Author's Note: Well, this is it. Thank you very much for reading, and thank you so much for your encouraging comments along the way.

Disclaimer: I do not own Final Fantasy XII, nor do I own the characters.

A Suitor for Ashe

Chapter Fifteen

And sometimes, if you are very lucky...

~Memoirs of the Duke of Bervenia

"Pol, could you please bring more of the soil over here?"

Her bodyguard grimaced at the dirtiness of the task, but complied. Ashe smiled to him gratefully.

She took up some of the proffered soil, packing the roots of the rosebush in snugly. The bush looked rather meager now, but would be radiant with golden yellow blooms in the summer.

She pushed herself back, and Pol stepped forward to offer a hand up. Tired from her morning's exertions, Ashe gratefully accepted his aid. Arching her back in the growing light of the day, she heard tired bones crack in her shoulders. She massaged them slowly, becoming aware of her body's needs for the first time this morning. Her stomach trembled and moaned for sustenance. Her eyes felt heavy, her mind fuzzy from sleep deprivation.

She had needed to move quickly, though, if she was to complete her tasks before her husband's arrival.

Checking the position of the sun, she figured she only had a mere half hour left.

"Good morning, Ashelia."

Or not.

Ashe used her hand to shade her gaze as she turned to see her husband standing a mere twenty feet away.

A quick bath and breakfast would have to wait. "Good morning, Balthier," she casually greeted her husband.

His lips twitched in a frown as he approached her. Ashe pulled off her gardening gloves and ineffectually brushed at the dirt on her trousers.

Balthier turned to Pol. "Captain Tate. Thank you for protecting her. I presume you'd like some rest, perhaps something to eat?"

"That would be greatly appreciated, Your Highness." The guard smiled in relief, clearly grateful for the arrival of the Prince Consort. Traitor.

"You are dismissed," Balthier said.

Out of loyalty, the bodyguard sent a glance to Ashe, who gave a small nod of dismissal. With a bow, he eagerly set off.

Balthier took in her disheveled appearance slowly but without comment, then turned to scan the neat line of small rosebushes that flanked his library's south windows.

"You stole an airship that you are not even licensed to fly to plant roses?" he asked. Though his tone was conversational, remonstrance saturated every word.

She despised him for his placidity. "I have a license."

"For Class B ships. Not Class A."

"Close enough. Pol made sure we didn't crash," she shrugged.

"Two Class B licenses do not a Class A make," he lectured sternly.

Ashe shook her head, opened her mouth to retort, but instead changed the subject. "Tell me what you think of the roses."

Balthier ground his teeth at his wife's attempt to take the focus off of her transgressions, but at length, realizing they'd both said all they were going to on the matter, permitted the change of topic. "They'll grow up well."

"With enough sunlight, care, and water."

"Why are we here, Ashelia?"

When he said her full name like that, he made her nervous. Ashe's hands fluttered to her shoulder, where she wound a lock of hair around her finger. "I wanted to give you something," she said quietly.

Balthier fingered the leaf of one of the bushes. "They're lovely. Thank you."

"I'm glad you like them. I hope that, some time this summer, when you're in the library reading, you can look out the window and see them and be reminded of me."

"Reminded?" The word crystallized into tiny prickles in his heart.

"Balthier, the roses, while part of it, are not what I want to give you." She stood up, wiping dirt from the holey trousers. "This is a home, Balthier. This is your home."

"My home? I--" He shook his head, trying to understand what she was saying.

"You have never had one. You never had a chance; raised in boarding schools, raised to expectations. Always pretending to be something you're not. I'm telling you now, Balthier, you don't have to any more. Not here."

"I don't have to." Balthier repeated her words, stepping away. He clenched his fists to keep his hurt in check. He felt the color rise in his cheek, as if she'd slapped it. "So you want me to be here. Away from you."

Hearing it put that way made her nearly withdraw the idea. Ashe swallowed the selfish emotion back, trying to keep her husband's interests her primary concern. "Away from my court, where you are doing your best but--"

Not waiting to hear her summarize his glaring deficiencies, he interrupted her: "And you?"

