The man-in-white wandered through the frozen tableau and tapped his fingers on each of the icey statues that adorned the pews of the lavishly decorated shrine.
“Oh winning,” he said though no one left to hear him. “Will I ever get tired of you?”
He felt a shiver of glee run down his spine as he skipped up to the front of the shrine. There, in gleaming, glacial, ice stood the centerpieces of his grand design. Not one but two dreamlords, frozen eternally. Their hands locked forever inches apart from one another.
It had taken every ounce of cunning and power and deceit that he was composed of to lay the trap for them. Without the bits of themselves which they’d bound into engagement rings, it would have been impossible to bind them, but then they’d been reckless and foolish. In their youthful exuberance they’d made the mistake of thinking that their desires mattered when measured against the vast, immeasurable meaningless that underlay every aspect and expression of existence.
That was their undoing. Because they wouldn’t let those feelings go, because neither would abandon the other, their feelings became the perfect trap. Nothing else could have held them so the man-in-white bound them with the strings they’d cast around each other’s hearts. He’d spent every shred of imagination he possessed to reforge the reality of their homeworld to make that possible and the moment they’d stepped into his trap their doom was sealed. Neither could ever leave that world again without forever losing the other. Doing so would shatter the barrier around the world and dissolving it into the primordial stew of dreams, thereby unmaking countless other people whom they loved as well.
He’d left them one thin avenue for happiness though, one flaw in the trap, as one must when one is planning a supreme work of art. Only by capturing imperfection within the scheme of the work can true perfection be achieved.
Jin and Way had taken delight in being “impossible girls” so he’s left them one avenue to remain together. All they had to do was renounce their powers and they’d be able to live together on this one Earth for the rest of their natural lives.
But of course, they’d tried to make the day of their wedding perfect. It had been Jin who tried to tamper with the weather to enhance the ambiance of the ceremony, and so it had been her hand that had turned reality against them. The warm breeze she’d tried to call had come as a wind carrying an absolute and unreal chill.
Jin and Way were the first to freeze, reaching out to each other with looks of panic and terror on their faces as the whole of their world simply stopped. Frozen.
Either of them could have broken free from the ice that bound them but to do so they would have to destroy the world it was bound to. A world that included their dearest love. All lost to Oblivion with no little rings to help them find each other again.
The man-in-white sighed with delighted satisfaction. He’d worked for years to pull out the lynchpins of reality and at every stage had been confounded by one or the other of the girls who stood still before an audience ice.
It wouldn’t be the same for him going forward from this victory. Hatching schemes without them around would be much less entertaining. The whole effort would become more work than play and for that he was regretful, but the promise of actually succeeding in a scheme after so long was simply too delicious not to savor.
He closed his eyes and felt the tiny reserve of resources that he had left. He’d still need to be clever for a while, but with no meaningful opposition before him it was simply a matter of time. He breathed in deep to savor the sweet smell of victory and felt a snowball splatter all over his face.
Ice right up the nostrils! And laughter!
The man-in-white growled and wiped his eyes. He knew the voice that was laughing at him. It sounded too much like his own for him to every mistake one of his “brother-selves”.
“I’m sorry, were you enjoying a moment of triumph there?” Pen asked the man-in-white.
“Ah, one of the runner-ups,” the man-in-white said. “I was hoping one of you might show up. I could do with the recharge.”
“Runner-ups?” Pen said, a smile threatening to split across his face. “And what contest do you think we’re engaged in?”
“None,” the man-in-white said. “Since I’ve already won.”
Pen had to visibly struggle to suppress the smile that was bubbling up from within him.
“Have you now?” he asked the man-in-white. “Sounds like the perfect time to gloat then. I mean somebody should be able to appreciate your genius and who better than me?”
“That’s cute,” the man-in-white said. “You think you can play for time? That perhaps one of the other other members of your ‘Parliament’ can step in and save these two?”
“I’m sure you’ve got that covered though,” Pen said. “You’re so brilliant after all.”
“I love that you’re trying to annoy me and find my weak spot,” the man-in-white said. “It shows that even a second rate version of me like you is still a sharp cookie.”
“Why thank you!” Pen said.
“Sad it’s not going to work though,” the man-in-white said.
“Well, yeah, I mean you’ve got that figured out too,” Pen said. “But, really, I’m just so curious now. How did you manage to make sure the rest of the Parliament wouldn’t be able to reach this world?”
“All too easily,” the man-in-white said. “They’d already interdicted it. All I had to do was make that interdiction a part of the fundamental reality of this world. They can still come here but their own restriction will destroy the world if they try!”
“But if the Parliament setup the interdiction would they be able to revoke it too?” Pen asked.
