The house is mouldering stone by stone,
The garden-walks are overgrown;
The flowers are low, the weeds are high,
The fountain-stream is choked and dry,
The dial-stone with moss is green,
Where'er the Rose of May is seen.
-- from ROSE OF MAY by Mary Howitt (1799 - 1888)
Find Your Way
Squinting against the blinding late-afternoon sun, Beatrix tipped her head back to gaze up at the figure teetering precariously atop the ladder. Nothing more than a black blob against the bright blue sky, from the way he was waving that hammer around Steiner looked dangerously close to losing his grip. Her own grip tightened against the bottom rung as she called, "Mind your footing," not liking the way her words drifted up into oblivion.
The ladder vibrated. He yelled, "I'm fine."
She tsked, not at all convinced. Sweat trickled down her back, sticking the shirt to her skin, gathering between her fingers. They had been helping with repairs since arriving and it seemed they'd brought an unreasoning heatwave with them, one that tried its best to beat down the people's spirits. So far, optimism was dominating the city -- even the occupying Alexandrian soldiers lent a hand mending the ruin they had caused.
Beatrix wasn't accustomed to perpetual heat. Agitated, she scratched at the bandage over her face -- with the streets patrolled by the soldiers she'd once commanded, the eyepatch had been the first thing to go -- and shifted her hold on the wood. "Then why are you shaking?"
"It's windy up here!"
Grimacing, she muttered, "And I'm the general of Alexandria."
"Stop moving!" Steiner bellowed from somewhere above her.
Marcus turned into the street carrying what appeared to be a freshly carved door on which balanced a set of mugs. Behind him, propping up the tail end of the door with his head, Blank reached up and grabbed a drink, taking a deep draught. He smacked his lips and called, "Hey hey, Bea. Brought you a present."
"How kind." Gratefully, she let go the ladder and reached for a cup. Upon peering into it: "Coffee. I should have known."
Cinna jumped from his perch midway up the scaffolding and rushed for the brew. Beatrix had learned to expect the manic glint shining in his eyes whenever coffee appeared, prompting her to pass over the cup and get another one for herself. His enthusiasm impressed her. "What's that about coffee?" the thief probed.
"Bea prefers tea," Blank sang, huffing as he dropped his end of the door and helped Marcus ease it against a nearby wall. It hadn't taken more than a few days of poking around Lindblum's burned-out buildings, lending help with clearing what rubble they could, before the knights had bumped into Tantalus again. Combining their efforts had seemed natural; even Steiner had only grumbled a little.
"Lame, Bro." Marcus untied his bandanna, cleaning the sweat off his face with the tattered rag. "Besides, I reckon Bea's not too picky."
Beatrix still had slow reaction time when it came to the nickname. Adopting it had seemed like a logical idea at the time, as had borrowing some milkflower to chew on. The plant had the altogether unique property of being able to lighten one's hair colour. It was strange, waking up every morning to see blonde Bea staring back at her from the mirror, looking entirely like her mother but a little discomfort, a few superficial changes, were necessary to avoid detection. Funnily enough, the missing eye had been the easiest thing to remedy. By disguising the old scar as a recently-acquired war wound, people generally avoided questions though the linen itched and chafed her face.
"Heads up," Cinna quipped. They all turned to watch Steiner bumble his way down the ladder, almost slipping on the last rung in his haste. "Ah!" he exhaled appreciatively, "Nothing like kaffa coffee to quench one's thirst after a hard day aloft."
"Agreed, bud, agreed… but hey, let me use the hammer next time, okay?"
Beatrix let herself lean against an upturned barrel, blowing gently over the steaming mug. The bitter aroma made her tastebuds grimace and in the heat she would have preferred a cooler beverage but she was thirsty enough to endure the stuff. She looked at Marcus, "What's next on the agenda?"
He grunted, replacing his headgear. "Well, this just about takes care of this house. Once they get the windows sorted we'll come back and install them. After the door we're done for the day unless Bert hasn't managed to patch up that hole in the roof."
Mild outrage seemed to be Steiner's default expression nowadays. Beatrix still had no clue how he managed such a combination. "Of course it's finished. I've been working on it all day." Irritably, he pushed back a shirtsleeve that had begun creeping down his forearm. The white material had disregarded his efforts at cleanliness: nondescript stains had worked into the fabric as the day had worn on.
"We," Cinna said pointedly.
Steiner frowned, kneading his shoulder with the flat of his hand then admitted, "Yes, my mistake. You have been of great assistance, Master Cinna." Their shared fondness for coffee had somehow weakened the class barrier.
"Cinna's fine," the thief said for the umpteenth time.
Bracing her nerves, Beatrix gulped down the brew, depositing the empty mug beside her with a soft thud. "So the next building?"
Blank laughed. "Woah, woah, woah! Seriously, Bea. The work'll still be there in the morning."
"I know, I know," flattening palms against the barrel, she lifted herself up and shuffled onto the makeshift seat, which creaked beneath her weight. The urge to help these people was close to irrepressible; the ex-General felt better when she was pitching in, when she was mending something instead of tearing it apart. The way Tantalus accepted her -- not exactly as one of their own but as a human being -- only fuelled her need to make up for the damage Alexandria had caused. She had felt so helpless throughout the last few months of Brahne's reign, bound by her oath, that now inaction was her newest devil. Even taking a five minute breather was having an adverse effect, making her tense enough to feel the perspiration sliding down her body's contours rather than calming her off-beat heart.
