A month passed, and the world continued to turn without incident.
On the southern end of the Ilyccia continent, something big was taking place in the Grand Ballroom of Zaphias Castle. The hall was decked with as much expense and extravagance as it could possibly take, the world's largest chandelier strung imposingly above all that gold and alabaster, forever winking light across the lavish room.
On this cool spring night, it had traded its legions of aristocrats and nobles for a different crowd. For the first time in many, many years, Zaphias Estate had opened its doors to the rich, poor, imperial and guild man alike.
Ioder's engagement had been the talk of the town since its announcement. His fiancé, Lady Clarin, was a court favourite from a house that was known and respected by everyone who mattered, and she had personally invited most of Zaphias' nobility.
She had welcomed every one of them with a charming smile and the blushing Emperor at her elbow… And more than one noble choked on their chardonnay when she had then gone and seized one of Guild Leader Kaufman's hands in both of hers for a vigorous shake. She might as well have stripped down and started dancing in her underwear when she greeted Clint of the Hunting Blades with a hearty slap on the back. Ioder simply smiled in that vague, pleased way of his the whole while, totally unaffected by the collective look of horror from his court.
From his place near the empty throne dias, Yuri watched on and grinned. The Empire's future Queen may have been as forgettable as one of the big floral displays placed around the room, but there was a strange little glint of delight in her eyes whenever she stirred up another social scandal.
"Looks like Ioder's got his hands full," Yuri said with a smirk, hands stuffed in his pockets.
"I'm glad you find this funny," Flynn sighed. "You're not the one who has to attend the Council meetings." He gave a fixed smile to some passersby, then went back to frowning into his wine glass.
He was in his special dress uniform, something with altogether too many layers, crests, cords and arbitrary medals for Yuri's taste. Flynn wore it well of course, and not even the cravat could make him look less of soldier. He placed his unfinished wine on flower laden side table, then dropped the hand to rest on the display rapier hanging from his hip.
"I just hope we can survive the evening without incident," he said under his breath.
Yuri plucked a strange little pastry from a passing silver tray, then tossed it into his mouth with as much disrespect as he could.
"Incident?" he echoed around the mouthful of something bland, "Just what kind of incident are we talking about here? Throwing some au d'oeuvres? Fisticuffs? Relax Commandant, we're all civilized adults here, right?"
Flynn's eyes were already narrowed. Yuri grinned at him and deliberately and loudly licked each finger clean.
"Yuri, please be on your best behaviour," the blonde urged through his teeth.
"Where's your sense of fun, Flynn? All these stuffy, gullible, unsuspecting nobles... At least let me spike the punch," he replied devilishly.
And then Flynn tugged his ludicrous vest straight and gave Yuri a pointed look.
"If not for me, then behave for Estellise. She organised most of this, and I'd hate to see those efforts ruined. Wouldn't you?"
It was a cheap trick. Yuri turned his face aside to stare blandly over the colourful crowd.
"You're a killjoy, you know that right?" he muttered, already defeated. Flynn chuckled.
The ocean of silk and pleasant conversation shifted around them restlessly, and it wasn't long before Karol drifted his way across the enormous ballroom floor, looking incredibly overwhelmed and lost. They watched him wander aimlessly for a few moments before the young man finally caught sight of Flynn and sagged with relief.
It had been made perfectly clear that it was a formal wear event, but Karol had done it in true Dahngrest style. The outfit was as formal and official as the guild city was capable of; Brave Vesperia's enormous emblem was constructed in various shades of cured leather on the back of his expensive tunic, stitched in place by silver thread. The tabard marked him as a member of the official Union. He looked like a leader.
He arrived at an exhausted stagger.
"Wow, I-I seriously thought I was gonna wander around forever until I died," he managed breathlessly, ruining the effect instantly. "Does the castle really need a room this big? You could fit Nam Cobanda Isle in here!"
"His Highness is very popular," Flynn replied proudly. "We needed a venue that could fit everyone we invited."
"Yeah but... I mean, I can barely see the far wall! And there's an ice sculpture back there the size of a house!" Karol managed next, squinting around the ocean of people. "Estelle said engagements should be special, but seriously. An orchestra?"
And then Flynn made a small sound of surprise.
"That reminds me!" he suddenly said. With a fair amount of effort, the Commandant managed to push a hand into the stiff and undersized pocket on his dress uniform. "Sodia picked it up from the smith today, but so much else was on I must have set it aside and forgot about it. Why didn't you remind me, Yuri? You're so careless sometimes, I don't know how you've gotten this far."
"Remind you of what now?" Yuri asked, only half listening. Karol had reminded him that the others were probably around. He hadn't seen them yet, but their company would be a million times better than the pompous, inbred aristocrasy that seemed to press in from every direction.
Beside him, Flynn finally pulled something free of the pocket with a short tug, then held it out to Yuri with a bright smile.
The little velvet box was the colour of champagne, its tiny gold hinge bright against the dark leather of Flynn's gloves.
Yuri snatched it away in an instant.
"Dammit, Flynn! Not here," he managed, too late. Despite how quick he'd been, Karol still gaped like a goldfish at the empty space between them. Out of pure habit, Yuri moved the offending item towards the fold in his tunic... then remembered that this stupid uniform they'd forced him into didn't have a convenient fold, overlap or even any sizable pockets.
