|chibirisuchan (chibirisuchan) wrote,|
@ 2007-08-05 17:18:00
...yeah. Still alive. Most of the people who have gotten hospitalized have come back also alive. Some haven't. This has been one hell of a year. I think I need to make myself an 'I Survived 2007' shirt on like Jan. 3 2008 or something.
Have also made an IJ in case of further epic lose on the part of LJ. Haven't populated it yet. Haven't got the brainpower to go around tracking everyone down twice. Don't want fandom to scatter to eight dozen different sites and never find each other again. Would massively suck. @_@
ANYHOW. In hopefully less depressing news: Fic madness ahoy. Hope to have more soon. (hope springs eternal... gotta learn to brace for them surprise attacks?)
Title: One Way
Fandom: Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children
Pairing/Character: Kadaj and Loz
Rating: PG-13 to R?
Table of contents of the 25 streetsigns fics
Warnings: None beyond Kadaj-style psychosis just yet. (Neeeext time, though... ^_~)
Disclaimer: Totally not mine. Not even the core concept for this arc; it was based on a fic that I shan't identify just yet, because I want to hear the screams when the shoe drops.
Random author's notes: At some point I want to go back and write the triplets-devastate-the-Gold-Saucer part (and maybe call it 'Caution: Children Playing'), but this has been a horrible summer, and writing that kind of enthusiastic mayhem takes creative energy I just haven't got at the moment. I'm writing this this weekend so that I can keep the claim alive. I really hope this doesn't suck? If it does, I'm sorry... maybe I'll have some kind of higher-energy brain juice back before the next deadline? I really REALLY want the next one to work in particular... anyhow.
Everything always came back to Midgar, in the end. They had tried looking everywhere else first -- almost literally; despite the fact that their weapons were there, Loz associated Midgar with death and with everything falling apart, and so he'd done his best to come up with diversions to delay the need to face Midgar again. Any distractions he could find: games, and hunting, and sex, and the ridiculous prizes at the Gold Saucer--
"Look!" he'd crowed, delighted with himself. "Look what I won! It's Eldest Brother's--"
Yazoo had taken one look and rolled his eyes; Kadaj had scowled, and Loz had remembered too late about not mentioning the Chosen, but the two and a half meters of shining steel wasn't something even Loz could hide entirely behind his back.
"--and I'm sorry, I wasn't thinking, I'm so stupid, I'm sorry, I'll give it back--"
"No," Kadaj had said, tired-voiced. "No, Loz. I'd rather you have it than anyone else."
--but then, distractions, Kadaj thought, were inevitably an inferior substitute for what should have been done to begin with.
"It's really weird," Loz said as he came in the door, again holding the Masamune. "Maybe it likes me and came back to see me? It used to do that for Eldest Brother too, but I don't know why it would want me; it ought to want Kadaj--"
Then Loz looked back and forth between the Masamune he held and the Masamune hanging on the wall, and his brows quirked together in bewilderment. "Huh...?"
Kadaj had known from the first that it had been a fraud. It was nothing but dead pot-metal; there was no ...resonance, nothing calling to him, even dimly. Yazoo hadn't cared enough to look, and Loz had been too delighted. But now that there were two of them, even Loz couldn't miss the implications.
"...it's a fake...?"
Kadaj wished that there were any comfort left in his soul to offer, but he was empty. Hollowed out. It hurt to hear the distress in Loz's voice and to have nothing to give him.
"...they're both fakes, aren't they...?"
Soon enough, the hurt and betrayal turned into rage; Loz took both of the fraudulent swords, kicked the door out into the hallway without a hand free for the doorknob, and set out for the game vendor -- straight through the walls that lay between.
Loz had done his best; it had never been lack of effort that had kept his distractions from being enough. Kadaj knew the fault was his own, and always had been. He was the one who had lost Mother's guidance. They should never have asked Loz to try to make up for Kadaj's lack, despite his willingness to shoulder Kadaj's duty for love's sake. Strength and willingness were not enough, no matter how badly they both had wanted it to be.
