Disclaimer: Konami owns Suikoden. While nothing set down in this fic clearly falls under any of my usual warnings, I think many of the violent and destructive issues surrounding these scenes warrant a higher rating than K. There's also some mild suggestive themes.
Clive was born five years ago. Up until yesterday, his world has been the long low nursery where all the Guild-born children eat and sleep and the high-walled compound where they play their closely structured games and learn their first drills. He knows the full blue of a summer sky and the uneven brightness of sunset and dawn. He wears the black scrubs common to all children until age fifteen, and the few adults he's seen favor drab browns, grays, olive greens. He's eaten vegetables dried or preserved in cans and jars, but there's no grass in the compound and the walls are too high to show what's beyond. The Guild fosters no crops or gardens of its own. He has never seen fresh green growth.
But now he and the other children around his age have been moved out of the nursery and into the first-year barracks. And there are new children, outsiders brought in from an unseen place called Crystal Valley. They're scattered and checking over their shoulders, constantly having to be shoved by the adults in the proper direction. They set Clive on edge, and though he doesn't say it – he hardly speaks – he wishes they'd go back to Crystal Valley and leave the Guild to proper apprentices.
When one child – a girl, he thinks, though it's hard to tell with everyone's hair newly cut short – jostles against him in the food line and her eyes widen in a moment's alarm, he sees new, pale green for the first time. Later, when he's a man, he'll often leave the Howling Voice's tower, and he'll see early plant growth, and it will still remind him of her eyes.
"What are you doing?" Clive yelps.
Elza looks back at him, her hand on the door to the gunners' mess hall. She squints against the downpour. "Don't ask stupid questions."
There's a slight shelter under the edge of the mess roof, but Clive doesn't even approach it. "You can't go in there. It's not allowed."
They're both irritable after a long training session where the instructor had harped on everything from Elza's footwork to her untucked shirt. She'd been forced to stay late, and Clive had volunteered to remain as her sparring partner. That hadn't pleased the instructor either, and the both of them had been through an extra hour of unpleasantness. Now Elza chafes her arms, her pointed chin sticking out. Her wet hair almost entirely covers her eyes. "Stop messing around, Clive. I wanna catch up with Kelley, and this is the best shortcut."
Clive shakes his head.
"What, you want to get rained on? You like it?" She tosses her hair back. "It makes you a better gunner?" Clive's got nothing to say to that. They aren't allowed in – what else is there? Elza arrgh-exhales. "Look, you go around the long way and I'll meet you there. How's that?"
"You'll get in trouble."
"I'm too fast to get in trouble," she throws back, and there's that dumb smile of hers, the one that means they both know she's lying and that somehow makes her even happier. "Besides, that's my problem, not yours. See you on the other side." And she turns the door handle.
Clive hesitates, then lunges and grabs her wrist, dragging her back. He's only nine, and it'll be a few years before he's stronger than her. His heel slips and they both land bottom-first in the mud. Elza jerks her wrist free, but when Clive blinks the rain out of his eyes, he can see that she's watching him, smiling. And he has the vague idea that he's been set up, though he's not exactly sure what for.
Elza pushes him. "Fine! We'll just catch the plague then!" And she gets up without looking back.
Clive's glaring by the time he catches up, mud all down his back. "You don't get the plague from being in the rain."
Elza glances over, eyes narrowed. "What do you know? You've never set foot outside this compound." She runs a hand through her hair, lifting her chin. "I had an uncle who died from the rain plague."
"Yeah. He stayed out in the rain and then two days later his fingers and toes startled to swell, and then his whole body, and on the fourth day he just exploded. When the doctors cut him open, they found out all his guts had ruptured at once."
Clive frowns. "Why?"
Elza's silent a moment, then she gestures to the sky. "Rainwater's different from normal water. It comes down through the clouds, and they're puffy and gassy, so that all gets in the rain. And if you stay out in it, those gasses get in you."
Clive frowns harder. "Then why is it a plague?"
"You said it's the rain plague, but it doesn't sound like something you can catch."
Elza is silent.
Elza gives another long-suffering sigh. "Honestly, Clive, you don't have a clue about anything. That's what you get for being cooped up all your life."
"I know better than to cut through the gunners' mess hall." Clive shoves his hands into his pockets, but given that his trousers are soaked through, it doesn't help. "Besides, what difference does it make? Even if you came from the outside, you're cooped up here too."
