The Nord Highlands, Rean Schwarzer decided, were quickly becoming his second favorite place in all of Erebonia. Sure, it had some pretty stiff competition. The sweeping cityscape of Heimdallr, Trista's blooming Lino flowers, Celdric's bustling mishmash of products and merchants...but there was something about the seemingly endless sea of green, of sweeping hills and singing wind that spoke to him on a primal level.
Ymir would always hold a special spot in his heart—it was his hometown, after all—but more than ever he could empathize and understand Gaius's love of the vast plains.
He could feel the whispers of the wind, sense the tides of change and shifting direction like he could a spoken word, much the same as his dark-skinned friend stated any nomad could.
And the smells were simply incredible.
Crisp, clean air. Earthy, nutrition-filled dirt. Fragrant, blooming grasses. Acidic horse piss-
"Might wanna look out. The wind's changing."
Far too late to comprehend the sudden shift in mood and threat level the young man turned his gaze to the side...and felt a few drops of warm liquid splatter his face, features twisting into a wince of displeasure.
Their horse had decided to take care of its business a respectable distance away but the howling winds had a plan of their own, it seemed.
"And here I was, just thinking how I'd finally accomplished what Gaius was always talking about in hearing the words of the wind. This is why the Nord Highlands will always be my second favorite, you know."
He could practically taste the smirk in his companions tone.
"Ashen Chevalier, one of the slayers of Ishmelga the corrupted Great One, the man who saved the world...and you got beaten by horse pee."
"Rub it in, Fie."
"Probably not what you want me to do."
Sighing in defeat Rean wet the sleeve of his coat with a bit of water from his canteen, wiping his face clean before turning to face the amused features of his partner—in a great many senses of the word—with a wry expression.
"Can't help but notice how you took cover behind me, instead of pushing me out of the way. Letting a comrade take a bullet for you, Fie? That's not very Bracer-like."
"Hmm...must be the Jaeger bits. All mercenary attitude and everything."
The pair stared at each other for a moment...and chuckled in unison at the moment of unexpected levity.
"You know, you didn't have to use one of your rare days off to help me with this, Rean. I could have taken care of it myself."
Smiling in reassurance at Fie's curious tone the young man laced his hands beneath his head, letting his eyes drift closed as he replied, "True, but we rarely get to see each other these days. And that goes for Class VII in general. And as much as I enjoy teaching a new batch of cadets each year it's nice to work with someone who really knows what they're doing, you know?"
Rean cracked open an eyelid to stare at the girl as their conversation drifted into comfortable silence, idly observing her as she calmly scanned their surroundings with lazy motions that would fool the unobservant into thinking she was slacking off.
The past three years since the ending of the Great Twilight had been kind to her, if one was to ask his opinion. While the nickname 'Jaegar tot' would probably stick with the lithe woman for the rest of her life a few extra years of maturation had given her a true feminine charm, turning what little childishness she had carried into keen-edged lethality. A few extra rege, a sharpening of her already feline facial features and the extension of her vest into a flared trench coat turned Sylphid into an iconic and immediately striking figure.
...It had certainly caught his eye more than once and he'd been enraptured with the young woman since the first days of Class VII's inception.
"You're staring again."
"Sorry, was I being obvious about it?"
Fie's yellow-green eyes locked onto his as he sheepishly scratched his cheek, noting how the smallest of smiles could be seen dancing on her lips.
"Guess I'll have to be less obvious about it."
"Don't. I like it when you look at me."
Unable to hold back his brief snort of amusement Rean mused, "And there's that trademark bluntness of yours, Fie."
"At least you don't start blushing like a cherry boy when I tell you that anymore like you used to."
"...Like I said. Blunt."
In response a mop of messy, snowy-hair flopped onto his chest, Fie immediately settling down for a nap as she sleepily murmured, "Where's that dumb bird...shouldn't it be back by now?"
"Hippogriffs are long-distance hunters, we could still be waiting for a while."
"Oh, yeah. You were here for one of our first field-studies. Forgot about that."
Rean snorted, dryly remarking, "Well considering everything that came afterwards a minor incident with Calvard probably seemed pretty inconsequential...even if it was a sign of things to come."
"Hm. Hindsight is always 20/20."
The pair once more lapsed into companionable silence, simply watching the clouds drift by and wind caress their faces, Fie's coat closed to stave off the chill.
"Have you ever...no, never mind."
Raising an eyebrow at the sudden silence from her partner of years and counting the young woman asked, "What? Just spit it out, you finally started getting a spine and I don't need you with cold feet all over again."
"Oof. Harsh, Fie."
Feeling a brief swell of nervousness at the question he had been about to pose Rean quickly thought of a way to divert the conversation-
-and was saved from the necessity of doing so as a flurry of wind that wasn't a product of the Highlands and accompanying screech drew their attention, the target of their mission coming in for a landing.
"...Not letting you off the hook."
"That's fine. Ready?"
"Yup. Counting down in five."
The Hippogriff with oddly verdant plumage tucked its body slightly, approaching a small outcropping of rock with graceful motions.
Fie flipped out a remote detonator, feline gaze ceaselessly watching their quarry.
The monster alighted upon the lip of its nest, shaking itself slightly.
A single poisoned talon stepped low, lowering the considerable bulk into the comforting embrace of its home.
Fie smirked slightly.
A press of the trigger and a fair portion of the bluff detonated in a spray of gravel, flames and kinetic force that would have put a serious dent in any armored column.
The pair ducked low, just in case any shrapnel decided to look their way as the sound reached them a scant second later, an ear-shattering CRACK that echoed for a fair while across the canyons and valley of the Highlands.
"Think we got it?"
Fie's question was answered a bare moment later as the Hippogriff came stumbling out of the smoke and ashes, shrieking in bestial fury with little in the way of damage or injury.
"Guess not. I think the reports might have underestimated how dangerous this thing was, either it has insane reaction speed or it instinctively protected itself."
