The Malboro flower, being an Apothecary of Dubious Nature, used extensively by Viera of local residence during the Flowering season; reputedly it is the Primary cause of their Exceptional state of Good Grooming and Flowing Locks, though other Uses have been theorised by such Humes as have Other interests in Organic pharmaceuticals...
The Salikawood was a beautiful place, by entirely traditional and objective standards. Such so that prior to the unfortunate hiccup in its existence, Nabudis had declared it a site of exceptional natural interest and so endeavoured to conserve it. A little known fact was that the struts and boards helped not only to support wayward Humes but also, to a less vital extent, the mighty and ancient boughs of the trees.
And then, at night... Fireflies that flitted, mostly unperturbed and unacknowledged, suddenly became eddies of astounding beauty, cascades of golden-yellow light. Pinpoints of tiny little suns would land on the queer fronds and shiver for a moment, then alight in a great cloud of luminescent glory.
The whole dance was incongruously gay, but nonetheless pretty in the way one simply had to appreciate a born drag queen.
Then the addition of gunpowder smoke – Basch never knew if he hated it or not, but the stabs of memory were as sharp and acrid as the scent, certainly. Malboros? Why did the madman have to ceaselessly attract the attention of the most unpleasant and unhygienic member of the local flora?
Such was his fascination that at dusk, perhaps halfway between Golmore and Phon, Balthier had languidly folded himself onto a jutting branch and spoke. It was as if he were blissfully unaware that he was currently poised at several times the height it took to kill a man. Twice.
“I don't suppose you've heard the malboros are in season?” he drawled as he inspected his gun. At the curious looks (and single quelling one from Fran) he continued. “They're flowering. A sickly-sweet smell they have, if a little overpowered by the rest of the, ah, vegetable.”
“So as well as sky pirate, mechanic and philanderer, I am also partner to a florist?” said Fran, not without amusement but scathingly nonetheless. Penelo had about her the look of someone who knew she was missing something, but had since learned that this was the norm.
“Uh... what about the flowers, then?” she ventured to ask.
“I was suggesting a... competition of sorts. Call it training if you will. Those flowers aren't coming off without a little percussive persuasion, if you have me, and the flowering specimens are rather more vicious than others.”
Basch managed a smile. “Then you find the one that already found you?”
“Quite. And then you hit it until it stops moving,” Balthier replied, looking to the youngest pair. “It was aimed more at you; trekking can get frightfully dull.”
That smirk. A little to her shame, Penelo had to admit that she'd do anything if he'd just smile that crooked smile of his, though she had to ask...
“Why? Are they good loot or something?”
She jolted when Fran gave an uncharacteristically loud scoff. “One might say that.”
“Of course. How do you think Fran keeps her hair like that? I'm sure she'd be more than happy to show you,” Balthier added, with an encompassing gesture at the lady in question. She gave a half shrug, graceful but indifferent.
“Ah, I did wonder,” Ashe nodded sagely. Then she glanced about. “What? I had time for hair care once, too.”
When asked if she would join their impromptu hunt, however, she declined – with the excuse that it would be wise to keep a camp of sorts, if they were to gallivant around the forest. And Basch dismissed on the same grounds, inclining his head towards the silhouettes of the huts, not far off.
“Come back there, mayhap.”
“And try not to get lost. We don't want to spend the witching hours plucking Vaan out of a tree,” Ashe continued. That got an embarrassed and somewhat petulant grunt from the young man, then he was on his feet, sword in hand. Fran reached for her bow.
“May the best woman win,” the Viera said to Penelo as she shouldered her quiver with a small smile. “I could use some more oil, anyway.”
It was an hour or so later, as if by mutual consent, that all but one of the combatants returned at once. So it was that Penelo nearly jumped out of her skin when she felt a... fond pat on her head. Oh.
“Just in time, Penelo. Have you got Vaan?”
How did he not smell of malboro?
“No, but – oh he's there.”
“Good. Fran has an uncanny sense for being fashionably late, so she shan't be long.” Balthier glanced at the firelight, from which Ashe waved, regally but benevolently, as Vaan caught up. Penelo supposed she wouldn't smell of malboro either.
Balthier wasn't, however, entirely unscathed. While he'd seemingly evaded the worst of the creatures' pungent exhalations, his usually impeccable shirt had a sizeable rip in it on one sleeve, and he looked suitably dishevelled, if mostly unharmed. That comforted her somewhat. Soon after, indeed, Fran arrived, thigh cut and vambrace askew but otherwise untouched. Typical.
“And who shall be our judge?” she asked casually, a crop of flowers in her long fingers. Balthier smirked half heartedly. “I've had quite enough of that and you know it. Why not our young lady?”
Penelo nodded, and before long the six of them were arranged rather comfortably around the fire the non-participants had stoked. And Penelo began to count.
“... that leaves us three with six, and Vaan has five.”
“I'm sorry,” she responded to Vaan's interjection, managing valiantly not to laugh at his expense. “But, now what?”
