escape velocity

The first night is the hardest.

She isn't used to the fluffy beds anymore, and finds herself shifting uncomfortably for several hours, sweating underneath petticoats and sheets and comforters until finally, sometime after midnight, shrugging out of the bed and into her thin, "adventuring" clothes, and sleeping on the floor. When this still doesn't feel right, she moves to the balcony. Under the stars, with the wind on her face, she sleeps.

At dawn, for several moments, she waits for the inevitable - Penelo's rummaging around, starting the fire, getting breakfast ready. Vaan's moaning about "five more minutes." Fran's heels clicking as she stands and stretches. Balthier's annoyed sighs that there's no decent baths around. Basch's gentle shaking, trying to wake her up. It takes her several long, confused minutes for her to realize that Basch is in Archades, Vaan and Penelo are somewhere in the city, and Balthier and Fran -

Balthier and Fran -

On the ground, they had discussed holding a service of sorts, but Vaan wouldn't hear it. "They're not dead, okay? Besides, you really think they'd want some sort of stuffy priest-man talking about them? No way. They'll show up again, you wait."

A huge part of her wanted to do just that, to sit there on the outskirts of the Westersand for as long as it took, until Balthier and Fran simply appeared out of the desert, alive and whole and - and, smirkingat her for being so hung up on a pair of scoundrels like them. She'd forgive them, easily, in a heartbeat, for making her worry, if they'd just show back up. She hadn't even realized how much she'd grown to depend on Fran's knowledge of healing items or Balthier's snarky comments, until all of a sudden, they're both gone and she's stuck in the palace walls, with no one to challenge her or give her the right herbs for those pesky cramps.

The first morning, she sits on the balcony for a long time, eyes closed, willing his voice and her face back into being, wishing with everything she is that her window faced anywhere but west.

A maid knocks on her door, startling her, and the spell is broken.

They're gone, remember? Time to move on.

She doesn't, hasn't, refuses to, will not, cry. She is a princess, she has received everything she's been fighting for, she's made it through losing her mother, father, husband, and country. She will not cry. She will not cry. She will not cry.

Besides, as Vaan said, they're not dead. They'll probably show up again, sometime, when she least expects it. It's a foolish hope, a false hope, but, for now, it's enough.

--

She refuses to allow some strange cook or maid to venture out to find her goods for her, and refuses to allow the masses of guards and maids and needless servants who surely have better things to do follow her around Rabanastre. Five weeks after Bahamut's crash, five weeks after she arrived back at the Palace, she loses her patience - "Leave me alone! I will not be accosted by some murderer on the streets, and even if I am, I assure you, I can take care of him myself, thank you."

It's glorious, really, to stand in the heat of the desert sun, on the streets of the Mhuthru Bazaar, breathing clear, scorching air, smelling of cooking food and the metallic clang of the blacksmith, and the beautiful freedom of the crowd. She's standing over a caravan - some merchant from Rozzaria, selling rather ugly jewelry, when she hears it.

"Ashe! Hey, Ashe!"

And Vaan comes flying in out of nowhere, and nearly runs straight into her. His whole face is bright with excitement and flushed from the heat. He stops and pants for a moment, before rambling, "I thought you weren't allowed anywhere without a billion servants and all that, but check this out!" He holds out some sort of key, and she stares at it oddly, pretending to be interested without having the faintest idea why he's so happy about a key.

"That's... nice, Vaan. What is it?"

He only grins bigger, still panting, and says, "You'll never guess. Come on, try!"

Half of her wonders how she's made it through the past five weeks without his childish optimism and happiness. The other half wonders how she made it through her entire journey without strangling him. "I don't know, Vaan. It doesn't look familiar."

"Oh, come on! I'll give you a hint, it's a key."

"Thank you, Vaan, I couldn't tell."

"To something big."

Suspicion sets in. "Vaan, if you're planning to steal anything from my palace..." But he cuts her off, laughing.

"No, no, no! It's to an airship! I've got my own airship, and Penelo's gonna be my co-pilot. We're gonna be sky pirates, how cool is that?"

She tries very hard to look happy for him. He looks so excited, but he's dragging up emotions she's spent five weeks suppressing, and she can't explain that to him, not without giving too much away. She's saved from replying, however, by Penelo.

