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It almost felt like home.

Amber sands stretched all around, shifting like a glinting sea dotted with sparse foliage and snarling fauna and ruins of civilizations she had no name for, half-buried beneath dust and grime and light.

If she squinted and didn't linger too long on the fact that she was in a broken world that was on the precipice of death, Poppy could fool herself into thinking she was in Thanalan. The masquerade never lasted long, however, and its false veneer fell away as soon as her vision came back into focus. She was always forced to face the reality that blinked back at her through the sharp facets of a cracked mirror—distorted, but familiar enough to make something within her ache for the true home she'd left behind. 

She gripped the hilts of her daggers until the feeling of rough, cloth-bound metal against her palms grounded her, as did the sensation of blades that tore through flesh, and the loud ringing of her heartbeat in her ears when she cut another beast down. The coyote crumpled onto the sand flecked with its own blood to join its fallen brethren and Poppy felt a twinge of satisfaction at being the victor in yet another struggle. It was a simple comfort, a trained and repetitive motion. Almost enough to mask the near-sickening feeling of displacement and wrongness that weighed heavily within her at being there in that strange, haunting world. 

"That was hardly a match for you!" 

Poppy looked over her shoulder, relieved to see that her new companion had managed to stay out of the fray. The blonde Hyur (Hume, rather—another oddity that the Warrior hadn't yet adjusted to) clutched the crate of precious supplies she held and shifted her weight from foot to foot while she flashed Poppy a smile. 

"I'd always thought Alisaie was strong, but in her mind, she was never..." Tesleen's voice hushed as she trailed off and she glanced to the side, looking thoughtful. 

Poppy wiped her bloodied daggers clean on the coyote's pelt before they slid back into their sheathes. She prayed no more pesky beasts would impede their already slow progress. Her ears then flicked back towards the other woman with curiosity, the mention of Alisaie immediately grabbing her attention.

"Never...?"

Tesleen hesitated for a moment. Her gaze found the Warrior again and she was offered another smile, simpering and just a bit bashful. At the shake of her head, she stepped forward to take the lead. "We shouldn't keep Alisaie waiting. She has been desperate to see you, after all," she said. 

Poppy fell into step just behind her. The words made her feet drag with painful heaviness, but she was right. Alisaie had done enough waiting. Still, something nagged at her enough to make conversation, if only to fill the void of silence that made the ache within Poppy flare up again. The Warrior stared into the painful light of the horizon, hoping to catch a glimpse of the mentioned woman.

"Seems like she really has mentioned a lot about me." The afternoon—or what one could conceivably call an afternoon on a world drenched in light—was filled with similar half-uttered comments on her strength and her prowess that made Poppy wonder just what Alisaie had said on her behalf. "Nothing embarrassing, I hope," she added with a bit of humor. Though the comment strained at the edges, Tesleen seemed not to notice and chuckled instead. 

"Oh, no. Alisaie has only ever had good things to say about you."

There was something about the way she spoke, so quietly warm and perhaps just a bit secretive, that brought Poppy an onze of relief. She was glad that Alisaie had made a good friend out there on the lonely edge of the world, and even gladder that the other woman hadn't come to resent her.

Though they made good time without further interruption from the local wildlife, the two of them arrived at the Inn only to find that Alisaie wasn't there. It was almost enough to make Poppy scream with frustration. The road to her partner was paved with silly errands and malms of dusty anxiety that set her already frayed nerves on edge. But she swallowed her impatience and forced a smile to listen to each word of instruction Tesleen offered her on where she might find Alisaie.

So Poppy set out again, kicking up sand in her wake as she traced Alisaie's footsteps with all the fervent desperation of a bloodhound let loose on a hunt. The ruins she passed held no clues for her, the watchtowers empty, her eyes stinging from dust and light as she scoured that frigid, damnable desert. All too soon she hit a dead end where the trail abruptly stopped, as if Alisaie had vanished without a trace.

The subtle flap of wings shifted the air. Poppy's ears flicked towards the sound and pulled her from her anxious haze. Just behind her, a pallid creature hovered above the sand, listless and hungry, spewing that baleful light. The Warrior's hands flew to her blades, but she didn't get a chance to draw them. Alisaie crashed down from the tower above like a crimson comet to slay the creature with a few expert flicks of her rapier, saving Poppy the trouble.

And so there she stood over the malformed beast's body. Its stolen light soon faded away in wisps of glowing smoke, leaving Alisaie outlined in the haunting glow of the frozen flood that towered overhead. The sight made Poppy's heart ache. The circumstances of their reunion were startling, but she had quickly come to expect the unexpected.

Still, the Warrior was frozen. In all her surprise she could scarcely breathe and her heart hammered with such strength in her chest that she could almost taste its bitter thrum in her mouth. Alisaie cast a glance over her shoulder that was brief and almost coy before she looked back ahead.

"I knew you would turn up sooner or later," she said. The words were hushed but Poppy heard them, clinging to every syllable and familiar lilting note. "—but I had been hoping for sooner."

The tartness of her tone was so acidic that it bit enough to be felt like a sting on her skin. Of course, Poppy had expected her to be annoyed. She'd even anticipated anger after hearing how long she was made to wait. But, for a terrifying fraction of a moment, the Warrior worried that those rightful feelings had turned into a hatred that would tear them apart.

Then Alisaie finally turned to face her and Poppy saw no ire. Just a strained little smile that only barely masked a profound sort of sadness that lurked at the edges of her expression.

"How are you?" she asked, her voice waving just so.

Something crackled between them with all the same bristling energy that came before a storm's first clap of thunder. And before she could tell herself to move, Poppy was already running. And just like a flash of lightning, she was already flying through the air until she collided with Alisaie. In a confusing jumble of limbs and gravity they tumbled, and the two of them were no longer upright but splayed on the sand with the Warrior braced above the stunned woman who lay beneath her. 

It was much the same way she'd greeted the Crystal Exarch when she arrived on the First, confused and blinded by the light. She tackled him to the ground as well, though it was anger that urged her hands to grasp his throat and her nails to dig into the crystal that cracked his skin.

"Where are they?" she'd asked—screamed, rather. The pain of her loss was so fresh, the sight of Alisaie's limp body still etched onto the backs of her eyelids. "Where is she?" she'd hissed, sputtering from the desperation and the fear that had clawed at her insides since the day Alisaie fell, driving her to tighten her already dangerous grip.

She was thankful that Lyna had been there to peel her off the poor man—rather forcefully, and with the intent to fasten her in manacles and throw her into gaol. But the Exarch quickly smoothed the situation over and answered her burning questions thereafter. 

"She's here," he explained with gentle reassurance. "She's been here for a year."

The shock of that revelation had melted into guilt, which was just what she felt bubble back to the surface of her mind when she gazed down at her beloved, who stared back at her with wild, wide eyes. A year she'd spent in that horrible, half-dead place. A year waiting. A year of unsureness, of not knowing if the Warrior would ever arrive.

A year alone.

Poppy dug her fingers into the ground on either side of Alisaie's head, but they found no purchase in the cold sand. Her vision became fractured, blurring the other woman's face beyond recognition as if through facets of crystal. Tears stung her eyes before they fell to the parched ground.

"Gods, don't cry." Alisaie's voice was little more than a murmur that strained under the weight of unspoken emotion. Her hand reached up to touch Poppy's face with a certain gentleness that felt more like caution, like she was a ghost who might fade away. "You'll make me start too."

Poppy shattered. She collapsed into sobs and fell to bury her face into the soft collar of Alisaie's coat. The other woman held her, hands grasping the dark, tattered fabric of her clothing, pulling her in as close as she could get. In the time between Poppy's muffled cries, quiet relief bloomed.

They laid there in silence for what felt like bells, moons, eons. No words were spoken. Poppy doubted there was anything that could be said. It was the distant flutter of what sounded like the wings of those horrible, light-drunk monsters that urged Alisaie to make the first move in piecing them both back together again.

"It's not safe to linger here," she whispered, and Poppy felt the warmth of her urgent breath graze her ear. 

"Right," she agreed. Though it was painful, Poppy rose to her feet. It was when she hoisted Alisaie up after her that she realized just what a year meant. 

They stood eye to eye, with no more ilms between them in height. Alisaie's features had sharpened slightly, her hair perhaps just a bit longer, her clothing different. Her gaze had hardened, and there was a certain air about her that Poppy couldn't quite place. The Warrior remembered the Exarch's words—that the Scions were little more than souls adrift on the First that one could touch and hear—and she wondered if she imaged those subtle differences, if the much shorter time apart she'd experienced could possibly warp her memories so. Again, she felt that same nagging feeling of displacement when she looked at Alisaie, almost as if she caught sight of a stranger in a crowd who just happened to look like someone familiar.

Alisaie's hand fell from her grasp. She looked at her in a strange, guarded sort of way. A wall formed between them and she moved past, ushering them both onwards to finish the patrol and exchange news, as if their reunion was already forgotten. And it was then that Poppy knew that the long year the other woman lived alone had changed her in a way that she couldn't yet comprehend.

Poppy rubbed her eyes to brush the last stray tears away. Not even the blurriness of her vision could fool her into comfort that time.

 


 

With each new word that Alisaie spoke, with every horrible truth she revealed, the nectarine balanced on Poppy's palm seemed to grow an onze heavier. She felt sick with a cloying sweetness that coated her mouth, and the foolish urge to throw the fruit off edge of the tower found her. As if getting rid of it would make its purpose disappear as well. 

But she couldn't hide from the truth nor the horrors that Alisaie had experienced in her time in Amh Araeng, so she held onto the nectarine and returned it to the safety of her pocket with a trembling hand. The Warrior took a deep breath and stared up at the wave of suspended light, unsure whether she should feel awe or fear. Either way, it was another cruel and coincidental familiarity that twisted her insides into more knots than she thought possible.

"It reminds me of the Burning Wall," she murmured aloud, unsure what else to say. Memories of days long past came to her, bringing with them the ghostly scent of moon daises and the sight of petals that fell into the crystalline canyon. 

"I thought the very same thing when I first arrived here," Alisaie said, agreeing to the sentiment with a nod of her head. "It always made me think of you. I'm not sure if it's been a comfort or a curse," she added with a strained sort of sadness that made Poppy wince.

The guilt came again. Words clashed as they clawed up the Warrior's throat, but each died in their battle and left her mute, scrambling for something to fill the silence. She glared at the halted flood, the dead lands beyond it, the harsh desert below them.

"How have you endured this?" The question was near-silent, not meant to be said out loud. Poppy's jaw snapped shut when it flew past her lips.

"Poppy, I..." Hearing her name startled the Warrior into tearing her eyes away from the light. She looked to Alisaie, who met her gaze with a furrowed brow. "I couldn't shake the feeling that I abandoned you on the battlefield," she said with tense frustration, as if that thought had haunted her the entire year. "So I swore that I'd make up for my absence there by making a difference here. That's what kept me moving forward... even when things seemed hopeless."

There was a sudden realization that caught Poppy off guard in that moment, in the breaths after Alisaie's admittance. That difference about her that felt like a tangible thing—Poppy finally found the language to describe it. Alisaie had become so very, very strong, stronger than ever before. Stronger even than the Warrior herself, who knew all too well that she would have crumbled had she been in Alisaie's place. She wanted to say so out loud, but her tongue was as traitorous as ever in its refusal to wrap around the words. And so yet again, Alisaie was the one to fill the void.

"Goodness, you certainly are quiet," she said, casting a sidelong glance at the Warrior, perhaps looking a bit worried. "You're not usually so reserved. Or have my memories of you betrayed me?"