"I'll miss you, but I think this would be better."

"And my responsibilities? What about an heir?"

Ashe shrugged. "We can reduce your responsibilities, and some of them you can handle from here. You'll need to come back to Rabanastre for a few events, of course. We'll deal with an heir when we have to. Balthier, I want for you to seriously think this over before you say no. Every day I see more of..." she gestured, unable to fix on the appropriate word. "It's not right."

It's not right. Balthier tried to hold her gaze, to demonstrate that her words did not hurt him. The chilling truth was that he was being sent away. Again.

He'd done his best; he'd still disappointed.

But then again, how had he ever expected to measure up? She loved a dead man, a paragon.

He should have run while he'd had the chance. He should have ignored his unrest, his guilt, his...

Ashe lowered her gaze to her hands. Balthier moved to the brick wall, contriving to make his stance casual and hide his need for the physical support.

"I am sorry that you feel that way," he said. "Is there nothing else that--"

"Don't you see, Balthier? I don't want you to try anymore!" Ashe colored at the urgency of her words.

His jaw tightened. Trying his hardest to sound polite, he asked, tersely. "Well, what would you rather have me do?"

Ashe stifled her exasperation and tried to keep her patience. In all her conceptions of this reunion, she'd not anticipated feeling so very frustrated at this moment. I would have you love me the way I love you. "I would have you be happy."

"Here," he said. Shakily pushing himself from the wall, he stepped away from the building.

"Havenhurst is beautiful, quiet, and peaceful. You can spend your days doing whatever you want; you love to read. You can unpack and organize your library." It had sounded like a much better idea when she'd first conceived it. Now, with the words uttered aloud, with him standing there with that skeptical tilt in his chin, Ashe felt foolish.

"You want me to stay here and organize my library?" he asked, doubtfully.

"Among other things. I know you are unacquainted with the ways of the idle, but you may find that you could enjoy it. I think you could be happy here," she persisted.

"You think I could be happy here. You don't think that I am happy in Rabanastre? Perhaps I am not vocal--"

"Balthier, don't reason with me anymore. You don't need to speak. I know. This is what I can reason: you hid from me for five years. You revealed yourself to me only when you had to. You proposed to me out of an unwarranted sense of obligation. You're becoming something you're not just to please me and my court." Ashe sighed, playing with the fraying edges of her gloves. "Despite your best efforts to keep yourself uninvolved, you always get pulled in. It speaks to a deep compassion and an admirable sense of justice. But you shouldn't have to sacrifice your personal happiness just because you have a misplaced sense of responsibility. I...esteem you too much to let you do so," she paused, her color high. "So," she took a deep breath. "Here." She extended her arm to gesture to the house. "Your prize."

Her heart was pounding. She took in his set jaw. He was going to tell her that she was wrong, he'd make his arguments. She'd be tempted to let herself be persuaded to bring him back with her. To let him try again. To lose more of himself as he tried to fit in.

She could not permit that.

"You esteem me?" he asked, stiffly.

Ashe's throat dried up at his raised brow; what was that expression in his eye? Disgust? Discomfort? Curiosity? Unable to speak, she nodded.

"As you, perchance, esteem your friends? As you esteem Penelo?" He asked.

She nodded her head, swallowing past the parched throat, forcing herself to answer the affirmative. "More," she managed to answer roughly. "Balthier..."

He stepped forward, taking her hands up in his cold, firm grip. "And...and is this esteem all I should ever hope from you?" he asked quietly.

Her throat closed up on his question, the intensity in his eyes. When she cleared her throat to speak, he shook his head, looking away at the horizon once again. He was trying to calm himself down.

Where did this air of dignified indignation come from? And is this esteem all I should ever hope from you? Who in Ivalice was he to stand and condemn? Patience snapped, exasperation hissed with the exhale. Angry, flustered, Ashe stepped into his line of sight. "Look at me!"

