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dreams of a girl with red hair

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It had really just started out as a bit of idle curiosity, and it had mostly been Bienfu's fault anyway. That was what she told herself later.

Eleanor had been at a loss for what to do ever since they had arrived at Aball, or maybe even since they'd first heard in Taliesin that the village wasn't destroyed. When they first set out she hadn't been sure whether Velvet would find visiting the place hard or not - after all, she certainly seemed unbothered by making the prison where she'd lived a nightmare existence for three years into a base of operations. And while she'd come to realize that Velvet wasn't quite the monster she'd first thought, she was still the daemon who'd torn a swathe of destruction across the empire and seemed equally unaffected both by nearly being gutted by the Shepherd's sword and learning the horrible truth about the "daemonblight." She was not easily shaken.

No one had expected, though, even considering the possibilities, to find the village totally intact, the villagers - Velvet's friends and neighbors - still alive, and even, impossibly, her brother merely comatose. Even after weeks of traveling together, even after learning more and more of the ugly secrets the Abbey kept buried behind its creed of Reason, it was still hard for Eleanor to truly accept that Lord Artorius had murdered his own little brother, but the one thing she had never doubted was that Velvet had seen him die.

So it was easy to understand why the rest of the group seemed unable to accept anything they were seeing at face value. Eizen and Rokorou hadn't even bothered with meeting the villagers for more than a moment, instead heading off in search of the therion that was supposed to be imprisoned somewhere nearby. And while it was, after all, the reason they'd come in the first place, she couldn't help but wonder if their real motive was the same reason that Laphicet was so insistent on staying - that dreadful feeling (even without any sort of mystical malak bond, enough of it coming through to almost give her physical chills) that none of this could possibly be as happy and fortunate as it seemed.

And as for Magilou... even if they kept traveling together for years, Eleanor doubted she would ever really be able to read the self-declared witch (certainly she had no idea why she was tagging along right now - wouldn't the earthpulse point be more interesting?), but the hushed conversations she kept having with Bienfu definitely suggested that she was as suspicious of the village as everyone else.

But Eleanor wanted to believe it was real. She worried more than a little that it was a sign of her own weakness, trying to convince herself that Lord Artorius could still be the man she'd once looked up to - worshiped, really - instead of a twisted liar and murderer. But no - they'd learned far too much elsewhere for Aball's survival to really make a difference to the rest of the truth. Trying to sacrifice Velvet's brother was monstrous whether it had actually been fatal or not. The truth, she thought, was that she wanted it all to be true for Velvet's sake. She'd never seen the therion girl so happy before. Even before learning her brother was alive, she'd been... overjoyed at the reunion with Niko, the merchant girl who seemed to be her closest friend. (And who reminded her more than a little of Vivian, even though they didn't look much alike apart from being kind of small). Eleanor had joked about not knowing Velvet had smile muscles, but even more striking than the smiling was hearing her laugh - not a sardonic or amused chuckle, but a completely uncaring, joyful laugh. And what was even stranger was how out-of-character it didn't feel, as if, like Laphicet had said, this was the real Velvet and the unrelentingly ruthless 'Lord of Calamity' she'd known was just a shell.

Despite everything Velvet had done, all the suffering she'd caused, she herself had suffered enough that surely she deserved for this much to be real, didn't she? And if it was an illusory arte, it certainly hadn't broken from disbelief like the ones they'd previously seen Lord Melchior use. It hadn't even broken from Velvet slashing open her own hand. (And could anything sum up how used she'd gotten to Velvet than how that had barely even shocked her?) If no one else would believe it was real then Eleanor thought she would, or at least she'd try. She wasn't always successful at things, but she liked to think she was good at trying.

Still, though, it was hard to figure out what to do, apart from talking with Laphicet about what they were seeing. It seemed to cheer him up, at least, seeing and talking about Velvet as she'd once been. Their mission wasn't something they could really pursue right now, and it wasn't like she could honestly spend too much time getting to know the villagers herself - compassion and understanding were one thing, but it would still be largely dishonest to act like she and Velvet were actually, truly, friends.

(Though perhaps she shouldn't have been quite so, well, loud about denying it to Aball's shopkeeper. That had probably just sounded unconvincing.)

So when the conversation turned to her own village, she was happy to go along with it. Apart from the size, and so how everyone knew each other, it hadn't honestly been that similar to Aball - Eastgand was a much woodsier, less settled region, after all (she remembered her amusement at how rueful Velvet had sounded recalling how she'd grown up thinking of Taliesin as 'the big city'). The lack of water beyond the small streams and ponds in the forest was certainly impossible to ignore; no wonder Velvet had been so rusty when it came to fishing. But there were more than enough similarities that it was another reason helping her want to believe that Aball really had survived that night, so that even after such a terrible thing happening to her, Velvet could still find some happiness.

The way Eleanor had, even after losing so many of the people she herself had grown up with. After seeing her mother...

There were still things to make her happy, to make life worth living for itself and as more than a duty to the people she'd lost: "Eating a good meal... making new friends..."

"And falling in loooove?" Bienfu had interjected provocatively. It took her a moment to notice, and when she did it was of course embarrassing. She had rather quickly stopped confiding in him about Vivian back at Lothringen, but by now, it wasn't that surprising to her that he'd still bring it up. But even after how all that had ended, the gossipy little normin wasn't actually wrong - the memories were still happy ones, happier than anything else from her training. Maybe even happier than anything else since... that night. So after making sure to admonish him, she didn't mind admitting that she was curious whether there had been a guy in Aball who Velvet had fallen in love with for the first time growing up. At the time, she thought it'd be interesting to meet him.

* * *

Of course, later that evening, she would realize her first mistake.

They had arrived back at the Crowe family home to find Rokorou and Eizen waiting, and the conversation had quickly turned confrontational. Eizen was pretty sure he had found the therion, and was determined to go after it, even if it meant throwing Aball into chaos again. (She didn't even want to think about what the sudden release of malevolence might mean for a town that had already survived so much). And even, apparently, if it meant fighting Velvet - a point she emphasized by bringing out her daemon claw-hand. With the kind of luck that Eleanor had decided by now was typical for their group, she had done it just as Niko came back from the village center. In time to see what her best friend had turned into. In time, as Velvet spoke, to hear that she wasn't just any daemon, she was the one who had almost destroyed this town.

Except. Except... it didn't matter?

"I don't want to hear it! Daemon or no daemon, you're still you. Okay? So, you're scary. I'll get used to it!"

Niko moved closer, undisturbed (or at least actively fighting any feelings of disturbance) and took Velvet's claw in her hands, cradling it with a... The only phrase Eleanor could find for it was fierce tenderness. She didn't think she'd ever seen it before with Velvet, maybe even not from Laphicet.

"I promise. I'll keep it a secret. Let's just live here in the village, like we used to. Okay? You, me, and everyone else." The desperation in her voice...

...Why did I ever think Velvet's first love had to be a guy?

* * *

The thought stuck with her as they got ready for dinner. She hadn't had that much to say in the way of conversation, after all. Velvet had been unusually subdued - not just quiet in a sullen way, but actually almost peaceful - and she had only really spoken, again in that unfamiliar (yet also, somehow completely appropriate) carefree tone, about the meal she was making, and mostly to Laphicet when he spoke to her. Niko had been in and out of the house, as if uncertain whether or not to stay, acting nervous and fluttery - but it truly didn't seem to be Velvet's nature, but rather the thought of her leaving Aball again, that was worrying her.

"If you really can't stay, when Laphi wakes up, then - maybe then we can all go travel together? Like we used to talk about? I know you've always been worried about him traveling, but come on, what are we going to meet on the roads that's scarier than you are now?"

And if there was still a tiny bit of shakiness in Niko's voice as she tried to make light of things no one should have had to face, it was much less than Eleanor could honestly have ever had expected from herself under similar circumstances. It was almost... well, embarrassing. It hadn't been a priority in her life, and it hadn't ultimately been a success, but she'd thought she at least had a reasonably good idea of what it meant to be in love. It was something that she could say she'd felt. But compared to this...

I don't care that you're a daemon. I don't care. I just want to stay with you. For us to stay together. The words weren't spoken, but they were still there. It doesn't matter. Not as long as I love you.

If something like this had happened... not just during training, but even now, even after everything I've learned about daemons and myself... could I have ever said that to Vivian? I don't think so. Not if I'm being truly honest with myself.

Certainly I wouldn't ever be saying that to Velvet.

At that thought she blushed and looked downward, though of course no one was paying attention. Again, if she was being honest with herself, it wasn't a thought that had absolutely never crossed her mind. Almost from the first time they'd met, she'd known she found Velvet physically attractive. (The very first time they'd met, she'd been too wrapped up in her own conflict over the Abbey's willingness to sacrifice Beardsley to even really notice how out-of-place the strange travelers' appearance was for Northgand, let alone any of the actual details. Of course, now that conflict seemed so petty compared to the other sacrifices she'd learned about.)

The therion girl didn't really look anything like Vivian, but it'd be crazy not to call her beautiful. She'd offered to mend Velvet's clothes before - and it would certainly have helped with keeping her eyes from drifting in ways that were totally inappropriate for any decent young woman, let alone an exorcist praetor - but she suspected she'd still have to fight a tendency to stare even if Velvet wore something altogether more concealing than her tattered rags and coat. The curves would probably still be noticeable. And the muscles (in retrospect, it wasn't hard to realize why Velvet had won every fight they'd had, even considering how much she'd strengthened from the time wielding her own spear). And most certainly the hair; there was a reason she'd stopped pressing Velvet about helping comb it, because if there was ever a time she'd come across as too awkward...

Magilou already has enough teasing opportunities, thank you.

