Autumn was never Freya's favourite season – for one, it meant the rains in Burmecia got even worse than usual. Floods in the streets were not uncommon, and even the palace of the king grew damp and cold.
Second, it had been autumn when Fratley left.
Autumns in Lindblum weren't much better than the ones home in Burmecia – except Lindblum lacked the street-floods, and the Regent's Castle didn't smell of wet rats. After hours in the chilling rain, the cheerfully crackling fire in the room the Regent had given her felt like heaven.
With a sigh like the wind through the washing lines criss-crossing the Industrial District, Freya let the door fall closed behind her and dropped her water-logged hat on a desk, collapsing into the chair in front of the roaring fire. With blind eyes she stared into the flames, recounting the hellish day she had suffered.
It had started innocently enough, just like the rain. Arriving in Lindblum by foot was rapidly becoming more and more unusual, but she had always preferred walking – flying took away that sense of security she was so defensive of. The titanic gates of Gaia's largest industrial city towered before her, and made her feel dwarfed. Even more so because Fratley - as always - was just standing there with a blank look in his eyes.
Ever since Kuja, ever since the peace had started, he had been even more far away than usual. Introverted, quiet, thoughtful, ignorant, almost apathetic. It was as if he no longer even had the will to find his memory. It had been steadily getting worse since they stepped through Serpent's Gate at the foot of the Lindblum streets.
The first order of business had – of course – been to visit old friends, and the Regent was all smiles when they walked into the throne room. Summoner – now Princess – Eiko, came running down the stairs in a flurry of bright colours, chattering excitedly about friendships and how long a time it had been since their last visit. Though Freya greeted both the Regent and Eiko with the reunion's happiness of old friends, Fratley did his best to be polite and failed miserably.
As not to be too much of a burden to the Lindblum royal family, Freya and the decidedly less enthusiastic Fratley took off into the rainy city once more, to revisit old haunts and see familiar faces. It was only an hour into a drinking contest with Cinna that she noticed he was gone. No amount of searching through soggy, soaked streets would tell a trace of him – past the note he left on the table when she wasn't looking.
"Come nightfall I'll be back"
After finishing the contest, she wound her way back to the Castle through washed-out streets and slippery slopes, sleep-walking through a waking dream. To be forgotten was worse than death – she'd learned that the hard way. The way that started at her own doorstep, and the road went ever on and on, up from the door where it began, crossing other roads, towns, cities, lives. She knew all too well the way it ended on that very same doorstep, with a clouded, blank look in eyes that used to shine.
Back in her room at the Castle, she knew that she was more than a little drunk – it took a lot to drink Cinna under the table – and she could dimly remember that she'd had another glass or two before actually going back to the Castle, but she felt sharper than she had for years. The fire warmed up her cold limbs and thawed her slowed-down mind, and she was thinking more rapidly and accurately than she ever had.
It was not until the moon rose, washing the room blue, that she even noticed the night had fallen. Nightfall, still rain, and no Fratley. Had she been sober, she would have gone out to look, or at least walked the corridors, trying to look effective, but as it was now, she was remaining still in her chair, mentally cursing the decision to come to Lindblum.
The door opening – though quietly – startled her out of her internal rant, and she turned her head to see a very familiar shadow enter the room. A brief surge of hope arced through her inebriated brain, and she half rose from her chair, words of greeting on their way. When the shadow stepped out into the light, the words died on her lips, and she sat down quite abruptly.
"Amarant." disappointment was sharply clear in her voice, even though her pronounciation was not.
".....Are you drunk?" was the reply as seven feet of soaked, blue-skinned bounty hunter folded itself into the chair next to her.
"I've never felt so sober in my life!" she attempted to snap, but it came out rather warbled when she couldn't quite focus her gaze.
