"Well, here I am," Estelle said happily to the tree. "I really did it."
She clasped a folder to her chest; inside were sheafs of paper, the words of a contract detailing one 34 Ashendale Way, and her signature. It was the proof that she had really, truly taken the steps down the path that had formed in her mind. A house in Halure. A career as a novelist. A future she'd chosen for herself.
She would never again gaze out a window, praying for her stories to come true: a knight to rescue the princess from her tower, to take her down into the world to see the streets of the city she'd lived in her whole life.
"It's just a house," Rita said behind her.
Estelle spun around to beam at the other girl, proud. "But it's my house," she said. "Maybe the first thing that's ever really been mine."
And Rita would be living with her there. To tell the truth the whole house was barely larger than her bedroom back at the castle, but Estelle was completely in love with it. It had two tiny bedrooms and uneven walls made of still-living wood and modest worn furniture and pink curtains that looked out on the great tree of Halure and Rita would be living with her there.
Rita rubbed the side of her face with a sleeve, not catching her enthusiasm, which made her feel a little awkward. Estelle turned back to the tree, adding, "Of course, you've owned your own house forever, but -- now we'll have one together! Isn't that exciting?"
"I'm-- It's just a house, I said!"
She was scribbling in her journal, just stream of consciousness, really; recalling the things that were said, trying to get the order of events right. If she was going to write a book, a book about Brave Vesperia, she needed to be sure that it was a stirring tale, just like the real thing had been. The Tale of Brave Vesperia. Or maybe a shorter title would be more memorable...
A crowd of children raced past, small shoes crushing the grass just at the edge of her field of vision. One child paused, and Estelle looked up. It was a boy, chocolate hair mussed and with a twig tangled in the strands above one eye, blue eyes wide and curious.
"What are you writing?" he wanted to know.
She smiled, curling her legs up to her chest and leaning over her knees, heedless about the pages of the book trapped against her. "A story," she told him simply.
It made his eyes go even wider, impossibly. "Like the one you told us last time?"
Another child ran up behind him, this one a girl in a cute skirt. She looked excited. "Are you telling another story, Miss?"
Then they were all gathering around, poised excitedly, ready at any moment for her to speak the magic words that would hold their attention rapt when they had been so happy running and playing. She did this for them; her imagination gave them that pleasure.
Estelle felt that glow inside, the warmth, the certain feeling: I'm doing something that makes me happy.
And so she waited a moment, collecting her thoughts, before she said delicately, "Well-- I suppose I can tell you a story. There's one that I know about a witch."
A witch she had just made up.
She spun the story off the top of her head while they watched her fixedly. "She was a good witch -- with incredible power over the world, but who did not want to use it. Every day, or so it seemed, people came to see her, begging her to use her terrible power to smite their enemies, or make the weather good for their ocean voyages, or to see into the future and tell them if their business deals would be profitable.
"But the witch knew that if she fixed their every problem, they would only want her to do more for them. Maybe they would even ask her to be their queen. And all that she wanted was to be left alone."
She thought of Ioder, and it made her sad, briefly. Although they had rarely ever seen each other growing up, and his family had not been close to hers, he was technically her oldest friend, and she still occasionally felt a twinge of guilt that she had left all the responsibilities of the Emperor in his lap and left Zaphias. He had given her full royal permission to do what she wished, to go where she wished -- but Ioder was a gentle soul, and she couldn't help wondering...
But the witch had no obligation to be anyone's queen. She wasn't running from anything; her avoidance was wise and reasonable, not selfish or cowardly.
"What kind of things did she want to do?" one of the children asked eagerly.
Estelle paused for just a heartbeat, watching the flower petals drift idly down around them, and then said, "She wanted to take care of her garden! The witch lived in a town where it was always spring, and she loved to garden, not with her magic -- although she could if she wanted to -- but with her hands. She loved the warmth of the sun and the quiet rustling of the trees and the soft dirt beneath her, and watching things grow, the way all things grow. But she couldn't enjoy the things she loved when strangers kept stomping through her garden to ask her for favors, right?"
