Ashe sighed and tugged at the sleeves of her dress impatiently. Throwing a royal masquerade ball for no apparent reason seemed a little ridiculous, to be sure, but Penelo had insisted she needed a break from her queenly duties, and had even set for the whole affair to be arranged out of her hands. All Ashe had to do was look nice and greet her guests. The music was lively, the people were having a grand time, but Ashe felt strangely empty inside, and not much like dancing. It had been nearly a year since she'd received what she considered proof that they were alive, and yet no sign of the wretched sky pirate or his Viera partner. She had half hoped that they would have heard about the gala and invited themselves, but over the heads of the massive throng of dancing company she saw no sign of Viera ear, heard no snide sarcasm or tinkling laugh, and saw no trace of the Strahl grounded anywhere nearby the palace.
Deciding it would be impolite of her to stare blankly at her frolicking visitors the whole of the night, she grudgingly accepted the arm of a stranger and joined him on the dance floor. It was only once she was surrounded by people that she looked up into the face of her partner….or what she could see of it. He wore a drab magenta blob of fabric covering his face from brow to lip that clashed magnificently with his bright red hair and moustache. He was tall and rather ungainly in dance, and Ashe regretted her decision the first time he stepped on her silk-clad toes.
Soon into their dance, she felt a gentle tap on her shoulder. A familiar scent of cologne roused her senses as a voice flitted past her ears over the music: "May I cut in?" As the former man stepped aside, Ashe got a good view of his replacement, and prayed silently that he was a better dancer.
In the dim light of the hall, she could see that her new partner was quite tall, wearing a beautifully ornate white silk vest and matching mask, concealing his eyes and nose from view. His hair was slicked back from his brow and appeared to be light in color, though she could not tell. He bowed to her gracefully and took her hand as the song changed tempo. She returned the gesture in a small curtsey, and they fell into position. There's something odd about this man, Ashe thought.
For his height, he was surprisingly elegant, and didn't step on her toes once. As the dance was a familiar one to her, she was able to study this mystery man's face and ponder what about him struck her as familiar. He gazed back into her eyes patiently, yet said not a word. Realization crept upon her like a common friend, and she stopped dancing and released him.
"Is something the matter, Your Highness?" said that calm, faintly recognizable voice. His hazel eyes darted between hers, yet he did not seem uneasy. There was something so comforting in his eyes, something she had seen in her dreams over the past two years, something that simply cried life and freedom and everything mankind should cherish….
Ashe gasped silently to herself. "I…no, it can't be." She closed her eyes and shook her head, closing her mind also to the flood of memories that washed over her, the lines on his face, the color of his eyes, the way his hair stuck up in the middle….
A hand graced her elbow. "What is it? Are you feeling faint, Your Highness?" His voice was kindly enough, but the memory of it was taunting her. Her eyes snapped open, searching for his face in the weak light. She reached for his mask, her hands shaking. "I know you….I know your face."
The man stepped back, smirking in that oh-so-familiar way that cut through her like a knife. "This is a masquerade, Your Majesty. It would be most unconventional of me to remove my mask."
"Please," she said simply, "Tell me who you are!"
The stranger's eyes darkened slightly, and he stepped farther back from her. "I cannot. Perhaps some other time. Good evening, Your Majesty, and thank you for the lovely dance." As he bowed to her again, a hand took hold of her arm from behind and she turned, only for an instant, but upon turning back to face the man, he was gone.
She waved off the next masked man to ask for her company and frantically summoned the nearest guard. "The man I was just dancing with, wearing a white tunic and mask. You must find him, now!"
"What's the problem, Your Highness? Did this man harm you in some way?" The guard cracked his knuckles menacingly, already looking around for the perpetrator.
"No, no, just find him, and bring him to me immediately when you do." The guard nodded and left in search of the man I question, and Ashe stood amidst the crowd, her head spinning as fast as the dancers around her. Could it be he who had haunted her sleeping hours for two years, whose name she uttered in the middle of the night, in hopes of coaxing him back from the dead to comfort and hold her? Was he here, somewhere, after all?
passed, and the guard she had sent in search of the man had come back
empty handed. The ball had come to a close, the citizens and
countrymen had all left, and Ashe paced her chambers eagerly,
wringing her hands together.
"You're quite, quite sure you saw no one of that description?"
"No one, my Queen. I apologize for my lack of attention to the matter. I simply may not have looked hard enough." The guard was truthful, at least, she thought.
"No, no, not at all. It's alright." She sighed. "It was probably just my imagination. I though that man was…someone else."
"Would Your Majesty require us to search the palace again?"
"It is of no importance. Please, retire to your dorms for the night. I thank you for your service." The guard bowed himself out of the room, and Ashe was once again alone in the dark twilight of her room, the moon and stars the only light to accompany her. Absorbed in her own twirling thoughts, she did not notice the strange way the curtains shivered in the breeze, or that prickling sensation on the back of her neck that meant someone may be watching. She simply glided out to the balcony and stared up into the stars in despair. Why had she gotten her hopes up again? Why had she allowed herself to fall victim to a trick of the light? It could not have been him. He was either dead or in Bervenia, not at some tedious little ball.
A warm hand on her shoulder broke her thoughts and she nearly screamed as she whipped around to face the intruder. Her hand raised to smack the man, she looked up into the same face that had escaped her hours ago, that same glorious face….She smacked him anyway. "What are you doing here?" she demanded.
All calm and graceful demeanors dropped, the man rubbed his face gingerly. "I recall Your Majesty requesting to know my name, but if this is the welcome I find I'd much like to walk back out." He sighed indignantly. "I think you bruised me, Princess. I'm sorry, I meant, Your Highness," he added, mocking her new title.
Ashe gasped as all her worst fears and most wonderful dreams came true, hitting her like a massive wave. "By the Gods!" she whispered. 'Princess' was what he used to call her. She calmed herself hastily and poised herself in a more dignified manner. "Please, good sir, let me see your face." The man grumbled incoherently and stood up straight. As she reached for his mask again, he stopped her by gently grabbing her wrists.
"If you are just going to smack me again, Majesty…."
A light smile curled his lips. That same playful, taunting grin….
Ashe seemed speechless, but shook her head in response. He released her, and her hands once again began their shaky journey to the edges of his mask. She held her breath, and it seemed he did too. Her fingers made contact with the silk fabric, and she closed her eyes, praying anxiously that this was not a mistake. She felt his hands take her own, and together they pulled aside the material, tossing it to the ground.
Slowly she opened her eyes again. His face, his wonderful face, seemed to shine like the moon above, a gentle smile still on his lips. Balthier, in all his formal grace and certainty, dream and hope made flesh, stood before her as real as she herself stood on that balcony, as she had so many nights before, praying for a moment just like this. Her heart hammered as her held breath was released and replenished, and in an instant she flung herself into his arms and did just what she had so desperately wanted to all those years ago, before the Bahamut crashed, before he vanished from her life: she kissed him.
It seemed a lifetime passed before they broke apart, and for all his denying his feelings for her previously, Balthier returned her kiss most passionately. Gazing up into that lovely, familiar face, she sighed. "It's been so long. What happened to you?"
His smile grew wider. "I got tired of plundering, stealing and wandering. I never thought it possible, but that crash must have knocked something out of me."
"And it took you two years to find your way back here?" Ashe asked in amazement.
"No, I've simply been lazy. But it doesn't matter right now; you and I have the rest of our lives to discuss my endeavors from the past two years." And as they kissed again, Ashe knew he was right.