[identity profile] aphelion-orion.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] off_the_homerow
Title: Even as the Curtain Falls
Fandom: Final Fantasy XII
Characters: Ashe, Larsa, Balthier, Penelo, and the rest of the endgame cast
Rating: PG-13
Contains: The logical conclusion to the game's ending.
Notes: For Twig, who is writing the game I would have loved to play.



Even as the Curtain Falls



It has been two years since anyone of importance last set foot upon the balcony.

Jutting out between the turrets, it overlooks the main street going south, the city rooftops like miniature extensions of the palace's splendor, the countless people going about their daily tasks in the below. As a girl, it was one of her favorite places, and she would make a game of hiding there from her ladies in waiting, climbing up on the rail to count her subjects. Some of them, she would come to recognize over time, for they would appear at certain times during the day as regular as a clockwork, and in a childish fancy, she would give them names, imagine the stories behind their heavy loads, their overflowing carts. From so far above, the bags of grain and crates of apples seemed like gold and gemstones, and in her mind, they truly were, nothing less than untold riches warranting such busy lives.

Now, the colorful specks are carrying wood and stone, chocobos hauling away debris by the wagonload, all efforts to fix the damage Archadia has wrought. The palace, too, has sustained injury, its grand hall and eminent corridors left in disarray, the treasury looted, the barracks set on fire. Still, she has ordered the royal balcony to be cleaned first of all, for the memories it holds. It is the balcony upon which she and Rasler shared their wedding kiss, white streamers falling all around them as the crowd cheered as one in the streets. It is the balcony her parents stood upon to present her and her eight brothers after their birth, and although she does not remember, she can easily see the celebration in her mind's eye, three days of wine and music and dancing. It is the balcony her father chose to address his people, and the balcony King Raithwall used to proclaim the unity of Ivalice three centuries ago, or so the legends say.

Ashe runs a hand along the balustrade, the feel of sun-warmed marble like a homecoming gift.

No Archadian has stood here to shout his pompous diction at the grieving citizens of Rabanastre, to sully the memory of her childhood, and her parents, and all Dalmasca's history. She can draw comfort from it without wondering whether Vayne Solidor idled here to survey the vista, seeing nothing but a piece of earth to feed to the moloch that is his homeland.

In but a month, Ashelia B'nargin Dalmasca will become Ashelia I, to carry on her husband's spirit and her father's legacy, her shoulders burdened with the hopes and dreams of thousands. Her struggle for the throne was but a trial, a test of her strength and resolve, and now she knows that she will be able to stand proud and unfaltering, like her father, and her mother, and all the glorious kings of old.

-------

The metal plating constricts around his shoulders, making them slump ever so slightly.

It is to be expected; he was always slightly broader and more heavyset than his brother, who preferred the lighter, more elegant weapons, a stark contrast to Basch's own love for the greatsword. They rest before him now, laid out on the bed within their scabbards, in a room bearing every mark of Noah's utilitarian lifestyle. Few ornaments, mostly trophies he has won, in tournaments or battles Basch doesn't know. Books he has never read, maps and notes piled high on his brother's desk, inside information on Archadia's military, lists of names and stations that do not even begin to mean anything.

He will have to find time to read them all, make discreet inquiries about the intricacies of the court proceedings, beg use of a secret basement somewhere so he can reacquaint himself with the dual wielding style he abandoned years ago, when he was but a young boy. He does not dare visit a practice ring for this purpose. Find out about Noah's alliances, the people he favored, the people he was indebted to, the people of whom he made enemies. Lord Larsa is a bright young man, and very knowledgeable, but he barely knows the tangled web of personal feuds in which the Judge Magisters were caught, and even less of Noah's personal opinions, his daily life.

It is too much to hope that he would keep a diary somewhere, and Basch cannot even place the blame on his brother's overly fastidious nature. He felt it the moment he set foot into the Imperial Palace, the cloud of secrecy and mistrust congealing on every object, every person, and, the longer he walked, even on his own skin. A nest of vipers, they call it, and with right. Only a fool would keep records of his private thoughts in such a place, and without rendering them in code first, when any servant can be bribed or threatened into stealing them.

He supposes that he should thank his lucky stars, few though they are, that Noah was too devoted to his destruction to ever marry, that he has found no letters or possessions hinting at a lover, or a mistress. Anyone who has seen his brother bare, who knows his scars and his birthmarks, all his weaknesses and private gestures. There would be no way to maintain the illusion in this case, and Basch counts his blessings not to have been put to the test, not to be forced to pretend at being his brother while unraveling the nightgown of his wife of fifteen years.

He should be glad that he will be able to spend most of his life in this armor, to remain stoic and silent inside the helmet still warm with his brother's scent.

There is a crab found along the strands of Phon that carries an abandoned snail shell on its back, its home and fortress in one thing. As it grows, it has to shed its shelter, to slowly twist itself out of the coils of the shell, and quickly acquire another one before it can become prey to the gulls. The crab cannot reverse the shedding once it has begun, climb back into its smaller dwelling and resolve to carry it for another two hundred miles.

-----

The private resting place of House Solidor is beautiful, an elaborate crypt under Archadia's largest cathedral.

