Summary: When Lethe is turned into a Feral One, Jill refuses to abandon Lethe to her fate, no matter what the consequences.
Author's note: Longfic_bingo: brainwashing. Done for heroinesbigbang. Thanks to Jana for the betaing. Happy early birthday, Little Linor! I hope you feel better!
Nebellym did some fantastic accompying art, but I can't link it from here, so check her tumblr so you don't miss it!
The mailbag was nearly empty, now. Though she'd joined the army, she hadn't forgotten her duties, and still passed them along. Slower than she would have liked, but that was a side effect of yet another war. It was understood by the people who had seen their fair share of skirmishes over the year. She patted the bag, quietly happy in the knowledge that she hadn't lost a single one.
She'd been separated from the rest of the regiment just a while to send out the messages, but had decided to pull in some scouting while she was at it. Her mount was anxious to get out to the open skies for a while, and she could hardly deny him a little flying. He'd been cooped up too much with the bad weather as of late. They soared over the treetops, until people were little blotches down there. Her hair whipped in the wind, refreshing cold air against her face.
Her mount stopped to drink, his long neck bent as he lifted it again and again, spraying water all over Jill.
"Careful," Jill said with a laugh. Her mount let out a puff and shook his head.
"You are a trouble maker, aren't you? Aren't you?" Jill said. She affectionately rubbed at the wyvern's neck, itching just at the spot where it could never quite reach. The wyvern let out a little high sound of happiness, its eyes closing halfway.
The peaceful moment was broken when a sound cut through the air. A cry came through the trees, a crashing of a wildcat. She stepped closer, hand steady on her spear. Her wyvern's wings were up, preparing to launch itself into the air.
The laguz that burst through was sleek and tawny—at least, what she could see from the matted hair, blood and dirt. The laguz reared back its head and let out a roar, revealing yellowed and bloodstained teeth.
Jill gripped her spear, holding it in front of her to take the brunt of the attack. The laguz leapt at her, and she jumped back, barely missing the attack. Sharp claws left marks in the soft ground of the riverbed.
Another sound filled her ears: bells. She looked, and only just then noticed one dirty and limp ribbon, with two dirty and rusty bells.
Before she could even collect her thoughts, the laguz leapt again, this time catch her side. Jill struck out, kicking the laguz away before it could get a hold with its strong jaws. Still, the creature was heavy against her, enough to make her stumble and fall back into soft riverbed mud. The laguz took the chance and pinned her, blood dripping onto her armor from its teeth.
The sound of bells came again, cutting through the sounds of the forest. She could see a hint of green from the ribbons. Memories came to mind, of those bells tinkling as Lethe tossed her head and stormed out, of them twitching with her laughter and the comforting sound of them as they fought side by side.
"Lethe?" Jill said.
The laguz shuddered, and stepped off of her. The cry was more plaintive as a weak light surrounded the bloody fur.
The transformation finished, and the laguz turned back into a girl she knew. Scarred, matted and weaker than Jill had ever seen her. When she looked up to Jill, there was a hollowness in her eyes. It felt like Jill had fallen hard enough to lose her breath. How could this happen? Why? ILethe?/I
She'd never thought she'd have to raise her spear against the one girl who taught her the meaning of the word Ilaguz/I, who she had formed first a grudging alliance, then a friendship with.
"Stay away..." Lethe collapsed to the ground, barely strong enough to lift herself after the change. Blood dribbled from a corner of Lethe's mouth. "Stay away—!"
Jill came closer. "What happened to you? That back there, that wasn't you. You wouldn't attack me like that. You—"
"I told you to stay away—!" Lethe roared, her body beginning to shift again. Skin to fur, fingers to claws. Jill gripped her spear more tightly. She knew all too well how deadly Lethe could be.
"I don't want to hurt you! Lethe! Listen to me, it's me! Jill, your friend. Remember?"
Lethe's answer was another enraged roar. The beast came out from her, like a creature unleashed from her very nightmares. Not a warrior of fur and sleek muscle, but exactly the sort of unfeeling monster which Daein had always taught laguz were. The eyes showed nothing of the Lethe she knew; only the desire to kill everything in her path.
