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a kind of integrity

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At fourteen, Balthier - he thinks of himself that way now, even in reminiscence - stole his first single-engine racer, an experimental model from his father’s lab, long before he’d known to hate the name Draklor. This was after he’d enhanced two of his own well past their limits, substantially upgrading the engines for speed and power before upgrading them even further into a bevy of slightly charred scrap scattered across a length of lawn in the midlevels. The new, sleek craft had considerably more impressive limits, and he thought he’d managed to improve even on those.

Which meant that when he nicked the wall at twice past what should have been top speed, the crash was - by all accounts - a truly spectacular sight, and the fact that he hadn’t been wearing a helmet seemed rather superfluous against his certain doom.

Balthier had bounced twice, unconscious before he’d hit the second time, and finally landed, smoldering and upside down in a hedge.

Three days and half the night later, he woke up, bandaged from head to toe and aching from a good deal of magic applied very quickly, feeling half out of his head, with Cid sitting nearby, going carefully over his ever-present collection of papers. It is the way Balthier best remembers the man who had been his father, before the days that had come to crowd out all others, before the Doctor and his experiments had replaced anything else worth remembering: Cid, with his head bowed, intent on his work, the pen scratching lightly in unerring, brisk notations.

He must have made a noise then, because his father looked up, and in those days of long ago had actually set his work aside. Moved the chair closer to where Balthier lay, and asked him if he thought the crash had been a more of a issue with the brake systems or the ring alignment.

It is a fond memory, of a better time.

———————————————————-

Mjrn is the one to find the body. Fran is out hunting when her sister appears, so wide-eyed and breathless that for a moment she cannot even speak, pointing back the way she has come.

It is a hume - or was. A male hume, and Fran can see where he must have fallen, a patch of earth made unsteady by the recent rains, just waiting for some unwary traveler to take a fatal misstep. As she makes her way down, catching at the vine-laced trees with her claws, Fran can see his head is tilted at an unnatural angle, his neck snapped. Quick and clean, from such a height he would have died instantly. She can hear Mjrn behind her, would keep her sister at a distance had it been a more violent end, but this is all but bloodless. So silly, these humes, that they live such short lives and seem eager to find new ways to whittle down even those few hours. Not the first hume to venture into their Wood, nor the first to die in it.

“Was he looking for the village?” Mjrn says in a small voice, keeping her distance. Jote often tells tales of humes, who know little more than how to steal and to destroy, who would seize the Wood for themselves and take it all, if the Viera did not have the blessing of the Green Word and the Wood’s powerful magicks to keep them safe.

“Perhaps.” Fran doubts it, not alone. He is oddly dressed for a conqueror, at the very least, no armor or fancy weapons. Only a short sword - and that is no surprise, even she would not wander the Wood unarmed. Fran approaches, hearing Mjrn inhale sharply behind her as she kneels down. The hume’s pack has spilled out around him, Fran can smell tobacco, soap, the tanned hide of the bag itself. A flash of color catches her eye - pigments in a small metal box, like those they use in Eryut, though these are far more vivid: azure as blue as the sky, shades of purple and red that could match many of the Wood’s brightest blooms.

A glimpse of the same hue near the body, and Fran moves closer, a small book still clutched, half-open in the lifeless hand. Fran murmurs a soft apology as she pulls it free, that he will understand it is only curiosity. Always better to respect those who walk the next path, whoever they might be, that they will feel no need to look back.

Mjrn creeps closer, looking over her shoulder as she slowly turns the pages. Words on the inside cover, more beneath some of the pictures. Meaningless to them, of course, though the drawings speak with an eloquence all their own. It seems the man was an artist as well as a traveler, and Fran has heard and seen of some of those peoples he has sketched out, all those who pass through the Wood. Seeq, and the bangaa, and moogles as well. The world outside is little like Eryut, and full of infinite variety. Full to bursting with humes most of all, she knows, in the north and south and all in between, all with their own rules and laws and little common allegiance. Cities packed with them, and the man has sketched some of those here as well, skylines so vast they cover two pages. Towers so tall he had set the book vertically to capture them in full, garlanded at their heights by airships, which Fran has ever only seen at a great distance, looking out from the very edge of the Wood.

Fran had passed up the chance at leading the village years ago, and there were those - her sister among them - who still wondered at her decision, confused by her reluctance. Jote, who may have known how she has taken to roaming in wider and wider circuits, but keeps her opinions, as always, to herself. The village had been enough, once, but looking down on these colorful pages, all the world’s wonders, Fran cannot help but feel the return of a pang that is like nothing else so much as the Voice of the Wood, the Green Word, even though this voice speaks pure betrayal to all that she knows.

It it is a waste, her life in Eryut - the word is close to sacrilege but Fran cannot help herself for thinking it. She is foolish to move through her days here, one exactly like the next, when there is a whole world beyond. A whole new life, with nothing keeping her from it but the refusal to act, to move forward and go.

“Look! I think that is Relj, there in his book!”

