I curse this stupid Share thing to my right. Or your right. Pfeh.


c: his regrets

Elazul

If he wasn't out looking for clues on how to revive her, he would always be found sitting in the room of the Clarius, staring up at Imu's stone form. He had already memorized every single detail of her profile— from the faint lines that showed above her nose because of her furrowed eyebrows, to the subtle pout in her lips that formed from her sad smile, to the hint of a dimple on her left cheek, to the single strand of hair that fell into her face when she'd bowed her head, and to the tension that her fingers showed as she seemingly clasped empty air. Time had stopped for her; things that he normally would have viewed in full movement stood still in the form of a stone. Like a pendulum that hung awkwardly in midair after it had stopped working, Imu's last second of life stood in front him as a statue.

Sometimes he felt like the statue was silently mocking him. The teardrop crystal that hung from her cheek was indeed beautiful and magnificent, yet it shone with life while the rest of her remained deathly still. There was a life inside that he could never reach, a spirit that was trapped within— he longed to let that spirit free, as it had always been meant to be. The statue was, to him, a symbol of his failure— no other mistake in his life could compare.

Every time he leaves he would give her face a gentle stroke, and he would whisper a soft "see you later". He inwardly wished he'd been this affectionate with her when she wasn't a stone; he would have loved to feel her warm skin under his hand, and perhaps see the slightest hints of a blush on her cheeks whenever his skin would make contact with hers. She'd never been too girly as to blush openly, he recalled, but whenever she did, he would always think that it was rather cute. He'd enjoyed making her flushed with anger on occasion for this very reason, and she was always none the wiser.

There were a lot of things he regretted not doing with her. He'd always considered her as special to him; he just never told her or let her know so. He naively thought that if he acted like she was only a regular person to him, she wouldn't feel attached to him and endanger herself. He'd distanced himself; hidden his true feelings to protect her. The statue told him that his efforts were in vain. He now wished that he didn't inhibit himself from making her feel the extent of how much she meant to him; Imu still became attached to him anyway— she'd even confessed that her love for him. She'd cried for him.

Did he love her? He wasn't sure. Imu was important to him, just like Pearl was important to him, only… slightly different. He just didn't know how. Pearl was like a sister to him, at least that was how he thought he would treat a sister if he had one. Imu was different; he'd never been able to explain what he felt for her. He liked her, that was certain; but the scope of it was lost on him.

He'd been fond of her from the very beginning; he'd been impressed with her strength, and had always felt calm and relaxed in her presence. There was a certain air about her that made him feel cheerful. She'd appreciated the world around her, and she'd loved to live her life. She had a pure heart, and everyone around her knew it. He knew it. He'd come to rely on her for the very reason that she wasn't one to refuse; her choice would always be for others, not herself.

Elazul envied her freedom, and often he sought out her company only to revel in it. She always had the liberty to choose whatever she desired, to do whatever she wanted, and to show the world whatever she felt. Sometimes he wished he was free of obligations, and duties, and the fear of being alone, and to simply express himself— just like her, to be free of everything. Imu had been there to make him feel those things, even if they were only small, fleeting moments…

He missed those moments. He'd shared a lot with her and her with him. Every day was a good day in her company, regardless of whether they slept on the roadside, or starved almost to death, or chased out of towns, or just plain ran into trouble. Imu made it a point to make everything positive; it was a striking complement to how he viewed everything negatively.

"If we get too hungry, we can always eat Cloud!"

"You're horrible. How can you even think that about your pet?"

"What do you think I bring this chocobo around for? Emergency rations!"

A sad smile spread across his face. She always had a joke for everything. How he wished she had a joke for this situation. How he wished there was no such situation in the first place.

"I love you."

…was that a joke too? He sighed heavily and held his head. No, it couldn't have been. How could he even think that? Imu wouldn't joke about something like that. She would always bluntly say that she missed him, or that she liked his eyes, or that he badly needed a bath, or that he looked like a boink's butt. She'd been painfully honest about everything— she'd never been the greatest liar.

But what did she mean? Did she love him as a brother, or as a friend? There was a part of him that wished she meant that as more than friends. Perhaps… as lovers. He visibly twitched at the thought of it. It was an odd euphoric feeling, regarding her that way, coupled with a dull ache in his chest.

Could they have gotten together?

Yes and no. Yes, because he could never have refused her, and no, because him being a Jumi would get in the way of it.

Lovers with Imu. He couldn't imagine. No. He very well could, but he couldn't bring himself to… to think of her that way… how it would feel like to hold her close, to weave his fingers through hers, to smell her hair, to give her a genuine smile as he leans down to meet his lips with hers—

"Agh!" he groaned out, curling into himself. What was he thinking? How could he even think about her that way? There was just no way. Being with her would put her life in jeopardy, if her situation now was any indication. The fact that he let this happen to her was already bad enough. What if… what if she'd become his and he'd only break her heart? What if he'd just lose her? What if all he'd bring to her were pain and suffering? Could he even make her happy?

But if she wasn't going to be his, then whose would she be? Would there be another man who'd take her?

He didn't even have to think about it. Of course there would. How could anyone possibly ignore someone like her? She was strong, reliable, bright, amazing, and… and a touch adorable. He couldn't be the only one in the world who thought of her that way. Surely, someone out there would want to be with her. Someone… someone better than him.

Elazul felt his heart shatter.

Maybe I do love her…

It might have been great between them, if he had been honest with himself. He wouldn't be regretting a lot of things now, had he been true to what he felt about her. He should have told her that she was special to him; he should've touched her the way he always wanted to. He should've been nicer to her, or spent more time with her. He shouldn't have distanced himself the way he did. But now it was too late… way too late.

He felt his tears prickle through his eyes, reflecting the great pain that grew in his chest as he pondered. He could never stop his tears when it came to her; ever since he gained the ability to cry for the first time in his long life, it was practically all he did. Nobody blamed him or thought badly of him for it, but he thought it was rather humiliating. A Jumi knight, a symbol of strength and pride, reduced to crying his eyes out like this.

Shakily, Elazul stood from his spot, and gently placed a hand on Imu's stone face. His tears had started falling, and he made no effort to stop them. "What have you done to me?" he asked, without anger or malice.

"I love you."

The words rang in his head, as clear as crystal. He leaned forward, lightly laying his forehead to hers. "Imu…" The name felt wonderful on his lips. Too bad there was no one to answer his call. He swallowed, and took a deep, shuddering breath. "I miss you."

"Laz, where have you been? I missed you!"

"I've always been here," he replied to the brightly smiling Imu in his memory. "I'll always be here…" He slumped towards the ground, his arms wrapping around her waist as he did so. His body quivered as he wept into the statue's stomach, silently wishing, passionately hoping that his tears would bring her back, just like hers brought back the Jumi.

Come back. Wake up. Please…

But no matter how much he cried, no matter how many tears he shed, he could never bring back the moments he shared with her, or the person he shared it with. Memories that seemed so far away, yet so clear. His tears won't bring them back.

They won't bring her back.

But he never stopped hoping. And believing.

x—

"SUPER SPECIAL WHIRLWIND KICK ATTACK OMEGA!"

Elazul watched in awed silence as Imu flew dramatically, spinning, towards a gray ox— and missed her trajectory, crashing into a nearby tree. The frightened gray ox fled the scene with a howl just as Elazul hurried to her side, cursing under his breath.

"You idiot!" he'd spat when he reached her. "You should just stick to spears." He gingerly held her up and worriedly checked for injuries. She had quite a huge bump on her forehead and a slightly hazy look in her eyes; she was also holding her hip painfully. His brows furrowed, his insides twisting at the thought of her being hurt. "And you're supposed to hurt the enemy when you're attacking, not yourself."

