Note: I apologize wholeheartedly to those waiting for the next Persistence of Memory installment. I sat down tonight with the intention of finishing the next chapter, but I clicked onto my FF.net profile, found the old version of Wide Awake, and decided it deserved a bit more than I originally gave it. PG-13 for graphic violence and some mushy stuff. Dedicated fondly to those who read and liked this story in its original incarnation.
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy IX and its characters are the property of Squaresoft. I am merely borrowing them for my own petty amusement.
A Katharine Frost Production
Our truest life is when we are in our dreams awake.
(Henry David Thoreau)
After it was all over, when Steiner came back from Memoria – that was when I knew he loved me.
He didn't say it and I didn't ask, of course, but I think both us knew even then. I am not foolish and, though I may be single-visioned, I am not blind, and, besides, there is a peculiar feeling that washes over you when you realize you're in love, and you don't know if you should be joyful or if you should be miserable. For me, and perhaps for him, it was the first time I'd ever felt that way. I've always been too calm and too cold to be won over, and for me love was like a sleeping draught, and I felt hazy and half-conscious, unreal, as if romance somehow equaled a downplay of self.
Understandably, there was a strangeness between Steiner and I. We didn't know how to proceed, so we did the most logical thing for two career soldiers to do – nothing. And it continued that way for a long while. We saw each other quite frequently, being in the same line of work, and there was tension.
I had begun to think that perhaps I was bound to be a courtly lover. Such a title befits a knight, really. Romantic love is for lovely princesses in silken gowns, for bewitching women with extraordinary powers, or for humble peasant girls with flaxen hair and apple cheeks. Not for icy, eyeless generals. I've been covered in blood more times than I can remember and I've lost count of the number of men I've killed. This does not exactly fit the profile of a dewy-eyed storybook heroine.
But, even though I do not believe in fate, things happen sometimes that make me wonder. It was nearly a month after Zidane came back, which was more than a year after Steiner himself had come home to Alexandria. Winter had come to Alexandria as it always does, quick and furious and powerful, and it was snowing viciously the night Zidane and Steiner came to my door.
I was in my study, poring over a book on sword art theory Doctor Tot had given me. I wasn't really concentrating on it; instead, my thoughts persistently wandered to earlier that day, when I'd been talking to one of my commanders and had caught Steiner watching me, out of the corner of my eye. He'd looked away and so had I, but my mind refused to stay away from it.
I slammed the book closed, mentally chastising myself, and just as I was informing my brain to shut the hell up, there was a frantic pounding at the door. I checked the clock, and it was well past midnight, and besides that, I never had visitors. I took my sword with me just in case; there might have been foolish thieves who didn't know just who owned the house. But Zidane was there, with Steiner behind him. Their faces were pale in the biting snow. My eyes went instinctively to Steiner, who wore a grim and bloodless expression; then I glanced at Zidane and had to bite my lip to keep quiet. He had never looked so colourless and so nakedly afraid.
"General—" he began.
"Come in," I ordered, waving them inside. "What happened?" But there was no real need to ask; there was only one reason both of them would be at my door so late. Garnet. They'd been away on their first holiday, Zidane and Garnet, to visit Regent Cid and Hilda and the girl Eiko Carol. "Is something wrong with the Queen?"
"Garnet – she's gone," Zidane confirmed my fears and sank into a chair, putting his face into his hands. His shoulders were trembling. Even if I wanted to comfort him, I wouldn't have been able to – I have no talent for it and it seemed to me he was inconsolable. Awkwardly, I curled a hand over the chair and looked to Steiner.
"We have to leave immediately," he said stiffly.
I motioned towards Zidane. "But he—"
"He is no condition to accompany us, General." I was suddenly aware of how tired Steiner sounded. He was looking at Zidane with an impassive expression. "Leave him. We have to locate the Queen before it's too late."
These words stirred me into action; I strapped my sword to my side where it belonged, then drew on a heavy white cloak. I had barely gotten my boots on when Steiner disappeared into the snow. I had to squint to make him out in the blizzard, but, even with the lack of vision, I knew where we were going. The city gates. I caught up to him. The wind was whipping my cloak everywhere – I wrapped it closer – and I had to shout to make myself heard. "What happened to the Queen?" I hollered; my voice was lifted by the gale.
I could scarcely hear his reply, and he was shouting. "She's vanished! Zidane said they were riding to Treno, and one minute she was there and next she wasn't, chocobo and all, as if she'd just been spirited out of existence!"
He said something back to me then, but his face was turned into the wind and I couldn't make it out; the roaring of the storm in my ears was too loud. We came to the chocobo stables at the city gates, and it was warm inside. The chocobos were flapping their wings and chirping madly, upset by the storm. I found mine and untied it. "Is that where we're starting, then?"
"Treno." I spat the word out unintentionally; I even hated the name of the city.
"Yes, that'd be the most logical place to begin."
Steiner was releasing his chocobo from its stable. He wasn't looking at me as he spoke to me, and he certainly wasn't garbling up his words or tripping over his feet. Our customary clumsy rapport had vanished, and so I knew he was distressed. He was very serious about protecting Garnet. I tried to think of something to say to him, some kind reassurance, but I ultimately could not.
I led my chocobo outside and we started to ride into the winds, still trapped in stilted silence. The snow whipped against my exposed face and I yanked up my hood. I was rushing to Treno in the middle of the night, but I wasn't thinking of the things a General should have been concerned. Not Garnet, not Zidane and his panicked face, and certainly not my duty to Alexandria.
It shames me, but these thoughts were used only on the surface on my mind, to mask the deeper ones. Because, in the furthest corners of my mind, I was thinking about having to go home for the first time.
