Author's Note: A few spoilers alluded to, though nothing's actually mentioned in specific. Nothing about endgame, more Jade's past. Light Jade/Tear, more an exercise in characters but very fun. Enjoy and let me know what you think!
The winter pressed in all around them, hemming the small party in from all sides. It was like trying to fight off a wet blanket that seethed around you, with each struggle it only grew heavier, as though gravity itself were being altered by the storm's furious winds. The whiteness of the snow pricked her eyes when she looked up and she shivered, wishing that they could have had to go somewhere warmer. But what occupied her mind more was the thought of whether or not it was possible to feel colder from a person than an atmosphere, when she nearly stumbled into a snowdrift.
Tear felt the soft pressure of a hand on her arm, keeping her balance. Gravity pulled her but the arm pulled back, asserting an equilibrium of forces. She looked up.
"Be careful. Who knows what's been buried under all this snow?" The Colonel shrugged as though brushing off a thought, as though the cold didn't affect him at all. "While I'm sure contending with an ice monster would be a welcome change of pace from this thrilling trek, I'd like to avoid them until we've reached Keterburg and rested."
She nodded, loosing her arm from his grasp without a contest. It wasn't like she tracked his moods, but something about Jade felt... different. And, from what she could see, as his inscrutable back walked away from her, it wasn't the good kind of different. But what could worry a man like that?
Tear wasn't sure that she wanted to find out.
Over the snow, she heard the others call out various forms of abuse to Luke.
"You sure this is the right way?" Anise yelled above the wail of the wind. "Because if Ion freezes, Luke, you are gonna be so-"
"Anise, I'll be fine." Ion said, and Tear didn't need to see him to know that he was trying to reassure her with a smile. "I hope I'm not slowing everyone down."
"Ion!" Anise wailed, and sounded like she was about to say more before Guy pointed out the town lights in the distance and they hastily rushed toward them.
Once in Keterberg, though, even with the comforting prospects of food and lodging for the night arranged for them by Nephry, Tear still felt chilled. As a soldier, she'd long learned not to show her weaknesses or let her feelings be read, but there was something about this town that made her uneasy. Or maybe it was just that she wasn't used to seeing the Colonel so against (well, for him, anyway) going somewhere.
She had a feeling that there was more to it than he'd let on, much more. He was also the kind of person that didn't advertise his feelings, and Tear knew from personal experience that the slightest deviation from a normal routine could express volumes. Being trained in detection by the intelligence division of the Oracle Knights had its benefits.
She wandered by the window and stared out on the square below, sorting through her thoughts. The girls' room afforded a nice panorama of the square and its surrounding walkways: children being gathered up by their parents and carried home for the night, lights in the igloos they'd passed and the streetlights surrounding the hotel sparking to life, flickering in the chilly wind that tapped the window glass like an invitation, and couples bundled up for the winter weather promenading along the streets, watching the sunset turn to dusk.
"Oooh, who's that?" Anise squealed, coming to see what was going on beside her. "Looks like Luke really was hiding something in the lobby, huh?"
Tear jerked her head away from a couple, one of which had seemed oddly familiar, and looked where Anise was pointing. And sure enough there was Luke, running off without a cloak into the storm, in the direction of...
"Huh." Anise frowned. "Why's Luke going to Nephry's?"
Tear was about to say that she really had no idea and didn't care because it was Luke's business (and she doubted that he could really get himself into that much trouble anyway, let alone have all that much to hide that she wouldn't hear about later), but Natalia joined them then and offered her opinion on the subject.
"I think it's splendid," she pronounced, "that Luke is going somewhere tonight, don't you? He's been trying so hard to make up to everyone, that it's..."
She broke off, staring out the window vaguely with a strange expression on her face.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah." Anise waved it off. "Nephry's married anyway, so it's not like it's a threat. Unless... ooh! Do you think Luke would be the kind of guy to chase after someone else's wife? That would be so daring!"
"No!" Natalia gasped. "I don't believe it!"
Tear was about to interject when Anise gasped too and pointed.
"H-hey, Tear? Can you look at this and tell us that we're both imagining what we think we're seeing? Or that it's just a bad hallucination from too much really good food?"
Obligingly, Tear followed the direction of Anise's finger until she found that it was singling out the couple that she'd been watching before. And then, when the man turned (or even from how the man turned, she'd recognize him), Tear knew that there was a good reason that she'd thought he looked familiar because-
"Oh, I knew it!" Anise cried. "It is the Colonel! Eww, that's so weird. Hey, who's he with?"
"Anise?" Natalia questioned archly. "Is it any of your business?"
"Blackmail!" Anise chirped in her sweetest voice. "Besides, wouldn't it be fun to let who-ever-it-is know that she's promenading with the Necromancer?"
"That's most uncalled for!"
Tear let them squabble, instead watching Jade and the girl as they passed lamp after lamp in the darkening square.
