chapter 1 | chapter 2 | chapter 3 | chapter 4 | chapter 5 | chapter 6 | chapter 7 | chapter 8 | chapter 9
chapter 10 | chapter 11 | chapter 12 | chapter 13 | chapter 14 | chapter 15 | chapter 16 | chapter 17 | chapter 18
chapter 19 | chapter 20 | chapter 21 | chapter 22 | chapter 23 | chapter 24 | chapter 25 | chapter 26

25. The Calm

You'd think a mechanical genius and a sword jockey wouldn't have much to do with each other, and you'd kind of be right. Crono and I barely have anything in common. I love to read, while his idea of a good book is one thick enough to use as a pillow. He likes to go out to town and cavort with his peers, while I prefer the company of schematics and machines. He enjoys sword training and regular exercise, when I'd rather jog my brain.

Yet, when we tired of all those day-to-day things, we always found respite with each other. I rarely stopped to wonder why that was--why I was lucky enough to have a friend like Crono when no one else dared come by that 'crazy inventor's house.' Crono and I had this solidarity that never needed to be put to words, and basically, our arrangement was perfect--tried and true, comfortable and broken-in. Sometimes my feelings on the subject were a little more amorous than proper, but I was always smart enough to keep that cloying sentimentality at bay. Why mess with perfection?

And then one day, he bumped into a princess.

I can't be bitter. Thanks to that incident, I made so many incredible friends, Marle included. But all the while, even during our adventures, I could never shake the hunch that my friendship with Crono would never be the same. And I was right. Whenever Crono came over, he always brought Marle with him, to fill our usual, amiable silence with bubbly chatter. Or then again, some days I'd get the notion to go over to his house and hang out, only to find he's off at the castle. It's a lonesome inconvenience, but I'm not bitter; I can't grudge my best friend the love of his life. I can always turn around, go home and tinker with my next project until I forget all about it.

...I don't think I want to forget, though--not completely. I guess I had been suffering under the delusion that life would never change.

How would you want to go?

I was sitting on the bed in Crono's room, staring at the ornamental swords hanging on the wall and ruminating over the end of a bad dream. He bought those swords from the flea market with spare change from his odd summer jobs. He liked them because they looked cool, but was disappointed to learn that they weren't 'clashable'. I berated his poor spending, calling him worse than my dad, yet never admitted that they added a nice flair to the place.

"I dunno... Just not drowning. That has to be the worst way." I shuddered as the dregs of that nightmare washed over me: falling into a well whose waters rose up to swallow me before I could even catch my breath.

Crono reached for a curtain to shut out the glaring afternoon sunlight, tapped his pencil thoughtfully over his homework (a funny reversal--when he's at my house, I'm the one working and he's the one loafing around), and turned around at his desk, mulling over the hypothetical query with a lopsided frown. Eventually he provided, "Fire."

"Seriously? You're afraid of fire?"

His frown sharpened. I didn't say that! It's just... He rolled his shoulders with an uneasy shrug. "Burning alive has to be the worst."

"I guess..." I conceded, and then hit a bright spot on our morbid conversation. "Oh, you know what? I want to be like Alfreed Schopen."

A blank look, eyebrows slanting towards the ceiling. Who?

"Don't you know anything?" That was my usual preface to a lecture, and Crono kicked back in his chair with a weary grunt, bracing for it. "He created the first electric cell, which led to the invention of the battery and eventually the electromagnetic generator. He made all kinds of machines that could conduct direct current. He also tried to build the world's first electric fireplace, but that didn't go over too well after burning his house to the ground. All the same, he was a brilliant mind ahead of his time!"

Crono feigned sticking his finger in a light socket and shook dramatically, anticipating the ending. So was he electrocuted?

"Nope. He was arrested for sorcery and beheaded. Turns out the people of the eighth century weren't too keen about machines that could spout fire and lightning. The country was still pretty paranoid about magic, after the Mystic War and all that."

Crono shot me a muddled smirk. And you want to die like that?

"Well you see, right before he was executed, he asked his assistant to observe how many times he could blink his eyes after being decapitated. It was supposed to determine whether or not a beheaded man was still aware before he died. They say he blinked fifteen times in thirty seconds before finally croaking. Of course, that's just an urban legend; it doesn't have any basis in fact. Still, it's a really noble thought, to spend your final moments conducting an experiment in the name of science." I sighed loftily. "That man is my hero."

He rolled his eyes and turned back to his homework. You are freaking weird.

I woke up.

Everything was dark, painted in the murky palette of midnight. It was quiet--maybe too quiet. The silence felt... not bad, per se, but strange. I couldn't put my finger on why. I was laying on something soft, the linen cool and smooth at my fingertips. Sheets? It was a bed. I was in a bed, and overhead was a slatted wooden ceiling, and there I could see... I could see... absolutely nothing. Where were my glasses?

I reflexively reached for a bed table that wasn't there, the sudden movement sending a lash of pain across my middle, like tripping a giant mousetrap. I valiantly resisted the urge to double over and howl like a stuck beast and steeled up, holding my breath until the wave of agony subsided. It felt like my insides were on fire; I couldn't remember what I did to deserve a thrashing that bad, but I sure as hell didn't want to trigger it again.

The moment I exhaled, something next to me jumped--a lurching shadow that nearly made me break my impromptu vow of silence with a shriek. The shadow sat up in the bed, taking on a vaguely human shape the more I squinted at it. After a beat it slouched with a sigh, and I recognized that noise much better than the mess of spiky red hair that wouldn't come into focus. I started to remember everything in fragments--finding Melchior, meeting Ramezia, falling into the well, facing Heckran... Crono, Crono screamed, and then...

"Crono...?" I tested, nearly choking on my own tongue. My mouth felt like I'd been eating nothing but moss and dust bunnies for days. The apparition gave a barely audible huff, relief and disbelief mixed in his tone, and then threw an arm over me, flooding my senses with bleary shadow-dragon-tonic-warmth, almost excruciatingly close and tingly.

It was Crono, Crono was okay, and for just that tiny moment, nothing else mattered. I didn't even breathe--it slipped my mind.

