Categories > Games > Final Fantasy 9 > Love is not Enough


by Myshu 0 reviews


Category: Final Fantasy 9 - Rating: PG-13 - Genres: Angst, Humor - Characters: Freya Crescent, Zidane Tribal - Warnings: [!!!] - Published: 2006-03-19 - Updated: 2006-03-19 - 7093 words

After the festivities had quelled for the night, Freya best remembered standing in front of the full-length mirror in her guest quarters, her husband fast asleep under the bedcovers behind her, the blue moonlight pooling at her feet around the silhouettes of extinguished lamps, the red moonlight framing a scenic painting of Alexandria Plateau on the wall, and a complimentary silk robe, clean as the soapy white of her hair, balanced delicately on her shoulders. For a surreal moment her reflection resembled the angelic personification of the Dragon God Reis, just as she'd seen in midnight-stained glass portraits, but with a forced blink the blasphemous imagery passed.

Freya focused on her appearance a moment longer, and then nearly laughed out loud at considering whether or not to wear a shift under the robe. She shook her head, berating her silly expectations, tied the garment with a sound knot around her waist and drifted out the door, embarking on some scheduled late-night wandering.

Again, she reminded herself on route, it was silly to expect to see him there again, and she consoled herself with the plan that if he wasn't, she would have the whole room to herself to quietly contemplate life or... hell, who knows, read a book. She would find something to do. She didn't want to sleep the night away, not this one--she couldn't when she tried, anyway.

Her bare feet made the journey with few wrong turns and only one guard's piqued suspicion, which was shown in a slight turn of the head and lifted eyebrows. She wasn't worried about what the guards thought, though. She was confident not one of them would speak up, knowing whom she was and especially whom she was to their queen. It wasn't as if she were up to any trouble, anyway.

She took a draughty stairwell to the refurbished lower wing of the castle and followed a shadow-blanketed carpet runner to a promising shaft of firelight. Freya poked her snout into that open doorway and surveyed the room ahead with peering sniffs and pricked ears.
The teasing aroma of burning wood, wine and steamy tea greeted her, and she walked right in, finding almost the exact picture of last year. The added feature was a small silver tray with two cups and a teakettle, idling on the corner of the table.

Zidane, catching sidelong sight of her, cracked a grin and shut his book. "Hey, I was wondering when you were going to show up!"

The Burmecian picked her chin up with a coy smile and affected aloofness. "How silly of you. I was just going for a walk."

"Because you can't sleep, huh?" he put in her mouth, and when she chuckled admittedly he motioned her over to sit. "Haha, come right in. Want something to drink? I actually have tea this time," he informed her in a mock-haughty tone.

"I'll take a cup then, thank you," she responded as a matter of course.

He poured them each a cup and started the usual chit-chat. "So, how's Burmecia? How's the reconstruction coming along? I haven't been there in a long while. I should visit sometime soon."

"You should. It's greatly improved." Both ears swooped in thoughtful arcs. "It will never be the same, but..."

"It's still home, right?"

She nodded solemnly.

Zidane reached over to the table's far end and procured a pile of cards, which he began to shuffle. "Hey, you wanna play cards? I shouldn't be much of a challenge; I'm pretty rusty, eheh."

Freya couldn't turn down a challenge, for fun or not. "Sure, you're on."

"Really? That's great. Do you have a deck?" Immediately assuming the negative, he split the stack in two and passed a half to her. "You can take this."

She was startled a bit by his abrupt, hurried manner, but accepted her lot and began to sift through it. Her opponent brushed the tabletop between them clean and gestured away the initiative. "Since I'm such a good sport, you get the first move."

Freya sniffed at the display of good faith, amused that he would even think of cheating--such an attempt would not have escaped her easily. He knew that she knew his card tricks too well, because he'd tested most of them on her, usually and frustratingly without notice ("Are we ever going to play a legitimate game of cards?" "I don't know what you're talking about, my dear Freya." "Oh shut it and deal." "Mwehehe.")

"You just say that because I saw you give your double-sided coin to Brit." Up her tonberry card went.

"Touché, but don't think I'm playing nice because I'm out of tricks!" Down her tonberry went, up with his gimmie cat. "I haven't had anyone to play with in forever. The scholars around here only care about sticking their noses in books and Dagger's always too busy."

Mythril sword took gimmie cat and tonberry for a combo. "I see."

