Fandom: FFXII (OGC)
Characters: Ashe, Basch
Spoilers: Yes, through Ridorana.
Notes: Inspired by my current replay, during which I got to wondering how Ashe would feel about seeing Nabudis. This is the first FFXII story I've ever written that's not a direct response to a request, although first_seventhe's Out of the Comfort Zone prompt for "Ashe and Basch talking about the past" helped inform the direction I took. I am still getting comfortable with these characters and their world, so any feedback is more than welcome!
Ashe stood on the threshold, her hand resting against the cool stone of the pillar. Behind her lay the lush green world of the Salikawood -- the paths and walkways covered with fallen greenery, the rush of the breeze in the leaves high overhead, the distant chirping of birds and rustling of insects. Already, though, Ashe could feel the air deadening, a hush falling into her ears. The cliff walls marking the passageway to Nabreus rose up before her, and she found herself reluctant to move forward.
The rest of the party save Basch were already through, starting up the incline; he stopped at her side and looked down at her. "Your majesty?"
She did not meet his gaze. "Come," she said, and stepped forward, the soft crunch of earth beneath her foot a stark contrast to the echoing thump of their footfalls on the forest's wooden walkways. Basch followed, and together they rounded a curve in the path. Their companions waited there, standing in a clump, surrounded by dead Baknamy. Penelo was binding a cut on Vaan's arm, but otherwise it appeared that they had made short work of the enemy.
Balthier looked up at their approach, the set of his mouth grim. "If the Baknamy have colonized Nabradia, that can spell only trouble." He reloaded his gun with a glance down the barrel, then slung it over his back.
"We've not even crested the hill." Basch shook his head. "Hold your judgments until we learn what awaits us on the other side." He continued up the trail, Vaan and Penelo a step behind him. Ashe followed them, secure in the knowledge that Balthier and Fran were bringing up the rear, as had become their custom. She had resisted this formation at first, half-expecting the pirates to leave Ashe and the others stranded at their first opportunity, or perhaps shoot them all in the back. But before long she had come to trust them, and to accept that their ranged weapons -- and Fran's keen senses -- served to deter attacks from behind. Fifteen minutes and another goblin ambush later, they gained the top of the bluff, and Ashe stopped dead.
Nabudis had been an elegant city, crafted of stone and glass over several centuries, surrounded by a crystal-clear lake, which in turn had been graced with manicured parklands on its shores. The lake remained, but it now spilled its boundaries, transforming the parks into a swamp, filled with tall grasses, murky waters, and trees turned to stone. All was obscured by a thick Mist, dense enough to hide the city from view and to choke every hint of the sun from the sky.
She had taken heed of the stories of death and destruction, the ruin of the land. But the reality of it was almost too great to comprehend. As if through a heavy curtain, she walked forward, pushing through air and Mist to reach a platform of wooden planks that had once provided a scenic vantage point for the whole valley, passing the Nu Mou who stood on the boards like a cruel parody of the travelers who had once visited this place. Rasler had brought her here once, to this very spot. So proud he had been, so eager to display the extent of the parks, the care with which the plantings and pathways were maintained, the joy his people took in strolling, boating, frolicking in the grounds. And at the center of it all, the gleaming city: a perfect jewel in its carefully-worked setting. Now the gem had been ripped from its place and ground into powder, the intricate setting stomped by Imperial boots and twisted beyond recognition.
Enthralled by the horror spread out at her feet, she did not hear her party's conversation with the Nu Mou, and the tap on her shoulder came as a surprise. She started, then looked up into Fran's sad eyes.
"Come," she said. "The Deadlands await."
Only the splashing of the paddles in the lake breaks the comfortable silence that has fallen between them. Ashe has spent the afternoon taking it all in: the lush greenery, the graceful trees rising to the sky. Rasler served as her guide through the Nabradian parklands, showing her this shrine, that rare plant, this favorite childhood haunt. Now he sits in the bow of the rowboat, pulling on the oars to return them to Nabudis for the final state dinner before they leave for home. Her home, she corrects herself, though soon to be theirs. She breathes deep, the scent of water all around her; so strange, to see fresh, clear water in such abundance.
"Will you not miss this place?" she asks. "We have gardens in Rabanastre, but nothing so luxurious. Water comes too dear in the desert."
Rasler looked up at her without pausing in his stroke. "I have long known that I would leave Nabudis someday. 'Tis the duty of the royal son. You would depart your homeland and take another if your father demanded it of you, would you not?"
