-Chapter I: Memories Recalled-
"Oh, Eliwood…it's been so long…"
Ninian sat on her frayed, moth-eaten beige couch, sitting back against the relative softness of the backing, and turned her head toward me.
It had been a long time. Four years, in fact, since I last saw her. It was four years since she decided to set off on her own, into the world, away from the comfort of my father and my house.
"Ninian. I'm sorry I haven't been keeping in touch, I"-
"No, no, Eliwood…" Ninian said, turning her head away and outstretching her hand towards me. I could afford to take it.
Ninian…had always been like this. Ever since my father adopted her that day. I still remember tagging along, me as a young boy, walking to the orphanage, seeing all the dirtied, downtrodden faces of the poor children whom fate had so cruelly shafted. I vividly remember that when my father stepped to the desk to inquire of the children, two particular children darted out of the "holding area" and ran straight to my father. The first thing I noticed about them was their strange, oversized clothing (they were a mystic, dream-like color, like clothes of saints, and very fitting with their vibrant hair). The second, the way the younger of the two, a boy, stood in front of her weeping sister as both presented themselves to my father. And the girl was so shy, yet so gentle, so graceful, and so heartwarming to see.
From the moment my father Elbert saw them, his heart was melted. I saw in his eyes the same loving look he gave me, the smile of unconditional adoration that would live on after he died. At that moment, I truly believe it would have been impossible for him to refuse them. They were, from then on, inseparable; just like my father and I. And, in the years we grew older together, matured together, reveled together, suffered together, and never did I harbor a lasting jealousy toward them. They were more than mere siblings to me- they never were. But, I felt as if we were all bodies of the same soul, all perfectly harmonized in our understanding. If this was this thing they call "destiny", then I believe.
"Ninian…I…you do not know how much joy it brings me to see you here, and well. So, I assume you've found a steady source income, then?"
"Ah…" she replied, turning to me with a furious blush on her face. The very end of the sentence seemed to have struck her hard, for whatever reason.
There was a sudden shifting of feet in the hall, and I looked up into the doorframe to see another familiar face.
Nils looked much like his sister; like her, he had brilliant turquoise hair, which was quite unusual indeed. He had a similar build as Ninian did, as well- he was rather short for twenty, and stood at about the same height as Ninian, with the same spindly, frail frame. He wore a nondescript gray shirt and sweatpants, much fitting with the simple gray pants and sweatshirt Ninian wore. I couldn't help but noticing that upon both shirts was written the word "Draco". Their clothing was impeccably spotless.
"Heeey, Nils! How are you, buddy?"I said, standing up and extending a hand to the young man. He replied in kind with a firm, confident handshake, and put a reminiscent smile on his face.
"Eliwood…it's good to see you again, man…" Nils shook his head. "My sister, she's been so worried about you…"
"Nils!" Ninian peeped, blushing again. "Don't tell him things like that! It's embarrassing. There's…there's no reason to do that…"
I laughed. "Just like old times, huh?" Having something on my mind, I asked a second question, this time with a more serious tone to my voice and a more serious look on my face.
"But, you two seem…different, somehow. I can't put my finger on it, but…"
"The city changes everybody," Nils said, leaning against the doorframe. I sat down, amazed, as I heard him speak. His voice was so deep now, nearing adulthood as he was. "We have to…adapt in order to survive. We're city people now, Eliwood. And here, my sister knows best."
"Nils, please…" the sister said timidly. "It's…it's not so bad…"
Nils rose up, and I caught a look of defiance on his face. "It's not very good either," he said grimly. "Are things so bad here nowadays that we have to resort to selling our souls to survive?"
Ninian and I waited in silence as Nils turned out into the hall, his footsteps clomping and then slowly fading away. Yes, there was something remarkably different about him. Nils still held a place in his heart for me, but he was visibly angry. No, not angry. Frustrated. Frustrated that he couldn't do anything to help, frustrated he had to watch his sister live her life and being nothing more than a mere spectator. I could feel Ninian's loneliness as we sat there wordlessly, and I heard the meekness of her voice trying to hold back tears.
I turned to look Ninian in the eye, and it seemed, as usual, that Nils was still the one bane of her self-security.
"Hey, Ninian. Are you alright?"
"Yes. I-I'm fine, Eliwood," replied she, turning to me and smiling in her patently Ninian way. "Everything's all right here. We're getting by."
"I'm glad to hear." I made sure to smile back at her warmly, to comfort her. Even something as simple as a smile could make her day- I knew this from experience, both with her and with me. "So, um- where have you been working lately? Have you been making good wages?"
Again, Ninian blushed, and turned her head away from me. This was steadily becoming intriguing.
