"If I'd been someone else in a different world I'd've done something different, but I was myself, and the world was the world, so I was silent…"
—Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Poor girl, he wanted to say as he laid the tiny body on the bed, blood dripping from the sword on the floor. Her soft, shiny blond hair spread out on the white pillow like a halo, and as Balthier mused this image, he found himself standing in the shadows, hidden from the angelic light rising from the body. He thought he saw tears streaking her cheeks, but the dead could not cry.
Her soul was a pale blue color. It sparkled in the moonlight and took shape, a mirror image of the now cold body in the bed, her hair still shining even in death. The young girl looked at Balthier with pitiful, sunken eyes, but he was nothing more than a statue to her; a cold, inhuman figure in the darkness. He tried to give her a warm smile, really he did, but she was blind and could not see this gesture of kindness. And so he held out his hand, took hers in a gentle and caring fashion, and led her away.
The towered Door of Souls stood like an impending, but inevitable doom awaiting the dead. The little girl trembled, hiding behind Balthier's armored leg and clung to the violet cloth hanging from his waist. He surrendered a chuckle, patting her on the head before meeting the goddess' gaze.
Etro was the caretaker of the dead, and he was her knight.
"My lady, this poor carbuncle lost her family to the Door just days ago, and she was unfortunate enough to suffer the same fate." Balthier nudged the girl, urging her to walk forward. "Though it pains me to see another poor soul pass on much too early."
"I see." Etro closed her eyes; she took on the child's mother's appearance, a plump, middle aged woman with silvery wisps of hair. "Come, my daughter. Your family awaits your arrival."
The little girl looked at Balthier, lip quivering, but he forced a weak smile in encouragement. With that, she took tiny steps toward Etro, and though she was much smaller than the Door, she puffed out her chest and walked through, vanishing into the air. When Balthier looked to Etro, frowning, she reverted to her original form, a cloud of light.
"I do hope this will be added to my quota," he said, drawing his sword and studying it. The Resurgo blade: a sword of resurrection wearing the symbol of the goddess of the dead. "Ferrying souls to the Door was never my ideal profession."
Etro's light drifted into the distance for a moment, the returned.
"Your heart grows weary with regret. But this was your choice, Ffamran. It was you who came to me."
He only nodded.
"She waits for you," Etro continued, but he knew just who she spoke of. Lightning. She would never give up until she found him. "But your heart lies elsewhere."
At this, Balthier reached into his breastplate and pulled out a fraying scrap of black cloth.
"I can give you what you want most."
Etro's light faded, then reappeared and slowly morphed into a tall, but tender and amiable figure. Snow Villiers grinned enthusiastically, blue eyes bright as the mid-day sky, but Balthier's cold heart could not be warmed so easily.
"But he cannot return…" Snow's image flickered and became nothing more than a spot of light, but Balthier could have sworn he heard an eradicated voice calling his name. "Unless you give your life for him."
Balthier closed his eyes. Flames danced in his mind's eye, the warmth of a body fading as its soul departed for lands unknown, words of promise lost to the night…
Taking a deep breath, Balthier nodded.
Ashe awoke to the sound of voices cheering outside her window. Of course, she told herself as she sat up from her bed. It had been one year since she reclaimed Dalmasca and began to rebuild her city. One year. Her heart sank at the memory, but she hastily moved her thoughts elsewhere and stood at the window, admiring Rabanastre.
True, it wasn't completely rebuilt, but… it was almost back to its original glory. The Muthru Bazaar was up and running as if nothing had changed, and the streets were filled with bustling citizens ready to face the day's work. Ashe wished she could join them, but her duty was to defend her country, not gander and fool around with her people. Her taste for adventure had diminished over the years.
One of the handmaidens knocked on the door, her voice muffled by the wood. "My Lady, Captain Farron is here to speak with you."
"Let her in," Ashe answered, turning away from the window.
Whenever Lightning marched into a room, most men cringed in fear while women gawked in awe and jealousy. The Captain was a fine soldier, though most were afraid of her cold heart and stern glare; not to mention her fierce punches.
