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stark raving sane

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The conjectures on the life and habits of the young Vayne Solidor are endless and widely varied, everything from debauched deviant to bizarre ascetic, and all possible variations in between.

It would amuse those who assumed he dined each day on nothing less than a dozen courses, only the most expensive food for the most discerning palate, to know that one of his preferred meals was cleaning up whatever remained on Cid's plate, the coagulated remains of a dinner picked over while he worked. Absolutely no one's idea of high cuisine, and flirting with inedibility by the hour His Excellency might come along to scoop up the plate.  Cid had stared at him that first meal, Vayne taking his time with an unremarkable beef stew, soaking up every crumb with a piece of bread the scientist hadn't touched, and staring back, utterly nonplussed as he chewed.

"That… is highly unsanitary."

Vayne shrugged. "I don't know, I think you make an excellent poison tester."

After that, it was mostly a matter of taking two bowls whenever he knew Vayne was in Archades, and likely to visit. Usually no less than twice in a fortnight, and often lingering into the late hours. In his final years at university, Cid had kept a cot in the back office - more a storage space half-cleared than anything truly habitable. Simply easier to keep working until his fingers refused to keep up with his brain, and the closer he was to his lab in the morning, the less likely he would lose all his train of thought in the hours he was forced to spend asleep.

Cid has a full bed now, a room with a desk and a shower, equidistant from all the most important places in Draklor. Which means he can keep to his own schedule, his own staff working long hours of their own, but eventually even the most focused of them do call it a night, and he is left alone. Cid works well alone - it's not that he dislikes people, his staff are among the brightest in the world - but he simply loses track of endless swaths of time, caught up in his research with no interruptions. Reverse engineering, to some degree - they are surrounded by the past, the suggestions of some grand, lost era saturate the whole of Ivalice, and every secret he can tease free reveals two more. It is a wonderful time to be alive and learning.

"You're not missing much out there today. Just rain and bad conversation." Vayne throws off a sodden coat, reaches for the plate on the table nearest the door, poking at it with a fork. "Mashed potatoes and… meat. Of a sort. You know, Cid, there are places in this world where the food has actual flavor."

He doesn't bother taking his eyes off his work. "Good evening, Vayne."

On occasion, there is little mark of time passing at all, other than visits from Archadia's heir apparent. Vayne stretches out, sighing softly, and rolls his shoulders, the compact mannerisms of a man twice his age. He is out of the classroom and into the world proper, which involves a good deal of sitting in on his father's meetings, attending Senate meetings, and occasionally handling grievances from the outer provinces. Cid knows that beneath any of these simple-sounding tasks lies a endless sea of obligations, favors and alliances and matters of etiquette. No love lost between the Senate and House Solidor, and the Emperor is not about to mete out power, even to his own son, in more than carefully measured amounts.

Ffamran, Cid's own son, is excelling now in his mid-level classes, a rising star amongst his fellow pupils, gifted academically and athletically and and Cid can only assume socially as well, considering the notes that pile up at his door, irate fathers demanding satisfaction for their daughters' honor. He has walked with his son in town, on rare occasion, and has seen more than one of these girls rush up say their hellos. Quite pleased with the state of their honor, if their smiles and curtsies and giggles are anything to measure by.

His son is a young man now, preparing for his own life and future, and Cid tries to tell himself that is what marks the distance between them, the impatient way he seems only to want the end of Cid's advice. The fixed expression he gets, nearly all the time they are together now. He wants to be out in the world, to run wild - there is something pent-up in Ffamran, and Cid cannot reach him - maybe never could - and it seems the only thing he can offer now is his distance. It is a father's duty - he knows this - to step back, to let go.

It has been whispered already, quiet suggestions that Ffamran would make a fine Judge. Almost unheard of at such a young age, but he is exceptional and charismatic, and his father is well situated with the Emperor, has served him well. An exalted position, with nearly unlimited possibilities for advancement. At the very least, he would be able to get out of Archades, and be free to make his mark on Ivalice.

Despite his complaints, Vayne has taken up a plate, shoveling the food down in an thoroughly indecorous manner as he paces slowly back and forth across the lab, in front of what seems as much an enormous sculpture as anything, the outer chambers and inner workings of what will one day be the new engine for the Shiva, one of their lighter-class airships. The term only works as a matter of comparison, the idea that such a massive thing will someday fly nothing less than delightfully audacious.

