Disclaimer: I don't own a damn thing. Not even talent. Honest.

a/n: Consider this an edited author's note, because after how many months, I reposted the fic after correcting some of the more atrocious spelling errors. It was really bugging me. And no doubt there are still hordes more, but my soul isn't weeping so hard anymore. Anyway, second paragraph is still made up of original comments, and whatnot. Yes. Um. Moving on...

To that end, I'm slow and slightly retarded, and Valentine's Day was the perfect way to dump this off onto a holiday, so... You get whatever OOC crap I write for you, damn it. Also, I took some liberties with canon here. Lots of liberties. Timeline wise, I'm not finished the game myself, and I've forgotten half the crap that's gone on anyway - so in my world, it takes longer than one year. Character wise? Yeah, sorry, I went all pretty pose on you and obliterated everyone's characterization. Some of the dialogue is just 'wtf' too. Again with the nonsense. It's my birthright, okay. Next FFXII piece I write is going to be five hundred words or less, I'm not kidding.

The Three Phases

"Love is the difficult realization that something other than oneself is real." - Iris Murdoch

Even he can appreciate the romanticism of a tale between a thief and a princess, sweet and succulent as an overripe fruit. But he's read enough fairy tales in his days to know when it's time to lift his nose out of the book.

From above his crossed boots, he spies Ashe stepping off the stair across the room, patting her recently washed hair, and the boy Vaan nearly leaps off his chair to engage her in menial chatter. Balthier has to make an effort not to roll his eyes, and instead brings his drink to his lips.

Star-crossed disasters always seem more depressing when one is watching them happen.

He glances sideways at Fran and wonders how anyone finds worthwhile companions within the complexities of the world.

Orphans are always the worst kind to be saddled with, since there's no one to take care of them, and they rarely know how to do it themselves. If anyone else in their jolly little party is besieged with the obvious logic of this deduction, they don't show it.

Further ahead, Vaan shoulders Ashe aside and takes an unnecessary blow to the torso for his trouble, ending up staggering back into Penelo and knocking them both underneath the shade of an outcrop of rock. Ashe blocks the next rake with her shield before Basch dispenses the wolf with a well-executed uppercut with the blade of his axe; it tumbles down the opposite bank, gurgling.

Balthier buries the end of his staff into the ground, taking a moment to hook his arm around the head and lean his weight against it. If he were a lesser man he might spite the relentless sun overhead, or even lament the stickiness of his shirt. Instead, he just glowers at Vaan from beneath his eyelashes while pretending to look pensive.

This was getting ridiculous. It was more than apparent the princess wasn't trained in anything beyond the basics of combat, for what princess would be? She knew when to dodge and when to run, and that was well enough. A knock around the head wouldn't kill her. Picking up every ounce of slack for her was superfluous behaviour at best. Nevertheless, Vaan helps his friend to her feet and then trots back to Ashe's elbow, like a puppy ordered to heel, feebly pressing one sand-dusted hand against the injury. She shoots him an apologetic look; she's bereft of magic and it was her idea to stockpile items for extreme emergencies only. Vaan just shrugs, grinning crookedly.

This time, Penelo is the one who's glaring; she flits back and forth between the boy and the princess as if unsure of who irritates her more. She, as it so happens, was Silenced over an hour ago. "How about a little break, okay?" It's not so much a question as a word to the wise, one Balthier doesn't mind heeding.

Well. In retrospect, there is one thing worse than an orphan: an orphan who is blindly infatuated with a vengeance-bound princess. He should be grateful there's only of those, but then again, Vaan is more than enough to handle for even the most intrepid of keepers.

As he lowers himself to the ground against a cracked piece of boulder, Vaan makes a pained face and clamps down on his lower lip, an act that mostly goes unnoticed.

Balthier sighs, reluctantly re-shoulders his weapon, and trudges through yet another sand dune towards the others. He carefully avoids stamping through Vaan's blood splatters. (This was another reason he preferred the relative safety of the skies; his inbred scruples of good conscience couldn't lay ruin to him amid the clouds.)

Che. He was not a nursemaid for foolish thieves.

Damn orphans.

So he boots Vaan over with more force than absolutely necessary, knocking aside Vaan's hand when he tries to press it back against the bleeding. "Yes, why don't you rub more sand in it, you dolt."

"Hey-! What are you - Ow! Hey! That hurts!"

"I'm sure it does," Balthier drawls, yanking aside the material of Vaan's top with little to no care whatsoever. "It's what you get."

Vaan's eyes flash in defiance, automatically on the defensive. Although the effect is belied with his head craned back, in an attempt to scoot away. "Shut up. She - damn it! Just what do you think - ow! - needed some help, o-kay?"

His eyes swing skyward and it takes immense force of will to halt the complete eye roll. "As you say. No need to get tetchy about it."

"Ido say! And I'm not tetchy!"

"I'm telling you now, stop squirming or else you'll regret it."

