Vanille stood on the deck of the Moggle, clutching a piece of paper in one hand and her bag in the other. The city of Alexandria stood tall and strong before her, its buildings appearing increasingly large as they approached. Above her, the announcement repeated for the third time, "All passengers, prepare to disembark," while the captain shouted orders to deckhands.
At the commotion, shining metal superimposed itself over the wood of the ship. She knew it to be false, but when she tried to dismiss it, moss took its place between the wooden planks of the commercial airship. New places tended to do that, trick her into seeing something that wasn't there. But where were the birds?
The airship slowed and pulled into the docking port. She'd spent most of the three-hour trip on deck, watching the ground past beneath. Having lost sight of that ground, she felt as if they'd never taken off. She already missed the distant view of farmland and the expansive, crawling plains.
"Excuse me." A lady pushed past her just as the airship lurched and Vanille lost her footing.
But caught herself before she crashed into the ground. She shook her head at herself – she had to stop getting so distracted.
The ship extended its boarding plank and excited chatter rose about her.
Her grip on both the paper and the bag tightened as she shuffled off the ship with the rest of the passengers and down into the airport proper. She'd come early in the morning, to make certain she would get there in plenty of time to check into her room and be available for her meeting in the early afternoon.
Despite her misconceptions, air travel to Alexandria was busy. Travelers seemed almost encouraged to visit the same city that oppressed them not so long ago, and it showed with the recent developments in airships and stations here. Perhaps it was thanks to the new lack of mist.
Mixed in with the chatter of the crowded building were cheery laughs and high-pitched giggles she thought convincing enough to be real.
Vanille caught herself fidgeting with her pigtails. She dropped the hand, and rolled the message it carried around her palm, until she eventually broke free from the crowds into the fresh air of the city.
She found it oddly fresh out here. She took a moment to stretch her arms out, then retrieve a map from her bag. Studying it showed that the hotel Blank suggested was close to the airport. Storing the map again, she returned on her way.
It was a simple mission for a group she wasn't really a part of anymore. Vanille took a deep breath and looked up. And stopped short.
Wooden buildings shone metal and manicured plants climbed from the ground and arranged themselves in perfect rows. There was a surreal nature to the view, like she'd just plunged into one of her dreams that made her head feel light on her shoulders. Like she'd stepped into another world.
With another check that she had everything, her personal items in the bag, her grip still tight on the message, she continued on her way with slow, steady steps. She knew the general direction of the inn – it might take a couple more minutes, but she would make it.
After some near-falls and a very confused mother later, Vanille caught sight of the inn a short distance away and the hallucination finally melted away to show very real Alexandrian architecture.
And show her a mirror image of herself, wearing fur and scrap cloth in a makeshift, yet somehow not-that-revealing outfit. The copy stood not five feet from Vanille and looked at her with intent eyes.
"Bringer of life," said her copy with a lilting accent. "You know who I am."
"Myself?" Vanille looked about her. The place looked like Alexandria should and only a handful of passersby cast her any odd looks. "That's new, at least."
"Only for a particular definition." The copy stepped closer, body moving slowly and deliberately. "I've always resided as a particle within you, yet you have yet to realize I'm here."
"And I'd rather not start now, thanks." Vanille moved past her and the image dissolved.
Her job here was simple, she reminded herself before she reached the inn. Alexandria stole from Lindblum and owed them back. All she had to do was remind them, pick up the debt, and return home.
Vanille took a deep breath as she entered the inn. It looked remarkably normal, though she moved one hand around her to be sure. Once sure she wouldn't run into anything, she comfortably strolled over to the counter and purchased her room from the jovial innkeeper that greeted her with a smile and sent her on her way with a key.
The inn was fairly standard. Wooden, welcoming, and warm. Far better than a year before, surely.
Vanille walked into her room. She had time to spare – it wasn't like she really had anything to prepare.
She set her bag on the bed and extracted some of the contents. A pile of glass panes – some blank, some painted on – came out first. Beneath those she found the wooden case she carried her paints in. Finally, her brushes, wrapped in some old papers and the last items within that she needed. Vanille took the box of paints and set them on the ground, then grabbed a lantern she found on top of the cupboard.
She clicked the mechanism three times. The lantern sparked for the first two and lit for the third.
With a smile, she leaned over her bed and pulled out a pile of glass, some mirrors, and some simple panes while a familiar sense of other wrapped about her and sent a warmth washing over her person.
Some panes carried images of foliage, wildlife, or colossal buildings. The blanks were dull and transparent. Vanille selected one of the two blank ones that wasn't a mirror and set it against a dark cloth. Took the lid off her box of paints. Then waited.