Poppy couldn't help but laugh at her beloved's familiar tartness, no matter now sad the joke truly was. "I just—" Her voice was more hoarse that anticipated and she cleared her throat, but a smile found her lips—her first since her arrival on the shard. "I missed you," was all she could think to say. It seemed unfair to say it given their disproportional time apart, but it was how she felt it all the same.

"I've missed you as well," was Alisaie's hushed reply.

In a moment of shared levity, their hands slid together and their fingers twined into cautious knots. Finally, Poppy felt some of that horrible tension between them slip away. They both stared out at the light for as long as they could afford to before responsibility tugged them back down to the Inn again to deliver Halric's nectarine.

Poppy could almost pretend that everything was normal. They sat together by the warm hearth, bellies full, surrounded by kind and caring souls. When Alisaie's hand found hers again under the table to squeeze it with gentle affection, it all didn't seem so bad. Even despite the fruit that sat between them and the fact that they were in a cursed place at the edge of existence where people came to die.

And then Halric disappeared and Tesleen ended up with a sword in her chest. The masquerade never lasted long, after all, and the cruelty of the world snapped back into place with terrifying clarity to burn away what little comfort they could carve out of it.

Poppy wondered if there was anything she could have done, if she'd just moved fast enough, if she hadn't been so transfixed by the horrific scene than unfolded before her. But she knew in very the back of her mind that Tesleen's fate had been sealed the instant she threw herself between the boy and the sin eater. Until the very end, she remained selfless—more selfless than that wretched place deserved.

Tesleen was torn apart by the light and born anew as one of the very creatures that slowly killed the countless patients she'd devoted her life to. Poppy watched, helpless, hopeless, as the very person who kept Alisaie afloat for that long year was taken from her, ripped to shreds, and warped beyond recognition.

Halric stared unblinking after the monster as it flew into the horizon after its brethren. His nectarine lay at his feet long forgotten, along with Tesleen's sword.

Poppy's legs gave out. The unfairness of it all was too much to bear. She heaved into her palm from horror and disgust and a whole host of feelings that consumed her from the inside out. The light that poured from Tesleen's mouth. How her eyes had gone black. How her body was twisted and mangled by ragged wings that burst from her back. The images etched themselves into Poppy's mind with enough intensity to make her sick, no matter how hard she closed her eyes to will them away.

Alisaie had folded in on herself beside her, sobbing so uncontrollably that every ilm of her trembled. She let out an anguished cry that would haunt Poppy for moons to come, and her tears were the ones to fall to the parched ground that time, as countless as the grains of sand that soaked them up. The Warrior could do little else but wrap herself around the other woman like a cloak of shadows that could at least, if nothing else, shield her from the searing light. 

Poppy clung to Alisaie. Tiny motes of light shimmered around them like flakes of snow that burned when they brushed against her wet cheeks. She stared up at the eerie, gold-tinted sky until she felt blind. And it was then, truly, that she realized how much she hated the world she was meant to save.

Chapter Text

It wasn't until she saw it again that Alisaie realized she how much she took the night sky for granted. That comforting, lightless cloak, the normalcy of it all—living a year without it certainly put things into perspective. She couldn't even begin to fathom how the people of Norvrandt didn't even know what it was they were robbed of.

After the light dissipated, an inky blanket of darkness fell over the entirety of Lakeland, disturbed only by tiny pinpricks of stars and the pearly glow of the moon. It was little wonder that the residents of Holminster Switch were enchanted by the sight. It was the first night to occur in a hundred years, after all, and the first they were able to experience. She passed by the rolling hills of farmland that had been infested with sin eaters only a bell before and found them filled instead with groups of people huddled together, all staring up at the darkened sky.

Though the acrid smell of smoke still hung in the air and the damage the monsters had done physically scarred the land, the horrors of the day were long forgotten. Excited, hushed chatter filled the air as the survivors clung to one another, held their children and their friends and pointed up at the stars. The sight brought a smile to Alisaie's face. The impact of the impossible feat Poppy had achieved could already be felt. She couldn't help but feel a twinge of satisfaction at having a small role in it all.

Just like the townsfolk, Alisaie found her eyes drawn upward as well and her hand slid along the rough wood of the fence that marked the edge of the path that lead her along winding trails through the farmland. Though they weren't the same stars she remembered from home and the constellations that winked down at her had names she didn't know, it was a comforting sight all the same. Though, a creeping sadness that'd followed her there from Amh Araeng reminded her that there were countless souls who didn't live to see the night.

When Alisaie's hand fell off the end of the fence to find cold air, her gaze was pulled back down from the heavens. She'd reached her destination: the empty court that sat at the entrance of the village.

No one has about, which brought her an onze of relief. Only rubble and still-smouldering debris littered the cobbled stones. Alisaie picked her way through the wreckage until she reached the center of the court were, tentatively, she knelt and reached into her pocket to fish out a little apple. The fruit sat perfectly within her palm. 

"I know this will do you little good now," she said out loud, barely a whisper. Despite her knowing there was no one there who could hear, she kept her voice low out of a silly self-consciousness. "But, I brought it anyway."

Alisaie looked down at her hands, so neatly pressed against her lap. The apple's skin shone a soft satiny red even under the sparse light of the evening, almost as bright as her dress. It was the kind that was quite sugary even when not overripe—Tesleen's favorite.

"I always thought these were too sweet, but you loved them," she murmured. "I remember the day you baked a pie when I was able to get my hands on a few. I had to trade in quite a few favors to convince Rhon Ron to let me have them."

The memory tugged the corners of Alisaie's mouth into a smile and brought the phantom taste of cinnamon and butter and the very apple she held. She toyed with the stem beneath the pad of her thumb as the thoughts rolled onward and the flavors changed.

"You even snuck in some bits of ginger after I had mentioned how much I loved the taste." Alisaie paused as her smile was wiped away. "I wish I had told you how delicious it was at the time, but I was still so angry at it all."

Alisaie remembered her early days in Amh Araeng and how the horrors of the First were still new revelations that made her ache with helplessness. And the taste of the pie faded into a sour note when she remembered how the first slice of it was made into the last meal of one of the countless patients who'd passed through the Inn.

"You mentioned once that if you ever had to pick a last meal for yourself, it would be a single apple. Just like the princess from that story you told me. The sweetness would surely cover up the bitter sting of the poison, you'd said. I remember being appalled at such a morbid joke, but you just laughed it off." 

Alisaie chuckled at the memory, at the sound of Tesleen's light laughter that she could almost hear echo in her ears. Her heart stuttered when she realized she would never hear it again and her grip on the fruit tightened until her nails pressed deep into the skin. Sticky juice found its way onto her fingertips and dripped onto her palms.

"I'm sorry." Alisaie bowed her head over her lap and closed her eyes tight, hoping to will the oncoming flood of emotion away. Tesleen's last words flew past on the backs of her eyelids: no one should die in pain. "I'm sorry I couldn't... I'm sorry it couldn't have ended that way instead." Tears dripped down her cheeks, falling onto her lap, her hands, the apple, washing all semblance of the joyful memories away. "I'm sorry you didn't get a chance to see the stars," she added and it was then that her voice cracked with sorrow.

Painful sobs wracked her body, threatening to leave her as shattered as she felt in Amh Araeng. She wept and she wept and let herself cry until there was nothing left but a cool numbness that coated her mind like a soothing salve. The moments crept past and the night unfolded around her, patient in its fathomless silence. Alisaie eventually lifted her head to look at the welcoming darkness overhead and, somehow, it brought her the smallest sliver of comfort, even through the bleary haze of her vision.

"I'm going to keep fighting until every last sin eater is dead. So that no one else has to suffer like you did. So that everyone on the First may experience the night," she murmured and managed to sound determined despite how weak she felt. 

The apple was a bruised mess in her hands at that point. Still, she placed it on the ground with utmost care, as if it were a precious offering brought before the most benevolent of gods. Alisaie steeled herself and finally stood against the gravity that threatened to tug her back down. The fruit sat at her feet like a drop of crimson blood, and her mind was drawn back to the battle that took place there not so long before, to that mangled creature she'd struck down.

It was her who dealt the finishing blow. She remembered how Poppy fell back, the look she shot her and the nod she gave. The Warrior had given her that opportunity for some small scrap of closure, and she was ever glad for it, no matter how difficult it was to do. Though Tesleen didn't die from a poisoned apple like the faerie tale princess she so fondly spoke of, she at least died by Alisaie's blade. She supposed that was enough. 

Alisaie looked up again and saw the Tower glimmer in the distance like a crystalline beacon, standing high above the purple trees of the forests that surrounded it. She thought back suddenly to how she'd snapped at Alphinaud and Poppy and beseeched them both rather pointedly to not follow. How they'd looked at her with equal measures of concern...a bit of regret found her for her harshness. She backed away from the apple and the village with the thought to make amends on her mind.

When Alisaie finally turned away, it wasn't a sin eater she thought of—it was of Tesleen's bright smile and her kind heart. That was how she deserved to be remembered.

 


  

As to be expected, the Crystarium was lively. Alisaie passed by group after group of people who looked to the sky and laughed, tapping tankards together while they celebrated the night. The jovial thrill in the air lifted her own spirits considerably, even though thoughts of the apple lingered at the corners of her mind. She was pulled through the crowds and it wasn't long before she stumbled upon Alphinaud near the Dossal Gate.

Her brother seemed at peace. A small smile was writ of his face, which was a much softer expression compared to the furrowed brows and frustrated frowns that had hardened him in the past year. Alisaie thought to leave him to his moment of solitude, but his gaze soon dropped from the sky to find her. 

"Ah, Alisaie," he said, addressing her with a smile still present on his face. He sounded relieved. "Enjoying the night?" 

Alisaie stepped beside her brother and into the azure glow of an aetheryte that matched the tower that stretched overhead. She shot him a smirk and glanced over at a rather boisterous group who passed them by, smelling faintly of ale.

"I am. Though clearly not as much as I could be," she replied with a hint of tartness and half-wished she had a tankard of her own. She crossed her arms and looked up at the sky, softening when she heard Alphinaud chuckle. "It's good to see something other than light for once," she added quietly.

"It is. I only hope that we can repeat this miracle across all of Norvrandt," Alphinaud said with equal quietness. He sounded apprehensive, but continued with a hopeful note, "Though I suppose that feat should not be so impossible now that Poppy has arrived."

Hearing her partner's name widened Alisaie's smile a touch. It made her realize how much she missed the other woman's company. "Speaking of whom, might you know where she's wandered off to?" she asked and shot her brother an inquisitive glance.

Alphinaud met her eyes with a knowing look that quirked his brow. "Aye. She mentioned stopping by the markets."

"Then that is where I'm headed." With another smirk, Alisaie turned away. "Farewell for now, brother. Rest well." 

Eager to find the Warrior, Alisaie took a step towards the Aetheryte Plaza. Before she could get very far, she felt a hand brush against her wrist. It was a brief touch that barely lasted a breath and the fingers retreated before she could even turn to shoot Alphinaud a questioning look.

"Poppy told me about what happened in Amh Araeng." He sounded hesitant. When Alisaie met his gaze, he very briefly looked away. "Save your ire for me. It was only after my very keen insistence that she gave me the bare details," he said, already seeing her expression shift and knowing all too well what it meant. "That sin eater... I had no idea. Do you wish to speak of it?" His voice was hushed then, his tone sympathetic and just a bit worried.

Alisaie's lips pursed together into a thin line to stop whatever biting remark might've flown out if she hadn't held her tongue. Her eyes flicked over her brother's face to find genuine concern, and she exhaled the brief flare of unnecessary irritation that found her. 

"Not now," she said, speaking slowly around the words. "I'd prefer to keep moving forward for the time being." 

The words were firm and just a bit clipped, but Alphinaud seemed satisfied enough by her answer that some of the concern in his expression dissipated. "Very well. I won't press you, but know that I'm here should you have need of me. We're in this mess together, after all." A smile graced his lips once more, softening his face further. "Go on, then. You may still be able to catch our champion ere she retires for the evening."

