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Making His Peace with It

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Basch doesn’t know what to do the first time he notices. It is a day like almost every other since the peace; he and Vossler, restored and even elevated in rank—Dalmasca’s armies are their charge, now—make their rounds, hold their meetings (if Basch had suspected this many meetings, he might have declined Ashe’s honor), separate through the late afternoon with their various duties, and they come back together at the day’s end, when everyone else has retired, in the empty training salle to spar. It had not been easy, at first; Basch kept seeing the Leviathan, drawn swords, Vossler falling under Basch’s blade, and he prays daily thanks that the airship had lurched under his feet, pushed his strike that far left. And then his friend’s blood, everywhere, Basch casting Cura, Cura, Cura until he’d passed out, and when they’d left him in the care of one of Dalan’s contacts, Vossler had opened his eyes long enough that Basch saw the question and curse. Why hadn’t he let him die? At the time, Basch hadn’t really been sure, but now, it was because if he hadn’t carried Vossler out of the Leviathan, Basch would be more alone now than he’d been before. And so, despite their history, they’ve reforged some semblance of their friendship before. No matter how they try, they are not men bred for peace. They are bored, unchallenged, and they’ve no one left to test themselves but each other.

The rest of the men are glad of this. No one else will free-spar with them; the difference in rank makes it awkward, and the generals have lived through too much. Only Vossler’s unrestrained style challenges Basch, after all he’s had to face, and Basch, as the enlistees say, has already come back from the dead once, so if Vossler kills him (“Likely,” they say. “Azelas wouldn’t pull a blow against his own mother.”), it’s no worry. Basch fon Ronsenberg lives. They’ve had to take their sparring sessions at the day’s end not only because of their schedules, but because when the salle is full of trainees and the generals square off, all business stops. Armored or bare-fisted, people turn to watch, and there are rumors of laid bets—Will one of them actually win today? When will one of them actually die?—and so it’s better not to be a distraction. It’s a day like that when Basch sees him do it.

They are bare-fisted, the sun’s dying light slanting in through the windows dimly—no chance of a blinding glare—and Vossler lets Basch’s knuckles thump into his ribs. It’s not that his block misses; it’s that he doesn’t try. It’s an opening big as the Aerodrome, so sloppy Basch suspects Vossler might be affecting a joke, however unlikely a joke seems from Vossler, more now than ever. Basch strikes at the same place, hears the sick, hollow thump, and he pulls up, pulls back. This is not like Vossler.

“Are you all right?” It is possible that he has pulled a muscle, that one of his old injuries has been aggravated.

As soon as Basch straightens and speaks, Vossler lunges, an overhand strike, and Basch ducks under his arm, slapping at the other side of his ribcage. This time, Vossler counters Basch’s hand with a stinging forearm, as much blow as block, and this is exactly like Vossler, and they resume their usual rhythm. They end with Basch’s hand at Vossler’s throat, Vossler’s elbow at Basch’s eye. Standstill. This exhaustion is as close to joy as Basch has been since the restoration, a final vestige of camaraderie when Vossler claps him on the back—sometimes a rattle of plate, today only the heavy hand. This is all as it always is, and it isn’t until they reach the bathing chamber, take their usual positions at the opposite ends of the long shower room, that Basch thinks again of Vossler’s missed blocks.

Basch turns his head from the wall, looks over his shoulder to badger him a bit—sometimes they manage banter, and it reminds Basch of Balthier, of his brother, years ago—but the joke dies on his tongue. There is a puffy, purpling mark on Vossler’s ribs, exactly the size of Basch’s fist, and Vossler presses the heel of his palm into the bruise, pushes hard. Vossler’s cock twitches, swells, and Basch hopes Vossler doesn’t see him look. When he chances a glance at Vossler’s face, he is surprised. His face is neither pained nor pleasured; he scowls, closes his eyes, and shoves his head under the spray. Basch does the only thing he can do: he rinses his hair and pretends he’s seen nothing.

When he’s pulling on his trousers in the barracks locker room—it’s still strange not to go armored all of the time—Vossler edges into the room, dresses quickly. Basch thinks he should say something, maybe suggest they get a drink, but he doesn’t bother. Tonight Vossler eats with the officers of the palace guard, just as Basch will with the chocobo cavalry staff tomorrow. He likes his officers, but they are not friends; it is too easy to fall into favoritism, too hard to start over with someone new.

Vossler shrugs into his jacket, fastens the clasps from the bottom to the top, and he, unlike Basch, always closes the last one, high on his throat. Basch always feels like he’s choking with that one closed, supposes it has something to do with Nalbina, but he doesn’t think on it much. His hands know, automatically, when he needs to look his most official and also the second he doesn’t. His scar and his still-long hair ensure that the collar of his uniform is the last thing anyone notices anyway.

Vossler nudges him as he walks past. “Swords tomorrow?”

Full armor. And it’s hot, hotter than it usually is, even in Dalmasca. Basch nods. If anyone does see them practice, it makes a good impression if the generals aren’t taking it easy and avoiding the stifling weight of full plate. And the weight of it all might help him sleep better. “And watch that right side. I got you pretty good there.”

Vossler’s lip curls. “Working on something. Don’t worry yourself.”

Basch won’t argue. “Give my compliments to the guard.” It’s taking Basch forever to dress, and he doesn’t know why. He pulls his shirt over his head—he hasn’t the focus for buttons right now—and in the time the fabric covers his eyes and slides clear, Vossler has gone. Something’s awry, Basch knows, with his comrade, something he can’t parse, and he can’t bring himself to even put on his jacket. He’ll go to his office, ask an adjutant to have a tray sent up. Even that has taken getting used to. He is expected, now, to make use of the chain of command—ask someone to ask someone to ask…not for the first time, he misses the simplicity of wayfood, whatever they’d been fortunate enough to hunt. Fair or foul, he could manage things himself. They managed themselves.

One of the privileges of rank, though, is that no one will stop him, no one will interrupt if he looks busy enough, hurries enough, and he only passes a group of trainees who snap to attention as he passes. He bobs a hasty acknowledgement and asks the aide—there’s always one nearby, it seems—to send up whatever’s handy from the kitchen. It’s always more than he can eat, always obviously not handy—rich and complex dishes it has taken his body months to get used to eating—but it’s more than he can manage right now to dress formally for dinner. He makes sure to eat with the court at least once a week, if only to see Ashe, to see how she fares, and though they don’t actually speak all that often—if it is not business, it always turns into reminiscing when they do and that’s somehow too sad to do regularly—he feels better after seeing her. She is flourishing as queen, efficient, gracious, sure. She and Larsa and Al-Cid—the young rulers of Ivalice are doing well for the land.

And they are not without intrigue, especially Larsa and Ashe; their correspondence finds its way to his desk more often than not, not letters but lists and ledgers. To the eyes of his aides, it’s more of the bureaucracy of soldiering. The part of it all he was tired of before he’d even made captain. But the lists and copies and orders in triplicate are something to fill the hours that had been, until fairly recently, filled by night watches, by constant vigilance, by the idle chatter of six travelers. He misses that sound, even when it was strained—Ashe’s impatience with Vaan, Fran’s inscrutable silences, his own initial mistrust of Balthier—and now it’s done, the company proven, and though he knows so much about each of them, he isn’t sure what he could say, were any of them here. That’s not true. He sees Ashe regularly. He’s run into Vaan and Penelo in Rabanastre—sworn to secrecy, of course, about the whereabouts of Ivalice’s newest sky pirate pair—and they are well. They are the same, and that gives Basch some peace. And the other sky pirate pair—here he is back to the stacks of paper on his desk.

Ashe says Larsa seals his friendships in paper, and Basch is glad that the Emperor hasn’t sent him a proper letter yet. It would surely speak overtly of his twin, and Basch isn’t sure he’s ready for that. His brother is recovering, that is what he knows, and that must be enough for now. If he looks through the packet addressed to himself in Ashe’s neat script, he’ll find scraps of news, names. But that must wait.

He settles into his chair, signs his name until his hand is ready to cramp—must he train his fingers for this weapon, too?—and he is saved by the soft knock at the door. “Come in,” he calls, and the aide, Cirdan, puts down the tray. A second follows, he doesn’t know her yet, carrying a bucket of ice and a jug.

“Thank you, Cirdan, and—”

“Dina, sir,” she says. Their uniforms are perfectly buttoned.

“Thank you, Dina.” A drop of sweat makes its way down his back. It’s uncharacteristically humid—the rains will come to Giza any minute—and though Basch likes the heat, he knows that few others do. “You’re both dismissed for the night. I have all I need.” He gestures to the papers and the food, offers a small smile. If he didn’t formally excuse them, they would wait outside until he left. Tonight might be a night he doesn’t leave. That happens more often these days, when it’s easier to work until he falls asleep, late, late in the night, than to keep regular hours, toss in his too-comfortable bed. The aides snap to attention, close the door behind them when they leave.

He eats left-handed, picking mostly at a bowl of fruit and some of the bread. He’s not all that hungry, hasn’t been for days. It’s his tongue, not the chef. He makes notes with his right hand on his daily schedule: chocobo inspection before meeting, schedule tactics training exam. He could delegate more, but what would he do with his time? And he likes seeing first-hand the people in his command. It means much, he knows, to have a face on the officers above you, and one of the first things he and Vossler decided was that Basch would handle personnel training, Vossler any disciplinary actions. Basch grins into his files. With Vossler’s knitted brow, his crossed arms, the way he stalks the corridors—there aren’t disciplinary problems. He suspected as much, but Basch doesn’t mind. Normally, he enjoys tactics discussions. It’s only today, this week, that it feels like dragging stones on his ankles. The trainees, though, they remind him of the past, of Vaan and his questions and not waiting for the answer, Penelo, then, prodding for the answer, and he remembers learning these things beside his brother, so many years ago.

Finally, the official business is done, and he pushes his chair from his desk. He pours the icy minted tea that he’s been saving for this moment. He almost wishes he’d asked Cirdan to bring wine, but it’s a habit he fears indulging. He’s maudlin when he drinks alone, but what he does instead is, perhaps, no better. Certainly no less maudlin, and with wine, he’d at least sleep sooner. He picks up the folder of papers that bear the seals of Archadia—he’s not even sure why Larsa sends these things to Ashe, unless it is in the spirit of full disclosure, to create trust between their kingdoms, or if it is because Larsa knows she sends them to him. It is probably both. Larsa is canny, too sharp for his own good. Or maybe only too sharp for Basch’s good.

He peels off his shirt and boots, stretches out on the low couch behind his desk, cup safely on the floor beside him, and reads. He cobbles together the narrative of his brother’s and Balthier and Fran’s movements across Archades. Gabranth has been in the city proper since the Bahamut, convalescent, but always working, it seems. Here his name on a deposition, here on an order of promotion for some judge Basch has never heard of. And then there’s a short log from Nabradia. Gabranth is well enough to travel, as of three weeks ago by the paperwork, and the Strahl is listed as the vehicle that bore him there. Here a work order for the ship, from Balfonheim, last month. Larsa engages Balthier and Fran on quasi-official business, sometimes, often, lately, judging by the papers in hand; Balthier must be returned to his family home, then, as much as he will ever do so.

It is strange, and not so strange, he thinks, sipping at his tea, wiping the condensation’s cool through his hair, that Gabranth travels with Balthier now as he had himself done—he knows they knew each other, before—and that Gabranth and Vossler, the two men closest to him, if he can still say that, have cursed him for the same reason. Basch refused them both the fiery deaths they would have insisted upon, had they been conscious. Both of them bear the marks of Basch’s sword, and those wounds, Basch knows, are the only reason Vossler still speaks to him, the only avenue Basch has back to his brother. None of them has ever pitied the other, ever spared more than providence itself had. Men are such strange creatures, Basch thinks, to thank each other for truly trying to kill the other. Has honor gotten them anywhere? Maybe it has. True honor has restored Ashe’s trust, true honor has made it so that Gabranth still stands beside Larsa, that he lets his emperor leak his whereabouts to Basch. Honor, practiced by their betters. Maybe there’s hope for them. He is relieved, more than he thought he would be, to see that Gabranth is getting better. It was a miracle of healing, and Basch thanks Balthier again in his mind. Thanks him for his quickness, for the set of shoulders that helped Basch support two broken bodies, on two dark days months apart, and bear them from the splintering mechanical wrecks. It’s all circular, like these documents and locations and faces, and he falls asleep in the cargoes and cartography and in the imagining of the idle chatter of travel.

Two days later, there is a message waiting on his desk when he stops to drop off a packet of promotion reviews. It’s sealed under Ashe’s hand, her personal abd signet pressed into the silvery wax, not the Dalmascan seal she uses for army business. The note is short.

Balthier and Fran are bringing me something in the coming days.  I hope you don’t mind—I told Balthier your schedule, where he might find you.

He dashes off a quick reply—Thank you. B.—and hands it to Dina. She smiles, seals it while he watches. He never remembers that part. The rest of the day, things snap more sharply into focus, and he’s putting on his light armor—leather breastplate, greaves, but plate gloves because they’re using poles today and it’s too easy to break fingers with those—with more speed than usual. Vossler’s a little bit late—not unusual for one of them to be delayed a few minutes; there’s always someone who wants something of them—and Basch heads into the salle to wait. He hasn’t seen Vossler since last night; the palace guard was doing something particular this morning, and he’d been working on the promotion reviews. They’ll have to talk about those, maybe over dinner later, or tomorrow morning. He pulls a plain oaken pole from the rack and spins it. They don’t let trainees do this—the fancy twirling—because it really does nothing for one’s defense or attacking ability; it’s showing off, plain and simple, but no one’s here to catch him.

And then Vossler says, “Aren’t you a little old for that?” and his back is to the windows, all of him in shadow because it’s later than usual, and Basch thinks there might be more darkness on the right side of Vossler’s face, but he can’t get a closer look because the pole cracks down in the place his shin had been. He dodges left, thrusts right, and the reverberations in the wood where it connects with Vossler’s stave sting, bright and living. They spar a long time, until Basch sees Vossler only by the paleness of his neck and his bared teeth and the light wood singing through the air toward him. There are no openings in Vossler’s defense tonight, nothing deliberate, anyway, though they both get sloppier with fatigue as the fight wears on. Basch holds up his hand for a respite when he cannot see the oaken pole any more.

“We light a lamp, if we are continuing.” He wipes sweat out of his eyes. The last thing they need to do is break an arm or a skull because they’re too stubborn to get a light.

Vossler is panting. “This is enough, I think.” He takes the pole from Basch’s hand. “I’ll put these away, close up the windows.”

Basch thinks to say that the cleaning staff close the windows when they leave, but he wants a shower and Vossler does nothing without reason.

Basch is clean, wrapped already in a towel, when he hears the door open. Vossler keeps his back to Basch as he undresses, but that is usual, part of the strange courtesy of men, it seems. They both prefer men, and long ago—not more than a year after Basch came to Dalmasca—they discovered that they do not prefer each other as more than friends. They are too different, or too alike; Basch can never tell which. If Basch could manage casual sex—he cannot, which is why it has been more than three years since last he bedded anyone; gods, so long it’s been that he simply forgets sex exists, sometimes, and maybe he’s better off that way—they might be more than friends. Shieldmates, some call it, willing outlet for each others’ lusts, but Basch always wants too much. Better to want nothing. It is good, though, knowing what they do of each other; if he did not, there would be more strain, Basch thinks, on this already precarious friendship of theirs.

“We need to make promotion decisions, tonight or tomorrow, early.” Basch manages the buttons on his shirt today. His fingers, despite the fact that he should be exhausted, are nimble again.

“My preference is for the morning.” Vossler’s voice is muffled as he pulls the padded undershirt over his head. And there is the sound of a wince, half a breath of too-sharp inhale. Basch turns, sees the bruise he left two days ago now yellowing around its edges. Vossler does not turn, does not see Basch see the reddened skin over his shoulders. It’s not bruising, but it’s close, a general angry look to the flesh, mostly faded. But if there is one thing Basch knows, it is the way the body looks in its various stages of injury and bruising. Tomorrow, there will be no sign of these marks, but where did they come from? They are not from yesterday’s sword-sparring.

Before he can think how to phrase the question, Vossler disappears into the shower room. Basch sits, contemplating leaving—if Vossler wants him to know, he’ll tell him; does he not owe him his privacy?—and realizes he still needs to know when Vossler is free in the morning, when they will meet. And maybe he can coax him to dinner, for a pint at the Sandsea, and maybe Vossler will talk. Unlikely, but stranger things have happened.

Steam clouds the room; Vossler likes the water hot even to burning, and he startles when Basch says his name.

“What?” The word is short, clipped, even for Vossler.

“When—” Vossler’s fingers are curled into the bruise on his ribs, and Basch can’t look away this time. Basch clears his throat, tries again. “When, tomorrow morning?”

“Eight, my office. We’ll do it before rounds.” He hasn’t moved his hand.

“All right.” This is not the day, he suspects, to ask more of Vossler, and he turns, opens the door to leave. The sound of the latch pulling open almost covers the sound of Vossler’s open hand slapping into the tile wall. Almost. When he turns back, Vossler is leaning into the wall, forehead resting against forearm, and he says, “Godsdammit, Basch, will you never learn to leave a man alone?”

When Basch moves closer, close enough to face him and hand him a towel, he sees Vossler’s cock, still mostly hard, and that is not what Vossler covers first. First, he presses the towel to his face and hair, and it’s a long minute until his eyes meet Basch’s. The right side of Vossler’s face is mottled red, high on his cheek, except four darker points in an even line. Knuckles. Someone backhanded him, recently, probably the same time he got the marks on his back, and the first thing Basch can think is how? A slap, relatively speaking, takes a long time to execute, a backhanded slap even longer. It’s something you always see coming, the drawing back, and unless Vossler was restrained, even Basch couldn’t land one of those on him. Unless he simply took it, and the hand is too big to be a woman’s.

What he does ask, though, is, “Who?” and the battle rage sparks in Basch’s chest.

Vossler finally wraps the towel around his hips and walks away. “It doesn’t matter.”

“It does matter. I’ll—” Of all people, Basch never expected this conversation with Vossler.

“You’ll do nothing.” Vossler sits on the bench, and it is only now that he looks exhausted. “Basch, I asked for this.”

“No one asks—” He puts his hand on Vossler’s shoulder, bare skin hot and hotter under his palm.

Vossler’s wrist shoots up, knocks his hand away. “Yes. I found someone willing to hit me, and I asked him to.”

“But.” Basch steps forward, steps back again. “Why do you keep punishing yourself? It’s over.”

Vossler barks a hollow laugh. “It’s not punishment.” He presses into the bruise again, and despite the cover of the towel, Basch can see his cock twitch again. “It’s—it’s—” He jerks his hand away, reaches for his shirt instead. “I thought I’d done with it.” He speaks more to himself, than to Basch.

“Who, though?” He can at least watch whomever it is, and then he’ll know, if he ever needs to do anything about it. There’s still red behind his eyes, he knows, just thinking about it.

Vossler buttons his shirt, meticulous as always. “I did not catch his name, and if I had, I would not tell you.”

“Why?”

“What purpose would it serve, Basch? You can do nothing for me, in this matter. So leave me in peace.” He looks at Basch; his eyes challenge. It’s like they’re armed.

Couldn’t he? Basch thinks hard for a minute. He has struck Vossler many times as a fellow soldier, has raised cuts and bruises on his body far worse that the one he bears now, in the simple course of training, and he nearly killed him as an enemy. But the thought of striking him, of Vossler letting him, leaves a sick knot in his stomach. After all that has happened—Vossler falling to his knees, clutching his side, the last resigned look before he’d lost consciousness, and Nalbina, that world of pain—no, he couldn’t. Even if he wanted to, and he can honestly say that he does not. But he can’t let it go.

“You are not at peace with this.”

“That, too, is none of your concern.” Vossler is cold again, even.

It is, Basch wants to say, but he does not. What he does say, though, is, “Be careful, then, and watch your face. My questions are easier to bear than Ashe’s. Or your aides’.”

“Aye. I was careless. It will not happen again.” Vossler stands, finally, fastens the last clasp on his jacket. “We could look over the promotions now, if you like.”

It’s placation, Basch knows, but he’s willing to take it. He needs the company, and he needs to know where Vossler is tonight.

* * *
All day, Basch jumps at shadows, hopes he sees one or two familiar ones, but Balthier and Fran are nowhere to be seen. Ashe never said when—only soon—and Basch knows from experience that Balthier will arrive when he needs to. Frustrating man. Basch doesn’t know why he’s so anxious, but he is, and Vossler’s in a black mood, which isn’t all that rare, but they’re feeding from each others’ tension, and that has never happened before. Usually Basch can calm him down, or at least maintain himself. There are half a dozen snapped quills on Vossler’s desk—he’s crushed the nibs between his fingers as he writes and the pads of his fingers are inked to match his scowl. Basch finds himself first crumpling then tearing the discarded drafts that litter the floor around Vossler’s chair. There’s been some mess with the new guard rotation—Vossler has to redraft the whole thing, commanding officers and down—and there was actually a fight in the infantry barracks last night. Insults and petty theft at the heart of it, and were it any other day, Basch might say something in jest, but he’s short-tempered himself. Ask later, maybe. Or wait until sparring and they can take it out in metal on metal or pepper the pells with arrows or shot. Or get a pouch of handbombs, head into the Estersand, and see what kind of crater they can make. Basch shakes his head. What’s wrong with him today?

He’s stopped destroying paper when Vossler’s aide, Daffyd—the only one he hasn’t scared off—brings them a message from the Queen. She wants them both at dinner with the court tonight. There are dignities from the Paramina Provinces visiting, and Queen Ashelia wants “military presence” to dissuade any potential ideas of action against Dalmasca and her young monarch. Basch closes his eyes, refuses to form the invective. This is his duty, he swore to do it, and it’s disrespectful to resent it. And they don’t have to do anything, save be present, and be themselves, but they both hate this part. Basch is still uncomfortable at formal functions unless he has something to do: bodyguarding, supervising the bodyguard, something. And while Vossler can actually put on courtly manners fairly well and even manage pleasant small talk when he is in the best of humors and utterly must, Basch hasn’t seen him do it since they were lieutenants and acting as non-obvious security at one of King Raminas’s functions. He knows Vossler won’t be using that ability tonight, but Ashe will certainly get her “military presence”—Vossler’s like a mortar ready to go off, Basch can’t help but think of himself as the fuse, and now they can’t even spar.

Maybe after dinner? Basch says as much, but Vossler jerks his chin in a hard negative. “Busy,” is what he says, and Basch has to think of the night before.

All but the faintest print of knuckles is gone from Vossler’s cheekbones; Basch only sees the slightly darker spots because he’s looking for them. They look almost like the faded remnants of the powder burns Balthier sported if he was quick-loading his guns. The Spica, Basch remembers, was particularly bad for that; the sky pirate’s hands were a mess of burns until he’d found the Antares. Again, he misses Balthier, wishes he’d appear around a corner, because Balthier would have the right sarcasm for the occasion or at least an inventive curse that could truly sum up how Basch feels. Of course, Balthier’s cavalier attitude doesn’t mix well with Vossler’s temper—they’d seen that more than once on the way to Raithwall’s tomb—but it might be the thing to tip Vossler into exploding. Then, at least, the tension would ebb. Basch would do it himself, he thinks, but for the fact that he’s sure he’s had something to do with Vossler’s dark seethe. Prodding where he has no right. Balthier would probably know how to handle this better than he does. Basch isn’t sure why he thinks that, but for a man fourteen years his junior, fourteen years less of experience in the world—and it isn’t like Basch has had a peaceful life, an ordinary one—nothing surprises Balthier. Maybe that’s a little sad, too, but Basch still wishes he were here. Even just to needle him. But then he takes the wish back—were the sky pirates to arrive tonight, he’d barely see them, engaged as he is with dinner, and maybe he shouldn’t have company he’s looking forward to when he feels the way he feels today, and Balthier and Fran never stay in one place for long. Wouldn’t do to waste a visit on his foul mood. He wishes, instead, for them to come tomorrow, and maybe on the day after, Basch can nurse a proper hangover after trying to keep up with Balthier and the pricey Bhujerban madhu he prefers, and Vossler can deal with his bad temper for a change. At that thought, Basch knows there’s something wrong with him, that whatever the malaise of the past week is, it’s coming to a point.

He leaves Vossler to finish writing his reprimands—woe to the barracks-fighters; there won’t be another fight for a long time, after this—and heads to the chocobo corral. He’s got recruits learning mounted shooting today, and while he regrets, for a moment, volunteering to do this lesson, he knows it will be good for him.

Cavalry work always helps. Basch knows the bird will feel everything he feels, and for its sake, he pushes all of his frustration—with what? he can’t think on it now—down. He strings his bow and rains arrows into the targets while he waits for his trainees to assemble.

* * *
He is almost reluctant to wash away the dusty, bittersweet smell of chocobo—it’s always been comforting to him—but he can’t put on his dress uniform like this. The steel gray coat has an even higher collar than his usual, and it will have to be closed tonight. He gives one last futile tug to it; it’s stifling, and it’s already been tailored with more ease than is standard, but its simple presence vexes Basch. He doesn’t know how Vossler can stand it.

They meet in the palace’s Great Hall, and Basch is again glad that neither their offices nor their rooms are in the palace proper. Here there are servants and pages everywhere, the Palace Guard that never retires for the night—even Queen Ashelia cannot truly dismiss them. Perhaps that’s why he likes his office best—at the end of a long corridor, Vossler’s office across the hall, a string of often-empty classrooms between them and the main thoroughfare. Even his rooms—a too-spacious, too-comfortable apartment at the top of the cavalry barracks—feel like they’re too highly trafficked. He can’t sleep with the sound of steps nearby, still wakes with steel in hand if someone coughs, walking by, or there’s the jangle of armor. It’s a barracks. No wonder he hasn’t slept properly in weeks.

They’re shown in to dinner and the Queen introduces them to the dignitaries—Basch remembers just in time that the people of Paramina bow, don’t clasp wrists, in greeting—before the generals take their seats at the middle of the long table. Too far from Ashe to converse with her, but she’s not at liberty for that right now, anyway; her attention is for her duty, sure as theirs is, but as dinner wears on—everything too thick and heavy in Basch’s stomach, but it’s bad manners to pick at his food—she catches his eye, thanks him with a minute nod. He and Vossler are nearly silent—they speak when spoken to—until the staff begins bringing in some frozen delicacy to end the meal. And then Vossler is all charm, all pleasantry, with the dignitary—a Bhujerban woman who seems to always be here; someone from the embassy?—to his left, with the sycophant on his right (even Dalmasca’s court has them). Basch can’t even process what Vossler’s saying; it sounds too strange on his ears to make sense of it, and when Vossler says, “Don’t you think, General fon Ronsenberg?” he can only nod.

He has no idea, though, what he thinks or even what it was that Vossler was talking about, except that there’s something else in Vossler’s face, behind the relaxed eyebrows, that Vossler’s face looks foreign when he is not scowling, and that crystallization of thought scares Basch on so many levels. Maybe, though, he is simply trying to do what Ashe might like them to do—socialize, be human—and maybe it’s working, forcing him out of that black cloud. And then someone brings in a tray of half-pints, Paramina bitters—tribute to their guests, the Queen says, and the dignitaries are all smiles, fairly honest, even, to Basch’s eyes. There won’t be trouble from Paramina, he’ll stake his sword on it. And he looks at Vossler with half a grin. If there is one thing—one small, simple pleasure—that Vossler likes, it’s a good beer. And Paramina bitters, ice-cold, is one of those. Basch is almost looking forward to it, himself.

But Vossler is not looking at him. He’s wiping the edge of his mouth with his napkin and rising. “I regret I must take my leave—duty calls. I wish you all a pleasant evening.” He turns, bows neatly to Ashe, and he won’t look at Basch, though Basch can see the scowl resettle around his eyes before he leaves the room.

The drink turns to vinegar on his tongue, too sharp, and Basch can’t bring himself to drink more than half. He has no opportunity to say more to Ashe than to bid her a good evening, and when he exits the palace, there’s a chill on the air. Or it might be in him, because he has to remind two of the guard to put their armor back on, that the heat is worse in the Westersand, and they must learn to manage the weather, even in full plate.

His feet take him to the sparring room, but it is empty—as he suspected—and he’s worried for Vossler even as he’s actually angry with him. When was he last honestly angry, selfishly angry? Certainly he’d had his anger for Archadia, for Gabranth’s cruelty, even for Landis and its inability to survive, but those are such institutional angers, so large and not always for himself, they don’t fit here. Vossler ditched him, to use the word Vaan likes so much, and it stings. He supposes, as he makes his way toward his office—there’s always something to do, there—the last time he was angry like this, he was sixteen. Before Archadia invaded, when he and Noah were just young men learning soldiering. It was over something stupid—Noah volunteered to take a patrol, knowing Basch could not go (other duties, cavalry-related, Basch is sure), and Basch sat awake, his sword unsheathed across his lap, and waited. He wasn’t even sure what for. Noah came in, near dawn, asked why he was still up, and collapsed into bed without waiting for the answer. He misses him. Godsdammit, he misses him.

Cirdan sits in the armchair Basch insisted he put in the hallway. If the aides are going to hang around all day, waiting for their recalcitrant generals to need something, Basch said they needed at least somewhere comfortable to wait. Cirdan jumps up, snaps his heels together as Basch approaches.

“Go to bed, Cirdan. I’m just doing paperwork.”

“Can I get you anything before I go, sir?” Maybe Basch is starting to look like how he feels, because there’s some concern tingeing Cirdan’s efficiency.

“I’m fine, thank you,” Basch says, and he opens his door. He waits until Cirdan’s footsteps have entirely faded, waits a minute longer, before he slams it closed. He makes himself jump, even though he knows the noise is coming. And he doesn’t feel that much better for doing it.

He pulls out the file of everything Larsa has sent to Ashe that she has sent to him. He separates it into three piles: Gabranth, Fran and Balthier, and the last—a single sheet only—when they have all three been in the same place. He rearranges everything by date, the most distant—from only a week after the Bahamut, a healer’s bonus, as paid by the emperor himself, “For extraordinary service and dedication to the well-being of a Judge-Magister of Archadia”—to the most recent. And he re-reads it all. Twice. And at some point, he dozes, because there’s a clatter in the hallway, something thumps against the wall, and it jerks Basch awake. Papers scatter, and he’s on his feet and at the door in a heartbeat, and he’s got no sword, but his hands are as good as anything, and when he opens the door, the last thing he expects to see is Vossler, only barely holding himself up against the paneling while he fumbles with his key.

Basch relaxes. “If you were just going to go out and get sotted, you might have stayed at dinner long enough for a decent beer.” He crosses the hall, plucks the keys from Vossler’s hand, and when the tumblers click open, he eases his arm around Vossler’s shoulders to help him inside. At his touch, Vossler lets out a pained grunt and he shoves Basch away. One hand on the doorframe, he pulls himself into the room. Basch follows.

There’s no scent of alcohol on him, but Vossler’s weaving through the dark room as though there is, hunched and shaky, and he stretches himself—another bitten-back hiss—face-down on his couch. Basch kneels beside him, asks, stupid, “Are you all right?”

Vossler pulls his arms up, folds them under his head, and Basch hears the pain in the movement.

“Vossler?”

“I’m tired, Basch.” In the faint light from the hall, from the window, there are darker spots on the back of Vossler’s shirt, wet, on the nondescript gray-brown. He’s not in uniform; Basch can’t remember the last time he’s seen Vossler in street clothes, and the room is stiflingly hot.

“I’ll get you some water. You’re sweated through.” It’s what he would do if Vossler were drunk, though it’s clear he’s not; Basch wishes he were because he knows how to manage that. He pushes himself to his feet, and he makes himself walk the long steps to the fountain in the building’s center.

There’s a row of pitchers, some glasses beside the fountain—there always are, bless the staff—and the water can’t flow fast enough for Basch. He tries not to spill any as he walks back, and there’s panic in his gut. He hasn’t felt panic in years. Not even on the Bahamut—that’s blood, that’s battle, and however horrible, Basch knows what it is. He tells himself, as he hits the long empty hallway, that Vossler just got into a dust-up in town, maybe said the wrong thing to the wrong person, got knocked around a little. They’ve all done that. The other guy probably looks worse.

He eases the door open, reaches for the lamp, strikes the flame, just as Vossler says, “No light.” Too late. In the yellow-orange glow, even from across the room, Basch can see the spots on his shirt aren’t merely water-dark. They’re rusting red over his shoulder blades. Basch is beside the couch and he almost drops the pitcher; what spills soaks into pants’ legs.

“What in the hell happened to you?” Basch knows he’s overstepping everything, but he doesn’t care. He folds the bottom edge of Vossler’s shirt up once, twice, so intent on seeing what’s under the blood-stained cloth over his shoulders that he almost misses the wide, livid bruising across Vossler’s lower back. “Daughter of Mateus,” he breathes, and he holds his hand a finger’s width above one of Vossler’s kidneys, where the flesh is swollen, purple-red, and radiating heat like coals. You don’t hit someone there unless you’re a complete idiot. Or you actually want to do him harm.

“Leave me be, Basch.” Vossler’s hands are clenched into fists, and he half rolls, turning his back toward the couch’s slope.

Basch puts his hand on the back of Vossler’s leg and draws him back down. “You know I can’t. Let me help, or I’ll sit here all night.” He might, anyway, but he won’t tell Vossler that. “The bottom of your back—it’s bad. Dangerous. I won’t knock you out and drag you to the infirmary if you let me help.” He readies the sleep spell in his mind, anyway. Bless you, Penelo, for teaching me.

Vossler stiffens, Basch can see his head shaking, but finally, he relents. “Just there, then. Leave the top.” He holds still while Basch remembers the words.

The healing energy leaves his fingers, and he wishes Fran were here. She’s so much better at it than he is, but the swelling starts to go down, the bruising fades as he watches. They’ll still be visible, and it’ll hurt for days, but Basch won’t have to worry about Vossler’s kidneys shutting down.

For a long while after, they sit in silence, Basch kneeling beside the couch, both unmoving, until Vossler reaches for the pitcher. Basch pours, wants to hold the cup to his lips but doesn’t. Vossler wouldn’t let him, he knows. Vossler winces to a sitting position—this is worse than lying down, and Basch tries not to think about why—careful to hold his back away from the couch, and drinks. When the cup is empty, he starts to undo the buttons on his shirt, stops.

“I’ll be fine, now. And I know you’ll be across the hall if I need you, no matter how much I wish you’d go back to your rooms.”

The anger’s flaring up in Basch again, same as before. “Tell me you asked for that. Honestly.” He spits the words. He shouldn’t do this, not now, but he has to do it now or he never will.

Vossler’s shirt hangs open, and he closes his eyes, grimaces, while he peels it off. “I chose poorly tonight.” He balls up the shirt in his fist, pours some water on it, and dabs at his stomach where an unmistakable silvery residue clings to the hair.

“You could have been killed.”

“But I was not.” Vossler pulls off his boots, touches his fingertips to the place Basch healed.

“Who was it?” Despite Vossler’s apparent calm, Basch sees the shake in his hand when he feels where the worst of the bruising had been.

“Someone who is already gone, I am sure.” Vossler stretches out again, pillows his head on his arms, closes his eyes, but at least he faces Basch. “But if I suspected this one were still in Rabanastre in the morning, I would act on it myself.”

The admission is quiet, even, and Basch is colder than he’s been in recent memory, the fire in him gone out. This is worse than he thought, and he forms his next question carefully, but it comes out garbled anyway. “Is there anywhere else, injury—?”

“Nothing that needs magick or salves or anything else.”

The worst of Basch’s suspicions are denied, then, but the more minor ones are confirmed. “This,” he trails off, pours more water and puts the cup in easy each. “This is not what you wanted, when you left dinner?”

“You’re never going to let me sleep, are you?” There’s almost affection in Vossler’s voice.

“I want to understand.”

“I should be the last one to explain it. I don’t know what I want.” Vossler raises his head far enough to rest his forehead on his arms, speaks into the cushions. “I’ve never had it, so I can’t describe it to you.” The cuts on Vossler’s back are long, thin, parallel on the latitude of muscle. Those are from a belt.

“Where is there pleasure in these?” He picks up Vossler’s ruined shirt, wets a new portion of it, and dabs carefully at the dried blood.

“There is none, now. And there won’t be. These are my warning.” He turns his face fully away. “Men like us don’t find what we seek.”

Basch makes the whole shirt damp, snaps it crisply in the air, and Vossler flinches. Stupid. “Sorry,” he says, and drapes the air-chilled cloth over his friend’s back. Vossler exhales—it’s not a sigh—and Basch says, “Men like us? What do I seek?”

“I don’t know, but you’re looking, as surely as I am.” He yawns, says, “Please, leave me. If only to sit awake and think at me all night.”

Basch stands, wants to touch Vossler, but can’t decide where, so he says, instead, “Bows tomorrow?” He’s not foolish enough to think he’ll forgo sparring, but maybe he’ll accept target practice.

“Go to hell, Ronsenberg. Maces.”

Everyone he knows is so godsbedamned stubborn. Basch douses the lamp when he leaves.

Chapter Text

Vossler’s words are too keen, too apt; General fon Ronsenberg doesn’t sleep, can’t find it in himself to even try. He cleans up the scattered papers, and then he opens a book and turns pages he doesn’t read until it’s an hour before dawn. He takes off his shirt, buttons his jacket over his bare chest, and walks out of his office. It’s not long until Dina will be here, her and Daffyd, bringing whatever updates and news the generals will need for the day. He knocks softly on the door across the hall. “It’s me,” he says, and he turns the knob, sick with himself, actually, that he didn’t lock it behind him. Against what, he doesn’t know.

Vossler’s already awake, putting his boots on stiffly in the darkness. His silhouette jerks and starts. Basch folds his shirt over the back of Vossler’s chair, picks up the bloodied one. He says, “There’s nothing you need to do until the examinations at eleven. Conference room.”

Vossler ties the laces quickly; the zing of leather on leather fills the room. “I’ll see you at eight.” He does pick up the shirt, though, eases into it. It’s too tight across the chest; he leaves all but the bottom few buttons undone, but it’s better than nothing. He twists to pick up his keys from where Basch dropped them on the desk, and he sucks in a breath.

“You want—” help walking? Me to tear this city apart until I find the whoreson who did this? What? What do you want?

“No.” Vossler pushes him out of the office before Basch can gather up the pitcher and cup. He’s walking almost normally when he turns the corner at the hall’s end, and Basch waits, again, until his steps have faded to slam his own door so hard he hears something inside fall.

* * *
Vossler’s already talking with Daffyd when Basch gets there; there’s no sign that Basch can see of last night except that when they sit, Vossler’s posture is more rigid than usual. There’s a certain weariness around his eyes, too, but Basch only sees it because he’s looking. No one else looks Vossler in the face long enough to find it.

Three hours later, as they climb the stairs for the tactics examination, Basch finally opens his mouth to ask, but Vossler won’t let him.

“Not a word,” he says, but his stride is slower than usual.

Basch doesn’t even look at him for the rest of the hour. When the examinations are over—at least that goes smoothly; they’ve a fresh batch of sergeants now—Basch bolts for his office, takes the stairs down two at a time. He is ashamed to think it, but there’s a spiteful pleasure in knowing Vossler can’t follow like this. Of course, Vossler wouldn’t think to want to. Basch tells Dina he wants no interruptions for the next hour, and at least he doesn’t slam the door this time.

He should start putting together assignments for the new officers. If he’s stealing this hour, he should at least use it, but what he does is sink into his chair, dig the heels of his hands into his eyelids, and try to figure out what in the six icy hells is going on. He doesn’t remember falling asleep, doesn’t hear the door whisper open and closed.

“What are they doing to you, Basch?”

He startles so much he half falls out of his chair. Fran’s standing in front of him, looking exactly as she always has. He rights himself, and she’s frowning. The deep lines around her mouth are wrong, wrong, and he says, too fast, “I’m fine.”

She crosses her arms and waits.

“Haven’t been sleeping well, but it will pass. Sleep’s just not as good when you aren’t worried it’s your last.” She doesn’t laugh. He rakes a hand through his hair, and he can’t think anymore. His hand drops to the desk, and he looks at her. Really looks. “It’s good to see you, Fran.”

He doesn’t see her move, but she must have, because she’s closer, so much closer, and she puts her long fingers over his. “I cannot say the same.” There’s a warm-cool tingle in his palm and it spreads up his arm, curls around the back of his neck and lifts some of the weight from his eyes. He recognizes the feel of Fran’s magick, but this spell is new, or different. She could cast Blizzaga on him right now, and that would be fine because it’s Fran. She’s here. Someone is here. She moves her hand away, says, “You look terrible.”

He turns toward the mirror Cirdan put on the wall after catching him shaving in his office. In his reflection, he sees nothing out of the ordinary, save the circles under his eyes. All told, he certainly looks better than he did at any point during their journey, and he says so.

“Here,” is what she says, and she makes a fist, holds it over her breastbone. He can’t argue with that.

“Where’s Balthier?” As soon as the words leave his lips, he knows how ungrateful he sounds. He shouldn’t speak.

Fran isn’t offended. Has he ever seen her offended? Not in any way that didn’t involve burying an arrow in the offender’s throat, he supposes.

“He’s with the fledglings. Vaan has questions. He’ll find you later.” She smiles, pulls him out of his chair, steers him toward his couch. She sits at one end, he sits at the other, and it’s surreal, Fran sitting on a couch, armored exactly as she always is, though he’s sure some, most, of the pieces are new or modified. There’s a silvered shine to the black enamel that wasn’t there before.

“You two are doing well, I take it.”

“There is a great deal of profit in working for Larsa.” In her eyes, Basch sees that it’s not all above-board, though, that they’re still up to the old tricks, and he’s happier about that than he has any right to be. He almost asks about his brother, can’t decide what he should call him. Somewhere between “Judge-Magister Gabranth” and “twin,” he loses track of himself.

And then Cirdan’s at the door. “General fon Ronsenberg?” He’s alone in the room, he’s mostly lying down, he’s disoriented but feels better than he had before. At least in terms of his eyes.

“Aye,” Basch says, and he lurches to his feet. How long did she put him out for? Had she actually been here? It’s only now quarter after the hour, by the distant chiming, and Cirdan comes in with the usual stack of briefs.

“Sir, we’re so sorry, sir, for the interruption, but the lady viera said she was sent from the Queen—”

“It’s all right, Cirdan. She’s an old—friend,” he decides, and he thinks he can claim that of Fran. Certainly they all could not walk together so long and not take the name of friend? It makes sense, but he’s reluctant to put names on these things. Names get lost. Basch takes the papers. Nothing special, nothing from Ashe. “Was there anyone else?”

“No, sir.” His aide stoops, picks up the statuette—it came with the office—on the floor beside one of the bookcases. So that’s what fell. “Sir, I took the liberty of having something sent up. It should be here—”

A knock at the door. It’s Dina, and she and Cirdan exchange a look before she puts the tray on the edge of the desk. It’s salad, citrons, flatbread, tea. Nothing is garnished—thank gods; he’s sick of flowers on his food—fork and napkin haphazardly bundled. The aides turn to leave, and it hits him. She put this together, must have muscled her way into the kitchens, found the only things he’s been eating.

“Lieutenants.”

They turn back as one.

“Thank you.” Even though he’s still not hungry, he makes himself finish everything on the tray.

* * *
Vossler lands a sturdy blow on Basch’s shield, and the sting carries up his arm. He shoves the mace away with the shield, whirls, gets behind Vossler for a heartbeat, and there’s such an opening over his right shoulder. It’s not deliberate. For all of his injuries, Vossler’s not slower today; if anything, he’s more aggressive, and he’s been connecting with Basch’s body more than Basch actually wants to think about. There’s already a bruise on his thigh, he thinks, and he’ll feel the vibrations in his shield arm all night. So when he sees the expanse of unprotected plate at his shoulderblade, he raises the mace. And hesitates. Vossler’s already turning to counter, and he must see the pause in Basch’s face, because he snarls and swings. Basch dodges and decides. If this doesn’t work, it’s going to hurt so much.

He brings his shield front and lunges, grappling for Vossler’s mace with his own, their forearms flush, and when he feels the fluted steel catch and hold against its mate, he’s relieved. He sets his shield against Vossler’s, shoves and lifts, pushing them high. As long as he can hold this, he’s got Vossler at a disadvantage. If Vossler withdraws his mace, Basch is fast enough to get him square in the chest before Vossler can get his shield down. But Vossler is stronger, and Basch knows his shield is going to start shaking soon. The two inches in height are in Vossler’s favor. Basch is scrambling for a contingency plan when a familiar voice cuts the strained quiet of the salle.

“I didn’t come all this way to watch you two dance all night.”

Vossler pushes Basch away. “What did you come for?” Vossler says. His voice echoes through the slitted faceguard, and it crystallizes: Basch hates the sound of the human voice muffled by metal.

He yanks his helmet off and Balthier’s walking toward them, his vest dark and his hair light in the evening sun.

“I came to see this old man. I’m not sure why, but here I am.” Balthier extends his hand and Basch pulls his gauntlet off so fast it clatters to the floor.

Balthier’s wrist is narrow and warm under his fingers, his shirtsleeves rolled to the elbow against the heat, and there’s the faint gray of engine grease on his skin and the bottoms of his sleeves. “I didn’t think I’d live to say this, but it’s good to see you again.” Basch grins. It’s forced, but it also can’t come close to showing exactly how glad he is. He doesn’t want to let go of Balthier’s forearm. If the greeting ends, he has to figure out what to do next.

Balthier looks at him too closely, says, “I could say the same,” and Basch should know better. Of course he knows everything Fran knows. And the pirate pulls away, faces Vossler, who is putting the maces and practice shields back on their racks. “And how are you, you dour bastard?”

“Exactly as you say,” Vossler says, and he disappears into the changing rooms.

Balthier picks up Basch’s dropped gauntlet, inspects the articulation of the finger-joints. “Decent armor. You’re moving up in the world.”

“Not as quickly as certain entrepreneurs I know. Fran’s new gear is impressive.”

Balthier’s mouth quirks up. “You like that? It’s all underlain with a mithril-adamantite alloy. Even destrier spines won’t pierce it. We picked it up a few weeks ago in Nabradia.”

Nabradia. Basch tries to keep his expression even. If they’re going to talk about his brother, he’s not going to do it armored and sweating. If they’re going to talk about his brother, they’re going to do it with drink in hand, without the metallic tang of heavy helms on his tongue. He puts his hand on the changing room door, and Balthier stops him for a moment.

He cocks his head toward the interior. “How is he? Truly?”

“His body is healed, and we are—as we were, I suppose. And he is as surly as ever, so he must be well.” He can’t even bring himself to fake a smile, and he goes on without meaning to. “But there is something.” Basch scrapes his thumbnail over a ridge in the wood. “Amiss.” When he pulls open the door, he hopes Vossler has already dressed, and he points out the finer details of the training facility in a louder voice than he has to.

But Vossler is a stubborn ass and unlucky, and he’s holding a towel to the trickles of blood that make their way down his back. Several of the deeper belt-cuts have split, opened afresh. Basch holds his breath, hopes to all that’s holy in the world Balthier won’t say anything about it.

What Balthier does do is pull bandages and a roll of cloth from his pouches. He puts them on the bench beside Vossler. “I was working on the children’s airship this afternoon. It’s murder on the hands, but easier to wrap up the cuts and heal them all at once. Haven’t the patience to do magick every five minutes.” He flexes his fingers and looks for all the world like there’s nothing noteworthy about any of this.

Vossler picks up the bandages, finally puts them back down, and shifts so his back is to Basch. This is important, Basch knows, and he works as efficiently as he can. The roll of cloth has some sort of sticky residue on the back. The Moogles make it, Balthier says, and Basch fastens the edges of the bandages securely, careful not to let the adhesive rest on any of the other cuts. That makes the task harder; he has to fold the bandage over the tops of Vossler’s shoulders, almost down to his collarbone, and the last piece of tape stops at his second rib. Just below it is the mottled skin that still makes Basch’s stomach sick. It looks like he’s been kicked, and the longer he looks, the more he thinks he’s right. He can’t dwell on it, not now. He moves his eyes, and then he sees the hand-shaped bruises on his biceps, the dark circles around his wrists. All marks the passage of hours has brought to light.

Vossler sees him look, reaches for his shirt. Basch reaches for the clasps on his breastplate.

Over the muffled clank of Basch removing his armor, Balthier says, “We’re headed to the Sandsea for a pint or six. You interested?”

Vossler looks over his shoulder, faint surprise writ over by fatigue. He shakes his head. “I have some work to catch up on.”

Basch’s head snaps up. If there’s even a hint of a lie about him, he swears by all that’s holy and damned he’ll Sleep him as he stands—and Vossler meets his glare with something that’s less than a scowl.

“I’ll be in my rooms, Basch.” He believes him. “Balthier.” Vossler nods, curt, and even the sound of the door swinging closed sounds tired.

Basch wipes a film of sweat from the inside of his pauldrons, and when he’s done, Balthier’s still watching the door.

“Who’s doing that to him?” Balthier’s voice is chatty, light. Basch knows that tone.

He exhales, yanks off his padded shirt. Vossler won’t forgive him for talking about it, were he to know, but this is territory too alien for Basch. “It’s always someone different, it seems. He won’t say who. He’s been going out, to the city. Came back like that last night. It was worse, much worse, here.” Basch points.

“If you find the whoreson, kill him.” Balthier puts the roll of cloth and the leftover bandages back in his pouch.

Basch’s fists clench. “Aye.” And then, “Thank you, for that.” Basch gestures to his own back.

Balthier leans into the locker behind him. “I don’t like the miserable sod, but I wouldn’t see a dog treated like that. That’s not how it’s supposed to work.” Balthier’s expression shifts—he’s chewing over something in his mind—and he straightens, again, as if nothing is out of the ordinary. “I need to clean up, as do you, and it’s time for a godsbedamned drink. Sandsea, as soon as you can make it.” And then he’s gone.

When he’s finished washing, Basch sees that his life is not organized for socializing. He has to search hard for clothing that is not military issue, finds a pair of loose trousers and a sleeveless jerkin in the bottom of his chest of drawers. He’s never worn them, doesn’t remember getting them, but that’s how it is with most of the things in his rooms. When he dresses, looks down, he thinks he finally looks Dalmascan. It bothers him.

And though he’s in a hurry, he finds himself crossing the palace complex toward their offices, swears he’s not going to check up on Vossler, truly, and he’s saved from his own hypocrisy by Daffyd jogging toward him, toward the infantry barracks, a tall stack of files under one arm. Basch hails him, and Daffyd pulls up in a cloud of dust, salutes with his free hand.

“General fon Ronsenberg.” He hides his surprise at Basch out of uniform fairly well.

“Lieutenant.” That’s obviously the guard schedule, and there’s a handful of the new promotees’ files. “General Azelas running you ragged?”

“Yes, sir. I mean, no, sir.” Daffyd sighs. “He asked me to bring some things from his office, General. Is there anything that you need, sir? I can go back.”

“No, no. Carry on.”

Daffyd secures the files in his grip, and Basch thinks of something.

“Lieutenant.”

“Sir?”

“Have the kitchen send up a flagon of good ale when he asks for dinner. And if he doesn’t ask, do it for him and when he protests, tell him I sent you.”

Daffyd laughs, albeit nervously. “Yes, sir.”

As he walks down into the city, he nods to the Moogling moogle, sees, again, the streets without armored guards, and is almost happy. Then memory takes him, and he’s looking behind every face for someone who had better hope he never finds him.

The Sandsea is as crowded as usual, the hunt board thronged by a handful of boys, and Basch recognizes some of them from Lowtown. Vaan’s become quite the celebrity; he and Penelo keep taking down high-ranked marks and then plundering the high-ranking and high-born on the turnaround. It’s probably treason to think it, but good for them. There’s half a dozen people here he knows, acquaintances, but he keeps his head down and climbs the stairs, takes them two at a time. He can’t help it, and when he clears the banister, he stops. Their usual table is empty, the round one with six chairs, where Basch had asked Vaan to take him, after he’d met with Vossler for the first time since prison. No one’s here. He sighs, pulls out a chair, but before he can sit, Balthier taps him on the shoulder.

“Over here, unless you’re expecting others. Did you talk Azelas into coming along?” He gestures toward a small table tucked into a corner, bottle and glasses already waiting.

Basch shakes his head. “I didn’t try. No Fran?” He sits.

“The viera ambassador is holding conference with her Royal Majesty Ashelia B’Nargin Dalmasca with regard to specific imports,” Balthier raises the bottle meaningfully, “and their relative merits.” Balthier pours. “We’re dividing and conquering the injustices of legal and gainful government employment, one fallen comrade at a time.” He raises his glass. “To the peace,” he says, and even there there’s a smirk.

Basch raises his. “Peace.” They drink, and there’s so much in the wine—fruit and tannin and smoke and memory and red and copper and memory—Basch holds it in his mouth until he thinks he’ll choke. When he swallows, he does choke, a little, and the cough fades into a desperate laughter that lasts too long.

“My god, you poor fucking man,” Balthier says. “Fran was right. You’re going mad.” He’s caught somewhere between laughter and something else, and Basch is angry again.

“Don’t you dare pity me, Balthier.” As fast as the anger flared, it’s gone. Shame cools the fire in his gut. He runs his hand through his hair, grips it tight, for a moment, at the back of his head. “Maybe I am going mad.” He drinks deep, smoother this time.

“You’re not lucky enough for that.” Balthier leans back in his chair, gestures with his wineglass. “If you were actually going mad, you’d be gleefully hacking things to bits, cackling maniacally, joking with people I can’t see, not tearing yourself up over everyone’s problems but your own. You’re not mad. The fon Ronsenbergs have too much sobriety in their souls for that. You’re completely unqualified for madness.” He props his ankle on his knee. “I, on the other hand, as a thoroughly selfish bastard, am looking forward to it.”

“Here’s to drowning any of that sobriety, then, that’s keeping me from joining you.” Basch tops up their glasses. They shouldn’t speak of madness this way, not with the spectre of Doctor Cidolfus so fresh in their minds, but fuck the Occuria, anyway. It feels savagely good to form the thought, the word, that Archadian word that Balthier likes so much. Fuck. Basch can’t think of an equivalent in any of the languages he knows. Rozzarian curses have more fire, Landisser more ice, but this one is like a cudgel.

“Be careful what you wish for,” Balthier says into the rim of his glass. “You could join Fran and I for a bit of a day trip, though. I can’t promise madness, but I could promise Balfonheim or the Phon Coast or even Jahara. Anywhere that wasn’t a staff meeting or a training exercise.”

Basch smiles. Of all the places they had been, Jahara had been his favorite. Someday he would go there again, speak with Supinelu once more. But he shakes his head. “There’s no time. We’ve an army to run.”

“A day, Basch. Look at yourself. You need it. Which of the holy days is your week-break?”

Basch’s glass stops in front of his lips. Dalmasca’s seven-day week is marked by a holy day to begin and a holy day to end. Each Dalmascan observes one of them, per his religion, and those who are not particularly religious simply choose one as a day of rest. Dina and Daffyd observe the first, Cirdan the last. The cavalry is split almost evenly; on these days, Basch works with the special squadrons, the smaller units. It’s convenient, really, helps him to focus his attention on particulars. He—he sips at his wine—he doesn’t have one. Neither does Vossler. Balthier sees his answer on his face.

“You haven’t had a day off since—” Balthier is laughing, and it’s kind of like Basch before, a little strained, a little off, in every way. They’re laughing because they don’t know what else to do. He wipes his eyes with the heel of his hand. “Even after all this time, you’re exactly alike. I didn’t see it before, but gods, man. No wonder you’re both in tatters.”

Basch is about to say he’s got a better sense of humor than Vossler ever had when it hits him. Balthier’s not talking about Vossler at all. He swallows. “How—” Tries again. “How is he?”

“How are you?” Balthier sits up straighter, serious now. “He is much the same.” Balthier shrugs. “After you left, the healers had to keep him unconscious for three days, until they fixed the worst of it. He kept trying to get up. A week later, he demanded Larsa give him something to do or turn him out. And you’ve been getting the reports since.”

Basch keeps his glass on the table, his eyes trained on the place the stem rises from the base. He can’t trust his reaction to any of this, not yet.

Balthier goes on. “As Magister, he’s better than he’s ever been. And for all his mistakes—politically—Gabranth is a damn fine Judge. He’s dedicated, he reads everything, he’s impartial—”

“Present company excepted.” The words are out before Basch can stop them. He drops his head so that his forehead rests on the table’s edge, and he folds his hands over the back of his neck.

And Balthier smiles. “Finally.”

“What?” Basch looks up.

“There’s Hume blood in that walking pyre of sanctity you call a body.”

Basch empties his glass. “Too much of it, these days.”

“He’s sorry, you know.”

“I know. I am, too.” They’d said as much, before, when no one thought Gabranth would live, but Basch had forgiven him the moment he’d chosen Larsa over Vayne, reason over madness. Neither of them could undo the past, but when he’d chosen a future, Basch could believe his brother still existed under that armored shell.

“Would you see him? If he asked?” Balthier empties the bottle into Basch’s glass and stands. “I’m going to get another. Think about it.”

Basch stands, too. If he must think about this, now, he’ll pace while he does it. Sometimes that helps. Would he see his brother? Could they see each other, not draw steel out of habit? Basch steps to the balcony railing, watches the custom below. See him where? The story of what truly happened is out, now; Gabranth would be stoned as he stood, in Dalmasca. Sometimes, when Basch walks into rooms, conversations go quiet, but not before he hears his own twin, by Tauros! He lets it go. It’s not his place to dictate what another should forgive.

Below, Balthier rests his elbow on the bar and waits for the tavern master to finish drawing three pints. He speaks something to the man beside him—Basch sees his lips move, the wry smile. If he asked? Not in Dalmasca. They could meet on neutral territory, then—on the Ozmone Plain, the Cerobi windmills, a glacial spike in the Paramina Rift—but that won’t work. Basch needs the civilizing influence, he thinks, enforced decorum, order. And if not Dalmasca, that leaves Archades. It might work. If he’s standing in Larsa’s halls, he can see a version of this play out that does not involve bloodshed. If only because Larsa likes them both, and throttling each other would be disrespectful to him.

But despite himself, it’s not the threat of violence that makes Basch hesitate over the question. If he’s honest, he thinks they’re past killing each other, or they would have done it already. What makes him pause, he thinks, watching Balthier collect the bottle and navigate the tables and people with more ease than he could at the moment, is that he doesn’t know what they’ll do now, if they haven’t got swords to turn to.

When Balthier gets to the top of the stairs, he deliberately raises the bottle to his lips, drinks, while walking, for the entire length of the room.

“Very dashing, sky pirate.” Basch takes the bottle from him and refills his glass.

“You never thought I was dashing, anyway.” Balthier spreads out in his chair, takes up more room than seems possible. Basch can’t remember ever looking that comfortable, let alone being that comfortable. “Have you thought about it, or do you need to brood more? Lose more sleep?”

Basch doesn’t rise to the bait. “I would. If I could leave my post for a few days, sometime when Ashe can spare me, I would go. If he wanted me to. If he asked.”

“Good. He did. Clear your schedule.”

Basch laughs. He wonders when he’s going to laugh again at something that’s actually funny.

“I’m serious.”

He can’t be. But he is, and it annoys Basch. His brother couldn’t even write him, sends Balthier to goad him into an answer? Then demand he drop everything and fly? “I can’t simply pick up and leave. Some of us have responsibilities.” Basch doesn’t mean it to come out so full of acid, but it does.

Balthier’s eyes narrow, then he waves his hand. “And see where it’s gotten you.” He snorts, peers into the swirling wine in his glass, and looks up again. “But you suspect you wouldn’t kill him on sight?”

“I’ve had two opportunities, and I didn’t do it then. I’d say I’ve lost my chance.” That’s almost funny. By the end of this bottle, it’ll be hilarious. Basch adds more wine to his half-full glass.

“Fair enough.” Balthier takes the wine cork from his pocket, balances it on the back of his hand, pops it into the air, catches it on a fingertip and balances it on end. He trades the cork from one hand to the other, all the while watching Basch as the cork moves from finger to finger.

“What?”

“I think you should finish that before I say anything else.”

Basch suspects it’s a bad idea, but it sounds like a good one. The wine’s dulling all the edges of everything that’s been spiking against his temples, and he’s going to be so hungover tomorrow, but by the end of the glass, that doesn’t matter anymore. He owes Vossler a bad mood, anyway. He concentrates on pouring carefully.

And then Balthier says Vossler’s name, and Basch doesn’t catch what he says. “What about Vossler?”

“I think you should take him with you, when you go to Archades.”

Basch shakes his head. “He’d hate it. It’s Archadia, and it’s full of—ardents and gentry and whatever else you snobbish people call yourselves.” He waits for Balthier to snap back; he’s in the mood for it. His tongue feels loose, if a little numb.

“Sky pirates have no country,” Balthier says, but that’s sub-standard for him, and he’s serious even at the corners of his mouth. “You should ask him.”

“If I go, Vossler would have to stay. We can’t both be gone.”

“You could. Dalmasca won’t fall apart without you.” Balthier’s insistent. That’s never good.

“You don’t even like Vossler.” Even this drunk, though, Basch is glad Balthier was there, earlier.

Balthier slides his glass low in his palm, stem dangling between his fingers. “I know what he’s looking for. I know someone who could help him find it.”

Basch jerks his head up. “Who? You?” Through all the madhu haze, there’s something sharp in his chest again.

“No.” Balthier smirks, shakes his head as he sips. “Even if I were still—no. Dear gods, no. That man is not for me. If I started hitting him, I don’t know that I’d be able to stop.”

In context, that’s not funny at all. Basch laughs anyway. It should be funny. There shouldn’t be context. There is, though, and he’s got to deal with it, and so Basch says, “But you have knowledge of this, this—” Basch doesn’t know what to call it.

“Desire and pain and all of it caught up together? Some. When I was younger.”

Basch almost says something about it being impossible for Balthier to have been younger than he is now, but Balthier’s not splintering, not leaving jagged edges on every thought that catch and hold and pull. Basch is in no position to call years on him. “But why?” He’s been thinking about it. Thinks he’s near understanding—is it maybe like the ache of training harder than before, pushing the body to improve?—but then he can’t push Nalbina out of his mind, the welts and cuts the jailors raised on his body. The scar above his eye, a whip in the hands of one of the pig-nosed seeqs. Archadia paid someone else to do its torture, it seemed, even in occupied territory. It’s worse than doing it yourself. He puts his hand to his left ear, scrapes his fingers over the deep groove there. His brother had been surprised by it, when he’d seen. Then, it was scabbed over, starting to heal despite the conditions.

In the two years he’d been in Nalbina, he’d seen Gabranth three times, he thinks (sometimes it seemed like more, sometimes like never). The first time, he’d hinted that there was still a chance, if Basch would come with him. Basch had spit at him that day, blood and saliva because his gums kept bleeding. The second, he’d not come close enough to talk. But he’d taken off his horned helmet to see better into the pit, and Basch felt his reaction. If he had lifted the yoke that rested over Basch’s shoulders, saw the raw flesh beneath, what might he have done? And the third—that was the day he’d lost all hope and then gained it. If it weren’t for all this, then, maybe.

“It can be grounding, something steady to hold onto. It can be liberating, too, to give someone else control of your body, to not have to think so hard about everything.” Balthier’s voice is even, calm. He doesn’t sound young at all.

And that, at least, sounds inviting, the not-thinking part. Basch swirls the wine in his mouth. He doesn’t know why. He can’t really taste it anymore. “And you know someone you would trust to do this for Vossler?” His friend, who, apparently, is betrayed by everyone. Basch will not let it happen again.

“I trusted him enough to do it for me, and I value my person more than Vossler’s.” Balthier compacts a little, brings his long legs in front of his own chair, sits up a little more. “Selfish bastard and all.” He looks like he’s bracing against something.

It should bother Basch to hear Balthier speak so dispassionately about Vossler, but it’s honesty. Honesty is worth more than courtesy. Who, though? Basch does not think he’s willing to suggest any of this to Vossler if he himself cannot vouch for at least meeting the person. “You don’t mean Jules.”

Balthier’s lip curls. “Please. I wouldn’t trust him with my purse, let alone my skin.”

“I’d trust you with my skin before my purse, pirate.” Basch giggles. And he knows he’s drunk. Drunk enough that the walk back to the barracks is going to be very interesting. If he remembers it.

Balthier rolls his eyes. “Don’t be an ass. Ask him to come with you.”

