Ashe was dozing, happily.
Realising a content sigh, she turned and faced inwards, towards her chosen pillow, and in doing so she heard a deep chuckle from above.
"Careful, Princess. To the outsider, that is looking very suggestive." She and Balthier were sitting under one of the great oak trees found in the gardens of the Bunansa estate. Ashe was taking a nap, her head in Balthier's lap, while he reclined against it's mighty trunk, playing with her hair and reading to her. It was a moment of peace, just the two of them, away from the world.
It had been three and half years since Ashe had been crowned Queen and so much had changed in that short time. Ashe had proven herself a worthy ruler, establishing Dalmasca as a key trading destination between Archadia and Rozarria, (close friendships with both Larsa and Al-Cid Margrace aiding in that endeavour) and with the aid of her citizens, she had managed to rebuild the country to how it was in it's prime. Four years after the fall of The Bahamut, the only remaining signs that the country had been under occupation were the now former Archadian soldiers who had chosen to make their lives there.
Life had changed for all of them. For Penelo, being 'Ambassador For The People' had gradually morphed into a real role as Ashe relied on the young woman to speak for her citizens and gage their opinions on her decisions on what was best for their country. Though she would still find time to join the Sky Pirates for the occasional adventure, her dedication to the role had allowed her to become a much respected and revered figure on both the streets and in the Palace. Together, she and Ashe had been successful in establishing orphanages for the children of Rabanastre, (a task helped by Balthier donating a large part of his family's wealth to the cause) and even though her status had increased, she still remained the same sweet, approachable person she had always been.
Penelo's relationship with Tomaj had, unfortunately, been a stormy one. They were constantly on-again/off-again and every time they broke up she would have to do everything she could to prevent Vaan and Balthier from going and 'having words' with the bartender. She knew they would never really do anything, they only threatened because they loved her, but it was still wearisome all the same. She was currently seeing an Archadian diplomat who held a similar role to Larsa as she did to Ashe, but all her friends knew it was only a matter of time before she found her way back to Tomaj, for despite their tempestuous relationship, the pair were very much in love.
Of all of the six members of the party who had travelled Ivalice to save Dalmasca, Vaan was probably the one who had changed the most. In many ways he remained exactly the same as he was when they first met but he had also grown up dramatically. He never truly become a sky pirate as he had always said he would, and this was in part because of his loyalty to Ashe and his unwillingness to leave Penelo (who was reluctant to keep leaving Rabanastre for long periods of time, due her new-found responsibilities), but also because it was clear to all that he had fallen head over heels in love with Aria. He didn't want to be away from her for longer then necessary.
He still got to fly, though. Ashe continued to utilise him for any errands throughout Ivalice he wished to do for her and if the Queen ever needed to travel to Archadia or Bhujerba, Vaan was the first person she would ask.
His relationship with Aria had gone from strength to strength and much to everyone's surprise the two of them had actually gotten married eighteen months ago. There were still stories being told about how ridiculously drunk Ashe and Balthier had gotten at the reception. Ashe thought she would never live it down, Balthier vowed to make sure she didn't.
Basch remained in Archades, diligently at Lord Larsa's side. Through a series of intentional slips however, the truth was gradually becoming revealed as the young Emperor had decided Ashe's former Captain deserved to finally be recognised for who he was and not have to continue to life his under a false identity. Basch would grumble that this was because of Vaan and Penelo's, and later Balthier's continued campaign with their constant 'Basch Lives' graffiti that they left everywhere they went. Secretly, he was pleased not to have to live the lie anymore, and while he was still referred to as Judge Gabranath, for formality's sake, everyone knew that he was Basch fon Ronsenburg; a much honoured Knight of Dalmasca and Archadia.
Of course, Basch had been overjoyed to discover Fran was alive and they too had rekindled their romance, much to Penelo's delight and Balthier's (pretend) dismay. Though they were much more reserved about it then her partner was with his. Whenever Balthier was in Rabanastre with the Queen, Fran would usually come to Archades to be with Basch. It took a little time but the two Pirates manage to work out a good balance between their time together in the skies and their time with their respective Loves. Balthier's family fortune, combined with being involved with two very senior government officials meant pirating took a backseat to shear adventure, but Fran and Balthier still found plenty to satisfy them.
As for Ashe and Balthier, their relationship had become the worst kept secret in the Palace history. While it was still the case that many of Ashe's councillors and ambassadors remained oblivious, the Palace staff were very much in the know. That fact that, in the beginning, Balthier had gone around and introduced himself to them all had not helped. Ashe knew he was very amiable when he wanted to be, but even she was impressed at how quickly he had won them all over. Her mother's former handmaiden, Erez, who thought of Ashe as a daughter and much to the Queen's enjoyment, terrified Balthier more then Basch ever could, but after seeing that the Pirate did truly love Her Majesty, she gave him a little bit of room to breathe. As a result, the two lovers became less and less subtle about feeling the need to hide their love, and about a year into their relationship, it had become fairly common to find men's shirts in with the Queen's laundry.
