deeper, deeper. I could pick out lifelines, now. My hands would shape time, place, self; I called out to things other than the magic-monsters, and with disgruntled voices they answered. I was going to soon stop at the level of summons completely; I had absolutely no wish to start tugging at Dagger's Bahamut, or at the much-whispered and much-threatened Queen Ashura, so I was going to have to spiritually sidle along until I hit bottom. The Eidolons fought fiercer at this depth; fought fiercer or left me well alone, which was always surprising, to say the least.

("You're not going to fight me?" I'd asked one healing summon.

"Well, no," he'd said, shifting the hem of his white robes rather fastidiously about his feet in the muck and gore Shoat had left. "To be brutally frank, I think you're damn well fucked anyway, so go ahead and mess around with the bloody stupid apocalypse and see if I care. You're this year's whinge and I'm bored of you already. Bloody Summoners, give them an inch and they take a mile. It's no picnic, you know, you try to have a nice rest and it's all crazy dancing lunatics or cheeky invalids with bloated legs or someone who wants to imprison you in a cursed lamp or...")

Rain held my hand. His grip wasn't as tight as it once was.

"You know," he said, very thoughtfully, "I wish I could have been able to see a moogle."

"You're going to see a moogle. I'll show you one when I take you to Lindblum."

"No, I don't think so." Not bitter; not resigned, even; just fact. "Out of all the things I wished, I wished I could have seen a moogle. I can't really wrap my head around what one looks like just from you talking."

I scrubbed the towel through my hair until it all stood up on end; blood was an unfortunately quick setting lotion. "Rain, you're - you're not going to - "

"I'm not afraid," he said stubbornly, and his eyes were like fierce tigers' eyes in the dark; "I'm not afraid to die."

You're not going to.

It rang all hollow.

Our hands clenched together as if that would stop it, my hand and his fire-warm glove, and we hobbled down the corridor together. It was early in the day but seemed like later, the desert light shrouded through the windows; as we walked a great slow boom of thunder exploded out the skies, and the thick drops of water came down like pellets on the rooftop. The sheer noise would have woke the entire palace, if there were anyone sleeping other than the hundreds of little mages in the ever-growing tree yard.

"I was born in this season," Rain suddenly said, pasting in the gap where my tongue was searching and I was shaking for how many times I could say no, and we watched Sunny heft out an enormous bucket to the center of the worn carpet at the foot of the stairs in preparation for the drip. He grunted over it, obviously grumbling; when it was finally in place he had to lean against it very heavily and breathe in and out for a few long minutes. "I remember my clothes getting wet."

"Don't do it this time. Gods know how we'd get you dry again, in this weather. I feel like I'm drinking in cupfuls with each breath! Go start a fire in the Great Hall," I said, suddenly inspired; "tell everyone to come and have lunch there, I'm buggered if you all are going to work through lunchtime. Maybe your stupid bastard of a father will join us if I can get his nose out of a book."

"Eiko, he'll be mad - "

"Go on with you. I know how to handle him by now." Even if Black Tango came with ropes attached, I wouldn't know how to grab hold. "Maybe I can even convince him to let you sleep in our bed tonight, it'll be freezing. We can play cards. He's useless at cards." (Like we ever played cards in bed. We were young.) "Go make sure the fire's nice and warm."

Vivi was hunched over his desk when I found him; he could have been asleep, he could have been unconscious, he could have been dead. Whatever he was, he looked sick and exhausted as I felt; both of us were limp things, and it was getting earlier and earlier in the day that we collapsed without being able to do anything. It was hardly noon and we were already ready to faint. The numbers beneath his gloves were smeared; I ran my finger along his equations, along the bell-curves of his diagrams, caressed momentarily the bizarre compass of his mind and left him. He wore too many layers for me to give him blanket.

(Him and I, the university at Lindblum, him over-exhausted from all-night studying, books everywhere and one candle safely guttering in the shadows of long shelves. We'll get the coolant filter done, Vivi. We'll make the engine work. Go to bed now.)

"You're getting filthy again," I muttered. "You need a bath."

"No, Carol," he murmured, audibly. "I need light."

