Welcome to the Masquerade

FF versus XIII Noctis& Stella

Masks. They hide our faces and expressions. Our, supposedly, greatest weakness. Taking them off, we expose ourselves to the people around us. But... If I were to take mine off... Could you read my expression?

The mighty moon was high on the dark night sky, its light peeking through the cloudy fortress surrounding it, illuminating the lively world beneath.

A grand pallace.

Nothing could compare to the grandiosity of the Luna Crista castle. After all, it was Tenebrae's most majestic and sought-out place for the royal family's gatherings. Although old, the building had a very complex architecture, similar to the roman pallaces and temples, with frescoes adorning each and every pillar surrounding the castle. Its grand halls weren't left out, either. The most exquisite and, probably, expensive paintings were hung throughout the entire structure of the building. From portraits to landscapes, they impressed every visitor that ever set foot in Luna Crista. Even the garden had such an aristocratic nature. With well-sculpted statues placed all around the magnificent flowers Tenebraerian gardeners nurtured with great care. Large fountains sprayed jets of crystalline water in the endless darkness of the night, offering a little light for those seeking it. Luna Crista was indeed one of Tenebrae's most precious jewels.

A royal ball.

Another prized jewel belonging to Tenebrae's royal family was its princess. She was the kind of jewel that dazzled you with its beauty, sparkling so bright, that it urged you to come closer. Stella Nox Fleuret. Calm of nature, intelligent, composed, observant, she was both loved and respected by the Tenebraerian populace. Ever since her coming of age, the royal princess took part in events ranging from wars to royal gatherings. Royal gatherings such as tonight.

A masquerade.

The best musicians of the kingdom were gathered at the ball tonight for the guests' entertainment, their fingers expertly strumming and delivering soft notes out of their well-tuned instruments. The vibrant melodies reached even Tenebrae's former enemy, silently keeping him company. Noctis Lucis Caelum. Prince of the Luxian kingdom, always stoic and strict, he is respected by the people of his kingdom. While couples danced the night away, he stood on the side, occasionally sipping from his glass of champagne, immersed in the shadows, studying and scrutinizing everyone's faces. Though hidden by a sheltering veil, his gaze unmasked every weakness with ease. Every weakness, except for one.

His shining princess.

Stella smiled yet again to her guests, shaking their hands in a friendly gesture and chatting away about whatever topic they brought up. She paid little to no attention to the conversation her companions were engrossed in, and ocassionally stole fugitive glances around the room. After a while, the noblemen surrounding her excused themselves to greet the other guests. Sighing tiredly, she slowly made her way over to the sidelines, not wanting to see another snobby aristocrat flounce around her just because of the title she held. Honestly, being a princess was very tiring. You had to put everybody else first, not to mention the neverending responsibilities. It was a life that didn't allow selfishness. She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and glanced around the ballrom once again, not finding the familiar face she was searching for. Where could he be... she thought to herself. Sighing again, she made her way around to the nearest footman and grabbed a glass of champagne, thanking the man for his hard work afterwards. Then, she reached up to her face to arrange her mask and the rest of her attire to make herself look presentable. Satisfied with her wrok, she turned around, and then she saw him. She could recognize that mess of jet-black hair of his anywhere. Always looking edgy, with some hair covering his forehead and those spiky bangs combed upwards at the back of his head. Even behind the Venetian mask he was wearing, she could imagine his defined jaw, his chiseled features, and most notably, his piercing blue eyes. Not wanting to lose sight of him again, she called over the nearest footman, all the while carefully gazing his way, and got on her tiptoes to whisper something in the man's ear. He nodded in understanding, and the princess gestured to the Luxian prince fully aware of the look said man gave her. That made her smile mischievously his way.

"Don't be intimidated by his rigid posture or his persistent glare," she soflty instructed the footman's hunched pose, "he's just not that into parties and gallas." She finished with a hopeless smile. Stella firmly put her hand on his shoulder, "Please do keep this exchange between us, if you so kindly would." She pleaded with the man. In turn, he only nodded solemnly. The princess thanked the footman for his cooperation as he bowed low, and swiftly took his leave, not wanting to waste any minute.

Her nightly prince.

