The Way Home
(C) Intelligent Systems and Nintendo
For the 111 people who have favorited Shadows Under the Oak Tree over the last six years, and the 32 people who still have this on Story Alert since the epilogue was posted five years ago. I've gotta ask, did you really believe you'd ever get an alert for this story ever again?
Summary: (AU) After nearly three years away Hugh returns home with an army in tow, to his mother's immense displeasure and his father's surprise. It would've been nice if he'd thought to send a letter first...or ever.
Part I: Walled Gardens, Poisoned Lilies
"Huh...being back here is kinda..."
Hugh didn't want to say 'nostalgic', but the feeling, like an echo of his heartbeat, was there anyway even as he searched for another word. Ilia was his homeland, true, and he didn't hate the bitter winds of the hinterland country where he came from, but it all was nothing like Etruria, the land where he had spent the last three years. The bright sunlight was better than the endless days of Ilian summers, the many festivals more exciting than just having the Festival of the Ice Dragon to look forward to every year, and then there were the girls and the gold and the opportunities...
But he didn't hate Ilia. Being here, even while in the company of an expansive army like the Etrurian Army, was almost kinda nice.
"Wonder how Mom's doing..."
This thought, spoken aloud, lingered as he meandered throughout the camp, but he didn't dare add on to it. If he did, he'd be tempted to ask Grandma, and ever since he'd noticed her around that boy Roy (otherwise known to Hugh as 'his employer', 'that noble kid', and 'that absolute sucker haha did I really get ten grand in gold from him')...well, y'know. Even after three years away she still looked the same (read: one hell of a scary-ass bitch) and that was good enough for him. If something happened to Mom, Grandma would seek him out. If something happened to Dad, not so much unless the two were talking again, but since Dad rarely said anything more substantial than greetings to Grandma since Hugh was about seven...yeah, not about to happen.
That was fine with Hugh. He didn't get along that well with Dad either. Just one of those things.
"...best plan is to march straight onto Edessa, correct?"
"Yes, though the land route is such that we'll have to expect another battle."
"If this was a more temperate country like Lycia or Etruria that would be manageable, but the cold climate makes it difficult for everyone to regain their strength no matter how long we make camp for..."
"Hm, yes, that is the natural result of fighting a war in Ilia in the winter."
Hugh smirked at his grandma's comment, delivered with a natural diffidence that was much better when it wasn't aimed at him. He'd noticed that she was often found around Roy since she'd joined up in the central forests. It didn't really surprise him because she knew a lot about different things, but he did wonder why she wasn't back in the mountains or even in Corinth with his parents. Unless she somehow found out about the whole mamkute and dragon thing...
Not quite hiding, though no way was he going to stand in the open for his grandma to take a shot at him, Hugh peered around a tree at the boy general and his advisors - Grandma included. The non-Ilians looked troubled, all but buried in cloaks and furs now that the action had died down, while both Grandma and the dark-haired knight whose armor looked carved out of ice, a man Hugh thought looked familiar but couldn't name, stood impassively in the snow.
Roy cleared his throat. "We're going to Edessa next," he said, a questioning note in his young voice that made Hugh realize how unfamiliar the boy was with Ilia. Basically he was doing that thing his mom did sometimes when she didn't want to look weak, giving open-ended orders that practically required someone else jump in with an opinion.
"Yes," said Sir Ice-Block Armor. "I fear that will be the enemy's strongest position."
"Is Edessa naturally fortified?" asked the fat merchant man whom Hugh once saw snap at one of the younger girls of the company. It kind of pissed him off at the time to see that because he had the feeling the fat merchant did that to anyone deemed 'lesser', and since the fat merchant was also Roy's fat vassal...
Hugh grunted. People who picked on the weak, especially children, were trash. Even his dad wouldn't put up with that.
Sir Ice Block Armor (wait, wait, I think I know his name! Hugh thought with some force, though not enough to actually come up with anything) had this look on his face, like he thought he'd just been asked a stupid question but wasn't going to go all Auntie Tinae and actually call out the fat vassal-merchant on it. Instead he said, in the most neutral tone possible, "Ilia is its own fortification, and historically Edessa has never wanted for more. The last invaders who were not eventually driven out by the winter storms were the dragons."
Fat Merchant mumbled something that was drowned out by his master's next comment. "Then, which is the best way there?"
"There is a strait to its west, so we will have to approach Edessa from the south instead," answered the knight. Hugh hmmed at this, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. He didn't know anything about military tactics, but he did know a little about Ilian geography. If there was a strait to the west of Edessa, then he was certain that Corinth was to the northwest of Edessa. And considering how decked out his mom had made the city in the last twenty years, then it too was probably a target for the Etrurian traitors and the Bernese army, as well as the Ilian pegasus knights who had been impressed to serve Bern.
Hugh glared at his grandma, who was standing passively still like some harmless little old lady. Why wasn't she saying anything? Dammit, he should've asked her why she wasn't at Corinth...
Mom could be in danger. Everyone in Corinth could be in danger. And even if they weren't...well, how was he supposed to know? It'd be better to make sure, right?
Buoyed by this new strain of heroism, Hugh stepped out from the shadows of the massive pine trees. "Hey," he called out, "I have a better idea. There's a pretty big city just on the other side of strait where we can set up to take back Edessa."
"A city?" Roy said, looking like nothing more than an overly curious boy, even in his fitted armor. It kinda bothered Hugh because what the hell is wrong with the world when a child is leading an army with even younger kids in it? The little tilt of the so-called 'General' Roy's head as the boy furrowed his brows didn't help the dissonant image. "A castle city?"
"Well, it's like...it's only a castle, of sorts."
The Ilian knight stepped forward, and Hugh was surprised to see the fierce opposition on the older man's weathered face. "Corinth, the Walled Garden," the knight said, the disapproval in his voice blade-thin.
"What? You have a problem with the place?" Hugh retorted, already pissed off. "It's my hometown."
