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At first, he’d been so confused. His eyes blinked open to a great and cavernous darkness, a hollowness yawning within him right behind his heart. Somehow, he just knew that was what it was: A heart. He knew a lot of things that he had no business knowing already, at the moment of his birth. Sitting up in the dim shadow of a cold and silent castle, it was as if his name was echoing within him in a voice he could not hear and yet felt just the same.

Ralsei. The Prince from the Dark.

It was strange, popping into existence like Ralsei did. He had the ability to read, the understanding of how to wear clothing, how to eat. He knew how to walk, talk, and say “please” and “thank you.” But no matter how many books he read or how much he practiced his magic, he never felt less confined by this strange, still kingdom. The walls were a gift, were they not? The town was a place of purpose. His very existence, his destiny, was an honor. But his footsteps echoed so sharply, even when balancing on his toe pads. Their sounds followed him as he pattered around the castle’s halls, to the library or to his cooking cauldron. He was born of hopes and dreams, brought to life by a destiny that tied him to something greater. Sometimes, alone in his bed, he would strain to hear anything outside of himself. The crushing quiet blanketed the town until his ears rang with it, nearly painfully. It would twist his fragile heart and tear at the edges of that hole within him. It would stretch that emptiness and threaten to hollow him out. Inevitably, he’d rise from his worn bedding and wander. He’d pass the dark fountain and stare into its unwavering column of shadow as if it could speak with him, or provide some kind of reassurance. He’d make mental lists of things to get done around the town, empty buildings to clean or recipes to try. Eventually he always ended up in the library, reading the same page over and over again but never quite absorbing the words until it was time to rise for the day. The days after nights like that, were always the ones packed with the most studying and magical practice. He had to remember his place, his purpose.

Everything would be okay.

Without the day and night cycle he’d read about in the light world and sequestered away from others, it was hard to even track the passage of time. Each day stretched into the next, into the next, into the next. That hollow in his chest ached. So he filled it. With preparations, with dreams of a grand destiny, with hope for the prophecy. After all, the prophecy was the only anchor he had. This innate knowledge was a gift as well. All he had to do was trust in it. Most days leading up to the heroes’ arrival, he even felt...normal. Or at least, what he thought normal must be. Truly understanding anything from his books in the vacuum in which he lived was challenging at best. But it was all the more reason to feel elated when the human and monster from the World of Light he’d been waiting for finally appeared to him. The journey was beginning! He should be smiling. Wasn’t he excited? Wasn’t he happy? He was going to fulfill his purpose.

He can still recall how he carefully cleared his throat and stepped forward, hood raised over his head. He told the lightners his story.

Well, okay. He hadn’t told them about The Roaring. Susie was having a difficult enough time accepting her destiny. Perhaps leading them into the prophecy slowly was the most prudent course of action? Ralsei had been nervous at first. Wasn’t there so much about which to be nervous? First impressions, navigating relationships, the weight of the prophecy in entirety on his shoulders? Susie’s practically ungovernable nature made his heart hammer unsteadily in his chest. A darkener’s heart may not have been made of the same things as a lightner’s, but it swelled and ached the same. (He imagined. He was still learning about the lightners themselves as he went, of course.) The prophecy never said their journey would be an easy one, but he hadn’t expected the hero herself to be so resistant to the path set before her. He’d spent countless nights alone, staring up at the empty starless ceiling that hung above his small world and imagining what the heroes would be like. Strong, brave, determined, and most of all...kind. But the reality, he was learning, was so different from the quiet fantasies in which he cocooned himself. There were some vague turns of phrase in the story that he knew better than his own self, room for a little interpretation. The prophecy’s origins were a mystery to him. He’d awoken in an empty world with nothing but the fur on his back and the words emblazoned on his heart. Perhaps Susie was...a trial of sorts? Wasn’t that how it always went in books? The hero’s journey is long, and there is always a rejection of the call to action before they finally cross that threshold and the story begins in full. He had to remain patient, to smooth himself down into gentle placid smiles and rounded, kind words. He couldn’t betray the moments he faltered against the agitated jolting of his own heart. After all, he held the prophecy. He was their Prince from the Dark. He was their guide. And his work wasn’t over until it was over.

