Disclaimer: Can you imagine some Tri-Ace employees browsing through every single fic they find, searching for skipped disclaimers? No? My point, exactly.
Author's Notes: New Albel/Nel stories are unfortunately quite rare these days, so I hope you'll enjoy this one.
The first chapter was proofread by BlueTrillium, who is probably the most awesome beta out there, even though she's got one fatal flaw: she just refuses to update her own story. :) Please remember to visit her profile and complain about it, but first, have a quick look at what I have to offer. :)
Long Journey Home
by Lucrecia LeVrai
Albel Nox didn't care much about mere insects, so when a large bumblebee began to circle around his head, he lazily brushed it away with his artificial limb, completely unbothered by the bug's sting. His eyes never strayed from the book in his lap, though truth be told, he was already getting quite bored with it. He read on nevertheless, partially because the alternative was to sit with his arms folded and do nothing, and also because he knew that the opportunity wouldn't present itself again in the near future. After all, it wasn't everyday that he could—more like had to—spend almost a week in Aquios, treated like a precious guest and thus free to use the castle's vast library. He didn't find books very amusing, but at least it was a break from his usual routine.
In just a month and a half Lady Rozaria of Aquios would be wed to King Airyglyph XIII. The engagement party had already been held in Aquaria more than three months ago, but the main event, that is, the wedding itself, was to take place in Airyglyph. Albel's sole purpose for returning to Aquios at this time was to escort his future queen to her fiancé's homeland. It sounded like an easy, boring task, and unsurprisingly enough, the young knight had refused it at first, told the king to stop bothering him and send someone else. Unfortunately, Arzei had been adamant in his decision and Albel couldn't have just ignored a direct order, so he had found himself gathering his men and jumping into the saddle much sooner than expected.
When he had arrived at the capital city a week ago, he had hoped for a swift departure, but now it seemed that he would have to wait a couple more days. Since it was such an important, not to mention one-way journey for the High Priestess' daughter, everything had to be double-checked and organized down to the slightest detail. Albel cursed inwardly at the servants' slowness, but he forced himself to tolerate it without a single word of complaint. Arzei had specifically instructed him (time and time again) to act as courteously as possible, or at least try not to be excessively rude, because the future of this marriage might well depend on it. Indeed, it would be rather disastrous if Aquaria suddenly decided to break the peace treaty due to some unfortunate comment from one of Airyglyph's highest-ranked, most influential nobles. Albel understood the possible consequences for his homeland, the king, and himself, therefore he kept his mouth shut, and instead of seeking to kill someone, he sought for effective ways to kill time, at least until everything was ready and he could finally leave this pathetic, peace-loving country behind. Not that he would find much to do at home, either, but from his point of view, anything was better than rotting in some boring palace garden with an equally boring book, waiting for the afternoon to come, so that he could at least venture into the southern part of the town and drink to his heart's content, unbothered by dozens of maggots whispering random things behind his back.
He was just about to turn another page, when he heard footsteps that sounded a bit too deliberate to belong to a random passer-by taking a stroll around the garden. Albel clenched his teeth in irritation. Surely the maids, guards and courtiers alike had already learned not to approach him on their own without a really valid reason, unless they completely lacked imagination and common sense? He waited for the footsteps to falter, not bothering to turn his head and see who was coming, let alone take his legs off the bench. They never did. Instead, barely a few moments later a low voice addressed him from the side.
"There you are, Albel. I've almost given up looking for you."
"Too bad you haven't," he muttered under his breath, instantly recognizing the speaker, even before he raised his eyes to confirm his suspicions. "Nel," he added out loud, acknowledging the woman's presence with a mere nod. After everything they had been through, it seemed like the only passable greeting between them. They were no longer enemies to glare silently at each other, but neither were they regular acquaintances to follow the customs of court etiquette.