Lethe sprang so fast that Jill didn't have time to defend herself. Jill wrapped her arms about Lethe, not even letting go when the fingers turned to claws which tore at her skin, and left sharp dents in her armor.
"Lethe, please! Come back!"
Lethe roared and shuddered, but this time did not transform. She clawed at Jill, until Jill could taste blood in her mouth.
Jill didn't let go. Lethe was a howling beast, clawing and tearing at everything around her, no trace of the laguz girl she knew.
Her mount let out a shriek and flew closer. If only she could find a way to restrain Lethe, but she didn't have a sleep staff. The reins dangled in front of Jill, as her mount urged her to grab them and fly away.
She reached out, releasing her hold on Lethe long enough to pull the bit free from her wyvern's mouth. Lethe swiped at her, a tawny blur coming closer until the blow was broken off by two cries. One was her wyvern, the other Lethe. It had gone so fast, but Jill was pretty sure she'd seen the wyvern use its thick, scaled tail as a club.
Lethe trembled as blood dipped down her chest. How long had she been like this? How many days had the drugs in her system forced her to go on, not even resting a moment until everything in her path was obliterated?
Lethe jumped back at the first feeble attempt at lassoing her with the reins.
"Please, Lethe. I-I just want to help you," Jill said as soothingly as she could, despite the way the pain made her voice turn husky. She crawled closer to Lethe, her knees leaving trails in the mud as she did.
Lethe snorted, her tail began to wag. Unlike dogs, this was a sign of anger, not happiness. She just started to go into a pouncing position when Jill tried looping the reins again. Lethe shrieked and clawed at the ground, arcing and trying to get the reins off, but they were tight around her neck, and every movement made them tighten. Lethe gasped for breath, and Jill could barely steel herself to finish this. She ached with guilt as much as pain. Lethe would understand. She'd do the same if she had to. She would understand.
But this wouldn't be a mercy kill. She wouldn't let it go this far.
"I don't know what will help you, but I'm not going to give up until I find it," Jill said. "We're both getting out of this alive, Lethe. Do you hear me? We're making it out!"
For a moment, she thought that she saw comprehension in those glazed over eyes. But there was nothing, nothing left. She bent down to collect the panting cat, only to have Lethe suddenly spring up. The reins snapped at the force and Lethe went off running into the bush.
She whistled, and her mount stood for her to climb on. For a moment, dizziness and pain almost overtook her. Her mount nudged her with his nose.
She patted its sides. "You'll have to go without reins this time."
Her mount beat its powerful wings and soon they were up and in pursuit. The trees were thinner here, the only saving grace. Lethe was faster, smaller, and knew her way intrinsically around wilderness far better than Jill ever could, even in her homeland.
She dug her heels into the side of her wyvern, urging it faster. She began to see the path through the forest: strewn bones and bloodied corpses, all animals lay in the wake, along with footprints in the wet ground.
She caught sight of her at the bend of another fork of the stream. Lethe was drinking heavily from the stream. Pinkish water poured from her mouth as she lifted her head up. Lethe's sides heaved, but she stepped forward, a warning growl deep in her throat.
She didn't have much on her, not even a vulnerary. Her reins had been already broken, and she always forgot to pack extra rope along. Lethe's tail began to wag back and forth as she growled. Jill hovered above the stream, just out of reach.
"This is for your own good," she said as she urged her wyvern down a little more. Lethe turned and ran towards the deeper brush of the forests, a break from the rabid Feral Ones Jill had encountered who would keep attacking until they or whatever they were attacking died.
Jill followed after Lethe. Her pulse raced as the tree branches closed about them. It was too narrow, but any higher and she'd lose sight of Lethe for good. Two thin saplings blocked the way. She couldn't risk her wyvern getting its wings broken. She guided her wyvern near to them, and began to hack away at the supple trees with her axe. Jill was well aware that with each cut, Lethe would be far ahead of them. It lent a desperation to every movement as she tore through the leaves, letting them shower below, spooking whatever animals hadn't already fled.
Even her wyvern was irritated at the delay, and began to gnaw away at the branches that impeded his way.
More wood fell, and a narrow, but serviceable space was opened up. With the last stroke, her axe broke in two and fell to the forest floor.