"Hm. That's what the pros are for, though."
Without further comment Rean lightly smacked their horse on the rump, making sure it was well out of the way of the coming battle, ignoring how it had—however inadvertently—pissed on him not a few minutes ago.
Neither of them felt like walking back to the settlement and Nordic horses were absurdly loyal to their riders. Brave beast of burden likely would have ran right alongside them into battle simply because that's what it assumed it was supposed to do.
"Yup. Better be careful, that thing is probably a lot more dangerous than we first thought."
A rare smirk crossed Rean's features, tone joking as he said, "It's a good thing cats are natural predators of birds, right?"
The duo stood side-by-side, taking a moment for the ARCUS to synchronize their thoughts and actions-
-and with perfectly matched breaths the pair sped off towards the target of their extermination mission at speeds an Orbal bike would have balked at.
Their charge wasn't missed by their quarry, sharp avian eyes easily spotting them a good five selge away and screeching out a challenge. Whether it knew they were the ones responsible for the attack or simply a convenient outlet for its fury was a purely academic matter as the Hippogriff's wings spread wide in a monster's intimidation display...revealing the verdant Sepith crystals interspersed with its feathers, glowing ominously as it took one step forward in a simple and brutal proclamation of battle.
"Here it comes."
Fie's observation was effortlessly transferred to Rean, the young man watching as the mutated Hippogriff flapped its gargantuan wingspan once, a few dozen feathers knocked loose from the motion-
-and a verdant glow of released energy surrounded the freed plumage, orienting the sharpened quills towards the racing pair before launching them at speeds comparable to anti-armor round.
Midnight streamers of power had already ensconced the duo, a usage of Chrono Drive courtesy of Fie causing their perceptions to clock into overdrive, brains observing time a quarter faster than any un-augmented human or monster could hope to match.
The Bracer smoothly leapt behind her compatriot, Rean raising his Tachi in a fencing stance he'd often observed Jusis employ, tip of his blade facing the incoming deluge of projectiles as he allowed the coursing power of his Quartz to travel up the length of his arm in a burning display of raw power, wavering flames springing to life across the length of his sword as the Hippogriff's assault reached them-
-and a perfect swirl of Rean's arm etched a glowing pattern of heat haze in front of them, diverting the improvised projectiles just enough so that the few that would have connected flew past with a hairsbreadth to spare.
Dirt and stone exploded all around them, a barrage that would have taken out a platoon kicking up a dust cloud that caused the monster to screech in victory…
(Second Plate – Pearce Roswell)
...and with a rush of heated air the debris were scattered, revealing an unharmed Rean and Fie, the young man sporting a bloodthirsty smile and cooling blade as they resumed their charge much to the Hippgriff's howling fury.
It had taken years of self-discovery, battles won and lost and self-control stretched to the absolute limit as well as the reveal of a curse centuries old...but the young man had finally come to terms with himself and the mindset his Ogre side had brought, not even trying to hide the pulse-pounding adrenaline and crazed smile that adorned his features as they once more closed the distance, mind clear and focused as it harnessed the killing trance the body was undergoing in a perfect marriage of madness and lucidity.
The simple truth was that Rean Scwarzer, as much of a selfless, compassionate and sometimes downright doormat of a person he could be had been gifted a trait that ran counter to everything he had long thought himself to be. The Ashen Chevalier would—and always would—love to fight.
Denying that fact had only been hindering himself...and the time for holding back had long passed.
With a dancer's grace the duo leapt in opposite directions, momentum carrying them several arge apart before seamlessly resuming their advance, a howling vortex of wind summoned from nothing but the monster's will and embedded Sepith crystals tearing at their clothes and turning a generous portion of the ground they had occupied into a gouged and ruined mess.
"Seamless control of wind."
"Likely how it survived the blast. Diverted kinetic energy."
"Need to daze and disrupt concentration then."
"Never leave home without em'."
The mental conversation that was every bit thoughts and feelings as it was words took place in the span of an eyeblink, Rean and Fie closing to a single selge away from their target as it reared back in bestial shock, losing a precious two seconds...and found its center once more as it jerked its neck forward, fire spewing from its mouth as the pair again closed ranks.
Rean held his blade in a horizontal stance, adopting the intimately familiar Eight Leaves One Blade forms as his calm and analytical mind measured distances, temperatures and speeds before feeding that information into the homicidal instincts of his Ogre side, a gleeful shout leaving his throat as he answered the deluge of flames with a fire of his own, perfect matching of heat cancelling out the forward momentum of the encroaching inferno and creating a blazing barrier that would have stalled out the battle if it was just him versus the Hippogriff.
Strega brand boots lightly perched on his shoulders before a sharp push of coiled legs sent Fie up and over the shimmering wall, the monster squawking in surprise at the fast-moving feline missile...and was treated to the sight of a black, cylindrical object tumbling directly in front of its face courtesy of a lazy toss from the aforementioned projectile.
"Eyes and ears closed, please."
Rean didn't hesitate, clapping his hands over his ears and averting his gaze as he still felt the percussive and disorienting detonation of the explosive, a pained shriek leaving the Hippogriff as the young man smirked.
Years later and it never failed to amaze just how much of a punch those flashbangs had in them. Popular sentiment among Class VII was that Fie was always trying out new and louder mixtures without telling anybody. Probably getting pointers from Xeno as well.
Returning his gaze to the battle Rean watched his partner begin her downward approach towards the ground, twisting her body as she passed by the monster's flank...and began spinning like a demented industrial saw, gunblades flashing and firing all the while.
It was a brutal movement his feline partner could pull off, sharpened blade of her first gun slicing into flesh while the second would fire off a bullet into the resulting wound, repeating the process at a bewildering pace that only someone with near superhuman reflexes and accelerated perceptions could reliably perform.
Someone like the infamous Sylphid.
