(NOTE: THIS UPDATE IS NSFW. That said, I hope you're enjoying the story, and remember, there's more to read at quickascanbe dot com)

Chapter 55: Reprieve

...For the Ydorans have built a castle of sand and pretend it is an impregnable fortress, but in their hearts they know their weakness, and fear the challenge we may bring against them. So if you follow me, my friends, you will follow me against the powers of the worlds, the cold winds and churning seas of scorn and hate, the storm of fury they will unleash upon us rather than admit our righteousness. But though it may not be easy, I promise you this: our God is a righteous God, and united in his benediction there is no storm we cannot endure, no sea we cannot swim, no Empire we cannot topple.

-Balias Gospel, "Ajora's Call to the Disciples"

Ramza sat besides their little fire, his body aching, his eyelids drooping. Their small company was scattered throughout the shallow cave they'd found in the rolling hills far to the northeast of the Gallows. Lavian alone shared his vigil, still tending to Agrias' wounds as best as she could with Alicia's scepter in hand. The others were all asleep throughout the cave, Radia huddled tight against one wall, Mustadio snoring against another, Alicia curled as close to Lavian as she could be without interfering with her work.

Ramza looked down to his palm. The bloody wound upon now looked a few days old, scabbed over with fresh skin. It was still sore, but Lavian had given him only the barest of ministrations: most of her focus had been on Agrias.

"You need rest," he said, not for the first time.

Lavian shook her long-haired head. "Not until she's better."

"And if we need more healing?" Ramza asked, studying her. Lavian had already been in a bad state when they'd pulled her from the gaol—her face puffy with bruises, her wrists and ankles raw and chafed, her hair mussed and greasy. Now her light brown hair was stringier yet with the sweat still standing out against her forehead, and she was very pale. The scepter shook in her trembling hands as it poured gentle light into Agrias' many wounds.

"I'll handle that, too," Lavian whispered.

Ramza sighed. He still felt weak and stretched thin—casting a significant spell not once but twice, as well as having Gaffgarion drain the strength from him, had exhausted some essential reservoir deep inside him. It had taken all his will just to stay standing, and he had half-slept in the course of their long march to the north, searching for some safe haven in case Gaffgarion should return to finish the job, everyone leaning on each other, shouldering what packs they could.

Lavian may not have participated in the battle, but she had been at work tending to their wounds for hours—first at the Gallows, then along their march, and now tending to Agrias as night settled across Lionel. If Ramza was tired, how much worse off might she be? But if their roles were reversed, would he be doing any different?

While he pondered this, Lavian murmured, "Took me without a fight."

"Huh?"

"Gaffgarion drained me," Lavian said. "Then chained me. Couldn't save the Princess. Couldn't save..." She trailed off, though her eyes flickered to Alicia. "And you're all so hurt, and...and I couldn't..."

The scepter trembled a little more in her hands, and Ramza felt an answering tremor undulating across his spine. He knew they were both thinking of the Princess. Ovelia, who Lavian had failed to save, who Ramza had failed to save, who had been bait for a trap that had nearly killed them all and who had not even been present at the Gallows.

Did Delita know?

"So," Lavian said, swallowing her tears. "I'm gonna...do this. Okay?"

Ramza nodded. "Okay."

His heavy eyelids drooped shut. The next think he knew, he was blinking awake. The fire had died, and all through the cave were the little snores and heavy breaths of the sleeping party. But was that all? No, there was something else, wasn't there? Very soft, so soft he could barely make it out, but unmistakable once he noticed it: footsteps.

He squinted his eyes. The cave was dark, but from there was enough light from the moon and stars to just make out the entrance to the cave. A shadow stood there, looking out. A wiry silhouette, with her red hair askew.

She crept quietly from the cave. Without thinking, Ramza rose clumsily to his aching feet, and stumbled after. Outside, stars and moon cast everything in a ghostly light that felt eerily familiar. It took Ramza a moment to understand why, and when he did, his heart lurched unsteadily in his chest. It looked just as it had when he had stood upon the Lenalian Plateau, with the Valkyries burning behind him, and Delita breaking before him.