"I'm sorry, if that was too personal a question, I"-
"No, I…I'm not ashamed," Ninian spoke, and it seemed to me she spoke to herself as much as to me. "I'm not ashamed of what I do."
Why does she seem so embarrassed? Has this time apart made her shy of me? She was always so open to me before. Ninian…who are you now?
"What do you do, Ninian? I won't embarrass you."
"Well, I'm…" she replied, putting her hands close to her face, "…an exotic dancer…"
The silence in the room was deafening. Of all the things I had expected her to say, this was the ultimate, omega response. Ninian…an exotic dancer? She was always the timid, mild-mannered type, one who stayed out of the center of attention, and kept a pure, chaste appearance about her. It was the last thing I would have expected her to do, to prance around on a show stage in various states of undress for the pleasure of the poor, down-on-their-luck masses. One thing was certainly, undoubtedly true: she was not the young lady I knew before, and nothing and no one I wished to could change that fact. Still, I couldn't believe what I had just heard, and so I blurted in bewilderment, "W-what?"
Ninian looked at the wall, away from me, and it was clear she was very uncomfortable with the whole subject.
"Eliwood…I'm sorry. But it's…it's all I can do."
"You don't have to apologize, Ninian," I consoled, still seeking answers to the doubts I now had about her purity, her intentions. "But…why? Why would you sell yourself out like this? You can't say you're comfortable standing in revealing outfits in front of a group of men, can you? The Ninian I knew could never do something like that!"
"I don't know, Eliwood!" she blurted, and she whirled her face around to look at me, tears running down her pink cheeks without restraint. "It's…the only thing I can do, dance! I'm not good for anything else!"
To hear her response pained me. The anger I felt at myself for even opening my mouth could not even be put into words. I embraced her in my arms and cooed to her in a consoling manner, just to make it up to her.
"Ah…ah, Eliwood…" Ninian choked through her sobs, her head resting on my shoulders. I caressed her hair gently with my hands; it smelled like flowers, but artificial, as though shampoo had drowned away the filth and grime of the day before. "I never wanted to upset you. I just…I just wanted to help Nils and I! This is…there are so many people wanting to see a woman like me dance for them. With this, I can finally make enough for us to get along! Please, brother, don't hate me for this!"
Ninian, I…it's been so long since the last time I was called
that. But ever since you left, you've been just a friend...
"Ninian, I don't hate you. I love you, unconditionally. But, I just worry about you, about your well-being." I caressed her hair and stroked her back. "Are you happy, Ninian? Are you happy here? Because, you may not be part of our family, but if you and Nils need any help, my father and I would be more than glad to"-
"No!" she blurted abruptly, and I nearly jumped in alarm. She retreated from my arms and wiped the tears from her cheeks. Her hands trembled, her lips quivered, her eyes beady and glassed. She pulled back in tone a bit.
"No, I mean- Eliwood, I can't live in your shadow forever. I have…I have to learn how to live on my own, without always leaning on you as a crutch." She looked up at me, and I remember simply looking down on her with a look that evoked both dismay and sadness. "I don't want to be a burden to you or Mr. Elbert any more…Eliwood, please forgive me…"
There was a moment, a time lasting several minutes, where neither of us could speak a word. I looked at my adopted sister, who now cried again, her eyes red and solemn. My eyes were becoming teary as well, the emotion welling up inside me. If there was any indication that bad things happen to good people, it was this.
"Ninian." I said at last, standing up and extending a hand out to her. I felt a set of vigilant eyes peering into my soul through my back. "Come on, let's go to the café together. We'll get something to drink, okay?"
She wiped an eye with her hand, and broke out into a small smile, the same smile I knew from long ago. My heart welled with joy, seeing that smile again. She rose from her seat, taking my hand and replying, "I would love to. Nils?" she added, almost as an afterthought, "will you be alright alone here for a little while?"
From behind us, Nils affirmed.
Outside, the snow fell in a gentle blanket of white. It had been steady in this way the whole day, but somehow the snow seemed purer now as it flittered to the ground. This was a busier part of the city, one not so tainted with the touch of poverty. As an inevitable consequence, the people here took less stake in the value of money and life than they would elsewhere. Makes sense, doesn't it?
Coffee Galaxy. Everyone knew the name. They were everywhere! It seemed at times like there was one every time you turned a corner. This particular one stood on a corner itself, windows looking out into the snow-strewn, darkness-touched, lamp-lit streets, and onto the cars making their way across the road. Lights beamed this way and that from places, from office buildings in the distance, from the affluent houses, and from the windows of stores in this decidedly commercial district. You could tell it was a pretty nice part of town from the large number of Pherae cars and dealerships in the areas. The crossed swords and lance was my father's company's logo. Though, needless to say, I didn't walk around proclaiming myself as "Eliwood Pherae" so cavalierly.
