When the visit finally ended the stars were out, and the endless blue of the sky had become a vast darkness. The stars hung above and below the cloud-island, some so close it might have been possible to reach out a hand and grasp them. The blackness went on and on and on, and so did the stars.
The visit had been both long and and short: long, for the day had gone and the night had come; short, for time had passed hazily and uncertainly. There had been much of laughter and much of tears. Not for her, of course; these were not her family, not her kin, though she was friendly with Asuka (had been much more than friendly, perhaps, just recently, but that had been a dream, and it did not bear thinking about, not even in the Dreaming), got along well enough with Eowyn, felt little for Lady Yuki beyond some residual irritation with her for birthing Allen Munchausen, and had made her peace with Hanajima (perhaps). As for those who now resided in the Dreaming, she'd never liked Mikage and he'd never liked her, and Kaede had never made much impression on her one way or the other. And Nausicaa...
History had taught her to try and get to the root of things. Why one battle was lost and another won. Why one empire fell in upon itself in a generation, and another spanned a thousand years. She didn't like to do this for herself, though; what was the need? She felt what she felt. Could that be changed? Shifted, maybe, shifted, but not changed.
But Anthy, her mother, had said...
She looked up. Nausicaa stood before her, bent over slightly with her hands resting gently on her knees. Her sky-hued tunic and trousers had shifted to a deep midnight blue; Minor had not noticed when the transition had occured, whether it had been sudden or gradual. The wind came from between the stars and pushed through Nausicaa's red hair, blowing it in front of her eyes. She moved it aside with one hand, smiling.
"We have to go now," Nausicaa said. "Thank you again for bringing them. We are all grateful."
Minor nodded and jumped to her feet. The cloudscape shifted buoyantly beneath her boots, like the deck of a ship. "No problem," she said. "We'll have to do it again some time."
Nausicaa nodded. Her smile broadened. She reached out and took Minor's hands in her own. Surprised, Minor stiffened slightly, but did not pull away. Faint ghostly faces moved round them like fireflies. Her own faces and Nausicaa's faces. Anthy, her mother, smiled gently at her. Nausicaa's mother. Nausicaa, her sister, fellow dream-child.
"We will," Nausicaa said fervently. "We will do it again some time."
Asuka and Hanajima and Eowyn and Lady Yuki were ascending the gangplank of the airship. Their goodbyes had already been said. Mikage and Kaede were nowhere to be seen. In her bones, which once had been but the stuff of dreams, she felt the coming dissolution of the dream. The clouds they stood upon would vanish and go into the great dark and come again in other forms. Come again as stars, perhaps. The visit was over, truly over.
"Sure," she said weakly. Coming back so soon was a mistake, even if it was what was right for all the others... the hurts that had been done to her here might have been healing hurts, but they'd hurt all the same, and the wounds were too raw, too fresh... there were other faces beyond the faces, dark and hidden faces, and beyond Anthy her mother and Keiko her mom there was another mother's face and that face was with her always, waking or sleeping.
Nausicaa hugged her, an act both impulsive and calculated. Minor stiffened further, than relaxed slightly and awkwardly patted Nausicaa on the back with both her hands.
Aboard the airship, Asuka and Eowyn began to rig the broad lemon sails that had replaced the gasbag, a substitution that seemed inappropriate to no one. Hanajima hummed softly under her breath and pulled wind from behind the stars to fill them. They billowed to fullness, and the ship began, slow as the progress of a snail, to pull away.
Nausicaa whispered something into Minor's ear. There was a moment of awful stillness, and then Minor roughly broke away from the embrace, began a hiss like that of a snake about to spit venom, then choked it off.
Nausicaa smiled gently, sadly, said a few quiet words. Minor looked down at the shifting surface of the clouds, the corners of her mouth twisted with the effort of not allowing her own feelings to show. The fabric of the clouds had grown stretched and thin. Through their silken translucency the dark and the stars came up.
Lady Yuki ran to the stern of the ship and called, "Princess!"
Minor looked up, startled, then saw the airship's slow drift as though for the first time. She cursed and sprinted for it as it edged out into the night. Close to the edge, she turned and looked back at Nausicaa, and grudgingly saluted. Nausicaa waved and smiled. After a moment, rather against her will, Minor smiled back, and turned, and leapt up onto the deck of the ship with ease, and headed to the wheel as the others waved at Nausicaa until she and the cloud-island had for their eyes gone into the dark.