Then a cricket chirped, breaking the spell. He let me go and pulled away, giving me space to think. My eyes gradually adjusted to the drab light, drawing in the outline of his face and all the less-than-subtle details of my environment, although without my glasses my powers of observation were limited. If I were asked on the spot, my best description of the room would've been that the walls were off-white, there's a blob in the corner that's hopefully a shelf, there's another blob that's either a mirror or a painting, and somewhere in this blurry quagmire is a damn cricket.

Wait, that cricket. It sounded like it came from outside, and if I could hear a cricket chirp out there, then what I wasn't hearing was... "It's not raining," I croaked, astounded by that very simple observation. It's amazing how refreshing the sound of it not raining can be, although I wasn't quite ready to digest the implications.

Crono nodded, barely close enough to read the jubilant nuances of his expression. He then lowered a concerned frown. How do you feel?

Like death warmed over--oh, wait. Right. I remembered now--all of it, every horrible minute in-between this dimension and the next, right up until that damning flash of light. I blinked several times, clearing the way in my head for a straight answer, but everything stayed dim and fuzzy. "...My ribs hurt." My everything hurt, but I felt it was best to start with the obvious. Besides, the pain was the best way to tell I was alive, which was more than I could've hoped for. Everything up until then was numb and scary, like a bad dream. Hurting was normal, good.

There was a wavering glint in his eye that I didn't have time to interpret before he hugged me again. "Ah! Ah..." I gasped, my mind bled dry under that bedazzling touch. All I could register was a raw, distressing feeling that was not quite gratitude and not quite regret, set to the drum of his heart--fiercely earnest, desperate, and leaving my every fiber thrumming with empathy. I knew, then, that it was all real--our beast link, the ghosts, that terrible knight in black armor... and Crono was there. I didn't have a clue what happened, but I knew in my gut that if Crono wasn't there, I would've...

My memories dredged up a far-away promise on a mountaintop, a verbal contract I knew Crono was going to violate the moment he agreed to it--perhaps because it was a verbal contract--damnit, I have to start putting things like this in writing. Still, I reiterated it out of principle, because I couldn't forget. I would never forget. I mustered up one solid punch to his shoulder, and Crono grimaced, nonplussed. What?

"I told you if you ever pulled a stunt like that again, I'd kick your butt." I sniffed, considering whether I had the strength to follow up that statement. "...I'm not up to par yet, but when I get better... totally kicking your butt."

He chuckled, pulled me close again and tousled my hair, taking the threat in stride. Cocky bastard. "Um, ow..." I complained, pretending it hurt (it really didn't. It felt wonderful, dangerously wonderful.) I was pretty sure that beast link was messing with my head, but after what we just went through, I didn't care. We both nearly died. I just wanted him to hold me. I liked it when he... I mean, I wanted him to...

Good grief, I needed to get a grip. Maybe rationalizing it out loud would help. "Um... I am positive... this beast-link thing is what's making me feel... uhm... overly fond of you right now." Good job, self. That only sounded half as stupid in my ears as it did in my head.

The poor fool hesitated, considering it for himself, and then nodded slowly. I know, me too. He tipped his hand, weighing his tentative thoughts. It's really... confusing.

Just confusing? The pain and bliss was so overwhelming, my heart was trembling. I felt weak. I wanted to pass out. I wanted... I think I really wanted...

Before I said something really moronic, the notion to get some more rest crossed my mind, and then I was drowsing, all things black and blue and replete.

Time passed strangely from then on. I spent most of it in a languorous stupor, hanging around the threshold between dreams and hallucinations, and before I knew it, I was hearing voices again.

("An ice arrow... it's rather amazing. And fortunate, in a strange way.")

The world kept spinning; morning broke with or without me. I watched daylight wax and wan in disoriented leaps and bounds; every time I opened my eyes, the sunspot on the wall was someplace different. I fleetingly recalled footsteps coming \cf1 and going, noises through the walls, the aroma of coffee and fresh cooking... maybe eggs? I was aware of everything going on around me, except I wasn't. I didn't think to ask. I didn't really think of anything.

("If it were any other kind of magic she would have died on the spot, but that ice virtually froze her metabolism and slowed the bleeding to a crawl. It's probably the only thing that kept her alive.")
("That's what Magus said...")

Crono was always around, though. If I couldn't see him, I could hear his muted pacing down the way (I'm not sure how I could tell that was him--I knew it in the way a cat can sense its master's approach merely by his footfalls.) I had a moment of twilight where I thought he was gone, waking with a start in a cold sweat, but then a warm hand settled on my shoulder with a soothing command. So I fell back asleep, and kept sleeping. A lot.

("Were you able to apprehend those spirits?")
("No, they got away... Just what were those things?")
("Hmm, who knows? It's a good thing they found us, I suppose, but it makes you wonder. There's never an end to the strange and marvelous things in this world.")

I finally woke up... later\cf0 . It was dark again. I was laying on my side, looking out into a room I still couldn't see straight, much less recognize. It could've been the next night or an entirely different one, for all my tenuous grasp of the present was worth. I didn't know where I was, much less what was going on, but the sound of crickets and Crono's snoring at my back were music to my ears. The blanket was heavy and warm, and when I moved, my arm bumped into his, the brush of skin making me quiver with tactile pleasure. It's so amazing, having a beast partner... I totally recommend it.

Strange, though--I thought it had stopped raining. Why did my hair feel wet? Wait, it can't rain indoors. Was there a leak in the ceiling? I wondered what could be dripping, dropping, slimy...

The proximity of the snoring struck home. Oh gawd, Crono was drooling on me. That sick, sorry son of a... I shoved myself free, and he dropped back to the pillow with a drowsy grunt, oblivious. I sat up and pawed the damp spot on my head. Ugh, gross. At least it didn't hurt like blazes to move around anymore--the pain was more of a nagging ache. I threw my legs over the side of the bed and blindly surveyed the room. There was either a potted plant or a stuffed octopod on the desk nearest me. Were we alone in here? Whose house was this? My glasses had to be somewhere...