The doors of the Coffee Galaxy gave little resistance. I sat at a small, impeccably clean table, across from Ninian, who smiled. I smiled as well. I had briefly withdrawn my wallet from the pocket of my coat, which Ninian seemed to enjoy feeling (apparently she enjoyed the feel of fur), to purchase our drinks. She, sitting at our table beforehand (the table was arranged in such a way that both of us had a view of the window), was unaware of the money I spent on our drinks. This was…a nice place. A high end place.
So I ordered our coffees- our gourmet, fine coffees that warmed a cold, lonely tongue, and a cold lonely heart. But she did not stand with me as I ordered. I would not be so cruel as to hand over that money on such a frivolous thing in front of her. It may have been an entire day's salary for her, maybe two. Thinking about it, I was awfully stingy spending my money on something like this. I should have given her the world with that kind of money. But hindsight is always 20/20, and I was one step from being legally blind.
"How are you enjoying it, Ninian? Is it good?"
For a second, she stopped stark still where she sat silently, then nodded her head vigorously. "Um, yes…it's very delicious!" She took another sip of the warm, sweet coffee and sighed, eyes closed, with a satisfied smile settled upon her visage. "Thank you so much for this treat, Eliwood…"
"It's my pleasure, Ninian. It's the least I can do, not seeing you for so long."
"Yes, about that…" said she, tentatively. "I- we've been doing well recently. We've been making enough money to get along. I'm so happy I can give Nils a chance to have a happy life."
"Ninian, I'm so happy for you!" I said, honestly. I had gotten over the initial shock of hearing her profession, but I still could not get the image of my pure, sweet Ninian parading around in such a place as a strip club or a brothel. "When you left, I was so worried. I didn't know how you two would fare in the city. In a place like this, so many unpleasant things can happen. The government…they don't seem to be able to control what happens down here. All the poor people live in squalor and turn to whatever they can to get the money they need to live. The rich and the mighty live squandering their loaves of day-old bread, while the poor search for whatever they can to sustain themselves. They're forced to live their lives in constant fear of peril, always looking to make just enough to keep themselves"-
Abruptly, I stopped, my voice jammed in mid-sentence. She had squeaked in such a concerned and alarmed voice, that I immediately began to regret (once again) ever saying anything. My indignation had begun to make the volume of my voice rise, it would seem. I felt many pairs of eyes looking at us, and I felt this unmistakable urge to want to sink into my rich, elitist fur coat and disappear into thin air.
"Eliwood, please. It's not that bad," Ninian insisted as she did before, leaning in close to me and speaking softly. "I just do what I have to. As long as Nils and I are fed and happy, I'll do what I have to for us. And, I'll help you feel welcome at our house whenever you come to visit! Please, Eliwood…"
"Ninian, I'm"- I paused for a second- no one really seemed to be watching us now- and I continued, "I'm sorry for what I said. Ninian, you…you are so special to me. As long as you're happy, I'll always come to spend time with you. I just…want to look out for your best interests, is all."
"I really appreciate that, Eliwood. I'm so glad." She paused for a moment then added, "Eliwood, since I left, I…it's been a while, so…maybe you could treat me as a good friend, rather than an adoptive sister."
"Ah…" I didn't quite know what to say. It was an odd request, and I didn't think anything more of it, but I acquiesced. It had been a while, anyway. "Of course, Ninian. Friends."
She smiled beautifully.
"But…every once in a while, can I still…call you sister?"
I made a point to give Ninian a wide smile then, same as the one she gave me. Sitting there together, sipping our coffee and warming ourselves, I thought for a moment about all those people you'd hear about on the streets dying in squalor, alone, and how they would be passed on the streets by their fellow man; by those adept in the arts of denying their existence. As a contrast, I looked over at the joy on her face, sitting there in my company and drinking in the gentle warmth of the coffee shop.
At that moment, my heart seemed to sink, to flutter, to twirl and I feared for the future. Once again, I hoped that time would stop right here: for more reasons than just one.
"So, what are you? Impatient, or just incompetent?"
The green-haired woman sat on the edge of the bed, a lighter balanced in one hand, a dead cigarette in the other. She livened it up and hung it from the rafters in the corner of her mouth.
"I…what do you mean, dearest?" asked the man sitting opposite her. They sat looking in different directions, as though they were ashamed to meet each other's eyes. "Do you mean to say"-
"Ha! What do you think I mean?" she interrupted, letting go a plume of smoke from her magic smoke machine. "I meant, you were horrible, Sain. What, is this becoming a track record for you now?"
