Dum Spiro Spero

DISCLAIMER: I don't own Yggdra Union or the Latin spells from the Negima! manga that will be used here, but this (rather ambitious) story belongs most definitely to me—and in lesser part Whitewash, my beta and cowriter. Don't steal, claim, or otherwise use unless you want us to hunt you down and hurt you. (smile)

It wasn't his home, but it was a place of comfort.

It didn't belong to him alone, but—it was understood without words that this was his place, his sacred sanctum. It was where he spent most of his time nowadays unless he had something better to do—much of every day, and long into every night.

The library was immense, but the fact that it was underground still made it feel enclosed enough to be comfortable. The shelves spanned from the vaulted ceiling to the floor, and there were many ladders set up so that patrons could choose books on higher ones without requiring wings to reach them. The books around were of all ages, and on almost every subject imaginable. Between the rows and rows of literature, there were lamps fixed to the walls, and overly plush furniture in every corner. At the center of the room, along the thick green carpet with its swirls of red and gold, there was a beautiful mahogany table, with a loveseat dragged up next to it in place of a chair.

And there—surrounded by piles of books not quite high enough to teeter and loose leaves of paper with fresh lines of writing still drying on them—he sat, as he'd been sitting for several hours.

At a distance, he might easily have been mistaken for a child; closer up, it was easier to see that he was a young man who seemed in his late teens—or perhaps twenty, at a stretch. He was of short stature and slender, with deft small hands and delicate facial features. His skin was pale—barely a hue past pure white—and his hair was a soft shade of dirty blond, cropped inattentively around his face so that his bangs fell heavily over his eyes. He wore magician's garb in the form of a tattered and time-worn hooded violet overrobe, which he'd shrugged halfway off sometime during the night, and beneath it a sleeveless white underrobe that fell in elegant folds to just above his ankles. Its neckline dipped a bit in the back, so that when he was clothed so and bent over his work, a passerby would catch a glimpse of the ancient, ugly scars that carved over his shoulderblades and along his entire back.

Yes… at a glance, it was only those scars and the heavy loops of dull gold chain running from his shackled wrists to the interlocked plates of metal covering the upper half of his face that alerted others to the fact that he was no ordinary mage.

With a sigh, he straightened up a little and tugged his overrobe back over his shoulders with a shiver, though he left his hood down and didn't fasten any of its clasps. He set down the book he'd been reading and dipped his pen in the inkwell sitting near him. With the night's reading material out of his way, he swept a hand over the blank, yellowed pages of the immense spellbook that sat in front of him. He hesitated, re-dipped his pen, and set it to the page, beginning to write in flowing script. He'd had this book, called the Revelation of the Gods, since he was a child, and it was among other things a chronicle of his life and magic: a combination encyclopedia, vessel of power, and daily diary. Part of the book's magic was that it would always have pages left. He would never reach the end of it, and no matter how much he wrote into it, he would always be able to find whatever he needed in it at a moment's notice.

At the top corner of the page, he first wrote his name, with the capital letters framed in artistic arabesque and the last letter trailing into a broad swash: Nessiah Artwaltz.

He let the nib of the pen settle for a moment after the Z, then lifted it to see that he'd left a perfect period there. He sighed again, chewed his lip minutely, then coated the nib in ink again and began to write in earnest.

Last night, I dreamed of home. I hadn't in a while, and was starting to hope that I wouldn't again. Gods, gods, the pain was indescribable, other than to say it was horrible. I've been sucker-punched enough times by my subconscious as it is; why must it persist in doing this to me?

I miss it. I've always missed it. There is beauty here on the surface world—great beauty, terrible beauty, the beauty of enlightenment and renaissance—but it's never compared, and never will. I want to see perfect skies again, smooth brick streets and white marble pavilions. I want to see bright green grass and clover contained in well-groomed lawns, and I want to be able to soar the path to my workshop, barricade myself in with my supplies and make wonders again.

But as things are, I doubt I'll ever be allowed back. With my last chance at taking it all back gone… and no forgiveness… I'll never go home.

Just writing those words is like running a jagged blade down my heart. The thought is too painful to face, and if I didn't know better, I'd be afraid the horror in it would be enough to break my mind.

