Summary: Sometimes, pride really gets in the way of matters of the heart. But sometimes, it's just a matter of mind.
Disclaimer: I do not own Star Ocean, and because of that, I may make mistakes in my memory. Feel free to correct me, but it's very likely that it may be too late in the story to correct my errors. This is also a work in progress, so chapters may change without warning. Please do not expect regular updates.
Ocean of Hearts
A spear of ice pierced through a tree, cracking the tree lengthwise. A moment later, a resounding boom could be heard as the great tree toppled from its precarious position, no longer able to support its height with the damaged trunk. A woman shifted out of her combat position, lowering her head slightly as she rested herself from her training, willing her breathing to become more even. Her harsh breathing gradually calmed, and became one of the many background noises of the forest. She stood in the middle of the man-made clearing, a ring of felled trees surrounding her like some sacred circle. The soft sunlight illuminated her still figure, enveloping her in an angelic light. The forest was quiet, tranquil.
Suddenly she shouted, driving her two blades into the hard earth, and shooting fireballs out of the blade as the knives struck the earth. The orbs of fire struck the felled trees, setting the clearing ablaze in seconds.
"Idiot!" she shouted, yanking the blades out of the earth and sliding them into the sheathes smoothly, while beginning to cast an ice spell. She could feel the heat stroking her cheeks, but concentrated on the coolness within herself, forcing the cold out of her body, into her fingertips, onto her skin...
"Deep freeze!" she shouted, willing the frost within her to force its way out and quench the fire. She could see flakes of snow swirling in the warm air, coagulating above the fires. Suddenly the spell backfired, and she was bombarded with a wave of ice, tearing through her exposed skin as she attempted to dodge the failed spell.
She leapt out of the clearing as the unsuccessful spell scattered the ice particles onto the burning wood, putting out the fire. She still couldn't master that spell. At least it put out the fire, she thought a little bitterly, as she cast a healing spell on herself, checking to see if the spell had indeed extinguished all the fires. She could still feel her skin tingle where the ice had pierced through it. No matter. She had gotten worse injuries before. This was nothing.
Still, she looked back at the smoldering scene, feeling her insides smoldering with it. She had lost count of how many times she had tried that spell unsuccessfully. She had practiced, trained, studied until she thought she could finally master it, only to have the spell backfire on her. Some people made it look so easy. Claire, Adray, Sophia, Fayt...
She resisted the urge to smash a nearby boulder into pieces. Not only would it be unbecoming of a member of the Secret Legion, but she suspected that she would be the one coming off worse for the wear between herself and the rock.
Well who in Apris' name would care if I broke my hand? she thought rather vindictively, but quickly quelled the thought. Of course many people would care. She would be unable to complete her missions, and that would not help Aquaria to recovery. Others might think that she was starting to lose her calm, which would in turn affect their trust in her, which would affect her work. It would also affect her reputation, and she hated anything that would besmirch the reputation that she had spent years in building.
The best choice was to not break her hand. Even if she felt the need to break something. No. She must think of the pride of being a member of the Secret Legion. She was Nel Zelpher and Nel Zelpher did not do such foolish and impractical things.
She leaned against one of the trees spared from her attack in the forest, resting her forehead against the smooth, cool bark. Oh, how she hated to be Nel Zelpher sometimes...
Why hadn't anyone told her in advance? She ground her teeth angrily, feeling a burning sensation in her limbs as a firebolt spell tried to force its way out of her.
Be reasonable. There was no reason for you to know, she told herself. She could feel the fire receding. Of course. She had been off on a mission. There had been no need for her to know. It wouldn't have been practical to tell her, and it had nothing to do with her mission. In fact, there was no reason to let her know, even now, but since she did know, she might as well do something about it.
She started walking back towards the city, the exercise not calming her as usual. Well, even if she didn't have to know, she felt that she still should have been told. After all, hadn't she been one of Fayt's companions throughout his entire quest? Hadn't she been there when he had first arrived on this planet? Hadn't she given it her all to defeat Luther with him?
Why hadn't anyone told her in advance!
The queen had obviously known before she had given her report on Greeton. Fayt must have told the queen before she even returned to Aquaria.
How long had he been here? How long was he going to stay?
Well, he's originally from Earth, so there's no reason for him to stay too long here, she reasoned out. Maybe she should take him to see the finer sights of Aquaria before he left again? It would be terrible to leave him with only the memories of war on this world.
Still, she had been more than a little shocked when she had exited the audience chamber and saw him walking around in the hallways. For a moment, she had thought she was dreaming. It wasn't possible for him to be on this planet. He had gone with Sophia to search for his remaining parent. He was supposed to be back on Earth, attending his "University."