Alisaie mirrored his smile with one of her own, though hers was edged with wryness. "I intend to."

With that, she turned away once more. As she made her way through the soft glow of the Aetheryte Plaza and down towards the markets, a gentle stab of guilt found her. She hadn't intended to make Alphinaud worry on her behalf or to brush off his offer outright. But the pain was too fresh, the dust of it all not yet settled. She had to sort through her own feelings before she spoke of it to anyone else. So the thoughts were pocketed for later in favor of focusing on finding Poppy.

The markets were mostly empty when she arrived, save for the odd soul who passed through on their way to and from the bar at The Wandering Stairs that overflowed with patrons and ale both. Most shops were darkened and unmanned, having long been closed early in honor of the celebrations that took place all across the city. Alisaie passed by a few of the more general stalls that still remained open with handfuls of patrons who stood before them to purchase lanterns and candles and joke together about being ill-prepared for the night.

There was one shop along the row of those that sold armor and weaponry that still seemed to be open as well—albeit begrudgingly, if the irritation that rolled off the Ronso who manned the stall in waves was any indication. The single patron who was the source of his dour mood happened to be—of course—none other than the unsung hero of the hour herself.

Alisaie approached slowly, feeling a smile already bloom across her face upon hearing the Warrior haggle with the man over the odd-looking piece of armor she held. She didn't hear the specifics of the conversation, but the shopkeep quickly acquiesced to the woman who kept him hostage in his own stall, likely both not having the strength to argue with her stubbornness and wanting nothing more than to pack up and go home.

As Poppy turned away with her prize in hand, Alisaie could see the man behind her visibly relax to finally be rid of her. The Warrior took only a few steps before she stopped again. A grin cracked her face from ear to ear when she spotted Alisaie and then sauntered over, twirling her purchase with nimble fingers.

"Well, well. You're a sight for sore eyes." The delight in her tone was clear enough to warm Alisaie upon hearing it. When they were close enough the Warrior leaned over to press the briefest of pecks against her cheek—a soft and fleeting thing wrought with caution, as if she were unsure if she should act with such boldness. Poppy soon pulled back and her brows were drawn together just enough to suggest worry. "Everything in order at Holminster?" she asked. She tried to sound cheery, but came off just as hesitant as Alphinaud had.

The apple was a flash of red in her mind, its cloying sweetness hard to escape. "It is," was Alisaie's brief, strained reply. Poppy's expression suggested she wasn't convinced, but thankfully she said no more. Alisaie glanced down to see her newly bought piece of armor, which looked like a strange helm. "What have you got there?" she asked, eager to change the subject.

"Oh, this?" Poppy glanced down at it herself as if she'd forgotten she held it in her hands. She tucked it into her knapsack before she flashed a secretive little smile. "I'll explain when we're somewhere more private. Come on."

She extended a hand towards Alisaie, who took it without further question. It'd been far too long since she'd played along with Poppy's mischief, after all. With that, the Warrior gave her a gentle tug towards the Aetheryte Plaza.

The winding walkways and multiple levels of platforms that the Crystarium boasted were difficult even for Alisaie to discern, but Poppy seemed to already know the city like the back of her hand. She was comfortable to be lead by the other woman who walked slightly ahead, cloaked in dark clothing, matching the night she'd torn from the sky.

The Warrior of Darkness.

That title suited her, Alisaie decided, far more than its usual counterpart. Poppy had always been at home in the shadows, just as she was then when she pulled them both through the darkened corners of the Crystarium with a preternatural ease.

"Twelve, where are you taking me?" Alisaie joked after a while when she realized the scenery was unfamiliar.

"Patience, dearest. Almost there." Teeth flashed in a grin along with the reply and Alisaie was tugged down a walkway that stretched far over the edge of the city. "Here we are," Poppy said when they reached the end of it. She dropped Alisaie's hand and spun on her heel to gesture upwards. "I like this spot. You can see the whole tower from here."

The Warrior took a step back to lean against the railing behind them. Alisaie settled in beside her and looked up to admire the view. Her eyes traced the outlines of the massive domes that made up the settlement and were pulled upward along the crystalline spires that cast their shimmering glow on the glass and metal below. Her gaze landed at the very top of the tower, where it almost seemed like the sharp tip could tear a hole through the darkened heavens.  

"It's quite a sight at night," Alisaie said, and Poppy hummed in agreement. Distant memories were pulled towards her, illustrating the evenings they spent gazing at the night sky together. "Gods, how I've missed the stars," she murmured after a moment, caught in a wave of nostalgia. 

"It's been a while since you've seen them, hasn't it?" Poppy asked, her voice quiet and sounding somehow fragile. Alisaie looked over to find her expression caught between a grimace and a smile. "Well, I guess I'll have to keep tearing the sky apart so you can see some more. Especially if it keeps you smiling the way you were just now."

Poppy inclined her head to meet her gaze, and her face softened with enough affection to make Alisaie feel warm again. She ducked her head to look away and hide from her embarrassment. It was an odd feeling—as if she were being courted anew, somehow.

"Oh, stop it," she scolded, but it held no sharpness, especially when she heard the other woman chuckle. "Are you going to show me what you bought, or not?" she asked a mite tartly.

"Ah, right." Poppy shifted beside her and Alisaie glanced over to see her reach for her knapsack. "Well, the Exarch said we should keep quiet about who brought the night back, right? I couldn't help but think maybe something like this might be useful when we're in battle. How's it look?"

What Alisaie thought was a helm was more of a mask. Poppy tied the band around her head and slid the thin piece of black metal over her face, then turned towards her. The tower's glow pooled along its sharp contours and divots and settled along the slitted sockets of eyes that the Warrior likely looked at her through. It was an unsettling sight, like the blackened skull of a crooked deer with pronged horns gilded in gold that rose high above her head.

"It's..." Alisaie couldn't help but grimace. "—a bit terrifying, actually."

"Good! Maybe it'll make those nasty eaters think twice before attacking us." Poppy grinned in delight at her reaction. The glinting fangs exposed by the smile did little to make her look less intimidating. "If the First needs a Warrior of Darkness, might as well dress the part."

Warrior of Darkness, servant of death, take care of our souls at our dying breath.

The rhyme that Tesleen spoke passed through Alisaie's mind. It made a knot form in her stomach, seeing how well Poppy painted that very picture. An urge to shatter the image guided her hand to the mask. She pulled it up until it sat atop Poppy's head and she was relieved to see the other woman's true face peer back at her again. 

"I'm sure you'll give every sin eater we encounter nightmares," she quipped, though her voice was a bit shaky. 

Poppy chuckled at that and removed the horrid mask to return it to her knapsack. Alisaie watched her, relieved that the thing was out of sight, and noticed how her coppery braid had tumbled over her shoulder. The mask was forgotten when she saw the ribbon that adorned her hair.

"You still have this?" She reached out again and her fingers found the end of the braid. Despite its worn appearance, Alisaie recognized the red ribbon as one of her own—the very same she'd given to Poppy ages ago. "It's all torn up. I can give you a new one if you'd like," she said, amused.

Poppy looked sheepish. It seemed it was her turn to be embarrassed. "This one's special," she muttered, and it was nearly a pout. "It got me through Shinryu and Zenos and everything else. It brought me across the rift and back to you."

She said it so earnestly that Alisaie was surprised enough to let a chuckle escape her, though she felt bad when Poppy's expression clouded with more embarrassment. "Have you always been so sentimental?" she asked. It was a genuine question, she realized. One that made her smile fade a touch. "I feel like I've forgotten so much about you."

The words seemed to hang in the air between them for a while, as if they were a physical wall that separated them. Alisaie's hand lingered on the other woman's shoulder where it tangled into her braid. She held onto her, afraid that Poppy might vanish if she let go.

"Gods, I can't stop thinking about how long I made you wait."

Poppy bowed her head, as if the whispered admittance weighed her down. Alisaie's grip tightened.

"That was hardly your fault," she whispered in return. It was a firm rebuttal, but the Warrior still shook her head all the same.

"I broke my promise. I said I wouldn't leave you alone, and yet..."

The guilt she spoke with was a palpable thing. And it made Alisaie go tense with frustration, if only because it so perfectly mirrored her own. How she'd fallen and left her partner alone in the middle of a war—that was something she still hadn't fully forgiven herself for.

"It was a foolish and impossible thing to ask of you," she said. "But none of that matters now. What does matter is that you're here and with me now."

Her hand drifted from Poppy's hair to find her cheek, which prompted the other woman to look up. She said nothing, but relief crept into her expression until she nodded in silent agreement and her eyes slid shut. Her face softened as she leaned into her touch and she looked so at peace that Alisaie was loathe to move or even breathe in fear of shattering the moment. She still reached out with her other hand so she could hold Poppy's face. The Warrior remained still, unbothered by the motion.

Alisaie's thumbs traced the faint trails of the scars on her cheeks, the outlines of the markings that cut sharp lines across her skin, the tiny flecks of her freckles. She took it all in, remembering and relearning every ilm of the face she thought she might never see again. But the other woman stood before her, made of flesh and blood on the shard they were both pulled to.

It was only when a thumb brushed against her lips that Poppy's eyes opened again. They were thin slivers of greenish blue, practically glowing through the darkness to stare at her with boundless affection. Alisaie felt something within her seize up at the sight—sorrow and relief and apprehension all at once, but the love she felt washed over it all to overwhelm her. 

She pulled Poppy nearer, slowly, ilm by ilm, until their lips met. It was their first kiss since the Warrior's arrival and her first in a year. And it was so gentle, barely grazed skin and soft breaths in between. It was a silly thought, but Alisaie had worried that either of them might fade away at the touch. Her in essence being a ghost, after all, and her partner perhaps being no more than a cruelly vivid dream. But they were both very much real, and that was all Alisaie needed before her composure snapped like a dry twig beneath her boot.

All sense was lost then, eaten up by the hunger that bloomed within her as she leaned into Poppy's embrace. The year between them made her ache and she mourned it silently, tasting the bitter regret of words long unspoken on her love's tongue as it slid against her own. But gods, she was there, finally there, finally with her, holding her so gently, as if she were a thing that might break. The impact of it all hit Alisaie at once—a belated punch to the gut that edged her motions with keen sharpness.

Her hands tangled into Poppy's hair, fluttered down her neck, pulled on the cowl of her cloak until they brushed against her shoulders and her arms, pausing only for a moment to admire the strength of the wiry muscle that tightened around her. Fingertips touched and begged against every bit of skin she could find, as did her lips, and by the time they pulled apart they were both flushed and breathing deeply, desperate for air.

"I won't leave you alone. Not ever again."

Poppy bowed her head once more to press her face against Alisaie's neck. The whisper was followed by a kiss that made her skin prickle to gooseflesh.

"You shouldn't make promises you can't keep," Alisaie chided. She was teasing, perhaps, but only half way, and her voice was ragged when she spoke it.

"That's one I will keep. You have my word," Poppy shot back. Her grip tightened and Alisaie was inclined to believe her with how determined she sounded.

She pulled away just enough to urge Poppy to lift her head, only to shoot the other woman a smirk. "See to it that you do. I will be very cross with you otherwise," she said, chiding again, though that time it was with humor.

Poppy smirked at her in return before their lips were together again. She kissed her with the same desperate vigor as before, as if she meant to prove the worth of her promise. And she spoke it wordlessly again and again with the arms that wrapped around her and the soft sighs that pressed into her mouth.

The cheers of celebrations that had stretched long into the night echoed in the distance. Like dancing fireflies, the lanterns that lined the length of the amaro launch flickered beneath them as they swayed. The breeze that kicked up around them from the wilds of Lakeland was cold. Those mundane details were vivid, but that was because Alisaie realized that it was the first time in a year that she felt like everything would be all right. Desperately, fervently, she prayed it would be.

