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to her i taste of nothing at all

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1.

 

The worst day of Florina's life was the day her mother died. The second worst was the day she fell off Farina's pegasus and broke her leg in two places, and woke up to the awful sound of both her sisters crying.

Florina has had a lot of time to work on these rankings, because the third worst day of her life is this one.

Her arms ache. She's been clinging onto this branch only thanks to sheer will, adrenaline, and terror, and the first two are really starting to wear off. She's got no idea where Huey is, either. Maybe he just ditched her. After all, she fell. The one thing a pegasus knight is never, ever, ever supposed to do. It had been one thing when she was a little girl fooling around, but she's officially in training now, and she's too old to have done something so stupid.

Florina kicks her legs uselessly, dangling several yards off the ground. She looks like she's about to do a pull-up...except she can't. There's vines wrapped around her arms and waist, tangled and thick and holding her irrevocably in place - but not strong enough to support her weight if she were to let go. If she adjusts her grip she's going to fall, and if she falls from this height...she'll be lucky if it's just a broken leg, this time. Her first mission! Her very first mission! An easy mission, just a small supply delivery to a Sacaen tribe, and she'd done it, and then she'd been flying back, and the bees had come out of nowhere, and she'd fallen. The humiliation burns. Farina will tease, and Fiora will just sigh and shake her head and that will be even worse than the teasing, somehow. That is, if she ever sees them again. She's probably going to die here. On her very first mission.

Hot tears burn in the corners of Florina's eyes, and she squeezes them shut. Her grip slips slightly on the branch, and she gives a little gasp of fear before steadying herself. Her shoulders, her arms, her back - it's all become a dull, throbbing pain that builds with every passing second. She's not going to be able to hold on much longer.

Well, at least the bees are gone, says a voice at the back of her mind that sounds like Farina.

Even bee stings would be better than going splat on the ground, Florina thinks back. The Sacae plains are pretty, but they won't look that pretty if she hits them from this high up.

"Hello? Is somebody up there?"

Florina's eyes fly open. Embarrassment and social anxiety are immediately forgotten in favor of a bright, flickering hope. "U-um, yes! Up here! I'm, uh, stuck…"

"...How did you get up there?"

Florina tries to twist her neck to see the speaker down below, but her grip loosens again and she quickly abandons that effort. "I, uh, fell off my pegasus…I'm a pegasus knight, and, um..."

"Oh, so that's where he came from! Would you like help getting down?"

"That would be nice...please…"

There's scraping sounds from below, possibly someone climbing the tree. "Just hang on a little longer, okay? I'll be up there soon."

"Are you sure? You could get stuck too…"

"No, don't worry about it. I've been climbing trees like this my whole life. They're good for hunting." A rustling sound, leaves against bark. "So you're a pegasus knight? Really?"

"Yes. I'm a mercenary, in training…" Florina loses her breath as her right hand nearly falls from the branch. "Ah!"

"Just a minute! I'm nearly there!" A soft thump from below. "Try to stay calm, okay? And still."

"R-right." Florina tries to stop her aching arms from trembling. "I-I'm really sorry about all this…"

"Don't worry about it. Okay, I'm here." The voice is directly below her. "I'm working on the vines now." There's a soft hiss of metal, and then Florina can feel the soft vibrations of somebody sawing through the thick foliage binding her. "It'll take a few minutes. Keep talking, so you can stay calm. Pegasus knights are from Ilia, right? Have you ever been to Sacae before?"

"No, this is my first time." Florina swallows. "I made a delivery to one of the tribes in the southeast, and I was flying back…"

"Not really a great introduction, I guess." There's a soft snap as one of the vines breaks.

"I was enjoying myself until now," says Florina. "It's a beautiful country. I've never seen so much green, or flat land…Ilia's all snow and mountains."

"It is beautiful, isn't it?" There's a note of pride in the speaker's voice as they work.

"Are you from Sacae?"

"Yes, I'm from the Lorca tribe." Another vine snaps. "I've never left, but I can't imagine why I would. I love it here. It's so beautiful, when you're riding through the wind…maybe once you're down, I can show you."

"That sounds nice." Florina focuses her eyes on the horizon.

"I'm glad this incident didn't sour the plains for you."

"No, no. I have incidents everywhere I go, honestly...it's embarrassing." Florina swallows a lump forming in her throat.

"Okay, I've gotten through all the vines." There's a pause. "...I know this sounds crazy, but you're going to have to trust me. I can't get any higher, there's no footholds, but if you drop, I'll catch you."

"Are you sure?" Florina's voice becomes a squeak. "What if I knock us both out of the tree?"

"It's not a far drop. My arms are right under you, and this branch is sturdy. We'll be fine."

"But you don't even know me! Why are you doing this?" Tears are flowing down Florina's face. Snot, too. Embarrassing.

"I just want to help. I'm not going to leave you to plummet to your death. Please, just let go."

Florina draws a deep breath. The voice is so...comforting, so confidant, so reassuring. "I...I...Okay."

"On the count of three, let go, okay? One, two, three - "

Florina lets go. A small, wordless shriek bursts out of her for the few seconds of free-falling, and then she lands on something both soft and sturdy. The something grunts, but remains solid.

Florina looks up into her savior's face.

It's a girl, about Florina's own age. She has dark skin, and long green hair pulled back in a ponytail - and she's really pretty. Like, extremely pretty. And she's cradling Florina in her arms. Her strong, yet gentle arms...

Florina can feel her blush. It's like her face has been lit on fire.

"You okay?" The girl asks. "See, that wasn't so bad, was it?"

"Y-yes! I mean no! I mean, thank you!" Florina's voice is so high she wonders if the girl can even hear it. "T-thank you so much! I thought I was going to die up there…"

"It's no problem. Can you stand? Well, kneel. That's safer, this high up."

"I-I think so."

The girl carefully sets Florina down, and they both balance on their knees. This branch is much thicker and sturdier than the one Florina had been clinging to. Florina takes a deep gulp of air.

"Are you all right?" The girl looks over Florina, brow creased. "You're not hurt or anything?"

"A little sore." Florina winces as feeling returns to her muscles, her arms finally relived of their duty. "But I'll be okay."

"Let's climb down. I'll go first, and you follow my lead, okay?"

"Yes…"

The girl starts climbing down the tree, and Florina carefully follows her, using the footholds she indicates. It's slow, but they make it down, and the moment Florina's feet hit the ground she sinks to her knees. "We...we made it."

"We sure did! Thanks for trusting me." The girl bends over Florina. "Are you doing okay?"

"Fine…" Florina runs her hands over the grass. Earth, sweet earth. The plains look gorgeous when you're actually alive to see them.

There's a nicker, and Huey gallops over to her, nuzzling his face into her hair. "Oh, hi, boy! Thanks for finding help." Florina strokes him. "And thank you so much, um...what's your name?"

"Lyn," says her rescuer. "What's yours?"

"Florina," Florina answers, staggering to her feet while leaning on Huey. She holds out a hand. "Thank you so much. I probably would've died up there…"

Lyn takes the proffered hand and shakes it. "Don't worry about it. It's nice to meet you, Florina."

"It's nice to meet you too!" Florina tries to smile. Her face is still stiff with tears, though, and her eyes are red, and there's probably leaves in her hair and gods, this is so, so embarrassing. She swallows hard. "I really don't know how to thank you…"

"I said, don't worry about it. I'm happy to help, and it certainly made this hunting trip more fun!" Lyn's smile is so, so bright. And it looks genuine, too - like helping an idiot climb out of a tree was a genuinely exciting and enjoyable thing to happen to her.

Florina realizes she's staring and goes red again. "U-um, I really appreciate all this, but I should get going…"

Lyn's face falls slightly. "Oh, really? That's a shame. I was hoping you'd come back to my tribe with me. I caught a few rabbits today, and my mother's stew is wonderful…"

Florina hates that look of disappointment, but the idea of upsetting her teachers, and more importantly Fiora, overrides her sudden urge to give Lyn anything she could possibly want. "I'm sorry, but I really do need to go. Before it gets dark and I can't fly anymore, you see."

Puzzlement crosses Lyn's face. "But it's already sunset…"

"I-it is?" Florina looks up at the sky, and yelps. Indeed, orange is streaking across the sky, lighting streaks of fire across the darkening grass. She'd been so caught up (literally) that she hadn't noticed.

Florina's shoulders slump. "So much for flying…"

"Hey, it's not so bad." Lyn puts a hand on Florina's shoulder. "Maybe you can come back with me, after all? My parents would be happy to have you for the night, and you can get a good night's rest before you set off tomorrow morning."

"That would be nice, but I don't want to impose…"

"It wouldn't be imposing at all! Please, it'd be so fun to have someone stay over…"

Florina hesitates. The terrifying spector of meeting a bunch of strangers is clashing with the welcoming invitation of a warm bed and hot meal. And it really is getting dark out, and pegasi don't have great night vision, and the idea of falling twice in one day is not an appealing one. And Lyn looks so hopeful, like it would genuinely make her day to have Florina sleep at her house.

"...All right," Florina relents. "I really appreciate it."

Lyn's smile seems to light up her whole body, like a firecracker. "This is wonderful! I'm so excited!"

"Um, yeah." Florina manages a tremulous smile.

Lyn walks over to where a small brown horse is tethered to a bush and unties it. There are a few dead rabbits hanging from her saddle. "Come on, this way! Pegasi can run, right?"

Florina climbs up on Huey's back and rides to Lyn's side. "Oh, yes. They're good on land as well as in air."

Lyn swings a leg over her own horse. "I guess they're not that different after all, huh? I've never really seen one up close. I'm not a great rider, but I'm good enough. My father's amazing, though. He's been teaching me...it's all about patience, he says."

"I'm sure you're fine. At least, better than me." Florina sighs, stroking Huey's mane. "I wish I could say that was the first time I've fallen off…"

"Oh, that's no big deal. Everyone falls sometimes."

"I've fallen a lot more than sometimes. And this time...I wasn't even doing anything hard. I just got startled by a bunch of bees. Fiora's going to be so disappointed."

"Fiora?" Lyn urges her horse into a trot, and Florina joins her, keeping distance to make room for Huey's wings.

"Oh, my big sister."

"You have a sister?" They've started to trot across the plains.

"Two, actually. Both older than me."

"Oh...I'm an only child."

"They're both pegasus knights, and they're really good...I don't know how I'm going to tell them about this."

"Just say you got a little off track. You don't have to tell them the details." Lyn squints up at the sky. "Hey...want to try going faster? I always race home after I'm done hunting."

