|As is often the case, meant to be part of a larger story. It stands alone pretty well, though. I wrote it as a semi-Christmas gift to LW. The scene was in my head, and I thought it summed up the relationship of the two characters pretty well.|
The weather was odd, Nashida noted, making her way in customary silence from her office to her quarters in the barracks. A heavy fog blanketed the courtyard, rendering anything more than a few feet away invisible, save for the pale glow of the lamps and torches that encircled the area. She paused, gazing out for a moment at the empty whiteness, and the clatter of small hooves from behind her stopped as well.
"Make up your mind," snapped the small, goat-like creature, skittering forward to glare up at her with beady, red eyes. "I hate this damp."
She looked down at him with a faint frown and shrugged, but she started walking again. "It's strange. Not like summer at all."
The goat only grumbled in reply, and she refrained from further observation until they'd reached her quarters.
"If the damp bothers you, stop following me to work," she said, closing the door behind them both and reaching up to unsnap the clasps of her uniform.
The goat said something unintelligible, but undoubtedly very rude, and stalked over to the small heap of cloth that constituted his bed, flinging himself upon it. Nashida chose to ignore the remark, instead relieving herself of the rest of her uniform. On the best of days it was uncomfortable, and today had not been the best of days.
Settled in tunic and trousers with a hot drink poured and waiting on the table, she paused for a moment by the window, brushing a lock of her brown hair away from her face. She had the nagging sensation she was forgetting something -- a feeling unusual enough to keep her attention -- but after several minutes contemplation failed to bring the lost thought to mind, she pushed her unease away and sank into her chair. A low sigh escaped her as she leaned back, suddenly noticing her boots -- the most uncomfortable part of the uniform -- remained on her feet.
She had just bent to remove them, making a mental note to see about getting a new pair fitted, when the window burst open to admit an icy blast of air. She was halfway across the room in an automatic lunge for her sword when she realized what had accompanied the wintry wind, and froze in place, remembering all at once what it was she had forgotten.
"Nashi!" the blonde girl crowed, hopping from the windowsill with a flutter of snow. She paused to brush the remaining flakes free from her minimal clothing -- itself utterly incongruous with the weather that followed her. She appeared unbothered by the cold; no goosebumps peppered her largely bare skin.
"Koan," the knight said faintly, straightening. A low, disgusted moan sounded from the heap of bedding, where the goat demon appeared to be attempting to bury himself.
The blond girl glanced once at the blankets, a mischievous grin flitting across her face, but for the moment she was content to let is pass, instead dashing forward to wrap her taller companion in an affectionate hug. Nashida returned it awkwardly after a moment's frozen surprise.
"Sorry about the window, Nashi," Koan said cheerfully, pulling away but keeping hold of one of Nashida's hands. "We were in a hurry. Mama and Papa said I could invite you to dinner."
"Oh," Nashida said a little vacantly, then shook her head, clearing away the last of her surprise. "It just startled me," she added, frowning slightly as Koan began to tug her toward it.
And the girl turned back to her, pale eyes anxious. "It's all right, isn't it?"
"Of course," Nashida said without meaning to, then mentally swore as she attempted to backpedal into a carefully formed rejection, but the girl's bright expression caused the process to falter. Resignation crept onto her face.
"Dynorae too?" Koan asked.
"Ugh," said the lump under the blankets.
"Now, Dynorae," Nashida said irritably. "You've been invited, so be polite about it."
"Feh," said the lump.
"There's honey," Koan offered, and the lump stirred suspiciously. "Mjollnir honey," she added after a moment, and Nashida gave a short snort, releasing her hands and stalking over to the bundle, which she flung aside.
"Get up," she snapped, and snatched the small demon up by the middle, making her way back to the girl, who was now staring out the window.
"Hurry," she said, taking hold of Nashida's free hand and tugging her once again toward it. "Papa can't keep the portal open forever."
"Portal --" Nashida began, but Koan had already sprung to the sill, pointing out into the open air, where hovered what appeared to be a glowing fountain of fog. At her insistent tug, Nashida clambered up beside her, having only enough time to register the portal's existence before her companion sprang into it. She almost stumbled, then followed the pull of Koan's arm in a long step, and the world faded around her in a white haze.
When her surroundings rematerialized seconds later, she found herself in a warm kitchen, lit by a crackling fire and several hanging lamps. Koan had already darted ahead of her, releasing her hand, and was chattering animatedly to a chocolate-skinned woman with waves of thick, dark hair. Nashida supposed this to be her mother. Dynorae wiggled dangerously in her grip, so she released him, and he dropped to the floor with a grunt.
Meanwhile, the woman had turned her way, Koan bouncing excitedly at her elbow. "Welcome to our home, Nashida," she smiled, inclining her head. "Koan has told us much about you." Her voice was rich and deep, her demeanor placid in a fashion that made her opposite her daughter in almost every way.