Steiner seemed to sense her discord. His eyes peered at her over the top of his mug as he exhaled a cooling breath, stopping every so often to flick away the dark hair dangling in his face. He told her, "We can't do more than we're already doing."
She appreciated the inclusive "we" but the words offered little solace. Hard work was one of two things from which Beatrix could derive comfort, the other -- surprisingly -- being the lack of a sword at her side. For more than a decade she'd been reaching for that longsword when she wakened every day just as someone may reach for their spectacles but being without it, knowing it was safe in Lindblum Castle's treasury, brought relief. She was deferring her darker self until she was ready to reaccept it, however long that would take.
Carrying that thing around would have been suicidal anyway.
A detachment of Alexandrian knights strolled down the avenue. The leader held up a hand, stopping the others' patrol route and approached the recovering group. She glanced at the almost-good-as-new building. One wouldn't have suspected less than two months prior, the city had been leveled under the intense gravity of Atomos' fury. "Do you guys need a hand with that door?"
There were less knights littering the streets nowadays. Freya, who often lent them aid, had once explained that no sooner had the Alexandrians arrived than they had bundled up provisions and set out for sea, pursuing more Eidolons. She also informed them that Princess Garnet and her companions were in turn pursuing an arms dealer named Kuja, knowledge Regent Cid had imparted during one of his meetings with the Burmecian. Beatrix tried not to think too hard about what her Princess was doing, running around on another continent, chasing after a dangerous warlock. Garnet had asked her to stay here. Beatrix respected that. Besides, now that he had her tied to Lindblum, the Regent seemed intent on making her stay put, at least until she made amends for some of the damage she had caused.
The other possible explanation for her sudden willingness to abandon herself to fate was less tasteful: was it simply easier to fall into this role, to wield the same tired excuses every day? Every morning she would awaken and imagine breaking free of Lindbulm and the everyday monotonous sound of hammers nailing buildings together. Every morning she would tremble and decide not today.
"No, thank-you," Beatrix answered. The constant presence of her country's occupying force had initially worried her but after a few days, glimpsing an Alexandrian war banner here or a round shield with the winged sword motif there became commonplace. Past encounters had taught her that none of those women recognised her with her blonde hair, bandages and civilian clothing. More often than not they tended to look askew at Steiner instead and then only if he bothered to open his mouth. Anyone who glanced at him twice was eventually diverted by his shaggy black mane.
Marcus chimed in on the tail-end of her comment, "Actually, we're about to call it a day. Thanks for taking care of that door." He pushed his untouched drink into the puzzled leader's hands and began walking away. His companions had little choice but to follow.
Stepping quickly until she was directly behind him, Beatrix tried to control her annoyance as she spoke over his shoulder, "What was that all about?"
Marcus turned a corner, leading them down a street primarily lined with eateries. It was the specials board outside the Doom Pub that made him pause after a full five minutes of meandering, not Beatrix's words. "You need to relax," he said offhandedly, perusing the list of commonplace dishes, broad nose giving an eager sniff. Alexandria had struck so quickly that there had been no need to disrupt Lindblum's imports so delicacies were still readily available. At least the people could write starvation off their list of worries.
She began speaking but the words evaporated when a hand fell on her shoulder. Steiner gave a barely perceptible shake of his head then indicated the pub with a flick of his eyes, an almost imperceptible tilt of his head. The small, homely establishment was frequented by engineers in the area though it had a tendency to attract a variety of people come nightfall.
Marcus' eyebrow disappeared beneath his bandanna and he raised his chin at Beatrix, daring her to voice a rebuttal. When the challenge passed unaccepted he turned back to the building and strolled towards the counter to place an order. Blank and Cinna followed suit, weaving past patrons though the former wasn't making much effort to avoid brushing any barmaids in his path. One directed a coy smile Blank's way; he winked before shifting away.
"Look," Steiner removed his hand and pointed towards the far corner of the room where two Burmecians sat at table, sharing drinks. The telltale peak of one's hat, set aside next to a jug, informed them of one's identity. Before she could stop him, Steiner was striding towards the demi-rat, hailing her heartily. Uncertain, she ghosted at the threshold while the clanking of dishes, friendly chatter and warm smells swirled around her enticingly. When Steiner turned and waved her over with the big, exaggerated gestures that only he could get away with, her stomach sank.
She approached the trio anyway. The male Burmecian scooted along the bench to make room for Steiner, bunching himself close to the stone wall. Freya glanced at the woman who had trampled her kingdom and called her pathetic and all she did was coolly remark, "Care to join us?"
Her tone was nothing more than civil but the words… Beatrix couldn't remember the last time someone had extended such an invite.
The man across from her leaned over the table, offering his clawed hand. "I'm Dan. Nice to meet you, Bea."