She glares, and Clive knows a real Elza glare just like he knows a real Elza smile. There's no planning behind this glare, just anger. Startled anger.
But she's turned away before Clive can figure out if he's supposed to apologize.
A soft sound enters Clive's dream. At first he part-wakes and thinks it's the wind – maybe they left the window open a crack and it's keening through. Then he realizes the sound is close, right by his ear. Then it's cut off and something jerks the blanket tight over his side. Clive rolls over, trying to see through the shadows. "Elza?"
That whisper should have been enough to wake her, but Clive doesn't hear an answer. Elza seems to lie still for a moment, then Clive feels her tugging on the blanket. Her breathing is uneven.
In Clive's opinion, it's no treat to be woken out of a bad dream, but it's even worse to stay in it. He reaches over and turns the light up.
Elza sucks in her breath and starts to say something – don't go, maybe. But her eyes are open, narrowing away from the fear and taking everything in. She lets go of the blanket and covers her mouth with that hand.
"Okay?" Clive asks.
Clive sorts out the covers and settles back down. Elza's gotten up, is drinking from her water bottle. She stares out the window and, Elza-like, waits herself back into calmness before she returns to him. Turns down the light, then just lies on her back for another long moment, long enough for Clive's eyes to readjust. He can just make out her profile, the slight glints of light that mean her eyes are still open.
"You're lucky," she says, "not to have a life before this to remember."
It's as much as she's ever said about her life before the Guild. Clive can't imagine what it's like to be five years old in the open world. All he and Kelley have ever heard is that it doesn't matter, now that she's here. And that she still knows way more than either of them.
Elza's eyes haven't dropped closed, and she has her arms down at her sides, not at all how she lies when asleep. Clive's not good at lifting people's spirits, but for once he truly wants to. He slides his arms around her, and when she doesn't turn away, he kisses her cheek several times, right to the corner of her eye. Her lashes jump against his mouth.
He feels her cheek lift as she smiles.
After half a night's march, Clive glances over his shoulder. Smoke rises from the Golden Emperor's palace, dimming the dawn. Likely no one saw his departure. Just as well. He'd agreed to Tir McDohl's terms in a desperate hope he'd find his first lead in nearly a year. That, yes. And that when he'd shaken his new commander's hand, he'd deliberately turned the boy's wrist to see the Soul Eater. Unlike most Harmonians, Guild members don't make a show of devotion to any True Rune. Clive has never entertained the possibility of divine power guiding the world. But if an assassin did pray to a rune, he supposed it would be the Soul Eater.
Elza's timing is perfect. She must have learned he'd joined the Liberation Army, and if there was any chance he'd be distracted, it would be during the siege of Gregminster. But she'd been careless, and last night Clive learned that a pale gunner had forced her way out of the capitol during the battle.
Clive had set off with hardly a thought for McDohl. What was Elza doing in Gregminster? She's shown him all over the world, taken him as far south as Lordlake, and he somehow lost her for half a year between Nirva and Razril. There've been vague leads since then. Men remember her, he's noticed, some very familiarly, and he wonders how much of that is truth and how much is just boasting. It shouldn't matter. It never really does. Whenever he needs to remember that, he casts his mind back to Kelley lying in his blood and rebalances Storm's weight on his back. He doesn't know when Elza's treachery began. He doesn't want to. Better to lose all of her at once.
The grave in Rockland had given him only a moment's pause: the last lines of a homeless woman, apologizing that she would die before he could come for her. The melodramatic farewell was like her. But Elza can't just die, can't be extinguished while he's still searching for her.
What does she want? She's running, always, almost too fast for him to follow. At first he thought she was leading him somewhere, but the trail has veered, looped around too often for that. There has to be some method to it, but Clive hasn't sorted it out, and there have been full weeks at a time when he's hardly thought back to the Guild, too intent on the terrain around him and the quarry he's only glimpsed.
She could shoot Kelley dead, but she can't face Clive? When he tries to work through her thoughts, figure out her motive, he flinches because too many of his own memories crowd in and he has to re-face, re-study all her glances and jokes and soft touches through what he knows now.
He closes his mind from memory, focuses on this wide, unsettled world with too many strange towns and too little sense. Re-centers his thoughts on his criminal, narrowing them only to what she's done, and what she could do next.
