"I am never, under any circumstances, taking another one of your shortcuts, again."

"Yeah... okay, I'll admit that didn't exactly end well," Vaan admitted with a timid laugh, as he rubbed the back of his neck. From his position in the shade, she couldn't see the embarrassment on his face, but she heard it in his voice.

Ashe looked up to give him a look, her eyes forming into small lines. "You think?" she asked with sarcasm dripping on her tongue. Although completely unserious, she wasn't at all angry. In fact, she was smiling.

It was then she looked back down to what she had been doing, cleaning a wound on her leg. "I'll be surprised if I make it back to the palace alive."

She didn't hear a response to this, but felt him wince. "Sorry?" he then tried.

Sighing, she took a moment to calm herself. All and all, this wasn't his fault. Actually, she knew that the entire fiasco was her fault. Had she not gotten herself stuck on that ledge, surely things would have gone according to plan. This meant, no tumbling down a cliff.

After Vaan had let go of the rock, they had indeed fallen. It resulted in a rather long roll down the hill, where the two of them had somehow managed to part. Vaan had taken the lead — probably because he was heavier than she was — and as they landed on even ground, she crashed right into him.

He wasn't the only one embarrassed; for a queen, she hadn't exactly been having a graceful day. Surprisingly enough they found themselves unscathed after the fall. There was the exception of a few scrapes and bumps, but other than that they were fine. Sure, she was sore for a few minutes afterwards, but she was able to walk. The only thing bad about the situation was that she was absolutely filthy.

She was covered from head to toe in dust and dirt. Although she didn't really care— this was the desert, things like that happened — she really didn't want to explain to Vanira how she had managed to get so dirty. Knowing her, she'd overdramatize the situation and think of something terrible, then never let her go on another one of these outings. Not that this one was going as splendidly as she'd hoped, but at least she was getting some fun out of the entire thing.

Besides the obvious danger, the trip down the cliff had been... exciting? She wasn't certain if that was the appropriate term to use, but she did have fun.

After making sure that the other was alive and well, they had found a small shaded area nearby. Ashe found herself a nice rock — although, there were really rocks everywhere — and took a seat to clean herself off. At first she just was brushing herself off, but that was until she found the small scrape on her leg. It wasn't deep, or bleeding, but this was the kind of wound that if gone untreated, would sting all day. Better yet, should she get anything in it, it would get infected and then... well, she wouldn't go there.

It was then she sighed, her voice turning tender. "It's alright," Ashe assured calmly, while staring out into space. "It wasn't your fault, really."

For a moment it was quiet. When she didn't hear a response, she looked up to see him with a confused expression on his face, looking up to the right as though he was trying to remember something. She raised an eyebrow at his almost comical face as she chuckled slightly. "What are you doing?" she asked with a mix of amusement and confusion.

"Well, I'm trying to remember if it really wasn't my fault," he stated, still looking to the sky. As he said this, he was completely serious. "Now that you mention it, I don't think it was either."

Sometimes she had some questions about Vaan. She never doubted his intelligence. Considering his background, he was very wise in matters having to do with their world. Sometimes, he was a bit brash, but that came with youth. In actuality, most people of his origin and status had down to earth, good heads on their shoulders — like him. She wasn't surprised that he had been one of those as well, although he was a little bit more optimistic than others, she guessed. Then again, what orphan didn't dream of a life better than their own?

Unlike Vaan, she'd never had to worry about basic necessities, such as food and shelter, well up until recently. She wasn't exactly a pampered princess beforehand, but nevertheless she had everything she needed to survive without having to do anything but exist. All of her intelligence had come from books and stories. She hadn't real life experiences, no wisdom of the world outside the palace walls. Vaan had to learn everything himself.

The fact that he was still alive showed that he was indeed intelligent. Standing in front of her was none other than one of the few that had agreed to help her save her kingdom. And in the very end, they did. She'd heard, from Penelo, of how he had broken into the palace the same day that she and the resistance had invaded, which also happened to be the same evening two sky pirates came to take what Vaan had taken from the palace treasury. Had he not been there when she had been, she might haven't gotten out of the sewers. And then her kingdom might have never been saved.

Knowing this, she shrugged. "Does it matter?" she asked, her voice almost distant. Then, she offered, "I was happy you were there to break my fall, if it counts."

