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Parlor Tricks

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Freya could hardly wait for the Festival of the Hunt to begin.

She always looked forward to it, had looked forward to it since she'd discovered the event. This was going to be her third year as a participant, and most likely her third victory, since she'd never met anyone who could match her. Even the great Zidane hadn't been able to beat her at her own game, something that she was very proud of.

For the moment, however, the Hunt was a few days away, and she was going to spend that time camping under the stars. She had made a special voyage back to the Mist Continent - a name that had not yet faded as the mists had, she thought wryly - for this event, and blast her soul if she wasn't going to enjoy it. She'd gone into Lindblum to get some dinner, another luxury that she would not deprive herself of; she was starting to become very bored with cleaning and cooking her own food. But food tasted sweeter to her under the stars, and her sleep was more restful there. It was a pleasure that she had never enjoyed in Burmecia, for obvious reasons, and she'd developed a taste for it.

She'd certainly picked a perfect night for it, she thought as she looked up at the sky. There were no clouds, just the bright moon and stars. She could hear the occasional roar of an airship far overhead, and between them she heard crickets chirping, and that was all. After growing up with the constant sound of the rain against her window, those sounds were nothing. Her fire was bright and warm, and beside it rested a small pot of Dark Stew - minus the secret ingredient, of course, for safety's sake. She took another parcel out of her coat, a bundle of clean white cloth, and unwrapped a small loaf of good black bread; it had been baked only a few hours ago, and it still smelled sweet and earthy enough to make her mouth water.

She would miss these things when she went back home for good, she thought. All of the little things about life that just weren't true in Burmecia... no, she corrected herself. Not all of them were little, by any means. And she'd miss so many of them.

It wasn't that Freya didn't love Burmecia - no, far from it. There were so many things there that she missed. She missed the kind old King. She missed young Prince Puck and wondered if he'd beaten her back home. And of course she loved her beloved, who was watching over the training of the new Dragon Knights. He had solemnly promised to wait for her.

Sometimes she wondered if Sir Fratley really was waiting. She'd been gone for a long time... and when Fratley had left her behind, she'd left almost the same day to find him, unable to stay any longer. But things were different now; there weren't other Dragon Knights to keep Burmecia safe. Now it was just the two of them, and one of them had to fulfill their duties. But maybe duty wasn't as important to him anymore... maybe he was just a step or two behind her.

If he was, then he'd catch up with her that night for certain, she thought. She wasn't sure how she would feel about that. She loved Fratley, but she didn't think he understood how much of what she was doing now really was for his sake.

She shook her head and pushed the thought away, and tore off a piece of bread to dip in the stewpot. It was delicious, of course; the bread was sweet and dense, the stew thick and filling. She had a spoon, but she wouldn't use it until after the bread was gone.

She was thoroughly enjoying her meal, and it really was a beautiful night. Calm, not too cold or too hot, very peaceful.... Traveling wasn't always easy, but on nights like this -

"Hey, Freya."

To Freya's credit, she didn't quite jump out of her skin. She came far to close to that, however. It was a voice she hadn't heard in a long time. "Amarant," she said. Then, when she looked and couldn't see him, she added, "where in Gaia are you?" The voice had come from somewhere close by, but she couldn't pinpoint it....

"Heh. I'm close enough." He sounded amused, in a subtle sort of way; Amarant had always sounded like he'd find something to laugh about no matter what, even if it was someone else's stupidity. Ironically, Freya wasn't sure that anyone had ever seen him laugh.

She looked again as he spoke, but it seemed as if his voice had come from her half-eaten loaf of bread. "Why don't you come out here, then? I'd like to see you."

"I'd rather not. I'm not one for mushy reunions.

Freya snorted - not a ladylike thing to do, the quiet voice of her mother reminded her in her head - and pulled out a canteen from a pocket of her coat. She uncapped it and took a quick sip. "Ventriloquism, Amarant? I'm surprised to learn that you know anything about that sort of thing."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Well, you must admit, parlor tricks are more Zidane's style."

She had hoped that the mention of Zidane would provoke him, at least a little. Instead, he just snorted. "It's got its uses," the bread said simply.

"Such as?"

"Pissing you off without you challenging me to a fight isn't good enough?"