The man called Sain brushed a bit of hair away, out of his face. "Ah…Rebecca, dearest…how could you say such a thing? You sounded…you sounded so happy! The way you were moaning and"-
"Ha! Ha ha!" Rebecca laughed sardonically, breathing out more smoke. She crossed her bare legs over one another. "It was fun 'while it lasted', dearest."
Sain sighed. She had changed, he'd swear it on his honor. Since the day they were married…she was a bit like this before, but now it seemed amplified a million times.
The brown-haired man, Sain, was rather good-looking. Looking beyond that, there was…well, nothing, really. See, he had a slender build, muscled but not overbearing, tall but not giant, with a soft and casual-looking face and vibrant eyes. Sain had just turned 31 recently; meanwhile, his wife had been 29 for only a short time now. It wasn't that this man, a ladies' man by his own admission, saw this as "just another" woman; three years ago, he saw her and was simply struck dumb by infatuation. Not the same infatuation- no, this time it was real. This one wasn't "just another" woman.
Rebecca had been…despondent and uncooperative to his advances at first. But they were wed but two years ago. Obviously, there was something about him that made her change her mind, right? See, she was a pretty woman, too, just as he was a pretty man. In more serious times, she tied her hair up, and away from everything; in quieter times, such as during a night with her husband, she let it fall down all the way, nearly to the small of her back. Speaking in absolutes, she was smaller than her husband, but absolutely she was both stronger and quicker than he was- more athletic in all fields, to be truthful.
Maybe it was their physical appearances, or maybe it was their personalities that eventually drew them to wed. And, just as all things begin, so too do all things end.
But if their marriage was reaching anything close to an estranged state, it was independent of the man's feelings and probably independent of hers as well. In gatherings of their friends as well as with Rebecca's co-workers, they were unconditionally the most social of the couples. Always, always, they were the first on the dance floor, first to kiss, first to gab with each other and with whomever would listen, and first to truly appear as if they understood the inherent lack of seriousness a party embodied.
But Sain…also by his own admission (albeit reluctantly), also indulged his more -perverted- unhealthy desires. Those ladies and gents down at the Legs of a Pegasus knew Sain well…rather, they knew his money, and they knew he had a lot of it. There were some urges that needed to be constantly fed, even if they are already fed right here at home- and Sain made damn sure he never went hungry.
Then Rebecca, the strong-willed woman, (and a hotshot new rookie of Lycia City's vaunted West Precinct Patrol Division) uncrossed her legs and snuffed her cigarette before indulging in (yet) another one. She sat there, garbed in only her Etrurian-cotton bra and silk panties; surprisingly, Sain sat looking away (at the wall, no less), and missing all too precious opportunity to spy his wife in her undergarments.
"Hm," the woman continued, taking another drag, "In this case, I'm going to settle on 'incompetent'. You never were that good at it, Sain. You'd think I was some still life, or a statue or something! You don't even know how to move around correctly!"
"My dear…" Sain said, lowering his head.
"Ah!" she bit back, raising a hand and turning her head to look at his back. "I don't care what you're going to say. It doesn't matter. What's done with's done with, after all- right?"
Rebecca took another drag and stared on up into the drab plainness of the ceiling. "Oh, Sain…you know, sometimes I don't understand you. I don't understand what you want, what you strive for, what you really intend to do with your life."
"I…I've told you, I don't rightly know. I'm- I am…"
"You don't have to justify it to me, Sain. I just wanted to know. It's not a big deal."
"I see. I apologize. I was making assumptions…"
She shook her head. "No, it's nothing. Don't worry about it, huh? But, Sain?"
Sain turned around and situated himself on top of the bedsheets. She turned her body and sat on the edge, looking over at him.
"I love you, Sain."
"You know so, don't you? Or don't you believe me?"
"Ah!" Sain exclaimed, something hitting him hard, so much so that he drew himself back a bit, his face pulled away and his eyes blinking in certain surprise. "N-No, dearest, I believe you! I truly do believe, my lovely!"
Rebecca smiled. "I know."
"And, Rebecca? I love you too."
An inner universe…you live in your own world, Ephraim. I…don't know how to say it to you. You were…involved in something big, that is all I can say. Please forgive me if I can say no more. You have…a beautiful mind…
Seeing the woman again started a chain reaction, like tumbling blocks on a great hill. I got my mind working, the gears cranking, the clockwork starting up again after so many years of dormancy. It was all coming back to me now. She was an old acquaintance of mine…a fiancee, even. But, what else?