And of course, clothing certainly wouldn't make a difference to what it was like seeing Velvet fight - so completely focused, sword and legs and hands all constantly moving in pursuit of a singular goal. She'd been struck earlier by how Niko had been able to hold Velvet's daemon hand with so little revulsion, but really - half the time she manifested it, it was in battle, and there even it looked like it was part of something greater. Something graceful. Beautiful, again, if that could ever be appropriately applied to something as awful as the application of violence and death. She'd never worried, even defeated and wondering how it could possibly have happened despite all the clear righteousness of her cause, that watching Velvet in battle was so distracting that it undermined her own focus. (She'd have died long ago if she was that easy to distract in combat, after all.) But she was also certainly self-aware enough to know that it was a little distracting.

Physical attraction didn't mean anything beyond that, though. That was simply sensible thinking, even without any of the Abbey's training. She'd started out, after all, absolutely certain that this woman was a monster who needed to be stopped - at first, no different from any other daemon she'd fought, no different from the ones that had killed her mother when she was a little girl. And then, she'd realized she was different, but only because she was so much worse. Daemons killed people, they didn't tear apart entire cities. They snarled and screamed like beasts, not spoke intelligently and then carried out their crimes anyway. If she looked more human than most, that just made her actions more horrifying. It was a simple conclusion, not something she even needed orders to come to.

But that had been before she learned Velvet wasn't lying about what she claimed humanity's Shepherd had done to her brother. Before she'd learned that the Abbey was lying - or at best completely mistaken (and she couldn't even really believe that anymore) about malakhim being just convenient magical tools to save humanity, rather than beings every bit as alive and feeling and thinking, and deserving of their freedom, as humans. Before she'd learned how many secrets she'd never even had guessed existed were being kept from her, and how badly she wanted - needed - to learn them, even if it meant going against what she'd once been devoted to and becoming a monster in the eyes of the world. Before she'd learned that the difference between monsters and saviors was so often just a question of who it was that needed saving.

Before she'd killed a little girl's mother in front of her eyes thinking she'd been doing the right thing.

So now, it was clear that nothing was simple - not daemons, not the Abbey, not Velvet, not her own purpose. But that didn't make her initial assumptions entirely wrong, did it? It was becoming clear, whatever that cryptic reference to Innominat's resurrection "ending humanity" really meant, that it might be stopping the Abbey's plans, and perhaps, yes, killing Artorius, that would truly save the world. But Velvet didn't care about saving the world, she just wanted to make the man who had destroyed her family suffer. She may have cared more about others (especially Laphicet) than she was willing to admit, but it wouldn't stop her from sacrificing them for the sake of her revenge. It was only sheer luck that collecting the therions so far hadn't destroyed another village the way it had Haria.

The way we destroyed Haria.

She wasn't a good person. Not really. She could admit that now. But she didn't think Velvet even wanted to be.

So it was really the height of foolishness to make any more in her mind of the fact that she found Velvet attractive than any other fact about this odd bunch of misfit criminals she found herself traveling with. Like the way Eizen and Rokorou kept bickering over their favorite kinds of beetle, or how Laphicet's favorite food was mabo curry, or how sometimes it seemed like Magilou was being almost determinedly apathetic, or the reason why Benwick always wore the same vest but never a shirt, or how Bienfu and Grimoirh had very different reactions to Kamoana considering them 'cuddly'. A fact of life to be aware of, not to insistently deny to herself like some silly heroine in a romance novel - but also very much not a thing to spend too much time thinking about.

The real reason she was dwelling on it wasn't how she felt, it was the thought of how Niko must have felt. And Velvet, too. She obviously couldn't tell on just one evening's acquaintance if the two girls from Aball actually had any conscious idea of how they really felt for each other, but that amount of caring... Of, well, love. It was, honestly, startling to see. And revelatory. She'd known, intellectually, that Velvet had been happy - not just content but actually happy, in a way that she couldn't have really pictured before today - before the Scarlet Night. She'd seen earlier today how much she seemed to enjoy her life in Aball. But she was only starting to grasp just how much she hadn't known about what the other girl had lost on the night of the red moon. Not just a brother (or two brothers, perhaps, if Lord Artorius had really been as much her family as it now appeared), but everything a normal person growing up was supposed to have. Friendship, romance, casual laughter and private jokes, little hopes and larger goals, watching the seasons change, changing and growing yourself, finding new kinds of happiness. Even things she'd already known about Velvet losing, like her ability to taste anything but blood, meant more when she considered that it wasn't just her own cooking she couldn't taste anymore. The everyday things that made life more than just... following some one purpose, no matter how much that purpose mattered. The kind of things that even a devotion to reason and logic had to make room for, at least among all the exorcists she'd known. The kind of things it was hard even to try to consider in just a few thoughts.

Things, though, she reminded herself quickly, that maybe hopefully Velvet could get back now. At least a little.

Even now - even if her brother woke up - she doubted Velvet would really choose to stay in Aball. For all her anger and fire, the other woman, in a lot of ways, could think things through better and farther ahead than Eleanor usually could, and she was sure Velvet had already considered everything she herself had earlier, about how Artorius and the Abbey's crimes wouldn't just magically disappear because some of them hadn't been as successful as it had seemed at first. (Clearly, for instance, there was something being hidden here about the therion and that shrine down on the coast, something the Abbey undoubtedly considered more important than one small town, even if it was the Shepherd's home). But even the fact that she was tempted was... it had to be a good thing, right? And it showed how much this place, these people... this girl meant to Velvet, 'Lord of Calamity' or not.

Whatever's really happening here... I really do hope it lets her still be happy in the end. Lets them be happy. Together.

She pressed a gloved hand to her chin in thought. Still, though. I wonder why she's never talked about... about any of this. I know it must have been painful, but... but she's not afraid to talk about losing her brother. She didn't care at all when I wanted to know more about her past on Titania. She doesn't seem frightened or even that angry about going in her old cell. But she's never even mentioned Niko before. Barely said a word, I think, about what it was like living, growing up, in Aball. Why?

* * *

Of course, it wouldn't be that much later in that same evening that she realized the answer to that question. And realized the other way she'd been so obviously wrong when she'd thought about how it would be nice to meet Velvet's first love.

Chapter Text

So it had all been a dream. Not even just an illusion, a dream, from the very moment they'd landed in Taliesin, before they'd even heard any possibility that Aball had survived. She didn't entirely understand what was going on - it was Velvet's dream, but they'd all been part of it, and they really had traveled physically to Aball - but the others had been right. It had been too good to be true. Laphicet Crowe was dead, Niko was dead, everyone Velvet had known for the first sixteen years of her life was dead. Except her brother-in-law, who was a murderer.

On one level, as they raced towards the shrine on the coast - Velvet a span ahead of all of the rest, face fixed forward so that her expression was unreadable - Eleanor wasn't surprised. Not really. She'd sworn to herself to stop hiding from the truth, to face the world as it was. Lord Artorius and the Abbey were capable of terrible things. She had been less a protector of the people than a pawn. And Velvet had not spent three years filled with pain and anger over nothing but mistaken memories. She had wanted to believe, sure, but deep down she'd known the truth just as much as the rest of their group had.

Still, though. It wasn't really anything new, especially not after how manipulative the Abbey had proven itself to be by now, but creating false hope like this still felt like a level of cruelty that she wanted to believe the organization she'd given so much to wasn't capable of. She wasn't sure if it was a good or bad thing about herself, that even now she kept hoping for the best, even when she knew it wasn't likely, but it was another truth she couldn't deny.

Though of course, if she was really so able to accept reality now, she wouldn't be trying so hard not to think about the details of what had just happened.

* * *

They had rushed out of the house as Velvet's brother called for her, then begged for her, to come back. It wasn't real, wasn't - the fact that he had conveniently come out of his coma just after Velvet had spotted, or rather tasted, the failures in the dream's boundaries, just made that more obvious. But still. She'd never had a younger brother, and for all that Magilou liked to talk about Eleanor and Velvet fighting over which one of them was Laphicet - their Laphicet's - older sister, she didn't think she could ever really know what that kind of bond was like. But she could still tell, just from being there, how much it must have hurt the other woman to hear.

Or how much it should hurt, anyway...

And then they had come out into the village's main clearing to find Rokurou and Eizen being confronted by the angry villagers. She recognized all of them: the young man who had wanted so badly to apologize to Velvet for having doubted "Arthur" before the Advent (undoubtedly the most awkward of the reunions she'd seen), and the general store owner who'd bantered with them as Velvet shopped for spinach and other ingredients (her own personal most awkward moment of the day). But it was Niko who stood front and center, and demanded that they stop. That Velvet stop.

And of course that was more proof this wasn't real. This girl so concerned about following the Abbey's rules, wanting to comply with the order of the world for fear of punishment wasn't, couldn't be the same person as the Niko who had earlier desperately sworn not to tell anyone that her best friend ('friend'? As if that was enough of a word) was a daemon, so long as she stayed, so long as they could be together. And she wasn't, because neither of them was real. Neither one was the real Niko. This only made that more obvious. And more obvious that the exorcist or malak or whatever was creating the dream was trying increasingly frantically to keep Velvet inside it.

Except...

She already knows this isn't real. She just abandoned her brother while he begged her to stay. Isn't that enough? I understand all of the harm she's caused, I understand how badly the Abbey wants to stop her, but this... dream arte has already failed. Why keep... why make her...?

Even if she knows. This is too cruel.

