[final fantasy xii] four and twenty blackbirds
STICK A FORK IN IT, GUYS.
Title: Four and Twenty Blackbirds
Characters: Balthier and Fran
Word Count: 5900
Summary: During the end, and then the after.
Spoilers: Big honkin' ones for the ending.
Notes: Sensitive readers may wish to view in a brightly lit room. Also, contains some headcanon from Some Watcher Of the Skies. You may want to read that first, or some references may confuse you. It's very short, about 1500 words long.
Recommended listening: Aarktica - The Ice (Feels Three Feet Thick Between Us). I'd put it up, but I'm on the laptop for the holidays and it doesn't have any of my music on it.
It was the same no matter whether Balthier's eyes were open or closed.
Don't panic, he thought, closing his eyes to no significant change in the world around him. You're the leading man. You mustn't panic.
There was a warm, throbbing pain in his side, near the bottom of his ribs, where the armor didn't quite cover. His fingers came away wet and sticky. Balthier fumbled a potion out of his bag; his hands wouldn't stop shaking as he uncorked it, and the bottle rattled against his teeth. Then he lay, quietly, while he waited for the potion to take effect.
As soon as he felt he was able, he sat up--carefully, lest he bang his head 'gainst something--and began to feel around him. His fingers brushed nothing but metal grille for what seemed an eternity, and then at last he felt, with a sense of grateful elation, Fran's hair.
"Fran," he said. "Come on, girl, don't leave me in the lurch." His voice sounded queer and muffled, as if through a wall of drab wool. He cleared his throat, and his hand found Fran's ears, and then her face. "It's not fair to leave me to do everything myself."
He could feel Fran breathing. She was breathing. Balthier took a deep breath and reached in his bag for a tuft of phoenix down.
"I know you hate potions and cure spells," Balthier said. "But you really need to drink." He found her nose, pinched it, and tilted her head back. "Yes, I know it causes complications in the long run. But we've little choice at the moment, and it's really imperative that you stay alive. I mean, firstly, it would take me an absolute age to find such someone else who's such a hand at airships."
His hands were steady as he poured a trickle of the potion into her mouth. This would be easier if he could see. He couldn't even tell what kind of potion this was. "Second, it would be terribly embarrassing if I came out of this alive and you didn't. What would people think?"
Little by little; he mustn't choke her. His arm ached with the effort of holding the bottle steady. Cure would be easier, but he felt himself low on magick and thought the extra effort worth the conservation. "You know, Vaan had better be taking good care of my darling, or I'll kill him."
Bread crumbs, Balthier thought. Pebbles. String. But these were only helpful when you could see. Fire spells did no good; they flared long enough to blind him with dazzle, and when they faded, the dark was worse than before.
He rubbed his face with his right hand, careful to keep the left against the rail. He dreadfully needed a shave. He was going to look as shaggy as Basch first did, when they got out of here.
There must be an exit. The air had not gone quite stale yet, so this was not a place entirely cut off from the outside world. If there was a method by which the air could come in, then there was a method by which a hume and a viera could get out.
Balthier banged his shin against a step and halted. So, follow the left rail forward and you came to a stair eventually. Follow the right rail forward and you came a jagged plummet where something had shattered the pathway. Follow either rail backward and you came to an insurmountable mass of twisted metal and concrete. So wherever the exit was, it must be up that stair.
Wherever they were, it didn't seem to be very large, or it had caved in so that it had become very small; his voice did not echo, at least. Whether this was a boon or a hindrance remained to be seen.
He dared not explore further, not with Fran as she was. For that matter, he was not so hale and hearty himself; the area under his ribs was throbbing again, accompanied by a hot trickle. He'd tried potions and Cure to an extent of which he felt Fran would have heartily disapproved, but somehow it refused to heal completely. He was tempted to stop trying; better to conserve what meager healing powers they had left to them. There might be undead here, eventually.
You had to clean a wound before you Cured it, else the flesh would only heal around the debris. Infection, too, could linger under the surface, and you would never know that you were rotting underneath the skin until it was too late.
