me keep fury
to stay against
pain; if it
is given me
to learn I mean
to know it all
the way, to bear
it like a woman.
- phillip booth
Go Not Gently
Chapter Eight - On Stopping
My mother once told me that hatred felt just like being in love. It was the same crunch of the heart, the same heat of the cheeks, the same searing pain borne up inside your body and pushing at the seams of your insides; but I blew cold like ice, until it thickened and shifted inside me with splintery cracks every time I looked at him.
I'd read the fairytales. The young man who disappears grows up to be the strong, wild, handsome prince; he is noble, and saves, and he's got rippling muscles and long black coalsilk hair which goes through your fingers like water when you comb them through it. He does not become a dirty, blood-soaked, filth-matted, wild-eyed abusive madman who alternately cries and sings in cracked off-key up in the rafters, some half-caught song about memories. If he does, he does not forget the lyrics and put in words halfway.
Then, perhaps, the little rescued princess found in the desert usually becomes a free, beautiful princess. She is demure and gentle and her skin is like rice powder. She is not a short-haired, hard-edged engineer who draws mathematical calculations in the dust with the tip of her finger with no curves and too many bones.
I really had no idea what to do in those few days, the weeks after I reconciled the little sweet mage of my childhood with the feral-eyed killer of my now. I was lost and he knew it; he drank in my confusion. Run away? I could; I still had my wand, and if there was power enough in me to Trance there was power enough to call on Fenrir to bear me over the deserts. But that would mean leaving Rain and the others; and it would mean leaving Vivi.
I didn't know what leaving Vivi meant. Maybe it meant giving up vengeance for a betrayer and a murderer. Maybe it meant leaving the bedside of a lost man. Maybe it meant both.
Sometimes I stared out of my window and wept; and then I stubbornly told myself that it was because of my monthlies, my hormones up in arms and raging along with the stress. My monthlies were spotty and seldom, though, now; I could be fine one month, then miss another, and be doubled over the next in gut-wrenching pain as Tide and Sunny searched desperately for some kind of herbal cure. I felt thrown off, imbalanced.
Prince? He was more like a demon, an angry spirit leading me a merry dance with me classically powerless against him. I did not go gently. I wanted power; I wanted to smash something into his face again and again, to make him go, to make him quiet, to make him still. Die, Tango, die -
It was always Tango I wished death to. The first time I felt die on my tongue with his name coming afterwards, I froze; wishing Vivi death?
I was sentimental and stupid and I couldn't help it.
Oh, fairytales. This is your prince and princess. All hail the King Of Monsters and the Queen Of Hopelessness!
May I have the storybook back, Mama?
"How did he make you?" I asked one day.
We were in the kitchen. He was perched on the table that the Black Mages ate on like a crow; he fluxed in and out of ash-covered Tango to white-faced Vivi as quickly and confusedly as my father took off his glasses on his odd days. Rain had made us lunch; I spooned my soup into my mouth, and he ate his directly from the bowl. There had been a long period of quiet between us; he seemed unsure of what to say, and I was all too often hopelessly lost for words. It was communication, but one-track talking.
His eyes lit up; he was human, for that moment, and I could see his huge golden eyes under the shadow of his hat as he ate. (He ate like a pig. He would slurp noisily, a pink tongue emerging every-so-often from his mouth to lick up creamy green from around his lips. It was disgusting.) In full light, he had the strangest eyes I had ever seen; they highlighted violet, the amber of his Black Mage form seeping away, deep beautiful violet like flowers in a meadow. I'd come across that violet. "Do you know, linden-bloom, that your skin keeps notes? If I scraped your arm, just a little, I could take all the little skindust from you and grow bits of you in a dish. Kuja had many dish-children. I was the fourth, sweet."
Fourth. Black Waltz One, Black Waltz Two, Black Waltz Three. And then Vivi.
"If I grew you, then I'd have a new Eiko Carol, all little and shining." Vivi eyed me, calculating. "I could have a little child-Eiko, if I wanted. All of my own. Your child-hair, your child-face..."