Almost as if he read her mind, he replied, "Yeah, I'm always there to catch you, aren't I?" with a chuckle.

She gave him a wry look as she finished cleaning her wound, and took out something from her own stash of things hidden in her belt. It was a roll of clean, white bandages — small, but efficient. The wound was right above her knee and towards the side. She'd have to wrap it around the entire diameter of her leg.

Once she began this, she looked up once more. "I wouldn't call that catching me," she replied dryly.

Actually, he'd just landed on the ground and begun to steady himself when she came rolling down, and smacked right into him. Something told her that he'd been more surprised than hurt at the time. Although, he did walk it off with a winded voice while clutching his stomach at the time. Then again, she was a good hundred pounds, at least, possibly more.

She honestly didn't check on a regular basis, because she was quite toned with muscle and that was where most of her weight came from. Although she rarely had time to train like a soldier, she found instances where she could practice her fighting skills. This allowed her to stay in shape, as well as train herself against potential harm. Even the palace guard agreed to that.

But still, all of her weight smacked full force into Vaan, and that was enough to make anyone stop short for a few moments. But he was walking, and talking for that matter. He didn't seem too bent out of shape. He didn't have any major injuries either.

Although, she could definitely notice something else.

As soon as she was done with the her leg, she tied the bandage and stood up. Reaching into her belt for something else, she pulled out a handkerchief. It was a little fancier than her friend's but fulfilled the same purpose. She went over to him, not looking him in the eye as he turned towards her.

"May I have the water canteen?" she asked suddenly, her gaze downwards as she fiddled with the cloth. Somehow it had gotten stuck on her belt-loop.

She didn't see his face, but he seemed to nod. "Sure, why not?" he asked. He grasped the strap that went over his shoulder, moving his head to the side as it passed over his head. "Here," he said, offering it to her.

"Thank you," she replied rather promptly.

Holding the handkerchief in one hand, she opened the canteen and placed it over the opening. Then, she abruptly turned it upside down while holding the cloth there. Instantly afterwards, she turned it back around so water wouldn't drip out. It was just enough to dampen the cloth. She then closed the canteen and placed the strap over her shoulder; she'd be needing it later.

"Come here a moment," she commanded as she took a hold of his arm.

Ashe stepped right up to him and pulled him forward. She held on firmly, but not harshly. With her other hand, she raised the wet cloth upwards. Vaan only had enough time for a look of absolute confusion to cross his face before she covered it with said cloth. "Hey—!"

He didn't even get enough time to defend himself before she swopped down. Taken by surprise, he was now obligated to surrender to this sneak attack. It was definitely something that he hadn't seen coming.

"You're covered in dirt!" she exclaimed softly. She held the cloth in the palm of her hand while she used the areas near her fingers and thumb to rub at his skin. At that moment, she was brushing off his nose and mouth. "We can't have you walking around like this, can we?"

When he finally had enough, he had enough sense to reach up and lift her hand away. He looked a little agitated at that moment; brow wrinkled, a slight frown on his face, and a glare in his eyes. "Ashe, what do you think you're doing?" his words were demanding, but they were more confused and annoyed than harsh.

She sighed and rolled her eyes, freeing the hand that had the cloth in it. "I'm washing off you're face," she snapped bluntly with edge. She returned to cleaning off the dirt. "Be thankful; not many would do so."

Vaan still held onto her other hand, which had taken a hold of his neck where his jaw bone connected. He didn't look at her, but stared out into space past her with a bitter annoyance. "We can wash up after we get to Migelo's," he pointed out, sticking out his bottom lip slightly. "Ashe, really, I'm not a little kid here..."

Her hand had just gotten near his left ear when she looked back at him to reply. "Well, if you're going to pout, I'll treat you like one," she countered swiftly.

The lip disappeared and he looked away. After that, he lowered his hand and crossed his arms over his chest, but she got no more complaints. She got to his temple, lightly rubbing his forehead before getting to the other side. Once she got to his nose, she put the towel over the tip her pointer finger, so as to be careful not to poke his eyes. She expected him to wince as she did this, but for an odd reason she noticed that he was watching her movements. Well, he was watching her as well as he could, anyway.

When she finally got back down to his chin, she slowed her actions. She hadn't been rubbing all that hard before, but just enough to get the top layer of dirt off. His eyes were following her. She was about to ask, but then she decided that it wasn't really needed. There could be a number of reasons why he was watching her.