The first time his brother took him, he was almost too young to remember, certainly too young to read the name plates on the carved sarcophagi, inlaid with ivory and jewels. Each of them different, depicting scenes of great exploits, chocobos springing forward into battle, and treaty-signings, waving banners and noble poses. Larsa remembers the scent of flowers above all, fresh and homely unlike anything a crypt should be like, the strong fragrance of nightbloom and anthulian woven into two fresh wreaths and laid out side by side, one for his mother, one for Vayne's.

They would stand in silence, sometimes for half an hour or more, and when he ran out of things to say to his mother, his eyes often sought his brother, his head bowed and motionless, like a guardian statue. Larsa never asked, never quite thought to ask until now, whether he believed the first empress would be ashamed of her son, or weep for him, whether Vayne hated the man, their father, who had driven her to her grave.

There is a niche against the far wall filled with their father's coffin, cruder and simpler than the elaborate tombs around it. The real sarcophagus is not yet complete, the late emperor Gramis deathly afraid of dying, unwilling to discuss even the possibility of it, let alone arrange for his own funeral. Larsa had the work put on hold, bade the artisan fashion his brother's resting bed before anything else.

It is a breach of protocol, and one that will elicit criticism in court, but he feels nothing less will do.

There is no body to put inside, his brother consumed by the flames that engulfed the upper levels of the Bahamut, but Larsa does not wish to leave judgment to Archades, or the rest of Ivalice. Let the sarcophagus express what no one in the world will even think of, his kindness, and his wisdom, finer a statesman than Archades has seen in over two hundred years, finer a brother than anyone could ever hope for.

He understands now, even though he claimed not to, why Vayne was taking the steps he took, why he scrambled and fought as hard as he did. He never meant to leave things as they are now, with the senate disbanded, and all the noble houses in disarray, Draklor in shambles and the military without command. He never meant to leave Larsa, not like this and not at all, with the senate members' families breathing down his neck, alternately appealing to his duty as the heir of Solidor, alternately threatening to secede.

He will need to make concessions, and fast, appease those who were always clamoring for his brother's blood, form an alliance with the houses most likely to support his cause. His brother's allies are not his, and neither are his father's, and at twelve years of age, he has none of his own, was only allowed to attend debates and sessions because Vayne let him against their father's will. The only connections he has left belonged to Gabranth, and they are what they are, connections of a halfbreed upstart in the middle of Archadian high society, as pureblooded as it is closeminded.

Vayne's plan was only for him to know, but Larsa has begun to see the outline of an impossibly high gamble, a gamble to reform the nation and grant Larsa a bloodless seat on the throne, now that Archades' seams are threatening to unravel right under his hands.

-----

The tea is sweet to the point of cloying, the tang of mint mixing with the taste of a dark, spicy honey. Cinnamon, or perhaps cloves, enough to drive the flush into a man's cheeks if he isn't careful, the bane of most foreigners. Ondore has mastered the art of drinking it during his long visits to Rabanastre, taking slow, dainty sips and allowing them to linger, one cup per conversation. It is a warm day, promising to become warmer still, and the only way to dress appropriately for the weather in Dalmasca is not to dress very much at all. He has only brought one overcoat, and is determined to make it last.

Across from him, Ashelia is sipping her own tea, hands gingerly clasping the small cup. On her finger, the wedding band, the engravings catching the sunlight of the inner gardens. She is looking well, a little pale perhaps, but that is to be expected, easily offset by her animated manner. Happier than he has seen her in years, speaking of the reconstructive effort, the returning refugees, the beginning of a Dalmascan renaissance. The frontispiece to a proposal, a trade agreement, perhaps, or even an alliance, Ashelia as subtle as she is able to pace herself.

He supposes he cannot fault her for it, the youngest child with eight others before her, and the only daughter. Never meant to take the throne, never meant to barter peace and politics, herself but a bargaining chip for her father's treaties. Wasted on Nabradia, when she would have been much better spent elsewhere, but Raminas was nothing if not bound by honor and tradition, and his friendship with the late king Fortinas, even if they should prove to be his downfall.

With her brothers and her husband dead, it is Ashelia's turn to reign, diligent and serious but not with the foresight or the cunning it takes, the skill to gauge when to speak out and when to keep silent, what to reveal and when and to whom. Before him sits a little girl, clad in the pristine silks of a queen, with a diamond circlet gracing her brow, and yet she speaks and gestures the same as she had at eight, or at fifteen, does not see the Marquis Ondore IV but simply Uncle Halim, who always has an open ear. She does not yet know how dangerous it is to conflate personal fondness with political negotiations, seems unaware that all the histories she read, all the chronicles dealing with strife between brothers or sisters, fathers and sons, husbands and wives, are as real as everything around them, that "two-hundred years ago" does not a fairytale make.

She won't like what he has to say.

"Ashelia, I believe it best for you to re-marry."

Predictably, she freezes in mid-motion, her eyes wide and round, her lips pursing into a frown. Betraying everything, always betraying everything, and he supposes it is good that he cautioned her would-be suitors to wait, that he has gone to speak to her alone, or she would have already left the table, shrouded in offended silence.

Slowly, deliberately, Ondore helps himself to another piece of candied date, to give her time to collect herself.

"You are a lovely young lady, and heiress to a great legacy. There is many a nobleman for you to choose from. I do not feel that it is right for you to be alone." A pause to prepare for the push, a reminder of her strong devotion to her family. "I am sure your father would agree with me, were he with us today."

Already, her frown is darkening, something fierce and prideful flashing in her eyes. "I already have a husband."