"... your disgusting child-clothes..."
"What?" I looked up, infuriated. "What was wrong with my clothes? My Moogles used to dress me."
"It showed," the black mage said obliquely, and took another slurp of his soup. He dug one gloved finger into it to pick out a split pea; my mother would have swooned away cold. "Yellow, Carol? Yellow scoop-neck coveralls with the front cut out?"
"You really are Kuja's," I snapped. "Snarky bastard."
Like he could talk. And what was so bad about my clothes? Garnet had worn a sleeveless jumpsuit the colour of blighted citrus fruit, and nobody had commented on that.
He just shrugged, smirking; I had tensed, expecting maybe a plate thrown at my head. His wings quivered as he settled them again on his back.
"Did you make the Black Mages like that?"
Shiny, Sun and Tide were working in the back, cleaning pots and huddled as far away from us as they could possibly get. The agonized looks they threw me whenever I spat at their Master used to hurt my heart; the way their hands trembled when he hit me hurt worse. Tide was drying a pan, and his hands were drooping; he was getting a sore back, lately, and I often saw the others furtively rubbing his shoulders through his thick cloth coat. What with the way Tango indiscriminately punted his children across hallways, I was surprised that only his back hurt.
It's funny. When I was angry with him, he was always Tango. When - when I found it within me not to be angry - only then could he be Vivi.
There was a long pause. Vivi - so different, new, strange - looked down at his soup, as if he was trying to scry something out of it. He didn't know how to keep his face a blank; I saw it scrunch up, forehead a network of worry lines before anger slipped to - resignation? "No."
"How - "
"You ask stupid questions, Carol," he said abruptly. "Don't ask them again."
"I'll ask whatever I damn well please, and you know that."
The mage laughed; though he did, often, he very seldom did it out of amusement. Sometimes he laughed at me like it was real, like he found me a very funny joke, and I never knew whether I should laugh with him or quickly break his kneecaps with something heavy while he was distracted.
He raised the bowl to his lips, draining away the last of his soup and setting it down again. With nothing in his hands, he soon fidgeted and pulled off his hat to prod and poke at some flaw on the leather rim. I could see his face clearly; the deep, angry scars across his face, from ear to ear and forehead to chin. There were still reddened scratches over his skin from us crashing through a window. His topknot was tightly bound, usually; but the pins were working themselves free from this one, and had been for weeks. The knot had fallen to his neck, long feathery greasy stained strands touching his cheeks. I had no idea what the original colour was meant to be; what Vivi had was light brown like a coffee stain, and I had a feeling it wasn't meant to be that way.
I finished my own meal, unable to take my eyes off his hair. So loose, it was starting to spring back to how it normally fell; there was a large, feathery chunk at the crown that had started to stick up like a mohawk.
"Look," I snapped, finally; "come here."
Vivi blinked like a bird. He had long eyelashes; such long, transparent eyelashes. "Linden-bloom?"
For a man who would hit me across the room without a moment's notice, he was docile to my touch. I pulled him off the counter, hands firm on his wrists; with the mages watching us, utterly shocked, I dragged him over to the other side of the kitchen and the water-pump. "How long has it been since you washed your hair? All right, I bet you don't - how long has it been since it last rained on you? Oh, Gods, we're in a desert, I bet never - "
He immediately started squawking pathetically, like some frightened seabird. I ignored him, pulling away his thick leather coat and dropping it in disgust on the floor. "Carol! No - "
Pins? There were none. His hair was so greasy it stood up by itself. I pulled away a ribbon, crackly and miles long, starting to unthread it from around the knot. "This is disgusting." It finally came loose; I pulled it all away, horrified, watching the mess of hair tumble down his back between his wings. Discoloured, matted, tangled past tangling, it was like a furze bush; it fell to the back of his knees. I prodded a part; my finger couldn't even penetrate. My nose wrinkled. "Do we have any scissors?"
