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Meliadoul stared at him through that column of smoke, her face partially hidden but still visible. Dark eyes with all the life sucked out of them assessed his soul and found it, once again, lacking. She looked away, and Ramza shuddered in spite of himself.
Looking to his left, Alma stared blankly out into the woods, her eyes brimming with tears that she couldn't shed. He patted her comfortingly on the knee, and she took his hand, gripping it hard.
"It's almost dawn," she said quietly, speaking for the first time in hours. "We should go."
"Not yet," Ramza whispered in reply. He glanced about the circle of firelight and saw no sign of Mustadio. Ramza sighed. He didn't want to go...not without saying goodbye.
The thought of goodbye made his chest tighten. He'd been raised a knight...companions were like brothers to a man of the sword. They watched your back, they helped keep you alive, and you owed them at least as much in return.
But what had that brotherhood of swords won him, except grief? If it hadn't been for his need for that, he never would have been drawn into Gafgarion's mercenary band, never would have learned that Delita still lived. He could've gone on being Ramza Ruglia for the rest of his life.
"What will you do now?" a gravelly voice asked. Ramza looked up again, to the left of Meliadoul, and shrugged hollowly at Orlandu.
"I don't know," he replied honestly. "I can't stay here anymore. Not under Delita, or the church...not knowing. I mean, really knowing."
The old swordsman nodded, stroked idly at his goatee. "Agrias and I have been talking," he said after a moment. "I don't think any of us can go back to being who we were."
"Speak for yourself," Meliadoul commented acidly. Orlandu ignored her, but Agrias was unable to restrain a frown at the dark-haired Templar. Meliadoul met the other's gaze levelly and didn't flinch. After a moment, Agrias backed down.
"We were planning to travel together," she offered. "Orlandu and myself. See what we can carve out of this new world for ourselves." She didn't seem to realize that she'd said 'new world', but it seemed quite apt to Ramza. Maybe not a new world, but a new Ivalice. Better? Ramza didn't pretend to know.
Even God, as it turned out, didn't know.
"You're welcome to join us," Orlandu went on. "Any of you. We work well as a unit, we can do anything as a group."
Ramza felt his heart leap. Brotherhood...Then he glanced aside, seeing once more Alma, sitting beside him, simply watching. His heart wilted. They only had each other, and Alma was no warrior.
So maybe his fighting days were over.
"I...I'm flattered," he replied carefully. "But I don't think I should go back into...that...so soon. You understand, right?"
Agrias nodded. "Of course," she replied in a voice that showed quite clearly that she did. "We all understand."
* * *
Rafa doused the fire and plunged the clearing into darkness. "We should've stayed longer," she repeated. "You're hurt, Malak. You need help."
"I'm fine," her brother replied out of the darkness, from somewhere near his Chocobo. She heard him swing into the saddle, heard the grunt of pain, the quick inrush of breath into his lungs.
"Take it slowly!" Rafa snapped irritably. "Damn it, Malak, you're going to kill yourself. What's the point of that? We don't have any place to go anyway."
There was a long silence. Rafa worried for a moment that the wound Malak had sustained in battle with Vormav had overcome him. What if she hadn't assessed the damage properly? What if it was worse than she feared? Poison, or magic, or...
Malak's choked sob pulled her back into reality. Carefully, Rafa crossed the clearing to her brother's Chocobo, extended a hand, and laid it against Malak's leg. "What is it?" she asked quietly, though she knew.
"You're right, Rafa," Malak whispered. "We don't have anyplace to go. No place at all. No place...we're all alone, Rafa, we're the last of our kind. I'm afraid..."
"We could go back. Ramza and the others won't have gone anywhere yet. We can still catch them."
Malak's eyes shone at her out of the darkness, wide and full of tears. Behind him, the sun was beginning to rise. "Why? We'd just be delaying it, Rafa, you know that. There's nothing for us with them." His hand brushed against her cheek. "We were never like them, little sister. Ramza...he's a person who's trying to turn into a weapon. No emotion, no life, just doing what he has to do because he knows that he must. That's what our lives have been, Rafa, just in reverse. We're weapons trying to become people."
He was right, Rafa knew, and she cursed the truth of it. "So what do you want to do, Malak?"
There was another long silence. "I want to go home. One last time. I never really said goodbye, to our family."
"That's not your fault," Rafa whispered, leaning closer to Malak to embrace him like he was a child. "You were taking care of me."
In her arms, her older brother shook like a small boy trying to contain his emotions, but she knew that within Malak they were running their full course. He had never worn his heart on his sleeve, like Rafa did. The streets had changed him, and Riovanes had changed him, and whoever Malak Galthanas might once have been was lost under all the hardship he had endured.
Endured for her.
"I know that," Malak replied. "I know. But I still have to do it. And then...I don't want to stay in Ivalice anymore. We can cross the seas, go to Tomarin, to the south, or Balinor, to the west, I don't care where. Just not here. Someplace where nobody could ever know who I am. I'm so tired of everything, Rafa. My life's been one running battle, people have always used me for whatever they wanted. 'Malak Galthanas, most prized of Riovanes' blades,'" he exclaimed bitterly. "I want to let myself be forgotten, and I want to forget."
