Valkyrie Profile Fan Fiction ❯ A Small Measure of Happiness ❯ Chapter 1

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]

A/N: I don't own these characters or the game. Drat. Anyway, this was just a random idea floating around in my head. It takes place some time after the “good” ending of Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume, and features Wyl and Cheripha, mostly. Personally, I think this pairing makes a lot of sense, but that could just be me (in fact, I'm pretty sure it is, since there are NO other fanfics for them, at least not on FF.net. So yeah). At any rate, probably only two people will ever read this, but I hope they enjoy it.
~Kiku~
*****
Wylfred lunged left, parrying an invisible blow with his sword as he hit the ground and rolled neatly back into a stand. He whirled the blade rapidly, passing it from one hand to another behind his back, then striking blows with his left hand for a while. He stabbed the empty space in front of him and twisted, using his foot to cast the body of his imaginary foe off the length of the weapon. Now for the finisher. He ran a few paces forward and sprang into the air, bringing the full force of his weight and velocity to bear in the descent.
 
With nothing to actually meet this force, he landed hard. Accustomed to this, Wylfred let his knees take most of the impact. He remained crouched, sword in the ground, while he regained his breath and waited for his heartbeat to slow.
 
“Wyl!” He stood when he heard his name, sheathing his sword as he turned to meet Tilte, who was walking swiftly towards him.
 
“Tilte,” he answered evenly. It had only been about a year since he had returned home from his battle with Garm and told the girl the truth about Ancel, and they were still on odd terms. Tilte seemed to bear him no real ill will for Ancel's death (though this was probably because she didn't know the details), but he knew their friendship would never be as it had. Ancel was the glue that held their little trio together, and without him, well…
 
Tilte gave him a small melancholy smile as if reading his thoughts. “Your mother wishes to see you. She bade me come fetch you for dinner.”
 
“Ah, of course. Forgive me, I had not realized it was so late.”
 
A glint of amusement found its way into her eyes. “You rarely do, when you practice. Perhaps I state the obvious, but you have changed, Wyl.”
 
“Have I?” He inquired, more to keep her speaking than anything else. Tilte was one of those people that was happier when talking, and Wylfred generally preferred silence, so it was the best way to avoid discomfort with each other.
 
“Yes. Before you left, you were so consumed with anger and vengeance. It was like killing the valkyrie was all that mattered to you. Ancel-” she swallowed. “Ancel and I were always so worried about you. Now you seem more… peaceful, if not really happy.” She trailed off and looked at the ground, the trees, anything but him. Not that he begrudged her that. It was as she described, for the most part. He had seen his fill of vengeance and sin, enough to last a thousand lifetimes. Never again would he allow himself to be consumed with that.
 
At the same time, he harbored no hopes for happiness. He had accepted that he would have to live with the pain of what he had done for the rest of his life. He had, however unwittingly, killed his best friend and the love of Tilte's life. For that, at least, there could be no redemption. He had returned home because there was no other place to go. He and his deeds were too recognizable wherever he went, and people looked at him with fear, or worse, awe. He did not deserve to be admired or respected. And so he lived, with a mother that was still in mourning for what she had lost and a town full of people who could not meet his gaze.
 
Such is more than I deserve.
 
They reached Tilte's house, and the two exchanged hasty farewells before she retreated into the company of her family. He heard the sounds of laughter from inside, and tried to remember a time when he had laughed. It was too long ago now.
 
But it wasn't all bad. His mother had regained her sanity, and no longer mistook him for his father. He had made enough oth during his travels that he was able to buy her a new house, one that wasn't falling apart and didn't smell of lingering disease and death. He worked steadily as captain of the small village guard, and he was never for want of food or shelter. That in itself was something most people would have celebrated. And yet he could not shake a lingering suspicion that something was missing from his life. He told himself that he merely missed the time he had spent as mercenary and soldier. Not for the nature of the work or for who he had been then, but simply because it was the lifestyle that had suited him. He knew somewhere in his soul that he would travel again someday, but the cynic in him was convinced that “someday” would never resolve itself into actually appearing.
 
He reached the front door of his own home and decided to put it from his mind. He would eat dinner, then report to the guardhouse- more properly, the abandoned barn that served as such- to send the night watchmen on their way. He'd sleep and awake the next morning ready to conduct his own rounds. This was his life, and surely it would have made his father proud.
 
“Good evening, mother,” Wylfred said gently.
 
“Oh hello, Wylfred,” his mother replied rather more cheerfully. “I'm glad Tilte was able to find you. Just where were you, anyway?”
 
“Out in the practice fields.” There was a slight moment of tension. Wylfred well knew his mother's opinion of fighting as an occupation. She tolerated his current job because it didn't generally mean more than patrolling and breaking up the occasional drunken brawl, but that didn't mean she liked him to practice his swordskills.
 
The moment passed, and he continued to make small talk, answering inquiries in as few words as possible.
 
The two of them were halfway through their evening meal when there was a knock at the door. Wylfred, who had just taken a rather large bite of potato, made to leave his seat and answer it, but his mother waved him back down.
 
“I'll get it, you just keep eating,” she insisted, shaking her head a little. “I think I can answer the door perfectly safely, thank you.”
 
Wylfred's angle prevented him from seeing exactly who it was, but he heard the ensuing conversation.
 
“Good evening, madam. Might this be the home of the one called Wylfred Thyodorson?” The voice was a woman's, the tone a musical alto. It struck him as very familiar, though without a face, he couldn't quite place it. Wylfred swallowed and set his utensils down before standing and moving through the room.
 
“Wylfred?” Margot called, but her son was already behind her.
 
“I'm here, mother.” Surprised, his mother stepped back into him, and he steadied her carefully. As a result, it was a few seconds before he was able to see their guest.
 
“Cheripha?” He couldn't keep the surprise from his voice. He hadn't expected to see her again, though she had been with him for much of his journey. She stood in the doorway, framed by the little luminescence that twilight allowed. Her silver-blond hair was in its customary braid, though she seemed to have exchanged her crossbow and bolts for a longbow and quiver of arrows, and a thin sword rested on one hip.
 