She was unprepared for the scathing heat of gaze. "Look at you? Look at me. I should have known," he laughed cynically.

Ashe replied tersely. "Quit the riddles and explain yourself. Known what?"

"I'd thought I'd grown beyond wanting things I can't have. I have done everything in my power to show you that I can make you happy. I've done everything I can to be like Him, to be someone that you would not be ashamed to be wed to, and still you condemn me with wistful looks and exile me from your presence? You feel esteem," he uttered the word disdainfully, "when you are everything to me?"

Ashe blanched at the harsh tone, incredulous at the words he was uttering. She turned, needing a moment to process the situation.

"No," he grabbed her shoulders. "Look at me."

Frustration and overwhelming feeling paralyzed her voice. When she could manage it, she replied tersely: "You have a strange way of showing those feelings, then!" Ashe met his passionate stare with her own healthy ire. "Look at you? You are the one who hid. You are the one who wore the mask."

"It was a mistake!" he said.

"Oh, do you make those?" she asked sarcastically. "Because nowhere in all of this have I heard you utter one word of regret over what you've done."

"Ok, I get it; Fran and I hurt you when we did not inform you of our survival."

Ashe threw up her arms. "It" wasn't just about that. Well, "it" was; "it" contained just about everything in their interactions from the moment they'd met. "Why, Balthier?"

Balthier put a hand to his forehead.

"If I was everything to you, why didn't you come home?" she asked, quieter, hurt evident in her voice.

Balthier winced at her expression of transparent hurt. "And offer what?" he asked quietly. "I couldn't come back and not have you. I couldn't come back to watch you just walk away."

"So you walked away first?'

"I ran," he admitted gruffly. "It was the only thing I knew how to do." Balthier gazed at her features longingly. "I didn't run far enough. I tried to make a new life for myself. I tried to forget you. I couldn't. I'm not sure if I ever could. I was in love with you. I am in love with you. And, I strongly suspect that I will always love you." When it hurt too much to look at her anymore, he turned away. "And this is reciprocated with esteem."

Ashe licked her lips. "I--" Unable to articulate the saturation of emotions that thrilled her at this moment, she simply threw herself against her husband and pulled his mouth to hers.

The sure grasp on his shoulders, the warmth of her curves against his chest, the weight of her hands against the back of his neck enveloped him in sensation as the press of her lips against his enticed him to open his own mouth and drink of her emotions, to pull her impossibly closer, to span his hands across her back, let them travel up the rough fabric until they cupped her head, tilting her mouth gently so that he could kiss her deeper.

Pulling back, leaning her forehead into his chest, she said the words she'd waited weeks, months, years to tell him steadily, clearly so that she could not be misunderstood: "Your feelings are reciprocated with the deepest esteem, warmest affection, most ardent passion, and the most...I love you."

And hearing her say the words, he felt content. The feeling saturated him until he was sure he could not feel anything else. Smiling down at this amazing person in his arms, he couldn't do anything but grin stupidly, boyishly. "So...ah. Good," he said simply.

Ashe flushed at his grin, unaccustomed to his levity, unaccustomed to her own feeling of lightness, relief, gratitude, and love. He couldn't and wouldn't let go, and she couldn't stop touching him.

"No more of this nonsensical talk of my being here while you're not. My home isn't here. My home is where you are."

Ashe grinned stupidly at his words and he kissed her again. She enthusiastically enjoyed his kiss, and hoped that her own love, her own passions, her own desires were articulated in her own. She was gratified to hear his acknowledgment in his gruff groan, his accelerated heart beat. A quick heartbeat that matched her own.

And when she realized just how easily everything could have turned out differently, she punched him lightly against the chest. "That's what you get for your heavy-handed decisions!"

Too relieved, too happy to give due respect to her half-hearted remonstrance, Balthier gave a gasp of a laugh. "I did it all for your own good."

"Fat lot of good it did, when you were preparing me for matrimony to another man," she said, holding on to him tighter, afraid he'd disappear.

