I am exhausted, I am exhausted ----
Pillar of white in a blackout of knives.
I am the magician's girl who does not flinch.
Go Not Gently
Chapter Three - Halfway Down Already
Rain brought me sandwiches with the crusts got off and chicken broth, which confused me slightly. Not just because he'd gotten the crusts cut off, which was how I ate my sandwiches ever since I was about five, but because of the very nature of the food. You don't get sandwiches and broth when you've been kidnapped. You get gruel and water.
There was milk, too. "Where'd you get the milk?" I asked curiously, eyeing it. I mean, we were in the damn desert. It looked normal and white and perfectly drinkable. Maybe it was from an antlion, though I heard that came green and slimy and ate through floorboards.
He looked almost embarrassed, setting the tray down lightly on my bed and proceeding to fluff up the pillows. "Black magic - "
I almost choked on my sandwich, which had some kind of yan-like meat and mustard and lettuce. "Black magic?! You can't make food out of magic! It'd be insubstantial! It's too complicated - "
"The Master has always been very good with creation." There was a smile in his voice. "How do you think we exist? Admittedly, we did go through some trial and error with the food, but eventually it was learnt that making the separate ingredients fared better in the end than trying to create foods with too much in them."
I stared. "You do realize this could completely revolutionize the rest of the world? If you can make food, you could - you could feed the hungry - you could do away with poverty - what if you could make other things? What if you could make steel?"
"We cannot make metals." Rain was firm. "It is best to run with nature, even if the magic is black." He sighed. "And even if we could save the world, there aren't enough of us to do so - and no motivation."
I took a sip of milk. "No motivation?"
"The world is a cruel and stupid and undeserving place."
Half-jumping, I immediately looked up to the doorway. Rain blushed wildly as if he'd done something bad, and Black Tango nodded curtly at him, gesturing with one hand. The littler Black Mage bowed at me and scampered out, practically falling over his own big feet as he left.
Think Mama. Graciously, I shifted aside to make more room on the bed, pulling the tray with me. "Won't you join me?"
With a deeply suspicious look, he folded up his wings so that they cloaked his back. Gods, every time I looked at him he still made me want to wet my pants. All black and leather and ancient studs, as if he'd been hauled out from a coffin. The wings frightened me, too, black angels' wings.
I offered him a sandwich. He took it and folded it in half absently before taking a big bite. I quietened the urge to giggle, remembering Vivi, remembering me feed him if only because it looked so very odd, that food disappearing into nothing.
Poor Vivi. He used to eat my food. He'd be so polite about it. "I-it's great, Eiko," he'd choke.
"Is this really real food?" I asked, taking a careful sip of the broth. It tasted real; I had expected some kind of aftertaste, the taint of magic. It didn't just taste real, it tasted wonderful and I was starving.
He looked at me, then back at the sandwich. "Yes."
"Made from magic?"
He fiddled with the insides, half-poking at the meat with a gloved finger. "You know, Lindblum Princess, there's books about a world where there were millions of Black Mages, and cities that ran all on magic. And White Mages and Black Mages lived together, and nobody was lonely nobody ever..."
I gave him a few moments to pull himself together, mostly because I was in no doubt that if I interrupted his spiel to do anything that resembled a snigger at his lunacy he'd take half of my face off.
"They killed us all, you know." Back to dry sanity. No tears. "They only let your kind survive because you were useful. Those with black faces had far too much power, in the end. No, Carol, me and mine will do no saving of the world. It granted us no mercy before."
"What do you want, Tango?"
He looked at me, slow, golden eyes brilliant crescent moons, calculating and fathomless. He smelt like cinders. "I want my children to live."
That stopped me dead.
It stopped me because it was no snide thought-about comment; he made no hesitation, and there was no politics behind it. He was any mother with babies, he was any parent, with the curse of the Black Mages obviously on him. I wanted freedom. He wanted so much more. My too-tender heart practically wept for him, for one reason only, for one memory and one boy -
"And I want all others to die," he finished, really ruining it all. For extra emphasis, he ate the sandwich.
