Amarant Coral searches for redemption. Iron-Tail Fratley searches for peace. Both men are ten years and one woman too late. Chapter three; rewind the clock ten years, and give Freya a nervous break...
Thirteen Ways To Say Goodnight
chapter three - the runaway
I'm harbouring a fugitive, a defector of a kind
and she lives in my soul, and drinks of my wine -
and I'd give my last breath to keep us alive
are they coming for us? Cameras or guns -
we don't know which, but we gotta run
and you say, "This is not what I bargained for."
indigo girls, "fugitive"
So let us start from the beginning.
Ten Years Ago
The court of Burmecia, if it could be called a court, consisted of the royal throne discreetly piled with cushions for the diminuitive King who looked as if he would much rather be outside running riot with the other children. Fratley was wont to stand by his side, ramrod-straight, pike in his hand; he tended to startle forward whenever Puck said anything that vaguely sounded like command, bred in the bones of his early mental illness that he ought to do whatever his Majesty told him. Freya would pace as the tiny group of ministers - all elders, whom Puck had appointed, and Kai - talked. The stone throneroom was enormous for them, but her long stride still felt too large for the confinement.
"Freya!" Startled out of standing attention, Fratley leant on his weapon, those fawn-coloured eyes trained upon her in surprise as the other councillors idly turned to look. "You can't, Freya. You're needed here."
"In the summer? For /what/, precisely?" There was more than needed bite to her words.
"My dear," he said, slightly feebly - oh, how much she hated that 'my dear', no amount of rough or gentle 'no' would make him drop it - "We need your help now more than ever. More refugees are coming in every day. The political situation needs Lady Dragoon Freya Crescent. We can just hire mercenaries to thin out the hill dragons."
"From our already dwindling coffers? Don't be silly; we haven't the money!"
There was a murmur among the ministers. Jarl among them nodded, turning a rheumy eye towards Puck and Fratley, tapping his cane next to the padded bench the ministers sat upon as he tended to do when making a point. "Lady Freya is right, your Majesty. We need everything our treasury can give us, despite Alexandria's war reparations."
Poor Garnet's war reparations, when Alexandria needed the money itself. It seemed like every city had something to rebuild, but Burmecia most of all. Houses needed stone, the roads needed redoing, the fields replanting. Freya's suggestion had been a quarter in weak jest; of course she would not be allowed to go, but somebody had to do something. Burmecia lost money in these early days like the clouds overhead lost rain; quick and constant.
"Which includes," Jarl added, warming obviously to the subject, "the Eastern grain farms; we lose more livestock every day to the coarse lizards slithering out from the mountains, and the settlers are up in arms. The quicker something is done about it, the sooner we - "
"Yeah, yeah." Puck was already bored with the topic. "Tell'ya what, I'll go, it'll be awesome. Lord Fratley, pack us some sandwiches!"
Freya ground her cuspids and thought very hard about her mantra of inner tranquility. I will not turn him over my knee and give him a hiding. I will not turn him over my knee and give him a hiding.
"Your /majesty/," Fratley said reproachfully. (Nobody did reproach like Fratley.) "That ill becomes you, Puck. You know you need to stay here to govern the kingdom. I will go with Lady Freya."
"Fratley, no." The Burmecian female dragoon attempted to not give in to the urge to rub her temples. "You're far better as advisor in politics to Puck than I am, one of us needs to stay here to be his protector - and besiding, if the Court forgives my selfishnesses, if I were to go I am in better condition and would appreciate the exercise."
Appreciate the exercise. For the last year of her life, Freya had been wandering around with Zidane, walking herself to whipcords with bare minimum food and practically every day spent fighting for her life. Of course she was in better condition. Sitting around Burmecia had her near tears; her temper was testament to that. She was constantly on edge, snappish like a shrew, angry at everybody and everything. Let me out of here before I go mad, more like.
"Awwwh, okay/." Puck swung his legs, looking sulky, ridiculous helmet that he refused to take off save for state occasions sinking over his eyes. "Freya can go. You may go," he added graciously and unneccessarily, but at least he was getting into the royalty thing. Freya pricked her ears; she hadn't exactly expected to be let off to do the actual thing. "Go off, spend a couple weeks in the mountains, bring me back some heads. Spend a month or whatever, bring me back ten heads. Right, next /boring thing? Is it lunch yet?"
And she was free.
Just like that.
The courtyard outside the throne-room was summery, wet from the last sunshower, everything warm and damp and slightly rolling in hot mist as the sun burnt the moisture from the bricks. The season after spring in Burmecia was a thunderstormy, hot one, with everybody walking through a constant haze of condensation. The bells were ringing for midday; Freya felt a great weight lift from her shoulders, like shrugging off a pack after months of walking, like being let out of prison to walk as a freedman.