But it wasn't Delita standing near the crest of a nearby hill, staring up into the starlit sky. It was Radia, the last living Valkyrie, still moving a little stiffly after her long captivity, her ill-fitting prison smock ragged after their long flight (they'd scavenged some equipment off the dead soldiers, including a fine spear of Ydoran make, but had only stopped long enough to give the Lionesses proper shoes and boots before pressing on).

"I didn't want to wake you," she said, without looking at Ramza.

Ramza shook his head. "I don't mind."

She was still staring up at the sky, so Ramza followed her gaze. God, but how the sky glowed, all those stars blazing with all their quiet lights. Here blue, here red, here a little green, painting an eddying picture of gentle radiance across the black canvas of the night. How long had it been since he simply looked at the stars?

"I'm so sorry, Ramza," Radia said.

Ramza looked down from the sky, and found Radia staring at him. Starlight glistened in the tears on her cheeks. "I...the things I said...and it all...it...

Ramza felt an ache has fierce as any of the ones he'd acquired during the day's battle radiate out like a quiet fire, starting in his heart and spreading down to squeeze his guts and tighten his chest. "You don't have to be sorry for anything, Radia!" he protested. "I'm the one who...Lucavi take me, the things I said to you-" And he remembered the last time he'd seen her, screaming at each other in the hallway, hurting her for no other reason than to mask his own pain and now his eyes were burning with tears and he was moving towards Radia and Radia towards him and she was against him, almost as tall as him so her head was buried in his neck, her breath tickling him even as he sobbed so his sobs were half-laughs.

"I'm sorry," they murmured together, over and over, clinging to each other desperately, sobbing and laughing and sobbing again, and soon standing was too much for Ramza, weak as he was from the hard day's fighting, and they sank down together into the grass on the opposite side of the hill from the cave. Hidden from view, she rested her head against his chest while he stared up at the starlit sky. There sobs had eased, though their faces were still sticky with tears.

"I didn't want you to go," Radia whispered. "I didn't..." There was a hitch in her voice.

"I didn't want to leave you," Ramza answered. "I wanted you with me. When I heard you'd been...when I..." He felt another sob rising in his throat, making it hard to speak. God, he'd been so terrified of what might happen to her. He had kept moving relentlessly, for fear of stopping to think.

"You're not a coward," Radia whispered, her fingers tightening on his ribs. "You try so hard and you never stopped trying and I always loved that about you I just...I didn't..." She buried her face against his chest.

"Neither are you," Ramza whispered fiercely, wrapping his arms as tight around her as he could manage, though his muscles ached in protest. "I can't believe I...after everything you've done, and the way you've fought, and..." He pulled her tighter in spite of his pain, desperate to have her closer, to feel her warmth and reality, to make her feel his own solidity, to somehow apologize in the embrace and assure her he'd never hurt her again.

"You're the bravest person I know," Ramza breathed. "You're the best person I know. You're..." He didn't know what else to say, to express this intense upswelling of warm, choking feeling, of gratitude and relief and grief and sorrow, of desperate, heart-throttling need to make her understand what he was feeling. She shifted on his chest, and he looked down and found her staring up at him, her green eyes sparkling with tears and something else, a feeling Ramza felt stirring in his chest, his guts, his groin.

He wasn't sure, then or later, who kissed who first. It was simply motion, as exhilarating as any dance or fight, as delirious as any drunken buzz, and suddenly she had unfolded against him, her lips against his, her hands trailing over his body, and the feeling in his chest seemed to burst like a bubble, unleashing a fierce wind that blew through his veins and laced his skin with lightning. He felt like he was soaring within his own body—all his aches, his wounds, his tiredness were washed away by the giddy electric thrill.

First the kiss, lips parting ways for tongues, teeth biting him so hard he thought he might bleed, and soon her mouth was on his neck and her fingers in his scalp, leaving currents of fire in their wake, and he wrapped his hands tight around her waist, pulling her as close as he could and she still wasn't close enough, he needed more of her, he needed-

She rocked away from him, and he felt a moment's irritation mingled with fear, she couldn't pull away, he needed more, he ached for more, and then she was pulling the prison smock from her shoulders, her dark nipples rock-hard even in the warm summer air, and she looked so perfect in the gentle glow, her skin seemed to meld with it so she was less a creature of flesh and more a thing of spun starlight, and Ramza was no stranger to arousal but not like this, like a bell ringing in his belly, waves of music radiating out from his stomach so he felt painfully hard and his chest felt painfully tight and if he didn't feel her skin against his he felt that he would surely die.

