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Astral Fire, Umbral Heart

Chapter Text


☘ Foreword 

As I'm really not quite sure what I'm doing, I figured a small placeholder chapter might be useful.
If you're here, hopefully you're a fan of FFXIV and familiar with the lore of the WoL.

If you don't, then suffice to know that it's basically the story of a fantasy hero.
In Samantha's case, an unexpected hero. A hero who often feels troubled by the title.

All I aim to do here is weave the tale of a single sorceress, blessed though she is by light of the crystal.

Thank you, as always, for reading.


 ☙ Table of Contents  


 ☄ Astral Fire, Umbral Heart 

  1. Foreword
    Where chronology is relevant, I have prefaced each chapter in the body of the text.
  2. Azure Reflection
    Occurs post-MSQ "Stormblood."
    A memory of Samantha in the mind's eye of one Azure Dragoon.
  3. Insights, Unsettled
    Small snapshot, quite soon after MSQ "Into the Aery."
    Our WoL having inconvenient thoughts about Estinien.
  4. Confessions
    Directly post-MSQ "As Goes Light, So Goes Darkness."
    Samantha is driven to confess her feelings for Aymeric.
  5. Inheritance
    Quite soon after MSQ "Stormblood."
    After the events of Ala Mhigo and the Royal Menagerie, Samantha receives an unexpected Echo.
  6. Confessions, Pt. II
    A continuation of Ch. 4, "Confessions."
  7. Third Eye
    Samantha has a dream/reflection about her father.
  8. Mourning Tea
    Chronologically, a continuation of "Confessions, Pt. II."
  9. Confessions, Pt. III
    It continues.
  10. Verbiage
    Alphinaud does some Alphinaud things. Also falls in the "Confessions" chronology of events.
  11. Confessions, Pt. IV
    Fasten your seatbelts, the ride is about to begin ...
  12. Waxless and Wickless
    A glimpse into Samantha's history with Estinien.
    Occurs around the events of MSQ "Into the Aery."
  13. Confessions, Pt. V
    Nightmares and memories of the recent past.
    We return to the "Confessions" storyline.
  14. Impostor Syndrome, or Third Eye, Pt. II
    Some of Samantha's self-reflections, especially regarding her father.
    Chronology-irrelevant musings on her character.

 


 ♠ Original Characters 

* A running list of everyone my friends and I have created in Eorzea.
I will add more names & descriptions to this list as I finally write impressions about them.

My characters:

☄ Samantha Floravale — Awkward but deeply compassionate, this love child of star-crossed lovers is driven to prove herself, but troubled by the the fear that she'll never be enough.
♔ Bryony Floravale — Fiery, determined, and headstrong, this beautiful innkeep from the Gyr Abanian highlands accidentally stole the heart of an Imperial.
⚜ Cassius mal Magnus — A sassy and brilliant Garlean engineer specializing in medical magitek, Cassius found himself bewitched while stationed in the Gyr Abanian highlands.

Friends' characters:

Erika Howl — Provocative and passionate, the flames of her soul crackle with an intensity that threatens to burn both herself and others.
Lunara Ahm — Thoughtful and stoic, a complex ocean of nostalgia lies barely contained beneath her smooth, cool surface.
♘ Kanza Oreth — Always smiling and vibrant, his bold and flirtatious charisma serves as a natural shield for the pain he has endured.
✮ Skorch Blackstar — Afraid to let anyone in after all he's been through, he keeps to himself, using humor and self-deprecation to keep others safely at arm's length.


 

Chapter Text


The following takes place sometime around the events of  the Main Scenario Quest, "Stormblood."


He closed his eyes.

- - - - - - - - - - 

Stars' light streamed down on her shoulders. From her vantage point on the walkways of the Pillars, she surveyed the airship landing below.

Though her back was to him, he could imagine the expression on her face: intent, focused, the line of the horizon in her eyes.

Ever vigilant.

He smirked.

As he approached, he chuckled, low under his breath.

"Come, my friend," he muttered, knowing that the low, dark tones of his voice would be clear enough to carry. "The hearth of the House Fortemps is warm, and I have a mind to take advantage of your hosts' hospitality."

There was a moment, a pause of breath. Then her soft laugh.

She turned to face him.

"Had enough of the snow, ser dragoon?"

As she spoke, the wind combed through her long hair, curling dark strands against the night sky. A sprinkling of snowflakes caught, then melted.

Tall, intimidating. At times, severe.

But also enchanting.

His lips curved, the slightest grin visible beneath the lip of his visor. "You forget that I was forged in this winter," he said softly, holding her gaze with his hidden eyes. The joints of his armor clinked together as he took another step forward, closing the distance between them.

Her dark eyes twinkled and she stood her ground. "Of course I haven't," she quipped, her breath rising in a cloud. She raised one sharp brow. "How else did you come to be so--"

"Cold?" He cut her off, grasping her elbow with armored fingers.

Fire flashed through her expression and a smile tempted her lips. "Very bold, Estinien," she warned. But she made no move to escape, even as he pulled her closer. "Here? Where any of the Lords might see?"

But he could hear the hitch in her breath as he used his free hand to lift the visor covering his eyes.

"Let them see," he growled, tilting his face to close the final whisper of distance between them.

The touch of her lips was as soft as he remembered.

Her voice was softer than snowfall. "Estinien."

Estinien.

- - - - - - - - - - 

He closed his eyes, shutting out the memory, but as he looked out on the Gyr Abanian horizon, a smile lingered on his lips.


 

Chapter Text


This snapshot takes place sometime quite soon after the Main Scenario Quest, "Into the Aery."


Moonlight streamed in through the stained glass of the Manor Fortemps, casting cool illumination on the sun-bronzed cheeks of the Warrior of Light. Her black lashes fluttered as she scanned the art of the arching windows, her mind filled with thoughts that flurried much like the quiet snow outside.

She was not the type to distract herself with idle romance. Maybe the thought of it, but certainly not the act itself.

As much as she loved her people, the thought of love — the "love" she'd seen so commonly depicted in tales like her own — was one that frankly exhausted her.

Strange, then — strange and unsettling — that thoughts of the Azure Dragoon should creep behind her weary eyes; that the dark tones of his voice should haunt her memories.

His name pressed at her lips to be spoken, and she sighed instead, a line crinkling between her brows.

“There is no time for this,” she murmured. “No time at all.”


 

Chapter Text


This scene takes place almost directly after the Main Scenario Quest "As Goes Light, So Goes Darkness."



The attending guard opened the door to the chamber, revealing the Lord Commander's unexpected guest.

The warrior of light strolled into the room, and as his gaze fell upon her, Ser Aymeric's stoic face brightened. A moment of a smile lifted his lips. "Come in," he said. Though he spoke softly, the gentle, dark notes of his voice filled the chamber. His eyes lit on the knights he’d been advising moments before. "You may leave. I shall send for you after."

As they exited in a chorus of plate mail and boots, he fixed her with his piercing eyes. "Pray enlighten me. What matter did you wish to discuss?" He had come to know her as a woman of few words, and presumed that any reason for private audience must be of great import.

Her dark eyes lifted to meet his and the shadow of a smile touched her lips. "Worry not, Ser Aymeric," she said, her voice smooth and reassuring. "I visit you today for my own purposes, and will not waste any more of your time than is necessary."

His brows lifted. "Consider my curiosity piqued." He examined her face with renewed interest, his cool blue eyes lingering on the way her gaze hardened; the way a faint line creased between her elegant brows.

"Perhaps you should reserve your interest until you have heard my thoughts.”

Aymeric leaned back in his chair, keeping his eyes fixed on her face. "Peculiar words," he murmured, continuing to study her expression. "But do go on."

She took a breath, closing her eyes. Long black lashes fanned against her cheeks, which were freckled and tanned by long hours spent questing in the sun. "You are unlike any man in my acquaintance," she began. Her voice was soft. "I admit, I was reticent about you at first. You manage to project a sense of icy indifference quite well."

That brought light to Aymeric's eyes and he chuckled, allowing the smile that had been lurking behind his lips to reveal itself. "My lady, when one spends his days accustomed to relentless wintry gales, and so many more glacial dispositions to match, he learns to reserve his truths for those he has more carefully measured."

She met his gaze, and her eyes smoldered with sudden warmth. "In any case I withdraw my first impression," she said, her words coming fast. "I learned quickly that you are a man far beyond reproach."

It could have been a trick of the light, the dim glow of the candles that lit the room, but Ser Aymeric's cheeks appeared to darken. "I can hardly accept such praise," he muttered, managing to hold her gaze. "Least of all from one of Hydaelyn's chosen."