“I can’t even think of when I could go.” He can’t even get drunk enough that he would skip the staff meeting in the morning, let alone drunk enough to envision days out of Dalmasca.

“You can’t think of anything right now. You’re pissed.”

He is. But not so much so that this isn’t still important. He pushes on, tongue thick. “I would not put him in the care of someone I have never met, Balthier.”

Balthier looks out across the top of the tavern where there’s only the smoke that’s risen from the lamps and the tobacco, and he turns his face back to Basch. “I fell apart in front of him so many times, before I left. It was less messy, then, to have him take me apart. The pieces fit back together more easily, after.”

“All well and good, Balthier, but this person is still a mystery to me. I will not—”

Balthier kicks the chair leg beside Basch’s shin. “Don’t be so fucking thick, Basch. It’s your brother.”

For a heartbeat, everything is clear. “No. Absolutely not.”

“Why?”

“Why?” Basch is glad he’s never been one to raise his voice, but it feels like he’s screaming on the inside of his skull. He yanks the shoulder of his jerkin back, leans so Balthier can see the knotted skin there, where all of the rawness has turned scar tissue, mostly dead to the touch. “Because.” He has to let go his glass before he breaks it. “Because. Because of everything.”

“What happened between the two of you has nothing to do with this. Vossler needs someone before he ends up dead. There’s word on the street, Basch, about him. Last night was not simply a poor choice.” Balthier’s hand strays to the pistol butt Basch knows is under the vest, one finger tapping at it. If he can’t carry the Antares, and he can’t, in the city limits, there’s always another, hidden. “Vaan’s heard it. So has Penelo. And there’s more than one person waiting for their chance.” Balthier sighs, puts both elbows on the table. “This has nothing to do with you.”

“Nothing to—” Basch hates Balthier’s calm. Hates his clear eyes. Hates that there’s half a breath of credence to what he’s saying, but it doesn’t matter. “No.”

“Maybe you ought to let him decide for himself, at least give him the option.”

“You think Vossler wants to meet the man who killed his king? Who paved the way for Vayne Solidor? He’d kill him. And if I decided I don’t want to do it myself, I’m not letting Vossler do it.” Basch drinks, puts the glass down too hard; wine sloshes out, over his hand, drips from the table. He draws the tip of his boot through it, or tries to. He keeps missing to the left.

“Quit wasting good wine.” Balthier hefts the bottle; it’s half full. “Supposing we got past that. You did. And Vossler wasn’t in Nalbina for two years. He’s made his mistakes, too, or have you forgotten the Leviathan?” Basch opens his mouth, but Balthier shoves on, over anything Basch might put together. “And if you wouldn’t kill Gabranth, would you consider doing him a kindness?” Balthier pours again. “He’s drifting, Basch. And this used to mean something to him, something he could give to someone who wanted it.”

* * *

What Basch remembers, between the time they decided just half a bottle more and waking up, still dressed—his boots, though, unlaced and standing neatly to one side—on his own bed, is that, in the end, he promised he’d think about it. Damn Balthier, anyway.

And then he says it out loud when he lifts his head from the coverlet—he missed the pillow entirely, apparently—because everything spins sour and aching when he opens his eyes. Talking hurts. He rolls onto his back, breathes deep for a while. This helps. And he has to hurry, now, if he wants to wash away the wine and smoke smell before the day starts. He drags himself to his feet, finds a slip of paper in his pocket. Carve three days out of your week before I do it for you. It needs no signature. When he lurches into the hall for a shower, he sees the pitcher of water, the glass, the packet of headache powders on a tray outside his bedroom door. The pitcher and the glass are not from this barracks’s fountain. Vossler. As he drinks the bitter tonic, he knows he’ll keep his promise. He owes him that much.

Chapter Text

It’s been three days since the night Basch keeps trying to avoid thinking about, two since Balthier and Fran left for the Phon Coast, and that, Basch is sure, has nothing to do with running errands for Larsa and everything to do with it probably being in the emperor’s best interest to feign deafness. Basch hopes they have nice weather. He also hopes that someday, Balthier will be as hungover as he still feels. That won’t happen, and despite the fact that it’s more pleasant to blame Balthier for the hazy nausea than any of his other options, he can’t. Everything’s still a mess.

In this breath of overt political calm, solidified by the benign reaction of the Paramina representatives, the generals are busier than ever. Ashe wants new armor for the infantry, something sturdier, something, Basch knows, with a greater chance to deflect a stray arrow. And so Vossler has been in meetings hearing estimates and pitches from different contractors throughout Dalmasca since yesterday morning. It is both blessing and curse that Ashe knows exactly what she wants, that she has cast aside all indecision: maybe curse for her staff, but blessing for her country.

And Basch wants to build a squadron of mounted skirmishers to accompany the border guard, something blisteringly mobile, something that can cover its tracks, because it doesn’t matter how perfect everything seems right now, it’s not going to last. Even if Rozarria and Archadia officially pass the rest of this lifetime in quiescent peace, there will be raiders, there will be bandit insurgencies, and all of those things require haste from those who patrol the borderlands. Even now, the spectre of potential unrest haunts everything; there are those in all parts that would have rather warred with Archadia. Who think the peace a capitulation still. And so he has been speaking with his captains, seeking the best riders, the canniest trackers, and sharpest wits. He has a small surge of pride at hearing so many of these names that come from Dalmasca’s outlands instead of her center. He sees a Nabradian name or two (some still hold true to the union between Ashe and her late prince, their loyalty bound fast between the touch of royal lips), some family sigils he remembers from his time in the desert. The woman who will lead this squadron is from the village in the Estersand, where the ferry runs, and when he signs the orders for their first official training assignment, he actually feels better than he has. The time may have come when Dalmasca takes care of herself.

But if that is so, then there is no avoiding the rest, those things that are not of Dalmasca, but of himself, of Vossler. He hasn’t kept his promise yet. He will, he means to, but there never seems to be a good time, and that is compounded by the official business that has kept them from even sparring for two days straight. Basch resolves, as he sands the ink on the orders, he will do something about it tonight, because Vossler’s wearing thin. He doesn’t know if it’s with despair or desire or both or neither; Basch only knows that these are signs that can’t bode well.

If it were with his customary snarl and bite, Basch could manage it, but the black fire that’s usually under Vossler’s eyebrows, in the set of his jaw, is quiet. The aides have noticed, but they’re reading him wrong. They take the softer tenor of his voice, the easier turn of his head—he turns, doesn’t snap the muscles left or right—as improvement.

And Basch knows Vossler has been staying in at night, staying safe, because Basch checks. He hates himself for doing it, but everything Balthier said has him scared, and he keeps finding excuses to knock or send Cirdan with some inane question, and Vossler’s letting him do it. That is the worst of it, or is at least the worst of what has already happened. There is a chance, a good chance, Basch knows, that things will most likely get worse when he finally says what he has to say. It was wrong to discuss the man with Balthier, without Vossler’s knowledge, but Balthier heard it in Rabanastre before he’d seen anything, and that absolves Basch a little. But the actual suggestion, his brother, as a solution? He can’t help but think it damns them all to consider it. Maybe they’re damned, anyway.

When the day’s end chimes ring, Basch heads for the training salle. He hasn’t had a chance to confirm weapons with Vossler yet, doesn’t even know if he’ll be here, but he knows his schedule is clear. He checked with Daffyd, who knew that the armor discussions were over but didn’t know the finer details of General Azelas’s evening. Daffyd said he’d inquire, but Basch declined. The last thing he wants to do is make Vossler feel obligated. His back can’t be mended yet, and Vossler won’t have it Healed. Basch offered again, after he’d banished the worst of his hangover; in return, Vossler offered to break his fingers if he asked a third time, and that was the only moment in the past two days that Vossler has sounded like himself. Basch hopes, as he navigates the sandstone walkways, that Vossler is there, has his usual strong opinion on the day’s arms, because he needs the foxfire of routine, of normalcy, if he is ever to get these words out of his mouth.

The gods have some mercy left in them because Vossler is there, stripping off his uniform, and were it not for the scabbed lines and the still-visible remnants of bruising in several places, it might be the week before last. The mark his own fist put there is gone, too. It might be an easy, predictable night. But when Basch holds up his helm (something solid, something sharp) in one hand and his leather tunic (poles, usually) in the other, Vossler only shrugs, and there’s nothing easy about this. Basch shoves everything back in his locker. No armor at all, then. This is all too heavy, anyway, for today.

“Fists, then,” Basch says, and he walks out of the room. The scarred wooden floor is warm under his feet, and it’s another thing to gild this over with the veneer of ease, like the way Vossler crosses toward him, cracking his knuckles and the joints of his neck as he walks. Balthier does that, when he wants to make a show of toughness, and in memory, that’s a little bit funny, though his promise to Balthier is anything but, and Basch is glad his body can navigate itself in a fight because Vossler rushes him mid-thought.

He blocks the fists high and then a knee low, keeps blocking—forearm inside, forearm outside, staves off a kick with his own foot—and when he gets sick of being run around the salle and wants to strike, he can’t bring his hands to do it. He has to do something, though, and he strikes for Vossler’s instep with his heel. Vossler slides smooth out of range and right back in, holding nothing back and Basch is glad, so glad, until he sees something else forming on Vossler’s face. He knows exactly what it is, and he hurries another kick, easily deflected, and he didn’t think it would be this difficult, but it’s because he can still see his back, the cuts, the afterimage of his own fist like looking at the sun and then away. In full plate with maces, Basch could at least hammer away at Vossler’s shield. He could forget, pretend nothing had happened. He’d only faltered the once before Balthier had come.

Basch is dancing backward around a series of elbow strikes when Vossler stops, pulls up, his fists at his sides.

“If I ever have to say this again, Basch, it will be the last time we speak. Stop holding back. Sparring is sparring. I will not let it become otherwise.” And he waits.

And Basch sees, in the hard rise and fall of his scarred chest, that this is what fragility looks like. Each time he pulls his hands back, he’s doing far worse than he ever could by letting them fall. And yet—he has to say it. “What about this?” He strikes for that spot on Vossler’s ribcage, is blocked by a forearm so instinctive the rest of the man doesn’t move.

“I had to know. And now I do.” Vossler widens his stance, raises his hands shoulder level, hands open like blades. “If I must lose that part of myself, let me keep this.”

Basch can’t help a prickle of mutinous hope at the thought that Vossler might get himself past all of this, but now isn’t time to think about that. And he can’t find the words, doesn’t know how to respond, but words aren’t what Vossler needs now, anyway. Basch puts his weight on his back foot and kicks for Vossler’s chin.

It’s too direct, and Vossler catches his ankle, turns him, sends him in a barely controlled roll across the floor, and Basch waits until he gets close to sweep for his ankles. Vossler evades the leg, but it’s enough time for Basch to get his feet under him again, and he lands a fist high on Vossler’s arm. The next punch gets blocked so hard Basch grimaces at the sting where the skin batters against bone. This is why they spar with weapons most days. There’s actually less injury when they’re armed.

Vossler lunges, Basch blocks the fist with crossed forearms, grabs Vossler’s wrist, and pulls. He tumbles forward to the wall, catches himself against it, springs back. Basch catches him, throws.

Eventually, they have to stop for darkness again, but not before Basch lands a sturdy kick on Vossler’s hip. Basch is relieved when it happens; he’s not guilty of coddling him anymore, and he’d shake his head at them both if it the lapse in attention wouldn’t get him a bruise for his trouble. When they stop, Basch leans forward, braces his palms on his knees, and inhales sharp. This has taken more out of him than he thought it would, and he hasn’t even gotten to the difficult part. Perhaps, he thinks, when Vossler claps him on the shoulder like this is just another day, perhaps he won’t have to say anything. But when he straightens, Vossler’s posture is still all wrong; that flickering of the fierce light—it had come back, near the end of the sparring—is gone again. In weeks past, after sparring, Vossler has been at his most productive; that’s when he makes suggestions and can make sense of the endless lists, rattles off solutions to the things they’ve been puzzling over for days. But tonight, he’s quieted again, listless even as he turns on the water, and the room doesn’t immediately fill with steam. It’s almost tepid when Basch steps onto the tile. It feels like nothing swirling around his feet. He lathers his hands, scratches through the soap with his fingernails just to feel like he’s actually getting clean. Yes, he thinks, he has to keep his promise now, for reasons beyond the simple act of promising itself.

He waits until they’re both dressing before he says anything at all, and when he opens his mouth, what comes out is, “You’re the only person I know whose blocks hurt more than the strikes.” He does have a collection of swelling points on the outside edges of his forearms. But that isn’t what he meant to say.

Vossler is rubbing at the place Basch had kicked him, the way one does to dissipate the sting rather than increase it. Basch takes a guilty glance at Vossler’s crotch; he can see no reaction.

“And you kick like a mule, but at least not like a viera.” Vossler puts his palm on the center of his chest, feeling the memory of Fran’s sharp heel. “I saw her, the other day, leaving the Palace. She looks well.”

“Fran always does.” Basch can still feel the freshness of her magick along his spine if he concentrates. “I could wish for resilience like a sky pirate’s, in all this flux.”

“Indeed, they seem not to change.” Vossler snorts. “Balthier is as insufferable as ever. Smug bastard.” There’s no real heat in his voice.

This is Basch’s opening. “Sometimes insufferable, yes, but keen, too. He hears things that don’t come to our ears.”

Vossler’s back goes rigid. Basch sucks in a breath and continues before he loses his nerve.

“He heard, from Vaan and Penelo, about this—” he actually touches his fingertip to the edge of one of the cuts “—before he came here. It was not poor choice, no accident.”

“I had gathered as much.” There’s soft reproach, resignation, in his voice. Basch wishes he’d snap at him, if only a little. “I will master myself. I will not be such a fool again as to think—” He closes the door on his locker quietly, holding in the latch so that it doesn’t even click. “It is no great tragedy to miss a thing, is it, if you have no memory of having it?”

“There are places yet to look.” Basch stares hard into the lacings of his boots. “In the coming weeks, there might come a few days when Ashe does not need us. You and I might—”

“Basch, I would not ask that of you. Even if you would be willing to try. It would do you more harm than me good. Do not suggest it.” Vossler sighs. “I might be weak enough to accept, if you do.”

This isn’t his line of reasoning, but it might be worth it to pursue. “Accept because it’s me, or because it’s someone?”

“Both?” Vossler shakes his head. “Do not do this, please, to yourself, nor to me.”

Basch pushes on. “Someone like me, then. But who understood. Who knew what he was doing. Wanted to do it.”

“Looks like you but isn’t such a wetnurse about everything?” There’s a moment of, of, wistfulness, Basch thinks, and he’s never seen anything like it on Vossler’s face. It’s gone as quickly as it had appeared, and he laughs. It sounds like dead leaves, and then Vossler’s voice is matchingly brittle. “Leave it, Basch! Being cruel does not suit you, and that’s what you do now. Saying—” He lies back on the bench, arms crossed over his eyes, feet up and knees bent. “You can trust me not to go out and get myself killed. It probably wouldn’t work anyway, and I’d end up with you cosseting me again.”

He’s getting away from the subject. Basch tries again, a different angle. He’s not being fair, he knows, but he doesn’t know how to corner this animal. “If we had time off, away, would you come with me somewhere?”

“What nonsense are you spouting now? We’re not getting time off, and I don’t want it anyway.” He holds his hands a few inches from his eyes, turns them over and back again. “What would I do with leisure?” he mutters.

“If we did, would you?”

“Where?” Placation again.

“Archades.”

Vossler’s head turns a few degrees; his lip curls. “You spent too much time with Balthier. Ponce,” he finishes, not quite under his breath.

Basch lets that go. “Would you?”

“No.”

“Why?” And maybe he has spent too much time with Balthier. He’s all but parroting him.

Vossler moves his arms and glares. It actually feels good, Basch thinks, to be glared at again.

“Larsa isn’t Vayne.” Basch rubs at an inkstain on his thumb. The ink soaks into the sword calluses, doesn’t really wash off. “And sooner or later, you’re going to have to deal with an Archadian embassy. And sooner, probably, than later, Larsa himself will be here for something.” Perhaps as soon as next month. Ashe will turn twenty. Just twenty. Dear gods.

Vossler growls and covers his eyes again. He’s losing him.

“If it’s possible, say you’ll come with me.”

“Why?” Before Basch can answer, Vossler sits up, swivels to face him. “Say it. Whatever idiot thing you’re fumbling around, whatever ridiculousness you and Balthier have put together, say it and be done with it.”

“I want you to meet my brother.”

The force of Vossler’s fist knocks him back a pace, and when he straightens, hand cupped over his jaw, he says, “That what I told him you’d say.” There’s a faint taste of blood—teeth cut into his cheek—but nothing feels loose.

“Which him?” Vossler sits again. Basch knows better than to take that as a reprieve, and what he’s going to say next might get him a matching fat lip on the other side.

“Balthier. He suggested it. For Gabranth, as much as for you.” He’s said it out loud, that name. It feels too heavy on his tongue for the boy he remembers, but they have not been boys for a long time.

“He did not have his fill of Dalmascans to beat in nearly three years of tyranny?” Vossler stands, on the far side of the bench, and Basch is a little relieved.

“You did not have your fill of wounding on the Leviathan? Not enough pain for one lifetime?” He never meant to say that. He tries, always, to let that part of their history lay buried. He readies his hands for what must surely come. It doesn’t.

“That is not the same.” And his face grows thoughtful. He leans into his locker door. “It’s not like battle-pain. Not even, so much, like pain, sometimes. It’s knowing you’re feeling everything, everything your body can.” He looks Basch in the eye. “It’s faith against the days we must feel nothing.”

And that, that Basch understands. As a commander, the day you order someone else to his death, knowing full well that’s what you do. And the cold sexlessness of authority. Most days, Basch forgets he is anything but military. Not man, not even Hume. There is an alternative, of course, but to Basch, any liason he might have would feel like an abuse of power or like whoring. He has no taste for either.

“Perhaps, then, it is not the same for him, either?” Basch wants to say his brother did not engage in senseless cruelty—it was Bergan who killed the Grand Kiltias in cold blood; Vayne did not send Judge Magister Gabranth for that task—but he can’t say it with confidence. He does not know anything about those years that separate them. He does know that his brother did not take the chance to wreak ruin upon his body when he had the opportunity, for if Nalbina wasn’t the perfect excuse to be revenged upon Basch for leaving—for my cowardice--he doesn’t know what was. And if that was not mercy, it was at least showing restraint.

“How can you vouch so much for him?”

“I, myself, cannot.” Basch inhales. This is only fair, having discussed Vossler with Balthier, to discuss Balthier with Vossler. “Balthier can. He has,” Basch makes himself meet Vossler’s eyes, “experience with him.”

“I’m to take Balthier’s word on this?” Vossler’s eyes narrow again.

Basch glares back. “Whatever fault you find with him, it will not be treachery. And he spoke as much for his friend as for mine. More, even, for Gabranth than for you.” If they’re being honest, that’s probably true. And that strikes something in Vossler; he shifts on his feet, and Basch thinks he can press now, a little more.

“Would you go with me? If there’s ever time?” The way things are going, schedule-wise, there’s a certain security in the question. It’s in the future, and the future is fairly unforeseeable at the moment. “Maybe in the coming months?”

“I would go if only to keep my back between yours and an Archadian knife. You’re not sensible enough to see it coming.” Vossler pushes away from his locker and heads for the door.

Basch follows. “Dinner?”

“Only if you promise to say nothing more of any of this for the rest of the night.” Vossler pulls open the door, and there is Dina, waiting. If the sweat-damp and drying hair around her face is any indication, she has come quickly and has been waiting for some time.

“Lieutenant?”

“Message from the Queen, sirs.” Dina hands the folded page to Basch.

He breaks the seal—her personal—and reads.

My office. Both of you. Immediately.

Basch looks sharply at Dina. She doesn’t look concerned or, rather, more concerned than usual when confronted with both generals at once. So it’s not, most likely, a military emergency. Someone would have fetched them from sparring for that.

“Thank you, Dina.” She salutes crisply and sets off for the training center.

“Do you have any idea what this is about?” Basch folds the note and puts it into his scrip.

“None.” Vossler’s steps are slowing.

When they reach the palace proper, the guard is at the end of the hall, rather than directly outside of Ashe’s door. She salutes as they walk by, and Vossler knocks. Ashe opens the door herself.

She smiles and directs them toward chairs, presses chilled cups of tea into their hands. It’s eerie.

“Majesty—” Vossler says, stumbles.

“Your note.” Basch finishes. “Is there anything the matter?”

Ashe shakes her head. “I wanted to commend you both on your fine work, generals. My staff tells me that the new infantry armor is all but being forged already, that the border guard will have a new support squadron, that we’ve got the finest group of young officers in training yet. It is all but a miracle that you have done in such short months, in mere days. My thanks to you both.” Ashe raises her own cup to them, puts it to her lips, but doesn’t quite drink. Basch wants to shift in his chair, but he forces himself to be still. There’s something amiss here, and he has no idea what. And Ashe, he realizes, is speaking in her diplomat’s voice. It’s higher than her natural speech, more careful. He’s never liked the sound of it.

She speaks again. “And I am thankful to have two such dedicated men with whom to rebuild Dalmasca.”

“We only do our duty,” Vossler says, but Ashe holds up her hand. He says no more.

Ashe puts her cup down, stands. The generals move as if to rise with her, but she gestures for them to remain seated.

“Thanks to you, my country lives again. Imagine, of course, my surprise, then, at seeing the two men responsible suddenly looking like death warmed over. Looking like misery itself in the face of so much done well.” And now Queen Ashelia sounds like Ashe. Basch doesn’t know if that’s better or worse, and he can’t decide because she’s switched back to that chilling, polite register. “At dinner with the Paramina delegation, you both seemed tired. Understandable, I think, they’re doing so much. It’s week’s end—I am weary, too. And there’s always a day of respite the following day or the day after.”

Basch closes his eyes. He knows now where this is going. Damn Balthier, anyway.

“And if you’ve not been eating or sleeping well, it has been very hot, and that often puts me out of humor, too,” she says, gaze hard on Basch. “And we cross paths from time to time,” Ashe says, nodding to Vossler, for they do, in the palace, almost every day, “and I think surely that blank expression is only because you’ve gotten bored with scowling and you haven’t yet chosen a new way to terrify the recruits.”

Now Vossler knows where this is going; Basch sees his fingers tighten on the arm of the chair.

“And then someone, several someones, bring it to my attention that neither of you observes the week-break. That you haven’t, not even once, since our peace.” Her back is to them—she’s pacing—but Basch sees that her hand twitches, and Basch knows she’s itching to slap them both, and it’s only the circlet in her hair that stays her hand.

“Ashe, we’re fine.” And it’s not a lie, not exactly, if they’re talking about their posts. They’d both die before they neglected those.

“Like hell you are!” And this is Ashe, not the queen, nothing diplomatic about any of this, and she whirls to face them. “Not only are you ruining yourselves, your staffs need to learn to operate without you. That’s why there’s a chain of command.” She stills, pinches the bridge of her nose with the fingers of her right hand. “I don’t know how you’re both so good at what you do and such gargantuan idiots at the same time.”

“Lady Ashe—” Vossler doesn’t bother trying to stand again.

“Don’t interrupt me.” She marches between them to her desk and picks up three sealed envelopes. They bear Dalmasca’s seal. “You’re both dismissed for a week. If I find out you’re in the palace complex, even in Rabanastre, I’ll have you both demoted to throne-room guard.”

Basch almost laughs. They used to joke about that being the worst assignment in the army. Standing all day in the most formal of uniforms—there is even special armor for it—in the center of the palace where not a breath of fresh air comes and having to listen to every sycophant in Ivalice come bearing suit to the ruler. He almost laughs, but there’s nothing in Ashe’s face that suggests she’s joking.

But a week? “A week is too long.” Basch can’t even imagine a week of leisure.

“It is not. You’ll be spending at least part of it in preparation for this.” She hands an envelope to each of them. “Your orders.”

They break the seals and read. Vossler looks up, eyebrows drawn low and tight. “You can’t be serious. A border survey with the imperials? Send someone else, the head of the new cavalry squad.”

Ashe folds her arms, the silvery gray fabric doing nothing to soften the hard lines of her posture. “I’m sending you both because I can trust you. If there will be unrest, it will come from the edges and ripple inwards; Larsa is concerned, as well. Too long has our attention been focused just here, and a border survey by only one of our kingdoms could only lead to dispute. I am all too aware that there are those, on both sides, who would war still, given the slightest provocation. I trust the two of you not to seek an excuse for it, not to be that provocation. I regret that I know no one else well enough that I can say the same.” She hands the other envelope to Basch. “This is for Larsa. See that he gets it.”

“Yes, Majesty.” Basch feels winded, like he’s been punched. And his jaw aches.

She crosses to the door, holds it open. “You have until midday tomorrow to be gone. Larsa will be expecting you, this day next week. Should I need you, rest assured I will contact you.”

She closes the door hard behind them, and they stand in the hallway a long moment. The guard at the end of the hall turns to glance, turns away again just as quickly.

“You planned it.” Vossler’s voice is cold.

“On my honor, I did not. Do not think such a thing.” Basch isn’t ready for this. Even if they’re only in Archades itself long enough to give Larsa the envelope and get transport to the wilds above the Phon Coast, where, it seems, their border patrol begins, according to their orders, Basch’s twin will be there. Larsa would make sure of that. When Balthier asked if he would see Gabranth and Basch said yes, it was still uncertain, still only acceptance of the possibility of seeing him. And now, in a week, there will be no getting around it. Everything is too hot and too close and he has to say something before his own breath chokes him.

Vossler beats him to it. “We go tomorrow.”

What? “Where?” He knows the answer already. “We can’t.”

“Element of surprise, Basch.” Vossler’s eyes flash black fire in the lamplight. They step out into the night air, and Vossler sets off for the infantry barracks, strides long and sharp, and Basch thinks a thought he’s had before, in a different context: If they survive, this might all be worth it.

Basch’s own steps to his apartment are slower, heavier. He is not ready for this. And what will they do for a week in Archades? He will see his brother, and then what? And what of Vossler? He needs Balthier for this. This is Balthier’s fault, he’s sure of it: Carve a few days from your schedule before I do it for you. Bastard. He will send a letter to Balthier; maybe he can draw him and Fran back from whatever adventure they’re on, at least for part of the time. But he doesn’t know where Balthier even is right now. They left for the Phon Coast, but that means nothing toward knowing where they are now. With his luck, his letter won’t even reach them until they’ve already gone. Twice a bastard.

There’s light coming from beneath his door. Before he can put his hand on the latch, it opens, swings clear. Balthier’s got his feet propped on his writing desk; Fran sits beside the conspicuously open window.

“I heard you might be in need of some transportation,” Balthier says, and he ducks neatly under Basch’s clumsy fist and Fran pushes a chair into the backs of Basch’s knees. Basch half-sits, half-falls.

“Fucking bastard.”

“Not technically true, but I’ll give you the sentiment.” Balthier unfolds the sheet of orders he nicked from Basch’s belt. He reads, squinting slightly. “And, apparently, you were headed in that direction anyway. You ought to thank me for getting you some vacation time.”

“I’ll thank you to stay out of my business.” Basch can’t even convince himself as he says it.

“Just as soon as you stay out of ours.” The folder of Larsa’s correspondence sits on the desk, open. But Balthier smiles, and Fran returns to her seat by the window.

“It is flattering that someone keeps track,” she says.

Basch leans forward, buries his hands in his hair.

“That's true,” Balthier says. “Don’t panic for too long, Basch. You have to pack.”

He finally looks up, finds Balthier watching him. “It’s too soon,” Basch says.

Balthier bends, hunkers down until his face is level with Basch’s. “What isn’t?”

Chapter Text

Despite feeling sick in at least three distinct ways, Basch feels better as he settles into the seat behind Fran. From this side, he can watch Balthier leaning into the controls as he flies, and no matter how annoyed he is by Balthier’s role in all of this, he’s more grateful that he and Fran are here. That they came back. Even Vossler recognizes that their presence is going to make this easier, and he’s holding his tongue. He’s holding his tongue, too, Basch thinks, because of Fran. Sky pirate or no, she intrigues him, and when she shows Vossler where he can stow his pack, Basch hears him apologize, for before.

She says, “I accept.” Balthier, if he hears—he must have, Basch did—wisely says nothing. Vossler’s seething again, and now that he knows it was Balthier (and Fran, Basch did say, for he is sure she had a hand in it, too; Balthier simply looks guiltier than Fran does) who spoke with Ashe, that seething has a focus.

They’d spent all morning writing directives, giving them to the aides to copy, and having a too-short meeting with the senior staff. Basch tells himself that they’ll only be gone a few days more than a fortnight, three weeks at most. It’s not that he lacks confidence in his officers, either; he simply can’t picture so much time away. He feels hijacked. And yet, for all of that, there’s something comforting in being here again, in this seat, as he had been so many times before. He presses his shoulders more firmly into the padded leather, lets his head fall back, and watches through lazy-lidded eyes as Balthier—a boy again, it seems, every time the Strahl goes airborne, and Basch would be willing to put money on the fact that he’s going to punch it this time, for Vossler’s benefit—and Fran—all he can see of her is her left hand steady on the thrusters’ switch and her ears tuned to each whir and hum of the engine—ready for take-off. And punch it, they do. The acceleration pushes Basch still further back, and when he looks to his left, Vossler’s hands are tight around the armrests. Then the airship levels out, and Vossler’s expression eases, but it’s still pinched around his eyes, his jaw.

Fran turns—Basch sees her ears move, the edge of her profile where she leans—and speaks. “How do you like her?” For all that the Strahl is Balthier’s pride and joy, she is as close to a lover to Fran as Basch thinks anyone will ever be.

“She feels fast,” Vossler says, swallowing hard.

“You bet your arse she is,” Balthier says, banking hard into the sky north-north-east.

“But you are not used to flying?” Fran seems genuinely puzzled.

“Infantry,” Vossler says, and he looks a little green at the edges for a moment before Basch sees him steel himself. Trust Vossler to not allow himself even that.

Basch crosses his arms over his chest and puts his head back again. Balthier is muttering to himself over the altimeter—his lips are moving, but there’s no sound—Fran is explaining how airships work, and Basch can almost forget where they’re going. He sleeps, sound, until they touch down.

They are not in an aerodrome, that much Basch can tell. For one, there’s open sky on the other side of the windscreen, not the high domed walls that keep one of those official hubs ordered and secure. He blinks the sleep out of his eyes and rises, stretching. Vossler is following Fran toward the gangplank, his rucksack and Nightmare over his shoulder. Ashe had run back, picked up the sword as Basch and Balthier had carried him to the cruiser they’d escaped on. He’s glad she did. He yawns, catches his fingertips on the lintel of the doorway, stretches again, pulling against the metal.

“If I didn’t know to take it as a compliment, I’d be insulted that you can sleep through my piloting.” Balthier runs one last fingertip caress over the gauges. “Azelas, at least, was properly apprehensive.”

“It’s only a matter of experience.” Though he doesn’t remember ever being even uneasy in the Strahl, at least not about the way she flew.

“Isn’t everything?” Balthier’s wearing one of those looks Basch can’t read, and he puts his hand on Basch’s shoulder. He’s still too sleep-fogged to want to try, and the warm muzziness will dissipate soon enough. Best to enjoy it now.

“I suppose,” is all Basch says, and he digs his pack out of the storage bin. He’s brought sword and bow with him; if they’ll be tromping through the wilds, a bow will be as handy for hunting dinner as for safety. He hopes that whomever Larsa is sending with them will be ready for that kind of travel, for rough travel. Other than the hunters’ camp in the Phon Coast and the semi-permanent oasis of the Wells in the Highwaste, they aren’t going to be reprovisioning much. But that is six days hence, and the least of his worries.

As they walk down the gangplank, Nono walks up, carrying a box full of wrenches. Basch nods a greeting, and Nono says, “Oi,” but doesn’t stop. Busy Moogles. As long as there are Moogles in Ivalice, Basch thinks, there’s hope.

The sun is overbright, and Basch can’t figure out why until he looks down. Some paces in front of them, the rooftop under their feet—that’s what it is, Basch sees, because Archades rises all around them—turns to wide panels of glass that refract and bend the light into Basch’s sleep-dim eyes. This isn’t the Imperial Palace, either. That’s the highest point in the city, and—he turns, looks off to his left—there it is. So where are they?

Vossler and Fran stand under the wing, in the scrap of shade.

“Welcome to Casa Bunansa, and I assure you it’s as ridiculous as it sounds.” Balthier pronounces the esses the way Al-Cid does, and that’s where Basch has heard that word before. Balthier opens a door that leads to a smallish garage, full of spare parts of more than simply airships. That leads to another door and a spiraling staircase down to a wide, empty room. “Should you decide to throw a party while you’re here, this is the best space for it. Nothing breakable. Would also work as a sparring space, if you two must continue to damage each other on a daily basis.” Balthier looks at Basch’s jaw. It’s only the tiniest bit swollen. “Water closets this way,” he points, “and this way.” He goes to the far wall and presses a button.

There’s an elevator in Balthier’s house? Basch turns, lifts his eyes, and there are those glass panels, streaming in sunlight, and the beauty of the room—everything else is stone, but it’s a rose granite and the flecks of quartz give the walls red-gold fire—is marred only by Balthier’s cursing and the impatient thump of his hand on the button again.

“Most things work only half of the time around here. I trust you’re adept enough at breaking and entering to fend for yourselves.” Balthier looks a little longingly at Vossler’s sword, and then the doors open. “Since inheriting this monstrosity, I’ve had to break into my own rooms at least twice, and break out of the elevator once. Don’t worry about damages.”

Everything works this time, though; Basch is glad, so glad, because the way an elevator drops and rises reminds him of too much. The doors open to an airy hallway, rooms and smaller hallways branching off in any direction, and here Fran walks away, to the hallway’s end, and a door opens, closes.

“Those are Fran’s rooms.” Balthier points to that end of the hallway and then the opposite. “Mine are there. And you can take your pick of any of these.” He sweeps his arm over the center of the hallway, three doors. “They all have private entrances from the gardens—if you can think of a very large window as an entrance; this one,” he points to the room in the middle, “even has a proper door.”

Basch looks at Vossler, who is doing his best to keep his face impassive. It’s not easy. Basch has never seen anything like it, haphazard splendor, everything old and new at once. And it’s not the Imperial Palace. He had simply assumed that’s where they would end up, treated with Larsa’s impeccable hospitality, and the thought had terrified him.

Balthier’s confident smirk falters for a moment. “If you’d rather stay somewhere else—”

“No, thank you.” It’s Vossler who says it first, and even he looks relieved.

“If it’s no trouble,” is what Basch says.

“I had a hand in all this. It’s the least I can do.” Balthier opens the doors to the three rooms, pushes Basch toward the one closest. “And if there isn’t at least some trouble, I’ll be a little disappointed.”

Vossler steps into the third room, leaving the one with the door empty between them. Basch thinks it might be because it’s six steps closer to Fran and six steps farther from Balthier, but it’s mostly because neither of them wants to take the one that’s different. Basch puts his pack down, walks into the second room of the suite, and hangs sword and scabbard, bow and quiver first, from the four-poster bed. Balthier turns to leave, but Basch asks if he can stay for a minute.

Balthier says, “Of course,” and he closes the door behind himself.

Basch finds the closet and hangs his dress uniform next. As he shakes the wrinkles from the material, he says, “Does he know we’re here? Does he even know we’re coming?”

“He knows that you’re coming for the survey—Ashe and Larsa had been putting that together for some time. He doesn’t know that we’re here now.” Balthier scratches his cheek. “I hadn’t actually expected Ashe to toss you out on your ear the next day.”

“When have any of us truly known what to expect from her?” Basch steps around the armchairs to the large window—it really is big enough to use as a door, and it has a lock both inside and out. Below there is a landing, a flight of graystone stairs leading up from the gardens. “Does he know about Vossler?”

Balthier shakes his head. “I’m not playing matchmaker. He is your compatriot, only, come to accompany you on your border patrol.”

“Then why—”

“They’ll recognize each other. Gabranth has always been adept at seeing that want. And if nothing comes of it, neither is better or worse than he had been.” He opens a drawer in the stand beside one of the armchairs, pulls out a key. He gives it to Basch. “It’s for the window. Come and go as you like. You are certainly welcome to use the main doors, but I know you, and you’d rather not disturb anyone.” Balthier does a passable imitation of his voice, though it sounds more like Basch did ten years ago. It sounds more like Gabranth, Basch thinks. “Vossler’s key will be in the same place.”

“Thank you.”

Balthier smiles his wry smile. “Don’t thank me just yet. This is, of course, a potential disaster.” He opens yet another door, presses a switch. “Bathing chamber. Linens and such here.” He bends, opens a cupboard. “Not a proper barracks, but we do what we can.” Leaving the light on, he backs away. “Get yourself cleaned up, meet me in the study across the hall in an hour or so. I’ll tell Vossler.”

“Are we going—” Basch starts unbuttoning his shirt, exactly as he would in Dalmasca. It gives him something to concentrate on besides the fact that now they’re in the same city. That he can see, from the top of this building, the very place his brother is.

“Not today. I don’t think dropping in entirely unannounced is the best tactic. I’ll send word tonight. Maybe…” Balthier trails off, and when Basch looks up, finds himself watched, Balthier looks away again. “Tomorrow, possibly the day after. You are supposed to be relaxing, too, this week.”

That’s not likely, Basch thinks, and he shrugs out of his shirt. He turns to toss it toward his pack, and while his back is turned, he hears the door click shut.

The water pumps must be artificed in some way because the shower beats a firmly soothing tattoo against his back. It isn’t until he’s buttoning on a fresh shirt that he realizes that Balthier was watching him.

* * *
After seeking out dinner at a café in Tsenoble (“The house,” Vossler said, “is not half as ridiculous as these people.”), they spend the rest of the night quietly, playing a round-robin chess tourney. Basch is the first out, Balthier the second, and they don’t say much as they watch Vossler and Fran compete. Oddly enough, it is Vossler whose strategy is defensive, Fran’s offensive, and after more than an hour, they play to a stalemate.

Fran goes to the kitchen—one floor down, available by elevator or stairs and a series of disorienting turns—for tea, and Basch goes to help.

She shows him where everything is, warns that the oven is unreliable at best, outright dangerous at worst, and measures the dried leaves. He fills the kettle with water, and they wait.

“That was kind of you, on the airship. I didn’t know he’d react that way to flying.” He might have guessed, though; they’d always used the gate crystals to travel as soldiers, or took chocobos.

Fran shrugs. “He is a good man. Damaged, though. I hope he can find what he seeks.” She looks at Basch again, that searching look that makes the backs of his eyes itch. “He is almost as fractured as others I know.”

Basch wants to argue, knows he can’t. At least Vossler knows what the matter of his affliction is. This business with his twin is part of it, but not all. If it were all, he might have done something about it himself. If it were all, he could compartmentalize it, work around it, as he had before. The kettle sings before he’s worked out Fran’s words.

He carries a tray of cups, Fran the steaming pot. He is glad when she steps past the elevator into the twisting hallway.

He remembers how Balthier drinks his tea—no cream, more sugar than is possibly necessary—and he passes him his cup already sweetened. Their fingers touch on the cup’s thin handle, and Balthier draws away as if burned. Basch puts the cup on the table in front of him instead. It might be too hot; the skin on his fingertips is roughened past that much feeling. He pours another cup. Vossler, of course, takes his with nothing.

Basch goes to bed early, sleeps better than he has in months. He wakes once—a door closes at the end of the hall, late, late into the night—but only for a moment.

* * *
By morning, Balthier has received word that they are to meet Gabranth just before the evening meal. “Like as not, he’ll still be on duty, but he’ll have the dinner hour,” Balthier says, and that sounds good to Basch. Sounds finite.

Between now and then, Balthier suggests they head into Sochen, do a little “public service.” Vossler cocks an eyebrow, and Balthier admits to an itchy trigger finger.

“I keep buying new shot every time there’s something interesting at the bazaar in Balfonheim, but there’s nothing to use it on. Of all the bad habits I’ve picked up from traveling with you people, this one’s the worst. I no longer have patience for the theoretical appreciation of a finely made armament.” Balthier stirs more sugar into his tea.

“Theory’s fairly useless against undead cavern fiends, anyway. You’re better off with the shot.” Vossler’s fingers drum once on the table. He stands. “I’m in. Basch?”

“It’s as good a plan as any.” And battle will keep his mind on the task at hand, not on the one ahead.

* * *
And despite Balthier’s claim to want to try out his new shot, after a few warlocks burst predictably into flames or twitch with poison, he switches to a rapier and dagger duo. Basch misses the singed puff of gunpowder at first—that is Balthier, in his mind, the flash and the accuracy and the sharp smoke—but then he marvels at his quickness, darting in and out, showy parries and thrusts. It’s play, Basch knows, because he has an audience, and this audience appreciates it. At one point, they even trade weapons: Balthier gives his rapier and dagger to Vossler, Vossler hands Nightmare solemnly to Basch, Basch tosses his longsword to Balthier. They won’t trade again—Basch knows he’s probably the only other person to swing Nightmare, and even if Vossler would let Balthier wield her, he wouldn’t be able to. Not with any skill. Even for Basch, the sword is over-heavy, and he’ll feel the exertion across the tops of his shoulders tomorrow. But it does feel satisfying in his hands, a cleaving club of a blade. This is relaxation he understands.

They’re walking out of the cavern, blinking in the light, and the collar of Balthier’s shirt is askew enough that Basch sees the obvious mark of someone else’s mouth on his neck. It’s new, too, by the high color—the closing door last night—and it sours Basch’s stomach. But it shouldn’t. He pushes a grin onto his face and nudges Balthier.

“If we were keeping you from an engagement last night, you should have said something.”

Balthier’s eyes narrow. “You were not.”

They’re at the gate crystal that will take them from the edge of Old Archades back to Tsenoble, and by the time the disorienting shimmer stops and the ground is steady under Basch’s feet again, Balthier’s collar is straightened, the mark gone, and he is walking fast.

Fran is where she had been before, on the balcony outside of her rooms, picking through a complex Rozarrian dance melody on her gittern. That’s new, Basch thinks, but he’d seen a log from Rozarria, two months ago. A book—an Archadian translation of Garif warrior poetry—sits beside her, a block of sandalwood, a tiny knife, and a pile of shavings sits next to it.

Balthier picks up a handful of the shavings, lets them drift out over the garden below. “I wish you would buy wood that’s intended for carving.”

“That looks like the best use of those chop things I’ve ever seen,” Vossler says, and at Fran’s nod of permission, he picks it up, and Basch can see that it’s on its way to becoming a wooly crocodile.

“It’s a good likeness.” Basch thinks he may ask to borrow that book in the coming days. His Archadian is passable enough, and now he can easily ask Balthier or Fran if he comes across a term he doesn’t know.

“His Imperial Bookishness didn’t believe they existed.” Balthier reaches past Basch for the poetry; he seems careful that they don’t touch.

Zargabaath didn’t believe they existed. Larsa thought they were extinct.” Fran strikes an arpeggio and looks up, sniffs. “A bit of grooming would not go amiss, if we are destined for the Palace tonight.”

“Right.” Basch backs away and his feet are like the boulders in Sochen even as his heart starts the blood swishing in his ears. It doesn’t make any sense to be this apprehensive. No one is going to die, and that was not the case the last time they met. The situation has improved. Why does it not feel so?

When he dresses, he closes the top clasp on his dress uniform’s collar. It keeps him from breathing so deep—he already has too much oxygen in his blood, and the last thing he needs is to hyperventilate. He’s not even sure that this is what he should wear, but he knows this is what Vossler will wear, to make a point, and if his brother is on duty, he’ll surely be in uniform. He can only hope that he is not in his armor.

Balthier and Fran are already waiting, and Vossler is three steps ahead of him in the hall.

Basch can’t say how they even get to the Palace. He’s only trying to keep his steps steady, his lungs under control.

They’re walking down the Magisters’ hallway; they pass two judges in full armor, and Basch has to concentrate hard. Vossler’s face is tight and dark. Fran walks two steps ahead of them, Balthier hovers at Basch’s shoulder, and when they are nearly to the last doorway in the hall, he puts an arm over Basch’s shoulders, the other over Vossler’s. This close, Basch can feel the hint of Fran’s magick on Balthier, and that love-bite from earlier is gone. The shirt he wears now doesn’t even have a high collar, and it’s open below his throat. Now there’s only gold-pale skin. That is peculiar, Basch thinks, because he’s never hidden that before. As they spiraled their way across Ivalice to the Bahamut, where there were people, they simply waited for Balthier to disappear and come back, a few hours later, a little disheveled and smelling of sex. He let Ashe shake a disapproving head at the ladders of similar marks that climbed his neck, dropped salacious details in Vaan’s earshot just to make the boy twitch and Penelo giggle. Basch envied his ability to shed the weight of their quest long enough to distract himself, and maybe that’s what he was doing, too, aside from the obvious (how could he not seek out sex when he looked like that?), giving them all something else to think about for a while.

Basch is about to ask why he’d magicked away the mark when Balthier pulls up short, arms still around the generals both. This must be his door, and Basch feels his stomach clench. He tries to draw back, but Balthier holds him firmly and says, into Basch’s ear, “It’s all right. He doesn’t bite.” And then, into Vossler’s, “Unless you ask very nicely.”

Vossler shoves him, and Basch coughs, and Balthier laughs, while Fran rolls her eyes. Before she can knock, the door opens, and there he is.

He’s thinner, than before, in his cheeks, he’s got circles under his eyes, like Basch’s, and Basch thinks there’s some gray at his temples now, or it could be the light. He’s not wearing his armor, thank gods, but his uniform is black and it only makes him look thinner still. He’s still at least as big as Basch, but he’d always been more muscular. Now, they are the same. Except they’re not. Not at all.

“Whatever he’s said, it’s not true.” Gabranth smiles with half of his mouth. He holds open the door. “Come in.”

Basch waits until everyone else goes, and then he must, and he stops in front of his brother, and Gabranth says, “Basch.” It’s a careful pronunciation, one that assumes nothing.

Basch opens his mouth, but he can’t say the name. Can’t say any name. They all splinter on his tongue. So he says, “You look better than the last time I saw you.” Idiot.

“It would be hard to look worse.” They’re stuck in the doorway. Basch can’t move, and he knows his brother won’t until he does.

And now what? Balthier saves him, pulls Basch into the room with one hand, pulls Vossler closer with the other.

“Since Basch is getting addled in his age, allow me to introduce General Vossler York Azelas, commander of the queen’s infantry.” Balthier sweeps his hand toward Gabranth. “And Judge Magister Gabranth fon Ronsenberg, chief advisor—”

“No more titles, and watch the age jokes, child.” He extends his hand to Vossler. “Gabranth.”

Vossler takes it. “Vossler.”

Basch waits for their grips to go white-knuckled; he’s known both of them to do that in the past, but it doesn’t happen.

It is Fran who fills the next silence. “Is Larsa free?” She has been beside the door, waiting, perhaps, for an opening. After they’d been to Mount Bur-Omisace, when Al-Cid had brought the news that Gramis was dead, Fran had said that Larsa would be emperor, but still an orphan. She has been close with him since.

Gabranth looks at the clock. “He probably is not, but he should be. He’ll be in his study. Here.” He writes something quickly. Basch can see that his illegible scrawl has become sharp, pointed, clear. On the page, beneath his signature, he pours some wax—there is a cup with a slow-burning candle beneath it; there must be even more paperwork in the judgeship than in the army—and stamps it with the ring on his smallest finger. “That will suffice for the guard.” He hands the page to Fran.

“She always ditches me for Larsa.” Balthier leans against Gabranth’s desk, dips his finger into the cup of melted wax and peels away a replica of his own fingerprint.

Fran’s ear twitches. “Larsa never needs to be told the same thing twice.” Balthier looks sharply at Fran, and her face hardens for a heartbeat. Basch is sure he’s the only one who sees it because his brother and Vossler are looking at each other, measured gazes, frank. Fran nods a gentle goodbye to the rest of them and her heels make a quiet ticking on the polished stone as she walks.

Gabranth smiles. “Balthier’s pride still stings that there is a prodigy in Lord Larsa that surpasses even his own as a youth.” Basch is surprised at how much affection there is in his brother’s face. It is not for him, no, but it is real, and it eases the knot in his chest some.

“Abandoned by my partner and now I am accused of pride?” Balthier shakes his head.

“Self-pity does not become you,” Basch says. “If you are ever to convince me that you’re dashing, you must plot another course.”

“You still aspire to that futile endeavor?” Gabranth walks to the far side of the office, turns a corner. “Come, sit.”

“Futility is my middle name.” The joke doesn’t quite reach his eyes.

“And it’s easier to say than ‘Bunansa’.” Gabranth sits at a round table; to one side, there is a fireplace, to the other, shelves and shelves of books and files. There are five chairs, and though Basch knew that their party had been five before Fran left, he also remembers that there had been five Magisters, too. He sits across from his brother, Vossler to his right—next to Gabranth—and Basch is puzzled and pleased and, guiltily, even a little annoyed about that. He had never expected this to be easier for Vossler, but it is. He’s neither scowling nor blank. He simply looks interested. Balthier sits next to Basch, though, and that’s good, because Balthier isn’t tongue-tied. And Balthier is a friend they have in common. Everyone else who might have fit that description has been dead for years.

There is another door at this end of the room, and someone knocks on it. Gabranth rises to open it, and two aides bring in trays. Sandwiches, fruit, crisp vegetables, a pitcher of iced water, another of some kind of tea.

When the aides duck out, Balthier raises an eyebrow. “Such a glamorous life for you judicial types.”

“There’s no sense in having something brought up that’s ruined by getting cold. I’m sure someone will need something of me in the next ten minutes, so I apologize in advance.” He turns the tray a quarter turn, so that a stack of thin sandwiches on dark, malty bread is nearest Basch.

Basch takes one, and before he bites into it, he knows what it is. Tavern ham, honey-sweet and smoky, spiced grainy mustard. On bread he hasn’t seen since the day he left Landis. It’s so good, so good it almost drowns out the bitter taste of memory that threatens to close his throat at every bite.

And he’s glad that, despite everything else, they’re men, and they eat in relative silence—three of four are soldiers, and food is serious business in soldiering—and he’s somehow relieved when one of the aides appears around the corner with a file outstretched to Gabranth.

He excuses himself, tells them to help themselves to everything.

Basch thinks, if he could keep himself impassive in Nalbina, he can do it now. But it’s not despair that threatens this time, it’s anger. It’s hot and ugly, and tasting home for the first time in almost twenty years has made it worse. But Gabranth doesn’t deserve this anger; he’s doing everything he can to put them at ease. It’s working for Vossler, of all people. What’s wrong with him?

Balthier nudges his knee, tilts his chin a fraction of an inch. Basch shakes his head. He will not do this. He will not repay hospitality with hostility. He schools himself to passivity, pours water. Balthier, he knows, is not convinced, but the sky pirate lets it go, speaks, instead, about some of the books and the scrolls on the wall. He insists that he still holds the highest exam scores in Archadia.

Eventually, Gabranth comes back, and it’s clear why he’s gotten thinner. He’s only picking at his food, now, and Basch wants to ask what’s the matter, but before he can, Gabranth explains it, anyway, hand propped under his chin as he speaks.

“One of the new judges is having a bit of a crisis over a case that’s in trial right now, and apparently there’s unexpected personal history between himself and one of the defendants—”

“Which means that you, as the Magister on duty, must go and sort the whole bloody thing.” Balthier sips at his tea. “And people ask why I left this thrilling occupation.”

“If our fledgling judge had read the preliminary materials to the end, yes, this could have been avoided.” Gabranth tugs at a hangnail, and Basch sees that the skin around his fingernails is raw and bloody in a few places. He had stopped doing that, Basch thinks, when we were fifteen. If he has begun doing it again, he is as troubled—

“Times like these,” Vossler says, “don’t you just wish you could beat somebody?” There’s nothing coy in his voice at all, no twitch of expression, but Basch feels his cheeks heat up. He looks hard into his glass.

“If you have to leave so soon, I want to show Basch my promotion exam before we go.” Balthier rises, tugs on Basch’s sleeve. “He still has it.”

“You are the vainest creature in Ivalice, aren’t you?”

“I have to be the best at something.” Balthier pulls Basch around the corner and to Gabranth’s desk. Standing there, Basch feels nothing but uncomfortable—he doesn’t want to leave Vossler alone; it could go badly—and Balthier doesn’t seem to be looking for anything.

“What are you—”

“Shh.” Balthier jerks his chin toward a mirror placed strategically on the wall. It lets whomever is at the desk see whomever is at the table. “Zargabaath put that there when I was one of his aides so he could catch me reading tales instead of precedents.”

Basch sees his brother lean closer to Vossler, and he can’t help it. His fists clench tight at his sides. He’s not close enough, if something goes wrong. Balthier inches nearer, his shin just touching Basch’s calf, and Basch isn’t sure if that helps or not. It’s too warm, it makes him too aware of what’s behind him and he’s trying to concentrate on what’s in front of him, around that corner. But it’s Balthier. And he likes that.

Balthier’s not even watching the mirror; he’s flipping through the cases on Gabranth’s desk, making more wax fingerprints that he leaves scattered over the papers.

* * *
Vossler can’t believe he just said that. It’s too soon. He’s known this man all of an hour, and of all people, this man. In the back of his mind, he can’t forget who this is, what he’s done. But a man who’s made such mistakes surely understands why others have made them, too. And he’s familiar in so many ways, even as he’s enticingly strange, and he knows exactly what Vossler means. He watches Balthier pull Basch away, and, not for the first time these several days, he is grateful to the sky pirate. That’s happening irritatingly often lately. And then he forgets what he’s thinking about Balthier because Gabranth is looking at him.

“Somedays, I do wish that.” Gabranth leans closer, and his blue eyes spark icy, hard.

“Today?” Vossler makes himself meet that gaze, even though it makes him want to turn his face.

“Not today.” Gabranth stands. “This is not something I do lightly. Nor without knowing if what I do is even what you want, or if you are what I want.”

Vossler straightens his back even more. “A Dalmascan is not even worthy to be an Archadian’s whipping boy?” That helps him hold his eyes steady, not to want to beg. He is so close to wanting that. Not yet close to doing it, but close to wanting to.

Gabranth holds up his hand. “This will never be about our nations. Do not suggest such a thing. Would you go into battle not knowing if the man beside you knows which way to hold his lance?”

So he, too, was cavalry trained, Vossler thinks, which is a strange thought to have now, but he likes knowing that small thing.

“Think, tonight, on whether you want anything from me. Not simply from anyone. Me. If you do, we will meet again, discuss this further.” Gabranth stands behind him, and Vossler wants to look up and back, but he doesn’t. And then Gabranth’s fingers are at his throat, touching the clasps on his jacket’s collar. “May I?”

“Yes,” sir, he can’t help but think. It’s too soon, too soon, but he’s already better than anyone Vossler’s met before, more sure, more clean.

Gabranth’s fingers are deft, and he opens the jacket just far enough to fold the collar away from Vossler’s neck. “I would give you something to think about.”

Vossler shivers and clenches his lips together when Gabranth bites down hard on the side of his throat. He’s bringing up a mark, pressing muscle and skin between sharp teeth, and it will be a proper bruise where his teeth are, not simply blood sucked to the surface, and it hurts and it’s wonderful.

It’s over all too quickly, and Gabranth licks over it once and pulls away. Vossler puts hands that are not as steady as he would like to the clasps. Thankfully, his fingers remember more than his brain, and his collar is precise again.

“Balthier will know where you can send your answer. And if you decide you want more, know that I will ask Basch to be nearby, at least the first time. He worries for you, and if he does not yet trust me, especially with as dear a friend as you, I cannot blame him.” Gabranth turns the corner, Vossler follows a step behind.

* * *
The four of them make quick plans to try again tomorrow evening, when Gabranth isn’t on call.

“Better food this time,” Balthier says, “and Laren’s caffa.” He turns to Basch. “The only thing they’ve improved since I left is that. It’s like sex on your tongue.” And now Basch is sure of it—Balthier’s shielding him, making it so that he doesn’t have to speak. Another night, he might resent it—it tastes so much like pity—but tonight it’s almost sweet.

“You’re incorrigible.” Gabranth opens an armoire behind his desk, and there’s the armor. “The food I can promise, but what you do with your tongue is none of my business.” He reaches first for the plate boots, at least, and as he moves, his eyes catch Basch’s in a peculiar way. They flicker to Balthier and back, and Basch thinks he’s probably seeing things because there’s the horned helmet, reforged now, waiting, on the desk.

“Tomorrow, then.” Balthier holds open the door, and Basch sneaks a glance over his shoulder as he leaves. Gabranth is looking at him, and the moment has come and gone and neither of them is dead but Basch still doesn’t feel any better. He feels worse. He’s angry. And he doesn’t know why.

* * *
In the morning—what’s left of it, anyway; Basch sleeps until nearly midday, and if he hears any doors opening or closing during the night, he doesn’t remember them—he finds Vossler in the study, playing chess with Fran again. She is perched on the edge of the chair, her legs folded under her, and she barely looks up when he walks in, she is so intent on the game. Vossler raises his head and says, “Morning, layabout.” In heartbeat his attention is diverted, Fran’s hand shoots out, her rook crosses’s the board’s length, and her hands are folded in front of her when Vossler turns back.

“Your move,” she says, and Basch smiles to see the general searching for what she’s just done.

Basch leans back into the hall, looks both directions, then circles the room, peering into the open doorways. “Where’s Balthier?”

“Running errands,” Fran says, and there’s something else in Vossler’s face. Something excited and a little guilty, and he sets his bishop to defend his king. He rests his chin on his palm, and Basch has never seen him do that before, but then he sees also the thumb that rests inside the collar of his shirt. The faint shift of material, the altered plane of muscle each time he presses.

He has to stop staring at Vossler. He turns away, sits on the edge of the windowsill. “I would have gone with him.”

“He didn’t want to wake you.” Fran pours herself more tea from the pot at her elbow. “It’s good to see you getting rest.”

Something in the way she says it—

“You haven’t been—”

“I have not. If there was need to make you sleep, I would do so without hesitation. But,” she shrugs, “perhaps something in the air here agrees with you.” All Basch can think of is gunpowder, but that’s not in the air at all, here.

And the air doesn’t agree with him now, though, because he’s twitchy and restless and he’s pacing again. After twenty minutes, Fran tells him to go get something to eat, and Vossler tells him to go for a damn walk if he’s going to pace, and so Basch does that. He’s walking the Archadian streets aimlessly. Not aimlessly. Looking for Balthier, he realizes, when every flash of white sleeve makes him turn. Eventually, he sits on the edge of a fountain, dips his hand into the water—cool, too cool for it to be naturally so—and stares up at the Palace. You can see it from almost everywhere in the city. Someone taps him on the shoulder, and it’s some ardent, surely, telling him that one cannot sit on a fountain’s edge unless he wants to be mistaken for some commoner, and he turns, not in the mood at all for Archadian class politics, but it’s Balthier. They walk to the bridge in Old Archades and sit, looking over the river, and Balthier just talks, and Basch just listens.

* * *
On the walk back to Casa Bunansa—Basch suspects Balthier only says it that way to make him laugh, and it does make him smile, at least—and Balthier tells him that Gabranth and Vossler are going to talk again, and “if they both like what they hear, maybe more.”

And while Basch had guessed as much, and while he’s happy for Vossler, the idea of the practice makes him hesitate. And there is the anger again; it’s pushed down by worry, now, but it’s there. He asks, instead, when they’re leaving, and all too soon, it’s time.

* * *

Dinner is much more formal tonight—five courses, crystal, too many forks—and they’re in a smallish dining room that boasts a large painting of Larsa over the table’s head. And that spot is conspicuously left open, though it is set.

Balthier tsks at Gabranth. “Fran will be disappointed she did not come.” Fran said she had a music lesson, that she would join them later in the week, if they dined at the Palace again.

“I only recently found out Lord Larsa had no meetings after lessons.” Gabranth taps a finger on the silver beside his plate. “The Emperor dines with us—why else do you think we’ve so many fripperies at one meal?”

Vossler starts. “The Emperor? Here?” Hints of his customary scowl show, and he trains his eyes on his dark green sleeve.

He’s wishing, Basch knows, that he’d at least worn Dalmasca’s blue or gray, even if he wasn’t actually uniformed. Basch is wishing the same, but for different reasons. Vossler wishes it out of patriotism, of defiance, Basch as a reminder of who and what he is. Military. Military is easier than all of the rest of these things.

Gabranth nods. “He’ll be here in a minute and a half.”

“Punctuality is over-rated,” Balthier says, but then Larsa walks in, exactly on time.

They all stand, and Basch prepares to bow when Larsa circles the table to stand in front of him. He reaches up—not so far as he had to before, Basch thinks; he’s grown at least an inch since last he saw him—and hugs Basch firmly.

“It’s good to see you, Basch, and under better circumstances.”

“You’re taller than you were then, too.” He’s already going gangly, that stretched look of the teens, and Basch thinks he might even grow taller than Vayne had been. Larsa will be many things Vayne had not been.

“And thank the gods for that,” Larsa says, and he’s turning to face Vossler, who stands beside Basch. “And General Azelas, welcome. Queen Ashelia speaks very highly of you, and I’m sure you know that’s no mean feat.”

“Aye, Emperor Solidor,” he says, and bows.

“Please, I tire of being called that. Larsa, I beg you.” And then the emperor’s stomach growls, and his cheeks go bright red. “I also tire of,” he waves his hand dismissively at himself, “this.”

“Enjoy your youth while it lasts,” Balthier says, and Basch tries not to laugh. Balthier glares, and it’s sharper than Basch expected.

“It’s only,” Larsa says, settling in his chair, “I never expected dancing lessons to be more exhausting than weapons training and more frustrating than geomancy.”

“You are vexed only by the change in tutor,” Gabranth says.

“She wasn’t my ‘tutor’,” Larsa says, and his cheeks flush more red.

“But since her visit, you have been a much more diligent student, or so I am told.”

Penelo, Balthier mouths, and Basch smiles at Larsa. Smiles, but the weight in his chest keeps getting heavier. It’s good to see his brother light-hearted enough to tease again—he’d been infuriating in that way when they were children—to roll his eyes at Balthier. And if it’s good to see that—it is, he knows that—why can he not make his heart light, too? Even Vossler smiles, and it reaches his eyes. That doesn’t surprise Basch, though. To meet Larsa is to love him; that is the Solidor in him—that charisma, but here all turned to right.

If he can be easy about Ivalice, why can he not be easy about the rest of this?

After dinner, Larsa excuses himself to letter-writing and study, the missive from Ashe safe in his hands. It is somehow unfair that he must both manage a nation and still be in schooling, but he’s managing it with more cheer than Basch can muster. And then they’re all following Gabranth back to his rooms, and Basch’s stomach winds tighter and tighter. It’s all happening so fast. Balthier brushes his arm as they turn a corner. It’s meant to be a reassuring touch. Basch tells himself that he’s reassured.

And then there’s nowhere Basch can look that doesn’t make him want to blush. That doesn’t quite make sense; they’re in Gabranth’s study, he and Balthier, and they’re surrounded by books—mostly tactics and legal proceedings—and comfortable furniture, nothing untoward. It would be pleasant enough, Basch thinks, sitting here; he can remember his brother sprawled sideways over the arms of a chair, when they were too teenage-gangly to fit any of the furniture. It would be pleasant enough, Basch thinks, if it weren’t for the slow burn in his stomach and the fact that his twin is in the next room with Vossler, preparing to hurt him—“Hurt, but not harm,” Balthier had said—and Basch is going to let it happen.

He’s listening too hard; he’s not sure he wants to hear, and he’s giving himself a headache. He rubs at his eyes.

Balthier stands, walks to the wall that separates Gabranth’s bedroom from his study. It’s a small apartment, smaller than Basch’s, even, and that seems strange in the face of Archadian decadence. Gabranth’s office is only slightly smaller.

“He’s had this place since he made judge, won’t move no matter how much he’s badgered,” Balthier says, and he lifts a picture from the wall. There’s a window behind it. “He’s got everything the way he likes it.” Balthier takes Basch by the arm, steers him toward the window; Basch recoils.

“It’s a mirror on the other side, Basch. They can’t tell if we’re here. And I’m sure he’s told Vossler it’s there. So you both feel safer.”

Gabranth has done everything he can to put them at ease. The key to the room is in Basch’s hand, and Gabranth hadn’t locked the door behind them. Basch steels himself and looks. They’re only talking. He sits on the couch, and Balthier pulls the next chair closer, sits, and their knees are almost touching.