Noctis tilted his head in confusion. After witnessing the- for lack of a better word- weird exchange between the Tenebraerian princess and the footman, he didn't know what to make of things. Noticing the mischievous smile gracing her features, he subconsciously furrowed his brows in confusion, forgetting momentarilly about the mask on his face. Even so, she caught the confusion in his demeanor and raised a finger to her lips in a secretive way. He straightened up, his back leaving the comfort- or lack thereof- of the wall and glared sternly at her. Stella shook her head as if to stop him, and for a moment, he did, and longingly gazed at her, searching her face- though veiled- for any sign of explanation. She only smiled sadly, and mouthed two words :

Trust me.

And trust her he did.

He stopped dead in his tracks, the idea of pursuing her long forgotten. This person, this woman, that he barely knew, could toy around with him, with his feelings and every ounce of composure and self-control he held within, as if it was nothing. Their encounters were few, and always brief, but they always left him with more questions than answers pertaining to her. While others strived for his attention, or tried their hardest to read him, or to at least get an idea of whatever he was thinking, she knew him inside and out, like a book. It just took one look from her, and she could tell anything that went through his head like nothing. Just like that. He couldn't figure out how she did it even if it were the death of him. While, on one hand he was intrigued by her sophisticated ways, on the other hand, they drove him mad.

But it wasn't her that scared him. It was himself. It amazed him how many times he would find himself thinking of her, of how they fought alongside each other during the war between their fathers more than their kingdoms. Of how many similarities they shared their powers, their encounters with the goddess Etro, their blood, and also their crusade and their quest of keeping the balance between their homelands and the crystals. Not to mention their differences. How often they would squabble and quarrell, and their arugments during the council meetings, and how every time she would demand that "they take it outside". He recalled how many times they sparred on his pallace's training grounds, and how she would tell him not to go easy on her, or not to look up her skirt if she fell. When they ran through the Luxian capital-city, through all the rubble and the fallen skyscrapers, how tightly he held her warm hand, and how in turn, she tightened her grip on his hand as well. He remembered how limp she fell in his arms after the war was over and she found out about the death of her father. How she broke up in his arms, and cried all her sorrows while the rain was relentlessly falling over them. How her cold, trembling hand fisted in the fabric of his soaking wet shirt. How she welcomed his embrace, and how tightly he held her to his chest and kissed the top of her head, whispering that everything will be alright. After a while, things were better, but not alright.

They were never alright.

He abruptly opened his eyes, unaware that subconsciously, he'd closed them while reminiscing of their past.

There. He did it again. Referring to her and himself as them. He scowled. That was one of the things he hated about himself. How, no matter how horrible he'd treat her outwardly, inwardly he would cherish every moment they shared. How he would shoot her glares and spit snide remarks, while on the inside he was beating himself up for being so rude to her. Or when she would change her everyday attire for something different, he would look unfazed or would criticize her, while, in truth, he liked her dresses, and her- despite being royalty- modest and humble choice of clothing. He lowered his head and glowered at the floor. Her antics, her beauty, her witty remarks- no. She drove him mad. And sooner or later he would burst, he knew it. He was this close to tipping off the edge of sanity. He felt a pat on his shoulder bringing him out of his train of thoughts. Noctis raised his still glowering look up to face whoever dared interrupt his musings, and didn't falter in delivering his deadly glare.

Despite the princess' advice at ignoring the Luxian prince's antics, the footman couldn't help but cower at the sight of the man before him.

Intimidating would be the understatement of the year.

If looks could kill... he bitterly thought. Swallowing hard, he mustered whatever courage and pride he had left and straightened his posture. "Prince Noctis," he started, bowing low.

"Cut to the chase." The prince all but demanded, growling.

Startled out of his wits, the man straightened again, and hastilly dabbed a napkin procured from his chest pocket on his now sweating forehead. "Y-yes my lord," he stuttered, "My Lady, P-princess Stella Nox Fleuret, o-of the Tenebraeri-"

"Don't test my patience. State your damn business and be done with it!" the prince growled in the footman's face.