When they were out of sight Nausicaa took up her glider and sailed away into the stars. Her clothes were black.
Beneath her hands the solidity of the wheel. Good, hard, even-grained wood, the sense of yield to her fingers that metal did not have. But this she thought a moment later is not the case--metal yields as wood yields to my strength. But there was something... the livingness to the wood, the deadness of the metal. She was not fond of growing things--flowers, plants, trees. Better the axe than the oak, always better the axe than the oak. But Yuki loved them; was there something to them she did not see? "Be supple like the reed, supple like the willow, bend and change with wind and tide." No, never; better the blade that cuts the reed, the fire that burns the willow. Better those to be. Better even the wind that blows, the tide that pulls. Anything but to be a greengrowing thing with roots in earth, waiting only to be cut down.
When they made love it was for her like swimming in rough seas. The turmoil, the envelopment. He was inexperienced, but an apt pupil. Their bodies were learning one another. Not much differently from combat. The weaknesses, the strengths. But different; the wanting and the fear of wanting and the hatred of the fear, which she had to struggle not to extend to him. The way he had made her feel, the hidden spaces of herself she had shown him.
At the corners of her eyes, the stars made streaks and tails of light. They seemed to have been travelling forever. At the stern Lady Yuki was singing a song in the language of her home, and Eowyn and Asuka were listening. Most of it was comprehensible--the language was not far from Thari. There was a maiden of the snows, and a huntsman loved her, and she melted away in his arms.
Hanajima glided up beside her, a darkness against the dark, face a pale and floating moon.
"Hello, Hanajima." Ease the wheel, a little to the left... the dream-currents running beneath the black, she could feel them, faintly, another beat atop the beat of her heart, like when she lay in Yuki's arms in the aftermath and felt the rhythm of his body lying close to hers.
"Hello, Princess." Hanajima pulled her mantle tighter round herself, as though cold. The stars rushed past.
-In his arms, his strong brown arms-
"Gets dark real suddenly here." No--not quite like that. This was like another heart, beside or within or surrounding hers. The heart that had been just a dream, the tiny beating phantasmal baby heart.
"The Dreaming moves through cycles," Hanajima said softly. She gestured with one long-fingered hand at the stars and the darkness. "Not so even, not so predictable, as the waking world of Amber, but in cycles."
-Gone the girl, gone her bright body-
"Huh." What became of a dream that woke to flesh? Certainly something remained... perhaps everything. A dream can seem real so long as it is dreamt. She had known that nightly for all her adult life. Anthy, her mother, said there had been damage done to her by Nanami's death. Had Nanami been one of the dreamers dreaming her? Dreams end--dreams end. Like Nausicaa.
"Dark to light, and light to dark, and sometimes dark to dark, but eventually--" Hanajima's voice slipped slightly for a moment, like a skater passing briefly over a rough patch on the ice. "--eventually, to light again. Many different lights." She adjusted her mantle again. "Many different darks."
-Flakes of snow, white flakes of snow-
It seemed an effort suddenly to keep her hands on the wheel, to keep the ship with lemon sails moving through the night. She swallowed and felt the lump in her throat descend downwards, lie heavy like a stone within her, then sink into the greater hole. "Did you tell 'em?"
Hanajima blinked and stirred as though woken just as she was drifting off to sleep. For a moment it seemed she did not understand what Minor spoke of, and then she smiled. The moon came out from behind the clouds. "Yes," she said. "I told them."
-The bed empty, empty but for him-
"They asked..." For a moment there was an intense, naked pain on Hanajima's face, and then it hid itself. "They asked if I wanted to stay here with them. They said that such a thing is allowed."
"Oh." Lady Yuki had finished her song. Minor glanced back and saw her talking quietly to Eowyn. Asuka was leaning on the gunwhale nearby and looking out into the night, quite transparently planning something. Minor frowned slightly and briefly regretted her decision to give good dreams to everyone, the choice she'd made within her own good dream just because it was a dream. Maybe dreams were okay sometimes, but other times they just gave people bad ideas. "Guess you said you couldn't, huh?"
