Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder
A Vandal Hearts fanfic by Matthew Liam Smith
I started this fic the very day I beat Vandal Hearts - 30 May 2000, nearly three years after its release. It wasn't that I let it sit for a long time (well, two months), it was just that I didn't buy the game until earlier this year. I certainly found it a worthy purchase; as a big fan of the first two Shining Force games, I was very entertained by the strategy elements and the promotion system, which I found allowed the formation of a more well-balanced party than its sequel. Of course, Ash as a Vandalier makes the last four battles somewhat trivial!!
But I found the plot somewhat wanting. To be sure, I was impressed with its depiction of the political conflict that forms the backbone of the story, and there were certainly a few clever twists, but I thought it could have, and should have, gone into a bit more detail in some of the romantic ties - Amon and Sara, Clint and Kira, and particularly the one that forms the centre of this story - Ash and Eleni.
In the tradition of "Dragon's Destiny" and "The Dragoon's Farewell," this fic takes place after the main action of the game, but, apart from the flashbacks, only the last scene is actually depicted in the game, and then only the first part of it. The Vandal Hearts games are both good about letting you know what happens to the characters after Dolf and Godard meet their ends, but I thought perhaps there was a bit more room for development. Hence "Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder."
I will never hide from the fact that I'm a hopeless romantic of the first order, despite only having been romantically involved twice in my life, neither for more than a year (but by the end of July this may have changed ;)). As such, I've always watched any romantic ties in RPGs with avid interest, be it Cecil and Rosa, Crono and Marle, Alex and Luna, Justin and Feena, or any of the multitudinous possibilities in Star Ocean 2. There was a lot of potential for Ash and Eleni that was somehow never developed properly, unlike the ties that could develop between Joshua and Adele or Rosaly in the sequel.
I admit that the dialogue is largely original, even for the flashbacks that are depicted in the game - well, I didn't take pains to memorise the dialogue, and do you people really want to read a verbatim rehash of the game? Of course you don't.
I'd like to thank Konami for making Vandal Hearts, though the translation leaves a bit to be desired, so I'll abstain from thanking them for that.
I'd like to thank the many artistes who provided the background music for the writing of this fic - the Rolling Stones ("Time is on My Side"), the Yardbirds ("For Your Love"), Simon and Garfunkel ("Scarborough Fair"), Santana ("Black Magic Woman"), Yes ("I've Seen All Good People" and "Roundabout"), the Who ("Pure and Easy"), Queen ("Bohemian Rhapsody"), Steely Dan ("Reelin' in the Years"), Billy Joel ("It's Still Rock and Roll to Me"), Tears for Fears ("Everybody Wants to Rule the World"), the Alan Parsons Project ("Eye in the Sky"), and Gerry Rafferty ("Baker Street").
I'd like to thank the many people who have supported and encouraged me in my writing endeavours, including my pre-readers, Andrew Vant and Margaret Anne Matthews. As ever, I'd also like to thank Margaret Anne for her love and support. And, as ever, I declare to her my love if she's reading. :)
Matthew Liam Smith aka Kain Aron Highwind
firstname.lastname@example.org (no spam or flames please!)
1 June 2000
Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder
a Vandal Hearts fanfic
"Absence makes the heart grow fonder."
Ever since she first read that phrase in a book of proverbs she had bought on a whim in Kerachi, Eleni Dunbar found that the words always seemed to leap off the page, seizing her attention and not letting go of it. It had reached the point where the book had spent so long open to that page that if she let it open to a random page, she would be confronted with the same phrase.
"Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Ha.... I can testify to that," she murmured to herself with forced levity. But the smile that darted across her face soon vanished.
Eleni had not truly smiled in a year now. That was how long it had been since he had disappeared, and she still worried that he would not return during her lifetime. She thought back to when she had first met him....
Eleni hurried over the rough terrain separating her from the three warriors who had destroyed the golems she had spent three years creating. A huge investment of time and effort, and it had all been destroyed in under an hour.
"You destroyed my golems!!" she shrieked, pausing to catch her breath as she glared furiously at the three warriors. One was of average height, clad in padded leather armour and wielding a longsword. He had short, light brown hair and blue eyes. Another was larger and more muscular, also clad in padded leather armour and wielding a longsword. His dark brown hair was tied in a pony tail, and his dark brown eyes were filled with puzzlement at her remark. The third warrior was shorter and less muscular than the first. While he also wore padded leather armour, he wielded a bow rather than a sword, and his hair was hidden under a red bandanna. His green eyes, however, showed anger rather than puzzlement.
"YOU built those!?" he exclaimed.
"Do you realise how long those take to create!?" Eleni snapped.
"I don't care! They tried to kill us!! What did you expect us to do, let them!?" the archer snapped back.
"Diego, that's enough!" the shorter of the two swordsmen shouted. He turned to the young mage and explained, "Miss, I think there's been some sort of misunderstanding here.... we were only passing through. I don't know what the golems were for, but I assure you we meant neither you nor your golems any harm."
Before Eleni could respond, she heard her mentor's voice coming from behind her.
"Miss Eleni! Miss Eleni?" Eleni turned around to see Huxley hurrying over the terrain towards her, obviously quite out of breath. She smiled slightly at the sight of the running old man, his long white beard swinging around as he scurried towards her.
"Ah, so this is where you are.... why did you run off so suddenly?" Huxley panted.
"These three warriors destroyed the golems I created.... but it looks as though they were only defending themselves, so I can't really hold it against them," she shrugged.
"Oh? And who are you three and what business have you here?" Huxley inquired, having almost recovered his breath.
