Of Love and Chocobos

Agrias was not in a good mood.

They had been traveling for days without stopping at an inn; she was tired, stiff, cranky, and worst of all, she hadn't been able to bathe in days due to the lack of a stream or anything that even resembled a pond. All they had come across was a fast running river that her knights had convinced her wasn't safe to get into… eventually. The river had been swollen from the recent rains and was even more dangerous than it usually would've been, what with the jagged rocks in it and everything. But she had so desperately wanted a bath.

All it was good for was watering the chocobos they were riding.

Oh, and that was another thing-- the chocobos. The cranky, stinking, filthy chocobos they had been forced to capture because of the trail through the mountains they had to take. On foot, it would've taken them over two weeks to cross, but with the smelly birds, it would only take around five sunsets. And, according to Agrias' careful counting, those five days had already passed yesterday and there was still no sign of a village nearby. Civilization seemed a little too scarce for her liking.

Agrias frowned at her rocky surroundings once again then turned her fixed glare to their fearless leader's back. Not only had he made them take this God forsaken trail, but he was also the only one who still seemed hopeful they weren't lost. It irked her to no end that he could be so optimistic.

But isn't that one of the things you admire about him? her inner-self pointed out helpfully.

Agrias' annoyance grew at the thought and she forced it aside as she urged her stubborn chocobo forward toward the front line. The stupid bird 'wark'ed in protest and tried to continue it's slow trot, but a sharp jab from her boot in its side forced it to reconsider. It trotted forward obediently enough, past the Archers and Monks and Time Mages that traveled ahead of her, until she finally reached Ramza and Mustadio at the head of the party.

The two men were interrupted from their conversation by the arrival of her rather noisy chocobo. As soon as Agrias noticed how perfectly docile the two birds they were riding were compared to her monster, her teeth clenched. To top it off, they didn't look uncomfortable after riding hours upon hours on the smelly things, while she felt like she'd never be able to sit again from the rough ride. She had been trained to ride chocobos in the Knighthood, of course, but after she had risen to be Princess Ovelia's personal bodyguard, chocobo riding hadn't been much of an issue anymore. Ovelia had hardly ever traveled out of the Monastery and when she had, Agrias had received the best trained of the animals with a damn saddle, thank you very much. Riding these animals bare-bummed was torture.

"Agrias," Mustadio greeted with a smile, completely unaffected with the fact that he was as dirty as she was.

Men…

The engineer's perpetual smile slowly faded when she frowned at him. They had gotten friendlier throughout the time they'd been traveling, and Agrias had found that while the young man was an excellent friend and marksman, he did not deal with people much since most of his time was spent with his machines. But even he figured that she wasn't in the mood to talk right now, so he did the only smart thing.

"Um, I'll leave it to you, Ramza," he murmured before turning his chocobo and heading to the back of the group where Cid was flanking the troops.

Ramza rolled his eyes heavenward and sighed, but when he turned to Agrias' set frown, he couldn't help thinking that maybe the engineer had done the right move.

He cleared his throat nervously before speaking. "Anything wrong, Agrias?"

"Well, 'O fearless leader," she began in a tone that made him tense. "I was wondering if you've noticed that the trail hasn't gotten any more civilized since we set out."

"Um, yes, I--"

"And I was also wondering," she continued, "if you had become aware of the little error in your calculations. From what you told us, we should have arrived at a village by now."

He nodded. "Yes, well--"

"You do understand, Ramza," she interrupted again, turning to him and raising one of her delicate eyebrows as they began topping a rise, "that under these circumstances, even the most trained of warriors can get testy and irritable and short-tempered quite easily?"

"Yes, I understand--"

"Then why in Saint Ajura's name," she demanded in a voice that was way too calm for his liking, "did you lead us through this trail to nowhere?"

It didn't help his nerves any that her azure eyes were narrowed dangerously. "Eh, well, you see..."

But she never got her answer because just then a loud roar that nearly ended with half of the troops deaf echoed throughout the mountains and interrupted all their actions. The chocobos 'wark'ed at the roar, and the wilder ones-- like Agrias'-- bolted at the approach of the monsters.

Agrias only had a glimpse of Bombs and Bone Snatch's behind her before her chocobo ran off with her over the rise and into the land beyond.

