The gloominess of the great, ancient temple could not be overstated. At dusk, after the jewel tones of the sunset had faded and the stars had started to come out, the shadows grew long, shrouding everything in a heavy darkness that felt as oppressive as the silence. Wind hissed through cracks and rustled flowering vines sometimes, but most of the time, everything was perfectly still and silent. Only her heartbeat in her ears filled the silence during these moments, and there was little else to do except lie there and wait for sleep to come.
A small balcony just off the temple was now carpeted with thick green moss and little white flowers. Time meant nothing to humanity, but for the rest of the world, it marched on like before, its hands silently shaping the earth and rhythm of nature. In the corner was where her Guardian slept when he finally tired, though he could go three or four days without sleep. Right now, that corner was vacant, and he had been gone long enough that the vegetation had straightened again. Earlier that afternoon, he had said he was going across the plains to the village near the forest. She was safe here. Sometimes he was gone for hours, but he always returned by mid-evening.
She couldn't wait to see him, to show him the gift that had been given to her.
It was almost too much to bear, the endless waiting, and her back had grown stiff from lying on the blanket he had bartered for her a century ago.
Reaching out a little, she tugged lightly on a flower growing beside her, finally plucking it clean from its bed in the moss and twirling it between her fingers. She couldn't prevent a little smile from reaching her lips. Time had gone on in strangeness now, but she had at last been able to make up for time lost. At least now, where time meant nothing like it had before, some things mattered again.
Three centuries had passed for her, and over those three centuries, spending time with her magnificent warrior, she had finally learned to trust him. She hadn't much appreciated his choice to crush the timeline for her, but in the end there was little else she could do, for now. She knew that eventually a "liberator" would come as the world came to an end, and perhaps then there would be hope, but that was still two hundred years away. Her only companion was her Guardian, and there had been little else she could do but trust him.
Having spent so much time with him, she knew now that it had been the right thing to do.
And now her gift would be his as well.
She brought the flower closer to her nose, wishing she could smell it, but it was too small and didn't really have much of a scent. Snorting softly, she tucked it into the braid she had turned part of her hair into, adding it to a small collection she had accumulated over the past few days. There were all sorts of flowers there, some of which he had brought for her from exotic places.
When would he return? Maybe she'd grown too soft after all. Unwanted, unloved for so long, abandoned by a mother who dropped her at the first instance of her being the freak she still believed she was… but not, she knew she was wanted and loved. Her Guardian would always protect her, always love her, always be with her. There was nothing he wouldn't do for her, and that's what she was counting on.
As she sat up, thinking of looking around the temple and its greenery to pass the time, she heard the faint sound of footsteps on stone and climbed to her feet. The smile that broke out on her lips came from a combination of joy and a little bit of shock – the ground further away now, her balance different, legs feeling a little strange, but she got her balance back and fell into the graceful stance she had perfected over many lifetimes. It was different now – a curve above her waist where one hadn't been before, her shoulders a little broader, and legs a little longer. She had never made it this far before.
It was a miracle, one she knew would be precious to him.
As the footsteps grew louder and briefly changed rhythm, letting her know he was ascending the last flight of stairs, she smoothed a hand down her new dress, enjoying the silkiness of the fabric and warm colors indicative of her new status, before running her fingers through her hair.
"Yeul?" That was a familiar voice to her, and at the sound of it, her heart skipped a beat in both joy and utter terror, knowing this was the moment of truth.
"Here," she called out, taking a handful of her dress in nervousness. "I'm on the balcony." As she finished, she blinked and swallowed in pleasant surprise. Her voice had changed, deepening and smoothing out, a bit huskier, and so strange to her ears, but it still sounded like her voice.
He rounded the corner, all black and violet against the long gray shadows and red light still painting the pillars behind him. Before even looking at her, he stepped down into the balcony and dropped a bag in the corner where he normally slept, one secured at the top with twists and loops of rope. After making sure it stayed upright, he turned to face her and looked directly at her.
He came to a dead stop. "What happened to you?"
She tried not to let the tone affect her too much – he sounded upset. "It's me, Caius," she said, and clasped her hands together at her hip. "This is my gift to us both."
Caius's dark eyes wandered a moment, looking down her body, then back up, his carefully controlled expression revealing a little bit of shock. Feeling like a piece of meat being inspected at a market, she unclasped her hands and let them hang at her sides, though her fingers clenched and unclenched. Anxiety trickled into her heart. He took a step forward, then another, slowly crossing the gap between them, but before he got too close, he turned slightly to pace around her instead, still looking her over.
"That does not answer my question." His voice was stern. "What happened to you, Yeul?"
