Happy belated Valentine's Day! It's been a long time, my friends. Thanks for sticking around :) I hope the length of this chapter makes up for the wait. But if you want to thank anyone for helping me to get this story published quicker, thank Ravenstaff. Cormag Ravenstaff. He's freaking awesome.
Also, a huge heaping helping of thanks to y'all that reviewed with especially kind words (Namely, SonataCantabile). Reviews like yours truly encourage me!
P.S. Let's just say, due to this chapter, I can finally move the genre back to romance! Don't get too excited, now, because it's just relationship-building. But it counts!
There he was. Sitting right in front of her, torchlight illuminating his bright blonde hair with golden flames. The soft shock of hair was somehow more fuzzy than normal, and Nocht wanted nothing more than to run her fingers through it. It's gotten longer, too. It's touching the bottom of his ears, now, and isn't as spikey . . .
"Nocht?" Radik said her name for the fourth time, causing her gaze to tear itself away from Owain's fuzzy head.
I think Gaius is right. I need to let up on the booze.
She unconsciously opened her flask, tipping it back and downing a few gulps of the bitter draught.
"We have come to the conclusion that Owain has a combination of the powers my brother and I both possess. The battle he described showcased powers befitting someone born of my lineage, or, in parallel, someone born of a Healer and a Sorcerer. His ability to heal you without a staff, as well, Nocht, shows his power."
Nocht rubbed her eyes, sticky lids not wanting to stay open. "Yes, I see . . . Well, I'm sure those powers will be an invaluable asset to our cause."
Radik nodded, turning his attention to the bored sage sitting across from the tactician. "Indeed."
Normally, Owain would've leapt at the opportunity to extol the virtues of his newfound powers, but this "Blood of the Many" business was far from his mind. No, he instead thought of Nocht, who also looked at Radik with bored eyes, clearly forcing herself not to fall asleep. It had been a long day, after all. They'd been trading information for what seemed like hours now. He and his comrades had gotten back from their "mission" that morning, having succeeded in capturing Severa, but in doing so failed to find the elusive Dieter. Severa wouldn't disclose the man's location, much to Owain's irritation. And even though he'd threatened to before, he didn't have the heart to kill such a young girl. Just thinking about it made his heart hurt. Instead, said girl was currently bound and gagged, and sat at the cave entrance, just inside the waterfall. They had all pulled straws, and Inigo was stuck with the shortest, earning him three hours of guard duty.
Owain wasn't sure that was such a good idea. Inigo was fairly . . . easily swayed when it came to pretty ladies who batted their eyelashes. But Owain knew Inigo wasn't stupid enough to let their captive go. The contemplative man sighed, rapping his fingers on the carved wooden table, drawing an annoyed glance from the ever-stoic Panne. At least, I hope he's not stupid enough.
"Meridian and I have also remembered you told us a staff was used during your younger form's birth . . . A staff given to your parents by an odd old man."
Owain nodded, still looking at Nocht. Her head was drooping now, and it took all his effort to keep from smiling. "It was indeed odd."
Radik stood, walking around the gathered Shepherds as they sat about the round table. "This staff, in the way you have described it, is known to us. As is its nature. It allows Nila to infiltrate her host, awakening them. Her ethereal form can then retreat, going back to whatever hellhole she crawls out from."
"Why do these cultists want Owain and his younger twin?" Panne asked, one of the few that was actually paying attention.
Meridian nodded, realizing it was a good question. He took the reins from his brother, answering in his stead. "Nila wants to . . . heal her Exalt. Currently, a curse I worked upon the man sees him bound even while he walks freely. Though cultists' blood has allowed him free rein so far, if he tastes the blood of an Awakened, he will then be completely free, his power no longer inhibited."
Owain grimaced. Awakened? Really? I've used that in at least five paperbacks. Wait . . . there was "Horace and Jan: The Awakened Brothers" too, wasn't there? That makes six. He turned, now actively listening, although not enthusiastically. Radik became the master of the conversation once again, relaying the trap Nocht had fallen into; how he assumed she was possessed upon touching the singularity in Chrom's palace; and that was why she didn't remember anything after. Nila used Nocht's body to easily transport her form to the staff, allowing for quick possession of the supposed "healing object". What's more, now that the newly born Owain had awakened - and along with his older twin, for that matter - they both were a target.
"Lissa!" Henry shot upward from his seat, and its back fell to the floor, startling all in the room.
Radik cocked his head, confused.
"His wife," Nocht offered.
Radik nodded for what seemed the umpteenth time that night, curly blond hair lightly bouncing. "Yes. If she is taking care of young Owain, the baby will also be a target of Nila's more overzealous followers, and this puts 'Lissa' in danger."
The anxious father turned to Nocht, who immediately joined him in his standing. "Don't worry, Henry. You and I will protect Lissa." Nocht spun, hearing another chair being abandoned, though much more calmly than Henry had cast away his. Her eyes then met Owain's somber expression.
"Don't forget me."
But Radik was already shaking his head. "Two Awakened in one place? Don't be a fool."
"Two Awakened in different places would draw the ire to both groups." Owain snapped. Nocht beamed with pride, seeing his face light up in irritation. She could tell he was tired, and that little cowlick on the left side of his head, right above his ear, where he'd been resting his head on his hand, made her smile . . . Nocht coughed, tearing her gaze away once again. But her thoughts didn't leave Owain. He'd do anything to protect his mother, but not only that, the sage was correct. Nocht saw Owain's plan as the best scenario.
Leading Nila's followers away from my little task force is most definitely a smart idea. . . We can take the brunt of what will most likely be hired assassins and mercenaries, while Meridian and Radik will be here to carry out my orders with the rest of the reconnaissance team, without Nila's prying eyes knowing about my secret group.