"The 'Walled Garden'?" Roy asked, still all boyish curiosity. The knight glanced at Hugh before reverting his attention towards Roy.
"A garden of dissidents who despise everything to do with Ilia, watered with hate by their leader."
Hugh laughed. It was an instinctual reflex born from not being able to swallow too much bullshit at once - a trait he shared with his mom. "What the hell? Aren't you Ilian, or did you get hit in the head too much in your tours abroad? There isn't a more loyal town to Ilia than Corinth! My mom made sure of that!"
Something flickered in the knight's expression, but Hugh didn't understand why and didn't care either way. "Your mother?"
Hugh, mouth halfway open in preparation to respond to the Ilian knight's question, turned around to see his grandma standing just behind him. "Hey, you - " he started, but then she looked at him and suddenly he had nothing to say, nope, not Hugh!
"Sir Zealot," Roy said, looking thoughtful, "I want to go to this place. If it's just across the strait from Edessa, it may make a better base for us than camping in the snow."
"I wouldn't think that was a good idea," Zealot said, his face so impassive now Hugh would've sworn it was carved out of the side of Mount Athene. "The woman who leads Corinth will want nothing to do with a foreign army. She may even attack you first."
Annoyed, Hugh was about to say something before a very light tap against his right hand quelled his words with a wave of terror. He didn't dare look behind him now; he could see his grandma's disapproving face like a vision from the deepest hells of elder magic. Roy shook his head, his expression closing off with a strange resoluteness Hugh had never seen in men twice the boy's age...which wasn't very old, huh.
"How do we know that Bern hasn't already occupied them? We should go and make sure everything is fine there, and if we are needed, perhaps in turn their leader will be more willing to listen. And I think..." Roy paused, then shook his head. "Sir Zealot, as the general of Ilia and lord of Edessa, you're also worried about them, even if they don't consider themselves as part of Ilia any longer. So we can't abandon them."
Zealot hesitated, then nodded. "They are still Ilian, though they want nothing to do with Ilia," he echoed, and Hugh frowned. He didn't say anything though, not until later when he just happened to pass by the man while the army marched north.
"So why are you lying?" Hugh asked, knowing that the sneer he had on his face probably wasn't going to get the best answer from the knight. "There's no way in this world that my mom's turned her back to Ilia, not with everything's she's done for this country."
"How long have you been away?" Zealot asked. Hugh shrugged.
"Three or four years. Why?"
"Things change, even in Ilia," was all the answer Hugh received, and no matter how much he tried to draw the truth from either Zealot or his grandma, all he received were shakes of the head and one unsightly bruise against his ribs. But all that didn't matter. He knew his mom, and Auntie Ros and Auntie Tinae, and Stick-In-The-Snow Rycen and Rabid Elysia and all the people of Corinth...they all loved Ilia.
And, remembering them, he knew that he felt the same way too. He hadn't left because he hated it, anyway.
Maybe he should've written at least one letter. He couldn't remember why he hadn't. It was just, suddenly it was three years later. His mom would know that he wasn't dead, so it didn't matter. He was doing things that he really couldn't write about anyway.
Suddenly, it was three years later and he was coming home and the anticipation running through him made him wonder why he'd ever left.
Bitter, bitter cold. Yet, Lily's cheek burned with pain from where the Bernese commander had struck her. Covering the side of her face with her gloved hand, she kept her eyes lowered, demure.
"I'll ask you again. Will you surrender, or will you foolishly resist to the very end?"
"I've already told you," Lily said in as calm a tone as she could manage. She could taste blood in her mouth, a nostalgic flavor. "As soon as I left to negotiate with you, I was stripped of my command. I have no power over Corinth any longer." Lifting her gaze to the man's face, she saw nothing that reminded her of the only Bernese man she had ever known before this invasion.
That was good. She didn't need distractions right now.
"If that is true," started the commander, "why come out at all?"
"I was hoping to convince you to leave our home alone. I don't mind being considered a traitor if I can do that much."
The look in his eyes as he stared down at Lily was the look of a man who was already beyond the moment. "You've forfeited your life for nothing, then. It is the destiny of Bern to have all of Elibe, even your little fortress. You can do nothing to stop us."
Slowly, Lily lowered her hand. The wind was rushing past her bare arms, but there was no cold bite to it now. "You're going to kill me?" she asked, the barest hint of indignation sharpening her tone. "You've already stripped me and found no weapons of any sort, so where is your justification in murdering an old woman?"
"You're no danger to us, true, but I have no interest in future resistances being led by old women." The Bernese commander drew his sword, his face stoic in his utter readiness to carry out his words. Seeing this, Lily lightly bit her lower lip.
The wind was blowing faster now.
"I see. Then, I have a suggestion."
"A way you would like to die?"
"Yes. You'll want to cut off my head."
He hesitated, his sword half-raised. "Why is that? Ilian last rites?"
"No." She smiled. "That's the only way you'll stop me from casting magic."
The roar of the winds covered her ears and prevented her from hearing his exclamation, but the surprise on his face said it all - his men had stripped her down to her undergarments and hadn't even found an enchanted dagger on her. In the next moment, though, she had completed the spell she had been mentally chanting, and blades of wind turned him into so much meat as she activated the pages of the Aircalibur tome she had sewn into her undergarments. The spell went further as she poured as much of her body's magic stores as she could afford, tearing through man and wyvern alike, slicing through tents and utterly demolishing the camp of the regiment that had been sieging Corinth for the last two weeks.
There was no pity in her heart. Her life was for the sake of protecting Corinth.
Drawing back, she took a deep breath as she surveyed the damage from her spell. It was even better than the formula had promised, as the dregs of the regiment stumbled towards wyverns with ripped wings and deep gouges in their iron-scaled flesh. They would be on her soon-
She felt the distortion in the air before the teleportation sigil had fully appeared, and she turned to see her husband, his monocle askew and an expression of rapt joy on his face. "Lily, I did it! Oh, it's as absolutely magnificent as I imagined it would be!"