The Hippogriff's flank exploded into chunks of meat and spraying blood as Fie landed in a crouch on the ground, guns smoking and dripping as the monster screamed in agony, raising a poisoned talon to strike at the now close-range opponent-
-and in a blur of speed that was more of an afterimage than it was anything else Rean flashed through the now simmering flames, Tachi expertly slicing through the tendon of the leg still on the ground and unbalancing the great bird as it squawked in dismay, tail automatically striking towards the now still young man in a bid to deal with this new opponent.
It forgot about the white-haired tormentor in the process, paying for that mistake as a flurry of bullets cut through the less tough muscle of its rear appendage and caused it to fall limply to the ground, the pair once more convening and staring at their quarry with clear intent to kill.
The monster decided it had had enough.
A terrific cry and flap of its wings—empowered by the Sepith growing among the feathered appendages—launched Fie and Rean backwards, the pair scrabbling for traction among the howling gale as the monster took to the skies, clearly intending to run rather than fight.
Fuschia eyes met yellow-green, smirks traded between them as they both had the same thought.
Rean crouched low, holding out his sword as if it was some kind of balancing beam, his partner neatly leaping atop of it as a roar of exertion left the madly grinning young man, contorting his body and propelling his much lighter companion towards their retreating quarry at a blistering pace.
The Hippogriff had the briefest of moments to notice the approaching hunter-
-and then Fie slammed her booted feet into the back of its skull, snapping her guns to aim downwards into the panicking monster...and unloading every round she could, the beast jerking spastically before falling limp, plummeting from the sky like a stone.
The eyes tended to be a universal weak point, bar only a few notable exceptions.
Rean allowed his battle lust to run its course, sheathing his blade with a satisfied smile-
-that turned into a blink of dismay as he saw Fie glance his direction...and then begin aimlessly plummeting towards the ground.
Calling upon every iota of speed he could afford Rean raced towards the descending pair and barely managed to slide underneath his partner in a violent skid that carved a four arge trench in the dirt, expertly dissipating enough of her momentum that she was completely unharmed, staring up at him with those familiar green-yellow orbs.
The young man allowed himself a resigned sigh.
"Not funny, Fie. What if I hadn't been watching you?"
"...Nah. You're always looking at me if you can get away with it."
Knowing that was a blunt truth if there ever was one Rean rose to his feet, Fie leaping from his arms with feline grace as they approached the monster's corpse, the ARCUS link and heat of battle leaving the pair as the young man allowed his feral side to once more quiet and rest, promising it the certainty of future conflict.
"Well, mission accomplished. Thanks, would have been pretty tricky to take down on my own."
"I'm sure you would have done fine, Fie."
"Hm. Now what was that thing you were going to ask me before the birdy showed up?"
Wincing at the reminder Rean bought himself a few seconds by whistling for their horse, eventually stating, "How about I tell you once we're back at the settlement?"
His partner clasped her hands behind her back, narrowing her eyes as she bent forward at the waist, examining him from several different angles all while making a 'hmm' noise.
"...C'mon, Fie. Please? Besides, I organized something fun for us to do once we get back, we should hurry."
"Are we gonna have sex?"
Rean's palm met his face.
"No. Well, I mean, maybe-wait, that's not the point!"
A chuckle of amusement left his compatriot as she smoothly darted around him and leapt onto his back, their horse trotting up a moment later as she teased, "You're way too easy, Rean."
Rolling his eyes as he mounted the hardy stallion—Fie lightly slotting into the seat behind him—Rean dryly retorted, "I suppose I should apologize for being such an easy mark, then?"
"Nah. You're cuter this way."
Biting back on a defeated sigh the young man lightly flipped the reins, allowing the beast of burden to find its own way back towards the Nordic settlement.
"I can never let the Thors students hear Fie call me cute. I'm already thought of as kinda a pushover at times...this would just be the nail in the coffin."
"...Are you mad about me calling you cute?"
"Of course not, don't be silly."
"You're mad, aren't you. Guys are always sensitive about that kinda thing. Only thing that makes em' even more insecure is when you say their dick is tiny."
Coughing in a fit that was half laughter and half mortification Rean hastily asked, "Fie, who did you say that too?! It better not have been anyone important..."
His partner leant around his side to smirk at his expression, cattily stating, "Well it definitely wasn't you~."
"Can you stop teasing me for five seconds? It's bad enough that I have to deal with all of my old students and the occasional visit from Alfin..."
"You're way too easy. So...hint?"
"Oh look, we we're almost there."
Fie pouted as they approached the Nordic settlement, maybe a few minutes ride away as she sulked, "Maybe not so easy."
"Thanks...I think? Never mind, that surprise should be waiting for us once we get there."
Eventually settling on a shrug the girl acquiesced without much in the way of complaints, curiosity brimming as they approached the nomadic tribe, hardy steed coming to a halt next to the other horses as they smoothly dismounted, setting sun casting everything into a scenic glow of orange and red.
"So how'd it go you two? Any troubles?"
The familiar and soothing tones of Gaius Worzel reached Rean and Fie's ears, the pair meeting their old friend's warm gaze with differing expressions of triumph, Rean nodding with a small smile while Fie merely offered a 'V' sign of victory.
"Should have figured something like that wouldn't bother you at all. The Ashen Chevalier and Sylphid acting in tandem make for quite the terrifying pair."
"Thanks, Gaius. Did everyone else arrive?"
"Yup! All eagerly awaiting your arrival, I might add. Dinner's just about ready as well."
The Bracer perked up at the continued hints.
"Well you've got my attention. And what's this 'everyone else' I keep hearing about?"
Gaius merely offered Fie a wink as he expertly relieved their horse of its saddle and other additions, broad frame easily filling out the tribal cloths of the Nord highlanders as he enigmatically stated, "You'll see when you go in to eat. I'm honestly surprised Rean didn't crack under the pressure and reveal the surprise."
"I'm not that bad..."
The pair of Class VII alumni smirked at their nominal leader's disgruntled words, no further conversation being parsed as Rean threw back the flap of one of the communal tents dotting the landscape, motioning Fie inside-
-and the Bracer came to a dead stop at the sight of so many familiar faces, all of them grinning and beaming at her.
