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

26. To Far Away Worlds

Apropos of absolutely nothing, I love robots. I don't make a secret of this. I've studied them for the greater part of my teenage life, but I still consider my crowning achievement as a robotic engineer the day I taught Robo to lie. That doesn't sound very special (it sounds kind of horrible, actually) but I always knew I would remember that glitch (if I should call it that) to my dying day.

It had started on a completely unrelated occasion, when Ayla remarked that she'd never told a lie her whole life. Some of us didn't find that easy to swallow (I mean, honestly, never? I know Ayla's an upstanding person, but come on--don't tell me she's never filched a pork chop or something and blamed Kino for it.) In the ensuing discussion, Robo revealed that it was against his human interaction protocol to falsify or give misleading information. Then he asked me what the requisites for lying were, and how in the world do I answer that without laying down the template for incriminating myself?

"There's never a good reason to lie," I eventually reasoned. "But sometimes, when the situation calls for discretion, you'll want to... prevaricate."
"Prevaricate?"
"Yeah, you don't always want to tell people everything you know. You don't have to outright lie, but withholding information can sometimes be helpful."

I got a couple of low-key beeps in confirmation and didn't think anything more of it. Later, when we were on our quest to bring Crono back, we had to stop by his house to confiscate a 'clone' doll in his near-exact likeness (Norstein Bekkler is a freak.) Since this mission necessitated explaining to Crono's mom why we were taking such a bizarre thing from his room, I led the way and Robo and Frog followed. Ayla and Marle stayed behind--they were acting kind of weepy and unpredictable since... you know, and we didn't want to give Crono's poor mom the wrong impression. And Magus wasn't going anywhere near our so-called "fool's errand" (despite being the one to tip us off to Gaspar in the first place. Sometimes that man really makes me wonder.)

So it happened that the woman asked us how her son was faring, and I choked up just long enough for Robo to belt out that Crono was 'fine.' The entire encounter was so awkward and uncomfortable that it didn't even hit me until after we left, and I had to ask on the way back to the Epoch, "Did you just... lie to Crono's mom?"

Robo's response was priceless. "I prevaricated in my response to prevent the undesirable sharing of information."

I marched into his path, stopping our little troupe in its tracks. "You told a lie! You lied! Robots can't lie!"

I swear it's possible for a robot to look and sound contrite. "I am... sorry. Are you angry with me?"

I shook my head and started laughing. "No. No! I'm thrilled!" And I was, so much that I started prancing down the road--prancing, like a fairy or something--although not too far ahead to miss Robo directing a query at Frog.

"I do not understand. Is lying not a reprehensible act?"
"Methinks Miss Lucca means that she prefers thy lies to most other people's truths."
"Then it is... a compliment?"
"Aye, that it is."

I was going somewhere with that anecdote, I know it... Oops, I forgot. There isn't even a moral to that story, so you'll just have to take it at face value.

Anyway, I'll never forget our last night at Melchior's house, because that's when I heard the big news. I woke up after a fitful dream to find myself alone in the dark. I sat up in bed and scrubbed my face, as if I could erase the ill humor that had settled in my gut along with the spots in my eyes. I'm not like Ayla; I don't have a sixth sense (or seventh or eighth), but I can tell when something momentous is in the air. I wished I had a sounding board to sort out my troubled thoughts, but Crono had gone... somewhere, and I was feeling a little bereft.

I needed to stop being clingy. 'Why are you moping? He'll be back. Quit being pathetic,' I berated myself.

'But you're so good at it.'

There was that voice I never wanted to hear again, making my fingernails bite into the sheets and the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. I sat in bated silence, wishing the malevolent presence away while willing it to speak again.

So it did, frankly and conversational, as if we were old friends--it was getting to feel that way, by now. 'Well? How does it feel?'

'What's that?' I came back, barely accustomed to this two-way telepathic babble.

'Being alive.'

'All right...' I said sedately, trying not to give away my anxiety. I had to figure out what this thing wanted. I could wait all night for answers if I had to.

'Just all right? You're lucky to be above room temperature right now. Shouldn't you be grateful? We're the ones who saved you, you know.'

'Yeah, I wondered about that. Just who are you guys, seriously? What is it you want?'