His next move took her by absolute surprise. "Did you ever figure out the answer to your problem? About Fratley?" Wyerd took back gimmie cat.

Freya didn't know which was more disconcerting: that this wasn't about cards anymore or that she knew exactly what he was asking about. "No..." she replied sincerely, "But I'm going to do what's in Adele and Brit's best interest. They need their mother and father, a whole family." The bitter residue in her voice flashed Zidane back to a conversation they'd had shortly after meeting for the first time.

"You're an orphan too, huh?"
/"I lost my parents when I was very young, yes. After that, becoming a Dragon Knight was all I had to look forward to. The palace became my home. The other knights-in-training and Sir Fratley were the closest to a family I had."/
"Sounds like me and Tantalus."

"I've been praying that love will find our way." She smirked. "As corny as that sounds." Dragonfly took wyerd and gimmie cat by the back door.

"Huh, that's funny. I feel the same way about Dagger."


"Yeah, sort of." Garuda pinched off mythril sword. "Actually, I'd been thinking about that talk we had last time. A lot."

"Oh?" she chirped, wondering which part he was referencing; she remembered several nebulous phases of "talk."

"You know, it was really hard at first."

"What was?"

"Living here, in this castle. I almost couldn't stand it."

Feather circle took back mythril sword via garuda.

He shrugged. "You know me, Freya. I grew up on the streets, with thugs and loud pubs and pick-pockets..." He threw a thumb over his shoulder, vaguely indicating the scene of the party. "Hell, ten years ago I would've been in that ballroom cleaning out those twats' pockets, not introducing them to my wife."

"Married life changes people," she quoted him back, not trying to be sardonic, but the irony pushing through nevertheless.

Grimlock lost to feather circle. He snorted grimly. "Heh, I guess so. I just didn't want to live like this, I guess, especially not at first. It wasn't that I don't love being near Dagger. This castle bores me to death, is the problem, and I didn't want to dress up and play a noble all the time, on top of that. But I eventually caved and did it for her, because she needed a husband that wasn't a public-relations disaster, I guess. And I just kept giving in and doing it, until..." He combed a clump of hair out of one eye and sighed wistfully. "I can't even remember what I used to do with my days, before I left Tantalus. I think it was because, with the guys, we didn't have a routine. We just did what we wanted, and always got by, somehow. I still miss that, sometimes."

"You seem to get by with a lot here," Freya stretched for consolation, though she was really just stabbing at it. She had no idea what Dagger and Zidane did day-to-day.

He grinned and laughed something sarcastic. "Yeah, wow, they let me sleep in 'til lunch now. Right there was a little war in itself." He set aside the last of his hand face-down and wagged his finger. "When I first moved in, Rusty was beating down my door at the ass-crack of dawn every morning, yelling at me to get dressed, go down to the table and eat breakfast. Even Dagger was on his side for a while, calling me a 'terrible morning person' and everything. I think one of her servants got a potato soup facial before they finally learned that that ship wasn't gonna fly."

Freya snickered at the crude anecdote. Ragtimer went up. Her hand now empty, she filled it with her teacup.

Getting back to his relatively serious point, Zidane started rambling, "I just, it's just that I think I've been trying to make Dagger happy and pretend I'm someone I'm not for so long that I just... became that person." He scratched his head, evidently confused. "Now I don't know what to do with myself. I still don't fit in here--I'm never going to, I'm just a 'filthy commoner' to them, I see the way they look at me when Dagger's not around--those nobles, I mean, and even the guards sometimes, but not Tot or Beatrix or Steiner--well, sometimes Steiner, ha. And I can't ever go back to Tantalus. I haven't even visited those guys in years. ...Just thinking about them now makes me feel like a bastard."

Her tail flicked uneasily. This conversation wasn't taking a pleasant route, and she had no idea how to cheer it up. "Zidane..."

He laughed darkly, as if he'd just picked up the punch line to a bad joke. "Haha, and I sit down here some nights, wondering why I'm unhappy."

Freya stared sullenly into her tea. "I didn't know you were so miserable."

Her friend lightened up and shook his head with a resigned smile. "It's not that bad. I did--I do it for Dagger. I don't want her to ever feel alone. Her company is worth it, I think. That's what love is all about, right? You gotta compromise to make each other happy." Their eyes then met, her pale green to his hollow blue, and she realized his rhetoric was more begging reassurance than giving it.