"Y-yes!" the man yelped. He dabbed at his forehad faster al the while avoiding the man's piercing gaze. He willed his body to stop trembling and continued, "Princess Stella requests that you visit her in her private chambers on the higher level. She said refusing her offer is not an option." He slowly raised his face to look at the prince, somewhat surprised at his lack of response. He was looking at the floor again, his brows furrowed in concentration. The prince brought a hand up to his chin in contemplation.

At least he isn't glaring anymore. The aide thought bitterly. He started shuffling uncomfortably and looked at anything but the man beside him.

"Very well then."

Again he was startled by the black-haired prince's voice. He bowed again, "S-sir!" he stuttered. The prince swiftly proceeded before him, and the footman released a breath he wasn't aware he had kept.

"Thank you."

He looked in the man's direction, disbelief and surprise etched on the footman's features. Noctis turned his head back and offered him a look of genuine gratefulness. "For putting up with me," he continued slowly, "and for relaying the message without telling others of it." He bowed his head to the aide and continued on.

Eyebrows raised just below the line of his hair, the footman took off his cap and scratched the back of his head recalling the princess' advice. He snorted.

"Now what do ya know?" he whispered to no one in particular.

Noctis was walking down the pallace's long corridor, his pace fast and steady. While his gaze was alert and all over the place, surveying every corner and spot in the grand hall, his mind was rushing with thoughts of Stella's request. What was the reason for the sudden meeting? Why in a secluded place? Why now? He growled in frustration and fastened his pace at the sight of the double doors at the end of the corridor. He forcefully pushed them open and effortlessly slammed them, their echo reverberating through the silent hall. Manners be damned, he thought. He spotted her by the large open windows, her mask placed neatly on the coffee table behind her. It irritated him that she didn't look in the least startled by his actions. Instead she slowly turned towards him and smiled one of those smiles. His glare intensified.

"I figured it was you." She stated simply.

"What gave it away?" he spat in sarcastic mockery.

"Don't be so pert, Noct." She scolded. "I would much preffer it if you weren't so angry all the time."

"Who's angry?" he all but growled at her. "Your Highness, in case you haven't noticed-"

"Please drop the formalities also,"

"- we're standing before the brink of war." He raised his voice, "There are factions opposing the alliance we forged two years ago, and part of the citizens of both our kingdoms are rebelling against us and the treaty that we thrived for and everything that it represents!" he all but shouted. Fortunately it got her attention. "And I'll be damned if I let that happen." He growled lowly.

"It's not the countries' fault," she protested, "The men that lead them are at fault..."

He dashed to the coffee table and slammed his fists on it, startling her.

"The men that lead them?" he growled lowly.

"Yes..." she responded in a faint whisper, haughtingly avoiding his dangerous gaze.

"For fuck's sake- WE'RELEADING THE DAMN KINGDOMS!"

She slapped him.

"Are we?" she shouted angrily, "As far as I remember you and I haven't signed a piece of paper! NOT A SLIVER! Every law was passed by the council! Not us! The rightful rulers!" her voice broke, and tears slided down her cheeks.

The mask adorning his face was a few feet away, reduced to mere chips of ceramics on the floor. He stood there, motionless, his hand brought up to his reddening cheek, unable to muster a word. Minutes passed and he let her words sink in.

She was right.

She fell to her knees and brought up her fists to dry her tears. It wasn't right. It was just like he said; the treaty they strived for was being tampered with by a bunch of greedy men with no respect for their own kingdom. What was worse, they had no knowledge of it, or rather- they never thought it weird that no official acts were shoved towards them. Not even once has she questioned the council's motives. Ignorance is bliss, she thought ironically. Her hiccups were faintly heard in the large room, "It's not fair..." she whispered.

As if her meek voice startled him, Noctis lowered his gaze at her trembling form sprawled on the floor. As much as he hated to admit it, they were ignorant. He was ignorant. He sighed. Lowering down, he kneeled in front of her and started running his hand through her hair. He gingerly took a strand- as if afraid to hurt her- between his fingers and started lowering it, as if measuring the length of her golden tresses, until her silken bangs fell limply near her face.

"We were careless." He simply stated.

"You think?" she spat sarcastically, unfazed by her now hoarse voice, which clearly indicated she cried not long ago.