"Yar, I shink yer rite," she slurred, her eyes looking past him dazedly. "Glurves're nawt kool." She grinned clumsily at him, before collapsing in a heap in his arms. His heart leapt to his throat; wasn't he supposed to keep her awake in case she had a concussion? Don't humans get problems if they go unconscious after head trauma? He lightly tapped her cheek to wake her up, but to no avail.

His eyes filled with worry; he decided that it would be better to try to heal her injuries in a safer place. He then carried her onto his back as he trekked through Lake Kilma's lakeside path. The trek was spent in silence, and he occasionally needed to dodge some wild monsters down the path. Imu sometimes mumbled something into his shoulder, and it felt like she drooled on his neck at some point. He worried that she may have become delusional from her concussion— until he heard her give a light snore. He sighed; he was scared out of his skin because she'd fainted, but it turned out she was only sleeping.

When they reached the bank of the lake, he gently laid her down the grass and rummaged in her satchel for some bandages and some cloth, or perhaps some candy (though knowing her, she'd probably already eaten them). After finding some bandages, he put them aside, and once again checked her for any more damage.

The huge red bump on her head looked very much real, and he was also worried about how she held onto her hip before. He would always forget how fragile humans were; he was never worried about him or Pearl getting small injuries because the Jumi instantly heal flesh wounds. He worried about broken bones and mortal wounds, though only because they take longer and hurt when they heal. He didn't know how it would feel like for humans; it must hurt a lot more and take even longer to heal. He heard that human injuries sometimes become permanent. He frowned at this thought. This stupid girl— what if she'd broken her hip?

He had hurriedly lifted her skirt right up to her waist, in worry of such an injury, before he realized what he was doing. He stopped, shocked, feeling as though he'd as good as killed her, and then dropped her skirt with a rather unmanly squeal. He felt his face go hot. What was he doing? What was he doing?

He regarded his hands for a few moments, stunned. He hadn't seen anything, had he? He shook his head; no, he hadn't. He sighed with relief. Imu was a young girl, and a chaste one, without a doubt. It wouldn't have been honorable if he had somehow defiled her by exposing himself to her bare skin, even more so by touching her inappropriately, injury or no. That wasn't his business, and it wasn't his place. He wouldn't have been able to look her in the eye ever again.

Yet his gaze lingered on the skirt that covered her upper thighs for quite a long while. He silently wondered (though also denied) what he could have seen. He'd never really paid any attention to her body unless she'd gotten wounded or done a really great (or stupid) stunt; and he'd never really found her desirable enough to wonder. She had nice skin, he observed. Much like Pearl's, only a bit more rosy. If he just touched—

He felt himself go redder at the thought. He shouldn't. He couldn't. This was not the time to think about such things. He'd lived the full eighty years of his life without these thoughts in his head— this was not the time to act like a hormonal human teenager.

He set his jaw, and approached Imu's prone figure tentatively. He would just see to her forehead, he decided. He would worry about her hip later, when she was awake…

Elazul sat quietly beside her after he'd bandaged her head, staring at the lake. And then he yawned, dimly realizing that he hadn't been able to get enough sleep. Abrupt camping was never his favorite, but Imu seemed to enjoy it. The girl had kicked him in her sleep last night more times than his actual hours of sleep. He blinked heavy eyelids, and decided to take a short nap. He laid beside the younger girl, and drifted off to sleep.

When he woke up a couple of hours later, he found that Imu had disappeared from his side. He scowled drowsily, a little panicked. Where had she gone? Did a monster abduct her? He cursed himself for falling asleep like that. Why did he always have to be so careless?

There was a small splash at the lake, and he looked over to find a strange golden thing bobbing on the surface. Familiar white sticks floated just around it. It took him a while to recognize it as the top of Imu's head. He then shot up from the ground, his heart beating erratically. She was in the lake! Had she drowned?

"Imu!" he called frantically, running towards the lake. At his call, her whole head emerged from the lake, her bright green eyes wide with surprise. He stopped abruptly at the edge of the water, simply to stare. So she hadn't drowned. He unknowingly placed a hand to his chest, heaving a great sigh of relief. This girl is going to be the death of me, he thought to himself.

"Oh, you're awake!" she said jovially. She fully came out of the lake, smiling, the water sloshing about her. "Thanks for bandaging my head. I feel better now."

"Don't mention it," he said distractedly. Something was strange. He was looking straight at her face, but his peripheral vision was telling him that something was amiss. Something… he cautiously lowered his gaze, and figured out exactly what the problem was.

He felt his face go so hot that it felt like it was going to melt. He fell back onto the ground and covered his face with his arms, panicking. "Imu! For the love of mana, put some clothes on!" he screeched in a rather girlish tone.

"Huh? OH! Oh—" there was a bit of splashing to be heard, "—geez—" some scuffling on the grass, and then rustling of clothing being handled. "Sorry, Laz! Didn't mean for that to happen. I always forget that you're a guy."

He paused and considered that; how was he supposed to take that? What was he to her, a mere sack of citrisquids? He'd earlier worried about her chastity; and yet she had been swimming in the lake in his presence, without her clothes on. He didn't have to learn that his worries for her purity were unfounded in this manner! Surely, Goddess help him, there had to have been another way to convey this message to him, without showing him the girl's naked form. And she'd undressed beside him while he was sleeping, his thoughts added loosely.

He swallowed air, his mouth and throat feeling very much like a barren wasteland. Why was he was the one that felt rather violated?

"Sorry," he heard her say apologetically. Her tone was sincere. "You okay?" He felt her sit beside him.

He dropped his arms from his face and sat up. She'd just asked him if he was "okay". There… there was something terribly wrong with this situation— with this girl. It felt like their roles have switched; she should be the one shrieking in embarrassment in this situation. He should be the one apologizing. This was not how things were supposed to go. This was not normal.

He turned to give her a half-hearted glare, his face still red. He was glad to see that she was finally clothed. "Are you really a girl?" he asked incredulously.

"Is that what you ask someone after you've seen them naked?" she joked, laughing slightly. She didn't even seem to care. He felt a bit faint. Just who exactly was he dealing with? He really couldn't figure her out. "I don't think you really saw anything though," she said seriously, with a hint of smile.

He stopped, and stared at her. Now that he thought about it, it was true. He had fallen back from her before he could fully see anything. He racked his head for details, yet there was none. He'd seen nothing. He just knew she was naked, but hadn't exactly seen her so. Perhaps only the top of her shoulders and the top of her chest... but nothing hugely "important". He sighed with relief, feeling better. His eyes hadn't tainted her. Good.

Imu laughed loudly, and leaned backwards into the grass. "That's so cute!" she said. "You looked like a tomato man. So red!"

He scowled. This was what he got for worrying about her, for actually thinking about her honor? He only got laughed at and mocked. He was definitely glad that he didn't see anything. He probably shouldn't even bother himself about it. Who would ever want to see her naked anyway?

But somehow, somewhere in the back of his head, he sort of wished he did see something.

Elazul glanced at Imu warily. She, for some reason, had her tongue stuck out in the air, and was wiggling it. He recoiled. Strange, inexplicable behavior. How one could even regard this—this… thing as a female was beyond his comprehension. She even seemed to be manlier than him at times. Or at the very least genderless. Like a blob, perhaps.

He would never regret not seeing her naked.

"Laaaaaaaaah," said Imu, her tongue further out in the air.

Never.

A few days after the lake episode, Imu once again sought him out at Domina's tavern. It had become their designated meeting place, and Rachel had warmed up to him because he frequently bought food and drinks (mostly for Imu). He sat at his usual spot in the corner and, amused, watched Imu blunder through a table as she approached.