But I do know better. After everything I've been through, it will take more than that to push me back to the edge. I have to believe I'm stronger for all this.

Nessiah hesitated again, and then began to write only to see that his nib had run dry. He stared at it in frustration, then dipped it again and resumed his writing.

Even though months have passed, I'm still not sure what to think or feel about what's happened. I was so close. I could've done it—would've done it. But humans, in their tenacity and foolish refusal to abandon hope or try to understand… and the weakness of my own heart, my emotions… I've failed, and the Gran Centurio is lost to me forever. I don't know what I'm supposed to do now. Hoping that I would be able to right the wrongs in Asgard was all that's kept me going for this long.

On the other hand—even if those in Fantasinia, if those in the rest of the world despise me, I'm still accepted here in Bronquia. It's spring now, and people talk of working in earnest to salvage the ruins of Flarewerk and the castle and rebuild them, stronger than ever. And they smile at me, and tease me into agreeing to do what I can. And I think of what might have happened to this place, the country of the exiles and the beaten and the broken and their irrepressible hope and love, if I'd been able to wage my war… and my heart trembles, and I fear to think what I would have become if harm had befallen them.

And I did make a promise, after all. As long as the little Queen tries to hold up her end of the bargain, my most pressing task is to be here to watch. To help, maybe.

It confounds me at times why I am not hated here. If it weren't for my plans, the country would not have been so thoroughly ruined, and there are people whose faces would not be missing from the tables at mealtimes, at meetings—Leon, whom we might've salvaged with time and a bit of proper coaxing… Eudy, with her cannons and her flirtations and her perfect acceptance… Baldus, who always told me I was welcome as a member of his family… the people of Bardot. Why don't they blame me for their losses? Heavens and hell know I blame me.

The days drag purposelessly, and are gone as soon as I turn around and think. I don't know what I'm going to do with myself—day-to-day, or once this is over and all those I know are gone. I just don't know.

All the centuries—I got through them by wanting something, and trying to get it. And now I don't know what I want.

…That isn't entirely true: I know exactly what I want. And I can't have it.

Isn't it enough that I died for them? Isn't it enough that I came to their call—so soon afterwards that I was in shattering pain for long after, and am only beginning to feel like myself again now? Isn't it enough that I protected them with everything I had left to me, in a battle I couldn't ever have won?

Isn't it enough that I let them seal my precious sword away, and tear my heart in two with it?

They tell me I'm one of them now, and they don't seem to realize that if I am, if I let myself care at all, each of them becomes a wound waiting to open. They'll age and die; I won't. I can't take that. I can't take so much loss. I'm afraid I'll break, and then I'll be so lost as to retreat into mad blackness again.

These blind eyes will continue to watch for as long as the world passes before them. Maybe these humans can keep their word, maybe they won't. All I know is that I must find some purpose other than to be the chronicler of their age, or I'll go insane again.

Please, grant me some kind of answer. For all I've suffered, surely I deserve at least that.

With another sigh, Nessiah set his pen down and stared dispassionately down at his words. He watched the ink glisten in the candlelight, and leaned forward to blow on it softly, helping it dry more quickly.

He was just about to resettle into the loveseat, curl up and consider getting some sleep, when the heavy door to the library creaked open.

Before he could sit up and demand who was disturbing him, a calm voice echoed through the room: "General. If you're awake, His Majesty has been wondering where you are. Breakfast is set out, and you've been tardy or missed the morning meal enough times that he worries about what your eating habits are becoming. Your presence would greatly ease his mind."

"I'll be there," Nessiah called back up, and the doors groaned shut again.

With a mild sound of annoyance and sleep deprivation, he stood, smoothing out his robes as he slipped into the sandals he'd kicked off so he could curl up on the loveseat. "…Morning. Morning already? I could've sworn I'd just come down here a few hours ago… ah, well. Time escapes the busy."

Pragmatically, he fastened the first clasp of his overrobe and pulled his hood up, then gathered up the Revelation of the Gods and slipped down the aisles of books to the stairs leading up and out.