"There are still very many things within the waking world to which my heart is tightly bound," Hanajima said quietly. Minor could not tell if she said it with gladness or regret, or perhaps simply with inevitably. "Uo. Tomos. Tohru." A faint smile came briefly onto her face. "It might also not have been healthy for us. I do not know if the timeshare agreement would hold with you in the waking and I in the Dreaming."
Minor laughed, brittly. "Yeah. We'd have to check with Anthy first."
"As soon as we return, we would do well to see her," Hanajima said. She sat down on the raised edge of the cockpit, on Minor's left side, and looked up at her with an odd intensity.
"Somethin' bothering you?"
"I am grateful to you, Princess," Hanajima said, with great tenderness and great sincerity, as though very deep things ran in black channels just below the cool surface of her voice. "You gave me an opportunity I thought was lost to me forever. I will not forget this."
"It was no big deal," Minor said uncomfortably.
"It was for me."
There was silence for a space. Up ahead the stars seemed to be spread wider, as though a great door was opening in the night before them. There seemed perhaps to be a thin horizontal line of light, like the crack beneath a door, stretching across infinity. Like a skyline, the preparation for some vast separation of upper dark from lower dark. Or perhaps it was merely a trick of the stars, of the intersection of their light.
"It was," Minor said with obvious difficulty, "the first time that--what I am has been something good. Let me do something nobody else--not my dad, not my mom, not Motoko, not grandma--could've done. A good thing." She paused for a moment. "Well, Anthy can do it, but..."
"I was surprised she did not come," Hanajima said. "But I suppose she will at her own convenience."
"Yeah," Minor agreed. "She's still sort of recovering from having to go down in to the Abyss." Don't mention the babies, she thought; do not mention the babies. Don't even think about the babies--Hanajima may be able to read your thoughts with that air-wave shit. Shit, you're thinking about the babies now. Stop it!
"I understand you went to see the babies?"
"What? You know?"
"Of course I know. I was there at their birth."
"Oh, THOSE babies."
Hanajima cocked her head quizzically, an owl-like movement. "What other babies would I be referring to?"
"Oh," Minor said, enormously grateful for the appearance of a distraction. "Oh, wow, look at that. Would you look at that."
The line of light in the distance grew taller, a great bright tapestry unrolled against the dark. The stars sank into it. Eowyn and Lady Yuki hurried to the prow to watch, and Asuka put her plots away and hurried to join them. The white light glowed red, like a sheet of iron fresh from the forge, then cooled to a calm, pale blue. Then like a flower or a puzzle-box, it unfolded; for a moment it was as though they sailed within a tunnel with blue walls, and then there was blue sky all around them, clear cloudless blue sky full of light but without a sun.
"Dark to dark," Hanajima murmured.
Eowyn glanced over at her and said, kindly but correctively, "And light to light, Hana-chan."
Hanajima smiled slightly. "Of course, Princess."
"Are we there yet?" Asuka asked.
Minor pointed. "There," she said. Growing out of the blue at a slightly tilted angle was the top of a castle tower, built of crystal and white marble. It hung suspended without any apparent support. A wide, tall window was prominent in one side. "We're there. We're home."
"Good," Asuka said. She smiled. "I've got things I need to do."
"My air-wave tells me you are grinding your teeth, Princess," Hanajima said to Minor. She sounded faintly amused.
"That's nice," Minor said. "That's just dandy."
At the bottom of the stairs on the mountainside, with the Dream Castle hung high above them in the early night, Lady Yuki took Minor's hands briefly. "Thank you, Princess," she said. They did not know each other very well at all. "To be able to bid my brother farewell was a great gift. I am in your debt."
"Don't worry about it."
Lady Yuki let Minor's hands go and stepped back. She reached within her robes and extracted a trump deck, then paused and looked up at the castle. "I do not know if I shall come this way again," she said quietly. "If it shall be allowable, or desirable."
"I am sure Kaede would want to see you again," Eowyn said.
"I am not certain we of this world are meant to mingle too much with the things of the Dreaming." Minor tried not to flinch, tried not to let the sudden sharp spike of bitter rage show forth. Behind her, out of anyone's sight but Lady Yuki's, Eowyn frowned hard for a moment.
"But I know little of such things," Lady Yuki added, perhaps a little hastily. She sighed. "I am the last of us. One is gone into death and the other into dreams. I do have to wonder where my next stop will be."