Rachel stood by his table expectantly with a smile on her face. Had he been so routinely treating Imu here to give her the impression that he would always buy something for her?

"I'd like some fried needlebeak with a side of mush-in-a-box salad please," Imu told the awaiting winged girl casually as she took her seat across from him. Rachel gave an enthusiastic "yes!" and bounded off to prepare her order.

"I suppose I'm paying for that one?" said Elazul unenthusiastically.

"Why, of course, you silly goose," said Imu with a wave of her hand. "I'm broke because I bought this new sword." She placed a huge, double-handed sword on top of the table. "It's so pricey, but I really wanted to try it out."

Elazul pinched the bridge of his nose in exasperation. "You, broke? Why am I not surprised?" he said dryly. "That aside, didn't we agree to stick with the spear?"

"Yeah, yeah, I know. But look at this!" She pushed the sword towards him excitedly. "It looks so big and powerful. I bet I can destroy monsters with this!"

He sighed. He really didn't know why he bothered. He should be used to her fickleness by now; she'd tried out all sorts of weapons when she saw them for sale in the shop. The last time it was a pair of gloves at Lake Kilma. An axe, a few days before that. Knives, a week before. A flail, the week before that.

"Look at this girth! Impaling this into something would probably feel good," she continued to gush, lightly stroking the sword. "People always say that size doesn't matter— but in this case, it definitely does!"

He had to admit, she handled the weapons pretty well for someone who'd never even seen them. She would only run into trouble when she decided that inventing various moves in mid-fight would be "cool", not unlike the lake incident. The last few times, she had hit her face with the flail, almost impaled him with a knife, and chopped a tree in someone's backyard with the axe (which also almost killed the monster egg she was trying to catch). She could be an incredible warrior if she only stopped her crazy antics, he mused.

When Rachel arrived with the food, Imu immediately forgot about the sword. It lay forgotten on his side of the table as she started devouring her meal. Elazul automatically reached into his pocket and placed the necessary lucre in Rachel's outstretched hand. The winged girl gave him a smile and scampered off. He sighed; when had he become reduced to this? He felt like he was Imu's keeper.

He watched Imu quietly as she gobbled up her food. In the lull of simply watching her engorge herself (in a very manly fashion), he began to consider his current relationship with her. They had been around each other for quite a while; about a bit less than three months. Ever since he met her, there was hardly a time that they were apart. He'd approached her at least twice in the first couple of weeks to look for Pearl; she was always getting lost. Imu approached him for a variety of things after that; he'd never been able to refuse her. It was his thanks for her help.

He genuinely thought that she hated him at first; she was such an open book, so her emotions were relatively easy to read. She'd glared at him, or stuck her nose up at him, or sometimes regarded him disapprovingly. Though lately, she only had smiles and jokes and laughter for him. She had become casual around him; she even nicknamed him "Laz".

Were they getting too close to each other? Perhaps. He felt at ease with her. He felt quite cheerful as well. Around her, he felt like there was no room for sadness, or anger, or despair. There was only simple fun and contentment. There was no question about it; Pearl, herself, had noticed each time he would come back to the inn.

"Did you have a great time?" Pearl would always ask with a soft smile after he'd come back from a stint with Imu. His guardian would smilingly compliment his aura, and would ask about Imu and what they did, and express happiness that he was being friendly with other people. Although it wasn't other people per se, only Imu. The only people he considered friends— they would be Imu and Pearl. He would sometimes find both girls outside Domina's inn or in the marketplace, chatting about various things merrily. They were also very good friends, and he was glad to see Pearl having fun. Imu had become close to both of them.

"So the other day, I caught an aerial egg in Luon," she said, waving her fork at him and sending bits of food in his direction. "Rabite's gonna be so happy to get someone to graze with and…" He let her words go through one ear and the other while he pondered.

Perhaps they were becoming too close. He frowned, and felt a bit of a dull ache in his chest. This wasn't good for her— she shouldn't associate with him or Pearl. He was a Jumi, and she was a human. They'd cut ties with humans for a reason. He felt guilt weigh on his shoulders. If something were to happen to her, it would be because of him. Because he had not stayed away from her.

"Hey, Laz, you listening?" said Imu, cutting through his thoughts. She put her face close to his, eyes curious. He drew back, surprised.

"Sorry," he said automatically. "What were you saying?"

Imu leaned back and crossed her arms over her chest, eyeing him warily. Then she smiled— it looked like she'd forgiven him for letting his attention waver. He noticed, unsurprised, that her plate had already been cleared of everything. "I was saying we should go do something about that pumpkin army at the end of Domina."

"Pumpkin army?" he asked distractedly. His thoughts were still about his relationship with her. He had to part ways with her, and soon. Any more of this and he would be looking at a stone version of her. The thought made his blood run cold. She didn't deserve that; he didn't want to see that.

After today, he would disappear from her life. That was what he decided.

For her sake.

It had been a long time since he and Pearl have left Domina. They'd spent quite a while traveling by themselves. It had been quiet with just the two of them. Sometimes, Pearl would mention Imu and express desire to see her again. Elazul promised that yes, they'll go see her soon. He just didn't know when, or even if they really would. They would put Imu in danger— that was for certain. He didn't want that. Imu was a good person; she would definitely get attached to them, if she wasn't already, and if something happens…

He refused to think about it. Sometimes he wished he'd never met her, and he knew that was the wrong thing to wish. He would take it back the moment his wish sunk in. He couldn't imagine Imu's inexistence in his life. In the short while that he and Pearl knew her, she'd immediately crawled her way into their hearts. And if he hadn't met her, he wouldn't have found Pearl. He would've been alone.

He and Pearl stayed in Polpota for a while, and although there would be times when an air of discontentment permeated in the silence they spent together, he tried his best to ignore it. He felt bad steering Pearl away from her only other friend and he admittedly also yearned for her as well. But it was for the best. Imu would be able to live her life freely this way. He and Pearl would only be excess baggage to her.

Polpota Harbor was a much busier place than Domina, and had a very nice view of the sea. There were different kinds of people every day because of several ships docking, and Elazul felt rather suffocated in the crowds. The amount of strangers made him feel anxious; some of these people sometimes eyed him too much, and he often felt their gazes linger on his core. So when he heard the news of a Jumi murder in Lumina from Inspector Boyd, he was beside himself with fear. A Jumi murderer? It had never been easy to kill a Jumi, unless one knew how to, and most people nowadays never bothered with the Jumi or their cores; at least, from his experience, and from the way current people regarded him and Pearl neither as walking jewelry nor as prized bounties (most of the time). They had become a part of the crowd, though with a bit of reluctance from the crowd itself.

There was also fact that Inspector Boyd had stationed himself in Polpota Harbor. It was alarming. It could very well mean that his investigation had led him to Polpota, which meant that the Jumi murderer could just be around the corner. He had never encountered anyone with the sole intent of killing him as a Jumi; monsters he could handle, whether small or huge or demi-human, he could protect himself and Pearl. But something like this…

He felt ashamed. He lacked the confidence to protect himself and Pearl from such an adversary. Someone being after their cores and attacking them specifically for that reason made his stomach churn with insecurity. He knew he couldn't do it alone— he couldn't very well protect Pearl and look for other Jumi by himself in these conditions. He needed help. And he cursed under his breath when he realized where his thoughts were going.

I need Imu.

She was his only other friend in the world; there was no one else he could rely on. At times like these, she was the only one he could run to. She couldn't refuse them. She wouldn't.

At least, that was what he told himself. He was definitely not making any excuses just to see Imu again, he decided firmly. He and Pearl were merely in a tight spot. That was all.