The light from the lantern beside her reflected in the glass, flickering and dancing, just as it did from the lantern itself.
In another moment or so that was no longer the case. The flickering slowed and solidified in the reflection. The color of the light changed from yellows and oranges of the flame to whites and pale blues.
It warped into a landscape. Vanille took one of her larger brushes, along with one of the old pieces of paper, and set the paper on the ground. Opened the jar of blue and allowed a few drops to fall onto the paper before closing the jar again and doing the same with white. She mixed the two together with the brush, then started painting.
It wasn't very precise, but it didn't have to be. These were her moments, where she saw alien worlds and recorded her memories of them.
She finished the ground, then added a little more of the blue to the mix and started on the background. It looked like the crystalline ground she saw was stretching up in some places, like waves.
In the sky, there was a washed-out green light. It looked out of place against the blue, so Vanille decided not to include it, leaving the top of the pane blank.
Most of her paintings were somewhat empty, some more so than others.
Vanille cleaned her brush, put the paints away, and set the lantern a little closer to the painting. It would help it dry just a little faster.
I beg of you not to dismiss me.
Vanille bit her lip and tried to ignore the voice. While waiting, she looked through older pictures. She'd painted fluffy plants that stretched to the sky on one pane, and a ground that glowed with bright green spots on another. One was a dark near-void with bits of glittering blue lights.
That was an odd moment. She'd set up like normal, waiting for the light to change. Instead, it just vanished. The blue lights appeared a few minutes into watching and the blackness seemed to swirl around it.
Looking at it now, she could almost feel what it would be like to be within it.
Something inside of her cried out.
Vanille snapped to attention and looked at the painting behind the lantern. It looked dry enough to leave.
She pushed the finished panes underneath the bed, blew out the lantern, and set it back on top of the cupboard. Once finished, she hurried out the door and left for the castle.
Noonday light filtered through the window to Freya's borrowed room. A decent amount of sleep, then, despite her retiring in the early hours of the morning.
With a yawn, she stood and stretched, then dressed. She'd arrived in Lindblum earlier than planned and her plane to Alexandria wouldn't come until late in the afternoon, but at least she had the time to check in with those in this city first.
The presence that took root in her some weeks ago – Shadow, she dubbed it – echoed in her mind, You should check in with the monarchy.
Freya rolled her eyes to herself. She always kept her eyes open – it was no business of this… traveler's what she did. She found it frustrating that the voice was so compelling no matter what she thought of its suggestions.
Freya exited the small housing building that Tantalus used for accommodations for ambassadors such as herself. It wasn't the most comfortable, but it was near the hideout and convenient enough.
The noonday sun burned her skin, as she found standard for these cities that spent most of their time exposed to the blistering sun.
Even if Burmecia was no longer constantly being rained on, it was still overcast most of the time. She preferred that to Lindblum or Alexandria, and she doubted that would ever change. She wasn't sure how people managed to live otherwise.
On the other hand, the people in Lindblum were pleasant enough. Not having a war to rob one of food and other resources tended to make for happier crowds, that way. As Freya walked down the street, some would go so far as to wave.
Definitely better off than Alexandria, where people were more likely to regard her with weary eyes and hurried paces. She wondered if that had to do with some of the vengeance-seekers running around.
He doesn't belong.
Freya drew up short at the man's voice. Across the street and walking the opposite direction was a red-cloaked and lightly-armored figure with black hair. His fluid stride showed a confidence common to soldiers. She watched for another moment. A bounty hunter, maybe? Yes, that seemed plausible.
The man rounded a corner. Freya took a deep breath and continued on her way to the hideout. Shadow provided no further analysis.
Freya walked into the dim hideout and waited for her eyes to adjust.
"Oh. Good morning, Freya." Blank's voice, followed by him appearing before her. "Anything you need before you head out?" He sounded exhausted.
"Not this time." Freya looked about them. The room still blurred in her sight. "Rather, I thought I'd check in before I leave."
"When are you leaving?" Freya blinked when Eiko popped into view – Freya thought she should have made out the girl's bright colors even in the dark. What was she doing here? And how could Blank manage to focus on whatever papers sat in front of him in such visibility?
"She's already been here a while." Blank yawned and stretched his hands above his head. Something clattered to the ground. He shook his head and leaned down to pick up whatever it was. "We actually have someone in Alexandria right now."
"Hello Eiko." Freya stood stiff as Eiko bounced up beside her. "What are you doing here?"
Shadow's presence somehow seized up within her. She's young.
Blank chuckled, then groaned. "She's here all the time, hoping you guys show up."