"If you want to…" Florina picks up Huey's reins. "Why?"

"You'll see." Lyn's eyes glint. "Ready?"

They take off.

It takes Florina a minute, but soon she understands what Lyn meant. Out here on the plains, there's nothing to impede their trail, no mountains, no buildings, nothing but the endless sea of green and the sound of their horses' hooves pounding a steady rhythm against the earth. The sky and grass seem to stretch infinitely above and below them, framing a beautiful sunset. The slight breeze becomes a torrent as they race headlong into it, sending Florina's hair streaming behind her and raising goosebumps on her arms, and it fills up her heart with a burning, inexplicable yet undeniable excitement.

Lyn laughs, a clear sound ringing through the thump of hooves and rush of wind. Florina risks a glance sideways and sees Lyn's ponytail arcing through the air behind her, her face alit with happiness as she leans over her horse's neck.

Sacae really is beautiful.

All too soon, Florina can see lights in the distance. Lyn calls something that's lost to the wind, but Florina catches her meaning, and both horses skid to a stop a few yards in front of a small cluster of ger dotting the grass like tiny hills.

"We're here," says Lyn, dismounting. "Wasn't that fun?"

"...It was," Florina admits, clambering off of Huey. Her legs feel like jelly, but in a satisfying way. "I've never gone for a ride like that before...it was so smooth, and so fast."

"Wasn't it? You can hear the wind best when Mother Earth and Father Sky are embracing you." Lyn is removing her bags and rabbits from her saddle. "I'll show you the stable, and we can put your pegasus in with the horses. Will he mind?"

"He'll whine, but he'll get over it," says Florina. "He's kind of prissy."

Lyn laughs. "Come on, this way."

She leads Florina between the ger. There's a handful of people outside, cooking, working, and talking, and Florina's stomach, relaxed by the ride, immediately curls into a ball. Several people call out greetings to Lyn as she passes, and many of them stare at Florina (or, more likely, at Huey, who is preening slightly with all the attention.)

"Here's Father's stables." Lyn leads her pony into the smallest pen and then opens up one of the empty ones. "It's probably not the most comfortable place for a pegasus, but we've never had one visit before."

"He'll be okay for one night." Florina slips off Huey's bridle. "Your horses are lovely."

"Father breeds them himself." There's a note of pride in Lyn's voice whenever she mentions her father. "Sometimes my parents and I go for rides on the plains together."

"All three horses, side by side?"

"Yeah," Lyn laughs. "Actually, my horse is the daughter of Father's."

"That's cute." Florina finishes getting Huey settled in and steps out of the pen. "See you later, Huey!"

"Did you name him Huey?"

"I know it's not a very dignified name for a pegasus, but he looked like a Huey."

"I like it. Come on, I live over here…" Lyn points at a nearby ger, somewhat bigger than the ones around it.

"Oh, yeah." Florina bites her lip. "Uh…"

"Don't worry," says Lyn, turning back. "My parents are really nice."

"It's just...it's harder with men," Florina manages. "I know it's a little silly, but...my dad died when I was too little to remember, and I've never really been around them much…"

At least, that's the excuse Fiora always gives for Florina's phobia. Florina herself isn't sure, but it sounds like a good answer.

"Hm...how about this?" Lyn takes Florina's hand. Warmth explodes in Florina's fingertips. "You don't have to talk to him. I'll explain. Is that okay?"

Florina squeaks. "Um, okay."

Lyn gives another reassuring smile, and they approach her house together. It's a small clump of ger grouped together to make a larger one, tiny hills forming a mountain, making it noticeably bigger than any of the ones around it. Florina bites her lip, but Lyn takes her hand and then pushes open the door. "I'm home!"

The ger is reasonably sized, but certainly no mansion. There's long tapestries hanging on the walls, and an assortment of comfortable cushions, and some sturdy-looking wood furniture. It's warm and lit with yellow light from a cooking fire in the center of the room, and the whole feeling is...cozy, and certainly homey.

"Welcome home, Lyndis," says a woman kneeling near the fire. She sets down her book and gets to her feet. "Who is your guest?"

"This is Florina!" says Lyn. "I found her in a tr...er, on the plains! She's a pegasus knight."

"Ah, from Ilia?" The woman smiles at her. She looks just like Lyn, only with somewhat lighter skin and chestnut-colored hair. "It's nice to meet you, Dame Florina. I'm Madelyn."

"Er, hello," Florina manages. "Th-thank you for having me."

"It's no trouble. We don't get visitors very often out here."

"I caught three whole rabbits, Mother," says Lyn, holding up her prize. "I only missed a few times!"

"Well done. Your father will be proud."

"I still like the sword better," Lyn adds, passing the rabbits to her mother. "But I guess the bow's better for hunting."

Madelyn winks. "I like the sword better too. Don't worry about your father, he'll get over it. Now, can you help me with dinner?"

Lyn takes down a pot from a hanging rack. "Speaking of, where's Father?"

"He's out at a meeting, but he'll be back in time for dinner." Madelyn picks up a bucket. "I'll go and fetch some water. Get the ingredients together, please, Lyndis."

"Yes'm."

"Um…" Florina raises a hand. "Can I help, too?"

"Oh, that's nice of you. Here, go help Lyndis carry everything…"

By the time a pot of stew is bubbling happily over the fire, filling the room with a warm, slightly spicy scent, the door opens again, and Florina starts, resisting the urge to dart behind Lyn.

The man - Lyn's father, Florina supposes - is very tall, so that he has to stoop slightly to come inside. His hair and beard are dark green like hers, and his face looks rather stern. And scariest of all - there's a bow and quiver of arrows strapped to his back.

The only thing more frightening than a man is an archer, and the most frightening thing of all is a male archer, Florina thinks fervently, trying to ignore the desire to simply bolt from the room.

"You're home, Father!" says Lyn cheerfully. "I got three rabbits today!"

"Really? Excellent." Lyn's father's face crinkles in a warm, gentle smile. "We'll make an archer of you yet."

Lyn makes a face. "Ugh, I'd rather fight with a sword. Hunting's kind of boring."

"Well, we shall see. And who is this?"

"This is my friend Florina!" Lyn squeezes Florina's shoulder. "She's visiting!"

"Oh?" The man raises an eyebrow. Florina trembles.

"Florina," Lyn continues brightly, "this is my father, Hassar."

"It is good to meet you, Florina." Hassar nods to her.

Florina tries to answer, but all that comes out is a squeaking noise.

"She's very shy, Father, especially around men," Lyn explains.

"Polite, though," says Madelyn, walking over and kissing Hassar on the cheek. "She even helped with dinner."

"Thank you for your helpfulness, Florina," says Hassar. "If you do not feel comfortable speaking with me, that is fine. I am happy to hear that Lyndis has made a new friend."

Florina manages a nod.

"Dinner's all ready," says Madelyn, "so why don't we tuck in? It's a long way from Ilia, and I'm sure Florina's hungry."

Hassar sets down his bow and arrows in a rack by the door. "Yes, it smells lovely."

"How was the meeting?" Madelyn ladles stew into bowls.

"Rather dull," says Hassar, taking a seat at a low table in the corner. "I'd rather hear about Lyn's hunting adventure. How, of all things, did you manage to hunt down a pegasus knight?"

"Well…" Lyn glances at Florina. "I helped her out of a jam. Nothing big, but it was getting late, so I invited her home, 'cause it's hard to fly in the dark."

Florina quickly busies herself with her stew, hoping to hide her embarrassment. It tastes as good as it smells.

"I'm glad you were there to help her, then," says Hassar smoothly.

"I didn't do much," says Lyn, which is definitely a lie. "The stew's delicious, Mother."

Florina watches Lyn with her parents throughout dinner. It's a new experience, watching them banter back and forth and talk about the days' events. Florina supposes her family must have had dinners together, back when Mother was still alive, but she can hardly remember it. Nowadays, they're all so busy that it's rare for even two of them to make it to the table at the same time, let alone all three. And she's certainly not used to the idea of parents in general. Hassar and Madelyn seem so compassionate, so interested in their daughter's life, so unhurried, like they have nothing better to do than listen to and dote on Lyn…

Fiora and Farina took good care of her, of course. It's not like Florina's missing anything. Her sisters do their best. Really.

"Father?" Lyn looks up from her bowl. "Isn't the winter migration coming soon?"

"Ah, yes. We should probably start packing in the next few days. We haven't decided on the exact trail yet, of course."

"Well, it's your decision, isn't it?"

"I try not to be a tyrant, Lyndis. I want my people to have a say."

"I know! I'm just asking."

Their words float through Florina's head, process, and Florina nearly drops her fork.

"Florina?" Lyn asks. "Are you feeling okay?"

"Fine," says Florina quickly. "Just - just tired."

"Why don't you bring Florina to your room?" Madelyn suggests, standing up and starting to clear away the bowls. "Your father and I can handle the dishes."

"Okay," says Lyn, getting to her feet. "Come on, Florina...my room's just through here."

Florina follows Lyn through a wooden door and into another round room, this one significantly smaller, with a low bed, a few cabinets, and colorful tapestries and curtains hanging over the wooden supports of the walls.

Lyn puts her bow and sword up on a rack and then starts rummaging in a cabinet. "Make yourself at home. I've got a bedroll somewhere around here…"

Florina looks around nervously, considers sitting down, but feels too awkward to go ahead with it. No phrase feels more intimidating than "make yourself at home."

"Was dinner okay?" Lyn asks.

"Oh, yes. Your parents seem really nice. I'm sorry I didn't talk much."

"It's not a big deal. They don't mind."

"Um...is your dad...the chief of your tribe?"

"Oh. Yeah, he is."

"Ugh…" Florina presses a hand to her forehead. "I was too scared to talk to the chief...he probably thought I was crazy…"

"Don't worry about it. We're such a small tribe, nobody here minds. Father's just another person, and so am I." Lyn closes the cabinet and moves to a trunk at the foot of her bed. "I'm going to be chief someday. The Lorca tribe's never had a woman chief, but Father thinks he can convince them. So he's been giving me lessons."

Florina picks at the hem of her glove. "It's...really nice here. So warm and friendly. It's...it's not like Ilia."

"In a good way?"

"Yeah." Florina feels her cheeks color slightly. "In Ilia...it's always work, and money, and survival. Sometimes it feels like there's no time for anything else. I really like it here."

"You're welcome to visit whenever you like."

"I'm sorry I can't stay longer. I'd love to, but...work, and Fiora will worry."

