III. And After
There was nothing more to look at in town, and only so much time to go before my scarf would have dried, so after checking out of the inn we sat in the town square, on one of those quaint little benches surrounding a fountain of what looked somewhat like a cross between a water nymph and an elf. Pigeons flapped around us and the ringing of a church bell punctuated the air as we sighed, and said nothing, thinking our own, private thoughts. I rummaged in my pocket for one of those crackers I would use to bribe Dominguez Jr. with, and cracked some bits of it away to toss to the birds.
I offered one to Chris, too, and she took it gladly and thoughtlessly. "Just how long have we been traveling together?" She asked absently, as the birds clustered more tightly around us.
"Nearly three weeks," I automatically replied, then added, "Three weeks, and not a kind word from you yet!"
She picked off another bit of bread and flicked it into the crowd of wings before us. "I guess not," She admitted quietly, finally seeming to concentrate on what we were saying. "I haven't been very kind, have I?"
No, but you've been pretty accusing and unfair, a voice in my head sounded, but of course I couldn't say that. "Aw, don't let it make you feel bad. It doesn't bother me. Haha." I beamed widely to show I wasn't really hurt – and well, I wasn't, was I? It could be a sadistic tick in me, but I had gotten used to the battering of girls, so my experiences with Chris weren't too bad, and quite light really compared to the hell Sierra put me through. Although it would be nice for a change to feel her hand smoothing my face instead of slapping it – alas, no, my thoughts were going to unthinkable things again, and that wouldn't do. I snapped my cracker into another tiny piece somewhat forcibly.
"Would you stop lying for even a moment?"
"Honestly, Chris, you've been very kind."
I looked at her to show how earnest I was, but she didn't meet my eyes, and instead seemed to be getting more and more irritated. What had I said?
"Oh, that's very nice of you, Clovis. I humble myself to admit otherwise, and you try to be gallant and make me look a fool! Unbelievable."
I was stunned. "What? I'm not trying to make you look stupid!"
"Then accept my apology, dammit!"
"I don't need to!"
But her glare was venom, so I shrank back and said, "If it will really make you feel better…"
"I'm sorry for being mean." She growled out resolutely. I marveled at the tone in her voice. So this was why those knights didn't dare cross her. "You don't exactly make it easy for me, but I'll admit I've gotten angry far more than I should have. Like now," And suddenly she seemed to realize the steel in her voice, and reverted it back to her original, surprisingly soft timbre.
"A lot has been going on for me, and sometimes it's more than I can handle, so…well, maybe in some ways I was taking it out on you. I've also been rude and judgmental, perhaps even close-minded on some matters, and I apologize for being so." She sighed. "All right, so I do think you're a Casanova, and that you haven't got an ounce of fidelity in you. I also think you were terrible for lying to me and only telling me you were a Harmonian spy long after you could have already passed on valuable information, but the fact is that you still told me, and…" She spelled the next words out carefully, taking a great deal of effort to suck up her pride. "…I don't really hate you, Nash, even though I've told you so some times before. I appreciate what you've helped me with so far. Thank you."
She glanced at me with a mixed expression – part apprehension at my lording it over her for finally admitting my worth, part strangely upheld defiance, and part sincerity, to show me she wasn't joking.
It wasn't her words – I had known more than half of them without her needing to admit them, although I admired her for doing so, and to me, of all her enemies. It wasn't the pretty way she had arranged her hands on her lap and looked at them the whole time as she said that. It wasn't even the delicate tremble and lack of self-importance in her speech, which threatened to be cut off at every sentence, out of the unbearable shame.
But in that moment I realized I really did like Chris: more than I should, and even more than I did before, if that was possible. Still – I was nearing forty, and wary of passion, and learned against love. It couldn't be love, now, could it? Of course not, of course not. I liked her, admired her, for Chris truly was a good person, and that was it. That was it.
"I appreciate your words, Chris. Thank you, and if you still think you owe me an apology, you're forgiven. I'd better ask for your forgiveness too, then, to be fair."
She nodded her head which had threatened to flush scarlet, but seeing how coolly I accepted her words, she recognized that there was no need for embarrassment. Apparently having taken a load off her chest at that, she threw the last of the crumbs to the birds, stood, and dusted off her clothes. "I think your laundress is waiting, Nash." I pushed myself off the bench, and at the clamoring of the pigeons, threw what remained of my crackers too, reminding myself to pick some up the next time I returned to Harmonia.