My head felt light and my limbs felt distant, like I had just drank a tonic or two, or... ten. Also, my side itched. I reached to scratch it and encountered the rough texture of gauze. I pulled up my shirt and studied the bandages wrapped around my torso, particularly where the sterile white fabric sported unsavory dark stains--there was a spot over my diaphragm that was as black as ink. Huh, that's kind of nasty... I wondered if it was as fun to pull that arrow out as it looked.

A fluttering silhouette blotted out the square of moonlight on the floor, and I flicked a glance to the open window just as a pair of long, heavy legs pulled themselves through, followed by a hulking body draped in dark webs, like bat wings. The cloak seemed to furl about the intruder of its own accord, while he stood clear and stoically scanned the room. It's hard not to know Magus when you see him--or barely see him, as was my case.

He looked at me, and I could practically feel the burrowing appraisal behind those devil-eyes. A slew of appropriate questions flew to mind, but they all seemed witless under that wizard's stare. Then he spoke up in a tone that, even though he's said it a hundred times before, managed to sting the most.

"You're useless, you know."

I snapped out of my daze with a scowl. "What are you doing here? Where are we? And what the heck happened to everyone? The last thing I remember was..." I hesitated, giving Crono a long, considerate look. He kept snoring.

Magus disdainfully obliged, "You mean, while you were being useless? Heckran and Ramezia are dead. I stopped the spell. The Mammon Machine is destroyed. ...For good, this time."

"Oh. That's... good," I said fecklessly. It was the most critical part of our quest and I completely missed it--Crono too, no thanks to me. How anticlimactic, to have the news delivered to me like this. A little alarm sounded in my head, and I blurted out, "Marle! Is she okay??"

He fixed a funny look on me, just like the one I got when we were discussing the designs on the gate shrines. I had just asked an either lame or impossible question. "Fine..." he answered at gravelly length, deliberately overlooking the plot hole between my 'death' and Marle's abduction. Screw the faux pas--at least she was alive. I could glean the details from the princess later.

I swiftly moved on. "So, the world is safe? And everybody's okay?"

Magus shifted his gaze towards the window whence he came. "I suppose. Not that you could have done anything about it, since you were busy being--"

"--useless, thank you, I got it. Asshole. So what are you doing here? You come to gloat or something?"

"No." And then he didn't say anything else. I glared at him, uselessly. Then, to my surprise, he pulled the T'torlan from his cloak and flashed the cover out of my reach. "I'm keeping this."

"What the--" I reeled at the undead memory of him plucking it out of the mud. "Hey, I never gave that to you! You thief!"

"You looked dead enough. I'd call it looting, not stealing."

I smirked sourly. "That's so much better, thanks. What do you even need it for?"

He turned it over in his hands, musing, "Could come in handy."

"So you came all this way to tell me you're going to keep what you stole from me?"

"It's supposed to be a courtesy, you brat," Magus growled.

"You've got a really funny idea of 'courtesy'."

"And you've got some mouth for someone who should be dead."

"That doesn't make any sense," I fired back. "Are you even trying to be threatening anymore?"

"Hrmph." That was big, grumpy 'no'. "How is it you cretins survived, anyway?"

Crono killed the Grim Reaper. I got to watch. Suck on that one, Magus. "Just lucky, I guess." What made him even care? Morbid curiosity?

"Heh. That's all you ever were..."

"Fortune favors the bold," was the best comeback I had.

"Hmm... On that much, we agree."

With that, he grew silent--sullen and distant as always. It felt like we were at another impasse. "So... What are you going to do, now?"

He wouldn't look at me as he replied, "Doesn't matter."

I was being nosy; sue me. "You're still looking for her, aren't you?"

"...It's none of your business, weakling." He took his time with that rejoinder; it wasn't as hostile as it could've been. He always clammed up whenever she was mentioned--it's the only thing that made me suspect that warlock had a heart.

"I guess not..." I admitted, more sober than I intended (wow, I was really mellow. Maybe I did drink some tonics unawares--I could almost taste it.) However, the real heart of the matter still bugged me. "You know, for a bunch of people you think are weak, stupid and useless, you sure keep hanging around. Why did you really let me come with you? And Crono? And everybody? If all you wanted was the Gate Key, you had a million chances to just take it. I know there has to be some other reason."

It wasn't something that just occurred to me; it was something I'd been wondering since he joined our team in the first place. In all our travels together, the best explanation I could fathom was his recognition that we were the only people both brainsy and ballsy AND crazy and stupid enough to take on Lavos, and that put him in the right crowd. I knew that whatever the reason, it was as fragile as any of Magus's alliances, and I had never contemplated it further out of the fear that seeking the answer would push him to desert us--or worse. And yet, now that Lavos was gone and no further explanations were forthcoming, this was the first time I actually got the nerve to ask him myself.

If I couldn't see any better, I'd mistake that twitch for a grin, a teasing little thing. "You're not unilaterally stupid and useless. The cavewoman has uses. The frog isn't stupid."

I gawped at him, trying to effect rage but letting laughter slip instead--yeah, I was drugged or something. "Haha, oh, but I'm stupid and useless? That's what you're saying. Oh! Go on, call me stupid. I freaking dare you."

"I didn't call you stupid," he retorted, vexed by my tirade. "You're crazy. And useless. And annoying. But not stupid." He then turned away with a smoldering snort. "And I'm out of here."

Was he seriously going to go back out the damn window? Why was he sneaking around? Oh never mind, this was Magus--I didn't want to know.

"Hey, Magus."

I got a silly little thrill to catch him there, his cloak hung up on the frame as he straddled a windowsill that was way too small and looked back at me. His testy and unspoken What? was as loud and clear as any of Crono's.

"Next time you decide to, oh, pop in for a visit, you could try, you know--the door? Knocking is considered a courtesy, too."

I heard a resigned, "...Useless," and then he left. I bit back a grin. That was the closest thing to a real conversation I'd ever had with that man.

I got my chance to interrogate Marle later, on a hot and lucid afternoon that was winding down into evening. I learned that we were at Melchior's house, which coincided with Frog's estimate of our last location. To be specific, we were staying in a spare bedroom upstairs.