"Tell you what," says Lyn, abandoning her search for the bedroll and walking over to a table by the bed, "how about this?" She opens a drawer and pulls out a sheet of paper, passing it to Lyn. It looks like a sort of map, much like the one Florina followed for her delivery here, with trails and locations marked on it in ink.

"Is this where the Lorca travel?" Florina asks.

"Yep! We're not always in the same place out here, but the Lorca don't move around all that often. When we do, we follow a basic pattern. See where the seasons are marked? This'll give you a general idea of where to find us again, and it'll be even easier since you've got a pegasus. That way, whenever you're passing through on a mission or delivery, you can stop in and visit!" Lyn has a slightly nervous smile. "Will you?"

"I...yes, of course! If you want me to." Florina turns pink again. "I promise you won't have to rescue me from trees again. Er, probably."

"I wouldn't mind. I really do want to see you again, Florina."

Florina's face feels like it's on fire. "You...do?"

"Yeah, of course!" Lyn is standing right next to Florina. "We're friends, right?"

"Friends?" Florina has never really had many friends. She was too shy to make them.

"Is that okay?"

"Yes. More than okay." Florina ducks her head. "Thank you, Lyn. For everything."

"Hey, no problem. That's what friends do, right?" Lyn takes her hand and gives it a gentle squeeze.

Florina looks up into Lyn's face. She really is beautiful. And so kind, and so patient, and so strong. And she's her friend. The very thought sends a thrill of excitement through her. And she's sitting very close. And she's warm...

"Florina?"

"Wh-what?" Florina pulls herself back down to earth. "Nothing! Nothing at all!"

Lyn blinks at her.

"Just...just spaced out a moment there. Sorry! Um, can you show me how to read the patterns on this map?"

"Oh, sure!" Lyn leans over Florina's shoulder, their arms brushing together. "See, here's where we are now…"

Maybe this wasn't the third worst day of Florina's life, after all.

2.

Nothing was going how Florina had expected it to. The last week's journey had been one of the most stressful times of her life. She'd managed to find Lyn, at least. And she'd joined a mercenary band, just like she'd intended to. Except, it was...a weird one.

The weird green cavalier man keeps trying to flirt with her. And with Lyn, too, sometimes at the same time. It's tiring. The red one is lecturing him now about "proper conduct" and "appropriate treatment of women," but he doesn't look repentant in the least.

In fact, he keeps glancing sideways at her and winking. Ugh.

Why wasn't anything going right?

It had been time for her foreign mercenary deployment. Florina had flown right to Sacae. She'd been so excited. She'd thought this had been a chance for her and Lyn to be together for longer than a few days at a time, and then she'd head along to find her new job. And then she'd arrived, and she'd followed the map, the way she always did when she was going to visit Lyn, but…

...but this time, there hadn't been anything there. She'd flown to a few other likely spots before getting up the nerve to stop at a neighboring tribe, and then hovered anxiously on the outskirts until a woman had come out to do the washing. She'd held out the map and asked about the Lorca, and the woman's face had fallen, and Florina's heart had fallen with it.

The Lorca…? There's no Lorca anymore.

Bandits, the woman had said, six months ago. Poisoned the village's water supply and then stormed the place and wiped them all out while they were too ill to resist. Only about ten people survived. The chief had been among the dead.

Florina had asked after Lyn. She doesn't remember much of what she'd said, just begging, the chief's daughter, tell me, is she -

She's alive. Lyn's alive. The woman said she'd traveled to Lycia with a group of strangers, and so to Lycia Florina had gone, checking the villages close to the border. After all, how was Florina supposed to trust a bunch of random travelers to look after Lyn? What if something had happened? And Lyn's tribe, her whole family, is dead, and she'd been all alone, and Florina hadn't been there…

And she'd been so panicked she'd forgotten one of the most important rules of being a pegasus knight, right after "don't fall," the one written in red and highlighted in every handbook…

...always look before landing. Because you never know when there's a person standing directly underneath you.

After that it had just been one catastrophe after another, and just as Florina lost hope, Lyn had appeared, and she'd saved her. Again. Just like always.

Now, on a small bench in front of the village's only inn, Lyn sits next to Florina, forming a tall, reassuring barrier between her and the weird green knight. Florina wants nothing more than to lean against her, to let Lyn stroke her hair and tell her it will be all right, to sink into the comforting warmth of her arms and cry about how hard it had all been...but sheer force of will keeps Florina rooted upright, even though she's tired down to the core, right through her bones.

Of course Lyn would hold and comfort her. She's Lyn. But it's Lyn who needs support now. Not that they've gotten a moment alone, but Lyn must be hurting. Florina can't imagine she isn't.

She needs to be strong for her.

"Florina?" Lyn leans down to look at her, brow tight with concern. "Are you okay? You look awfully pale…"

"I'm fine!" says Florina quickly, trying to sit straighter.

Lyn frowns. "Are you sure?"

"Yes, yes! Just a little tired."

"They've got three rooms available," says Wil, coming out of the village's small inn. "Two beds apiece."

"That's perfect, isn't it?" says Lyn. "I'll bunk with Florina."

"Oh...um, thank you." Florina fidgets.

"I'll look after this idiot," says the red knight, tugging on the ear of his fellow. "Do you mind sharing with Mark, Wil?"

"No, that's fine."

"Then we're decided." Lyn sighs and stretches. "I know I'm worn out. I think I'll make an early night of it. Come on, Florina."

"Coming." Florina peels herself off the bench and follows Lyn inside.

Their room is small and rather cramped, with barely enough room for two twin beds and a low table with a lamp. Lyn tosses her bag and sword into the corner with a heavy sigh, half-falling onto the edge of a bed. "What a day. Those bandits sure put up a fight, huh?"

"They really did," says Florina, sitting down on the other bed. The room is so narrow that there's less than a foot of space between her and Lyn. "I was...really scared. Thanks for helping me."

"I'll always help you, you know that." Lyn smiles at her. "I'm so glad you made it out of there all right. And Huey, too."

"I'm sure he's grateful, too. Um, Lyn?"

"Yes?"

"Those men...they kept calling you...Lady Lyndis? Um..." Lyn's face falls and Florina immediately backtracks. "It's not a big deal, or anything, I was just wondering…"

"No, no…" Lyn picks at the bedspread, ducking her eyes. "It's...it's kind of embarrassing, but if you're traveling with us, you should know where we're headed, so...it turns out...my mother is...was from Lycia. Um, not just from Lycia. She was…um, she was the daughter of a marquess. The marquess of Caelin."

"...Oh."

"Yeah. And she didn't have any siblings or anything, so, it seems I'm the heir to the throne of Caelin." Lyn keeps her eyes trained on the floor. "We're going there...to meet my grandfather. And so I'll be safe. My great-uncle...keeps sending men to kill me, apparently. So, um...that's what's been going on."

Quiet falls in the little inn room.

"That's…a lot," says Florina at last. "Are you...doing okay?"

Lyn shrugs. "It's nice to know I have living family. Er, not counting my great-uncle. Since he's trying to kill me and all. But I have a grandfather, and apparently he wants to meet me."

"Lyn, about your parents...I'm so sorry that happened."

Lyn doesn't answer, or move, her eyes still trained on the floor. She looks almost brittle. Fragile. It's not a way Florina's ever seen Lyn look, and it's frightening.

Florina takes a deep breath and continues. "They were good people. They were always so kind to me. And I'm...I'm really sorry they're gone."

Lyn is as still as a statue, her fingers frozen over a loose thread in the blanket.

"I'm sorry I wasn't there for you. But...but if you need anything, I'm right here. Okay? So...so please don't be afraid to confide in me. If it'll make you feel better. You don't have to."

There's still no movement from Lyn for several long seconds. Just as Florina starts to stand up to unpack her things, Lyn's voice breaks through the silence. "Florina? Can you...come over here?"

"Sure." Florina sits down next to Lyn on the bed. Lyn collapses sideways, moving like a falling tree, her head landing heavily on Florina's shoulder. Florina immediately wraps her arms around her. "Lyn?"

"I...I swore I would cry no more tears." Lyn's voice is steady, but dull. She sounds absolutely exhausted. "There is no purpose in them. I must...I must become strong. One day...one day I'll avenge my parents, my tribe. One day the Taliver will no longer threaten the people of the Plains. But I'm not strong enough yet. That's why...that's why I left with Mark. I need to learn. I need to grow. I'm not enough. I have to become enough."

"Lyn…"

"But it's hard...it's so hard. I miss them. Every time...every evening when night falls, I remember it. The last time I...saw my father…"

Florina squeezes Lyn tighter. One of Lyn's hands comes up to grip Florina's arm, digging in but not hurting. Lyn's eyes are fixed on the wall opposite, with no light in them.

"They killed him in front of me. With their axes...they tore him apart. He was already dying, but they still...it was...it was…"

"You can cry," Florina whispers. "You can cry if you want. You've seen me cry plenty of times. I won't think any less of you."

"I can't. I can't. I won't. I swore I wouldn't...I…"

"You don't have to be strong for me. I don't care. I just want you to feel better. I don't care how strong you are."

Lyn still doesn't cry, though, her face wooden as she continues staring, looking at something Florina can't see. Florina hugs her tighter, as tight as she possibly can, trying to push warmth and life back into Lyn's empty, empty eyes.

"Why?" Lyn eventually mutters. "Why did they...what did my parents...what did any of my people do...to deserve that fate? I keep thinking, and trying to figure out...what could we possibly have done?"

"They didn't do anything. None of them. Your parents were wonderful. It's not fair."

"I'll kill those bandits." Lyn's tone is low and dangerous now. "All of them. I'm not strong enough now, but one day I will be, and then...and then they will never touch another innocent again."

"When that day comes…" Florina rubs Lyn's back. "When that day comes, just say the word. I'll be with you. I'll fight for you. I'll always fight for you."

"You mean it?"

"Yes. Of course. No matter what master I'm serving...I'll always be your friend first. And I want to help you."

Lyn is quiet again for several moments. "...Thank you. Kent, Sain, and Mark...they said they'd help me too. Maybe one day...one day we'll really be able to do it."

"We will," Florina promises. "But for now, you need to rest, and you need to heal. That's more important right now, okay?"

"Florina…?"

"Yes?"

"I'm glad...I'm glad you're here. Really, really...glad…"

"...You are?"

"Yes…" Lyn closes her eyes. "I was...so lonely...the others are kind, but...but they never...they didn't know my parents. You did. You…"

"Lyn?"

With apparent difficulty, Lyn sits up again, still loosely wrapped in Florina's arms. She turns on the bed to face Florina, and a feeble smile crosses her face as their eyes meet. "You're...so important to me."