The shorter of the swordsmen stepped forth. "My name is Ash Lambert, my muscular friend here is Clint Picard, and the archer is Diego Renault. We are members of the Security Forces, sent on a mission to investigate the disappearance of General Magnus Dunbar."
"Magnus Dunbar!?" Eleni exclaimed.
"Do you know something about where we might find him?" the swordsman called Clint asked.
"No, but I'm his daughter! If you're looking for him, please take me along!" Eleni pleaded.
"What!? You just tried to kill us and now you want to tag along with us!? Forget it! Come on Ash, let's go!" Diego snapped, shouldering his bow and whirling around on his heel.
"Look, Diego, we've established that it was a misunderstanding! Let it slide!" Ash growled, stopping Diego in his tracks. He turned back to Eleni and replied, "You can come with us, Miss Dunbar."
"Miss, I can't permit you to leave with these three!" Huxley exclaimed.
Eleni whirled round and glared at her mentor. "Huxley, first of all, stop calling me Miss, and second of all, I'm not a child anymore! Even if I do have anything to worry about from these three, I can take care of myself!"
Huxley's face reddened. "Very well! If you're going, then so am I! You'll need a healer anyway!!"
"The girl who tried to kill us AND the old man are coming with us!? Oh, man! This is more than I can stand!" Diego grumbled.
"Be quiet!" Ash snarled. He turned back to Eleni and extended his hand. "We'd be pleased to take you with us. First, let me make peace on behalf of Clint, Diego, and myself for destroying your golems." Diego glanced over his shoulder, the irritation in his eyes obvious, but he said nothing.
Eleni smiled slightly and shook Ash's hand. "Peace accepted."
"Well, let's get going, shall we?" Clint suggested, motioning with his sword. "Magnus won't find himself!"
The others nodded as Ash let go of Eleni's hand and led the other four over the plains on which the encounter had taken place.
It had hardly been love at first sight, Eleni thought to herself as she replaced the book of proverbs on her bookshelf and took down the journal she had kept ever since she had first been taken in by Magnus. She turned to its final pages, glancing over her thoughts on the paths her companions had taken since the defeat of Dolf. As she read her first entry on Kira Wulfstan's decision to embark on a journey of self-discovery, her mind wandered to the evening after the battle in which Kira had come to their aid.
Eleni rolled over and sighed. Nerves over what might have happened to her father were preventing her from falling asleep with any degree of ease, and the combined snoring of Clint and Huxley wasn't helping. She sat up and held her head in her hands, groaning. She glanced around the campfire. Diego had a placid smile on his face as he slept, while Kira seemed to have a somewhat troubled look. Eleni shrugged, wondering what the archers were dreaming of.
It suddenly struck her that Ash was nowhere to be seen.
She slowly climbed to her feet, preparing to look for him, when the faint sounds of an ocarina reached her ears. The haunting beauty of the melody captured her attention immediately - whoever was playing the ocarina was clearly putting a lot of emotion into his or her music.
The young mage wandered in the direction of the music as though hypnotised by it, heedless of any danger she might experience at the hands of its player. She made her way over a small hill and spied a silhouetted figure next to the river over which the Rhine Bridge had previously stood. She stood at the top of the hill for a few moments, still completely captivated by the music, hypnotic in its simple beauty.
Eleni wondered what could possibly have caused the emotions that allowed the player to produce such heart-rending tones. It was not the sound that might be produced by a lonely wanderer - she would have described it more as solemn and mournful, as though the musician was expressing regret without words. She felt her eyes tearing up slightly at both the sadness of the melody and speculation on what could have happened to the player to allow him to put such austerity into his music.
Finally, the musician lowered his ocarina and sighed. Eleni chose this moment to express her appreciation of his skill. She slowly climbed down the hillside and remarked in a near whisper, "That was beautiful...."
The musician turned to look at her, and she immediately recognised him as the party leader, Ash. "Oh.... thank you, I'm glad you liked it." He cleared his throat awkwardly and asked, "Can't sleep?"
Eleni shook her head. "I'm just worried, I think."
"I'm sure we'll find your father, Miss Dunbar," Ash re-assured her.
Eleni sighed. She didn't want to confess this to the group of strangers when she had first encountered them, but something about Ash made her feel as though she could trust him more than Clint or Diego. "Actually.... he's not my real father."
Ash raised his eyebrows. "Oh?"
"I'm Magnus Dunbar's adoptive daughter. Fifteen years ago, he found me wandering.... I couldn't even remember my name, or where I was from.... he took me in, hired Huxley as my tutor.... and cared for me as though I were his own daughter," Eleni explained.
"Does the name Eleni hold any significance to him?" Ash inquired.
Eleni nodded. "It was his sister's name.... he told me she was killed during the Revolution, not long before he found me...."
Ash sighed. "The Revolution.... my father was killed during the Revolution too."
Eleni's jaw dropped. "Mr. Lambard, I'm sorry...."
Ash shook his head. "Lambert, not Lambard. And please, call me Ash."
"Ah. You don't have to call me Miss Dunbar, either, you can call me Eleni," she smiled. "But still, I'm sorry...."
Ash shook his head again, his features hardening. "Don't be. My father doesn't deserve your sympathy. Or anyone's sympathy," he replied darkly. He turned his glance downward and sighed bitterly.
Eleni bent over to look into his eyes. "What? Why not?"
Ash sighed again. "Well.... you trusted me, an almost complete stranger, with an important fact from your past, so I'll trust you with an important fact from mine." He looked up again and explained, "My father fought for the Liberation Army during the Revolution.... but then he switched sides. He died a traitor's death."