"Great, Canas," she said with a smile. "Now to draw them in. Do you have my Fire tome?"
"Ah, Lily...Lord Pent did write that it would be best not to cast additional spells for at least half a day after completing an incantation of such magnitude," her husband warned, an oddly severe look on his still boyish face.
It suddenly hurt to look at him, so she shook her head before jerking it towards the gray walls of Corinth. "Then you'll be protecting the both of us until we reach the point, dear," she retorted, and it was probably the nearly twenty-five years of marriage that softened her tone to her own ears, even though she was annoyed at the hitch in the plan.
"Yes, well, I have done this before," Canas said, his tone bright, "though it has been a while. Oh my, it looks as though they're ready to begin their charge."
"Well, let's not make it too easy for them," Lily said after a glance behind her - her husband had a tendency to underestimate speed and distance, to his detriment whenever he was playing with the mass of children Corinth had collected over the years. Grabbing his wrist, they began to run through the snow bluffs that separated them from their goal. When a wyvern rider happened to get too close, Canas cleanly picked him off with a single casting of dark magic, causing the wyvern to careen to the ground with a cracking crash that caused even Lily to flinch. Canas had no expression after the fact because he was right, he had experience in war twenty years ago, and the confidence he had in wielding magic he had once been rightfully scared of was incongruous and a little unsettling.
But then, this was war too. There was no point in being jarred by the difference in her husband when he gave her the same cautious looks after some of her decisions in the last two years.
"We're almost there," she said as Corinth's walls almost loomed over them. "Are they keeping up?"
"Ah, well...some of them?"
Lily glanced behind her, irritated; then she frowned in confusion. "What is that? Rosliand never told me she hired mercenaries for a pincer attack."
"Are those really mercenaries?" Canas asked in that certain tone that really was meant to convey doubt without angering anyone. "Certainly there are some who seem as such, but there are knights too and that diversity is altogether too familiar..."
There was a stiffness in his smile when he looked at her. "Forgive me, it was only a thought. Shall we finish this?"
There was no point in believing the other group was Corinth's friend, and anyway Lily preferred to solve her own problems. A few wyvern riders were still pursuing them, but as soon as Canas' feet skittered past the line of rocks near the fortress wall, Lily brought her fingers to her mouth and whistled. Just as planned, she could see human shapes rise from the very top of the fortress walls - the hunters of Corinth, led by her best friend Tinae - as they raised their bows and took aim. A volley of arrows whistled through the air, piercing through the first line of wyverns that had taken the bait. With another whistle, the archers returned into Corinth and the melee defenders appeared; the three-member force of pegasus knights led by Elysia, who was like a niece to Lily, and the five mercenary knights under the strict command of Rycen, Canas' first student in letters.
They finished off the few riders left in short time before drawing back to her side. "Lady Lily," Rycen began, urgency apparent in his voice, "there appears to be an unidentified army fighting with the rest of the Bernese troops. Should we assist them?"
Elysia rolled her shoulders before stretching out her arms, her spear in one hand. "Let 'em kill each other, and then we can take care of the stragglers. That's how we did it when I was back in the brigade."
Shaking her head, Lily stepped forward to get a better view of the not-so-distant battle. "I'd rather wait and see who they are first. We need better information on what's happening out there beyond Lady Niime's reports. Do you think an Ilian resistance group has formed?"
"It's more likely Ilia's military has allied with the Bern army," Rycen replied. "But this army is too varied in its membership for that. Look there, those are foreign knights, not the Ilia Mercenary Brigade." He made a soft sound of surprise, then said, "I'm sorry, I'll restate that. I see General Zealot."
Lily refrained from saying exactly what was on her mind, which was a good deal more vulgar than she let anyone hear from her. "That's not good. Elysia, is it safe to scout?"
"No way," Elysia replied without a pause. "Rycen's right. I see pegasus knights, arrows, magic...and look at the way they're fighting. It's way too efficient."
"Magic..." Lily murmured. "Canas, what do you See?"
He glanced at her, the both of them knowing that she was far more skilled but she couldn't risk draining any more magic. She had gone into magic depletion shock once in her life, and that was once too much for her. There was a frown of concentration on his face as he stared at the dying battle, his lips pursed for a long moment before he shook his head. "It's all quite odd. I do believe my mother is there, however. And there is something odd...but it can't be."
"What does that mean?" Lily asked. Her husband shook his head again.
"Pardon me, but I'm not sure. There are far too many magic signatures in that army-"
"Army?" Lily interrupted. "No, this isn't the Etrurian Army, is it?"
Elysia cursed. "That's not good. They're even worse!"
"But why would they come here?" Canas asked, his voice strained. Lily placed her hand on his arm, causing him to look at her.
"We know why, Canas. We know." To her brave, wonderful defenders of their shared home, Lily nodded. "Get into position, everyone. The Etrurians may be powerful, but Corinth is the home of our families. I won't let them take away everything we've worked for!"
Grim, determined gazes met hers, because they all knew what was on the line: their continued existence. And, just as Lord Pent wrote in his final letter, there were forces in the Etrurian government that were agitating for the same thing Bern wanted - nothing short than the subjugation of the continent.
And the Etrurians were worse. Oh, Lily had seen this firsthand.
"Canas..." she started, trying to smile, "now you have to give me my Fire tome. After that, get inside."
The look on her husband's face was heartbreaking. The letter had been addressed to the both of them, after all. He looked down briefly as he removed the tome from his cloak, then he removed the cloak and wrapped it around her. "You...shouldn't fight in your undergarments," he said by way of explanation as she raised an eyebrow in question, his face faintly pink.
"I wear more under my dresses than pegasus knights wear all over," she said with a smile.
Elysia snorted. "It gets hot."
"They're coming," Rycen said, his tone sharp.
Lily looked ahead at the approaching Etrurian army, then at her husband, who hadn't moved. "Canas, go," she said with urgency. He seemed to hesitate, then shook his head.