So what was he doing here?
No matter. She didn't need to know. But she was sure going to find out. They didn't call her an elite of the Secret Legion for nothing.
Maybe that's what was bothering her. She was a member of the Secret Legion, yet she hadn't even known beforehand that someone as important as Fayt was in Aquaria. Yes... She must be getting rusty. Training. She didn't have enough training. She needed more discipline. Experience.
But how was she to even guess that Fayt would return to this planet in the first place? The last time she had seen him, it had seemed definite that he was never going to return. Their lives were going to separate at that point. There would be no reason for their paths to cross again. She had felt terrible at the loss of such a companion. Somehow or other, she had grown used to his presence. She could always rely on him to cover her when she cast her spells, and she had automatically done the same for him. It had been second nature to her, and with his departure, she thought he was taking that experience with him.
What was she talking about? She felt like hitting herself on the head. Members of the Secret Legion were supposed to work alone. Spies did not work in groups. There was no reason for spies to work in groups. In fact, it would detract from their performance if they worked in large groups. It had been nice to travel in such a large group while it lasted, but now, there was no need for such things. She should concentrate on her next mission. No need to worry about things like this.
Speaking of which... She didn't have a new mission to concentrate on. The queen had ordered her to send a subordinate. Why did the queen do that? Well, in any case, she had to choose someone to go on the mission to Paterny. Who? Tynave? Farleen? No. Someone else. Someone less well known. She would have to look over the members documents again. Maybe she should make Tynave choose? No, the queen had given her the command to decide who she should send. She should take responsibility and choose the person herself. It would have been much easier if she had just gone herself.
She had a brief vacation now. Suddenly her body did feel a little tired. Maybe she really needed a break. She had taken a mission the moment she had returned to her world for certain, and hadn't had a break since then. Yes, a break would be nice. She wondered what Fayt was doing. What about Claire? Claire never seemed to have a vacation. Maybe she could ask the queen to give Clair a few days off. It would be nice to have a relaxing talk with her. How long had it been since they were able to talk about anything other than Airyglyph?
Airyglyph should be thankful that the Holy Mother of Aquaria was so forgiving. If the war had continued, there was no doubt in her mind that Aquaria would have won. With the development of the Thunder Arrow almost complete, there was no chance that they would have lost. It was Airyglyph's good fortune that someone interfered in the war. It was also their good fortune to have the High Priestess' daughter for their queen.
She shouldn't be thinking that. Airyglyph and Aquaria were allies now. But there was still that hint of suspicion in her mind. It came with being a soldier for the kingdom.
She saw Albel enter the city gates as she approached the city herself, no doubt sent for another peace mission. She didn't understand why they had to send Albel with Woltar for these missions. It wasn't like Albel was much help in the diplomatic area, and there were plenty of other soldiers in Airyglyph to accompany Woltar. Just because he had traveled with Fayt and herself, didn't make him automatically a friend of Aquaria. She still held a deep dislike for that man. Anyone who could hurt Tynave and Farleen while they were already defeated was not a man in her eyes. They were worse than the beasts and demons.
"Good morning, Lady Nel," the guards said, saluting her smartly. She nodded curtly in their direction, her face carefully empty of her thoughts. She could see Albel's back in the crowd in front of her, his metallic arm glistening sharply in the sunlight. Fayt had forgiven Albel. He seemed to accept Albel for the person that he was. She couldn't say that she didn't completely understand Fayt's reasoning. But she wasn't that naive. She wasn't that trusting. She could not forgive Albel.
She wondered idly if Fayt would forgive her if she had beaten the crap out of Cliff, then stepped on his gut. On second thought, that wasn't a good analogy. Cliff was annoying enough sometimes that it looked like even Fayt wanted to knock the man's senses out. Forget forgiveness. Fayt would probably encourage her.
She stopped suddenly as she saw Fayt come out of the castle to greet Woltar and Albel. She quickly hid behind a nearby building and spied on their exchange quietly. Fayt was too friendly. Too forgiving. These were the very same people that had ordered his torture and capture. Didn't he ever use that head of his? Or were all Earthlings this naive?
"Lady Nel, what are you looking at?" a small voice asked in a very loud whisper. She spun around hastily, and saw a small girl of about six staring at her with wide eyes, thumb in her mouth.
"N-nothing!" Nel said, trying to keep her cheeks from flushing. A girl caught her spying. A little girl caught her spying! She must be losing her touch. "Nothing at all."
"Were you staring at the evil Airyglyph people? Daddy says they're all rotten eggs," the girl nodded wisely, as if she fully understood what she was talking about. "So what did you find out?" the girl asked, undaunted by Nel's previous response. "Are they going to attack Aquaria again?"
