An eighth presence haunted the group of friends circling the fire. Underneath their chatter and the boughs of Marbule Forest it lurked, unwelcome but there all the same. A reminder. A threat.
It had always been around, Marle supposed, but had never made its presence so obvious before. Rubbing her pendant with her thumb, she tried to focus on other things instead. The smooth dreamstone was cool against her skin, despite the warmth of the campfire. Twigs popped and cracked, and sparks rose to mix among the fireflies. The flames writhed, throwing shadows over her companions' features. They looked more angular, sharp.
Marle's fingers itched to paint the scene. Her other hand actually went to the bag attached to her belt before she remembered she didn't have her sketchbook or pencils with her. Not something she'd thought to bring along when running away from home. And now she couldn't ever go back to retrieve them.
The tightness in her eyes warned of incoming tears. She placed the heel of her hands against them and took a deep breath, letting it fill her chest and belly. This was what you've always wanted, she reminded herself. The freedom to live as she chose, without stupid rules and obligations. To travel with friends and do something actually important.
To her left, Lucca grunted as she tinkered with Robo. The robot sat patiently, not seeming to mind her ministrations every night. Across the fire Frog angled away from Ayla and croaked, the thin membrane under his mouth expanding. The cavewoman had grabbed another chunk of meat and was tearing into it with the reckless abandon of a starving child. Even in the semidarkness, Marle could see pieces of meat fly through the air.
"Mayhap it would be healthier to eat with less haste," Frog said, eyeing the cavewoman.
"Ayla hungry." Ayla tore off another hunk with her teeth and offered the half-eaten leg to him. "Frog hungry?"
"N-no thank you."
A huff came from off to the side. Magus leaned against the trunk of one of the large trees circling the clearing. His pointed face was lowered against his chest, resting just above his crossed arms. On anyone else the pose would have been intimidating. For him, it was simply typical.
"Are we disturbing your rest, oh Brood-Lord?" called Lucca, twisting her screwdriver around in Robo's head.
The breath of soft laughter directly to Marle's right brought goosebumps to her arms. All evening she'd tried very hard not to stare at Crono, to make sure he was still there. Alive. Healthy. He didn't seem to have the same qualms. His frequent glances settled over her like a blanket.
Leather creaked as Magus flexed his gloved hands. "What an insipid, puerile quip. Yet I would expect nothing else from a mere child." His voice was like the ringing of a funeral bell.
"Yeah, I'm not thousands of years old like you." Lucca smirked.
Magus glared at her. "I travelled through time, not lived all those years, you fool. Perhaps you should be more concerned with using your supposed brainpower to determine a useful plan of action. As I recall, you were soundly beaten by Lavos."
Lucca's helmeted head popped up. "Us? What a load of junk. What about you, 'Oh, it's draining my magic'? You weren't much better."
"If you idiots hadn't interrupted me—"
"Desist, the two of you!" Frog hopped up and held his hands out to either side as though to block Lucca and Magus from each other, although neither had actually moved. "This bickering will not do us any favours."
Ayla nodded her head vigorously, her mouth shiny with grease. "Magus words true. Ayla no lose Lavos two times."
A number of sensations invaded Marle. Lavos's scream, sharp as rusty blades and heavy with hunger and anger. The sulphurous smell gagging her. The way Crono had gripped his sword as he stood before them in the monster's shadow, his eyes as dark as the depths of Zenan Ocean. The glint of the pendant when it fell from his vaporized body.
She'd never found it useful to dwell on past events—doing so only made her sad, and she hated the feeling. But this memory was proving hard to shake, no matter how much she turned her attention onto something else.
Lucca sighed. "Fine. Since you've asked for my input, I say we follow Gaspar's advice and look throughout the ages for people to help. At the very least, it'll let us continue training with our magic and maybe pick up new weapons."
"A logical course of action," Robo intoned. "There is a factory in my time that we should also investigate. I have some information on it stored in my memory banks."
"And that fellow, Toma, requested our assistance with locating the Rainbow Shell," Frog said.
"Don't forget Fiona," Crono said quietly.
Marle could feel him looking at her again, probably waiting for her to chime in. She felt deflated, like one of the balloons she'd seen lying on the ground during the fair. Its yellow hue had turned partly grey from being trampled on by countless feet, the attached string curling away from it limply. She'd used up all her words on the mountaintop, welcoming him back. They'd spilled out, as though catching him up on everything that had occurred during his absence would somehow erase it. They'd settled around them in a cloud and wet her cheeks—or perhaps that had been her own tears freezing on her face.
