Sorry for the demonic delay. This actually only took me about a week to do, but personal problems made that week stretch out for WAY too long. Also, there's no action scene here, as I had planned, since it entailed a time-
jump and a mood-change in the story that really didn't fit here. I'm pretty sure it will be in the next chapter though.

Chapter Three

The Black Wind

Fayt had been standing in the main hall of Castle Aquaria by himself for nearly fifteen minutes before Nel returned. And if truth be told, the fifteen minutes had felt more like fifteen hours to him, because he knew precisely what was going to happen next: he was going to have an audience with the Queen – there was really no other arrangement that could keep Nel this long, if she were as off-duty as she had claimed – and that was not something he was looking forward to. If he had an audience, the Queen was doubtless going to ask him what he was doing here, and he wasn't sure he could give her an answer to that.

When Nel finally did return, she confirmed his suspicions, and that made the walk to the second floor something of a misery. She noticed not far from the throne room.

"Is something the matter?" She asked him.

"Not really." He lied, and then gave in a second later, "Well, yeah, actually. I'm kind of nervous about this."

"Why?" She arched her brows. "It's not like you've never done this before. You know our Queen."

"I know. It's just..."

"Look," she interrupted, "just try to relax. There's no reason to be on edge. We're not going to arrest you or anything."

He wanted to say more, but her tone brooked no argument, and he had no choice but to simply follow her. Two guards outside the doors yanked them open at their approach, and there was a brief moment of remembrance as he followed his redheaded companion into the throne room, the brief echo of a clouded dream he had had nearly a month before

(I have something for you)

but it was gone again before he had even fully realized its presence, and then the door behind him closed and there was nothing but the Queen, Nel and the Magistrate. And the massive hall that encompassed them.

Fayt could not help but feel a little like a deer under a spotlight as he approached the throne. His stomach was roiling, full of butterflies, and his throat felt as though it might close up at any moment. And it was made worse by the way his boots echoed on the floor, something like gunshots in a narrow canyon, it seemed to him. He tried to step more softly, more like Nel, who walked in complete and utter silence in front of him, but the sounds didn't seem affected by that. It wasn't until he stepped on the ornate red carpet that rolled down from the foot of the stairs leading to the Queen's seat that the echoes finally allowed themselves to be muffled. He knew he shouldn't be feeling this nervous; at one point, this had almost been routine.

But it is the first time I've come here alone. Cliff had been with him the first time, Cliff, Maria and Mirage the second, and the crowd had only grown from there. Now, he was by himself, before royalty. And he felt foolish by himself, out of place. Somewhat, he imagined, like he might feel if his pants were to suddenly fall down in the middle of a crowded room that he couldn't leave. Nel was with him, but Nel was still an Aquarian, still an Elicoorian. She belonged in this place. What he needed was another stranger.

I wish Cliff was here. He thought absently. Or Sophia, or Maria or Mirage. Or even his mother or one of his old college friends. Any of them would do, but it was Cliff he wished for the most. The big Klausian had known how to take the tension out of any situation. And that was a talent he could use right about now.

As soon as Nel reached the foot of the stairs, she dropped to one knee and inclined her head. The movement was smooth, practiced, graceful in a way, and Fayt was so caught up in his own thoughts that it was nearly two full seconds before he realized he was supposed to do the same. Hastily, he followed her lead. Minus the elegance, of course.

"Your Majesty." Nel said.

Fayt was too busy looking at the floor to see a response from the throne, but he still heard well enough. It was Lasselle that spoke first.

"Him again." He said, his voice thick and tired with disdain. He also sounded surprised, strangely enough, the statement half sounding like a question.

As if you didn't already know I was back. He thought bitterly. The Queen was more courteous. She even gave him an honorific. He hadn't expected that.

"Welcome back, Master Fayt."

His tongue seemed to instantly grow thick in his mouth when he tried to reply. For a minute he thought he was going to choke on it, choke to death on it even, but finally, he managed to say:

"Thank you, Your Majesty."