Cid married the only thing in this world more beautiful than an airship. He has loved them perhaps from his first days in the crib, a paper mobile of the Empire's most impressive models spinning above him through those formative years. Breathtakingly elegant, even in their simpler forms. Cid can appreciate their base function as reliable and safe transport, the smoothness with which the world turns beneath them, but in the hands - or paws - of the right designer, an airship is nothing less than a work of perfect art. He has been caught more than once simply staring, a stupid smile on his face, when presented with this - the heart of such a stunning creation, equal to that of any living creature. Cid is in no small esteem from the Moogles on his staff, recognizing a fellow devotee, sharing the belief that no one in any age, in any world will ever create something quite so worthy of admiration.

It has been a while, since last they spoke, though Cid would have to check a calendar to be exactly sure of the days.

"How fares your brother?"

Little Larsa, who follows in Vayne's footsteps like a chocobo with its chick trailing behind. Adored wherever he goes, by all who are fortunate enough to meet him. Shockingly well-mannered, he even comes to the lab now and again, and though he doesn't seem as intrigued about science as his elder brother, he is just as intent to listen to anything Cid wishes to tell him, and quite happy to bear witness to any experiment that promises to produce an interesting result. Or explode, though everyone likes to show up for that.

All praise on their youngest lord is glowing, and even the coarser critiques, the private asides are crude but similar - it seemed that somehow, House Solidor had managed to birth an heir who was actually human, and not simply a reasonable facsimile.

"Quite well. He sends his regards. I will have to bring him by, before you finish your work here. He would very much like to see this."

It is, if not the preferred intrigue of court, certainly one of the most long-running - what will be the boy's fate? Larsa's birth was practically a scandal on its own, Gramis past what most would consider his prime, though any of those whispered questions swiftly gave way to concerns of a bloodier nature - how would Vayne, so recently all but ensured his ascension, deal with such an intrusion? Every inquiry gave way to a different answer - he would do it when the boy was old enough to walk, or run, or he was attempting to find a scapegoat for the deed, or he was truly indifferent to his brother, too young to be of any real harm. That view had become less likely, as Larsa had grown and proven himself popular among the people, no arrogance or cruelty in him at all.

The common theory now, that either Vayne has brainwashed his brother, commanding his loyalty through lies and manipulations, reducing him to little more than a kindly puppet, or that he is merely biding his time, prepared to kill the boy whenever he becomes inconvenient. Cid has never considered himself a particularly perceptive man, when it comes to dealing with people, is certainly not an optimist, when it comes to human nature. Still, it was hardly a coincidence, say, that as soon as Larsa was making his first steps into court life, Vayne had taken to saber fencing in the outdoor ring, proving his easy strength, speed and reach with a blade to any interested passerby.

Life in the court is a matter of public theatre, always, and there Vayne has made his sentiments quite clear. So clear, in fact, that Cid thinks they might perfectly conceal the reality. In a world where everything has a double meaning, a hidden agenda, what better way to hide than not to hide at all? The lie is that Vayne loves his brother with unswerving loyalty, concealing the truth, that Vayne would happily sacrifice himself, would stand fast against any enemy to keep his brother from harm.

He is nothing but open and generous with Larsa, giving freely of what time he has to call his own, his brother's interests set before all others. Anyone who considered the boy a brainless doll would be amused to hear the arguments Cid has been privy to, everything from historical debates to current discussions of taxes and levies, Larsa quite able to defend himself and his opinions and Vayne often switching sides, just as his little brother is willing to concede the point, ready to argue things back full-circle. Over time Larsa has come to match him, even get the better of him on one or two occasions, and Vayne is as skilled with rhetoric as any man Cid has ever seen.

He teaches his brother everything, not just propaganda, not just the view of Archadia as triumphant ruler-of-all. There are always new instructors, fresh lessons and perspectives, no subject untouchable, even a few on the validity of monarchy and the nation-state, the authority of government and the right to rule that would likely take the Emperor's breath away. Vayne may be raising Larsa with a goal in mind, but it has nothing to do with tractability.

It is pleasant to watch them together, whether locked in debate or with Larsa discussing some interesting part of his day, Vayne content to listen to every word, with the trace of a smile on his face. It is genuine, the affection for his brother, and Cid believes it may be the closest Vayne can get, that he can allow himself to get, to the person he wishes to be.

"I've managed to locate a viera, and persuade her to become his tutor for a time, to teach him a bit about her world."

Viera were difficult to come by in Archades, preferring more open lands and hunting grounds to the confines of the capital, and even when they did visit the city, they did not tend to speak about their pasts or their home. Certainly not to outsiders.