Nashida found she had little to say to this somehow remarkable statement. "It is.. a pleasure," she managed after a moment, bowing slightly.
"Have a seat," interjected a new voice, this one male, and the knight looked in its direction to find a lean man sitting at a heavy, oaken table. It was immediately clear that Koan had gotten most of her looks from her father -- his hair the same blond and his eyes the same pale blue. She found herself responding to his suggestion without thinking about it, sinking into the chair directly across from him.
"Erich," he said, offering his hand across the table, and she took it, completing the gesture. "I hope the ride wasn't too bumpy -- she didn't tell me you were on the second floor."
"Not at all," she replied, gaze moving around the house to take in its wooden walls and carved furniture -- some covered in furs.
"That's good to hear," he said, smiling faintly as he watched her. "We're glad you could make it tonight -- it's a bit of a special occasion. Koan's been asking for a week if you could come."
"A special occasion?"
"A feast day, a festival day," trilled Koan, whirling past with Dynorae ("Get off me!") in her arms.
"The Feast of the Dead," said Koan's mother, materializing at her side to set a steaming plate of vegetables on the table. She then slipped away again, leaving Erich to explain.
"It's a largely Umbalan holiday -- not many other cultures celebrate it."
"I see," said Nashida, glancing sideways at Koan, who had plopped down in a nearby chair and settled Dynorae in her lap. The goat demon made an almost immediate attempt to escape, but the girl held him still just long enough to uncork a honey jar -- as promised -- and he lunged greedily for that instead.
"Not that we invite the dead into our homes, or anything," Erich remarked, gaze following his wife back to the kitchen. "Though Nona did suggest it once."
"In jest," demurred the dark-skinned woman.
"In Umbala, we lay a feast for the dead at the altar," said Koan, toying with one of Dynorae's horns. The goat, busy eating, ignored her. "But we don't do that here."
"I see," Nashida said again, only half listening, and her gaze drifted to the window and froze. The arctic chill that had followed Koan into her room was explained at once by the white flakes falling thickly past the frosted pane.
"It's -- snowing." She immediately felt foolish for making the observation, as Erich looked at her in surprise.
"Well, it's a rare day it doesn't snow in Lutie," he said, smiling again.
Nashida controlled a sharp jerk of her shoulders, glancing at Koan, who was cooing at an unresponsive Dynorae and didn't see her. She was saved from responding when Nona swayed into view and set two more dishes on the table, giving her husband a meaningful look. He smiled ruefully and pushed away from the table, following her back to the kitchen to help with preparations.
She turned her gaze to Koan again, gleaning a small measure of, if not comfort, at least passivity from the ordinary way she was scratching behind the goat demon's ears. Clearly he would permit anything when properly bribed. She looked to the window again, but her musing was interrupted by Koan, who set a hand gently on her wrist and smiled encouragingly -- and almost with an air of apology. Though not at all calmed by the gesture, she forced a smile in return.
They remained silent as the table slowly filled with food the likes of which Nashida had never seen. Her soldiers' rations clearly did not encompass the unusual quisine of Umbala. She took small comfort in the few familiar dishes -- probably insisted upon by Koan's father. When all was set, Nona gave a short ceremonial prayer -- which Koan echoed -- in a language the knight did not understand. Then, with a clap of her hands twinned by her daughter, she seated herself and permitted them to feast.
"How is Prontera these days?" Erich asked during a lull in the meal, which had consisted so far of Koan insisting Nashida try some of everything and Nona recommending the boar's blood soup in particular.
"The same as ever," Nashida said guardedly, and Dynorae made an editorial statement that was largely obscured by the honey jar his face was stuffed into.
"Mm," the man said, taking a slow sip of what she guessed to be wine. "I'd heard rumors that the knights were on the move. Perhaps I heard incorrectly."
"There's been some shifting of patrols, if that's what you mean," she replied, taking a bite of a dish Koan claimed was made from turtle meat.
Erich nodded, forehead creasing for a moment. "I suppose that's what I mean." Koan made an indistinct noise, and he looked at her with a tolerant smile. "I don't often get to hear news of my hometown. You'll have to forgive me."
"Of course," Nashida answered, then caught sight of Koan's slightly mutinous look and realized he wasn't necessarily speaking to her.
The blonde girl turned her attention back to feeding Dynorae without saying anything, however, and her father smiled again, briefly. "I've also heard there's been some movement in the Hidden Temple."
Nashida's back stiffened, and even Dynorae's attention was drawn from his meal. His ruff bristled slightly, echoing her unease, and Koan reached her hand out to smooth it down, face downcast.
"I hadn't heard," the knight said finally.
The man looked weary for a moment, but he nodded at last and did not pursue the subject. "I see. Well, you know how it is with rumors." His mouth curved in a faint smile that didn't reach beyond his mouth.
"Indeed," said Nashida, turning back to her food and finding she had lost much of her appetite.
