His hands were shaking, and that seemed like an extraordinarily stupid thing for hands to do; it made it difficult to fasten the blue string tie around his throat, to check once more on the set of the holstered dagger at his hip. He frowned at said hands, and looked up to the mirror for assurance. They were only doing that because he was nervous, and it was a perfectly natural thing for them to be doing. All of that he knew, but still, the mirror assured him of little. Even after the time and the practice, he couldn't seem to help but suspect himself.
Mikoto had stopped by earlier in the morning, ostensibly to check on him (and maybe actually to make sure he wasn't going to fall apart or, worse, back out); she had smiled at him and told him he looked just right, in those very words. He personally wasn't so sure. Something seemed -- a little out of place. Maybe. Not that he would know better than she did. Or maybe he would. None of this was her idea, but she was to be believed on the subject. She was Mikoto, and she had known...
What, exactly? He didn't want to think about it; it was too confusing, so much so that trying to puzzle it out almost made him feel sick. There was too much of it to understand, and he had tried to accept that and put it aside, let things fall wherever they would. But his mind wouldn't seem to stop nibbling at the edges, like a mouse would try to eat a cracker that was too big to fit into its mouth -- like the way the concept of what he was doing was too big to fit in his brain. He thought that, and then a second later blinked, wondering where the comparison had come from.
Didn't matter. Hurry up, they said they would be in by noon and it was almost noon now, wasn't it? Was that propellors making that noise outside?
It was. The Prima Vista -- reborn and flying, like the Phoenix, another analogy he couldn't trace -- had nosed its way up over the horizon and was steadily heading for the village. It was a dark bulky monolith blotting the midday sky, cheerful and ridiculous, and on board all of Tantalus was waiting for him, and when he joined them it would turn around and head south, south across an ocean, to where tonight was waiting for him.
He pulled on the gloves -- white, supple, hovering on just the right fine line between ostentatious and absurd -- and looked in the mirror again as he did it, studying the smooth, rounded plain of worried features under his recently cut hair. Without really knowing why (and he did a lot of what he did these days without really knowing why; he supposed that was sort of the price you paid -- not that anyone would have been in a position to pay it before), he forced himself to bare his teeth in a desperate smile; but somehow in the mirror it came out as a devil-may-care grin, and his startled pleasure made it sincere.
That was it: the last piece. And now it was in place. Now it was just right.
He left the bathroom, and then the house, ignoring the swelling of a thousand butterflies in his stomach -- which was also a weird thing to think. The boards of the Black Mage Village creaked under his feet.
"But that isn't fair," he had said. That had started it, really.
Mikoto had turned to single him out with her eyes -- not scorning or irritated that he had interrupted her, just looking, hard, but the way she looked at him still made him kind of wish he could crawl underneath his own feet until she decided to look somewhere else. Mikoto was right and Mikoto was smart and good and Mikoto was special and had a soul, but Mikoto was also authoritative, and sometimes the thought of all that authority made him want to wither up inside. The way Mikoto looked at him made him think of how plants must feel when the sun is too bright for too long.
"What do you mean?" she had asked; her tone had not been unkind, but it had been reluctant, as if this were no subject she wanted to discuss, particularly not in front of ten Genomes over the gnarled and overgrown bones of the Iifa Tree, out where the dirt was powdery and porous from all the sick somethings that had churned underneath it and stolen away its water and life. Thinking of it further, he supposed that was exactly what that tone had meant.
"I mean..." He'd struggled. "That it isn't fair. You said he gave up his life so he could save his enemy. And everybody was waiting for him to come out alive -- he had everything to come back for. He had a whole life. What he did was right, wasn't it? It was... it was noble." That had sparked something in him, and he'd stood up a little straighter. Yes, that was it; he had found the right word. Now he felt sure of himself. "It was noble," he'd repeated, testing the sound of it. "It's not fair for people who do noble things to die. Because noble is good, and good people aren't supposed to die... right? Isn't that the way it works?"
The other ten had looked at Mikoto, expectantly, for an answer. Their eyes were mildly interested, but not passionate, no more than he supposed his own were. But he had read books, lots of them, and the turn of events that she had described (in a neutral voice that sounded more like she was making it neutral than like it really was neutral) just seemed wrong somehow. It puzzled him; wasn't there some order to these things? Hadn't he seen it, played out in the construction of story after story, play after play?