Mjrn leans down, as Fran turns the page to reveal a page of sketches of her sisters, and another, and it seems that yes, he was looking for a path into the village, though perhaps not with the ill-intent of those who have come before. The illustrations are very good, Fran believes she can recognize many of those who have ventured out of Eryut, the exiled. The viera are captured in fine and careful detail, along with studies of their weapons or armor, some of it foreign, other items she recognizes as village-made. A few of them are painted in profile, looking into some greater distance, and Fran wonders if any of them regret the choice. Knowing what they do, if they would yet again trade the wide world, no matter what its distractions, for the whispers of the Green Word that breathe even now beneath her skin, ever at her side. Living here in the Wood, where she is sleek and strong and silent. Jote would call it madness, has done so, but would she be as harsh, if Fran had not grown so fond of her solitary walks?

It will hurt to leave. It will hurt to stay.

“What do we do with the body?” Her sister says softly, and Fran sighs, and reaches out, runs the tip of one blunted claw along the edge of the dead man’s face. So very young, even for a hume, to give up all that he knew and understood - to come to her world, seeking more.

“We will bury him. I believe it is what they do with their kind.”

Fran does not think he would mind it, laid to rest here, to become one with the Wood. The work does not take long with Mjrn’s help, and when they have made a proper grave she leaves to gather flowers for his feet, to welcome his first steps into the next world. Fran collects what has fallen from the pack, to set at his side, but stops herself, as she is about to put the book back into his hands. It is a decision to be made, right here, and though the change may happen slowly, she knows there will not be a going back. Her hand tightens, and then relaxes, and Fran realizes she is holding her breath.

If Mjrn even notices the slim tome in her sister’s hand as they return to the village, she says nothing of it.

—————————————————————————

The sun is just considering its twilight arc, shadowed behind wide, flat bands of clouds that cover the western sky over Bhujerba. A strong wind ruffles her fur as Fran leans against the rail of a rooftop garden, claws delicately picking out the seeds of a pomegranate. It is her favorite indulgence, fruits that were once unknown to her: blood oranges and Rozarrian sweet pears, but especially the pomegranates. The city is well built up here, terraced houses on varying levels creating a canopy of rooftops, pathways cut here and there between them that end in high walls and, beyond, wide green spaces. Private gardens, thick with carefully tended flowers - the compounds of the elite. Great estates that might be home to but a single hume and yet span half the size of Eryut, and from where she stands her sharp eyes can pick out the lord and lady of the nearest of these as they move out of doors, slowly making their way to a small, private airship docked at small cliff at the edge of the property. A line of guards attends them silently, armor shining as the clouds shift and the sun briefly reappears.

Fran does her own scouting, always, even when the moogles’ advice seems trustworthy. Only a few of them seem to work directly as thieves, and those mostly in teams, posing as workers or performing troupes. The rest are content to trade more safely in information, or as house staff willing to cut the occasional deal. A few coins, to ensure the right lock is flipped at a particular moment, or a window is left conveniently open after hours. Ubiquitous and unassuming, it seems a rare hume that can tell one from another with any sense of certainty, which tends to lower the risk of accountability, and they are all remarkably well-informed. Fran can’t imagine that all moogles can know each other, surely not across all Ivalice, yet she had saved a mapmaker in a caravan she’d signed on to protect in eastern Archadia, and by the time she’d reached Balfonheim, some three weeks later, there had been a warm welcome - by name - from nearly every other moogle that she’d come across, no matter the guild.

Viera do not blend particularly well, though Fran has found she has many other useful assets at her command. Nimble and quick, able to adapt her tactics to any number of varied opponents, and she can usually smell out a trap tile from the other end of a room. Most importantly she is willing to be patient, to take as much time as is required to ensure her success. As much a humiliation as a danger, were she foolish enough to be caught.

At the beginning, fresh into the world, Fran had made her living from the forests well to the west of Eryut, their secrets still open to her even as the Green Word faded from her ears. It had been a difficult time, even knowing it would be so, and the ache of the loss had hewn her to the unfamiliar trees for longer than she had intended to stay. Still, she had been skilled enough to keep comfortable, trading pelts and wild mushrooms with whatever trader happened by. The tender delicacies were common enough to those of Eryut, but it seemed they were not easily found by humes, and considered a high luxury.

At last, though, Fran had become ill at ease with familiarity, the forests unnerving in their silence. She took to the trade roads, wandering and guarding nomads and travelers, those who would not, or could not carry their goods by air. She learned to read, both the hume standard and even some ancient Kildean, from a scholar making her own slow pilgrimage across what seemed nearly all of Ivalice, seeking out places of myth and legend connected to the Dynast-King. It was from her that Fran learned all she could ask of hume history - they were fascinating creatures, and the final word that seemed to rule them all - ambition - seemed both beautiful promise and terrible curse. The ambitions of small men to become great, of dangerous men to be warlords, even the holiest among them always seeking, ever striving for more. Had this been what the hume in the forest had brought with him? Passed it along to Fran even after his death, the final weight to tip the balance, the spark for her own great ambition?

The question haunts her, as the months turn to years, as time seems to linger, rather than pass by. What is it she seeks to do? What is so important here, that the Wood could not provide?

