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You should be exploring.

Joining the others in their quest to fix things. To fix you. The light inside won’t wait for much longer, and taking this little detour was never going to change that. You can feel it pulsing, throbbing, banging against the inside of your skull and through the marrow of each and every bone, fighting to steal away the last stubbornly lingering traces of your control.

But, you think, this is important. You’ll make it wait for this. For now at least, the others can search for paths that lead to their vaguely defined ideas of success all on their own.

And when you’re done, you’ll help. You will.

It’s why you’re here. Though, you had planned to come alone. Just like you didn’t plan to look for an answer.

Just like you didn’t plan for every last one of your friends to follow you into some city-sized pocket of air at the bottom of the ocean. Because when have they ever followed you this far? Easier to go on with their lives and leave the monster; primal; god; ascian slaying to you. Just like always.

Truthfully, you didn’t plan for them to know at all.

Just like always.

But that plan fell apart as soon as they found you trying to leave. As soon as you saw Alisaie fighting back tears and fighting to keep her distance as nearly half of the Crystarium praised you as the Warriors of Darkness. So you let them come. You let them help.

And that plan fell apart — for you, at least; you and Alisaie both — shortly after you arrived. After everyone went their separate ways and after you moved without thinking to stop her. Only her. To grab her gently by the wrist. Nothing more than a simple brush of fingers against her pulse point so subtle that none of the others so much as batted an eye.

Which left the plan with nothing to do but continue falling until it shattered into a million tiny pieces as you pulled her behind the first vaguely pillar-like structure in sight. Some enormous spiraling stalactite or stalagmite or something else entirely grown to impossible heights in the dark of this place, now left with no role but to catch light from the glowing coral, and anemones, and plant life you aren’t sure you could name if you tried. To catch streams of water trickling down from the cliff overhead and guide them safely back down to the dark and the cold of the sea floor.

You swear you can almost hear the pieces of your plan scattering helplessly onto the bedrock in rhythm with that slow, steady drip.

You don’t bother to pick them back up. Because your lips are already on hers. Your hands are lost somewhere in the transition from nape to snow white hair. The tips of your fingers brush occasionally up against that needlessly complicatedly engraved metal hair clip that she’s worn every last day that you’ve known her, and it gets you smiling. Too much, too wide, seeing flickers of days long gone in the back of your mind. You hold her like that in some halfhearted attempt to hide it, not quite cupping her face and not quite keeping her close as she arches her back into you, her hands already snaking under the loose fabric and leather and furs of your armor, nails digging so wonderfully into each newly exposed patch of skin.

She’s nothing but willing, enthusiastic tongue and teeth and heavy, heavy, heavy breaths, just like she has been every day since you found each other again.

Clumsy and happy and following after your every move like she wants to show you she can hold her own as long as you’re the one with your hands on the reins. As long as you’re the one she’s following. Like everything is fine. Like everything is okay.

For a moment; for the shortest of moments, one of your hands drifts lower. Lower and lower over the bows on her sleeve — still a new enough change to throw you off guard and get you smiling all over again — and her waist and her hips and the sheath of her sword until the pads of your fingers are dancing between the soft skin of her thighs and the hem of her skirt. You only realize what’s happening when one of those thighs slides slowly into action. When her leg folds itself entirely around yours, trapping you in place with slender muscle and soft, soft skin as if to say, no, don’t go. As if to say, no, come back here and show me just how alive you are.

And, well, you don’t know much about much, because no matter what anyone says, you’re still nothing more than an axe and some muscle and an unquenchable thirst for adventure. But you do know this. You know this dance like the back of your hand, and before very long you’ve got the faint, tattered moan slipping from her mouth to yours to prove it.

It tastes like goodbye.

Like a lot of things, really.

And it runs through every vein in your body like the snows and the ice and the raging waters of Ishgard.

So you pull away.

Partly in an effort to sort out exactly which of those feelings matter most, and partly because Alisaie is already fighting to peel back more of your clothing; fighting to move lower and lower and to nip and suck and mouth at your skin. At your jaw, and your throat, and even the faint hint of shadow just barely peeking out from beneath your collarbones and the line of your tunic. Fighting for more and more contact until you both — maybe, hopefully — forget why you’re here at all. Until it, maybe, for just one short moment, feels like you’re back on the Source and back in the closest thing you have to a home. Back in two bodies, instead of one fighting a losing a battle against the light and another that isn’t a body at all; another that may as well be a ghost.

And you understand that sentiment.

More than anything, you understand.