I left him to it, light and all; the mages and I crowded in the Hall, and we laughed and chattered and ate warm white bread and honey and apples and I dozed next to a pillar as Shiny got into some very detailed argument with everyone else what was better, cake or pie. I was half-asleep during the debate about peach cobbler, too many others on my lap and next to my shoulders in quiet and grateful invalid's nap; that made me panic and I pulled myself out of my sleeping, counting every head, watching every breath, waiting for the Stop. Through some grace it came for nobody, not even the frailest; I half-dreamt about moogles, and eventually came to to a mostly empty hall with Cloud raking the coals and River packing up the lunch things.

Every one of them deserved moogles and peach cobbler and a life not being housemaids for a godsforsaken shack filled with monsters. I couldn't get them out my head; my feet dragged the ground as I returned to my stinking ballroom. Apple pies with icecream; marble-cake, crystallised rose leaves, Mog snuggled into my belly. Tango reaching into Rain's face to pull out his soul. Upside-down berry cake. The thunder and heavy monotony of the water in the desert...

It was no mood to do a Summoning. I had to try three times to do a successful circle; when, in my mind's eye, I finally touched the craggy wall, it was spongy and awful underneath my nailbitten hands.

I've had enough of this. I've had enough of angry magic-monsters and killing them; I've had enough of faffing about. I've had enough of babies dying. I've had enough of airships. I've had enough of everything. I've had it up to here.

The moss-filth rock crumbled beneath my feet as I strained, scrabbling, punching my hands down, casually breaking the skin across my knuckles. I was tired; I was tired and something was giving way, though I didn't know whether it was me or the fabric of the universe.

I'm tired of being tired.

My wand had too many splinters; they dug themselves into me and worked themselves out in my midnight regeneration, popping out of my skin like caterpillars in bark.

I'm tired of doing this on my own. I'm tired of right and wrong. I'm tired of being kidnapped.

If I closed my eyes hard enough I could hear the world's heartbeat; locked up and safe from even me touching it, inexorable and restless, the ultimate pulse. My feet sunk down; I curled up, hands casting about blindly, waiting for the jaw-tingling jolt that would indicate a force stuck plainly in my way; I had cleared the snowfields and I was diving down. It was getting harder each and every inch, like swimming in swiftly hardening molasses, barely making any headway as I thrashed myself down like a baby being born and

"I call the Name of the final Thing - "

bang

The hardening mantle immediately gave away beneath my hands like a candy shell. I freefalled into nothing, into hot darkness, unable to pull myself back to the surface where my knees were crossed and I was sitting down in a reeking broken ballroom with a chintzy chandelier in the Desert Palace on Gaia in the world that I was born. I somersaulted over myself, finding equilibrium, only to be faced with something my heart thought for a few moments was It. The bandaged hands strained uselessly crossed before its chained chest as it howled like an animal, broken, the darkness our antechamber as I stared and stared and stared and my eyes popped out with it and the horrible head swayed from side to side.

feel my pain

I flailed helplessly, aiming for footing and getting none, losing all hope of the light as I was sucked into the undertow.

bang

My hands brushed something clammy and barbed like sahagin skin; only the phosphoresence from the great mass of wobbling flesh lit my way, something ill-formed like a half-turned clay pot dropped on the floor, flesh pinks and bruise purples and eyes scattered around willy-nilly. It was a hysterical monument to bad engineering; but it chilled me on the inside, made my blood liquid ice, until I screamed calamity and curled myself up and fell away.

bang

I sank past naked men and women; the bodies crowded out the darkness until I was moving through cold, stiff limbs, swimming through corpses, the flesh all stuck and glued together in parts and then I was stuck inside a ball of dead people and I could see through my hands and my flesh was transparent and

oh

All I could hear was incessant gibbering, and I realized it was me -

NO. NO MORE.

I exploded like a star, out of control and wheeling towards a certain death on the hard ground.