Well, if Lady Zelpher was offended that Lord Nox didn't even stand up from his bench to bow, she certainly didn't show her displeasure. She stopped a few feet to his left, unsmiling yet neutrally polite. Albel couldn't help but stare at her—he was still unused to this new Nel he had first seen but a week ago. Apparently, the royal wedding could turn even the simplest things upside down. The Crimson Blade wasn't clad in her revealing fighter's outfit anymore. She wore a green-white dress, definitely much more appropriate for a young woman of her social status, even though it didn't really suit her, at least in Albel's opinion. He would rather see her showing off the intricate runological tattoos on her thighs, not an emerald necklace and a pair of matching earrings. She wasn't one of those air-headed ladies-in-waiting, after all, so she shouldn't have to look like one.
From the way Nel's right hand occasionally kept fumbling with the folds of her dress, Albel guessed she might feel quite uncomfortable in this fancy attire. He could almost sympathize with her, since he felt just as bad in his own clothes: a ridiculously delicate shirt and a black skirt embroidered in gold thread, with no slit to the side. Honestly, he felt that the material might tear, if he made but a single rapid movement in the wrong direction, and it irritated him to no end. Once again, he caught himself wishing the priestess' servants would hurry up with their job, because he would prefer any number of days spent in the saddle to being stuck in the costume of courtier, even if it was all for the sake of the future wedding.
The awkward silence between the two warriors couldn't have lasted long, but Nel was already getting impatient with it. "Such a fine day to be outdoors, don't you think?" she said, craning her neck to look at the clear sky, dotted with a few tiny clouds.
"Great," Albel sighed mockingly, running a hand through his long, braided hair. "When I stay in the castle, everyone keeps bothering me, and when I leave, it gets even worse."
She hadn't come here to talk about the weather, right? Was it really so difficult to understand he didn't enjoy small talk like this to the slightest degree?
"Don't tell me you were hiding here because you couldn't handle a civil conversation with one of the maidens," she teased him in her usual, calm voice, and he bristled.
"Not hiding. Just taking a break from all you maggots."
"And reading a book, too." I'm surprised, Nel wanted to add, but quickly bit her tongue. She knew it was safe to mock this man a bit, in spite of his terrible reputation, but if she accidentally pushed him too far, he might become truly hostile and refuse to trade anything but spiteful insults with her. And since she still wanted to talk about a few serious matters, she had to remain courteous. Unfortunately, some of her disbelief must have found its way to her tone, for Albel's eyes, never too friendly to begin with, darkened even further.
"Are you, by any chance, trying to insult me?"
"No." She shrugged, unprovoked by his petty annoyance. "I simply thought you preferred different activities in your free time."
"It's too late for me to be training and too early for drinking, if that's what you were implying."
"I had the latter in mind, I admit." Nel smiled at last, and it was a genuine smile, amused rather than disdainful. "You and your men haven't been doing much else ever since the day you arrived. So, is this book to your liking? And… oh…" She paused all of sudden, having finally noticed the cover, or more importantly, the title, printed across the brown leather in neat, golden letters. "It's… it's in Aquorian," she finished lamely, unable to conceal her confusion.
"So? Are these precious writings too sacred for me to see?" Albel raised an eyebrow, pretending to have no clue as to how interpret Nel's slip. He was torn between irritation and dry amusement, the latter based on seeing her brought down a peg or two, but in the end, irritation won by quite a large margin. The woman might as well have openly called him an illiterate moron, thus insulting his family name, among other things.
"No," Nel almost stuttered in reply. "No, I didn't mean anything of that sort. I… I just didn't know you could read in Aquorian." By now, she had realized the true effect of her words on Albel, and promptly snapped her mouth shut.
As if on cue, the dark-haired man growled, "And I didn't know you could look even more idiotic than you usually do." At this point, there was nothing but malice in his voice.
Nel's temper flared, of course, yet with no small effort she clenched her teeth, forcing herself to remain silent, with both hands folded neatly across her chest. If the remark she had just heard had been uttered by any other man, she would have already retaliated, perhaps even physically. She was, however, unwilling to turn this small misunderstanding with Albel into a full-blown quarrel. During the past few months, in which she had been forced to fight alongside her new ally, Nel had learned two useful things. One was how to ignore the jerk's aggressive comments, if necessary. The other—that you didn't even have to take him too seriously in the majority of these situations. Albel kept belittling people as it made him feel better about his precious ego, and he wasn't particularly discriminating when it came to choosing his victims. Nearly everyone was a maggot or an idiot in his eyes, not because they deserved that name, but because there appeared to be something wrong with the man himself.