"W-was that- was that what I thought it was?" Karol stammered, loudly enough to make a few socialites turn away from their conversations to stare. Yuri stared right on back until they turned away in a huff, then shot his guild-master a pointed look.
"Drop it, Captain," he warned.
"But I wasn't seeing things, right?"
"No," Flynn said brightly, just as Yuri bit out, "Sure you were."
Karol slowly turned his eyes between them, then, when Yuri refused to elaborate, dropped his eyes down to the tight fist currently hiding the fuzzy little box. The guild master reached a hand out. Yuri evaded the grab easily.
"Aw, what gives? Flynn can see, but I can't? I'm not totally untrustworthy you know!" the young guild-master complained, attempting another swipe. "I mean, this is serious stuff, right? I thought we were tighter than that!"
"What's that got to do with anything?"
"Believe me Karol, it took him long enough to ask for advice," Flynn muttered under his breath.
"Come on, guys," Yuri said expansively, attempting to be cavalier. "Do you really need to make a scene-" Karol finally managed to catch the offending fist and began to pry at Yuri's fingers. "H-hey, what the hell?"
The tiny tug of war was over before it began; with so many sneering nobles eyeballing them, Yuri eventually released his death-grip and, holding his hand palm up before him, he constructed the best disinterested look he could manage and angled it over his shoulder. This shouldn't have been as embarrassing as it was.
The box lay on its side in the cup of his hand, and without picking it up, Karol leant in closer and very carefully righted it. With the barest of fingertips, he gently cracked the lid open and peered inside.
"Holy cow!" he all but shouted, eyes wide as saucers.
"Jeez, is it that big a deal?" Yuri managed, bristling in pure discomfort.
"Of course it is!" Karol burst out. "This is crazy! I can't believe you didn't tell me!"
"What's crazy?" a familiar voice asked.
Karol made a small 'oof' when Yuri suddenly shoved his hand (and its contents) at his chest in a sudden rush. And even as the guild-master tried to right himself and hide what was left against his tunic, Yuri turned and pulled a smile into place.
Estelle was in her element, and it showed. She wore a gown of off-white, beige and gold, and small pieces of yellow gemstone had been stitched into the lace. A simple gold chain with a pearl on it was laid across her collarbone. She was beautiful.
What stood out the most, however, wasn't the silk or jewellery. It was the single white streak at her forelock, a remnant of her battle for Aska's freedom, and it had been swept artfully up into her styled hair by a pearled pin.
The shock of white had been a surprise. Estelle had been embarrassed and self conscious about the small loss of colour when it had first shown itself. She had spent days wondering if she should dye it or just cut it out. He'd asked her not to. It was the colour of moonlight after all, and now, with it shown off instead of hidden, it looked more like a tribute and less like a scar.
She caught him staring and smiled shyly.
"Sorry to interrupt, we heard you talking," she said while he tried to gather his thoughts again. "Is something wrong?" she added, concerned.
Yuri slid carefully in front of Karol, just as the guild-leader whipped his hands behind his back.
"Uh, we were just talking about the turnout, right Captain?" Yuri lied effortlessly, then gave Ioder a nod. "Pretty impressive party you've put together, your highness." The Emperor simply beamed at them.
"Thank you! I must admit, I'm enjoying myself immensely! I'm very glad you were able to make it, as I'm sure it was a long trip from Dahngrest without your usual... um... means of transport."
"It doesn't matter how we travel, so long as we're together. All of us," Estelle said fondly, flashing them a dazzling smile.
"Ah yes, the infamous team of adventurers," the Emperor said next with a vague, wistful smile. When he brought his attention back to the present once more, a sheepish blush had settled on his pale cheeks. "Ahem, speaking of which. I-I'm afraid that all my Lady knows of you is what she read in the Tale of Vesperia. Lady Clarin is a big fan. I... I've been instructed – pardon me – asked if I could introduce you all."
"You don't say," Yuri replied through a fixed grin, flapping his hand at Karol behind his back.
"You too, Flynn!" Estelle added with a smile. "She's really very kind, you'll like her!"
"Oh, I'm sure her highness is very busy-" Flynn began, but Estelle seized him by the hand and gave him a determined tug.
"Don't be silly," she said as she looped her other arm through Yuri's. "And you, Karol!"
Yuri found himself pulled inexorably forward, bumping shoulders with an equally powerless Flynn Scifo.
"B-But, Yuri!" Karol managed. "What about-"
Yuri turned just enough to cross a hand emphatically over his neck a few times until Karol took the hint. The guild-master snapped his mouth shut abruptly, then retreated a step with his hands firmly behind his back.
"I-I'll be right behind you guys... in a minute," he managed with the world's toothiest, most unconvincing grin. "I-I just gotta... go, uh, drop something off."
Luckily enough, Estelle was far too polite to inquire. She only made Karol promise to come meet the future Queen, then gave Yuri and Flynn a synchronised tug that caused them both to stumble.
Surprisingly, it was a little bit of a relief to leave Karol behind with the expensive little secret in his hand. Yuri kept the guild-leader in sight for as long as the colourful crowd would allow, but then suddenly Estelle slipped a gloved hand into his for a squeeze. All that was left was her enthusiastic chatter, Flynn's secretive, unimpressed look at him over her head, and Ioder's vague, slightly knowing smile.
