Dalmasca, Kingdom of
It begins in the middle of a desert, of all places.
Balthier is hot, tired, and has sand in several unspeakable places. He isn’t sure why he’s out in the desert, even less sure why he has been convinced to join this suicide mission led by a Princess with no birthright, one Knight acquired in Nalbina and another Knight they picked up in the Nam-Yensa Sandsea. The makings of a true rebellion, he’s sure.
Ashelia’s whim has had them diving back and forth from Sandsea to Westersand and she shows no sign of offering anyone bar Vossler more than a glare, so Balthier gets some kind of vindictive pleasure by watching the low, furious argument taking place between Ashe and Vaan. Well, the Princess is taking care of the ‘low and furious’ part, anyway. Vaan’s voice travels a fine line between ‘annoyed’ and ‘incredulous’ and that only seems to be irritating their fair would-be Queen even more. It’s really rather admirable – Ashelia may play at being aloof but Vaan can reduce her to red-faced anger with one well-placed comment.
‘What’s our street rat done now?’ He murmurs to Penelo, who has tucked herself into the only patch of shade available, slanting down off one of the tall sides of rock. She’s watching the fight with an already-familiar pinched expression he associates with Vaan being an idiot, but rather miraculously she isn’t looking at Vaan. This time, at least.
‘Given Ashe good advice she doesn’t like.’ Penelo says, squinting up at him before offering up her waterskin. He sips carefully, sees how Basch stays carefully back, letting Vossler join Vaan in trying to reason with their intractable Princess.
‘The sandstorm,’ she nods towards the area his dirty and sand-scarred map names The Midfault, ‘Ashe thinks we can make it to the Sandsea before it hits, but Vaan says we can’t. He’s right.’
She says it flatly, without compromise. An utterly sensible girl, Penelo, and even Vaan in the deepest throes of wilful obstinacy is just as practical. For all their youth they are both well-versed in how to survive. The necessities of war, he supposes, teaches hard lessons.
‘We’ll have to stop somewhere?’ He doesn’t think that there’s a camp this far out, but the Dalmascans surprise sometimes. He watches the line of Vaan’s back tensing with irritation, the shift of tan shoulders. Just sometimes.
Penelo is still talking. ‘Only for an hour or so, until the worst of it’s over. We’ll hide in the opening of the Zertinan Caverns, not too deep, just out of the way of the storm and the heat. The monsters can be pretty bad but better than stumbling around in the middle of a sandstorm and running into a Gnoma.’
She shivers, even in the heat of day. He’s not about to doubt the native’s understanding of their own desert, but Ashe apparently is. Vaan finally throws his hands up and stalks towards them, face set in a serious frown that adds about a decade to his age. Behind him, Vossler steps up in his place.
‘No luck?’ Penelo asks, tucking herself more firmly into the shadow. Vaan says something rather ugly-sounding in one of Dalmasca’s many almost-extinct native dialects. Balthier doesn’t understand any of them, but the meaning is clear enough between the angry curve to Vaan’s mouth and the hastily stifled laugh Penelo disguises as a cough.
‘Dare I ask?’
They share impish smiles, but won’t elaborate on what it was Vaan actually said. ‘Best not. Dalmasca’s got about ten languages. Knowing at least one of ‘em is useful. Makes it easier to run messages. And outsmart the guards.’
‘Because you don’t have to worry about what they overhear.’ Penelo adds. They share another smile. They’re both more devious than he gave them credit for. Perhaps Vaan wouldn’t be as laughable a sky pirate as he suspected, sadly acclimatised to the Dalmascan environment though he is.
Neither of them look a whit uncomfortable, damn them. Balthier’s skin prickles uncomfortably under his linen shirt but Vaan doesn’t seem to notice the weight of his metal guards and the only adjustment he makes is to the red sash slung around his waist. And the less said about Penelo’s leather bodysuit the better. The pair continue to murmur to each other in some tongue familiar to both of them and Balthier turns to Fran, who has her head tilted up towards the sky.
‘Well my dear, how does it look to you?’
‘The air thickens.’
‘How long until the point of the argument becomes academic?’He’s never been in the desert long enough to be bothered by weather changes, but if the storm is serious enough to have the children tense and wary he’s willing to be cautious.
‘Half an hour?’ Vaan volunteers, glancing over at Fran who nods solemnly after smelling the air. ‘Maybe not even that. Look, the sand’s starting to shift.’
It is, the floor is starting to move gently towards where the Gnoma entite must be and Vaan watches with a tight expression. Finally he shouts at the bickering Princess and her knight. ‘Ashe, can we get moving? You know, while we can still see a foot in front of our faces?’
Ashe rounds on him but it’s Fran who ends the dispute.
‘The weather is turning.’ She says in a tone that brooks no argument. ‘We must make haste.’
She stalks off towards the point Penelo had mentioned earlier, a dip into the Zertinan Caverns and twisting corridor of stone that curves in such a way that the sand won’t breach it. Vaan, mumbling something that has the sound of a prayer giving thanks, trails after her with his white-blond head blending with the sand. He turns back to them, eyes grey, the smirk that promises annoyances to come firmly back in place.
Gods, but that boy is pale.
