Disclaimer: I do not own The Legend of Dragoon or any of its characters or other copyrighted stuff.

A/N: This one really possessed me and wouldn't let me go until I finished it. I'm afraid it might make chapter twelve of SoR late, though. Sorry, guys, but I can't help it that my inspirations are sudden, strong, and often have bad timing. XD

Before you ask, no, not all of these facts are entirely canon. We know literally nothing about Mermaids in Endiness except that they exist, we're never told just how or when Syuveil or Damia died (we just know that it was in the assault on Kadessa), and we only know that the Emperor died at some point during the war. So I've embellished a bit for the sake of my story and consequentially put it all together kind of like I always imagined it. ;)

The Price of Valor

It had been years since Rose had even allowed herself to think about the war. Somehow, it all seemed less real if she just stayed secluded in the mountains and pretended that it was only a short furlough, one of the emperor's training exercises. There were times when she could even imagine that she would soon be returning to Vellweb to be greeted by a kiss from Zieg, a smile from Shirley, a hug from Damia, even a surly look from Kanzas. How she now missed those battles of wits and insults that she used to have with the Thunder Dragoon! It was amazing, really, the things one missed the most.

Zieg's laugh would have to be at the top of her list. How many times it had picked her up after those long, horrible days when nothing seemed to go right! If only it were possible to hear it again... But there were even brief, frightening moments when Rose couldn't remember what his voice sounded like, couldn't picture clearly in her mind the crystalline blue of his eyes, or forgot just how safe she had always felt when he held her in his arms.

Then there was Damia's innocent brightness, Shirley's gentle smile, Syuveil's boundless curiosity. What she couldn't give to hear again Belzac's preaching about morals and forgiveness, no matter how many ties before she had told him to put a cork in it or she would have Michael blast his tower to dust.

Even all this time later, it still felt wrong, somehow, to think about them all in the past tense. There were still some mornings when she would wake up expecting to hear the trumpets and find herself in her tower, dreading going downstairs to hear Kanzas and Belzac berate her for 'sleeping half the day away' even though she always woke not long after dawn.

And yet there was no denying the fact that they were gone. Walking again through the frozen, lifeless land that Imperial Gloriano had become only served to remind Rose of that. Kanzas had been killed by his own magic in taking down one of the Virage sentries; Syuveil had been trapped between two of the great beasts and had somehow managed to take them both out even as he was crushed between them; Belzac, the gentle giant, had been impaled by the Super Virage as he rushed to save Shirley -- noble Shirley, who had returned the favor by pouring the last of her magic into that arrow before disappearing in a flash of light beneath the support that Belzac had died holding up.

Then there was Damia. Young, sweet, innocent Damia, who had been brought into the war purely by chance, for without the Blue Sea Dragoon Spirit, she would never have made it into the war. Damia, who had always looked up to Rose, respected her, trusted her. But then, when the sixteen-year-old had needed her friend and comrade more than ever -- when it was no sneering bully or self-righteous commander that she faced, but an entire squadron of Wingly Elites -- she had fought and fallen alone.

Of course, they had all known that there was a chance they might not return. There had always been that risk. The emperor had warned them and, during the assault on Mayfil, he had proven it. Emperor Diaz, their great leader, their shining star, had met his own end at the gates of the City of Death. How ironic it was that this loss had prompted the final, furious assault on Kadessa that had cost so many lives.

For it was in the Winglies' Royal Capital Kadessa that six of the famed Seven Dragoon Warriors had been lost. It was at Kadessa that the dominance of the Winglies had ended, and it was at Kadessa that the heart of the Darkness Dragoon had been shattered.

If only Melbu Frahma hadn't been so determined not to let Zieg truly have the victory. If only that infernal Crystal Sphere hadn't been there to give him the magic boost that he needed. If only Zieg hadn't shot out ahead of everyone else, so eager to be rid of the Wingly dictator and give whatever was needed to be sure that happened.