Karol watched the four of them walk away. He stood there quietly for a moment, struggling with his curiosity. It wasn't long before he gave up and lifted his hand again.
The velvet box made a pleasant noise when it snapped open, and the ring inside twinkled prettily under the warm light. It was a really nice ring. Nothing flashy, like Karol would have picked, just sort of simple and elegant. The clear stone had been cut to perfection. It was fine work, and he grudgingly conceded that the Soul Smiths wouldn't have done as nice a job. That was probably why Yuri had asked Flynn in the first place.
It was a big deal, regardless of what Yuri said... and how had Karol wound up holding on to it?
The young guild-leader snapped the box shut and, without an empty pocket to keep it safe in, folded it up in both hands to hide it from curious eyes. That didn't make the secret any less colossal, so he glanced around the hall for someone to tell.
The atrium was gigantic and everyone had dressed for the occasion. That made it shockingly hard to find anyone in a roaming crowd full of gowns and dress suits and uniforms. Eventually, after a short while of aimless wandering, Karol thought he recognised a particular shade of auburn hair over the other side of the room, then began to work his way towards it.
The crowds were much thinner on this side of the grand hall, which is probably why Karol found Rita and Raven there. They stood beneath an enormous oil painting that was at least ten feet tall, its gilt frame draped in crimson curtains, and they had obviously made themselves at home under its larger than life shadow.
Karol wasn't sure if it was the imposing portrait of the intimidating Emperor or the antisocial look on Rita's face that kept the party at bay, but there was definitely a miniature bubble of privacy there.
Raven was looking preternaturally neat in his new uniform. There was something in the way he stood there, all ease and confidence and very little slouch at all. Rita was stranger still, though it took a while for Karol to figure out why. She had both hands on her hips in her usual show of arrogance, and she had chosen a burgundy dress that, despite the feminine and flattering cut, was weirdly reminiscent of her usual clothes. She'd even left her hair down, unpinned and unstyled in typical Mordio defiance.
It wasn't until she said something to Raven that made him chuckle that it became clear. Rita was monitoring the crowds around her with all of her usual scorn and distaste… but with none of her customary discomfort. There had always been something combative and awkward about her, like the entire world was hustling in on her personal space. Without it, she looked older.
Raven was taking a sip of his drink when he caught sight of Karol; with a welcoming grin, the First Captain motioned him over with a small wave of the hand. Karol gratefully approached that secluded little space under the regal portraiture.
"Well if it isn't our illustrious leader," Raven said to him with a strange smile. "... You wear that well, Cap'n. The Don would be proud."
Karol had all but forgotten that he'd decided to wear the official guild leader's tabard. He blushed suddenly, self conscious.
"Hahah, oh yeah… It's not too flashy?" he wondered, scratching at the back of his head with his free hand. Raven only grinned.
"Nah, have you seen some of the getups 'round here? Besides, a Union emblem has gravitas," he replied. As if reminded of his own new outfit, Raven pulled a face and then hooked a finger in the high collar to tug uselessly. The New Order's uniform was pretty impressive, but the tall, stiff collar had been done all the way up to the chin and it was obviously bordering on uncomfortable. "Kinda wish I was back in guild gear myself… It's not as bad as what Scwhann had to put up with, but I tells ya, someone out there wanted this ta chafe."
Rita rolled her eyes, unimpressed.
"Would you stop going on about that damn collar?" she demanded in pure frustration. "How about, for a change, you quit complaining and actually do something about it!" Then without waiting for him to do as much, she reached up and grabbed the ornate zipper on his coat. She pulled it down with an abrupt and angry tug, far enough to reveal the dip of his collar bone and the dark leather chest-guard underneath. Raven yelped and, in girly obstinacy, half twisted away with both arms crossed modestly over his chest.
"Rita-darlin'," he wheedled coquettishly, "not in front of the kids!"
Rita went red, bristling at the mischievous little smirk on the older man's face. Karol watched them both dryly.
"... I will never get used to this," he confessed aloud.
"No one asked you!" Rita snapped furiously, just as Raven dropped a placating hand on her bare shoulder and laughed.
That his hand remained there without her driving her knee into his groin was easily the strangest thing Karol had ever seen. That it somehow reduced her agitated scowl into a grudging pout was a miracle.
Karol was still staring owlishly when Raven ducked his head down and, closer to their height, gave a conspirative smile. His eyes were lodged on something over Karol's shoulder.
"A word of advice, kiddo?" he murmured knowingly.
"Huh? Advice?" Karol wondered, confused.
"Remember ta breathe. And try ta think a little before speakin'."
Karol wasn't sure if he should be confused or really, really insulted.
"When do I ever say stuff without thinking?" he demanded, indignant. Raven cleared his throat and pointed.
"Hi, Karol," said a familiar voice over his shoulder.
When Karol turned around and found Nan standing really, really close, his lungs tried to function in reverse and he choked on the confused air halfway up his throat. Terrified that he'd get spittle on her, he clapped a hand over his mouth and took a step back. Rita gave him an irate shove when he almost stepped on her.
"Y-you!" Karol wheezed through his fingers. "What are you doing here?"