But you still pull away, and you still say the words you know you should have said before moving things this far, this fast. The words that will never be strong enough to apologize for pulling Alisaie away from her overwhelming need to see you saved — especially not for something like this — but that you hope might be anyway. Because that open, needy look on her face reminds you of nothing but the way she said, “Making promises you have no way of keeping is not a kindness — it is a lie, plain and simple,” like she was almost more furious with her own inability to help; with her own uselessness, than she was at you for setting foot back into her life after almost a year and disappearing again after barely one more.

You pull away, thumbs stroking back and forth over her cheeks. “If this doesn’t work —”

Don’t,” she says, and her voice wavers with nerves as she looks down and away. “Don’t you dare.”

You reel back in your shock. Silent as she pulls you down into another fierce kiss. You let her feel everything she needs to feel, pliant and soft and responsive as her hands glide everywhere and touch everything in reach. You don’t fight.

You aren’t sure your body holds enough fight to matter anymore, anyway.

And, this time, when every last atom of air between you has vanished, Alisaie is the one to pull away.

The only thing she says to you as she shudders her breath back to something steady, is, “Do not ever try to claim that you promised me a lie.”

You want to say something.

“There have been far too many of those, lately,” she trails off.

You want to speak your mind.

Instead, you feel hurt. Because all you meant to say was goodbye before the chance is completely out of your reach. All you want is to be given the chance to stop pretending with the one person in this or any world who might understand why you would want to. To stop acting like you think you’ll make it through this entirely by virtue of being you, when being you is why you’re stuck here in the first place. It’s why, after all of your hard work, that unending sickly light is back in the sky. It’s why the Exarch is gone and it’s why G’raha — dear, sweet, G’raha — felt compelled to kill himself slowly by traveling through the strings of reality to become the Exarch. To bring you all here, one after the other after the other after the other until a force strong enough to prevent a calamity was in place.

It’s why, now, all of that effort means nothing.

You’re turning into a monster — nearly all the way there by now — coughing up light and day like boiling hot blood to sear away the shadows from the inside out. Bringing you closer to the brink with every involuntary spasm of muscle when no one is looking. And, more often with the passing seconds and minutes and hours of the day, when they are.

All you want is a second; a moment; an instant, to acknowledge that this is all happening and that you might not live to see tomorrow.

That, truthfully, you were planning to take Emet-Selch up on his offer. To be allowed somewhere to die with dignity. To maybe, if you were lucky enough to have the time, ask about the other you — the real you, presumably; the you that remembers; the you that he remembers — in your final moments of consciousness and sanity.

“Let me keep it,” Alisaie says, and it shocks you back into the moment. Her eyes are lined with tears, and her voice is shaking nearly as much as her hands. “Until every last possibility has been exhausted.” She kisses you again, so faintly you almost miss it. “Even if it is a lie, let me believe that you’ll be okay.” Another kiss, and this time a quiet sob wracks her body.

You card your fingers through her hair and allow her the opportunity to hide. To bury her face in your neck.

“Promise me. Once more,” she whispers as you rest your cheek gently against the top of her head.

You say nothing. At first.

You say nothing at first because you never say anything at first. Because stoic silence serves you too, too well in every other aspect of your life, and the act feels like as much of a shield as the axe at your back and the armor on your chest. Nodding, and smiling, and the occasional fist-in-palm gesture of I’ve got this have been more than enough to help you get by. To help you through the maze of interaction with so many new people in so many new places.

But.

Saying nothing never seems to serve you quite as well with Alisaie. With her, you stay silent because you don’t know what else to do. You stay silent because you’re speechless. You nod because you’re breathless. You smile because you’ve lost all control of the muscles in your face and you know you must look like a dope every single time, but seeing how far she’s come since those sunless days and nights spent descending further and further into the depths of Bahamut’s grave — back when the worst of your problems was something as tame, as quaint as a giant dragon and a pair of Elezen brats who didn’t see you as anything more than a tool to keep them safe — is almost too much at times, and you just can’t be expected to help it anymore. You can’t.

Not when her response is always, always, always to smile like she thinks you’re not looking and to file the details of the moment away for later. To bring them back up when you least expect it and start the cycle all over again. You used to think it was genuine, that stuck up act of hers, pretending like you didn’t and don’t and won’t ever matter as anything more than the hero.

And maybe it was.

Once.

These days it feels more like just that: an act. One she puts on for your sake. These days it feels like her way of saying that she might not ever know exactly why you’re smiling for her, but she’s prepared to do anything to see you smile again. To see that look again. To see it come back and to see it stay. That she’ll do anything to see you happy and healthy and here.

And you’re none of those things right now.