Then, suddenly, he took a hold of her wrists and pulled her hands away again. This time he didn't look annoyed, but he looked distant. His eyes gazed at her with an emotionless expression that made her feel strange. She didn't think that she'd ever seen that look on his face before. "Vaan?" she asked with curiosity.

He was staring out into space when he lowered his arms, his hands still grasped around her wrists. "Vaan?" she repeated, this time sounding a little worried. "Is something wrong?"

The young man before her merely shook his head. His eyes softened, and his lips turned up into a small smile. "No, nothing like that," he answered. His voice was deep and even, even for him. "It's just... she did that."

As he said this, he looked away again.

She? 'She' who? Who in the world was he talking about? There was another woman in Ivalice that had actually cleaned his face off like that? Why, what she'd done wasn't exactly something any ordinary person would do. It really wasn't something bad, it was just normally one who performed the task had an affection for the person they were washing. An older, mature figure usually did those kinds of things. A feminine person, a maternal—?

It was when it finally hit her, that she let her arms go slack. She stood there with him for a while and stayed where she was, but she felt very different in his presence. She didn't know if it was good or bad, but she felt really, really strange.

"Your mother?" she asked softly. The question was a little redundant, but she had to say it anyway.

Vaan nodded with that same smile. "After Reks would find Penelo and me in some kind of trouble, he always dragged me home." She watched him as he looked to the ground, not really looking at anything. "And Mom was waiting with her washcloth and bandages, knowing I'd be dirty or injured." He chuckled at this. "Usually it was both."

"She never put me directly in the tub with me all dirty like that. 'I'd have to clean the tub too,' was her excuse." He chuckled at this before continuing. "Sometimes she even threatened to hose me down outside." He looked off to the side, and Ashe couldn't help but feel that strange feeling again. What was it?

"But, she'd sit me down and rub the dirt from my face," he continued. "She did it with warm water too, that way I'd never get cold. And she was always gentle. She never got angry with me for it either. I'd come home like that almost every day, but she never yelled at me or anything. She never got mad at me, for anything really. I don't remember a time when she was mad. That was just the way she was."

Ashe didn't know what to say to this. She'd never known her mother. Vaan had that pleasure, where she hadn't. In a way, she was a little envious. He had all these memories of the woman that had carried, birthed and raised him. But, then again, she was free from the pain of losing someone so dear to her. He probably went through a lot of pain when she died.

The handkerchief had fallen to the ground, but she hadn't noticed. His hands were now loosened, and she took the opportunity to slide her wrists from them. But she didn't take her hands away completely. She slid her palms into his, linking her fingers with his own.

At first he turned to look at her. His face was still very slack, but he looked at her with tiny bit of curiosity. She smiled kindly at him. "She sounds like she was a wonderful woman," she said calmly. "Did she look like you?"

He nodded once. "Yes," he replied. "Reks got my father's looks, my mother's personality, but with me it was the other way around. She was very pale and delicate, very small. I was the only one with her when she died of the plague." He raised his hand that held hers to look at them intertwined. "She held my hand as long as she could."

He paused again, and she saw that he might have been on the verge of tears. She held onto his hands tighter, giving them a comforting squeeze. "'You are so strong, never forget that,' she said," he continued. "'You will live and see the world like it is. I will always love you, even when I'm not here.'"

He looked her in the eye with a kind smile. "Those were her last words to me."

Ashe was at loss for words as she stood there. What could she say to that? He told her the very last things his mother had said to him, before she died right there in his presence. How could she follow that one? There was nothing she could say to that. She couldn't say that she knew what he felt, because she didn't. It would be lying if she said it.

To think he'd been carrying all that his entire life? First seeing his mother's death, then losing his father, and lastly his brother. How did he ever get the strength to go on and continue with his life? When she'd first met him, Vaan really hadn't a thing. But that never stopped him from going on.

And here she had been dwelling on the past, all those years.

She looked up to him and saw the very distant and sad Vaan. It was then that she understood this strange feeling; she didn't like this. She didn't like seeing him this way. He was normally bright and active and confident. Here he was dreary, so depressed and wound up in the past like she'd been. She didn't want it, like it or want him to suffer because of it. So she did the only thing she could think of to comfort him.

