Go Not Gently

Chapter Thirteen - The Difference Of Existing

It was called the hour of travesty, which is all wrong because it was approximately one hour twenty-two minutes and fifty seconds by Gaia's reckoning.

In part.

The only part anyone cares about, really, the overthrowing of the world, the great Blackness - and most of that was flying, through a night as thick and dark and hot as tar, blind-enclosed in a self-made womb as we followed the fire of my Summoning. Necron had appeared like weapon and boiled the seas near the continental shelf, and though there was the sort of hazy knowledge that if we were slow he would destroy things, my mind could have cared less. I plead guilty by virtue of insanity, judgement Necron, and madness was fiery and ferocious and free and for me there were no more tears. I had spent the last few months weeping, copiously, and now I felt a little bit more like the wild girl redux of Eiko Carol Aged Six.

We touched hands, hollering and whooping like swallows back from winter, him one long piercing call through the night as I gave war yells. Our voices were cracked, unlovely, stupid, we were drunk on magic, white-mage black-mage in the primordial soup of Death. Our children were dead. We flew.

"Vivi!" I yelled to the black crow in the dead darkness, "Vivi - "

"What, linden-bloom, angel-love, white-wife? I want to eat Necron's heart."

"I want his tongue."

"I want his eyes."

"I want his flesh."

"That's an awful lot of f-flesh, Eiko. You'll get fat - "

"I'm skinnier than you are, scarecrow!"

The slipstream of our Trance carried us as he did a slow roll, me on my back and him on his front, our arms and legs extended like starfish so that we could touch our fingers and I could look into the madness of his face. We reflected each other, lost, Black Tango and White Tango, heartless and tangled in each other's puppet-strings. I something like loved him. I adored him, I worshipped him, I loathed him to the very center of my being, I wanted him, we wrapped around each other like snakes and I combed out his long Kuja-red hair with my fingers.

"Sometimes I feel like I am two shadows," he murmured to me, mouth a tattooed heartburst of scars only lit by our own halo trancelight. We bled magic, it arced from our flight in long clouds of rainbow stars as my ferocious unicorn-long pearlhorn threatened to spear his hat off from my hands. "Orunita and Tango, Viviblack, merging in to one another, touching when you touch me, the dead and the living. I am a ghost, graveflower."

He is worse than a ghost. -

- Sod off, Madeen.

"You do talk shit," I said, mad with gaiety, and my legs tangled around his hips and in the yards of leather from his jacket and his six wings barely flagging as he carried my weight. I dangled, hips loose, reaching down so my fingers could brush the clouds and my muscles could stretch in limbered anticipation of the fight ahead. I felt like I was made out of sparks. "I wish he was here to watch us - "


"Zidane, Zidane, who else - "

"I would still crack open his head and eat his wriggling brains," he sang to the sky, "brains, meninges, skull-and-lymph - would you beg him to marry you, Carol, the villainess-heroine of the day? Would he leave Garnet for you? Would he take off your clothes?"

"You are a jealous bastard, it would be - it would be - would it be adultery? Do I have to go to him? You already have a tail!"

Death was close now. Some organ within me called to him, owned him, was unsteady master of the untamed entity, the foolish caller ready to be summoned whole. Every so often I would curl and spasm in Tango's grip, bones and jellied flesh as some kind of fit of electricity ran through me, spiritual epilepsy as Necron silently howled both derision and victory. It was my memory that summoned him, and it was pulling me apart; I was already in pieces. Beneath my spine I could dimly feel the love-abandoned hands of my Eidolons as - like pallbearers - they carried me forward, they carried me to Death, they carried me and he carried me, it will live with me until I die.

"I want him to see what we do," I cried suddenly, the wind whipping at my green hair. "I want everyone to see what we do, I want everyone to - oh, Gods, Vivi, if we pull this off we can go home together, you can meet Papa - "

Hi, Papa. Here's my husband. He owns his own palace and everything.

" - you can meet Elia, everyone, you can take the black off, Garnie, Freya, Amarant, Steiner, Beatrix, Mama, Quina, cities and villages and breakfast in the mornings, magic to feed the hungry, magic to cure the dying, we can do something with the rest of our lives - it'll all be all right again - will it ever be all right again, Vivi?"

"Some black never comes off, linden-bloom," he said, "the only black that came off came off on you." And there was silence.