Balthier had nearly forgotten that, in those first few days of clinging desperately to life and his zeal with the curatives, and now he ran his hands over Fran's arms, neck, torso, legs, telling himself that he hadn't missed anything, that she wasn't infected, that she didn't have grit or some piece of metal trapped in her. He'd heard tell of--and seen, yes--men live with arrowheads lodged inside them, but the risk of complication was high, and this was Fran. But in the main, it seemed to be cuts and scrapes, already scabbed over and healing; probably some of them were only faint, healing scars now, that he couldn't feel.
And then, on her leg, something horrifyingly long and deep, fleshy at the center and pebbled and crusted at the edges. She'd come dangerously close to being hamstrung, he realized, as he felt it again and realized how near it was to those crucial muscles at the back of the thigh. But there didn't seem to be anything caught in it, and it didn't smell infected, nor did she have the warm flush of fever. He let out his breath in a long sigh, then grimly set about pressing and prodding at the wound.
It cracked and oozed eventually, and he brought up his fingers to taste it. Blood. Good. He let it bleed while he searched the edges and the inside of the wound, hoping and then not hoping that he found something. But no, it seemed to be clean; whatever made it must have simply scored her. Lucky for them both.
He mixed the remedy with slippery hands. Ordinarily, you stirred it into water, but that was more precious than gil, now, and mixing it with a potion would serve a dual purpose. Balthier tilted Fran's head back and pinched her nose with what was nearly ease now and poured it into her, little by little.
"It'll probably scar," he murmured. "Good that you're not vain, as I am. It's not as if anyone looks at my legs."
"I think myself to be as wise / As he that gazeth on the skies / My sight goes beyond / The depth of a pond / Or rivers in the greatest rain. . ."
It was an old, traditional air, and not one that Balthier recalled very well, but he'd run out of the nursery rhymes his governesses had taught him and the naughty songs his schoolyard pals used to sing.
"Whereby I can tell / That all will be well--"
Balthier interrupted himself with a yawn and almost did not hear the faint cry. He thought it was only his mind again, but then he heard, very clearly, someone call his name. And Fran's.
"Hello? Balthier? Fran? Oh, please be alive!"
If he didn't know better, he thought, t'was the princess. He heaved himself to his feet, creaking like an old man, and tried to raise his voice into a shout. "Over here! In here!"
"Fran! Balthier! Are you in there?"
"Yes, I'm bloody well in here! And Fran too, although she's not so well at the moment--are you deaf or merely insensate?"
The voices faded away, along with the footsteps he may only have imagined, and the searching lights he'd seen only in his mind's eye. Balthier slowly lowered himself back down to the floor and listened for Fran's deep, even breaths.
"Where was I," he murmured. "Ah. But I can tell, that all will be well. . ."
"And so at last Balthier came to the god-grown land
Where the seas grow thick and the land grows spare
And there did he meet the ancient one
Who lives in the garden of the screaming root.
'Whither goest thou?' asked the endless one.
'The gods do I seek,' Balthier made bold his reply.
'But whither goest thou?" asked the eternal one.
'Where goes the after, what comes the end?'"
Balthier paused in his recitation.
". . . thier?"
"Took you long enough," Balthier said, fetching the too-light waterskin. "I was beginning to think I'd have to talk to myself the entire time." He brushed a thumb over her lips before guiding the waterskin to them. "You'll pardon me for the familiarity, but it's quite dark and I can't see a thing, and I'm very certain that you must be thirsty. Easy, now; drink as much as you like."
He had the impression that Fran drank quite sparingly, as the skin was not much lighter when Balthier took it away. But she had just woken, after all.
"How are you feeling?" Balthier queried.
"Where. . .?" Fran croaked.
"Still in Bahamut, I fear. But things are taking a turn for the better now."
". . . way out?"
"Not yet. But I haven't looked very far."
Fran said nothing, but her breathing had evened out again.