There was a rustling in a drawer; quick as a wink, Shiny had handed me a pair, bright and sharp. Tango glared at him, and the mage wilted off back into his corner. I grimly threaded my fingers through them; too late Vivi tried to turn around, to see what I was doing, and I grabbed a fistful of his mane.
There was a laboured ripping noise as I snipped through it, metres of white hair falling to the ground as I cut it a few fingers below his shoulderblades.
"There. That's better." He was opening and closing his mouth like a fish. Before he could recover, I cranked the lever of the pump down and pushed his head beneath the stream of clear cold water. I watched, satisfied, as he flailed his wings and gurgled incoherently.
The mages watched in complete and utter disbelief. They'd stopped their pot-scrubbing to watch. I nodded my head at them.
"Sunny? Do we have soap there, love?"
I yanked him out from under the water, keeping him low as I started to lather the much-welcomed bar of soap through his hair. I hummed vindictively as I finger-combed the snarls, less monstrous than before; he slowly sank to his knees in front of me, getting the tough leather of his trousers wet. I think he was in shock.
"I've half a mind to give you a bath." He didn't have lice, thank all that was holy, but he truly was one of the filthiest individuals I had ever come across. As I scrubbed the strong kitchen soap over his hair, it was like I had dipped it in whitewash. His fair skin came off even fairer when I surrepticiously scrubbed behind his ears, feeling like my mother; he was white like the underbelly of a dead fish. White on white. "I can't believe how horrible you are."
"Soap," he complained weakly, still sounding as if he had been electrocuted. "In my eyes."
"Nonsense!" It was deep, primal retribution, and I suddenly remembered why. It had been all too many times, back in the adventuring days, when Garnet and Freya had made me take a bath. I found this very unfair, as baths were torturous and as Garnet made me take especial care with my knees.
Vivi never had to bath. I'd offered to give him baths until he'd run away, shrieking, "Black Mages don't HAVE baths!"
Like hell they don't. Heh, heh, heh.
He whipped his body around, until his face was level with my stomach, angling his wings away from the bitterly cold stream. His glare was baleful. I merely started cupping water with my hands and tilting his head down, starting to rinse the soap away. "Don't you feel better clean?"
There was a gurgle, in all probability 'no'.
I gaily squeezed his hair free of water, pulling it away from his neck. He had a pretty neck, now that it was clean. He was generally fifty times more palatable, and he smelled a bit like soap. I suddenly wondered why I had done it at all; it had involved too much touching, warm hands and cold water and soap on skin. I moved away as he straightened up, wings bristling, still staring at me with something close to awe.
"Why did you do that, linden-bloom?"
"Your hair was filthy. It's quite pretty, now - you should go see a mirror."
"There aren't any mirrors here."
"Well, your hair is almost white." I pulled a wet lock of it forward, so that he could see. Quiet, he just let me. "It's an improvement."
"Why do you even look at me?"
We stared at each other. The heat was rising on my cheeks. I couldn't understand why he was looking at me the way he was; like washing his hair held meaning beyond what I'd given. He slowly traced a slightly damp, warm trail down from my temple, stopping at the pulsepoint on my throat and pushing down on my heartbeat. His touch was like a burn.
Suddenly I shuddered; angered and shamed, I pushed away his hand and stepped back. "It's hard to walk around with closed eyes."
"Master?" A voice interrupted the cool tension; Shiny, hesitant, tentative. "May we take our brother to lie down?"
Tide was swaying back and forth on the spot, rocking, as if he couldn't keep balance. Immediately concerned, I moved over to their little knot, pulling Tide away from Shiny and Sun and wishing I could put a palm on wherever his little forehead was. "Are you all right?"
Stupid question. Of course he wasn't. "I'm f-fine," he stuttered. "I just feel - a little dizzy, Eiko - "
Why was Vivi just standing there, watching? The arse. I threaded my hand into the Black Mage's glove. Even through the layers of cloth, he felt a little bit too cold for comfort. "Come on, angel, let's sit you down."