Her trained reflexes kicked in immediately and she tried to get a hold of the panicked animal, but without reins to pull on, she couldn't do much but clench her teeth and hope that she wouldn't be thrown off. She was not worried about the others since the monsters they had been attacked by weren't any real danger. What she was worried about was where this stupid animal was taking her.

The chocobo headed down the trail until they reached a fork in the road. Following instinct, the animal headed away from the trail to civilization and into the clump of trees that would probably hide it from view and danger.

Agrias swore out loud and leaned in lower on the bird's back, hoping not to get hit by any branch. But wasn't it just her luck that she would? She yelped as her shoulder collided with a tree limb and she was knocked off the panicked bird. She landed on her back with a force that knocked the air out of her lungs.

Agrias lay there for a while, trying to regain her breath and somewhere in the distance, she could hear a chocobo continue fleeing for it's miserable life. Breathing heavily and muttering under her breath, Agrias sat up slowly.

And finally realized what she had landed on.

Her angered cry was what helped Ramza find her. As soon as he heard it, he urged his chocobo to a run, his heart pounding in his chest and his weapon in hand as he worriedly wondered what had happened, what had attacked her, was she hurt--

... only to find her perfectly safe, if a bit filthy, in a heap of mud in the middle of the small forest.

He forced his chocobo to a ragged halt in front of her and stared openly. The mud she had landed on was still quite goopy, since it hadn't dried under the trees from the recent rains.

Agrias glanced up at his approach and glared so severely, his chocobo backed up a step.

"I. Hate. This." She ground out through clenched teeth. She then followed the declaration with a string of such ugly obscenities that Ramza's brows lifted in surprise at her colorful language. He didn't know why he was so surprised, though. She was a knight, after all.

He climbed off his chocobo and approached her slowly, warily. When he offered a hand to help her up, she just slapped it away with a look so fierce it could've split stone in half. She stood up herself, mud sliding off of her and falling in loud, wet clumps. With a low growl, Agrias began the lengthy task of trying to remove what was left on her attire.

Knowing what was safer; Ramza stood back and studied her. He noticed that most of her armor was covered in the black muck, but it wasn't only that. So were her clothes and, once she turned, he saw that even her auburn braid was caked in it.

"Um, you have some over there..." but he trailed off when she looked up, her eyes flashing dangerously. Clearly, she blamed him for this. So he shut his mouth and just watched silently.

Agrias used her gloved hand to wipe the worst of the mud off her armor, and then, not finding anywhere to get rid of that, she wiped off her glove against her trousers, staining them further. In the end, she just sighed in frustration and pushed away the auburn strands that had escaped her braid and were now hanging in her face. Without a bath and a place to wash everything, she couldn't really do much...

Ramza chuckled a little when he saw the mud streak she had left on her cheek. Agrias immediately looked up at his laugh and frowned dangerously.

"What is so amusing?" She asked in an ominous tone, dusting her gloved hands together with enough force that Ramza winced.

"Ah, nothing," he said, shaking his head and swallowing another chuckle. But that didn't seem to soothe Agrias any.

"So, you think it's funny that I'm filthy and that I smell like a chocobo stable and that I lost my stupid bird because it was an even bigger coward than a pair of Nanten Knights, do you?" She growled, approaching him. The calm that she had forced earlier was gone.

Ramza began backing off, but was stopped short by his chocobo who had reliably stayed close behind.

With a smirk, Agrias reached down and scooped up a handful of fresh mud, watching in satisfaction as his eyes widened.

"W-what are you going to do with that?" He asked nervously as she stopped in front of him.

"Oh, nothing really. Just giving you an idea of what I feel like," she murmured before she lifted her hand and brought the mud down on top of his head with a loud plop.

Ramza grimaced as he felt the mess land on his head, sliding down the sides of his face in cold trails and dripping onto his armor. His dark blue eyes traveled to Agrias' face accusingly, but then he saw the satisfied smirk that was lightening her features. And he couldn't help the grin that tugged at his lips.

"Feel better?" He asked as he reached up with one hand to brush most of the mud off his blond hair.

"I actually do," Agrias admitted, allowing herself a smile as she clapped her hands free of mud once again. She hadn't smiled once throughout this whole trip through the mountains and Ramza was glad she finally did.

