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"This is absurd. He won't be home for another few hours," Esoterra says.

"That's the point, Terra. We're avoiding traffic by leaving now," Aura responds tersely.

"We can't be sure he'll even see the text."

"He has to check his phone eventually."

"Aura, none of these details even matter. You're suggesting we drive an hour on a Wednesday to speak to Zargathe and he doesn't even know we're coming. What are you trying to prove?"

"I'm not suggesting, I'm telling. I'm trying to prove that we're willing to sort this out in-person, obviously."

"Are you completely ignoring what he's been saying for the past couple days? He doesn't want to go to the Renaissance Festival anymore. He no longer wants a physical or intimate relationship. As soon as Nymphaea said the l-word, he balked." Nymphaea sat at the table in the meeting chamber as well, but she was weak and mute, a side effect of Zargathe's immediate response to her declaration.

"The hotel is non-refundable. Solan already bought the dress. We went grocery shopping for the food. He can't not go."

"Why would we want him to go? So we can spend a weekend not having sex, not sleeping in the same bed, and having tense, awkward conversation?"

"We have to do SOMETHING." Aura rounds on Esoterra, a wind whipping up around her person.

"Because we should do something for us or because Gleam's been whispering that this time is different?"

The wind around Aura died down immediately at this comment. "She thought it was different last time," she mutters.

"No, Phobos insisted it was different last time. It was him hissing in our ears that had this world in hysterics. This is Gleam."

"And is Gleam always right?"

Esoterra sighs, knowing she is getting nowhere with their emotionally-charged Luminate. "Most of the time."

"Terra, we're going if there's the slightest chance we can salvage this." She nods her head at Solan. Solan raises her eyebrows and bites her bottom lip, but otherwise makes no moves to contradict Aura.

*****

A few hours later, they sit waiting for Zargathe to get home or reply to their message. Aura grows steadily impatient and checks the sky for any sign of his Cloud almost obsessively. Finally she relents. "Let's walk around. This isn't doing us any good."

Solan takes the necessary action but stops short when she sees Zargathe's Cloud come into view.

Aura stands, slightly panicked. "Go to the bench. We'll send him another message." Before anyone can protest, she's sent off another text, refusing to believe he ignored the first one.

They wait in a heavy silence for several minutes, but no message comes and Zargathe doesn’t leave the house.

"He's ignoring them," Ignis says testily, glaring up at the Cloud.

"He's not," Aura protests. "We just need to give him more time."

"Aura," Esoterra begins, weighing her words, "Whether or not he's ignoring them, we can't wait around forever. We're wasting time. We have an hour long drive back home…"

"And we need to eat," Solan offers.

"Eventually," Esoterra remarks quickly, waving her hand.

"We haven't eaten all day. Not hungry?"

"Solan, I'm not immune to stress any more than you… or Aura," she finishes pointedly, looking to their Luminate to make up her mind.

Again, an uneasy silence permeates the room. Finally, Aura speaks. "Fine. Do it." Her expression is drawn and hurt.

Solan timidly rises and makes the preparations. Only five minutes down the road, Zargathe's Cloud swirls and comes to the forefront of the sky. Aura had been halfway down the hall but she stops in her tracks and nearly runs back at the incoming message.

"We need to go back," she intones desperately. Her gaze flicks wildly between the Cloud and Solan.

Solan shoots an exasperated look back, but does as she says. Soon Phoenix sits on a bench with Zargathe, both of them lost for words. There is a guilty, nervous air between them. Neither wants to bring up the events of Sunday, but both want the issue resolved.

Aura heads to the balcony, breathes deep, and begins the conversation. Soon Esoterra and Solanaceae join her. They take turns firing off their respective element toward the Cloud, using a combination of emotion, logic, and charm to attempt to negotiate and convince Zargathe not to retreat. Their energy is completely unable to penetrate the Cloud, as though a steel wall intercepts them on his side.

When they realize this, Aura and Esoterra make an attempt to understand why, if he never truly wanted such a relationship, he would continue initiating, leading them on, and falling back into old habits each time.

A shrewd voice rises in the northwest and a violently pink cloud bank starts spreading across the bridge leading from the Swamp. "He thought that's what we wanted… he claims to have done it for us… he claims to care… but what kind of toxxxic person cares by completely abandoning their own voice when they know they'll have to reclaim it eventually? He gave us hope when there was none. Empowered us only to tear us down."

Solan grimaces. "Stay out of it, Linnaea," she says loudly and clearly.

But it's obvious that Aura and Nymphaea are already deeply affected by his words, whether or not Linnaea sends her spiteful words to the Palace. In desperation, they still try to interact, but their energy is only met with stubborn resolve. Esoterra recognizes this as his attempt at establishing closure, no matter how long it takes, but Aura is too far gone to see anything but two years of lies piled up on each other.

