A/N: (First, I would like to point out that I've made a poll for my profile page asking for readers' input on what unfinished one-shot they would be most interested in reading. Polls are always so hard to notice on this site, it seems; sometimes I wish there was something like YouTube's bulletin system where authors could make announcements to people that were getting alerts from them. So yeah, go vote if you'd like! It would be most appreciated.)

I actually wrote this a while ago, as a bit of a "what if" exploration. It ended up being more hopeful than I thought it would be, in the end.

The blood is a surprise. He had known it would be there—people bled when they were stabbed, and monsters bled more—but on the day that Yuri joined the Knights, a part of him forgot. Glossed it over, because dealing with things when the time comes is the way his mind works. Dwelling only leads to hesitation, and hesitation means failure.

So when a pool of red appears from beneath the body and spreads toward his boots, slow and inevitable like the creeping shadows of late afternoon, Yuri doesn't feel anything. Every time, enemy or ally, it's like the part of himself that cares and understands is carved away, leaving only flesh over bones to clinically observe the scene. The only difference is that he is whole, blood cycling instead of fleeing from severed veins. It happens far too quickly—that part, he hadn't known.

Yuri can walk away from this. He has done it before. Again, again, until it has no meaning, until it's easy. In his mind, it can become wooden swords again, where the only thing spreading is purple bruises. As long as they're back to back, striking together and shouting with one voice, it doesn't matter so much that the swords are sharp and the enemies not so careful to only leave scratches where blood beads up and disappears.

But this isn't the same. It's wrong in every possible way and the blood, he realizes distantly, has eddied around his boots. They will make him clean them—the thought lies cold in the pit of his stomach. The boots aren't his. They belong to the Empire, just like he does, ever since he signed that paper in a cramped little office almost four months ago. It was too hot that day; he can still feel the sweat on his upper lip, salty and distracting. Flynn, standing next to him, had signed a paper, too. He grinned at Yuri and said it was the beginning. From that moment, they would be fighting for everything that they had promised.

Today, it's too cold and his toes are cramping. The red stain has slowed, thinning out as it seeps into the rocky soil. Flynn had it backwards, though. This is the end.

He hears the wheezing behind him well before the lieutenant skids to a stop at the top of the hill, and makes a mental note to put the man on a strict diet and exercise regimen. It won't do to have portly knights in his brigade, as darkly humorous as he sometimes finds it to watch them struggle. He reminds Yuri, a little, of the stout knight he used to taunt in the Lower Quarter, one of two that he had given ludicrous nicknames and narrowly escaped their capture on more than one occasion.

"Captain," the man says, between great gulps of air. He turns his head just enough to view his florid face from the corner of his eye, a single raised eyebrow prompting him to continue. A report detailing a recent aer imbalance rushes from the knight's lips and Yuri catalogues the parts that he finds most relevant. After several minutes, the other man falls silent. He ducks his head and shuffles back down the hill when his captain only nods, turning his head back to observe the sweeping view of the plains below.

It is beyond Yuri's understanding as to why anyone would make him Captain. True, he does his level best to excel wherever he can—he owes Flynn that much, since he is doing this for both of them now—but his irreverent, sarcastic nature doesn't exactly seem suited to leadership. Oddly, it works. The men and women in the knights know that despite his air of lazy nonchalance, Yuri never leaves anyone behind and thinks of a creative solution to any problem. When promotions come up, the only person surprised at the overwhelming nomination is Yuri himself. Besides, maybe, some of the older knights who remember his youthful mischief.

Even so, Yuri is pretty sure that Flynn would have become Captain long before he ever did. He misses the record for youngest Captain by a couple of years. They give him a bigger room. It just feels emptier, the space yawning before him and making the breath stick in his throat. Yuri doesn't spend much time there—he spends his leave in the Lower Quarter, or out exploring with Repede.

Sometimes, when he can't sleep and the only thing left to do is wander the reflective halls of the castle, Yuri catches a glimpse of pink hair, a blur of blue fabric. He doesn't see much of the Imperial candidates, though their rooms aren't far from his. His part in deflecting an attempted kidnapping of Prince Ioder almost two years before, he feels, probably contributed to the strangely positive opinion of him before the promotion. As much as he'd like to think it was all because of his good looks and sparkling personality.