She laughed to herself. O-ho, yes, indeed. I like this plan.
The sage noticed Nocht's lips curl in a predatory grin; he returned it with a sly smile. That's how she always used to look right before telling us her mind-blowing strategies.
"Alright!" She clapped her hands together, inciting a crack loud enough to wake the dead. "Here's the plan!"
All listened intently to their leader. Finally, it was once again like the old days. Though the group was much smaller, and lacked Chrom, Nocht made up for his absence with her contagious zeal.
Owain inclined his head in agreement as he listened to Nocht's strategy. She turned to Cordelia, who sat quietly, like a studious student gazing in awe at a wise mentor. "Cordelia! I need you –"
The falcon knight rubbed her stomach, almost unconsciously, but still listened. At first, Nocht didn't put two and two together: Cordelia's breastplate was gone. Additionally, her stomach was larger than Nocht remembered, pretty much as large as Nocht's had been when she was three months. . .
"You're pregnant?" The room immediately hushed, all excitement forgotten. A tense stillness settled upon the group, as heavy clouds settle over a mountain range with their ominous bearing.
Cordelia's eyes widened into bright saucers, and it was all she could do to not shrink under the intensity of the tactician's gaze.
Nocht's voice was death: cold, dark, as though her tone was the very hand of the ethereal reaper, chilling the room as the blighted frost kills and withers away crops in winter. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"I let you lead Shepherds . . . and you were pregnant?" Nocht sank into her chair, shoulders falling. Owain quickly strode to her side, eyes wracked with worry.
"Cordelia . . ." Nocht shook her head and stared at the ground, demeanor fallen.
The woman didn't respond. She simply sat in her silent stupor, too afraid to speak. The Legend suddenly realized, with a violent start, that she might just have regressed any progress the two had made as friends: How could Nocht trust her now, that her "best friend" wouldn't reveal something of this import?
Most of the party thought Nocht was angry, for what other emotion could she possibly feel? But when she looked up, the room was held in startled astonishment to find her dark eyes shining in the torchlight, glistening tears threatening to spill unto her cheeks.
"I could have killed your child." Her lips released monotone syllables, as an executioner reads the affidavit of death to a convicted man. "I sent you into battle, while you were with child . . ."
Owain couldn't help but throw a scathing glance in Cordelia's direction. Why would she keep something like that a secret? How would it benefit anyone?
He blinked, correcting his gaze. No. This doesn't sound like something Cordelia would do. She would shout it from the rooftops. She's always wanted a child.
Than what – rather, who – silenced her?
"Did Chrom tell you to keep this in shadow?" His voice was strong as sharp eyes narrowed, making his contempt for the king blatant. "As though it were some affair he didn't want the petty nobles to hear of?"
Cordelia's hands were clasped, and then wrung tightly upon hearing the sage's astute and insulting question. Her eyes went suddenly afire, and Cordelia's palms came down upon the wooden table. "It doesn't matter! Nocht, please . . . please, for the love of everything that is good, don't blame yourself!" Her voice strained to convey her sincerity, throat catching on the last word.
She stood up, running to where Nocht sat, and threw compassionate arms around her old friend. No one but Nocht could hear her whispered words of regret.
Owain motioned for the rest of the company to leave the two alone. All but the two women exited the encampment, gathering around the entrance of the cave. Outside, the trees swayed eerily, low moans giving the night a disturbing languor. The sage's eyes strained to find Inigo's form in the dark night.
He ground his teeth in irritation: the boy was gone. Only the remains of the captive's bindings were to be found.
"Well . . ." Anna's lilting voice severed Owain from his dark thoughts. "This certainly throws a wrench in the plan."
Owain simply nodded, glaring at the ground where Severa had once lain.
Anna drew a Levin sword from her hip, realizing now, right before he went off with Nocht and Henry, would be a good time for him to buy a new weapon. And, luckily for him, she'd brought one just for the job.
But the glow of electricity from the sword's blade gave Owain enough light to notice erratic tracks embedded in the dirt. A struggle had ensued. Owain's stomach fell upon realizing the only prints he saw were of iron boots; the kind Severa wore.
He swore under his breath, turning back to the cave entrance, finding Nocht and Cordelia talking to one another animatedly. How they manage to cry one minute and have a scintillating conversation the next I'll never know. They truly are best friends.
Averting his eyes back to the task at hand, his mind postulated Inigo had been dragged away, for his footprints simply weren't there.
At least he didn't let her go. Then I'd have even more reason to dislike him.
With a sigh, he walked over to Nocht so as to relay the news.
Chrom ran towards the cellar, drawing the sword at his hip. Suddenly, Lucy cried out, and he heard his young daughter fall, violently, onto the hard tile. He spun round, picking her up in his arms, sword now held at an awkward angle. I cannot defend us like this. If they find us . . .
Footsteps echoed in the corridor behind him, causing Chrom's feet to run all the more quickly.
Panting, he finally reached a thick door, covered in intricate symbols. He put down Lucy gently, and she gazed up at her father with terrified eyes.
The king quickly looked away, then thrust the Exalted Falchion into a slot in the arcane door. Suddenly, it groaned as the stone separated itself from that around it. Soon, the door swung wide, and he pulled the Falchion from its stone embrace. Chrom sheathed the weapon at his hip, then once again carried his daughter. With frantic steps, the king made his way into the dark hallway that had been forgotten by all in the castle but he and his wife. As the door closed behind him, the low moan emitted from its hinges made his hair stand on end, and once it closed with a decidedly abrupt slam, the fear in his gut worsened.