But, Rose thought sadly, if he hadn't, he wouldn't have been the man I fell in love with.

For some reason, she couldn't seem to remember just when she had fallen in love with Zieg. Certainly, she remembered the first time she had admitted it to herself, and the first time she had admitted it to him, but somehow it really didn't feel like her love for him really had a beginning. It was as if it had always been there, waiting, until she was ready to accept it. Maybe it was the same reason that she was now certain that she would never stop loving him, either. They had won the world back fighting side by side, and it was because of him, and their friends, that Rose now fought on. Because she was still here, and they weren't.

Rose felt her chest burning as that thought resounded in her mind: I'm here.. and they're gone... They can't fight any more.. so I will carry on for them... However, no tears came to her deep blue eyes. There was nothing to cloud her vision of the snowkissed Fort Magrad, nothing to blur the images that came unbidden to her mind.

The Emperor standing up before them all, breathing inspiration and, in many cases, bloodlust into the Liberation Army with one of his famous speeches... The awe in the eyes of every soldier as Shirley, tall and beautiful but unrelenting in battle, walked through the ranks and challenged them to give it their all -- for their families, their friends, the countless numbers who had already fallen and whose blood cried out for vengeance... Damia, kneeling before the Emperor and swearing her allegiance even while Rose stood back with the rest of the Army, wondering if the girl would ever have the chance to avenge her loss... Belzac sitting by the fire, telling everyone who would listen about his 'inspiration,' the orphaned children in his home village who he knew were praying for him every day...

Fighting back an urge to scream just as loud as she could, to ask fate or destiny or whatever power had determined this why it should be so, Rose turned her back on the fort and followed her own footsteps back up the slope. Pretty soon, she realized, this path would be completely concealed again.. only this time, by the elements and not by human power. Even now, the way it was narrowed, it was hard to believe that troops had ever marched in and out of here, led by generals with wings. Rose had only been able to find it because she knew where it was, and she realized now that anyone else would probably have had no idea that it was here.

It was at the same time a wonderful and frightening thought, that she was already part of history, a legend.. and yet the greatest proofs of the triumph that she and her friends had fought for were already beginning to fade away. Out of thought and of the world, Rose thought sadly as she returned to the main path through the snowfield. How many of those we freed even know what the true price of their liberty was?

For the cost had indeed been high.. unbearably high, Rose thought sometimes. Perhaps, to the world, the six lives that had ended so abruptly, so prematurely, in Kadessa was an acceptable loss, even unbelievably light. But, even though each of those people had lived and fought with the knowledge that their lives might be required to make the revolution a success, it did not lessen the pain of the only Dragoon who had made it through that blood bath. Because she was also the only person who truly knew what that sacrifice meant, and probably the only one left who had been close enough to care.

Just how she had managed to fight her way through, even Rose didn't know. She had fought for her life, her friends, her people.. and especially for Zieg. There were times when she hadn't known where he was, whether he was alive or dead, but she had never let herself believe that she wouldn't see him again. It was what had kept her going, what had kept her fighting, and the reason she hadn't been able to give up. Even after everyone else had fallen.

The sky had turned the same indigo as Rose's armor by the time the young woman reached the entrance to the ruins of Vellweb. And ruins they were, because the once great stone city was abandoned and derelict. Probably, they all should have known that the city would be lost and forgotten when the war was won. It was really more of a fortress than anything, built and maintained for the sole purpose of battling the Winglies and winning the war.

Yet it was still sad to see it like this.. maybe because, in her mind's eye, Rose could still see it as it once was.

The seven towers dominating the landscape, along with the archers' posts, looming high above everything else... Kyleah, the smiling merchant, standing beneath the canopy of her cart and somehow always managing to talk everyone (well, except Kanzas) into buying something... Fero, the young blacksmith's apprentice, standing beside the forge and smiling at Damia, never quite seeming to notice anyone else when she was around... One of the orphaned children racing through the streets and tugging at Zieg's sleeve, asking him if he was going to get the bad people who hurt her daddy... Michael's shadow flickering across the ground as everyone looked up and a couple of scattered voices murmured about 'the hope of our people'...