There was a silence then, awkward, before the question he had been dreading came out.

"So." The Queen asked kindly, "Might I ask what brings you back to our planet?"

"And more importantly, when you'll be leaving?" Lasselle added. Ordinarily, his comment would have irritated or offended him, but at that moment Fayt thought he could almost kiss the man for his insolence. Because in truth, Fayt really had no answer to her question and Lasselle gave him a distraction. As usual, the Queen checked him.

"Quiet, Lasselle." She said. She said that a lot, it seemed to him. So much so, that he often wondered why she kept him in the throne room at all. A good seventy-five percent of the dialogue he had seen shared with him seemed to consist of her telling him to shut up.

Fayt tried to use the moment to come up with a convincing lie, but he was still drawing a blank when the matter was settled, and the Queen spoke to him again.

"I must apologize for his outburst. You were saying?"

He didn't answer. The only response that came to mind was 'Uh…', and he didn't think that was what anyone was looking for.

"Your…reason…for…being…here." Lasselle said impatiently, speaking loudly and slowly, punctuating each word with several seconds of silence, as if Fayt were simply some thickheaded fool who had not understood the question.

"Aah…" he began dumbly, his mind desperate and racing for an answer. What? What do I say? What do I tell her? That I came back because I was bored? Because I liked Elicoor? Because I wanted to see my friends? What? Because of a few stupid dreams I had? Because…because… Unconsciously, he looked at Nel out of the corner of his eye, kneeling there beside him. "…I don't have one, really. Honestly."

He looked up then, briefly, hoping the blush that suddenly rose into his cheeks would lend him some credibility. The Queen said nothing - he didn't know what to make of that - but the Magistrate didn't seem satisfied.

"So you're saying there's not something terrible chasing after you this time? Why do I find that difficult to believe?"

"Uh, I…I don't know." Fayt answered meekly. Then an idea struck him. Lasselle was trying to cow him; his father had often done the same thing when he was convinced that Fayt was lying to him about something. And Fayt had eventually learned the secret to getting around his father's accusations: back-talking him. "Why do you find that difficult to believe?"

Fayt thought he heard a gasp, although there was a good chance it had merely been his imagination. At any rate, there was no response from above him, just as he had hoped. Lasselle's question had been rhetorical. No one expected someone to fling a rhetorical question back at them, and someone with Lasselle's authority would expect it even less, so Fayt imagined that he had managed to distract the man for the nonce.

"I…I'll tell you why I find that difficult to believe"

"Lasselle, be silent." The Queen cut him off sharply, amidst a thought of 'There it is again' from Fayt. Then she addressed him once more. "Then you are saying that there is no reason for your being here?"

Well, when you say it like that… "Um, no Your Majesty." Momentarily, he wondered if she was going to tell him to leave the planet. She really didn't seem like the type to do that, but after giving her such an asinine explanation for being here, you could never be sure.

"Nonetheless," she said at last, "I suppose it is fortuitous for us that you have come, regardless of your motivations."

"Fortuitous?" That was Lasselle, sounding as indignant as always. "I call it foreboding, Your Majesty. These problems in Peterny, and now he shows up…"

Finally, Nel spoke. "The issue with Peterny was going on for nearly a month before he even arrived, Magistrate."

"So was the Vile Wind," Lasselle said quickly, "but we eventually traced that back to him."

"This isn't the Vile Wind"

"And it isn't normal either. This is no ordinary merchant rebellion. Things are…things are too secretive. I have nearly seven hundred hirelings in that city, and not one of them can tell me anything useful about what's happening. What are the odds of that?"

"Fayt." the Queen said, bulling over their exchange, "It distresses me to ask this of you, but may we count on your help once again?"

That spotlight flashed on again, just as he had been beginning to ease up. "How could I possibly help, Your Majesty?"

"As I am sure you have heard, we are experiencing certain difficulties in Peterny right now. We…you have heard about this, correct?"

