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It is a Very Serious Meeting.

Judge Bunansa, whose name would be permanently stricken from the record as ever having anything to do with that exalted position, had wildly abused his authority as a Judge to a most odious and dishonorable end, degrading himself to the level of a common thief, and had abandoned all honor in a blatant act of treason, stealing a rare and valuable prototype airship and disappearing without a word of explanation.

It is a theft from the heart of the Empire itself, an insult to the Emperor himself, and Cid is very sober and very pale very early the next morning, standing before three Judges and two Judge Magisters and answering every question either yes, your Grace or no, your Grace.

My most humble apologies, your Eminence.

Ffamran gave no word, my lord, no clue as to reason for this inexplicable disgrace.

I could never imagine my son would shame our family name so.

The security of every ship hanger, every laboratory, even the Draklor, is immediately up for heavy review and reconsideration. Cid's own loyalty is not quite called into question, only the spotless nature of his lifetime of service rendering his failure as a father deeply regrettable but not quite worthy of formal rebuke.

It lasts for a Very Long Time. The Judges are without question the very lynchpin of House Solidor, if not the Empire itself, and though it is expected that one or two of them in a generation might try to slaughter the Imperial family and gain the throne, there is a wide and respectable chasm between perfectly civilized betrayal and utter anarchy. Ffamran Mied Bunansa, whose name is no longer to be spoken aloud anywhere within the court, has betrayed the rules of honor that fall back to the very foundation of the Empire.

At the end, when everything there is to say has been said at least twice, Cid rises from where he has been kneeling in front of the Imperial throne. Shuffling more than a little stiffly, he retreats like a well-whipped animal, taking the punishment for a son who is now as good as dead in the eyes of the Empire. Vayne Solidor falls into step behind him as he leaves the room, his expression grim, no doubt to continue the tirade in softer, more threatening terms in private. Perhaps even to begin the interrogation, to recover the YPA-G847 and her rebel crew as swiftly as is possible. A silent procession of two, all the way to Draklor, to the empty hanger where the very ship should still have been docked, in preparation for its disassembly.

Cid isn't sure who loses their composure first, but all it takes is a single snort, and within moments they are both cackling like drunken chocobos, Vayne bracing himself against the table with an arm pressed against his side. Cid would take better note of it, his liege rarely one for smiling, let alone helpless mirth, but it's difficult to see past the tears of hilarity spattering his glasses, and he laughs like a man possessed, until his lungs ache. After a very long moment, Vayne is the first one to get himself under control, wiping at his own eyes, letting out a sigh.

"He took the moogles too, didn't he."

It sets them both off again, giggling like naughty schoolboys, the sense of victory and rebellious zeal palpable in the air. It makes him feel young again, strangely no less satisfying even though Cid knows it was an act against him, as much as anyone. He finally comes back to earth with that thought, his son would not likely enjoy the entertainment he's providing.

He has no son, not anymore. Imperial decree. No one to inherit. No one to pass on his name. If Ffamran dies out there, in some distant land, Cid will not even have rights to the body.

"Sky piracy." Vayne says, with something very close to respect. "You would think I would have thought of that."

Cid shakes his head. "You would have picked a better ship. Though, the way they acted, you would have thought he took the Leviathan for a joyride."

"I hear Judge Ghis was going to snap it up at a discount - he wished to give it as a present to one of his mistresses." Vayne tries, and fails, to stop a snicker. "You can see why this might have upset him. He needs all his bargaining chips."

Strange, to think that he could be so amused, that this could be anything like relief, after months of his terribly unhappy child chafing at his duties, and Cid helpless to offer any alternative. His son saw the position for the leash that it was, Cid knows that now, not as an honor but a tightening loop of courtly duties and fealties and politics. A part of growing up, one Cid has always pretended to ignore, hiding in whatever lab will have him, long accustomed to the tedious nature of such business, the compromises one makes with one's own desires and dreams, in the hopes of eventual forward progress. Vayne, enmeshed in such things far further than even he will ever be, has come to make a game of it - it is impossible to stay unsullied, and still have any utility or power within the court, but he has been savvy enough to at least make them work for it.

Ffamran's last words had been a month's worth of tirades, outraged over the gross injustices perpetrated by this Judge or that, the random petty cruelties, the hazing he'd been subject to, as one of the youngest on record. Indignant at the intricacies of law that always seemed to fall on the side of the most powerful, the ones who already had more than they knew what to do with. Disbelief, that no one seemed to know or care that they edged ever closer to war with Rozarria, that he'd heard Bergan laughing - laughing - over how long it would take for all those in between to pack up their cities whole and scurry for cover.

And he'd waited, then, argued himself silent and waited for Cid to fail him for the final time. A challenge, as if it wasn't already somehow all his fault, as if the very first dual-core airship, nethicite and magicite, that had flown from Archades had not sparked an arms race that seemed only able to end in disaster.