"I…" Swallowing, she looked at him, having to switch shoulders when he moved around her. In the fading sunset light, he looked so handsome, and, seeing him through the eyes of a woman instead of a girl, the lines of his face appealed to her in ways she'd never really known before. So many centuries – two millennia now, almost – she had spent gazing at him, but not really seeing him, not like she did now. "The one who will awaken the Liberator when the time comes granted me this gift," she said at last.
Caius stopped. "Bhunivelze turned you into a woman?"
The happiness broke out on her face at last as a wide smile, even though his face darkened. "Yes," she said. "Isn't it wonderful? I'm a woman now, grown up, and I can experience everything now that I couldn't before."
"What did he ask for in return?"
The smile faded. "What?"
"You know them. Only Etro gave without thought to herself. Bhunivelze is no different from the others of his kind. He must have asked for something in return. What was it?"
He had given her a condition, one she knew could meet if she only tried, but there was no need to tell him that, for it did not matter for them. "Nothing, really. He only wanted to help me."
Caius snorted. "They don't want to help us. They want their petty tantrums."
"That's not important." She stepped forward, reaching for him. "What's important is what's here now." Just as her fingers brushed his, though, he pulled away, nearly shrinking back. Yeul felt her heart break a little at the sight, not sure how to take his, if unintentional, rejection of her. He had always loved her. He never needed to say he did. She had known it in his smiles and strong arms whenever she was afraid – her only real family, and her whole world for so long. Her unwavering foundation of strength. "Caius–"
"Forgive me," he murmured. "You must understand, this is nothing short of odd for me. You have always been a girl, never any older than seventeen." Pausing, he looked her up and down again. "And now…"
"I know it's strange." Again, she reached for him. This time, her fingers found his, and although hers felt a little bit bigger, they still felt so small compared to his. The strength was the same, though, and she knew those hands could still protect her from anything – and would, without hesitation. What would it be like to be held by him now that she could be called an adult? "I can't completely understand it myself. And I won't try."
His eyes met hers. "Your voice is different."
"Do you like it?"
The hand she held gently freed itself, coming up to her face to brush her hair back in familiar strokes he had used to comfort her so many times before. "You sound like a woman. Your voice is stronger, more melodic, more–" At last, the anxiety seemed to fade. "You would have grown up to be a lovely young woman."
Her lips formed a smile again. "Thank you."
He smiled for an instant before stepping back. "Why did you request this?" he asked, smile fading. "It seems rather unlike you."
How could she explain that it was something she had been longing for, all this time, and that Bhunivelze seemed to have heard her heart's deepest wish, without seeming like a child? This was a woman's territory, something she had never been able to truly grasp until now that she was old enough. Bhunivelze had little real power, ultimately, but he could still work some magic of his own, enough to turn her mind and body into those befitting a woman. She knew how he must feel, her eternal companion, always loving her in silence.
"For you," she said. Her hands came up on their own to cup his face in her palms, where she smoothed her thumbs across his cheeks. Despite the weathering of the sun and time, they felt smooth enough, even a bit soft, and still warm from the day's heat. "Your loneliness can finally end, because now there is no question of age, or if I am old enough to make these decisions properly. I can be yours."
His dark eyes were so beautiful to her. "What do you mean?"
"I am a woman, an adult, and almost your physical age." Moving a little closer, she tipped her chin up more, still short compared to him, though not as much as before. With adulthood came one more growth spurt, apparently. "We can finally be together, as I know you want." She hesitated, smiled, and slung both arms around him ignoring the armor and laid her head on his shoulder.
Caius said nothing and did nothing. As the moment stretched on, she began to feel uncomfortable. The last of the sunset's light was fading, the gloom creeping in. It seemed as though the world had suddenly gone cold.
She pulled back. "Caius?"
"Yeul…" He stared at her, brow furrowing very slightly, lips parting and closing. Then he said, "You are offering yourself as an equal to me, aren't you? And as a lover."
"Why would you do that?"
"Because I know, even though I have always been there, you've always been lonely. A child can't replace a woman as a companion, and shouldn't." Her hands had gone around his neck, and now her left one came around to touch his chin, but as her fingertips brushed his skin, he frowned and pulled away. "Caius, I love you. I've always loved you, but not as a woman can. Only as a girl on the brink of true adulthood could. Now I truly can return your love."
"But, Yeul, my…" He shook his head. "I do love you, but…"
"But, as my daughter, my family." His voice was strong. "You have always been a child, a girl, to me, someone I had to protect and love with all my heart. I loved you as any father would. I have seen you born and die for centuries without end, and grow whenever I had to take you away very young. You were always all that ever mattered."