She'd held him tight, feeling his body shivering under hers, his eyelashes brushing against her skin when he blinked. Even now, one day later, she couldn't remember what she'd said. She doubted he did either, but that was okay. He'd still listened until she was forced to stop talking, reminded by Lucca that Crono wasn't dressed for the cold weather. How unfair it would be for him to catch his death by cold after being saved from Lavos!
"You may chase after that drunken sod," Magus said, back to staring at the tree roots beneath him. "A visit to Ozzie is in order for me. I hear he's decided to take my place." He bared his pointed teeth in a mockery of a smile. "He will have to earn it."
"Great, so it's decided, then." Lucca closed up Robo's head and hopped off its shoulders. She wiped her hands on a towel. "Maybe we should split up into groups, cover more ground that way?"
Crono nodded. "One group can take Epoch, the other the Gate key."
"Still one person too many. Let's see," Lucca mused, tapping her screwdriver against her bottom lip. "We can't take everyone at once, so we'll have to travel in shifts. We can arrange that once we know who's going where."
"Who shall I accompany?" asked Frog.
"You know Toma's time well, so why don't you and Ayla help him? The fact there's a shell suggests there might be some sort of primeval beast waiting with it." Lucca shuddered. "Crono, Robo, and I can tackle that factory in the future. That leaves Marle and Magus to take on Ozzie."
A sharp weight wedged itself into Marle's chest. Of course Crono and Lucca would go to the future with Robo. Crono's light magic would work well against the machines, and Lucca was a genius inventor who could dismantle anything in seconds. They worked well together, which made sense, considering their long friendship.
Marle peeked at Magus. His cape and hair rippled in the faint breeze, but his hard eyes were steady on her. His lip curled in disgust. Just her luck she would get stuck with the most ill-tempered person on their team. Seemed like she'd escaped her father only to land beside someone just as pigheaded as him.
"Lucca, swap with Marle," Crono said. "Next to Magus, your magic's the strongest. Might need that against Ozzie's fiends."
Heat that had nothing to do with the fire shot up Marle's limbs to her head. What?
"Excuse me?" Lucca said as Magus turned his angular face to Crono and spat out, "Are you insane?"
Crono matched both of their stares. The air trembled between him and Lucca, caught in the middle of a decade-long battle of wills. Lucca had intelligence, sure, but Crono was intuitive and could see things that her mind, focused on logic and formulas, easily missed. He shrugged and grinned. "Didn't think it was a bad idea."
"Ozzie is the most incompetent of my erstwhile generals," Magus said. "I require none of you to accompany me."
Lucca pointed at Magus. "See, he wants to go by himself. So, Marle, you can go with Frog and Ayla or hang out here. Whatever you prefer."
"Lucca." Crono's voice was quiet, barely audible over the crackle of the bonfire. "No one's gonna be alone."
He had, against Lavos. His body had hung suspended before them, iridescent in the light of Lavos's immense power before being leeched of colour and then substance. Not a trace had been left.
Without him, without all of them, she'd be alone too.
Marle sighed. "I'll go with Magus."
"No, Marle," Crono said. FInally she turned her head toward him to find that familiar crooked smile pointed at her. "Lucca's travelling with Magus."
Lucca snorted. "Over my dead body."
"Would be the second one for this group," Magus muttered.
In the shocked silence that followed, a creature howled in the distance. Then a laugh burst out of Lucca. She clapped a hand over her mouth, but her shoulders continued to shake. Frog shook his head but gave a smile. Ayla just looked confused.
A chuckle escaped Crono's lips, but his eyes were hard as they drank in the reflection of the flames.
The crystalline lump in Marle's chest shattered, and sorrow oozed from the cuts. How could they laugh about something so hideous?
She jumped up and spun to face Magus. "Why would you say that?"
"Come on, you have to admit that was funny," Lucca said. "Didn't think he had it in him."
"A little levity would do us no ill," Frog said. "But if the jest offended you, then Magus should beg your forgiveness."
"I'd rather be Crono's clone than do that," Magus said.
Marle's throat and nose burned from the smoke rising from the fire. She had trouble taking in a clean breath of air. The clearing had grown hazy, indistinct. "You're all awful!" She jumped up and stormed out of the clearing, pausing only to grab the sole lantern.
Magus's cold voice was a blast of wind to her back. "There's your future ruler."
Marle ran. Light oscillated over the trees from the lantern swinging wildly in her hands. Gravel crackled until her sandals, and her breath grew ragged as she tried to swallow back tears. She stumbled once when a twig caught her toe but didn't stop. Soon the tree limbs grasping at her receded, and Marle found herself out of the forest.
