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The Many Fishes In The Deep

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The Many Fishes in the Deep

 

 

________

 

 

 

 

The sky yawns over them. The arch of it is immeasurable, but more immediately than that it is bright— blinding. Even as his eyes water Balthier can feel the very void of it, the lack of the pressing dark closeness upon his skin, the searingly clear smell of the sands.

In what Balthier is now realizing had been profound childishness, he had thought that once they saw the sun again their talk would turn to plans, futures, treasure, hope. Skies. Such words had gnawed their way out of his mouth in the darkness, half-japing and half-desperate and all of it his self-narrating chatter, speaking of wind and light in the blind, still halls as if saying it often enough might make it true. As if mocking himself for it enough would make him stop wishing. Now it seems he cannot speak of light, and couldn't begin to fathom darkness. No, he sits and stares at the horizon, feeling the mocking swell of the sky above him, struck dumb by the sun and his own ridiculous expectation that escape is the same as freedom.

One never outgrows dreams of flying, it seems.

This sun, this open air. It does not cleanse them. It only reveals their filth. Balthier can see, now, how his clothes are streaked in blood and worse. Fran's hair is matted, near black. He is aware, suddenly, of the putrid taste of his own tongue, and it reminds him of what he's—

He tugs at the reeking cuffs of his shirt, then divests himself of it altogether, suddenly unable to abide the way it sticks to him. It doesn't matter out here. Very little matters, it would seem.

Finally, Fran speaks: "I would see a wood again."

They had sat unmoving long enough that the hush of dusk is settling over them, muting the horrific gape of the sky into a vague drape of shadows.

Balthier puts his head in his hands. The one grace note of all this is that he can just make out Rabanastre rising beyond the twisted wreckage of the Bahamut. And even that sight mocks him, now.

Such cages 'pon our stunted wings, Shemhazai mutters to him. It's almost friendly, for her. And which cage hampers more, I ask? Wrought not by gods but by own hands?

Ah. There she is. Balthier squeezes his hands in his filthy hair, an involuntary clench that annoys him more than it relieves his feelings, and turns to Fran.

"Let's go see a wood, then." It is all he can say.

 

________

 

Fran pauses, winded and weak. The Dalmascan Sands stretch before them, splayed open beneath the endless glare of the heavens, the bonework of the earth prodding through its sandy skin, ribs pulled apart by the ravenous maw of all that empty sky.

Balthier turns his face away from it. Fran looks somewhat longer. But Balthier is unmoving beside her, and after too many minutes of his stillness, she moves forward. If there is one thing Fran knows to do, it is that.

The beasts of the place avoid them, and maybe it is because they sense the awful edges of where Fran's endurance ends and something darker begins; a madness, like when the Mist runs hot, or maybe something else, something that was born in the foetid darkness of the Bahamut and clings to their skin like the filth she knows streaks her body. Cúchulainn revels in the grime that coats her, clots her mind, and she bids him be silent. In the end, the beasts give them little trouble. No, it is the place itself that clutches at them, hungry. The width of the horizon throws their aim, the outstretched sands slide beneath their feet. She can feel it growing in Balthier: an irritation that masks his fear. She feels, it, too, within her breast, and it is sour, and bitter, and strong. She swallows this down. They go to a wood. Fran will endure.

 

________

 

The press of people at the the East Gate feels like gasping in a breath amidst a burning ruin. The air necessary, nourishing, sweet, oh yes.

But how it sears.

Shemhazai's whispers break through: Yes, cower now from mortal touch, scion's embrace such scornéd thorns!

Shemhazai is getting lonely, it seems. Balthier grits his teeth. He... withstood her natter on the Bahamut, and now they are free, and it is of no consequence.

No, now he faces more mortal troubles.

Balthier feels Fran hesitate, the stillness that comes upon her amidst strangers turned into something less like reserve and more like fear. This. This is what wakes a spark in him, finally, a bitter burst of flame amidst the grey ashes. If there is one thing he will admit to sharing with his father, it is stubbornness, and he refuses to let the Bahamut change— anything.

So it is he who moves forward first, this time, breaking the spell that held them dumb on the fraying edges of the paved Gate road. A moment, and Fran's heels click behind him, uneven with her injuries but there, with him, moving forward.

They draw up at the Gate proper, not quite in step. Balthier turns to Fran; she, after a moment, turns to him. It doesn't quite all fit together, missing beats and dropping notes, but even now, they don't need words. Or especially now, perhaps. In any case, Balthier has no wish to explain why he doesn't want to see Ashe right now, and Fran is never given to words where her silence will speak for her. Balthier tosses her his near-empty pack, she catches it, and they part. They have their routine tasks, and this, at least, they can fall back on. She will secure supplies and lodging, and he the ship.

...Ah.

That may be a problem.

Balthier's fingers tighten on absent cuffs; his shirt and everything else they managed to rescue had departed along with Fran, and maybe he should have said something after all. He almost manages not to think on— on the issue as he weaves his way to the Aerodrome, avoiding the brush of the streetfolk, but in exchange his hands seem to have taken up a spasmodic clutching at empty air. Irritating. The West Gate looms over him, and then he is staring at the mouth of the entrance, at the dark cool hush inside, enclosed.

He feels the bones of his knuckles grind against each other.

"Tch!" He shakes out his hands, and bulls through the door on a stiff swagger. A few blinks, and it is not so dark, and not so close, and then he is through and in the comfortable cavern of the private vessel hangars. He knows at a glance that the Strahl is absent but there, amidst a circle of moogles and a scattering of young bangaa and humes, is Nono.

This freezes him in place in a way the crowd at the East Gate had not. This indrawn breath is cold. It pierces him through, leaves a rattle in his chest as if no breath had been drawn at all. Nono is nodding his head; he tosses a wrench in the air and catches it handily, and laughs, a bright chitter among the pleased mutter of the group.

Nothing has changed.

Is it not what Balthier wanted for them?

One of the bangaa spots him; points. Nono turns. He cries Balthier's name. It reaches Balthier's ears as if through deep water: muffled, distant, late.

And then Nono has collided with Balthier's knees, and Balthier is made all too aware of the way his own skin stretches over the bones when that alone is enough to bowl him right over. Then there is a squirming, laughing, weeping mess of moogle atop him, and Balthier's hands come up and touch the first warm skin that isn't Fran's.

His fingers sink into soft fur, brush velvety wings, all of it a-thrum with life.

Balthier's throat clots.

It is profoundly irritating.

"Careful, there," he manages. "With the rest of me so bruised, 'twould be a shame for my dignity to take a beating as well."

Nono sniffles into a laugh. "Ku-kupo! Now I know you're both back safe!"

For all Nono's wailing his way through that enthusiastic embrace, they're the first words that Balthier actually hears. They feel wrong.

Nono sobers. Did something show on Balthier's face? He can't tell, and Nono is already clambering off him and righting himself, and this lets Balthier ignore it and focus on getting himself upright as well. It's a harder task than it should be. And now Nono is definitely frowning at him, nose scrunched in worry.

Balthier waves him off. "Fran's taking care of it. I'll have a— proper meal in me—" his tongue — swollen and reeking still — tangles on the words; his teeth click together over a sudden urge to curse but he fears, with a sudden sharp depth, that if he starts he will never stop. "Fran'll see to it," he finishes instead.

Nono peers at him. Then, silently, he moves to place a hand on Balthier's side and, after a moment, Balthier lets him. He finds his own hand atop the moogle's head, sifting through the fur, Nono's hat having fallen to the floor somewhere near Balthier's composure.

Where his hands have touched, sluggish grey streaks the fur. His hand stills.

Once-proud scion of houses great, can you not fathom your own filth? Shemhazai whispers. Balthier feels it like sordid touch.

Nono misreads his stillness, or doesn't (what does it matter?), but ducks either way to retrieve his hat. "Vaan and Penelo have the Strahl," he offers as he jams the thing back on.

Balthier's shoulders sag. It takes him a moment too long to name the feeling as relief. "She's in good hands, then."

"They'll be back tomorrow, though!" Nono reassures.

Some of the tension gathers in his spine again, but tomorrow— tomorrow will be faced tomorrow.