And of course it became crueler; as Velvet lashed out verbally - at herself as much as Artorius, and not for the first time - Eleanor saw flecks of... darkness begin to swirl around the villagers. Malevolence. She'd only ever seen it with her naked eye once before, at Palamedes and Haria, but the chill felt less on the skin and more on the inside, just from looking at it, was unmistakeable. And that was more proof this wasn't real, obviously, none of it was real - the whole village just transforming like that, with Niko just happening to turn last, so she could look at Velvet and cry out in rage more than pain - it was more illusion, more tricks.

It wasn't real.

The battle had felt real enough, though. It wasn't all that threatening - werewolves and garuda were daemons they definitely all knew how to face, and Velvet was in a battle rage besides, claw lashing out relentlessly again and again - but she still couldn't let her guard down in combat, not for more than a brief moment of confusion. That had been one lesson from the Shepherd that would always have value. And so she fought, and focused on slaying the monsters, and only realized as it was over that she had had no idea which of the daemons had been which person. No clue if it was Velvet who had torn apart the daemon that had used to be her first love.

(Had done it again. But she wanted to think about that even less than the rest of it.)

The bodies didn't provide an answer, didn't turn back to humans the way daemons Velvet killed normally did - and that was just another way that all of this couldn't be real. But there was still blood on her speartip, still the strain in her arms from having swung it. Still breath racing faster than normal. It had seemed real. It had looked real. It had felt real. So how much more real must it have seemed to the woman who had actually lived in this place, known all of these people?

The woman who had just killed them all without blinking an eye. Who had killed Niko and not even seemed to notice.

Killed her again.

When she spoke, Magilou (who had indeed apparently known exactly what was going on right from the start) brushed it aside with a quip, seeming more impressed with Velvet than anything else. But Eleanor couldn't stop thinking about it. Didn't want to think about it.

Laphicet had called the Velvet they'd seen in Aball the real Velvet. That was the one she wanted to believe in. Sure, they still didn't get along that well, not really, and if she wanted her to be happy, or even just to hurt a little less, that was what she should want as another human being. (Daemon or no daemon). And if she watched the flow and darkness of her hair, or the sway of her hips, for too long, that... well, that was also just part of being a human, right? The point - the point was that even if they'd, personally, never really be friends, she really did believe that that side to Velvet was real.

She could make friends. She could laugh and joke. She could love. She cared about her brother and the malak she'd given his name, and a name. She hid behind coldness, and anger, but there was more to her than that. The Lord of Calamity was just a myth the world believed in to avoid the complicated truth.

But the other side to Velvet did exist, was real. She murdered people. Ate them. She destroyed lives, left suffering in her wake even when that destruction wasn't literal. She would fight the whole world just to kill one man, and not because of the danger his plans seemed to pose to it, but just out of her own personal hatred. Eleanor didn't want to think about that side of Velvet, and since she had fully committed to finding a new path free from the Abbey's she'd mostly been able to ignore it, but right now? After watching Velvet abandon her brother, kill all of her friends, kill the girl that she had been in love with and then just keep going?

It hadn't been real. Every moment leading up to it had made that more clear. But it would still have mattered, should have mattered, and it didn't seem to. At all.

I'm going to stop hiding from the truth. I am. But right now... right now I can't think about this.

Let's just capture the therion and get out of here.

* * *

As ever, though, reality wouldn't let her not think about it for long.

They reached the shrine and found the therion, as expected. As with all of Innominat's "heads", this latest therion wore a singularly different form from any other daemon Eleanor had ever faced, some kind of bizarre two-headed dog creature. It targeted Velvet with as much ferocity as she struck at it with, and Eleanor thought afterward that maybe that was how she figured it out.

Velvet hadn't been the only therion born in Aball on the night of the Advent.

She didn't remember Niko - the dream Niko, the illusionary Niko - having said much about her dogs earlier in the day. She remembered the names, Orthie and Russ. Maybe a passing mention from Velvet, a joke - a joke initiated by Velvet! - about how 'wimpy' they had been three years ago. She didn't remember Niko having said much in response. Maybe that should have been a clue, or maybe she just hadn't been paying much attention. She hadn't exactly been in a focused investigative mode, after all.

The dogs they were fighting seemed anything but wimpy, though. She had no idea how two beings had been fused into one daemon; even by the standards of the therions it was exceptionally strange. But the heads fought together with complete coordination and a shared fury that was nothing like Laphicet had wished for long ago when contemplating the idea of fighting a multi-headed Innominat. Still, their own group, if not really a proper team, had also grown better able to work together (or at least not actively at cross-purposes) since then, and in the end they defeated the therion as they had all the others.

And then.

Velvet shattered the Abbey's barrier and walked towards 'Orthruss' - who rose back up, uttering growls that were closer to roars, as if none of the fighting had even happened. Laphicet cried Velvet's name in fear. But the human therion just reached out her claw and rested it gently on one of the snarling heads.

"It's okay. I killed their owner. I deserve all their hate, and then some."

"But not now. Understand? Once I get my revenge, you can tear me apart if you like."

"I promise."

One of the things Eleanor had always been curious about, dreaming of getting a dog of her own as a little girl, was how well they could really understand humans. Dogs lived with people, loved their owners, but to actually know what they were saying? She'd wondered. But in this case, at least, the answer seemed clear. Orthruss quieted, then broke apart in mist as the other therions had, changing into two separate dogs that looked relatively normal apart from the markings on their faces.

The rest of the mist that had apparently been the sign of the dream arte finally disappeared around the same time, and the conversation turned to a new topic: the complete copy of Innominat's book that Laphicet had found in the dream Crowe home, and which had evaporated with the rest of the illusion. She herself was the first to suggest that the real one might still been there. She said it because it was a real possibility, even if slight (she doubted Lord Artorius would just forget something like that), and because Laphicet looked so crushed to have not looked at the illusionary copy while he had the chance, and because if it was true then they'd have a chance to gain something out of the expedition to Aball, besides another therion severed from Innominat.

And besides what she'd learned about Velvet.

She'd always known what happened to Aball. Velvet hadn't ever talked in detail about the people there beyond her family, avoided mentioning her life, never spoken Niko's name. But she hadn't kept the fact that she herself had destroyed the village on the night the moon turned red a secret.

It was one thing to know that intellectually, though, especially when you were still having to learn to stop thinking of this woman as the most horrible daemon you'd ever encountered. It was another thing entirely to understand and feel it. Earlier, actually meeting Niko and the others, she'd thought she'd understood a little better what it really meant for Velvet to have lost her past and future, but that had also been when she had still been trying to hope that they weren't truly lost. Now, though, with the illusion gone...

She was a normal girl. She'd been through loss and grief already, but she still was happy - more than happy. She was growing up and falling in love. And the way it ended was with everyone, everyone, dying at her own hands.

She couldn't imagine it. She could only guess, and even that...

Maybe it wasn't as hard to kill everyone you cared about if you've already done it once before.

Especially if you didn't plan to outlive them for long.

Once I get my revenge, you can tear me apart.

It wasn't the first time Velvet had expressed the general idea that as long as she managed to kill Artorius, she didn't really care if she stayed alive afterwards. Eleanor was ashamed to think about it now, but at times she'd even considered that a logical sentiment. What future was there for a daemon? But she'd never heard Velvet express the feeling so directly before. Not in terms of an actual... proposal.

She knew she should say something. She'd come so close to taking her own life after their duel, not because she'd actually wanted to die, but because she couldn't see any other way out of her situation. It had been a horribly selfish thought, even without taking into account (as she had failed to at the time) what Laphicet's vessel dying would have done to him. Magilou would probably consider it hilarious that it had been the Shepherd himself who had ultimately stopped her, and in so doing helped start her on the path to realize the truth about him and the Abbey's ideal world. Eleanor preferred to think of it as a sign - that as terrible as his methods were, the ultimate idea of making the world a better place for ordinary people, the dream that had originally drawn her and so many others to the Abbey in the first place, was still a hope that should always be kept alive.

Either way, though, she knew she'd been wrong to see death as the only future for herself, and she knew she'd been wrong to think that about Velvet too. Rationally, yes, it was still hard to imagine what future the Lord of Calamity could have. But as much as Velvet tried to deny it sometimes she was still human, and if Eleanor had learned anything good on this journey it was that the possibilities, at least, for humans were always endless.

But how was she supposed to say that to someone who'd just had everything she lost shown to her, only to lose it all again? She heard her brother's voice for the first time in three years only as she abandoned him. She killed the girl she loved. It wasn't real this time but it was before. How could she not look at Niko's dogs and think they deserved to kill her?

How were you supposed to tell someone to keep hoping for a future after something like that? She couldn't imagine Velvet responding with anything but anger. Part of her - the better part of her - thought that Velvet was in enough pain right now without provoking her further. But part of her just didn't want that anger to be directed at her. It was so, horribly wrong to think that way, to think of herself at all - she hadn't suffered anything tonight, she'd just watched someone else. And not even someone who she could honestly say she was that close to. Not - not really. But somehow she couldn't help it.

Velvet had called herself horribly selfish when speaking to the dream Niko. Eleanor couldn't help but think it was a trait they shared.

I know I needed to come here as Laphicet's vessel. I know I needed to help capture another therion. And I hope we get the chance to find the real book of Innominat back in Aball. I can't tell myself I shouldn't have come here.

But part of me still wishes I'd never come here. And I definitely wish I hadn't wanted to meet Velvet's first love.

Chapter Text

"Hey, Eleanor? Are you okay?"

Laphicet's voice broke into her thoughts as the group made their way back towards Taliesin. Events in Aball after that night had ended about as well... as well as they could have. They'd found the book of Innominat, albeit not quite where they'd expected, and though Lord Melchior - no, just Melchior, she wasn't sure she could ever call him 'Lord' again after seeing how cruel his illusions could truly be - had appeared in person to confront them, strangely he hadn't actually tried to stop them from leaving.

