Author's Notes: I actually wrote this fic at the request of an anonymous reviewer, madpostman. I was tossing around a few ideas for FFT fics, trying to decide what to write next, and after reflection this one sounded interesting. So here you go. :)
I would note that much of the action in here is going to take place in, and between, the heads of the characters. There probably won't be much in the way of fighting. I've never tried my hand at anything quite like this so I hope it is an enjoyable read.
Needless to say, I don't own Final Fantasy Tactics or any of its characters. I'm doing this for fun, not profit.
Chapter One: Bad Ideas
Alma did not look back as they left the graveyard. Fleecy white cloud-dunes rippled across the sky above, allowing bars of muted afternoon sunlight to drift across the tree-studded landscape around Orbonne. A warm breeze whispered through the branches, rustling leaves and needles, tugging at her dress and dustcloak.
She was smiling, she realized. It didn't make sense, really, to smile after a funeral, but perhaps it was different when the funeral in question was one's own. The turnout had surprised her, off in a remote part of the world as it was, but she'd seen a fair number of familiar faces, friends, distant relatives, teachers from the monastery. The orator's words had dragged a few sniffles out of her, prompting her brother to lay a hand on her arm, probably half in comfort and half to keep her from running out from their hiding place to greet everyone. His caution had been unnecessary, however; the mourners had begun to wander away from the new grave precisely because they'd made peace with her memory. She had left no loose ends, nothing tying her to Orbonne or to Igros. She was free.
Free and dead.
Being dead was certainly strange; never in her dreams would she have imagined she'd be the kind of person to fake her own death, but the remains of Glabados Church had effectively done it for her. Certainly they honestly believed she truly was dead, but the funeral, likely just a means of covering their tracks, was an unintentional gift, a token apology for their treatment of her and of Ivalice as a whole. She had accepted the apology, had forgiven them, but there was no longer a place for her in the quiet monastery walls.
And that, she reflected, was good. There was a new place for her.
Ducking under a low-hanging branch, she spared Ramza a sideways glance. He rode easily, gloved hands gripping the reins with absent skill, soulful hazel eyes clouded in thought as he scanned nearby trees out of long habit.
Turning her gaze back to the road, Alma concealed another smile. She knew him inside and out, now, and likewise knew what he was thinking. He's worrying again. Worrying, she guessed, about Olan, about whether it would have been better to speak with the man, or perhaps to have avoided his notice altogether. Don't worry about him, Ramza. From what you've told me, he won't betray us. Her brother did not speak his mind, however, so she remained silent as well.
Hours slid past as they rode; shadows grew longer, eventually merging into a dusky whole. The road had long since left the coastline behind, meandering now through solid forest. Though they would not reach Dorter before nightfall, even mounted, it had been her brother's hope to get there while the inns still had rooms to let. Alma was not particularly worried; Dorter always had space.
It was another problem that held her attention at the moment. "Ramza, I'm hungry."
He blinked at her through the twilight gloom, reverie dissipating, before finally nodding. "I don't suppose the other mourners will catch up with us at this point," he murmured, slipping out of Boco's saddle and to the ground.
Alma dismounted as well, pausing to ruffle Heppoko's feathers playfully; the bird nuzzled her hand in response. "I still have some apples," she declared, unbuckling a saddlebag and rooting through it. "And some of those strips of venison we got on the way down, I guess."
"Good," he answered, stretching backwards with a grimace. "Though I can still taste them from this morning."
Snickering, Alma distributed their food, giving him the less-bruised of the two green apples remaining. After hopping briefly in place to stretch out sore leg muscles, she ate.
The meal, as such, went quickly; in moments Ramza had finished his salted venison and tossed the apple core into the woods. While Alma buckled the saddlebag back up, she could feel his eyes on her.
"Alma," he began, his voice low. "How are you feeling?"
"I'm fine," she replied truthfully, turning to face him in the near-darkness of the forest. "Really."
He nodded doubtfully, shadows shifting across his face. "It's... it's okay to cry at funerals, you know."
She grinned at him. "It was my funeral, silly, and I'm still alive. I'm fine. I actually feel... happy."
He smiled uncertainly. "Why?"