Upon seeing what was doubtless an amusing expression on his face, she grinned. “None other.”
 
“What are you doing here?” Wylfred's head was still reeling from the shock. Most of his companions had promised to come see him again at some point, but he hadn't taken any of them seriously. He wouldn't have wanted to see the person who had dragged him almost literally to Hel and back, and Cheripha herself had made no such promise.
 
At his blunt question, his mother frowned. She certainly had not raised her son to be so rude. The weapon at Cheripha's back clearly gave her some pause, but her manners won out in the end. “Wylfred, why don't you invite the young lady inside?”
 
Cheripha shifted her attention and gave Margot a winning smile, apparently sensing her discomfort. “Oh, that's not necessary, madam. I've come to speak with Wylfred, but I will not impose upon your hospitality. Walk with me, Wyl?” Her eyes flicked back in his direction, and he found himself nodding before he'd really bothered to consider it. He turned to his mother.
 
“I'll be back later.”
 
“Of course,” Margot responded, looking at Cheripha and back to her son. “Don't be too long.”
 
Wylfred raised an eyebrow, but if Cheripha caught the implication, she ignored it with grace. It was hardly like that. Wylfred considered Cheripha a worthy soldier, and he'd certainly rather be her ally than her enemy, but that was about as far as it extended. He hadn't really made any friends on his journey; the closest he'd come was Ushio, but even that was more of a common understanding and mutual respect than anything else.
 
Cheripha waited until the door was firmly shut and Wylfred had turned to her before she started walking. He fell into step beside her, and for a while, there was silence.
 
“How are you, Wyl?” She asked at length. They wandered past the center of town. The tavern was abuzz with activity, but it was too early in the evening for anyone to be drunk enough to cause trouble. Wylfred was reminded that he had yet to dispatch the night watch, but decided they would probably be able to handle it if he was late.
 
“Well enough,” he replied.
 
“That's not much of an answer.”
 
“I know.” She raised an eyebrow, and he sighed. “About as well as can be expected, I guess. Mother is doing well, and I have all that I need.” He shrugged, glancing down at her.
 
Her lips pursed, and she stared straight ahead. “But do you have everything that you want?”
 
He was taken aback at the question, which, he was beginning to remember, seemed to happen often in conversations with Cheripha. She had a way of getting him to talk that was just uncanny. It had been that way since the first time they had met.
 
“I don't think anyone has all that they want,” he responded carefully.
 
Her lips quirked upward. “Fair enough. Perhaps I should ask differently. Is this life you have here something that makes you happy?”
 
“No.” The answer was out of his mouth before he had a chance to consider it.
 
“I see.” He was yet again surprised when she did not pursue the topic further after gaining this information, but merely continued walking, looking as though she was trying to make up her mind. At last, she appeared to reach some sort of resolution.
 
“Auguste and Reinhilde sent me,” she said.
 
“Huh?” Wylfred could have kicked himself for the complete inadequacy of this answer, save that he was too busy trying to understand why they would send Cheripha anywhere and why she would use their first names.
 
She smiled knowingly. “I work for them. After we fought Garm, I didn't really know what to do with myself. They offered Father and I positions, and we took them.”
 
“Wait. Positions? You're not…” he trailed off. He wouldn't have expected Cheripha to return to a life that she had hated so much, new employers or otherwise.
 
“Oh, no,” she responded quickly. “It's not like that. I work as sort of a messenger for them. What I mean is, I do more than just carry messages. House Haughn finds itself with rather more power than the king these days, since people trust them so much more. I… help them maintain that status. I'm messenger, diplomat, spy, and soldier, but never assassin. Never again.” The last was to herself, and whispered, but Wylfred caught it anyway.
 
“Ah.” For once in his life, Wylfred wished he was a little more articulate. He cast about for something else to say, and then remembered. “How is Lockswell?”
 
“My father is well. They made him their vassal, you know. A proper title and everything, just like he used to have. And now he gets to spend all the time he wants doing research and whatnot.” She shook her head good-naturedly, and Wylfred felt a strange tug at the corners of his mouth, which he suppressed.
 
“I imagine it suits him.”
 
“That it does.” There was another period of silence while each stewed over what had been said, but unlike his earlier walk with Tilte, Wylfred felt no discomfort. After a few minutes, curiosity overcame him.
 
“Why did they send you?” He asked, trying to keep his voice even.
 
Cheripha looked at him askance. “They want to offer you a job, too.”
 
He found himself at a loss for words. Trying to maintain his casual demeanor, he lifted an eyebrow in what he hoped would be an invitation for her to continue.
 
“They're willing to put up your mother and your wife, should you have one. They want you to work as an advisor and a general to themselves and Phiona. The position has recently opened up, you see. And they would rather it were filled before the wedding.”
 
“Wedding?”
 
“Phiona's marrying Kristoff. I helped engineer that one. Brilliant political move, if I do say so myself. Of course, it was made easier by the fact that he's quite obviously taken with her.”
 
“And she is…?”
 
Cheripha smiled wryly. “Rapidly warming to the idea of being Queen. And at least a little bit to him. You know Phiona though. Loves to be in charge.”
 
Wylfred blinked. That, at least, sounded accurate. It was a strange sensation, having this told to him as an outsider. Once, he had known all about the various political intrigues of Artolia, even had a hand in many of them. It seemed that life in Torque had isolated him more than he thought. One question was nagging at him, though.
 
“Why me?”
 
Cheripha looked puzzled. “Why not you? You've already led what amounts to a small army against Hel's hound of all things. You've proven capable of convincing nobles and commoners alike to listen to your words, and you're the best swordfighter I've ever met. Need I continue?”
 
Wylfred frowned. Coming from anyone else, he would have disregarded these statements as mere flattery, but Cheripha stated them matter-of-factly, as though she were reciting Midgard's nations and their capital cities.
 