She was never meant for politics. She was useless at them. She could offer nothing of worth; trade negotiations with Treno bored her, contracts with Lindblum put her to sleep. There were plenty of other Burmecians who had stepped to the fore with intelligence and wisdom both in these matters; Freya Crescent was simply a soldier in peacetime, hands not quite free of blood and not used to the feel of an unused weapon in her grip in the days of rebuilding from destruction.
Freya loved her country; she worshipped her country. However, her return to the cradle had been after four extraordinary long and eventful years of travel and some other kingdom's soil underneath her wandering feet, and being penned in like a canary with nothing useful to do made her hands itch/. There was no meaningful toil for her - oh, such wretched self-pity, but it was /true - no houses she was allowed to build, no mortar she was allowed to place. What use was a dragoon of her ilk these days? The only joy she got was meeting with Garnet and Zidane again, at state affairs, reliving her glory days over a glass of Alexandrian champagne and wishing it was ale and panicking that she was becoming a crooked old man talking about old exploits at the age of twenty-two.
Was she only twenty-two? She felt so very, very old.
So what could she do? She could sit inside the house, reining in her tongue with a short check with a man she did not know who deserved better than her lips' sharper edge for a fit of temper he did not cause. She could offer advice to an infant king who would rather be playing hide-and-seek. She could talk to ministers about finance, and, and agriculture, and infrastructure, and -
Or she could go and kill dragons. Now that was something like.
The dragon knight threw her head back and actually laughed/, which felt good, which felt like springs and apples and sunshine and wildflowers. She was being sent away! It would be - not quite /vacation/, because mountain dragons were fierce and powerful and dangerous and would rip her leg off, but she was going to have her leg ripped off /alone wandering in the hills she had been wandering for years now and it would soothe her mind like a long, hot soak in a bath.
"You seem - happy."
She whirled around to Fratley, who had the queerest expression on her face, half-forlorn and half-wistful. "I haven't seen you this happy in a while, Freya."
What could she say to that? She took off her helmet, trying to feel the slightest bit of shame, shaking silver hair out in the muggy air around them as he drew closer. "I feel - useful."
"You're never not useful." That soft, warm voice, like crushed diamonds, like honey. She had loved that voice. "Puck - well, Puck needs you like anything; the people need you. I need you. Reconsider, Freya, do. I don't know what I'd do without you for a month, up in those godforsaken mountains."
The fact that you do not know what you would do with yourself were I gone four weeks is by far the best reason to go already. "Perhaps you'll take up a musical instrument."
"Frey, be serious - "
"I'm tired of being serious," she snapped. "I'm tired of seriousness and courts and your o'erweening duty/, when frankly /my duty lies in the hills helping farmers stop dragons snatching up their cattle."
He was hurt and she regretted it, as his eyes immediately retreated somewhere in his head, slightly wounded. Fratley was easier to harm than a puppy; one lift of the leg to kick and he shrieked in preemptive pain. "I'm sorry," she murmured. "I spoke out of turn."
"No, no." Her would-be lover sounded as subdued as she did. "I think - it will probably be good for you. It's just so /dangerous/, Freya, I worry and - "
"About me? Fratley, really - "
" - and I miss you and - "
"You can take your meals every night with Puck, Fratley, he'd like that."
There was a rueful light in his eyes that generally always had the ability to make her smile despite herself; when Fratley relaxed his laces he was an innately attractive man, if only the relaxation would last more than ten seconds and if his brain cells could hold together from only slowly healing mental trauma. Sometimes he stood in a room and did not know where he was, and those moments made her weep. "His Majesty in lieu of your conversation is, you might understand, cold comfort."
She grinned at him. The rain was starting again, pattering into her hair, light and warm as tea. "You'll get used to it."
If only he wouldn't respond like a hurt dog to his master's hand so, both cringing and grasping towards any gesture of affection. "I wish you wouldn't go, Freya."
"If wishes were chocobos then beggars would ride, as the saying goes."
Why did he have to remind her every ten minutes that she did not love him? She had found it within her to like this man, despite the clingy neediness, despite all his problems, despite her own - and that had been hard enough. Every little second more nowadays she had to escape from her own bitterness when he exacerbated it, so that he did not suffer the consequences. Don't, Fratley. I can only just bear not loving you. I can't bear hating you.
And then his hand was at her cheek, claws like momentary gentle pins on her skin, from his touch rather than the sharpness. She could not help but avoid his gaze, the intensity of it, staring at the wet hot flagstones again and breathing in the freesias and the rain. "You're like a wild thing sometimes, Freya. Sometimes I think I could - "
"Don't," she breathed, because it ripped at her. "Don't."