 

________

 

As she enters the enclosed gloom of Lowtown, Fran's ears twitch, seeking the sound of humes and habitation. Set against the press of earth and buildings above her, the varied noises — the shouts of running children and wares being hawked, the shuffle of many feet, the laughter of the jolly seeq beside Dalan's door — all seem almost alien to her, but the distant din is a comfort, a talisman in the twilit halls.

Beyond Dalan's door are the familiar soft sounds of murmured advice, the bubbling of his water-pipe. These cease as she enters.

"Ah, a long-awaited return!" Dalan calls across the room. His voice warms, then. "And a glad one, as well."

"My heart rejoices also," Fran responds, and finds the musculature of her face rearranging itself into a smile— small and brittle, but there. They have not spoken alone since before she met Vaan, but now the others are filing out of the room, and only she and Dalan remain.

"Lady of the wood," Dalan says gravely. "These weeks were unkind to you."

Fran regards him evenly. The history of her and Balthier's time on the Bahamut is writ upon her body — or enough of it is, and Dalan is canny enough to read much of the rest. His eyes find Balthier's shirt atop the pack she carries, and widen.

"Balthier went to see about the Strahl," she says before he can ask. "I come for provisions."

"Perhaps a bed to sleep on as well? I can offer this, and ensure a private trip to the baths."

He reads her well, even after many years. There is assurance in this, if her body still speaks the same, even ravished as it is by the weeks within the Bahamut. There is a core that lies untouched, and can be read. Can be reached.

She nods.

 

________

 

Balthier finds Fran in Lowtown, after inquiring with Kytes and being directed to Old Dalan. He walks in to see her washing her hair in the fall where the soaking-bath empties into the washing-bath. Her ears twitch, so he knows she hears him, but his eye is drawn instead to the black spill around her, the level of grey grime floating atop the water in a sluggish current. It will be drawn eventually to the opposite end of the pool, to be washed into the Garamsythe. But it lays there now like a foetid skin around her, bloated and rotting.

He feels his heart hard in this throat, an odd desire to turn away — and what foolishness is that, turning away from the sight of Fran unclothed? Foolishness indeed, he tells himself as his hands come up, somehow, to dig at his belts.

Does sight not rouse? Nor touch do yearn? Shemhazai mocks him. His hands still on his buttons and buckles. It is no business of Shemhazai's why or whether Fran doesn't— he doesn't. Balthier's lips curl. Shemhazai had needled him, often enough, when their magicked cook-fires (cooking what they found—) had revealed enough of Fran to see how... soiled she looked. But it had not been that, of course. Never that. And neither is it of any consequence now that they are to be naked before each other. Aboard the Bahamut, they had been more than naked.

No. Shemhazai mocks where she does not understand.

When he looks up from shucking his trousers, he finds Fran watching him, quiet. The sight of that steady gaze, even as she stands amidst the tainted water, steadies him in turn.

He takes a breath, and another, and wades in beside her.

Maybe he trails a filthy train of his own, like some putrid bride. But he doesn't look, and he stands beside Fran, silent side by side as the water falls over them both.

Balthier breathes.

 

________

 

He does not sleep that night. Exhausted as he is, he can only assume his own cleanliness keeps him awake. What other reason remains for not sleeping when there is a warm bed, four walls, and a nice, low ceiling about? He had walked from the baths as if dreaming (if only), the feel of his own skin strange to him. Or perhaps it was the undignified garments, the clean linen rags they'd donned between bathing and awaiting replacements for their accustomed finery from Dalan and Migelo. Surely that was it.

In the morning, before the faint light trickles in from Rabanastre above — Balthier's body has learned to tell the time without the light — Fran finally speaks.

"We do not spend another night in Rabanastre."

Balthier wholeheartedly agrees.

 

________

 

Fran departs Basch's chambers, and finds Ashe in the gardens.

"Fran!" Ashe exclaims. Fran knows it is more expression than Ashe would normally allow, even as Ashe's eyes check over Fran's shoulder, widen. "Is Balthier—"

"Balthier is speaking with Vaan and Penelo." She sees Ashe breathe, a short, hard exhalation. Fran allows her this moment before she continues, "We depart as soon as he is done."

And Ashe breathes again, slower this time. "Very well." She draws herself up, proud.

"Do not misunderstand," Fran says. "We are not well, and we need to heal. He doesn't wish for you to see him like this."

"See him like—" Fran hears the air hiss between Ashe's teeth. "Balthier is a fool," she spits.

"Yes," Fran says steadily.

"Very well," Ashe says again. "Very well. Tell him— no. Come back, and I will tell him myself."

"Good," Fran says. She leaves.

 

________

 

West is sand, east is sand, and south is the Rains and then the Golmore Jungle; he doesn't even consider it. They set out to the north, and Balthier waits for the lift of his heart that means another adventure, that means new skies and new places; that means Ffamran is still somewhere far, far behind him. Instead he only feels empty, weary, heavy. This lack could have proven upsetting; Balthier instead chooses to regard it with profound irritation. The quiet need for elsewhere still lingers in his footsteps, which is something, at least. And so north it is, aimless, as long as it's anywhere but here.

Their first battle is an ugly thing. His body does not respond, for all that they've faced down espers and Occuria — but somehow, in the stinking dank dark of Bahamut, even though Balthier knows they fought their way to safety and out, even though he knows Fran stayed as nimble as she could and they both practiced their aim when they couldn't walk: his senses have somehow forgotten sky. The avion shrieks down on them in a fluster of wind and feathers, and Balthier freezes: his fingers fumble on his gun, unfamiliar suddenly with its workings, and his mind feels stopped open at this strange threatening newness of an attack from above. His feet stumble in grass he once knew how to walk in, and he wonders whether he should duck. He feels ridiculous.

He watches, dumbly, as Fran raises her bow: she pulls an arrow, draws, shoots. And it strikes him, suddenly: her cruel viera efficiency is still more graceful than any hume could ever hope for, but — for this hume, who has traveled with this viera before, the signs are obvious. Fran's fingers, once steady and rocksure, now twitch at the string; her aim, relentlessly accurate, now carries a faint sliver of hesitation with it. Fran draws breath as she shoots. Balthier has never seen her do so before.

He looks away as her shot flies wide.

The sight of it pains him, somehow, even more than his own bumbling and stumbling; Fran may have only lost a fraction of her grace, but that small loss seems somehow unbearable, lost to Bahamut's dark painful hallways.

Her second shot does strike, and feathers fall from the sky.

 

________

 

They camp in the open, and Fran starts the fire with her magic. It is the first magic she has used since the Bahamut, and it flows stuttering from her fingertips, with no battle-fever to drive it. She remembers the roasting smell of flesh in those dank halls, the taste of it.

She lets the thoughts come, and go.

Balthier sits opposite her, elbows propped on his knees. The firelight plays on his skin, and an errant breeze catches at his shirt, ruffling it, reminding them both that the air is free and endless around them. It should be a comfort, and it is not, and Fran will learn to breathe again regardless.

 

________

 

The sight of the Nebra opens something in him, unexpected if not quite unlooked-for. The river is not endless like the sky but bounded, and moving, and beautiful.

He feels buoyed up on the ferry. Weightless. He's lying back, slouched down in his seat; his fingers trail in the water and his mind drifts down to that feeling, slipstream caressing his skin. He remembers Ffamran sticking his head out of the skycabs as they flew among the arches and buildings of Archades, jostling cousins and experiments out of the way to get at the window; remembers letting his hand waver up and down in the strong, smooth stream of air. The water is cool, and uninsistent. Not at all like the air, really. The sun beats down on him, its hot dry press crisping his damp shirt and making him sweat more under his vest. He could drift, at ease, if it weren't for these pesky corporeal interferences.

Balthier sits up, and strips off the vest with its tooled leather. The shoes, too; those would be a bother, both during and after. Fran notices his movement and watches him, silently; flicks an ear.

Then he slips off the ferry, ignoring the cry of the conductor and the startled shuffle of the merchant and her bird.