It only held back a moment before replying, simply yet savagely, 'Revenge.'

'Revenge...?' That word make me feel sick. 'Against who? For what?'

'The espers. Their reckoning is overdue. Justice will be served in Ragnarok.'

'Ragnarok?' Sepia-toned doodles flashed before my mind's eye. 'Isn't that supposed to be the so-called end of the world?'

'So it's called, indeed. Every end is just another beginning.'

'Yeah, right. And what does saving my life have anything to do with all of that?'

'Oh... We have our reasons. I'd just enjoy the time you have left, if I were you.'

'What the heck is that supposed to mean? Why won't you answer any of my questions straight?'

'And why can't you be happy for your own survival?'

'Don't turn this back on me! I don't...' know how to keep my mouth shut, even when it is. 'I don't know. I can't stop thinking about what Mishu said.'

'What, about turning into a fiend?' it guessed with relish, and I realized that was the true source of the malaise that was keeping me awake. I just had a dream to that very tune, and it wasn't pleasant (bad memories like crossed wires on a circuit board, too fresh and hot and real, a broken shotgun in a flower pot, a pitchfork in the wall, and she looked dead at me and said it was my fault, for letting the Darkness in. We didn't even own a damn pitchfork.)

'...I don't want to hurt anyone.'

'But that's what the blight does. Don't worry--by the time it devours your mind and spirit, you'll have long stopped caring.'

'That's not any comfort, thanks! I don't want to turn into anything! I don't want to lose my mind...'

'Oh well.'

I peered around the room, into the corners and--absurdly enough--under the bed. I couldn't find a trace of anyone. 'Oh well, huh? That's all you have to say? I'm sick of talking to shadows. Don't you have a name, or at least a face? Something I can look at or punch or something?"

'There's a mirror down the hall.'

"What? That isn't funny."

"Oh... sorry, is this a bad time?"

I nearly jumped out of my skin, looked to the open door and found Marle standing there, one hand on the frame as if to keep her from slipping into the deep end like I had. "Huh? Oh! Um... sorry, no, it's okay." I settled back on the bed and ran a hand through my hair, combing back that sticky feeling of humiliation. "I wasn't talking to... you or anything."

"Okay..." she said meekly, taking my word for it a little too easily as she sat on the bed and bounced back to something cheerful. "So, what's up?"

"Not much..." I answered cautiously, not meaning to sound unfriendly. "Why, what're you doing up?" 'Not talking to the boogieman, I'll bet.'

"Well..." she drawled, folding her hands in her lap and passing me an archly coy look. She was a touch more happy than the circumstances warranted, considering it was--what, midnight? And everyone was supposed to be asleep, so I asked, too curious for my own good, "What're you smiling about?"

I caught a giddy flinch, one that was biting back a delicious secret. Then she leaned close and whispered, eyes twinkling, "Crono proposed to me."

"P-Proposed?" I reeled, dumbstruck. "To marriage?" 'No, to go out for ice cream. Yes for marriage, you twit.'

She was completely serious, too--I could tell by the way she wore her mirth, bright and rosy on her cheeks. "Isn't it wonderful?"

"Oh, yeah, it's..." I swallowed. "Wonderful. Excuse me for not leaping for joy--shot with an arrow, and all..." I was trying to sound more casual than sarcastic--I was just in shock, really. Fortunately, she didn't take it the wrong way.

"Hehe, oh! I know. You're so funny." She shrugged, merrily apologetic. "I'm sorry. I'm just so happy, I had to tell someone."

I forced a light tone--for crap's sake, sound happy for her. "Yeah... um, yeah! Wow. I know, that's amazing. Congrats."

Marle wrapped me in a squeaky hug. "Hee, thank you! So many exciting things have been happening lately, it's almost too much to believe."

"I know what you mean," I muttered, and she pulled away with an amicable laugh.

"Right. So I guess we should try to go back to sleep, huh? Big day tomorrow, and all..."

"Yeah, I guess..." Tomorrow meant goodbye for most of us. The last message Gritchen left was that the Fardons intended to dismantle the rest of the gate shrines. We were given a few days to recuperate and head back to our respective times, but that meant we had to head for the gate in Truce Canyon as soon as possible.

