"I'd thought you'd died." The softly whispered accusation cut through the soft hum of the machines surrounding him. Though the voice was gentle and steady, he could feel the glacial rage within, so cold that it burned. "Ten years I waited. Ten years I grieved for you, believing that you'd died that day, only to have you waltz in and out of my kingdom without so much as a by your leave."
He'd known this day was coming, dreaded it in fact. The thought of turning around and facing those accusing blue eyes, in seeing the pain he'd placed there was too much to bear. We always hurt the ones we love. He'd tried to explain that to Dilandau once and earned himself little more than a sneer and a jibe about having lost more than his arm to that dragon so long ago. Perhaps he was right, but that didn't make the adage any less true, or any less cruel.
Naria, Eriya, his mother… Van. They'd all bled for him, died for him, and though Van might still live, it was he who'd murdered his little brother's innocence, who'd stolen the light from his eyes and replaced it with the embers of their burned homeland. It came as no surprise that he'd done so again with the one he'd given his heart to so long ago.
"Not a word, not a hint in all those years that you still lived. Did I mean so little to you? Did our promise mean nothing?" Closing his eyes, Folken placed his hands on the table and tried to will away the pain her words caused. It used to be so easy, simply shutting his feelings away, folding them up into a small ball and burying them deep into a dark corner of his mind where they couldn't trouble him. So many feelings, so many denials… it had been all that had kept him sane in those early years after waking up on that cold table, the harsh light of the surgical lamp bearing down on his now alien and altered body.
Worse were the years which followed. Isolation, loss, watching the cold cruel hand of science twist upon itself like a great serpent biting at its own tail. He'd seen so many horrors, so many cruelties in this world gone mad until eventually, those poisonous promises of Emperor Dornkirk had begun to make sense. There was so much pain in the world, so much chaos, all brought about by man's ability to choose. Inevitably, they would choose wrong, and countless would suffer. He'd seen it happen in an endless cycle… even now. His own choices had come back to haunt not only him, but the woman he'd once adored.
"Face me at the very least. Give me that much dignity."
"Eries…No… I've long ago lost the right to call you by your name." His voice sounded rough, strained with the emotions he'd so long ago walled away. He stared at the cold hard panels of his machine, scavenged from the depths of Palas' harbour, seeing her hazy reflection glaring back at him. "Princess, words will never be able to properly express the depths of my sorrow, nor my guilt over the actions of the past between us."
"They were still your actions, your choices." She replied. "Are you claiming that they were not your responsibility?"
"They were." He had no idea where his usual eloquence had gone. For a man renowned across Gaea for his honeyed tongue and ability to sway even the most stubborn to his way of thinking, he found himself finally rendered mute. All he could do was stare at that reflection and wish he had the courage to turn around.
"That's it? After all this time, that's all you have to say to me?" That cold voice grew soft with pain, becoming barely more than a whisper and he could feel her heart bleeding with her words. "I gave you my heart, I gave you my tears and my future and in return, you give me naught but two words." Her reflection shook its head and turned away, unable to twist the knife any further, for it was bladed on both sides and wounded her just as deeply.
In the reflection, he could see the faces of all of those who'd given him their heart, only to have it broken. Those who'd sworn to follow him, to believe in him… to love him. He'd betrayed them all in so many little ways, but it had all ended the same.
Realizing that once again, he was perpetuating the same grim cycle, Folken took a deep breath and turned around.
"Princess…" She froze at his words, but now it was she who didn't turn, forcing him to be the one to speak, or lose this moment forever. "I couldn't do it." He continued, reaching out towards her for a moment with his human hand, untainted flesh and bone reaching for that which he no longer had any right to touch. "I couldn't drag you into my darkness. I couldn't allow my own selfish desires to destroy not only you, but your kingdom as well."
"Do you think me so foolish Folken Lacour de Fanel?" Eries asked. "Do you see me as nothing more than a foolish girl who would fling herself from a cliff in the name of love?" She chuckled coldly at her words. "I am not some blind child. I'm a woman who has seen darkness and known loss. You're not the only one who has been cast into the shadows, but unlike you, I do not let them consume me at the cost of all else."
"What could I have offered you during my last visit?" He asked, raising a pale blue brow at her words, some deep part of him enjoying the verbal sparring, remembering more innocent times when they'd battled with words and ideals. "My orders were to convince you to work with us, or to crush you beneath the heel of Zaibach. Had the Emperor believed for a moment that I held any gentle thoughts within my heart for you, he'd have used them against us all. I'd have been commanded to turn you against your family, to betray your country for his twisted dream."
"Ah, and I would naturally throw everything aside. Family, legacy, loyalty all for your smile? Folken, you used to be more astute than that."
"There are more ways than honeyed words to turn one against their ideals Eries. He would have had me destroy you."
"Ah, so you are the martyr now. Forgive me for not making note of your suffering." She began to walk away, no doubt to return to the palace up above where light and hope and sanity prevailed, leaving him to wallow belowground in his little tomb.