The idle thought startles Balthier enough that it must show in his expression, Vaan’s eyebrows hiking upwards in reaction. ‘Something on my face?’
‘Dirt,’ he replies, admiring the way his voice slips into smoothness easily enough, ‘and sand, hardly anything out of the ordinary.’
He passes by the churl and allows the thoughts of a sudden, sandy magick-filled death distract him from the gap between Vaan’s vest and his sash.
Notes: Sudden storms and vicious magick-born entities, but rather excellent views.
Dorstonis, Sky Continent of
Their party scatters as soon as they arrive back on Bhujerba after the mess that was the Dynast-King’s tomb and the destruction of the 8th Fleet. The crownless Princess and the disgraced Knight leave to go and argue with the Marquis, and the two Rabanastran teenagers they appear to have acquired along the way disappeared into the thick of the city over an hour ago. After finishing some fine tuning on the Strahl, he and Fran head by mutual consent towards the Cloudborne.
The air in the inn is thick with the usual smells of spice and hard liquor and the chatter of Bhujerban, but this time it’s a Dalmascan accent that breaks through the noise.
‘Hey, Balth-’ the shout breaks into a curse, ‘What was that for, Penelo?’
A slimmer hand rises from the crowd, waving at them. At least one of their number appears to understand the quality of subterfuge and not naming in full view of soldiers the rather illegal and rather wanted sky pirates.
Vaan is rubbing his shoulder, glaring at his innocently smiling friend. There’s a half-empty bottle of madhu in front of them but by some miracle they’re both still upright and able to hold a conversation.
Fran looks more entertained than she should. Balthier eyes the two street urchins he seems to have inherited and sighs, ‘Bless this Sky Continent and its inns, for giving us a legal age of sixteen.’
‘S’ fifteen back home.’ Penelo supplies, eyes even more glassy than her bottle. Fran makes an amused noise and slips through the crowd to the bar, leaving him with two suspiciously lucid barely-legal teens.
‘A law unchanged for several centuries, I suspect,’ Balthier says, ‘still, I would have expected you two to drink what water you can whilst away from your desert. And have enough sense to stay away from the madhu.’
‘Noooo,’ Penelo giggles, ‘if there’s no water, you drink!’
Vaan, the more sober of the pair, expands on that enticing piece of nonsense. ‘She means if you can’t get to a spring or river or whatever you drink alcohol, since you know that’s clean. So in drought season it’s only the nomads who drink water, since they’re near running water.’
‘Hence the cast-iron livers of the desert folk. Wonderful.’ He pauses, watching Penelo measure out a drink with more concentration than warranted. Not quite cast-iron, then. ‘The water on Bhujerba does tend to be of a more satisfactory standard than Rabanastre, I believe. No reason to avoid it.’
Vaan shrugs, ‘Force of habit.’
They really are absolutely fine. Balthier at the same age – when he had been Ffamran with a last name that didn’t chafe, a Judge’s helm, and an idea of the future that didn’t even consider the sky – had still been rather well acquainted with the seedier side of Archades and was known to creep back into the house during the smaller hours, but even he would have thought better of drinking an entire bottle of finest Bhujerban liquor himself.
Fran reappears at his elbow with two drinks, her ears twitching in a way he has long identified as restrained laughter. ‘I think it best to leave the madhu to the children.’ Twitch. She’s enjoying this. ‘Your body will thank me in the morning.’
Penelo cackles in an incredibly Banshee-like way, and then blinks in surprise at the sound she had just created. Balthier tries not to glare at his traitor of a partner. ‘Thank you, dear.’
Vaan slides the bottle across to Penelo, who pours another drink and slides it back. The second time this happens, a thought occurs to him. ‘How did you pay for it? Or do I truly wish to know?’
Two utterly innocent gazes.
He isn’t fooled for a second.
‘Well, if you’re going to get yourselves arrested at least make sure you enjoyed it first.’ He says as bitingly as possible. Vaan looks offended.
‘The Imperials haven’t got me yet, why would they do any better?’ He nods at the yellow shirt of a Sainikah currently leaning against the nearest wall.
‘Perhaps better to behave yourself in a city where the authorities know your name and your face, Vaan.’
‘Never stops you.’
‘I possess the ability to get and remain out of trouble. A trick that apparently passed you by.’
‘You ended up in Nalbina as well!’
‘Through no fault of my own, I think you’ll find.’ Vaan huffs, and Balthier looks to Penelo for confirmation. ‘Is he into the habit of dragging others into situations entirely caused by him?’
Penelo snorts a laugh, waving a hand. ‘Only always. He tries to deal with things by himself and ends up needing to be bailed out.’
‘Vaan.’ The girl says, not even looking up from her glass.
‘Children.’ Balthier interrupts, and finds himself once more the recipient of the glare that had transferred from him to Penelo. She laughs; Vaan’s eyebrows just draw together even more finely. Eventually she sets down her drink and tries to ignore the one-sided competition taking place on one half of the table.
‘Hey, Fran?’ Penelo tugs on one of her braids, biting her lip. Fran tilts her head, silent, the image of patience. ‘Could you teach me how to use a bow?’
‘You have your staff, do you not? What need have you for archery?’
‘Well, I just thought...’ Her nose wrinkles and she folds her hands in her lap, straightening her back and face settling into resolve. ‘The staff’s fine, but it’s not much good in a fight and I want to be able to defend myself.’