Despite himself, and the predicament they were in, he chuckled. "You find that funny?" She dabbed her fist on her eye, pouting.

"The mess we got ourselves in, or the fact that you're crying?" he teased haughtingly.

"So me crying isn't a mess?" She teased back, a smile starting to creep on her features.

"No," he brought a hand up to her face and dried the remainder of the tears staining her cheeks, "Not to me, at least." She playfully slapped his shoulder. He simply shrugged it off and got on the floor with her, propping his back on one of the coffee table's feet, pulling her to him in a gentle embrace. They stood like that, in the comfortable silence for a while, her hand on his chest, and one of his hands in her hair while the other rubbed circles on her back. After a while, she broke the comforting silence, "What are we going to do about this?" she sniffed, "They won't even bat an eyelash our way."

Noctis only nodded solemnly. Again, she was right. The council hadn't treated them like the heirs to their respective thrones, not ever. We have to shove the idea in their thick skulls. The question was: how? He fisted a hand in his hair, trying to find an answer. They were the rightful heirs. They both signed the treaty, and both kingdoms were okay with the conditions of the alliance. As far as he could remember, there was no conflict of interests, and no issues with the borders and/or the land split. So the population shouldn't have any problems with the terms. Unless those rascals lied about the laws. Of course. No official act was passed to them. Then it hit him:

Not even once was he recongnized king in Lux. He had no living relatives, so normally that would make him the true ruler of the kingdom. Then he remembered that Stella still held the title of princess. She, as well, had no blood relations, per se, so normally she had to be crowned queen over Tenebrae as well. After turning and tossing his thoughts, and looking at the issue from every angle, he came with only one viable solution. There was only one way to right this.

"Marriage..." he murmured.

Marriage was indeed the only way he could conjure that woukd work. If they were to be wed, their social standing would rise and they would gain an upper rank in the hierarchy. That would banish every wrong-doing the council had made; not to mention they could dissolve it or create another one from scratch. Not only that, it would also strenghten the bond between Lux and Tenebrae, and the rebellions will cease also. The more he thought about it, the more logical it sounded.

"Pardon?" Stella looked up at him confused, not understanding what he said.

Or not.

"Nothing." He haughtingly replied. He contemplated whether to propose such a scandalous idea to her.

"..."

Well it certainly can't make matters worse, can it?

He cleared his throat and swallowed the lump that formed there, "I said marriage."

At first, he was reluctant to chance a glance down, but seeing her lack of response he lowered his gaze only to find her with her mouth slightly agape and her thin brows raised above her eyes.

"Oh." Was her only response.

"..." he fervently tried to look anywhere but at her; it proved futile.

He ran a hand over his face trying to hide his shame, and hoping that the slap from earlier left a bruise to hide his growing blush, "Stella, please don't look at me like that..."

She closed her mouth and glared at him, "Oh, and what do you want me to do?" she asked disbelieving, "Start handing out flowers?"

"I'd rather you not start doing that-"

"I'd rather you let me think for a second."

He shifted uncomfortably under her; where was the peace from their earlier embrace, he wondered?

"Fine." She stated bluntly.

"Fine?" He asked disbelieving. That seemed surprisingly easy.

"Fine." She nodded, repeating. She craned her neck to look up at him, and couldn't help but giggle at his baffled expression. "But on one condition." She warned.

Noctis was hesitant, "And what might that be...?"

"You have to propose to me, live, at your pallace in the capital-city of Lux." She couldn't hide the smirk now etched on her face.

He smacked his head on the foot of the table and grunted, "Do I have to?"

She was basically grinning with her eyes, "Yes."

"..."

She was a tease with no boundaries. "Fine." he pouted.

"Well, wasn't that easy?" she teased.

This person- this woman, that he barely knew, could toy around with him, with his feelings and every ounce of composure and self-control he held within, as if it was nothing. She could make him drop the act, the facade, the mask that held his feelings and judgment in place, in mere seconds as if it were nothing. Just like that.

"We will get out of this," she looked hopeful up at him, "right?"

At times it was maddening-

He merely kissed her forehead, "Yes," he whispered.

-and challenging-

"We always do."

-but deep down, he loved every second of it.