There were a few scattered nods. "How did she make them go away?" another child asked, her chin braced against her knees, her voice hushed.
Another beat passed, and then Estelle tilted her head up. She said, happily, "She hired a secretary."
Rita was definitely not a morning person, Estelle quickly learned. When they had traveled, it had been impossible to tell, because they had all been forced to keep the same schedule. But left to her own devices, Rita tended to stay up half the night reading, or researching, or mumbling to herself over blastia formulae and mana conversions. Then she didn't resurface until it was almost noon the next day, dragging herself out of her bedroom to curl up in a big stuffed armchair in the living room, legs tucked up to her chest blearily.
It was adorable. Estelle took to having tea ready for her, and stood in the doorway, watching Rita fondly as she slowly woke up, uncurling from her balled-up position in the chair as she began to feel like herself.
On Yuri's first visit (and he then made the trip frequently) he wasn't so sentimental.
"Wow, Estelle," he observed, idly draped in a chair across from Rita's. "I didn't know you were into snails."
"Shut up," Rita muttered.
"I can give you some tips. I used to really like creepy crawly things, myself. Is her tank ventilated?"
"If I have to get up, it will be to cast a fireball at you."
Estelle interrupted tactfully, "I think it's sweet," and Yuri gave her a highly amused look. "Well, it is! She's living her life the way she wants to. I wouldn't think you'd have a problem with that, Yuri."
Her slight chastisement had no effect on him, shaming or otherwise. He just leaned back a little more and observed, "You sure are getting comfortable with all this freedom, huh? It's just one big party here all the time."
"Does it look like we're having a party?" Rita asked acerbically.
It felt a little bit like mediating between two of the children currently playing so happily outside her window. Estelle said, "It's wonderful. I've never been happier. Although maybe I wouldn't say like a party," the last added in concession to Rita's grumbling.
Yuri smiled at her, a little more gentle. "Is moving to Halure everything you thought it would be?"
Her hands tangled together, a tiny, intangible gesture of her excitement that she was trying to contain. "...It really has been. I love this house, and I love the scenery, and I love the people... It's exactly what I wanted when I decided to live here."
"And what about the other part of your dream? Becoming a story-teller? How's that working out for you?"
Estelle was silent for a moment, and Rita as well, either dozed off in her armchair or no longer hearing anything worth griping about. Estelle lifted her face to the ceiling, studying the pattern and elegant whorls of the wood overhead.
"I think mine might be better than the fairy tales I read at the palace," she said simply. She didn't want Yuri to see how childishly happy she still was with her new life.
"Tell us more about the secretary," asked a little girl.
Estelle smiled, folding her hands neatly on her lap. "Well -- she was very smart, of course. She had to handle lots of very important tasks and deal with lots of very important people. And she had always lived on her own, without any family or friends, and she was very stubborn. So she didn't care what other people thought of her, and she had no problem telling people exactly what she wanted and exactly what she thought. She would tell anyone she knew the witch didn't want to see that they should go away and make an appointment with her before they would be allowed in to see her."
A few of the children nodded approvingly, with scattered murmurs amongst themselves. Estelle tried not to think about Rita's reaction to learning that she had been turned into a secretary in the story. It may not have been an inaccurate characterization of her, but the indignity would probably feel very great.
"Was she good at her job? Did the witch like her?" someone else asked.
"Oh, yes! She was very good," Estelle said earnestly. "She was always thinking about how to make the witch's life easier, and looking out for her, even just in little ways. The witch couldn't think how she had ever lived without her secretary."
"How did the secretary look out for her?" This little girl had a long braid, slung over her shoulder, and she had a rapt look about her, devouring every word.
She made Estelle feel -- happy. Her words, entrancing this girl; her characters, her ideas. "Well... Sometimes the witch was so focused on tending to her garden that she forgot about herself. Her secretary made sure to bring her lunch so that she would eat, and made sure to bring her a jacket if it got cold out while she was working. And then at night the witch thanked her by making her dinner, and they sat and talked together long into the night."
Another little girl sighed contentedly. "They sound like the best of friends," she said.
"It's kind of boring, though," said an older boy, critical. "Something exciting must happen, right? There's supposed to be knights in fairy tales. Is there a knight?"
