24.6: The Peacekeeper & Candidate in Mañana Light

Re-cap:
The one, the elections, Scorpio, Leona whom Jericho is serving as vice-chairman for. In light of all of these developments, Jericho has befriended the potential saint candidate for Cancer Benì who promises to teach him photography so that he may use the skill for Leona’s campaign. Despite the pain that February brang, March brings with it a better light as Jericho anticipates a particular date in March.


Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

Jericho was ‘excited.’ It was now March: the month of Olive’s birthday. There was going to be a celebration. Amendment: a surprise. Werner had been planning it thoroughly. Cadence had been attempting to ‘keep it under wraps.’ Atienna and Maria were making preparations. And Jericho’s own task: the setting. Another task to complete this month: to save Benì. Yes. He was going to do both of these things successfully. It was going to be a ‘good’ month.

February had been a ‘bad’ month for many reasons. Alice had always recommended him to write down the reasons why he felt certain things were ‘good’ or ‘bad’ so he could ‘conceptualize’ and ‘understand’ his own feelings and thoughts. And so Jericho had done just that:

One: Olive did not have a ‘pleasant’ time in Zhūshā Cheng. Claire—Olive’s ‘friend’—did not have a good time in Zhūshā Cheng either. Two: Cadence and Francis did not have a good time. The one was bleaching the children’s vitae. Wrong. Three: Werner had to take chlorowheat in order to blend in with his operation. Four: Maria lost her ‘boat crew’ and her children. The one took them. Five: Atienna had a not fun encounter with Scorpio. Atienna had to capture Louise. Intuition: Louise is now in the detention center. Reason six. The one escaped. Again. Alpha said there was no reason, but there has to be a reason. There is one. I know there is one.

There was one good thing that came out of February: Benì’s saint candidacy ceremony had been pushed back several weeks to an unestablished date due to developments between Cancer and Aquarius. Correction: there were several good things that had come out of February. For instance, Benì had been teaching him how to ‘properly’ use a camera. 

Jericho would meet up with Benì every Tuesday and Thursday in the Serpens Establishment’s main cafeteria. From there he would go with the man around the establishment’s grounds during his forty-five minute break and try to find ‘a capturable moment’ as Benì had put it. 

“It’s not that we’re trying to find a moment worth capturing,” Benì had said seriously when explaining the idea. “Over a billion moments worth capturing pass by every second, but not all of them can be captured. We still haven’t figured out how to do that yet.” He flushed. “Well, I mean, there’s that film thing but that’s different. What we’re doing is trying to find a moment that we can capture—that only we can capture. It’s like that.”

Benì had a very specific camera he carried with him whenever they went on their task. Rectangular, big, black, bulky. It looked more like a conductor than a camera.

“It’s worth more than a conductor even though it costs less than one,” Benì had insisted on one of the first days they’d gone out. When Jericho had stared blankly in response, Benì had pressed with pink cheeks, “Don’t you feel the same about your… sketchbook? It’s not weird. It’s just special.”

Jericho ruminated on the question. There were many things in his journal that he was fond of. Sketches he’d made during their first few synchronization meetings. The change in his style and his slow addition of colors. The evolution from cartoonish sketches to realism. It was a sign of progress. Yes. Like Werner and Olive said sometimes. Change.

As his adventures with Benì went on, Jericho quickly noticed that several aspects of photography differed from drawing and sketching—other than the modus operandi. For one, the act of photography could not be as drawn out as sketching. Although it could require just as much time as drawing, there was an instantaneous aspect to photography that Jericho was unfamiliar with. The snapshot had to be taken at the exact moment: the finger pushed down on the button at just the right time. No hesitation. The opposite of what Alice and Werner had been coaching him to do. Always think, they said. Don’t act unless certain. 

Different. 

A ‘nice’ different.

Despite the action of taking a photograph being an instantaneous thing, however, the ‘set-up’ and the ‘waiting’ for the ‘right moment’ took a very long time. Almost as long as it took for Jericho to finish one of his sketches. Waiting: a lot of it.

Oftentimes during these periods, Jericho’s thoughts drifted to either the one, the other five, Talib, or Francis. In order not to alarm and disturb Benì or the others, he would open up his journal and readily scribble out the images that flashed into his mind during these times. Sometimes his drawings ended up as lightly sketched profiles of Francis, Atienna, Alice, or Werner. Other times his drawings were hard-lined, half-finished headshots of Theta, Talib, and Ayda—half-finished because he could no longer recall what sort of expressions they used to make. Oftentimes, on the other hand, he would churn out dark, charcoal, rugged features of Scorpio and Alpha.

A distraction to this activity: Benì. He liked to talk a lot and about many things. But Jericho liked people who talked a lot. It negated the pressure for him to wonder whether or not he should say anything in beats of silence. Usually Benì would talk about his family, his parents, or his hometown. He was also very invested in ‘football’ although Jericho was not very familiar with the sport. Werner and Cadence had explained it to him when he’d asked them, but even after that, he still couldn’t understand it.

Why kick the ball? What was the point of getting it in the goal? What was the purpose? Why were there teams? Why was there a trophy? Why was there a competition?

These questions went unanswered. 

A question that did not go unanswered: why Benì wanted to become the Saint Candidate of Cancer.

“Oh, it’s sort of following expectation really,” Benì had answered sheepishly when asked. “My family’s been part of the Monadic Temples for a really long time. It’s been hard since the war, and the Monadic Temples provide financial security to the families of potential saint candidates who complete the ceremony successfully.” He’d cleared his throat. “It’s not all about the money though, but the community and support too, you see?”

After their lunch hour was over, Jericho would usually lead Benì back into the Serpens Establishment and into Nadinaline’s office. Sometimes if Jericho was too distracted by Benì’s photography lessons, Nadinaline would come to them instead. She would always kiss him on his cheeks in greeting and make an off-handed comment about either Leona or Scorpio. She was odd, but Jericho liked her. She never spoke badly about Gabrielle.

* * *

On a particularly cool day on the 3rd of March, Jericho found himself late getting off lunch once again—this time knowingly. He stood beside Benì in front of one of the many faceless statues that dotted the courtyard outside the Serpens Establishment. A particularly ‘pretty’ butterfly had been flying around the head of one of the statues, and they had spent the past twenty minutes waiting for it to land. Benì trembled out of nervous suspense as time ticked on, but Jericho remained steady in anticipation. This waiting was surprisingly exciting—

There!

Jericho pushed his finger down on the button of the camera that Benì had lent him several weeks earlier. As he looked away from its lens, the butterfly fluttered its wings and flew off its perch into the afternoon sun.

Benì stared at him. “Did you—”

Jericho gave a thumbs-up.

Benì brightened and clapped him hard on the back. “There you go! Lesson 5 of taking a picture conquered—”

“Benì Calice? Is that you?” drew a familiar voice from behind. “Nadinaline’s been searching all over for you! She even came to bother me about it.”

Jericho lowered his camera as the light feeling in his chest was dragged down by a heavy chain. He turned slowly and found Talib standing behind him on the walkway. The man was dressed in his usual crisp business suit. It looked dry and cold on him.

Wait. No, this was not Talib, Jericho reminded himself as always. This was Scorpio.

Benì stared at Scorpio for a moment before checking his wristwatch and flushing. “Oh—saints. It’s already 1:14, Jericho! Nadinaline’s probably worried sick!” 

Wordlessly, Jericho helped Benì gather his things and began to head back to the establishment building with the man.

“Wait, Jericho.” Scorpio stopped Jericho with a casual hand to the chest. “Let’s talk.”

Benì paused, looking back at Jericho with concern.

“No.” Jericho held Benì’s gaze. “I’m going.”

Scorpio held tight. “Just a little chat, partner.”

Now, Jericho paused. He met Benì’s eyes and nodded. After a moment’s hesitation, Benì headed back towards the Serpens Establishment alone. Jericho proceeded to turn to Scorpio.

“What do you think you’re doing, Jericho?” Scorpio asked, smile thinning to an unusual frown.

“Taking pictures,” Jericho replied, staring over Scorpio’s head because he was unable to meet the man’s eyes. “For Leona. Practicing.”

“With the potential saint candidate for Cancer?” Scorpio arched a brow before smiling again. “What? Are you trying to stop Benì from becoming Cancer? It is a choice of free will, you know? He wants to become Cancer, partner. Who are you to stop someone from doing something they really want to do? How did you feel when Alice, the others you’re connected with, and I tried to stop you whenever you pursued an ELPIS leader?”

Jericho’s stomach churned uncomfortably. “He does not know what it actually means to become a candidate.”

“I didn’t either. But look at me now. Don’t you see?”