The water is cold, even in this heat, but its current is sluggish and drowsy, so Balthier tips his head back and spreads his arms and lets the water carry him. The sun's heat is less oppressive here. He can open his eyes and stare into the clean arch of the sky and let the sight touch him like it did before all the dark, clammy closeness. Before princesses and fathers and wrecks in the desert. His shirt blooms around him in a soggy cloud; considering the sky is as clear as the Nebra's waters, he imagines he's doing a very poor job of disguising himself as the reflection of some pothery scribble in the sky. He imagines he's doing a poor job of caring, too. Not even Shemhazai sees fit to comment, here.

He drifts there until Fran's sharp whistle carries over the water; he rights himself to see that she called him back just in time and not before — of course; ah, Fran. Out of form as he is, it's a healthy swim upstream and across the current to catch up with the ferry, where he latches onto its side next to Fran's seat. She leans down to look at him, and by her expression Balthier knows his eyes must be bright. She cups his head in her palm, runs her claws across the slope of his cheek as she takes her hand away, her expression searching. A moment, and her lips begin to shape a name; he doesn't know which one and her voice dies in rare hesitation before he can tell. A flash of anger through his heart, for a breath: must we relearn this, too? But Fran speaks, and the Nebra carries his anger away.

"It has been a long time since I have seen you so."

In answer he tilts his head in cocky invitation, lets his lips curl up, sweeps one hand out in a grand gesture across the water. She laughs at him and stays aboard the ferry.

Balthier disdains being hauled back atop the boat in his dripping clothes; he spends the rest of the ride in the river, lazily letting the ferry haul him along, taking care only to prevent any undignified head-bumping as he drifts by the hull. He thinks of old stories, as he emerges on the other shore: ascending from the water and the ferry's froth like a young god rising from the foam. It's only fitting, after all.

 

________

 

They reach the Mosphoran Highwaste, and again the bones of the world rise around them, harsher here than in the Sands. Fran feels the blood quickening in her veins as the greenery blooms over the rocks, as grass turns to bushes turns to trees. The sky closes over, but it is not the dank, close corridors of the Bahamut, but the high, green halls of the forest.

She does not stop as she steps into the wood, as the leaves close in a bower over her head and the air turns thick with growing-things; she does not stop, even though her feet are aching to, even though her heart wants to pause for a moment in the praise of sun-dappled shadows and tangled roots. She does not stop until she is deep in a tree herself: ankle-deep, chest-deep, tangled herself in airborne branches, her hair playing communion with the tree's own locks.

From her perch above she looks down into the Salikawood.

Fran hears its voice, slowly — for all woods speak wind-whispered words, if not as clearly as her homewood and even if she is the only viera to know, and can no longer understand — and it wraps around her, closing her in. She invites it, tucking closer to the trunk of the tree and tipping her head back against it. The confines of these branches are shadow-and-light, living, flexing, breathing. She breathes it in, and breathes out metal space, death-smelling darkness, the hiss of dying machinery.

She breathes in sun-through-leaves, the soughing of the wind, and the faint tug at her heart that is the Wood.

She breathes out the Bahamut.

 

________

 

Balthier stays on the walkway, watching Fran up above.

He has always thought her beautiful.

He sees her stillness turn a more alert shade, watches her draw her bow, swift and sure, the lines of her arms smooth and elegant in the dappled light. She looses an arrow, and he follows its trail; deeper in the wood he hears something fall to the ground.

"We eat well tonight," Fran says, but still she does not climb down.

Balthier sets off for where her prey landed, the echo of his footsteps swallowed in the wood-hush. It is nothing like the way the Bahamut's silence consumed their sounds, sent echoes yapping at their heels around corners, in dead-end passageways.

When he finds the wyrdhare fallen from one of the pathways to the ground below, there is a moogle sniffing curiously beside it.

"Kup-kupo!" The moogle's fur fluffs in alarm, ears quivering and wings flaring. "You scared me!"

The words come easier to his tongue, here, but it still takes him a moment to find them: "My apologies, friend."

"Why did you kill it?" The moogle tips her chin at the wyrdhare. "They're friendly."

"Because we are hungry," Fran says from behind him.

"Why don't you eat with us?" The moogle twitches her ears, a smoother motion now that she's not startled. "We have root stew, and berries!"

At this, Balthier turns to look at Fran. She regards him steadily, the faintest tension in her stance. He breathes, and thinks: company, for a night.

No.

Not yet.

"Thank you, but the hare will be fine."

"Too bad," the moogle says, apparently unbothered. "Hey, are you any good at fixing things?"

They pause, and then— "We are," Fran answers, and only Balthier can hear that it is less firm than is her wont.

"One of the controllers for our machines is broken, and even we're having trouble with it. Can you come by and take a look?" The moogle bounces on her heels, hands clasped behind her back.

"Tomorrow," Balthier says for them both.

"Great! Kupo! The boss will be so happy!" The moogle's nose wiggles in delight, whiskers fluttering. She gives them directions to one of the moogles' huts, and scampers off back to the walkways.

Fran picks up their kill, and they go searching for a suitable campsite.

 

________

 

The shadows drape soft about them, wood-smell thick in the air. Balthier breathes, slow, and watches the fire. The wyrdhare roasts on a spit above it, and the smell is nothing like— nothing like—

His hands twitch, empty of anything to do.

O empty hands, what torpid toil! Shemhazai whispers to him, scornful, and he grinds his knuckles, grinds his teeth, closes his mind to her yet her laughter rings in his ears, cruel. They had whispered to each other in the darkness, like lovers or orphans, before he found Fran again. Now his hands clench, and his tongue feels swollen and foul again. He spits.

Fran sees this, he knows. But they have been naked before each other in many things. Fran watches him, and she is silent, and Balthier is grateful.

The presence of the moogles returned to the wood pushes upon his skin. He never expected the forest to be empty; he remembers the moogles from before, from their party's journey to Archades. But he hadn't expected to meet them again, or so soon, or be pressed for help. He wanted—

But it doesn't matter what he wanted, does it? They are in the Salikawood for Fran, and because it is better than being in Rabanastre, or on a ship. Tomorrow they will help the moogles and then...

And then Balthier will keep breathing. It is all there is to do.

His hands itch, empty of purpose, and Shemhazai laughs at him.

 

________

 

The moogles chatter in the background, soft notes brushing past Fran's senses as she kneels before the controller. The mess of wires is a snarl against what it should be, the magick's smooth song interrupted by some large clenching hand. Fran tilts it, for better light; green wire and blue have both been snapped, and white and black are switched, maybe in someone’s haste to fix it. Moogles are usually better than this. Fran wonders.

Her fingers, long-deft, wind through the maze of wiring and selectively snatch forth both ends of the green lead. She extends her other hand, opens her palm, and waits for Balthier to drop the pliers and wire-cap into her waiting grasp. When nothing happens, she looks up.

Balthier is across the room, out of step with her but in halting conversation with one of the moogles over what her eyes questioningly identify as an embellished alarm clock.

Fran closes her fingers on her empty palm, pensive, thinking of Bahamut’s long dark corridors and her own claws, bruised-bleeding, trying to rewire doors blocking her path back to Balthier, to companionship, to friendship, to open air and freedom and sunlight and sky — each controller a welded, overheated, melted mess from the surge, and she with no pliers save her own nails, no battery but Thundaga, and no companion except the stench of darkness.

Balthier fought as hard to get to her, she knows, after they had fallen their separate ways in the crash. But it feels, for a moment, like that parting of the ways has not mended. Like perhaps over their years together he has grown to... expect her by his side, while not assuming her to expect the same of him. And it is true, as far as it goes: she has been a much bigger part of his hume lifespan than he her viera one. This asymmetry is inherent in what they are, part of the natural course of things.

Not a thing worth worrying over.

She watches Balthier with the moogle, his hands strangely grasping on the alarm clock, as if they hunger like hers do, if for different things.

Later, when they leave with a week’s worth of supplies in payment for her work — and she notices the odd alarm clock tucked under Balthier’s arm — she says to him as plainly as she can: “I think… machines and I have had our fill of each other. For now.”

"Good thing this machine is for me, then," Balthier says, his grin brittle. Fran keeps her peace.

 

________

 

Balthier tinkers with the alarm clock. His fingers feel thick, clumsy, the small wires escaping his grasp, and more than once he wants to throw the thing against a tree. He does not even understand why he took it, except that he cannot live like Fran, serene with the song of the wood, content to do nothing but breathe in its air. It shuts Shemhazai up, at least, and it gives his hands something to do. If he sits still he starts to smell the stinking rot of corpses, taste again the charred flesh, and he can't—

He puts the alarm clock down.

