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In The Balance

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Color returned to the world like a sunrise. It was so gradual that Miriam didn't believe it was even happening at first, and she was already trying to reconcile the fact she wasn't dead yet. The only sound she could hear was a light breeze, but it was decibels louder than the complete silence it replaced. Carefully she stood, half expecting the ground to give way under her feet. She felt…strangely energized. Better than she had felt in years, like something had breathed new life into her. She could now hear the echoes of a single note as it dissipated into air. It was eerily similar to how she imagined Eya singing the universe into existence. No, not Eya. Miriam had been around the entire world twice over trying to reverse Eya's will. So, it would have to be someone else.

Miriam was running before she knew it. She didn't even think to summon her broom, in the moment she felt it wasn't fast enough. Her heart surged with excitement and dread all at once as the Dream King's bell tower came into view. She didn't know what she'd find, but she wasn't about to stand by and overthink it. She clambered up the ledge to the tower, hoping beyond hope that she'd find a gloved hand to pull her up over the edge. She found no such thing. She was looking desperately for the Bard before she made it over the edge, and her breath was knocked out of her when she found them. Kiwi was lying on their back under the bell. Their posture suggested they collapsed singing, which Miriam wasn't surprised by in the slightest. She scrambled to her feet and ducked under the bell to Kiwi's side. Their eyes were closed, mouth was slightly ajar, and were lying very, very still.

Miriam's stomach bottomed out as she hovered her hands over the Bard. She couldn't find her voice to speak, but could hear her breath getting more and more uneven. She was about to do something to try and rouse them before their surroundings dissolved.

Miriam found Kiwi and herself dropped among pastel clouds. The earth, whole and new, hung silently in the distance. Miriam gathered what little of her wits remained and shook Kiwi's shoulder gently. No response. She tried again, but still nothing. Then Miriam full on shook them by their shoulders, but Kiwi only flopped uselessly to one side. Miriam still couldn't speak, but her panic was in full throttle and she could have screamed. She gathered Kiwi in her arms as if they were in a loose pile of limbs. Though she knew it was futile, she still felt like she had to protect them in this strange place in their sorry state. Or, maybe she just needed to hold them as if they'd fade away if she didn't. Her mind was a feedback loop of possible solutions, but she knew none of them were feasible, and all thoughts resulted in curling further into the Bard.

Miriam was momentarily wrenched out of her own thoughts by a soft jingle. Her head darted up, and there was Eya's little go-between. The angel had her hands folded in front of her and a huge smile across her face. It did nothing to comfort Miriam.

I am so, so, so proud of you two!

The angel's voice was blithe and chipper and only added to Miriam's tension. Kiwi still wasn't awake, Miriam didn't know what kind of state they were in. The angel was still talking, but Miriam didn't hear her. She only found herself folding back in on her motionless friend, stray bits of her magic crackling here and there. Despair and rage were battling it out in her mind until suddenly she mustered her voice.

"Give them back."

The angel -Eyala Miriam thought it was- trailed off.

Sorry?

Miriam didn't look up, she wouldn't let Eya's minion see any hint of anything other than anger. She spoke through gritted teeth.

"Give. Them. Back."

Eyala fell silent for an agonizing moment.

But…they're right there?

Miriam almost bolted up to take a swing at the angel but couldn't let go of Kiwi to do so.

"You can't let this happen. You can't…You can't leave them like this! Everything they did -did for you- and this is how you thank them?!"

Eyala said nothing, then suddenly clapped her hands.

Oh! You think they're…oh no, dear Miriam. They're alive.

Miriam started. As if on cue, she felt Kiwi breathe, if only a little. Their head lulled onto her shoulder and she could hear them inhale weakly. Miriam briefly lost her composure (if she had any) and choked out a sob of relief, burying her face in their shoulder. Eyala had drifted a bit closer and sat mid air on her knees. Miriam cursed herself for not being able to keep up her threatening demeanor.

Aaaw, they're all tuckered out is all, Eyala cooed, tousling the feather on Kiwi’s hat. It lit a new irritation in Miriam and she smacked Eyela’s hand away.

"I don't know about you, but mortals don't just end up like this because they're tired."

Eyala shrugged. Well, that was a pretty big concert they put on. It wasn't the Earthsong, but in any case songs like that aren't meant for the chords of beings like them. Their body can't handle all that at once super good.

Miriam had another sharp comment ready to go, but it died in her throat when she chanced a look at Kiwi. She didn't like the hot, scratching feeling that had settled in her chest.

"When are they gonna wake up?" Miriam’s voice came out horribly shaky.

Eyala visibly drooped, and Miriam was about to throw up at this point from the surges of panic zinging through her stomach.

…I don't know. Honestly, I'm surprised they're still alive, Eyala kneaded her hair between her hands. They might not ever wake up.

Miriam flinched, instinctively hugging Kiwi's shoulders. Each space between Kiwi's breath felt like an eternity.