"Yes, Your Majesty." Nel had said a few things about it on the road.

"Much of the court knows about it, but we have given it out that the problem is relatively minor. This you may have heard. Merchant rebellions are not unprecedented here in Aquaria. We had another nine years ago, that resulted in only one open battle, with no lives lost. However…" the Queen trailed off.

"Yes, Your Majesty?"

"However," she continued, "the truth is that the problem we are facing now is not minor. As Lasselle has said, despite our vast information network within the city, we have almost no information about it at all. This is very worrisome. Lasselle has pointed out that the manner in which the plot has been so expertly hidden suggests that someone with a position of authority here at court may be aiding it, and it gives us no hint of the size or scope of the dilemma. Or even of its nature. If the problem were political, we might be able to take measures against it, and if the problem were military, we would simply appeal to Airyglyph for aid. I have suggested doing this anyway, but many have counseled me that it would be unwise to reveal weakness to them when we are still unsure of the problem ourselves. This is where we hope to enlist facilitation from you.

"By now, you must be aware of your standing within our country. You have become an integral part of our current generation's history, and since your disappearance, a cornerstone of Aquarian lore. Your reputation transcends all social and military borders, to the point that your name carries more weight than word of a military invasion."

Praise. Fayt thought dumbly. He knew the words were meant to gratify him, but the only thing he got out of them was a growing sense of discomfort. He didn't feel like much of a cornerstone of anything, kneeling there; no more than he had the first time he had done it. If he had been in a chair, he would have tried to squirm into it. As it was, he couldn't even do that. I hope she stops soon.

He had not heard the Queen rise from the throne, or begin to descend the stairs, so when he felt soft hands suddenly envelop his, only luck kept him from jumping right out of his skin. Once again, he had been so preoccupied with himself that he had lost sense of what was happening around him. The Queen had come down the steps, and was now on her knees in front of him, at a level with him, her trailing robes giving her the appearance of an immense, squat size. Her hands held his between them, somehow both authoritative and pleading at the same time. Such a show was just about the highest honor she could give to someone below her station, he knew. And that knowledge did nothing to alleviate his discomfort. Fayt wondered how Lasselle was taking this; he would have looked to find out, but the Queen's eyes were staring directly into his, and he was sure he would be breaking some sacred rule of conduct if he looked elsewhere at a time like that. She had done this on his first visit, Fayt recalled, when she had asked for his help in the war against Airyglyph. But the gesture had only been momentary then. This time she took the time to speak to him.

"Three times so far you have saved Aquaria from destruction. Though it may be presumptuous to refer to this latest situation as such, I implore you to do so one last time." With her so close, it took some effort on his part to restrain himself from cringing back. He could even smell her breath. It smelled like flowers. He had no idea how she had managed that. "I do not believe we will require you to perform any deeds of service for us this time, so you would not need to concern yourself with that possibility. It is merely your reputation that we wish to use. If the merchants are the root of the problem, then whatever end it is they are working toward should not be difficult to discourage if we make it known that you have returned to handle the matter. Merchants are cautious and indolent by nature, and it is not likely that they will be willing to risk a confrontation with you by continuing in their pursuits."

Three times, my foot. He thought. Why do they credit me with it? People always seemed to want to do that, especially on Elicoor, and it made him feel guilty. Cliff and Nel had both been with him from start to finish, yet they received almost no mention at all in the stories he heard. Nel was even an Aquarian, famous; she should have overshadowed him, but the tales portrayed her as nothing but one of his cronies (although none had the gall to actually use that term), and they portrayed the others in much the same way. The people who had made those stories would have been shocked to know how little he had really done.

It seemed to him that he should be disagreeing somehow, so he said:

"I doubt I scare anyone that much, Your Majesty."

"You should not." The Queen stood. He was about to feel relieved until he realized she still had his hand and was pulling him up with her. "Your services have made you a paragon of ideals for the people of Aquaria. Anyone with ill in their hearts cannot help but fear you." At last, she let go of him. "Will you help us?"