"Stop being so morbid, Lady Yuki," Asuka said with a snort. "That kind of shit's just depressing and serves no purpose."
Lady Yuki smiled faintly. "Perhaps. Good evening to you all." She focused on the trump, turned to a shifting rainbow-hued ghost, and vanished.
"Come along, Asuka," Eowyn said, producing a trump of her own.
"Huh?" Asuka looked irritated. "I've got stuff I need to do, Mom."
"We are going to have a conversation." She took Asuka's arm in a firm grip, waved to Minor and Hanajima, and trumped out. Asuka's protesting yell was cut off in mid-sentence.
"Huh," Minor said. "Wonder what that's about."
"I expect," Hanajima said assuredly, "that Nausicaa asked Princess Eowyn to ensure Asuka holds to her promise not to wreak horrible vengeance upon Akari."
"Ah," Minor said.
Hanajima smiled and sat down on the bottom step of the short stone flight that was always there, to which the spectral stairs of Tir'na'nog connected when the Dream Castle was in the sky. "Asuka loved Nausicaa very much, though I think you would have difficulty getting her to say it, but she did not approve of or possess Nausicaa's capacity for forgiveness, among other things."
Minor was silent, but at her sides, her fingers curled and uncurled like the stiff petals of flowers.
"I imagine you do not approve as well," Hanajima said. There was almost a teasing note to her voice.
Minor turned, took two steps, and looked down at her. "Do you?" she asked.
"I admire it," Hanajima said after a moment, "though I am not possessed of it myself."
"Do you want to be?"
Hanajima looked reflective. "No," she said eventually.
Minor, irritated, sat down on the steps beside her, arms held loosely across her knees. "Then why the hell would you admire it?"
"Because I lack the self-assurance to believe that my own personal way of being is the very best and the most desirable for everyone in the universe."
Minor opened her mouth, then closed it. She reached into her jacket and extracted a pack of cigarettes. She pulled one out and stuck it into her mouth, then struck a match against her boot, lit it, and inhaled. "I guess," she said grudgingly. "I mean, I wouldn't want to spend all my time studying magic like Motoko does, though it might not be so bad to know a little, but it seems to work out okay for her." She frowned, then blew a cloud of smoke into the air.
Hanajima gestured vaguely with one hand. Winds pulled the smoke-cloud apart into a half-dozen curls, which reformed into tiny birds and flew away into the night. "What did Nausicaa say to you?"
"She said something as we were preparing to leave. It upset you."
"I don't wanna talk about it," Minor said. She sucked a series of fierce puffs on the cigarette, burning it down nearly to the end, then tossed it down on the stones and ground it out beneath the heel of her boot.
"All right," Hanajima said. She put her palms at her sides, flat down on the footstep-smoothed surface of the stair, and leaned back slightly, looking up at the stars in silence.
"It was the most stupid-ass thing I've ever heard," Minor suddenly declared. "First she hugs me, and you know I don't like to be hugged--"
"So I have heard," Hanajima said mildly.
"--and then she says, 'You are a deeply wounded bird. You are actually a gentle bird, with broad wings and a big heart." Minor scowled and smacked the edge of the steps with the flat of her hand. "What the fuck does that mean? How dare she try and tell me what I am?"
"Perhaps it is how she would like to see you." Hanajima shrugged. "Or how she would like you to see yourself. It was a kind thing you did for us."
"Pisses me off," Minor said snappishly. "I'm not some single act, the last thing I did for somebody, I'm the whole of me. Like other people. That's how I oughta be judged. That's how everyone oughta be judged."
"We cannot see others from every angle at once." Hanajima reached into the depths of her mantle, searching for something. "Everyone has their secret faces, ones they only show to a few. Or not at all."
Minor looked dubious. "You sound like Miroku," she said eventually.
Hanajima continued her search. "Only because he is correct," she said. "I have known you for nearly a century now, and I have only lately begun to understand, perhaps a little, why you are who you are. How alike we are in some ways."
"Words," Minor said scornfully. "Pretty words."
Hanajima shook her head. "No, I do not think so, " she said, kindly, but without the condenscenion and contempt that Minor often heard behind any kindness. "Deeper." She pulled out a folded square of black cloth and played it between her hands until it flowered into a tall black witch's hat. "Souls. Would you like to wear my hat?"