Freya was rattled with the very sudden urge to jump up, grab him by the shoulders and shake hard. She wasn't talking to the person she saw at the parties, the guy spinning tall tales for kids and pulling his beloved aside to steal quick, giggling kisses--it suddenly looked like a farce, all of that, and now she was looking at the thing that was left behind after he'd shed all the trappings of marriage and princehood. That thing looked beaten, sickly and, and /old/--the gods' blood, he was only in his twenties, how could sit there like that with his oversized monk-clothes and snowy Kuja-hair and dark smudges under his tired eyes that some spectacles thought they could hide--His younger, more robust self might've screamed, or cried, or hit something, but this version of Zidane just sat there, passively staring into nothing. Something deep inside had been broken and stuffed away where it would be hidden, and Freya desperately wanted to slap him until that shell of a queen's spouse crumbled to pieces and his good old sense stepped out.

She sat stiffly and quietly, nursing her teacup.

Zidane mumbled to himself, bowed and shifted strangely in place, as if shrugging a heavy load off his back. He then sat straight back up, an airy quip ready on his tongue. "Sorry, I didn't mean to go off like that. Is it something about this room or what? Heh." He rubbed his nose bashfully. "I was actually hoping you could give me some advice, 'bout something else. I guess it's kinda related, except... Okay, I guess it's not really. You don't really have to help or anything, if you don't want to. I just need someone to listen. Can you do that for me? Please?"

Freya refreshed herself with a deep breath. "I'll see what I can do." Why did she have the feeling it was only going to get worse from here?

"Thanks." He rubbed his hands together and stared at the far corner of the rug as he spoke. "You see, I want Dagger to have someone to make her feel loved--someone that'll give her a real family and take care of her and love her for who she is, rich or poor, sickness and health and all that. ...Even if that someone isn't me."

"What are you talking about?" Yes, getting worse.

"Uh, well. Dagger's council has been on her back a lot lately about an heir."

Freya rolled up her eyes and ears, pondering the implications; both leveled again when the coin dropped. "Oh. That's right, Dagger has no real connection to Alexandria's royal family, and even if she did, no one in that family is left alive. Without a child, her kingdom is bequeathed to...?"

"Nobody, for now, and that's what's making her council uneasy. They want the 'problem' settled before the all the nobles get antsy and start pulling tricks, trying to get a shot at the throne. I think the phrase 'political upheaval' got thrown around a coupla times, hell if I know what the big deal is."

"But you can't give her that heir," she got ahead of him.

He swayed in his seat uncomfortably and frowned. "Yeah. I can't. It's not her, it's me. The doc here even made a point to check Dagger out--see if she's fit for child-bearing."

"She is then, I presume."

He nodded. "As far as everybody can tell." He looked to her and opened his arms in another shrug. "So now we got a bit of a problem, right? And it's not like Dagger and I don't want a kid, you know. She really wants a family of our own, and so do I. It's just... I was thinking, about how to get around this. Or at least how to shut Dagger's advisors up about it until... um... hmm," he trailed off and dropped eye contact again.

"You think you could adopt a child, the way Dagger was adopted by Brahne?"

"That's a possibility, though difficult to pull off. We'd have to make it look like the kid is really Dagger's, at least to the outside world, otherwise they won't accept the kid as her heir. You expect Dagger to parade around for nine months, pretending to be pregnant?"

Freya made a mired frown, put down her teacup and crossed her arms. "Hmm, I see how that's troublesome."

"Yeah. There's another option, as much as it puts me out."

"What is it?"

"A surrogate."

She blinked. "A surrogate... what, /father/?"


"That's... that's ridiculous," she spoke her mind. If she had to be outraged on his behalf, she /would/, Zidane's stolid complacency be damned.

To her soaring disbelief, he actually began advocating the notion. "It'd actually be legit, though, and that's the killer. Even if the child's a bastard, he'd still be Dagger's. That's the only important part."

"You wouldn't possibly agree to that, though," she stated with more than a little doubt. She wasn't yet sure if he was seriously considering letting someone else father his wife's child.

"I can't say Dagger's for it," he ceded. "I just wish I could tell those monkeys on her back to wait a little longer," he added in a nearly-inaudible breath.

"How would that help?" Freya asked, not overlooking the remark.

For a second, his expression resembled something she found on a chocobo once: startled alarm. (She remembered watching the chocobo vanish into the trees the next instant, Quina's fork still stuck in its hindquarters.) When the second passed, Zidane was back to watching his thumbs fidget, oblivious to her query.

