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18 September 2011 @ 10:21 pm
The Long Shot (1/6) [Balthier/Ashe; NC-17]  
Title: The Long Shot (1/6)
Author: chaineddove
Fandom: Final Fantasy XII
Rating: NC-17 due to one scene in a later chapter, PG-13 otherwise
Genre: Romance
Pairing: Balthier/Ashe
Wordcount: 2,206
Disclaimer: I don't own FFXII (well, I do own a copy for my PS2...).
Authors' Notes: So, here's how this bit of madness came about: umarekawareru challenged me to write a Balthier/Ashe fic which did not have a tragic ending. Needless to say, turning down a challenge from my apprentice would have presented a huge loss of face, so I had to write it. One chapter will be posted per day over the course of the next week (with, potentially, an epilogue on day 7 if I feel inspired) - which, amusingly enough, corresponds with my last week at the Job From Hell (so it's a double celebration in my mind).

In this chapter, Ashe makes the only decision she can justify as rational. Balthier is neither amused nor happy, though he does attempt to joke about it. But really, sometimes, the only way to fix something is to break it first.

”It’s a long shot, but I said why not,
If I say forget it, I know that I’ll regret it,
It’s a long shot just to beat these odds,
The chance is we won’t make it,
But I know if I don’t take it, there’s no chance,
'Cause you’re the best I got…”

-Kelly Clarkson, “Long Shot”

Chapter 1

”We won’t say our goodbyes,
You know it’s better that way,
We won’t break, we won’t die,
It’s just a moment of change…”

-OneRepublic, “All We Are”

***


When the first of the expensive and thoughtful gifts comes from Rozarria, she knows that her brief flirtation with madness is over. She can barely keep from an attempt to set the lovely and intricate jeweled necklace aflame with her glare; its diamonds and emeralds wink enticingly at her in the lamplight, but all she sees when she looks at the thing is a collar sent to shackle her to a duty she does not want. It has been only two years since her coronation and her advisors have not been silent on the subject of heirs, certainly, but neither have any of them dared to actively solicit suits on her behalf as yet. This, of course, changes everything – given her position relative to that of the scion of House Margrace, she cannot refuse it without good reason, and unless she intends to ally herself with Archadia, which is highly unlikely considering the circumstances, this is the best offer she will receive.

She closes the box with a snap, extinguishing the light of the jewels, and finds herself blinking away tears. Furious, she sends the maid away before the girl can carry tales to the rest of the palace, and when she is alone, she sinks into an armchair and covers her face with her icy, shaking hands, allowing the grief to overtake her, only for a moment, she thinks, only until she can catch her breath.

Until now, it has all been remarkably as Basch foretold it during the war, even if he did so quite on accident; there have been days when the crown weighs heavy on her mind, and those are the days she has found herself taking the servants’ way out of the palace, hooded and cloaked like a thief in the night. It is uncanny the way he always seems to know, as though he has a sixth sense when it comes to her. Invariably she has found him even though he has a well-deserved reputation as a man who will not be found unless he wills it. Greeted with that enticingly crooked smile and a hand outstretched – did no one ever tell you consorting with pirates will get you kidnapped, Your Majesty? – she has always allowed herself to be swept away. It is generally a matter of hours, not days, before duty has called her back into her rightful place, but those hours have been bright with a lighthearted joy she has never found in her regimented life, which is rich with the satisfaction of doing good but devoid of the simple pleasures of adventure, of laughter, of a lover’s embrace.

She reminds herself now that she has always known it would have to end, berates herself as she did at the onset for giving her heart to a man who has never intended to keep it, despises herself for wanting nothing more than to run to him now and beg him to take her away from this. Of course she must marry, and soon; she is the last scion of the royal line in a country barely ransomed from the grasp of the enemy, and she must assure the continued prosperity of her nation. Royalty does not marry for love except when affection is a lucky coincidence of an already-fortuitous match, as it was with Rasler; that aside, she has never dared raise the subject with him because she is quite certain it would signal an ending, and having selected not to be sensible in her choice of companions, she has held tightly to the fantasy for as long as it has been viable. Now it is time to let it go.

And even so, it is nearly dark before she feels herself composed enough to venture out of the privacy of her rooms. She takes a moment to study her face in the mirror, mercilessly lighting all of the lamps until every plane is illuminated, until she can be certain that no sign of weakness remains. She is cool and collected as she steps away from the looking glass; somehow, she feels as though she is leaving something behind as she dons the queenly mask. It is as it should be, she reminds herself. This is who she must be. Everything else cannot be allowed to matter. She almost believes it as she quietly extinguishes the lamps with a thought.