And then there was

I exist

My fingers wept sweat into the shoulders of his coat and my wings shivered in the dark, we were skimming over the sea, we were skimming into the awareness of something that ate at the moon. My insides jangled, I could have pissed defiance, I pressed against my black mage as if in something far more intimate and he hissed. My heart was silence; my skin was crawling off me, and the darkness threatened to swallow me whole. I had been afraid when I had been six when the shimmering gaze of Necron fell towards me; now I was twenty and I was past fear, past suffering, past sanity. My wand was in my teeth like I was some kind of pirate, and I spat spells: regeneration, shell, reflect, double-reflect, float float float like a feather on the sea. n(xv)d, .9999999 -

for only one purpose

I exist only to kill. (Skip in time, Rain, it's coming.)

loosed from the final dimension

I exist only to live. (I lived this long.)

I am become the zero world.

I exist only to create. (There's something in my belly which isn't just pain.)

You defied me once; you are deluded. You fear death

I exist only to destroy. (I've broken things enough to know.)

and life, in one breath, and would ask me

I exist, isn't that enough?

to uncoil the ropes. All things live to perish.

It is incontrivertable, unturnable, unavoidable, and

though I existed limited at the fringes of time, I have

returned. I am the Eternal Darkness.

Thank you for your greed, Summoner.

Now I can finish what you have begun.

"You know what I desire," Tango said, and he pulled away from me, and we danced in midair like two motes as his coat curved out from him with the heat of his voice. We were lit and blinded by the interlocking web of It, the death-machine, the engine at the heart of the universe. There was no more Gaia; it wavered and shimmered, like the heatwave, until there was only ocean as if the planet was covered in it once more. And even then the waves stopped: they were cold and grey and rocky, hard and unforgiving, and a full mile beneath us. "You know who I demand. You know what I offer, you know the penance I give. You know who I am, Nothing."


"Give it to me now, Nothing!"

You wish to be with your children again.

That is very mortal of you, Vivi.


Kuja's blood and Kuja's bone. Your existence

proves my theory of the nature of the living,

as your copy did before you.

You choose destruction. You have always

chosen destruction, you have never given


"Who are you to judge?" Vivi jeered, both of us suddenly buffeted by a rising wind, crazy fledglings barely able to stand against it. Zidane had been sixteen when he first faced Necron - had he been that young? Had his head been that young? His hands were ancient, limitless - and Tango and I were infant, alone. We were the halves facing the whole. White Tango, Black Tango. "Who are you to be pious? You are the matrix who drowns the world to make it clean! You are death, you are life, and you understand neither nature! It will be mine, life will be mine, death will be mine, I will overcome you as I did before."

You have never given anything, death nor

life. You have overcome neither, life nor

death. You hold on to a mimicry and are

yourself a mimicry; your whole life is a

copy, you glorify in your role to work and

breed and die. You have signed away

everyone, and everyone's everything,

all for the perversion of a memory in the

form of defective dolls.

But I will be kind, as the Summoner offered me

this boon;

I will send you to join them.

(The body recoils from the attack on Death. The soul apologises.)

The trick is, Zidane had said, long ago, to keep moving; keep moving, keep moving, c'mon! Go, kids. We did Deathguise. We did Tiamat. We did Nova Dragon. We did - him - I - keep moving, go. And Eiko and Vivi had moved; still smoking from Kuja's star-choked Flare, around and around with summoner's sweat running down the little girl's face as the heat of a thousand spells rebounded off her Reflect. Vivi shone and dazzled like a star, until she was almost afraid of him - almost, too dry on the inside from too many battles, too used to the shock of it - and they were all afraid of him, he lived on fear, he drank by the bankside from new-white hands and thought about being used as a weapon. He thought about Steiner, and swords, and fear, and how afraid Steiner would be if the magic swallowed past the sword into the leaking guts of his solid-muscled body, and he splashed the water all over his face. Eiko! Vivi! Now!

(It's become something like my Angel Flute, my piece of a - did I take it from a dresser? It seems like a thousand years ago - the vines have wrapped around my wrist, I couldn't let go if I tried, persimmons and roses and maybuds and pears. We move like feathers in a tailwind, slipping in soaped arcs, Meteor one-three-five. It's harder this time. The reflection choreography never quite works the way it should. Tango has enough power in him to destroy the sky, but to limit it to destroy something smaller dilutes the fire. He should have burnt the world, held out his hands and)

They were the only ones who everybody would block with their bodies. Freya would move, pike outstretched, to take a wicked lash across her front; Amarant would let acid wash his back and bellow curses in ungrateful pain. Quina would wobble to the fore and take lashes with its bulk. Zidane was always there, scooping them out of the way, rolling and ducking and making heavy landings; and Garnet, who could barely take them herself, and Steiner who sounded like a tincan orchestra under attack. Save the children. Save 'em for something better, not that there is anything better, 'cause there's no turning back from this point. They were barely children; hard-faced Eiko, fire-handed Vivi, loud and strong and angry and battle-blistered. Eiko remembered the Summoner's Wall, the dying promise of a nation to two seeds, Madeen who was half her creation and half something else that had walked through time and come back empty-handed.