Jericho fell silent. Not out of choice. He didn’t know how to respond to Tali—Scorpio. What did he mean by that? 

“I’m serious, partner.” Scorpio looked away suddenly. “You shouldn’t get your hopes up. Once the potential candidates are brought to this point, it really is inevitable. Everything is. Just enjoy yourself while you can.

“Why are you saying these things?” Jericho finally asked. “Why did you say those things. Back in Capricorn?”

“I just don’t want you to get hurt, partner.” Scorpio said before he chuckled. “But who am I to get in the way of what your heart wants you to do?”

* * *

(           )

Jericho continued to assist Francis, Maria, and Cadence in the search for the one. It was, however, more difficult for the Romanos and Campanas to maneuver around Signum now due to Lita’s capture. There was no one to check whether or not the people they sent out became infected once they came back. 

It was insufficient. Werner’s plan was good, but progress was slow. 

And yet still—in-between the pounding thoughts about finding the children and Alpha, Alpha, Alpha—Jericho’s mind drifted to Benì. He wanted to ask Francis about the man’s saint candidacy ceremony but he felt ‘guilty’ for not focusing on the ‘big picture.’ It felt wrong. Alpha, the one, the pounding questions, the need to stop any more children from being tricked: these were all things that were ‘most important’ but—

But Cadence assured him it was fine to get ‘off-task’ once in a while and that Francis wouldn’t mind the questions. And just like she said, on March 5th when Jericho came to Francis on the premise of sharing his photographs, Francis listened to his concerns about Benì and Cancer.

“Cancer…” Francis murmured in thought. He remained silent for a moment, puffing on his v-cig and flipping through Jericho’s photos. “Yes, Cancer was one of the more genial candidates. The records are damaged but I believe they were initially against the syzygy. As for a means of prevention, on the other hand… the best means of preventing a potential saint candidate from becoming one is from preventing their initial fall into the reservoirs. Once they touch the reservoirs and a small amount of that vitae enters them, the pull will be irresistible. It’s not only a matter of psychology but also of physics.”

Physics. A fall. Gravity. Inevitable. 

Like Talib. On that day when they’d faced Jin. On top of the reservoirs. It was just for a ‘moment’ as Claire had explained, but a moment was all that was needed. A snapshot. A photograph of an instant.

“Benì is set on being a saint candidate,” Jericho said. “He… I want him to stay Benì.”

Francis gave him a sympathetic look. “We can’t directly change which path people choose to take,” he finally said, taking a long drag of his v-cig. “What we can do is change the environment of the path around them.” He smiled wanly. “Give them a better option so to speak. That’s a fine line to walk—between manipulating someone, lying to someone, and convincing someone. Not easy in the least.”

Jericho pondered his words. “I tell him the truth.”

Francis nodded. “Honesty is always the best… Although sometimes it’s more trouble than it’s worth…” After a pause, he lifted one of the photos up. “This is a very nice one.”

It was a picture of two magpies bathing in a water fountain in morning light.

Jericho stared at the man before staring at the photograph. His stomach churned. “You can keep it. A gift.”

* * *

Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

Outside of searching for the one and the children and spending time with Benì, Jericho found himself at Leona’s side often. Olive described her as demanding, while Werner described her as methodical and Atienna described her as unusually driven.

When Jericho had informed Leona earlier about the one and his plot to raid Ophiuchus, Leona had reacted only partially with surprise. 

“We’re quite aware of Alpha’s activities,” she’d said as she’d sat across from him in her office. “I have a specialized task force designated specifically to track down and capture Alpha.”

“They are not doing a good job,” Jericho had interjected almost immediately.

Leona’s expression didn’t change. “I agree with you on their lackluster performance. It seems as if my faith in them is too high. This wouldn’t be the first time that they’ve disappointed me and yet they still look to me approval… like ants—no, like lambs.” She’d stared at him head on then and had asked in an unwavering voice, “And how exactly did you discover this about Alpha?”

“From the others.” Jericho didn’t elaborate any further. 

Leona had regarded him for a very, very, very long time before she explained calmly, “The Ophiuchus raid wasn’t something we were aware of since Scorpio hasn’t been able to plant any of his spores or offshoots anywhere near Alpha. But it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. This won’t be the first time Alpha has tried to raid Ophiuchus.”

There it was again. That piece of information. Alpha had tried to break into Ophiuchus before. But first—

“The children. The chlorowheat—”

“The chlorowheat?” Leona frowned. “People who take things like that are pathetic. They can’t bear the pressure of living, responsibility, and so on so they find the most relieving means of escape. However—the people who take advantage of people like that are even more pathetic. Weaponizing something that putrid is distasteful.” She let out a quiet sigh. “Now that we’re aware of it, we’ll make proper preparations.”

Jericho nodded, then immediately asked, “Why did Alpha raid Ophiuchus?”

Leona’s lips turned upwards. “Why do you think?”

“To try to stop you.” It felt wrong to say that out loud because the action in itself was good because the saint candidates were bad but Alpha himself was bad. Confusing. Misalignment. 

Leona gave a mirthless laugh as she rose from her desk. “No. Alpha was never the righteous type. Although he won’t admit it, all he wants is to reunite with Ophiuchus.”

“The candidate?”

Leona nodded.

“But… Intuition: they are not ‘here’ anymore.”

“In a sense.”

Jericho stared. Then, he asked, “Do you hear the bells, Leona?” 

Leona paused, turning to him slowly, eyes just slightly narrowing. “I hear them the loudest.”

* * *

Jariyah, Scorpio

Sometime later on March 7th, Jericho found himself riding out from the Grand Snake Station alongside Leona. He had been spending the last several weeks traversing by train with her to where the borders of Ophiuchus met the borders of other countries. Once there, Leona would readily give speeches to large crowds of people and then converse with the locals.

Politics.

Gross. 

However, they were also rather interesting. 

Jericho would always be sure to check the election boards which had been moved into the Assignment Department with Ferris whenever he returned to the Serpens Establishment. It was also where licensed Conductors came to cast their votes. He had seen quite a few familiar faces coming in and out of that department lately due to the elections: people casting their votes. Chiamaka of the Maneo Tribe. Mai and Kai of the Xing Clan. Even Veles—although he didn’t have the opportunity to speak with the man.

As the train bound out to the borders rattled on, Jericho wondered what people he would meet—or re-meet—when he returned to Ophiuchus. On this particular day, they were set to visit Scorpio. He had not set foot in this country himself for some time. No. Not since that night in that conductor plant. Not since he’d last seen Ayda.

Once they arrived at the station and stepped off the platform, Jericho was immediately greeted with a wave of heat. The sun was clouded over by a thin layer of clouds but the air was still dry and thin.

He quickly followed behind Leona as she paced through the streets. He carried with him two suitcases. As they passed along the dirt road and kept to the sides of the white limestone buildings, Jericho took note of the camels trudging along slowly. He had seen one of these animals in person himself before—he was certain. He just couldn’t remember when or where.

Once they reached the hall where Leona was to make her speech, he pulled out her speaking notes, followed her up onto the stage near the back, and handed them to her. This particular meeting hall was somewhat nicer than the meeting halls they’d visited in other countries. The walls were limestone and the ceiling high and curved. There were glass panels up there that allowed natural sunlight to filter on through. The stage itself was elevated on a rock-based platform above the auditorium which was dotted with wooden pews nailed to the ground. 

Unlike Epsilon’s and Fortuna’s wedding from earlier in February, this hall and its pews were filled to the brim with men and women dressed in silk garments that nearly ghosted the ground with their length. Despite the large crowd, Jericho did not feel uncomfortable. No, it felt familiar.

He stepped into place behind Leona as she began to speak to the crowd, but his attention drifted in and out.

“We will reach all corners of Signum with our peace,” Leona was saying, “but we will not forget the individual pride each country has…”

Jericho’s gaze drifted towards the glassless windows. Sand dusted the sill there and had spilled into a fine, thin layer on the floor. Sand—

The feeling of it slipping in-between the folds of his suit was both a familiar and foreign feeling. The sun beating down and seeping through the fabric of his clothing felt like a blanket without touch. The sand was uncomfortable but the sun was nice.  

If he closed his eyes now and remained here for a while, Jericho wondered if he could remember what it was like before. Yes. The tents billowing in the winds. The sand beneath his toes. The scorching heat. Her call to come home for dinner—

“What is it?”

Jericho opened his eyes. Leona was standing beside him. The hall and auditorium were empty. 

“I don’t enjoy it when people under my employ look like they’re not even paying attention to me when I’m speaking,” Leona drew, amber eyes glimmering intensely. “What’s your excuse?” After holding his gaze, she pulled back and drew, “Is it the heat? Are you feeling faint from it?”

