Loaño reared Epona to a stop. The horse whinnied and stomped her feet, slowing down gradually until her hooves remained still. She flicked her tail and nickered at her master. Loaño slid off of her horse's back and landed on the ground, her bare feet hardly making a sound. She patted Epona, silently giving her permission to graze and wander about. Epona snorted loudly and stepped a few paces away before she found a nice spot of grass to chew on.
Sighing, Loaño sat down and crossed her legs. She looked up through the gap in the trees where the sunlight shone through. It was beginning to fade, she knew, and night would soon be upon them. Hopefully it wouldn't snow again. The weather had been so funky since the Gate to the Heavens had been destroyed – at night it would snow or sleet and during the day the weather was either reminiscent of fall or midsummer when it was blazing hot. The leaves seemed to have no idea how to react – some trees were as green as they were in the summertime, while some others were turning colors, and some others were actually bare of leaves. Nature seemed to be just as confused as Humankind.
Just as confused as me, she thought. Gods, I'm seventeen – I'll be eighteen, in a week or so – and I still feel like a confused thirteen-year old. She clutched her head in her hands. I thought all that shit was supposed to stop after you got to be a certain age…
Age makes no matter, AA told her gently, even adults can be as confused as children sometimes.
Loaño took a deep breath and closed her eyes. The sounds of nature quietly entered her head. She tried to let it soothe her, but she was too tense. But aren't I supposed to know?
Know what, little one? AA wondered.
What I want to do – who I want to be, Loaño replied. Aren't I supposed to know that?
I would think that you already do, AA told her.
Instead I'm stuck worrying about whether or not I'll be alive long enough to do anything that I want to do, she said to him. I never asked for this.
I know you didn't, AA comforted. I don't know anyone who would have asked for something such as this to happen to them. But it is your Fate, little one; your destiny. You cannot run from it. It will eventually catch up to you. If you wait too long, it might be worse than it would be if you were to face it now.
I know, I know, Loaño groaned. Of course you're right, AA… you always are. I can't think of a time when you weren't… but what'll happen if I do succeed? A world without Fate is a world without direction, isn't it? Doesn't Fate guide the worlds?
They do, he replied, and it would mean such a thing.
Then how am I supposed to be comfortable with defeating them if it'll only cause the worlds to spiral into confusion and panic, without any sort of direction to go in?
You must somehow remind them that their job is to guide, not to control, AA explained.
How do you tell the most powerful, power-mad beings in the universe to step off?
First, very carefully, AA answered. And second, the Fates are not the most powerful beings in the universe. There is a saying… "There is always a bigger fish."
What could possibly be a bigger fish than the Fates? Loaño thought.
I'd… rather not talk about that right now, AA told her. Right now our concern is the Fates. Any other beings will not be our concern.
Whose concern will they be?
You'll figure that out when the time comes, AA answered, almost hesitantly. Right now, your job is to tame the Fates somehow.
Hopefully without being killed, Loaño added.
Yes, AA agreed. But that's why we're here, little one. I won't leave your side.
"Neither will we, kid," the Darkness inside of her said.
"Never shall we leave you to face such a thing alone," the Light within added, "because you are never as alone as you think."
Loaño smiled and offered, Thank you.
"Pfft," her Dark side scoffed, "don't get sappy on us, kid."
Loaño chuckled at that. She knew it wouldn't be easy, but she was very grateful to have them at her back. Still, though apprehension flooded her body and froze her mind. She didn't want to be burdened with such a Fate. It was a terrifying thing knowing that, if you screwed up, you'd end up destroying both the worlds and possibly mucking up the rest of the universe.
"Don't think so negatively, Dear One," Light Loaño offered in her sing-song voice. "You are obviously meant for this. You'll live through it. You are all much stronger than you know – the battle with the Titans taught you that."
"Yeah; you guys thought that fighting Gods would be a bigass chore or something," Dark Loaño grunted, "and look how it turned out? You guys killed half of 'em! You've got nothing to worry about in this sad attempt at a war that Set and Orochi have thrown together."
Now, now, AA told them, it's nice that you're working together to try and lift her spirits… but to be frank, I think this might be harder than you think, Darkness. Set and Orochi are working for the Fates… and they've had a long time to prepare for this event. Cronus and the Titan's defeat must have spurred the Fates into action. We cannot underestimate them.
Do you think we'll be ready in a week? Loaño wondered.
Perhaps, AA told her, but we can always work on things that you're a little rusty at…
"Like your transitions!" Dark Loaño chimed in. "Your attempts at transitioning between me and Light are disgusting. I know for a fact that you can do better."
"She cannot transition quickly enough because there is a lack of harmony between you and I, Darkness," Light Loaño insisted. "It is something that will always be difficult."
Not if you two get over yourselves and actually attempt to get alone, Loaño told them, rolling her eyes.
"Stay out of our business," Dark Loaño insisted. "We can take care of this… harmony… issue ourselves. We don't need you butting your stupid little blonde head in."
Actually, Darkness, AA began, having the little one help out is probably a very good idea. Remember the trial? You two worked together because she helped you to coexist. Let her coordinate your efforts – then all you'll have to do for now is work on actually listening to her. We don't have time to restore the gap between the two of you before the war starts in a week, but we do have time for that.
That sounds reasonable, Loaño decided.