I suppose I should explain about Treno. I grew up there. I don't know if I was born there. People always assume I've come from a long line of professional soldiers, or, at the very least, a family of nobles affluent enough to have a daughter trained with a sword. I loathe assumptions.
Treno is a curious city. Its people are never ordinary – always very rich or very poor. I was one of the latter. I never knew my mother or father; it might sound like an uniquely tragic situation but there were hundreds of children in Treno with the same story. Nobody complained about it. It was life.
I lived in a place with no name. I've no recollection of where I was before that. There were other children there, dozens of them, and the place itself was a tangled mess of fabrics and wooden planks and sheet metals, the leftovers of industry. We used anything that could conceivably be shelter. On the colder nights we'd build fires and huddle together, watching the nobles pass by in their fancy clothes, going to the auction house or perhaps to watch a card tournament. We dreamed of how it would be, to be rich and have fine things. The other girls wanted to be proper, like the noble ladies, but not I. I wanted the power and prestige of the wealthy men. I wanted their small glories.
One night, in the autumn when I was six years old, I was out panhandling. This was not an unusual activity, but in this case there was a desperation to it. There was a girl among us who was ill, and several of the children had gone out to earn enough to buy her a Potion. Such poverty must seem unfathomable – not having enough for a measly Potion – but we were only children, and unemployable. I had collected maybe four gil when people started streaming out of the auction house. I rushed over to beg from the nobles, but I never made it there – a hand hooked around my neck and forced me back into the shadows, and my mouth was smothered quiet.
"Gimme your money, kid," a low voice breathed into my ear.
Terrified, I moved my neck back and found myself staring up into the dim eyes of a boy only about ten or eleven. He wasn't so frightening. My eyes narrowed. "No," I mumbled against his palm. "I need it."
"You don't really have a choice."
I did. I bit down on his palm.
He yelped and let go of me, curling his injured hand and waving it in the air. "You bloody little brat!" he wailed. "There wasn't no need to do that!" Before I could run away, he grabbed my sleeve and pushed me into the wall. "I'll get you for that, brat!" He drew his leg back to kick me, but before he could, he himself was slammed back by an attacker I couldn't see.
"Taken to robbing little girls, eh, Jacky?" Another voice. In the dark, I could see the broad outline of a figure standing there – another boy, maybe a year or two older than the one in the process of unsuccessfully robbing me.
"She bit me," Jacky sulked.
"You sure as hell deserved it," the other boy said. He came into the light; I saw he was lank and skinny, with dark hair and liquid brown eyes. He looked down at me and winked, then turned back to Jacky. "Shouldn't steal from kids who got nothing. Go pickpocket some nobles or something and leave her alone."
"Who's she to you?"
The older boy smiled at me then; his smile was white and lopsided like he'd been punched in the jaw more than a few times. "Eh, you didn't know? She's my little sister, Jacky."
Jacky, still nursing his hand and grumbling as if I'd taken a right chunk out of it, raised an eyebrow. "She don't look like you."
"So what?" The boy's hand snaked out suddenly and took my own, then squeezed it comfortingly. "Lots of people don't look like each other."
"Oh, whatever, she don't got any good money anyway," Jacky pouted. He walked away coolly, but his mouth has turned down into an injured frown.
I glanced up at the boy who now held my hand. "Thank you," I whispered.
"No problem. You got a name?"
"That's a nice name. Mine's Hino." He nodded downwards, indicating our linked hands. A tiny grin played about his lips, and his eyes were bright and kind and alive. "Pleased to meet you, little sister."
I smiled back, and that's how I met my brother.
It was nearly dawn, but still dark, of course, when Steiner and I finally made it to the outskirts of Treno, both of us soaked and freezing and saying nothing about it. We didn't enter the city at first; instead, we circled around and located the tracks of the chocobos Garnet and Zidane had been riding.
There were two sets of tracks almost up to the Treno gates, and then there was only one, skidded to a halt not five feet from where the first had dropped off. Just as Zidane had said – vanished into thin air. I gazed at this bizarre spectacle for a minute, then looked at Steiner, who was equally puzzled. "What now?" I asked.
"I don't know." His eyes were still on the ground, large and horrified. "I really don't know." There was a near-imperceptible waver in his voice; I doubted he even knew it was there.
He really takes his duty seriously. Sometimes I can do nothing but marvel at his dedication; it is as if his life consists entirely of servitude. I remember when Brahne still reigned – how persistently he believed that his Queen would do no wrong! "Steiner, you know this is not your fault."
"I must protect the Queen."
"So must I, but there's no reason to blame yourself. I hardly think Zidane and Garnet would have allowed it if you had wanted to escort them, and I certainly don't think your sword skills could have prevented what seems to have happened here." I slid off of my chocobo and stood to face him. "We will find her. There is no value in standing here and—" I stopped. Through peripheral vision, I saw something sparkle.
I ignored him. Where the double tracks ended – there it was, glinting in the grass like dew. The Falcon Claw. I plucked it off of the ground and held it up for him to see. "This is here, where she disappeared."
He blinked. "What?"
I regarded the jewel in my hand, ran my finger over its smooth surface. It was the testament to the Queen's power as a summoner, a legacy. It seemed duller than usual, but I thought perhaps this was only my imagination. "I don't understand," I whispered, more to myself than to him.
Steiner only watched me wordlessly.
"We must go to Lindblum," I decided. "It was where the Queen was last, and I wish to talk to the other summoner – the girl Eiko. She may know more about this relic than we do." I indicated the Falcon Claw.
"We might have to stay here," Steiner said. "We need to rest."