"Leave him." Tango. He'd switched back to his blackmist Mage form so quickly I'd hardly been able to fathom it, jamming his hat over his head as he stalked over to us. There was a queer quality to his voice, monotone, carved completely out of ice. "Give him to me - "
His hands were rough as he pushed through Sun, Shiny and I, pulling Tide close to his body and ungracefully flopping down to sit on the floor. The adoration in the tinier Black Mage's eyes matched that of all the others when their Master showed them even the smallest bit of fondness. He leant his head against Tango's shoulder; Tango started to rock him, slow. "All over," he crooned. "All over soon."
Unable to stay away, I crept closer to the pair. The other two followed close by, hovering behind me. "What do you mean?" I demanded, unsettled. "What's wrong with him? Is he ill?"
A hand came out, lightning-quick, that would have gotten me in the kneecaps if Sun and Shiny hadn't pulled me back. He didn't even look up to watch me fall squarely on my backside; he just looked into Tide's eyes. The Mages behind me were shivering, almost convulsively. I was starting to get afraid; Tango was softly stroking Tide's shoulder as he curled up in the bigger one's lap, thumb tracing circles over and over again. "Almost over. Then you can have a sleep."
Tide smiled, eyes in happy crescents as he lay boneless there. "Thank you, Father."
It was like lights going out; his eyes just - fizzled, as if someone had thrown water on a fire. They glowed like coals, glimmering, but then there was just darkness. That was the first time I had ever watched someone Stop, and a disbelieving howl rose from my throat. Shiny's hand latched down more tightly on mine as I tried to fling myself forward.
"No!" he said, and the tears in his voice were heartbreaking. "Stop, Eiko, he's still got to be - "
It was interrupted when I shrieked due to utter terror. Tango had dug his hand inside Tide's eyeless dead face; he was hissing and tugging and pulling around and his arm was glowing like it'd been dipped in glowworms. Finally, something gave.
Mother, Mother, he never had a mother, I wish I could've been it for him but I wouldn't know how to be a mother if you paid me in diamonds - Mother -
Vivi curled his gloved hand around something, shaping it within his fingers. He was standing and stalking away, wings held close to his body, and he left the kitchen. Only then did Shiny and Sun let go; they went to follow.
I fell down by my knees by what was left of Tide - mostly clothes; and I
rocked back and forth and howled.
It really was like just stopping, you know. Stop. No wonder they called it that. The shutting down of an engine. One moment he was here, the next minute the lights were off. It was just so very much an ending.
My heart broke again, and it was already so full of cracks that there was hardly anything left to reform.
Poor little Mages, always so good to me.
Poor, poor little Mages. Oh, Tide. In one day, and out the other.
I could only sob for five minutes; but it was enough. I took his hat, warm and thick in my fingers, and then I ran out the room as fast as my bare feet could take me; somehow they lead me to the wing on the west section of the Palace, the little door in the darkness and the coloured windows staining my skin as I ran. One was still broken; it showered a hot wash of air onto me as I skidded past, callouses on cool tile.
The grass was still bright, blazing green. Sun and Shiny were standing at the first of the trees with the strange fruit; there were others there, now. I could recognize Cloud there with them. Black Tango was perched at the top of the tree like an evil crow; black on green. He had one of the beautiful berry-blue shiny fruit in his hands, and he was fixing it to the top branch.
That was Tide?
I moved to the foot of the tree. Shiny looked at me, and then me moved to offer me his shoulders; I stood up on them and swung myself to the first branch. The trees smelled familiar, like something I'd already breathed in; my mind raced as I climbed, careful to only disturb the fruit when my skin barely brushed against it. Think, Eiko, think -
You climbed it with them, you curled in at the base. You watched it as it claimed Zidane for what you thought was the last time. Old, old, paradise in the desert plains and it spewed Mist -
Little Iifa trees. I reached the top, my head emerging through the top layer. I'd scraped myself on the bark, and I was panting; slowly, I offered Vivi the hat.