“Um.” He responded.
 
She laughed. “Although I have to say you convinced them more by strength of conviction than any talent for words.” The archer's eyes twinkled with mirth, which swiftly disappeared when she caught the look on his face. “You don't have to decide right now, Wyl. I'm put up at the Inn here. I'm to stay until you choose, and bring you and yours back if you agree.”
 
Wylfred wanted to be able to give her an answer right then and there; wanted to say that of course he would do it, that he owed house Haughn a great deal for their support during the war, and found that Cheripha's news gave him a desire to be back in the middle of events again. He could tell by the almost-literal itch he had to travel, one that he had thought surrendered to his duty as a son. But if he could have it both ways…
 
“Well, here's my stop,” Cheripha commented cheerfully. “Come see me when you decide. I won't bother to unpack. Unless of course-” she paused, “you want to be captain of the village watch for the rest of your life.” He thought he saw her wink, but she tuned away too fast for him to tell and disappeared through the doorway of the inn, neatly dodging a burly man who was stumbling like he'd had a few too many.
 
Wylfred shook his head and decided against escorting the man out of the place. You had to already be pretty inebriated to buy any of Rorek's liquor, so the watch didn't usually interfere with business until people started fighting. Instead, he trudged homeward, with the sneaking suspicion that home wasn't really the way he thought of it.
 
***
Cheripha yawned and cracked one eyelid. Of course it's already morning, she thought dryly. The tavern below had been raucous until the wee hours, and try as she might, she could not sleep through it. Assassin's training was something that never left you, and you didn't survive long as an assassin if you weren't a light sleeper.
 
She hopped out of bed and regarded herself in the mirror. Oh boy. Yesterday's clothes were mussed, and dark circles had appeared under both blue eyes. Matches the flyaways perfectly, if I do say so. She rummaged in her small travelling bag for fresh clothes and set about the arduous task of combing out and rebraiding her hair. She probably would have sliced it all off long ago, but this was how her mother had worn it, and she couldn't bring herself to change it.
 
She spent a half-hour or so in the stretch-and-meditate ritual that she had been doing every morning for years. Then, with nothing else to do, she had pulled on her boots and walked downstairs. At least one of the merrymakers from last night had never left, and was now sleeping peacefully on the floor, his head at an awkward angle. That… is going to hurt later.
 
She stepped outside to escape the beer-and-stale-vomit smell and took in lungfuls of blessedly fresh air. The little town certainly looked different in the daytime. The late-spring sun was warm on her face, and she took to strolling down the streets and narrow byways.
 
When Auguste had asked her who she thought best to fill the position of general, she knew he was expecting her to name one of his existing vassals, perhaps even herself. She knew she was ill-suited for such a thing, even if he and Reinhilde said they trusted her more than any of the others. One thing they did trust her for was an honest opinion, and so she had given it. In truth, it had surprised Cheripha herself as much as either of them, but they had recovered with commendable haste and given the idea serious consideration. In the end, it was decided that the whole thing was worth a try, and so they had sent her to convince Wyl. Not that she was complaining, mind. She found that she had missed him more than she had thought; it would be good to see him again.
 
She had given herself a caveat on that one though: if he seemed happy the way he was, she was going to leave him be, and return unsuccessful. The guy had been through a lot, and she knew him well enough to say that whatever measure of happiness he allowed himself was not something she would deprive him of with unnecessary reminders of what had transpired. It still made her ill at ease to think that the very sight of her probably made him remember things best left alone, but reassured herself that he seemed miserable anyway. Besides, she had never really been able to fulfill her promise to show him how beautiful a place the world could be.
 
And what better chance? He would get to see the world if he worked for House Haughn. She certainly had. What was more, he would get to see it repairing itself, not being destroyed. That had to count for something. His mother would live nicely, and that pretty wife of his, too…
 
Hm. She had seen the two of them walking earlier yesterday. It was certainly an odd sort of relationship, if her limited knowledge of such things was to go by. Certainly, the woman was beautiful, but they seemed a strange fit. To each their own, I suppose, she thought doubtfully. Still, there was something about it that didn't sit right with her. Now I'm just being silly. And most likely that was all there was to it. She decided to ignore the strange twisting feeling in her gut that accompanied these thoughts.
 
She had passed his house some time ago and considered knocking, but decided against it. He would find her when he was ready. Her feet had taken her down an old dirt road past a shabby-looking barn, and then into some fields. If Cheripha had to guess, she would have said the fields were pasture for animals, but she didn't see any. A figure moving at the periphery of her vision caught her attention, and she approached it. As she got closer, she realized it was Wyl. He had his sword drawn, and appeared to be practicing his form. The sight of him slashing at nothing brought a grin to her face and she crept within earshot, careful not to let him spot her.
 
She had seen Wyl fight countless times, and he was clearly an all-out kind of guy. Normally, this wasn't really an issue, since he also tended to kill anything that he aimed at. The problem was when he was fighting multiple opponents and one of them was quiet enough to reach his back without drawing attention.
 
Silently, Cheripha drew her own blade. She preferred to fight with the bow a hundred times over, since swords reminded her unpleasantly of daggers, but had learned this and empty-handed combat at Auguste's insistence that she never be without a way to defend herself. Combine this with a small dose of healing magic learned from her father, and she was a pretty formidable opponent. Still, like most others, she wouldn't beat Wyl unless she exploited his weak point.
 
“Dead,” she said loud enough for him to hear. The tip of her blade touched his chainmail with just enough pressure for him to feel it. He whirled around, raising his sword to cross with her own. She noticed his second, shorter blade was still sheathed.
 
Upon seeing her face, he relaxed and lowered his weapon. “Cheripha? How did you-?”
 
She smirked. “You always leave yourself open at the back. Always.”
 
He blinked. “I do? Why has nobody told me this? How come no one ever..?”
 
Her grin widened. “Oh, they tried. They ended up human pincushions, but they tried.”
 
