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Title: Through These Nights - Chapter 02: Guilt
Genre: adventure, drama
Fandom: Fire Emblem 8
Characters/pairings: eventual Knoll/Natasha, Amelia, Duessel, Cormag, mentions of numerous others.
Summary/prompt: Grado lies in ruin, and a small band of its expatriates sets out to rebuild. In the face of horrors both past and present, they must complete their duties and somehow survive.
Chapter notes: None of note.

Knoll's words echoed in Natasha's mind over and over again, mingling with the voices of the villagers coming, ragged as they were, to greet the haggard troupe and the aid they brought. Things had to move quickly. They had little time to dawdle, not when it had taken so long to get there already. She worked with the others to press supplies into the hands of the neediest, to fend off the ones who tried to grab more than their share. There was barely enough; as much as it stung her to pull back the second jug of clean water or bag of grain, it was worse to think of some other family going entirely without. Their supply dwindled quickly, as it always did – just enough was never enough.

Supplies, of course, were only part of the reason for their arrival. More than food and drink, the people seemed to crave some kind of hope. It wasn't something Natasha had much of anymore, and she suspected, by the stretches of silence on their treks together, that the others were running out as well. Still, even a false smile seemed to work wonders; even the tritest prayers elicited gasps of praise. Even if there was barely a scrap of faith behind it all, it was the least she could offer.

"I only feel guilty for not doing it sooner."

She couldn't shake the feeling that he had spoken more about her than himself.

You should have noticed more quickly. You should have gone faster. You should have done something. Instead you just ran away.

She shook the feeling off, as she did every other time it came up. Guilt would help no one now.

"Is anyone in need of healing?" she asked, forcing her small voice to carry over the crowds. People began to call out, speaking of the sick and injured left in the houses ahead, and she rummaged through the supplies to fetch her books and staffs.

"Master Knoll," she called. "Are you coming?"

As usual, he'd done what he could to help distribute food and water, keeping his own musty tomes tucked far in the back of the supply caravan lest someone spot them. Still, the people seemed keen on dealing with him as little as possible. It wasn't quite as bad as it had been when he still wore his telltale dark robes, but the crackle of strange magic about him remained, and the people of Grado knew that feeling all too well. Oddly enough, he never seemed to mind the way their hands carefully avoided his, the way their gaze never quite met his face. She doubted she could accept such things herself.

"Of course I'm coming," he said, handing over the last of the water to shriveled, hunkering woman clad in gray. He offered her a shaky smile, one Natasha knew quite well as dishonest, but was met with only a stare before the woman shuffled away. Knoll shrugged and reached for his own supplies. "Let's go, then."

The first house was just inside the borders of the village, a tiny thing with a sagging thatched roof and a yellowing garden just outside the door. Unlike so many other places they'd visited, nearly all of the houses were left standing, but collapsing buildings weren't the only problem the quake had caused. The smell of vegetable soup and chamomile wafted through the door as it was opened and the mages were led inside by the man who'd requested their aid.

"This way."

Natasha assumed at first that it would be the man's wife. He seemed too young for children, despite the lines on his face and dark rings around his eyes, perhaps only because such things had become commonplace. The shrunken, pale figure sprawled across the bed before her told her otherwise.

The boy's eyes, the color of dying grass, seemed too large for his gaunt face. His hair clung to the sweat of his forehead in sticky blonde-brown clumps, and trembled with every rattling gasp the boy took. He stared at her, though he did not seem to truly see.

"A bael?" Knoll asked the father. There was a nod, and a gesture to the boy's arm, which was nearly black. Beyond help – the venom would easily kill a child within two days without treatment. Natasha thought back to the day they'd taken to rest, and silently promised to never take one again.

"We understand," Natasha said. "Please, it would be best for you to leave while we try to treat him."

The father nodded and left them alone in the silence, disturbed only by the gasp, shudder, wheeze of the child.

"There's nothing to be done," Knoll said at last. "We've tried before, and. . . we don't have the supplies to spare on someone who'll die anyway."

Natasha knew he was right. Perhaps it would have been different, were it not for the message they'd received at the township before this one, stamped with the seal of Renais.

It is with my deepest regrets that I inform you that Renais will cease all further supply shipments to Grado. The need in our own kingdom is far too great.

Simple, plain, informal, and signed with the new king's hasty hand. She had never known that letters could sound so tired.

"I know," she murmured. "At least. . . we can ease his pain a bit. We have enough for that, don't we?"

Knoll regarded the child with a frown, and Natasha wondered if he was calculating their remaining stores. "We do. You tend to that. I will tell his father."

Terrible as it was, Natasha was grateful for that. She reached for her staff and began her work, humming an old lullaby as she did, even though the child was probably too far gone to hear her.

It wasn't long after the boy was asleep that she heard the shouts of anguish, doors shrieking open, the man plowing into the room .

"You have to help him! You're a cleric, aren't you? I've already lost my wife, isn't that enough?" And she readied the same explanations she did every time, and as always, they fell flat against everything.

"We're sorry," Knoll said, for what must have been the hundredth time, before grabbing Natasha's arm and finally pulling her out. They had other work to be done, other people to try to save.

- - -

Night found Natasha in they'd been spared a room at the village's inn. Duessel and Cormag had not yet returned, and Amelia was already asleep. She watched as Knoll gathered his books to keep watch at the edge of the village, and finally found the courage to speak.

"Master Knoll."

He looked to her, but said nothing, focusing instead on his tomes.

"That boy. Didn't. . . didn't he look a bit like Franz?"

He chewed his lip, presumably trying to remember, before giving a small nod. "Just a bit, yes."

So it wasn't just her imagination. Or, perhaps he was just humoring her. That seemed to be the case, as he spoke no further until his books were packed and he was nearly out the door.

"Sister Natasha?"

She sat up with a jolt, half expecting some snide remark about seeing the faces of dead knights on little boys. "Yes?"

"Please, stop calling me 'master'. I am just a scholar. Nothing more."

And then he was gone.
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