"You think Black Mages can live in this world?" He shook his head. "It never ever worked, lindenbloom. They killed us and killed us and killed us, and now all that remains in their memory is the thought of the army that invaded Burmecia and Cleyra. Fear's a jump across to hate. Fuck the people. Fuck the rats. Damn all of them to hell, because the only ones that deserve to live live in here."
"Your world at the expense of ours?"
He looked at me, much amused. "Wouldn't it be a better world?"
"It needs balance."
"Black breeds grey breeds white," he said, annoyingly cryptic.
"Well, you've just stabbed yourself in the foot," I snorted. "Going after Lindblum - blowing things up - Zidane's just going after your blood now. If there was ever any hope for a world where you can both live, you wrecked it."
"So I kill them all, won't I?"
Quietly, I drained my milk, setting the tray down on the ground. Funny time for manners, Eiko. My hands were shaking at the placid conviction in his voice, at what could be. Such a waste. Such a damned waste. "I won't let you."
He turned to me and there was pity in his eyes. "And how will you stop me, Princess?"
Habitually, I punched him hard in the stomach.
After all, I'm not an engineer for nothing. Part of the syllabus is going out drinking with other engineers in the bad kinds of bars where there's big chunky guys who make Amarant look almost unthreatening who usually went and approached me and said something like 'Now what's a gel like you doin' in a place like this?' or 'Hey, pretty, what's your Stellazio?' which prompted me calling them rude names and starting a barfight.
Obviously, all the barfights held me in good stead because, unexpectedly, he flinched and grunted in surprised pain. Looking death in the face, I immediately leapt up and made for the door.
He recovered almost immediately. I had only made it out - faced by a huge, drafty hallway, above a towering staircase down and dizzying rooms upon rooms - when he came after me, darting out with frightening quickness for a mage with big clumsy wings. Tango took to flight and tackled me from behind, making me land hard on the remnants of a rug on the cold stone floor and wailing in more childish heartrending fright than anything else.
He got off me - a strange weight, leather and feathers - and turned me over roughly in his hands. I glared at him, angry and bewildered and I just wanted home now, as he stared down at me.
Finally, he pulled a pair of glasses from out of his jacket and dropped them on my chest as he got to his feet. With complete silence, he vaulted himself over the edge of the ledge to the staircase and left my line of sight, wings spread.
That was my first attempt at escape.
"So what do you wanna be when you grow up?"
Spoonful of custard and cream poised in the flight to the unseen mouth, before devoured after-pause. "I don't k-know. What do you want to be?"
"Vi-vi! I asked you first! That's cheating!"
"Well, I'm already grown up," he said reasonably, pulling his hat tighter to his head in an action as familiar as fire. "I have kids."
"Only grown-ups have kids."
"They get them a different way, though." Superior and supercilious. "It involves kissing. You were kind of more like a cicada. So what do you want to be when you grow up?"
"... a fireman?"
"I'd be a good fireman."
"You don't want to be a fireman!"
"Well, they're awfully neat."
Admittedly true. "You don't want to be one, though."
"I want to be... happy. Like Zidane and Garnet."
Cherry pie devoured thoughtfully. "Happy's easy."
Surprisingly, "No, it's not."
He's right and we both know it. We've seen too much and felt too much in these past years to know otherwise, especially him, especially me. "What do you want to be other than happy?"
"I'll be a Black Mage."
"You're already a Black Mage. Duh." Because he looked immediately hurt, I deigned to put an arm around his shoulders, cozying up to his warmth. "You can be a Black Mage as well as something else. My mother's a Red Mage and she's a wife and she's the Lady Regent."
"... t-that's what I want. A family."
"You have Bibi and your other children and the other black mages. And you have Zidane and Garnet and Amarant and Freya and Quina and Steiner and you have me. And you had a grandpa, like I had. That's more family than a lot of other people get."
"... not a mother, though..."
"I'll be your mother," I volunteer immediately, charmed. "And I can dress you up and wake you up in the morning and cook for you - "
Immediate horror and thankful downing of another spoon of trifle. "Eiko, you can't be my mother. You're younger than I am. Sorry," he apologized.
"Hmph." I watched the lower half of Quina bustle around the kitchen. "Well, Mr. Boring, I'm going to be a beautiful lady. I'm going to be the most beautiful lady in the world."