“Oh.” Is he blushing? I think he is. Ha! I've gone and embarrassed him! Then again, I suppose it would be kind of awful to have a flaw that big and not notice it.
 
“Hey, don't worry about it. It's not like most of them make it past your front, you know?” She gestured to the steel in his hand. “You've got a mean sword-arm, Wyl.”
 
“Er, thanks. For you know, covering my back and whatnot.”
 
She shook her head. “It's nothing. Friends are supposed to do things like that.”
 
“Friends?” He sounded surprised.
 
She'd wondered about this. “Yes, Wyl. Friends. What else would you call it? I followed you around for two years and fought by your side. Well, more behind you, usually. Makes watching your back easier. We shared meals and camps and battles. You saved my life the day I met you, and I've been trying to find a way to repay you ever since. What would that make us but friends?”
 
He appeared to measure her words, then nodded. “I guess that makes sense.” He stuck out an arm. “Friends, then?”
 
She stared at his proffered hand for a moment, then laughed aloud. Were it anyone else, she would have thought them joking. But it wasn't anyone else, it was Wyl, so she straightened out her face and took his hand solemnly to shake it.
 
“Friends,” she replied simply.
 
Wyl's expression changed abruptly, and something appeared to dawn on him. “Care to spar with me?”
 
She almost laughed again at the oddness of the situation, but constrained her mirth into a light smile. “I think I already won for today, thanks. Perhaps some other time?”
 
“Of course.”
 
She picked up on the firmness in his tone quickly. “Does that mean you intend to come with me?”
 
He nodded once. “My mother and I discussed it last night. She is loath to leave this place, but realizes that it is no home for us any longer.”
 
“And your wife?”
 
“My what?” He sounded more confused than anything.
 
“Oh, I'm sorry. Is she just your lover then?” When this failed to clear anything up, she continued. “Fair skin, reddish hair, about so tall?” Cheripha gestured to her shoulder.
 
Wyl's eyes widened, and he nearly stammered his answer. “Tilte? Oh, no, she isn't…” he trailed off, searching for the right way to explain it. “She was Ancel's… she loved Ancel. We were friends, once. Now…”
 
Cheripha bit her lip. “I see. Sorry about that. Sometimes I just say things without thinking.” She didn't know much about Ancel, only that he had been Wyl's best friend and had died just prior to her escape from life as an assassin.
 
“It's nothing.” Wyl recovered from whatever had tripped up his tongue. “At any rate, I think this town will be better if I leave it.”
 
Cheripha frowned. When was he going to forgive himself? Yes, he had held a mistaken belief about the valkyrie, but that was nothing to stew over. Nothing truly harmful had come of it, right?
 
“I can't speak to that,” she said carefully, “but I can say that Artolia will be better for your influence.”
 
And that was that.
 
***
Artolia was much… larger than Wylfred remembered it. Perhaps the circumstances of his last visit had meant that he did not notice the miles as they passed and did not really see the large buildings of the capital. Now, however, he was somewhat surprised to discover that the rolling landscapes of the countryside were really something to behold.
 
“It's beautiful, isn't it?” He hadn't noticed Cheripha ride up beside him until he spoke. He wouldn't have thought it possible to be stealthy on a horse, but she managed it pretty well.
 
“I suppose.”
 
“You know, some people would find that annoying,” she responded.
 
“What?”
 
“Your affinity for monosyllabic answers. Me, though, I just wish you'd smile every once in a while.”
 
“Sorry.”
 
She sighed and shook her head, and for a moment he worried he had offended her. When he spared her a quick glance, though, he saw that she was smiling, ever so slightly.
 
“We'd better keep moving. We'll reach the capital within a few hours, and your mother looks like she could use a proper bed tonight.” She turned her stallion and was off at a trot. Wylfred followed with a little less flair, being unused to riding.
 
Of course, if he was inexperienced, his mother was even more so. Their pace had been slower than Cheripha anticipated, and so they were all eager to reach their destination. They crested a hill, and Wylfred was able to make out the outline of the city ahead. He heard Margot let out a sigh of relief, and they urged their horses into a canter. Cheripha dropped back to ride next to Margot in case the latter lost control of her animal, leaving Wylfred to lead the way.
 
It was as they reached the gates of the grand city and Wylfred took stock of the massive stone structure that was the palace that the weight of his decision finally hit him. He watched people coming and going while Cheripha presented her papers to the guards there, and tried to catch a glimpse of the buildings past the gate. His efforts were soon unnecessary, however, as the heavy doors swung open to admit them even as Cheripha trotted back and swiftly remounted her horse.
 
The journey through town was relatively short; Cheripha seemed to know all the byways and shortcuts just as well as Wylfred knew Torque, and the crowds that lined the streets seemed always to part just enough to allow them easy passage. Wylfred tried not to openly gawk at the multitudes of new sights and smells that accosted his senses; it was, after all, not the first time he had been here. Still, there was something different about it now, as though it were healthier and more vibrant than the last time he had encountered it.
 
Cheripha dismounted as they approached the palace courtyard, and handed her reins to a waiting page, gesturing for Wylfred and Margot to do the same. They followed her as she wound her way through verdant gardens and past stone sculptures and many of what Wylfred could only assume were castle staff.
 
“Are we to meet them here?” He asked. The last he had known, the Haughns still lived in their own keep, not here at Kristoff's home.
 
“The Haughns are summering with his Highness,” she called over her shoulder. “That means we do, too.”
 
Wylfred frowned. It was a bit early in the year to be doing anything best called
“summering” but he wasn't familiar enough with the workings of a court to say if it was at all unusual. He thought about asking, but decided it didn't really matter.
 
“Ah, Soren, there you are.” Cheripha tapped the shoulder of a boy no older than fifteen, who jumped. Apparently he hadn't noticed their approach. At least I'm not the only one, Wylfred thought wryly.
 
“Lady Cheripha,” the boy bowed. He had an honest face, Wylfred noticed. Not the kind that people just think of as honest because they see something they like in it, but the kind with a sort of guileless clumsiness that made him easy to read.
 