Estelle paused a beat, trying to think of an exciting twist to add onto the story, the kind of character that Flynn (of course the knight would be Flynn) would be in her fantasy world, but she didn't have to. The girl with the braid turned around and snapped at him, "It's not that kind of story! Why does there always have to be a knight, anyway?"
"I want to hear more about the witch," a younger boy said shyly.
Slowly, Estelle smiled, some tension easing out of her. They were right, of course. This was the witch's story, not the story of a no-doubt wonderful knight.
"Don't worry," she said. "I'll tell you all about her adventures."
A princess must always hold herself with dignity and grace, whether walking, sitting, or dancing. Even locked away in the castle where no one but her tutors and high-ranking nobles seeking to curry favor could come to see her, she had never been allowed to curl up in a big chair with her legs to her chest the way Rita so easily did, or sit with her legs crossed while she talked, or even to sprawl on a bed, rapt in her reading.
But in Halure, in her fairy tale, Estelle was not a princess, but a witch. And a witch could do anything she wanted.
"I can't believe you're just lying face-down in the dirt," Rita observed, hands on her hips.
"I'm not face-down," Estelle protested, looking up from her book with a pout. "I'm just lying on my stomach. That's normal, isn't it?"
"Maybe on a picnic blanket or something!" the younger girl protested. The weeks and months since they'd settled down had changed them both: Estelle slowly coming to relax in slacks and simpler skirts and cute blouses; Rita taller, longer, and guiding her hair back in a barrette behind one ear.
Estelle blinked up at her, recognizing after a beat that it was not a barrette, but a set of metal wires on a clip that was probably supposed to be hooked onto a belt.
But that was Rita for you.
"I don't mind getting my clothes a little messy," Estelle said happily, and then, possessed by a mischievous urge, rolled over onto her back and then back onto her stomach, like an animal squirming in the dirt.
"Oh-- Come on!" Rita ducked down, hooking an arm under her elbow and drawing her up.
It was easy with Estelle giggling the way she was. She managed, "It's not harming anyone, is it?"
Rita muttered, "It's going to be a hassle to clean them," and brushed at Estelle's shirt with fussy hands.
There was a child leaning on the fence around their yard, watching them with wide eyes. Estelle looked over at him as she recognized his presence, and paused, which made Rita look up. She frowned at him. "Yeah? What's your problem?" she asked him, almost belligerent, and he took off running without a backwards glance.
"You don't have to be mean," Estelle chided her gently, but she didn't protest as Rita continued to do her best to fix her clothes.
"The nosy kids here are always getting into everything," Rita said under her breath. "You didn't know him, did you?"
She tilted her head, although her attention was still more than half on the brunette. "I tell stories to his friends," she said.
It was gratifying how intently the children listened, hanging on her every word. Estelle lowered her voice as she told them, "And then the witch simply... collapsed."
The girl with the braid, back again, gasped, "She used too much of her magic."
"Always a danger when dealing with the sky people," Estelle said gravely. "But fortunately, she had a very good secretary to look after her, right?"
A few of the children nodded. She had been telling this story for a long time now; here and there, a new bit on a weekend, or late in the evening one summer night. Halure's great tree was a thousand different colors now, and Estelle was nineteen, and these children were still interested in her stories. A few of them had drifted away over time, but new ones had settled into her circle in their place, and the majority had stayed, listening.
"The magistrate wanted to take her to his manor, and the adventurers to their inn, but the secretary drove them all off. 'She'll recover faster at her home, in her garden,' she told them, knowing that the love the witch had poured into her garden over the years would help to fortify her faster than any ordinary bed."
"Oh, that's perfect," whispered a girl, and Estelle was gratified, a flush of happiness filling her.
She swayed as she sat, a little trick she had learned to help her memory. She had started out by making up the story as she went along, a pleasant diversion from her chronicling, but she had become rather enamored of the story, of the characters, of their unique situation, and she had begun to map the tale out ahead of time.
"And the witch laid motionless in the garden for two days and a night. It was so long that the secretary began to fear that she would never recover. But she didn't give up -- keeping strangers away and protecting the garden and waiting."