Yet, he knew, despite his denial, that those were excuses, as well as truths.

When he told Pearl that they were going back to Domina, she'd given him the brightest smile he'd ever seen on her face in years. He supposed he should be jealous; he'd never been able to make her smile that way, not directly. She was really happy to go back, and didn't care for the reason. Not that he would ever tell her that a Jumi murderer was about. She didn't need to know about such things.

"Elazul's gone back to his senses," she'd said quietly when they left for Domina. Whether or not she'd intended for him to hear was not the problem; it was her words. What did she mean he'd 'gone back to his senses'? He never recalled losing them. He wanted to ask her what she meant, but held his words back. He'd always let his guardian think to herself; he never pried or asked too much. Pearl could just tell him whenever she was ready.

Elazul was vigilant during their trip. He hardly slept, although he ate regularly despite his loss of appetite, only to appease his guardian. He was afraid that the Jumi murderer would just be around the corner, waiting behind a boulder or hiding behind some bushes. He knew he was being too paranoid, but he couldn't help it. He was fairly good with a sword, that was established, but he had never been one of the Jumi that fought off core hunters. That was before his time.

Domina was the same when they returned. The same homey air, the same calm atmosphere, and the same crowd of familiar faces milling about the place greeted them. Pearl was undeniably happy; she'd rushed into the inn and into their room before he'd finished checking in. He smiled a little. At least she was happy.

He entered the tavern and sat at his usual corner, prompting Rachel to approach him. But she wasn't smiling expectantly. In fact, she looked rather depressed.

"Imu's gone," she said solemnly.

"What do you mean she's gone?" he asked hurriedly, dreading the worst. Had she died? Was it because he wasn't there to watch over her? The girl tended to get into all sorts of stupid situations— did she impale herself with a sword or crack her head open with a flail? Where was he to make sure she didn't injure herself? How could he leave her alone like that, knowing that she could very well kill herself accidentally? He felt like he was going to be sick. He put his head in his hands, feeling miserable. She was gone. Had she died?

"Nobody's seen her for weeks…" answered Rachel with a far off tone. "Her apprentices went around town looking for her earlier, saying she hasn't come home in a long while."

He looked up at the winged girl, his eyes hopeful. "…So she's not dead?"

"Oh no, I hope not," she replied rather forcefully. "She's run up quite a tab here, so she better not be dead."

Elazul stared. Rachel stared. A heavy silence hung over the two of them.

"This tab… I'm not paying for it, am I?"

"…she did mention something along the lines of 'when Elazul comes back, he'll pay for these' once."

"…"

He was livid when he left the tavern. He'd paid about two thousand lucre for all the food that Imu had consumed. He didn't know why he felt obliged to pay, but he did. He felt responsible for her, in a strange way. Still, that didn't stop him from being angry with her.

But at the same time, he was relieved. At least she was alive, or known to be. It would be easier to kill her if she were alive anyway, he thought furiously.

He spent the next couple of days asking around Domina if they'd heard news of Imu. He got different answers, and different versions of how they'd seen her last. Some said they last saw her lying on the side of the road looking starved, while some swore that they saw her flying across the sky on a huge bird. Others thought she'd died, while others complained about some of the things she did when she was last there. Breaking someone's window with an encyclopedia, running into a fruit cart while riding a chocobo, touching random people's abdomen, and generally disrupting the peace were some of the things that she was apparently responsible for. He felt pretty stupid for jumping to the conclusion that she'd died. There was no way someone like that could just easily pass away.

Finally, he found Imu in Domina's marketplace, four days after he'd started asking around for her. She was chatting animatedly with the fruit fortuneteller Meimei when he spotted her. He would have been able to approach her calmly and casually had she not looked like she'd been horribly mangled in many different ways. She had bandages on her legs, arms, and over her head and eye. Her left arm was on a sling, and she was leaning awkwardly on one leg. It made him angry. His chest heaved as he took deep, heated breaths, trying to calm himself.

He'd stomped towards her before he realized what he was doing. His mouth had opened and, without thinking, he'd shouted, "You idiot! Where have you been?"

The market crowd around him grew eerily quiet. Several eyes fell on him. Imu turned around, her mouth in the shape of an O. She made to step towards him, looking somewhat wobbly, and opened her mouth to speak, but he beat her to it.

"What happened to your arm what's wrong with your eye why is it bandaged why are you limping is that a scar on your leg why do you look like a mummy what happened?" he asked frantically, all in one breath, as he thoroughly looked her over. He noticed the bruises and little wounds around her shoulders and face. It looked even worse up close, he concluded with a scowl.

There was a short moment of silence after this, until Imu started giggling. He stared, confused. This was no laughing matter.

"Laz, where have you been? I missed you!" she said, smiling widely.

He paused, mouth halfway opened. He didn't know how to respond. He did miss her too; but he felt that saying so would be inappropriate. He just opted to stare at her blankly, setting his lips in a straight line.

Her smile faded slightly. "What?" she said, a bit nervously. "Don't just leave me hanging— say something."

He turned his eyes away, lips pursed. He didn't like how his inaction resulted in her bright smile fading. He felt like saying that he missed her too, if only to put it back on her face… No. He couldn't say that to her. It would just add to their degree of closeness. If he acted disinterested, she would be turned off by his presence. Perhaps she might even dislike him again or at least feel like she had no obligation to be close to him. That was for the best, he decided. He tried to ignore the slight burning in his chest that came with those thoughts.

"Okaaaay…" said Imu slowly after the lengthy silence between them. "I guess maybe you don't want to talk here?" Most of the market crowd had stopped staring, but the few that knew them both were still watching them curiously. She grabbed his arm, and he saw that she'd started smiling again. He felt the corners of his lips turn upward with relief, but he stopped them. "Let's go to the pub! You can treat me the deluxe springanana split that I could never afford."

He sighed, and let the girl pull him through the crowds. It felt great being in her company again, though he would never tell her that. But he supposed it wouldn't hurt to buy her a treat or two. It had been a long time, and he was going to be imposing on her goodwill again anyway (he conveniently forgot about the accumulated tab he had to pay four days prior). He just had to act like he didn't care, he decided grimly. Keeping his distance from her emotionally was the key to her safety. He told himself these, quite repeatedly, as they entered the tavern, and sat down at their usual table.

As Imu ate her springanana split, Elazul explained his (and Pearl's) current situation. About the Jumi murderer, and their reason for traveling. He told her about how unsafe he felt for himself and Pearl, and how they couldn't find other Jumi, despite the fact that they'd been traveling for a long while. Then, he asked for her help.

She agreed without a second thought, just as he knew she would. She even offered her home and her apprentices for Pearl. Relief washed over him. As well as thankfulness for her.

"I'm eternally grateful," he said to her, smiling evenly.

"You can tell me that when we're done with all this," she responded blithely, a bit of melted ice cream dribbling down her chin. He bit the inside of his cheek at the sight. On impulse, he took one of the tissues set in middle of the table.

"Goddess, Imu," he said reproachfully as he reached over to wipe her chin with the tissue. "When are you ever going to act like a lady your age?"

"We can have this conversation in two years," she said, swatting his hand away playfully and taking another tissue for herself. "And I think I'm lady-like enough, thank you very much." She then made a show of gently dabbing at her chin, placing the tissue carefully on the table, and lightly taking a small bit of ice cream into her mouth, with her pinky up the whole time, to emphasize her point.

The implication made him laugh and he tried to stop it, and ended up snorting through his nose rather painfully and unattractively. Imu held no such reserves and laughed at him loudly into her spoon. He gave her a weak glare, his fist covering his mouth. He knew he should feel affronted, but all he could feel at the moment was a blissful feeling bubbling in chest.

