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by Lassarina Aoibhell

Warnings: MASSIVE spoilers. Like, wreck-the-whole-ending spoilers. Mild language.

It's been almost two years.

Queen Garnet of Alexandria sat at her bedroom window, staring out at the rooftops of her city without really seeing them. Almost two years ago, on her sixteenth birthday, she had sat in this same chair, looking out over those same rooftops. She hadn't seen them then, either. She'd been too caught up in her plans to arrange her own kidnapping.

So much had changed. Alexandria, Lindblum, Burmecia, and Cleyra had all been destroyed by the machinations of the man called Kuja. Kuja had been defeated. All four nations had painfully rebuilt themselves, slowly put together the pieces.

She herself had led the reconstruction of Alexandria. Her hands, once soft and smooth, had been toughened by weapons during their journey. She acquired calluses and cuts and bruises rebuilding her city, but it had been worth it. Except for the newness of the wood and stone, and the lines of suffering left on the faces of her people, you would never know how much this city had suffered.

Was it really only two years ago? she wondered. It felt like so much longer. For all its trials and struggles, their journey to defeat Kuja hadn't taken very long. It was the heartbreaking time since that made it seem like forever ago.

Time without Zidane.

He had opened her eyes, shown her an incredible world outside the confines of Alexandria Castle. A world she had never known existed. The young carefree thief had taught her almost everything she knew that was worth knowing. His motto--"You don't need a reason to help people"--had become her mantra during the reconstruction of Alexandria. It was the phrase she repeated to herself when she wanted to step down, to give up the throne and let someone else shoulder the burdens. Power brought responsibility, but it also let her help more people.

He had taught her that. But he couldn't teach her the one thing she most needed to know. He couldn't teach her what to do when she felt lonely. She didn't know what to do when she needed someone to hold her and no one was there. She didn't know how to deal with the daily heartache of knowing that he wasn't there. Wouldn't be there.

She hated Kuja more now than she had when they sought to destroy him. He had killed her mother, destroyed the beautiful, thriving city that was her inheritance. Then Zidane died trying to talk to him!

A knock on her door. She turned swiftly. "Come in."

Steiner, rattling as always in full armor, saluted as he stepped in. "The Tantalus Troupe petitions for permission to enter the city!"

"Granted." Garnet hesitated. "Steiner, please send Beatrix in when you leave."

"Yes, my queen!" He saluted again, then clunked his way out of her chamber.

So many things had changed, yet much remained the same. Steiner's armor was incurably rusty and rattling, and he guarded her now with the same zeal he had used when she was a princess--though with considerably more tolerance. And the Tantalus Troupe was coming to perform the annual play at her birthday celebration. She had forbidden ceremony last year, saying that the needs of her people were far more important than a costly celebration of a mere birthday. But this year was different. Alexandrians had begun to prosper again, and a birthday celebration was called for.

The play would be the same, as well. Garnet picked up the well-worn copy of I Want to Be Your Canary from the bedside table. She had always loved the tragic play, but since they defeated Necron, it had come to have new significance for her. "For no life is more insincere than that lived as a masquerade," she quoted aloud.

Her life was insincere. Her life was a masquerade.

She smiled for her people. She was a strong queen, a generous and just monarch. But inside...

Inside she was hollow, except the terrible loneliness and sadness that Zidane had left behind when he dove into the roots of the Iifa Tree.

Beatrix tapped on the door and entered at Garnet's call. Efficiently she helped the queen dress in the heavy, formal court gown. Garnet was unusually silent, but Beatrix seemed to have her own heavy thoughts to ponder while assisting her queen.

There was the formal parade through the streets of Alexandria to be endured. Garnet saw Freya nodding respectfully, Eiko bouncing, waving, and grinning like a maniac with her adoptive parents. Cid and Hilda waved decorously and bestowed warm smiles on her. Amarant looked rather less sullen than usual. Vivi had 'stopped moving' six months ago, but his children were there. Miniature Vivis, jumping and waving like Eiko. She didn't see Quina, but it was a fair bet that s/he had invaded the castle kitchens. The birthday feast would probably be the better for it. That amusing thought made it easier to hold the false smile.

The play began. The familiar lines washed over her, but she barely heard them. She held on to her pleased and interested expression, but it got harder and harder as the play continued. Zidane should be here. He should be sitting next to me. He should be here, dammit!

She could feel her carefully crafted mask slipping away. Digging her nails into her palms, she forced herself to pay attention to Marcus's dramatic speech. She would not cry. She would not cry.

And then...

Surely she couldn't have seen it right. Surely Marcus hadn't just thrown off his cloak to reveal--

She snapped to and realized she was pressed up against the parapet in front of her throne. With a gasp, she spun and ran towards the door that would lead into the palace and let her get down to the street level, only to find her way barred by the arms of her two loyal guardians.

She stared up at them, horrified and angered and hurt by their intransigence. Then Beatrix smiled and pushed open the door, gesturing her through with a graceful sweeping arm movement and a courtly bow.

She raced through the castle and out into the street below. Pushed and buffeted by larger persons, she felt the silver chain around her neck give way, and watched in horror as her crystal pendant flew away.

Screw it! She forgot about the pendant and shoved her way through the front row. He was standing there, with that old devil-may-care smile, waiting for her.

She threw herself into his arms, and knew she had come home.

Author's Note: Yeah, cheesy and sappy, but I enjoyed writing it. So bleh! =p Comments to rina@rpgplace.net Flames will result in the flamer being drowned in unpleasant substances. That is all.

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