One night, he and that blur collide.

Books fall open, some with spines bowed toward the floor, others upright, pages fluttering into place. They fly out of their perch in the crook of a young woman's arm when Yuri turns a corner, quickly and sharply in his insomniatic agitation, and collides into billows of blue fabric. His hand darts out and snatches her elbow before she can fall, but the books slide free with a dull, heavy sound as she wobbles. And it's no wonder—those shoes look uncomfortable, certainly impractical. Nobles, he thinks derisively.

"Oh! I'm sorry," the girl says, and what the hell, why is she apologizing? Yuri snorts, unable to help himself, nearly laughs outright when the sharp sound only makes her look more guilty.

"I'm the one who barreled into you," he says, hand on hip. Leaning down, he picks up one of the books, thick and hard bound. The pages are yellow, making him wonder if they would disintegrate if he were too rough with them. From what he can tell from the cover, it's some kind of ancient mythology. Not his style. He sets it back down, noting that the girl watches his movements, biting her lip.

"Anyway, I don't think we've met. I'm Yuri. Yuri Lowell." He extends a hand, and she takes it demurely in her gloved one.

"I know," she says. "You're the new Captain of the Imperial Knights."

He nods, releases her hand. "Hm. It's polite to introduce yourself in return, you know."

To his surprise, she blushes, a deep pink that spreads across her cheeks and doesn't fade for a while.

"E-Estellise." She averts her eyes. "It's nice to meet you."

He has figured as much, knowing what the Princess looked like though never having seen her from more than afar, in a crowd during one of the many tedious ceremonies he had been forced to attend. Still, it's interesting to see her in a more personal setting. The girl bends, skirts pooling on the floor as she delicately stacks the books atop each other again. After a moment, Yuri reaches down to a volume at his feet and walks over.

"You don't have to," she says, looking up at him, but takes the book from his hand and adds it to the pile. It's fine, he wants to say. Not like I was doing anything important. Just doing my best to run from the ghosts inside my head.

But Yuri says none of these things. Instead, he picks up books that he would never read until the pile becomes something he's astounded she was carrying when they had crashed together. Estellise lifts them with a ladylike grunt—for her, somehow that is possible—and tilts her head a fraction, looking at Yuri with a small smile.

"Thank you," she says, sounding genuinely grateful and far too polite to the person who caused the mess in the first place. He waves her away and wonders briefly if he should offer to help, but he's never been one to go out of his way when the person seems like they can handle it. And Estellise apparently can. The books rise past her chin, but she's obviously practiced in this balance. Yuri passes her with a nod and walks back toward his bed, where he will collapse, shut his eyes and hope for a dreamless sleep.

When he is unlucky enough to dream, it is mostly of childhood—an idealized version, with someone always at his side instead of the many cold nights spent in stolen corners, before Flynn. Fighting for the joy of it, a small hand reaching out to pull him up, no matter how many times Yuri is knocked down, bruised, knotted. Or just lying in a field, sharing what little food they can afford, or are given. In these, they do not speak to each other. They don't have to. Days after this kind of dream are marked with a melancholic nostalgia, but it's easy to hide.

The ones about their first days together in the knights are harder. That brilliant, optimistic smile never fades, imprinted on Yuri's mind like a cruel joke. Often they are in their shared room in the knight dormitories—they talk of their goals, or argue about the stupidest things. Yuri wakes up in a bitter haze, remembering real fights, regretting wasted time. As he performs drills and leads missions, pain shoots through his teeth from clenching his jaw through long morning hours. But he remains intensely focused; these are not the worst.

Sometimes, Flynn is here now. Sometimes, he is Captain instead. Of course, he's brilliant at it, the picture of an ideal knight that his best friend always knew he could be. And then the world crashes in and Yuri is scraped out, numb, his cold fury to be avoided for the rest of the day. These dreams are the rarest; sometimes he thinks he wouldn't be able to remain sane for very long, otherwise. Still. There are nights when Yuri feels his eyes begin to slip closed and his stomach clenches with dread, coated bitterly on his tongue.