He sat up in one swift motion, one hand around the back of her neck and one along the small of her back, pulling her closer, and caught one pebbly nipple in his mouth, not sure what he was doing and too wild with desire to care. With a sigh that was half a chuckle and half a moan she ground against him, right along his rigid length, and Ramza gasped and nearly collapsed backwards at the seizuring burst of sensation, but now her strong arms were around him, holding him tight, so tight and so close and so bright and so intense, like the exhausting pleasure of a too-hot bath, and Ramza moaned and pulled her closer, rocking against her in turn.

Then she was fumbling for his leather-and-bronze leggings, struggling to unlace them, and Ramza tried to help but the knots were too tight and his fingers too clumsy. She caught his eye as they struggled to pick loose the knots and suddenly they were both laughing again, leaning into each other, her hands on him, his on her, and the laughter seemed to make everything a little softer. It eased the tightness in his chest and the flock of birds fluttering in his stomach, and he caught Radia and pulled her towards him, kissing her softly this time, trying to savor her, trying to convey with his lips his gratitude, his relief, his gladness.

Calmer now, so together they could undo his leggings, and then her hand was on him (and how strange that was, a hand that was not his own, rougher, different, electric with newness). But then the birds returned in full flapping madness, and Ramza felt himself trembling with trepidation and Radia was rising against him, her bush tickling his stomach, and Ramza giggled nervously and then stared up into her eyes and stuttered, "You know it's...it's my first..."

"I'll be gentle," Radia grinned, and in that grin Ramza discovered a part of her he'd never known. The grin was mischievous, and daring, and earnest, and a little self-conscious. It was so honest, so vulnerable, that Ramza felt dizzy with it. He'd never seen her look more beautiful.

And then she slid down upon him, and Ramza's thoughts were obliterated in warm, wet pleasure.

Slow, so slow, so delicate, and a part of Ramza was grateful and a part of him was aching, because he couldn't imagine handling any more but he wanted more, and he raised his hands to her waist and then flinched away as his wound brushed against her hip, and she caught both his wrists and pinned him down upon the hillside so the blades of grass tickled the back of his hands. Still so slow, and her grin was flickering like a candle in the wind, replaced with something else, with a look Ramza had never seen before, on her or on anyone, a look at once of intense concentration and intense loss, as though she was struggling desperately to remember something but at the same time had just awoken from a full-night's sleep. Her lips were slightly parted, her eyes just a little glazed.

Faster now, and every movement stirred something like a heartbeat in him, a heartbeat he could feel from the tip of his cock down to the soles of his feet and up to the hair on his head. Rocking against him, and he against her, staring into her bright eyes, longing for her, lusting for her, and above all else grateful for her, grateful that she was here with him, that he hadn't lost her, that her skin was so close, that she was so close, and he felt himself exalted within her, losing himself in the infinity of her.

Faster, faster, faster, and Ramza could take no more, heedless of the pain he wrested himself free of her pinning hands, wrapped his hands around her hips and forced her to go faster, tried to pull her closer, to feel more of her, even as his mind seemed to be drifting away to some far-away place and he could see something wild in her eyes, and then she sank down upon him, dug her teeth deep into his neck as he took over, rocking her whole body with his aching arms and then she was shuddering, inside and out, and it was too much for Ramza.

He managed to gasp, "I'm-I'm-" and perhaps that was enough, for she pulled away from him, reached down and caught him, kept working him, and the pleasure mounted and mounted until in one tingling exaltation he felt himself come, a punch of pure pleasure that left him mindless.

She slumped against his chest, drawing another gasp from him as she brushed the tip of his penis. She glanced at him with a sly smile, which he returned rather sheepishly. His thoughts were coming back to him, drifting slowly like dandelions. He felt languid with the aftershock of orgasm, warm and buzzing with lust.