And of course, his faith in those words paid off. Susie joined the party for real, falling into step on the inalienable march toward destiny. He was fulfilling his purpose. They all were. He could feel his heart shining in the dark, reflecting her growing light as she glowed so brightly before him, a hero. A...friend.

But then there was Kris.

He didn’t notice it at first, but Kris was...different. Perhaps they were simply quiet? Or maybe he had misjudged human nature and this was nothing to be concerned about? Kris looked the part of the hero perhaps even better than Susie. They made a steady leader, a role Ralsei knew was the human hero’s destiny and something he was delighted to see took very little convincing on his part. Kris seemed to step right into place, just as Ralsei always imagined. But there were...hiccups. It wasn’t long into the Field of Hopes and Dreams that Ralsei began to get a strange feeling about his new human companion. Something tingled at the edges of his magical senses like white noise. There were times when Kris spoke, but seemed to hesitate around the words. Times their body jerked strangely, like a marionette. There were instances when they did something, but only just. Only in the barest sense of the thing. He got a sense for it, this malicious compliance. Kris had been offered the chance to contribute a name for their party. Ralsei had encouraged them to participate, they were the leader after all! He’d watched as their hand hovered over the scrap of paper he held out toward them in his paw. It froze there for a moment before seeming to go tense. Their fingers splayed out rigidly, as if pushing up against a great invisible force. Finally, their shoulders went slack and they withdrew their hand and shook their head slowly, mouth pressed into a thin line. Ralsei didn’t miss how their fingers curled into tight balls at their sides. Or how they seemed to war with something, albeit briefly, when choosing the paper from Lancer’s bucket. After a moment of hesitation, they pulled out his neatly folded scrap and they were dubbed The Fun Gang. It should have been a moment of great excitement. Ralsei’s heart clenched in his chest, but he kept smiling. After all, everything would be okay. It had to be!

(He didn’t miss how their eyes trailed after Susie when she left the party after their encounter with K. Round. Or their half-aborted step after her when Ralsei insisted they simply needed to be kind to her. Did they really want to leave him, too? Or was it something else?)

Something was amiss with Kris, regardless of Ralsei’s insecurities. He had to set those aside, didn’t he? There was no room for his personal squibbling in the purpose set before him. He simply needed to keep marching forward, to steer the lightners on their destined path. He’d thought that maybe it was something that would work itself out like Susie, naturally and with time. Maybe they weren’t host to a problem any worse than nerves? They were new to the hero thing, after all! It was a lot to take in! Not much later, he’d know how naive that expectation was.

It still bothers him, standing in this strange cyber dark world with his two new friends. The question of it burrows into his chest with malice-laced claws and rankles despite his best efforts to appear unbothered and princely. The prophecy states that they’d face trials; that many foes would appear to foil them and attempt to defy fate’s hand. Perhaps this is one of those things, this extra presence clinging to Kris like a heavy fog? Because, as Ralsei has learned since their previous excursion to Lancer’s kingdom, that’s exactly what this thing is. Susie isn’t aware of it, as if this is simply how Kris always is. Like she doesn’t know the difference. Which is...concerning, too. He furrows his brows, watching the two of them try to purchase 400 CD bagels from the tall green musician darkner. Kris, at least, seems genuinely amused by this turn of events if the small upturned corner of their mouth says anything. In their previous journey, Ralsei had come to suspect that this entity was regarding their adventures as some sort of game. As much as it ruffled his fur that something would treat his very reason for existing as an entertaining diversion, this…thing didn’t seem to be doing harm. Not to their journey. It was helpful, even.

Well no, how could he really say that?