"But I must give it," she said. "I know not what else to do." There was a beat of silence as she took a breath. “Ser— … Aymeric, I …” She trailed off. The words seemed to catch in her throat, and she chuckled, shaking her head. “I never was one for eloquent soliloquies,” she muttered, lifting her eyes to look up at him through her lashes. “Forgive me. I can defeat a primal, yet my words fail me.”

Aymeric’s eyes were fixed on hers, pale blue and gleaming in the candlelight. “What is it you wish to tell me?”

She held his gaze.

“In the Vault,” she began, biting her lower lip. “I-I … To fight alongside you was to know the finest thrill of my life. But the thought of losing you … it … was more than I could bear.”

She fell silent. The candlelight flickered.

When Aymeric spoke, his voice was quiet. “You have come to me tonight to express these sentiments.”

She lowered her eyes. “I am not one to conceal.”

He closed his eyes and sat in silence for a moment longer. “I am taken off-guard,” he admitted. “I had not— I could not anticipate …”

“Take my words as you will,” she said. “It is not often that I feel such … devotion. I simply wished to tell you my truth.”

When he met her gaze, his expression was earnest. “And that I would never deny you. Forgive me. It is simply — I am not accustomed to such revelations.”

She smiled a gentle smile. “Do not let it trouble you,” she said. “If I spoke out of turn then I shall gladly apologize.”

“Not at all,” he murmured, but the look in his eyes was strange. Inscrutable. “I am not … troubled.” The candlelight flickered on his face. “Only surprised.” He continued to study her expression, leaning ever so slightly forward. “Please, do go on.”

-

For a moment, she was spellbound, staring into his eyes. “G-go on?” she stammered, her turn to lose composure. Her cheeks flushed and she lowered her eyes. “I hardly believe that is appropriate.”

“Is it not?” He took a quick breath, and she could see the shadow of a rare smile behind his lips. “I am shocked, truly. Had I but known—”

“Forgive me,” she blurted, interrupting him, the color deepening in her cheeks. “I should not have trespassed on your time today.” She shook her head as she turned on her heel, her heart pounding so hard she could feel the pulse in her neck.

His chair made a scraping sound and she knew he was standing, getting to his feet even as she walked away. But her head was swimming. She could hear the blood in her ears, feel it under her skin. Her vision tunneled around the door to the chamber and she could think of nothing but the desperate need to escape.

That is, until she felt his fingers on her arm.

Then she could think of nothing but that point of contact.

“Samantha,” he said softly. She couldn't remember the last time he'd used her given name.

She froze, her willpower torn between the touch of his hand on her shoulder and the sight of the door in front of her.

“I beg you,” he murmured. “Do not be uneasy.” His fingers were warm, the touch tentative and shy against her. “I …” He cleared his throat. “That is to say, I—”

A knock sounded at the door and she nearly jumped out of her skin, swallowing the cry that pressed at her lips. Reflexively, she turned to face him, and met wide blue eyes.

His hand lingered on her shoulder and his eyes held her gaze as he called out. “What is it?”

“Lord Commander,” the attending guard began. “You are needed as soon as you can be spared.”

“I believe that was my cue,” she said, her voice quiet and hoarse. She made to step away from him, but his fingers tensed against her.

“I—” His eyes flickered to the door. “Will expect you tomorrow,” he said quickly. “At this time.”

She stared at him, speechless.

“Now," he said, moving his hand down to rest at her elbow, "Pray, accompany me out into the Congregation.”


 

 

 

Chapter Text


The following sequence takes place soon after the events of  the Main Scenario Quest, "Stormblood."


Sweat.

The hot salt of it slicking her neck, wetting her hair, coating her lips as she panted for breath. The terrain here was hard, crumbly, rough on her joints, but she pressed on, training her body to run through the strain.

Light glittered off the Lochs and she closed her eyes for a moment, focusing on the sound of her heavy breathing, the acrid taste of her own sweat. The sun beat on her face, the dry Gyr Abanian air seeming to suck the moisture from every pore of her body.

Gyr Abania.

She opened her eyes, taking in the crystalline saltwater beside her, the jagged crowns of breathtaking mountains that loomed and ensconced the land.

This is my mother’s homeland, came the breathless thought.

My homeland.

Then her eyes screwed shut, pricked with tears, and she scowled against the Echo that itched to overtake her.


 Cassius mal Magnus thrust back the flap of his field tent and scowled up at the sun, pushing a lock of thick, white-gold hair from his forehead. Calloused fingertips brushed against the pearly third eye in the center of his brow, and he shook his head, squinting and clearing his throat.

Though blurred around the edges, his figure was as she always remembered it: Tall, proud, with the ominous, solemn beauty of a storm.

“Bloody highland sun,” he grumbled to himself in a deep, familiar voice. “I clearly overslept.” Indistinctly, he turned to face his subordinates. Field engineers of various ranks milled around the camp, poring over a small but impressive array of magitek devices.

He cleared his throat again, and those closest to him finally noticed his presence.

Immediately, the heartbeat of camp sped up. Cassius rolled his eyes. In a low tone, he muttered, “It’s not me you fools should worry about; it’s my superiors.” Then he took a breath. “Something better be done,” he shouted. “Otherwise we’ll all have hell to pay.”

A night or so ago they’d received the shipment of faulty medicus equipment which, in all honesty, was beyond his meager team’s capacity to repair. His superiors were well aware, and Cassius knew the assignment for what it was: just one in an ongoing string of tests meant to drive him to his limits. But he was nothing if not determined. He had a solid reputation for succeeding on scraps — a trait his peers seemed to despise.

“I hope my faith and instruction haven’t been misplaced,” he yelled, pointedly approaching his second-in-command.

“No, sir,” the Architectus Ordinum said quickly, saluting. “We’ve made considerable progress, especially given the circumstances.”

Cassius nodded. “Good,” he said softly, meeting the younger man’s eyes. “Excellent work, lux Felicis.”

The second-in-command saluted again, masking the smile that threatened to break out across his face. Cassius was familiar with the incentive to hide one’s true emotions. Obvious feelings were a luxury in Garlemald; one few could afford, as it often cost the whole of one’s life.

“Now,” Cassius said quickly, much to the Architectus Ordinum’s relief. “Give me your report. We’re due to the Lord Provost on the morrow.”


The colors of the Echo suddenly shifted.

A small mountainside watering hole came into focus: Quaint, cozy, fashioned into the foyer of a modest cottage. A rose garden blossomed tenuously out front, well-cared for and quite apparently loved dearly, an impossibility without tender attention in this arid, inhospitable climate.

It was evening. White-hot stars glittered in the pitch of the sky. The warm tones of a fire illuminated the thick-paned windows of the cottage.

The Imperial Praefectus Architectorum stepped through the door, casting long shadows behind him. Pale hair gleamed more golden than white in the firelight, slicked back from his forehead.

“Cassius,” acknowledged the woman behind the bar, the proprietor of the inn. She was very tall, with eyes as black as the night behind him. Those eyes took in every inch of him, quiet and unforgiving.

He nodded in her direction, unfazed, eyes lingering on her as he took his time crossing the room.

“Bryony.”

Neither one of them broke eye contact as he finally took his seat at the bar, the air between them immeasurably tense and electric.

“And what, dare I ask,” she began, quirking one fiercely arched brow, “brings your black shadows into my bar tonight?”

Cassius barked a laugh, his icy eyes glittering in the way he knew fell somewhere between menace and charm.

“My dear girl,” he growled, not daring to break eye contact, “is that any way to speak to your most regular customer?”

Now she laughed, too, silvery, but like a crow’s call all at once. “Please,” she spat, but reached down to fetch him a glass. She held his gaze. “When did you become my most regular customer?”

As she poured his usual poison, he grinned, showing straight, perfect teeth. “When did this—” he gestured around with one large, calloused hand for effect, “become a crowd?”

She narrowed her eyes as she handed him his drink, but took the bait, her eyes flickering fast around the mostly-empty room. Only two villagers sat here tonight, far away in one dark corner, fear already filling their expressions as they glanced in the commanding engineer’s direction.

“It’s certainly not a coincidence,” she hissed, meeting his eyes with renewed vitriol.

His smile only widened. “Oh come now,” he purred. “When have I ever been anything but pleasant?”

Her eyes flashed. “Drink,” she spat.

Obediently, he obliged. As he sipped, his eyes never left her face.

