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I thought he was dumb,
I said he was dumb,
Yet I've heard him cry.

First faint scream,
Out of life's unfathomable dawn,
Far off, so far, like a madness, under the horizon's dawning rim,
Far, far off, far scream.

- dh laurence

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Go Not Gently
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Chapter Four - No Angel

 

I woke up late and groaned into my pillow, unnaturally warm; another blanket had been laid over me in the night, and the smell of something beside my bed eventually won me over from sleep to hunger. I opened my eyes blearily; another glass of milk at my bedside table, and a bowl of porridge - but, oddly, steaming happily within a blue flame. I reached out to touch it - it felt quite warm - but I never got burnt; I devoured it all like a ravenous thing and was licking the spoon when Rain came in.

"Good morning, Eiko," he told me cheerily. "How are you feeling?"

"I'm okay." I delicately stopped licking the spoon and set it down in my bowl. "... I miss my home, though, Rain. Tango... I never can tell if he's going to kill me or not."

"He does, admittedly, have issues - "

I snorted at the winner of the Understatement Of The Year.

"But he's softening over you," Rain said unexpectedly, hat bobbing and lamplight eyes bright. "I do believe that... he might let you go. In the end. After it's all... over."

"... What does 'over' mean, Rain?"

Rain didn't answer me. He busied himself dusting nonexistent dust off the dresser and cleaning my glasses on his sleeve.

"Rain, what's Tango trying to do?"

"You know what he's trying to do, Eiko," he said evasively, setting my glasses down, selfconsciously adjusting his big floppy hat. "He is trying to make a world for us."

"At the expense of mine?" My brow furrowed. "At the destruction of everything else? Rain, why won't you stop him? It's not right, no matter how you cut it."

"Maybe not - " And Rain straightened up to look at me, golden eyes bright and clear and serene. "But it's all I've ever known, Princess, and... I love him. I will go where he leads me."

"Wading through blood."

"If needs be."

A little smile appeared on my lips as I pulled my glasses on, the weight of them familiar and reassuring. "... I should have remembered Black Mage loyalty."

He picked up my bowls and he smiled, eyes crinkling up at the corners. "You do understand, Eiko! I may not - approve - but I will always love. Love is, after all, the core of all magic."

I groaned slightly at the sweetness of the sentiment, but Rain just chuckled to himself, waddling out with my plates. I licked my fingers for the trace sugar and pushed the blankets aside, standing up.

"Well, Eiko," I said to myself brightly. "Time to see what we can do today."
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It was just a chunk of wood, almost as long as my forearm, half-polished on one side. I didn't even know what type of wood it was; it was real wood, though, and it would work.

Rain promised to take me to water, under the pretext of bathing - though Gods knew I needed a bath. I was starting to smell like a real engineer. For now, though, all I could use was sunshine - and the Desert Palace had enough of that, in thick dry whiteyellow streams coming through my window. I sat with it in my lap, gripping it hard with one hand, and I prayed.

Carbunkle, holy protector, come to me. I have no emerald. I have no moonstone. I have no diamond. Come to me. I bear only wood of the earth and the love in my heart, o Eidolon. I know you're there. Come to me. Consecrate.

Fafnir, bringer of decay, come to me. I am maiden. I am virgin. I know you were not ripped untimely from me, sucked and drawn - please, I know I have not Called, but come to me... Consecrate.

Phoenix, lifebird, come to me. Answer my screams. You know this place of death, Phoenix, we have been here before. Come to me. Consecrate.

The chants rose from a soundless tongue, the effort and the force of my prayer and desperation practically driving me to tears. It was need and fervency more than the calmness my Grandpa had taught me, the same kind of desperation when I was first learning to Summon and practically tearing my Eidolons out of myself like organs.

Madeen - Madeen, motherfather, Mog. Come to me, my love, enfold me. Oh, Madeen, please, I need you so much. I'm so alone. I'm trying not to be afraid, but I am. Come to me. Come to me. Come to me.