***


It is likely to be only her imagination playing tricks on her, but it seems as though she has never been more exhausted than she feels this fortnight. An unexpected granary fire has the winter reserves in a sad state, and a small but worrisome uprising near the Rozarrian border needs her immediate attention; this is quite aside from the fact that plans for an Academy of Magicks to mirror Archadia’s are not yet complete to her exacting standards, not to mention the slow and torturous reclaiming of Nabudis and all of the petitions she must hear and decide daily.

It is nearly enough to make her forget the jewelbox sitting prominently on her dressing table, nearly but not quite enough to make her forget all of the problems and the heartache it has brought with it. Although she has not said anything one way or another, it is common knowledge by now that something came for her from Rozarria, and from whom, and that is more than enough for speculation to commence. She has resigned herself to it, forcibly stopping herself from replacing the responsible servants in anger – servants talk, of course, about their employers, and there is no reason to throw the gossips into the street and train someone new when this will not solve the problem at hand – but it is increasingly difficult to ignore the meaningful looks from the members of her council.

She is swiftly running out of time, using the recent string of disasters as an excuse to put off the inevitable, burying herself in the distraction of work with the vain hope that somehow an answer will come to her as to how to make this a little easier. She has not seen him in nearly a month, now, and she knows that her silence is not fair to either of them; she knows what she must do, after all, has known from the moment the box arrived, and there is no sense in putting it off. Tomorrow, she tells herself resolutely; tomorrow she will find the time for it, somehow, if she must feign illness and bar her doors to escape from the window. Four hours until dawn, give or take; time enough to lie wakeful and think of what she must say to him.

She is exhausted, but even in exhaustion she remains vigilant; she senses immediately that something is not right as she approaches her chambers. The single guard she insists on – her councilors would give her a regiment if she allowed it, but she refuses to waste men so desperately needed elsewhere – is slumped against the wall in a most unnatural position and the hall is eerily silent. At her touch, the door to her sitting room swings open easily, unlocked. Eyes narrowed, she slips into the darkness with only a rustle of her silk skirts, the faint glow of magick rising around her. Anyone who thinks a tired queen makes easy prey has clearly not listened well to stories of the war; she is worth a regiment alone and unarmed, and the interloper will learn too late that she does not ask unnecessary questions before striking.

“Peace, Your Majesty; I prefer my leathers un-singed, if it is all the same to you.” The voice, sardonic and unexpected, comes from the purple shadows cloaking her window; she is so surprised that the power slips from her grasp like sand. There is a whisper of magick across the room, just a trickle, and the lamp nearest the window bursts into golden light, illuminating him as he leans against the wall, arms folded across his chest and expression unreadable.

She hurries to close the door into the hallway, then rounds on him. “Surely you have completely lost your mind at last; did you kill my guard, pirate? My army, or what is left of it, does not require your sabotage, I assure you!”

“Do not be a fool; he sleeps,” he responds in a tone that is unexpectedly curt. He steps away from the wall and for the first time she notices the door to her bedchamber standing open behind him; on her dressing table, the lid of the traitorous box has been thrown back to expose the delicate golden lines of the unwanted gift. Her mouth is suddenly dry as she looks back to him, taking in the emotion in his eyes, one she has never seen him display before. It takes her only a moment to decipher it: fury, not explosive like her own anger but cold and controlled. “Besides,” he continues, circling around a divan to approach her with a languid, relaxed pace which belies his true mood, “I did not think announcing myself best under the circumstances; I doubt your bridegroom would care to know of your… indiscretion.”

She feels trapped by his gaze as he stops just short of touching her. There is no room for denial between them; she looks up at him and her voice is unnaturally soft when she says, “So, I take it you know, then.”

“Rarely do I have cause to accuse you of foolishness twice in one evening, Ashelia,” he responds sharply. “The lowest street urchin in Lowtown knows; one would have to be blind, deaf and daft not to know.”

The gnawing ache she has been carrying deep at her core for these last weeks has only been bearable when she can ignore its presence; his words and his expression bring it to the forefront of her mind until she can barely think past it. The use of her given name is like a slap – he utters it so rarely, and usually only in moments of tenderness – and she gathers her own frayed emotions around her and shields herself the only way she can think of, with anger of her own. “And so you decided that breaking into my room was an appropriate response to a Lowtown rumor?”