I knew I should've gotten new guards. Now those idiots are all dead, slaughtered like livestock by hired mercenaries. They barely put up a fight.
"Why were those guys following us?" Lucy's quiet whisper reached his ears, and Chrom cursed her curious nature.
"They're hunting us, Lucy. We need to get away."
He noticed her stiffen in his arms as he strode through the darkness, and her next question made him stop. His eyes stared up at the ceiling with dread, heart throbbing with severe palpitations.
"What about Mommy?"
He was reminded of their conversation earlier that month, before Cordelia had set out to assist Nocht.
"We can't let this be known."
Cordelia turned to her husband, astonished. "What do you mean? We're going to have a child! The public should know."
Quietly, Chrom closed the door of his office. It clicked, separating the couple from whatever went on beyond.
"I, and all those born of me, are now a target."
Cordelia sank into the chair before his desk, mouth agape. After the weight had settled upon her, she let her shoulders fall, head resting in her hands. "I knew this would happen. Really, I should have expected it sooner."
Chrom knelt before his wife, taking his hands from her cheeks and holding maidenly fingers with his own. "If those cultists find out you are with child . . . my child . . . then they'll come after you, as well. I want to keep you, and our baby, safe. This cannot be known."
The Legend nodded, resolute.
Suddenly, she exclaimed with vehemence, tone dripping with venom. "Will Nila's followers stop at nothing to ensure a democracy overtakes this country? Coming after a king and his little daughter . . . insanity!"
Chrom remained silent, staring at her lap, tracing the design of her pants' stitching with his eyes. He didn't know what he could possibly say. The king only felt trepidation for the trials ahead, a deep anxiety that took root in his heart, its insidious nature slowly enveloping him with apprehension.
He wasn't sure what to do. The only way he knew about this was Stahl's report from his dealings down south. The young man was currently recruiting for the army, but stumbled upon a man who claimed himself to be of the name Dieter.
"Your King will die. All in my way will die. Don't expect an army to save you, O humble recruiter." Chrom remembered Stahl relaying how the man laughed, a sound that he said had grated against the ears like glass slicing an eardrum, small shards embedding themselves in your mind, so that one could never relieve themself of the maniacal sound. "Nothing will save you."
But the man had simply left, allowing Stahl to continue his supposedly vain attempts to rival Nila's growing followers by gathering a force of his own.
Chrom shivered, trying to block the dark thoughts from his mind. As he neared the exit, a torch glowed overhead, and he began to jog. "We're almost there, Lucy!"
She gave a small whimper in reply, and her father could tell his terror was then shared by his little girl.
With a sough of relief, Chrom swung the dilapidated door open, revealing the cold, still evening. But a figure of black was silhouetted against the falling sun.
"Why, hello Your Majesty! I was dearly hoping you would escape through this passage." The man laughed, drawing a sword from his belt. It glinted in the dying light, silver turning a blazing red for but a moment – an omen of what was to come.
Slowly, Chrom laid Lucy upon the ground, and she one again trained her frightened eyes upon him.
The king drew Falchion, and the pair stood before one another, assassin's and target's eyes never leaving the other's, both bodies poised for attack.
With a chilling cry, the assassin bolted towards the Exalt. "Know this, fool king! It was I, Dieter, who sliced your throat, I who let your blood – scarring your poor little daughter with the scene of your demise!"
Chrom parried the attacks, blades singing in harmony as they grated against one another. The sound pierced his ears. Chrom clenched his teeth, all effort focused on not letting his defense fall. "I will not die this day!" Yet sweat beaded along his forehead, body racing to catch up to the assassin's insane speed.
The vile man laughed, suddenly stepping back. Chrom was thrown off balance, stumbling forward, his momentum from the confrontation leading him towards the ground. Dieter was now upon the Exalt, blade raised in triumph. Ruthless metal shined above the fallen King, eagerly awaiting the taste of his guts. "Seems you're out of practice, fool king. I shouldn't have overestimated you."
A delicate thump resounded throughout the still evening, and Chrom noticed the assassin's gaze veer off to Lucy, who held an armful of small stones. She raised a hand again, preparing to throw another.
Dieter began to turn towards Lucy. With immediacy, Chrom gripped Falchion in a vise, stabbing it through Dieter's stomach. "Get your eyes off my daughter, you bastard." He twisted the blade, blood gathering along the channel. Thick streams fell, dripping from the sword, for the channel could no longer contain the river of red. Gasping, the man fell, landing beside Chrom. Quickly, the king pushed himself up to stand, glaring into the depths of Dieter's eyes, trying to discern the nature of his adversary's thoughts.
But the assassin simply gave a wet laugh, blood bubbling from his lips like a cauldron boiling over. "You cannot kill me. It's simply not possible."
Chrom bared his teeth in disgust, and sliced Falchion in an arc, severing the smiling face from its body. Blood sprayed in an arc, droplets shining like rubies as they were thrown into the air.
The head landed in the grass with a sickening splat, blood soaking the ground until the soil was saturated with bodily fluid.
The king sighed in relief, thrusting Flachion into the grass. But as he leaned against the blade, a maniacal laugh awakened him from his momentary solace.
"I told you, you foolish king, you!" The head spoke as a parent would with a child, joking tone grating like rough stone on silk.
Chrom could not discern the feeling that now pervaded his soul. What lay before him was unnatural, and everything within him screamed it was not possible.
But no matter his thoughts, the reality was as bleak as Dieter's cold, dark, and very alive eyes.
The head disappeared, and Chrom slowly, so very, very slowly, turned. The sound of sinews mending and flesh knitting assaulted his ears, and it was all the king could do to keep himself from retching.
The body stood once again, and Dieter's lips soon split his face in a horrifying display of a grin.