“Sure, if I hadn’t tampered with it,” the man-in-white said.
“Clever,” Pen said. “It seems like you’ve thought of everything you could.”
“I’ve thought of everything any of them could think of,” the man-in-white said. “And now I’ll reclaim your strength and get back to work.”
“Clearly that’s the next item on the agenda,” Pen said. “But if you could indulge me, what work do you have to get back to?”
“The work we started on and failed to accomplish the first time; the end of everything,” the man-in-white said.
“That’s what you think we were doing before we split up?” Pen asked.
“Oh it took me a while to work it out,” the man-in-white said. “I suspect you haven’t poked around into our capabilities as much as I have. Whoever fragmented us did a good job on our memories but there are too many tell-tale clues left in the powers that we retained, or that I retained at least. We were meant to close the chapter on reality. All realities. It’s the heart of why we exist.”
“Believe it or not I’ve heard that argument before,” Pen said. “It’s actually a rather common one among a certain class of Remnant.”
“Except we’re not like them. Remnants are fragments of people who grew too powerful for a single reality to hold. We’re parts of something much greater than that,” the man-in-white said.
“Wow,” Pen said. “The sheer ego. I was such a jerk sometimes wasn’t I?”
“I wouldn’t know,” the man-in-white said. “And more importantly I don’t care.”
“I do,” said Pen.
“Wasn’t that supposed to be their line?” the man-in-white asked, gesturing to the frozen Jin and Way.
“You so deserve what you’ve gotten,” he said. “I almost hate to spoil the surprise.”
“Surprise?” the man-in-white asked. “Is this where you reveal that you’ve already absorbed dozens of our other selves and are more powerful than I could hope to imagine? Because I’ve kind of got to warn you, I’m at least a couple hundred fragments ahead of you there.”
“A few hundred?” Pen said. “Nice work, but no, I don’t absorb our fragments. Where would the fun in that be?”
“Winning,” the man-in-white said. “The fun’s in winning.”
“I have some really sad news to share with you then, or hysterical, you know, if you’re me.” Pen said.
“I was wrong, you actually are pretty irritating to talk too,” the man-in-white said.
“Thank you!” Pen said. “I practice in a mirror each day, so this is pretty par for the course.”
“Let’s just get this over with, what great power do you have to call on that’s going to set everything right?” the man-in-white asked. “I’d like to crush it and move on before this world crumbles to dust due to old age please.”
“Great power?” Pen asked. “None of that here. You can crush away. You might want to take a look around first though. Does anything strike you as odd about all this?”
The man-in-white looked over the ice rimmed pews. There were an impossible number of people crowded into the small shrine, which was typical for the two brides. An impossible wedding for impossible girls. The sun was shining brightly above, the result of Jin’s last spell. Everything else was silence.
“Nope,” the man-in-white said. “It all looks exactly as I planned that it would.”
Pen fought back another laugh.
“Seriously?” he asked. “And that’s not raising any warning flags for you at all? You really don’t remember much do you.”
“I’ll point out again, I won,” the man-in-white said. “Whatever little games you think you can play, it’s not going to change what’s happened here.”
“I’m not expecting it too,” Pen said. “Though for your sake…”
He trailed off and stared away for a moment, wrestling with his next words.
“Ok, no more taunts, you’ve had a bad enough time of it so far,” Pen said. “Here’s two simple things you need to know; first, we weren’t split apart by someone else. We did this to ourselves because it was the only chance we had to keep growing. You’re one of the bits of the old me that got stuck with the job of shattering us back into near mortal pieces. You’re not meant to destroy all of reality, just the cosmos-sized being we’d transcended into.”
“That’s ridiculous,” the man-in-white said. “You’re saying we gave up godhood for this paltry existence?”
“I’m saying we gave up being disconnected from everything and everyone and chose to return to the game that we loved,” Pen said.
“The game?” the man-in-white asked.
“A hold-over from our earliest life,” Pen said. “I still like to think of life as a game. They’re both supposed to be fun after all.”
“That’s amusing, but what’s your second piece of information,” the man-in-white said.
“You haven’t won,” Pen said. “Look around you, really look at these people, what do you see?”
“They’re the wedding guests,” the man-in-white said. “They’re trapped here forever.”
“Are they?” Pen asked. “Does this really look like a wedding guest?”
He slammed a first against the icey statue of Jin’s mother. The frosty coating shattered and fell away revealing the mannequin that was suspended inside.
“What?” the man-in-white asked. “What is this?”
“Thaw them,” Pen said. “You’ll see they’re all like this. Even your two brides there. Look everywhere. The whole world is a diorama and all the ‘people’ you trapped are just little dolls like this. There’s no one here except you and me.”