They all looked at her hair suddenly. This made her immensely self-conscious and more than a notch alarmed.
“I don't know, Penelo,” Balthier drawled, eyes on one of her pigtails, “but you're missing something.”
As she reached up to feel, not just feathers but the rubbery texture of a petal came to her fingertips. Had she put that there?
“Hey! That doesn't count, no letting me win.”
“I did no such thing, what gave you that idea? It looks like we have a winner.”
It was too late – Fran was smiling.
“We shall have to give you a good prize, Penelo, when we can find one –“ she cut off abruptly and glared at her partner. Basch seemed to feel the heat of her gaze more than the fire, as he turned round – Balthier was standing by the fire and looking at them all. Something about him appeared mischievous, but he wasn't going to judge Balthier on what was nearly his default expression. Fran's, however, said something else.
And had the fire turned pink a moment, or was that just the light playing tricks? Certainly it wasn't now, though Fran's expression had returned to her usual measured one with a touch of 'despairing of a small child's misbehaviour' added to it. He had to sympathise, truly; he'd known them a small fraction of the time those two must have been in company, and he was well aware of the twenty-two year old's capacity to be a royal pain in the posterior.
More than their actual royal pain, strapping young lady though she was.
“By the Wood, Balthier, how much did you use?”
Fran sounded distant, woolly almost, which seemed a perfectly sensible thing to think.
“More than I meant to, I must confess.”
It probably wasn't a sensible thing to think.
“Balthier am I missing something?” Ashe's tone was sharp, unamused. “Judging by the reaction of those present with the smallest mass...”
“Save your worry, princess. If I had anything daring in mind I'd already have done it-”
“Fran, please. You're quite safe. Just relax.”
Vaan had the look of someone who found those two words to be the single least relaxing things anyone could say. Simultaneously he looked amused, which would likely be attributed to the fact that Penelo's giggle was incredibly infectious. Even Ashe seemed to forget what she was indignant about and gave a restrained chuckle.
“If Vossler was here he'd have your head off,” she warned Balthier, earning a smirk.
“Suffice to say I don't think we need the good captain, this one looks close enough. Unfortunately for me, eh Basch?”
Basch jolted at his name and looked up, having no idea what either of them had just said anything and, quite fairly, suspecting the worst.
“No I think that's just his 'I'm thinking' face,” said Vaan.
Fran had dozed off against the wall of the hut, bow across her thighs. Her ear twitched occasionally from some strange dream.
If Basch hadn't suspected Balthier setting fire to the indigenous flora before, he did now. Fran slept light as a feather and woke if someone so much as breathed near her – but here she was, sound as one of the Salikawood trunks. For a moment she looked almost sweet, before she slid gracelessly to the side and covered her face with a hand, unwoken.
Basch woke to dancing lights. Like the fire in the centre, the party's general consciousness had dwindled to embers and most were asleep. Here, Penelo leaned on Vaan, both dozing like pups (he had to smile), and there lay Ashe on her side, clinging to her sword where most girls her age would abashedly confess to hugging a pillow at night.
What Basch has originally taken for a particularly flamboyant firefly turned out to be Balthier's earring. Of course he'd be awake. Much like a child Basch shut his eyes, to open them just a little and watch. Everything had a clarity to it he couldn't name, not so much his surroundings as his appreciation of them. Where his vision has, he knew, been altered to a world of off-key colours and hazy edges, his mind had dulled, and yet sharpened.
Gone were the hapless considerations he usually feel prey to, and gone was the weariness. There was some dim recollection of who he was, this collection of experiences in a Hume body, but it seemed useless in comparison to just how orange the embers of the fires were, and just how the ash caught in breezes he didn't even know were there.
Balthier raised a hand, tipped his head towards the archway.
He was too awake not to notice, Basch supposed. He found himself obeying, lighter on his feet than he thought he could be. Of course Balthier would be silent, padding like a cat, as if he'd been born sneaking. His appearance by Basch's side went unacknowledged – such human trivialities were dispensed for the time being – and instead Basch found himself staring at the rush of fireflies he hadn't even stopped to notice. They had a way of moving with purpose but aimless direction that reminded him of something, but he didn't know what.
People, possibly. Suddenly he didn't feel so disconnected.
Balthier's eyes really were tawny; everything about him had some earthy shade to it, which was ironic considering he always seemed to itch when he wasn't part of the sky. He barely noticed when Balthier touched his chin, and then the other hand was under his jaw. It was far too intimate, except for the fact that it wasn't. It was more like the return to a natural state when force was no longer applied.
“Well if it takes this for you to notice me...” Balthier murmured, trailing off. “I still can't decide what colour your eyes are,” he added.
“Then you should have done it sooner? And we oft settled for grey.”
“Two conversations at once. Impressive.”
“You know how to pick them.”
And Balthier smiled. Basch thought Balthier looked so much younger, when he didn't smirk.