"I thought it was a noble gesture. Proof of my unselfish love for you," he said.

She shook her head as she leaned against his shoulder. "Leading men are such drama queens."

Balthier turned to her. She grinned, and he laughed loudly, freely. Sweeping his wife up in his arms, he carried her home.

"It wasn't him I missed, you know," she said seriously, tracing the line of his profile.

Balthier traced the smooth line of his wife's bare shoulder, down into the dip of her collarbone. Leaning forward, he kissed it, licked at it, tracing a line up her neck now with his lips. His fingers danced down her back, tracing shivery, scintillating lines across her skin as his rough palms came around to cup her...

Ashe moaned as her senses urged her to shut up and once more submit herself to her husband's more than welcome attentions, but his previous words still haunted her.

There would be no more misunderstanding.

Reluctantly, she pulled herself away from his warmth, his addictive touch, reaching to the foot of the bed for the discarded sheets. "Balthier."

Balthier regarded her with his heavy-lidded gaze. As he observed her serious expression, he slowly pushed himself up against the pillows and regarded her patiently.

"These past months. It--it wasn't Rasler that I regretted or missed. It was you. I missed you."

Balthier contemplated her words slowly. At length, he constructed his reply. "Ashe, I won't ever be just a sky pirate anymore."

"You never were. Not after I got to know you. You are...extraordinary. And I love all of you. But I am serious. I will not have you believe that you should assume the mannerisms of a man you foolishly imagine that I must want you to be."

Though the room was dim in the dying light of the day, her eyes shone bright with honest emotion. The expression was unmistakable: she loved him. She wanted him.

"I--I don't think, in my life, I'd ever wanted anything more," he stated simply. "I much..." He pulled her close brushing away the sheet, kissing her on the forehead, her eyelids, her cheeks, her chin, her lips...

"Oh, don't worry, Brenda. I'm sure they won't mind..."

Balthier pulled back with a frown and growl at the door. As the knob rattled against the lock, the would-be intruder gave a bark of a laugh. "We've given you four days! I want my ship back!"

"Flamboyant fop with his--" Balthier grumbled.

Ashe raised her brow. "We?" she mouthed.

"Perhaps it'd be best for you to join the others in the drawing room, Mr. O'Neal. If you'll just come this way, I think His Eminence had wanted to ask you about Perfayth..." Madame Harris replied loudly to their unwelcome guest.

Balthier swore as he pushed himself out of the bed. Ashe sat up, once more taking up the sheet. Though propriety and politesse demanded that she get a move on and dress quickly, she had to pause to admire the poetry of sinew and scars of her husband's body. She'd married a beautiful man. Over the shirt he picked up, Balthier eyed her interest warily. "Not now, Ashe," he muttered. "I've got to get rid of our meddlesome intruders."

Ashe laughed, pulling herself up off the bed, lightly danced across the room to give her beloved another kiss. "No, you will not. You will get dressed, and you will join me in greeting our guests. It's an evening for jokes and storytelling."

He winced at the mischievous sparkle in his wife's eye. "And not a little public groveling? You're never going to let us live it down, will you?"

"Larsa, probably. Basch and Fran, after a considerable amount of time. Vaan, perhaps after a few decades. And you?" She stepped close to him, tracing a line up his chest, curving her fingers around his shoulder. "After a lifetime of happily ever after. Perhaps."

Balthier laughed. "It's only fair, I suppose."

Ashe grinned. "You're pretty sure of yourself."

"Perhaps. But I'm just as sure of you."

Ashe blinked back the sudden onslaught of emotion. "We're turning into sentimental fools," she said, succinctly.

"My deepest apologies, Madame Wife. It will not happen again," he replied complacently.

On a laugh, she kissed him once more before moving towards the boudoir. She paused at the doorway. After a moment in deep contemplation, Ashe sighed in mock concession as she turned back. "Perhaps only on Sundays."

His lips twitched in a smile. "Perhaps."

The End