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dreams of a girl with red hair

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It had been the longest day of her life, and the most exhausting on every level, but Eleanor still couldn't sleep.

She wasn't even certain it had been just a single day. Time seemed to flow differently inside the earthpulse, and she could have sworn that it seemed earlier when they'd emerged on Hexen Isle than it had been when they entered on Titania. But it wasn't so much the amount of time that had passed that mattered, as it was what had happened during that time.

The landing on Titania, and facing off against exorcists whose massed armati were just as deadly as they'd anticipated - and not just to their party. She couldn't be certain with the helmets on, but she'd thought she'd recognized some of their voices...

Fighting their way farther in, and the flash of momentary terror she'd had when she'd seen that Velvet had simply forgotten the comb her brother gave her. The shock at Bienfu admitting that he'd been the one reporting on their movements to the Abbey. The relief at finding Kamoana and the others safe, and then the change of plans, a change that brought them face to face with Lord Artorius himself. Learning the true reason the Abbey sought to revive Innominat, and then learning their mistake about the therions, and how close the Suppressor was to already being reborn.

And then learning his true identity.

Then the earthpulse. The constant assault of memories Innominat had thrown at them, seeing the happiness and love turned to unimaginable loss that had driven the man she'd once followed with all of her soul to despair and madness disguised as reason. And at the same time seeing what those visions had done to Velvet. Watching her be torn apart in a way that had never, could never happen even under the most brutal of physical assaults, wanting so desperately to say something, to help, but not having the words. Knowing that Laphicet was in even more pain, just as desparate to help, and finding no way she could help him either. It was a feeling of powerlessness she hadn't had even in her previous darkest moments.

And then the confrontation with Innominat, and everything that had happened there.

And then escaping back through the rift that Magilou had held open for them (and how much more was there to the witch then she'd been able to guess?), only to plunge straight into another battle against Melchior. A battle that she couldn't help but admit had been... well, shamefully cathartic in some ways. Then continuing, on to more blows to whatever faith she'd held in the Abbey with the discovery of the "dragon farm" and the horrific cruelty of how the Abbey intended to keep Innominat awake for all time. Then having that cruelty driven in directly as they'd faced off against Innominat yet again, losing Laphicet's friend Silva - who'd only just started to regain an identity! - to a blast of pure malevolence. Her anguish as Laphicet himself had been struck by an identical blast - and then her awe as he had somehow burned it away with a silver fire that had caught even the Empyrean off guard.

Then it had finally been over, and as they sailed away on Zaveid's ship she'd simply collapsed to the deck, her body finally not needing to push itself any further. But her mind had been a different story, and even now, at night lying on a bed inside the inn they'd found in Port Reneed, that hadn't changed.

Just... so many things to think about, on top of everything that had already been on her mind.

At least there was time to think about them, now. It didn't seem possible, but they'd all made it through. They were all still alive, and themselves.

And Velvet...

Eleanor could still feel malevolence coming off of her whenever she was near the other woman, enough so that she was surprised the temperature hadn't physically dropped, that the ocean spray wasn't turning to ice. Enough so she hadn't needed a moment's thought to understand when Velvet asked her to carry the exhausted Laphicet when they'd docked, instead of doing so herself. Some - most - of it was probably just the leftover residue of traveling through Innominat's earthpulse, full of malevolence from all of humanity being delivered to the dark god. But the rest...

And yet at the same time, Velvet seemed at peace, or at least closer to it than Eleanor had ever seen. There was a light behind her eyes that had been gone since at least Aball, and it seemed more... real now than it had even then. She and Laphicet had both asked Velvet several times if she was all right, and the other girl's responses had been so direct - Velvet was always straightforward, but now there was no attempt to evade or use anger as a shield. She was... she really did seem all right. Somehow.

And I... When I see that, I...

"If the world says it's a mistake to love you, then I'll fight the whole world!"

The memory of the impassioned voice rang in her head. It's not what the rest of the world says that concerns me, though, isn't it? It's what my own heart says.