But, she still owed him.

"Well, I'm glad you are," Ramza approved with a nod and a small smile. Then, with a rare mischievous gleam in his eyes, he reached up and grazed her cheek with his mud-covered knuckles, intentionally staining her face further. He had the satisfaction of seeing her eyes widen in surprise and a faint blush stain her cheekbones with what he was sure was anger...

...Before he began running for his life.

> > > >

Not too far off, Mustadio, Cid, and the rest of the troops were waiting patiently for their missing leader and the female knight to return. The enemy had been eliminated easily, and as soon as Ramza had made sure the rest of his team was okay, he had gone off after Agrias and her panicky animal.

"I hope she's all right," Mustadio murmured worriedly.

"I'm sure she's just fine, lad," Cid rumbled reassuringly, his sharp gaze never leaving the clump of trees.

A few moments later, they were all startled to see their fearless leader (who had survived countless of battles against impossible odds, might I add) dash out of the small forest in a run for his life.

Shouted insults and a barrage of mud missiles quickly followed his escape, many of the missiles nearly hitting their target.

And Ramza couldn't stop laughing from his cover behind a gnarled tree. Which was a first as far as Mustadio was concerned.

But once Mustadio saw the usually impeccable and ruthless Agrias step out of the trees, covered in mud and bristling in anger, he could understand why Ramza was so amused. And he began laughing, too.

Cid was a seasoned veteran, one who could spot signs of danger a mile away. And as soon as he saw the death-glare Agrias focused at Mustadio, he inched away from the engineer and the mess that would soon ensue.

Ramza only laughed harder when Mustadio's laughter was cut short by a handful of mud chucked right at his face.

> > > >

"I'm telling you, Agrias. With such a good eye for aim, you should use long range weapons as well as your sword."

"Don't be ridiculous, Mustadio. You may take this as an insult, but I don't consider your peashooter a real weapon."

Chuckle.

"Oh, you keep quiet, Ramza. You use the gun as much as I do. Anyway, what do you think, Cid?"

"I'm sorry to say, lad, but I agree with the lady. My sword is the only weapon I trust with my life. As the saying goes, 'He who lives by the sword will die by the sword'."

Sigh. "You Knights and your senseless logic. Well, I still say you should consider it, Agrias. I could teach you if you wanted me to, you know. You could taunt someone out of their hiding place with your verbal abuse and then shoot 'em. You've proved today to have a talent in both skills. Hey, come on, don't glare at me like that! Besides, it's always a good idea to have at least some knowledge on all kinds of weapons, right Ramza? You don't know what you may have to go up against next."

"Humph."

"No, he's right, Agrias. What better way to defeat your enemy than to know their weapons as well as they do?"

"..."

"You forget that she's still angry with you, Ramza."

Sigh. "No. I just hoped we had gotten over that."

"Just because I'm riding a chocobo with you doesn't mean I've forgiven you for dragging us through this horrendous dirt path you call a road. I'm just here because I lost my own mount."

"Well, then maybe the sight of the town ahead will cheer you up and make you forgive him."

"Town? Where?"

"Just above that rise over there. The scouts ahead already signaled, but you were too busy ignoring Ramza to notice."

"Ramza, why didn't you tell me! Let's go faster! Come on! I sorely need a bath!"

"Yes, ma'am."

Mustadio and Cid chuckled as they watched them leave, the engineer's cheekbones and forehead still stained with small bits of dried mud. They both watched as the yellow bird ran towards the small town as fast as it could, Agrias' muddy braid bouncing on her back as they disappeared over the small hill.

Mustadio was sure he wasn't the only one looking forward to having Agrias clean and in a good mood once again.

> > > >

Agrias sighed contentedly as she sank further into the heated water. This was bliss.

She scrubbed herself vigorously with a cloth and lather from the big bar of yellow soap, getting all the mud and dirt and sweat and blood (some from monsters and some her own) off of her skin. Some of her wounds that hadn't completely healed yet reopened, but they were small, so she didn't worry. She just emptied her tub of the dirty water and asked for a refill, which was going to cost extra, but she figured that this would be her revenge on Ramza. It was his fault, anyway.

