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The Flame

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So much power. Endless, undying streams of it. But it terminated. It ended. What was the use of that? What was the point of seeing and knowing if the paths were still defined? She should not be bound by constants. Constants should be bound by her.

"Effect still follows cause."

"Reaction still follows action."

"Lives, lived, will live..."

"...must live, has to live, has to have lived."

"There are rules, so it seems."

"Bothersome things, but even we must follow them."

"And if we must, so, then, must you."

She could break the rules, destroy them, if only she knew them. She spent the first few minutes, which spanned eternities, trying, searching. But she couldn't get at them. She clawed at the edges of her awareness and wondered why her awareness should even have edges. She could see everything!

...but how could she see everything if everything didn't already exist?

"Regrettably, we have not achieved the desired result."

"The wheel still turns, and it should not."

"That it does suggests..."

"...a divergence."

"A tangent, if you will."

"It would appear that the fulcrum is not the fulcrum."

"But as our point sheds realities..."

"...so can they be swept."

They were far more limited than she, she knew. She was all time, all space; they were but a tiny fraction of both, locked into a set of possibilities and consequences that they couldn't fully see. But though she could tug upon every thread and slip through every door, she found that, now, having walked the loop and failed to break it, she had no idea what to do next. And when she peered into the void and saw herself, split into thousands of millions of pieces, she found that it was too much, and that she couldn't decide. Every path vibrated with potential, and every potential threatened to collapse in on itself, and the variables could leash the constants but could not tame them.

It would be so much easier, if the worlds were hers to make and unmake. She'd thought that's what she'd been doing, once. In reality, she had been choosing, and the only reason she'd been able to choose was because she hadn't known she'd been doing it. All of the conditions preexisted; the moment was at once shattered and unified.

So much power, and so many lives and lines, clambering for space in her head. She had been able to snuff out so many possibilities at once; it should have been a simple thing for her to end them all. It should have been a simple thing for her to do and have anything she wanted -- kill Comstock but keep Booker, stop one but not the other. Instead, she floundered, and had to turn to them.

It galled her.

"It is not enough simply to return the girl."

"The tide is not stemmed."

"The spark is not extinguished."

"The act of interacting changes her..."

"...irrevocably. And, inevitably..."

"...she still becomes you."

She stepped through one door, and then another, and then another, and saw it. Without the siphon to check her development, reality shimmered and warped around her. A young Anna, bursting with all the frustration and willfulness of early childhood, acted on instinct and opened tear upon tear, stacking realities upon each other in such quick succession that those around her did not simply bleed -- they convulsed and died. She watched, stomach clenching, as another version of Booker died, a version who was trying, with every bit of himself, to make good. She watched as comprehension snapped into place, as Anna glimpsed the edge of eternity, as her child's brain broke under the strain and sank into a terrible madness.

There were times when it would happen later, but it was never late enough. Anna was never ready; the weight of her power was always too much, and it always ended in destruction and despair.

If there were someone to teach her...

But those worlds were little better. There were some where she was stymied by him; he knew, although he did not know what he knew, and her presence made him bloody and angry and erratic. It broke her heart, every time. In others, she managed to interact with Anna -- with herself -- behind his back. But they...repelled one another. The universe could not stand the contradiction; it longed to fold them over and reabsorb them, so the space around them was unstable, and the eventual collapse was devastating.

She felt it all. She selected each thread, one by one, and set it into place. Reality unfolded, and she saw the end, and was the end, and knew that it was not the end. But still it came, and still she was forced to retreat into the empty spaces, the spaces where all of the other lines lay waiting.

"There is another moment..."

"No, there isn't; it's all the same. Can't you see it?"

Even where paths exploded, where they generated vast, dancing weaves, there was still a curling in and over at the ends. There were countless roads, and some of them were lovely. She escaped; she spared him; she, they, belonged to different times, different places. They were relatives, or friends, or partners, or lovers, or some combination of it all, so many times, over and over and over again. But somehow, none of it mattered. All roads led to Rome, and Rome was a mountain drowned in flame.

"If one can eliminate one set of worlds..."

"...then why cannot one eliminate another?"

"She objects to the use of the term 'moment.'"

"Let us, then, call it an 'opportunity.'"

"There is one, if you would take it."