Yeul blinked and frowned. "You don't love me any other way?"
He tilted his head. "No, Yeul. I do not."
It seemed the silence did nothing but underscore her breaking heart. He may as well have just plunged a blade into her chest and killed her right there for the sheer amount of pain she felt. This grand, magnificent warrior, with his impossible strength and incredible power and stunning features, loved her as a daughter. The very thought almost blew her knees out from under her. It hurt, so much, to be rejected by him that she almost thought he had driven a blade into her. How could anything hurt this much?
"But– but–" But she wasn't his daughter. She was his charge, but not daughter, his job. Without a blood relation or a legal adoption, nothing barred him from returning her feelings. "But there's no reason for you to feel like that. I am an adult, freed from my burden. I did this for you. I wished deep in my heart for a way to be with you, properly, and my wish was granted!"
Rejected again. Abandoned again. Just as her mother had handed her off so long ago.
She both saw and heard him swallow. "For me? You allowed yourself to be touched by Bhunivelze and turned into a pawn, just to be with me?"
"I am no pawn." She stepped back, letting her face go hard. "I am my own woman, and I can be your woman."
There was silence, and Caius said nothing.
Feeling dejected and alone, she looked at the moss, feeling something prick at her eyes. Maybe he was just still in shock. Maybe later, once he got used to her looking the way she did, his feelings would change, and his heart would open to accept her. He was the only person she trusted, and it had taken a long time to get to this point. She hoped she had not been too quick to trust him with her heart.
"Excuse me," he said, and moved past her. In the center of the balcony was a circular spot of charcoal and bare stone, where he usually lit the fires that were used to cook meals and keep them warm on chilly nights. He knelt, and a short while later there were tiny flames licking along pieces of wood and kindling he had gathered. Yeul stared into the orange and yellow dance of light, but felt nothing but emptiness in her heart as she knelt beside him.
"What did you bring this evening?" she said, looking at him.
"Gorgon," he said. "The best cut I could find."
Yeul said nothing more as the meat was cooked and served to her alongside fresh fruit and leafy vegetables. She ate without a word, trying to ignore the emptiness gnawing at her. His presence was impossible to ignore – even though the scent of gorgon hung in the air, she still smelled him, all leather and sun-warmed metal and sweat, as well as the scent of his skin that seemed to come from nothing but him. He had a distinct scent that she loved, and it had never been as strong as it was tonight.
When she finished her meal, leaving only fruit pits and gorgon bones, she set the plate aside, hands on her lap, and looked over at him. He was staring into the fire.
"Caius?" she whispered.
He looked at her. "Yes?" he said.
The sound of his voice stirred her heart again, making her forget the emptiness. "Can we at least try? I love you, I would do anything for you, and all I ask in return is for you to try. Please," she added when he frowned. "I did this for you. Please, make it worth my while."
She heard him take a deep breath and exhale slowly before nodding once.
Hope bloomed inside her again, along with excitement that made her hands tremble. Leaning toward him, she took his hand in both of hers, tilting her head. She tried to ignore the feeling of him stiffening slightly, pressing her lips to his, and a rush of feeling cascaded over her, starting as fireworks on her lips and tongue and exploding all over her body in spurts of adrenaline. Joy joined hope.
Then, just a few heartbeats later, abruptly, he pulled away. "No."
And just like that, her heart shattered into millions of tiny shards that she knew she could never gather again. "But you agreed we could try. You–"
"Yes, I did agree to try, and I did just try, but it's just–" Growling, he stood and turned his back to her. "Clean up and go to sleep. You will enough trouble just learning how to live in your new body." His voice had become stern and authoritative, and she realized that it did sound just like a father to his child, now that she was no longer hearing what she wanted to hear.
Still dejected, she did as she was asked, cleaning up out of sight, then using a second blanket to cover herself atop the other one, pulling it up to her chin, and curling up.
Caius did as he usually did, sitting cross-legged by the coals until they grew dim and finally went out. Eyes heavy with sleep, she let them close, knowing this was the time she normally went to sleep. The sheer number of things on her mind, though, kept sleep at bay, despite her eyes being closed. Daughter or lover, she would always believe he was the most wonderful man in the world, terrible and numerous flaws and all. Someday, perhaps, she would yet win him over. She only had to hope.
Things were quiet for a while, until she heard the creak of leather and a soft grunt.
Yeul's eyes flicked open, staring into the shadows. Caius was standing, looking down at the remains of the fire, but as she watched, he turned away and stepped up off the balcony into the pillared hall. When he disappeared, only his footsteps audible, she climbed to her feet, now quite curious. Caius went off alone sometimes – he always had, now and then – but he never went out at night, as far as she knew. Besides, she wasn't getting to sleep anytime soon, so she really had nothing better to do.