Cheripha frowned. “I told you not to call me that,” she sighed good-naturedly. “I need you to prepare to guest rooms, please. In the Haughns' wing, if you would be so kind?” She smiled brightly. “And I need you to see that Lady Margot here is taken somewhere to rest.” She gestured for Margot to follow him, and at Wylfred's encouraging nod, the older woman complied.
 
Soren nodded, before remembering his manners and bowing to Margot. “O-of course. Right away, milady.” The boy flushed, bowed again, and hurried off.
 
“As for you, Wyl, as much as we both need a break, I'm afraid Auguste will want to speak with us as soon as possible and-”
 
“Cheripha!” She was interrupted by a voice. Wylfred looked over his shoulder to see a blond-haired woman striding toward them. She held an air of haughty authority that could not be mistaken for anyone else.
 
“Phiona, it is good to see you again.” To Wylfred's surprise, Cheripha neither bowed nor showed any other sign of deference to the elder woman. Instead, the two embraced, until Phiona noticed Wylfred over Cheripha's shoulder.
 
“Ah, Sir Wylfred, welcome.”
 
Wylfred, at least, was not willing to forgo the niceties. He bent somewhat awkwardly at the waist. “Lady Phiona.”
 
“I expect the two of you were just off to see my parents?”
 
Cheripha spared Wylfred the necessity of a response. “Yes, I imagine they will want this piece of news as soon as possible.”
 
Phiona nodded regally. “They will be pleased to learn of your success. You will find them in the study, I imagine. I would that I could accompany you, but I am called to… other matters.”
 
Cheripha grinned wickedly. “Picking out the china today?”
 
Phiona rolled her eyes. “No… we're still on floral arrangements.”
 
Cheripha's laughter sounded like so very many bells as it echoed down the hallway. “Well, we won't keep you from that excitement, I'm sure,” she finally managed. Phiona just gave her friend a look and huffed off.
 
“I wasn't aware the two of you were so close,” Wylfred ventured.
 
Cheripha shrugged, and took off down an ancillary hallway. “We weren't at first. But, when you're a woman marching with an army, you welcome the company of others who share that lifestyle. Plus, the fact that I'm in the line of work I am has made it easier for Phiona to argue her way into meetings her parents would keep her out of. It helps that we get along, too.”
 
Wylfred considered. Was that all it really took? Or was Cheripha just naturally the kind of person who people trusted? He was inclined to believe the latter, given his own tendency to speak bald truths in her company that he would otherwise keep hidden.
 
His companion stopped in front of a dark wooden door and rapped sharply four times. A gruff voice responded from within. “Enter.”
 
“Here goes nothing,” she said brightly, then opened it to reveal a large, shelf-lined study. At a massive wooden desk in the center sat Auguste, apparently slogging through a massive stack of parchments. Reinhilde was in a chair by a window, reading what looked to be an ancient book of some kind.
 
“Ah, Cheripha, welcome back,” Auguste's voice warmed considerably. “And I see you have brought us a visitor. Please, have a seat, both of you.”
 
Cheripha selected a comfortable-looking armchair in front of the desk. For his part, Wylfred took a wooden one that offered him a view of all the room's occupants as well as the door. Auguste's eyes never left him as he moved, and the man nodded once in approval before addressing him.
 
“So, Sir Wylfred, what has Cheripha told you of our offer?” Auguste sat back in his chair, steepling his fingers as he did so. Reinhilde quietly set aside her book and fixed an unwavering purple gaze on Wylfred.
 
“She has told me that you are looking for a general, someone to help lead your army. I am given to understand that my mother and I will be given lodging at Haughn Manor.”
 
Auguste nodded again. “That is quite true. Do you know what exactly this position entails?”
 
Wylfred paused. “I… didn't ask. I suppose it will be similar in nature to what I did during the war.”
 
“In some respects, yes. You will be responsible for leading troops and formulating tactics, should the need arise. However, we are hoping that this is an era of lasting peace. Therefore, your primary functions will be changed somewhat.”
 
“Yours is a public role,” Reinhilde broke in. “You will be given title and land as befits your station, and act in an advisory capacity to Auguste and myself much as Cheripha here does. As such, there are… certain expectations.”
 
Wylfred wasn't sure he understood. “Expectations?” he prompted.
 
“You'll be a lord, so you'll have to act the part,” Cheripha stated simply. “It's really not all that bad, you just have to attend functions every now and again. The meetings get a bit droll, but the only really bad thing is the occasional party.”
 
Auguste laughed, a great booming sound. “What Cheripha says, she says plainly. But `tis true. What I'm getting at is you aren't just signing on for a daily session of fighting here. You're making a commitment of fealty to House Haughn, and by extension, Artolia herself.”
 
Wylfred mulled this over, trying to examine the possibilities. The idea of being a soldier again appealed to him, but the trappings that went with it seemed a bit…
 
“You don't have to make up your mind tonight,” Reinhilde put in. “Our daughter is married in a few days. If you can tell us after that, we would be grateful.”
 
“Yes, yes, of course,” agreed her husband. “Tell us after this wedding business is all over with. I'll have too much on my mind until then anyway.” Wylfred noticed Cheripha's smile and felt a hint of amusement himself. Without the death of his sons so fresh in his thoughts, Auguste was more affable than he would have guessed.
 
“Very well,” the young man responded. He took the answering nod as a dismissal.
 
“Find any of the servants, they can direct you to your rooms,” Reinhilde confirmed. Wylfred considered asking Cheripha if she was coming, but dismissed the idea as stupid. Surely the three of them had things to talk about, and she would doubtless want to visit her father as well, if he happened to have accompanied the Haughns here.
 
And so it was with a feeling akin to being lost that he closed the door behind him.
 
***
Wylfred's mail-gloved hand made a sharp rapping sound on his mother's door. He stood back and waited for a few seconds before Margot herself opened it and peered out. Upon seeing his face, she flung it wide.
 