Enjoying the rare sight of a flabbergasted young woman Rean smirked, motioning to the room at large as he announced, "Class VII wishes you a happy reunion day, Fie."
The air turned sheepish as Rean scratched his head, mentioning, "We weren't entirely sure what would be an appropriate day to celebrate so...yeah. Six years ago Class VII met for the first time, in all its dysfunctional glory."
The Bracer was a bit too shocked by the sheer multitude of old friends to respond, eyes roving the room with plain bewilderment.
Jusis, Machias, Emma, Laura, Alisa, Millium, Crow, Elliot...all seated around a hot pot and platters of other vegetables, watching her with a variety of expressions.
"Well technically it was one week to go but by that point everyone would be back to whatever they were busy doing sooooo...you know~! One week in advance!"
Millium's addendum broke the trance Fie had been in, the Bracer turning to face the grinning expressions of Rean and Gaius as he entered the communal space they had appropriated, slowly asking, "You...organized all of this?"
Rean shrugged, gesturing to Machias and Jusis before stating, "Well it wasn't easy, I can say that much..."
The pair of young men scoffed, Machias adjusting his glasses while grumbling, "Easy is putting it too lightly. Working around everyone's schedules was a veritable nightmare, never mind ensuring replacements could be found for those who's positions couldn't be so easily abdicated."
Jusis elegantly motioned with his gloved hand, hardy but expensive noble attire glittering in the firelight as he added, "The time of a duke—deputy or not—as well as a collection of civil servants, regional governors, researchers, operatives and witches was no mean feat to coordinate. I do believe I expended a years worth of favors ensuring that the empire wouldn't fall to pieces in the interim while we're gone..."
Alisa eagerly jumped in with, "Yeah, but it's totally worth it, right? I mean we get a whole five days to relax, not to mention grandfather said we could use his house as long as we wanted to while we're here!"
While still excited some of Fie's enthusiasm fell as she morosely stated, "Oh...I've only got tomorrow to hang out then. Duty calls and-"
Rean's hand laid itself across her scalp, rubbing gently as Laura happily announced, "Actually, Fie...I spoke to Toval when he was at the Legram Bracer branch a few days ago and he sent word along to Instructor Sara who called in a few favors of her own. Congratulations, you're now the brand new owner of a seven-day vacation pass."
Yellow-green eyes widened, the young woman nodding slightly as she quietly said, "Thanks, Laura."
"It was my pleasure, Fie."
"Hey not that I'm against all this happy feel-good stuff but do we really want to let all this food get cold? C'mon, we'll have plenty of chances to talk later~!"
Crow's cheery and irreverent tones snapped them out of the moment, Elliot chuckling before suggesting, "Maybe a bit brashly put, but he's got a point."
"Yeah. Food sounds good."
Fie's happy suggestion seemed to put the matter to rest, a chorus of agreement sounding out among the reunited Class VII as they went to work on the spread before them.
"As much as we tried there's only so much string-pulling we could do. Kurt, Juna, Altina, Ash and Musse will arrive tomorrow. Even my influence has its limits, apparently."
Machias smirked as the guys reclined in collapsible chairs around a roaring campfire, drinks in hand before the green-haired young man pointed out, "The great Jusis Albarea? Admitting limits? And here I thought the Great Twilight had been a sure sign of the end of the world."
"And yet you're results were no better than mine. Worse, I would wager. All you had to do was gather up Alisa, Millium, and Emma. I handled everyone else."
Elliot, Gaius, Rean and Crow shared a chuckle at the pair's eternal butting of heads, the grey-haired alumni pointing out, "I seriously think you two should just get married already. I mean you argue with each like a grouchy bunch of old timers despite clearly working together just fine when it gets right down to it."
Gaius nodded, stroking his chin in thought as he added, "The union of two of Erebonia's eminent up and comers in the political sphere would be a powerhouse of influence and strength, that's for certain."
Ignoring the gobsmacked expressions of both Jusis and Machias Elliot played right along, adding, "Yeah! While things have cooled off a bit the last few years the tensions among the populace, royal family and nobility are still a bit heated, this marriage could go a long way towards settling things down!"
Obviously having enough of their rampant speculation Machias harshly interjected with, "Alright, setting aside the biggest hurdle—the fact that we both like women—I can barely stand being this buffoons friend! What in Aidios's name makes you think we would survive being married?!"
"In a rare occurrence, I agree completely with Regnitz's assessment."
Rean finally pitched in his own two mira, smiling as he stated, "So you two are friends, then?"
"Yes, Rean. And only friends."
The group was silent for a moment-
-and then the pair of arguing classmates cursed at how they'd been played, the other four chuckling as Crow laced his arms behind his head, gleefully stating, "Man, getting these two to admit to anything is like pulling teeth from a Crocodark. And at least the Crocodark will just try to kill you, instead of protesting that it's not actually attempting to rip out your throat."
Sighing in contentment Rean turned to Elliot, asking, "So how's the musical career going, Elliot? I brought my class to see you perform a few months ago but that was then, how about now?"
The red-head beamed, responding, "It's going great! More people than ever are looking to get the stress of everything that happened during the Twilight off their chests and music has been a big part of that. Especially since the Orbal radio has really taken off in distributing songs and albums to all corners of the Empire and beyond. The sound quality takes a bit of a hit, sure, but that just means attending in person is all the more meaningful."
Gaius nodded, adding, "It was much the same for Erebonian opera, nothing quite managed to beat the live performances. On that note, Crow, how are you and Vita doing?"
The older of the group kicked his boots up onto the fire pit, nostalgically commenting, "Ahh, that witch of a woman? Well considering everything that went down during the past few years it's been hard to stay in touch. The Hexen clan and others are busy researching the aftereffects of the Twilight and disappearance of two Sept-Terrions but we've managed to chat a few times. Ol' Emma over there has probably interacted with her more than I have to be honest."