In the background, she noticed the other customers make their quiet, swift exit.

Bryony took her eyes off of Cassius to watch them leave, and couldn’t help the sigh that slipped past her lips. A line creased the smooth, golden-brown skin of her brow.

His glass made a hollow sound as he rested it back on the counter. “I believe you despise my presence tonight.”

She kept her eyes on the door as it closed behind her other clients, letting her expression grow fully sour. “What could have possibly,” she drew out the word, letting it drip off of her tongue, “given you that idea, Cassius mal Magnus?” She said his name like it was a curse. But she reached for his glass to refill it.

As her fingers closed around the tumbler, his fingers closed around her wrist. His skin looked too pale against hers, like something from another world.

Which, truly, he was.

“Bryony,” he said softly, with reverence, all callous banter gone. His thumb stroked the soft skin just beneath her palm.

She snatched her hand away. “Don’t start,” she warned, fixing her eyes on him. They glittered down at him like black embers, vast as midnight. “You know what my answer will be.”

He looked up at her with eyes the color of a wintry dawn. “And you know you’ve bewitched me,” he muttered, leaning closer.

A slight flush colored her cheeks as she stared down at him, pressing her lips close together. “And,” she said quickly, hoping that he couldn’t sense the pulse of her traitorous heart, “You know that means nothing to me anymore.”

He stood then, suddenly, but graceful and without a sound. At his full height, he was taller than her, looking down at her with tense eyes.  He braced himself against the bar with both hands. “Does it not?”

Her heart was fully pounding, and she couldn’t look away. She made to speak, opening her mouth, but her throat was dry, her voice trapped in silence. She was thankful for the counter separating them.

“Leave,” she finally gasped. “Get out.”

His hands tensed against the bar for a moment and his eyes flashed cold fire.

But he took a step back.

“I haven’t paid,” he said, his dark voice quiet.

She kept her eyes fixed on his face. “Get out,” she whispered.

His gaze lingered on her a moment longer before he finally turned, stalking slowly toward the door. It was only when he’d stepped through it, letting it close behind him, that she left the shelter of the bar to run across the floor and lock it shut.

Except, he was waiting on the other side. And years of hauling magitek had fortified his body with layers of lean muscle.

She couldn’t hold the door shut against him.

And now the counter between them was gone.

And now he was pulling her into that disarming embrace, so gentle she could cry. And now he was whispering those things he whispered so well. Whispered like he’d whispered that night, weeks ago, when she’d taken him into her bed. When she’d no idea he was one of them. When all she knew was that she wanted to touch every inch of his body with her lips.

He ran pale fingers through her long hair, glossy black like raven’s wings.

“Bryony,” he sighed, kissing the shell of her ear with tender lips. “Please. Let me love you.”

She closed her eyes against his scent of oil and fire. Everything in her body was screaming for him. Screaming yes, Seven Hells yes, and she was tired of fighting. But even as her hands traced hungry paths down his back, the counterpoint in her mind rang, clear and bitter.

“It’s forbidden,” she said, her voice sharp with pain and desire. “You and I both know it.”

His arms tightened around her. “Then let us burn,” he growled, his lips moving to her neck.


A new vision, blurry, like the edges were shrouded in tears.

Cassius, his fine imperial armor cast off, dressed plainly, a dirty scarf tied around his head. Covering his third eye.

And Bryony, tall and beautiful and lithe, with no way to hide the swelling of her belly, full and quickening with child. She wore heavy robes, but the panic in her usually steely eyes was clear. Panic soothed only by Cassius, holding her face in both hands, kissing away her tears.

The two of them, hands clasped together as they ran breathless through the highlands, taking with them only what they could carry.

Flashes of making camp, the forest thickening around them. Cassius felling a beast for their supper. Bryony smoothing a salve onto their bruised, aching limbs.

But when they held each other’s gaze, the love, the electric passion, burning only brighter.


The monochrome images stirred, color bleeding into them like spilled ink.

And the Echo was an Echo no more.

“But father,” Samantha whined, pouting. “I don’t want to heal. You know I'd rather fight!”

The crow’s feet around the edges of her father’s friendly blue eyes crinkled when he smiled, belly-laughing down at her. “My little rose,” he bellowed, resting one big hand on the crown of her head. “You can’t fight if you don’t know how to protect yourself.”

She scowled.

Her mother was laughing too, in that throaty way that sounded like birds. “Come, Sammy, let’s practice just a little longer. Then I promise I'll show you some of the black magic I know.”

Samantha wanted to keep frowning, just to spite them, but a twinkle of excitement brightened her expression as she met her mother’s pretty black eyes. “It’s just …” She sighed, giving up. “It’s hard. It’s so hard for me to do white magic. I just wonder if some other kind of magic will be easier?”

Her parents’ eyes met for a quick moment.

“Well,” said her father, his dark voice suddenly serious, “You know I’ve got no magic at all.” He tapped the bandana he kept wrapped around his forehead in the way he always did when he was telling her something solemn. “So it’s very important that you feed your talents.”

Her mother nodded, her sleek black hair pooling around her shoulders. “And trust me, you have every bit as much magic as I did when I was twelve. You just have to be patient. It gets easier as you get older.”

Samantha groaned. “You always say that,” she grumbled.

Her mother pinched her cheek. “And you never listen,” she quipped, pinching harder.

Samantha couldn’t fight the laugh that spilled from her lips, fully shattering her sour expression.

“You’re right,” she said, smiling up at her mother’s beautiful face. “I am pretty stubborn.”

Samantha’s mother giggled, casting a sidelong glance at her father. “That sounds like someone else I know,” she muttered.

“Who?” said her father, playing dumb, scratching his head. He quirked one pale eyebrow, amusement twinkling in his eyes. “You?”

Her mother punched him in the arm. "Cassius," she growled, but he was laughing that belly-laugh again, and Samantha was laughing too.

They were always, always laughing.


Her heart pounded in her ears as she doubled over, returning to reality, gasping for breath on the shore of the Lochs.

Tears were streaming from her face.

"For we who are born into this merciless, meaningless world have but one candle of life to burn.

I know you understand this. You and I are one and the same.”

She choked back the cry that threatened to tear from her lips.

"We are nothing alike," she growled, her throat raw, desperate to clear the taunting voice from her head.

Desperate to fight what she already knew was the truth.


Chapter Text


The continuation of "Confessions," a series of scenes taking place directly after the Main Scenario Quest "As Goes Light, So Goes Darkness."


It was a restless sleep, peppered with nightmares.

I can defeat a primal, yet my words fail me.

She'd spent the morning agonizing over the things she'd said to Ser Aymeric, the words she'd heretofore promised never to utter. What had possessed her? Why had she done it?

The thought of losing you ... it ... was more than I could bear.

Because, after Haurchefant ... after Estinien ... —her heart wrung tightly at the faintest thought. Losing anyone else would quite certainly break her.

There were too many reminders of loss already. Ridiculously, she'd snapped at Artoirel over breakfast, earning a shocked reproach.

"I daresay, my lady," he began, openly dismayed, and just as openly resembling his half-brother. "Had I but known the steel of your tongue, I would have paid no heed to the staff across your back."

Count Edmont snorted into his tea, masking it quickly with a dry cough.

She should have laughed. Would have, except that he sounded too much like Haurchefant. Too much like someone she'd never have the pleasure of hearing from again. She could feel her expression turning sour and censured herself for bringing her own petty wounds to the table. To his family's table.

"Forgive me," she said, meeting Artoirel's gaze with what she hoped was a deeply repentant look. "I beg of you. I ... am not myself today."

She excused herself with an apologetic glance at Count Edmont, who simply nodded in her direction.


As she stalked down the corridor to her guest chambers, she stifled all thoughts of the late, dear Lord from her mind. But thinking on those she could still protect was unsettling in a different way, especially as the hour of resumption with Ser Aymeric approached.

Sitting on the edge of her looming four-poster bed, she yanked heavy wool stockings over her legs, scowling at her reflection in the mirror.

"You are a foul person," she said darkly, staring into her own eyes. "Truly foul." Her eyes flicked to the feather-crowned staff leaning against the armoire, and she could feel lines crinkling into her brow.

Fitting, really. Foul and flare, fume and fire.

She bunched up a thin silk petticoat to slip over her head, scoffing. And now you must explain yourself to a man who's never done a foul thing in his life.

"I always push things too bloody far," she muttered to herself, smoothing the fabric down over her body. The slip was ink-colored and soft, and she focused on the feeling of it against her skin for just a moment before applying the next layer of clothing.