Grass sprawled before her for a dozen or so metres before turning into the rocky edge of a cliff. Past the cliff-face, the water of Zenan Ocean glittered beneath the three-quarter moon like the riches of Guardia Kingdom. Marle bent over, placing one hand on her thigh while wiping her streaming eyes and nose with the other. The salty breeze tugged at her ponytail as though trying to lead her back to the group. She couldn't return now, not looking like that.
She sat on the driest patch of grass she could find and wrapped her arms around herself. She thought she generally had a good sense of humour, but she couldn't stomach their jokes. Lucca had never lost anyone before, not like Marle had. And Magus . . . well, he was called the Fiendlord, after all. Enough said.
Marle had been young when she'd lost her mother. Her sadness back then had been blunted by the shield of ignorance. As she grew up, the grief had grown with each reminder of what her mother would miss—Marle's first ball, first crossbow lesson, even her new friends.
Being banished from the castle by her father—that was like losing Mama a second time. Never again would Marle see her portrait, riffle through her jewellery, even hear stories about her from the chancellor. And her father . . .
No, she wouldn't think of that monster again. He'd let her mother die alone. It would be fair punishment to let the Guardian line end with him.
Behind her, a twig snapped. Despite guessing who it was, she turned anyway. Her luck, she would be wrong and actually get eaten by an angry beast.
Two figures walked out of the forest, one accompanied by a red glow, the other by a yellow one. Crono walked slightly ahead of Lucca, crossing the distance to Marle with measured steps.
Marle sniffed and dabbed a finger under both eyes to make sure they were dry. Then she stood up and wiped the dirt off her pants. "I know, it was stupid for me to run off by myself. Sorry," she said, and sighed.
Crono unslung something from across his back. To Marle's surprise, it was her crossbow and quiver. "Here," he said, passing them to her. Then he looked at Lucca and cocked his head, although his words were meant for Marle. "You're not the one who should be apologizing."
Lucca had the decency to look contrite. She closed her fist on the magical flame sprouting from her palm, smothering it. "I'm sorry, Marle. I know you've been going through a rough time. I didn't mean to be so inconsiderate."
Marle played with the end of her ponytail and looked at the ground. She didn't know where else to place her eyes without having them well with tears. How did someone accept an apology—a real one, not words spoken out of duty. "Thanks, Lucca. That means a lot."
"We were—okay, I can only speak for myself— I was just trying to lighten the mood." Lucca pointed to herself and Crono. "That's what we do. I forget about other people sometimes."
"Not everyone's as cold and twisted as you," Crono muttered.
"Anyway," Luccasaid, louder than before, "it's safe to come back now. Fair warning: when we left, Ayla was asking Frog about which insects are tastiest to eat."
Something fluttered overhead. The rush of air from wings brushed Marle's face as a creature darted toward the ocean. Marle tried to follow it with her eyes, but it was lost in the darkness. "I'm going to stay here for a bit, if that's okay."
Lucca nodded and, after sharing a glance with Crono, summoned another flame and turned back.
When the inventor left them, Crono moved to Marle's side. He tilted his face upward too, even though there was not much to see other than the moon. A large patch of clouds had rolled in, hiding many of the stars. After a silent moment, she heard his clothes rustle as he turned to her. The little ball of energy he had conjured bobbed st their side.
"Lucca and Frog told me about your dad," Crono said, his soft voice barely cresting the sound of rising waves. "I'm sorry, Marle."
She tried to stand upright, to be as sturdy as one of the marble statues that decorated the castle. Despite her magical infinity, though, she couldn't encase her heart in ice. She closed her eyes, yet tears streamed down regardless. "I j-just wanted to make things ri-ri-riight with him," she sobbed. "After y-you died, I was s-so s-scared . . ."
She leaned forward and covered her face with her hands. So caught up in her grief, she didn't notice Crono wrap his arms around her until she was settled against his chest, moving with his breaths.
Many men had touched her before—snobbish noblemen at balls, physical education teachers fixing her posture, even one Councillor who had laid his hand on her shoulder in a way that made her insides writhe. She'd tolerated most, shied away from some, but never really been comfortable with any of it. As a princess of Guardia, it had been drilled into her that her life and body were ultimately for the kingdom. Yet Crono's embrace was neither demanding nor unwelcome. She had a sudden memory of Mama rocking her gently as she fell asleep.
Letting her arms settle around his back, she told him everything. About her mother, about life in the castle. About her father's aloofness after Mama's death, about the crack that had appeared and then widened into a chasm between them. She repeated the chancellor's words and choked out her father's reaction to the accusation that he had killed her mother.