She nodded, tuning out Steiner's business-like exchange with a serving girl -- he was either adept at ignoring those fluttering eyelashes and tongue tracing an unblemished bottom lip or he missed it entirely -- before giving Freya a sidelong look. It was easier to shoot her half-glances. Beatrix was afraid of the accusation she might find in the Burmecian's eyes. "I see you're still in town," she said politely.
The knight ran a finger along the fraying brim of her hat, giving Beatrix the impression the vibrant red material had faded to pink a very long time ago. "I planned to leave earlier this month but after bumping into Dan, he told me there was little point. My people are scattered. Many of them live here now. He's looking into organizing everyone and leading an assembled team back home."
"Admirable," the faux-blonde commented, accepting the drink the barmaid passed over.
Dan turned down the compliment, "Anyone else would do the same. I'm actually waiting until my kids are a little older before making the journey back but they're impatient little critters. Haven't even been to Burmecia and they already miss it." He tilted his head and his nose gave an inquisitive twitch, "So, where're you guys from?"
"Treno," Steiner said just as Beatrix answered, "Alexandria."
Freya stared into her mug. An uncertain smile creeped over Dan's long face. Hot as it was, Beatrix suddenly felt she had been thrust into the heart of an Esto Gaza winter. Quickly, she amended, "We were in Treno a few days ago but Alexandria is our hometown. Or was. We haven't been back for a while." She wished Steiner hadn't forced her into such mistruths. Even telling a harmless lie to a Burmecian stung.
The grin became genuine with an edge of relief. "That explains it. I thought you must've been. You know, the hair, the accent. I went there once, me and my wife though we were just friends back then. We liked it." He gave a brief shrug and tail flick.
Steiner resolutely downed the rest of his drink and hailed the serving girl again. Beatrix was inclined to agree as absently, she tugged at the bandages irritating her face, observing the quickly-filling establishment. It wasn't long before her gaze began drifting towards the pub's front where the wide windows displayed the busy street, the sinking sun tinting the half-finished buildings a warm orange hue as workers ended for the day and set off on a quest to unwind. Many were filtering into the Doom Pub now, heightening the sense of excitement rising in the air, that aura that Beatrix couldn't quite surrender to. She felt antsy, guilty for not continuing the restoration. Seeing the workers quitting did little to quell her restless heart.
She heard Freya say, "The same for her too."
She shrugged, nodded at the other woman. Drinking was as much a part of army culture as fighting though she normally passed up the opportunity, citing her father drank enough for both of them. This however was Freya. Alexander knew her motives but Beatrix could hardly refuse the offer.
Dan leaned into the wall, nursing his cup in one hand. "You two travelling on your own?"
"Oh no, we're with them," Beatrix indicated the trio of thieves. Marcus, perched on a barstool, hunched over a plate of stew like some overgrown carrion bird. Cinna, who appeared to be complaining about the establishment's lack of decent coffee. Blank, chatting up a tiny dark-headed girl. His left hand kept brushing her hip, occasionally snaking around her middle. "Not exactly by our choosing," she added sheepishly.
"Hard to get some alone time, eh?"
"No. I mean, ye-- no, that's not," she retorted, perhaps too forceful in her haste to cover the lengthening silence. Steiner's eyes were laughing at her from over the worn tabletop. She felt herself flush, told herself it was the insistent heat, that she didn't care however much he mocked.
Smirking, the Burmecian went on, "Sorry, I just assumed. Even if nothing's happened, all it takes is time. Trust me on that one. It's how I ended up married."
Beatrix scowled. "I can assure you matters between Bert and I are not…" A band struck up in the opposite corner, saving her from having to think too hard about the rest of that sentence.
As Steiner began outright laughing, Freya pushed Beatrix's drink towards her, a small and commiserating smile on her face. For someone who had shied at the mere thought of sharing living arrangements with her, Steiner was coping with Dan's accusations remarkably well. In fact, his entire posture seemed far too relaxed, from the hands sprawled lazily on the table to the slightly wonky smile on his lips. Suspicions piqued, Beatrix felt her frown deepen in disapproval as she glanced from her mug to Steiner's. "Exactly how much have you had?" she asked.
"Two," he promptly returned, "One for you, one for me."
Freya supplied the answer to the mystery: "He's drinking gyshal liquor."
Beatrix buried her head in her hands.
An hour later the pub was roaring with music and clinking cutlery as people danced between furniture, grabbing passing serving girls, giving them a whirl before releasing them, laughing, to their duties. Those patrons who were elsewise occupied with food, drink or each other still managed to stomp their feet beneath their seats, making the entire room rattle with the mass-rhythm. Marcus had cleared a table and was dealing poker hands, expertly flicking them to each competitor while bright-eyed spectators gathered around, sharing sly glances whenever someone raised the stakes, meeting each substantial win with a loud roar. Much to Marcus' chagrin, Freya's hat at this stage had accumulated a rather neat pile of gil, the Burmecian's stony façade, impossible to read, spurring her to victory.
