AN: Spoilers for after the first visit to Keterburg.
The morning was chilly with a slight dusting of snow, excellent weather for the frigid town of Keterburg during the winter months. The town bustled with the usual commotion of tourists, nobles, and citizens, taking advantage of the beautiful day. This outside world was invisible, however, to the pretty, blonde, approaching middle-age woman sitting in the comfortable chair behind the oaken desk. That did not stop her from thinking about it, though.
Governor Nephry Osborne leaned her elbows on her desk and her chin on her hands, staring dully down at the paperwork before her and thinking of faraway places. She wished she could leave the cozy but rather stuffy confines of her office for the crisp, chilly outside air. Today's business was light and not urgent, further tempting her to abandon it and go walking. However, it was her duty as governor to run the city bureaucracy, and as much as it bored her, the work needed to be done...
There was a light tap at the door. Nephry looked up, brow furrowing. She was not expecting any visitors today, though it could be her secretary coming to tell her something. The knock sounded different from the woman's usual, however. "Come in!" she called. She placed her stack of papers on the desk as the doorknob turned.
He stepped through the door.
"Hello, Nephry," said Colonel Jade Curtiss, slipping into the office and smiling lightly at his very startled sister. "I hope I am not interrupting anything?"
"I...no," Nephry said, and immediately stood and moved out from behind the desk. "This is... quite a surprise. What brings you here?"
His reply was to widen the smile that had always managed to unnerve her, even as a child, and step fully inside the room. He was dressed casually today, though Nephry had to admit that he wore everything like a uniform. Even standing there in a black high-collared shirt, hands shoved deep into grey slacks over polished black dress shoes, he still managed to look like he was on the parade ground. "Oh, I was in the area and decided to stop by."
Nephry knew that could not be the whole answer, but knew better than to try to press information out of him. "Well, um... it's nice to see you."
"And it is nice to see you as well."
The conversation ground to a halt, uneasy silence falling across the room. He continued smiling. Nephry fiddled nervously with the pen she still held in her hand.
"It's a beautiful day outside," he said conversationally, after a suitably awkward amount of time had passed.
"Um, yes, it is..." she replied.
"Would you care to go for a walk?"
"Uh... sure," she replied, thoroughly startled by his suggestion. "I'll um... get my coat." The paperwork could wait. As unnerving as her brother always was, she was a bit curious as to why he had come here today.
She followed Jade into the outer room and retrieved her white woolen coat and scarf from the coat rack. He took his own from the rack as well; a heavy teal officer's coat with gold buttons. It looked the same as the one he had worn during the times his group had climbed Mt. Roneal. He opened the door for her, managing to look more scary than polite, and both stepped out into the frigid air.
Once outside on the snow-covered landing, a wind gust immediately bit at Nephry's nose. She tightened the scarf around her neck to ward off the cold. "Where should we go?" she asked, as they left the front steps and entered the street.
He looked superbly casual despite the chill. "Oh, I haven't been on the old trail for a long time."
"Let's go there, then," she agreed. "You remember the way?"
"Of course," he replied.
Keterburg was an odd city, a fusion of frontier town and luxury resort. Within the borders, it was posh and comfortable, with glittering lights and heated water lines. Just outside the houses, however, was a frozen, untamed wilderness. The tundra stretched out for miles from the city, populated only by animals and monsters.
Jade had ruled this area when they were children. He was easily the most talented fonist of their group, more talented than some adults, even. He roamed the rocks and forests of the city outskirts unopposed. Under his protection the other three ventured out as well, exploring and conquering the snowy hills.
Over the years, they had developed a usual route for their hikes, passing all the favorite locations and avoiding dangerous monster lairs. The trail followed the edge of a rarely unfrozen creek, water moving beneath the ice. The path they had made was faded, now, but both still remembered the way.
"So, Jade," she said finally, as they walked beneath the branches of a leafless tree. Most of the trees near Keterburg were evergreens, but there were a few deciduous trees that flourished in the very short summer months. Snow glistened on the limbs above them. "What brings you to Keterburg, anyway?"
"Do I need to have a reason to come visit my sister?" he asked.
"You always have one," she replied.
He chuckled quietly. "I suppose that is true. I'll admit, I am here on business, of a sort. Truthfully, I needed to get away from Peony. He is getting more and more eccentric in his old age, I'm afraid..."
"So you needed a break and decided to come here?" Nephry said, a hint of skepticism creeping into her voice.
He shrugged. "Well, I suppose I could have gone to Daath and annoyed Anise for a while."
"But you didn't," she finished.
"But I didn't," he confirmed easily.