Should he say something? He felt like he should say something. But he also felt like he had nothing to say, and even if he did have something to say he wasn't sure he could find the words.

"Your first time, huh?" Radia murmured. Ramza looked down at her, found her green eyes a little dreamy, a sleepy, satisfied smile on her face.

Ramza tried to shrug nonchalantly without disturbing her place on his chest. "When would I have...you've been with me the past two years."

"But not before, huh?" Radia asked. Ramza shook his head, and Radia chuckled. "Wow, you must think I'm a slut."

Ramza shook his head again, rather more fiercely than he intended. "No, I don't...you're..." But then he caught the devilish gleam in her eyes, and exclaimed, "You're making fun of me!"

"Can't blame me," Radia said. "It's easy."

"Just like you," Ramza shot back.

Radia punched him lightly in the side of his ribs. Ramza grinned, and wrapped an arm around her. He liked the warm feel of her, the tingling of her skin against his, the pressure of her body against his chest and thighs.

"I'm not your first," Ramza said. It wasn't a question.

"Nah," Radia said.

"So I'm your...?"

"Third."

"Who-" Ramza started, and broke off. Christ, was that something he was supposed to ask? What if he offended her?

"First was a boy," Radia said, apparently unperturbed. "Son of one of my dad's contacts. Saw each other every couple months for awhile, and one night we got into my dad's whiskey..." She shrugged. "Second was one of the Valkyries."

"One of the..." Ramza stared at her. "I thought...weren't all the Valkyries..."

"Women?" Radia said, with a sly grin. "Yeah."

"Oh," Ramza said, and just allowed that pleasant thought to percolate for awhile.

"You like that, huh?" Radia asked.

"What?" Ramza said, jolted from his dreamy reverie. "What do you-"

"I can feel it."

Ramza flushed. "Oh." God, this wasn't how he'd imagined...not that he'd spent all that much time imagining, but he'd surely thought of it occasionally, when she'd huddled against him for comfort, or when he'd clung to her to help ease his doubts, but was that weird, was that-?

"Seriously, though," Radia said. "No one else?"

"I kissed someone, once," Ramza said.

"Who were they?"

Ramza closed his eyes against the flash of memory and grief—the dark eyes beneath the clay-red hair. "Teta."

Silence for a long time. "Oh," Radia said at last.

Silence again. Ramza's head was heavy with Teta now—Teta, who he had failed to save. Teta, whose brother may have sent them headlong into a trap. Their victory had been such a near thing, and Agrias was still hurt, and who knew what the night would bring, or the days that followed? Who knew what else they might risk? What else they might lose?

A terrible thought occurred to him, so thick and fearful it choked him. He swallowed against his dread, and struggled to form the words. "Your second," Ramza said. "The Valkyrie...I...I didn't...did I?"

Radia shook her head: he felt it against his chest. "No," she said. "Hokuten skirmish, a month before I met you."

Ramza felt a warm flood of relief that was immediately chilled by guilt. She had lost someone she cared about, and Ramza had felt relieved it wasn't him or his friends that had done the deed. What if he hurt someone else she loved? What if he hurt Gaffgarion?

As though she could read his thoughts, Radia said, "My dad...he's okay?"

Ramza opened his eyes to find that Radia's were scrunched tight. "He seemed fine," Ramza said cautiously.

Radia made a strange grunting noise that was somewhere between a laugh and a sob. "Should I be glad, or mad?"

"Why not both?" Ramza asked.

The next sound she made was much more of a laugh. "That'd fit the pattern." She clung closer to him, and he wrapped both arms around her. They were quiet for a time: Ramza felt almost drowsy with her presence.

"I don't want him to die," Radia said.

Ramza looked down at her. Her eyes were open again, looking up into the starry sky. He followed her gaze, and felt the gleaming stars somehow echoing his own strange feelings, the mix of cold and analytical distance and warmth and brightness. He found he was smiling.

"I know," Ramza said.

