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"So we'll keep lighting matches; when one of them catches,
This thing will finally be done.
And love set fire to everything,
And the flames looked like angel's wings;
We played our parts with paper hearts,
And love set fire to everything."
     -- Moxy Fruvous

A figure cloaked in heavy black wool stood at the steps leading down into the city of Bledavik, motionless. The rain that fell around it -- strong, energetic drops -- seemed to pass it right by, leaving the hood of the heavy cloak barely touched with dampness. The man within the cloak stood for a long moment, looking down on the deserted streets of the capitol city, lost in memories.

The endless bazaar had shut down for the day; the city's inhabitants were, no doubt, all up at the building that was once the Royal Palace and now hosted the country's Parliament. Today was the date that the new crop of representatives were sworn in, and the inhabitants of Bledavik had never been ones to turn down a party.

The hem of the cloak swirled around the man's feet as he stepped carefully down the slick steps, casting barely a glance towards the deserted stalls that stood to both his sides. Here and there, a hint of what was beneath the cloak peeked outwards -- a flash of green tunic, a lock of dark hair -- but overall, the figure was silent and anonymous in the stormy grey light of the infrequent desert storm.

One of the two guards who stood on duty at the gates to the palace stepped forward as the cloaked man neared. "Afternoon, neighbor," he called, affably. "Here for the swearing-in?"

"Not quite," answered the man, softly. One arm rose from underneath the folds of fabric to fish a small object out from around his neck: a small, tarnished bronze disk on a cord of silken line.

The guard took a look at it, curiously, and then paled, ever so slightly. "Is that yours?" he demanded. "How did you get it?"

The man chuckled a little, though he did not move to lower the hood of the cloak. "It is mine," he answered, still in that same mild, low tone. "And I have had it for years. It was given to me by the hand of King Bartholomew, one of eight such tokens that were meant to ensure that a group of companions were always allowed access to this Palace. I ask you now to honor it."

The other guard was looking back and forth in confusion, clearly unaware of what was going on; his features marked him as a native of Kislev, no doubt one of the members of the troops that were traded back and forth between the cities as a token of the peace treaty that had been in effect for over a century. "Rahl," he said lowly, leaning closer to the Avehite guard, "Who is this guy?"

The guard who was talking to the cloaked figure -- Rahl -- looked back at his companion and stammered, just a bit, "S-someone who shouldn't be here. Look, you stay here, all right?" He glanced back at the man who stood patiently through this exchange, waiting with the air of one who was prepared to wait all afternoon if necessary. "Ah -- you too, sir. I'm just going to go and see if the Captain knows what to do here --" He backed up, not taking his eyes off the stranger, looking all too confused, and then turned and jogged off at a rather fast clip in the direction of the palace where the inauguration ceremony was well under way.

The guard left behind looked back at the stranger, his eyebrows rising. "Mind telling me what's going on, sir?" he asked, his voice rough with the flavor of Nortune. "Rahl looked like he'd seen a ghost."

"Perhaps he has," said the stranger thoughtfully. "Tell me, how fares the city, and the royal family? I have not been here in years."

The guard smiled. "It's a great city, sir. People tell stories of how much of a great king Edbart was, and Bartholomew after him, but I think that Queen Aradia is easily their match. The people truly love her." He seemed a bit swelled up with pride at the mention of the queen, and the stranger smiled in the shadows of his cloak.

"...And Prince Sigurd?" he asked, a moment later, an old weight pressing upon his words. The guard's face sobered.

"He's -- he's not well, sir." The guard looked down, regretfully. "He's -- I'm sure you know that he's been ill. The doctors ... they don't think that he's going to .. uhm ... They think he might not live to see another sunrise." A moment later, a little smile crossed the guard's face, and he added, "He, of course, firmly maintains that Death is going to have to come for him very well armed and armored, 'cause he's gonna do his best to do some damage on the way out."

There was another long pause, and then the stranger sighed. "He has had a long life, has he not?" he asked, his tone shadowed with regret.

The guard nodded again. "Yes, sir," he confirmed. "He -- he's been blessed by nearly seeing his one hundred and fiftieth birthday. I can only hope that God favors me with such fortune."

A small chuckle came from the depths of the cloak, and soft words that could have possibly been, "So they have found God again, after all these years." Louder, though still softly enough that the rain nearly drowned him out, the stranger said, "Thank you for the information, friend. I do apologize."

Before the guard could ask what the apology was for, the cloaked man reached out. His hand barely kissed the other's flesh, but the guard's eyes rolled back in his head and he slumped down; the man caught him before he could knock his head on the stone steps and arranged him comfortably on the ground. Without a backwards glance, he strode forward, somehow managing to blend into the shadows of the Palace's bulk effortlessly.