"No." I looked past him, at the bright and vulgar lights of Treno, and my stomach lurched. "We will rest in Lindblum. We do not know the importance of time, and I will not stay idle in Treno." It was a lie, my bones were weary and I desperately wanted to be dry, but I knew, instinctively, that as soon I entered Treno I would break down. I refused to look at Steiner as I saddled my chocobo again – it squawked in protest and I slapped it – and instead kept my chin up high, like the marbled statue I was.
I rode out. I could feel Steiner's gaze on my back; I could feel his concern almost as if it were coming from him in tangible waves. I didn't care what he thought, but I felt like vomiting all the same. The snow had changed into rain, and I let it drown whatever parts of me were still dry; I pressed on in silence.
Hino, through an unspoken agreement, came to live with me and the rest of the children in our ramshackle junk houses. We panhandled and pickpocketed and rummaged through the garbage at the rear of the café if there weren't any nobles to shoo us away.
As it turned out, he was good with a sword. He'd found one discarded by the weapons shop one day, with a broken hilt. Hino had simply carved a new handle from a spare plank and attached the blade to it. He was like that; nothing was trash to him. He was a clever craftsman, too, for a boy; he spent many hours carving intricate patterns into the hilt, making it unique and beautiful. He might have made an excellent swordsmith.
He had never had any formal training, but he had natural skill. "Trix?" he asked one night, when I was eight. It was his name for me; to this day, I have never allowed anyone else to use it and never will. "Are you asleep?"
"What d'you want to do if you ever get out of here?"
"I want to see Alexandria Castle," I said promptly.
He laughed and folded his hands behind his head; by then, he was thirteen and long-limbed and I thought he was the most beautiful person in the world. "No, I mean, what would you wanna become? I reckon I'll be a knight someday; I'd say that's the best sort of job."
It seemed as good a dream as any. I rolled over and tried to sleep.
"C'mere, get up for a minute."
I moaned theatrically and stuffed my face into the pickle sack that served as my bed pillow. "Why?" I whined. "I'm trying to rest."
"I want to see if you can fight."
I moaned again, far more dramatically than necessary, and tossed the pillow away. "All right," I said reluctantly, wishing only that he would let me rest. I had no desire to fight. I picked up his sword and made a few half-hearted stabs at the air. I wish I could say that I was a prodigy with the sword from the very first attempt, but it is not so. The weapon was heavy and foreign and I nearly toppled forward with it in my grasp. "Satisfied, brother?"
Hino smirked. "You're holding it wrong. Someone could knock it out of your hand." He snapped his fingers. "Just like that. Here, let me correct you." He drew himself up and over and placed my hands on the hilt properly. "If you get good you won't need both hands. If your arms get strong enough."
The idea of my arm being strong enough to singlehandedly hold this ludicrous monstrosity of a weapon was unthinkable. "Why must I learn?"
"Because you've got to protect yourself. You might need to attack someone."
I frowned. "I don't want to attack anybody."
The look on my face must have been quite earnest because he laughed. "Sometimes you don't got a choice, Trix." He then watched me solemnly, biting his lip. "Look, go on to bed, you don't have to do this now."
I thought he'd given up on my sword training then, but he hadn't. He turned out to be relentless, waking me in the mornings, making me go through drills every day – attacking, blocking, parrying. He was almost fanatical about self-defense, and more than once I wondered what had happened to him before I met him because sometimes he got this look in his eyes like he was half a breath away from weeping. I never got up my courage to ask him. I wonder what he would have told me. I wonder if I'd have wanted to know.
Soon, I was good at swordplay. Soon after that, I was better than Hino ever could have been. It was a shock to us both, how I could move with the sword as if were an extension of my limbs. I had never thought of myself as a vicious creature before.
Of all things, we were kept waiting in Lindblum. The Regent had the misfortune to be out dealing with a dispute between two suppliers in the Industrial District when we arrived, and so we were greeted by Minister Artania instead. "He'll not be long," the Minister explained. "A few hours at most. I will send a messenger to him. Please wait in the guest room until the Regent is here. Lord Steiner, I believe you know where it is located."
"Please inform the Regent that this is urgent," I put in.
We went to the room, which was larger and even more extravagant than the Queen's room at Alexandria Castle. I have done a lot of travelling in my time, but I have not seen much of Lindblum, only the parts I saw in the days when I participated in the Hunt, and so the beauty of the room was something of a surprise. I sat down on a chair – which made a ridiculously feminine pouf when I did so – and stared straight ahead. I felt frozen, like an ice sculpture in lieu of a human being.
Steiner placed himself across from me. "You look weary," he observed.
"So do you," I snapped back. It was automatic; though we were no longer rivals, I could not help but snipe at him if he said anything that remotely challenged the idea that I am infallible.
He looked down and quietly studied his hands. I followed his gaze and right then, in spite of everything, all I could think of were Steiner's hands. It was ridiculous, but I liked them, hard and callused and strong, yet oddly awkward and given to flailing. I imagined him fumbling with things, but I also knew he could be graceful if he needed to, for I'd seen him fight. I frowned. What if he'd been killed in Memoria? I certainly would not have been able to sit and appreciate his hands.
"Do you – I know this is not the time for such a question, but I have to ask it – do you still think ill of me?"
I jerked up. "What?"
"You had an odd expression on your face just then, as if repulsed."
"No." I couldn't think of anything else to say, and I hated myself for it, hated myself for stumbling over my words like a red-faced schoolgirl. I would have been blushing if generals blushed. "No, Steiner, I—"
"Beatrix, you need to sleep."
I started to protest, but he was right; I had been awake for nearly two full days. I rose out of my chair and shot him a pointed look – the look of the defeated soldier, meant to show his victor that he has not won – and went to curl up on one of the long and overly lacy sofa beds in the room. I don't know why I looked at him that way. I could never concede to anything without getting my last word, even a simple acknowledgement of my need to rest.