We made a party of it, five of us exchanging stories in that crowded little guest room. Ayla was squatting wrongways in a wooden chair, Mishu occupied the windowsill much more gracefully than Magus had the night before, and I was reclining at the head of the bed while Marle sat at the foot, regaling everyone with the misbegotten conclusion of our grand adventure. The bunk was flush against a wall, which Crono was leaning on as he sat cross-legged over the covers and amused himself with a paper toy Marle had constructed (there were little loopy cat faces drawn on the side). When I finally got a look at him in the daylight with my glasses, his injuries were a lot more obvious--he had traded his headband for a bandage that was almost dyed as lividly as mine. It was a wonder he survived Heckran's blow, much less remained conscious.

I had to ask how that ordeal with Ramezia turned out before anything, of course, and I can at least say Marle's account was more colorful than Magus's.

"Oh yeah, it was scary for a second. So, we're on a beach, I don't know where, and she starts dragging me around, demanding I take her to see Pillie--I tripped over a crab and it pinched me right on the big toe. See?" She held up her bare foot to show off a shiny blister. "So I told her Gritchen was with Pillie last, and Ramezia went completely ballistic, calling me a liar and all kinds of things, but she didn't hit me or anything, really. Then she made a really loud 'grr!' like a bear, if a bear was like a fish, and we took off again, with that black teleport thing. It's so weird! It's like a gate, but it's a lot darker, and there's no wind or sound--it's just really really cold." She shuddered. "It gave me the creeps."

"The Darkness..." Mishu muttered from her corner, but didn't look up or elaborate. Marle only paused to draw some more breath before continuing.

"So she takes me to one of those gate shrine thingys and then we're back at that lab, you know, where the Mammon Machine is. It looks like she's going to drag me all the way back to the colony to look for Gritchen but then there he is--he walks right up to her and plants his foot..." She stands up, imitating a bold stance. "And he says like, 'I'm sorry, Lady Ramezia, but I cannot allow you to proceed,' and she doesn't even say 'why,' she just like, slaps him across the face--BAM! And he goes flying to the floor and I'm like, 'oh my gosh!' and then Melchior jumps out from around the corner at the exact same time--I guess he was hiding? So Melchior is up in her face, telling her not to go any further, and it looks like she's about to smack him too, so I twist her arm back--because she's still trying to hold me, you know?"

She contorted around an invisible dummy to demonstrate the maneuver. "So I throw her off balance, and then Melchior takes his cane and goes--whaaaawp!" A dramatic upper swing. "Right on the chin, knocks her out. It was so easy it was scary. I didn't think Melchior had it in him. It was the coolest thing I'd ever seen."

"Fuckin' ridiculous," Mishu griped at the ease with which an elderly man was able to one-up her in combat with the sorceress.

"So Ramezia drops like a sack of flour and I'm like oh my gawd, but everybody's okay. And then the rest of you guys show up! I'm so relieved but I'm like, wait, where's Crono and Lucca? So Ayla starts telling me what happened and I'm like oh my gawd again, except Magus is already saying how we have to stop the Mammon Machine before that spell is done. So we run really really fast back to that room, with the weird gate and everything."

She sat back on the bed and threw her hands into her lap with a gusty sigh. "Phew. It looked like we were just in time. But Melchior thinks that, um... that spell, the viti-thing--"

"Vitraevos," I corrected. Have I mentioned Marle's a good storyteller? As long as she doesn't have to explain anything technical, that is.

"Yeah! He doesn't think it was going to work the way Ramezia planned, anyway."

Huh, sounds like Melchior and I were on the same page. "Really? How did he think it would work?"

Marle has a funny way of weaving her hands over her head as she explains things. "Well, he's like, if she's using the gates to move all that water, it would still have to follow the law of, um... What's that word? Conservative?"

"Conservation of Time?" I hazarded. "And that's not really a law; it's just Gaspar's theory, but..." I had a freak mental image of a tidal wave sweeping Spekkio away, and lost the rest of my rational thought.

Marle gladly filled in for me. "Oh. Well yeah, it's just like what happened to us when we went to the End of Time. The water would just go there." She cracked up with an absurd titter. "Oh my gosh, I'm picturing Gaspar just standing there with an umbrella, and then a big wave goes whoosh." She threw her weight into a pantomime, playfully bouncing over the mattress, and Ayla snickered. "Hope old man can swim! Haha."

I was skeptical; that theorem only applied to people, and it was still full of holes as it was (you should have seen the debates I started with Gaspar. Nearly made the old man tear his hair out. I can't help being right all the time.) That didn't even mention the restrictive mechanics of the gate rings Ramezia was using, and then... I think I needed to hash out that hypothesis with Melchior. In the meantime... "So, how did you stop the spell? Did Magus use your pendant with the Mammon Machine like Melchior suggested?"

"We blew up the gates!" Marle declared with perfect alacrity, like she was saying 'I found a puppy' or 'we baked a cake.' Crono dropped his paper toy and his jaw simultaneously, and it's a good thing I was already sitting down, because I would've hit the floor right there. Marle read our appalled expressions and quickly retracted, "I mean, not all of them! Just the ones Ramezia connected to the Mammon Machine. Melchior and Gritchen took care of it. Frog helped, too--he used the Masamune to tear it all up. That sword is like a pointy wrecking ball, I swear. And that's after Magus turned off the machine--it worked just like Melchior said."

She tugged on the gold chain around her neck, drew its pendant into her hand and held it close, fondling the rich blue Dreamstone. "It looked like it was going to break... I was worried."

"And what happened to Ramezia?" I asked.

"Magus cut her head off before someone got a better idea," Mishu butted in, aiming a critical word at the princess.

Marle pulled her knees up to her chest and said petulantly, "I'm sorry. I just thought--"

"Yeah well, don't think so fucking much." Wow. That was the exact opposite of what I was going to tell Marle, but whatever. "You can't rehabilitate a fucking fiend. Going crazy is what they do. Once the Darkness goes to their head, they're as good as gone."

I swallowed a lump in my throat and glanced aside, hoping I didn't suddenly look as cold as I felt. Is that what I had to look forward to? Becoming like Ramezia? I didn't want to lose my mind--not like that...

