chapter 1 | chapter 2 | chapter 3 | chapter 4 | chapter 5 | chapter 6 | chapter 7 | chapter 8 | chapter 9
chapter 10 | chapter 11 | chapter 12 | chapter 13 | chapter 14 | chapter 15 | chapter 16 | chapter 17 | chapter 18
chapter 19 | chapter 20 | chapter 21 | chapter 22 | chapter 23 | chapter 24 | chapter 25 | chapter 26

19. A Night in Andante

Nobody moved for a long time. Sometimes things happen that are so astonishing that an entire room full of people can be shocked silent, and the one and only thing that can break the ice is for someone to state the absolute obvious.

That someone was Marle. "Oh my gosh, you... You're human again!"

That green-haired man--Frog--Frog?!--was trembling. "Ah, a-aye..." he said, making a guttural noise that was more of a retch than a croak. He tried to hoist himself up on uncertain legs, and Marle rushed forward to clasp his arm, holding him steady.

Wow, he was... tall. Not as tall as Magus, but a close race. His pants didn't fit quite right, cutting short at the knees and sagging around the belt, and his breastplate no longer concealed his midriff--I had almost never realized that Frog didn't wear shirts. He wasn't too muscular, but not too scrawny, either, and in a sort of unkempt, vagrant way, he looked... freakishly normal. Handsome, even. I totally didn't expect that.

"Thank you," he said with a breathless grin that couldn't seem to decide if he was bewildered or elated. He looked around the room, wide-eyed and glowing, and then started to bubble over with a laugh that Marle caught and passed to Crono like a bad flu.

Magus and Mishu were immune, of course. "What's so funny? What the hell just happened?" the latter wanted to know.

"Wow! What a trip, eh?" the sword on the ground spoke.
"I'll tell you what happened," Mune volunteered. "The neiphiti did something useful, for a change."

"What was that??" Mishu blared. The Masamune emitted a peculiar, metallic 'tsk' as Frog stooped to pick it up.

"Cool it, dragon bitch. Allow us to explain!"
"That spell she taught exorcises your Gi'ira, a part of your soul that's bound to your most primal nature."
"Think of it as bringing out your animal instinct, word."
"When you use the beast talent, it's like turning your soul inside-out! And when you turn back..."
"You shake all the dirt off--say, things like beast curses. Therapy for your soul, man."
"Congrats, Master. You're a clean sock! Er... or something."
"Lousy metaphor, bro."
"Yeah, heh heh..."

Of course, I had read about such things in the T'torlan the night before. I just hadn't made the connection from 'spirit guide' to 'spirit mage,' and 'beast curse' to 'beast talent.' It made a warped sort of sense, now.

"It's amazing!" Marle exclaimed. "I'm just surprised that Frog didn't turn into, um..." A hand flew to her mouth, as if a faux pas could be covered up like a cough.

Frog smirked, finishing her thought. "A smaller frog? Aye, that would've been hysterical." He could have sounded scornful, but his tone was light and joyful. He was joking. Who wouldn't have been happy in his shoes? He'd been living with that curse for over ten years, and now it was finally broken. Magus could have strolled across the room and punched him in the nose and Frog wouldn't have given a damn, at that point. I glanced at the wizard, almost expecting a reaction like that, but he decided to lean against the wall and scowl. Good for him; let him sulk.

Crono sidled up to Frog, gave him a jovial pat on the back and started to look him over--trying to measure up, I realized. Crono was always a tad on a short side, and it was apparent that being out-scaled by one more member of our team vexed him. "You can't count your hair, silly!" Marle chastised him, giggling all the while. Crono crossed his arms and pouted while Frog laughed--he had such a smooth, clear voice. Really handsome. Damnit Frog, why didn't you ever tell us you were handsome??

We heard a shuffling groan from the corner and found Ayla coming to her senses. "Aoouu... Ayla head hurt."

Oops, forgot all about her--that was jerk-ish of us. Marle skipped to her side with a contrite, "Oh, we're so sorry, Ayla! Hang on..."