An almond canapee is the next to go. Most people will refrain from harsh emotions when there is food involved, and Ondore has long since learned the value of extended private meals, with good wine and bite-sized appetizers, when it comes to discussing unpleasant business. She has not, her plate still empty for talk.

"The dead will not comfort you on lonely nights, Ashelia, or form a shield to keep you from harm."

This close, he can see the tea shivering inside her cup, the barely perceptible beginnings of her righteous fury.

"I understand that you are very eager to see Dalmasca restored to its former glory. However, this is not a task to be accomplished by you alone. I would not like to see you cut all ties, when you have the world before you." He doubts she knows, or wants to hear, how her father chose to reject the more than generous offers from both sides, could have stood by to watch Rozarria and Archadia outbid each other, and pick whichever alliance suited him best. Instead, he chose Nabradia against Ondore's advice, and all the consequences it entailed.

"But I have you, Uncle Halim."

So firm, so certain, spoken with the voice of a queen and the words of little princess Ashe, and perhaps it should not amaze him that she does not see, that all her promises and dreams of a prosperous future mean nothing to a trade partner when she cannot offer anything now, no money or protection or resources, and with the Shards gone, all Dalmasca has to give are its desert figs and the fact that Queen Ashelia B'nargin I is not yet twenty, and unwed, and truly beautiful.

Shaking his head, Ondore drains his cup and rises. "Both His Highness Prince Al-Cid and Duke Covas of Rozarria have expressed great interest in meeting with you, Your Majesty. I strongly recommend you would hear their proposals."

He does not need to look back to know the fury has returned, manifest in two high spots of color in her cheeks, and that he only owes it to the part of her that is beginning to internalize the grace and dignity of her position that she has not shattered the cup.

-------

Few mourn the passing of Lord Vayne. His name has become synonymous with the debacle at Dalmasca, and everything that came before it, and each day, something is added to the growing unrest of the populace — the erratic taxation, the failing skystones, rumors that the excess mist from the Bahamut is slowly leaking into the ground water the world over. The quiet, smoldering resentment from all those years of Solidor rule, indistinct and directionless, a vague discontent that could be ignored so long as nothing more was added to it, has suddenly found a target, and it will only be a matter of time before it unloads.

Few see things for what they are. Few possess the information needed, or the ability to keep their wits about them.

Zargabaath does, and what he sees, with all the power and experience of his position, is a system that has grown too large and complex to sustain itself. Like a forest choking on its own growth, it needs a healthy fire to burn away the unnecessary elements, leave only the strong and healthy seedlings to rise from the ashes once more. To Zargabaath, Lord Vayne was that fire, the man who would lead Archadia to new glory. Cauterizing the parasitic vines that were the senate was but a first step, removing the dithering old men whose only purpose it was to carry a grudge two centuries old. He did not care about Lord Vayne's reasons for doing so, so long as it would be the change to generations of weak-willed, feeble emperors whose only concern was their own fear of losing power.

He did not care about Lord Vayne's reasons for doing so, but now he thinks he perhaps should have, when his reason for doing so is sitting on the throne, more powerless than any emperor yet.

Lord Larsa is a sweet young boy, beloved by the public for his gentle smile and kind demeanor, appreciated by Zargabaath for his bright mind and gift of speech. The same as his older brother's, with the makings of a great leader within him, but his talents have too long been squandered, wasted on the notion of his innocence. The blame rests not with Lord Vayne alone; the late emperor himself only saw it as in his best interest to keep the boy a child forever, and the senate would have preferred it had Larsa not only been young, but also less of a Solidor. With enough time and care, Lord Vayne would have raised him into a fine statesman, of that, Zargabaath has no doubt.

The circumstances being what they are, however, all the traits so virtuous in the child Larsa are now the failings of Larsa Ferrinas Solidor I. Fair and just to a fault, he is determined to remain impartial in a time when impartiality has come to signify hesitation, and ambivalence is a sign of unpredictability. In a world desperately in need of stability, his determination not to disadvantage anybody is an impossible dream, and his reforms are sure to stoke the ire of the privileged.

The senate is back in session, as bitter and hard-headed as it ever was, determined to stall important bills wherever it can. Noah Gabranth is an ill advisor, and the man wearing his skin is even more so, a loyal lapdog without the slightest understanding of Archadian politics, and the only reason Zargabaath has chosen to remain silent is that he does not wish to be the one to bring Lord Larsa to harm. What madness, to make a Dalmascan pretend at being Judge Magister, and even if Zargabaath were fool enough not to recognize the cracks in the disguise, there is no stemming the rumors flowing out of Rabanastre, that the illustrous General fon Ronsenburg has left the side of Queen Ashelia in the dark of night, never to be seen again.

It will not be long before some little schemer will look far enough from home to hear the same, before the blame for the state of affairs will begin to shift from Lord Vayne to his ingenuous little brother, before Rozarria rears its ugly head again, and when that time comes, Archadia will need a leader forged in the flames of war and crisis to be able to weather the coming storm.

As great a fondness he holds for the boy, as great his admiration for Lord Vayne, House Solidor is no longer capable of providing that leader.

Carefully, Zargabaath regards the letters he has been writing, ten in number, addressed to the heads of Archades' most prominent families. Innocuous invitations to a banquet in his summer residence, a chance to exchange pleasantries and reminisce. He cannot offer up excuses, and does not want to, but it is with a heavy heart that he reaches for the stick of wax, to place his personal seal on the envelopes.