"Yes, Chrom. I am immortal."
With speed no mortal could ever hope to possess, Dieter moved. Suddenly, Chrom felt a blade at his neck, and a body pressed to his back.
"And this immortal will greatly enjoy feeling cold steel slice through your supple flesh."
Dieter laughed once again, putting more pressure on the blade held to Chrom's throat. "Such soft skin . . . All humans do have such beautiful necks. So strong, yet delicate to the touch . . . it's so easy to simply . . ."
"Daddy!" Lucy screamed, the wailing cry echoing through the trees with undying fervor.
But Dieter wasn't able to draw his blade across the king's neck. A Wyvern flew overhead, roaring menacingly as its strong wings propelled it through the sky.
Dieter looked up in astonishment. He and Chrom were both thrown back by the force of a Wyvern landing.
A young woman with deep blue hair stepped from the Wyvern's back, accompanied by a man who wore a dark and intimidating mask.
"Mom told me to keep an eye on you, Father. Figures she was right in assuming you'd be a target."
"Lucina?! W-what are you . . ." The king hadn't spoken to his daughter since she'd strode into the castle and threatened to kill his wife. Since when did she call Nocht "Mom"? Have they . . . become closer, recently? He felt a pang in his gut, but tried to ignore it, and instead opted to voice his surprise in relation to the current situation.
He noticed a smile tug at the corner of Lucina's mouth. "Once again I come to your rescue, like so long ago."
Chrom remembered. Easily, the memory resurfaced: Lucina attacking he who tried to kill the king, saving Chrom from a debilitating injury, and thereby saving the future of Ylisse.
The future was once again in the hands of this young lady, this woman who fought with tumultuous feelings. The same determination she had felt to save her father so long ago had since waned, anger for what Chrom had done filling the void.
And yet, she still drew her parallel Falchion in his defense, and directed Gerome towards the assassin.
"If we can't kill him, we can at least keep the bastard occupied."
Gerome chuckled, surprised by Lucina's informal attitude. She was becoming more like her mother every day. Perhaps to combat the fact that young little Lucy, who still held an armful of stones, would end up more like Cordelia than Nocht as she grew.
And yet . . . hadn't Lucina always loved her father more? She almost committed matricide to protect him. Gerome shook his head, and stopped obliging idle thoughts.
Focused now, he drew a throwing axe from a leather sheath. "I'm ready."
Dieter's teeth ground in irritation, but he gripped the hilt of his sword, preparing for an attack. "Why waste your time trying to protect this . . . this idiot of a man? He's done nothing for this country! Nothing!"
Lucina's response was immediate, almost habitual. "He led our country to victory against Walhart, saving thousands from oppressive rule. There's no way you couldn't remember that . . . unless, of course, you were sleeping as a war raged on outside your window." Her eyes bored into his, blazing blue holding an intensity that startled Dieter. "He saved my mother countless times in battle, enabling her to kill Grima, saving your life, as well as everyone else's in this world." Lucina practically shouted at the man, but somehow held her dignity. "You think you know what's good for this country? Seems to me you're more foolish than the very man you claim is a 'fool king'."
Dieter spat a response, eyes alight with fury. "You know nothing, heathen! Chrom was a tool! It was Nocht who ultimately decided the outcome of this world, not this idiot lying prostrate on the ground!"
Gerome threw his axe, and it embedded itself in Dieter's skull. Lucina rushed forward, raising Falchion.
She ignored Dieter's insidious words, trying not to agree with the assassin's argument. But he's right, isn't he? If my father had his way, Mother wouldn't have sacrificed herself, and Grima would then eventually come back to end this world – ruining yet another generation of innocents.
Her husband's voice pulled Lucina away from her thoughts, reminding her of the task at hand.
"Lucina, it seems the only way to defeat him is to keep his body from forming anew. We must sever his limbs and keep them apart."
The Lord grimaced, disgusted by what she would have to do. But if that was what it took . . .
She brought Falchion down, aiming to separate an arm from Dieter's body. The king's daughter felt her blade slice through soft flesh, then had to apply more pressure to make the metal saw through bone.
Surprisingly, the man didn't give outcries of pain: he simply retained furious eyes, vainly trying to parry Lucina's attacks with only one arm.
Gerome quickly stepped forward, sending another axe whistling through the air, slamming into Dieter's chest. The force of his throw forced the victim groundward, and Lucina quickly brought Falchion down, as a guillotine drops upon a convicted man, severing the head without effort.
Gerome quickly took the head (Lucina almost laughed at her husband's drawn face – his expression was that of utter disgust) and placed it into a saddle bag. Minerva made a noise of irritation: she could feel the evil entity on her back act as an oppressive weight.
Lucina's voice suddenly rang out, surprising Chrom with its blunt abruptness. "Father . . . this doesn't make sense. You have a whole army of soldiers hiding in the bowels of the castle, stationed in the barracks . . . How could an assassin, along with ten of the best mercenaries I have ever seen, simply stride through the grounds of this castle? It doesn't make sense."
She stood, body silhouetted against the darkening sky.
Chrom wasn't sure how to respond. He simply decided to remain silent, and Lucina, with an irritated grunt, walked back to Minerva.
Lucina and Gerome both mounted the Wyvern, watched with downcast eyes by the king. He scooped the smaller Lucy into his arms as the pair soon took off, giving her nose a squeeze. "After everything Lucina has ever said to me . . . I always thought she'd be by my side. But I think she hates me . . . And no longer trusts me." He sighed. Chrom didn't want to explain to the smaller Lucy just who the "mysterious woman" was just yet. That was more pain than he was willing to put up with at the moment. "Well . . . at least you don't hate me." He kissed Lucy's forehead, relieved to find his little girl considerably calmer than before.