The grin faded from her face as she pondered how to explain it. "Because I'm with you," she answered plainly after a moment.
A year ago, perhaps, he might have laughed nervously at such a comment, but now he simply nodded again, stepping forward to wrap arms around her in a tight hug. Alma melted into him, burying her head against his collarbone. In the darkness all around, crickets chirped quietly, and somewhere among the trees a distant owl hooted, but Ramza remained silent and so did she.
Eventually he released her, ruffling her hair before stepping back. "We should go," he noted, "if we're going to reach Dorter tonight."
"Yes," she agreed. As Ramza smiled and climbed back atop Boco, Alma followed suit, keeping her eyes on him as she swung a leg over her own saddle. What she'd told him was the unvarnished truth, and she suspected he knew it.
As they set off again through the night-shrouded woods, the familiar fingers of fear left her heart light and unmolested; she had not been afraid of anything since coming back. Even traveling through a forest at night failed to stir a sense of unease in her chest. In the slight chance that they encountered monsters the chocos couldn't simply outrun, Ramza would dispatch of them, keeping her safe, exactly as an older brother should. Although, in truth, after what they'd been through together mere goblins and wild chocobos seemed almost trifling.
There were still nights when unforgettable images would steal into her dreams, memories of waking up on the deck of an airship floating in nothing, of soul-burning possession and the laughter of demons, but those dreams weren't nightmares. They were warm dreams, pleasant ones, because they'd won. Because they'd survived. Because he'd been there. Her brother had chased her captors literally into hell to retrieve her. There was nowhere she could go that he couldn't find her, no danger she could be in that he wouldn't wade through to bring her back to safety. That's Ramza.
Eventually he must have sensed her gaze, for he spared her a sidelong glance and grinned. "Eyes on the road, Alma. You don't want to steer Heppoko into a tree, do you?"
She stuck her tongue out at him but did as he asked. In truth the choco's eyes were sharper than hers in the darkness, and any guidance she offered the bird would likely serve more as hindrance than help.
When they reached Dorter, streetlights were still burning in the city's numerous market districts. Ramza steered them towards an inn he claimed to have stayed at numerous times over the last year or two, a place where the innkeeper could be trusted.
Trusted or not, the man had only two rooms available when they arrived, neither very large. Ramza paid for one, then ordered up a warm meal for the both of them. Crowded into a corner of the sweaty common room, they ate quickly and in silence, then retired for the night.
Once up to the room Ramza gave her another hug, then stripped down to his breeches and slipped into the bed, of which Alma quickly realized there was only one. Shrugging, she tugged off her boots and joined him, curling into a ball and pulling the blankets to herself. In moments sleep found her.
The next morning, they left early, heading north out of town. Their route would take them through the desert towards Goland, then up through Lesalia before veering eastward across the northern edge of Ivalice, eventually carrying them out of Ivalice altogether, to a place they'd only visited briefly a month ago. They adopted assumed names, Ramza going by Dietrich and Alma choosing Emerald. She found an herb in Goland to dye their hair black, though it would need to be reapplied regularly, and Ramza went so far as to cut his to a shaggy finger-length.
A few days after leaving Lesalia, however, he began to seem preoccupied, his conversation absent, his smiles coming a heartbeat too late. Alma pondered this in concern but said nothing; better to talk when they stopped, rather than while pushing the chocos along the well-worn road to the capital.
To her surprise, once they reached Zeltennia, Ramza brought the chocos into an inn's stable. Frowning, she watched him toss a few coins to the bleary-eyed stableboy there, then followed him inside.
"Ramza," she hissed in the short hallway between the stables and the common room. "What are we doing here?"
He hesitated, turning to face her in the narrow space. Though she could generally read his intentions in his eyes, at the moment they were inscrutable as a wizard's, guarded and worried. "I... think we should spend the night in Zeltennia," he explained quietly.
"Here?" she repeated in disbelief. "Ramza, that's..." Trailing off, she glanced up and down the hallway, but the wooden doors at both ends stood closed. "This is the worst possible place to stay," she continued in a whisper. "You know who lives here, right? Who rules here?"
"Oh. Yeah." He laughed weakly, an unconvincing gesture.
