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Balthier was not fond of storms. He was even less fond of storms of sand. What had started out as an innocent shortcut through the Westersand to the Zertinan Caverns had turned into a nightmare. After all this time traveling as a member of the Princess' entourage, he probably should have seen it coming. Trouble seemed to follow them at every turn.

There they were in the desert, trudging along. There was a particularly nasty grain of sand lodged beneath his big toenail, begging for its release. "I'll catch up!" he called on to the others. He leaned against a sturdy rock and slipped off his shoe, shaking what was probably an entire hourglass worth of sand out of it. He was about to determine the best way to take care of his troublesome foot ailment when the Princess approached in a haughty mood.

"We still have miles of sand to traverse. Why are we stopping?" she grumbled, sheathing her sword and crossing her arms. Bossy as befitting her station in life, he secretly enjoyed their spirited little spats. They had increased in number lately, and he enjoyed sparring with her. She was not nearly as speedy with a retort as Fran, but she was getting better.

He sighed loudly and slid the shoe back on. "What part of 'I'll catch up' do you not understand, Princess?" he retorted grumpily. She rolled her eyes and turned to head back to the others when there was a distant roaring noise.

"It comes! A sandstorm!" Basch cried out, "We must find shelter!" Just what they needed, sand not only between one's toes, but in one's eyes and ears and mouth. The storm was raging around the entire group within seconds, the gritty sand hitting against his face with a powerful blast. He could hear Penelo and Vaan screaming and spitting, not quite getting the idea that it was best to just be quiet and let the sand beat the hell out of you until it was satisfied.

"We press forward!" the Princess' voice called over the noise of the storm, barely registering in the sky pirate's ears. He tried to stumble over in the direction of her voice, but he could not see a damned thing. Press forward? In which direction? The sandstorms only made the irritating wolves and other varied creatures of the Dalmascan desert hungrier, and he did not want to blindly wander into their supper preparations.

The sand whipped around him, the other party members' voices drowned out. He could still hear Ashe demanding something or other since she wasn't as far away, but he could only feel the sand exfoliating any part of his skin that was exposed. He supposed the Princess was having a rougher go of it. The winds lessened slightly for a moment, and he saw Ashe holding her sword out in front of her as she seemed to be letting the gods lead her forward through the storm.

It was then that he saw them. Wolves…maybe three or four. The winds were back at breakneck pace again, making his eyes near useless. They were encircling her, and it seemed that they had lost the others. He pulled his gun off his back and fired a shot into the air to hopefully disperse the vicious animals. Ashe seemed to finally realize her peril, and she began slashing at the creatures. To her credit, the Princess managed to fell two beasts despite the sand blowing around her. He hurried over to her as quickly as he could, firing another shot to scatter the remaining wolves. One coward rushed off, but the last one did not seem to tire of his pursuit so easily. He was almost to the Princess' side when the sand lashed at him again, and he held his arm in front of his face to shield his eyes. He heard a slice and a howl, and when he lowered his arm, the last wolf lay on the ground motionless.

"Nice job, Princess!" he cried over the roaring sands. "Now let's go!" She nodded shakily, and he hurried off in the direction he thought Basch and the others had gone when the storm was just starting.

If only this damned storm would stop. But they could rage for hours, and they were still far from the shelter of the caverns. He kept his gun at the ready for any eager wolves, and Ashe stumbled along behind him. "Wait, please. Just a moment," he heard her cry, and he turned around.

"This is a sandstorm, Ashe. We can't dally about!" he retorted, but something seemed off about the Princess. Even with the sand blowing around and tinting the world in brown, Ashe looked like she was pale. He stumbled back over to her, and she had her sword arm down, the blade trailing behind her in the sand as she walked. Her other hand was clutched over her middle, and she seemed like she was utterly lost.

"Just…can we stop?" she asked him pleadingly, her sword falling from her hand as the winds tossed her hair about her face violently. He held a hand to his forehead to look down at the Princess, and his heart dropped when he saw her hand over her stomach.