Eleni was lost for words.
"My.... mother and I were humiliated for years after he died. Everyone would spurn us and insult us for being tied to him. We lived in misery and poverty throughout my childhood. Clive was our only friend.... he wouldn't hold my father's treason against us. And when my mother died, he let me join the DSF.... but I carry the scars to this day."
Ash sighed again and turned his gaze downward again. On impulse, Eleni gently took his hand in hers. "Ash.... I don't hold your father's actions against you. You're two different people. Just because he may have been a traitor doesn't mean you are, does it?"
Ash shrugged. "I don't know.... I never know what to assume about my own capacity for treason.... but what I do know is that you shouldn't assume YOUR father is innocent either...." He looked into her eyes, the words clearly not coming easily. "You may love him, but I loved my father and would never have believed him capable of treason. Don't be surprised if your father has been gone for so long because he is plotting against the government. There's been speculation among some of my superiors that that's the very reason he hasn't been seen for several months."
Eleni slowly let go of Ash's hand. "I don't want to believe that.... my father is a good, loyal, just man. I can't believe he would do anything like that."
"I don't want to judge him before we know what happened.... I just want to warn you what might happen. Maybe my superiors' fears are misguided," Ash said with a slight shrug.
"Wh.... what brought on this train of thought?"
Ash looked down at his feet again, then back at Eleni. "My father also disappeared for a few months before his death. Plotting the betrayal. I'm worried that perhaps you'll be in for the same humiliation as I was. I don't want that to happen to you, Eleni."
Now Ash took Eleni's hand in his. Eleni looked into his eyes and saw the worry and concern.... all directed at someone he had only known for a day.
Finally, Eleni swallowed and muttered, "We should probably get some sleep. We still have a long journey ahead. We need to get a ship if we want to go to Gillbaris Island, apart from anything else."
Ash nodded, letting go of Eleni's hand. "All right. Good night, Mi- I mean, Eleni."
Eleni smiled. "Good night, Ash."
No, it had not been love at first sight. But so much concern, directed at someone he had only known for a day - that was what had first struck her as different about Ash Lambert. It may not have been enough to make her fall in love with him, but it was enough to make her trust him as a friend and confidante. And they had both trusted each other with momentous details from their past.
Eleni closed her journal and stood up from her desk. She was struggling to think of something to write in it, and had been for several days. She trudged across the room, lifted her cloak from its hook, and tied it around her neck as she entered the foyer of her house, opened the front door, and marched off in the direction of the house of Huxley Hobbes.
Huxley had remained close to Eleni in the year following the defeat of Dolf, even if she no longer needed him as a tutor. He was still a good friend, and had been more like a grandfather to her than her own grandfather, Orosius. Of course, Orosius had been killed when she was only four years old, just before she was sucked into a time rift that deposited her eighteen years into the past. Huxley, by contrast, had been a presence in her life for nineteen years now, and even now he only lived a few minutes' walk from Eleni.
As she reached the ageing healer's house and pulled the brass knocker on his front door, her thoughts drifted back to her tragic reunion with Magnus....
"Well done, Ash! Now we may bring the traitor, Magnus Dunbar, to justice!" Dolf declared with a proud grin.
"Magnus is no traitor!!" Ash shouted furiously, casting a glance in Eleni's direction. Eleni herself was bent over her adoptive father's prone form, quietly begging him to live for her. "He was-"
"Now now, Ash, just let him come with us quietly. We must also arrest Eleni Dunbar and Huxley Hobbes as Magnus' aides in his treason!" Kane Spites added with a sneer.
"Over my dead body!!" Ash yelled, jumping towards Dolf and Kane, sword drawn.
Dolf chuckled and shook his head. "Now now, Ash, you must let us arrest them. They are plotting the downfall of Ishtaria as we know it."
"I won't let you take Eleni away!" Ash snarled.
"Tsk.... you must be the son of a traitor if you would obstruct justice like this. Magnus, Eleni, and Huxley are traitors, Ash. And if you do not let us arrest them, then you are also a traitor. Just like your father before you. If you don't hand them over, we'll see to it that you die the same dishonourable death as your father," Kane scoffed, a contemptuous grin stretching from ear to ear.
Ash's face fell, revealing that Kane had struck his most sensitive nerve.
"Don't listen to him, Ash!" Clint pleaded.
"Don't do it! He's just trying to anger you into giving up!!" Diego exclaimed, gesturing wildly.
Ash glanced over his shoulder at Eleni, who could only stare back at him with an expression begging him to defend her, her father, and her tutor. Ash gave her a look in return that said "Trust me," then turned back to Dolf and Kane and heaved a sigh of resignation.
"All right.... you can take them away."
"You made the right choice, Ash," Dolf said with a cold smile. Kane, wearing a similarly frosty smile on his face, motioned for the members of the Crimson Guard to march forth and arrest Magnus, Eleni, and Huxley.
"Ash, have you lost your MIND!?" Diego shrieked, his eyes wide.
"I don't believe this! Are you really the Ash I've known all these years!?" Clint shouted, shaking his head in disgust.
Eleni could only stare at Ash, shocked at his actions, as the guards put her in shackles. However, something struck her as odd about the tone of Clint and Diego's voices - it sounded almost TOO angry, even under the circumstances. Her attention returned to Ash, however, as she noticed his lips moving. She gave him a questioning look, and he mouthed the words "I'll get you out of this, I promise."