Minor looked at her blankly.
"I would like to see how it looks on you," Hanajima said, seemingly quite sincere.
Minor took the hat without a word and put it down rather roughly on her head. She lit another cigarette and held out the pack to Hanajima.
"No thank you," Hanajima said. "Uo and I used to smoke all the time while we were in the gang. It does not bring pleasant memories."
"The hat looks good on you," Hanajima added after Minor did not say anything.
"It's because I look like Grandma," Minor said. "Easy to imagine her dressing up with one of these."
"I believe she did it for the All-Soul's ball a few decades ago," Hanajima said.
Minor was quiet for a moment, then nodded. "I'd forgotten about that."
"Are you her?" Hanajima asked, with a note of hesitation. "I mean to say, you have told me that, like Nausicaa, you are a child of the Dreaming. That is a rare and powerful thing to happen. I would be interested to--"
"You want to know the rest of the story." Minor exhaled a thick cloud of smoke; Hanajima, with an almost unconscious action, shaped it into a miniature of the Dream Castle, which hung before them as they sat on the steps, shot through with the moon-glow of Tir'na'nog, like a projected image, or perhaps the projector. "Suppose that's only fair. You gave me all of yours, and I just gave you a little of mine." A few days ago, she thought, you couldn't have spoken about this so calmly; Hanajima couldn't possibly have asked this of you; you couldn't possibly have sat on the steps of Tir with her, under the moon-shadow of the Dream Castle, feeling as relaxed, as open, as you ever get--what has been done to me, what has been changed, or born, or killed?
Hanajima steepled her index and middle fingers in front of her mouth and looked over at Minor. "The Dreaming has always been central to what is good in me," she said, almost apologetically. "Along with my friends, it has been one of my guides. So that which is born of it..."
Minor's eyes narrowed. "Are you jealous?" she asked with incredulous hostility.
"Yes, I suppose I am a little," Hanajima admitted. "I have been a student of such things for nearly all my life, and I could not have done tonight what you did. To bring the living into the deeper Dreaming." The longing in her voice was intense, and Minor felt a sympathetic twinge within herself, to see how badly a part of Hanajima wanted something she herself would have gladly been rid of. "To bridge the great dark between lost dreams and those who love them."
Minor flicked the glowing stub of her cigarette through the smoky miniature of Tir'na'nog that hung before them. For a moment the entirety of it glowed a fierce red, like hot iron, as the burning cylinder passed through it, and then the remains of the cigarette fell through the other side, landed on the stones throwing sparks, then extinguished. A black wound hung in the side of smoke-castle for a moment, then slowly closed.
"I was born," Minor said slowly, with the great care that comes from holding tightly a black tide of feeling in check, "in the Tir'na'nog of the World of the Dead. When Motoko went there in her dreams through the agency of the Serpent, to free King Dios from captivity. They took refuge in Tir'na'nog, which was beyond--" Her voice stumbled briefly, then recovered. "Beyond Hel's ability to taint and corrupt, though nothing else in that world was. In the Pattern Chamber, there was a ghostly Sakura, preparing to kill a ghostly Nanami. Just a little baby."
"You," Hanajima said, an exhalation of breath.
Minor nodded. "They saved me, and Motoko wasn't able to bring them back with her, but Anthy came later. And until she did, Dios took care of the baby--of me--and when Anthy came, she brought it to life."
Minor half-looked away from her. Her eyes were shadowed, and when she spoke next, there was a faint hissing undertone to the words. "I don't know."
Hesitantly, Hanajima put a hand on Minor's shoulder. "It is no easy or arbitrary thing to bring forth life from dreams," she said. "I am not of the Dreaming--except perhaps to whatever extent we two share in a soul--but I am well-schooled in its lore, and I know that much."
Minor let out a soft, quiet, uncharacteristic sigh. "I know," she said, unusually gentle, accepting. She felt the tension leaving her. Like a thin scum of ice over a deep lake. Melting in the sun. "Ramon and Keiko raised me because Nanami didn't want to leave me in Dios's care. I don't think I'm ever going to let that go completely, but I gotta let it go as much as I can. I may have this feeling that everything would've turned out better if I'd stayed with him, but that ain't nothing more than a feeling, and only stupid shits go around wailing about what they could've had as opposed to what they did have, and I've been a stupid shit for way too long."