“Wylfred, come in. I wasn't expecting you for another hour or so,” she smiled warmly.
 
Wylfred nodded and stepped over the threshold, closing the door behind him. “I finished early today.” He had spent the last few afternoons exploring the palace grounds, acquainting himself with House Haughn staff as well as some of the less standoffish retainers. He took no real joy in what amounted to careful politicking, but Auguste had suggested it as a way to familiarize himself with what he'd be in for if he took the job. As part of this routine, he practiced with the palace guard, something he found he liked. Many of the men were skilled, and it certainly beat sparring with the empty air.
 
“How are you finding it?” His mother gestured for him to be seated at a small table, whereupon sat some tea, still hot. She poured herself some, and offered him the same, which he declined.
 
“It is… not altogether unpleasant.” His muscles still ached from a bout with Earnest, who he had found training with the soldiers in the practice yard. Apparently, the former knight of Villnore had chosen to cast his lot with Kristoff after the war, and had swiftly risen to captain in those ranks.
 
“That's good,” Margot replied, and Wylfred did not miss the eagerness in her voice. His mother was swiftly growing accustomed to this lifestyle, and he knew that it would be difficult on her should he choose to extricate himself from it. He began to wonder if he would really have a choice after all.
 
Silence reigned for a few moments, and then Margot spoke up once more. “Have you seen much of the Lady Cheripha?”
 
Wylfred was taken aback at the question. Actually, he hadn't spoken with Cheripha in the days since she brought them here, though he had seen her a few times in passing. “Not really, no.”
 
“You know, she comes every day to check on me, and asks if I'm comfortable. She really is quite sweet. I do wish she wouldn't wear those weapons everywhere, though.”
 
Wylfred didn't respond. He was quite surprised that his mother had taken to Cheripha at all, given her distaste for war and soldiers, but he supposed he really shouldn't be. She may be a soldier, but her demeanor was much brighter and kinder than any other in the profession that he had ever met.
 
The two made small talk for a while longer, until Wylfred took his leave. He enjoyed his daily visits with his mother, but he was overcome with a desire to be somewhere else. Where, he couldn't say, but perhaps he just needed a walk.
 
He passed through the many halls and courtyards of the palace as he tried to find the location he was looking for. He managed to get lost a few times, but each passing day was granting him valuable knowledge of the area's layout. As such, he was never lost for long. Still, he spent hours walking, and didn't find the place he was seeking. Dissatisfied, he returned to his quarters. The wedding was in two days, and he still had a great deal of thinking to do.
 
***
Cheripha leaned back in her chair, letting out a theatrical sigh. Not that anyone was around to notice. She had cloistered herself in her tiny office/library for the past few days. It seemed that paperwork just continued to pile up in torrents, especially when she was away. Of course, this was mostly attributable to her own habit of leaving everything to the last minute. She had returned from her last mission with the intent of eliminating the backlog of reports that had been steadily accumulating for the past months, but before she knew it, she had been sent off (largely at her own insistence) to find Wyl.
 
Hm. That was another quandary. Wyl seemed resistant to the idea of taking a title and all the associated trappings. She understood well his reluctance; she, too, had been hesitant. It was something ingrained in the common-raised, perhaps, to think oneself unworthy of rank and status. Then again, maybe that was just her. As an assassin, she had been taught from the very beginning that her life was forfeit. For so very long, she had known the love of no parent or sibling, and it had erased what little self-worth had survived her mother's demise. Luckily for her, the life into which she had been thrust had not desensitized her to death, though she inflicted it more times than she cared to count. Well, that wasn't quite true. She had killed 67 people as a professional murderer, and yet it was through this bloody lifestyle that she had come to place such a high value on life itself. Not existence, but life truly lived.
 
Occasionally, she had nightmares wherein the faces of the dead, her dead, would swim in front of her vision. They made no sound, having been dispatched silently, and yet this was more unnerving than any scream or death rattle she had ever heard. She knew that if she let them, the dreams could drive her insane. Instead, she had resolved to let them serve as both reminder and penance for her crimes. A reminder of what had been, and what she must fight to ensure never would be again.
 
She allowed her thoughts to meander for a time before gradually turning them back to the point at which they had begun. Wyl resembled herself not so very long ago, when she had still allowed the thoughts of her past to disturb her. Was he unwilling to accept the Haughns' offer because of some lingering self-hatred? Did he simply refuse to allow himself some measure of happiness? That would never do.
 
Cheripha rubbed her eyes. How long had it been since she had sat down to write these blasted reports? Could it be dark already? A quick glance out the window behind her told her that the sun was setting on the final day before the royal wedding. Cheripha smiled ruefully. She hadn't even been fitted for her gown yet. Phiona would be furious if she knew, but Cheripha really didn't care. She stood, stretched, contemplated delivering her reports then, and decided that they could wait until tomorrow. Or the next day.
 
Instead, she headed for the outdoors, still contemplative. She really would have to convince Wyl that his misery wasn't going to change the past. First, though, she would have to figure out why it was that he was on her mind so often lately. She suspected she already knew the answer to that one, but was hesitant to really consider it. Certain things were perhaps better left in the dark corners of one's mind that barely register conscious recognition. Not that she was ashamed of how she felt; far from it, and yet, this was an area in which she had about enough experience to fill a thimble. Assassins-turned-soldiers-turned-well, spies (probably the best word for what she did now) didn't exactly get tutored in the area of navigating interpersonal relationships. Simply put, she was out of her depth, and the feeling was uncomfortable enough to warrant avoidance. Plus, the likelihood of her feelings being reciprocated- ha. Not a chance.
 
She made her way through the gardens, now being lavishly (and frantically) decorated by what seemed like hordes of servants and palace staff, to the guardhouse. She needed to ask Earnest something about Villnore for one of her most recent write-ups. Of course, she hadn't really considered fully the possibility that he would be there, and thus could have kicked herself when he was, indeed, in the practice yards yet again.
 