As a viera, new magicks come easily, though there are more spells woven by humes than those in the Wood could have ever imagined. Necessary, for a world with far more dangers, but as she continues on Fran finds she is not at all unprepared for the challenge. Noticed and feared for her sharp eyes, and sharper claws, the reputation of the viera alone enough to ensure peace on some journeys where she stands guard. She is respected, even feared, simply for her silence and - oddly enough - the way she looks. The humes think that she is beautiful, and that she is wise, and though Jote had looked at the outside world with scorn and pity, Fran does not find it as easy to cast judgment, as she walks among those who must live in it. Ivalice is as mercurial, as swift to change as a quicksilver fish. Even with her nimble speed she might as well reach out and catch nothing, and there has never been a Wood for any of those she meets - the desperate, the poor, the defenseless. No Green Word even in memory to guide them, let alone to call them home. It is a privilege, she comes to realize, that she chose to leave. A gift, rarer than she thought, that there is something in her past she can regret leaving behind.

So many people here, so many different kinds of people, and Fran learns that there are those who will gladly turn predator to their kin, in this land where there is not enough for all. It is not difficult, then, to start collecting bounties, the hunting much the same for marks as it is for beasts, and the rewards far greater. It is still a challenge, the first few times she steps into a city to take up a hunt or collect her reward. Unnerving, disorienting with so many smells and sounds and people - but so many wonders as well. With her always is the book, and no matter where she is Fran takes her time, tracks down all that has been sketched and painted and spoken of on the pages she can now read. Fran knows his name, and someday she will find where this hume had lived, and if there are those who might wish to know of his fate.

He had drawn even where she is now, in Bhujerba: the narrow streets of the north quarter; the great waterfall that thunders over the nearest, disconnected island of land to the west, where water turns to vapor and cloud in midair. He’d painted the transparent shadows of the great jutting planes of crystal that tower benevolently over all, holding the whole island aloft - and there are more than a few places in the city with veins of raw ore strong enough to make her fur stand on end.

Bhujerba is a land of great wealth and power and elegance, with travelers ever moving in and out, providing an easy cover for all sorts of opportunity. The mark who had been the first to suggest she might consider such a life, it had been his view that the sky city was the best place to make fast money, and then simply disappear. Fran had taken him in after that, only to break him out an hour later, when the Judge who had placed the bounty tried to take custody without paying.

Her first step into a life of crime, and it had been easy enough after that. Fran had worked her way through a few Archadian cities - never caught, never even close - before buying a first-class ticket on a rather fine skyship, and a ‘special’ map of Bhujerba, the Moogles as proud to vouch for the locations of the city’s finest houses and current owners as they were to point out the best tourist spots, though with their voices slightly lowered.

It isn’t a necessary occupation. If she wished, Fran could make no small fortune simply by breathing. Viera are rare, and what is rare is precious, and she has heard there are those of her kind who are paid handsomely to pose for artists, or even more so simply to stand at the side of wealthy patrons, to do nothing more than be beautiful. It strikes her as utterly absurd, though the idea of theft itself is no less an oddity. No reason for any in Eryut to have more than what they had need of, and nothing even then that could not be easily replaced. The Wood provided always, even the concept of ‘want’ unfamiliar there. It is not so in the rest of Ivalice, where there are those who starve within sight of those who feast, surrounded by enough treasure to last them ten lifetimes.

Fran feels no pangs of conscience, taking from those who will not miss the loss, and the object she is after today is of particular, personal import, a Viera treasure. An unbroken length of a long-shattered staff, crystal-tipped. Several centuries old, and the man who has just taken off in his airship is in no way a good or noble man, and does not deserve to hold such a prize a day longer. Fran sets what is left of her pomegranate on the railing, easing over the side and back down to street level. With any luck, given the number of guards and their usual patterns of laziness when their employers are away, she will be back to finish it before the moon is up.

Fran’s ears are quite good, but every sound still echoes off the streets and again off the walls, and even in the mostly quiet, empty street she is on the din of all Bhujerba is a low roar, like the scouring of some distant sea - which means she does not hear the sound of light footsteps until after they have left the rooftop across from where she stands. A sudden, half-swallowed shout and the sound of rippling fabric, and the woman lands squarely on top of her.

    A waterfall of silk and flailing limbs.  After a moment, Fran manages to get her hands steady on the ground, pushing back and away, catching a glimpse of bright eyes just briefly, beneath a veil of cloth.

    “Hello, there!”

    A rather deep voice for a hume woman, and the scent that assaults her nose is anything but female, even half-buried as it is beneath a wave of rose perfume.  The man finally emerges from the cocoon of his skirts, with an expression altogether too merry and confident for the way his undergarments threaten to ride up around his ears.

    “I always was a bit better at getting these things undone.”  He says in a smooth, warm voice, only to fiddle uselessly with the bodice for another moment, before slicing the laces instead, cutting the ruffled fabric off his shoulders and stepping up and out of the ruined dress.  At least, thank the gods, he is wearing pants. 

    Fran has already found her feet when he looks at her again, and she expects the open, half-awed stare most hume males care to favor her with - but his is not quite the same, since there is not a hint of shame to be found in it.  Fully aware she knows that he is staring, and why, and therefore taking his time to appreciate her properly.  He’s also bleeding, a scratch just below his hairline, though he doesn’t seem to notice.