But, hey! At least they did it! Your world is saved, and you can go home now! Lil' B would have wanted it that way-

"Do not talk about them like they're gonna die," Miriam barked, voice breaking on the last word. "They won't."

Eyala kept picking at her hair and looked away. You should…you should take them home. Their mother misses them.

Miriam didn't have any response, her voice was robbed from her again. Eyala reached over tentatively to pat her shoulder. Miriam didn't move away.

Chin up, Miriam. You two did a good job. Everything's gonna be okay, you'll see.

Miriam wanted to believe her.

A blade of glass tickled Kiwi’s nose and they sneezed themself awake. Well, “awake” was a stretch. A sky full of falling stars swam above them, simultaneously comforting and dizzying. They were surrounded on all sides by soft, yellow-ish grass. When they felt like their limbs would allow, they sat up and rubbed their left temple. They felt like they had been unceremoniously dumped here. The grassfield they found themself in stretched for what seemed like forever and the sky was in various stages of day, almost like they were everywhere and nowhere at once.

Oh. Ooooooh, they were dead. They were super dead. Why else would they be in the spirit world…was this the spirit world? It certainly had the same vibe. Kiwi felt panic rising in their chest as they took in their surroundings.They didn’t feel dead, in fact they assumed being dead would mean no pain and Kiwi had a splitting headache. There probably weren’t panic attacks after death either, and they were teetering on the edge of one.

Kiwi straightened their spine and inhaled sharply. Pull yourself together, buddy. Everything’s probably fine. Probably. But, where were they? How could they get out? If this was the spirit world, then there would have to be someone else around. Like an Overseer, a fairy, or…

“Eyala!” Kiwi jumped to their feet. “Eyala!! Hello!?”

Their voice carried far across the field, reflecting off nothing. They were about to call again when that familiar windchime sound jingled behind them.

Lil B! Eyala cried. You’re looking better! How did you get here-

“AM I DEAD?” Kiwi burst out.

Uuuuh, Eyala drawled. Nnnnnnoooooo?

“That…” Kiwi took another breath to soothe their nerves. It didn’t work. “I don’t know what that means.”

Well, last time I saw you, you were pretty tired from saving the world n’ stuff.

“We saved the world??” Kiwi started.

Oh yeah, totally! Eyala clapped her hands. That little improv song of yours? Really shook Eya to her chords. So, she decided to spare your world!

So, it worked? Everything was okay?

“So, everyone-”

Yep!

”And everything is-”

Pretty much exactly the same as it was.

That definitely made Kiwi feel better. Whatever was happening to them, they were happy to focus on their friends and family’s well being instead of their own. If that was the trade off, they were okay with that. Man, wouldn’t Miriam be-

“Miriam! Is she okay?”

Oh, yes! Eyaya chirped. Never better, I think. She was a little mad last time I saw her but hey! I’m sure she’ll be able to wake you up in no time!

“I’m asleep?”

Eyala glanced around the spirit world for a moment. Sort of. If you’re here then it’s kinda different. Hard to explain how. You’re basically really really asleep IRL. Your friend was really worried, but she shouldn’t be. You two have gotten out of worse scrapes, huh?

Kiwi took a moment to pace; the grass shimmered slightly as it brushed their boots.

“So, Miriam is trying to wake me up? Can I help her?”

Eyala shrugged. I dunno. You could try yelling some more, but I think only I could hear you.

Kiwi was trying not to let their annoyance show. Eyala, in her own way, was trying to help. If they couldn’t help Miriam, were they just supposed to kill time until she did? Miriam was smart, it may not take long. Maybe Saphy knew what to do. Still, they didn’t like the idea of waiting around.

I’m sure it’ll all work out, Eyala continued. You two have really impressed me so far with all you’ve managed. I’m sure you can figure something out. She drifted a few feet higher. Anyway, I’ve got places to be. Eya needs me to report back to her on new Overseers and all.

“Wait!” Kiwi shouted. “Tell Miriam I’m okay! And…and not to worry too much! I trust her!”

Can do! Eyala said before vanishing into the sky.

Kiwi was once left with the echoing silence. There was a light breeze, but it felt fake. Kind of like the wind in the Queen of Winds’ castle: made of magic and not natural wind. It cut through Kiwi’s clothes a little, making them shiver. They started walking aimlessly in a random direction. They could already tell it was going to get real boring here real fast. They hummed a few notes to fill the silence when another sound cut through it. Grunting? Angry grunting. Very familiar angry grunting. Kiwi made their way up a small hill towards the sound and saw exactly who they expected.

The Hero, Audrey Redheart, was here too. Of all people Kiwi would find here. They hadn’t thought much until now about what had happened to her after she slew the Dream King, they had been kind of busy after all. They had a passing thought she may have fallen to her death, but they had pushed the thought away for another time. Kiwi figured Audrey being here meant she was as much alive or dead as they were. They didn’t know how to feel about it now.