Some pieces clicked together in Alma's mind. "You're planning to do something stupid," she guessed. What could...? "It's him, isn't it? You want to do something to Delita." Please let that not be it.
His brows furrowed angrily. "Not to him. I just want to talk to him. One last time."
She rubbed her face tiredly. "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard," she sighed. "He's a king now. He isn't your friend anymore."
"I think he still is," countered Ramza defensively. "Part of him, at least. If I find him when there's no one else around, no guards or anything, I think he'll talk to me."
"Why?" she charged, planting hands on her hips. "What's so important that you need to tell him, or ask him?"
"Teta," he answered wearily, eyes sliding shut. "I want to know... I need to see if he... holds that against me. I don't want to leave Ivalice forever without... clearing things up."
She hesitated, chewing a lip. "You already have left Ivalice forever," she pointed out gently. "Everyone thinks you're dead, remember? No one's expecting you to tie up all your loose ends."
"This isn't for everyone else," he explained seriously, glancing up at her again. "This is for me. I need to know." His eyes went mournfully distant.
Alma compressed her lips, folding arms over her chest, trying to glare at him. "I worried about you enough when you were fighting everyone," she noted accusingly. "I don't want to go through that again. We agreed that we were done doing things like this."
"This is the last time," he assured her firmly, eyes snapping back to her face. "Then I'm done."
"Why didn't you say anything before this?" she sighed, irritated. "Did you just come up with this now, or have you been planning it for a while?"
"I... well, last night," he answered, shifting his feet. "But I've been wondering about it for months."
"Why can't you wait till he's somewhere else? Somewhere not surrounded by guards and wizards?" She waited briefly, but he just blinked back at her. "Ramza... please don't go."
A pained look crossed his features and he shuffled forward, planting hands against the side of her head and a kiss against her brow. "I need to go," he repeated softly.
Alma lowered her gaze, keeping her arms folded. I can't say no, she realized helplessly. It would eat him up forever if he didn't get this off his chest. "Then at least let me go with you," she whispered.
"No." His voice turned hard, almost curt, and he lifted her head to peer meaningfully into her eyes. Strawlike black hair looked weirdly incongruous over his tanned features.
"I'm serious," she insisted, staring back up at him. "I can help protect--"
"Absolutely not," he interrupted. "You're staying here if I have to tie you to the bed."
She raised an eyebrow at this, hoping to throw him off-balance, but though he had the grace to blush slightly, he shook his head. "I'm serious, Alma. I'm not budging on this. I need to be stealthy more than I need protection. You'll be safe here in the inn."
"It's not myself I'm worried about," she muttered, tearing her gaze from his. "It's still a terrible idea."
"Maybe," he allowed quietly. "I'll be safe, though. They won't even see me until I'm already past them."
She scowled at the wall. "They'd better not."
He chuckled, ushering her gently towards the inn door. "Let's go get a room."
Ovelia knelt in the ruins of the castle church. She was praying.
God, she sighed, head down, eyes closed, thank you for showing me what kind of a man he is. I just... I wish you would have chosen a less painful way to do it. Although, she reflected, perhaps he had; everyone else had known before this morning, but not her. Perhaps it had taken extreme measures to get the message through. Tears burned her eyes at the thought, and her hand twitched, wanting to rise to her belly, but she quickly stilled it.
Lord, it is an evil act, what I am about to do. She paused, sniffling, but steeled herself. I don't mean to question you, but surely you did not mean for a monster like him to wear the crown. Either way, though, I do not ask for your forgiveness. Let it go to another, to someone more deserving than me.
Silently concluding her prayer, she lifted her other hand, the one with the dagger, and kissed the blade with trembling lips. Her palm stung at the movement, a smear of drying blood there a testament to the fallout of her revelation just hours ago. Strong. For once, I have to be strong. I owe Ivalice this much.
Opening her eyes, she gazed absently at the crumbling rock all around, the church ruins glowing in warm afternoon sunlight. She did not know how long it had been since the structure had stood as it should, but to her its condition spoke volumes. Zeltennia, it said, was ruled by men of cold priorities, men who valued swords and chocos and calculated intrigue over the armor of faith. And maybe they're right, she reflected bleakly. Look at what it's gotten them. Power. Control. All I have is an ache in my belly and fury in my heart.