He knew he would one day regret approaching her again. But right now, he was glad for her help.

He was glad to be with her again.

"Do you think I could have done something?"

Elazul raised his head at the sound of Imu's weak voice. The small temple room echoed the hollowness in her voice. This was the first time he'd ever heard the life sapped from her tone, and he decided that he didn't like it. She sounded completely dejected, sitting beside him on the bed, curled up in a ball with her chin on her knees. She looked smaller than she used to, and for the time, she also looked and felt quite fragile. It reminded him all too well of the reality that Imu was, in fact, still a child.

They had failed to save Rubens. He was murdered just as quickly as they'd found him. It was almost like Sandra, the jewel thief, had made them fall into a false sense of security and relief, and then yanked it all from underneath them as though to show that their efforts were pointless. Almost like a very elaborate taunt. He'd merely been angry the first time they'd encountered her in Polpota when she stole the sapphire core from Basketfish, yet now, after seeing a fellow Jumi get murdered so easily in front of him, he was filled with such a vast sea of emotions that all he could do was sit down with his head in his hands. He felt anger, sadness, disappointment, uselessness, hopelessness… the list could go on.

In all his sulking, he hadn't been able to pay any attention to Imu, who was with him the whole time, and he was thus relatively surprised to see, for the first time since the incident, that she was actually affected. He didn't know what to do or say— he couldn't even remember what she'd asked. He then opted to say meaningless words, hoping to appease her, "It's going to be alright."

"M'kay," she mumbled, and drew her legs even closer to her body. He knew he'd answered her incorrectly, and he felt guilty that he hadn't even listened to her. He wasn't the only one in pain because of Ruben's death. He should've known that. It was Imu herself that promised to protect him; his death must be harder on her. She'd probably never even witnessed a murder before this.

An uncomfortable silence settled over them after that. Elazul felt like pulling his hair out in frustration. Not at her, but at himself. Or maybe at her as well. She was so emotional about something that shouldn't concern her. He dreaded that she might even start crying. Who told her to get tangled in his affairs anyway?

…oh right, that would be him. He now really wanted to pull his hair out.

"There aren't any traces left of her," said a calm voice from the door. Both looked up to find Escad standing at the door, a scowl on his face. Despite Elazul's earlier unexplainable dislike for the other man, he appreciated his efforts to help them. "Looks like nobody witnessed her enter the grottoes, and nobody besides us saw her leave. It's like she simply appeared and vanished in thin air."

Imu gave a soft whimper but said nothing. She hid her face into her knees, her shoulders tense. Elazul's breath caught in his throat; the sight made his chest feel constricted. He bit the inside of his cheek rather forcefully and contemplated on laying his hand on her shoulder or patting her back or squeezing her arm, small alternatives to what he really wanted to do, which was to give her a small, comforting embrace. But his hesitation took too long, and as the grave silence grew so heavy that it was deafening, it was Escad who moved for him.

Elazul could only watch as Escad sat at Imu's other side, ruffling her hair; and then he wrapped an arm around her shoulders, gently guiding her to lean on him. The girl complied without a word, her stance finally relaxing. Elazul wanted to look away, feeling a little more out of sorts, but he couldn't stop his gaze from being transfixed on them. A vague thought that told him 'he should've done that' echoed at the back of his head and he didn't bother to brush it off. It was true; he should've done that. He felt inexplicably angry at Escad and wanted to punch him, but at the same time he was softened with gratitude that the other man had done what he couldn't for Imu.

Escad didn't say anything, but when he caught Elazul's eye, there wasn't any hint of the competitiveness that was present his gaze when they had first met. There was only concern for Imu. There might have been a tiny hint of empathy for him as well, though Elazul thought that it might only be his imagination.

The three of them sat in complete silence for what seemed like eternity. The scene of Rubens' death kept replaying in Elazul's head— a quick hand wrapping around Rubens' core, the slight "tink" of nails on the delicate gem, the guttural sound that the ruby Jumi uttered in pain, and the swift, bone-cracking movement as the flame of hope was snatched right out his body. He had fallen to his knees after he'd witnessed it; it wasn't the first time he'd seen a Jumi die, but he had never seen a Jumi die that way. It looked and sounded painful. Even the word 'pain' seemed like an understatement.

"Escad," said a small voice, breaking through the uncomfortable stillness. Both knights turned towards the source, Imu. A pause followed, and then, "I think Laz needs this more than I do." She then lifted her head from Escad's shoulder and straightened her legs out in front of her, giving Elazul a meaningful look. For a moment, he thought that she was going to guide him onto her shoulder, similar to what Escad had done for her— until she stood up and said, facing them, "Could you go lend him your warm, manly shoulder?"

The air abruptly turned casual. Elazul managed to feel and look affronted, despite the situation, and Escad gave a snort, waving his hand dismissively. "No way," they both said at the same time.

"Synchro-speak tells me otherwise, silly little boys," said Imu playfully, wagging her finger at them. "Don't be shy now. If you're friends, then you should comfort each other."

"But we're—"

"—not friends."

"Finishing each other's sentences already!" She clapped her hands together gleefully. "Okay, I'm going to leave you two alone now. Make sure to let Laz lean on you, 'Scad!" And she was out the door before either of them could get another word in.

"What just happened?" asked Elazul, confused.

"You tell me," said Escad, his tone the same.

And those were the first words they directly spoke to each other, followed by another awkward silence. Elazul knew from the start that he wouldn't be able to get along with this man, despite Imu's repeated efforts to push them otherwise.

On the subject of Imu… wasn't she depressed just a moment ago? How was she able to recover that fast? Was it…? He gave a wary sidelong glance towards Escad. Was it him? Was it because he comforted her?

He felt inexplicably anxious at the thought. Elazul had never comforted Imu; there was never any need to. She was always smiling, and laughing, and practically frolicking about that he would be a fool to even consider that she could be sad at all. He had never seen her down— she was always in high spirits that it was almost suspicious. But she was cheerless, only a moment ago, and he hadn't been able to do a thing. It was Escad who responded to her, and it was Escad who made her feel better.

Elazul had done nothing but stare. He felt like he was defeated there, somewhere. As though there was battle that he wasn't aware he'd been fighting until he'd lost.

"Those who cry for the Jumi shall turn to stone."

Elazul turned to look at Escad, surprised. "What?"

"You know this, don't you?" said Escad quietly, not looking at him. "An ancient curse, made to separate Jumi and human."

"I know," he replied, looking away with a frown. He also knew where the conversation was heading. He had been aware of that curse from the very beginning— it was why he never approached too many people for help, until Imu. It was also why he was trying to act distant around her.

"She's human," continued Escad, tone even.

"I know."

"What will you do if she cries?"

"I won't let it happen."

"Hm." He heard Escad stand from the bed, and watched as he approached the door. Before exiting, he turned around to face him. "After you're done using her, maybe you should leave her alone."

Elazul felt like he'd been slapped in the face. Using her? Using her? It felt like his blood was boiling in his rage; he stood quickly, his hands balled into fists, ready to punch the Holy Knight in the face. How dare he even imply that he was using Imu? Imu was not an object to be used— she was a person. He asked for her help and she agreed; he wasn't using her. He genuinely enjoyed her company and constantly worried about her and wanted to keep her safe with him at all times. They were friends and he asked her a favor, and if she asked him to do something for her, he would do it without question. He would do anything for her.

He hadn't realized he'd voiced all of these thoughts out loud until Escad's expression shifted from feigned calmness into that of wide-eyed disbelief. Then Escad gazed at him, his expression turned cold. "I really hate people who don't think they're doing anything wrong." And he left room, leaving Elazul to stare after him.