* * *

“Your emperor seems a good lad.” Vossler hates to admit it, but he is. He’s just a boy, a clever and charming one, nothing like Vossler had expected, despite the way Basch spoke of him.

Gabranth nods.

“But if we agreed yesterday that nation has nothing to do with this, why invite him tonight? Why test me thus?” Vossler still wishes he’d worn something of Dalmasca, anything.

“He wanted to see Basch again, to meet you—is that so strange?” Vossler waits. There is more. After a breath, Gabranth continues. “And if you care not for him, it makes no difference what you think of me.”

“You feel so strongly?”

“Do you not?”

He does. Here Vossler sees what happened, how like Basch Gabranth is in that respect. How easily their fierce loyalty can be abused, all of them. Otherwise, Basch could have died in Nalbina; Vossler is convinced it was mere will only that kept him alive, only the oaths he swore allaying the privation of his body. A wiser man, Vossler thinks, would have died. All three of them, were they wiser. But they are not, and the thought puts him strangely at ease.

He crosses his arms, says, “I want you. Whatever you’ll give me.”

“That’s a dangerous thing to say, Vossler.” But there the way Gabranth holds himself, one elbow propped on the side of his bookcase, seems to say I want that, too. “What do you want?”

“You.”

“More specifically.” At Vossler’s hesitation, he says, “What do you like?”

“Pain.”

“What else?”

He can’t help but be honest. “I don’t know.” And despite all of the fire in his veins, seeing Gabranth leaning casually but coiled there, the words feel like desperation, and they cool, dampen.

“Sit,” Gabranth says, and he points to a leather-covered armchair. Vossler does. Gabranth pulls the chair from his writing desk, sits across from him. “Do you want sex? Some do not.”

Vossler steals a glance that lasts longer than he means it to. “I wouldn’t say no.” His pulse quickens, but he clamps it down. “I do not want charity. Do you want me?”

“If I didn’t, you wouldn’t be here.”

Vossler nods. That’s fair. And he’s curious and impatient. He slides his foot forward, wraps his ankle around Gabranth’s. In a heartbeat, he finds his leg trapped tight against the chair frame.

“You will be patient.” Gabranth’s expression is cool. “Outside of this room, you need never defer to me. I hope you will not. Inside, you will. Or you will look elsewhere.”

And Vossler has to say it. He’s been hard since Gabranth told him to sit. It’s still too soon, but he doesn’t care anymore. “Yes, sir.”

Gabranth releases his leg, stands. “I’ve not yet earned that title.”

“Earned?” The others he has been with have insisted on it. The others. It makes him sick that nothing has happened yet, and it’s still better than almost anything else he’s known.

“Yes. Do not give your trust so easily. I assure you I will not give away mine so quickly, nor do I mete out beatings unwarranted. You must earn that, earn what you want.” Gabranth puts the chair neatly beside the table again. “You know nothing of me, nor I of you. If you are willing, though, we could start to change that.”

No more questions, Vossler thinks, but he nods. If it takes more questions, he’ll answer as best he can.

“Come here. Take off your shirt.” Gabranth leans on the edge of the table, and his voice, Vossler thinks, is the best thing he’s ever heard. And it shouldn’t be any different than getting ready to spar with Basch—he’s looking into Basch’s face, but he’s not, and Basch had never looked at him like this. It should bother him, he thinks, and maybe that’s why it doesn’t.

He hangs his shirt on the back of the chair, and that seems like it was the right thing to do because Gabranth’s lip curves upward, just at the left corner. He’s looking at him like he’s a piece of meat, Vossler thinks, and that’s wrong, he shouldn’t want that, but all he can think is that he hopes he likes what he sees. He is pathetic.

What Gabranth says, though, is, “Even better than I had thought,” and Vossler knows the compliment is rare. Gabranth stands, walks around him, and Vossler waits for his reaction to the days-old marks. It’s not what he expects.

“This will not happen again, Vossler,” is what Gabranth says, and it’s not a promise of any kind from Gabranth, and it’s not an assurance that the world will not treat him that way again. It’s an order. Vossler bites his lip hard and tries not to make a sound when Gabranth’s teeth close on the mark he’d made the day before. He fails.

Gabranth’s hands wrap around his waist, one holding him steady at his hip, the other smoothing upward over his stomach to his nipples. Gabranth lifts his mouth from Vossler’s neck, says, into his ear, “I’d rather hear you,” and then his fingers twist hard, pinching not only at his nipple--so good--but the thin skin over his hipbone, too. He’s not ready for that sensation—it takes him by surprise, and a startled grunt leaves his lips.

“That’s a start.” Gabranth turns him, takes his mouth, and Vossler can’t remember the last time he’s kissed anyone. Surely there was someone after Basch, but he can’t place it if there was, and the lips attacking his have familiar shape, and Basch needs to get fucking laid, Vossler thinks, and then nothing reminds him of Basch, this is Gabranth, and his fingers are curling hard into his shoulderblades, squeezing the still-tender skin. It burns, and he can’t help but arch into it, the clean spikes of hurt almost washing away the memory of how the skin got broken in the first place.

And then Gabranth’s leg is wedged between his, pushing hard, and Vossler’s trying not to take anything before it’s offered, but when Gabranth pulls his head back, breaks the kiss with a hand fisted in Vossler’s hair, he moans.

“Tell me when you’re close,” Gabranth says, and he shoves his leg against Vossler’s cock, gets his other hand between them, twisting at his nipples again. If he keeps that hand in Vossler’s hair, it’s not going to be long, and Gabranth is tugging harder, and Vossler has to touch him. He should ask, but he’s not going to be able to say anything. He puts his hands carefully on Gabranth’s hips, hopes he doesn’t stop, and Vossler can feel the clench and shift of his muscles under his shirt, and that’s what does it. His hips are flexing toward Vossler’s. He wants this, too.

“Close,” Vossler grits out, and he hopes the word makes sense because it sounds like a gasp to him.

And Gabranth straightens, pulls back a few inches. Stops.

No. “How can I—What, what can I do for you?” Vossler pants out the words. It’s obvious Gabranth is hard; he felt it, now he sees it, the bulge in his trousers, and for a ridiculous moment, he wants to know if Basch and his brother are the same there, too, or different. He wants. He simply wants.

“You can be patient for me.” Gabranth’s voice is steady, but Vossler sees his chest rising and falling more quickly than it had before. “You can wait until tomorrow. Or you can decide that you want someone else.”

Vossler forces down the groan. “I will wait.” Once he says it, he is sure. Yes. He will.

Gabranth hands him his shirt. “Good.”

* * *
The minutes pass, and Basch can’t get over how quiet it is in the next room. He says so, and Balthier raises an eyebrow.

“So you’re saying Vossler’s usually loud?”

Basch shakes his head, feels his ears get hot. “No, I—Balthier. Don’t.” The stray thought hits—the brief time he and Vossler had been together, they’d never had the luxury of enough privacy to make noise. He waves it away. “That was a long time ago.”

“You mean you haven’t, since?” Balthier whistles. “Wasted opportunity there, I think.” He leans forward, elbows on his knees, and Basch can’t help but lean backward a little. Balthier’s so close, and it’s unsettling now where it hadn’t been before. “How long has it been, then? I know you didn’t sleep with anyone when we were all together. Another wasted opportunity,” he says, and there’s something impish and fiery in his eyes all at once.

“I’m not having this conversation.” Basch stands, turns away because he doesn’t trust himself to keep looking at Balthier. He’s too young, too casual, too much for Basch, and Basch always wants things he can’t have.

“Why not?”

He hears Balthier stand, his footsteps approach, and he’s right there, and Basch is between the mirror-wall and Balthier’s frame. And if he can’t look at Balthier, he’s looking at Vossler and his brother, and he can’t do that without thinking about Balthier and his brother, and then his brother becomes him and there they are, together, and Basch can’t have that. Not the way he wants it. Better to want nothing.

“Why not, Basch? You like me. You want me.” Balthier is pressed against his back, his arms on either side of Basch’s body. In the next room, Vossler’s unbuttoning his shirt, and Basch can’t watch. He has to turn, and there’s Balthier, close, too close, and he does like him, wants him—all those things are true—but he’s too close, the wall too tight at his back, the white-clad arms on either side of his body too much like walls themselves, and he shoves Balthier back. Shoves him hard.

He stumbles into the couch, catches himself. He takes a deep breath, looks at Basch and away again. “Point taken,” he says, and he sits in another chair, the one farthest from Basch.

“I didn’t mean—”

“It’s quite clear what you meant. I shouldn’t have pressed you.” And this is Balthier’s diplomat’s voice, chill and even, and he slides a book from the shelf beside him. “I won’t do it again.”

“Balthier.” Basch looks at his hands. “I’m sorry.”

“I am, too.”

Basch thinks that they’re both apologizing for the wrong things. Balthier opens the book, reads fast—and he is reading; Basch is watching his eyes dart back and forth across the page, and he’s squinting; he should have brought his glasses. Basch has seen them, in the study, but he’s never seen him wear them. Basch opens his mouth to say something, anything, twice more, and each time Balthier’s eyes flick up, glittering cold. And Basch can’t think of anything that doesn’t sound like “I didn’t mean it,” and he can’t say that because he can’t decide what he does mean.

When the door opens again, they both act like nothing’s happened. Gabranth, though, is watching them both too closely. He knows, Basch thinks, of course he knows something, and now he’s angry on top of it all.

* * *
From the weight of the knock, Basch knows it’s Vossler. “Come in,” he says, even though all he wants is the sleep that won’t come.

Vossler opens the door, closes it carefully behind himself. “Basch,” he says, “will you fix these?” He pulls off his shirt. He sits sideways on the chair, turning the old cuts and the fading yellow bruises over his kidneys toward Basch. He cups his hand over the shape of Basch’s brother’s mouth on his neck, strokes a fingertip over the bite-bruise—it looks refreshed. “I want to start over.”

Basch swallows. He will not let whatever’s wrong with him get in the way of this. Vossler’s trusting him with something important. “If I heal your back completely, I don’t think I have the control to keep it from getting rid of those, too,” he says.

“He’ll give me more,” Vossler says. There’s such fierce joy in his words, such iron calm; it wraps tight around Basch’s fear and chokes it down, and that’s such a blessing, Basch thinks, as the spell leaves his fingers, except that if he need not worry for Vossler, and the icy sick feeling is still there, it’s all his own.

Chapter Text

Basch watches the thin red lines on Vossler’s back fade and finally disappear, skin whole and healthy and its usual patchwork of scars. The worst, of course, are the most recent ones, but even they have faded to the hard white lines and whorls of old damage. Vossler’s fingers drift up to the side of his neck, touch once, and then he pulls his hand away.

Basch isn’t sure he wants to ask, but he should, because he knows Vossler is happy about this, and they are friends, and his baggage shouldn’t interfere with that. But no matter how hard he tries to sound easy, it’s going to come out wooden. He tries anyway. “It was good, with…” He still doesn’t know how to make his tongue navigate the name. That’s not his brother’s name. “With him?” What hope does he have of having his twin back if he hasn’t even got his name?

Vossler’s chin jerks down, emphatic, and Basch can see him wrestling with the want to say something and with the want to protect Basch from the strangeness of it all.

“I don’t mind. I mean, if you want to talk about it. You can.” Basch sits back against the foot of the bed, holds onto one of the posters. Steady.

Vossler cranes his head to look at his own back, pushing one shoulder front and twisting. “You’re good at that. Thank you.” He tugs his shirt on again, raises an eyebrow at Basch. “You mean you want the details? Didn’t think you were the type.”

Basch inhales deep, sighs, and the force of his breath pushes him down into the mattress. That sounds like something Balthier would say. Would say, of course, if Balthier was ever going to talk to him again, talk to him like before. He didn’t go silent on the way home; that would have been better, Basch thinks, better than the static cheerfulness, the tourguide’s banter as they went, all aimed at Vossler, who wasn’t really listening. So now Balthier, too, is like a stranger to him. Basch shakes his head, glares up at Vossler.

“Are you going to be safe with him? Is it—gods, Vossler, is he—” What he wants to do is thump the meat of his fist into the scrolled wood, but this is not his house. And even if it was, he still wouldn’t do it. But he wants to.

“Yes.” Vossler is every inch calm, and Basch feels like his knuckles are going to pop from the tightness of his hands. Everything is upside down and backwards, and he can’t even wish it otherwise. He won’t be that selfish. Vossler pulls the chair closer, turns it backwards and sits, folds his arms across the top of the backrest. “He knows what he’s doing.” His face turns wry, half apology, half mischief. “I’m going back tomorrow, in the evening. I hope he doesn’t mind—” His hand goes back to his neck. “I didn’t want the old—that’s done.”

“He won’t mind. He’ll understand.” The response is automatic, sure, but the wave of uncertainty hits hard. “At least, before, he would.” They used to know each other better than themselves, and the small things Basch had seen—his sore fingertips, the way he hadn’t eaten after the aide had brought him an issue that needed to be resolved—spoke that there was still something of Noah left in Gabranth, but Basch has no certainty in anything now. He wishes, violently, to be back in Rabanastre, just him. At least there, he knew what to do with his body, if not with his mind. “Do you want me to go with you, tomorrow?” Basch almost hopes he says yes, if only so he has purpose. But there isn’t any need, it seems, and Vossler confirms that.

“I’ll be fine, and you weren’t comfortable there. You looked like you were at one of Ashe’s diplomacy dinners.” Vossler shakes his head. “I suppose it’s hard to look otherwise when your brother’s debauching someone you know in the next room.”

“As if anyone could debauch you more.” And Basch can’t help but smile a little. “And, well, there was actually a fair amount of him debauching someone in the next room. Or the same room. Before.” Will he never be rid of that word?

“So all those things they say about twins are true.” Vossler rocks the chair forward a little, wraps his arms around the straight back, and looks up with a grin Basch hasn’t seen in half a decade. Since the plague. Since the Empire started closing in. “Ever tag-team anyone?”

Basch reaches out, yanks on the chair’s back so that Vossler over-balances and he has to scramble to catch himself. “Deviant.” His cheeks burn, but he’s laughing. He can’t help it. It’s worth it to see his friend actually enjoying himself again.

Vossler resettles. “I notice you didn’t actually answer.”

Basch is saved from having to address that by the sound of the door on the other side of the wall. Balthier. He keeps himself still.

“You ought to go with the ponce tomorrow night, if he goes back.” Vossler’s right eyebrow almost points in the center. “Would do you good.”

“With him where?” How does Vossler know? Something sinks in the back of Basch’s throat.

“A very promising-looking house of ill repute,” he says, and gestures toward the window, “two streets over, I think. At least, when I ran into him earlier, that’s where he said he was going, and from the look of that mark on his neck this morning, he’s been there before.”

“Oh.” And whatever sank hits like a stone, pushes the breath out of him. At least, at least he knows. Even if he weren’t an idiot, hadn’t pushed him away, he was just looking for a fuck. It’s better, then, maybe, this way. Except it’s not. It doesn’t feel better.

All the teasing is gone from Vossler’s face. “What happened?”

“Nothing.”

“You’re the worst liar I’ve ever met.”

Basch knows that’s not true because he’d managed to sell the idea of coming to Archades to Vossler even when he thought it madness. He’d convinced the Imperials of his ignorance or at least of his willingness to die before speaking. He’s convinced himself of so much. He simply has to try harder, change the subject a little. He forces disdain. “I don’t whore. You know that.”

This hits a chord with Vossler; it’s familiar enough that it resonates, and Basch has him at a disadvantage for once. Vossler’s actually got something, someone, else to think about, something to look forward to. And it’s wreaking merry havoc on his focus. What he says, finally, is, “Then find someone who isn’t a whore.” He stands, tells Basch to get some sleep, and leaves.

After the door closes—does Balthier hear that? does he wonder?—Vossler’s words keep echoing. It’s never going to work between him and Balthier. He drops to the floor and does push-ups until his arms give out.

* * *
Basch winds his way through the halls to the kitchen. This is the earliest he’s gotten up since they came to Archadia, but it’s because he hasn’t actually quite slept. There were moments when he wasn’t quite conscious, earlier, but he kept jerking himself awake, those flashes of half-dream that connect too sharply with the body, and his arms pushed and grabbed until he got up and turned the pages of the Garif poetry without remembering any of it. He knows there were words he was going to ask Fran—he can’t ask Balthier, not now, not after seeing him on the insides of his eyelids—but he doesn’t know what they are. As he approaches the kitchen, he hears the clinking of mugs, the rush of water, and he almost turns around. But he has to try, if only to make the next few days less awkward. Once he and Vossler leave, maybe the distance will set things right, or at least numb it to the point that Balthier will see him again if the sky pirates are in Rabanastre, and they can talk about Ashe and the children and things Balthier and Fran have been stealing and Basch will pretend he’s aghast at their lawlessness and Balthier will preen and they can go back to the way they were.

He peeks around the corner, hoping against hope that it’s Fran (she never makes that much noise) or Vossler (but Basch knows he’s still asleep), and of course, it’s Balthier. He’s sitting on the countertop opposite the stove, bare-chested and yawning. And despite a few red lines on his chest—whoever scratched him didn’t break the skin, but did leave welts—he looks so young sitting there. Basch stays in the doorway, taken, for a moment, by the thought of Balthier—Ffamran, then, silly name—here as a child. And despite all of that history, despite the fact that he’s sitting on the counter, his back fitting neatly into a space between the cupboards, his head against the wall, he still looks uncomfortable. Like he’s wearing a borrowed shirt. His eyes drift closed and they stay that way. Basch slides one foot forward but can’t go any farther. If he approaches now, he’ll be too close when Balthier realizes he’s there—it will seem like he’s trying to sneak up on him. And he can’t bring himself to wake Balthier from his doze, because he is dozing now; he’s relaxed into the wall, the way he used to doze leaning against a tree sometimes, if they stopped for a while and it wasn’t his watch.

The kettle whirs a warning—the first rush of steam—and Basch springs forward. He wants to turn it off before it whistles, before it wakes Balthier, but of course he wakes up anyway at the sound of Basch crossing the kitchen. Even though his back is to the counter, Basch can feel the eyes on him, and he doesn’t turn until he’s filled Balthier’s mug, reached for one of his own. He pours the water as slowly as he can. As long as there’s still space between the rising liquid and the rim, he doesn’t have to face him, but the mug is only so large, and the shrill of the kettle scraping across the grate makes him wince.

“If I wasn’t awake before, I am now.” Behind him, Basch can hear Balthier slide down from the counter. And then he’s beside him, a tawny hand reaching for his mug, and then he’s gone again, at the far side of the kitchen.

Basch has to say something. “Didn’t look like the best place for a nap.”

“A watched pot never boils and all that.” Balthier sinks into a chair beside the window, and he puts his arms over the high back so that his chest is stretched, displayed, and Basch knows he can’t look, knows he’s going to, knows this is deliberate, and hates Balthier for it. Basch stays next to the stove, fussing with the sachet of tea floating on the steaming water. He won’t go closer, won’t play that part of the game, though the sugar is here and he didn’t put any in Balthier’s tea. He waits for Balthier to come back for it while he fights the urge to take it to him. They’re supposed to be friends, he thinks. Last night was a mistake—in several ways, and the trouble is that Basch isn’t sure which ways, entirely, because he wants to know what those raised red lines taste like, and he could, but he can’t. He won’t. He needs Balthier as his friend more than he needs sex. He’s never needed sex, anyway, and they’ve worked through suspicion of murder and dubious motives and issues of allegiance. This is just sex, and this is ridiculous. Basch will not be ridiculous.

“Any big plans for the day?” There. That’s normal enough, and he raises his eyes, finally. Balthier has pulled in on himself now, elbows on the table and his mug held in both hands, an inch from his lips. He sips and can’t mask the face he makes. Rather, he probably doesn’t try to mask it—Basch is sure Balthier could mask any reaction, if he wanted to, and the fact that he doesn’t, here, makes Basch pick up the sugar bowl and cross the kitchen. He walks back, finds a spoon, returns, but Basch can’t bring himself to sit. Instead, he puts his mug down, hunts out the cream in the icebox, pours some in his cup, puts the cream back. He gets a spoon for himself. He has never been so inefficient, but this takes more time, keeps him from having to be still, and Balthier’s watching him. Basch’s pacing bothers him. It always has. He keeps doing it.

After he’s sugared his tea—Basch had been half afraid that he wouldn’t, out of spite or to prove some point—Balthier answers. “Upgrading the glossair rings on the Strahl. I think we’ll be heading out to Balfonheim tomorrow night or so.”

That’s before he and Vossler are supposed to leave. And that’s deliberate, too. He’s well and truly fucked things up. “I’ll go up to the Palace tonight, tell Larsa we’ll take him up on his offer.” The emperor hadn’t actually offered, but he’d have a place for them. That Basch knows.

“No. You can stay. Here.” Balthier puts his mug down, puts his hands flat on the table. “Don’t go, just because I am. I said you are welcome here, and I mean it. As long, and as often as you want.” There is some of the Balthier he is used to seeing.

“Thank you.” Basch gathers up the spoons and the sugar bowl and returns them to their proper places, washing and drying the silver. Balthier rolls his eyes at him and turns toward the window. Maybe… “Need any extra hands for the Strahl?”

“No.” Balthier stands, leaves his mug on the table, and leaves the kitchen. Basch hears the elevator lurch open. He bends, rests his head on folded arms at the sink’s edge. When the mechanical drone quiets, Basch returns to the table, and even though he doesn’t mean to, he sits in Balthier’s chair. It is, of course, still warm, though his tea is cold, and he sits long enough that it warms again in the hot sunlight slanting in. He, too, goes from cold to hot, and he has decided what he’ll do with his day.

He steals back to his rooms—there’s no sign of Balthier, but he’s probably already on the roof—and puts on his old traveling armor. He’s only added a mail vest under his red half-coat; despite the risk, he likes having his arms bare, unencumbered. And he doesn’t mind that he looks a mess—Balthier had been so fond of saying so—because he is not General fon Ronsenburg now. He is not anything but a man who needs to do something before he goes mad, and cleaning up in Sochen is definitely something to do. He sneaks out through the window into the garden, and he sneaks his way out of the city, simply because he can. If he’s thinking about stealth, about getting behind the next building before the next group of ardents bustles past, he’s not thinking about anything else.

Either the fiends are getting weaker or Basch has gotten better, because the zombie knights are simply falling under his blade and he’s not half as distracted as he hoped he’d be. This was, he thinks, kicking rattling bones free of his blade, not the best place to come, anyway. Here, in the great hall, where they’d fought the mandragoras with the whole group, the same place where yesterday they’d swapped blades and Balthier spun the borrowed longsword in his palm like it had always been there. Basch thinks he must have been practicing with different weapons, then, because he hadn’t been that proficient with a longsword before. He could wield anything, certainly, and Basch knows him to be excellent with point work and his guns, of course. For a moment, Basch wants to see Balthier with an axe, the juxtaposition of his lithe frame with that almost feral look he sometimes gets. There, Basch thinks, is where Balthier and Fran mesh best, in that moment of change from complete calm to something else. And in the Strahl. Balthier was probably still bare-chested, half-streaked with grease. For all of his fastidiousness at all other times, even the airship’s dirt seemed sacred to Balthier, something that anointed his hands instead of stained them. Basch would have stood around all afternoon, passing him wrenches, listened to him coax each screw and bolt. Before, Balthier had liked that kind of audience, showing off his skill with anything metal. Why did he have to say no like that? And now he and Fran are going to leave again, and Basch can’t think when he’ll see them again. As soon as the survey is over, everything will be as it was, and that thought brings relief. Even if it’s months before Balthier and Fran show up in Rabanastre again, Basch will have his equilibrium back. Basch puts the blade into his left palm, catches it safe on the leather of his glove, and parries the next zombie’s pike. He kicks it in the chest, whirls behind it, and watches the skull fall, roll, as the body crumples to one side.

He’s got to find a better challenge, got to find something. He carves his way through two pit fiends to the next room, more zombies to the next. Three focalors. The fiends are getting more numerous. Good. He scrapes the dull-shine of focalor scales from his blade and ducks behind a boulder column. There’s something ahead of him, several somethings, and he dodges forward to the next bit of cover. He’s probably getting close to halfway to Tchita, but this is what he needs. Five wendigos, stalking in their aimless circles, headless bodies hulking. Might even be a good excuse to practice some magick. He doesn’t do that very often in Rabanastre. The mage contingent of the army is under Ashe’s directive, and it’s fairly reclusive. He’d like to try the tricks Ashe and Penelo have mastered—blade in one hand, spell in the other—but he’s not that adept with spells other than the curatives. Those he’s used often enough. Fran doesn’t even bother with her hands. She shoots, things fall with arrows in their mouths and then they burst into flames even as another arrow leaps from her bowstring. No wonder Vossler’s fascinated by her.

He remembers the wendigos have ice magick, and he gathers the crackling words of Thundaga between his palms. He steps in front of his boulder and launches the spell at the nearest giant and has to dive behind the boulder again because the lightning reflects, arcs back toward him. The smell of scorched earth rises, and Basch grips his sword with both hands. He could cast the mirror spell on himself—he knows how to wage a battle arcane—but fuck that. He’s got a sword.

He leaps atop the boulder, leaps again, onto the charging wendigo, and he dispatches it by shoving his sword into the place its head should have been, down between the lumpy shoulders. It falls backward, and he rolls with it, over his own shoulders to stand with his sword dripping ichor. The other four are closing in, and the air is getting colder with their icy breath and the white-blue sparks of gathering magick. Basch dodges right, nearly severs the arm from one of them, and its staff falls. When it turns, following him, Basch lays its chest open from shoulder to hip, and it crumples in a pile of ice. He shakes off the vicious chill and raises his sword to the level of his eyes, point forward. The remaining three lurch, and he charges. He’s parrying the next’s staff when it goes rigid, makes a hideous gasp—from where? it has no mouth--and a familiar piece of steel shows through its chest. It falls forward, and Basch has to leap back, out of the way, and there is Vossler, Nightmare naked and gory, and then the entire room brightens in a flash of lightning, and of course Fran’s done it properly, because one of the wendigos is reduced to ash. Basch turns to the last, dispatches it, and as he yanks his blade free of the barrel-wide ribs, he’s annoyed. They followed him.

Fran hasn’t even taken her bow from her back. “Arrogance has never been your problem. So this is sheer stupidity, then.”

“I was fine. You didn’t need to follow me.” He sounds like he’s fourteen years old. In fact, he’s sure he’d said this exact thing when he was fourteen, though then it wasn’t “I.” It was “we.” We were fine, and Father hadn’t needed to follow us. Us. We. Who?

“Basch.”

She doesn’t have to say any more. In that word, he knows, he remembers, the dozens of times they ran into a monster that simply wasn’t supposed to be there, traps, accidents—Vaan had broken his ankle in Giza, stepping in a warren-mouth. He sighs, loud, because trying to quiet it doesn’t work around Fran anyway.

“We weren’t half this far yesterday,” Vossler says, and he picks up one of the heavy weapons the wendigos had been carrying. He puts it down quickly, breathes into cupped palms. “Cold.”

Basch had done the same thing when they’d come through Sochen the first time, only his hand had been wet from his waterskin and his palm had stuck to the metal. Balthier took out a handful of wyrmfire shot, turned Basch’s palm up and flat, and aligned the rounded bullets with the weapon’s haft. In a moment, the icy staff warmed enough that Balthier could throw the thing down, and Basch walked a little ways with the bullets held in his fist. “Just don’t drop them,” Balthier had said. Basch hadn’t, and he’d put them carefully back into their pouch when his hand had warmed.

“How long were you following me?” He’s still a little angry about it, but he has no right to be. He would have done the same.

“Since you left.” Vossler takes a rag from his belt pouch and cleans the ichor from his sword. There is not a blade in Ivalice better cared for than that one, Basch thinks. His brother had better know what he’s doing, or Basch will kill him. But there’s not even the kind of fierce certainty there he wants, because he knows, if he cares to acknowledge it, that there’s no more treachery left in his brother. That there might not have been that much in him to begin with. What would he not do for Ashe, were she to ask it of him? He can’t bear to even think about it.

They make their way back toward the city, and there are still some fiends to take care of, but there’s no joy left in it. Fran is not happy with him, and Basch is getting the feeling that it’s not simply because of today. Has Balthier told her about last night? He might have. Maybe, at least, she’ll talk to him. Maybe she knows what’s going on. And so he asks. “What’s in Balfonheim?”

She looks at him as if he’s lost his mind. Maybe he has. He tries again. “Balthier said you were headed there again, soon.”

“Did he.” A wayward steeling, far behind them, not even pursuing anymore, bursts into flame. “Interesting.”

Basch doesn’t try again. He glances at Vossler, but Vossler’s watching the burning bat spiral around the cavern. Fran launches an arrow, and the whole smoldering thing gets pinned to the wall. Vossler surreptitiously adjusts himself, and Basch shakes his head. There’s no help for him here.

As they approach the house—getting all manner of strange looks from passersby, dressed as they are—Fran warms up a little. She asks what he’s doing, says she’s going to visit with Larsa, later, asks if he wants to come along. Much as he might like to spend some time with the boy, he’s not fit company for someone as keen as Larsa. It’s only Fran’s demeanor that keeps her, he knows, from asking questions he can’t answer. And Larsa would ask. It is hard enough knowing he’ll face him midweek, when they are meant to leave.

“If you change your mind, we leave around seven,” she says, glancing at Vossler, who nods. “And I will be returning somewhat earlier than this one, I suspect.” The cant of her ears is knowing, and Vossler looks at his feet, though the corners of his mouth seem to want to turn up. “So if an earlier evening appeals to you, there is that option.”

“Thank you, but I think I’ll read. I’m enjoying the book you lent me.” He is. That’s not a lie. “Do you know if Balthier has plans?” Maybe, if they’re both here—

Fran rolls her eyes. “Who can say what he’s doing?” There’s more acid in her voice than she usually reserves for being exasperated with Balthier. She leads them around the house, to the garden entrance.

“I’d hoped you could.” Basch attempts a smile, but Fran doesn’t return it.

“I would hope the same, too, but hope is not always at hand.” She pauses beside his window while he pulls the key from his pouch; he’s glad he remembered it. “Sometimes it were best to act, instead of hope.” The window swings open, and Fran turns on her heel, walks to the far end of the balcony. She has a proper door, and the moment it closes, Basch hurries through his room and heads for the elevator. That seems to be the only way to the room upstairs, to the stairs that lead to the roof. He has to check, even if all Balthier says is no again.

He takes a deep breath and hits the button with his thumb. The doors open right away, empty, and he is sure to stand in the center of the little box as it grates its way upward. It’s not going that far, and still it seems to stall, the pause between the sickening settle—it’s reached its floor—and the doors opening again is taking too long. He can’t help but hit the button again, once more, and finally the doors sigh open. Basch steps into the great-room, stops a moment to inhale hard. He takes the steps up to the roof two at a time, and he knocks on the door to the parts room, first. No one answers. Balthier might be outside, under and half inside of the airship—probably is, if he’s upgrading the glossairs. He tries the latch, and the door swings open. He’s not sure if it locks automatically, though, and so he wedges a wrench between the door and the frame. If Nono’s around, he’s sure to get an earful, but there’s no sign of the Moogle. Balthier’s rings, though, are stacked on one end of the workbench. Basch pushes open the door to the roof, and he keeps his foot inside, just in case.

“Balthier?” Basch doesn’t see him, though the Strahl sits, a little more polished, and with new glossair rings. He can see the fresh green-gold shine under the wings. “Nono?”

There are no replies. He traces his steps back, and he picks up Balthier’s rings. He’ll put them in the study with his glasses. Maybe Balthier will take the hint.

On the way back down, the elevator smells like gunpowder, a little bit like grease, and it’s calming. He must have just missed Balthier; he might have been washing up in one of the rooms adjacent the great-room. The doors open immediately on the main floor, and Basch goes to Balthier’s door. He’ll give him his rings now, see what he’s doing. When he knocks, though, there’s no answer. He checks the kitchen, even Fran’s rooms. No Balthier. He leaves the rings on the table in the study.

* * *

 

Tomorrow, Vossler thinks, Basch is going to see his brother. If he has to drag him there, he’ll do it, because something’s not right, and at least part of it has to do with Gabranth. Last night and the one before, Basch barely spoke, and when he did, it was somehow through Balthier. The sky pirate had made jokes, tried to pull Basch into conversation, and that helped. But not enough. He didn’t say anything to his twin. He won’t overestimate his pull with Gabranth, but he thinks it’s safe to say he can get them both in the same room, and it’s clear that Gabranth’s trying. He doesn’t know what the hell is wrong with Basch, not after he was so gung-ho about the idea in the first place. It’s not like Basch, either, to disappear without telling anyone. Vossler puts his fork down and fights the urge to drum his fingers on the table.

The three of them are at the café. Basch is picking at his food again, and there’s something wrong between him and Fran, too. She doesn’t seem exactly angry, but she’s even quieter than usual. It has to do with Balthier, he’s sure of it—Balthier’s been all but invisible since last night. Vossler saw him once this morning, just after Basch left, he thinks, and that’s too much for coincidence. This time yesterday, they were thick as thieves, and now Balthier’s avoiding him. That much is clear. He wants to ask, but Fran’s here. Basch won’t say anything about Balthier in front of her, not if something happened, and Vossler’s starting to think it did. But what? These things are so much easier to work out with a sword in one’s hand.

And then it’s time to go. Fran rises, waits two paces away. Vossler tries one more time to get Basch to come along. “We could go out for a drink, instead. You and I and your brother.”

Basch shakes his head. “You go.” He reaches out, pushes Vossler a little. “And enjoy yourself.” The smile is small, but genuine. Basch is a self-sacrificing idiot, and he has until tomorrow to enjoy being that, because Vossler’s had enough.

“Tomorrow, you’re coming with me.” And tomorrow, they’ll spar. And tomorrow, if things haven’t changed, he’s having a chat with Balthier.

“If he wants to see me.” Basch pulls at a loose thread on his shirt.

Vossler rolls his eyes, turns, and he follows Fran toward the palace. He looks back once, but Basch is already gone, and he has to lengthen his stride to keep up. Her legs are so long, and he tries to keep his mind on that, or Basch, and not where he’s going. Thinking about it, he can’t decide if he’s well and truly gone mad--kingslayer, stranger, Archadian, a corner of his mind says—or if this is the best thing to happen to him in a long time. He wishes Fran would say something. Anything he can think to say needs a lot longer than the few steps they have. The cobblestones beneath his feet are already tending to the silver-white granite of the palace proper.

Fran mutters in her own tongue as they pass through the main doors and the eyes start turning. She leads him down the Magisters’ hallway again. “They all recognize me, and still all this,” she says. She doesn’t so much knock as shove the door open. Gabranth already has her pass written out, and he holds it up without looking away from the document he’s reading. She takes it and pivots on her heel, and when the staccato clack finally fades—it goes on a long while; she’s actually almost stomping—Gabranth looks up. And he smiles, puts out his hand. His grip is warm and dry and strong, and Vossler is strangely relieved when it’s only a handshake, but a little disappointed, too. He doesn’t want to do this when Gabranth is obviously still working, out of courtesy and because he’s still a judge and who knows how it all might have turned out if Ghis hadn’t crossed them all with the Dusk Shard, but he’s also forcing himself to calmness, to patience. He has never been a patient man. He wants to taste those raw fingertips, to see, if he may, what is under that stark black uniform. It makes no sense, really. He is Basch’s twin. And men are same enough, under their clothes, even if he hadn’t had a fair idea of what to expect. Still. Gabranth catches him staring.

“May I test your patience five minutes more? I promised I would finish this before I left for the day.” There’s nothing in Gabranth’s voice to give anything away, but that has to be deliberate, that word. There’s nothing haphazard about him, everything crisp and at right angles, except the ragged skin on his hands. “Make yourself comfortable,” he says, and makes a few notes.

Vossler thinks he should probably walk to the other side of the office, pretend to peruse the bookshelves and look fascinated in the hangings on the walls, but he doesn’t feign interest. There’s no point in it. He settles into a chair just in front of the wide mahogany desk and watches. Gabranth keeps his eyes on the file, and Vossler is amazed at how fast they move across the page. He raises his index finger to his lips and nips, without looking, at the skin, and he pulls the digit away as if he hadn’t realized he was doing it. There’s a bright dot of red welling at the edge of his nail. He curls the hand into a fist and makes more notes. Basch tears paper, bits of straw or grass, or whatever’s at hand when he’s agitated. That was rare, very rare, until recently, and Vossler wonders if this habit of Gabranth’s is new, too. Basch would know. Maybe he’ll ask.

Finally, Gabranth takes a cloth from his desk and wipes the nib of his pen clean. Basch does that. They must have had an exacting tutor. Vossler goes through half a dozen pens a day, either splaying the nibs past use with too much pressure, or forgetting himself and accidentally snapping them between his fingers. Habit from boyhood, from threading a stick between first and third fingers and slapping his hand on his thigh, seeing how sturdy a piece he could break before the wood threatened to damage him.

Vossler waits until Gabranth rises, and then he does, and as Gabranth turns out the lights, locks the door, he says, “No Basch? I didn’t expect—” He pauses, continues. “I had hoped—” He lets the words fall in the busy hallway. This corridor must never go silent.

And Vossler understands. Implicit in Basch’s absence is a kind of trust, but also distance. He trusts Gabranth with Vossler, but not himself. Or he doesn’t trust himself with Gabranth. Vossler doesn’t always understand Basch’s selfless (or simply stupid?) rhetoric. “I asked him to come, not to stand guard, but as company. He, of course, refused, not wanting to impose on—” and Vossler has no idea what to call this. Them. Whatever it is.

“Of course. That is Basch. Courteous to a fault.” Gabranth’s smile is brittle at the edges.

Now is as good a time as any to say it. “Will you see him tomorrow? Send him a summons or something?” He’d almost joked, said, “Have him arrested,” but caught himself in time. Must they all be so careful of what they say? Especially when dragging Basch in by the hair really is starting to seem like the only way to get him to see Gabranth. Or Balthier. Some day, somehow, there will be an hour when one thing isn’t falling apart as another comes together. Some day, he’ll have one hour of actual peace. And he’ll probably die before he can even enjoy it. But Basch has gone through the same maddening process with him, getting him to Archades. It’s only fair that he try, too.

“I would see him whenever he wished it, but I will not send for him. I cannot. It is not my place to dictate anything to him.” Gabranth raises his right hand to his mouth again, and Vossler almost reaches for it. Not yet. They’re in the middle of the Archadian palace. Not yet. Patience. He hates that word.

“But you’re not averse to the idea of a beer, perhaps? If I can drag him out?”

“If you can’t, I’m sure Balthier can. His powers of persuasion are fairly legendary, and,” Gabranth’s expression is guarded, “I think Basch particularly susceptible.” He lingers a bit on the last word, and Vossler’s suspicions are confirmed. The pirate’s interested in his friend, and doesn’t that just complicate it all. Ponce. Even Basch couldn’t say no to Balthier. If he’s truthful--if I had a gag for him--Vossler wouldn’t turn Balthier down, for a fuck. The man’s damned good-looking. But Basch doesn’t seem like he’s ended a years-long dry spell. So what did happen?

“Then you know more than I do. They don’t seem to be speaking, since last night. And Balthier said he and Fran were headed to Balfonheim soon. In the next day or so.” Vossler memorizes the turns they are taking. Gabranth’s rooms are at the very end of a long hallway, and the surrounding suites seem to be empty.

“Something did seem off, when you left last night. Have you seen Balthier since?” Gabranth opens his door. His rooms are on the western face of the palace, and the light is wonderful, like it hits the salle in Rabanastre. The sun had already been down by the time they’d come here last night. Godsdammit, Basch. He should be here. Or at least somewhere, with someone, not rattling around Cid’s madhouse alone. He’d had to pry open the elevator doors with Nightmare this afternoon. He didn’t tell Basch. Basch already goes white when he has to use it.

“Twice, in passing. On the way to a whorehouse last night and to his flying deathtrap this morning. He’s been invisible, otherwise.”

“The little prat.” Gabranth puts his keys away. “I’d hoped he’d grown out of that by now,” he says, and Vossler’s pretty sure Gabranth means neither whoring nor the Strahl. There’s a knock, and Gabranth opens the door to an aide carrying a tray. He says his thanks, and Vossler is sure there ought to be a special set of commendations for aides.

It’s another light supper, tea, water. “Help yourself. I’m going to change,” Gabranth says, and he goes into his bedroom, closes the door. He’s tempted to steal a peek through the mirrored window—it must be behind the picture of endless trees, done in what looks like black ink—but he will be patient. He pours himself some water, just so his hands have something to do, and he stands, walks to the far wall, the one that abuts the next apartment, and listens. He wonders if some new judge is going to get an earful, and it doesn’t bother him. He’s only curious. And he wonders when, if, he’ll have cause, opportunity to make that kind of noise.

When he hears the door open, he doesn’t turn right away—he will not look as eager, as desperate as he feels—but asks, “Have you neighbors?”

“Those rooms had been Drace’s. I’m sure they will fill again, soon enough.” There’s something far away in his voice, and Vossler knows he’s heard the name before. Drace. Another judge. Was that the one—? A glance at Gabranth confirms it, and he curses himself for bringing it up. But he can change the subject, too, and his attention is already shifting to the loose blue trousers and gray shirt Gabranth has put on. Whatever the material is, it is soft and thin and it clings as he moves, pours himself some tea. He drinks, looks at Vossler over his cup. “Does it bother you, being so far from the others? Out of earshot? If you are uncomfortable, you have only to tell me.”

Vossler makes himself actually think about it. He will be honest. It doesn’t take long. “No.” He clears his throat. “It would be a shame, though, to waste the opportunity, if no one is near to be disturbed.” He is glad he is not prone to blushing.

Gabranth smiles wickedly, puts the cup down. “It would not matter, anyway. I had the room soundproofed by the court musicians after Drace pointed out that certain guests of mine were a bit too vociferous for her taste.” He shakes his head. “I don’t envy Basch one bit. The brat was a world of trouble when he was sixteen, and I can’t see that time has changed that.”

It takes Vossler a second to process that—he’s talking about Balthier—and the room itself is soundproofed and he could scream until Mid-Winter’s Night and no one would stop them. That should frighten him. It doesn’t. “I can see,” he says, stepping closer, “why you haven’t moved, then.”

“Why should I, when everything is as I like it?”

“Everything?”

“Almost,” Gabranth amends, and he skirts the table to stand in front of Vossler. He pulls Vossler down to his mouth, and Vossler swears he’s going to be patient this time. He laces his fingers behind his back and accepts the onslaught of tongue and teeth. Gabranth kisses with possession, pushing his tongue into Vossler’s mouth, and Vossler licks at it, at his lips, and he’s rewarded with soft bites. Gabranth’s hands find his shoulders, carry themselves along his arms to his intertwined fingers. He pulls back half an inch, says, right next to Vossler’s mouth, “I like this. You waiting,” and he holds Vossler’s wrists together with one hand as the other slides up to the back of Vossler’s head, holding him down, holding him still, just holding. Hand in his hair, Gabranth turns his head an inch, so that Vossler’s looking right into his eyes, and he holds him there. It is still strange to see those eyes without the scar, but the longer he looks, the more different the eyes are. It’s not a coldness, exactly, but there’s a hardness here, now, that Vossler has only seen in Basch—a passing resemblance—when he’s teaching a particularly hard lesson to a group of recruits. And still that is not quite it, either. This is not Basch. Despite all of his conjectures, he must honestly say that he does not know what to expect. He wants to know.

“You want this?” Gabranth’s grip relaxes some.

Vossler nods, so he can feel the slight tug in his hair. “Yes.” And Gabranth’s hands are gone, and he’s walking away. Vossler follows, and there is the hum of anticipation, the curling fire under his ribcage.

When they’re in Gabranth’s bedroom, Vossler tries very, very hard not to look at the bed itself. It’s not that wide, as beds go, not by the decadent Archadian standards that seem to hold sway in Balthier’s house, but it’s got imposing posts, thick as his biceps rising at each corner, nearly to the ceiling. There’s decorative iron-work connecting each of the posts, too, at the top, but Vossler knows metal. It’s three-quarter-inch wrought iron, connected with solid welds. It might look nice, but it’s not for aesthetic value. He could hang his whole weight from those bars, and it wouldn’t so much as creak. His cock twitches at the thought. There’s a wide chest at the foot of the bed that hadn’t been there yesterday.

Gabranth turns, closes the door behind them. “Do you have a safeword?” At Vossler’s pause, he says, “Choose a word that you won’t forget. If you want me to stop, you’ll say that. And I will. I won’t stop for anything else.”

“Nightmare.” That he won’t forget. He looks up. That probably sounds fairly morbid, so he says, “My sword.”

“I’ve heard about it.”

Vossler’s not going to think about how he knows, because he’s sure the trajectory takes him through some things he’d rather not think about right now, but there’s a tiny spike of pride. He’s heard of her.

“Nightmare.” Gabranth repeats it. “Good. Now,” he says, pulling Vossler farther into the room, “shirt off.”

It’s time to see if Basch was right, if Gabranth understands why Vossler’s already lost the first thing Gabranth gave him. He watches his eyes as he unbuttons his collar, and they narrow when the unblemished skin shows. Vossler holds his breath.

“If my marks are so undesirable as to have them magicked away, perhaps it were better—” His voice is cold, distant, and Vossler can’t let him finish that sentence. If he gets taken to task for interrupting, so be it.

“It is not that.” He pulls off the shirt, hangs it again on the chair. “I wanted—” Why is this so hard to say? He is not one to stumble over words. “I wanted to make a clean start, here.” He turns, kneels, his back to Gabranth. “So that anything you leave is yours. Just yours. There was no way to be rid of the old and not lose the new. I apologize.” He wants to look back, look at him, but he can’t turn his head.

“Stand up.” There’s still that hard edge to his voice, and Vossler knew this was too good to be happening to him. He will not let his disappointment show. That is a lie. He reaches for his shirt, and Gabranth’s hand clamps down on his wrist, pins his arm at his side. He yanks him back half a step, so Vossler is flush against him, and Gabranth’s cock is hard, pressed against his arse. Vossler bites his lip and hopes.

A hand rakes down his back, and the scrape is fresh, new, unattached. Gabranth bites at his ear, says, “There’s been a change of plans, then, if I have this to work with,” and he sinks his teeth into the corded muscle at the nape of Vossler’s neck. He won’t be able to see this one, not even in a mirror, but he’ll feel the bite-bruise every time he turns his head.

“Gods.” It’s barely a whisper.

Gabranth moves away and flips open the chest at the foot of the bed. To keep from watching him, bent over, Vossler turns his attention to his shoes, takes them off, slides them under the chair. And that’s when he knows that this is good. He’s never gotten pain from someone and felt comfortable enough—safe enough, though he hates to put it that way—to take off his shoes. Gabranth, too, is barefoot. Neither of them are going anywhere. He wants to see his body, wonders how he can ask. If he may ask.

Gabranth puts something on the bed, closes the chest, and he’s got a flogger in each hand, one smaller, softer-looking than the other, and Vossler can’t help but hone in on the wicked-looking one. Gabranth raises an eyebrow. “Ever play with these before?”

Vossler shakes his head. “Belts, sometimes. A cat once.” That was when Basch was in prison. The man who wielded it was clumsy but at least without malice. He was lucky, he knows, those two years when he had no one to watch his beaten back. “General rough use.” That’s what most people wanted from him. Someone who didn’t mind if they made him choke. He says the last, and he has no idea how he can be both bitter and longing at the same time, but he is.

“One thing you want. Right now.” Gabranth puts the floggers down reverently on the chest, and reaches for what he put on the bed. It’s a thick leather strap, and he loops it over the wrought iron bar, lets it hang over the foot of the bed. It’s got a heavy clip on the end that hangs, and Vossler’s getting hard again. Gabranth steals a glance, revises his question. “One thing you want, besides getting to come.”

This is his chance. “Could I see you? Lose the shirt?”

Gabranth’s head jerks up from the arrangements he’s making. “That’s what you want?”

“Please.” The reaction is strange, Vossler thinks, for something that seems fairly inevitable.

Gabranth’s hands move to the hem of his shirt, and there they pause. “It’s not pretty.”

“And any of this is?” He gestures to himself, the thick-knit jagged scars that lace his torso.

Gabranth nods, and Vossler isn’t sure what it means—yes, it is pretty? that’s ridiculous. simple acknowledgement? maybe.—but it does lead to Gabranth lifting his arms, pulling the shirt up and off, and he was right. It’s not pretty at all. The right side of his chest is actually almost concave, just under his clavicle, which is crooked, too sharp. These things have been force-healed, too quickly, unnaturally, and the gnarled results are the only reason he’s still alive. Force the bone structure to simply hold while the real attention goes to lungs. Liver. The scars are striated, the look of torn flesh, not cut, and Vossler wishes there were a way to go back and kill the dead a second time. Vossler had been lucky. His wounds would have finished him. He would have bled out in a few minutes if Basch hadn’t saved him, but that was a sword-stroke. That happens. The right side of Gabranth’s chest looks like a piece of crumpled paper, re-smoothed poorly. How was that even possible? Vossler has never wanted to touch something so badly.

Gabranth steps closer, and for the first time, the movement is tentative.

“Could I ask one more thing?” Vossler has to look away. He doesn’t mean to ask. This was generous enough.

Gabranth shakes out his shirt, puts one arm back in its sleeve. “You want me to put it back on?”

“Could I touch you?” Vossler catches the dangling sleeve and pulls gently. He folds the shirt, puts it on the table.

Gabranth’s face is resigned, and he steels himself, Vossler thinks, for the drawing back. He underestimates Vossler.

His skin is surprisingly cool, and Vossler starts with his hands on either side of Gabranth’s neck, slides them down, one palm on the gently raised plain of his left pectoral, the other dipping down to the scars he knows he’ll keep thinking about. He traces the hard line of his collarbone, noting the angles that shouldn’t be there, wanting to put his lips to them, not out of pity but out of wonder. To see if he can feel the places it’s knit with his tongue. He follows the barely angled valleys of skin joined by rivers of scar tissue, and he wants to know how much of this Gabranth can feel. He steals a glance, but Gabranth’s eyes are closed. He could stand here all night, learning this map, learning, also, how the nipple under his left palm hardens, as he runs his hands over planes of muscle and bone, and Gabranth’s exhale is audible. He takes another chance and lowers his head to the scarred right side, catches the other nipple—it, too, marked by half scar—between his teeth. Gabranth arches into his hands and mouth for a moment, and then his hand is fisted in Vossler’s hair, and he tilts Vossler’s head back, and Vossler had no idea he enjoyed having his hair tugged at this much. But he does.

“A little presumptuous, aren’t we?” His tone is sly, rather than scolding, and something thrills in Vossler. He liked that. “Pants off, and kneel up on the chest.”

Vossler strips quickly, down to the skin, and settles his knees on the chest. It’s leather-bound, not soft, but more forgiving than plain wood. The floggers are stretched in front of him, the lighter-looking of the two with suede tails, the other with thick oxhide tails, and he has to put his hands on his own thighs to keep from running his fingers over them. He will be patient. Gabranth takes his hands, buckles them into sturdy leather cuffs, and clips them to the hanging strap. He shortens the strap, then, until Vossler’s kneeling but extended, hands held up but not stretched. He could lean into this. And he thinks he should be panicking. The last time someone bound his wrists, he could have died. But he did not, and the binding on his wrists is where the similarity stops. Gabranth’s hand follows the tops of his shoulders as he walks around him and picks up the suede flogger. He stoops, nips at Vossler’s throat. “Comfortable?”

Vossler doesn’t know how to answer. He’s not comfortable. More specifically, his cock is not comfortable, because he feels like he’s been hard forever. But he’s not uncomfortable, either, despite the newness of it all. He says, instead, “It’s good.”

“Yes, it is,” Gabranth says. “One thing you don’t want me to do.”

“Leave.”

“I won’t.” The flogger snaps softly over his arse. “You’ll know exactly where I am, the whole time.” Gabranth backs away, and when he puts the first real strike over the flat of Vossler’s shoulder blade, Vossler’s actually a little disappointed. The suede tails are soft, make a nice whispery thwack on his skin, but it barely stings. But he will be patient. He relaxes into the cuffs, lets the strap support his torso, and closes his eyes. Gabranth’s arm falls steadily, hypnotic, and the flogger curls over and around his shoulderblades, a figure eight of gathering heat. The tails drop lower, to the bottom of his ribs, but dip no further. Yes. He knows. And the strokes are getting harder, Vossler can feel the tails popping more sharply, feels the flush in his back. This is new, the gradations of sensation. He likes it. It feels like they’re going somewhere. Usually, someone with a belt simply wears out his arm on Vossler’s back, and he takes the gamble that the arm will wear out before his resolve does. With Gabranth, he knows, his back will wear out before the fon Ronsenburg arm does. That’s how they are. A soft sound escapes his lips, and the blows get a little faster, still slightly harder. And just as Vossler thinks they’re almost to where he wants them, his back hot and alive, it stops. And he can’t stop the growl of frustration low in his throat.

“Patience.” Gabranth’s hands rest on his shoulders, and Vossler feels his nails digging in, and the drag along the sides of his spine is like fire. He twists away, though Gabranth never breaks contact, and then pushes back, into the burn, panting. The fingernails drag back up, and Gabranth’s teeth raise welts in a line across the back of his neck while his hands curve around to scratch up Vossler’s thighs. Half an inch—but he never actually touches his cock.

He pulls back and reaches for the heavier flogger. Vossler waits, shoulders squared and hopeful, but the blow doesn’t come.

“It will come when it does. Nothing you do will change that,” Gabranth says, at his ear. “All you can do is react.”

Vossler forces himself to relax. His eyes drift closed again, and after his fourth exhale, the stiff tails thump hard into his left shoulder. Taking the next breath has never been easier. By the third stroke, Gabranth’s pulling muffled grunts from his lips; by the tenth, he can hear Gabranth’s own breath between the blows, feels the hot exhale when he bends again to set his teeth on the bruised flesh. That, Vossler thinks, when his mouth touches a particularly tender spot and doesn’t kiss but bites, is when he first says, “Please.” He doesn’t know what he’s asking for, but it feels so good to say it. Maybe this is the first time it’s ever felt simply good to say it. He loses count to the dull, stinging thud, and Gabranth refuses a steady rhythm with this one. He waits, instead, until Vossler stops waiting, on every stroke, and though he knows it’s not, this is his pulse. Jumping, each time, and his cock throbs. “Please.”

Gabranth stops, the flogger falls to the bed. He presses against Vossler’s back again, nipping, everywhere, and his cock is snugged against Vossler’s arse and he moans.

“What do you want? I won’t fuck you. Not yet.” And he grinds hard against him. If Vossler could form the words, he’d curse. If Vossler could make sense of anything, he’d curse, tell him to let him come, but his desire’s turned inside out, and all he can think of are those raw fingertips. He wants those. He says so. And he thinks he’s surprised Gabranth again, because there they are, at his lips, just still, waiting, curious.

Vossler draws his middle finger into his mouth, tastes salt and leather and the coppery tang of skin abused too far. He curls his tongue around the knuckle, scrapes his teeth across the pad, draws back and takes in the fingers beside it, too. Gabranth’s hands are big, his mouth full, and he moans again, licking between Gabranth’s fingers, and he wants more but he will not ask. He’ll take what he’s given because his back hurts like a dream and Gabranth is pushing his fingers against his tongue and then they’re gone.

Like a coeurl, he seems to disappear from Vossler’s side and reappear in front of him, standing on the chest, so that Vossler’s kneeling at his feet, and all Vossler can see is the jutting outline. He tugs open the drawstring on his pants, pulls out his cock, and rests it against Vossler’s waiting lips. They are the same here, Vossler thinks, he is too lucky, the question finally answered, but they are not the same, not at all, because Gabranth has one hand wrapped tight around the iron above them and the other hand grips the back of Vossler’s head. Vossler waits for the assault, but it doesn’t come, so he licks at Gabranth, teasing his tongue around the foreskin, into the slit. Gabranth inches closer, and Vossler draws his head back, letting the barest scrape of his teeth touch, and Gabranth’s eyes are wary when he glances up. Vossler is sure to keep the touch feather-light, chasing it with his tongue, and Gabranth’s eyes close. Vossler covers his teeth with his lips and sucks hard, and he’s pulling back when Gabranth’s hand pushes him forward, then holds him fast. He tilts Vossler’s head back. “How much can you take?”

He can’t answer, knows he isn’t expected to, so he leans forward, as far as he can. He’ll take whatever he’s given, and Gabranth knows that. Gabranth’s hips snap forward and back, and Vossler does what he can to keep his throat relaxed, to keep from gagging, and he’s doing a good job of it because Gabranth’s breath is going strained. He does what he can with his tongue at this brutal pace, though he knows his job here is to hold still and take it, so he does. He can’t stop the stuttering groan of pleasure in the back of his throat, and Gabranth spills into the sound, and Vossler manages not to choke on the bitter spend. He wishes it were farther front on his tongue, so he could taste it better. But this way, the burn in his throat reminds him of the burn on his back, and he licks carefully at Gabranth’s cock while he can feel the soft tremors still running through him.

Gabranth pulls away, lets go of the bar, and slides down to sit on the edge of the bed. He reaches for the buckle on the cuffs, and as he pulls Vossler’s arms down—the stretching ache in his shoulders is wonderful—he bites at his lips and tongue. “Please,” Vossler says, into Gabranth’s mouth.

“That word sounds good on you.” Gabranth tugs him forward, onto the bed, and flips him onto his back.

There are pinpricks of cold all over the sharp red of his back, and then he sees that what he took for specks of metallic thread in the weave of the bedspread are actually tiny beads. He will never understand Archadian fripperies, and then Gabranth shoves his shoulders down, and the tiny beads send sparks of ice right to the ends of his fingers. He cries out, more at the unexpectedness than the pain, and Gabranth grips his cock tight, strokes rough and hard enough to move his body against the texture of the bedspread. Gabranth bends his head close to Vossler’s, says, “Come whenever you want to,” and dips down raise another bite-bruise in the same place as the first. Vossler clenches his fists against nothing and forces himself to wait until he knows he’s marked well and good, and then he comes into Gabranth’s fist and the strokes go slippery and brilliant and too, too sensitive until he’s shuddering against the fire at his front and back. Gabranth’s hand stills, and he holds it to Vossler’s lips.

What he wants to do is pass out for at least an hour, but he touches his tongue to his own spunk and licks Gabranth’s hand clean. And Gabranth’s damp fingers touch his cheek once, trail down and press just slightly on the bitemark at his neck, and he says, “I’ll be right back.”

Gabranth pads into the next room, and in a minute, Vossler will get up, get his clothing. In a minute. He should go, soon, because Gabranth is a busy man. And he’s sitting up, wincing at the tightness of his skin, when Gabranth comes back with the pitcher of water. Vossler didn’t even know he was thirsty, but now he is, and he drinks the glass that Gabranth puts in his hand.

“Thanks,” he says, and then he doesn’t know what to say. What can he say? He starts to slide toward the edge of the bed, but Gabranth catches his arm.

“Not yet. This is part of it, too.” Gabranth slides the beaded coverlet out of the way and gets Vossler onto his stomach, and Vossler pillows his head on his arms, and this is all so familiar and so different at once he can’t stop the sigh. The problem with finding something fantastic is that it puts everything that came before into the sharpest perspective, and sometimes, Vossler knows, the only way it can go is down. Gabranth straddles his thighs and his fingertips are water-cool as they brush over his skin.

“You aren’t going to Cure that, are you?” Now that there’s this, it will last him at least a week, he thinks, and then they’ll be on the survey, so his attention will be there. He won’t have to worry about the next time he gets the itch for a few weeks, then. And the memory of this is good, so good. He’ll make it last as long as it can.

“And ruin all my hard work? I don’t think so.” Gabranth traces what must be the outline of one of the bite-marks. “I’m admiring the damages. And making sure the skin isn’t broken anywhere.”

“You don’t do that?” Vossler doesn’t expect the sharp spike of disappointment. He shoves it down. This is probably a one-time thing, anyway.

“I don’t do that until you’ve earned it. And I don’t break the skin unless I mean to, but the beads can scratch. Wouldn’t do to let something get infected. It would get in the way of the next time I wanted to work you over.”

“Next time?” Vossler pushes himself up on an elbow, turns his head.

“Next time.” Gabranth, he notices, doesn’t ask. Vossler digs his fingers into the bruise on his neck and grinds his hips against the mattress.

* * *

By the time Fran came back, Basch had almost finished the Garif poetry, and she sat with him in the study, parsing out the Archadian translator’s verbs, until he’d yawned. He wasn’t quite tired, but Fran turned him toward his room and gave him a look. He didn’t protest. She’d also wished him well on the survey, gave him one of those inscrutable stares, and left for her own rooms through the balcony window. Maybe they were leaving early in the morning, and Basch is trying to decide just how early they can possibly leave if Balthier hasn’t even come back yet from wherever he’s gone tonight. Basch sits on the balcony, waiting, but he doesn’t know what he’s waiting for. Balthier won’t seek him out when he comes back.

Vossler finally ambles up the garden stairs at some point only shy of mid-night. Basch walks with him down to the kitchen, watches him eat an apple from the point of a knife, and notices that he’s holding his back away from the chair, but his eyes are clear, if tired, and his expression light. He stretches as if it were the best thing in the world, and says, “Tomorrow night. The three of us, four, if the ponce is still around and can be bothered to attend, beers. You’re going.”

Basch stifles a sigh and nods. He should. He should want to. And maybe he does, but he doesn’t know what to say to him. What he can say that is neither resentment nor the idle chatter of acquaintances. They’re godsbedamned brothers. Why doesn’t it feel like it? He runs his hand through his hair, knots his hand at the back of his head. At least Vossler seems to be getting along with him. They walk back upstairs, and Vossler heads for his own rooms. Basch chooses a book at random from the study and sits on his bed. It turns out to be a history of flight in Ivalice, and its margins are full of tiny, neat notes, and Basch knows the writing. He finds himself ignoring the text, reading only the questions and observations jotted in the margins. He wonders how old Balthier was when he wrote these. Probably fairly young; half of the notes involve theoretical airship modifications that the Strahl has. Hover capability. Flying in jagd. Magickal defense systems and how to augment them with mechanical power.

He’s so engrossed that he almost misses the sound of footsteps in the hallway. He rushes to his door, pulls it open, but there’s no one there. He closes his door quietly, starts to undress for bed. Even if sleep won’t come, he has to try. He’s going to get up early, try to catch Balthier before he and Fran leave. He pulls his shirt over his head, and in that moment of tangling fabric and hair, there are footsteps on the balcony and the crash of breaking glass. Basch tears his shirt away, snatches his longsword from its scabbard, and shoves open his window. There are splinters of glass in front of his own room, and there’s light streaming out from Balthier’s rooms. He’s glad he’s not taken off his boots yet. Each step crunches, and Vossler appears, Nightmare held in low guard position, and he’s not wearing anything else.

“Balthier,” Basch says, testing, and the sky pirate leans out through the broken glass.

“My apologies. My keys seem not to be working again.” He steps over the jagged bottom edge of his window, onto the balcony. He leans against one of the decorative columns, and an arrow thunks into the wood six inches from his head. “I’m sorry, Fran,” he calls, and another hits lower, in the space between his thumb and forefinger. Her door slams. Balthier sighs, and it is not with his usual insousiance. He does seem sorry, but Basch isn’t sure for what.

Balthier crosses his arms and finally seems to notice Vossler. “That’s the most enthusiastic greeting I ever got. Bastard sword and everything.” Vossler hefts Nightmare to his shoulder and steps forward, extends his middle finger. “Don’t come any closer—you’ll get glass in your feet. Or otherwise.”

“Are you dealing with him, Basch?” Vossler yawns, completely at ease. He’s got another bite-mark on his neck. Basch assumes that his brother didn’t take it ill that they healed the last one, and he’s comforted by that. He knows that much, then, that’s still true about his brother.

“I’ll help with the glass.” Basch bends, starts gathering up the largest pieces, and Vossler turns back to his room.

“Looks like at least one of us had a good night,” Balthier says, and Basch looks at Vossler’s back, the mottled red-purple across his shoulders, the darker marks—bites, of course; Noah used to bite when they’d wrestled, when he was losing, or when he was bored—crossing it all.

“I did,” Vossler says over his shoulder, and steps back up into the window. It swings shut, and Basch is left scraping the glass into a pile with his boot while Balthier lets his head fall back against the pillar.