Their Warrior of Darkness was come, after all, and Alisaie intended to mend that broken world with her, together. 

Chapter Text

The sunken kingdom of Voeburt unfolded around her like a watery graveyard. She flitted past crumbled buildings and slipped through their broken doorways, feeling every bit like the ghost she truly was. It was silent there beneath the surface of the lake, eerily calm and devoid of the life that once roamed its hallowed halls. Alisaie found herself wondering what it'd been like a hundred years past before the fae had taken root, in the days prior to the flood.

The flowers that floated on the water above broke the rays of endless light into tiny figments that twirled around the loose petals she disturbed. Alisaie was reminded of a glass globe filled with snow, like the ones she and Alphinaud often received as gifts for Starlight in the years of their youth. Those warm memories and the enchanting scenery she swam through were a pleasant distraction—ones that unfortunately didn't last very long.

There were still no signs of Poppy. Not a single trace. And like the the surface of the lake above, panic rippled through Alisaie once more.

Perhaps the Fuath had gotten to her. Perhaps they'd turned her into a leafman so that she might entertain them for the rest of their days. The whims of the fae often lead them to capture the unfortunate souls that piqued their interest, after all. The endless possibilities of the Warrior's demise weighed her down, slowing her limbs until they felt cast in lead. But Alisaie swam and swam and swam some more, fueled by a desperation that pushed her to check every last ilm of the lake that she could reach.

Gods, she couldn't bear to lose her. Not again. 

A faint trill soon sounded in her ear—likely Urianger signaling to her linkpearl. Alisaie tried to ignore it despite how exhaustion snuck up on her like a creeping shadow that darkened the edges of her vision. Her innate swimming abilities and the gift bestowed upon her by the Kojin were not enough to save her from her own limits, evidently. It was with great irritation that Alisaie returned to the shore, if only to not worry the others into thinking she was lost as well.

Urianger was there to greet her. Once tasked with overseeing their safety all those years ago, he'd always been as doting and protective over Alisaie and her brother as a mother hen. But the pall of worry cast over him then was a sight to behold, so unlike his usual stoic demeanor. Alisaie was glad to see it lift away when she emerged from the lake.

"My lady," he addressed her with strained relief as she approached. "'Tis good to see thee whole and hale."

Alisaie brushed past the pleasantries with a brusque shake of her head that shifted the damp silver of her fringe from her face. "What of Poppy? Is there any sign of her?" she asked, managing to curb her worry just enough.

A frown creased Urianger's brow. He glanced to Thancred, who stood a few paces away near Alphinaud and Minfilia. The two of them both traced the edge of the lake, looking forlorn, while Thancred shook his head. 

"I am afraid there are none to speak of. Our champion hath not yet emerged," Urianger said as he looked back at her. 

Alisaie's hands clenched at her sides. "I'm going back in," she announced and turned on her heel, only to stumble as tiny black dots pricked her vision. A wave of dizziness soon followed and forced her to her knees. Urianger was beside her in an instant. 

"My lady, pray do not exert thyself overmuch. Rest would benefit—"

"Resting won't bring her back to us!" Alisaie snapped. Fear pushed the words out before she could taper their harshness. "I'm going back in," she repeated in a whisper, tasting bitter notes of desperation on her lips.

She trembled and panted, realizing her breaths were short, and wondered just how long she swam to prompt such exhaustion. A quarter bell, a half, or even more? Time had blurred, but it didn't matter. She needed to keep moving for Poppy's sake. Alisaie tried to stand, but Urianger moved to grasp her arm. A glare sharpened her gaze and her tongue threatened to lash out again.

A splash disturbed their strained stalemate. Alisaie looked up to see the otherwise still surface of the lake shatter like a crystalline mirror, from which a soaked Miqo'te then floundered up onto the shore. Alisaie shot up and out of Urianger's grip, but Alphinaud beat her to it and hoisted Poppy to her feet when he reached her. She was dripping wet and clearly exhausted, but otherwise unscathed.

"I'm all right," she said to Alphinaud's rightful fussing and insistence to look her over for wounds. "Just wet and miserable, is all. It'll take more than a bit of fae mischief to do me in."

The Warrior had the audacity to laugh. The sound was worn like a rusted bell and something about it made Alisaie's newfound relief wilt into anger. 

"Have you any idea how worried we were?" The question drew Poppy's surprised gaze to her, which only made Alisaie angrier somehow. "To wash up on the shore, only to find you weren't with us?!"

There was a beat of stunned silence that only seemed to amplify the intensity of her exclamation. All eyes were on her. Unsure what else to do, Alisaie's hands flew to her pack to retrieve the very relic that caused their troubles.

"Oh, but I'm forgetting—here's your crown, Your Majesty! The Fuath kept that part of the bargain, at least."

She reached out and placed the thing right on Poppy's head. It sat crooked atop damp waves of disheveled copper, glimmering a pearlescent shine beneath the light. It suited her, somehow, and that thought only added another layer to the fear that already weighed heavy on Alisaie's shoulders. Poppy stared back at her, brows drawn together. Her eyes asked a wordless question that Alisaie didn't know how to answer. 

Tense silence bloomed between the Scions, but didn't last for long before the messenger who bore their next challenge found them.

Sul Uin fluttered up to the group in a panicked state to announce that other mortals had stormed Il Mheg. And before Alisaie knew it, both she and Alphinaud were lead back to Lydha Lran to forestall the advance of the Eulmoran army while the others continued the search for the final relic. It was a frantic but quiet walk, one during which the thorns of regret pricked deep.

"Alisaie," Alphinaud addressed her after a handful of yalms. "Is aught amiss? You seemed—"

"Everything is fine."

She cut him off with a few curt words. It wasn't a discussion she wanted to have then and there, lest of all in front of their fae companion. Alphinaud sighed beside her, but the pixie joined in before he could say more. 

"It was very bold of you to raise your voice at the one bonded to the [madbloom]!" they exclaimed, their previous panic seemingly forgotten. 

Alisaie winced—both at the fact that her outburst had been overheard and the usage of the strange word she knew referred to Feo Ul. The pixie twirled around midair to face her and flew backwards just ahead of Alisaie. A grin was writ on their face.

"Such drama, such passion! Oh, but I'd give her up if I were you. You really don't want to contend with Feo Ul," Sul Uin warned with the wag of a tiny finger, but the singsong scolding was laced with mischief. They fluttered nearer until they floated just in front of Alisaie's face. "I know! Why not make a pact with me? Or perhaps let me turn you into a leafman? Then we could play forever!"

The pixie reached out to poke the tip of her nose with the offering of each new idea. Alisaie sighed and, very gently, brushed Sul Uin aside. 

"Thank you, but I would rather not live out my days as a glorified bush," she muttered. 

"A pity," the pixie pouted, but quickly turned their attention to the other Elezen. "What about you, Alphinaud? Would you fancy being a leafman?"

Her brother cleared his throat as Sul Uin flicked his ear with a wing. "We should focus on the task at hand, should we not?" he asked, sounding just a bit nervous. The pixie groaned at his deflection, clearly exasperated to be rejected again.

Alisaie smirked at the exchange, but the mounting tension within her still threatened to snap at any moment. So she pushed ahead to pick up the pace, as if she could outrun the nagging sense of dread that nipped at her heels. 

She would not allow the Fuath nor Feo Ul nor the entirety of the Eulmoran army nor even the damnable light that hung overhead to take her—she wouldn't lose Poppy again. 

 


 

"Is this it?"

Alisaie reached for the bush only to find out too late that it hid a myriad of unseen thorns cloaked by the dark of night. Her hand pulled back at the sharp sting and she swore under her breath, glaring at the bright crimson flower that had tempted her. On instinct, her finger flew to her lips to wipe the bit of blood away. She turned as she nursed the wound and nearly startled out of her skin at the sight of the silent shadow that crept up the hill towards her. The identifying glint of golden horns was enough to settle her nerves, but just barely. 

"Hm, don't think so," the shadow called out, its eyeless face tilting towards the bush for inspection. When it drew nearer, a hand reached up to pull the mask back. The sight of Poppy's face was a relief. "They said the flower should have six petals, but that one's only got five," she mused aloud during her appraisal of the thorny bloom.

"Must we continue this fool's errand? I doubt a cup of tea will be worth such a tremendous effort." The complaint was muffled by her palm. Alisaie sighed into it and the warmth of her breath eased the dull ache of the thorn's prick.

"You heard them. They said it'd be the best tea we've ever tasted," Poppy said, sounding amused. Her eyes flicked up and settled on Alisaie's hand until a frown tugged at her lips. "Oh, d'you get hurt?"

"It's nothing," Alisaie insisted, but the Warrior had already reached for her. She pulled the hand away from her mouth to draw it near her own. 

"Pricked by a thorn, poor thing. Hopefully it's not poisoned," she murmured with feigned seriousness before her lips grazed the wound with a gentle kiss. Her frown turned to a smirk and Alisaie could only roll her eyes despite the heat that rose to her face from the gesture. 

"I think I will live, thank you very much," she huffed and pulled her hand from the Warrior's grasp. "Let us continue our search. I'd like to get this over with."

She turned away with quick sharpness, but managed to catch sight of Poppy's expression fade back to a frown. Alisaie's already sour mood grew worse as it mingled with newfound guilt.

In truth, she wanted nothing more than to quit Il Mheg for good, having had more than her fill of the fae and their mischief. She expected their quest for rare flowers would end up as nothing more than that—another prank meant to waste their time. But it was at Urianger's insistence that they spend the night and allow themselves a brief respite after their Warrior's victory in winning back the stars. 

At least she had those stars. That sight alone was enough to lull Alisaie into a moment of quiet contemplation that made her forget the unspoken unsureness that'd slipped between her and Poppy again. Her steps slowed as her gaze was drawn to the lake ahead. It was aptly named, she realized, with a still surface that reflected the beauty of the sky suspended above with all the clarity of a handmirror. 

"Pretty, isn't it?" Poppy asked from behind, as if reading her thoughts. "Worth the effort of getting it back, I'd say."

"It is pretty," Alisaie agreed. She thought of the Fuath and the encounter with the Eulmorans and the unseen battle with Titania that played out within the castle's walls. "I'm only glad that effort didn't cost us your life."

There were a few breaths of silence before the sound of Poppy's footsteps stopped.

"Is everything all right? You seem..." she trailed off to search for the right word. "...tense, I guess."

The observation hit her in the back like an arrow, but Alisaie stopped only when she ducked beneath the shadow of the nearest tree. Her hand fell onto the trunk and she frowned, letting a long breath slip past her lips.

"I'm fine."  

It wasn't very convincing, even to her own ears. She felt like she'd said those particular words too often as of late and wasn't sure if they were true anymore.

"Is..." Poppy trailed off again, sounding hesitant. "Is this because of all that stuff Feo Ul said? I swear it's not as serious as it sounds."

Alisaie's ears immediately began to burn with indignation. That certainly was not what she'd expected to hear. She spun around to face the Warrior who stared back at her, looking cautiously amused. 

"Of course not," Alisaie tried not to snap, but was only mildly successful. 

"You sure? You seemed a bit jealous back there, is all." 

"Jealous? Why in the world would I be jealous of a pixie?"

"A pixie who happens to be king of the fae now," Poppy reminded her with far too much enthusiasm. "Besides, I saw your face. You got all pouty when they were talking."

Alisaie scowled. "I did not."

The burning of her ears traveled to her face. Leave it to Poppy's keen eyes to catch her every reaction. But when she remembered how Feo Ul spoke to her partner with such ardor and affection, she felt a twinge of something wriggle within her. Alisaie crossed her arms and leaned back against the tree, refusing to give the other woman the satisfaction of being right.