She shook her head. "Well, I suppose that's all right."
He removed a gloved hand from his pockets, fingering the bridge of his glasses. "You don't sound very convinced."
She looked down at the path, avoiding meeting his crimson gaze. "I just wasn't... prepared to be seeing you today."
The smile returned. "My presence requires preparation?"
"It certainly doesn't hurt," she said dryly.
They halted by the riverbank, near a spot where large flat rocks stretched out from the shore. Nephry frowned. "This is the place where..." Jade was looking straight ahead, away from her. "This is where you always went to get away from Father."
"And then you followed me, even though there were monsters around," Jade replied. "We started coming here when you were five and I was six. We should have both been killed."
"Maybe..." said Nephry. "But back then, I trusted you. I felt... safer when I was with you. You protected me from him and you protected me from the monsters."
"You trusted me?" Jade replied, his usual smile on his face. "That's interesting. When did you stop?"
Nephry fell silent, gazing at the frozen water...
"What did the doctor say...?" she asked quietly, clutching the baby doll with the porcelain head to her chest. It was the one good thing she owned—Jade had found it for her the year before, like new except for a slightly rumpled dress in the rubbish bin of a vacationing noble, discarded when their spoiled child became bored. "How are Mama and Papa? Are they getting better?"
He turned to her, face void of emotion. "They're dead," he replied in a monotone.
"...Dead...?" she replied, shrinking back. "No..." Her face felt wet, and she realized tears were beginning to trickle over her cheeks.
"Why are you crying?" he asked, gazing at her with those empty brown eyes. "You shouldn't be sad. They deserved it."
"How can you say that?" she replied, her voice cracking. "Even if it is true... they're still Mama and Papa!"
"They didn't care about us," Jade replied, turning back to the window and folding his arms. "Why should I bother to care about them?"
"Because they're our parents!" she cried. He continued to stare steadily away.
She took a step forward, putting a hand on his shoulder. "It's all right for you to be sad, Jade!" she said, now pleading for something she was not quite sure she even understood. "Even after what they did... it's okay for you to show it!"
"I'm not sad," he snapped at her.
And Nephry realized he really wasn't.
"After our parents died... I finally saw how different you were from everyone else," she said finally. "You didn't get sad or angry or anything. You were just... distant. And very cruel."
"I don't deny that," Jade replied, adjusting his glasses once more.
"You started hunting small animals and killing them for fun. You tormented them before they died." She folded her arms. "I found you peeling apart monsters so you could see how their organs worked before they expired."
"I'm not trying to defend my actions," Jade replied.
"Then why did you do them?!" Nephry demanded. "That's what I've never understood, Jade. The way your mind works is completely beyond me. You're so smart, but you never stop to consider how your actions affect others, how your research affects the world..."
"Nephry," he began, but she cut him off.
"You were a bully," she said, taking a slight step backwards. Her fists were clenched and held to her chest. "Never overtly, of course, but you were always subtly pushing the rest of us around. You loved playing with our minds, didn't you? I'm not even sure if you really realized how you were affecting us, either. Saphir especially... He adored you and you used him as another subject for your 'research.'"
He spread his arms and shrugged lightly. "Can you really say he didn't deserve it?"
Her eyes narrowed with now barely-concealed fury. "That is exactly the point! You treated him horribly then and you treat him horribly now."
"He's a criminal, Nephry," Jade replied calmly.
"Well, maybe he wouldn't have been if you'd been a little nicer!" she shouted. "He called you a friend and you treated him worse than dirt! You treated us all worse than dirt! Did we mean anything to you, Jade?"
She watched him removing the articles of clothing from the dresser; three sets of pants, two shirts, socks and shoes and the drawers are emptied. The battered suitcase the matron had given him lay open on the bed, now half-full. "Are you really sure about this, Jade?"
He turned to her and she cringed. She always cringed when she saw his eyes nowadays, almost fully red behind the glasses he had now decided to start wearing again. He said they did something to help his fonic artes, but she didn't care. At least they hid those eyes a little... "What do you mean?"
"Are you sure about leaving?" she answered. "Are you sure it's the right decision?"
"The Curtisses are going to let me finish my schooling at a better university, and you'll get to go to a better school as well," Jade replied. "I don't see how it's not the right decision. Opportunities like this don't come every day."
"But we won't be a family anymore," she said quietly.
"That's not what's most important here," he replied curtly.
"How... how can you just stand there and say that?" Nephry said, her body now feeling as though the fragile furnace of the rickety old orphanage had broken once again and she had been frozen to the floor.
