Basch doesn’t know what to do the first time he notices. It is a day like almost every other since the peace; he and Vossler, restored and even elevated in rank—Dalmasca’s armies are their charge, now—make their rounds, hold their meetings (if Basch had suspected this many meetings, he might have declined Ashe’s honor), separate through the late afternoon with their various duties, and they come back together at the day’s end, when everyone else has retired, in the empty training salle to spar. It had not been easy, at first; Basch kept seeing the Leviathan, drawn swords, Vossler falling under Basch’s blade, and he prays daily thanks that the airship had lurched under his feet, pushed his strike that far left. And then his friend’s blood, everywhere, Basch casting Cura, Cura, Cura until he’d passed out, and when they’d left him in the care of one of Dalan’s contacts, Vossler had opened his eyes long enough that Basch saw the question and curse. Why hadn’t he let him die? At the time, Basch hadn’t really been sure, but now, it was because if he hadn’t carried Vossler out of the Leviathan, Basch would be more alone now than he’d been before. And so, despite their history, they’ve reforged some semblance of their friendship before. No matter how they try, they are not men bred for peace. They are bored, unchallenged, and they’ve no one left to test themselves but each other.
The rest of the men are glad of this. No one else will free-spar with them; the difference in rank makes it awkward, and the generals have lived through too much. Only Vossler’s unrestrained style challenges Basch, after all he’s had to face, and Basch, as the enlistees say, has already come back from the dead once, so if Vossler kills him (“Likely,” they say. “Azelas wouldn’t pull a blow against his own mother.”), it’s no worry. Basch fon Ronsenberg lives. They’ve had to take their sparring sessions at the day’s end not only because of their schedules, but because when the salle is full of trainees and the generals square off, all business stops. Armored or bare-fisted, people turn to watch, and there are rumors of laid bets—Will one of them actually win today? When will one of them actually die?—and so it’s better not to be a distraction. It’s a day like that when Basch sees him do it.
They are bare-fisted, the sun’s dying light slanting in through the windows dimly—no chance of a blinding glare—and Vossler lets Basch’s knuckles thump into his ribs. It’s not that his block misses; it’s that he doesn’t try. It’s an opening big as the Aerodrome, so sloppy Basch suspects Vossler might be affecting a joke, however unlikely a joke seems from Vossler, more now than ever. Basch strikes at the same place, hears the sick, hollow thump, and he pulls up, pulls back. This is not like Vossler.
“Are you all right?” It is possible that he has pulled a muscle, that one of his old injuries has been aggravated.
As soon as Basch straightens and speaks, Vossler lunges, an overhand strike, and Basch ducks under his arm, slapping at the other side of his ribcage. This time, Vossler counters Basch’s hand with a stinging forearm, as much blow as block, and this is exactly like Vossler, and they resume their usual rhythm. They end with Basch’s hand at Vossler’s throat, Vossler’s elbow at Basch’s eye. Standstill. This exhaustion is as close to joy as Basch has been since the restoration, a final vestige of camaraderie when Vossler claps him on the back—sometimes a rattle of plate, today only the heavy hand. This is all as it always is, and it isn’t until they reach the bathing chamber, take their usual positions at the opposite ends of the long shower room, that Basch thinks again of Vossler’s missed blocks.
Basch turns his head from the wall, looks over his shoulder to badger him a bit—sometimes they manage banter, and it reminds Basch of Balthier, of his brother, years ago—but the joke dies on his tongue. There is a puffy, purpling mark on Vossler’s ribs, exactly the size of Basch’s fist, and Vossler presses the heel of his palm into the bruise, pushes hard. Vossler’s cock twitches, swells, and Basch hopes Vossler doesn’t see him look. When he chances a glance at Vossler’s face, he is surprised. His face is neither pained nor pleasured; he scowls, closes his eyes, and shoves his head under the spray. Basch does the only thing he can do: he rinses his hair and pretends he’s seen nothing.
When he’s pulling on his trousers in the barracks locker room—it’s still strange not to go armored all of the time—Vossler edges into the room, dresses quickly. Basch thinks he should say something, maybe suggest they get a drink, but he doesn’t bother. Tonight Vossler eats with the officers of the palace guard, just as Basch will with the chocobo cavalry staff tomorrow. He likes his officers, but they are not friends; it is too easy to fall into favoritism, too hard to start over with someone new.
Vossler shrugs into his jacket, fastens the clasps from the bottom to the top, and he, unlike Basch, always closes the last one, high on his throat. Basch always feels like he’s choking with that one closed, supposes it has something to do with Nalbina, but he doesn’t think on it much. His hands know, automatically, when he needs to look his most official and also the second he doesn’t. His scar and his still-long hair ensure that the collar of his uniform is the last thing anyone notices anyway.
Vossler nudges him as he walks past. “Swords tomorrow?”