If there was one good thing to be said for being blind and having to use magic to see, it was that it didn't take half as long to adjust when walking out of darkness into truly disgustingly bright light, and it didn't make his head hurt. Just a few minute manipulations of his sight spells, and he might as well have been outside for the past several hours.

After Flarewerk had been razed in the war, the survivors and the Imperial family had relocated to this town—the inhabitants had plenty of room to spare, and the Royal Army had left it alone as it hadn't been in their way. Maybe it wasn't the castle, but for now everyone was still just grateful for the roof over their heads and the warm bed for them to sleep in. And as for Nessiah—well, he'd just fallen in love with the library and it would've been hard to get him to leave it behind in favor of some other place.

But it was a town, and the mayor's hall wasn't big enough to house the remnants of the Imperial Army—and so while the townspeople either broke their fast in their own homes or came out to help, the refugees all got together to eat outside at a long series of tables set in three rows.

Most of the people there were already eating, and talking loudly to each other. Seeing them, Nessiah stopped walking and held the Revelation a little closer to his chest. It wasn't as though these people were unfriendly—he just got a little uneasy around uncontrolled crowds.

But before he could continue to hesitate, a figure at the end of the furthest table stood up and beckoned. Nessiah smiled, and made his way down the path to join him.

"Well, that took you bloody long enough! What in the world were you doing in there? Come on, let's eat."

"If you say so, Gulcasa," he said with the hint of a laugh.

"Yes, I do say so. Now listen to your Emperor for once and eat your damn breakfast."

Gulcasa was tall—he'd had nearly a foot on Nessiah when they'd first met, and he'd grown several inches since then—with a working man's lean layer of muscle and a shock of brazen scarlet hair that fell past his waist. His eyes were beautiful gold—in battle or when he was angry they glowed bright yellow, and when they softened, they darkened so that they looked nearly brown. He had stronger facial features than Nessiah, with just a touch of aristocracy in his high cheekbones. Like all those of his blood, his ears swept back into sharp points, as though he was some type of Sprite or faerie. Despite his high station, Gulcasa usually chose to wear simple clothing, so as usual, he had a black sleeveless shirt and red denim pants under the Imperial cloak. His arms were bound in white linen from elbow to wrist, as was his throat; there were some things he felt it would be better to not tell his people at times like these.

He was a good man with a protective urge that ran miles deep, a temper that could be dangerous once he was provoked, a proud lineage of dragon's blood, and a heart full of acceptance. He'd been Nessiah's friend and caretaker ever since a group of unruly bandits had taken him unawares and Gulcasa had found him barely alive. It was a strange relationship at times, but it was solid—and that solidity had caused Nessiah a great deal of grief, because he'd gone and done what he'd never allowed himself to do for hundreds of years: He'd gotten attached.

And so he'd been put in the uncomfortable position of either going with his stringent plans and betraying Gulcasa, throwing his lot in with the Royal Army… or abandoning the goal he'd sought for nearly his entire life in order to stay with the people he'd grown to care about. He'd chosen door number three, and removed himself from the situation entirely, waiting for whatever outcome there was.

Which had been in itself a kind of betrayal.

Gulcasa had found out—of course he'd found out, chasing after the Royal Army to repay his debt to them like the idiot mortal he was—and he'd been furious, but more than that he'd been hurt. They'd fought side by side, lived together, and the fact that Nessiah hadn't trusted him with his true identity and purpose, his past—it had been hard for Gulcasa to accept.

And yet Gulcasa had held him while he was dying, his eyes heavy with tears. And he'd come to the rescue when Nessiah would've lost against the angel posted to guard Heaven's Gate. And after everything, he'd welcomed the friend he now knew was a fallen angel back to his country with open arms.

Humans. There were times when Nessiah thought he'd never be able to understand the way their minds and hearts worked.

"Don't play with your food. Eat it," Gulcasa scolded from next to him.

"Yes, yes," Nessiah said absently, tiredly. And swayed a little where he sat.

"Whoa—hey, don't go face-first into your food, either!" Gulcasa laid both hands on Nessiah's shoulders, holding him steady. "Didn't you get any sleep at all last night?"