--------

Al-Cid Magrace is an admirer of women, and he makes no secret of it.

Most choose to perceive it as the pecularity of a seventh son, a prince in a nation known for its queens, who will thus indulge in anything to allay his boredom. They forget that he is his mother's son, a woman as strong as she is beautiful, as kind as she is fierce, as unrelenting as she is merciful. A woman who gave birth to fourteen children, only to lose six of them, who conquered the southern territories and subdued a rebellion with nothing but the power of her words. They forget five wonderful sisters, who have each enriched his life in innumerable ways, would have taught him, if nothing else, that a woman is more than a pleasant form with a sweet voice.

He has encountered many women in his travels, the hard-working daughters of Dalmasca, the silk-wrapped baubles of Archades, the skilled warriors of the viera — the most like the women of Rozarria if not for their lack of passion — but all of them lovely in their diversity.

When he first met Ashelia B'nargin Dalmasca, he felt that she might have a bit of a viera in her, her eyes holding some of the same pride and distance. She seemed deserving of his admiration, fighting so tirelessly for the freedom of her fallen kingdom, not entirely aware of the extent of her convenience to Rozarria but aware enough to know that she would have to tolerate it, should she truly have her sights set on ruling.

Almost a year after Bahamut's fall, Al-Cid has come to realize that he must revise this opinion. What he saw at Mount Bur'Omisace is not what was truly there, his own expectations and willingness to defer to a future queen blinding his judgment. The person before him now has less in common with a viera and more with the pet coeurls of his younger sister, wary, skittish creatures constantly ready to slash an unfamiliar visitor with their claws. He will have to watch his step, if he is to convince her of the value of her choice.

"I was dismayed that you would reject my proposal, milady. If my words reflected unfavorably on my character, then I hereby give my deepest apologies." He bows, low, as he would if he were to beg the forgiveness of his mother, the highest form of respect he can give.

Ashelia does not answer, and makes no move to welcome her visitor, but he can see the motions of her folded hands, toying with the delicate silver band on her finger. It is somewhat disheartening how easy it is to discern her thoughts.

"I had hoped you would consider the alliance. I may only be the seventh prince, but as my wife, you would be like a daughter to my mother. She would surely be delighted to grant you and your beautiful Dalmasca all the assistance you desire."

Again, no answer, though the ring twists round again. Young and inexperienced a queen though she may be, she cannot be unawares how her failure to reply would seem to the Rozarrian court, that even a rejection would have been better than silence. It is only because Queen Orquidia is unwilling to deny her son that Al-Cid is here at all, to allow this fledgling ruler to make the choice to save her country.

"Milady, I can see that pretty words will not sway you, therefore, I shall speak plainly. Rozarria has already made her decision. We will advance eastward, and strike Archadia while she is weak, so that Solidor may never rise again to tyranny. If you were to grant your hand in marriage, Dalmasca would receive the utmost protection from Her Majesty. Rozarria does not care for uniformity the way Archades does. Dalmasca would keep her independence, and you would remain her queen, free to decide your own—"

"How?" Ashelia's voice is trembling, not with anger but with disbelief. "How can you come here and speak to me of war? Not a year ago, the both of us were working our hardest to prevent further violence. And now it shall all be for nothing?"

"Unfortunately, I am not my country, but merely a representative."

"And yet you helped us before. Helped me." Stubborn now, unwilling to accept the changing tides, or that they would do so without her consent.

Shaking his head, Al-Cid decides to try again. "Milady cannot have been unaware that it was of great convenience for Rozarria to help her?"

"You—" She chokes on the word, and when she speaks again, her voice is hard and sharp like a diamond. "How dare you. How dare you use me for your own gain, and then come to ask that I betray my husband, betray my friends! Larsa Solidor only desires the well-being of his people, he would never—"

"Lady Ashelia, surely it has not escaped your notice that Archadia is more than Larsa Solidor. And surely you do not believe that they would hesitate, if they thought us to be ailing. Your father was in possession of the Shards, and could not hope for concessions from Archades. You, on the other hand, have slain Vayne Solidor, and this is why you hold our favor. I merely ask that you consider your choice, and choose wisely."

"...Leave, now." She has risen from her seat, her proud stance betrayed by the trembling of her shoulders, her noble visage marred by a thunderous frown. "Tell your mother that Dalmasca shall not be her pawn, or anyone's. I will not allow you to be the next Solidor, who takes our freedom away from us."

"Very well, milady." Al-Cid bows again. "As much as it pains me to say, I hope we do not meet again."

What follows him out is only her silence, a white-swathed statue on her throne. The admirable mirage from Mount Bur'Omisace has dissipated, allowing him to see the woman he really met that day — a brittle, angry girl standing taller than she should have had to be, and underneath the crown is that brittle, angry girl as well, unwilling to recognize that Dalmasca's needs are not her own, and never were.

------

The face in the mirror has come to resemble his brother's quite a bit.

Larsa pauses in splashing water on his face, hands falling away to the rim of the wash basin. It is less the lines, he decides, his features still too soft and round to match, and more what is now resting behind his eyes. The same gaze that he used to detect on his brother in rare moments, when Vayne was too surprised or too comfortable to present a face devoid of things to make Larsa worry — weariness, guilt, a certain kind of resignation. Only the barest indicators of the true extent of the troubles he was facing, and this was then, when Archadia was still plodding along, sand in its gears but not so much that it would do more than make grinding noises, slowing operations down by small increments.