"O-oh." Florina feels her face heat up. "I...thanks."

Lyn gives a little chuckle. "Just talking to you...I feel a little better. A little stronger. Like I could take on the world."

"R-really?" Florina's heart beats a little faster. She's acutely aware of Lyn in her arms, her fingertips hyperalert of every detail, the suppleness of her skin, the cords of muscle beneath it. "Uh…I'm glad I could help."

The light has returned to Lyn's eyes, warm and bright and green like the grasses of the Sacae plains, full of life and hope and promise. Florina stares into them, mesmerized. She can't seem to think clearly enough to string words together.

"I guess I should get some rest," says Lyn, and she lowers her head, breaking the spell. "Thanks again...for everything, Florina."

"Right! Right. Um, goodnight!" Florina lets go of Lyn and gets to her feet. "I'll just, uh, get ready for bed…"

Florina's heart pounding is the only sound in her ears, drowning out the clank of armor and rustle of clothing. She's known she loved Lyn for quite some time, of course. And of course she finds Lyn attractive. Lots of people do. She's really a very stunning person. And compassionate, and honest, and friendly, and breathtaking…

Lyn's smile lingers in the corners of Florina's mind, a tiny, pulsing, fluttering warmth that won't leave her be.

3.

It's by far the nicest dress Florina has ever owned.

It's silvery-blue, made of some kind of thin, slippery fabric (silk? She has no way of knowing) and while it looks very simple, it probably cost more than her wages for a month. It was a gift from Lord Hausen, so that she could look her best for tonight as one of Lyn's honored guests. She'd been grateful, but her cheeks had burned with shame at the same time. Fiora hadn't brought her up to accept charity. Still...it was a nice dress.

It's not the best thing to wear for movement, though, Florina finds, as she and Kent race through the halls of Castle Caelin towards Lyn's room.

"So she won't come out?" Anxiety for Lyn has far overridden Florina's fear of Kent - that fear is only a soft nudge at the back of her mind, tiny and dwarfed by the massive, pulsing thought of Lyn scared, Lyn crying, Lyn alone.

"Yes." Kent, similarly dressed in gifted formalwear, dodges a line of handymen carrying massive floral arrangements. "The maids finished getting her dressed, and she sent them out...and now she won't leave. She's locked the door. Sain and I tried to get her out, and then we fetched Lord Hausen, but she still won't budge. The ball's in two hours, and the marquess is becoming concerned."

Florina dashes around a maid carrying a massive soup tureen, a handful of dress clenched in one hand. "She's not hurt or anything?"

"We don't think so."

They come to a stop, panting, at their destination. Lyn's bedroom door looks suddenly imposing.

"I'll let you take the lead," says Kent.

Both exchange a wary glance, and Florina knocks.

"Please just go away, Grandfather. I'm sorry."

"Er...it's Florina."

A pause. "Florina…?"

"Yes. Um...I'm not going to make you come out, but can I come in?"

"...Okay." There's the sound of footsteps on carpet, and then the bolt unlatching. "But um...only you, Florina."

"Shall I go away, then?" Kent asks.

"That...that would be nice," says Florina.

"Sorry, Kent," Lyn murmurs.

"It is no trouble. Very well. I shall see you both at the party." A clack of heels echoes down the hall as he turns and departs.

Lyn gives a gusty sigh. "Both of us, huh?" She opens the door and Florina steps inside.

They've only been in Caelin a few months, and Florina has never seen the inside of Lyn's bedroom. It's all shining dark wood, curlicues, and soft blue carpet, with elegant paintings of flowers, a bed piled high with small round pillows, and a delicate crystal chandelier. And it's massive - perhaps five times the size of Florina's own room in the barracks, and bigger than Fiora's whole house back in Ilia.

It's as different from Lyn's cozy ger on the plains as it could possibly be.

Lyn's voice comes from behind Florina as she re-locks the door. "It's...too much, isn't it? Apparently, it was my mother's old room. Grandfather left it untouched for years. It feels...like it's full of ghosts."

"It's...pretty," says Florina diplomatically, turning around to face Lyn. "Lady Lyndis - " She stops. "Uh…"

Lyn looks down at her dark blue ballgown. "It looks awful, doesn't it? It's completely out of place on me…"

"N-no, no! You look beautiful!" Florina scrambles to operate her tongue properly again. "I just - I was surprised! Because you're so pretty! I mean, you're always pretty - " Florina clamps her mouth shut. "I'll stop talking now. I'm sorry."

Lyn smiles, but it doesn't reach her eyes. She walks over to a high-backed armchair, and with much shuffling of skirts, seats herself. "It's nice of you to say so...but I know I look silly. Even if I don't look it, I feel ridiculous. It's like taping swan feathers to a chicken."

"No, don't say that! You look very ladylike."

Silence stretches out between them, horrible and unbreachable. Florina has never felt genuinely uncomfortable around Lyn before, ever, something she can't say about anyone else, even her sisters. But, ever since they'd first come to Caelin…

"Oh, thank you! I do love you, Lyn!"

She'd flung her arms around Lyn in a burst of glee, and the words had simply fallen out of her, unwanted, unbidden, but truthful, and Lyn had…

Lyn had laughed. Just laughed. "Oh, Florina!" Silly little Florina, saying things she didn't mean…

It hadn't been malicious, but it had hurt. And the memory had been burning in the back of Florina's mind ever since. She's just a kid to Lyn, isn't she? Just a burden, a silly little girl who needs looking after…

Reality had crashed over her like a wave. Lyn isn't just Lyn anymore. She's Lady Lyndis, and she's going to be the marchioness of Caelin, and one day she'll be married off to a lordling. Maybe they'll always be together, but Florina will just be her knight and attendant and nothing more, because Florina is just a foolish child with a crush on someone who will never see her the same way.

So she'd buried herself in work, and every time Lyn had approached her she'd said she was busy and darted off, and they've barely spoken for three months, and now all that's left between them is unbreachable silence and emptiness and the soft tick of the clock hanging on the wall.

In fact, this is the first time they've been alone together since they arrived. It feels more "alone" than "together."

Florina swallows, trying to think of something to say. "Are you okay, Lady Lyndis?"

Lyn flinches. Florina isn't sure why. But the wince disappears from Lyn's face almost as quickly as it appears, and Florina wonders if she only imagined it.

Lyn clears her throat. "It's nothing. I'm just...being silly."

More quiet.

"Why don't you sit down, Florina?" Lyn indicates another armchair near her, and Florina perches on the edge of it. "Oh, I didn't notice that you're dressed up too. You look lovely."

"Thank you." Florina's cheeks color slightly at the compliment, but she isn't deterred from her goal. "You know, if you're not okay...that's fine. You can tell me."

"I...can tell you?" Lyn's hands twist and untwist in her lap. Her leg is bouncing rapidly from nervous energy, her eyes darting from Florina to the door to the window and back again. Like a caged animal.

"Yes. I want to help you." There's only a few feet between the two of them, and if Florina reached out, she could take Lyn's hand.

She doesn't reach out.

"I didn't…" Lyn swallows. "I...didn't even want this ball…" Her voice is hardly above a whisper.

"But…" Florina frowns. "Isn't it for you?"

"Sure, it's in my honor...but it wasn't my idea. Grandfather says it's small. Just fifty people. Just fifty? There were fewer than a hundred in my entire tribe! All the guests will be locals of Caelin, his close friends, he says. Like that changes anything!"

"It does sound scary," Florina admits. "Is that...why you're hiding in here?"

"Hiding…? I guess I am hiding." Lyn shakes her head. "Facing my twisted uncle, fighting bandits and soldiers...all that felt so much easier than just going out in a ballroom and being officially announced."

"I can understand. I'd hate that too."

"...It's not just the ball." Lyn plays with a few tassels on her skirt. "I've been...so lonely. Ever since we came to Caelin, I've felt so lost and awkward. And Grandfather's kind, but he's still a stranger to me. Kent, Sain, and Wil are always bowing and calling me a lady, and they won't just spend time with me as friends. And even...even you, of all people...you've been avoiding me."

Florina's heart drops into her stomach. "What? No, I've just been so busy, I - "

"Please don't lie to me, Florina. You're always hurrying away, making excuses, saying you're busy…" Lyn curls a fist into her skirt. "...Why? Is it...something I did?"

"No! No, you didn't do anything wrong - "

"Then what?" Lyn demands, looking up. Horror floods Florina as she sees Lyn's eyes are brimming with tears. "You won't...you won't even talk to me. You're...the only one...I wanted to…" Lyn covers her mouth with her hand, trying to keep hold back sobs that come bursting out anyway.

"I'm sorry! I'm so - "

"Did I...did I baby you too much?" Lyn whispers. "Did I...act too overprotective, not giving you room to grow? I didn't mean to...I'm sorry. I was just so scared...you were all I had left from the plains, and I was worried...that I was going to lose you too…"

"No, no!" Florina races to Lyn's side, kneeling next to her chair. "I - "

"I know you're capable," Lyn gasps out. "Of course I do. You're a strong knight, you're not some kind of child...I know all of that...I never thought...you were one…but it was so dangerous...and I was...scared..."

"You don't have to explain anything," says Florina desperately. "Here - " She withdraws a handkerchief and passes it up to Lyn, who buries her face in it.

"I'm sorry," Lyn whispers. "This is so...embarrassing…"

"No, you don't have to be embarrassed! I...this is my fault." Florina's face is hot. "I was just...trying to be a good pegasus knight. I wanted to do my job right, and I didn't want to neglect my duty or act unprofessional, so I…"

"So you tried to stay away from me?" Lyn looks up from the handkerchief.

Florina swallows. "I was so worried about being good enough, and I didn't want to be your little Florina anymore...I didn't want you to have to look after me or take care of me, and I was ashamed about you always having to save me...so I've been...avoiding you."

"Is that...true?" Lyn whispers. Her eyes are red.

"It is." It is, really. It's just only a part of the truth.

The other part, Florina can't bear to say. Because...Oh, Florina!

She drags herself back to the present. "I didn't...I didn't realize it would hurt you."

"How could you not realize that?" Lyn's tone is so ragged, so broken, that Florina's head snaps up. "How could you think...that I would consider you...a burden? You're all...you're everything I have left. You mean so, so much to me, I…" Lyn swipes furiously at her eyes. "You're not a burden. You've never been a burden. You're a capable pegasus knight, you're a strong person, and most of all, you're...my best friend."

Tears roll unbidden down Florina's cheeks.

"I can be smothering, and overbearing, and difficult, and I thought…" Lyn gulps. "I thought I'd pushed you away."