Eventually there is nothing left to be said, and Esoterra tells Solan to leave. Aura leans against the palace wall for support, alternating between bouts of sadness at what is quickly revealing itself to be a permanent loss, and fitful anger at all his past behavior. She rises abruptly. "Every fucking time," she says bitterly, jumping through the skylight. She barely spreads her wings in time to catch her before landing. She holds them laxly, allowing her pristine primary feathers to brush the floor, before closing them and shuffling out of the meeting hall. Nymphaea grits her teeth and follows Aura, whether to comfort her or withdraw on her own no one knows.

Esoterra stands deathly still for a moment and then extends her wings, flying above the roof of the Palace. She hovers and squints her eyes to the south. Sure enough, a light snow rapidly approaches from the Mountains. She rolls her eyes—this is the last thing she needs right now with Aura seemingly abandoning her post of leader. The snow will pick up and turn into a blizzard if nothing is done.

As Solan forces Phoenix to put one foot in front of the other, Esoterra gets an idea. She looks at the dim, gray sunset and pinpoints the Cloud she searches for almost immediately. She walks to the edge of the balcony, ready to send a message when a black void appears in front of her and Phobos materializes on the parapet.

"You can't," he cautions viciously. His body is tense, as though ready to spring at any moment.

"We have to," Esoterra replies with no small measure of impatience. "There's a snowstorm coming in from the south, Linnaea's trying to corrupt Aura and Nymphaea so she can dig her claws into Zargathe; this is a mess and we need help."

"Not from him! Can't you see what's going to happen?" Phobos asks in panicked exasperation. "If you do this, we'll be heading down the exact same road. It starts with one big then, but then it spreads into smaller things, and before we know it, we'll be relying on him completely for any sadness or confrontation. It will be just like before. He'll be our sole source of comfort and advice. You'll handicap us," he finishes sharply.

Esoterra narrows her eyes, expression stony, raises her hand defiantly, and sends an intertwined coil of green and brown energy at the amber-tinged cloud. Phobos tries to snatch at her arm, but he is too late. "I will handicap you if you get in my way again," she threatens. "Now go back to your forest." She raises her other hand, producing a serrated shank out of thin air.

Phobos turns his back and the black void emerges from his shadow. "You've ruined us."

Esoterra lets out a breath. "Ignis, keep tabs on Aura and Nymphaea… from a distance. They need time, just make sure they don't do anything stupid, especially something that would cause this storm to advance. Solan, get us home." She gives no further instructions and the four remaining Luminaries retire to the chamber below. Eosphoros sits, pale and worn, at her chair at the table. Esoterra rests her eyes at her own place, while Solan directs Phoenix from the window, and Ignis lounges in front of the fireplace, staring grimly and inattentively into the flames.

*****

A woman emerges from the caverns below the palace, her long, wavy hair with tones of rosé and mauve falling past her shoulders. She walks to the fountain in the center of the sanctuary and gently glides her fingers under the falling water.

She shimmers and her short, effeminate dress begins to change. The hem lengthens but remains open on an upside-down v-shaped slit in the front. Layers of tulle gather to add shape and one folded, translucent silken spread of fabric falls from just under the slit. Sprays of light crystals in various colors and sizes run from the strapless top of the dress down to her knees. Fabric petals form a large pink peony at the neckline on the left and sheer chiffon gathers to make a single cap sleeve over the flower. Her fingerless glove stays the same, kept together with a crisscrossing silk ribbon, culminating in bracelets of oval opals at her wrists. Her shining, dark purple slippers with a slight heel and calf-high socks, embroidered and topped with feathers also remain. She waves a hand in front of her face and her half mask disappears.

Gleam takes slow, measured steps toward the ramps, her kitten heels clicking on the tiled floor the only sound echoing through the spacious sanctuary. Her pale, starry eyes see down the hallway to the meeting chamber beyond. She has no intention of making her presence known to the distraught Luminaries. Her form quivers like a holograph before she shows up on the balcony, a pleasant chinking hailing her presence.

Esoterra shivers unexpectedly and her eyes dart open, sweeping the room and hallway beyond, but she sees nothing.

Gleam opens her crystalline wings wide and spreads her arms in front of her. Her mind connects with the drifting crystalline snow and breaks the structures down at the molecular level. Diamond dust flutters to the ground and lingers in the air. Inexplicably, the sun rises again, shining on a bright blue sky.

Solanaceae gapes from her place at the window. "Look," she manages to whisper to the other Luminaries, pointing at the cloudless canvas. As they turn their heads to the sky and then rise to approach the window, Terminus' Cloud floats into view and opens into a Halo, the midnight sun providing the focal point.

Color seeps into the skin of the two Luminaries lying prone in their beds.

Gleam nods in satisfaction and disappears as quickly as she got there.

*****

As time passed, interaction with Zargathe's Cloud waned. He grew inattentive and unresponsive. Finally, he ceased all contact. A fully recovered Aura was the one who gave him the out. The formerly fluffy Cloud became wispy, porous, and dispersed altogether on November 15, 2016.

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