Balthier sighed. "And here I thought I'd get some adequate conversation."
"Yes?" Balthier prompted, eventually.
But there seemed to be no more forthcoming.
"You know, the others already think you a bit taciturn. This is not precisely helping matters." Balthier emptied the contents of another remedy packet into a potion and shook the bottle gently. His hand ached, for some reason; he must have banged it against something while his attention strayed. Or perhaps it was the chill within the sky fortress; this place was no balmy holiday in Bhujerba, that was for certain. He uncorked the bottle and thrust it in the general direction where he knew Fran to be. "Here, perhaps this will loosen your tongue. Mayhaps it be successful where Bhujerban Madhu is not." He felt her fingernails trace uncertainly across his wrist and hand before finding the bottle and taking it.
She handed back an empty bottle, and Balthier tossed it into the darkness, as he had all the others. "You know, I've been able to put off searching for water because we've been imbibing so many potions. For that matter, I imagined that you would be up and about by now, making yourself useful. But no, instead, here I am playing nursemaid rather than manfully digging us an escape route."
Balthier couldn't help the way his head snapped 'round to the source of the voice. "Yes?"
"I will. Take long. To. Heal." Every word seemed forced and slow, as if she had to pluck it out of her throat with her tongue. "Mist. Damaged. But you. Are well enough. To leave."
Balthier was silent for a time. Then, at last, he said, "If you're done being ridiculous, I'll make myself comfortable. I seem to have a headache."
He ached all over today. The chill must be getting to him at last. He hoped that Fran wasn't cold; her clothing was certainly not conducive to the climate in here. Then again, viera in general seemed to be very weather-resistant.
"You know, I imagine we're dead," he said to her.
"I feel. Alive."
"Oh, not in here, of course." The dismissive gesture was rather useless, in the dark. "I'm reasonably certain we're both still alive. At least, I hope we are. No, what I am saying is that out there, we have probably already been given up for dead, and perhaps they have held a funeral. I'm certain it was very nice, as the princess seems like a lady of refined taste. I'm quite sorry that we couldn't attend. Do you think they honored us somehow? I should hope so. I'll accept something trifling. A statue."
"Balthier. You are. A supporting character."
"Oh, all right, a medal would do as well. I would hang it in my cabin. But perhaps there was a parade through the streets, and all the women wept, and even some of the men, as well."
Fran said nothing.
Balthier slumped back against the concrete. "I hope Rabanastre made out all right. I don't know how far Bahamut was able to go before she crashed, and I'd hate to think that we're lying on top of thousands of Dalmascans."
"On the eve before the great battle, Kladdus did turn to Unkenid and say,
'My comrade, my tender companion, my love, I see in your eyes that you long for the place of your birth.
I see in the curl of your lips that you yearn for the shores where the great seas heave up the sun.
I see in the set of your brows that you ache for the broad skies of the lonesome hawk.'"
"You bleed," said Fran, sounding quite normal. Next would be the searching lights and footfalls again.
"'Tonight here we break our last bread and we sing the sword-songs of the heroes,'" Balthier continued.
"You have bled for days now. I smell it. And you are ill."
Fingers brushed against Balthier's neck, and he flinched. They wandered down his shoulder, and then to his side. "Oh," he said. "You've returned."
"'And tomorrow we die where we stand, and no songs will be written of us,'" Balthier murmured. "'So my partner, my friend, hero of my heart, you need not for my sake stay.' Ouch."
"'Be still' does not mean 'recite The Unsung of Ramooda,'" Fran rebuked him.
Balthier held his breath while Fran's long fingernails probed delicately just below his ribs, where it still occasionally cracked and wept. He was certain that she saw no better in the dark than he, and he told her so.
"No, but I feel," she said. "And I hear. Be still, I told you."
A hot flare of pain opened up in his side. His eyes watered, and he bit his hand so hard he thought he tasted blood; for the first time in days, he saw something other than black. Whatever it was, the potions and spells had forced his body to attempt to heal around it, and when it finally came free, it did so with a small, wet sound. Balthier expelled all his breath at once and nearly retched. He felt himself begin bleeding again.