Marle finished her healing rounds, cleaning up after Ayla's ill-fated heroics and Seth's rampage, and we took a while to regain our bearings in light of all the incredible, terrible and wonderful things that had just happened. Frog kept pacing around the room, marveling at every little footstep, and it was obvious that we would need to give him time to acclimate to his changed form. Marle didn't ask so much as insist that this was going to happen, and Magus slinked away, going to brood over "wasting time" in private.

We set up camp much the same way we did in that cave on Death Peak--that is, we pulled out a few towels and sat on the ground while eating cheese and jerky. The harsh green lighting, cold tiles and steel rafters didn't make a very pleasant ambience, but at least it was easy to catch anyone coming or going, so we wouldn't be ambushed by robots or Mystics. If there was another rapier like Seth, though...

"Heh, I still can't believe it," Frog remarked around a bite of jerky. "Even food tastes different."

Crono tipped his hands like scales, enquiring, Worse or better?

"We're so happy for you," Marle said, lending Frog a genuine smile. "Hey, what do you want us to call you, now?"

Frog seemed thrown by the question. "Huh?"

"Not frog now, right? Need new name! Call man 'Frog,' no make sense," Ayla reasoned.

"Oh, well..." He blinked, considering it. I knew what Marle was asking; she was wondering if he was going to reclaim his old name, Glenn. I just wondered if he was ready to commit to it, and all the old memories--and old burdens--it carried. "Ah... You can still call me Frog, if you don't mind. It's all a little much right now..." he answered diffidently.

I bet it was... How was he going to adjust to being human again? Would he go back to his old life like nothing happened? Would he still strive to be a knight for Guardia? It's not like he was suddenly an entirely different person, so why not? What were Leene and the king going to think? They'd be happy for him too, I supposed...

Marle had the audacity (and the voice box) to ask all the questions I couldn't. "So what're you doing to do when you get home? Hee, Leene's going to freak out, I bet! Are you excited?"

"Er..." All the color went straight to his face. I wagered Frog didn't have much control over human facial expressions yet. "It is a thrilling prospect, to be sure. I just..." He looked at the ground, suddenly reticent. "It's never so easy..."

"Oh? What do you mean?"

Marle is a great friend to hang out with, but she has a bad habit of being nosy--and this occasionally leads to questions that really hit where it hurts. I've never snapped at her for asking something she shouldn't, though. Sometimes, actually, I admire how openly she can talk about anything.

For example...

One day we were sitting around my house--just the two of us, I forget what Crono ran off to do--and Marle suddenly spoke up over the radio to ask what the word 'unrequited' meant. She swore she used to know, but it slipped her mind. I was too wrapped up in some electrical components to pay attention to whatever sappy lyrics were playing on the radio, much less play dictionary, so I suggested she look the word up herself.

Don't ask me how, but this indirectly led to an anecdote about Marle's first crush, some boy she met incidentally around the castle, whose name escapes me--I think it began with 'R'? The story went on for a while about how they met in the forest while running away from their respective obligations, and then proceeded to have silly adventures that revolved around teasing and eluding the castle guards. Just when she was beginning to realize that her feelings for the guy were a little more than admiration, Marle (or just Nadia back then) learned that he was only staying in the area for the summer, and that they might never see each other again. She was heartbroken over this, and vowed to tell him exactly how she felt before he left for good.

Marle is a pretty good storyteller, I have to admit. I had to drop my screwdriver to hear out the dramatic ending, where she's summoned to say farewell to her visiting aunt and uncle and finds out that--guess what--that boy is their son. Which made him her cousin. Well, second-cousin, actually, but that's still pretty bad--in a 'hilarious in retrospect' kind of way. We joked that if she weren't so busy running away from the castle all the time, she might have learned more about the people she was supposed to be related to.

Once we were finished rolling with laughter, Marle looked up and asked me if I'd ever had an unrequited crush on someone--just, out of the blue, like it was the most natural thing in the world. Right away I said no, jesting that a true scientist doesn't have time for such trifles. Truth be told (a truth I was a little too proud to share at the time), being a grease monkey island hermit bookworm doesn't exactly turn up a lot of boyfriends--or much of anyone, besides the usual entourage of spectators, hecklers and policemen (my experiments do NOT explode often enough to warrant municipal restraint, thanks jerks. Although it was nice to have the fire department on standby.)
Anyway, so I'm not a catch. Which is fine by me! I'm just too smart and brilliant for all those monkeys in Truce. Besides, I have the best friends in history. Who needs a boyfriend?