Robes and belts and boot laces later, the woman looking back at her in the mirror was someone she could almost respect. At least she looked composed. She pulled the hood of her warm winter cloak over her head and tucked a pointed black petasos on top, securing it in place.

Maybe today it could protect her from more than just the snow.

Perhaps now it could shield her from her own emotions.


 Her breath came fast and her pace sped up as the Congregation of our Knights Most Heavenly came into focus. The light outside was blindingly bright, intensified by the freshly fallen snow. She found herself loosing a sigh of relief as soon as she entered the dark, open chamber, blinking water from her stinging eyes.

"Ah," uttered the guard, bowing in her direction. "Warrior of Light. The Lord Commander is expecting you."

She bowed back, forcing down the sudden pounding of her heart, quickly wiping her runny nose. "Thank you," she sputtered, painfully aware of herself. "Please let him know that I've arrived."

He bowed again and turned to open the chamber, announcing her presence.

"Show her in," said a muffled, familiar voice.

She shoved her hands into the folds of her robe as she strode into the room. Flinched as the door clicked shut behind her. Forced her pace to steady and her shoulders to relax as she lifted her eyes to meet the blue ones staring at her from across the room.

"Welcome," he said softly, that shadow of a smile hiding behind his lips. He stood from his chair, beginning to approach her. "I do hope you are well today."

She swallowed a sudden lump in her throat, stopping several paces away. "I am," she said, sincerely surprised to find her voice. "And I hope the same is true for you."

He apparently held no reservations in closing the distance between them, stopping well within arm's reach. She tried not to focus on the shape of his mouth as he spoke.

"I believe we left off on tenuous footing," he began, the smooth tone and charisma of his voice entirely the opposite of the previous day's stammering hesitation. "For that, I would like to apologize."

She blinked. "What?"

He held her gaze, unflustered. "Unless I am mistaken," he continued, picking his words with care, "You wished to express a certain set of ... sentiments to me." He paused. She noticed as he wet his lips. He took a breath, but never looked away. "As I believe I mentioned, I am unfamiliar with such disclosures. It is not ..." A faint line creased between his brows. "I find that I tend to inspire a certain ... formality," he muttered, his expression uncharacteristically uncertain. "Which perhaps precludes more ... personal relationships."

She knew she should say something instead of staring at him in silence, but it was difficult to believe this was a real conversation. "Forgive me," she said, trying to think more clearly, trying to derail him just a bit. "Are you telling me that I am the only person who has ever felt devotion to you?"

And, indulgently, he laughed. The sound of it, the light in his expression; it wrung her heart in a way she hadn't thought possible. "Indeed, I am not," he conceded, but the sparkle in his eyes hardened to a solemn gleam as he held her gaze. "But I believe what I mean to say is—well... that a certain devotion ... from you of all people ..."

He cleared his throat, and looked away. "It is not often that I am at a loss for words."

Her heart throbbed in her chest, a blush creeping across her face. "Then are we to stand here in silence?" she said, chewing on her bottom lip. "Because I often find that words escape me."

He looked back at her with wide eyes and laughed again. "I have noticed."

"Fantastic," she quipped, mortified to feel the blush on her cheeks growing deeper. "Then you realize how disadvantaged I am in this situation."

There was a beat of silence as he took a breath, lowering his eyes.

"Quite the contrary," he said. His voice was very warm.

She could hear her pulse pounding in her ears as he looked down at her with an unreadable expression. It took every onze of her willpower to meet that gaze.

"I hold an advantage?" she asked, surprised by her own voice. "... How?"

The space between them seemed to shrink, his eyes staring through her.

"In every way I can imagine," he said softly.


 

Chapter Text


~


That night, she dreamt of rainfall in Rootslake, hunting frogs with her father, braiding daisies to wear as crowns across their foreheads.

Once, when she was little, she’d asked him about the queer way he wrapped his head. She’d never once seen the skin above his brows.

“I’ll tell you when you’re able to understand,” he’d said, the low notes of his voice dismissive. But it had been strange enough, ominous enough, to stick in the back of her mind.

Over the years of her childhood she watched him carefully, wondering when he’d slip up; wondering when he’d forget the bandana, revealing that mysterious piece of hidden porcelain-pale skin.

But he never did.

When Samantha came to her mother with questions, Bryony’s face darkened for a moment—quick, but not quick enough. She laughed lightly and said in a voice that was far too casual: “It’s not important.” But then she looked hard into Samantha’s eyes. “Trust me,” she said, and this time it sounded sincere. “If it mattered, you’d know.”

-

It was a rainy summer morning. She was fourteen years old and had just woven the most beautiful flower crown of her entire life: red and black roses with velvet-green ivy. She was turning it around in her hands, admiring her craftsmanship, when big fingers stole it away.

“Father!” she cried, grasping helplessly at the empty space he’d left behind. “Give that back!”

Cassius laughed loudly, his pale eyes sparkling down at her as he held the crown just out of reach. “For me?” he teased. “You shouldn’t have.”

She jumped up, swiping for it, coming back empty.

He laughed harder and nestled the flowers down over his thick, white-gold locks.

“There,” he sighed, very dramatic. “Now I can finally be as beautiful as you and your mother.”

Though she couldn’t help the ugly laugh that tore from her throat, she still had a mission. And somewhere over the past year she’d grown tall enough to reach the top of his head.

With one final, desperate lunge, she snatched back the crown, and her father’s bandana came along with it.

His eyes grew wide and he covered his brow with the palm of his hand, but not fast enough. She’d seen the pearly sphere, set into the center of his forehead like a jewel on a diadem. And she knew exactly what it was.

“You’re an imperial,” she choked, the words catching in her throat, the rose crown slipping from her fingers.

“No, my pet,” he said softly, using the voice that reminded her of big warm hugs and bedtime stories. “I am a Garlean. I haven’t been an imperial for nearly fifteen years.”

Her heart was pounding as she stared at her father’s sharp, handsome features, confusion swarming in her heart.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” she accused. Though somewhere, deep down, the spark of realization, the sense that she’d always known, was hot and solemn.

“Because I knew this would happen,” he said, matter-of-fact. There was a deep sadness flooding his expression and she could barely meet his eyes. “And I never wanted you to look at me like this.”

She turned away like she’d been struck, gasping for a breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding. “But you’re one of them,” she said, unable to stop the stream of consciousness.

“I am from Garlemald,” he said calmly, and out of the corner of her eye she saw his hand reach down to pick up the crown. “Just as these roses are from your mother’s garden. But not a single one of them,” he murmured, touching each blossom, “is the same as any other. We are each of us as different as one day is from the next.”

She closed her eyes, hot tears dripping from the corners. “But why,” she wept, the outline of her father's face blurred when she looked back up at him. “Why you?”

“Because none of us can choose where it is that we come from,” he said sternly, reaching to grab both of her shoulders. She blinked away her tears to meet his fierce gaze. “But all you need to know, my darling, is this.” His eyes roved over her face, and he took a steadying breath. “I love you and your mother more than my own life. I knew what treasures I’d found in Eorzea. And nothing in this world, not even my own blood, was going to keep me from them.”

A quiet sob guttered in her throat and he pulled her tight against him, hugging her close.

“Never, ever forget how much I love you,” he said softly. “Promise.”

She buried her face into his chest. “I promise,” she whispered.


 

 

 

 

Chapter Text


Chronologically, a continuation of "Confessions, Pt. II."


 When Artoirel entered the dining room the next morning, he was surprised to find his favorite breakfast tea fully brewed, warm, and waiting for him on the table.

 Samantha was leaning against his usual chair, holding the sugar bowl and giving him a shy half-smile.

 “What’s this?” he asked, meeting her gaze with curious sapphire eyes.

 Gently, she dropped one tawny cube of sugar into his teacup, as per his taste. “Consider it atonement for the other morning,” she said, reaching over to pick up the pot. She poured him a cup and stepped aside, gesturing widely to his seat.

 He couldn’t help the grin that quirked up the corners of his mouth. “In that case, won’t you join me? I would hate to enjoy this by myself.”

 She pulled up the chair across from him, taking her tea with milk. For a warm, familiar moment, they sipped in silence.

 Then, as she nested her cup back into its saucer, she sighed.

“I miss him.”

 The three words fell from her lips unbidden, punctuating the calm.

 Artoirel ran a solitary fingertip along the lip of his cup.

 “Me too,” he finally murmured, resting his hand on the table. His long fingers curled into a loose fist. “So much that, at times … I can hardly bear it.”