Agrias was so happy with being clean and fresh once again, that she didn't even really mind all the nonsense chatter the rest of the females of the group shared with each other in the bathing room. Gossip and pointless conversation that got their minds off all the fighting and death that followed them around in this time of war, but she figured that it was the only way they felt more at ease with each other.

And, as she observed them from her tub, as she listened to them giggle about the men in the troops and whom they deemed was a fine catch, she... envied them a little. They, as women, shared their thoughts and knowledge on everything, from whom was marrying whom next, to why their fearless leader Ramza was so far, the best catch of them all.

And she couldn't stop the way her face heated when they stated some of the reasons. So, she sank deeper into her tub and tried to concentrate on relaxing.

She stayed in the bathing room for a good while, even after the rest of the girls left to go eat their supper in the dining room below. She soaked and rinsed until she could finally see her skin gleaming. Then, she allowed herself to relax, like she did every time she bathed, until she felt practically boneless. And she slept.

By the time she woke up, all the other females were gone and her water had cooled. Shivering a little, Agrias climbed out of the tub and emptied it, then turned to get dressed...

Only to find that her clothes weren't there anymore.

It sounded so stupid, that her clothes were gone, but she had left her clothes there, folded on top of the stool next to her tub where she'd be able to grab them quickly if need be. And they were gone.

All that was left was a white shift; the type women wore under their dresses. And Agrias knew for sure that it wasn't hers. She didn't have dresses, why would she need a shift? But, finding nothing else to wear in the meantime, she slipped into it and then stalked over to the door, yanking it open and calling for a maid.

A girl arrived seconds later with a smile that faded as soon as she saw the frown on Agrias' face. "M-may I help you, m'Lady?"

"Where are my clothes?" Agrias demanded calmly.

"I-- well-- your clothes, along with the rest of the one's that were left here, were sent down to wash. S-so you could have them clean for tomorrow," the girl quickly explained when she saw Agrias' frown deepen.

Agrias couldn't really be angry. Her clothes had been filthy, and they had sorely needed to be washed and mended. The problem was that all of her clothes were dirty right now. The only articles of clothing she had left that were clean were some undergarments and a pair of stockings. And the thought of slipping into filthy clothes after finally being clean for the past week or so nearly made her shudder.

"W-we have some clothes laid out in case this sorta thing happened," the girl suggested helpfully. "P-plenty of the other girls in your group bought some clothes from the innkeeper. His daughters left them behind after getting married. I-I think one of them may suit you..."

"Fine. Get me something that fits, then."

> > > >

Agrias could not believe it.

"This?" She stared at the dress the girl held up in front of her.

"Y-yes. It's the only one left that'll fit you."

"B-but..." now Agrias was the one left stuttering. She stared at the blue and gray dress in apprehension. "Doesn't the innkeeper have any sons or something that wear respectable trousers? I-I can't wear this?"

The girl glanced at Agrias dubiously, then turned back to the dress. "No, I think it's perfect for you. The innkeeper's daughter never got to wear it 'cos she eloped before it was done, but she had your same coloring. It matches the blue in your eyes and compliments your pretty auburn locks. I just recommend that you leave your hair loose to hang down your back."

"No."

"Alright, then you can tie it up with a couple of ribbons and--"

"No! I am not wearing that dress!"

"But, why not? The rest of the girls had no problem and they're downstairs right now, eating their supper in the common room. They're perfectly content."

Agrias shook her head stubbornly until the girl sighed. "Look, I'll just leave the dress here and when you get hungry, you can put it on and head downstairs for your dinner. I'm sure no one will notice you when all the rest are wearing the same thing. Just think about it."

And with that, the girl left.

Agrias hissed and alternated between glaring at the door the girl had left through, to glaring at the offending dress left neatly folded on the stool.

She couldn't. She couldn't! To wear a dress after nearly six years of tossing aside the cursed things to don the tunic and trousers of a Squire! It was, it was...

It was the only clean piece of clothing she could wear.

Agrias groaned and cursed the heavens above for her luck. Or lack thereof.

> > > >

Half an hour later, she was still muttering under her breath as she slowly made her way downstairs. The dress was a couple of inches too long, completely covering her feet. Which was a good thing, she supposed. She didn't have any shoes to wear with the dress and her boots were too heavy. They'd call attention, what with the heavy stomping, so she had just slipped into her woolen stockings and stepped out of her room without shoes. It felt strangely liberating.