Although his appearance did seem to have considerably shaken Eizen...

"I'm fine," she told the young malak. They were near the back of the group, but she still looked at the others to see how much attention they were paying. As a response, it wasn't especially true but there was no reason to burden him of all of them with her melancholy thoughts.

"It's just that you've been awfully quiet... Are you still mad about what Eizen said about you still being a spy for the Abbey?"

"Not really. I'd be suspecting the same thing if I were in his position." Though, really, would she? Eizen had been exceptionally bothered by the illusions - not that she could blame him, although it did seem odd that he found Melchior's controlled daemon 'bodyguard' so disturbing when the Abbey already took away the wills of countless malakhim. But still, to think that someone she'd (somehow!) come to consider a friend could think she was still affiliated with the Abbey after seeing the things she'd seen...

Which was the real problem, of course.

Velvet, as usual, was walking at the front of the party with her gaze fixed straight on the road ahead. She seemed back to normal - a little quiet in her own right, maybe, but then she'd never exactly been the most talkative member of their group. But that seeming calm was in itself giving Eleanor a little hollow feeling in her stomach. She'd tried keeping an eye on Velvet from time to time, but as usual watching Velvet had turned into a lingering gaze at certain aspects of Velvet, and that had never seemed as horribly inappropriate as it did right now.

Laphicet was still gazing at her with a concerned expression. "It's just that..." she looked down. "I keep thinking about what happened yesterday. That dream giving Velvet hope for her family, and - and for people who she might have wished were family..."

"Oho. So, you picked up on that too?" a light voice intruded, and Eleanor gave out a sigh that she hoped was just mental. One hand flipping her characteristic loose lock of hair away from her eyes, Magilou fell back to join the two of them.

Laphicet tilted his head, puzzled. "Picked up on...?"

Eleanor looked down again. "That merchant girl from Aball, Niko..."

"The one the dogs belonged to?" Both of the canine therions (or halves of a therion? However that worked) had laid down earlier in the day and just refused to move or even wake up; they'd finally had to transfer them into Laphicet's pack, where they were still sleeping at that moment. For his sake, Eleanor found herself happy that therions never seemed to gain weight from the daemons they devoured.

Again, she found herself hesitant to speak. Was this really something she even had the right to be talking about? It had felt a little gossipy even yesterday when they hadn't known for certain that Aball was just a dream, and now... But then again, she couldn't exactly just drop the subject now that she had mentioned it. Again.

Perhaps I should simply consider talking less.

"I think Velvet was a little in love with her."

Magilou grinned. "More than a little, dontcha think? Our ice-hearted daemon queen certainly seemed to warm up quite a bit around her. But hey, what's the big deal? You were the one who wanted to meet whoever 'Velvet first fell for'."

Laphicet was looking more confused than ever. "I still think that's a weird thing for you to have wanted."

I definitely should consider talking less.

She directed her feelings into a glare at Magilou. "The big deal is just how awful it must have been for Velvet! Her losing her brother was terrible enough, but now I know... WE know that she lost so much more three years ago. The person she loved, the person she was... everyone in the village, really." Again her mind strayed back to her own childhood, and just how closely she'd known everyone there before...

"And then she had to lose them all again. To kill them all again!"

Magilou flung up her hands in an exaggerated sort of shrug. "You can only kill someone once." She paused. "...Ninety-nine percent of the time, anyway. Look, that village has been gone for three years, and Velvet knows that better than anyone. So sure, she may have let herself pretend otherwise for a bit, but she was able to walk away when the chips were down. The way I see things, that's pretty cool stuff. Because let me tell you something: most people given a perfect life wouldn't leave even if they absolutely knew it was all a trick."

She paused for a brief moment, then gave Eleanor a look. "I mean, seriously, you're acting like you've never been trapped inside an illusionary paradise before!"

Eleanor kept up her glare. "And you have?"

"Nope!" the witch said cheerily. "But you don't see me worrying about it all day!" Her voice assumed the closest tone it ever seemed to get to seriousness again. "And so what if you met Velvet's lost true love? We're a bunch of deviant criminals; nobody ends up here without lots of misery in their pasts."

Eleanor folded her arms. "Except you, apparently."

Magilou looked exaggeratedly stricken. "Hey now! Even a witch has to come from somewhere! Like all of my kind, I was hatched by an albino rooster on the night of the new moon, and have you ever tried being raised by poultry? It makes for a truly fowl childhood!"

Laphicet looked skeptically up at her. "Didn't you say before that you were born from a floating seed or something like that?"

"Again: evil witch! I don't have to obey your so-called 'internal consistency' if I don't want to, and you can't make me." Her voice returned to (relative) seriousness. "Look, I know Being Serious is what you exorcist types do and all, but look on the bright side! We cut another head off of Innominwhatsit, the kid's got a nice new fat tome to dig into," her voice turned sly, "and you learned that the future Lady Calamity had a thing for redheads. I'd call that a win if I were you, not waste my time dwelling on the tragedy of it all."

Eleanor suspected her own face had taken on a certain reddish hue. "That is not what... Why do I even bother talking to you about these things?"

She heard the witch's reply of "Beats me!" only distantly. As frustrating as the conversation had been, she couldn't help but admit it had also made her smile - but only for a minute. Magilou might be able to ultimately brush off everything they'd just been through with a joke, but Eleanor had promised herself she'd stop hiding from reality. And she couldn't believe any amount of philosophizing about reality and dreams was going to make what Velvet had been through, now and in the past, any less terrible.

And she wasn't hiding from reality herself by refusing to look at Velvet as they kept walking. She wasn't.

* * *

The island village was burning.

Eleanor thought it had been another village a moment ago (somehow), but there was no mistaking the scene now. Of dozens of houses only a few were still standing, and more flames leapt between them and the scattered palm trees with each minute. With a roar and crash of sparks one of the few remaining roofs gave way and collapsed, but the noise was quickly drowned out by the screams. And the screams were drowned out by the howls. Daemons - shaped vaguely like wolves and birds, but moving upright in a horrible parody of humanity - loped or hovered about, their terrible noises quickly silencing the even more terrible sounds that came as they caught up to those few villagers that hadn't already died or fled.

(Werewolves? Garuda? Wasn't it supposed to be trolls?) She wasn't sure where the thought had come from and -

And it didn't matter. Her gloved hands tightened around the haft of her spear. She had the power to do something. She had to do something.

But already, it seemed like most of the villagers were gone. Her gaze moving quickly around the village saw nothing but rampaging daemons and still human forms lying in dark pools that dully reflected the flickering light -

Wait. No. She turned back and saw them: a beautiful red-haired woman bent over a small, unmoving figure. A little girl, her form torn with horrible long red gashes, but Eleanor knew she was still alive. At least a dozen of the werewolves were converging on them, though, and she hefted her spear, moving to defend them. But the air felt strange, solid, slowing her movements -

The woman's voice carried clearly over all of the roars and screams and howling. "Just lie here. Everything will be all right. I'll lure them away."

"Stay strong and keep living."

No!

She wasn't aware that she had said it out loud until she heard her own voice in her ears. She called towards the woman "Pick her up! Stay together and-and just hold on! You can both still make it if I - "

"Why?" The voice that cut in was tinged with bitterness unlike anything Eleanor had ever heard before - except maybe from one other, but she couldn't remember the details somehow, not then. She turned, raising empty hands, to see another young woman her age, dressed in the white-and-gold of an exorcist orderly. A mop of short, tangled dark hair and tanned Southgand features she'd never forgotten. Small, but with a wiry build under the uniform that made it easy for her to wield the sword that should have been drawn, but instead just hung at her side.

"Why? Why do you care what happens to them?" Vivian hissed. She took a step forward. "You've chosen your side, and it isn't humanity's. Traitor. Daemon-loving traitor. Why??"

Eleanor raised her hands again defensively - she wanted to say something, needed to, at the look in the other girl's eyes, but her throat wouldn't open and her mouth wouldn't move - and though they had been empty a moment ago, she was certain of it, suddenly her spear was in them again, head pointed outward -

She felt the shock of impact run up her arms and she couldn't tell if she'd thrust the spear or if Vivian had deliberately stepped forward onto it.

Blood trickled out of the dark-haired girl's mouth, and the gaze she had fixed on Eleanor suddenly seemed less angry than simply confused. "Why?" she asked again, and fell backward onto the sand.

In the background, the werewolves kept howling, but Eleanor was only vaguely aware of it. She felt the spear slip out of her hands, then felt her legs give way, and she sank onto her knees besides the body. But now it wasn't Vivian's. Her spear was still buried in the other woman's chest, but this was a woman she'd never seen in life, never known as a human, and yet knew with as much certainty as she'd ever known anyone or anything. Her clothes not an exorcist uniform, but the colorful robes of a priestess of Amenoch, a shell-shaped amulet around her neck. Eyes, frozen open and staring blankly, the same vivid green as her daughter's.

"Why?" The voice was thick with tears, and Eleanor felt her head turn to see another, much smaller figure kneeling besides the body. Her features were inhuman, vaguely insectile, but they didn't matter, not besides the sound of her voice and the tears running down her face. "Why won't you wake up, Mommy?"

The howling in the background seemed louder. Eleanor wanted to reach out a hand but she couldn't move, she could only watch -

"Please wake up! Mommy! Wake up - "

* * *

The howling was still there as she woke up.

For a moment, Eleanor wasn't completely sure where she was or what was going on as she lay in bed, heart racing. The room was cold but sweat still trickled down her forehead. She'd had the nightmare before, of course, in a hundred different variations, but this had been bad. Maybe the worst it had been since -

Since the day after they'd set sail from Yseult. The memory centered her and the awareness of where they were came back to her as her breathing slowed. She let herself drift into a simple breath routine she'd learned at the Abbey as she remembered.