She looked up and took a few steps towards him. She pulled her hand away and held it up, and he winced at the dark crimson blood staining her fingers. "The wolf…he," the Princess began, but she stumbled in the sand, and he caught her, his hand circling around her back to help hold her up. His mind flashed back mere weeks before to the Phon Coast. She seemed insulted by his chivalrous attempt to help her then, but now she gripped his hand tightly.

"Why didn't you say anything?" he screamed over the storm, and he tried to lead them through the sands. He was surprised her stubborn pride had even allowed her to ask him to stop to wait for her. They needed to find shelter before he could try to heal her. They'd only get attacked if they stayed out in the sandstorm.

After what seemed like forever, and following several futile attempts at locating their fellow party members, he helped the Princess into a small cave carved into the ancient desert canyon. Balthier hoped that it wasn't an animal's den. He lowered Ashe gently to the floor, and she let out a small whimper as her wound continued to stain her skin and clothing. He made a quick sweep of the small cave, and he was grateful to discover that they had not invaded a wolves' den. Satisfied with his inspection, he set his gun down and returned to Ashe's side. Of course, he had apparently not been fast enough, as she was already propped on her elbows attempting to heal herself. He could see her lips moving swiftly as she began chanting the words of the spell, but the pain of trying to stay in that position was causing her to fumble the incantation.

Balthier had to admire her determination, but the wound was a decent gash across the exposed skin between the black material at her waist and the skirt at her hips. There was no way she could heal herself in such a condition. The usually pale skin of her stomach was a rather nasty red, and he could not tell how deep the wound went.

"Stop already," he muttered, fumbling around in his satchels for a few potions. Healing spells had never been his specialty, but he wasn't going to let her bleed to death in a cave. It wouldn't be the most dignified way for a Princess to die. She scowled at him as best she could and turned her attention back to healing. She began to chant quietly again, but her elbows were already shaking with the strain of holding herself at such an angle. She tried to sit up further, and she cried out loudly in pain.

"I said stop," he demanded steadily, trying to seem outwardly calm considering how much he was beginning to worry. His search had managed to wrangle but three small potions. Enough to take care of a scratch or two, but something was telling him that it was more than an ordinary wolf attack. Ashe's increasing pallor was sending off alarm bells in his head, and he hurried to lift a potion to her mouth as she lay back flat on the ground.

He put a hand beneath her head and lifted her gently to help pour the liquid in her mouth. He could see tears in her eyes at the pain, but she appeared to be keeping them from falling. Even with a wound in her gut this woman would not show weakness, and he almost laughed at the Princess' bravery in the face of what he could tell was nearly unbearable. He smirked at her as she began to sip the second potion. "It's alright to cry, Princess. I won't tell anyone if you do."

She finished the potion and shook her head. "I will be fine, Balthier. Now let me get back to my spell," she answered defiantly, trying desperately to get back into a near sitting position. He dared to grip her shoulder, urging her back to the cave floor.

"You are not fine. Stop acting like a fool. Save your bravery for another time when there's not a big gaping wound in your belly, would you?" he retorted angrily, her behavior getting on his last nerve. He saw a very small trickle of tears brimming about the sides of her eyes, and he wanted nothing more than to wipe them away. For as much as the Princess was infuriating him, he had realized all too recently that he felt more for her than he probably should.

Instead he began to chant a spell of his own. But of course she interrupted him. "It is more effective if you keep your hands on the wound," she muttered, her eyes focused on the cave ceiling and anywhere that wasn't him. He tried to ignore the excitement brimming within him at her suggestion, and he gently lowered his hands to her waist. It was rather sad that his first opportunity to get acquainted with this part of the Princess came when she was injured. She nearly jumped out her skin at the touch of his hands, not from the fact that the hands were attached to him, but that the contact itself stung. Her skin was hot to the touch, and the area around the gash was starting to take on a purplish tinge. He pressed down as gently as he could on the wound, and Ashe squeezed her eyes shut at the pressure.