    “I believe you require… aid.”  Or perhaps an Esuna.  Or to be tossed off another roof.
   
He waves the thought away like an annoying bug, dusting his bare chest off as if smoothing wrinkles from a fine shirt. Muscular, but not overly so. A thin scar runs along the length of his collarbone, another pale mark, star-shaped along his side.  “Don’t trouble yourself.  A head injury adds a bit of fun to our first encounter, don’t you think?”

    “I see him!  There he is!”  A bangaa’s roar, several rooftops away, and Fran can hear the heavy tread of further pursuit, angry voices echoing down to where they are. It is no surprise, to see the man’s head jerk in the direction of the loudest cry.  “Get him!”

    “He’s got an accomplice!”

    “Balthier, you shit!  We’re going to string you up by your balls and sink you into the sandsea!”
 
    “My cue.” He says, sotto voce, and grins at her again. Or has simply not stopped grinning all this time. “If you’re looking for the Viscount’s precious treasure, I’m afraid I’ve already stolen it.”  He shakes a loosely wrapped bundle in his other hand, a glint of crystal visible inside.  “However, you are welcome to take part in the daring escape.”

    As if there is a choice.  Fran glares, but it is only at the back of the man’s head - he is already up and running, and as a bullet pings against the tiles to her left, it seems but prudent to follow.  Quick on his feet, for a hume, though if this is his usual escape plan Fran can see the need for such swiftness.  The man nimbly makes his way over walls and across rooftops, skidding to a sudden stop at the end of the last of these, overlooking a wide plaza with no particularly good exit points and what seem to be a number of city guards who are but moments away from noticing them. A fast glance left and right that suggests he is only now considering his next move, that perhaps what she took for decisiveness and preparation was simply random desperation.  All of Fran’s exit strategies involved taking a right three corners back - she had trusted this man, though at the moment she cannot imagine why.  Perhaps she is the one who needs the Esuna.

“Ha!”

This man, this Balthier sounds pleased, though Fran sees no reason for it, nor moments later as she follows him, halting at the corner of the roof while he leaps off without hesitation, as if expecting to grow wings halfway down. He lands straddling a small skycraft - Fran is familiar with them at a distance, though she has not seen the need to try one for herself - not until now, it seems. The movements he makes are deft and sure, the crack of metal giving way beneath a tool that flicks in and out of his hand - what she will learn is a rather brute force method, only for times of great duress. It takes but a moment, no one yet noticing as the engine whines softly and it lifts from the ground. Three bangaa skid into view on the other end of the pavilion, shouting for Balthier’s blood and other vital organs. This attracts the attention of the city guard, as well as a man who instantly draws his sword when he sees his vessel so commandeered.

It is a glimpse of the future in all its glory, though Fran does not know that yet, her only thought at the moment that this Balthier is secure in his escape and she has nothing to tempt him with. Almost before she has finished thinking it, he has brought the ship up and wheeled it around, looking at her in expectation. It had never even crossed his mind to leave her behind. Fran leaps on, only to let out a surprised little sound as the machine lurches into life, one arm around his chest and she feels him flinch where her claws dig in, yet he hasn’t slowed down, the cries of outrage fading as the bike screams through the streets. It is nearly night now, the lights on the streets flashing by, not nearly enough to illuminate the paths in front of them. Fran thinks that she can see better than this hume possibly can, and they are still going too fast for her, faster than she has ever moved in the whole of her life. Screams ahead, angry shouts as Balthier nearly topples a cart while running over its owner, the chaos almost instantly behind them, disappearing into the dark.

A sudden flash, a burst of fire that makes the whole craft shudder, and she turns to see they are indeed being pursued. Three ships similar to the one they ride, at least one of the passengers casting spells, flashes of lightning crackling through the air, exploding just in front of them though it does not seem to bother Balthier at all. Fran hears him laugh a little under his breath, and though the bright flares have done their best to blind her he is quite happy to fly on instinct, with any lack of crashing seeming entirely coincidental. At the moment, Fran half wishes she were a hume herself, that it would be enough to close her eyes and not feel the tiny craft wobble beneath her, the hot spark of its pulsing heart. How close the walls loom, a matter of mere inches as Balthier pushes into the turns, sharp and fast enough to send her stomach right up into her throat.

It is a merry chase, Balthier roaring down the narrow spaces between buildings, threading up and under rows of bridges without any hesitation - if he has touched the brakes once, she has not felt it. At any moment Fran expects to hear the sound of a terrible crash past the roar of the wind in her ears, yet it seems Balthier is winning the pure battle of nerves, at least one of the ships deciding his capture is not worth the risk of near-certain destruction. The second falls behind as he pushes the bike even faster along a wide, empty plain with the moon tracing a silver path, Bhujerba stretching off to their right and a high-pitched whine from the engine that Fran cannot imagine is anything good.