He simply stared back at her, those crimson devil-eyes impassive. "We have to think of the future, Nephry. Of what is most advantageous." He waved his hand at the walls of the small dormitory, white paint faded to cream peeling on the walls. "Use some logic. There's nothing here for us."
"You and I are here," she shot back. "You and I are here together. Does that mean anything to you?"
He was silent. She could feel the corners of her eyes beginning to prickle, but she focused on turning the sadness into rage. She had to get through to him this time. "You're my brother, Jade. You're the only family I have. Please say I mean something to you."
"...Nephry, you and I both will be better off this way," he said finally.
"...Fine." she spat. "If that's how you want it, Jade Curtiss... then I won't waste my time here any longer." And she stalked out the door, not allowing him to see her tears.
"You didn't answer me when I asked that before," she continued. "I suppose I was naive to ever think you would."
"Nephry, please calm down," he said, sounding far too unconcerned.
"Why did you really come here, Jade?" she asked, ignoring his request. "I know it wasn't for a visit. Do you want something from me, or do you just want to play with my head?" He did not reply. "Well, Jade?" she demanded. "Say something! Answer me!"
But he merely stared back at her, his eyes cool and emotionless, his face crossed by that damnable smirk. "If it makes it you feel better, by all means, continue to shout at me."
"You..." Words failed her momentarily. "You... You're despicable, Jade Curtiss. I should have thrown you out of my office when you arrived."
The calm demeanor did not waver. "I'm sorry to hear that."
"No you aren't," she snapped. "You don't feel anything, do you? I don't know why I ever bothered caring about you. It's obvious I was just wasting my energy." She turned, and began steadily climbing the embankment nearby.
"Where are you going?" he asked, hands still in his pockets, as she climbed higher up the hill.
"I'm taking the shortcut back to the city," she replied angrily. "I've had enough of dealing with you."
She mostly heard about him secondhand these days. Occasionally he would send her a brief and formal letter, but mostly she heard of his exploits through the rumor mill. They were calling him the Necromancer now, a scavenger of corpses and raiser of the dead. Nephry knew it was all because of his replica research, but that knowledge did nothing to quell the crawling feeling in her skin and stomach.
They only met a handful of times since their parting when he was seventeen and she sixteen. A few had been accidental, and all were stiff and awkward. That event was never mentioned, and she never asked about his work. Anything she learned was what he wished to tell her herself.
Then she met Michael Osborne. He was smart, funny, charming, and a nobleman. His rank was not so high as to prevent him from marrying a commoner like herself, but still high enough to command respect. Marriage would be very advantageous for her political career, not to mention that she truly loved him. She was thirty-two years old when they set the wedding date.
She was already up at the altar before she saw him. Sitting in the shadows of one of the back rows, looking very out of place in the church in his pressed dress uniform, Jade was watching from behind the gleam of his glasses. Nephry quickly scanned the crowd to make sure the Emperor had not also stealthily entered the congregation.
She managed to keep herself calm and focused throughout the rest of the ceremony, though she could not help allowing her eyes to wander over to him once or twice during the priest's readings of the couple's Scores. He did not attempt to make a fuss, though she had not expected him to. He simply sat quietly and watched.
After the ceremony, she approached him. "I didn't expect you to come," she said.
"I received an invitation," he replied easily. "Nice to see you again, by the way."
"...It has been a while, yes," she said, her cheeks turning slightly red as she realized that had not been the most polite of greeting lines. "You've changed, a little. You've grown out your hair."
"You have as well," he replied. "And you look simply stunning in that dress, by the way. Peony sends his regards as well. I locked him up so he would not deliver them in person."
"...Thank you for that," she replied. It would have been entirely too awkward for him to appear at the wedding.
"Believe me, I didn't want him here any more than you did," he replied. "Anyway... I just wanted to congratulate you. Your husband appears to be a very nice man. I hope you both will be very happy."
"Thank you, Jade," Nephry said again.
He gave her that smile that was so unreadable it was practically a blank face. "Well, I should probably be going. The Emperor is probably very irritated with me by now. Farewell, Mrs. Osborne." And he slipped away towards the exit.
She considered calling after him... but did not know what she could say.
Nephry gritted her teeth as she marched along the trail, her eyes fixed on a spot thirty feet ahead of her, blocking out the rest of the world. Why on Auldrant had he decided to come here? Was he trying to upset her? Was he really that bored that all he could think of doing was torment his sister?
A tiny voice in the back of her mind whispered that maybe she was overreacting, but she shoved it away. Right now, she needed to be angry. She was tired of trying to understand him, to justify him, to love without ever receiving anything in return. She was tired of these awkward, infrequent meetings where she never knew where she stood...