Her skin was soft, and he did his best to focus on the words of the spell. The more fastidious part of his brain was screaming at the sticky blood that was now coating his fingers and probably the sleeves of his shirt. The more romantic part of his brain was disturbingly interested in the feeling of the young woman's delicate skin. The spell was mildly successful, the wound closing up slightly. But the purplish hue her skin was taking on was not going away. He had only stopped the superficial bleeding. What else was going on here? How deep had that wolf's claws gone? "Something's not right," he mumbled.

She gritted her teeth at the pain. "Can you…can you tell what's wrong?" He looked to her face and noticed that her skin was growing clammy, her eyes not as sharp and focused as they always were. Even with the spell cast, there was still plenty of fresh blood mingling across her skin. The wolf had probably hit something inside, but even that wasn't enough to cause that sickening purple color. It could only be one thing, and the sky pirate began rummaging through his satchels once more. "Balthier…what is it?" she whispered.

"Oh, nothing to worry about, Princess. You just sit back and relax," he replied cheerfully as his heart began racing in his chest. Probably poison on the animal's claws, something acting quickly. Didn't he bring any antidotes…or did he give them all to Penelo for safe keeping? He could still hear the sandstorm raging outside the little cave, and there was no way he could carry her back out in that.

She coughed then, the action making her moan in agony. "Nothing to…worry about? You are a liar, pirate," she sighed. Her words were starting to slur, and whatever this poison was, it was spreading. Her eyes closed as she coughed again. "Antidote spell…do you know it?"

"I am afraid I do not," he admitted. Fran was usually the one who took care of his more serious scrapes. Leading men needed to shoot irritating beasts, not hang back and learn little minor spells. Or so he had thought until that very moment. The Princess lifted a hand and grabbed his, returning it to her wound. "If you've wanted me to touch you all this time, your ladyship, all you had to do was ask," he joked.

She bit her lip and pressed his hand against her injury, letting his remark slide. "Need…to be near point of infection. Shut your mouth…and listen." Even with poison coursing through her body, Ashelia B'Nargin was letting him know who was in charge of this situation. And some part of him liked that a little too much.

It took several minutes for her to teach him the spell. Her slurred speech wasn't exactly conducive to learning, but he couldn't really fault her for it. She also took time out to critique his pronunciation of the words, and he withheld a smile at her bossy tone. He managed to finally cast the spell to her satisfaction. The purple color staining her skin faded to a less sickening violet, and the wound had finally ceased its bleeding. She would probably not be scarred, but he imagined that the bruising would be painful for the next few days.

"Now let's get you tidied up a bit, Princess," he said. He took the water flask at his side and poured a bit of it on her skin. He cursed his lack of bandaging materials and tried not to cry out in mental anguish as he tore a sleeve from his own shirt. "You owe me one shirt." He pressed the material against the wound, cleaning the caked blood from around it. Another sleeve was sacrificed to tie around her small waist. She had said nothing during this entire activity, and it was then that he noticed she had passed out.

And that was not good. There was no way of knowing if it had been caused by the pain or the poison, so unfortunately, the Princess was going to have to grin and bear it consciously. "Hey now, how can you sleep when you are in the presence of the leading man?" he teased nervously, jostling her shoulder a bit to try and rouse her.

In any civilized country, what he needed to do was treason. He'd be hung from the neck until dead or worse…drawn and quartered. He suppressed a shudder and tapped his hand against the Princess' cheek. "Come on, Ashe. I'm not sitting out the remainder of this sandstorm with only myself for company." He brushed some stray hair out of her face and gave her cheek a harder tap. "Don't make me really hit you, just wake up."

Nothing. He supposed that if he was the real ladies' man that the citizens of Ivalice considered him to be, he could probably kiss her awake. But taking advantage of an unconscious woman, attractive or no, was not part of his modus operandi. Not to mention the thought of what Captain Ronsenburg would do to him were they suddenly discovered. "Consider this a love tap. One of potentially many, Princess," he remarked softly. He grinned at the thought of giving Ashe love taps elsewhere and let his hand give her a swifter crack on the cheek.