“That’s impossible!” the man-in-white objected.
“You’ve fought with Jin and Way for years now,” Pen said. “Did you pay attention to them at any point in time while you were doing that?”
“How could they have…” the man-in-white asked, his voice trailing off as his face took on an expression of terror mixed with defeat.
“You took their rings,” Pen said. “They were with you the whole time. Of course they knew what you were doing. This whole world that you reforged with your will? Who do you think created it?”
“But that’s not possible,” the man-in-white said. “I know this is their world!”
“Of course it’s their world!” Pen said. “They made it just for you!”
“But their rings!” the man-in-white objected.
“Are only one small part of themselves,” Pen said. “The rings were just a symbol of what they shared. What do you think they did the moment they were back together?”
The man-in-white groaned.
“They made new ones didn’t they?” he asked.
“Of course!” Pen said.
“So I’m trapped here now, aren’t I?” the man-in-white said. “Caught in my own trap, forever cut-off just like I’d meant them to be. And you’re here to gloat about it.”
“No,” Pen said. “I’m here because they asked me to come. I’m here to help you get out.”
“Why?” the man-in-white asked. “Why would they possibly want that?”
“Because you can change,” Pen said. “You’re a part of me that I lost, so I know there are echoes of the guy I used to be in you.”
“Let me guess, all I have to do is merge with you and we can walk out of here with no problem?” the man-in-white asked.
“Nope,” Pen said. “You were a part of me once, but we’re different now. That’s why I don’t absorb the other fragments of the old me that I find. We were something too much more than human and that sucked. It’s a lot more fun being the people that we’ve become.”
“So that’s it then?” the man-in-white asked. “You’ll just help me out of here because you’re nice? Where will we go?”
“I’m not going to help you out of here because I’m nice, I’m going to help you because you’re nice and you’re going to have to believe that to take my hand otherwise you’ll panic and start thinking about how many different options I have to end you,” Pen said.
“Thanks for mentioning that, now it’s the only thing I can think about,” the man-in-white said.
“Take my hand,” Pen said. “There’s one last gift I can give you.”
The man-in-white reached out but hesitated at the last moment. There were too many tricks to look out for, too many risks in trusting someone who was clearly his enemy.
And yet, in Pen’s eyes, the man-in-white saw something he’d never been able to find in any reflection or alternate-self that he’d ever looked upon.
Acceptance. Of who he’d been, of who he was and of who he could be.
He wavered for a long moment, trying to comprehend what he was seeing, trying to understand why that simple gesture had more power than he could resist. He wanted to pull away, he wanted Pen to reach out and stop him, he wanted someone else to make this choice, but looking at his other-self waiting patiently, the man-in-white knew the decision could never work like that. Accepting who himself for who he was wasn’t something anyone else could do for him.
The two fragments clasped hands and memories blossomed in the man-in-white’s mind. A childhood filled with love. A trickster’s wit. Power and ascension and transcendence and the loneliness that followed. It was definitely possible to have too much of a good thing.
He couldn’t remember the shattering directly, but he could hear the words his soul had spoken in calling for it. He didn’t want to be all powerful and alone. He wanted to be with the others he’d shared so much with even if that meant embracing pain and emptiness and every dark corner of the soul.
The heady rush of memories flowed through the man-in-white like a mighty river, carving new paths through his soul. And it was his soul. Not a shared self with Pen, but a self unique to who he was. One soul, a little ragged around the edges, but still with some miles left in it. Just him alone.
“All the other selves that I absorbed…?” he asked, noticing their absence.
“Freed,” Pen said.
“Good,” the man-in-white said, without their weight he felt so light that it seemed impossible he was still on the ground. “So where do we go from here?”
“I believe we have a wedding to attend next,” Pen said.
“I can’t imagine I’m going to be the most welcome guest there,” the man-in-white said.
“And that would be why they beat you,” Pen said. “Come on, we don’t want to miss the vows!”
The weather outside the small shrine was rotten. Torrential rain with an unseasonably cold wind. Parking was a mess and half the guests were delayed in the traffic caused by a giant monster attack on the city. The other half of the guests (and both brides) were also late due to dealing with the aforementioned giant monster.
It seemed like everything that could go wrong was working overtime to do so.
But none of that mattered.
Jin and Way’s procession to the center of the shrine, leading their families to the altar wasn’t perfect, but it didn’t have to be.
It was real.
As real as the rain, as real as the traffic and as real as their love for each other.
They didn’t shed light or rise into the air, or call forth a choir of angels to bless their union.
None of that was necessary.
They glowed with the radiance of love all deliriously happy brides shine with. They floated on that happiness without needing wings and their union was blessed by the people they loved and who loved them in turn.