"Don't forget, we're leaving first thing in the morning, okay?" Marle had to remind me.

"I didn't forget..." I said peevishly as she got up to leave.

"Hehe, all right. Good night." Then with a swish of her ponytail she was gone, a slip of strawberry-blonde daylight back into the disquieting dark.

"Night..." I returned, too late to an empty room.

'So... which is worse: being useless or being a third wheel?'

Not completely empty. I sighed, finally getting used to that hollow ache in the bottom of my chest. It's said that after a definite period of starvation, the stomach will adjust to the lack of food and you'll stop feeling hungry. Sometimes, I like to imagine the heart works the same way.

'...Same difference.'

After breakfast, we thanked Melchior his hospitality and then hit the road. The trail was still pretty soggy when our group of six set out for Medina, where a newly constructed ferry would take us to Truce. As rejuvenating as it was to walk outdoors under a clear sky, the excessive mud didn't make it worthwhile, and with the sun out, summer was in full force. "Ugh, I hate when it's muggy like this," Marle complained for the first time in ages, about anything--it was simply that bad.

There's nothing else to note about the trip, except when we disembarked in Truce that evening, guess who met us on the pier?

"H-Hey Marle!" Crono's stupid friends, right where we left them. Charlie waved us over to the dumpster outside Rick's Cafe, where he was parked on the tetanus-ridden lid alongside Gary, Haru and Liquel.

Marle buoyantly skipped over to greet them. "Hey guys! How's business?"

"Not too bad," Haru reported around a lazy drag on a cigarette. "Slowed down since the rain let up."

"Everybody back to work, real jobs and shit, word," Liquel explained.

Gary laid a cynical eye on the ostensible leader of our group, who was flanked by Ayla and Marle, with Mishu walking just ahead. "Damn Crono, you fuckin' pimp. How's you always surrounded by these fine-ass women?"

Crono shrugged, rightfully smug, until Ayla clapped him on the back with a hearty laugh. "Hah! Pimp? That funny, Ayla like." Did Ayla even know what that meant? I nearly choked on a laugh at the disturbed look Crono passed back. Please don't start calling me that.

Haru noticed me and sneered, "Yeah, just too bad Booger's here--depreciates the property value by like twenty percent."

"Ah, get bent," I eloquently retorted. And to think, out of the bunch I almost didn't hate Haru; he's the brains of their outfit.

"Hey hey Booger, that's what your girlfriend said, am I right?" Gary crowed, garnering a low-five from Liquel.

That's when Frog stepped up, slung an arm over my shoulder and said with such a jovial swagger I could have died on the spot, "These gentlemen harassing you, my lady?" I was too astonished to play into the ruse; I could only savor the slack-jawed reception we were getting from the dumpster.

Charlie said something barely audible that Gary elected to broadcast. "Yeah, and who the hell're you?"

Crono signaled the end of our friendly chat by waving at the gang as he walked away. "Aye, we must be off. Farewell, lads," Frog said with a shrewd grin as he took my arm and dragged me off, as well.

Once we were out of earshot, Marle applauded us with a titter. "Hehe, you guys! That was great." Crono cocked a bemused grin at Frog and then me before shaking his head, refraining from comment. What was that about?

Oh, I didn't even care--I held fast to my savior's arm. "You are my damn hero. I'll repay you, anything. You sure you want to go back to the Middle Ages? You wouldn't be for sale, would you?"

Crono rolled his eyes. You don't have any money.

"Shut up, Crono," I snapped, never minding the irony.

"I didn't appreciate their manners, is all," was all Frog had to say for himself, and then he winked as he turned me loose and strolled ahead. Good holy hell, have I mentioned that Frog is--okay, okay! I promised I wouldn't say it again. (Still, gawd. So far out of my league. I could die.)

The eerie, sentient twang of the Masamune broke into our revelry. "Pimp! What a misnomer."

"Yeah," Mune's plucky voice joined his brother's. "The only whore here is the neiphiti."

Mishu whirled towards Frog, who was wearing the source of the insult on his back (Frog made sure to look appropriately aghast and unaffiliated.) "What the--hey, that's exotic mage, you fuckstick."