His response is ominous silence; when he speaks again, all of the sharpness is gone and replaced with frost. “I waited for you to come to me yourself and offer an explanation. There was enough between us, I thought, for at least such a courtesy on your part. When it became overwhelmingly obvious that you did not intend to do so, I felt I had little choice in the matter if I wanted answers.”

“And what, pray tell, is the question?” she exclaims, heedless of the rising pitch of her voice when faced with the accusation in his eyes. “What answers can you possibly want from me? My apologies, but I happen to have a kingdom to rule; or did you think such things were secondary to your temporary entertainment?”

His eyes flash, but his tone is still cold, so cold that she can practically feel it against her skin. “Is that what this was?”

“Wasn’t it?” she parries hopelessly. “I do not intend to… to clip your wings, never fear. You have made your position crystal clear on the matter, and rest assured, I harbor no illusions of marriage.” She spits the word out as though it is a curse. For her, in this moment, it is. He says nothing, but he looks taken aback for the first time, and so she presses on, her words as harsh as she can make them. “A fine pair we would make, at any rate, considering your chosen occupation. And somehow, I doubt sincerely you are eager to spend the rest of your life dealing with sanctions from a very insulted Rozarria – if they stop at sanctions.” The shadow of war lies heavy on them both. “My people have no bread,” she says, suddenly exhausted.

He finds his voice at last as she completes this tirade: “Perhaps you should sell the ostentatious monstrosity. That will feed them awhile, I imagine.”

“Is this a joke to you?” She is shouting now, utterly undone by the sardonic humor.

“Do you see me laughing?” he responds quietly.

“I do not know what you want me to say.” There are tears in her voice, and she thinks there are tears in her eyes as well; his face glimmers and wavers in her field of vision as they well up and threaten to fall. “I do not know what you want from me at all.”

“Apparently,” he replies, “the feeling is mutual.”

She cannot stop the tears after all; they stream down her face and she looks at the floor, ashamed of her own weakness. Never in all of the difficult times they have weathered together has she allowed him to see her weep. He says nothing, offers no comfort. “Go,” she tells him, her voice barely a whisper. She does not think there is anything else to say.

“As you desire, Your Majesty.” A scuff of shoes on the windowsill, and he is gone.

Chapter 2
 
 
♫: OneRepublic - "All We Are"
 
 
 
aria28: aria28aria28 on September 19th, 2011 06:40 am (UTC)
It's been a long, long while since I last read a Balthier/Ashe story. Too long :p I had almost forgotten the heartache that can often accompany these two

Great start, and I love your style. I can't wait to read the next chapters and see where you take this (and yeah! for NC-17 chapter coming up, hehe!)
Maaya: a sorta fairytalechaineddove on September 19th, 2011 01:18 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I agree, in almost all situations, these two are a tragedy waiting to happen. I'm hoping to put forth a situation where that is not so, though. And you've got a few chapters to wait until that scene, but I hope you enjoy the ride!
Noordarklight90 on September 19th, 2011 07:46 am (UTC)
I can really sympathize with Ashe; not only does she have a country to run but she has to ensure it keeps running for the next couple of years. That sort of stress could do anyone in. Though it is obvious now that Balthier's feelings for her are no longer as shallow as she'd thought. Such a pity.

So quite a dilemma you've set up. If she marries, she betrays her love. If she doesn't, she betrays her country. Ouch.

So I'd love to read more, of course :)
Maaya: balthier/ashe caught by surprisechaineddove on September 19th, 2011 01:22 pm (UTC)
Yeah, this is definitely one of those situations where there can be no good answer - she's damned either way. Her error, though, lies in assuming Balthier will see it the same way, which he pretty obviously does not.

More coming this evening! ^_^.
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Maaya: quistis snowchaineddove on September 21st, 2011 04:39 am (UTC)
♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

Your words bring me great quantities of joy, so by all means~

Ashe is having one of the worst weeks of her life, hands down.

Edited at 2011-09-21 04:39 am (UTC)
(Deleted comment)
Maaya: friendship happychaineddove on September 21st, 2011 05:49 pm (UTC)
Awwwwwwww, thank you! Fans are always welcome here ♥ As your luck should have it, there are three chapters if this available now, and another to come this evening! I would be delighted if you read them all!
(Deleted comment)
Maaya: readingchaineddove on September 21st, 2011 11:41 pm (UTC)
Sounds like a plan! ♥