 For a moment, neither of them spoke, letting Haurchefant’s absence fill the silence.

 Out of the corner of her eye, Samantha noticed someone standing just outside. She glanced over to see Count Edmont, his back to them, leaning stiffly against the doorframe.

 When she turned back to Artoirel, he was looking at his hand, his lips pressed tight together, the muscles in his jaw clenched as he tried to contain his emotions.

 A smile better suits a hero.

 She reached over to cover his hand with hers, and her eyes filled with tears.

 Artoirel met her gaze. His eyes were wet.

 “He wouldn’t want us to mourn,” he said softly.

 She nodded. “I know. But I think …” She closed her eyes, allowing the tears to stream down her cheeks. “I think it’s okay to cry.”

 Artoirel made a soft sound. When she opened her eyes, his tears were falling, too.

 He clasped her hand tightly, meeting her gaze with red-rimmed sapphire eyes. She squeezed his hand back.

 “If you say so," he murmured, "then perhaps it is."


 

Chapter Text


 The "Confessions" storyline continues.


“Samantha?” It was Count Edmont’s voice, coming from the foyer.

She was in the parlor, paging through a musty Ishgardian spell book she’d found gathering dust in the library. For the past half-hour she’d been struggling through a ruthlessly complex passage describing lesser arcana. Blinking hard and closing the tome, she called out. “Yes?”

His heels made a solid sound against the floor as he strode into the room. “This letter’s just arrived for you directly,” he said, holding out a neat rectangle of parchment.

Her eyebrows rose as she looked from the envelope, up to his night-blue eyes. “I can’t remember the last time I received correspondence,” she quipped, reaching over to accept the letter. “Least of all delivered by the head of the House.”

He chuckled, shaking his head. “I was intrigued by the seal,” he admitted with a note of embarrassment. “But I shall pry into your business no longer.” He bowed, excusing himself from the chamber.

Bewildered, she flipped the envelope over in her hands. Nothing was written on the outside.

It was sealed with a dollop of vivid ultramarine wax, embossed with a stamp she didn’t immediately recognize. With careful fingers, she peeled up the hard, flattened droplet and removed the letter’s contents: a single, snow-white sheet of paper, folded twice. It was heavy stock, with some tooth against her fingertips. She smoothed the paper between her thumbs and forefingers as she unfolded it.

The words on the page were written in extraordinarily neat calligraphy:

- - - - - - - - - - 

To one Mme Floravale;

I am writing to formally request
the Honor of your presence
at the House de Borel
on the Fifth Evening of this Moon
at eight
to share tea and company.

With Warm Regards,
Aymeric de Borel

- - - - - - - - - - 

She read the invitation once. Twice.

Stared at it for far longer than was necessary given the small volume of words on the page.

Forcing calm, she folded the paper back along its creases and nestled it into the envelope. As she closed the flap, she examined the wax seal more closely, finally noticing the embossed "A" hidden among intricate curling filigree florets and fleur de lis.

It wasn’t until she was at her desk, retrieving paper and a pen of her own, that her heart started to pound.

She uncapped a well of midnight ink, dipping in a quill.

Ser Ayme— she began to pen, but her hand was trembling. The brush tip tripped, leaving behind a shiny, dark swath.

She crumpled the paper, pulling out another.

Ser Aymeric; she penned. Then she took a deep breath.

It would be my pleasure to join you on the evening of the Fifth.

Her hand was trembling. She replaced the quill in the inkwell to prevent further casualties, then ran both hands through her hair.

Another deep breath.

Picking the quill back up, she finished:

I shall see you after dinner.

She chewed on her bottom lip as she wondered about the closing. Uncrumpling the paper from before, she jotted:

Sincerely –?

Warmly –?

He’d already used the word “warm." Maybe something else.

… With Pleasure –?

No. She scratched that one out. One pleasure was enough.

She crumpled the paper back up again, throwing it out of the way. Then she put down the pen and stared at the words she’d written.

Ser Aymeric;

It would be my pleasure to join you on the evening of the Fifth.
I shall see you after dinner.

Biting her lip, she dipped the quill back into the inkwell.

With Gratitude,
Samantha R. Floravale


 

Chapter Text


Chronologically, a continuation from the previous chapter.


Every inch of her body ached.

Just finish channeling to the aetheryte. Then you can sleep.

- - - - - - - - - -

It had been a long day of diplomacy, travelling from Gridania to Coerthas and back again. And then the late buzz in from Alphinaud. Some matter of business he’d wished to discuss at the Rising Stones, which ran over-long as expected.

Toward the end of their meeting, they were touring the long hall of the Solar at a very slow pace, side by side. Alphinaud was speaking at length about a tangential event on which, though amusing and phrased with his usual eloquence, Samantha was having tremendous difficulty staying focused.

“Forgive me,” she interrupted, coming to a halt. “I realize this is very rude, but…” She closed her eyes for a moment, overwhelmed by the sudden urge to sit down. “I simply must beg your pardon for the remainder of the evening.” She turned her eyes to meet his surprised expression. “You deserve my undivided attention and, at present, it is not within my power to give. It has been a very long day.”

“Upon my word,” he said softly, taking a hard look at her face. “Why didn’t you stop me sooner?”

He’d grabbed her hand and led her quickly to the great room, pulling out a chair. With a tremendous amount of unnecessary fussing, he’d forced her to take a seat and gone to fetch her some refreshment.

“It is I who am at fault,” he said sheepishly, handing her a heavy mug filled with tea leaves and steaming water. As she accepted it, he looked down at her with solemn, stormy eyes. “You mustn’t allow me to continue waxing on like that while you suffer in silence.” He shook his head, lowering his eyes, and a light blush colored his porcelain cheeks. “It is all too easy to get carried away with you.”

That made her chuckle. “Alphinaud, I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings." She rested her palm on his forearm for effect. “But you get carried away with everyone.”

When he was embarrassed, he pursed his lips in a way that caused shallow dimples to appear in his cheeks.

“Perhaps,” he conceded, his eyes flicking back to hers for a moment. “But I fear that, given the volume of time we spend together …” He cleared his throat. “It is almost certainly you who must bear the brunt of my unchecked verbiage.”

She snorted, squeezing his arm tight before leaning back in her chair. “And I hope you trust that it is typically my pleasure,” she reassured him. She didn’t notice the blush on his cheeks deepen as she closed her eyes, and gave a tired sigh. “But today, I'm afraid, has been anything but typical.”

- - - - - - - - - -

She was jarred out of her reflection by the sensation of solid ground beneath her feet.

Her breath plumed out in a white cloud against the darkness.

She hunched over, shrugging deeper into her cloak as she made the final march across the Pillars to the House Fortemps.


 

Chapter Text


The "Confessions" storyline continues. 


 It was seven forty-four on the fifth night of this, the Sixth Astral Moon.

And she was expected at eight.

Her blood rushed in her ears as she started the walk to the House Borel, pulling her cloak tight around her shoulders.

Outside, it was dark and biting cold, each breath bringing a bitter chill to her lungs. The sky was overcast, clouds heavy with snow, and she could smell the smoke of so many fires, warming so many hearths. If she’d learned anything during her time here in Ishgard, it was that there would be a storm tonight.

She shivered, walking faster.

Up to now, she’d done everything she could to avoid thinking about this night. But, with the evening itself upon her, and the distance to her destination shrinking by the second, she could put it off no longer.

Tea.

With …She shivered again.

What exactly were his intentions?

She scoffed.

What are mine?

If she didn’t have an answer for herself, she couldn’t expect one from him.

She closed her eyes for a moment, shaking her head.

That was when the image of Estinien appeared, unbidden, against her eyelids.

With a shocked breath she looked back into the night, blinking away what could only be tears.

I can’t think of this right now.

Her breath plumed before her, thick and white, her heart skipping heavy beats.

He’s gone.

She couldn’t allow herself the hope that, maybe, he could be saved.

Not now. Not ever.

She tamped down her feelings, crushing them into a dark, frozen corner of her heart.

Think of those you yet can save.

And when she looked up, the entrance to the House Borel was within sight.

- - - - - - - - - -

Waiting on the stoop, she shifted her weight between her feet, restless and unsettled.

Her breath caught as the handle clicked, the hinges creaked, and she was shocked to find Aymeric himself revealed behind the door.

“Welcome, my friend,” he said warmly, wearing an expression she’d never seen before. His voice, too, was filled with something new. Was it comfort? Ease? “Please, come inside.”