Considering her throat was thick with tears and words, Marle didn't know if Crono could even understand anything she was saying. Even so, he stayed quiet, only occasionally humming in encouragement. The sound vibrated through her, electric like his magic.
When her sobs and words subsided, she pulled back. Crono silently untied his scarf and offered it to her. She accepted it with a watery laugh and used it to wipe her eyes and face. "Sorry."
He shrugged. "It's just water. The scarf'll dry."
"No," she said, though she couldn't help but smile. She gave the scarf back to him, her eyes on the lantern at her feet. "I meant for losing control like that. I'm so embarrassed."
Crono paused while re-tying the scarf around his neck. "Don't be. I would've been the same way."
His mouth moved slightly, wordlessly. He sighed and scratched the back of his head. When he spoke, his voice was hollow, as though it was coming out of a cave. "I kind of was, after I saw my dad die."
The waves of the ocean below rose in volume as the breeze picked up. Marle shivered. She'd never met Crono's father, and Crono never spoke of him. From that, she'd suspected he had passed on. But to hear that Crono had seen it happen . . . "How horrible," she whispered.
"After, I stopped talking. I still don't really know why." He shrugged. "Honestly, I don't remember much from the weeks after. I think I wanted to separate myself from it as much as possible, but instead I became isolated."
From the way he gazed at the water, Marle could tell he was focused on his thoughts. That probably explained his arms wrapping around her again, loosely this time.
"So that's why you don't want anyone to be alone." Marle leaned in to the embrace and rested her hands on his chest.
His head snapped back to her, and his hands twitched. Although he smiled sheepishly, he didn't take them away. "That, and it's safer to travel in groups."
Then his expression turned serious. "What I'm trying to say is that you don't have to go through this alone. You have us, your friends."
The word sent a thrill down Marle's spine. She wondered if Crono felt it. Friends. It had always been a dream to have people her age to hang around and gossip with. Teens who weren't there just because they had to or were looking to get something out of it. When she was with the others she'd met on her adventures, her true identity was able to come out. Ironic, considering the fake name she was using.
Over the forest behind Crono, a gloom still settled. Her father had been wrong. It wasn't the outside world that would cause her the most harm. By letting people in, caring for them, she'd made her heart vulnerable. If they hurt, she would too.
Her fingers tightened, gripping his shirt. "I don't want anyone else to die. Especially not you. Promise me you won't die again."
A muscle twitched near his jaw, and his eyes grew sad. "You know I can't promise that. No one can."
Darn it, she would not cry again. "Can't you promise you'll at least try?"
He nodded and smiled. "Definitely. I have to stick around long enough for that dinner you still owe me."
With every minute she spent outside the castle, Marle was gaining a new understanding of strength. It went beyond the boasts of the soldiers and her wannabe suitors. Life was filled with countless little tragedies, if one was lucky, layered over and over each other like paint. For the unfortunate, a bigger blotch stained their life, maybe even defined it.
Yet people kept living. They went about their days while carrying the weight of grief, of worries, of poverty and illness and hunger. She admired this perseverance more than she did Frog for his sword skills, Lucca for her intelligence, and even Magus for his magical prowess—although she'd never tell him that!
It was like what Ayla had said: living wasn't just about breathing. Life was action. Deep down, she had always known that. Now it was time for her to remember.
Blushing, she gave Crono an arch look. "I only invite people I really like."
"Hmm, that so?" He bent his head closer to hers.
Heart pounding, she met him halfway.
The kiss wasn't like anything she'd expected. His lips were a little chapped. He smelled like smoke and tasted like cider. But everything about it was so him.
It was better than she expected.
When Marle pulled back, she thought she'd actually been blinded, it was so dark. Then she noticed the light guttering from the lantern by her feet. The ball of energy Crono had conjured was gone.
From the way he turned his head from side to side, he'd noticed it too. "Sorry, got distracted," he said, giving a self-conscious laugh. He raised his hand.
Marle took it in hers and entwined their fingers. "No, leave it. It's more romantic this way."
When Crono and Marle finally returned to the campsite some time later, their friends were in the midst of watching Ayla reenact some fight she'd once had. Watching them, Marle felt the dark presence melt away. No matter what happened in the coming days, she'd enjoy the time she had and keep the memory of her friends and mother close to her. Like the spring rains, they would sustain her.
As the cavewoman bounced around and growled at the invisible enemy, Frog raised a hand in greeting. "Welcome back, lass! Are you well?"
Lucca gave Marle and Crono a knowing smirk. "Yes, did you have a good conversation?"
Marle grinned in what probably was a stupid manner. From the corner of her eye, she saw Crono do the same. She gave him a small wink. "Yes, I'm feeling much better. It was definitely enlightening."