Shemhazai laughs at him, putting the lie to his efforts. Where now the son of father's pride? You turn away from simple task, your niggard hands clutch empty air.

Father's pride. Right.

Fran turns to look at him, silently.

He stares at the alarm clock. She turns away.

He picks it up again, and reaches for the wires once more.

 

________

 

Balthier goes off on his own in the woods sometimes, those first days. He chooses Fomalhaut to take with him, but the Salikawood is mostly peaceful, for a man like him. The wood is sheltered, but not so enclosed as the Bahamut, and not so open as the wide-yawning sky outside. It is... peaceful.

He goes along the bowered paths, the wood-paved ways, and breathes in the deep green air, the quiet magic of the place. The Mist is not thick here, except where it borders on the Necrohol, but there is a deep serenity to the place. He can see why Fran climbs the greenwood trees, plies her bow upon the wyrdhares. It is calming, and yet. And yet. His fingers itch for work.

He feels his hand upon Fomalhaut, calm and sure as he sights his prey, but the gun jumps under his hand, and he misses. "Tch," he spits, and lets his hands wander upon the gun again. The sight is true, the trigger clean. It is not the gun that is at fault. And yet he feels its mechanical urgency under his fingertips, the sense of something gone awry. Is it in him?

Probably. He is not as unaware as that. But still, the gun aches under his hand.

 

________

 

Fran basks in the wood, and Balthier does not.

Fran sees it upon his skin, his face tense with lines upon his brow, at the corners of his eyes, hard and implacable around his mouth. For her, the wood is healing, green-things, grow-things, breath and life, but Balthier is not viera and her hunger is not his.

For all that she senses this, she has no words for it, not yet. They have known each other a long time, but Fran has healing yet to do, and can't find the words inside herself to tell Balthier that he is still broken. It would wound him deeper, and until he sees it for himself, there is perhaps nothing she can say. But she watches him, watches as he fixes the alarm clock, watches as he cleans his guns, taking them apart, fingers lingering on gear and shaft and trigger. She knows she touches her bow in the same way, but her bow is living wood, lovely and breathing under her hand. Machinery does not call to her the same way, much as she works on it, much as she feels it leap to life by her touch; it is not the same.

Balthier needs something else, and Fran thinks it must lie outside the wood.

 

________

 

Balthier is no fool. Or at least not this much a fool. Fran is healing, and he is not, and it sets his teeth on edge. There is something wrong. Ha. What a statement.

But it is true.

For healing yearn, you broken thing, Shemhazai picks up, on cue. Which wound tears deepest, which most true? The father, dead by son's own hand? The lady far beyond your reach? Which woman, even, does most sting? The dragon, fallen, rides you still! Her wild, hissing swings go by too fast for him to dwell on any one, which is likely for the best. Except, perhaps, the last, which lingers in his mind in ghostly echo. Of course the Bahamut still bothers him. Fran would say it is not a thing to be shamed by, but Fran... Fran has always been more patient than he.

Balthier does not answer Shemhazai, and instead seeks for... whatever is missing.

He wanders the wood, gun close to his hand but unused. Fran, when she wanders, goes deeper. He has followed her, sometimes. Sometimes he leaves her to her private communion and sometimes— sometimes it pains him, to see her face. He has seen her in woods before (before—), and seeing how her face has changed and hasn't, sometimes— sometimes it is too much. A Fran that is too distant from him, perhaps, or perhaps too close, as close as they were in those stinking black halls.

So he wanders to the edge of the wood, past the moogles' great gate, and stares at the sky, teeth gritted. It mocks him, from between the thinning branches, stretching out into the horizon.

And then, surprising himself, he laughs.

Since when has mockery stopped him?

Shemhazai stirs, and he can feel the wicked curl of her smile in his mind, no humour in it.

He walks out far enough that the rich loam of the Salikawood becomes the dull hush of sand, and he bends and takes it between his fingers. It sifts, straying in the wind.

Yes.

 

________

 

They have been two weeks in the wood when Fran comes upon Balthier wrestling with a tree, shirtless. She watches as he chops it down, strips it of its branches, and attempts to split it down its length. This single-minded manual labour is like nothing in her ken of him, and so she steps closer.

Balthier looks up at her approach. He points out to where the trees thin and the Phon Coast stretches basking in the sun. "There," he says. "Let's go."

She feels the hope fragile in her heart: a horizon is calling to him, and while she would be content to spend more days in the green bower of the wood, he needs this. She is patient, and he is not, and his need pushes upon her skin, like a touch. A touch she knows. So she comes closer.

"I've never built a boat before," he says, and his grin is lopsided, but there.

"Then we will learn," she says.

It takes them another week, the clean physical effort of it, wood splinter-keen and fingers aching. But they build a simple boat, and paddles, and barter for fishing poles from the moogles, and then they are standing on the beach with the water bright and blue around them.

"Fancy fish for dinner tonight, Fran?" Balthier's face is still clouded, but there is an openness to it here. Fran smiles. There is healing in the wood for her. Let there be healing in this for him.

"If you can catch any, with all your talk," she answeres tartly.

Balthier laughs, a sound like shattering.

They push the boat out, and Balthier rows them away from shore, until they are cradled in the gentle heave of the waves. And they fish.

Fran is less intent on it, laying back instead to sun herself, pole cradled loosely in one hand. The open space yawns endless around her, but she breathes, and the sun is on her skin. There are worse things.

 

________

 

They catch nothing on the first day, and Balthier is not deterred. He gives a bitter laugh about it, mocking their hand-hewn boat and their moogle-bought rods.

But in the night, he stares up at the canopy of leaves, and thinks, Yes. Out there. If Shemhazai has anything to say about it, he ignores her. And when he wakes, he takes the alarm clock in hand, and takes his tools, and works upon it until Fran is done with her morning hunt. And when she returns, the clock is working again. He winds it, because he can, and it sets to with an ungodly noise. Fran shoots him a look, but he catches the edge of her smile in it, before she turns away to butcher her kill.

It is nothing to do with anything Shemhazai said.

That day, he goes back to the moogles.

They have a gate mechanism that needs fixing, and an old terminal with an architeck that challenges his half-forgotten grasp of higher math; he suspects a fried circuit there. He works on the first throughout the day, finding the ground-down gear. It requires an entire new part, and when Fran comes back from hunting that afternoon, he asks her, "How do you feel about re-casting metal?"

She wrinkles her nose. "Casting metal? This is not a viera's purview."

"Nor a sky pirate's, unless it be gold jewelry into ingots. But the moogles need a new gear."

She regards him silently, fiddling with an arrowhead. "What do we need?"

His chest relaxes. He tells her.

 

________

 

Fran watches Balthier over the forge, sweating as he did over the boat. She wonders at this physicality in him, this need to strain and sweat and do. But then, she has hunted three times a day since she made the wood, and her sweat lies on many of the trees, seeped into the bark from where it dripped, or smeared, or simply soaked through from where she sat motionless for hours, waiting for a kill. This, she cannot question.

They are on the Phon Coast, and she has conjured water for him in careful drips as he shapes the wet sand, having pressed the stripped gear into it first and now correcting the mold, and then finally shaping the channel. A stone mold might crack from thermal shock, he had explained, a look of intent concentration on his face as he smoothed the sand mold's edges. He will file the work-piece later, he says now; what is important now is to get the angles and spacing of the teeth right. Then it is her Firaga searing the coals beneath the cauldron they had bartered from the moogles, and finally there is a red-hot stream of molten metal between the cauldron and the mold, gently through the inclined channel, and Balthier's face is focused, careful. Present. Fran watches the gear form, and smiles. This is not her work, her doing, hers. But she can smile, for it is his.

 

________

 

The gear does not fit.

Shemhazai is grinning in his mind, and somewhere there is a distant memory of Cid shaking his head at some flawed offering of Ffamran's.