"Just what are you admitting, Balthier?"

He smiled widely as she stirred, her hand rubbing against her face. "Just admitting my undying love for you, that's all," he answered. What he'd intended as a joke appeared to be taken quite seriously by the injured woman, her cheeks flushing an adorable color.

She looked away from him then and changed the subject. "Can you help move me closer to that wall? I don't want to lay flat."

He shook his head. "If I pick you up, your wound may reopen, and if you haven't noticed, I am fresh out of shirt sleeves to patch you up again." She mumbled something under her breath, and he raised an eyebrow. "Come again?"

"It's nothing."

"Didn't sound like nothing."

"It was nothing, Balthier."

"I promise to help you lean against that wall if you tell me what you said." She bit her lip and considered his offer. When the blush filled her cheeks yet again, he could tell what she was going to admit.

She muttered it quietly, and he had to struggle not to laugh. "I said that I noticed. About your sleeves. I noticed that they were missing."

He slid one bare arm under her knees and the other under her back, picking her up gently. "And you like that they're missing. Admit it," he whispered in her ear as he carried her over to the cave wall and set her back down. She said nothing, doing her best to find a comfortable position. He sat beside her, and they listened to the sands whipping around outside for several moments. She seemed to lean closer to him then, her head drifting towards his shoulder.

Balthier nudged her shoulder. "No you don't. No naps. Talk to me."

She sighed. "Talk about what? Talk about how I don't think I will be able to retrieve my sword? That cost several thousand gil."

"So did my shirt."

Ashe snorted at his remark. "It did not."

"Do you want to bet?" he dared her. She shook her head in disgust as his extravagant stand of living. "I'm not kidding, Princess. Your lovely little waist is now wrapped up in the finest Bhujerban cotton. Very breathable and light, exquisitely tailored. Worth every gil…" He let his eyes drift to his shoulder where he'd torn the material. "Well, not now I suppose."

She chuckled softly. "When I was a child, there was a sandstorm in the Westersand that raged for an entire week without stopping."

He glowered at her. "Much as I enjoy your company, I do not intend to spend a week in this cave with you."

She looked down, and he could see the corners of her mouth quirk up in a small smile. "I imagine the others will find us before then. But in the meantime, do you have any food with you?"

He sighed. "None. Not a scrap. Basch and Vaan were carrying the packs today, remember?"

The Princess groaned as she remembered. "We are completely useless." He laughed at that in agreement.

"We are at that. So how about we not mention food for the remainder of our respite?" She nodded and tried to shift a bit to sit more upright. She let out a loud cry as her body stretched, and she swore loudly. "My gods, Ashe. You curse like a pirate."

Fresh tears sprung to her eyes with her exertion, and she gave up her attempt to move about. "It comes with a life in the resistance. It never seemed to faze them that they were cursing in front of their princess. I suppose I picked up the habit then. Vossler always told them not to…" She let her voice drift off at the mention of Captain Azelas, and Balthier could sense that the sting of his betrayal was still very fresh in Ashe's mind.

He decided to shift their conversation away from unpleasantries. It wouldn't do to have her hurting both physically and mentally. "I got a nice stab in the side once." Her eyes looked up at him curiously, and he continued. "We had not been to that drinking establishment before, so how was I to know they were so enamored with old Lord Gramis? So anyhow, some buffoon overhears me and Fran exchanging a few words about the good Emperor, and I got the business end of a broken bottle…" He gestured to a spot on his side "…right here."

"Did it leave a scar?" she wondered aloud, and he resisted the urge to lift his clothes to show her.

"Only a small one. If Fran hadn't been there, I would be a severely deformed leading man. I am guessing I gave her a real fright that evening."

Ashe nodded slowly. "You look out for each other. Hopefully you do not do too much to worry her. She would be without her partner."

