the end of a long season


"Somewhere the flower of farewell is blooming.

Endlessly it yields its pollen, which we breathe.

Even in the breeze of this beginning hour we breathe farewell."

-Rainer Maria Rilke, Uncollected Poems


"No soldier outlives a thousand chances. But every soldier believes in Chance and trusts his luck."

Erich Maria Remarque


They are leaving a blood trail wide enough to bring the entire mountain down upon them both, but it can't be helped. They are tiring quickly, and the only thing holding either of them up is the solid, unwavering pillar of Freya's guilt.

"A moment," she says, and he can hear what is costs her to say it. She breathes in, her hat drawn low on her face, and then says more quickly, "Stop."

It isn't that she drops him. He simply drops.

He doesn't let go of the wound on his abdomen even when he hits the ground. Freya has spoken the seven names of Rei over it, she has done the best she could, but her best is not up to undoing one unlucky strike from a grand dragon. Amarant's one stroke of luck had been that the damn thing hadn't shaken him upside down just to see what change would fall out.

Amarant lurches upright and comes to rest heavily with his back against a rock, breathing slow and determined through his nose. He is drenched in sweat, even as dehydrated as he is, and he realizes his mistake as soon as he settles.

He won't be able to rise to his feet again. Not now.

If this has occurred to Freya, she makes no sign. She limps gamely to an outcropping of stone, the silver of her hair turned to gold in the fading light. Her coat is in tatters, the bright colors faded by wind and sun. Her spear lies shattered on the mountaintop, the haft still snapped off somewhere in the stomach of the dragon.

She looks back to him. Her jaw is steady. "We can reach Gizamaluke's from here."

Amarant grunts. "Can't see how another dead dragon's supposed to help, rat."

She does not respond to the dig. Freya cannot be goaded by the dead, and better men than Amarant have tried.

He struggles to focus his eyes on her as she makes her way down from the stone, and limps back over to him. "With luck, we can make it there by tomorrow," she says, neutral and precise. Her helmet is drawn low, the red leather scuffed and battered, and her eyes mere pinpricks of light beneath.

"Luck ain't got much to do with us at this point."

She comes to a stop at his feet, still poised, even now. The wind snaps at the edges of her coat, yanking her to the side, but she stands firm, just as her voice is firm. "They have healers. They are familiar with dragon wounds. They can save you."

"Then we should have brought 'em with us."

She tightens her jaw, her claws curling in her tattered sleeves.

Amarant closes his eyes, his breath shallow in his chest. He can hear the effort it costs her not to speak. A smile jerks the corner of his mouth upward, and he struggles not to laugh. Laughing would make him vomit, and vomiting would tear him in half.

Freya watches him, her eyes glittering. He can watch the words form in her head, but Amarant does what he has only ever done and beats her to the punch.

"Get lost, rat."

To her credit, she doesn't so much as flinch. "No."

"Not calling for a vote."

"I can carry you."

The very idea is too fucking stupid to merit a response.

He looks downward, the stubble on his jaw standing in sharp relief against his clammy skin.

His abdomen is a sopping mess of shredded fabric and bright, fresh blood. His large, deceptively clumsy fingers are locked in a pinch on the wound. The dragon had torn through skin, fat, and muscle to the loops of grey rope beneath, and he is all that is holding it closed at this point.

Aware that her eyes are locked on him, he relaxes his hand slightly, and watches with detachment as the bleeding picks up within the space of a heartbeat.

He smiles, his teeth bright and sharp.

Her voice is strangled. "Stop that."

A laugh rumbles out of his chest, and he complies. She is fixated on him, her shoulders drawn high and tense, and the tips of her claws digging into her palms. He cannot remember the last time she looked so ardently unhappy.

Relaxing his hold was another mistake- it is that much harder to close his fingers once more.

He concentrates on his breathing until the task is done.

"Get going, rat," he says after a moment.

The brim of her hat lifts incrementally.

"I will not," she says, and her voice trembles, if only just, "Leave you."

The wind buffets her suddenly, and she braces herself against it. He remembers the second after he'd been struck, how he'd dropped like his legs had been cut out from under him as well (never underestimate the terribly immediacy of a belly wound), and there Freya had been in the space he'd vacated, light as a bird and as supple as a whip, and Amarant had known what she was going to say before she said it. He'd known it from the moment she'd wedged herself under his arm and made herself his legs when his own threatened to give out beneath him. She had bent like a rapier under his weight, but steel snapped. Freya endured.

Now she is grounded, badly exhausted and trying badly to hide it. Her bright plumage is faded and the sky will not hold her.

And she can't leave him here.

It is beyond her to do. It is no more in her to leave than it is in her to leave any dying thing in need. Cleyra had been enough to teach her that.

But if an out is all she needs, then Amarant can give her one.

"Won't be leaving me," he grunts.

Her weight is wrong, and this one jolt of surprise is enough to unbalance her. He can see her face clearly now. He can see the lines drawn tightly beneath her eyes, the tension there just on the edge of snapping.

The words struggle to surface in his throat, but he manages. "You'd be coming back, yeah?"

"Come back," she repeats.

It isn't a question. It also isn't an outright refusal.

He watches the set of her shoulders. She'd at least taken the bait. "If you think you can swing it," he says. "Gotta say, I don't see a bunch of rats rousting themselves out of bed for this, even if you tell 'em about the bounty."

"They will come," she says savagely, and too quickly. "They will come even if I must kick them ahead of me all the way."