Full armor. And it’s hot, hotter than it usually is, even in Dalmasca. Basch nods. If anyone does see them practice, it makes a good impression if the generals aren’t taking it easy and avoiding the stifling weight of full plate. And the weight of it all might help him sleep better. “And watch that right side. I got you pretty good there.”
Vossler’s lip curls. “Working on something. Don’t worry yourself.”
Basch won’t argue. “Give my compliments to the guard.” It’s taking Basch forever to dress, and he doesn’t know why. He pulls his shirt over his head—he hasn’t the focus for buttons right now—and in the time the fabric covers his eyes and slides clear, Vossler has gone. Something’s awry, Basch knows, with his comrade, something he can’t parse, and he can’t bring himself to even put on his jacket. He’ll go to his office, ask an adjutant to have a tray sent up. Even that has taken getting used to. He is expected, now, to make use of the chain of command—ask someone to ask someone to ask…not for the first time, he misses the simplicity of wayfood, whatever they’d been fortunate enough to hunt. Fair or foul, he could manage things himself. They managed themselves.
One of the privileges of rank, though, is that no one will stop him, no one will interrupt if he looks busy enough, hurries enough, and he only passes a group of trainees who snap to attention as he passes. He bobs a hasty acknowledgement and asks the aide—there’s always one nearby, it seems—to send up whatever’s handy from the kitchen. It’s always more than he can eat, always obviously not handy—rich and complex dishes it has taken his body months to get used to eating—but it’s more than he can manage right now to dress formally for dinner. He makes sure to eat with the court at least once a week, if only to see Ashe, to see how she fares, and though they don’t actually speak all that often—if it is not business, it always turns into reminiscing when they do and that’s somehow too sad to do regularly—he feels better after seeing her. She is flourishing as queen, efficient, gracious, sure. She and Larsa and Al-Cid—the young rulers of Ivalice are doing well for the land.
And they are not without intrigue, especially Larsa and Ashe; their correspondence finds its way to his desk more often than not, not letters but lists and ledgers. To the eyes of his aides, it’s more of the bureaucracy of soldiering. The part of it all he was tired of before he’d even made captain. But the lists and copies and orders in triplicate are something to fill the hours that had been, until fairly recently, filled by night watches, by constant vigilance, by the idle chatter of six travelers. He misses that sound, even when it was strained—Ashe’s impatience with Vaan, Fran’s inscrutable silences, his own initial mistrust of Balthier—and now it’s done, the company proven, and though he knows so much about each of them, he isn’t sure what he could say, were any of them here. That’s not true. He sees Ashe regularly. He’s run into Vaan and Penelo in Rabanastre—sworn to secrecy, of course, about the whereabouts of Ivalice’s newest sky pirate pair—and they are well. They are the same, and that gives Basch some peace. And the other sky pirate pair—here he is back to the stacks of paper on his desk.
Ashe says Larsa seals his friendships in paper, and Basch is glad that the Emperor hasn’t sent him a proper letter yet. It would surely speak overtly of his twin, and Basch isn’t sure he’s ready for that. His brother is recovering, that is what he knows, and that must be enough for now. If he looks through the packet addressed to himself in Ashe’s neat script, he’ll find scraps of news, names. But that must wait.
He settles into his chair, signs his name until his hand is ready to cramp—must he train his fingers for this weapon, too?—and he is saved by the soft knock at the door. “Come in,” he calls, and the aide, Cirdan, puts down the tray. A second follows, he doesn’t know her yet, carrying a bucket of ice and a jug.
“Thank you, Cirdan, and—”
“Dina, sir,” she says. Their uniforms are perfectly buttoned.
“Thank you, Dina.” A drop of sweat makes its way down his back. It’s uncharacteristically humid—the rains will come to Giza any minute—and though Basch likes the heat, he knows that few others do. “You’re both dismissed for the night. I have all I need.” He gestures to the papers and the food, offers a small smile. If he didn’t formally excuse them, they would wait outside until he left. Tonight might be a night he doesn’t leave. That happens more often these days, when it’s easier to work until he falls asleep, late, late in the night, than to keep regular hours, toss in his too-comfortable bed. The aides snap to attention, close the door behind them when they leave.
He eats left-handed, picking mostly at a bowl of fruit and some of the bread. He’s not all that hungry, hasn’t been for days. It’s his tongue, not the chef. He makes notes with his right hand on his daily schedule: chocobo inspection before meeting, schedule tactics training exam. He could delegate more, but what would he do with his time? And he likes seeing first-hand the people in his command. It means much, he knows, to have a face on the officers above you, and one of the first things he and Vossler decided was that Basch would handle personnel training, Vossler any disciplinary actions. Basch grins into his files. With Vossler’s knitted brow, his crossed arms, the way he stalks the corridors—there aren’t disciplinary problems. He suspected as much, but Basch doesn’t mind. Normally, he enjoys tactics discussions. It’s only today, this week, that it feels like dragging stones on his ankles. The trainees, though, they remind him of the past, of Vaan and his questions and not waiting for the answer, Penelo, then, prodding for the answer, and he remembers learning these things beside his brother, so many years ago.
