Fran is wearing a little slip of something yellow, which covers barely half her thighs and her arms not at all. Balthier knew her plans for tonight as soon as she walked out of the head dressed like that. But the hour is late and while he can see that Fran has her share of admirers, she has not chosen one. Her table is empty. They all look on her from a distance.
Balthier could find another inn. Bhujerba has no lack of water-courses and there are others closer to the aerodrome. He could try the Moogle quarter, perhaps, and spend his coin bending his head under a low ceiling while debating the latest advances in aerodynamics, but they look askance at him when he enters without Nono's introduction.
A viera in a city with only air beneath its streets draws inescapable comment. Balthier had meant only to look in, to see that she was well. Of course, she is. He did not expect to find her alone.
Fran turns in her chair to watch his progress across the floor, probably heard him enter, and no doubt can pick out the unique rhythm of his heart from amongst his fellow humes. After three months, Balthier may know little of his partner's history, but he has a great appreciation of Fran's skills, as a huntress and a navigator. She can kill with a flight of arrows as well as with her bare hands; she can track a fiend with silent ease; she can hear the thunder of storms hours before they arrive. Fran only wears dresses like that when she wants company of a particular and personal nature, company that Balthier is not interested in providing.
Her dress may not attract him, but Balthier feels a warm nostalgia for the sight. They'd become partners in an inn like this, far below and to the west, in Rabanastre. She'd worn pink that night. He wondered how many she had, if they were all the same.
Fran shakes her head, her hair a loose soft fall without the familiar frame of her helm. She's lovely in her own way, Balthier supposes, but not in hume ways. Her proportions are alien, her limbs too long, let alone the reach of her uncanny senses, the breath of her ears, her sight, her ability to scent. Her face is alien; how could any man decipher her whims and moods well enough to please her? Hume women are complicated enough.
His purse is heavy with the gil of Clan Diatroma; hers, as well, for partners means a fifty-fifty split. Balthier doesn't want the company of a woman tonight, but that of his partner. The one who ran with him, circling the Gemhorn's mighty columnar feet. Tonight, Balthier wants someone who not four hours prior shook the rockdust from her hair, who knows exactly how close they came to an ignominious fading from history, who pulled him from the path of the falling inert body of the beast itself.
"Would you share a drink with me? To celebrate?"
Fran nods in her way, both abrupt and so subtle.
Balthier returns from the bar accompanied by a member of barstaff with a bottle of the finest madhu and stacked shot-glasses balanced up each arm. Fran pushes back the chair opposite her with the clawed toe of one foot.
"Last one drinking wins," he says, because it is always wise to specify terms. "Are you familiar with madhu?"
"Madhu is a taste I have acquired," Fran says. "Viera do not often choose to seek their home in the sky."
"To those that seek the sky," Balthier suggests, holding the first glass. The first of many.
"To all those that seek the sky," Fran answers, chiming her glass with his.
Madhu is an excellent drink, an excellent choice. The shots are smaller than regulation, more like glass tablespoons, but ah, the regulations Balthier is familiar with have no jurisdiction here. After the first two, the burn of the Madhu is almost sweet. After seven, his throat is numb, distant, not quite his just now, but this has no apparent effect on his voice.
Fran is an excellent drinking companion. Competition is not flirtation: that was why he chose the unknown quantity of madhu over the wine and spirits with which he is more familiar. Fran matches him shot for shot. She is not letting him win, fawning on his aptitude for drink or conversation. She is not leaning towards him, but leaning back in her chair, an economy of movement rationed for the moment of their next round. She has not reached across to touch him, not her hand or a sly brush of her foot beneath the table. Only their glasses touch.
They drink to friendly customs officers and fences, and to forgotten, open window-latches. They drink to recent advances in mist extraction rates and finding unchipped storm magicite in the rough. Fran suggests drinking to the madhu, and to their distillers, which seems a fine idea both, and to sisters, sometime after they have started refilling the glasses and Balthier's lost count. He only raises his glass and swallows. She does not ask why they drink to the emperor's health. He does not specify which one.