It is just about the time that Fran realizes where they are, the emptiness around them due to the fact that this edge of the island is not at all stable or solid - in some places little more than floating gravel - that Balthier shuts off the few lights they do have, and kills the engine, braking hard. It sweeps the back of the bike out in a long arc, and she does not look down, does not think about the way the ship’s magicite is not enough to keep them from falling, should they tumble off the edge of Bhujerba itself, sliding out into open air. A moment later, and he’s got them tucked in the shadows of a jutting spar of rock, the last of their pursuit roaring past. Fran feels as if her wits have been left well behind, too slow to keep up, her heart thudding in her chest, a tingling across her skin, all the way down to her fingertips - and Balthier is surely bleeding from where she’d dug her claws into him, though he says nothing, flashing her a moonlit grin over one shoulder. The third ship reappears, moving more slowly, and though the guard comes close to their hiding place it is clear they have lost the scent, and they do not linger.

“I wish I’d stolen that ship.” Balthier says in the quiet that follows. “It has a far better engine.”

Fran does not trust her voice enough to reply, not that she would know what to say.

The trip back is at a far more restrained pace, and by the time they arrive at a small, secluded grotto things have been silent for long enough that Fran can remember this is the way it ought to be, on those days her quests are not hijacked by madmen. Balthier leans back from where he has been curled over the controls - they are hovering over a small pond, with a large estate in the middle distance, nothing but the wind to be heard. The stars wheel brilliantly overhead.

“Well, now that we have a fitting place to do this properly - my name is Balthier.” The hume says into the silence, though Fran has heard enough people shouting it in the last quarter-hour to at least be sure of that. “Pirate king of the Strahl. Adventurer, rogue, and finest pilot in all Ivalice. You are?”

“Unimpressed.” No reason to waste the Esuna, his condition obviously incurable, unless she wishes to club him with the bottle.

“Tis an amazingly common name, that.” He settles himself with a bit more deliberation, regarding her, and she has the sudden, terrible suspicion this pretty garden is no accidental choice. “Forgive me for my low manners, but I would be blind not to point out that you are the most exceptionally b-”

Fran takes the spear from his hand and shoves him off the bike in what is all but the same motion, hearing the splash as he hits the pond. Floating well out of his reach, and she has plenty of time to slide into the driver’s seat. Even in the midst of the chaos she’d felt the way he’d moved, pushing his foot forward to urge the machine into motion, leaning his heel down to slow it - not that there was much of that - and as she leans it bends with her, a smooth, slow arc that reveals Balthier in the water below. She had thought he would be furious, splashing and shouting, yet the only sound comes from a few frogs trilling at the water’s edge. A remarkable equanimity for a hume, if he is not, indeed, as mad as a frothing chocobo. Floating placidly on his back, gazing up at her amidst a field of white water lilies,with a rapt, entirely affected adoration that makes her want to drop a rock on him.

“The throttle is the one on your right. Take care not to overclock her.”

Fran’s ears are more than good enough to hear him over the sound of the engine rising to her command. Balthier is laughing.

———————————————

Coincidence is another word that means little to the viera, all things connected in one way or another, even if it may not seem clear at the time. Fortunately, despite their sudden partnership, her name does not become linked to the ‘notorious’ sky pirate Balthier, and she is free to continue in Bhujerba as she pleases. The spear goes back to Eryut, via a trustworthy chain of Moogle connections. It is not penance, or an attempt to connect to what she knows has been rent asunder - it is simply what is right.

Of the pirate, Fran intends only to whet a vague curiosity, and make a few discreet inquiries, though it soon becomes clear this is not a word one can justify when speaking of the man. It is also of note, though perhaps not so surprising, how many of those she asks instantly believe she is a jilted lover, or attempting to collect on a debt. Or both. For every one of the bounties concerning his capture, she is offered several smaller sums to simply administer a good, thorough beating. Twenty gil for one good, swift kick, from a girl who refuses to take no for an answer, or provide her name. “Oh, he’ll know,” is all she will say.

His name truly is Balthier, and he is in turns an idiot, a showman, a thief, a bastard, a hopeless romantic, the luckiest man in Ivalice and simply too stupid to die. Affecting a gentleman’s air and a lunatic’s bravado, he seems to have a rather suicidal penchant for going after Archadian ships and their valuable cargo. The more Fran learns, the more it seems the bounty on his head would be far less high were he not so interested in theatrics, mocking both the Rozarrian magistrates and the Archadian Judges with daringly ridiculous, utterly impractical stunts that are, to a surprising degree, stunningly successful. One of the more common stories details how he had taken possession of an entire docking bay’s worth of spoils from the Alexander herself, including six cases of aged rum, four crates of newly minted rifles and - this part always saved for last - Judge Magister Zargabaath’s toothbrush, lifted directly from his private quarters.

Fran had met Balthier for little more than a handful of moments, but if there is any truth in the tale, she is willing to wager it on the last. A few months pass, and though she hears a few rumors, now that she knows to listen, their paths do not cross again. It means her work is quiet and profitable and there is no mention of a quick-fingered viera in any city’s report. The few thieves there are at her level seem to each prefer a calling card, a way to mark their conquests, though Fran lacks a message to leave behind, or anyone she would wish to take note.

So it is simply another job, working at dusk, and she nimbly works her claws into the masonry of a somewhat small but pretty estate in Balfonheim, with what ought to be a rather valuable diadem in a small study on the third floor, and Fran is as silent as air and unnoticed as a shadow, slipping up the side of the wall and in through an open window - to where Balthier has just snuck in through the outer door, closing it silently behind him. They stare at each other - at least his surprise seems as real as her own, and then he lights up, as if they are visitors to the same party who have just happened to cross paths.