Sighing through clenched teeth, she concealed the dagger as best she could in the folds of her dress. It wouldn't be long, now. He would have expected her to be in their room after he finished with the duties of court, and would know to find her here instead.
Again her wandering eyes alighted on the woeful remains of the church. There was another one, a whole one, in the city proper for the pious masses to frequent. He had been very keen to keep it there, to keep that one in good repair. Let them have their faith, he'd explained once. It keeps our heads where they belong, doesn't it? It was just a tool to him, like everything. Like everyone. Her eyes tightened just thinking about it, her lip threatening to tremble; with effort she put him out of her mind, made herself strong again.
Unbidden, her thoughts drifted back as they often did of late, back to familiar and treasured faces. Simon's kindly wrinkles. Alma's cheery smile. Agrias' stern loyalty and Ramza's earnest kindness. They'd all been people who had respected her, had appreciated her company simply as another human being, whatever their positions might have been. Friends. All dead now, of course. She had no idea which he'd killed and which had died by other means, but he had certainly not shed a tear for any, even his childhood friend. No matter whose hands had done the deeds, she suspected she knew whose mouth had given the orders.
A lump arose in her throat and she swallowed past it. It was strange, she reflected; even after a royal wedding, after all the pomp of statehood, the happiest moments in her life had been stupid little things, done on whims. Picking flowers in the monastery garden with Alma. Playing the reed flute with Ramza. Laughing at everyone's jokes as they sat around a campfire in the hills, tired after another day running from Bart Company.
I wish I'd known, back then, she sighed sadly. I might have done things differently. Would it have been so bad to... to stay with them? To take a different name, maybe learn a craft? At least then I'd be useful. I'd have friends.
One of her reasons for marrying him, she reflected, was to bring peace back to Ivalice; to that end she was willing to give up a great many things. Only now, it seemed almost silly; even if she'd fallen to a stray arrow in one of the many battles surrounding her at some point, she doubted it would have been any harder for him. He was just so... so strong; he would have forged the country back together with nothing more than his bare hands and the strength of his will. Marrying her had been a shortcut for him, not a requirement.
He won't be strong forever, she assured herself grimly, fingers tight on the dagger hilt. Not after today.
As though thinking of him had been a summons, the sounds of choco claws on rock drifted over from somewhere behind her, growing louder as its rider approached. "Here you are," he called cheerfully. "Everyone's been looking for you."
Ovelia squeezed her eyes shut, waiting. Soon. Be strong.
The chocobo slowed, and shortly came the soft thump of boots striking the earth. Footsteps followed, a slow, confident gait she would have recognized instantly even had she not already known who it was. "Today's your birthday, right?" he continued mildly, striding ever nearer. "These flowers..."
Now. Twisting around, she stabbed with all her might, driving the little dagger forward; steel scraped across his armor before the point found an opening and slipped into the flesh beneath.
Dark eyes widened in shock. A bouquet of roses tumbled to the rocky ground.
Ramza ghosted through Zeltennia Castle's stone hallways, unseen. Oil lamps flickered warmly at regular intervals, splashing golden illumination on tapestries of battle scenes from generations past.
Where is he? Lips twisted irritably as he came to an intersection, he glanced in every direction, but saw only more hallway, more lamps and tapestries. To his left a pair of greying nobles strolled in his direction, chatting in low voices, one of the men making elaborate gestures as he related some story or other.
Shaking his head, Ramza padded ahead, through the intersection and the noblemen's field of vision, but they failed to raise an alarm. Failed to see him at all. He smiled faintly to himself.
At first he had been nervous sneaking into the castle so, but after more than an hour navigating its labyrinthine corridors, frustration had long since replaced anxiety. No one could see him, true, but he was still unable to open doors and the like; seeing one open by itself would have attracted some rather unwanted attention. At one point he had waited at the end of a hallway for a quarter-hour until a muttering guard had come by and done him an unwitting favor.
Even so, he reflected glumly as he rounded another corner, success at sneaking did not imply success at finding Delita. Zeltennia Castle was huge, and by rights his friend could be anywhere inside it. Uncomfortably he recalled the time they'd spoken in the city's church, when Ramza had had to show himself openly to make Delita come to him. Not doing that this time, though, he reminded himself. Alma had made him promise.