"Zidane?" she tried again.

"Freya," he finally spoke up, his tone heavy yet soft with an entreaty, "If I tell you something... something really, really serious... can you keep it a secret? I haven't told anybody yet, and I can't let it get out. Can I trust you?"

She nearly balked at such ominous secrecy, but then rallied her wits and nodded. "Of course. You have my word and confidence."

"Okay. Good, good. Just, I don't know how you're going to react, and..." He pressed his hands together to hold them still and focus. "Okay, okay. I'll just say it. I'm going to stop soon."

"Stop what? Rambling?" Freya snipped, wary enough from the suspense and too impatient for his digressions.

He spit out a quick, nervous laugh and scratched his temple. "No, no no no, ahahaha. Good one. Yeah, I will, but I mean, not that. I mean I'm going to stop. Like a Black Mage."

It took about ten seconds for the relevance of that to sink in. "...What?"

He merely shrugged, not offering any more.

"What do you mean? What are you saying?" Freya was on her feet before she knew it. When the Black Mages said "stop," they weren't talking about walking off their jobs and taking up a worker's union strike or something--they meant it in the most literal, complete, and final sense. The Mognet mail once dropped through her window that read, bluntly and inflexibly, "Vivi stopped," was the most traumatic thing she'd ever read.

"You can't be..." This wasn't some belated letter to be perused at her leisure, though. She was hearing it, right in front of her, and... "That's not funny."

Zidane didn't move. He didn't even look at her. Every passing, immobile second drove her closer to the edge of panic. She shouted, anything to break the overbearing silence. "I said this isn't funny, damni--!"

"I'm not joking!" he screamed and also jumped to his feet, becoming the most animated she'd seen him in years and effectively shocking her into a standstill.
The only ones that breathed in the next moment were Zidane and the fire. The former shook in his place, ragged and glassy-eyed like he could cry, but he was either too proud or too desperate to look his friend straight in the eyes to let tears get in the way.

That was when Freya realized he was speaking the truth. She hiccupped mutely for several moments more before finding her voice again. "...How? Why? How?"

Zidane sighed and relaxed, feverish tension evaporating and calm surrender moving back into place. "It's... sorta complicated."

"What do you take me for, a simpleton? Explain it to me! I want to understand."

"All right. Do you remember Terra? And Garland's Castle?"

"Of course. We were all there."

"Yeah. Do you remember what Garland told Kuja after we defeated him? You remember what he said that made Kuja go berserk?"

"He said..." She had to piece the memory with the explanation that was worked-out after the fact. "Kuja's life was going to end soon. Kuja became distraught because he thought he was going to die, after all the hard work he'd put forth to dominate both Gaia and Terra."

"That's right. That's because Kuja was a first-gen. First-gens are what Garland called the Genomes made in Bran Bal: Kuja, Mikoto, all the guys we rescued from Terra, and me too." The words came more easily the more he talked; he was in his element when explaining or narrating, rather than confessing. "What the deal was, is that every first-gen was given a predetermined lifespan of twenty-five years--Gaian years, that is, since Terra had to work on Gaia's time. It's something ingrained in our genetic code. We can't get rid of it."

"Genetic code?"

"Yeah, it's like a blueprint for your body. At least that's how Mikoto explained it to me. Everybody has it, from the time you're born. It's what makes you look like... you know, you!"

"Okay..." Freya slowly nodded.

"Okay, so all first-gens have this, uh... what did Mikoto call it... 'genetic inhibitor,' yeah. The idea was that first-gens would only live long enough for Garland to study them--see how he could design them better, right? Then they would kick off and get out of the way for the newer first-gens. It was Bran Bal's population control, basically."

Freya sniffed. "That's barbaric."

Zidane put up a lopsided frown and shrug. "Yeah, but like that's the only thing about Bran Bal that was. Anyway, see this color?" He tousled his whitewashed hair. "It's just what it looks like on humans: a sign of gettin' on in years. Once first-gens started to look like me Garland took them into his castle to be his servants until they..." His expression dropped with his arms. "...well. Sometimes he didn't even bother. The ones he didn't need anymore Garland put down like dogs."


He hummed in agreement. "Good thing we put a stop to that, right?"

"Yes, but, I still don't understand why Garland would put such a restriction on the Genomes." Freya scratched her chin, ears windmilling as she thought. Zidane, bitten by a silly bug (why did it always come crawling when he was nervous?), resisted the urge to grab them like bicycle handles, and self-consciously checked behind him to see if his tail was such a ridiculous giveaway of mood. It corkscrewed defiantly, confounding him.