The day before, he’d gotten it to abandon its post and seek out Susie in the Card Castle dungeon. The way that Kris drew in a stuttering, pained breath made his heart lurch in his chest. It sounded as though they’d been held under water, air burning their lungs as they gulped at it and brought their hands to their armored chest. Their knees wobbled and they fell, but of course he caught them. Of course he did. That was his purpose. They flinched in his arms as he gently brought them back to their feet, but didn’t pull away for a long moment. They’d almost gone slack, as if there was nothing left inside them. They were a hollowed out space, a vessel carved to fit something else. Someone else. He’d startled when Kris finally tore from his arms and threw themself against the stone wall with a feral wail. It didn’t last long, but the moment stretched with an impact akin to lighting a stick of dynamite in their cell. This small act of rebellion seemed to at least help Kris calm down. They dragged their hands down the dirtied grey wall and finally let their arms hang limply by their sides. They leaned against the stone and pressed their face into it so hard that Ralsei couldn’t hope to read their expression. They had growled, low and frustrated, and suddenly looked to him like a cornered animal.

Ralsei had pulled his hands in against himself, buried them in his scarf protectively. But then he forced them out again, towards Kris. He’d taken a hesitant step forward. “Are...are you okay?”

The long silence that followed filled his head to the brim. It pulverized them both. It rang in his ears, a familiar pain.

He tried again. “I— how are you feeling?”

Finally, they turned their head to face him and leveled him with a stern look as if to say how do you think?

“I...I am so very sorry, Kris. Is there anything that I can do? Are...are you…?” Oh gosh, he didn’t even know how to ask this. “Are you...feeling like yourself?”

Even mostly obscured by their dark blue hair, it was clear their eyebrows were practically nestled in their widow's peak. Their mouth opened and then snapped closed so harshly he could hear their teeth clack together. It was the most emotion he’d seen on them up to that point, the rapid dash from shock to anger to a final, tired resignation. “You...you know? About it?” Something accusatory crouched in the question.

“I— well,” he fiddled with his scarf anxiously, “I have surmised that something is going on. I’m sorry, but I’m mostly running on a list of assumptions. If you could—”

“I don’t know.” The words had fallen from their mouth as a discordant string of notes from an untuned instrument. Disconnected, as if they weren’t even related to one another.

“You don’t know?”

“I don’t know what it is. I don’t know what’s doing this to me!” They hadn’t even shouted and yet it was enough to crack their voice. Their hands fisted at the dark fabric across their belly and they grit their teeth.

“Ah. So— so something is doing this to you.” He raised a paw to his chin, frowning. “What is it doing?” He’d had his theories, after all he’d witnessed them practically jerk like they were on a leash more than once. But until this time, he had only suspected that something else was present. An additional force of will. His experiment to get it to turn its gaze elsewhere, even if briefly, at least seemed to garner positive results. The only way to help Kris was to understand the situation, yes?

They’d turned their face back to the wall, digging their nails into the stone with such force that it made Ralsei flinch. If not for their gloves, he was sure there’d be broken nails and blood. Their voice had been so low when they had answered him. The words were breathed against the wall and shuddered like a ghost. It took him a moment to understand what they’d even said.

It’s controlling me.

Ralsei had frozen then, eyes wide. Hastily, he schooled himself back into an expression more fitting for their trusted companion and guide. Even if they weren’t looking, he had to be a steady hand. Of course he did. And he’d— he’d figure this out! Of course he would!

“Oh, Kris…” He came to lean against the wall next to them.

“Don’t tell her.” They turned their face again, to look him directly in the eyes. It was a quiet plea. “Please.”

“Wh-who, Susie?”

They nodded slowly, lowering their head until their eyes were cast in pure shadow. Unreadable.

“Of course I won’t. I promise. I would never betray your confidence. I’m here to help you however you need.”

“It shouldn’t know that you know, either.”

“Oh?”

“I don’t know what it’ll do.”

“Oh.” A discomfiting implication hung between them. It made Ralsei’s paws curl more tightly around his scarf. That’s right. Whatever this thing was, it was peaceful. Thus far. But it appeared Kris believed it was capable of acting otherwise. He swallowed, burying his face in his scarf.

“Just now, how did you…?”

“How did I what? Make it leave?”

They nodded, giving him a sideways glance.

“Well, it was purely a guess! I had suspected that there was another presence with us, perhaps something incorporeal? And if it wanted to observe us, or um...was interacting as if it were a part of the team or— or something…” He’d stumbled to find the words to even explain himself. It was a gut feeling. They were not alone in this prophecy trial, they had the hand of fate itself to guide them! So! So…! He frowned. That didn’t sound like confident guidance at all. “I suppose I’ve simply convinced it to cast its gaze elsewhere.”