Nona murmured something about clearing the table and rose, taking her dishes with her. Shortly after, Erich followed in suit, leaving Koan and Nashida alone at the table with Dynorae, who was lifting his muzzle to sniff above the edge of the table.
"Nashi, would you like to go for a walk?" Koan lifted the goat demon from her lap and settled him next to a dish of meat, which he eyed with interest.
Not really. "If you wish," she said, and the girl smiled.
Koan pushed away from the table, leaving Dynorae to his new pursuits, and Nashida followed her, pausing to glance toward the kitchen, but there came no sign from either of the girl's parents. When she turned back to the blonde girl, she found her at the door, musing thoughtfully over a set of heavy coats. When Nashida joined her, she plucked one, seemingly at random, from the rack on which they hung, and offered it to her.
"You're not taking one?" Nashida asked, pulling the coat over her shoulders and threading her arms into the sleeves. They hung long, covering her hands to the knuckles. She guessed the coat to belong to Koan's father.
"It's not so cold," Koan replied, cheer back in her voice, and pulled the door open to admit a gust of winter air.
Whatever Koan's feelings on the weather, Nashida immediately disagreed. She buttoned the coat before stepping out the door and closing it silently behind her.
"This way!" Koan called, skipping ahead a few steps and nearly into a snowbank, then bounding back to walk next to Nashida for a few paces before taking off again. The behavior reminded her strongly of that of an overexcited puppy. Almost of its own volition, her mouth twitched into a faint smile.
The blonde girl's slightly meandering path skirted the more heavily populated areas of the city, favoring pine-laden backroads and untamed snowbanks. Once or twice she paused to point out a feature of the landscape, and Nashida slowly permitted herself to take momentary enjoyment in the scenery. It was abrupt -- and almost disappointing -- when they reached their destination, particularly as she hadn't any idea there was one.
"Here, here -- look." Koan tugged insistently on her arm, pulling her to a wooden fence -- the last defense against the sudden drop-off to a snow-laden valley, washed in silver by the moonlight. Nashida gazed upon it in silence, but if she waited for an explanation from her companion, it was not forthcoming.
When she had soaked in as much of the view as she felt necessary, she stepped quietly away from the fence and made her way to a convenient tree stump. Brushing most of the snow away, she seated herself on it and waited for Koan to lose interest. It was some time, however, before the other girl even spoke.
"I like it here," Koan said, and Nashida looked up to see her gaze still fixed on the valley. She continued after a moment, apparently not waiting for a response. "Sometimes the big wolf comes and howls at the moon. Sometimes I see bears."
Nashida didn't answer, resting her elbows on her knees and dangling her hands loosely between them. She heard a rustling sound -- Koan leaving the fence -- but did not look up to confirm it. The girl's footsteps crunched through the snow toward her, but she didn't move, even when Koan slipped up behind and settled her arms gently around her shoulders, resting one cheek against the top of her head.
Her spine stiffened automatically, but she couldn't muster the will to push the girl away, gazing vacantly out at the snow-covered city.
"Nashida," Koan said after another period of silence.
The knight didn't answer, but she stirred very slightly, as if from a reverie.
"You know," the girl continued, taking this for acknowledgement, "Whatever path you take, you know I'll be your friend."
Nashida's gaze continued vacantly ahead, but after a few, still moments, she lifted one hand, gloveless and cold, to touch Koan's wrist. She lowered it again almost immediately, but the girl smiled and, after a moment more, squeezed her shoulders in an affectionate embrace and released her.
As she stepped back, a low, hungry howl sounded and Nashida looked up in time to see Koan's face form a distinct pout.
"Now he shows up, and we have to go back," she said, flinging her arms up for a moment.
Nashida smiled briefly, tugging the sleeves of the coat over her hands, and started walking back the way they came. Koan followed after a moment, abandoning her earlier, frenetic behavior to walk beside her in silence the whole way back.
After stepping back into her quarters -- mercifully warm and mercifully not through the window -- Nashida completed the task forgotten hours earlier and removed her boots, stretching her feet out wearily in front of her.
Dynorae, having recovered his usual, sour mood, trotted back to his bedding and settled there, gaze fixed upon the pale blade of his weapon and reminder of his heritage, a small scythe. He looked silently at the human woman for a moment, then got to his hooved feet and snatched the blade up, fingering it as he stepped over to her.
"When are we going to go? You said you'd made up your mind."
Her eyes, which had been fixed on the window, darted sharply back to him, and she frowned. "If you're that eager to go home, then go."
"Don't be stupid. It's not that simple, and you know it." He bristled slightly, but she ignored him, getting to her feet and walking away to lean against the windowframe.
Eyes cast to the courtyard, she noted a tall figure dashing across it, dressed in the livery of a trainee and sporting a bright red ponytail. The girl below took no notice of the light from Nashida's window, too intent on her destination.
"Well?" Dynorae had clambered up on the table and was watching her impatiently.
Nashida, still watching the girl long after she had gone, did not reply.