“Fran,” he says, with the same bright, shameless smile, “your name, is it not? I made a few inquiries.”

The wardrobe stands slightly to his left, full of fancy gowns and tall enough to admit an average-sized hume, and really it takes little effort on her part to kick him into it and lock the door before turning back to her prize, the small chest nestled amidst a few other treasures on the far table. Fran has not yet reached it when she hears the sound of muffled thumping behind her, though both past experience and tales told suggest Balthier has had plenty of experience untangling himself from women’s clothing.

“You have admirable reflexes, Fran. May I call you Fran? It seems but fair as you know my name and I am locked in a closet.”

His tone is pleasant, conversational. He will ask her about the weather next.

Little surprise the box has not been well hidden, with the wealth of enchantments enscrolled around it. Fran lets out a slow breath, hands hovering just above its surface. Intricate magicks protect the contents, but she has studied these, and there are instincts of the viera that serve rather well for such moments. It sounds as if Balthier has managed to wedge a knife in between the crack of the door and the frame, attempting to lift up the pins that hold the hinges in place.

“Was that your first time aloft? I had heard the Viera are not much for such pursuits, and yet you rode like you were born to it. Some think it is easy, simply being a passenger, but if you don’t lean into the turns at the proper time, it can throw the whole balance off. It requires delicacy, and trust.”

Wind-touched, another word for those who fly higher than they ought, and faster than most would dare, beloved by the capricious, careless spirits of the air. Many in Ivalice follow the same god, and look to Bur-Omisace for their guidance, but there are a thousand other gods and demons twined within and among this world, and those who cannot help but belong first and only to the sky.

A few more careful passes, whispered words, Fran feeling the magicks retreat from the chest like unknotted cords, and then it its but a box, though there is still the matter of a rather substantial lock. Fran slips a lockpick from its usual hiding place in her hair, and hears a ping from behind her, one of the pins falling free from the door.

“Since we have this moment together, I would like to make an offer. Your help, in attaining a particular treasure I have been pursuing. Certainly not the easiest of marks, but I could make it worth your while, regardless of the outcome. You have quite the compliment of skills and,” even through the door, with her back to it, Fran thinks he can sense her skeptical expression. “Did I mention I have an airship?”

All the stories she’s heard suggest he does have some sort of ship, even if it seems the most unlikely of all possibilities. Fran’s ear twitches, some combination of listening and feeling the small vibrations along her fingertips as she attempts to trick the mechanism. It would surely be disaster, to ally with such a hume.

“You’re picking the lock, aren’t you?”

Fran ought to know better. But if she had, would she not still be in Eryut?

“It would probably help if I were quiet.”

A few moments later, and she hears the lock snap open. Balthier seems to be having more difficulty freeing the lower pin, his voice still muffled through the door as she opens the lid on the box.

“What’s it look like? Describe it for me.”

Fran does not have the words. Which is rather like telling the truth, as the box is empty.

A veritable army rushes the door a few moments later, spilling into the room just as Balthier gets the door free from its last hinge, the weight ripping the lock away, falling with a dramatic clatter in what is now an otherwise silent room. Fran can tell from the looks on their faces, they already know Balthier - she would believe it entirely possible he both knows and has managed to anger every single fellow criminal in Ivalice, from two-gil cons to the leaders of entire armies of angry thugs, such as these. Everyone stares at each other, and the box, and at each other once more. Fran, not surprisingly, endures a few extra contemplative stares.

Still perched inside the wardrobe, Balthier lifts his hands in a mild shrug.

“Well, obviously we’re quite innocent.”

The spokesperson for the group - a hume - steps forward. His smile is much less charming.

“Well, obviously we don’t care.”

The brawling starts a few moments later.

————————————————-

“If you examine it in a certain light, this is actually a stroke of luck. We shall have ample opportunity to see how well we work together.”

If Fran were in a position other than tied back-to-back with a lunatic, being lowered into a subterranean cave with no means of escape save through a group of thieves twice as dangerous as the ones currently sending them to their doom, she would feed Balthier his left boot. It had been an embarrassing fight, too many opponents and too little space and when they’d finally gotten a knife to Balthier’s throat Fran had relented, dropping the blade that was now in their care, along with her quiver and bow. One of the humes had made to ‘check’ her for more weapons, but she’d only smiled, baring her teeth just a little, keeping her eyes fixed with his until he’d decided he had elsewhere to be.

It is still unclear to her, if the empty box had been ever intended as bait, or if it is but happy circumstance, that the thieves who’d stumbled upon them as they were stealing what had already been stolen knew where it might be found. Quite possible that one has nothing to do with the other at all. Calling their captors slapdash idea a ‘plan’ would be giving it far too much credit. The cave they are being lowered into rests on a secluded bit of seashore, with an entrance - and a good deal of the cave itself - set to disappear completely at high tide. A gang of well-armed thieves occupies what remains of the area, directly between the exit and where they’re being lowered. The idea is for them to sneak up on these men, steal back the diadem and escape - if only then to be killed by the men who’ve sent them on this little errand.