"He died because he gave up his life," Mikoto had said, shortly, with veiled eyes. "That's what it means to give up your life. When you don't have your life anymore, you die."
"I know that." The vehemence in his own voice had surprised him. "But it doesn't matter. That's not the point. For being willing to give it up, he should have gotten it back. That would have been fair. Don't you understand?"
She had turned away, but before she did, he had seen in her eyes his answer; yes, she did understand, only too well, and his words had unlocked in her a vehemence of her own. There had been none of it in her voice, however, when she spoke. All there had been was an awful tightness that made it sound like she was dying.
"Life isn't fair," she had said.
And hours later, before he had found the crystal but long after the learning expedition had pulled back from the roots, long after they had made a fire of sorts in the dusty earth, he had still been in shock, stunned by the impact that simple three-word revelation had had on him. At the time, it had seemed monumental, life-changing, world-changing, like a death or a birth. Without wasting a word, she had made it clear to him that a careful system of equity and retribution, even as larder scales and reliable as rock, existed in books and books alone; and that the real world was a place on which books had no bearing, and which had no bearing on books. He had seen it all in bald detail in that single moment: evil did not always die when good made its last desperate bid; people grew old, and changed, and lost their courage at the last moment, and did things that were wrong without caring or even knowing; wishes did not come true; friends did not stay friends for life; heroes did not always get their princesses, and sometimes they even died in the course of their heroics.
And creations were sometimes abandoned by their creators, left to puzzle out alone the course and meaning of their lives.
No, life wasn't fair. He supposed he saw that now. It was the first lesson this strange, blue world had ever taught him, and to this day it remained the hardest.
He walked out to the folds of magic that shielded the village off from the rest of the forest, protecting his eyes from the sun with one hand as he looked at the sky. The ship was approaching very quickly; it would be at the edge of the larger wood within a half hour, maybe less. He thought that the performers must be eager to make the last leg of their journey. Or, maybe, they were eager to see him. The thought brought another unfamiliar smile to his face.
"Do well," Mikoto's voice said, off to one side, and he turned to see the rest of Mikoto attached to it. She was standing outside the front shop, hands laced together in front of her and tail twitching, unsmiling now. He nodded to her, not sure what to say, and she looked somewhere else, which was all right; her eyes hadn't gotten any less intense.
"D'you want to ride Bobby Corwen to the airship?" asked one of the black mages -- the one who'd replaced the two who had tended the chocobo as an infant, a surrogate parent of sorts; he still didn't know how, but he could tell -- asked uneasily. They all seemed uneasy about this, much more so than the Genomes, perhaps because few of the mages who had actually been there were still alive. The Genomes understood; the mages didn't. It was a strange new division, but, he thought, a benign one. "He could go a lot faster. If you told him how to get back."
"Thank you," he said automatically, and then added without knowing how he knew it, "He'll know. Chocobos always know how to get back home."
"Really? How?" the mage asked with obvious interest, but he wasn't listening anymore. He was looking at the sky.
He had found the crystal some hours after sunset, when the stars were a faint glitter scattered across the murky sky. The sky was always murky over the Iifa Tree, and Mikoto said it always would be. Not Mist, maybe, but something else, and dangerous or not, it probably was better left alone. A lot of things were better left alone, but they were all just coming to realize that.
He had been walking up along the line of the dusty plain, where it fell off into a rubbly cliff, thinking about the story Mikoto had told them and the unexpected education it had ended with. His mind had refused to let that go, worrying at it ceaselessly since the falling of the sun. He imagined it was probably a lot to realize all in one night.
Given time, he would probably either assimilate it, or forget it. He imagined either would be fine.
When he first saw the glitter up ahead in the darkness, reflecting moonlight like the eyes of his fellows had reflected the firelight as they gazed into the flames, he had thought it was a seam of rock under the surface of dust, some buried vein of silicate that had found its way to light once more. He had seen those under the ground in some places around the Tree, and sometimes even under the rich soil of the forest, where the winding footpaths had beaten the ground flat. But as he drew closer, he saw that it was not a flat stripe on the ground at all; what he had taken at a distance for shadows were actually spillover tangles of roots, and whatever was sparkling was wound up in their coils, a thick oblong something that had been pushed out of the basin by an explosion of now-rotting foliage.