Instead of telling her any of that, however, Marle used her super princess interrogation powers (tickling is SO cheating, by the way, and I pray for the future of our country that she never resorts to this practice once she becomes queen) to badger a story out of me--a story that didn't really answer her question but kind of... sort of did. It was more of that "girl talk" Marle likes so much, I suppose. I swear, that expression "a lady never kisses and tells" is like a jinx, because the person who says that always tells, usually within thirty seconds of being asked.

For a practical joke, I'm surprised I remember it so vividly. I guess that's what people say about first times.

It was spring, and I had taken advantage of the good weather to conduct some experiments in the square. I was testing an engine for one of my prototype robots, to be precise, and... it didn't go well. It backfired horribly--and literally--nearly killing myself as well as a bystander that strayed too close. My profuse apologies didn't mean much to the town patrolman who had wandered up to a scene filled with smoke and traumatized children--and those were the ones that hadn't fled in terror. The officer took my name, realized I was the blacksmith's daughter (my dad's reputation covered me a long way, thankfully) and sent me home with a disgusted word of warning. I loaded up my cart and hauled the wreckage back across town while people leaned out their windows and storefronts and jeered. ('Heh! There goes that crazy Ashtear girl, blown something up again.')

By the time I got home, I was dragged down, depressed and stinking of defeat (for the record, defeat smells like sweat, ether and burnt hair.) To my surprise, Crono was there, taking a nap under our favorite tree. He'd apparently gone to my house looking for me, and then got bored and fell asleep. He woke up when he heard my cart clattering through the grass, and I just dropped the thing, threw down my helmet, plodded over to the tree and sat next to him in an exhausted huff.

"Gawd, just kill me."

Crono passed a look from me to the charred remains of my prototype, and I watched one of his eyebrows disappear under his headband as the corner of his mouth started in a smirk. I preemptively cut off his laughter. "Don't even dare. I've been humiliated enough for today."

He bit his lip, holding back, and I threw up my arms, exasperated. "What is wrong with me??"

Crono turned a considering look skyward.

I punched his arm. "Don't answer that." He then sat quietly for a gracious minute before I started rambling, saying every lame, self-abasing thing that came to mind.

"I'm such a freak. My job description is 'eccentric inventor' on a nice day, the only people who will hang out with me are you, my parents and my hamster, things I come in contact with explode on a regular basis, I don't know how to carry a conversation that doesn't pertain to mechanics, thermodynamics, derivative math or history, and yet I still know how to publicly embarrass myself in the most extravagant way possible. Doesn't even help that I'm fifteen and still look like a prepubescent boy--no boobs at all. It's no wonder I'll never get kissed by a guy. And I just admitted that in front of you without any sense of restraint at all! I'm sure you feel awkward now--at least one of us should, since I have no chance at becoming a socially functional human being. It's amazing you even put up with me. Maybe it's trainwreck syndrome. I'm just a spectacle, huh?"

I sat back and waited for his grimace. Repulsion was something Crono could get across pretty damn well, but for some reason that wasn't his reaction. His silence was suddenly strange, and not in the distant way like when he's daydreaming, nor distracted like when he's thinking hard (say, over whether to have rice balls or sandwiches for lunch.) When he sat upright I could feel some weighty kind of static rising with him--that tingling wisp of an idea that was best caught before it flitted away, and in one rolling motion he leaned across my lap and took my glasses.

"Hey! What's the big idea?" I objected.

"Relax," he said in his quiet, heady baritone, like a doctor about to stick my arm with a needle, and my skin crawled warmly. You'd think a voice so rarely used would get rusty or faded, but Crono's never did. It only got deeper and smoother over time, like fine wine, and sometimes I wondered if he was bottling it up and saving it for the right moment. Even if his ideas were rarely the best, Crono always knew how to seize a moment.

