Fairy tales aren't just for children sometimes and Freya reflects on a story once told. One shot.
However, she felt out of step with the progress. The months had passed smoothly since her return with Sir Fratley. A sense of dream-state lay heavy over them and, unless she tried quite hard, she could not remember the particulars. Oh, she knew the general flow of her life – just as she knew the way the sun rose and set. The country’s heroes, the king’s advisors, she and Fratley appeared at every function. The only person busier was the king himself.
Thoughtfully, she held her hand out of the window, allowing the rain to patter down cold on her offered palm. She heard a faint noise behind, someone entering the room, yet she did not turn. “Is it time for council again?” she asked mildly.
“No, not yet. I was just…” Iron-tail Fratley hesitated and she heard his footsteps approach. She turned to look at him. He smiled faintly. “I wanted to see if you wished to join me for dinner in an hour.”
“Oh.” He was so familiar and yet so strange. Above all, though, he remained polite and warm and alive. Somehow that made it easier to return his smile. “It would be a pleasure. Thank you.”
He waited a moment as if waiting for more but, when she simply tilted her head, he bowed suddenly and left the room. He made no more noise leaving than he had arriving and that also reassured her. She turned back to the open window. The rain still trickled steadily from the sky but the clouds had darkened further, a sure sign of approaching dusk. Half-smiling, Freya extended her hand into the elements again but her eyes watched the heavens for a few long moments. Then she shifted her gaze downwards, half-seeing the stand of trees lining the opposite side of the road. Something winked in and out of the dimness and she straightened in surprise. It took another flicker before she released her breath and slumped forward, hands braced on the window sill. She stared hard, eyes burning, and willed the light to come again.
When nothing happened, Freya closed her eyes and laughed and tightened her hands on the sill until the ache killed the laughter. She turned her face away from the window and gingerly uncurled her hands before bringing them up to hold to her narrow chest. “You are a fool, Freya Crescent,” she muttered. “There are no fireflies in Burmecia.” She closed her eyes and blindly moved to sit on the narrow bench, placing herself firmly out of view of the window. “There never will be because some things cannot bear the rain and it’s quite time you accepted that.”
Nonetheless, she relaxed her posture and slowly slumped back into the unforgiving stone wall behind her. “The rain makes heavy things heavier, Rat,” she breathed, using words not her own. Her mouth twitched in a painful smile. “You and spark-tails, Amarant. Never to be seen in Burmecia.”
Sleep came hard some nights. Even when her body ached with exhaustion and her mind could barely bundle together coherent images, let alone concepts, the thoughtless bliss of sleep could still elude her. She supposed it was the result of stress or of unfamiliar company. She might have considered the landscape but she had done more than her fair share of traveling. While the country around her was not Burmecia, it was no longer alien.
Freya wrapped her arms around her raised knees and stared into the surrounding darkness. At least, she reflected, the camp needed a watch and her sleeplessness could be put to use. Trees rose at the bottom of their little hill, just on the other side of the quietly gurgling stream, just far enough for her to be able to see entire trees without craning her neck but close enough that she could make out the twisting branches yet. Their high, leafy tops blotted out a solid third of the night sky and hid the stars. A faint wind rustled the leaves and she cocked her head to listen to the soft sighing whispers. It was hard to pick the breeze out over the rhythmic breathing of her companions but it gave her something to do which was the entire point of the exercise.
When the wind stilled, though, the distraction faded and she squeezed her knees within the circle of her arms in frustration. Finally, she stood and looked around at the slumbering forms, sprawled or curled on the soft grass, all motionless for the moment. The fire flickered in an attempt to snare her attention but she dismissed it in favor of focusing on the small shape of Eiko. The small summoner lay curled in on herself, a pillbug of too-big clothing and skinny limbs. Her tiny horn caught the fire and glinted. Freya shook her head and turned away again. Their mission was not one for children but here she was and there was none who could hope to dissuade her.
One last glance around confirmed the safety of all and, conscience sated, Freya moved down the hill to stand beside the stream. She looked over her shoulder periodically but, in the end, the running water caught and kept her attention greedily and she sank to the ground in an uncharacteristic sprawl. Half-closing her eyes, she inhaled the fresh scent of water and leaf, grass and air, and willed her own self to relaxation. Just as she felt the delicate edges of that relief, though, a familiar body, warm and large and silent, settled down beside her. His grunt as he folded his arms over his knees explicitly called her daft.