As he wandered, an open doorway caught his attention and he paused, backtracking a few steps to glance through it. Within, a flight of stairs led downward, opening into what looked to be a grassy space; sunlight slanted in at the bottom, painting a triangle of the stone wall in golden hues.
A courtyard? wondered Ramza. After a moment he shrugged, stepping carefully down the stairs; the clothes made him invisible, not silent.
The place turned out not to be a courtyard at all, or at least not one like any he'd ever seen. The crumbling ruins of some stone structure stood in one corner of a vast open space stretching off to the north. An aging and ill-kept road wound from the building northward, its cobbles cracked, some half-buried in dirt and long grass.
This is inside the castle? blinked Ramza, glancing around. No wonder the place is huge. Venturing a few paces into the courtyard, or whatever it was, he glanced around, but could find no sign of the man he sought.
A flash of white in the ruins, however, caught his attention. Frowning, he advanced further, attempting to keep to the shorter grass where he would be less likely to leave tracks. The white dress soon resolved into a person, whom he quickly recognized as Ovelia.
He froze there, suddenly uncertain. I guess she would be here, wouldn't she? he acknowledged, feeling vaguely silly; in his drive to find Delita he'd forgotten entirely about the man's wife. That was dumb of me. I know her.
Abruptly he twisted, examining the doors and walls of the courtyard, looking for guards, but found none. She's the queen, now. Isn't she guarded? After brief consideration, he shrugged; it made his task easier if there was no one to see him. Maybe she'll talk to me. She probably knows where he is. Although... He frowned, peering through the ruins at the monarch. She looks busy. Praying, maybe.
Standing motionless, leaving no shadow in the sunlight, he hesitated some more. Which way would be better? Waiting here with Ovelia, trusting that she and Delita would eventually meet up, or wandering the castle interior for untold hours more, trying to find him? Alma's probably already worried sick. I... should just wait here, he decided. If all else fails, I can maybe talk to Ovelia instead.
His choice made, Ramza stealthed through the grass, towards the ruins, eventually positioning himself against the wall a short distance from his former traveling companion. This is insane, he realized belatedly, swallowing and glancing nervously about. If anyone finds me, there's no way I'll be able to convince them I'm not an assassin. Alma was right. Again.
Shaking his head, he tried his best to shrink against the wall, for all the good it would do. Despite his invisibility, he felt exposed just standing there in the open. Some armor would have been nice, he reflected wistfully, even a good vest, but the secret clothes made armor all but impossible. The layers of plain charcoal-colored silk suddenly seemed very thin protection indeed.
At least I'm using them, though, he added with a silent chuckle. He had been not at all certain he ever would.
After the airship, when the party had been in the heartbreaking process of splitting up, there had been mild bartering over which pieces of treasure would go to whom. Some, the good swords and shields, went quickly, while others remained without any claimants. The secret clothes had been one such, offering too little protection to be of interest to Alicia or Carmen. Agrias had solved that problem, as she had so many others. Ramza, she'd decided, you like eavesdropping so much; you should take them. She'd said it with laughter lighting those blue eyes. Laughter and, in retrospect, affection.
Letting his head thump back against the wall, he exhaled heavily. Agrias was gone, now. So many mistakes.
A sniffle drew his attention back to Ovelia, and with a start he realized she was crying. Tears trickled down pale cheeks, her features tight with, he suspected, determination. As he watched uncomfortably, it occurred to him how lonely the life of a queen must be, especially for someone like Ovelia, someone without much confidence to fall back on. Her tears tore at him, tugged powerful strings in his heart; he hated seeing women cry.
Swallowing, he watched her a moment longer, then averted his gaze. Someone... someone should talk to her.
In moments, a yellow choco appeared behind a distant set of trees, sparing him further shame. He immediately recognized Delita riding it, plated in gold-trimmed armor fine enough to befit a king. Which, he reflected after a moment, made sense. Delita rode confidently, shoulders back, radiating the natural authority of a man who ruled everything he saw. So visible was his self-assurance that it took Ramza a moment to notice the bouquet of flowers resting across the front of his saddle.
