I'm alive guys, but barely. It's graduation and 9-5 reality. Also, was in Japan for a month - I had wanted to go since I was 11. Wrote an essay about it, kid you not! Here's finale, sequel later. Fin.


Five

VI.

01. I did love you, one day then,

Cling, cling.

The ring bounces twice, and defiantly. Twirling only a few times more to finish its dance, it falls onto its side, echoing in the chamber.

Shadows rush and bleed black, darkening the corners and hollows of an angry man's face. Swallowing painfully, limbs vibrating with suppressed fury, his threatening baritone holds the silence in limbo.

"This . . . is what you do to my love?"

"Love is patient; love is kind. This . . . is not love."

If hatred could take form, so it swirls invisibly about his shoulders, threatening to swallow him whole. Edged talons caress her shoulders and leave her shivering in fear.

Shakes her head, wavy locks tapping her cheek – then swings back to gently touch the other. Voice quaking, she whispers, "You don't manipulate people you love."

He twitches, taking a step toward her. Atmosphere spiraling dangerously, she folds her arms as if to mold herself into something, anything, protective. A cocoon, a chrysalis; a mausoleum, a straightjacket. Whatever provides a welcome escape from a living lie and too-vivid daydreams of impossible happiness.

"Ahim-"

"Don't!" She cuts across the beginning of his apologies. This is how it always goes.

Fast, soundless, he is around her, forcing himself into her space with wavering, furious breaths as careful fingers cradle her wrist. Revulsion dots her arms in goosebumps, flows among every vertebrae in her spine like a roaring current. Ringing takes up residence in her ears and she begins to turn away from him, digust in her gaze.

(The young soldier is unawares, walking down the hallway to look for his princess. Not his, of course, and he has no particular feelings about this new assigning, but she is sweet to him …)

"Do not touch me!"

He continues, fingers trailing down her tiny forearm. A touch of insanity adds décor to his response: "You make me do this, you know."

(He had only left her alone for a second, and after all, it was her fiancée who made him …)

The princess takes advantage of his loose grip and throws herself to the side, hoping to escape his grasp. Too bad his fingers catch her fast and

Snap!

Her wrist to pieces.

The soldier will be forced out of her life long before the war and the fire, the King and Queen's deaths, and the crumbling of a kingdom. Meanwhile, trauma rips the image of her smiles and pain out of his memory for days and years to come.

(He knows little of love and lies, but he knows this isn't it—)

The princess' fiancée stares straight into the young soldier's eyes, gaze flat as his fingers release her wrist and she collapses into a heap, a sack of ragdoll bones.


02. But all grand affairs must end.

Luka sets the whiskey glass on the railing of the crow's nest, biting her lip to keep her pain inside.

"You, out of all of our friends, know every part of me."

Luka cannot even feel eased by that truth. Nervously picking up the glass again, she throws back the rest and says bluntly, "All of your shadows, but nothing of your heart."

Ahim's elbow slides over to touch hers, dark locks undulating and curling again in the wind. Tapping Luka's face, asking for a glimpse into her soul.

"I tried, Luka, I did," Ahim whispers, the tiniest hint of a sob teetering in her throat. "I really am beyond fairytales now."

"I'm no shining example of purity, Ahim. Don't blame yourself."

"Well, there are different ways to love," the princess says cautiously, removing the cap from the bottle and pouring more liquid amber for her companion. Spilling feelings with silence and drowning them in liquor's sting, the safest method. Luka raises it to the sky, observing the stars twinkling through the clear curve of the glass. One in particular burns feverishly bright, straining her irises and overwhelming her pupils. "Being on a crew of very different people, living together, I know that now."

Luka throws her free arm around the princess, pulls her close and tries to smile. It will become easier with time, but for now, it is a futile mask. Besides, she does know Ahim well enough to know where her heart is – it hurts to know it is not hers anymore.

Luka did not notice the second glass. Ahim raises it to her lips and coats them with strong whiskey, savoring the taste of a very different substance than the wines on which she was raised.

And turning slowly, she presses them to Luka's forehead in a smile.


03. Used you to fill all my voids,

Doc sighs heavily, eyes following Gai's excited dance on the sidewalk. Perspiration bubbles at his hairline and underneath curly blonde locks, threatening to spill; but, in poised fashion, it manages to hold.

"How you have all this energy is beyond me!" he bursts out, attempting to hike the countless shopping bags higher onto his shoulders. Instead, it unbalances him and they all shuttle down his dark green sleeves to weigh on his wrists. With another frustrated whine, he drops them onto the ground. "Are you excited about this?"

"It's just another adventure," Gai shrugs, finally choosing to restrain himself. A lost piece of trash swirls in the air, turning over itself and skitters across the sidewalk. Dry, scraping sounds distract him, but he returns his gaze to his companion. A bit of hyperactive heroism swirls in his bright eyes. "And anyway, the Captain says we're moving, so we'll move."

"I know it's necessary, and safer."

"Especially for Ahim." Gai's eyes follow another crumpled piece of paper.

"For all of us, if this creep is as dangerous as she said." Making an unpleasant pouting face, he shakes his head. He lets out a small yelp as more stray paper lands flat across his face, slapped against his skin by the unusual wind.

Gai drops his bags and for a second, tries to accommodate Doc's flailing. With a dramatic flourish, he rips the paper from his face and turns it to the side with a blown up photograph.

A sharp intake of breath.

"Ugh, this city could use a lesson in trash collecting-"

"Ahim-san!"

"She's back at the ship-"

"She's on here!" Gai exclaims, shoving the paper back in Doc's face. "Ooof!"