Caius walked through the pillared hall and crossed a central chamber, the crossroads of this level, before abruptly turning to scale some rubble near the corner of a balcony to the right. When he disappeared, she waited a moment, then followed, her bare feet making it fairly easy to grasp the chipped stone.
At the top, she poked her head over the edge.
It was the throne room – the lowermost level of the top third of the temple. Everything above had been ripped away long ago by Caius's wrath, back when this temple had been part of Valhalla, and instead what hung above was open sky glittering like diamonds on velvet. From the crystal throne came an ethereal light, casting a silvery glow further than its modest luminance seemed to dictate it could. That, however, was not what caught her attention most of all. No, it was what sat upon the throne.
It was the perfect crystal replica of a woman with one leg crossed over the other, head tilted to her right, an expression of deep sadness frozen on her features. Across her lap was an elegant sword that she held in place with both hands. She sat on crystal feathers that shimmered in the glow of the throne. She was beautiful, and Yeul knew who she was, though they had ever actually met in person.
It was the woman who would be the Liberator.
Eventually, Yeul tore her eyes from Lightning and looked around for Caius, eventually seeing him standing some distance from the throne with his hands at his sides. His eyes were open, focused on the woman on the throne, and his lips were pressed firmly together. There was silence. Yeul carefully climbed off the rubble and onto the balcony, quickly moving to stand behind a corner of wall still erect beside a pillar, dropping to one knee, then leaning around and watching carefully.
"I have often wondered if you can hear me." Though he spoke softly, the still air easily carried his voice to her. "If you could, what could I even say to you, now? That you were right about me, about everything, and most of all, that I was wrong?" His voice cracked; he cleared his throat. "I want to apologize, Lightning, but I know when the time comes and you awaken, there will be nothing waiting but your judgment."
Yeul felt pale. Was this why Caius would not return her feelings? Because of this woman, this crystal replica of a great warrior he had tried to kill?
"I–" He looked at the ground, fists clenching. "When you awaken, I want you to kill me, not save me. There is no reason to go to the new world the prophecies whisper of, not for me. I do not deserve to go. My mistake has the cost of the entire world." Then he startled her by dropping suddenly to his knees, bringing both fists down on the stone hard enough to crack it and send puffs of dust into the air. With that gesture came a fierce growl of anger that she knew very well. "Don't save me, Lightning! Kill me! At least by your hand I can have an honorable death! I want to die, not live even longer! Just–"
Yeul heard the way his voice had gone rough as he spoke, sharp and strong and harsh like a serrated knife. As she watched, feeling her heart ache for him, his forehead lowered until it touched the stone. The shadow cast by his prostrate form was soft-edged but dark and long, but the silvery glow caused his hair and armor to shine. He was a contrast, a never-ending collision of darkness and light, never better demonstrated than right here.
Yeul wished she could comfort him.
She heard a soft sound – maybe a snort of derision, perhaps the soft and broken cry of a man who didn't know what to do anymore – as he rose to his knees again, then stood and squared his shoulders. "The time will come, and you and I will face one another in battle again, someday. When that happens, you will have a war once again. If you think I will just let you help me, think again." He stared at her, and her eyes, immobile in the crystal, did not look back at him. "If you can hear me, Lightning, I am… sorry. Please, kill me. At the end of everything, you are the only one who can completely end my torment."
Yeul gasped softly when he turned toward her and scrambled back down the rubble, breaking into a flat-out sprint without looking back. In the shadows, she never missed her footing, returning to the balcony and finding her spot again, covering herself with her blanket as she lay down. A short while later, Caius returned to the balcony and went to his spot in the corner, sitting with his back against the temple wall.
For a moment, she warred with herself. She had run so that he wouldn't know she had followed him, but now she couldn't contain herself. "Is she the reason you won't love me?"
There was a pause. "You followed me."
He could so artfully dodge a question, so she didn't bother to repeat it. "How often do you go up there, Caius?"
"That is none of your concern, Yeul," was his stern reply. "You need your rest."
"How often, Caius Ballad?"
She heard him snort softly, but he said, "Often enough. Go to sleep."
That was the end of that, if his tone were any indication. More dejected, empty, and upset than ever, she turned over, pulling the blanket up as she lay with her back to him. She could only hope that Bhunivelze would give her more time to fulfill the condition he had given her – that she could keep her adult form only if Caius returned her love – and that she would not wake up the next morning as a teenage girl again.
Written before the release of Lightning Returns.