She stepped over the threshold in a rustle of heavy robes. He shut the door behind her, and as she made to unfasten the cloak clasped around her neck, Aymeric reached over.

“Please, allow me,” he insisted, meeting her surprised glance with an earnest gaze. Raising her eyebrows, she lowered her hands, allowing him to unwrap the cloak from her shoulders and hang it on the rack by the door.

“This embroidery is almost certainly Ishgardian,” he observed, casting her a sidelong glance as he arranged it neatly on a hook.

She nodded. “It was a gift,” she said, slipping her arms from the fleece she’d worn beneath the cloak. “From Count Edmont. Though …” She cleared her throat. “I believe he was put up to it by his son.” She bit her lip, not yet brave enough to say his name.

Aymeric inclined his head. “Lord Haurchefant,” he deduced.

She shrugged the fleece off of her shoulders, closing her eyes for a moment. “We were just speaking the other day of how he wouldn’t want us to mourn, but…” When she looked up, Aymeric’s eyes were bearing down on her, suddenly full of concern. Her heart skipped a beat. “I find that it happens at the slightest provocation.”

He reached out to take the fleece gently from her hands, where she’d been wringing it.

“I believe there is no shame in feeling so strongly,” he murmured, turning to find a second coat hook. Then he cast her another sidelong glance. “Though I suspect some part of you might disagree.”

He wasn’t wrong.

She wet her lips. “Truthfully, I can’t say why,” she admitted. “But I often—” She paused, trying to come up with the right phrase. “I suppose I’d rather be taciturn than utterly aflame.”

He turned full to face her, eyebrows high. “I’m shocked to hear this from an astral sorceress,” he said, a note of humor in his tone.

She quirked a brow back. “Umbral as well,” she jibed, looking up at him through her lashes. “You cannot have one aspect without the other.”

“Forgive me, but I’ve seen my share of ice,” he said softly. “And you are far too warm to be shaped of it.”

On cue, a hot blush colored her cheeks. She cleared her throat. “I came here for tea,” she said loudly. “Not to have my convictions called into question.”

He laughed, his eyes sparkling down at her. “Come, then,” he said, offering her an arm. “Let us retire to the parlor.”

She looped her arm through his crooked elbow and, gently, he pulled her close. With the warmth of his body beside her, she felt small, even though she easily stood as tall as his shoulders. She chuckled, shaking her head.

He glanced down at her through the corner of his eye. “What?”

“It’s not often that I feel so small,” she confessed.

They were approaching the threshold of a warmly lit room. “Is this one of those rare times?”

She tilted her head. “It is,” she said, allowing her voice to be soft. “I’m not sure which I prefer.”

But it’s worth it to feel him this close beside me.

They were crossing into the parlor now. “As long as feeling small does not equate to feeling unpleasant,” he said, glancing down at her.

“Certainly not,” she assured.

It was a comfortable room. Rugs with intricate designs lined the floor, arranged with high-backed armchairs that were upholstered in dark, soothing colors. A fire crackled in the hearth. Bookshelves lined the walls, filled with tomes and artifacts alike. Back in the corner, toward a window darkened by the night outside, was a wide table; perhaps somewhere he read, or wrote letters.

He led her to a set of two armchairs, with a low table between them.

There rested a delicate ceramic tea setting, well-appointed with sugar bowl and creamer, and two cups and saucers.

When he spoke again, excitement made his voice hitch. “I hope you have a taste for Ishgardian tea,” he said, his words coming in a rush. “It is my favorite preparation. Though of course it would be my pleasure to begin another brew for you if it does not suit your palette.”

“Luckily I’ve never met a tea I didn’t like,” she said, letting her eyes twinkle at him.

A smile spread across his lips and he took the seat to her left, putting him at a comfortable diagonal across.

“Then I am sure you will be pleased with this one,” he said softly, reaching to pour them each a cup. The liquid was milky, rosy-tan, and fragrant. She closed her eyes and breathed deep of the scent as he handed her a serving, smiling on reflex.

“Thank you,” she said, truly grateful.

He inclined his head to her, fixing her with those piercing blue eyes. “No, thank you,” he began, cradling his teacup in one long-fingered hand. “Quite profoundly, for accepting my invitation. I don’t often entertain company. Not for lack of want,” he clarified. “But rarely am I so inspired to solicit it.”

She took a sip of the warm, floral drink, allowing a flattered smile to lift her lips. “Then I am doubly honored, to have earned something so valuable.”

He hadn’t broken her gaze, hadn’t sipped his tea; was only watching her with an inscrutable expression. “The tea is to your taste, then?” he asked.

She nodded vigorously. “Oh yes,” she said, letting every earnest feeling color her voice. “It is delightful.”

It was a small smile that lifted the corners of his mouth, but one so warm that it melted her heart.

She swallowed hard.

“I must confess, I am—” She paused, thinking of what it was exactly that she wanted to say. Her eyes moved slowly across his face, tracing his figure in the chair. He was dressed in a tunic of muted brown and cobalt, decorated with silver filigree, slung with a loose belt. He looked almost slight without his armor, but something about that was doubly endearing.

He set his cup and saucer back down on the table to rest his arms in his lap. “You are—?” His gaze was quizzical.

“Surprised,” she said finally, also setting down her cup and saucer. “To be here, with you,” she clarified. “Especially after your disclosure about your history with more … personal relationships."

His expression softened, the look in his eyes unfathomable. “I am surprised you are here, with me,” he leveled, and this time, his eyes took her in, moving slowly from her face, down her shoulders, to the hands folded in her lap. “With you, there is an …ease. A rapport that I don’t often feel. You will have to forgive me for being so frank, but it is so.” He shook his head, lowering his eyes. “And pray excuse my inelegance. But it is not often that I— … Rather, it has been quite some time since I have enjoyed such pleasant company.”

The blush on her cheeks was hot and undoubtedly obvious. She lowered her eyes and took a breath. “I feared that my admissions the other day— … Would have had quite the opposite effect.” She chewed her bottom lip. “But, here we are, sharing tea no less.”

“To put your mind even further at ease,” he said softly, “I have wished to share tea with you for quite some time.”

She looked up to meet tense blue eyes. He was closer than expected, leaning toward her, diminishing the distance between them ever so slightly.

“I hope—” his voice faltered. “I should very much like—to get to know you better.”

She held his gaze against the fluttering of her heart, feeling even more blood rush to her face. Then she chuckled, trying to still the uneven rhythm in her chest. “You must let me know if I improve on closer acquaintance.”

His eyes were very warm. It was unbearable. “Some may say you are already remarkable.” There was a gentle humor in his tone, as though he could anticipate her reaction.

And indeed, it made her laugh. “All they see is the glory, Ser,” she said, grateful to be momentarily distracted. She gave him a conspiratorial glance. “The shining façade. They see who they want to see.” She knew her eyes were burning as she looked up at him through her lashes, letting a spark break through, letting some part of herself finally come aflame against her will. “But they don’t know me. Not me.

Rapt with interest, his lips parted ever so slightly. “And could I know you?”

“Is that what you want?” She was leaning closer to him now, too. “To see beyond the fabled Warrior of Light?

His eyes flicked between hers, and he wet his lips. “I want to try,” he said, very earnest. “And I am not accustomed to failure.”

She smiled, biting her lip. “Then you may try,” she said softly. “But I can make you no promises.”

He took a breath, holding her gaze. Leaned ever-so-slightly closer.

She could see every color in his eyes, the flecks of ice and silver, cerulean and ultramarine. There was the straight line of his nose, the arch of his eyebrows, the fall of the rook-black hair on his brow.

But it was the power of his gaze that pulled her in, scalding hot and fathomless; laying her bare, as though he could see straight through to her soul and unearth the secrets there.

“Forgive me,” he murmured.

And then, so gently, like something from a dream, one of his hands was touching her jaw, her neck; wrapping around to the base of her skull.

She could feel the way his fingers trembled against her, the delicate warmth of his breath on her lips. “I—…” He faltered, lowering his eyes, the tip of his nose brushing hers. “May I…?”

The words caught in her throat. She couldn’t breathe. Her eyes squeezed shut and she immediately opened them again, desperate to witness this moment.

When she spoke, their lips brushed together.

“Please,” she whispered.

And carefully, he closed that breath of distance between them.


 

Chapter Text


Oriented around the events of the Main Scenario Quest, “Into the Aery.”


It started in the Mists, while they were negotiating peace with Nidhogg’s brother. So many times, Hraesvelgr shut them out. So many times, Ysayle and Alphinaud would walk in solemn, thoughtful solitude. And so many times, Estinien would isolate himself from the rest of them.