I heard him sigh, long and resigned, and then I pressed my face into the fabric.
Here's something I just remembered. It seems important now, even though it isn't really significant to the story. It won't leave my mind. Memories are like that. You don't remember the details of the big ones all that well, but there are tiny ones that manage to get into your head and never come out, and manage to achieve some special value that really cannot be defined.
When I was nearly eleven years old, Hino and I lived under a stone bridge. I was gravely ill that year, and I secretly believed that I would not live. Naturally, I did not voice this concern aloud, and if Hino ever lost faith in my survival he never said so to me. I had one blanket, cast off a nobleman's chocobo, and I spent months fevered and panting beneath it.
I wasn't the only sick child in Treno; there was some sort of plague sweeping through, and nearly every day I saw a group of children swinging a makeshift body bag from the bridge above. I would watch the bag float away, down the tiny river, and I would make a history for that dead child – if the bag contained a boy or a girl, if the child knew its parents, if any of them had felt just like I did, heated and nauseated, just before they died.
Hino brought me what he could every day, which was usually just tack and water. It is quite miraculous that he never became sick himself. Sometimes it was better when he could offer me no food, only comfort, and he would rest his cool palm on my cheek or on my forehead. He had a generally serious air about him that year and rarely said anything, only watched me, vigilant, with his liquid eyes shadowed.
And there was one night – one of many where I pretended to be asleep – when Hino was talking with his older friends, not ten paces away from where I lay, close enough to keep an eye on me but far enough to have his own space. I was listening to them speak, or, more accurately, I was letting little snippets of their conversations drift over to me. There was one small bit I remember clearly.
"Who's that?" The voice of one of the older boys.
"Trix. My sister."
"Is she going to die?" The other voice was trembling. Everyone feared disease.
"No. No, I love her." He spoke this like it was as good as a holy incantation or a high-level healing spell. As if Hino's love were the only thing necessary to keep me from harm. As if. If only.
Minister Artania came in to the room a few hours later; Steiner woke me up and we trailed silently to see the Regent.
I was surprised to see young Eiko Carol sitting alongside the Regent and his wife in the Lindblum throne room, with a grand seat all her own. I knew, of course, that they had adopted the child, but it seemed somewhat disgraceful to allow the child a regal position when it was not her birthright. But, then again, it was technically not Garnet's birthright to be ruler of Alexandria, either.
I tipped my head to her, but she ran up and hugged Steiner around the waist. "Hey, Rusty, how's it going? Haven't seen you in ages!"
"Er – good day, Mistress Eiko."
The girl wrinkled her nose. "Mistress? I'd have thought saving the world would've at least taken that gysahl pickle out of your—"
"Eiko!" Hilda chastised.
Regent Cid wore his customary stern expression, but I could see concern lining his face. I bowed slightly – it's not in me to curtsey – and so did Steiner. "Regent," I said formally.
"Lady Beatrix." He tilted his chin. "Lord Steiner."
Eiko stuck out her lip. "Oh, come off it, Father! There's no need to be so proper!"
To my amazement, the Regent flushed a little. "Quite right, Eiko," he said, and appeared to relax slightly. Perhaps the girl was a good influence. He trained his eyes back onto us. "Since we've dispensed with formalities – what is so urgent?"
Steiner opened his mouth and began telling the story before I could say anything. For a second, the old competitive anger flared up, but I suppressed it. He related how Zidane had come to him looking exhausted and close to fainting from his fast night ride, how they had gone to me, how we did not even know where to begin. Through this, I observed him, and I realised that somewhere along the line he had lost his old demeanour – he no longer jumped and flailed when telling a story, nor did grow red and panic. Since Memoria, a gradual knightly calm had settled over him. I found I liked the change.
"But why come to Lindblum?" Hilda was asking.
I snapped back to attention and held out the Falcon Claw, dangling it between my my thumb and forefinger. "This."
"We found it there, on the ground, near the place where she must have vanished," I explained. "We thought – perhaps Eiko would know – she is a Summoner, after all."
Eiko jumped forward with enthusiasm. "Lemme see!" she said impatiently. Before I could step out of the way, she leapt and grabbed the charm from my hand. There was a brief, brilliant flash of light, and the four of us – myself, Steiner, the Regent and his wife – watched in astonishment as Eiko shimmered out of existence. She vanished – just as Queen Garnet had.
I was the first to recover from the shock. My eyes darted to the ground, and, there together, were the Falcon Claw and Eiko's Memory Earring. Curious, I wondered, and I bent to pick them up, but Hilda shrieked and I remembered myself. The Regent was holding her, his arm round her back, trying to comfort; Steiner had gone white.
"Both of the summoners," I said, more to myself than to any of them. When no one said anything, I removed the two charms from the floor and held them outstretched in my palm. I was calm – not a surprise – and I knew instantly that something was wrong with these two enchanted jewels.
I should explain that I possess a great deal of inherent magic. I cannot summon, of course, but I know many spells, and have even developed some that are unique to my own person. And when I touched the charms together, I noticed immediately that there was no power to them – something incongruous with the slight glow I had always seen from the Falcon Claw whenever Queen Garnet wore it. At that moment, the two pieces in my hand felt like nothing more than a couple of worthless costume trinkets from a Lindblum peddler's stand.
Hilda was still crying, Cid was still trying to comfort her while appearing quite stricken himself, Steiner was still looking as though he been Petrified, but I paid no heed to any of them. I closed my palm around the two charms, willing them to – to something. They were cold and lifeless, as if the very essence of them was gone. I thought frantically – surely the core of a summoner's charm would be an Eidolon itself?
