Recipient: Manna/Kitten Kisses
Quote: "And the stars just sit there and glimmer like they don't notice how we're dying inside, and the rain still pours and mocks us in our death, and the world goes on when all the hearts are broken."
Element: Water (Chinese)
Notes: Loved all three prompts, but settled on this one because most of my ideas for the other two were going to be used in War is Kind anyway. This is in fact an alternate take on "A Thousand Snows" - basically a "what if" scenario, or how big a difference just one missing conversation might have made. Didn't actually use the quote directly though... it didn't turn out quite like I was planning and I'm not sure it will make much sense. D:
(I had actually finished this back in December but wasn't satisfied with it. Here is the semi-edited version, almost eight months late, but at least in time for your birthday? XD)
Go Not Gently
Not until a month after Fiora received the black letter did the cruel finality of loss strike her at last.
It arrived neither suddenly nor at once; rather, it was the slow unraveling of years and years of pain and grief she had kept carefully bundled away - all undone by a single word.
"Sorry," said Sain, and the most ridiculous thing about it was that he had nothing to be sorry for, absolutely nothing at all. In fact, he'd been apologizing for something silly - taking the last stick of fish, perhaps, or for accidentally brushing against her as he did so, she didn't know. Whatever it was, it unleashed the beginning of an ebb and flow of memories and dreams and regrets she had thought long forgotten. It was surprisingly gentle, more like a ripple in the stillness than like the torrent of messy emotions she had dreaded, but perhaps because of that it hurt all the more.
Even then she did not weep. As if watching herself from high above, from upon her pegasus's back, she saw the pieces of her life shift and settle into patterns both old and new, like a puzzle laid out in all its cold, clear logic.
It was while cleaning out her pack of essentials a few days later that she found an old Nabatan dagger among her belongings. She recognized it instantly as a memento of her childhood, a gift from a generous merchant in the year of the great famine. The blade had long since grown brittle with rust.
Iron and steel: impractical in the frozen wastelands of the north, but necessary nonetheless. And yet compared to her trusty hunting knife, carved from bone and antler, the dagger had been a useless trinket, valuable perhaps only to a collector. Even so, Fiora had kept it, cherished it through that long dark winter as a reminder - of what, she could no longer say - and ultimately forgotten about it.
She held it up now in the dimming light, as if waiting for something to happen. She could almost hear it: a distant echo of her sisters' bubbling laughter by the ashes of their empty hearth, penetrating through the deathly silence, chasing away both wind and hunger. In the end, she walked out the door and tossed the dagger into the darkness, as far as it would go.
Another week passed. She let Sain drag her to the local tavern for a round of drinking, and if he was surprised by her uncharacteristic rashness, he did not let her know. Afterwards, they stumbled out together and sprawled out on the riverbank. There they laid, silent but still warm from the ale.
"Florina," she declared, "could outdrink us all."
Sain laughed, as she had known he would. "Surely you jest! Sweet little Florina?"
"You should have seen her at the Festival of the Ice Dragon every year. She was like a different creature altogether, when she'd crawled out of her shell. You'd have barely recognized her."
"I can hardly imagine it! Why, that one festival we had in Caelin that year, she spent the entire time hiding behind Lady Lyndis!"
"It was all Farina's fault. Always teasing her so horribly. Tricking her into downing that mug of hard cider when she was just seven - Though maybe it was my fault too. For being so overprotective. I wouldn't let them attend the celebrations, not until they were old enough. But they snuck off anyway when I wasn't paying attention. It was always like that. I wonder when we started to..."
What was it about this night, this still, moonlit night, that shattered her reticence, that stilled his tongue, swallowed his usual eloquence? She laughed, because that seemed like the right response to such absurdity, but halfway through it turned into a choked sob.
"It's not fair," she said. "It's so stupid. I've always known... life isn't fair. It's never been fair. Not for us."
"But," he said quietly, "that doesn't mean you have to accept it."
Strange how rationally, how coolly she could think of it all, even now that the dam had broken. Perhaps it was because it seemed like an old argument she and Farina had often had as children. It doesn't have to be this way, Farina would scream, and always Fiora would reply, But it is. "How can I rage against something I have no control over? People die every day, for reasons far more random and absurd. There is nothing absurd about illness."
"But it is absurd," he argued. "Tell me, Fiora, when you chose the path of the pegasus knight, did you imagine that you would succumb to disease? Or that you would fall on the battlefield?"
"It has nothing to do with choice. Actually, I think it was probably better this way. Florina - she was never suited for this path. Do you know what it's like, as a sister? Going to bed every night thinking that this may be your last, or their last. Always afraid. Knowing that the fate of women in war, on the battlefield or off, is never kind. I'm not like Farina. I don't delude myself - with the idea that men are useless, powerless, that... Do you even know what happens to most of the girls who depart on their training journeys? Everyone knows. But no one does a thing about it. Because that's just the way things are. You survive it, or you don't. You break, or you become stronger. Florina was lucky: she met Lady Lyndis. She fell in with - good people. Good men. She was always lucky, Florina. A blessed child..."
"But this was the path she chose. That you all chose."
"I wonder. Sometimes, I think it's the only choice we ever have..." She closed her eyes. "She had another choice, in the end, you know. And she chose to retire and marry."
"If you'd been in her place, what would you have chosen?"
This time, the words spilled before she could stop them. "Why did you come? Why would anyone choose to come to this damned place? You had a life in Caelin. Friends, comrades, a purpose. Why throw all that away?"
"Because," he said, "I love you."
He proceeded to ruin the effect by coughing and spluttering and mumbling something about... trees? But it didn't matter, because she was laughing so hard that tears were streaming down her face, and despite the alcohol her mind felt surprisingly clear.
"I wouldn't have," she said through her tears, "couldn't have. Made the choice she did. She was the bravest of us all. She didn't deserve to -"
Sain said, "I know."
The stars reflected as distant, blurry points of light on the river's surface. She reached out for a pebble, tossed it at the reflection, watched as the ensuing ripples distorted the pattern before fading back into stillness.
Nothing had changed. Nothing remained the same.
"I'm scared," she whispered.
"I'll protect you. I swore I would."
"I'm scared that I'll - forget. I don't want it to have all been for nothing. Her life, mine, ours..." The Dread Isle flashed once more through her mind, the rain falling and falling, washing away all the blood and grime, a mockery of the sacrifices they had all made.
"You won't forget," he said.
"Will you come with me to Edessa?"
He bolted upright and clasped her hand, grinning like a fool. It should have surprised her, that he knew instantly what she meant and intended. But somehow, it did not.
"But of course! My beautiful goddess - oh, how long have I awaited for these words from your soft lips! Rest assured, I shall fight for you until the end of time! For justice - and for love!"
"Silly," she said, wondering if he knew how crazy, how irrational it was to dream of changing the river's course in a single lifetime, and deciding that he probably didn't, and that even if he did he didn't care. So she said nothing more, and they stayed there, hand in hand, watching the river flowing ever on, until the first hint of dawn crept over the sky.
Something within her died again that night, she thought. But this time, in its place, fragile little seedlings took root.
For the first time in years, she dreamed of a time when she would no longer be afraid to grieve.