Disclaimer: Don't own anything!
Author's Note: Is it strange that, when someone asks me what I want to do for a job or for college, that I reply "I don't know." but when I'm doing research for colleges, all I look for is their art programs?
When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.
She was a very different sort—or so she seemed to the Storyteller. She was nothing like elven women—or indeed, most human women—who were trained to be polite and quiet and submissive. She was fiery and opinionated and had a tongue sharp enough to rival most blades.
He rather liked this Anna.
Lloyd, their son, was curious and intuitive and seemed to never sit still. And his features were reminiscent of his father's, from the color of his eyes to the unruly hair. And the protozoan never left the boy's side, always with teeth ready to nip in reprimand or to yank Lloyd back by the collar, which happened fair often.
"I would not have imagined you for a family man." The Storyteller told Kratos one night, both standing on one of the high cliffs that surrounded his hut. The powerful winds whipped at their hair and, from here, nearly the entire canyon was visible.
"What did you imagine me as?" Kratos asked. This placed stirred at memories of a child's voice talking about a village in the mountains, about climbing high trees, of riding out a storm, of pomegranates and flocks of sheep.
"I'm not quite sure." The Storyteller confessed. "I did not think I knew you well enough to make such assumptions."
"And yet you still took us in."
"Clearly, you needed to hide from something rather large if you came here. I couldn't turn you away."
"You have my thanks, and Anna's as well, for doing this."
The Storyteller waved a veined hand. "No thanks are necessary."
"I think they are."
The Storyteller studied him, noticing that the stubbornness in his eyes was mirrored in the nearly unnoticeable lines that traced his face. He had still been young when Martel died and Mithos fell into madness, even by human terms.
"Perhaps they are." The elf agreed. "…Did you have a family…before?"
Kratos slanted a look at him sideways. "Not like this."
"It is a miraculous thing."
"You had a family once, did you not?"
"Yes. Yes, I did. More years back then I care to remember." The Storyteller found it odd to speak with Kratos because, for all the age that the elf felt, he knew that Kratos felt more years still. Millennia, even. And yet, Kratos still looked younger, still acted younger, occasionally. "She gave me two children and a warm home."
"My duties. I was only the apprentice to the present Storyteller at the time." He knew that Kratos had been alive then—of course he had—but he has no idea whether the seraphim remembers the pale shadow of a boy standing beside the previous Storyteller. "And she wanted to stay in the village, to let the our boys grow up around other children. I agreed with her, but…my place was here."
"Is she still alive?"
"No. She died several years back. My oldest son came to tell me."
Kratos didn't apologize, like most humans, and indeed, many elves, would have done. He knew what little use such platitudes were to those who had lost something. Instead, he bowed his head a little—in truth, it's little more than a nod—and bid him goodnight before returning inside.
Anna helped him with his vegetable garden, though she was the first to admit that she didn't know the first thing about gardening. The Storyteller simply smiled and said, "I shall teach you."
She was a quick study and he wondered what she would have been had the Desians not taken her. He knew the Desians only through tales and he was sure that he could not imagine their terror by dint of simply being Tethe'allan, but he knew that they had taken something from Anna that could never be returned.
"What is this?" Anna asked, looking curiously at one of the fruits that dangle from the branches of the trees. The fruit was lightly striped, much like a conch, in colors of grapes and blueberries and was shaped like a large pear.
"It is called korih. It is an elven fruit. Try it, if you wish to."
Anna bit into the fruit, teeth sinking into the soft skin. "It's sour!"
The Storyteller frowned and took a look at the fruit. "Ah yes. I miscalculated. These fruits are terribly picky. It is not yet ripe."
"Are they typically sweet?" Anna asked.
"Yes, very. Often, we use their nectar in place of sugar."
"You like the sourness?" The Storyteller asked, slightly perplexed.
Anna smiled, thinking of Triet. "We lived near this town for a long time. It was always hot there and their fruits were the sourest things I've ever tasted. And they use the nectars of the fruit a lot too; they use it in their stews in their rice and even in some of their bread."
"That sounds both strange and interesting."