Rean raised an eyebrow, asking, "That's it? The two of you had always seemed...close."
His senior's sharp gaze landed on him with predatory intent, Crow smugly stating, "Interested in my love life, Reany-boy? If there's a certain couple on everyone's minds right now it isn't me and Vita or Jusis and Machias-"
"Oi. It's not happening."
"-but a certain Bracer and Erebonian household name. Well? You and Fie made it official yet?"
Rean's mind flashed back to the night before what he had thought would be his final days, of the vow they had shared beneath glowing lanterns and the soft sensation of her lips on his-
"W-well we've been dating just fine a couple years now and we manage to see each other once every couple weeks...why, is that not considered official?"
The bevy of blank stares he received made it abundantly clear to Rean that he'd just said something incredibly not correct.
"...Dude, you can't keep a girl waiting like that."
Protesting Crow's blunt observation Rean responded, "What do you mean 'waiting'? We told each other that we love each other and-"
"Wow. He really just came out and admitted that, didn't he?"
"Eh heh, it's kinda sweet how he's honest with that sort of thing."
"Indeed. Even the Goddess herself would blush at so heartfelt a proclamation."
"Courtship among nobles would be much easier if they just came out and admitted their intentions forthright."
Doing his best to ignore his friend's amused remarks—and failing miserably as his cheeks flared bright red—Rean added, "Things are working fine the way they are! What else am I supposed to do?"
Yet another round of blank looks that made the Schwarzer heir feel like a simpleton.
"To be fair...Fie isn't like most other girls, she's probably just as content as Rean with the current state of affairs..."
Elliot's thoughtful comment was beaten down by Crow, the ashen-haired young man posing, "Maybe, maybe not. Short-stuff is pretty observant and crafty. Not to mention she's been a Bracer for several years at this point and seen the more domestic side of life, as well as what might be considered the norm...such as husbands and wives."
Rean felt his eyes widen at the chilling revelation.
A chill that only worsened as the rest of the group nodded in assent, Gaius contemplatively stating, "Father used to say that mother had no shortage of potential suitors when he began courting her, he had to act fast. And while her personality is a bit more reserved and practical than most other women her age Fie is quite attractive."
"Yeah, dad always said that even being an up-and-coming military hero didn't help him when he was dating mom, he had to show off more than medals, mainly commitment."
Swallowing nervously at Elliot's additional comment Rean felt himself sink even further into despair as Machias mused, "True, it was much the same for my dad. It doesn't matter how important a person you are if you can't show you're both emotionally connected and invested, provided the marriage is one of romance rather than convenience."
Jusis put the proverbial nail in the coffin as he sagely nodded.
"I've seen my fair share of nobility offer flowery poems and extravagant gifts to ones they professed to love, even physical intimacy on occasion. They inevitably failed or were turned sour as those confessions weren't backed up by steadfast interest."
Rean felt like the ground was about to open wide and swallow him whole, nervousness flaring as he began to fret that he may have been neglecting and leading Fie on for years, never the wiser for-
"Heh, I think we've let him squirm for long enough, right guys?"
"Yeah, I think he's about to crack."
"Can't help but feel like we were just kicking a puppy..."
Rean gazed around the gathered group with a blank expression, noting the smiles, smirks and grins being directed his way.
"...That was not funny."
"I dunno, watching the Ashen Chevalier have a nervous breakdown because he was worried he might not be acting like a proper boyfriend was pretty amusing~."
Rean favored Crow with his best glare, the older male just grinning unrepentantly.
"All joking aside, guys...you don't really think Fie might be thinking that, do you? I mean, you were kidding about it but you're not wrong..."
A chorus of eye rolls and sighs were his only response, Jusis replying, "Rean, it was painfully obvious that you two were meant for each other from the first few weeks. Obvious to everybody but the two of you, apparently."
Machias nodded, adding, "Fie was always a bit of an oddity to us at first, before we got to know her past and history...but you never really judged her for that, before the rest of us knew anything. And with the benefit of hindsight her composed and direct nature was a welcome foil to your more uncertain and conflicted personality, while we were all still trying to figure out how to best work and live together."
Blinking at the highly accurate observation Gaius pointed out, "I remember you spending those first few weeks among us trying to smooth things over, ensuring there was as little friction as possible...and despite all that you still made time for her, helping alongside Emma with her studies, showing interest in her gardening club and occasionally just sitting nearby while she napped."
Elliot chuckled, adding, "And remember what happened when she revealed she used to be a Jaeger? Sure, Laura was the most obviously bothered but the rest of us knew about their reputation so for a few days we were on edge...not you. You carried on just like normal. And I'm prettysure I saw you watching over her in nurse Beatrix's office a few times. And heard a few rumors that you dragged her off to it while sharing an umbrella, since you were worried about her getting sick...and let's not forget the time you and her brought back the fruits of your combined labor, delivering flowers all across campus!"
It was Jusis's turn to throw in his proverbial hat, concluding with, "Face it, Rean...Our first year at Thors was what really cemented that you and Fie were a near perfect match. One ex-Jaeger who was accepted by a young man who held no discrimination towards her past and only wished to befriend her as a person out of sheer goodwill, no ulterior motives...and an adopted noble afflicted by an ancient curse, struggling with feelings of self-worth who never had to worry about any of that when he was with aforementioned Jaeger, since he could count on her to be honest and forthright to a fault. Everything that came afterwards was just to cement that fact."
Crow grandly spread his arms, announcing, "And to that end, Rean...we've decided to help you out as true bros are meant to. Show em', Jusis."
The Albarea heir pulled something out of his pocket, showing it to Rean as the young man took a close look at it...and felt his jaw drop.
Within Jusis' palm was a ring of astounding beauty, glittering emerald and midnight black intertwined with the other in a beautiful spiral that the young man could tell at a glance contained trace amounts of purified Sepith crystal.