The moogles chirrup, and fuss over it, and still it does not go. Balthier feels... there is a blackness down this path, he knows (and Shemhazai will remind him, oh yes), but he feels only the need to try again, because everything since the Bahamut it has been about trying again. Because nothing has worked the first time, and that is... Well. Fran would know better. But there are worse things.

He asks the moogles for better tools, and they confer, and say they will need to go to the camp on the Phon Coast, to trade with the merchants and hunters there. They ask him if he and Fran will come.

Fran stands behind him. He turns to her. Her face is impassive, but her hand strays to the tree she leans upon.

No. Not yet.

The moogles go without them.

 

________

 

Their fishing is fruitless, but Fran does not mind. She takes the time to relearn the sky. Viera are not meant for it, she has been told. But she has been told many things, by viera and by humes. Bangaa and seeq, she has noticed, are less prone to these racial pronouncements, and moogles not at all. So she lets the sun touch her, watches the clouds form dream-shapes, or, when Balthier takes it into his head to go night-fishing, she visits her old friends the constellations. She knows many, viera and moogle, seeq and bangaa and even some nu mou; a scattering of helgas sky-sequences and rev star-beasts; the garif geomancers' legends of earthly echoes in the skies. And, of course, hume: Archadian and Rozzarian, old Galtean and new Dalmascan. All races look to the sky.

The sky called her and Ffamran to one another. They made new shapes there, together, sometimes. Sketches only they saw.

But this is a practice older than Ffamran, and certainly older than Balthier. Perhaps not older than the thing they have together, but older, she knows, than either of their wearied souls. It is a comfort, and it is ageless, and she yearns for the sky in a way she know she should not, and she is not sorry for it.

Beside her this night, Balthier is in a restless sleep, fishing pole slipping through his hands. That he can sleep under the open sky, even if poorly, is a healing she had not dared hope for. She wonders if he knows this.

It is not that they have secrets from one another, but even they have private selves, things they do not know about each other. Fran is not so proud as to doubt that Balthier knows things about her she has not told him, or even told herself. And the Bahamut stripped many things away from them, including the last vestiges of privacy and self.

Let them find themselves and each other again, then, in their own time. Fran will wait.

She wakes Balthier when his line goes taut, but the fish snaps the line. Balthier grumbles, then chuckles, a little too dark, but he rows them back to shore with good will.

 

________

 

The moogles come back with Balthier's requests, including the expensive oil for which he had entrusted them with a not insignificant amount of coin. Fran had obtained the gil from Old Dalan or Ashe, Balthier never asked which. He doesn't want to know.

The thought of Ashe itches at him, and Shemhazai stirs. Young love, her bittersweet embrace; from heart's unwont'd call you hide. And then, with more malice: From me escape comes not so quick. She husks this in his ear, and he suppresses a shudder, thinking of the way he had fingered her auracite in the dark, how he had cradled it in his hands because it glowed and he had not the strength for Fire. How he had squeezed the stone in his hand, feeling the magicks pulse in it like a heartbeat, like a living thing, some hint that life yet lay outside that abattoir.

How he had handled Ashe's ring, lain the two talismans together in his hands. He had had nothing of Fran's.

Ashe's ring and Shemhazai's stone; they lie together now in a pouch at his belt, and he has not touched either since he found Fran, her leg lain open with an ugly wound and covered in grime, and still the most beautiful vision he has ever known.

He pushes Shemhazai's words aside, and sets to work.

Balthier has Fran measure out the dimensions of the mold this time, her fingers delicate and precise in the sand as he magicks the water over in as measured a stream as he can. He misjudged this, last time, thinking the control of the water more essential when it was the shaping of the mold that needed to be finnicked.

She casts the Fire spell to start the forge, and he works the bellows, bare-chested in the heat. The molten metal pours into the mold, and he quenches it in the oil, calculated to cool the gear slower than water but faster than air, setting the crystalline structure to endure.

He wipes sweat off his forehead. Fran watches as he files the rough edges of the gear. Shemhazai is silent.

The gear fits.

 

________

 

Fran watches as Balthier takes more work from the moogles. There is some finicky wiring he can help with; the broken gate mechanism he seems to have been avoiding, architeck fine and fried; and a broken device even the moogles know not the provenance of, but Balthier takes it all the same.

She had known a boy named Ffamran, once. He had been quick with his hands and with his mind, but had spurned these skills and an assignment as a Judge both. He wanted skies. So had she.

She wonders if Balthier sees this, or if the shade of his father stands ever in his way. She had avoided woods for a long time after leaving hers. A very long time. Is a hume lifetime too short, for this?

She looks at her own hands, that had sworn off machines so short a while ago.

And when Balthier goes to fix the gate's architeck, she comes with him.

 

________

 

The spark of the architeck bites at him when he connects the wires, and he hisses.

"Well, we know that still works," he tells Fran, irate.

Fran hums in amusement. He looks at her, her face set with concentration. She becomes aware of his regard, and looks at him, lips parted in question. He finds himself grinning at her, his hands deep in the guts of the machine. Her lips close in a faint smile, and she turns back to the wiring of the gate-mechanism. Working out the older sequencing the architeck used had tested his memory of mathematics, truly. The frustration of it felt familiar, the flex of a forgotten muscle, after which comes surety. Strength.

"Try it now," Fran says.

He eyes the circuit board with its magicite core, and pauses in thought. "Not... yet," he says. "Come here."

She rises, her claws grimy, and comes to him. He parts the cluttered wires for her, and shows her the core.

"It is cracked," she says.

"Can you—" He swallows his words. That viera can work magicite is a secret he has long known, but he has never asked it of her. A secret his father would have given much to know.

She looks at him, long. Her ears twitch, revealing her discomfort, but her face is set. She looks back again at the machine. And reaches inside.

The stone comes awake under her touch, and he can feel her feeding it her magick, deft but not endless, invigorating the stone and tying its heart-thrum to the rhythm of the magicks in the Salikawood's Mists.

The circuit board would have worked without that, for a time. But now it will last as long as the Wood.

Fran withdraws her hands. He sees the claws bite into her flesh where she curls her fingers inward, so he reaches for her. His hand falters, at first. She looks... alien in this moment. Vulnerable is not a word he associates with Fran, and it does not suit her now, but a shadow lingers on her, on him, seeming to grow dense in the sparse space between them. Yawning like a chasm. But Balthier reaches, because he is that kind of fool and not that kind of coward, and takes her hand. She lets him, eyes fathomless, and after a time takes her hand back, more relaxed now.

It was but a moment. She is herself, entirely contained and certain.

They are both finding themselves in this, he knows. He is, as he has said, not that kind of fool, even if all this messing about with machines and metal causes his father's ghost to breathe a chill down his back. Or Ffamran's ghost. Some Bunansa's. Regardless, seeing Fran hale and whole and healing goads him, makes him work harder, because he knows that he can never catch up to her, never catch her.

There is a peace in this. A peace Balthier has never known, but perhaps Ffamran had. That boy, who saw her as magnificent and unattainable.

He thinks of Ashe, then shies away.

No. Not yet.

 

________

 

They go hunting together, now. Balthier still cannot climb the trees with her grace, but Fran does not mind. She takes the high road, and he the low, and if they do not speak she will let it appear to be their accustomed ease, and nothing else. He watches her, waiting for her viera eyes to spot the prey. And then she nocks an arrow, and he looks where she is aiming, and shoots his gun.

He misses still, sometimes. She does not.

He takes the guns apart less often now, though he does it sometimes still when he cannot sleep, cleaning them and inspecting them, and sometimes looking at his own hands. Fran is sure he senses her watching him. Ffamran was shy around her. Balthier wasn't. She can't tell, now, who hunches his shoulders at her regard: is it Balthier's pride or Ffamran's shyness?

It is strange to her, to know the same hume under two names, as if they are two people. Ffamran became Balthier slowly, and all at once. The name changed in a day, but the boy — the man — changed slower.

Fran has always been Fran. She appreciates that Balthier has never questioned this. She knows herself enough to be aware that even she has changed, in her time with Balthier.

Once, she leaves Balthier sleeping in the hushed bower of the wood and goes to the Phon Coast without him. She stands under the night sky, bow in hand, and looks up, up, up.

There is still an endless void there, something that does not sit true. But nothing has sat true in her since she left her wood, and she can add this to the endless list. The bow-wood that sings to her in a different key. The arrow that does not know her touch.