Hanajima said nothing, feeling the tension leaving Minor, like a thin scum of ice over a deep lake, melting in the sun. Beneath her hand the hard, tight shoulder muscles relaxed, slowly--she wondered if Minor was even aware her hand was there, if she minded it if she did.
"Everything is changing, Hanajima," Minor said. She sounded sad. "There's been so much death. When I was up in Tir'na'nog, right before the final trial when I won the spikard, I had a vision. Of the future. And it was... I was happy." Without seeming to realize it, she smiled. "You probably wouldn't have recognized me. I was happy, and I was kind, and I was wise, but I was still me, I hadn't turned into some blind fluff-head who only saw the shiny things and pretended the badness didn't exist." She carefully took Hanajima's hat off and held it in her hands. "The White Knight, she said I could stay there if I wanted. Rest there. And I wanted to--I wanted to really badly. But it wasn't real. And even if it wasn't real, I hadn't earned it, and I don't trust anything that comes too easy."
"That is wise," Hanajima said after a moment. She gently took the hat out of Minor's hands, folded it, and put it away again. "What is offered without cost, without work or hardship, is too often a snare, if not then, then for the future."
"Dreams end," Minor said caustically.
"Everything ends," Hanajima replied. "Everything passes away, changes, flows." She suddenly looked immensely sad. "I can feel my own small circle shifting and changing. I am happy for Tohru and Kyou. I am happy for Uo, who has wanted this for so long, and who looks as though she may finally have managed to beat sense into Miroku. I suppose I am even happy for Tomos and..."
"Tomos and who?"
"I am happy for him," Hanajima said guardedly and perhaps a little unconvincingly.
"Ah, whatever, not like I care. Minako was babbling in my final test about getting him pregnant." She laughed, not very pleasantly. "That cracked me up."
"Of course," Hanajima said smoothly, thinking, do not mention the baby. "Nevertheless, I cannot help but feel a certain loss." She traced a circle over and over again on the step with one finger. "Perhaps it is merely because those who would have been my parents have gone."
"I'll take you to see them again," Minor promised.
Hanajima nodded. "I know you will," she said. "There will be other visits. But..."
"It ain't the same, I know."
Minor jumped suddenly to her feet. "Enough talking," she declared. "I've been shooting my mouth off with you when I should be going to get ready to go kick some ass in the Kong Fang."
Hanajima rose smoothly. "I have enjoyed talking to you," she said. "I find the idea that we might share a soul much more believable."
"Wanna go see Anthy now?"
"All right." Hanajima extended her left hand, pulling her trump deck with the other. Minor reached out and took Hanajima's hand in hers, like someone accepting an invitation to dance. On the trump Anthy stood in a rose garden. Her smile was gentle and kind.
Anthy, my mother, Minor thought with an interminging of pain and happiness. She wondered if she and Hanajima really were sharing a soul. If it mattered--if it changed anything--what, exactly, it meant, one soul shared between two people. On the one hand it sounded like some kind of romantic cliche (inside her head she made a face); on the other hand, it certainly didn't sound all that pleasant, or good. Whatever, however it was, it would simply have to be faced. It might not be pleasant, but the truth often wasn't; given the choice between being unhappy because of the truth and happy because of lies, she knew what her choice would be, would always be.
"Let's go," she said.
They were there and then they were gone. The night sky hung over Kolvir, as the smoky miniature of the castle that Hanajima had made slowly fell apart; in a cave nearby a vastness moved, white, scaled, immense, dreaming unknowable dreams. The long ghostly sweep of stairs ascended to the glittering phantasm of Tir'na'nog, home to truth, to lies, to dreams, to nightmares, to past, present and future, to night, to day, to all that is desired, all that is feared, all that is desired and feared, to things not ready to become and things too long in being, to the light that failed, the light that never had a chance to shine, the light that is or may be or could be to come, to cannot-bes and might-have-beens and could-have-beens; to dream-children, to the dreams of mortal children. The stairs shone coldly, like diamonds hacked from the hearts of stars, bridging the earth and the heavens, for some tremuluous, uncertain, indeterminate time.