She did care about Velvet, and as much more than just a matter of simple human compassion. The events of the last day had proven that beyond any possibility of self-denial. She'd been frightened for herself, for Kamoana, for all of her friends, but of them all she'd been most frightened for Velvet and Laphicet by far. A considerable part of her didn't think that was right - everyone should always matter - but she couldn't deny her feelings.

But at the same time. Half a year ago she hadn't known the other woman at all, couldn't have even conceived of her existence. Two months ago she'd been convinced she was the most evil and terrible daemon she'd ever faced, a monster that had to be stopped and stopped fast. Wasn't there only so much a person's feelings could change, so quickly? With every loyal exorcist they fought, she could imagine her life without Velvet in it, and she wanted to flinch from the thought - but rationally speaking, her life without Velvet in it was almost all of her life so far.

And... and it should have stayed that way, shouldn't it? In a world where things hadn't gone so wrong, they would never have even met. She remembered Rokurou speaking earlier about how destiny was just the interweaving of people's fates, good and bad, but she hadn't been able to accept that answer then and she still couldn't now. Velvet's destiny should have been to stay in Aball with her family, living quietly and at peace. Or maybe to travel the world with her brother, who wouldn't have died or betrayed her. Artorius Coilbrande would have stayed Arthur Crowe. She and Niko would have come to terms with their feelings, and whatever that would actually mean, Eleanor felt sure they would have been happy.

She rolled onto her side, the last thought sticking momentarily in her mind. Is that it? Does part of me feel like I'd be... taking Niko's place?

Not that Velvet felt the same way about the two of them in the first place, of course. She was a lot more than she'd tried to convince herself she was, but it wasn't like that. Though admittedly even at her most open Velvet was still a lot better at keeping a blank face than she ever could -

She expelled a frustrated breath. Why am I even spending so much time thinking about this? Not only were they all facing as much danger as they ever had, if not more... But if they couldn't stop it, the world was coming to an end - the planet itself might keep on spinning, but if Innominat and the Abbey truly suppressed all emotion, it wouldn't be a world with humans on it anymore. And even if they did stop it...

She hadn't really thought the idea through in any detail, but it had struck her just earlier this evening as they'd disembarked the ship. If Laphicet had truly been born as a fragment of Innominat - and they already knew that the therions were - then did that mean...?

Abruptly she kicked the covers back and sat up. The weight of exhaustion behind her eyes was an almost physical pain, and she didn't relish the thought of making it worse by stepping out into the light of the waxing moon, but she had to do something or it was going to be dawn before she actually got any rest.

As she made her way into the hall, she couldn't help but glance involuntarily at the door to the room Velvet had decided to stay in to keep an eye on Laphicet. It was open.

She made her way down the inn's stairs and out the door, hands playing nervously against each other. Maybe we can talk for a bit. But won't that just make things worse again - ?

"Off for another nighttime heart-to-heart, are we?"

Eleanor recoiled momentarily in surprise, then turned to face the shape in pink-yellow-and-white motley that unfolded from the corner of an alley. "Magilou? What are you doing there?" 

"What does it look like I'm doing, sweetie? Skulking!" Magilou huffed. She held up her hands in mock dismay. "Honestly, and you call yourself an inspector." The furry, large-hatted shape of Bienfu hopped off a windowsil onto her shoulder.

"I mean, why were you skulking in an alley?"

Magilou grinned. "Well, I was hoping to get a good view of another long starlit conversation between you and our tragic heroine, with all the meaningful glances and meaningful silences and nobody ever doing a damn thing about it - "

"Have you been spying on me?!" The actual word, she realized a moment later, should have been 'us', but in retrospect that probably would have just given the witch more ammunition.

"Me? Of course not!" Magilou flung the arm that wasn't currently housing a normin outward. "Why would I do that when I have my intermittently faithful minion here with all of his expertise on the subject?"

"Biiiiieeen!" the high-pitched voice exclaimed. "Madam Eleanor, I would never...!"

Eleanor rolled her eyes, but the smile tugging at her lips made it clear it was with more amusement than anything else. She decided to embrace it and let her mouth curve upward. "Actually, I'm glad I had the chance to run into you. I wanted to thank you again for what you did earlier today, holding the earthpulse portal open for us."