"You use magic to blow guys for money. Which part of that job description doesn't make you a whore?" Mune riposted.

Marle baulked at that information, turning a stunned look to Mishu. "Wait, you what??" Crono looked thoughtfully at the spirit mage before passing me the sign for money and a crooked grin. Ask her how much she charges. I casually slugged him in the arm.

Marle seemed to think the exchange was funny, even if she missed the 'joke.' "What? What did he say?"

"He wanted to ask--"

Crono made a frantic 'no no no' gesture, and I snared his wrist. "Oh, oh, now you don't want everyone to hear? I see how it is."

I knew what that retaliatory gleam in his eye meant, and I let Crono go, dancing out of reach of an incoming noogie. "Okay, okay, I give!"

Ayla, who had been watching the whole thing with her nose crinkled in puzzlement, all of a sudden remarked, "Magic blow guys? That make much money? Ayla not think trade good. In Ioka, get any time for free."

Crono doubled over and Marle started laughing so hard that none of us could remember what we were saying anymore, and that was how we spent the rest of our trek to the canyon.

It's a good thing we got that hysteria out of our systems, because I can't think of anything more sobering than setting foot in that underground shrine where our adventure officially began. Not even the oppressive stone enclosure and tranquil blue light could wash out the sense of awe one gets from standing before a monument to temporal entropy--a lovingly-crafted reminder that nothing in this universe always works the way it's damn well supposed to. All the same, a time gate is a marvelous anomaly, no matter how and where it's presented.

The only surprise left was the reception party, and we were startled by their presence more than anything. "Pillie!" Marle exclaimed as she bent on one knee to pass the child a friendly wave. Pillea shuffled around Gritchen's legs and refused to advance, although she returned the gesture with a timid smile.

"Hey there, remember us? How are you?" Marle pressed a nice conversation.

The little girl sniffled. "Mommy and Levi are gone..."

Levi? Ohh... oh. Gritchen mentioned she was a summoner, like her mother. So yeah, we just killed her pet and made her an orphan, thanks for asking, Marle. I think the princess honestly forgot, judging by the mortified tinge to her complexion. "Oh, I'm so sorry, Pillie..."

"Levi will be back. They always come back," Mishu flatly assured her, and I almost believed it, myself.

Frog politely bowed at the Fardon pair. "It's good to see you again, Gritchen, Pillie."

"I am glad you all made it," Gritchen said in kind. Pillie looked about and plaintively asked, "Where's the fire birdy?"

"Oh, uh... she's back in her cage. Resting," I supplied. Oh yeah, smooth.

Then a rock hitherto unnoticed stirred behind them, scaring the rest of the daylights out of us. Frog reflexively reached over his shoulder, but after a second glance he let his sword rest. "Magus?!" I didn't shriek (Marle was the one who shrieked. I just, uh, yelled in a not-too-girly manner. He snuck up on us, okay?)

The wizard shucked off his cloak of shadows and tersely accosted us. "It's about time. You people take forever. It's a miracle you get anything done."

"What were you waiting on us for?" I had to ask.

I think he--flinched? No, Magus wouldn't flinch if a hornet flew straight into his eye, but there was definitely a browbeaten shade to his facade when he said, "I need that other book, the one with the gate coordinates."

"Oh really?" Well what would you know? Here was the Magus, actually admitting that he needed us for something. The wayward urge to rub it in came over me. I dug the notebook in question out of my travel pack and flashed it at him the same way he did the T'torlan a few nights before. "Well if you're such a smarty-pants, why didn't you just go back and take this from me rather than wait for us to bring it here?"

"I was being 'courteous'," he uttered sardonically, and even Ayla guffawed at that.

"Hah! You funny man. Make Ayla wet pants, laugh so hard."
"Yeah, you're a regular comedian, Magus," I concurred.

Since I wasn't about to deliver it (what do I look like, a waitress?) he grudgingly crossed the room and plucked the notebook from my hand. I let it go without a fight, finding his perturbed reaction worth the expense. "I liked you better when you were a bird."

"Shame you couldn't do us the same favor," I shot back. He would've made an outstanding goat, too.