Anna laughed. "That's what we thought too, but it's easy to get used to."
He taught her about the herbs that grew in the mountains and she spoke to him about what little she could remember of her childhood. She spoke of a sparkling lake and racing through the streets.
She asked him about elven culture, of their beliefs and how they lived and what they ate. There was no judgment in her. Or, if there was, he couldn't tell. Perhaps that was one of the things that Kratos liked about her.
"Daddy, tell story?" Lloyd asked as soon as his father stepped through the door. He was hardly tall enough to come up to Kratos' knee.
Kratos knelt beside his son. "What kind of story?"
"Star!" Lloyd exclaimed, eyes lighting up.
Kratos chuckled a little. "I should've guessed." He hoisted Lloyd up easily, sitting him so that one of Lloyd's legs was on each side of his neck. Anna followed them outside like it was a regular occurrence, though she sat on the window sill rather than stand by Kratos and Lloyd.
"Pick a star." Kratos told him.
Lloyd scanned the skies and pointed. "Tha' one!"
Kratos followed his finger and felt a twinge of hurt when he recognized the constellation that the star belonged to, and who had first told the story to him. "That constellation belongs to Undine. She is the Summon Spirit of Water and she protected sailors, their families and the sea elves, who are her people."
The Storyteller frowned as he listened. He had never heard anything of sea elves save for the legends told by older children to frighten younger siblings. The sea elves were supposed to be terrible creatures with pointed teeth and lovely faces who dragged sailors to their deaths.
"One day, there was a very bad storm and a ship sunk. There were three girls on that ship—sisters, who were so close, people said, that they could have been triplets. The girls were drowning, but their only wish was that they didn't want to be apart. Undine granted their wish and turned them into sea elves, so they would be able to breathe underwater.
"The sisters were so thankful that they asked to be able to serve Undine forever. And they still do, living in the waters near her Temple, which they guard against anyone who would hurt their mistress."
Lloyd was lightly snoozing by now, head resting on his father's hair. Anna rose from her seat to stand by them. "If that's true, they didn't attack us in all the time that we were at the Temple." She said quietly. Her voice was nearly stolen by the constant winds of this gorge and the Storyteller could hardly hear her, but Kratos seemed to have no such difficulties.
"We didn't mean Undine harm."
Anna hummed in understanding before reaching up to carefully lower Lloyd down. "Where'd you go today? You were gone when I woke up."
"Call it a surprise." Kratos told her, kissing her lightly.
No, the Storyteller thought, Kratos hadn't struck him as a family man, but he didn't seem to be doing such a bad job.
"No sign of them?"
"Very few. And they're difficult to track." Yuan told Yggdrasill. "I wouldn't be able to do it myself if I didn't know Kratos so well."
"They have to stop in the towns for supplies at some point."
Yuan shook his head. "Not necessarily. Kratos is with her. He knows enough tricks to keep them living off the land for months, at least."
Yggdrasill's eyes—piercing blue as they had been when Yuan had first met the too-skinny little blonde boy—narrowed at him. "And you have no idea where they could be?"
"I have theories, but they get crazier and crazier with each new one. Too many places are off the grid these days. They could be hiding anywhere."
Yggdrasill leaned forward, hands folded in a steeple. "Let's think about this logically then. If they plan to hide out in one place for any amount of time, it would have to have necessities. Particularly since they have the child with them."
Yuan mimicked him, looking at the maps spread out between them on the desk. "So, fresh water, relative safety from monsters, multiple ways to get out in cases of emergency, an easy food source."
"A river, perhaps?" A pale pianist finger pointed out several locations. "Have you searched in these places?"
Yuan studied the map. "Well, that particular river is under Forcystus' jurisdiction as it's in the Iselia Forest. And the other runs near Hakonesia Peak, which goes directly out into the sea. We checked that area, but I'll look again. As for the third, that is near the Ossa Trail."
"And what does that mean to you?"
"It means that Kratos would have two options there. Either raise his child underground, in the old dwarven mines, or risk A012 and his son getting pneumonia. It's autumn in Sylvarant, but the mountains are already freezing over."