"Much obliged," Balthier said, faintly, as Fran bathed him in the warm green glow of Cure.
"You could have seen to this yourself," Fran said.
"T'was only a flesh wound."
"You are ill as well. Take this."
Balthier obediently drank, and he recognized the bitterness of a remedy, the way it coated his mouth. But he did feel better, afterward, and then Fran's steady hands guided him to the ground.
It was the same no matter whether Balthier's eyes were open or closed.
Don't panic, he thought, closing his eyes to no significant change in the world around him. You're the leading man. You mustn't panic.
His side, where the armor didn't quite meet, felt cold and clammy. There was a shredded gap in the leather, and underneath, what felt like crusted fluid. The skin, however, seemed unbroken. And there was no pain.
He sat up--carefully, lest he bang his head 'gainst something--and began to feel around him, 'til eventually he was on his hands and knees. "Fran?" he said. "Come on, girl, don't leave me in the lurch." His voice sounded tinny and muffled. He felt nothing but metal grille beneath his searching fingertips. "It's not fair to leave me to do everything myself."
Step-step-. Step-step, accompanied by a curious scratching sound. Balthier froze, heart palpitating.
"Oh, good," he breathed. "I was beginning to think I'd died."
If Fran was puzzled by his fervent proclamation she said nothing, or perhaps she was merely used to it by now. "I find us water."
Balthier groped until he found the waterskin. "Whatever would I do without you, Fran?"
"What you did before," she replied.
Fran had discarded her footwear, which accounted for the strange clicking noises she made when she walked. Balthier suspected that she could be silent if she chose to, and that the noise was for his benefit. But it also made it exceedingly apparent that she was favoring one leg.
"Does it hurt?"
"It heals," she replied.
"You realize that does not, in fact, answer my query."
Fran said nothing.
Her breaths hissed through her teeth by the time they reached the top of the stairs, and Balthier bade her stop and sip a potion for the pain, if naught else. But she refused, and he did not press her, though he would not move, either, 'til she threatened to carry him.
They followed the left wall, Fran's nails ticking against the metal. Balthier did not notice the cease of her footsteps until he ran bodily into her.
"The hall ends," she said.
A careful search with their hands discovered that their progress was barred by a seemingly impenetrable wall of what had once been ceiling. There were no gaps, and it appeared to be too high to climb over; not that Fran could, in any case, with her leg such as it was, and Balthier was not entirely certain that he could make the effort without opening the wound in his side again.
Fran found a gap in the right-hand wall. Through this they made their way.
The princess' ring had somehow been lost inside a packet of remedy.
"I never did return this to her," he said.
"You meant to?"
"Once I found something more valuable. I never go back on my word, you know."
"When we make good our return, then, you must restore it to her."
"But I'm dead." Balthier said thoughtfully, feeling the contours of the ring. It was heavy and broad; not a woman's ring at all. Churlish of him, perhaps, to take it from her. But sometimes the past was not meant to live. "Not in fact, of course," he added. "It simply occurred to me, earlier, that it might be very convenient for me remain deceased for a time."
"Ah. Yes. The statute of limitations." Though Fran had no bounty on her head, she knew the laws at least as well as he did.
"I've certainly been declared dead by now; if I do not reappear in a year or change, then I'll be a free man. And you know how much I value freedom." Balthier pocketed the ring once more.
"So the princess will not regain her ring after all."
"Unless you care to return it for me."
"No," said Fran. "I do not believe it to be so."
The way before them was once again blocked, but they then discovered that they were at an intersection, and they pushed on.
At first, Balthier thought it was yet another piece of debris. He was continually stumbling over them in the dark. But this one clanked when he hit it with his foot, in a manner that suggested armor.
"An Imperial guard?" Fran queried; she'd heard as well.
"And not one that we killed, from the looks of it," Balthier said, groping through the darkness. "His legs appear to have been crushed."