Finally, the official business is done, and he pushes his chair from his desk. He pours the icy minted tea that he’s been saving for this moment. He almost wishes he’d asked Cirdan to bring wine, but it’s a habit he fears indulging. He’s maudlin when he drinks alone, but what he does instead is, perhaps, no better. Certainly no less maudlin, and with wine, he’d at least sleep sooner. He picks up the folder of papers that bear the seals of Archadia—he’s not even sure why Larsa sends these things to Ashe, unless it is in the spirit of full disclosure, to create trust between their kingdoms, or if it is because Larsa knows she sends them to him. It is probably both. Larsa is canny, too sharp for his own good. Or maybe only too sharp for Basch’s good.
He peels off his shirt and boots, stretches out on the low couch behind his desk, cup safely on the floor beside him, and reads. He cobbles together the narrative of his brother’s and Balthier and Fran’s movements across Archades. Gabranth has been in the city proper since the Bahamut, convalescent, but always working, it seems. Here his name on a deposition, here on an order of promotion for some judge Basch has never heard of. And then there’s a short log from Nabradia. Gabranth is well enough to travel, as of three weeks ago by the paperwork, and the Strahl is listed as the vehicle that bore him there. Here a work order for the ship, from Balfonheim, last month. Larsa engages Balthier and Fran on quasi-official business, sometimes, often, lately, judging by the papers in hand; Balthier must be returned to his family home, then, as much as he will ever do so.
It is strange, and not so strange, he thinks, sipping at his tea, wiping the condensation’s cool through his hair, that Gabranth travels with Balthier now as he had himself done—he knows they knew each other, before—and that Gabranth and Vossler, the two men closest to him, if he can still say that, have cursed him for the same reason. Basch refused them both the fiery deaths they would have insisted upon, had they been conscious. Both of them bear the marks of Basch’s sword, and those wounds, Basch knows, are the only reason Vossler still speaks to him, the only avenue Basch has back to his brother. None of them has ever pitied the other, ever spared more than providence itself had. Men are such strange creatures, Basch thinks, to thank each other for truly trying to kill the other. Has honor gotten them anywhere? Maybe it has. True honor has restored Ashe’s trust, true honor has made it so that Gabranth still stands beside Larsa, that he lets his emperor leak his whereabouts to Basch. Honor, practiced by their betters. Maybe there’s hope for them. He is relieved, more than he thought he would be, to see that Gabranth is getting better. It was a miracle of healing, and Basch thanks Balthier again in his mind. Thanks him for his quickness, for the set of shoulders that helped Basch support two broken bodies, on two dark days months apart, and bear them from the splintering mechanical wrecks. It’s all circular, like these documents and locations and faces, and he falls asleep in the cargoes and cartography and in the imagining of the idle chatter of travel.
Two days later, there is a message waiting on his desk when he stops to drop off a packet of promotion reviews. It’s sealed under Ashe’s hand, her personal abd signet pressed into the silvery wax, not the Dalmascan seal she uses for army business. The note is short.
Balthier and Fran are bringing me something in the coming days. I hope you don’t mind—I told Balthier your schedule, where he might find you.
He dashes off a quick reply—Thank you. B.—and hands it to Dina. She smiles, seals it while he watches. He never remembers that part. The rest of the day, things snap more sharply into focus, and he’s putting on his light armor—leather breastplate, greaves, but plate gloves because they’re using poles today and it’s too easy to break fingers with those—with more speed than usual. Vossler’s a little bit late—not unusual for one of them to be delayed a few minutes; there’s always someone who wants something of them—and Basch heads into the salle to wait. He hasn’t seen Vossler since last night; the palace guard was doing something particular this morning, and he’d been working on the promotion reviews. They’ll have to talk about those, maybe over dinner later, or tomorrow morning. He pulls a plain oaken pole from the rack and spins it. They don’t let trainees do this—the fancy twirling—because it really does nothing for one’s defense or attacking ability; it’s showing off, plain and simple, but no one’s here to catch him.
And then Vossler says, “Aren’t you a little old for that?” and his back is to the windows, all of him in shadow because it’s later than usual, and Basch thinks there might be more darkness on the right side of Vossler’s face, but he can’t get a closer look because the pole cracks down in the place his shin had been. He dodges left, thrusts right, and the reverberations in the wood where it connects with Vossler’s stave sting, bright and living. They spar a long time, until Basch sees Vossler only by the paleness of his neck and his bared teeth and the light wood singing through the air toward him. There are no openings in Vossler’s defense tonight, nothing deliberate, anyway, though they both get sloppier with fatigue as the fight wears on. Basch holds up his hand for a respite when he cannot see the oaken pole any more.