Gritchen tilted a baffled look at the warlock as he stepped onto the shrine's dais and started thumbing through my notes. "You could have asked me. I would have gladly disclosed the proper coordinates."

"Shut up," Magus muttered, leaving the impression that he either really didn't trust Gritchen, or had actually been waiting in this cave for another reason. Ultimately, it didn't matter; we could ask all day, but we'd never know.

"So..." Frog opted for a change of subject. "Since we're all here, I suppose this is it."

"So soon?" Marle bemoaned, and Crono answered with a crestfallen nod.

Gritchen cleared his throat with a weird, slurping rattle that sounded like drawing a fish through a vacuum hose. "There is only a slight matter of business left beforehand. You see, Heckran's clan forfeited a precious artefact we believe to be that Rainbow Shell you were missing."

Marle gasped. "You found it??"

"Indeed, if I may..." Gritchen reached into his cloak pocket, withdrew a shard of luxurious mother-of-pearl and presented it to us. "Here."

"Huh?" Marle gaped at the palm-sized offering. "That's it? That can't be it! The Rainbow Shell was huge!"

"I am sorry. This was all we found," Gritchen explained.

"Ohh, thank you anyway..." Marle lamented as she took the enchanted scrap.

"And red rock?" Ayla tried, yet I shook my head. "I'm sure it got used up to restore the Mammon Machine..."

"Better to let a dead dog lie, then," Frog gave that maxim an odd twist.

"There is also the Sun Stone, which we've kept in our laboratory..." Gritchen left the notion hanging in the air.

Marle held a finger to her chin and posited, "Well, it was at Lucca's house before..."

So it was my call? Great. "I say you guys keep it. It's brought me enough bad luck."

Between half a dozen rueful looks, I picked up a wry smirk from Crono. I thought you didn't believe in luck. Yeah, well, I didn't believe in a lot of things before I started traveling with these people, like magic, and ghosts. And time travel.

Gritchen accepted the suggestion with a straightforward nod. "As you wish. We shall keep it in safe study." That's all I wanted to hear. "That would conclude our business, then. My teams have cleared all our posts in the past, as well as the laboratory, and the demolition is nearly complete. We've left the shrines in our era and this one intact, although once we're done here, this cave will promptly be collapsed."

Frog bared a twinge of concern. "What's going to happen when we try to go back to our times, then?"

"The gate should drop you where the shrine used to be," I filled him in. "Without anything to sustain it, it'll then seal up. It should look like it was never there." Gritchen nodded in accord.

In that case, all that was left were goodbyes. Gritchen volunteered to configure the rings to the Mystic Mountain gate while Ayla passed around her self-patented 'kilwala hugs.' (Ow, my poor ribs.) "Thanks so much for all your help, Ayla!" Marle chirped, and she won an extra-friendly tug on her ponytail.

"Always help friends, no problem! Had great time, see Crono again, and Crono friends! Everyone always with Ayla, no matter what." She beat her breast for emphasis. "Never forget."

"We'll never forget you too, Miss Ayla," Frog assured as he and I set to work on the hidden switches. A little magic here, and there... click-click, click. A deluge of brilliant sapphire light diluted the threads of red. Ayla then mounted the gate's platform, blew us a jaunty kiss and leapt out of sight.

"And there she goes..." I remarked, never failing to be amazed by the way Ayla breezes through life.

Next, Frog approached our most alien companion and openly related, "Ah, Miss Mishu... You haven't been our most trustworthy ally, but I have to thank you, for what you've done for me."

She shrugged off the candid words, completely unbothered. "Whatever. It was a freak accident."

Frog looked like he could've laughed, yet retained his knightly composure. "A serendipitous one, nonetheless. I'm in your debt." As if to complement that thought, he shouldered gruffly past Magus on his way to the gate. "Thanks for nothing."

"Hrmph. Doggie." Magus managed to turn that term of endearment into a derogatory one. He's a man of many talents and abysmally few friends.

Again Gritchen set the dial while Frog and I circled the pillars. Click, click... "Hey, Frog..." I tried to hold him, for even just a second longer, but I was suddenly at a loss of what to say. It's not like either of us needed closure here, but... No matter how much you have to, it's hard to let a good friend go.

