The Problem With Running
Pre-game, Balthier, Fran.

He could have said it started with his father, but that would have been traditional, stereotypical, and totally predictable; he could have said it started with his father, which is why he says it started with Fran.

Or with the Strahl, which is the same thing. Ship needs a captain, so that visitors have something to shoot at. Ship needs someone who knows how to keep her flying too, and Fran's had a better touch with machines than he'd expect from a girl who spent most of her life climbing tree-bark.

The thing about Balthier is that he's not the type to rebel just to rebel, though it serves him well to have people believe this. Balthier is not a revolutionary; he does not hate his father; he does not harbor a secret desire for power or love or dramatic stories that always end up with the hero immortalized as a block of concrete. In another life, he would have remained depressingly normal in the way that anyone in Archadia learns to be past the age of three. In Archades, quirkishness is only fashionable for one season and then it begins to stereotype you forever.

No, Balthier learned early on how to be a perfect Archadian gentry: he learned how to be absolutely bland, with just a hint of mischief. It kept people guessing, which served him well too.

But there is a downside to being self-sufficient, to being sly and dapper and aloof. The problem with being unpredictable is that no one will necessarily understand you -- nor are they required to.

The problem with running is that, sometimes, nobody comes.

But Balthier would make a poor sky pirate if he didn't expect that, and he would make an even worse Archadian if he wanted it in the first place. So instead, he says it started because the women of the world were far too charming for him not to partake in, that the sights and sounds of the various nations were a feast for his senses, and that the indulgent temptation of adventure in the grand skies could not keep him penned within the stark armor of a Judge for overlong. Fran, being a Viera, was a natural avatar of all these forces. However could a man resist?

Every time he has the rare encounter with Archades -- a dilettante on the road who recognizes his face, or second-name, or the occasional discreet withdrawals from his House's bankroll when the bills are high and jobs are low -- he tells them this story. Fran always rolls her eyes in that Viera way, which largely entails glancing off to the side while her nose flexes slightly in a wrinkle.

He knows the whispers that come whenever he's in a town and Fran's walking along beside; they range from awed to jealous to leering, making assumptions on both him and her. The rumors never bother him. If pedestrians believe that Fran's taken, then less trouble all around -- Balthier's played the part of the overprotective lover more than once when it's suited him, though Fran always twitches her nose just so and promptly leaves her would-be suitors in the dust all on her own.

Most of the time, that's where the story ends.

Balthier is customarily very careful to make sure that's as far as it goes. He didn't hire Fran to be a concubine; she didn't join him by virtue of her pert, bow-shaped mouth. They found each other with the same well-honed senses of two strays on the market, each finding a common ground in their own hesitations. They don't need to split the same way.

The edges of their relationship are surprisingly strong, and surprisingly blurred all at once. He'd last tempted them just after a job that took the Strahl through Rabanastre. They'd been hard up enough for cash that he'd agreed to do a bounty -- nothing too fancy, just the usual -- and hadn't wanted to pick one large enough to attract the notice of the guilds. The last time he sent a courier to retrieve funds from the Bunansa estate, he'd received a rather pointed message along with the rest of the package. Cid may never be home, but their majordomo keeps an interest in where Balthier's been, and the letter this time read, The only wealth that crime increases is the bounty on your head.

He'd stuffed the letter in his pocket; one corner crumpled, and he automatically took it out again to soothe the damaged paper before catching himself. He started to force himself to throw it away, rejecting the words along with his heritage, but in the end, Balthier simply tucked it with the others in the back of his closet.

That night, he drank far too much.

It had been to pass the time -- so he reasoned to himself -- while they waited for their mark to finish transferring his cargo from one heavily-armed ship to a far less protected vehicle. The time schedule provided for twenty-four hours of leisure time; he and Fran had arrived early to plan out a complex escape route, only to finish prematurely when they discovered that an easy sabotage of engine coils would leave their victim wallowing at barely a hover.

The bangaas at the next table over were dicing, laughing uproariously whenever they tossed. In the corner, two humes were holding a noisy wager based around how much rum was available; Balthier beat them both soundly, and then kept topping his own score, swapping between drinks, sipping tiny glasses filled with multicolored liquids, dancing candied fruits across his fingers before popping them in his mouth. The buzz was pleasant, warm in his stomach and in his brain. He'd leaned on Fran before the night was half-over; he'd slurred out all manner of lewd implications between them as the rest of the tavern laughed and egged him on.

That night, when they'd finally stumbled back to the Strahl, he'd traced a finger along Fran's arm and asked her if she didn't want to try, just once. At least once.

She only looked at him with that incomprehensible Viera gaze of hers, and cupped her hand gently against his cheek -- and then she hefted him over one shoulder and dumped him on his bed. Alone.

But she didn't leave the room. Every time he woke up that night, fitful between the edge of life and dreams, he could see Fran waiting there patiently, long legs crossed as she perched on one of their cheap mechanic's stools. She was there throughout the night, and part of the morning, until he finally pulled himself to the edge of his cot so that he could heave his guts on the floor.