- - - - - - - - - -

It was close to midnight.

Alone in his tent, Estinien sat awake, sleep eluding him as usual.

The small hairs on the back of his neck stood up as he sensed someone approach. Hands reflexively found and tensed on the body of his lance, and he fixed his eyes on the mouth of his tent.

The flap pushed back, revealing the moonlit face of the Warrior of Light. Her long hair bunched around her shoulders as she hunched over and invaded his privacy.

“What are you doing?” he muttered, his dark voice tense.

Light flickered between her fingertips, drawing his gaze, and he noticed she was holding a tiny spark there. She scowled over at him, her face illuminated by firelight.

“I can’t find Alphinaud or Ysayle, and I don’t want to be alone,” she grumbled.

Estinien closed his eyes against the words, stone-faced. “I don’t want company.”

He could hear the soft rustling of her robes as she found a seat in spite of him. “I don’t care,” she said. “I know you can’t sleep, and I’m selfish. So here I am.”

Estinien opened his eyes to find her kneeling across from him. The spark suspended in her left palm was now a candle’s flame, waxless and wickless.  

“Can you feel it?” he murmured, tilting his head toward the fire. He watched it flutter, casting shadows in the tent.

She started to shake her head, then stopped. “Well, yes,” she admitted, turning her dark eyes to look at it too. It danced slowly, as only flame can do. “It feels warm.” A smile touched the corners of her lips. “And of course I have to keep it burning, so I can sense it plucking at my aether.” She studied the flame for a moment. “But something this small, it feels like—” she paused for a moment, thinking. “—the tug of a single hair pulled taut. Or a hangnail,” she added, making herself chuckle.

A smile tickled his lips but he shook his head instead, watching as she used her free hand to unfasten the cloak around her shoulders. Beneath it she wore a long plain nightgown that gathered in deep folds around her bare toes. It wasn’t the first time he’d seen her in nightclothes on their travels, but it always surprised him; somehow too unassuming for a sorceress who could conjure fire.

She noticed his appraisal and nodded to the simple white shirt and trousers he’d worn to bed.

“I’m happy to see you don’t sleep in your armor,” she quipped. “I was concerned.”

The smile hiding behind his lips broke to the surface for a split second, before the stony countenance returned. “Too many moving parts,” he said quietly.

She smiled back at him. Then she closed her eyes.

They sat together, listening to the sounds of the Mists around them; wind and silence, punctuated by the distant, heavy beat of dragon wings.

After a long moment, he heard her take a breath. “I am sorry for intruding,” she said, her voice very soft. “But I am happy for the chance to sit with you.”

He was surprised to find that his eyes had drifted shut; that a comfortable haze had settled over his tumultuous mind. He looked up to find her studying his face.

“I …” he paused, meeting her gaze. When he finally spoke, his dark voice was warm. “I am … happy you are here.”

- - - - - - - - - -

Midnight talks, just the two of them. Short and long: details of moments from childhoods, descriptions of fears. Tales of nightmares, hopes, and dreams.

Long, hard days of negotiations, of fighting, of travel, of failure. Then the fleeting peace of those sleepless nights, with just the breadth of the tent between them, filled with the comfort of their stories, or simple shared silence.

They had similar souls. Waxless and wickless, burning of their own devices. Both of them taciturn, both aching, both ripped raw inside.

Both of them boiling just beneath the surface.

- - - - - - - - - -

The bloody business was done. His armor was stained to prove it. Nidhogg was slain, but he’d left behind a swath of mysteries in his wake—and now only his brother, Hraesvelgr, could answer for them.

The party departed the Aery into a crushing night, victorious, yet heavy-hearted.

He’d wanted to go to Zenith, to confront Hraesvelgr directly. But the rest of them were weary. Samantha’s eyes held a warning reflected by a glance at Ysayle, whose pale gaze flashed in Alphinaud’s direction. And, though he hid it well, the boy was exhausted.

“Let us return to camp,” Estinien had said, his voice strained with the urgency he felt to keep going.

But, for Alphinaud’s sake, he wouldn’t.

He’d try to rest.

- - - - - - - - - -

He was wiping the last of the black wyrm’s blood from his neck when she burst into his tent, as always, uninvited. A line creased in his brow and he’d wet his lips to speak, to tell her to go, that he needed to be alone tonight.

But she hadn’t stopped moving.

She’d closed all of the distance between them, so close now that he could feel her warmth. 

And then she’d grabbed his neck, his jaw. Wide, burning eyes searched his face.

And then she’d crushed her lips against his.

He couldn’t breathe. Every subterranean ache came surging to the surface, raw and metallic.

His teeth pulled at her bottom lip as he jerked away, making a low sound in his chest. “What are you doing?” His voice was quiet and clipped, but even he could feel the fire smoldering in his eyes.

She ran tensed fingers up the back of his neck, twining them in long silver hair. “Just kiss me,” she murmured.

He hesitated for only a moment.

Then the calloused pads of his thumbs pressed into her skin as he took her face in both hands, covering her mouth with his.

His teeth scraped against her lips, her chin, her throat; her hands scrambled for purchase on his neck, his shoulders, anywhere she could hold on to. One hand unfastened the broach at her collarbone and the cloak fell from her shoulders, crushed beneath her as he shoved her down.

She looked up at him, breathless, eyes wide, her hair spread in a dark halo against the ground.

Then his mouth was back on her neck and she gasped, checking the cry that almost tore from her lips. Blunt teeth pulled at her earlobe and her eyes screwed shut.

Her fingertips were scraping down his spine when he resurfaced and he shuddered, breathing hard. “We have to stop,” he said, the words coming fast, ragged in his throat.

She shook her head. “Please, don’t,” she begged, moving her hands back up his shoulders to rest on the nape of his neck.

His heart was pounding as he looked down at her, from where he knelt above. Everything in his body was screaming listen to her and the tatters of his self-control were shredding apart.

“I want to keep going,” he admitted, his voice low and husky with the proof of it. He leaned down, pressing their foreheads together, taking a breath. “But I doubt we are thinking clearly.”

He felt the warmth of her breath on his lips as she checked herself too. Then the pressure of her lips on his cheek. “You’re right,” she whispered in his ear. “But I don’t want to think clearly. Not tonight.”

He closed his eyes. The heat, the tension should have been ebbing from his body. But it wasn’t. He leaned back to meet her gaze with a strained expression, and when he spoke, his voice was rougher than before. “Is that wise?”

“No,” she conceded. But she pulled herself up to kiss him again.

There it was; another crack in the surface; another torrent of longing so powerful he felt it in his marrow. He knew his kiss was fierce, painful, his teeth bruising the surface of her skin. But she was opening these gates and she had a right to know the truth.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” he said, confessing his final reservation. “I—” He cleared his throat, lowered his head; pressed his mouth against her neck. “I fear I am a beast, barely contained.”

Her hands tensed against his neck, sliding slowly down his back. Her lips beside his temple, she murmured, “I am not afraid.” And then, in a tone he’d never heard before, “I have seen my share of beasts, Estinien. Surely I can handle just one more.”

He pulled back to find her face flushed, lips swollen from his attentions. And her dark, hooded eyes, the look in her eyes; it was enough to drive him mad.

His final thread of self-control pulled taut.

He took a sharp breath; brushed open lips against her mouth. “I’ve given you my warning,” he said softly.

She kissed him, tenderly, taking his face in both hands. “Then there is nothing more left to be said.”


 

Chapter Text

 


... and we return to the “Confessions” storyline.  


 

Estinien was walking slowly, agonizingly slowly, to the fallen sword.

He was going to pluck the eye from its hilt.

No!

She tried to scream, tried to move, tried to do anything, but she was frozen, forced back into the scene that haunted her nightmares.

Before she could stop him, he was holding the eyes in both hands.

NO!!!

When he spoke, his voice was tired. So tired.

The sound of it twisted her heart.

"With this task accomplished, my toils shall finally … be at an end.”

She knew what happened next. Tried to close her eyes against it. But this was her mind’s eye, and there was no escape.

A dark crimson blur of fear and pain. The throb of her heart.

The terror spread across his face.

The pulse of tangled, heavy veins and sinew, binding the eyes to Estinien’s limbs.

And the shade of Nidhogg, erupting from his body in a mist of blood and smoke.

- - - - - - - - - -

She woke, gasping, drenched in a cold sweat.

Wild eyes scanned the room, the familiar Ishgardian furniture, the colors of the House Fortemps.

