This wasn't how Fiona had pictured their reunion: not over a grave, and not with Riese carrying flowers. They were chicory, grown wild, and Riese had simply said they were for Van—to go with hers. They looked strange among the roses, the elaborate bouquets and other tokens of remembrance from all over the colony, but they did indeed match. Fiona'd picked her own flowers too, making sure to include some from every garden she could reach on foot, each spot of green she and Van once visited in the desert.
It had been one year since Van's death, one year exactly...and Fiona felt slightly ashamed she couldn't count the days since Raven's.
They'd never been close, not even after he and Van had worked alongside each other. There'd been pardons, been forgiveness, but Camford hadn't left things to Raven's good will either. One chance, he'd been told. Work for me, rather than against this peace we're after, and I won't have you and your organoid publicly shot. Nobody trusted him to operate alone, yet there was only one man he'd stoop to a partnership with: the same one he'd hated for so long. Van said they'd come to an understanding after a particularly unsuccessful mission and a few days in the wilderness. Fiona was initially skeptical, since they'd returned with Raven limping and Van with a black eye, both scratched and bruised and refusing to discuss it further. But when he and Van next left, she'd gone with them.
She remembered nights they'd spent around campfires, a few days' journey from the next tangled mess of a village. Between the three of them you had two lost people, two friends, and two fighters, and none of those pairs entirely overlapped. It made for poor conversation. Things were a bit better the times Riese was there, because she'd get Raven talking. Not much, but among the complaints about the food and being the President's charged-particle lapdog came bits and pieces of the past she'd once rummaged his brain for. Those glimpses never happened when it was the three of them, and near the end even Van had noticed how often Riese's paths would cross theirs.
And then Van died. Simply, too: it was a routine mission, round up a few stray punks with stray Zoids making trouble. The wrong shell through the wrong bit of Liger face, and he was gone, dead before Thomas could reach him in the Dibison. The men responsible turned themselves in, the one who'd pulled the unlucky trigger stammering in disbelief, claiming the entire way to the nearest detention center he hadn't shot to kill. It couldn't be happening this way, a guy like Van Freiheit couldn't just be gone without so much as a heroic last word.
During the quieter moments of the chaotic days after, Fiona could almost hear his voice saying his goodbyes when she saw the others. He'd have taunted Irvine that he'd died first and he absolutely had to take up with the Force now, let him hide tears he wouldn't admit to behind one last friendly squabble ending with Van in a headlock—he never had grown tall enough to escape those entirely. Thomas would have gotten told what a genius he was without the cracks about BEEK, to keep being the best tactician and backup the next man and his Liger could ask for. And he'd have laughter and stories for Moonbay about those crazy early days, and she'd elbow him in the ribs to go talk to his girl already. Fiona knew what his words for her would have been, and told herself she didn't need to hear what she felt.
Raven was another story. At first he'd raged more than any of them, pacing corridors and cursing any gods he could think to name. Once the state funeral was over, he'd gone dead to the world for days, communicating only in dull stares and unsettling sneers directed the way of people trying to goad him into speaking. It had saddened and angered Fiona in equal turns—what right did Raven have to grieve for a man he'd tried to kill so many times?
She only felt guilt now, the morbid yet faded sort that comes from thinking ill of the dead—especially around their telepathic friends. Fiona didn't sense anything prodding her mind, but as she looked up from the gravestone she caught Riese staring at her, teal eyes intent.
"Long ago, Prozen told Van death follows heroes too. I didn't believe it, and...I didn't let Van believe it either. But he was right. Even Van had to kill sometimes, do things that were wrong for everyone's sake. And I guess—" Fiona stumbled over the words, finding it hard to regain her voice, and in that moment Riese spoke up.
"Van chose his path. Damn good he did, or we'd all be enslaved, dead...whatever Hiltz found most amusing. I wouldn't care to find out. Besides, if I believed in fate, I'd be waiting for it to catch up with me too."
"Why are you here? I didn't think you'd care to come, not after...well, not after how Raven died."
Riese had stayed with the Guardian Force crew for a while after the Van incident. It hadn't entirely been sympathy. Raven had grown steadily weirder without a focus, and it became increasingly, painfully clear that she wasn't going to be enough. Too much of him didn't understand how friendship could fill the holes left by death of both purpose and bitter rivalry. Or, perhaps, he just plain wouldn't change, not for anyone or for himself. One lunch—over chips, Fiona remembered—he'd simply announced it was about time he lived and died on his own terms, and then he'd vanished. Riese's bugs proved useless, returning confused or smashed in an envelope with no return address, postmarked one remote town after another. Raven kept his end of whatever bargains he'd made with Camford and Van: nobody died, at least nobody the President wouldn't have secretly wanted dead.
But the sightings of the Breaker grew less frequent and the Zoid less red, as the Zoid wore down and trackers' patience with it. When nobody else would look, Riese went out herself, and she'd returned a month-odd later. Officially she'd told the Force the Breaker was no longer a potential threat, and that records could be closed. But Fiona'd known what else it meant to say the search was over, even if only one person cared.