It fell silent again. And then Kris’ voice reached him once more, low and quiet. “So it’ll be back.”

“Yes, I suppose it will.” He admitted dolefully. “But, please don’t worry! I’ll do some research as soon as we get back to my castle! I’ll help you!”

“This isn’t new.” They sighed, “I don’t know if…”

Ralsei furrowed his eyebrows, hands twitching with the desire to comfort them. Would a hug have sufficed? He’d read that people generally liked those. He’d even practiced on his dummy back home! For that moment, he simply shook his head. “Everything will be okay! We aren’t alone in this. And there isn’t a single trial that we can’t handle if we face it together. I’ll help you, because that’s my calling as a darkner!”

They only sighed, pushing off from the wall and moving to stare through the cell bars and down the dark hallway.

The quiet didn’t sit right with him. But what else was he to do? He imagined himself faltering in the line of duty, failing his hero after all of these years of preparation. He couldn’t let their talk end like this. Ralsei fiddled with his scarf once more, casting his gaze to the floor.

“Everything will be okay!” He repeated gently, “I just know it will be.”

“How?” They sounded...irritated? Agitated. Maybe even a little angry. At him? Oh gosh, he hadn’t been sure. What else could he do? What could he say?

“The prophecy is foretold by time and space. It’s woven from ancient forces of fate beyond our own understanding. It doesn’t say anything about something like this thwarting the heroes. So everything must turn out okay in the end!” At the mention of the prophecy, he noticed their jaw tense as if grinding their teeth together. What was he saying wrong? Shouldn’t this bring them comfort? “So— so that’s why, okay Kris?”

But then a door slammed open, footsteps echoing in the hall. He blinked, squinting through the bars down that long dark corridor. Kris’ body locked up by his side. It had jolted almost mechanically, as if electrified. Their shoulders rose stiffly for a moment before finally falling. Their mouth pressed into a firm, thin line. Susie was back, presumably with their unknown guest. And the conversation was over.

Ralsei can’t help but think of it now, as though it had happened years ago and not simply just the other day. It feels blurry in his memory, dreamlike. Susie helps Kris cram as many CD bagels as they can into their pockets, her claws nearly smashing a few in the process. The strange reflective bread shimmers a cascade of rainbow prisms in the world’s cool artificial light and catches his eye. Kris is smiling, even. Just a little. Susie’s grin is large and toothy enough to look frightening if he didn’t know her better. He wants to laugh. It’s so easy to forget. (A wave of guilt washes over him at this thought. It’s easy for him. It can’t be so for Kris.) He tugs uselessly at his scarf until Kris is satisfied with their overstuffed pockets and the party gets back on their way.

When Susie asks him to teach her healing magic, he’s more elated than he can even say. He’s apprehensive at first, separated from Kris. He doesn’t want them to be left alone in an unfamiliar dark world. Alone with their mysterious companion. Susie rejecting his plan and instead seizing him by the scruff and dashing madly away is quite the surprise. But in that moment, he feels his calling’s pull. He is a guide, is he not? And her wanting to utilize magic for more than just well, smashing things, is an exciting step forward! Even Susie begrudgingly has to admit he’s more fun than she expected, even if she has to ask him twice to stop gazing up at her like a puppy.

They find a place to settle down, a bench just past a roaring intersection they both sprint across after activating the rather unforgiving pedestrian crossing. He places his hands to his knees and catches his breath, Susie crossing her arms and looking...embarrassed? Uncertain? It’s difficult for him to name what it is. Finally, she clears her throat and gruffly asks if he’s ready. And as he straightens, he brightly reassures her that of course he is! (He’s been ready for years, he thinks. Though he won’t say that out loud.) Thankfully, he doesn’t have to explain magic to her from scratch. After all, she’s developed some impressive combat magic to enhance her already fairly lethal axe. It’s more a matter of redirecting it, of reshaping it like clay to perform another function. It isn’t creating balls of magical energy that is the problem, it’s...well, making them a force of healing rather than a mystical hand grenade. (He regrets saying that, as the glint in her eyes makes it clear he’s given her...ideas.)