"I was going to…" Really, he hadn't intended to stay up the entire time. He'd just gotten… sidetracked.

"You're impossible." Gently, Gulcasa brought Nessiah to rest against his shoulder. "Lean for a while. Eating's important, but it won't do you much good if you're going to fall asleep in the middle of it. No more all-nighters for you unless you're going to sleep after them, you understand?"

"Yes," Nessiah said sleepily, and nuzzled a little closer into his friend's shoulder. Gulcasa was warm. The library and the early spring breeze were chilly.

"And don't get too comfortable there—you do have to eat, you hear?"

"Yes," Nessiah said again. And then everything went soft and blurry around the edges, then mercifully black.

He woke to warmth and a vague dizzy feeling, and vaguer embarrassment at having gone down so easily.

"I hate to say I told you so, but really, I'm not that good at resisting temptation. So. I did tell you so, stupid."

Making a face and running a hand over his faceplate and through his hair as if to swat away the grogginess, Nessiah sat up. He was flopped on a bed he vaguely recognized as Gulcasa's; Gulcasa himself was sitting in a chair across the room with his elbows on his knees and his face balanced on his hands. He had that crooked smile on, and was beginning to arch one eyebrow in the way that told Nessiah he was desperately holding back the urge to tease.

"Mnhh…" Nessiah shook his head a little, making his chains chime. "Sorry."

"Apologize after you eat. I don't want you fainting again out of energy loss—it isn't even noon yet; you've only been out for a few hours." So saying, Gulcasa picked up a tray of food that had been sitting on the small decorative table in the corner and put it on the bed, giving it a light push towards Nessiah.

Apparently Gulcasa had learned Nessiah's weakness for Bronquian confections—and human breakfast food in general. There were those fruit-jelly buns Gulcasa's little sister Emilia had gone out of her way to get him addicted to, still-steaming rice balls, dark smoked bacon, spiced sausage, salted hash browns, and that deep-fried bread batter that nobody could ever resist.

"It's all fresh," Gulcasa said helpfully. "Since I was getting the feeling you'd come around sooner or later, I harassed a few cooks into helping me with this."

Translation: Gulcasa had made at least some of this himself. "You made me breakfast in bed? And here I thought I was supposed to be the manipulative one." Biting back a helpless giggle, Nessiah shook his head. "Gulcasa, I can't possibly eat all this."

"Really?" Gulcasa said mildly and raised his eyebrows. "Well, don't mind if I help." So saying, he reached out and removed a few strips of bacon from the plate and got started on them.

"As long as you leave me some." Surrendering—as surely Gulcasa had been planning—Nessiah stretched out on his belly and pulled the rest of the bacon towards him, out of his friend's reach.

"Hey…" Gulcasa edged forward in his seat and went instead for the sausage links. "I need the extra energy, you know! Brongaa burns through mine like it's nothing, and keeping a soul that powerful under control takes work."

Guilt and pity clenched in Nessiah's chest, squeezing his heart. And you would never have been put in the position where you felt forced to try to resurrect Brongaa if it weren't for me… while you'd never slap at me with that, it makes it no less true. Because his feeling sorry would only irritate Gulcasa, Nessiah made himself shrug and maneuvered the food on the tray so that everything his friend had already sampled was out of his reach. "You do have a valid excuse, I'll give you that… but it kind of defeats the purpose of fixing me everything I like for breakfast in bed if you eat it all yourself!"

"Hey, I had the self-control to not scarf it all before you woke up, didn't I?! Gimme a little credit, here!" Still, Gulcasa was laughing as he picked up a rice ball. "While you recharge, mind if you tell me what in the world is so interesting down in that library that keeps you down there night and day?"

"It's been a while since I could just sit down and do some real research out of books I haven't read before," Nessiah answered with a little smile. "I keep coming across things that are just fascinating. Even though Midgard is thousands of years behind Asgard technologically, humans can be so ingenious sometimes… they think of using things like magic in ways angels would never begin to consider. And there are also plenty of times when I find little things I haven't thought of since I was in my primary studies as an apprentice mage."

"Hard to think of you as an apprentice," Gulcasa put in with a laugh, appropriating another strip of bacon. "You're so self-assured you almost seem full of it."