"You willingly bound yourself to them the moment you arrived on the First, all without telling me afterwards," she said, adding careful weight to each word. "Forgive me for any faces I've made since finding out."

Poppy clasped her hands behind her back and approached with slow, measured steps. Like a shark who smelled fresh blood, she flashed a toothy grin.

"To be fair, I didn't have much say in that matter," she was quick to reminded her. The smug expression that never left her face did nothing to help her case, however, as did the way her eyes lit up when she stopped just short of the tree. "I know—we can make things even. Let's make a pact too, just between us."

Her voice drifted downward to a cheerful whisper while she reached out to place her hand on the tree's trunk, right beside Alisaie's head. The diminished space between them did aught else besides aid the warmth that already painted her cheeks. Her glare sharpened. 

"What kind of pact?" Alisaie asked, deadpan, trying to sound disinterested despite her curiosity.

"I could become Titania. That crown's rightfully mine, after all."

For a moment, all her worries were forgotten, replaced by disbelief. The only sound she could hear was the faint rustle of leaves overhead.

When Poppy leaned in, Alisaie was mesmerized by the brightness of her eyes, by the teal sparkle that matched the surface of the lake, and the messy copper fringe that fell over half her face. She had the air of a handsome fae prince about her then—equal parts charming and wild and dangerous.

"Poppy—"

Her murmur went unheard. The sight of the other woman's gentle, lopsided smile was almost enough to distract from the nonsense she spoke and the hand that gripped her hip. Alisaie suddenly found herself pinned against the tree. Poppy's palm slid up her side, just barely brushing against the fabric of her dress. Her breath hitched when the Warrior's head dipped further down.

"Be my queen. Together we can rule over all of Il Mheg, forever and ever."

The whisper that grazed Alisaie's ear was soon followed by Poppy's lips. They dragged along her skin, as soft and enticing as her words. No matter how foolish and impossible it was, in that moment Alisaie found herself wanting to say yes, to agree to the offered pact. But then Poppy leaned back, her eyes alight with the fire of mischief. 

"Just kidding."

The spell was broken. In a flash of annoyance, Alisaie jabbed the Warrior in the ribs just hard enough that she stepped back to free her. Poppy doubled over in a fit of laughter.

"I've had enough of you," Alisaie said, words biting with exasperation. "Perhaps we should have let you become the king. Alone."

Poppy only continued to laugh at her irritation. When she looked up, her face lit up again. "Save your plans to get rid of me for later. Looks like we found our prize!"

She reached past Alisaie's head and pulled a low-hanging branch downward to reveal a cluster of small flowers, all dressed in six pretty red petals each. Poppy plucked one of the blooms from its bed and held it up to her face.

"Hope the tea's as good as they said. We should—"

The Warrior's nose scrunched up. She was cut off by a sneeze, then another, and then a whole fit that followed suit. Alisaie smirked and would've made a comment about her getting what she deserved, but Poppy let go of the branch and stepped backwards, precariously close to the edge of a steep slope. Then—of course, because such was the will of the fae—a gnarled, exposed root tripped her. 

"Poppy—!"

Instinct urged Alisaie to rush forward. She grabbed the Warrior's outstretched hand, but the momentum was already too great. And so they both tumbled down the hill together, surrounded by a blur of flowers and stars that flew past in turn like the patchwork of a quilt. They rolled and rolled, but thankfully stopped just short of the shore. The petals cast aloft by the disturbance settled around them like flecks of snow. 

Alisaie sat up. A few scrapes and bruises were earned, but all limbs were accounted for. She sighed a breath of relief when the haze of dizziness cleared and she saw Poppy beneath her, blinking up in confusion. The faint titter of giggles overhead soon gave the orchestrators of their misfortune away. 

"As I suspected, it seems that tea was not the intended purpose of the flowers," Alisaie said as she looked up to find a gaggle of pixies hovering near the top of the hill.

She glared and very nearly said a few very improper and colorful things, but Poppy's sudden laughter cut through her annoyance. She looked down just as the Warrior pushed herself up onto her elbows and tossed her head back in a fit of giggles. 

"Hells, at least it was fun," she said and grinned up at Alisaie, who could do little more for a moment than stare.

Something about Poppy's joy and the events of the day and the absurdity of it all made Alisaie seize up with dread yet again.

There was no point in lying to herself anymore.

"I was afraid earlier," she blurted out and that bitter sting of desperation found her lips once more. "When you didn't wash up on shore, when you went to battle with Titania. I'm always afraid it might be the one time you won't..."

...return to me.

The rest of the admittance remained unspoken, but Alisaie felt it hang between them like an invisible thread.

"I'm sorry for snapping at you before," she added and hung her head to hide from Poppy's gaze. The fingers that soon brushed against her cheek prompted her to look up again. 

"I came back, didn't I? I always do," the Warrior said, words soft yet just firm enough to sound like a scolding. "But I'm sorry I made you worry. Didn't mean to." Her hand ran through Alisaie's fringe to shake loose several petals until her thumb stopped to brush against her cheek, gentle and apologetic. "Why don't we go make some tea of our own? Without any fae trickery involved, preferably."

The giggles overhead grew louder and the group of pixies whispered in delight at having bested the Warrior with their little game. Alisaie ignored them and looked down at Poppy, who smiled up at her sweetly. Her hand fell away from her cheek all too soon to instead reach for the mask that'd fallen off during their tumble. Alisaie grabbed her arm before she could touch it.

"Not before you pay for your mischief," she said tartly.

Before she realized what she was doing, Alisaie gave Poppy a shove to push her back onto the ground. Flowers haloed her head in a delicate crown that truly made her look like the king of the fae, even with the surprised look she wore. Alisaie hovered over her, feeling a strange mix of relief and and affection and fear all at once. The emotion could never be captured with mere words, she knew, so she bent down and pressed it against Poppy's mouth with her own.

The Warrior breathed out a quiet sound of surprise, but didn't resist. She almost seemed to bloom beneath Alisaie like the flowers they laid on, with needy fingers that tangled into her hair and giggles that seeped out between each kiss that grew more intense than the last. Alisaie drank it all in, desperate for the contact that grounded her and reminded her that her love was alive and safe. She wanted nothing more than to capture that moment of fond levity, to burn it into her mind so that she might carry it for the rest of her days, unforgetting.

Alisaie soon relaxed enough to relish in the sound of the scandalized gasps that came from the pixies who still seemed to observe them from above. And she was glad to stake her claim so boldly, even at the expense of their new king's ire. 

Chapter Text

It was the third time that she slew a Lightwarden.

The third time that she absorbed the light and the third time that she managed to pull back a blinding veil to reveal the stars. Yet despite her third victory and another assurance that she might actually save Norvrandt, it was the first time that doubt found her, creeping its way around her heart like a light-starved vine. Though the sunless sea—as the Night's Blessed called it—stretched high above the Warrior, twinkling in all its triumph, the sight brought her no peace.

A whirlwind of thoughts fell back on themselves: the small moments of clarity, the terrifying revelations, everything that'd culminated into that moment of unease. She couldn't quite name the feeling, just knew that she found herself caught in it, caught in a web of her own making. 

Something was very wrong.

Poppy paced the short stretch of path just outside of Slitherbough. Up and down, back and forth—she did it enough times to feel that she might carve a hole right into the ground with her own steps. The repetitive motion did little to soothe her, however. The Warrior crossed her arms and raised a hand to her chin, which prompted her to mindlessly chew on the tip of a sharpened nail.

"That's a nasty habit. You should know better."

Y'shtola had grown ever adept at slinking around in silence. Perhaps her dabbling in black arts had played a role in that, but Poppy had little time to ponder over such curiosities. Her free hand instinctively flew to the hilt of her dagger at the sudden intrusion, but the sight of pale hair and dark robes made her go still. 

The other Miqo'te tilted her head as she approached, perhaps amused by Poppy's reaction. The Warrior wasn't one to startle so easily, but Y'shtola decided not to comment. Instead, she reached out and gave her hand a gentle slap to urge the nail she chewed out of her mouth. 

"Thank you, mother," Poppy said with a roll of her eyes. She knew Y'shtola couldn't see her do it, but hoped she could at least sense annoyance shift in her aether. Perhaps she did, judging by how she chuckled.

"The first night in an age is upon us thanks to you and yet here you are, prowling in the dark rather than basking in the glow of your admirers' reverence," she said. "Something must be troubling you."

Despite the veil of droll humor that shrouded them, Y'shtola's words cut to the heart of the matter. Her sightless gaze swept over the Warrior's face as if to search for the answer.

"Was never one for reverence. Makes me uncomfortable," Poppy replied with a shrug. 

"Liar. Yet another horrible habit. What am I to do with you?"

Poppy let out a breath caught between a scoff and a sigh. She didn't know why she even bothered with pretense. Though her companion said nothing more and stood beside her in patient silence, the Warrior still battled with herself over how to word her worries. A long, unspoken moment stretched between the two of them, heavy with the trill of insects. 

"Shtola?"

When Poppy finally found her voice it was soft and shaky, unstable in its unsureness.  

"Yes?" 

The reply was delayed—perhaps in surprise at hearing a name that hadn't been spoken in three long years. But it was encouraging, just as soft as her own words and even a bit warm. Poppy still hesitated.

"What am I?"

There was another moment of silence, though that time it was far more tense. Poppy could practically hear Y'shtola's confusion buzz between them.

"What do you mean?" she asked, searching for a shred of clarity.

"The Ascian." Poppy paused to wet her lips. She imagined the cave with its ancient murals, the depictions of the star's origin, of her Mother's beginnings, and felt icy dread well up inside her again. "If Hydaelyn is a primal, that makes me..."

The rest got caught in her throat, tasting too bitter to speak aloud. Y'shtola shifted in place beside her and Poppy looked over to see her cross her arms. She shook her head as if to silently refute it, but her expression read as troubled.

"We have no idea whether or not what Emet-Selch spoke was the truth," she said firmly. "The revelation he so graciously shared was likely no more than an attempt to shake us. Do not give him the satisfaction of—"

"A thrall." Poppy cut her off. The word sat between them, heavy like a stone. Desperation pushed her onward in a frantic beat, "Hydaelyn's thrall. No one wanted to say it out loud, but it's true, isn't it?"

Y'shtola's frown was pulled further downward, creasing her brow. Again, she shook her head, though it was with far less conviction that time.

"Even if there is a grain of truth in it, you are far unlike any thrall we have faced thus far. You possess a free will of your own, for one."

Poppy turned away from her companion. The primals fought, the wars won, all those who she killed for the sake of the supposed greater good—it was a clear procession of death that marched through her mind. She did it all when asked, always without thought or complaint, much like the very daggers strapped to her sides. She was the Source's obedient weapon of light, just as she had become the First's blade of darkness.

"Do I, really?" she asked quietly. 

"Pardon?" was Y'shtola's reply, steeped in confusion.

It was Poppy's turn to shake her head. "Nothing," she murmured. "It doesn't matter."

She stared out at the woods and Rak'tika pressed in around her all the while, dark, yawning, like the maw of an ancient and hungry beast. Where the dark had always been a comfort, then it seemed more like a threat. She almost liked it better when it was illuminated by the endless light.

"Poppy." Her own name, so cautiously spoken, cut through her silent musing. "Is there aught else troubling you? Anything odd you've noticed as of late?" 

The way Y'shtola asked—leading and probing, as if she already knew the answer—made the Warrior tense up. The Night's Blessed's not so pleasant welcome was not so easily forgotten. Sin eater, they'd called her. Then later the Warrior caught the concern that crept through the door to Y'shtola's chambers in a whisper not meant to be heard. Her palm pressed against smooth wood. Her head bowed and ears flicked forward to catch each word exchanged with Urianger. The fear that had her frozen in place. That was the exact moment the seed of doubt was sown. 

