written for the final fantasy ficathon '05. warnings: spoilery for the end of fftactics.
the scent remains,
even if everything is gone.
it stays deeply in one's memory forever.
- mlapan (deep dungeon: tier five)
Even hours later, deep in the unquiet woods beyond the castle, Ramza cannot forget.
"Would you rather we hadn't gone back?" Alma's voice is halting, as though the words themselves wish not to be spoken. She pokes listlessly at their tiny fire, adding more twigs in the hopes that the sapwood scent might clear the air. It is the first they have spoken in hours.
"No," he admits, after a long moment, but finds no words to follow it. He tosses a dry leaf into the campfire, to watch it curl and blacken.
Both knew the risks, but though the word was never spoken, the thought of home carried their footsteps northward surely as if they'd been summoned. Easier by far it was to find their way in-- no sentries, these days, the very walls themselves showing disrepair-- than it is to shake the memories of what they discovered.
As children they knew all the secret ways and tunnels; they played in the passageways for a lark, dodging their brothers' stern words and their father's guard. Perhaps in a gentler time, with the family gone, the castle might have been taken up by the people. But today, no student at the Academy, no townsperson, no emissary to the new King and Queen, no one will cross the gates into Igros Castle.
It is there, unnamed, layered with the dust that is descending in the deserted rooms. It is laced with the remnants of Dycedarg's expensive tobacco, noticeable from his smoking chair. It remains, mingling with the tooled leather smell of Zalbag's saddle and stirrups, in the pages of his well-thumbed books. It lingers in the crumbling mortar, in the trellised ivy of the wild and wildering gardens-- in the half-full bags of their father's favored tealeaves.
Over and under it all, the hanging pall: the too-sweet mossy smell, the killing poison. It has become the Beoulve legacy; it needs no name of its own. Indeed, no chemist comes within a mile of the place to call it mosfungus.
Small wonder the place is abandoned. Another leaf flashes in the campfire, flaming and disappearing into ash. The Beoulve family is dead.
Alma is shaking her head, the grief in her eyes making her seem far older. "Father's tea," she says quietly. "I brewed it for him, every evening after supper. I never knew."
Dark has not yet fallen, but the crackle of burning is welcome, as it seems to keep the spectral forest at bay. The forest air is heavy with the echoes of another war, the trees whispering restless with more than the evening wind. Their camp is simple: what little provisions their chocobos can carry, sheltered in the lee of two massive oaks, secreted from prying human eyes. There is no hiding from the clever sight of beasts-- or worse-- but they have their weapons, and they are growing accustomed to the hardships of this journey.
Sitting on his heels, Ramza looks at the backs of his hands as if the half-moons of his fingernails might reveal some truth. He wonders if he should be grateful, or resentful, that he never had a taste for tea. There is no way he can replay the events of history in his mind such that they come to a different conclusion; he cannot tell which step was the fatal one, which move that decided their destiny.
There is a sudden clatter and a crash in the greenery beyond their camp, the disturbance sending a fall of dried oak leaves fluttering to the forest floor.
For a moment nothing breathes. Antigone quivers at her tether as the wild birds subside into silence; her tailfeathers tremble but she is too well-trained to cry out. Boco tilts his head noiselessly, digging his claws into the soft earth, waiting for a word from his master. Ramza's hand is stalled halfway to his sword, unable to discern the direction of the sound. Words of magic, half-remembered, hesitate on Alma's tongue. The shivering trees have gone still; the whole wood listens.
And then through the undergrowth there is a quiet voice. "...Damn."
Ramza's fingers remember the shape of his hilt, and Ragnarok is bright and ringing in the fading daylight-- but quicker yet is his sister's tongue, and he is startled to see her smiling. The word she finds at last is more heartfelt than any spell.
The temple knight emerges from the brush like an echo of her own voice, her sharp face scowling. "You know," she says, swiping at branches that try to tangle in her skirt, "you two are practically impossible to follow. Would you care to guess how many days we've been--"
"Wait." Ramza, his sword forgotten once again, peers into the mottled dusk behind her. Alma is already on her feet, her eyes alight. "We?"
"Yes, yes, we." Meliadoul sounds as curt as she ever has, used to people keeping pace with her. Only the hollow darkness beneath her eyes speaks her relief. She extricates herself from the trailing arms of the trees, puts hands on her hips. "And without Reis' night-sight we might still be trailing circles along the banks of the Finath, I'll have you know."
Behind her, figures detach from the shadows-- the last light catching the glint of a sword, a glimpse of fair hair, the glimmer of gunmetal.
They gather around the little fire: Meliadoul, Reis and Beowulf, Mustadio; their hands clasping and holding just a little too long, speaking of friends lost, of different paths-- of miracles, and second chances.
And now Alma is smiling, really smiling, for the first time since they spurred their chocobos to a run and left the Orbonne Monastery and their empty graves behind them. Watching the nightmare of St. Ajora lifting at last from her face, Ramza feels a calm seeping inside of him, the unexpected hint of peace. Their world has narrowed, perhaps, eclipsed to the sliver of a shared glance, the hushed and hurried words between them, the ring of light around a tiny sputtering fire in a dark foreboding forest. Theirs is now a different battle to fight. But this night, in the shared quiet, he wonders if it might not be so difficult after all.
As it grows late, Alma settles against his side, speaking of rest and tomorrow's early start. In the murmuring dark of the wood beyond, Boco and Antigone make contented noises, grooming each other's feathers; Meliadoul and the others settle themselves between the roots of the great, overhanging trees. Ramza sighs, and thinks he might dream of unspoken promises, the hope lying undiscovered in the lands beyond Ivalice. He thinks he might be able to take another name.
He lifts an arm so his sister can curl closer, and they huddle together beneath the ragged haunted oaks. Head to head and of one resolve, stubborn and Beoulve blond, both of them; Ramza starts to smile. Alma's hair smells warm and familiar, summer sunshine on the new-mown hay of the castle fields, sweet like--
Sweet like-- home--
Desperately he tries to smother the thought. His sister holds him tightly until his shaking subsides.