The sandstorm came out of nowhere, and caught them completely unawares. Ashe fumbled frantically for the scarves she carried to ward against such unexpected occurrences, but to no avail; surely she had not left them in Rabanastre?
"We've got to take shelter!" Balthier shouted somewhere nearby, and she grit her teeth, using her arm to shield her face as best she might.
If she recalled the geography of the Westersand correctly, there was a cave nearby. She turned slightly right and made her way forward slowly.
"Princess, now is not the time to be stubborn!" His hand wrapped firmly round her wrist and she found herself being pulled in exactly the opposite direction of where she had intended. She attempted to set her feet, but found herself skidding on the loose sand underfoot.
A moment later, the sudden shelter from the storm was accompanied by the loud pop! and brilliant flash of a trap going off.
"Who bothers to put a trap in the outer wilds of a desert? It's foolishness," Balthier grumbled.
"Perhaps they thought to hide a treasure from sky pirates," she snapped. Balthier turned and looked at her in surprise.
"Interesting," he said after a moment, and Ashe belatedly realized that he had not spoken aloud, nor had his lips moved. She nearly groaned aloud. The last thing she wanted was to be reading the sky pirate's mind.
"Believe me, Princess, I'm of much the same mind," he grumbled, aloud this time, and Ashe bit her tongue to hold back a curse unbecoming a princess (or indeed a lady at all)—not that it did any good, to judge by the light of amusement in his eyes.
A gust of wind from outside sent a spray of sand scouring over her back and legs. Balthier grasped her arm and hauled her deeper into the opening he'd found, which seemed to be little more than a narrow gouge in the rock walls surrounding the Galtea Downs. Ashe paused and took inventory of her injuries; she had several shallow cuts, presumably from flying rocks, and her skin was scoured pink and oozing blood in many places.
She glanced at Balthier and saw that his face was equally scraped, and while his leather pants appeared mostly unscathed, his shirt had not been so fortunate. She chanted the syllables to activate Cura, feeling the cool wash of healing light over her skin and the sharp taste, as of scallions, in the back of her throat. She always felt as though her skin was too tight after using curative magicks, stretched to its limit in the forced healing process.
"My thanks," Balthier said, and then Ashe felt her mouth become cottony and thick as the Silencega spell took hold. She whipped around to search for their foe, and saw the bright glow of an enraged Gnoma Entite suspended just outside their hiding place.
"Run!" Balthier's voice echoed as clearly inside her skull as it would have in her ears, and they hurried deeper into the crevice. Fortunately it remained wide enough for them to pass through, though the floor sloped downward as they moved deeper, until the sand underfoot gave way to stone.
Balthier paused and glanced back. "I think it's probably safe enough," he said—rather, he thought. "Our friend doesn't seem able to reach us here."
Ashe nodded and rummaged in her bag, only to be deeply irritated when she discovered that Penelo apparently had all the Echo Herbs.
Balthier seemed genuinely surprised that she had none with her. Of course, she would have had them, if Vaan and Penelo hadn't insisted on being the ones to divide items between the various packs and Balthier hadn't insisted on pestering and distracting her the entire time!
"Are you sure you wouldn't rather blame Basch for not double-checking?" Balthier inquired sardonically.
"Don't you dare question him," Ashe snarled, and then paused. It was strange to see him respond to the words she couldn't hear herself speak, and the smirk on his face was irritating her more and more the longer she spent with him.
"I could say the same of that scowl you always wear."
She wondered why he seemed so comfortable transmitting thoughts as sentences. Did he have a running monologue in his head? It seemed arrogant, even for him.
"And of course you would know, being such a stellar example of humility yourself," he retorted.
Ashe raised her hand to strike him, and he caught her wrist easily in his hand. "Ease off, Ashe. We're stuck here until that Entite gets bored; no need to kill each other while we're waiting."
Ashe struggled to master her temper, and turned away from him to pace the narrow space. She could not abide idleness, and the need to wait scraped her already-raw nerves like sandpaper.
"Do you never just relax?" he asked, and she grit her teeth.
"I despise being made to wait," she responded, thinking with longing of the day when she would be strong enough to just defeat Entites and not be trapped in narrow stone spaces with sky pirates who were rather too charming for her peace of mind.
Too late, she realized the direction of her thoughts, and struggled to find a way to redirect them, lest she reveal too much. He didn't chuckle, but she could clearly sense his amusement. "Charming, am I? I rather thought you held us sky pirates in excessive contempt."
"Do not think to take advantage of me." She did not bother enumerating the variations on revenge that she would visit upon him, but instead reveled in imagining them, well aware that he would know her thoughts.
"Fierce, aren't you? I find your abrasive attitude oddly charming myself, I must admit." He smirked at her when she whipped round to face him.
Ashe took three steps forward and shoved him back against the wall, following him there and curling one hand round the back of his neck to pull him down to her for a fierce kiss. Her teeth scraped his lip, and try though she might, she could not entirely ignore the images from his mind, which seethed with one part shock and three parts prurient interest.
His arms came around her and he held her close for a moment, before she pulled free and stepped back to glare up at him.
"Do you deny that you have thought of this?" she demanded.
She could sense a flurry of thoughts and images, most of which were gone too quickly for her to identify them, and at last a tone of caution she was quite unaccustomed to from him. "I do not deny it, Princess."
An expectant silence descended between them. She realized she could no longer hear the howling of the sandstorm.
"We'd best be going back," he suggested after a moment. "Your captain will worry about you, and chastise me."
Ashe snorted. Basch's efforts to teach the sky pirate proper manners had met with limited success at best. Unfortunately, Balthier was right.
She kissed him once more, gently this time, and then led the way out. Penelo was only too glad to provide Echo Herbs when they found the rest of the group, and they returned to Rabanastre for the evening.
When they reconvened in the morning, Ashe realized she could no longer sense the constant motion of Balthier's thoughts, and though she was glad not to have to guard her own so closely, she rather missed the openness of his mind, compared to his carefully chosen words.
"Princess, a word, if you will?" Balthier held her back, despite Basch's glare, when the others scattered to ensure they were fully stocked with supplies.
"Yes?" she asked, and heard her own curt tone as though she listened to a stranger. Vaan and Penelo hurried out of the room after Basch and Fran, and Balthier stepped closer.
"Do you deny that you have thought of this?" he asked her, fingertips just brushing the side of her jaw.
She might have lied—indeed, it was on the tip of her tongue to do so—but he would know it for a falsehood. She grit her teeth and admitted the truth. "I do not deny it," she replied, deliberately echoing his words as he had hers.
His eyes lit with satisfaction, he smiled down at her. "Very well, then." With that, he turned and sauntered from the room.
She heard the unspoken statement as clearly as she had heard his thoughts the previous day. She had no intention of dallying with the sky pirate when she had a kingdom to recover. Still, the thought was sufficient to bring a faint smile to her lips as she hurried after the others.