Estelle had spent enough time with the children that she felt that she had a pretty good idea of how they would respond to the story: she knew when they would listen raptly and tensely, like now, and when they would be carefree and excited or intrigued. But she still wondered how they saw the things she told them, what it meant to them. If they felt the same way that she did about the events she wove for them.
"But then, on the second night, she noticed that the witch was sleeping more comfortably, even smiling. And she knew that the witch would wake up in the morning as if nothing had ever happened."
She heard sounds of relief and murmurs, and tangled her fingers together. One more detail, she thought. One more personal little detail.
"The next morning, the witch woke up in her garden, with a blanket draped over her shoulders. And when she asked the secretary about it, the secretary said, 'I didn't do that for you, or anything. I did it because it's my job.'"
Estelle said it in her very best Rita voice.
"I'm a little sad everyone had to go home," Estelle said, still reluctant to move from the bench where she'd draped herself to watch the sunrise. After an entire weekend when Yuri and Karol and Judith and Raven and Repede and even Flynn had found the time to visit -- it just felt like Halure was so empty now, even though the day was warming up and people were just starting to get active.
She hadn't gone to sleep. She hadn't wanted to miss a moment of their visit.
"I know you didn't mind traveling, but it's hard to sustain a lifestyle like that," Rita said critically, cleaning up the picnic without any trace of the same melancholy. Estelle watched her do it, but for once wasn't avid about pitching in. "You wanted the house and the career and all of that, right? Didn't that make you happy?"
Estelle smiled faintly, uncurling a tiny bit. "...yes. It does make me happy," she said.
Rita shrugged. "Then just look forward to their next visit. Find a reason for them to come over again. You're good at that."
"That's right, your birthday is coming up, isn't it, Rita?" Estelle suggested mischievously.
"Don't start," Rita said, heading into the house. The older girl giggled.
Rita's seventeenth birthday, though... It would have to be something special. Estelle gave that some thought while Rita continued cleaning, and she was thoroughly distracted by the time her friend came out and swept a blanket over her.
"If you're going to stay out here, you should at least be warm," Rita said gruffly.
A girl who had been traveling on her way to school skipped up to their fenced-in yard and peered over the wood slats at them. "Is that your job?" she asked.
Rita straightened, and put her hands on her hips, scowling. "What exactly do the people around here think I do?" she demanded.
Estelle giggled again, self-conscious, and drew the blanket tighter around her shoulders. She made a mental note to find a way to mention to the children that the secretary was blonde.
"The witch owed her secretary so much. After years of devoted service and friendship, she wanted to do something for her -- something wonderful, something that would not only show her how much she was appreciated, but which would show everyone."
Estelle was talking quickly, getting carried away. She was so excited with the ending of the story that she had envisioned that she almost couldn't wait to get to it. The eyes of the children were as wide as saucers, following along in her rapid current of words.
"Something just for her," she said, quieter.
She still didn't feel like she knew what she was doing. She had an idea, a perfect idea, something that she thought would make her -- them -- everyone happy. But she was nervous, nervous and happy, tangled up inside and rushing ahead like mad and ready to burst and wishing she could hide until it was all over.
It would work just like she'd planned it, she thought, if life were more like the fairy tales.
But she had learned that life wasn't like that.
In the Tale of the Jade Planet, her very favorite story, the Jade Prince had never doubted himself, and his best friend the Amber Knight had never faltered, steadfast and true; and the Silver Princess had been so deeply in love from the moment she met the Jade Prince that there was no doubt that they would marry and rule together well and wisely.
But sometimes the true hero hated himself; sometimes even his best friend was troubled and conflicted; sometimes the monsters were really protagonists, or the protagonists did the wrong thing; sometimes it was hard to tell what love was. It wasn't always clear-cut, and there were doubts and fears and mistakes.
The heroine didn't always have to end up with the hero.
Estelle had never read a fairy tale like that.
That was how she had known that she had to make her own. She would have to tell a story that reflected her life: doubts, and fears, and mistakes, and all.