Eiko huffed. "Well, I wouldn't have to, if they ever came to visit me up at the castle." She placed her hands on her hips. "I send letters, but no one ever responds!"
"Apologies, Eiko." Freya gave her a sorry look, though she doubted the girl could see it. "I have not much in the way of free time. Perhaps I can see you on my way back to Burmecia."
Eiko grimaced. "I guess. Thanks, Freya."
Freya took a deep breath. "And I will do what I can to respond to your letters."
"You better promise!" Eiko bounced on her feet. "Actually, if you're gonna go to Alexandria, can you remind Zidane and Dagger to respond? They are so slow."
"Eiko, I think it's about time that you went back home." Blank tapped a finger on the desk. "They're gonna worry soon."
Eiko stuck her tongue out and gave Freya one last look.
"I promise to remind Zidane and Dagger to respond," Freya said.
"Awesome!" Eiko grinned and ran out. "Thanks, Freya!"
Blank dropped his shoulders. "Maybe she'll not come over here so much. Cid's getting on our case about that." He grimaced and looked down at the paperwork on the table. Freya made out large, dark bags under his eyes. "Darned kid."
"How long have you been on duty?" She moved to stand in front of the desk.
Blank hesitated. "Two weeks. Give or take a day."
He looked up at her. "Who-… Oh. Nah, it's just me. Nothing I can't handle by myself, you know."
"This whole time?" Freya folded her arms. "And Baku? Where's he?" Two weeks, without anyone else to help coordinate efforts throughout the district? Freya knew that Tantalus was doing more for the other districts than their own theatre.
Blank scratched at the back of his neck and pushed his papers away. "The Boss is out, carrying out one of Cid's initiatives and checking on smaller towns and all that." He rubbed at his face.
Freya paused, unsure how to help. "He'll be back soon, I hope."
"'S not so bad, really. Just gotta get this one issue resolved and I can get a good night's sleep." Blank looked up at her with bleary eyes. "You know. Probably."
"Eh, nothing for you to worry about. We've got our best on the job." Blank stood. "Wait. No. If you're offering a hand, then I accept. Most definitely."
Freya shifted. "What is the nature of the work needing to be done?"
"Oh, it's child's play." Blank seemed to regain some of his energy. "You see, our girl's taken a trip to the big city itself to talk to the big kids."
"Girl? Do you mean Ruby?"
Blank flicked a finger. "No, Vanille. You know, pink hair and floofy skirts?"
"I know Vanille." She knew the girl well enough to know Vanille had pink hair, layered skirts, and a bubbly personality to bring even the deepest storm clouds rolling across the sky.
"Back in the invasion, Alexandria took a lot of our mythril. Weirdly enough, they haven't given it back yet. Vanille went to get it back. And hey, you're going there anyway, right?"
Shadow perked up. An opportunity, I see.
"I love the girl," Blank said with a shake of his head, "but she seemed a hair intimidated when I last saw her. I doubt she'd mind a bit of company and… well, I'll bet you the people over there know you better than her. Couldn't hurt to throw in some of that influence of yours, you know."
"Don't you know the queen better than myself?"
Blank barked out a short laugh, paused, and groaned. Then took a seat to grip his temples. "Ouch. Headache. No, Freya, I know Zidane. I doubt he'll have that much swing over what his girlfriend decides for the sake of politics."
"I suppose I had something to ask of them anyway." Freya looked away. "A personal favor."
Blank turned back to his paperwork and grimaced. "Not too big a one, I hope. I'd rather the two are in a good mood when we get our resources back."
"I doubt it'll affect that." Freya turned on her heel. "I should be going."
Freya pressed her mouth together. She couldn't confess her intentions – Fratley's state and her attempts to address it were still too painful for her to discuss out loud, even with Blank and the other members of Tantalus.
Blank gave her one last glance before she left the dark building. Outside, the sun blinded her and Freya took another moment to blink spots out of her vision.
The Currant Assemblage – a religion rising in prominence where she came from – provided texts to hint at memory recall and the like. Freya felt some trepidation at the thought of trusting her loved one to such an enigmatic group, but they at least offered further answers than she'd managed to find elsewhere.
Shadow hummed within, though Freya couldn't say what attracted his attention.
But then, Freya had little time to pursue such thoughts. Rather, she made her way to the airport.
A/N: For those unfamiliar with the series I'm doing, this is part three. The previous stories are "Summer Snow" and "Lightning Flowers," with Jack and Minwu getting bridges between these. If you don't want to get confused later, I recommend going back and reading those first, though Snow's is a little longer.