How am I supposed to say no? Fayt wondered. "I…yes, Your Majesty. If I can."

"Then we are in your debt once again."

Why, if all you want to use is my reputation? He wanted to say, but didn't. He was not looking at Magistrate Lasselle, but he could feel the indignation in the room gathering around him as he prepared to say something. However, Nel spoke up first.

"With all due respect, Your Majesty," she said, "if you're going to employ Fayt, won't he have to do something? I don't think any number of rumors will convince anyone that he's here to handle our problems if all he does is sit around in the castle."

"She's right, Your Majesty." Lasselle piped up quickly. "We should send him back to Peterny."

"I am aware of that," the Queen replied, addressing Nel and seeming to ignore Lasselle altogether, "yet simple mention of him will serve to afford us time sufficient to deal with such matters. There is no rush to move just yet." She looked back to him. "So do not worry. I meant what I said when I told you that we would not require you to fight for us." Nodding to him, she ascended the stairs once again, toward the throne.

"For now," she said when she was seated, "you may do as you wish here in the castle. You are our guest. I would suggest resting, as I know that you have come far." There was a pause. "The same goes for you as well, Lady Nel."

Fayt couldn't help the tiny smirk that came to his lips when the Queen said that, because he already knew there was a protest coming, already heard it in his mind.

"Your Majesty," Nel said gravely, "with Fayt here, circumstances have changed. If he is going to be in service, I–"

"He will not be in service until your leave has ended, if that is what you are concerned about. It will take at least that long for our rumors to take full effect, and I am greatly concerned about your well-being. We put you on leave because you were working too much. I made an exception simply by allowing you to escort Master Fayt from Peterny, so I will insist that you make up that time with the eleven days you have remaining."

"But Y–"

"Actually," the Queen said, "since you insist on raising the issue, I might be persuaded to give you another month's leave. The Kingdom will endure without you, I am rather certain, especially now that Fayt is here. He can work with Lady Clair."

"I–"

"Unless you would prefer to simply take the remainder of your leave, with no objections?"

When Nel replied, her voice was curt and cold, "Yes...Your Majesty." She said.

Well, at least she hasn't changed much. He thought. The thought had been in good humor, but somehow it soured in his brain.

"Then you are dismissed." The Queen said warmly, as if she did not hear the chill in her agent's voice. "Both of you. Try to take advantage of times like this, Nel. You cannot live only for work. People who do that die very young." She stopped for a moment, as if hesitant, and then continued, "You are the third generation of Zelpher that I have known. I have no wish to see a fourth in your shoes."

"I...Yes, Your Majesty. I'll keep that in mind." She replied in a tone that – at least to Fayt – suggested that in actuality she would discard it the moment she left the throne room.

"Then you may go."

Nel rose to leave first. Fayt followed her.

Outside, she seemed to soften again immediately – well, 'soften' as much as Nel ever did. He had been certain that the Queen's rebuke would have left her sour, but she seemed no different than she always was.

"I'm sorry for getting you into this again." She said to him apologetically, after the doors had closed behind them.

"What are you sorry for? From what you told me, it was an inevitability from the moment I set foot on this planet."

"To be involved in our problems? No..." She shook her head, "No, that's just politics, and you're a scapegoat. There's no real reason to impress you into service."

That tripped something in his mind; he remembered an older moment, one that felt like it had happened lifetimes ago – something she had said in the first real conversation they had ever had

(If that means we must force uncooperative people into submission, then so be it)

and he thought: Maybe she has changed.

"Even so, how is that your fault? It's not like it was your choice, right?"

"No, but still...you may have to fight. Are you really ready to do that again? To take up a sword and defend Aquaria?"

"The Queen didn't seem to think I would need to."