They'd made it back to Taliesin essentially without incident, though once inside the city, half of the conversations they'd had with locals had seemed to carry reminders of their first time in the city, hearing all those little seemingly-innocent hints and clues that Aball still existed. The offhand references to Niko selling quiches...

She shook her head and sat up. By the time they'd finished resupplying, it had been late enough that Eizen recommended - strongly recommended, in point of fact - that they spend the night in the city rather than set sail in the dark. They'd found plenty of space at the inn, enough to get them all separate rooms. Taliesin was not exactly a thriving center of travel. The comments in the dream about how rare daemonblight was in Eastgand actually appeared to be true, but only because humanity in general was a dwindling force in the region.

And still the howling continued. Eleanor shook her head, just on the off chance she was imagining it, but she definitely wasn't. And in fact, she could now make out two distinct voices, higher than the werewolves in her nightmare.

Of course. Orthie and Russ.

For a moment she considered just trying to go back to sleep, but the thought was dismissed as soon as it had come. She just - couldn't face that right now. Instead, she slipped out of the covers and pulled on her boots and jacket. The inn was not warm.

Stepping out into the hall, she saw no immediate sign of the therion dogs, and glanced out the window. Then stopped. The moonlight wasn't all that bright, and it was clearly late enough that those lights still burning in the city had been largely extinguished, but she could still clearly make out the figure of Velvet sitting on one of the benches outside, staring out over the cliffs and the harbor below.

Eleanor hesitated, then found herself stepping towards the stairs.

What am I doing -

* * *

Outside, it actually seemed a little warmer than in the inn, maybe because of the light breeze coming off the sea. She walked over towards Velvet (trying not to notice the loose black strands of hair dancing about in the wind), and was unsurprised when the therion girl turned to look at her before she had crossed half the distance.

"Shouldn't you be sleeping?"

"The dogs woke me," she replied. She stood besides the bench, hands clasped behind her back. "Are they all right?"

"I think so. Phi's looking after them in his room. I.... thought it was probably best if I stayed away from them for a while."

Eleanor interlaced her fingers, then did so again in a different pattern. "I've... never actually spent very much time around dogs. Are they sick? Do you think we should maybe get a doctor to look at them or something?"

Velvet looked up at her. "The only sickness they've got is," her voice turned heavy with sarcasm, "'daemonblight', and I think we're probably better off not having anyone notice that." Her voice changed, subtly, although Eleanor couldn't quite put her finger on how. "Besides, I think I'd rather not see any animal doctors in Taliesin."

"Why? I thought you'd never been here before?"

"I haven't." Velvet paused. "Niko had. She was in love with a boy who'd just finished his apprenticeship as one."

Eleanor blinked. "Niko? But I thought you and she were - "

Wait. What am I doing? After everything I've been thinking and now I just start talking -

"I'm - I'm sorry. I don't mean to pry. I know I don't have the right to."

Velvet held up her unbandaged hand. "No, it's fine. I forgot that the Niko you met was just part of the dream." She edged over on the bench; it wasn't quite an invitation for Eleanor to sit, but it didn't exactly object to the possibility either. After a moment, Eleanor did so.

Velvet turned and looked at her, her amber gaze level. "You remember what Melchior said, that the dream was based on my deepest wishes. That included the Niko you met." Her voice turned bitterly wry. "Though I would have thought that would have been obvious already from when she said she didn't care that I was a daemon."

"Velvet..."

"I overheard your conversation back on the road." Eleanor was suddenly glad for the lack of light, although she had a certain sneaking suspicion that Velvet knew she was blushing anyway. "And Magilou was actually right for once. I didn't need to taste something to know it was a dream. Not really. I think I knew all along. I was just too selfish to walk away until I had to admit the truth."

For a few moments, they were silent. Velvet didn't seem like she had anything else to say. Eleanor knew she had a lot to say, but she couldn't think of how. It was the same problem she kept coming back to again and again: for all that she still disapproved (to put it mildly) of some of the things Velvet had done and continued to do, no one deserved to be going through what she was going through. But how could she possibly - how could anyone possibly - say something to help with that kind of pain?

Though the subject of dreams did make her think -

"You're not selfish, Velvet. Or at least, not any more than anyone else. If I had a chance to be with my mother again, even knowing it wasn't real-" Her voice caught.

Velvet's mouth opened for a moment, but then closed without saying anything. She looked away. Above, the dogs had finally stopped howling, and the wind had shifted - it was now a little colder, carrying less of the scent of salt. A lone night bird cried somewhere in the distance, but otherwise there was silence.

I should probably get back to bed -

"What was she like?" The words came out before she really had thought about them. "The real Niko?"

Velvet turned back to look at her, and Eleanor felt herself flush again. "I'm sorry, you don't have to answer that. I know it must - "

"It's all right," the other girl said. Her mouth twisted again, but as she continued her voice sounded remarkably level. Frighteningly level. "I'm the one who killed her. Talking seems pretty small next to that."

Once again, Eleanor wondered if she really wanted to hear this. And why.

Chapter Text

"Niko was the only person in Aball who I always thought of as 'my friend'. Not that the rest of the village wasn't friendly - we all knew each other - but she was always there, for as long as I can remember. Sometimes we fought - sometimes we drove each other absolutely crazy - but it never lasted very long. She was..."

Velvet paused. Eleanor was tempted to look away - the other woman's face was so expressionless it frightened her a little - but she couldn't tear her eyes away, and not just for the usual reasons. 

"All I ever really wanted to do was just take care of my family. Niko was the one who was always trying to get me to do something new, something more. I felt like I always had so many responsibilities, so many things I needed to do for Laphi and..." She paused. "But when we were spending time together I never once felt like I was wasting time. She came up with all these crazy plans for leaving Aball and making a living on the road, having adventures as merchants or entertainers or something." 

Eleanor bit her lip. Just like Velvet's brother.

"But she never pushed it, though. She'd just sigh and roll her eyes when I told her I was happy the way I was."

Her brow furrowed, and she looked down. "There's a part of me that wonders sometimes whether she talked so much in those last couple of days about... Albert? Alfie? The animal doctor's apprentice, I can't even remember what his name was anymore. If she talked so much about him and how serious her feelings were because she wanted me to give her a reason to stay." A bandaged fist clenched. "I suppose it doesn't really matter now."

Eleanor half-reached a hand towards Velvet, then pulled it back and pressed it to her chin. "Would you have - I mean, did you...?"

Velvet laughed, briefly and without any apparent humor. "Did I know how I felt about her? Of course not. Everyone - Laphi, Niko, the rest of our neighbors - was constantly assuming that I'd fall for a guy one day. I could never see the appeal in it myself, and I couldn't really wrap my head around it when Niko told me she was in love, but I never really thought about what that meant. We always said, if you were a boy, then maybe I'd fall in love with you."

Eleanor thought she saw the therion's lips twitch briefly, though she might just have been hoping to see it. It wasn't the kind of smile Velvet had had in Aball, but any amusement, even at her own past self, had to be better than that... bleakness. "Would you believe, we actually kissed once, as 'practice for the real thing', and it still..." 

Abruptly she turned her head to look at Eleanor. "When did you figure it out?"

For a moment Eleanor felt her heartbeat pulse in her ears, then she interpreted Velvet's meaning (immediately putting out of her head any other assumptions): When did you figure out that you liked girls?  

"Why would you want to know that?" The night was too cold for her to be sweating, and too dark for Velvet to tell if she was turning red, but she did lower her hands so as not to make it obvious that she was interweaving her fingers again.

"Just curious. I mean, we both know you're not all that subtle, Madam Exorcist."

Eleanor felt her own lips twitch. "Well, I suppose the... cultural context was always more there. Nobody in my village really believed in Amenoch anymore, but we still knew the legends. And in a couple of them she takes on human form and has relationships with both mortal men and women."

This time the side of Velvet's mouth definitely tugged upward. "Hmm, I wonder what Grimoirh would have to say if she heard those ones."

Eleanor smiled and held up a hand. "Let's not go there. Anyway, I never thought too much about it one way or another, until I was at Lothringen and met this other - very pretty - trainee from Southgand named Vivian."

Velvet laughed - at least, Eleanor thought under the circumstances that she'd be generous and call it 'laughed' as opposed to 'snickered' - and looked straight at Eleanor, leaning on a hip. "Wait. Are you seriously telling me that Eleanor Hume, goody-two-shoes exorcist honor student, was sneaking around at the Abbey's very own training fortress to make time with some girl?"

"I-it wasn't that unusual!" Eleanor protested. "The Abbey very strongly discourages fraternization, but they also realize that people as young as most exorcists-in-training are will... get ideas. I think their assumption is that anyone who joins in the first place will have the strength to put their bigger ideals ahead of personal emotions before they graduate. That is most of why Vivian and I decided to break it off, at least."

Velvet looked down, scowling. "So where is she now?"

...

Why do you care what happens to them, traitor?

Eleanor clenched a gloved hand. "I haven't seen her since graduation. We both always knew that her connection to the malakhim - what Eizen calls resonance - was a lot weaker than mine, that she'd never rank higher than orderly. That was another part of why it ended." She sighed. Maybe this conversation hasn't been such a good idea after all.

"If she saw me today... she'd probably try to kill me. Vivian didn't join the Abbey because she lost someone to daemons or daemonblight like I did. She joined entirely because of how much she believed in Lord Artorius's ideals. To her I'd be the worst kind of betrayer."