"Augh, this again?!" Magilou huffed. "How many times do I have to tell you people: stop trying to give me a participation medal! All I did was sit around getting droned at by a really annoying old man. It was no worse than being back in school again, except with uglier uniforms."

"I know, so you insisted." Eleanor shook her head. She'd never understand Magilou. Live with her, yes, understand her, no. "But still. Whatever it was Melchior was using to attack - what was that, weaponized malevolence? I know I didn't find it easy to endure."

Magilou extended her hands in another exaggerated shrug. "That's because you're a noble and pure-hearted maiden, except where a certain dove impressionist is concerned. Guilt for being human is kinda your whole thing. I, on the other hand, have not the slightest shred of remorse within my being." She paused and flipped a lock of hair away. "Well, except maybe for that one time I secretly read Eizen's mail."

"That time you what?" a low voice growled from the main street, a bit farther into town. 

Before Eleanor had managed to get a full glimpse of what appeared to be not only Eizen but also Rokurou approaching, Magilou had somehow repositioned herself to put the exorcist between her and the men. "Anyway, if you want to have that meaningful conversation with Velvet, you'll have to join the queue. I saw the kid going out to the docks where she's brooding a few minutes ago." Her grin turned evil. "Of course if you're up to it, there's plenty of eaves to drop 'round here..."

"While we're waiting on that, perhaps we can continue that earlier discussion," Eizen said with his best ominous expression.

Eleanor put a hand to her forehead in exasperation. As they drifted off collectively with enough bickering to wake half the town, though, one phrase kept repeating in her head.

Guilt for being human is kinda your whole thing...

***

She did get to sleep eventually, of course, though not without more worrying on the way. Any chance of a conversation with Velvet in the morning, though, was quickly prevented by yet another looming disaster. Finally she understood what it was that had set Eizen so on edge about the horned daemon that accompanied Melchior. As they raced back to Lionel Island aboard a stolen ship, there was no time to think of any of her more personal concerns - the only thing that mattered was averting another tragedy on that forsaken place, saving Zaveid and Aifread and the crew...

In the end, they only managed two out of three.

Still, at least the pirate captain's final message had given them a hope of how to stop Innominat's almost limitless power. Admittedly, it was a far-fetched and highly risky plan that a more reasonable Eleanor would have dismissed as total insanity, but the person Eleanor was now had long ago been forced to admit that would be the only kind of plan this group ever had. If nothing else, it was certainly more than they'd had before.

Although Benwick confirmed that the Van Eltia was ready to set sail immediately, the plan they settled on was to depart the day after the battle, in order to give the crew time to recover from their wounds both physical and otherwise. She spent most of the time until then keeping Laphicet company; though the young malak had never met Aifread before his death, his creed as passed down through Eizen had been such an inspiration in Laphicet's 'setting of his own course' that he had taken the captain's passing nearly as hard as the long-time crew had. Periodically, Velvet took over for her, but the two of them didn't exchange many words. It was, after all, as busy as planning any of their missions had been, and now they didn't even have the relative comforts of Titania as a base.

The next day did come eventually, though. Once again, by the time Eleanor was awake, she could see that Velvet was already gone from her bedroll. She wasn't surprised. The therion girl's sleep seemed a little more peaceful since their journey through the earthpulse (though Eleanor's sample size was admittedly pretty small), but it was still pretty light. Once she'd eaten and otherwise gotten ready for the day, she fell back again on instinct and headed to the docks to look for her.

The Van Eltia's metaphorical emptiness of the previous day now seemed somewhat more literal - except for Eizen and Benwick conversing by the gangplank, none of the crew were in sight. The latter turned to face her as she approached. "If you're looking for Velvet, she's on the bow. We should be ready to sail in about a hour."

"Where's everyone else?"

"The crew's gathering at the edge of the ruins to say our goodbyes to the captain." Benwick gave a rueful but still sincere grin. "He'd beat us all senseless - uh, again - if he saw us carrying on too much, but he wouldn't mind us taking a moment to admit we'll miss him." He turned to Eizen. "Are you coming, First Mate?"