He vaguely heard Raven heave a resigned sigh.
"I-I was invited!" Nan shot back indignantly, blushing furiously under his disbelieving stare.
She was in a dress. A pretty one, the kind that you never saw in Dahngrest because shimmery, bunched material was never cheap, comfortable or practical. It was a bottle green colour that seemed to shift to gold and dusky purple under the light, and she'd woven beads and feathers into her hair. Her scars, pale on tanned skin, were barely noticeable over her arms.
"What?" she managed, shoulders hunched against his blank stare, "Do… Do I look dumb?"
"N-No, no, I like your… uh… dress thing," Karol sputtered stupidly. To salvage that graceless reassurance, he desperately tried to think of something that the metallic, shimmering green reminded him of. "It- it makes you look like… um… like a Quoi beetle."
Nan's face went blank. Oh god, did he really just say that?
"Ugh, put him out of his misery," he heard Rita mutter behind him.
"Say, that's a pretty fine lookin' necklace you've got there," Raven interjected loudly over Karol's shoulder. "Can't say I've seen a stone like that before – jade, jasper?"
Nan's face cleared suddenly, and she blinked her eyes a few times before dropping them to the pendant dangling from its silver chain. It glittered prettily. The only thing that suited it better than the opalescent dress she wore were her eyes; Karol went red the same instant she did.
"P-Peridot," Nan managed. "It was… a birthday present."
She lifted both hands to it and fiddled with the green gem, lips pursed in discomfort. Eventually, as if it took some time to wrangle the words, she lifted her bashful gaze and met Karol's eyes. "Um, I wanted to talk to you. Are you busy?"
Yuri's secret was still clutched tightly in his fist. If not for his gloves, Karol would have completely destroyed the velvet with his sweat by now. As it was, he felt he might have caved in the lid for all his anxious squeezing, and he pried his fingers loose one by one to stare at it.
It looked a lot bigger and heavier than it actually was.
"Uh, I have to hold onto this for Yuri," he began awkwardly. "It's… for Estelle and it's kinda a big deal so-"
The little box was swiped from his hand suddenly.
"This is just painful. Go already, idiot!" Rita snapped, then gave Karol an acrimonious shove. He swung his arms around to avoid careening into Nan, but she dodged easily and, once he'd righted himself, she reached out and gripped his hand. Despite the angry expression on her face, there was something shy about the way she tugged at his fingers.
She was really close, all of a sudden.
The box and the ring within evaporated from memory.
"O-Okay," Karol managed, heart hammering in his ribcage.
Raven and Rita thankfully refrained from saying anything horribly humiliating when Nan began to move away, but Karol still felt like his kneecaps were fused on backwards when he was led firmly through the milling crowds. He was quite a bit taller than her now, and when she turned to steal a glance at him, he noticed that the sun had peppered her nose with freckles. They were cute. Distractingly so, and how long had it been since he'd seen her last? Shouldn't he have noticed something like that sooner?
"Okay," Nan said abruptly, coming to a halt. She'd marched them both to another vaguely empty section of wall space, this one decorated with enormous flower displays. With a huge flourish of chrysanthemums at her back, she turned and gave him an appraising look. Karol was still staring at her freckles.
And then she slugged him in the arm.
"That was for sending me my present instead of visiting me!" she said angrily.
"Ow!" Karol managed, rubbing at his bicep. When he dropped his hand to explain, she slugged him in the same spot again with vicious accuracy.
"And that was for not running away when I told you to! I heard what happened at Temza! Karol, you nearly died!"
"Ow, stop hitting me!" he managed. "I-I couldn't run, Nan! It was serious!"
Her knuckles drove another knot of agony into his deepening bruise.
"I don't care! That's for not considering how I felt at all!"
Karol had both arms wrapped around his torso to protect as much of his thundering bruise as he could. It was exactly why he was defenceless when she reached up and grabbed both of his ears.
She pulled him down into a kiss, and the world turned without incident under his feet.
"T-that was for the necklace," she stuttered once she'd pulled away. "A-and for remembering my birthday. And for everything else."
Karol wavered forward, trying to find gravity again.
"You kissed me," he said stupidly. Nan, impossibly, went even redder. "On the mouth," he continued, in case she'd made a mistake.
"So? Wasn't it good enough?" Nan burst out, fingers a little painful around his ears. Karol didn't care. He let go of his own aching arm to curl his hands around her wrists. She'd just begun to pull away, but he caught her in time.
"C-Can you do it again?" he stuttered, and despite Raven's advice, he didn't have the brain power to find better, more tactful words for what was foremost in his head. Fortunately, Nan didn't seem to mind.
She hesitated for a second, face pinched into an embarrassed frown. Then with a fluttering little look, she visibly swallowed and gave a tiny nod.
"Okay," she mumbled through lips he couldn't drag his eyes from. "I guess you've earned it."
"Ah, young love," Raven sighed fatuously as they watched the disastrous couple disappear into the party. Rita wasn't sure why he said it with such admiration. 'Young love' appeared to be incredibly annoying, and she couldn't have been happier that Karol had taken his cascade of concentrated failure somewhere else.