She gave a slight nod, then decided to adopt the same overacting as Clint and Diego, glaring at him as she was led away. However, only Ash could tell that her eyes did not hold the same anger as the rest of her face.... just as Ash's eyes still held the concern and compassion that he had shown Eleni by the river rather than the penitence of a man who has been forced into betraying his friends.
"Eleni! Do come in!" Huxley beamed as he opened the door and motioned his former student inside.
"Thanks, Huxley," Eleni said with a friendly smile as she removed her cloak. Huxley took it from her hands and hung it on a hook next to the front door. He closed the front door after him and followed Eleni into his front room.
"Can I offer you something to drink? Tea? Milk? Punch? Or perhaps something stronger?"
"I'm all right, thanks," Eleni replied.
"Very well.... please, please, sit down," Huxley urged, motioning towards the available seats.
Eleni sat down on one of the chairs in the simply furnished room. Huxley had always been one for comfort without excess. "I wasn't interrupting anything, was I?"
"Oh no, you know how it is with me these days. Just me and my stamp collection. I managed to get my hands on a stamp the other day from Diravnia with a picture of Ludir Kelea on it - the fool who sold it to me had no idea how valuable it really was!" Huxley chuckled as he sat down opposite Eleni. "Anyway, to what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?"
"Oh, I've just been spending the last few days thinking.... thinking about the past...." the young mage replied.
"Ahh. And you felt like discussing it with someone who had shared it with you?" Huxley asked.
Eleni nodded. She cleared her throat, leaned forward, and asked, "Huxley.... you were my tutor for so many years, but I never really knew very much about you.... tell me.... did you ever love someone, then lose her?"
Huxley looked thoughtful for a moment. Eleni noticed a sad expression slowly drift over his face. "You.... you don't need to explain, if you did," she added hastily.
Huxley shook his head. "No, it's all right. But yes, I did. As you appear to have guessed. You always were good at picking up signs from facial expressions," he joked. But his expression quickly became serious again as he began his narrative.
"Long.... long before Magnus adopted you, I had a family of my own. I had a wife, and a son. And I had a steady teaching job at the University of Shumeria. Well, one day I was invited to teach in Kerachi for a year, but they told me they couldn't accommodate my family. So I told my wife I'd write to her often, and she promised to write to me as well. But within a month or two, the letters stopped. Just stopped. The letters I sent to her came back to me unopened. I knew something had happened, so I hurried back to Shumeria."
Huxley's eyes glimmered. "I found our house reduced to a blackened ruin. My wife and son, nowhere to be found. No-one would tell me anything. Some people even denied knowing me. Even my closest friends wouldn't tell me what happened to my family. Eventually, I managed to get the information out of a casual acquaintance...."
Eleni noticed Huxley's hand tremble slightly. She gently placed her own over it. Huxley looked up at her and forced a laugh. "It's strange. It's been so many years since it happened, but it still upsets me to think about it."
"Well, you don't have to tell me any more," Eleni said, hoping Huxley would not upset himself by explaining further.
Huxley closed his eyes and shook his head. "No, it's all right.... I found out that my wife had secretly been involved in an underground political movement to overthrow the Ashah Dynasty. This was ten, fifteen years before the Revolution proper. Well.... they were betrayed by a mole within their ranks, and.... my wife and son were killed in a purge of the members of the movement. That was when I swore to honour my wife's memory and ideals. When the Liberation Army formed, I was able to help bring about the change of which she had dreamed. I wanted to avenge her death.... and my son's death. He was only eight years old, but they killed him anyway."
Huxley looked into Eleni's eyes, his expression becoming serious yet sympathetic. "Eleni.... I know why you asked that question. I know how you felt about Ash. We all miss him.... I can only hope, as you do, that he will return some day. But there are times when I lose hope, and I'm sure you do as well."
Eleni nodded. "Today is a good example.... I mean, I already lost him once...."
"Hand over the Magic Stone, Magnus!" Dolf demanded, casting a threatening glare at the general.
"I'd sooner die!!" Magnus panted, still weak from the injuries he had received prior to his imprisonment, but returning Dolf's threatening glare with one of cold defiance.
"That can be arranged!!" Dolf cackled. He placed his hands together, closed his eyes, and began murmuring.
"You won't get it that easily.... I'll defend it with all the strength I have left...." Magnus gasped as he stood to his full height. He clasped the Magic Stone tightly in his hand, and the energy with which he had glowed before his fight against Ash and his allies surrounded him once more.
Ash reached out and gripped Eleni's hand. "Don't worry, Eleni.... I'm sure he'll be able to defend himself...."
"I know you're just saying that, Ash.... but thank you," Eleni murmured.
As Magnus' transformation was complete, Dolf fired the spell he had been casting in an attempt to strike Magnus down and gather the Magic Stone for himself. But before the spell could reach him, Magnus fired a counterspell. The two spells collided midway between the two combatants.
"Not.... while.... I.... live!!" Magnus growled in a voice not his own.
Ash, Eleni, and their companions could only watch in amazement at the deadlock. Both Dolf and Magnus were clearly expending almost all of their energy in casting these spells, and neither seemed to be gaining the advantage. Suddenly, the point where the spells met began to glow blue.
"A.... a space-time fissure!?" Magnus exclaimed, his eyes snapping open. He lost his resolve slightly, allowing Dolf to push the space-time fissure several feet in his direction. Magnus quickly regained his composure and tried to force the rift away again, but he was clearly losing ground.
"Father!!" Eleni shouted.
"General Magnus!!" Ash exclaimed, letting go of Eleni's hand and placing his own hand on the hilt of his sword.