"Of course not," Nel answered briskly. She had to keep the interest of the kingdom in mind. Her personal opinions did not figure into this. She turned to leave.
"Then why were you hiding?" the girl asked innocently, still staring at her with those wide, bright eyes, head cocked slightly to the side, with thumb still in mouth.
Why had she been hiding?
"I wasn't hiding," she said lamely. The girl made a long sound of disbelief.
"You look like Daddy when Mommy used to ask if he was drinking."
Nel brought her hand to her forehead, wondering how to explain to the girl. Well, she was a spy and she was spying. What was wrong with that? But for some reason, she couldn't admit that she had been spying. It felt...wrong. Like a betrayal of trust. But she had spied on her friends before, and hadn't felt anything then...
"Master Fayt!" the girl shouted suddenly, running towards an all too familiar blue-haired young man. Fayt automatically kneeled down when he saw the girl, lifting the girl up immediately when she bounded into his arms.
"Milly! What are you doing here?" he asked, noticing Nel standing in the shadows a second later. "Hi, Nel." She gave a nod in return, stepping out of the shadows and closer to him.
"I was talking to Lady Nel," the girl said, pulling Fayt's attention to her again.
"Oh really? What were you talking about?" Fayt asked, humoring her. Nel thought it strangely fitting for Fayt to be holding a small child like that, smiling as if there was nothing else in the world that would make him happier than what he was doing right now. She wanted to smile with him, but she also felt a strange, unsettling feeling fluttering within her.
"It was nothing important," Nel cut in. "How did you two meet?" she asked abruptly. Maybe a little too abruptly. She felt like an idiot. This wasn't an interrogation! But neither Fayt nor the girl seemed to notice.
"You know? You know?" the girl grinned childishly. "Fayt gives me sweets and pastries whenever he's in Aquios!"
"Hey, I thought I told you to keep that a secret?" Fayt said in mock anger.
"So that's where those missing cooking ingredients went," Nel said, realizing why they never seemed to have enough cooking ingredients whenever they decided to make something in the kitchen. She grinned slyly at him.
"Friends shouldn't keep secrets from each other!" the girl said, full of conviction. Nel blinked at the girl, taken with surprise by those words. Secrets? Of course friends kept secrets from each other. She didn't go around announcing how much she hated Albel in front of Fayt and the others. Although, she guessed she had made it pretty obvious, so it wasn't really that much of a secret. But there were some things, some secret things that just weren't revealed to your friends. There were some things that needed to be kept a secret.
"You're right! Friends shouldn't keep secrets from each other," Fayt agreed with the girl, catching Nel off guard again. She looked off towards the busy street.
"A child's wisdom," she said, a little sullenly. "You don't tell every single one of your friends your every single worry, opinion or thought. Some things are kept secret by nature."
"Hmm... I guess," Fayt admitted after a moment's pause.
"Nooo," the girl drawled. "You should tell at least one of your friends! That's what friends are for."
"That's true!" Fayt said, so full of enthusiasm that Nel wasn't sure if he was being serious or not. "You're a genius, you know that, Milly?" The girl giggled as Fayt placed her back on the ground. "Sorry I don't have anything for you this time. I just got back, you know."
"I know," the girl said, grinning brightly. "Daddy says that I shouldn't keep being spoiled by you. He says that I should be grateful. He says I can't keep expecting gifts from you."
"Sounds like a very wise Dad," Fayt nodded in agreement.
"Daddy's the best!" She skipped a few steps away from them. "I'm going to see if Daddy is home yet. Bye bye!" Fayt waved back as she skipped away from them, the youthful beat of her steps sounding on the smooth pavement. Fayt stood up from his crouch, looking curiously at Nel.
"What?" she asked, beginning to feel nervous under his gaze.
"I'm surprised that you haven't asked me why I'm back yet," he said, sounding slightly amused. "Or did you already find out with your eavesdropping?"
"I don't eavesdrop all the time," Nel replied, feeling a little irritated. Did he think she had nothing better to do than to spy on people all day?
"I don't mean that," Fayt said, still half jokingly. "I was just surprised that you wouldn't bother to welcome a friend. Have you forgotten me so easily?" He grinned at her, all too clearly resembling another man.
"Stop acting life Cliff," she said, definitely annoyed now, "or I'll send you back where you came from."
"Ooh, scaary," Fayt laughed. She could feel the corners of her own mouth twitching with a smile. "Anyway, I'm glad to see you again. I saw you before in the hallway, but you disappeared before I could say anything. Swift as ever, I see."
"You came back rather unexpectedly," she said instead. "How are things going in the universe?"