Elza widens her eyes when she thanks him for killing her. Their color is the green of new life. And, like a trick of light, she gives the slight, defenseless smile he remembers from years ago: sitting across from him and Kelley at a tavern's table; lightly butting her forehead against his after she kissed him; catching his eye in a lull during training.
That light is gone by the time he's fallen to her side, and though she's still smiling, and though it's real, it's harder now, it's her telling him goodbye. And before he can answer, her head's tipped back into Sajah's dust. Her eyes are open, but she's gone from them, and for the last time Clive has lost his chance to reach her.
He'd found himself staying away from the Guild for a long time after the war. With Elza gone, the world's vastness was welcome, and he couldn't shake the idea of seeing more of it, finding something new to possess him and losing himself in it entirely. But Storm, truly his now, pressed on his back, and finally he turned north and east, back to the Tower. He's Guild Master now, a rank he all but worshiped in childhood. He's starting to see why Kelley became so tired and defensive, and Clive wonders how long he can resist the Guild elders.
When he isn't thinking of that, or his own training which he refuses to relinquish, he still thinks of Sajah. He'd known Elza had been bought by the Guild as a slave in Crystal Valley, but he'd never really wondered where she'd been before that; such a brilliant gunner, she'd seemed made for the Guild, just as she'd been made to be his friend. Now he thinks of the small dark village under the cliff where Elza was born. In all their haphazard chase-and-escape, they hadn't rested until she'd brought the both of them there. And thanked him, as if it had all been his doing.
What had she been looking for? He can still hear the soft resignation in her voice as she says that her family is gone and no one remembers her. That even so, her soul is happy to come home.
His chest empties as he wonders if there was something she still wanted but never got. He might know that he and Kelley were her family, but that doesn't ease the ache.
The Guild elders see that Clive is still resisting them in whatever ways he can; that even when they agree on a decision, Clive tries to assert his authority as Guild Master. They make it clear there is no possibility of his leaving the Tower.
He still hates walking through the dark corridors and scanning the training yards with the certainty he won't find Kelley. He half-wakes at night listening for Elza's breathing. He has more questions for her now than he ever did when she was alive.
Her name is Tara. She was born the year Clive came of age, and she's confessed that she idolized him while he was Guild Master. Clive, an elder now, ignores that and continues training her for her Knight Gunner trials. Increasingly he resolves that he's not going to let her take them. She's a fine gunner but he won't send her to her death.
She's careful and quiet, often cautious around him. Clive admires her gentle humor and is grateful to wake in the night and know she's there.
She was only a child when he was gone from the Guild, and so far she hasn't asked what it was like, spending so many years away. She hardly knows why he went. Kelley's death – everything having to do with Kelley – reflects badly on the elders, so they kept it as quiet as they could, and Clive isn't one to set anyone's gossip straight. He's glad Tara doesn't ask. He's glad she's so young and that they have such a short shared past. There's only the present and future to focus on. He has more freedom than he ever did as a gunner or Guild Master, and Tara has him smiling again.
It isn't the same. There's no reason it should be. These days, he tries very hard not to remember.
She wakes him from his nightmares almost as soon as they've begun. But when she strokes his hair and face and asks what upsets him so much, he doesn't answer.
Using the Higheast Rebellion as his cover, Clive again leaves the Guild. The other elders are closely watching Dunan, and while he knows they'll notice his departure, he figures he has a few months of relative freedom.
The morning he departs, Tara again asks to go with him. She's been restless, her eyes often on him. She knows now she won't be a Knight Gunner, and Clive doesn't know what else she could be hoping for.
Clive says no. When she asks why not, he can't answer at first.
Why is he leaving so suddenly, she asks.
Clive actually laughs, very shortly, because he's been needing to do this for years and it's hard to believe no one else knew it. But his mouth falls back into its grim line, and the first answer that comes to mind is the truest one: "My soul can't rest yet."
But why does he have to go alone?
"That's how it started." He turns to his dresser and lifts his rifle. Not Storm, the prize that wanted Elza above anyone else. Muninn, the rifle that had chosen him at age fifteen. The gun Kelley and Elza would remember, not the weapon of the assassin hell-bent on revenge.
Tara has turned away, holding back her emotion until he leaves.
Clive balances Muninn across his shoulders and leans down to kiss her, gently.