A weighty stack of leaflets, tied with string, lands on Gai's head and bounces off – he stumbles into Doc and they crash into the concrete in a tangle of limbs. Wrongly-placed elbows and knees cause them to struggle, curses punctuating the mess. Finally, Gai jumps to his feet and brandishes the photograph; underneath, the words "WANTED" and "TRAITOR" are emblazoned brightly, and further still, "Capture."

"You think it could be that guy?" Doc asks in a wavering voice, placing his thumb on Ahim's black and white photographed cheek. "This doesn't make sense … we're all wanted, I wonder what he's trying to do?"

A sharp whistling sounds in his ears, grows louder, closer, and suddenly Gai shoves him to the ground again with a strangled cry. Doc only sees a fleeting flash of silver and the catch of the sunset light before nuzzling the concrete.

Sputtering, he says, "What did you do that for?!"

Carefully, Gai turns to the wall of the building running parallel to the street, looking distressed. A photograph is pinned, the point of a just-polished blade stuck fast.

Right between her eyes.

"They can see us," Gai whispers loudly, yanking Doc to his feet for the second time.

"We need to go, now, back to the ship," the blonde responds, voice pitching horribly.

"He knows where she is. She's not safe."

He starts off at a haphazard run, pink scarf flapping behind him. His companion struggles to keep up, managing to pant out: "But – she's with the Captain – and Luka – and Joe! She'll – be –safe!"

Gai speeds up, nursing a troubled expression. None of us can lose you, Ahim-san. Me, either.


04. And here I crave you,

Time is steadily convincing him that he has lost his mind.

The color surrounding her, cradling flushed and round cheeks, is bright and has not faded. Not even a shade. It follows her everywhere, tantalizing, playing on the hems of her frilly skirts and bouncing in a forest of dark, black loops of hair. Once in a while, it lingers in the room as would a faint scent of perfume or fruit, trailing away as she occupies new space.

The present invades his imagination.

"I figure I know what's wrong. You probably think you don't deserve her, and you don't know if any of this is right."

Joe hates when Luka takes words out of his head. It is exactly what he can imagine her doing: Knocking him over with a harsh laugh and reaching her fingers into his ears; they're attuned to glitter and shine, but maybe that is what emotions look like, too. Perhaps that is why she can find them so easily. Which would be ridiculous, he knows. Still, Luka handles him with more care than is deserved.

"I'll share somethin' with you, Joe. Love makes you feel like an idiot."

There's more color than there used to be.

"Someone up there is laughing at me, I'm sure of it. Just like the day I failed to save my sister. Someone loves watching us get everything wrong."

But a shadow lingers near the edge of the surrounding aura – terrors from the past try to trip up the determined princess.

"You're about to collide with her past," Luka warns. For once, Joe does not catch her elbow that comes up to jab his ribs. He is concentrating on wiping his mind clean of unnecessary thought. Pretending he does not love anyone, does not need anyone.

A shadow claws at the edges of her aura – the princess senses it, and so does Joe. For an inexplicable, unexplainable reason, he is more than ready to meet this man from her past.

Color still reigns.


05. And now I'll save you.

The captain barely breathes as he shoves forkfuls of meat and rice into his gullet; he nearly chokes when Ahim sprints into the room holding fire.

With a screech, she throws it to the ground as Marvelous trips over his chair in haste. Yanks her pink coat from the hooks while the rest of them crash to the floor in echoes of loud zippers and chains. Using hers to throw over the fire, she beats it furiously with bare fists.

Smoke lingers over the wooden deck as the captain tries to lift her from the floor. "AY, gave me a god-damn-heart-attack—"

"He did it, I know he did it, he did it—"

"Quit yer babbling for a sec!"

Joe and Luka are running down the stairs, both with weapons in hand. They slowly lower them, and the swordsman takes slow steps toward the princess, who flings her coat away to gingerly grab a charred mass of paper. Burnt, scorched curls of material fall to the floor and tighten, flake. When she touches them, they collapse into microscopic fragments and die.

"This . . . was the last written account of Famille history. I found it while wandering alone in the wreckage." A tear hovers on her cheek, slides, lands in the middle of the fragile remains. It forges a disintegrating path through the pages. Deep dark eyes, that which swallow flame and light, flash. "And he knew."

Joe silently kneels next to her, only daring to take her elbow. He murmurs to her alone, "How would he get in here?"

She swallows. "I don't know."

And then, she remembers. Without warning, she leaps to her feet and takes off in the direction of the cabins.

A beat, and then they follow her.

In her doorway, she is a statue of stone. A specter lingers, flattening her sheets, poisoning the air. The porthole window is thrown open wide, clothes and the very few belongings she has strewn on the floor and desk.

"He took the ring."

Luka wraps her fingers carefully over Ahim's shoulder, squeezes.

"The wedding ring."

Joe shoves past the girls furiously, his sword hand shaking as it grips the hilt. He can feel the other man in the air, in the presence he's left.

"What does he want, Ahim?" Marvelous demands. "Money? Power?"

"Sounds like the idiot is dying for a fight," Luka hisses.

"Well 'e'll get one all right," the captain snaps, angrily shoving his pistol back into his belt.

Joe follows Ahim's gaze as the rest of the room fades away and her eyes focus on her white pillow. Pristine, glowing, a perfect backdrop to the vivid object resting on it.

The rose pulsates with a dazzling, frightening energy, beckoning her to the past and all the pain she thought she had left behind.

She steps forward, grasping the back of Joe's jacket. Twisting her fingers, fear pouring from her grip and stealing across the canvas of his skin. Crawling. Closing in around his chest and lungs. In a quiet breath, scarce above a whisper:

"He wants me."