On the opposite side of the room, Beatrix had discovered why the tabletops were so scuffed. Somewhere along the line, Blank had adopted one as a makeshift stage and started dancing what appeared to be a Burmecian jig, one hand on his hip, the other flapping in the air like a rooster's crest. The surrounding crowd clapped on beat while he quick-stepped to a fiddle's runaway tune, pausing only to accept another mug Cinna passed up to him. Off-target, Blank mistakenly wrapped his fingers around the other thief's arm, pulling both the mug and his friend onto the table. A fresh wave of laughter rippled through the building as Cinna, dangling in the air, attempted to worm out of the larger man's grasp.
The ex-General still felt a little guilty and a little out of place but she couldn't deny the amusement factor such a scene provided. Coupled with alcohol though, a month's supply of tension was slowly abandoning residence in her body.
A flurry of fur and fabric, Dan shouted in her direction, "C'mon, get up!" Sweat shone on the hair around his face; as more people poured into the pub the temperature, along with the patrons' penchant for dance, only increased.
Beatrix declined the offer with a smile. The Burmecian's brows crinkled in confusion then, peering behind her, a knowing smile took over his face before the writhing mass swallowed him in a burst of colour and noise, leaving only the tips of his furry ears visible. Casting a look over her shoulder, she perceived the source of Dan's laughter.
Balancing two rather large steins, mouth downturned in a severe expression of concentration, her old rival was evading windmilling arms and legs, each dodge setting him further and further off-balance until finally he deposited the objects in front of her, sloshing liquid onto her hands. He muttered an apology before toppling into the opposite chair. "Is the entire Business District in here?" the once-Captain moaned as he immediately reclaimed a mug, tilting his head back, taking a swig. His words were, by this stage, taking on a ponderous slur.
Sparing the other drink a wary look, Beatrix said, "I hope you don't expect me to down that repulsive concoction." The place was incredibly hot but gyshal liquor was far from her refreshment of choice -- even coffee was better. Moments earlier, Freya's fruity cider had been the more palatable drink Beatrix had ingested that day.
Understanding kindled in Steiner's blank eyes; he was taking his time processing every syllable she dropped. "I'd much like it if you did," he said, moving aside his peacebound broadsword lying between them, pushing the drink across the table until the rough grain of a wooden handle pressed against her damp hands. Part of her didn't want to encourage him, memories of her father's decline playing stark in her mind, while the rest was alternately amused at his antics and sympathetic towards his yearning to relax. In any case, after what they had been through she felt ridiculous calling him up for unknightly behaviour.
She was no longer his commanding officer either.
Beatrix heaved a long-suffering sigh, shook her head and said, "Fine." The liquid burned a path down her throat and left a salty aftertaste that made her scrunch up her face and swallow a gag. "Happy?"
He was studying her, the muscles of his face were tight and his lips crumpled in a heavy frown. Abruptly, he declared, "You're a funny blonde."
She quirked her eyebrow, startled at the conviction in his rumbling voice and looked at the sticky tabletop where the staff had neglected a spillage. Stealing a glance at his face, "You look rather odd with hair," she found herself admitting, trying to memorize the man beneath the armour, comparing him with his former self.
"While we're discussing oddities… and forgive me but this has been bothering me for the longest time… do you even have a family name?"
That one made Beatrix guffaw, one sharp bark of laughter. "I disposed of my father's name long ago. I never took a new one. It was always, 'Beatrix of Alexandria', as if there were no other Beatrixes in town," she paused, assessed his level of intoxication and realised with a start that she could probably ask him anything without any repercussions. Something behind her ribcage twitched. She reminded herself that they had made their peace by the campfire, had acknowledged years of mutual hatred and in the process, had come to understand that those feelings were no longer in place.
Beatrix wondered when she had stopped despising his quick-to-anger, tactless nature and started admiring his dedication to the throne, a loyalty stronger than steel. She wondered when he had started looking at her differently. His heart was in the right place, even if the rest of him often wasn't.
Wearing the mantle of Holy Knight, she had committed atrocities. That was poor excuse for continuing to do wrong. Beatrix shook her head. 'I will not take advantage of this situation to assuage my own curiosities. Bert is a friend.'
"You are an excellent knight," he told her and she was surprised to hear the fondness in his voice, a warmth that surely could not be explained by alcohol alone.
For some reason, it was easy to accept the compliment. She feigned an indifferent snort and went to take another swallow but his hand stayed her, catching her at the elbow in a firm grip. "A toast," he announced, "First, a toast."
When he failed to add anything more, "To what exactly?" she queried.
"To… To… To something profound." His eyelids fluttered in a rapid blink as if he was trying to find the meaning in his words. "To something symbolic."
He was still pathetic when it came to words but Beatrix found herself warming to this new Steiner -- Bert. Why was it so easy to let him set aside his worries when she couldn't even give herself permission to do likewise? Couldn't she afford a few hours of mindless bliss rather than simply going through the motions, acting a part like she had her entire life? Sadness welled in her companion's eyes when she failed to raise her mug and meet his enthusiasm. His alcohol-flushed face fell.
It wasn't fair of him, demanding she haul herself out of despondence… but hang it all, it wasn't fair of her to ruin his evening. She'd been disappointing too many people lately.
Beatrix forced a smile, lifted her gaze and her mug, met his toast. "To something symbolic," she repeated and when he recovered his smile, her own became a little easier to hold, the drink a little easier to stomach even if it clouded her mind.