Fran blinks, eyebrows raised. He knows that expression, waiting for a good reason, and explanation. Before he knew how to counter it Fran could make him talk himself out of his own plans just by letting him carry on uninterrupted.
‘What if you guys get knocked out? Or hurt? I want to be able to protect myself, without relying on anybody else to get me out of trouble. And-’
‘It is good,’ Fran interrupts, ‘I will teach you.’
She rises to her feet and nods to Penelo, catching the girl under her arm and pulling her to her feet and through the inn before Penelo has any chance to protest.
Vaan breaks the stare and comes back to himself, blinking at the now empty space beside him. ‘Where’s Penelo?’
‘Kidnapped by Fran.’
‘Oh,’ Vaan appears to consider this for a moment, or the hangover has begun, ‘okay. Wanna share?’ Vaan waves the bottle, wearing a toothy grin reminiscent of a piranha. ‘Unless you’re afraid.’
Contests are beneath him, bets even more so, but the brat needs to be put back in his place. But then, if he was able to resist a challenge he would still be in Archades, trying to mould himself to armour that will never fit.
He taps his glass to Vaan’s, and meets that crooked smile head on.
Rating: 5/10 or 7/10, depending on what I said and to whom last night.
Notes: Ask after the madhu has worn off. Please.
As a sky pirate who considers himself something of a scholar, Balthier should find the Ancient City interesting; if not fascinating – antique architecture, monsters who are ancestors of those currently found throughout Ivalice, Mist that holds memories of that which happened centuries ago. A city trapped in the past.
Were he not chasing after a man with megalomaniacal tendencies he unfortunately happens to share blood with, Balthier might even have paid attention to the designs etched over every available inch of flat surface.
But he is, so Balthier just trails at the end of their merry band of miscreants and insists to anyone who dares to enquire that he is definitely not sulking.
He searches for something to divert himself from her pitifully melancholy mood. Fran will never stand for it – a lesson hard learnt, all done with one snowy eyebrow lifted in a disdainful expression he will learn to copy if it kills him.
His eyes settle on the twisting shadows dancing over Vaan’s back. Aha. The churl has been enough of an annoyance – he’ll be a wonderfully striking annoyance given a few years and a chain of decent meals, but an annoyance all the same – that Balthier feels entirely just in using the boy as a form of distraction.
Vaan angles him a glance that is two-parts suspicion and more than one-half apprehension as Balthier draws up to walk beside him, and he wonders if this is to do with the scarcity of the event or his rather obvious foul mood.
Vaan’s eyes narrow, and Balthier rather suspects he sees an bit of fear in there also. Innocent levity never was one of his strong points – apparently he’s overshot and gone straight to terrifying. The look evens out into a tense frown, and he can almost hear the boy’s mind working.
‘Out with it, Vaan. Before you do yourself injury.’
He looks offended, but that doesn’t dampen his curiosity any part. ‘Does Mist always appear in old places?’
‘What makes you say that?’
‘The Mist’s thick here, like it was in the Feywood. And in Nabudis, but that was the Midlight shard, right? But the Feywood’s seriously old, and this is too, so I thought...’ He trails off, shrugging.
‘Will wonders never cease,’ he says, ignoring Vaan’s growl. The boy needs to be told that the glare combined with the fluff of pale hair just makes him look like an irritated Chickatrice, but that comment will have to savoured for another time.
‘You’re correct. Mist gathers in all things natural, as well as magicite. Places of significant age, such as the Feywood and its ancient trees, have collected Mist for several millennia.’ This is an old, old lesson, learned at his father’s knee. Before the insanity. Before Venat. And he had spoken to Vaan as a distraction. Trust the brat not to comply with anyone’s plans, even unknowingly. Vaan is still looking at him, waiting for him to finish. ‘Here, however, I suspect the Mist has been propagated by the monsters, but before that it was trapped.’
‘Huh. Like a piece of nethicite.’
The churl may be blunt and unhoned to a ridiculous degree, but at least he can make obvious links when it becomes necessary.
‘I never took you as the sort for scientific inquiry, Vaan Ratsbane.’ He mimics the inflection he remembers Old Dalan using, and smirks at the crinkling of Vaan’s nose, as if he had just been exposed to something extremely unpleasant.
‘S’ not my name.’ Vaan grumbles.
‘And what is it, then?’
‘Don’t have one,’ Vaan shrugs, ‘no Dalmascans do ‘cept royalty. I’ve got a father-name, but that’s not the same thing.’
‘A patronymic?’ At Vaan’s blank look, he adds ‘As in “Vaan son of-”.’
‘Right. Nobody uses them unless you’re introducing yourself to another Dalmascan you don’t know. And everybody knows everybody else in Rabanastre.’ Vaan grins. ‘And I’m not sure my father’s name would mean much to an Archadian.’
‘Sky pirate.’ Balthier corrects him, oddly nettled by Vaan’s dismissive attitude.
Vaan makes an amused noise in the back of his throat. ‘Won’t help you.’