"If you're thinking I came back to recruit you for something, you're wrong," he said. She felt a little disappointed. He muttered something under his breath.
"What's that?" she asked, not catching his words.
"Oh, uh… I just said that the universe is pretty peaceful now," he said quickly. A little too quickly. She was suspicious. "Earth is still trying to repair the damage that the Executioners dealt, so many of the universities are closed. It's a little too hectic to start school right now, and a lot of parents are too worried to send their children to school, too."
"I see." She scrutinized him carefully. He didn't look like he was lying or hiding anything from her. Maybe she was just getting suspicious about nothing.
"I told you before that my area of study is Symbology, right?"
"Yes, I remember," she replied immediately. She remembered her surprise when she had first learned that. She didn't think that he had known what he did about Runology, especially since he had demonstrated such skill in modifying the Thunder Arrow's blueprints. Of course, his knowledge of Runology was no where near Elena's or some of the more important researchers of Runology in the field, but what he did know was surprising enough.
"Since the university is closed, and since your planet's development of Symbology is much more advanced than Earth's, I decided that maybe I could stay here and learn about Symbology from you guys." She stared at him, not quite comprehending the full extent of his words.
"Have you spoken to Her Majesty about this?" she asked, her mind still refusing to work properly. There was something that she was forgetting, something vital that she was not understanding.
"Yes. She's given me permission to stay as long as I want, as long as I agree to become a citizen of Aquaria," he nodded. He can stay as long as he wants? Her mind was still a little slow in working things through. She could feel something akin to hope or joy in her mind, but she quickly crushed the feeling. No jumping to conclusions.
"You won't be able to do as you like," she warned him. "You'll have to obey Aquaria's rules. You won't be able to visit Airyglyph without official permission. You'll really become a citizen of Aquaria," she said, her last statement sounding more like a question.
"Well, Albel's visiting Aquaria often enough that I'm sure I won't need to cross into Airyglyph to see him. I'm more worried about finding a place to stay in Aquaria than visiting Airyglyph. I can't just stay in the castle guest room for the rest of my life," he said, his brow furrowing in worry.
Stay…for the rest of his life? Nel wanted to kill her head right now. It was being obstinately slow on picking things up. She was sure that she heard him correctly. He had decided to stay in her world, and that was that.
She couldn't help but feel a warm, bubbly feeling welling up inside of her.
Wait. No. That was just a saying. It was just a figurative expression. People used that expression all the time. People said, "I'll love you for the rest of my life," all the time, and nobody really ever did that. Or did they? No. No. That was a bad analogy. People said, "I could do this for the rest of my life," and they never did. In fact, it would be impossible to do one thing for the rest of one's life. There. That was a better analogy. It was a figure of speech. It was not to be taken literally. Who knew how many misunderstandings came from these figures of speech? Someone should have gotten rid of them long ago. They were useless. Inefficient.
"Nel?" Fayt asked tentatively. She snapped out of her thoughts, her mind scrambled.
"I have my own room in the castle. I don't see why you can't have yours in the castle, too," she said, her mind supplying her with words automatically. "Many of the Runological researchers live in the castle. Unless, of course, they have a home they can return to in Aquios."
"You don't have a home you can return to in Aquios?" Fayt asked, frowning.
"My father's house resides in Arias," she blurted. Did she answer his question? No, wait. He had asked a yes-no question, and she had replied with such an unimportant detail. What was she doing? He hadn't asked her about her father's house. He had simply asked if she had a house in Aquios. She felt like she had her foot in her mouth.
"Oh really? I guess that would make sense. I saw a picture of your father in Aquios' inn," he added, as if that explained his logic.
"Huh?" Her mind was really not working today.
"Your father is Neville Zelpher, right?" Fayt asked uncertainly.
"Yes." Short answers. Giving short and brief answers were the best. No need for extraneous words. Why in Apris' name was she feeling so nervous today? Maybe it was a mood swing. That sounded about right.
"Uh… Ok," Fayt said, sounding like he had expected more from her answer. She felt disturbed with his reply. Was she supposed to have said something more? But she had answered his question, didn't she?
"Oh! I heard the queen gave you a vacation," he said, as if he suddenly realized it. "Why don't you go rest then? You just got back from your mission, right? You must be tired." Tired? She wasn't tired. Well, perhaps the reason she was so high strung today was because she was tired. But if she left, what would Fayt do? Her thoughts must have shown on her face, because he immediately said, "I'll just go talk to Elena about what I'm supposed to do from now on. I hope she won't stick me in the weapons department." He made a face. "Anyways, see you later."
She nodded absentmindedly as he left her to go back to the castle. She felt that she had somehow disappointed him, though she didn't know why.