“I am not about to pass out if that is what you are asking,” Jericho replied. “I was born here. I was trying to remember what it was like. I apologize for not paying attention.”

Leona regarded him for a moment before descending the stage. “The heat here almost rivals Leo’s heat in the summer,” she said, looking out past the pews. The sunlight sauntering down caught the gold of her lashes. “Only, there’s no relief here like there is in Leo. It’s a dry and arid place here. This country is far from perfect.”

Jericho watched her reach ground level before he replied, “I enjoy the heat.”

They exited the meeting hall together which was when Jericho noticed that one of the adjacent buildings hosted a billboard that was being pasted over with a new poster. He stopped short, stared at it. 

Captured on the poster was a facial shot of a smiling Talib. Beside his face was a slew of words printed in bold ink:

A KINDER SIGNUM.

WITH YOU, ME, EVERYONE. 

MEETING EYES.

HAND IN HAND.

Leona stopped as well and studied Jericho. She then followed his gaze up to the billboard before she offered a mirthless laugh. “I heard that Talib Al-Jarrah’s parents are the ones who put those up all around. They didn’t think to ask him—although I doubt he’d mind given the egomaniac he is.”

“I haven’t met them,” Jericho said, looking back down at Leona. “Talib’s parents.”

“They’re kind people,” Leona replied after a pause. “I met them at Scorpio’s official ceremony near the beginning of the year.”

“Scorpio met with Talib’s parents.”

“Talib is Scorpio,” Leona corrected, turning and walking forwards once more. “Though, I bet Scorpio relished in every second of their doting while simultaneously loathing it.”

Jericho cocked his head, but Leona didn’t elaborate.

When Jericho returned to Ophiuchus, he headed to the Assignment Department immediately. Ferris was already standing in front of the rolling results bulletin board. She offered him a smile as he approached before they both went over the quarterly results together:

Twentieth Round Election Results 

ELPIS Investigations Department: Leona Gloria-Angelo – 531 votes.

Psychological Evaluations Department: Talib Al-Jarrah – 530 votes.

International Relations Department: Seamus Dolby – 508 votes.

General Investigations: Gabrielle Law – 502 votes.

Conductor Regulation: Katharina Groth – 420 votes.

Reservoir Conservation Department: William Saovàng – 418 votes.

Commerce Regulation Department: Luca D’Angelo – 316 votes

Communications Department: Saddine Agwuegbo – 210 votes.

Conductor & Vitae Research Department: Moraeni Pōʻai – 210 votes

Assignment Department: Nadinaline Delacroix – 106 votes

Medical Department: Hårek Ohmdahl – 96 votes

Conductor & Vitae Research / Literary Department: Sera Aliz – 85 votes.

* * *

Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus

“That’s… a lot, Jericho.”

It was March 8th. 

Jericho was sitting at the foot of the steps of the Serpens Establishment. Benì sat at his left and was staring at him wide-eyed as he cradled his camera.

“No, it’s not a lot. It’s the truth,” Jericho corrected, head cocked. “If you become a Saint Candidate of Cancer, you will no longer be yourself. The Anima-Vitae Hypothesis. Energy levels. It is real. The proof is in Talib Al-Jarrah.”

“The Saint Candidate of Scorpio…?” Benì drew slowly. “The chairman…” He shook his head and chuckled nervously. “I know the saint candidacy ceremonies can be scary, but that’s usually for the potential candidate—so I really appreciate your concern. Makes me feel a little bit less nervous especially since my parents are hoping for the best…. But it’ll be fine, Jericho.”

Jericho shook his head.

Benì nodded. “It’ll be fine. There’s been a lot of candidates in the past for Cancer, and they all come out perfectly fine and… ‘like themselves.’ I’ve read papers about the ceremonies from the temples and everything so I know what to expect.” He winced. “I know Monadism can be controversial in some countries and there’s a lot of misconceptions, but…”

No. No—

“No. He is no longer himself. Talib. He was my—” Jericho stared at Benì for a moment, unable to find the correct word. “He always said ‘question everything.’ The Organization. He was right. And he was kind. We worked together. And now he’s not himself.” He searched Benì’s face. “Your parents. Your family. You will not feel the same way about them like you feel now. You will not care for them. Not photography either. It changes how you feel and think. I know. I… think.”

Benì paled slightly at the last statement. 

Jericho wondered if he should have gotten Cadence’s help in convincing Benì instead. He had wanted to do this instead. Without manipulating Benì. The truth. But maybe—

“I…” Benì stared at his camera. “Maybe I should ask to postpone the ceremony for a little while…” 

Jericho felt his chest lighten. “I will help you run.”

‘Run’?” Benì chuckled. “I don’t think there’s a need for that. I’ll just tell them that I’m not ready yet.”

 Jericho offered him a thumbs up. “I will help you. Whenever the day is.”

Hesitantly, Benì reflected the thumbs up back.

* * *

In the early morning of March 10th, 1942—a date marked and mentioned several times in his journal—Jericho arrived at Alice’s apartment complex on the outskirts of the Serpens Establishment with two bags of groceries. He had asked her if he could come at 4:30 am on the day around two weeks prior. His reasoning: he did not have an oven in his own apartment and he needed one to complete the many tasks Werner had set out for them on this day. The others did not have access to ovens either at their far reaches of Signum, so he was given this very important oven-related task.

Alice had accepted his request without much question. She’d given him the keys to her apartment two days after his request and had told him only ‘to be quiet’ when entering.  

Alice’s apartment was located on the west side of the Serpens Establishment on the third floor of the suite buildings. These apartments—these suites—were on the ‘high-end’ of things in the Serpens Establishment. Although Cadence wasn’t awake as Jericho made his way through the security gates to the complex and up its elevator shaft, he could hear her voice rattling at the back of his head and saying, “Flannery wasn’t the only moneybags on Gabe’s team.”

Upon reaching the seventh floor of the building, Jericho wandered the halls until he found it: Suite 416. The number was gold while the door itself was painted a bright blue which contrasted greatly with the white walls of the entire building. As requested, he did create a ruckus: no jangling keys as he tried the door, no squeaking the door as he entered. 

Inside was quiet.

He had never been in Alice’s apartment before but it was exactly as he expected: much different from his own. There was a lot of furniture. A small table hosting only a vase full of fake plants rested at the corner of the entryway. From there expanded a hallway lined with tables and hung with different picture frames.

Recalling what Alice had told him of the layout of her apartment two weeks prior, Jericho headed through the hall and curiously eyed the picture frames hanging there. Inside one was a diploma from a university in Libra. Another one pictured Alice standing with what Jericho conjectured were her classmates. And the next—

Jericho paused.

Captured in a black-and-white photograph in a small wooden frame at eye-level was a trio of adolescents. At the center stood a curly-haired and freckled boyish-looking young woman sporting overalls. She reminded Jericho of Cadence. On the woman’s left was another woman with short hair and dressed in a spotted Sunday evening gown. Her arms were crossed but she was smiling slightly. On the very left was a young man with a full head of curly black hair and a mole in the corner of his eye. He was dressed in a button-up and smiling from ear to ear.

Jericho stared, then glanced at the photo right beside it. There, he found a group of eight adults: four men and four women. They were all dressed in suits and seated in a familiar-looking office. 

No distractions. Today was the day.

Jericho continued down the hall until he reached the kitchen area. It was fully stocked: a marble kitchen top, cabinets most likely full of baking and cutlery, a stove, and an oven that looked untouched.

Perfect.

As Jericho rummaged through Alice’s cabinets, Werner and Maria synchronized in fully with him. He was surprised by Maria’s early arrival, but not so much by Werner’s. Maria was back in Encuentrolza at the hospital since Morandi hadn’t yet fully recovered. She split her time between here and Francis’s room now as did what remained of her ‘ocean crew.’ She was not as bright as before, Jericho noticed. Meaning: she smiled less.  Because of the one. It was all his fault—

But despite this, Maria greeted Jericho with a grin like usual and threw her hands up in the air and then around him excitedly. Her warmth remained. 

Maria was very good at finding things. She quickly found all the bowls, measuring cups, scales, and devices that he had spent the past fifteen minutes searching for. Jericho was glad. Those items were, after all, required to perform their serious, important task. Once Werner had organized everything that Maria had found, it was time to move onto the next step. 

The next step: bake.

Werner took charge here, pulling out the fruits, the flour, the eggs, the sugar from the grocery bags Jericho had brought with him. Measure, cut, pour, cut, mix, measure. Werner was very, very exact with everything. Measuring cups and the scales and even the temperatures the ingredients needed to be at: everything precise. 

“You are very serious about cakes, Werner,” Jericho noted as he felt the man carefully mix the brown sugar into the room temperature butter. 