Audrey angrily grabbed the hilt of her sword and heaved with a ragged snarl. The sword barely came off the ground before Audrey’s grip slipped and she fell back onto her behind. She screamed to the sky in rage before kicking the hilt with one foot. She wrenched her knees to her chest and buried her face in her arms. Kiwi could see from their vantage point that her breathing was uneven and shaky. They felt a twinge of sympathy despite everything. They remembered Miriam exhausting herself telling Kiwi to ignore that part of them that felt for the Hero, but it wasn’t in their nature to do so. They were still angry with her, yes, but they weren’t good at stoking that fire. They didn’t like feeling angry, but they felt Audrey -if anyone- deserved it. Still, they couldn’t scrape up enough of it to make a difference.

Against their better judgment, Kiwi crept over the hill towards the Hero. Audrey was too wrapped up in her anger to really notice, but once KIwi’s foot brushed the sword her head shot up. She fixed them with a penetrating glare, but it was marred by tears.

“What do you want?”

Kiwi’s throat dried out. Why did they come over here? Thankfully, Audrey didn’t wait for an answer and jumped to her feet.

“Go away,” she hissed. “I don’t know why you’re also here, but I’d rather die again then look at your stupid face for another second!”

“Audrey, you-”

“I said SCRAM! You want another helping of lighting to the chest?” Audrey conspicuously made no move to pick up her sword. Still, Kiwi took a few steps back.

“You…you’re dead?”

“Oh, nothing gets past you, does it?!” Audrey barked and gestured wildly around. “Look around, Bard! This is 100% limbo! The Inbetween! The only things around here are wayward souls.” She turned away and clumsily swiped at her face. “I don’t know why I’m here, though. I did what I was supposed to do, I did every little thing Eya asked, I should be in some valhalla-type place or something!”

Kiwi glanced at the sword and back at Audrey. “Wayward souls? But, I’m not dead.”

Audrey scoffed. “Tell that to the sparkly star grass you’re standing in.”

“No, really!” Kiwi insisted. “I just talked to Eyala and she-”

“Eyala was here?!” Audrey spun around. “And she didn’t come get me??”

“She said she had somewhere to go,” Kiwi shrugged.

“Typical.” Audrey sat heavily back into the grass. “I don’t know what I expected.”

Kiwi rocked back and forth on their heels awkwardly. Now they really didn’t know what to think. So, Audrey really had died. They didn’t want to think about how but a brief, horrific image of her obliterated body at the bottom of the crater she created crossed their mind. She certainly looked fine now, at least limbo spared her from retaining any earthly injuries.

“Sssoooo…” Kiwi piped up, making Audrey flinch. “Why can’t you pick up your sword?”

Audrey dropped her dead into one hand in exasperation. “Haven’t the foggiest idea. It’s infuriating. I dunno if it’s about how my time as the Hero is up or something? I’m not just gonna leave it here though. I have no idea what’s prowling around this place aside from annoying, green-clad bards.”

Kiwi tentatively reached for the hilt and gave it a tug. They doubted they could lift it alone, they barely could during their trial all those weeks ago. Geez, that felt so far away now. As they often had, they couldn’t help but imagine themself as Audrey during her trial. It must have been nice to pull the sword and feel like it belonged with you. Like you belonged in something bigger than yourself. Kiwi wished they could feel as sure and confident about their purpose as Audrey no doubt felt.

Similarly, they wondered if Audrey felt now like Kiwi did then. Not being able to wield the sword effectively branded them as a nobody. The rejection cut deep, and Kiwi felt kind of vindicated that Audrey might be getting a taste of that rejection. Though, her being dead didn’t really make it feel as good as Kiwi wanted it to. They hadn’t wanted her to die, not even at their worst run-ins with her. Now that the world hadn’t ended, did she have anyone waiting back home? She had to, Kiwi couldn’t imagine not having anyone waiting up for you. Even before Miriam Kiwi had Marley and all the Langtree folks, not to mention their mother in Chismest.

Miriam. Kiwi’s heart warmed bittersweetly at the thought of her like a hot coal in their chest. They hoped she wasn’t too worried. They wished Miriam didn’t have to cart their unconscious butt half-way across the world again. They could hardly wait to see her again, they missed her company now more than ever. Absently, Kiwi laced their fingers together. Thinking about Miriam steeled their nerves a bit. She would know what to do if she were here. She probably would agree that leaving the sword and venturing out unarmed was a bad idea. Audrey was right, who knew what was out there? Spirit worlds were hardly ever harmless.

“Audrey,” Kiwi started. “Do you need help to carry your sword?”

“Help?” Audrey laughed despite herself. “From you? Yeah, I don’t think that’s gonna do much.”

“Well, it’s just that…” Kiwi shuffled their feet nervously. “If we do end up seeing some monster out there, like how the King of Hearts was, maybe we can try what we did on Mt. Ichor. Yknow, except we actually work together and you don’t kill it.”

Audrey slowly turned to face Kiwi. She looked like she was searching their face for something. Finally, she gestured for Kiwi to follow and grabbed the hilt of her sword once more. Kiwi did the same.

“No promises.”

The Hero and the Bard managed to lift the sword enough to carry.