Turning her head, Freya studied him with half-lidded eyes. Just as the trees blocked out stars, he blocked out the landscape and suddenly the awareness of him smothered the polite little stream and the docile breezes. “And to what do I owe this pleasure, Amarant?” she drawled to further interrupt the silence.
“You being a stupid, annoyin’ rat.” Nonetheless, he seemed to shift so that he could send her a sideways look from beneath his tangle of hair. “Why are you down here?”
She almost answered truthfully but, biting her tongue, she looked back towards the trees. The crickets and the water and the air took up their chorus again for long moments until she finally said carefully, “I thought I heard something."
He grunted again and she felt his eyes remain on her. She fought a scowl by leaning forward to rest her forearms atop her knees, chin lowering until it nearly rested there as well. There was a flicker in the distance and she sat forward, eyes straining. "What was that?"
Amarant barely glanced over. "Spark-tails." At her slightly blank look, he sighed. "Fireflies."
"Ah. Yes. We don't have them in Burmecia, really." She cocked her head slightly and squinted through the darkness to watch the series of dim flickers amongst the leaves. "I've seen them elsewhere, of course."
For some reason, he laughed at her answer. "Right. 'Course you don't get 'em in Burmecia. It's too wet, isn't it? The place is a freakin' flood waiting to happen."
"And what is that supposed to mean?" Freya straightened again and turned to once more study her companion. She heard the heightening of her voice, cursing herself for cracking even slightly in front of him. She had not been home in so very long that it was hard to remember exactly what the rain smelled like or how the moss looked. It was hard to remember if Burmecia had ever been home to fireflies. "There is nothing wrong with the damp. Rain has nothing to do with fireflies."
Amarant looked at her from behind his heavy mess of hair, inscrutable. Then, laboriously, he lowered himself to one side and his massive body stretched out, crushing the tender grass. He propped his head on a raised hand. His hair shifted at the movement and she caught the glint of an eye. "Rain's got everythin' to do with the bugs," he answered lowly. "Don't you know the brats' tales?"
"Of course I do. Everyone knows them." Freya looked back towards the trees, over the stream, through the leaves. Carefully, she unbent her legs and straightened them until she could point her toes. Then she dropped her arms behind her and leaned back, her weight braced easily by locking her elbows. "Fireflies were created as lures for a demon groom," she continued. Her hooded eyes remained on the distant forest and she could not say for certain why she resisted looking at Amarant as she told the worn-out tale. "He lived deep in the forest and, when he found that his enchanted music was not quite enough to ensure unwary maidens would find him, he captured the insects and transformed them so they could guide the women with fey light."
She felt Amarant's attention on her, strangely intent and serious, and resisted the urge to shift beneath it. She was not sure how she felt about occupying the center stage of his mind. She looked down at her hands. "Even when he was defeated, they continued to glow and now they use their lights to find each other. Why this means they won't come to Burmecia, I haven't a clue."
For some reason, he started to laugh and rolled onto his back, hands folded behind his head. She glared at him yet it was long moments before the laughter trailed off into snickers. He shifted slightly to shake a few tendrils of hair from his face. Another faint snort of laughter slipped as he pretended to study the stars.
"Just what is so damned funny, Coral?"
"You," he answered simply. "Trust you to know the version for the diaper set, is all."
"If you're trying to tell me that there is a rather filthier version that you've picked up in your bars and..."
"The Nix didn't just give up the girls, Crescent." His interruption landed heavily in the middle of her flow, sending ripples out, and she fell silent in surprise. "Wasn't a demon groom. Whatever the hell that is. It was a Nix that lived at the source of a river deep in a forest, just like you said."
She turned to watch him. "I'm so glad you approve," she murmured dryly.
"And he died, she died. That's how we got Nix-roses."
That brought a frown to her face and she adjusted her positioning, fussing with the hem of her coat as she drew her gaze away and down. "Nix-roses," she repeated.