He started to cut me off anyway, glancing back with a subdued, "Ah, you needn't--"

"'Long farewells ne'er were necessary,' right?" I beat him to it.

He laughed one short, sad little note, and then turned around to face us. "Actually... I was going to say, it's all right to call me Glenn."

I blinked, astonished by his change of heart--although I had to admire his timing. "Really? You're going to be okay with that?"

His smile was an open book, frayed on the edges and creased where the pages should run smooth, but every single word was genuine. "...I think I will."

Marle couldn't wait to try the name out, and she threw an exuberant hug at him. "Good luck, Glenn! We're going to miss you!"

He stumbled to catch her, and then returned the warm embrace. "Ahaha, I'm going to miss you all, too. Oh..." Glenn wiped the corners of his eyes and then stood back, the gate breathing a supernatural gust into the cavern as he touched the last switch.

I wished I could always remember the way he looked then--tall and proud, strong and hesitant, too old and too young, wearing the world's finest sword over ill-fitting clothes, and long wild hair as green as spring grass snagged in the tatters of his scorched olive cape--but memories are ephemeral things, worse than fading photographs. He traded Crono's wave word-for-word and then walked through the portal. Farewell.

"Hrmph." Magus threw my notebook away--literally, lobbed it across the room. I was lucky to catch it. What a jackass. "I'm done here."

It was Marle's turn to be nosy. "You're going back to your old time, then?"

She was summarily ignored. Magus plodded up the steps and began to manipulate the gate's controls himself, never minding Gritchen's assistance. Marle must have signed a suicide pact for breakfast, because she ran up after him and tugged his cloak. "Um, hey!"

Even I felt a draught from the icy look he dealt her, and I was on the other side of the shrine. That ice princess wouldn't be daunted by a cold shoulder, though. She stood straight up to him and said, "Listen, about that stuff you saying back there, with the Mammon Machine and all..." Wait, stuff to the who? Back where? Was I missing something?

She hesitated, cupping a hand over her heart--and then, in the most incredible feat I had seen all week, she unfastened the gold chain around her neck and held it out for Magus. "This pendant... It was hers, right? Maybe it will help you."

What. Why? How? Where did this insane gesture come from? Even Magus was thunderstruck--I could tell by the way his expression locked up between 'pissy' and 'confused.' At last his voice leaked out, like sand through a sieve, "I don't--"

"Care!" Marle dropped the pendant, forcing him to catch it in a gut-reflex. She then folded her hands behind her back and bounced on her toes, satisfied with the exchange. "I want you to have it. I know you'll keep it safe."

"Princess..." was all he said, quiet and broken, as if he forgot himself for just that moment. Then he hit the last switch and stormed from the room.

"Holy crap," was my sentiment, after all was said and gone. Crono skipped to Marle's side, stringing up his bewilderment like a mad puppeteer. Why did you do that??

Marle looked after the closed gate with a solemn mien that was so painfully familiar I couldn't quite place it. "It just seemed like... the right thing to do." She looked back at me. "The same reason you gave your Gate Key to Jerad, right?"

Oh gawd, what?? "N-No, it's not the same at all! I can always build another Gate Key. Wasn't that pendant really precious to you? I thought it was a royal heirloom," I countered before my face turned conspicuously red.

She shrugged, completely resilient to the loss of a one-of-a-kind keepsake. "Sure, but he lives in the past, right? It'll come back eventually!"

I gawped at her ex post facto reasoning. "What--that's--it doesn't work like..." I pushed my glasses up the bridge of my nose and stifled a headache with a sigh. "Oh, fuck it. Why not?"

She could have upbraided me for that pithy little remark, but Marle didn't seem as much scandalized as amused. "Lucca! When did you start using language like that?"

"I guess I got it from Mishu," I drolly answered. "We all know she's such a wonderful influence."

"I can still hear you cocksuckers," the neiphiti attested from the foot of the shrine, where she had already set three of the four switches. Gritchen gave a disapproving grunt as he covered his charge's tiny, pointy ears with his hands. Pillie looked comically disoriented.

Mishu went ahead, hopping up to the gate rings and glancing them over before pulling back with a bemused and esoteric, "Huh. That rat bastard."