"I'm not doing anything wrong," he protested to the air, sitting back on the bed dully, "…am I?" He placed his head in his hands, sighing. He never even considered that he was using Imu. Mainly because it wasn't his intention. It was never his intention.

He could see where Escad was coming from. He knew, underneath the other man's words, that he was telling him that Imu was in danger just being with him— Escad merely shared the same worries as him. Elazul knew that, as he told himself the same things every single day, over and over. It was the reason he was always guarded and cautious of his words and actions towards her.

But to ask him to leave her alone— to stay away from her… he couldn't do that. He'd tried and failed. In the end, he'd made excuses to see her again. He would like to stay friends with her, and be part of her life, because she was already part of his.

Elazul couldn't leave Imu even if he tried. And even if he did, he would always come back. He would always be there for her. He'd decided this to himself long ago.

It had been ten days since Esmeralda's death. They spent these days in silence, but it was never like the comfortable ones Elazul shared with Pearl. Unless they were asleep or eating, there was hardly a quiet moment between him and Imu. She would always talk about anything and everything, and ask him silly questions like "what's that on your head?" or "can I touch your abs?" or "is your arm the only rock part in your body?" or "are you a rabite-person?". He would always give her a strange look, answering either yes or no to her questions, acting like he was annoyed or disgruntled, but actually quite amused. He would hide a smile by looking away from her, as though he weren't paying attention to her incessant babble.

Those ten days, agonizingly long as they were, did not have those moments. Imu was unusually quiet, always holed up in their inn room if they weren't out, or looking at something in the distance whenever they were traveling. She hardly spoke or ate, the latter being the most alarming of all. He didn't know what to do— he felt frustrated at his own uselessness. It hurt him to see her that way but he couldn't do anything about it. He could only watch as she sulked around, emitting an aura of depression wherever she went.

There were times when he just wanted to grab the girl and shake her until her sadness dispersed; this was the milder alternative to what he wanted to do most of the time— to hold her to him, and rub her back, and tell her that everything was going to be all right, that he was there for her. But he couldn't bring himself to do any of those— he couldn't even bring himself to touch her, afraid that he might somehow break her or worsen everything.

Whenever he could see her on the height of her depression, like she was going to cry, he would glare at her, channeling his anger for his own uselessness in that one gaze, hoping to at least scare her tears away. Because of the amount of times that he'd stop her from crying this way, he'd memorized the way she looked and acted like whenever she was on the verge of tears, and whenever she would stop them. He didn't like it.

"I lost a guardian before," he said to her quietly. He was sitting on his bed, fumbling with his sand mantle absentmindedly. He ran a hand through his hair uneasily, and continued. "I don't remember what happened now, or what she looked like. But I remember how… how she died, somewhat— it's one of the earliest memories I have. I was holding her in my arms, and it was the first time I heard anyone address me by my name."

Imu was silent, but he knew she was listening to him intently. He'd heard her sit up from her bed as he was talking.

"And then she vanished, like she was never there. Perhaps if I hadn't done what I did; it was careless— I rushed to the enemy, but I was too weak and she protected me. And she died for me. It was my fault. It's why I'm very protective of Pearl. I'd failed to save my first guardian—"

"But you were only trying to protect her," Imu interrupted, her voice somewhat strained. "That wasn't your fault."

"Neither is Esmeralda's death yours," snapped Elazul, a bit more forcefully than he'd intended. The silence that followed filled him with dread. He'd said the wrong thing again. "I'm sorry," he finally said after a few moments, "I just… I understand what you're going through."

There was no response from her. Heart pounding, he swiftly turned around, worried that he'd made her cry or even more depressed. What he found was a puzzled looking Imu, sitting with her legs spread across her bed, head slightly tilted and eyes wide with curiosity. "What is it?" he asked nervously.

"How old are you?"

"…what?"

"Aren't you, like, sixteen or seventeen?"

"…no." He couldn't tell what she was trying to get from this.

"Eighteen?"

"No."

"Nineteen? Nineteen and a half? Nineteen and three-quarters?"

Why was she trying to guess his age? And why were those numbers so far off, as though he couldn't be past twenty? "Imu, stop guessing. I'm eighty."

Imu's mouth dropped open unattractively, and it looked like her mind had stopped working. For a moment, Elazul worried that it had, because he'd never seen her so blanked out before, and he already knew that she wasn't leaning very well on the brains department. Until—

"B-b-but," she stammered, much to his relief. "You. And Pearl. She's your guardian."

"So?"

"You're together. You're her knight."

"Knights and Guardians are supposed to be together, yes."

"But… you're eighty." She said this as though it was the most blasphemous thing in the world to be eighty.

"That I am." He really couldn't understand what was going on in her head at the moment (not discounting several other instances). It was probably better if he never did, he decided.

"You're eighty? How can you be so old? Pearl should be like your granddaughter now or something!"

Granddaughter? The idea promptly made him laugh and he made no effort to stop it. "Pearl? My granddaughter? She's probably older than me by several hundred years. She can't be my granddaughter."

"Okay, now you're just trolling me," said Imu disbelievingly, finger pointing accusingly at him. He had no idea what "trolling" meant and was about to ask, but then decided to let her continue for his own amusement. "There is no way that a sweet young girl like Pearl can be 'several hundred' years old. It's just not logical."

"I don't think you're in any position to argue logic here, Imu," he said good-naturedly, waving his hand, "or at all, for that matter."

"Be quiet, heathen!" she spat, clearly insulted. He found her flushed face quite cute, though he denied the thought as soon as it came. "What are Jumi standards for this pair up, anyway? I mean, it's bad enough that a gentle soul like Pearl ended up with the likes of you, and now you're telling me that there's some kind of pedophilia theme here, where an eighty year old would be stalking and dragging around pretty young girls."

He stifled another laugh, using his fist to cover his mouth. How was she able to do that? The atmosphere was miserable only moments before, and now he was trying not to laugh at her annoyed words. "Firstly, the Jumi never age or grow old," he started, matter-of-factly, trying not to chuckle, "for all we know, Pearl could be one thousand years old and she'd still look like she is now. Secondly, our partnerships have little to do with how old we are. I could be anyone's knight or guardian even if I were only two years old. And lastly, do you even know what pedophilia means?"

"Of course I do!" was Imu's indignant response, face still red. "It's when there's a much older person and a really young person…" She paused, nose crinkling, and recoiled when he gave her an expectant look. "…together," she finished lamely.

"I'm much older than you and we're 'together' right now. Is this pedophilia?"

"Ew, Elazul!" she screeched, blushing even more and looking ready to inflict him bodily harm with a pillow. "You're not even eighty. Don't even think it!"

"I'm just trying to clarify your definition," he said, raising his hands in front of him soothingly, but his amusement clear in his tone. "And I am eighty."

"No, you're not," she said through gritted teeth. She then rubbed at her face, something he noticed that she always did when she'd become too flushed, and abruptly hid herself under her covers. "I'm going to bed."

"Alright," he said with an uncontrollable grin spreading on his face. "Be careful though. There's an old man in the room with you, little girl."

"GOOD NIGHT, LAZ!" she shouted under her sheets. He chuckled lightly, and responded with a quiet, "good night, Imu."

That was the first time in days that he actually had a conversation with her. It was refreshing, and he was glad that he made her feel even a little bit better, enough to be able to joke around. Perhaps he should act a little bit nicer the following days—just a little—if only to help her recover from her guardian's loss. He didn't have anyone who could do the same for him when he'd lost his, although he hardly knew what sadness felt even then. But, unlike him then, Imu could feel now, and he would be there to comfort her.