“Everything in life should be taken with some degree of seriousness,” Werner said seriously as he moved on to carefully measure and dice the strawberries. “If that wasn’t the case then nothing would be accomplished.”

“I like your seriousness,” Jericho replied, somewhat able to tell that Werner had become self-conscious of the fact. “It is reassuring.”

“You wouldn’t be Werner if you weren’t serious!” Maria exclaimed from where she was perched on the countertop before she leaned in towards him. “Oh, but you could relax more, yes?” Her voice was quiet as she reached out to tap his chest. “You should be more careful about ‘stress,’ no?”

“It’s true, Captain,” Cadence’s voice rang through Jericho’s head then his ears as she phased into focus in front of him and rested her elbow against the countertop. “Relaxin’ a little’s never hurt anyone. Ever heard of a spa day? Doesn’t your government offer those now for people workin’ in the capital?”

Atienna synchronized in just beside her with a pleasant smile before her attention was drawn to the mixture Jericho—Werner—was still carefully mixing.

“May I help, Werner?” she proposed.

Werner nodded in approval and Jericho could feel the synchronization between them strengthen. The two carried on with the mixing and measuring, guiding Jericho’s hands along the way. Occasionally, Maria would make Jericho dip his fingers into the mixture and taste it which earned a frown from Werner. Cadence meanwhile assured the test-tasting was necessary since Olive had ‘a picky palette.’ 

Half an hour later, Werner and Atienna pushed five baking pans into Alice’s oven and set the timer. Afterwards, they all sat in silence for a while around the kitchen. Cadence decided after some time to wander into the exitless room on her end of things that contained the grand piano she’d swindled out of a passing merchant Maria had encountered in Leo two months back. Francis was already in that room lying prostrate on the sofa in the corner with a book over his face. She eyed him for a moment before shrugging, heading to the pianos, and tapping out a pleasant melody on the keys.

Meanwhile, Maria took Jericho back to the photographs hanging along the walls. Werner and Atienna both argued for privacy, but Maria was set on going through them all. She pointed at each photo and played a guessing game with Jericho on where the photo may have been taken. Jericho didn’t understand the game, and he reasoned that this was why he eventually lost. Cadence insisted it was a rigged game to begin with.

Twenty minutes later the cakes were done and pulled out of the oven. Werner then moved them to the refrigerator to cool. 

“It’d be nice if we had an air Elementalist with us, ya know?” Cadence sighed, rocking back on her feet. “We’d cool the cake like that.” She snapped her fingers before smiling and spreading her arms. “I can only entertain ya for so long, right? Gonna get bored of hearin’ the same songs over and over again, right?”

“It has to cool at an appropriate pace, Cadence,” Werner corrected before he added: “Besides, all of your songs are unique and memorable enough to be heard repeatedly and still be considered enjoyable.”

“Aw, shucks, Captain,” Cadence said as she returned to her piano playing. “Now ya just cursed yourself ta listen ta me play for eternity.”

After exactly two hours and fifteen minutes, Werner removed the cakes from the fridge and placed them down on the counter. He carefully set the first layer of cake down on the fancy plastic platter stand Jericho had bought earlier and then began to even slather it carefully with the mixture of strawberry and cream. Layer after layer.

Next step: decorating. 

Now, it was Jericho’s own turn. He was not familiar with cake decorating. Atienna had read books about it and had decorated a cake for her siblings a few times, so that knowledge had seeped down to him, but that was all he had to go on. The others did not have any experience with it. Atienna was the expert here. She had even offered to take up the decorating due to her more precise knowledge, but Jericho insisted on doing it instead. He was not good at ‘giving gifts’ so he wanted to do at least this for Olive. 

And so, he pulled out his sketchbook and turned to the page that hosted the numerous designs he’d drawn for the cake, fiddled with the knives and piping bags much to the concern of Werner and the chagrin of Cadence, and then went to work.

Occasionally Werner would say “very good, Jericho” or “impressive” which made Jericho focus even more so. Atienna’s additional comments of “oh, it’s definitely better than what I would’ve done” made him work all the more intensely.

Jericho thought about the two of them often in his idle time when he wasn’t thinking about the one, Francis, Talib, or the children. Correction: he worried about them. It was intuition more than evidence. They confided and conversed with each other frequently out of ears reach of Jericho and the others. It was unspoken, but those two had been the ‘leaders’ of this ‘spirit crew’ since their first synchronization meeting. They did not confide in each other quietly this time, however, and instead spoke openly about the texture and filling of the cake.

Maria and Cadence, on the other hand, spent the time discussing whether certain things were considered music and what could be considered love. Cadence—despite Jericho finding her to be more relaxed and easygoing than the rest of them—was very stringent when it came to music and love. 

Jericho was worried about the two of them too. Addition: he was also worried about Olive. He was worried about all of them. It was not a feeling he was unfamiliar with. Before their first synchronization meeting in Olive’s room almost a year ago, he did feel this emotion towards Alice on occasion.

To have something he could worry or care about—Alice had often said this was a very good thing. Jericho was starting to understand what she meant by that.

After Jericho finished applying the last carefully placed dollop of frosting on the cake, he stepped back to present it to the others. The cake was rounded at its top and narrowed down to a point at its bottom. A green stem of frosting rested on its round head.

“Definitely looks like a strawberry,” Cadence noted, whistling.

Following this approval, Jericho set the cake in Alice’s small refrigerator to cool. 

At 9 am—later than usual—Olive finally woke up. Amendment: Stein woke Olive up by flying into his room and shaking him out of bed. As soon as Stein exited Olive’s motel room and Olive finally dragged himself up to a sit, Jericho reached out to him and pulled.

All of their synchronizations increased simultaneously, and Olive appeared dazed by all of their presences.  Cadence’s image was before him in a heartbeat.

“Surprise!” she sang, snapping her fingers and transmuting the illusion of the words ‘HAPPY BIRTHDAY’ right over his head.

Olive blinked in what appeared to be stupor.

Cadence then ran back to her piano and began to play out a slightly familiar song. After a series of notes, she began to belt out—

“Happy birthday…”

Maria and Cadence sang loudly, while Atienna hummed the words quietly. Werner remained stiff and silent for the most part but Jericho could occasionally hear him humming as the man pulled their cake out of the fridge and presented it before Olive. Jericho himself tried to sing along but he kept missing every few words.

By the time the song, Olive had stumbled out of bed and gazed at them befuddled. Maria erupted into applause first and threw her arms around him.

“You are one year older now, yes?” she pressed excitedly as Cadence threw illusory confetti around in the background. “You are taller, no? Wiser, maybe? You have definitely grown, yes? Another wonderful year has been added to your life, yes?”

Olive stared at Maria as she pulled away.

“Saints, kid.” Cadence sighed, heading lolling to the side. “Ya could give us more of a reaction, ya know? That’s what surprises are really all about. Reactions and stuff.”

Olive scanned the kitchen. “I… sorta figured… I mean, I heard some of your thoughts sometimes… and…” He glanced at Jericho. “And I could tell some of you guys were excited about something…”

Cadence arched a brow. “Ya know, kid, usually when people are aware of surprises already, they still pretend ta be surprised. Ya know—so other people don’t feel bad—”

Olive’s face lit up almost frighteningly, and a wide and unnerving smile cracked across his face. “Wow! I’m so surprised! Amazing!” His expression fell flat a second after, his cheeks flushing. “There. Quota filled.”

“Earnesty and sarcasm all in one,” Cadence noted before spinning around. “Finally a synchronization party though, ‘ey? We can finally mark that off the bucket list.” She turned back to Olive. “How are ya feelin’, kid? Come on. No need ta be shy. It’s your day.”

“I…” Olive shifted from side-to-side, not meeting anyone’s eyes. He rubbed his arms. “Look. Sorry if I came off as rude. I’m just… surprised but not surprised. I appreciate the effort you put into all of this. Well…  I appreciate all of you, alright? Thank you really… for this…” He squirmed. “And for more than this.” He scowled and sighed. “I hate being sappy but I feel like I need to say it after everything that happened last month… Plus after finding out that we might’ve known each other before… I don’t know. I just… feel… lucky I guess…”

“Aw, kid…” Cadence reached out for his head but Olive slapped her hand away.

The mysterious seventh, Jericho thought vaguely.

Atienna was skeptical about the seventh. Cadence didn’t seem to think it was a ‘concept worth investing in.’ Maria didn’t think about it. Jericho wasn’t quite sure what Werner thought of it, but he knew that Olive was very interested in it.

It did not seem quite ‘logical’ to Jericho. There was very little evidence behind the existence of the seventh. But Francis had settled on the ‘seventh’ theory, and Francis was smart. But Atienna was also smart and didn’t believe the idea wholeheartedly. A misalignment.