"Hey Mishu..." I began, before I lost the nerve to ask. "What did you mean back there, when you said you hoped we'd never have to do what you did?"

She shrank from the question, wings bunching into a knot as she turned her back. "It doesn't matter. I was just talking shit."

I edged in, persisting, "About the blight. You have it too, don't you? What's going to happen to you, then?"

"I'm just going to... keep going." There was a deliberative curl to her tail that was matched with a mischievous look when she suddenly turned back and asked, "Say, you want to come with?"

I recoiled. "Say what?"

She extended her hand, earnest in her bearings despite the frivolous grin. "Come with me. I'm looking for a cure."

"You said you're looking for the Phoenix..." I quibbled, feeling that precious nerve I had just a moment ago slip away.

"Same difference. The Phoenix is the key to wiping out the Darkness."

At that point Marle butted in, "Oh, no fair! I want to go adventuring on other worlds, too!"

Mishu shrugged. "Tch, I won't stop you, Princess. You can come, too."

I had to make sure Marle understood, "But it's a one-way trip--you realize that, right? The Fardons are going to blow up these gates right after this."

"That is a certainty," Gritchen affirmed. "You must choose wisely before departing here."

Just to drive the point home, I said, "Yeah Marle, are you sure you want to leave this era behind? I mean, your dad and... you know."

"Oh, for...!" It looked like she was about to tell the king of Guardia where to stick it, but then she glanced back at Crono and her demeanor softened. "I guess you're right. Daddy needs me here, and so does our kingdom." She hung her head, dispirited but resigned to the truth. "I really wanted to see another world, is all..."

You know, it's taken the past few days to realize just how much that rebellious princess has truly matured. Yet then she looked up and said, so frank and tearful it was almost strange, "But Lucca, you should go."

Once again, the need to be flippant in the face of such a life-altering decision compelled me to crack a grin. "What, you want to get rid of me that badly?"

In a very bold yet very typical show of compassion from Marle, she rushed forward and clasped my hands, entreating, "No, I don't mean that at all! You're my best friend and I'd miss you forever, but seriously, if what Mishu says is true, it could really help you."

Mishu pitched in, "I'm not lying. You can stay here and rot, or you can come with me and at least die looking for something to do about it. It's up to you."

I swallowed a lump in my throat. Why did these things always have to happen so damn fast? "Marle..."

I had to admit, it wasn't a bad idea, going to the future and all. I already confessed in front of everyone that I was scared to go back home. If I went ahead with Mishu, I would be helping her fight this so-called Darkness. Plus, I would have friends there: Jerad, the other guys in Free Bandwidth, and... Robo, maybe--if his memory of us hadn't been wiped in this Lavos-free timeline. I wanted to believe with all my heart that he would remember me, but everything in our adventures was made of paradox and uncertainty.

Then I remembered something very very critical--not just to Robo, but to everything that's happened here. "The Prometheus Circuit..."

Marle furrowed her brow. "Huh?"

Not to make myself sound too important (even if my work is scientifically groundbreaking!) but if what Jerad said was (is? will be?) true, I will eventually invent a circuit board that's integral to nearly every AI in that future, including the R-Series. It's always a paradox, isn't it? At some points the chains of history seem to hold just fine, despite our intervention, while at others it can be so fragile... removing even one link can spell disaster. I'd rather create a future where Robo doesn't remember us than one where he doesn't exist at all. I can't tell if that's selfish, but for history's sake, it was the safest course.

I fervently shook my head, hoping I made some sense when I said, "No, I just realized why I can't go. There's things I still have to do here. Sorry."

And to whom was I apologizing, exactly? Mishu merely shrugged. "Eh. Alright. See you in the next life, then." She hit the last switch and stepped out through the gate, as unruffled as ever.

"Lucca, are you sure...?" Marle asked in her wake. She didn't quite get it.

I glumly sighed. "I'm sure. You remember all that Doctor LEA stuff Jerad told us, right? If there's anything left out that keeps Free Bandwidth from modifying that gate for Ramezia, it would be my fault, and there's no telling the ramifications that would have on our timeline. I'd rather not screw up history any more than we already have." Crono patted me on the shoulder, wholly supportive, even if he didn't understand or agree. It's cool.