"I know it's a narrow fit, but we have to make it," Jill said.
Her wyvern let out a roar and flew up high enough to whip its tail around, breaking what remained of both saplings in two.
"Or, we could do that," Jill said. She patted his flank. "Good boy, let's go!"
They continued on the chase, even though the tawny streak which they had been following had disappeared. This deep into the woods, Lethe could be anywhere.
She sunk the spear into the tree to use as leverage and kicked at Lethe, feeling her boot hit hard against Lethe's rib cage. It was enough to divert the attack, if only temporarily as Lethe pushed herself up for another round.
She desperately tried to pull the spear out of the bark, but it was stuck. She pulled at it again, harder this time as Lethe circled around her, preparing for another strike.
With a final tug, the spear broke in two pieces, with the iron head stuck still in the thick bark. She held up the rod as Lethe jumped towards her. Hot breath stinking of blood and rotten flesh was in her face. Every nightmare about laguz that Daein had taught was true, but only beorc could turn them into this soulless thing.
Lethe bit at the rod, biting it in two and leaving her again defenseless. She backed up, tree to her back. She felt something soft beside her, and from her side vision, she could see the round curves of her mail bag.
It was her last hope. It was surprisingly hefty as she quickly grabbed it and slung it like a club, hitting Lethe over the head. She rushed to Lethe's side. Had she hit too hard? Her only objective was to knock Lethe out enough to carry her to safety and—then what? A life in a prison? Surely there had to a way out of this maze where both of them were alive, and Lethe wasn't slaughtered like a rabid dog.
Her rib cage rose and fell in a shallow breath. Jill sighed in relief, collapsing down against Lethe.
"I'm really sorry, Lethe, but I had to. You wouldn't want to be like that...I couldn't let you stay like that. I hope you understand one day and can forgive me."
She pushed herself up and tried to heft up the mail bag again, only to find it was still very heavy. Inexplicably heavy.
"What, was it full of rocks?" she said.
She opened it, to find that it was, in fact, filled with rocks over the top of the letters and packages.
"Were you hoarding rocks again?" she said, with a glance up to her wyvern.
He ducked his head, and she rubbed at his nose.
She lifted Lethe up carefully and arranged her on her lap. There was no telling how long she would be knocked out, but she had the beginnings of a plan. She returned to the last stream where she had seen Lethe, and picked up the remaining pieces of the reins.
Her legs were tied together like a prized buck. Oh, Lethe would be indignant if she was actually awake. She'd have to spend the rest of her life apologizing for hurting Lethe's honor.
She wearily urged her wyvern up. She would have to bring Lethe back to camp. There was just no other way about it. She didn't know what would bring Lethe back to herself, but whatever it was, she'd find a way, even if she had to cage Lethe to save her from herself to do it.
Laura ran to greet her when she landed down near the abandoned fort they had settled at. For the past few weeks they'd been surrounded by forests and crumbling stone, only sneaking out for Micaiah's plans of attack.
"Oh, you're hurt! Did you run into soldiers?" Laura said, her hand half covering her mouth
"No...but it doesn't matter. You have to heal her," Jill said.
"But, your wounds—" Laura protested.
"They can wait, she's worse. Be careful not to wake her, though. I'll carry her."
Laura stepped carefully aside as Jill lifted Lethe's body up. If anyone was hurt, it would be her. Lethe was painfully light in her arms, a reminder that she had no idea how long Lethe had been like this.
She walked towards the crumbling fort. "Are the prisons still in working order?"
"They should be," Laura said. "We haven't exactly tried them, however—"
"Good," Jill said. She walked towards the building. No one else would take this burden; it was hers alone to carry.
Lethe woke not even an hour after she was caged. The wounds had been healed into new scars, but the bloodstains and dirt still remained over her coat. She restlessly paced back and forth, throwing herself at the bars whenever anyone came too close.
"Do you think the bars will hold?" Laura asked with a nervous glance towards Lethe.
"We can only hope," Jill said.
"Aren't you tired?" Laura said.
"No...I'll stay with her a little longer," Jill said.
Laura nodded and tiptoed out with one last wary glance towards the prison.