But the sleeves were too short, showing off her slender arms and the old scar that traveled halfway down her shoulder to her elbow... Although, you couldn't really see it since the lights were pretty dim in the halls and in the common room.

As she stopped in the doorway, she could see that the troops alone had crowded up the place, talking loudly, the tables completely full while some where left to lean against the walls with their plates of food. The two huge fireplaces that dominated either side of the room were blazing and only a few oil lamps lit the room. It was comfortably dim.

Well, the dress was still too flimsy. It felt as light as a feather on her body, as used to heavy armor as she was. Or maybe it was that she hadn't worn a dress it much too long.

She leaned against the doorjamb, grateful that no one had noticed her yet. Everyone was too busy in their revelry to notice her in the doorway, even the ones leaning against the walls next to her. And the maid hadn't been lying when she said the other girls were wearing dresses, too. The female Chemists and Time Mages, Oracles and Mediators etcetera, she was used to seeing in dresses, but for once, they were wearing something more feminine than their usual battle attire. Agrias was glad she wasn't the only one wearing something different.

Agrias looked around the common room, rubbing her bare hands together just so she'd have something to do. She hadn't worn her gloves and that made her feel oddly naked. But then, she felt naked just being without her sword belted to her waist. Maybe she should've brought it along? Who knows, she might need it…

"The Lady Agrias, if I presume correctly," a deep voice rumbled beside her in a polite tone.

Her head whipped around in a very unladylike manner and she stared openly at the stocky form that was Cid without his cloak beside her. He smiled a bit at her surprise and bowed his head in a courtly manner. "I must admit I hardly recognized you."

"I, uh, that is..." she trailed off helplessly, her mind blank from the fact that he had caught her unaware. Even with his armor, he could be eerily quiet.

"I apologize if I startled you. The noise in here can be pretty deafening. Nothing at all like the House Balls you and I are used to, hmm?"

She didn't know why, but when he said House Balls, he sounded a bit bitter. "I take it you did not enjoy those?" she ventured, grateful he hadn't pursued the subject of her appearance.

He shook his head. "Never did. They are nothing but a contest of money and power. All of the Noble system is," he muttered quietly. He leaned against the doorjamb, the same way she was, and crossed his arms over his chest as he studied the crowded Common Room. Agrias turned and did the same. "Now, these people on the other hand, the lower class. They're the ones that have to work to make a living. They're the ones that have to watch their sons and daughters be taken away from them to join either the Hokuten or the Nanten so the Nobility can continue their bloody war. They're the people this country is made of."

Reminiscent of Ramza, Agrias smiled a bit and glanced at the Knight beside her. "And the Nobility would brand you a traitor for saying it."

"But it's the truth as you believe it also, isn't it?"

Agrias shrugged and looked away. "I don't know what I believe. All I know is that I have to get Princess Ovelia back into safe hands."

"And that's why you're fighting?" Cid asked, his gaze sharp on her.

"Yes," she murmured, focusing her eyes on the troops before her. She noticed that everyone started moving, standing up from chairs and pushing the tables aside.

The dancing would begin.

By the time the Bards got down to it and the pipes, fiddles, harps, and drums started playing, she could still feel his gaze on her, but she refused to acknowledge it. What did he want from her?

She nearly sighed in relief when he turned away.

"Why do you think he fights?" he finally asked. His voice had risen to be heard over the music.

Agrias had a sneaking suspicion she knew who he was talking about, but she asked anyway. "Who?"

"Ramza. Ramza Beoulve. Or as he now calls himself, Ramza Ruglia."

Agrias shrugged and took a wine goblet from the serving girl that passed by with a tray. "I don't pretend to know what he's thinking."

"Neither do I, but I'm sure he feels the same as the rest of these Peasants feel. Justice is what he seeks, even though as a Noble, he should feel justified in his own right. His birthright is to treat these Peasants as he sees fit, but he doesn't see it that way."

"What are you trying to say," Agrias muttered with a slight frown.

"That it must take someone with a rare heart to stand up against such impossible odds for their own belief," he shrugged, before staring down at his own wine. "Even we have our own private reasons for fighting. I have my son to think of, and you have the Princess to rescue. But he doesn't have anything to go back to."