She looked up with tired eyes, rubbing them groggily.
Chrom chuckled, nodding in agreement. It had been a long day.
Nocht sighed, a long and drawn out exhale. She and Cordelia acted like sisters, truly. And yet . . . Why do I feel like everything I say to her is merely small-talk? When we're not crying, we're laughing. When we're not laughing, we're talking about the weather. Oh, for Naga's sake! I don't know, anymore. Maybe small-talk is profound in it implications. It does calm me, I'll give it that. And it instills a sense of normalcy in this chaotic clime. Cordelia had since wandered off, contented that she and the tactician had no hard feelings between them. Nocht now stood alone within the cavern encampment. She thought she'd needed a while to herself, but despite being alone she paced in agitation. Her mind couldn't focus, but rather constantly wandered the annals of her thoughts.
She heard footsteps echo in the cavern, and Nocht looked upward. Opal eyes beheld a shadow being cast upon the wall of the cave, and Nocht immediately recognized it. Utter relief fell upon her, as she soon saw Owain appear before her tired eyes.
She rushed to meet him, eager to speak. They hadn't had a chance to, what with all the information trading between herself and the outworlders.
Owain released a content chuckle, smiling at the irony of it all. "It's good to see you, Nocht." Severa's escape was soon forgotten, as the two simply spoke to one another about the day, about themselves, about . . . well, quite plainly, life.
It seemed his demeanor was much like her own; both were happy to once again be in one another's presence, overjoyed they had time to talk, one on one. She wasn't sure how long it had been since they'd spoken together, just talked, without anything to interrupt them. It was a weight off her shoulders to reunite with her close friend, and she was excited to hear what he had to say.
Finally, Nocht was able to relax, leaning against the side of the cavern languidly. Even though the day had been long and tiring, she had forgotten any exasperation she'd felt as Owain spoke. It was clear he was meant to write: every word was perfectly inflected, every sentence well said. He animated the conversation in his classic manner, making Nocht laugh as his arms reared up, in the way of a horse, when he began to tell the story of how Inigo was thrown off an irate equestrian as his group had been travelling to this location. She was completely enthralled by his voice, and the two remained in conversation for hours, trading stories and thoughts. As the small bit of sky she could glimpse through the mouth of the cave darkened to pitch, it was with a pleasantly surprised smile that Nocht realized she had been wrong. I didn't need to be alone. I just needed to be with him.
But Owain eventually remembered why he had first come into the cavern to find her. With apologetic eyes, the sage revealed what he had discovered.
Nocht stood up straighter, surprised. "The girl got away?"
He nodded. "With Inigo."
The tactician's shoulders drooped, the news dampening her mood. "Alright. Looks like I'm off to track them." She felt the telltale burn in her lungs, and coughed suddenly, leaning against the wooden table to keep from falling.
Nocht could hear the conversation Cordelia was having with Panne. They seemed to be speaking at the mouth of the cave, if their echoing volume was any indication. Luckily, Meridian had somehow managed to eternally stop the waterfall in midair, indirectly allowing for easy eavesdropping.
"What will you name your daughter?"
"Oh! Well, funnily enough, I was thinking 'Severa', until all this came to pass . . ."
Nocht's eyes widened in shock, and she turned to Owain. "Do you think . . . "
He cocked his head, scruffy hair falling into his eyes.
She almost giggled, but in surprise held herself back from acting like a young maiden. Back on topic, Nocht. Forget about his hair, for Naga's sake! But her eyes lingered on his, just a moment longer than what would be deemed normal eye-contact. She cleared her throat."Do you think Severa is Cordelia's future daughter?" No wonder Severa managed to escape. If she's inherited the same mastery of warfare, Inigo's in trouble.
Much to her surprise, Owain laughed. "You know, that actually wouldn't surprise me. The girl's hair color is the same as Chrom's. Plus, she's as legendary with a bow as the Legend herself is with a spear."
But Nocht felt another tickling sensation in her throat, despite her having cleared it. Another bout of coughing gripped her, leaving her lungs breathless.
"Hey, what's wrong?" The sage softly rested his hand upon her shoulder, searching her eyes for an answer.
The tactician shrugged, wetting her throat with more drink. She could feel a heat rising from her collarbones up her neck at his touch. This was different than having a conversation with him, especially when his eyes were trained on her, and the subject of conversation was herself. She felt as a schoolgirl would, upon meeting her crush unexpectedly. "W-well, I'm fine, Owain. We need –"
But Owain wasn't having it. With gentle hands, he prodded her back, then inclined his head so as to listen to her lungs. She tried not to stiffen in surprise; the nerves his fingertips graced came alive.
"Breathe in, if you please."
She did as she was told, smiling dazedly at the picture of Owain as her doctor. Nocht noticed he still had the small cowlick from earlier, and she had to restrain herself to keep from smoothing it out.
"Now let it out, slowly . . .
He retracted his ear, giving her a stern look. "How long have you been ill?"
She shrugged once again, rubbing her chest. She took on a scowl to try and hide the nervous smile her lips wanted to reveal.
"Have you ever felt a stabbing pain in this area?" He circled his finger around where her lungs were, indicating what "this area" was.
She nodded, minutely.
Owain chuckled, shaking his head, not believing Nocht's stubbornness. "You've had pneumonitis for, what? Two weeks, now?"
Nocht sighed, looking away. For some reason she felt ashamed for not telling him, but she didn't know why. As his gaze remained upon her, she felt the heat grow more intense, finally warming her cheeks with its eager touch. "I didn't want people to worry. It's not severe, anyways. Something in the air here really irritates my lungs."