Balthier glares, and Vaan just looks silently entertained in a way more suited to Fran and proceeds to rattle something off that begins with ‘Vaan’ and ends with ‘ya’. It’s a cluster of incomprehensible syllables as far as Balthier’s concerned, and Vaan laughs at his expression. He nods towards his fellow orphan, her bobbing blonde head beside Fran and chirps another babble of words. Penelo turns, smiling, and Balthier realises that he has just heard her full name. Now that he considers it, the lack of last names isn’t surprising. A rather feudal society, Dalmasca. Even Ashe’s full name is merely a title declaring her position in life.
‘An interesting culture, to be sure,’ he murmurs, watching Vaan’s eyes narrow again in suspicion as he tries to detect a non-existent insult. Finally the boy shrugs once more, allowing the comment to slide.
The Mist becomes thicker the further they travel, odd shapes thrown, reflections and shadows appearing and disappearing in midair. Twisting in patterns impossible to truly focus on. At a fork in the path, they – well, Ashe – decide to split into two groups and go in different directions, scout out the path and return.
It is, it turns out, a disaster of an idea.
Balthier, Vaan and Penelo are coping fine alone until one particularly persistent Vivian leaves Penelo unconscious, Balthier silenced and Vaan injured and afflicted with Sap, bleeding steadily and with not enough power to do himself or anyone else any good.
Balthier leans Penelo against the nearest wall and turns to Vaan, cursing mentally at the bewildered expression and the slowness of his movements – this the same Vaan who had just dealt three lightning strikes in a row with a sword his height. Balthier catches the boy’s wrist as he starts to slide sideways and guides him down to the ground beside his friend. By the twisting and deceptive Mist-light he can see a wound that looks black stretching in the gap left by Vaan’s vest. It’s only the effect of the light, but when the Mist shifts enough to restore the injury to a normal spilt-blood colour it isn’t comforting. Vaan still looks unnaturally pale.
Penelo, having decided to be unconscious for this, will have to wait. Balthier has no illusions about how he will manage the monsters without aid and Vaan’s clothing is rapidly starting to turn a shade of red that screams too late, far too late.
Vaan tries to straighten up from where he’s slumped, shaking in his head in an exaggerated movement that makes him look inebriated. Even if he had enough Magick left Balthier doubted Vaan would be able to manage the spell. There’s a painful twist beneath his ribs that tells him the boy is dying. Balthier dives into Vaan’s pouches, digging through them in an attempt to find anything that will help.
They’re out of remedies.
It’s probably fortunate that he’s under silence – an aspiring sky-pirate does not yet need to discover just how coarse his mentor’s language can become under strain. Vaan’s rasping breath echoes loud in the ruins as his search becomes desperate. Every pocket turns up something helpful and utterly useless.
By the time he finally pulls out an Echo Herb Vaan’s eyes are almost shut.
Balthier doesn’t hesitate in casting the Esuna spell onto Vaan with a force that makes the boy’s back arch, his gasps turning into a keening sound of pain as the Sap finally dies away but the injury stays present – long and ugly and red. A slice curling across his chest from left collarbone to right lowermost rib.
There’s a long, extended heartbeat of a moment, where it seems like for all his last-minute rescue Vaan is going to fall anyway, crumple completely and pass on between one breath and the next. Instead Vaan coughs, winces and breathes out the words for Cura. Balthier is so struck by the sight of the line knitting itself back together, as if with invisible thread, he doesn’t look at Vaan’s face as he murmurs, ‘I didn’t need that. Save your strength for her.’
He inclines his head towards Penelo, still curled up on herself, but when his eyes move up to meet Vaan’s he finds the boy watching him with his mouth curled up at one corner. A parade of emotions summoned up in one crooked smile. Incredulity. Curiosity. Some indulgent kind of warmth. One shaking tan hand reaches out and taps his shoulder and he’s amazed to discover it hurts.
He looks just in time to see a cut disappear entirely as his skin is made new.
‘You were hurt. Didn’t you notice?’
‘I was rather...distracted, shall we say.’
That odd smile again, a dipped head, a quirked brow. And he realises Vaan knows. Or at least suspects where his interests lie.
Perhaps he had given the game away, with one short sentence. After they rouse Penelo, after they make the long trek back to the others bloodstained and tired, after they had agreed – without Ashe – that splitting up was an idea for people less inclined to get injured, that smile stalks after Balthier the rest of the way through the Crystal. Lurking in corners, appearing in idle thoughts, occasionally dancing through Vaan’s other less ambiguous expressions.
He resolves to keep a better reign on himself. Going quietly insane over a bleeding Rabanastran street orphan is not the calling of a leading man, no matter how depraved the man, and no matter how lovely the brat.
There’s something about that promise that feels dangerously like lies.
Notes: Dank, full of Mist and monsters. Vaan becoming dangerously sly, no fun at all. Fran giving looks. Murderous relatives abound. Picked up rather useful Esper. Best not to consider origins of said creature too much. Do not recommend.
They stop in the Port city to restock before heading to the machine fortress currently bearing down on Dalmasca. They have no idea what lies in wait aboard the monstrosity his father’s vanity led to name the Bahamut, and while everyone runs off to grab what they need some long-abandoned sense of duty drives Balthier to go to the manse and inform Rikken of what has become of Reddas.