"Wha-" I said dumbly, and then he kissed me. My mind went sublimely blank, so much that I barely noticed his breath on my cheek or the firm hand planting my wrist to the ground. I couldn't even see straight without my glasses, but when he finally pulled away I couldn't mistake that mixed glimmer of awe and mirth in his eyes--and perhaps a bit of satisfied curiosity.

Then he grinned--that same lopsided, perversely proud grin that always followed his best pranks, and all my senses came rushing back--outrage first. I drew a deep breath, shoved him as hard as I could and clambered to my feet. "What's the matter with you?? You don't just spring that on people, you big crazy dummy!" I then turned about, muttered, "Crazy," and stormed off, leaving him (and my glasses. I didn't dare go back for them.) The last thing I heard before reaching my house was Crono's laughter. He thought he was a riot.

Of course, the version of this story I fed to Marle had a few key embellishments (and omissions) to make it funnier (and slightly more violent.) And I never told her the ending. She thought it was funny enough as it was, bless her heart. As it happened, the minute I barged into my house, blushing so hard it hurt, my mother looked up from a book and remarked, "Oh, that looks cute on you. Did you find it outside?"

"Did I...?" I brushed my ear and found it--a daisy stuck in my hair. I was so flabbergasted I blurted out right in front of my mom, "That slick bastard!"

Crono drives me crazy, sometimes.

...I know what 'unrequited' means.

Frog never did answer Marle's question--directly, anyway. He offered a few responses that were so vague and noncommittal that Marle eventually took a hint and quit asking. Next I knew, Crono was offering me a morsel of cheese with a look that asked why I didn't follow Frog's lead and eat supper like a human being. "Do birds eat cheese?" Marle asked over his shoulder.

That was a good question--what did cranes eat? Fish? Bugs? Yuck. I didn't have much of an appetite, but I accepted the piece of cheese to quell that prying look from Crono and Marle. It didn't taste like much of anything, and I only hoped my beast form wasn't lactose-intolerant.

Since we were underground, nobody could tell what time it was, but the consensus was that it was time to get some rest before we moved on. Everyone spread out over the floor on makeshift pillows--purses, parkas, spare limbs, whatever we had--and tried their best to get some sleep. It wasn't safe to wander off, so I climbed into the rafters to get away from anyone asking why I wouldn't turn back to normal.

I wasn't very good at flying, either, but I figured I needed more open space, somewhere with a running start. It was all aerodynamics and lift, right? Mind over matter--air, in this case. You know, I'd say it figures that everyone else gets these sleek, powerful, predatory inner animals and I'm stuck with some lanky, mange-feathered longneck that looks about as intimidating as a house fly and sounds like a damn pigeon. That is exactly my luck. Maybe it's my punishment for being a pessimist. Maybe I should look on the bright side; some cultures consider cranes a sign of good fortune. Not that I believe in that stuff.

I wondered what Magus's beast form was like--probably something pint-sized and petulant, like a cat. Or a goat. Heh, Magus the Goatlord.

At any rate, I was able to make a few fluttering jumps off the fire extinguisher mounted on the wall and reach a shelf of iron lattice grates that could support me easily. It wasn't hard to keep my bird form; I don't know what Marle was talking about. I almost preferred it, even if the reasons were pathetic. The beast talent really was invigorating, and I had more energy and a clearer mind as a bird than I had as a human all week. Even my mahna pool felt replenished. My leg also quit hurting, which was a big bonus. Plus, with a layered coat of sturdy and downy feathers, I could settle down and get comfortable wherever I wanted. Falling asleep was a breeze.

Dreaming, however...

The End of Time must be some neutral ground for my weird subconscious visions, because there I was again, alone--me, the lamppost and this talking snake with sharp red eyes.

"I remember you," I addressed it, rather witlessly. Did I really know this serpent or was I just saying that? Did anything in my dream have to make sense, even the words out of my own mouth?

"Good," it rasped. "You'll remember us at the end of your days, when all falls to Darkness."

'Us' again. Hello, black voices. "Darkness, huh? Why are you doing this? What do you want from me?"

The snake quirked its head and said drolly, "Your soul."

Was that supposed to be funny? "Huh. I don't remember striking any deals with the Devil."