Still. If there was a seventh, then—as Francis explained—that meant that they would have had to have been connected before. Before? Before ELPIS? Before Alice? Or before…? Yes, that was pleasant. Imagining having the others with him. Jericho wondered—if the seventh was real—what it was like.

“Seventeen—almost eighteen.” Cadence snapped her fingers over Olive’s head and transmuted the illusion of a glass of wine in her hands. “It may or may not just be downhill here age wise for ya, kid, but that doesn’t mean ya can’t enjoy yourself.” She wiggled her fingers and transmuted the glass of wine to a handful of confetti which she tossed over his head.

Olive scowled and waved her hand away. 

Cadence gave a short laugh. Amused. “Say, since the kid started with the sap—” She transmuted another illusory glass of wine. “How about we all say a toast—”

Maria leapt up from where she’d been sitting on the countertop. “Oh, me first!” 

Sometimes it was necessary to say things out loud.

Even though words were never enough.

“You are all my spirit crew!” Maria sang. “You are the best spirit crew!” She leaned back against the counter as her gaze fell slightly. “You are there when others are not…” She beamed. “And so, I will make your dreams a reality too like mine are, no?”

There was a beat of silence.

Well, I was more thinkin’ along the lines of sayin’ a toast ta the kid…. But—” Cadence nodded then, spreading her arms. “I like this idea better. What say you, kid?”

Olive shrugged.

Cadence chortled then flourished her hand in Atienna’s direction. “I propose our greatest advisor goes first—well, second.”

Atienna’s brows rose before she smiled slowly and drew, “It was a rather… unfortunate set of… events and circumstances that led us here together, but… our actual connection here is the epitome of fortune, don’t you think?” Her smile thinned and she nodded at Cadence. “Do you have anything to add, Cadence?”

Cadence chortled before she shrugged.  “I mean we had our rough patches…” She waved away her transmutation. “But ya know what happens ta patches. They get all fixed up.” She added after a beat: “I don’t wake up at 5am in the mornin’ for anyone. For free, at least.” She gestured to Werner just as slyly as Atienna had. “Captain?”

Werner cleared his throat. “I appreciate all of you for your unique abilities”—Jericho could tell he was choosing his words carefully— “and for your unique personalities. I’m glad we’ve been able to assist each other up until this point and hope we continue to do so in the future.” He met each of their gazes. “If any of you need me, let me know. I will answer your call.” 

Their gazes then turned to Jericho.

A pause of silence stretched on.

“Ya don’t have ta if ya don’t want ta, detective,” Cadence said with a shrug. “This is all just silly stuff anyways—”

“I like all of you,” Jericho stated. “Thank you for keeping me company. I would not be happy if I didn’t know you. I think… I would not have made ‘good’ and ‘smart’ choices.”

Atienna tensed.

“I don’t think I would be a very ‘good’ person either.”

“Oh, Jericho.” Atienna frowned slightly. “Don’t say that…”

Jericho stared at her blankly for a moment before looking towards Werner.

Werner nodded. “Understood, Jericho.”

“Okay—sap over!” Cadence clapped her hands and pointed to the cake. “Time to try the fruit of our labors, kid!”

Jericho set the cake down on the counter, picked up the knife, and cut a slice for Olive who inspected the cake’s layers curiously. 

“It’s literally a strawberry cake in the shape of a strawberry…” Olive murmured, cheeks flushing slightly. “My favorite… How did you kno—” He shut his mouth, flushing even further. “Forget I asked that.”

Werner nodded then cleared his throat and nodded stiffly at the cake. “Go ahead, Olive, if you will.”

Olive glanced up at him for a moment before stabbing his utensil into his slice and forking it into his mouth. Rather—Jericho performed those actions. The layers of the cake were moist and the cream filling both sweet and tangy.

“Well?” Cadence pressed.

“It’s…” Olive stared down at the cake. “Honestly the best strawberry cakes I’ve ever eaten…” He quieted for a moment. “I don’t think I’ve eaten a cake this good in years…”

Werner reached out and placed a hand on Olive’s head. “Happy birthday, Olive.”

“Thanks…” He opened his mouth, shut it, before shoving another two big bites into his mouth.

“The sweetness could be balanced more,” Werner noted after a beat as he retracted his hand and placed it to his chin. He glanced at Jericho briefly. “This is not criticism on your part, Jericho. It’s something I should’ve considered when preparing the ingredients and the recipe. Perhaps it was too much sugar.”

“It tastes fine.” Olive arched a brow. “Really—it does.”

“I agree with ya, kid, but—no offense—you don’t have the healthiest taste buds when it comes to sweets,” Cadence noted. “Not sayin’ anythin’ on your bakin’ though, Captain. That’s a mighty fine cake.” She nodded at Jericho with a smile. “Mind sendin’ some over my way—”

Olive lowered his fork and squinted at Cadence. “What’s that supposed to mean? At least I don’t think wine is the definition of fine-dining.”

Cadence arched a brow, lifting her hands. “But it is, kid. ‘Course, ya don’t really appreciate it until you’re older. I’m just sayin’ that your diet isn’t the healthiest—”

“‘Until you’re older’?” Olive frowned. “You’re not that much older than me. I doubt a year or two makes a difference.”

Cadence arched a brow. “Hey now. Age and maturity are two different things—”

“Would you rather be older or more mature?” Maria interjected suddenly.

Olive and Cadence stared at her—one in confusion, and the other with slight amusement.

“Enough.” Werner frowned lightly. “We should celebrate Olive’s birthday appropriately.”

Atienna side-glanced at the man, still smiling with amusement. “And how shall we go along doing it appropriately, Werner?”

Jericho felt something tickle in his chest at the familiar scene, and he felt the corner of his lips twitch slightly. A motion of the corner of his eye caught his attention before he could digest the feeling and he turned his head. Alice stood in the threshold of the kitchen door. She was draped in a silk robe that skirted the floor. Her hair was slightly tousled, her glasses somewhat crooked.

Jericho stared for a moment in momentary surprise since he hadn’t ever seen Alice look anything but ‘put together.’

“I apologize,” he said a moment after, “if we—if I was loud.”

Alice didn’t say anything and instead moved to the display where Olive’s cake resided. Silently, she cut a slice for herself and forked a small bite into her mouth.

Olive frowned at her. It’s good. Say it’s good.

Alice said nothing as she chewed. Eventually, she set the plate down much to Werner’s deeply hidden dismay and asked, “Did you make this?”

“Werner did,” Jericho replied. “He is very good at making cakes even though this is his first official time. We practiced together from time-to-time.”

“I see…” Alice moved to the kitchen table and sat down. She looked him over slowly. “I admit that it’s quite peculiar to see you like this.” 

Unsure of what she was referring to, Jericho looked around the kitchen. Everything was in order: the counters Werner readily cleaned, the pans that Atienna had put away. He glanced at the others who stared back at him.

Awkward…

Not really, kid.

Thank her and let her know that we’ll clean up the mess.

I don’t believe she’s particularly upset about that…

“I apologize…?”

“No. It’s nice.” Alice held up a hand. “What’s the occasion?”

“Olive’s birthday.”

“Oh. The Ariesian prince.” Alice nodded. “And, how is he?”

Jericho glanced over his shoulder and met Olive’s gaze. Olive was shaking his head and waving his hand awkwardly over his throat.

“He comforted a friend recently.”

Olive sighed.

“I see…” Alice stared into him. “I hope I’m not interrupting your celebration.”

Jericho shook his head. He studied Alice for a moment. He had known her for a very long time. She was the one person he’d known longest. Yes, he was certain. He wondered if she noticed anything different about him. No. He did not want to interrupt Olive’s day.

Go ahead and ask, Olive thought. I don’t mind really.

Jericho considered it for a moment before nodding. He turned to Alice and asked, “Was I different before?”

Alice looked him over. “People rarely…” Her eyes narrowed slightly. “They rarely stay the same after so many years. Given your status as a True Conductor, I believe that may be even more so the case for you. What’s this about?”

Jericho amended, “I meant before and after the Tragedy of Aries.”

Alice studied him. “Is that a question from the prince?”

Jericho shook his head.

Alice seemed to mull over the question. She crossed her legs after a while and said, “Frankly, I admit that I don’t remember the days surrounding the Tragedy too well. Ophiuchus A good friend of mine 

“Shion Myosotis,” Jericho recalled. “Scorpio mentioned her before.”

Alice stiffened, but then relaxed back into her chair as she crossed her arms.  “She was closer to Talib than she was to me. He was devastated when she died. He didn’t believe what General Investigations wrote down as her cause of death was what actually happened.”

Suicide.