Velvet looked up at her again, and whatever warmth had been in her expression was gone, replaced by that frighteningly blank stare. "If it helps, the real Niko would probably be the same way. Part of me honestly thinks that if she'd survived that night - if her resonance rose because of it - she'd have joined the Abbey. She would never believe me when I said she was as tough as me, but she was. Stopping the Lord of Calamity from hurting people would be right up her alley." She closed her eyes. "Did you notice - no, you couldn't have, but she... she hadn't even changed physically in that dream. Three years and she was exactly the same as when I last saw her." A pause. Amber eyes opened, seeming to look at something beyond the inn's courtyard. "Except that she wasn't covered in her own blood."

Without even thinking about it, Eleanor found that she had reached out a hand and rested it on Velvet's shoulder. Where her fingertips emerged from her gloves, it felt warmer than the night should have been. "Velvet..."

Velvet shrugged her hand off and looked away. "It doesn't matter now. All that I really need to know about Niko's feelings anymore is that, unlike some of the other people I've devoured, she's considerate enough to mostly stay out of my nightmares."

She glanced up, and Eleanor, still trying to come up with something, anything, to say to that, followed her gaze. The clouds that had been blowing were gone, and the moon seemed a bit lower in the sky. For the first time she noticed that the sound of the dogs howling had stopped some time ago.

"It's after one in the morning. You should go back and get some more sleep. We're traveling again tomorrow."

Eleanor looked at Velvet again, but a couple of loose strands of black hair covered her eyes. "What about you?"

"I'll be fine." Her voice was wry, but not enough to conceal the bitterness running underneath. "I've spent far too much time dreaming lately anyway."

---

She went back to her room in the inn and crawled under the covers, but it took her a very long time to fall asleep again. Not because of nightmares. Not because Orthie and Russ ever started howling again. There were just too many thoughts running through her head.

For a moment there, we were just having a normal conversation. Not like she was a daemon at all, like she was...

Her head turned on the pillow. It... there really isn't a difference anyway. Everything I ever believed about daemons was wrong. And why shouldn't she be a daemon? After everything she suffered...

Maybe Magilou was right before, when we learned what malevolence truly was. Maybe daemons are our true selves. Certainly tonight, after that brief drift towards normalcy, the darkness had crept back up again in Velvet, worse than before.

And why does that even matter to me so much?

She's not a monster. Whatever she wants to tell herself. She deserves compassion. That's natural. It's right. It's...

It's just compassion. Isn't it?

She rolled over entirely under the blankets. Once again, despite the general chill of the room, she realized she was sweating.

She remembered the way Velvet and Niko had looked at each other in the illusion after Velvet's arm emerged. And she remembered what she had thought afterward, about how she couldn't imagine ever...

Except, wasn't she already...?

No.

I am not falling in love with Velvet Crowe. 

I can't be.

Can I?

She didn't remember any further dreams she had that night. It was probably for the best.

Chapter Text

"So, Velvet's going to be fine, right?"

Eleanor turned to look at Rokurou as the swordsman came up to rest his arms beside hers on the rail. It had become one of her favorite places to pass the time on the Van Eltia's long voyages from one part of the kingdom to another. The sea spray was pleasantly bracing (and salty-tasting), and on days like this when the weather was clear, the horizon seemed to stretch beautifully out into near-infinity.

I don't know why I never bothered to do this sort of thing when I was a traveling inspector for the Abbey. It's wonderful.

Not to mention a good way to take my mind off of things. 

Or at least try.

"Yeah, she's fine," she replied. "Laphicet says it looks like she's just sleeping, although he's going to keep watching over her for now."

They'd set sail from Taliesin that morning without much difficulty, other than Benwick briefly objecting to the dogs coming aboard ship. (Honestly, that man. She'd never view pirates the same way again - though that was true of a lot of things). Not too long afterwards, though, Velvet had suddenly collapsed. She hadn't been paying attention as the other woman spoke with Laphicet and had only gotten a brief explanation from him as she'd helped Rokurou get her to a cabin. 

Which had caused a bit of unfortunate awkwardness on her part, though she'd quickly gotten over it once Eizen reminded her that having malakhim carry the daemon was probably a bad idea.

Rokurou turned to look at her. "I'm surprised you're not down there keeping watch too."

She glanced down at the waves. "Honestly, I'm relieved. She's been pushing herself so hard these last few days. She needs a rest."

Rokurou looked mildly surprised. "I meant keeping watch over Laphicet. You and I both know that he's gonna let 'for now' turn into 'for the rest of the voyage' if he's given half the chance." He lifted his arms from the rail and folded them. "But yeah, I don't blame you for worrying about Velvet either. She's so tough, it's pretty easy to forget sometimes that she's not actually invincible." 

"Hey now. Much as it bums a guy like you out, there's a lot more ways to pierce a heart than just with swords, y'know," Magilou said lightly as she skipped over towards them. Behind her, Eizen let out an annoyed grunt and followed; apparently they'd been having a quiet discussion of some sort. The witch gave Eleanor a sly look from under the brim of her hat. "Or with spears, for that matter."

Eleanor sighed loudly.

The others all briefly exchanged smiles at her expense, then Eizen grew serious again. "For what it's worth, I think we're all a little shaken by what happened in Aball. The thing that worries me most is that I still have no idea what exactly the Abbey was even trying to achieve there."

Eleanor frowned. "You mean, why they didn't actually try to stop us from taking Orthruss?"

"Aye. That arte was incredibly powerful, but they didn't back it up with anything physical. The horned daemon with Melchior, he..." Eizen trailed off for a moment. "Something tells me the two of them would probably have been an even match for all six of us, but they didn't even try to fight. Melchior almost made it sound like it was a coincidence he was in the village at all."

Rokurou looked thoughtful. "Wouldn't he have to have been there to cast that dream arte in the first place?"

Eleanor pressed a hand to her chin. "I think so. The exact details of how his long-range communication arte works were classified well above my level, but I'm pretty sure he can't actually cast through it. Besides, going to retrieve Innominat's book at the same time as we were there by accident?" She shook her head and sighed. "What I wish I could understand is just why it all had to be so... cruel. I know what the Abbey is capable of, but showing Velvet the life she could have had - should have had - only to take it all away again..."

Magilou twirled a lock of hair. "Boy, that reeeeeally got to you, huh?" She gave an elaborate shrug. "Well, once a do-gooder always a do-gooder, I guess. A lesser woman would probably have just focused on how jealous she was of Niko."

Eleanor glared. "Stop trying to make it sound weird! I know you're proud of how you don't actually care about any of us, but it's a perfectly normal thing to do!"

"Sooo, you do admit you care about Velvet?"

"Don't you have something better to be doing right now?!"

Magilou shrugged again. "In a word: nope! But I can see you're a little too wrapped up in heartache to be part of a strategy session right now, so let's just let the boys get on with it, hmm?" But as she began to back away, she stopped and turned back. "But hey," she continued in a lower voice. "Speaking as this boat's - "

"This ship's," interjected the pirate malak sternly.

"This boat's resident expert on hearts and the breaking thereof, you're still dwelling way too much on the negative here. You're a traitor, Velvy-poo's a daemon, and the most likely way this little adventure ends is still probably gonna be with Sheps hacking you both into hash with that giant sword of his. And me out 100 gald."

("...She's dwelling on the negative?" Rokurou muttered.)

"The point being," Magilou continued in a lecturing tone, "you should be happy about the fact that you're still feeling something at all. The alternative is pretty damn boring. It might not be the worst idea to say something before we get to that point, just saying."

The others were both silent as she hopped off. Eleanor sighed again and turned to look out over the rail again.

One of the other wonderful things about staring at the sea is that the sea doesn't say anything.

---

The voyage proceeded in skips and stops of time. With wind and tide both on their side, they made the waters around Titania by that same evening, but the treacherous nature of the former prison island's immediate surroundings meant that the Van Eltia had to make its way in very slowly. Eleanor wouldn't be so rude as to complain out loud, of course, but she found the whole process annoyingly tedious. She was looking forward to returning (insane as the thought was about a prison). If nothing else, she wanted to see Kamoana again; the little girl's smiling face could always make her feel a little better, especially now that she had Medissa to help keep those smiles there.

Velvet still hadn't woken up. She'd been down to check once, in the process managing to extract a promise out of Laphicet that he would get some food and rest of his own - though the way he'd said it couldn't help but make her suspect that Rokurou had been right earlier in the day. She kept thinking about doing so again as the slow docking process continued, but Magilou had been lurking about somewhere and she just did not want to deal with that right now. It wasn't that she was especially worried - 

"Yo, Eleanor?"

She turned as Rokurou walked up. "What's on your mind?"

The daemon swordsman stood slightly back from her. His mouth seemed to twitch involuntarily into a grin. "So, you don't have to answer this if you don't want to, although I kind of think not answering is an answer in itself - "

She sighed. "Go ahead." I already know what this is going to be.

"So is Magilou just being her usual witchy self, or do you... actually have feelings for Velvet? Because, I mean, you're spending a lot of time worrying about the incarnation of darkness or whatever it was you used to call her."

Eleanor flushed and looked down, clasping her hands behind her back. "Of course I have feelings about her. I'm sworn to follow her commands, after all; no one just does that without any emotions - "

Rokurou rolled his eyes. "Not what I meant. What I meant was - "

"I know what you meant! It's just - that's a completely absurd idea. It wouldn't make any sense!"

"So... is that a no? Because you're not actually saying no."

She sighed. The oncoming night had made it considerably cooler than earlier in the day, but she could nonetheless feel the beads of sweat that were a tell-tale sign of when she was being dishonest. Her thoughts from last night reared their disquieting heads again. 