(fried it up. Thank every God, but the Eidolons don't need coaxing now. Fenrir bites, howls, would take my hand off but savages the All-Consumer; around and around and around, touching hands in furious reassurance of each other, my hands on his back as we merge meld recover. The seas are concrete swirls of dark icing on some cake, clouded, misty, thick with salt; breathing is nigh-on poison in the wake of Necron's Grand Cross. It is slow, laborious, for us two fireflies. We are the women at the well who drain it with a thimble, the men at the desert who shovel away the sand, the queen at the loom who unpicks her tapestry and starts again at)

They never asked for this. They had never asked to be born. Motherless; fatherless; each with a single grandsire, the decaying wound of a people's wisdom, dying exiles who sent each out into the world with a sigh and a prayer. They were bred each other's parallel, each other's negative, - Eiko had written it all down when she was sixteen and thought about that kind of thing in the mental tears of the shaken adolescent, even one who abandoned her weaknesses at the doors of the palace and cranked the engines of airships. Her pen had moved at the exact same time as Vivi's, who used a feather plucked from his mouldering wings, countless calculations in the mathematics of life. She had gained parents; he had gained children; they had both transformed from the little scavengers they once were, taking any affection where they could get it, clambering into Amarant's lap when he was too tired to bat them away with his heavy-huge hands and sleeping until dawn. They had both become engineers. They had both become mages. They both Summoned, in their own way; she took hers from the aether, and he his from the chemicals of the Mist and his own doll-making hands. The Black Mages were never his children. The Eidolons were never her parents.

(the beginning; his Firaga sizzles my hair to rank-smelling nothing and his wrist is broken from the sheer snap of air velocity when pounded back from an ill-timed blast of Necron's Doomsday. I can tell; he holds it in his glove close to his hip, slightly hanging, twisted and difficult. Shadow magic always makes my mouth taste like vomit. Trying to set his bones into a position where I can cure them back is something else; we're bent and he snarls, both of us trying to move out the way at the same time, blinded by the blue, red featherhair whipping at my torn cheeks as I hold his bones together. Abandoning the world to total obliteration, a single surface Flare, is no longer an option; he sucks magic from the Final Nothing like a baby from a nipple, greedy-desperate.

"Madeen," I wail, "Mog, God, help us," and the seas are churned by Terra Homing.

"I miscalculated," Tango snarls into my neck, wrist melting-hot between my palms.

"Shhh, scarecrow," I whisper, both of us buffeted by icy winds. It's storm-dark interspersed with foxfire light, bright and hot as the luminens lights they put up in Treno, brain-blinding. "Shhh. It'll be all right, a little more, suck it sweet and we'll split the marrow from his bones."

"I miscalculated and I raped you mad," he says, and he)

The tiny hot grain in the back of Black Tango's mind that is himself when he was younger wonders about children; and about the numbers that maybe were never expected to add up, and about the downfall of the Black Mages, whose final bite of the apple was to move away from the symbiosis of the White. All the world has feared them, always; magic runs no more explosive or deadly than Black. It was humans who first dyed it Red, the men; the women were always White, a stock that ran naked and redheaded from the forests in the primeval soup of the beginning of life and opened their hands and Cured. Together they lived in their little villages away from the petty day-to-day of humanity, a breed all of their own, the true-blood mystics and the black-dark mages and they were hated but you could not touch them. Why did Mages have black faces? Was it modesty? Why did the Healers wear white? Humility? Did they breed? How did they do it? The Black Tango part that is older said fucking, it is always all about fucking, but he made his children from clay like the Unnamed God did and they crumbled cooling from the oven. He is flesh and Mist; they were mist; he is the symbiont, the missing key, Eiko Carol the usurper and the bully and the left-behind and the lock. Maybe he has gotten this wrong. He would not be surprised. He has always been imperfect. He exists to only, he Exists to only, he exists To and Only and there is so much more.

