It was always snowing.
Not that snow was necessarily a bad thing, Marché mused, his back resting against the ancient tree trunk that he had come to regard as his sanctuary; if you were an Eskimo, or perhaps a polar bear.
The truth was, he had never liked being cold, so moving to this ice-blasted mountain wilderness had never been his idea of a step in the right direction. Medical reports and Doned's condition took priority though, and if leaving the vibrant but smog choked city was necessary for his health then sacrifices would have to be made; as they always were when it came to Doned.
It was hard not to resent his little brother when "the condition" was brought up, and harder still not to feel guilty for doing so. Resent him he did though, even if he never let it show in front of his mother; it was his duty to be strong, as he had been in Ivalice.
And that brought him back to why he was here, sitting under a lonely tree overlooking the town; the last remaining piece of an adventure he would never forget, but which had changed him too much for him to truly feel at home in this world anymore.
The local news channels, whose normal highlight was advising which roads had been closed each day by snowfall measured not in inches, but in feet, had clearly been having an even slower day than usual when they dedicated a whole hour to it, and there was still the occasional scientific team and school project that dedicated a few days to it here and there, but only four people knew the actual secret of the tree on the hill.
A year later, why the chill of the surrounding air never quite reached this place was still a mystery to most, along with the subtle smell of a desert wind, whose occasional balmy draughts rustled the leaves of the tree and teased the skin of those who sheltered there. A perfect circle of earth where no snow would fall, where no frost could penetrate and where the perpetual winter of the mountains could never hold sway.
The last vestige of Ivalice.
"I thought I'd find you here," a familiar voice remarked, a deep level of affection easily discernable in its feminine tone. "You've taken to living up here lately."
"There's worse places to spend your time," Marché replied, looking up to meet his closest friend's gaze. A few flakes of snow dusted her shoulders, rapidly melting into her jacket under the influence of the tree's surrounding aura. Ritz's hair gleamed white in the sun, free of the dye she had once used to mask her albinism. More than ever, Marché could not understand why she had ever thought herself anything less than beautiful.
"That depends on whether you're here to enjoy the view or to keep living in the past," she replied, giving him a pointed look. "As I recall, it was you who wanted to tear Ivalice down around our ears and drag us all home."
The boy blew out a long breath, allowing his head to rest back against the warm trunk and his eyes to close. "Don't start this again," he sighed, not wanting to get into an argument with her. "I thought I was doing the right thing at the time, okay; would it help if I said I was wrong?"
"Would it help if I said you weren't?" Ritz quipped, although her tone was caring as she sank down next to him, curling her arm in his as she made herself comfortable against him. "Mewt was never supposed to be a Rozarrian prince and his father's no Judgemaster; all that book did was let Mewt run away from his problems."
"He wasn't the only one running away, as I recall," Marché responded, smiling as Ritz rested her head against him. "We were doing a pretty good job of hiding from our problems as well, so I don't think we're in any position to criticise him."
"The difference is that we didn't hurt anyone else in the process." A warm breeze gusted through the branches, bringing with it the unmistakeable scent of desert roses; the same bloom he had once given Ritz on a whim, and which now seemed to linger in the air around their personal sanctuary. "Mewt hurt the people of an entire empire to satisfy his spoiled whims, and that book gave him the power to do it."
She paused, cuddling in closer despite the lack of chill in the air. "Someone had to stop him, and I'm glad that person was you," she affirmed, before her voice dropped to almost a whisper. "I proved that I didn't have the strength."
"You have more strength than you realise," Marché reassured, shifting his position and wrapping his arms around her. "I guess I just have to realise that there's no going back and that this is the price to pay for what I did; I just don't know what I'm going to do with the rest of my life."
"The careers fair?"
"Yeah." He paused for a long time, not really knowing what to say. "I mean, I know I'm not bright enough for university, even if we could afford it with the cost of Doned's treatment to consider, and I just can't see myself doing any of the stuff they advertised."
"I know what you mean," Ritz sniggered, seemingly recalling her own memories of the careers interview. "After ten minutes of nursing, textile factories and childcare I just wanted to spit him with a rapier."
Although laughing while sharing their experiences of the interminable parade of small-town employers and hopeful recruitment agencies, the mood remained serious. "Out of all of them, about the only one that vaguely interested me was the military recruitment stall," Marché admitted, his tone downcast. "I just can't see myself working in some office or at the lumber yard."
Ritz's eyes flashed as she turned her head towards him. "And were you planning on including me in these plans?" she retorted, pulling away from him. Ritz had always maintained a façade of iron strength, but Marché could easily see the hurt that was threatening to escape.
"I wasn't seriously considering it," he reassured, pulling her back into his embrace again. "It's just, after a year in Clan Centurio, hunting marks and helping people, fighting's all I really know; it's all I'm good at."
"And there's not really much call for itinerant swordsmen and wandering mages around here," Ritz agreed, flexing her fingertips in the intricate gestures that would have incinerated an opponent, had they been immersed in the pervasive mists of Ivalice.
They sat there for a long while, slipping into a comfortable silence as they both leaned into each other, revelling in the physical closeness even as they pondered the crossroads at which they found themselves. How could anyone return to a normal life, to school, a job, a nine to five regime, after being exposed to such wonders and horrors for an entire year of their lives.
The sky burned a rich orange as the sun broke through the clouds to bathe the earth as it began its ponderous dip below the farther horizon. Tomorrow, he'd make some decisions, or rather they'd make some decisions, but for tonight he'd simply relax with Ritz in his arms and be thankful for what he did have.