"Her Majesty," said Nel, "may not know as much as she thinks." When Fayt looked at her, she shook her head again and became suddenly defensive. "I'm not saying she's stupid. It's just that I...I don't think Lasselle would tell her the true scope of a problem if it was really that serious. Even our Queen has her limits. And the way even she talked...it..."

"What?" He prompted.

"She said that nothing would be done with you until my duties had been restored, right? But why? What is it that I could lend to a mission of spreading rumors that any agent in Aquaria couldn't do?" She shifted. "I have a reputation too, but this 'conspiracy' has been going on independently of me for some time now. Adding my name to the roster isn't going to stop it, if it hasn't already. So why, unless she thought it was going to come to battle? Clair is better with a sword than I am, but it was you and I that fought together, so it would be natural that I would make the best partner for you, right?" Nel stopped and shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe I'm just being paranoid. Maybe she's only trying to make sure that you have a friend around when you start working for us. Maybe it is completely innocent...but someone in my line of works has certain instincts, and my instincts are telling me that I'm not paranoid, that there's something that somebody isn't saying. I was telling you the truth in Peterny. I didn't like that city. There's something different about it, something that doesn't feel right. If you're sent back there...I don't think you'll be able to help but fight, no matter how optimistic Her Majesty might be, and I...I don't want you going without understanding that."

He considered for a moment telling her that that was precisely why he had come back.

Is that why I came back? He thought. That had entered into his mind more than once when he had thought about reasoning, but it seemed so barbaric when he articulated it to himself. He didn't know why he had come back, in truth. He hadn't been lying to the Queen when he had told her that. There was a thousand reasons it seemed, all jumbled together until none of them made sense.

"Don't worry about me." He said at last. "I can take care of myself."

Nel made no reply, save with her eyes. He had thought his words adequate; good, safe middle ground, but her eyes said that they were not what she had wanted to hear. Then what did she want to hear? He wondered, but he had no idea. He couldn't think of anything more appropriate that he might have said instead. Maybe it was just the Queen's criticism of her finally sinking in.

"I hope so." She said after an eternity, after they had already begun walking away from the throne room. She sounded doubtful. "I really hope so."

That almost made him angry. He thought about saying something back – something about the virtue of not trusting him, even after all this time – but he stopped himself before he opened his mouth. He wasn't quite sure why. It just seemed wrong.

There were servants waiting in the second floor's main hall, clustered around the balcony overlooking the waterfall that fell into the Chapel. One of them, a short, slight girl with a pale complexion who could not have been more than fourteen, bowed to Fayt and offered to take him to his quarters.

"I'll show him the way." Nel said to her.

Fayt had expected to be led to the same place he had stayed last time, but Nel stopped a ways before they reached it, and gestured him to a different door.

"These used to be Rozaria's quarters," she told him, "but she doesn't live here anymore. They're bigger and more well-furbished than the guest rooms, and we don't have anyone else to occupy them. Her Majesty thought it would be more fitting if you used these instead." She shrugged. "You can still stay in the guest wing if you like, but you should know that you'll be sharing it with Adray."

"I'll stay here." He said immediately. It wasn't that he didn't like Adray, it was just that...well...

"I figured you would." She smiled. "Still, I'd expect a visit from him. He wanted to go to Peterny with me to get you, but the Queen and Magistrate Lasselle didn't think he could keep the secret well enough, so they told him to stay here. In retrospect, I guess I don't really know what the point of that was, but...anyway, he said that he had some important things to discuss with you."

After a few seconds of silence, she continued.

"Well, I'll leave you to get settled in for the moment. We haven't exactly gotten rid of Rozaria's furniture yet, so it might take some getting used to. You know what to do if you need something and...feel free to come by my quarters if you like. You heard Her Majesty yourself, I don't really have anything to do for the next week or so." That last bit sounded grudging, although whether or not it was the offer or the fact that she had no work to do that irked her, he didn't know.

"Alright..." He said, a bit uncertainly. "Thanks."