He has written his resignation letter hundreds of times in his head; on more than a few occasions, he has even spread the parchment in front of him at his desk, scrawled out the words in ink, crumpled and tossed it into a wastebasket before it could dry. Yuri works with the bastards who laugh as the Lower Quarter citizens go hungry, shrug as crimes are committed there, as if anyone not noble is beneath their concern. It takes every bit of patience he has to grit his teeth and ignore their comments, to act like every one of them doesn't make him feel sick to his stomach.

But it's those worst dreams—knowing that Flynn wouldn't have ever given up—that makes him throw away the letter every time.

The sun sets red, and it is nothing like blood. Yuri leans his shoulder against the window frame and watches the colors melt into the horizon, stars appearing one by one in the deep blue sky above.

"He's planning something."

Behind him, a rustle of skirts as Estellise—since christened 'Estelle,' because it sounds less noble and he's just that lazy—fidgets where she is seated on the bed.


He turns his head to look at her; her teeth are worrying at her bottom lip, eyes wide. How they became friends, Yuri couldn't say. Estelle is innocence, surrounded by corruption. She's kindhearted and earnest; sheltered and hopelessly naïve. He thinks Flynn would have liked her.

But even Estelle isn't so clueless not to realize that something big is going down. There have been hints and whispers of it for the past few years—Magistrate Ragou, still a member of the Council after a slap on the wrist for the horrific treatment of the people in Nor Harbor; former Knights Captain Cumore, in the imperial jail with a life sentence for sending citizens of Mantaic into the desert, part of a mad grab for power. Yuri still doesn't think he was acting alone, despite having no proof; it was all he could do to help make sure that he didn't escape punishment. Jail was a compromise.

"He has been biding his time, Estelle. But I think he's done waiting."

Estelle is quiet, thinking. "Um. Commandant Alexei?"

"Yeah." Yuri reaches down, touches the blastia at his wrist half out of habit. Alexei had been someone that Flynn had admired; Yuri is almost glad that his friend isn't alive to see his idol fall so far. Almost. "And I'm going to stop him."

The young woman's eyes flash, bright with determination. She rises to her feet.

"Then I'm coming with you!"

Yuri opens his mouth as if to object, one hand on his hip. He shakes his head, then, smiling at the look on her face. "Heh. Okay." He holds his other hand out for Estelle to grasp, which she does solemnly, and it's all he can do not to laugh aloud.

Blastia. Barriers. What will the world be like without them? Rita Mordio and the other mages that were formerly of Aspio are working on an alternate source of power, but the amount of added work for the knights is staggering. They've chosen a new Commandant—not Yuri, but he never had any delusions that he could rise that high—and Dein Nomos is once again in the hands of the Imperial family. There is an Emperor in Zaphias once more.

Yuri left as soon as his role in Ioder's coronation ceremony was done. He stands on a hill overlooking the ocean, hair whipped around by the wind, stinging his face. The sky is gray, with dark storm clouds gathering to the north.

"You always wanted to see this. Stood next to me and said we'd see the world together." He chuckles, short and mirthless. "Flynn, you would have done a lot more. I'm just a stand-in. Never could catch up to you."

A deep breath; it smells like sea water and rain.

"This is the best I can do."

The ashes are picked up by the wind, scattering and eventually settling into the waves, unseen. Some irrational part of Yuri immediately wants to take it back, to pluck him from the water, somehow alive and whole. But it's done. He watches the choppy sea battering against the rocks, tilts his head up when the first cool drops begin to fall. Yuri's uniform is soaked by the time he makes it back down the hill, rain hissing as it strikes the plants around him. He can see Zaphias in the distance, rising above the plains, and wonders what they'll think when they find the resignation letter on his desk.

There's a place waiting for him in Dahngrest, halfway across the world. A kid with big dreams, who reminds him just a little of someone else he used to know. It's not perfect—but it's a beginning.