Cetacea had answered the flute’s melody, but they had all agreed to take a final day in Arboria to restock and rest themselves for the gruelling task that awaited them.
Jade had spent most of the day on the outskirts, taking out her anger on the poor stone guardians and bloody hands that dwelled on the cliffs. Boulder and goo were all crushed under her boot and lance, and yet, the thoughts in her mind never lightened.
If only she'd been stronger! She wouldn't have been so easily defeated at Yggdrasil… Veronica might still be…
A stone guardian's face shattered under her claws. Panting, Jade stood up, her eye catching on the darkness starting to creep in. There was a sharp chill in the air, one that nipped at her bare arms and legs.
Perhaps it was time to head back.
By the time she got to the inn, night had settled. Were it not for the boulders smouldering bright red and the ashen spots of ground, Arboria appeared exactly the same as it had before. As if Jade's world - everyone's world - hadn't been flipped upside down forever.
The world was cruel like that. When Jade had lost her father to darkness and her brother by her own, useless hands, time hadn't frozen. Even as she had curled up on the forest floor sobbing and wailing, the birds continued to sing. The sun continued to shine, from dawn to dusk. The river continued to flow, a harmony of water gushing over rock.
She'd hated that as a child, and she still hated it now. It was illogical, she knew, to ask everything to stop - but was even for a single moment really asking too much?
The innkeeper gave her a smile when she came inside. She gave a stiff nod before heading upstairs. When she opened the door to her room, Serena was already inside and curled up on the bed, seemingly asleep. She was far stiller than she usually was in rest, but it'd been a long few days for them all. Jade tried to not notice the missing space beside her, where Veronica would often curl up in her arms, but…
Damn it. It hurt.
She got ready for bed, taking off her boots and resting her weapons against the wall. She pulled the sheets up around her body and closed her eyes, the warmth of the bed failing to penetrate her body.
Jade was stirred awake by shuffling from the other bed. She peeked one eye open and saw that it was Serena - it took her a couple of seconds, given the lack of swishing long hair.
When the door shut, on instinct, Jade rolled onto her side to see the other bed. The small figure that she'd grown so used to seeing - that always slept at Serena's side - wasn't there, and oh, how that ached.
Jade squeezed away the tears budding in her eyes.
One minute turned into two, then three, four, and Jade could only listen to the deafening tick-tock of the clock for so long. Growling under her breath, she kicked off the covers and tugged on her boots. She made sure to tiptoe past the men's room, especially when she could hear low voices coming from within its walls. She couldn't make out any of their words, but it wasn't her place to be nosy.
This late at night, the air was freezing, especially in a land as high up as Arboria. It wasn't anywhere near Sniflheim's levels of frost, but it was far from pleasant. As soon as she pushed open the inn doors, Jade wanted nothing more than to go back inside and curl up in her sheets.
Even if Jade wasn't in bed, though, the curious music in the air would have lured her outside.
It was a similar melody to the one Serena had been playing on her harp not a day ago, but the sound itself was different. More airy and high-pitched. Jade recognised that sound as the same one from the flute atop the Luminary's Landing.
Serena playing the flute? Possibly.
It was coming from a different source from last night, though. Jade didn’t find herself treading up the few steps leading to the outlook. Instead, she headed downwards, her heart heavy as her boots crunched gravel.
A short distance later, she found herself at the Grove of Repose. This late at night, not even the wildlife made any noise. This place was always silent, though, wasn’t it? She’d found it a bit eerie the first time she’d stepped into it, feeling as though she was trespassing a place where she didn’t belong.
Her heart was already hurting, but now? It felt ready to shatter.
Serena was stood in front of Veronica's grave, the flute to her lips as she gazed up at the sky. The expression in her glassy eyes wasn't one Jade could understand, but she continued to play, never relenting. She was in her usual clothing, but her green headband had slipped down a bit. Usually, it was never an inch out of place.
From behind, Jade could see how choppy her hair was, as if she'd cut it off in one go without a care for how it looked. That probably had been the case, though. It wasn't as though she'd done it for cosmetic reasons.
Jade sighed. She rolled her shoulders, unfamiliar nerves hammering in her chest, and stepped forward.
The flute's beautiful song broke off with spluttering toots as Serena whirled on her heel. She gasped, relief melting her surprised expression. “Oh, Jade!” She rested a hand over her chest with a sigh. “I heard your footsteps and didn't know who you were for a second. I'm sorry if I woke you up.”
Jade shook her head. She rested a hand on her hip. “I couldn't sleep. Neither could you, huh?”
Serena grasped the flute in both of her hands. Her eyes fell on that horrible gravestone, her smile wry. “I'm… not used to sleeping alone. I didn't sleep at all the night before, so this was my first night… knowing that she's…”
She trailed off. She didn't need to finish.