Ashe bowed her head. "Certainly. But perhaps mine would be the easier task."
"Or perhaps not." She lifted her chin and met his gaze; his eyes warmed. "There is great beauty to be found in the desert."
She returned his smile, tentatively. "I look forward to showing it to you, as you have shown me the wonders of Nabradia."
"Good." He nodded with pleasure. "And we will return someday, my lady. I promise you that."
And so she had. But it was a far cry from the triumphant homecoming she had imagined that day.
She had forced herself to avoid reminiscing throughout this journey. Comparing their desperate trek through Ivalice to her limited travels as crown princess of Dalmasca would be a futile exercise, serving only to drag her into despair. But today the dreams and memories were impossible to banish, and images of her arrival kept springing to her mind's eye, unbidden: the journey by ship from Nalbina followed by a grand procession up to Nabudis from the docks, accompanied by a hundred Chocobos, Basch in the lead and Vossler at her side. The crystal-clear water reflecting the bright blue sky, the gleam of Rasler's armor as he rode out to meet her, his fair hair catching the sunlight as they picnicked in the gardens, walked down its pathways, rowed across the lake...
A loud moan snapped her from her reverie. Ashe lifted her lance and, with a grunt, stabbed the oncoming zombie through the breast, wondering as she did so who he might have been two years ago. A guardsman, a gardener, a visitor to the capital city in the wrong place at very much the wrong time? The creature stumbled back and fell over; she wiped the sweat from her brow and took a look around. Basch stood at her elbow; the others were some distance away, doing battle with a giant tortoise.
"How do you fare, your majesty?" he asked, looking down at her. His tones were hushed, as though he spoke at graveside, and she could hear the twin weights of grief and concern in his voice.
Ashe glanced to him, then away. "I listened to every word of the stories of the devastation the nethicite wrought here, unable to turn away, the pictures the tellers drew burned into my mind. It is worse than even the wildest flights of fancy told in Nalbina and Balfonheim. To see this land, Rasler's land, so twisted and broken... It hurts me, Basch. Deep in my bones."
"I feel much the same." Basch bowed his head. "I almost wish we had not come. This is not how I would remember this place."
"Yes." She turned away, closing her eyes in an attempt to banish both her memories and the reality. "I could never be glad that Rasler died; to even think such a thing would be a betrayal of him, and of myself. But in truth, there is a part of me that is... not sorry, in a sense, that he never saw this perversion of the home he loved." She bowed her head. "If these thoughts are a form of disloyalty, then so be it. I cannot feel otherwise."
A heavy, warm hand fell on her shoulder, and Ashe took a step closer to Basch, for this brief moment not caring if the others might see her weakness. The silence of the swamp pressed in on her, with only the occasional distant splash breaking the unrelenting gloom. She turned toward Basch, allowing her cheek to rest against his chest, finding an oasis of life in this land of unrelenting death. "I understand, now, why Reddas took a suicide mission rather than live with the knowledge of the devastation he caused."
"Was that his true intention, my lady?" Basch's hand squeezed tighter. "I think not. Reddas knew the enormity of this crime could not be balanced by the death of one man, and so I do not believe that he craved atonement. Rather, he sought to prevent the tragedy from happening a second time. By destroying the Sun-Cryst, he ensured that no other land will suffer the fate of Nabradia: not Dalmasca, not Rozarria, not Archades."
"He did the right thing," said Ashe heavily, stepping away from Basch's near-embrace as she regained her composure, the battle with overwhelming sorrow won as she opened her eyes and found them clear. "Having seen the destruction myself, I know that I would never wish this on anyone. Not even my enemies. Best that the temptation is taken from me."
Basch let out a low sigh. "Agreed." He looked at Ashe for a moment, then gestured toward their companions. "Shall we press forward, or have you seen enough? We have no particular errand here, and as many undead as we have already encountered, I fear that the ruins of the city will be even more overrun with unquiet souls, not to mention these wretched Baknamy looters."
For a moment, Ashe considered. There would be no dishonor in leaving, would there? But at last she shook her head. "We continue. I am the nearest this place has to a ruler, now; I must see what remains of it with my own eyes. I owe Rasler no less."
"As you wish." Basch stepped aside, and she trudged back into the Mist, Basch behind; the splashing of their footfalls in the marsh the only sound that carried in the deadened air, as they marched like condemned prisoners into the gloom.