(bites my shoulder until I bleed through Rain's thick coat; my Regeneration practically knits his damn teeth up in my skin, me whimpering without remonstration. "I miscalculated and we will both be eaten like mealy grapes, and the world an orange, the moon an apple. Terra a - T-Terra a - "

"So what if we die? We die together, we always do - I wanted to die when you died, before, I wanted to go away and be eaten up and fall into an engine and sink like my necklace, so many beads and not enough string - don't leave me, Tango, fuck you and don't. Terra's dead and if we die, we die!"

The screams from Necron's eternally tortured dead pierced the gloom; we dived to narrowly miss his sinking right hand to crush us in its clutches, wheeling down like birds near the grey sea. My Float keeps us adrift, pummeled into pain by the whip of water against our wounds, skimming as one stone.

"Terra's dead, Carolthing," he says, hot against my bones. "Terra's dead and so are my children, Stopped, listless, one point of freedom and nothing in their names. I called the first one Bibi, years and years ago. My children are gone. She told me that much. My children are gone."

"Don't you want to hold them again? Don't you think I want to hold them again?"

There are teeming hundreds of dead fish bobbing to the surface of the thrashing ocean, dead whales, dead dolphins, dead sea-things - Leviathan was probably howling in Garnet's head - death everywhere, death unstoppable, our death. Tango's eyes shimmered, goldviolet-red, hideous, distant as a faraway sun; and he laughed. "I raped you mad, meadowsweet, it seemed like a good idea at the time, and now you're dying - ")

I exist only to kill does not oppose I exist only to live. It opposes I exist only to make. Vivi has failed as creator, found wanting, found unworthy. I exist only to kill. To blow the world up would be restful; relaxing; a slow turning-down of bedsheets and climbing into a soft bed at the end of a very long day, taking off his hat and putting it by the bedside, taking the candle and snuffing it out between thumb and forefinger. He would smooth the eiderdown, and rest his head down on the pillows, and look up at the ceiling with the night all around him in quiet-soft breathlessness; the murnurous haunt of cicadas outside the window, the guttering lamplights. Death is all he has ever wanted, ever desired, above and beyond the call of batches and batches of spoiled saplings he grew like mould in basements - death, death, everything death -

I exist only to die.

(Another strike. Heat bubbles over our skin, melts our eyelashes, burns us black like minstrels as mages in some village comedy. He goes limp in my arms; both of our tension is gone, sentenced to death and the hangman's noose, bubbling up in us like water from a rock.

We can't defeat him. The knowledge sinks over us, final, forever. Not like this. It's over, this way.

"To destroy Death, the final Thing, the Named and the Quartered - "

"I can't unsummon him, Tango, he won't go back; I don't have the power, I never did - "

" - I have to destroy the world, linden-bloom, queen of spades, for planets we don't even know - "

"Scarecrow," I say, slow, soft, both of us barely missed again by a Necron not so interested in destroying us flies as gazing hungrily across to the peninsula of the Mist continent and the tender heart at the core of the world. All he is is a tick; a flea; a parasite - "Vivi, don't, there's another way. It can all be all right. It can all be all right. You have to destroy the world, to destroy him:)

He exists only to die and something within him grasps her, wants to pull her apart, wants to feel her all over and cram her in his mouth. He didn't know if that was love, still doesn't. He doesn't know if he ever knew what love was. All he knows is that he is full of her, Eiko-tasting bile, both of them One Being; the Final Mysteries of virginity and sex and the blackmage-whitemage symbiote, both of them Tango, both of them dancing the last dance. He exists only to die, but, but, maybe he can still save -

(...it doesn't need to be this one."

Another pause, another laugh, brilliant and sweet until we're both laughing and dying and bleeding to each other and his wrist is broken again. Both of us are broken, flopping, cracked pieces of clockwork, golems. Hysterics. Blue skies and green fields and everything sweet and good, hot porridge in the mornings, glasses that don't break, cities filled with stars.

"Let me calculate it, Princess," he says. "Let me number it up inside my head; let x be Terra, let y be Necron-nothing, let me be the portal that joins them. Let Cornelia grow up to be a queen. Let Tribal and Garnet grow old in their beds.")

He can still be saviour.

("Do you forgive them, Vivi?"

"No; never; yes; do you think I can give forgiveness, Carol? Do you think I have it left in me? I'm a ball of dust. I'm a black hat. I'm a - "

"You're my husband," I say, "shut the fuck up," and I kiss him.)

He can still save her.