"You're engagement ring? It is. You should be grateful, rings like this are quite jealously guarded by the nobility and it took no shortage of effort to acquire one. You can thank me by giving it to Fie tonight."
Machias raised an eyebrow.
"Get what the noble is saying, Rean?"
Hesitantly taking the priceless bit of jewelry Schwarzer swallowed before nodding.
"Not how I imagined my first proposition would go-"
"Being press-ganged by your friends into doing it?"
"-but you're right. It's time I move past hesitation and second-thoughts once more and, well...you know."
"Mother and father are going to be bouncing off the walls when they hear this. Let's just say you five aren't the only ones who were wondering when I was going to pop the question to Fie."
Crow slapped him on the back, almost unseating the young man in the process before gleefully stating, "C'mon dude, enough of that! We've got a program we're going to follow later tonight and right now it's our time to get drunk and swap degenerate stories while the ladies aren't around~! Hey, Jusis, when was the first time you jacked it?"
The blonde choked on his drink while the rest of the group laughed at his misfortune, all privately glad that it wasn't them Crow had singled out.
"So how has the Bracer work been going, Fie? While we've all been busy with our own respective duties I imagine you've been the most swamped out of all of us, with the sheer magnitude of trouble the Empire has been undergoing while the Bracers focus on reopening all of their Branches."
The snow-haired girl idly nodded at Laura's observation, having taken up position on the noble's lap while she downed yet another of the honey-glazed nuts provided as part of dinner's dessert. They were really good.
"Yeah, it's been all different kinds of suck. But I don't mind it, it's nice to stay busy...not gonna complain about this break though. How about all of you? Legram doing okay, Laura?"
The blue-haired girl smiled even as she ran her fingers through Fie's tangled and wild hair, cheerily stating, "As well as can be expected. Klaus really is coming up in years so I've been studying under his watchful eye to ensure that Legram's more administrative duties don't fall apart the moment he earns his well-deserved retirement. Father has had his hands full with noble duties, although..."
A fire seemed to light in her eyes, gleefully stating, "One benefit of the armistice and gradually reopening borders is that outsiders are expressing interest in the Arseid dojo, which means plenty of potential competitors to cross blades with..."
Fie rolled her eyes at her friend's predictable mindset, turning to Emma before inquiring, "How about you? No signs of another world-ending disaster on the horizon?"
Sheepishly chuckling at the question Emma responded, "Well as near as we can tell, no. The disappearance of a pair of Sept-Terrions, the Divine Knights and Ishmelga means Ouroboros and any other societies with similar goals will have to go back to the drawing board if they want to cause another great calamity."
A sudden groan from Millium interrupted the Hexen Witch's words, the smaller woman complaining, "C'mon, this is the first time in months we've managed to get together like this and all you want to talk about is work?! Booooring!"
Alisa crossed her arms, wryly remarking, "Well all we've really done recently is business-related, making sure Erebonia doesn't collapse in the wake of the Twilight. And don't even get me started on all the Orbal and technological advancements that have been in the works with the arms race that was going strong for years...it's been a frantic period where we've been trying to find uses for all of these developments that aren't combat related, get people away from the mindset that war is all we have to look forward to."
"Mmm...I still think we should talk about something more fun. Like, sure, Claire and Lechter have had all sorts of stuff for me to do but I jumped at this opportunity to get away from it all! Ooh, I know!"
Millium's ecstatic gaze travelled around the group, the other four immediately tensing at what they knew was trouble in the making.
"Has anyone got a new boyfriend?"
Fie relaxed, knowing she was safe in regards to that line of questioning since she and Rean were a couple, observing the rest of the group as Emma and Alisa blushed furiously, Laura merely appearing contemplative.
"It's been a great while since I've given any thought to a possible relationship, in all honesty...what flights of fancy I've experienced have tended to be a brief affair. For a time I believed Rean would make a fine partner but I think we all know how that turned out."
The swordwoman's tone was amused, no signs of bitterness present as she poked Fie in the cheek as the smaller girl smirked like the cat that caught the canary, everyone else sporting looks of equal bemusement.
"Just goes to show there's more to a girl than her chest and body."
Alisa sighed, remarking, "Like we were saying earlier everything has been so busy...it's been hard enough to stay in touch with all of you, never mind actually dating someone. And on that note..."
Fie tilted her head as Alisa offered her a mock glare.
"Haven't you tried to convince him to move forward with your relationship yet?"
Now blinking in slight unease at the query Fie hesitantly replied, "What do you mean?"
This time it was Emma who gave her a strange look, delicately asking, "Erm, Fie? How long have you and Rean been officially dating now?"
"We're not dating. We love each other."
There was a round of bemused glances sent between the other four at Fie's blunt words, Emma continuing the conversation with, "Well, alright, but it's been what, six years?"
Millium enthusiastically bobbed her head, explaining, "Yup! Sure, Crow and I only came into Class VII near the end of the year but it was preeeety obvious you and Rean were gonna get it on sooner or later."
"Indeed. While many of us—myself especially—at first felt wary of you when your Jaeger heritage became known it was Rean who never appeared to care, correct?"
Fie shifted slightly at Laura's knowing tone, Alisa adding, "And don't forget that you were always willing to speak and spend time with him more than you were us. Don't get me wrong, you never turned down an offer or told us to buzz off...but with Rean you went out of your way to accommodate him, letting him see how you spent your free time with your club and napping habits. We didn't even know you'd grown anything until you showed up with those potted flowers."
Now feeling a swell of nostalgic warmth Sylphid averted her gaze, thinking back to the inception of Class VII and the confusing mess of emotions and new paradigms that had been. She had still been lost and hurting after Zephyr went their separate ways, going along with Sara's recommendation because what else was she going to do? So many classes, clubs and criteria she had been swamped with, all of it seeming so distant and of dubious importance...and then a slightly nosey young man with darkened hair approached her, asking after her for some strange reason that had, over the months, turned into a strange warmth that quickly encompassed all of Class VII.