And then, of course, he looked up. And made eye contact. No avoiding this now. Still, she couldn't deny that she was always happy to see him, even if he was perpetually frowning. Cheripha couldn't keep the big, stupid grin off her face as she waved and approached.
 
“Hey Wyl.”
 
He stepped out of his combat stance and nodded. “Cheripha.”
 
Only I could find one-word responses in any way endearing, she thought sardonically. “More practice? Aren't the guards done out here for the day?”
 
Another nod. “They are. But I…”
 
“Want to feel like you're actually doing something?” It was a guess, but she thought she had a pretty good read on the type of person Wyl was, and he wasn't one happy in idleness.
 
“Something like that.”
 
Cheripha quietly inhaled, and held her breath for a few moments. Finally, she plowed onward. “Well, I did promise to spar with you sometime. Would you like an opponent?” She tried to sound as casual as possible, something that she was fairly skilled at.
 
Wyl didn't smile, exactly, but something in his eyes sparked. “Why not?”
 
She smiled. “I'm warning you: I'm pretty terrible with this thing,” she said, patting the sword on her right hip.
 
“Are you?” He sounded a touch amused, but did not pursue the topic. Instead, he backed off a few paces and slipped back into his stance.
 
Cheripha drew her own sword. It was much lighter than his, which meant that it would have some speed advantage. But that was it. If she didn't end the match within the first few blows, she wouldn't win, especially given Wyl's well-known strength.
 
Still, she perhaps had one other thing going for her. She had always been a distance fighter, which meant that even in the heat of battle, she was generally free to observe her surroundings in more detail than close-quarters fighters like Wyl. She had seen him fell enough enemies to know that he was essentially ambidextrous, but liked to hold his larger sword in his right hand because that made it easier to draw the other one at a moment's notice. She knew that he was fond of starting matches with a lunge, and that while turning this initial attack was difficult, doing so usually left him open for just a moment. Now, if only she could actually manage it…
 
They bowed to each other, and she settled back into her own stance. As predicted, he lunged forward. She raised her arm to block the blow, but it landed heavier than she was expecting, jarring her arm. She sidestepped, allowing his momentum to carry him forward, and angled her sword so that his slid off. She made to strike at his back, but he surprised her by passing his sword behind his body to his other hand. Unconventional, and enough so to catch her off-guard. She reeled backward when attempting to dodge it, and knew the battle had been lost. He swung his own blade until it stopped inches from her neck, and then surprised her again when he abruptly turned it and went for her much more easily-defensible side. She swiftly recovered her balance and blocked it deftly, using her superior agility to maneuver to his left side, thrusting the sharpened steel at his thigh. He barely dodged it and began a volley of blows that all ended with the resounding clang of metal-on-metal as she parried.
 
Conscious of what he was doing, she grinned. It seemed that Wyl was more interested in getting a good fight out of this than actually winning, since he had already given up just such an opportunity. Knowing this, she allowed herself to loosen a little, studying the patterns in his attacks. Eventually, she found something of a rhythm. Step, parry, thrust, slice, jump, duck, feint, slice, parry… on and on it went until Cheripha was reacting on pure instinct, adding her own contributions to the rhythm here and there but for the most part allowing Wyl to direct their pace.
 
Gradually, she felt her arm growing heavy, and her breaths coming more rapidly. She made more and more mistakes until Wyl was turning more blows than she was parrying. After a few minutes of this, he held up his free hand for them to stop. Only too happy to comply, Cheripha returned the customary bow and sheathed her sword, then promptly doubled over.
 
“Whew,” she managed between labored gasps. “See? I told you you'd be the victor.”
 
“That you did. You are not as unskilled as you seem to think, however.”
 
“Well, you properly would have had me at the beginning there if you hadn't stopped.”
 
The corner of his mouth twitched wryly. “If you know that, then you are halfway towards avoiding it next time.” Cheripha abruptly unbent at the waist and looked at him sharply. Did he just…?
 
“Ye gods, Wyl, you can smile!” She laughed with delight, all fatigue forgotten.
 
Wyl just looked confused. “I did?”
 
“You did.”
 
“Well, I suppose I can then. Just don't go telling anyone. I have a reputation for these kinds of things, you know.” He resumed his customary scowl.
 
A smile and a joke in the same night? Was such a thing even possible? And yet, it had most certainly happened. Cheripha was pretty sure her face had frozen in shock, but a warm smile soon melted the ice. Fortune looks well tonight, it seems.
 
And she couldn't shake the feeling that this was only the beginning.
 
***
Wylfred tugged uncomfortably at his shirtsleeves. They'd been bothering him all through the rather long ceremony, and he was eager to be rid of them. Not that the borrowed tunic and trousers (Haughn russet and gold, the lot) were much better. If this was what it felt like to dress the part…
 
He snatched a glass of something from a passing servant's tray. He wasn't much for drink, but he certainly had nothing against it either. And tonight, well… it seemed appropriate.
 
He wandered aimlessly through the gardens, passing groups of revelers and the occasional couple. He found himself unable or unwilling to join in the general festive atmosphere. He knew that he would be welcomed- Phiona had practically told him to participate or else- but he couldn't shake the sense that he didn't really belong here.
 
He had spent the ceremony seated next to the two older Haughns and his mother. Auguste had started weeping about halfway through (albeit reasonably silently), earning him vaguely disapproving looks from a smiling but otherwise stoic Reinhilde. To say that it was an uncomfortable situation was to do a disservice to the awkwardness of the entire affair. He had searched the guests for a familiar face but found none, and now he had that nagging feeling of being lost again.
 
It was with these thoughts weighing heavily on his mind that he found himself in a more obscure patch of garden, one where the number of people was drastically reduced. He rounded a corner hedged by some shrub he could not identify and stopped.
 