"I was a prodigy," Nessiah said with as straight a face as he could manage, making sure he sounded as arrogantly matter-of-fact as possible. "My friends and I regularly worked magic that was beyond even the Valcyarium and the archangels, and of all of them, I was the best, even though I was the youngest."

"If you say so." Gulcasa just smiled. "Well, my precocious friend, just remember that genius or no, we kicked your ass pretty solidly on Ancardia. I guess it goes to show finesse isn't always everything, is it?"

The wound wasn't raw anymore, but it was still sore. Still, if Gulcasa was at the point where he could joke about that night, Nessiah wouldn't say anything about how the reminder of his losing the Gran Centurio had gone right to his heart and ripped. He just stayed silent for a moment—until he realized Gulcasa was going for the bacon again, at which point he gave his friend's hand a light slap and appropriated the last strips himself. "Mine."

"Well, jeez." But Gulcasa just withdrew the offending hand without taking anything. So he had noticed, at least to some degree. But he knew better than to bring it up, too—he could be so kind sometimes.

Nessiah had never had a chance, not really.

"So what's it been recently, anyway? You went back in at eight last night and didn't come out once until breakfast was supposed to be. You must've found something interesting."

Nessiah smiled and paused in savoring a bun filled with cherry jelly. "More nostalgic than interesting, really. I came across a book that talked about the pactio spell—and that's one I haven't seen since I was a kid. It's a simple enough spell, if a little obscure, a little archaic… you still find people using it every now and then, although it seems to have fallen out of popularity both here and in the heavens."

"Pactio?" Gulcasa repeated. "Not anything I've ever heard of—but then, not being any kind of magician myself, I doubt I'd know. What is it?"

"Pactio is…" Nessiah crossed his feet behind him pensively as he wondered how best to explain. "It's a contract spell between two people… a mage, called the magister or magistra, and a protector, referred to as the ministel or ministra. The protector is usually a warrior, although you can do it with anyone, even another magician if you like. It's a pact or vow that allows the ministel to receive the magister's magic to strengthen them, and in return, the ministel becomes obligated to protect his magister with his life. The ministel also receives a powerful magical item attuned to them according to their abilities, their hopes and dreams, and their own combat strength along with that of the magister. It's called an Artifact—and it's not too dissimilar from the principles of the ones I make, come to think of it.

"Anyway, a pactio is a very serious oath of commitment. Usually, if a mage is going to do one, he or she is allowed to make several different contracts in order to test which partner will work out best for them, although most dissolve the majority of theirs and solidify one pactio permanently. There are shortcomings and benefits to the system—and usually nowadays magicians who don't go into combat directly control summoned creatures to defend them, like a witch's golems or the reanimated corpses a necromancer uses. But the pactio spell was created at a time when there were a lot of mages who worked solo but didn't know how to defend themselves physically, which put them in a lot of danger. Having a partner sworn to protect them not only let them survive, but flourish."

Nessiah paused to finish his bun, and Gulcasa, who'd been listening intently up until now, nodded briefly, straightening up where he sat.

"We should do one."

Nessiah almost choked, and spent about half a minute coughing and struggling to breathe, smacking the side of his fist against his chest, before he could manage an incredulous stare and a red-faced demand of "What?!"

"Well, why not? You said yourself it's a simple spell—and I've promised you enough times that I'll protect you for you not to believe it," Gulcasa went on, nonplussed. "If something like this would help me look after you, then…" He shrugged. "I don't see any reason not to."

"There's a very good reason why we can't!"

"Oh, yeah?" Gulcasa's eyebrows went flat with irritation as he sat back in the chair and slowly, deliberately crossed his legs. "Name one."

"You didn't even let me finish, you fool!" Scarlet right up to his ears, Nessiah sat up on his knees, clenching one fist at his chest and waving his other arm. "If two people are going to pactio, that means they have to kiss!"

"Oh." Gulcasa blinked, his eyebrows arching so high they almost hit his hairline. "Well."

"Do you get it now?!"

"Still—that's not a big deal. I've kissed you before," Gulcasa pointed out.