"...So what's this about moving our relationship forward? I don't get it. We totally fuck if that's what you're worried about."
"Eh heh heh, nice."
Millium was the only one who didn't sputter and cough at the Bracer's blunt statement, Emma quickly clarifying, "T-that's not what we were implying, Fie! We were wondering if you were ever going to ask Rean to marry you!"
Lapsing into silence Fie stared into the fire, an entirely new set of doubts swirling within her mind.
Was...was that the natural progression of a relationship? She and Rean had agreed to be lovers and family the night before the battle with the Great One, didn't that cover something like marriage? Frantically going through her memories Fie grasped at a recent discovery, asking, "Aren't the guys supposed to be the ones who ask the girl to get married?"
Alisa offered her a wry expression.
"Are you willing to rely on Rean eventually getting up the courage to ask you that? Don't get me wrong, he's better than he used to be but geez if he still doesn't have trouble considering himself worth more than a slightly polished glob of dirt sometimes."
...Fie didn't argue that point, knowing her partner did have the occasional issue with self-worth and self-confidence, no matter how much he seemed to have gotten over it.
"Except that now leaves me with an entirely new kind of issue...how do I go about asking someone to marry me?"
Feeling a rare blush color her cheeks at the thought Fie turned to her friends, hesitantly asking, "I...might need some help with this?"
"Well you just so happen to be in luck. Here."
Laura handed Fie a band of metal that immediately caught her eye, a perfectly meshed and polished combination of red and black Sepith that would no doubt fit perfectly on her partner's ring finger, the young woman giving Laura a wide-eyed look.
"Is...it ok for you to give this to me? It looks expensive."
The noble's tone was dry as she explained, "And it was. But I wanted you to have a suitably valuable gift to offer Rean. As a friend, naturally."
Touched at the gesture and unsure of how to respond Fie settled for a grateful nod...and cleared her throat, meeting everyone else's gazes as she said, "I still don't know how to ask him."
Sighs dominated the gathering, a brief glance shared between the girls and boys—excluding their clueless lovebirds—wordlessly communicating that a bit of extra work was going to be required the rest of the night.
"C'mon Elliot, everyone is waiting!"
"Okay, okay! Geez give me a minute here!"
Class VII had reunited well into the night, one of the last campfires still burning strong illuminating a small patch of verdant grassland as the stars overhead pinwheeled in vast constellations, affording the scene an ethereal tinge as the eleven young men and women cheered for their resident musician to get to it.
"Ugh, now I wish I hadn't had all those drinks...I think my playing is going to suffer because of it..."
"Aw don't sweat it, man! You're instrumentals are world-class, this whole thing is going to go great~!"
Crow's reassurances didn't seem to do all that much reassuring as the musician fumbled with his violin, Alisa crossing her arms as she archly asked, "Were you six drinking over there?"
"Yeah, and you didn't invite us? That's so not cool!"
Millium's equally indignant—albeit for entirely different reasons—protest caused Crow to chuckle, shaking a fresh bottle of Erebonian whiskey as he teased, "Well? There's still plenty left if the ladies want a taste or three~!"
The aqua-haired girl eagerly reached for the bottle-
-and Jusis snatched it away before Millium could set hands on the alcoholic prize, motions slightly unsteady as he chastised, "We've had enough as it is, we don't need to spread the poison."
"Fine words, considering your already inebriated state."
"We're fine, there's no—*hic*—need to go throwing around accusations like that!"
Machias's failed attempt at assuaging Laura's concerns caused Emma and Gaius to chuckle, Rean and Fie sneaking surreptitious—at least Rean thought his were indiscreet—glances at the other in mutual insecurity over how to go about sealing the proverbial deal.
Something that didn't go unnoticed by their classmates, Elliot finishing his preparations at a swift pace before announcing, "Ok, I'm all set! Pair up everybody, we're starting!"
Eager grins adorned Class VII's expressions as they followed the musician's words, seamlessly shifting into dance stances with their respective partners.
Jusis and Millium, Laura and Gaius, Machias and Emma, Crow and Alisa, Rean and Fie. The quiet of the night was broken only by the sounds of distant wildlife, crackling of the fire and occasional snort of horses...and a single chord slipped into the song of the Nord Highlands, Elliot closing his eyes as he let the simple and familiar tunes of an Erebonian waltz number guide his hands, Class VII moving in tandem with the music.
Soft and elegant shifts of pitch and pace guided their steps, a gentle and refined waltz that was peaceful in both temperament and movement...before grins turned into maddened smiles of joy as Elliot abruptly shifted his tune.
The majesty of Heimdallr dance was replaced by the wild, chaotic and pulse-pounding mash of Celdric's social marketplace, where walks of all life mingled and influenced the other. Stately chords evolving into wild adventure across all pitches a violin could produce, Class VII shifting from ballroom steps and twirls into far more energetic leaps, spins and lifts as they grew ever closer together-
-and at the zenith of the song in perfect unison they switched partners, a flawless shift of feet and momentum despite the variety of body shapes and sizes that had them continuing the movement with another member of their circle without delay, confident laughter echoing across the landscape as the dance continued uninterrupted, Elliot grinning right alongside them as his craft reached a fever pace.
The movement went on and on, from the primal and beat-driven Nordic tribal chants to the martial and rigid steps of Legram, all the way back around to the capital's stately majesty. Through it all Class VII let Elliot guide them, moving them as a single unit with seamless cooperation, at times more a single mind than several.
The ARCUS training had turned them, over several months of schooling and then years of constant war, into a cohesive and perfectly tuned unit that, even without a direct combat link, could anticipate and know what their fellows were about to do. The dancing had become something of a game to them, an entertaining way to take full advantage of their familiarity and cohesion that harkened back to the initial lessons Sara had them partake of during their first year at Thors.
And as the set came to a close it was the boys turn to play the part of damsel, sashaying hips and flaring a bit of leg as the girls twirled them around, what had once been a horrendously embarrassing part of their training now an entertaining way to punctuate the end of their fun.