Yggdrasill made a noise in his throat. "I may be wrong, but is that not crossing over into Kvar's territory?"
"It's stretching it a little, but yes, I suppose so."
"I think Kvar should take over the hunt in that particular area."
Even though Yuan knew that Kratos, Anna and Lloyd were well away from any danger in that area, indeed, in all of Sylvarant, he protested because this was Kvar that Yggdrasill was talking about. The monster that had done…those things to Anna and the other prisoners.
"To be quite honest, I don't think Kvar is capable of the job."
"No? And you've been doing so much better? If I didn't know any better, Yuan, I would say that you were misleading everyone in order to protect Kratos." Yggdrasill was no idiot. He knew how close Kratos-and-Yuan were, had seen it for himself. The idea that Yuan could betray Cruxis, that he would betray them, for Kratos, was not alien at all.
Yuan forced himself to remain perfectly calm. This was a dangerous game to be playing. "I'm not an idiot. There's no reason to protect Kratos at this juncture. All it would do is get me killed along with him and I'm quite fond of living, thank you very much."
It was a lie, but a well-crafted one and the words were ash in Yuan's mouth.
A mug was pushed into his hands and Yuan glanced up, somehow unsurprised to see Botta and half-expecting Kratos.
"You look like you need it." Botta said to the unasked question.
Yuan didn't question what the drink was. He simply gulped it down and inhaled sharply at the bitter alcohol that burned at his throat. He glared balefully at his second-in-command. "What, are we out of coffee?"
"Temporarily. I thought the alcohol would help a little more." Botta settled himself in one of the chairs across from Yuan's desk. "So, what's happened?"
"Kvar's on the search for them."
"I don't understand the problem. They're in Tethe'alla. Kvar can't touch them there."
"How long do you think that Kvar won't notice that there are no actual signs of them having been anywhere in Sylvarant? How long do you think it'll take him to start on the theory that they somehow went to Tethe'alla? Do you think that he won't hunt them down there?"
"…You said that they were with the Storyteller, who's an elf."
"Most half-elves wouldn't ever go anywhere near the elves. Here, in Sylvarant, we've been close to humans because we don't have much of a choice. There's no way we could get the money or the resources to build our own town or village. It's not an easy fact to face, but it's true."
Yuan looked at him over the rim of the mug. "Are you telling me this because you think I don't know what half-elves are like?" He asked quietly.
Botta winced inwardly. He'd forgotten again. He'd forgotten about the things that made up the man in front of him, forgot that he had seen, experienced, the War. "No. I'm telling you this because I think you've been away from half-elves outside of Cruxis or the Renegades for too long. We're all exceptions to the rules."
"I know that much better than you do."
"So why are you so concerned with Kvar? Even if he goes to Tethe'alla, it's likely he won't go anywhere near the elven lands."
Yuan raked a hand through his hair, massaging his temples. "See, I think the opposite. I think that Kvar is the kind of person that, since what he sees as his 'property' was stolen from him—and the way that Kratos did it probably doesn't help either—that he'll do whatever it takes to recover it. Including invading the elves, which may or may not start a small war."
This, Botta realized, was the crux of the problem. None of them had seen war. Not real war. Not anything even close to the scale that he knew Kratos, Yuan and Yggdrasill had lived and fought through.
"You don't want it to."
"Of course not. What sane man wants war? And if a war does start, Yggdrasill is likely to simply wipe out the elves."
"He would do that?" Somehow, the way that Yuan said it, so bluntly and casually, made it difficult for Botta to believe it, though he knew that Yggdrasill was, and had been, doing much the same to humans for centuries, if not millennia.
"What, commit genocide?" Yuan said with a twisted smile that was very nearly a grimace. "It wouldn't be the first time."
"So what do you plan to do about all this?"
"To be perfectly honest? I don't know. My position right now is very delicate. Yggdrasill doesn't trust me. And if he interrogates me, I can't say with any certainty that I wouldn't give the Renegades away."
Botta rested his forehead on his hands. Yuan was honest. That was one of the reasons he'd chosen to continue following him. This kind of honesty, however, was brutal and harsh. For whatever reason, the notion that Yuan could break to that extent had never quite occurred to Botta.
