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Nina couldnât sleep.
She had been tossing and turning for an hour, and though her body was aching and tired, her mind was far too active to let her fall asleep. But then, she thought bitterly, Iâve always thought too much anyway, or thought about the wrong things. Not the sort of things a princess should be thinking about.
She shook her head in the darkness, and tried to think of other things. She was being selfish again, dwelling on her own problems when the others had to deal with much more important things.
But then why am I the one who is still awake? she wondered.
Not because of that, that burden she had been carrying around with her every day of her life. That had never stopped her from falling asleep, into the blissful slumber that let her leave her hated life behind, even for just a few hours. And she could dream of whatever her mind chose; the one aspect of her life her mother could not control. For who can control oneâs own dreams, much less another personâs?
She had once regretted awakening in the morning, bright sunshine streaming into her bedroom in the castle, bringing about another day in which she would go through the motions of having a happy, contented life. But then she met Ryu and the others, and she could pretend she was...normal, whatever that was. Not princess. Friend. She would wake up in the morning and love the bright sunshine, because it meant another day living as someone other than Princess Nina.
But now she was falling back into her old habits, wanting to slip into unconsciousness to escape the troubles of the world. Except she couldnât seem to do just that.
Why canât I sleep? she asked herself.
Is there something so important that I have to stay awake to think about it, that canât wait until morning?
Were my problems in the past so petty that I was able to ignore them?
Selfish. Iâm being selfish. Donât think about the past. Itâs not important.
What I did today is in the past now. I donât have to think about that either.
No. Today was...is important. Something is bothering me. I need to know.
Nina sighed softly. Why werenât her friends still awake, and wondering why they were awake, as she was?
Her friends. The thought brought a little pang of sadness suddenly, and quelled the jealousy that she had been directing at their sleeping forms. Her friends.
Not all of them were there anymore.
She sat up, gazing at an empty sleeping pallet where Garr should have been, where she expected him to be every time she turned her head in that direction. Earlier that night she had set out his pallet, out of habit, and had been painfully reminded of his absence when he did not come. And no one had moved the pallet away, so it was still there.
A small murmur to her right caused her to glance over at Ryu, who was, she was astonished to find out, muttering softly in his sleep and clutching his blanket tightly in his hands. No, that couldnât be right. Ever since she had found him again after their years of separation, he had always slept lying perfectly straight on his back, his face fixed in a serene expression.
ăSleeps like a rock,ä Rei had commented once, while Garr had said it was the mark of a true warrior, a state he himself wished to achieve. Nina had privately thought to herself that he looked dead.
Now she smiled slightly at his distubed slumber.
Smiling at anotherâs discomfort?
Smiling because she was not alone, because Ryu was the person she thought he was. Smiling because his dreams echoed her troubled thoughts, because she knew he did dream.
Being selfish again. Should be glad to let him sleep peacefully. Should be glad to carry the burden by myself.
Ryu wouldnât be my friend if he could sleep peacefully.
Nina turned her gaze to her other friends; Momo, uncharacteristically curled into a tight ball... withdrawn into herself ...an empty spot in the corner; Pecoâs... no sadness, only knowing he will be missed ...and Rei...who was not there.
She blinked a few times, thinking it might be a trick of the light, but Rei failed to appear. Having not heard a sound from his direction all night, she had assumed he had fallen asleep like the others. He was in his bedroll before, she remembered; apparently he had managed to leave the tent without her noticing. She wondered: How long ago did he leave?
Leave. He wasnât leaving them, was he?
A sudden flash of panic hit her, and before she knew it she was standing and hurrying out of the tent.
Why would he leave us? she asked herself.
Donât really know enough about him to answer that.
She didnât know Rei, not well, not at all. She had known him for the least amount of time out of all of her friends.
Travelled with him for months and still donât know him, what he might do...
She was out of the tent, past the blazing fire, near the edge of the protective ring of light, almost into the pools of darkness of the unknown night-
--when a hand grabbed onto her left shoulder, halting her frantic pace.
Nina had learned long ago not to scream, not to show fear. Instead, she reflexively spun around to face her assailant, her arm lashing out at the same time, causing the hand to release her shoulder.
ăWhat are you doing out here?ä
A voice, breaking the silence of the night, filled with calm reasoning and simple inquiry. It shattered her haze of panic. She recognized the voice, if not the tone the question was asked in. ăRei?ä
ăWho did you think it was?ä he answered, his expression somewhat irritated, now that she could finally see it beyond her blurry, sleep-deprived vision. ăSheesh, you were just about to go into the forest by yourself in the middle of the night, and when I try to just ask what youâre doing you attack me?ä
She didnât have to take this. She had gotten up because she was worried about him, and this was the thanks she got?
