Balthier sat bolt upright, clutching his chest and glancing around in the room of vague objects and silver beams. He was completely soaked in sweat and he began taking deep breathes to calm his racing heart. Five months and he still woke up with violent nightmares. Like clockwork he would jolt awake at a god's awful hour of the night with crisp images of the last Ocurria gutting him or the dragon breaking all the bones in his body with one savage bite. He had thought that taking the step forward and putting the journey behind him, would put even the memories to rest, but he almost inevitably woke up with some fresh violent image.
He was so absorbed in his thoughts it took him a moment to realize someone was tugging on his shirt sleeve. Ashe was staring silent up at him and he noticed a sheen of tears in her eyes.
"Are you well, Ashe?" He whispered.
Balthier immediately jumped out of bed and pulled on a pair of pants and a different shirt. "I'm going to bring the doctor," he said quietly and gave her hand a squeeze before he left.
He swept out of the room and swiftly walked down the hall, his heart pounding again with a different type of fear. Why the hell is the Infirmary on the other side of the palace? He wondered when he finally slid to a stop and impolitely banged on the doctor's door.
"Doctor, wake up, it's urgent! Ashe is giving birth!" Balthier stopped the pounding when he heard shuffling on the other side, and then the door was yanked open violently to reveal the doctor peering alertly at him.
"How far apart are the contractions?"
"I'm not sure, but she's certainly uncomfortable," Balthier stressed and the both of them immediately recognized the implication: Ashe worked hard to never show her pain.
"Very well. Wake her chambermaids for me, please."
"All right," Balthier acquiesced and walked back with Doctor Raini to his suite with Ashe, but he went down a flight of stairs to knock on the servants' quarters. "Ladies, Doctor Raini needs you," he replied when one had opened the door a crack. "It's time." They closed the door and Balthier turned to go back to his wife.
He found her breathing heavily and lying back on the pillows of their bed, her sweat-slicked hair splayed behind her. Balthier sat down next to her and placed a hand gently on hers and he took it, "How are you holding up?"
"I'm fine," she replied in an amazingly strong voice.
He glanced back at her swollen belly and said, "You realize this was all your idea? I warned you any child we'd have would be a hellraiser, but you insisted."
Ashe chuckled. "It was the council who insisted."
"They should be forced to come in here and hold your hand to pay the penance for their decisions. I should go wake them just for that! Please break the bones in their hands for me, would you?"
"Balthier, you—are not going to wake them."
There was a knock on the door and then it opened for the three Chambermaids to file in.
"Ah, very good! The first one there, please fetch me a bowl of warm water and a towel," Dr. Raini said, "And the other two, please go get me another set of sheets. Now, Captain Bunansa, I'm sorry to say we have a tradition here. You must leave the room."
"I am not leaving, tradition be damned," he replied with a flash of his eyes.
The doctor smiled. "You will not be the first man I've evicted from the room. Guards!"
It took the doctor himself and three guards to drag Balthier from his wife's side and they shoved him out the door, leaving only the doctor to be inside. Two guards flanked the door and eyed him like wolves eyeing their prey.
"Sorry 'bout that, Captain, but tradition is a big deal around here," Geoffrey replied with a grin.
Balthier scowled heavily at the guard and obviously bit back some choice words for the young man to hear. "Fucking tradition. Tradition is what gets us into some of these messes."
"That is true, but at least with something like this it isn't going to alter the course of Dalmasca if you're not there for your child's birth."
"So you want me to start off feeling like a shitty father from the beginning? I completely understand," Balthier replied and sat down, heading towards the Dining Hall.
Geoffrey sighed and started after him. "Balthier, if it makes you feel better, I'm in complete agreement with you."
"Yes, that makes me feel better. I mean, it's not like you could not persuade the doctor otherwise," he snapped back.
The lieutenant guard laughed, completely brushing off the Prince-consort's hostile manner. "I wish I could do more for you, but I can't. Where are you going?"
"Getting a better seat for the show." He grabbed one of the servant's simple wooden stools and started back up toward the royal suite.
Geoffrey hesitated momentarily, but then he also grabbed a seat and took it up two flights of stairs to plunk it down next to Balthier's. "You truly need a hobby if you have nothing better to do than wait out my wife giving birth with me."
"I figured I would be helping out a friend, but if you want to be alone—" He moved to get up only to immediately get dragged back down.
"I need someone to hurl abuse at."
"I see. I could go get Al-Cid for you if that's the case."