Eizen shook his head. "Aifread and I said what we needed to say already. I'll stay here and round up everyone else for when we're ready to go. Rokurou and Laphicet should be back at the camp, though I have no damned idea where Magilou has gotten to..."

Feeling slightly awkward, Eleanor made her way past the pair of them and onto the gangplank. Once aboard, she turned towards the front of the ship. And paused. Velvet was indeed standing at the bow, leaning slightly forward against one of the deck rails and looking out to sea. Her hair blew back in a long dark stream from the light breeze coming off the ocean, occasionally flickering with bits of reflected light as the sun made one of its random appearances through the patchy cloud cover.

Her mouth feeling slightly dry - probably just from the faint tinge of salt in the breeze - Eleanor walked up to stand besides her. Velvet turned and smiled briefly, but said nothing.

"So, um... what are you thinking about?" Eleanor clasped her hands behind her back.

Velvet shrugged. "A lot. It's been a... busy couple of days. And going forward we're going to have our hands pretty full with reviving the elemental Empyreans." She looked at Eleanor. "There was actually a small favor I wanted to ask you for, but it can definitely wait."

Eleanor shook her head. "No, go ahead."

Velvet glanced back towards the island. "With the crew... gathering together like that, it's got me thinking. Back in Aball, when we found out the truth, I wish we'd have taken a moment to... to do something for Niko and the rest of the villagers. We spent all those years taking care of Celica's grave; there should be something to remember them as well." She hesitated. "Assuming you live through this, would you...?"

Eleanor bowed her head. "Of course, I'd be honored to. But shouldn't you be there too?"

Velvet looked away for a moment. "...Maybe." She turned back, but kept her eyes lowered. "I'm not really sure if they'd want me there. You were right, that one time - I shouldn't blame myself for the things I didn't choose. But I also won't deny my responsibility anymore for the choices I did make. I'm not exactly the nice village girl they knew."

Eleanor waited a moment to make sure she had Velvet's attention, then firmly shook her head. "You may be the 'Lord of Calamity', but... I didn't spend too much time talking to the other villagers in that dream, but from what you've told me about Niko, I know she wouldn't care."

Velvet folded her arms and smiled sardonically. "Wouldn't mind, maybe, but I'm pretty sure even you have to admit that the whole 'I don't care that you're a daemon' thing was just my own wishes talking. I told you, she drove me nuts sometimes, with her stubborness and her silly ideas, but she was still smart enough to know she should be scared of daemons."

"I - obviously - can't be certain, but I think she loved you. Maybe not the same way you felt about her, but still, love is love. And..." Eleanor found her voice trailing off. Wait. What am I saying here? Am I - should I really -

No. Don't second-guess this. Don't make yourself feel guilty. For once in your life stop thinking so much and just say it.

"If she loved you, she wouldn't be scared of you."

Velvet's face seemed to be shifting subtly between a mixture of emotions Eleanor couldn't possibly read. Obviously she had more than half a guess as to where this might be leading. "...And what makes you so sure about that?"

"Laphicet's not scared of you." Eleanor swallowed. "I'm not scared of you."

For an indeterminable period of time, there was no sound except the crashing of waves and a single lonely bird's call.

Velvet turned to look back at the ocean. "...You probably should be. It would save you a lot of pain. I told you, I'm not going to hide from the choices I've made anymore. That... that thing we fought in the earthpulse... it may have been Innominat's illusion, but it is a part of me. I AM the Lord of Calamity. I'm going to kill my brother-in-law and my brother's reincarnation, unless they kill me first. And even if Innominat... even if we do..."

She paused, and started again. "Even if Phi learns how to fully control that silver fire he's discovered, it won't work on me. I think you know that already. He might be able to make other daemons human again. Maybe even the other therions too. But I'm not just creating malevolence because I'm a therion. I didn't choose this" - she held up her bandaged arm - "but the things I did choose would have made me into a daemon ten times over anyway. And I'm not done making those kind of choices. To reawaken the elemental Empyreans - if the souls need to be strong enough - you know what that probably means." She turned to face Eleanor, and shook her head. "There's no happy ending for someone like that. The smart thing for anyone to do would be to be scared of her."