“We light a lamp, if we are continuing.” He wipes sweat out of his eyes. The last thing they need to do is break an arm or a skull because they’re too stubborn to get a light.
Vossler is panting. “This is enough, I think.” He takes the pole from Basch’s hand. “I’ll put these away, close up the windows.”
Basch thinks to say that the cleaning staff close the windows when they leave, but he wants a shower and Vossler does nothing without reason.
Basch is clean, wrapped already in a towel, when he hears the door open. Vossler keeps his back to Basch as he undresses, but that is usual, part of the strange courtesy of men, it seems. They both prefer men, and long ago—not more than a year after Basch came to Dalmasca—they discovered that they do not prefer each other as more than friends. They are too different, or too alike; Basch can never tell which. If Basch could manage casual sex—he cannot, which is why it has been more than three years since last he bedded anyone; gods, so long it’s been that he simply forgets sex exists, sometimes, and maybe he’s better off that way—they might be more than friends. Shieldmates, some call it, willing outlet for each others’ lusts, but Basch always wants too much. Better to want nothing. It is good, though, knowing what they do of each other; if he did not, there would be more strain, Basch thinks, on this already precarious friendship of theirs.
“We need to make promotion decisions, tonight or tomorrow, early.” Basch manages the buttons on his shirt today. His fingers, despite the fact that he should be exhausted, are nimble again.
“My preference is for the morning.” Vossler’s voice is muffled as he pulls the padded undershirt over his head. And there is the sound of a wince, half a breath of too-sharp inhale. Basch turns, sees the bruise he left two days ago now yellowing around its edges. Vossler does not turn, does not see Basch see the reddened skin over his shoulders. It’s not bruising, but it’s close, a general angry look to the flesh, mostly faded. But if there is one thing Basch knows, it is the way the body looks in its various stages of injury and bruising. Tomorrow, there will be no sign of these marks, but where did they come from? They are not from yesterday’s sword-sparring.
Before he can think how to phrase the question, Vossler disappears into the shower room. Basch sits, contemplating leaving—if Vossler wants him to know, he’ll tell him; does he not owe him his privacy?—and realizes he still needs to know when Vossler is free in the morning, when they will meet. And maybe he can coax him to dinner, for a pint at the Sandsea, and maybe Vossler will talk. Unlikely, but stranger things have happened.
Steam clouds the room; Vossler likes the water hot even to burning, and he startles when Basch says his name.
“What?” The word is short, clipped, even for Vossler.
“When—” Vossler’s fingers are curled into the bruise on his ribs, and Basch can’t look away this time. Basch clears his throat, tries again. “When, tomorrow morning?”
“Eight, my office. We’ll do it before rounds.” He hasn’t moved his hand.
“All right.” This is not the day, he suspects, to ask more of Vossler, and he turns, opens the door to leave. The sound of the latch pulling open almost covers the sound of Vossler’s open hand slapping into the tile wall. Almost. When he turns back, Vossler is leaning into the wall, forehead resting against forearm, and he says, “Godsdammit, Basch, will you never learn to leave a man alone?”
When Basch moves closer, close enough to face him and hand him a towel, he sees Vossler’s cock, still mostly hard, and that is not what Vossler covers first. First, he presses the towel to his face and hair, and it’s a long minute until his eyes meet Basch’s. The right side of Vossler’s face is mottled red, high on his cheek, except four darker points in an even line. Knuckles. Someone backhanded him, recently, probably the same time he got the marks on his back, and the first thing Basch can think is how? A slap, relatively speaking, takes a long time to execute, a backhanded slap even longer. It’s something you always see coming, the drawing back, and unless Vossler was restrained, even Basch couldn’t land one of those on him. Unless he simply took it, and the hand is too big to be a woman’s.
What he does ask, though, is, “Who?” and the battle rage sparks in Basch’s chest.
Vossler finally wraps the towel around his hips and walks away. “It doesn’t matter.”
“It does matter. I’ll—” Of all people, Basch never expected this conversation with Vossler.
“You’ll do nothing.” Vossler sits on the bench, and it is only now that he looks exhausted. “Basch, I asked for this.”
“No one asks—” He puts his hand on Vossler’s shoulder, bare skin hot and hotter under his palm.
Vossler’s wrist shoots up, knocks his hand away. “Yes. I found someone willing to hit me, and I asked him to.”
“But.” Basch steps forward, steps back again. “Why do you keep punishing yourself? It’s over.”
Vossler barks a hollow laugh. “It’s not punishment.” He presses into the bruise again, and despite the cover of the towel, Basch can see his cock twitch again. “It’s—it’s—” He jerks his hand away, reaches for his shirt instead. “I thought I’d done with it.” He speaks more to himself, than to Basch.