Jade drew closer and rested a hand on Serena's shoulder. Even though there were only a few inches between them, Serena felt so small, so fragile under her fingers. She was one of the strongest people Jade knew, and she had been insisting that she was okay, that she was ready, but… it'd only been a day. No one healed that quickly.
Especially when they loved as deeply as Serena did.
“Do you…” Jade's voice awkwardly faded into silence. She wasn't used to these kind of situations, damn it! “Do you want to talk about it?”
“Oh. Well.” Serena blinked owlishly. “There's nothing to really discuss, is there..?”
Of course. Serena never wanted to burden people, never wanted to make another worry, but in a twisted way, selflessness often looped around into selfishness. There was no point insisting that you were fine when everybody could see that you weren't.
It came down to trust as well. If you didn't trust people enough to let them in, to tell them when you weren't okay, just how deep could your relationship with them go?
Jade had learnt that lesson herself. Repeating the mantra of “I'm fine I'm fine” did no good for anyone. It was better to just - get it out there.
So, if she couldn't get Serena to directly talk, Jade would have to talk about herself first.
“If you're sure.” Jade dragged a hand over her head. She flopped down on the ground, watching Serena's eyes widen. “Sorry… just a bit tired.”
“Oh no!” Serena crouched down next to her. “Do you want to talk about it?”
Externally, Jade hesitated. “If you're… are you sure?”
Serena gave an enthusiastic nod. She sat down next to Jade. “Of course! I'm here to help!”
Not tonight, Serena. Tonight, you're the one who'll be helped.
“I just…” Jade sighed. “I wish I could have been stronger.”
Serena tipped her head, looking curious. “You needn't beat yourself up over that, Jade. Why, you're one of the strongest people I know!”
“Not strong enough, though, was I?”
“Hmm…” Serena's fingers drummed on the flute in her lap. “You're not annoyed at any of the rest of us for not being strong enough, are you?”
“I - of course not.” Jade shook her head. “But who's the main physical fighter out of us all? I am. It falls to me to be the strongest physically. Mentally, I'm…”
She trailed off, chest heavy. Maybe she’d been in more pain than she’d realised. Already, she felt lighter for having gotten those words out.
“Now,” Serena tutted. She laid the flute on the ground next to her. “That's quite enough of that. Yes, physical strength is all well and good, and you most certainly have more than enough of that. But this—” Serena's dainty hand squeezed Jade's thigh— “isn't the only strength you have. Far from it.” She tapped her finger against Jade's chest, a bit above her heart. “You have plenty of strength in here, too. In your heart. In your mind. You needn't be so harsh on yourself. No one is perfect.”
“Compared to you, though?” Jade caught on Serena's finger when she made to move it away. “Serena, your sister died yesterday. And yet, here you are, leading us all onwards.”
She knew exactly what Serena was trying to do, the selfless woman she was. She was focusing on helping Jade with her woes so she wouldn’t have to focus on her own, so other people wouldn’t fret over her.
Jade knew all-too-well what that felt like. She refused to let Serena suffer in silence.
“A-ah, well…” Serena gave a wane smile. “I mustn't ruminate on it. Veronica wouldn't… wouldn't want me to. I wouldn't want to.”
“But it's okay to miss her.” Jade squeezed Serena's hand. “When… when I lost my brother, I felt as if the world had been torn from under my feet. I didn't know what to do - and what you're experiencing is far worse.”
Serena’s lip wobbled, ever-so-slightly. She dragged her free hand over her face with a shaky hand, glancing away.
“People need me to be strong,” she whispered. “My parents, Arboria… I can’t let them down. I’m not as good as Veronica, I know, but—”
“Don’t say that,” Jade interrupted gently. “You have different strengths. You shouldn’t try to be her. Just - be yourself.”
Serena’s hands covered to her eyes. She leaned forward, releasing a breath that sounded more like an aborted sob.
“I - what if I don’t know how to?” Her trembling increased. “I’ve spent my entire life with her. I can’t - I’m so alone without her!”
Jade her wanted her to talk, but hearing her in such anguish, such pain… it tore at her heart worse than a poisoned dagger. “Serena…”
“I’m sorry—” Serena’s hand swiped across her eyes, her back hunched. “I shouldn’t - I shouldn’t—”
“It’s fine, I promise.”
For a long while, neither of them spoke, the only sound being Serena’s increasingly desperate attempts to stifle her cries.
Jade tore her gaze away from a small pit of fire nearby. “Yes?”
“...May I lay my head on your shoulder?” Serena whispered, voice thick. “J-just for a moment.”
“Take as long as you need."
“I thought I'd cried all my tears.” Her voice was so hoarse. “But - but they seem to spring anew every time I think of her.”