She seemed to shrug that off. "You don't need to thank me." After a moment, she started to move away, but she had only taken a few steps when she turned back again. "One more thing..."

"Yes?"

"I don't know why you came," Nel said, so severely that, until she continued, he thought she was accusing him, "but I'm glad you're back."

"I'm glad to be here." He replied easily, but was he thought was: Really?

In his room – which struck him immediately as being far too white – he sat down in one of the chairs and thought. She had said that she was glad he was back. But she hasn't really been acting that way. She had been friendly enough, he supposed, especially when you considered her usual demeanor, but...but there was something about it that he couldn't quite put his finger on. It was as if she were glad that he was back simply because of the work it entailed. They had talked a lot on the way to Aquios, but she didn't truly seem all that interested in spending any time with him besides that, if the way she had sounded when she offered had been any indication. Then again, maybe he was being too hard on her. She wasn't exactly what one would call 'expressive', so expecting it of her would be sort of unreasonable, wouldn't it? It would be like expecting Albel to sing. Nel did things in her own way, and he had gotten used to that (or at least thought he had) a long time ago. It was just different now, stranger, with him alone and essentially without any purpose for being here. It made him feel oddly self-conscious.

Did I make the right choice by coming back here?

He couldn't help but wonder.


I'd do my customary picking-apart of the dynamics of my story at the end of this chapter like I've done with all the ones before, but I'm really trying to cut that stuff down. I'll just settle for saying that, while this may not have been the most interesting thing I've ever produced, it's completely necessary to the story.

Responses:

Daedulas: As to the first question, yes. Pretty soon. As to the second, I sort of intended that she had been improving. Coming to see Fayt only would have worsened her a little bit. Fatigue goes away pretty quickly with some rest, but the physical signs are generally more stubborn (trust me, I know...I still have bags under my eyes from being deprived of sleep for a few days earlier this month). I sort of suggested it in the way that Nel was thinking so much clearer than usual, but I guess I might have stated that a little better though, looking back. Sorry.

endergabriel:Actually, the thought of whether or not I'm copying you plagues me pretty often. I sort of brood over any similarities between our two stories, which ends up kind of senseless since, by premise alone, there are BOUND to be similarities. As to the C2...I actually think Fayt/Nel has enough fans to make it work. It would be a great idea if I had any clue about how to go about doing it. (Yeah, I'm pathetic, I know.)

Jarock16: Happy Birthday...ish. I had actually hoped to get this out a lot sooner, so that it could just be called 'belated'. As it is, I think I'm well into the running for wishing you a Happy Birthday NEXT year,

Lloyd (Irving) Aurion: One question was sort of answered in the response to Daedulas. As to my embellishment of Fayt/Nel, probably next chapter, since the storyline is now pretty much set, and I won't have to juggle its establishment quite so much. And lo, I didn't do the Lasselle POV. He sort of interests me by virtue of the fact that everyone in the world hates his guts, but this chapter ended up completely Fayt-centric.

James Ray Edwards: I'm glad you like it. One note though: If anyone is reading this more or less solely out of hopes that Albel is going to be in it...I'd stop, actually. He's probably not going to show. There's a CHANCE, of course, since this story will dance pretty close to grounds for an Albel appearance, and my characters love to pull unexpected crap on me, but it really is doubtful; I won't lie to anyone. On a semi-related note however, I DO want to write something for Albel. I had been in the process of a short story featuring him, but it...ended up proving to me that it wasn't going to be that short, and I can't juggle two (or lack of a better word) novelettes at once. When DW finishes, I'll probably start on it.

Everyone: As usual, thanks for the reviews. Nothing encourages me more than feedback. And once again, sorry that this thing is so bloody late.

Next chapter: With the foundation of the story now in place, look for the real Fayt/Nel development to begin next chapter. Also, keep an eye peeled for the-action-scene-that-didn't-fit. And no, I don't plan to keep stressy-Fayt for that long, in case anyone is wondering.