Marle shrugged off Mishu's admonition and twined a loose strand of hair around her finger, pensive with her own problem. "Doesn't it bother you guys? That stuff Ramezia was talking about?"

I wrinkled my nose, not catching whiff of her meaning. "Which stuff? The genocide stuff or the crazy mother earth stuff?"

She said it so somberly it was like a bad joke. "The stuff about the planet hating us."

That was troubling her? Seriously? I mean sure, it's kind of sad, but... I guess I really am heartless. At least I could try to console her with reason. "I wouldn't take any of that to heart. Magus thinks she was really communicating with Lavos. With that necklace she was wearing, who's to say. If it actually was Lavos, then yeah, I can imagine why it would be hating us a little."

I heard myself and winced at a fallacy--a point upon which Marle would take too long to object. Why would Lavos abhor the humans, the species it spent so many eons cultivating for its ultimate harvest? Sure, its grievance could be against me and my friends in particular, but that would imply a precognition that... I don't know. I've heard of holding a grudge beyond the grave, but before it? Lavos wasn't an entity that liked to adhere to time's regular flow, but then again, neither were we. And I didn't want to imagine what such a horrific being would dream about across the ages.

A replicate... Dragonkin Omega. Where did Lavos come from? Who originally created the gates, and the gate shrines? And that red gate? Who wrote the T'torlan? I got an unsettling inkling that I was going to die not knowing any of those things. ...I just hoped I wouldn't turn into a monster first.

Unlike me, logic was rarely able to assuage Marle's conscience. "But you remember what Heckran said about the Mystics in the future? That they'll all be gone? You don't think that's because of us, do you?"

"Us, in particular? No, probably not." I shrugged. "Humanity in general? Maybe..."

"Why, is anyone going to miss them?" Mishu said caustically.

"Of course they'll be missed!" Marle chided. "That's a terrible thing to say. It's just not fair, for an entire race to just... go away."

"Reptites go away. Strong survive. Way always been. Law of Earth always fair, even if people no see."

Ayla made a valid, if blunt point. "We can't be held responsible for what happens to the Mystics in the future, Marle," I tried again.

She vehemently shook her head. "But the things we do in the present shape the future! And all we did just now is kill a whole bunch of Mystics that were fighting for theirs."

Suddenly, I got it. Marle was thinking like a princess, for once--like a soon-to-be-ruler over an entire kingdom, including its relationship with its neighbors. She wanted to be reassured that we were fighting the Mystics for the right reasons, because ultimately, it was the humans of her generation and onward that were going to set the example that might seal the Mystics' fate.

Of course, Mishu didn't give a rat's ass about that, and she said with the deliberate drawl a matron uses to correct children, "No, they were fighting to kill us. Because they thought Ramezia had a good idea. We changed their minds."

"By beating their asses," I grumbled, finishing the thought that no one else wanted to voice. Crono snorted with ill humor.

Ayla extended a compassionate hand. "Marle, no feel bad. You know right from wrong, good Mystic from bad. You already wise, make good chief."

Marle scrubbed away the misty look in her eyes and returned a warm smile. "Thanks, Ayla..."

"Yeah, don't worry about it," I backed her up. "The timeline will sort this stuff out like it always seems to." Huh, it felt like our old discussion about historical repercussions just came full circle. Was I conceding a point to predestination? How silly of me.

"Oh!" Marle perked up and leaned towards me with a confidential air. "Speaking of things working out, you want to know what was really weird? It was how we found you guys."

"Oh?" Crono and I exchanged an intrigued look. Apparently he hadn't heard this story yet, either.

"Right after that whole thing with Ramezia, we went back to look for you two, right? We were hoping you had made it to town, but it had rained so much that we couldn't find your tracks or anything. Even Ayla was lost. I thought it was going to take hours to retrace our steps, but then you wouldn't believe what we saw."

I didn't know what was coming, but something in the pit of my stomach was dreading it. "What?"

"It was a couple of ghosts. They came out of nowhere and started talking to us!" Before any of us could challenge her, she threw up her palm in an oath. "I swear I'm not making it up. Ayla saw them too, right?"

"Look like rape-er," Ayla emphasized.

Crono's shoulders stiffened, alarmed. "W-What did they say?" I stammered.

"They asked if we were looking for someone, and I said yes, and then they led us straight to you guys," Marle reported. "They were so weird. They were like this tall..." She held her hand about a foot off the bed. "And looked like little black dogs or something. And they had creepy glowing eyes."

"One red and one blue...?" I asked timorously. I couldn't believe this.

Marle's eyes widened with amazement. "How did you know?"

What could I say? "I just... saw them in a dream. Did they say who they were?" I answered a question with a question.

She shook her head. "No. Frog tried to hunt them down, but as soon as we found you two, they disappeared without a trace. Melchior thinks they were more like demons than ghosts, but we can't think of why they would want to help us."

Me neither, and that was the scariest part. Whatever those rapiers wanted--if that's what they actually were--they were willing to risk exposure to rescue us... for what? Those black voices didn't strike me as humanitarians. Even when I had the chance to ask, they denied me any direct answers.

"Isn't that freaky? I wonder where they came from. But I'm just glad everyone's safe." Marle then turned a heartfelt look to Crono and me. "You both scared us, you know."

Crono gave an abashed shrug. Sorry 'bout that. "All's well that ends well, huh?" I recited, trying to deflect the blame.

"Uh-huh," Marle huffed, nudging Crono with her outstretched foot. "I already gave you your whippin' for that crazy stunt. You always have to try to be the hero on your own, don't you? Next time let your friends help you," she mildly lectured.

Ayla nodded soundly. "Ayla know! No good, Crono stubborn."

He chuckled and scratched the back of his neck, looking adequately cowed. I know, I know...

Considering I owed him a beating later, as well, I decided to refrain from comment--that dope had enough trouble without three girls ganging up on him. Instead I pursued a change of subject. "Say, where are Frog and Melchior, again?"

"Melchior went to town for supplies and Frog went with him. I said he didn't have to, but..." Marle shrugged. "Maybe he's looking out for Magus."