Sighing, setting aside his cup, he said, "You're not yourself."
"On the contrary, I am more myself than ever," she pressed a hand to her head, "That is the problem."
He laughed. Laughed! "Nothing wrong with you, Beatrix, not when you're not trying to kill me."
Ignoring the deep-rooted instinct that was suggesting she arch up and deliver an icy, cruel response was an easy task now. A cocky grin slipped onto her face instead. "If I had ever actually tried, you wouldn't be sitting here right now. I was always that much better."
"Fair lady, you wound me."
"That's what you get for leaving off your armour."
They exchanged a smile as the bantering slowly faded. Eventually, both their gazes landed on the peacebound broadsword sitting between them and after a moment's contemplation, Steiner broke the silence with, "I didn't really lose it, you know."
His voice was so quiet it was nearly lost within the jovial din so she had to lean forward to hear. "Hm?"
Her companion spread his hands, a gesture of supplication as a slightly guilty look crossed his visage. "The Blood Sword."
Curiosity aroused, she asked, "What happened to it?"
"When we were in Treno… when you were under fever… I got so mad. I took it outside and flung it into the lake," with a victorious grin, he wobbled to his feet and mimed the actions, almost beheading his mug in the process. Overbalancing, he quickly regained his seat, scratching the back of his neck as he chuckled in a suddenly self-conscious manner. "That thing brought me nothing but bad luck. Had to lose it."
"It was just a sword," Beatrix offered. She imagined him looking at her feverish form, cursing himself for striking her then hating himself for feeling guilty. She imagined his emotions culminating until he couldn't separate them any longer, until he was driven to unleash his feelings…
Steiner shook his head vehemently, "Not just a sword. Whenever I struck someone with it, it felt like I was draining their energy."
"Well, that is the point of attacking a foe."
"You don't understand. Every time I landed a blow I would feel more alive, like I was stealing their life for myself."
Beatrix took another swig as she pondered this.
"Not only that," Steiner continued, "It wouldn't obey me."
She blinked. A numb sensation settled in her stomach as she asked him to explain.
Steiner's eyes flinched from her face but he forced himself to continue, "Back in the Queen's chamber when I tried to attack you, Darkside failed me. Beatrix, I've mastered that technique, I know I have. That blade was evil."
Beatrix turned away, unable to tell him why, in her opinion, he had failed so miserably then. Regardless of how she teased, the fact remained that he was a brilliant swordsman, one who would not appreciate hearing his sentimentality had interfered with his duty. The numbness shimmered, became butterflies and scattered as his secret, kind regard warmed her.
The blonde looked back towards her tipsy friend, "Good fortune that you're rid of it now." By this stage, the establishment was slowly losing patronage as people decided a soft pillow and warm blankets were the order of the night. She glanced out the window, taking in the darkened street and said, "But enough of this. I think it's long past our bedtime."
"Probably," he replied, lurching to his feet in response, his childish compliance a testament to his alcohol consumption. He had to grab the table to steady himself before attempting the difficult task of placing one foot before the other.
Beatrix laughed quietly albeit not unkindly beneath her breath, privately praying he would not collapse. There was no way known she could drag his bulk all the way back to Lindblum Castle. With the broad side of his hand, he gave both his cheeks a hearty slap or two then held his hand out to her. She took it, if only to humour him, and concentrated on getting them to the castle. Recalling the route became a chore when her train of thought was consistently derailed by Steiner's running commentary: "On your feet then, Beatrix. I shall save the serving girl the trouble and return our mugs. Mind the step as you leave. Oh, look at that moon, so yellow and round! Do you suppose it has jaundice?"
The return trip took twice as long as it should have -- Beatrix had resolved to walk her companion around the lamp-lit streets until his head cleared a little or at least until his words ran dry. Initially the babble was entertaining but sleepiness quickly set in, wrapping itself 'round her head, turning his nonsense into nothing more than a comforting background hum. They made circuits of the Business District, following the same path over and over like a pair of clockwork tin soldiers, waiting for their gears to stop turning, trying to unwind. Her mind, previously a tightly-wound spool of thread, was completely unraveled under the gently glowing moon; her thoughts flew as gifts to the stars and she sighed peacefully. His sentences became less and less run-on until they quietly faded, embraced by the balmy night and their yawns. It was there that Beatrix thought she might be able to accept that yes, she had a capacity for evil deeds but she also could do great good. She had to forgive herself before anybody else could. The process still seemed arduous but for the first time Beatrix believed she might achieve it.
It was only when they finally arrived at their room, Steiner nearly falling through the doorway, that he spoke again.
"Does it still hurt?"
She knew, of course, what he meant. The bold words, not the query itself, made her start. One look at him was enough to remind her he was still slightly intoxicated; she felt she could continue indulging him. At least tonight no harm would be done. "Not at all. It hurt like hell when it happened but the aftermath was worse."
"I'm sure it was," he struggled to find the edge of the bed and lower himself carefully down. As if he had fallen victim to a Slow spell, he sluggishly pushed messy locks out of his eyes and blinked. "Wait, what?"