As if there wasn't an increased guard now around the labs - and him - and as if Cid hadn't spent hours already defending his research staff to the Judges after the first few leaks, the suggestion that Rozarria had started in on a formula of their own. Impossible to keep such a thing from the world for long, not with the sort of money those merchant-kings could afford to throw down to insure it, not when this had been built up by both sides into nothing less than a fight for their very survival. Five years, Cid gives Rozarria five years before they have it perfected, another year to process all the raw materials - and here was his son still waiting. Wanting to save the world, full of youthful, self-righteous fury with his father lost in unethical, cowardly mediocrity, in helplessness, in madness.

The Emperor knows. The Emperor knows the secret King Raminas has been hiding, and instead of checking his ambitions it has made him only that much more eager to pursue the shards, perhaps to reach for the Sun-Cryst itself, now that there is proof it is more than a fairy tale, some ancient weapon long gone to seed. Cid has known the Emperor at some level, nearly all of his life, and though he cannot say he has ever truly known the man, it never seemed that he would be quite this foolish, that old age would leave him grasping so desperately for any sort of immortality.

Cid had gone in good faith, foolish now, he sees that - but already there had been questions about his research, about his /results/ and it was either give up some of what he knew willingly, or betray it all in the halls of some forgotten dungeon. He holds no illusions about any kind of invulnerability or immunity due to rank or position. It is a choice, to stand by Vayne, though he could hardly imagine doing otherwise, and there are consequences and repercussions and certainly those within the court who would very much like to see him disappear.

"You knew it, didn't you. You knew all along, exactly where this was going." His son had been in full armor, that last time, voice echoing strangely behind the metal plate, as merciless an arbitrator as any Judge could be. "You mad bastard, it will be war. Will it be enough for you, then? War with Nabradia? With Dalmasca?"

Cid regrets it now, his last words, the last fight in a house he rarely occupied anymore, though it was perhaps the most honest he could have been. Ffamran did not want to hear excuses, that he did not particularly wish war with anyone, but there was no undoing what he had uncovered - or that a far greater danger lay in wait, and that they could not simply stand back and hope for it to sleep undiscovered. That even without it, the Judges would still be Judges and men would still be men, and tensions between Archadia and Rozarria must come to some sort of head, eventually. Ffamran did not wish to be patient, to be told he was only one man - the gods themselves only knew how Cid had managed to raise such an idealist.

"You are mistaken. It takes two sides to have a war."

Nabradia? Dalmasca? It will be a slaughter, there is no question of that, and it is inevitable, and that is why his son's final answer was his helm, torn free and flung across the room to shatter against the mirror on the far side, accompanied by a wordless roar of rage that seemed to hang in the air, long after he had gone.

When had he decided, when had Ffamran chosen that particular ship as his chance for escape? It had issues - beautifully made and expertly built, not one of Cid's designs but truly marvelous, unique - but there were definite problems that had kept it mostly on the ground, more of an intellectual puzzle than a useful machine. Cid had not seen it before it was mostly complete, wishes he had the chance to witness its construction, a truly original design. Ambitious and daring, a garage kit, a hobbyist's dream given leave to grow to full size. Completely irrational, too much of it necessarily bespoke to ever consider bringing it into mass production - and Cid wonders how often his son must have snuck in to work on it, studying its particulars, learning its quirks. The thought of it fills him with pride - his son never bothered being smart when he could be clever, preferring to play the cocksure and careless victor, but at least in airships there is a tie to bind them, one small connection that might last even though he has slipped the door and flown.

There are probably other metaphors to describe all this, than those with caged birds, but Cid is not a poet, and Ffamran has seen fit to make those all too apt.

"He was a terrible Judge," Vayne says fondly. "Just awful. Always making faces at me inside that helmet. I could tell."

Cid had hoped to no purpose, that the two men might one day find some common ground, but it was not to be - he didn't have the ego to think it jealousy, that his son cared who he spent his time with, only that Vayne had no doubt been tainted by association. His son believes him the most terrible of villains, caring only for his work, oblivious to who is hurt or how. Whatever blood is spilled over this - and there will be, there will - as far as Ffamran is concerned, it is all on his hands.

"We'd met, just before he must have - he seemed startled. He must have had the blueprints with him even then."

Vayne stretches back, examining the hanger - the ship not particularly large but by no means unimpressive. His son will have a bit of a time keeping it hidden, though Cid assumes most of the bluff and bluster of the court was meant for him anyway. The best chance they've had in ages, to remind him who his masters are, and what they can do when displeased.

Less and less, really, with Ffamran suddenly rendered nonexistent, and Cid having discovered the greatest scientific achievement of the age, by cribbing notes from imaginary people. At least this will make all his lapses easier, his conversations with no one, the sad ramblings of a man just a little bit broken - and truly, it may be the best of fates for all involved. This business with Venat, it has grown to consume him, and Cid would not have the eyes of jealous gods or emperors straying anywhere near his son. It is better, that Ffamran should not have to fight for a war he does not believe in, a war that may well bring unimaginable ruin - why has Raminas said nothing? He could make some warning gesture, some threat surely, if he indeed held the power to do so.

A hand touches his arm as he passes, to make him pause, and Cid realizes he has been doing nothing of consequence all this time. Staring into space, or fiddling with the tools left, discarded on a table, as if his son had left some secret message there. Pacing, shuffling in circles like an old fool, fussy and uncertain. The concern in Vayne's eyes is almost more than he can bear.