"Oh believe us, it's strictly business, nothing personal."

"If it's nothing personal, then why does it have to be my soul? Why me?"

"We just told you, it's not personal. We could have picked your friend, instead. Would you rather we have picked your friend?"

"Which fri--" I realized what I was asking and shook off the notion furiously. "No! I, just--why do you have to do this at all?"

"We can't tell you. Some knowledge is dangerous. You should know that. The red gate opened for you, after all. Don't you wonder why it never did for the others?"

"No, I..." No, that was a lie. I wondered about that. I wondered a lot. I wondered why the laws of time and space--which were already bending over backwards to give us the gates in the first place--went so far out of the way to grant one individual wish that, while definitely appreciated, did absolutely nothing in the long run, historically speaking. It didn't help our quest and it had nothing to do with Lavos. It was only incidentally funny because that night Robo had postulated the existence of an unidentified 'Entity' that could be responsible for the gates. I refused to contemplate it much because honestly, the existence of an omniscient being with the power to shape our futures--a God, if you will--terrified me more than Lavos. Terrified me more than anything. Because if we can't control our own destinies--much less our planet's--then what is the point?

At any rate, the red gate never made sense, and I never really talked about it, under some irrational fear that a miracle might be as fugacious as a conversation about faith--that perhaps some 'Entity' would be listening and decide to retract it all on the same whim that spawned that gate in the first place. I just didn't get it. If there was someone watching us with that kind of power at their disposal, why not use it for something truly significant, such as saving Cyrus? Or Crono? We had to pull off the latter the hard way, and Frog still goes back to visit a gravestone. How is that fair? Why save just my family? Why fix that one thing?

"...I don't know. I don't know why that happened."

The snake chuckled through motionless, forever-sneering lips. "Heh. That's because you don't remember anything."

"Remember? What's there to remember?"

"Here's a better question: who wrote that book?"

"What book?"

"The book the shadow wizard found."

"Magus? You mean the T'torlan?"

"Yesss, who wrote it?"

I was cornered into using that phrase again, the one I loathed the most. "I don't know. I don't know that, either. Nobody does! Mishu said espers wrote it. How could I know? If what Mishu says is true, it came from another world entirely."

"Ah, it must be nice, to be mortal and ignorant."

"What did you call me??" I started getting defensive. Who did this imaginary snake think he was?

"Remember who wrote the book and you'll know who made the red gate." At this point the other, cooler voice interjected, "Brother, that's enough."

"Wait!" I tried to catch it, stop it--hold on to something that made sense. "No it isn't! You haven't answered anything! What am I forgetting? Who wrote the T'torlan? Why are you asking me these things??"

The snake turned, sliding away through the mist, and I was rooted to the spot, yelling after it.

"Answer me!"

Nothing, silence begetting nothing, slipping away into the dregs of time. And I couldn't move. I was useless.

"...Damn you!!"

I woke up choking on that curse. Down below, I could see everyone else sprawled on the ground and snoring peacefully--save Magus, who must have enjoyed making us wonder where he was, like an overgrown game of hide-and-seek. Just when I thought my nightmare had passed, another voice intruded on my muddled thoughts, this one brash and feminine. 'What's wrong, Pigeon? Can't sleep?'

I gave a throttled, barely-muffled quack (I could quack? Was I a pigeon or a duck??) and flapped my wings, startled. 'What the hell??'

"Heheh," someone sniggered nearby, and then I spotted Mishu, reclining on a steel girder that was almost level with me. When I heard her voice again, it was in the private channel of the mind. 'Relax, you dumb bird. It's just telepathy.'

'I thought you said you couldn't read my mind!'

She fixed me with a wry smirk. 'Yeah? I didn't say anything about not talking to it.'

'Ah. Uh... Damn you,' I lamely countered. 'What is it you want?'

She studied her claws, feigning nonchalance. 'Oh, nothing... Just thought you could use a friendly chat.'

I turned my back. 'Go to hell. I still can't believe what you did to us.'

'Mad at me, then?'

'I'm not talking to you! I can't trust anything you say! It's all been lies so far!'