"Oh, Ephraim…it's been so long…" the woman said, pulling me close. I had embraced her correctly now, my arms around her back, her arms around mine- as it seemed she held quite a bit of affection for me. I let her stay there for a while, a while that may have been minutes or hours; I was not in the state of mind to judge something as quantitative as time. But she did release me, and urged me into a small room off of this main corridor (which was infinitely better lit than the floor above). It was a small, nondescript sitting room, with a row of chairs and a table with a pile of magazines strewn here and there atop it. What seemed like a disused television screen sat in one of the back corners, amidst a tangle of wires. The room was claustrophobic.
"Ephraim, please, sit down. Please," the familiar woman spoke, in a tone that I could only describe as pleading. She didn't even have to urge me; I sat down in a chair at the end, nearest the door, and she sat down beside me.
"Do you…do you remember who I am?"
It broke my heart to say. "I'm sorry, I…do not."
She closed her eyes and nodded, then re-opened them. "Your voice," she noted, "it's…so weak."
It was indeed so. I stuck by my original conclusion, that it had become weak with disuse in my time alone.
"Do you," she began, her own voice seeming to falter and choke up on her, "Do you…remember your own name?"
It shattered my very spirit to say. "I'm sorry."
She closed her eyes again and swallowed, nodding slowly. A lone tear slid down her pretty face again, and fell onto her lap. She wiped her eyes dry, then opened them.
"What…what I'm about to tell you," the woman said, pausing to pick the perfect words, "may be difficult to understand. Please, try to believe me."
"I have no reason to not believe you, do I?" I asked her earnestly, leaning forward in my seat and putting a hand to her shoulder. "I've spent what seems like eternity here alone, upstairs. I woke up not knowing who I was or where I was. Being alone, having no idea of my surroundings, I felt as if I was slowly going insane. Just to see your live face cheers me. Please, I want to know what's going on…and why you seem so familiar to me."
The woman drew a sharp breath, closed her eyes, and, sinking back into her seat, exhaled. I sat back, folded my hands, and looked at her intently.
"Alright, well, let me begin. Your name is Ephraim Renais, son of the wealthy businessman Fado Renais. Knowing when you were born, I can say with some certainty that you are 33 years old. You live alone in a building in the suburbs of the city of Caerleon."
I waited to see if she would continue. I leaned forward. "I see. Are you sure?" I blurted, sharply. She seemed to be startled for a moment, before fervently replying "yes!"
"I see…Ephraim Renais, son of Fado Renais. I…it all sounds so familiar…" I said, as it was the honest truth. Ephraim…that sounded like a good name for me. "Wait a minute. I'm wearing these clothes…this coat! This vest…these aren't normal clothes, are they?"
"They…they're your father's!" she insisted, seeming to be a bit flustered. I put my hand out gently, but she shook her head, took a deep breath, and sat back. "I'm sorry. They are the clothes your…er, your father wore. Er, your father is a wealthy man, so…"
"I see. That makes sense, doesn't it? But, wait a moment. I know who I am, but…who are you?"
The woman turned away, and by the color that had come to her face, she was a bit embarrassed. No, in fact, she clenched her forehead as though maybe she was in pain now. I couldn't stand to see that look on that lovely face of hers, and immediately I regretted letting myself speak so recklessly.
So…perhaps she is my fiancee after all? How did I remember that? Does that mean-
"I'm sorry," I said quickly, turning over to try to glimpse her face, "I didn't mean to embarrass you."
"No, I'm sorry," the woman said. "It's just…seeing you again makes me so emotional. Ephraim, my name is Selena Crescent. I'm"-
"I know," I interrupted, "You're my lover, aren't you?"
I didn't give the woman calling herself Selena any chance to get in another word edgewise. I leaned in close, wrapped my hand around the back of her neck, and plunged my lips into hers. I may have made another spur-of-the-moment mistake, but it was the only thing I could think to do. For a second, she seemed to be surprised by my bold play- then, she shut her eyes and simply surrendered herself. Her lips were so comforting now; they made me feel like I really existed again…
A thousand thoughts flowed through my head, a thousand questions unanswered. I had no business just sitting here like this. But, it felt like some very important part of me had been lost, that maybe in my bout of sickness or insanity I had lost some important piece of who I was. It was because I felt so empty, and at the time, it was the one thing I thought of to do that could help fill that gaping void in my mind and in my heart.
For the first time I could rightly remember, I felt good. I still didn't know anything more, but I felt good.
Ephraim, who are your friends? Are they kind to you? Are they happy in your company? What void could they possibly fill in your existence? What have I not helped you fulfill? How could I have failed you? Don't you see? They're not who you think they are…