"Why, did Magus take off again?"

She nodded. "I don't even know if he'll come back. He didn't say a word to anybody."

What a surprise. "Yeah, you know how Magus is..."

I asked how everyone was doing in the meantime, and Marle informed that while I spent three insensate days under Melchior's care, Frog led our group to investigate the Heckran Caves nearby. They didn't find any remnants of Heckran's gang, nor another gate, so that lead was buried. Ayla's stomach growled loud enough to turn the conversation to food, and while we were whining about how long Melchior was taking with the groceries, I confirmed my suspicion about the medication; I had been subsisting on tonics the entire time. When I asked if I was really that bad off, all Marle said was, "Hee, you talked a lot in your sleep. It was funny."

That didn't sit well. "Why, what did I say??"

"Oh, just... stuff." She shook her head, suddenly sober and evasive. And I thought I was a bad liar. "Most of it was just rambling."

Huh, so whatever I said was able to make Marle uncomfortable, of all people. Nice to know that I'm capable of embarrassing myself in my sleep, too. I looked to Crono for a clue, and he held up the 'square' sign, followed by a cut-off gesture. Nerd stuff. You don't want to know.

"O...kay." The uneasy silence grew unbearably itchy. I pulled up the corner of my shirt and began picking at my bandages (familiarity breeds immodesty, I guess.) Marle reached over to slap my hand, and I blocked her with my elbow.

"Tch, quit scratching it!"

"Tch, it itches! Give me a break, Princess."

The sulky smile didn't sell her scolding very well. "You're just going to make it worse."

"Yeah, well..." I peeled the gauze away from the root wound, which was healing well enough, but started to resemble a grotesque second belly button. "Geez, what an ugly scar. I'm going to be stuck with this thing forever."

"Good!" Ayla chipped in. "In Ioka, scar sign of strength. All good fighter have."

While I was distracted, Crono licked his thumb, sprang forward and slicked it across my navel. I dropped my shirt with a giddy yelp, foxfire roiling in my gut all the while I pummeled that crowing snigger out of him.

"Hehe, you two quit it!" Marle mediated with a pillow. Crono picked up the other pillow and made a sport of it, feathers flying everywhere as he buffeted us both, but I dropped out of the contest early, clutching the stitch in my side. "Ahahaha, ow, stop it, damn you. I can't laugh; it hurts."

Mishu trained a sly smirk on our antics. "So, can you still feel it?"

"Huh?" Marle quit pillow-dueling with her boyfriend long enough to pass her a puzzled look. Mishu wiggled her long, pointy fingers at me and Crono. "That funny, tingly feeling, when you touch each other."

"Er...!" I hiccupped while Crono nodded with uncouth enthusiasm. Sheesh, would it kill him to show a little shame? Uh, not that we had anything to be ashamed about! This beast link nonsense was Mishu's fault.

Marle had to ask, openly fascinated, "What's it like?"

"Well...?" We mutually considered it for a second, until Crono snapped his fingers, pointed at his foot and then leaned on his clapped hands.

"It's like when your foot falls asleep?" Hey, Marle was picking it up. There was hope for those two, yet.

Crono beamed at her while I swallowed another unwanted blush. "Yeah, but it's not... It's different."

"They call it the neiphiti's touch," Mishu said. Her head knocked against the window as she eased back into her aloof perch. "Heh, that's the nice word for it, anyway."

Crono flagged Mishu's attention and began to gesticulate eagerly, indicating himself and Marle. Can you link me and her next??

"What," Mishu deadpanned, purely lost, while I snapped, "Crono! We're trying to get rid of this thing, not spread it around! Quit being a pig."

He folded his arms and pouted while Marle whined, "Aww, but I wanna know what it's like..."

Speaking of unobtainable answers, I said, "You know guys, there's something we still haven't figured out. Who really built those gates? I mean, before Ramezia came along? Her people came to this planet all those years ago somehow, right?" Another technicality--they came to this planet all those years ahead of us. It's hard to keep the discrepancies of time travel in check in a normal conversation, and we quit correcting each other a long time ago (well, truth be told, Marle and Crono both snapped at me one day and I agreed to stop being pedantic.)

Marle shrugged. "Aliens... Who knows? I'm kind of disappointed that we don't get to see another world."

At this point, the idea of romping haphazardly across the galaxy made me blanch. "I think we've had enough fun almost getting killed on this one."

"Oh com'on!" she goaded. "Where's your sense of adventure?"

Mishu piped in with the jaded tone of a long-suffering traveler, "Gate hopping isn't as cool as it sounds. There really aren't that many interesting worlds out there, much less inhabitable ones, and most gates don't have a safety lock, so if you jump to a coordinate that doesn't have a working shrine, you're just stuck there. Try being marooned in a barren, radioactive wasteland or on a hunk of space ice for the rest of your life."

"Eee... nevermind," Marle recanted, but then graced the window with a wistful sigh. "But I'd still like to try it someday..."

That was Marle for you--she never quit dreaming of that next place, just around the bend. Now that the rain had stopped and the score was settled with Heckran and Ramezia, what lied ahead? I supposed Mishu would be going back to her home world. I figured we all would go back to our own lives... but what about me? What was I going home to? An empty house with a couple of fresh graves in the backyard. I hadn't even cleaned the blood up off the floor. I didn't want it--I didn't want that job, I didn't want that life. I wanted to go back to a place in time where my family was waiting for me, but now I'll only ever see them again in the afterlife.

...I was so close, too.

I shouldn't have said it out loud. I don't think I meant to. "...I'm scared to go home."

Great, make it awkward for everyone, why don't I? Marle lent me a pitiful look. "You can stay with me or Crono for a while, if you want..." Crono nodded sympathetically.

"Thanks, but... I think I'll just suck it up and deal." That was about to become my motto for the rest of my life, I feared.

In another act of extrasensory perception (or supernatural hunger), Ayla bolted out of her chair and down the stairs before any of us heard the front door unlatch. Frog and Melchior returned then, and we spent the rest of the evening chatting over a feast of stew and potatoes (more broth than potato, for me. I wasn't fit to stomach much else.) It was dark out by then, and I was more than content to quaff the medicine Melchior offered and go back to bed.