“Well,” Balthier says, “at least that seems to be working.” He pushes away from the column, takes the pieces of glass from Basch. “You don’t have to clean up my mess. I’ll get it in the morning.”

Basch follows him a step closer to his room, and there’s a dark smudge where his right foot has been. With the next step, it replicates, darker. “Balthier, you’re bleeding.”

“Oh, bloody hell.” Balthier steps back into his room, tosses the glass into the rubbish bin beside his desk, and yanks off his sandal-boot. Basch stands on the far side of the jagged edge, unsure. He doesn’t sound angry with him, anyway, but he doesn’t want to press. When he reaches for the wound—an awkward cut on the outside of his heel—he nearly loses his balance. Basch is decided. They are friends. He’ll act like it.

“Sit down and let me do it.” Basch steps into the room, and he pulls Balthier farther from the window, away from the glass that’s scattered halfway through the suite. “Did you shoot the window out? My gods.”

“Was afraid it would ricochet, and I’m not quite suicidal today.” There’s something troubling in that, not enough of the joke to quite roll off his tongue, though Basch knows if he was ever going to do it, he would have done it long ago. Balthier tends more to homicide, anyway, the vain thing. “Kicked it in.” Balthier flexes his arms, exaggerating the pose; though his shirt covers him, Basch imagines the wiry muscle. He shakes his head. No.

“What?” Balthier says, and he puts his foot down gingerly, looking for a chair. In the main part of the rooms, they’re all covered with books and clothing. Some guns. Basch sees the Spica atop a handful of maps.

“Nothing.” Basch looks around, smiles. “I never figured so handsome a sky pirate for the disorganized type.” Dammit. “I’ll never find you dashing now.” There is the old joke. Hold onto that.

Balthier won’t let him. “If you find me handsome, I think I can concede dashing.” But he has nothing of the tone of their joke in his voice. It sounds silky, like he did last night, and Basch can’t let that happen.

“Do you have a chair you can sit on?” Keep it as it was. As we were.

“In here.” Balthier’s grin is sly as he says it, and Basch knows where they’re going. Balthier’s bedroom. He’s only going to take a look at his foot, like he’s done before, like Balthier has done for him, those months ago.

Balthier sinks into an armchair beside the window, and he pushes it open. Basch is glad for the night’s cooling breath. He turns on the reading lamp, sees another set of glasses on the table beside the chair. “You should wear these more often,” he says, and kneels at Balthier’s feet.

“I know.” Balthier stretches his foot into Basch’s hands, and Basch sees a splinter of glass reflect through the slowly welling blood. “Thanks for bringing my rings down from the workshop.” Balthier doesn’t flinch as Basch tugs the glass out, sits patiently as Basch casts Cure.

Balthier pushes at his arm with his toes. “I don’t merit the big guns?” Balthier used to tease Basch about casting Curaja every time Penelo got so much as a scratch.

“She’s more dashing than you are.” Dammit.

“But she’s not as handsome.” And there they were again. “It’s true, right?”

Basch wishes he still had his shirt on. The breeze is raising gooseflesh across his arms; it has to be the breeze and not the fact that he’s at Balthier’s feet, holding his bare foot, because he said he wasn’t going to do this. He never would have entertained the thought, were it not for last night, were it not for the fact that Balthier wants him, even superficially. At least not entertained it to the point of wanting to do anything about it. Balthier’s other leg shifts until his leather-clad calf rests against Basch’s side. Because it’s not going to work, between them, not as anything other than a quick fuck, maybe a quick fuck every once in a while, even, and that’s not enough. He wants more than that. And he can’t have it. But he’s not going to lie, either. Balthier knows the truth, anyway. “That’s true.”

Balthier should pull his foot back. Balthier should pull his foot back and threaten to cast Sleep on him if he doesn’t go get some rest and everything will be like it was, or he should be cold and sarcastic and Basch can give up, right now. But he shouldn’t leave his foot in Basch’s lap, shouldn’t look at him like that, shouldn’t slide down further in the armchair. Because Basch wants to give him what he wants. And that thought—maybe that will work. Give Balthier what he wants, and maybe then they can go back to the way they were. Because it can’t get worse than it was this morning, last night.

Basch puts Balthier’s foot down, on the far side of his thigh, and inches closer. Balthier sits up a little more, and when Basch slides his hands up Balthier’s legs, the hesitation on Balthier’s face turns to the confident smirk from last night. Before Basch shoved him away.

He’s not going to waste time. If he lingers overmuch, he’s only setting himself up for disappointment. He pulls open Balthier’s trousers, and Balthier lifts his hips, lets him work them down. And though Basch means to be quick about this, he has to touch with his fingers first, follow the smooth, hard curve of Balthier’s cock to the neatly trimmed curls. Balthier groans and reaches for Basch, pulls back before his hand touches his arm. Not holding. He learned that much, Basch thinks, and why would Balthier want him for more than this? He’s a mess, and he has to stop thinking. He opens his mouth and slides down, cups his hand around Balthier’s balls. It doesn’t matter how long it’s been, some things you don’t forget.

He works Balthier’s cock fast, hands and mouth together, and Balthier’s arching up into him, cursing softly in Archadian, and Basch closes his eyes hard. He can’t watch. It’s too much, too much like everything he wants, and once the pirate’s curiosity is satisfied, they’ll be fine. Basch will make himself be fine.

Balthier is loud when he comes, a crescendo of filth and breathy moans and he says Basch’s name, and Basch almost chokes. He swallows, wipes at his mouth with the back of his hand. He will have this taste in his mouth until he dies.

Balthier is boneless in the chair, but he’s watching Basch, looking pleased with himself. Basch stands. There’s no use hiding his erection, so he doesn’t try. He puts his hand atop Balthier’s, says, “Wake me when you’re up. I’ll help you clean up the glass.”

“Where are you going?” Balthier’s scrambling to his feet.

“To bed.” Balthier needs to stay where he is. He isn’t. Basch needs to back up before he goes forward.

“But—” Balthier’s face darkens. He pushes close to Basch. Basch backs away. “What the hell are you playing at?”

“What were you playing at last night? This morning?” He wasn’t supposed to say that.

“I want you. Is that so fucking hard to understand?”

“You want me and go whoring and avoid me all day. How ought I understand that?” Basch takes two more steps, almost to the door. Balthier’s fingers are flexing at his side, and Basch almost wishes he’d take a swing. He doesn’t. Basch has his hand on the doorknob, and if the thing won’t open, he’ll go through it. “And now you’ve had me. Curiosity satisfied.” The door swings open, and Basch tries not to slam it. He fails.

And somehow, when he’s in his own room, he’s still hard. He licks his palm—it tastes vaguely of sweat and gunpowder—and strokes himself. No matter how long it’s been, some things you don’t forget.

It is the worst orgasm he’s ever had, and he can’t get the taste out of his mouth.

Chapter Text

It’s not yet dawn when the particular whirling hum of the Strahl’s thrusters wakes Basch from his fitful sleep. He rolls off the bed—he has neither dressed nor undressed since leaving Balthier’s room—and bolts for the door, but even before he opens it, he can feel the airship’s weight lift—the hum goes momentarily louder, then almost silent—and when he rushes to the window, the sky is still too dark to show her path. Dammit. Basch pushes open his window, steps out onto the balcony, and the morning is cold, still blue-black. There’s still glass underfoot. He’d clean it up now, but he doesn’t want to wake Vossler. He glances at Balthier’s broken window, wonders if he even slept in there last night. He probably snuck out through the empty space. Basch is sure he’d have heard the door. Of course, if Balthier meant to be silent, he could do it and Basch would never know. Godsdammit. He shouldn’t have said that, any of those things. He shouldn’t have done what he did, either. The basest corner of his mind says, You should have taken your time, done it right, and it’s getting harder to silence in the wake of his own name, drawn out by Balthier’s pleasure. Maybe—No. He should not have done that. He can still taste Balthier on the back of his tongue, despite having cleaned his teeth twice since. Cleaned them, regretted it, did it again. And he should go back inside because he can’t keep looking at the broken glass and wondering how much else is broken, too.

There’s no sense in trying to go back to sleep. They’re leaving Archades, day after tomorrow. He’ll start to prepare for that, put together a supplies list and things he wants to ask Larsa before they go. There’s paper in the study, and he opens the door as quietly as he can. The hallway is black, still, silent, and the silence is unnerving. The longer he stands there, though, his eyes adjust—somehow he left Nalbina with sight that might even be better than it had been, or at least more attuned to finding detail in darkness—and in a moment, he can see the writing desk. He takes paper and a graphite stick; he wouldn’t want to spill ink in his borrowed room, and his hands feel none too steady. In the hall, he pads to Vossler’s door and listens. He wishes the man snored, so there would be some sound, some marker that he is not alone in this house, but there is none, and he has to trust to the coming daylight for that.

He sits on the bed to write because there’s a lamp handy there, and because if he’s lucky the monotony of making lists will make him sleep. Of course, that hadn’t been working in Dalmasca, either, but he feels tired in his bones now. It’s only his mind that won’t quiet.

He holds a book in his lap, the one filled with Balthier’s handwriting, and tries to ignore that as he calculates distance and rations and the kind of weather they’ll have to manage. They’ll be starting near Nabudis, crossing the upper edges of the Salikawood, cutting through the Phon Coast—their one real chance to resupply, Basch thinks—and following the curve of the continent to the peninsula that dips near to Nalbina. The first portion of the trip will have more dangerous creatures to encounter; they’ll pass near the Necrohol, and it’s probably a good idea to take a quick pass through it, just to be sure. The Nu Mou are restoring the place, bless them, and whomever Archadia sends with the Dalmascan generals owes it to Nabradia to ensure that all is going well. The Necrohol. He remembers the Deathscythe hunt and how Balthier hadn’t let Basch be the bait. “We need you in fighting shape on this one, Captain,” he’d said and stood patiently while Penelo cast one of the leeching spells on him. Balthier loaded his guns while he still had the strength to ram the shot in properly, and when he started limping, he said, “And if you brats don’t bring down this mark, you owe me the bounty on it.” When the undead creature finally appeared, Vaan was the first to throw him a curative before attacking. Basch scowls and writes out a list of curatives to pick up. He wishes they could leave tomorrow. It’s possible they can; perhaps he’ll contact Larsa, see if that’s an option, because despite Balthier’s insistence that they could stay here, Basch doesn’t want to. It’ll only remind him of his mistakes, and he’s already got enough reminders for those. He rubs his left eye, then his right, and tears a corner from the page he’s holding. When the pieces are so small he can’t grip them, can’t divide any further, he sees what he’s doing. He gathers the scraps in his palm, throws them away. There’s still the broken window. He should leave it like that, but he can’t. Maybe his brother will know who to contact to fix that.

His brother. They’re all supposed to go out tonight, for drinks. Of all nights, why this one?

The light is turning blue-gold in the window, and making lists isn’t helping. He’ll shower. It’s something to do.

He turns the water on as hot as he can stand it and lets the room fill with steam. It’s taking forever to undress; he almost doesn’t want to, doesn’t want to look at himself, doesn’t want to remember, but memory has always been too sharp for him, always fresh, despite even years. Mere hours can do nothing for this. And it’s too late now to do anything about it, anyway. He shoves off his trousers, tries to concentrate instead on the sting of the hot water on his shoulders—even hotter everywhere else, places where the skin hasn’t been abused past feeling. He turns the water hotter still. That helps. He washes quickly, and when he’s toweling off, there’s a heavy thump at the hall door. He wraps the towel around his waist, hurries to the door, but when it opens, there’s no one there. There is, however, a cup of tea on the floor, and Basch picks it up, checks the hallway again. It’s as silent as it was before, but Vossler’s probably headed for his own shower. If he’s bringing this by, though, it means he heard, last night, the doors slamming—he’d been none too kind to his own, either—and probably their voices, too. Gods, he is an idiot. He sits on the edge of his bed, sips at the tea, and that, at least, is perfect. His mother used to say that. When everything else was lost, at least there was tea. He misses her, sharp, and wishes Noah were here. It’s a strange thing to wish when he could see the place his brother is from the roof of the building, when two rooms away is his friend who probably still smells of him, but Basch isn’t sure that that man is Noah. That is Judge Magister Gabranth, and though the name itself is familiar—their mother, again—he wants his twin. The boy. The young man he was. The men they were. He wonders if his brother finds him changed, too. Maybe they’re both gone.

Despite all this, it is the best tea he thinks he’s ever had. And now that Vossler’s up and about, he can find something to do. In a few hours, they can go up to the palace, see when they’re leaving, find out how to get this window fixed before they go.

Basch knocks on Vossler’s door, knocks again. There’s a grumbled curse on the other side, and then the door swings open to General Azelas, only one eye fully open, still not wearing anything.

“What?” Vossler says, and yawns, and backs up so Basch can enter.

“You do have pants.” Basch tries not to stare as he walks by. He’d seen his back last night, but this close, he can see the shades of red and purple, almost black in places, but the bruising stops well above his kidneys, and the line of his spine is unmarked. Hurt, not harm. He kept his promise. And he is glad his brother didn’t bite that hard when they were boys. He can see the points of individual teeth in places.

“I don’t usually wear them when I’m sleeping.” Vossler finds his undershorts, tugs them on, and leans against the bed.

“You made tea and went back to sleep?” Basch looks around. His fingers itch. Of course there’s nothing to tear here.

“What are you talking about?” Vossler laces his fingers together, stretches his hands high over his head, winces a little. “Gods, that’s good.”

Basch pulls at a hangnail on his ring finger, nips it off, and yanks his hand away from his teeth.

“Gabranth does that. Did he always do that?” Vossler steps into his trousers.

“Until he was fifteen and a girl he liked said she wouldn’t let him touch her with hands that looked like that. And then he just stopped.” Basch leans against the window, looks out again. “You’ve been sleeping, until now?”

“Since the doors stopped slamming, yes, and around the airship taking off from the damn roof.” Vossler comes closer. “What’s going on between the two of you?”

“You’ve been in here?” Basch doesn’t wait for the answer. He turns around, pulls open the door again, and dashes into the hall. Empty. He presses his ear to Balthier’s door, but there’s no sound. Kitchen. He refuses to run, but he takes every corner so close in the twisting hallways that he bumps into the wall twice. That, too, is empty. Maybe it wasn’t Balthier. Maybe Fran’s still here, though Basch doesn’t know how even Balthier could give Fran the slip. He makes his way back upstairs, and he calls for her. If she’s in the building, she’ll hear him.

“I’m afraid you won’t find her here.” Balthier is standing in his doorway, and he looks so tired. “She’s probably halfway to Balfonheim by now. Or wherever she’s going.”

“But you’re here.” He didn’t leave. And it’s not that important, right now, that he probably only didn’t leave because Fran left him before he could, because he’s still here. Basch moves close, almost puts his hands on Balthier’s shoulders, but stops himself, and then they’re too close. They each take half a step back, and they both look away when they do.

“I’m here. Such as I am.”

That line should be delivered with his trademark smirk, the barest lift in his right eyebrow. It should be invitation, rejection, reconsideration, and, finally, a gift of his roguish generosity, all at once. But it is none of these things, and when it hits Basch that Balthier is ashamed, he wants to shake him. The dashing boy-pirate can’t be that—he can rage, and sulk, and finally decide he doesn’t give a damn, but he can’t be ashamed. Basch has enough shame for the both of them, and it looks wrong on Balthier.

Balthier finally looks up. “I’m sorry, for—”

“It was my fault. I shouldn’t have said that. I didn’t mean—” But he did. And yet, he knows there was something in the whole of it that he didn’t mean; this is not all on Balthier. He doesn’t know how to say that.

“Lying doesn’t suit you, Basch. Take my apology.”

“If you’ll accept mine.”

Balthier’s eyebrows furrow, and he looks hard at Basch. They are saved by Vossler stalking down the hall. Saved, or maybe not; Basch suspects this was a moment they needed to see to its end, and now won’t.

“So you are still here.” He’s dressed, and the sleep-slur is gone from voice and movement. He looks like he’s headed for a barracks inspection, Basch thinks.

“Obviously.” Balthier backs farther into his doorway. “I’m going to sleep now, since someone saw fit, apparently, to wake the whole damn house when she stole my airship at a perfectly ungodly hour.” He closes the door, but before it shuts all the way, he looks at Basch, and though it seems he seeks permission now even to look, his eyes are not unkind.

The door snicks shut, and Vossler turns to Basch. “You busy?”

Basch shrugs and takes a few steps into the hall. He doesn’t know where to point his feet, and Vossler decides for him.

“Sparring. Let’s go.” He’s already walking away. “Get your armor.”

It’s something to do.

Basch pulls his mail vest over his head, knowing yanking it on like this will likely tear out more than a few strands of hair. He’s flexing his fingers in his gloves, reaching for his sword, and the scabbard is empty. The sword is in Balthier’s room; he left it there last night, lying flat on a desk. Damn. He’ll go through the broken window. That way, if Balthier doesn’t want to leave his bed, he won’t have to.

The glass is still thick under his feet; he can ask about that, too. He makes sure to call for Balthier before he actually steps into the room—both Balthier and Fran are on a hair-trigger when presented with the sound of stealth. Vaan almost got shot twice sneaking clumsily around their own camp, “practicing,” as he said. “It’s only me. I left my sword here.” He swallows. Say it. “Last night.”

Balthier appears from his bedroom so quickly he couldn’t have been in bed. He’s wearing his glasses.

“I’ll get it for you.” Balthier takes a step.

“Stay. You’ll cut yourself again.” Basch lifts his leg over the edge, stops, half in, half out of the room. “If it’s all right.”

“Of course.” Balthier weaves closer anyway, though he pauses well short of desk and sword and taps at a bit of glass with his toe. “You aren’t going to Sochen alone again, are you?”

“No.” The question sends a strange tendril of something like gladness curling around Basch’s stomach. “Sparring.” Basch picks up his sword, and the weight is reassuring in his palm. Reassuring enough that he can repeat something he did mean, from last night. “Get some sleep, and I’ll help you clean this up later.”

Balthier tugs another book from a pile on one of the chairs. “There’s a rack of practice blades and the like in the western-most alcove. You’re welcome to them.”

Basch nods and turns away. He glances back once, catches Balthier doing the same. For the first time since he was a boy, he’s dreading sparring. Armsmaster Hareth, though, only drubbed them with the flat of his blade. It’s the point of Vossler’s tongue that Basch is worried about.

At least, Basch thinks, the elevator is working well enough, and Vossler is there, waiting, in the expanse of rose granite. It’s a beautiful space, and Basch has a distinct feeling he’s going to get closely acquainted with most of it. He’s hoping that the closest acquaintance won’t be between his face and the wall, and judging from the set of Vossler’s jaw, that might prove a challenge. Vossler tosses Basch a bamboo pole, and Basch rests his longsword on the rack next to Nightmare.

When Basch has set his feet, pushed the close rising drop of the elevator behind him, Vossler starts. At least he waited this long.

“What’s going on?” Vossler raises his pole high and swings it down.

Basch gets the block up easily, shoves him away. “We’re fine now.” He’s pretty sure that’s not true, but maybe they’ll get there.

“Bullshit.” Vossler blocks Basch’s next strike with his gauntleted forearm, and Basch smiles a little at his wince. “What the hell—” Vossler brings his hands close on the haft and swings one end of the pole for Basch’s knee even as the other end flies at his face. “—happened last night? The one before?”

Basch gets his leg out of the way, but the other end of the pole glances off his shoulder. He takes a step back, thrusts the pole-butt at Vossler’s gritted teeth, and stepping back was a mistake. Vossler ducks to the side and charges, and Basch backpedals as quickly as he can, fending off the strikes as they come. Sooner than it’s supposed to be, the cold wall is at his back and Basch and Vossler have crossed poles, holding at eye level, and Vossler’s waiting him out. He’ll have to wait longer than that.

Basch lunges, pushes Vossler back far enough that he can swing to the left, and he slaps Vossler’s shoulder with the pole as he circles. The angle’s wrong, but Vossler twists hard, and Basch knows he hit the really bruised part. Good. When Vossler turns to face him, his grin is savage.

“If you think that gets you out of answering me, you’re wrong.” He sweeps for Basch’s legs, and Basch springs away, counters with a rib-cage strike, and it leaves Vossler’s ankles open to Basch’s boot. He hooks his foot behind one and pulls. It’s enough to send Vossler to one knee, but before Basch can land another blow, Vossler’s pole catches Basch high on the back of his thigh. He stumbles, and Vossler regains his feet.

“I’m not doing this for my own benefit, you bastard.” He doesn’t wait for Basch to say anything, though. He holds the weapon as though it were a pike, and jabs. Basch parries it easily, and Vossler gets on his other side, and Basch can almost hear the snapping of Vossler’s patience. He certainly feels it, because he’s on the run again, trusting his feet and trying to stay away from the wall. He’s not sure why he’s avoiding the conversation this much. It is inevitable, and Vossler truly is the only person he has to talk to about this. But there’s the spike of something like panic in his gut, and it has less, he thinks, as his back hits the wall and Vossler closes in, to do with the wall than he thought it would.

The bamboo is crossed broadside between them, and Vossler manages to shove the poles down the critical three inches, so that Basch must push up to hold the position, while Vossler can use height and weight against him. But it is Vossler who backs away first, and it is not to change weapons. He is waiting, pole at ready in case Basch decides to bolt, and Basch doesn’t know where to begin.

“Start with last night, since you kept me up.”

“Sorry about that.” Basch slides down the wall, sits, and is glad that the stone is cool still. The wide glass skylights had warmed it considerably yesterday when he’d passed through, looking for Balthier.

Vossler mirrors him, though he leans against nothing. “Stop apologizing for everything. Tell me what’s going on so we can fix it and you can stop doing—whatever it is you’re doing.” Vossler kicks at his foot. “You’re strung tighter than Fran’s bow. What’d you do last night?”

Basch draws his legs up, wraps his arms around them. It’s Vossler. He’s heard worse. But Basch still has to look at his knees to say any of it. “Last night, he cut himself, on some of the glass, and after I took care of his foot, I brought him off.”

Vossler actually laughs. “It’s about time. Was the ponce feeling lazy and couldn’t be arsed to reciprocate?”

“He definitely offered.” If it were possible to die of simply wishing it, Basch thinks, he wouldn’t have to finish this conversation.

“I’m not sure how this situation leads to you slamming doors. And why you don’t look like a man who’s finally gotten what he wants.” Vossler leans forward, stretches his back, and Basch hears something pop. “You’ve been nosing after him like a bitch in heat since he showed up in Rabanastre.”

“I have not.” Basch picks at a loose stitch on his gloves. He should fix that before they leave.

“You want him. And he seems to have no objections to you, based on the moaning. Enjoy it.”

“While it lasts, you mean.” Basch can’t keep the bitterness out of his voice.

“Yes, while it lasts. While anything lasts.” Vossler presses his hands to the cool, slick floor. “Take the opportunity while you have it.”

“I can’t be casual about this. He can.” He sighs. “And now that he’s gotten what he wanted, we can be friends again. I hope.”

“Did he tell you that’s all he wanted?”

“He doesn’t have to say it. What do I have to offer him, besides a bit of curiosity and a disappointing answer to it?” What, indeed? He will not leave his post, and he would never ask Balthier to come to him, to tether himself. “And he is too young.”

“That’s an excuse for you, not for him, and it is a poor one. Do you doubt Ashe’s ability to know her mind? You do not even doubt Larsa’s, and he is truly still a boy.” Vossler rubs his knuckles, cracks them. “And you question Balthier, who has seen and survived as much and more than either of them?” Vossler shakes his head.

“He acts like a child. Disappears when he does not get his way.” The absences are the worst, Basch thinks, and though it stings to think of him paying for what Basch wouldn’t give, the where of it is less troubling than the why.

“And a man more than ten years his senior does little better. Or have you forgotten yesterday’s trip to Sochen so quickly?” He leans back, stretches his legs in front of himself, posture casual. Basch almost wishes he’d yell, because now he feels like he’s getting a lecture from his father. Vossler this calm is bizarre, and the tops of Basch’s ears are getting hot. “You want him, and yet you push him away, without explanation. You expect him to know your mind, even as you accuse him of not knowing his own. Well done, general.”

“I do not—” Basch buries his hands in his hair, and the small plates on his gloves catch. Godsdammit. “Fuck.”

“Any more excuses?” Vossler actually closes his eyes. Basch lifts his foot, pantomimes a kick to Vossler’s jaw, and Vossler bats his foot away without opening his eyes.

Basch folds in again. “You don’t like him.” Basch does not know why he’s clinging to these points.

“I don’t like anyone.” Vossler is almost smiling.

“You like Fran. And you seem to like my brother well enough.”

“Mateus’s tits, Basch.” Vossler runs a hand through his hair. “He knows what I want better than I do. And I do like him.” He scratches his ear, and his fingertips hover at the bruise on his neck, and he raises an eyebrow. “Despite the fact that he reminds me of you.” He shrugs. “And even if, most days, I’d as soon break Balthier’s nose as look at him, you like him. That counts for something. And he’s interested in you, despite the fact that you’re a godsdamned idiot sometimes.”

Vossler pushes himself to his feet, reaches for Basch’s hand, and pulls him up. For all this, his legs feel heavy still, and now there is a desperate thread of hope stitching hard into his gut. It is somehow worse than despair.

“You should have been a lawyer,” Basch says, putting the bamboos back in their places. “Litigious prick.”

“I’ve thought about it.” Vossler shoves Basch hard, spinning him away from the weapons rack. “But I like hitting people too much.” He tosses Basch his sword, and they step into the elevator together. It feels less small with Vossler’s body inside of it, too. That doesn’t quite make sense.

“Put me up against the wall,” Basch says. This could go badly, but he’s puzzled. And the glint in Vossler’s eye is a little too eager; when his back hits the wall, it forces the air out of his lungs, and Vossler is right there, another wall of muscle and armor, but aside from wishing he hadn’t been quite so enthusiastic, he feels nothing. There’s a lingering uneasiness, but nothing like the other night, when he’d shoved Balthier.

Vossler backs away, and he’s the one to say thank you. “Now I don’t want to slap you upside the head quite as much,” he says.

“I didn’t mean for you to give me a concussion.”

“You didn’t specify. Are you going to tell me what that was all about?”

“Testing a theory.” Basch waits for the stomach-lurching settle. Vossler crosses his arms, cocks his head. Basch sighs. “The night before last, he got close. I didn’t deal with it well.”

“Ah.”

“This isn’t fair to him. I’m a mess.”

“So get yourself sorted. Figure out what you want, and if it isn’t him, say it.” The doors finally open—during the too-long pause, the sick feeling threatens, but Basch holds it down—Vossler puts his hand on Basch’s shoulder. “You going to talk to him?” His eyes narrow, dangerous, and there’s that eagerness again. “If you don’t, I will.”

“Not a word, Vossler.” Basch shoves his hand away. “Not a word.”

“Hold up your end, then.” Vossler opens his door, closes it quickly behind him.

This is payback, Basch thinks, and there’s probably not much chance that Vossler’s patience will hold out as long as Basch’s unease will. But he’ll try.

When he enters his room, he can already hear the scrape of a broom on the balcony. He pushes open the window, and there is Balthier, gathering the broken glass into a neat pile, wearing what even Basch has to call old clothes. The pants are loose and worn, the shirt cut away at the sleeves, the collar, the hem. Basch has never seen him dressed so casually, and he has to keep checking to be sure it is Balthier, no rings on his fingers, no elaborate vest and always-starched shirt. But there are the earrings and the complete ease of movement. Basch takes off his mail, his greaves, but leaves his gloves on. They could be helpful.

“I said I’d help.” Basch smiles, though, as he says it.

“I couldn’t quite sleep, thought I’d start early.” He kneels, slides a pile of glass onto a dustpan, dumps it into the rubbish bin; it sounds a slushy clink.

“What can I do?”

“Give me a hand bringing the carpet out?” Balthier steps into his room, and there’s more glass than before. He’s knocked all the pieces out of the frame, ready for a new pane, and Basch steals a glance at his fingers, looking for cuts. He does, at least, have sturdier shoes on than last night. Basch follows and takes up two corners of the rug; it’s heavier than it looks and he finds himself watching too close the way Balthier’s triceps tense against the weight. When they’re on the balcony, Basch takes the long edge and stands the whole up, and together they shake out as much of the broken glass as possible. All of this happens without words, and Basch remembers battle formations, knowing when to duck when he knew Balthier was taking aim. They roll the whole thing up, set it to one side. This part is easy.

Basch looks into the room again, searching for any big chunks of glass that they missed. The room looks nothing like it did last night, this morning. Everything is in order, the Spica atop one of the desks, cleaning cloth and gun oil beside it, and there’s actually a couch Basch missed, along the wall outside of Balthier’s bedroom door.

“You were busy in that hour.” The books are shelved, and the clothing has disappeared.

“I was tired of the mess. I’ll have to have the rug sent out to be cleaned, and the new glass is coming tomorrow morning. Until then, I get all the fresh air I could want.” Balthier reaches again for the broom. “That wasn’t my best moment, was it?”

“Probably not.” Basch takes a deep breath. “Nor mine.”

“Nor Azelas’s.” Balthier makes another neat pile of glass, and Basch steps back so his feet aren’t in the way. “I’ll be haunted by that image for weeks. But he and Gabranth, looks like it’s going well?”

Balthier’s giving him this. The joke. The ease. Something twists. “Seems so.”

“That’s good.” Balthier stoops for the dustpan, doesn’t crouch, and the sharp angle at his waist sends his shirt riding up his spine. It’s the spike of desire that makes Basch want to speak, reminds him that the air is not clear between them, but he doesn’t know what it is he wants to say. Something. He settles for this.

“I’m glad you didn’t leave.” That is entirely true. It worries Basch that he’s calculating his truths. This is not something he does. And what he says still doesn’t address the kind of gladness, why it’s true, and his desire is traitorous. He wants to mean only that he’s glad because they are friends, Basch likes spending time with him, he doesn’t want this cloud, this fog, to eclipse that. He does mean that. But he also means he can still feel Balthier tensing against his tongue, under his fingers, and if Balthier didn’t leave, there’s a chance it might happen again. Opportunity. He should not want that of his friend. He should not.

“Only you would be, Basch.” Balthier licks his thumb, presses it to a fine sliver that resists the broom’s bristles. “I’d say I can’t believe she skipped out on me, but I’d be lying.” He flicks the shard of glass away.

“I’m not the only one.”

“Yes, you are. After all that?” He doesn’t name it either. That’s a strange comfort, but a comfort still. “She warned me.”

Basch remembers Fran’s words in Gabranth’s office. What was it she had to keep telling him? “Warned you against what?”

“Against doing what I always do. I’m only here because she beat me to it. She knew I wouldn’t leave all this,” he gestures toward the rug, the empty window frame, “for you to clean up, and took advantage of it.” Balthier leans against the column. “And despite it all, here you are, cleaning up after me anyway.”

“It’s the least I can do, after my behavior last night.” He’s at least given it a noun. It’s not a good one, but it’s a start.

“It wasn’t that bad.” And there’s the lift of the eyebrow, the quirk on the left side of his mouth, and Basch can feel his cheeks heating up. Balthier’s face, though, sobers quickly, and whatever he might have said next gets lost in a yawn.

“You should get some rest.” And that reminds Basch. “Later, Vossler’s making me go drinking with him and—” His tongue sticks again.

“Gabranth.” Balthier’s voice is firm. So he’s noticed. Of course he has.

“Yes. If you want to come.” Basch looks over his shoulder; at what, he’s not sure. “You should.”

“Drinking is always a good idea, and I wouldn’t leave you alone with those two bastards.” Balthier moves away from the pillar, and he yawns again, stretches his arms high as the rush of air takes him, and a flash of pale stomach—paler than Basch thought it would be, for all of the sky pirate exoticism—shows at the cropped end of the shirt.

“But no more madhu.” His head hurts just thinking about it.

“At least until the next time we’re in the Sandsea.” Balthier grins, and it’s not the sly one. The feeling is not unlike the first time the iron yoke was lifted from Basch’s shoulders in Nalbina. Next time. They are still friends. “If you need anything, wake me.” Balthier steps into his rooms, and Basch waits to see if he’ll look back. He doesn’t.

It might be relief he feels. Friends. Good. It might not.

Basch is still standing on the balcony, looking at the closed door, when Vossler finds him. Vossler’s hair is still wet, and though it looks like he’s combed it, it’s starting to stick up again.

“Your hair is ridiculous.” Basch should know better, but if he can get Vossler riled up, he stands a chance of not reprising their conversation an hour ago.

Vossler ignores him. “Did you talk to him?”

“We talked.”

Vossler glares. Basch turns toward his borrowed room, and Vossler follows close as a shadow.

“We’re talking. Isn’t that enough?” Basch takes off his gloves, checks for any splinters of glass that might be caught between the plates. He dusts them over the rubbish bin.

“You tell me, Basch. Is it?” Vossler’s looking over the lists Basch made.

“Yes.” It will be enough.

“Convince yourself before you try convincing me next time.” Vossler folds the list in half, tucks it into his belt pouch. “Come on. We’ll go pick up these things.”

“Can’t that wait until tomorrow?” Basch can’t help but think that if they leave, Balthier won’t be here when they get back.

“It can if you want to carry it all back yourself.” Vossler throws yesterday’s shirt at him. “Change. Let’s go.”

* * *

Basch remembers the shops of Archades well enough to find what they need, and they walk to Old Archades, deal with the merchants there when they can. Basch is counting on Archadian tents and the like, and again he wishes he knew what kind of company they were in for on this trip. He knows Larsa will choose who he thinks best fit for the task, but Larsa hasn’t his hands so closely in the military as Ashe has. The Judiciary is the liaison there, and the judges…there has been such a changeover there, and in the Senate—how well does Larsa know any of them? He only hopes it isn’t some pampered petty officer, someone raised and trained his whole life in Archades, and as they’re ducking into a Technick shop—only to look—Basch says just that.

Vossler snorts. “Better one of those pampered, wet-behind-the-ears types than one of the old ones. One who started something he didn’t get to finish.” He pulls a volume from the shelf and flips through it.

“I wish we could get on with it.” Basch is already listing toward the door. Vossler follows.

“Ready to leave already?”

“You’re not?”

Vossler’s lip starts to curl, and Basch waits for the curse as Vossler is nearly shoved out of the way by an eleven-year-old whose nose is so far in the air he probably hasn’t even seen Vossler. It doesn’t come. Instead, he scratches the back of his neck, turns away, back again.

“I’m ready to leave here.” He starts walking, fast.

Basch almost smiles. “Particular reason we’re out here today and not tomorrow?”

Vossler doesn’t dignify that with a response, and Basch can only lengthen his stride and count how many times Vossler half-looks at him, eyes narrowed. It’s funny, but Basch doesn’t laugh. He’s sure it would come back to bite him, eventually.

* * *

Balthier’s in the study, wearing his glasses again, reading through the Garif poetry Basch had been working on, when they get back. He’s half-upside-down on one of the big armchairs, that rag of a shirt rucked up, and Basch is glad he’s engrossed because as soon as he realizes they’re there, he swivels upright, quick as a cat. Basch isn’t sure why; it’s not like Balthier to be self-conscious, not like him to give a damn if he’s comfortable.

Balthier picks up an envelope, hands it to Vossler. “Apparently I’m getting your mail now.” He folds his glasses, puts them beside the lamp. “Courier brought it by, about an hour ago.”

The seal on it is Gabranth’s, and Basch can’t help the surge of jealousy, the answering twist of anger at himself, the curl of separation, watching Vossler open it and read. There are two sheets. Vossler glances at the first, the one on the inside, and Basch swears there’s a tinge of color in Vossler’s cheek. He folds the page quickly, tucks it away.

Balthier stands, says, “Care to share with the class?”

“He’ll be here after the evening meal.” The hint of color is gone.

“That’s hardly news. I mean the other page.” Balthier edges closer, and Basch is pretty sure it’s deliberate that his body is between Balthier’s and Vossler’s. Balthier leans close as Vossler turns, glaring, and takes a step toward Balthier, and Balthier says, not quite whispering, “I’ll bet it’s filthy.”

Vossler ignores that, too, turns as if to leave.

“Dinner?” Balthier edges behind Basch, still keeping him between them. “Soon as I get cleaned up?”

Basch and Vossler nod.

“And Azelas? Did you bring a blue shirt?”

“Yes. Why?”

“Blue’s his favorite color.” Balthier almost giggles. And Basch does laugh at the look on Vossler’s face, even as he thinks Balthier is wrong. His brother’s favorite color is neither blue nor gray but that color between that is at once both and neither. It is the color of Landis’s sky the month the heavy snows start to slow. Basch prefers its answering hue on the other side of the year, the last honest blue before the clouds roll in. And he’s kept from the melancholy that threatens by Balthier laughing behind his left ear, the barest puff of breath on his arm, and then Vossler’s hand shoots out, catches Basch square in the chest. Basch stumbles into Balthier, and Vossler stalks out of the room even as Basch feels himself falling. Balthier’s arm wraps around Basch’s chest, and Basch has to catch himself, has to not fall further into the warm hand and arm, and the only way he can manage is to clutch the arm, counterbalance forward, and Balthier’s pressed against Basch’s back for a heartbeat. His breath goes short but it’s not like before, not ice and sharp in his lungs; it’s too much heat, really, and he holds on a second longer than he needs to. Balthier tenses against him, puts his other hand on Basch’s shoulder, starts to pull back, and when Basch lets go, he is careful not to shove him away.

“I’d better change,” Balthier says, but doesn’t step back any farther.

“Aye. Me, too.”

It’s Basch who moves first, but he looks over his shoulder before he gets to his rooms, and Balthier’s watching him, his hand poised over the doorknob.

* * *

The pub is crowded, but a corner table opens up as they walk in, Gabranth leading the way. The barkeep nods a hello, says, “It’s good to see you back, Judge,” and Basch sees his eyes widen when they fall on him. If his brother notices that, he makes no sign, and Basch wonders how many people know about him. In Dalmasca, unfortunately, everyone knows about Basch’s twin. After the Restoration, the events surrounding Raminas’s death became common knowledge, and while it had felt good, at first, to be able to walk the streets openly, without the assumption of guilt or even lingering suspicion, it strikes him hard that his brother will never be able to see the place that is his home now. He has, of course, been there, but they will not go to the Sandsea like this. Of course, Basch has no idea if Gabranth would count that a loss, suspects that them being here, together, is mostly Vossler’s idea. But his brother assented, and so has he, and maybe that’s something.

Gabranth waits until they’re all seated, says, “I’ll get the first round.” He points at Vossler. “Stout or bitter?”

“Stout.”

“Basch? They have honigweiss.”

Basch hasn’t even heard that word since he left, let alone seen a place that has it, the nearly white honey-beer of Landis. And it’s tempting, but the ease with which the word rolls off his brother’s tongue reminds Basch that he hasn’t said anything in the Landisser speech since he swore his oaths to Raminas. He’s not of Landis anymore. And it’s been so long, he thinks, that he barely remembers what honigweiss tastes like. Liar. He says, “Whatever lager they have.”

Gabranth scowls a little, seems to catch himself, and turns to Balthier. “You going to have a beer like a man? Or must I get you a glass with a stem?

Vossler laughs, and Basch smiles, though he likes how Balthier keeps a wineglass in motion when he drinks. He’s mobile, graceful. Basch has always liked that about Balthier. It’s a fascination, that’s what it is. Simple fascination.

“Gold of the Uplands, dear Magister. And the stout.”

Gabranth pulls a face and Basch remembers them at six, with fevers and spots, and Noah trying to refuse the medicine. He drank it, though, when Basch drank his. That was always their mother’s trick. The way his brother’s lip curls now and his nose scrunches looks ridiculous with his severe haircut, and Basch wants to tease, but he can’t find the words.

“Why must you ruin good beer?” Gabranth asks.

“Why must you ask stupid questions when there’s drinking to be done?” Balthier smiles sweetly, and Gabranth makes his way to the bar.

As he walks away, Basch sees the cautious nods, averted eyes, the way the crowd parts as he moves. Something about it makes Basch a little sad, and Balthier leans close.

“Even here, he’s still making amends.”

“For what?” Vossler is watching his—his—Basch has no idea what to call their relationship. He doesn’t know if they’re even technically lovers, though the satisfaction rolling off Vossler when he came in last night suggests that they are, or at least nearly. But Vossler watches, intent.

“For Vayne’s misdeeds. For his own. For his origins. For surviving.” Balthier looks like he’s chewing something sour as he says it.

Basch’s brother is not the tallest at the bar, though his rigid posture seems to make him so, and after a moment, he slouches, leans against the bar. He looks exhausted, Basch thinks. Vossler puts his elbows on the table, stretches up to see better.

“How long must a man look like that,” Basch says, and he’s watching his brother, too, watching him watching passersby, and Basch remembers that expression. Not simple exhaustion, not of the body, but the other. When they were just seventeen, on the verge of having their own commands—only patrol groups, but still rank, still responsibility—Father had spent long hours stressing the need for distance, to be cordial but not familiar with your men. To have respect both upward and downward, but explaining that friendship is oft the price of leadership. Noah had struggled with that, gregarious Noah, struggled hard to hold the line between authority and camaraderie, and it was those years when they were closest. There’d been no one else to turn to but each other—not that either of them would have chosen another confidant, then, but the necessity of it sharpened the whole. It is that barrier—authority—and also the wall of fear, Basch thinks. “Solidor watchdog,” he has heard, in the street, from a table not ten feet away. That wall that his brother is held behind. And it’s that one, Basch thinks, that makes his face so haunted; that is the barrier his twin can do nothing about. He can only wait and hope, try that wan smile when someone looks his way. Few, besides the bartender, do.

“How long,” Basch says again, “must he look like that before his debt is repaid?”

Balthier’s voice is hard and ugly. “You can’t pay off an Archadian debt, Basch. You can only hope to keep it from growing.”

“I hate this place.” Vossler is still watching him at the bar. Basch is sure it’s no accident that his brother doesn’t look their way. They’re both stubborn asses to not take the comfort they’re offered. Basch wishes he had some to offer, too, but mostly, he’s hoping to do as Balthier said: don’t make it worse.

“Try growing up here. Why do you think I left?” Balthier tips his chair back on two legs.

“You’re here now.” Vossler gives him a sidelong glance.

“I can always leave again.”

Vossler grins. “Not until Fran comes back, you can’t.”

“There are other routes I might take.” Balthier looks over his shoulder, into the crowd of bar patrons.

“But you won’t. Sky pirate feet don’t take well to walking, I remember.”

“Better than soldiers do to flying.” Balthier takes his hands from the table, hooks his feet around the legs of the chair, and balances. Basch isn’t sure which of them is more juvenile—Balthier for doing it or himself for liking it so much. And then the chair jolts and Balthier has to catch himself. Vossler’s smirking.

“Fight nice, children.” Gabranth is back, two pints balanced in each palm and a tiny glass of something tawny gold steadied between the four. Balthier takes the small glass and one of the oily black pints, puts the other like it in front of Vossler. Gabranth puts one of the identical wheat-pale glasses in front of Basch. Basch looks up at his brother who shrugs, says, “There wasn’t a good lager on tap.”

A barmaid passes with a tray of half a dozen amber beers, at least three different shades. Basch schools himself to blandness. “Thanks.” He’s half-tempted not to drink it, to make a point, but only half because he won’t be rude, shouldn’t be cold, when there might be truth in what his brother says. He doesn’t actually know. And more: this is what he likes best. His brother knows. Basch puts the glass to his lips—it’s cold, cold, and the marks of the hands that carried it still show in the condensation—and drinks. The sweet-sharp beer is clean and crisp and it reminds him of snow and sun and how much—how much he’s lost. How much he still has. He manages to put the glass down, and it’s half-empty when he does.

Across the table, his brother sips at his own drink. He glances up, says, “There was not a lager on tap as good as this.”

“Yes,” Basch says.

Balthier draws a line through the condensation, a high-water mark on Basch’s glass. “Someone was thirsty.” He picks up the tiny glass, holds it over his black pint. He dips a finger into it, licks it clean. “Mm, whiskey.”

Gabranth half-shudders. “You do this just to make me sick.”

“Does what?” Vossler is working steadily through his own stout. “This is a good choice. Most people prefer the sweet dark beers. I like this better—has a nice bite.”

“You are not most people.” Gabranth’s mouth curls up at the left side for a moment, but when he looks back at Balthier, who is enjoying this all too much, he’s almost pale. “Would you do it and get it over with?”

Basch tries not to blush at the talk of bites, beer or otherwise.

“As you wish.” Balthier drops the whiskey into the stout, and before the glass hits the bottom of the larger, he’s drinking, and Basch can’t help but focus on the pulse of his throat, and he doesn’t stop. He empties the pint in one go, and when the whiskey glass slides forward, pulled by gravity and Balthier’s mouth itself, Basch thinks, Balthier catches the glass between his lips. He drains the last drops of foamy black beer, puts the pint down, and plucks the whiskey glass from his mouth. He licks delicately into it, then drops it back into the empty pint. At the clatter, Basch startles.

Basch’s brother shakes his head, takes a long pull of his honigweiss. “Are you finished?”

Balthier wipes the corner of his mouth with his thumb. “For now.”

There’s a story here, Basch is sure of it, but he’ll wait until it’s told. Balthier’s involved, so it won’t be long.

Balthier stands. “I’m getting the next round. Same?” He looks at Basch first, holds his gaze until Basch nods. “While I’m gone, you can tell the less-humiliating version of it, and when I get back, if those glasses aren’t all empty, I get to tell the true version.” He slips between the tables like water.

Basch’s first instinct is to drink but hide just enough of his beer behind the screen of his hands to get Balthier’s version, but he can’t goad him like that. Not anymore. Or maybe not yet—there might be hope for that. But not now.

His brother finishes the last third of his beer at once. He puts the glass down, and Basch tries not to laugh at Vossler, who is very pointedly ignoring the last inches of stout.

His brother rolls his eyes. Points. “I talk, you drink.”

Vossler takes the smallest of sips, puts his not-empty glass down firmly, and Basch knows that look. His brother has met his match for a provoking bastard. Vossler’s chin lifts, barely an eyelash’s width, and Gabranth is looking, and there’s something happening here that Basch isn’t sure he understands. There’s more than half of a fight seeming to coil in the air between them, and Basch finds himself holding his breath.

And Gabranth laughs a little, sighs defeat. “You’re as bad as he was.” His brother tilts his head toward him, and the “was” cuts quick, cuts deep. There is no sense in being jealous of that moment, but there’s an easiness in the air, now—Basch can almost smell it—between them, and Vossler’s wearing that evil smirk of his and still not finishing his beer. Godsdammit. Of all the ways Basch had expected this extended visit to play out, this was not one he’d imagined. The one where Vossler takes his place. As soon as he forms the thought, he feels sick. That is not what is happening, and even if it is, he has no one to blame but himself. And your twin, that corner of his mind says, and he grimaces—knows it’s not only inward because Vossler’s looking at him strangely—and downs the last of his beer. He turns, searches for Balthier, and he’s right there, a step away, a pitcher in each hand and a bottle tucked into the front of his trousers. For a single incongruous second, the only thought Basch has is that he didn’t think it was even possible for Balthier to fit anything else in those leather pants besides himself.

Balthier puts the pitchers down, tugs the bottle out, and produces another of those small glasses from somewhere. He refills their pints with expert pours, and Basch lets himself concentrate on that, instead, on the long fingers and the tendons in his wrists flexing to counterbalance the liquid weight. He doesn’t fill his own pint glass, though, and Gabranth mutters, “Oh, thank gods.”

Balthier tugs the cork out of the bottle with his teeth. “Don’t thank me just yet. That glass—” he points at Vossler’s “—wasn’t empty. Well done, General.” He raises the bottle toward Vossler, sits, pours himself another whiskey, and props his ankle on knee. The position puts his knee half an inch from Basch’s, and he’ll attend that space all night. “Let me tell you the story of a newly promoted judge of the state who found himself drunk firmly under the table by a dashing fifteen-year-old.”

“Dashing? I felt sorry for you, runty little thing. I’m still pretty sure I should have had you cited for underage drinking.” Gabranth glares into the tabletop.

“You should have done it before you were implicated in the matter, too.” Balthier shrugs. “But you didn’t. And don’t think you can save yourself by interrupting me every two seconds.”

“You sound like Ashe.” Vossler corrects himself quickly. “Queen Ashelia.”

“Heavens forfend,” Balthier says. And he proceeds to tell the story of Gabranth’s attaining judgeship, the night of his swearing-in. He skips, Basch notices, any of the officiality of it, gives no names—this is no place to speak of the dead, though Basch doubts Vayne had anything to do with his brother’s judgeship; it was in attaining Magister, he thinks, where Gabranth’s loyalty was put to the test—and it is entirely possible that it’s for the streamlining of the tale, to simply get to the funny part, but this is how Balthier’s courtesy works. And Basch is thankful for it.

“And being the truly kind cadet I was, I see the poor man standing alone in a corner, northern barbarian that he was, at his own promotion reception, and I decide that someone should buy him a drink.” Balthier’s lip quirks.

“Someone who was of legal age should have.” Gabranth huffs, drinks. “And someone who has any taste.”

“You could have paid attention to the academy’s raptures over their youthful prodigy, too. Or said no.” Balthier sips at his whiskey. “Your twin, apparently, has better willpower than you. And I’m much better looking now than I was then.”

“That’s Basch,” Vossler says. “A pillar of self-denial.” Basch has no idea where to look. He can’t look at his brother. He looks instead at the space between his knee and Balthier’s, and he curses himself for an idiot, though at least he hasn’t let himself be completely seduced. He has that on his brother, at least. The problem is that he’s not sure that’s anything to be proud of.

“Or maybe Basch actually has standards.” That’s Balthier. Basch raises his eyes, and Balthier’s smiling, soft, and he almost looks wistful, Basch thinks, and then that’s gone and he’s gesturing to the other two. “Because you two, obviously, have none.”

Vossler raises his glass to Gabranth, and Gabranth touches the pale pint to the dark. They shrug.

Basch finds himself actually losing the thread of Balthier’s story; he only knows that at some point in that night, well after Cadet Bunansa had dragged Judge fon Ronsenburg to at least two separate public houses, there was a drinking contest involving the whiskey and stout concoction Balthier had started with. And the contest ended with his brother being carried, unconscious, by young Balthier—he cannot think of him as Ffamran; the name doesn’t suit him, not as Basch knows him—and that streetear, Jules, to a very questionable lodging house at the edge of Old Archades.

“And if I never see his scruffy face again, it will be too soon.” Gabranth refills his glass. “You shouldn’t have gotten a pitcher. It’ll get warm.”

“Then drink faster.” Balthier throws back what’s left of his whiskey, pours more. “At least we didn’t leave you lying in front of your own door.”

“Oh, gods, Drace would have had far too much joy in that.” The way he says it, they must have been friends. Basch steals a glance, and he can’t see his brother’s face; it’s obscured by his glass. He knows—he knows how she died. That was one of the things his brother had said, when they both thought he was on his deathbed. Basch is not sure he could do that; executioner his brother might have been made, but instrument of mercy, too. Had he refused, regardless the penalty on his life, Drace would have been made to suffer. To meet in combat is one thing, that—that was another.

Balthier reaches for the pitcher of honigweiss and tops up Basch’s glass. “I’m going to owe you another hangover, I think.”

“Not on that you won’t.” Basch’s brother speaks. “Wine is the only thing that gives him a hangover.”

Balthier shakes his head, laughing. “Then why didn’t you say something at the Sandsea? My ultimate goal was to get you drunk. I’m indifferent to the medium. The hangover was merely an unfortunate byproduct of that goal.”

Vossler sighs. “Yes, Basch, why didn’t you?” He takes a drink. “You were like a bear with a sore arse that day.”

“I still owe you a score of days like that.” And the madhu is what Balthier likes. And, apparently, this Uplands whiskey. He’s never tried it.

Looking up, Vossler cocks his head. “I’m not that bad.” He pauses, refills his pint. “Maybe I am. But I’m not that bad when hungover.”

“No, when you’re hungover, you’re actually quiet.” Basch is starting to feel warm, his tongue is loosening up, and the honigweiss is so good.

“And you’re finally getting drunk enough to speak.” Vossler smiles, and he kicks Basch under the table, and at least he has the decency to kick his foot, rather than his shin.

“There’s something to be said for a certain amount of verbal restraint.” Balthier is refilling his glass again. “I don’t know what it is, but I’m sure there’s something.” He drinks. “That could be said.”

Vossler stretches, leans back in his chair for a moment. “At the rate you’re going, we’ll be carrying you back.”

Gabranth snorts. “I wish. I have seen him drunk only twice, and only incapacitated by drink once. And that took him a good day and a half of hard living. And he weighed at least two stone less, then.”

“I wasn’t that small.” Balthier dips his finger into his whiskey again, puts it in his mouth. Basch wants to try it. It looks good, warm and golden, smells good, too. “And that was in my misspent youth. Can’t exactly drink like I used to, what with airship navigation and all.”

“Lucky you, then, that you haven’t an airship at the moment. Drink up.” Vossler nudges the bottle closer.

Balthier slugs his shot and pours again. “As long as you can keep up, Azelas.”

Basch doesn’t feel like dealing with Vossler with a hangover—that had to be at least five years ago last he’d done that; since then, they haven’t had much time to indulge in anything—so he addresses Balthier and hopes his brother diverts Vossler’s attention.

“Can I try that?” Basch points.

“Absolutely.” Balthier slides the glass closer. “Might I try yours?”

Basch pushes his pint glass over, and he’s distracted, again, by the flexing muscles in Balthier’s throat as he drinks. He reaches for the tiny glass, and he’s not paying close enough attention; his fingertips are suddenly wet. He almost wipes them on his trousers, but he remembers Balthier, and he puts his fingertips in his mouth. Even after all of the beer, the whiskey burns smoky-sweet on his tongue, and the salt from his fingers is a sharp counterpoint, perfect, really. He raises the glass, drinks, and the heat hits him square in the back of the throat, seems to flash out to his joints in an instant. The taste is strong, too strong to simply want to drink, Basch thinks, but it would be delicious to paint it over a palm, lick away the alcohol and skin-salt, and he hopes that it’s dark enough in here that no one can see the heat in his cheeks.

Balthier’s watching, and he’s holding Basch’s pint glass in both hands, holding it tight. Basch clears his throat, reaches for his glass. “You’ll make it warm like that.” Basch’s right hand brushes Balthier’s left as they trade back, and his hands are like fire, despite the chill that was in the beer. “It’s good, though, your whiskey.”

“So’s that.”

Basch steals a glance at Vossler and his brother. They’re talking about swords, and Basch turns back to Balthier. They’re happy. He should be, too.

Balthier starts explaining the distilling process on the “gold of the Uplands,” and Basch finds himself describing what he can of the making of honigweiss. The beer is good, the company is excellent, and that should be enough.

* * *

They close the pub, and none of them are too steady on their feet. Basch thinks his brother might actually be the worst off of the four of them, and it probably has to do with the fact that he’s lost a lot of weight, has probably had even less opportunity than Basch to indulge in anything because of his convalescence. It is exactly this stage of drunkenness, Basch remembers, that led to them moving the weathervane on the mayor’s house to the top of the mill. Rather, it led to Basch doing the actual moving of the weathervane—Noah’s coordination was worse than his when they were drinking. To a point, with anything but that hideous madhu, drinking didn’t affect Basch’s coordination. And so he was the one at the apex of the roof cupola, standing on his brother’s shoulders, undoing the screws with his knife. They were sixteen then. In the twenty years since, thankfully, he has gotten better at distinguishing a good drunk idea from a bad one. Most of that wisdom came, of course, from the first two years he was in Dalmasca, after he’d met Vossler. Vossler, too, thankfully, seems to have outgrown his old drunken idea standby: find (or start) a good fight. And tonight, fighting seems to be the last thing on his mind; he’s looking Basch’s twin up and down and not even trying to hide it.

As they make their way down the street—Basch is glad to see he is not weaving, at least not enough to notice—Balthier turns to Gabranth, manages walking backward. Basch waits, in case that turns out to be a mistake.

“You’re welcome to spend the night at my place, if you’d rather not show up at the palace, pissed as you are. Mateus knows we have the room.” He steps around a loose cobblestone without Basch even having to point it out. “But you’re responsible for getting yourself up for whatever obligations you might have. I’m sleeping in. No more goddamned airships to steal, no more windows to break.”

“Not working tomorrow. Larsa’s sending me somewhere, perhaps Rozarria. He hasn’t said, only told me to ‘remain away from my office for the day.’ There was something he was working on with the Margrace.” He sighs. “I’m not really in the mood to deal with Al-Cid in this lifetime.”

“Who is?” Vossler rolls his eyes; Basch sees the flash of white. “But if you’re not working tomorrow—”

“I have plans.”

“Oh.” Vossler looks at the ground, and Basch looks away. As soon as he does, he hears the sharp intake of breath behind him, and when he glances back, his brother’s hand is on the back of Vossler’s neck, and it would look completely casual if it weren’t for the expression on Vossler’s face, the set of his teeth on his bottom lip as they pass under one of the soft streetlights.

“You change your own sheets,” is all Balthier says.

Sooner than Basch thought they would be, they are back at the Bunansa house, and Basch is trying not to watch Vossler and his brother fairly groping each other in the hallway.

“I suspect this is a mere formality, but this room,” Balthier points at the empty room between the two Basch and Vossler are using, “is empty if you care to use it.”

Gabranth actually starts to pull himself away from Vossler. His face goes serious for a moment. “No pain play when drinking.”

Vossler nods, gravely, and Gabranth turns. Something lifts a little in Basch. He’s responsible about this, and that’s good. Vossler tugs Gabranth back. “How sober do I have to be to suck your cock?”

His eyes widen, and all he can do is point to the door. Before he follows Vossler into the room, he turns, mouths “Thank you” into the air. Balthier doesn’t even wait until the door closes to start laughing. Basch joins in, and soon he can’t stop, and it’s not quite as mad as it was in the Sandsea, but he also knows that if they stop laughing, they’ll still be standing here in the hall, together, with whatever’s between them still hanging in the air. But eventually they have to stop—Basch is getting a stitch in his side from it.

They move toward the door-side of the hallway, drifting slowly, and Balthier’s foot catches on a curl in the carpet that Basch didn’t remember seeing before. He stumbles forward, and Basch gets his body between Balthier and the wall, don’t let him hit, and Balthier’s laughing again.

“This house fucking hates me,” he says, and he puts his forehead on Basch’s shoulder, still shaking with laughter.

And maybe it’s the beer blurring edges, softening the lines, but Basch doesn’t freeze at the contact. He puts his hand on Balthier’s shoulder. It’s meant to be a gesture of camaraderie, but the way they are standing, Basch almost has his arms around him, and now the flutter of nerves is there. And it’s not the nerves that make him want to shove him back.

Finally Balthier catches his breath, and he leans back—doesn’t move away—and tries his doorknob. It swings open. Balthier leans close again, and he looks at Basch’s hand still on his shoulder.

“This is an improvement.” Though he seems to lean into the touch, he keeps his hands at his sides and there’s a wry set to his lips. “And much as I might like to see if it continues to improve, it’s probably a good idea to take your brother’s advice on this. Not when we’ve been drinking. Not after everything.” He slides from beneath Basch’s hand, shaking his head. “Never thought I’d see the day when I took Gabranth’s advice on anything.” Balthier edges into his doorway, and Basch stands, watching more of him disappear behind the heavy mahogany door, wanting to do something but knowing Balthier is right, and there’s another warm curl in his blood, outside and around the honigweiss’s new-familiar comfort. And before all of Balthier is eclipsed by the door, he pauses, says, “Surely you’ve figured out that it wasn’t simply an issue of curiosity.” The door clicks shut.

Basch goes to his room, plans to sit for a long time on the bed, telling himself he’s going to decide about Balthier, what does he even want, but the decision comes quickly. He has possibility now. Real possibility. And the very idea terrifies him. Better, then, to say what he’s thinking now, before the nerves take hold. For this, the beer helps, the just-talking part. He swings the window open—so much easier this way, and he can see if Balthier still has a light on; he won’t bother him if there’s not—thinking that it makes no sense at all to fear death so little and so many little things so much. He’ll parse that later.

There is light coming from Balthier’s bedroom door, though not the main part of the room, and it bothers him that Balthier’s sleeping, it seems, with an unprotected back; if Basch can sneak in, as he’s doing now—he can’t bring himself to call out, and he’s pretty sure Balthier does look before he shoots—who else might? It’s a silly thing to worry about; thieves would be hard-pressed to sneak up on a thief such as Balthier, but he’ll keep thinking about it. New glass coming tomorrow. Good. He steps up into the window, and picks his way across the room. He’s glad Balthier cleaned up, or he’d have tripped over half a dozen books and probably a gun.

He does catch his thigh on the arm of the couch—apparently he is destined not to see it—but it makes no noise. He’ll see if Balthier’s asleep. Or in bed. Or reading. If he’s otherwise occupied. If he is, he’ll sneak back out, tell him in the morning.

From the edge of the doorway, Basch can see Balthier in his armchair, the lamp on, but his head is thrown back against the cushion, eyes closed, and maybe he is sleeping. He is not reading, because his glasses are still folded beside the lamp, and then Basch hears the soft exhale, sees the halves of Balthier’s shirt part and his own hand cross the pale skin. And he should leave, he should not be here, he was not even admitted to these rooms. He slides his right foot out and back, searching for the couch, and his boot touches something, and it rolls. Fuck. He’ll be lucky if he doesn’t get shot now. But he’s still looking and Balthier turns his head toward the sound. He sees Basch immediately, and Basch waits for the reaction that has to come, the knowledge that he’s undone whatever they’d managed to fix in the hallway, but it never does. Balthier doesn’t even look startled, not angry at all, and it makes Basch’s head spin. Balthier looks at him, carefully, for a long moment, and his shirt is falling open more and Balthier’s head lolls back against the cushion.

He’s not going to stop. And he’s not going to stop Basch from standing there, and he’s not pushing Basch to do anything. This is entirely in Basch’s hands, and the only thing he can do with his hands is wrap one around the doorframe to steady himself and clench the other one at his side. He’d like to blame the fact that he’s still there on how much he drank, but he can honestly say that he has no idea what he would do in this situation when sober. He’s never been in this situation before, and even if he had, this is Balthier and that seems to change all the protocol for situations anyway.

The muffled click of buttons being undone echoes over the sound of two breaths, and Balthier curls his hand around his cock, loose, barely stroking, while his left hand scratches across his chest, and though Basch thinks of the red welts on his chest the previous morning—thinks of them for only a second—it is some reassurance to see his own hand trace that same path, his own hand while Basch is here, watching.

Balthier brings his right hand to his lips, licks his palm, and Basch wants to lick that gold liquor from his skin, remembers the taste in his mouth from his own hand, last night, and he wants it again, wants it right this time, and it’s only that thought—not yet—that stays his hands, his feet, his mouth. When Balthier closes his hand around himself, he exhales sound—it might be words, but Basch doesn’t know them—and Basch watches closely, wants to know what he likes when he’s alone. Long strokes, root to tip, twisting a little at the end, and Basch thinks he’s getting a show because it’s beautiful but Balthier’s not digging his fingers into the armrest, not pushing up into his hand, and Basch doesn’t want that, doesn’t want the show for himself. He wants what Balthier wants, what Balthier was doing before Basch showed up, and of all the things he can’t say, somehow this comes out: “What you like, exactly that. Not for me. Please.”

When his voice has crossed the room, Basch holds his breath. He may have ruined it again; he shouldn’t speak in this room, but Balthier doesn’t stop, doesn’t even turn his head, only brings his hand to his mouth, licks across his fingers and spits right into his palm. He grips tight and the strokes are short and sharp and his hips roll into himself like waves. His left hand is all but attached to his right nipple, pinched and twisting, lifting only after he wrings another pulse of sound—this time, High Archadian, Basch recognizes that—from his throat, all pale-gold extension, and he pinches again, lets everything spiral up and over and Basch wants to be everywhere, though the here he has—only one place: doorway—is threatening to undo him. He digs his fingertips into the doorframe and can only hold on when Balthier finally spills over his hand, across his stomach. Staying here might be the most difficult thing he has asked of his body since Nalbina.

He waits while Balthier cleans himself with a handkerchief, thinks he should say something, doesn’t know what. Balthier stands, peels off his shirt. He turns toward the doorway.

“Good night, Basch.”

The way Balthier says his name, breathless, tired, still a little loose with drink and sex, and warm--he will make this right.