Amarant Coral had always been apt at letting silence speak volumes, and exercised that ability liberally. Warming his hands, he studiously ignored her for a couple of moments – moments she treasured quite happily. Somehow, silence had never been uncomfortable in the company of the bounty-hunter. Amarant was always the one of the party she got along the best with. No needless chatter, like Eiko, no pompous tirades, like Steiner, no stuttering tenacity, like Vivi. Only solid, silent confidence. Had she been sober, she realised with absolute clarity, she would never think those things about him. When she was sober, he was just part of the scenery – a moving, talking, dependable part of the scenery, but uninteresting all the same.
She watched him as he leaned back in his chair, that ever-present smirk falling into shadow again. Now that she did pay attention to him, she realised that her first perception of him as grossly disproportioned and quite ugly was wrong – though the fact that his arms were nearly as long as she was tall was a mire disturbing, he was not all that ugly. Just built one-tenth over scale and blue.
Her sober self would not have liked the way her thoughts were going.
"That's the notion you've got to watch out for," he said, picking up the abandoned thread of conversation, "You're never as drunk as when you think you're not."
"Fine – so I'm drunk. Could be worse," she sighed, "I could be passed out in your bed – and drunk. Now that would be insalubrious."
".....It would." he agreed after a slight pause. "Do you always use words like that when you're muddled?"
"I don't know – last time I remember being drunk was at a Tantalus celebration. Baku swears I started reciting poetry."
They sat in silence for a while, each with their own thoughts. The night grew darker and darker outside the window, and twice, Amarant got up to put more wood on the fire. A night is very long if measured in minutes, and an eternity ticked by before the bells tolled midnight. Desperation and that creeping sense of dread which had been closing in on Freya since nightfall suddenly fell over her like a raincloud.
"He's not coming, is he?" she spoke to the floor, having curled up in her chair and tucked her legs under her.
"Fratley's not coming. He's left again, hasn't he?" she repeated, too tired to even lift her head up.
"Stop sniffling," he ordered, glancing at her. "It's bloody annoying."
"He's left," she repeated again, ignoring Amarant, effectively shutting him out of her little world of misery. "Just like he left before. It was raining then too. I hate autumns. Why is my life falling apart, Amarant?"
"Get a grip, rat – this is no time to wax bloody miserable." Amarant said, shifting in his chair and refusing to look at her.
"Well, it is falling apart!" she snapped, too drunk and too tired to care whether he saw her cry or not, "Ever since Fratley left me, things have gone wrong – Burmecia was lost, Fratley forgot me, Cleyra was decimated, I failed my responsibility in defending my country, my countrymen died before my eyes, and now Fratley has left yet again. There's really no point anymore, is there?"
"Self-pity was never attractive, rat."
"Shut up – I should have known alcohol would only make you more insufferable."
"You worry me sometimes."
"....No." he glanced at her once more before looking away and into the fire, "Watching you tear yourself to pieces over that mindless twit is making me sick. You're like a sailor refusing to abandon a bloody sinking ship, clinging to driftwood like you've forgotten how to let go."
Freya's head jerked up as if he had physically slapped her, and she stared at him in the darkness. The change he had gone through – from laconic and disinterested to fiercely angry – was astonishing. Only one time had she seen him so angry – in the Fire Shrine, as Maliris taunted him for a weakness he didn't possess.
"W-what?" once again, her alcohol-hazed mind wasn't responding as quickly as it should.
"Watching you cling to memories that don't even exist anymore is turning my stomach: It's been what – seven years now? - since that useless moron left the first time, and you're still moping? It's getting pathetic now." he continued, obviously getting riled up. "Seven years, and you're still clinging to the memories. Give up! You want to know where he is? He's down at the Theater District, swapping spit with some actress. I've never - "
He interrupted himself, stopping and staring at her for a moment before standing up and turning away. The long silence was heavy and almost tangible, as Freya's drunken mind attempted to make sense of the information so rudely given to her. Somewhere, far off, it was hurting, but now she could only stare at Amarant's back and desperately wish for him to finish his sentence.
She was left with a mindful of questions and an empty doorway into a dark corridor.
All night, despite the allure of sleep and the numbing effect the alcohol had on her, she stared at the ceiling and just thought. She thought about her life, about the past seven years, about Fratley and his amnesia, about getting drunk with people she barely knew, and still knew better than the love of her life, she thought about what Amarant had said about sinking ships and clinging to memories.