"Steiner," I said suddenly. "I think I know where they are."
This next bit is going to be rather difficult for me. I will make no preamble about it; I have never allowed myself to hear this part of the story, and I have established already that I am not a storyteller. It will be difficult to distance myself from this part of the tale. I keep remembering everything as I tell it.
Anyone who's ever been to Treno knows it's filled with criminals. Nobles and criminals. Hino and I stole from the former and were well on our way to becoming the latter, yet were we still vulnerable to those more experienced than we were. Treno is dangerous, especially for children – there were predators.
Hino was seventeen and I was twelve. I remember, in that year, I was scared that he would soon leave me by myself. He spoke often of how glorious it would be to be a swordsman, or a soldier-for-hire. After all, we were both growing, and he was nearly a man by then, and, to solidify my concerns, he had grown rather handsome and I had seen him out with some of the poor and pretty girls.
We were up to our usual tricks. I would pretend to be lost and some kind unsuspecting fool would come up to assist me, and, while the stranger was bent over trying to console me, Hino would stealthily slip behind and steal a pocketbook or a purse. By the time the victim realised what had happened, Hino was long gone.
And, one fateful day, I was falsely sobbing for a lost mother, with Hino waiting in the wings, when a man came up to help me. This man was not like the fair and well-dressed nobles who usually stopped – he was thin and reedy, with a lank fall of greasy hair. He smiled at me – coldly – and I caught a glimpse of tobacco-yellowed teeth. My first instinct was to run away, but Hino and I had gone hungry for days.
"What's this then," he whispered. "Ye're lost?"
I flicked my eyes surreptitiously to where Hino was. My brother was watching carefully, so I decided to go for it. "Yeah." I sniffled a little, for effect.
"Don't know where yer parents got to?"
"No." A weird feeling was unclenching in the pit of my stomach. I sensed danger; I silently wished I'd had the foresight to rig a dagger into my sleeve, like I did on the days Hino and I worked in the more unsavoury areas. If only I had.
The man was watching me with luminous and unblinking eyes. I breathed slowly. Hino was still there. The man moved forward, languidly. "Good," he drawled, and, in a flash, he pulled out a long knife. "Stand up, girl, and follow me."
I let out a little scream. Hino fairly leapt over to me, and his arms were around the man's neck in a heartbeat. I watched, frozen to my spot, as my brother attempted to strangle him. "Bastard!" Hino spat, trying to wrestle the knife from my attacker's hand. "Leave her alone, do you hear me?"
I saw the second attacker a split second before Hino did, but, even then, it was too late. Another thug – pale and squat – pulled Hino away and drew a dagger to his throat. He stared pointedly at me with small, depthless eyes. "Ye're coming with us, girl, or I'm going to slit 'is throat right in front of yeh." He pushed the dagger into Hino's flesh, drawing a thin, tiny line of blood.
"Trix—" Hino managed to gulp. "Don't. Run."
"Yeh hear that?" the first man laughed. "The boy wants us to kill 'im – what do yeh say, girl? Is it the knife for yer little mate here?"
I stared at the dagger and the little line of blood, terrified. I looked at Hino's face – I still see the same expression sometimes, when I am dreaming – and I knew right then my brother was serious, that he wanted me to run, that he would have died. His eyes were wide, and filled with fear, but there was something else that stayed my feet. Love. He loved me, enough to do this – but I couldn't run, for I loved him, too, desperately enough to be courageous and foolish.
"All right," I said bravely. "I will come with you."
As soon as I said it, the first man had me around the neck, with his knife drawn, and Hino and I were forced away. I kept my head down. For some reason, I could not look at my brother. I felt as though I had let him down.
Steiner followed me blindly, back out into the plains. I was half-crazed, I think, and I did not even tell him what I was doing until that night. I was surprised that he would come after me so readily, but he did, and, even through my worry and the sudden onslaught of my most secret memories, I could not help but marvel at his faith in me.
In the evening we had to stop, and Steiner finally asked me what we were doing, running off half-asleep. A high fire was blazing between us and in spite of myself I was warm and drowsy, and I felt as though I could sleep for a hundred years, there in front of the flames. We had eaten four Mandragoras that we'd killed in the nearby forests, and we'd found a small spring from which to drink. I was full and tired. "Pinnacle Rocks," I said simply.
"We're going to Pinnacle Rocks. When I – when I held those charms in my hand, when I tried to sense them – I felt nothing." I clasped my hands in front of me and looked down, an uncommonly womanly gesture for me. "That's because there was indeed nothing to feel. The Falcon Claw and the Memory Earring are no longer magical artifacts because their sources have decided to leave them."
"I don't understand, General."
I wished he would have called me Beatrix. I wished he didn't have that slightly uncertain expression on his long mouth, as though wondering if I weren't perhaps a little mad. "The only logical explanation is that the Eidolons have chosen to return to their home – it is reasonable enough. There are no wars for them to fight, and I assume they do not like being bound to a human if it is not necessary. These artifacts are what symbolize the power of the summoner, and for them to go – well, dead, for lack of a clearer word – can only mean that the Eidolons are no longer making them magical."
"And Pinnacle Rocks is where—"
"Where the Queen first encountered an Eidolon," I finished. "I think we shall find them there."
He didn't reply, but he was smiling slightly. It struck me that he was impressed with me, and I would have smiled if smiling were a thing I did. He poked at the fire with a long stick, sending spirals of bright orange ash into the air. "Beatrix?" he asked.
"I – do you – is there something bothering you?"
I looked up at him sharply, but he was only looking at me placidly, with a bit of worry betrayed in his eyes. "I am well," I said, after a pause. "I have been weary, yes, and I am naturally concerned for the Queen, but I am well."