He gets as far as the couch along Balthier’s bedroom wall, bumps into it again, and takes off his boots. Basch stretches out, the cushions deep and velvet and smelling of gunpowder and books. Balthier will not sleep with an unprotected back.

Chapter Text

Sunlight burns bright against Basch’s eyelids, and he’s trying to ignore it. The cushions are plush and cradling and should be twisting his back into knots but right now it’s perfect. He drags the blanket over his face and rolls, and in a heartbeat, he’s too hot, and he hadn’t had a blanket when he lay down last night. It’s thick and feels almost like suede, though it’s not leather. Doesn’t smell like it. Smells like Balthier. This is Balthier’s couch, Balthier’s room, and now he is awake. And he remembers everything. Oh, sweet Mateus. Throwing the blanket back, he stands so quickly he has to sit back down, the room tilting at the edges. His cock is hard, he has to piss, and he watched Balthier stroke himself off last night. Oh, gods. He stands again, more carefully, and starts folding the blanket. Balthier’s door is still open, and Basch wants to look in, but he’s not going to risk waking him. Not now. Oh gods. His cheeks burn just thinking about later, how he’s going to look him in the face. About how Balthier looked at him last night.

Basch picks up his boots, eases his way onto the balcony. He hopes that the replacement glass arrives later in the day, so Balthier can sleep. And if Balthier sleeps a nice long time, maybe by then Basch can figure out what happens next. He doesn’t know if it’s better or worse now, that they’re leaving tomorrow. He opens his window and heads straight for the bathing room. He manages to think of enough hideous things that he can empty his bladder, but by the time he gets into the shower, he’s hard again. Despite telling himself that he’s only taking the edge off, only doing it so he can have a chance at regaining his wits, when he wraps his hand around his cock, he’s mimicking the long, elegant strokes Balthier had started with. It is as he thought last night—it’s good but more showy than anything, though, Basch thinks, keep on long enough and it could drive someone out of his mind. It could—he could—oh, gods—and he can hear Balthier’s soft cursing, and his own hips stutter forward, fingers tight, and he braces himself against the wall with his other hand. He sets his teeth into his lip, isn’t sure if he’d make a sound, but isn’t willing to take the chance, and comes. And though he’s still full of uncertainty, still cannot believe that he’d stood in that doorway the whole time, there’s none of that bitterness lingering in his mouth.

While he dresses, the uncertainty slides up his arms and settles across his shoulders surely as his shirt does. What does he do next? He won’t turn this last day into a desperate fuck, can’t let that happen and then not know how long it would be until he’ll see Balthier again. They still haven’t even talked about this, and his cock twitches a little at the passing thought of the events that kept him from saying anything to Balthier last night. He rubs his hands over his face. He’ll get some tea, and he’ll figure this out.

On the way out of the room, he picks up the history of flight book; he’ll put it back before he forgets. He thumbs through the pages one last time, all of the notes—what must he have been like as a child? That he wonders that does not surprise him; this is the place Balthier was raised. It is how he thinks it—no matter how he tries, now, Basch cannot think of Balthier’s childhood as a recent thing. He finds the right shelf, places the book, and heads back to the hallway. It is quiet—he might be the only one here, for the lack of sound in the house—but there’s none of that desperate sense of alone from yesterday morning. And there’s already noise from the city surrounding; he wonders at the hour. He thinks he slept a long time because he feels good, despite the dryness in his mouth. Rested. He lets himself lean against the study doorway and finds himself watching Balthier’s door, likes that he’s there. Memory sparks, and Basch wonders how Balthier sleeps in a bed. On the ground, when the six of them were together—seven, sometimes, with Larsa, Reddas—he slept in one lean line on his left side, his back to Fran’s if she wasn’t the one on watch, gun curled close. If they were somewhere that it would dew—Tchita, especially, and the Ozmone Plain—he wrapped the firing mechanism with his spare shirt and rested the gun overtop of one wrist to keep it from touching the ground at all. And so he slept, perfectly still. Basch wonders if he has always slept like that, so unmoving, if it is born of complete ease or of necessity. He is willing to guess the latter, that his life has taught him to be absolutely motionless when necessary, and maybe that is why he is so much in motion when he can be. He wishes now that he had stolen a look in Balthier’s open door, and the thought is almost shameful, after all he’s seen, to want more still. What he wants is to not have to steal the glance. He shakes his head. He’s confusing sex with everything.

He turns away from Balthier’s door, walks toward the kitchen. When he gets to the bottom of the stairs, opens the final door, the smell of caffa fills the air. Basch slows his step, peers around the corner. His brother is standing in front of the table, facing the window, but, Basch thinks, he is not looking into the courtyard. Somehow his steel-gray shirt is still crisply creased and the black trousers appear recently from the iron—how, after last night? But if his clothing looks fresh, his eyes look like dying embers, the sunken skin below them a smudged-looking sallow. It is not the look of a night unslept because of passion.

Basch knocks on the wall, doesn’t want to startle his brother, doesn’t know what to say. Gabranth turns his head, and it seems to take an extra moment for his gaze to follow, for his eyes to focus.

“Basch.”

“Morning.” Basch slips into the room, fills the kettle and puts it next to the curious caffa percolator on the stove.

“Not morning much longer.”

Basch glances at the courtyard, and the sun is already high, nearer to midday than not. He did sleep a long time, and why, then, does his brother look so exhausted? He’s only recently come to the kitchen, Basch is sure of it. It’s a stupid question, answer obvious, but it breaks the silence and maybe he can find out what’s wrong. “Sleep well?” Worry slinks around his stomach; what if it’s Vossler, if something happened? Where is Vossler, anyway? He can’t imagine him staying abed if his brother is out of it, not so soon.

“Well enough.” Gabranth brushes by him, pours the black, boiling caffa into a mug. He inhales deep, lets it out, and his voice is softer now. “Strange bed and all.” He holds out the pot to Basch.

Basch shakes his head, and he waits until Gabranth steps around him and sags into a chair before he pours water that isn’t quite hot enough over the tea. He needs something in his hands. Noah had never had a problem sleeping. Anywhere. All he needed was a sign that sleeping was all right—his watch was over, Basch was back, or, Basch remembers with no little embarrassment, the moment whomever he’d sneaked in through the window either left or had fallen asleep himself. Sometimes they’d made a contest of it, to see who could stay awake longest after they’d been talking, watching for each other’s eyes to drift closed, whispering some insult to see if it got a reaction. After they’d separated, after Landis fell, it had taken Basch weeks to get used to sleeping without the sound of Noah’s breathing, the occasional soft snore. But sleep is a strange thing—why should Basch sleep better near Balthier than not? Why should any step wake him save that of the sky pirates, of all people? Were it not for the fact that his brother has had these dark circles under his eyes since they’d arrived, he might believe the excuse. But he does not. He cannot, though, call him out as he once would have, demand the real answer. Still, he needs to say something. Keep it light. Where is Vossler?

“The way Vossler hogs a bed probably didn’t help.” Basch regrets it the moment the words leave him mouth. It’s too loaded a thing to say, shouldn’t assume, and Gabranth snaps his face toward Basch. The motion itself is so like Vossler for a heartbeat that Basch would laugh were he not waiting for something to splinter.

“I slept in the other room,” Gabranth says, and sips at his caffa. It can’t be cool enough to drink—steam still roils around the ceramic. He smiles a little, and Basch doesn’t know how to read it. It feels like his spine is packed in clay, everything slow and clammy and smeared. This is not right. It should be easier than this. Gabranth’s lips straighten, his expression serious. “You and Vossler are—”

“Were. More than a decade ago.” Closer to two. Three years after he thought he’d seen his brother for the last time. What is the nature of his brother and Vossler’s association? Basch has always preferred to sleep beside his lovers, when he could, but perhaps they are not lovers. It might only be a matter of convenience, a kind of negotiation, but everything from last night speaks of some affection, the banter, the obvious attraction. He cannot tell if sleeping separately has anything to do with any of this. Basch hates looking at that face that is his own and not knowing what to make of it. This is a book he has always been able to read—one he’d memorized—and now it is written in a language he does not know. Doesn’t even know how to study. Godsdammit.

Gabranth nods, curls both hands around his mug. He looks up, through his eyelashes. Their eyes don’t quite meet. “You know of, some years past, Balthier and I?”

“Aye.” Basch wants to ask him about Balthier, for he must know something to say that. To assume Basch would care what history he has with Balthier. Basch wants to know if Balthier has said anything about him, if his brother has any advice. That they have partners in common is less concern than Basch thought it would be. That is, Basch thinks, less awkward than the way the silences stretch around them. He pushes the sachet of tea around his mug; it’s barely steeping. Why can’t they talk to each other? He stands, pours cream into his already lukewarm tea. What can he say? Asking about Vossler seems too free, too personal, but anything else he can think to say is either such trivia he’d hate to waste breath on or—and it is mostly this—what he wants to say will take them into those seventeen years that stand between them. Now is not the time. Not when his brother looks so haggard. He looks better now than he did at first, more alert, less ashen, but they don’t have to revisit the past. It’s time to move on. Rozarria. He can ask about that. But before he does, a series of chimes sounds, rising and falling, and thudding flat and bald on the last note. Someone is at the door.

Basch opens it, and there’s a courier, dressed in the Imperial livery, red and black uniform piped in silver. She hands Basch an envelope and pivots smartly on her heel. She is gone before Basch even breaks the marbled red and black seal. There are two sheets, the inner addressed to him, personally, so he shuffles it to the back and reads the one in the florid, formal script. An official meeting, he and Vossler and Larsa, the hour after midday. That’s soon. He reads the second sheet.

Basch,
Terribly sorry about the short notice; I had hoped to meet with you over dinner instead of springing an audience on you so quickly, but there are a few dignitaries from Mt. Bur-Omisace in attendance, and you understand why I cannot refuse them my immediate attention. If you are able, though, would you do me the honor of riding with me a short while this afternoon? After the official business is finished?

Cordially,
Larsa

P.S. Do remind Judge Magister Gabranth that he is not to be working today, if he is indeed in your company.

As soon as his brother sees the seal, he pushes his chair back from the table, though he doesn’t yet stand. “I should get back. In case he needs something.”

“Actually, he’s reminding you of your day off.” Basch passes both sheets to his brother, putting the official business on top, so he’ll see it. Tacit permission. There are no secrets, not on this, and maybe that’s a start.

Gabranth relaxes into the chair again, drinks more of his caffa as he reads. “When are you leaving tomorrow?”

“Early. Midmorning, I’d guess. Depends on Larsa’s people.” Basch puts the kettle back on. In case Balthier or Vossler wanders down; Basch wishes one of them would. “Do you know who he’s sending with us?”

“He hasn’t said, but I assume he means to send the Chief Surveyor from the Seventh Division and the new Magister. They make the most sense.” Gabranth taps his finger against the rim of his mug. The skin around the nails looks marginally better; the fresh points of red are fewer than they were four days ago. “Magister Rannel will be an asset. He knows his way around a blade, keeps to himself.” Rannel. That was the name on the promotion order Basch had read weeks ago, and Basch doesn’t remember ever having heard the name before. And such an utter lack of recognition at least means that he hadn’t heard the name in connection with Vayne. “The surveyor will likely be a fussy pain in the arse. I think his name is Tevis.”

“Good to know.” That’s the most either of them has said to the other in five days.

Gabranth stands. “If it’s all right, I’ll walk back with you and Vossler.” He refills his mug and walks to the edge of the kitchen. The kettle whistles, and Gabranth comes close again. “I’ll take tea up for him, if you have to leave soon.” He pours. “Does he put anything in it?”

“Vossler? No. Just black.” His brother is taking tea to Vossler, wants to know how he takes it. His brother beat him black and blue the day before yesterday. They were all but in each other’s laps by the night’s end, and they slept in separate beds. Basch has no idea what’s going on anymore. He slides the steeping tea toward his brother, pushing it with one finger. Gabranth picks it up with his fingers tight on the rim, the steam curling up into his palm. Basch clears his throat, and his brother looks at him. Basch tilts his chin toward the tea. “Thanks.”

“Don’t thank me yet. Vossler won’t be, in a minute.” His grin is pure mischief, and gods, Basch misses that expression. He appears, for a moment, as the brother Basch used to know, and then he is gone, Basch watching his back disappear in the hallway’s curve.

Since the water is hot again, he adds some to his tepid tea. It’s still awful, but he doesn’t want to waste it. He’s contemplating adding sugar, something he doesn’t usually do, and listening hard to the rest of the house. He thinks he catches a door closing, but he’s listening too hard. His ears are pulling sound from memory rather than the room itself, and he realizes too late that the soft tread behind him is real.

“Beautiful day,” Balthier says, and he stands beside Basch, stands bare-chested and wearing those loose ragged pants, stands not too close but close enough that Basch can still smell the pub on him, stale smoke and whiskey and that Balthier smell, like the blanket. Basch reaches for the mug he’d set out at the same time Balthier does. Basch gets his hand on it first, but Balthier gently pulls his hand away. He touches Basch’s mug with the back of his other hand and gives him a reproachful look. He pours it down the drain. “You could at least allow yourself a decent cup of tea.” With deft fingers, Balthier scoops tea leaves into the cheesecloth sachets, measuring, it seems, by weight. The process is practiced, easy, but it takes longer than Basch has ever spent on a cup of tea. Balthier has patience for strange things.

“You’ll spoil me.” If the cup Balthier had left him yesterday morning hadn’t been so good, he probably wouldn’t have thought twice about drinking what Balthier had poured away.

“If only you’d let me.” Balthier dips the tea sachets three times in the hot water, then lets them drift down, steep.

Basch’s tongue feels drier now than it did when he got up. Balthier’s looking at him, just barely, sidelong, and Basch feels the corner of his lip turn up even as he ducks his head, tries to look at the countertop. His ears are going red. Say something.

“The dunking the tea three times—does that help?” And what, exactly, is it about Balthier as of late, that makes Basch stupid? It had never been that way before. Balthier’s tongue has always been quicker, certain, but it seems his own has ceased to function altogether.

“It is good luck, or so say the Bhujerban parijanah.” Balthier picks up both mugs and sits at the breakfast table. “Can’t hurt to stack the deck a little, if ‘tis so little effort.”

Basch picks up the sugar, takes the jug of cream from the icebox, and sits across from Balthier. Basch takes Balthier’s mug, stirs sugar into it until it is just shy of syrupy. When he passes it back, Balthier ignores the mug handle, instead wrapping his fingers around the bowl, overlapping them with Basch’s.

Basch wants his hand back, wants to still the prickling heat along his spine, but he doesn’t yank his hand away, and neither does Balthier. After a moment, though, Balthier slides his fingers around to the handle, and Basch tries hard to keep the drag of Balthier’s fingertips across his own separate from the memory of last night. He fails miserably. While he pours cream into his own tea, Balthier sips and his eyes drift closed. Basch knows Balthier is theatrical, knows, perhaps too well, how he enjoys getting a reaction, but it looks authentic, looks like real satisfaction. Something thrills in the pit of his stomach at the expression, even as doubt seems to drip down his throat. What certainty could Basch ever have from Balthier? He likes to think he can tell, that he would know what is feigned or masked or omitted, but he is sure he knows only when Balthier wants him to know, when he wants to be caught out. Of course, Basch might learn, in time, how to read him—Fran can, that is obvious—but Basch knows, also, how much he would want to believe, and that is why he shouldn’t. Maybe it is better that he said nothing last night, because his optimism is eluding him now. He’s put too much cream in his tea, had been watching Balthier too closely, the way the muscles in his forearms shift. Balthier puts his mug down, raises his left hand to tug at an earring, run his hand through his hair.

“Tell me, Basch, how it is that after thirty-odd years you still can’t make yourself a decent cup of tea, but after seeing me put mine together no more than half a dozen times, you know exactly how much sugar to put in my cup?”

There are so many answers to this question. Basch does not want to admit to most of them. “It’s far from exact. I put in sugar until it has to be so sweet that no one could possibly drink it, and then add another spoonful.” Basch shakes his head. “How do you stand it?”

“Archadian decadence. Genetically predisposed to bad habits.” Balthier stretches, yawning, and Basch feels a warm foot brush his, but it doesn’t stay. “You are the only person who doesn’t give me a hard time about it. Why?”

“That’s how you like it.” Basch shrugs. Vossler finds it disgusting that he puts cream in his tea. It’s a matter of taste.

“But it’s a ridiculous lot of sugar. Even Fran won’t do it—she tries to put in about half of the right amount.”

“It’s a cup of tea.” Basch suspects this isn’t about tea, somehow, but he’s not going to bother trying to figure it out. “Why should I try to change that?”

Balthier smiles a little, drinks more of his tea, and sniffs. The gesture is so like Fran it’s startling, and Basch wishes she’d come back. He’d like to talk to her.

“Smells like Gabranth was indulging in his own Archadian vice. I should have warned him that caffa’s been in the cupboard more than four years.”

“He didn’t seem to mind.” His brother didn’t even seem to taste it, though Basch personally might count that a blessing. It even smelled too bitter and sharp to drink black. What they’d had after dinner the night they’d eaten with Larsa—Laren’s famous concoction, as Balthier had touted it—was sweetened, spiced, and topped with frothed milk and beaten cream, served with a slice of rich Rozarrian cocoa cake. The kitchen staff brought two slices of cake for Larsa, and he’d colored, asked if anyone else wanted seconds, but the boy had eaten them both with relish. In the back of Basch’s mind, he knows he should be putting on his uniform, should be getting ready to leave. He doesn’t want to leave this table.

“He doesn’t drink it for the taste. It’s a fairly potent stimulant. Like you, he’s not sleeping. I asked him about it a few weeks ago, nearly got my head bitten off. Bastard woke me up this morning, too.” Balthier yawns again. “Thumped on the door just because it was there.” He folds his arms on the table. “I hope Vossler’s equipped to deal with a wake-up call like Gabranth.”

“I don’t think he’ll mind too terribly. They suit each other.” There is a gaudy red and purple songbird perched on a decorative rail, and Basch is willing to bet its call is raucous. “They’re both annoying as hell when they want to be.” He meant that as a joke. It doesn’t come out like one.

“You’ve been apart long years. Give it time.” Balthier raises his mug, but doesn’t drink. “And forgive me the cliché. Can’t believe I said that.” He shakes his head slightly. “Something about you leaves me ineloquent.” And now he drinks, watching Basch over the edge of his cup. When he puts it down again, there’s nothing sly in his face. He runs his index finger beneath his own eye, tilts his head toward Basch. “You look better, though, today, than you did last week.”

“I slept well last night. Thank you for the blanket.” He wonders if he should try to explain what made him stop before he got to his own bed, why he slept where he did not have permission to do so, but then he has to consider how he could have stood there, watched Balthier touching himself, without any invitation, without a word. Was there a way to ask such a thing? If there is, Basch surely hasn’t the speech for it.

“You’re welcome.” Balthier twists one of his rings, the green one. It’s ridiculous, but Basch wants to know if they taste like anything, as candy-bright as they are. Stop it. They are actually talking. Basch should not be thinking such things. Not now. Balthier looks Basch’s eyes up from his hands, drawing his head up with his gaze, surely as he might with his fingers. “Should I still take it as a compliment that you seem to sleep best when I’m attempting something rash in a thus-far unsuccessful campaign to impress you?”

Basch could make this a joke, but he doesn’t want to. Balthier should know this much, and he would tell any friend the same. Would you watch any friend stroking himself off? He ignores that. “I feel easy in your company, is all.” Like it isn’t always his watch. Besides Fran, there is no one about whom he can say that, no one of those close to him whom he can say he owes no duty besides friendship and common decency. He and Balthier have no ties of nation, of blood, of oaths, or even obligation. Yes, Balthier and Fran got him out of Nalbina, but he got them through Barheim. That is not a matter of pride, but of fact. Still, if he feels at ease when Balthier is nearby, he can hardly describe the curling heat in his stomach when they are so close as ease.

“Easy?” Balthier’s eyebrows lift. “If such is your definition of ease, I should hate to see you discomfited.” Balthier puts his hand on the table, fingers pointing toward Basch’s, and Basch almost wants to reach, wishes Balthier would, but Balthier doesn’t. This time, Basch would not push him away, not his hand. He still doesn’t know what he would do with all of Balthier’s body pressed close again, but he thinks he might want to try. But Balthier should not be an experiment. Despite Vossler shoving him into the elevator wall and how oddly benign that seemed, that is Vossler, and Vossler doesn’t make his spine thrum. Balthier pulls his hand back, hides both in his lap, beneath the table. “I should hate to be the cause of any such unease, too, though I daresay I have been, recently.” He doesn’t look up until his lips have stopped moving.

Basch takes a deep breath. He isn’t going to say Balthier hasn’t. But he wants to differentiate between the night he’d shoved him away and last night, between the night they’d outright quarreled and this morning. He’s just not sure how, or what, exactly, he wants to say. Balthier had said, “If you’d only let me.” What he wants to say is, “Convince me that I should, that you won’t quit if it takes a long time,” but that’s so unfair he can’t do it. Balthier should not be waiting for him to sort himself out. Balthier should be doing whatever the hell he wants. He has to do that. It’s the only thing keeping Basch from the most improbable flight of fancy he’s ever entertained. He should get up, get his dress uniform, and maybe Balthier wants to come riding with him and Larsa. It’s not a response to what Balthier’s said, not exactly, but it will show that he does want Balthier’s company. As he had wanted his company when they’d first come back to Rabanastre—as old friends. Not as—not just as—the subject of this strange desire.

Balthier is watching him, intent, and Basch can see the slow crumple in his face, nothing so obvious as a frown but as if each of the tiny muscles around his lips and eyebrows are giving up, and he can’t quit, not yet.

“Larsa asked me to come riding with him later, if you’d like to come.”

Balthier shakes his head. “New glass coming.”

“Maybe after—” Basch is cut off by footsteps, heavy and fast, in the hallway, and Vossler pushes into the room, Gabranth a step behind. Vossler’s fasting his collar over a freshly-reddened patch of skin on his throat, and the fabric of his trousers stretches taut across the front, bulge obvious to anyone who’s looking.

“Your brother’s a bastard,” Vossler says, matter-of-fact, and when Basch glances at his brother, Gabranth smiles that mischievous smile again. He looks a decade younger with that expression, and the swift negation--you don’t know what he looked like ten years ago--makes Basch feel sick. He forgets that he’s supposed to laugh.

It is Balthier who says, to Vossler, “I could have told you that.”

When Balthier speaks and Basch does not, the perverse glee on his twin’s face fades, and he raises his ring finger to his teeth. Vossler pushes his hand down, looks at Basch. “Get changed. Let’s get this meeting over with.”

Basch stands, and so does Balthier. And even as he’s disgusted with himself for failing his brother again, he can’t help the strange small thrill when Balthier follows, walks at his side all the way to Basch’s door. Balthier leans with one hand on the door frame, and that posture cannot be coincidental. Basch has to stop thinking about last night, has to stop staring at the sharp angles of Balthier’s collarbone. Balthier clears his throat, and as Basch drags his eyes up, he knows he’s been caught again. But Balthier doesn’t rib him about it.

“Teach Larsa something dangerous and heroic on that bird of his, will you? Something to give his counselors fits.”

Basch smiles and puts his hand on the doorknob. “Will I see you later?”

“If you want to.”

He makes himself say it. “I do.”

“Later, then.” Balthier pushes away from the wall, and their doors close, one after the other.

* * *

This meeting with Larsa, Vossler thinks, is so obviously a mere formality that he’s annoyed. Not with Larsa himself, who seems apologetic about the whole thing, but with whatever committee insisted on its happening; there are two stuffed shirts sitting at the far end of the conference table, nodding and glaring at turns. Vossler forces his feet to stay flat on the floor, keeps his knee from bouncing. Basch would notice, even if no one else does.

Almost everything Larsa says begins, “As you know,” as if to highlight his own exasperation with the bureaucracy, and Vossler does know. The purpose, the route—those Ashe included in their official orders. They are to appear unofficial, and he wonders how a Magister and a surveyor are going to play mere travelers. He hopes they’ve enough soldiering in their backgrounds that they remember how to travel rough. One thing Larsa does confirm is that they’ll be taking chocobos, and he wonders how much riding these cosseted Archadians have done. He is no cavalryman like Basch, but he is not so unaccustomed to riding that he’ll be saddle-sore on the first day. Riding seems a province of the high-born in Archadia, rather than the common, and that means if this Rannel and Tevis can ride, they’ll be aristocrats, and if they’re not, they’ll most likely be aching by the first night. He hides his grimace. It is, he decides, only because Gabranth is Basch’s brother—no Archadian by birth—that this is working. Well, that he is Basch’s brother and he is pushing buttons Vossler didn’t even know he had. And this completely useless meeting is standing between him and the unspoken promise that was his wake-up call. Gabranth had come in without knocking, and Vossler is glad he’d been mostly awake, somewhere between enjoying the seemingly endless ache in his balls and wondering if the frustration was worth it, when he’d entered the room. Entered the room, put a cup of tea on the nightstand, and shoved him into the mattress, kneading hard at his cock through the blankets, biting at his neck.

Gabranth had been taking a chance, gambling against Vossler’s battle reflexes—if he’d been truly asleep, Gabranth would have found himself looking Nightmare in the eye before Vossler would recognize him. It would have been nice to have met him when his body had completely recovered, when they could give each other a good fight. He isn’t quite sure Gabranth necessarily wants that, but Vossler does. He’d like to try out the man who fought in that suffocating armor with the gigantic staff-blades he’s heard about, the man at his best. As it stands now, though, he’s still pretty damn good. Vossler rolls one shoulder until it touches the high, ornately carved chair-back, and pushes. The fading bruises ache dully; he pushes harder, and Larsa’s eyes flicker toward him and away again. He’s glad Basch is doing the talking; he can only think that this is wasted time, that maybe, with more time, a good bit more, weeks, months, he would see if Gabranth can handle Nightmare at least as well as Basch does. That thought makes him try to turn his attention back to Larsa and whatever he’s saying about resupplying. He should not even be considering more. This will be five days in which a worst-case scenario has turned for the best, and that’s enough. It has to be. And it will be, for a while at least. It will be a good thing, he tells himself, to return home, to get his focus, his concentration back. All of the self-discipline usually reserved for making himself pay attention in meetings has been subverted, appropriated by his body.

Larsa stands and angles away from the counselors. “And so we will see each other again in the morning, Generals.” Larsa has been fairly formal with them, though, with his back now turned to the man and the woman at the table, his blue eyes roll. “The transport is scheduled to leave at ten.”

“Sir,” Vossler says, and the smarmy look on the man in the corner’s face is enough to make him ask it out loud. “And so I take it these two are not to be our accompaniment?” He gives it a good sneer, too. That would almost make him laugh, if they were. And for a single desperate second, he is afraid they are.

Larsa stifles a smile. “While I am sure a great deal of fresh air would do the senators good, my representatives are currently tending to other matters. They will be here in the morning.”

Nodding, Vossler takes the hand Larsa extends. The boy’s grip is firm. Good lad. It’s probably a chargeable offense, in this politicking state, to even think such a common thing toward the emperor.

“Would you have any interest in riding with us, General Azelas?”

He wasn’t expecting Larsa to ask. Vossler hesitates. “I thank you for the honor, sir, but—”

“Before your letter arrived, Vossler had already made plans with, with my brother.” Basch smiles, and for once, Vossler is glad that Basch is not one to be sly, that his face gives away nothing, but Vossler hears the catch in Basch’s voice. He still won’t say the name. He’s said it before—not often, but he has—and Vossler wonders why he doesn’t simply call him Noah, if that is the name he is used to using. Or what it is about ‘Gabranth’ Basch takes exception to. It cannot be that it’s simply a mark of his Archadian judgeship—Basch also serves a nation other than the one of his birth, and Basch has retained even less of his homeland than Gabranth.

“Then I wouldn’t wish to keep you from them. It has been a long time since he’s willingly taken company.” Larsa’s voice is light; Vossler doesn’t think he’s implying anything, but there’s a tinge of pink rising in his cheeks. Vossler tells himself it’s a trick of his eyes and the wine-colored collar of Larsa’s shirt. Some kind of reflection. It has to be. “From here, follow the main corridor to the right as far as it goes, turn right again, and his rooms are at the end of the last hallway.”

Vossler bows, nods to Basch, hopes Basch knows not to expect him until late. Hopes that he will not, in fact, be back soon. As he works his way through the hallway, endeavoring not to glare too much at the curious and suspicious glances he’s getting, he makes himself consider the possibility that he might be disappointed. Gabranth might have some business to attend to—he is the head of the Ninth, the only other experienced Magister left besides Zargabaath, and there’s always something that needs addressing, Vossler knows—and Gabranth might not even be planning on fucking him. But the day before yesterday, he had said ‘not yet.’ And that was a poor choice of thought because he’s remembering that day, the hot press of Gabranth against his back, and he is glad he is at the last turn, that there is no one in this hallway, because he’s getting hard again.

His knock barely sounds before the door swings open, and Vossler’s stomach is as tight as it had been the day he’d met him, in the seconds after he’d given Gabranth an invitation to turn him as black and blue as his back currently is. Gabranth says nothing, only steps aside so Vossler can enter, and swings the door closed. The slam—louder than either of them expect—makes Vossler raise an eyebrow.

“Sorry,” Gabranth says, and his voice sounds hoarse. He clears his throat, asks, “Have you eaten? Are you hungry?”

“No.” Not for food, anyway. Vossler takes a step closer, so that there’s not even a pace between him and Gabranth, between him and tight black fabric covering the scars he wants to get his mouth on again, between him and getting everything he wants, maybe, all at once, and that’s enough to set everything in motion.

Gabranth pushes forward, pushes Vossler until his back hits the door, and he puts his hands on Vossler’s shoulders to press him harder into the wood. Vossler has to bite back a groan—it hurts; there’s a bit of raised scrollwork digging just under his left shoulderblade, and he is sure Gabranth counted on that. He twists under Gabranth’s hands, against his body, against the thigh pushing between his, but not enough to pull himself free. Only enough to make Gabranth push harder, to scrape his teeth down Vossler’s throat. Vossler feels like pressing his luck.

“You asked me to come here. Was there something you wanted?” He tries his best to look bored and is sure he’s not doing a very good job of it, not with his hips pushing back so insistently.

“I want a great many things from you,” Gabranth says. “Right now, conversation is not one of them.” He backs away, and except for his erection, Gabranth looks perfectly composed. Godsbedamned fon Ronsenburgs and their stoicism. Vossler knows he can endure as much, but he also knows his face, his manner betray too much. That suits him fine, now, though; he wants Gabranth to know how much he wants this. It is, perhaps, the first time he has had that freedom, and he does not know when or if that freedom will come again.

“What do you want of me, then?”

Gabranth doesn’t answer right away. He pulls Vossler away from the door, stands behind him, and starts to undo the clasps on his dress jacket. Vossler cannot help the shiver, the memory, and Gabranth is already nipping sparks around Vossler’s neck when he slides both jacket and shirt away. He pulls his hands up to the bruises on Vossler’s back, and strokes over them firmly, a dull ache that Vossler wants to revive, wants to make sharp and stinging again. Gabranth bites down on the shell of his ear, and the sound of his breathing makes Vossler bite his lip. “You remember your word?”

“Yes.” That much he can remember.

“Say it.”

“Nightmare.” Don’t think about Gabranth’s hand on that hilt, how that will not happen. Don’t think about that now.

Gabranth scratches up his sides. “You have it if you need it,” he says, and he grips Vossler’s shoulders hard. “If you don’t want to ruin those pants, get them off and get on the bed.”

Vossler walks deliberately to the next room, trying to find some kind of calm because he doesn’t want this to be over before it’s really begun, and Gabranth’s low, rough voice isn’t helping. He takes off his boots, slides them under the edge of the bed, and he watches Gabranth watching him undress. Gabranth’s fingers on his own shirt buttons are deft, sure, and there’s a little less red around the nails, Vossler thinks, and for whatever reason, he’s proud of that because he thinks he’s had something to do with it. He undoes his trousers slowly, carefully, because they are his uniform and because Gabranth is staring. Vossler slows his hands more. Gabranth’s eyes narrow, and he shrugs out of his shirt. “Cocktease.”

“Patience,” Vossler says, letting his lip curl, and he steps out of his trousers just in time to be shoved onto the bed. Only recently cleared for full duty or no, Gabranth is strong and Vossler’s cock aches. Gabranth muscles him to his back and Vossler doesn’t dare buck up against him, not yet. He tries to think of military law code, tactics exercises, anything but the fact that Gabranth’s weight is holding him down, that they’re finally here, but he’s got his hands on Gabranth’s skin, on his back, and he’s marveling at how smooth it seems in comparison to his chest. Gabranth scrapes his cheek across Vossler’s collarbone, he hasn’t shaved since yesterday, and the stubble rasps beautifully over the thin skin there. He bites Vossler’s lower lip and reaches down to drag his fingertips over Vossler’s cock. Vossler’s hands knot into fists on Gabranth’s back, and the bastard grins.

“Kneel up and stroke yourself.” Gabranth rolls, settles with his back against the headboard.

“What?” Of all things, he was not expecting that.

“I don’t stutter. Now, Vossler. Don’t stop until you’re told to.” The headboard is dark wood and iron, and when he looks at Gabranth, he can see him running a leather strap through his fingers, a strap with a buckle and a very obvious connection to the headboard. Oh, gods.

Vossler sits up, angles his body toward Gabranth despite the blood pooling in his cheeks. He’s never done this before, and he is strangely self-conscious about the fine division between stroking himself off in a room where there are other people—a barracks has no privacy and you get used to it—and doing it for someone. This is not for his pleasure; this is for Gabranth’s, that much he knows. But he still has to suck in his breath when he closes his hand around his cock; this is not going to last long. Not with Gabranth’s eyes on him like that, not after last night and this morning and not with the twinge of shame at even doing this twining with the knowledge that Gabranth wants him just as much, his knuckles going white around that leather strap, and something about what Vossler’s doing is pleasing Gabranth because he’s got his other hand inside his trousers—

“Gabranth, please. I’m close.” He doesn’t stop his hand, but Gabranth needs to stop him soon.

“Come if you want. But don’t stop.” Gabranth slides his trousers off, his undershorts, and this is the first time Vossler’s seen him entirely bare, his scarred chest and muscled thighs, and holy gods, the fon Ronsenburgs have beautiful thighs. Gabranth edges closer, so close but not touching and if Gabranth so much as breathes on him, he’s going to come. Vossler closes his eyes—he doesn’t want to look away but if he looks any more—and Gabranth puts his teeth on the edge of the bruising across his shoulder and bites. Vossler turns his face into Gabranth’s neck and moans release, his cock pulsing slick in his hand and Gabranth’s hand closes around his, forces the slide back down. “Keep going.”

Vossler grits his teeth; it hurts already and it’s only going to get worse, but Gabranth presses close to his back, knees on either side of Vossler’s thighs, and Vossler puts his left hand on Gabranth’s leg. Steady. Gabranth’s hand covers his there, too, twines his fingers between Vossler’s, and Gabranth’s teeth and tongue are tracing the tendons in his neck, starting to sublimate the over-sensitized nerves into the dull ache of not enough. It’s not enough. He wants everything from Gabranth, all at once, and he turns his head, seeking his mouth, and the kiss is awkward, off balance, until Gabranth pushes up on his knees, takes Vossler’s jaw in his left hand, scratches down his back with the right. Vossler is hard again, and it’s probably going to hurt if he has to come again any time soon, but he wants it.

Gabranth nudges him forward, says, “Hands and knees.”

Oh, please and thank gods. Vossler bends forward, says, “Yes, sir,” and he hopes Gabranth understands that he’s not saying it carelessly. The way Gabranth’s hand stills on his thigh, the strangely soft exhalation of breath make Vossler think he understands. And whatever else, Gabranth understands the arching in his shoulders because he bites into the pattern of marks he’d made the day before yesterday, the ones he’d wrapped his fingers over while Vossler licked at his cock last night, and Vossler pushes up harder into his teeth. When each of the bruises feels new again, Gabranth lifts, and Vossler hears a drawer scrape, and he won’t let himself look. Slick fingers push into him, and though the preparation is minimal, Vossler recognizes that it is enough. He knows what isn’t enough perhaps too well, and how important that shade of difference, how precise each nuance he comes to know about Gabranth’s touch might be what Vossler is going to want more than the marks in months to come. Vossler wipes his forehead on his shoulder and Gabranth licks a hot trail up his spine, blows until the shiver hits. And then the inexorable push, and Vossler knows he’s supposed to wait, to take what is given him, but he has to push back, to feel Gabranth within and without and the layers of hurt all over his shoulders. Gabranth leans up, sets his forearm across the worst of the bruising, and pushes Vossler down, his other hand tight on Vossler’s hip, and shoves forward.

It’s like each blow from the heavy flogger, pushing the breath out of his lungs with each thrust, and Vossler digs his fingers into the sheets. Too soon, Gabranth pulls away and he says, “On your back.”

There’s a brief spike of panic at that—he hasn’t been face-to-face with a man in this way before, not even with Basch, and he doesn’t know what Gabranth will see on his face. He is already too naked in ways that have nothing to do with skin. But Gabranth eases him higher on the bed, until his wrists are against the headboard, and Gabranth buckles the leather around them, bound both together and to the frame, and this feels good. It only happened once, and not even like this, exactly, but there’s something strangely soothing in the binding of his wrists, in the solidness of Gabranth’s movements.

And anything that was soothing is obliterated in the first thrust, in the way his left leg is pressed up and out and open, and his right leg curls around Gabranth’s hip. Gabranth spreads his palm over Vossler’s wrists and hitches his hips up, and Vossler wishes he could get his hand on his cock now, this is so good. Gabranth takes his mouth, a kiss, not simply teeth and tongue, and Gabranth’s hand grips him even as Vossler can feel the thorny pleasure of coming again too soon coiling tight. Gabranth pulls back an inch, says, into the space between them, “Come,” and puts his mouth on the place he first marked, and Vossler does, isn’t ready, can’t stop himself. He tangles his legs with Gabranth’s, pulling him closer until he stiffens and shudders against him. He is glad for the bindings on his wrists because he’s afraid what he might do with his arms in this moment, while Gabranth is still and solid above him. He lets his head fall back, stretches his neck up, and hates himself for thinking I don’t want to leave. The heartbeat that follows that thought pushes it away, and they have to leave. This has been the best he’s ever had, and he will not ruin it with too much wanting. All too soon, Gabranth levers himself up and tugs the straps free.

He pulls two towels from the bedside table and hands one to Vossler. Vossler can’t quite bring himself to move yet, and Gabranth leans over, licks lightly—just once—at the edge of the pearled smear, and scrapes his teeth along Vossler’s lowest rib. He rolls to his back and says, “Tomorrow is probably not going to be the most enjoyable day in the saddle you’ve had.” Gabranth grins that sharky grin of his.

Vossler could get used to that expression. No. He hides the way his eyebrows are furrowing in wiping the spunk from his body. “Yes and no.” The luxury of this—no hurry, natural light in the window (has he ever done this during the day before? he doesn’t think so), the ease—he must not get used to this. Vossler stretches, and he can feel the ache. It’s going to be an utter bitch riding for a while, but at least he’ll have something pleasant to think about. “Might keep me distracted enough not to go mad.” Vossler rubs his hands over his face and yawns. Maybe they could have a bit of a nap, another go? Walking without limping seems entirely overrated right now. It might be better if he just goes, though. No sense in dragging it out. He’ll get up in a few minutes.

“It won’t be as awful as all that.”

Vossler glances over. “A fortnight with a couple of imperial paper-pushers and Basch at his most neurotic? The best I can hope for is to be eaten by rabid wyrdhares.”

“Magisters aren’t paper-pushers,” Gabranth says, and there’s some warning in it, but then he smiles, a little. “I wish I knew what Basch was thinking. He was never that shy before, and Balthier’s done everything short of putting up a sign.”

“That’s entirely too easy for Basch. He has to do everything the hard way.” He must, or he wouldn’t be Vossler’s friend. As Vossler is his. And if he gets told to mind his own business, that’s fine. “If you want to know what Basch is thinking, you could ask him.”

“It’s not that simple.” Gabranth crosses his arms over his chest, and Vossler isn’t sure if he’s covering the worst of the scars again or if he’s angry. He can be pissed off; Vossler doesn’t mind that, but he shouldn’t want to hide himself. Vossler slides his knuckles across the rippled skin at his ribs.

“Why isn’t it?” Vossler says, edging his hand beneath Gabranth’s arm to touch, again, the marvelous texture of survival. His cock twitches weakly against his thigh. He’ll get up after this. An hour more.

Gabranth sighs, as much, Vossler thinks, from his words as his touch, but Gabranth does raise his arms, folds them behind his head.

Vossler asks, just to be sure. “Is this all right?”

“You’d know if it wasn’t.” Gabranth’s mouth twists up at the left corner, and that, Vossler knows, is true. He’s tempted to see how far he can push, but he doesn’t want to end it like that. He doesn’t want to end it at all, but there’s no way—he turns his attention back to Gabranth’s chest, to a patch of unscarred skin above his nipple, and he wants to leave some sign on his body, some mark on Gabranth. If he doesn’t want it, Vossler will know. Still, he tries to be sneaky about it, licking and leaving soft bites for a long time before he closes his mouth on that spot and starts to suck. Almost as soon as he does, Gabranth’s fingers snarl in his hair, and he drags his mouth up. The fair northern skin is already pinked and Vossler would bet it will still be visible tomorrow. It’s worth it.

But Gabranth doesn’t say no. He says, “Not there,” and pushes Vossler down, taps at the top of his thigh. “Here,” he says, and waits. He is, Vossler thinks, an arrogant bastard, his arms behind his head again, expectant, and it’s frightening how acutely his body responds. He bites, hard, once, before he sets his lips an inch from where Gabranth’s leg meets his body, and sucks. Gabranth twists into him, for him. He pulls back for a moment to see how dark it is, and when he sees the shape of his mouth on Gabranth’s skin, he wants. He curls his hand around the back of Gabranth’s thigh and bites again. He wants this to last, wants anyone else who touches him to know, at least until it fades, that he was Vossler’s. Going back to the way things were is going to kill him.

Gabranth reaches down, draws him away and up, and licks across Vossler’s swollen lips. “That will hold until next time.”

Vossler shakes his head. “We leave in the morning.”

“For two weeks, and then you’ll need at least a week to set everything in order again, but then?” Gabranth sits up a little.

“Then I’ll be in Dalmasca and you’ll be here.” Vossler sees him fold his fingers very deliberately into his palms. At least he’s not chewing them.

“You’ll have days off.” Gabranth crosses his arms again, hands still clenched in fists. “I don’t want to stop. And neither do you.”

“No, I don’t.” Vossler rolls onto his back again, covers his eyes with his hands. His hands smell like sex. That’s not helping. “It’s a logistical catastrophe.” And that’s not a mere excuse. The sheer number of responsibilities between them is staggering, and that’s only as long as Ivalice runs smoothly. Vossler is not naïve enough to think that will happen.

“Then it’s good we’ve been military our whole lives, isn’t it?”

This is too easy. Vossler has to sit up, can’t keep giving in. “I’m not coming running every time you send for me.”

“I would never expect you to,” Gabranth says, face grave. “Only as often as you wish.”

And Gabranth knows exactly how often that would be—if things continue to go this well, as often as possible. “Bastard.”

Gabranth grins.

The only other objection Vossler has is the one he doesn’t want to voice. He’s done well not thinking about it, keeping past and present separate, but he doesn’t know how long that will last. Probably only until Ashe finds out, and she will not let him forget. That much he knows. It is a firestorm waiting to happen. Vossler balls up the sheet under his hands, and there’s nothing satisfying in the yielding cloth. He lifts his chin, hardens his face. “And if I find I cannot make my peace with this? With who you are, with what I am?”

When Gabranth speaks, his voice is soft, but there are flinty sparks in his eyes and the barest hint of a grin on his lips. “If that should happen, we will simply have to fight to the death.” Gabranth nudges Vossler’s foot with his own, brushes up the inside of the arch, and Vossler yanks his foot away.

And he laughs. He shouldn’t, because it’s true, and that’s why he laughs. The very thought of what they’re doing is ridiculous, ridiculous and tactically disastrous, and he doesn’t know how he’s going to tell Basch, let alone Ashe—he has to tell them because they’re going to find out—but all he can think to say, once he catches his breath, is, “I like my odds.”

Gabranth puts his hands on Vossler’s biceps and rolls them over. “I like mine, too.”

* * *

 

“Thank you for agreeing to come riding with me, Basch.” Larsa nods to the stable guards, and they, too, look askance at Basch. Larsa doesn’t bother explaining, and Basch finds himself grateful.

The Archadian imperial stables are, of course, beautiful, and all of the birds seem very fine, but they are not the hardy kinds that Basch prefers, and more than half of them startle even at their passing through. He has to ask.

“If you do not mind my inquiring, had you selected mounts for the survey?” Perhaps there are regular cavalry stables elsewhere; that would be the logical place to look, but Archadia has not the same kind of cavalry Dalmasca has. Their cavalry is small, their forces more dependent on mechanical transportation, and perhaps that makes sense for the sheer size of the Empire. Basch is glad Dalmasca still maintains her mounted troop and her infantry as the primary line of defense; there is no current possibility that Dalmasca can engage in the terror that is an impersonal, mechanized war. And perhaps that is to her detriment, politically—the day may certainly come when Dalmasca finds herself at the mercy of another airfleet’s bombers—but it is all to her credit in Basch’s mind. Dalmasca will only fight when she must, and when she sets her lance to engage, she will do so knowing full well the cost. It is, Basch thinks, the only way to wage an honest war, if war can ever be honest.

“I had hoped you would offer your advice, actually. What sort of bird would you think best suited?” Larsa climbs the railing on one of the stalls, standing on the second plank so that he can reach the raised head of a chocobo. He moves slowly, carefully, Basch sees, and he is glad of that. The bird allows Larsa to scratch under its beak for a moment, then curves its neck to nibble at a bit of silver trim on Larsa’s shoulder. He nudges the beak gently away, and the bird shakes its head and lifts its beak as if offended.

“I take it you two know each other?” Basch extends his hand, and the chocobo taps at it with closed beak. One of these days, he might lose a finger doing this, but it—she—is quite lovely.

“This is my Darci. She’s a bit of a brat.” He says it with affection, and she shakes her head at the sound of her name. “Many of the chocobos here belong to someone from the palace, but there are few dozen trailbred here, too, that you would be free to choose from.” Larsa climbs down from the stall door, and Darci warks, shrill, as he moves away. He turns to glare at her, and she turns her back to him. Larsa leads Basch to a second building, slightly less opulent but no less clean, Basch is glad to see, and he breathes a sigh of relief. These birds are not so obviously overbred as some he had seen in the first building.

“My Magister already has his own mount for such assignments,” Larsa says, and that also brings with it some relief. Rannel must do a fair bit of riding then, and on equivalent missions. He almost asks if he can see that bird, to know more about the man—he hopes desperately it is not one of the fire-eater types, the ones whose eyes roll and are always ringed with white. They can make good cavalry mounts, that kind—they become another weapon, the high-strung ones, lashing out in a melee—but they are more often a liability, refusing to hold the line, shying at the noise or the smells of battle. And if they are to appear as travelers, such a mount might ruin their cover; no one takes such a creature through rough country. But he will hold his peace. Let the Archadians choose as they will.

The chocobos here seem to be arranged by size—first by height and then by musculature. Only in Archadia is even the livestock filed. But it does make the task easier—he can skip the shorter birds entirely because it’s no good to have one’s feet dragging.

“Choose one for yourself and for General Azelas, and if I could ask it of you, for the fourth member as well.” Larsa pets absently at a feathered head, and the bird in the next stall pushes for his other hand.

“For myself and Vossler, the task is easy enough, but I would not chance an ill fit for a man I’ve not met.” And stranger still that this surveyor should not even have his own mount nor enough interest or knowledge to choose one. Basch wonders if they have a well-padded saddle for this sort of rider. If not, this Tevis had better put a few more potions in his pack. Good gods. “Should he not choose his own?”

“It is not a question of his ability to choose, but more an issue of opportunity. I’m afraid he’s engaged until the moment of departure.” Larsa’s face is almost completely obscured by a thatch of yellow feathers. “Choose as you would for Vaan or Balthier—someone with the physical ability to ride, but perhaps might not do so as often as one might like.”

That is some consolation, then. Under different conditions, Basch would like to take each of these chocobos out himself, be sure, but there is not that kind of time in Larsa’s schedule. And, well, he wants to see Balthier. Vossler’s chocobo he finds first, a tall, sturdy-looking fellow that does not shy at all when Basch slides into the stall. He will be able to bear Vossler and the weight of Nightmare, which is like adding a child riding double, and Basch turns him in a circle easily just with his knees when he climbs astride. When Basch leaves the stall, the chocobo warks and pecks at the stall door. Yes. He will do for Vossler.

For Tevis—perhaps his brother is wrong, and it’s someone else, but no matter—the task is even easier. The bird waits patiently while Basch checks his legs, his feet, does not kick or scratch. He does have to use his arms as reins, laying gentle pressure on the sides of his neck to turn him, but if this surveyor is not used to riding without reins, it is often easier if the bird is not so sensitive to the movement of the rider’s legs. And for himself, the chocobo chooses him.

He had his eye on a tall, true-gold male, slimmer than the one Basch chose for Vossler, and there’s something easy in the way he’s holding his head that makes Basch think he’s a good choice for this assignment. Relaxed. He’s two stalls away when another bird chirrs at him, clicks in the back of her throat. Only the females do that, and he’s never heard the sound from a stabled bird before. He turns, and she stretches her neck over the stall and looks him in the eye. She’s got a spattering of darker feathers striping up from her eyes and the tips of her pinions are edged in black, and Basch can’t help the lurch in his throat. She’s got black chocobo blood in her, and maybe a few of the other wild strains because she’s a red-gold, amber-bright, rather than a true gold, and he shouldn’t want something that’s part wild—even if it’s as long-distant in the bloodline as her coloring suggests—for official work, but the wild ones are smarter than the domestics. He pauses in front of her, and Larsa coughs.

“She’s a bit of trouble, I’ve heard.” Larsa, Basch notes, does not put out his hand to this one.

“How much trouble, and from whom?” Basch steps closer, definitely in range of her beak, and extends his arm. She opens her beak, as slowly as he reaches, and she settles the sharp keratin over his forearm—not biting, but resting. Testing, Basch thinks, and he holds still. There’s a light flutter at his wrist—her tongue—and she lets go, closes her beak, and nudges his arm up into her feathers. He wonders, scratching gently, if he could afford her. If, since she is here, in this part of the stables, if she can be bought. But he doesn’t know how she rides yet, and first things first. He climbs over the stall door, just to see what she does. She backs up, only a pace, and waits.

“She drew blood on someone doing what you just did with your arm. When he pulled it away, she bit down, and she threw the last three people to try riding her.” Larsa stands next to the stall door, now that Basch is between him and the chocobo. “But two of them likely deserved it.”

“That is why I did not pull away. She has to see that I trust her, before she will trust me. As for riding, let’s see if we have better luck a fourth time, then.” He puts his palms on either side of her beak, and her left foot scratches at the shavings on the floor, but she holds steady. “And I will try not to deserve a throwing, hm?”

One of the grooms seems to appear from nowhere, carrying tack that was obviously made for this bird—it’s all black, parade gear, and it would look so handsome on her. Basch shakes his head. “Do you have a plain trail saddle that will suit her?”

The groom looks Basch up and down, taking in, Basch thinks, the dress uniform, the fact that he is standing here with the emperor of Archadia and asking for something plain. But the man leaves and comes back with a hackamore and a trail saddle—it’s still not what Basch would call plain, but it will do—and he hands it directly to Basch.

“I’ll leave you to it, milord, but watch your back with that one,” he says, and Basch’s first reaction is to insist the man use his name, but the groom has already turned his attention to Larsa. “Shall I get Darci in order, Your Excellency?”

“If you would be so kind, Bern.” The groom walks off.

“Does she have a name?” Basch holds the hackmore up, to see how she reacts. If she is afraid of the tack, he won’t be able to take her on this trip for certain. She bends her head and nibbles at the leather. Good. She lets him settle the straps around her beak, though she is wary as he slides the reins along her neck. Hopefully, he won’t have to use them, if she is as canny as she seems.

“Eska, I think,” Larsa says. “It’s a Paramina name. She’s got one of those white chocobos in her bloodlines, somewhere, too. She’s quite the mutt.” But the emperor smiles when he says it.

Basch remembers the Trickster hunt, and he should not want anything to do with the chocobos of that region after that, but he still thrills a little at the idea. Not that Eska has anything to do with the Trickster—that was a chocobo in form only, magicked and warped and deadly dangerous—but it had been breathtakingly beautiful, the iridescence of the feathers swirling with mist. Eska turns and takes a lock of hair into her beak and tugs. She seems to glare. Basch shows her the saddle and puts it on her back, though he doesn’t let the full weight of it touch just yet. And she does twitch at that, scratching again at the floor, but Basch holds steady, and after a few moments, she settles. He lets the full weight of the saddle press her back, and he leans some of his own weight against her, too. She takes a step forward, and Basch takes the reins in his left hand.

“Hold,” he says, and tugs back the slightest bit. She shakes her head but takes no more steps. He lets the reins fall slack again, and passes the girth under her. If it’s going to get ugly it will be here. When he reaches beneath her to pull it taut, he can see her fill her lungs as far as they will go. If he tightens it now, the saddle will roll to one side as soon as he mounts. He straightens, looks her in the eye, and pats her side firmly. She finally exhales, and he tightens the girth enough that the saddle won’t shift. She is smart. And she is used to getting her own way.

Bern appears again, leading Darci, who seems to be avoiding even the gazes of the other birds, beak in the air. Larsa goes to her, takes the reins from the groom.

“Should you need bandages, milord, there are medic’s kits at the end of each row,” Bern says, and he’s on tiptoe, looking over the stall door at Basch. “I expect it smarts a bit.”

“She hasn’t done anything. Does she tend to kick?” Basch strokes her neck and leans into her again.

Bern’s eyes widen. “You’re the first, then, to get in there without any fuss. Kick, bite, scratch—even her own master, Occuria rest him.”

Basch has to look up at that. Whose was she? He’s more than a little afraid of the possible answers.

Larsa catches his expression. “She had been the parade choice for Colonel Lensing, who we lost, unfortunately, in the Leviathan explosion. He never did get past the riding park with her.”

That’s some relief. She hadn’t been Vayne’s, or one of the late Magisters’. “She’s wasted as a parade bauble.” Basch takes the chance and swings himself into the saddle. Eska tosses her head and tries to turn a circle, but Basch guides her head the other way until she stands. “Hold,” he says, and he lets the reins rest on the pommel.

Bern pulls open the stall door, and Eska feels like she’s coiling beneath him, wanting to bolt. But she doesn’t. Basch smoothes his hand over her neck feathers. Bern gives Larsa a leg up onto Darci—she’s a bit tall for him still, but he’ll grow into her, and that’s the best way—and they ride into sunlight.

The field they’re riding into is no mere field; it is the royal riding park, groomed paths and sculpted shrubbery winding around the upper edge of the city. Basch thinks he should be marveling at the artificial waterfalls, the vine arbors and expanses of unnaturally pure green, but he finds himself more interested in the way Eska watches the landscape. She’s not looking around because she’s nervous—she’s curious: her head doesn’t dart from sound to sound; she looks long at each thing. Basch thinks it’s probably been a while since she’s been out, given her reputation. And yet for all that, she’s behaving, behaving well enough that Basch can pay attention to Larsa, how he carries himself atop Darci. His seat is decent—certainly, he’s been riding since he could walk—but there’s a kind of formality even there that will make a skittish bird moreso. Basch remembers Balthier’s words. It’s not exactly heroic or dangerous, but it’s not something anyone thinks to teach the highborn.

“Drop the reins, Larsa.”

When Larsa turns his head, smiling because Basch has remembered to use his given name, Basch places his own reins on the pommel again. Eska stretches her neck forward, testing again. When she finds her head entirely free, she cranes her neck to look at Basch.

Darci dances a bit when the reins go slack, and Basch nudges Eska closer to Larsa, using only his knees to guide her. And she goes. As soon as they are done out here, he is asking Larsa how he can get her.

“She’s a bit wayward without the reins, Basch.” Larsa is sitting even more stiffly than before, and Basch wants to know who his riding instructor is. It’s not his brother, that much he can say with certainty, though he would like to know how or why his twin hasn’t taught him this himself. Of course, in the most recent year, Basch suspects neither of them had much time for riding for pleasure.

“Yes, she is.” Darci is starting to lunge, and Eska pushes her way in front at Basch’s urging, and Darci pulls up, affronted. “She is, but you must not let her be.” Eska sidles up to Darci, and Basch can look at Larsa’s face now. He is trying to be of good courage, and that’s a start. “First, you must relax, here, and let your hips move as she walks.” And now Basch understands the kind of riding Larsa’s been taught—he’s been taught parade riding, how to take a bird through its paces over a course. He’s not been taught to ride with any thought of distance or comfort or the necessity of having to ride without the aid of one’s hands.

Basch nudges Eska into a gentle lope, and Darci follows. Larsa clutches at the reins again, and Basch reminds him to let them hang. After a while, Larsa puts his hands on his thighs, as Basch’s are, and seems to relax. Basch shows Larsa how to guide the chocobo right or left with only pressure from the opposite knee or a hand on the neck, “Because you might not always even have reins, or even a saddle.”

After some time, Basch is wishing he’d taken off his dress jacket. It’s hot under the sun, though the riding park has its bits of shade. And he’s glad he won’t have to wear the dress uniform again any time soon—it needs cleaning now. Vossler would shake his head at him; Basch has never understood the need for a dress uniform. It never sees the real work of soldiering, though dinners and meetings are their own kind of duress.

Soon, the distant chiming of bells makes Larsa turn. “I’m afraid I must cut our ride short, Basch, if I am to meet with the Omisace delegation.” His always-too-pale cheeks are red with exertion and maybe a bit too much sun. It is not fair that Larsa should have so little of his childhood, and that is the hundredth time he’s thought it. But Larsa manages, and Basch admires him for it.

“Such is the nature of duty.”

“Indeed.” Larsa wheels Darci with only his knees, and Fran was right. You never needed to repeat yourself to Larsa.

“Do you feel comfortable letting Darci stretch her legs on the way back?” Basch hopes he says yes. He wants to see what Eska does with complete freedom.

“I suppose I shall have to try to know if I can.” Larsa taps his heels lightly under Darci’s wings, and she hurtles forward. Basch holds Eska back until he can see that Larsa is all right, that he’s not wobbling in the saddle, and once Basch is sure, he lets her go, and she is amazing. Her stride is long and low, her neck stretched nearly parallel to the ground, and the trees whip by. She is not the fastest he’s ridden, but she is close, and her gait is so smooth, so even. He leans over her neck and they pass Larsa and Darci. Basch turns Eska toward one of the hedges, and she clears it without shying. He nudges her toward a shallow, wide stream, and she splashes through without hesitation. One last thing, and this decides whether he can take her on this trip. There is a stake—just a thin bit of wood—marking something in a flowerbed, Basch cares not what. He turns Eska to dash by it, and as she does, he leans and tugs it from the ground. Thankfully, it comes easily, and he swings her toward some long grasses. He lifts himself in the saddle and swings the stake, thrashing the grass around him. Eska makes no notice, only plunges on, and he smiles to see her snap at a seed pod as they go. He takes her back through the stream, because it’s hot, and this is fun. Wiping the water from his face—the uniform definitely needs cleaning now—he sits up, and as he does, Eska slows her dash. He has no idea how anyone could miss how extraordinary she is, and when he guides her back toward the stable, Larsa claps. At the sound, Darci startles, and Basch watches with pride as Larsa settles her again. When she has stopped dancing, he says, “Gabranth was right. You are an extraordinary rider. She hasn’t suffered anyone on her back in months, and yet she appears to have always known your hand.”

His brother said? “He speaks of me?” Basch makes himself not tense. Eska has been so good, he will not make her be nervous now.

“In recent weeks, yes. Often.”

Basch dismounts and takes the reins in his hand to lead Eska back to the stable. He could teach her to follow, he thinks, without reins at all. She is smart enough for that.

Larsa slides down from Darci’s back. “He has told me about Landis, about your training, about how much trouble you two should have gotten into.” Larsa laughs. “It is good to have the old stories again, is it not?”

It would be, Basch thinks. It would be. And Larsa sees that in his face. Of course he does. Basch tries to duck behind Eska’s neck, but she jerks her head away.

“I am sorry. I had thought—” Larsa’s chin tilts toward the ground.

“There may be too much between us to restore the past, Larsa, but at least we are not enemies any longer. In time, too, we may come to be friends.” That much, Basch hopes for, when they can at least speak, if not as they had once done, but as friends. He hopes, and yet the thought is abhorrent, acid-bitter in his throat. He never thought he would see the day when he and Noah would become as mere acquaintances. When they would be courteous, polite, civil in the way of just meeting. They had never been that way with each other. But then again, Noah had not been Gabranth then, and Basch had not left his homeland then, and they had been easy and rude and so close Basch sometimes wasn’t sure what had been his idea or which had been Noah’s words and it hadn’t mattered because they were the same. He turns Eska into her stall and latches it. He’ll take her tack off inside, in case she startles. He is not calm enough to do this. Larsa walks Darci a few more paces into the stable, loops her reins around one of the posts, and he walks back to Basch. For the first time, Larsa’s perfect decorum seems to crack.

“Friends, Basch? You hope one day to be friends? He is your brother. He is your twin. How can you say such a thing?” Larsa’s jaw clenches, tight like his small hands that are curled into fists at his sides. “You are both still alive. Do not waste that.” He turns away and reaches for the girth on Darci’s saddle, and she preens his hair as he undoes the buckle.

Basch swallows hard, and eases into Eska’s stall. She eyes him warily, and he has to wait for her to lower her head enough for him to reach the hackamore. Eventually, she does, and he takes long, slow breaths that he holds for a second before exhaling. Once her head is free, she sidles up to him, bumps his arm with her body. He is quick about taking the saddle off, and he rests it over the stall door.

Larsa walks away, and Basch knows he should have known better than to say that. His brother is still alive, and Larsa’s is not. And Basch had a hand in making it that way. He hopes Larsa will not simply leave the stables now—Darci is still standing there, unsaddled but displeased at Larsa’s leaving. Basch folds his arms over the stall door and leans, and Eska stands next to him, resting her chin on the saddle. Before Basch can start to worry about where to put their tack, Larsa returns with Bern.

The groom’s eyes widen when he sees Basch standing beside Eska. “Begging your pardon, milord, but have you drawers made of gysahl greens to get her so docile?”

Larsa giggles, and Basch has to smile. “Nothing half so entertaining, I’m afraid.” Basch buries his hand in her neck feathers and scratches.

Larsa explains to Bern which of the chocobos will need to be ready in the morning, and Bern still shakes his head when Larsa includes Eska in that group. When Bern walks away, taking with him the saddles, Larsa steps closer.

“Forgive me my outburst, Basch. I know it cannot be easy. You have been separated longer than I have been alive.” Larsa puts his hand out to Eska, and she taps it with her beak. “But you’ll try?”

“I will.” Basch wonders if Larsa has had a conversation similar with his brother. There is something hopeful in his face, something that speaks of faith in speech, and Basch wishes he had it. He smoothes his thumb over the dark stripes above Eska’s eyes. “And I will see you tomorrow.” Basch climbs over the stall door, and she pushes forward, after him, as far as she can.

“You’ve made quite the impression.” Larsa leads Darci at his side. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

He shrugs. He should ask now. “About her. Is it possible that she’s for sale?”

“She’s yours, if you’d like her.” They cross into the first stable. “Colonel Lensing’s wife sold her to the imperial stables immediately after his death. They had thought to breed her, eventually, but she didn’t take well to that idea, either.”

“Name your price, and put the gil toward a worthy project.” Basch trusts Larsa to do exactly that—a library, restoration in Old Archades, the rebuilding in Nabradia, a hospital—and Larsa assents. They work out a deal in reverse fashion, Larsa giving a figure and Basch insisting on more, as they walk back to the palace proper.