(On Terra we can kill him. On Terra Vivi can take my hands, and I can give him everything I have; my body, my magic, my soul, my self, and he can boil that up and everything will be white-hot rain and final, lasting, Ultima, I'd do this for him, I'd give, he knows, he knows, he knows. We can destroy Death. We will destroy Death. We will have him on two knees and die ourselves, and I'm ready - I've never been readier - me and the baby, it doesn't matter, alpha gamma omega. On Terra it won't matter, and Cornelia can sleep in her bed and wiggle the covers off and let her tail beat tattoo on the sides of the mattress-protector. The world will come to grips again. We'll kill a Planet already killed, an enemy we already destroyed, and it will be)

He broke and pillaged her. She can still save herself.

(all right again. We do the maths, both of us, me correcting his numbers, shaping his equations, rising up through the grey blanket of soft sodden clouds to the sky; there is no moon, there are no stars, there are no southern lights. There has never been a portal this big created on the fly, and we dance it around Necron, both of us - this is magic we can do, ripping open the fabric of the air, jars in the night, like the first portal he ever made when he set fire to Lindblum with me hot on his heels. Even with our broken bones we did it - Vivi was a grandchild of Terra, son of its son, heir to the grave-world and it answered his call. Gaia in her death throes knew her heroes; she gave it to us, the mile-wide tear with Terra's leaden sky, like a lightning-bolt in the endless storm.

Yes! -

What is this foolish thi

Drips of it rose past us, the dead creatures of the ocean, everything slowly following Necron's inexorable sucking descent into the vortex. Clouds. Fishes. The darkness, lightening, him and me slowly caught in the wake, dislocated wings straining to outstretch in our ascent to follow Death. I laughed in my black mage's arms, treading the wind, aching to go up and leave it all behind; he pulled my arms down and we hovered in the vacuum.

"We have to go, scarecrow," I said. "The portal will)

If it is one thing, he cannot stop looking at her. Her hair is burnt to curled, fragile shreds; green as gardens, green as hills, her eyes green and her thin face ashen and her unicorn's horn prouder than a crown. His child's coat is ripped almost off her, her boy-body, and each of her big toes is broken on both feet. She held him close like a knife at her side, and she hurts his eyes, she hurt to look at.

She is White Tango, and she is the only thing the world has ever given him. He wanted to rip her to pieces, to stop the burning at his eyes.

(suck us drier than bones."

The gaping maw above us twists, yawns, yearns. The ocean below us was bluer, now, the all-consuming darkness ebbing, and he held my grazed hands in his ripped gloves. His bright insane smile was a scar in his ruined face, and suddenly he looked older than twenty; thirty; forty, timeless, ancient.

"Linden-bloom," he whispered, "tell me about a windmill."

"... Tango - We're going to miss the fucking portal, you idiot - "

"Blossom-bride, tell me about a windmill or I will rip off your mouth."

He looked as if he didn't know how to say it any more; it was hollow, empty, shaking inside his throat, the smile fixed as if it had been painted there. It shivered, cracked, and his hand very gently closed around my throat, patches of calloused skin through the worn holes in the black leather and my jaw working against them both. "There's a windmill in Dali," I gurgled, pathetic. "Scarecrow, what are you doing - "

"You've never seen the windmill, Eiko?"

"No." Everything was sapping away from me, lights dancing in front of my eyes, the roar of the portal whirling around us both. His lips were very close to mine; I could feel his breath on the blue of them, and suddenly I was more afraid than I had ever been in my life - not afraid for being done in by the last choke of the Lindblum Strangler, but afraid of something else, something worse. I started to feebly kick in his holding, his embrace, his shins and his groin but my legs were like a rag flower's. "No, Tango, I never saw that - that d-damned - windmill - ")

She'll never stop burning. She is the knife in his belly. She is written on his eyelids.

(And then I worked out what he was doing. There really were lights dancing in front of my eyes.

"No!" Kicking, his hands dropping, my Trance dropping, caught around my waist lest I fall from lack of wings, draining slowly in the fire of his Osmose. "Fuck you! Put it back! I'm coming with you! You can't do it by yourself, you black-coated feathery arse! Put it back!"

"I exist for one purpose," he murmured, low and sweet, bright and refilled from me and suddenly as empty as a shell washed up on the beach. "I exist only to - it used to be so simple, linden-love, it used to be clear. Just me and my children and the death of the world. Then you got among all my numbers and now everything is for ruin."

"Tango! You can't do this! It won't work! Don't you want to see your children? Don't you want to be with them goddamn somewhere? We're one. I'm you. You're me. Put it back."