"Probably. Let's go, then?" I gestured towards the end of the road, where Sally's was waiting.
The birds flapped away and we began walking on in silence, until Chris clapped a hand onto my back and gave me the words I was waiting for, wondering if she'd ever say them.
"I've forgiven you."
Sally was happy to have me back, but her face paled dangerously when my 'missus' appeared behind me. I sincerely hoped she wouldn't mention anything about our honeymoon, otherwise I'd lose the friendly mood we were sharing. In a great show of being in a hurry, I repeatedly asked her if it was dry. Seeing that she couldn't keep me there longer after all, she resigned to mumbling about just a while more, and then, when I started drumming my fingers on the table and Chris shushed me quickly for my insolence, she disappeared to the back for a moment and returned, laying my scarf on the counter. I took it graciously, and reminded her that she had promised it free. At this Chris jabbed my back and smiled sweetly and said "Of course not, Miss Sally, we'll pay our due," and quickly dropped some coins onto the table, which the wobbly woman seemed to appreciate.
"Oh, really, that wasn't necessary." I couldn't help adding, working out the remaining finances in my head. But Chris started glaring again, and already Sally had collected them into her apron pocket, so with a last flourish of regret I smiled at her, thanked her for doing a good job with my favorite article of clothing (she was reduced to blushing), and bid her farewell, after which Chris and I stepped back out into the village. The bell rang as it had earlier that day, tinkling softly.
I wrapped my scarf around my neck, carefully. My liver was back in place, at last.
My pride, and one of the only things I could call my own.
Chris watched me as I did so, and I made a conscious effort not to say anything sly. When I was done, I cricked my neck a little (my middle-aged body was prone to stiffness), then turned to my companion and smiled. "That didn't take so long now, did it? We actually got to accomplish quite a lot."
She shifted in her boots. "You're right. But still, now we've got to continue on."
"Certainly." Sally's was at the end of the road, and the little path that extended beyond it led to the next forest already. It was in that direction that we started pacing, stopping only as a village guard expressed his gratitude for coming to see the village.
Once we had left, my mind drifted to all the things I had considered, and learned, that day. And one stinging thought stuck to me: I can't have a lot of things. I can't have a family, or even just a missus; I can't have a name that's true to me, or the claim that I'm fearless, or honest because I'm simply not; and I can't have (which is the most glaringly obvious, and at that moment, rather sad) Chris. I really am only what I am – a man without, and I wish it were so much easier to despise all the things I know I can never have, because then, it wouldn't hurt this much.
I clutched at my scarf. At least, at least.
Then suddenly, I remembered where we were going, and even as the trees around us grew thicker and the sun was obscured by their leafy branches, I unwrapped the scarf. "Hold still," I said to Chris, and she did as I ask, puzzled. I wrapped the scarf properly around her neck, smirking because her traveling coat was green too, and the two materials rather complemented each other. Before she could ask why or move to take it off, I quickly said, "We're heading up north now, because that's where Wyatt is. It's going to be cold ahead, and my jacket's collar hides more of my neck than yours does, so…just wear it. Please."
She wanted to protest, but it probably did warm her and besides, I had been telling the truth, so she complied by bowing her head a bit. I felt relieved, and glad now, as if I were sharing something rather special, although I probably wasn't really. It was all I could offer, though, and the north wind was cold.
Something told me she was going to ask a question, but she seemed certain that my missus made it, because that wasn't what she inquired about. Instead, she touched it lightly, and wondered, "Why is it striped green?"
"Green's my favorite color."
"Oh." She looked at me from over its folds. Then, to my immense surprise, she took my hand and held it for a moment, and said in the lightest, kindest tone I had ever heard her speak in,
"It's very warm."
And although neither of us said anything after, I kept on a smile as we went on, and when Chris returned the scarf much later on, her fragrance remained on it, adding to my ever growing memories.
A/N:Well, that's the end of it! This chapter had the most Chris dialogue, so hopefully I got her tone right. This story was written and finished for A.
Thanks for reading, and as always, all comments and reviews are greatly appreciated. :D