"We both miss someone, and I have no one to talk to. Who else will remember anything about him and me but 'the girl Hiltz brainwashed' and 'the dead man who killed thousands'?" Riese shrugged, leaning back on her heels and smirking in a way half cynical and half sympathetic. "Or, to put it another way, I'm feeling sentimental."
Fiona managed a smallish smile in return. "I don't mind."
And so the two sat down, and stories were exchanged. Awkwardly, to be sure, as they both tried stepping around tales that brought back the memories that still hurt, and all the people they had in common brought them back the worst. There were the old times, with Zoids Eve—who breathed still, buried under mountains of rubble with them the only reminder there'd even been ancient Zoidians. But Fiona'd lost so much that wasn't the Death Saurer and prophecy to time, her only solid connection being Sieg...who picked up on the solemn mood and padded over, plopping his head in her lap and whining for attention. Specular stayed to their right, lounging under the shade trees at the edge of the graveyard plot and apparently not jealous her counterpart was getting a bellyrub and scratchies-under-the-chin. Fiona kept watching her, though, noting Shadow's absence, and much as she tried to avoid asking about the past half-year for Riese's sake, questions prickled at the edges of her mind.
"So after the greenhouse incident, I said if we wanted to grow actual trees, we'd have to—oh. You're curious about something."
Fiona started, reminded again of Riese's...perceptive nature. "What?"
"Out with it."
She didn't think she could steer the conversation back to ancient Zoidian rooftop gardening, not with the look Riese was giving her. "You said you found the Breaker too late. But with Van, I didn't...did you get to say goodbye?"
"All I could get from Raven's mind was he'd been playing vigilante. He was delirious, like he'd gotten himself beaten up a few times before this and left the wounds to fester. He just had to live like a damn metaphor, right? When he finally realized I was there, he looked me right in the eye and started laughing. Told me that he and Van could fight in Hell now, even if he had to drag him down himself, and collapsed, right across his own organoid's feet. Either it was his idea of comforting or he was just fever-mad."
Fiona wasn't sure what to say other than—"I'm sorry."
"I didn't change Raven's mind, neither did Shadow," Riese snapped. "You think you could have?"
Both women looked away, Fiona wincing and Riese unreadable. Sieg whined as they fell still, and Fiona patted his nose distractedly. Apologies seemed so useless, especially when Riese was entirely right. She'd been too lost in Van's death to really try with Raven, and mid-grief they'd all made excuses about his 'creepy girlfriend', leaving Riese with nobody to talk to. Back home, she had Maria and Dan, the Wind Colony priest, who at least remembered the Van-who-had-been; in the Guardian Force she had friends who'd fought alongside him. Riese had Specular. Specular, in Fiona's experience, didn't say much.
"Shadow wouldn't come with me either," Riese said at last, still keeping her eyes on Sieg. "He just snapped at my hands and bolted away. I figured he had to feel Raven and his Zoid die, that I could let the Breaker stone over and he'd catch up. He didn't. He's as stubborn as his master...or as selfish." The words were angry, but her voice sounded more resigned, and Fiona got the courage to speak up again.
"Van and I found a Gordos once, from the old war. Its pilot left long ago, but all it could remember was he'd said to guard its post, and it stayed even after we repaired its leg. We told Maria, asked her if we could help, and she said it reminded her of stories Earth men told about dogs that waited forever for their dead master. I imagine Shadow's the same."
"I imagine." Riese chuckled bitterly, but there was a hint of actual humor. She looked up, gesturing toward the gravestone with a tilt of her head. "I don't want to be, though. And I've had enough of moping around."
Fiona nodded. She didn't want any more regrets to bring to meetings like this, and resolved to do something about the one she could. "You sound like you need a place to stay. Or at least a friend."
Riese raised an eyebrow. "You sure about that? My friends tend to die."
"I thought you didn't believe in fate," Fiona teased, shoving Sieg's nose out of her lap. The organoid kyuued in protest, but shuffled out of her way enough for her to stand and offer Riese a hand. She laughed, and this time it was genuine.
They walked side by side, flanked by their organoids, back to Van's old house. Her house, Fiona corrected, and Maria's. She suspected it would be the priest's too soon, and wondered if Riese would stay long enough to count it as hers. The company would be nice, if a bit crowded.
"You know," Riese continued, clearing her throat, "I've also spent too long wandering. Convinced myself that was what I wanted, or perhaps that I could find answers or atonement in the desert. But he never did, and the only answer I have is I want something more."
"Van always said to do what made me happy. The Guardian Force, that was us together. But before, when he was training, I stayed with Doctor D for a while, trying to track down clues to my memory. I wouldn't mind doing that again—" she paused, putting a hand on Riese's shoulder, "—with a partner who's a bit less crazy archaeologist."
"Digging through our past, you mean? The one you can't remember, the one I'm not sure if I want to." Riese sighed, and Fiona feared she'd hit another nerve until she spoke again. "But to be able to tell those stories to everyone, to know people would know more of our dreams than a final madman's ranting..."
"We're all the Zoidian the world's got left, you and me and these guys," Fiona said, patting Sieg for emphasis. "If anyone can—anyone should—tell those stories, it's us, right?"
Riese was smiling again, and as alien as it looked on her face Fiona found it wonderful. "Tomorrow, then. We'll find your crazy professor and write ourselves a history."