"Wasn't their purpose to receive the souls of Terra once our planets merged? How did Garland expect the Genomes to proliferate with such little time to live?" Freya resumed, and then noticed her companion spinning in circles.

"You are not chasing your tail," she groaned.

Zidane hopped back to attention. "Uh, oh. No!" He wavered on his toes as the world slowed down, blinked to clear his head, and then grinned sheepishly. "I mean yes. Sorry."

Freya scowled. "You have the attention span of a child! I can't believe you're goofing off at a time like this. This is serious! You brought this up, asking for my advice! Are you going back now and saying it's a joke?"

"No!" he answered in a frightened snap. His gaze fell, suitably browbeaten. "Sorry, sorry. You're right. Anyway that's easy," he got back on track, "The second-gens would be born without the genetic inhibitor. They'd live normal human lives. There's already a few in the Black Mage Village, did you know?"

"Second-gens... Second generation? You mean the offspring of the first-gens?"


"Oh, I see. But still, Zidane, you were... you were born on Terra."

He nodded.

"What's going to happen to you?"

He turned towards the fireplace, as if he could look through the flames into the next world. "Well, Garland doesn't need any maids where he's sleepin', so..."

"Zidane!" She stamped her dainty rat-feet. "I'm serious!"

"Hey, so am I!" he shot back with a little more force than intended. Freya was struck quiet. After a long minute, Zidane dropped on the spot and rolled his shoulders forward, hunched like a dog--some kind of pouting deference to the dragoon, it could've been--Freya never really understood why he sat on the floor when upset. It looked childish.

"I don't know, okay?" he admitted softly, "Mikoto says--she says it's the end of the road. I just... this is it. I can't do anything. I'm just gonna accept my fate. ...Just like Kuja."

Freya shook her head vehemently, not standing for this. "You're just giving up? But, there has to be something! Some way to stop this! It doesn't make any sense!"

"Heh," he chuckled wryly, "Life isn't something that prides itself on making sense."

"...I can't believe this. I can't believe what you're saying. How long have you known?"

She could have gaped when he started counting on his fingers. "Four years today."

"Haven't you told anyone else?"


"My gods, why not? Doesn't Dagger know?" she raised her voice in disbelief.

"Oh, you're not going to tell her, are you?" He twisted a pleading look off the fire and onto her. "I mean it, I don't want anybody else to know. Especially not Dagger."

"What...? Why?"

"Just don't, please?"

"What are you afraid of?" she challenged him, only it wasn't a game this time, "That she won't care?"

"Huh?" He seemed genuinely confused for a second. "No, no, it's not that at all. Actually... I'm afraid she will."


"It's just... You're around Puck a lot, aren't you? And didn't you work for the king of Burmecia a while, before him? Well, I mean, maybe not for him, but you were around the palace."

"I trained in the palace, and work there now to protect the king, but that's it. Why?"

"Well then, you might know. I really had no idea how much work it takes to rule a country. I always thought being a king or queen or whatever would just be doin' whatever you want and giving orders. Boy, did I find out better. Dagger, she's always working. You'd think there wouldn't be much to do in peacetime, but there's always diplomats, and economists, and meetings and visits and luncheons and special ceremonies, and sure, there are lots of people to help out, but she hardy gets any time to herself except for breakfast, lunch and after dinner, and sometimes not even lunch and dinner, and--well, it's stressful, you know? But she's happy, I know she is. She likes her work. She's always saying she wants to be a great queen and help her people. I'm glad I can stay here and let her be happy, even if I can't help much."

He caught himself prattling again and rubbed the back of his neck. "And, ah... I guess what I'm saying is, I don't want to add to that, ya know? Dagger has so much else to worry about, I don't want to burden her with my problems. It wouldn't be fair."

What was she going to say to that? Freya was so flabbergasted she could spit. What kind of man--cowardly--didn't tell his own wife, the very person who made that "til death do us part" vow right next to him--pathetic--wouldn't tell her--how--for /four years/? It was the biggest load of rubbish she'd heard in her life, and she reconsidered the whim to slap the boy silly.