"An unfortunate soul."
"But fortunate for us." Balthier found and yanked free the soldier's hip-flask. A swift scent-test revealed it to be a potion, and Balthier bagged it with great satisfaction.
"He has a ration-stick as well."
"Only one? Pity. But beggars can't be choosers, as they say, and I'm not one to quarrel with the dead."
Just beyond the guard, the hall again became impassable.
"Not a very well-constructed place, is this, if the slightest little crash has it falling apart like this?" Balthier banged his knee against a protruding obstruction. "This must be the fifteenth dead end we've encountered in the past hour."
"You exaggerate," said Fran.
But there was a flight of stairs leading up, to their right, and they followed them.
Balthier froze. He couldn't hear Fran at all.
"Stay. I will return."
Fran's presence left his side. Moments later, he felt the dizzying flare of a Fire spell from out of the corner of his eye, accompanied by a dying whimper, and it left spots dancing in his vision. Afterward, he heard Fran rejoin him, step-step-drag, step-step-drag, and he went to help her.
It had probably once been the pride of an Imperial beastmaster, but after wandering through these darkened halls for the gods only knew how long, it had been reduced to a starving, half-mad cur. It stank royally of burned fur and flesh, and Balthier needed the assistance of Fran's knife to cut through to the meat beneath. It was still half raw, and he had to strip it from the skin with his teeth, but he ate as much as he could hold and licked his fingers after, the blood and juices making slippery his hands, dribbling down his chin, and coating the inside of his mouth. He could hear that Fran ate as well, despite the viera distaste for flesh.
His shriveled stomach could not handle many mouthfuls, but he felt the better for having had meat in him. There was far too much to take with them, and they had no method of preserving it anyhow, so they left their makeshift meal behind them in the dark.
They found another set of stairs, some time later. Fran's leg appeared to pain her less, but still she took them slowly.
"You know, Fran, I don't think I've ever heard you sing or anything," Balthier said. "Aren't there any viera songs?"
"What?" Fran sounded disbelieving.
"Well, not as if we can occupy ourself with shadow plays. And I've exhausted my personal repertoire already."
They mounted the stairs only to discover that another fall blocked their passage. The room that opened in the left hand wall seemed to have only its one entrance 'til Fran detected a break in the ceiling. Balthier ascended first and brought Fran up after him, and so they did proceed.
"And when at last Balthier returned to his birthland
He found the fields had given way to towering trees
The woods had turned to stone and sand and waste
And of the city there was nothing left but flowers."
Balthier paused to draw breath for the next stanza, and Fran shushed him. "Do you hear?"
Balthier listened. "Water."
After so long listening to one another's breaths and footfalls, the sound of water was an intense lure. They followed it to one of the walls, which Balthier pressed his ear against. "Oh, what I would give for Basch and one of his hammers."
There was an enormous whump. Balthier searched until his foot came up against some heavy detritus, which he seized and hurled against the wall.
Whunk. Whump. Whunk. It did not take long before the wall, already weakened by recent events and the water behind it, ceased its resistance and simply cracked open, releasing a small deluge of water that slowed into a more respectable rivulet. Balthier cupped his hands and drank his fill, splashed some on his face as well, then filled his waterskin. He stepped aside to let Fran do the same. And then they pressed on, hands against the wall, listening and breathing.
"'What happened here? Some war? A famine?' cried Balthier," Balthier murmured, rapping the knuckles of one hand against the wall in rhythm to Tesso's epic. "But there was no one to reply but the blackbirds."
Balthier found, at the bottom of one of his numerous little bags and pouches, a succulent fruit.
It smelt sickly and overripe, and it was slightly pulpy beneath his fingers, but it seemed an amazing luxury. He peeled it with Fran's knife and sliced it in portions, half for each of them.
"Not quite as good as mandragora pie, I'm afraid," he said. "But 'twill have to do."