Plus it will give you more practice at being the Balancer, AA told her. Which is something that is most definitely needed.
"So long as she isn't going to chicken out and run off, I don't care," Dark Loaño decided.
I won't run away, Loaño declared. When have I ever run? I'm just worried, that's all.
"You cannot let your worry consume you, Dear One," Light Loaño offered. "Worry is not a weakness, but it can become one."
"Your mouth is a weakness," Dark Loaño complained.
"It means shut up, bimbo," Dark Loaño growled.
"Why, you -"
Why don't you both shut up? Loaño decided. She sat up and stretched, feeling her buttocks go numb from sitting so long. She brushed her pants off and gave Epona a whistle. The horse trotted to Loaño's side and gave a whinny. Loaño petted the horse's neck and said aloud, "I should be getting back before I'm missed, I suppose."
Epona seemed to agree. She nickered and stomped a hoof. Loaño nodded and grasped her mare's mane and hopping onto her back. She reflected that it used to be hard to do that, but now it wasn't. She felt slightly accomplished.
"Let's go home," she told the horse.
Epona nodded her head and cantered off at an easy pace, making the ride home more scenic and enjoyable. Loaño looked at the confused landscape and thought to herself, I'm not going to run away.
I'm never going to run away.
Nikolai looked out the window, waiting for Loaño to return. He wasn't too keen on being part of Kidd's "sorting" session, where he was using Shinji's list as a base for separating the Protectors into teams. Izumi would be joining them as well, like always, and so would Atlas's team of… well, Nikolai couldn't identify what Itsuki actually was. Solidad explained that what he saw in the aether was the true form of a shapeshifter. It looked really fucking strange.
Yuugata had stepped outside after Nikolai had wondered where Loaño was and announced that she had just gone for a little ride. He was sure that she would be all right, and she was possibly looking for some alone time. The term alone was used very loosely, considering that she was never truly alone. Nikolai knew that she already knew about what was happening, but he wished that she was here.
He touched his blinker stone and wondered that, if he wanted it hard enough, this whole situation would disappear. He figured that he wouldn't be so lucky, though. He could shape the blinker stone into whatever he truly desired, but it wouldn't perform miracles like that.
Nikolai blinked away from the window and sighed. She would return when she felt like it – he knew he shouldn't worry, but he couldn't help it. How could he not worry about the person he loved?
Closing his eyes, he let himself drift into the aether. When he opened them, he observed the world as it truly was. He had grown used to the quiet of the aether, though every tiny movement he made produced some sort of sound. Just blinking created a symphony. The aether was a place where he could be alone and think…
Though he wasn't alone right now.
There was a woman sitting on his bed. She wore an old-timey dress – Nikolai guessed it was from Italy – with a train that seemed to flow into oblivion. Her hair was red-brown and long, flowing like water on air. The very ends were tipped with green flame. Her eyes were a pretty, glowing green as well.
"Saria?" he asked.
She looked over at him, her hair flowing all around her face. She gave him a smile and a nod. Nikolai wasn't fluent in Italian, and she seemed to know that. She bit her lip and then attempted in Japanese, "H-Hell… Hello?"
"Yes, that's right," Nikolai offered with a smile and a nod.
Saria looked pleased. He imagined that Yuugata hardly spoke to her in Japanese – he was, after all, an expert in Italian. He was sure that Saria spoke better English, though, so he asked in his native tongue, "You speak English better?"
She nodded and said, "Yes… though it has… been a long time."
"Well, what're you doing sitting here?" Nikolai wondered, continuing on in English. "Shouldn't you be with Yuugata?"
Saria blinked at him and replied, "I… am worried about her… too. I am… very worried. About… all of you."
"Yuugata said that there was a spell on you?" Nikolai asked. "Are you all right?"
She nodded and answered, "He… broke it. It… messed with… my memories. It is… slowly… coming back to me."
"Do you know who did it to you?"
Saria thought. She nodded, and then she shook her head. "Not… sure," she said.
"Maybe I can help?" he asked, reaching out a hand to her.
Saria shrank away and shook her head. Her hair flowed about her fluidly, the sound it made making a concert of different melodies. "No," she said, "no."
"Oh, right," Nikolai realized. He should have expected a spirit not to trust a medium – or maybe it was that she didn't trust anyone but Yuugata. He assumed it was a bit of both. Her spirit was so very delicate, he knew – she was lucky she hadn't become some sort of spirit-eating Abomination. "Sorry; I wasn't going to hurt you."
"I know," she said. "But I have become… wary."
"Will you let me try to help you?" Nikolai wondered. He touched his blinker stone and said, "I'm sure I won't hurt you."
"I do not know… what the knowledge will help," she told him. "I feels important… but not so much to you…"
"Well, if you don't want me to, I won't," Nikolai told her. "I won't disrupt Yuugata's spell."
"I would prefer that, yes," she said.
"I guess I'll leave you alone, then," he decided. "See ya."
She waved good bye to him as he pushed himself back out of the aether. Nikolai took a breath and looked back outside, his eyes slightly achy. He saw that Epona was in the stables beside Soul once more, so he smiled. She had returned, safe and sound, and was walking back to the house.
He smiled and stood up, ready to meet her. As he left, the freaky weather kicked in and it began to snow and hail at the same time. The house was filled with the sound of stuff hitting the rooftop.