"Sir," Botta began, not quite sure where he was going with this. "Do you think that's likely to happen?"
"It doesn't matter whether it's likely or not. 'S the problem with dealing with madmen. If it's on the table, then it's in the realm of possibility that Yggdrasill will do it."
"How would we know? If you gave us up?"
Yuan looked across the desk at him. This was another reason why Botta had struck him as a good second-in-command. Besides being loyal and smart, he was practical. He wouldn't ask about the why's or look around helplessly. No, he was going straight for what would happen if the possibility ever came true.
"Most likely? You wouldn't get a warning. You'd see angels coming down on the base and light coming from the sky."
"…We can give them decoys."
Yuan stilled. If this was going where he thought it was going… "Elaborate."
"I and a few others can pretend to be caught. We'll pretend to give up locations or rumors. If you catch us, it should placate Yggdrasill, if only for a while longer."
"No. Absolutely not."
Something about the seraphim's automatic refusal chafes Botta's temper. "Yuan, you don't have many options right now."
"There are better options than that. I'm not putting you all up for torture or as bait. There are other ways of getting around this."
Yuan's eyes were fiery and stubborn and Botta thought that this was what Yuan must have been like four thousand years ago, when he, Kratos, Martel and Mithos had spoken of ending a war that had been going on for generations.
"Then you had best think of them before we're boxed into a corner." Botta told him before standing and leaving his office.
Yuan stayed in his chair, so unmoving that one might think he was a statue, until long after the sun had set in the windows and the night sky settled itself over the world.
"You're a hard man to find."
Kratos looked up, surprised to see Yuan. Or anyone at all, really. "How did you find me?"
Yuan gave him a look as he pushed himself off the tree he had been leaning against. "Really? You have to ask? I know you better than anyone."
Yuan surveyed the small clearing. In truth, Yggdrasil had not been far off in his thoughts. He could hear a small stream nearby and, in the middle of this forest, there would be no shortage of food. Life was everywhere.
"So what's all this?" Yuan asked, gesturing at the ax and the logs already cut. "Thinking of taking up woodcutting?"
"I thought you knew me better than anyone." Kratos threw his words back at him with a slight smirk.
Yuan blinked at him and wondered how he couldn't have seen it sooner. "You are disgustingly domesticated, d'you know that?" Kratos arched an eyebrow at him and Yuan knew he didn't really have room to argue. After all, hadn't this situation been somewhat reversed once upon a memory? "One of the dangers of being married, I suppose."
"What's happened?" Kratos asked quietly. Yuan wouldn't be here, now, unless something had gone wrong.
"Kvar's been sent out to hunt you and Anna. Anna specifically."
Kratos cursed under his breath and Yuan was grateful that he didn't have to go through the same conversation he'd had with Botta about why, exactly, this was bad. "You didn't try to stop it?"
"Yggdrasill doesn't trust me as much anymore. Yes, I know. Shocking."
"Not really the time for sarcasm, Yuan."
"…I'm afraid he'll torture me." The half-elf admitted, not looking at Kratos. Rather, his eyes were looking out at the forest, but Kratos knew that that wasn't what he was seeing. He was seeing the possibilities, seeing Martel's face swim before him.
Kratos knew that it wasn't the idea of torture that had Yuan nervous. Torture was nothing they hadn't experienced before. It was the idea of the kind of torture that Mithos could do to them.
(…I saw you dead…)
"I don't want to give them up, even if I don't mean to. They're-"
Yuan didn't need to finish the sentence. Kratos understood the sentiment. The Renegades were family now too. It was strange, to have so many people in that category. It was just the two of them for so long.
"What do you need?"
"I'm not asking you to give yourself up for this, Kratos." Yuan said, affronted.
"I know. And besides, even if I was offering, you'd never accept."
"I need a plan. I need something to keep Kvar focused on something else."
"You have your Renegades."
Yuan glared darkly at him. "You think Botta hasn't suggested it?"
"I wasn't talking about bait." Kratos said calmly. "You're panicking."