Maybe it’s some obligation to the pirate king. Or some leftover feeling of respect to one of the few Judges worth knowing. Zecht Foris always had found Archadia’s youngest Judge amusing on some level, and had been mysteriously absent from his post when Balthier had made his escape with a discarded airship prototype that was meant to be under his guard.
He never worked out exactly how much Reddas had known, and the discomfiting idea that the man had been aware of his plans had meant Balthier was never entirely easy in his presence even with Archades years and miles behind them.
There are few he could inform about Cid – even fewer who would care. He wasn’t the only person his father had succeeded in isolating himself from.
He skulks away from the manse, job done, and escapes back to the Aerodome. He runs through the system checks on the Strahl with more thoroughness than even they warrant. His lady, at least, remains as she always has, humming contentedly under his hands. The task is so absorbing – and repetitive –that he tunes out all else other than the noise of his ship, which must be the only reason he doesn’t hear the familiar clicking metal sound of Vaan’s approach.
‘You’ve been staring at that panel for three minutes. It can’t be that interesting.’
He controls the automatic jump and forces it down a flinch that travels across his shoulders and down his back. ‘Haven’t you ever been told to announce yourself?’
‘I thought you were just ignoring me.’
‘A tempting prospect, as ever.’
He turns in his seat to find Vaan leaning against the entrance to the cockpit, in a pose that would look easy if not for the slightly too-protective hold his arms have around his ribs. Time has run out, and they have no opportunity now to recover fully from injuries gained at Ridorana – Magick may do away with cuts and bruises but they do little for the ache of a body pushed past its limits.
‘You should get rest while there is time for it. I suspect this is going to turn into a very long day.’
It already has been a long day, between Reddas and his father and now the prospect of all-out war and the decimation of Dalmasca – events which should by any logic and kindness have been spread out over months and years – but ‘a very long day’ is gentler than saying ‘while you are still living’. From the way Vaan’s lips quirk in a way that is more exhausted than happy, he hears exactly what wasn’t said. The cost, Balthier supposes, of living from day-to-day for too long.
‘’M fine. I just...Penelo wanted to say she was sorry. About Cid.’ Vaan shrugs. ‘But she was scared of saying it to you; you kind of freaked her out afterwards.’
After Venat, and the Sun-Cryst, and Fran crumpling to the floor and parroting bitter words back at him, and the thought ‘my father is dead’ being strangely more painful than he believed it would be. He vaguely remembers Penelo murmuring something to him, and he recalls looking at her open face and having to idea what she was saying.
‘Ah, yes. Apologise to her for me, I was a touch... preoccupied.’
‘Tell her yourself. She knows, anyway. People act weird after people die; it’s nothing she hasn’t seen before.’
‘Given my hand in the man’s death, I’m not sure my weirdness corresponds exactly with that of a Rabanastre war-widow.’ It’s sharp, it’s bitter, it hurts and it starts to clear away the fog in his mind. Vaan, surprisingly, doesn’t take any offence. Just raises his eyebrows and then rolls his shoulders in an if that is what you choose to think, fine gesture.
‘The others should be back in a few minutes.’ He says instead, mercifully changing the topic of conversation.
‘Then we can speed to our doom. Wonderful.’
‘I’da thought a leading man would be more confident.’ Vaan smirks, tongue pressing against his teeth. Balthier makes himself look elsewhere.
‘Confidence and arrogance are mutually exclusive, Vaan. Do not confuse them.’
‘Good thing you have both, then. You got all your bases covered.’
‘Insolent brat. Why did we keep you again?’
‘Cause I’m faster than everyone else, and good at Magick.’ Remarkably so, in fact. He had none of Fran’s natural ease or Penelo’s gentle grace, but Vaan’s casting was quick and powerful and sharp, forceful even in healing. ‘And also cause you kind of want to sleep with me.’
The cabin falls silent.
‘Come on, Balthier. I noticed. Fran definitely noticed. Penelo’s been trying to work out a way to give you a speech and be threatening. I think she was going to get Fran to do it.’ Vaan cheerfully recounts his utter failure to keep his own mind to himself while smiling, the wretch. Balthier pinches the bridge of his nose in a gesture he always associated with his father. It doesn’t help any.
‘Anyone else I should be worrying about?’
‘Not unless Basch decides part of his duty to my brother involves breaking your legs, no.’ Vaan pauses, as if waiting for a gap in the conversation. ‘Well?’
‘Are you going to do something about it?’
Vaan hasn’t moved from his post in the doorway, but he tilts his head and looks expectant. Balthier had been floundering but that cue, at least, is familiar. He sides from his seat and goes to stand in front of Vaan, keeping his voice low.
‘And what should I do about it?’
‘From the amount of staring you were doing, I thought you had some idea.’
He reaches out, rests his hand on Vaan’s neck just under the jaw, feels the pulse flutter and the slight tremble of his skin, no matter the heat leaking in from outside.
‘You might regret it, come morning.’ He warns.
‘I might be dead, come morning.’ Shot back evenly. ‘Or you might be. And then I’ll always regret and I won’t even have a memory to go with it.’
‘Blasphemy. A leading man never dies.’ It tastes of ash.
‘Then what have you got to lose?’ When he makes to move, Vaan sighs deeply and continues to speak steadily, as if he is being particularly dense. ‘Balthier. I’m always certain what I what. Always have been. I just don’t always know exactly how to go about getting what I want, that’s all.’