Interpreting the looming silence poorly enough, Zidane shrank into a tighter ball, his tail flexing and unfurling restlessly behind him. "Look what I've done. I'm sorry. I shouldn't've unloaded all this on you, either. It's just, I spent so much time getting used to the idea, and I wanted to tell someone else so badly, I couldn't keep it inside anymore. But I didn't think about how it would make you uncomfortable. That was really selfish of me. Forget I said anything."

"Zidane, I..." She balled her fists, angry and disheartened and unable to believe her ears. "No! I'm not just going to /forget/, I can't believe you! You don't get it, do you? You big... fool!" She spun on her heels and marched towards the door with a disgusted huff.

"Freya?" Suddenly panic-stricken at the thought of her walking out angry with him--or worse, her walking out and spilling the beans to the next person she met, Zidane bungled to his feet and leapt clean to the door, just about. "Freya, wait, please!"

Before he could snare her arm, Freya preempted him and turned back, armed with a tongue-lashing. "Aren't I your friend? Aren't we all? Were you just going to keep this from all of us?"

"Er--" he choked, taking a turn at losing his words.

"You were, weren't you?"

"Please don't tell anyone..."

"Why shouldn't I?"

"Because I'm trusting you!"

Freya gritted her teeth, stilled by the thought. She did promise, didn't she? She felt like he'd pulled a card trick on her again.

"That's the only reason I told you at all. I thought, of all my friends, you're the only one I could talk to about this." He got worked up into panting exasperation again, trying to mesh his feelings with his thoughts and words. "I just--it's--I don't mean to--I'm /scared/, Freya."

/He was scared/. The quiet words resonated in her skull, thwarting her brewing fury. Zidane Tribal, who had stood atop the Hill of Despair, pointed at Death and said he wasn't afraid to die, was /scared/.

He looked at the ground and shrugged once more, arms falling listless at his sides. "...I'm scared."

She numbly asked the next question, not even wanting the answer but requiring it, "How much... how long, now?"

"A year, about. Maybe less, maybe a little more."

She swallowed air, grasping for coherent words, some kind of solid reaction to give him. All she did was inflate her sinking stomach.

Zidane lost his nerve again in the lull and began stammering an apology. "I, I'm sorry. I'm sorry I brought this up." He quickly turned and paced back to the sofa, running a hand through his hair and muttering, "Damn, you wonder why I didn't." He began to wave her out the door. "Go on, you can leave if you like. I won't keep you."

Oh no, she'd seen too much of that from him--Zidane wasn't going to push everyone away again, like he did for his last crisis. She was here and she was dealing with this right now. "You can absolutely forget it, I'm not going to bed now!"


An emphatic stroke of her hands cut his hope-sapping protest off. "No, stop it! Just shut up and let me think... There has to be something we can do."

He shook his head. "I've looked, there's nothing left. Mikoto agrees, though you know how pessimistic she is and, uh... nevermind," he quit, having mooted his own point.

"But, the genetic inhibitor, if we can find some way to remove or disable it--"

"There's only one man who knows how to do that, Freya. We killed him."

She didn't have a rebuttal for that. She didn't have a clue, and she hated most of all to admit that.

"Hey, listen..." He weakly reached out and brushed her hand in a reconciling gesture. "It's all right. Let's just forget about that a minute and go back to our game."

Freya didn't budge to that idea. She continued to stand in place, racking her brain for a solution she was rapidly beginning to realize wouldn't come handily.

She looked in on the present again when Zidane deliberately coughed. He was standing over the table and pointing at their neglected cards. "Look, your mythril sword is wide open, there." He plucked his remaining unplaced card off the table, set it up and demolished the playing field. "Once-twice-thrice-tetra-match," he chanted as he flipped all of Freya's cards over. "You should've been guarding it better."

Freya, shocked by the turn of play, was lured back to the scene to investigate. A fully-leveled grand dragon had blown her hand away with a combo chain and given Zidane a perfect game.

"Why you cheap little...! How long had you been holding that move back?"

"Until I wanted the game to end," he replied cheekily.

"I thought you said you were rusty!"

"I am; you must really suck," was his alibi.

In her lame defeat, rather than wringing his neck, she laughed despite herself, shaking her head. "I can't believe you! ...I can't believe you." Zidane squeaked surprise when Freya abruptly grabbed and pulled him into a hug. He squirmed a little, trying to orient himself in her arms (for such a slight figure, she was quite taller than him), and then settled into her comfort, something he felt she needed more at the moment than he. He took passive note of the trembling in her chest, the scent of rich soap in her hair and the way she swallowed dryly before she could speak.