The crowd is less excellent. Despite the aerodrome, despite the tourists, Bhujerba has what Balthier must describe as a provincial mentality. The moogles build ships, the humes mine the materials; only the moogles fly. He and Fran have become the entertainment and Fran's admirers are less wary now, proportional to the amount of alcohol they've witnessed her consuming. They stand closer behind her, and closer behind him. Balthier can hear them. He can, to his great misfortune, smell them. It must be worse for her.
Balthier knows that he is drunk. How drunk he has yet to determine as it will require experimentation that will require standing, an ability Balthier has no particular desire to test whether he retains. Something in the gap between them and the crowd comes from Balthier pouring Fran's drinks. If he were less drunk, he might be terrified.
Just when the bottle drips upended and empty, a second bottle of madhu appears on their table. Fran's eyes stop scatter-tracking the room to fix on him; Balthier shakes his head. Fran's ears curve-tilt towards the bar. He and Fran stand at the same time, chairs scraping on the wooden floor.
The crowd mutters, spreading thinner. Balthier is tempted to bow, though the crowd is already turning, but standing is merely possible, he finds, and carries the instinct to have a care how he places his feet.
Fran sways on her high-heeled sandals, a movement that leaves Balthier transfixed, struck in the moment by her inevitable fall towards him, no more able to alter the forces that direct her course than he could those that chart the trajectory of the bullets of his Achenar, seeing already the hand that will be outstretched, hers gripping his arm, his hand at her hip, her waist, her breast, the hot, heavy weight of her body colliding with his, and they will fall, fall--
Fran bends to wrap an arm behind Balthier's shoulders, her hand slipping beneath his arm and holding him to her frame. He has noticed Fran's height, so few women are taller than he. He has noticed her musculature with a sketch-artist's eye, no need to elongate her form to match the ideal, but he hadn't thought of the strength in those muscles. He hadn't thought of her limbs, her body, feeling hard against his, and how easily she would carry him.
Their journey back to the aerodrome is uneventful. The night-wanderers they pass in the streets are few and friendly. Bhujerba is a quiet city after dark, if they avoid the main pleasure parks, and they do, rambling down side-streets and alleys between houses. The back-streets of Archades, Balthier thinks, would not be so sweet-smelling and well-lit. They pass doors (perhaps locked, perhaps unlocked-- what is this city?), but no curbside middens or rubbish receptacles. Do the Bhujerbans hurl their rubbish into the sky? How galling and inconvenient.
Finally, finally, they turn into an alley that ends in three walls. Balthier hears Fran mutter something about the will of the wood, incomprehensible in context but for the tone: has he finally stumbled upon a viera's idea of invective? But, no, what draws his eye and his attention is the discovery of a much anticipated container of any kind. If this were Archades, if his increasingly imminent sick was not apparently an innovation in these clean streets (they drink madhu, don't they?)
Balthier stumbles forward, for Fran is standing still but he does not fall, for she holds him.
"Are we lost?" he asks.
"No," Fran says.
"Would you mind if I--" Balthier gestured towards the treasure pot with his free arm.
Fran releases her grip. Balthier falls to his knees, willingly, happily, and knocks the lid off with relief. He drank too much, far too much for this to be any form of seduction. This is a night out, seeing the city lights, painting the streets variegated and staggering home flammable, the sort he'd read about as a youth. The streets of Old Archades were in fact too squalid to match the fantasy, and the company even more lacking.
"Not lost," Fran says. She says it more than once, steps from foot to foot. Balthier can see her calves from the corner of his eyes. She's moved to stand by him. He would bow, in acknowledgement of having proved her proficiency for her, but that he is all too busy imitating a fountain to imagine another arrangement of limbs.
"Better?" she asks.