"Yeah." Amarant shifted a bit again, his massive body flattening more grass as he sought a more comfortable spot in which to rest. His elbow neatly grazed her hand and she brought it up to rest atop her knees. "Those great big red roses that grow by the rivers. It was the last girl that did him in, right?" As if knowing that his words had brought her attention back to him, he smirked up at the night sky. "He got those bugs to glow and used them to bring the girls in," he explained. "This last one, though... Well, I guess she didn't wanna get drowned like the rest of them. The spark-tails brought her like normal but she had a knife on her and took a slash at him. Missed anything vital, 'course, just a girl." His smirk deepened, hearing Freya's noise of disgust at his casual dismissal. "He went to grab her but she put the knife through her own heart. Didn't miss that time. She fell on the riverbank there and her blood stained the roses."
"Nix-roses." She was very still, body frozen in place. She absorbed the story slowly. "I didn't know that."
"'Course you didn't. It's not something to tell the brats, right?"
Silence fell between them and Freya split her focus between the sighing of the wind and the steady breathing of the man beside her. The night had cooled further and she once more brought her knees up to her chest and looped her arms about them. Tilting her head, she rested her cheek against them, rough fabric against her skin. There was a question that she had to ask. There was no help for it; she had to know. Yet she hesitated, not sure how to break the quiet peace between her and the bounty hunter. Finally, she turned her head to peer at him. "And the Nix?" she asked softly. "You said he died."
"Yeah." His own voice was thick and heavy and he appeared to have closed his eyes, no longer studying the stars. "Turns out she was something special. All those girls he'd drowned, the lies he told... No big deal, right? She was the one. Supposed to set him free and they'd get the fairy tale ending." He paused and swallowed. "So he was pissed off and cursed the spark-tails so they'd glow forever when they tried to find each other. Him being water, he also tacked the fear of that on. Even if it's hard for something so little to drown, they're afraid of it."
"So they won't come to wet Burmecia."
He did not show any signs of hearing her, continuing in the same strange-rough voice, "Then he lay down over the girl and didn't get up again. He was a freakin' monster and he still died of a goddamn broken heart." Roughly, he pushed himself into an upright position and his hair fell down to cloak his face again before he continued the movement to stand. "Stupid story."
Her head twisted to stare at him in open surprised but he refused to glance her way again. Instead, he brushed bits of grass from his forearms, from his pants. She watched his movements and wondered at them; they seemed to be the result of something else because certainly he had never before moved so sharply. Eyes inescapably wide, she waited until he was done with his fussing and then held out a hand. What she wanted to say, she would never know, however. Without even glancing her way, Amarant grunted a goodnight and stomped heavily back up the hill to the campsite.
Long moments passed and then, feeling foolish, she dropped her hand and allowed her gaze to drift back across the stream. The tiny lights flickered off and on in the depths of the trees and she could not quite smother the frown the sight inspired. "Spark-tails," she muttered. "What a childish thought."
Reaching up blindly, Freya pushed away strands of gossamer-white hair as she straightened in front of the window. When her fingertips encountered dampness at her cheeks, though, she paused and shook her head before turning from the scene. It was raining outside and she had only just withdrawn her hand from the elements; of course, wet would be transferred by her touch. She smoothed her hands down the sleeves of her coat and watched the contrast of pale fingers and scarlet fabric. Suddenly, though, she thought of roses and she wove her fingers together tightly, knuckles whitening with the sudden fierce tension. "Nix-roses," she muttered under her breath. "What a horrible story."
She shook herself and forced her hands to relax. Posture helped control things, she remembered; she stood as straight as possible with her shoulders back and her head high. It was time to seek out Fratley for their dinner engagement. For a moment, though, she hesitated and glanced towards the window once more.
A weak light flickered in the distance. Once, twice... Something answered it in kind to the right, hovering and dancing in the dimness.
With a low gasp, Freya turned away, fists clenched at her sides. No. There were no fireflies in Burmecia and there never would be.
Had not Amarant told her that?
And, because he had told her, and, because he was himself, she knew it was the truth. Clutching her coat around herself, Freya slipped from the room and resolved to never enter it again at night. It was too much to hope for.
Spark-tails and Amarant Coral - two things forbidden to her rain-soaked home.