"Then that's what we'll do," Rafa replied firmly.
Malak pulled free of his sister's embrace, righted himself in the saddle. "You don't have to come," he told her slowly, saying without meaning to that he wouldn't go if she didn't. "It'll be hard."
"I know," Rafa replied simply. Without waiting for her brother's reply, she swung into the saddle of her own Chocobo. "You need medical help first. We'll stop in the first town we find." Malak was staring at her. She stared back. "Are we going, or not?"
Malak smiled, and wiped the tears off of his face. "I guess so." He applied his heels to the flank of the Chocobo and it cantered gently towards the rising sun.
Rafa smiled as she spurred her Chocobo to catch up with Malak.
Now let me take care of you, big brother.
* * *
Someone had let his fire go out. Delita swung his feet out of bed, not bothering with the slippers someone had left out for him. Shivering in the cold, he quickly shrugged into his robe, feeling the weight settle about his body with a feeling of finality about it. He smiled thinly into the darkness.
He'd done it. He'd shown them. Delita Hyrule was the king of Ivalice. Kneeling by the fireplace, Delita kicked up the flames once more, and soon the fire was burning merrily in the hearth. He glanced out the window of his tower room into the courtyard below, watching people move back and forth below him.
The door creaked open behind him and he turned, reaching without thinking for the dagger concealed in the sleeve of his robe. Balmafula stepped inside, eyes watching him warily.
"Good morning, my liege," she greeted deferentially, bowing. She made a passable leg, for a woman, Delita noticed. The masculinity of the bow suited her handsome features.
The young sorceress crossed the room at an impatient gesture from Delita, moving to stand in front of him. "You've done as I asked?"
Balmafula nodded. "The Queen has gone to the old chapel, my king. I'm informed reliably that she'll be there for most of the morning. She likes to spend her birthdays in and around there, in order to be as close to her family as possible."
"I see," Delita replied, feeling for the first time the cold setting into the pit of his stomach. He looked out across the day stretched before him and shivered a little as he could see it unfold so beautifully. Another plan had worked just as he'd intended, and yet...
The sorceress stood impassively as Delita turned back to the window. "Will there be anything else, my lord?"
He heard her footsteps cross the room to the doorway, heard it open...but did not hear it close. The king turned and saw Balmafula standing in the doorway, simply watching him. "What is it?" he snapped.
"I was wondering if you would care to tell me what you plan for Ovelia, and confirm my worst fears, oh my king." Balmafula cocked her head and watched, and waited. That was all she was good for. Watching, and waiting. After Delita did not respond, she shrugged. "No? That is all the confirmation I need, then." She shook her head. "How far you have fallen, Delita Hyrule. From ashes to ashes, and from filth to filth."
Delita grabbed a glass vase off the mantelpiece and hurled it at the sorceress.. It smashed into the wall next to her head, spilling water and glass everywhere. "You cannot speak to me that way!" Delita yelled. "I am the king!"
"Are you?" Balmafula shut the door, leaving him in peace.
The young king felt a lump form in his throat, and swallowed it hard. Aristocrats! Money! Wealth! They thought it brought them knowledge, when all it brought them was emptiness. They'd never know what it felt like to be a man who had clawed his way up from the gutter, never!
He was not filth, and he never had been. Never.
Reaching for the mantelpiece once more, Delita picked up the small picture of Ovelia he had had commissioned. She was smiling, but sadly, and her eyes wept tearless tears. The accusations in those eyes, where there might once have been...
The picture angered him, so he put it down. He had nothing of Teta, no...they hadn't even left him a picture. What was Ovelia worth compared to Teta? Where was the difference? He was only doing what he had to. So that Teta would be proud of him.
One Teta was worth a thousand Ovelias.
Teta was dead.
Delita banished the thought with a curse and shrugged out of his robe. The cold air stroked his skin, setting it to goosebumps. He dressed quickly, and the fire did nothing to warm him. He pulled on his ermine cloak and clasped it at his throat, and stared into the full length mirror on the wall, examining himself.
Do you see, Teta? I've made amends. An eye for an eye. I can be a good king, I will be. All people will be equal under King Delita, not just the fat and wealthy. I've made it up to you, now I just have to do this one last thing. It's a bad thing, I know, and I'm sorry, but I need to do it. Then I can make amends again. For Ovelia, and for Ramza, and for everything...
But I'll be a good king. The best king.
He picked up the dagger from where he'd left it under his pillow. He'd had it specially made. Made to kill a queen.
No, he cursed himself. Face the truth. You made this blade to kill a child.
Teta was a child, too.
It wasn't right then, either.
The king of Ivalice began to cry. He would cry for a while, he knew, and he'd feel badly, he would, and maybe he didn't really want to kill Ovelia, but he had to, and after he was done he would go and do what needed doing, like he always had, and then he would spend the rest of his life making amends.
When the fire went out, he did not notice.
* * *
Meliadoul stood watching as Orlandu and Agrias rode out of sight. "I will go too," she said, just as Ramza was turning to leave.
He turned to face her. "So soon?"
"What's to stay for?"