"...I won't leave you to fight by yourself, Lily," he said, a complex, yet sad expression suddenly making him look all his forty-eight years. "I could never do that."
She hated it when he was right. Her sweet, peace-loving husband would never bear it, just as she could never let him fight alone if she could help it.
And towards Etruria, who would make them do nothing less, Lily felt white-hot hatred.
In front of the army, which bore the standard of Etruria, a red-haired young man, maybe sixteen at most, walked with a portly blue-haired man who was little taller than the first, and Zealot.
Oh Zealot, she thought, if I survive this, I'm going to string you up, you damned idiot.
When he met her stare, he shook his head slightly, as if to absolve himself from any blame. Since he was the only one who could possibly know where Corinth was and what it did, she was not inclined to be so gracious. With a grimace, she stepped forward from the protective circle of her dear forces, dimly hearing her husband follow her as she prepared her first words, words that could start a new war-
"Ah!" the portly man said. "Is that you, Master Canas?"
Momentarily unbalanced, Lily's gaze slid over to her husband, who looked even more uncomfortable than herself. "W-would you happen to be Merlinus, the merchant?" he asked.
"So it is you! How good to find you just when we needed help!" this merchant enthused. "We'll be needing a base of operations for retaking Edessa, and it's been decided that this fortress would be ideal for that purpose."
"...Um, er...I believe you are mistaken as to who actually has the power to, er, decide that," Canas said, looking absolutely unnerved even before his eyes met Lily's and she could see just how frantically nervous he was. He quickly looked away as he gestured to her and said, "M-my wife, after all, is the leader of Corinth."
"The leader?" Lily couldn't believe her eyes, but that fat merchant actually looked at her in disdain before returning his attention to Canas. "That hardly matters. Just tell her what needs to be done. This is no different than when we walked alongside Lords Eliwood and Hector."
"Ah...t-tell Lily..." Canas now looked stricken, which annoyed Lily because her husband shouldn't be pressured like this; that was why his job was to educate the children. Thoroughly disgusted by the sheer pomposity of some foreign merchant, she laid a hand on her husband's arm and drew him behind her; he may have been taller, but he didn't have a very forceful presence at the best of times, of which this was decidedly not one of them.
"If you have a request, I will decide if it has any merit," Lily stated, too irritated to be intimidated by the army before her. "I am Lily of Corinth, and you are trespassing."
"Trespassing?" that fat merchant shrieked, the loudest of the various indignant comments coming from the Etrurian army. The red-haired young man had an expression of surprise so guileless that Lily was wary, because she wasn't sure what role he played though he stood in front like he was the head of the army. There were many men and women greater in age, but the more she looked the more she was convinced he was the leader, though he was far too young to be called a general.
"We have no intention of trespassing on your land," the young man said. "We are only looking for the easiest passage to free Edessa."
Lily glanced at Zealot, who looked indomitable and wouldn't meet her eyes. Of course it would make sense, since they had an agreement and by bringing the Etrurian Army here he had practically sundered it, but she had an odd feeling. Zealot knew what was at stake here, and it was worth more than his city.
"What is your name?" she asked the young man. He bowed his head slightly.
"I am Roy of Pherae."
"A Lycian in charge of the Etrurian Army?"
"No, it's...we were originally the Lycian Army, but we've changed our name because of the support Etruria has given us to fight Bern."
"Support?" Lily murmured, her wavering heart becoming like ice inside of her. "And that would include the Three Generals?"
Roy nodded. "They have been, like everyone else, a great help."
She felt strong enough now to See into the crowd for the new mage general, but there were too many auras, confusing her senses and giving her a headache. This was out of curiosity and didn't quell the overwhelming urge to eject these people from the area; the Three Generals of Etruria were all nobility and only had Etruria's interests in mind. Considering Corinth's purpose, if Etruria were to find out...
"I'm sure Zealot already told you this, but we are not under the jurisdiction of Ilia's military councils," Lily began, her heart and mind set on her decision. "Corinth is its own land, and we are not friends with Etruria or Bern. Just as we defended ourselves from Bern, we will absolutely defend ourselves from you should it come to that. Please leave."
Though she expected displeasure at her decision, she wasn't liking the tension emanating from the Etrurian Army. Her own side could sense it and were growing restless as a result - it made her agitated, knowing that resisting could lead to battle.
Not resisting would lead to worse.
"Please rethink this," Roy said, his tone imploring. "The Bernese Army is killing Ilians. Whatever differences your Corinth has with Ilia, it isn't worth their lives."
Lily closed her eyes. "You're killing Ilians too, the ones who have decided to join Bern for whatever reasons they have. Or, are these deaths righteous because you can write them off as traitors, or simply because your side kills them?" Staring down the whole of the Etrurian Army, she unleashed her honest feelings. "This isn't some game where you get to call yourselves heroes as you invade foreign lands and fight off other foreigners. Your so-called moral imperative to rampage through other countries just to prove your strength ends here. Turn around, or we will defend our home."
She had expected the young man Roy to speak first, so it was a surprise to hear Zealot's deeper voice first. "Lily, is there no way to convince you otherwise?"
"Zealot," she said in a low tone, "I'm really ashamed of you, leading them here. This place is not for that."
He looked grave. "I did not lead them here. I was against this."
Incredulous, Lily was about to point out the obvious - he was the only person could possibly know about Corinth - when Roy interjected. "Yes, that is true. It was Hugh-"
Lily heard nothing else. There was no sound. Dimly, she could feel her husband's arm brush against hers as he moved to stand beside her, but no, no, no, what kind of sick joke was this...
But there was a man now, his stance hesitant as he stood in front of Roy, and his hair and his eyes were the same shade of purple as his father's, and the length of his face resembled her own, and-
"Um, hey Mom...Dad."
-and that voice was not much deeper than when he had left, over three years ago. The clothes were different, the jewelry was weird, but she could no more forget her son than she could forget to breathe.
Hugh, her son. Her son.