In recent months, the sand has become a constant pour, entire sections of the colossus splintering and breaking, cogs and wires spilling out on the floor like the entrails of a battered wind-up toy. Draklor were the first to go, with much of the blame for the disaster falling on their shoulders. The senate was pushing for a scapegoat, and a scapegoat they found, the late Doctor Cidolfus’ close relationship with his brother a sufficient thorn in their side. Funding has dwindled into nothing, barely enough to even manufacture replacement parts for maintenance, and it will only be a matter of time before they realize what they have done, driving the nation's best and brightest scientists to exodus.

The shifting jagds are disrupting the trade routes, leaving those unable to afford Archadian skystones stranded, trade halls staying empty during market days, businesses slowly descending into ruin. As always, the rich refuse to give up even a small sum of money to stall the impending collapse, though Larsa himself tried to set an example, using parts of the Solidor fortune to try and stabilize important banks.

Rozarria is pushing eastward, and he knows not how to halt their advance, when all his requests have gone unanswered. Small surprise, he supposes, given how much his father would antagonize the queen, his quest for eternal life and domination transcending contracts and negotiations. Sometimes, he wonders if his brother would know how to halt such a collapse, and tries to dismiss the idea. It is no use to doubt himself, when countless others need to keep their faith.

He finishes wiping his face, and exits the small chamber, directly opposite the senate hall. It has to be enough preparation for the day, and if he is lucky, he will be able to squeeze in breakfast at two, should his adversaries tire of haggling before noon.

Entering the hall, the old men are already seated, and remain so even when Larsa steps up towards the podium. A gesture of blatant defiance, and he can tell that it is going to be a bad day even before he spots the shadow against the far wall, tall and silent, clad in armor from head to toe.

He stops, for a moment too baffled at the disregard for protocol to even grasp its significance, the leaden weight of dread pooling in his stomach. The assembly is between the emperor and the senate twelve alone.

"Lord Zargabaath, what is the meaning of this?"

Very slowly, the Judge Magister steps forward, and bows deeply. "Allow me, Your Highness, to present you with a proposal."

------

The Rabanstre Balthier got introduced to was a lively place, full of diligence and spirit. The people made do with what the desert gave them, and were happier for it than most other places he has been to, certainly a happier place than Archades, with its stiff class and stiffer morals. A good town to walk the streets and have a drink, a good town to swap information and forge lasting friendships in. The war didn't change that, though it left its people keenly aware of their loss, the freedom of trade and welcoming flair faltering in the face of autoritarian rule.

Not even Archadia managed what Balthier is seeing now, however, closed taverns and tightly shut doors, dwindling numbers of people walking with a hurried step and a firm, pinched expression. Fran's ears haven't stopped twitching since they landed, a tiny, nervous gesture that suggests the atmosphere is getting to her, though she hasn't said anything. Rozarria is advancing, and Dalmasca's queen has issued the call to arms, to fight for freedom and independence once again.

He doesn't need to have been present to know how it all went, now that Archadia is down on the ground, struggling to just keep going. It doesn't take a genius to guess that Rozarria sent someone, perhaps even Magrace himself, to give Ashe an offer she couldn't refuse. Shouldn't have refused, by all rights, because it is the lot of tiny countries caught between the spear tips of two rivaling empires, ill-tempered giants who have thrived on centuries of mutual resentment like weeds in a pond, and are now ready to feed on each other in earnest. Archadia made the first push before it crumbled, swiftly and efficiently, determined to keep Dalmasca rather than destroy it. Rozarria will not stop for saber-rattling any longer, driven by a hatred for the Solidor that only bloodshed can appease.

Perhaps there was something he could have told her, back when she was still the lost princess in need of guidance, maybe something about how not even sky pirates can live a life without compromises, though this sounds more like a piece of advice for Vaan. Something, when her self-appointed guardian seemed unable to do anything but defer to her, anything to let her know the value of giving in at the right time, the importance of making decisions even when they seem immoral, or unfair, to remain safe. Safe and free.

Whatever he might have been able to do as a not-quite comrade, he can no longer do, and now all that is left is to offer rides to those who can barely afford the sky fare, even in the event that the ships are running. The Strahl is one of the few that hasn't been having problems yet, that can still get off the ground with a pretty solid guarantee that she will come back down again, and not in a million pieces. Many people are leaving, unwilling or unable to live through another war, when the last one already took so much from them.

The house in the back alleys of Rabanastre is but a shed, tiny and cramped with rather poor maintenance and eternally grimy windows. When he knocks, the door is practically falling inward, and then Penelo is standing in the frame, flushed and misty-eyed, a pot and some dishes pressed to her chest.

"Oh. Oh, Balthier, Fran. I didn't know you were coming."

She draws a breath, steps aside awkwardly to allow them in. The living area is in disarray, the curtains separating the beds from the kitchen have been drawn back to reveal a set of bags on each, clothing and household items piling up next to them. Penelo sets down the dishes, fumbles for something to offer her guests and eventually settles on a bowl of oranges.

"I— I'm sorry, I haven't had time to go to the market today, and—"

She grabs the dishes again to still her trembling hands, hastily stepping to the beds to give herself something to do.