"And no one else bothered to diagnose you?" Owain mumbled this under his breath, lifting a hand to her chest.
Nocht felt a warmth soothe her from the inside, and she looked down with startled eyes to see Owain lightly pressing his palm against her. A beautiful light touched the room with a glowing caress as Owain's staffless magic healed her inflamed lung tissue. "You're right, it's not severe now. But it could have been, if it were left untreated by a licensed physician, such as myself."
He added the last part jokingly, with a twinkle in his eye, and the smile her "licensed physician" threw at Nocht made her cheeks become even more exceedingly warm. "T-thanks, Owain."
His head cocked to the side, once again surprised to notice he, Owain – the zany twenty-something author no one would take seriously – had managed to make her blush.
"What?" Nocht shifted her weight uncomfortably, holding up a cold hand to her cheek so she could cool it down. "Why are you looking at me like that?"
Owain felt a blush of his own creep up his neck. "N-nothing!"
After taking a half-second to compose himself, the sage sat down, gently motioning for her to sit beside him. Nocht obliged her friend, still self-conscious. But the more she thought on it, the more embarrassed she became. Oh gods, he's noticed, hasn't he? How I blush whenever he smiles like that . . .
Nocht actually felt her age, for once. She was only twenty-five, after all. Or twenty-four? Twenty-six? I can't even remember, anymore. But somehow this man managed to make her feel human again, as though she hadn't married the Exalt of a country; as though she hadn't lost a daughter; as though she wasn't just the Tactician of the King's army. She was Nocht, and she was blushing like a schoolgirl.
The tactician hung her head, tracing the carvings on the table with a finger, face too hot to look up, for fear he would see her beet red once again. She was saved when Gaius walked into the room, feet clapping against the cold stone ground. "It was the drinking, wasn't it?"
Clearly, he'd heard the conversation, and Nocht grew irritated. I guess the suspended waterfall allows for mutual eavesdropping. How long has he been listening? She didn't want to voice her annoyance, however; she had no desire to hurt Gaius' feelings. Besides, he was only asking because he cared about her. He probably didn't listen to the whole conversation . . . I mean, Owain and I talked for what felt like hours . . . Gaius is more the type to just walk away and come back later, not wait around.
But Gaius knew Nocht too well to not notice her frown. "Relax, Bubbles. I was only waiting a little while. I actually came in here to . . . borrow . . . one of those nice pastries they keep in that barrel, right there." He pointed towards one of the many barrels that littered the cavern.
He strode towards it, picking up a pastry from within and brandishing it for all to see. "See? I even knew it was there, so you know I'm not lying."
Nocht laughed, nodding. "I'll only believe you if you give Owain and me a pastry, too."
With a mockingly exasperated sigh, Gaius took two more in his hands, placing one before Owain, then before Nocht.
"Thank you!" The pair echoed in unison.
Damn. They're even going by the same clock. These two were meant for each other, weren't they? Talking for three hours straight and saying things at the same time . . .
Not to mention that fierce blush they both have. How oblivious are they?
Gaius scowled, but it was only for show. His mood became increasingly bright as he watched the pair.
After taking an appreciative bite of the delicious pastry, filled with something akin to a strawberry jam, Owain looked up, answering Gaius' earlier question. "Actually, it had nothing to do with alcohol." He took another bite, speaking to Nocht with his eyes about how delicious the odd doughnut-like confection was. She nodded in agreement, immediately knowing what his expression meant without even having to hear an explanation. Owain then continued, remembering he had to finish his statement. "Her lungs were inflamed, probably caused by irritants in the air. She's most likely allergic to a pollutant in this area: that, perhaps, being a pollen of some sort."
Gaius raised an eyebrow, looking at Nocht, whose head was still turned downward. "What do you think, Nocht?"
He saw her shoulders uplift in yet another shrug, causing Gaius to sigh.
But Owain smiled. "I've heard a lot of the Shepherds giving Nocht flak about how much she drinks, but she has every right to." He let this sentence hang in the air, subtle timing mastered – he was an author, after all. After the impactful sentence settled in, he continued. "Besides, any physical harm she does to her internal organs can be remedied. We're not in the Stone Age: if a limb can be reattached to its owner, I'm sure a liver can be mended.
It's the emotional harm I'm worried about. And if drink allows Nocht to cope with what she's been going through, well, then I think she deserves a whiskey or two." He glanced at Nocht, who currently held the pastry in one hand, her flask in the other. Almost unconsciously, she tipped the container back, letting the last drops fall into her mouth to wash down the sugary confection. Owain chuckled, correcting himself. "Or ten."
Gaius' deep green eyes held acceptance as Owain spoke. The astute thief noticed the expression with which Owain looked upon Nocht: that of a smitten man. Huh. So it wasn't just a "phase", then. This guy's got it bad. Gaius suddenly realized why Henry and Virion had been so tight-lipped back at camp a week ago, but for some reason . . . he didn't mind. She looks so happy, next to him. I've never seen her so content since I've known her . . . "I see. Well, you two have fun, then."
Gaius exited the cavern, leaving the pair alone once more. After the thief's footsteps faded, Owain turned expectant eyes on Nocht. "What do we do now, O fearless leader?"
Nocht brought her eyes up to meet his, suddenly feeling electrified by his focused expression. She figured she made out his gaze to be much more intense than it really had been, but the way he looked at her caused her heart to race. "Um . . ."
For a moment, she sat in a torpor - a fog that made her forget everything but his deep eyes. She was enraptured. Nocht shook herself out of the odd feeling, and tried to form a coherent response.
"Well . . . Like I said, I guess I need to track them. I can't afford to send anyone else. I'd ask for your assistance, but you're going with –"
Owain shook his head, immediately stopping her. "I'll go with you."