He laughed; he laughed and laughed, until it was half a sigh. The voice from him was suddenly very quiet, and measured, and pale. "Fuck it, E-Eiko. My hands are too stained to hold them now."

" - Vivi - "

"Darling," he said, "blossom-queen, maybe you'll die and be buried in a churchyard, but if I did not do it then you can rot all you like in a six-foot hole. You are the only one who can continue, Eiko Carol, the only one who can live, because I have always existed, I am ten times golem and you came along and I hate you. I'll never stop hating you. I'll never forgive you. I'll never hear your name without spitting."

" - I - "

"And I love you."

No struggling; I struggled in my head, I struggled with my eyes, the bottom fell out of everything, the world revovled, the portal gaped, my heart jerked as if it was trying to get out of my chest. "Vivi," I whispered, "don't let me go."

"Did you think it was atonement, whiteangel? It was suicide, it always was. Glorious hot death. I'd rather go to hell."

"Not now. Not without me. Don't let me go."

"Watch me fly, Carolthing." He spread his wings, all six; he was almost too hot to hold. "Watch me fight. Watch me destroy him. All white-hot, then sparks, then nothing. My memories really will be part of the sky; so will my body, my blood, my name, my writ, my everything, watch me kill, watch me in my victory. Think of me. Spit. Hate me. Hate everything. Touch everything. Build your airships. Rebuild your cities. Wake each day thinking of black mages. This is my curse."

"I love you," I said, and he kissed me; he kissed me like a nine-year-old boy, he kissed me on my lips, he kissed me like Black Tango and it burned like holy fire on my mouth and teeth and tongue until my spit tasted like the windblown remnants of ashes. He kissed me goodbye.

" - Be fruitful, Eiko."


He releases her, he ascends. She falls, like going through thick molasses in the gravity from the portal; his black-tattered coat spreads out in the heat, his hair is a red-feathered halo, he does not look back at her. He is a small rotten crow, a deepening black speck, burning burning as he rises and his limp rag doll falls without flight to the cold sea. Vivi Orunita enters the hole with hands on fire and bright eyes, and a black face, her on his lips and his tongue; the hole closes, and Necron meets him, glowing disdain:

(The soul apologises.)

She never sees him again.

Epilogue - And How They Lived

I never saw him again.

I don't know how I freefalled without dying; maybe it was Madeen or Phoenix, for I had no magic left in me to float, I barely had energy to breathe. Maybe it was the last slowing from our enormous rip in the sky; maybe - maybe - it could have been anything. Whatever the case, it was less than an hour later when the Blue Narciss found me, floating, just about dead, far too late for a battle they hadn't managed to come to.

Life's a bitch and then you die.

I never saw him again.

What do you do, when it's all over?

There was no 'happy ending'. There wasn't an 'unhappy ending', though, either - it wasn't an ending, he had not abandoned me for an ever-after. I walked zombie for the next two months, blank-eyed; I couldn't speak a word to anyone, I couldn't laugh, I couldn't smile. I couldn't even meet Zidane's eyes, or my mother's, or anyone's; and then, well, you start getting tubby around the middle, and it's obvious you're in a delicate condition that isn't overeating. I hadn't even really believed I was pregnant. Which helped me fit in, because hardly anyone else believed that I could be pregnant, too, except for Garnet; and she sat me down on her bed and unbuttoned my dress and prodded me a little. She told me very softly that I didn't have to carry it; they wouldn't be so cruel as to make me carry it, if I didn't - and I woke up.

"No," I said, eyes wild. "No. No no no."

(Because I suddenly wanted it more than anything in the world. Me! I hated babies.)

So she lay me down, head in her lap, smelling like fresh linen, and I told her everything until it was dark in that room and she had to light candles. Poor Dagger, with her long dark hair and the tears in her eyes for me, and no recriminations, and just stroking my hot little brow as all the words came out. They tumbled over each other; I got ahead of myself; I left out chunks; she held me.

"It's all right, Eiko," she said. "It will be all right now." And I wept, but it was different this time, and when I stopped I didn't start again for months.

And so everyone was told, and they treated me like glass until I stepped very hard on Zidane's foot about three times. I couldn't bear Lindblum just yet; so I stayed in the palace of Alexandria, with my mother, with Garnet and Dagger, and Amarant came and he and I used to take long walks on the castle walls. He told me I was a fuckin' little idiot; and finally I laughed, and he held me, all clumsy and too tight as if he'd never really hugged before. (For my baby shower, he gave me an Elixir, three potions, four new pencils and the most horrible booties in the world that Freya had apparently knitted. I think he was more than a little in love with her. It was the best present I received.)