And yet, despite her desire not to get involved, Tear found herself wandering through the streets later. She had a vague feeling that this was a conspiracy, because both Natalia and Anise had made it seem essential that she had to go off to see what was going on with Luke and Nephry.
"But she's married." Tear had protested. "I don't think that she'd do something like that."
"Older women have been known to do dangerous things for love." Anise said knowingly, earning herself a glare from Natalia that looked fairly dangerous in and of itself.
Tear tried a new tactic. "But she's Jade's sister!"
Anise arched a brow meaningfully. "Uh, is that supposed to help your case or ours? Besides, this is Luke we're talking about."
"What does that have to do with it?" Tear asked, now thoroughly puzzled. Anise rolled her eyes.
"We just think that you should, ah..." Natalia frowned, searching for the right way to say it, "see exactly what's going on for yourself. He has been gone a long while, after all. We're worried."
Once Tear was out of earshot, Anise heaved a sigh of relief. "Man, they'd better thank us after all this work. I don't want to give up on a duchy, but..." She smiled winsomely at Natalia, "with a future duke and duchess for friends who owe it to us for bringing them together, there's bound to be some perks, right?"
Natalia sniffed in response. "Oh, honestly, Anise. As the heir to the throne of Kimlasca-Lanvaldear, I am not looking for 'perks.' This exercise is just to help them work out whatever's between them so we can function better as a team. Nothing more."
The young girl grinned deviously in response. "You just wish I were setting you up with Asch instead."
And with that, the princess in a state of mortified embarrassment and the girl in a cheery mood headed back up to their room from the lobby.
After a few minutes of being out in the cold, Tear wished that she could be back in the lobby as well. She meandered through the streets of Keterberg, trying to decide whether she actually would go to find Luke or just say that she had. The latter was looking better the more she thought about it.
All the couples and children had gone home and no one was out except for the cold and her. The snow, coming down on the town more thickly at night as the temperature dropped, swirled and obscured her vision, blurring the streetlights and hiding the directions on the stone walkways.
She had just about given up on finding Luke when a hand closed around her shoulder, strangely warm against the cold outside. Startled, she jumped and spun around.
"My, how strange finding you out at this time of night. I was expecting Luke."
Jade Curtiss' ever-smiling face grinned down at her, lit by the foggy glow coming from a streetlight. Tear shivered, cursed her lack of control, and resolved not to let the cold affect her any more than it had.
"Colonel," she nodded, taking a stab at regaining her composure. What he could be doing here? "I was actually just-"
"Looking for him, too?" Jade shook his head. "How irresponsible of him, worrying everyone out into the cold when he goes out late at night for reasons unknown. But," he paused and looked at her critically, "you're hardly dressed for this weather."
Tear blinked. She hadn't exactly expected that.
"You're just wearing your uniform, too." She deflected the comment. "You must be cold as well."
He shrugged. He seemed to have some sort of tolerance for just about every unpleasant situation, which was weird because ever since they'd entered this town she'd been getting an uncomfortable feeling from him. Almost like...reluctance?
But no, this was the Colonel she was talking about. The man known across the higher levels of every country's military as the Necromancer, the Malkuth Emperor's ace in the hole when it came to strategy, and, as Tear knew firsthand, a formidable opponent in his own right. Reluctance wasn't the sort of emotion associated with people like him. If he needed to do something, whether it was taking down an enemy or executing a complicated maneuver in battle, he did it without shirking.
And then she remembered something he'd said in passing. "Colonel, this is the city you grew up in, isn't it?"
Sighing, Jade adopted an expression of mock-chagrin. "Unfortunately, yes. Though I wouldn't call it a city. It is strange, though," he said, looking off at the tall building that stood behind them, "to see what changes and what doesn't when you've been away."
Tear nodded. "I've never really known anywhere else as my home other than Yulia City, and that doesn't change very much. More things break that can't be fixed, but for the most part it stays the same."
"Or it changes so little each time you leave that you don't realize it when you come back." He added, glancing at her before looking back at the house. "It's almost kinder that way."
"Kinder?" Tear repeated, folding her hands together for warm. "Because it's too much seeing it change all at once?"
"You're getting cold. You ought to go back."
Why did he care? Tear wondered. Jade wasn't the kind of person to express concern for others; she'd learned early on that he was primarily focused on his own affairs. She did pick up that he'd dodged her question but she let it go, shrugged at his concern, and asked whether the house they were in front of was his.
"What, this?" He asked incredulously. "Oh no, it's much too nice. Though, I probably spent as much time in it, if not more than in my own house."
She was about to ask why, her breath coming out shaky, when she suddenly found herself losing balance again...
Someone was breathing on her shoulder. Lightly, she thought, like what snowflakes would feel like if they were warm instead of cold.