Freya mentally entertained herself by picturing Amarant standing right in front of her, only not quite so massive as he really was - a shorter and not-so-muscular hulking giant, with the same pale-blue skin and dirty red dreadlocks and smug grin. Then she imagined herself punching him in the mouth, something that she'd never do in reality - she wasn't foolish enough, or angry enough. But in her imaginary scenario it was very satisfying, especially the part where he slid across the dirt and cracked his skull against the nearest wall. "You, avoiding a fight? That's not the Amarant I knew."

"Hmph. True." The voice paused. "Well, maybe I want to have a talk without you starin' at me the whole time and tryin' to figure out whether or not I'm bullshitting you."

Damn. She had to admit, he had her there. "Fine," she said. She grabbed her spoon and started to vigorously stir what was left of her soup, then dipped her bread in it a bit more roughly than she strictly had to and tore off a mouthful. "I hope you're here for the Hunt," she said after swallowing the bread. "At least you'd offer some sort of challenge."

"Seems pointless to me. Dumb animals aren't much of a challenge."

"You'd be competing with the other hunters, not the animals."

"Could I fight the other hunters?"

"Of course not."

"Still seems pretty damn pointless to me, then."

"Tch. Fine, I won't argue with you." She took another large bite, and another. Very soon she realized that her bread was gone. "Did you just come here to argue about sport with me, Amarant?"

"Why are you so damn picky about why I'm here?" the canteen asked in Amarant's voice. He didn't sound irritated, though - just curious.

"Because if you're not in Lindblum for the Hunt, then I have to assume that you have some other reason." She took a long drink of her water, reassuring herself that yes, she'd get more in the city tomorrow.

"You think I've been on your tail?"

"Frankly, yes." She finished off the canteen and put it aside.

"Smart, Freya. Real smart." Now his voice was coming from just above her head. "Can't pull the wool over your eyes."

She pulled off the hat and glared at it, right into the decorations that appeared to be a dragon's eyes. She was fully conscious of how silly she looked, and had a sudden absurd image of Amarant giggling behind his claws at her - not that Amarant would ever giggle, of course. "How long?" she demanded.

"Just a couple of months, after I saw you pass through one of my old haunts. I saw you go by and I figured, what the hell, I didn't have anything else to do. So I figured I'd find out where you were going."

Freya tried hard to remember where she'd been two months ago. She couldn't remember; the memories of her journey had started to blur together in her mind. All she knew was that she hadn't seen any sign of Amarant along that road, while she was following her futile leads... "And you didn't think to let me know until now? I thought that we were..." She paused. 'Friends' wasn't quite the right word, she decided. "I thought that we understood each other."

"If you understood me, you'd know why I didn't tell you."

"Because you're a violent misanthrope who wouldn't know courtesy if it punched you in the mouth?"

"Yeah," said the voice, but not from the hat anymore. She turned and found herself staring at the stewpot. "Something like that."

She put her hat back on in a huff. "Of course," she muttered. The game wasn't fun at all anymore, not that it had been much fun to start with -

"You forgot to ask why I decided to start talking now," the spoon pointed out.

"All right, I'll bite," Freya said, sighing to herself. "Why?"

"Because I can't figure out where you're going."

She took the spoon in her hand and started stirring the soup again. "I don't have a particular destination," she said.

"Just traveling?"

"Yes... I suppose."

"Didn't figure you had it in you anymore," the spoon said flatly. "I figured you'd go back to that soggy old city of yours to rebuild, and then settle down with that hot-shot lover of yours like a good little -"

Freya pulled the spoon out of the pot, shook off the last of the stew, and threw it over her shoulder. It landed behind her somewhere with a satisfying thunk, and the talking stopped.

She couldn't expect Amarant to understand, she told herself. If he'd ever loved someone other than himself, he didn't let it show. He'd never woken up early just to sneak into someone else's room and watch him sleeping, wondering if he would finally really be there when he opened his eyes. He'd never lived with the shell of a lover, living and breathing and speaking, but somehow lacking all of the things that had set him apart from all of the others. And he'd certainly never spent hours wondering if there was something in Gaia - anything - that would unlock those memories, set the man free from the prison of his own mind.