He grunts again, the corner of his mouth twitching. "I'd pay to see it."

She stares at him. She is locked in place, her muscles trembling beneath, but even exhausted as she is, he is a duty, he is her duty, and Freya has only ever dealt in symbols.

"I," she says, her uncertainty rising in her throat until the years drop away and Freya sounds so fucking young. "I cannot in good conscience-"

"'I ain't asking you to do fuck all in good conscience, just get your skinny ass down to the cave and get Gizamaluke himself up here if you have to- or whoever else they got in his bathtub these days."

And he knows something is wrong before she speaks, that something in his plan has failed, because he was prepared to argue with her over this, to bully her if need be, but something changes and she is no longer arguing.

"Is there even," she says, and then swallows. She presses her lips together until they go white, and then tries again, "Time."

The words hang in the air after she says them, and she will not look away from him.

"Huh," he says, stupidly.

He hadn't thought she'd figured it out.

The sun is already starting to dip beneath the mountains, ragged banners of cloud lying in tatters all around it. The wind stills, the entire hillside going quiet. They have left a trail of blood for any predator to follow straight to its source, but it as if they are the only two living creatures on that mountain.

"Didn't think you'd given up on me yet," he says after a moment, and then he knows it for the worst mistake he could have ever made because the corners of her mouth turn down and he can see the bewilderment and grief weighing down every line of her.

"I failed you," she breathes, and to Freya, they are the same thing.

Her spear is broken, her legs are failing her, and Freya will not go because she does not want him to die alone.

The ache traveling up his arm from the effort it costs to keep his fingers clenched has become overwhelming. "Nah," he says at last, his voice catching on a burr in his throat and coming out crooked and blurred. "Nah, nah, you didn't."

He doesn't tell her he'd crawl down this mountain dragging his guts behind him if she really asked him to.

He doesn't tell her that taking that hit was pretty much the only thing he coulda done, and that he'd take it again if he had to.

They don't make a habit of speech, in any case. They never have. In some ways, it made for a fully functional partnership. He doesn't know what the hell she'll do without it.

He wants to say something, even so. It's nothing more than a tug in his chest that he doesn't know how to fully grasp, and the words themselves don't come. Words have never been tools he's had the hands for.

He wishes he could bring himself to say something to her. Now, at least.

The sound of her coat hitting the ground startles him.

Without all that leather and canvas, she is a radically different creature. Her linen shirt sticks to her back and sides with sweat and billows loosely around her arms. Her hair brushes her shoulders, silver gilt against dove grey, and she is so impossibly thin without the square-cut armor of her coat that the strength of her thighs and the iron in her wrists is scarcely to be believed.

She is not looking at him. She has the sleeve of her coat still in her hand, and she takes it between her teeth and she begins to tear.

He wants to tell her it's useless, that no amount of bandaging is going to save him now, that all that's holding him here with her is the two fingers keeping the nick in his artery from gushing him dry, but that is not her intention. She tears a strip barely eight inches long from the hem of her sleeve, and then she is stooping on him so quickly he can scarcely follow her.

She doesn't go for his wound, reaching instead for his other hand resting palm up on the grass beside him. He feels the prick of her claws as she begins to unwind the wrappings binding his wrist, and can only watch, his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth.

His eyes are hidden by the weight of all that heavy red hair and his face does not change as she tears a piece of his wrappings free as neatly as she did to her coat. She shifts suddenly, and then her tail comes into view, naked these last three years.

Her hands are steady as she cinches the scrap of cloth home, blood-soaked green against the muted grey of her tail. She smells like tea, like the sweat in her fur, like the sun still baked into her back from the morning before when he'd come back from the river to find her stretched out on the rock.

She does look at him when she slides the length of red canvas beneath the wrist locked on his abdomen and ties a simple knot, until her hands come to a rest on either side of his, cradling it.

"Dawn," she says, and he is jerked out of his sudden reverie, from the smell of her so close. Her face is dark; he can hardly make her out at all, but she does not smell like blood, like the faint, distressing smell of shit coming from between his fingers, and it is a lifeline of sorts.

"Dawn," she repeats, sweeping her tail and its new green banner out behind her once more. "I will be back, Amarant."

She invokes his name like a sword point touching both his shoulders, and Amarant feels the weight of her promise as she settles it around him.

She promised Cleyra once, he wants to tell her, and doesn't.

In the end all he can manage is, "Get going, rat."

She stands.

If her knee is giving her any trouble, she gives no sign. Without her coat and helmet tethering to the earth, and with her hair floating free around her shoulders, she seems apt to float away entirely. He forgets, sometimes, how suited to the air she is, how light and like a bird she is. He doesn't know how he always manages to forget, but all it means is that he remembers that much more strongly when he does.

She takes the last of the sunlight with her as it melts over the edge of the world, and heads down the mountain as swiftly as only she can.

The sky is purpling and darkening around the edges already, and as the wind begins to carry the smell of a downed and wounded animal across the mountains, Amarant looks down at the scrap of red canvas bound to his wrist.

He laughs, a little.

It's all he can do at this point.

He relaxes his fingers.

There's something thoughtful about the way he unpicks the knot and unwinds Freya's promise from around his wrist, and he is just as unhurried as he loops it once, twice, around his palm instead. He cinches it tighter than she did, then sinks his fingers into the mess of his insides. His arm goes rigid clear to his shoulder with the effort it takes to lock his fingers in place once more, but he maintains his hold.

Amarant laughs again, a rich, clogged sound in the back of his throat, and he waits for the sun.