That he would lead this army here...yes, she understood why. She hadn't been able to contact him since he had left for Reglay, armed with a letter of introduction and the knowledge that he would be able to train in anima magic from the premier master of it in all of Elibe. But he had never arrived, and Lord Pent sent out men to find him...and never had. It was only because she had never felt his spirit join the many others that had returned to Ilia that she believed him alive, and after all that...
"Lily?" Canas whispered. There was anxiety in that single word.
Why? She could never turn away her only child.
"Rycen, Elysia," she said, relieved when the bulk of Rycen's horse blocked her view of her son. It made it easier for her to speak. "I would like you to assist those who need to bring their mounts to the stables."
"Lady Lily," Rycen started, but was interrupted by Elysia's yell.
"No! Don't do this, Auntie! I'd rather die then let these people in our home!" Bending her head, Elysia's short, dark plum locks curled around her face. "Please don't do this just because he finally decided to show up. There's so much more of us than him..."
Reaching out, Lily brushed some of Elysia's hair from her face. "If anything happens, I'll take responsibility for my son's mistakes. All right?"
Elysia shook her head violently. "You shouldn't have to..."
"Rycen," Lily said, turning to the man who wore a particularly grim expression, "if you can't do this, I'll have Jorah do it instead."
"No, it's fine. It's an honor to follow your orders, Lady Lily."
She didn't really believe him, but Rycen was nothing if not painfully sincere. She looked at her husband, who was clearly worried and practically hovering over her. "Canas, since you seem to be familiar with at least one person in this army, I'll have you escort them into Corinth. Try your best to delay them a little bit."
There was confusion on his face. "Er, if you say so, but where are you going?"
"To lock up," she said, right before she teleported into her room.
She turned, then flinched at Rosliand's harsh glare. "You have to understand," she pleaded.
"Your son is not worth this."
Anger made Lily snap back. "This isn't the first time I chose my son over Corinth!"
Disgust crossed Rosliand's lined face. "That blizzard? There was nothing you could do about that. Your delusions on the matter-"
"Shut up and do your job!" Lily shouted, before realizing how crazy she had to have sounded, yelling at one of her closest friends. In a calmer voice she continued. "We still have a chance to salvage this. As long as they don't know, we can send them on their way and we'll be fine."
"Of course," Rosliand said, no inflection in her voice. She turned on her heel and walked out of Lily's room, leaving Lily alone to think.
Your son is not worth this.
"He is," Lily said aloud, her voice as ice-thin as her conviction. "No matter what happens."
Part II: You Can't Come Home Again
It wasn't as though Hugh hated his dad or anything, it was just that his dad was...off. Yeah, off was a good word. From the time Hugh was young, he'd always known that, and maybe he'd taken advantage of that a few times. More than a few. Whatever, not the point.
So being left with his dad after Mom went off and literally disappeared made Hugh less than enthusiastic about being back home. That, and everything his mom had said out there in the snow fields. Since he hadn't really believed that General Zealot about his mom being an Ilian-hating crazy, it was messing with him now that parts of that was actually true.
Corinth was not part of Ilia. His mom thought that the Etrurian Army was just as bad as the Bernese Army. She and Dad and the Corinth Defense League - volunteer only, eight members maximum - had been willing to take on the entire Etrurian Army to protect Corinth.
Whaaat. It was bad enough with the whole 'Bern wants to take over the continent and let loose dragons/mamkutes/whatever on the world' thing. He had to find out what was going on, and that meant talking with Dad, who was standing near the entrance to Corinth after telling other people in the army where to find certain things.
"Hey, Dad," he said, and his dad didn't respond. "Daaad." No response. "Dad!"
"Oh!" His dad spun around and adjusted his monocle, a silly smile on his face. "I'm sorry, Hugh. It has been a long time since you referred to me as such, and so I must admit I had no idea you were talking to me."
"Huh," Hugh uttered. This was not a question, just a thing he said when he didn't have anything to say.
"Oh, yes. After all, you haven't been here in a number of years, and when you were a teenager you tended to refer to me as 'hey you'." His dad's smile dimmed. "That was somewhat distressing, but your mother said you would someday call me something more appropriate. In fact, it was when you were quite small that you last referred to me as 'Dad'."
Hugh sighed. "Dad?"
"I didn't ask."
One conversation, and Hugh remembered why he didn't talk to his dad when he could help it. "No. Look, about Mom-"
Something hard jabbed at his lower back, causing Hugh to jump away to avoid the next blow. Thankfully, his grandma seemed fixated on his dad for the moment. "Well, not a greeting for your mother after all time I've been away?"
His dad was standing stock-straight and his expression was like he'd arranged it in one particular way and he didn't dare break from that mould. "Mother, you look well."
"Hmph," his grandma muttered. "I see you're as stubborn as usual. Are you going to hold that grudge until the day I die? Well, it's no use getting an answer out of you. Your wife has more of a reason to be angry than you do, and she still knows enough to be respectful."
Hugh couldn't see if the remark bothered his dad, only that his dad was half-smiling as he said, "Lily is kind."
"It's a shame to be treated like this by my only child," his grandma sighed. "If only you had been obedient, like your brothers."
Now Hugh saw annoyance flit through his dad's expression. "Had I been more like my brothers, I would be dead now, Mother."
Grandma's getting angry, Hugh observed, inching away just in case she was going to lash out. Instead, his grandma only shook her head. "Impertinent as usual. Such a shame." When she walked away, Hugh let go of the breath he'd been holding.
"Well now, can I do something for you, Hugh?" his father said, looking creepy with that eager-to-please expression he often wore. Hugh never understood why his father was so damn servile sometimes.
"I just wanted to know what was up with Mom," he said. "What happened to Corinth since I was gone, anyway?"
His father looked reluctant to say anything. "I think your mother would prefer to talk to you about that, actually."
"Really?" Hugh asked, skeptical. "'Cause she looked like she was trying to run away from me earlier."