At Vaan's suggestion, Ashe had crushed any further attempts from her councillors from pressurising her to re-marry with a powerful speech, reminding them just exactly who was Queen and that she had not fought for the throne simply to wed and breed. She was a young woman and she would be the one to make the decision who to marry and when. Aria had reported that the Queen had left the elderly man who had questioned her before, quaking in his boots. Balthier and Vaan were just upset that they weren't there to see it for themselves.
Ashe's biggest concern in regards to her relationship with Balthier was how her fellow countrymen would feel about their Queen hoping to one day marry an Archadian Sky Pirate. There were no laws preventing her from doing so if she wished but she did not want her people to detest her for simply following her heart. After sending Penelo and Vaan out into the streets to feel out her people's thoughts on the matter, Ashe was both pleasantly surprised and relieved when they reported back that the majority of her citizens had no issue with her choice. In fact, they would respect the Queen more for not being politically motivated in such an important decision. When Penelo had come back to Ashe and spoke of a woman who had told her that marrying for love was a basic Hume right, Ashe became so emotional, she sent for the woman to come to the Palace at once so she could thank her for her kind words in person.
Balthier did indeed hold onto his family home and grounds. It became Fran's home whenever she stayed in Archades and more than that, it became a getaway place for Ashe and Balthier. Whenever the Queen had to come to the Imperial City, she would always schedule an extra day or two so that she and her man could hide away from the world and her office. Doctor Cid had installed the estate with some of the best security the man could afford and invent so it was safe enough for the Queen to stay with the bare minimum of protection, and the place was large enough for them to have all the privacy they wanted.
It was on one of these days that found Ashe groaning, and lifting her head away from his legs to glare at Balthier for disturbing her.
"You know, for a man with his head in the clouds, it's startling just how often your mind is in the gutter." She said as she settled back into her original position. Balthier laughed at the oxymoronic nature of her comment.
"You're the one making all the moves, Princess." He grinned down at her. "Are you actually trying to seduce me out here, under this tree?" He gave her a wink. "It wouldn't be the first time." Ashe looked up him through half-lidded eyes.
"Balthier, please, I'm just trying to get some rest." She sighed.
"So that's a no, then?" Ashe couldn't stop her smile at the slightly despondent tone in his voice.
"It's a no, Balthier. For now at least."
"Ah, no matter then." Balthier shrugged off his disappointment. "Now that you're awake though, I've been meaning to ask you something." Even with her eyes shut, the Queen lifted her eyebrows in question.
"Oh, indeed. I've been meaning to talk about your birthday next week." Ashe groaned.
"Don't remind me. I've already had more meetings and dress fittings with my events organiser for my party then I care for. I much prefer our private gathering, just the eight of us. And Larsa, if he can this year." She said, referring to their self-made family of herself, Balthier, Vaan, Aria, Penelo, Tomaj (when he and Penelo were together), Fran and Basch. After Ashe's mandatory birthday ball for the dignitaries of Ivalice, she always had a smaller event, just her and the people she loved.
"Same here, they're usually much more raucous. You're wonderful when you let your hair down." He lifted her hand to his lips and Ashe beamed at the praise. "I'm making it my mission to get Basch drunk this year."
"You're on." They sat in a content silence, quietly laughing at the image of a drunken Basch. Ashe sighed.
"Twenty-four." She said, heavily.
"You're getting old, Princess." Ashe raised her eyebrows at the smirking Pirate, knowing full well he was three years her senior. "It makes you think." He said, wistfully before continuing with his usual bounce. "Anyway, what would you like for your birthday this year?" Ashe smiled. Every year he had asked her this she had given him the same answer and he knew this year would be no different.
"Just you." She replied, and he looked down at her, adoringly.
"Always, my love." He said softly. "Actually, I did have something, but thinking about it I might give it to you now." Ashe started to sit up to tell him not to spoil the surprise, but she was also torn with wanting the gift as well. It didn't matter however, as Balthier was already rooting around in his pocket for the mysterious item. Eventually, he pulled out something small and glittering.
"There we go. I found this last time I was here. It belonged to my mother and my grandmother before her. I just thought it was far to beautiful to be locked away in a box. It deserves to be worn, and I think she would have agreed with me." He handed her a small ring and Ashe was moved by the sentiment.