"If you're looking for Vaan, I'm sure he's out back or something, he's always out back when he's mad." She sighs, rubs at her cheeks, and makes to pull down a box from a high shelf. Even standing on tip-toe, Fran is easily two heads taller than her, dislodging the box with no effort at all.

"We have been looking for both of you," she says simply, and then shoves the box at him because her arms are suddenly full of Penelo.

"I... I don't understand, I thought it'd all get better. I thought the fighting stopped. I thought Ashe would make it stop."

Balthier sets the box down, draws the handkerchief from his breast pocket for her to dry her tears. Nothing to say here, nothing to add other than, "So did I," nothing that would ease the pain of this girl who had faith in her queen, who felt that putting her life on the line for the cause would mean that she would at least not be commanded to give it needlessly.

"Thank you," Penelo murmurs, dabbing at her eyes.

"Where are you planning on going?" Balthier is surveying the room, the meager possessions, and decides that somewhere safe seems to top the list of choices at the moment, somewhere were they won't try to draft able-bodied young men who are too hot-headed to differentiate between patriotism and madness.

"I don't know. Some place where there's work, where they don't have laws that say to cut somebody's hand off for stealing." She sniffs, and tries for a smile. "Could you... could you go get him? I told him he's a fool, just like Reks."

Rolling his eyes, Balthier gives her a lopsided smile in return, and squeezes between the cupboards out the back door. Balfonheim has already signed a tacit non-interference agreement, and has the added bonus of beautiful beaches and pirates. The former is good for shaken young girls to regain their vigor, and the latter is good for young idiots who could use the rigorous demands of a merchant ship to drive mistaken ideas of manhood from their minds.

----------

The mansion once belonged to his mother, a gift to her when his father first began to court her. Despite the fact that it was built on his order, it bears all the marks of his mother, the delicate lace curtains, the understated elegance of the interior, the exotic flowers thriving in the garden despite the ill-suited Archadian climate. Larsa knows this, though his mother died when he was too young to know her, knows because Vayne would take him here during a handful of summers, make the time to stay with him for a few days, to stroll the gardens, have tea in the parlor, and speak about her so that Larsa might know what little he knew of her.

It feels a little bit like coming home, though the tall shadow at his back is not the soothing presence of his brother, and the occasion is not to fulfill whatever wish his five-year-old self might have had.

Their escort pauses at the grand staircase, exchanging uncertain glances. They are untrained, and only a few years older than him, glad not to have been called to fight at the front lines, but that relief changed swiftly when they learned they would be appointed to guard their emperor, and inside a mansion built by a Solidor, where any wayward floor panel might prove a maw to a pit full of snakes.

Larsa gives them a smile in hopes of calming their anxiety; no need to resent them when they are only doing as commanded. "I shall retire to the first-floor study. I trust this will be acceptable?"

"O-of course, Your Highness."

"Please do alert me when it is time for supper. I should very much like to eat outside today."

This is more to reassure the guards of his compliance and ease their minds than anything else. He doesn't feel hungry despite not having eaten for a whole day, ever since the senate relayed its decision to confine him to his mother's mansion, to install Zargabaath as the de facto regent. Not a coup, or a revolution, just a simple missive from the senate, and the change is not even so drastic, when before his power had been limited to signing the documents they needed him to sign. Now, Zargabaath can perform this service, and he will remain here until a decision is required, possibly until he will be needed for a bargain with Rozarria.

They do not realize it yet, stoked for battle as they are, but Larsa is already certain of the outcome. Four out of five Judge Magisters are lost, along with a good portion of Archadia's airfleet, and though they yet have the advantage of the manufacted nethicite, he does not need to wonder too much where most of Draklor's scientists went to, that they found Bhujerba to be a far more welcoming place.

The study on the right of the stairs used to be his brother's room, though he could have taken any of the seven master bedrooms. As a child, Larsa didn't realize why Vayne would choose the study with its books and smaller windows over any of the others, but now he is old enough to know why his brother was even able to find time for him, that it was only after he'd been brought to bed that Vayne would spend the remainder of the night tending to the affairs he had set aside during the day.

Everything is still as they left it three summers ago, even the cot tucked into the niche beneath the window, the one Vayne used to sleep in when he could no longer concentrate on correspondence. It is only here that Larsa allows himself to draw a breath, is surprised to feel it shudder in his throat, the stone inside his chest dislodging
from the well it was meant to cover, filled with all the things he never allowed himself to think of, couldn't afford to think of.

He does not expect the hands on his shoulders, rough-skinned, heavy, awkward — very unlike his brother, whose rare shows of physical affection were always light and sure — but it is a comfort all the same, moreso because no one else would dare.

"...Thank you, Basch." Reaching up, he gives a pat to one large hand.

"Your Majesty. Know that you needn't carry your burdens alone."

"You do not have to remain with me, however. I know you fear for Lady Ashe." It would be easy to take on the guards, even unarmed, to steal a sword and take a bird from the stables out back, and they both know it.

Basch shakes his head, the motion so abrupt Larsa can feel it in his own shoulders. "No, Your Highness. The Lady Ashe has bid me go with you, and here is where I shall remain."

"For better or worse?"

"For better or worse."