"Oh no, that could never be true. Your mother loves you deeply. There are just...certain precautions needed," his father said, annoying in his evasiveness. Since Hugh was used to it, he let it go.
"I guess I'll talk to her later. I'm gonna go look around, see if anything's changed."
Smiling, his father said, "Yes, of course. And Hugh...welcome home."
Hugh shrugged, embarrassed. "Uh, sure."
Corinth was large; he remembered it had nearly three hundred people living in the walled city right around the time he left. When he was a child, it was still a little village, but after his mom felt good again the first thing she did was do whatever she could to have a large fortress built. She was convincing enough, and soon there were people from villages all over northern and central Ilia coming to help build a new Corinth, the Walled Garden. By the time it was finished Hugh was about fifteen, and right until he left there were little improvements made here and there. But it couldn't rightfully be called a castle city, and neither was a fortress to protect against enemies; it was really just an enclosed city, with the first floor having shops and a mess hall and things like that, while family rooms took up the next three floors above. There was no use having gold here, since favors ran the economy here, and his mom was a strict but fair leader.
It was kinda nice walking around, except from the glares from the people who recognized him. It was like a taste of things he could expect from his mom, no matter what paff his dad had said about Mom really loving him.
He didn't doubt that. That wasn't the problem. His dad was always blind that way.
Strangely agitated now, Hugh walked inside the great mess hall, where the familiar aroma of rich meat stew made him hungrier than he ever imagined. Home cooking after weeks and weeks of camping from Etruria through Ilia was nothing he could ever resist. There were people here, most of them Corinthians, and even their open staring couldn't hold him back.
"Hugh? Is that really you?"
He turned to find Rachel, the beautiful big sister of any man's dreams, and he couldn't help but grin in response. "Hey, are you still working as a healer?"
Her smile was small, but genuine. "Yes. I was on standby, but I heard your army intervened?"
"Well, y'know, here we are to save the day and all that." He looked around, then said in a lower voice, "Though I guess nobody here thinks that we did any good."
"Corinth is independent, but I appreciate it. Did you see my sister outside?"
"I got to hear her yelling about how terrible we all are to my mom."
"Oh..." Rachel sighed, her posture slumping. "I'm so sorry."
"I'm getting used to it."
She reached out and held his hand, one finger lightly rubbing the rings he wore on the middle finger of his left hand. "These are lovely. Do all Etrurians wear such things?"
"Nah, I'm special," Hugh said with a smirk. "They're pure gold. The bracelets too. I'd give you one, but Rycen'll probably kill me."
"I doubt it," Rycen said as he approached them. Hugh thought he looked well-fed but tired...actually, everyone he'd seen so far looked pretty healthy, like they'd been eating more nutritious food. Considering the wyvern knights had a large, though demolished camp near Corinth, he thought that was kinda weird.
"You look pretty good," Hugh said, exchanging a handshake with Rycen. "Marriage agrees with you, I guess."
Rycen nodded, looking happy enough. When Hugh was a kid Rycen had already become a mercenary knight, but in his last years in Corinth Rycen came back by his mom's request to lead the new Corinth's defenses, so Hugh got used to seeing him around. Also, for some strange reason, Rycen had a scary respect for his dad - who knows why?
"I never thought army life would agree with you, however," Rycen said. "Why did you enter the Etrurian Army?"
Chuckling, Hugh nonchalantly patted his belt, where he kept all that beautiful, beautiful money he got out of this job. "They needed a good mage, and I was thinking about a new job anyway. Got the leader to pay me ten thousand gold for this."
Both Rycen and Rachel were staring at him like he was pretty incredible - they were right, but Hugh had to admit it was a little embarrassing. It was a pretty good moment there, right until the bolt of pain exploded through his lower back. He turned quickly, expecting his grandma, only to find Elysia with her fists ready and a feral look in her eyes. "What is your problem?" Hugh yelled, rubbing the place where she punched him while holding his dominant left hand out just in case he needed to block her next punch. Rycen moved between them, staring down his sister-in-law like he was wary of her.
"Why are you here?" Elysia demanded. "Why are you trying to ruin everything?"
"I live here!" Hugh retorted, leaning around Rycen to do so while Rachel tugged on his arm to pull him back. Looking behind him, Hugh said in a calmer voice, "Look, I'm not going to attack your sister or anything, so you can let go."
Rachel shook her head. "I've seen how the two of you fought before. Hugh, maybe you should come over here..."
"Really? Really you live here? That's not the way it looks to the rest of us!" Elysia yelled back, swatting away Rycen's hand when he attempted to widen the distance between her and Hugh. "Get out the way, Rycen!"
Hugh finally stepped back a bit, seriously annoyed. "What's that supposed to mean? So what if I went away for a few years? I was always planning on coming back."
"Who would believe that?" Elysia burst out in laughter, dark and sinister. "Everyone knows you haven't written your own mom a single letter since you left. And now you come back with the Etrurian Army? The very same people Auntie's been fighting against for the last two years? You don't even know how stupid you are, you stupid, selfish child."
"What?" Hugh looked around. Though it was more crowded now, not a single Corinthian was looking at them. It was only members of the army that were watching with curious expressions on their faces.
What the hell does that mean?
Hugh pulled away from Rachel, stepped away from Rycen and Elysia, and left the room
Canas was in such a euphoric mood that he did something he rarely did: he went to visit his wife while she was working. Although normally he would be holding classes throughout the day for the children, today that was not possible. Many parents, out of fear, kept their children inside their rooms.
At that time, we were undoubtedly performing a greater good for all of Elibe, but it had never quite escalated into that fearful beast called 'war'. Undoubtedly that is the word that changes everything...
For all these thoughts, his mood did not waver. If it had, he could not now allow himself to knock on the door that led to the meeting room where Corinth's small government, with his wife as its head, met nearly every day to respond to the needs of the walled city. "Lily, it's me," he called after his knock failed to elicit a response.
Canas did so, closing the door behind him. "Lily, I hope I'm not bothering you," he began in an apologetic tone. "I thought we could talk for a little while, if you like."