She opened her eyes, felt a little dizzy, and saw the snow spiraling over the brick sidewalks again, though this time it was over a blue lapel. She didn't feel as cold as she had before for some reason and she relaxed, feeling strangely sleepy. Her legs were wobbly and she could feel them buckling underneath her, as she leaned against the blue lapel.
"I really wasn't joking about hypothermia." The voice said again. "But I suppose it's best no to get my hopes up that you children to listen when I voice my concerns for your health. Ah well."
Jade, she realized, hazily. His shoulder's so soft...
She stayed like that for a few moment's more before the realization set in. The Colonel!
Tear attempted to break out of his arms, but found that she couldn't without losing her balance again. Maybe her endurance really wasn't all that great where cold was concerned. He held her closer.
"You need to warm up." He replied to meet a forthcoming objection. "Were you able to stand? No? You're cold, and unfortunately for you, I am the warmest and closest object. It's no night to be out like this."
"You were." Tear managed to say, though her teeth nearly chattered as she fought to get the words out. "With that girl?"
Jade cocked his head and appeared bemused. "I was unaware I had an audience."
Sensing that this sounded a lot more personal than she'd intended it to, Tear blushed and attempted to correct him, say that, no, really, Anise and Natalia had pointed it out, but she only managed to get out, "Why?"
"I don't presume that your relationship with your sibling is the same as mine with Nephry. You must have noticed after today's meeting, that we are...somewhat lacking in familial affection. I confess, I do enjoy making her life more difficult whenever I get an opportunity."
Tear smiled and found that she could breathe a little more easily than before. "Van seems to like doing that, too. But tonight was...?"
"You wouldn't believe the amount of gossip that a village girl is willing to part with for a chance to walk on the arm of someone with a high rank from the military." He shrugged modestly.
Tear nodded, comprehending. "Oh. So your objective is to pick up on Van's motives aboard as well as terrify your sister when rumors of you courting some girl start to surface."
"Courting?" His lips quirked at one end at the word. "Perhaps. We should head back to the Hotel. Leave Luke to me, I'll make sure that he makes it back safely."
Something was nagging at her. They were halfway to the Hotel when she figured out what it was.
"Why don't you like coming to this place? It seems like a nice town."
Jade let his shoulders rise and fall. "Would you enjoy coming back to the place where Dist grew up?" He grimaced. "Thank you but no, I think I prefer the unsullied climes of Grand Chokmah instead."
She laughed as he led her to the Hotel steps. "You never give anyone a straight answer."
He smiled back. "Do you expect me to?"
"I wouldn't expect to talk about our siblings and be walked back to an inn by the Necromancer, but..." Tear laughed again, a little in awe of herself. She shouldn't feel this happy when she thought about taking on Van. Even though Jade had made it seem laughable when he'd compared her brother to Nephry, she had to keep reminding herself to keep a straight face, not give anything away, because this man wasn't someone she could trust...
But she found herself wanting to anyway.
"The Necromancer," he murmured and stepped closer to her, blocking the chill wind. "That is what they call me. But," Tear could feel the warmth of his breath, he was so close, "do you know..."
He stopped and she waited, her heart beating faster for some reason when she met his eyes. This was is. The grand confession, why he was known by that name, this was the thing that he was dreading, she was sure of it, and this city was bringing it out. When he paused, she even had the last syllable of his question on her tongue, ready to supply it when he leaned in, brushed his lips across her forehead, and, as he left her, whispered:
"I'd rather you call me Jade."
Tear made her way back up the steps by herself, shakily, thinking that it didn't make sense. When she turned to glance back or even ask what he'd meant by doing that, he had already disappeared again into the storm. She stared at the snow for a moment, then went back into the Hotel, concocting a passable story for Anise and Natalia but doing so distractedly, her hand occasionally drifting back to touch her forehead as though at assure herself that everything had really happened. It wasn't until Anise had gone to bed in a huff, extremely disappointed that her plan had gone awry, and Natalia left, knowledgeably not pressing the matter, that Tear got a chance to piece it out.
Wrapped in blankets, she sat by the windowsill again. She was sure that the Colonel hadn't meant to end that sentence the way he did, that he'd been on the verge of saying something more, but then had decided against it and opted for a distraction.
That must have been what the kiss was, nothing more. Her head was still swimming from it. It would have been (and maybe had been, for a while) a perfect tactic to distract her from what he'd been about to reveal, because it had to be an act. Because no way would Jade the Necromancer express his feelings like that.
If he had feelings, Tear thought peevedly. Not like she'd want them.
It was all making her head spin, so many questions and so little answers, all of them surrounding one man in a blue uniform, who was even now wandering through the streets of Keterberg, looking for someone he needed to talk to.
Even as Tear drifted off to sleep, the snow crunched under his boots as he waited for his query to appear. He waited for the door to the governor's house to open, and when it did, he set off back to the Hotel. He thought about his previous visit, and what had almost transpired, then decided that it was probably for the best that only one of them found out tonight anyway.