She sounded more amused than affronted. 'Oh really? Like what?'

...Another note to self: work on those groundless accusations. 'Well okay, you haven't lied, per say, but I feel distinctly back-stabbed. You were still deceiving us, you know, even after we caught you following us!' I folded my wings, miffed. '...Also that boyfriend jab was totally uncalled for.'

She chortled under her breath. 'What can I say? You walked right into it. I never told a lie--I said I love fucking with you people.'

'Yeah, well, take that act somewhere else. I'm not buying anymore.'

'What a shame. How about a bedtime story, then? Let's see, once upon a time...'

I made a testy warble that almost passed for a growl. 'Mishu...'

'...there were six brave warriors. They lived in a time of war, and wanted more than anything to stop the conflict. The king of the dragons and the espers, Bahamut, answered their prayer, and granted the warriors the power of the beast, the Gi'ira.'

...Okay, I was listening, even if it sounded just like the story I read in the preface to the T'torlan.

'The warriors went on to defeat the evil warlords and bring peace to the world. Thanks to the Gi'ira, their descendants became the "children of the beast," the neiphiti race.'

'Your people,' I noticed.

She nodded. 'Meanwhile, the souls of the warriors themselves were taken into Bahamut's kingdom to live and serve him forever. There they were called Ellichronrisen, which means "they who don't know time." So they were born again and again to worlds all across the universe, fighting for peace and justice under the espers' name.'

'Reincarnation?'

Mishu shrugged. 'The way the story goes, it's said that the last time the Ellichronrisen fight together will be on the day of Ragnarok, the end of the world. But it's supposed to take more than that to stop the Lord of Darkness from taking over. That's where the Phoenix comes in.'

'The Phoenix, huh?' I didn't forget that was what Mishu said she was looking for.

'The Phoenix is the great esper of rebirth. It's supposed to be a giant bird of flame that incinerates its enemies and uses cleansing fire to bring the lost back to life. It's also supposed to be the espers' greatest weapon against the Darkness.'

'So where is this Phoenix?'

'That's the tricky part. When Ragnarok nears, it's supposed to be hidden from the Darkness to keep its powers safe. What the old book says is that three keys will unlock its hiding place.'

'Actual keys? Like, for a door or a treasure chest?'

"Heh." 'Who knows? The keys have names, so it could just as well be people, or beasts. The Traukee, the Mii Sci Kee and the Tarow Kee... If I can find them... Well. Who knows. At least it's a wild goose chase that keeps me busy.'

'All this is in the T'torlan, isn't it? Huh...' I got the urge to try and research it; I just needed someone with hands to fetch that book. 'Could you get it out for me? It's in my... Uh, where is my bag?'

'Were you wearing it when you transformed?'

'Yeah...'

'It'll come back, then,' she said blithely.

'What? No, that makes no sense. My clothes and stuff still have to exist somewhere, so where are they?'

She lifted a lazy, critical eyebrow at me. 'You always sweat the small shit, don't you?'

'Huh? No, I'm just... detail-oriented. I'm a scientist; it's my duty to question these things.'

Mishu yawned and shifted on her perch. 'Whatever. I'm not a scientist, so I don't have to worry about dick. If it doesn't have to do with the Darkness, I'm not interested.'

The Darkness... Once more, I had to ask. 'Listen, about the blight and everything... You didn't mean all that stuff back there, did you? You only said that to make a diversion, right?'

She looked straight at me, wondering and weighing her words against the backdrop of buzzing green shadows. She then turned away, showing a mask of conscience. '...I'm sorry. Good night, kid.'

That wasn't the answer I needed. At all. Mishu soundlessly jumped to the ground and joined the others at rest. I refused to contemplate the blight any more, but there had to be an alternative to sleep. I looked for it, and saw a shape moving across the open hall. Someone else was up? I headed down, silent wings buffering my descent, and stalked towards the lone figure.

To my relief, it was Frog. He was pacing again, restless. He spied my approach and sat on the ground, accommodating my height. "Hey there," he said softly, mindful not to wake the others. "Can't sleep either, huh?"