It takes longer than he expects. First Sajah and its town records. He learns for the first time there was a famine in 438 – it hadn't touched the Tower – and he tracks up and down lists of deaths and slavers' records. He finds what he wants in the mid-spring of 439 I.S.:
Sold/ Kensey of Marid/ Daniel: Elza (daughter 434)
The man from Marid would be the slaver. Clive goes to the shrine records, finds the birth listings for 434.
Elza, daughter, to Daniel Higgins' son and Bess Kevin's daughter
Clive, like anyone born within the Guild, doesn't know who his parents were. It's almost uncomfortable seeing the names of Elza's. It was probably a necessary move, selling a child in the midst of famine. The thought doesn't settle quite evenly in his mind.
He spends the dawn poring through the records of the next ten years, the lists of all the desperate families who had left Sajah. By that afternoon he's heading south on a long walk to Two Rivers. By now, most of the fighting has concentrated itself in central Dunan and the east, and Two Rivers, though still something of a mess, has relaxed its defenses. Still, he loses a lot of time maneuvering through both armies' lines and dodging the guerillas. It's nearly the turn of the year by the time he reaches Two Rivers, and even then there's still more searching to do.
Finally Clive stands in a side street by a leather worker's. The owner's children are playing some game Clive doesn't know – Clive hardly knows any games – in an alley. They're fair with dark hair except for one girl whose blond hair is still darker than Clive's. A middle-aged woman comes by with a market basket at her waist, leans the opposite hip on the doorframe to greet the leather worker. Her hair is very pale, and Clive studies her pudgy shape, looking for any other similarities to the fine-lined gunner he remembers.
The woman laughs and pushes off the door frame, says something about Dad being along in a bit. She flashes Clive an interested eye as she passes, but she doesn't linger.
Clive removes his baldric and carefully widens a tear that's been forming, then walks into the shop.
The tall pale leather worker goes into the back room to work on the tear, inviting Clive to take a load off in the main room. Clive sits on the front step with his arms on his knees. His cloak doesn't keep out the wind, but at least the sun's warm.
Clive's kept an eye out for an old man, but the man who appears looks older than expected. Clive stands and steps out of the way, and the man doesn't notice how closely he's watching. He's spare, like his son, but stooped, his wispy hair snow white. His skin isn't badly wrinkled, but his cheeks are hollow, his lips thin. He glances around the dark shop for his son.
"Are you Daniel Higgins' son," Clive asks, "formerly of Sajah?"
The man narrows his eyes and only nods after a moment's consideration, which is very like Elza. Clive feels something like shame, prying into her past. If she'd wanted him to know, wouldn't she have told him? At least the old man doesn't have her eyes.
"I'm here on behalf of your daughter. Elza."
Daniel's eyes widen; he looks around. And before Clive can speak, can say She's at rest now, but she wanted to see you again before she died, the old man snaps, "Never mind that."
Daniel catches himself, and his hand shakes a moment as he rubs it down his face. "She – she's old enough to know now. I had no other choice. I don't want to see her."
Clive doesn't know much about parents and what's the proper way for them to act, but Daniel's response has set him on edge. "You couldn't even face her now?"
Daniel twists his hands around his walking stick. "I told her to go to Crystal Valley and be good. That was that." He exhales. "There was – no call – for her to scream for me like that."
Clive really does know very little. But he knows Elza, and he never saw her scream herself hoarse, no matter what happened in training. He's never thought of her as small and helpless, before the Guild taught her how to fight, caught in a slaver's grasp, screaming for protection that wouldn't come.
He does not say that Elza found a new home, grew up with the help of two boys, grew up brave and clever and deadly, and that her home betrayed her. He doesn't say that he killed her, and that she died without pain in her eyes.
He doesn't say that she wanted to see her family again.
He doesn't say How dare you sell Elza. Because he hardly knows himself which life would have been kinder. And he is still learning to understand.
"Tell her to leave us alone," Daniel says. It's the last thing Clive hears as he walks away.
It's early spring before he gets back to Sajah, on his long trek home to the Tower. Fourteen years ago, the townspeople had insisted that outsiders be buried away from their own dead, and Clive makes his way to the furthest edge of the field. There's less sunlight here and young plants are only just pushing through. He'd had no money for a headstone, but Clive dug the grave himself and he remembers the spot.
He stands just to the side. There's nothing to distinguish Elza's grave from the rest of the field. He doesn't feel her presence, doesn't hear a whisper, but the shade is cool and the new growth is the very green he expected.