* * *

Basch climbs the stairs to the balcony, sees, with satisfaction, the thick new pane of glass in Balthier’s window, and enters the house through his window, hoping to surprise Balthier in some small way. As he pushes through to the hallway, to the study, and finds him neither there nor in his own rooms, he thinks the idea silly. Him returning as he said he would is no surprise, and he turns the corners to the kitchen. He is not here, either, and the stove and kettle are cold. The next place to try is the upstairs, and he thinks about taking the elevator from the kitchen, but he doesn’t. The less time there, the better, and again he is holding his breath while he waits for the doors to open to the great room, but they do not hesitate this time. The room is empty, and he tries to stave off the sinking feeling in his stomach. He checks the roof anyway, but there’s no one. Twisting his way down the staircase, Basch tells himself that Balthier’s running errands, that he’s probably getting dinner because Basch was later than he thought he’d be. But the house is so quiet, Basch can’t help but think about the other days and nights when he’d disappeared, those not-soft-enough clicks of his closing door.

Basch stands in the great room, leaning into one of the pillars and looking up through the skylights. The light isn’t yet starting to fade, it’s still early, and Basch is not in the mood to be alone. He wants to tell someone about Eska, wants to tell Balthier, but he’s not here. He’s also hungry, startlingly so, and he remembers that he’s not eaten anything yet. He’ll go out, find some dinner, and maybe Balthier will be back by then.

A Bhujerban curry later, eaten on the walk back to the Bunansa house, Basch returns to hallways that give no answer when he calls. He goes straight back to the great room, wishes Vossler at least were here, so he could spar properly, but he’ll have to make do with shadow-boxing or practicing forms. He yanks off his shirt, gets his hands stuck in the cuffs, and has to backtrack, undo the buttons there first. He always forgets, and the temptation to just pop them is strong, but he doesn’t. There will be enough comment on the fact that his dress uniform smells like chocobo and has its share of dust-dredged watermarks across the back without having to get new buttons put on it when he gets back to Rabanastre. He tugs off his boots, rolls up the cuffs of his pants, and takes one of the practice swords from the rack, a blade almost as long and heavy as his longsword. This must be the one Balthier’s been practicing with, and as Basch raises it to the first position, he wonders again where he is. If he’ll be back tonight at all.

He runs through the first form, and the second, and by the time he’s halfway through the third, the emptiness in the floors below is a weight, settling across the back of his neck, and he bares his teeth to the glinting stone. He should have known better. The dulled practice blade grinds through the air, and he wishes there were pells here, something he could hit. Godsdammit. Sweat’s running into his eyes, and he looks up at the skylights. There had been a bit of a breeze, and the Strahl’s not there—he climbs the spiral staircase, props the doors open with wrenches again, and picks up the fourth form on the terracotta expanse meant for the missing airship. Missing airship, missing pirate, and not missing in the same place. Basch almost wishes Balthier had taken the ship; then Basch could at least start to understand the urge to leave, to disappear. It had to be so much easier with wings like that, but why now? And where to? Basch sets his shoulder against the sun-warmed stone and rolls, the uncoiling rise-and-lunge that concludes the fifth form scraping across bare skin. He reverses the roll to begin the sixth form, something that’s not technically part of the sequence but something he does in practice, and when he’s back on his feet, pivoting for the high block, he nearly drops the sword. Balthier’s standing right in front of him.

“There you are,” he says, and he’s grinning.

Not for the first time, Basch wants to hit him even as a traitorous relief, real gladness, prickles in his spine. He’s here. Still, where has he been? “Don’t sneak up on me. I might have stabbed you.”

“You’ve better control than that, if you haven’t stabbed me yet.” Balthier grins wider. “And I think my reflexes are better than yours.”

Basch is just annoyed enough that he wants to take the bait. “Prove it.” Basch bends, puts the longsword down, well out of the way. He rocks back into an easy guard.

“You’re not serious.” Even as he says it, he’s undoing the clasps on his vest.

“Try me.” Basch makes himself hold Balthier’s eyes, even as he’s hyperaware of the exposed skin, of the way Balthier takes in his own rising ribcage.

Balthier puts his shirt and vest atop the longsword, and he opens with two open-fisted strikes, one high, one at Basch’s shoulder, and while Basch blocks, he tries to snake his leg in for the sweep, but Basch turns his foot away with his own. Balthier prefers kicking to punching—he remembers that now. Good. It will be sound practice for him. Basch sets back into guard. Balthier can come to him.

They circle, and the sun is starting to dip to the point that it, too, is a weapon, and Balthier seems to be paying especially close attention to that. His eyes keep darting to their shadows, his tongue flickering over his lower lip, and Basch has to keep his eyes on Balthier’s before he makes a mistake. Balthier lunges, and Basch snaps his forearms up to counter, but Balthier doesn’t strike. He does not attack Basch’s body, only crosses it, and when Basch swivels again to face him, the sun grits full in his eyes. Basch has only a heartbeat to guess what Balthier will do next, and he is glad when Balthier’s shin thuds solidly into his. He guessed right. Basch ducks to the left, turning them both, and Balthier is grinning again.

“You know me too well.” Balthier bounces on the balls of his feet, wipes a drop of sweat from his cheek.

Basch is thirsty. Even his fingertips feel dry. “Not well enough. Not half so well as I’d like,” he says, and he takes advantage of how Balthier seems to slow at his words, how he looks at Basch instead of paying attention to Basch’s feet, and Basch gets his ankle behind Balthier’s and pulls. He catches him before Balthier hits the tile, tugs him back to his feet, and Balthier’s biceps are tight under his hands. Basch means to simply let go, but his hands drift, maybe an inch, on Balthier’s arms, and he has to let go before he doesn’t want to. As he uncurls his fingers, though, he already doesn’t want to, and Balthier turns his palm up to graze the inside of Basch’s forearm as they part. Basch ducks his head, gathers up the practice blade, passes Balthier his shirt and vest. He feels too bare, can feel Balthier’s gaze on him, and what bothers him is not that Balthier is looking but that he wants to look, too, and he isn’t sure he should. He’s afraid of what his face might give away.

“I won’t tell Nono you’ve been using the wrenches as doorstops.” Balthier has put his shirt on, thought it still hangs open, and he stoops to pick up the spanner, puts it back in the toolbox.

“I appreciate that.” Basch breathes a little easier for the jibe, and it’s almost funny, now, the way Balthier looks away every time Basch glances up. In the great room, Basch racks the practice blade, slings his jacket and shirt over his shoulder. He really needs a shower now, and he wants to go do something. He wants to do something with Balthier. “Do you have any plans for the rest of the evening?” He hopes Balthier doesn’t take it as an invitation—not that kind—not yet.

“Food. Have you eaten?” Balthier kicks the elevator button, says what Basch thinks is a threat in the Phon dialect. It’s Phon, and whatever it is, it’s not nice. He’s heard that expression before.

“I did. But I could eat again.” And he is surprised to realize that he really could; he has an appetite again. “I need a shower first.”

Balthier takes one of the empty sleeves in his hand, turns it over, wipes at some of the dustmarks. “With this much disrespect to the uniform, you must have had a good afternoon?”

They step into the elevator, and when it closes, there’s barely a squeezing in his chest. It’s getting better, and, more importantly, it is not worse when Balthier is next to him. Basch steps a little closer to Balthier, but he keeps himself in the center of the box. “I bought a chocobo.” He can’t help the wideness of the grin.

Balthier shakes his head, smiling. “You were supposed to scandalize the boy’s advisors, not line their pockets.”

“I taught him to ride without reins, if that counts, and I’m pretty sure I did some damage to the landscaping. But if you could see her. She’s the most amazing creature.” Unless Balthier comes with them in the morning, Basch doesn’t know when that could happen. The thought disappoints him more than he thinks it should. “Will you come with us in the morning, up to the Palace? Meet Eska?”

“You’re lucky she’s a lady, or I might be jealous. Of course I’ll come. I have to see you off properly.” The elevator settles, and Balthier takes a slim knife from his boot, poises it at the join of the doors. “Open, or I will gut you like a fish.”

The doors part, and Basch laughs. “Thank you.” He steps into the hallway, and Balthier had said ‘jealous’—are they—? He has to ask. What are they doing? But what comes out is, “Earlier, where were you? If I can ask.”

“You can always ask.” Balthier looks at him, and this is one of the times when Basch thinks he means it. “I picked a new barrel for the Fomalhaut from the gunsmith—have to replace it entirely. Vayne fucked it up proper. And had some errands to run, after the glass was done.”

Basch opens his door, and he hopes Balthier follows. He does, though he stays near the door, and Basch drapes his shirt and jacket over a chair, is about to head for the shower, but there’s—there are flowers on the table. A bouquet, utterly riotous in color and form. He picks it up, and the mass of stems completely fills his fist. There’s something on the leather thong holding the stems together, a charm of some kind. Basch turns to face Balthier. There are flowers in his room. In his hand.

Balthier takes a few steps closer. “If I must woo you—” Balthier grins, both sarcastic and shy at once and Basch loves that expression. He has never seen it before. “—I will do it properly. The stems are motley, but each serves its purpose.” He runs his fingers over Basch’s traveling armor, piled on a chair where it waits for morning, and where his fingers brush bits of leather and metal, Basch feels the phantom touch on his own skin.

He drags his gaze from Balthier’s fingers. “You brought me flowers?” He’s certainly never received any before, and he’s not sure he’s ever given flowers before. Not beyond the mostly crushed stems he and Noah used to bring their mother on her birthday—mostly weeds, he thinks they were—and the occasional bloom he gave to Ashe when she was but a little girl, if he’d seen something bright and beautiful wherever they’d been patrolling.

“Obviously.” Balthier looks up, hesitant. “They don’t make you sneeze, do they? And I didn’t mean to break into your room, but I thought I might surprise you with them, complete the cliché.”

“I am certainly surprised.” Flowers? From Balthier? He’s being wooed?

Balthier twists one of his rings. “I’ll go get something to put those in.” Balthier ducks out of the room, his footsteps fading into the hallway.

Basch turns the bouquet in his hands, and he’s not sure what to look at first. There is so much. And there is a book lying open on the table, one he hadn’t put there. It’s an Archadian etiquette text, and Basch almost closes it entirely, until he looks more closely at the page it’s open to—an index of flowers and meanings assigned to them. Someone wrote that sort of thing down? And Balthier put it here deliberately. He is suddenly nervous.

He looks from the armful of flowers to the pages of the book—this is ridiculous— and he recognizes Galbana lilies, a white and a red, and finds them on the list. Yearning. Hope. It feels like getting thrown from the saddle, the moment before hitting the ground. Weightless. Fraught. And there is another Dalmascan flower, a Dynast Cactus bloom, smaller than he’s used to seeing them in the desert, but there it is, brilliant yellow petals around its wide center. Past fellowship. It’s nestled in a spray of tiny, rosy blooms, and he has to turn to the next page to find Mooglenoses. Constance. A spike of broad blue flowers—Mosphoran Celestials. Obsession. White Vale Blossoms they’d collected in the Estersand. Renewal. A strange green-gray bloom that seems nearly a pod, half-open to show a rosy interior—Rozarrian Rivel Roses. Undying ardor. Basch can feel the blood rushing to his cheeks. Balthier cannot be serious. This must be a joke. He turns the bouquet, and there is something he has not seen in so long. Pinselchrys. He has to touch the feathery, gold-touched white petals, and he knows it’s only a trick of his memory, but it feels like snow, that twinkling between contact and its melting, before the cold even registers. This one is not in the book, though he would not have to look this one up. It’s a flower of apology and a directional bloom in old Landisser heraldry, one put on tokens given by a knight to his lady, acknowledging her ascendancy over him. He is no lady, but the association makes him pause. No one has ever reached up to him, and he wants to dismiss the thought as born of his own pride, but he knows Balthier’s pride, too, how rare this kind of admission is. To ignore what he has deliberately done here would be callous.

He lifts the bouquet to his nose, and the clean, sharp scent of pinselchrys cuts through the sweet chaos of the other blooms. They’re almost impossible to grow indoors, and so they are hard to find outside of Landis. No one would use these blooms to fill out an arrangement; though he knows nothing of this trade, common sense tells him that much. This is no professional arrangement, nothing done by a flower-seller’s hand—it is far too garish for that. There are more stems, pieces he’s not identified—orange bells, pale pink petals that fall and seem to have no origin, purple and white irises, three different kinds of greens, and a peach and crimson orchid whose shape is just suggestive enough that Basch has to laugh. And blush harder. But he bends his face to the flowers again, and the orchid’s petals are firm and velvety on his cheek. Oh, dear gods.

“I got quite the look, picking up that one,” Balthier says, and he’s carrying a tall crystal vase full of water. Basch straightens as quickly as he can, but Balthier’s grinning at him. He puts the vase on the table and reaches across to turn the page. Basch watches the stretch of his arm, the way his shirt falls nearly open around the one button he’s done up again. And only then does he glance at the page as his fingers trace the thong that holds the flowers together. Coral Mast Orchid. Sexual desire, virility.

Basch does his best to keep a straight face, and he turns his attention to what’s wrapped around the stems. Balthier’s fingers meet his on the knot, nudge his gently out of the way, and he holds it up, takes the flowers from Basch’s hands and puts the charm in them. It’s a small square, hung by one corner, and each of its quadrants shines with a different stone.

“I know you prefer to fight lightly armored, but I hope you’ll wear it, as a little more protection at the price of very little encumbrance.” Balthier puts his finger on the bottom-most stone. “Tourmaline against poison, amber for the event that you should lose your sword, jade for evasion, and opal because I heard you nearly charred yourself on a Reflected Wendigo in Sochen.”

“Fran told you?” Basch shakes his head at himself. He is not doing well, this week, in wisdom. And he has an armful of flowers from Balthier, now, sitting in a vase, and he wants to touch him so badly. That, too, cannot be wise.

“I can’t betray my sources.” Balthier reaches, nudges the orange bells front and the Mosphoran Celestials back, tugs one of the irises next to the blue stem, and grimaces. “Gods, this is hideous.”

“It’s not hideous.” Basch picks up some of the fallen white petals—where are they coming from?—and sprinkles them over the rest. The Rivelrose has closed again, and he can see where thorns have been clipped off. The chaos of color and scent would likely make a Balfonheim whore cringe. It’s appalling. And it’s for him. “Well, not too hideous. Unique.” He runs the backs of his fingers over the pinselchrys. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, it’s dreadful, and,” Balthier says, turning the yellow ring round and round on his finger, “the worst of it is that I mean it, Basch.”

And Basch believes him. He hopes—he hopes he’s not wrong. Sometimes it were best to act, instead of hope, Fran had said. “I don’t think I’d call that the ‘worst of it.’” He ties the amulet around his neck. He’ll have to take it off in a minute to shower anyway, but it’s important that Balthier see him do it. He accepts, as much as he can. He only hopes it’s enough.

“You want—”

“I want to try.” Basch wishes he had some declaration to give, but he has to be honest about it. He’s not sure that all of the trying in the world will make this work, though he would like it to. “Can we be friends until I’m back from this survey?”

“We are friends first, Basch. Always.” Balthier inhales, exhales, and one of the pink petals skitters across the table. “And that’s why I’m going to go take a cold shower.” He turns his eyes to the ceiling, mutters, “I haven’t taken myself in hand this often since the week I met Fran.” He faces Basch again. “Quarter of an hour?”

“All right.” He doesn’t stifle the snicker at Balthier’s expression.

Balthier takes a few steps toward the door, and then he turns back, stops at the table’s edge again. “If I’m waiting for you in Rabanastre, can I at least have a kiss when you get back?”

Basch cocks an eyebrow, tries to look stern. “Always bargaining, pirate?”

Balthier gives him a cheeky grin, but his shoulders slump a little. “It was worth a try.”

“Fifteen minutes,” Basch says, and steers him toward the door. Balthier’s shoulder is hot through his shirt, and Basch fights to keep the touch light. Balthier is only barely into the hallway, Basch is leaning into the door—if he doesn’t close it soon, he’s not going to be able to—and he steps forward, brushes his lips against Balthier’s cheek. “Thank you.” And he closes the door.

Chapter Text

That night, after dinner—Rozarrian food, almonds and cinnamon in everything, even the meat, and Basch was surprised at how good everything was—after another winding loop through the city, they’d gone back to the rooftop, to Balthier’s workshop. Basch had repaired the stitching on the plates of his left glove while Balthier started the process of repairing the Fomalhaut. The original barrel, dented deep and pitted where something had struck it in the Bahamut, magick or otherwise. Basch hadn’t actually seen it happen, had only seen phoenix down fly from Fran’s fingers and the answering red-hot burst of flare from her other hand. Then Balthier had switched to handbombs, something Basch knew he carried but that he seldom used. “Effective,” he said of them, “but they lack finesse.”

Balthier bent his head over the drill, shielded eyes intent and hands coaxing the bit through the blued metal, and Basch put down his awl to watch. How much Basch owed to Vaan. When Fran and Balthier had slipped away, back to the Bahamut, when Balthier hadn’t shoved Vaan away from the controls as the Strahl climbed the sky and Ashe saw the tops of Fran’s ears disappear into a hatch on the warship, Vaan had yelled, “I don’t want your stupid airship!” and took Fran’s hoverbike after them. Basch had heard Vaan, heard the bike take off, spared a prayer, but he’d seen none of it. He and Larsa had been trying to keep his twin alive, trying despite the stubborn ass himself, and Basch ran cold at the thought of exactly how much he might have lost that day. Then Balthier had asked him to hold the stock steady so he could measure the old housings, and Basch thought instead about now.

* * *
Basch is awake before the morning breaks gray, and his gear has been packed since last night. He washes, dresses, and there are still hours between now and when they have to leave. He wonders if Vossler is up. Doubtful. He’d not come in more than a handful of hours ago; Basch heard him on the landing. He sits at the table, and before he can stop himself, he’s moving the flowers around in their vase. There is no attractive way to arrange them, none at all, and so he runs his fingers over and through the blooms. There’s a rap at the window, and it’s Balthier with tea and a bowl of fruit.

“You’re up early.” Basch takes the cups from him, sets them on the table, and they’ll all but have flowers up their noses, but he doesn’t want to move them.

“I can always sleep after you leave.” Balthier stares into the floor, thinking or simply not yet awake. “Don’t know what else I’ll do since Fran stole my airship. I’ll have to rely on your brother for entertainment.”

Basch can’t help but startle at that, and Balthier shakes his head quickly.

“Not like that. He helped me when I needed it, but he is no more what I need now than you are what Vossler needs.” Balthier snorts. “If Fran doesn’t come back soon, I’ll be spending the next two weeks sorting his paperwork and watching him brood.” Balthier uses the edge of his thumbnail to cut a star from one of the fallen petals.

“Keep an eye on him, will you?” Yesterday morning worries Basch. Why isn’t his brother sleeping?

Balthier nods. “But next time you see him, you two have to talk to each other. I don’t care how much drink it takes. I’ll buy. But don’t take it to the grave like this.”

“You sound like Larsa.” Basch takes a mouthful of tea.

Balthier puts his cup down, points at Basch. “Take it back.”

“No.” Grinning, Basch touches the pinselchrys and tilts the blossom toward Balthier. “Not after you seem to think I’m a bit of a girl.”

“I wasn’t the one arranging her flowers just now.” He pops a grape into his mouth.

Basch hides the laugh in his cup, and they talk about nothing for a while.

An hour before Basch had planned to leave Balthier’s, an imperial courier arrives with a note asking if Basch would please come get Eska into the transport because the grooms were done trying. The signature looks like it might say ‘Bern,’ and Basch hopes that’s not blood smudged alongside the ink, but he’s pretty sure it is.

Vossler shakes his head. “You have suicidal taste, Basch,” and Basch sees Balthier bristle a little at that. Vossler is strange this morning, by turns amusing and sharp and quiet. He doesn’t sit to drink his tea, walks a little stiffly, his fingers keep drifting to dip under his collar, he keeps yanking them back.

They take a cab to the palace, and the conductor’s eyes are wide at the swords and the armor, wide seeing that their motley appearance is accompanied by such a show of sandalwood. Bern is waiting at the palace’s main gate, his left hand in a fresh bandage.

Basch points to Bern’s hand. “Sorry about that.”

“That one was my fault. Got a bruise on my shin you can be sorry for, though. Come up to her real easy, thought she was going to be nice, and she kicked. She didn’t kick real hard, though; she knows what she’s doing. But this,” he waves the bandage, “I was trying to lure her out with some greens, and some damn fool snuck around and tried to get her with a rope. I looked away for a minute, and she wasn’t too pleased with the situation.” Bern shrugs.

Basch grits his teeth. As quick as they are, a chocobo can knot itself in a rope in a twinkling, and if it manages to get its neck caught up high enough, a bird can strangle itself struggling to get free. More often, some idiot who thinks a chocobo can be roped like a nanna finds out how well those beaks cut through things like rope and leather. How in the fuck did someone that stupid end up in the imperial stables? He says it out loud.

“His papa might have bought him into it. Might have pretended to have a brain. Whatever it was, he bought the position well enough to rank me. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have bothered you, General.” Bern shakes his head. “But don’t you worry about her. She took that rope from him.”

“He tried to sneak up on her with a rope.” Repeating it doesn’t help him understand it. Who is possibly that ignorant? Basch tightens his fists at his sides, stops for a moment to strap his longsword fast to the side of his pack. Depending what he sees in the next few minutes, he doesn’t want to risk the temptation.

“Archadia’s finest,” Vossler says, and Bern looks none too pleased at that, but Basch can’t bring himself to remind Vossler to be civil.

There is, predictably, a small crowd near Eska’s stall, but not too near because Basch can hear her hissing and the warning clack of her beak.

“You all have someplace else to be,” Basch says, and three of the half dozen scurry off without even looking at him. The rest draw back another two paces, and turn. Basch sees recognition flicker over two of the faces—they know his brother here, surely—but the hell with them. Eska warks and pushes to her stall door, neck outstretched. There’s a length of rope draped over the door, a few feet of it coiled on the floor. Of all the stupid whoresons of Cuchulainn…

Basch comes to Eska carefully, puts his hand out to her, and someone barks out, “Are you mad?” Eska recoils and hisses again.

“I will not ask again. Go on about your business.” If he has to turn around—

“She’s a beast. Just as soon take your hand off as look as you.” It’s the same voice, and at the sound, Eska shoves back farther in her stall. She’s not a timid bird, and Basch knows what that reaction means. What he wants to do is beat the man with the flat of his sword, but Eska doesn’t need that right now. Basch tightens his fingers on the wood and whistles soft from the back of his teeth, putting both hands palm-up and holding them out to her. Eska glares and clacks her beak before nudging under Basch’s left hand, and she’s against the stall door again, her body behind Basch’s, but she’s still hissing, low, at the speaker. “Give him hell, Eska,” he says, softly, and he strokes her neck while he coils the rope with his other hand. The portion in her stall is frayed, cut nearly in half in a dozen places, and she when sees what Basch is doing, she takes the end and tosses it over the door. Her talons scrape the floor, and she clacks her beak again.

“I’ll have that rope back, when you’ve finished wasting your time with her,” the man says.

Basch doesn’t reply right away because he doesn’t so much want to say anything as punch him in the mouth, and while he’s trying to find a response that won’t create an international incident, Bern speaks.

“Seeing as General fon Ronsenburg bought the bird yesterday, and she’s not so much as blinking at him, I don’t think the Emperor’s friend needs any more of your advice, Wilmar.”

“Fon Ronsenburg?” Wilmar says, and Basch glares over his shoulder. The man—he can’t be more than twenty, but by gods, that’s old enough—swallows hard.

One of the two others still standing there says, “Brother to Solidor’s Magister,” and both of them walk away quickly.

Wilmar clears his throat. “My apologies, sir. I didn’t know she belonged to anyone.”

From the corner of his eye, Basch can see Balthier shaking his head and Vossler’s wearing a grin that’s positively evil. Basch gathers up the rope and wraps it in a tight sheaf, ties it off so sharply that a length snaps off at one of the places Eska bit it. He drops the broken bit and turns around.

“Ownership,” Basch says, “ is the least of the issues at hand.” And he wasn’t going to do this. He was hoping to teach the stupid bastard the right way to do things, give him a chance to explain just what in the six hells he was thinking, but the bastard will learn from this, too. Basch takes two steps and thumps the coiled rope into the man’s chest so hard he staggers back; Bsach follows, takes him by the shoulder and drags him forward until he’s pressed against Eska’s stall door. He hopes to Giruvegan that she’s really as sensitive as he thinks she is, and it’s working so far—she hasn’t attacked though Wilmar’s easily in range. Eska keeps herself at Basch’s side, and Wilmar keeps as far from her as Basch’s arm will let him get. Basch puts his other hand on her neck.

“IF Eska were half the vicious beast you call her, she’d have your head off your shoulders already, and for your complete idiocy, I’d let her.” Basch urges her forward a step, and Wilmar jerks his free arm up. Basch knocks it back down so hard his own forearm stings and Wilmar grunts through his teeth.

“You never strike them. Never. A chocobo is a predator, and if you show aggression, you are competition, not an ally. If you strike out in fear, you are prey. If you cannot master your fear—”

“I am not afraid of a stupid creature,” Wilmar says, and that is it. Basch takes the man’s hand and holds it out to Eska. Wilmar is, at least, scared enough that he’s not struggling. Eska takes another step, levels her beak with Wilmar’s hand. Basch can feel him shaking, and Wilmar turns his head as Eska opens her mouth. So the man’s a coward, as well as a prick. Eska claps her beak shut close enough to scratch the back of Wilmar’s hand, then cracks it into Wilmar’s fingers like a fist. Basch lets him go, and Wilmar scrambles back, holding his hand. She hasn’t even drawn blood, but Basch is guessing the whole hand will be a little tender for a while.

“This ‘stupid creature’ has more capacity for intelligence and mercy than you have yourself, and if you have any desire to continue your time in the stables, you will learn to have both. If you do not, rest assured I will hear of it, and I will recommend to Lord Larsa that the closest your return to the stables is their dung heap.” Basch turns his back to Wilmar and lets himself into Eska’s stall. She pushes close, curving her neck around his shoulder and tugging at his hair. He smoothes his hand over her back—some of the feathers are still standing up—and she warks softly. He hears Bern tell Vossler where the hangar is, sees him walk off to get her tack, brushing by Wilmar so closely that he jostles the man’s hand with his elbow. And grins.

Wilmar says something, muttered, and Basch doesn’t immediately recognize it—some bit of Archadian he doesn’t know—but he is not going to pay attention because he’d still like to beat him with the flat of his sword—and Balthier speaks. He pays attention to that.

“Not a very nice thing to say, Wilmar. One might even consider it treason to imply such a thing of the Emperor.” Balthier’s voice is cold, toying, and Basch glances over his shoulder. Balthier’s lips are pressed thin—he looks serious, but when he’s actually serious, he doesn’t do that with his mouth. He’s trying not to laugh. Basch has to shield his face in Eska’s feathers not to laugh himself—Wilmar’s face has gone even whiter than it did before. He jerks himself ram-rod straight, bows deep.

“I apologize for any offense I have caused. Please forgive my rash words, General.” He bows again and leaves as quickly as he can without actually breaking from walk to run. He doesn’t, Basch notes, wait for his acceptance. Basch makes do with actually laughing, takes Eska’s saddle and hackamore from Bern. She refuses to look at Bern at all.

“What did he say?” Basch slips Eska’s hackamore over her head.

“That bird-fucking barbarians from the North have no business bending the Emperor’s ear and Larsa’s a fool for admitting them into his company.” Balthier speaks as though he were reading a menu.

Vossler laughs. “That sounds about right.”

“Of course, the little twat betrayed himself as new enough to Archades—that was the Tchita dialect.” Balthier shakes his head. “I think he’s learned not to pull a stranger’s tail before he knows whose tail he pulls.”

“I’d rather he learned to stay out of vocations for which he has no calling.” Basch settles Eska’s saddle on her back, and she does not puff herself up this time. Basch speaks soft words of praise, and when the girth is set, she pushes him toward the saddle. “Not yet,” he says, and he opens the stall door.

“I think Eska made that lesson quite clear.” Balthier grins. “I like her already.”

Vossler comes closer, extends his hand to Eska. His voice is quiet, though amused. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you pull rank on anyone before, let alone connections.” Eska nudges his hand toward her feathers, and Vossler acquiesces, scratches briefly.

“It was either pull rank or pull steel.” Basch holds Eska’s reins in one hand, reaches for his pack with the other. Vossler picks it up first.

“I’ll get it. Manage your bird before she terrorizes anyone else.” He’s smiling, and Basch knows he’s hoping she’ll take a proper chunk out of someone.

Balthier tugs Basch’s pack from Vossler. “You have your own to carry.” Vossler glares, and Basch hopes this is not going to be an issue. Dear gods.

But Vossler shrugs. “If you think you can lift it.” Balthier glares back, and Vossler looks pleased. “I’ll go ahead, make sure they aren’t doing something stupid before you bring her in.”

“Thank you.” He hadn’t even thought of that, but surely word has reached the hangar by now. This is Archades. Nothing travels faster than scandal.

“Don’t piss around too long. I don’t want to be stuck with the other two jackasses longer than I have to be.”

Basch shakes his head, but lets it go. This is going to be interesting, if nothing else. Vossler exits the stable, walking fast, and Basch leads Eska, more slowly, in the same direction. Balthier walks at Basch’s side, and Eska’s looking over his head at Balthier.

“Do I merit an introduction to your lady friend?”

Gods, he is an idiot. “Sorry.” He stops, and Eska turns, craning her neck to see Balthier.

Balthier touches his elbow. “Don’t apologize for everything.” He steps carefully but surely forward. “I simply wanted to make a proper acquaintance with the only one to have any sense on this trip.” Eska comes forward, too, around Basch, and she makes that curious clicking in the back of her throat again. She nibbles delicately at Balthier’s rings—Basch can hear the quiet tick of her beak on the metal—and he brings his other hand up to stroke her feathers, just where her jaw meets her neck, and she chirrs again, eyes closed. When he stops, she opens her eyes, glares.

“Wouldn’t want to make Basch late, Eska.” Balthier edges in front of Basch, and Eska lowers her head to his. “Bring him home in one piece.” Something small lifts in Basch that Balthier is talking to her, and he’s very glad Vossler’s not here to see it. He’d never hear the end of it. Balthier glances over his shoulder, lowers his voice to a whisper. “And bite that other miserable bastard in the arse for me.”

Basch laughs, and he nudges them apart. “Stop plotting.”

“I do not plot, Basch. Occasionally I might devise, but I never plot.” Balthier gives Eska a last caress—Basch can’t help but focus on his hands, wish—but it’s time to go.

Vossler is waiting in the hangar, his pack at his feet but Nightmare resting on one shoulder. There are a few Imperials bustling about, avoiding Vossler’s line of sight. No Larsa. No Magister. And when the Imperials see Basch with Eska, they all but disappear. Bern comes from the back of the hangar, motions Basch to follow him, and the transport airship’s stalls are as roomy as anything of their kind can be. It’s better than Basch expected, and the other three chocobos are already settled. Now’s his chance to see what kind of bird Magister Rannel prefers, and the chocobo Basch sees might be nest-mate to the one he had almost picked. Tall, bright gold, and entirely easy with the situation, though he cocks his head at Eska as she turns in her stall. She ignores him, scratches at the floor, the new stall door. She warks and tugs at Basch’s half-coat, and he hates that protocol probably dictates he sit with the Archadians for the flight. Protocol, and Vossler, anyway. He can’t leave Vossler there by himself, and Larsa might already be waiting. He sighs, rubs his fingers over the stripes above her eyes, and Balthier rubs her neck.

“I’ll see you in Rabanastre, lovely,” he says, and he looks at Basch. Rabanastre. When they get back. When he said he’d try.

“I can’t promise you anything.” The charm around his neck seems to grow in density, weighs at his neck. At his conscience. What if it this thing between them doesn’t work?

“I don’t need promises.” Balthier reaches out, straightens one of the buckles on Basch’s coat. “I’m banking on the fact that after you spend two weeks with Vossler and Larsa’s minions, I’ll look like I’m worth kissing.” He hitches Basch’s pack higher on his shoulders, ducks his head toward the door. “Let’s go before I do something sentimental. Wouldn’t want to keep L’Emperor Punctual waiting.”

In the hangar, Balthier shrugs Basch’s pack off and settles it next to Vossler’s, and Basch is about to tell Vossler that it looks like Rannel, at least, won’t be a liability, when footsteps echo through the hangar. His brother and Larsa enter, talking softly. Basch hears his brother say something about not being able to find his shaving kit, and Larsa laughs, says something about Gabranth’s age, and his brother looks harried, as though he’s been pulled away from a task—he is supposed to be leaving for Rozarria today—but his expression shifts, a little, as they approach. And Basch can’t help the spike of jealousy, again, when his brother looks first at Vossler, longest at Vossler, before he nods a greeting.

“Balthier. I am glad to see you here.” Larsa smiles, and Balthier makes an exaggerated bow.

“Couldn’t let my guests go without seeing them off.” Looking over his shoulder, Balthier says, “ Where are your accompaniments? Someone should give them fair warning about these two.”

Vossler glares and Basch gives half a smile. They really do need to leave. He can’t stand here and look at Balthier and think about the next time he’ll see him. Can’t weigh the odds against it actually being in Rabanastre, a fortnight hence.

Larsa clasps his hands behind his back, takes two paces, on the oblique. He has an orator’s pace, Basch thinks, and he wonders if that is instinctual or learned. With Larsa, he isn’t sure anyone could tell. Larsa speaks.

“As Queen Ashelia has, I thought it best to send representatives I could trust.” From one side of the hangar, two aides carry in packs, put them down, and all but run to the next room. Basch hears a door slam, and then he sees the Arcturus strapped tight across one of the packs. Along the side of the other, a longsword, nearly identical to the one on Basch’s pack right now.

Basch’s brother looks like he’s been slapped. “Lord Larsa—”

“You are my most trusted companion, Gabranth. You will see what is there, on the borders, and not what you wish to see.” Larsa’s voice is steady as iron.

If he thinks about what all of this means, he’s going to choke, and instead he wonders where his brother’s staff-blades are. Perhaps they went down in the Bahamut, must have, because no one carried them out. He isn’t sure his brother could even wield the right-hand blade yet, having lost so much muscle in recovering, and he’s strangely glad about that. The longsword on his pack is fairly plain, save a red leather wrapping on the pommel, and it gives Basch a kind of hope. It’s a blade like Basch’s. They could trade. As they used to.

“Your Excellency—” Gabranth says, but Balthier’s bark of laughter cuts him off.

“You cannot be serious. You mean to send us? You mean to send me?”

“I do not mean to, Balthier. I am.” Larsa turns to face him, and the mockery on Balthier’s face fades. “You know all of the languages that carry along the border, and you know how to blend in. To all appearances, you are neither Archadian nor Dalmascan—none of you—travelers only. An official presence would only raise suspicions, and Queen Ashelia and I need an objective view of the border, of attitudes, on both sides.”

“I am no subject to Archadia. Find someone else.” Balthier steps long toward the door, and a pair of hoplites bar it.

“Balthier. Do this as my friend, as Ashe’s.” Larsa is calm, even as Balthier’s fingers are knotting at his sides, and Basch hopes he doesn’t do something especially stupid. He’s not wearing his pistol, said he must have left it in the Strahl because he hasn’t been able to find it, and Basch wonders where Fran is. She’s had her hand in this from the beginning, he is sure.

“Fuck you, Your Highness.” Balthier bows again, and it's somehow more vulgar than his words.

“Balthier.” Gabranth takes a step forward, and so does Balthier. Vossler is coiled; Basch can feel him fighting the gravity that wants to draw inward, too, and Basch has no idea what to do. What to do next, if someone else does something.

“I would rather you take the opportunity to spend time with old friends, Balthier, than force my hand.” Larsa’s soft alto remains firm, and Basch can’t help but be a little proud of him, despite his being a duplicitous little rat, too. They’d spent hours together yesterday. Basch had asked him about the Archadian representatives. And Larsa hadn’t lied. He simply neglected to divulge the actual truth.

“What more can you take from me? You’ve apparently stolen my partner and she stole my ship. And obviously half of my things.” He jerks his head toward the packs. “I will not.”

Larsa pulls a letter from his scrip, holds it up. Basch sees the seal of the judiciary at the top and bottom of the page, and that is all he needs to see. Balthier snarls.

“I am going to kill Zargabaath.”

“You’ll have to do it when you get back. Unless you’d rather do it after prison, and Zargabaath will have died of old age by then.” Larsa is smiling, but Basch isn’t convinced he’s joking.

“Thrice-damned pack of vipers.” Balthier spits at Larsa’s feet, pivots on his heel, and makes for the transport. Another pair of hoplites appears from the wings and follows. Basch turns—if either of them lays a hand on Balthier—but his brother tugs him back.

“They won’t—”

“Don’t touch me.” Basch yanks his arm away, and he didn’t mean to say it, he wasn’t expecting it, didn’t mean to say it like that, not so his brother’s face would look the way it does, stricken, sick. Gabranth draws back, and all trace of Noah is gone from his expression. The only thing left is Magister. Basch feels bile rise—the first time they have touched in seventeen years, and Basch has shoved him away, too. He opens his mouth, his brother’s name on his lips, but Gabranth speaks first.

“Is everything in order, Milord?” It’s supposed to sound stern, Basch thinks, supposed to make up for the lack of his armor, but it’s only hollow.

And Larsa is paler than usual, but he is still steady. “It is.” He hands Gabranth an envelope—probably a duplicate of the orders Basch and Vossler already carry—and says, “Judge Magister Gabranth, General fon Ronsenburg, General Azelas—godspeed and send word when you reach Phon and finally Rabanastre. Travel with care.” Larsa turns and exits the hangar, and Gabranth picks up his pack and Balthier’s and heads toward the transport. Basch wants to take Balthier’s pack from him, but he cannot bring himself to do it. He waits until Vossler moves next before he steps forward, and for all that he’s walking on tile, it feels like shifting sand.

They keep their packs with them, and Basch feels the acid burn in his throat again when he sees where they are to sit. It is not like the Strahl at all, not her chairs and bright glass behind the captain’s seat. The controls and windscreen are separated from the passengers’ berth by a complete wall, a door, and there are only five proper seats and a long bench opposite them—there had only been five stalls in the rear-most hold—set into a narrow chamber in the airship’s middle. Everything here is gray, even the thin padding on the seats, and Vossler looks almost relieved. He didn’t like being able to see how high up they were, but Basch can feel the hammering in his chest. He can’t sit in here for the half-day flight, but he doesn’t know what else to do. He must. He reminds himself of that as he sinks into one of the seats next to the wall. He must. He doesn’t want to sit beside the wall, but he doesn’t want to crowd his brother, either. And where is Balthier?

Vossler thumps his pack down, sets Nightmare down on the bench reverently. Gabranth puts down the two packs he carries, checks that there is no shot in the Arcturus, and puts the gun next to Nightmare. He doesn’t so much sit as crumple, and Vossler doesn’t waste a minute.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Vossler swivels, so that he’s facing Gabranth. “Rannel, Tevis—are they even real people?”

“I know you won’t believe me, but I did not know.” Gabranth scrubs at his eyes. “I was supposed to be in Rozarria by nightfall. I had correspondence from Al-Cid about it three days ago.”

“Why do you assume I would not believe you?” Vossler scowls. “The things I have entrusted you with—do you hold my faith so cheaply? So mutable?”

“What reason do you have to believe me?” He looks at Basch as he says it.

Vossler grits his teeth, and Balthier pushes through the door from the cockpit. “The only reason I believe you is that you look too godsbedamned miserable to be lying. You’re lucky.” Balthier sits on the bench, across from Basch, and drags his pack in front of him. He digs through it, piling pistol, light mail, sleeping roll, spare shirt, curatives, extra shot around him. He repacks it all, shoving everything except the pistol and the shot a little harder than he needs to. “Check yours, too,” he says to Gabranth. “We’re taking off in a few minutes, so if you need anything that isn’t in there, you haven’t much time.”

Gabranth undoes the straps on his pack, and the first thing is a satchel holding a sheaf of maps, a solar compass, a spy-glass, and a level, all wrapped together with a note. “You wanted to know if he’s real. He’s a real pain in the arse,” Gabranth says, and hands the note to Vossler. Vossler reads, looks from the page to Balthier and back.

“I’m not sure he’s better than this Tevis. One prat is as bad as another.”

Balthier flips Vossler both middle fingers, and it would be funny if Basch could shake the bitter nausea, could keep his breathing slower than it is. It’s not only the space, not only his brother. It’s wondering what now, with Balthier. He can’t do all of this at once. He can’t.

His brother keeps rummaging in his pack, pulls out his sleeping roll and a handful of potions and such. Next, a packet of tea, and Gabranth looks relieved. Basch isn’t sure why—he doesn’t seem to drink it anymore. Balthier’s eyes narrow a little, and there’s something else happening here. But before Basch can consider asking—he will, maybe later—Gabranth’s hand seems to close on something he wasn’t expecting. He doesn’t take whatever it is out of the pack, but his cheeks flush and he stands.

“Tell the pilot to wait. I need my armor.” Gabranth pushes through to the main part of the hold, and Vossler slips into the cockpit.

Balthier pounces on the bag. “I’ve never seen him blush like that.” He opens it and glances in. “Sweet mother of Belias. That's at least cuffs and--” He rummages, starts to laugh, but Gabranth’s voice from the hold echoes back. Balthier puts the pack down, edges the door open, and Basch isn’t sure what’s so funny until he hears Larsa.

“I realized you had no armor—I had forgotten that you would not be wearing your Magister’s armor—and so I brought your traveling gear,” Larsa says, and Basch steps closer. The door behind him swings open, and Balthier whirls, puts a finger to his lips. Vossler, surprisingly, says nothing.

Basch’s brother is taking brigandine from Larsa—Larsa’s struggling a little to hold it all—and his cheeks are still scarlet. “Thank you, Milord,” he says, and Basch sees his chest heave in a deep inhale. “I appreciate your packing my things since you gave me no opportunity to do so, but in the future, I would appreciate more privacy for my personal effects.”

Larsa’s expression does not change; he is as earnest as ever. “I did not want to send you out without items you might have use for. Judging from their position in your chest, you use these things with some frequency, but if you should like me to take them back so that you needn’t carry extra weight, I will do so.”

“Milord, that chest was locked. As was my door.” Gabranth pulls on his armor, and it’s the smallest bit too big. Basch finds that sad—his body still has much healing to do, and it worries Basch, to think of him sleeping on the ground and riding all day for these two weeks—despite the fact that Vossler and Balthier are nearly in tears trying to keep from laughing out loud.

Larsa’s looking at his feet. Gabranth holds out his hand, and Larsa opens his scrip and puts a lockpick into Gabranth’s palm. “I apologize, Gabranth, if I have overstepped my bounds.” When Gabranth pockets the ring of picks, Larsa says, “Shall I return anything to your rooms?”

Gabranth’s cheeks burn red again, and he only says, “I will send word when we reach the Phon Coast. No more breaking and entering.”

Larsa’s steps fade down into the hangar, and Gabranth returns to the passenger hold. He glares, especially at Balthier, who is laughing, silently, and shaking. When he can, Balthier says, “Are you still glad you swore to protect him?” He wipes his eyes. “I’m fairly certain corrupting a minor who is also the emperor is something you should be arresting yourself for.”

“He had to go through three separate locks.” Gabranth repacks the bag, meticulously. “I don’t think I was the one to corrupt him. That would be your little Dalmascan sky pirates.”

Vossler scowls at the phrasing.

“The children are rather good, aren’t they?” Balthier stretches, and he looks proud of Penelo and Vaan. Something warm smoothes up Basch’s spine at the expression, and he shouldn’t feel that way. There’s a bounty on Balthier, quite a profitable one, and even though his heroics in the Bahamut have given him some immunity, he’s not safe. Larsa was not entirely making idle threats, and Balthier, he thinks, knows that. Vaan and Penelo have their own bounties, too, smaller, but growing. It would be better if they stuck to lives as hunters entirely, but even that was not safe—hadn’t they found that out in the Sandsea? In the Feywood? And no one Basch knows, it seems, tolerates safety very well.

The boarding ramp clangs shut on the other side of the door, and the engines hum to life. Vossler tightens his hands on his knees, and Balthier rolls his eyes, leans back into the wall, stretches one foot out until it’s nearly touching Basch’s. Basch wonders if he should talk to Vossler, try to distract him as Fran did, but then his brother leans close and puts his hand on Vossler’s shoulder, and Vossler seems to relax some.

They’re in the air, and the transport feels strange after the Strahl, none of the familiar comfort of that quick little bird, and Basch can’t make his eyes close, even though the flight is solid and easy like the Strahl never is with Balthier at the controls. He thinks about that, watches Balthier’s eyelids droop, watches him fight the urge to doze, watches him succumb. He wishes he could do that, hopes he might be able to, but even when he closes his eyes, he can feel the steel gray interior pressing closer. The quieter the hold, the closer it gets, but he can’t bring himself to say anything; his brother still hasn’t so much as looked at him since he’d said what he said, Balthier is sleeping, and Vossler is leaning into his brother’s hand. There isn’t anything to say.

There are at least six more hours of this flight. Basch wishes for the Strahl, for her quickness, and were it not for him, Balthier would most likely be on his airship now. Another sour wave turns in his stomach—why had Balthier refused so bitterly? Is it such a chore to travel at his side again? That’s not it, he knows it, but in the too-still press of this hold, it’s the only thing he can think of that isn’t the room itself, and his throat’s going tight. He can’t stay here.

Basch lurches to his feet, and Balthier’s eyes open.

“I’m going to the back with Eska.”

His brother shrugs without looking up, Vossler waves him toward the door, and Balthier says, “You want me to come with you?”

Basch opens his mouth to say, “No, go back to sleep,” and his chin bobs of its own accord. Balthier doesn’t touch him as they make their way toward the stalls, and Basch doesn’t know if he’s glad or not.

There’s still no natural light here, only the dim glow of the auxiliary lights, but the space is wider, the stalls only chest-high so he can at least see more than a few feet at a time. Eska scrabbles to her feet and warks, and Basch has to smile because that big gold—his brother’s mount, he realizes; he’d originally looked for a chocobo like his brother’s—calls to her. She’s still ignoring him.

When Basch is close enough, she tugs at a lock of his hair, combing it with her beak, and Basch pets her neck. This is better. Vossler’s chocobo, Adi, Bern said his name was, blinks at them sleepily, and the one Basch had picked for Tevis—now for Balthier; he wishes he’d taken more time with that one now—is folded on the floor, head tucked under his wing, snoring softly. “That’s Kells,” Basch says, and Balthier nods.

“Wise bird.” And Balthier yawns.

“If you’re tired, you should go back and sleep. I’m going to stay in here until we land,” Basch says. “It’s too small up front.” He opens Eska’s stall door, makes sure to keep himself between her and the opening.

Balthier shifts on his feet, twisting the blue ring this time. Eska peeks around Basch to watch.

“Or if you wanted, you could stay. I’ll let you sleep. I can’t guarantee she will, though.” And Basch wants Balthier to stay. But only if he wants to.

Balthier is inside the stall, latching the door behind him, before Basch knows what happened. And then he stops, puts his hand on the latch again. “I don’t want to crowd you. If you’d rather I didn’t stay, tell me. I understand.” Eska nudges Basch out of the way nibble at Balthier’s rings for a moment before she taps at his earrings. Balthier slides away, covers his ear with his hand.

Basch considers the space. He squats, so that there’s only wood at eye level. No, this won’t be a problem. “I’d like if you stayed. If you don’t mind sitting on a pile of straw for most of the day.”

Balthier slides down the door, fluffs some more straw under himself, and sits. “It’s more comfortable than that bench.”

Basch does the same, and Eska, looking down at them and twisting her head from side to side, folds her legs beneath her and sinks. She’s already eyeing Balthier’s earrings again. More than even his rings. Balthier cups his hands over both ears, and he looks silly enough that Basch thinks he can ask.

“Why did you give Larsa such a hard time about doing this?”

“If he had asked me this morning, I would have said yes. It’s more time to spend with you, even if it’s at the expense of dealing with the other two.” Balthier narrows his eyes. “But he didn’t ask. I don’t respond well to orders. And definitely not from someone whose voice hasn’t even changed yet.”

“So you said to Migelo.” When Migelo insisted he find Penelo. He’d not flat-out refused, but he’d only acquiesced when Basch had asked him to take him to Bhujerba.

“It’s as true now as it was then.”

Basch picks up a piece of straw, splits it with his thumbnail, parts it lengthwise. He does it again. Quarters. Eighths. “If he had asked you three or four days ago?”

Balthier’s face turns sheepish, and he shakes his head. “When the Strahl was still on the roof and everything was all fucked up between us? I would have disappeared so fast Fran would have had a hard time smelling which way I’d gone.”

“Why?” A new piece of straw. Halves. Quarters. Eighths.

“Old habits die hard.” Balthier inches closer. There’s still almost an arm’s length between them. “But you help. You’re still talking to me, even if I don’t deserve it.”

“It’s only fair. You’re still talking to me when you should be trying to find someone who’s less of trap-field.” Eska pulls at his boot lacings, undoes the knot entirely. He leans forward to retie it, and Eska stands again, nudges him out of the way, and settles again behind him.

“Where’s the challenge in that?” Balthier grins, and Eska tugs at his collar, pulls him in. He scuttles closer, on hands and feet, upturned like a crab, Eska still tugging gently. “Basch?”

“Eska. Let him alone.” Basch reaches up, steers her beak away, but Balthier is now against the wall just in front of her, and Basch is leaning against her warm feathery bulk. She preens his hair, and he can feel his eyes drifting closed, and then Balthier lets out a mostly stifled yelp.

Basch turns his head, and Eska’s nibbling on the silver twist that decorates Balthier’s right earlobe, and Balthier’s teeth are clenched tight, his hands fisted at his sides.

“Did she nip you?” He looks for blood—even a tiny bite can break the skin. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea—he’s only known Eska for two days, and she’s got a reputation for doing damage.

“No.” Balthier moves his hands to his lap as Eska nudges at the next earring, and Basch watches his bottom lip curl in under his teeth. He doesn’t look scared. Eska’s eyes show no aggression. Maybe Balthier simply doesn’t like being chocobo amusement while he’s trying to sleep. He makes a sound that’s kind of like a laugh.

That makes sense. “Tickles?” He files that information away for later. And he hopes, he thinks, he might get to use it sometime.

“Not exactly.” And Balthier mutters a Rozarrian curse—always recognizable by the vowels, syncopated like drumbeats—and oh. That makes a lot of sense now. Basch’s cheeks heat, but he sits up to look more closely, and Balthier's hands are in his lap for a reason, trying to hide the reaction. Balthier forces his eyes open and coughs out a laugh. “Basch, you barbarian pervert, get your bird off my ear.”

Basch feels the red in his cheeks sharpen, and he lifts his hand to move Eska away. She doesn’t particularly want to let go of Balthier’s earrings—he can’t quite blame her—and he has to nudge his fingertip between her beak and the metal before she pulls away. “Let his ears alone,” he says, and he makes his voice stern. She turns her head and nuzzles under her wing with a huff. Basch leans closer, looks to be sure she has neither nipped Balthier nor damaged his jewelry, and he rubs his index finger over the rings, skirting the warm shell of Balthier’s ear. At least chocobos don’t drool.

“Basch!” Balthier is almost laughing again.

“Sorry.” Basch recoils so quickly Eska glares at him through her feathers. “Sorry.”

Balthier shakes his head. “It’s just—I have sensitive ears.” And Balthier puts his hands on the floor to lever himself up. Basch sees exactly how sensitive his ears are. “I’ll be back in ten minutes.”

Basch waits until he hears the door to the lavatory close, and then he leans back against Eska, smoothes through her feathers. “Good girl,” he whispers, and files that information away for later. And as long as he thinks of that, or of the amber feathers with their black tips under his back, he doesn’t have to think about his twin and how they seem to share nothing anymore but a preference for swords and chocobos. And not even that: his brother’s swords are lost, what he has is a fall-back measure, and Basch chose a different bird. Or Basch’s brother’s swords left him, broke him, and a different bird chose Basch. This is the longest ten minutes of his life. Eska nudges her feathered head against his, and Basch breathes deep but he can't hold it.

Chapter Text

The four chocobos are ready to run after the flight, and Vossler is glad they aren’t making camp now. There are too many hours until sundown, too much time to watch Basch and Gabranth avoid each other, and so they pick their way down the crags above the Deadlands, Basch at point, Gabranth at tail, Balthier and himself between. They are between in so many ways. Vossler is still half sick from flying, and he is glad Adi seems content to follow Kells until the horizon levels and marsh water splashes chill on his leg.

They have no reason to fight their way through the Deadlands; their actual work begins on the far side of Nabudis, and so they let the chocobos set the pace. At a wide strip of fairly dry land, Basch glances back, nods ahead with a bit of a grin, and Eska takes off. Kells and Adi follow, though with each stride they fall a bit behind. That is well enough for Vossler—he is still sore—and he looks over his shoulder. Gabranth is holding Tristan back, and the bird is not happy about it. He shakes his head, even as he lopes forward, not even at Adi’s pace, and Tristan warks. A reply drifts back from Eska—even to Vossler, it sounds like she’s laughing. Vossler motions them to go around, but Gabranth jerks his chin to the side, keeps Tristan at pace with Adi and Kells. They catch up with Basch at the next marshy section, and Balthier sits tall in his saddle, calls to Gabranth.

“Awfully slow for a bird with legs that long.” Balthier wipes a bit of mud from his leg, turns his face toward Basch, who is looking only at the back of Eska’s head. “I daresay they were looking for a bit more competition.”

Gabranth’s curled lip and hard eyes decide Vossler. If they are going to attempt to take their arrangement beyond the week, Gabranth might as well find out now that Vossler is neither agreeable nor obedient by nature.

“You should have let him go, give Eska a challenge.” Vossler takes a breath. Time to push his luck a little more. “Or are you content to let Basch bolt ahead alone?”

Gabranth says nothing, but at the sound of her name, Eska warks, and Tristan stretches out his neck, though Gabranth holds him steady, off to one side. Eska turns her back on Tristan, and Basch lets her. Basch lets her. When Vossler looks back, Gabranth has dropped the reins entirely, but Tristan is still and Gabranth’s right thumbnail cuts at the skin around his left. He doesn’t lift his eyes as the four birds step forward. Kells walks shoulder-to-shoulder with Eska a moment, then falls back, and Balthier’s shaking his head.

* * *
The air in the Necrohol of Nabudis was less fetid, less stifling than the air between Basch and Gabranth, much less so. The reclamation efforts of the nu mou have been fruitful, it seems; the only creatures they encountered were bats, a few cockatrices, and a group of baknamy that ran in the other direction. No undead. Only creatures that probably wandered in from the Salikawood, and that’s surely a good sign, but Vossler found himself wishing for more to do. Even the fighting was listless, Basch and Gabranth swinging their swords like machines—as far apart as sense would let them be—and Balthier had used magick instead of his gun all the way through the Necrohol. What began, Vossler thinks, as a courtesy to the chocobos, collectively none too pleased at the dark and closed space, continued because at least magick needed another few minutes of concentration.

It was near midnight when they’d come out of the Necrohol, and they’d built a small fire, but had done little else. Gabranth volunteered for the first watch, Balthier the second. It’s too late to bother with the tents, and Vossler is glad for that. They’re two-man tents, and he doesn’t know how that is to work. He doesn’t know how any of this is to work, he thinks, pillowing his head on his arm. He rolls, watches Gabranth’s rigid back on the fire’s far side. There is a great deal Gabranth isn’t telling him, and Vossler isn’t sure he’s in any position to ask.

Balthier sits at the edge of the firelight, cleaning his gun, and Basch is farther back still, pretending he’s already asleep and pretending poorly because he has to keep nudging Eska away from his hair. The other three chocobos are sleeping splay-legged and standing, near Gabranth. The night will be short, if he can sleep, and he will need to, for it seems none of the others can. With dawn, they are officially on-duty. He turns his eyes away from Gabranth and pushes them closed. At dawn, he is Dalmasca. In that, at least, he must not fail his queen.

* * *
When Vossler wakes, Basch and all four chocobos are gone. Balthier tells him they’re hunting breakfast, then tells him to wake Gabranth. “He’s less likely to rip your head off.”

Vossler has known many people who dislike morning. Cirdan. Ashe. Raminas. And of all things to think of now. Vossler tries to think instead of two mornings ago, of the kind of wake-up he owes Gabranth. It is not hard to conjure desire for that, his body still pleasingly aching, but it’s tempered with guilt as he kneels beside Gabranth, and there the desire and even the guilt wither. Gabranth is curled hard on his side, his eyes dashing against his eyelids, fists clenched and unmoving. He looks fevered, drawn, and his eyes grit tight as Vossler looks on. At a touch, his forehead is damp, and his jaw is rigid, and when Vossler puts his hand on Gabranth’s arm, he does not wake. Vossler says his name. Still nothing.

He fetches his pack, starts digging through it. “There’s something wrong with him.”

“A whole list of things, really, but he doesn’t need any more medication right now. He just needs woken up.” Balthier shakes out his sleeping roll, wads it up, puts it into his pack.

“Any more?” Basch should be here for this, not him.

Balthier tosses Vossler the packet of tea, and its sweet-sick smell makes his eyes cross, grow heavy. His sinuses numb. He blinks it away, but not quickly enough for his taste.

“I don’t know what all it’s made of, but I know there’s ars moriendi poppy in it, so you might have to work at it a little to get through to him.” Balthier stands. “There’s a creek down the path a ways. I’m going to wash up.” He takes a smaller bag from his pack and winds through the trees.

“Balthier—” But he is already gone, and Vossler doesn’t want his help, even though there’s a cold hand on his spine that makes him think he might need it. His exit is no coincidence, and why, then, if Balthier knows what the matter is, does he leave it to Vossler? Godsdamned pirate. And where is Basch? Vossler kneels again beside Gabranth, grips his shoulder and shakes him hard. His face twists, teeth bared and feral and somehow horrified, and Vossler shakes him harder. He has to wake up just so his expression smoothes.

He lifts Gabranth by his shoulders, drags him up to almost sitting, and all but shouts. Gabranth’s eyes snap open, and he lunges at Vossler, but his body barely follows and he sees nothing; the blue-gray iris is all but eclipsed by his pupils. Vossler pins his swinging arms to his sides, pulls him close, and at least his thrashing eases, though his feet kick in their jungle of blanket. Gabranth’s heart is beating so that Vossler can feel it through his armor, can all but feel the race of blood under his skin, and he crushes him tighter, closer, because it feels as though he’s going to shatter, and his pulse starts to slow.

“Gabranth. Gabranth.”

His eyes finally focus, and he tries to wrest himself free, but Vossler holds him fast. Even his struggling now feels wrong, both frenetic and drug-fogged, and Vossler’s afraid that if he lets go, Gabranth will collapse. Slowly, regular tension comes back to Gabranth’s muscles, and he yanks himself from Vossler’s grasp, though Vossler keeps one hand on his shoulder.

“Are you—?”

“I’m fine.” Gabranth pushes his hand away, and Vossler sits back as Gabranth untangles himself. He’s pale, paler than even he and Basch usually are, and he lurches to his feet. In half a dozen steps, everything is sharp, crisp again, no sign from the back that there is anything amiss, but Vossler wonders how long it will take for that haunted expression to fade. Gabranth stalks off in the direction Balthier had gone, and Vossler is not surprised when Balthier returns to camp by a different route.

The ponce’s hair is wet, his face newly-shaven, and it’s all Vossler can do not to punch him. He’s punched Basch over less, and he likes Basch.

“Ah, good. Your nose isn’t broken.” The son of a whore actually grins.

“More than you’re going to be able to say for yours. What was that?”

The grin disappears. Balthier tucks his shaving kit away, says, “He’s not a morning person.”

Vossler fists his hands in Balthier’s shirt. “Do not play with me. What’s he doing?”

Forcing his hands up between Vossler’s forearms, Balthier shoves at him. “If you want to know, ask him.”

“Tell me.” The thick rustle of talons and brush and Eska’s little chirrings signal Basch’s return, but Vossler’s not letting go until he gets an answer.

“He’ll tell you or he won’t, but that’s his choice.” Balthier twists hard against his hands, and Vossler might enjoy this if he were caught less precariously between rage and fear.

“Then why involve me at all?” They barely know each other, despite how well they know each other’s bodies. It’s much simpler if they keep it that way.

“What’s going on?” Basch has his bow at his back, a brace of wyrdhares in his hand. At the edge of camp, Tristan is cleaning blood from one of his talons, and Adi has a feather of one of those Salika cockatrices hanging from the edge of his beak.

Vossler doesn’t let go, and he sees Balthier’s eyes dart toward Basch, back again.

“Figured you wouldn’t mind another set of bruises, if it came to that.” Balthier squares his shoulders.

Whatever he is to Basch, that’s not protecting him now. Vossler crashes his forehead into Balthier’s left eyebrow and lets go. Balthier stumbles back, hand pressed to his eye and blood seeps between his fingers. He hadn’t quite planned to hit him that hard, but if the ponce is so thin-skinned, that’s not his fault. And he is surprised—Basch doesn’t rush to Balthier’s side. Instead, he starts skinning the wyrdhares, trusses them over the fire.

“Fucker,” Balthier says, and the faint blue light of cure shines around his palm. He wipes his bloody hand in the grass, and now there’s only a small cut, a raised lump at his left eyebrow. He doesn’t look half as angry as Vossler thought he would be—he’d hoped Balthier would take a swing back—instead, he looks deflated, and it’s not half as satisfying as Vossler expected it would be.

“Either of you want to tell me what that was about?” Basch sits beside the fire, arms wrapped loose around his knees. He keeps glancing up at Balthier, who is still prodding at the discolored swelling above his eye.

“If I knew the whole, I’d explain, but mostly, Balthier’s a prick.” Vossler refuses to rub his forehead, though it stings.

“Too godsdamned right.”

Vossler looks over his shoulder. Gabranth seems to come from nowhere, his footsteps closer than they should be, but it makes sense that he can sneak like Basch can when he wants to. They grew up in deep woods, though Landis was not like the Salikawood. As Basch had described it—once, very long ago; Basch seldom spoke of home—the forests of the Ronsenburg were hardwood and thick pine, cool, not the heavy lushness of the Salikawood. And though Gabranth’s face is lined with anger and the dark circles under his eyes are only barely lessened despite how difficult it had been waking him, he doesn’t look fogged anymore.

Gabranth kneels and folds his blanket tight, and there’s still fresh blood gathering at the sides of two fingernails. It smears into the dark fabric, blends to nothing.

Basch reaches, turns the meat over the flame. “What is going on?” Vossler can hear the same gathering fire from yesterday, the business with Wilmar. Basch doesn’t care to repeat himself, though he has more patience for it than Vossler has.

“Nothing.” Gabranth shoves his blankets into his pack, yanks out the surveying kit, tosses it to the side, and Basch’s eyebrows draw low and tight.

“Like hell ‘nothing.’ I leave for an hour, and when I come back, two of you are bleeding.” He points at Gabranth’s hands, and he stands as Gabranth hides his fingertips in fists.

Gabranth shrugs, shoulders like ice. “Nothing for you to trouble yourself over.” He crosses to stand next to Tristan, pulls a few bits of foliage from his feathers, and turns his back to them all. Vossler’s sure he’s included in that, he’s not exactly sure why, but he’ll deal with that later. Right now, he’s watching Basch, and he has to hope. It’s a strange thing to elicit hope—Basch’s whitening knuckles and clenched jaw, the way his eyes bite deep into the dense quiet of Gabranth’s back—but it’s something. It’s not him turning his back and face away this time. Vossler’s trying to think of a way to get Basch to push a little more when Balthier hands him half of a wyrdhare.

They eat in silence broken only by the crack of bone and Eska’s chirrs. Both Basch and Gabranth have fed their birds more than half of their meat, and Vossler digs his thumb into the soft skin above his right eye. He is not equipped for this, and they have work to do. Focus on that. He opens the satchel of maps, and that creek is their border for several leagues. Gabranth comes back, picks up the surveying tools and takes the map from Vossler without actually looking at him.

“Balthier. Let’s go. We’ll do the border markings. You two sweep the forest for a league on either side, see what’s there.” Gabranth is already walking away again.

If Gabranth wants nothing to do with him or Basch personally, fine. But it is not fine for the point of this assignment. “One of each of us attends to the border. That is our purpose.”

Gabranth scowls, and Basch takes a step forward. Gabranth finally looks at Vossler. “If you can handle cartography, then.” And his eyes carry past Vossler, settle on Basch.