The next morning he found Imu on the floor, in a mess of sheets and pillows, her left leg the only thing remaining on the bed beside her. She'd fallen to the floor in her sleep, something she hadn't done since Esmeralda's death. During those ten long days, he'd woken up to find her on her bed, curled up in her sheets, shivering and whimpering Esmeralda's name. He'd sat beside her bed, his heart wrenching and gently squeezing her hand to comfort her. Then the following morning she would be awake before him, as though she'd never slept at all.

He wanted to laugh and cheer with relief, finding her sprawled on the floor like nothing was wrong. She was returning to her old self, if this was any indication. She might not have fully recovered from her loss, perhaps she never would, but this odd sight of normalcy meant that she was on the road back to the old Imu, at least. It made him happy.

He gingerly picked her up from the floor, sheets and all, careful not to disturb her slumber. She looked peaceful, and that was enough to make him smile. Her head limply fell onto his chest, a grin ghosting on her face. What sounded like "razz…" slipped from her lips as she curled into him, possibly for his warmth, and he could only assume she meant his nickname "Laz". His brow furrowed, feeling slightly red on the face, and hurriedly (but gently) laid her back on her bed.

"Sleep well, Imu," he whispered to her, letting go of his inhibitions for once and lightly stroking her cheek. Imu slept on, unaware, but looking a lot happier than she'd had for days.

He'd been lying there, in agony, for what seemed like eternity. He didn't know how long he'd been in this bed, because all he knew was that he was in pain. A lot of pain. Coming from his scratched core, seeping into his skin, throbbing through his veins, and knocking viciously in his skull. He felt both cold and hot, like he was being burned alive in the middle of a blizzard, and he felt like he was going to die. Sometimes he would drift into dreams filled with Jumi deaths and tears and statues and Sandra and Blackpearl, and he would wake up to this unbearable pain the next day… or was it night? He couldn't tell.

His only consolation, the only source of comfort he had was the warm presence of Imu beside him. He knew she was always there, wiping at his brows and holding his hand, and sleeping with her head on his wrist. Sometimes she would talk to him, telling him to be all right, to please recover, and he tried for her, he really did. Sometimes he wanted to squeeze her hand to tell her he was all right, that he could hear her, because often she would speak in a tone that held back tears— familiar tones that he'd heard before for Rubens and Esmeralda and him. He didn't want her to cry, not for him and not like this. He didn't want her to ever cry for him.

After quite a while he started to feel just little a bit better. When he felt Imu's presence beside him, he tried to tell her that he was alright, and that please if she could, just find Pearl for him, just to go see if she was safe. He didn't know if his message came across to her, he didn't seem to have the ability to speak properly.

When he woke up the next moment, Imu was no longer by his side. He couldn't see it, but he felt it. And he called out her name, repeatedly, sorry that he told her to find Pearl. He was being incoherent, perhaps, but he wanted to scream Imu's name, to tell her to come back to his side. He felt cold, and alone, and all sorts of things that he couldn't understand. He blindly groped beside him, looking for her comforting hand, but it wasn't there. He tried to speak, to call Imu back, to ask her to wait until he was recovered, and then they would go and find Pearl. Together.

But she wasn't there. She'd left to find Pearl for him, just like he'd asked. For a moment he was angry that she immediately did what he asked of her, yet he knew he couldn't blame her. The loss of her presence added another pain in his chest, something that he wished he just didn't feel.

"Laz, please get better. Please be alright. Please…"

He reminded himself of her words, heaving pained breath after breath.

Yes, I'll get better. I'll get better really fast.

Just please, come back to my side…

He found himself in Geo, in the shop of the strange jeweler named Alex, who they'd met during their time with Esmeralda. It looked abandoned, dusty and cold, unlike the first time he'd been here with Imu. Something led him here, though he couldn't place what is was. A faint calling in his damaged core— a pull of another Jumi, almost as though it was an instinct. Pearl had told him about it before, it was the call of the Clarius. Knights and Guardians had the same pull to each other, long ago, when the Jumi were able to cry, though now it was only for all the Jumi and the one who could still shed tears.

There was a Clarius in the room.

He thought he'd gone insane when he first felt the call. He'd felt it when he'd been about to leave Imu's home. When he'd felt better enough to stand and walk, her twin apprentices had worriedly told him that their master had gone to Geo to look for his guardian.

"We'll come with you to Geo," the boy, Bud, had said forcefully as he packed various things in his little satchel, trying in vain to fit his frying pan into it.

"We've never seen master so serious," the girl, Lisa, had supplied as she guided him to the front door. "Something must've happened. We're coming to help."

"We waited for you to recover first 'cause master will kill us if we left someone injured in the house—"

"And besides we owe you for letting Pearl out of our sights—"

"But we're worried about master—"

"We'll help you find her—"

He'd felt the slight twinge then, when he'd stepped out the door with Lisa at his side. It was an indescribable feeling, but he'd felt that he knew what he had to do; he merely had to go to the direction it was coming from. He'd known, somehow, that it led to Geo.

"No," he'd said to the twins, who both gave an angry squeak. "Imu will want you to stay here, where it's safe. I'll go by myself. I know where to find her."

"But you're injured!" Lisa had yelled as she pulled on his arm.

"You won't make it there by yourself," Bud had said on his other side.

"I'll manage," he'd said calmly. He knew Imu would never forgive him if anything happened to her apprentices, so he'd had to make sure they would stay. "Imu won't be happy to find you away from home. Do you want to upset her any more than she is now?"

"No," the twins had said together, heads hung low. There was a small contemplative pause, and then, "At least let us help you get there." They then hurriedly pulled him into Imu's monster corral. The rabite, Rabite, and the chocobo, Cloud, were grazing on the grass, while two others, a succubus and a chobin hood, seemed to be asleep by the barn. Bud then pulled Cloud towards them, much to the irritation of the bird.

"This is Cloud, you can ride him to Geo," Bud had said, his eyes staring up at Elazul's in earnest.

"Please protect master," Lisa had added as Elazul mounted the chocobo.

"I will," he'd said to them. He was grateful for the kids, and he expressed this as he left with a promise to bring back their master.

He'd ridden Cloud all the way to Geo. The chocobo seemed to know how grave the situation was, because it hadn't given a squawk of complaint towards the stranger that was riding him, despite the fact that it was hardly mild-mannered towards his own owner (though it might have had something to do with Imu's jokes of eating him). Elazul was thankful for the calmness of the bird— he was still aching all over his body during their trip.

When they'd arrived in Geo, he let the chocobo go home, and scoured the place by himself. Nothing seemed to be amiss, although he'd found himself getting drawn to one particular building.

Now that he was inside, he considered that perhaps he had gone crazy. There was no one in the room, only glass counters and old furniture and dust. He felt the pull very strongly in the room, and yet there wasn't a single soul there with him. Not a single Jumi, much less a Clarius. He slumped to the ground, pain shooting through his legs for standing too long. Was he wrong? What led him here then?

The door burst open behind him.

"Elazul?" said an all-too-familiar voice. His heart soared, and he turned around almost too fast to find Imu standing by the doorway, looking as though she'd seen a ghost.

"Imu," he responded, starting to feel a tad lightheaded from his giddiness. He couldn't explain why he was so happy to see her again, but he definitely was, and there was no use stopping such a feeling. "I heard you went to Geo to find Pearl for me."

She didn't respond. She approached him slowly, her face unreadable. He smiled, and took weak, staggering steps towards her as well.