Oh, good, sighed Ramza. He'll comfort her. Perhaps the two had fought, or some such.
"Here you are," remarked the new king as he drew close enough to speak. "Everyone's been looking for you." Drawing rein, he pulled the choco to a halt and slipped to the ground, pausing to grab the flowers. Roses.
Ovelia did not answer, didn't even turn around. Her entire posture shouted tension.
Ramza grimaced faintly. Whatever argument they'd had, it must have been a bad one.
"Today's your birthday, right?" mused Delita, striding towards the motionless Ovelia. "These flowers..."
Suddenly she uncoiled, lunging at him; sunlight flashed on steel in her fist. A sickly familiar sound followed as the weapon found a home in flesh. The queen's lips were pulled back in a silent snarl, a vicious expression that looked out-of-place on her face.
Oh my God. Ramza felt his jaw drop. Is she...?
Delita seemed to share his confusion. "Ovelia?" he whispered in shock as the flowers fell from his grip.
She hissed, attempting to push the dagger deeper into him. "You use everyone!" she shrieked; splotches of pink dotted her cheeks now. "Now you'll kill me, just like Ramza!"
Ramza blinked, too shocked to wonder.
A peculiar expression, a cold one, crossed Delita's face. Wrenching her hand from the dagger's hilt, he pulled it from his side, then stabbed it savagely into Ovelia, an expert thrust intended to seek the heart through the ribs. Steel scraped audibly against bone; her eyes widened briefly, mouth opening in a silent gasp, but then she slumped groundward and did not move.
Delita's blank eyes shifted to his hands, which began to shake. Letting the dagger slip from his gloved hands, he backed off, seemingly unable to tear his eyes from the body of Ovelia. His lips moved silently, perhaps of their own accord. Some six paces away, he stumbled awkwardly to his knees.
The fall snapped Ramza out of his shock. Feeling his face twist into a frightened grimace, he bolted forward, sprinting the twenty paces to where Ovelia lay, distantly aware of his body rippling into full view at the sudden motion. Dropping to his knees next to her, he rolled her carefully onto her back, ignoring Delita. His hands danced over her, searching for a pulse and finding none. Dead, then, but not crystallized.
Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes and rested hands over her heart, on the crimson-soaked fabric of her dress. Taking a moment to empty his mind, he imagined a great reserve of water inside him, cold, clear and sparkling, then willed some of it to pour through his arms and into Ovelia.
Her gasp snapped his eyes back open. She tensed, every muscle clenching in simultaneous opposition, soft brown eyes wide and wandering aimlessly, unseeing. After a moment she collapsed again.
Lips tight, Ramza checked her again, then slumped in relief. Just unconscious.
His attention quickly turned to Delita, still sitting there a few paces away. The other man's gaze rose to meet his own, and something flickered there briefly, some spark of recognition. Soon, however, it was gone, leaving only a dead, hollow stare which he directed at Ovelia.
Ramza regarded his friend uncertainly, all the questions he'd wanted to ask surfacing in his mind, though now they seemed... unimportant. Whatever Delita felt or did not feel for him was clearly trifling in the man's mind compared to the gravity of what had just happened. Even after the loss and subsequent death of Teta, Ramza had never seen Delita look so haunted, so lost. Like he'd just choked happiness itself to death with his own hands.
Closing his mouth, Ramza glanced between the two monarchs, then frowned at Ovelia. I can't leave her here, he realized wearily. Not like this. Reaching for the dagger, he wiped it briefly on the grass before tucking it under his belt, then scooped the unconscious queen into his arms and stood.
For a moment he remained in place, staring at Delita, absently adjusting his grip on Ovelia. His old friend stared back, though not at him; he gazed at Ovelia. At his wife.
Eventually, after Ramza's failure to move, the clothes' enchantment settled back into place, drawing him slowly under the veil of the visible. To his relief, the effect began enclosing Ovelia as well; to outside eyes she would simply be disappearing inch by inch.
Before she was completely under, Delita tore his gaze away, his face wet with silent tears. Ramza hovered uncertainly, then made quietly for the stairs, idly hoping he remembered how to get out.