Ramza shrugged. "All right. Where will you go?"
"I'm going back. I'll go to Lesalia, petition for entrance into the Shrine Knights." She looked down at her hands. "It's what I was raised to do."
Shocked, Ramza reached out and put a hand on her shoulder. "Even knowing what you do now?"
"Even more now than ever. I have always been told that Glabados was founded on the teachings of God himself. But I have seen God, Ramza, and faced Him. And now, when I look into the night sky, the only thing I can see is the moon. What's there to maintain? There is rage waiting, Ramza, rage to be released. The Church can do good, I know this in my heart. But the Church is like me. They've set their sights too high, and they've has lost its way. As I have." Meliadoul shrugged away from Ramza's hand and began saddling her Chocobo. "Now I have nothing, and I know there is nothing behind the teachings of the Church. That is a blank parchment waiting to be written on. I can still change the world, Ramza, because now the Church is free to change. I need only make them see."
Ramza sighed, and nodded. "Will you betray us?"
"Are you guilty of a crime?" Meliadoul asked pointedly. "I am not like others, Ramza." There was a silence as Meliadoul finished saddling her Chocobo and mounted it up. She looked down at him. "I can help the Church find its way, and the Church can help me find mine. In the end, that is more important than God, I suppose."
"It won't be easy."
Meliadoul nodded. "I know. But neither was what we have done, Ramza, and it needed to be done. So does this, if only for my sake." She extended a hand down to Ramza and he clasped it briefly. "Farewell, then."
Ramza watched until Meliadoul was out of sight, then turned back to the camp. Alma was busy cleaning up the area around the campfire and packing their few meager belongings. A night's peace had helped her recover from her ordeal, but when Ramza looked into Alma's eyes he no longer say the same Alma. It saddened him, all that they had been asked to give up.
"Are you ready to go?" she asked him.
"Not just yet. I'm going to take one last look around for Mustadio. You'll wait for me?"
Ramza kissed her on the forehead and walked into the woods. After a short while, he heard the familiar sound of Mustadio's gun, firing leisurely. Crack, crack, crack. Ramza stepped free of the woods and stared out across a wide field, running down for miles towards the ocean. This had once been a farmstead. A collapsed and desiccated set of buildings must once have been a farm, and he now stood in what must have been a pasture of some kind.
There was still a stretch of fence left standing, and Mustadio was perched on it, idly firing out across the field, aiming at nothing, hitting less.
"Target practice?" Ramza asked, smiling, as he walked up behind his friend.
Mustadio didn't seem surprised. "I was bored," he replied. Putting the gun down on his lap, he turned around to face Ramza, still sitting atop the fence post. "Everyone else is gone?"
"Everyone but Alma and I, yeah." Ramza couldn't meet Mustadio's eyes. "I came to say goodbye."
"Oh." Mustadio looked down into his lap. "Goodbye, then. Where are you going?"
"I don't know. Come with us." Ramza wasn't sure why he had said that, simply that it had slipped out with the other entreaty. It was the truth, though. He wanted Mustadio to come with them.
Mustadio looked up in surprise. Of all the companions Ramza had had, only Mustadio could truly claim to be a friend. A brother to fill the void his own brothers had never tried to fill. A companion. Someone to talk to. "You want me to come with you? Really?"
"Yes, of course I do. You'd be welcome."
Mustadio sighed, and looked down at his lap again. "Would I be?"
"Why wouldn't you be welcome? You're my friend."
Suddenly Mustadio took Ramza by the chin, lifted up his head, and pressed Ramza's lips against his own. The sudden flood of emotion was totally unexpected. For a single, startled moment, Ramza tried to pull away, but after a second it no longer seemed necessary. He put his hands on the sides of Mustadio's face, drew in closer, savouring the moment. He began to sweat.
Ramza pulled away from Mustadio as if stung. Startled, Mustadio almost lost his balance and only barely managed to stop from falling. "I'm sorry," Ramza whispered. "I can't, not now...maybe not ever. I don't have the time..." It took him a moment to realize how foolish that sounded. "Alma needs me, Mustadio. There's no room for anything else."
"I know," Mustadio replied. "I do. I just thought, that maybe...maybe you'd..."
Ramza closed his eyes and could feel Mustadio's mouth pressed against his. "I do. And I wish I could. I'm sorry, Mustadio."
"It's okay," the engineer replied softly. "I knew there was no place for me. So." He hopped off the fence post, slipped his gun into his belt. "I'll miss you, Ramza."
"I'll miss you too," Ramza replied around the lump in his throat, only just realizing how much he really would.
Mustadio brushed past him. Ramza closed his eyes and leaned against the fence, not wanting to turn around to watch him leave. He stayed that way until he heard the sound of Mustadio's Chocobo moving through the woods, and away.
Ramza turned back and looked at the camp. The sun was just barely above the horizon, and Alma still hadn't extinguished the fire. Slowly, he walked back and stood where he had sat most of the night, still seeing the people who had been there only hours ago. Still hearing their voices.
Alma entered the clearing with the two Chocobos, both saddled and ready. Ramza smiled. He had most of what he needed.
Maybe not all, but most.
Bending down, he put out the fire.
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