He ate his first piece in one bite, and then savored the next, carving it gently with his teeth. The third slice he sucked on 'til it lost nearly all its flavor. It was so sweet as to be almost foul.
Balthier did not get up, even after he'd consumed all of the fruit, still running his tongue over his teeth for the last vestiges of flavor.
"We may die here," Balthier said, quietly.
"A grim subject," Fran remarked. "It did not occur to you?"
"No. Yes. Yes," Balthier said. "But I always imagined that I would die with my boots on, so to speak. In a blaze of glory."
"Defeating Vayne is not glory enough for you?"
"It would be one thing if it was Vayne's sword that slew me," Balthier said. "It is quite another to die slowly, of thirst or hunger."
Fran stood in a rustle of hair, and Balthier started as her long fingernails plucked at his shirt. "We will not die here," she said. "We will find the daylight again."
The bridge before them ended in twisted shards, and Balthier cut his hand on one of the metal razor-edges while feeling to see if there was any way across. Fran had to tear off one of his shirtsleeves to bind it, and then they retraced their steps 'til they found another way to go.
Fran seized him by the shoulders and heaved him back. "Balthier, cease! You injure yourself."
Dimly, Balthier realized that his fists were hot and raw, and he'd soaked through the bandage wrapped 'round the hand he'd cut earlier. "I won't die down here in the dark like a rat, Fran. I'm a sky pirate, for the gods' sakes, I won't--"
"This is not the way out."
"I know this door," Balthier insisted. "I know this door, it is the very same godsforsaken door that we came through, I know it even in the dark."
"You know nothing in the dark, Balthier," Fran said. "This door is sealed to us. It is not the way out. We will find another way."
"There is no other way," Balthier whispered.
The hands let go of him. "The darkness has wounded you."
Balthier brought one hand up to his eyes. "We're trapped."
"You yield too easily. We will rest here, and then we will go forth again."
Fran tugged him into a sitting position on the floor, his back against the accursed door. He thought he could feel the ancient carvings even through the armor, as if the door mocked him with its impenetrable ways. All the exhaustion drained into him at once.
"I never should have asked you," he said.
"It was my choice," she replied. "Now, sleep."
And for once, Balthier did as he was told.
When he woke, Fran was gone.
He could not hear her breathing, nor the shiver of her hair or the scratching of her claws against the floor. And good for her; she stood more chance of getting out of this hellpit without the burden of a half-mad hume. It was a pity he didn't get to say goodbye. They were a good team, he and Fran.
But she'd left him a waterskin and several curatives, and she'd changed the bandage on his hand. Kind of her, but foolish; better that she take these things rather than leave them for a dead man. Smiling left blood in his mouth; his lips were dry and chapped for a long time now.
When he wiped his face and lay down for a nap, his hand came away wet.
Balthier rolled one of the shot from his pouch in the palm of his hand, then pressed it sharply into the tip of each finger with his thumb, hard enough that his eyes welled.
The place was preternaturally silent without Fran. Quiet though she was, she made ten thousand little noises that Balthier did not miss until she was no longer there.
He let the shot fall back into the bag with a quiet click, then thrust his hand in and let the tiny pellets roll around and through his fingers, so cool and so perfectly spherical. Or imperfectly spherical; he knew there was no such thing as a perfect sphere. But he could imagine.
"To Vaan," he murmured, "I bequeath the Strahl. She's a fine craft, boy, you treat her well and she'll last you a lifetime. To Penelo, I leave Arcturus. She cost me a pretty coin at the bazaar, so sell her on and you've my shade to answer to. To Ashe, I've nothing except her ring and my apologies; t'was discourteous of me to ask for such a thing. . ."
Arcturus did not guarantee a quick or painless death, not even with the barrel against the roof of his mouth; he'd heard the stories of men found with half their jaws gouged away by the force of the blast, but still alive and in terrible, terrible torment. If he had one of his old crossbows with him he could pull it with his foot, but he did not.