When the pair were safely lost in the crowd, Rita turned her eyes down to the soft little cube in her hand. She hadn't really thought about it when she'd grabbed it, but curiosity definitely got the better of her now. Raven's hand finally slid from her shoulder and returned flat against her back instead, but she ignored the little shiver that created and carefully opened the box in her hand.
A diamond glittered back out at her, set artfully in a laurel of white gold.
"Wouldja look at that," Raven said softly, not sounding surprised in the least.
There was no mistaking what it was. It was an engagement ring. For Estelle. From Yuri. Rita just stared, suddenly not all that comfortable about holding it, or looking at it, or thinking about it. Despite that, she couldn't tear her eyes from the faceted stone.
Somewhere deep down inside, they'd all expected that it would happen eventually. But for Rita, it had been part of a future that wasn't now, something that was supposed to happen in the hypothetical later. It occurred to her that two world-endangering adventures might be enough to push Yuri into thinking about that future. It also reminded her that she hadn't.
What was she going to do now? Rita had just assumed that when she went back to researching mana, she'd have her best friend around to help her do so. Even if Estelle somehow convinced Yuri to live in Halure, Rita didn't think she'd be a welcome gate-crasher in a newly-weds life.
Rita looked at that unassuming little box and saw disturbing change within.
"Well, it's about time," Raven was saying, callused fingertips rough on her bare skin. "I was beginnin' ta wonder."
… And had anyone had words with Yuri yet? Did he know how lucky he was, or how much Estelle needed someone to look out for her, to look after her? Did he know how spectacularly he could mess this up? Someone was going to have to explain that to him. Rita decided then that it was going to be her.
"If he hurts her," she said in a low voice, "they'll be finding pieces of him in Yurzorea."
There was a small chuckle in her ear.
"Love n' hurt tend ta walk hand in hand, Rita-darlin'," Raven said in that sweeping way of his. "Can't have one without the other. After all, ya only know it's real love when the hurt is worth it."
… And there was that stupid folksy philosophy.
"I'm just saying," she shot back, twisting the box curiously under the light. "If he was stupid enough to take this long, he could be stupid enough to mess it up." The diamond glittered at her again. "… But I guess it's not a bad ring. As far as rings go," she conceded grudgingly.
She shivered once more, for another reason.
Raven ran the rough pads of his fingers over her back in small little patterns, making her shoulder-blades shift subconsciously. Her skin tingled along her spine, and her decision to forgo her magi robe for this low-backed dress was suddenly not such a bad decision after all. Her vision unfocused through the scintillating diamond.
"Not a bad ring?" Raven echoed her, still half bent over her shoulder. "That's it? C'mon, Rita, let's be honest now. Somethin' that pretty? A wedding ring is the very symbol of true love and matrimonial bliss, after all… Doesn't the very sight of it set your young maiden's heart all aflutter?"
The smug bastard was right in her ear, smelling like summer and a little like the brandy they were serving. Rita gave a shiver, then blushed because he probably felt it under his palm.
She shook her head slightly, then snapped the box shut with finality.
"Don't be stupid," she said flatly. "It's a rock on some frilly bit of metal. And marriage? Do people really need a dumb bit of jewellery or a stupid bit of paper to tell them its okay to be together? Who needs some antiquated old tradition defining relationships, anyway. It's a crock, that's what it is."
Raven's hand had come to deliberate stop at her back. After a stretched pause, he heaved a sigh that ruffled her hair.
"Now ya see, Rita," he said bluntly, snatching the box away from her, "this is why you can't have nice things."
He straightened then, grimacing out over the crowd and tossing the velvet little box idly in his hand.
Rita stole a glance up at him from underneath the fringe of her hair. The uniform tailored for his brand new post suited him disgustingly well; it fit him better, for one thing. His perchance for wearing clothes several sizes too big while Raven was bad enough, but Scwhann had always stuffed himself into regalia that barely gave him the room to breathe let alone swing a sword. He'd also taken to binding his hair back low, instead of high… and Rita found that suited him too.
She frowned up at him, indignant.
"… I… I have nice things," she mumbled.
The velvet case landed back in his hand with a soft pat. Raven's eyes were still out over the crowd when the widened a little in realisation, and he turned to her then, obviously surprised. Rita held his gaze for half a second before turning away herself.
She puffed a gust of breath at her suddenly annoying hair, then rubbed at her still tingling neck.
Well, she wasn't going to spell it out for him.
Rita surveyed the party then, anything to keep her mind off the way he shifted next to her, or the way her skin still tickled a little across her shoulders. The music was getting a little louder now that dancing had started, but it wasn't a tune she particularly liked. Watching Zaphias' nobility socialise was about as interesting was watching the grass grow as well. A few glanced her way, but forgot her immediately afterwards. In contrast, more than one lord or lady would pause to give Raven a polite half-bow or curtsey. He smiled vaguely at them in return and offered a courteous nod back, but conversation had very obviously died.
The heavy silence was as distracting as his hands. Rita rolled her shoulders to dislodge the lingering sensation.
Half a minute passed and suddenly the effort felt like a waste of time.
"… Fine. Let's get out of here," Rita muttered through a furious blush, already moving.
"Way ahead of ya," Raven exhaled immediately in pure relief.