The machine that comes to life beneath her fingertips.

She comes back to their camp, and restokes the fire.

 

________

 

The strange machine will not yield its purpose to him, and Balthier knows: he must go to the hunters' camp.

He tells Fran first, always (Shemhazai already knows, has already taunted him for it, and in any case he is not speaking to her). He watches Fran think a time, her hands upon her bow, tasting the feel of the wood. "Yes," she finally says. "Let us go."

He tells the moogles next. They titter among themselves, excited — and how much of this symphony of errors have they found out, he wonders? — but in the end they elect two to come with them, one male and one female. They are called Blaise and Juno, and they are an excitable lot.

In a fit of good spirits, Balthier lets Blaise climb upon his shoulders, and the moogle points the way through the wood, even though Balthier knows it. Blaise's fur is clean where Balthier touches it, and...

Blaise is pointing. Balthier looks forward.

Fran and Juno follow behind at a more decorous pace, their talk shifting between living in the wood and caring for machines, and Balthier thinks, yes, he is ready.

He lets Blaise down at the gate, and then they are on the Phon Coast. Juno is a fusilier, with her sharp little pistol, and Blaise is an animist. Balthier has not travelled with an animist before, and Blaise explains breathlessly how, with the music of his conch shell, to entice, and the bite of his whip, to discipline, he can compel creatures to their cause. Blaise brandishes instrument and weapon, most unintimidatingly, and Balthier feels his lips tug up, a pull that feels unaccustomed on his face. They make a good party, three ranged fighters against the many avions and an animist to turn the earthbound ones to their side.

They make the hunters' camp in short order, and it is...

It is...

It is bangaa and humes and seeq, and the press of their presence is like a weight upon Balthier's skin, but he hefts a smile and holsters his gun and comes to see the merchant with his machine.

The bangaa merchant examines it. "It's Rozarrian make, I think," she says at last.

"Rozarrian?" Balthier frowns. He thinks of Al-Cid, and is instantly irritated. No wonder the machine would not answer to him.

"Ye-es," the merchant drawls, and rummages in her pack. "I have a tome here, very well-regarded, on Rozarrian machinery." She brandishes the book, a thick volume bound in red. "Can you read it?" she asks eagerly.

Ffamran could. Balthier has grown rather rusty with Old Rozarrian script, but he can see that it says Volume 5 on the spine. He remembers his Rozarrian numerals, at least.

Fran sniffs behind him.

"How much?" he says.

The bangaa names an outrageous price.

"Tch. For one volume out of at least five?" he counters.

The bangaa's tail twitches; she chews on her lip for a moment. She names a lower price.

"And how many here can read enough Old Rozarrian to understand it?" he asks. "Your pool of buyers is quite small."

"All kinds of folk come through here," she says.

This is not so hard, he thinks. The sky is silent witness above them, as is Fran behind him, Juno and Blaise breathless at her side.

"Not many with the skill and need, I would think. A thousand gil." He hefts the pouch of gil from Ashe-or-Dalan. The coin lies heavy in his hand, much heavier than the ring and stone in their own pouch at his hip.

"Deal," the bangaa says.

 

________

 

The moogles are ecstatic at the find. Fran bears this with a quiet smile. Balthier lets Juno ride upon his shoulder this time, and Fran is glad to see his ease with the creatures.

She thinks of Nono. She never saw him, in their brief stay in Rabanastre.

She thinks, then, of Basch. He had not been well. Nor had she, but the path to her well-being had been clear to her. Basch's, less so. In her exchange of Rabanastre news with Balthier, she had learned that Gabranth had lived, and Basch had taken his place.

This chafes at her. She could never take the place of one of her sisters, even if Mjrn yearned to leave the wood like her. Perhaps it is a hume thing.

Ashe has never spoken of taking her brothers' place, even though it is what she did. And Balthier never spoke of his cousins thus, for all that they resemble him. Fran has seen some of them, even. Or, Ffamran hadn't spoken that way, perhaps. Balthier has no cousins.

She follows him and the moogles back into the wood, and wonders how much she remembers of Old Rozarrian script.

 

________

 

The text vexes him. He had known he was buying the fifth volume out of a set, but he had not counted on remembering so little. There are diagrams, and he sees the resemblance in them to the mysterious machine, the lines of it, the logic of its construction. But the only chapter he has deciphered so far seems to be about the powered palanquins that clog Rozarria's capital, and he shuts the book with an unnecessary snap.

It is twilight, and Fran is hunting.

Their fire licks the air, breathes its heat across his face, throws its light out against the encroaching gloaming. Dusk leans its chill against his back, the dense night stealing between the trees to press around the little circle of their campfire. It is not night that has bothered him, since the Bahamut. Darkness, oh yes, but there is no darkness in nature as absolute as that wrought by man, the enclosed spaces humes cower in, that in their hubris can fall out of the sky and leave his throat choked with the infinite murk and stench of it.

He squeezes the book in his hands. It is solid under his fingers.

Balthier knows what these thoughts are. He knows why they come upon him, abrupt and complete, like being thrown into cold water, submerged in the sudden swells of his own mind. What he does not understand is why they are coming now, when he can barter with bangaa and cast gears for moogles, re-sequence an architeck and fish for hours under the open sky. The gaping maw of the sky that had greeted him after the Bahamut has eased its star-glittered grin, and it is only sky, now. Why now?

The text might vex him, but these unruly upheavals vex him more, and for the first time he thinks of emptying the pouch at his hip into his hand.

Yes, wretch, reach out at need's harsh bite, Shemhazai spits at him. What use for me midst happy times?

Balthier has never tolerated jealous lovers.

His breath hisses out of him in a sharp jerk, and he finds his fingers scrabbling at the ties on the pouch until it is open and free of his belt, and then he has tipped it over and the stone and ring have tumbled into his palm.

The touch of the auracite wakes Shemhazai's essence in his mind in a wild bloom of— thoughts, emotions, memories, all utterly alien and howling a scour through him, washing him clean of darkness and of light both, of putrid stench and of sea-clean winds, of the taste of charred flesh and of the savour of a slaughtered hare's rich juices. There is too much a roar of Shemhazai through him to remember anything else, and she croons cold in his ear: But whisper name to call me forth. It sweeps through him: the yearn of her to live, escape the confines of her binding and flex muscle, tap hoof, toss mane, feel the gasp of resistance on the trigger right before it squeezes true and the arcane machinery of the gun fires with its sweet kick down her arm.

He unsticks his fingers from the glyph-stone where they had clenched in an involuntary spasm.

Balthier had never wanted an esper, but it had been he and Shemhazai in the end, there in the depths of Giruvegan, his Arcturus against her gods-gifted guns.

It had been he and Shemhazai on the Bahamut, the first and only time he had spoken to her.

He puts the esper-stone back in the pouch.

Ashe's ring is too tight for any but his smallest finger; he knows this like he knows the feel of Fomalhaut, by now. His own rings in their contained riot of colour seem to mock this drab-seeming neighbour, but his fingertips know the quiet poetry of its cut-work, the marriage of Dalmascan and Nabradian styles. Ashe's marriage, wrought in silver lines.

Ashe.

It is too much, still.

Shemhazai laughs at him, cold and high and cruel.

When Fran arrives with dinner the ring is back in the pouch as well, and the text is open in his lap again.

 

________

 

It is like picking at a scab, Balthier finds. Having given in once, he finds himself fiddling with the ring at odd times. It holds no answers for him, and it is all foolishness anyway. Still, he twists it on his little finger, takes it off, runs the pad of his thumb along its carved lines.

Ashe.

Brave pirate of the boundless skies! You cower still from this fair face, Shemhazai murmurs, and he takes out her esper stone.

This, he cannot explain. It is like the opposite of a vaccine, exposing himself to the endless roar of her to hush the whispers.

None of it works, anyway. Shemhazai will not shut up, and the ring yields no answers to him.

His eyes fall upon the Rozarrian machine, and he suppresses a snort, then lets it out anyway. Another thing that yields no answers to him. Does it hold any? For Ffamran, perhaps, or for Cid... What does Balthier see in an old dead thing, then? And yet, having woken that urge from its long sleep... He had forgotten what it felt like.