"When I prepare Heal Prayer, I ruminate on specific images to help me influence that magic’s properties.”

She tilts her head, hand still extended from the last small explosive charge she’s set at the side of a towering building. It’s lined with doors, none of which function, and if the one she’d just assaulted had had a knob, it would’ve been blown off anyways. She frowns. “Images?”

“Yes! I focus on things that make me happy. Peaceful things! Things like...picturing the feeling of sunshine on my fur, leaves changing colors, or clean, cool water. It helps me charge that magic with positive energy.”

She raises an eyebrow. “That’s like, super lame, dude.”

“Well...why don’t you just try it out?” He insists patiently, clasping his hands together. “If it doesn’t work, we can try something else!”

The thing that really pisses her off is...it kind of works? Not immediately. But the first attempt at least is less incendiary. But not long after, the small wobbly orbs of light she’s producing transform from a muddy purple to a softly glowing green. It gets to the point where he allows her to test it out on him and it not only doesn’t burn the poor guy, it heals him for at least 1HP. She can hardly believe it, and the way she smiles in wonder at her own hands brings his heart to a nearly aching fullness he can hardly express.

“Oh HELL yeah!” She pumps her fist in the air, teeth bared in a smile he’s growing to adore more each time he sees it. “Did you see that? I’m gonna heal the shit outta you two!”

She’s so happy, he can’t find it in himself to say that perhaps they need to work on building the magic’s potency next. One victory at a time, yes? He grins, clapping his hands together. “That was wonderful progress, Susie! May I ask what you were thinking about?”

She pauses before getting a sour look on her face and sticking out her tongue at him “No way. Don’t even worry about it. I’m not letting you trick me into talking about that mushy shit.” A pause, and she sighs at his still-expectant smile. She scratches at her chin, gaze sliding to the blue-grey bench they’ve abandoned. “Uh...but...thank you. Or whatever.”

“Of course! Anything for you, Susie!”

There’s a moment of quiet between them, but not the soul-crushing deafening kind with which he’s so familiar. It’s more...thoughtful. She brings her eyes back to meet his. “You picture the feeling of sunshine, huh?”

“I do!”

“Have you ever uh...felt it?”

It’s a question he’s never really considered. He’s read books that describe the light world’s major star, the one that brings them life and warmth. He’s managed to flip through the castle library’s volumes so many times that he has a few of them memorized. He’s painted the picture in his mind so many times that he’s managed to convince himself of its concreteness. It’s almost embarrassing, when she says it like that. Like he’s a children’s cartoon character who runs face-first into a brick wall with a tunnel painted over it. Like all of his knowledge will only ever be an approximation. The empty chasm behind his heart which has been so blessedly still stirs.

He clears his throat, smile getting smaller but still refusing to drop. Stepping into the role of educator and guide is second nature. He runs to it. “Well, no. We don’t have a sun like you do in the light world. We live in very different ecosystems. Our worlds are formed completely differently, after all. But I imagine it must feel like the gentle, radiant warmth of a hearth. It sounds nice!” He notices that her expression drops for a moment and he tilts his head curiously. “Is— is something the matter?”

“Would you like to feel it someday? The sun, I mean.”

“W-well, that would be nice. But I don’t think—”

You and Lancer could come visit us next time! It’ll be fun! We could show you the town, maybe make you do our homework.” She grins, eyes crinkling, and he just can’t bring himself to—

“Well, perhaps we should discuss that later.” He finally settles on those words, his smile turning placating. “For now, let’s keep practicing! You’re picking it up quite quickly!”

“Heh, thanks. It helps that you seem pretty experienced. What did you do before we uh...discovered this place, anyways? Sit around by yourself all day reading books and practicing magic like a total dork?”

“W-well...yes!” He tugs at the ends of his scarf, gaze cast toward the strange, almost glitched, pavement. “I waited my whole life for you two to arrive. I spent all that time preparing for the heroes of legend! It’s my purpose. It’s the purpose of all darkners to serve the lightners."