My mother rose to the situation beautifully, and took it all in her stride; so did my father, who looked a little more bewildered about it but kept on patting my back as if that might help. It took a while for my parents and I to be able to touch hands again, for them to touch me without nervousness, to not look at me sometimes as if - even - I know Garnet had told them an expurgated version of the tale.

I love you, Mama, Papa. Thank you. I'm sorry.

So I threw things, and grunted, and stomped around, which made everybody else feel better, and I even got married - would you believe it - out of social nicety for the Regent's daughter; it was in paper only, because I kicked up more than a little snit at the idea, and my poor husband turned out to be a rather lanky-boned airship engineer from the academy whom I had known in passing, very gentle and self-effacing with thick glasses, and his name was Alun. We hardly saw each other, at first - I was preoccupied with the baby, and totally averse to being married - again - I already had a husband, I did, I did, I did. White Tango. Black Tango. I had been married. I had.

She was born in the summer, red-faced, squealing, summoner's nub and Genome's tail just like Cornelia. Garnet was my midwife. I called her Vita, which is another word for life, and different than Vivi's; Vivi was vivisect, and she was vitality. She had pale feathery lavender hair which stood up every which way, and big green eyes, and for a long while I couldn't look at her either.

They took me back to Lindblum. I got a new pair of glasses. I was Eiko Fabool once more, with a new baby, and a husband, and Garnet had warned against the whole damn thing but I threw myself back into engineering and cut my hair until it was short again and some of the scars faded. Alun and I had seperate rooms - poor man, he had the most things thrown at him, I think - and I would sit in mine without even Vita, who had her own nanny, and I would look outside my window at the ballet of airships and my rebuilding city and want the dusty dryness of the Desert Palace. I wanted motheaten tapestries. I wanted the screams of antlions. I wanted Black Mages. It was all gone for ever.

Madeen, I said, lit up by sunset and loving nothing one dyed-red evening, Madeen, did I go mad? Am I still mad? I want things I'm not supposed to want and, fuck it, I'm not sorry.

Eiko, he whispered, let me tell you about Madonna, and we touched again, and I forgave him, and he forgave me. Motherfather. Mog.

Nothing happened much, apart from the little day-to-days that make up the grind of life; I built my airships, and fixed my engines, and worked on coolant, and every so often I remembered to be a mother; Alun did most of that, thank God, and it's because of him that Vita only grew up very strange rather than absolutely nutters. (Alun had a wickedly dry sense of humour - I grew to love him, never like that, but enough for us to coexist as peaceably as possible.) She was quiet, and she was old before her time, and impatient with things; she liked ruffly panties and dressing up, which only gave Zidane mild heart attacks when he saw her come trotting round corners like a miniature panic. Cornelia adored her half to death, for which Vita was longsuffering; the people who were furthest apart were herself and I.

I loved her. I just didn't know how to touch her. She was a Black Mage from the day she was born, without ever needing to wear the blackface, without ever telling anyone; she once set fire to the curtains by accident and claimed candles, when she was six. (The only thing I was surprised about was that she'd been so clumsy. She was brilliant, sharp, not at all easy to find adorable: I sure as hell didn't.) I was twenty-seven.

I was Regent when I was thirty, taking on the role I'd never wanted, because my parents wanted a chance to finally retire; Vita was nine, and stranger than ever, as grown-up as a woman ten years older than me. Princess Vita. Queen Regent Eiko Fabool. I didn't know how the hell I got there; how my mind had let me; part of me was dancing out on the sand and would be forever, a part of me dead and gone, up there in the darkness of space. I had turned the world on its axis. I would never be the same.

"Mother," Vita said to me one morning, "mother, we're wasting time - we need to go to the Desert Palace."

(To describe the choking noises that ensued would be totally beside the point; just pretend I did and that they went on for ten pages, because my daughter needed to helpfully thump me on the back before they subsided. Nobody had ever told Vita - of it - of anything. Maybe Garnet had. I hadn't.)

(It was only later that I discovered one of her Eidolons was Queen Ashura, which explained a little, I suppose.)

"Please don't say boring things like 'why'," my daughter continued, patiently. "That'd be tiresome. I need to go; you need to come; I can't do it alone, I don't have the words to explain. It's been long enough, Mother."