"Worry Fran? Oh I keep things lively for her…" he began, but something implicit in the Princess' tone clicked in his head. Ashe didn't honestly think he and Fran…? "It's not what you think, Princess."

Ashe looked incredibly embarrassed. "No? Oh, I'm sorry. I just…" She was twisting the material of the sleeve tied around her wound nervously, and the action was incredibly endearing. Did the Princess of Dalmasca have a crush on him?

He must have been beaming from ear to ear, his face hurt from smiling so hard. "I would not insult Fran by falling in love with her. Strictly professional relationship, naturally. The closest we come to romance is when I try out my lines on her. She's very good at evaluating their potential effectiveness."

The Princess was still recovering from her embarrassment. "Your lines?"

"If I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?"

"I beg your pardon?" Her mouth was agape. Her injury and subsequent wooziness was dulling her senses. He winked at her, and she shook her head at him.

"Fran didn't care much for that one either," he admitted. She still seemed a bit uncomfortable about her verbal misstep about his partner, and it definitely intrigued him. He was about to tease her a bit more when he noticed that it was quieter.

"The storm has stopped," Ashe muttered, seemingly thankful for an excuse to move away from discussion of Fran. She squeezed her eyes shut and started to lift herself off of the cave floor, and he sighed noisily.

"Ashe, what are you doing? Basch will have my head if you go and kill yourself," he grunted at her. She stopped her motions and frowned at him.

"We have to find the others," she argued, gripping her middle. Her movements had probably wrenched something within her, but that wasn't going to stop her. He knelt beside her and picked her up again, her arms wrapping around his neck almost instinctively. "What are you doing? I can walk…"

He laughed at her again. "You can walk as well as Basch can cook! No, you'll just have to put up with my chivalry until we can find the group." They emerged into the sands once more, the sun burning brightly overhead once again. He hoped that the others were near enough because they would definitely be a target for beasts.

She had gone silent again after a few minutes, and he tightened his grip on her. The movement was definitely upsetting her injury, and he could already see some new blood seeping through the makeshift bandage. "You're going to have to stay awake, Ashe. You can sleep as long as you want when you're fully healed. So start talking."

Ashe buried her head in his neck, probably trying to hide the pain visible in her face. "What do you want me to say?" she asked, her voice muffled against his neck.

He considered the question a moment. "Hmm…how about you figure out what you will say to the Captain when he sees me carrying you like this? I do not seek to incur his wrath for getting my filthy pirate hands all over you."

The Princess chuckled at that. "How about this? 'Basch, Balthier was a perfect gentleman. He only flirted openly when he thought I was unconscious.' Does that work?"

The sky pirate grinned and gave her leg a squeeze where he was holding it, eliciting a squeal of protest from Ashe. "Afraid that would make you a liar now, my dear."

She blushed again, and Balthier was surprised at how open she was being with him. "How about 'Basch, this pirate wanted to get me away from the rest of you, so he conjured a sandstorm and enchanted a wolf to take a swipe at me.' How is that one?"

"I like that one a lot. I've always had aspirations of becoming a dark sorcerer, not to mention that I do in fact want to get you away from the rest of the group," he answered, leaving the Princess fumbling for words. "Ha! Would you look at your face, Princess. My sorcery has stolen away your speech as well!" Although he tried to sound overly joking in tone, some part of him was indeed telling the truth. He wondered if he'd get an opportunity like that with the Princess in the future, ideally when neither of them was gravely injured.

They came around a corner then, nearly colliding with their four friends. "I thought I heard your voice, Balthier!" Vaan cried cheerfully.

"Oh no! Ashe, are you okay?" Penelo cried, hurrying over to them.

Basch immediately began to eye him suspiciously, notably around his shoulders and his conspicuously bared arms. Balthier held his tongue, willing himself not to give Ashe's sorcery excuse to the older man. Fran too gave him a quick glance from the corner of her eyes but said nothing. He decided to let the knight do his duty, and he handed the Princess over to Basch's arms.

She turned to look back at him, and he winked. "I'll catch up."