"You didn't. You aren't." Florina rests a tentative hand on Lyn's knee, and Lyn covers it with her own. "I promise. I was feeling insecure, and...I'm sorry."

"I'm sorry too," says Lyn with a wet chuckle. "I didn't even think of your feelings until I thought I was losing you. I'll try...not to make so much fuss in the future. Okay?"

"Okay," Florina answers. "And I won't avoid you...I won't keep running away." It's a bit of a white lie. She's running from something when it comes to Lyn. She's just afraid to stop.

"Even if I'm your employer?"

"I still have to be professional," says Florina. "My conduct reflects on the knights back home...I have to use titles, and be proper, and my job has to come first...but I can still be a friend, right?"

"...Right. I'll...I'll be okay with that." Lyn looks at her tearstained reflection in the silver-backed mirror hanging over the fireplace. "Ugh, I look like a mess now."

"Well, we match," says Florina, indicating her own reddened face. "It'll be a new look. They'll all be so impressed at the ball...are you going to the ball?"

"...If you go with me."

"Then we're going."

"Okay." Lyn manages a smile. "If you're there...I think I can do it. I'll...be brave, for you."

"And I'll be brave for you." Florina gets to her feet and holds out a hand, and Lyn takes it and stands up too. "Are you ready?"

"Well, I'd like to stay in here until I'm a little less swollen…" Lyn pulls a face at the mirror. "Um, actually, I was wondering...do you know how to dance, Florina?"

"Er...a little." Florina's face heats again. "I've never actually been to a ball or anything, though...a while ago, Fiora had this contract to go undercover at a fancy party in Lycia, and she learned a few dances for it, and taught them to me…"

Lyn's eyebrows go up. "Really? How did that go?"

"Well, the target never showed up, so Fiora said all they really did was stand around in fancy clothes and eat vol-au-vents…"

"I meant the dance practice."

"Oh! Well, I think I was okay at it. Stepped on Fiora's toes a few times. Why?"

"I was wondering...would you practice with me?" Lyn's cheeks look a little pinker, even though the swelling is starting to go down.

"Practice...dance...with you?" Florina's voice is a squeak.

"Yes, just in here. I don't have any music, but…"

"U-um, okay!" Florina clears her throat, trying to return her voice to a normal pitch. "I-I can do that."

"Thank you." Lyn's smile is both soft and dazzling, like the morning sun on a foggy day. "I've been getting lessons, but I'm worried I'll forget them all at the last minute. Can you lead? I need a hand for this skirt."

Florina swallows. "S-sure."

Lyn takes Florina's hand, and Florina rests her free one on Lyn's waist. She's warm under the layers of silk and ribbon, and there's a small voice in the back of Florina's mind that can't seem to stop screaming.

They begin to step slowly around the room, hesitant at first and then more quickly as both their confidence grows. There isn't music, but, Florina thinks, looking up at Lyn, there doesn't need to be. Lyn's face is pursed in quiet concentration, her long, forest-colored hair sways with every step, she's biting down on the soft pink of her lower lip just slightly...

Their shoes sink slightly in the plush carpet, and Florina quickly focuses again to keep from stepping on Lyn's elegant white boots.

"You're good at this," Lyn murmurs, her voice close to Florina's ear.

Trembles roll down Florina's spine. "Am I?"

"Well, you haven't tripped or anything, so I think you are? I'm not really in my element here. I didn't know a single Lycian dance until about a month ago." There's a soft rustle of skirts as they turn and make their way around the armchairs. "I feel like a horse wearing a pegasus bridle. No matter how they steer, I'm still not going to fly."

"That isn't true," says Florina.

"Isn't it? I'm sure the nobles will see through me immediately." There's a tremble in Lyn's voice. "I'm...not my mother, no matter how hard I try to be. I'm no lady. I'm just...a girl from the plains."

"I think you look incredible," Florina says, so softly anyone else standing in the room wouldn't be able to hear. Just her and Lyn, wrapped in the moment, wrapped in infinity. "I think you are incredible. Lady or not, you're one of the best people I've ever met. And if the nobles don't like you, well...that's their problem, isn't it? They're just going to be wrong."

Their eyes meet. A small smile creeps across Lyn's face. "...Thank you, Florina. I...I'm so glad you're here. Truly. I couldn't...I couldn't have done any of it without you by my side. I don't know where I'd be without you, and..." Lyn cuts herself off. "Thank you."

"You're welcome. And, Lyn?"

"Yes?"

"I...quite like horses, even if they can't fly."

Their eyes are locked together, their faces close, their hands still linked, Florina still holding Lyn's waist, and Lyn's lips look so soft, and Florina forgets about duties, about worries, about anything but Lyn. And she leans in, and Lyn starts to lean down too, closer, closer -

A knock on the door.

Florina releases Lyn and springs backwards just as the other jerks back in surprise. In her haste, Florina steps hard on the hem of her dress and starts to fall -

Great. Clumsy Florina's going to fall again and hit her head and make a mess of things...

- but Lyn's hand shoots out and grabs hers again, keeping her suspended, hanging, in midair. It all happens in the space of a moment.

"Lady Lyndis?" The voice is crisp and professional. "The dance is in less than an hour. We really do need you to be in the hall shortly."

"...Right. Right." Lyn's eyes never sway from Florina's face. "I'll be right there, Kent."

"You will be attending, then?"

"Yes. Just give me a few minutes. I apologize for worrying everyone."

"It is no trouble. Please make your way to the reception hall. I will inform Lord Hausen posthaste." Footsteps march away from the door.

Lyn tugs on Florina's arm, and Florina scrambles back onto her feet. Shame and anxiety and self-doubt came rushing back with Kent's knock, and Florina's stomach feels sour. She'd almost - she'd almost -

Florina doesn't know if she's deeply relieved or crushingly, achingly disappointed.

Maybe both.

Lyn's voice breaks through the cloud of worries filling Florina's head. "I should get going. I've caused enough worry for today."

Florina coughs. "Um. Right."

A strand of hair is hanging loose in Florina's face. Lyn reaches out and lightly brushes it away. Her fingers only touch Florina's forehead for the briefest of moments, but the spot burns.

"Thank you, Florina, I mean it."

"You're welcome." Florina swallows, trying to calm her pounding heart. "I-I'm happy to help."

"You were a tremendous help. I...don't know where I'd be without you." Lyn's brow furrows slightly. "Florina, I - " She stops.

"Yes?"

"It's...nothing. But, Florina?"

"Y-yes?"

A smile spreads across Lyn's face. "I'm expecting a dance from you at the ball, okay?"

"Of course...Lady Lyndis."

4.

Florina waits patiently in the corridor outside of Lord Hausen's room. She's tired from two difficult battles and a lot of flying, with dreadful saddle ache in her thighs and her lance arm feeling like it's about to fall off, but not even a horde of armed soldiers could move her from this spot. It's been a terrible couple of days...but Lyn's safe, Lord Hausen is safe, and they're all alive, and there's not much more she can ask for. Night hangs heavy outside the arched windows. It's been a very long day.

The door creaks open, and Florina stands at even sharper attention. Lyn emerges, looking as tired as Florina feels. Her face brightens somewhat, though, when she sees Florina in the corridor.

"Is Marquess Hausen well?" Florina asks at once.

"...He's alive," says Lyn. There are dark circles under her eyes. "He's sleeping now. He's...well, he's been rather badly injured by the Black Fang, but thanks to Ostia's spy, he received timely medical attention."

"Well, that's good," says Florina encouragingly.

Lyn rubs her hands over her face. "Truthfully, I don't think he'll live that much longer. If we're very lucky, perhaps a few years, but…"

"Oh, Lady Lyndis…"

"It's...it's okay. Every breath he's taken since my arrival...has been a miracle. It would be selfish to ask more of Mother Earth and Father Sky, when they have already given so much." Lyn starts to walk down the corridor, and Florina falls into step beside her.

"Still, I'm sorry," says Florina, keeping her voice soft. "I'm sure this is hard on you."

"It is. I can't hide that from you, can I?" A wry smile plays at Lyn's lips. "You know me far too well. But it's all right. The healers say he's out of immediate danger, and he'll certainly still be around by the time I get back."

"Back?"

"Oh, right...I haven't told you yet, but I'm going with Eliwood. He's searching for his father, and I want to help him. I owe him a great debt for helping retake Caelin and save my grandfather."

"Oh. Well, I can come too, right?"

"Of course, if you'd like to." Lyn smiles. "I was going to tell all of you soon...I apologize, it slipped my mind."

"That's fine! You've had a really busy day." Florina smiles encouragingly. "I'd like to help Lord Eliwood, too."

"Good. I'm glad you're coming. I always feel stronger when you're around."

"Me...me too!" Florina feels her face heat up, but presses forward. "I really want to help!"

"I'm happy to have your help. It means a lot." Lyn's walk slows to a stop and she turns to face Florina. "That reminds me...thanks again for scouting ahead to alert Eliwood. It was very brave of you, going out on your own like that. And to talk to a man, no less!"

"Oh…" Memory washes over Florina, and with it, shame. "Um...Lady Lyndis, who was the big man with Lord Eliwood? The one in all the armor?"

"Oh, you must mean Lord Hector. He's Marquess Ostia's younger brother, apparently. A bit of a brute."

"Oh nooo…" Florina moans. "He's a lord…"

"Florina?" Lyn's eyebrows shoot up in alarm. "Did he do something to you? Why, I'll - "

"No, no! It's just, um…" Florina swallows. "I may have, um...fallen off my pegasus…"

"What? I thought you weren't hurt!"

"I'm not, because I...kind of...landed on...him…and he caught me..." Florina buries her face in her hands. "It was so embarrassing!"

"Oh...that's all?" Lyn lets out a sigh of relief. "I'm sure it's fine, Florina. Hector seems a bit rough around the edges, but he didn't even mention it to me. I doubt he's going to make a fuss…"

"I didn't even apologize," comes Florina's voice, muffled by her fingers. "And we're going to be in an army together...I'll just have to hide every time he walks by…"

Lyn pats Florina on the shoulder. "I'll protect you, okay? Don't worry about it. If he takes issue with you, he'll be answering to me!"

"That's just it!" Florina moans. "The embarrassment is bad enough, but a mercenary's conduct reflects on her employer! I've made a laughingstock of Caelin, and of you…" To Florina's horror, tears are beginning to prick at the corners of her eyes. "I'm so, so sorry, Lady Lyndis! I'll resign if you want me to - "

"Florina! Please calm down." Lyn seizes her by the upper arms. "Look at me, okay?"