“I’m sure you know already but she did work with the ELPIS Department when it was founded,” Alice said after a long moment of silence. “She was actually the one who handed you over to me.”

Jericho paused at this revelation.

Shion Myosotis. Date of death on the day of the tragedy. Conjecture—no, intuition: she was the seventh? 

Jericho could feel the idea filtering out from his mind to the others.

But… Olive commented first as he looked around at them all. Suicide? She… wanted to bring all of us down with her? No, that doesn’t make sense. I mean after getting to know everyone, wouldn’t she want to…. stick around… longer?

There’s no way we can really know for sure… Atienna drew. If the seventh exists and if Shion was the seventh—

A ringing sound resonating from down the hall cut the conversation. A phone.

“I’ll be right back.” Alice rose from her seat and exited the room.

Jericho watched her go before shoveling more of the cake into his mouth.

“Ya know I’m not the type ta be sketpical when it comes to superstitious stuff like this,” Cadence drew slowly. “But it’s a bit hard to wrap my head around it still. I mean. It might not even be real—”

Jericho understood this. But at the same time Benì had not known whether or not what Jericho had told him about the saint candidacy were real. And yet the man had chosen to believe and postpone his ceremony.

“I pride myself in my memory when I haven’t hit the bar, ya know? Pretty sure I’d notice if somethin’ was off…” Cadence waved the thought of and flashed Olive a grin. “Anyways. Back ta the important celebration. Ya think Derik or Claire are gonna do anythin’ special for ya, kid? Sing you a song maybe?” She snorted. “Can ya imagine that? Ol’ Derik singin’ ya happy birthday and bringin’ ya a cake?”

“He did participate in one marching band ceremony back in his military academy days,” Werner recalled slowly. “I do recollect him participating in the singing portion of our exercises once every so often.”

Cadence laughed hard, loud, long.

Werner gazed at her for a moment before addressing Olive, “I could call Derik and remind him. If you’d like, I could ask him to take you out for a celebratory dinner. I’ll send him the funds. It would be a personal gift—”

“Oh please don’t, Werner—not if he sings to me.” Olive grimaced. “I’ve heard him sing in the shower before. His singing is so amazing that he manages to sing a completely different song using the same lyrics.”

Cadence guffawed even harder.

Alice re-entered the kitchen half an hour later. Much to Jericho’s surprise, she was dressed in a dark blue blouse and a skirt that reached her knees. Over this was a gray suit jacket. Dressed for work even though she did not usually report into work on Tuesdays until noon.

“Scorpio invited me to attend an event,” she replied, adjusting her earrings.

“An event?”

Alice turned away from him without speaking but didn’t move past the threshold. “He also extended the invitation to you.”

Jericho’s heart skipped a beat as he rose to a stand. 

Alice remained silent.

“Alice.”

“Jericho, you shouldn’t—”

“Tell me. Please.”

“A saint candidacy ceremony.” 

* * *

Prognoikos Aurora, Reservoirs

It was empty. The train station, the walkways leading to the reservoirs, the platform bridge itself: empty. No tourists; no tour guides. Nothing but the warm light from the reservoirs from below seeping up and through the bridges. 

Only when Jericho reached the central area where all twelve bridges connected together did he finally encounter people. They were crowded on the bridge that oversaw one of the thirteen reservoirs. Intuition: the one for Cancer. 

Jericho looked over the group. Monadic priests and peacekeepers in suits. Thirteen priests. Ten peacekeepers. All the priests were in ceremonial black robes, all surrounding a single man dressed in a white garb that reminded Jericho of the ones he’d seen in Epsilon’s memories. The man’s white garb was decorated with golden trinkets and dangling necklaces hanging with letters Jericho recognized as Ophiuchian. There was white paint on the man’s face as well: the symbol of Cancer—the crab’s claws—carefully plastered on in a way that made his face look no longer human.

Jericho, calm—

Tightening his grip on his suitcase, Jericho crossed the platform to the group in an instant, the rubber soles of his shoes clambering cacophonically against the bridge in the silence. He easily pushed past the priests and the peacekeepers and shoved them to the side as he reached forward to grab a hold of the central man’s wrists.

“Hey!” shouted a priest. “How did you get here—”

“Benì.” Jericho tightened his grip. “You said you would postpone.”

Benì stared at him, cheeks reddening. “J-Jericho, what are you doing here? I left you a message at your office. Didn’t you get it?”

Jericho returned his stare. “I was at a party. I apologize.” He pulled Benì closer. “Let’s escape.”

Benì looked him up and down incredulously. “Escape?”

“Let him go!” snapped a peacekeeper, grabbing Jericho by the shoulder and eyeing his white sash. “What’s your department? You’re interrupting an important ceremony—”

Jericho whipped around, cracked his fist against the peacekeeper’s face, and sent the woman flying back into the railings. When another peacekeeper ran at him, Jericho swung out his suitcase and clipped the man on the jaw. He swept his suitcase in a large arc, preventing the other peacekeepers from getting any closer. 

“You know.” Jericho stared at them all. “You know what’s going to happen.”

“What?” The peacekeeper whom he’d knocked against the railings rose to a stand and stared at him confusion. “What are you talking about? We’re just here to make sure people like you don’t come barging in and disrupting the ceremony. We’re not even allowed in after it starts so get out–“

“No. You’re allowing it.” Jericho’s gaze flickered between them. “You tricked him.” 

A hand on his shoulder drew his attention away. Werner. And Atienna behind him.

Jericho—

No. Werner. Please. 

Jericho, Werner reasoned calmly, sympathetically. At this point it’s too late—

No. Werner. Benì. You can’t just protect us. That is wrong. That is not fair—

Werner’s eyes widened, and their synchronization strained.

Jericho paled. Sorry, Werner. I did not mean—

“I… can’t leave, Jericho. I wrote it all in my letter…” Benì’s voice drew Jericho’s attention away. The man’s gaze flitted to the side. “But my family needs the money, and my parents and community—well—they have high hopes, so… I really can’t—”

“Yes, you can,” Jericho replied, tightening his grip on the man’s wrist and pulling him closer. “There is an exit. So you can leave. As long as there is an exit, you can leave. There is always an exit. A way out. Always. I know—”

“Jericho, stop it!” Benì snapped so loudly that his voice continued to echo. He tugged on his arm and sent Jericho a stinging glare. “You’re crazy! Let go of me!”

Jericho startled and released Benì from his grip. The man skirted backwards as he was surrounded in a barrier by the Monadic priests and the peacekeepers. Jericho started forward but was stopped by a hand around the wrist. He whipped around but—

Alice, standing there and staring at him with a firm from. But her eyes were not cold.

When had she come here? Oh, right. She had followed him here after he’d run out of her apartment. 

She held up a hand to the peacekeepers and whispered gently, “We can’t win this battle, Jericho. It’s his decision.”

No. Not her too. No. There was still a chance—

“Hey, now. Let’s not create a scene on this sacred day.” A familiar voice drifted down the walkway. The one that was the last voice Jericho wanted to hear at this time.

Upon turning his head, Jericho spied Scorpio approaching him from behind. The man smiled genially at them all before pulling out his badge to flash to the peacekeepers.

“You peacekeepers can call it early for today,” he said, repocketing his badge. “I’ll take it from here.”

“But—” one of the other peacekeeper’s began to protest as they eyed Jericho.

“That’s the First Chairman of Psychological Evaluations,” said another. “I think he’s above us.”

“You sure you can handle… suitcase here?” one of the peacekeepers pressed after a beat of hesitation.

Talib chuckled. “If any issues come up, I’ll take full responsibility.”

After some whispering, the peacekeepers agreed and made their way off the platform. Jericho did not watch them go—his eyes instead focused fully on Benì who skirted behind the priests. It was painful in a way he couldn’t describe—the distrust and hurt in Benì’s eyes.

Scorpio placed a hand on Jericho’s shoulder then but Jericho smacked it off. The saint candidate merely smiled in turn.

“No—”

Partner,” Scorpio pressed, grabbing him by the arm. “Our deal only goes so far. Don’t struggle against the current. The only thing you’ll get at the end with all that struggling is exhaustion. Be good now.”

The deal. The one Atienna made to keep them safe. The one that exchanged other’s safety for their own safety. Protecting only them. Why? What was the point.

Jericho.

At the tired tone, however, Jericho released his clenched fists and took a step backwards. He turned back to Benì but found that the priests and Benì were already continuing on down the walkway. He finally noticed that the priests were all holding long metal sticks with a series of bells attached at the end. The bells rang: a familiar and distant sound. They rang in a constant beat—rang  with each step Benì took. Closer and closer to the edge of the platform. One of the railings had been removed there, leaving it open and exposed. Easy to fall into the reservoirs below. 