"But . . . your mother."
Owain poured himself a glass of wine from the decanter that rested atop the table, taking a few sips. He then threw her his trademark smile, making the bird within her chest flit its wings once more. "I wanted to go with you to protect Lissa, sure. But I mostly wanted to go with you."
"Oh." She whispered the word, not knowing what to say. Relax, Nocht. He doesn't mean that romantically . . . does he? Nocht realized, holding a hand to her fluttering heart, that she actually wouldn't mind if he had, indeed, meant that romantically.
No, further: she would have been overjoyed.
But when had this happened? When had their situation changed? She remembered Owain once as the guy she'd talk to about books over a cup of tea. Yet now he was a man she always wanted to be close to. She felt so much better when she was with him, as though his mere presence lightened the load on her shoulders. He was reliable, courteous, funny, smart as anyone could ever hope to be, but not only that, his eyes held within them a wisdom not many could boast. He wasn't just knowledgeable; he was experienced, and knew what to do with his intelligence. And that facet of his being impressed Nocht to no end.
"I don't want to leave you without a healer, and this" he gestured toward her chest, implying the illness she'd had, "is evidence that you shouldn't be left alone. You need someone to take care of you, because you don't care about yourself."
Her back straightened, startled by his bluntness. "W-well . . . I . . ."
Owain threw his hands up, frantically trying to show he hadn't meant to offend her. "I didn't mean anything bad by that! I just . . . I don't want you to be alone with your pain, anymore." He grew quiet for a moment, then took her hand. Her breath caught in her chest, and she looked at their entwined hands with wonder.
His ability to make my heart race with such a simple gesture . . . astounds me. Do I really . . .
Nocht thought a moment, almost scared of what she was about to admit to herself.
Am I in love with him?
Her companion's voice pulled her out of the deep trenches of her thoughts, letting her instead focus upon him. "Nocht . . . I know how you get, sometimes. I see this black anger in your eyes while your thoughts move on to darker subjects; I notice how you immediately try to calm yourself with a sip of draft. But that . . . horrible hatred - for yourself, for Chrom, I know not to whom it's directed - never leaves your eyes. And I don't . . ." Owian cleared his throat, continuing determinedly, despite his growing sense of nervousness. "I don't think drink, alone, will heal you. But I do think a friend will."
Gaius trudged through the forest, his mood significantly thoughtful – an odd feeling for the man who generally decided to leave deep thoughts be. His mind was muddled, thinking of Nocht and Owain's relationship. He stubbed his foot a log accidentally as he walked, only serving to hurt his toe.
He kicked a rock in irritation at having been caught unawares by a mere log, sending it flying towards the brush. Suddenly, an arrow whizzed past his head, causing him to duck behind a tree in surprise.
"Hold it right there! Stop kicking things!"
"Crivens, woman!" Gaius remained behind the tree, chest falling and rising quickly with adrenaline.
A lady soon stood before him, arms crossed and eyes dark. "Huh. Figures." Her hair was an unnatural deep grey, though her body was . . . well, sumptuously young. "What are you doing so deep in this forest?" Her voice was melodic and loud, with just a hint of raspiness present in the deeper tones.
Gaius shifted his feet uncomfortably, staring at the bow in her hands, rather than her eyes. After some frantic thinking, he decided not to reveal the Shepherds. "Uh . . . I'm on . . . business."
The woman remained silent for a few moments. Suddenly, she burst out laughing, patting his shoulder (perhaps slamming is a more apt term) with hearty appreciation. "I like you! You can't lie to save your damned life. That's good."
Gaius smiled crookedly, a nervous smile, slightly showing teeth. "Thanks?"
The woman held out her hand, and when Gaius took it, she clasped their handshake with her other hand as well. "Megan. Glad to meet you . . ."
"Huh. A strong name. I like it."
Gaius simply nodded, too nervous to do anything else.
"Well!" She threw an arm in the air, pointing toward the sky – though it seemed she was pointing something out to herself rather than him. "I'd better get going. I've got a heist at the full height of the moon, and I've only got a half hour till then."
The veteran thief's mood immediately brightened at the mention of thieving. "You're a thief? I could help you out!"
Megan looked at him dubiously, up and down her eyes traveled, irises gliding over his buckles and armaments. After quite a long while of awkward silence, though she didn't seem too perturbed by the quiet, Megan finally spoke. "You know, I like you. And I think you're a pretty good thief, from the looks of it. I can tell these kinds of things, you know." Her eyes were alight with hearty joviality, and Gaius gave her another nervous smile.
"Right!" She clapped him on the shoulder again, causing him to stagger towards the brush. "March! We're heading toward a mansion in the middle of a copse. Word is, some rich folks have a wealth of treasure hidden 'neath their fat rears, just ripe for the taking. It'll only be a few-hour job, so you'll be back home to wherever it is you call home in no time."
Rich folks? Gaius' thoughts soon became more calculative, and he figured he'd kill two birds with one stone. I can thieve to my heart's content, and I can make some moolah for the Shepherds. Seems this trip into the woods wasn't such a waste of time, after all. And it'll only be a few hours . . .
Megan laughed, seeing Gaius' mouth twitch as the man continued thinking. "Let's go, Carrot-top. Ain't got all night, you know."
He nodded silently, heading towards the East end of the forest with his new thief companion. She gives people nicknames, too? Huh.
A league away from the encampment, a young woman and slightly older young man traversed through a thick forest. Their loud voices scared away much of the wildlife, leaving them alone with the vegetation.
"But I'm just saying what I think."
"It's weird, okay?" Severa snapped at her captive. She had placed him sideways upon a horse she'd stolen from the makeshift stable the company had set up in front of the encampment, while she rode on a fairly large white equestrian that was also stolen property.