When morning came, all she had was a hangover and a head full of questions.
Breakfast was even more of a nightmare than the previous day had been. The Regent was laughing constantly, too loudly for the handover-struck Freya, while Eiko chattered with someone she hadn't caught the name of. The food was disgusting, Fratley was still missing, and apparently – she learned from Eiko – Amarant had gone out early in the morning, and had last been seen on top of the roofs of the Industrial District.
After a meager breakfast of dry toast, she opted to follow Amarant's example and go for a walk herself. With so many thoughts – with a lifetime of guilt and self-doubt coming down around her ears – it was impossible to stay still.
Though it had stopped raining, the clouds above the sky were still looking ominous – just like they had two years ago, during the Festival of Hunt. Before Burmecia fell, before she met Fratley again. With Amarant's words last night ringing in her head like dooms-day bells, she watched her perception of the world and her place in it go now in merry flames as she got herself lost in the Theater District's alleyways.
About the only thing she really liked about rain was the clean smell the air got just after it stopped. When she breathed in that air, she felt free, and all her troubles seemed to go away. Unfortunately, the Burmecian magic didn't seem to be working at the moment, since her troubles only got worse. Half-way to the Theater, she had made up her mind to find Fratley and speak to him. She took a leap up on the nearest building-roof, and headed towards the Theater that simpler and quicker way.
Perched on the edge of a roof, ready to take the leap downwards, she halted, frozen at the beginning of a motion. Below her, on the soggy street, was Fratley. He looked lost, as he did most often, and relief rushed through her. What Amarant had said could not possibly be true – Fratley must have been lost all night. For a moment, an unholy rage bubbled up within her, but she quenched it – Amarant had never been polite, never would be, and had seemingly taken pleasure in mocking others.
During the moment she had halted, a woman had come out from one of the buildings around the Theater. Listening to her instincts rather than her mind, she crouched down and eavesdropped on the ensuing conversation. With dawning horror, and not a little anger returning, she listened in silence until she could not stand it, and fled across the roofs.
Thunder boomed across the sky, and heavy raindrops began to fall. One by one, they soaked through her coat and wet her fur, chilling her to the bone. In the rain, none of the Castle guards out on patrol noticed that she was crying as well – she hadn't cried in two years, ever since that time in Cleyra, when Fratley came back. Before that, the last time she'd cried was when Fratley left.
Irontail Fratley was always the reason for her tears.
She found Amarant perched on the roof of the Castle's highest tower. In the rain and the gathering gloom, he looked even larger than he normally did. There had always been a sense of restrained anger in the air around him – something she'd noticed from the first time she'd met him on the dock in Alexandria.
He didn't look up when she made her way across the slippery roof-tiles, but kept throwing pebbles across the edge of the roof, staring out across the continent. Not even when she sat down next to him did he obviously acknowledge her presence – but to someone who was as used to his behaviour as Freya, could tell that he was listening.
"We cling to joy and pain, belief and fear," she spoke in hushed tones, staring at the storm-clouds gathering over Gizamaluke's Grotto, "hate and love – even though we know it's dead – for they make us feel alive. We're cowards that way, not daring to let go of what we know, even if it hurts."
"What doesn't kill you only makes you stronger," he muttered, letting a few more pebbles fly over the edge.
"I consciously know that – everyone does – but we're still afraid of fresh pain, and so do not dare to let go. Sometimes, we have to take that leap, though, and when we do, we won't know where we land." she looked at him thoughtfully, and gave a very small smile. "I think I'm ready to abandon ship."
And all that was left was silence, the steady beat of falling rain, and pebbles making the perilous and ultimately lethal journey to the ground below.
Ending Notes: This is my first FF9 piece in about two years or so, so I'm getting a little rusty on characterisation, but hopefully it's good. It started as a stand-alone One-shot, but it just might, if I can find the time after November, become a longer multi-chapter.