“Who, though?” He can at least watch whomever it is, and then he’ll know, if he ever needs to do anything about it. There’s still red behind his eyes, he knows, just thinking about it.
Vossler buttons his shirt, meticulous as always. “I did not catch his name, and if I had, I would not tell you.”
“What purpose would it serve, Basch? You can do nothing for me, in this matter. So leave me in peace.” He looks at Basch; his eyes challenge. It’s like they’re armed.
Couldn’t he? Basch thinks hard for a minute. He has struck Vossler many times as a fellow soldier, has raised cuts and bruises on his body far worse that the one he bears now, in the simple course of training, and he nearly killed him as an enemy. But the thought of striking him, of Vossler letting him, leaves a sick knot in his stomach. After all that has happened—Vossler falling to his knees, clutching his side, the last resigned look before he’d lost consciousness, and Nalbina, that world of pain—no, he couldn’t. Even if he wanted to, and he can honestly say that he does not. But he can’t let it go.
“You are not at peace with this.”
“That, too, is none of your concern.” Vossler is cold again, even.
It is, Basch wants to say, but he does not. What he does say, though, is, “Be careful, then, and watch your face. My questions are easier to bear than Ashe’s. Or your aides’.”
“Aye. I was careless. It will not happen again.” Vossler stands, finally, fastens the last clasp on his jacket. “We could look over the promotions now, if you like.”
It’s placation, Basch knows, but he’s willing to take it. He needs the company, and he needs to know where Vossler is tonight.
* * *
All day, Basch jumps at shadows, hopes he sees one or two familiar ones, but Balthier and Fran are nowhere to be seen. Ashe never said when—only soon—and Basch knows from experience that Balthier will arrive when he needs to. Frustrating man. Basch doesn’t know why he’s so anxious, but he is, and Vossler’s in a black mood, which isn’t all that rare, but they’re feeding from each others’ tension, and that has never happened before. Usually Basch can calm him down, or at least maintain himself. There are half a dozen snapped quills on Vossler’s desk—he’s crushed the nibs between his fingers as he writes and the pads of his fingers are inked to match his scowl. Basch finds himself first crumpling then tearing the discarded drafts that litter the floor around Vossler’s chair. There’s been some mess with the new guard rotation—Vossler has to redraft the whole thing, commanding officers and down—and there was actually a fight in the infantry barracks last night. Insults and petty theft at the heart of it, and were it any other day, Basch might say something in jest, but he’s short-tempered himself. Ask later, maybe. Or wait until sparring and they can take it out in metal on metal or pepper the pells with arrows or shot. Or get a pouch of handbombs, head into the Estersand, and see what kind of crater they can make. Basch shakes his head. What’s wrong with him today?
He’s stopped destroying paper when Vossler’s aide, Daffyd—the only one he hasn’t scared off—brings them a message from the Queen. She wants them both at dinner with the court tonight. There are dignities from the Paramina Provinces visiting, and Queen Ashelia wants “military presence” to dissuade any potential ideas of action against Dalmasca and her young monarch. Basch closes his eyes, refuses to form the invective. This is his duty, he swore to do it, and it’s disrespectful to resent it. And they don’t have to do anything, save be present, and be themselves, but they both hate this part. Basch is still uncomfortable at formal functions unless he has something to do: bodyguarding, supervising the bodyguard, something. And while Vossler can actually put on courtly manners fairly well and even manage pleasant small talk when he is in the best of humors and utterly must, Basch hasn’t seen him do it since they were lieutenants and acting as non-obvious security at one of King Raminas’s functions. He knows Vossler won’t be using that ability tonight, but Ashe will certainly get her “military presence”—Vossler’s like a mortar ready to go off, Basch can’t help but think of himself as the fuse, and now they can’t even spar.
Maybe after dinner? Basch says as much, but Vossler jerks his chin in a hard negative. “Busy,” is what he says, and Basch has to think of the night before.