"That's a... I don't know." She sighed again, more deeply. "The idea is completely insane. She's a daemon. I know so much of what I believed about daemons was wrong, and in her place... in her place part of me thinks I'd be a daemon too. But I still wouldn't do some of the things she does. I mean, we all fight, but the way she uses people? Even when she doesn't know she's doing it. I still don't think she totally understands how much it hurts Laphicet when she just automatically sees him as her brother..."

Rokurou nodded non-commitally. "Yeah..."

"Also, it'd be... wrong, wouldn't it? I mean, now that I know she was in love once... now that I know how that ended..." She grimaced. "Velvet wants to blame herself for everything that happened to Niko and the others, but it wasn't really her fault. I'll never know the exact details, but none of it would have happened if it wasn't for Lord Artorius's ritual. And I was his disciple. I'm still his disciple, in a way. I'm ashamed of how long I went without asking questions, and I'll never be able to accept the sacrifices he's willing to make, but I'm not ashamed of having been an Abbey exorcist. I still think this world deserves saving."

If anything, I just want to save her now too...

"And I can't blame Velvet for hating everything about that, not with everything I know now. So developing... feeling something for her? It's just completely ridiculous and impossible." She paused. "And self-centered, considering what we're facing."

Rokurou folded his arms. Infuriatingly, he still seemed to be grinning. "Well, that's a very reasonable and rational and Abbey way to think. But, to paraphrase Eizen: since when has reason had anything to do with anything on this ship?" He chuckled. "Hell, pretty sure it doesn't even have that much to do with the Abbey. Melchior's a pretty cold fish, sure, and who knows what's going on in the Shepherd's mind, but when you look at, say, Oscar and Teresa, you think it's some world of perfect reason they're fighting for, or each other? Or that initiate ex of yours you mentioned sometime. Pretty sure if she'd been all about the Abbey's ideals you wouldn't have been in love before."

She'd been listening thoughtfully - as had often struck her before, for a war daemon who claimed not to be very deep, Rokurou could be pretty insightful - but that last part couldn't help but bring on an involuntary glare. "I am definitely not falling in love!"

Or... is it just that I don't want to be?

She leaned against the rail. "I don't... honestly, I don't even know what I feel anymore. How did I get into this?" The last part wasn't something she realized she'd said aloud until Rokurou replied:

"You jumped headfirst into a collapsing earthpulse portal and lost a fight. It's the sort of thing that happens around Velvet." That, in turn, couldn't help but bring about a smile.

The ship was finally beginning to come up against the dock. She could already spot a few people coming out to meet them - Dyle with his reptilian profile was unmistakeable, though she didn't see Kamoana yet. Standing up straight, she reached down for her spear and looked at Rokurou. "You're, um, not going to tell anyone about this conversation, are you?"

He shook his head. "Nope. Rangetsu's honor. But as weird as it feels to be agreeing with Magilou, you should maybe think a little about saying something yourself.

"Because not to sound like Eizen again, but I have a feeling things are only going to get nastier from now on."

Chapter Text

"Has anyone seen Velvet?" Eizen rested his hands at his sides and glanced around the prison's antechamber as though expecting to find the therion lurking in a crack in the walls. "We've just finished getting the Van Eltia ready for the voyage to Endgand. I sent Benwick to tell her, but he says he can't find her."

"I saw her a while ago," Laphicet said hesitantly, looking up from the map he was bent over. "But I think she wanted to be alone." 

Eleanor's attention was drawn by the note of concern in his voice - the same one she'd been hearing for several days now. It had alleviated some when Velvet had regained consciousness and he'd finally ended his three-day vigil, but it had never totally gone away, even during the group's impromptu dinners or the game of tag Kamoana had herded everyone into one afternoon. She couldn't blame him, though, not when Velvet had never quite seemed back to normal either. Sure, 'normal' was a fairly strange word to apply to any of them at the best of times (even herself, Eleanor now conceded), but there had definitely been something... off about Velvet since Aball. As if that darkness, always under the surface but usually not so close, couldn't quite sink back down to the level it was at before.

Not that I can blame her for that either.

Eizen folded his arms. "Well, there's no rush. I'm coordinating with the Bloodwings on a plan to divert the Abbey's attention, so hopefully we shouldn't have to worry about beating their reinforcements to the earthpulse point. But still, we should probably check on her."

"I'll go," Eleanor offered. "I think I have an idea about where she is."

Laphicet perked up. "I'll come with you, Eleanor!" But his gaze was reluctant to pull away from the map, one of the few they'd managed to recover showing the known islands of Endgand.

"No, you should keep planning out our course with Eizen. Besides, I had something I wanted to talk to her about anyway."

In private? Ooooh, intriguing! The teasing voice in her head was so vivid that for a moment Eleanor thought Magilou had actually spoken, but the witch wasn't even there, having previously dragged off Rokurou and a group of sailors to a storeroom for some sort of stage trick involving cards and knives. (Bienfu was sitting in one corner, but he'd been unusually quiet of late.) As such, she determinedly ignored the voice and set out into the prison's lower levels.

That's not what I intend to talk about.

She hadn't been ignoring her conversation - or conversations, if she counted the ones she'd had with herself - about whether she had 'feelings' for Velvet. Not exactly. But she hadn't been spending a lot of time thinking about it either. There was always so much to be done. If she'd thought working for the Abbey could make for an exhausting schedule at times, working against them was even more so. Gathering information, organizing information, making a plan from that information, to say nothing of all the necessities that this odd bunch of outcasts vaguely resembling a community needed. True, if she was being entirely honest with herself, some of those things were distractions she chose, but that didn't mean they didn't need doing.

She strode down the winding prison corridors without too much conscious effort. When she'd wanted to be alone, the night after they'd taken the prison, Velvet had found her on the roof of the highest watchtower. But Velvet... she would be in the opposite place. Her theory was confirmed when she came to an unsealed trapdoor and saw torchlight burning below, in the prison's lowest chamber. The central nexus of Titania's earthpulse point.

Velvet's former cell.

"Let me guess, the crew's ready to move out?" The therion's voice came as she descended into the cell. She didn't think she'd made much noise, and Velvet was standing with her back to the ladder, but she was hardly surprised.

"Right. We don't have to set sail right away, but Eizen thought you should know."

Velvet didn't turn around. "Anything else?"

Eleanor stepped onto the floor. Every time she came in here, it struck her as a little colder than the rest of the prison (itself not the most temperate place). She wanted to tell herself it was her mind playing tricks on her, but that was a hard argument to make even without considering what she knew about malevolence. "Are you... all right? Laphicet was -"

She thought she heard Velvet laugh briefly, but the other woman's face as she turned around had a decidedly annoyed look. "You know, I'm kind of amazed that Vivian girl didn't turn into a daemon just from being around you."

"What?"

"You're so relentlessly stubborn about worrying about everyone, even the damn Lord of Calamity. You must have driven her insane." (Eleanor's mouth half-twitched at a handful of memories, though she tried to keep the expression hidden from Velvet.) "There were times when Niko got to me, but you..." Velvet's voice trailed off, and when she resumed speaking it was again in an unnaturally flat tone. "I've already told you, I'm fine. If anything, I'm glad we went through that illusion. It helped me remember how much I... how much I need to get this done. To kill him." Her voice dropped. "I just have to stay focused a little longer."

Eleanor walked forward. "Is that why you're in here now?" She'd been operating mostly on instinct when she'd guessed Velvet would be... thinking? Brooding?... in her old cell, but the thought had maybe been inside her subconscious. "I admit, I have a little trouble understanding why you'd ever willingly come back in this room." Too late she realized that maybe it wasn't the best question to ask.

Velvet just shrugged, though. "Cell, not room. But it's not that hard. The girl who would have dreamed about rescue or escape to a life outside was dead before they ever put her in here. That made it simple. I just had to keep killing and eating daemons until I had a chance to get out and get my vengeance. Simple. It's only because I met... met Phi and the rest of you that it ever got more complicated than that."

Eleanor couldn't quite manage to make herself meet Velvet's gaze. She cast her eyes about for some kind of distraction, and found herself looking at the four ragged claw marks torn into one of the cell's walls. Into solid stone. 

Velvet's eyes followed hers. "Simple wasn't always easy. That was one of the bad days." She glanced back at Eleanor. "You're standing right where I was lying on one of the others. That crack in the stone there, I remember that was next to my head the day I woke up and realized I'd been in love with Niko."

Her voice was still dull, but her body seemed as tensed as Eleanor had ever seen it outside of a fight. Part of her wanted to reach out and comfort Velvet (among... other things), and part of her knew, absolutely knew that if she did, the other woman would attack.

"Velvet-"

The therion's voice ground on. "You were the one who wanted to hear more about her, remember? I told you we kissed one time as 'practice'. I dreamed about it, and then there was... more, and then I tore her throat out with my teeth. And then I woke up and remembered-"

"It wasn't your fault!"

The shout seemed to startle Velvet, at least enough to cut her off. It had certainly startled Eleanor, but she could tell it was not the time to hesitate. "I've been wanting to tell you for days now. You didn't know the daemons were the other villagers on that night. You couldn't have known. And... and I don't know how it happened, or why, and I want to believe that it wasn't what he wanted, but - I can't imagine an entire village would succumb to malevolence in one night like that, except for Lord Artorius's ritual." She clenched one hand into a fist. "If you should be blaming anyone, it's the Abbey. Even me. Not yourself."

Velvet shrugged again, but her voice was still tense as she spoke. "I know. I could blame Artorius. Or I could blame Celica for dying before she could see through him. Or I could blame the Empyreans for creating this awful world in the first place. Hell, I could blame Niko for not having left Aball when she had the chance." She looked at the wall. "People did that, you know. Every spring and summer after the Opening, a few people or families would pack up their belongings and leave for Taliesin. They thought a big city would be safer against the daemonblight. There were never that many of them, I guess - Eastganders are kind of a stubborn bunch."