"It's growing! The rift is growing!!" Huxley gasped.
Sure enough, the rift had grown.... and all of those present could feel its powerful gravitational force, threatening to pull them in. Magnus was clearly losing his struggle, and within seconds the space-time rift was only a yard or two away from him - close enough that he began skidding towards it, despite his efforts to resist. In the blink of an eye, he disappeared into the fissure with a cry of surprise.
"FATHER!!" Eleni shrieked. She almost ran towards the rift herself before Huxley grabbed her arm, a look of astonishment on his face. Eleni turned to see what Huxley was staring at, and her own eyes widened.
"Aaaaaaaaaaaagh!!" Ash shouted as he skidded helplessly along the ground towards the rift, falling into it mere seconds after Magnus. But he was not the only member of the group who had been standing too close to the rift when it had formed.
"Heeeeeelp!!" Grog, the guardsman, cried as he tried and failed to get a grip on the ground, tumbling after Ash into the fissure.
"Eeeeeeeeeeeeek!!" Sara, the fighting monk, shrieked as she, too, was dragged helplessly into the rift.
"SARA!" Amon, the bowman, exclaimed, almost diving into the rift after Sara before Dolan grabbed the back of his collar and held him back.
The rift slowly shrank away again, until nothing was left except the Magic Stone, which fell to the ground with a clink. The remaining party members could only stare in speechless horror at the spot where Ash, Grog, Sara, and Magnus had been only moments before.
Dolf marched forward and grabbed the stone, cackling with barely contained delight. "HA HA HA HA HA!! Not only do I now have the Magic Stone, but I have also rid the world of Magnus Dunbar and Ash Lambert!! This is truly a day of triumph!!"
"Father!! Ash!!!" Eleni wailed, falling to her knees and reaching out towards where the rift had been as though expecting it to reform for just long enough to allow her to reach in and pull Ash or her father out of it again. But they were gone. Eleni's hand crashed to the ground as she began sobbing.
"And it was three years.... THREE YEARS.... before he came back," Eleni said with a despondent sigh.
"Well, I'll never forget the look of happiness on your face when you saw him again. Even if it was just as quickly replaced with a look of sadness when you learned that Magnus had passed away," Huxley remarked. "He may yet return. We can't predict where or when, though."
"I know.... I know the stories of the ship that went missing and turned up ten years later in the desert, of the little girl who disappeared during a stroll into the forest.... and then, of course.... the little girl who was sent into a fissure and re-appeared eighteen years in the past," Eleni said, smiling slightly at the allusion to her own experiences with space-time rifts. But, as with all of her smiles since Ash's disappearance, it quickly faded.
"At the very least, I've done enough historical research to know that no Ash Lamberts turned up in the past, so he's certain to emerge sooner or later," Huxley assured her.
"But Zohar was in the void for three HUNDRED years.... Ash, Grog, and Sara were only there for three years, but he was there for three HUNDRED.... what if Ash...." Eleni trailed off, her eyes glimmering slightly at the prospect. "Or even worse.... Father died in that dimension.... maybe Ash will never return...."
"We can only hope, Eleni. We can only hope he returns in our lifetime," Huxley remarked, patting Eleni's hand gently. "Just remember this. Lost love can hurt, but it can also make you grow stronger. I grew stronger through a desire to honour my wife's memory. You can grow stronger through what you have felt since you lost Ash, and maybe then you'll be restored to happiness."
Eleni and Huxley's conversation turned to lesser concerns, such as Huxley's philately, or the letters that they had received from Grog and Zohar as the guardsman and the sorcerer toured the world, or Dolan's latest political acts, or the rumours that wedding bells would soon be ringing for Amon and Sara, or perhaps Clint and Kira. But Eleni's thoughts, particularly as the conversation turned to the would-be brides and grooms, remained on Ash....
Eleni turned to face the speaker. "Oh, Ash...."
Ash cautiously closed the door behind him and walked towards the distraught mage. "Eleni, I'm.... I'm sorry about Magnus...."
Eleni sighed. "I should have expected it.... it's still difficult to grasp, though.... he felt like a real father to me, even if he was only my guardian...."
Ash cleared his throat awkwardly. "I also want you to know.... I'm sorry I ever doubted his loyalty. I shouldn't have assumed that he was on the same low level as my father. I was just worried about what would happen to you if he were on that level. I just.... what my father's acts did to me and my mother is something no-one should have to suffer. I didn't want to see it happen to someone who deserved it as little as you, especially...."
Eleni looked into Ash's eyes again and saw the same kindness and compassion that had won her over so quickly. "Who deserved it as little as I?"
"What, you think you deserve ostracision, humiliation?" Ash asked. "Eleni, not long after we met I could tell you were honest, determined, quick-witted, loyal.... not the kind of person who deserves to be shunned for the acts of another."
He paused, then added, "At least.... if he had been a traitor, it wouldn't have affected your loyalties at all."
Eleni raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"
Ash sighed deeply. "They say the acorn never falls far from the oak.... I'm worried that I may already have doomed our party just by leading it.... if my father could betray Arris the Sage, then who can say I won't betray our group? I'm.... I'm worried, Eleni. Worried that I'm a dangerous person to take on this responsibility."
Eleni could only stare at Ash in disbelief. But if he deemed her worthy to hear his innermost fears and concerns, she felt it was the least she could do to allay them. "Ash.... first of all, you don't inherit behaviour. Second of all, you've been a loyal, virtuous leader to our party so far, why should you believe you'll ever change?"