Balthier wipes his mouth with a handkerchief. Fran is looking out of the alley, squinting back to the last bend. Three months and he has learnt not why, only that Fran takes her position as navigator seriously. They could find a sainikah and ask directions, but Balthier is loathe to draw such attention to them, even if their most recent and current purposes are completely legitimate. There is something to be said for their fledgling reputation. If Fran, too, is unwilling... well, perhaps he sees the value in walking the scenic route if each step may take them one step closer to sobriety.
Fran holds down a hand, and they pull Balthier upright counterpoint to her weight. Her hand is warm in his.
"I remember the way," she says.
"Then lead on, my friend."
They do find the aerodrome, and the Strahl. Balthier finds his keys and Fran finds the latch for the gangway. It's working pretty well until they step inside and find the ladder to the upper storey. By mutual agreement, they ignore above for the far side of the hold. Sitting, of course.
Balthier leans back against the storage bulkhead, eyes shut into the comforting dark. He feels the metal move behind his shoulders as if the Strahl were a sea-ship at moorings. The sensation subsides with his eyes open. He's curiously not tired, though it must be closer to dawn than midnight.
Beside him, Fran burps. She's holding the second bottle of madhu close to her lips. It's half full.
"You're still drinking?"
"Should not waste it," she says, punctuated with a swig from the bottle. Half that bottle and half the other, it makes Balthier's stomach leap again just to think of it. She did say she had a taste for it.
"I'd rather water."
"I am still drinking" she says, with particular crisp diction: "You are not. I win."
Balthier nods, conceding the point and waits. But Fran doesn't ask what she has won, doesn't tell him what she's won of him. She cradles the madhu bottle against her chest, humming a tune that he does not know.
Balthier thinks of singing, the urge to do so like bubbles rising in his throat, but cannot think of a single drinking song without wenches, or, indeed, drink. He is warm from walking, matching Fran's easy stride with the utmost reach of his own, and he can feel the comfortable heat in his upper arm and thigh where Fran's body touches his.
"I can't feel my ears!" Fran cries out.
She turns her head this way and that, looking up, ears bending back out of sight, almost comical if not for her unrest. Balthier tells her he can see her ears, tells her twice and again, but Fran doesn't stop twisting and shaking.
"Let me." Balthier kneels over her. Her thighs are hard under his, a solid perch to straddle. Her ears are like velvet against his fingertips, as soft as he has ever felt. He can feel her pulse against his palms. Perhaps her ears are cold. He could well imagine her extremities suffering while her heart basked in the false-fire of the madhu.
"Can you feel this?" he asks, beginning lightly to stroke.
Balthier realises that he expects her to nod when she doesn't, but he is handling her ears. Fran does watch him, opaque red-brown eyes surrounded by fine lashes. She has sharp eyes, his partner, and he knows she watches him often. He's not accustomed to her regard from so short a distance, but this glance doesn't feel like a test. He's not sure what he'd call how it makes him feel.
Fran's posture is loosening, something releasing in her shoulders, her spine. Balthier is glad. They nearly died today, and though they didn't, he can feel the tension held in his neck.
"Good?" he leans in to ask, and freezes, his cheek touching her cheek. His is smooth. He shaved before leaving the Strahl. Hers is furred, soft like her ears.
Fran is nuzzling his face, and her hands have taken hold of the bones of his hips, fingers sliding backwards to grip and knead his arse. She is nothing so demure as offering herself to him, no tentative caress Balthier could misunderstand. She wants him, the hot breath on his neck, her lips around his earlobe, while he's still only shaping his hands to the delicate solidity of her ears, fur like a cat's, a rabbit's. Not velvet, no, an animal's.
Balthier tries to move, but Fran's hands are on his back, preventing him from retreating more than a body's width away from her. She growls. Fran is stronger than she looks, sharp claw pricking through the back of his shirt-- the heel of her palm cupping his crotch, nails picking apart the buttons.