"God's blood, Zidane," she whispered, "This can't be happening. I'm not ready to lose you. None of us are. Tell me this isn't happening."

"Aww, stop that." He patted her back. "Don't be sad. It's alright. Everything's gonna be alright."

"How...?" her voice cracked.

He breathed a sigh through the cool white silk of her robe, warming her shoulder. "You're so strong, Freya. Stronger than you realize. I've always admired you for that."

She frowned sourly at the praise. "It's more a pretense than you realize. I'm not as strong as I look, believe me."

"Heh, what is this, self-depreciation night? We both sound pretty pathetic."

She sniffled and gave an empty laugh. "Hah, we must." She finally loosed her grip on her friend and spied the corked bottle on the table, shoved behind the tea tray. No, Freya told her nagging drowsiness, she wasn't going to be able to go to bed any time soon. She didn't have the nerve to.

"...I fancy some of that wine, now."


The night was aging; the fire was dying.

The shadows grew thicker, exaggerating every corner, creeping over the backs of furniture and blotting out the gold leaf print on the spines of books. A plume of embers sprang off a collapsing log and sailed out through the chimney, stirring up the most commotion the room had heard in the past hour.

It was a strange condition to simply sit still, very still, in the lap of another, drinking merely of his company. He'd fast grown comfortable in her silence, and she in his. They talked in quiescent sighs, easy heartbeats and quaint touches. Freya wondered which of them was more the pillow to the other, since they leaned on each other as well as into the sofa's embrace.

She didn't dare voice her thoughts, though. If they began chatting again they would invariably talk about... No, she didn't want to deal with it any more for the moment. She wanted to let her heart relax and her mind drift through nothing a little while longer. She wasn't yet ready to let him slip free, because as long as she could feel his subtle pulse and shifting breath in her arms, there was still life there to hold on to.

Amidst the ticking clockwork of each other's bodies, Freya began to pick up a new sound, rather foreign compared to the others. She could have pinned it on the wood-splintering fire, but the disturbance was too local. She could practically feel it: a low, pulsing thrum that spread through her fur.

It crossed her mind that she was holding the source of the noise. During a party a few years ago, Eiko had snuck up on her with a discovery, one freshly gleaned from royal "girl talk."

"He can purr, like a kitty-cat!"
/"What? Pardon?"/
"Hehe, Zidane! Dagger said he purrs when she pets him! Isn't that just adorable?"
/"I... suppose. Why are you sharing this with me?"/
"Oh, you're no fun to gossip with!"

Freya considered testing this phenomenon. He did mention that he "loved being touched" last year, even if it sounded like a terrible pick-up line the likes of him would use. She smirked when recalling that he all but tripped over himself, trying to correct the context. Of course, she knew what he meant, but his drunken efforts were cute to watch.

She eventually gave in to curiosity. He was nearly asleep anyway, she told herself, though what difference that made she wasn't sure. She furtively searched his clothes, found a soft spot in his side and applied some innocent, therapeutic scratching.

In response, the gentle rumbling intensified and Zidane sighed, his breath quivering like a tiny motor. "Ooh, thanks. That feels great."

She giggled in her throat, curiosity effectively humored. "It's true, then. You do purr like a kitten. You're just full of surprises, aren't you?"

The fur of his tail bristled (was that blushing?) once that tidbit was brought to light. "I-It's not that bad!" he squawked defensively.

"Hahaha. Relax, I didn't say it was bad at all. Why, are you embarrassed?" she prodded him.

"N-no, of course not... It's nothing to be ashamed of!" he asserted, and Freya could have laughed, especially when she noticed that for all his sensitivity on the topic, he wasn't making one move to stop her scratching. It was such an amusing picture, she thought: the mouse petting the cat.

It was too bad the episode, as funny as it was, had broken the room's peaceful spell. Freya realized her folly when the purring ground back into nothing and Zidane spoke again. "You know... I still haven't figured out what to do about Dagger's heir."

That was a good question she couldn't answer. "You're hoping everyone will hold out until you're out of the picture, aren't you?" she asked, terrible as that felt to bring up again.

"It'll be easier when I'm gone," was all he had to say. She didn't know what to tell him. He was a little too right.

Since everything was being put down on the table already, Freya went ahead and explored the question, "What's happening to you... what does it feel like? Does it hurt? Are you ever in any pain?"

"I'm fine, don't worry about me," he put her query down.

"Zidane..." she pressed.