Edward had pulled in a chair for her. There weren't a lot of them left in this fort, most had to be pulled apart for firewood.
"I don't blame you if you hate me," Jill said.
Lethe let out a mournful cry and shivered on the floor. She stepped up from her laguz form, her eyes just as empty as before. She was paler and thinner than she'd ever seen before.
"Lethe..." Jill stood up, reaching out for Lethe, as if she could pull the bars and distance apart by mere strength alone.
Lethe tightened her grip around the bars to steady herself, not to break free.
"Stay back," Lethe said evenly. "I could transform back at any moment."
Even though she ached to close the distance, to pull Lethe towards her and then never let her go until she could somehow wrest the pull of the drug away from her, Jill stayed away.
"Was this your doing?" Lethe asked. "This prison?'
Jill nodded. "I'm sorry, I had to. You were frothing at the mouth like a rabid dog...there was a trail of corpses, and you would've killed me had I not defended myself."
Lethe closed her eyes and clung tighter to the railing. "To lose control like that...this is unforgivable."
"I'm sorry," Jill said, because what else could she say? Lethe was slipping away from her like sand between her fingers. It'd taken so much work to get her to even speak to beorc, and now with something like this, she wouldn't be surprised if Lethe told her to never show her face again.
"No...You should not apologize. I lost myself back there. Even now I feel as if the rage might overtake me at any minute. That's why I must trust you to this, and only you...Finish it. Kill me before the drug takes me over again!"
"I won't," Jill said suddenly. She rose and came closer, even as Lethe backed away from the bars. "I promised you then that we'd get out of this together and alive, and I meant it."
"To die at your hand is better than to die under this thing which has taken over me.
Do you know how much it hurts? Do you know how hard it is not to rip your throat out right now?"
"I know," Jill said quietly. "I fought you back there."
"Had you not been stronger, I would have killed you. Do you know what that would have been like? To wake up from this possession to find out that I lost control and killed you?"
Lethe began to cough, and stepped back. She shivered and clutched at herself, a cry of pain. She was transforming again.
"No! I'll find a way, no matter what!"
Lethe launched herself at the bars. A low growl came from her throat as she tried to reach through the bars to tear Jill apart.
Jill backed away. Her breath caught in her throat, and with it, all the words she had never told Lethe. They were both warriors; they were used to pushing down everything within them for the sake of duty.
She took off her helmet as Micaiah rose from the one seat in the nearly bare room. It had been left as a tactical room, with the chair facing the window. Ivy sneaked in through the cracks of the wall, green tendrils reaching in.
"Laura tells me your friend became a Feral One," Micaiah said.
"You weren't with us on that campaign, but we were able to release the bonds of Feral Ones before. A Heron has to sing for them."
"Rafiel!" Jill said suddenly. But realization dampened her enthusiasm. "But, he's away with the wolf queen, and we've no idea where he is right now. Though, there were others still left. When I was with General Ike—"
Micaiah's expression hardened at the mention of his name.
"—but they'd be even farther away," Jill added, more to herself than Micaiah. Every path she could take seemed covered with fog. Time was running out. How long before the bars, or Lethe's body gave way?
No...she couldn't even imagine it. Not Lethe who'd changed her life. They'd grown closer than she'd ever thought possible—especially with a laguz who she hadn't even believed capable of humanity for so many years. She'd never known any better until Lethe came into her life.
She could just see Lethe in her mind, calmly accepting her fate. This is the way of a warrior. Jill refused to accept this at the end.
She began to pace, full of nervous energy. Each thought came to an end as the new plan fell apart. She couldn't push her wyvern so hard to try and catch up with General Ike, especially when he was now on the other side.
"May I make a suggestion?" Micaiah said.
Jill stopped in her pacing a moment and inclined her head to listen, her ponytail bobbing along.
"First you should go rest, you must be exhausted."
Before Jill could form her protest, Micaiah held a gloved hand up.
"The matter isn't settled. I'll try and find a way to them. I...have someone I can ask."
Micaiah had certain ties that nobody really knew. Sometimes she knew things, sometimes her senses would make a great turn in battle. Nobody questioned her, except when it came to her support of the newly crowned king. As she had before, Jill laid her trust in Micaiah, a certain relief filling her. The choice wasn't merely on her shoulders any longer.