"It's better this way."

He sighs. "I know. He has… this has been a long time coming. It is a good ship, and he is a smart boy. They'll never find him."

Cid will never see his son again.

Vayne's hand tightens, but gently, just enough to remind him. Neither one of them is alone in this.

"There will come a time, I believe, when we will name this day in his honor."

———————————————————

At first, he takes pains trying to hide it, but as the months pass into years, there are so many better things to damn Cid than a few clippings on a wall, embroidered stories of the latest exploits of a certain infamous sky pirate from an extremely unreliable newspaper, full of purple prose. He calls himself Balthier now, a little esoteric, it took Cid a while to find the play even when he was sure he'd heard the name before - he's kept a few of his son's possessions, most importantly that chapbook, an old copy of the script left dog-eared from reading and re-reading. It isn't a very good play, stuffed to the edges with dramatic entrances, derring-do, romance and treasure and he hopes for all of this, for Ff- for Balthier, who seems closer by the day to having all sorts of overwrought nonsense written about him as well.

Cid hopes the plays might even reach the Empire, someday.

"The grand sky-city of Bujerba was set upon at midnight, under the light of the full moon by that charming and notorious rogue known only as Balthier…" Vayne reads by way of his greeting, dropping gracefully into the nearest chair in this, one of Draklor's lower and more well-protected laboratories.

It is all Nethicite now, all the time, and Cid wonders if some of the processes, some of the work he'd done in Magicite is what allowed Venat to speak to him in the first place. It builds up in the blood, the Mist, and though it's been linked, anecdotally, to at least a dozen horrible fates, there's no way to avoid it completely and still work in the field. Cid is as careful as he can be, has had a few technicians complain of headaches or dizziness when handing the Nethicite, but so far there have been no truly ugly surprises.

Venat is… Cid is still not quite certain what Venat is. It does not talk like he would expect a god to talk, more like a fellow scholar than anything holy or wise or even commanding. Offering detailed techniques, explanations on how to create Nethicite, yet utterly silent when he risks the odd question about its endless past, the Occuria it says it has split itself from, or why it has chosen to reveal the truth of what has been lost, simply for the purpose of destroying what seems its own source of power.

In order to build the weapon necessary to destroy the Sun-Cryst, one must learn all the secrets of Nethicite first. It seems a risk, and he had said as much, to entrust any human being to so much power, to assume they would destroy such a weapon. Venat had not answered, not for the longest time, until Cid thought he was once again alone.

I needed one with skill, and cleverness, and determination, to see such a thing to its end. I thought once, that I could judge wisdom. I was wrong. I can only tell you what I know, and leave fate to her duties.

A god, putting the final judgment in the hands of unknowable destiny - and it does not sound so much ineffable as weary, eternity as a burden, in ways it had not expected. He has made Venat no promises, there have been no vows despite the knowledge it had provided. Such a weapon as the Dynast-King wielded, it would guarantee stability for the Empire, that a young Emperor might rule secure over a second long era of peace and prosperity. Cid knows Vayne thinks along the same lines - though then, the question still remains, with the drums of war sounding louder than ever, how has there been no sign of this power from Dalmasca's king, the inheritance Venat says he still possesses.

He knows. He is wise, who understands without seeing. You would use it once. Venat intoned, its unearthy voice oddly flat, as if well-used to having its words understood only when it no longer mattered. Once, and then you too would see, but then it would be all too late.

"… accompanied on this daring raid by his… beautiful Viera companion?" Vayne finishes, surprise in his voice. "Well done, Balthier. Perhaps I ought change my name."

"He travels with a Viera now? Truly?" Cid looks up, that particular detail enough to be worthy of a break. "'Charming and notorious rogue' eh? Marvelous. He gets it from me, you know. Any pictures?"

"He would be a poor sky pirate if there were." Vayne says. "However, I can tell you there was a particular burglary that was kept out of the public eye, that you might be interested in."

"Anyone we know?"

Vayne is fighting to keep the smile off his face. "Judge Bergan's summer home."

"No. Are you sure?"

"Quite. Cleaned it out from from top to bottom. It will certainly keep him flying for some time, Bergan has expensive taste."

Cid laughs, as he always does when he learns of yet another reckless move, his son's dauntless determination to live to his own romantic ideals. It is the closest he has to freedom, these days. The Emperor's gaze has been on him, heavier than ever these days, with the initial gains of their research with Nethicite not nearly enough, and the greater goal, to discover any of the Shards, having yet to strike fertile ground even with Venat's assistance. He does not know if the Emperor believes him truly mad or simply stalling for time, but he has seen less and less of the rest of his staff as time has passed. Still polite, of course, still professional when testing or relaying results, but wary, unsure - and he can hardly blame them.

"Did he steal that horrible… you know, there was that golden statue… creature." Cid lifts his arms, an approximate gesture of absurd overindulgence. "Antlers. I believe it had antlers."

"Ripped it right out of the garden as they made their escape."

"Spectacular."

His son, the notorious sky pirate Balthier. Cid could not be more proud.