He did not even have a knife with which to bleed himself to death. If he searched, he would find some sharp fragments or wreckage that would accomplish the deed, but he found himself strangely wearied by the thought. Perhaps if he slept some more, he might simply pass away, like an old man in his bed after eighty years of fishing.
Nothing left in his bag was poisonous in small or large quantities. Perhaps if he swallowed the pouch of shot. . .
No, he was a coward, as always. He feared pain, and he feared the after.
Perhaps some half-starved mongrel would come along and finish the job for him. He somehow doubted it; even the dogs were dead by now.
Balthier cocked his head to the side, listening. "What's that? Well. No. Not at all. It's dark, and it's been dark for ages, and I can't remember my own hair color, much less anyone else's. What is it to you?"
He paused, and then waved dismissively. "I haven't remembered my mother's face for ages. She died when I was young, and then my father raised me. He was not a bad father at all, actually--but always a little sad, now that I think of it, that I did not have a mother. But he doted on me, all the same. Rather spoiled me, I think." The smile pulled at his skin.
"He would bring me to work at times," Balthier said thoughtfully. "As I got older, he insisted that I learned his craft. Seemed to think that I would naturally have an interest in it. He apprenticed me to a moogle machinist, which I assure you is unheard of in Archades. It must have caused quite a scandal, but he was never one to care for what others said. As you surely must have noticed."
He fell silent then, and stared out into the dark for a long time.
"I'd like to believe that she'll return," he said in a low voice. "I have ever had faith in her. But even if she does, I'm not entirely certain that there will be anything left of me."
"Not through any help from you," he added. "You're not a very good conversationalist. I don't know why my father ever spoke to you."
When Balthier sat back all the way, his head connected with something comfortingly large and solid. It felt good--or, at the very least, it did not feel bad--and so he did it again. And again. And then he continued, or he may have simply forgotten to stop.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
But there was no one left to reply but the blackbirds.
This was the freedom the gods had given him,
Freedom from friendships and family and--
Hands seized him roughly, long nails digging into his skin, and pulled him away from the door, or wall, or edifice, or whatever it was he was propped up against. Then those same hands passed gropingly across his chest, his arms and shoulders and face and then, finally, the back of his head.
"I left you too long," the voice said.
She sounded concerned. Perhaps even regretful. These were not things he connected with this voice. Who was she? The answer bloomed in his head like a night-lily. "Fran?"
Balthier coughed and cleared his throat, but his voice still rattled like an old man's. "Took you long enough, didn't it?"
The hands released him now. "I did not think to be gone so long. And the way out was far."
"Way out?" Balthier repeated.
"Yes. But it is far, and you are not well."
Balthier scrambled to his feet, swaying, and he had to lean against the door so that his legs might cease shaking. "I am well enough. Lead on, hero of my heart. Show me the way."
The world blinded him at first, with a sensation not unlike a thousand cactoid needles in the eyes, and then resolved into a landscape filled with luscious color: the wet green expanse of the plains, the subtle gray hues that streaked the sky, the blue-black torrents of water--a small moat seemed to have formed around Bahamut--the small brown dots of roving hyena packs. Balthier watched the water run down the length of his arm for a long time, coalescing in droplets on the surface of his skin and then running into rivulets that dripped off the ends of his fingers. Raindrops caught in his eyelashes and formed blurry globes at the apex of his field of vision. Fran had her face tipped up into the rain, mouth open slightly, eyes closed.
And to think, that the constant drizzle of the Giza Plains in the wet season had once annoyed him. Now the million water-needles against his skin filled him with giddy sensation, and nothing had ever tasted so sweet on his tongue, not even the finest Rozarrian honey liqueur. Balthier would have danced, had Fran not been holding up half of his weight. He would have kissed her, would she not drop him off the edge of Bahamut after.
His hair was wet. He was getting cold. He didn't care.
Fran opened her eyes and looked at him. Water dusted her tangled, matted hair and beaded in clear pearls on her ears. She was wan and exhausted and gorgeous.
"Come," Fran said. "We go."
"Yes," said Balthier. "Let's."