"Thank you," Jill said. She slumped without meaning to, weariness getting the better of her.
"Sleep well," Micaiah murmured. She turned away, back to her seat and back to whatever forces within her would win this battle.
Even as tired as she was, Jill didn't sleep a bit. She'd already removed her armor and washed for the day, but even after Laura's treatment with a heal staff, her muscles still ached. Everything within her was twisted up in knots.
A knock at her door made her rise up with a mutter of coming. Micaiah waited for her there. She put a finger to her lips, and Jill followed after her without a word.
"Lady Micaiah?" Jill said.
"The time is running out," Micaiah said. "I talked to someone about it, and she said that Lethe is on the verge of breaking."
"Someone?" Jill said.
"Yes," Micaiah said, but didn't elaborate. "I already called Laura to put her under a sleep spell with one of the staves. When she wakes, however, she told me that it will be the last time. She's at her limits as it is."
Inside the cage, Lethe breathed shallowly. Micaiah unlocked the door, and Jill came closer to where Lethe lay curled in a fetal position.
"I already got your wyvern ready. She told me that Rafiel and Nailah have stopped at the desert ruins for the night."
Night flying was dangerous, but even more so with the ticking time bomb of a the threat of getting lost and having Lethe awaken.
She'd take that risk.
Lethe's sleeping body lay over her lap as Jill flew through the night. In the dark it was easy to lose her way, but she kept steady, a hand on Lethe's back, another to grip tightly at her new reins.
Hours passed, her legs grew numb and the cold night air made her shiver, yet she flew on.
The sound of howls in the distance kept her on, a north star to guide her. Slowly the spindly trees and scrub brush turned to desert, hour by hour the stones of an old castle lay strewn about, like footprints across the desert.
Each twitch of Lethe stirring pushed her on towards the faint fairy lights of a reclaimed ruin.
Jill landed as the hissing began. Lethe began to tear at the bonds, her eyes glazed and unfocused. She hadn't transformed, but the tie kept her mere moments before she was lashing out. They fell to the ground, Lethe on top of her, clawing into her skin even as Jill held on tight, refusing to let her hurt anyone else. Through the vicious changes, she held on, clinging to reveal Lethe's true form.
Wolves came closer, Volug in his human form the nearest began to attempt to pull Lethe away, but she fought him at every turn.
"Please, Rafiel! Sing it for her, or she'll—!" Jill tried to say more, but Lethe had wrapped her arms about her neck and began to squeeze. Jill tried to speak her name even as Lethe squeezed tighter, tried to reach to her past the void that the drug had opened up inside her, the rage which had eclipsed everything about Lethe.
Through the ringing in her ears and Lethe's growls, she could hear the song. Lethe's grip grew limp just as she felt about to black out, light surrounding both of them.
"Lethe, you made it..."
Jill coughed, and she suddenly felt Lethe's arms wrapped tight about her, but this time as an embrace.
She let go only to stroke her face, her fingers lingering at Jill's cracked and bloodied lips.
"You did it after all," Lethe said, her voice low and gravelly. "You kept your promise."
"I couldn't imagine doing anything else. To give up on you was...unthinkable."
The wolves and lone heron had surrounded them, but all she could see was Lethe and the starry dark around them both.
Jill woke up tangled up in Lethe, who hadn't let go of her, even then. Lethe pushed herself up, bed-head and new scars, her shirt loose and hanging around one shoulder. They hadn't changed, had done little more than drink and apply salve before blacking out together, too tired to speak.
Every bone inside her ached, and most of her muscles, too. She stretched, wishing a heal staff and maybe a hot bath, but this was hardly the place for it. Her hair was a mess, matted with blood and dirt. She tried to comb her fingers through it, but gave up, too tired to push herself.
Lethe had been looking out at the distance, and Jill couldn't shake the fear that something within her hadn't returned. Even if she had put the pieces of Lethe together from the Feral One, something had gotten left behind in the void which had overtaken her.