All but the faintest print of knuckles is gone from Vossler’s cheekbones; Basch only sees the slightly darker spots because he’s looking for them. They look almost like the faded remnants of the powder burns Balthier sported if he was quick-loading his guns. The Spica, Basch remembers, was particularly bad for that; the sky pirate’s hands were a mess of burns until he’d found the Antares. Again, he misses Balthier, wishes he’d appear around a corner, because Balthier would have the right sarcasm for the occasion or at least an inventive curse that could truly sum up how Basch feels. Of course, Balthier’s cavalier attitude doesn’t mix well with Vossler’s temper—they’d seen that more than once on the way to Raithwall’s tomb—but it might be the thing to tip Vossler into exploding. Then, at least, the tension would ebb. Basch would do it himself, he thinks, but for the fact that he’s sure he’s had something to do with Vossler’s dark seethe. Prodding where he has no right. Balthier would probably know how to handle this better than he does. Basch isn’t sure why he thinks that, but for a man fourteen years his junior, fourteen years less of experience in the world—and it isn’t like Basch has had a peaceful life, an ordinary one—nothing surprises Balthier. Maybe that’s a little sad, too, but Basch still wishes he were here. Even just to needle him. But then he takes the wish back—were the sky pirates to arrive tonight, he’d barely see them, engaged as he is with dinner, and maybe he shouldn’t have company he’s looking forward to when he feels the way he feels today, and Balthier and Fran never stay in one place for long. Wouldn’t do to waste a visit on his foul mood. He wishes, instead, for them to come tomorrow, and maybe on the day after, Basch can nurse a proper hangover after trying to keep up with Balthier and the pricey Bhujerban madhu he prefers, and Vossler can deal with his bad temper for a change. At that thought, Basch knows there’s something wrong with him, that whatever the malaise of the past week is, it’s coming to a point.
He leaves Vossler to finish writing his reprimands—woe to the barracks-fighters; there won’t be another fight for a long time, after this—and heads to the chocobo corral. He’s got recruits learning mounted shooting today, and while he regrets, for a moment, volunteering to do this lesson, he knows it will be good for him.
Cavalry work always helps. Basch knows the bird will feel everything he feels, and for its sake, he pushes all of his frustration—with what? he can’t think on it now—down. He strings his bow and rains arrows into the targets while he waits for his trainees to assemble.
* * *
He is almost reluctant to wash away the dusty, bittersweet smell of chocobo—it’s always been comforting to him—but he can’t put on his dress uniform like this. The steel gray coat has an even higher collar than his usual, and it will have to be closed tonight. He gives one last futile tug to it; it’s stifling, and it’s already been tailored with more ease than is standard, but its simple presence vexes Basch. He doesn’t know how Vossler can stand it.
They meet in the palace’s Great Hall, and Basch is again glad that neither their offices nor their rooms are in the palace proper. Here there are servants and pages everywhere, the Palace Guard that never retires for the night—even Queen Ashelia cannot truly dismiss them. Perhaps that’s why he likes his office best—at the end of a long corridor, Vossler’s office across the hall, a string of often-empty classrooms between them and the main thoroughfare. Even his rooms—a too-spacious, too-comfortable apartment at the top of the cavalry barracks—feel like they’re too highly trafficked. He can’t sleep with the sound of steps nearby, still wakes with steel in hand if someone coughs, walking by, or there’s the jangle of armor. It’s a barracks. No wonder he hasn’t slept properly in weeks.
They’re shown in to dinner and the Queen introduces them to the dignitaries—Basch remembers just in time that the people of Paramina bow, don’t clasp wrists, in greeting—before the generals take their seats at the middle of the long table. Too far from Ashe to converse with her, but she’s not at liberty for that right now, anyway; her attention is for her duty, sure as theirs is, but as dinner wears on—everything too thick and heavy in Basch’s stomach, but it’s bad manners to pick at his food—she catches his eye, thanks him with a minute nod. He and Vossler are nearly silent—they speak when spoken to—until the staff begins bringing in some frozen delicacy to end the meal. And then Vossler is all charm, all pleasantry, with the dignitary—a Bhujerban woman who seems to always be here; someone from the embassy?—to his left, with the sycophant on his right (even Dalmasca’s court has them). Basch can’t even process what Vossler’s saying; it sounds too strange on his ears to make sense of it, and when Vossler says, “Don’t you think, General fon Ronsenberg?” he can only nod.
He has no idea, though, what he thinks or even what it was that Vossler was talking about, except that there’s something else in Vossler’s face, behind the relaxed eyebrows, that Vossler’s face looks foreign when he is not scowling, and that crystallization of thought scares Basch on so many levels. Maybe, though, he is simply trying to do what Ashe might like them to do—socialize, be human—and maybe it’s working, forcing him out of that black cloud. And then someone brings in a tray of half-pints, Paramina bitters—tribute to their guests, the Queen says, and the dignitaries are all smiles, fairly honest, even, to Basch’s eyes. There won’t be trouble from Paramina, he’ll stake his sword on it. And he looks at Vossler with half a grin. If there is one thing—one small, simple pleasure—that Vossler likes, it’s a good beer. And Paramina bitters, ice-cold, is one of those. Basch is almost looking forward to it, himself.
But Vossler is not looking at him. He’s wiping the edge of his mouth with his napkin and rising. “I regret I must take my leave—duty calls. I wish you all a pleasant evening.” He turns, bows neatly to Ashe, and he won’t look at Basch, though Basch can see the scowl resettle around his eyes before he leaves the room.