Veronica’s gravestone was cold against their backs, a stark reminder of what had passed. Jade closed her eyes and tipped her head back, trying to fight off tears herself.
That moment would stay with her - with all of them - forever. Veronica’s spirit fading into gold, slipping through Serena’s desperate fingers as she ascended to the Void. There was no Yggdrasil for her to find peace, no World Tree for departed souls to return to. Not until they defeated Mordegon.
But their journey could wait for one single night. Jade laid an arm around Serena’s shoulders and exhaled. Serena curled in on her, her head resting on Jade’s chest as she let out a quiet sob.
The tips of Serena’s fingers caught Jade’s ponytail when she curled her hand against her shoulder. Jade’s head snapped up as an idea formed in her mind. When Serena pulled back and stood, eyes glassy and apologies poised on her lips, Jade brought it up as she also rose.
“Could you help me cut some of my hair?” Jade asked. “You did a wonderful job with your own.”
“Oh, Jade,” Serena whispered, shocked. A hand came over her mouth. “You don’t - you don’t have to. You have such gorgeous hair.”
“I know it’s a bit… late, but hair helps to guide spirits, doesn’t it? That’s what you believe?”
“It is, yes, but…” Serena worried her lip. “Jade, you’re so sweet for offering, but… you’re not from Arboria. You don’t - you don’t have to.”
“What if I want to?”
Serena stayed quiet.
“Your own haircut suits you, I have to say.” Jade’s fingers played with the chopped tips of Serena’s hair, next to her neck. She hoped she wasn’t being too forward, but tonight, Serena looked as though ten people could have hugged her simultaneously and it wouldn’t have been enough. “Are you glad you did it?”
“Of course.” She bit her lip. When she tugged her teeth away to speak, Jade could see the beginning of a welt shining on her bottom lip. “A lot of the Watchers aren't, but…”
“Their opinion doesn't matter.” Jade winced at herself. “That's… a bit harsh. I just meant - if you're happy with it, that's what matters. It's your hair. Nobody else's.”
“...You’re the first person who’s said that to me,” she murmured, glancing away. The material of her dress wrinkled in her fist. “Everyone has been telling me what a shame it is that I cut so much off. That Veronica only needed a little bit to help guide her. But… she is - was - my sister. How could I not help her as much as I possibly could?”
Serena let out a wet laugh, head still ducked. One of her fists rested over her chest. “Of course, I didn’t cut it all off. I’m sure Veronica would have fainted at the sight of me without any hair.”
“I may not be from Arboria, but… you gave more than enough. Don’t you worry about that.” Jade rested a hand on her hip. “You’re allowed to be selfish. I wouldn’t even call that selfish.”
Serena glanced up, ever-so-slightly. “You wouldn’t..?”
“You’re one of the least selfish people I know.” Before Serena could come up with some sort of objection or protest, Jade turned her back to her. “Speaking of haircuts, let’s do mine.”
Jade got onto her knees and exhaled. Grains of earth dug into the skin of her knees, and the air only seemed to get colder. She ran her fingers through her ponytail. She knew that it was too long to be practical; she’d had her enemies use it against her more than once, from tugging on it during brawls to dragging her along the ground. But it was a part of her, and it helped remind her that she wasn’t entirely a fighter. That, once upon a time, she’d simply been a princess whose family had loved her so very much.
Her mother had always adored her hair. Her father would brush it when he had free time, and always told her how beautiful it was. Perhaps it was childish keeping it, but it was a part of herself she allowed herself to have.
And now, here she was, giving some of it away. To a lost friend who needed it so much more.
“How much should I take off?” Serena asked.
Jade hummed. “As much as you feel like. Surprise me.”
“Are you..?” A self-conscious laugh. “I would hate to give you a bad look.”
“Even if you do, it’ll grow out.” Jade snorted. “When I was a child, Rab accidentally shaved my skull clean. Honestly, it suited me. You can’t do any worse than that, I’m sure.”
For perhaps the first time tonight, Serena let out a sincere giggle, albeit one that sounded as though she would break into a sob at any moment. Still, it was progress, and Jade let herself smile at the lovely sound.
“Well, then.” She saw the shadow of Serena’s head nod. “I’ll do my best.”
Serena’s boots scuffled against the ground as she crouched behind Jade. She felt a gentle tug at her scalp when Serena gathered her hair together in her hand.
It wasn’t a quick cut. Serena seemed to take a great interest in her hair, fingers idly flicking with the split ends of it, or twirling it around her fingers. Eventually, as Jade’s knees started to ache, she heard Serena hum to herself and saw the reflected light of the moon from a knife. She was more surprised that Serena even carried a knife with her, honestly.
So surprised, in fact, that she missed the moment Serena inhaled and sliced her knife through Jade’s hair in a single motion.