Nel took a deep breath and slowly relaxed her shoulders, while her gaze never strayed too far from Albel's face. The point was, she didn't know the man very well—if she knew him at all, that is. She acknowledged that there was more to him than his 'wicked' reputation, but at the same time, he seemed more difficult to read than any book in Aquorian. And speaking of the volume in his lap, he shouldn't really blame her for acting so surprised when she had realized he could actually understand it. These days, three centuries since the Ancient Kingdom of Aquor had fallen apart, only the most socially backwater, geographically isolated communities in both Aquaria and Airyglyph still used the dying tongue of their shared ancestors. Only the nobles from both countries took the time to learn it as their second language, and the difference between them and the commoners was that they could read it rather than speak.
Fine, Nel thought, so it did make some sense in Albel's case, even if was hard to imagine him being schooled in something so different from the art of war. She wasn't exactly prejudiced against all Glyphians, but… Albel was Albel. Perhaps she had underestimated him yet again, it was a common mistake between the two of them.
Having finally calmed down enough to resume a normal conversation, Nel unfolded her arms and sighed. "That was quite uncalled for."
"Likewise," Albel replied, this time in a much more neutral tone. His anger had already faded, leaving him no more ill-tempered than usual. He still wished for the Aquarian to turn back and leave, but he no longer wanted to rip her to shreds—metaphorically speaking, of course.
Meanwhile, Nel kept looking at the garden bench. It was rather small, built to accommodate two or three people, and with the swordsman's long legs stretched out like this, it was impossible for anyone else to have a seat, unless they wished to sit in his lap.
"Albel." She stared pointedly at his steel-fitted boots. He faked utter nonchalance.
"Don't be a bastard, move."
"Why, you want to sit down?"
"I need to talk to you for a moment."
"About what? Books and weather?" Albel snorted, though at the same time he took his legs off the bench and the red-haired warrior could finally sit down beside him. He would never admit it, of course, but her closeness made him feel a little bit uneasy, though for a different reason than one might expect. Nel's dress certainly showed a lot of cleavage, and he couldn't decide whether he liked it or not. He grunted and reluctantly averted his gaze, and then made an effort not to stare at her… necklace… all the time.
"No," the Aquarian said, letting the mockery pass, no matter how irritating she found the man's attitude. She felt that if she stopped at her companion's every single taunt, she would never be able to get to the point with him. "It's about Lady Rozaria."
"What about her?" he asked casually, meeting the woman's eyes.
"Is she going to be safe, I wonder?"
"She wouldn't be safe on her own, which is why I am here." Along with twenty armed maggots and the king's special emissary, but this number hardly meant anything, as long as he was the captain. Albel shrugged, already dismissing the issue as irrelevant, but Nel seemed far from finished, let alone satisfied.
"I'm not talking only about the journey." There was a scornful ring to her tone, and even more surprisingly, genuine anxiety hidden in her eyes, just below a layer of cool professionalism. "I know you and your knights are very much capable of protecting her on the road, from bandits and monsters alike. I'm more concerned about her safety after she reaches your city."
Even if Albel was taken aback by this blunt confession, or the amount of trust he had just been shown, he didn't choose to comment on it. The bored look on his face, however, had swiftly given way to a thoughtful frown. They were talking seriously now, raising issues that could never be raised in public: the true extent of their peace treaty.
"Do you have anything… anyone specific on your mind?" he questioned in a low voice, deciding to play open cards as well.
There was no need to pretend that everything was fine, because it sure as hell wasn't. The royal wedding appeared all beautiful on the surface, but in reality, it resembled a tricky mission rather than a joyous event, at least for those who were involved with security. Albel was quite aware of the fact that there were some people out there who would be happier if the ceremony didn't take place at all. He had a feeling that he would soon have to deal with a string of unpleasant surprises, but unfortunately, he had no idea what to expect, or from which direction a possible attack might come.