The drink turns to vinegar on his tongue, too sharp, and Basch can’t bring himself to drink more than half. He has no opportunity to say more to Ashe than to bid her a good evening, and when he exits the palace, there’s a chill on the air. Or it might be in him, because he has to remind two of the guard to put their armor back on, that the heat is worse in the Westersand, and they must learn to manage the weather, even in full plate.
His feet take him to the sparring room, but it is empty—as he suspected—and he’s worried for Vossler even as he’s actually angry with him. When was he last honestly angry, selfishly angry? Certainly he’d had his anger for Archadia, for Gabranth’s cruelty, even for Landis and its inability to survive, but those are such institutional angers, so large and not always for himself, they don’t fit here. Vossler ditched him, to use the word Vaan likes so much, and it stings. He supposes, as he makes his way toward his office—there’s always something to do, there—the last time he was angry like this, he was sixteen. Before Archadia invaded, when he and Noah were just young men learning soldiering. It was over something stupid—Noah volunteered to take a patrol, knowing Basch could not go (other duties, cavalry-related, Basch is sure), and Basch sat awake, his sword unsheathed across his lap, and waited. He wasn’t even sure what for. Noah came in, near dawn, asked why he was still up, and collapsed into bed without waiting for the answer. He misses him. Godsdammit, he misses him.
Cirdan sits in the armchair Basch insisted he put in the hallway. If the aides are going to hang around all day, waiting for their recalcitrant generals to need something, Basch said they needed at least somewhere comfortable to wait. Cirdan jumps up, snaps his heels together as Basch approaches.
“Go to bed, Cirdan. I’m just doing paperwork.”
“Can I get you anything before I go, sir?” Maybe Basch is starting to look like how he feels, because there’s some concern tingeing Cirdan’s efficiency.
“I’m fine, thank you,” Basch says, and he opens his door. He waits until Cirdan’s footsteps have entirely faded, waits a minute longer, before he slams it closed. He makes himself jump, even though he knows the noise is coming. And he doesn’t feel that much better for doing it.
He pulls out the file of everything Larsa has sent to Ashe that she has sent to him. He separates it into three piles: Gabranth, Fran and Balthier, and the last—a single sheet only—when they have all three been in the same place. He rearranges everything by date, the most distant—from only a week after the Bahamut, a healer’s bonus, as paid by the emperor himself, “For extraordinary service and dedication to the well-being of a Judge-Magister of Archadia”—to the most recent. And he re-reads it all. Twice. And at some point, he dozes, because there’s a clatter in the hallway, something thumps against the wall, and it jerks Basch awake. Papers scatter, and he’s on his feet and at the door in a heartbeat, and he’s got no sword, but his hands are as good as anything, and when he opens the door, the last thing he expects to see is Vossler, only barely holding himself up against the paneling while he fumbles with his key.
Basch relaxes. “If you were just going to go out and get sotted, you might have stayed at dinner long enough for a decent beer.” He crosses the hall, plucks the keys from Vossler’s hand, and when the tumblers click open, he eases his arm around Vossler’s shoulders to help him inside. At his touch, Vossler lets out a pained grunt and he shoves Basch away. One hand on the doorframe, he pulls himself into the room. Basch follows.
There’s no scent of alcohol on him, but Vossler’s weaving through the dark room as though there is, hunched and shaky, and he stretches himself—another bitten-back hiss—face-down on his couch. Basch kneels beside him, asks, stupid, “Are you all right?”
Vossler pulls his arms up, folds them under his head, and Basch hears the pain in the movement.
“I’m tired, Basch.” In the faint light from the hall, from the window, there are darker spots on the back of Vossler’s shirt, wet, on the nondescript gray-brown. He’s not in uniform; Basch can’t remember the last time he’s seen Vossler in street clothes, and the room is stiflingly hot.
“I’ll get you some water. You’re sweated through.” It’s what he would do if Vossler were drunk, though it’s clear he’s not; Basch wishes he were because he knows how to manage that. He pushes himself to his feet, and he makes himself walk the long steps to the fountain in the building’s center.
There’s a row of pitchers, some glasses beside the fountain—there always are, bless the staff—and the water can’t flow fast enough for Basch. He tries not to spill any as he walks back, and there’s panic in his gut. He hasn’t felt panic in years. Not even on the Bahamut—that’s blood, that’s battle, and however horrible, Basch knows what it is. He tells himself, as he hits the long empty hallway, that Vossler just got into a dust-up in town, maybe said the wrong thing to the wrong person, got knocked around a little. They’ve all done that. The other guy probably looks worse.
He eases the door open, reaches for the lamp, strikes the flame, just as Vossler says, “No light.” Too late. In the yellow-orange glow, even from across the room, Basch can see the spots on his shirt aren’t merely water-dark. They’re rusting red over his shoulder blades. Basch is beside the couch and he almost drops the pitcher; what spills soaks into pants’ legs.