As terrible as - as all of it was - Eleanor couldn't quite resist a smile at that. 

"I've noticed."

Velvet didn't return it. "At the time I remember always feeling like they were just giving up on the village, on their friends. On hope for the future. But now they're probably the only people left alive that I knew before all this, so I guess that shows you how much hope is worth." She looked back at Eleanor, and if the anger that had started to burn again in those amber eyes wasn't meant for Eleanor, it still made her flinch backward - in pain more than anything else. "I could blame any of them. And I will kill Artorius for what he did. But still, I remember who he turned his sword against that night... and who I did."

...

That wasn't you, Eleanor wanted to say. There was a part of Velvet that had killed her friends and neighbors and Niko, in some sense - had certainly killed many others. Standing in this cell where that darkness had festered and grown for three years, she couldn't have pretended otherwise even if she was far better at lying to herself than she would ever possibly be. But it wasn't all of her. It wasn't the most important part, the one that had taught a young malak who had thought of himself as a thing that he was a person. That made Eleanor, herself, realize the same thing, and so much more. That's the part of her that I -

...what, exactly? Really?

She bit her lip and kept silent, though, because she knew that even if she could say it, even if Velvet would believe it, it wouldn't be today. She remembered Velvet yelling at her in this cell, getting her to finally, finally stop pretending that she could ignore the truth about the world and the Shepherd and the Abbey, but she wasn't Velvet, and if she had the words to get Velvet to realize her own truth she couldn't find them right now.

So instead she nodded. "...Okay. I'll leave you alone, if you want."

Velvet stared back, her expression marginally softer. "That would be best."

Eleanor turned back to the ladder, but paused and looked over her shoulder. "But... please come back when you're ready, all right? We - I -" She finally settled on "Laphicet would like to see you, to know that you're all right." And that was very true, even if he wasn't the only one.

Velvet nodded, a little more animation creeping back into her face. Eleanor couldn't help but think it was partially a you're-not-fooling-anyone expression. "Fine. I'll be back to make dinner, if not before."

She started up the ladder, feeling a little better. Maybe once they'd gotten going again, had managed to capture the last therion, she and Velvet could talk again. 

Not that she was sure what she'd say.

***

Not that they managed to capture the last therion anyway.

It had all seemed to be going so well, at first. The various contingency plans they'd made before setting sail had including running into Abbey ships en route, but one that was in no condition to fight? One with Teresa aboard, but wanting to help them, to put her life into their hands to make sure her brother never had to use some insanely dangerous new arte?

Of course she'd been careful, if not as obviously suspicious as Eizen and Velvet and... well, everyone else on the Van Eltia besides her. She'd never been entirely certain whether to think of Teresa as a friend - admired her enormously, sure, but by the strictest interpretation of the Abbey's doctrine, an exorcist shouldn't really have friends, just fellow soldiers. And if yes, she'd ignored that interpretation (and then some) during training, she'd ultimately come to follow it - and even before she'd abandoned it, she'd still never come anywhere close to Teresa in putting pure Reason before her emotions.

But if there was one crack in Teresa's ice, it was her love for her little brother, and that made it a real possibility she was telling the truth. And as they'd made their way to the earthpulse point on Lionel Island she'd seen other cracks form, seen the other woman starting to come to the same understanding as she had about Laphicet and all other malakhim - they weren't just magical tools that were superficially reminscent of people, they were people. He was as much a little boy as Teresa's own brother had been, and the consul was starting to see him that way. And Eleanor couldn't help thinking that if she of all exorcists could do so, then maybe... maybe it had to be a sign of hope.

And maybe it was. Just... not enough.

As she helped Rokurou set Velvet down near the docks, waiting for her to wake up - and trying as gently as she could to keep Laphicet at a distance, knowing that the malevolence would be worse than ever - she'd gone back and forth in listening to the half-audible words the therion was muttering in her uneasy sleep. Even unintelligible the pain in them was horrible to hear, but it was just as horrible not to listen and instead think about what had just happened. 

Like Teresa, she'd never consciously called Oscar a friend - as much as she herself sought to be well-mannered, he was a little too stiff and formal, the product of an entirely different background than a small Southgand fishing village. That gap hadn't exactly been bridged by Vivian's rueful admission that she'd had a bit of a crush on him during training, before she and Eleanor had found each other. And it really hadn't been bridged by how uncaringly he'd continued to cling to Abbey dogma in Palamedes, facing the horrible truth about what had happened to a little girl and her mother - the truth that had finally broken Eleanor's ability to pretend to unquestioning loyalty - with no evident concern. But friend or not, like his sister she'd admired him. And even if she'd hated him more than she was even capable of hating, him and Teresa both, to see what had happened to them all because of how determined they were just to protect each other, the only family they'd really had -

She half-caught a sob in her throat and forced it back down, not wanting to distract any of the others with her own feelings, not when the group - even Magilou! - all seemed collectively in shock, and the last thing they needed was to dwell on what had happened. But that brought her attention back to Velvet, and to the barely-heard but this time very understandable words she heard the other woman whisper in her nightmare, the worst thing she could ever imagine Velvet thinking about herself:

"I'm the same as Artorius..."

***

And if there were any words Eleanor could possibly say to that when Velvet woke up (and she seriously doubted it), the opportunity to say them was quickly pushed aside by the rush of events. They scrambled to load everyone and everything important back aboard the ship as Benwick updated them on the message he'd received and its implications.

Titania under attack.

The therions (...Kamoana...) in danger of falling back into Abbey hands one way or another.

The mass-scale deployment of the armatus even though it was still likely to be fatal to its users.

The inability to deny any longer that the Abbey was definitely tracking their movements in detail.

The absolute certainty that this was a trap, and the reasons why that simply couldn't matter.

Part of her was terrified, but a much larger part was simply determined. They'd again discussed (except for Velvet...) how strangely inefficient the Abbey's strategy seemed to be, and Laphicet had ventured the theory that it might simply be toying with them, but she couldn't believe it. Not so much because that seemed pointlessly cruel - after Aball, she no longer could believe that reason, at least as Artorius and the senior exorcists defined it, was incompatible with cruelty - as because it just couldn't believably work. They wouldn't give up. 

She wouldn't give up. She hadn't thought about it in conscious terms for a while, too focused on all of the contradictions and conflicts of her chosen path and the people (one of them especially) who were walking it with her. But she was more determined about this than she had ever been as a loyal exorcist. That had been blind obedience. This was belief. What the Abbey was trying to do was wrong. The world deserved saving, humanity deserved saving, but there were better ways to do it. To change things without writing off pain and loss and death of the few as the lesser evil. You couldn't just look at one person and say that they deserved saving while condemning another as having nothing but darkness. It wasn't a practical answer, but it was a better answer to try for than what the Shepherd sought. She'd admitted time and again that she couldn't save everyone, but she knew now she wanted to try.

Except...

"This is going to be the fight of our lives. You're ready for that, right?" Eizen's voice broke into her thoughts as she leaned against a deck rail. She'd been staring out at the horizon again, but this time not really seeing it. The sky was a patchy, half-lit sort of clouds that didn't exactly encourage reflecting on the beauty of the world, but mostly it had just been a matter of being wrapped in her own thoughts.

"I think so," she replied. "I'm still a little shaken by what happened on Lionel Island, but there's no time to waste in thinking about it. They all need us back on Titania."

Eizen gripped the rail besides her. "Don't repeat this to her, but Magilou was right. We probably should make sure to go into this one without any regrets. As a malakhim the armatus sickens me, at least how the Abbey's using it."

She looked at him. "Do you think there's another way it could be used?"

"Maybe, but that's a concern for another time. My point is that no matter how abhorrent I find what they're doing, it works well enough for their intended purposes. Oscar was an incredibly dangerous opponent, and he was only one man. If we fight a whole army of armatized exorcists... it's going to be hard to last long enough against them for Melchior's failsafe to kick in."

Eleanor propped her chin against a hand and frowned. "You're sounding a little fatalistic."

Eizen chuckled. "I'm the Reaper. I'm entitled to a little fatalism. Anyway, what I'm saying is, before we get there, you should be ready to face whatever comes. And I don't just mean in terms of battle."

Eleanor looked at the unlikely pirate. "I think I am. I've chosen my path. No matter what we go up against," (or who, a part of her said - though realistically she doubted Vivian would have the resonance to enact the armatus, it was a thought she kept having,) "I'm ready to fight it alongside the rest of you."

Eizen was silent.

Her brow furrowed. "Eizen, what is it? Are you worried about something in particular?"

His head turned towards the back of the ship. "Just... you've said before you know you can't save everyone, but you're the kind of person who can't stop trying. But it might not happen this time. Be ready."

Her gaze followed his to a figure against the back rail with her head bowed. Strands of black hair covered her face while the rest streamed back with the wind, but for once Eleanor could easily fight the urge to stare. Because though she couldn't feel it from this distance, and she couldn't see it visibly, not like at Haria, she knew what else was streaming from Velvet. Malevolence. Maybe too much, this time.

Again, she thought about going back and saying something. There had to be some possibility, some way to -

But she couldn't see it.

I'm going to fight. I won't let the Abbey hurt Kamoana again. Or Medissa, or any of the therions. I will do whatever I can, as an exorcist and a human being, to help save my friends. (And they were her friends, she knew now.)

I just...

I just hope that Velvet still can be...

She bowed her own head, and looked down at the waves.

Chapter Text

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.