"My father changed! Everyone thought he was devoted to the cause of Arris the Sage, but he turned around and betrayed them! Who's to say I'm not the same way?" Ash snapped. He lowered his gaze and added, his voice nearly a whisper, "I don't want to see any of you hurt on my account.... especially not you...."
Before Eleni could reply, there was a knock at the door. "Ash? Clive's leaving," Clint's voice called from the other side.
"Thanks, Clint. We'd better get going ourselves if we want to be in Kerachi tomorrow," Ash replied. He glanced at Eleni momentarily, then hurried out of the room.
Eleni sighed as she watched the young paragon leave. "Ash.... I won't believe you could betray us...."
Eleni confronted the empty journal page and sighed in frustration. Still no words would come. She threw down her pen and shoved her chair back, pacing the room impatiently. Her thoughts were completely blocked, and talking to Huxley had, much to her chagrin, done nothing to clear them.
All of her thoughts were centred on Ash, but they were in such a jumble that she couldn't even begin to sort through them. Perhaps, she thought to herself, she could just write down whatever came into her head at any given time, and write a stream of consciousness entry. She walked over to her journal and flipped through it, pausing as her eyes fell on a page that had degenerated into scrawl. As she struggled to discern the words, she could tell that this page, too, had been written in a stream of consciousness. This page, however, had been written many years previously, when she had been tortured by memories of her past before being found by Magnus.... of when she had been Leena, and not Eleni.
But even thinking of that made her think of Ash.... of his concern when she had been overwhelmed by her memories, of his oath to protect Leena as he was protecting Eleni, even in wake of his worries that he would end up betraying the party....
Eleni was roused from her thoughts by a knock at her door. "Just a minute!" she shouted, closing her journal and placing another book on top of it as though concealing it from the caller.
She hurried through the house and opened the front door. She was confronted with a man about her height and build, dressed in splendid red and white robes and sporting an incongruous red bandanna. His eyes lit up as they met Eleni's.
"Ha! They did give me the right address!!" he beamed.
"Diego Renault! Well well!" Eleni said as she reached out and shook the warrior turned businessman's hand. "Or is it Diego Lisbon these days?"
"Oh, I'm still Renault, even if I'm running Lisbon Enterprises!" Diego said as he returned Eleni's handshake.
Eleni nodded as she let go of Diego's hand. "Well! This is a pleasant surprise! How's the family business?"
"Booming, as you can tell from the clothes! You think I'd be able to afford gear like this if we weren't doing so well?" Diego chuckled.
"I suppose not," Eleni said with a shrug, another ephemeral smile crossing her face. "Come in, come in. No reason you should stand out there in the cold!"
"Cold is right! Looks like winter's coming early this year!" Diego jested as he doffed his cloak and slung it over his arm. Eleni gestured for him to give it to her, whereupon she hung it on a hook and motioned for him to follow her into her front room.
"What brings you to these parts?" Eleni inquired as she sat down opposite the young entrepreneur.
"What else? Business. I leave Kerachi all the time these days, but it's never pleasure trips. I wish Dad had told me it would be such hard work going into the family business before I signed my life away! Still, that doesn't mean I can't visit friends when I'm away. Oh, before you ask, I have a room at the inn by the river, I'm not asking to set up camp here! Don't want to impose!" Diego laughed.
"Good, because I'd turn you away if you hadn't written first!" Eleni joked, once again forcing a brief smile.
"So how've you been? I haven't had a letter from you in three months. Been keeping yourself busy?" Diego asked.
Eleni shrugged. "Oh, mostly work over at the library.... obviously not today, this being the weekend. Nothing special, though. Each day becomes just like the next...."
"Sounds like my so-called exotic life. I go to all of these places that some people would give limbs to visit, and all I ever see is the port, the inn, and a few offices. Still, much as I hate to sound like Dad, it pays well enough. Means I can support a family!" Diego chuckled.
"Oh? Since when do you have a family?" Eleni inquired.
"I don't, it was a hypothetical situation," Diego explained. "As much as I travel, it'd be hard on a family!"
Eleni paused for a moment, then looked Diego in the eye and asked, "Diego.... have you ever been in love?"
Diego was clearly caught off guard by the comment. "Hey, easy there, we still don't know each other too well!"
Eleni sighed in exasperation. "That's not why I'm asking."
"Oh. Sorry," Diego said with a grin that made his apology seem less than sincere.
"Same old cocky Diego," Eleni muttered.
Diego leaned back in his chair and smiled. "Would you have me any other way?"
"Right now, yes. This is a serious question. A serious answer would be nice," Eleni sighed.
Diego's smile faded immediately as he glanced at the ceiling in thought for a few moments. "Ooooh.... well, not much more than a few schoolboy crushes here and there. On Kira, among others. But I'd rather see her get together with Clint, it'd make him happy again. Losing his lover all those years ago was awfully hard on him."
"Did he ever talk to you about that?"
"About losing his lover? Well, yes. He and I knew each other for about four years before we ran into your golems. It's quite a heart-rending story, really - I mean, can you imagine watching the person you love most dying in front of your eyes, and the person responsible vanishing.... before.... you can...."
Diego trailed off as he noticed Eleni's eyes glimmer. "Oh. Yes, you can imagine it.... Eleni, I'm sorry," he said hastily.
Eleni shook her head. "It's all right," she answered in a near whisper.
Diego shuffled uncomfortably in his chair. "You've been thinking about him lately, I can tell. Perhaps I should change the subject?"
Eleni did not reply.