"Vaan, what are you - Ashe! Hey, have you heard?" And she's smiling too, bright and happy. "You'll never guess how we got the ship."

"I don't know. You bought it, I would assume."

Vaan gives a huge, exaggerated sigh. "Well, yeah, we bought it. But how often do you find airships laying around - and good airships, too, I mean, this thing's amazing - just waiting to be bought?"

"We got a tip," Penelo cuts in, leaning closer, "from an anonymous source."

"Who just so happened to know exactly what sort of ship we wanted."

"And who just so happened to know we needed a ship of our own."

"And who made it very clear that he wanted his own ship back as soon as we got ours up and running." Vaan grins again, and something in Ashe freezes. She knows she must look completely shell-shocked, because Penelo giggles.

"I know, right? The letter didn't say anything about where they were or how they got out, but it was definitely from Balthier, and I don't think he'd be going on about getting theStrahl back if he didn't have Fran with him."

"We sent a note back, through Gurdy, about how the explosion really messed something up with the engines and so we'll have to get it fixed -"

"- And about where in Ivalice he and Fran are -"

"- And about why he hasn't shown his face since -"

"- But he hasn't replied, yet. Probably hasn't gotten it. We only got the ship three days ago, and it's still not working all right yet, because it's really new." Penelo takes a deep breath, and Ashe tries to process the massive amount of information that was just thrown at her.

"Wait," She says suddenly, "Stop. Balthier and Fran are alive?"

Penelo and Vaan nod.

"And they found the two of you an airship."

Nod.

"And they want the Strahlback, as soon as you've finished paying for the repairs."

Penelo nods. Vaan grunts and mumbles something about typical, but doesn't continue.

"So, where are they?" Ashe barely manages to keep the edge out of her voice, part worry, part anger, and part hope. Maybe Balthier will suddenly appear on the street, right here. Maybe Fran is listening. Penelo and Vaan exchange glances.

"I..." Penelo starts, "I don't know, actually. You see, Gurdy delivered the message to us while we were talking to Old Dalan last week. We went to the Aerodome, but they weren't there. And no one had seen either of them. So, they could be anywhere."

"But," Ashe says, "But, they don't have a ship! They must be here, or somewhere around here, right? And Gurdy doesn't just fly around to all the cities in Ivalice. They must have been here recently."

"That's what I said," Vaan shrugs, "But we can't find them. Don't worry about it. I'm sure they'll get in contact with you soon enough."

Ashe opens her mouth to reply, but then people are beginning to recognize her and it's getting late and surely someone at the Palace is tearing their hair out because they can't pinpoint where she is right this very instant, and she has to leave. She tells them to call on her any time they wish, and that rooms will always be available for them, should they find themselves needing a place to stay. They grin and beam and tell her they'll have to take her up on that sometime, even while all of them know that the time for needing each other has passed.

Vaan and Penelo need nothing but the sky. Basch needs only his judge's armor. Balthier and Fran need themselves. And Ashe?

Ashe needs her people, yes. Her throne.

A small part of her, though, thinks she still needs Vaan and Penelo and Basch and Fran and Balthier. A small part of her wants to need them.

--

Balthier does not contact her. After a while, she stops waiting for him to.

--

Six months after Bahamut's crash, Ashe has settled back into the palace life. She no longer jumps at every creak, and the bed is comfortable again, albeit lonely. But being alone she can handle, she thinks, she's been alone before. Only then she thinks about it, and realizes that she really hasn't. First, she had her father and brothers, and then Rasler, then Vossler, and then Basch and everyone else. Only now, surrounded by more people and maids and servants than she could ever need...

Only now, when she has everything she's ever fought for, before her, waiting for her, when she has everyone she needs...

She's lonely. And bored.

Penelo sends her letters often, rambling about what laws they've broken this week (which she politely ignores in her replies), what new places they've seen, what sort of Rozzarian royalty they've annoyed - and every word makes her ache for that life. The ever-changing excitement of not knowing where you'll be tomorrow. The exhilaration of getting into a fight you aren't sure you can win. The safety of camaraderie.

She wonders, sometimes, what would have happened, had she simply said, "No, Balthier, don't fly to face Vayne. Let's just leave into the sunset and see where the wind takes us." What if she'd left the throne behind and run away?