Deus's attempted terraforming of over a century ago had not altered the marble and stone of the Bledavik Palace very much at all; even if it had, its twists and turns were intimately familiar to the black-cloaked man who now wound his way through them. Distantly, he could hear the cheering of the crowd as the new members of Parliament were duly consecrated, swearing loyalty to the people of Aveh and the Queen who was now more of a beloved head of state than a monarch. Bart's legacy, again, and that of his father. The faintest of smiles touched his face as he passed a portrait of Bart -- an older man, with the grandson that was the father of the young queen now on the throne sitting at his feet. He paused there for a moment, looking up at the face that wisdom had come late to, and inclined his head slightly to the memory of the tempestuous young man he had once known.

They were all dead now, of course. Bart had been the first of their group to fall, killed in negotiations with the last little holdout band of Kislev rebels -- trying to his last breath to bring about peace, even as the assassin's bullet pierced his lungs. Rico had been next, his mysterious illness considered by many to be one of the last touches of Deus's cancer, lingering even a score of years later. Archbishop William -- once known as Billy Lee Black, before he and Mother Marguerite of Nisan had founded the Universal Church that taught of the simple peace that comes from finding God within -- had died in his sleep, his face crowned with the radiance of an inner peace. Maria, Emeralda, even Chu-Chu; their own mortality had caught up to each of them in the end, though Emeralda's had been more in the nature of malfunction caused by Deus's effects. Even Fei and Elhaym had drawn their last breaths, resting in each other's arms, at the end of a life that had been filled with joy and love, unable to face the thought of even a day without the other.

And now the last of the nine stood at the door to the room where his love lay dying. He placed his hand on the door, resting his forehead against it for a long moment, and then squared his shoulders and drew himself up to his full height. He had come this far, and would not turn back now. Slowly, he turned the doorknob.

Sigurd lay in the bed, his body shrunken and strangely folded in upon itself. The visitor felt a momentary flash of anger that Sigurd had been left alone in the room -- where were the nurses, the doctors, the attendants that the passing of such a great man deserved? Slowly, he lifted hands that were untouched by wrinkles to push back the hood of the cloak, revealing a face unravaged by the taint of years, a dark fall of hair that held no grey. Calmly, betraying no hint of the agony that grew as he looked upon the sleeping, wizened form in the bed, he undid the button at the throat of the cloak, sliding it off his shoulders and tossing it carelessly into the corner. His hands were steady as he lifted the chair that sat by the bed and placed it close; his shoulders did not slump as he claimed that seat. Gently, seemingly worried that his touch would do more harm than good, he reached out and gathered Sigurd's hand into his own, bowing his head.

Sigurd stirred in his sleep at that contact, his breathing a low rasp as his one eye opened slightly. "Hyu..Hyuga?" he whispered weakly, his voice cracked and ragged, broken glass thinly scraping through the air. "Hyu... is that ... really you? God, I /must/ be... dying ... if you're here... knew I was hallucinating..."

The man by Sigurd's bedside did not move, save to lightly press their linked hands, afraid that even that touch would snap the frail fingers beneath his skin. His eyes roved over that beloved face, their depths speaking volumes. Sigurd frowned as his eye drifted closed again, but he held onto that hand with a grip that was surprisingly shocking for its strength. "Are you ... my angel?" he rasped, in that voice that was a mockery of its former resonant glory. "My angel ... of death? Go ahead ... take me ... I've been waiting for you for years..." A little sound that was intended to be a chuckle filled the room. "...took your damn sweet time..."

Still silent -- not trusting his voice to speak -- the man shook his head; the hand that was not holding Sigurd's rose to touch his cheek, gently. Sigurd's eye opened again, but it was focused on something in the distance, clouded by memories and old pain. "Hyuga ... d'you have any ... idea how hard it was ... being the only one left ... after you died ... d'you have any idea how close I came to just taking a knife to my throat ..." It clearly cost him a great effort to talk, but he did not fall silent, fighting for the breath to fuel his words. "Y'probably do ... you were probably ... the one who kept me from doing it ... you were watching me ... reminding me of my duty... 'salways me who's gotta be the caretaker of every ... brat who's got a bit of ... the Fatima genes and a pair of blue eyes..."

A little smile crossed Sigurd's face as his eye drifted shut, and his chest rose and fell for a few minutes as his breathing grew more labored. "I don' mean that ... wouldn't have turned that down for ... for anything ... 'sbeen incredible ... Aveh's got a queen now ... 'm sure you've seen her ... they're callin' me a bloody prince... y'remember how they tried to give ... me the throne when Bart ... was killed..." He rambled on, his skin feverish to the touch. "Hyu, you'd be ... you'd be so proud of me ... I used to think that ... wonder if y'were looking at me and smiling ... that little shy smile ..." His other hand stirred, as if he were trying to lift it, but fell back onto the bed after a few inches.

His companion stroked his hair softly, wanting so much to say something -- anything -- but not even knowing where to start. Knowing that it would be far gentler, in the last few moments remaining, to allow Sigurd to think he was dreaming. Sigurd coughed, a ragged, painful sound, his entire body shaking with the motion. "...missed you so much..." he breathed. "They're all ... gone now ... but you know that ... you 'n' me watched them go ... damn Solaris for what ... they did that kept me ... alive this long... 'n here I am dying and talking to a hallucination ... like I used to talk to ... your fucking glasses... it was the only thing ...they found from that rockslide... I kept 'em with me ..." He shifted, restlessly, beneath the thin sheet that covered his body as his voice grew thinner, his breathing more labored. "Kept you with me ... not that ... I'd ever forget ... I've always known you were with me ... always remembered... that you said ... you'd never leave me ... guess you had to ... but we'll be together soon, Hyu ... won't we? We'll always... be together... 'swhy you came for me..."