Diego frowned, searching for words of solace he could offer the young mage. "Look.... Eleni, the only loves I've lost, I lost because one or the other of us fell out of love and called it quits. But I've spoken enough to people like Clint, who know what it's like, to at least get a second hand idea. I hope I never experience it, but all I can say is that life does go on. At least, you could find someone else, some day."
"But I don't want someone else, Diego! I never even had a chance to tell him...." Eleni said, her voice trailing off into a sigh. Her thoughts drifted to the past once more, to the closest she had come to telling him how she felt....
Eleni knocked on the door. "Ash?"
"Come in," came the reply from within.
Eleni opened the door and found Ash staring at the opposite wall. "Ash, Clive will be all right. He says he's unlikely to be able to lead the DSF when he recovers, but he'll live."
Ash was silent.
"Ash?" Eleni muttered, walking around to face him and bending over to look into his eyes.
Ash paused before murmuring, "Even if my father wasn't a traitor, it doesn't change what the Vandal Heart is trying to do to me.... it's turning me into a monster.... if that's what I really am, then I shouldn't be leading our crusade against Dolf...."
"Ash, that's not true! It's obvious that you attacked Clive against your will!" Eleni protested.
Ash shook his head emphatically. "Eleni, don't you see? If the Vandal Heart made me do that, then obviously I could have done it of my own free will had I felt so inclined! If the possibility is there, the implications are terrifying!"
Eleni shook her head and hoped that what she was about to say would break through his wall of self-doubt. "Ash.... remember what you told Orosius? That he and the other descendants of the Biruni Empire were using their guilt to avoid the responsibility they carried for creating the Flame of Judgement? Don't you realise that your actions right now are making you look like a first order hypocrite?"
Ash looked up at Eleni, his eyes wide.
"Ash, the Vandal Heart is all we have to fight Dolf and stop him from lighting the Flame of Judgement again," Eleni explained. "Don't use your guilt over what you did to Clive as an excuse not to go after Dolf. You can still do it. You only attacked Clive because you believed your father was a traitor, and the Vandal Heart seized upon your torment. But now you know that Aldor wasn't a traitor, and everyone, Clive included, was misled into thinking he was. Don't you see? You have no reason to back out of this. Gods, you CAN'T back out of this, you're our only hope! I may have been the only one who could unseal the Vandal Heart, but you're the only one who can wield it against Dolf. Please, Ash. You have to keep fighting."
Ash paused for a moment, then slowly pulled his ocarina out of the pouch he wore around his waist and began playing the same haunting melody he had played by the river. This time, however, it sounded not so much solemn and regretful as resolute. As she had been three years previously, Eleni was completely captivated by the melody as Ash played. It was as though he were telling her his feelings without speaking - in a medium more pure than any words.
Eventually, Ash reached the end of the melody. He lowered the ocarina and explained, "My father gave this to me when I was a boy, even taught me how to play it. After he appeared to have turned traitor, I wanted to throw it away, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. It was as though.... as though part of me always believed in him. Part of me never believed he was a traitor. I'd never have thought that part of me would turn out to be right...."
He looked Eleni in the eye and declared, "I'll go after Dolf, Eleni. For my father. For Clive. And.... for my friends, and for you."
Eleni could only gaze back into Ash's eyes, feeling as though she could drown in them as she beheld once more the compassion and concern. She smiled at him and gently took his hand in hers. "Ash.... I-"
But before Eleni could continue her sentence, there was a knock at the door. "Ash? Eleni? If we want to stop Dolf, we really have to hurry," Diego's voice called from the other side of the door.
"Coming Diego," Ash replied. He looked at Eleni and flashed her a smile before letting go of her hand.
"Ash, wait.... I...." Eleni stammered, arresting Ash in his tracks.
"Yes?" Ash asked, turning to face her.
"Guys?" This time it was Kira's voice. "We really need to get going." The archer opened the door and added, "I mean now."
"Yes, yes, all right," Ash said with an exasperated sigh. He glanced at Eleni once again before following Kira and Diego down the corridor.
Eleni watched Ash leave, sighing at her missed opportunity. "When all of this is over.... I'll tell you...."
Eleni blinked. "Oh, sorry Diego.... just thinking...."
Diego nodded. "I think I can guess what you were thinking about. I guess whoever first quipped 'Absence makes the heart grow fonder' may have had you in mind!!"
Eleni turned her glance downward, closed her eyes, and sighed deeply. She began to feel as though the platitude was determined to haunt her every waking moment and brand itself on all of her dreams.
Diego caught Eleni's uneasy expression, then added, "Look.... I can't pretend to know how you feel, and I can't pretend to know when he'll return, if ever, but I can promise you that all of us are still here for you. Don't wall yourself up in depression."
"Thanks," Eleni replied as she looked up, another short-lived smile appearing on her face.
Diego fished a watch out of his pocket, glanced at it, then shoved it back in his pocket and remarked, "Well, I promised Clint I'd meet him at the tavern in a few moments. Lots of people to see here! So I'd best be going."
"All right. Stop by again if you have time.... maybe even stop by the library?" Eleni suggested.
"We'll see. Take care of yourself, Eleni," Diego smiled as he stood up. Eleni followed him to the front door, and waved at him as he wandered down her front path and down the sloped street on which she had lived for the last year.
She closed the door once again and sighed as she trudged back to her desk and lit the light, evening now truly falling over the city. She picked up the book from on top of her journal - and realised it was the book of proverbs. On impulse, she let it fall open to a page. Sure enough, it was the page containing the phrase that had almost been burned into her mind.
"Absence makes the heart grow fonder."