Her movements were very quick. She let go of his hands before taking a step closer to him and wrapped her arms around his neck. And with her eyes closed, she hugged him close to her and just stayed there. It was the only thing she could do.

"Ashe...?" she heard his completely surprised voice say.

She felt Vaan tense at the sudden gesture, obviously surprised. Actually, she surprised herself. While standing there she couldn't believe that she was actually there, hugging Vaan in the middle of the desert. As random and odd as it sounded, she just stayed there. Of course she had to practically stand on her toes to even reach him, but she didn't mind.

"Wh-what are you doing?" he asked, standing there with bewilderment. He didn't sound nervous, just really, really shocked. His arms had found themselves at her sides, steadying her so as not fall over. She was leaning most of her weight into him.

Ashe stood there with her face buried into his neck. "I'm sorry," she mumbled against his skin. "I really am."

She didn't move from her position, inhaling a jagged breath. For the strangest reason she felt like crying. Maybe she was upset that he was upset, or maybe she just was upset by herself. At that point she really didn't know, or care. But she slowly realized that Vaan was probably really uncomfortable in this situation, not knowing what to do. It was probably the reason that he didn't return the hug, either that or he was trying to figure out why she was doing what she was doing.

Her eyes stinging, she slowly slid away from his grasp and turned. She used her finger to press the side of the bridge of her nose, right next to her tear-duct; in some way she was hoping it would stop the tears. But they still came, as she felt the felt the first one leave her eye and fall down her cheek. She instantly wiped it away, almost fearful that Vaan would see her. She heard a slight movement, feeling him come up next to her. Biting a lip, she cursed herself; he was going to say something, she just knew it.

"Look now," she started, her voice unnaturally high pitched. She winced with a sniffle as she tried to regain her composure. "I only did that because—Vaan?!"

In that next moment a chill went down her spine and caused her to stand up completely straight. His movements weren't slow, in fact he did it quite swiftly. That was one of the reasons it had surprised her so much; she hadn't seen it coming.

She felt the surprisingly delicate touch of his fingertips on the skin at her hips, that caused her to shiver as he slid his hands around her stomach. His grasp was firm as he swiftly pulled her towards him, and his breath was hot against her neck. By the time he was finished he was holding her around the middle, his chin nestled into the crook of her shoulder.

Her eyes widened at all the new sensations she was feeling. In her ear she heard the slow and steady rhythm of his breathing. She felt the smoothness of his skin with his shoulders pressed up against her own; she felt the slow, steady beat of his heart against her back.

Suddenly her breaths began to quicken, and her pulse sped up rapidly. Her throat tightened and her stomach noted. She took in a jagged breath and also took in his scent, that heavenly scent from before. Her eyes turned hazy as she looked out in front of her, her mouth parted for air.

What was wrong with her? All of this because he was touching her? He wasn't even doing anything indecent either; he was just holding her. That was it, and there was really nothing more to it. This was bad, definitely bad. She really began to have second thoughts about this entire outing. Although she wanted to pull away from him, she couldn't bring herself to do it. She couldn't bring herself to relax either.

It was when he spoke, that made another chill go down her spine. "Ashe," he whispered into her ear, a calmness behind his voice. "Thank you."

The phrase was as innocent as anything else. But her mouth went dry when she heard his words, and her stomach twisted once more as he breathed right into her ear. This was not good; this really was not good.

Before she could think of what to do next, his hands slid away from her waist and he stepped back. Instantly she felt herself calm down a little as he walked past her and headed towards the path ahead of them. She simply stood there and watched him with wide eyes, her feet glued to the ground.

Vaan must have noticed that she wasn't following, and turned to look at her. The same wholesome smile returned to his face as he chuckled. "You know, we really are going to be out here all day if we keep dawdling," he mentioned knowingly.

Ashe nodded slowly and swallowed, her throat still incredibly dry. She started towards him, but then remembered her handkerchief and picked it up. Once it was back with her things, she sped up a little to catch up to him. She was actually feeling a lot better, even though she wasn't exactly herself at all.

So she sighed and put on a smile. "What's your plan for getting rid of these snakes, anyway?"


Hello everyone, Aries here. I'm very sorry for making you all wait for the next chapter. I was hoping to make it longer than this to make up for it, but then I thought it'd be cruel to make everyone wait even longer for me to write the next part. Anyway, I hope none of you have abandoned this, and I'll try to update more often. Thanks again, Aries.