But Ashe understood something they could not. Lightning was not from Ivalice. She had lived in another world all her life until she came to Ivalice in search of a lost ally: the sky pirate Balthier.
However… things did not go as smoothly as they planned.
"It's a fine morning, isn't it?" Ashe said by way of greeting. Lightning didn't smile in return. She didn't smile much, these days. "You know what today is, don't you, Lightning?"
"The anniversary of Rabanastre's recovery," came the usual polite reply.
"Yes, but…" the queen sighed. "I was hoping you remembered what else happened on this day."
Lightning crossed her arms, briefly touching the Dalmascan brand on her shoulder guard. "Look, your Majesty, I don't have time for idle chit chat. There's something—"
"Must I remind you again? Call me Ashe, please. We're past the pleasantries now, Lightning."
"Sorry—Ashe, I really can't talk right now. I just came here to tell you that I'm leaving."
The queen let her hands drop to her sides, disbelief clouding her eyes as she turned to look at the other woman. "Leaving?" she asked, voice weak.
"I… I need to go back home. It's—it's something you don't understand. I'm sorry, your Ma—Ashe." Lightning clenched her fingers into small fists. "But I can't stay here anymore. I really am sorry."
"You're going after him."
It wasn't a question. Just mentioning the sky pirate seemed to set Lightning on edge; she kept her gaze firmly on the floor as if she were memorizing every crack and swirl on the tiles. Yet Ashe wondered: what if she wasn't going after Balthier? What if, in one of those vigils she placed herself in, Lightning decided she needed to go home to be with her family? She had a sister. Ashe couldn't remember what it was like to have a family, not since her days with the Resistance. Now, everyone just treated her like she would send them to prison the moment they spoke against her.
Balthier never treated her that way, even when he didn't remember who she was.
"No, I'm not," Lightning finally whispered. "There's… no need for me to look for him. If he doesn't want to be found, then I won't find him."
"Then why are you leaving? This is your home now, Lightning," Ashe pleaded—no, queens did not plead. "You've done so well with helping the Resistance become the Dalmascan army again. You've even helped Penelo with the orphanage… and you have even helped me move on."
"That's why I have to go. I'm not needed here anymore. I'm going back to my world and that's that."
And she was gone, just like that.
Even a year later, when Ashe stood by that same window and looked over her city, she couldn't believe that yet another ally—a friend—was gone.
'It's something you don't understand.'
She gritted her teeth together and rested her head against the window pane. What didn't she understand? What made Lightning leave without a trace of where she went?
'If he doesn't want to be found, then I won't find him.'
The week after Lightning left, Ashe asked Basch to seek her out. All he found was a single white feather outside one of the shrines the woman had visited the year before: a shrine for the goddess Etro. Lightning rarely mentioned her goddess, other than that it was Etro who warned her of the dangers when the fal'Cie Lindzei came to Ivalice so he might summon Ragnarok to kill the human race.
Ashe could remember the night when Lightning told her the myth relating to the gods of the other worlds. Etro created humans from her own blood, dying just so they might have life.
Life and death…
A single feather…
'It's something you don't understand.'
When she found Balthier that night in Rabanastre, standing over Snow's grave, he mentioned the goddess as well. She thought nothing of it at the time, but now… perhaps Lightning left for the same reason. They were after something, and Etro had something to do with it.
"Something I do not understand," Ashe murmured, looking over the white frills of the feather. "How can you find those that don't want to be found?"
Why even search for them? Balthier had been the one to show her what freedom truly was, but he vanished the night she lost her freedom. When he returned, he was no longer than man she cared for and failed to save his dearest friend from death. Lightning, however, was different. Ashe couldn't trust her at first, but she came to admire the woman for her determination and dedication to her duty.
One sought freedom, the other sought redemption.
"To find something that cannot be found."
Ashe perked up, turning slightly when she heard a young man's faint voice in the air. But when she tried to see where the voice came from, she found that she was still alone. Sighing, she set the feather on her desk and moved to the door.
It would not do for the queen to appear harried by her worries when it was supposed to be a night of celebration. Two years, and Rabanastre was back to its former glory. They were to celebrate the victory and joining of Dalmasca and Archadia, not fear the words of bodiless voices.