Balthier considers the set gaze, the too-fast heartbeat. We will be done or dead, tomorrow. He bends to close the distance between them and when Vaan’s mouth opens under his he’s certain the trembling has little to do with fear. He uses his grip on the band of skin between vest and sash to press Vaan up against him, feeling the uneven nicks and scars, the too-defined knobs of his spine. The body has been forced to live its seventeen years on the planet. Vaan gives a pained murmur between their parted lips when Balthier’s hands go a little too close to the just-healed injuries that insist on aching yet. He kisses in apology, and pushes closer still, crowding Vaan into the small doorway while the boy leans up, anchoring himself with a grip on Balthier’s shoulders until they are pressed together with a hairs-breadth of space between them.
It’s impromptu, it’s messy, and by all reason it should be extremely uncomfortable. It is, and Balthier will feel the crick in his neck for several hours to come, but since he is finally getting to find out exactly what the skin that has been flagrantly on display all this time feels like, he elects not to pay any attention to ‘later’. It’s a familiar feeling.
Vaan is inexperienced but follows his lead quickly enough, pushing closer, harder, blunt nails on the back of Balthier’s neck. Distantly he registers a sound from outside.
The hatch door is clicking open.
It takes another moment for him to register exactly what the door opening means. He pulls back, watching Vaan inhale unsteadily, pupils blown so wide his eyes look dark. He can hear Fran’s distinctive clicking footsteps.
He closes his eyes to the lure of desire and turns away, but not before running his fingers once last time over the tan jaw, the dip into his neck where the skin is paler and smoother, less sun-scarred. His draws his palm up until it rests finally against Vaan’s cheek. Fine eyelashes beat against his fingers.
‘Later,’ he whispers.
He just has to make sure circumstances don’t make a liar of him; he has a duty as a leading man to uphold after all.
‘Later,’ Vaan laughs quietly in a way that isn’t really a laugh at all, ‘right. Later. I’ll hold you to that.’
He slips out of Balthier’s hands and disappears down the corridor, apparently unaware Balthier is a man of his word. There will be a later, for at least one of them. He can say that much, at least.
Notes: Postponed by potential imminent death. Shall update when possible.
Dalmasca, Kingdom of
The desert kingdom has begun to bloom back into how he remembers it being, before the occupation. On a stopover – had that only been four years ago? – he had thought Rabanastre a little faded, a little worn, but more alive than Archades and therefore infinitely superior. It had begun to return to that state of being now. No longer cowed and wounded, made stubborn by defeat.
But he doesn’t linger.
He and Fran breeze in from the Giza on the first breath of wet air that hails the Rains, and he feels unjustifiably ashamed of his sneaking through Rabanastre like a common thief, eyes always open for the first sight of familiar street orphans. The decision to turn onto Muthru Bazaar is, then, a mistake.
A flutter of a scarf is the first suggestion of something familiar, a flicker of pink appearing in the empty circle created by a loop of bystanders. But it’s the voice that does it, young, male and in that same laughing tone that had explained the subtleties of Dalmascan names to him, many months past now. He looks to Fran, who nods in the direction of the nearest route back to the city centre. They would rather not be seen before they retrieve the Strahl. Some point of pride. Or he just doesn’t want a reunion to happen in the middle of a gawping crowd. Whichever it is, it stills feels more like cowardice than it should.
They slip through the crowd, wraiths both, but as a gap appears Balthier chances a look. Just to make sure.
Penelo balances on one foot with the other held in front of her, curled into a delicate arch, a hand thrown up with palm open in a gesture that says Stop. Wait. Look. Her feet are bare, her braids are coming loose and she is smiling at some place past the people, past the city, past the world. She pauses, laughs, and skips into a dance that sends her hair flying.
As the crowd swallows the girl again, he catches the edge of a red sash and a grey-eyed grin. Something in his chest twists itself into a heavy knot of things left unsaid. Dead before their time.
‘They are well.’ Fran intones, solemn as ever. She’s relieved, though. Fran rarely moves her face into a distinct expression so Balthier has long grown accustomed to looking for her smiles in her eyes. One sits there now, with a surprising lack of judgment. Although he’s never mentioned what happened before the Bahamut to her he knows she knows, or suspects – which to a Viera are the same thing. Unfamiliar gratitude stumbles into his mind at her stalwart silence.
They run all the way back to Aerodome, and Balthier allows himself to believe it’s to avoid the guards. Fran is even more generous than usual, and keeps her peace even as he draws out the ring and a pen, setting it to paper.
Something more valuable...
Cerobi Steppe --- Balfonheim
It takes several months after that incident on Lemurés for Balthier and Fran to run into their two new sky pirates again, and there’s some terrible sense of symmetry that the meetings occurs in the same city they – he and Vaan – first found and left each other in.
He and Fran are returning from getting an extremely promising tip on ancient treasure from the philosopher on the windmills high on the Cerobi Steppe when he spots two very familiar heads of pale hair caught in a battle with a Bellwyvern on the field below.