Sometimes, she half-wished he had died in Akzeriuth. At least then she could keep her few good memories of him, and never have her vision jolted by the truth.
Ignoring the voice that told her how insensitive that had sounded, she continued marching along the path. She was walking along the top of a steep embankment, with a group of large rocks left by an ancient glacier making cave-like openings on the higher right side. If she continued on this path, and remembered correctly, she should reach the city within ten minutes.
There was a howl from the rocks above her.
Nephry had about two seconds to turn before the wolf was on her. She immediately brought her arms up to protect her face and the creature lashed out at her with razor teeth and claws, snarling. The monster's front paws tore into the thick fabric of her jacket and pierced the skin beneath, biting into her right arm.
She cried out in pain and stumbled backward, propelled by the weight of the wolf. This brought her right to the edge of the embankment. With a gasp, she toppled over the edge, her body rolling uncontrollably down the snow- blanketed slope. The wolf was flung away and down the slope with her.
Nephry curled up as best she could as she continued to roll, trying to cover her head with her arms. It did nothing to stop her from battering against the side of a large rock, however. The impact knocked her glasses from her face and left her head throbbing. A few moments later her back slammed into an even larger boulder and she halted,
She lay in the snow in complete shock. Her head was pounding and her vision blurred by a combination of her missing glasses and the fog in her head. Her right leg, which had twisted beneath her as she fell, twinged with pain when she tried to move it. Her arm throbbed as well from the gashes of the wolf's claws. The impact with the rock had left her winded and bruised.
But she had no time to contemplate. The wolf she had dragged with her was already rising, and another howl rent the wintry air. Nephry's blood ran cold as she saw blurred shapes, nearly invisible against the snow, rushing down the slope towards her. The wolf's pack was arriving to finish off its prey.
Nephry attempted to push herself onto her elbows but the dizziness was too great. Her limited vision burst into stars and fogged up even more as she forced herself. Meanwhile, the monsters had grown closer, hanging back and circling around the injured woman.
The lead wolf crouched low to the ground, preparing to strike...
"Rest in a merciless silver embrace! Absolute!"
Spires of ice came shooting from the ground all around Nephry, impaling the monsters surrounding her. The spears enclosed her in a cage of coldness but miraculously, not one spear so much as brushed her clothing. A few moments later the spires shattered and dissipated, leaving her lying breathless on the ground, surrounded by the bodies of monsters.
"Nephry!" Two seconds later, Jade came skidding down the hillside, followed by a small cloud of dirt and snow as his feet made marks in the loose ground. He immediately crouched beside her, a strange look on his face. "Are you all right?"
"I... I'm fine," she managed to say, trying to sit up again. As before, her head began to spin wildly.
Then suddenly, she felt a gentle hand supporting her. "Don't try to move too suddenly," he said, his voice sounding slightly odd. "You may have a concussion..."
Nephry looked up... and even through the blur being without her glasses caused, realized what the strange emotion on his face was. It was concern.
Jade was actually worried about her.
"Why... did you follow me?" she asked, too confused to say much more.
"I don't think you've been out here much more recently than I have," he replied. "There are bound to be lots of new monster nests around, and if you were walking along angry and not paying attention, well..." He gestured somewhat hopelessly at her, "I was afraid this would happen."
"I..." But her words were failing her again. "... um... I lost my glasses..."
"Wait here, I'll get them for you," he replied, and stood up to walk back up the slope a little ways. Nephry nodded at his receding back. It wasn't like she could really move from here, anyway...
It took him a few moments to find the object, glinting in the sunlight on top of the snow. The frames were slightly bent but the lenses were intact. He returned to her side, handing them to her carefully. She slipped them back on.
"Can you stand?" he asked her, the odd look receding as he returned to a businesslike manner.
"I don't think so..." she gestured at her leg. "I don't think it's broken, but..."
"Give me your hand, then," he said, stretching out his own.
She took it without complaint, still dazed. She wasn't sure, however, if it was from her tumble down the mountain or her brother's strange behavior...
He hoisted her to his feet, wrapping her good arm around his shoulders as he supported her with his own. Slowly, the siblings began climbing the slope back to the path and the city.
Nephry was silent during their return journey. Part was from the pain in her leg and head, but most was because her mind was whirling with thoughts of the person beside her. Why had Jade followed her? Why had he looked almost... frightened when he had seen her injured?
Had she, perhaps, been wrong?