"But you look good! Isn't that something I should tell people? It's courtesy!"
Severa's eyebrow twitched, beyond irritated. "You . . . you just say it so easily! Those compliments lose their meaning when you throw them around like they're just some greeting!"
"But it is like saying Hi!" The young man rebutted earnestly. "When I notice someone's beauty, I need to tell them about it!"
"Oh, just shut up!" Severa wished she'd kept the gag. She realized one could easily rip a makeshift gag from their shirt, but then again didn't want to ruin her clothes.
They slowly made their way to Ylisstol, orange sun already long-buried in the mountains. It would be too dark for Nocht and her comrades to find Severa, and she sat comfortably on her steed in the cloak of night.
"I can't stop my lips from uttering the truth: your beauty, my dear Severa, is truly smiting."
She actually blushed at this one, but the heat on her cheeks only made her angrier. "You realize I tried to kill you, right? How stupid are you, anyway, wanting to flirt with the enemy?"
She could feel the smile in Inigo's voice when he opened his mouth once more. "Ah, all part of my master plan, dear Severa. Once you realize we both are the star-crossed lovers of legends untold, you will fight on our side, and with your mastery of the bow we'll soon win every battle we see!"
As much as she didn't want to admit it, his flattery was getting to her. Severa shook her head, trying to break out of the trance. "That's it! Once we get to Ylisstol, you're getting gagged!"
Should I tell her that was the horse that constantly bucked? Inigo debated whether or not he should inform her as to the nature of her steed. Nah . . .
The next day:
"Damn, Carrot-top! It's midday, for Naga's sake."
The thief moaned, blinking open sticky eyes. "Where am I?" His mouth tasted awful. Almost like the stench of Nocht's whiskey . . . Oh, no . . .
"An inn. You remember, right? After you managed to practically steal the mayor's whole treasury? Yeah . . . my men convinced you to go out drinking with them. You dolt. I can't believe you said yes. Well . . . anyways, that was the mayor's private estate, you know. Out in the boonies. I mean, there were a lot of valuables in there. I have no idea how you managed to get past twenty guards and two wyverns, but you did it. I think you might just be the best damned thief I've ever met. Besides myself, of course."
Megan pulled the sheets off him, then splashed a glass of water on his tired face. "Come on, already. I want to talk to you about something you said last night."
The water was shockingly cold, and did its job well.
Gaius rolled over to lie upon his back, cursing the pounding knives in his head, then checked to see if he still had clothes on. "We . . ." Megan noticed her partner in crime blush, but he continued despite his heated features. "We didn't . . . sleep together . . . right?"
Much to his surprise, the woman-thief burst out laughing, clutching her stomach. Eventually she had to sit on the bed due to her violent laughter, wiping at the corners of her eyes with delicate fists. "Oh man, Carrot-top, don't make me laugh so hard! I'll get a hernia or something!"
He scowled in response, rubbing his eyes with the palms of his hands. "Why do I feel like that was an insult?"
After a while her laughter died down into chuckles, then finally silence. Megan's expression turned thoughtful, and her eyes soon developed the sheen of someone whose mind was very far away. "This Nocht you spoke of . . . you realize you don't love her the way you think you do, right?"
He stiffened, hands still covering his eyes and mouth, ears pricked.
"The way you described her . . . it sounded as though you only wanted what was best for her. This Chrom character . . . you didn't like him because you didn't think he was good enough for Nocht, not because you were jealous of him. Your heart broke, thinking of her and Chrom bound together by marriage. That's why you had that nightmare, about her being engaged to him . . . And that's why you didn't mind her and that author guy being together."
"What are you talking about?" His tone was grave, and Gaius was soon sitting upright, looking Megan in the eye.
"Guess you really don't remember, huh? Well, it was after three flagons, after all . . ." She lapsed into more thoughts, then dug herself out of the stupor when Gaius prodded her. "You spoke about this woman as a very best friend would have spoken . . . not as a lover would have; not a jealous man that harbored unrequited love . . . Carrot-top, I think your problem is you can't tell the difference between romantic love and platonic, y'know? You kept thinking you loved her in 'that' way, when really, you just hated seeing her with that king guy."
His jaw dropped, but Carrot-top quickly closed it, covering up his lapse of calm demeanor by rubbing his sore neck with a rough hand.
"I mean, it makes sense, doesn't it?" Megan sighed. "Alright. Suffice it to say you've misinterpreted the last few years of your life. Hope you don't mind." She added the last part with a chuckle, insinuating he probably did mind when they'd had this conversation over drinks.
Noticing the dour look he was throwing her, Megan quickly dropped the subject, standing up and dusting her trousers, hands needing something to do in this awkward situation. "Just thought I'd let you know, is all. Figured it'd do you good to understand yourself a bit better."
After she'd left the room, Gaius fell back onto his pillow, mind in a very grim place.
He shook his head, finally attributing the woman's odd conclusion to her eccentric character - and his inability to truly comprehend he blamed on the hangover.
A/N: If you read it all, without skimming through, you're amazing. No, really. It takes a lot of discipline to read through upwards of 8,000 words in one sitting! You're awesome! Anyways, hope you enjoyed! See y'all next time ^.^
P.S. As always, please leave a comment telling me of any errors such as misspellings and discrepancies between chapters. I'm an amateur, folks, but with your help I'll get better!
Alright . . . now I'm off to finish Persona 3 Portable! Wohoo! I've put 65 hours into that game so far, and that's just on the first playthrough :D I can't even imagine how long it'll take the second time around, now that I've realized I missed a bunch of S-Links. Oho, man.