Or was I just worried that I would never be able to look at Ryu again if I let him go?
She turned away from him, and began walking slowly back towards the tent.
ăYou never answered me; what are you doing out here?ä his voice rang out loudly again, heedless of those who were sleeping.
She stopped but did not turn around. ăI heard a noise. I thought it was a monster. And I could ask you the same question,ä Nina said almost accusingly.
ăIâm on watch duty. Just because we happened to have killed a goddess today doesnât mean all the monsters are going to disappear, like what you people seem to think. Fact is, thereâs probably gonna be more of Îem than ever,ä he answered matter-of-factly.
We killed a goddess today.
ăI guess youâre right,ä she finally remarked grudgingly, still not facing him. ăYou can wake me up later to take part of the watch.ä
Itâs not every day you kill a goddess.
ăYeah, well, good night,ä Rei said flippantly and sat down in front of the fire. He took out his knives and began sharpening them carefully, all of his attention focused on his task, indicating the conversation was at a close.
The sound of knives being sharpened came to her ears.
A hissing, unpleasant sound. She would be hearing those sounds all night, she knew, if she went back to lying down on her pallet to feign sleep.
And I will hear my own thoughts.
She turned to look at him. ăRei?ä
ăYeah?ä he grunted, not seeming at all surprised that she was still there. Probably heard that I didnât move, Nina reasoned to herself. He continued to stare intently at his knives, his hands working diligently to hone their edges.
ăRei....ä she began undecidedly, then suddenly blurted out, ăwhy did we kill Myria?ä
He didnât look up. ăFor Ryu,ä he answered shortly.
ăBut....but why?ä she sputtered, and immediately wished she hadnât said it. She sounded like a fool, she knew. She just knew it.
Canât even ask a question properly...wasnât I raised better than that?
Rei put down his knives. He still did not look at her, instead staring into the fire, as if the flames held an important message.
ăIsnât Ryu a good enough reason for you?ä he asked, his voice low.
ăI...yes, I guess thatâs it.ä She didnât even sound convincing to herself. ăI guess Iâll go to sleep now.ä She turned around again, and started walking back to the tent.
If I sleep it will go away.
ăNo. No, Ryu isnât enough,ä she said firmly, turning around again and walking back to the fire.
Out of the frying pan and into the fire.
Rei looked up finally, a look of amazement painted across his face.
Nina somehow found some conviction that she still knew what she was doing left in her, and continued, standing in front of him, ăYou all had your own reasons to fight Myria. Ryu, for his freedom and his people, Garr for his faith, Momo for her machines, and Peco for...life, I guess. And you were the one who had the most reason to fight her, Rei.ä
She conveniently failed to mention that reason.
ăBut I was just there because I was curious, and for Ryu. I didnât really have a reason of my own. I didnât think she was evil, she was just trying to protect us. I just...ä she faltered suddenly, not quite knowing what she was trying to say.
ăSo the real question is,ä Rei broke in, watching her carefully, ăwhy did you kill Myria?ä
She held the question for a moment in her mind. It sounded almost right. She nodded slowly.
ăYes, I think youâre right. I want to know why I helped kill Myria.ä
ăAnd youâre asking little olâ me about it, huh?ä He grinned slightly, and Nina realized suddenly why the conversation had a strange feeling to it. Rei had been acting far too serious.
Apparently everyone was behaving strangely tonight.
The grin stayed on his face while Nina stood there indecisively. She wondered if he knew how infuriating that grin was. Probably.
She moved finally, seating herself near Rei, but not next to him.
Sighing inaudibly, she said, ăYes, Iâm asking you for help.ä
ăGood. Guess Iâll be playing psychologist tonight.ä The grin grew a little wider, and he gave off a small laugh, that laugh of his that held no joy or humour, only all the irony he had experienced in his life. He seemed to be mocking someone, perhaps her.
She hated that laugh.
ăThank you,ä she said quietly, and looked him straight in the eye. If she had noticed anything at all after being around Rei for months was that this was the one thing that seemed to unnerve him.
Is that the only thing I can see?
As she expected, he stopped laughing and turned his face away again to stare at the fire.
ăRei,ä she began uneasily, a little ashamed at herself, partly for trying to intimidate him, and partly because of the question she was asking, ăwas what we did...right?ä
ăWhat do you mean by Îrightâ?ä he answered with another question.