On the other hand, Nel was a spy, so maybe she knew something useful. He turned his crimson eyes to her face, frowning impatiently. Her answer was disappointing, though.
"No. Do you?" She shook her head and looked away. "I wish it all came down to simple list of names, but unfortunately, I know nothing, and it's confusing, to say the least. We both realize there are many who oppose the recent union between Aquaria and Airyglyph, and since the marriage is going to represent this union, it's most likely that some will fight to stop it, by all means necessary."
"By slaughtering the bride, if I were to believe your suggestion." Never the one to mince words, Albel shrugged, pretending to sound cold and indifferent. He didn't like what he had just heard, however, didn't like it at all. "On top of that, you seem to be assuming that the real danger awaits her in Airyglyph, even though traitors and conspirators can be found everywhere, in your kingdom as well."
Nel threw her companion a sidelong glance, raising a hand to brush a loose strand of fiery hair off her face. "I didn't say that they had to be your people. In fact, I can just as easily imagine a group of Aquarians, plotting to assassinate Lady Rozaria a few days before the ceremony, so that the whole blame would be placed on you Glyphians, for murdering the bride with your own hands, or for being unable to protect her. Either way, the political consequences would be bad for us all. And right now, nothing is certain. Perhaps there is no conspiracy, or perhaps the conspirators won't have enough courage to act. It doesn't change the fact that I'm worried. My instincts tell me to be careful and they have hardly ever failed me before."
"You could've spared me your long speech, woman. You needn't have confirmed your own incompetence." Albel leant forward, resting his forearms on his thighs, effortlessly ignoring the glare that had just been sent his way. "I don't know anything more than you do. I'm not even a member of your trade, so don't expect me to handle your affairs." He looked up. "My mission is to protect the priestess, until she passes through the capital's main gate, therefore she will reach the city unscathed. What happens to her afterwards is none of my business."
"How can you be such a short-sighted fool?" Nel hissed in annoyance. It was one of the mildest adjectives to describe him, really. Sometimes he acted as if he had only half a brain, incapable of any insightful conclusions. And hell, if he thought he could scare her with his red glare right now, he was totally mistaken. "Don't you realize how the priestess' death may affect your country's future?"
Albel's voice sounded unnaturally cold, as he shot back, "You know very well what I meant. I'll just leave politics to those who are interested in it."
The tension between the two had certainly reached a critical point, but then, a moment later, when it wasn't fueled by any other insults, it started to dissolve. It still took them a while to calm themselves, and for a few minutes the garden was silent, save for the little sounds made by birds and insects.
Nel's eyes became distant and unfocussed, as she began to stare ahead once again. Albel relaxed his jaw, brushing his human hand against the book that lay forgotten next to his side. Nel's outburst, based on her pretentious assumptions, had really managed to make him angry. He wasn't as ignorant as this woman thought him to be, and he somewhat cared about the fate of his country, but he would be damned before she heard any sort of a tearful, patriotic speech from him, the sort of which she had been always fond of giving.
"You know…" Nel was the first one to break the silence, "For you it may be only a temporary mission, reason of state at best, but for me… it's also personal. I've known Lady Rozaria since childhood, and she's been my friend for the past few years. I don't want her to get hurt… because it's her, not just an important political figure."
There was a long pause before Albel spoke, his lips twisted into a humorless smile. "Bah." Friendship was a sentiment almost entirely lost on him; he couldn't sympathize and there was no reason for Nel to bring it up all of a sudden, unless she had been talking out loud to herself. "I heard she's looking forward to her wedding ceremony, not because she yearns to become a queen so much, but because she's somehow attracted to her bridegroom-to-be." Nel didn't reply, so the swordsman went on, sounding even more sarcastic with each spoken word. "Even if it were true..." his voice clearly suggested that he didn't deem it a possibility, "it's still a political marriage. Your pretty and well-born 'friend' was probably never given a chance to refuse. The only two people who had any real say in this were Arzei and that queen of yours."