She had never even had a chance to tell Ash how she felt, and yet she loved him more a year after his disappearance than she had when he had been sucked out of her life....
"Dolf.... you have so much potential, you don't have to keep pursuing this mad quest to avenge your father! You can help rebuild Ishtaria instead of destroying it and the whole world with it!" Ash exclaimed as he approached the dying son of Arris the Sage.
"Feh.... I'd be forgotten even more quickly than my father if I tried! It's not worth my wasted energy.... but this is!" Dolf's body began glowing, causing Ash and his companions to take several hasty steps back.
"Don't do it, you fool!! You don't know what you're meddling with!!" Zohar protested.
"With my final act in the world of the living, I summon the Flame of Judgement to consume the world that forgot the acts of my father, the greatest patriot this land ever knew! May you all burn in hell for what you have done!!" Dolf shrieked as his body burst into flame, vaporising before the eyes of his conquerors.
"Aaaaahh! What can we do now!?" Amon exclaimed.
"It's growing! We have to do something!!" Darius yelled as he backed away from the raging fire.
Ash glanced at the flames, then at his sword. "Zohar, could the Vandal Heart contain the flame?"
Zohar's eyes widened. "Ash, don't even THINK about it! It's too dangerous!!"
Ash glanced at Eleni. As their eyes met for a brief moment, Eleni's mind swam with thousands of thoughts and feelings she wanted to express, but all of which amounted to a plea for him not to sacrifice himself. Ash flashed her a look that seemed to say "Trust me." She once again caught a glimpse of the altruism that seemed to drive him, and she realised that there was no convincing him otherwise. But she would still try.
"Ash, no!! Think of what you'd leave behind!!"
Ash appeared not to hear Eleni's protest. "Here goes nothing!!" he shouted as he charged into the flames, the Vandal Heart glowing brightly. A blinding light surrounded him, causing his companions to shield their eyes as a howling sound tore at their eardrums.
As the howling sound subsided, Zohar uncovered his eyes momentarily and gasped. "Another space-time fissure!" he exclaimed. The others all opened their eyes just in time to see the fissure shrink and disappear.
There was no trace of Ash or the Flame of Judgement.
"It.... it worked," Dolan said softly.
"Ash!! Where's Ash!?" Eleni exclaimed, running to where she had last seen the Vandalier. She looked frantically in all directions. "Ash!! Ash, come back!!"
Zohar shook his head. "I'm sorry, Eleni.... he stopped the Flame of Judgement, but we don't know if or when we will see him again.... for now, he's gone."
"ASH!!!" Eleni shrieked, falling to the ground and wailing.
Clint and Diego shared a look of astonishment and dismay. Huxley looked on sorrowfully, struggling to find words to say to his distraught student. Kira looked at the ground and sighed. Grog closed his eyes and shook his head ruefully. Dolan muttered quietly to himself. Amon and Sara joined hands as though worried that each might lose the other, expressing the feelings they had yet to express with words. Darius could only stare in disbelief. Zohar walked forward and offered Eleni his hand to pull her to her feet.
But Eleni remained oblivious to everything except her anguish at the absence of Ash....
"Absence makes the heart grow fonder."
Eleni shut the book forcefully and shoved it back on the shelf. She flopped down in her chair and buried her head in her hands, her writer's block still firmly in place.
"Each day has become just like the next.... there's nothing new to write about.... no new event, no thought I can put into words.... just an endless procession of tomorrows.... always waiting...." she murmured. She sat up slightly. "Well, if nothing else, I can write that...."
She opened her journal and sighed as she began writing. "Each.... day...."
But before she could write another word, she heard the faint sound of music. She struggled to hear it. It sounded vaguely familiar....
"An ocarina...." she muttered to herself. "Just like...."
She trailed off in mid-sentence as she found herself hypnotised by the melody. It had a haunting beauty to it, but also a certain warmth....
Suddenly, she realised where she had heard the melody before. "That ocarina.... that melody.... can it be...." she gasped. She listened for a few more moments.... and realised the musician sounded as though he were standing just outside her house. She bolted out of her chair and ran to the window - and felt her heart skip several beats, then begin beating at an accelerated rate as if to compensate.
"It.... it is!!" she gasped as she ran to the door and threw it wide open. The musician, who was standing halfway down her front path, lowered his ocarina and smiled at her.
"ASH!!!" Eleni shouted as she ran down the path and threw her arms around him, receiving tangible proof that this was not a dream, not an apparition. "Ash!! It's really you!! I can't believe you're back!! I've been waiting so long...."
Ash did not hesitate to wrap his arms around Eleni. "Eleni.... gods, I've missed you, Eleni.... I never stopped thinking about you while I was gone...."
"Oh gods.... Ash.... I was so worried I might never see you again, I never would have guessed I'd only have to wait a year.... thank the gods I've been allowed to see you again...." Eleni gasped, burying her face in Ash's shoulder.
"A year? Only a year? Gods, two years have passed for me.... I've done and seen so much, but all I could think about was trying to get home.... I have so much to tell you...." Ash whispered.
"Before you do, Ash, there's something very important I have to tell you.... something I wanted to tell you before you left, but I never had the chance...." Eleni whispered as she pulled away from Ash without leaving his arms.
"Oh? And that would be?" Ash asked.
As Eleni gazed into Ash's eyes, almost losing herself in them, her thoughts drifted to another proverb - "Actions speak louder than words." Without a word, she pulled Ash's face to hers, closed her eyes, and placed her lips over his.
And as she felt him return the passion of the kiss, she could tell that absence had made HIS heart grow fonder as well.