She panted heavy breaths. Threw the covers from her body. Swung her legs over the edge of the bed to curl over her knees, clutching her belly.

Estinien. 

She sobbed, swallowing down the bitter bile in her throat.

Even through her heavy nightgown, the fingers curled against her stomach were cold as ice.

She pulled back to look down at her hands. They were covered in a fine frost.

Gulping another breath, she closed her eyes. Hot tears dripped down her cheeks as she channeled her aether, focusing it down into the pit of her stomach.

She reached for the astral aspect, waited for that familiar gnawing power. And then the base of her spine warmed like an ember, pulsing heat, easing the umbral web that had settled over her body.

When she opened her eyes, the frost had already melted.

She flexed her fingers, wiped the tears from her face. With a sigh, she released the fire-aspected aether from her belly.

The nightmare, again.

And after tonight, of all nights.

She closed her eyes again as warm memories, mere hours past, pressed against her eyelids.

- - - - - - - - - -

As he pulled away, he was blushing, smiling, laughing softly.

“Forgive me,” Aymeric said again, and as he met her gaze, he gave a slight shake of his head. “I— I’ve no idea what came over me.”

She could still feel the soft pressure of his lips and she was afraid to move, afraid it might banish the sensation. But she couldn’t stop herself from smiling.

“Please, don’t apologize,” she said, surprised at the strength of her voice. She’d thought herself breathless.

His expression was bashful, and absolutely enchanting. “I don’t mean to be forward,” he muttered, his voice soft. “But I fear I—” He cleared his throat, reaching for his tea. “Is it quite appropriate to use the phrase ‘I couldn’t resist?’”

That made her laugh. It was a raw, ugly sound, and she blushed as soon as it left her lips. But the smile on his face only widened, and that gave her some courage.

“Yes,” she said, meeting his eyes. “I don’t believe it’s ever inappropriate to call someone irresistible.” A spark of mischief lit her tone. “Unless of course you don’t mean it.”

A blend of amusement and mild concern colored his expression. “I assure you, my lady. I am always sincere.”

She reached for her tea, quirking an eyebrow, giving him a solemn nod. “If you say so.”

He was watching her with twinkling eyes. “What was it you mentioned earlier?” he began, the phantom of a smile lifting the corners of his lips. “That you came here for tea, not an interrogation?”

She smiled even as she bit her lip, and the twinkle in his eyes brightened.

He took a sip from his cup, looking at her through his lashes.

- - - - - - - - - -

She breathed, clearing away the edges of the memory.

Sleep.

Tomorrow is a new day.

Tomorrow is a new dawn.


 

Chapter Text


~


So often, she met her own eyes in the mirror and wondered:

Who are you?

Not always.

Not while hugging Lyse up into a bear hold so tight that it lifted her small frame from the ground. Not in the kitchen with family Fortemps on cold, gray, sunlit mornings, sharing tea and unexpected family.

Not warm in a tent in the Mists at midnight, speaking softly with someone she'd never expected to love. Not keeping the True Brothers of the Faith at bay in the Vault, her heart throbbing with the urgency to protect the solemn, kindhearted paladin who’d helped restore her tenuous faith.

But, in the moments when nothing stirred; in the moments when the calm was enough to smother her, the stillness enough to drown her … In those moments, she felt like nothing.

Nothing more than another frozen, lonely heart.

Another splintered fragment of stardust.

- - - - - - - - - -

Looking in the mirror, she could often see the sharp angles of her father.

His nose. His chin. His eyes.

So many pieces of her were, truly, pieces of him.

To think that she was made more of her father than of anything else … it was something that terrified her. Haunted her, even as it filled some hollow, aching void.

Father.

She closed her eyes, smoothed a hand across the plane of her forehead.

Flush. Level. Nothing to hide.

How long had it been since she’d seen him? The man that cast aside everything he’d known and loved, just for her and her mother? The imperial who disavowed his castrum, rank, and very heritage to cling to the love he’d discovered?

If she kept her eyes shut tight, she could hear his words from over an epoch ago:

“I knew what treasures I’d found in Eorzea,” he’d said. “And nothing in this world, not even my own blood, was going to keep me from them.”

A shudder itched down her spine. Tears pricked against her eyelids.

“Forgive me,” she muttered. Forgive me, for not believing.

For not understanding.

The words that, rightfully, she should speak to his face.

We are each of us as different as one day is from the next.

She swallowed a sob.

For, if the time should come, would she have her father’s strength? Could she, too, give up everything she’d ever known?

And darker, quieter, more somber still, she wondered: Could she ever know a love so deep, so compelling, that she would strip herself of every shred of her identity just to chase it?

She opened her eyes to stare into her own, reflected in the mirror, dark shadows of her father’s.

As much as she still resented him for hiding the truth. As much as she hated him for giving her the blood, the Garlean blood, that pulsed through her veins. As much as she wished to deny it … her father was one of the most authentic people she’d ever known. And he deserved to hear it from her lips.

… I’ll tell him when I’m ready.

And she smiled against the echo of his voice in her mind.

When I’m able to understand.


 

Chapter Text

 


Takes place shortly after the cutscenes following the Antitower, ending just before the cutscene of "This War of Ours.”


It was very cold that morning. The sun shed a thin, watery light over the snow-covered Coerthan Highlands as though it too wasn’t ready to rise, wasn’t ready to begin again.

Staring at the gates of Ishgard, she felt numb. Hollow.

A sleepless night of hard riding, her heart too dark, too broken, to channel to any aetheryte. She didn’t want to touch any fragment of the Mother.

Not now.

And so she rented mounts and rode, exchanging them at stables along the way, ignoring the stares of the stablehands, regarding her like she was a creature from another world. She knew her eyes were hard and cold as the ice of her heart; the angles of her face made sharp with bitterness. But she had no energy, no desire to soften the reality of her expression. And so she turned the full force of it on everyone she met that night, beyond the capacity to care about impressions.

Let them see the truth of their Warrior of Light.

The words were like poison in her mind, and she closed her eyes against them.

Hydaelyn. A name she’d once imagined with reverence, with gratitude.

But that had been before. Before all of this senseless loss, for the sake of balance—for the sake of something greater. For the sake of sundered realities, of Light and Dark, of Man and Ascian, of Made and Unmade—

For those we have lost.

For those we can yet save.

The soft, kind features of Minfilia’s lovely face flashed behind her eyelids and she gasped a painful sob of breath. There was suddenly the memory of so many warm embraces, so many solemn talks, so many honest laughs and smiles—

And then came Estinien, with the next throb of her heart. Manipulated by his own ambitions, consumed with bottomless agony, possessed by Nidhogg himself—

Her face twisted and she took a shuddering step forward in the snow, as though that could stop the surging flood of memories. But—

"Oh, do not look at me so…

She stumbled, her knees buckling beneath her—

… A smile … better suits … a hero.”

And she sank down into the cold, prickling snowdrift, and wept.

She wept for Haurchefant, for the way she never remotely deserved his sacrifice. For Estinien, for utterly failing to salve his wounds. For Minfilia, for abandoning her outright to her fate.

She wept for Ysayle. For Shiva and Hraesvelgr. For Ratatoskr and Tiamat, for the whole First Brood. She even wept for Nidhogg.

For a long, breathless moment, she wept into the snow. Sobbed until she couldn’t tell if the cold she felt was from the unrelenting winter around her, or from the ice within her heart.

Because the truth was colder still.

I’ve failed them all.


When she stepped into the foyer of the Congregation of our Knights Most Heavenly, she was soaked through. The knight attending noticed immediately, his eyes widening through the window of his helmet.

He gasped audibly and rushed to her side, escorting her to one of several fires in the room. “My lady, please, warm yourself immediately!”

Too miserable to resist, and too exhausted to summon the assistance of her own astral aspect, she bent to the necessity and followed his lead. “Thank you, Ser,” she muttered.

At the melancholy of her tone, the concern in his eyes deepened, and he glanced up at a peer across the room. “Ser Babineaux, please find something warm for Lady Floravale to drink.”

She wanted to refuse, to tell him there was no need. She felt her muscles itching to dismiss him. But she couldn’t.

Instead, she sank against the hard wooden frame of the chair he dragged over, and accepted the tea and heavy blanket that were brought to her.

Silently, she warmed by the fire, slowly assembling a mask of indifference.

She was here per Alphinaud to consult with the Lord Commander, and it wouldn’t do to show her pain.

Not to Ser Aymeric.

Not just yet.