He took it, turning it over and over in his hands.
"This is what Black Mages are made out of, linden-bloom," he suddenly said. "Cloth and dust and souls." Leather finger ran down the front of the sphere, pretty as a jewel. "I never was able to make a flesh shell for them, precious. When you try that, you get the one-two-three, the Waltz, hideous and heinous and I pulp them in my fingers when they're born. No, Carol, these are my children's materials." He rocked it with his hand, and started to laugh. "The fruit of my loins."
He laughed, and laughed; and it ended in a sob. He fixed the hat up on the topmost branch, and wiped my tears away from my hot dusty cheeks.
"I'm going to make it stop, little love." The Mage took off his hat, and he was Vivi again; still death among the life, all white and smiling and eyes the wrong side of crazy. "All stop. No more tears, no more death. Do you hate me so much now, Eiko Carol? Now you have seen what becomes of my children, every few years? He knew that he was dying. He knew that he was dying from the moment he was born. Is it so much that I want a world where I can have children, and where my children can have children, not skeletons stuck up on trees?"
It's wrong, Vivi, died on my lips. I looked up at him, eyes stinging, clutched to the branches as best I could next to him. "I won't help you destroy the world."
"I can do that part, linden-bloom. I can do that part."
"Let me think of a better way." I pulled myself up, on the branch next to his, feet finding purchase on the rough wood. I was about two heads below him, staring up into his face; his hair was still damp with water, little strands curling over his face the colour of warm cream. I was suddenly desperate. I have to do this; I have to do this, please - "Let me help you."
"You'll learn, my pet." His voice sounded infinitely sad. "The only way we can have a new forest is to burn the old trees."
"There's got to be a different way to do it. A better way." I licked my lips. "Tide wouldn't have wanted people to die for his sake and you damn well know it, Vivi Orunita."
"A different way? A better way?" Suddenly he was laughing again, and it was cold and clear. "If you can find one, I'll be happy to hear it, linden-bloom. Crack open your head and lay the ideas out on my lap. You'll soon learn."
I scowled at him, and began climbing back down. Soon he started to wail, a long one full of tremulous grief, and the Black Mages at the foot of the tree let out high sweet noises with him. All I could give for Tide was a noise like a dying dragon, an animal's throat-racked snarl of pain; and then I had to go.
Like most answers, it came in the middle of the night, when I was unable to sleep.
I used to lie on my bed and listen, those nights. In the early days, I wanted to listen for Fenrir, for Carbunkle, for Phoenix. I wanted to get saved, and I wanted my spiritsummons to do it. I didn't know how to rescue myself. When I finally had the means to rescue myself, I couldn't. I was sucked in too deep. Tears on my pillow for Tide. Tears on my pillow for Vivi. Tears on my pillow for me.
My grandfather had told me that a Summoner was connected to everything. The Summoners in the old days, they were fearsome and strong; not only the monsters of the world answered their call, but monsters of beyond the world. When you Summon, you stand over the brink of a very deep abyss. You call into it; you call the name of your Eidolon, that you were given when you found it written in your belly.
You don't call the nameless things. There are many things in that big hole, and if they were Called, they'd rip your guts from your body and wear it as a fetching scarf.
The Summoners of old could call anything with a name.
The thought came to me unbidden; and it made my palms sweat.
Eiko, you're crazy; you're worse than crazy, you're stupid. You overestimate yourself, just like Father always told you. This is like trying to build an airship when you don't have an engine. It can't be made to work, it won't be made to work, and the danger of it is stupid and selfish and foolish -
- I am stupid and selfish and foolish! Let me have my moment!
I stood up; I pulled my nightshirt on, which was big and button-up and made of cool linen. It was meant to be blue; but it was grey in the darkness, and I was naked underneath it as I opened my door soundlessly. I rolled my sleeves up to my shoulders, and went down the stairs.