Eleanor folded her arms. "You say the smart thing, but what you mean is the reasonable thing. I'm tired of living according to someone else's definition of what is reasonable. And - and as for endings - "

She paused, wondering if even now, even with Velvet seemingly at peace with her past (as much as that was possible), this was something she could say. "When we were in the earthpulse... the Shepherd's memories I saw..."

She paused again, but Velvet's expression remained calm. "He truly loved your sister. And now he's willing to forget all about that love, just so long as he can also forget about the pain of losing her, and that's wrong. Even if it hadn't led to so much suffering, I - I still think that would be wrong. Maybe that doesn't make any sense, but it's how I feel."

She swallowed, mouth feeling dry again. "There, I've said my piece. I won't pretend to know how you feel - "

Velvet kissed her.

If Eleanor had been remotely capable of comprehending what was happening, she probably would have reacted a lot sooner. Velvet had leaned in slowly, hesitantly, and altogether un-Velvet-ly, and the kiss itself had just been the lightest, most gentle press of her lips. The sea spray made more of an impact, and at the back of her mind was the remembered fact from their conversations that Velvet had only ever kissed someone once before. But despite all that, she nonetheless was more than a little surprised that she remained standing upright when Velvet backed away. She'd taken enough hits from daemons to know when she should be knocked off her feet, and this daemon -

"I - what? Did you just...?"

Velvet was blushing (she could... do that??) but also grinning as she shook her head. "You really are impossible, you know that? Like I've told you, there were times when Niko almost drove me insane. I thought you would have noticed by now that you drive me entirely insane pretty much all the time." She exhaled. "That Vivian was a very lucky girl."

"I would say she's not the only one," Eleanor muttered, barely even aware that she was speaking.

"That's pretty rich coming from you." Velvet shook her head again. "Like I said, you have to know I'm going to get you hurt in the end. But if that's really your choice - "

"How many times do I have to say it - "

This time they both came together a lot less hesitantly, and... in defiance of most of the novels Eleanor had read (though not most of the times she'd been with Vivian), it was actually a little awkward. Their noses collided slightly and brushed past each other - a part of Eleanor was noting that for once she was seeing Velvet not moving in perfect coordination - and as she found herself reaching for Velvet her elbow banged very solidly against the deck rail.

But then their lips actually managed to meet and it wasn't as awkward anymore. Or maybe it was even more so but in a way that she didn't totally mind. That doesn't entirely make sense but this isn't really a time for making sense- Her eyes half-closed but she had no trouble reaching a hand around Velvet's back even as Velvet's human arm encircled her own waist. She grabbed tightly onto the back of the therion girl's coat, another part of her worrying over the possibility of tearing it even further and yet another part not caring at all. She could still taste the salt spray on her tongue but that wasn't all she could taste, and one more part of her was saddened to remember that Velvet herself could no longer taste anything. Still another part of her, though (how many parts could one mind have??), couldn't help but observe that it didn't seem to bothering Velvet at all right now - 

"WELL IT'S ABOUT FREAKING TIME!!"

They broke apart even faster than they had come together. The unmitigated glee in the voice made it impossible not to recognize even if she'd somehow forgotten everything else about how the witch sounded, and she half-turned, glaring and well aware that her face was about as red as it had been. "M-Magilou?!"

The little blonde mop of hair and the hat atop it swung back and worth as Magilou - who it seemed had been in one of the below-deck cabins - gesticulated with her characteristic exaggeration. Besides her, Bienfu had apparently climbed onto one of the rails to get a better view. "Oh my GALD, you two are the biggest pair of idiots I have ever seen outside of my mirror! I was beginning to think I would actually have to draw you a diagram - "

"Magilou," Velvet growled with a glare so forceful Eleanor was a bit surprised it didn't actually knock the witch to the ground, "this time I swear I am genuinely going to eat you."