Rita tried not to feel relieved when she strode through what remained of the party on their side of the hall and towards and side exit. Raven was right behind her, but just before they pushed through the last of the mob, he caught her elbow and brought her to a halt.
"Whoops, hang on there darlin', just one last thing…"
Rita turned. Raven had raised an arm and waved, once. Over a few heads and beside the buffet table to their left, a familiar woman had caught sight of them and tilted her head curiously.
"Heads up!" Raven called.
And then, as if it were nothing more than a pebble, he threw Yuri's engagement ring with an artful toss.
Judith lifted a hand and caught the little package with ease, blinking her eyes in surprise. She gave it a single glance.
It was a little velvet box. It didn't take much imagination to figure out what it was.
"Hang on ta that for our young Master Lowell, wouldja darlin'?" she heard Raven call out, and the break in propriety turned a few heads. He was grinning like a schoolboy. Judith's lips immediately skewed into a knowing little smirk.
"By all means," she called back. "Leave it to me." She then waved them both away with a flap of her free hand.
Rita looked a little affronted at the whole display, but the expression shifted when Raven placed a hand on her shoulder and ushered her back into motion. She was visibly arguing when they disappeared out the side-door.
Judy turned her eyes back to what she now held.
"Oh my, how exciting," she murmured.
Inside was a stunning gem mounted on a beautiful piece of metalwork. Judith suspected that Yuri had help selecting it, and she wondered if it was Flynn or Hanks that had offered that advice. Judith wished that he had have considered asking her; she'd have enjoyed picking out the most elaborate, expensive pieces Zaphias jewellers had to offer. She admired the ring a little longer, then closed the case. Not to worry. There was bound to be a next time for one of her friends.
The air shifted then, bringing with it a cloud of thick perfume.
Judith glanced up in time to see yet another noble woman sashay not-so-subtly to the buffet table, silk fan waving. The Lady ran her eyes slowly over the selection of pastries, pâtés and pieces of fruit… then stole a glance upwards through impossibly thick eyelashes. They fluttered in time with her fan.
Ba'ul stared back down at the woman, curious and oblivious, mouth full of something expensive and undercooked.
Judith stifled a laugh. It had been fun dressing him up in the handsomest guild leathers that she could find. She had even plaited his long, sky-coloured hair before Karol had put his foot down and made her undo it, de-prettifying the transformed entelexeia. Even without the braid, the final result of her polishing had left stunned looks on their friends' faces, and the shock had made Ba'ul's misery and discomfort worth it. Judith had chuckled for hours. In retrospect, perhaps she hadn't really considered the whole evening.
Kritya had always been considered exotic to the sheltered Zaphians. That Ba'ul was the tallest man in the room by far was definitely turning a few heads.
It had been funny a few hours ago. It was getting a little tiring now.
"Excuse me, miss," Judith interjected sweetly, then slid between her towering friend and the simpering lady. She began to pile her silver platter up with a selection of foods, then speared an oversized strawberry. Ignoring their audience, Judith held the morsel out for Ba'ul. She tried not to grin when the noble woman's expression soured instantly, and she moved away with half the grace of her arrival.
Ba'ul didn't notice a thing; he took the fork clumsily and, mouth still full, gave her a pointed look.
"Oh hush, a little food won't kill you. You need to recover your strength," Judith chided.
Her friend's neat brows pinched unhappily and he dropped his gaze down to the piled tray in dismay.
"Don't be silly, there's always room for desert," she prompted. "Eat, my friend. Eat."
If anything, the mission to clean out the castle's catering distracted him from the fact that there was a constant stream of curious noble women ghosting past the buffet table.
Judith wasn't sure how long Ba'ul was going to stay in this form, but his slow recovery from the very brink of death had been a long and arduous one. It was simply easier for him to mend as a krityan where usual medicines and food could work, and if he still felt uneasy about returning to his true form, who could have blamed him? The decision was entirely in his hands. For Judith, she didn't particularly care what he looked like. As long as he lived and breathed by her side, she simply didn't mind.
Of course, the fact that Ba'ul had taken an unnatural likening to Raven's crepes might have had something to do with his reluctance to revert, and if that was enough of an incentive to stay the way he was, then who was she to judge?
Judith turned the curious little box over in her hands. She wondered what she was expected to do with it, or if Yuri even knew it was missing. It had to be returned, that much was obvious. How was a mystery at this point. She wasn't so sure she would be able to find him easily in this enormous hall, and finding him without Estelle close at hand would be harder still. It was a delicate situation that required tact and subtlety.
Ba'ul swallowed his mouthful and stared curiously at the case. Judith smiled at that, then opened it up for him to see. He didn't appear to be any less confused when the diamond ring was revealed.
"It's an engagement ring," she explained. "An old, romantic tradition."
"Is it important?" Ba'ul wondered, sensing her approval. She frowned at him, then pointedly directed his fork to a large cream pastry and gave his arm a mindful tap. He sighed heavily, resigned.
"Yes, I believe it is," she replied belatedly when he had obediently shoved more food into his mouth. "At least, in this case it will be. I'm not sure what to do with it, to be honest. I wonder if I'm expected to deliver it."
And then Ba'ul tilted his head, peering past Judith's shoulder.
"Oh," a familiar voice said. "Is that..?"
Judith turned on the spot a little to find Sodia standing by her elbow.