He flexes his hands, Ashe's ring glinting from where he'd left it on the smallest finger of his left hand.

He puts them both away, ring and stone, and tries to sleep.

 

________

 

Fran notes that he takes the book with him on their fishing trips now, letting its fragile pages fall open upon his knees as the fishing pole rests against the crook of his elbow. The fish do not bite.

She notes, also, how he empties his esper-pouch into his hand when he thinks her preoccupied with making new arrows. It is not that he hides this from her, and more that it is a thing he does when their silences have gone on too long. They are relearning their silences still, but this is a change she did not expect, and it makes her wonder what Shemhazai says to him. Exodus and Cúchulainn rest quiet within her, and Adrammelech, meant for Balthier and spurned, says nothing. Their whispers, when they come, are not the Wood-whispers she once knew, but she is not troubled by the weight of another's words in her mind.

Balthier is.

She cannot read the rustle of branch and leaf, the dapple of light, the yearn of roots reaching ever downward and boughs ever upward, as she once could. She knows the Salikawood whispers, and she has taken her comfort in it these past months, left her sweat and sometimes blood on its bark, but the Wood's words are in a tongue that is foreign to her. The greenery shapes the words, articulates speech like the press of lips and teeth. She knows the manner of it, the anatomy of it, even if the result is beyond her ken, now. The Salikawood has settled in her bones, and she knows that soon she will need not-Wood again, that her companions the constellations wait for her somewhere out there, beyond the verdant bower. But for now the comfortably foreign wood-words mutter around her, and she is perched on the precarious edge of contentment.

The espers, though, speak a tongue she knows.

She does not ask Balthier what he says to Shemhazai.

 

________

 

Balthier finds himself arguing with the moogles about the Rozarrian machine. The moogles have three theories, and bicker amongst themselves in ever-changing factions on which is the most likely. That it is broken, they all agree on, but whether its intended orientation is thus or that-wise, whether it is complete or part of a larger whole, whether it be ancient or merely old— these questions are apparently open to debate any time Balthier but mentions the thing.

He then finds himself smiling at the rise-and-fall chitter of their argument. The expression feels foreign on his face, and he is abruptly aware that he has been here, among them and pushing insistently for his own opinions, with nary a nervous tremor of his hands or acid whisper from Shemhazai for near an hour.

No, it is not being around other people that Shemhazai mocks him over, lately. Just the one person.

This freezes the smile into a rictus, and he forces the muscles of his face back into neutrality.

"Given our vigorous debate, I believe this requires more examination of my good friend Volume 5," he manages, and it comes out smooth. Good.

"Ku-po-po! What if it's not in there?" one of the moogles worries at him.

"Never fear, she will yield her secrets if I might just find the honeyed words that touch her heart. And speaking of her heart, I believe I need to take her apart down to the core." He hefts the thing, carrying it in the position he personally believes to be right side up. "But the Rozarrians use a different measure than the Archadian machines in this corner of the world. Do you have a set of tools for Rozarrian make?"

The moogles confer and five of them retreat into the main hut to rummage. Finally, one emerges triumphantly carrying a toolkit, and displays the contents to Balthier. The ratchet set is missing several pieces, but it indeed in the Rozarrian measure. He thanks the moogles, takes ratchet set and machine, and makes for their camp.

By the time he reaches camp with his prize, night has fallen and Fran is already there, skinning her kill. It is too dark to work, so he sets the machine aside and settles by the fireside.

He finds himself fiddling, again, with Ashe's ring. It is not that he doesn't realize the foolishness of this. Shemhazai surely does. But he is not in the business of listening to Shemhazai.

 

________

 

Fran watches as Balthier starts taking the Rozarrian machine apart, peeling its layers as if undressing a lover.

It has not escaped her notice that he keeps the ring in the esper-pouch.

She wonders again if it is Balthier or Ffamran who will emerge from this reassemblage of selves. She knows what it is they have been doing, what they needed, after the Bahamut. Or perhaps he is constructing a new self that marries Balthier's spirit and Ffamran's mind, building of these a man who can love the skies, his ship, a princess, and yet ferret out the secrets of ancient engineering, craft metal, yearn for the work of his hands. This hume activity of shifting identities fascinates her. Are two lives too many, for the mayfly span of a hume's time on Ivalice? Fran has lived many lives, but nothing has shaken the bedrock of her certainty that she is Fran, she who spurned the Wood and her sisters even as both lived forever in her heart; she who loved a garif woman and lost her to the vicissitudes of a war-chief's mortal fate; she who has taken on three espers, one because it called to her in wood-whispers, one because he had turned from healer to blight, and one because another would not. She, who partnered with a hume because something of Ffamran called to the murmur of magicked machinery under her fingertips, and something of Balthier yearned, liked her, for skies and freedom and adventure.

He worries at the machine like a child at a scab during the day, and at night he cradles esper-stone and wedding ring in his hands as if they hold some answers for him.

And she, she hunts the wood and listens to its hush, and knows that soon she must go elsewhere.

 

________

 

Balthier, exasperated at the missing piece of the ratchet set that stymies his quest to unlock the Rozarrian machine's secrets, goes to the Hunter Camp on the Phon Coast to barter for better fishing poles.

No moogles accompany him this time, but Fran does, of course. The beasts of the place give them no trouble, and as the vespertine shadows creep across the sands, they reach the hunters' camp. There, Balthier stalks the coastline until he finds an old seeq woman fishing off the pier.

"Catching anything?" he asks, leaning companionably on one of the pier's pylons.

"Oh, aye," she snorts.

Her fishing rod is not as fine as Vaan's jealously-guarded Muramata, but it looks sleek and spry, the ferrule barely interrupting its delicate arch over the waters. Vaan has always been their most enthusiastic fisher, but Basch was the most patient.

Ashe disdained the sport entirely.

Her ring is on his finger, and he does not worry it as he says, "Say, what bait do the fish of this sea fancy?"

The fisherwoman regards him suspiciously, and he spreads his hands. The ring gleams dully in the twilight. "I fish off the coast in a boat, some ways south of here."

Reassured that he will not be poaching her game, the seeq relents. "The deep-water fish like ragworms."

Interesting. The moogles had provided them with bright artificial lures, but then the moogles were not sea-fishers.

He tries for flattery. "That is a fine pole you have there. What make is it?"

"Made it meself," she grunts, unimpressed. Ah, well. His aim had been true, at least.

"How much to make two more?" he asks. "One for me, and one for this fine lady here," he continues, gesturing to the silent Fran.

The seeq eyeballs them. "I've a need for tanned tyrant hide," she finally says. "Think you can tackle an Archaeosaur?"

Balthier doesn't even need to flick his gaze to Fran before he says yes.

The poles take a week to craft, and the Rozarrian machine gapes half-open at him the whole time. But when he and Fran emerge from the hunters' camp one afternoon with a new fishing pole each and a bucket of ragworms to boot, he finds his spirits lifting.

 

________

 

They catch a fish. Then two, three, five more. Fran finds this ceaseless activity less to her taste than the calm uneventfulness of their previous fruitless fishing trips, but she can admire the way the shirtless Balthier hauls the fish home, teeth showing between his lips.

They take the fish to their camp, and Fran cleans and prepares them.

Balthier bites into the meat, rich from its fire-cooking, and grins at Fran over his catch.

Fran feels a stutter in her chest. They've eaten their kills the whole way here and for the months after, but she's not seen Balthier take such primal joy in it since... since before the Bahamut. Since before the dark corridors where they ate the flesh they found. Since before open skies caused their stomachs to turn. Since before.

She nibbles on her fish, and is content.

 

________

 

Balthier returns to the Hunter Camp to get steel, ending up with a workable mix of grades. He melts them together in the moogles' cauldron to the heat of Fran's Firaga, the two of them having worked the wet sands into the shape of the missing ratchet piece. They are out of the expensive oil, so he smothers the work-piece in salt water; he does not need it to endure the ages, merely to work.

Night has fallen when they return to their camp. He slots the new piece into the empty space in the ratchet set, and it fits there, at least. The machine will have to wait until the morrow.

He twists Ashe's ring upon his little finger, the fire's dance lost on him.