Magilou lifted an eyebrow. "Really? Looked to me like you were more interested in eating her. Though I'd be all the way open to it if you're thinking about a threeso - OW! Ow ow ow! Not the ear, you deadbeat brute!"

Eizen had stepped up the gangplank and yanked the witch backward by tugging sharply on one pointed ear-tip. Unfortunately, it appeared that Rokurou and, worst of all, Laphicet had both followed him up onto the ship as well. Eleanor offered a brief prayer to any Empyreans, malakhim, or general spiritual forces that might be nearby to let the deck rail give way and dump her into the ocean. When no such spirit obliged, she settled for turning her glare towards Eizen. "'Deadbeat'? Please tell me that you did not have another of your side bets on - on whether - "

"No, I didn't," Eizen said, still directing his own menacing look towards Magilou, "as I have been repeatedly telling you for weeks!" (Eleanor winced at the last word; she'd known she wasn't good at hiding things, but still..) "All I ever said is that when two people fight a lot, sometimes it really is because they just don't get along, not because they're actually fighting a deep-seated underlying sexual tension." 

"Yeah, otherwise you'd totally have a thing for Zaveid," Rokurou opined. Eizen turned the death-glare in his direction, giving Magilou the opportunity to retreat, but the pirate malak soon redirected his attention her way.

"I never mentioned Velvet and Eleanor specifically and I never agreed to your 70 gald bet on whether they'd get together!"

Magilou threw up her hands. "Hey, never let it be said that my withered heart can't be moved by the sight of newly born passion! I'd be entirely willing to cut you one gald in honor of our newfound lovebirds - or should that be lovedoves?" She looked over at the bow, totally unfazed by Velvet's apparent attempt to strike her dead with her eyes alone. "Speaking of which, don't mind us, you can totally get back to what you were doing."

Velvet clutched her forehead with her bandaged hand and gritted her teeth. "Magilou..."

For her part, Eleanor found herself looking at Laphicet, who had walked forward past the antics of the nominal adults. "L-Laphicet, um. If, uh, if you're confused by anything you've seen - "

Laphicet laughed. "Come on, you guys, I'm not that much of a kid. Some of Bienfu's books have really helped me to understand - "

Velvet turned menacingly in the direction of the deck rail below. "Bienfu...!"

Eleanor folded her arms and assumed her best lecturing voice. "Are we going to have to have another private conversation about what is and is not appropriate reading material?"

The normin cringed backwards. "Biiieeeen?! Why am I the bad guy all of a sudden?!"

"Don't sweat it," Rokurou offered. Behind him, Eizen had apparently grabbed Magilou's hat off of her head and was holding it at the full reach of his arms while the witch hopped futilely about in an attempt to snatch it back. "Technically, we're all bad guys on this ship, remember?"

Eleanor clenched a fist and glared at him. "Excuse me?"

The swordsman grinned, unconcerned. "Hey, you just made out with the 'irredeemable personification of all human sin', and I'm pretty sure you'd be happy to sin some more if we'd all just leave you alone. I'd say that qualifies."

Eleanor sat down heavily on the deck and rubbed her sore elbow. After a moment, Velvet joined her. She glanced at the chaos - Magilou had somehow retrieved her hat and was now jabbering something at Eizen while a watching Laphicet tried very hard to control his laughter - then turned to look at the therion. "Sorry. This is... not exactly what I had intended."

Velvet edged over until her shoulder was touching Eleanor's. Eleanor made sure to keep her eyes focused on Velvet's face (though she hardly objected to the casual contact). "That's all right. Honestly, it's probably just your fault for intending something in advance anyway."

"...I suppose I can't argue with that." Eleanor put a hand over one of Velvet's. "Hey. We do need to - we should talk about this some more later, right?"

Velvet nodded. "We'd better get moving soon, but sure, later is fine. It's a long sail to Northgand, after all."

***

Inevitably, of course, they didn't wind up going straight to Northgand. Inevitably, that stop meant more unanticipated horrors and blows to whatever idealized image of the Abbey Eleanor had still managed to hold onto.

But it also meant learning what things weren't so easily suppressed, and that part wasn't so bad.