He hadn't gone to sleep either. He was in the rafters at the bottom of the stairs, singing softly to himself, cracked and unsettling.
"... in my dearest memories..."
I walked down the staircase, feet making no sound on the ragged threadbare carpet.
"... do you remember killing me..."
He always was shite with lyrics.
"... I still believe that you can call - Carol?"
Vivi sounded thick with tears, like he'd been crying. I could believe that. He had more tears in him than entire cities, most days, except they boiled inside him and came out as steam.
"I know how you can do it," I said.
I didn't have my glasses on; he looked like a vague shadow jumping down from the ceiling until he came close to me. His face was shadowed; his eyes were amber slits as he gathered himself up to stand. "You don't, linden-bloom, nothing that I haven't thought of over and over and over again."
"Let me Summon Necron."
The Black Mage stared. Nothing quite beats a Black Mage for staring; big, glossy, pupil-free golden eyes with no relief make for one hell of a gape. Then he shook his head, just once, shivering free of the black mist that was his face and taking off his hat. He still hadn't rebraided his hair, and it had finally dried; a large feathery portion stood up in the middle. In the darkness with his amber eyes gone violet, he was Kuja come again.
"You can't, linden-bloom. You can't even Summon your Eidolons."
How did he know that? "Give me time."
"Did you not look at Tide, Carol? Time is not something we have."
"Six months," I said desperately. "I can do it if you give me six months."
"You can't Summon and you think that you can get he-who-devours here in a matter of months?" Vivi's eyes were flat. "Don't be softheaded, Eiko, I didn't take you for a fool."
I stamped my foot, losing my temper. "I was once one of the most powerful summoners on Gaia, Tango! I was more powerful than Garnet, and you know it! It was just that I was a child! So I've lost the power now. Guess what? I've been under a little bit of stress! If I say I will do something, I will do it, and I will do this! So don't you dare take me for a fool!"
"How do you even think you can do this?"
"He has a name," I said darkly. "He was stupid enough to give us that."
He gnawed on his lower lip. It was cracked and bleeding again. Feathered white locks fell over his forehead in the moonlight; he raised a gloved hand to push them away, behind his eyes. "... Five months, linden-bloom."
He stepped away, back into the shadows; his sharply-defined face fell into it, hard and bony and angular. Vivi was a much hungrier, leaner, unprettier Kuja; Kuja had softened his features into exquisiteness with makeup, long lashes and powdered cheeks and dewy lips that would never have deigned to be chewed.
"Five," he said, eventually, and he drew back close. "You would summon Death for me, Eiko? You'd call him and fight him? If you fail, the price would be the same as my method of getting him. He would destroy the world, and Zidane is too old and soft to be Gaia's hero any more."
"I'll do it." I looked up at him, my arms falling from being crossed around my chest to hang at my sides. "But not for you, Vivi. I'm doing it for them."
"You're doing it for me," - and he grabbed my arms; before I had time to think, he had me up against his body, his leather cold like snowflakes and sending shivers down my ribs. His lips were even colder, falling over my cheeks, again and again. "And I thank you." Vivi drew his mouth away, eyes on mine; his kiss was on the tip of my nose. "Thank you." And again, on my chin. "Thank you." And then -
The inside of his mouth was hotter than his lips, a veritable inferno, mine suddenly and helplessly open to his. He tasted like blood and like tongue and something faintly like sugarvomit; his hands tightened on my arms until his fingers were bruises and his mouth was a prayer. I pulled away from him, too hard, skidding back until I landed on my behind on the cold tile floor. It felt like my throat was full of needles; I pulled myself to my feet, and spat like a child.
Not even Mama had ever drawn herself up with such ice and dignity. "I still haven't forgiven you, and I don't think I ever will. So don't kiss me again, Black Tango, or I'll have your bloody kneecaps."
I didn't look at his face. I fled back to my room, locked the door, and sobbed hysterically on my bed.
My mother once told me that hatred felt just like being in love. I don't know what she was feeling.