"Sometimes I feel as though you are an ice maiden, Beatrix – but you must know – there are people who you can always speak to. There are many who admire you, and would follow you, and—"
"And?" I prompted.
"And – respect you," Steiner said uncomfortably.
He was quiet after that. For a while, I watched him stoke the fire gently, then I gave into my tiredness and curled up close to the fire. I had only a chocobo blanket, which I spread out on the hard and rocky ground before me. It was not raining, nor was it windy, yet I still shivered. The fire died slowly.
Just before I drifted to sleep, I felt a presence looming over me, and then a heavy sheet of warmth being draped over my body. I tugged it around, close to my face, almost sleeping. It was Steiner's cloak, the same one he had been wearing when he'd come to my door in Alexandria.
He must have been cold that night. I did not ask him about it and he made no complaint, or even any indication that he had done me a charity; I only handed the garment back to him wordlessly the next morning, and we set out once more.
After I made my promise, Hino and I were blindfolded and placed into a cart of some sort, with a heavy bolted wooden top over us. There were holes in the sides, for breathing. It was the type of thing that beasts are ordinarily transported around in. There was another boy crushed into the cart with us – a dark little child who refused to speak, even when Hino tried to speak to him and soothe him. His eyes just stared at us, unseeing. I clung frantically to my brother.
I cannot say how long we were in there. Sometimes it seems, in recollection, that it was mere minutes; other time, I could swear on my honour that it was days on end. I remember that the road bumped and jerked, and the small space inside the cart was not big enough to prevent us bruising. When we finally stopped, the two men shuffled us into a building. We were blindfolded again, so we had no bearing on where we were.
It was dark inside the structure, and I am not entirely sure whether it was day or night. All I could hear were the sounds of breathing, mine intermingled with that of our captors, and that of Hino and the unnamed boy. We were dragged through the building, interminably, and finally all three of us were thrown into what could only be a cell.
I grabbed at the dark and found my brother. I willed myself not to cry. "Are you scared?" I whispered.
For a while, my question hung unanswered in the air. Then Hino tucked his chin over my head and spoke low into my ear. "No, Trix. You have me; you must not be afraid."
That was enough. Somehow, however ridiculous it was at that moment, I believed he would keep me safe. After a stretch of time, perhaps an hour, a sliver of light peeked into the darkeness, then broadened. I looked up and saw the door opening. A figure stepped through. I could only discern that he was male, for he was nothing but a flat person outlined in dull yellow light – too shrouded in the darkness to see clearly.
"Goddamnit," the figure said, and his voice was like shadow and cobwebs. Involuntarily, I reached for Hino's hand. "More dirty thief children? I told you, people will only buy the clean ones – these brats have fleas and lice."
Another man peeked around the doorframe, carrying a torch. The firelight illuminated his face enough for me to recognize him as the man who had held a dagger to Hino's throat. Fear welled up within me. "Sorry, Barna," he said. He walked around the room, lighting the crude sconces on the walls. There were no windows. "I thought the girl'd fetch a pretty price. A mite young, but pretty – look at 'er hair. The older boy was with 'er, and the little one was just in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Now that the room was lit, I could see that the walls and floor were made of rough, jutting stones. I risked a glance up at the man called Barna. He was tall, perhaps a head taller than Hino, and there was a long, curved blade strapped at either side of his hips. I'd seen people fight with such weapons before, and I knew they were deadly. His face was scarred oddly, as though he'd been caught in a fire.
Barna leaned down and grabbed my face roughly, tilting it upwards so I could do nothing but look into his eyes. "You're right about that." He grinned and it made him resemble a rabid wolf. "I could even be inclined to keep her for myself, if she cleans up nicely."
"Get your foul hands off my sister," Hino growled.
Barna's eyebrow quirked up. "Your sister, boy? That's not possible – look how fair she is, and how dark you are!"
"She is my sister." There was something in Hino's voice that I'd never heard before. It was cold and powerful, and, once more, I felt protected. I gripped his hand, as secretly as I could. He squeezed back. "She is my sister, and you will not hurt her."
"Really?" Barna shot him a toothy grin. "Are you going to stop me?"
Barna looked distinctly unimpressed, but, nevertheless, he drew himself back up to his full height, letting go of my chin. He glanced briefly at the silent boy and shook his head with disdain, then turned to the other man – presumably his subordinate. "Sell them as soon as you can. I sense trouble with these brats."
Steiner and I unsaddled the chocobos at the base of Pinnacle Rocks, and began the climb. With each step higher, I knew even more that we had come to the right place. I was very conscious of Steiner climbing beside me, and knew instantly when he stumbled, so I was able to put out an arm to steady him. On the rocky path, his armor clanked loudly. I was amused; I'd heard him called Rusty more than a few times, and the nickname was fitting.
We came to the top of the cliff.
I did a double-take. Though I had expected it, I did not anticipate seeing Queen Garnet and Eiko, both across from each other, cross-legged in the grass, sitting and talking calmly as though they were on a picnic.
"Your Highness!" Steiner rushed forward, bowing.
The Queen smiled peacefully. "I was wondering if you would find me." Her eyes darted to me. "Ah, I thought the General Beatrix would know."
"The Eidolons are leaving us!" Eiko announced happily.
"They want to go home – to whatever plane of existence they live on, I assume," Garnet elaborated. "It's an understandable thing, wanting home and security, and we don't need them any longer. Hopefully, we never will again." She sighed, and suddenly looked as if she were about to cry. "I hope Zidane is all right – he was probably so terribly shocked. The Eidolons aren't exactly ones to extend polite invitations and leave it at that."