Curious, he'd approached the thing, and stood over it, pondering it in the moonlight. It appeared to be a broken-off shard of crystal, milky-pale and jagged, twinkling solemnly up at him. The roots and vines curled around it like a clutching old hand, and he hadn't had to wonder where that simile had come from; the roots had actually looked like that, the way they had twisted in.
Wondering where it had come from, he had bent to touch it.
The violent, flooding burst of memory that had followed knocked him senseless for days, almost a week, lost in a private hellish plane of more information than any mind could be meant to take. When at last he had floundered awake again, he had been back in the village, and no one had been able to explain what had happened to him; but after he had begun to say things that made Mikoto jump -- actually jump, she was that startled -- and demand to be told how he knew them, they had begun to realize what it must have done, even though they could not explain how or why. Returning expeditions had not been able to find the crystal again, no matter how he described what it looked like and where it had been.
And then, as the next few weeks passed, he had slowly begun to realize what he had to do.
The rest had been only preparation.
"Go home," he told Bobby Corwen, in the most stern yet encouraging voice he could muster. Bobby Corwen uttered a thoughtful "kweh", trotted around in a half circle, and then dove back into the trees. The chocobo's tail flashed, a spot of bright yellow in between dull brown trunks, as the rest of the chocobo focused on carrying itself back through the forest to a warm nest and loving family. He watched Bobby Corwen go. He had never felt more alone in his life, or more afraid. Which wasn't really saying a lot.
The Prima Vista was almost directly overhead, and he watched it shoulder down through the sky and begin landing procedures. It must take a lot of work to land a whale of a ship like that. He thought, still watching it, about how all the mages and the Genomes had come to the front of the village to see him off. They hadn't spoken, but only looked at him; their faces were impassive and thoughtful, and they resembled a host of the dead. Mikoto had stood among them, watching him, as if she knew something somehow that none of the rest of them did; maybe something that he didn't even know, not really. Even when he had stepped out of the protective layer of magic, into the rest of the forest, and the illusion of a grove of dead trees had fallen behind him once more, he had imagined when he turned back that he could still see them: standing there, not moving, not waving, just watching him leave.
The airship's landing propellors blew hair off his forehead, and he looked up into the sky. A pale, unsmiling face marking the boundary between the air and the ground.
He knew that when he arrived he would be asked why it had taken two years -- two long, long years of waiting and watching and hope and despair -- for him to come back, and he supposed he would have to think of an answer. He knew that he would also be asked, maybe even before that, how he had survived, and he would have to think of an answer for that too. And there would probably be hundreds more questions that would have to be answered, and not enough time to think about any of them. The thought of all those questions, all those little tests and trials, made him feel very tired. But maybe that was all right. Maybe that was how he was supposed to feel.
The Prima Vista landed; and the crew of Tantalus looked him over with eyes and faces that were not quite suspicious, not quite welcoming, not quite anything but only watchful. It was all right. Welcome could come later. He climbed on board by the gangplank they dropped, looked around, and flashed that easy grin he had seen in his mirror. It still didn't feel quite right, but judging by the small, growing smiles that answered it, it would do for now.
He understood the business of acting now; what it involved, why it was done, and even how to do it reasonably well. All of that lived on the surface of his mind, easily accessed. He was going to need it soon, and more so than any of these people might expect. And even all of that knowledge and more might not carry him through, in the end. But there was nothing for it but to go ahead, and just see what happened.
The ship took off, and it headed for Alexandria.
It was opening night, and he was coming in late. Maybe he didn't know all the lines, and maybe he did, and he would never know until he was on the stage and uttering them, feeling how they fit in his mouth. But plays were just stories, and he understood how things went in stories. That was one thing he did understand. It was opening night, and he was Marcus, and he was Zidane; and somewhere out there was a princess waiting, waiting for her happy ending.
No, life wasn't fair. But if you really tried your best, sometimes, you could make it a little better.
He just hoped that it would be enough.