A woman was standing on the small walkway between the rosebushes that lined this particular path. Wylfred thought to turn and leave her be, but something gave him pause. Her back was turned to him, and all he could tell of her was that she was possessed of long, pale hair that fell straight down her back. There were braids in it, but for the most part it was without the fanfare and ornamentation of the other wedding guests'. Her dress was pale gray, and-
 
Wylfred shook his head. This was… inappropriate. It felt too much like spying or some such. He forced himself to turn, and then:
 
“Wyl?” He turned back, blinked a few times, and tried to reconcile the different images floating around in his head. It couldn't be, and yet-
 
“Cheripha?” He asked incredulously.
 
She smiled ruefully. “Unfortunately.” She gestured for him to come stand next to her, and he reluctantly complied. It was then that he realized that her vantage point gave her a good view of the main crowd of guests, as well as the bride and groom, on the terrace below.
 
“Are you working? Now?”
 
She shrugged. “Someone has to, don't they? But… not really. Sometimes I just like to watch people. It's fascinating, isn't it? They still surprise me sometimes.”
 
Wylfred swallowed. “Yes, they do.”
 
She looked at him curiously. “What brings you up here?” He gestured to the mass of people becoming rapidly more intoxicated. “Ah. I see. Not your crowd, eh?”
 
He didn't respond. Truthfully, he was still having some difficulty with the situation. He had always seen Cheripha as a soldier, an ally, and more recently, a friend. What he had not seen her as was a woman. Obviously, he was aware of her gender, he just… hadn't really considered what it meant. Of course, she didn't exactly make it easy, given that she wandered around in men's clothing all the time. They did make battle gear for women, she just seemed to prefer trousers. Now…
 
“Um, Wyl? Are you okay?”
 
He started. “Yes. Sorry.”
 
She frowned. “Are you certain?”
 
“No.”
 
“Would you like to talk about it?”
 
“Maybe.” He knew that she was prodding at something deeper than whatever his dysfunctional brain was dealing with now, he just wasn't certain he was willing to divulge the information.
 
“How about if I tell you a story first?” Wylfred was slightly confused at what seemed like an abrupt change of topic, but nodded anyway.
 
“Once, when I was small, I knew a very beautiful woman. She was the kindest person I've ever met, but she was not without troubles either. She was a member of a powerful family, one that had an influence much like house Haughn's. The difference was, the royal family of the country we lived in didn't make allies with this powerful clan. They tried, and one of their sons wanted to marry the woman. The offer was made, but she refused, because she was in love with a common-born man. This made the prince angry, in a way that festered in his heart for a very long time. He knew he would have his revenge someday, but needed to wait for the right opportunity. One day, he got that chance. He discovered that the lady had been corresponding with someone in Crell Monferaigne. It was completely harmless, but nevertheless, the whole clan was brought up on charges of treason and found guilty. They didn't even want to spare the children. I saw the woman hanged myself. The letters… the letters were written on my behalf. I was sick at the time, and none of the healers could identify it. The lady was writing to Crell Monferaigne's healers in the hopes that one of them would know.”
 
There was a silence. Then: “Your mother.” It wasn't a question.
 
“Yes,” Cheripha's voice was melancholy, moreso than he'd ever heard it. Alarmed, he cast about for words of comfort. “It wasn't your fault.” Ugh. It sounded pathetic, even to his own ears. He wasn't suited to this.
 
“I know,” she said softly. “And I no longer blame myself. It saddens me to think of it, but not because I believe it to be my doing, rather because she is gone.”
 
Wylfred contemplated for a moment. If she knew, would she hate me for it? Fear me? He did not know, and yet all at once the weight was too much to bear, and he had to tell someone.
 
“I…I killed Ancel.” He looked over at her furtively, but she merely waited for him to explain, expression neutral. “I was so angry back then, so very angry at the valkyrie for taking my father and letting my sister starve. All I wanted was revenge. Ancel came with me to try and change my mind. But, when it came down to it, I made a deal with Hel, and he paid the price. I didn't mean to, but… I didn't know what would happen. I tried it anyway, and he died.” The last was nearly choked out, so thick was his emotion.
 
“Oh, Wyl…” she exhaled softly. “Is this what burdens you so?”
 
Wylfred nodded mutely. The world around them had fallen away from his perception entirely, and he focused intently on her without actually looking in her direction, waiting for the outburst of horror or revulsion that would surely come. Instead, he was acutely aware of her warm hand as it clasped over his. He turned, and met her clear cerulean gaze. She neither looked away nor let go of his hand, though her eyes glistened with tears unshed. Tears… for him?
 
He found himself unable to bear such gentle scrutiny any longer, and dropped his eyes.
 
“Wyl, I can offer no words that will make all of it disappear. What's done is done, and however much we may wish for it, we cannot change the past. But, if you like, I can help you make sure it doesn't rule your future.” Cheripha placed her free hand on the side of his face and turned it gently so he was once more looking at her. “We have all made mistakes. That does not make us unworthy of happiness. I can tell you this: your friend, if he were a true friend to you, would not want you to live the rest of your life miserable. Let me do what I told you I would. Let me show you that the world is a beautiful place, if only you know how to see it.”
 
Wylfred knew from her expression that she meant every word. Perhaps, perhaps it might just be possible.
 
“Trust me,” she pleaded softly.
 
“I do,” he replied.
 
Cheripha smiled, and Wylfred could have sworn right then that nothing she could ever show him would be more beautiful than she was in that moment. Just as he was mentally chiding himself for having such thoughts about someone he should never hope to be with, she closed the distance between them, and he felt soft, gentle lips on his own. All his doubts melted away, and he knew that he would stay or go anywhere, as long as she was with him. Auguste would have his general, and maybe, just maybe, Wylfred could have his happiness.
 
*****
Kiku's Corner:
 
Okay, so it's quite a bit sappier than my usual (I think so anyway) but hopefully it's not unbearably so. It certainly isn't my best writing, but it was clawing to get out of my brain, and I needed the space for the last chapter of Barriers. So yeah. Leave a review if you feel so inclined, though I doubt I'll wind up with much readership on this one. Nevertheless, I hope it was somewhat enjoyable.
 
~Kiku~
 
 
 
 
 
 


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