And if that story didn't end well... Then that was Rita's prerogative, she supposed. But she would give it her very best shot.
Yuri had told her to figure out what she wanted and then act on it. But so had Flynn, and Karol, and Raven, and Judith, and Ioder, and Master Drake!
Her whole life had been telling her to take this chance, and she was so close. She had the house, and the career, and now she just needed...
"What was she going to do?" asked a boy, leaning back on his hands.
Estelle tilted her head back, closing her eyes. "She was going to... cast a spell."
She thought about countless ways to do it. In front of her friends or in private, at a big party or a private one. In the end she had been too scared to do it with other people around, and although the party had been a lot of fun, they were already packing up and starting to leave when the real event began.
Estelle knew when she saw the sky light up -- coloring the night sky lavender purple and cornflower blue and seafoam green beyond the pale pink petals of Halure's great tree -- that she had made the right choice.
Fireworks. Who could ask for anything better on their birthday? Who could ask for anything more magical? It was very much something that a witch would do, in Estelle's imagination.
The kind of magic spell that could make someone fall in love.
She stood at the fence with her fingers clasped tightly in front of her, focusing for the moment on the display in the sky above.
She knew what she was going to say, and what she wanted to do. She'd rehearsed it a thousand times. She'd told herself that in a way, it was just like the play -- that it didn't matter what happened, that saying her lines and being the witch was the most important thing, and that whatever happened after that would be just the way it had been meant to be.
And she didn't get to do any of it.
She heard Rita's footsteps behind her, the muffled compress of the fallen flower petals against the ground, and she turned, lowering her hands with a smile. The other girl had her hands braced on her hips, looking out at the sky and not at Estelle.
"You know," Rita said, and if Estelle wasn't mistaken she was slightly reddened; perhaps it was the glow of the fireworks through the canopy of the tree, "you are really obvious."
Oh, Estelle thought, and her warm smile shifted, turning a little sheepish. "I was thinking I had to be," she confessed, ruefully.
Rita didn't confirm or deny that idea at all, just muttering, "It might not have been productive to tell everyone in the town before telling me."
"I didn't tell everyone!" Although as she thought back on it guiltily, she recognized belatedly that many of the children had seen it coming; seemingly the younger the quicker, as if they hadn't yet formulated the idea that had hung Estelle herself up for so long that the heroines always married heroes, never other heroines. And then the parents of those children, too, giving her secret smiles or knowing looks, and then...
"...You're right," she realized, chagrined. "Everyone knew..."
Rita made a noise, acknowledging or dismissing. "I'm just saying -- it's helpful if you say something to me. That's all."
It didn't sound like she was turning her down. It didn't even sound like she was really angry. In fact, if Estelle wasn't mistaken, it sounded kind of encouraging.
Momentum carried her forward, clutching at Rita's hands tightly. She didn't even know what she was going to say, didn't even know why she said, "Well... you could've said something, too!"
"I thought--" Rita shifted, uncomfortable, from foot to foot, but she didn't pull her hands away. She was definitely red-faced. "I thought there was no way that someone like you would feel... I mean, for someone like me..."
"Rita!" Estelle cut her off quickly, eyes widening. "No! Of course I love you."
The red escalated quickly, almost glowing in her face. "Y... You... But as a friend, I thought--"
"I love all of my friends. But you... What I had with you was always different. Even from the start."
Estelle looked down at their tangled fingers. She didn't have the words to say that the way she'd felt around Rita, the way she'd felt around Judith, had been so markedly, tangibly different than the way she felt about Flynn or Yuri, the way she had been aware of them so differently, even though she had also had fleeting romantic thoughts about them; the way her friendship with Rita had always been first, again and again as it grew stronger; the way that she could have gone anywhere and been with anyone but what she had really wanted was to be here, with Rita...
Rita broke the silence before she had to, glancing away again. "It's stupid even to talk about it," she said. "We're obviously... here now, so..."
Her fingers curled tightly back around Estelle's.
The crackling up above them in the sky barely even registered on Estelle's awareness. This was it; she was finally living it. Her perfect fairy tale, her perfect moment, her perfect first kiss.