I waited eons to be free, Shemhazai mutters to him, And yet these months you wait weigh more. Is she so cruel, to curse your needs? Or is it you, with coward heart?

What an irony, for Shemhazai to call him cruel.

You'd best keep a civil tongue, traitor, he thinks at her. I'll not summon you again if you keep this up.

He feels the awful flare of her, basking in the reflected light of his attention. Oh tell me, do, whose power sways! You cower from a lover's grasp, yet fondle me 'neath twilight's reach. Who then, the traitor here, the sneak?

It is too much.

"Fran," he says.

She turns to regard him.

"Did you speak to Ashe, when we were in Rabanastre?"

"Yes," she says.

"Did she—" He cannot get the rest out. It is too childish, or he too proud.

Fran gives him a long look, silent. Finally: "You must speak to her," she says, "yourself." She flicks an ear at him.

Yes, he thinks. I must.

 

________

 

In the morning Balthier cracks open the depths of the Rozarrian machine's carapace with his new tool, and Fran reaches out in wonder.

It houses skystone.

The magicite breathes magick at her, cool to the touch, old-tongue, rich-tongue in her veins. It speaks a language to her that Wood never knew, and something stirs in her breast. The stone calls to her, spilling secrets of cloud-whisper, star-scream, sun-cry. Yes, she thinks.

"It is an ancient airship part," she says.

Balthier frowns at it. "Yes," he mutters, "But what's it doing here?"

"A mystery," she responds, shaping the words with her lips around a smile. It tastes so fine upon her tongue.

"Tch," Balthier huffs. "All that toil, to find that it will never work again."

Fran lifts her eyes from the skystone to regard his face. Ffamran's intellectual frustration etches itself into the pinched rise of his cheeks, the furrow of his brow. And Balthier's free spirit breathes along his hands as he cradles the skystone, and she knows he is thinking the same thing as she.

"We must get back the Strahl," she says. Yes. It feels right.

"Of course," he agrees. "But I've an errand."

Fran nods. She does not have to ask.

 

________

 

Ashe hears the scrape outside her bedroom window, and draws the sword that she keeps by her bedside.

It is at Balthier's throat before she registers that it is he who perches on her windowsill.

"A fine welcome, after all these months. I'd almost think you'd missed me," he says.

The sword point wavers under her hand, then her grip firms. "You've kept me waiting." She keeps the accusation out of her voice, or nearly. Rather, it sounds arch to her ears. She decides this is better than the need that hides in accusation's shadow.

"Ah," he breathes. Two fingers rise to delicately push the blade away from the crook of his neck. "If you would give me leave, I would be glad to express my apologies."

"Apologies! It is not apologies I am after, Balthier." She lets him push the blade away from his neck, then twists her wrist, and turns the flat of the blade to him. She presses it against the hollow of his cheek, and she knows it would be cold. She has been cold, these past months' nights.

He regards her steadily, the glint of her good steel reflected in his eyes. "I was in the Salikawood with Fran."

She steps closer, the flat of the blade sliding along his cheekbone like a caress. "And aboard the ruin of the Bahamut, beyond where my patrols could find you. Beyond Vaan and Penelo's attempts."

"Yes," he says. There is something dark and poisonous in his eyes then, and then he blinks, and it is gone.

"I begged you not to die," she hisses, suddenly furious again.

He spreads his arms. "Have I disappointed my lady?"

"No," she says. Then: "Yes."

"I have come to find," he drawls, "that I disappoint many a worthy woman."

There is acid in it, and something... vulnerable. She lowers her sword, after one last fleeting kiss of steel against his hairline. He takes the opportunity to slide off her windowsill and into her room. They stand a fighting distance apart, now.

"Balthier," she says. "I saw you after we killed your father. What worse agonies could be writ into your bones?" She had kissed him, that night. For the first time, and the last time. He had run off to die, after that.

His hand shifts to his belt, and then he leans back against the sill, playing insouciant. She is not fooled, but she allows him this, if he must, and the grind of her teeth is silent behind her lips.

"Why did you take up Ultima?" he asks then, and it is a sudden turn in the conversation that she cannot not track. It surprises her into an honest answer.

"Belias was my birthright. Ultima was my choice. I defeated her."

He nods, as if this makes sense. His eyes are downcast, and she sees his teeth catch on his lower lip for a moment. And then, he asks, "Does she whisper to you?"

The sword, its tip resting on the ground, feels heavy in her hand. "Yes," she says.

He nods, still looking at the ground. And then he steps away from the windowsill, towards her. Her blood beats in her fingertips. She has a hand free, and could touch him, now. He is close enough. She firms her grip on the sword instead.

"And what," he asks, "does the Virgin say to the Queen?"

She frowns. "She is Queen and Virgin both. I am neither, now or yet."

"Ah," he mutters. "I am missing my lines. Here I thought I was the dashing sky pirate, come to banter with the Queen."

"If you attend my coronation," she says, "there are enough hunters out for your head that surely someone would try to collar you. If I don't do it myself."

He leans back against the sill. "Sounds like a grand adventure. Unless I have other plans."

She scoffs. She is suddenly tired of this. She steps into his space, leans the sword up against the sill and lets go of it. Her hands are free, and she puts them on Balthier's face. He thrums under her touch, like a wild animal waiting to lunge away.

"Balthier." She shapes his name, her tongue against her teeth, her lips. "Do not mock me."

His lashes sweep down, cresting against his cheeks for a slow second before he looks her in the eye again. "I? Never."

Her fingers dig into his flesh. "Why did you not come to me?"

“Show me the bird that flies from one cage only to seek another,” he says, and swallows— something; it’s that brief pause that causes her to lean in slightly before he continues, “for I’ve ne’er seen one that outlives the hunter’s pot.”

She wants to spit. "Cages! Those hunters, at least they are out for your head and not your blood. Don't speak to me of cages. Not you, Balthier." She takes a breath, and says, slow between her teeth, "Not Ffamran to Ashelia." His eyes flicker, then, an arrow that hit true when she did not intend a mortal wound. But then his gaze steadies again, some secret machinery working behind it that he has not let her know. So she unclenches her jaw, gentles her tone, before she asks, "What is it you did not want me to see?"

He regards her for a long moment, and her hands feel hot upon his face. Finally his left hand comes up to cradle her right where it digs into his jawline. She notices, then, that he is wearing too many rings, for there is a touch of metal against her fingers where there should not be. She keeps her attention on his eyes, not letting her gaze stray to where he wears her wedding ring.

"When Fran and I emerged from the Bahamut, we were covered in filth," he finally says.

"Vossler had me cowering in the Garamsythe Waterway for years," she says. "I waded through the Nabreus Deadlands at your side." She takes a breath, hot between her teeth. "When Fran defeated Cúchulainn, it was I who held the gates fast."

His other hand comes up, then, encasing hers. He takes her hands off his face and lowers them both together. But he does not let go.

"You let filth coat your flesh, and yet it does not stain you." His voice sounds dry.

"Balthier," she says again. It is all she can say, for a moment. Then she takes his hands, pushes them back until his palms are flat against the wall under the window, her own palms riding hard upon his knuckles. The ring is a ridge of metal close to her skin. "I only sought to see you hale and whole."

"I came as soon as I could offer that."

She steps closer. "I do not deal in small trade, Balthier." Her nightclothes brush his vest, now. Their breaths mingle.

Balthier leans his face in, but not to kiss her. He merely presses his forehead against hers, his eyes closed, then tilts his head and lets his cheek skim against her own, and there is something naked in the gesture, some echo of skin-hunger in it, that makes Ashe swallow. He extracts his hands from beneath hers and twists off the ring, then offers it to her on an open palm, his eyes grave. "Is this substantial enough trade for you?" he asks. There should be a smile as he does this, something cocksure and irritating, but his tone misses the mark.

Still, her wedding ring lies on his hand between them.

Her own hands rise, slowly. She cups her fingers around his, curls both closed over the ring for one heartbeat, two, before extracting it and putting it on. Properly he should have done that himself, as Rasler had done, to complete the gesture, but they had spoken of cages mere minutes ago. She cannot afford it, and he would not tolerate it.

She takes his hands again, and leads him to the bed.