They'd needed to leave the Gold Saucer fairly quickly, after that. Yazoo had pointed out that letting Loz destroy a quarter of the complex might have been a bit excessive, because the desert surrounding the place was just as inhospitable to them as to humans, and the humans were screaming and panicking and bloodied and trying to escape -- and the humans were busily taking the best methods of transportation with them.
On the bright side, the racing chocobos were all quite fast, and each of them were strong enough to wrestle a bird down even around the panic. But it left much of the desert around the Gold Saucer unsearched, and that meant that they would need to leave the place alone for months to rebuild and forget before they could complete the search.
If Kadaj had been who he once was, he would have chafed at the delay. But he was no longer the leader, and so there was nothing to do but accept it; he didn't understand why Loz kept flinching away, as though expecting to be struck at any moment for his failure.
Kadaj had given up his duty, though; since he was no longer the leader, he no longer needed to care whether the path was correct. If he was not the leader, then all he needed to do was to follow. Loz was the leader, and so Kadaj had no responsibility for their success or failure; all he needed to do was to ...be.
Kadaj never should have believed them in the first place. He never should have believed that it could have been as easy as Loz wanted it to be, that he need only declare our new purpose is to find happiness and we follow Loz because he's the best at finding emotion, and that would be that.
Nothing about true reformation was ever easy. Nothing.
Their rebirth was only easy for Loz because Loz was simple himself. He was strength, and courage, and warmth, and he was not a leader. He never had been.
It had been unfair to ask that much of him.
Kadaj could see that now, standing in the shattered hollow of Midgar, looking at his death with contemplative eyes. He wished he could have gone back to apologize for that, if he wasn't certain that Loz would try to stop him from doing what he needed to do.
Loz never had liked the thought that the Vessel would have to be sacrificed.
Over the months of searching, they'd both noticed that he'd changed, that he no longer flew into rages or tears so easily. Loz had thought it was a good sign, and Yazoo hadn't told him otherwise. Yazoo still had no mercy, but he had the coldly practical sense to know that he couldn't afford for both of his brothers to be broken at once.
So Yazoo had made certain to wait to face Kadaj until one evening when Loz was miles away, trading months of their kills for a better weapon.
He'd tried to provoke a reaction. He'd been more badly startled than Kadaj had ever seen him, when he couldn't provoke anything. No frustration, no argument, no fury, no lust, no disgust -- nothing.
"What is wrong with you?" Yazoo had shouted -- him, the calm, collected one, shouting; at another time Kadaj might have laughed at the reversal, but it didn't seem funny, really.
"I'm still waiting for my purpose," Kadaj said. "I don't know what I should do without one. I don't know what I should be. So I wait, and I follow. ...That's enough, isn't it? Loz likes this better than the way I used to be, you know. So isn't this good enough?"
Whatever Yazoo murmured under his breath didn't sound very complimentary about Loz's judgement.
Really, Kadaj's path was as inevitable now as it ever had been. He'd been a fool, a wish-distracted, willfully blind fool, to have deluded himself into thinking otherwise. Loz's yearnings were strong enough to spill over; he wanted things so badly that Kadaj had let himself be lulled for a time. Loz loved him, loved showing it, loved sex and lust and breathing and life; Kadaj made himself compliant and welcoming, the perfect recipient, the empty vessel waiting to be filled. Loz always tried to fill him, and always fell asleep hoping he'd succeeded, if only for a little while; and Kadaj held him and closed his eyes and pretended that he'd succeeded too; and Yazoo watched them both with something wary and almost disgusted in his eyes.