The sigh that statement tugs from the back of her throat has him looking up with wide eyes. It’s missing the vigor he’s come to expect from her, falling weakly to the ground as she scratches at the back of her own neck.

“Y’know, you always sound weird as hell when you talk like that.”

“I— what?” He blinks.

“All that purpose shit. The prophecy, you uh...existing to serve us. The hero stuff is cool and all,” she flushes lightly, the chagrin of a mean girl coming to love the sound of being one of the good guys, “don’t get me wrong. But what do you want? Were you…” she struggles, only for a moment, and he waits patiently with his hands folded behind his back. “Were you happy doing all of that waiting and preparing and stuff? Is it what you wanted?”

“Of course it’s what I wanted!” He replies brightly, but perhaps a bit too quickly. His eyes crinkle, a smile hidden beneath his scarf. He’s pulled it up to obscure the bottom half of his face like he did when they first met. Susie can’t help but feel that it renders him just a bit further away from her, out of her reach. It suddenly occurs to her that battle isn’t the only time he can defend.

The being in Queen’s basement is certainly a surprise. (A bad one.) Ralsei is thankful that he and Susie followed their guts and caught up to Kris in the nick of time. The fight is a long and perilous one, reminding him a bit of their rounds against the small, strange clown in Lancer’s old dungeon. At first, he can’t even tell what it is that’s attacked Kris. It’s disjointed and moves unnaturally in the dim light. It’s like a doll that’s been hurled down a flight of stairs. Ralsei blinks against the wind whipping in their faces as their cars race forward on the impossible set of coaster tracks. He can make out an oddly-jointed set of limbs, a bi-pedal creature with a large head and colorful wings. They’re jagged and heavy-looking, as if welded together from scrap metal. As if never intended to function at all. Ralsei realizes with a soft-dawning horror that this is a darkner. The man screeches about heaven. He prays and begs to an audience that doesn’t exist. He dangles suspended from hopelessly tangled wires, a snare around his body and heart. Somewhere between the garbled cries about cathode screens and telephone hands, Ralsei realizes they’re facing perhaps the most desperate person he’s ever seen. (Desperate for what?) This is bad. This is very, very bad.

Kris commands them to snap his wires with a voice unlike anything Ralsei has heard from them before.

Of course, he obeys.

(Oh.)

(Oh dear.)

Eventually, the final wire is snapped. The darkner suddenly goes limp and collapses lifelessly to the ground, face blank.

(Oh no.)

Kris is eerily quiet as the party marches single-file from the basement. Their hands are flexed into fists at their sides, face set grimly. There’s something stilted in their gait, as if being jerked forward by— Of course, it’s Susie who breaks the silence. Hey, so...are we seriously not going to talk about any of that? It’s like she’s tossed a grenade and she doesn’t even know it.

“Puppets...strings...hands…” She frowns. “What the hell does any of that mean? And the way he just...broke.”

Ralsei resists the urge to throw a panicked glance toward Kris’ stiff figure. “I...I don’t think it means anything, Susie. It seems like it was just a corrupted program.” His hands twist uneasily behind his back, smile frozen in place. “He turned into our ally, so let’s just accept it.”

Of course this doesn’t satisfy her, and of course he can’t stop her from wriggling past him in the narrow corridor and asking Kris if they’re okay. (They’re not. They can’t be. He already knows it.)

“NO!” Their shout manages to be both thunder and lightning alike. It strikes Ralsei and Susie in one dizzying blow and echoes down the hall. It’s as if they’ve forced open their jaws to allow for one crashing display of anguish. Their shoulders shake and they take in a ragged breath, one hand attempting uselessly to grip at the metal breastplate sheathing their chest.

Ralsei can only let his body stand in a shocked stupor for one heartbeat before he launches into damage control. Don’t tell her. It shouldn’t know that you know, either. I don’t know what it’ll do.