--------

The battle harness is a hindrance, the breastplate pressing down on her chest, the armored gauntlets restricting the movement of her arms. No one in the resistance wore any armor, swiftness and stealth prized above protection, and unlike the men in her family, unlike her husband, she never learned to move in it, was not thought to ever even need the fencing lessons for which she begged her father. Unfeminine, unfit for a princess, and now she regrets that she was never there to help Rasler into his battle dress, felt it too much a transgression into the world of men, too private a thing to do.

If she had, she might not need her ladies in waiting now, securing the straps and buckles at her back, and she might know better how to compensate for the stiff and awkward movements, and might not feel so absurdly dependant on the verdict of the blacksmith who is waiting to appraise his handiwork.

"It suits you most excellently, Your Highness." He bows, and chances a smile, but she can see the shadow in his eyes as he folds back the velvet wrappings around a golden helmet, adorned with the shape of an eagle's wings.

Taking it from his outstretched hands, she grants him a smile in return, the confidence to his faltering courage. She has faced the might of a corrupt Archadia and brought Dalmasca to victory, and she will do so again, against men far less formidable than the serpent Solidor.

------

Balfonheim is much like Penelo remembers it, full of liveliness and color. Perhaps even more so, now that she has the chance to actually look at it, to see the ships come and go, not a day passing by when a merchant vessel isn't pulling into port, sending a flood of foreign sailors spilling into the taverns in town. She likes standing at the dock when it happens, to observe the white clouds of sails folding in on themselves, the mighty bulk gliding smoothly to a rest. Ocean-going ships are in high demand now with all the world's mist in constant flux, creating jagd where there was none, making the skystones go berserk.

Nobody quite knows what will happen to the world, and she has heard all kinds of stories, about how there are a lot of places like the Feywood now, and Nabudis, places that got taken over by the mist, fields or villages turned into dens of vile creatures and wandering spirits. Fran says the viera might have to leave Golmore, that the garif refuse to depart from their ancestral lands, and Penelo doesn't like to think too much about what it all means, where it will end.

It is enough to concentrate on Balfonheim, to rub the salt crusts from the oil lamps in the Gull's Nest and learn how to carry six bowls full of stew at once. She has a room and free board above the tavern, and the patrons are nice, much nicer than she expected a bunch of burly sailors to be. It has taken her a while to realize that when they place some coin into her hands, close her fingers around it and say, "That's for your pretty smile," that it's all right for her to keep it, that the gesture isn't a code for some implicit service she never agreed to.

Vaan stopped sulking after a couple of weeks and one or two half-hearted attempts of "going back to Dalmasca" that ended at the door when he realized he would have to make that trek alone, across a few hundred miles of monster-infested highland. Dock work is taking up most of his time now, and Penelo can't say that she isn't grateful he's putting all that energy into carrying sacks and rope, that he's too busy falling into bed at night moaning about his sore muscles to get up to any sort of mischief that might land him in jail.

One less worry on her mind, and she almost forgot what it's like to have a few gil to spend on herself, to be able to afford a little bit of vanity, one of those tiny bottles of fragrant oil that all the Balfonheim women rub into their hair to keep it shiny and smooth. There will be a festival at the town square during the next full moon, with music and food and dancing. Her co-workers have made her promise to come with them, and she thinks she just might, because it's been such a long time since she last found a free moment for dancing.

Sometimes, she thinks of Lady Ashe, alone in her empty throne room, but more often, she thinks of Larsa, sweet, kind-hearted Larsa, chained to an empire that is like a stone giant, ancient and too stiff to move. She tries not to do it too much, because it will bring tears to her eyes, and he wouldn't want to see her cry.

The world moves with its kings and princes, and Penelo has long since learned that she cannot move them in turn, and so it is better to keep her eyes on the soup bowls, and her new friends, and Vaan, and try to do her best to see that life goes on.

------

The cool relief of a curaga washes over her, weaker than she is used to but enough to heal the gash in her right side. The Giza plains are almost complete jagd now, but not jagd enough to keep a blast of white hot cannonfire from tearing through the ramparts on her left. Metal is tearing, men are screaming, but she can barely hear it past the pounding of the blood in her own ears, her smoke-ragged breath enough to fill the world completely.

A blast above, a high-pitched sound, two fighter craft swirling towards the ground in a blaze. Her chocobo stumbles in midstep, barely catches itself from running into an enemy lance. Small satisfaction that the soldier does not expect the thunderspell that tears through him, stopping his bird and heart alike. Engines screaming overhead, and she now knows enough to hear that it is a Rozarrian troop carrier, heading straight for Rabanastre.

"Where's the second fleet?!"

The officer's voice on the other end is shaking. "Your Highness, they aren't— they can't get off the ground! Those cannons, they keep draining mist, it's no use—"

"The paling?"

"The paling is holding, but—"

"I will buy us time. Squadron five and six, we shall launch a full assault on the artillery towers!"

A choked sound. "Your Majesty, that's much too— call for a ceasefire, I beg of you! If we surrender now, perhaps—"

She grits her teeth, pouring her fury into a firaga instead. The second man to lose his courage and succumb to fear and cowardice today, when all they need is a little more time, a little luck— "Hold your tongue. Dalmasca shall not fall! Five and six — charge!"

An crackle in her ear, and then: "You should listen to your subordinates, Ashelia."

"Uncle Halim?!" A shadow above her, and she knows the sleek outline of the Garland even though she cannot afford to take her eyes off the field, has to hope that the joy in her voice is reaching him despite her scarred throat. "Uncle Halim, you came! I knew, I knew you would not forsake—"

"I had to, Ashelia. It would hardly be right, to let Rozarria do the deed in my stead."