The uneasy dance of his hand cupping her cheek ended and he dropped his hand, still close, her eyes tightly wedged shut so hard red things bounced off the lids. There was an undefinable noise from him, deep in his throat - and then he was gone again, off to find Puck, out of her personal space.
She counted to ten and opened them up again. Gone, like he had never been there. Freya leant heavily against a wrought-iron rose arbour and stared up at the sky.
I have inevitably turned into someone I heartily dislike.
And then somehow it got out all over the rag-and-bone city that she was going, and she could hardly pack for the knocking of condolences that she would be parted with Sir Fratley for a whole month. ("No, of course I shan't cope," she longed to say. "I had forgotten that I went catatonic and didn't stir for the three years we were separated the last time, and by the way, he sleeps in the guest bedroom.") Young women brought casseroles and promised dinner, still with the hope that their cooking would force him from Freya's increasingly ungrateful side and into their waiting arms.
The city was beginning to choke her. It was not like Lindblum or Alexandria of old, where she could melt into the crowd - and, generally, into a bar - the nobody dragoon of Burmecia, the fighter of an increasingly waning age, her uniform a rare sight to be seen on something other than an old man back in her homeland. Something for a mother to point out to her child and be forgotten almost immediately.
Here everybody knew her name, her business and exactly her appointments, calling her Lady and doing curtseys as she went. Rebuilding Burmecia with her bare hands - as long as she had been allowed - had been the satisfactory thing, just about enjoyable; being new gentry made her want to run away and hide. Freya Crescent, one of the Nine who walked with Zidane Death-Killer and saved Gaia? Bahamut's bones, she was a lonely ex-drunkard and the granddaughter of a blacksmith, no royal blood or hero to be adored. She would always be proud of what she and Zidane and the rest had accomplished - they had gone so very far, and done so many things - but once more she found herself upon the first square of her chessboard, no more satisfied than she had been at eighteen.
Why was she restless? She had much to be grateful for, and -
- she was going to take up drink again if she was forced inside for another meeting on the state of the kingdom with a child-king who couldn't be bothered to learn to spell /economics/, losing all dignity, patience and honour in the face of being his bodyguard until he was approximately thirty.
(Forgetfulness was abhorrent. How could she forget roaming mountains, the highlands, the salt-sweet beaches?)
They'd had another almost-fight about the logical fact that she was leaving the next morning. She hated his quiet politeness more than anything; his gentleness made her impotent temper feel worse, baser than a Mu for lashing out at him. They'd gone to bed with some polite fiction of making-up; his disappointment was still everywhere, in her hair, in her clothes, in the bags she was packing. She could not meditate between these walls; it was no haven for her. She was going mad mad mad -
There was a distant song-peal of summer thunder. Now everything was going to turn into mud and Fratley would beg her stay another day until the roads up into the hills dried.
She started packing like a madman. In went the minimum changes of clothes; the things for her possible repair of the armour, the oils and polishes for the Dragon Hair, her judicious amount of tea, her tinder and flint - nails, compass, bandages. A package of boiled-egg-and-watercress sandwiches done by somebody kind that would last her until she could get food from the farmhouses along the way. Candles. The roll-up of her groundsheet, her sleeping things, all that to balance on her back like a snail - she could sleep in a cave, and it sounded better to her ears than a holiday house, and -
The storm was getting bad now. It threw debris upon her balcony, tapping at the doors. She let them open; the night was balmy-hot and thunderous, and she was going to boil inside her coat as it was. The wind stormed in and whipped her hair and she was determined to leave even if she died of it.
(More pebbles and bits of twig, blown in by the summer storm, obviously calling her out. The wind was coming to get her. She was leaving. /She was leaving./)
Groundsheet secured to her pack; that itself stuffed full to bursting, welcome as warm water on her back - tunic, trousers, scarlet coat wrapped all around her like an old skin. Fingerless gloves. The helmet, oh Gods she loved that helmet. Girt for war, Freya. Gird thy loins. Dragon Hair, monstrously beautiful-heavy, safely in her hand. The others had donated their most precious of weapons - well, all save one - to a museum that had begged for them; immortalized forever in bright, shining cases, careful inscriptions for later children to be bored over. Not hers. She had politely declined.