Of course, getting murdered by the thieves in the cave - who also, unsurprisingly, know of Balthier and have a score to settle - seems perfectly acceptable to their captors, along with drowning or being crushed by loose rocks or any other ignoble death they might chance to stumble over. Fran grimaces, chill saltwater sweeping over the tops of her boots as her feet touch the cave floor, claws instantly working on the ropes that bind them. She’s freed herself and Balthier before they’ve let go of the rope from above, and she steps back as a the light glints off a falling weapon that lands with a clatter, joined after a moment by another. Two short swords of barely adequate make, nothing close to the quality of weapons they’d had taken from them. She can see Balthier make an annoyed grimace as he gives his blade a cursory swing, though his expression improves when he sees her watching.

“It’s not really a proper adventure until something goes wrong. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, everything ought to work in our favor, don’t you think?”

What gods has he bribed, and how, to live this long?

Finding the target is easy, the thieves camp set up on a high plateau, rough canvas tents surrounded by torchlight. Fran can hear the roar of the open ocean past that, the cry of the gulls from the mouth of the cave, down the other side of the hill, and the only way out. Fran is a creature of trees and grass and a cool, green world. The rough stone of this place is barren and lifeless, the echoes of surf and the conversation of the men that fill the dark space already threaten to give her a headache. It does not help that Balthier keeps looking toward the ceiling in a disturbingly calculating sort of way.

“How well do you swim?” He glances over, when she does not reply. “If we wait to do this when the tide is in - well, assuming we aren’t dashed to bits by rocks or drowned by riptides or shot full of arrows first - it would solve the problem of the men waiting outside the cave, I imagine. Perhaps.”

“You are optimistic.”

“It’s the only way we humes get anything accomplished.” Balthier says, and steps backward, out of the very edge of the torchlight and away from what are, as it stands, rather impossible odds. Fran follows, for the lack of a better idea, and once they are out of view and moving back through the dark, sodden catacombs, he snaps his fingers, conjuring a small flame to light the way. It is surprising, a more delicate, demanding spell than she would expect such a man capable of. The cave is surprisingly deep, the sound of water everywhere, no longer just the tide but dripping down from a thousand hidden chambers. All of the path they are walking rests well below the dark tide line on the wall, and the sting of salt from brackish pools of water burns at her nose.

“Ah, there we are. I had wondered why they would make such a place their warren.”

The end of the cavern reveals a massive stone door, easily twice Fran’s height, and decorated with complex runes all along its border. Along its surface lies the image of a woman with four arms poised around her. A goddess, riding the back of a coiled sea serpent, her head turned in profile and her hair wild as she blows on a conch shell, perhaps summoning the winds that swirl around her. Pieces of the door have obviously been blasted away by magic, chips of stone where prybars have been set, but it is clear they’ve had little luck forcing their way inside. Balthier shakes his head, makes a chastising sound under his breath as he runs his free hand over a set of symbols on one side of the door, studying them carefully.

“Illiterate, unmannerly cutpurses, the lot of them. No appreciation for history.”

“Unlike you, of course.”

“Of course.” Balthier smiles. “I am a gentleman adventurer.”

“Such a distinction?” Fran says dryly.

“Generally,” he replies, and leans in close, rising up on his toes to whisper something in the stone ear of the door’s guardian, and steps away at a soft grinding sound, the entire slab sliding free. Balthier turns to her, badly concealing a proud smirk as he gestures her inside with an exaggerated flourish, “it opens doors.”

Fran does not shove him into the wall as she walks by, though it takes a healthy restraint.

As little as she has enjoyed this unexpected detour, there is no denying the antechamber is beautiful, unlike anything she has ever seen. Great care has gone into its construction - it would appear the door had also kept out the sea, the floor and walls dry - high columns carved from the stones towering over them along the right wall, the entire floor tiled in pearlescent stone that seems to glow beneath drifts of pale sand. It was surely important, once, this place, painted frescoes still carrying some hint of ancient color, describing a great battle of the sea, though most of the detail seems to be on what coils and swirls beneath the waves, great many-armed beasts as large or larger than the ships above, enormous schools of fish and what even seem to be whole, multicolored forests, rising up from the ocean’s floor.

Fran hears a wet crunch, turns to see Balthier grimace, wiping his boot against a stone. He has crushed a crab, nearly the same color as the stones, and as she looks over the ground Fran can see a considerable number more coming up out of the sand, perhaps roused by their footsteps, a few quickly gathering to make a meal of their fallen kin.

The statue that stands at the center of the room is either sister or aspect to the woman on the stone door, with her many arms raised high, her body twisted at the waist into that of a sleek fish. She is illuminated by a single shaft of sunlight, spilling down into the very center of the room, bright enough that Balthier has extinguished his own flame. Fran looks up, though it seems little more than a narrow crack in the ceiling, hardly a chance they could climb out even with a proper rope. The light does, however, illuminate the pearls around the throat of the statue, an ornate garland studded here and there with sapphires that match the bracelets around its wrists. Balthier has taken note of them, but she is curious to find that he kneels instead at the base of the statue, carefully withdrawing a scroll, inset into the stone. He unwraps it with surprising care, just enough for a glimpse at the contents before just as cautiously rolling it back up.