“Watch him with the map, Vossler.” Basch kicks dirt on the embers, replaces the sod they’d cut away to make the ring for the fire. Vossler has no idea how Basch means that, and Gabranth’s face darkens further. Gabranth takes both Tristan’s and Adi’s reins, and they set off toward the creek so quickly Vossler has to snatch up his pack and jog.

When he catches up, Gabranth gives him Adi’s reins, and their hands touch, a mere brush. Vossler wants to take his fingers, lick away the rusty smears, or he wants to hit him until there’s nothing left of that black veil across his features, until there’s nothing left. Like so many things in life, he wants both. And he will do neither. He glances over his shoulder, and he can’t see Basch or Balthier, but he hears Eska call. Tristan answers, and Gabranth smoothes his neck feathers, mutters something Vossler doesn’t understand. It’s Landisser, but Vossler never learned any of it. Basch has ever used Dalmascan or Common, since Vossler met him. Tristan tugs at Gabranth’s short hair, tugs sharp, and Gabranth glares at the bird, too, rubs his scalp before mounting. They splash right into the creek, and that is exactly what Basch would do. Vossler follows with Adi, resigns himself to being wet for the rest of the day, and wonders what held Gabranth back yesterday. What’s holding all of them back from so many things.

The thump of chocobo feet makes Vossler look up, and Basch and Eska are barreling toward them, right for the creek, and Basch swings Eska around in front of them, right past Gabranth, and Tristan shakes water from his feathers as Gabranth wipes the map carefully on his own shirt. Basch doesn’t slow her any, and they thrash into the brush on the other side. Balthier and Kells follow more carefully, and Kells barely stirs the water as he picks his way through.

“We’re starting on this side, apparently,” Balthier says, and he rides a wide circle around Gabranth.

“Just stay out of my way.” Gabranth turns Tristan forward again, and Vossler hates that the ‘my’ clangs so hard against his ear.

For a long while, Vossler rides behind Gabranth in silence, watching him measure and rechart the fluctuations in the creek. He has never felt quite so useless, and he can’t even enjoy watching Gabranth’s quiet efficiency. He can’t shake that feeling of Gabranth shuddering against him, the terror on his unconscious face. He finds himself watching for more clues—what was that? And does that happen often? Is that why Gabranth hadn’t asked him to stay the night before they left?

He is ready to ask when the warning snick of insect carapace comes from the creek’s edge. Gabranth shoves the maps and glass back into his bag, but Vossler and Adi dash forward, and Vossler slides from Adi’s back even as he draws Nightmare. He’s never preferred to fight on chocobo-back, and here he doesn’t have to. There are two antares mid-stream, and Vossler approaches from the left, Adi from the right. His blade shears the crooked forelegs from one, and as it falls, he stabs deep at the join of abdomen and thorax. Adi drives the other to him, talons cutting deep into its back legs, and it is too easy. Now he’s back where he was. He checks Adi for any stings or scratches, but Adi only cleans his talons and warks, looking for more. Vossler drags the carcasses out of the stream, to keep the water pure, and when he turns back to mount Adi, Gabranth holds his sword tense across his lap, sheathes it again so hard Tristan startles.

“What?”

“I do not need you fighting my battles.” He tries to take Tristan around Adi, but Vossler’s not letting him.

“You won’t let me do anything else. I’ve been staring at Tristan’s hind end for the last hour. What do you want me to do?” He slings Nightmare on his back, and the sword jostles his armor into one of the bruises there. It doesn’t do anything but hurt.

“I will do this myself. Take the northern flank, since they’re on the southern.” Gabranth points, draws himself tall in the saddle. Tristan has a few inches on Adi, and Vossler finds himself looking up at Gabranth. No matter.

“I don’t take orders from you, not here. We do this together, or Ashe and Larsa have their border dispute right now.” Vossler nudges Adi closer until he’s beside Gabranth. If it comes to it, he has to be close enough to drag Gabranth off Tristan’s back. No matter what he spent the last seventeen years doing, he’s Basch’s brother. They ride like they were born there.

Gabranth’s hand goes to his sword hilt, closes tight, but he doesn’t draw. “This isn’t about orders. This is about you leaving me be.”

“Not likely.” They’re already fighting. No reason to hold back now. “Not after this morning. What the hell was that?”

“None of your concern.” His voice has gone clockwork again, like it had in the hangar.

Vossler grimaces. Gabranth won’t even give him anger, and he remembers Basch’s face when Gabranth had said nearly the same thing to him this morning. Vossler isn’t giving in so easily. He inches Adi even closer, until the birds’ gold feathers mingle between them. Vossler could put his leg against Gabranth’s, but he doesn’t. “We’re on this survey, you’re in my party—it is my concern. If we’d been attacked before dawn, neither Basch nor I might have been able to get to you in time.”

Gabranth lifts his chin. “I don’t need your protection.”

The words are so familiar he feels them on his tongue more than in his ears. The fire in his stomach cools, wafts smoke. “You need something.”

Gabranth’s hand relaxes on the sword hilt. In the distance, Eska warks, something non-Hume bellows, and Tristan looks to the sound. Gabranth, too, peers through the wall of trees, finding nothing.

Eventually, Gabranth hands him the map, says no more until they come to a place where the bank has collapsed, a dozen great trees fallen and bending the stream in a new wide arc. Then Gabranth speaks only in measurements, and Vossler sketches in the new curve. Vossler wonders how long the silence is going to stretch. He’ll ask again if he has to, but not yet. He’d like Gabranth to come to him.

* * *
Slightly after midday, Basch and Balthier appear on the southern bank to say they spoke to another craftsmoogle who said there’d been another pair of hunters through, a few days ago, but that he’d seen nothing else.

Gabranth looks at Balthier. “I hope you did all the talking.”

“Why?” Basch says, and Eska shifts, feathers up, and Balthier rolls his eyes.

“He’s marginally less likely to fuck up our cover.” Gabranth still isn’t quite looking at Basch.

Basch’s lip draws up and there are only waving branches where he had been. Kells turns to follow, but Balthier holds him steady.

“What are you doing?” Balthier’s words are quiet, but they hold in Vossler’s mind like a shout. There are half a dozen versions of that question he wants to ask himself.

“I’ll tell you if I want you to know,” Gabranth says, and if he turns one more thing backhanded, Vossler is going to backhand him.

Balthier and Kells come a step closer, but there’s still the height of the bank separating them. “You’re a selfish bastard, you know that?” And that is the closest thing to serious Vossler has ever seen on Balthier’s face. Kells weaves back into the forest, and the yellow feathers disappear faster than it seems they should.

Gabranth wheels Tristan. “I am not,” he says, and Vossler barely hears him over the curling sound of water. Fifty paces back, Basch and Balthier crash through the stream, across to the north bank and turn to cover the distance already traveled on the opposite side.

The quiet spins out and Vossler pulls Adi up, has to put the map against a tree to mark a trail crossing the stream. It’s a little too defined to be simply a wild chocobo track, and it hasn’t got the precision of a moogle-made anything. They will check that before they leave the Salikawood, see where it goes, crossing the border in the middle of nowhere. Basch should check that, because Basch would know if those are marks from a cart or simply where sticks have pressed in and dragged. Living in a desert nation, he confesses he has not learned to track so keenly. Gabranth would probably know, but Vossler is not asking him now. The bastard would probably try to go off alone, and Vossler doesn’t know when he’ll see Basch again. As soon as Basch wants to be seen, most likely, and it doesn’t seem that will happen soon, with things as they are.

He notes the path, hoping he remembers the degree of slope Gabranth said—he’ll double-check—when he hears Tristan hiss and Gabranth call his name. The map is still drifting to the forest floor as Vossler runs, unsheathes Nightmare, Adi at his heels and past.

There are half a dozen malboros and a trio of mandragoras. The last are almost too ridiculous to fight but are dangerous, and he’s glad to see the chocobos attacking them first, snapping their peculiar heads from the air. Vossler charges in beside Gabranth, his sword already dripping venom and a shadow of the same mad joy in his eyes that Basch gets sometimes. Vossler sinks Nightmare deep into an approaching malboro, twists the blade, and yanks the hilt to shoulder level. The creature crumples, and Gabranth’s sword flashes down at the edge of Vossler’s sight. He holds his longsword in both hands, parallel to the ground, and dashes, leaps from rock to rock until he meets the next malboro. Tentacles fly in a rain of sap, and he shifts his grip left-handed to slice through the reedy body. He kicks the blade free, advances on the next, and, Vossler thinks, dispatching another and blinking against the reek, Gabranth fights like Basch, too, neither frenzied nor graceful, but somewhere between. Resourceful: Gabranth kicks a headless mandragora to Tristan, and the bird snaps it in half, grinds the body into the ground. The last malboro falls under Gabranth’s sword, and Vossler is glad of the armored plates covering his groin. He first rinses and dries Nightmare, watches as Gabranth’s blade comes clean under his hands, and in this, he is nearly as meticulous as Vossler. When the blade disappears into the scabbard at his side, Gabranth takes the stinging tentacles into his bare hands, calls Tristan, and the bird bites into the vines, and they pull one of the malboro carcasses clear of the water’s edge. Vossler cannot conceive of how he can get Tristan to do that.

“You two think like chocobos, don’t you?” His voice surprises him.

“I’m not as bad as Basch.” When he says his brother’s name, his voice is not unkind. Gabranth rinses his hands quickly, ruffles Tristan’s neck feathers. “Are you going to give me a hand, or stand around and stare at me all day?”

“Wouldn’t want to be accused of mollycoddling you.” Vossler puts Nightmare on his back and steels himself for the nauseating prickle in his palms. They’ll both need antidotes after this, and to wash. Vossler’s nostrils are thick with the stench of malboro, and the three of them pull the bodies well away from the water. Adi will not be persuaded to help. By the time they’ve gathered all of the severed tentacles, Vossler’s legs are starting to feel unsteady, his vision blurring. Gabranth’s face is pale again, and he digs through his pack for the right bottles.

When Vossler takes one, his numbing hands are clumsy; he has to uncork it with his teeth. It tastes as bad as a malboro smells, and he is sure there is malboro venom in the making of the potion. Cause and cure are ever the same coin. Vossler leaves some of the antidote in the bottle, waits until Gabranth finishes his.

“Give me your hands, Vossler says.

Gabranth hesitates, and Vossler reaches out, takes them. The sensation is blunt, nettled by poison, textureless, weightless. There is only heat and cold sick, and then the contact stings. Vossler almost lets go, Gabranth tries to pull his hands back. This is the danger of malboro venom on bare skin. Neither of them could grip a sword hilt if they wanted to, and Vossler holds Gabranth’s hands tight, hopes it’s not too hard because he cannot tell. “Hold still,” he says, and Gabranth narrows his eyes, but does.

Vossler turns Gabranth’s hands palm-up, working almost entirely by sight. His hands are clubs. Vossler pours antidote over Gabranth’s hands, taps the dregs out into his own, and rubs his palms together. He could tell Gabranth to do the same, but he’d rather this.

He spreads the thick liquid on Gabranth’s skin, along life-line and lief-line, down to the pulse-point on the wrists, out over his fingertips. The faster he covers their hands, the sooner the feeling will come back, but once the skin is thoroughly wetted, Vossler inches closer, draws the antidote between Gabranth’s fingers. His own skin aches fire, and that means it’s working, and he takes each of Gabranth’s hands by turn, pushing the sensation to the surface again with his thumbs. If the pain is worse over the broken skin around Gabranth’s nails, he makes no sign of it.

The nausea is starting to pass, cooled by the medicine and burned away under the heat of Gabranth’s eyes. Gabranth twines their fingers and pulls him in, takes his mouth. Despite the bitter film that coats his tongue, Vossler is already sinking, wanting Gabranth’s fingers to tighten on his own, and he has to draw back. He is surprised, almost disappointed, when Gabranth lets him. But not now. Not while he is Ashe’s eyes and ears so completely. He must retrieve the map. He stands.

Gabranth makes a face, scrunches up his nose like he did in the pub. “It doesn’t taste any better on your tongue than on mine.” He levers himself up, and he moves stiffly. Vossler is sure he’s doing more than he should—it has not yet been three months. Gabranth rinses his mouth, spits, and Vossler follows suit.

“The problem with fiends that attack with ailments,” Gabranth says, “is that the solution is barely preferable to the problem.” He’s still scraping his tongue over his front teeth. Vossler wonders if he has a weakness for sweets, a palate over-sensitive, if the antidote bothers him this much. There is a curl of satisfaction in knowing, then, that Gabranth seems to like the taste of his skin. But he must not think about that. He is not his own. He is Dalmasca’s. He drags himself back to the conversation and nods. Here he agrees with Gabranth as a soldier, can do that. And he’d much rather be cut, bitten, scratched, endure elemental attack—that’s simply damage. It heals, or it doesn’t. It is the disorientation, the sick numbness of things like poison that give him pause. And Gabranth is willingly doing that, incapacitating his body, some nights, if not all. He does not know. He doesn’t shudder, but he wants to.

Gabranth sits again on one of the stream’s bounding rocks, and Vossler does the same. The poison is still working its way out of his blood, and Gabranth is hurting, Vossler thinks, because he keeps arcing his shoulders forward, trying to be discreet about it. Vossler wants to put his hands there, too, but now is not the time. He has already done too much, has wanted to give in, and not now.

Gabranth puts his elbows on his knees, clasps his hands, lets his head hang a moment. Vossler can hear the gathering of his breath, and that too spins out until Vossler has to swallow the impatience, the expectation, and it, too, is sour. Finally, though, words come.

“Have you ever been hit with Disable?”

“Once. Walked into a trap.” That had been years ago, he and Basch in Giza during the Rains on a leave day, fishing, and Basch had had to carry him all the way back to Rabanastre. Neither of them had the lore to remedy that then, but he still remembers the blind panic of being able to do nothing, of being wholly conscious of it. Basch had said his heart was like to pound out of his chest. And that is it. “This morning?”

Gabranth nods. “Something like it. It’s organic, not arcane, and in small enough doses, it wears off in time.”

But of all things, why that one? That was not rest Vossler woke him from. “Why not Sleep?” He knows Basch can cast it now, Fran’s doing, because he’s been threatened with it. But he won’t suggest that, not if Gabranth is actually talking to him.

“That is part of it. There’s Death Poppy in the tea for sleep, but falling asleep is not the issue.” Gabranth leans, picks up a stone, runs his thumb over a water-smoothed edge. He looks up. “It’s staying that way.” His wrist snaps and the stone skips neatly through one deeper pool to the next, twice more, and falters. Gabranth swallows hard, and Vossler knows there is another screen behind his blue eyes, some curtain Vossler cannot see. What is it, then, that spurs his body out of sleep? What violence that needs such complete crippling to still? And it is only his body that stills under the compound, that Vossler knows—there are no peaceful dreams behind the clammy brow and drawn face he’d touched this morning, and their shadows are back. Only a little more, so that he knows enough, and he will let the matter pass.

“How often do you do it?” On this, he will be answered.

“When I have to.” The haunted replaced by the sullen.

But Vossler waits.

Gabranth grits his teeth, skips another stone, and this one breaks in a shower of flint across the stream. Finally, he says, “Once every three or four days. For half the night.”

That is as often as he sleeps? Vossler once stayed awake for three days straight, when his aunt took ill, the plague cycle that took Vaan’s parents. He’d not been with her, couldn’t be, but he’d been waiting for the news. She and Delonie died within half a day of each other, his matchmaker and the girl she’d chosen for him. The memory still twists with more relief than mourning, and there is the answering guilt for what he’s supposed to feel. He is only glad he feels anything at all, and that guilt is nothing in the wake of truly looking at Gabranth, his sunken, fierce eyes. He should be glad of whatever plagues him, whatever night terrors, for what he has done, and if there is any guilt, it should be for wishing ill on Basch’s brother. But that is not it. What scalds is that he would lift that weight, if he only knew how to grip it.

“Tell Basch,” Vossler says. He tries to make it sound like a request. It doesn’t work.

Tristan comes to stand beside Gabranth, picks up a rock, drops it again. He puts one on Gabranth’s knee, watches as it, too, skips until it clatters into another stone. “When I can.” Gabranth uses his dagger tip to flick away a bit of malboro tentacle at the back of Tristan’s head. “You enjoyed yourself,” he mutters, and Tristan clacks his beak as Gabranth stretches his shoulders forward and back and across.

At least Gabranth has acknowledged that much. Vossler can change the subject now, move on, finish today and hope for better in the next. And so he asks something he’s been wondering about, watching Tristan and Adi milling. “The venom doesn’t bother them?” He has been half wondering how to get an antidote inside a chocobo, though Basch and Gabranth could probably get the birds to drink it from cupped hands.

Gabranth shakes his head. “Can’t poison a chocobo. They’re designed to eat vipers.” At the word, Tristan cocks his head. “The more crippling the venom, the more they seem to like it. I imagine it’s like a really hot curry to them.”

That explains a lot. “So Basch is a chocobo?” Eska treats him like one.

“He still eats spicy things?” There is a fondness there. Why, then, is he being so godsbedamned cold when Basch is near?

“Dishes that would choke a worgen.” He’s seen Basch eat a whole miner’s cap chile, and with Basch, it’s never a show of bravado. He genuinely likes the things, doesn’t find them hot. Vossler makes a face at the memory. He’s tried it. Never again.

“No taste for pain on your tongue?” And Gabranth grins a moment. Sobers. “I am glad he can yet do that. I had feared—”

“He may never be able to eat certain foods again, but the heat does not trouble him.” When Basch had first found him again in Rabanastre, everything had made him sick. What his body would accept was nothing on which to build strength—it was nearly two weeks, he found out later, until Basch could eat meat. Fran must have been sustaining him magickally, at least in part, for there was no reason he should have been able to stand. And yet Basch’s first thought was rescue. Vossler had been a fool. He is a fool still. The man responsible sits across from him, and when Vossler stands, he offers him his hand.

* * *
The sun has dipped so far that any light that slants through the trees is rare and gold, and they have reached the place the stream cuts south, hard, the end of the natural border. From here, they connect measurements, hope the markers are where they ought to be. Vossler lurches in the saddle as Adi snaps at a fish, misses, snaps again. Both chocobos walk through the stream when they can, predators covering their tracks, and Vossler has been mostly glad for the breeze that carries over the water, the way the liquid motion dispels the buzzing of biting insects, though he is damp from the splashing. Now, each half-pounce jars him to the bone, and he is relieved that this is the day’s distance. Gabranth and Tristan are on the south bank, Gabranth making his last notes, and Vossler wonders where Basch and the ponce are. He sits higher in the saddle, tries to change the angle on his aching arse.

“Took you long enough.”

Vossler jumps, and Adi startles because he did. Another jolting bounce. Basch’s voice is closer than it should possibly be, and there he is, standing just behind Gabranth on the edge of the south bank, a dead Salika hind slung over his shoulders. His bow is in his hand. Gabranth makes no sign of being startled or even of having heard Basch.

Adi steps toward the fresh blood scent, and Vossler nudges Basch’s arm with his boot. “Make a little more noise next time.”

Basch shrugs. “He knew I was there. Too much of a cunt to say so, though.” He turns his back, sloshes through the stream. “Let’s go.”

Vossler hopes they aren’t making camp far from the water. The malboro stink is thick in his nose still.

Gabranth tarries until Basch pivots to glare, and even then he waits until Basch has turned back to let Tristan follow Adi. Vossler wants to ask how far it is, if Basch and Balthier found anything else interesting, how much distance they’ve covered since Gabranth is still hiding behind the map—but he doesn’t want to talk to either of them. Whoresons.

It is farther than he expected, but when he sees the rivulet pouring over mossy stones, the pool where it gathers not fifty paces from where the two tents stand, it is worth it. Vossler slides down from Adi’s back, sends him off to stand with Kells. The first few steps hurt, legs stiff from being wrapped around Adi’s barrel chest, but it’s better than riding.

As soon as she sees him, Eska is at Basch’s side, mouthing his hair and the hind’s coarse fur by turns until he strokes her beak. Tristan strains toward her, sidestepping against the command of Gabranth’s knees, and when Gabranth dismounts, Tristan follows her as closely as she’ll allow. Gabranth takes off his swordbelt, his brigandine, and Vossler can smell his exhaustion. He doesn’t sit. He folds his arms, says, toward but not to Basch, “It’s going to take half of the morning just to get back where we left off.”

Vossler already has his arms in the water, scrubbing his hands to pinkness with a palmful of fine pebbles. He grits the stones harder against his palms. Gabranth is pushing his patience with his carping, and not in any of the ways he has thus far enjoyed.

“It’ll take you until nightfall, as slow as that overbred cockatrice of yours is.” Basch puts the deer down, pulls his knife from his belt. “Why don’t you get a head start?” He hasn’t once looked at Gabranth—his eyes are on the task of gutting the hind, and he tosses the organs to the waiting chocobos. He gives a larger piece of the liver to Tristan, and that is, Vossler thinks, by way of apology. Still, he sees Gabranth’s fingers curl into fists by his sides.

“My gods, would you two shut the fuck up?” Balthier shoves open one of the tent flaps, stalks out. His left eye is now purpled down into his eyelid, and though the swelling is lessened, the split skin looks more freshly red than it should. The backs of his hands are scratched raw up to where his sleeves usually cover, and then Vossler sees the white fabric, wet to transparency, draped atop the tent to dry. “Give it a fucking rest.” He kneels beside the pool, opposite Vossler, and lets his hands dangle in the water.

Basch and Gabranth say nothing to him, as if neither of them has heard, and Balthier sighs, inhales deep, and plunges his whole head in the pool.

Gabranth looks at Vossler, says, “He might as well drown himself. He’ll die of old age before Basch has the balls to do anything about it.” Gabranth scrubs his hands, too.

The wet crack of joints popping free is Basch’s response. He gives each chocobo a leg from the deer, and Eska licks some of the blood from his fingers before she starts stripping the fur from her dinner. Knife in hand, Basch kneels downstream from them all, lets the water run red and away.

Balthier finally lifts his head, shakes water from his hair; Vossler catches Basch looking, staring, at that. And Basch flinches, makes a dry Dalmascan curse, and new red wells up from a nick on his knuckle. Distraction. He puts his knuckle in his mouth, clenches the knife in his other hand, and bends his head again toward the water and his task. Gabranth reaches, touches his fingers to Basch’s temple, and pushes quick.

Dummkopf.

Basch’s head hasn’t even recoiled when the knife sinks hilt-deep in the ground. He launches himself at Gabranth from the other side of the creek, tackles him into a sapling that bows and springs back as they roll. Basch comes down on top, and his right fist flashes down twice, the fleshy grunt of contact a muffled drum, and Vossler is on his feet. Balthier’s hand on his arm stills him.

“They would have killed each other yesterday if they were going to.” All the same, Balthier holds a Stop mote in each hand, and Vossler hopes his aim is as good as he remembers it.

Gabranth jabs an elbow into Basch’s ribs, and when Basch recoils, Gabranth follows, his own fist landing high on Basch’s cheek. They roll again, legs twined, kicking. Vossler has never seen Basch fight so dirty—elbows and knees and pressure points—but Gabranth is doing the same. They aren’t even throwing many punches now, though both of their faces are smeared bloody. Gabranth gets Basch’s arms knotted behind his head, pushes, and that must hurt. Basch hooks his foot, his calf around Gabranth’s leg, twists until his knee threatens to turn both out and in at once. Gabranth lets go. So does Basch. They leap at each other again.

They lock arms and circle until Basch wraps his hands under Gabranth’s biceps, forces them both down to one knee, then two, and Gabranth is slowing. Basch’s fingers grope for the pressure point at the clavicle, and Gabranth’s teeth close on his hand. Basch jerks it away.

“Stop biting, you whore,” Basch says, and Gabranth snaps at his other hand. Basch pulls it away, too, and something shifts. Something breaks, and Gabranth’s arms close around his shoulders, pull him in close and tight, and he holds. Vossler waits for Basch to shove him away, for him to gasp for air, but Basch’s arms are a mirror, and his face is pressed to his brother’s neck.

Balthier plucks at the back of his shirt, his hands empty again, and Vossler knows leaving is the right thing to do, but he does not want to. Balthier only backs away, though, until the trees screen them from camp. Vossler clamps his fingers on Balthier’s bare arm and pulls him until they cannot hear the twins’ soft voices.

“Give them their privacy.” Vossler searches for the tail of their stream and when he finds another deepish pool, he strips off, scrubs his shirt as best he can, and wipes himself down with it.

Balthier folds his arms, runs a hand through his wet hair, and looks away. “And you, apparently, need none.”

“Malboro’s worse than rotting corpse.” He’s not exaggerating. Death smells only of decay. There’s something more malignant in this, something vaguely sweet. It’s that sweetness, artificial, he cannot abide, and it reminds him of that tea. He fights the gag, scrubs viciously.

Balthier slaps hard at something on his chest, and even in the dying light, the nearly instant coloring draws Vossler’s eyes. Where Balthier scratches at the rising welt, then the backs of his hands again, there is raw red skin in its wake.

“What happened to you?” Vossler had seen nothing like those welts on Basch.

“Fucking blood-sucking parasites.” Two more welts are rising on his arms.

Vossler looks over his own arms—it’s getting dark quickly—and sees nothing of the kind on himself. “Didn’t bother me any.” He almost said ‘us.’

“When you have Bacchus’s Wine for blood, I doubt you’re as appealing.” Balthier’s fingers go to the cut above his eye, and it looks like something bit him right on the broken skin.

“I was worried about him.” He’s not going to apologize. Even if it seems like Basch was as pleasant all day as Gabranth was.

“But he told you?” Balthier holds his hands in the water again.

Vossler nods, re-washes his shirt, his trews. The metal of his armor, thankfully, hasn’t held the stench. He suspects the worst of the smell is in his memory, rather than reality, but it’s worth it.

“Did he tell you why, what’s keeping him up?”

“No.” And there’s an ugly twinge of jealousy there. He hates that Balthier knows, and he doesn’t, but Balthier has known him much longer.

“Dammit.” Balthier slaps something on his back. “Maybe he’ll tell Basch.” He stands, wipes wet hands over his arms, his face. “And if they haven’t killed each other, maybe they can both stop being complete bastards now.”

“You don’t know?” Why that should make him hopeful, Vossler isn’t sure.

Balthier snorts. “He’d have to admit he’s Hume, then, wouldn’t he?”

“Neither of them are any good at that.” Vossler pulls on his wet trews. They’re uncomfortable, but it’s better than the smell. “And you’re one to talk.”

“Pot, kettle.” Balthier tilts his head upstream. “I’m getting my shirt.”

Vossler gathers up his armor. He’ll take care of it in camp, when he has something to dry it with.

As they follow the rivulet back, Vossler finds himself holding his breath, stepping far more quietly than he would otherwise; it is an old habit, preparing for the worst. But in the last light, in the flickering of fire, Basch and Gabranth lie, propped on their elbows, watching a spitted haunch roast. They are a soft murmur of voice and broken skin and purpling flesh—Gabranth’s lip split in two places, Basch’s eye already blackened and puffy, and it looks as though both of them still haven’t quite staunched the blood coming from their noses. Balthier disappears into one of the tents, returns wearing a different shirt, carrying handkerchiefs. He dips them in the pool and throws one each at Basch and Gabranth. They hit with wet smacks—Basch’s face, Gabranth’s ear—and Balthier flops down on the fire’s far side, starts cleaning the Arcturus.

They wipe their faces, dab away dried blood that the other has missed, and Vossler watches as he dries his cuirass. Basch says they’ll take the watches for the night, and at least if Gabranth will not sleep, he will have his brother. Vossler wonders what morning will bring.

Chapter Text

It is the ebbing strength in the arms his own clutch that makes Basch realize he’s winning, is going to win. It is the close of teeth on his hand that makes him remember who it is he is grappling, the old trick, old insult automatic. Easy. And it is the heaving lurch of the same breath, the same lungs, the same memory, that makes him not want to fight anymore.

Basch doesn’t know how long they sit there, cleaving to each other, but it is long enough for Eska to investigate, to pull at Gabranth’s shirt, Basch’s hair, and long enough for Basch to see his nose has left a bloody smear on his brother’s neck. His brother. He shoos Eska and she goes, though he sees her watching from the tent’s lee. His brother wipes two trickles of blood from his chin, another from his nose, and they wipe their hands on the grass. His brother. His twin. Basch touches his brother’s swollen lip, his own closing eye. There is so much to say, but there is only one thing he wants to know right now.

“What am I to call you?” And from the hesitation, Basch knows the answer. When he speaks, though, it does not ache as he thought it would.

“I cannot be Noah any longer. I have not been—” And he stops, clasps Basch’s face in his hands, pulls him in until their foreheads touch. “If you would still call me brother, I need no name.”

Basch shakes his head softly. “No more apologies.” No more, or they will never be past that. And yet, the past will not be wholly forgotten; much as he would stay here in the new familiarity of his brother’s hands, there are the closing walls, this time of sturdy palms and the ring fingers that are the tiniest bit longer than Basch’s, walls that still squeeze at his throat no matter how much he wishes otherwise. He takes his brother’s—Gabranth’s, he makes himself say it in his mind—hands and lifts them from his cheeks, but he presses their palms together, lines up their fingers, the creases at each joint. It is as he remembers, and he wraps his fingers around Gabranth’s wrists to keep him as close as he is able. Blood trickles from his nose again, and Basch sniffs. Copper washes over the back of his tongue; he spits, and Gabranth does the same, frees one hand to press lightly around his lip. He traces his teeth with his tongue.

“Anything chipped?”

Gabranth shakes his head, though he pushes the swollen flesh out of the way, wiggles his bottom left canine with his tongue, a fingertip. “This one is a little loose, but it will tighten up by morning.” His grimace is still red. “You hit harder than you used to.”

“I owed you a few. And I spar with Vossler every day.” Basch’s stomach growls, and he pushes himself to his feet. “And you know how much I hate this.” He puts his fingers on his brother’s temple, nudges it to the side.

“Why else do it?” Gabranth grins, and were it not for the shortness of his hair and the purpled hollows under his eyes, he might be seventeen still. But the smile’s stretch makes him press the back of his hand to his bleeding lip again. “It helped, didn’t it?”

Basch tugs his brother to his feet. “After a fashion.” But he holds tight to Gabranth’s shoulder, pulls him nearer. He spits again, and it is less red this time. “I’m hungry.”

Gabranth nods, crosses the stream, pulls Basch’s knife from the dirt. He washes it, tosses it hilt-first to Basch. He washes his hands, wipes them over his face, but it only smears the blood. As he walks back, he picks up Vossler’s pack, looks carefully at Basch before he touches Nightmare. He puts both pack and sword inside the empty tent, and when he comes out, he sighs. “I think we’re both lucky we didn’t get stabbed, shot, or throttled earlier in the day.”

Basch knows he’s right, though he kneels again beside the deer carcass, starts carving away a hindquarter roast before he says anything else. Each time he does this, he thinks it should bother him. It doesn’t. And maybe that’s because he knows it bothers his brother, that Noah—Gabranth—will never do this if he does not have to. And he thinks that there is probably no one in Archades who knows that. “For the moment, I’m only hoping they haven’t killed each other.” He had been aware that Balthier and Vossler had gone, but he isn’t sure which way.

The elastic snap of green branches tells him that his brother is in step with him still, that they don’t need words for some things. Gabranth strips the bark from thin branches, weaves a loose grate and another, and by the time Basch has unfurled the roast from the bone, the lattices are waiting by his side. While Basch arranges the meat, Gabranth fixes forked uprights around the fire Balthier had built. City boy or no, he builds a beautiful fire, and Basch had marveled many times at his ability to make even the wettest of wood burn without the aid of magicks.

They lift the whole apparatus of grate and dinner over the flame as they had done before, many years before, careful to hold fast the lattice ends and pinch them in the branches’ forks. They had eaten ash-covered meat more than once in the process of learning the best way to do this. They had. One of the old stories. And Basch does not need to say, “Do you remember when—” because he knows his brother does.

Gabranth settles on the ground near Basch while Basch cuts away the narrow half of the deer’s tenderloin for the chocobos, spits the rest and sets it to cook. Basch puts the birds’ tidbits aside; Eska is sulking because he shooed her earlier, Adi and Kells have traded legbones and are dozing over them, and Tristan stands off to one side, looking from Gabranth to Eska. She is folded behind the tent that Balthier’s gear is in, and every so often, Basch hears the snick of her beak on bone. Basch’s pack still sits out. He’d not known where to put it earlier, and now he will not sleep tonight, so it doesn’t matter. There is too much to say, and much of it, he thinks, will be easier said under the cover of nightfall.

They watch the fire grow brighter as the sky darkens, and Basch’s stomach growls.

“Will you actually eat tonight?” Gabranth leans back on his elbows, bumps Basch’s shoulders with his own. “I have heard you barely do. You did not this morning.”

Basch lifts his chin. “I eat more than you sleep.” He takes a breath. “And it is my concern.”

That chill stubbornness crosses his eyes, but it is gone just as quickly. Soft steps signal Vossler and Balthier’s approach. “Later, I promise.”

Basch nods and Vossler settles beside the stream to wipe down his armor. His brother’s whole head turns toward Vossler’s broad, bare back. Balthier glances at him, brief, before he disappears into his tent, but Basch sees the new marks of his fingernails on his arms and back. He wishes there was something he could do about that, but he doesn’t know much of the plants of the Salikawood. They bear little resemblance to those of his childhood, but were they in Landis—how long has it truly been since he’s had that thought?—there is an orange flower, its blooms shaped like trumpets, whose stems have a soothing sap against insect bites. But in this verdant land, the plants are as like to be poison themselves—something in the humidity that breeds a kind of virulence. Balthier emerges, wearing a new shirt, carrying the Arcturus and a handful of cloth. Gun cleaning. Basch could watch him do that all day. But Balthier goes to the water’s edge, and that’s puzzling; he never lets water touch his guns. And then the wet smack of cloth hits Basch full in the face. Balthier flops down on the fire’s far side, takes the gun oil and a dry cloth from his pouches.

Basch washes the blood from his face, leans in and wipes his own blood from Gabranth’s neck. His brother does the same, and below the crackle of flame, Gabranth says, “What’d you do to piss him off?”

Basch looks. Balthier’s eyes never lift from the blue-grey metal, and he’s angled not away but definitely not toward them, either. Basch glances toward the water, toward Vossler scouring his chestplate a lot harder than he really has to.

Basch shakes his head. “Probably the same thing you did.” He’d barely said a word to Balthier all day. That had seemed wiser than actually giving voice to the things that he’d wanted to say, like how many distinct was his twin was a bastard. In retrospect, it doesn’t seem all that wise.

“Aye.” Sighing, Gabranth levers himself up. He moves like everything hurts, and Basch is tempted to simply cast the spell, but he is not sure if they are there yet. So he readies the blue light of Cura in his palm, extends it to his brother. Gabranth hesitates but finally fits his hand to Basch’s, and he pulls him to his feet as the magick washes over them both.

Danke,” Gabranth says before stepping toward Vossler, and Basch ducks his head, opens his mouth to reply, but his lips won’t move. He cannot remember the word. He cannot remember. He looks at his brother, but he is already turned toward Vossler, his whole body facing away. Basch skirts the fire’s edge, the cooking meat, and he cannot remember. Lady of light, he cannot remember—bitte. The word is bitte. He exhales it as he crouches beside Balthier, and it is at least peculiar enough that Balthier actually looks up from the elaborate stock.

“She looks nice,” Basch says, gesturing to the gun.

Balthier smiles a little, grits his teeth, and he scrubs his palm hard over the welts spotting the back of his left hand. “More than I can say of either of us at the moment.” He almost touches Basch’s cheek, where Basch can feel that the skin is still a little tender. Only almost, though. Basch cannot help but be both grateful and disappointed; he has built that wall. It is his, then, to take down. Balthier settles the gun across his knees, buffs it lovingly.

He looks up. “ I take it the two of you are talking, finally?”

“Yes.” They are, and they will. He wants to touch Balthier, like he has wanted to before but now—he can—he does, puts his hand on Balthier’s where it steadies the Arcturus against his thigh. Basch squeezes softly. “I should clean up.”

Balthier’s hand turns under his palm and Balthier’s fingers press around his. He grins. “I didn’t want to say anything about the smell—”

“Ponce.” Basch rubs his thumb along Balthier’s and stands again. He has a hard time letting go Balthier’s hand.

Dummkopf.”

Basch wonders if his brother taught Balthier that word before. Before Balthier was Balthier. He laughs and goes to the water. His brother stands waist-deep in the pool, splashing water over his chest. There is just enough light from the fire, from the gray glow of the sky, that he can see the furrowed scars, the bare concavity of the right side. His brother still lives. Is no longer dead to him. The joy is fierce, consuming. He stands at the pool’s edge, gathers himself, and leaps. He catches Gabranth by the shoulder, ducks them both, comes up grinning and sputtering. The water is so cold he cannot help but remember. “Scheisse.” He shakes his head and Vossler turns his face away from the spray.

“Basch.” Vossler’s mostly dry, and he’s trying not to smile. So Basch splashes him again. Gabranth wipes water from his face, and Basch edges closer to see if he’s opened up the splits on his lip again. There is a swirl of red on his chin, but it rinses away. He shouldn’t still be bleeding, but Basch probably shouldn’t have yanked him into the water, either, he thinks.

“It’s colder than I thought, as warm as it is.” It’s cold, but it feels clean.

“Why do you think I hadn’t ducked myself?” Gabranth puts his hand atop Basch’s head and pushes, knocks his feet out from under him, and Basch has barely enough time to take half a breath before the water closes over him. It isn’t until he surfaces again, the cold ringing in his ears, that he understands what they’ve just done. What they can still do. Basch pushes another palmful of water at his brother, then washes quickly. His teeth are threatening to chatter.

He drapes his wet things over an overhanging branch, dries himself with his blanket. He won’t need it tonight, and he’s shaking the water from his hair when he catches Balthier staring. And he slows his hands, reaches up to flatten out a folded portion of his vest, though he knows he’s blushing. When he glances back again, Balthier is looking adamantly at his own hands, folded in his lap. Even with his gaze, he is trying to give Basch space, and it is not at all fair to do this to Balthier, though there is something heady in the space between them. In knowing he does draw Balthier’s eyes.

As he’s rummaging for another pair of shorts—for all that the water was cold, the night is not—his hand strikes something wrapped in paper, and it is nothing he put there. He dresses, then unwraps the parcel. On the page’s underside, Fran’s script, though he cannot read it. Inside, a small jar, full of a pale ointment that smells of herbs he does not know. He carries jar and paper to Balthier, sits beside him.

“I think this is for you.”

“Oh, blessed—” Balthier rubs the ointment on the backs of his hands, rolls up his sleeves, dabs it on the welts on his forearms, and when he strips off his shirt, Basch plucks the jar from his hand and holds out the paper.

“You read. I’ll get the ones on your back, if—” But Balthier is already laying the gun to one side, pillowed on his shirt, and edging closer to the fire. It’s too dark to read without the dancing orange light; Basch can barely make out Gabranth and Vossler still by the pool, the occasional dull shine of armor. As Basch settles behind Balthier, he realizes his mistake. He cannot see the stings by sight any more, not with the fire to his front, but perhaps that is its own advantage. Something springs in his gut when he puts the pads of his fingers on Balthier’s left shoulder, sweeps them down and to the side until he touches one of the raised welts. The skin is still warmer there, and when Basch applies the ointment, Balthier presses back into Basch’s hand. Basch looks over Balthier’s shoulder, sees the sheet of paper dangling, unread, at his knee.

“You should at least see what she’s said,” Basch says, and he skates his fingers lower, finds two more welts, nearly on top of each other, along Balthier’s spine. See what she’s said because if Fran had kept this from all of them, she surely had her reasons.

Balthier heaves a sigh, but he turns the page script-side up and leans forward to see better. Basch inches closer, splays his hands, and the soft exhale counterpoints the grimaces he can feel Balthier making as he reads. Basch smoothes ointment onto half a dozen more stings on his back, and when there seem to be no others untreated, he pauses, not wanting to let go. He remembers there were more on his chest, his biceps, and he could sit in front of Balthier, use the firelight to see the rest. But he doesn’t want to pull away; Balthier’s skin is warm and Basch knows the ointment is helping: the swelling is already going down on the first of the bites. And so he slides his hands around the curve of Balthier’s ribs, and Balthier stops breathing. Nothing expands or contracts, and Basch has to ask.

“May I? The ones on the front—”

“Yes.” Balthier inhales, and as the air draws into his lungs, Basch follows the rise with his palms until his fingers rest on Balthier’s collarbone. It is as sharp and as fine as he thought it would be, and as he works his way along it, there is another welt at the base of his throat. He has to move his hands to get the ointment, and his palms feel cold when they lift from Balthier’s skin.

“What of Fran?” Basch says. He needs something to talk about, something to distract him from Balthier in front of him. This is not as intimate as they have been—his tongue itches at the memory—but it feels closer, better. It’s prickled with uncertainty, but there is none of the icy clutching in his chest.

“Fran’s a devious bitch, and I’ve never been so glad of it.” Balthier reaches to scratch another of the welts, and he rests his hand on Basch’s forearm. “Thank you.”

“It’s the least I could do, after today.” He should have explained to Balthier—that is how they’d always fought, silence to taunts to an actual fight, that refusal, impassivity was the worst thing they could do to each other, the surest way to get real anger. But he hadn’t wanted to voice the hope. Wasn’t sure if his brother remembered that, if the signs still meant the same thing, didn’t know if that, too, had changed. It hadn’t, and there is a giddiness welling under his ribs.

Balthier twists, half-faces him. “I can wait, Basch. I said I would. You don’t have to do this—if you’re not—”

“I want to.” He doesn’t want to wait, not for this at least, not with so much hope coursing sweet in his veins, not with Balthier leaning into his touch. But he also doesn’t want to promise more than he knows he’s good for, not yet, so he dips his fingers in the jar and tries to keep his touch medicinal. He smears the clean-scented cream across Balthier’s chest—he is well and truly covered in bites—and watches Tristan sidle up to Eska. Basch can’t see her behind the tent, but he hears her beak clack, can see Tristan back up a little, but he doesn’t leave. He folds his legs under himself and waits.

“I made everybody mad, apparently,” Basch says.

“Must run in the family, though you’re not bad at making up for it.” Balthier turns enough that Basch can see the smile pulling at the edges of his mouth. “Wonder if Gabranth had any luck.”

Basch glances over his shoulder in time to see Vossler gathering up his armor and Gabranth, dressed in his wet clothes, beside him. They are speaking, but not touching. Vossler comes near, puts his foot in the middle of Basch’s back, and pushes.

“Food?”

“You could probably cut a piece off without it running, if that’s what you mean.” Basch could push back against Vossler’s foot, but he lets Vossler press him into Balthier, his chest full against Balthier’s back until Balthier starts to bend against the weight. Balthier curls forward and to the side, rolling away from them, and Basch has to scramble to keep Vossler’s foot from shoving him into the ground.

“Balthier!” Basch picks himself up and shakes his head.

“What? I’m hungry?” He’s already lifting the lattice, now black with heat, free of the flame. That slim blade appears again, they dig out trenchers from their packs, and it’s not the same rich taste as a mountain stag, but the meat is improved by memory, by the company. As Basch eats, he can feel three pairs of eyes making sure he finishes. He cuts seconds from the tenderloin, too, eats that more slowly, watches his brother watching Vossler take each bite from the point of his knife. He has always done that, eating in the field, and if Basch found it provocative then, his brother’s jaw is threatening to go slack. Vossler isn’t, surprisingly, taking advantage of the notice, though he glances up each time Gabranth drags his attention somewhere else—another slice of meat, Tristan finally standing again and hovering at the edge of the firelight, Basch passing him a canteen.

Vossler puts down his trencher and digs out the next set of maps. He hunches close to the fire, though sweat beads on his forehead, and Basch understands why, now, the separation. There were times, years ago, when Vossler would not even touch him when they were on assignment—when they were young, and had something to prove, though in the lulls, when someone else had watch, when camp was set, when they were as off-duty as was possible, Vossler’s looks were full of promise. And Basch can see that Vossler wants, and yet—Vossler’s right hand rests on the elegant script that labels Dalmasca’s reach. Basch stands and as he picks up Eska’s portion of the meat he put aside for the chocobos, he bumps Vossler’s arm. “We have watch. You can stand down, soldier.”

Vossler looks up and he rolls his eyes, but by the time Basch taps Balthier’s foot and nods toward Kells, the map is gone, and Vossler is putting more food in front of Adi.

When Basch calls Eska, she peeks around the edge of the tent, and she watches Tristan taking bites from Gabranth’s fingers, but Basch has to coax her out. He’s never had a bird who could ignore a handful of meat, and it’s not that she’s not hungry—when she finally comes out, she devours what he has for her—but she is almost shy when she finally nudges his hand up to her crown feathers. He scratches and smoothes the dark stripes above her eyes, and she nibbles at his fingers, licks the blood from them. Tristan takes a piece of meat from Gabranth and holds it out to her. She sidles behind Basch and rests her head atop his. Tristan puts the meat down, near, but not at her feet, and Gabranth shakes his head.

“She’s hard to impress.”

Balthier snorts, gingerly hands Kells another bite. “So’s Basch.”

Basch is glad the light’s as dim as it is.

Gabranth cuts another chunk of meat from the carcass, and Basch sees the grimace, is about to offer if Tristan’s still hungry, but Gabranth clicks with his tongue and sets his shoulders low; Tristan is all attention, neck tall and feet raking. “Go long,” he says and straightens, draws his arm back. Tristan darts into the darkness, his gold feathers a pale shadow among the silhouettes of trees, and Gabranth throws. Basch wants to see this trick in the daylight; Noah had always had a good arm. Moments later, Tristan returns, his prize in his beak, and he puts it next to the other piece he gave Eska. When she doesn’t come forward, doesn’t take it, he stands next to Adi and half-heartedly accepts some venison and some petting from Vossler. Gabranth moves closer and leans against Tristan.

“You’ve made a friend for life. Food and commiseration at the same time.”

“That easy?” Vossler has one hand on Tristan’s neck, and Basch has never known Vossler to pay such attention to a bird before.

“We don’t take much.” Gabranth crosses his arms on Tristan’s back, and all but hangs over him. Basch wonders how much of that is the shameless flirt his brother had always been and how much is that he is all but dead on his feet. The corner of Vossler’s mouth turns up, that cynical smile, and he holds out a bit of the raw venison to Gabranth. Gabranth shows all of his teeth and bites it out of his hand, chews and swallows and grins. Vossler clamps down his surprise quickly, but not fast enough. He takes his hand from Tristan’s neck, gives the rest of the meat to Adi, and there is a dry puff of what might be laughter from his turned back. Gabranth leans farther over Tristan’s back, makes no attempt to disguise the way he’s staring at Vossler’s arse.

Basch shakes his head, and Eska pulls away. He rubs his hair—her head is heavier than he thinks it should be—and from the corner of his eye, he sees her stretching. The moment her beak touches what Tristan brought her, he is two steps forward, chest puffed out, and Gabranth is grasping at air and falling. Vossler turns too late, only in time to see Gabranth catch himself against the ground, laughing. He stands, pats Tristan’s rump.

“Good to know I lose to the lady every time. I’ll keep that in mind.” His lip is bleeding again, a dark ribbon from his mouth, and Basch touches his own eye. That’s barely even swollen; his Cura should have managed those splits easily. He hasn’t opportunity to ask, just now, though, because Eska is nipping the meat from the ground, though she still won’t look at Tristan. When she finishes, she leaves Basch’s side and bends her head to Balthier’s earrings again. She has the twist of silver in her beak and then she looks at Tristan and away again.

“Basch!” Balthier is laughing and pushing at her beak, and again, Basch doesn’t want to move her, wants to let his fingers linger on Balthier’s ear when he does. But he urges her back three steps, keeps his body between Balthier and her mouth. She preens his hair instead, tugs at the chain of his necklace, and chirrs softly in the back of her throat.

Tristan fluffs a feathery sigh, folds his legs under him, and tucks his beak under his wing.

“Your girl is cold, Basch.” Gabranth approaches, and there’s still a fresh bead of blood on each of the cuts on his lip. He holds his hand out to her, and she accepts his scratching. “But she is beautiful.”

“Well, who wouldn’t prefer me?” Balthier is easing the silver twists from each earlobe. He kneels beside Tristan and pauses. “Will he take my hand off?”

“He’s only done it twice before.” Gabranth’s face is serious for a long minute, and then he winks. “You’ll be fine.”

“You’re so funny.” Balthier unbuckles Tristan’s hackamore, and Tristan lifts his chin, settles it again with another exhale. “If the lady likes a well-dressed man, that’s what she’ll get.” He takes out his knife, nicks two small holes in the brow-band, one on each side, where there might be tassels or medallions, were it parade gear. He threads the earrings through the holes and shows his handiwork to Tristan. Gabranth rolls his eyes, but the bird taps at the metal, and Balthier replaces the tack. Tristan gives his head a shake, puts his head back down, and when Balthier stands again, Basch thinks he’ll miss seeing the jewelry on Balthier. Wishes he’d gotten a chance to put his mouth on it. But Balthier is already digging in his pouches, putting another, identical pair into the holes.

“Curative magick will close these up again if I don’t keep something in them,” he says, and Basch knows he’s had to explain this before. He yawns, stretches his arms wide, and Basch has no idea if it’s real or not, but he’s glancing from Basch to Gabranth and back, and he understands. “I’m for bed. Wake me if either of you want sleep.” He says the last with a hard look at Gabranth, who curls his lip and turns back to Eska.

Before Balthier gets into his tent, though, he climbs one of the trees, nimble as a cat, and hangs what’s left of the hind—enough for breakfast, at least—high in a tree, out of reach of Kells, who stretches toward it despite his rounded sides and sleepy blink. Vossler drags a little more dead wood from the brush for the fire, and Basch goes with him. Vossler sets his foot against one limb, pauses.

“Basch—”

“We’ll be fine now.” Basch yanks the branch free, and after the snap, Vossler stills again.

“He is not.” It’s too dark to see Vossler’s face, to see what he means, but Basch thinks it’s not as much a condemnation as Vossler would like it to be. “If either—” Vossler says. “If you need me.”

“I won’t hesitate.” Basch wants to tell Vossler not to worry, that there’s no need, but he can’t say that for certain. And it is not that he fears the old violence, but they are both so damaged in so many ways; it is the way that damage can breed that makes him mean what he says.

They walk back to the circle of firelight, stack the firewood, and Basch drags his pack next to the fire, his brother’s, too, and both swords. Vossler nods a curt goodnight, looks around for his things, and Basch points at the tent. Vossler peers in, and Basch can feel him seeing how Nightmare has been balanced across his pack, away from the ground’s damp. He pauses a moment, and then the tent flaps fall closed. Balthier lingers beside the other tent, fiddling with his jewelry, and Basch is about to ask if anything is the matter when Eska trots forward to the glint. Balthier presses one ear to his shoulder, covers the other with his palm, and holds out the other hand. Eska nibbles at the colored metal, tugs the green ring up until it catches on Balthier’s knuckle, slides it back down, and Basch has to laugh. Balthier looks ridiculous. He looks too ridiculous not to—stooping just enough, Basch slants his lips across Balthier’s, quick, but the brief hot press and Balthier’s wide eyes will last much longer. He takes Balthier’s hand from Eska, spins the rings there himself.

“Get some sleep,” Basch says, and Balthier uncricks himself, catches Basch’s hand in his. But he doesn’t say anything, and Basch thinks maybe he’s glad for that, because he might have to kiss him again if he speaks. Might have to kiss him again, twice more, another, and he needs to talk to his brother. But Balthier doesn’t say anything, only ducks into the tent with a warm backward glance. Eska warks at him, and Tristan pulls his beak from his feathers, looks at her, doesn’t move. And all is quiet, and Basch is looking at his brother who is adding another log to the fire. Gabranth sits, holds his knees loose in his elbows, and Basch does the same. Eska settles behind him, and she leans, tries to get a mouthful of Gabranth’s close-cropped hair. After two tries, she gives up, turns her beak to Basch’s hair, and chirrs.

There is so much to say. There can’t possibly be a place to begin—if there is, he surely doesn’t know it. Gabranth puts his hand on Eska’s neck, and there is his arm at the edge of Basch’s sight. They could start there, the way Basch wishes he knew if he’ll ever manage proximity again. Or with the sunken skin under his brother’s eyes. But then Gabranth flicks his ear, says, “Tell me about your girl.”

And that is where he would rather begin. Basch starts the story with Larsa, and riding, and he isn’t sure where the story ends—it doesn’t end, though his brother starts speaking, is telling Basch about Darci, and how, when Vayne yet lived, he was not permitted to ride with Larsa unattended, could teach the boy nothing of use.

“I could follow him to the ends of Ivalice—it was my charge—but the riding park? That was denied me.” But Gabranth does not linger on Vayne, and Basch doesn’t want him to. Instead, his brother tells him about Tristan, turns his face toward Eska as he speaks the bird’s praises, and she cocks her head for a moment before returning to Basch’s hair. The second time Gabranth says Tristan’s name, he picks himself up, combs through his pinions, and sits behind Gabranth. Eska glares, clacks her beak at him once, though Basch can see her eyes following the shine of Balthier’s earrings.

“If you would wear but one more bauble,” Gabranth says, “you would have the bird and the boy glued to you forever, I think.” And it takes Basch a moment to parse that—he means Balthier, because that is how his brother knew him.

“What was he like, as a young man?”

Gabranth laughs. “You do not think him a young man still?” He settles back into Tristan’s body, drapes an arm over the bird’s back. “He was much like he still is—spoiled, too pretty for his own good, too skinny, clever and quick, and desperate for attention. The youngest judge in an age, pet of the department, and friendless enough that he sought my company.” He puts his hand on Basch’s shoulder. “And I am grateful that it seems that he lacks friends no more.” Basch feels his cheeks heat. “Friends and a lover, perhaps?” Gabranth pushes his arm. “Basch. You cradle-robber.”

“Would-be lover, more like.” And he cannot sit here and blush while his brother makes jokes. “At least he is of age now.”

“And like to die of age before you consummate this.” Tristan yawns, and so does Gabranth. He needs sleep. “But it does him good, I think, to want something badly enough to wait. You might be the first he’s done that for.”

Basch is glad he does not ask why the hesitance, why he hasn’t already tumbled Balthier a dozen times over as he would have done when he and his brother were last together; he suspects his brother has guessed, or Vossler told him. And he wonders how much Vossler has told him of anything. How do they work? Is it working? And because he is sick of not-asking, he does.

Gabranth tips his head back, speaks toward the sky. “My deeds weigh heavy on him, and rightly so. He loves his nation dearly.”

“He is the fiercest patriot I have ever known.” And Gabranth knows what it is for Basch to say that, knows the comparison—fiercer than even the twin who stayed when Landis burned—is not easily given. “But—” Basch hasn’t the vocabulary for this: but Vossler finds something in the bruises you’ve laid upon him that wars with even that fealty. Or there is a space in which those two things are not in conflict. Or do not have to be in conflict.

“But we want the same thing.” Gabranth’s words rise warm and coiled with the fire’s smoke. “It might be enough.”

And Basch understands now, what it is that Vossler sought, could not find. Has, perhaps, found.

“If he still wants to, after this patrol is over, we are going to try to prolong this.” Gabranth’s exhale lengthens, draws his gaze back down. “You are lucky to count him as a friend.”

The way he says it—there’s a kind of gentle envy there, and Basch nudges Gabranth’s foot with his own. “If he and I could return to that, after everything—” Gabranth knows that story, at least, military intelligence. “It is evident he does not dislike you.” Basch touches the edge of his brother’s swollen lip. “He’s not cracked your skull.”

Gabranth grins wide, checks the movement before he can re-open the wounds.

“Why aren’t these healed?” Basch is already turning the words over in his mind. Maybe if he tries again.

Gabranth draws Basch’s fingertips away. “Too much magick in too little time builds up immunity to it. Three days, Larsa told me, three days of constant energy. After that, from what I remember, still something every hour, waking or sleeping, for nearly a week. After that, still more treatment. The injury itself did not hurt as much as all of the healing.” He shakes his head. “Four of the white mages were hospitalized themselves, so much casting. The resources were better spent elsewhere.”

Basch fights the urge to snap, to argue, because he can do that with a look, and he does. His brother shrugs, half rolls his eyes. What Basch says, because this might actually penetrate, is, “He is the emperor. He’ll allocate his resources as he likes. Even on stubborn sons-of-bitches like you.”

A smile ghosts at the edges of Gabranth’s mouth, and he turns on his side, faces Basch, cheek resting on Tristan’s back. “He’s certainly got a mind of his own.” He yawns again.

“And a lockpick.”

“Don’t remind me.” Gabranth closes his eyes against the thought, and they’re slow to open again. Basch thinks maybe his brother needs the sleep more than he needs to be questioned about it, and so he says no more, only keeps still until one slow blink sticks. There.

It is easier to be alert, knowing his brother sleeps beside him, Tristan’s head alongside his, Eska not asleep but nearly. Basch puts his longsword in easy reach, and looks away from the fire until the dancing spots of light no longer cloud his vision. Minutes pass, and the forest silence—a quiet of trills and rustles and far-off calls—thickens.

At the edge of his sight, the fire jumps and Gabranth convulses. His foot strikes one of the logs, his hands clench on nothing, and he shoves himself away from something—it’s not here, but it is enough to push Gabranth a full pace away, enough that he kicks again, that his left arm swings a sword he does not grip. Tristan and Eska startle, rise, dance away, and Gabranth’s eyes are open, wide, too much white, too much pupil, and Basch can hear him panting, the threat of sound cutting into each too-short, too-fast breath. Basch rushes forward, gets his hands on Gabranth’s shoulders, and he flinches. Basch doesn’t let go, holds him up until his breathing slows. Even then, his face is a mask of fear, of rage, and Basch wonders if he would have seen this expression before, if he had fought his brother as Judge without his helm. He does not think so.

“What did you see?” He does not want to know.

It is a long time before Gabranth answers. And then he speaks with a cold indifference that Basch does not know from his brother. “Tonight, Bergan. Drace. She couldn’t save Larsa. Before—all our deaths, at my hands, at yours, at Vayne’s, Cid’s, Mother’s. I have watched my own death almost nightly, and that is the most welcome of my dreams. There is nothing sacred, nothing spared from this hell.”

Basch pulls his brother closer. Holds his face—all cold sweat, his hair damp at the temples—in both hands. “Absolve yourself.”

Gabranth pushes him away. “It is not my own absolution I seek.” He folds his legs cross-wise beneath him. Breathes as though it is a hateful thing to do. Basch will wait. He adds more wood to the fire; the darkness is no longer peaceful.

“There wasn’t any blood, Basch. When I—Drace—” Gabranth swallows, draws his right arm over his own stomach, curls his palm around his side. “The blade hit true, she died quickly. I know, I felt her die. But there was no blood. Not when I struck, not when I withdrew.” His left arm crosses the right, shoulders rounded in, and Basch has never seen him pulled so tight to himself. “It’s—I’m still waiting for it. When Larsa learns what truly happened. Her blood will be everywhere.” He is looking into the fire, looking hard, as though the flame-bright, the fireblindness could purge the vision. “She was cold before she was dead. As though Bergan’s touch congealed—she had always been warm. A window open even in the dead of winter, and she wrapped Larsa in a blanket while she read to him.” Gabranth is nowhere near this place. “She had been warm and he took that and I did not kill him for it.” Gabranth scrubs his palms on his thighs. “I did not kill him for it. All that I have done, and I did not—”

“And Larsa would have lost you both in the same hour.” Basch puts his hand on Gabranth’s wrist, and his brother’s expression cools. It cools from rage to agony and it is so much worse.

“When he learns the truth—my hand that killed her—I will lose him anyway.” He is not talking to Basch, and there is the waking terror, the one that fuels the rest, the one that shades and deepens the circles under his eyes. Gabranth’s hands are striking snakes; they clutch at Basch’s forearms like living iron, and the only thing Basch can do is mirror and hold, hold him fast and wait until his brother can see him. Minutes pass, Gabranth’s chest heaving. One of the logs burns through enough that the weight of its ends snaps it. Sparks shower, and ash drifts over them both. The fist is constricting around Basch—too much, too close, he cannot move his arms—but he shoves it down. His brother is not letting go, and Basch must not let him go. The longer his brother’s fingers dig into his flesh, though, the closer Nalbina gets, and it is not the cell that threatens this time. It is the night he meets it. When he found his twin not dead but worse, an enemy, and they were not even permitted their fight. The manacles never felt so tight as they had at that moment, and it hurts where Gabranth grips him. Has he found his twin again, only to lose him to madness? To guilt? To grief? He will not.

At last, Gabranth stops looking into the blackness behind Basch’s head, and his fingers lift, and Basch will not let him go this time.

“You were not the author of her death, Gabranth. If it was not Vayne’s hand on the blade, take comfort in the chance to give mercy where he would not.” He did not want to speak Vayne’s name. He would like to never to do that again.

“I might have saved her.” There is no hope of how he might have done so in his voice.

“Would she not have rather wished you there to save Larsa?” Basch moves his hands to Gabranth’s biceps.

“I would rather our positions had been reversed.”

“I would not.” Gabranth’s shoulders rock under his grip, and his brother makes as if to argue. “I would not,” Basch says. “Do not wish yourself gone again from me.” And that, at least, quiets him. Tristan nudges Basch’s right hand from Gabranth’s shoulder, puts his head there, lies down. Gabranth sags against him.

Slowly, Eska comes back, folds herself behind Basch, and they sit in the fire’s warm ring. It would be pleasant enough were it not for the deep lines, the shadow still etched on his brother’s face. But at least the worry looks sane, enough that Basch thinks he can say it.

“Tell him as soon as we return. You cannot go on like this.” Another month, and he will be madder than Dr. Cid, if the guilt and despair and sheer exhaustion do not claim him first. “Do you truly believe Larsa would cast you out so readily? Is he so cold?” Basch knows he treads dangerously here, but there must be an end to this.

“I know your game, Basch.” He turns his head and seems, at least, grateful for the gesture.

“It is no game.” Basch turns his cheek against Eska’s wing, too, and he remembers them sitting like this in Landis, Blitz and Donner asleep at their backs. He reaches, takes his brother’s hand. “You discredit Larsa’s worth if you believe he holds your service so cheaply.” He does not let Gabranth pull his hand away.

“She trusted me.”

“She trusted you with Larsa. And you did not betray that trust.”

His brother tilts his face to the leaves above. He is not searching the branches, Basch knows, but he looks up, too.

“Is it possible he already knows?” There is a scrap of hope in it, and Basch remembers trying to broach the subject of his brother to Vossler. Wanting to not have to do the hard thing.

“Precocious as he is, there seems to be little in his world he does not know about.” Like his Magister’s bedroom hobbies. And Basch has to grin a little at the memory of Gabranth’s face in the transport.

Gabranth’s laugh is more a cough, and he holds his face in his hand. “Am I not plagued enough with nightmares?” But he smiles and his gaze flickers to the tents before he looks at Basch again. “If he knows already, there is no need—”

Basch sits up, glares. And his brother nods.

Though his exhale stutters, he says, “The day I return to Archades.” He yawns, looks surprised.

“Could you sleep? Please. There are few enough hours until morning.” At least to try again.

Gabranth shakes his head. “I would not ruin what is left of the night. The dreams will not let me be still enough to sleep anyway.”

“Then we will see the dawn together.” Eska chews a lock of his hair, and Basch leans into her, beside his brother, and swears that he must be right about Larsa.

* * *

 

Morning, at least, does not tarry; the sky is cloudless in the few places the canopy breaks, and the forest grows bright sooner than it did the day before. Basch feeds the chocobos, cobbles together breakfast from what’s left of the deer and some vine-apples growing nearby. Those they had eaten last time he’d been in the Salikawood, sweet-tart and juicy. Gabranth says he’s going to wake Vossler, loud enough that Vossler would already have woken, but there’s no audible scuffle from the tent. Only soft whispering, and when they come out, they are both quiet, though Vossler rubs a smudge of ash from Gabranth’s cheek before he goes to wash his own face.

Basch is tempted to send Eska to wake Balthier, but he doesn’t want to miss this opportunity, either, if he’s still asleep. Basch lifts the tent flap, but Balthier is already awake, one arm groping for his shirt, the other folded behind his head. Basch ducks into the tent anyway.

“You’re all right? How is he?” Balthier says. “How are you both?”