"He will be comforted once he knows you are unharmed," I offered. I did not tell her just how frantic he had been; it would have done no good to worry her. "Are you ready to return home, Your Highness? We shall have to escort Eiko to Lindblum, first, of course—"
"We're about to begin," Eiko interjected.
Steiner, who had been watching me with a great deal of respect apparent in his eyes, turned back to the two callers. "About to begin what?"
But neither summoner said anything else. The Queen extended her hands and Eiko took them in her own, and suddenly a bright bolt of magic arced from where their fingers met. Many followed it, and soon it was like a glorious display of fireworks. I understood. The powers given to these two girls was now being drained, rendered useless, and taken back to wherever it had come from.
Instinctively, Steiner and I moved close together, our backs nearly touching, both of us with hands on our weapons. But there was nothing to be worried about – it was wondrous, like seeing a meteor shower up close. Garnet and Eiko were both bathed in light, as if bodily haloes had suddenly grown around them both. The magic grew in its intensity, and two points of magic filtered up into the air, like brilliant, luminous smoke.
Soon enough, all the energy of summoners was draining from the pair, but they looked peaceful and calm, kind and happy. Above them, twin pillars of white electric light were spinning into the clouds. I drew closer, and, to my amazement, I could see into the spiraling shifts of magic – I saw my army, and I saw Steiner's face, and I saw the dirty streets of the abandoned and forgotten parts of Treno, all interspersed with the images of Eidolons I recognized – Maduin, Ramuh, Shiva. And then – more vibrant and real than the other apparitions – I saw a boy's face, dark and laughing, yet filled with a peace that seemed to fly into my heart like an arrow.
"Hino," I gasped.
Days passed, then weeks, and still nothing broke the bitter monotony of Barna's prison. Food was shoved in through a tiny flap on the door, twice a day. Water was three times a day. Twice a week, someone came to empty our waste bucket. We slept on hard stone and dirt. There was strewn hay around, and once we tried to collect enough to make a bed, but there were too few strands.
The boy who came with us was taken away. I don't remember when. Barna came in one day and pulled him away and neither Hino nor I saw him again.
"Do you think he's dead?" I whispered to Hino one night.
Hino was weary, broken, and he would not lie. "Yes."
We slept each night curled together. I needed him, for warmth and comfort. He was the only thing that kept me sane in that place. It was not so dismal when we could still speak words of hope to one another, when we could take half-hearted comfort in fairy stories and memories of happier times.
I was asleep when Barna came for me.
I woke up to being yanked by the wrist, brutally away from Hino. The sleep drained from me immediately and I shrieked as loud as I could, hoping to wake my brother.
"Quiet!" Barna yelled. He picked me up and threw me against the wall of the cell, where my head smacked against the hard icy stone. I slumped down. Dizzily I knew I had to get up, run, but my legs would not co-operate. Hino opened his eyes. Barna saw, and kicked my brother in the head with one steel-toed foot; he then started towards me, but before he could reach me I leapt and began to claw at his eyes with my hands.
Barna stumbled back in surprise, and I continue to rake my fingernails over his eyes and face. They were my only weapons, and his skin grew red and violent under my hands. To my great shock, my mind became clear as I attacked him, and this frightened me more than anything. Was I meant to do things such a this? I could not contemplate it. Behind Barna, I saw Hino spring to his feet.
Barna managed to toss me away from him, and pinned me flat on the ground with a boot before I could react. "I don't care about what price you'll fetch," he snarled. His face was red and raw and bleeding. "Scratch my eyes, will you, brat? I'll blind you!"
Instantly, he drew out his blades and plunged one into my face, directly into my eye. The pain was unreal, explosive, indescribable. I screamed again. The world was suddenly blurry and insubstantial, and I rolled to one side, my hands pressed to my face; they were getting bloodied but I didn't even realise it. I could hear a horrible sound, a mixture of rasping and keening, and it took a second before I understood that it was coming from me.
Hazily, through a film of red, I saw the second blade coming down to pierce my remaining eye. I couldn't react, but I felt myself being yanked out of the way, and then Hino was there, arms and legs and comfort. He had pulled me away, and he was dragging me unsteadily to my feet.
"Out the door! Now, Trix!" he shrieked.
I could do nothing but what he said. My face was covered in blood, my head was spinning. My vision seemed to fade in and out. I concentrated on seeing. I could hear Hino and Barna fighting; through a blur, I saw Hino deliver a punch to Barna's jaw.
I found the door, unlocked from when Barna had entered, and it led into another room. I stumbled blindly through the foreign building, up a set a stairs, through an empty corridor. I managed to find my way outside; there was only one road and distantly I could see Treno. I heard double footsteps behind me, quick and even. They were behind me.
"Hino!" I was shrieking and sobbing in the same breath. "Brother, help me!" But my brother was behind me, and Barna behind him, and I knew with dreadful certainty that he was not going to make it.
"Run!" he shouted.
He gritted his teeth. "Go, Trix! Don't look back!"
But I did look back, and there was Hino's face, obscured by my bleeding eye but somehow still filling up my whole line of vision. I saw Barna catch him and then bend over him, holding the twin blades to my brother's throat, and when he pushed them in I closed my eyes and heard Hino scream, then fall horribly quiet.
I looked away – I could not see his broken body, I couldn't bear it – but I stopped then, for less than a second, just long enough to scream that I loved him.
And I ran. For nights, and weeks, and years after that, I ran.
The magic was ended and drained; the apparitions were gone.