Nel clenched her teeth at the disrespectful form of address, but she let it slide, saving the scolding and the inevitable quarrel for later. The true point of Albel's speech was clear, and it wasn't about Rozaria at all. He had been talking about those dissatisfied with the rulers' choice, the potential traitors on both sides of the border. About himself? Had His Majesty ever discussed his decision with the Glyphian nobles before it was made, or had he just presented them with a fait accompli? All evidence pointed to the second option, and in that case, Nel could understand the lords' displeasure. Albel wasn't like them, however. He openly admitted that he didn't give a damn about politics—though it was a huge mistake on his part, seeing how it had cost him his freedom only half a year ago. He didn't have a young daughter, whose chance of marrying the king was suddenly gone… Nel paused at the idea, trying to imagine Albel as a father and failing miserably. He would first have to find a woman foolish enough to bear his children—not a chance in the whole damn universe, as far as she was concerned…
Wait a second. Had she just caught him gazing at her cleavage? Nel shuddered, deciding that she must have been imagining things. And back to the matter at hand, she wondered, what could Albel lose now, because of his king's choice, except perhaps for his good humor, which he didn't even have in the first place?
"You're right, of course, but does it make you feel bitter towards them?" she pressed without a second thought. "Our whole peace treaty aside, do you believe that His Majesty should have married someone else?"
He stared at her incredulously through a curtain of black and blond hair. "For hell's sake, woman, you ask me this question now, after everything we've talked about for the past fifteen minutes…?"
"It hasn't even crossed my mind to doubt your loyalty towards His Majesty," Nel replied dryly, unsurprised with the man's reaction. "I'm quite certain you would've never betrayed the king for such a reason, even if he chose to marry a nameless beggar from the streets of Peterny. I'm merely asking for your personal feelings..." as a friend, she wanted to finish, but bit her tongue quick enough. They weren't friends, no matter what one might have assumed from their present, semi-civil conversation. They just happened to be two former enemies brought together by an extraordinary experience, which they couldn't even retell to any living soul in the world. They had learned things about each other that they wished they had never known in the first place. It had changed their perspective somewhat, but no, it didn't make them friends.
"You've just answered your own question, then." Albel's eyes had narrowed back into slits. "I'll support the king's decision, and my feelings have nothing to do with it." Well, he was being honest here. No matter how much he couldn't stand the bland priestess, he would never criticize Arzei's decision in public—not because he was afraid to speak his mind, but because he knew his support was, in fact, needed.
"I guess that's fine with me," Nel sighed and leaned back against the bench.
"Why, thank you," he mocked her. "By the way, don't tell me you are happy with your precious, little 'friend' leaving this place forever, to stay among us barbarians, only because it was decided for her." He spoke each word with cruel deliberation, enjoying the startled, and then possibly hurt look on Nel's face.
He had fully expected her to get angry, not to reply the way she did. It was almost enough to make him feel uneasy when their eyes met.
"First of all," Nel said, as somber as if she were attending a funeral ceremony, "Lady Rozaria is your future queen, not to be belittled so casually. And to answer your question—it's true I wish I didn't have to part with her, but at the same time I know she is happy to leave. The fact that you don't believe in things like love doesn't mean that they don't exist. Try keeping this in mind during your journey, Albel." Having finished her little moralizing speech, the Aquarian spy stood up to bid her companion an equally serious goodbye.
The swordsman watched her leave through a pair of narrowed eyes. Love between the two, what utter nonsense. He hadn't heard a bigger pile of rubbish in a long time. The priestess had never had a chance to meet her future husband properly. She could have talked to him on but a few occasions: at the engagement ceremony three months ago and perhaps a couple of years back, when Arzei had been studying at Aquios, though at that time the girl must have been only ten or eleven. Given these circumstances, Nel's preaching about any sort of affection sounded downright ridiculous. After all, how could you love someone you barely even knew? Someone who had used to be your enemy only a short while ago?
Albel would have laughed out loud at the thought if he hadn't been rather preoccupied with watching Nel's retreating figure. He could swear there was something captivating in the way her long dress swelled around her hips.
End of Chapter One
Author's Notes: Thanks in advance for all your reviews, should there be any. :) In any case, I swear that my current fascination with Xenosaga won't prevent me from updating this fic in the near future. :)