"What?!"

"Surrender now, and you might save your Dalmasca yet. Not all is lost; Magrace has pleaded with the queen on your behalf."

"You bastard!" In a tiny, distant part of herself not occupied with rage and blazing cannonfire, she barely recognizes the voice as her own anymore, the hoarse, wounded shriek of a wyvern. "You would betray my father, betray me?!"

"Ashelia, you would do well to—"

"Never! Never! Dalmasca will not bend to a traitor! I'll—"

An odd, high-pitched sound, and then she is slammed to the ground, helmet and head ringing from striking solid rock. Between her thighs, the bird is screeching helplessly, its legs torn away by a shell, and she does not need to try and move to know that her left knee is shattered, buried underneath her own mount. Above her, the Garland's main cannons are rotating, blue-white swirls collecting at their muzzles, and all she can do, all that is left for her to do before they fire, is to scream her hatred towards the sky.

------

The boy before him is but fourteen, but past his calm, restrained face lies the gaze of someone who has seen a hundred years pass by, weary with grief and worry. Locked away in this isolated mansion, friendless and powerless, unable to help his ruined country, unable to know what is happening in the world.

No shock, no disbelief, but simply a mild, surprised, "Oh," when Balthier shoved the door open, interrupting nothing, just the young emperor gazing out the windows and at the horizon, listening for cannonfire that he knows he cannot hear. Basch at his side, more a cipher than he ever was, silent and dignified even without the judges' armor, as if standing guard over this lonely child is his sole place in the world.

Bearing the news that he does, Balthier supposes this is true.

"Rozarria is at the gates. We've come to fetch you."

"The Lady Ashe?"

He bites his lip, aware that he is simply confirming what both already know. "...Dalmasca is no more."

Basch lowers his head further, though Larsa's eyes flash with renewed pain.

"Come. We can all grieve later." He glances at Fran, who knocks the tip of her bow against the head of a guard that looks ready to regain consciousness, and shakes her head.

"Only six of them. We are clear."

"No." Larsa has risen from his seat, surveying the damage dealt, and shaking his head. "I thank the both of you for taking it upon yourself to come here. But I cannot accompany you. I cannot leave my Archadia when she struggles so."

"Your Highness," Basch murmurs, placing his hands on the backrest of the empty chair. "If what Balthier is saying is true, then you must leave. Rozarria will not show mercy because of who you are."

"I know. And that is precisely why I must stay. What place in the world would be safe, if it were to become known that Larsa Solidor has fled?"

"We'll find a way." Even as he says the words, Balthier knows that he has lost, that there is nothing that will sway this boy from staying with the country that has rejected him, to become the sacrifice for its peace. "Don't be a fool, Larsa."

"Such is my decision." With a slight wave, Larsa makes his way towards a wooden cabinet, unlocking one of its drawers. "There is but one thing I would ask of you."

Perhaps he should pretend to think about it now, as is the way of a sky pirate, but all that comes out is, "Anything."

"I wish for you to give these to their destined owner." He flips back the lid on the simple black box in his hands, and Balthier doesn't need to ask anything further. There is only one person in the world for whom such a gift could be meant, delicate golden links and emeralds fashioned in the shape of flowers, a necklace and four bracelets to fasten long, swirling veils on — jewelry for a dancing girl.

Fondly, Larsa runs a hand along the box, before holding it out for him to take. "I had these made when I first returned to Archades. I thought I would be able to give them to her, but now, that is no longer possible. Please let her know that..." He interrupts himself, hesitating, and finally smiles, warm and sure. "No. She will know."

"Yes," Balthier agrees, because it's all that's left for him to do, tucking the box inside his vest. "Yes, she will."

------

On board the Strahl, Balthier does not speak a word.

Fran doesn't need to watch him to sense his movements, feel the jerky, abrupt responses of the ship as he's pressing buttons, readying it for takeoff. The jagd has spread all the way to the Tchita Uplands, and even the improved skystones can only take so much. Checking its compartment carefully, she climbs back up the ladder, sliding back into the co-pilot seat to do her part.

With the Strahl ascending, they both have a perfect view of the mansion, looking lost and lonely on the vast, green plain. In the distance, Archades is rising, and a fire-shrouded fleet to meet it.

There is a saying among the viera that the hume existence is one of pain, and the only way to ease it is to keep changing, constantly and always, forever moving forward. She has never told this to Balthier, young and ever-changing as he is, but now she thinks she might, so that he may draw comfort from the fact that he has been doing the right thing, the only right thing, all along.

Not now, however, not now.

For the moment, it is enough to reach for his hand, clenched tight around the throttle, and line up their fingers one by one. Along the horizon, the first explosions are going off, sending red-blue ripples through the paling, and together, they push the throttle forward, the Strahl gunning into the beautiful, terrible blue sky.







- FIN -
--------

A/N: I always felt the ending to FFXII (plotholes notwithstanding) was the most tragic possible outcome of all the outcomes they could have picked. The only way it could be considered happy, and not a catastrophe, is by applying fairytale logic, so... this got written. I'm sorry, Larsa. So very sorry. Anyway, C&C is much appreciated.


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Off the Homerow: Fanfiction Journal of Aphelion Orion

January 2012

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