She gestured at a chair next to her at the round table where she was working, several papers spread out in front of her. "Sure, dear. Did you find any more of your friends?"
"I did find other acquaintances, yes." There was Bartre, who had a young daughter also with the army, and Sir Marcus, to whom Ilia's cold climate had been a constant adversary.
Lily picked up a sheet of paper. "I must not be very popular among them."
"Ah, well..." Canas vacillated between the truth and...another version of the truth before deciding on, "They mentioned how forceful you were."
"If that's really a compliment, I do appreciate it," she said as she set the paper down in favor of rubbing the side of her face, where a faint shadow of a bruise remained from the morning's excitement. "I think all women should be forceful in their underwear," she continued with a smile as she began to gather all her long hair over her shoulder and began to braid it. A pale, milky jade green with white streaks, her hair was as arresting today as it was years and years ago, when he had helped her cut much of it off so that it would be easier to care for her after...
"...I could strip down to my underwear if it'll get your attention..."
Canas stared at his wife. "Pardon? I'm not quite sure I heard that correctly."
"Nothing." Finished with her braid, Lily kept her eyes on him as she asked, "So, have you talked to our son yet?"
"Ah!" His mood newly brightened, Canas nodded. "Yes, actually. He...actually approached me first. I was quite happy."
"That's really great, Canas," his wife said, smiling widely now. "Did you have a good conversation?"
"I believe so, though he seemed mostly curious as to the recent developments here. I thought it best to refer him to you about that, however." After a pause, he asked, "Have you talked to him yet?"
Lily shook her head; her braid came undone. "No, I've been rushing around trying to get everything locked down in time, then I had a meeting here."
"With Lord Roy and his entourage?"
"I might set his entourage on fire if it includes that terrible man," she confided in a serious tone. Canas flinched.
"Er...he wasn't quite like that twenty years ago."
"Who were any of us, twenty years ago?" Lily sighed. "Hugh was just a small child then. Now he looks like a man."
"Isn't that good?" Canas asked, confused. The ambivalent expression on her face did not seem in agreement with his question, unfortunately.
"He looks good, but...if only he'd written. If only I could've gotten one letter to him, it wouldn't be like this now."
Unsure of what to say, Canas waited for a cue from her as to the right thing to say, or something positive he could mention, but there was nothing. With an internal wince, he took the initiative. "I am happy to see him. He seems to have matured. Rather than condemning ourselves, we should simply be grateful to be able to see our child again."
There was a deeply contemplative look on Lily's face that seemed to smooth out the few wrinkles she had acquired over the years. "Rosliand was angry at me earlier. She told me he wasn't worth it. But it's like you said...I'm very grateful to see Hugh. I would give up Corinth as many times as I need to...to see my son's face."
Give up Corinth...I suppose we did do that then. We didn't mean to, but we did anyway. It was a blizzard, and we are only human.
"I thought one of the wyvern riders would look like Kelial. He had so many siblings, after all." Lily, resting her head on one propped-up hand, had an expression that was the very definition of melancholic, but Canas thought it best not to interrupt her. "But I'm glad I didn't. I don't think I could bear it. Digging him out...all those people..."
"Lily?" Canas said, reaching out and yet too scared to touch this fragile Lily who he had known too long to bear seeing her again. She looked at him, then his outstretched hand, before taking it in both of hers.
"Don't worry, dear," she said, smiling now. "I have too much to live for. And our son is finally back." But the hollowness in her light eyes told a different story, a story that he knew just as well though he did not dabble much into the legends and superstitions of the old Corinth, a Corinth that had been protected for a purpose by Lily's ancestors, a Corinth that she failed to protect just once against something that might have been impossible to defend against.
He shared that same guilt, because he surely would have gone with her, but their son was alive and it was easy to hold onto that, easy to mix guilt with relief. And then...
The image of Bartre and his daughter formed in his mind's eye. It was a good picture. She looked nearly thirteen or fourteen.
That was about the right age.
"Canas, I saw your mother earlier."
"She's bleeding out too quickly. It's not worth saving her life."
Gingerly, Canas removed his hand from his wife's hands before standing up. "Lily, I refuse to discuss her."
"She said she intends to continue following that army. It seems it has to do with dragons, or something."
"...Well, that is her decision to make."
Lily sighed again. "And you wonder where Hugh gets it from." Canas frowned.
"Nothing." Lily stood up from her seat, stretching this way and that. "I have to go talk to Jorah. He should have given all our information on Edessa's situation to that Roy of Pherae."
"Oh." Canas tried to smile. "Why don't we-"
The door suddenly swung open, revealing none other than Hugh, who looked rather more agitated and gloomy than Canas was used to seeing in his son. "Mom, I'd like to talk to you right now," he said without preamble. This unnerved Canas.
"Hugh, is something wrong?" Canas asked. What he received in return for his inquiry was an irritated glare.
"Sorry, but can you leave?"
"Hugh, don't talk to your father that way," Lily snapped.
Hugh rolled his eyes. "Look, Dad, it has nothing to do with you. You don't do anything anyway."
"Did I actually just hear you say that?" demanded Lily. "I don't have anything to say to children who can't even try to respect their father, especially when you are more than old enough-"
"Erm, it's...it's fine, Lily. I was going to depart anyway. My studies..." Canas attempted a smile and left the room with haste. As his wife and son had similar temperaments, he found it best to not stand in the center of one of their rare arguments.
And yet...he had been so hopeful earlier...
"Are you happy now?" his mom asked, her arms crossed.
Hugh grinned, showing as many teeth as he could. "Thrilled." Thankfully his mom couldn't recognize sarcasm, so she only frowned before gesturing at a seat. He dropped into one while his mom sat next to him, looking as though she was waiting for something from him. "So anyway, Mom-"
"-Um? Hi, Mom. Can we talk?"