"No," Poppy replied, and it was the first time she recalled lying to a fellow Scion. 

She looked over her shoulder and saw eyes bright as the moon gaze back at her. They soon narrowed to crescents, as if the Warrior were the sun—too bright to look at. Poppy was left unsettled.

"I shall leave you to your moment of solitude, then. Do join us when you've finished brooding," Y'shtola said, lightly droll. Humor brightened her face with a smile, though it was a cautious expression. "Do not let the Ascian's meddling trouble you overmuch. And if you begin to feel anything strange—anything at all—pray inform me at once." 

The other woman reached out to give her shoulder a gentle squeeze. Poppy smiled in return, feeling relieved for a moment before guilt and fear began to gnaw at her again. She watched Y'shtola retreat up the path until she was alone with her thoughts.

Thrall.

Sin eater.

The words hissed through her mind in a sinister whisper and their grim implications made her feel sick. Those were titles she could do without.

Poppy looked down at her hands, the hands of the obedient weapon. The Warrior then sank to her knees, trembling beneath the blanket of stars she'd unfurled across the land. What would it take, she wondered, to turn her into something so horrible.

 


 

The blaring of the alarms was so loud that she felt it vibrate in her teeth. Poppy yanked the final lever with all her strength until it shifted downward. When it clicked into place, the wretched sound was finally quelled.

The shields went up. A protective dome shimmered around the settlement for a moment before it turned transparent, reminding her of the wall raised in the Burn that was used to fend off the Empire's aerial advances. Though, instead of Garlean airships, a throng of approaching sin eaters dotted the sky. Relief tore through the Warrior as she leaned against the railing to catch her breath. She'd run across the entirety of the Crystarium to reach the switches and had made it just in time, it seemed.

Poppy pulled herself onto the railing. She crouched there, ears flat against her head and tail flicking behind her in anticipation, waiting to see what would happen. Through the slits of her mask, she watched sin eater after sin eater throw itself at the invisible wall. Like moths drawn to flame, they were pushed onward by some mindless instinct despite the futility. Their bodies crumpled and the shields held. 

I'm better than that, she caught herself think and gripped the railing beneath her with enough pressure to bruise her palms.

As she stared at the pallid beasts she felt something—an odd sensation, subtle but there. It was the same thing she felt when Runar poured the blessed water over her head and the same thing that occurred after she absorbed the previous Lightwarden's light.

A burning feeling writhed beneath her skin. Poppy scratched at her arm in an absentminded attempt to make it stop.

"There you are!"

Alisaie's voice found her ears. The Warrior's masked face tipped towards the approaching woman who stopped in her tracks when she saw the Miqo'te perched on the railing. She said nothing about the odd sight and managed to take a few more hesitant steps forward.

"The shields are holding for the time being, but we needn't tarry long. We're to head for Lakeland and intercept the oncoming eaters," Alisaie said with forced patience, but Poppy caught the restlessness that edged her tone.

"Right," the Warrior said. She slipped down onto the solid surface of the walkway and moved to brush past the other woman. "I'm ready."

Alisaie followed behind her. They only made it a few paces before she spoke again, "You've been wearing that more often."

It was a hushed observation, but one that prickled the back of Poppy's neck all the same and made the mask feel heavier. She knew how her partner loathed the thing, but it couldn't be helped.

"Keeps the light out of my eyes," she muttered in response.

Poppy didn't realize that Alisaie had stopped following until her wrist was grabbed and she was pulled to a halt. She stood for a moment, silent with surprise, but didn't turn to look back.

"It's dusk," Alisaie said. "There's no light to keep out," she added, softly grinding the words out.

Poppy looked up. Not only was it dusk, but the sky was heavy with what looked to be storm clouds, dark and churning and tinged peach with the setting sun. She opened her mouth, but it closed again as she swallowed whatever flimsy excuse that might've come to her. Alisaie let go of her wrist.

"You've been different ever since you returned from Rak'tika. Something happened while you were there," she said and stepped closer.

There was a breath of what felt like hesitation before the other woman reached out. Her hands fell on Poppy's shoulders and her forehead followed to rest against the nape of her neck. She shifted even closer, close enough that only an ilm remained between them.

"Tell me," Alisaie whispered and it sounded like a plea more than an order, brushing softly against her back.

"Nothing happened."

The response was quiet, but bounced off the inside of the mask to amplify the lie. It was the second lie she spoke to a fellow Scion, but the first ever said to Alisaie. And it was terrifying, just how easy it was to do.

"Are you lying to me?"

Alisaie's cheek was pressed against her bare shoulder then, her fingers tightening their desperate grip. Poppy went rigid against it. It was equally as terrifying to hear how easily Alisaie saw through her.

"No," she whispered, but the word was deafening in her ears.

In that moment she wanted nothing more than to throw herself at her love's feet, weep out the truth, and confide in her the fears that plagued her, but she hadn't the time nor the luxury to do so. The Warrior of Darkness was needed on the field and she had to muster what remaining scraps of strength were left within her to fight. So she pulled away from Alisaie's grasp in fear of shattering then and there, or burning up beneath her touch.

"We should go," she said.

"We should," Alisaie agreed, terse and clipped.

Though she no longer held her, Poppy felt the weight of the other woman's gaze fall on her shoulders instead. The burning returned, though that time she knew her own shame was at least in part the culprit. She reached up with a shaky hand and tugged her mask down further. If anything, she hoped it could at least shield her from prying eyes, but knew she deserved no such recourse.

She marched onward still, for what else could she do but fight?

Chapter Text

Mending bones was tricky work. They so easily slipped out of place with oftentimes sharp edges inclined to tear at the surrounding flesh, and required a delicate touch to fix. The task was far better suited for Y'shtola or Alphinaud's more experienced hands, but her medically inclined comrades were off treating the most grievously injured. With supplies thrust in her direction by a flustered chirurgeon thankful for any support he could get, Alisaie was left to tend to those not in great threat of dying.

Aether flowed through her rapier's crystal medium, which was used both to channel the spell and illuminate her work in the dim light of dawn. Her hand slid down the soldier's forearm and she focused on the bone, willing her aether to slip into the fissure. The gentle but constant pelting of icy rain on the back of her neck and the distant roars of thunder made it difficult to concentrate, but she managed. The grimoire gifted to her by her grandfather would've made it easierAlisaie thought with a bit of both guilt and irritationbut was regrettably in another world across time and space, back on the Source. She just had to make do with the more limited repertoire of healing skill afforded to her by red magic. 

It was a clean break, at least, and with a bit of encouragement the two ends of bone fused back together again enough that they would heal straight. The tension held in the young man's body went slack and he let out a breath of relief, the worst of the pain salved by the touch of Alisaie's aether. He was a quiet lad, having barely spoken a word during the treatment, but stirred when she reached within her satchel of supplies for rags and gauze to fashion a sling with.

"You don't have to trouble yourself, miss," he said softly, sounding sheepish. "I'm sure there're others worse off than me who could use a hand." He sat up straighter against the wall he leaned against as if to prove that he was fine, but Alisaie noticed how he winced.

"Nonsense. It's no trouble," she said with a dismissive wave of a hand. She disregarded the protests and began to wrap his arm in strips of gauze. "Captain Lyna is going to require all of the support she can get in the coming days. You'll need use of your arm to be helpful."

The mention of his superior made the soldier stiffen again. "R-right. Of course," he stammered out.

No more objections came. Instead he watched Alisaie work in silence, the faint glow of her crystal painting his dour expression with a pink hue that softened his already soft face further. Truthfully, he looked too doe-eyed and gentle to be a soldier.

"I saw you on the field," he said after a moment. The sudden words startled Alisaie, who hadn't expected him to say much more. When she looked up she saw how his gaze had fallen to her rapier. "You cut down all those eaters so easily with your glowing blade. You're very strong." He glanced up and must have caught the incredulous shift in Alisaie's expression because he quickly looked away again, seeming embarrassed. "All you friends of the Exarch are. Your lot's support means the world to us folks here, you know. It feels hopeless sometimes, when we've already lost so many..."

The soldier trailed off. He shook a bitperhaps from the chill of the rain, but the sadness that crept into his expression suggested otherwise. Alisaie wondered how many friends he'd lost among the casualties.

"Of course," she said as she tied another knot, taut as the rest and just as assured as her tone. "We're here to lend our aid, no matter the cost."

She flashed the young man a smile, who returned it with a shy one of his own. But his gaze was soon pulled over her shoulder and his eyes went wide when they settled on something behind her.

"Alisaie."

She knew at once who addressed her. The familiarity of the voice did little to make her own name sound so foreigna name usually shortened out of affection and not spoken as if it hurt the speaker to say aloud. Grim curiosity urged her head to turn enough to confirm that it was indeed the Warrior who stood there, an imposing shadow against the breaking dawn.

"I need to talk," she said. The mask tipped down. To look at her, perhaps, but Alisaie could never quite tell.

"Can it wait? I'm in the middle of a treatment." She sounded more impatient than intended, but her own wound of being brushed off by the other woman earlier still ached.

"It's important."

Despite her obvious insistence, the hesitation in her tone was palpable. Alisaie watched her, noticing how stiff she looked and how her hands were clenched at her sides, as if she were afraid of something. The sight had her frozen, wondering what in the world would have the Warrior so ill at ease. A silent stalemate brewed between them, interrupted only by the pattering of rain.

"You can go ahead, miss." The solider startled Alisaie yet again. The intensity of Poppy's sudden presence nearly made her forget he was there. "I'm fine now, really. I'll just rest here."

He stared at Poppy while he spoke, his expression akin to something near reverence. His gaze then flicked back to Alisaie to offer her an encouraging smile, to which she gave a nod after a moment of hesitation. Some of the tension Poppy carried fell away when Alisaie stood. She backed up a step and tilted her head, gesturing to the side before she began to walk. Alisaie followed without a word.

She was lead a down a narrow alleyway between two half-crumbled buildings and when they both stopped they were face to face, barely a fulm apart. The storm pushed a dewy fog into the meager space between them that was tinged a pale blue by the slowly rising sun. It felt like a physical barrier, a tangible thing much like the tension that'd formed. Poppy was silent for far too long, seemingly staring at her from beneath her false face. Alisaie felt unsettled.

"Well?" she asked to finally crack the lull. "What did you need to talk about?"

Poppy leaned back against the wet stones behind her. Her hands splayed out against them to keep herself steady as the mask moved upward. Those darkened, hollow eyes stared at the sky until rain dripped along their crevices in thick rivulets like tears. She was motionlessunnaturally solooking more like a statue than a person.

"Do you remember in Il Mheg when I joked about us making a pact?"

The quiet question bounced around the inside of the mask, sounding empty. Something about it wore Alisaie's already thin patience thinner.

"If you've dragged me here to make jokes, I'll have you know that serious work needs to be done," she snapped. Her weariness did little to curb her irritation. "There are those wounded who still need tending."

The mask shifted down again, its owner's ears tipping back behind it. "I'm not—" She almost sounded angry, but the ember was snuffed out as soon as it was born. "I need to ask you something."

"May I ask you something first?" Alisaie's tongue was past the point of gentleness and hedging around things that she'd pretended didn't bother her. She didn't wait for a reply before she pushed on, "What do you hope to hide from behind that cold steel?" Her hand reached out without her telling it to, quick at first and then slowing as it neared the other woman's face. Her fingertips grazed Poppy's skin, her thumb brushed along her cheek. "Why do you hide from me?"