“We’re—we’re better. Good.” Basch nods. “We’re good.” And they’ll work on Gabranth. He’d explained the tea, why Vossler and Balthier had fought, and Basch wonders if there is a way around that noxious brew. Its ingredients are danger enough themselves; he’d had to drag them out of his brother. Forced paralysis. Too much, and it could be permanent. And if his body has desensitized even to curative magick, it seems almost a matter of time until so much of those toxins have built up—no more. He’ll not lose him again.

Balthier pulls his shirt on. “I’m glad.” He pats Basch’s hand, and the gesture is awkward, a little foolish, and it shows on Balthier’s face: he feels foolish. But it is innocent contact, unconfining, unassuming, and it makes Basch want more. He waits until Balthier’s hands are busy at the buttons to lean in, to kiss his mouth, to taste the unexpected mint-cool, to be glad he’s got the sweetness of vine-apple on his tongue, to kiss him with a hand against Balthier’s neck until Balthier mimics the touch. Basch slides his hand higher, strokes his thumb over the shell of Balthier’s ear, his fingers in Balthier’s short hair, until Balthier shivers, presses his head into Basch’s hand even as his shoulder lifts. Balthier breaks the kiss, whispers Basch’s name against his lips while Basch rubs thumb and forefinger over the two rings high on Balthier’s left ear, and Balthier’s hand tightens briefly on his skin. Basch tilts his head, catches the larger twist of silver in his teeth, and Balthier puts his left hand on Basch’s leg, and that feels good, feels hungry the way his fingers flex. Basch touches his tongue to Balthier’s earlobe, and Eska shoves her head through the tent flaps, warks. Balthier jumps and Basch nearly loses his balance, nearly falls over. Eska backs away, and Vossler laughs from the other side of the canvas.

Balthier looks like he could murder something. Basch kisses his cheek. “Time to get up.” He shifts, adjusts.

“I’m already up.” There’s a particular strained smirk on his face, and Basch feels only slightly bad about loving that expression. Balthier sighs. “Give me a few minutes before the next feathery wake-up call?”

Basch nods and slips out of the tent, and he knows he should douse the fire and tidy the camp, but he lingers, hears the whisper of cloth, the hiss of breath, and Basch bites his lip. He tries to look casual, pulls his now-dry clothing from the branches, but the way the limbs spring back gets Vossler’s attention. Vossler raises an eyebrow and rolls his eyes, though he says nothing more. There is a muffled grunt from inside the tent, and Basch feels it in his knees. Eska warks right behind him again, and he whirls. She shakes her head at him and chirrs. Balthier is going to come out of the tent and see him standing there—

“Your bird’s a pervert, Basch.” Balthier is tucking in his shirt, and he’s not embarrassed at all, though Basch knows his own face is red. Before Balthier drags out his pack, he raises his middle finger to Vossler, then takes his dry shirt from atop the tent, and starts collapsing the poles. Basch can’t do anything but start on the side of the tent he’s on, and they have both of them rolled up quickly. Kells carries both of them—Balthier’s pack carries less, and he’s not wearing the kind of armor Gabranth and Vossler do. Striking the rest of camp is a matter of minutes, and today they will ride as four because the trees are starting to spread out—they are nearing the edge of the Salikawood and the marine plain. And there is no reason to separate.

* * *
Every time Basch and Gabranth speak to each other—and it happens often; Vossler has learned more about Basch’s childhood today from their offhand remarks than he has learned from Basch in all their years together—Vossler has a traitorous thrill of hope that this isn’t the worst thing he’s ever wanted. Still, he takes the map and the glass today, tries to keep his focus there. Basch and Gabranth have little attention for aught but each other, and that is, perhaps, as it should be. Balthier sits strangely easy for not being the center of attention, though sometimes Vossler catches him talking to himself—his lips moving, but no sound—and he wonders. Madness runs in his family. But he has done nothing more mad than any of the rest of them as of late. If he gets a chance, he’ll rib him about it. It is no great task to get a rise out of Balthier, and as he thinks it, he looks at Basch, sees Balthier watching him. Easy to get a rise out of Balthier in every way, apparently.

All is sound from the edge of the Salika to several leagues before Phon and the hunters’ camp. The border marks here are easily discerned in the flatland, large boulders mostly, and a single shrine of trees so ancient they are more stone than wood. Balthier says something about forest cults, but Vossler finds himself admiring how much a smile suits Gabranth, despite his purpled lower lip. The twins’ similarities are less now in their faces—if he looks now, there are enough differences besides Basch’s scar that he could never confuse them—but are most in the way they ride, the way they laugh—not in the sound but in the way they hold themselves: the same things shake their whole bodies with it. And for now, it doesn’t bother Vossler that he can’t share the joke—they don’t often finish a whole phrase, only begin it, and that is enough to double them over.

Still, if Gabranth and Basch both are better today than they were before, weariness weighs on them both: Gabranth’s shoulders slump when he thinks no one is looking, and though he is every bit as deadly with his blade as he was the day before, when the last bagoly falls, he sheathes the sword slowly, leans into Tristan’s neck. But when he fights—he and Basch, side-by-side on their chocobos, it is fearsome and beautiful and Vossler catches Balthier looking, too.

They stop at dusk to make camp, high on a bluff overlooking the water, and the night breeze cools the day’s heat quickly. Balthier and Basch set up the tents and he and Gabranth search for firewood. They find a copse of scrubby trees, crisped under the summer sun, and Gabranth puts his foot on a branch as if to start snapping off pieces.

“Let me,” Vossler says, pulling Nightmare from his back. Dead wood cleaves as easily as bone.

The noise is terrific, a shower of splintered chips around him, and the temptation to flatten the whole stand is strong, but he is also hungry. And when he turns, slings Nightmare across his back, Gabranth is right there. Vossler recognizes most of his expression—what he had seen when Gabranth had opened his door the day before they left, the barely controlled desire—but there is something sad in the way his eyes keep drifting toward Nightmare, toward the battered wood. Gabranth’s gaze goes cool as he gathers armfuls of branches, and he says nothing more than thank you before they return to camp.

As they eat, Gabranth says he’ll take the second watch.

“No, you won’t.” Basch looks up from his food. “You were up all night.”

Balthier nods. “I’ve got first, Vossler second.”

For once, Vossler agrees with Balthier. “And you’ll sleep.”

“There’s no sense—I’ll be awake anyway.” Gabranth puts down his trencher.

“You need to try. You look like hell.” Basch puts down his.

“Basch—”

“If I have to knock you out, I will.” There’s nothing idle in Basch’s threats.

“Fine.” Gabranth stalks to his pack, rummages, and when he comes back empty-handed, he doesn’t stop until he is inches from Basch. “You want me to sleep. Where is it?”

“Natural sleep. That tea isn’t helping.” Basch stands, and his jaw is set, and Vossler wonders if Basch destroyed it or is just hiding it to see if his brother can possibly manage sleep without it. Vossler wants never to see or smell it again; nothing can be as awful as that.

What Gabranth says next Vossler can’t parse—Landisser, something long, something ugly—and he drags his pack and sword into the left-most tent. He has not finished eating. Vossler feeds what remains of Gabranth’s share to Tristan, and then Tristan stands in front of Gabranth’s tent, head up, chest out, and he doesn’t let Vossler get any closer to the canvas than where Tristan stands. He’s on sentry, Vossler has no doubt about that. Eska watches him, folds herself beside the other tent. Then Adi and Kells clean piranha scales from their talons, and as he’s dragging his pack and Basch’s into the tent, he hears Basch offer to sit watch with Balthier.

Balthier shakes his head, accuses Basch of hypocrisy, and shoves him toward the tent. So the ponce isn’t as selfish as he seems, though Basch steals back, steals a kiss before he ducks under the canvas.

The next four hours are among the longest of Vossler’s life. He and Basch do not talk—both listening too hard—and there is no sound from Balthier save the dry rattle of putting another piece of wood on the fire and the metallic click of the Arcturus’s chambers, open closed open closed. The night itself is more silent than it had been in the Salikawood—the sound of wind and water soothing. Soothing, were it not for the sounds from Gabranth’s tent, the muffled roll of cloth, the occasional thump. He quiets from time to time, maybe fifteen minutes here and there, before there is more. Twice, the harsh bark of breath cuts through to their tent.

It feels like days before Balthier flips open the tent flap, and Vossler doesn’t know how he’s going to be able to sit at the fire, to know—Balthier’s hand touches his foot. Vossler suppresses the urge to kick.

“Vossler, I’m taking the next watch. Can you—pin him down? Something? Before the stubborn bastard hurts himself.”

Vossler sits up and pushes out of the tent before Balthier can even back away.

Tristan has turned around, no longer facing the outside but facing the flaps of Gabranth’s tent, and he tugs at Vossler’s hair when Vossler nudges him. “Move, bird.”

When he lifts the tent flap, Gabranth’s hand closes on his throat, and it’s easy enough to knock his hand away. But Gabranth keeps fighting him, shoves at his arms, scratches. He’s not focused, nothing is connecting, and Vossler gets his arms around Gabranth’s, pins them to his sides, and rolls them both onto Gabranth’s tangled bedroll.

“Let me go.” Gabranth twists against him, his legs kick, and his heel snaps into Vossler’s shin. Vossler slings his leg over both of Gabranth’s and holds him down, holds him back against his chest, and Gabranth is cold, his skin slick under Vossler’s hands.

“No.” Gabranth shouldn’t be this cold; the night is warm, and his heartbeat is faster than it should be for a man trying to sleep. “I’m not letting you go.” Vossler edges his arm under Gabranth’s neck, crosses his forearm over Gabranth’s chest, anchors him close. “So you can lie here and fight me all you want.”

Gabranth stops struggling for long minutes, but he’s still tensed, and Vossler’s ready for it when he kicks again, rolls. Vossler muscles them back to their sides, and he slides his right hand over Gabranth’s stomach, strokes firmly, slowly, and Gabranth growls, still tense, but it’s not the same way.

“Relax.” Vossler takes a deep breath, rests his lips close to Gabranth’s ear. “Please.” And Vossler touches his mouth—just once—to the back of Gabranth’s neck.

“I don’t need—” Gabranth gets his fingers on Vossler’s thigh, and they dig in.

Vossler swallows the spike of desire—that is not what he is here for now. “Your brother does. I do.”

And Gabranth goes still. Keeps his hand on Vossler’s leg. But his fingers soften, eventually, and his inhale deepens, his exhale doesn’t catch, and after some long minutes, even Vossler finds himself drifting, Gabranth clutched tight to his chest.

He wakes to a sharp elbow jabbing into his ribs, Gabranth’s torso arching away and then snapping back against him. Vossler presses his hand to Gabranth’s cheek—he’s going to smack his head off the ground or give Vossler another broken nose if he doesn’t still—hitches his leg higher on Gabranth’s, half-rolls on top of him to calm his thrashing. The thought hits quick, hits sickening. This is the kingslayer. This is he, caught beneath him, caught helpless and frantic and suffering for every miserable thing he has done in his life. And he should be glad. Vossler should be glad. He should say every word he has always wanted to say to this man—burn, rot, die—everything but live, everything but recover. He should close his hand around that straining throat—his hand would not be knocked away so easily—and tighten his fingers until they touch. He should take the knife he knows is in Gabranth’s belt, just there on the other side of the tent, and return Raminas’s pain to the hand that dealt it. He should do anything, anything but lean closer, say his name softly. The syllables hang in the air before Vossler can stop them, and Gabranth’s eyes shutter open in the dark—too much white, shouldn’t be able to see that—and at least he is awake now.

Gabranth’s teeth show, and Vossler waits to be told to get off, get out, but it doesn’t come. After a long pause—he’s holding his breath—Gabranth says, “Change what I see. When I close my eyes.” And he is shaking, his cheek damp again, and Vossler doesn’t know how it can get worse than this, doesn’t quite know what he means, but he’s going to try. He touches his lips to Gabranth’s, soft, offering himself, and he doesn’t know why he’s not just giving it to him. The man wants distraction, that should be enough, but he wants Gabranth to take this from him. And he’s not hard, but he rubs against Gabranth’s hip anyway, untangles their arms. Gabranth lunges up; their teeth click and Vossler hopes this doesn’t open up his lip again. It hadn’t bled all day, though the smaller bruises started to show on his arms and legs. There’s no blood in his mouth yet, a good sign, for now, for this, and Gabranth gets his fingers in Vossler’s hair, pulls, yanks Vossler’s head down to his waist.

Vossler cannot get Gabranth’s shorts open fast enough, cannot get his mouth there soon enough for his own taste. Gabranth isn’t even fully hard—it’s all too soon—but Vossler licks over the thickening shaft, sucks in the first two inches, lets his tongue trace the edge of his foreskin, dip into the slit, plays his fingers over as much skin as he can reach, and soon Gabranth is cupping the back of his head, pressing him down, rocking his hips, and everything is too soon, too raw, too fevered to be quite right, but even as Vossler is still swallowing, Gabranth is drawing him up by hair and arm. “Now you. I want to feel you.”

Vossler takes himself in hand, Gabranth’s closing over his, and this, this is what Gabranth should be like, and that he is, even here, even now, taking this from Vossler—giving this to Vossler—that is almost enough. Almost enough and Gabranth tightens his grip, and Vossler is so close, just there, and Gabranth says, “Come,” and presses his fingers into the nearly gone bruise on Vossler’s neck, and that is enough. This is enough. It is so dark, but his spunk is hot on his hand; he hopes it warms the chill on Gabranth’s skin, even if he can do nothing to chase whatever it is he sees at night. Vossler bends to lick them clean, feels more clean, and Gabranth’s fingers card through his hair, and there is warmth under his fingers, under his tongue.

Vossler presses a kiss to the underside of Gabranth’s jaw, another on his mouth. Gabranth’s tongue slides against his, slow and easy, but when the kiss ends, Gabranth rolls, turns his back. Vossler pushes the heel of his hand against his eye—and his wrist is caught, pulled over Gabranth’s shoulder. As he settles against him, wrapping his arms tight around Gabranth’s chest, pinioning his legs with his own, he thinks at least two hours have passed. He knows how to mark a watch. Gabranth wakes him twice more with twitches, but Gabranth sleeps until the light seeps between them.

Chapter Text

When Vossler leaves the tent, he all but goes through Balthier; Balthier catches himself on his hands, but he says nothing as Vossler brushes by. He picks himself up, and Basch can see him listening.

Basch forgets how seriously Balthier takes watch; he will not let Basch sit up with him, tells Basch he is distracting enough—fingertips on Basch’s arm for a moment in the darkness—by thought alone. It warms Basch, and makes an odd sense, despite Balthier’s caprice elsewhere; how long has it only been Balthier and Fran to mind each other’s backs? And how many have hunted them? And so the tent flap falls closed, and Basch settles himself, closes his eyes, and breathes as softly as he can. From his brother’s tent, muffled words, the thump of rolling bodies, but Vossler does not call for him, there are no sounds of pain, and when Gabranth and Vossler finally still, Basch curls his arm around the blanket bunched at his elbow and rests.

* * *

They will make the hunters’ camp easily by afternoon—by noon if they hurry—and so they take their time. Other hunters cross their path no less than four times before even midday, and though one of them grumbles that the Archadian coin he earned on his last mark spends far less readily on the Dalmascan side of the border now than it did half a year ago, all seems well. Basch can’t help but feel nervous about that, but maybe it is a real sign of hope. Certainly, there are others. The way his brother blinked sleep out of his eyes when morning came. That he had yawned, dozed a little while Basch and Vossler fed the chocobos and Balthier cat-napped in his peculiar way, sitting up, asleep in an instant, and even though Gabranth woke with a start, shook his head to clear it of some vision after a few minutes, he no longer looked wholly lost.

They do find a place where the border marker has been moved, shifted a quarter of a league into Dalmasca: a stone post that stands half again as tall as Basch has been cantilevered from its seat, dragged to a new spot, and somehow replaced—the trench whomever dug is still visible, changing the grade from undulating earth to a decline that was filled with dry sand. As a feat of engineering—here, in the middle of nowhere, hefting stone that Basch could not circle with his arms—it’s fairly impressive, but when Balthier records the change, writes down the measurements Gabranth takes, Basch can feel the ire rolling from Vossler. He stalks the length of the trench, and Gabranth checks the post itself for signs of how the task was done.

“Rope or magick,” Gabranth says. “If it had been sanctioned by Archadia, which it certainly was not, the military engineers would have used stone clips; they leave holes, two inches deep.” There are no new grooves, no freshly chipped stone to mark the grip of machine or anything else. And he looks at Vossler. “It could have been anyone.”

“Bagolies? Entites?” Vossler shakes his head, lifts himself onto Adi’s back again. But he lets it go, and Basch knows he actually believes Gabranth. Believes him because Vossler himself spent two years doing exactly that kind of misdirection—sow dissention wherever you could. Basch had stood beside his brother and lit the fuses of Archadian explosives, cut off one end of a supply train from the other, dressed in the enemy’s clothes, and even if he hasn’t told Vossler all of that story—has told no one all of that story—Vossler surely remembers that it had taken Basch the better part of a Dalmascan month for all of the burn and soot and mortar fragments to disappear from his arms and legs. It might have been Dalmascan hands that moved the stone. It might have been Archadian. It might have been opportunists from neither side or both.

Gabranth asks Balthier for the map, starts measuring each marker two and three times, asks Vossler to remeasure, and after they pass two markers like this, Vossler relaxes. Eventually, he drifts back as Tristan trots forward to the next marker. Basch slows Eska, waits for Adi to fall into step with her, but Vossler takes Adi beside Kells instead.

Vossler pitches his voice low, to Balthier, but it carries to Basch’s ears. “Thank you, for taking the second watch.”

Balthier nods. “You’re welcome. And congratulations—that’s more real sleep than he’s gotten in a couerl’s age.” Balthier straightens his shoulders, that cynical tilt in his chin, and Basch can feel his stomach sinking. “Next time, you could do something without an invitation.”

Vossler’s spine stiffens, and Adi’s feet stop moving. “What?”

“Or would you rather he have to ask?” Kells is two paces ahead of Adi, and Balthier pulls him up, turns back to face Vossler, and Vossler’s jaw shifts—Basch can almost feel the grind of his teeth.

“I did not know.” Each word is spaced, each word slowed. And there is more, but Balthier doesn’t let him finish.

“Now you do.” Balthier nudges Kells into a lope, and they slow at Gabranth’s side. Basch sees the map change hands again, and Balthier laughs, and Basch knows he’s said nothing to Gabranth about what just happened. Then why did he say anything at all?

Vossler and Adi are yet still. “What in the hell,” Vossler says, “was that about?” He turns to Basch. “His mouth makes my knuckles itch.” Vossler’s hands are fists around the reins, and Adi starts to shift, his talons raking the soil.

“Calm down before Adi gets all riled up.” Eska walks with the shift of his weight, and Basch puts a hand on Adi’s neck.

Vossler opens each of his hands deliberately, scratches through Adi’s crest feathers. “He’s a selfish little cunt, Basch. I did what I could. I will do what I can.”

“I think,” and Basch does think so, truly, but he can’t help but wonder why Balthier has to be so back-handed about it, “I think he’s just trying to watch out for Gabranth.”

“He doesn’t need to.” Vossler nudges Adi into a walk again, and Basch isn’t sure how Vossler means that. “He’d better watch himself.”

“Vossler—” Basch can’t put anything else after his name. Balthier’s doing it deliberately, knows Vossler doesn’t like him, and Basch can’t deny that.

“He’s made it clear where he stands.” Adi picks up his feet, and Basch listens to the plates of Vossler’s armor shift metallic over the sound of the bird’s pace.

Ahead, Balthier makes some crude joke about Archadian incompetence, loud enough that they all can hear, and Gabranth shoves him. His smile is infectious—Gabranth grins, Basch knows, despite himself, and Basch knows that very little is clear from Balthier’s tongue.

Balthier leans closer to Gabranth, says something, and Gabranth turns around, finds Vossler riding off to one side, calls to him. When Vossler comes near, face wary, Balthier wheels Kells to Gabranth’s other side, and Gabranth shows Vossler the map, rests his hand on the back of Vossler’s neck, his pale fingers carding through the dark hair. From this angle, Basch can see how Vossler presses back into Gabranth’s hand, can see how their fingers almost touch while they hold the map flat against the breeze coming off the water. Balthier and Kells trot forward, circle around, and as they approach, Basch thinks he understands: Balthier comes to everything slantwise. He turns Eska to face them—perhaps—perhaps the action is direct, perhaps the effect. Balthier is a man of science. Perhaps the result is where his focus should lie. Basch wishes he knew how to quantify it.

* * *

By midday, the coastal plain stretches wide before them, too warm even for the bagolies, and Eska is restless beneath Basch. Basch is watching the horizon, doesn’t notice how close to Tristan she is until Tristan warks. Basch looks, and she’s got one of his gold feathers dangling in her beak, and he whirls, snaps it from her. He doesn’t know where to put it, though, since it won’t reattach to his flank, and she reaches, tugs instead at the girth of his saddle, and Gabranth grins.

“The two of you wanted a race before.” He leans forward, and the loose feather drifts toward the ground as sand flies from Tristan’s talons. Eska carries them forward before it hits.

Basch doesn’t know where they’re racing to, is pretty sure it doesn’t matter, only bends lower over Eska’s neck as she eats up the ground between her and Tristan. His legs are longer, but he’s heavier, and they’re neck and neck until Eska swings left around a stand of brush. Tristan leaps it, and Gabranth is laughing until Eska cuts in front of Tristan close enough to make him slow. Basch is letting her run this one; he’s only holding on, and Tristan stops simply going forward—now it’s a chase. And this is where every bit of her wild side shows; Basch has never been on a bird that can make the turns she does, and at least a quarter of the time, he doesn’t know what direction she’ll take, so he hunkers lower, leans when he can, and tries not to get in her way. She caroms around dunes and the odd patch of scrub, gets Tristan going the wrong way entirely twice, but he catches up, not just playing anymore, cutting over and sometimes through the obstacles Eska skirts, and when Basch chances a glance over his shoulder, his brother’s face is pure joy. Even if she ends up dumping him out of the saddle—he hasn’t fallen off a chocobo in years, but if any bird is going to make that happen, it’ll be her—this is worth it.

Eska skims the sand, heading directly for the water, and at least it’ll be cool when they plunge in. Tristan’s steps thump behind them, and Eska pulls up so quickly Basch hits his forehead on her neck. She stops at the edge of the surf, her claw-marks deep in the sand, and Basch watches Tristan and Gabranth barrel into the water, right up to Tristan’s chest. The splashing is terrific, and Tristan back-pedals, beats the water with his wings, and Gabranth is soaked to the skin, Tristan’s crest slicked and narrowed with wet. Tristan stalks out of the water, and Gabranth slides down from the saddle, shields his face as Tristan shakes.

“She’s evil, Basch.” Gabranth is still grinning, panting.

“Only a little,” he says, and smoothes her feathers.

Eska chirrs, picks up her foot delicately, and flicks a talon’s-worth of droplets at Tristan. He shakes his head, fans his wings again, and Basch feels the spray on his arms. It’s nice, and Eska clicks in the back of her throat, stretches out to lick a droplet of water from the earring on Tristan’s hackamore. She runs her beak along one of his wet feathers, turns, and walks away. Basch hears Tristan’s exhale, his brother’s laughter, and the creak of wet leather as he hoists himself back into the saddle.

They reach the hunter’s camp at midafternoon, and the day swelters. Basch insists they hire two of the huts, with proper cots; it doesn’t show for more than a moment at a time, but Basch knows his brother aches. This will at least get him off the ground for a night. Basch leaves Balthier to haggle the price, and Vossler stands to one side, arms crossed over his chest. Basch knows he’s waiting for an opening to take Balthier down a peg. Basch has to walk away before they drive him mad. He’ll see to finding a shady spot for the birds.

Gabranth follows, leading Adi and Kells because Tristan’s following Eska. She is, Basch sees, letting him. They find a shady spot well beyond the last of the huts, where the grass has found enough real soil to thicken. Basch unbuckles Adi and Kells’s hackamores, and Eska all but backs out of hers the moment he loosens the strap. Tristan won’t let Gabranth have his; he shakes his head and the silver twists shimmy.

“Still holding out hope, are you?” Gabranth runs his fingers under the leather straps, though, checking for places the feathers might be twisted, might rub. Blitz had always managed to get his feathers bent under themselves, frequently had little nicks where the rachis prickled.

Basch steps closer to Tristan, scratches under his beak with one hand, under Eska’s with the other, while Gabranth takes Tristan’s saddle off. Both birds are leaning into his palms, and Basch lets his arms go slowly slack until their heads are separated only by the width of his body. Tristan’s eyes are closed, his talons flexing in the sand, and Eska stretches her neck out, tugs at the earrings on Tristan’s headstall. Tristan leans closer, and Basch backs away before he’s stuck between them. As soon as he does, though, Eska lets go and preens her feathers instead. But she keeps glancing up. Tristan stretches his wings, arranges them again, and gives Gabranth a shove with his beak.

“That’s our cue, then.” Gabranth makes quick work of Adi and Kells’s saddles, leaves them dozing, and Basch undoes Eska’s. He hefts the saddle to his shoulder and pets over her stripes. She chirrs and mouths his hair, nudges him step by step until he’s beside Tristan again. She puts her head on Basch’s shoulder, but she’s looking at Tristan behind him, and he eases away once more, pats her neck.

“I wouldn’t be much help in this department.” He tries not to think about how good it feels to have someone, even Eska, touch his hair. He takes Adi’s saddle from Gabranth.

“You do realize,” Gabranth says, “that Balthier’s about as complicated as Tristan at this point, right? Scratch in the right place and his eyes will roll back in his head.” His grin is sly, teasing, and Basch feels half of himself lift. The other half, though—he drags the toe of his boot through a patch of grass.

Gabranth stops. “Did something happen?”

Basch looks along the water’s edge, sees Vossler walking away from one of the huts, toward the water, doesn’t see Balthier anywhere. Gabranth turns his head, and his expression shifts warm against Vossler’s back. “They way they snipe at each other. It bothers you?”

“They’ve already tried to kill each other. Vossler almost succeeded—twice.” It’s lucky Penelo had had Phoenix Downs; Balthier had been keeping himself between Vossler and Fran in that fight.

“They’re both still alive now.” Gabranth raises his index finger to his lips, and Basch pushes his hand down. Gabranth curls his fingers firmly over the saddles resting on his shoulders. “All things considered, Basch, the four of us are doing well, given the history.”

And that’s true. None of them are dead. But the way Balthier baits Vossler—this morning, especially—and the way Vossler won’t let anything go—still rankles. They’re both sarcastic bastards, but they get to each other. And that’s getting to Basch. It’s taken him and Vossler too long to return to something like their old ease to lose that because Balthier can’t keep his mouth shut, and despite trying to do otherwise, Basch likes Balthier too much to want to listen to Vossler carp about him. Balthier is waiting for him, and Basch does like him, does want him—the thought echoes in Balthier’s voice, and this time, the silken slyness of tone in memory is welcome. He wishes they’d just ignore each other if they dislike so much, as a favor to him.

Gabranth puts his hand on Basch’s arm. “Whatever issue they have, that’s between them. And if it were serious, it would be ended, one way or another, by now. You know that. What is it, truly, that’s bothering you?” Gabranth points his feet toward the huts. “Beyond how long it’s been. Beyond issues of—space. If it were only things of yourself, you’d be past that by now.” Thin brown earth and sparse grass gives way to sand. “What does he still have to prove to you?”

“He doesn’t—” Gabranth is daring him to finish the sentence. Basch can’t do it. “I don’t know.” He glances over his shoulder, sees Eska and Tristan standing in the shade, chins resting on each others’ backs. “I was content, before. Three weeks ago.”

“You only say that because you’re too stupid to know when you are miserable.” Gabranth kicks a stone into the sand before them. “I, at least, can recognize that much.”

“You knew and then still did nothing—surely my provincial ignorance is less damning than your willful idiocy.” Basch laughs, and it’s not as forced as he thought it would be. Kicking the stone toward Gabranth, he darts back a step, reclaims it, has to dodge when Gabranth nicks it from his instep. And they are grinning, grinning at each other, and then Basch sees his brother’s eyes flicker to his scar. And he is not longer grinning. His inhale is cavernous.

“I am not sure I deserve more than that.”

“What do any of us deserve?” Basch makes himself smile. “Besides a good box in the ear?”

And his brother laughs at their grandfather’s words on Basch’s lips. Gabranth balances the saddle on his left shoulder carefully, puts his fingertips on Basch’s chest. “Balthier,” he says slowly, “deserves to get laid. Provided, of course—” he lifts his hand, resettles the saddle, “the temptation hasn’t already proven too much.” Gabranth nods toward a bare-chested, eyepatched hunter who is nearly as handsome as Balthier himself. Gabranth shows his teeth in that sharky grin. “I like Phon so much.”

“He would be better off—” Basch makes himself not doubt.

“Basch.” Gabranth rolls his eyes. “In seventeen years you did not forget how best to piss me off. I hardly think you’d forget how to—”

“It’s been five years.” And for the five before that, not so often.

“Since Vossler?” Gabranth is focused on him in the distance, on Vossler shedding his armor by the water.

“That’s been ten years since. Took us half a dozen tries to figure out we don’t work.” He doesn’t regret any of them, glad only that they hadn’t been lovers by the time the Empire came, when Raminas—he pushes the thought away. He doesn’t regret any of them, though there had been weeks, months, when they didn’t know what would happen when they were alone together, whether it would be clothing torn in haste to get it off, punches thrown, or the easy banter of friends—all equally likely. The last time, it’d been just one night, and in the morning, they’d laughed and shaken hands and said never again. Or at least, Vossler said, until he was so old no one else but Basch would have him, and that would be a very long time indeed, and he’d winked, and told Basch to find a girl if he wanted to settle down. Four years later, Vossler was nearly married himself, and Basch had nearly given up looking for anyone. And then the plagues, and then the Empire.

Gabranth grins. “So neither of you is very smart.”

“Obviously. Look who he’s with now.”

There is an extra tinge of red in Gabranth’s cheeks that is more than the sun’s mark, but he looks happy.

“I do not know if he is with me…” Gabranth lets the thought drift unfinished, steps up onto the short wooden porch of one of their huts. Balthier had asked for the two farthest from everything, had slapped the bottom of Gabranth’s pack, and Basch had heard the muffled thump of leather.

Basch wants to tell his brother something certain, something reassuring, but he doesn’t know exactly. Vossler likes Gabranth—at least in some capacity, because he’s said so, because he wants him and he likes what he’s getting from Gabranth, but he’s not said more. And the obvious won’t help his brother.

They put the saddles, their gear into the hut, know that it’s theirs because Nightmare is laid out on one of the cots while Vossler’s pack leans against a wall, and Gabranth stands in the doorway, looking out. Vossler is still in the water, not much more than shin-deep, though he’s bare except for his shorts, and he’s peering down into the sluggish surf. Even from this distance, Basch can see his concentration, head tilted against the water’s glare, looking through the glassy ripples.

“What’s he doing?” Gabranth is stripping off his armor, his boots, everything but the sleeveless jerkin he wears underneath, and he rummages in his pack until he finds a pair of shorts. He doesn’t mean to look, but Basch sees the purple stain of Vossler’s mouth on the top of his brother’s left thigh. He stifles the smile; so that’s still Noah’s favorite place for a love-bite, and he’s still leaving them everywhere on his partner. Gabranth pulls them on, looks from Vossler to Basch and back again. “What’s he looking for?”

“Fish, most likely.” Vossler’s description of perfect leave time: fish until it’s too dark to see, eat what you caught, and fuck until there’s enough dawn to see the river again. Basch wonders how long it’s been since Vossler’s been fishing—four years at least, longer: when the Archadians came, there were no leave days.

“He fishes?”

“He used to, when there was time,” Basch says, and Gabranth’s face grows thoughtful. Basch nudges him with an elbow. “Can’t keep your mouths off each other long enough to discuss hobbies?” Basch shucks his mail, his half-coat, greaves—all but his shorts. “Fishing for Vossler—it’s as close to religious as he gets. He’d stand in the same place for hours, patient as a tree. Won’t wait five minutes for anything else, but fish—he’s got all damn day.”

Gabranth’s lips turn up at the corners. “Oh, you might be surprised,” he says, and he finishes with another grin rather than words. He watches Vossler again, lifts his hand toward his mouth, catches himself. He laces his fingers and rests his hands on his head. “Given—everything—” and that word is heavy as an adamantoise, “—despite everything, do you think Vossler would—” and Basch remembers this sound, the way his voice is steady to the end of a phrase, but a phrase he can’t finish. He’ll swallow. He’ll start over. On the third pass, he’ll say it. Basch doesn’t even truly hear the second attempt; he is too busy seeing the tug at his right earlobe, brushing back hair he no longer wears long enough to fall forward. On the third pass, Basch has to make himself listen to what Gabranth is saying because what he hears—what he hears is simply his brother. His twin. No one else speaking from that throat, only the other half of himself. And his brother is talking and he should listen.

“Is there any chance he and I will be friends? Can we be?”

This is not the question he expected. “If not friends now, then—” Basch turns his chin up. “What are you to each other?”

“We give each other what we need. What we want.” Gabranth leans on the doorframe.

“So you have an arrangement.”

“In a manner of speaking. I’d like—” He hooks his fingers over the lintel and though it’s not much of a stretch, he lifts himself, hangs from his arms, tension through his biceps, and it is the right arm that falters first. He lets go, gives his shoulder a rub that’s more of a punch, and lifts himself again, using only his right arm this time. He grits his teeth, and Basch wants to tell him to take it easy, but Gabranth is still looking at Vossler, something determined in his face. His arm constricts, angles at the elbow, and he pulls himself up just once before his arm shakes and he drops to his feet again.

“He deserves more than an arrangement, Basch.” Gabranth steps down into the sand, and Basch follows, closing the door behind himself.

Gabranth walks through the damp line of sand, and Basch fits his heel into the quickly leveling depressions. He stops short of the two of them, though—Vossler is already telling Gabranth about the Nebra, “miserable bitch to ferry,” but when he mentions the place where the river bends under a heavy crag and his hands become the brown rock cupping the water, the slanting current that swirls the water deep there, even the Nebra’s biting flies are sacred to him.

Basch wades into the surf and though his feet face the water, his head turns toward shore. Where is Balthier? He tries not to think about that handsome hunter, or about the last time they’d been through Phon. He’d disappeared twice then, once while the rest of them swam, once in the night. Basch had gone out for a piss, saw Balthier’s white sleeves weaving through the dark. Basch dives into a small swell of wave, rolls onto his back and looks into the blinding blue-white of sky. He arches, pushes himself inverted until his palms meet the inlet’s floor, and he kicks his legs up, half expects Vossler or his brother to tackle him. It doesn’t happen, and so he surges to the surface, feels the sky open over his face, his shoulders, his chest, and a rock skims by him, dotting the water as it skips. He turns toward shore, and Balthier has his shoes in one hand, his feet at the water’s edge. Basch swims closer, submerges, and reappears where it is too shallow to swim at all. He stands, and Balthier’s staring again.

“You wanted something?” Basch smiles and steps closer, watches Balthier wet his lips with his tongue.

“Only to tell you not to drown before we get back to Rabanastre.” Balthier shades his eyes from the water’s glare.

Basch edges forward, a little to the right, until his own afternoon shadow falls over Balthier, shades him entire. “Something special there?”

“Extraordinarily.” Balthier’s gaze is so hungry, palpable as his fingers on Basch’s thigh this morning, and they aren’t talking about a meeting of lips in Rabanastre anymore. Basch knows he’s been promising more than that, has been wanting more than that, and he is hot and cold all over, and Balthier sees it, he must, because he backs up half a step, looks down at the water, and when he looks back up, there is that strained expression, and his voice is soft. “I want my kiss,” is what he says, and Basch thinks that if he sets that as his mark—Rabanastre—he will be ready then. It has worked in the past—his sergeant’s examination and trial, his first command in the desert—but the desire is wholly different. While Balthier tells him he’s going to change his clothes, going to read the letter Fran had left for him here, Basch decides: Rabanastre. If Vossler and Balthier can coexist for another week. If Balthier can give him that much. Rabanastre. Basch wades waist-deep to watch Balthier leave, then turns to the rest of the camp.

Down the beach, Gabranth kicks out into deep water, and Vossler follows, but they don’t swim far. Vossler treads water, and Gabranth floats on his back, and they aren’t saying anything, but they are so near. Vossler rolls like the otters on their river, on the Silberwasser, dives, and doesn’t surface, but Gabranth’s feet dip under the water, and the rest of him follows. They sputter back to air a few yards closer to Basch, and Gabranth tugs them back under, and the next time Vossler comes back to the surface, the bitemark on his neck is fresher. Gabranth’s lips are reddened, and they disappear again, churning blue and skin-pale under the water.

Vossler wipes his face with his hands, pushes the water down his neck, and Basch doesn’t miss the way the heel of his hand presses where neck meets shoulder. Gabranth watches closely, and Basch sees Vossler tighten the muscle of his torso. Basch pushes a palmful of water at him.

”Quit showing off.”

Vossler grins, then turns toward the beach. Balthier’s standing in the doorway of one of the huts, the white of paper in his hands. “What kind of stupidity does he have brewing? He turning hunter, too?”

“What?” Basch looks back at Vossler.

”Not likely. That’s not complicated enough for Balthier.” Gabranth swims a few strokes closer to shore, stands, and here in the light, Basch marvels again at how his twin yet lives. He cannot help but gape. “Why? Was he up to something?”

Vossler trains his eyes on the worst of the scarring, and Gabranth hooks the fingers of his left hand over his right shoulder for a long minute, the bend of his arm covering the gnarled flesh, his fingers obscuring the angled bone. Vossler isn’t looking away, and eventually Gabranth’s arm drops again and he raises his chin. Vossler speaks without looking at Basch. “Well, I offered to teach him to swim—” Basch shakes his head. “—but he said he had some business to attend to.” Vossler cuts through the water between them. “If he’s doing a side job on Ashe and Larsa’s time, I will drown him.”

Gabranth starts wading toward shore.

“Where are you going?” Vossler looks disappointed.

“To see what he’s up to. There are a few traps set up for him and Fran, some very dubious ‘treasure’ that I know about, and they’re generally too canny to fall for them, but, if he’s bored and she’s not around—”

“Traps?” Basch can’t help the snarl. No matter that they are reconciled as brothers, Judge Magister Gabranth is still in charge of the Ninth.

“Not from us. Despite Zargabaath’s wishes, Larsa quite likes the brat, has a romantic fondness for piracy. But—traps.” Gabranth shakes the sand out of his shirt, pulls it over his head. “I haven’t exactly got a lot of friends—I’d like to keep the one I have in one piece.”

Vossler opens his mouth, closes it again, but as they walk up the beach, Basch can all but hear him thinking.

It being a hunters’ camp, the notice board always has a crowd around it, and Basch can’t see anything out of the ordinary at first. Vaan and Penelo’s sigil is on almost a quarter of the bills, and he’s caught up in seeing what they’ve been up to because he doesn’t know what else to look for when nothing seems to catch his brother’s particular notice. Vossler’s watching the people instead, eyes wary as his always are.

Penelo and Vaan’s marks are fairly usual for the most part—warped beasts, a demon, another rogue malboro near Eruyt—but there is one bill of theirs that makes him look close. There is a man’s face on it, but it’s not a bounty sign. There are those posted enough in this camp, but this is on the hunt board for a reason. Someone’s making a point, a fairly ugly one. Basch makes his way closer.

The hunt is done—the red slash covering the bill attests finished, not the blue of defeated, not green and returned—and Basch doesn’t recognize the contact name, but this man, the mark, was in Rabanastre. And the payment is enormous—Basch can see why the children took it: Penelo could turn that into new glossairs, an upgrade on the skystones, and jagd capability. When last he’d seen them, she’d rattled off figures and plans and Vaan was already ticking off the prospects for finding that kind of gil. Most of them involved treasuries: royal, provincial, or personal, and Basch had tried not to listen too closely. He hopes there was a reason for this hunt, something to make it more honest than it seems. The other hunters are starting to filter away under Vossler’s glare and the bruising and scarring between the three of them.

“A little grim for your baby sky pirates, isn’t that?” Gabranth tips his chin toward that bill, and Basch shrugs. Gabranth takes another step, bends to look at the handwriting. “Looks like Balthier owes us a story.”

“Balthier?”

“His handwriting. Well, one of his handwritings. The one that belongs to this alias.” He puts his finger on the name. It’s nothing like Balthier’s usual flourishing script on first glance, but if Basch looks closely, there is something familiar in the slant of the print, in the way the ascenders and descenders hook. “If the payment’s this big and it was taken by Vaan and Penelo before anyone else pounced on it, I’d say it was personal. Not particularly wise, pissing off all three of them. Wonder if Fran was in on it, too.”

There’s something prickling at the back of Basch’s neck--not simply a poor choice--and he tugs Vossler to face the board. “Have you seen—”

Vossler looks, and he spits. And there is pale fury writ under the brown of his cheeks, but it drains, filters through to a kind of pallor Basch has never seen on Vossler before.

“That’s—” Gabranth never finishes the phrase, but his hand rests over the base of Vossler’s spine. Vossler only jerks his chin down once, turns on his heel, and stalks back toward the water. Gabranth and Basch both start to follow, but maybe it is better his brother do this. His brother, whose marks are still visible—fading, but there—over Vossler’s shoulders. His brother, who Vossler trusts with his body and now even with the map. His brother, whom he now trusts with Vossler.

“You’ll see that he’s all right?” Basch holds Gabranth by the forearm. “He’ll say that he is. But you’ll make sure?”

Gabranth nods, puts his hand over Basch’s. “I will.” He jerks his chin at the hunt board again. “Take the bill down before the wrong people see it. The point is made, and making a citizen, even that one, a mark is less legal even than most of Balthier’s other pursuits.”

His brother has said it out loud. Balthier did this. “You are certain it was Balthier?” He grips tighter, can’t help it.

“I’d lay my commission on it.” Gabranth is already turning toward Vossler. “Give the little cutthroat my thanks.”

Basch lets him go, and they separate. Balthier did this. Balthier did this for Vossler.

He wants to run. There is no reason to, and so he makes himself walk, thinks he should plan something to say, but there are no words. There is only heat, heat that has nothing to do with the sand burning underfoot, heat that isn’t damped by how truly grim this is.

Balthier is not in the first hut, and Nightmare is still where Vossler put her, and it’s a strange thing to squeeze in his chest, but it does. Balthier had helped him carry him from the Shiva. And Balthier has also carried Basch’s pack, his shed clothing, to the other hut, if their absence and the presence of everything else is to make any sense. He steps back into the sand, thinks there should be more hesitation in his feet, should be more hesitation everywhere, but there is none. Not now.

The door to the other hut is open, the light inside gray-gold where two unglassed windows let in afternoon sun, and he can see Balthier sitting on the cot, wearing—wearing Basch’s extra pair of trews, just beginning to write a letter. He looks up, grins at Basch.

“Sorry to borrow without asking, but it was too hot to put my trousers—”

“You had that man killed.” That should repulse him, he knows that. It doesn’t. Sweet gods, it doesn’t.

Balthier’s smile fades. “I am a pirate, you know. I would have done it myself, but we had to leave.” He folds the paper, puts it and his graphite stick to one side. He looks Basch in the eye, stands. “And abusing that kind of trust—that was no man. If that—”

Basch closes his lips on Balthier’s words, curls his hand around the back of Balthier’s neck. He wants to speak and he wants to kiss Balthier and he cannot do both at the same time. He pulls away. Balthier’s eyes are open, wide as Basch has ever seen them.

“Thank you.” And this time Balthier’s mouth opens under his, his teeth slick where Basch’s tongue traces, but Balthier is so still, so stiff, Basch has to pull away again. “I’m sorry. If you don’t—I’ll stop.”

Balthier’s eyes are still wide. “Oh, please don’t stop.” He swallows, and all Basch can see is the flex of his throat, wants to put his cheek against it and feel the way the muscles would ripple down from his jaw. “But this is happening? Now?” The blue ring spins dizzying around his middle finger.

Basch has to laugh. He never thought Balthier would hesitate. “If now is a good time.” He puts his hand back where it was, draws Balthier close again, and this time Balthier’s tongue tangles with his own. Basch puts his left hand on Balthier’s shoulder, feels the muscles tense there, too.

“Basch.” Balthier murmurs against Basch’s lips. “Tell me I can touch you.” He presses his cheek to Basch’s, whispers, “Please,” against Basch’s ear.

Inhaling deep, Basch slides his hands down Balthier’s arms, laces his fingers with Balthier’s, puts one of Balthier’s hands in his hair, the other on his side, and the heat of Balthier’s skin makes him shiver, fills the room, but it doesn’t make it smaller. He mirrors Balthier’s hands with his own, can feel Balthier’s pulse everywhere. “Yes,” he says, touch me, but he cannot finish the words because Balthier does, cards through Basch’s hair and splays his long fingers as far as they will go, his thumb stroking over his lowest rib, his smallest finger dipping below the waist of his shorts, and how long has it been since this?

Basch bends his head to Balthier’s throat, tastes the clean saline of the beach on his smoke-sweet skin, cannot let go of that spot even as he knows the rest of him will taste of sun and salt and gunpowder, and Balthier tips his head back, holds as tightly as he dares. Basch steps forward until Balthier is against the wall, until there is a slant of sunlight striking the wall beside them, and Balthier feels steady against him.

Basch’s shorts are too big for Balthier; they hang from his hips, and Basch cannot keep himself from sliding his hand into them, cupping the curve of Balthier’s arse in his palm, and Balthier’s hips rock forward. With his other hand, he thumbs open the buttons, and the fabric falls, and this is Balthier, naked, against him, and he wants to step back, wants to simply look, but he cannot let go. He takes Balthier’s hand in his, holds it to the wall, and the light strikes them there, and there will be time to look later. There will be time for everything.

He steps out of his own shorts, and Balthier lets go his shoulder to pull Basch closer still, and they are hard against each other’s stomachs. Balthier opens his eyes, and there is that hunger, and Basch welcomes it.

“I want to taste you.” Balthier’s teeth tug gently on his lower lip, lick over it. “Let me.”

Basch knows he cannot do this with his back against the wall, and so he retraces his steps, pulls Balthier with him until they’re at the cot. He sits, and Balthier is between his legs, looking up at him, and he rubs his thumb over Balthier’s ear and the metal rings until Balthier’s tongue finds his cock and he has to close his eyes against the warmth and the wet, but he must look because this is Balthier, Balthier’s mouth on him, his fingers on his thighs, his unsteady breath against his skin. And there is urgency, but there is no haste—Balthier is tasting him, licks at the crease of his thighs, over his foreskin, then slides it back to tongue under the ridge and into the slit. He lifts his face and wraps his hand around Basch’s shaft, draws the head over his cheek and closed eyes. Basch can feel his eyelashes flutter soft on his cock, the perfect delicacy of his eyelids, the barest rasp of stubble, and no one has ever done this to him before, and Balthier lowers his face again to mouth his balls, to lick the patch of skin behind, and Basch cannot help the stuttering moan. He reaches, pulls Balthier up, maps the inside of Balthier’s mouth and the slight bitter salt of his own skin inside of Balthier makes him shiver. He had forgotten how sweet—

“I want you.” He pulls Balthier into his lap, wants Balthier to say yes, doesn’t know how to make it a question. Balthier straddles him, squeezes his thighs tight around Basch’s hips, and bends backwards, his lean torso stretched taut and Basch wants to touch, but knows how fragile their balance as Balthier gropes for something under the edge of the cot, comes up with his belt and pouches. Without looking—he is looking at Basch, his eyes, his chest, his eyes—he finds a small, stoppered bottle, puts it into Basch’s hand.

“Fran packed this, too?” If he makes a joke, he can gather himself. He can stop worrying about how quickly this will be over. How quickly, he knows, he will want this again.

“She understands the importance of being prepared.” Balthier fits his smirking mouth over Basch’s, and it’s easy to lie back, to feel the tip of gravity on them both, but he can’t keep Balthier over him, not yet—the cot is too solid at his back. But he pulls Balthier on top of him for a moment, long enough to feel the way they align, before he rolls Balthier to his back, the bottle still cool in his hand.

He hasn’t even removed the cork before Balthier squirms against him, and Basch straightens Balthier’s left leg, licks at the back of his knee as he slicks his fingers. He leans in between Balthier’s legs, kisses him deep as his finger presses in, and the hot clench of muscle around his callused skin is enough to make him suck in a breath, but he stretches Balthier carefully, despite his urging to hurry. The wonder in it is greater, for a moment, than the need, and Basch wants to remember this, how Balthier arches into his hands, wants to remember how he wants this, but he is also not likely to forget. He does not let himself shake as he rubs the oil over his cock, but when he pushes forward, their bodies flush, when Balthier’s mouth closes on his neck and he can feel the sound in his blood, he has to be still, has to wait.

“Basch.” Balthier exhales the word, and Basch breathes it in, and Balthier says his name again, that strain crinkling the corners of his eyes. “Basch, please. I’ll buy you more flowers and we can make love in Rabanastre, but if you don’t fuck me now, I won’t be the only one to have had a man killed this week.”

Basch laughs. He laughs and Balthier laughs and he pulls back slowly, pushes the same way, until Balthier’s clinging to his shoulders, his legs knotted around Basch’s waist, and Balthier is cursing in Landisser, loses the thread, and Basch kisses him, feels like he can speak again, like he has words to use, but he doesn’t, only snaps his hips forward, closes his hand around Balthier’s cock and lets the residual slick and their sweat carry his grip. He leans forward, catches the silver earring in his teeth and tugs, settles his mouth higher on Balthier’s ear and licks in the rhythm of their hips, until the coiling heat is too much, and his teeth close on the shell of Balthier’s ear as his cock pulses and his hand squeezes tighter around Balthier. He keeps thrusting, doesn’t want to stop, knows he has to, and Balthier’s fingernails curl into his shoulders hard enough that he feels everything through the scars.

He eases away carefully, smoothes his palms up Balthier’s thighs, and touches his tongue to Balthier’s come, the slick wet between them. This is better. So much better. Balthier’s hands are gentle again in his hair, and Basch rolls to his back. The sunlight on the wall has moved, the light gone orange. He thinks he should be tired. He is not, and he shifts to his side, presses his lips against Balthier’s collarbone.

Balthier opens one eye. “I still expect my kiss in Rabanastre,” he says.

“We’ll see.” Basch follows the line of Balthier’s jaw with his nose, tugs again on the silver twist.

* * *

Vossler sees Gabranth coming, watches him toss his shirt, wade in and dive, cutting the distance between them more quickly than Vossler thinks he should be able to, in the shape he’s in, but in the shape he’s in, Gabranth also shouldn’t have been able to lay into him with the floggers like he did, ride and fight and still be standing like he is, still have enough iron in his grip to make Vossler’s mouth water, so he won’t question it. Basch shouldn’t have lived through Nalbina. It runs in the family. Vossler swims out a few strokes farther, though. Much as he thinks maybe this is one story Gabranth should, sometime, hear, he doesn’t want to talk about it. But he waits, lets the water buoy him up as Gabranth nears.

“You all right?” Gabranth’s cheeks are red with sun. He’ll probably peel in the next few days, like Basch used to.

“I don’t want to talk about it.” Vossler rolls to his back, marvels at how easy it is to float in salt water. He’d known that, had heard it before, but this is the first he’s felt it.

“That is not what I asked.”

It figures Gabranth would be particular about the phrasing. “I’m fine.” He is, now, though he nearly wasn’t. He was merely lucky that there was enough noise in the next room to make the man nervous, to make him stop before he finished, enough strength left in Vossler’s fingers to part the knots. There’s too much memory in his knuckles. Pushing the air from his lungs, Vossler makes himself sink, opens his eyes to the hazy blue of water, the pale of Gabranth’s chest. His scars ribbon from shoulder to ribs, and Vossler pulls himself closer, puts his hands on Gabranth’s hips and holds. Looks. While the pressure builds in his lungs, Gabranth’s fingers settle lightly on his shoulders, and he looks, feels, and when the haze grows thicker in his mind, in his eyes, he leans forward, sucks at the water-cool skin above Gabranth’s hipbone. The weight of the water is sweet against his chest, the growing tightness in his throat, and he is glad, so glad he did not ask for that from the man that is now a corpse. And he is not asking for it now, though he thinks he could, thinks he is close to taking that, and he’ll wait. He licks one last time over Gabranth’s skin while the tunnel narrows, then pushes back to air.

When he surfaces, inhales once, twice, Gabranth pulls him in close, and he’s hard against Vossler’s thigh. Gabranth kisses him with the sharp white edge of his teeth, and that clears his mind more quickly than breathing. Gabranth lets go his mouth for a moment.

“You were down there a long time.” His hands cup Vossler’s face, and his middle and ring fingers rest over the pulse under Vossler’s jaw, and he is looking at his eyes, not into, and Vossler wonders what he’s looking for. And he remembers how Basch had told him his eyes went dark, all pupil, the first time he’d sucked Basch off in the Nebra, submerging and surfacing until they were both without breath, until he’d dizzied and spun and didn’t want to stop, wouldn’t until Basch spent on his tongue and held him up against the rocks when it seemed his muscles wouldn’t hold. That was before any of the rest of it, years before wanting the pain, wanting it like this. Before knowing what it was he wanted.

Gabranth’s fingers tighten the smallest bit, and he is meeting Vossler’s gaze, understanding. The blood rushes. He wants. He wants.

Gabranth’s hands drop, splay over the skin he will never strike, and Vossler wants to sink again, wants Gabranth to hold him down until the black veil shades his vision, to hold him there and bring him back up in time because he will. He wants to know it for certain, and he feels himself start to sink again. Gabranth doesn’t let him, keeps him close.

“Not yet,” he says, and he strokes down Vossler’s throat, kisses him again, squeezes for only a second where Vossler once buckled the leather collar of his infantry armor. He misses it, fierce, for a moment, but Gabranth’s hands are as steady and unyielding as he could hope for. “We’ll get there.”

They drift in, tidal, and the sun is dipping toward the dunes. Far up the beach, near the huts, Basch walks toward the water, Balthier upended over his shoulder, neither of them wearing a stitch. Gabranth plucks his shirt from the sand and grins.

“Finally.”

Vossler nods, and Gabranth’s fingers drag over the bruises on his back that are all but gone. There’s promise in the motion, and Vossler thinks that later, he might ask him to make them new again.

“I owe the ponce a drink for this.” Of all people, he never expected Balthier, and much as he might have liked to kill the whoreson himself, he cannot bring himself to resent the posting. He hadn’t thought Balthier had it in him, and Vossler doesn’t know that story, but Balthier understands this, understands something.

Gabranth looks at him, and Vossler waits to be told to be nicer to Balthier, after all this. He doesn’t say that. He says, “You should run your mouth more often. Give him a challenge.” And he grins, and they walk.

Vossler sits at the water’s edge, watches Basch swim circles around Balthier, watches him dive and appear pressed to his back, to his front, and it is good to see Basch enjoying someone again. Something breaks the surface off to the left, concentric circles under a tiny cloud of newly hatched springflies. When he gets back to Rabanastre, he will see about replacing his rod, his tackle—all sold or scrapped or stolen when the barracks were no longer Dalmasca’s. There is nothing else from that room that he truly misses.

Gabranth says he is going to check on the chocobos, and Vossler settles deeper into the sand, closes his eyes, listens to the steps fade.

When he wakes, not many minutes gone because the shadows are only slightly longer, water splashes on his forehead. Basch is standing above him, dripping, grinning like a loon. Vossler turns his head, and Balthier is sprawled a pace away like he couldn’t move if he wanted to, a few reddish spots on his neck and a bright purple one under his jaw. Vossler reaches, pats Basch’s leg.

“Good boy. He’s quiet now.”

“He wasn’t, earlier,” Basch whispers, and Balthier’s left hand shows a weak middle finger before dropping to the sand again. Basch hunkers down next to them, shakes more water from his hair, and Vossler pushes him into Balthier. There’s an indignant grunt—Basch is heavier than he looks—from Balthier, and then Basch grabs Vossler’s leg, yanks it up, twists just enough: his favorite cheat.

“Get your own, slut.” Gabranth is smiling. Vossler can hear it, likes that he knows what that sounds like. “Mine,” Gabranth says, and he bends over Vossler, nips at his ear.

At that, Vossler has to sit up, has to look at Gabranth, and Basch lets him, leans against Balthier’s bent legs. Gabranth is endeavoring to look innocent, is shielding something with his body. It looks like a stick, and Gabranth holds it out to him, puts it in his hands.

It is a stick.

But it is a straight, freshly-smoothed stick, green and elastic, and there’s a string attached to the tip with a sturdy knot, and at the end of the small coil of string, there’s one of Balthier’s flashy earrings and a bent nail, scraped sharp and barbed with superior steel. Rod and line and lure and hook.

“You’re fishing with my jewelry?” Balthier props himself on one elbow.

Tristan’s. Eska wasn’t happy with me. He’ll need a new one.” Gabranth and Basch both grin.

“As my lady commands,” Balthier says, and flops back to the sand, puts one of his current set into Basch’s hand. Basch leans down, sucks Balthier’s earlobe into his mouth, and Balthier’s whole body stiffens. Vossler doesn’t hide the fact that he’s looking, that it’s a nice view; he’s glad Basch is getting something more than Balthier’s big mouth and suicidal flying out of this. And then Vossler turns the makeshift lure over in his fingers. It’s vaguely minnow-shaped.

He cannot stand quickly enough, and Gabranth’s hand fits easily with his as he pulls him back to the surf. It’s not a subtle fishing rig, but it will do.

* * *

Basch lies next to Balthier, watches until Vossler pulls in the first fish, and then hauls Balthier to his feet. They put on clothing—Balthier puts Basch’s shorts on again, and Basch tries not to stare as he buckles on his swordbelt. Balthier yawns, slings his belt and pouches across his chest instead of around his hips, and shoulders the Arcturus. One kiss, then, before they go looking for firewood.

They each have an armful by the time they reach the chocobos—nothing sturdy, nothing that will burn a long time, but between himself and Balthier, they have enough magick that this much wood will cook the fish.

There are piranha scales dotting the grass, and Adi and Kells are still eating their catch, Adi the head and Kells the tail. Eska is cleaning her talons, and Tristan is watching her. When she sees Basch, she warks and trots over, puts her head on Basch’s. He wipes piranha blood from her beak and smoothes her feathers, buries his hands in them for a moment.

Tristan puffs out his chest when Eska reaches for Balthier’s remaining hoops, and Basch scratches deep in Tristan’s neck feathers while he replaces the earring. Balthier hisses, and Basch is about to tell Eska to leave Balthier alone when he hears Balthier whispering and then Eska’s beak is nudging his hands away from Tristan’s hackamore. She nibbles Basch’s fingers, then turns her head and grips one of her own feathers, one of the soft ones under her wing. She tugs it free and holds it out to Basch. He takes it, can’t help but drag the red-gold edge over his own hand, and Eska chirrs. She mouths his hair and gives him a shove toward Balthier. She turns back to Tristan, taps the underside of his beak with hers, and Basch is pretty sure they’re dismissed.

Balthier walks ahead of him, and Basch reaches out, flicks Eska’s feather over the back of Balthier’s neck, and watches the gooseflesh rise.

Baltheir glances over his shoulder, tries for disinterest, and fails. He turns his attention front, though, to skirt a patch of sedge, and Basch follows close, draws the feather across the place his shorts meet Balthier’s back.

He doesn’t turn this time, but Basch recognizes the word “twins” in his muttering, and he thinks it might be time for an exchange of information with his brother. Perhaps tomorrow. He smiles, tucks Eska’s feather into his belt for safekeeping. The light is fading, but there is enough to really see Balthier’s skin now, now that he is not touching it, not wholly intoxicated by the very idea of touch. He wants to know the story of each of these scars, the ones he’d traced with his tongue an hour before. And if that is the taste, the texture of history—whorled and scattered—then the straight trajectory of Balthier’s spine is future, fine and forward and newly rippling under his fingers. He will see where it goes.

* * *

On the beach, Vossler is cleaning six fish, silvered scales gone brown in the sand’s reflection, and Gabranth is talking about Larsa.

“He used to leave drawings under my door. If Drace was very busy, there might be dozens, scattered halfway through the room.” He rubs his elbow, as if remembering something. “Loose parchment on a polished wood floor is not the most secure of footing.”

Vossler grins, skewers the filets. “As long as someone keeps you on your toes.”

“The issue was more with regard to being off my toes. And on my arse.” Gabranth takes the wood from Basch, stacks the larger pieces while Balthier works his way with the campfire.

As he arranges tinder, Balthier says, “At least now everything else in your room is secure. Locked down tight. Impenetrable. Unless you’ve the simplest of lockpicks.”

Gabranth groans, and Vossler grins harder.

“Good luck with the inquisitive imperial mind,” Basch says, and claps Gabranth on the back. Larsa had asked about everything when he’d traveled with them. Like Vaan, but with more tact and less impatience. The fire leaps to life.

“I think I’ll run away and be a sky pirate. That seems to be the course of action for fleeing the capital.” Gabranth props the skewered fish around the flames.

“If you leave Fran with explaining Hume sex, deviant or otherwise, to Larsa, she will kill you. She has promised.” Balthier’s palms glow red, steadying the wavering flames. “He’s been asking things already—apparently her armor, being black leather in part, reminds him of some of the things he saw in your room—and if it was worth encoding, you can bet she was thrilled.”

Vossler looks scandalized. “He’s thirteen. He’s an emperor. Surely someone has already explained.” He shakes his head. “No wonder Archadia is—”

Gabranth sets his jaw, glares at Vossler, who smiles. “He understands the physiognomy of the act.” Gabranth buries his fingers in the sand. “But what serves as an explanation for most of the known world will not suffice for him.”

Balthier shifts, leans against Basch, concentrates on keeping the bone-dry sticks burning in a satisfactory cooking fire. “Fran made the mistake of mentioning scarletite to the boy. There hours later, I found both of them in the Strahl’s engine bay, and he’d been splicing wires. The following week, we got a package at the place in Balfonheim: a new spool of chromadium-scarletite alloy because he’d read it was safer.” Balthier adds more wood. “And it is safer, sparks less, but is less efficient.”

“He’s…interested. In many things.” Basch pats his brother’s knee, can’t keep from laughing. But he looks at Vossler, too. “Don’t think that because he barely knows you that you’d be exempt. Especially since now he knows exactly why you declined going riding with us.”

Vossler shrugs. “No nevermind to me,” he says, but he chews the edge of his lip a little, and Basch laughs again.

The fish cooks quickly enough, and they eat in the sand, right there by the fire. Since there’s no need to keep it going all night, Balthier piles on more wood until it burns bright, and he stands by the fire for a moment. Basch remembers this look: a group, a fire, nothing attacking means questions.

Balthier puts another branch on the fire. “Most impressive scar not received as a result of the company of someone sitting around this fire.”

Vossler looks at his own torso, shakes his head. Gabranth doesn’t even try. Basch, though, moves closer to the flames and slides one leg of his trews up. Balthier looks more closely, and Basch hitches the cloth a little higher.

“Wild chocobo.” There’s a groove that follows the curve of his left quadriceps, curling deep and white into his thigh. It had been one of the brown ones, the ones that ran the lowlands around the Ronsenburg, young, like he’d been, and he thinks he was lucky it wasn’t full-grown.

“Further proof that while Basch has always been earnest, he has never been smart.” Gabranth leans over, ruffles his hair.

“I was nine.” Basch shoves his brother back.

“I was nine, too. Didn’t see me trying to ride one of them.”

"Very nice," Balthier says, and he kneels beside Basch, presses a kiss to the outside of Basch’s thigh. Basch can’t stop the shiver, and Balthier traces the line with his fingers, smirks. "And it means I win." He turns his back to show a palm-sized gnarl of scar tissue in the center of a spray of smaller pock-marks at the base of his ribs. "This is much more interesting than your bird-scratch."

Gabranth looks startled. "Hand bomb?"

"Obviously." Balthier shrugs. “From the second-to-last time I visited the family estate.” He scratches at the scar as though it were still healing. “Next time anyone visits, I can show you the interesting half of the house. The damage isn’t structural.”

Basch isn’t sure what to say, is saved when Vossler tilts his right shoulder forward to show the bicep and part of his shoulder marked in the same way. "Mine's bigger."

"But I said not done by anyone here." Balthier's grin is ridiculously wide.

Gabranth turns to Balthier, eyebrows furrowed. "That was you?"

Balthier holds open both palms, shakes his head. "Have you seen this man? He’s intense."

Vossler is the first to laugh, and it's going to be all right. Basch knows. It's going to be all right.