Ordinarily, he'd have let her leave, having no time for such distractions. Too much was on the line to spare for affairs of the heart. Fate balanced upon the edge of a razor and the slightest misstep could cost them all of Gaea, but as he watched her walk away, he could almost feel two comforting presences by his side.
"Live Lord Folken. Please, live for us and find happiness."
"Darkness will come soon enough, bathe in the light one last time." The voices of his precious leopard twins whispered in his ear, warm and loving, echoing with the vibrancy they'd always shone with in life.
They were right, he knew the darkness growing inside his breast and staining his wings. Soon enough he would be joining them upon the Paths of the Dead, the paths he'd already cast so many upon. That destiny was sealed for him, all that remained was what he chose to do with the remaining life he had left.
Darting forward, he grabbed onto the princess' trailing hand and spun her around, pulling her against his chest, tasting those lips one more time and remembering warmer times.
They'd lain in a sunbeam which had filtered down through the leaves of the trees, the sound of the garden's fountains chiming in the distance, mingling with birdsong. Clothes askew and wild grins of discovery on their faces, they'd faced each other, hearts beating as one as they stared into the other's eyes, losing themselves in their depths.
"I will marry you, Folken Lacour de Fanel." The young princess had stated, her sky-blue eyes sparkling playfully and contrasting with her hotly blushing cheeks as she pressed against him, bared breasts pressing against him. "Though we'll forgo building a castle and instead commission the greatest library ever seen on Gaea. We'll fill it with scrolls and books from all the kingdoms of Gaea and scholars will travel across the length and breadth of the land to share their wisdom."
"All will be welcome within it's walls." He'd agreed, combing his fingers through her hair, his fingers still trembling from their previous exertions, still amazed at how soft and perfect she felt against him, how her spirit burned as brightly as his own. "We'll fill it with books of Science and philosophy, ushering in a new age of reason where disputes are settled with words rather than swords. It will be a dream come true."
"Are you ready to put aside your sword for me Fanelian?" Her lush lips had curved into a smile of wicked amusement and he'd chuckled, pulling her closer, wanting to lose himself within her willing heat yet again. The threat of their chaperone, their parents, the dark unseen future already looming above them forgotten.
"And here I thought you'd enjoyed my sword."
"Swords are always best when sheathed."
The sharp slap echoed through the room, though Folken didn't relax his grip on her arm, too lost in the icy fire behind her eyes to even notice that he'd been struck.
"How dare you touch me." Eries hissed softly as she glared at him. "With one scream, I could have you executed."
"You could indeed." He admitted with a gentle smile, finally relaxing his grip, though not releasing her. "It would still have been worth it."
"I can't forgive you for what you did to me. To us." Her voice softened slightly though the fires were far from banked. "Not a word, not even a note for ten years Folken. I lived as a widow without having ever wed, for I could allow no other man to touch me and sully that perfect moment we'd shared."
Closing his eyes, he gently slid his hand up her arm to cup her cheek in his palm, memorizing the smooth planes of her face, the gentle flutter of her lashes against his fingertips.
"Neither could I." He finally admitted, his voice little more than a whisper. "There has never been anyone other than you. My heart, my soul… everything that I am has always been yours."
"You have a foul way of showing it Folken." Eries sighed softly, leaning into his touch, her own hand gently tracing up the metal edges of his false arm, amazed and horrified at the cruel and strange magics which had created a limb of metal. "My Father's heath is failing due to the horrors you levelled against Freid. Our capital city has been burned, our great temple destroyed, and our main port put to the torch. I've seen the sister of my dearest friend twisted into a creature of madness and so many good men slaughtered like cattle. What happed to our dreams of a library? Of Peace?"
"I wish I could have given you the world we dreamed of so long ago in that garden." Opening his eyes, he stared into hers, wishing with all her heart that she would go on to life a full life, one of happiness and joy. A life he could never give her, no matter how deeply he wished it was otherwise.
All Draconians had a curse to bear. His mother had warned him of this long ago as they stood watch over his Father's body. It was the price they paid for the mistakes of their ancestors and it came in many forms. One could fight it, or embrace it, neither was easy as both paths were filled with pain, but either way, the burden was theirs.
He'd long ago thought that his curse was to turn on his people, to cut himself off from all that he'd loved and honoured in order to see Gaea through to a greater future. How wrong he'd been. Looking down into those beautiful eyes, feeling her soft breath against his face, now he could feel the true cost of his curse pressing down on him.
He could save them. He could save them all, but it would cost him everything. It was a price he wouldn't have minded paying only a few short moments ago, when his heart was still so carefully guarded, but therein lay the rub. His life, an empty and cold thing wouldn't have the power, the vitality to alter the Emperor's vile machine. That was why Van had been so important, why he had proven to be the greatest enemy of the Empire due to his love for the Girl from the Mystic Moon. His little brother shone with all his heart, he loved without reservation and Gaea had no choice but to respond to its power, while he, the wise older brother had so foolishly cut himself off from it all.