He isn’t sure why he starts, and is even less sure why he holds his breath until the beast falls and Vaan and Penelo turn back towards Balfonheim, jogging through the sheets of rain now sweeping up from the sea. Penelo twists and dances on her toes, and Vaan has to run to keep up with her, his same battered katana slung across his back dulled in the cloudy weather.
He feels the weight of Fran’s eyes on his shoulders, and slowly uncurls his hand from where it had been resting on the grip of his gun. He turns to her and meets that completely impenetrable gaze. Every now and then he wishes he could get an idea of what things go through Fran’s mind on any given moment, but that fancy has always been checked by the knowledge of just how much of it would be disapproval.
Fran holds her stare for a second longer, then finally turns and begins to walk the dirt track back to the port. Even if she’s walking in front of him and he can’t see her eyes, Balthier can feel the heavy weight of her censure on his back as if she had given him her gear to carry as well.
The long walk back is quiet and tense and Balthier is grateful for the cobbles under his feet until they step into the Whitecap and see the two Dalmascans leaning against the bar. Evidently, Fate has finally decided to extract payment for their miraculous escape from the Bahamut.
Fran looks at him and sighs. ‘Humes,’ she begins, disgust spread thick on her voice, ‘are fools and idiots both.’
She stalks across the floor, and speaks briefly to the pair before drawing Penelo away and out of the building. Vaan raises his eyebrows at Balthier across the room, and he finally gives in, stepping up to the bar and nodding to the bartender.
Balfonheim always has the best stuff, lovingly stolen from the best places.
‘Hi, Balthier.’ Vaan frowns. ‘Why did Fran just kidnap Penelo?’
‘The motivations of the Viera are often completely beyond me.’
‘Even that one?’
‘Especially that one.’ He looks down at the paper Vaan has been fiddling with and tilts his head slightly to better view the detailed cutaway drawing of an airship engine. ‘New ship?’
Vaan follows his gaze, shrugs lightly and folds the paper back up after writing one more note on it in scrawling, messy script. ‘Yeah, we got it cheap ‘cause the engine’s shot.’
‘Nothing a moogle with worth his hammer can’t fix. The guy should probably have gotten it repaired and sold it for three times as much but I wasn’t going to tell him that. Anyway, it was Archades and ‘parently they have a thing against hiring non-Hume engineers.’
‘Archadia can afford prejudice,’ Balthier considers the tan slope of Vaan’s neck, ‘You’re grounded, then.’
‘For another fortnight or so, yeah.’ Vaan grins at him, wide and utterly unashamed. ‘The mechanic kidnapped Nono, sorry. I thought he was going to cry when I said he had a whole engine he can play with.’
‘The Strahl isn’t in need of repairs beyond my abilities to perform. Nono is free until the next time I’m forced to fly over the desert.’
‘You should probably look at the fans,’ Vaan murmurs absently, running a thumb over the rim of his glass, ‘the angle of ‘em makes all the difference. Too steep and they suck in dirt and sand instead of air. Least that’s what the airline pilots always complain about.’
Another quiet flash of intelligence. The boy was shaping up quite well, really. Something silver glints at Vaan’s ear and Balthier swallows, hard. Well indeed. ‘Is that new?’
‘Huh? Oh,’ a nail scrapes along the curve of the silver ring, ‘I thought about it for ages, but I waited until I got to Bhujerba to do it.’
‘Any particular reason?’
One very frank look. ‘Would you let some backstreet guy in Rabanastre stick a needle through any part of your body?’
His reasoning’s sound enough, and Balthier is having enough trouble battling down an instinct that demands he do something very messy involving teeth and skin to make a comment about Rabanastre and standards of hygiene. It’s been longer than he thought – he really should not be finding earrings this attractive.
‘Are we actually going to go back to the Strahl or should I sit quiet-like while you try and undress me with your eyes?’
It comes out of nowhere. Balthier definitely doesn’t choke on his drink.
‘Beg pardon?’ He manages, but Vaan is already sliding off his seat and walking towards the door. When he notices Balthier isn’t following he spins on one heel and crooks a finger.
‘Well, what are you waiting for? Honestly, you think I didn’t notice?’
‘You...what?’ Something has gone horribly wrong. Balthier has lost all faculty of speech. Vaan has apparently been replaced with a twin brother à la Gabranth who is now offering to go to bed with him. Vaan is flying a ship and piercing his ears and looking so very fond he can almost bring himself not to care too much that the world seems to have tilted onto a different axis. And yes, this, this is like the last time they were in Balfonheim. There seems to be something in the air that corrupts, no wonder Reddas ended up king here.
‘You didn’t figure it out? Silly sky pirate. Don’t worry, you will.’ A smile full of promises. ‘I’ll show you.’
He walks away again and, for better or worse, Balthier follows him.
Later – much, much later – Balthier blinks up at the deep brown wooden panelling of the Strahl’s ceiling while one of Vaan’s legs rubs over his, breathing quietly near his ear.
‘Well, did you figure it out?’
Vaan laughs, very quietly, nothing more than a puff of breath that makes the skin on Balthier’s cheek prickle. ‘No? Pay attention.’
It’s such a change from the last time, the first time they were in Balfonheim. Desperate and half-decided that they were dead already and had merely not laid their bodies down yet. Vaan leans over him and kisses with a clever tongue, sharp teeth, feather-light movement. Everything that Vaan was and is – angles and sharpness and quickness so indefinable it always seemed to be dancing in and out of vision.