"I...my mother, and...Captain Miluda, and Carmen, and Teta, and everyone...and I know my dad is...I know!" She shook her head fiercely. "But why...I just..." She sighed, and buried her face against his chest again. "Why's it like this, Ramza? Why's it so fucking hard?"

Ramza stayed quiet. "I dunno, Rad," he said at last, with a little emphasis on the nickname she hated.

She snorted and smacked his chest. "Don't call me that."

He smiled a little, and lowered his voice. "Really, though. I...I don't. I...after Teta..." He remembered Zeakden again (or was it still? It seemed Zeakden was always with him now, as it had been the moment he saw Delita illuminated by lightning). "Zalbaag and I...our swords were out, but I don't know if I could have...

He trailed off, not sure what he was trying to say, his head thick with the memory of his brother in the snow and Teta's corpse beyond. To drown the thought, he kissed the crown of Radia's head, and breathed deep the sweaty, earthy scent of her. "I don't know why," he whispered. "But I know what it's like."

She caught his hands with hers, interlaced her fingers, and squeezed tight, pulling him closer against her. They stayed like that for awhile.

"Ovelia wasn't there?" Radia said, in a small voice, and just like that Ramza's languid post-sex calm was sundered entirely, because it was Ovelia he was trying desperately not to think about. All the risk of the past few battles, all the desperate combat, the men and women he'd killed at the Gallows, the life and limb they'd risked plunging into a trap...none of it had saved Ovelia. She hadn't even been there to be saved.

Did Delita know?

Ramza shook his head against the grim question. Radia sat up, the starlight outlining the contours of her wiry body, the slight teardrop swell of her small, firm breasts, the delicate curve where ribs tapered down at the waist. "It's not right," Radia said.

"No," Ramza said, though his voice was thick with fear again. Because for a moment he had triumphed, snatching Radia, Alicia, and Lavian from the clutches of their enemies and protecting his friends through a difficult battle, but all that victory masked a bitter truth. They had set out to save a Princess, and that Princess was yet beyond their reach.

"I wanted to...I really..." She shook her head, her greasy red hair sliding around her thin face. "Being a Lioness? Serving her? It just...it feels right."

Of course it did. In the short time Ramza had known her, Ovelia had been nothing but exemplary—compassionate, bold, brave, and determined, fearless in spite of the scale of the forces set against her. Ramza had not really understood loyalty until he'd met her. He'd never known anyone he was more wiling to fight for. She was his friend, yes, but more than that, she was his Princess.

"I'm with you, Radia," Ramza said.

"I know," Radia said. She ran her fingers through his thick blonde hair, then caressed the back of his neck with the tips of her fingers, tracing fingertips along his skin in a way that sent rivulets of slow lightning through Ramza's scalp and shoulders. He leaned into her touch, trembling a little, then reached for her hand with his own, letting his fingers walk slowly up her bare arm, just grazing her breast before coming to rest upon her back. Even with his heavy thoughts, the sight of her—the feel of her!—was intoxicating: he struggled desperately to control himself and keep his fingers moving, trying to do something for her, too. He forced his fingers to move in that same slow, delicate, deliberate way, sketching a path around her shoulder blade and up her spine. She seemed to like it—she stretched against him like a preening cat, and the feel of her made him stiffen painfully, a hardness he could feel in his belly.

With his other hand, he cupped her cheek. She was looking at him, her eyes a little glazed, not quite smiling, and he let his hand trail down, just between the valley of her breasts, sketching a path down through her course pubic hair, until he touched something wet.

She gasped, and grabbed at his hair as though clinging to driftwood in a storm.

As the stars began to fade a little before the pre-dawn glow on the horizon, Ramza clumsily laced his leggings and then helped Radia find her clothes. Then hand-in-hand they made their reluctant way back to the cave they'd left behind, both a little sweatier than they had been before. She gave him one curious look as they crested the hill, and spied the dreamy look of concentration on his face.

"What's wrong?" she asked.

"I just like the way you taste," he said, and was surprised at his own boldness.

She laughed, and pulled him along towards the cave. But as they drew closer, the afterglow faded to embers once more. The cave was not as quiet as it had been: there were sounds of arguing and alarm. Then they heard Agrias' strident voice: "UNHAND ME!"