Hours later, I was foggily aware of someone else climbing into bed, and when I caught the scent of dragons and tonic it didn't surprise me (honestly, how long would it take to wash out that heckran funk? Crono needed to learn how to take a real bath.) I didn't have the gall to kick him out, even if I wanted to. He was trying to... well, I think he was being overprotective again. I hadn't missed what Mishu asked him so brashly from atop that cliff, whether he thought that beast link could save me. Maybe it did. So I wasn't going to complain when he wriggled under the covers and settled in close enough to feel his calm breathing and tender warmth at my back.

I was just surprised when he began trailing his fingers down the nape of my neck, gingerly petting. Crono was being awfully affectionate lately, but with that neiphiti's touch or whatever you wanted to call it, I couldn't blame him. It simply felt... cozy, casual--like we've always been this way. It's nice to have someone you can act completely casual around. One of our favorite shared pastimes is sleeping, which sounds like we bore each other so much we can't even stay awake, but that couldn't be further from the truth. It's just that Crono is one of the only people I can completely relax around, so much that we'll behave in ways people only do when they think they're alone--you know, all those private idiosyncrasies that a self-conscious person wouldn't dream of doing in front of others. It's comforting that we know each other's habits intimately and don't mind them, even if sometimes it's awkward and gross--such as the times I looked up from my work to find him drooling in his sleep, or--worse--scratching himself (and I don't mean his foot or something--I mean scratching... you know. Yeah. But he's caught me picking my nose just as many times, so it's only fair.)

But anyway, one of the habits he's most familiar with is my tendency to fall asleep at my work--often on my work, literally succumbing to exhaustion. I can get really involved in my projects and lose a night or two of sleep, okay? Or maybe forget to eat lunch or dinner or somesuch--it's not a big deal. I have been dense enough to bend my glasses out of shape--more than once--thanks to my lousy sleeping habits, but in rare fits of chivalry Crono would confiscate them before I passed out face-first like a dope. One time I was actually coming down with a fever instead of just being careless, and he picked me up and carried me to bed (and then fled for his life before he caught the same bug.)

All the same, Crono's best idea of showing affection was getting me in a headlock and giving me a noogie, which was why the way he had been treating me this past week was so unusual. I should have known something was up the morning he gave me a hug in Magus's castle, but at the time I had dismissed it under extenuating circumstances. I thought that heckran venom had gone to his head, not some spiritual beast link mumbo-jumbo. It wasn't such a big deal when he petted and held me while I was a bird because I was a small, fluffy animal--it was kind of expected (I take it on good authority that I was very soft and cuddly.) But, this...

There was a silence about the room that was strange, just like when I first awoke--no rain, creaky floorboards, crickets or anything. It wasn't spooky or stifling, but rather... unusual, almost quaint. Crono's hand strayed to my shoulder, giving it a firm pat in greeting. 'sup.

"...'sup," I quietly reciprocated. "Where's Marle?" Why did I have to ask? I enjoy digging my own holes, yes thank you.

Sleeping, he answered naturally, and I let the matter rest. I didn't want to make this an issue, but I couldn't help thinking that any normal girlfriend might be bothered by her boyfriend stalking off in the middle of the night to crawl into bed with another girl. Maybe. Then again, I supposed the three of us were never meant to be normal--and hey, it's not like anything was happening.

No sooner did I think so when his touch grew more assertive, tucking one arm around me while the other stroked my side. I leaned into it, practically purring like a kitten. Okay, so I didn't have any shame, either. I wondered if we would still be this close after that beast link wore off. ...I wondered if Crono was going to miss it as much as I would.

Then I felt a sigh that was a little too heavy, and it got me reconsidering everything. "What's wrong?" I whispered, trying not to disturb the peace. Crono subtly shook his head. Nothing.

"It's something I said, isn't it?" Geez, and I promised myself not to let Marle's earlier observation get to me.

There was another sigh and a gentle squeeze of my shoulder, meant to be consoling but only validating my suspicion. I was already sick of dancing around this. "What is it? Just tell me."

He drummed his fingers on my arm, contemplating things best left unsaid. "You were crying," he murmured. "...'bout your mom."

Oh. Well wasn't that just a nice, hot steaming cup of awkward. "...Sorry," I said, as if I could help myself.

His hand drew down the ridge of my spine, icy-hot through my worn old shirt. I didn't think he would say any more, but then... "We need to talk."

I knew it was serious business because he literally said 'talk.' Crono never needed to talk. "Um...?" I responded, the pinnacle of articulacy.

Crono sat up, ripping away precious, placid heat, and reached towards the foot of the bed. Before I could object, he clamped one hand over my right ankle and rolled up the hem of my pants, revealing a spider web of inkblot veins and leathery purple skin grisly enough to make even me flinch, and I was used to walking with it. Crono cut to the quick, looking at me and making the sign for 'time.' How long has this been going on?

Oh. Crap. "It's not as bad as it looks," I said, ineptly pawing at the blanket to cover back up. It was kind of senseless to hide it, now.

He glared. That's not what I asked. He wasn't about to ask again. I had forgotten how scary Crono could get when he expected a serious answer.

I was about to reply, 'Around the same time I started hearing crazy black voices,' but I knew that would be the stupidest thing to admit ever, not to mention a one-way ticket to a straight jacket. Or was it? Marle and everyone else saw those rapiers, too, but... I didn't know. I couldn't be sure of anything. I was scared of being labeled a lunatic, because I knew that if the dear denizens of Truce regarded me that well, it wouldn't take a stretch for my friends to believe the same. And I desperately wanted my friends to trust my sanity, despite all the odds. "You remember, um... the fair?" Geez, the fair, like there could be only one. Crono nodded apprehensively. "Well, then... yeah."

He stared back, incredulous, and then comprehended with the softest and most explicit, "Damnit," I had ever heard.

"It was just a snake bite. It wasn't anything to get worked up over. I thought it would heal long before now," I rationalized.

But it didn't.

"No, but..."