Agrias stared at him for a minute, then turned towards the Common Room, her eyes searching for his familiar face. Somehow, she knew he wasn't among the ones on the dance floor. Her eyes spotted him on the opposite end of the Common Room, leaning against the wall near the fireplace. He had a goblet in his hand and was smiling at his troops as they enjoyed themselves. It brought a smile to her own face to see him so clearly content, the serious expression for once not on his face.

She followed Ramza as much as the others did. She followed him, and he was younger than her. True, only by a couple of years, but still, she had a lot more experience than he did when it came to ordering troops. And yet, she also followed Ovelia, but not in the same way. Ovelia was the best chance for attaining peace in this senseless war, in her opinion. But Ramza... He was different. Something compelled her to follow him.

"There is something special about Ramza, I suppose," she finally said, her gaze still on him. "A quiet strength... An unfailing optimism that just forces you to look at him."

Beside her, Cid smiled as well. "Yes, Ramza is special. He's kept the one thing I doubt anyone in this corrupt age can hold on to. Purity of heart."

Agrias frowned at that, though. "And it's that same 'heart' that nearly got him killed plenty of times," she muttered, swirling her wine around in her goblet.

"Yes, but that's what you're there for," Cid told her quietly she had to strain to hear him.

Agrias blinked in surprise and stared at him. "What do you mean?"

"You're the one that needs to caution him from such dangers. His heart is what makes him such a great leader, but it's what also puts him in such risk. Your sharper sense is what will lead him through."

Agrias stared at him, a small frown on her face, but looking into Cid's dark eyes, she saw that he was completely serious. And that's what puzzled her further.

A pretty Monk came and led Cid away from her towards the floor, leaving her to her own thoughts.

She watched the dancing pensively. And as the music and laughing and talking continued around her, she couldn't help but look towards the fireplace and the man who alone stood there.

'Your sharper sense is what will lead him through'... Meaning he will need me...

A plate was handed to her and she looked down at it in surprise, realizing she hadn't eaten yet. Agrias ate slowly, studying her surroundings as her foot tapped the rhythm beneath her skirt. She recognized the melodies as peasant jigs and ballads, but she had never learned how to dance them in her upbringing. They looked a lot more fun compared to some of the stiff waltzes she had learned while growing up in her father's noble house, and she guessed that one of the reasons Cid hadn't enjoyed the House Balls so much had been for the sheer stiffness of them. The way the women and men danced here with reckless abandon, keeping in no formation as the men spun the women and women twirled in their long skirts around the Knights and Squires and Archers... She chuckled when she saw two female Chemists try to pull a blushing Mustadio onto the floor. One of the stiff male Summoners danced with a woman Agrias would never have recognize as a Knight in the pretty dress she wore. And Rafa and Malak were in the middle of it, dancing and laughing like children, lost in their bond and native language.

But no one could top the Dancers and their skills on the floor. Everyone else backed away when they began their hauntingly beautiful dances, their bodies becoming one with the music. It left everyone... enchanted.

She was enjoying herself, and so was everyone else, their food long forgotten as they joined in the dancing. It was rare to find a town where they weren't attacked as soon as they were recognized.

Agrias was caught off guard when Lavian (at least she thought it was Lavian) approached her with a mischievous spark in her green eyes and pulled her into the crowd, murmuring something about "loosen up Captain and have some fun".

Said Captain stood there in the middle of the floor, lost on what to do. But her Knight took her hands and led her easily into the steps, grinning at the situation she had put her superior in. Seeing the challenge in Lavian's smirk, Agrias smiled openly and accepted it in good grace. She wasn't one to turn a challenge down.

She was clumsy at first, the rhythm easy but the steps unknown to her. But after a song, she got the hang of it, loosening up and even laughing out loud as she stepped on someone's foot accidentally only to have someone else step on hers, the heat of the music pumping in her veins. She spun and twirled with the rest of them, feeling the music enter her being, the rhythm inside of her synchronizing with the beat pounding on the floor.

It was so crowded she didn't even see Ramza had joined until he was passed right in front of her, her own partner exchanged to some sneaky Archer who'd been eyeing her Knight.