"I've never been in such a hopeless place. It was horrible, being faintly aware that I had become so shamefully unbound, a monster unfit for my place in Gallia. I wanted to destroy everything around me. Had my own sister tried to stop me, I would have torn her throat out and feasted on her body. You can't imagine what that's like," Lethe said, a rising rage in her voice. Each word became louder, more her voice shaking with emotion.
"I always thought I'd be strong enough, that they'd never enslave me," Lethe said. She looked out across the dunes and shook her head. "I couldn't even comprehend the depths and depravity these, these humans would stoop to. I was proud and foolhardy, and I thought I could escape no matter what. The others who fell to the drug only lacked will. I would save them and...look where that got me."
Jill reached out and laid her hand on Lethe's shoulder. No words came. She couldn't think of any defense or comfort to give.
She looked over Lethe, searching for the return of the hate which had once consumed her.
"Wouldn't it be the same with you?" Lethe said.
"What?" Jill said.
"I can smell it on you. The wariness. You're worrying again. I attacked you, I became what you feared. Will you go back to hating my kind?"
"No...that wasn't you, it wasn't your fault," Jill said.
"And I say the same. It wasn't you. Some filth should be exterminated, but you aren't one of them. Thank you, Jill. Thank you for saving me, even if it was from myself," Lethe said.
"No, thank you. You taught me so much–I've changed so much because of you. I couldn't even think of leaving you behind, Lethe," Jill said.
"Our countries may fight against each other, but I swear I will never raise my weapons to you again," Lethe said. She pushed herself up from the straw mattress and motioned for Jill to follow. In a single graceful gesture, she lifted her palm and then bit it hard enough to draw blood and make a new mark to join all the others.
She held out her hand. A promise made in blood? Jill's teeth weren't sharp enough to make a cut, but she pulled out a knife and made a small cut. Lethe clasped their hands together, the sting and slickness of two cuts pressed together.
"Blood to blood, honor to honor. We're bound together like this for life. As warriors and friends and..." Lethe's voice trailed off, and she cleared her throat.
"Are you going to return with me?" Jill said.
"No, my place is in the Gallian army in this war. I need to warn them of what is to come, so no others will be pulled into that horrible place."
"When this is over, we should travel together," Jill said tentatively. Each word was a careful step to bridge the distance between them. Lethe had quite the temper that anything could set off.
"We might not even survive this war, such is the way of battle," Lethe said.
"We will, I know it," Jill said.
She tightened her grip to Lethe's hand, letting the sting of the cut, of her muscles and the feel of their blood intermingling remind her that she was alive.
"You once said you wanted to learn how to fly. When this is over, I promise I'll teach you. I'll show you all kinds of things. Just because we're old battle-hardened warriors doesn't mean we can't have a peace now and then," Jill said with a crooked smile.
The haunted, gaunt look hadn't completely left Lethe, but she smiled just a little, like a tiny bit of sunshine on a cold winter's day.
"The blood never lies. Our lives will be tied together from now on. Even if we have to return to our countries, we will meet again."
The desert was no place to tarry, and Lady Micaiah still waited for her. Lethe had her country and her family to return to.
"I can give you a ride past the desert," Jill began.
"No, it's best that we part here. Anymore will only make this harder," Lethe said.
Something darkened over her face, a hurt held back, but Lethe did not speak of it. She turned, hiding herself away as always, keeping her pain to herself. Jill wanted to reach out to her again, to hold to her as tightly as she had from the moment when Lethe was finally free from the curse of Feral, but Lethe was too proud.
"I'll write to you. I take care of the mail around there, and even if it takes months, I won't let it go so long without seeing you again," Jill said.
Lethe turned back to Jill, her face grim and half covered by shadows.
"So be it, beorc girl. I will learn this clumsy modern scratching and write to you. And when this is over, we can have our peace...together."
Before Jill could say anything, Lethe said a gruff goodbye and slipped into her beast form. She was still too skinny, but her purple eyes were bright and full of intelligence. Jill knelt down and touched her head. New scars, old hate and feral curses wouldn't take this bond away from them.
Lethe turned and left. Jill watched out the window until Lethe's tawny fur blended with the dunes and disappeared. She had already begun to compose a letter in her mind.
Dear Lethe, I am counting down the days until this war is over and I see you again.