"What if I told you we could go back?"
Marché's breath hitched in his throat as the silence became no longer comfortable and Ritz tensed in his arms, awaiting his response. A long moment passed, the scent of the desert combining with the fragrance of Ritz's hair to raise hopes that he had not felt for a long while.
Ritz didn't answer in words, instead twisting in his arms so she could face him, reaching out to press her palm against a weathered knot on the surface of the bark. A flash of dark lightning played across her hand, a sphere of shadowy energy crackling and expanding exponentially before collapsing in on itself as Ritz removed her hand.
"A seam?" Marché gasped, his eyes widening as he ran his fingertips lightly across the knot, marvelling as purple and blue sparks arced against them. The feeling of magic was familiar; the heady thrill of mist and ozone combining in a rush of power. "How long have you known?"
"A little after we realised that our world and Ivalice are actually separate, and that some connection remains between the two in this place," she admitted, clasping his hand in her own. "It took me a while to manage to open it, and I needed to be sure that this wasn't the place for me either … we belong in Ivalice."
Marché let out the breath he hadn't known he had been holding "So we choose fantasy over reality?" he asked, "We let ourselves be selfish; leave our families and go off on some fantastic adventure while they remain here without us?"
"We choose a different reality," Ritz replied. "We're going on eighteen Marché, and sooner or later we'll both be leaving home anyway … the question is whether that future is a one-bedroom flat together and some awful dead end jobs for the both of us, or the life we really want."
A dusting of red and gold leaves showered down around them in the warm breeze, catching the highlights of the sun's last rays. He closed his eyes as she leaned in to kiss him, the scent of the desert swirling around them. They smiled as they parted, Ritz wordlessly drawing out her mobile phone to hit the send command on a text she'd already prepared.
Two hands pressed together as amethyst flares of magic played over them both, a coruscating blast of penumbral energy engulfing the hillside before collapsing into nothingness, leaving a weathered tree, a perfect circle of untouched earth and a solitary mobile phone, happily beeping that its task was done. A few birds roosted in the tree's branches, singing an evening chorus as the sun slipped below the horizon, slowly blanketing the town in darkness.
A mile away, sitting at his window in the confines of his wheelchair, Doned Radiuju watched the last traces of the seam vanish into the stillness of night as his phone buzzed into life. His mother would have received the same thing, he knew, and it would be up to him to comfort her.
Not that he begrudged Marché his happiness, especially with Ritz. He didn't need to read the message to know that they would have phrased it carefully, couched in words such as "following our dream" and "travelling for a while," but he knew the simple truth; Marché and Ritz would never be coming back. Maybe one day he'd join them, but for now it was his turn to be the strong one.
The usual vibrant throng of brightly coloured traders, caravan drivers, chocobos and travellers mingled together at the eastern gate of Rabanastre, the strains of many conversations, arguments and haggling converging into an animated hum of background noise.
It wasn't the most exciting job for the partner of a sky pirate to be engaged in, but Migelo had asked her to meet the caravan from the Estersand for him, and Penelo owed the old Bangaa far too many favours to turn him down.
In truth though, Penelo enjoyed people watching almost as much as she enjoyed getting dragged off on another of Vaan's crazy adventures, and with him off visiting Balthier and Fran, Ashe ensconced in the palace wrestling with treaties and preparing for her coronation, and her remaining close friends Larsa and Basch still bringing peaceful ways back to Archadia, there wasn't anything else she really had to be doing.
"So do you think he'll still recognise me?" a clear voice caught her attention, standing out from the general buzz of midday banter. He was young, she noted, no older than herself, but even in his plain brown and blue travellers' clothes, he carried himself with the ease of a seasoned warrior. Twin scarlet and sky-blue blades hung from his waist, bespeaking the ambidextrous proficiency of a master swordsman, but his face remained open and innocent.
"Like I've told you the last fifty times you asked on the way here, of course he will," a second voice added, although the seemingly exasperated words were tempered with amusement and affection. "After all, the two of you virtually built that clan of his yourselves; I just wish I knew where Shara was."
"But it's been ten years," the boy exclaimed, absently taking his companion's hand; a slim girl with blindingly white hair that reflected the desert sunlight brilliantly. Her crimson silk robes proclaimed her magical skill, although an ornate rapier hung from her belt. "How could ten years have passed in the year we've been gone?"
Penelo relaxed against the railing of the nearby chocobo stable, trying valiantly to ignore the stench of the beasts as she watched the two with interest. Clearly clanners of some sort, and proficient ones at that, there was something about the young couple that attracted the eye, even without the puzzling nature of his final comment.
"Hey, I don't pretend to know how these magical seam things work," the girl giggled, playfully shooting a magical stream of water into her partner's face. "I just open them; but if you remember, in the year we spent here before, almost no time passed back there."
The boy laughed, joining in her amusement by shaking droplets of water out of his hair onto her like a drenched chocobo, before absently throwing a passing trader a few gil and snagging a desert rose to slip behind her ear. From the look that passed between them, it clearly had a deeper meaning for them both.
"Well, why don't we go knock on his door and see how loud a middle-aged moogle can scream KUPO!" the boy grinned, before capturing his companion's lips in a searing kiss, one wandering hand dipping into dangerous territory as he pulled away, grinning deeply as he tugged her towards the city.
Penelo smiled, forcing herself to look away from their private moment. Maybe there was hope for the world, yet.