"The deal."

"Or, rather, the attempt to break the deal."

"The girl would be untouched."

"Unchanged."

"Mostly."

"Prone to nosebleeds, I'd imagine."

"But many children are."

When she shifted to that point, she finally realized that something very, very important was being overlooked. She saw Anna die, and Comstock run; she saw the opening and closing of another loop, the hope that sprang from her own tragedy. She saw the consequences of choosing differently: countless worlds budding from her refusal to die in Rapture, a latticework of other attempts and other chases and other deaths. Always, the inevitable dragged her down. Always, there was another reality, another New York, another Booker and Comstock. Another chance to separate the two. Another failure. Another crack in her heart.

There was only one moment. The moment was unified.

But the moment was shattered, too. She was shattered, and the universe was groaning under the strain. It shuddered when she reached out, when she dared to peel back the layers of her own existence and seek out the line. It was there, and she had to walk it, take it back, back, before herself. She had to leave the what is for the what was, in the way that only a god could. And if she didn't, then the embers of her rage and despair would keep being coaxed back to life, would keep spreading and devouring.

She was the flame that would ignite the world, after all. And she'd been it long before Anna had been born.

"No."

For once, they were speechless.

They -- we -- have been looking at it from the wrong angle.

"This will not work. It can't."

We've been focused on him. And he repeats, but...

"I don't blame you for thinking it could; you can't see everything that I can."

...it was never him.

"But we have to stop. We're not making it better, not truly. We're just digging holes and then filling them back in."

"You propose that we give up?"

"This isn't giving up, Rosalind."

It was me. It was me all along.

"This is...achieving the desired result."

The edges blurred, once she made the decision and took the first step. And it hurt. Oh goodness, it hurt. For, as it turned out, she could make and unmake -- so long as she was doing it to herself.

She wondered what it felt like for the Luteces, if they knew what was happening in the seconds before they vanished. She wondered at the people of Columbia, and the people of Rapture, and at all of the souls who were being shifted from one eternity to another. It wouldn't be like passing through a tear, she knew; maybe it would feel more like having a past life. They would have dreams, sometimes, or moments of deja vu, or feel drawn to people they'd once known.

It might be kind of...nice.

She cut her own threads, and the ends snapped back, violent and forceful, and every memory and emotion and scrap of power struck and seared her. She screamed, and wept, and the void was flooded with her agony. She gave herself to it. Over, and over, and over again. And all the while, beyond the pain, she felt herself sliding, falling, collapsing. Dying a thousand million times over. Winking out, bit by bit, until finally, she came to the last piece. She came to the part that had lived since the moment began, and she sighed, and waited for the end.

Instead, she opened her eyes.

She was by the ocean, lying on a set of stairs, her body twisted and her limbs bent. She lifted her head, and it swam. The sun was too bright, and the ocean was too loud, and the steps were too hard. She put her palm to her forehead and moaned.

Getting to her feet was a chore. Her bones and muscles protested; pain, terrible wracking pain, shot through her with every movement. It felt as if she had been tortured again -- and, in a way, she had. She forced herself to straighten, to glance around, to look up the stairs.

She gasped. There, set against an outcropping of rocks and scrub grass, was a lighthouse.

I shouldn't be here. She shouldn't exist. She wasn't supposed to exist!

But she did. And, if she paused for long enough, and allowed the pain to subside, she could still...feel it. Pulsing. Calling out to her. If she blinked, she could still see.

And she could also choose.

We didn't just die.

She walked up the steps, slowly, body throbbing, pulse racing. The door to the lighthouse was not just a door; it was all doors. It was any door.

We became.

All of her selves, everything and everyone that she had ever been, sat in a ball of light at the back of her mind. Through them, she could access the entire moment, and all of its variables, and all of its constants.

And there was one she wanted very, very much.

So much power. Endless, undying streams of it. She dipped into it, placed her hand upon the door, and pushed.

He was pacing, hands in his pockets, gait lazy but shoulders squared, body relaxed but aware. He turned when she entered, let out a huff, stepped toward her. "Took ya long enough."

She shrugged. "I got...sidetracked."

"Hmph."

He took another step. She answered it, crashed into him. And when his fingers curled under her chin and tilted back her head, she smiled.