There was only one way for her to find out. Jade supported her all the way to the city hospital, where her arm and leg were bandaged and repaired. She did not have a concussion, thankfully, though she had sprained her ankle. One of the seventh fonists there healed it and told her to keep off of it as much as possible for a few days, to prevent weakening. She came out of the examining room to find him standing with his hands in his pockets in the side of the waiting room.
"You waited for me," she said.
"You thought I wouldn't?" he replied.
"...No," she said. He smiled and held the door for her again as they left the building. The silence continued as they walked through the streets to her home.
"Well, I suppose I should be leaving now," he said, reaching up to adjust his glasses as they halted at the foot of the stairs. "I wouldn't want to overstay my welcome." He turned to leave.
"Jade, wait," she said immediately, reaching out to catch his sleeve. He turned, a curious look in his eyes. She looked away. "I... I'm sorry about what happened..."
"Why are you apologizing?" he replied. "It was my fault you were injured. I upset you and then did not follow quickly enough."
"No..." she shook her head. "No, I was the one yelling at you... yelling about things from years ago, not things from now."
"...They still happened, Nephry," he said softly. "And you have every right to be angry."
"No... no, I didn't," she said.
The curious look was more apparent now. "And why do you say that?"
She sighed, finally looking up directly into his face. "Because the Jade I was yelling at would never have followed and helped me." His eyes flickered. "...You've changed, Jade. I didn't want to see it but... you really have."
She did not expect him to answer, but to her surprise, his lips twitched into a faint, but genuine, smile.
"...I believe I have finally figured out why the Professor liked being around us so much," he said quietly. "You can learn many things from children that you would otherwise never discover."
Nephry could only stare at him standing there, hands in his pockets, light from the sun behind him catching the edges of his glasses and hair. His face was shadowed but still smiling, and his demeanor was one that she never remembered seeing, never even expected to see from him. He felt... approachable. Calm.
When had this happened? With the help of his teenage friends, she assumed, but... no. No, that had just been the catalyst for a process that had already begun. Thinking back, she realized, he had already started to be this way when he had stepped into her office after the fall of Akzeriuth. Perhaps... even when she had met him at her wedding. She had just been too blind to see... but now, she had been given back her glasses.
Nephry took a hesitant step forward, then another, stronger one, and the next moment she found herself with her arms slipped between his own, still lodged in his pockets. She clasped her hands firmly around his back and her head nestled against his shoulder as though it had been there for years. "I'm so, so sorry," she whispered.
He gave no indication of surprise, though his posture was still rigid. "For what?" he asked, just as quietly.
"I gave up on you," she answered.
"Well, I don't blame you," he said. One of his hands had snuck out of its pocket and was now resting lightly on her shoulder. "I'm not a very good brother. Or person, for that matter."
"It's not that you're bad," she replied. "It's that you're... different. And I think I can finally accept that."
"Nephry..." he said quietly. "...All those years ago, when you asked me if I cared that we were separating..." She looked up at him questioningly, wondering where he was going with this. "I answered that we would both be better off that way. But... the reason I said that wasn't because I didn't care about you. It was because I thought you would be happier without a monster like me to deal with."
"...Jade..." Nephry could no longer keep her composure. Squeezing him tightly, she buried her face in his jacket to stifle the tears.
He placed a hesitant hand on her back. "Nephry, I..."
She chuckled softly through the tears. "It's all right. You always make me cry, Jade. But this is the first time it hasn't been because I'm sad..."
"Well... I'll attempt not to make it the last," he said. "I'm not sure how well I'll manage, though. I hope you'll forgive me if I make some mistakes."
"That's all right," she said. "I can deal with your sarcasm and morbid personality as long as I know there's actually a human being somewhere in there."
"Hm," said Jade, and Nephry smiled, knowing he was restraining himself from making a comment that proved her points.
Silence fell between them, though it was comfortable now.
"You know, you still haven't really met my husband," she said. "You should come have dinner with us tonight."
"That sounds acceptable," Jade replied.
"I'm making curry," she added.
"Even more acceptable."
She chuckled. "Funny how I was planning on making your favorite dish today. It's like some higher power knew you were going to come."
"I don't believe in fate anymore," Jade replied, his tone slightly teasing. "Just people. Perhaps you were secretly hoping your big brother would stop by?"
"Maybe so," she laughed.
The snow had stopped falling, clouds parting for the warm sun to shine down on the tiny wintry village. Brother and sister remained still as the world moved around them, content in this one, long-needed moment.
"Nephry..." he said, arms still wrapped tightly around her as she leaned against him.
"...Do I have permission to stop being honest and start being my normal self again?"
"Just... give me a few more minutes," she answered.
And being the caring older brother, he obliged.