"Interesting choice."

"Blame the theatre. 'Under the New Green Leaves?'"

Cid nods. "Ffamran's favorite play as a boy. It was the sky pirates he liked best."

"They've just opened their run, and he's seen it three times already. I could hardly tear him away. No actual Viera, just costumes - you should have seen him, when I told him he could speak with a real one."

"I am surprised she agreed, at any price. They are a secretive people."

"It took some doing. At first, I believe she thought I was looking for a concubine."

Cid snorts, and Vayne makes a face.

"You laugh because you didn't see her claws."

No wife or fiance, no mistresses. No lovers at all, of any kind, as far as Cid knows. For all appearances, Vayne is wed to the state, which means the rumors surrounding him are endless, explicit and quite creative. Anything and anyone he stands next to for more than a few moments, he is attached to, along with all number of whispered perversities - and since Vayne has made a noticeable habit of frequenting his lab, it it practically a given that Cid is among them, possibly the current favorite.

It's almost flattering, at his age.

He stands up from where he's been hunched over, checking calculations, stretching out the aches in his back, not quite permanently at an off-angle though Cid can feel it coming. Old age is going to be such a waste of time. He should have spent more of his research on turning himself into a brain in a jar. It would have been more useful than dealing with creaking joints and aching muscles.

"I've heard, Cid, that you've decided to go quite mad."

Vayne's tone is mild, but Cid stops - stops breathing - his hand hovering above the spread of his tools. It isn't fair, for this to find him here. The one place he'd always had, to make sense of the world.

Quiet enough, he can hear Vayne shift where he stands. "I'm rather jealous. I've been trying for ages."

"It's not funny, your Grace."

"And you only bother with titles when you're trying to keep your distance." Cid glances back, and any trace of amusement leaves Vayne's eyes. "I've frightened you."

"Was it Ffamran who told you?" Cid does not turn around. He has not seen much of his son, but enough. The boy is very observant. It used to be that the shadow would only speak to him when he was alone, and at a whisper - but things have progressed since then, and he has not always been able to stop himself. He is a fool, so easily baited by interesting conversation.

"One of your aides, approached me in earnest concern. She says you have been spending more and more time in your private lab below, with research you have little interest in discussing. She says it is unlike you, to be so secretive. And she says… you speak to the air at times, as if conversing with another, but there is no one there. Does your son know about this?"

"I have done my best to be discreet, but…" Cid stops. He can feel his hands tremble, just slightly, and drops them to his sides, and turns. It would be worth anything if Vayne were just a tiny bit less observant.

"I had a colleague once, you know. Just after I'd left university, and he… he lost control of himself. A brilliant man. He was responsible for innovations in airships that have lasted until this day, standard in every single new design. His work was careful, dedicated. No one… there was no great warning. Little things - he became distracted, missed some tests in the lab, left a few garbled messages. I was not one of his close friends, but as far as I know… no one suspected more than overwork. No one knew anything was wrong."

"Cid."

"He used a Firaga, and burnt his wife and children to death in the storage shed behind their house." A part of Cid has been waiting for just such a day, knowing there will be payment demanded, a reckoning for the secrets he's been given. "He said they weren't his family, that they were just some old bones. I… I visited once, after they took him away. He needed to be locked up, of course, but… they didn't know what to do. The doctors. How to help him. So they… tried things, and at the end of the day, they put back whatever was left of him, to try again the next. At times, he even remembered what he had done. Better to be insane, wouldn't it be, than remember? It was terrible. A mind like that."

Vayne looks back, arms loosely crossed, obviously not at all disturbed by the thought he's talking to a madman, with several large pieces of dangerous machinery in an easy arm's reach. What must he have lived through already, to be so calm?

"Will you talk to me, doctor? I am not well in the habit of betraying my friends. Or I wouldn't be, if I had any."

It makes him chuckle despite himself. Vayne is not so much older than his own son, and yet it's nearly impossible not to address him as a contemporary, and not at all due to his station. Cid has met plenty of men with titles and lineages who are most productive when they're blocking drafts, or holding open doors. No reason for Vayne to be here at all, to be concerned over him. He ought to be out looking for a replacement, or assigning an aide to the task, surely a hundred scientists near his caliber who'd jump at the chance.

No reason the boy should be here at all. The heir to the entire damn empire, spending his free time with a lunatic fool who tinkers in the dark?

At the other side of the room, a shadow appears, slowly but inexorably coalescing into a figure, and Cid feels his mouth go dry, shuts his eyes.