You’re none of those things, and Alisaie knows. Because of course she knows. Because nothing in this world feels like a solution, and that fact has worn every last one of you down into dust, knowing or not. Alisaie knows because even if she still struggles to accept the reasons behind your smiles, she has always been able to see through your mask. She has always, always been able to see straight through the titles people throw at you like stray pieces of Allagan bronze; Warrior Of Light, Warrior Of Darkness — whatever the newest fairy tale might be — and all the way down to the real you.

Always.

Even before she threw away every last shred of her pride and demanded that you stay safe and stay by her side, she worried that you might go. That you might leave her alone, adrift in the face of a new calamity and completely without her closest friend and guiding light. While everyone else around you worried for their hero; their savior; their scion, or icon, or something else twice as ridiculous that you hadn’t yet heard, Alisaie worried for you. The simple adventurer of no import. The one that, as she put it so recently you can still taste the words on the tip of your tongue, smiles and laughs and listens to what anyone, everyone, absolutely everyone has to say about their problems because helping others is just one more adventurer to be had.

Even before she demanded, “Don’t you dare leave me alone,” because you both stood surrounded by war; by raining metal and fire and the suffocating ozone of too much spent magic. Too many noises to count, or name, or comprehend. Because all of your friends had already dropped dead — close enough that you believed, anyway; close enough that none of the healers you asked could reassure you one way or the other — and because you were the only two left.

Because if she didn’t, you might have never known. And that would have been a hurt worse than losing you first: losing you without ever being brave enough to let you know. Without ever giving you a chance and a second to hear, or feel, or think on her feelings for you.

Even before that.

You know as much now because you’ve had the time to learn. You’ve shared enough inn rooms and hot springs, heard enough sleep-talking stifled into the crook of your arm on nights spent resting beneath the stars to know the truth. To her, you have only ever been you.

You know as much now, because the instant you were pulled through time and space to this fractured mirror of your world, you demanded before you had time to think and before you had time to realize your heart was beating itself into your throat, that the Exarch tell you if Alisaie was safe.

Alisaie has been here for almost a year,” he had said, and all you heard was “She is here. She is here, and she is alive.

And you were happy for the first time in too long to remember. Happy, and anxious, and suddenly ready for another adventure.

Because you knew. Like the pieces of a puzzle depicting the last two years of your life finally, finally, finally sliding into place, you knew.

But you’re none of those things right now, and Alisaie is crying, fighting against every muscle in her body to keep herself level and steady and falling no further than crying. So you take a deep breath of the stale, tangy underwater air, and your make your promise again.

Your eyes slide closed, you press a kiss to the top of her head, and you say, “I won’t leave you alone.”

The last bits of Alisaie’s resistance seem to disappear with the words.

She falls to sobs before you finish the sentence. And the last; the very, very final piece of that puzzle clicks into place. When the woman who you have only ever known to be strong, strong, and stronger finally loses the fight and cracks and crumbles into nothing in your arms. The completed image reaches out and reminds you of that day in Amh Araeng. The joy you felt, and the sights you saw, and the fact that at the end of it all, when she brought you to her favorite place at the top of Mord Souq, her eyes were looking everywhere but at you.

At your hands, yes.

Your hands, and your fingers, and the nectarine balanced precariously in your palm.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d abandoned you on the battlefield,” she said, smiling something small and wry and too far away to see as she kept right on avoiding your gaze. “So I swore that I’d make up for my absence there by making a difference here.” And, finally. Finally, finally, finally she looked at you. She met your eyes and hers were full of so much pain and regret and indescribable burden wrapped up inside of something that might very well have been another attempt at masking that hurt. Before, you doubt she would have worn that look so naturally. After a year in this dying world, she wore it like nothing was easier. You wished more than anything to make that fact untrue. “And that’s what keeps me moving forward… Even when things seem hopeless.

Back in the now, her words echo through what few scraps of your mind remain yours, and you hold her closer. Tighter. Harder. You wrap your presence around as much of her as you possibly can. And you whisper, “You don’t have to keep fighting. I’m here.”

When she buries her face impossibly deeper against the dip of your throat, staining your skin with tears and digging her nails into your back, you tell her again. And again and again and again.

You’re here.

You’re still here.

You’re right here.

And when she returns to herself; when her breath is slowed and her tears have stopped, you both steel yourselves and return to the search. You take matching steps apart and you gather up the million tiny pieces of the plan scattered around at your feet. You put on your masks of bravery and resolve and pretend like everything is fine; like you’re not two hypocrites lying to everyone and yourselves.

Because who knows, maybe you will come out okay.

If not, you’ll deal with it.

A cough rattles through your lungs almost the very second that Alisaie slips out of earshot.

You always deal with it.