Consecrate.

I stopped, then bit; my teeth eased down on the wood, working up a splinter, until I cut my mouth and I tasted copper and the paleness of the piece was stained pink with my blood. My prayer was just another heartbeat in the back of my head as I clutched the wannabe-wand and stared, hoping, hoping, my every cell a fervent shameless please -

And then the place where I had bloodied it shifted, and grew a flake of smooth bark. I touched my tongue to it, my mouth; the wound sealed over, a sore instead of something open.

It was a very small step, but it was a step where before I had not got legs.
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Rain took me later through the Palace to get some clothes for my bath. I was slightly disappointed; we only had to go down a few featureless winding corridors, nowhere where I could potentially scout for escape routes or vehicles. The little black mage took me into a room with just closets, a huge gilt-rimmed mirror at the end and intricate paintings on the walls; magnificent in its unashamed opulence.

"Just pick whichever clothes you want," he piped. "They're all clean. We keep away the moths. We make our own clothes out of it all, for the new ones too. Clothes are awfully important to a Black Mage."

"They are, aren't they?" I grinned to myself, remembering Vivi's thick cloth coat, how much care he took of it. Crossing the floor, I opened one of the sliding doors; there was a thick scent of cinnamon and lavender and camphor to keep away the moths. The materials inside were just as opulent as the room; velvets and silks and satins, as well as the delicate, incredibly light fabrics that the desert-nobles dressed themselves in. "It's not a bother if I take anything?"

"Of course not." Rain delicately cleared his throat. "If you want underthings, Eiko, they're in the drawers of that cupboard over there, but..."

"But?"

"They don't seem to be made for females."

I pulled one garment out, looking at the cut of it; male, flamboyant. I crossed over to the closet that Rain had gestured to and carefully pulled open one ornately carved drawer; I pulled out something bizarrely made, realizing it was just a tiny pair of shorts, and realized I was rifling through Kuja's underwear.

It is a very levelling thing, rifling through your once-enemy's unspeakables. I started giggling uncontrollably, picking up another pair, making a face at the green - and string-skimpy - silk. So this was what the Genome had been wearing under that skirt. My giggles turned to hysterical laughter once I started locating pairs with discreet - but bloody hell - embroidered flowers.

"I'll, uh, leave you to it?" Rain said, in deep confusion, and left me to it - 'it' turning out to be the biggest belly-laugh I'd had in months.

When my tears of mirth had subsided - and the flowers stuffed at the back with a vow never to be looked upon again, lest I got mental images. The clothes without Kuja in them were far funnier alone than when he wore them; Kuja had an air of cultured delicacy, of beauty that went beyond gender, his extravagance and strangeness when it came to clothing and himself never taking away from his danger. He was a man, and he was a man with very pretty hips for a man, and liked to show them - but his power burnt your tongue off.

Still. Gods. Flowers. There was even a little hole for his tail, the one that had been discreetly hidden under his clothing. How could I ever have nightmares about him again?

Tossing between the utter unholiness of wearing Kuja's underwear and going without, practicality eventually won and I took one of the pairs that promised to be the least uncomfortable. There was another shirt - blue, like cornflowers, with buttons ending just below the breastbone and cut away to show off the midriff, but it would suffice; there was also a large square of gold cotton I could use to knot sarong-like around myself. That would do, something I could move in that would not catch, the engineer's requirement. If I made any larger exploration into the man's clothing, I would be sitting around all day.

"We get all our bath and washing-water from hot springs," Rain bubbled to me, leading me down yet another corridor, an enormous stained-glass window painting us rainbow as we walked. "There's an oasis just by - creating water's quite hard at times if you want a lot of it - so we don't want for anything."

He should have been a travel consultant.

"Rain?" I asked thoughtfully, before he went into how many bedrooms the Palace had or the comfort of the location. "Where are all the monsters?"

That stopped him. "Monsters?"