Gritchen bowed respectfully at that assessment. "That is perhaps most wise. It has been an honor meeting all of you."

Marle approached him. "You're going already?"

He nodded primly. "There is no need for delay. As your friend said, it is best not to linger and trifle with time. I wish you all well." He nudged the child at his side. "Say goodbye, Pillea."

We got a demure little, "Bye bye..." that was so cute I couldn't help smiling. We waved farewell to our aquatic friends and then made sure the gate closed soundly after them before leaving the cave behind.

And then it was just the three of us again. "Huh, so that's it..." Marle mused on our way back into town.

"We'll have to go back tomorrow and make sure the Fardons finished the job," I supposed. If they hadn't, we'd have to go through and investigate, naturally--and if all else fails, I always know how to cook up some tasty explosives. "But for now, I guess we all go home."

Crono offered an empathetic look towards the grim chores that lied ahead. You need some help?

"No..." I gently turned him down. "It's all right. You really need to check in with your mom, before she tries to feed Cyrus fish food or something."

Marle snickered. "Hehe, remember the time she cooked that casserole for us with cat food in it?" Crono stuck his finger in his mouth, pretending to gag.

"Ugh, yeah, count me out on that one," I said, and then a more pertinent thought hit me. "And hey, don't you want to tell her the good news?"

The transition from What news? to Ohhh, crap, you told her?? on Crono's face was hilarious. Marle wrapped herself around his elbow and sweetly implored, "Oh, don't be mad! I know it was supposed to be a surprise but I just had to tell someone, you know? It's okay, it's just Lucca."

Oh yeah, it was just me. Make me feel special. "Yeah jerkface, way to leave me out of the loop," I teased him.

Crono smirked, tucked his girlfriend under one arm (sorry, fiancÚ now, gawd) and drew me in with the other, murmuring warm and close enough to make me shiver, "Wellll, since it's only Lucca, I guess it's all right."

"If you say so, pimp daddy," I got my shot in, and Crono released me as Marle burst into another fit of laughter. He was incredibly lucky to have a girl like that, who knew how to laugh off anything.

At that the couple let me go my own way, with the promise to meet at Crono's house in the morning. I just needed some time alone, to clear my head. It always helped to go hiking, even if the trail was as worn and familiar as the one to my house. The stars were trickling through the sinking lavender firmament by the time I crossed the bridge to my family's solitary island. The sight was enough to make me pause, brimming with nostalgia. I remembered the last night of the Millennial Fair, full of beauty and hope that shone off every lamp and cobblestone, and then those fond farewells, and then the happy walk back to my house, my parents laughing by my side.

I had to... I have to figure out something. I have a lot of work to do, and my time may be short. If I gained anything from this whole mess, I am now more determined than ever to make something out of my life (besides saving the world, which we all achieved already. You know, been there, done that.) I want the future to be just as we left it, with humanity advancing towards something better and brighter every day--the Fardons, too. The future isn't just Marle's responsibility, after all; it's everyone's, and I want to do my part. I guess that's why I really stayed behind, after all.

As for the Darkness... I'm not always the voice of optimism, but I think it'll work out, I really do. I'm not scared of Ragnarok--if a bunch of clueless kids with a time machine can beat the alien manifestation of the apocalypse, then anything is possible. I hope Mishu finds that Phoenix she's looking for.

The evening breeze died away, and crickets took up the refrain. I looked down at my feet, where the grass and gravel path intertwined, tall and spindly enough to need mowing again. I was standing right where that snake bit me, I remembered as well.

I could almost see it, too--little beady eyes, red and blue, peering out of the corner of reality, just waiting to strike.

'It's going to get very interesting from now on.'

"Oh yeah?" I said freely, not caring if the whole world heard me. Let them jump out and bite. Let me see the face of the blight, of true darkness, as if I've never seen worse. There's a wise old master who used to train Crono in swordsmanship, and he once said that a cricket chirping in the darkness doesn't fear a thing, even if it only lives for a day. I didn't get it--were we supposed to be any better or worse than insects?

If I'm going to die tomorrow, I want to be chirping loud and clear, so everyone knows I'm not afraid of the dark. "How so?"

'It's going to be just you... and us.'

~fin

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