The scar tissue beneath her calloused fingertips was cold and rough. She traced the bumps of the old injury, reminiscing, no longer ashamed of the war wound. For a while she had turned her face whenever somebody glanced her way, viewing the ugly mark as proof she wasn't good enough. She had doubted her own ability to protect Princess Garnet. Over time she'd realised it was proof of her skill, for she had suffered a grievous wound yet was still alive. Vanity hadn't played a part in her initial discomfort. She had never been a typical doe-eyed girl, pinning all her hopes on a pretty face and the rich husband she would attract. Her father, she suspected, would have been dismayed at the scar though. She could picture him drinking himself into oblivion at the news.
Beatrix thought these things and told Steiner what she could. "After I lost my eye, the first time I went to hold my sword I ended up groping thin air. Everything was askew; I was always misjudging distances. Thought you must've gone and rebuilt the castle while I wasn't looking because I kept bumping into things on my blind side. When I wasn't sure I could continue as a knight, when I doubted my own abilities, when I believed I would return to Treno an invalid before eighteen, those were the hardest days." Misliking that train of thought, she shook her head and instead considered him, "Though I suppose tomorrow morning might be harder. For you, at least."
He missed the dig entirely, flinging himself back on the bed, his exhalation enveloped by the quiet room. Moonlight streaming in from the tall windows paled his skin, made his features appear waxen, lent a bluish tinge to his dark hair. "When are we going home?" he murmured.
That disarmed her in a way his sword never could.
"We've been here for weeks," his voice continued meandering, "The Princess needs us, and Doctor Tot and the guards and the staff. I hope that cat hasn't broken into the kitchens again. There'll be saffron cream everywhere." His eyes stared vacantly heavenward.
She turned her gaze towards the window and began scrutinising the nightscape. He knew they could not return. Not now, perhaps not ever. The buildings, angular boxes stacked cheek by jowl, were straining skyward, struggling to break free of the last scraps of rubble still lying unattended. They reminded Beatrix of coffins. What had moments ago seemed soothing now raised goosepimples on her skin. She shuddered, rubbing her arms to drive away the sudden chill.
To be accurate, it was coming up on two months since they had first arrived in Lindblum. In that short time remarkable progress had been made regarding the restoration. Much of the Business District was up and running again and the citizens even seemed tolerant of the Alexandrians. It was amazing, she thought, what a person could become accustomed to when given adequate time.
Smiling at the ceiling, he said, "I'm glad you're okay."
Her expression faded to fondness as she copied him, lying back onto her own bed, arms tucked behind her groggy head. The stifling heat had disappeared now; the city no longer seemed so terrible. A cool zephyr began tickling through the open windows, carrying all thought away.
"I'm glad I am too."
"Beatrix! For the love of the Sword, Beatrix, wake up!"
Said woman groaned, rolled over, blinked. Sunbeams were skittering over her cheeks, playfully demanding she face the day, stray tangles of hair lying over her face. Peering down at that face upturned to the warmth flooding in through windows wide-open to greet the day, Steiner reached for the bandage she'd tossed on her nightstand before drifting off.
"You're disturbingly chipper today," she voiced, eye cracking open. He took a step back, giving her room to breathe and tossed the strip of linen into her lap. There was a time when she would have viewed his actions as arrogant and disdainful. Now she simply accepted the small gesture of goodwill sans animosity, he noticed, pleased.
He replied with, "Beatrix, the news is all over town! My decision is made. We must hurry to the docks, now!" His muscles were practically twitching with delight, prepped for action. He hadn't felt so energetic in weeks.
Beatrix shot up, such a look of purest surprise on her features that he had to laugh. "Your what?" she asked, baffled by this sudden turn of decisiveness. She followed shoving back the bedcovers with throwing her feet, boots and all, over the side of the bed. The faux-blonde grimaced at the presence of footwear and quickly checked to make certain the bedsheets didn't carry any muddy stains. "What was I thinking?" she lamented upon discovering a dirty streak.
Steiner scratched his neck, "Er, I'll take the blame for that."
Her head snapped up so sharply he feared she would tear some ligaments, "What?"
"I gave you the drinks," he explained, wringing his hands in front of him apologetically, "My fault you were so tired you just collapsed when we got back here. What did you thi-- oh." He felt his cheeks heat at the thought.
Running a palm over her face, she pointedly returned to her initial line of questioning, "What decision have you reached?"
He blinked sheepishly, banishing some interesting early morning thoughts. "Well, I… I'm going home." Just like that. Exhilaration coursed through his body at the newness of the words.
Beatrix looked at him for a long time, thoughts a mystery. Under scrutiny, he felt his old insecurities bubbling up. Quickly, he smothered those feelings. He was his own man now. This was his choice to make.
He needed nobody's permission. He knew that, but…
"You are sure?" she said.
He didn't need permission but approval would have been nice.
He drew himself up to his full height, puffing out his chest as he declared, "Yes!" He was so overwhelmed by his own enthusiasm he almost saluted but quickly changed the gesture and scratched his neck instead, feeling a little silly under her cool gaze.