"What about Garnet?"
"She's a queen. I'm going to be a beautiful lady. And I'm not going to wear skirts, either."
"But beautiful ladies wear skirts." Just a hint of teasing in his voice.
"...okay, that's it. You twerp. I'm going to be a fireman!"
And both of us, dissolving into giggles.
I remember anger, when he died. He could have at least told me goodbye in words better than ink.
If I had any hopes that because of my little stunt Black Tango would leave me to rot, they were dashed. Rain mixedly scolded me and sighed over me the rest of the night, with the unsaid implication: you were lucky he didn't just kill you.
I hated being afraid of him. I hated the sudden sympathy I felt in instances, all because he reminded me of Vivi. He wasn't Vivi, and he couldn't ever be Vivi Orunita for me; I needed to keep that in mind. He was one of the Waltzes, confused and long past the line of death that should have come to him earlier, a monster. Able to reason, but a determined killer. Worse than Kuja, in a way; at least Kuja had been mostly pandering to his own whims, unfocused on his half-role as the Angel of Death. Black Tango was so focused his mind wasn't one-track; it was more single railed airway, with large arrows pointing towards, 'goal'.
When he left me I didn't stop shivering for a full half-hour.
In the end, though, I persuaded Rain that I wasn't about to fall down and die due to the horror of what had just happened to me and he left, leaving me to resignedly take the chunk of wood I had carefully pulled from the back of the dresser drawer and meditate. If I started sanctifying it then, I ought to have it ready by the next full moon to start doing proper spells; I had once been among the most powerful White Mages in the world and magic ought to have been like piloting an airship, never forgotten. I had filled my head with diagrams and designs and mathematics and forgotten magic.
I wanted my wand and I wanted my mother and I wanted my father.
Tired and drained from the encounter, from the day, from everything that was sinking in, at last I crawled into my bed and pulled the covers over. My sleep was fitful; understandably, for about an hour after I had determinedly shut my eyes and given myself up into the night, I woke up again to see golden lamplight as Black Tango patiently sat beside my bed. I was so frozen and exhausted and confused that I didn't reach for my glasses, staring and wondering if I had stumbled upon some strange nightmare.
"Tango?" I muttered.
"Go back to sleep, linden-bloom," he said after a while.
"Not with you watching me."
We both stared at each other for a while, like babies when you sit them down in front of each other who discern that the other blob is human.
"Tango," I eventually said.
"Why are you sitting here?"
"I like watching you sleep." He cocked his head. "Your breath goes in and out and your feet kick out from under the blankets, and you wriggle around like a grub and your hair knits up. It is very... alive. Sleep feels like death a little but it doesn't look like it."
"So you sleep, then?"
"As much as a Black Mage can sleep."
"... Did you know about Vivi?"
Another long silence, this time frozen, and I was afraid I had insulted Tango for the last time; I was too sleepy to care, caught between unconsciousness and consciousness, and if I was going to die I wasn't really going to feel it. It would have been comfortable, dying in that bed.
"The prototype was," he said, "before my time."
"Oh," I said, stupidly.
"But I know of him," Tango added unexpectedly. "I know all too well, about the secret, the humanity-loving doormat-fool."
"Vivi wasn't a fool." I closed my eyes again. "He was clever and wonderful and sweet and - not like you. Black Mages aren't about killing. He knew that."
"Black Mages have always been about killing and death and decay. He didn't know that. Why do you think they named us Black?"
"So why don't you say his name?"
"We don't speak the names of the damned around here," he said curtly. "Not baby-dreaming no-winged no-death castrated blackballs, dying, dying, making something from nothing, stupid and foolish and unwittingly destroying - everything - everything has always been destroyed and made to flee now into the cold dark death of the world."
"I think you need more sugar in your diet, Tango," I said sleepily.
I thought he might strike me, raising his hand, but he pulled the blankets up to my shoulder and I could feel fireheat through his gloves. Leaning his head down, he rested it for a split second by my side, then stood.
"Sleep well, Eiko," - and it was more like an imperious order; and he left.
I found no rest any more after that for almost an hour, wide-eyed and head in disarray, and then I fell to it and slept like the dead.