"Thank you," he said, smiling a bit wider now, "You didn't have to—"

"You stupid idiot!" she yelled, her shoulders shaking. He almost stumbled when their eyes met— her bright green eyes were watery; and there was a tremor in her voice that he barely made out as she said, "you're walking around all injured, trying to be cool—" her voice raised a bit "—but that's just stupid."

He stared at her, feeling guilty and anxious for a variety of reasons that he couldn't quite point out. She stared back, lips pursed, eyebrows furrowed, and hands stiff and balled into fists at her sides. When she took a deep shuddering breath, he moved towards her almost automatically.

"Don't cry!" he said urgently, forgetting that he couldn't move properly. He stumbled towards her, completely unbalanced, hands flying to her shoulders. In the flurry of movement, he felt her try to catch him, a gasp escaping her lips as they collided with each other halfway. It took him a few moments to realize that they'd ended up in each other's arms.

One of his hands rested on her shoulder, while the other was on her upper arm. Both her arms were wrapped around his waist. Their cheeks were pressed together— so close that he could feel the heat rising from her neck to her face, and her hot breath in his ear. He had never been this close to her.

At the back of his head, he vaguely realized that this embrace was somehow wrong; for one, his arms should be around her waist, not the other way around. And should he really be leaning awkwardly this way, with his butt in air, when embracing someone? He also probably smelled like chocobo. Was it proper to press his chest closer to hers? No, wait, that couldn't be proper at all, no matter how soft and comfortable it felt. Different thoughts ran through his head a mile a minute; all indistinct questions about what he was doing, and what he should be doing, and what exactly was happening, and why he was enjoying it.

He couldn't tell what was what. He also felt that they shouldn't matter anyway. Perhaps it was the feel of her heartbeat on his core, and the softness of her body against his, and the smell of grass and something delightful in her hair, and the way her skin felt warm and soft underneath his fingers, that told him nothing else should matter. Why hadn't he done this before? If he knew it would feel this nice, he probably would've. He was an idiot to deny himself this.

The squeak in his ear blew all these thoughts away, and he felt Imu (regrettably) pull herself away from him. Elazul looked up, a bit dazed, blinking at her blushing face. What happened again? Where was he? Wait, was his body supposed to be hurting like this? He grimaced, finally waking up from his unexplainable trance. Perhaps he'd actually gone completely insane.

"Y-you!" screeched Imu, shakily pointing at him. He stared at her, confused and disoriented. "W-why are you here in this shop w-were you trying to steal gems to feed your lonely penguin kittens goodbye?"

"What?" he said outright. He was already confused enough as it was; would it kill her to make sense for once?

Imu continued to babble incoherently at him, wide-eyed and flushed, waving her arms around doing weird, nonsensical gestures.

At the back of his head, he vaguely thought of their hug. It was awkward and out of nowhere, yet—he considered this particular thought as crazy—he enjoyed it. It wouldn't bother him if it happened again, though he knew he shouldn't think this way; he shouldn't let one little hug disregard his efforts to act distant from her.

Yet Imu looked particularly adorable as she babbled on, flustered, with her cheeks a lovely shade of pink, that he couldn't stop himself from backtracking.

Perhaps, he would give her another hug later. It shouldn't hurt. Maybe he could claim it was an accident.

"What I'm trying to say is," said Imu, finally able to speak lucidly, "what were you doing here?"

Elazul looked at her briefly, trying to hide a smile.

Later.

Imu took his hand in hers, and held it close to her chest. "…I love you."

Elazul froze with shock. She said she loved him. What? Why? How? His mind worked with a million thoughts a minute, the idea of her confession sending his thoughts in complete disarray. Did she mean as a brother, or as a friend? Or as something else? She told him three simple words that felt like he could take ages to finally understand and respond to.

But he didn't have that time.

"I'll bring her back for you," she continued. She squeezed his hand tightly, her breath hitching. "This… this is the only thing I can do for you now…"

She locked her gaze with his— her tear-filled eyes with his confused and fearful ones. And slowly, a sad smile spread across her face. The little crinkle in her eyes as she smiled allowed a single teardrop to slide down her cheek. "…to cry for you."

NO!

Flesh turned to a stone gray in front of his eyes. The fingers that held his hand rapidly lost their warmth and their softness; all that remained was coldness of a lifeless stone.

The ancient curse of the Jumi has turned Imu into stone.

His mouth opened in a silent scream. Everything came crashing back down on him. The world felt as though it had crumbled around him— his worst fear had come to fruition. Her single teardrop was all it took for his whole world to end right in front of him. His chest burned with so much emotion that it seemed he was about to burst. His hand came free from hers without his notice— he balled it into a fist and held it against his mouth as he let out a single, muffled cry of anguish. Her name.

Imu.

x—

"Elazul?"

Imu?

"Elazul, wake up."

No.

"Elaaazuuul."

He felt something shaking him gently, and forced his eyes open to find his guardian, Pearl, looking down at him with a smile.

"Pearl?" he said groggily, feeling a slight ache on his back. He'd fallen asleep on the floor beside Imu's stone statue, he realized. How long had he been here? He wiped at his eyes, and felt bits of crusts falling from and stinging at his eyes. "Ugh," he grunted, displeased. He'd also fallen asleep while crying, or probably cried in his sleep.

"Are you awake now?" said Pearl, dropping to her knees to push his hair out of his face. "Florina wants to meet us in the chamber room." She smiled brightly then, brighter than she'd ever had since she was revived. "It's important."

He looked up at her, mildly curious. Florina never called them for anything, much less anything "important". It couldn't be about this… could it? "What is it?"

"Hm-hmm, you'll see," said Pearl in a sing-song voice. She was definitely happy. He stood up and watched his guardian walk to the door. "I'll be waiting for you outside," she said to him, and then turned to the statue beside him, "see you later, Imu." And she left, closing the door behind her.

Elazul looked at the door for a few moments, slightly perplexed. Then, not wanting to keep his guardian waiting, he turned to Imu, pressing his forehead to hers.

"I'll see you later," he whispered softly. He stroked her cheek gently, imagining warmth that should be there. He smiled sadly, his chest twisting painfully. He sighed. "I won't be long."

He then turned around and walked through the door without looking back.

It would have been harder to leave if he did.


Should have known then, what I know now…
Dying every second that you're not around
Should have been there, when you needed me…
Now I'm by myself, on my bended knees
Should have loved you, while I had the chance to…
Couldn't realize that you were the truth
Should have shown you, what you meant to me…

"My Regret" - Banky


Disclaimer: Refer to first chapter.

Not exactly my favorite chapter. I wavered a lot while writing this, even scrapping the version that I already finished (6k words). It might seem inconsistent and just…not too pleasurable to read. It's school time again, so I guess I'm a bit distracted. D: Sorry (about the length too—lul short chapters are wat—and the delay).

Soooo… Elazulxheroine = UST. Kids, this is what happens when you don't express yourself properly to your loved ones the first chance you get. But Elazul ends up unintentionally showing that he cares anyway. The more I write, the more I love this couple. :'D ANGST ILU

Soap! Thanks for reading! :3 Please review (they let me know you actually read it; and they inspire me)! Special thanks to Shadow's Rage, I'm Doxophobic, ari, Saya, isil-ando and ManaGirl for making me feel welcome in the world of fanfics! :3 (How do I respond to anon reviewers? D:) Also Seonaid Mist, for letting me write this (that 'heathen' thing is a shout out to you xD). ilualllol

PS- Elazul rode Cloud. GET IT? LOL

Final PS- Cookies to anyone who finds an unintentional double-entendre by Imu hanging around. And then consider that Escad has a 2-H sword and Elazul a 1-H one. Mull that around for a bit. FOOD FOR THOUGHT LOL