"On the forehead," Nessiah retorted, all but twitching out of defiant mortification. "You can't half-ass a pactio, or it won't work right. Commitment, remember? You have to kiss your partner on the lips."

"Well. Still." Gulcasa just shrugged. "It's just a kiss. It's not a big deal."

"Kissing is too a big deal!"

"Okay, now you're just being childish." Gulcasa folded his arms. "I'm not even a magic-user, and I can see that the benefits of doing this pactio thing far outweigh any momentary embarrassments."

"So you're telling me you want to waste your first kiss on something like this?!" Nessiah demanded, figuring that if Gulcasa was going to be all sensible, he'd have to hit as low as possible to discourage him.

Predictably, Gulcasa went red, but he also glared. "If it means I might be able to protect you in situations I couldn't at times like this—then it doesn't matter! Besides—there are other good reasons, too. People are not happy with you forcibly recruiting souls to do your fighting for you—it's bad enough PR that we can't let you do it unless you absolutely have no other choice. That said, you have to rely on us to defend you—and that's hard for you now. If it's a contracted partnership, something you have a hand in, you can trust it."

"That's—" Smart, and sensible, and proof that Gulcasa knew Nessiah better than he would have thought. But still—

"Furthermore, I already know that fighting on my own power is getting to be dangerous for me and everyone around me. Combat instincts are one of the triggers for Brongaa's power, and I'm having a hard enough time keeping it together without going out of my way to court another takeover. If you could lend me your power, though, I could manage it. I'm vain enough, proud enough, that I don't intend on giving up defending my country and my loved ones with my own hands if there's any way I can do so."

"…" Nessiah hid his face in both hands. Gulcasa just wasn't going to hear no on this, was he?

"I have things to take care of now, but—Nessiah, meet me in the clearing after lunch… you know the one. I'm not letting you get out of this. You'll see I'm right soon enough."

With that, Gulcasa stood up and walked to the door in heavy steps, closing it behind him after he left.

Gods, Nessiah thought exhaustedly, as he considered the remains of the breakfast he'd suddenly lost his appetite for. What in the world have I gotten myself into…?

Nessiah was there at the appointed time—if only, he told himself, because if he didn't show, Gulcasa would likely track him down and drag him. One of the trappings of having dragon's blood, no matter how diluted with the generations of intermarriage with ordinary humans, seemed to be superhuman obstinacy.

During his downtime, he'd gone back into the library, dug out the book he'd found the spell in, and copied the simple glyph required for the pactio into the Revelation of the Gods. It was an extremely basic magic circle—a hexagram bounded within a double ring emblazoned with the twelve symbols of the astral zodiac. A child could perform the spell, as long as they could draw that circle—and many probably had, over the long ages of this world.

Gulcasa had been right—about everything. And maybe it was true that Nessiah was being a little childish about the whole thing. Still—just because he'd fallen didn't mean he had to actively pursue forbidden fruit.

Even if it is all true… even if this would be a good thing… can I really do this? Nessiah took a deep breath and tried to steady himself, putting a hand to his chest. My heart won't stop pounding. I have to settle down, or I'm going to give myself away… and I decided a long time ago that I wasn't going to let something like this happen. I'm no good, and if Gulcasa won't let that get through his thick head, then I have to at least control myself so things don't—

"Hey. Did I keep you waiting?"

Nessiah flinched, then turned to see that Gulcasa was heading towards him over the grass, apparently having crossed the thin border of trees that separated this place from the town while he was soliloquizing.

He stared for a moment, then shook his head. "N-no…"

"I'm glad." Gulcasa was silent until he and Nessiah were standing about arm's length apart. "…You know, I didn't think you were going to be here. I know I got a little… pushy before…"

"But you were right," Nessiah said very quietly. "I know I can't… just walk away when you had a logical point about everything you said. So…"

Very deliberately, he undid the leather straps that held the Revelation shut, held the book with one arm, and let it fall open to the page that held the copy of the pactio glyph. Nessiah stared at it for a moment, and then laid his hand over the deep violet ink he'd used for it, speaking one syllable of the High Language. He felt the answering pulse of the Revelation's innate magic, and the next moment the glyph was drawn in shimmering silver in the grass under their feet, a gentle wind of power spiraling up from it, tossing the skirts of Nessiah's robes and Gulcasa's long hair.