She made him clean that up all by himself.

All that day, she didn't say anything. Neither did he. She was graceful enough to forget about his clumsy flirtations, all the seduction stripped out of his voice from a buried urge for self-destruction, a fumbling attempt to burn even more bridges along the way. She was polite enough not to say anything, and he ran from that memory too, skirting around it gingerly on occasion but -- eventually -- able to relax again into the comfortable banter of teammates, of crew. Of partners.

They have each lost enough for their lifetimes, and the last thing they both need is to risk something more.

Fran, he knows, loves the Strahl the same reason he does: because the Strahl is home. Nothing is worth ruining it. Not mismatched attempts at pushing the boundaries of a relationship that fills them both already just as they need, as family without words, as people who will be there whenever one or the other stays out too late. As something dependable, because they both have abandoned the places they should be, choosing instead to run and run and run in hopes of escaping their own thoughts.

It's a mobile home, which is even better; it's a home that's waiting when Balthier flees to it, wanting nothing more than to escape the complicated knotwork that fills his life when he lets himself think about it. His father would take him back, if Balthier tried -- Cid doesn't change the locks on any of the doors, just like Archadia has never really refuses Balthier's occasional presence either, always tolerant of its prodigal son.

He wonders, sometimes, if Eruyt Village secretly feels the same way about Fran.

No one from Archades has ever come to fetch him back. As far as he knows, no one from the forest has come seeking Fran either. She does not talk about returning -- yet another in the long line of unwritten taboos between them, polite grey regions they both skirt around because there are some wounds that do not ever need to be reopened -- but sometimes Balthier wonders if she thinks about leaving his ship for somewhere else. Maybe she'll want a change of pace. Of scenery, if the Strahl's metal walls have become painfully boring after so many months in flight. A bigger paycheck, perhaps. Or, maybe, Fran will suddenly go into magical bunny-girl heat and go romping off in search of a mate. He's not entirely versed in Viera mating procedures, and the one time he asked, Fran informed him blandly that her species sprouted full-grown from cabbages.

He's still not sure if she's joking.

The prospect haunts him on occasion, but he knows better than to try and pin Fran down by insisting that their partnership become more, or place other restrictions on her time.

In the afternoon of one summer, Balthier's uncertainty gets the best of him.

Bhujerba is blissfully warm, with temperatures bordering just between sleepy and stifling; he's taken up the habit of post-lunch naps again, drowsing away in the long hours of a another day spent doing precisely nothing. They're waiting for a set of fresh leads to roll into the taverns and stores, hints of services that need to be performed and the names of people willing to pay handsomely for them. Until then, he and Fran are kept in idleness. The ship's in diagnostic hover mode in the meantime, partially unhooked from the dock couplings while Fran goes through various tests and gear replacements. It's been hours since he's seen the Viera; she might have left the ship in search of some mechanical part or the other, but Balthier's restless enough to wonder.

He pads down in search of her eventually, following the metallic clinks of repairs echoing through the walls. The Strahl smells like egg noodles and spices from lunch, complete with the ozone tang of Bhujerba's streets. One of the moogle craftsmen has left a nightcap on the floor, a tiny scrap of checkered cloth with a hole for a pompom, and Balthier hooks it warily on the toe of his boot as if it will bite.

He slips along through the shallow halls, feeling like a ghost suspended between two states of life: finding the Viera and sleeping in the cockpit. If he chooses either one, he'll be locked in it forever, unable to escape.

"Fran?"

"Yes?"

She's on her back in the engine room, slid underneath a fat worm of machine guts. He watches her from the safety of the doorway. While he's familiar enough with how his own ship works -- enough that he's well aware that sudden flames mean bad and a dimming hum means land soon now -- Balthier is content to yield to Fran's greater experience with the engines. He never expected a Viera of all creatures to enjoy working with machines, but he's long come to terms with his own reasoning for it: Fran dedicates herself to her job precisely because it is not Viera, because it is a skill that holds no predetermined standards for how good she should or should not be.

Because it is a thing that will never remind her of home. Because she does not want to be reminded.

His own curiosity nags at him, though, prodding him with all the patience of a House Physician. "You do realize," he begins unevenly, fighting to turn the hesitancy by which he picks his words into some kind of dramatic, lazy drawl, "that if your eye is ever caught by a... ship whose measurements are beyond grand, whose wingspan stretches far wider than mine -- in short, a... a ship who is somehow -- perish the thought -- better than the Strahl..."

She does something with her hands to the stabilizer coil, and he's knocked off his feet by a sudden lurch of the cabin.

When he recollects his balance, one shoulder aching where it'd been slammed into the doorway, she's already teased the wiring back into place. The ship's engines hum in docile obedience. He can't see her face from this angle, which is really for the best because he's weak against Viera smugness.

"Right, then." He clears his throat, leaving the matter unresolved, yet another topic sidestepped. "I'll just get back to work."