In that instance, Jade’s head lightened. Panic seized her, having somehow forgotten just what had happened. She whirled around on her knees, and that tightness in her chest melted into a strange kind of relief when she saw purple strands of hair flapping in the breeze, tucked safely in Serena’s fist.
Serena gave her a weak smile. She tucked her knife into the sash around her waist and held out her fist.
No words needed to be exchanged. Indeed, Jade felt as though she would have broken this tranquil lull that had fallen over the two of them if she opened her mouth. In this moment, with the moon high in the sky and Serena standing in front of her, eyes shining, was the most peaceful Jade had felt all night.
Serena held out her fist. Jade engulfed it with both of her own. Serena’s hands were tiny in her own, yet there was an innate strength in them, in their warmth, in how tightly her fingers clung to Jade’s hair. It was a sign of how, no matter what, Serena would never give up. She would never let go of what she wished for, the precious few things she allowed herself to be selfish about wanting.
This thing, though, was one that Serena gave up with ease. She loosened her grip, and Jade’s fingers curled around Serena’s fingertips as she grasped her hair.
She pulled away.
Jade held the strands of hair in her palms, clutching the ends so that they wouldn’t go flying off in the breeze. Serena snapped her fingers and a wisp of flame came to life, crackling on her fingertip. She pushed it down so that it was resting between her own hands.
Jade put her hands over Serena’s own. She separated them and watched the hair scatter into the fire. It burnt, before dissolving into light that gently floated into the night sky. Watching it ascend and dance, Jade swore - she swore - that she heard Veronica’s mischievous tinkling laughter. That light went ever higher, towards where the World Tree had once resided, a beacon in the darkness.
She exhaled. Then, curiosity gripped her, and she stretched her hand out behind her to grab her ponytail. Instinct made her reach for where it usually ended, only for her to grasp thin air.
She worked her hand up, slowly, aware of how Serena was watching her with baited breath. Eventually, just under her hip, Jade felt the ends of her ponytail. Relief washed over her.
“I’m sorry if I did too much,” Serena said, wringing her hands together.
“No, no. I don’t mind.” If anything, she appreciated it. Jade wound the hair around her wrist with a hum, holding her fist high. “The more hair you give, the closer you were to that person. Right?”
Overall, if she had to estimate, Serena had cut off a bit less of Jade’s hair than she had her own. Jade, of course, didn’t mind. As much as she had loved Veronica, she hadn't been her sister. And Serena was so rarely selfish. Could this even count as being selfish?
Regardless of what it was, Jade would allow her to have it.
Her hair was much shorter - but it wasn’t bad. It was a pleasant change, and she couldn’t think of a better reason for having it trimmed.
“We should go back soon,” Jade eventually said.
“Could we stay just a moment longer?” Serena asked. Her gaze was looking past Jade, no doubt at the gravestone, and she had such a sad smile on her face. She probably wasn't even aware of it. “I… I don't want to say farewell. Not yet.”
“We can stay.”
Serena let out a shaky sigh and a quiet thank you. She took Jade's hand, and before Jade could startle, rested her head on her shoulder again. Jade lowered both of them down, slowly, every so slowly, until they were both sitting against the grave.
“I hope you don't mind,” Serena whispered. “This is just… it's very comforting.”
“Of… of course I don't mind.” Jade hugged her with one arm again. This sensation, of Serena curled up on her, felt like home. It was reassuring. Here was someone Jade was helping. Here was someone she was strong enough to protect.
And not only that. Serena was more than capable of protecting Jade - of protecting all of them.
To protect, and to be protected…
That seemed like a pleasant thought.
“You should be selfish more often.”
Serena let out a quiet laugh that Jade more felt than heard, the noise quickly swallowed by the silence. “Veronica told me the same. Perhaps I shall.”
Jade squeezed Serena's shoulders. “Glad to hear it.”
They must have dozed off, for when Jade next opened her eyes, dawn was cracking over the spawning trees. When she glanced down, she smiled, for Serena was curled up on her lap, snoring quietly. Jade tried to move her numb hand, only to realise that Serena’s fingers were grasped iron-tight around her own.
She drooled in her sleep; a puddle of it was building on Jade’s shorts. Despite that, she couldn’t bring herself to stir Serena awake, not when she hadn’t seen the other woman so at peace for what felt like eternity. The bags under her eyes were still there, and there was an undeniable tension in her face, but yet, somehow, Serena was smiling.
Jade rested against the gravestone at her back, and brought her other hand to gently stroke through Serena’s smooth hair. Just as darkness dragged her back to rest, she heard the playful, soft words of a family member taken from them too soon.
It sounded a lot like “thank you”.
No, Jade thought, in those last moments before sleep claimed her, thank you, Veronica.