"The magic is unincanted and automatic, so it'll activate without either of us having to do anything but… fulfill the requirements," Nessiah went on in a small, shaky voice. "We just have to stand here, so… give me a moment to compose myself, first…"

"Al..right," Gulcasa agreed, the look on his face saying he didn't know whether to be amused, pitying, or worried.

Nessiah set the Revelation to the side, leaving it hanging obediently in the air as it did when it was busy channeling his magic and he wasn't holding it. Then, not caring that Gulcasa was standing there with that pathetic stare, he set a hand to his chest again and took several deep breaths, trying to steady himself as much as possible.

He'd just about gotten to the point where he was calm when the panic surged up again, and he whirled around, covering his face with both hands. "I can't do this—!"


"I just can't! It isn't right! I'm—and there are Yggdra's feelings to consider!—and you're already doing too much, and—and I just can't, because—! I can't do this, I can't do this, I ca-a-a-a-an't…"

"Nessiah. Look at me."

Taken aback, Nessiah hesitated, then turned halfway, only to have Gulcasa set one hand on his shoulder and the other on the side of his face, pulling the two of them together in a swift determined movement that Nessiah could never have stopped.

There was a moment when Nessiah went rigid with shock, his heart giving one hammering pulse in his chest and then stopping dead for a handful of seconds, where he almost tried to struggle free. But then the magic exploded between him and Gulcasa, pure and beautiful and bright, and as the force of the contract rocked through Nessiah's body, a small selfish honest voice deep, deep inside him said yes.

Then all the resistance went out of him and he slumped against Gulcasa's chest, his hands weakly curling into his friend's hair, his face upturned and their lips still sealed together, his mind reeling. If his existence were erased from the world tomorrow—or if he continued to live until the end of time—this moment, this one moment, was what he wanted to carry with him until then.

There was a soft shimmering sound like a wind chime in the tiniest breeze, and the magic ebbed to nothing. Gulcasa shifted his hands to just below Nessiah's shoulders, and he gently eased the two of them apart.

Nessiah just stood where he was, undone, feeling horribly naked and vulnerable. He couldn't speak; he couldn't move. All he could do was breathe, and stare up at Gulcasa's soft eyes and lopsided smile.

"Sorry about that," Gulcasa murmured. "I was pretty sure you weren't going to… is all."

There was that shimmering sound again, and Nessiah noticed something fluttering to his left and held out a hand. The card that he'd known would be there fell into it.

"What's this thing?" Gulcasa asked, leaning in to get a better look and frowning down at it. "It has my picture on it…"

"It's… ah. This is the proof of the contract," Nessiah said absently. "Hold on a moment." Shifting his hold on the card, he tapped it with the first two fingers of his right hand and spoke the same sentence in the High Language he used to duplicate Tactics Cards. The card shimmered, then split into two. Nessiah selected the new one and held it out to Gulcasa, who accepted it hesitantly.

"This one is yours. Don't lose it. We should—go back into the town now; I need to clean up, so go on ahead without me… I'll teach you how to use this when I catch up."

"Alright." Gulcasa started to head off, stopped to look over his shoulder at Nessiah awkwardly, then continued forward again in a light jog.

Nessiah continued to stand where he was, slowly collecting the Revelation of the Gods and putting the pactio card between the pages like a bookmark, closing it and tucking it under his arm.

He'd have to dismantle the circle, and then cleanse the area just in case. The pactio formation had been a lot more powerful than he'd expected. Then he'd have to run to go find Gulcasa and tell him what he was supposed to do with his card, and probably how to read it, as well. But for now…

Nessiah slowly raised his free hand to his lips and settled it there, lightly resting pallid, shaking fingers over his face. He knew exactly what the path ahead of him entailed, but for whatever reason, his heart wouldn't stop trembling.

One warm tear slid from beneath his faceplate down his cheek, beneath the low arc of his hand, to drip onto the cover of the Revelation in a nearly inaudible splash.