Tell him.

"Cid? What do you see?" Gods, Vayne actually sounds curious.

Tell him what you've learned. What I've shown you.

"Go away." He hisses, helplessly, knowing that it won't work, feeling that thing still lingering, watching and waiting and ever so patient. It has a name. It knows secrets, things about the world and the past, but how can he know for sure? How can he tell, just because he thinks he's discovered something, because he thinks he can hold the proof in his hand?

"You need to trust someone." Vayne has stepped right up to him, not quite touching, but close. When Cid opens his eyes, Vayne is there, his gaze intent, studying him so close that it's amazing the boy can't already tell everything, isn't calling for some guard to drag him away. "Otherwise, you might as well go mad."

It is a voice that knows, what it means to stand alone. It is an offer. He has had many conversations with Vayne in this room, sharing confidential information and what have to be state secrets, things no one but the Emperor likely ought to hear. The boy knows more about his life and work than anyone else - if Cid had to name a friend, not simply a colleague - who else? But this is more, possibly the most important… and it is dangerous. It is the point on which everything in his life rests, and he is afraid.

If he is wrong-

"Ask me."

"What?"

"Anything." Vayne holds his gaze, standing so close there's no room for phantoms or gods, as if he could keep madness away by pure force of will.

"You murdered your brothers."

A twin tragedy, so close together, one brother murdered by pirates he had been foolish enough to treat as allies, another dying in a shipwreck, right in front of Vayne's eyes. So many rumors, so much speculation, the overwhelming final consensus that it was House Solidor and at least there was still an heir and it did no good to look too close.

Vayne smiles, and his eyes are bitter and dark, because he already knew this was what it would be. "A waste of a perfectly good question, don't you th-."

"You did it on your father's order."

The bitterness fades into an instant of surprise. It is one thing to recognize a struggle for power that turned bloody, a nasty bit of House business - far another to accuse an Emperor of filicide-by-proxy. Always ambiguous, Gramis never giving away any more than he has to, nothing that might serve to tarnish his name. He has never even publicly supported Vayne as his heir, as one with any right to rule, let alone that he honorably served the Empire by dispatching his treasonous brothers. By using this son as his weapon, Gramis rendered him dangerous - perhaps dangerous enough to be dealt with in the future, if he himself should prove disloyal.

Yet it is the look on Vayne's face that decides it, the surprise there, that it matters - that anyone bothers to mark the difference between father and son, man and Empire. It matters to Cid whether it was his choice or not, and that is obviously not what Vayne expected. Cid checks the impulse to reach for the boy, to give him a hug - reassurance and support, the way he'd done for his own son, what seems like a lifetime ago.

"All right. I will show you what I've been working on - and then… then you can tell me what happens next."

———————————————————-

It is teardrop-shaped, though still rough and unpolished, and Vayne holds it between three fingers, like the setting of a precious stone, gazing in rapt fascination at the laboratory lights through its bottle-glass depths.

Nethicite. A literal gift of the gods, mythical and long-lost and now here, right in their hands. An amusing thing - if anything about this were amusing - that though the process is exacting, and dangerous, it isn't really all that difficult. Cid still feels exhilarated at the thought of it, even if it comes from a formula not at all of his own devising, even if it has cost him his sanity to achieve such a feat.

Vayne is pouring power into it, an occasional flicker of orange light between his palm and the base of the stone, but otherwise no outward change, the Nethicite absorbing all the magic he can throw at it without the slightest alteration.

"This changes everything." Vayne says softly. "Everything."

"Jagd-resistant airships. I'm almost certain of it, I just have to calculate the balances, and get a few second opinions from the Moogles, since… I think I may even be able to surprise them, this time. It… it just seemed silly to bother, if it was all just a delusion."

Cid wonders if he will come to regret this moment, the feeling of relief and victory, that he had not simply lost his mind. Of course, he knows Vayne was not thinking of its practical applications.

"I cannot keep this from the Emperor. My father will discover it. I am surprised he hasn't already." Vayne relaxes his hand, lets it fall, only to catch it up again, a snap of his hand that is almost frustration. His eyes are on some far horizon, already calculating. "If it were only this, but when have we ever been so lucky…" He looks up, a bitter, amused smile on his face. "What else does he say, this… unusual friend of yours?"

That it means war, Vayne. War with the gods themselves, and this Venat, for all his knowledge, this phantom has been quite reticent as to their chances of victory.

"What do you know of the Dynast-King?"