Florina hesitantly lifts reddened eyes to meet Lyn's.

"You're not fired. You're not even reprimanded. You made a mistake under pressure. So what? I'm not angry at you. Well, maybe I am a little." Lyn's voice rapidly rises in volume as she goes on. "I'm angry that you're being so mean to yourself! You went out in terrible conditions, surrounded by enemy soldiers and archers, but you delivered your message and saved all our lives! And you're still upset with yourself? You're a fine pegasus knight, Florina, and it's time you admitted it!"

Florina's eyes are wide with shock. All she can do is stare.

Lyn looks down at where she's still gripping Florina's forearms, and immediately lets go. "Sorry. That was a little harsh. But it's true! I'm tired of hearing you put yourself down! And no more apologizing, okay?"

Florina finds her voice. "O...okay. I'm sorr - I mean, I won't do it anymore. I didn't mean to upset you."

"It's okay." Lyn blows her bangs out of her face with a huff. "I didn't mean to raise my voice. I just really want you to be nicer to yourself, Florina."

Florina ducks her eyes. "I'm...used to not being good enough, I guess. I was never that great a pegasus knight…"

"Maybe you weren't then, but you are now. You said so yourself - you aren't weak little Florina anymore, are you? You've grown strong." Lyn's smile is bright, and proud, and beautiful. "As a friend...I'm so, so proud of you. I should tell you that more often."

Florina's cheeks are warm, but so is her heart. "I...wouldn't mind hearing it more often."

"Good. I'll be telling you!"

"This seems backwards, though," says Florina. "I was waiting to comfort you about your grandfather...and you ended up consoling me instead. I'm sorr - " She cuts herself off again. "I mean, I'm here if you need me."

Lyn's eyes seem to cloud over as she remembers. "Yes...my grandfather." She starts walking again, and Florina hurries to keep pace. "It...it feels strange. He's very old, and his passing will be a peaceful one...after all the death I've seen, it shouldn't be so terrible, but...something about watching him slowly decay is...terrifying. In some ways, it feels worse than...than watching my father be...well. It doesn't quite make sense to me."

"I can kind of understand that." Florina swallows. "Did I ever tell you...how my mother died?"

"No." Lyn looks over at her. "What happened to her?"

Florina takes a deep breath. "My mother was a pegasus knight, like my sisters and me. And she was...one of the best. Incredible. She was so strong, she could pick up all three of us at once...she seemed unstoppable."

Lyn watches her carefully.

"And then my mother...became very ill. There was medicine to delay the illness's spread, but it was terribly expensive. We tried, so hard. Fiora was only in training then, but she started taking on as many jobs as she could, and Farina started her own applications. And I did odd jobs, like laundry and stuff...and we managed to get a few doses, but it wasn't enough." Florina pauses, remembering those dark days. They're foggy now, clouded by time, but she can remember Farina counting the money every night, her face pale and drawn. And going hungry, and Fiora pushing her own portion onto Florina's plate while claiming she ate at work...

Florina clears her throat. "Every day, my mother got weaker and weaker. First she couldn't hold a lance, then she couldn't fly, then she couldn't hold a cup...eventually...my mother couldn't even get out of bed anymore. At the end, she barely recognized us. One of us had to be there with her all the time, to make sure...and on the day she died, my sisters were both out at jobs...it was just me. She called out for Fiora, and I held her hand, and then after awhile she just...stopped. Fiora came home and found us. I was so young, but I still...I still knew what had happened." Florina takes a deep breath. "It was so slow, and so painful for her...and then it all ended, just as slowly as it began."

"Florina…" Lyn reaches out and takes her hand. "I'm so - "

"You don't need to say you're sorry. I'm just telling you that...you're not alone. I know what it's like, to watch something like that happen. And it's scary. Even though death might be a blessing for that person at the end...you still want them to stay. Even if it's selfish, maybe." Florina manages a shaky smile. "So...um, if you're sad about your grandfather...that's okay."

"...I want to save Eliwood's father." Lyn murmurs. "I don't want him to feel the way I felt, when I lost my parents...or the way you did, or anyone did. If I can stop people from having to go through that…"

"I think that's noble."

"Is it? Thank you." They come to a stop outside Lyn's bedroom door. "It feels a little selfish to me. Like I'm just trying to make up for not saving my parents."

"Either way, you're doing a good thing," says Florina. "And I'm happy to help you, Lady Lyndis."

Lyn smiles. Their hands are still joined. "Thank you, Florina. It's good to have you. This journey won't be easy. And I'm afraid our chances may not be good..."

"That's okay! We've faced terrible odds together before, right? In Lyndis's Legions…"

Lyn laughs. "That name's never going to go away, is it?"

"Nope!"

"Really, thank you, Florina. For everything. You can always make me feel better." Lyn pulls Florina into a sudden hug, and Florina lets out a somewhat mortifying squeak. "We'll leave tomorrow, so go get some rest, all right? I'm turning in for the night. The castle's a bit of a mess, but they didn't smash the furniture, so it'll have to do."

"R-right!" Florina manages as they seperate. Is it warm in this hallway? It's rather warm. "Um…"

Lyn curls a finger under Florina's chin, almost absentmindedly. "I'm glad you're safe, Florina."

"I, uh, I'm glad you're safe, too." Close, Lyn is so close...closer than they've been since the night of Lyn's first ball…Florina blinks hard. "I, um...good night. Sleep well!"

"Oh!" Lyn quickly lets go of Florina's chin. "That was...rather forward of me. I apologize."

"Oh, no, no, no trouble," Florina babbles. "Just, I should really be getting back to the barracks, Lady Lyndis…"

"...Right." Lyn sounds almost sad. "Well, see you tomorrow morning, Florina."

"Yes, I'll report bright and early!" Florina bobs into a bow and then hurries back down the hall, heartbeat thumping in her ears.

Lyn's expression remains stuck in her mind. She'd looked...regretful? Disappointed? Mournful? Florina can't figure out why.

Either way, Florina certainly has to be a bit more careful. She's Lyn's vassal now, after all! It wouldn't be appropriate to let her feelings get in the way of her job!

Still...still, a small, traitorous part of her thinks that perhaps the job isn't so terribly important after all.

5.

The mountains of Bern aren't much unlike Ilia. Warmer, though. Then again, most places are.

Florina sighs as she finishes setting up her tent. Near Lyn's, at the latter's request. They've been sticking together during this journey, as always. Lyn says it brings her strength. And it certainly makes Florina feel better. Even if they're just lady and knight...being close to Lyn is always wonderful, even if it's not quite the way Florina would like.

There's a strange woosh-thumping noise coming from behind Lyn's tent, though. Florina gets to her feet and goes to investigate, picking up her lance just in case.

It's just Lyn, though. Florina blinks.

"Oh, Florina." Lyn looses another arrow, and it slams into the tree trunk that's currently dotted with trophies of her efforts. "I'm just practicing."

"Archery?" Florina's brow furrows. "I thought you didn't care for it."

"I never did before," Lyn admits. She fires again. "When I was young, I always thought there was too much sitting and waiting, too much precision...Father tried time and again to teach me, but I never cooperated. And then, after he passed...I could never bring myself to touch a bow."

"Until now?" Florina leans her lance against a tree.

"Yes. There are so many wyvern riders here in Bern, and the battles are getting so perilous...I thought it would be of help, so I borrowed one of Wil's bows." Lyn shrugs. "I'm not half as good as him, or any of our other archers, though."

"But you're hitting the tree!"

"That's rather bare minimum." Lyn sighs, looking down at the bow in her hands and tweaking the string thoughtfully. "I can stop if it's frightening you, though."

"What, the bow?" Florina blinks. "No, not at all. It's true archers are scary, but...you're not scary. I trust you."

"That's good to hear." Lyn sounds a million miles away as she runs a finger over the bowstring. "I just wonder...if Father…"

Florina never hears the end of that thought, as there's a loud call from behind them that makes both women jump. "Flo! There you are!"

"Er…" Florina turns slowly. "Farina?"

Her sister comes rushing up, flinging an arm around Florina's shoulders. "I've been looking all over the place for you! We barely got a chance to talk on the battlefield earlier!"

"Um, I, uh…"

"Farina, leave her be." The second voice is far more welcome to Florina's ears. "You're going to strangle the poor thing." Well, maybe not.

Farina sighs. "Fine, Mom." She unwinds her arm from Florina's neck. "Wouldn't want to upset our delicate flower."

Fiora walks up beside them, shaking her head. "Honestly. Can't you control yourself?"

"I just wanted to catch up with my dearest baby sister! It's been two whole years, and look how much she's grown! ...Well, not that much. Not at all, actually, but she's got a job and everything now! Oh, and you!" Farina turns to Lyn and holds out a hand, beaming. "You must be Lyn - er, Lady Lyndis! We've heard so much about you!"

"...Have you?" Lyn manages, taking the extended hand.

"Yep!" Farina shakes Lyn's hand vigorously. "It's always Lyn this, Lyn that, Lyn's so amazing, Lyn's so kind, Lyn's so brave - "

Florina desperately prays for the ground to open up and swallow her whole. It sadly does not oblige.

Lyn looks nonplussed. "Er, I apologize, but I don't think we've been introduced?"

"I apologize for her manners, Lady Lyndis," Fiora cuts across, her voice crisp and smooth. "We've spoken a few times before. I am Fiora of the Ilian pegasus knights, and this is my younger sister, Farina. We're Florina's sisters. Farina here was recently hired by Lord Hector as a mercenary. I hope she is of assistance to you and that she behaves herself." Fiora shoots a sideways glare at the aforementioned sister, who sticks out her tongue.

"Oh, right," says Lyn, rather weakly. "So you're Florina's sisters? I've heard a lot about you…"

"Ah, but it can't be as much as we've heard about you!" Farina shakes her head. "Every time this one got the chance, off to Sacae she went! No matter how impractical the detour!"

"Did she?"

"Oh, yes!" Farina's grin has a rather sinister air. "And she was always gushing about how strong and goodhearted you are, how beautiful, how gallant, she's practically been in love with mmph mmph mmph - "

"Yes, she spoke quite highly of you, Lady Lyndis," says Fiora, her hand clamped firmly over Farina's mouth. "It is an honor to finally make your acquaintance - did you just lick my hand? Farina!"

Florina covers her face with her hands. Lyn's pleasant smile has taken on a rather glazed appearance.

"You should be setting a better example!" Fiora hisses, wiping her palm on her skirt.

"Examples, examples!" Farina rolls her eyes. "Like Florina needs those! She's a goody-goody just like you!"