Balthier twists under her, reaching down between them, a poor defence; Fran arches her neck. There's nothing under her skirt, no fabric bar the lace trim. There can't be. Her thighs are wet. Balthier is flattered in his shock, shocked to catch himself thinking of what he could do for her-- she feels like a woman; what was he expecting, a long, dark cock-- to keep her hands outside his clothes. Fran isn't talking, her tongue licking over his cheek-- Oh, you're hard, you want this, don't you, boy?
He is hard for her. Balthier is turned on by a fucking rabbit-woman, her claws like bands of iron around his hips. Her breath smells like madhu; they smell like madhu, but there's a tide of burning bile overflowing onto his tongue. Balthier's drunk too much, far too much. Fuck-- he swallows; he can't spit this on her.
Fran stops, turning her head to look at him fully. "Are you well?" she asks, her voice slurred and accent thick.
Her grip loosens, fingers slide to stroke his back. Balthier shivers. Her touch feels good, makes him feel a little better, but his throat still burns with urgency.
"I--" Balthier swallows, and swallows. He doesn't know what he wants. "The head."
The head is on the lower storey, thankfully, with a door that locks. To find oneself evacuating one's guts before a woman once in an evening could be put down to chance, but twice can only be carelessness, even if he left the greater portion to surprise some unfortunate other treasure hunter.
Dry-heaving gasps, Balthier thinks of Fran's claws on his hips. He thinks of how soft her ears were, under his fingers. He thinks of kissing her, of how warm her mouth would be. Balthier pushes two fingers to the back of his throat and throws up again, his eyes watering, stinging with his sweat. The shame is effective remedy for his erection, that he's not disgusted enough.
Balthier wanted her company tonight, but now, he does not know what he wants of her. He doesn't know. In the bar tonight, he saw how they all looked at he and her. It wasn't just the drinks, Balthier knows. In other bars, on other jobs, he wonders, is that how people are looking at him, at them, seeing an invisible leash between his hand and her neck, when Balthier's lungs are lead whenever Fran walks out after they make port?
Balthier knows the Strahl was the greater selling point than he when Nono introduced them. He's expected Fran to steal it, to be honest, or mutiny, after their first ambitious failures and those that would have broken even if not for the several dozen, incidental and/or urgent ways they broke the bloody ship. Mark hunts are not the glamorous occupation he envisaged for himself, for them, but transit to the sky city cleared their debts with Nono, and incurred no new expenses on this job, leaving the Strahl safe and secure in the aerodrome.
Balthier pulls himself upright via the small handbasin, holding tight against the dizziness that comes of standing too quick. He rinses his mouth, splashes cool water over his face. It's not as green in the mirror as he had feared. His stomach stays where he wishes it to be. He sips small mouthfuls of water from his cupped hand.
He hears a sharp clang from the hold, a thump of metal on metal, echoing. Fran's boots on the deck. Perhaps she'll have more luck with the rest of her evening. Perhaps he'll see her again tomorrow afternoon. He knows what it means when she wears dresses like this, when she returns with her hair damp. Even if he'd given her what she wanted, it wouldn't make Fran stay with him, Balthier argues with himself, staring at the mirror. She has other men for sex. If something, someone more lucrative should come along, well, she is only a pirate. Fran is under no contract but her own whim.
Balthier presses the button for flush. If only everything were so simple.
Balthier almost trips over her legs. Fran is still in the hold, now wrapped in one of the tarpaulins. It's much larger than she is. He can see her shoes and her face, watching. Her ears are turned towards him; she must have found them herself.
"Better?" Her accent sounds more breathless than usual.
Balthier nods, hand on the door-frame.
"I finished," Fran says.
She hands him up the madhu bottle, empty. Balthier fills it up with water and hands it back to her. After a few sips, she offers it to him. He declines. "You'll feel it more than me in the morning, anyway," he says. Fran only tilts her head as she drinks. Balthier watches her drink, watching him. She lifts up the side of the tarpaulin, taps the deck beside her with one flat palm. She's sitting with her knees together and tilted to the side.