"Although he's a great candidate, he and I have reached an understanding. I really don't care to destroy that if it means he'll pick up flirting with Ashe again."
A pack of cards materialized and they spent the next few hours playing Blackjack or Poker, whichever struck their fancy at the time. Every once in awhile Balthier would get up and put his ear to the door, under the watchful eyes of the guard and he tried to listen for any signs of Ashe's distress, a baby's wail. He thought he heard groaning and the shuffling of feet, but it was difficult to tell over the pounding of his own heart. Then the guards would yank him back and he'd throw a couple of nasty words their way. He then took to pacing while Geoffrey ran through parlor tricks. Balthier occasionally threw conspiratorial glances at the door as though he were thinking busting in, but then he glanced at the two guards and his planning seem to be put on hold.
"Captain Bunansa, you're going to drive yourself to insanity. It'll come when it comes. Shall I go call for breakfast?"
Balthier scowled at him. "I will not eat anything so long as my wife's locked in our room."
"Do whatever you must, but I'm starving. I'll be sure to eat it down there and not distract you," Geoffrey said, but Balthier noticed he left the pack of cards and so he picked them up and dealt himself a game of Solitaire.
An orange glow touched the horizon after his sixth game and it was then that he heard it. He jumped up so quickly every card in his game slid across the floor, but he barely noticed, his eyes were so focused on the door. The plaintive wailing of an infant easily became the loudest sound anyone had heard all morning, and the guards flanking the doors held self-satisfied smiles. Tradition continued and a new heir to the throne was born.
Dr. Raini pulled open the door and grinned at the Prince-consort who had fixed him with a burning gaze. His hair was mussed, scarlet flushed his face, and his eyes seemed to have sunken into his sockets, but the man grinned nonetheless and said, "Congratulations, Captain Bunansa. It's a girl!"
"Hey, congratulations, Captain," Geoffrey howled and clapped his shoulder, but Balthier could only stare in bewilderment.
"A girl? We have a girl? B-but Marskot got a boy!" He was afraid his heart might actually stop in his chest. The prospect of raising a boy had been terrifying, but a girl? He didn't know anything about little girls!
"I may not know from personal experience, but I imagine it all comes naturally," Geoffrey said at the look on his face. Balthier threw him a skeptical glance and Geoffrey gave him a tiny shove forward, "Go on! You signed up for the job when you married her Highness Queen Ashelia."
He nodded strongly in return, but it did not make him feel anymore confident. Still, he steeled himself and walked into the royal suite.
The Chambermaids slid past him at the door, but he barely noticed them at all as he stared transfixed at Ashe herself. She was holding a swaddled bundle in her arms and staring down at it with quite obvious exhaustion, but contentment as well. He swallowed hard and he figured Ashe must have heard it for she glanced up and smiled broadly at him, and then she beckoned him forward and held up their daughter in triumph.
He cautiously stepped forward and then touched Ashe gently on the shoulder and whispered, "How are you doing?"
"I'm fine, Balthier. Tired, but fine. Hold your daughter."
It was every bit the command it sounded like, and his heart pounded even as his hands came up automatically to take the small bundle into his hands. The little girl stared up at him with drooping eyes, but she stirred a little as he adjusted her in his arms, holding her out for closer inspection. He pushed the blanket back and noticed that a thatch of black hair already grew from her soft head and he stared. His mother had had black hair.
Balthier could only gape at her in his arms, not quite believing what he was holding and he cocked his head as though to get a better angle. Then, slowly, his mouth twitched to form a smirk and he reached up to brush a stray strand from her forehead.
His thoughts drifted to seven months back when he was embroiled in a struggle with the Occuria. He had held onto not only Ashe as his beacon of hope, but the ideal that lie asleep in his arms at that moment. His heart lurched when he recalled the time he had given up on all his hope, trapped in a tiny cell, feverish from infection, and his body shivering from the pain as much as the cold. Hell. He had been through hell, a hell few people ever experience in their life, and he had come out bewilderingly clean on the other side of it.
Suddenly it all felt so worth it.
Author's Note: Thank you, everyone, who read and reviewed! It has been a pleasure to entertain you fine folks, and I regret to inform you that I believe this will be my last Final Fantasy XII fanfiction ever. Even while writing this, inspiration for a short story never crossed my mind, but who knows what may come of the future? Still, thank you all for reading my works, not just this one, and I hope you enjoyed them all equally. Thank you!