"You're embarrassing her!" Fiora steps between Florina and Farina like she's shielding the former from a deadly beast.

"Embarrassing? If anything I'm doing her a favor!" Farina plants her hands on her hips. "She's such a wet blanket, she'll never - "

"Farina!"

"What, you want her to end up a boring old maid like you?"

Fiora shakes her head. "I don't have to listen to this. I thought perhaps you'd matured in the last few years, but obviously - "

"Listen, Florina might act soppy, but she tries her best, really," Farina turns back to Lyn, cutting off her older sister's tirade. "So don't give up on her yet, okay? I'm sure she'll work out great. And you should probably be paying her more - "

Lyn had been watching the bickering in a rather transfixed state, but she snaps back to herself at Farina's words. "No, I would never give up on Florina."

"Good, because like I said, she's got real potential - "

"Not potential." Lyn draws herself up to her full height, and her eyes grow stern. "Florina has excelled in all duties assigned to her. She is hardworking, courageous, and honest. I have never once felt she was inadequate as a vassal. I will not hear you say otherwise, even if you are her sister."

All three pegasus knights stare at her.

"As for her salary, my grandfather is the one who handles such things." Lyn folds her arms. "If you take issue with it, I'd advise you speak with him once we return to Caelin. But I will not allow you to insult my friend."

Florina remembers to close her mouth.

A few moments pass, and Farina is the first to find her voice. "I, uh - didn't mean to insult her. Honest. I just - "

"I'm sure you didn't." Lyn's voice has lost the frosty edge, and she sounds like her usual self again. "I understand you see her as your little sister. But she is quite talented as well. You'll be seeing that in the coming battles."

"Very well said, Lady Lyndis. I apologize as well, Florina." Fiora smiles softly, resting a hand on Florina's shoulder. "I should have left you to fight your own battle. You're grown up now, and I ought to remember that more."

"Yeah, sorry, Flo…" Farina actually looks sheepish. "Maybe I went a little too far."

Florina clears her throat and stands up straight. It isn't quite as impressive as when Lyn does it, but it's worth a shot. "Er...I'm not mad at either of you. Just...don't embarrass me in front of my friends like that, okay?"

"Right." Farina rubs the back of her head. "Sorry."

"It truly is an honor to meet you, though, Lady Lyndis," says Fiora, returning the conversation to a more peaceful path. "While Farina was exaggerating, we have heard a lot about our little sister's best friend over the years."

"Oh, well...I hope I live up to expectations, then," says Lyn. "I've heard plenty about you two, too."

"Only good stuff, right?" Farina elbows Florina in the ribs, but her knowing wink says that Florina's forgiven either way.

"Oh, of course," says Lyn.

"We really ought to be going," says Fiora. "We have mess hall duty tonight."

"What - we do?" Farina does a double take.

"Yes, I signed us up." Fiora's face is cool as ever, but a tiny smile twitches at the corner of her mouth.

"What? Why? You're so cruel…"

"It will be good for you, and I'll be there to supervise. Come along…"

Farina groans, but follows her elder sister away from the clearing and back into camp. When they're out of sight, Florina lets out a sigh of relief, her body slumping.

"They're...colorful," says Lyn.

"You could say that." Florina groans, remembering everything. "Sorry about them…"

"Don't worry about it." Lyn also looks a little pink in the face. "I wasn't really listening, anyway."

Florina takes the lie. It's easier that way. "It's so embarrassing. Nobody else in the army has their big sisters fussing over them…"

"I think they'd fuss over you no matter how capable you are."

"Probably." Florina leans against a tree. "I'm just the baby to them. Always have been, always will be."

"Are you sure?" Lyn nocks another arrow. "I'm sure once they've seen you fight…"

Florina shrugs. "They'll still think I'm a baby. That's what being the youngest is like."

"Hm. I guess I'll take your word for it." There's a thwump as Lyn hits the tree again. "But you are a great pegasus knight, Florina."

Florina feels her face heat up yet again. "Did...you really mean all that?"

"Of course! It's true! I saw you skewer that archer nearly in two today. Could you have done that a few years ago?"

"Probably not."

"See, you've worked really hard! Be proud of yourself - oh, damn!" Lyn's next arrow has soared past the tree and landed in the ground.

"The same goes for you," says Florina, going to retrieve the arrow. "You've gotten really strong, Lyn. I mean, you were always strong, but...now you're even stronger. I mean, if that makes sense…?"

"I suppose." Lyn turns the bow over in her hands. "That is...why I left the plains in the first place, after all. To become stronger...so that I could…"

"Lady Lyndis...when this is over…" Florina swallows. "Are you going to go after the Taliver bandits?"

Lyn's whole body seems to jolt. Florina drops the arrow as she rushes over. "Lady Lyndis!?"

"I…" Lyn's grip on the bow is so tight her fingers are turning white. "I...there are no more Taliver bandits."

"What?"

"General Wallace...when he joined up with us, he told me...he has already seen to their extermination." Lyn's eyes are dark and dull. "He killed them. He didn't tell me how, but...I suspect underhanded tactics. Poison, possibly. The methods I swore never to use."

"Lady Lyndis…"

Lyn takes a deep, shuddering breath. "I was furious, at first. He had taken my chance for revenge, my chance to destroy those bandits in an honorable fight, my chance to show them who the Lorca were...but I knew, deep down, it mattered not. The Taliver are dead. They are gone. They will never again harm another person. Should I not...should I not be happy about that?"

Florina places a tentative hand on Lyn's arm.

"But I still feel angry," Lyn confesses. "Not only that, I feel...empty. A purpose was taken from me. I would see this journey with Eliwood and Hector through to the end, and then I would be strong enough, and I would take my men and we would charge the Taliver and put an end to them, together...now, I don't know what will happen when this journey ends. I feel as though my story has suddenly been taken away from me. I always thought my final battle would be the Taliver, but…" She looks up at Florina, her eyes empty and hopeless. "What do I do now? What am I to do? I have...nothing to drive me, nothing save a desire to help Eliwood finish his own voyage. Then what?"

Florina mulls Lyn's words over. "I don't think your journey has to end with death, Lady Lyndis."

"What?"

"I think…" says Florina slowly. "I think you should...stop thinking about strength, and battle, and start thinking about what...what you actually want."

"What I...actually want?"

"What were you going to do after you killed the Taliver?"

"I…" Lyn stares past Florina, eyes slightly unfocused. "I...I don't know. I never thought past that. That was...my only final goal."

"Maybe...you could give it some thought?" Florina offers. "Like, what you want to do, other than fighting, once we're back in Caelin?"

"Back in Caelin…" Lyn murmurs. "Florina...what do you want? I know you wanted to help me fight the bandits, but…"

"I thought…" Florina swallows. "For years, I thought all I wanted was to be a good pegasus knight. Now, I'm not sure. I think what I really want is to just stay with you."

"To stay with...me?" Lyn looks at her, eyes wide. "Really?"

"Yes." Florina's heart is pounding fast, so fast, so much that it hurts, but she doesn't look away from Lyn. "I told you, I'm happiest when I'm with you, Lady Lyndis."

"So…" says Lyn slowly. "So, if I…" She stops.

"Lady Lyndis?"

Lyn drops the bow, and it falls in the grass at their feet. She takes a step forward, closer to Florina, slowly, like she's moving through a dream, and gently rests a hand on Florina's face.

Florina opens her mouth, but can't seem to muster up any sound. A small, shaky smile crosses Lyn's face, her thumb rubbing gently along Florina's cheek. Florina subconsciously rises up on tiptoe, leaning closer towards Lyn's face…

"Hey, Florina? You still back here?"

Florina freezes, and so does Lyn, at the sound of approaching feet, and they just stare at each other, panicked, as Farina enters the clearing. "There you are! I got away from Fi, and I was wondering if - " She stops, taking in the scene, and then raises her eyebrows, a grin that Florina has grown to dread spreading across her face. "Oh-ho, what's going on here…?"

Lyn releases Florina, stepping back. "Is there something you need, Dame Farina?"

"Nothing at all. You two just have fun, okay? And be safe." Farina winks. Florina wonders if it's possible to actually, literally die of embarrassment. "I'll just head along, then! See you two later!" She's practically skipping as she turns and heads back towards camp.

Lyn turns back to Florina. "I, um…"

"Don't worry about it," Florina mumbles. "I'll just, uh, head back to my tent. Got some, uh, things to do. Yep."

"...Okay." Lyn bends down to pick up her bow. "Um, sorry. For all that. I'll think about what you said."

"What I said?" Florina can't even remember, the events of the last minute wiping all else from her mind. "Er, right. Bye. See you later, Lady Lyndis."

She scurries off, and never sees Lyn's face fall behind her.

+1.

The very air of the Dread Isle feels sticky and heavy, raising goosebumps on Florina's skin. The wind is still, the grass unmoving, like the whole world is holding its breath in anticipation.

When they'd arrived, Fiora and Farina had hugged her for a long moment, cradling her between them like they had when they were children, their bodies shielding and enveloping her. Then they'd pulled back, and Fiora had kissed her forehead, and Farina had squeezed her shoulder, and they'd gone off to join the outside squad. It wasn't a goodbye. Just a...precaution. None of them had said anything. None of them had needed to.

Now...now, they're nearly ready. The last of the preparations are being made. They're at the Dragon's Gate, and they're just waiting for Lord Athos to meet them, and then…

Soon, it's all going to be over. They'll avenge Lord Elbert and Ninian, and everyone else. They'll save the world. They'll close the Gate. The journey will be done.

Or, possibly, they'll all die. But Florina's trying not to think about that potential option.

Florina squints. Eliwood, Hector, and Mark are still standing at the base of the Gate's entrance, talking quietly. But Lyn isn't with them...Florina scans the horizon, and sees Lyn standing several yards away from the others, staring out at the forests surrounding them, hair hanging still down her back in the absence of wind. She's so still she nearly blends with the grass around her. It's a somewhat unnatural, forlorn sight. The wind is always with Lyn.

But it's a pose Florina's seen on her often since they went to Caelin. A lonely pose. A lily in a rose garden. Florina carefully sets her lance down, pets Huey, and then her feet seem to move on their own, carrying her towards Lyn.

As she approaches, she hears Lyn sigh.

"Lady Lyndis?" Florina folds her hands in front of her. "Are...are you all right?"

Lyn starts a little, and turns. "Ah, Florina."

"Is something the matter? Might...I be of some help?"