"There used to be monsters in the Desert Palace. Kuja's guards."

"Oh, we cleared them out," he said dismissively. "Their nests and everything. Sometimes they breed in the basements, the old laboratories, but we get them all. We never killed the guardians of the palace - they don't hurt us - but you've got nothing to fear, Eiko, don't worry."

"Except for the head monster controlling it all," I muttered.

Rain turned momentarily deaf out of politeness, ignoring my statement. I always had gotten in trouble with Mama for saying things like that, to politicians. Instead, he waved to another figure coming down the hall, his arms full of books; it was another little Black Mage, Rain's double, though with different Black Mage raggedy-patch clothes.

"Hullo, brother," Rain greeted him affectionately as we passed; the Mage looked in abject curiosity at me before acknowledging a belated, "Hullo!" as we walked on by.

"How many mages here?" I whispered.

"'Bout a hundred." He adjusted his hat, thinking about it carefully. "About. Give or take for Stopping."

I swallowed. "So Tango hasn't been able to counteract that problem yet."

There was a gentle smile in Rain's voice. "He's been trying. He's been trying for years. But you can't Stop the Stopping, in my opinion. I don't think it was meant to be - but if it was, he'll do it."

You can't Stop the Stopping. You can't kill death. "So then... he just makes new batches, over and over?"

"Sort of." Rain's voice had gone drifty and slightly cagey; he changed the topic by traipsing down a little flight of stone stairs, pushing open heavy doors and lighting a torch by the opening with his hand. "Here, Princess. You can bath here."

More a small pool than a bath, large and rectangular, steaming lightly with dark water; I couldn't see where the water came from, but I suddenly didn't care. There would be enough time to investigate and puzzle over the plumbing and hydraulics later. There were a few folded towels and a cake of soap, and I suddenly felt more grimy than I ever had done before.

"I'll leave you to it," he said delicately, even as I was dumping the clothes in my arms by the side and dipping a testing toe into the water. I didn't even answer, two busy slipping into the hot water and ducking my head completely under. He shut the doors, and I luxuriated.

"Well," I sighed, "this isn't so bad."

I was being treated very well, more in the style that I had been treated to at home than anything else. I felt rather as if I was on some kind of holiday at times; intensely afraid at others. However, my busy hands and busy head would ensure that I would not be happy for long as a kept thing, kidnapped as my mother had been in turn, my days filled with being coddled by - an admittedly affectionate - Rain and menaced by Tango. I needed to finish my wand, Summon, and get out of there.

I wanted to find out a number of things first, though.

Diving to the bottom of the pool, I absently felt for any kind of plugs or holes. I found one; too small and useless to be any good to me whatsoever; I abandoned that halfhearted attempt to perhaps crawl through the pipes and went back to floating before I groped blindly for the soap. I lathered it through my hair eagerly, dipping it back as I sighed in relief. There was a slight breeze coming from the open window, letting dry sunshine in; it was a sweet contrast to the hot water of the bath.

Wait, open window?

"You're very pretty, linden-bloom."

My blood ran cold. I slowly lowered myself into the water until I was submerged in to my neck; then I turned around to look at the wall. Tango was sitting in the alcove by the window, wings folded and hands set in his lap. There was something red and sticky dripping from his skew gloves. Slowly, I forced myself to stand straight again and ignore his presence almost totally, soap travelling over my throat.

"I have to bathe like birds do," he said conversationally. "I roll myself around and around and around and then I beat the dust off my wings. I don't like the water. You can see my bones."

"I don't like you watching me, Tango."

"Why not? You're mine to watch."

I repressed a full-body shudder. Let him keep his delusions if they saved my neck. I could see my reflection in the choppy water; it was purple-dusky from his hands the day before. "I still don't like it."

"I'm bored with my work," he carried on, as if I hadn't spoken. "I hate numbers. They march in my head like little ants. Not like big ants, antlions, those are like headaches. There's one in the sand beneath us - I can hear it screaming. Screaming, screaming, screaming."