The words feel sour in his mouth, but his tone is too soft. Too saccharine. “K...Kris? Are you okay? You’re yelling…” What is he supposed to do? Nothing in the prophecy prepared him for this. Looking at their figure, every joint locked up in misery, he tries to remember anything helpful he’s read. People like hugs! And— and words of comfort! It’s something he failed to do for them back in Lancer’s dungeon, isn’t it? He leans forward and takes them in his arms. He’s been informed many times since their meeting that he’s fluffy, soft, and warm. Perhaps it will help them calm down? “There, there. Everything’s alright. Don’t think about what happened too hard, okay? Just take some deep breaths and think about...something you like. Something nice...something soft. I’ll be right next to you until you feel better, Kris.”

Ralsei’s smile turns more genuine, and he’d hope that it warms them like sunshine if he...knew what that really meant. At the very least, it convinces Susie to agree with him and move on. Which was the goal. (No, no, comforting Kris was the goal!) When Kris turns to her expectantly and she refuses to hug them as well, teeth bared, Ralsei can feel them exiting the danger zone. For now. Susie may learn eventually. They may have no choice. And he can’t imagine she’ll be fond of learning that they kept something so big from her. But he needs her to keep filling her role for now, to keep being the monster hero as foretold. To keep playing the game. Kris had begged him not to tell her, and he really can’t betray a direct request from the lightner heroes. Especially not when they’d been so torn up when they’d asked, so insecure.

(He knows the feeling.)

What does it mean to be Ralsei-like? The question resurfaces unbidden in his mind as he grapples for what to do next. They exit the swan boat, the stinging acrid scent of the free pool growing fainter as they walk, and thankfully they’re able to draw Kris’ little guest away with one simple prompt. Are you wondering how Susie is doing right now? But now what? Kris had hugged him on the swan boat, wrapping their warm arms around him and pressing the sides of their faces together for the camera. Their cheeks had squished pleasantly as Kris leaned part of their weight into his side. It had made him giddy, unsure of what to even do with the swinging tempo of his heart. Until— Kris pulled away, arms growing stiff at their sides. Oh.

(Had they even been the one who wanted to do that, or was it—)

He grips nervously at the back of his robes, where he hopes Kris can’t see. His paws twist at the fabric so hard he can feel his own filed down claws through it. They press nearly painfully at his tender pink paw pads but he doesn’t stop.

“It’s gone again.” Kris speaks up, startling Ralsei despite his best efforts.

“O-oh! That’s good. I’m glad.” He nods, pushing his glasses up his nose and giving Kris a once-over. “How are you feeling?”

“Fine.” It’s flat, insincere, and clearly not an invitation to dig at it further.

“I tried to do some research in the castle library, but I hadn’t expected you and Susie back so soon. N-not that I wasn’t thrilled to see you. I missed you two a lot already!”

Kris only nods, mouth in that thin line again. The silence grows too loud for Ralsei to bear. This time is precious, they should be making as much use of it as possible. They both know that, and yet… Sickly glowing strings dance in Ralsei’s mind, Kris’ pained scream echoing in that empty chamber in his chest. It grows louder and closer each time it ricochets within him. He wants to flinch away, but Kris isn’t saying anything at all.

“Well Kris,” he begins, “whether you think so or not, you’re doing a great job. We just have to hang in there a little longer, and—”

“Can I ask you a question?” They cut him off, moving to level him with a tired gaze.

“Of course you can. Anything for you, Kris!”

For some reason, they seem to hesitate at that. But only for a moment. “What are you doing?”

Huh? He blinks, tugging at the ends of his scarf. “I’m trying to help you! I just know if we work together and stay determined, everything will be okay.” After all, the prophecy says so! Or well, not explicitly. But if they’re truly destined to protect their worlds’ balance, then that means things will be fine! Implicitly! Of course! But Kris doesn’t look convinced. Has he done the wrong things? Has he stumbled on the path already? Failure’s yawning mouth opens around him like a many-toothed trap, like it wants to swallow him and leave no evidence he was ever here. He’s been given form for one reason and one reason only, the instructions etched into his very heart. Is that not enough? Is he not enough to fulfil this destiny? That’s not an option. He has to do this. The prophecy is all he’s ever had, it’s his hopes and his dreams. It’s all he is. Perhaps literally. He never had a choice.

(The sacrilege of the very thought startles him.)