Yazoo and Loz had been screaming at each other, when Kadaj came back with blankets earlier than they'd expected -- they'd sent him to trade gil for them, and it was much faster and more practical to just take them from the yard where someone had left a dozen of the things hanging unguarded. He'd been a little bit proud of his discovery, and wanted to ask Yazoo if they could buy some flavored ice with the gil he'd saved, because Loz loved flavored ice and made entertaining little noises when he licked at it and it dripped on his knuckles, and so the fact that they were screaming at each other -- Loz sounded like he was crying; Yazoo was colder than ice and twice as venomous -- it was all wrong.
They were family. They shouldn't be doing this to each other, not anymore. Kadaj had given everything away -- Mother, Reunion, his path, everything -- so that they wouldn't have to fight over anything; they could just be, and that was supposed to be enough. Loz thought it was enough. Yazoo -- why would Yazoo care? Yazoo never cared about anything, not enough to strike out like this.
Yazoo did tend to hold his strikes until the most opportune moments, but...
...It was hard to hear through the door, but somehow, some time, he'd lost the courage to turn the knob and walk in. He wasn't the leader any more, was he? He shouldn't have to deal with this; he shouldn't have to deal with anything unpleasant, that was Loz's job now--
"Pathetic," Yazoo had hissed, and Kadaj flinched, startled -- and only a moment too late did he realize Yazoo hadn't meant his thoughts.
He did mean Kadaj, though -- he'd cut through Loz's ragged rumble with something fierce and vicious, something about "sick of you fucking him like some witless doll" and "how can you think he's happy like this?" And Loz had snarled back, "you never wanted him to be happy -- you're jealous that he's happy, you want that for yourself -- " and then there was a sound like leather striking flesh, and Yazoo had said, "Jealous of that? Watching him shut down day by day, watching his passion rot away because he thinks you prefer him like this -- without his drive, without his heart-- I've always known you were an idiot but I never thought you were that blind--"
He hadn't stayed for the rest of it. He'd dropped the blankets outside the door, and then he ran.
He knew now what it was that had horrified Yazoo, though their rational brother would never have put such an emotional name to it. He'd been deceiving himself -- deceiving them both -- because he'd wanted so badly for Loz to be right, for mindless pleasure to be enough, for sex and tickles and sparring and breathless laughter to fill the void Mother had left behind. But truth was colder than that, and it had never changed. He wished that Yazoo would have explained it to him more clearly, or that he could have realized sooner.
Mother had been crippled twice over, by the Cetra and then by the humans. She had been driven out beyond the edges of the world, to where even Her children could no longer sense her presence. Her first Ascension had needed the sacrifice of the Chosen One. Her second had needed Kadaj's sacrifice, and Kadaj had failed to fully sacrifice himself to the Chosen One through resentment and jealousy and terror. But his purpose had never changed, whether or not he stumbled around lost in a half-fulfilled haze of dreams.
In order to grant Mother the physical shell through which She would change the world, She needed a living sacrifice. And he was still Her Vessel. This time, he needed to truly surrender himself to Her will, holding nothing back from fear or envy or love.
And he would have to seek Her in the Lifestream, because She was nowhere in the world of the living.
They'd searched the world for any lingering scraps of Her physical form, after all, and found nothing.
Loz had been relieved, the longer they searched and the less they found, though he'd tried hard to hide it. Yazoo had been almost too neutral, as though mentioning the thought that Mother could have died was too dangerous to contemplate.
Months earlier, it might well have been. Months earlier, he hadn't learned how to give up everything. But he'd spent months practicing surrender to a dream; surely surrender to reality wouldn't be as hard, this time.
They of all the Planet's children knew that death of the flesh was irrelevant; it was the soul that endured. If Mother had been too weakened by the humans' assaults to reach beyond the barrier between life and Lifestream, then it remained his duty as Her Vessel to seek Her out and bring Her back.
It was that simple; it had always been that simple. But it had never been easy to face.
...he'd thought he'd been making them both happy. He hadn't been shouting, he hadn't been demanding, he hadn't mentioned Mother for weeks -- he'd taught himself to surrender, to let Loz lead, and he'd thought Yazoo had just been surprised by the difference.