I can not thank Mishu enough for showing up right then--through the window, no less, like a damn superhero. What was her and Magus's preoccupation with that window? There was a brief scuffle with the ledge before she found her footing on the hardwood floor. Without an excuse in the world, the bat-lady glanced our way and asked, "Did that faglock come through here? I could swear I saw 'im..."

"Uh...?" I cleared my throat, barely grasping the context of her interruption, much less her lack of manners. "You're looking for Magus?"

"Yeah, he was just..." She spun around, as if he would pop out of the nearest closet at the sound of his name, but then she planted her hand on her hip and clucked, "Tch, screw it. It's not important. Man covers his tracks like he's outrunning the laws of magic or something."

"Uh..." I started again, hoping that witless note would hang in the air long enough to give her the hint to leave. It didn't. Mishu sat back on the windowsill, looking over our bed with underhanded interest. "So. What're you kids doing up?"

"Nothing," I replied more pettishly than necessary, and I could feel Crono bristling at her low-key sneer. "Heh heh, yeah, right."

"What?? Seriously, nothing!" I fought back. I still had some dignity, damnit. "And what about you? You always come barging into people's bedrooms in the middle of the night, waking everyone up?"

"Fuck you, you weren't asleep," she countered, and then as easily as a sea breeze, she changed tack. "Actually, I wanted to talk to you, too."

I let the offensive drop. "Really? About what?"

"About the both of you. I ain't a priest, but I can safely say you guys' beast link is some of the weirdest shit I've ever seen. Never seen a regular human take so fast to the beast talent, either. You sure you're from this planet?"

"Maybe we're just extraordinary," I preened.

"Psh, whatever." She grimaced and rubbed her nose, as if to glance off a punch to the face--with what she was about to say, it might as well have been.

"You know... if I gave a shit about tact or people's feelings or whatever, I'd find a nice way not to tell you this, but fuck it." She looked straight at me. "You're gonna wish you died back there, because it's all downhill from here. The Darkness is going to destroy you and everything you care about. I don't have to be a fuckin' psychic to see that coming; it's what the blight does. I've watched it ruin people--destroy their souls from the inside-out. I've seen it happen to people I know--good people, people who would never hurt anybody. I've seen them turn into rampaging, bloodthirsty killers right before my eyes. That's what was happening to Ramezia, and it'll happen to you too, one day. Nobody can erase the blight."

And then at Crono. "You think you did her a favor back there, saving her life and all, but it'll only make it harder in the end. ...Just hope you never have to do what I did."

On that portentous note, she threaded herself through the open window and took off, vanishing with a clap of wind and without as much as a goodnight.

"She's just a ray of hope and sunshine, isn't she?" I said thinly, trying to outweigh the gravity of the Darkness with levity. It didn't work, because when I checked over my shoulder, Crono was looking as if he just seen a ghost.

I sighed, exasperated with every stupid little thing converging to ruin my life (it's not a conspiracy--it's not. Only crazy people think everything's out to get them.) I never wanted to be one of those whiny losers who can't stop talking about how much their life sucks, but it was getting ridiculous, here. This was going to be a stupid question, more-or-less because I knew the answer--that it was just his nature--but I couldn't rest until I heard it from him. "Oh, hell, I don't know... Why did you do it? Why did you go so far to save me?"

Crono leaned back, struck as if the possibility that I might like to know why never even occurred to him. I gave him a minute to think before he answered. You did the same for me.

Oh. Was he referring to his rescue on Death Peak with the Time Egg? I didn't respond right away, although I wasn't exactly willing to take credit. That was more Marle's doing than anyone else's. She was the only one who never lost hope--who didn't stop believing. If she hadn't been pushing us, I doubt we could've pulled it off. Even at the time, I didn't think it was possible. It defied all the facts and logic I had to rely on. If it was a test of faith, I had failed it hands-down. To bring someone back from the dead... It's an incredible feat. I had to learn the hard way that, when it comes to time travel--and even life itself--nothing's impossible.

Nonetheless, he still didn't answer my question--if anything, he made it worse. What made him so willing to do for me what I was too narrow-minded to do for him? "That was different and you know it," I sniffed, trying not to sound guilty.

He shrugged emphatically, pointed at me and then walked a pair of fingers down his arm. Why? You helped all along. If you really thought it was impossible, you would've walked away.

I hated him for always knowing what to say--or not say, rather. Now I just felt like an ass. Crono studied my compunctious look, realized I wasn't mollified with that answer, and held up another sign, this time being direct. Look. Because, you're... He paused, his thoughts hung up somewhere I couldn't fathom, and then made a gesture I didn't recognize. I pressed him and he gave a slight, tortured grimace. Don't make me say it.

"Whaaat? You know I have a vision impairment, mister," I caviled, milking it, and then feigned swooning. I could almost see him rolling his eyes as he grudgingly caught me, reached around, took my hands in his and puppet-guided my fingers through the sign for 'because...'

I started laughing, half delirious. How many tonics did Melchior give me, again? "Crono! That's cheating."

Because... A harried sigh, and then right behind my ear, with a quiet sobriety that surprised me, "You're my little sister, and I love you."

I hadn't expected that. I didn't know what I was expecting, but... well. Crono was my big brother, since always. He tried to beat up the kids at school who picked on me (even though I hit him twice as hard after the fact, in a fit of pride), and sat with me under our favorite tree while I tinkered on inventions, and went on childish 'adventures' in the woods with me. I always wanted to help him out the same way he helped me, even if it was usually futile (I still can't believe I busted up that prison only to find he broke himself out, the dumb lug! Do you have any idea how difficult and nerve-wracking that entire operation was?? They don't build dungeons you can just waltz into. At least I got a cool gun out of it.)

I wanted to say something duly simple and profound, but once again I was in his arms and at a loss. Suddenly I recognized what that silence was, and what made it special: I couldn't hear the voices. At all. My mind was blessedly quiet, and it was just me and Crono. If only I could spend the rest of my life like that, basking in his comfortable silence. We never needed all those fancy words.

He was my big brother, and as long as he was there, I always had a family.

I kissed him on the cheek (he needed a shave, too; he was bristly.) "...Thank you."

---

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