Benì froze as he reached the very tip of the platform and became ringed around by twelve of the priests. One of the priests whose robes were embroidered with more twisting designs near the sleeves took a step towards Benì.

“Do you, Benì Calice, understand what’s going to happen?” asked the priest.

“No…” Benì frowned in confusion.

“Do you understand the weight of the knowledge that is going to be bestowed upon you?”

“No…”

“Have you trained in mind, body, and spirit to be able to wield and conduct yourself as a proper bearer of knowledge?”

“I… yes?”

“The pillar of Cancer is ‘heart.’ Do you understand what this pillar represents?”

Benì looked past the priest’s shoulder and across the platform, almost meeting Jericho’s eyes. “I know the pillar for Cancer is to keep your heart open to others at all times but…” He faced forward right before the speaking priest gave him a hard push.

Jericho startled at the sight as Benì took one stumbling step backwards before hurtling down into the pool below. From this angle and distance, he could see Benì’s fall completely. Down, down, down—

Splash!

Alice stiffened and paled beside him.

The vitae pool began to bubble before twisting around the area where Benì had fallen. It was like a whirlpool with Benì at the center of it—seeping deeper and deeper into him in a painful swirl of psychedelic light as the reservoir levels sank and sank. Jericho felt like he himself was sinking into it. 

Suddenly, the reservoir’s ripples stilled. It had not been drained completely, Jericho noticed as he searched the pool with a budding sensation of hope. The pool rippled again and a familiar brown head popped out. Benì. He rose from the depths slowly before slowly looking around.

Jericho’s heart hammered with hope.

But then Benì buried his head in his hands. 

Jericho felt a chain begin to drag down his chest at the sight as realization dawned. Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw a slow smile creep up Scorpio’s face. His stomach churned. Alice placed a hand on his arm.

“Well, I have to say that’s a much more graceful ceremony than my own,” Scorpio noted. “Then again, I did have three of them so perhaps I win in that category.”

“Three?” Alice turned to him.

“The first was when Gigi so graciously shoved me into the reservoir back in the beginning of fall last year,” Scorpio replied. “I wasn’t fully myself until the second time I fell a month or so later. The third time was the official ceremony with all of this”—he gestured vaguely towards Monadic priests that were now walking past them — “bureaucracy. I didn’t jump in for another swim, of course, the third time. I merely officially accepted my rites—”

“Why didn’t you say anything?” Alice whispered. “Why didn’t you—”

Scorpio’s smile thinned. Oh, I tried. Like I said, these types of things are inevitable.”

* * *

Jericho could not remember how he got back home to his apartment. It was a blur of voices, sounds, lights—but he was now home and sitting on his bed. Conjecture: the others had brought him here. But from where? Oh. Yes. The ceremony. Benì’s ceremony. Benì had become Cancer. And whose fault was it? The one’s—no, this wasn’t his fault. 

“Jericho…” 

Jericho lifted his head and found Olive’s image standing across from him.

Olive shifted from foot to foot. “So now you pay attention to me… I’ve been synchronized here for over two hours you know.”

Jericho stared. “Did you like your cake, Olive?”

“What…? That’s…” Olive frowned. “Not really what’s important right now…” He rubbed his arms “Are… you okay? The others are worried too. They waited here too, but things got busy on their ends…”

“I—”

“I obviously know you’re not fine.”

Jericho stared past Olive’s shoulder towards the letter taped to the wall behind it. It was the letter he’d received from “It’s your special day. I don’t want to ruin it.”

“Birthdays are special days for kids,” Olive grumbled, drawing closer. “I’m not a kid anymore—”

“You are not considered a legal adult in Aries,” Jericho stated. “You are only 17.”

Olive scowled. “Well, I’m in Scorpio right now and the age of adulthood here is—”

“21.”

Olive scowled, crossed his arms, before he dropped his arms. “Are you okay?”

Jericho offered a thumbs-up.

Olive’s scowl deepened into a frown. “I… Things have been… weird since Capricorn. I know that it’s been weird for all of us, but… have you talked to anyone about it? I know Doctor Kingsley isn’t your doctor anymore, but have you found anyone else to talk to…? Not even a doctor, but like…”

“I talked with Werner.” Jericho thought on it. “Not about what has happened recently, but before. We talked about sand and glass.”

“Werner’s…” Olive grumbled. “…not the best when it comes to this touchy-feely stuff…” He glared out in no particular direction. “I’m not the greatest either but I’m ‘emotional’ or whatever so I think I’d maybe understand more—no, not understand… but…”

Olive glanced at him before reaching over to the drawers beside him where Jericho’s sketchbook rested. He pulled it out of there, stared at it for a beat, before handing it to Jericho who accepted it blankly. Olive said nothing else and remained there for some time.

Jericho stared at his notebook-turned-sketchbook as he tried to sort through his thoughts. He flipped it open before he sketched out a faint jaw-line with and connected with a scribbled head of curly hair. “…He was like Talib.Talib was my partner. Talib was funny. I liked him. He helped me understand what was customary.” Jericho pushed harder to shade in the hair, but the lead of his pencil snapped off. He stared at it for a moment before he dropped the pencil to the ground. “He was my first partner. He was there when you were all there but he wasn’t a part of us. But still, he stayed. I know I am ‘odd,’ but still. He stayed.”

Olive nodded, drawing even closer.

Jericho could still taste the sweetness of Werner’s cake on his tongue. “ All of you… You remind me of how it was. Back in Scorpio before ELPIS came. I think—I am not certain and I may be wrong but—you are all family. I don’t remember well what it was like before ELPIS. It’s a blur, but it was warm. Nice. Home.”

Jericho could see Olive’s eyes widen slightly. His cheeks even flushed. He sank down beside Jericho.

Jericho stared at the unfinished sketches of Talib and Ayda as thoughts of them flooded his mind. Would he reach a point where he could no longer draw Benì’s face too? No. It hurt. He did not like this feeling. 

“But…Talib was my friend. My first friend after ELPIS. My partner. Not like Cadence and everyone. Not like Francis. Not like Alice. It was different.”

The feeling squeezed tighter and tighter until it somehow managed to squeeze something form his eyes. Something hot and wet and burning.

“I couldn’t help Talib even though he helped me,” Jericho whispered as his vision blurred.

 The wetness dripped down onto one of his older sketches of Talib and Ayda side-by-side.

 No, he thought in a panic. Not the pictures of Ayda and Talib.

Blinking rapidly, he tried his best to wipe away the wetness but his actions just caused more witness to dribble down onto the page. He wanted to toss the book to the side, to disintegrate it into nothing with his conductor, but—no. His sketchbook here was precious. Able to capture moments and thoughts. Change. And so, instead of discarding it, he curled himself over it and shut his eyes.

 “I couldn’t save Benì even though he helped me,” he finished in a whisper. “It’s wrong, Olive.”

He had not felt this intense emotion himself for a long time. He had felt it through the others several times before, but to feel it himself? No. Correction: he couldn’t remember when he’d last felt it. He didn’t like it. It was a black, heavy feeling.

Jericho stiffened as he felt a ghostly warmth drape over his back. Olive, wrapping him in an awkward but enveloping hug.

“We’ll figure something out, Jericho,” Olive murmured, his voice cracking slightly. “I-I promise. I’ll separate Lavi from me and Aries from Lavi. And when I do, we’ll separate Scorpio from Talib and Benì from Cancer too. I’ll make it happen. I promise.”

“I trust you, Olive.”

Olive tightened his hold. “I know.”

* * *

A knock at the door an unknown amount of hours later stirred Jericho from sleep. Alice greeted him with a quiet ‘hello’ when he opened the door. She studied him for a moment at the threshold before she reached out with a hand

“Are you alright?”

Jericho shook his head. “Are you alright?”

Alice shook her head too before reaching into the purse at her waist and pulling out what appeared to be a train ticket. “Leona called me because she couldn’t reach you. She wants you to be at the station by 5pm today.” She paused. “Do you want me to tell her that you’re sick?”

Jericho shook his head.

They stared at each other for a long stretch of time before Alice stepped forward and wrapped her arms around his waist. After a pause, Jericho returned the gesture.

* * *

When Jericho arrived at the Grand Snake Station, he was surprised to find it almost empty. He was not surprised to find Leona waiting for him at Platform 7 bound to Leo, however. She greeted him with a small nod but said nothing else. No mention of the ceremony, baptism, or Benì.

When they boarded the train upon its arrival, they headed to their compartment only to find it their table occupied by two bottles of wine and the seat across from theirs occupied by a familiar face.

Gabrielle Law.

Jericho felt his chest lighten slightly at the sight of her.

Gabrielle smiled. “Well, fancy seeing you two here.”