This was wrong. They shouldn't be fighting about him. But he had no right to intervene -- he'd given up his authority, he'd given up--
...he'd just given up.
But he hadn't given up enough, because he still couldn't give up wanting happiness for them. And his current state was taking their happiness away. It wasn't ...right.
He'd failed the first time because he'd always wanted a different answer -- he wanted a world where he could still exist, a world where he could hear Mother say I choose you, or I need you, or You are worthy of me.
That world had never been real, and it shouldn't have been a surprise that he still hadn't found it, even after death, where there was supposed to be a Promised Land and wasn't. So the world that was real would have to be enough, because it was all there was.
And he wasn't all that fond of this world anyway; maybe that would make it easier to let it go.
Loz was the one who'd come looking for him, and his eyes were red-rimmed and puffy, and his voice was hoarse, and he held on too tight when he found Kadaj.
"You're happy, aren't you?" Loz asked, too desperate for an answer to stop and listen for one. "Tell Yazoo you're happy. Tell Yazoo I'm a good leader. I'm a good leader, aren't I? You don't shout anymore and you don't have those horrible headaches and it's better now, it's all better--"
And then he'd pushed Kadaj up against a wall and buried his face in the crook of Kadaj's shoulder, shaking all over; Kadaj stroked his fingertips through Loz's hair and let him take what he needed from Kadaj's body, and when he was done, Kadaj kissed the salt-tracks from his cheeks.
"Are you really happy, Kadaj?" Loz had asked him.
He still wasn't sure he knew how to answer that question properly. "If you're happy," he'd said, "then so am I."
Every other time, it had made Loz smile. This time, his brows crooked together in distress. "But I don't think I'm happy, because I don't know if you are, and I know Yazoo isn't. What do I do, Kadaj?"
It was the first thing that had shaken his calm in weeks. Months, maybe. He could take whatever Yazoo flung at him with equanimity; he knew how precisely Yazoo calculated everything, even sharp words thrown in anger. But Loz--
Loz was their strength, and if he wasn't strong enough to keep carrying this--
The sheer unreasoning panic that welled up was thick enough to choke him.
'Don't you dare ask me what to do,' he'd wanted to shout, 'not after you said you'd take it all -- you said you could take it! You promised you'd take all this away from me so that I wouldn't have to lead without Mother; you promised you'd be my Strength because I don't have enough of my own--'
...it was irrational, it was blind and stupid and irrational and he wanted to scream for the first time since...
...this was wrong. This was all wrong. It wasn't supposed to be like this. Loz wasn't supposed to be asking him what to do. They'd changed their path, they'd gone to look for happiness, and Loz was the one who knew how to find it, and if Loz didn't know how to find it after all--
--he'd been silent too long; trembling, Loz picked him up and clung to him again, too tight, so tightly his ribs twinged with sharp little pains. He couldn't get enough of a breath to protest, couldn't move his hands far enough to reassure; he could only wait until Loz relented a bit.
"What makes you happy, Kadaj?" Loz whispered, holding tight enough to bruise.
Kadaj still didn't have an answer. But he'd finally realized that it had never been the right question. Yazoo had known it from the first; he'd told them all that Kadaj's happiness had always been irrelevant.
They didn't need him to be happy. They needed him to take his place again. Loz wasn't happy leading, and Yazoo was disgusted by Kadaj's carefully guarded passivity, and they didn't need a smiling puppet; they needed their missing third. They needed someone to take charge.
And he had no authority of his own. In order to regain authority, he needed Mother.
The first time, he hadn't been willing to surrender everything. He'd wanted things for himself. He'd wanted to keep himself, wanted happiness, wanted acceptance -- from Mother, from their golden brother, from the world.
...He'd wanted things that he would never receive anyway.
This time, he knew better.