(This is an honor. This is an honor. This is an honor. This is an HONOR—)

“Puppets, strings, hands…” Kris is quoting Susie. Ralsei freezes in place, trying to keep his expression from faltering. They continue, “He might be the only one who understood. And he—” They stop talking abruptly. It’s clear they have more to say, but the words are stuck somewhere between their soul and their mouth.

Ralsei feels something tighten around his wrists, around his ankles, around his throat. He swallows hard. The emptiness inside him roars open and his heart teeters fretfully. Kris eyes him, difficult to read. He realizes that his own paws are trembling, very minutely. One shaky breath in, one shaky breath out. Kris is his friend. And right now, they need him. (He is their guide, after all. No, no. That’s not what this is about.) Finally, Ralsei places his paws on Kris’ hands and squeezes lightly. The touch is gentle, easy to shake off if they don’t like it. But they don’t, and the relief in that small fact alone makes his shoulders slump as if a burden has already been lifted. Maybe he needs this as much as they do.

“Don’t think about that too much.” The words have been said before, but this time he thinks he understands a little more. This time, he hopes he can make things at least a little better. “Not because we should ignore what happened back there, but...because you’re not alone. Kris, I— we will not let anything like that happen to you. Do you hear me?”

They move to wrap their fingers around his paws and he’s sure they can feel his pulse thrumming in the pads. “How can you be sure?”

“Because—” Mention of the prophecy tries to claw its way up his throat, like its own force of will. Like a guardian angel. Like a parasite. He swallows. “Because we’re your friends!”

This gets a reaction from them, almost as if they’re startled. Their eyes widen beneath their thick fringe and then a small smile flickers across their mouth. There’s still something melancholy in it, but it’s a start. “I just don’t get it.”

“Get what?”

“You and Susie… Lancer… You’ve only really known me for two days. Even then, I...haven’t…” Haven’t always been the one you’re talking to. Ralsei can fill in that blank on his own. They drop his paws and glance away, almost self-consciously. “Why do you want to get involved in this? It’s been like this for a long time and maybe...maybe sometimes it’s better this way? This thing...maybe it’s better than me at being the hero?” Maybe people like it more than they would like me? The fear resonates between them without words.

Ralsei’s chest hurts, and suddenly he’s reminded of how different they are. Kris’ emotions alone are enough to make his limbs tingle uncomfortably. They’re made of sturdier stuff than he is. They’re flesh and they’re blood, they’re fear and they’re pain. Ralsei can still recall how terrified Kris and Susie had been the first time he had gone down in battle, how they’d frantically asked him where he’d gone. Susie had been gripping his scarf when he’d reawakened, confused and relieved all at once. It was quickly clear that they’d never seen someone just...suddenly lose their form before. It’s the consequence of his creation, the trade-off darkners must make for sentience. They aren’t made of such concrete things as lightners. But he doesn’t care. He furrows his brows and places his hands to his hips, looking Kris square in the face. He’s going to help them carry this if it crushes him into a neat little pile of clothes.

You’re my friend, Kris.” He insists with a huff, “Not that thing. I am giving you my word as the Prince of Darkness! You deserve your freedom. And I trust in your judgement! Even...even if you eat moss sometimes.”

“We need to get rid of this thing for your prophecy, too. Right?” They ask flatly.

“I—” He blinks, startled. For once, he hadn’t even been thinking about that. He— oh dear. Was he abandoning his—? He’s suddenly being yanked in two different directions. He coughs, choking on his own startled breath and feeling his heart squirm beneath his skin. He lost focus so quickly there. If he doesn’t stay on the path, will he be allowed to keep existing? He hates himself for even thinking about it, scrambling for his resolve. This isn’t about him. They’re not wrong, but— but that’s not it. “We need to figure this out for you.” He insists, offering them a sad smile. “I don’t want to go on this journey without you, Kris. The real you. So that’s why…"

“GERONIMO!”

And their time is up. Ralsei’s breath is knocked from him once more, before Kris can even reply. Susie lands gracelessly on his back, slamming him into the manor’s thick red carpet. But he can’t even complain when he sees Kris’ smile widen, just a little. He’d do anything to see that more, he thinks.

(And the prophecy doesn’t even require smiling.)