But this is foolishness. Her people needs her, and she needs them, if she needs anything at all. They need a ruler who won't oppress them. How could she have left them to Archadia's tyranny? How could she have allowed war to tear her country apart? And what would she do, forced into Penelo's life or Fran's life? How would she be able to survive if she wasn't the leader?

All her life, she's been taught that she is a leader and she is to be in charge of any situation. It's simply ingrained into her way of thinking, and playing second-in-command never worked so well.

She tells herself that the life of a sky pirate is not the life for her, and sits through meeting after meeting with boring nobles from boring countries, and it takes all she is to put on a mask of interest, while inside, all she can think about is how Penelo's last letter detailed exactly how this foppy nobleman dressed up in his wife's clothes last week (she and Vaan were in the process of robbing him blind, apparently, and were... interrupted. The ink at this part was shaky, as if written between great bouts of laughter.)

It's hard to keep the two parts separate in her mind. In one eye, she sees herself on the Strahl, with Balthier and Fran and Basch (not Gabranth - Basch) and Vaan and Penelo, and everyone so wonderfully alive that it hurts. In the other, she sees reality, the Crown Princess in meetings with secretly transvestite noblemen, trying to keep a straight face and trying not to scream.

But this is the life she wanted. This is what she fought for.

She only wishes it wasn't sodull.

--

Almost a year later, she's standing in the doorway to her room, a chaotic, wild mess, wondering when she'll ever clean it and why she ever told the maid to leave her chambers alone. She sighs heavily and picks up some trinket, some token of love from Suitor Number Five Hundred Seventy Three - apparently, every man in the entirety of Ivalice thinks that getting up her skirt is the best thing to do - and nearly hits herself in the face with it when she hears a voice.

"My, my, your highness. Been neglecting your cleaning?"

Whirling around to disguise the startled jump that she knows he'll tease her for if he sees, she faces Balthier, in the flesh, leaning arrogantly against her bedpost. She could have sworn he wasn't there five seconds ago. For a moment, she's happy, but then the past year and a half catches up with her, and she's angry, and confused. There are so many things she wants to ask him - where have you been, why haven't you contacted anyone except Vaan, why did you see fit to send me my ring via Penelo, what in the name of all the gods were you doing in Rozzaria and why did I get bombarded by seven angry noblewomen claiming you wronged every single one of them in the space of thirty minutes... But what comes out is, regrettably, "How long have you been there?"

He raises an eyebrow, amused. "Oh? Were you doing something I'm not supposed to see?"

She drops the trinket, crosses the room in two strides, and tries to strike him, but evidently, he expected this, because he catches her arm. "Now, now, no need to get - Ahh!" Left arm incapacitated, she's slapped him with her right. He closes his eyes for a moment and takes a deep breath. "Have you gotten that out of your system?"

"No," She spits, and hits him again. And again, for good measure. Then he snatches her other arm and holds them both at a good distance.

"All right, I get the point. You're not happy with me. I'd like to keep at least some skin on my face, thank you."

"Hmmph. Let go of my arms."

"Not until you promise not to slap me again. Why are you so angry?"

"Because it's been over a year, Balthier! Did you never see fit to at least tell me you were alive? If Vaan and Penelo hadn't accosted me on the streets, I would have thought you were dead until your little...shipping incident with my ring - my wedding ring, Balthier! Which you didn't even have the decency to send back yourself! And that's only part of why I'm angry with you!"

"...Does this have anything to do with those Rozzarian women?"

"No!"

"Ah. You're lying. But I did not come here to talk about ugly Rozzarian ladies, nor did I come here to be assaulted by a very angry Queen."

"Then what did you come here for? And will you please release my arms?"

"I've already answered that. I actually came because of something Penelo told me, if you must know."

"Balthier, I am losing my patience with you. Release my arms at once."

"No," He replies, rolling his eyes, "And I thought you wanted to know why I came."

"Not until you release my arms."

"I don't trust you not to hit me."

"I can have you thrown in prison for trespassing."

"You wouldn't -"

"Guards!"

He hastily lets go of both her arms and clamps a hand over her mouth. "Are you out of your mind? I've got a bounty on my head the size of Archades! Do you want to see me hanged?" Ashe looks away, and fights the temptation to be a petulant child and bite his fingers. It wouldn't work. She'd probably only bite down on his ridiculous rings, anyway. After a moment, Balthier releases her mouth.