She snuffed out the candle in her room with thumb and forefinger. (More pebbles. She really did feel badly for Fratley for having to clean them up.) Freya Crescent stepped out onto her balcony, shutting the doors behind her, took a deep breath, and Leapt -
(Here I am. Here I am, this is me. Goodbye, Fratley. Goodbye, Puck. Goodbye elders and citizens and young girls and the awkward guards and the bodies in the graveyard, the Cleyrans in the temples unused to the rain - goodbye, politics, policies, goodbye, goodbye. I am going to embrace the wet street with both my arms and disappear out the walls running)
- landing squarely on the large, greenskinned figure who had been watching her house from the street, slamming him bodily to the ground as she teetered both clawed feet on his chest and stepped off. She stared at the red hair out on the glistening cobblestones, damp with the rivulets, green jacket and green trousers and hulking muscles that could never be Burmecian. He lay prone on the street, eyes squirmed shut.
"Oh," she said, puzzled. "I've killed Amarant."
"I," said the prone figure, through clenched teeth, "am gonna fuckin' kill /you/, rat."
"It talks!" She felt absurdly happy now. "Get up, man, a broken spine isn't anything to blubber about."
"Do you always jump men on the street?"
"Only the handsome ones. It was dark, I had you mistaken. Get /up/, Coral, and stop your bitching."
Amarant levered himself up from the ground with one strong arm, glowering at her from behind those half-shadowed brows, rainwater running down his face as she absolutely beamed at him with the droplets cascading off her helmet. "What the fuck are you doin', Crescent? I've been standing out here pelting your goddamn window for ten minutes."
That explained the inundation of twigs and rocks. "That was you? You couldn't use the knocker and front door, could you, like a normal person? No, of course you couldn't. Well, you're just in time; let's go!"
"Go?" She felt half-sorry for him; he looked absolutely befuddled as she shouldered her pack again, checking she had everything, doing half a jig down the street as the rain pelted in the shadows and she felt glad to be /her/. "Have you gone off your rocker, rat?"
"Yes," she said exuberantly. "I'm off to kill dragons. D'you want to walk me out, Coral? You can eat the watercress sandwiches, I hate watercress. Obviously, since you were here to see me, you haven't got anything better to do - oh, just come on, I'll tell you on the way out the Gate. We'll have half the guard out here in a second."
"You have gone fuckin' bonkers."
"Fine, then. Stay here." She started off without him, head cocked over her shoulder, mouth spread in the widest grin that he had ever seen on her face. "I warn you, though, Burmecian beer is /piss/."
"I'm going to goddamn regret this," Amarant Coral muttered to himself, before finally shambling off after the scarlet figure and into the darkness.
"I regret this."
The thunderstorm had already stopped. The night was settled over everything like a deep warm mist; the moon lit their way in pitch blackness, and they trudged along the slightly muddy road out of the city with everything smelling clean and damp and new. The stars wavered in puddles at the roadside and the tall grass shivered in the balmy breeze.
Being with Amarant was sort of like putting your feet back into an old pair of shoes that were too small for you. Uncomfortable and obnoxious, but you knew them like the healed blisters at the backs of your feet. "What are you talking about? I gave you some of the cheese ones."
"Let me get this straight." He swallowed a mouthful of sandwich, giving her the withering eyeball glance which she knew meant that he thought she was the most singularly idiotic person on Gaia. "You're skippin' out in the middle of the night to go and stick a bunch of mountain dragons?"
"And you think this is great?"
Amarant grunted in deep abiding disgust. "Insanity better not be catching, rat. Walk further away."
"I don't think you have to be worried there, Coral." She chewed on her crusts, merry like a child, still sighing dreamily and not quite able to believe her luck. "Gods, this is beautiful. No stupid city, no stupid court. Admittedly I could do better than your company if I trained an oglop to speak, but you'll do."
"Ha fuckin' ha." He stuck one of his hands in his pockets, moving along at a leisurely pace, still looking extraordinarily disgruntled. "I don't know who's stupider, you for going or me for not stickin' in that bar in Lindblum that gave me free booze and coming to see you."
"Why did you come and see me, Amarant? Do I owe you money?"
He shrugged expressively. "I was in the area. Came to see you for shits and giggles. Got the damn giggles, at least. What the hell are you smoking?"
"I say, Amarant." An idea was rolling around in her head, and she stood on it before it could get away. "You don't want to come along properly, do you?"
"It could be amusing. I'll buy you a drink afterwards."
"To go and kill dragons on some godforsaken hill?"
"Eating rations, shitting in the woods, that type of thing. I'm sure you get the gist."
Freya adopted the sweet and sympathetic tone of a teacher with a young student, fresh with homework they couldn't complete. "Well, I understand if you feel you're not up to it, Coral," she said kindly. "Dragons are so very dangerous. I can't put your life in danger. I retract the offer. You're not to come. Imagine if you got a /boo-boo/. A whole potion might be used. I suppose you should leave it up to the professionals - "
"You're a godsdamned bitch."
"And you're a bloody bastard. Are you coming?"
(He said yes.) (He regretted it.)