I left Steiner, Eiko, and Garnet standing by the cliffs and went up to one of the high hills alone, thinking of Hino, thinking of too many things for my mind to hold onto. It is a curious sensation, having far too many half-formed thoughts and feeling them all bubbling and clamouring to get out. I was relieved, of course, but I was also very sad and felt like something inside me had been split open. The sight of Treno still lingered a few days after.
I tilted my face up to the sky. The sun was breaking out from high above, sending streams of cadenced light between the leaves. It was admittedly beautiful. I felt the presence of someone behind me and turned my head to see Steiner staring at me. "What?" My voice came out harsher than intended, and I was instantly sorry.
"I – er, I'm sorry." He scratched his head. "Sorry, Beatrix. You just look – ah – you just look so different like that. In the light. With your hair and—" He ended this inarticulate speech with a frustrated motion of his hands; his face was flushed a deep pink.
I pursed my lips, then slowly relaxed them into a smile. It felt strange on my face, but in a pleasant way, and I darted my eyes over to Eiko and Garnet, who were still on the cliff and oblivious to us. I walked to Steiner, paused, and then took his hands in mine. "Mission accomplished," I said, and to my great surprise, I laughed.
"Yes." He was thoughtful. "Beatrix, who is Hino?"
"I promise to tell you later," I answered, shaking my head. "Let's go home." And I did not disentangle my hands from his. We walked hand-in-hand down the cliff, each filled with the glory known only to soldiers who have finished their work and finished it well.
So what did I do after Hino? Not much. It seems like a forgotten dream to me now, those years between Treno and joining the Alexandrian army. The details are tactile rather than memorized – the hilt of my sword during a good fight, the feel of the wind on my face all the times I was alone on the trail. I never went back to Treno. I picked my way around places, just my sword and I, collecting bounties if I could.
There used to be a fighting arena in Burmecia, before the city was destroyed. I made quite a reputation for myself there. I never lost a match, and every fight I swallowed enough rain to drown in. I even had a hokey, showy name – Lady Cyclops. It was hardly flattering. I killed men, the demi-humans of Burmecia and otherwise, and people cheered on. You might think it was difficult for me, to kill a succession of unknown and innocent men, but you'd be wrong. I do not possess the same type of heart as most people. It wasn't hard.
It was easy. Because every man I fought, no matter what he looked like, had Barna's face, and Barna's eyes. He could have been a dwarf, or a rat, or anything – he was always my enemy, always the object of my hatred. Invariably, I went for the eyes in battle, a trait which made me known as particularly vicious; I actually enjoyed gouging the vision from my opponents. I wanted Barna to be eyeless, too.
I did tell Steiner the whole story, a few days later, when everything was settled and back to normal. Zidane had been calmed and relieved, Cid and Hilda ecstatic to have their daughter returned to them. We were sitting in my house, just Steiner and I, and I told all of it while we sat and did bloody innocuous things like drinking tea and eating biscuits. I told him about meeting Hino, about the bounty hunters, about Barna, and Hino dying, and my eye and running away.
My voice remained calm throughout the telling, and, when I had finally finished, I looked up at him and tried to read his thoughts. His expression was nearly unreadable; like any knights, he is skilled at keeping his emotions masked. Still, I knew what he was going to say before he said it.
"I want to see your face," he whispered.
"No," I answered abruptly. My voice sounded so unlike itself; it was whispery and tremulous and altogether disconcerting. "No, I can't, Steiner – it's just too awful. I've never shown anyone."
"I won't be repulsed."
"Beatrix." There was a quelled sort of intensity in his voice, indefinably reassuring, and I did not hesitate when he drew close to me and lifted his hands to my face. I knew that if he flinched, it would be with empathy, with pain, rather than disgust, but still I gritted my teeth. I trusted him, but I closed my good eye reflexively, not wanting to see his reaction. I felt the covering peel away from my eye and heard his sharp intake of breath. I knew what he was seeing; I'd seen it every day since I was twelve years old. A hollow, sewn hole – an empty scar in place of an eye.
"Oh – oh, Beatrix." The words were coarse, inarticulate, torn from the bottom of his throat.
"You wanted to see it, Steiner; I can't help it if you're horrified." I don't know what made me say this, but I kept my good eye steadfastly closed, and so I jerked when I felt his hands at my face again.
"I'm not horrified," he murmured, and then his palms cupped my cheeks, from temples to chin. I took a breath, slow and deep, then dared to open my eye. He was looking at me solemnly, and though he was depthless like everything else, it didn't seem that way. I met his gaze and we remained locked like that for an indeterminable amount of time, both taking in the countenance of the other. I was acutely conscious of my breathing, shakier than usual, and I tried futilely to steady it.
Then he leaned forward and dropped his arms so they went around me. It was awkward but it felt perfect, and he brushed his lips over my forehead, over my eyebrows, alert and uncertain, and, in that same instant, I pressed against him and bunched my fists up against his chest.
I didn't cry. I don't think it's possible for me to cry anymore. I only did it once; I wept the first night I left Treno, bleeding and alone and desperate. But, though I made no sound, I allowed Steiner to stay next to me and stroke my hair. I allowed myself to enjoy his presence, the mere sensation of another human being, and the feel of his fingers combing at my neck. It was a great luxury, and one I was not certain I could ever relinquish. I let him comfort me for all my ancient wounds in silence.
Later on, after infinite hours, I lifted my head. I thought he might have been asleep, but he wasn't – he was watching me silently. And I did what felt like the most reasonable thing in the world. I craned my neck up a bit and kissed him, and he kissed me back, soft and surprised, yet eager. It was comforting and already wonderfully familiar, as though his hands and mouth were an extension of myself. And, later – even later than that – I never thought the act of love could be so sweet and so full of life. I never thought until I was shown.
And, oh, how it was like coming home – like waking after a thousand years of sleep.