He's tired. He's still drunk. Gravity. Balthier lets go of the doorframe and crawls to sit by Fran, bending his knees and elbows to fit her shape. He allows his head to slide down the bulkhead, settling against her shoulder. Fran moves him from the point to the softer plane below. Her body seems to have lost all its tension, but none of its heat. Her arm crosses his bicep and the touch is static, comforting, enfolding around him like the tarpaulin.
He likes this touch better than her touches before, he thinks. (A small, no, not that small part of him raises an objection at the memory of her claws and her tongue, below a twist in his stomach that has nothing to do with madhu and everything to do with fear, muted by weariness). Balthier is tired, warm and comfortable and this touch is uncomplicated. He tucks his arm around her waist.
Closing his eyes, what Balthier hears is almost usual, the hum of the floation system on standby too soft, and in his ear, the rhythm of Fran's breath.
"We're getting better," Balthier says. "As a team."
He talks about the jobs they could take next; she tells them how they could get there. They talk about weapons they might buy, galley supplies, sundries. She tells him about hunting gators with garif in the wet Giza Plains, archery tourneys in Ambervale. Balthier tells three stories of his own before he realises that they're all from the Akademy.
"I'm not actually twenty-two," he says.
With her arm around him, that edge in Fran's voice sounds like fond humour. Past lies are less important than current truths. Balthier tells her he's seventeen, eighteen in the spring. She tells him a true number larger than he had guessed, and she laughs because to her people, she's still young.
"You remind me of my sister," Fran says.
"I have two sisters. Mjrn is my younger, but still she would try to match me in tasks that I had more time to practice."
Fran is the only viera Balthier has met outside text and art; in his mind, her sister is only another shorter Fran. It's hard to imagine three of them.
"We could visit," he begins, shutting his mouth as he remembers all of what the entry in Merlose said about viera outside their wood. Like this, when Fran shakes her head, Balthier feels it through his body.
"I left because I could not be who they wished me to be. That has not changed."
"I know the feeling," Balthier says. "I have no brothers or sisters. It was just my father and me for years, and it was good. But he went away and I--" spent six months in a room in Old Archades. Balthier cannot speak in her clipped sentences. He hasn't had time to practice this story. He stops, and Fran asks no questions in the pause.
"He didn't come back the same. He wanted me to be a Judge. I tried. Six months in, the Strahl was scheduled for deconstruction. I left."
"And now the sky is your home and mine," Fran says. "We are sky pirates."
The morning comes too soon, too bright and too loud. Nono's fretful voice is shrill. They didn't lock the ship before passing out! Anyone could have entered! Anyone could have stolen it! Anyone could have kidnapped or injured or done goodness knows what else to them! Anyone could have.. sabotaged the ship, kupo-po! Oh, if this had been the Balfonheim aerodrome rather than the Bhujerban, filled with honest mechanic-moogles...
Nono's voice fades when he reaches the upper storey, the upper deck interrupting the line of sound. Balthier whispers to Fran: "We go to Balfonheim next?" She groans: "My head!" and bends her ears down over her face.
Balthier does not remember falling asleep, but he must have. Asleep, they seem to have uncurled, sliding down onto the deck. His mouth tastes disgusting, and his head aches behind his right eye. What he wants is a bacon sandwich, but try finding cured meat in Bhujerba. Maybe a griddlecake with oil and roast-- something, if he can find it. Nono won't be any help, he can tell.
Balthier takes two potions from a storage locker. His headache recedes to a pleasant distance; it does nothing for the taste in his mouth.
Fran has burrowed under the tarpaulin.
"Come on," Balthier finds her shoulder through the sheet, prods it. "Potion then shower, Fran, you'll feel better."
Fran releases her ears and stretches one hand outside the cover. She doesn't open her eyes, even as she drinks. She leans against him. Balthier strokes Fran's hair, massaging her scalp between her ears.