"...Thanks. But it's really nothing. It can't be fixed, anyway." Lyn smiles, but it's not a real smile. It's the false one, the one she would wear to balls and assemblies back in Caelin, the one she uses to appeal to nobles. Florina can see right through it. She's seen it plenty of times.

But it's not fear, not dread for what they're about to face, not even grief or sorrow, that's weighing Lyn down now. It's something different. Something Florina's gotten very used to seeing on Lyn, and she hates it.

Florina takes a deep breath. "...Is it the plains?"

Lyn's eyes widen, the fake smile falling away. "What?"

"Please, don't hide it even from me!" Florina reaches out and takes Lyn's limp, unresisting hand. "You want to return to the plains, don't you, Lyn? I know how you used to leave the castle and gaze out from the hill at Caelin."

Lyn opens her mouth, about to protest, then closes it. Her head and shoulders slump as the fight goes out of her. "It just...it doesn't seem fair. I know...with my grandfather in his condition, I'm the only one to watch over the castle…"

"You shouldn't force yourself, though," says Florina gently. "I'm sure that Lord Hausen would understand. Living on the plains just seems right for you, Lyn. You seem so much happier, so much freer, when we're there, or even when you're only thinking of them."

"Florina…" Lyn stares at her, and then a smile crawls across her face. "Hm, guess what? You stopped calling me 'Lyndis'...and you're speaking much more frankly now."

"Ah!" Florina immediately releases Lyn's hand, and quickly bows her head. "I-I apologize! I'm such a scatterbrain, I…"

"Please Florina - don't - please, don't." Lyn's voice sounds so raw and sad that Florina lifts her head again. "I too, thought it was the way we had to be with each other. But I was wrong! I can't take it anymore. I've been so lonely all this time. Leaving the plains...that was bad enough. But you, my best friend, treating me like a noble stranger...that's been so much worse."

Florina stares at her.

"Sometimes, you slip back into the way you used to be...back when it was just the two of us on the plains, and we were only friends, and…" Lyn shakes her head. "I adore those moments. I treasure them. But...but they are so few and far between. Most of the time, you're always bowing and apologizing and...and you're always calling me Lady Lyndis, and worrying about upsetting me...and that's not what I want. That's not what I want at all."

Tears prick at the corner's of Florina's eyes, and she tries to blink them back down.

"I know it's your job. I know you're just trying to be respectful, and follow the rules, but...what does rank and birth have to do with anything? I'm still myself, and you're still you! I know you are!" Lyn's voice is trembling. "Please...talk to me normally, like you always used to."

For several moments, the only sounds are the faint voices of the army behind them.

Florina swallows hard. "Lyndis...Lyn...I...I'm sorry. I had no idea you felt that way…"

"I do," Lyn's voice is barely above a whisper. "Of course I do. I should have told you that more often. Like...like the night of my first ball back in Caelin...do you remember? I wanted...I wanted to ask you...to stop calling me Lady Lyndis, back then. But I thought...I thought it was for the better this way. I didn't want to get in the way of your dreams. I didn't want to hold you back. And I thought, perhaps...perhaps you had outgrown me. That you didn't want to be around me. That you didn't want to…" Lyn cuts herself off.

"No...no, I didn't outgrow you," Florina manages. "How could I? You're my best friend. I'm sorry...I've hurt you again. Like I did back in Caelin. I thought it was for the best, but I was foolish…I didn't want to call you Lady Lyndis. I just wanted to do the proper thing, but...oh, it's all a mess, isn't it?"

"I think we may have both been a bit foolish," Lyn admits, a self-deprecating smile on her face. "Were we both...worried about the other not liking us anymore?"

"Um. It sounds like it. I thought I was dragging you down...and you thought you were holding me back?"

Lyn rubs a hand over her face. Her shoulders are shaking, and Florina realizes she's laughing soundlessly. "Goodness, I've been ridiculous."

"We both have."

"Yeah. Yeah, I guess." Lyn straightens up and looks at Florina. She's smiling again, for real this time, and relief bubbles in Florina's chest. "But what you said...it's true, isn't it?"

"Uh, I said a bunch of things. Which one?"

"About the plains. You're right. I...I do belong there. It's where I'm happiest, where I want to be...my grandfather doesn't have much time left. I'll stay with him until the end. But once he's gone...I'll go back. I'll give Caelin to Ostia, and I'll go home, to the place I love."

"I'm glad." Florina returns Lyn's smile. "I want you to be happy, Lyn."

"Thank you, Florina. And I...I want you to be happy too. That's why…" Lyn takes a deep breath. "I thought your dream was to be a great pegasus knight. But awhile ago, in Bern...you said that your dream was to stay with me." Lyn ducks her eyes. "Did you mean that?"

"I did," says Florina nervously. "Why?"

"Then, someday, when I return to the plains…" Lyn looks back up, into Florina's eyes. "Come with me, won't you?"

Florina's heart jolts so hard in her chest it feels as though it's stopped.

"I may not be able to pay you like I do now...but I would like you with me, Florina. Not as a mercenary, but as a friend."

"Yes," says Florina, almost at once. "Yes, I...that would be...nice. Wonderful. That's...that's all I want."

Lyn's smile is even more beautiful now, the most beautiful thing Florina has ever seen, pure relief and joy. "You mean it?"

"Yes," says Florina, stepping closer. "Let's stick together, no matter what happens. Now...and always."

"Always," Lyn echoes. They stand inches apart from each other, their eyes locked. Lyn's smile is warm, and bright, as lovely as a sunset over the plains of Sacae, and just as hard to look away from. Looking at that smile, Florina feels like she's riding through the plains again, like they used to back in the day, with the wind whipping her hair and Lyn always, always at her side, adrenaline and joy burning away all inhibitions, all fear. There's only her, and Lyn, and the grass, and the sky.

The air is stale and still, and the world is still holding its breath, but now it's for something different. Not for a brutal clash to the death with an evil sorcerer, no - but for something else, far greater, far more terrifying.

They've come to this point before, but Florina's always hesitated. She's always been too scared to take the next step. She's always pulled back, leaned away, turned and ran…

But Florina's done being scared. It's time to be brave.

Lyn's brow knots. "Florina?"

Against all fear, against all odds, Florina rises up on tiptoe, takes Lyn's face in her hands, and kisses her.

Lyn remains frozen for only a moment, and then her arms wrap around Florina's torso and she returns the kiss, deeply, enthusiastically, tilting Florina's head sideways with the force of it, and it's definitely sloppy and probably looks ridiculous but Florina doesn't care, only Lyn is in her mind, only Lyn's soft gasps, only the roughness of one of Lyn's hands coming up to tangle in Florina's hair, only the softness of Lyn's lips as they slide over her own, only the feeling of Lyn's body pressed against hers as she tugs her still closer, so that there's no space left between them, only Lyn, only -

They have to breathe eventually, and they break apart, Florina gulping down air and knowing she probably looks as much a mess as she feels. Lyn's face is bright red, and her lips too, and Florina's hands are resting on Lyn's chest, and Lyn's arms are still around her, and it's really, really warm on the Dread Isle, isn't it?

But that's okay, because Florina has kissed Lyn, and Lyn has kissed her back, and now Lyn's laughing, laughing and lifting Florina off her feet, spinning her in a circle, and Florina laughs too, caught up in the adrenaline and the rush and the relief and Lyn's sheer, unbridled joy, and she doesn't care what she looks like anymore, doesn't care that her hair's a mess and her lips are bitten and that her head's still spinning too fast to form a coherent thought, it doesn't matter at all, not as long as she's here, in Lyn's arms, in this single, beautiful moment.

The last time Lyn laughed at her, it had only brought disappointment and insecurity. But this time...this time it means something different, and Florina knows that, knows it in a way she can't explain but believes in, deep in her bones, a warmth that won't leave her as long as she lives.

Lyn sets Florina on her feet and looks down at her, holding her gently, her eyes sparkling. "I didn't - I didn't think you - "

Florina can't be shy, not now. She's forgotten ever being shy. "I love you."

"I kind of...figured that out." Florina could get lost in Lyn's smile, her happiness, her warmth, her radiance. "I…love you too. I'm sorry it took me so long to say it."

"I don't mind," says Florina, her own smile starting to hurt her cheeks.

"I didn't realize...you felt the same way. You know, I've wanted to kiss you for...ages, really."

"So have I," Florina whispers. "For years. Maybe my whole life. I'm sorry I didn't do it sooner."

Lyn cups Florina's face in both her hands. Her beauty is dizzying, drowning, exhilarating, and Florina can't stop looking at her, wouldn't stop for the world. "I still don't know...who I am. Who I will be. But I know I belong on the plains. And I belong with you."

"I love the plains," Florina says, honestly.

Lyn smiles still wider, and leans down and kisses Florina again, this time far more slowly, and yet firm, solid, steady as the earth. Florina's fingers curl into the sides of Lyn's tunic, and she sighs into the kiss.

When Lyn leans away, Florina can feel her breath against her lips. "We have to fight Nergal. And then…to Caelin. Before we can go home...there's so much more that has to be done. Is that…?"

"I don't mind. Anywhere with you," says Florina hoarsely.

Lyn presses their foreheads together. "I love you. So, so much. I have for years. I…we don't have much time, but...when this is over...when it's over...I'll tell you everything. We'll do everything. I…"

"I'm looking forward to it." Florina doesn't think she'll ever get tired of holding Lyn, of simply feeling her there. She never wants to stop.

"Lyn!" Eliwood's voice is echoing from several yards behind them. "Where are you? Lord Athos is here!"

Lyn sighs and pulls back. Florina suddenly remembers where they are. "Um, do you think anyone saw - "

Lyn shrugs. "Who cares?"

"I mean, I guess it's not a big deal, but…"

"Don't worry. Anyone who gives you a hard time will answer to me, after all." Lyn rests a hand on her sword hilt.

Florina giggles. "I guess that makes me feel better…"

"Lyn?" Eliwood's voice is getting closer. "Hector's getting impatient - "

"Coming!" Lyn calls. "Let's go, Florina."

"Right…" Dread starts creeping in again. "There's...Nergal."

"Don't worry." Lyn takes Florina's hand. "We'll tackle this together. Like always."

Florina stands up straighter. "Right! And, um, Lyn?"

"What?"

Florina stands on tiptoe and quickly pecks Lyn on the lips. "For luck."

Lyn looks stunned for a moment, and then she beams. "There's no way we'll lose, then."

"Of course! And...and we have to make up for lost time, right?"

"We will." They're so far from the plains, but Florina can see them in Lyn's smile, in the fall of her hair, in the warmth of her hand.

Hand in hand, they walk towards the future.