I looked at her, all long pale hair, tail swishing like a cat's in the gaslight, calm and patient and totally alien; I took her in my arms and thought the wings will be coming soon and we left for the place where she had been - ostensibly - conceived. Zidane had offered to bomb the holy hell out of it for me, once. I'd thought of trees in a treeless land, and said no.

It was long past rain season. Bits of the roof had fallen in, now; the sand was going to wear the building down to rubble. The doors opened for barely a touch of Vita's hand; they swung open, as if inviting her home - inviting me home - and we walked past the long corridors near the docking-bay into the huge hot cathedral of the Grand Stairs. My eyes were full of ghosts; I couldn't even notice as she lead me, struck half dumb, a total idiot in the midst of her self-assurance. Our feet turned west; I looked at the ballroom that had been smashed; I looked at the bathroom with the window that couldn't be closed; she lead us on, surefooted, following a call, to the Black Mage Graveyard.

(I never asked how she did it. I don't think she would have told me. She had more Kuja in her than anything else, and it sounds cruel but she did, white-hot and fragile and slightly disdainful of anything that could not immediately keep up with her brainpattern. She was certainly bloody nothing like me.)

"Vita," I whispered, "what have you brought us here for? You have ten seconds to tell me everything, and I don't want any of your lip, so make it good, you understand me?"

"Fulfilling a promise," she sighed, annoyed. "I should have done it years ago, but I didn't know how. Then I worked out if my body could do it, and it can; I haven't tried, but it can, I know it, I won't make a mistake."

"I don't know who you got your babbling from. Oh, wait. Yes, I do."

The trees were laden with their precious parcels, still strong and beautiful, flowers all around the feet as the roots drank greedily at the soil. Little Iifa trees. The air was thick with something like the promise of Mist; and there were lights, blue lights, and all Vita did was raise her hands. Her fingers were like conductor's batons; she waved them, as if bringing the first chord to earth, and there was song:

The souls of the Black Mages cracked.

(I was thirty. I think I aged twenty years in half a minute's worth of heartbeat.)

(I'm sorry I forgot, Vivi.)

(I'm sorry.)

The souls of the Black Mages cracked; bloomed; gave fruit; and then they shimmered and disappeared and the trees were alive with limbs, dripping with them, noise and breath and heartbeat as a full hundred prepubescent boys stretched their arms out on the limbs. Black Tango's promise, Black Tango's curse. They opened their mouths as one; took breath. (For the first time in her life, Vita Orunita laughed.)

All of them black-haired. All of them golden-eyed. All of them flesh. There was confused chattering; they swarmed out of their trees like bugs, like birds, like butterflies, the balance put back in black to white, all of them naked and pulling on coats and reaching for hats. They touched ground; a horde of them, looking at us, rather shy. Some of them were gangly; some of them were plump; all of them were different, like the seeds you scatter in your garden and come up wildflowers, slow dawning recognition and my daughter was laughing and -

(Oh, Vivi. I wish you could have seen this.)


(Rain ran to me. I was reborn.)

the end

A/N: It's done.

(Imagine me having a private party with myself and doing a really lame dance right now.)

I apologize for the fact that this took me four years to write; thankfully some of you were apparently used to that from Sunshine In Winter and stuck with me anyway. I loved writing it, but this story was sure as hell the hardest thing I've ever had to do. Sentences wouldn't come. Eiko spent most of the story weeping like a soccer mom on downers. Tango's dialogue got to the point where a very dear friend of mine spends most of her time talking in pure Tangoese to me. Peanut brine lives inside my bones. Thanks, Gabi. You're right. Eiko should have summoned Gameshark.

Thanks for my best beta-reader ever, Drew/Piett, for calling this the wife-beating Stockholm-syndrome story. Couldn't have done it without you. Again. (He wants anyone who spotted Aesculapius to get a cookie.)

Thank you everyone. It would take too long to name you all; Tobu, Alexiel, all the artslaves on the site who have my deepest admiration, Riyuen - Gabi, whose mental Rikku and Leviathan sitting on a TV eating holy popcorn kept me on the crusade, you're the best thing that came out of this - my Angie, my muse. Demeter. Hell, just all of you, all right?

To FFIX fans. To Vivi fans. To Eiko fans. To anyone who thought that Vivi growing up to get lice was a good idea. To numerous cups of coffee. To my reviewers. I love you all. I will seriously bake you a chocolate cake if you come around to my house. It won't be a very good chocolate cake, but it'll be a chocolate cake. (We'll get Gabi to make chocolate cake. She's great at it. Then Angie can make spaghetti.)

This was for all of you!

- Guardian