A cloud passed over his comrade's face and her eyebrows drew together as she frowned, deep in thought. 'Is it so hard to say you'll accompany me?' he wondered as his stomach began knotting itself in a sudden influx of anxiety. 'As far as I'm concerned, the past is the past. You have proved yourself a worthy companion and, I will admit, earned my respect. I would rather set out on this journey with a friend by my side.'
Beatrix lifted her head. "We cannot return or have you forgotten we are traitors?" There was no fire in her voice, only dusty acceptance.
"But Her Highness…" he trailed off upon noticing the blank face she was making then gasped, mentally backpedalling. "Of course! You haven't heard!" He laughed at himself, deprecating, thinking how typical it was of him, getting sidetracked by her questions.
She gave him a look that said, "I've almost lost all hope in you," a look that feared for his sanity. He had seen it so many times before that it made him roar with laughter all the fiercer. By the time he had his mirth controlled, Beatrix was halfway through her efficiently-fast breakfast, not the least interested in the source of his joy. He figured that too was characteristic of the cold patience and no-nonsense façade she'd cultivated over the years. Or maybe, he snickered, her reticence was simply the product of an aching head courtesy of the previous night's antics. She did seem to wince ever-so-slightly whenever he raised his voice.
At the risk of losing whatever credibility he had left, he managed to tone down and tell her the news that was racing through the city streets, that people all over Lindblum were waking up to hear:
"Our Princess is back."
The crunching sound of the egg she had been dispossessing of its shell ceased at once and she swivelled in her chair, mouth agape. "What?" was the question, the only word that served as an anchor for the visibly stunned woman. The jump of a muscle in her jaw, the sudden rigidity of her posture, it all bespoke of wild emotions rippling underneath the surface and he wondered how he had always found her so difficult to read in the past. He gave a reassuring smile as if to promise he wasn't having her on, trying to put aside the rumbling demands of his own stomach, which was stirring thanks to the smells of freshly buttered toast and plump, juicy fruits. Beatrix took a deep breath, clearing her thoughts and asking, "Where is Her Highness?"
"En route to Alexandria. An escape pod drifted into Lindblumese waters in the early hours of the morning. When it docked, a detachment of Alexandrian soldiers staggered out, pleading to see the Regent with their urgent tidings. Their battered appearance must have roused the dock guards, Alexandrian and Lindblumese alike. Word was sent and Regent Cid agreed to a meeting."
Beatrix nodded impatiently. Steiner looked away, focused on the eggcup perched too close to the table's end. "As I hear, that weapons dealer betrayed Her Majesty, unleashing an Eidolon on our navy. Princess Garnet had pursued him to a far reach of the Outer Continent in an attempt to subdue his threat but no sooner did she arrive then the battle was joined by the Queen and…"
"Am I to understand our entire naval fleet was decimated by that wizard…?" Beatrix shook her head, slow and mournful, and lifted her gaze to his, seeking confirmation in his eyes.
"Naught could be done," the consolation he tried for turned out awkward.
She exhaled loudly as if the force could expel her sadness, running a hand through her hair as she processed everything. Eventually, "You are taking this admirably," she noted, no hint of accusation in her tone for which he was grateful.
"I think…" he struggled, "I think my heart knew this would not end well for Her Majesty. The dungeons opened my eyes. I saw she wasn't herself any longer."
A moment passed, a few heartbeats in time when Beatrix stood there pondering not the words, it seemed, but Steiner himself. Wondering at the change in him? Weighing up the concerns evoked by a Guardian of the Blood who was not blinded into confusing fealty with servitude? Whatever decision she arrived at, in the end she only pursed her lips and let her face take on a determined cast. "We better start packing then," were her simple words.
An unrestrained grin overtook his features. "Thank Alexander!" he exclaimed, not caring that once again he was wearing his heart on his shirtsleeve, "I have already bundled together a few provisions but I still require armour. It wouldn't feel right, returning home without it."
"So you intend to continue your service?" she asked. She stood, carefully tucked the chair under the table and fiddled with her breakfast dishes, watching his reaction from the corner of her eye.
Steiner knew she must have wondered whether he would keep on. He nodded affirmation, hoping his decisiveness would drive all doubt from her mind. With a, "Huh," she turned away, blonde curls bobbing, making him tilt his head. "Did you think otherwise?" He couldn't help the question.
Facing him directly, a raw honesty in her eyes as if she wanted to convey more than words would permit, the once-General spread her hands and replied, "It's not that."
He cocked a brow. The last few weeks, he supposed, had given her ample time to reflect on her own actions. If she was ready to discuss her war crimes -- he winced at the turn of phrase -- he should lend an ear. Between ruthless slaying and words that were cold as a hunter, sometimes it was easy to forget the great General Beatrix, Holy Knight of the Waterfall City, breathed and bled and felt like any other human. Recent events had driven her to lower her guard, to occasionally discard her polite, detached mask and express her inner thoughts. After what they had been through, it only seemed right to confide in one another. For all the tragedy surrounding them, they understood each other a bit better.
It was a little sad that it had taken a war to bring them together though people often banded close when threatened by change. When all was said and done, they were both of them human, nothing more. He realised that Beatrix felt a certain camaraderie after their struggles and their shared disgrace, that she had believed he was on the brink of caving because of duty's heavy weight. If he threw away his years of service he would, in her eyes, be cheapening knighthood and it would be that much easier for her to give up too.