When I came to the ballroom's ceiling had blown off, and every square inch remaining was covered in bits; Tango hovered in the center, a rhapsody in organs, and both my legs were broken. I was a pale and shaking wraith in his arms as he took me back to the Tower and his room and laid me down on the bed and watched my shaking lips as I stuttered through spells. My skin was a net of green, fine and gentle like baby's hair; I stared into nothing and wept, my lips white as snow, soaked through with the rain and the blood and somebody's pancreas juice. I rolled over and vomited copiously on a pile of, thankfully, rags - Vivi solved that one by pitching the acrid mess promptly out the window.

"Linden-bloom," he said, and his voice was deeply pitying, "you can't do this any more."

I didn't say anything; my teeth were chattering. He very calmly set my legs, eliciting two shrieks muffled by sheer and complete exhaustion, and lit the candles in the room with a languid wave of his gloved hand. The bed pitched as he sat down on it, next to me, and I kept my eyes open just for the fear of once more facing the dark. The wind blew hard outside, making the shutters rattle furiously; for once, the antlions did not provide ambient background music.

"I t-tried," I stuttered. "I tried c-calling him."

"You pulled in the dark things, Princess. Not the dark Thing but the dark things, all skittery, but when all else fails use fire, don't you think? I never liked that ballroom, anyway. I'm glad it's gone."

"Vivi - "

He settled down beside me and took off his hat, and all of his pale birdfeather hair spilled over the pillow as he looked at me with wide golden eyes. "Let me tell you a true Truth, Eiko. Fire is not so bad a death. Neither is ice, nor thunder. If done quick enough there will just be heat and wind and quick, sharp coolness, and then it will be all over for everybody, and it will be just like going to sleep, or turning your eyes up to the sun on a hot summer's day and feeling it go through your head. There will be no pain in our armageddon. Aren't Alexandria and Lindblum dead to you, little love, here alone in the Desert Palace? You have fading memory of them. After the burning it will crystallise for ever. Your Garnet, your Elia."

Wrong move. "I'll never let anything happen to Cornelia."

His fingers traced my hand, delicately; he very gently kissed the lobe of my ear, just to taste it, to absorb with tongue the knitting of my skin. When he spoke, his voice was deceptively light. "We had a Stopping while you were not with us."

Not Rain, Mog, please not Rain. Oh, hell, not any of them, my little ones. "Who?"

"I think you called him Sun. You know how quick these things happen, Carol."

Sunny had died, away from me, while I went into the summoning-dark. Tango took my shocked hand; his voice was hatefully quiet as he gently felt each of my sawn-off fingernails. "He gave his love. They're all such good children, aren't they? No harsh words, no fits of temper, no impatience. They greet death with grace. They always have. Little tree-birds, little quiet mage-things all done up in black. Work and die, just like bumblebees."

So I cried without weeping; my shoulders shook and my eyes were dry and I hiccupped and raged until his newly-bared fingers peeled my eyelids down over my eyes. It was dark; I was exhausted and nauseated and my insides felt as weighty as the spun candy sold at stands at Treno fairs. Everything was sucked out of me. I wasn't Eiko Hildegard Carol, I wasn't Eiko Fabool, I wasn't Kid or My Daughter or Your Highness or Brat. I wasn't even Linden-bloom or Mama. I was spine and a few bits of trace flesh and tear ducts, my entire geography the Palace and all the sand I could eat, who would do nothing but bury my face in Vivi's thick leather jacket and wait for the end of the world to be over before it had even begun.

And I gave up. I was not going to summon Necron. Black Tango was going to finally take up his predecessor's well-cut and tastefully-trimmed mantle; the Angel of Death.

I felt tender and sore when he took me, unmoving, parting only my mouth for his own; we were both silent, and my mind and hands were far away, and I don't remember it finishing before I fell asleep all little and lethargic in the murderer's arms. You can only save the world once. You can't go back again.

----------------------------

The next few days I slept in and hung around like a wraith; I left my splintered wand safely tucked into the sash of whatever I was wearing, puffing sparkles rather uselessly and sadly, while I dozed. Fatigue had settled deep down into my bones. The Mages came up from cleaning the basements, the rooms, the hall stairs, the corridors, and we took our meals together, and I watched them dwindle.