“If you’d care to make use of me,” he says, without looking up. “Such beauty has no more business being here than you do.”

Fran rolls her eyes at the cursory flirtation, but he does not waver as she steps up onto his shoulders, swiftly transferring the adornments from the statue’s neck and arms to her own, listening to Balthier curse slightly as one of the more adventurous crabs decides to take particular offense to his fingers.

“Well,” he says as she returns to earth, his eyes once again looking her over, along with the priceless treasures she now wears. So utterly without guile, and entirely incorrigible at the same time, that Fran nearly smiles back, “that does take care of the business of making this profitable. Now we just need a distraction.”

Despite the endless echoes tricking her ears, Fran still hears it coming, feels the approach, her hand around Balthier’s arm and pulling him toward the door. At the last moment, she realizes that the other crabs are scattering as well - fleeing, as the sandy floor explodes upward, a massive claw and a burst of blue fire instantly melting the stone statue into bright drops that hiss against the floor. The crab bears some resemblance to its kin, though it stands nearly the size of the room - and with a single sweep of its claw and an earthshaking roar, breaks through the wall to the cavern beyond.

“Did I mention I’ve always been lucky?” Balthier says, and then they are sprinting back across the cavern, with the creature right at their heels.

In a way, it is rather easy to rush a band of hostile bandits when being chased by an enormous, acid-breathing crab. The man closest to them as they take the summit doesn’t have time to do more than open his mouth to shout before Fran kicks him, hard, relieving him of his pistol and taking swift, careful aim at a bangaa at the other side of camp, catching him in the shoulder. The report from the gunfire gives them away but by then the crab has arrived, hooking one giant pincher over the lip of the embankment to pull itself up, and the thieves are shrieking, darting here and there to find weapons or flee for their lives. A few flashes of weak magic splash against the creature’s armored hide, doing no damage. Fran glances back, but Balthier is no longer behind her, and she can see no sign of him amidst the chaos. A kicked-over lantern quickly ignites the cloth of a tent, and the fire spreads swiftly, shouts of alarm mixing with those of pain, a hume screaming as another burst of the crab’s breath takes his arm to bone at the elbow. By then, Fran is sprinting along the edge of the camp, skidding down the far side and toward the cave’s entrance.

The tide is not yet in, and she is not surprised to see men rushing up - their first set of captors, alerted by the chaos, but Fran is in no mood to be taken lightly and there is room here for a proper brawl. She brings her elbow up with crushing force against the jaw of the bangaa in the lead, spinning him around to take the crossbow bolt meant for her. A sliver of her attention is still taken with searching for Balthier, that perhaps the silly hume had beaten her here - but there is no sign of him, and Fran’s heart sinks. Large hands grab her from behind, and she snaps her head back, hears a crunch and a scream as her helm breaks his nose, and a second punch sends him to the ground. By this time more of the fleeing thieves have arrived, a bloody free-for all at the mouth of the cave, Fran snatching weapons in one breath to kick their owners back into the mob with the next. At least the monstrous crab seems slowed somewhat by the fire, rising up above the flaming ruin of the thieves camp like some grotesque shadow play. Fran is quite pleased, as she sends her next assailant to the sand, to realize the sword she has taken up is her own.

A blade hisses through the air, and Fran leans back, dodging the strike as she turns, driving a hard punch to the ribs of the man who’d intended to take her head, hearing the snap of bone as he falls. All too late Fran sees the bangaa with a crossbow near the mouth of the cave, his bolt aimed straight at her and there is no time to move or duck and Fran thinks of the Wood, of Jote and Mjrn and the green-

The crack of the pistol shot is loud, close at it is, the bolt going wide as the bangaa falls. Fran turns to find Balthier beside her with a smile on his face, the diadem crooked on his head, and she has no doubt he says something he believes to be terribly clever, but the sound is entirely drowned out by another roar from the crab now lumbering down the slope toward them. When he moves toward the entrance she follows, pausing only long enough to snatch her bow away from another set of undeserving hands, slamming him in the face with the grip.

It is not as surprising as it should be to reach sunlight, and see the ship swooping down toward them, Balthier leaping for the side hatch as it opens, reaching a hand out for her. As she reaches back, Fran hears the rumble behind her. Can see it in Balthier’s eyes, that he’s watching the crab burst out of the mouth of the cave and into the sea as her hand closes around his and he pulls her up into the ship. The door lifts up behind them as the airship turns sharply, skimming the surface of the waves and swiftly gaining altitude. Within moments, they are soaring through peaceful skies.

“Kupo?”

“Never better.” Balthier says, gulping for air as he reaches the top of the stairs, collapsing in an utterly undignified heap. Fran sits down with only slightly more grace beside him, head against her knees, breathing a bit hard and, she thinks, letting her fingers trail along a strand of sapphires, likely wearing more in jewels now than her last ten jobs combined. She glances over at a slight sound, two moogles peering out at her curiously from the cockpit.

“Well then,” Balthier says, looking up at her with a satisfied smile, just as he had on Bhujerba, but with the laughter now dancing in his eyes, “welcome aboard.”