He selected his words carefully, aware that a misstep could catapult her back into that silent feigned disinterest in Alexandrian affairs she'd exhibited for a time. "Nobody is asking you to pick up that sword right now. I have been given a chance to redefine myself, to walk away from everything. But I'm choosing this path. I'm choosing it because I want to, not because of any sense of obligation," he paused, locked eyes with her and finished with a question he had struggled with before, "Do you want to go back?" From the emotion reflected in her single eye he could tell she knew he wasn't simply referring to going back to a city. He worried that she would imagine her debt to Lindblum was greater than her commitment to Princess Garnet, that she felt compelled to finish matters here before returning home. Never did he toy with the idea that she would quit for good though, not now. He knew her sense of duty inside-out. When he asked those questions, it was more of a courtesy than anything else.
He had questioned himself many times before but had arrived at the same conclusion: he was too entrenched in his country's affairs now, too protective of his home. He figured it was the same for her too.
She didn't miss a beat though. "I'm ready." Then, more ponderously, "I suppose I can give over chewing milkflowers now."
The invisible force pressing on his shoulders eased. His face broke into a delighted grin and he said, "That's the spirit! Now, I simply have to pay a visit to the blacksmith and we can leave immediately."
Beatrix's mouth quirked. "Steiner," she said, the barest hint of exasperation threading her tone, "I would have thought an accomplished knight such as yourself would know that fitting armour takes some time."
He crossed the distance between them and clapped her on the shoulder congenially albeit with some vigor, noting with satisfaction that she shifted with the force. Her other arm lifted, fingers ready to grab his offending hand, as he said, "I commissioned it last week."
Stopping short of breaking his fingers, her hand halted to rest atop his own. Her mouth fell open in a small O of surprise then quickly snapped shut before she stiffly patted his hand, muttering, "Just as well."
He listened as she began listing the things they needed to carry, the supplies she had to garner for the return home, and it didn't pass his notice that she skirted the subject of Save the Queen. Opting to let queries regarding that sword alone, Steiner suggested they gather what provisions they needed and meet at harbourside. He was ready to return to his beaten country with his head high. With Garnet on the throne, Alexandria would shine once more.
Despite having taken the morning to refresh themselves, the survivors of Kuja's rampage still bore the signs of war: out-of-shape armour that looked as if its owner had strayed too close to a flame, purpling spots on exposed skin at the soldiers' arms or faces, deep gashes in shields. They appeared so downtrodden that none protested when Beatrix assumed command of the ship Regent Cid had loaned them, commanding they cast off and make for Alexandria immediately, and neither did they care when she claimed one of the upper deck cabins for herself. Without thinking to ask her permission -- he was no longer so conscious of following orders -- Steiner too took up residence in one of those cabins. The Regent had warned the ship was in its infantile stages -- he had started it before his unfortunate transformation and commissioned the shipyard to finish it -- so it wasn't fast or suitable for open seas cruising. They had to stick to fairly shallow waters, which presented a scenic view of the continent at first but eventually the open plains became obscured by mountain ranges, limiting whatever pleasure Steiner had initially derived from standing outside.
The next few days were wave after wave of rolling blue. Beatrix's hair became progressively darker, a product of her ceasing to eat milkflowers every day. The knight spent much of his time in the privacy of his quarters where he would don his armour every morning and sit at his desk, reading whatever he could find, diligently copying maps from an old cartography book, sharpening the nibs on a boxful of fountain pens. Anything to keep himself occupied in those moments he took re-acclimatising to his armour, his life as a soldier. Civilian garb was something he'd grown accustomed to over his time in Lindblum.
Sometimes he would stand on deck, smiling, cool wind chasing through hair that would be restrained again once he resumed his duties. Steiner enjoyed the freedom while he could though he did not mourn the prospect of its loss. Serving Princess Garnet hardly felt like he was losing any freedom. The thought of continuing as her personal bodyguard was nothing like relinquishing his life and everything like coming home.
Sometimes he would see Beatrix standing there too. Not near the prow where people were bound to notice. No, she stood aft, holding Save the Queen before her like an offering to the gods, the sword with which Regent Cid had been too willing to part ways. Occasionally the holy relic rested on her palms upturned to the sky as if she wished the gods would spirit it away. Mostly she clasped it in an iron-fast hold at both the blade and the grip, tiny rivulets of red running down the steel at the sword's naked end. He never intruded. Only once when she chanced to walk by him did he think to ask how she felt but her face was a mask and her solitary eye was cold as the frozen wastelands surrounding Esto Gaza. The words had abruptly faded in his mouth and he'd merely bid her, "Good day," unsure why she was suddenly so distant.
By the time they rounded the last peninsula and began sailing into the closed waters of Alexandria Harbour, Beatrix's hair was brown and she had ignored him for three days running and with a sinking heart, he gave up all thought of sharing her company ever again.
- It lives! I swear this will get done one year. Only another 3 or 4 chapters to go plus an epilogue. Wargh.
- FFN ate my formatting at the chapter titles. Will have to change them all. Grrr.