I had been far too busy with my own things, to watch them die; to watch their step get slower, for the shortness of breath, to watch them sicken. Now the last of them, we took our meals together and the weakest sat near me and I helped them eat and we all listened to the summer storm. I couldn't even cry; I was as dry-eyed as a rock, gay and bright and laughing and telling them my Grandpa's old stories, and saying Geez! every five minutes as we all tried to talk over each other.

Life is transient, I thought. Life is transient and everything is fleeting, and here are couple dozen of little boys who have never had the chance to skin their knees or put an oglop in their stew or have a birthday party with their Mama and their Papa and eye cynically shoes that they are meant to 'grow into', or go to school, or fall in love, or request to be allowed to have a mouse as a pet, and what is that worth? Who is that worth?

"Carol," said a voice - too gently, he was never that gentle unless - "he's sleeping now, he'll go soon." And that was the first of the Stoppings.

The unnamed; the named; it was one of them on my lap, who had been a large player in the pie is better than cake crusade, who was candle-light. I hadn't noticed that a hush had fallen on the room. I put my hands under his armpits and lifted him up like a toddler; Tango bent to kiss him, and he took his soul and hat away as he dissipated into the black ether of which he was made. The smothering of a fire, the bathwater draining away. We were all quiet after that.

"Brothers, mother," one of the Mages said, "is it wrong to be - frightened?"

"If we're frightened, he won't be proud of us."

"It's all right to be frightened. But not too frightened. It's wrong to fight it, I think."

"To fight it too hard, anyway. I wouldn't want to go all tired. I want to look cute when I go get hung in a tree." Laughter.

"You don't look cute, anyway."

"Hey!"

"Don't fight, not now."

"We're not fighting, not really - "

"Will it hurt, Mother?"

"Will we like it?"

"Will we be happy, if we've been good?"

"It will be wonderful," I said. "Because no matter what happens, my darling stars, I and Black Tango will see you again very soon, so you just have to sit tight and not w-worry about it and be just as brave as all the others. You're everything. You're the world, you're the stars, you're the sky. You're better than biscuits or summer or airship rides."

There was a caught sob; and it was Vivi, standing with empty hands at the outskirts of us, me in the middle like a mother hen with a number of sleepy behatted chicks. Those who could stumbled to their feet and clustered around him; he touched them all and he looked at me, and his eyes were a sword that slid like butter into my defenceless heart and shut me down for ever.

"Spit and a little bit of magic," he murmured. "And still better than anything this wretched, deep-dark world ever had to offer, ever gave me, ever had to give. My seeds, my flowers, my small fruits. Here we are, and I am proud of you. I will say all your names and whisper your numbers as I destroy the world for your funeral pyre, for being reborn, phoenixes. You will not rot. You will not be forgotten. You exist only to be free."

There was a collective sigh; and many of them let go in that moment, the mechanism of their magic grinding to the final halt, giving themselves up to the last of the light as they Stopped. The stronger ones - and that was hardly saying anything - came to ground like mannequins sitting down; all dolls and less than dolls, and I felt a tug on my too-long hair, and looked to see my unabashed favourite smiling at me. I gathered him up in my arms.

"Goodbye, Mama," he said. "Goodbye, Eiko."

"I was an awful friend and a worse mother, Rain."

"I didn't know that I could want something so much until he brought you here. Oh, Mama, I'm so tired."

"It's all right. You hung on so long. Someone should give you a medal and a parade, with, with streamers, and bunting, and a brass band - I love you, Rain. I love you, love you, love you. I never could have had a better son ever. We'll meet again, I swear."

I was wasting my words. Rain had died in my arms, with obviously not a little relief, and I looked at Tango again and he looked at me and the shadow-shroud around him flickered away. The sea of swiftly crumpling hats and thick jackets and inumerable pairs of gloves were reflected in his eyes, a quick sharp glitter, and I held out one spasmodically-trembling hand.

Vivi knelt down. What was left of Rain fell away, slipping gently to the floor like so much laundry from my arms; his father kissed my fingers, then kissed my wrist, and danced his lips up to the inside of my elbow. His mouth was cold and his body was shaking. He brushed them up my neck, to my mouth, the tip of my tongue and the side of my nose; my cheeks, my forehead, the whites of my eyes, the side of my summoning horn.