"Are you crazy or sane?" I asked tartly, scrubbing over my arms. The soap smelt like cinnamon and chamomille. "I can't tell half the time."

That got a dry chuckle, a tipping of the hat and a slow relaxing back into the wall. "I can't either, Eiko Carol. Probably both. Sometimes it hurts so much that I can't think straight, and then I wake up all bleeding mist-blood."

"Can't you talk to me without scaring me?"

"I didn't think you got scared."

"I don't, but - " I made a noise of exasperation at the gloating smugness in his voice. "If you're going to stand there and watch me wash, at least make interesting conversation!"

"All right," Black Tango said, unexpectedly. "Tell me about Cornelia."

Completely confused, I stared at him for a few moments; surely he could not mean the Cornelia I knew. "Zidane's daughter?"

"Yes." His voice was thick with some emotion I couldn't name. This was territory I had to tread carefully.

"She turned eight a few months ago." I turned my back on him, leaning back slowly into the water, rinsing my hair. He wasn't even paying much attention to me, or my nudity; I doubted I was ever going to get possibly ravished. "She - she looks like Garnet. Garnet's got long dark hair, and big brown ey - "

"I know what the elephant's daughter looks like," he snorted. "Continue."

"Cornelia has blue eyes, though. We call her Elia. She - she wants to be a knight, a bit like Beatrix." I closed my eyes, remembering my almost-niece, scrubbing the soap over my stomach and lathering up my small bony boy-hips. "She's got a tail, and her summoner's horn's a bit small, but it ought to start being useful later. She doesn't care for anything but swords. She's very sweet."

There was silence, then; "She's healthy?"

"As a chocobo."

"And she's beautiful?"

"Very beautiful."

I should have said that she was ugly and sickly and dying.

"I often wondered," Tango said slowly, "why Zidane never Stopped. Ku... Kuja Stopped. I thought that - perhaps he had been made different, the superior Genome. Maybe he had something in him that made him die easier."

"Did he?" I asked despite myself. I didn't want to think about Zidane stopping, dying; he still held one of the softest parts of my little-girl heart, a dearly beloved hero.

"No." His voice was deeply bitter. "Kuja and Zidane were the same flesh and blood. The Waltzes were the same, as the Black Mages were the same. Kuja died when Zidane lived because life is fucking unfair, unfair always."

Cry me a river, Tango. I couldn't help getting a pang, though, somewhere; "Why do you hate him so much? All he could do was be what he was. If it wasn't for Zidane, Gaia would be overrun by - "

"Black mages."

I forged on. "It wasn't even like he wanted Kuja dead, in the end. He told me so." I didn't want anyone dead, not in the end, Eiko, he'd murmured to me. I just looked at him dying there and how it felt with his weak fingers in mine and how it felt in me to watch him ebb away and... I wished things had been different. So very different. You know?

"You think I wish Zidane dead for Kuja's sake?" The mage snorted at me again. "I don't. I never. I don't want Zidane dead for what he was, Carol; I want him dead for what he was not. There was no angel of blessed death for me. There was no right. There was no blooming flower of happy endings. I'm going to kill his daughter when he watches and eat the look on his face."

The hatred roiled inside him, dark and wormy. It all had to be about him, his vengeance, his pain. Why had I thought that, perhaps, it had been about his creations, his Black Mages, Rain? "I hate you, you malicious little freak," I said bitterly. "You're even worse than your father was."

Tango crossed over to me, kneeling by the side of the bath, tilting up my chin with one gloved hand and leaving something that felt sticky on the underside of my neck. "I know," he said tenderly. "He made me to be. Goodbye, linden-bloom. I need to get back to my numbers."

He turned abruptly to jump out the window, taking off with a snap of his wings like he always did; an antlion's scream followed in his wake, and I shivered in bathwater that had suddenly gone cold.