Overcome by grief, the man at Sigurd's bedside bowed his head, enveloping Sigurd's hand in both of his own. He opened his mouth, as if to answer, but closed it again, choked by the grief that rose to surround him. Sigurd's chest stilled, for a long moment, and then rose again with a little shuddering heave. "" he sighed... and then his eye opened again, focusing in on the man who was holding his hand with a piercing clarity. "You ... you're ... real... who ... are ... you ...?"

The voice that finally answered him was achingly familiar, soft and choked with the sadness of ages. "Hyuga," he said, softly, "and Citan, and others. But my name is Raphael. And Sigurd ... I will love you until the end of the world."

Sigurd let out a sigh, struggling for the strength to say something -- anything -- before his body betrayed him. Before he could, his lungs refused to draw another breath. The erratic pulse that fluttered at his throat slowed, then stilled entirely, and his half-open eye focused in on something unseen in the distance. The very faintest hint of a smile lingered on his face -- calm, peace, acceptance. Understanding.

Raphael bowed his head over their joined hands, his breath catching in his throat over a half-felt sob. Unnoticed, a single tear fell to the bed as his shoulders shook in grief. Softly, he whispered, in a voice that would have barely carried to Sigurd's ears, "Sigurd ... I am sorry. I am so, so sorry... I could never tell you when you were alive. I could not bring myself to. I cannot count the number of times that I opened my mouth to tell you the truth, and could not continue when I saw the look in your eye..."

His voice faded, choked, redoubled in strength. "I was a coward. I could not bear to see your face when you found out ... found out that I was cursed to watch you -- watch you die -- to be alone again... oh, Sigurd, I tried not to love you, I truly did. But I could not help myself. You were so perfect, so true, so real ..." A second tear trailed its way down his face to join the first, and he absently lifted his free hand to scrub the back of his knuckles across his cheek, his breath catching in his throat. "You dragged me back into the human race. And I had to leave you, I had to, before you realized what was truly happening; I had to break that promise to you. You would have grown to hate me, over time, every morning when you awoke and looked upon my face and realized that you were an old man, and I was still twenty-nine..."

He chuckled a bit, raggedly. "I can almost hear you protesting that you could never hate me, my beloved. But you would have. You would have hated yourself for being mortal, and after a time, you would have grown to hate me for the reminder. You would have struggled against it, but after a time, you would have spent each morning looking at your reflection in the mirror and wondering /just how long we had left/..." His voice took on a tiny note of hysteria, and he took a deep breath, forcing himself to calm down. "And I could not let that come between us. So I died, my love, I died so that you could finish out your life in peace, and I did not realize until so much later just how wrong I was..."

The tears came fast and furious now, just as rare as the desert storm and just as tempestuous. "I should have stayed," he choked out, through what felt like his heart caught in his throat. "I should have known ... I should have trusted you more. I should have trusted /me/ more. I should have -- should have -- I do not know what I should have done. I would have traded every year I have ever lived for another moment at your side..." He ran his hand through his hair, not noticing how it shook. "And here I am again with the should-haves and the should-nots, and you are lying here dead and I will never see you again, and I just sat here and held your hand while you breathed your last breath and I could not even find the strength to give you a simple word of comfort before the very last moment and I'm never going to /fucking/ hold you again... god..."

His voice broke, and he dropped his head to the bed, his entire body trembling with the effort to hold back the pain. "Damn you," his voice hissed from beneath the cloak of hair, not knowing what it was directed at. "Damn you for what you have done to me /again/! Have I not done enough? Have I not served your purpose? /Let me find peace/! Let me go with him! Let me ... let me be whole again..."

His sobs choked off any further words, and he rocked back and forth against the bed, still clutching Sigurd's hand tightly. He breathed, deeply, soft little sodden sounds, his mind just repeating that silent plea over and over again ... until finally, hours later, just as the rain outside stilled and the desert sun began to sink over the horizon, he weakly picked up his head to gaze upon Sigurd's beloved face one more time. "I cannot stay," he whispered, barely audibly, his voice hollow. "I cannot stay any longer ... I cannot bear it, Sigurd ..." Gently, he lifted one hand to smooth the hair out of Sigurd's face, closing the lid over the lifeless eye, before rising and letting his lips touch Sigurd's cool ones. "Sleep peacefully, O my beloved," he mouthed, his lips barely forming the words. "Sleep, until we all shall wake again..."

Then, not trusting himself to look back again, he slung the cloak over his shoulders, drawing the hood to hide the tears that dried on his cheeks, and made his way out of the room.

Somewhere halfway across the world, the only thing that he had left -- the only thing that he would ever have left -- was waiting for him.

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