“What in the hell happened to you?” Basch knows he’s overstepping everything, but he doesn’t care. He folds the bottom edge of Vossler’s shirt up once, twice, so intent on seeing what’s under the blood-stained cloth over his shoulders that he almost misses the wide, livid bruising across Vossler’s lower back. “Daughter of Mateus,” he breathes, and he holds his hand a finger’s width above one of Vossler’s kidneys, where the flesh is swollen, purple-red, and radiating heat like coals. You don’t hit someone there unless you’re a complete idiot. Or you actually want to do him harm.
“Leave me be, Basch.” Vossler’s hands are clenched into fists, and he half rolls, turning his back toward the couch’s slope.
Basch puts his hand on the back of Vossler’s leg and draws him back down. “You know I can’t. Let me help, or I’ll sit here all night.” He might, anyway, but he won’t tell Vossler that. “The bottom of your back—it’s bad. Dangerous. I won’t knock you out and drag you to the infirmary if you let me help.” He readies the sleep spell in his mind, anyway. Bless you, Penelo, for teaching me.
Vossler stiffens, Basch can see his head shaking, but finally, he relents. “Just there, then. Leave the top.” He holds still while Basch remembers the words.
The healing energy leaves his fingers, and he wishes Fran were here. She’s so much better at it than he is, but the swelling starts to go down, the bruising fades as he watches. They’ll still be visible, and it’ll hurt for days, but Basch won’t have to worry about Vossler’s kidneys shutting down.
For a long while after, they sit in silence, Basch kneeling beside the couch, both unmoving, until Vossler reaches for the pitcher. Basch pours, wants to hold the cup to his lips but doesn’t. Vossler wouldn’t let him, he knows. Vossler winces to a sitting position—this is worse than lying down, and Basch tries not to think about why—careful to hold his back away from the couch, and drinks. When the cup is empty, he starts to undo the buttons on his shirt, stops.
“I’ll be fine, now. And I know you’ll be across the hall if I need you, no matter how much I wish you’d go back to your rooms.”
The anger’s flaring up in Basch again, same as before. “Tell me you asked for that. Honestly.” He spits the words. He shouldn’t do this, not now, but he has to do it now or he never will.
Vossler’s shirt hangs open, and he closes his eyes, grimaces, while he peels it off. “I chose poorly tonight.” He balls up the shirt in his fist, pours some water on it, and dabs at his stomach where an unmistakable silvery residue clings to the hair.
“You could have been killed.”
“But I was not.” Vossler pulls off his boots, touches his fingertips to the place Basch healed.
“Who was it?” Despite Vossler’s apparent calm, Basch sees the shake in his hand when he feels where the worst of the bruising had been.
“Someone who is already gone, I am sure.” Vossler stretches out again, pillows his head on his arms, closes his eyes, but at least he faces Basch. “But if I suspected this one were still in Rabanastre in the morning, I would act on it myself.”
The admission is quiet, even, and Basch is colder than he’s been in recent memory, the fire in him gone out. This is worse than he thought, and he forms his next question carefully, but it comes out garbled anyway. “Is there anywhere else, injury—?”
“Nothing that needs magick or salves or anything else.”
The worst of Basch’s suspicions are denied, then, but the more minor ones are confirmed. “This,” he trails off, pours more water and puts the cup in easy each. “This is not what you wanted, when you left dinner?”
“You’re never going to let me sleep, are you?” There’s almost affection in Vossler’s voice.
“I want to understand.”
“I should be the last one to explain it. I don’t know what I want.” Vossler raises his head far enough to rest his forehead on his arms, speaks into the cushions. “I’ve never had it, so I can’t describe it to you.” The cuts on Vossler’s back are long, thin, parallel on the latitude of muscle. Those are from a belt.
“Where is there pleasure in these?” He picks up Vossler’s ruined shirt, wets a new portion of it, and dabs carefully at the dried blood.
“There is none, now. And there won’t be. These are my warning.” He turns his face fully away. “Men like us don’t find what we seek.”
Basch makes the whole shirt damp, snaps it crisply in the air, and Vossler flinches. Stupid. “Sorry,” he says, and drapes the air-chilled cloth over his friend’s back. Vossler exhales—it’s not a sigh—and Basch says, “Men like us? What do I seek?”
“I don’t know, but you’re looking, as surely as I am.” He yawns, says, “Please, leave me. If only to sit awake and think at me all night.”
Basch stands, wants to touch Vossler, but can’t decide where, so he says, instead, “Bows tomorrow?” He’s not foolish enough to think he’ll forgo sparring, but maybe he’ll accept target practice.
“Go to hell, Ronsenberg. Maces.”
Everyone he knows is so godsbedamned stubborn. Basch douses the lamp when he leaves.