It was impossible then to hold back her hurt. Her chest ached from it and it seeped into the words, filling up the cracks in her voice. The pad of her thumb slid along the cold, sharp edge of that horrid mask and pushed it up ever so gently, just barely lifting it an ilm before Poppy's hand flew up to stop her.

"Don't."

The word was like a knife, a harshness never before directed at her. The Warrior's nails were just as sharp when they dug into Alisaie's skin.

"I want to see your face," she insisted. It sounded more brave and than how she felt, which was a mounting apprehension that made her skin crawl. 

"Don't," Poppy said again. That time it was soft. A desperate plea, a whisper almost washed away by the rain.

She caught herself, it seemed, and her grip loosened to let go of Alisaie's wrist. The Warrior pulled back and lowered her head to escape her touch, pressing herself more firmly against the wall as if she wished she could fade into it. Alisaie's hand fell against her side and she went silent with unease. She was ashamed to realize that in that fraction of a moment when Poppy held her, she'd been afraid of her own partner.

"Alisaie," her name came again, sounding so fragile. "If I... if I ever become something else, something that's not me..." The pause was so heavy, the words so strange. "Kill me."

Alisaie went rigid. Though the rain soaked her hair and seeped through her clothing and into her boots, it couldn't compare to how icy she felt then, as if frost crept through her veins. Her mind reeled to make sense of the absurd request.

"What in the world are you talking about? Why would you"

"Please," Poppy cut in. Her head dipped further downward until the worn golden horns pointed up at the sky, doused in droplets of frigid rain that made them glimmer. "If I lose control or become a monster, kill me. I don't want to hurt anyone."

The desperation in her hushed tone made Alisaie wince. Then, suddenly, the pieces clicked into place and she understood. The creatures of pure, burning light that tore men apart with their holy handsmerciless, mindless, cruel. The way Tesleen shattered and burned up, light dripping from her hollowed eyes like hot wax

"That is not going to happen."

Alisaie was firm, both her words and a shake of her head willing the thoughts away as far as she could push them. It wasn't enough for Poppy.

"Promise me. Promise me you'll do it."

"Poppy, I won't"

She tried to argue the possibility away, as if she could snuff the very idea out of existence. The Warrior chose then to step forward. 

"If I have to die, I want it to be by your hand." The mask was a mere ilm from her face. Though it couldn't possibly form an expression, the desperation that rolled off its wearer in waves ripped the menacing veneer away and made it look like a picture of pure terror. "Please," she murmured, and it was the closest Alisaie had ever come to hearing her beg.

Poppy's face fell against her shoulder. The mask's sharp angles dug through even the thick layers of her jacket, as did the nails that slipped up her sides. She knew very well that the Warrior was a woman made of sharpness, both in a spoken and physical sense. But never had it been turned on Alisaie before, not in such an unexpected way that had her pinned in place against the wall, like the other woman were made of brambles and thorns.

"I..." she stumbled over her own tongue, unable to find the words she wanted. "I promise."

Poppy trembled against her, so fragile and small and so clearly afraid. Alisaie's hand slid up her back, grabbing a fistful of her cloak, and her head bowed forward to press a cheek against the side of her neck. They huddled there together for a long moment, but the chill bleakness of the morning managed to crawl between them even then to chase the meager warmth away.

It was a lie she spoke, perhaps. She wasn't sure she would ever have the strength to cut down her love, her very heart, even should she turn into a monster so great that she could swallow the world whole. Alisaie didn't know what was crueler: offering a false comfort, or denying her outright.

"Thank you." Perhaps an onze of tension left Poppy's body. Her grip loosened and her head lifted again, pulling back in a jerky wayas if burned or embarrassed. "I've taken up enough of your time. Go help them," she said, and Alisaie couldn't read the meaning of her ragged, hushed tone. Then she stepped to the side and made a hasty retreat from their hiding place.

"Poppy, wait"

Alisaie reached out but the Warrior slipped through her fingers, intangible as a shadow. She was left alone with a cacophony that brewed in her mind with the same intensity as the storm above. It was with sickening clarity that she realized Poppy was preparing for the end. Why the Warrior did so, she couldn't fathom. But there was no one there to comfort her away from the very real horrors that plagued her memories. 

So she followed Poppy's footsteps and made her way back into the thick of the frantic action that permeated the fort as day broke overhead. There was little else she could do aside from mend the wounded and not dwell on the possibility of having to kill someone she so dearly loved.

Chapter Text

Another cough tore through her body. She choked on it, gagging on the light that singed the walls of her throat and left it too raw to cry out in pain. A wave of burning agony followed. Poppy stumbled forward, nearly blinded by the white haze that pulsed across her vision. The floor tangled beneath her feet and she was falling. Or at least she thought so until the edge of the vanity caught her, burying itself into her gut to make her gag again.

It was the end. Surely it was, it had to be. It was too much, too bloody much, she couldn't take it any more. The fissures grew deeper, shattering, snapping like bones and glass deep within her very being and she could feel herself splitting apart, fraying like a raw edge of fabric pulled too taut. But then she remembered where she was, what was at stake. And that was enough. Just enough to cling to.

She couldn't turn in the middle of the godsdamned Crystarium. She wouldn't.

Poppy's fist slammed onto the surface of the vanity. The reverberation of wood against bone jolted through her body in a minute flicker of paina pain outside the indescribable feeling of her soul tearing itself apartthat grounded her and made the haze clear just a bit. She did it again and again, even when her fist became raw and bruised and bloody beneath the thin metal that shielded her knuckles. Through gritted teeth and sheer stubbornness alone, the Warrior shoved the fragments of herself back together again.

Just like a flash of lighting that'd done its damage and retreated back to the heavens, it stopped. Poppy was left trembling, doubled over the vanity and afraid to move. But the inevitable was delayed. If only for the time being, if only for long enough that she could run and run far. She hopednay, prayedshe could at least find the strength to do that much.

Some small part of her wished that Ardbert had stayed for just a little longer, that he hadn't faded away so soon. Perhaps he could have helped her through it all, if only to offer a shred of comfort.

No, Poppy thought, I have to face this alone.

She deserved no comfort and no one needed to see her like this. Not even her former enemy's ghostespecially him. He'd seen enough horrors in a hundred long years and there was nothing he could've done regardless.

She was dying, and you can't cheat death. She had enough sense left to know that much.

Through the dark figments of her lashes, Poppy saw the mess of light spattered between her arms. The thick liquid dripped down her chin in stinging rivulets that fell onto the vanity as pure white drops that shimmered atop dark grains of wood, leaving the taste of blood and acid in her mouth. She kept her head bowed over it for a long while, her mind burned clean much like her insides, though wrought with a thick and palpable sort of shame.

Eventually, Poppy raised her head. She was met with a face she didn't recognize. 

Pale eyes stared back at her from behind the glass of the mirror, tinged an eerie golden hue to match the veil that stretched across the sky yet again. They shone from beneath the disheveled strands of her fringe, casting a sickly glow against the already unnatural pallid tone of her usually olive skin, save for the purplish bruises beneath her eyes. The shadows painted there by exhaustion were likely the only scraps of darkness left within her. The thought made a bitter chuckle curl her lips into more of a snarl than a smile.

She stared at that strange personno, not a person anymore. Lightwarden, as the Ascian had said. A horrible, light-drunk monster that would tear the world apart as soon as she shed her skin. Poppy really did grin that time and tilted her head, watching the strange reflection mimic her, seeing the wild mane of copper shift around her face and the light caked onto her skin crack like stone.

Oh, what a delicious and poetic irony it was to turn into the very thing she hated, hunted, feared. 

Her own eyes burned into her in the paltry shade of the room. Not even the drawn curtains could keep it out, it seemed. But how could they, when it burned within her like a pyre? After how long she'd bathed in that damnable light? It was achingly bright, bleaching her bones, leaving her blind, biting and biting until she was naught but dust. Gods, it hurt to look at. It hurt to see. Poppy closed her eyes, though not even that brought any relief. Her own mind screamed at her through the haze.

Forgive, forgive, forgiven. You will be forgiven, sinner. By your own light you will be cleansed.

It was a thin hiss in her thoughts. Poppy clenched her teeth and dug her nails into the wood, but she still felt it. It simmered beneath her skinanother boiling wave coming to crash down on her. She wasn't sure if she had the strength to fight it back that time. Her eyes flicked open again and the light spoke, mocking.

You never had the strength to fight this, her reflection whispered, giddy and mad. Give in and burn this wicked world to ash!

In a flash of near-feral terror, Poppy's hand drew back and she screamed. The mirror shattered easily beneath her fist. A cascade of crystalline fragments fell onto the vanity and pooled at her feet, sounding like little chimes before all went silent again. She took a shaky step back, then another. Her extended hand trembled and her fingertips bleed and her breaths came in shallow pants. 

"I have to go," she said out loud. Even her own voice sounded foreign to her ears. "I have to go," she repeated to herself, and it was enough affirmation to act on.

Poppy stumbled back towards the bed and frantic hands tore at the covers until they found the mask. She slipped it on, but it brought no relief. It couldn't shield her from the light within, though there was a grain of comfort it hiding behind it and in knowing no one could see the damning truth. Her fingers then ran through the unruly waves of her hair out of habit and fluttered over the empty space on the bedside table before she remembered. 

"A token of your failure," Emet-Selch had said as he leaned over and plucked the red ribbon from her braid. The toll taken by Innocence's light left her immobile, unable to fight back. He pocketed the precious gift and stood. "And incentive to come visit me, perhaps." The smug look and airy way he said ithe knew just what he was doing and exactly how to get under her skin.

Anger flickered beneath the agony. She would visit, she decided. 

Everything passed in a blur. She didn't remember the walk through the Crystarium. All she could sense was the light that burned pinpricks into the back of her neck, but ignored the urge to look up at the sky. She kept her head bowed low and slunk through the settlement like a thin and mangled shadow until her legs took her to the amaro launch. The bewildered Zun amarokeep who manned the area stared at her as she leaned over the counter. She wondered if he could see it, glowing within her like a hot coal.

"I need a bird," Poppy said. Her voice wavered despite the forced attempt to sound like some semblance of normal. "One that can dive. Deep."

The Zun looked at her as if she'd just sprouted a second head. At that point, she wouldn't have been surprised if she had. "Amaro do not do well in water," he said slowly, as if speaking to a foolish child. "We have a few that can swim well enough, but they cannot dive very far. Where are you going that requires such descent?"

Poppy bit her tongue to hold in the urge to lash out, but panic bloomed. "Please. There's no time," she begged. "I need"

The light pressed against her from inside with incessant pressure, like a creature that fought to escape a cage. Poppy pushed it back down and nearly collapsed from the crackling pain that followed. She caught the edge of the counter and managed to hold herself up. The amarokeep took a panicked step forward, but an interruption came before he could ask any questions.

"Ah, we have found thee."

Poppy's blood went cold. She stilled, hoping somehow that if she didn't move, they wouldn't see her. But her masked face tipped to the side to betray her, just enough to acknowledge the very people who she wanted to see the least: Urianger, who'd spoken, Thancred and Ryne beside him, as well as Y'shtola, Alphinaud, and

Poppy looked away. She couldn't bear to see her now.

"Word reached us of thy recovery, and thus did we gather with all haste," Urianger said, quiet and almost cautious.

"Recovery? Ha," Poppy breathed out a strained laugh, feeling that the irony of what Urianger spoke was lost on him. She pushed herself upright on the counter, but kept her gaze focused on it and refused to look at any of them again. "You shouldn't have," she added. There was no jest hidden behind the words. Urianger seemed to sense her tension.

"By the air about thee, I gather thou hast gleaned that which I came to speak of."

Poppy heard soft footfalls approach and flinched when she felt a presence press far too close for comfort. She had no choice but to look at him then and was surprised to see the tall Elezen drop to a knee before her and bow his head, much like an apologetic knight.