If Rose had believed in any higher power (well, other than the so-called 'god of Destruction'), she would likely have cursed it then and demanded to know why she was doomed to this life. She had already fought for what felt like a lifetime for freedom from the Winglies, so why should she have to fight again now? Why should she be deemed a monster while she was still fighting for the human race, and all other races, for that matter? Why did she have to go on forever without the ones who had made life worth living?

Then she remembered something that Damia had said to her once, ten long years ago, on the eve of the assault on Kadessa. That girl had always had a way of making Rose feel both wise and foolish at the same time, probably because Damia had at once been so innocent and yet so mature beyond her years.

Rose had been in her room in her tower, gazing out the window across Vellweb and wondering if she would ever see it again when she had heard the familiar soft, almost musical voice of the half-Mermish teenager.

"Rose? Can I talk to you for a second?"

"Of course," Rose had answered, turning to meet Damia's gaze and attempting a reassuring smile.

"Rose, have you.. have you ever thought about death?"

Naturally, Rose had been quite bewildered by that, and so she had asked Damia to sit down and they would talk.

"Now, why are you asking something like that?"

"I've just been thinking. About tomorrow, and the Winglies... Rose, we'll be outnumbered a thousand to one as soon as we fly into Kadessa, you know that."

"I do. And I also know that I'm not running away, or giving up." A short pause, and then: "Damia, you know you don't have to do this."

"Yes, I do."

"You have your whole life ahead of you. No one would blame you if you were to stay behind."

"Rose, everyone would. They would say I'm a coward, and they wouldn't be wrong. I won't be left behind, not after everything that's happened."

Rose had then sighed and given in. "All right..."

"But.. I want to know. Have you ever thought about dying?"

"There have been times I thought I would die."

"That's not what I asked, though."

This had confused Rose, and she had admitted it. "I don't understand. What are you asking, then?"

"Have you.. ever thought about death. Death itself. About what happens when we die.. and what you want..."

"I don't know," Rose had admitted again. "We've all seen Mayfil, but.. I don't think that's how it's supposed to be. Or how it will be, now."

"Rose?"

"Mm?"

"If I don't make it.. do you think you can take me back to my mother?"

Quite understandably, Rose had been shocked by this sudden request. "Damia, you're not going to die."

Damia had just smiled in that sweet, happy way of hers and answered, "Of course I will. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not for years. But I will."

"You don't know that. Your mother is a Mermaid, and they're immortal."

"Mother is, yes. But I'm not. I just know, Rose. I know I'm not like her. I can't explain it any better than that."

"And you're all right with that?"

Damia had laughed, then; that high, beautiful laugh like the tinkling of tiny bells. "I have to tell you, Rose: after everything I've seen, I don't want to live forever. Really, I think Mother is the unlucky one. She's already lost Dad and Ilya, and I'm going to die some day... And she never will, not unless someone kills her."

"I suppose I had never thought of it that way."

"I don't think you ever do, unless you're faced with it. Have you ever lost someone you love?"

"I..." Rose had been taken aback yet again, but finally she had said, "Yes. My cousin, Radnor. He was.. my best friend. He died when I was your age, just before I met Zieg."

"Could you imagine living with that forever? Knowing that everyone you meet, everyone you love, will someday be gone and leave you behind?"

"No.. I can't."

"It's because you're mortal. And honestly, Rose.. we're lucky that way. We have to die some day, and then the pain will finally be gone."

"That's a steep price to pay, though."

"Not really. If you think about it.. it's a release."

Rose hadn't understood what Damia had meant then, but now it struck home, and the Blue Sea Dragoon had been right all along. At sixteen, Damia had understood what Rose could only comprehend now: Death was not an enemy. It was a torment for those left behind, it was all too often the price of valor.. but it was also the reward for those who were valiant.

People like Damia and Shirley... and Zieg.