They released each others' hands, and jogged for the cave.

Inside, they found everyone awake. Floating lights hung near the ceiling, casting everything in a shadowy illumination. Mustadio, Lavian, and Alicia, were all struggling with Agrias, who was trying to force her way past them.

"You have to rest!" Lavian pleaded, pushing against Agrias' shoulders.

"There is no time for rest!" Agrias spat, moving jerkily and awkwardly as her various wounds and pains troubled her. "They have the Princess!"

"We can't save her if you're dead, Captain!" barked Alicia, grappling with Agrias, trying to force her back down to the ground.

"Get out of my way!" Agrias bellowed, and in spite of her injuries and the strain of the past day she seemed about to overwhelm the others.

"Agrias!" Ramza said, hurrying to help

Agrias lifted feverish eyes to Ramza's face. "We failed, Ramza!" she shouted. "They have her and...and...!"

Her eyes glazed over (not unlike Radia's, Ramza thought, with a mixture of shock, guilt, and amusement), and she sank to one side, suddenly much paler . Mustadio caught her, and lowered her gently to the ground again. "It's alright," he said quietly. "Really. You're okay. You're okay." Lavian took up the scepter again, but Alicia snatched it from her hands.

"Give it back," Lavian said, glaring at her.

"You're exhausted," Alicia retorted. "I can do the basic healing."

"Not like I can."

"There's...no time...for..." Agrias muttered, fighting to rise again, but her breathing came in quick gasps and her eyes were glassy and her hair was damp with the sweat of her exertion.

"Stay down!" Mustadio said, wincing a little as he used his injured arm to keep her pinned

"Here, Lavian," Radia said, and put her hand on the other woman's shoulder. Something shimmered from her hand and into Lavian: Lavian straightened, looking a good deal more awake than she had before, as Radia hunched over a little, her face screwed up. Ramza was at her side in a moment, helping her to her feet, trying to reassure her with his touch (and eager to touch her again, if he was being honest).

"You didn't need to do that," Lavian said, her full lips pursed.

"Yeah I did," Radia answered, leaning heavily on Ramza.

For a moment, every one looked at each other. Everyone so busy trying to sacrifice themselves for the group, or for the people they cared about. Everyone heedless of their injuries and exhaustion, desperate to make amends. In every face, the same mingled look of exhaustion, fear, doubt, and gratitude. In every eye, the same sense of belonging.

Baron Grimms had offered Ramza a chance at being a part of something righteous again. But Ramza had found a better company all on his own. A company who made him feel like he could be righteous, and win through.

"We don't know where the Princess is," Ramza said. "But I bet the Cardinal does."

All eyes turned to him. He felt himself prickle uncomfortably beneath the weight of their expectations, but tried to look as though he were unperturbed. As though he were sure, and confident, and as though his thighs didn't still ache, his hand still itch, his skin still tingle.

"You are suggesting we take Lionel?" Mustadio asked.

"Yes," Ramza answered.

"How?" Alicia asked, but she didn't sound incredulous. She sounded curious.

They believed in him. They really believed they could take a nearly-impregnable castle, wounded and scattered as they were. And for a moment Ramza felt choked by that belief, claustrophic with the fear of ailing them as he'd failed Teta and Delita.

But then Radia caught his eye, and something in her gaze steadied him. She was leaning on him, but somehow it felt as though he were leaning on her.

"We took the Gallows with three," Ramza answered. "I think the six of us can make short work of a castle."

Mustadio's lips twitched up into a real smile. Alicia and Lavian's eyes sparked. Even Agrias seemed a little calmer.

"When do we start?" Agrias asked.

"After you rest," Ramza said. "After you heal."

Agrias closed her eyes, and at last nodded reluctantly. Lavian took the scepter from Alicia and started tending to Agrias' wounds once more. And Radia's hand reached out and took Ramza's hand in hers.

Though the risks were many, none of them had given up hope. They would yet try to save the Princess. Perhaps their cause was foolish, but at least none of these fools would try alone.

Ramza smiled at Radia, and squeezed her hand in turn.