"Urianger has shared everything with usthe Exarch's true identity and purpose," Alphinaud spoke up from a few fulms behind him.

Urianger lifted his head to look up at her and his gaze lingered during the pause, urging the Warrior's hand to touch her face. She was glad to find the mask still there, but wondered if he too could see it somehow.

"I offer no excuses," he said with a nod. "When I agreed to aid the Exarch with his plans, 'twas in full acceptance of the condemnation I would face when my"

"Stop."

Though it was muffled by metal, the single word put a halt to the man's explanation. "I want you to leave." Her head shifted towards the others, her voice cold. "All of you. Now."

The weight of their collective stares was doubled by the surprise that edged their gazes. Poppy felt her shoulders sag under it, but released her grip on the counter, from behind which the amarokeep had the good sense to relieve himself of his post. Poppy took an unsteady but stubborn step back.

They all began to speak thento air their protests and offer up their plans and whatever other nonsense it was that blurred together into a cacophany. She couldn't make sense of the words, couldn't filter any of it through the light that pulsed against the inside of her skull in a blaring rhythm. Poppy grabbed the sides of her head and groaned. 

"Stop. Gods, stop it!" The plea came out louder than intended, more of a scream than anything else. Poppy took a shaky breath of relief in the blessed silence that followed. "I've listened to every word all of you have ever said, taken your orders and always followed your plans without question," she added, her voice straining on each syllable and growing more emphatic with each word. "Could someone, for just once in my bloody life, listen to what I have to say?" 

No one said a thing for several of her ragged breaths. Only Urianger moved to stand and back away, as if giving space to an aggravated animal. But Y'shtola wasn't fazed. The other Miqo'te crossed her arms and stepped forward from behind him. She stared at Poppy with those all-seeing eyes of hers, pale brows drawn together in either anger or fear.

"Go on, then. Speak your mind."

The softness of her tone suggested concern, and Poppy felt sharp guilt brush against her upon hearing it. But her fingers still twitched at her sides before they clenched into fists that trembled under the strain of her affirmed decision.

"I'm going to the Tempest by myself," she announced. "I don't want your apologies or your help or your company. I do this alone."

More silence, more seconds of burning. Panic pulsed again, glittering behind her eyelids like the embers of light that fell from the sky and singed her skin. Time was running out. Poppy took several more steps backward, barely curbing the urge to bolt. She was surprised to hear Ryne speak up next.

"I'm sorry but... I don't think this is a good idea. Leaving the Crystarium, I meanwith or without all of us." Her hands fluttered over her chest in obvious nervousness, but she continued with a strained request, "Please, you must stay here, at least for a little while longer! We will find a way to cure this, I promise you!"

The way she looked at herso saddened and full of grief and pitymade a knife twist in the Warrior's gut. Her earnestness burned much like the light. Poppy could offer no rebuttal in return, because it was then that Alisaie chose to make herself known, snapping beside Ryne like a twig that was impossible to ignore.

"How can you make promises?! We don't even know where to start."

The exclamation tore the air around them. Alisaie's foot slammed down in an attempt to diffuse the anger that rolled off her in waves. Though she stared at the ground while she spoke, the force of the shouted words directed at Ryne made the girl flinch. 

"Alisaie, please. You know Ryne was only trying to help." Alphinaud stepped forward with his soft words, ever the diplomat. But Alisaie couldn't be reigned in.

"Of course I know! I know only too well! But making promises you have no way of keeping is not a kindnessit's a lie, plain and simple!"

Alisaie finally lifted her head. The look she wore was chillinga muddle of emotion edged in sharpness that only amplified the anger that sat heavy on her brow. But more than anything, she looked utterly broken. When she took a step forward into the precious space that Poppy had carved out between her and the Scions, the Warrior flinched just as Ryne had. 

"Kill me, then! Just like you promised!" 

The others fell silent and almost seemed to shrink back, perhaps sensing the storm that brewed. Even Poppy knew that this was between the two of them now. Alisaie's eyes narrowed.

"No," was her firm reply. "I won't do it."

"Liar," Poppy hissed and bared her fangs. "Coward!" Her voice cracked from pain when she saw the hurt that flickered across Alisaie's face. Gods, it was all too much. She was truly a monster, through and through. "Fine. Doesn't matter. That's exactly why I'm going to the Tempestto ask the Ascian to do it. He'll have the strength to cut me down."

She took another few frantic steps back, but Alisaie gave her no quarter. She shook her head in disbelief and took a stubborn step to follow. 

"Do you really think he would agree, when you turning is exactly what he wants? You would willingly play into his hands like that? For what?"

More steps, more ground lost. The argument mounted with seething tension.

"Then at least he'll be the first to die when I turn!" Poppy shot back. She thought of all the suffering and death and destruction that followed in Emet-Selch's wake. If her turning could snuff out his existence, then it would be worth itworth the pain she herself would inevitably cause. "And you'll all at least have a chance to run. To find a way to escape this cursed world somehow." The scream faltered to a whisper as desperation curled around her heart like a vine. 

Alisaie softened for a moment, but drew nearer still. Poppy's pulse quickened and she felt like the caged animal then, tail lashing and ears pinned back as she jerked further away, sensing she was running out of space to retreat to. 

"Is that what this is about? Some sort of misguided attempt to protect us? Don't be"

She was too close. The dagger was a flash of silver that filled the last two or so fulms between them.

"Stay back! I'm a danger to everyone around me. You know that." The blade trembled in her hand but Poppy held fast, even when the other woman came closer.

"I don't care!" Alisaie yelled in return, anger thick and flashing red like the ribbon on the braid that fluttered in the breeze behind her head. "You're still you!"

The sharp tip was pointed right at her throat, but Alisaie reached up to shove her hand aside. Poppy dropped the dagger. It fell to clatter against the ground.

"Don't care? Still me?"

She laughed, loud and shrill and sounding mad. Her hand flew to her face and though every instinct screamed at her to stop, she ripped the mask off and threw it to the ground with such force that Alisaie and the others flinched at the loud scream of steel on stone. The thing sat between them, horns chipped and sides cracked from the impact. Poppy's bright eyes flashed and winced from the light they matched as her gaze swept over the group. They all looked at her in various shades of surprise that made shame boil beneath her skin.

"That's right, take a good long look!" she spat. "I'm a monster! The very thing that we've been fighting this whole time. The same thing that killed so many people, that turned Tesleen." The look of sheer anguish Alisaie had fixed on her was too much. Poppy crossed her arms in an attempt to hold herself together and doubled over to give in to the crushing weight. "One life isn't worth saving at the price of a whole world. Look at the sky! Look at what I've done! All that we toiled for is gone, because I'm alive. Kill me before I ruin it beyond saving!"

Her strength waned with the desperate plea. She shook her head again and again, silently begging.

"I'm not me. I don't even know who that is anymore." 

A sob crawled beneath the words, but Poppy shoved it down with such intensity that her throat seized up and she heaved from the pain. When the white of Alisaie's boots slid beneath her vision, Poppy flinched backwards again. But it was too late to escape. 

A hand grabbed a fistful of Poppy's cowl and yanked upward with such strength that she nearly choked. The Warrior was then forced back with a rough shove until she felt the painful jolt of hard wood press into her from behind. Pinned in place against the beam, Poppy went limp with shock. There was no place to hide from Alisaie's ire. 

Vaguely, somewhere far beyond the two of them, Poppy sensed the others move. Alphinaud lurched forward first but was pulled back by Thancred, who shook his head and held an arm up to keep them all back. They all froze like statues cloaked in silence, waiting to see what Alisaie would do.

Poppy's eyes slid back to the other woman who stared her down with such intensity that her knees went weak. Alisaie stood there, tense and bristling, anger flickering off of her like a torch in the wind. But, with every eon-long second that crept past beneath that gaze, the rage seemed to eat away at her until there was nothing left but a profound sadnessthe very same look Poppy remembered receiving when the two of them were reunited in Amh Araeng. When Alisaie finally spoke, it was with hushed desperation. 

"You don't know? You truly don't know who you are? Allow me to remind you, then," she whispered fervently with a tightened grip. Poppy flinched, expecting the worst.

"You put too much honey in your tea. You hate reading and swimming. You're terrified of the dark. You're selfless and kind and so stupidly strong and you never turn down a plea for help, no matter who beseeches you for aid. That's who you are. That's the woman I fell in love with and the same stubborn, infuriating fool who stands before me now." The single breath she spoke in fizzled out and she paused, her eyes flitting over the Warrior's face as she gave her cloak one last squeeze. "The very same fool who I will not abandon." 

Alisaie's voice trembled, but she sounded so assured and Poppy felt every word wash over her, each stinging with raw emotion and pain. When Alisaie let her go, she slumped forward. The other woman stepped back as if remembering herself suddenlyremembering how she always wanted to be seen as strongbut her eyes were red-rimmed and already wet. Tears slid down her cheeks and fell onto the mask and dagger that sat at her feet.

"Why?" Poppy asked, her voice a brittle thread. She reeled, trying desperately to made sense of it all.

Alisaie shook her head. Though she was the one who answered, Poppy felt the others' silent agreement behind it:

"Because you're worth saving."

Something snapped within Poppy thensomething that wasn't the light. She inhaled a breath and exhaled a sob that hurt more than the pain of her soul tearing itself apart. She stumbled forward, but Alisaie caught her and they both crumpled to the ground, unraveling at every seam. 

Alisaie held her so tightly. Her fingers tangled into her hair, her arm wound around her waist, her cheek pressed to the side of her head. Poppy felt limp and boneless but the other woman pulled her onto her lap and held her up, strong and stubborn and ever resolute.

It wasn't long before the others settled in around them.

Alphinaud pressed his face against the other side of her neck, his steady hands on her arm as if he meant to hold the fragments of her together. Ryne clung to her other arm and pressed a wet cheek into her cloak, the softness of her presence soothing, and Poppy swore she felt Minfilia somewhere beneath it. Y'shtola was behind her with her forehead bowed against her back and a soft purr of reassurance rumbling deep in her chest. Thancred sat beside her and slid a large calloused palm along her shoulders with surprising tenderness. Urianger was across from him and patted her leg, his touch soft and cautious and full of small bursts of aether that salved her aches.

They all huddled togethera motley family which clung to the tiniest scrap of comfort they could hold onto, heads bowed in both mourning and uncertain hope. And their Warrior wept at the center of it all, overwhelmed by their gentle and honest love. 

Eventually, the tears stopped and Poppy lifted her head from its place pressed against Alisaie's shoulder. A squeeze on her arm drew her gaze to Alphinaud.

"We will go with you," he whispered. "There is naught to be gained by standing still."

From behind, Y'shtola hummed in agreement. "Lead and we shall follow. If there is any hope to be found, then we will surely find it at your side."

The hand on her leg patted her yet again. "What strength and wisdom I possess are thine to command," Urianger added.

There was a brief pause, during which Thancred shifted in place. "We are all in agreement, then," he said and looked to Ryne, who nodded and offered the Warrior a cautious smile.

Poppy looked around at the precious friends she felt she didn't deserve. Shame licked at her again like a tiny but insistent flame and her face fell when she remembered the mask was gone and the truth was laid bare, but Alisaie caught it in her hands. Palms pressed against her cheeks and urged her head back up until the other woman's lips found her forehead, pressing a kiss to her brow.

"Do not hide from us," she murmured. It was soft, not a scolding but a reminder. "We go together, or not at all."

Poppy felt her eyes well up again. She said nothing, but nodded and moved to stand, trembling and unsteady like a newborn foal. The Scions held her up and held her together. Everything hurt, though the light was blessedly quieter then.

"All right," Poppy said, voice cracked and tense, yet somehow stronger than before. "Together, then."