ăI mean, should we have done it?ä
He paused for a moment, thinking it over, then turned to her, studying her carefully before asking, ăDo you regret it?ä
She wasnât quite sure of the answer herself. ăI...I donât know.ä
ăThink about this first, Nina. She was trying to control the world. She was controlling the world. The way I see it, we just gave people a chance to make their own choices.ä
ăBut then we were being just like her then!ä she said, her voice somewhat louder now. ăWe made a choice for the whole world, to take away their protection from the desert.ä
Rei seemed at a loss for what to say to that for a moment, then replied, ăWe made one choice for them now, so that they can make every choice for themselves from now on. I think itâs a good trade-off.ä
She answered softly, a touch of sadness in her voice:
ăI bet if you asked most people in the world, they would say that they would rather live under her protection. Theyâre afraid of the desert. And they wouldnât mind her controlling their lives; people donât really like to have to make their own choices. Thatâs why I had to be princess.
Why I still am princess.
ăNina, for most of my life I never got to have a choice.ä He looked at his clawed hand thoughtfully. ăAnd you know what? I hated it.ä
ăBut what if we need her?ä
ăSheâs not our mother, and weâre not little children.ä
ăIâm not so sure of that,ä she said bitterly.
ăSo you want to just let her take care of everything? You want to be a little kid who doesnât have any worries Îcause your mamaâs around?ä he retorted angrily.
Nina didnât answer. Now she was the one staring into the fire.
A princess is responsible for her people. They place trust in her. She cannot even trust herself.
Rei was shaking slightly, and seemed to be forcing himself to not stand up and pace around restlessly. ăYou want to let someone who ordered an entire race destroyed stay alive? Hey, maybe next she wouldâve decided that a were-tigerâs too dangerous to live, or that the Wyndian royal familyâs got too much power. You think maybe we shouldâve just given Ryu over to her?ä
ăNo! Of course not...ä Nina said hastily, but Rei didnât stop.
ăI think you really believe that load of crap she was feeding us. You think that we shouldâve let Ryu die to Îsave the worldâ. You think people shouldnât have choices, like me, or those half-dead people in Kombinat, or like-ä
Like Teepo. The words were unsaid, but she heard them as clearly as she would have if they had been shouted in her ear. Of course. Teepo.
Iâm being selfish again.
Rei stopped talking.
She got up and walked over to him. Standing awkwardly beside him, she did not touch him, but instead sat down next to him.
He was staring into the fire again. ăItâs okay. And Iâm sorry I yelled at you,ä he said, his voice sounding flat.
Shaking her head, she answered, ăNo, I think you were right. About me. I guess I do regret killing her.ä
Because of Teepo.
ăYouâre right about her too,ä she continued.
ăShe was controlling us. She pretended to let us choose for ourselves, like when she gave Ryu a chance to stay in Eden instead of fighting her, which was really no choice at all.ä
Teepo didnât have that choice either.
ăBut she thought it was for the best,ä she said quietly.
ăYeah, doesnât everyone know whatâs best,ä Rei finally responded.
He didnât sound bitter or angry at all. It was strange, how he had become so quiet suddenly, as if he was too tired to bother being angry anymore. Nina watched him worriedly; he was hunched over, and his eyes, she noticed, had taken on a distant, glazed look in them. He hardly seemed to be paying attention to her anymore.
ăYou know, I didnât hate Myria at first.ä Nina was startled when Rei began to speak suddenly. His eyes were still unfocused, staring off into the darkness, and she got the impression he was speaking to someone else, someone she couldnât see. ăBut then I hated her...I hated her, when we fought her...ä
Because of Teepo.
ă...I think I was the only one who hated her, out of all of us...ä
Because of Teepo.
ă...even Ryu didnât hate her...ä
ă...because Ryu doesnât know how to hate......damn him.ä
Nina asked him softly, gently, ăWhy do you hate?ä
The effect of her voice was astonishing. Reiâs lowered head snapped up abruptly to stare at her, and his eyes were no longer unclear and hazy; now they were completely focused, the eyes of a predator stalking its prey. Nina moved away from him slightly, surprise and a bit of fear evident on her face.
She had seen this before; right before he became the were-tiger, the savage form he took on that allowed the untamed, feral side of his nature to be completely dominant. All animal instinct, no human intelligence. And once, she had watched as he tore into Ryuâs unprotected back, ripping deep gashes into his skin that kept bleeding and bleeding...
And Rei hadnât even noticed. Not until he had changed back.
Why is he attacking me now?
Ryu had survived, barely. Nina was certain she would not live through such an attack. She stood up and backed away slowly from Rei, never taking her eyes off him.
Why are you attacking me? You donât hate me...do you?
He was in a crouching position, tensed and ready to kill. His eyes were much too clear. But he had not changed yet, not completely. Not yet.
ăMyria.ä His voice, a hissing whisper. He was looking at Nina.