Scratching his head, Hugh tried to get his words together. On the way up, he'd reinvented himself as the guy who could demand answers and get them. There was way too much mystery surrounding this place, and he was the son of the head of Corinth. Damn straight if he wanted answers he would get them. Of course, now that he'd been thoroughly schooled...yeah, what was he thinking?
"Okay, look. I'm sorry I didn't write once to you. I'm really sorry I brought an army to your doorstep and kinda made you have to feed and house them for tonight. And uh, I guess I could be nicer to Dad. But..." He threw up his hands after several moments of trying to figure out the proper way to ask the questions on his mind. Maybe he should've had his dad hang around. "What's going on around here?"
His mom looked at him with an even gaze before she closed her eyes. "Let me start from the beginning." She opened her eyes and looked directly at him. "We did it. From the research of your father, Lord Pent, and myself, we've managed to grow plants on Ilian soil."
"You're serious?" Hugh gasped. He could remember so many nights when his mom would talk to him about foreign vegetables and fruits, and how one day they would grow in Ilia and he could eat them every day and grow strong. He could remember the look on her face on those nights, and he never knew then if he should really believe her when she looked so tired.
But he always did believe. His mother was so dependable it hurt.
"I'm serious," she said, smiling now. "Our garden has vegetables and even some trees. It's really beautiful."
Laughing in sort of a delayed reaction, Hugh asked, "So when can I see it?"
"...You can't, Hugh. Not while that army is here."
"Because Etruria wants a weak Ilia." His mom leaned back in her chair. "About a year and a half ago, they apparently found out about our secret. Well, it wasn't a secret then. Lord Pent was actually planning to write a paper on it. I mean, it's the kind of research that can save the world. But at that time, there were insidious forces inside the Etrurian government manipulating the king, and an Ilia that can feed itself is an Ilia that doesn't have to sell itself to Etruria or Lycia or anywhere else in order to make enough gold to buy Etruria's leftover crops. An independent Ilia means an Etruria that wouldn't be able to supplement its own military with high-quality mercenaries.
"With that in mind, they gave General Zealot an ultimatum to stop the research, or they would never again hire any mercenaries from Ilia...and they would even force Lycia and Bern to do the same." Flicking her hair back from her shoulders, his mom slightly shook her head, like a tremble. "We'd starve to death before we could grow enough to feed the nation. So, I made a political move so that the general wouldn't have to, and declared Corinth an independent territory. I...fostered an environment based upon fear of outsiders, which is now why your army is being treated like monsters. And I don't regret it."
"Really?" Hugh asked before he could stop himself. Truthfully, why would he?
"Yes, really. I told myself I would never fail my home again. But when I saw you..." She covered her reddening face in her hands. "What else could I do? You're my son, my only child. I won't do any more actions that end up with my losing another child..."
So that's why...so that's it. Okay, I see. Yeah, that's fine. It's fine. These words were running through Hugh's mind as he moved, first with hesitance, then more confidently, as he embraced his mom for the first time since he'd left on his journey. Her arms clung to his neck and he could feel the warm wetness of her tears against his neck. She felt thinner, more worn down as she slipped out of her chair and sunk into him, and it was like a sudden slap - his mom was growing older. He was already almost half her age and she was growing older and older and one day she was going to disappear.
Why did it have to hurt so bad right behind his eyes? Damn, it was so humiliating...he hadn't cried since he was twelve and Elysia had kicked him out of that tree...
"I-it's gonna be okay, Mom," he said, his hands on her shoulders. "Really, really okay. The world that's gonna happen after the war is a world where you don't have to deny who you are. It'll be a world where no one will hate a springtime in Ilia. I promise you, so you have to believe it."
His mom smiled, her eyes red and her face still blotchy. Even so, she looked strong and confident. "I'll believe you."
"Great!" He helped his mom up before striking a pose. "Just leave it all to your Superbly Handsome Hugh, all right?"
His mom laughed. "Really? Then my Superbly Handsome Hugh can go apologize to his Adorably Handsome Father...what is that face for?"
Hugh sighed. "Mom, Mom...that's not how it works. That's like saying I got these great looks from Dad, and there's no way that happened..."
There was a really strange half-smile on his mom's face that Hugh was liking less and less by the minute. "Hugh, do you know how close you are to really making your mother very angry?"
"Oh wow, I just realized how much I really wanted to ask Dad about his research! Bye Mom!"
Part III: Prodigal
"So I'm off to save the world, Mom, Dad."
"Hugh, er...well, please be careful. Your mother and I will be waiting for your safe return."
"Right. And don't do anything your father wouldn't do."
"What, you just want me to sit in some corner and read all day?"
"Well, actually, he had this rare and incredible ability to perform a special magic called writing letters."
"Mom, you realize I'm going off to war, right?"
"...And what is your point, exactly?"
"As I recall, I believe I did much more than 'sit in some corner and read all day' while I was fighting alongside Lord Eliwood and his party. Lily, why are you giving me that look?"
"Canas, please don't encourage him."
"I...thought that was what we were here to do?"
"...Hugh, you can stop laughing at your parents now."
"Sorry, sorry. I'll be back before you know it! Bye Mom, bye Dad. Thanks for everything."
Wow. So I had always wanted to write an AU with the premise of Hugh having both his parents alive, and what would change because of it. It could have been longer, and my original draft over the years was considerably more angsty than this, but writing bouquet taught me that understated drama was a lot more interesting to write. And there was still angst, but in the end the family is together and stronger than ever.
Incidentally, Hugh is pretty well-adjusted in canon for a guy who lost his parents at a young age, was forced to learn a type of magic he had no ability to use, and booted out into the world to keep at it. Egotistical, cunning, kind to children, and maybe more gullible than he'd like to believe, at the heart of it he's just a really good guy who hasn't really been replicated in an FE game (that I've seen).
I am entirely grateful to anyone who has ever read my works, and even more so to those who have actively supported me over the years. I can't promise anything, but I have a lot of half-written files in my FE fic folder.
(Though...I think my time has passed. That would be fine, too.)