"Just so you know," She drawls, "There aren't any guards on this floor. I hate having those idiots crowd around my door." Balthier glares at her. She simply meets his glare, a response she knows isn't very intimidating, coming from a girl three years younger and six inches shorter than he, but doesn't care.

Balthier takes a deep breath and begins to move toward the balcony. "Fine. I had intended to speak civilly with you, but I see you've turned into a typical, snobby Noble, and I've had my fill of them, thank you. Terribly sorry to intrude, Your Highness."

He's halfway out the window when she caves. "Wait, Balthier!" He stops. "I'm sorry. What did you want to talk to me about?" Slowly, he turns around, and places a hand on his chin thoughtfully.

"Once more, with feeling."

"Balthier..."

"Penelo tells me you look awfully lonely. I was thinking," Here he won't meet her eye, and begins pacing, which tells her that Fran probably had to force him into this, "that perhaps you would like to get away from the Court life for a while."

She doesn't respond immediately. Hasn't she been silently begging someone for this? Isn't this what she's spent the past year hoping for, watching the skies for? Balthier is leaning against her balcony, arms crossed, watching her silently, maybe - maybe - hopefully? She looks to her feet, where the trinket from the suitor lies, shattered. It was stupid anyway.

It would be awfully reckless and terribly childish of her. "I..." She begins. Balthier stands straighter. "I'm a Queen, Balthier. I can't... I can't just take off like that." His face stays deceptively neutral.

"I thought you'd say that. Well," He says, taking a deep bow, "the offer stands. Should you ever find yourself suffocated by the confines of royalty, you know where to find me." He backs out her window, and she just catches him -

"No, Balthier, I don't! How do I contact you?"

But he simply smirks and vanishes over the railing. He always was a show-off.

--

The next day, listening to yet another courtier talking about yet another mundane topic (she stopped listening months ago), she bitterly wishes she'd taken Balthier up on his offer. Why, why did she decide that responsibility was right? Shouldn't she have - for once in her life - listened to her heart and followed the dangerous, dashing, infuriating sky pirate into wonderful freedom? Why didn't she give into temptation -just this once?

In one eye, she sees the morning she could be having, the deck of the Strahl, the click of Fran's heels, the scent of Balthier's cologne. In the other, the life she's chosen.

Both want to cry.

--

That night, she wakes up suddenly. In the gloom, she stares around, all of her instincts telling her to stay still. The window is open, the curtains billowing. Something is here. She hardly dares to breathe, fingers itching for the sword that's on the other side of the room, locked in the wardrobe with all of her other "adventuring" clothes.

And then an impatient tapping. She sits straight up and narrowly avoids head-butting Balthier, who is again leaning against the bed post.

"You looked awfully bored today in Court, my lady." He smirks. "I would say you're regretting your decision last night."

"You said I could contact you if I changed my mind," she hisses, irrational anger bubbling, right under a giddiness she hasn't felt in years. "I haven't contacted you."

"Forgive me, your highness, for stating the obvious, but I'm a pirate. I don't believe I ever claimed to be a man of my word."

"What do you want?"

"You look bored." He repeats, "I've come to change that."

"By murdering me in my sleep?"

Balthier snickers, and grabs her hand, giving her nightclothes an odd glance, before hoisting her off the bed and to her feet. "Nonsense. Why would I want to murder the Queen of Dalmasca? Kidnap, now there's something to be made from that."

"And if I refuse?"

"You think I can't carry you?"

She stares at Balthier, and wonders what sort of motives he really has for this. Balthier isn't the sort of person to do this without having some sort of ace up his sleeve, or having some underlying reason. He doesn't kidnap Queens out of the goodness of his heart.

But there's no time for thinking, before she finds herself slung over Balthier's shoulder and, pounding his back half-heartedly, dragged out of her room and into the Strahl.

And for once, Ashe doesn't really give a damn about what's going to happen tomorrow.
---
--
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(A/N: No, I haven't the faintest idea what the hell is going on with this. I had oral surgery less than a week ago. Blame the medication. Also, Revenant Wings? What Revenant Wings?)