Happiness wasn't sufficient. He'd never really known happiness before; he wasn't even sure he'd have recognized it if he'd found it. Happiness wasn't enough; he wasn't enough; and his brothers deserved better than this. His brothers needed him to succeed. And there was nothing left worth holding back for, this time.
The lilies still bloomed thickly around the edges of the pool in the ruined church; the scent of them was rich enough to nearly stagger him. Kadaj smiled wryly at that thought; for once, he didn't mind. It would keep him from losing his nerve, if there was no way out once he'd begun.
He knelt at the edge of the pool, head bowed, and made himself empty again.
nothing but a web-silver wisp wrapped in black leather, open to that power which had always been so many times greater than his pale imitation --
--and nothing came to fill him.
There was nothing there but the silence and the chatter of doves in the rafters.
He hadn't really expected it, not here in the heart of the enemy's power, but he'd hoped that Her Chosen might have lent him enough strength to succeed. No matter. The Eldest had earned his place in Mother's embrace; Kadaj had not. Not yet, anyway.
So at the end, when there was nothing to rely upon but himself, he was still a coward; Kadaj shut his eyes tight as he leapt toward his second death.
The water was shockingly cold; it was shallow, though, and the frantic flesh-instinct toward survival cried go, now, it hasn't killed you yet, go before it starts to burn--
It hadn't hurt at the very end, though, when Mother held his hand as the rain scoured through him.
This was the same witch-water that burned Mother's legacy out of Her children; either he would die of it and find Her in the Lifestream, or he would conquer it and call Her back. Pain was as irrelevant as happiness.
It had frightened him, before, watching his flesh dissolve into luminous pyreflies that faded into the Lifestream; Mother's grasp was all that had kept him intact, and She'd held him amid all the pale shining -- just for a moment, though, just one breathless moment of peace, before She'd cast him out again. He'd nearly hated Her for it then, but a failure didn't deserve peace, and She'd granted him the opportunity to correct his failure. This time, he would succeed.
...but surely it was supposed to go one way or the other a bit faster than this.
He didn't want to watch himself disintegrate again, but the water was awfully cold, and Mother hadn't responded to his calling even here, where the dead witch-woman had made her strongest prison. Surely this would be where Mother was held so tightly that She couldn't speak across the void; surely one dead halfblooded witch couldn't have created two snares of such power.
He'd opened his eyes before he even realized it, staring down into the ripples of water, his own cat-slit pupils staring back at him in bewilderment...
...from perfectly clear water, untainted by any hint of the Geostigma, even as he stood hip-deep and dripping.
...no. No. Damn it, NO!
Hitting water was one of the most useless, frustrating things in the world, and yet here he was with nothing else he could do, splashing in helpless frustration and choking on sobs. Apparently he hadn't emptied himself of everything after all; he still had blind fury.
He took a breath at the wrong moment, coughed, gagged, and then forced himself to exhale. His lungs were burning; when he forced himself down to hands and knees, the same flesh-instinct to cough served what he hoped would be his last demand of it. He breathed in water, and it took every last ounce of control not to stand up, not to stagger over to the edge, not to cough until there was air again. Drowning himself took more effort than he'd expected.
The halfblooded witch had gained the power to thwart Mother's will through her death. If it took his own death to thwart her power, then so be it.
What, a terribly familiar voice said, am I going to do with you this time?
His first thought was incredulity; his second, that he shouldn't still be able to think. His third was that he shouldn't be able to hear either, not so clearly, not underwater-- unless the dead witch had taken even that from him. He lifted his head sharply, glanced around to orient himself amid the ruins -- but the ruins weren't there. Nothing was, nothing but a vast endless white.
Honestly, the woman said. And I thought Cloud was stubborn.
Kadaj took a breath, surprised and distantly frustrated that he could breathe, and asked, Mother?
The hesitation took a moment too long; he'd braced himself against her words, shielded himself against her treachery, even before she said, You called me that once.