I gave a grumbling confirmation and settled next to him. The disparity between the Frog I got to know and the person I was looking at was enough to make my eyes cross, and I was already having trouble focusing because I wasn't used to looking out the sides of my head (my peripheral vision was suddenly fantastic, though.)

Frog took off his glove and started to run his fingers through the ruff of feathers between my shoulders, openly fascinated by the texture. Really guys, not a housecat. ...But it felt pretty nice, so I allowed it.

"Heh, amazing... Everything feels so different. Touch, sound, sight... It's like I'm dreaming. I'm almost afraid to go to sleep, and then wake up and be changed back, as if it's all for naught." Oh, poor Frog. It's amazing how the rest of us take being human for granted.

"I think I understand why you won't change back. I've been there, myself. There were times where... Well, not often, but times where I preferred my frog's guise, just so I wouldn't have to face up to my humanity. Humans aren't always the just, virtuous beings we make ourselves out to be."

...Uh-huh. I couldn't say anything to that. I couldn't say anything if I tried, and I was beginning to relish that. Perhaps Frog's words were ringing true.

"I, um..." And here he faltered, hand pausing mid-stroke to nervously scratch his chin. "I'm worried about meeting Leene again."

I had been getting that impression, and I looked at him expectantly, hoping to get a 'why' where Marle only got rebuffed.

With the hushed reluctance of a man in a confessional, he began, "There's been some dissension in the royal house of late. The king and queen have been married for over ten years and not produced an heir, you know. People have been saying things, ugly rumors... And to my great misfortune, I learned one of them was true."

Uh-oh, court intrigue. I listened with piqued interest (and feathers.)

"It's just that... Well, His Majesty has... differing tastes, you could say. In the bedroom. The queen confided this in me one night. It's a terrible situation, but there's naught I could do. That's what I told her. But then, she... Ahm, Leene was... She proposed something outrageous."

Frog swallowed dryly and looked around the floor, evading a point that must have shaken him to the core. I had never seen anything rattle Frog like that, so you can bet I was anxious to hear the story out. "Dear God, I could have accepted her advance, but what shame it would have brought to the king--or even to her! She's the queen, and I love my liege, but I was just a... I was a, ah, you know. It was impossible, even if I... rather fancied it."

Holy bloody cow. I couldn't believe Frog was spilling this to me, of all people. Have you ever heard of 'sock puppet therapy'? A school counselor once attempted to subject me to it ('attempted' is the key word, there.) Long story short: I felt like the sock puppet.

He closed his eyes and sighed, wistful and mournful at once. "I'll never forget her words, though: 'If only everyone else saw the man in you that I see.' She was always too kind... It broke my heart to leave again. But you know why I couldn't stay, right? The dishonor?"

I would've been a total jerk not to respond somehow, but my vocabulary was limited to tunes from domestic fowl you meet at the park. Oh Frog, you were always twice the man those stupid blowhards at the castle were. I gave the most solemn nod I could muster and hoped he understood.

Frog returned a watery smile, wiped his eyes and sniffed, on the brink of a less-than-manly outburst. "Sorry. You don't need to hear about my problems. I just don't know how I can present myself before Her Majesty again. She must feel rejected by my abrupt leave."

Talk about awkward. No wonder he wouldn't bring it up in front of Marle--it was a matter of her direct ancestry, after all. I offered a cooing noise of sympathy and he gave me a ginger pat on the head, saying in a relaxed tone, "Alas, it will be my bridge to cross alone. I'm sure the resolution shall present itself in due time. Thanks for listening to me."

Yeah, no... problem? I really had to wonder if he would have been so open with me if I were still human. No point in wondering, I guess. I got a sudden pat on the behind, nudging me to my feet (now I felt more like livestock than a housecat.) "Go on, try to get some sleep. I'll keep the watch."

I wanted to insist that he didn't have to--that he was the one who really needed rest, but as it was I cursed my loss for words and waddled back up to the rafters. I could've changed back at any time, perhaps, but then I really couldn't--and it wasn't because I secretly liked being a damn bird, or that it was really easy to reach high places, or that the beast talent was beneficial in ways that compensated for my human flaws (even though a little bit of all of these were true.)