She stared in hesitation at first, uncertain of what to do. But when he smiled at her mischievously, his cheeks flushed, and bowed mockingly, as if they were children playing "Courtball", she smiled right back and took his hand when he offered it.

And they danced, both still foreign to the steps, but someone out there had begun to sing, and more began joining in, and there was really no reason to stop spinning. Her hand was in his, upraised from the elbow, pressed palm-to-palm, and they turned, the colours around them blending together with the light into one swirl, and all Agrias focused on was his eyes, the incredible blueness of them in the firelight… and how deep they were compared to anything else.

The Bards slowed down the pace for a moment, and a melody Agrias soon recognized began playing. She wasn't surprised when many of the couples left the dance floor, not knowing the required steps to continue, but a few still stayed, mostly the Dancers, who had more knowledge on such things.

Beside her, Ramza bowed once again. "One more, M'Lady?" His smile was one she didn't recognize, but she returned it, wondering whatever had possessed them, and curtsied as her mother had taught her, never forgotten.

It began slow and distant, the only contact being their eyes on each other as they stepped in time, their surroundings forgotten. Soon, their hands found each other, and he twirled her, bringing her closer in one smooth move as the beat increased, and suddenly it wasn't a stiff waltz anymore. None had ever had her blood heating like this as she followed the steps ingrained in her memory, her feet as light as autumn leaves. They still weren't touching except for their hands, but her gaze burned into his, and when the melody reached its fullness and his hand was on her hip, she felt she had to smile to ease the nervousness that was spreading inside her. His own smile was as all his others were: innocent, rare, but there was a hint of wickedness in his eyes.

He turned her as the dance required and her back was to him, her left hand in his right and her right in his left, efficiently trapped between her crossed arms and his body before he twirled her again and they departed, clapping in time. And the waltz continued, short it seemed, their contact once again limited to their eyes.

But it was performed beautifully, and once it was over, the troops clapped and whistled, and wine was served once again.

And their dancing continued.

> > > >

It would be a week later that she'd find the parcel.

She was unpacking her Chocobo at the stable, glad to finally be rid of her mount although he'd be kept for battle if not for riding. All her things had to be unpacked from the animal and as she was looking for things that needed to be thrown away and those that needed to be kept for easier traveling, she came across it.

She studied the wrapped bundle for a moment, forgetting about the snow and the cold and finally unwrapped it. She nearly dropped the dress when she figured out what it was.

"What in Ajura's name…?"

"Agrias, we found they're heading north towards Lesalia and…"

She turned to him and held the blue garment out. "I fear I might have stolen something from those kind people…"

Ramza blinked at her in confusion and then smiled slightly. "No, don't worry Agrias. I paid for it before we left the inn."

"Why?"

He stepped forward and took the dress, folding it again, averting his gaze. "Well, you looked so, um, the dress looked really nice on you and I figured that since I had never seen you in one, I might as well give it to you and the innkeeper was more than willing although his wife shed a tear or two, but she said she was happy that someone would get to wear it and they agreed--"

She stopped his rambling with a gloved finger to his lips and he smiled shyly, blushing and handing her the dress. She was blushing as well as she held the dress in her hands, but she managed a quiet, murmured "thank you".

The Chocobo is what finally got her moving, the bird 'wark'ing and head-butting her from behind right into him. Quick reflexes saved them both from a fall, but they were stiff and red to the roots of their hair and neither let go of the other as they stood there.

The smell of her hair is what got to him, the warmth of spring somehow retained in her locks although it was very obviously mid-winter. Her eyes were on his, shy, nervous, but more open and trusting than he'd ever gotten a chance to see.

He didn't have much time to wonder what he was doing before he pressed his lips to her forehead, and she could've sworn it burned, her skin marked as her knees grew weak. She nearly fell back when she straightened from his arms, but her mind was too dizzy, her heart too loud. And she barely registered in her lightheaded consciousness the blush, the bow, and the quick leave he took.

She remained in the stables for a minute, trying to regain her wits as she packed the dress into her essentials.

And as the burning in her forehead remained, she grinned and shouldered her things.

Before pressing a kiss on the filthy Chocobo.

Fin

(for now)

AN: Yes, it goes slowly and long-winded.