Then you were the one who threw me out, Kadaj said, and didn't know whether he was more angry or relieved. It wasn't Mother's fault after all -- She wouldn't have abandoned us. You've been keeping Her from us, keeping Her prisoner--
I was also, the witch-woman said gently, the one who held your hand.
I know, Kadaj answered, his thoughts spilling out too fast to censor. I should have known you wouldn't be Mother. Mother was never kind. But I need Her. My brothers need someone to lead them and I'm nothing but a shell. Give Her back.
Oh, Kadaj, the witch-woman said.
For a dizzying moment Kadaj wished desperately that she could have been Mother, because he'd wanted all his life to hear Mother speak his name with such tender warmth. It was hard to shake himself free of that soft embrace, that willingly-offered acceptance; but he had a purpose, and if his happiness became a distraction, then happiness was dangerous.
Give Mother back, Kadaj said, steeling himself against that dangerous lure. I am Her Vessel, and I have come for Her.
Can't you be your own vessel? she asked, smiling.
He'd wanted to be dramatic and stern of resolution. He'd wanted to be like the Chosen One, who always knew something grand to say. But while he was trying to form an imposing speech, the naked truth writhed in shame between them.
I tried, and I failed that too. I've failed my brothers. I'm not enough by myself. They need something I can't give them. I tried. I can't give them happiness when I don't have it myself.
Her touch startled him; she laid her hands on the back of his shoulders, rested her forehead between his shoulderblades, and said wistfully, You and Cloud, honestly. Why do you both have such trouble believing that you're enough just as you are?
Believing lies is dangerous, Kadaj said. Telling yourself lies and believing them is beyond dangerous; it's pathetic.
And if it's not a lie?
The truth has already demonstrated itself, Kadaj answered, eyes shut tight against what the white shining laid bare. I failed them all. I failed Mother when I couldn't endure Her Chosen. I've failed my brothers -- I hid myself in what Loz wanted, and they're tearing each other apart because of it. I was born to be a shell, a chrysalis, to hold the life of something greater than myself. Without Mother's gift, I'm nothing but an empty husk -- an abandoned coffin, unfit to hold life, just waiting to be reburied. If you won't give Mother back, then let me die.
Loz will cry, the witch-woman said, softly.
I know, Kadaj said, and it hurt. But I'm broken. They still have their purpose. I don't, and it hurts them trying to make up for my lack. Either heal me or kill me, because I can't keep living like this. And I'd rather be dead than empty.
After a long silence, she said, I didn't send you back to suffer. I thought you could be happier when the only life you had to live was your own. I hoped you could find your own path...
This is my own path, Kadaj said wearily. This is the only way I know how to live. Please. Give Mother back.
Why do you want her? the witch-woman cried out, and her voice hurt like Loz's tears. She is nothing but pain and greed and suffering and ravenous devouring hunger--
I know, Kadaj said again. But Mother's alone now. Mother made us all so that there would be Reunion, so that She would never need to be alone again; Mother made three of us so that we would never be as alone as the Eldest was-- Mother hates being alone. She has to be so frightened...
I won't set her free to devour my world, the witch-woman said, and Kadaj felt her trembling against his back. We've all suffered too much to end this. I won't set her free, not even for you.
Then take me, Kadaj said, even as his heart clenched in terror at the thought of eternity with nothing but Mother's rage at his failures. Give me to Her. So that She won't have to be alone.
Stubborn, she said, and her voice caught between laughter and tears. Silly, stubborn, too-loyal child...
Will you take me or not? Kadaj asked.
She said nothing, for too long. He could feel his heart pounding in his throat; it might have made him angry, that he couldn't even succeed at dying, but he was too frightened to spare the strength for anger. To be sent back alone, or to spend eternity as the only available target for Mother's devouring rage -- neither of those were what he wanted.
But then, he still kept forgetting -- what he wanted had never been relevant at all.