The lieutenant was staring at the open ring box with surprise, a small glass of punch in her hand. She was in her dress uniform, but a long teal cloak with gold trimming had been wrapped around her shoulders. She looked so surprised that Judith raised her hand to give her a better look.
"Pretty, isn't it?" she said with a smile. She had always suspected that the serious and no-nonsense lieutenant had a secret feminine side, and not for the first time, Judith found herself pitying the woman a little. "I'm afraid it isn't mine. I'm just minding it for someone."
"That's Yuri Lowell's." There was no question in Sodia's voice; she finally lifted her eyes, and it was suddenly obvious that she knew exactly what she was staring at.
Judith frowned, a little insulted.
"Oh," she said, trying not to sound too irritated. "I didn't realise I was the only one who didn't know."
Sodia's mouth dropped open then, and she stammered a little in embarrassment.
"I-I'm sorry, I... I was the one who delivered it to the Commandant this morning. I- I was with him only a few minutes ago. I thought he still had it."
Flynn, too? Judith pouted her lips and turned her eyes up to Ba'ul. He had stopped chewing to watch her, concern stapled all too clearly across his face. She held that soft gaze for a moment before releasing her breath and dispelling all her insult with it.
If there was one person in the world Yuri would conceivably trust with something of this nature... it was Flynn Scifo. She shouldn't have been surprised. She shouldn't have been surprised that the secret had slipped through the Commandant's fingers either.
Judith wondered how many of her friends hands this beautiful ring had passed through, drastically veering off course yet somehow always on track.
She realised then that it was time to pass it safely on.
Sodia was still standing there chastised when Judith turned back to her, and to make up for her lack of manners, she gave the women her silkiest smile.
"Say, lieutenant," she said kindly, snapping the little box shut. "I have a favour I'd like to ask of you…"
No one had seen Karol.
Yuri tipped his head back and stared at the expansive, painted ceiling and tried very hard to think.
So his plan had been shot to hell. It happened. Life never went the way it was expected to, which is why Yuri had never thought too hard about tomorrow in case it arrived in a mangled, unsalvagable mess. You made your own openings as they came, seized your own opportunities.
Somehow it was different this time.
Maybe it was because he'd held it in his hand, if only for a moment. Maybe it was because everything else seemed to have gone right. More likely, it was because Flynn had taken every quiet, secluded moment he possibly could to remind Yuri just how irresponsible and disorganised he was.
For once, Yuri didn't have it in him to defend himself.
Instead, he had found a quiet place against the back wall to scan the crowds, arms folded and eyes uselessly roaming over unfamiliar faces for any sign of his stray guild leader. It was a lost cause and he knew it. He had tilted his head to the side for a black, disparaging chuckle when the constant thrum of conversation suddenly dipped. The din lowered just enough to let the music roll in.
Yuri didn't know its name. He could have heard the tune a million times before or he could have heard it just once. It might have been played by cheap string quartet, or by the Zaphian Symphonic Orchestra… either way, he'd have recognised it anywhere. It had been playing in the sunken Myorzo.
It had been playing when Estelle had asked him a question that had changed both of their lives.
"That tune…" he muttered, distracted.
He turned to try and pick the orchestra pit out through the shifting masses, but couldn't locate where the melody was coming from. He was so preoccupied with the song and the heady memories it had lifted from his bleak thoughts that he hadn't realised someone had arrived at his side.
Their voice was a sudden, unexpected intrusion.
"It's Desmarais' Springtime Sonata," Sodia clarified curtly.
Yuri turned slowly, eyes wide.
She stood stiff as a board, both arms locked straight at her sides as if she was awaiting an order from her precious Commandant. Her eyes were very deliberately aimed straight ahead. Flynn was nowhere to be seen. Yuri stole a glance around, just in case, but there was no immediate reason for her to be there. It was just her.
It was just Sodia, standing there and looking as determined as she was uneasy.
"Lieutenant," Yuri acknowledged, warily studying her from the corner of his eye. Somehow her posture hardened further, and her fine brows knotted over her averted eyes. She might have been made out of stone, for all that she moved.
The silence was a jarring contrast to the pleasant, warm melody that continued to pluck at Yuri's senses.
"… I take it you're not here to talk about music," he attempted dryly, pushing himself up from his slouch against the wall.
Her arm was suddenly barring his way, as straight as a sword, fist clenched just before his chest.
Yuri stared down at the offending barricade mutely. It took a while to process what it meant. If she picked a fight here, he wasn't sure how he was going to handle it; how was he supposed to retaliate without sending Flynn off the deep end or, more importantly, upsetting Estelle's carefully organised celebration? How did you avoid confrontation without... well, confrontation?
He waited a heavy moment for her to make her first move, but she didn't.
He cast her another sidelong look.
"This is getting a little old," he began in a low voice. "We gonna stand here all day or are y-"
"-ours," she managed through an expression of pure discomfort. Yuri blinked. When he didn't reply, she gave her fist another curt shake. "This is yours," she repeated awkwardly, impatiently. Yuri turned his eyes back down to her fist. He realised that she was holding something.
The world continued to turn without incident when she dropped a velvet case into the hand he hesitantly lifted.
"That's-" Yuri managed, dumbstruck.