Vaan leans back with a quirked lip, confident and smug and shy all at once. ‘Well? Get it?’
‘Yes,’ he breathes, ‘yes, I rather think I do.’
He leans over and kisses Vaan until only he can feel the smile there.
Notes: Brought down slightly by smugness of Viera partner next morning. Nothing said, all clear in twitching ears. Still, Vaan has this fascinating-------
[The rest of this note has been vandalised with threats against my person by someone apparently fluent in an almost-dead writing system of Dalmasca. Naturally suspect Vaan. Penelo not off hook, though. Thick as thieves, sneaky as sky pirates. Rather proud, all in all.]
Vaan is, as usual, an appalling blot on the sophistication of the capital. A glaring desert-shaped anachronism at the heart of stone and metal and knives shaped for people’s backs. Perching on a wall overlooking the rest of the city below Tsenoble, his legs are hanging off the side as if at any moment he might leap into thin air. He’s between the crystal and the taxi point and though he doesn’t turn it’s clear in his mere presence in this city disliked by them both that he’s been waiting for Balthier to appear. Apparently he has been stalked across Archades and all the way up to Highgarden Terrace without his noticing it. The thief has evolved into quite the sneak.
Vaan is oblivious to every look thrown his way – disapproving and approving both; Archades always has had a fondness for the exotic – and grinning up at the sky like a sun-addled moogle. Balthier experiences a sudden pang of affection that makes him stop, curse, and then clap Vaan on the shoulder hard enough to put him in slight danger of slipping from his perch. Only slight, mind. Balthier might disapprove of his own love-sick moments but not enough he’d consider killing the person responsible. The misfortune is that he would actually miss the boy.
Not so much a boy anymore. When Vaan recovers and rounds on him with anger turning his eyes from gunmetal grey to a rather lovely shade of silver, Balthier curls a strand of white-blond hair around his fingers and watches Vaan’s argument skitter away into the ether.
‘You’ve let it get long.’
‘And a shirt. I’m impressed, though I admit I shall miss the view.’
‘View...?’ Vaan blinks, and then rolls his eyes. ‘Oh. Should’ve guessed.’
‘I don’t think a person who runs around in a metal-plated vest has a right to be miffed when stared at. I’m just pleased you are starting to follow my directions regarding sartorial matters.’
‘Don’t flatter yourself; you know how cold airships can get. I thought I was going to die the last time we passed by the Paramina Rift.’
While speaking Vaan’s eyes flicker to half-mast, tilting his head against the hand toying with his hair. This will be the talk of the town given an hour or so – another piece of gossip to be passed along in whispers. Though he can spared that at least his face and name are not so easily attached to each other as they once were. Knowing this, he releases the hair and turns his hand, letting it rest along the sharp jaw line, passing the pad of his thumb over his cheek.
‘Between trying to prove ‘m not an assassin and then being trailed around half the world by Head-hunters, yeah. Lots of late nights.’
‘So I’ve heard,’ he weighs what to say very carefully indeed, ‘have you managed to repair your reputation, then?’
‘Mmhmm. No one to fear ‘cept Ashe when she works out I’ve been in the treasury again.’
‘Stealing from your own Queen, I’m appalled at you.’ He chokes down a laugh. Vaan doesn’t need any encouragement.
‘I didn’t steal anything – don’t steal from Larsa either. I bust in an’ leave notes telling them their security sucks.’
‘Such a public citizen. I could weep.’ He keeps his voice dry but the avid way he watches Vaan lean into his palm and look up through pale eyelashes probably ruins the effect. ‘You were waiting for me?’
‘Had something to tell you. But I’ve forgotten it all of a sudden.’ Vaan breathes out in the shrinking space between them, eyes dark and focused completely on Balthier.
‘Of course. You wouldn’t seek me out for no reason, would you?’
Even in this corner, shielded by a wall and a sheer drop, they are entirely too close even by the standards of the most permissive society – which Archades certainly isn’t – so it’s probably fortunate that a shout of ‘there he is’ goes up from nearby. He gets to watch Vaan’s slow smile from an entirely new, rather appealing angle and suppresses a groan.
‘If you were less of thief, I would live a far easier life.’
‘If I were less of a thief, you wouldn’t love me half as much.’
‘I love you? Such presumption.’
‘Course you do. Keep up, Balthier.’
Vaan presses their mouths together, not giving Balthier any time to react before brushing his cheek up against Balthier’s and whispering in his ear in a tone so thick and molten it can’t be legal.
‘Yes?’ His voice is hoarse, there’s a fuzz of blond hair wavering in front of him and from the corner of his eye he can see six guards appearing around the corner. Somehow, he can’t bring himself to move.
He starts as Vaan laughs in his ear, kisses him again and slips over the ledge and down the wall to the roof below.
‘Come on, old timer, last one to the Aerodome gets a free stay in prison!’
It is, he reflects – as he runs just behind Vaan and far ahead of the pursuing soldiers bent on introducing him to Nalbina again – almost worth it, for the wild laugh of the man ahead, and the promise of freedom beyond.
Notes: Not arrested. Have Vaan. Have Fran. Have ship. Have sky.