He thinks Iâm Myria, Nina thought to herself frantically. She did resemble the goddess slightly...and she would die for it.
ăMyria.ä Rei repeated, staring at her with hateful eyes, ăYou...you tried to kill Ryu. You killed....killed...ä
Nina knew what to do now. Striding forward purposefully, she raised her hand and slapped Rei on the side of his face.
With as much calmness as she could muster, she said evenly, ăRei, you killed Teepo.ä
He had been angry before. Now he was furious, on the verge of berserk. His eyes narrowed dangerously. It was you who killed, they seemed to say. Not me.
ăYou killed. He was your friend, your brother. And you killed him. Youâre just a soulless animal who only knows how to kill.ä
A clawed hand was raised to kill.
ăIf I were Myria, would I have just said that?ä
The clawed hand stopped, hesitant. No, Myria, benevolent goddess, mother, would not say that, Nina said to him silently. She watched as he suddenly crumpled to the ground, all the anger drained from his body. He was shaking.
ăI didnât...I didnât kill him...not an animal...I didnât want to...to...ä
She knelt down beside him, and said quietly, ăYou didnât kill him, Rei.ä
He didnât respond for many long moments, staring at the ground. It was an agonizing wait for Nina; she found herself wondering if perhaps she had made a mistake, hurting him to save herself.
Iâm sorry, Iâm so sorry.
Iâm sorry Iâm too weak to even say it aloud.
She thought after some time passed that he had not heard her, her denial of his greatest fear...
You didnât kill him.
...when he whispered harshly, ăDamn you, Nina. Youâre just like her.ä Then he laughed harshly, that mocking laugh she couldnât stand.
ăMaybe I am like her. Do you want to talk about...about him?ä she said in a controlled voice.
He paused thoughtfully for a moment, and she realized he had control again, not only over the were-tiger, but over his emotions as well. He was actually considering her offer, she was glad to note.
Well, maybe not.
ăAre you sure?ä she asked anxiously, ăYou can just pretend that Iâm Ryu or something, or that Iâm not even here-ä
She gave him an imploring look, but he simply ignored her.
Sighing heavily, she said, ăAll right. Iâll go back to the tent.ä
She stood up and walked away.
But at the door of the tent, she looked back, once. He had been watching her, quickly turning his head away when her gaze fell on him. But in that brief moment when Nina had seen his face, it had been the face of a lost little boy, like Ryuâs used to be...
Making her decision, Nina stayed there, at the door of the tent. Rei was not facing her; he was staring into the fire again. But she was certain he knew that she was still there.
He began speaking suddenly, saying his words aloud for anyone to hear.
ăTeepo...he didnât have a choice. He was just a little kid when she found him, and he didnât know what he was doing. He pretended he was all strong and everything, but I remember he used to cry sometimes, when he thought no one was watching.ä
ăSometimes, he reminded me...of Ryu, actually.ä
Nina suppressed a shiver. Ryu...she thought, could that have been you? Was it just chance that Teepo was the one who ended up like that? Would you have done the same in his position?
She remembered that day she had met him, a boy who had lost his friends and wanted nothing more in the world than to find them again. He was kind and sweet, and, most importantly, treated her like anyone else.
And he tried to do what was right. Just like...
No...he did what he thought was right. He didnât make me go back and be princess, because he knew it was my choice. Yes, he let people make their own path, and he made his own path.
Then, when we were separated and I found him again...
He seemed so much colder and more like one of those heroes out of the stories...
He was even stronger, and I knew he would never give in to someone like Myria, not in any situation.
Nina continued to listen to Rei.
ăAnd I saw a bit of me in Teepo too...ä
ăThen Myria...she found him and tried to change him. He found out he was one of the Brood so he had to act like one. All self-sacrificing and noble and cold. And she was poisoning him the whole time, all those years I thought he was dead. But he was still a kid. A good kid. You heard him at the end, back in Eden. He didnât want to stay there. He just thought he was doing what was right.ä
Ryu is not like Teepo. He canât be.
Thought he was doing what was right. Just like Myria, Nina said to herself, but knew that was the last thing Rei needed to hear right now. She took a deep breath, and said:
ăRei...you heard him, he wasnât happy. Killing him...was for the best.ä
He showed no signs of being surprised that she was still there.
ăPutting him out of his misery?ä
ăMaybe we should have tried harder to convince him...ä
ăMyria had years to do that. There was nothing we could have done.ä
He didnât speak for a long time. He simply stared into the fire, while Nina sat there in the uncomfortable silence. Then, he looked up, and said slowly, reluctantly, ăMaybe.ä
And he laughed, and Nina realized
who was the one being mocked.
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