"You're reckless. Keep a tighter reign on your possessions," Sodia rebuked snippily, bright red. Her stiff arm snapped back down to her side once more, straight as ever.
Yuri struggled for words. It took him long moments to realise that there were none. He stared at her a little longer, but she had turned her face aside to look intently out over the crowd in the other direction.
"The Commandant and her highness are by the throne dais," she said next, but all he could see was the edge of one red ear.
Yuri shook himself back to the present. He stepped forward, suddenly back on track.
"Lowell," Sodia called out abruptly. He paused reluctantly, then forced himself to turn and look at her. She wore an expression so conflicted that it tugged at the corners of her mouth in strange ways. It settled into a grimace when she finally lifted her eyes. They were open, filled with more depth and unspoken explanations than he had thought possible. She nodded, once. "… The royal grounds-keeper has finished remodelling the terrace," she managed thickly. "I… I hear the rose gardens are particularly pretty at night. Very… very romantic. I-it's closed to the public right now and strictly off limits. Remember that. Off limits."
Yuri searched those unguarded eyes a little longer, too surprised to respond. And then he smiled.
"I'll remember that," he replied honestly. "… Thanks, lieutenant."
She nodded once more, then turned away with mechanical finality. Yuri's smile morphed into a grin when he returned to pushing his way through the extravagant crowd.
Colour slipped past his vision in an inconsequential blur, nothing more than a muddled mess of satin and lace and taffeta. Strangely, it was impossible to be lost in it this time. Yuri simply followed the sound of that haunting tune, one step at a time.
It had flooded his head and cleared out all the excess noise by the time the dais broke the crowd into a spattering of noblemen and familiar faces.
Flynn saw him first. The exasperation in his eyes melted away once he registered the expression on Yuri's face; the Commandant was smiling when he deliberately returned to his discussion with Ioder and Clarin. The future Queen was the second to notice, and she had half raised her hand before Ioder abruptly caught it and eased it back down again. The Emperor's tactful little clearing of his throat could be heard over the genteel murmur of conversation.
And as simply as that, Yuri was forgotten.
He smirked, tossed up the velvet box up in his hand, then caught it again with a deft snap.
He held it at the small of his back when he slipped through the very last of the crowds and, lightly tapping Estelle on her left shoulder, ducked around her right.
She turned on the spot, managing a full circuit with a bewildered look on her face.
"Yuri!" she scolded when she finally caught sight of him, embarrassed.
"Hey," he replied mischievously, tipping his head in her direction.
"We were just wondering where you went," Estelle said next, barely noticing the improper proximity. "You disappeared so suddenly! Is everything alright?"
It was. She just didn't know it yet.
"Yeah, sure," Yuri said flippantly. He swept his gaze over the official looking assembly around them, then gave her a grin. "Hey, it's getting pretty crowded in here. Got time for a midnight stroll?"
She blinked at him, surprised. Without really waiting for a reply, Yuri dropped his arm around her shoulders and gave her a little nudge away from the dais.
"Oh, um… I suppose so," she said, a little baffled. "Sh-should we invite Flynn?"
"Not where we're going."
She bumped against his hand when she began to drift in the wrong direction. He lightly corrected her.
The crowd parted for them easily.
"Um, Yuri? Where are we going?" Estelle asked when they'd bypassed the last of the party.
He squeezed her shoulder then, running a reassuring line over the curve of it with his thumb. He dropped his face slightly and smiled.
"Oh, I just heard something about the new gardens is all. Supposed to be something else at night. It's strictly off limits as well, so that's got to add to the fun, right?"
"Yuri!" Estelle chided, but she was smiling fondly.
"Well, what do you say?" he asked her lightly.
She sighed then, long suffering and just a touch excited.
"Of course," she mumbled. "… But then you have to tell me what this is really about!"
"Deal," Yuri replied, and meant it.
He gave her a little nudge then, ushering her towards the flimsy rope barrier that cordoned off the hall that circled the terrace. She giggled like she was a felon when they slipped past it and into the dim passage beyond.
And as Yuri left the shifting, laughing celebration behind, the world continued to turn. His hidden hand tightened possessively around the velvet box, and he grinned.
For the very first time, what he wanted was solid and real and soundly in hand. For the first time ever, he had dared to plan for a tomorrow that was his.
His future started now, and Yuri Lowell could hardly wait.
A/N: The end.
Thank you everyone for reading!
It's been a long year and a half, but we made it all the way to the finale! It may be a flawed and messy tale, but it has quite a bit of my heart stamped between the lines and I'm so very glad I did it!
I want to thank everyone that got this far in reading Homecoming, and I especially wanted to thank everyone that took the time to review and tell me your thoughts and impressions. The past year has been a strange time in my life, not the least being the death of my best friend and the slow shutdown of my beloved company. I would definitely have given up at multiple points if not for your support and kind words... We made it! Too awesome!
I got to blow up Dahngrest, sink Myorzo, cut Temza in half and scrap the Fiertia. I even made Yuri powerless, had Estelle stand on her own two feet, made Raven step out of the shadows and had Rita drop logic for sentiment. I had unhealthy amounts of fun.
I'll leave you with one last heartfelt thank you, and I'd love to hear what you think now the tale has been told!
Until next time, M.M