The real reason was... I just couldn't. Frog was right. Even though Marle was all smiles and hugs, saying it was all right, I couldn't face what I had just done. Even though it wasn't technically my fault, I couldn't believe what I had almost seriously done to my friends, the people who trust me--the people I care about most. They were the only people I really had left in the world, especially since my parents... they were...

...oh, no, no no no no NO.

I snapped; I finally realized what I was doing. I had been reacting the same way I did to Crono's death, turning over my grief and frustration to the cool, logical part of my brain that likes to keep up appearances. I was saying things I didn't mean for the benefit of the group ('It's okay,' 'I'm sure everything will be all right,' and so on) just so it wouldn't look like I was as affected as the rest of them. I wanted to be calm and rational, no matter what--but for Crono, for the others, or for me? And what good was it, now?

I remember finally breaking down and throwing a fit only after Crono came back, making a total, blubbering fool of myself. While everyone else was having their more-or-less dignified reunion, I rushed the son-of-a-bitch and tackled him so hard we both hit the turf. Marle had a mild heart attack.
(Frog just smiled and offered us both a hand up out of the snow. We were all grinning, crying and acting like idiots, so it was okay.)

I wanted to say I was sorry--for lying to Crono's mom, for lying to everybody, for acting like nothing happened. Sorry for acting like I didn't care. Of course I cared. Mom and Dad were my family, the only real life I had. They were the ones who supported me when even Crono thought I was a hopeless loon, and I did everything to be a part of Dad's work and help out Mom. I missed them like crazy--I always will.

So, I did care. I cared so much it hurt to think about it. I cared so much I was scared to cry.
Mom, Dad, I'm sorry. I was trying so hard to be strong that I overlooked my own heart. Please forgive me.
And right then I wanted to do nothing more than cry and scream and beg for forgiveness, but I couldn't, because I was a dumb bird. Changing back only crossed my mind as an ineffable option. I finally wanted--needed--to act like a human being, and I didn't have the willpower.

There is a God, and he likes to laugh.

Ever watched a bird throw up? It's kind of like watching a cat cough up a hairball--not a pretty sight at all. Really gross, actually. To make it better, all I could think as I hacked up a grief-soaked wad of cheese was that it was okay--nobody could see me cry. I lay in a shiverring, useless heap for what felt like hours, letting my sense of time fall apart while trying like crazy to get back to that happy, oblivious little place where I didn't care if I was alone. Did that place really exist, and did I ever wish it would be better?

There was a furtive scuffle below whose source I mistook for Frog, or maybe Mishu again--but then it couldn't be her, because whoever was trying to use that fire extinguisher to get a leg up the wall was not going about it very gracefully. I was completely surprised by the arm that hooked me and dragged me off my ledge, and I threw an inept fit.

"Shhh," my 'kidnapper' (birdnapper?) hissed, and I calmed down a bit once I caught the scent of dragons and tonic. Crono tucked me under his arm and hopped back to the ground, where I resumed my tantrum, kicking and warbling. 'Damnit you can't just lug me around like a sack of grain! Crono! Put me down, you big brute!'

He took me into a corner and sat against the wall, holding me snugly all the while. What was he doing awake? What the hell did he want? Of course he wasn't going to tell me, which was all the more infuriating. Crono drives me crazy, I swear.

One hand pinned me to his chest while the other ran from crest to tail, smoothing my ruffled feathers. "Shh, shh..." he whispered again, soothing this time. After a minute I quit struggling--and after another minute, I no longer wanted to. I could feel that ethereal fire through feathers and skin and bone, stirring up goosebumps. I made a pigeon-purr in the bottom of my throat and embraced it, practically melting at the touch. A beast link, huh...? Whatever part of that bond compelled Crono to jump up and grab me, I wasn't going to deny it--not when his petting gave such rapture.

My heart felt weak and my stomach felt sick and my head felt light and I was a stupid bird but it was okay because he was holding me to the ground, strong and warm and sensual. It was sad; it was all my fault. He was a fool, and I was useless.

"'s not your fault," he murmured, so soft and deep it could have been another dream, and there in his arms I finally found sleep.

...Crono could be a sweet fool, sometimes.

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