She missed Burmecia, and the rains, and Sir Fratley. But she couldn't bear to live with him as he was now. She kept wanting to see the man he'd been. She had been telling herself all along that she was doing this for him, but when she really thought about it, that was another lie that she'd told herself far too many times.

"Bad subject?" said Amarant's voice from somewhere close behind.

"Yeah," she admitted. "Pretty bad."

"Good. Means I'm getting close to an answer for once."

She snorted again. "Bastard."

"Probably." He chuckled. "But tell me somethin'. Are you really lookin' for something, or are you just running away?"

She closed her eyes. "I don't know," she said tiredly. "Maybe both."

"Heh. Never thought you'd admit that."

"Neither did I."

"Stop brooding, Freya. I ain't here to tell you what a rotten old sewer rat you are."

"Really? No bull?"

"Not today."

"Good. I'll forgive you for being a nosy creep, then." It finally occurred to her then to look for whatever Amarant was throwing his voice to that time. It was right behind her, but all she could see was her flicking - oh. "Oh, for Reis' sake, Amarant!"

"What?"

"You know damn well what!" she snapped. "I'm drawing the line right here. I am not going to carry on a conversation with my own tail for another second!"

She heard him make a strange sort of grunting noise, and realized after a few moment's thought that Amarant was actually laughing at her. It was the first time that she'd ever seen or heard him laugh.... She closed her mouth tightly, counted slowly to ten in her head. It didn't help her mood very much. There had almost been a moment there, of some sort or another, and now it was gone; it was difficult not to feel a bit disappointed. "Listen," she said. "If you want to talk to me again - if you want to follow me, for that matter - you'd best do it where I can see you. I've no more patience for tricks. Do you understand?"

Amarant's laughter faded, but he didn't answer. Freya turned and glared at all of her possessions in turn, hoping to hear some sort of snappy retort, but there was nothing.

She shook her head. "I was right before," she said. "Zidane's sense of humor must be rubbing off on you." Even that didn't provoke him, though, and Freya gave up. No one spoke as she untied her bedroll and spread it out, and no one wished her good night when she settled herself and closed her eyes.

To her chagrin, she caught herself wishing that she hadn't been quite so stern with him, just before she nodded off.

---

Just before she opened her eyes, Freya had been dreaming of a banquet; someone had just put a plate of pan-roasted rabbit in front of her, and she had been just about to sample a taste of it when the dream had ended, as abruptly as a cheap Treno picture show. Her eyes had snapped open, and she'd been disappointed at first... until she'd realized that she could still smell the roasting meat, along with wood smoke. There was a small sound, a rustling sound, as if someone was stirring hot coals -

She blinked the sleep out of her eyes and turned over as quickly as she could manage.

There was Amarant, looking just as he had when they'd last parted company... well, maybe not quite the same, she thought. His dreadlocks were a bit dirtier. He crouched with his back to her, facing the coals and poking at them with a stick. Her stewpot and spoon were lying off to the side, and he was holding a pan in his big hand and roasting meat in the pan over the coals.

He didn't even look at her at first, and she wasn't sure whether or not he'd heard her until he cleared his throat. "Well, Freya? You gonna get up or not?"

"I'm thinking about it," she said primly. She sat up almost at once, though, rubbing her eyes. "Are you going to give me any of your game?"

"Are you going to apologize to me for comparing me to Monkey-Boy?"

"Me, apologize for telling the truth?" She shook her head. "Don't be foolish."

Amarant snorted. "Now that is the Freya I remember." He grabbed a plate from somewhere next to his leg, slid half of the meat onto it, and gave Freya the rest in the pan. "Eat up. I caught 'em this morning. There's a spring in the woods near here too, so I went ahead and got some more water."

"Oh," she said. She was slipping, if she hadn't known about that... but she picked up her canteen and found it reassuringly heavy. She opened it and tipped a bit of water into her hand, tasted it, and nodded. "Thank you."

"Hmph. You should hurry up and eat if we're gonna get back to Lindblum for your precious Festival."

"Oh?" She'd fished a fork out of her traveling pack, and had paused with a morsel of rabbit halfway to her mouth. "Have you changed your mind about participating?"

"I'm considering it. Now eat the damn rabbit."

She did. It wasn't exactly banquet fare, but it was delicious regardless. Besides, she thought as she looked up at the slightly-overcast sky, it really was a beautiful morning.