Leona returned the smile with a lifted chin as she took a seat across from her. “Are you giving speeches in Leo too? How daring of you to be giving speeches at the same time as me in my home country. Or perhaps I should say callous.”

“It’s coincidence really,” Gabrielle said as Jericho sat beside her instead of Leona.

Leona’s smile flickered for a moment. Clearing her throat, Gabrielle offered some wine to them as the train started up. Jericho refused as did Leona. Silence stretched on after that. Jericho closed his eyes as time stretched on—not out of tiredness but because his thoughts kept drifting to Benì, Talib, Ayda, and sometimes even Theta which caused his eyes to burn. He almost drifted away to sleep regardless, however. At least that was, until—

“You served in the war, didn’t you, Gabrielle Law?” Leona asked suddenly. 

Jericho opened his eyes to find Leona still smiling pleasantly. 

“Yep,” Gabrielle responded casually with a yawn. “In the joint Ariesian-Taurusian unit. How about you? I mean, you look too young now, but did some version of you serve?”

“Oh, I did serve in a sense.” Leona nodded. “Out of all the wars that I’ve witnessed in my long years, the Reservoir War was the most putrid.”

Gabrielle fell silent for a moment. 

The train rattled on in the quiet.

“Calling it putrid is interesting,” Gabrielle finally drew. “Don’t get me wrong. I agree with you, but aren’t you all the ones who set it up? Like what you did in Capricorn.”

Leona regarded Gabrielle for a moment before a deep, smooth, rumbling laugh escaped from her lips. “The war was the result of your own choices. That is what the free will clause states.” She leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes. “You’re curiosity is unbecoming, Miss Law. Do you really want to know?” She opened her eyes slowly. In the passing setting sun, they really did seem to glow gold. “How about we exchange stories from the war?”


????

“I wonder how long it’s been since Ophiuchus has been baptized.”

Lita tuned her ears. She wasn’t sure where she was. The only thing she was certain of was the fact that she was in Alpha’s presence. The man was odd. He spoke to himself often in a way that was much unlike the way Maria spoke to herself. He was odd in the head—but not in the way that Jericho was. No, his oddness wasn’t endearing at all.

“It won’t be much longer,” Alpha continued. “Soon we’ll gather all the fragments and return it to the way it was. Then, we can enjoy nothingness together.”


Drawn by chaosqube

See the trial trailer 2 for Jericho Kaworu and I made here!

One thought on “24.6: The Peacekeeper & Candidate in Mañana Light

  1. Thank for the ~~pain~~ chapter! So around two months have passed in universe since this part started interesting… FEBRUARY WAS A VERY VERY BAD MONTH :sob:

    Beni and Jericho working together to take a photograph was wholesome.

    >Sometimes his drawings ended up as lightly sketched profiles of Francis, Atienna, Alice, or Werner. Other times his drawings were hard-lined, half-finished headshots of Theta, Talib, and Ayda—half-finished because he could no longer recall what sort of expressions they used to make. Oftentimes, on the other hand, he would churn out dark, charcoal, rugged features of Scorpio and Alpha.

    Okay. Ouch. So he sketches people who he looks up to/relies on/views as protectors. AND THEN HE CANT REMEMBER WHAT TALIB’S EXPRESSIONS WERE ANYMORE. Interesting that he mentioned Theta here

    Lol at Jericho not being able to understand football.

    > “I’m serious, partner.” Scorpio looked away suddenly. “You shouldn’t get your hopes up. Once the potential candidates are brought to this point, it really is inevitable. Everything is. Just enjoy yourself while you can.”
    “Why are you saying these things?” Jericho finally asked. “Why did you say those things. Back in Capricorn?”
    “I just don’t want you to get hurt, partner.” Scorpio said before he chuckled. “But who am I to get in the way of what your heart wants you to do?” the best means of preventing a potential saint candidate from becoming one is from preventing their initial fall into the reservoirs. Once they touch the reservoirs and a small amount of that vitae enters them, the pull will be irresistible. It’s not only a matter of psychology but also of physics.”
    *Physics*. A fall. *Gravity.* Inevitable.

    Ooh I like this line. Touching on Talib’s fall while also explaining his fall. Pain. Perfect.

    > Jericho pondered his words. “I tell him the truth.”
    Francis nodded. “Honesty is always the best… Although sometimes it’s more trouble than it’s worth…” After a pause, he lifted one of the photos up. “This is a very nice one.”
    It was a picture of two magpies bathing in a water fountain in morning light.
    Jericho stared at the man before staring at the photograph. His stomach churned. “You can keep it. A gift.”Leona paused, turning to him slowly, eyes just slightly narrowing. “I hear them the loudest.”

    Ohhh?? Leona is so mysterious. Even after she’s beaten around and down there’s something about her that feels depth-y

    ——–
    > Captured on the poster was a facial shot of a smiling Talib. Beside his face was a slew of words printed in bold ink:*Jericho—*
    No. Werner. Please.
    *Jericho,* Werner reasoned calmly, sympathetically. At this point it’s too late—
    No. Werner. Benì. You can’t just protect us. That is wrong. That is not fair—
    Werner’s eyes widened, and their synchronization strained.
    Jericho paled. Sorry, Werner. I did not mean— “Jericho, stop it!” Benì snapped so loudly that his voice continued to echo. He tugged on his arm and sent Jericho a stinging glare. “You’re crazy! Let go of me!”

    THIS DEFINITELY ISNT GOOD FOR JERICHOS MENTAL HEALT HBECAUS HES OBVIOUSLY NOT HTE MOST STABLE AND HE LITERALLY RELEASED BENI RIGHT AFTERWARD AHHH.
    And Talibpio finally reveals that he wasn’t….. the first fall… he REVEALS HIS SECOND FALL. :sob: AND THEN ALICE AND JERICHO AHHHHH. BENI. AHHH. YOU STUPID FOOL, BENI. ITS TRAGIC BECAUSE JERICHO TOLD BENI THE TRUTH BUT BENI DIDNT BELIEVE HIM AND THOUGHT IT WAS JUST LIKE A RELIGION-ATHIEST DOUBT THING IM SAD. IF JERICHO HAD LIED AND SAID SOMETHING ELSE THEN MAYBE??

    The entire scene with Jericho and Olive was so sad. Like good that Jericho’s finally able to release all of his pent up sadness over the years since he left/joined ELPIS? Like release and shit. BUT AT WHAT COST.
    ———

    > “He was my first partner. He was there when you were all there but he wasn’t a part of us. But still, he stayed. I know I am ‘odd,’ but still. He stayed.”

    OH MY GOD.
    —–

    > “ All of you… You remind me of how it was. Back in Scorpio before ELPIS came. I think—I am not certain and I may be wrong but—you are all family. I don’t remember well what it was like before ELPIS. It’s a blur, but it was warm. Nice. Home.”

    OH MY FUCKING GOD. HOME.
    ——
    > Jericho stared at the unfinished sketches of Talib and Ayda as thoughts of them flooded his mind. Would he reach a point where he could no longer draw Benì’s face too? No. It hurt. He did not like this feeling.

    AHHHHH.
    ——-

    > The wetness dripped down onto one of his older sketches of Talib and Ayda side-by-side.
    No, he thought in a panic. Not the pictures of Ayda and Talib.
    Blinking rapidly, he tried his best to wipe away the wetness but his actions just caused more witness to dribble down onto the page. He wanted to toss the book to the side, to disintegrate it into nothing with his conductor, but—no. His sketchbook here was precious. Able to capture moments and thoughts. Change. And so, instead of discarding it, he curled himself over it and shut his eyes. “It’s not that we’re trying to find a moment worth capturing,” Benì had said seriously when explaining the idea. “Over a billion moments worth capturing pass by every second, but not all of them can be captured. We still haven’t figured out how to do that yet.” He flushed. “Well, I mean, there’s that film thing but that’s different. What we’re doing is trying to find a moment that we can capture—that only we can capture. It’s like that.”

    Also the conversation about there being a bunch of capturable moments every seconds and each moment captured by a person is unique… Very wholesome. :mariawaow: Life is beautiful™ Until your new friend is yeeted into the reservoirs again.

    ———-

    It’s very interesting how the priests here repeat the candidacy lines that we saw the original Ophiuchuians (Vega, etc) using in the beginning. Except this time Beni doesn’t respond with “yes” he just responds with “???” Which shows how things have changed.

    Interesting that Jericho, Leona, and Gabrielle going to Leo now since Maria’s there even if it’s only for the elections.

    Alpha’s raided Ophiuchus before and his goal is the saint candidate of Ophiuchus and he’s super into nothingness and freedom hm. Also war chapters soon?

    Thank you for the pain again XD

    Like

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