"Here we are at the end of all things," he said. His gloved hands took mine; my ring-finger slipped into his mouth, taken, tongue slick against my nail as he bit down fiercely at the base. I bled a circle of jagged tooth-marks. "You are my wife, linden-bloom. Today we are married. I am your name and you are mine. We have always been Black Tango, and we will bless the conjugal bed by destroying everything, fire and flame and ice and frost. We have saved the world. Now we will stab it."

He dropped to the floor in a puddle of leather, and I half-fell into his lap; I had no sap, no blood, no will, nothing except a growing vortex deep inside me that swirled the way berries bled into cream. I was white, blank, parched, and he pressed my back into his chest, buried his face into my hair. "You smell like insanity of late, Carol. You smell like I did. You smell like madness and things you can't see. Like wings coming out. Like antlions. We're both poisoned, my sweet love, my rosehip and briar-queen."

I kissed him. The vortex spun; I dipped my finger in it, tasted it, measured the lines, rotated the angles and started the engine. My wand had nudged itself into my hand, and I was bleeding into it, the wound at my finger running freely. His mouth was power; I was battery. Machine. "Vivi Orunita," I whispered, lost in his lips, one half of a sinking ship with every muscle in my body gone. "Vivi, I call the Name of the Final Thing. I call on Necron. I call Eternal Darkness."

bang

The stink of death was on my tongue, in my eyes, in the hands he held; I felt the vortex roar and then I heard Gaia scream, heard Madeen howl defeat, felt my skin shiver and crackle. The Stop was everywhere, and it held the world; I had calculated wrong, I had gone the wrong way, no matter how far I delved I would never find Death; Death lay in the air, in my spit, in Vivi's eyes. Death was the sheer infertility of my body, the magic that had dwindled my monthly bleeding of late, death was the floor littered with clothing like the leftovers from small children shedding their coats willy-nilly. Tango kiss half-cracked my teeth as I felt the ground rumble; the world shifted, minutely, just once, and day turned into night.

Profound night; the darkest night in the darkest year in the darkest part of the ocean, raining shadows and blooming charcoal. He and I were left alone, short of breath. The windows were oil slicks, and the world was eerily silent, and the string between my heart and my head finally frayed and detached and sent me spiralling away.

"Death comes," he said. "We met once. My children all know his kiss; I barely brushed it. I have never Stopped, Eiko. I've longed for this moment."

"Well, here it is, all wrapped up in a box just for you."

He stood, with me still in his arms, and I whipped my legs around and shivered on the floor and groped blindly for Rain's jacket in the sudden chill. I pulled it on around my threadbare finery of Kuja's leavings and the sleeves only came to my forearms; but it brushed heavy-comforting around my thighs, and smelled like soap and darning and my son, and Vivi wrenched a knife from his pocket and slit it twice at the back.

"There," he said. "Now you look like a mage. E-Eiko - "

"I was almost ready to blow up Alexandria," I whispered to the night, to his face, to everything. It was not with horror, but with wonder. "I was almost ready to blow up everything. I wanted to blow things up. How did we get here, Vivi?"

"Love," he answered simply. "Love; I went mad for love; I drank love and it was poison and I died of it and I ate it and it was sustenance, it gave me wings and ripped my face. Love and yearning for a knowledge I could not possess. Life and death have been such bitter leavings. I existed only to kill. I exist only to kill."

I felt a rustle in the darkness; he must have held out his hand, and dozens of glowing spheres drifted to midair with crumpled clothes underneath them like sad shadows. The blaze lit the air and burnt my eyes; both of us glowed eerie blue from them, and we must have looked like ghouls.

"Get your glasses, Carol," he said, and his smile was at once joyous and filled with despair. "We're destroying Death."

----------------------------

We went our separate ways. I ran. Night had fallen all over the world; my wand lit the way, and I scrabbled and flailed and almost hit my chin with my knees on the staircase up to my old room. The vortex in me had stilled to one continuous note, a monotone, the rumble of an airship's heartbeat and exhaust pipe, the worst music in the world. I jammed my glasses on.