He wiggled and relented. "Just sometimes. I'm mostly tired, is all. It's a weird feeling, like my body's slowing down one piece at a time and the rest of the pieces don't know how to deal. So I kinda panic, sometimes, lose my breath. The cramps are the worst. They freaked me out at first, but it always passes, I'm okay."

"Have you talked to a doctor?"

"Com'on Freya, get real. There isn't a doctor on this planet that can help me." He wasn't exaggerating, oddly enough.

She sharply tapped his head. "I don't mean about fixing it, you dolt. I'm talking about something for the symptoms. You can get medicine for pain."

"Aaaactually," he drawled, "I've already duped Tot into somethin'." He stretched and flexed his wrists, an odd, proud grin pinching one cheek. "You shoulda been there for the story I dished out--Lord Avon himself would've given me an award, my acting was that good."

Freya shook her head with good-humored disapproval. "Your conceit knows no bounds."

"Hey, it's not bragging if it's too true to be good." He froze and reconsidered himself. "...Wait, I messed that up, didn't I?"

"Horribly, yes."

"Damn, I must be losing my touch."

"I'll forgive you this once."

"How gracious of you. Anyway, they all think it's my heart. Haha. Just my heart. More like just everything. Heh, eheh, heh..." His rueful laugh died on an awkward note, and both friends sat on the portent.

"So..." Zidane spun a glance to her, wide-eyed and interested. "You going to let me go soon?" he asked, his open tone implying that he would be fine with either answer.

Freya settled her chin on top of his head and readjusted her grip around him. "I don't think I want to."

He snuggled back into her warmth, gladly accepting it. "So, what now?"

Freya suddenly remembered why she abandoned her soft, cozy guest bed in the first place, and a sheepish grin split her muzzle.


It was said in jest, but was so unexpected and inane that it unleashed something fierce. Zidane rolled forward in a burst of laughter, and Freya let him go, an awful case of the giggles paralysing her, as well. For three solid minutes they tumbled about in a strange fit, tanked not so much by the hilarity of Freya's proposal as by the need to simply, explosively, laugh. It was the proverbial last straw, and even as each recognized how batty they looked, they couldn't help themselves--their laughter broke the grave tension lurking in the room, and that was perfectly welcome. They laughed until they felt their sides would split and they'd never laugh again.

Before she was finished Freya was sitting upside-down on the sofa, feet on the cushions and hair grazing the floor. She gulped deep breaths to quench her hysteria, outrageous grin never leaving her face.

Zidane sat up and rubbed his brow with the back of his hand, still sputtering. "Ah, haha... I feel so /used/!" he finally said, playing indignant. Freya let a throw pillow live up to its name, hitting him upside the head.

Before a pillow fight rightfully erupted, he sighed and stood up. "Oh... Okay, I think we should go to bed. Our beds. I mean, uh, you know. Hehe."

Freya righted herself with minimal exposure, wishing she had worn something under the robe after all, and reluctantly agreed. "Ah, yes, I suppose we should."

Zidane led her towards the door, stopped short, reached on his tiptoes and left a quick, chaste kiss on her cheek. "See you next year."

Freya didn't let him off that easy, and caught him for one last embrace. He didn't fight her.

"It goes against all my good sense," the dragoon spoke behind his ear, "But your secret's safe with me. I won't violate your trust."

He twitched with a faint, grateful smile. "Thank you, Freya. I'm sorry again for putting this burden on you."

"Don't be ridiculous. I'll think of something. I'm not going to just sit idle while this happens to you."

She heard him glumly mutter into her robe, "Don't even bother; it's a waste of time."

"Stop that," she censured him, "I don't want to hear you speak like that anymore. I'll find a way. We'll find a way."

"Freya, please. You can at least spare me the false hope."

She clenched her fists, grabbing a tangled ruff of carrion worm silk and crystal-white, outgrown hair. He winced--her claws probably scratched him through the mess. "I said shut up! Dear gods, Zidane, you're hopeless sometimes. I'd better see you this time next year."

"Heh... yeah." He gently pushed them apart, looked up to her and nodded. "See ya later."

On those terms, Freya finally turned to leave.


When she looked back, she found him standing as she left him: not as tall as he should've been, not as proper as he should've been, not as proper as he shouldn't have been, not as happy as he should've been, not as young as he should've been, and all the worse for wear.

But he was smiling, and for a change he meant it.

"Thanks, really. For listening. You're a good friend."
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