"No, I'm not." Yuan snapped. And perhaps Kratos was right, just a little, because Yuan didn't want to see what he knew Mithos was cruel enough to show him, didn't want to see Martel's smiling face and hear her voice (But, oh, wouldn't it be lovely to see her again…you loved her…love her still, even after all this time…) and he knew that, if Martel asked it of him, even if she was little more than a hallucination or a solid memory in front of him again, made almost alive by Mithos' magic (But not quite because Martel was dead, dead and gone and she can't come back) that he would do anything for her.
And that included betraying the Renegades.
"Yes, you are. You're not thinking straight and you need to get your act together or else all the things you've worked for these past three years are going to go on a very fast trip to Hell."
Yuan didn't look at Kratos, focusing instead on rooting himself back in the here and now. Possibilities did nothing but twist your mind around until you didn't know which was up.
"…Supplies were going to be sent to Palmacosta." Yuan said and in his mind, he could see the supply routes, could see the wagons that the Desians would be using. "The Desians were there and some of the people rebelled. We can hijack the supplies, redistribute them to the people rather than the Desians."
"I see one problem with that though." Yuan glanced at him questioningly. "Palmacosta is Magnius' territory."
"But the supplies are coming from Kvar's ranch because his continent is the richest in terms of living supplies. He's got two well-travelled towns and Hima, which always has the essentials for travellers. And Kvar doesn't like people taking what he sees as his."
"If that's your plan, why are you still here?"
"…He won't kill me. If he does decide to torture me, he won't kill me."
And it was because of a promise made to a dying sister four thousand years ago.
"And neither will I." Kratos told him. They had been over it, time and time again. They had done the song and dance of suicide and please kill me when the weight of the years became too unbearable. But something in them was not yet ready to die. Their hands always trembled with the knife and they'd back away in dim horror. "Those Renegades need you."
"You don't have to tell me that. I don't intend to die. But…Mithos is unpredictable. If, somehow, he manages to break me…"
Kratos nodded. Yes, only then would he kill him. Because surely, death was better than living for eternity lost in your own mind.
"Kvar is looking for us." Kratos told Anna quietly. They're sitting outside, legs hanging over the side of the cliff and Lloyd curled up with Noishe. It was…not quite quiet here, for the winds were always howling and the waterfall constantly roaring, but it was a strange kind of serenity.
"…He won't stop." Anna said, turning her left hand over so that she could see the Exsphere on the back. "He wants this too badly."
"Yuan thinks that he can keep Kvar distracted for a while longer."
"Do you believe him?"
"His plan will work. They always do. The problem is that there are only so many plans that can work." Kratos hesitated slightly. "He was right. We cannot run forever. Eventually, we'll run out of hiding spots."
"Do you have a plan? Or is it going to be a 'make it up as we go along' sort of thing?"
"There is a plan."
Anna looked sideways at him, leaning back on her hands. To Kratos, it was difficult to believe that Anna had ever been anything but what she was now; free and strong and confident. "Does this plan of yours have anything to do with where you've been disappearing off to during the day?"
Anna grinned at him. "At least I don't have to worry about you going off with some other woman."
That made Kratos laugh. "Such an optimist."
"Well, someone has to get you out of your morbid moods."
"Are you suggesting that I'm moody?"
Anna's smile was wide and wicked as she stood. "I would never dare to do such a thing."
"No, of course not." Kratos grumbled as he followed her lead. "Because you haven't done crazier things."
"You're looking at it the wrong way." She said, linking her arm with his. "At least it was exciting."
"Not at the moment."
"Well, of course not. Nothing's exciting when it's happening. If it's terrifying in the moment, then it'll be something to look back with hindsight and say, 'I probably should've thought that out better.'"
"Do you ever think that we have too many of those moments?"
"Not at all. They tend to make life interesting, in the good way or otherwise."
How strange was it, Kratos thought, that not four years ago, life had been monotonous and grey. He had been there when everything was happening, would be here when it all ended and, quite possibly, he and the other seraphim would stand from the ashes and do it all over when it all began again. Before, that had been a tortuous thought.