Eiko, Eiko, what have you done?

Madeen. "I've done it, Mog. I'm going to go destroy Death now. Right now, before my sons get even colder than they are. I won't leave them anything but warm in their graves."

Fight Necron? In your condition?

I knotted all Kuja's silks around my waist until my frozen hips could feel; Necron was burning, burning, in my skin, ready to ice Gaia over into a bleak and lifeless winter asteroid. Another shirt, under the jacket; great, the Apocalypse was coming and I was going to look like a hobo. Delicate fingerless lace gloves; thank goodness, because those particular digits were swollen as all hell anyway. "Nothing Curaga won't fix up."

Don't play the fool. Oh, my Eiko, you've damned the world and everything in it. There is no hope.

"Hope for who? Hope for the world? Hope for the Black Mages?"

Necron's chains are broken. He will devour the universe if he can. How could you be so blind and work an act of such evil? Can't you hear him overhead? Can you hear the very soul of the planet shudder, can you hear the mountain of Gulug howl?

"I can hear you bitching like an old biddy."

Eiko, your mind is not working. You are going insane. You are retreating within yourself like a snail. You know this.

"You've never lost a child - "

I have. I am having. For the love your heart feels inside the casing of grief, Eiko, I beg of you to do this thing: lead this calamity away from the planet. You cannot banish it now. You cannot parley with him.

Green-haired girls and Terra Homing and it was hard to think. "You know what? I love how every night I lay awake waiting for someone, some voice, somewhere, all I got was silence. Not one word, not one touch. Nobody but him. For fuck's sake, Madeen, leave it well alone. Don't you dare presume to lecture me now. Not here. Not while everything's ending. Not with my children downstairs all dead and gone while they were trying to finish their goddamn lunches before they got cold - "

Lead him away from Gaia, Eiko.

" - and I couldn't stop him Stopping, I couldn't do it, my Rain - "

Lead him away from Gaia and maybe you will be allowed to hold your unborn infant in the afterlife.

I stopped; recoiled; closed my eyes and breathed through my nose. "That was a low blow, Madeen. The lowest of blows. Don't do this to me. I love you, loved you."

The truth.

"And if you think that I'm going to let that overrule over fifty dead children who only got to live a year, you must think I'm a selfish six-year-old brat." Lived, died, all in one single sacred blessedness. My brains were mangled soup. "You must think I hate everything. You must think I'm stupid."

Eiko -

I opened the window; that offered no solace to the sheer pitch of the encroaching dark, but what had once been silence was changing: from afar I could hear a slow, curdling scream, a hopeless moan, the shrieks of the damned. The world rang dissonant. There were no stars; there was no moon; everything had blinked out. Garnet would be holding a candle at her window, as the cries of a city in shock and confusion joined the shrill of the Eternal Darkness. My Trance settled over me in the extraordinary cold like warm tea; there was no rain, there were no antlions, there was no light. As my wings unfurled, I ruefully realized why Vivi had cut the holes, and I started to laugh; at that moment I could not think, I could not breathe, but some dictionary part of me knew hysteria and I was running mad, flying mad, no longer Eiko but swallowed whole as some part of some indefinite else.

"Goodbye, everything," I said, and I slipped out the window; my wings flapped strongly to keep me afloat and my hair got in my eyes and I was lost in a sea of dark ooze until Tango lit up the sky with a blaze of fire. His hands were ablaze with it; I flew close enough to almost singe my feathers and realized with an even inaner giggle that I didn't need my glasses after all; in trance my sight was perfect. I took them off and killed them, flung them down into the far-off invisible sand and rolled free.

"Are you ready, linden-love?" He looked ecstatic. We were both insane. "Are you ready?"

"Yes. Yes. I'm ready, I'm ready, I'm ready."

"This is our day of justice." We caught the wind; dropped; it made my eyes water and we flew, rolled and dipped and swooped in the darkness like sparrows or mayflies or avenging angels. "We will not fail each other."

bang.