After all this time, Kadaj thought wearily, you'd think I would have learned how to just give up.
He only remembered that his thoughts weren't private here when he heard her sigh.
You're absolutely certain? she said, taking his hand between her own; her hands were as gentle as he remembered, and he wished for a mad, futile moment that she could have been Mother after all. Wishes had nothing to do with reality, though. That lesson he had managed to learn.
Take me to Mother, Kadaj said.
She tugged on his hand; when he turned to follow, he was surprised at how ...human she looked, even for a halfbreed witch. Her eyes were summer-green, and her hair like autumn leaves, and she wore a dress the delicate pink of spring flowers, with a ribbon in her hair; she smiled at him, and for that one moment, he was sure he knew what happiness was, because he saw it in her.
Now remember, she said with an impish sparkle in her eyes, you asked for it.
Of course I asked, Kadaj said, a bit nettled. I need Mother, and She needs me.
That's not what I mean, silly -- oh, you'll figure it out soon enough.
There was water again; he felt the chill and the shifting pressure through his leathers, heard it lapping against the stone that was still lost amid the witchlight. There was stone beneath his knees, water dripping from his hair; the witch-woman cupped water between her hands, and closed her eyes, and called.
And then he felt Mother screaming, for the first time since he'd died. There were no words, just rage and need and starvation and terror thicker than any of it, stark unreasoning terror that screamed so loudly he clutched at his head in a futile attempt to mute the cries. There was something black writhing in the witch-woman's hands; she grasped it firmly, crushing it in light, and Mother's screams redoubled in panic.
Don't, he gasped. You're hurting Mother-- please, don't--
I told you I couldn't just set her free, the witch-woman said, and her voice was still gentle despite her cruel white-burning hands. It won't be the same this time, you know. But you won't be alone anymore.
Mother's screams were rising, fading even as they grew more desperate, higher-pitched, a wordless gasping howl of fright. There wasn't even rage left; all She had left was fear.
Despite the pain throbbing in his mind, Kadaj reached out for the witch-woman's hands. Please, he said. Stop. Just let Her have me. She's so afraid...
They always are at first, the woman replied, with an oddly indulgent smile at the gray-clouded water cupped in her hands. She'll get used to it. So will you.
Mother was still keening, high and frantic and thin. It was as if the ability to scream was the only comfort She had left; if She could still scream, then She still existed.
The water shivered in the witch's hands, fading from gray to twilight-blue to a faint foxfire-green, Kadaj said again, helplessly, Please--
The witch smiled at him, tenderly, full of some quiet, rueful affection; she held out her cupped hands to him.
He curved his hands around hers carefully, so as not to spill a drop, and then bent to drink.
The next time he noticed that he still existed, there were blankets.
Kadaj made an exasperated little noise. There weren't supposed to be blankets at the bottom of a witch-prison of liquid power. But then, he wasn't supposed to be breathing, either.
None of this had gone properly at all. He would have complained about that, except that he suspected the witch-woman would just laugh at him.
His hair wasn't even dripping. That was beyond strange. He lifted a hand to touch his hair, then realized that there were no chains, no binding -- not even a dream-binding. It was a little insulting to be considered so powerless that he wasn't worth even the illusion of chains, in the prison of the witch's mind.
"Kadaj?" Loz yelped, and then he was being hugged tight enough that any thoughts of wait, how -- why -- when--? were lost beneath wheezing mental protests of ow ow ouch OW. He thumped on Loz's arm weakly.
Loz relented a bit, took him by the shoulders, peered into his face from a handsbreadth away, and then hugged him a little more gently.
"You idiot," he said gruffly, his face buried in Kadaj's hair. "You... you stopped. We couldn't feel you anywhere. And then Mother came and said you needed us to be here. You idiot, don't ever just stop like that again! Mother said you were too stubborn for your own good--"
"--Mother said what?" Kadaj caught Loz's shoulders, pulling away until he could see again. "Mother spoke to you? Where is She?"