Only in loving, in standing to lose everything but still willing to risk it all could he have a hope of saving this world. Only in having something to lose could he win. It was both cruel and utterly simplistic.
"I never stopped loving you." His words were little more than a whisper as he gently brushed a tear from her lashes, feeling his own fall free down his cheek. "I tried to, I thought it would be easier to do what I had to do… but I was wrong. You are worth the world Eries, my princess… My Queen."
Reaching into his robes, he pulled out a shining black feather, the twin to one he'd given her so many years ago when they'd first said their farewells, believing in their innocence that it would only be a short parting.
"This feather was given to me by one of the rarest creatures on Gaea." He said in a soft voice as he gently pressed the feather into her hand, his fingers stroking over the dark plume and the doom it foretold. Yet in his sacrifice, she would live on, as would countless others. They would put this time of madness behind them all, and he could finally atone for his own part in this time of horror. "Now I give it to you. Guard it well, for you hold my life in your hands."
Carefully, reverently, he folded her fingers around it, drinking in the feel of her warm skin on his, savouring these precious moments as if they were his last.
As if sensing his intentions, she grabbed onto his hand and pulled it against her breast. He could feel the frantic beating of her heart beneath his knuckles, see the growing worry in her eyes.
"Don't leave." She breathed softly. "Stay with me, let us have the life fate denied us. Let us have one moment of happiness before it all ends." She knew. He could hear it in her voice, feel it in the way her body trembled against his, ready to fight for him despite the pain he'd caused her; And fight she would. Of that he had no doubt. In doing so, she'd tear herself apart, become bitter and cruel with the pain of building loss. Sometimes, one couldn't fight destiny.
Smiling at her, for the first time in years, he allowed all of his carefully crafted masks to drop, allowing his emotions to burst free like a dam. For a moment, he could feel the endless possibilities, he could feel the power of his people, how their will could indeed alter the world… if they were willing to pay the price.
Leaning down, he kissed her one last time, savouring the taste of her lips, the feel of her heart beating so close to her own. He wanted to stay like this forever, holding her in his arms and letting the rest of the world fall apart around them. Let them all burn, so long as he could have this one single moment of comfort and peace… but it was not to be. It was time to embrace his curse.
"Live for me." He whispered to her gently. "I've lived too long in the darkness to be part of your light. Make your fate is your own, fight for it, cherish it and help rebuild this world. Lead it towards the peace you hold in your heart and never forget the man I once was, or who I became."
"Then do the same for me!" Eries commanded, looking ready to hit him once more rather than meekly leave like some silly heroine in one of her one of her little sister's stories. "Live for me, build that damnable library with me! Let us make something of value from this madness and grow old together!"
"We both know the price of being royals." Folken gently reminded her. "Ours is a life of sacrifice, so that our kingdoms may remain strong. This is my sacrifice Princess. Yours will be much harder to bear, but I know you will. You're too noble to do otherwise."
"You're planning to die." Stepping away, she glared at him, her heart already bleeding for him, knowing that she was losing him for a second time. "You know you're not coming back from whatever you're planning with this vile machine."
"There's always a chance." Wishing he could continue to hold onto her, he nevertheless allowed her to back away, his body already feeling colder for the loss of her warmth. "But it's worth the risk if it saves us from his madness. I have to do this."
"I know." Her words were tight as she struggled to hold onto her emotions. She stared at him with dry eyes, her face once more hidden behind its mask of serenity. The only tell regarding her inner turmoil was the way she clutched his feather in trembling fingers. "I suppose I've always known that I could never keep you. We were never meant to be, no matter how much we wished otherwise. It seems that the Aston sisters are cursed to never be with the one's they love." A bitter smile graced her lips and she nodded her head, accepting her fate. "So be it."
Sighing loudly, as if in expelling the air from her lungs, she'd be cleansing herself from her inner pain, she gave him a regal nod of her head.
"I wish you luck in this quest Prince Folken Lacour de Fanel. May Jeture grace you with His blessings and may the gods of Fanelia look upon you with favour." He smiled at that, knowing that to have the Escaflowne, and more importantly, its pilot love him once more would be his greatest dream come true. Perhaps in death, he will be forgiven for his crimes.
Looking at him one last time, sealing the sight of him in her memory, Princess Eries turned on her heel and walked out of the room, her retreating footsteps fading quickly as she ascended the steps up to the palace proper.
Folken listened to the sound, sealing it away in his heart, along with the taste of her lips, then turned back to his machine. He didn't believe in the blessings of gods, but he hoped that whatever he and that strange Mystic Moon girl wrought tonight, that Gaea, and Eries would prosper. If his people truly did have the power to grant wishes, that was his, and he was willing to pay whatever price was asked to see it become reality.
Closing his eyes, he smiled at the thought of her happy future, then picked up his tools once more. It was almost ready, which was good, because Hitomi would be by shortly, and after that, it would all be over, one way or another.