"Your mother's?" She repeated and he nodded, smiling at her. "I'm honoured. Thank you." She kissed him gently and lay back down to examine the ring. It was beautiful and utterly unique, Ashe had never seen a stone like the one set in it before. On initial appearances, it looked just like a diamond yet every time she twirled the ring, the stone would flash a different colour, never settling on just one. It looked like a rainbow and it had her completely hypnotised.
"Balthier, it's beautiful." She said after a moment.
"It was her engagement ring."
Time stopped. Ashe's eyes flicked up as she processed his words and the full impact of the meaning behind them. Inhaling sharply, she sat bolt upright, clutching the ring to her chest. Was he…?
Ashe found she was breathing heavily, as if she had been running. She whirled around to face him and saw Balthier was looking back at her with the smallest, yet sweetest smile on his lips and a look his eyes she could only describe as hope. They could only look at each other, the air charged with the unspoken understanding between them. Balthier spoke first.
"You told me you'd wait for me, until I was ready." He said, never breaking her gaze. "I think I've been ready for a while now and I was just waiting for the right moment. The right way to put it into words. And then I found my mother's ring." Ashe finally managed to look away, down to the ring she was holding in her hand. It was only at that point that she realised she had been holding her breath.
She couldn't believe this was happening. She had dared to dream of it, only in passing so as not to let such a silly, girlish fantasy consume her, but she had known she had wanted to marry him ever since their first night together in Balfonheim so long ago. On reflection, he had been spending more and more time in Rabanastre, and she remembered the flutter she felt in her stomach upon seeing the adoring look on Balthier's face a few months back, when he held Grace, Vaan and Aria's newborn daughter, for the first time. Her heart had skipped a beat at that sight and she couldn't stop herself wishing for their own future together.
Ashe was pulled back from these memories by Balthier's voice.
"I hadn't been aware of it, but Fran recently told me that, for the last year or so, I'd been referring to Rabanastre as 'home'." He sighed fondly and shook his head. "That blasted woman always know these things are coming before I do and she never has the good graces to tell me." He looked back into her eyes and for the first time, Ashe saw a shadow of a frown cross his face.
"Ashe, you haven't moved or said anything for about three minutes now. You're starting to make me nervous." Ashe swallowed.
"I…" She couldn't find her voice. She looked down at the ring again and then back to him, and she felt her mouth tug upwards into the start of a smile and had to blink to hold back the tears she felt forming. They were tears of pure joy. Balthier seemed to sense this and cupped her head with his hand, pulling her to him.
"Rabanastre is home, because it's where you are. Tell me again, what do you want for your birthday?" Ashe's throat was dry.
"Just you." She managed to say. Balthier beamed at her.
"And you'll have me. Forever, if that's what you want. Ashe, I love you." He took a deep breath. "Will you marry me?"
Ashe let out a splutter of a laugh as the first tear fell down her cheek and she kissed him. He met her advances with equal passion, gripping her tightly, never wanting to let her go. When they broke apart, he rested his forehead against hers, his heart beating wildly and tried to focus.
"You know, that's not actually an answer." He said with a grin. Ashe let out a second laugh.
"Shut up, you stupid Pirate. Of course it's an answer!" She captured his eyes. "Yes." She whispered and Balthier held her tight.
"Thank you." He sighed. Even for a man with his own airship, he didn't think he could ever get higher than this moment. Eventually, they relinquished their hold on each other and Ashe made to take off her wedding ring (something she wore out of pure habit) and replace it with Balthier's engagement ring. She stopped and frowned in confusion, however, when she realised she wasn't wearing it. She never took it off. Remembering who she was with, she glanced up to see Balthier's perfectly innocent expression. A little too innocent. She fixed him with narrow eyes but was unable to top the grin that was spreading onto her lips.
"Balthier, I appear to be missing my wedding ring?" Balthier flicked his eyes down to her hand.
"Huh, how about that?" He remarked casually. "Good thing you don't need it any more then." Ashe had to admit, she was impressed.
"How, in the world, did you manage to get it off me?" She asked as he slid his own ring onto her finger, making her heart leap with the simply action. It fit perfectly. Balthier gave his fiancé a self-assured smirk.
"Ashe, please, I'm a pirate. I wouldn't be a very good one if I didn't now how to get a women's jewellery away from her without her knowledge." He kissed her. "And I, my love, am one of the best there is."
Ashe looked at Balthier, straight into his eyes, could feel his heart beating underneath his shirt and smiled knowing it beat only for her, and that the heart that he had stolen from her so long ago, beat only for him in turn.
She stroked his face and smiled at him. "Yes, Balthier." She said, pulling him into a kiss. "Yes, you are."
And they sat underneath the tree, nestled together, knowing there was nothing in the world that could ever touch them.