"She went back into the water," Loz said. "She said--"
"That wasn't Mother," Yazoo said.
"Yes she was!" Loz protested. "She was a good mother! She said to take better care of Kadaj because he's too stubborn to take care of himself, she said he's just as stubborn as Nii-san, and she smiled--"
...she sent me back. Again.
Kadaj closed his eyes, and let his head drop forward to rest against Loz's shoulder.
The earth-witch sent me back, and Mother--
He couldn't hear Mother screaming, and his heart wrenched at the memory of Her fear. But...
But he wasn't empty inside anymore.
It wasn't the raging fire that had burned Her visions into him, but when he listened, carefully, quietly, there was ...something. A tiny spark of power, an ember instead of an inferno -- wavering, unsteady, exhausted, but not extinguished.
Mother? he breathed softly, into the silence within, and the ember throbbed in time with his heartbeat.
Good, he said, and knelt, and breathed his own life into the tiny flame. We're not alone anymore, Mother. Isn't that good?
There were no words, not even anything as coherent as emotion; Mother clung to her lifespark, without the strength to do more than merely exist. But the silence was comforting this time, instead of empty-- and the respite from Her screaming was a blessing he'd never thought he'd receive.
For once, for once, he hadn't failed.
Maybe this time Mother could forgive him for not being like Her Chosen--
Loz was shaking him by the shoulders; so that was why his neck had started aching, with his head snapping back and forth like that. Caught somewhere between irritated, amused, and dizzy, Kadaj closed his hands around Loz's wrists.
"Stop that," he said. "I'm fine."
"You were going somewhere," Loz accused, his forehead all scrunched up in concern. "Don't do that. I don't want you to stop again--"
"I promise, Loz," Kadaj said. "I'll be fine now."
His tirade cut short, Loz tipped his head to one side and looked at him suspiciously. "You really promise?"
"I'm not empty anymore," Kadaj said, and realized that the names for what he felt were pleasant ones: relief, and contentment. "I can be what you both need now, Loz. She gave Mother back."
The first thing that crossed Loz's too-expressive face was dismay, before he managed to twist his lips into an imitation of a smile. "Which one?" he asked, failing badly in the attempt to hide his concern. "The Mother that made you hurt?"
The proper thing to do was to remind Loz that there had only ever been one Mother, and that the dead witch-woman was dangerous with her smiles and her lures of peace and kindness and temptation. But it was so easy to be lulled, and Loz always had been weak against offers of pleasure; Kadaj had nearly succumbed himself.
So instead Kadaj diverted him, with only a small twinge of guilt. "I'm not hurting now, am I?" he asked. "And I promised you that I'll be well. I always keep my promises."
Loz's face cleared: he stroked his fingers through Kadaj's hair, and mumbled, "I'm glad."
"So am I," Kadaj said, and it was easier than he'd ever thought it would be.
Happiness wasn't so difficult after all. He was the Vessel. All he'd ever needed was to have his emptiness filled.
Now he had Mother to guide them all, and She was quiet in his mind, quiet enough not to hurt him with Her needs; and Loz was holding him, and the blanket was warm, and everything was going to be fine.
The memory of the witch-woman's half-laughing warnings still unsettled him -- she was a Cetran witch, of course, and of course she'd wanted him to find a path that led him away from Mother.
But Loz had wanted it too. He wouldn't have wished it for the witch's sake, but for his brother, he could still regret, just a bit.
If he'd been able to be whole, if he hadn't needed Mother, his brothers wouldn't have had to struggle all this time. He could have given them what they needed, could have given them happiness and a clear path, could have spared them--
...but that was still wishing, and wishing never made a difference.
Besides -- right then, with Loz holding him close, listening raptly to his chest to see if he could hear Mother speaking in Kadaj's heart... right then it was impossible to be anything other than happy.