Elliot let the last few chords play out, holding them as a final strand of lyrical genius petered out...and Class VII burst out into laughter and whoops, the orange-haired young man bowing to their applause as they all drank deeply of their canteens, sweat adorning their brows despite the cool night air due to their exertions.
"Man, if you told me six years ago that I'd be dancing freely among the plains of Nord and having the time of my life...well, I'd have had a good laugh, to say the least."
"And if you'd told me that I would be comrades-in-arms with the noble-despising Regnitz spawn I'd have done the same."
Crow and Jusis' comments brought a round of chuckles to the group, staring up at the pinwheeling sky and allowing the moment of peace and comradery to stretch.
"Six years...I can't decide if it feels like the blink of an eye or a small slice of eternity."
Laura's thoughtful comment was answered by Emma, the young woman responding, "Who's to say it can't be both? As the saying goes, time flies when you're having fun."
"Or under incredible stress. There's been no shortage of that over aforementioned six years..."
"C'mon, Machias. It wasn't all bad. Adversity breeds excellence, after all."
Gaius's warm rebuttal to the more uptight member of Class VII was seconded by Millium, the girl adding, "Yeah, if the world hadn't gone off the deep end we probably would have never met! So chin up!"
"Never heard that particular way of looking at it before..."
"Yeah, that's a silver lining that should probably be kept among friends."
Elliot and Alisa's comments lead the group to once again falling silent, a few minutes passing in friendly silence until all but Rean and Fie stood up with little warning, Crow tossing over his shoulder, "We'll be back in a minute, just going to grab a few leftover snacks. You two play nice now~!"
The polite comment was somewhat undercut by the collection of pointed glances sent the duo's way, something that didn't escape their attention.
"...They're not even trying to be subtle about this, are they?"
"I guess they got tired of waiting, I guess?"
The pair met each other's eyes, momentarily unsure of how to go about broaching the topic that was undoubtedly on everyone's mind, a conundrum that even an ARCUS connection couldn't handle.
"So...did the girls, erm...mention anything?"
"About how we should totally stop stalling and just tie the knot?"
An uneasy silence passed between the two-
-and was eventually broken by Rean, the young man sighing as he stated, "Fie, if it ever felt like I was leading you on by never making it official, that wasn't my-"
"Nah, it's cool. We made it pretty clear how we feel, right? And besides..."
Her yellow-green eyes briefly everted themselves, tone mildly chastised as she said, "Zephyr taught me a lot...but domestic standards and customs definitely weren't one of them. Only a few members actually settled down."
"Really? And how did that go?"
"Divorce within four months. Bar none."
Rean winced, stating, "Ouch. Guess the Jaeger lifestyle doesn't really prepare one for a quiet life, huh?"
"Pretty much, yeah. Zephyr was our real family and it was hard to adjust outside of it."
Fie's expression turned downcast for a moment.
"If anything I'm the one who should be sorry. You're probably totally used to that kind of thing given your upbringing while I didn't have a clue."
"Nope, nuh-uh, Fie. If we're going to insist on there being blame it falls onto me. Besides, I think you put it best yourself...we never felt the need to make it 'official' since we'd more or less confirmed that we loved each other no matter what."
Rean offered the young woman a confident smile, mostly to hide his internal screams of anxiety.
"So, Fie Claussell...will you marry me?"
The slightest tinges of red colored her pale skin.
"Sure. Why not?"
Unable to help the snort of amusement that left him Rean took out the engagement ring that had been gifted to him by the guys, slipping it onto Fie's right hand...and she reciprocated the action, much to his surprise as they admired the polished metal in the embers of the firelight, at how perfectly they matched.
Fire, Wind and Time.
"Geez, they really planned this out down to the letter, didn't they?"
"Yeah. It was nice, but we should totally pay em' back for being nosey."
"If we're going to go down that route I'm probably first on the list...I was quite the busybody during our first year at Thors..."
Fie smirked at his mildly sheepish words, remarking, "Yeah, but that's what brought us all together. You get a free pass."
"Whew. Dodged a bullet there."
In a familiar gesture he rubbed his partner's scalp, the Bracer's eyes closing in enjoyment as she mused, "So will we get a huge wedding ceremony like Olivert and Scherazard?"
"I...don't think we'll be able to match what the royalty of the Empire can do."
"Hmm...yeah, that makes sense. Besides, Leo and Xeno alongside a bunch of others would want to come and they're not really high society types."
The young man felt a ball of unease settle in his gut.
"...They're going to rake me over the coals again about treating you right, aren't they?"
Fie smirked, dragging her partner into a deep kiss before consoling him with, "Don't worry, I won't let them hurt you too badly~."
The pair shared a laugh-
-and were promptly interrupted by a collection of cheers and whistles as the rest of Class VII returned, Machias announcing, "Well it's about time, I would say!"
"True, but delayed gratification is all the sweeter, is it not?"
Laura's additional comment allowed the rest of the returning group to close the distance to the recently engaged pair...and with several whoops of congratulation Class VII ended up in a dog pile of familial proportions, all of them trying to edge a word or comment in amidst the chaos as Rean and Fie desperately tried to field as many of them as they could.
Life would no doubt continue to test them—the world and their home were by no means safe from all that desired to threaten it—but for the next few days the family that was Class VII had earned a break from it, celebrating the union of two of their own beneath the calmly twinkling sky.
So after reading Wuolong77's Trails story I realized that I hadn't made one of my own, despite the fact that it's easily one of my favorite story and character driven bits of media to come out in recent years. Heck, I did it for Xenoblade Chronicles X, I sure as Hell had to do it for this one!
Except I'm pretty busy with other stories already so no longform plans for this one :_(
Instead I decided to do a one-shot of Class VII after the events of Trails IV, a bit of a feel-good conclusion and my way of offering a thumbs-up to this killer of a series.