"Get off your pedestal - Shit!" The bellow ricochets around the rock formation, startling Basch out of a reverie. Fran's ears flag downwards somewhat. A flush creeps up Vaan's neck when Ashe reprimands him for the noise with a woman's patented look; it continues up to his ears when he glances to the side and realizes Balthier is mirroring it, feigning faultlessness. Penelo seems to be the only one unaffected, but then again, anyone who spent so much time in Vaan's presence would undoubtedly grow desensitized. Like an rambunctious child's carnival one has grown so tired of seeing, it becomes a bore.

Yes, that was the perfect analogy for Vaan.

"Exactly how old are you again? I've known kids with more maturity than you," he mutters, ducking his head and giving Balthier a spiteful look.

Oh, how woefully ironic. "It was an accident, Vaan. An accident. Pure happenstance that it occurred while you were insulting me just I was about to be extremely generous with the last of my magicks," Balthier replies, pointedly blithe. He enjoys the way Vaan immediately shuts his trap with an audible 'click' at the hint of a Cure or two.

So Balthier chooses the moral highroad and casts his last bit of healing magic; it still isn't enough to close the wound entirely, so he resorts to bandaging the rest of it with gauze and an old handkerchief drawn from his belt. Vaan is forced to keep his arm raised above Balthier's head in order for him to work, and the distinct tremor in the effort does not escape his notice.

In the end, Balthier has to wipe more sweat away than blood, and for a child born of the deserts, he is exasperated to find Vaan is losing more water than he's putting in. He is perilously close to giving the boy a thorough word-for-word after he fails to see a water flask anywhere on his person.

Silently, he unties his and passes it over; Vaan gives him an almost shamefaced look when he notices what's being shoved under his nose. He takes it with a weary hand, ducking his head once more. "Thanks."

He can't quite help it. "You could have said something," he says, with just enough tart to send Vaan's gaze flitting about like an upset butterfly.

The boy shrugs slightly, in the manner Balthier remembers all too well from his own childhood: exceedingly obstinate. He hands the flask back while he wipes his mouth with the back of his other hand.

Balthier waves it off dismissively.

He's always thought escaping the clutches of love is far easier than slipping into them. Nevertheless, the scholars of Ivalice say there are three phases to falling in love. Balthier is sure it's all very pretty and well-worded, but in his opinion the abridged version is surprisingly simplistic.

Phase one: Lust.

Phase two: Insanity.

Phase three: Attachment.

After a while, somehow, someway, he found himself watching the signs like a wary traveller watches oncoming storm clouds. Just the little things at first: the little doting things Vaan persisted in, the awkward ways Ashe ignored him while still keeping him tied to her cause.

A bizarre left-footed dance that was eventually going to send Vaan crashing headlong into heartbreak.

Oh well. Not his concern. Orphanages were for orphans, and nonchalant interest in the lives of others was for sky pirates.

This is what Vaan remembers: the bird, circling wildly in its cage, beating the bars with heavy wings.

He doesn't realize it's not so simple as just a stab wound until he's on the floor, yanking the damned knife out - spitting and cursing enough to earn a good smack in the mouth from Migelo - and starts to feel raging hot where he should be cold.

He disappears for a moment or two, and when he comes back, he's sheltered in the more gentle warmth of someone's arms. He's only ever had so many trustworthy people in his life, and is surprised not to see Penelo's face above him.

The rose-flecked fever of ardour fades as fast as it comes on, and by three months on the anniversary of the day in the Westersand, it seemed that that particular romantic parable would end in anticlimax. Vaan's attentions return to complaining about the rains, weapons, arguing with Penelo over camp fires, and "Oh, Balthier, won't you let me sit in the pilot's chair? I won't touch anything, I promise!" It suits Balthier well. He hadn't been keen on the idea of sharing close quarters with a feuding couple, especially if it put he and Fran in the middle. There was only so much of the Strahl he was willing to share in such a case.

Of course, fever is a capricious thing.

Yet he was not prepared for it to flare up in such a way as it did. (Youthful infatuation was not supposed to draw blood. It especially wasn't supposed to draw blood in front of him.)

This is what Balthier remembers: he once tried his hand at poetry when he was no more then a boy, fraught with a brand of deep-seated angst only spoiled young men seem to posses. It said people were birds, or some such nonsense, and described them as an object out of his reach despite his riches. They would flit onto his hand for a moment, stay his affections for another, and fly away again, leaving him bereft. Lonely, even.

So it seems a moment of fair mockery of such melodramatics when the princess receives an anonymous gift - a single white dove - with a messenger concealing a poisoned blade to match.

Sometimes being a sky pirate provided the oddest of drama.

And it was all terribly poetic up until the point Vaan decided he wanted to be especially dumb and leap into the middle of the fray and come out half-dead and without reward. Then it was less like fantastical poetry and more like the selfishness of reality, and Balthier had lost his taste for both.

Perhaps it wouldn't have mattered if he hadn't been there at the time. Perhaps he wouldn't have cared if he hadn't been standing right there, bearing witness to the foolishness play out.

But it did and he had, and all he could recall was Ashe clutching at the stone of her birthright with nervous, fluttering hands while a person took a killing blow for her, and all that was said in the end was that she was terribly, terribly sorry. And then he was genuinely piqued, at Ashe as well as Vaan, but all he could do was clamp it off in his chest and steady the boy in his arms, siphoning poison as fast as possible.

The romantic sentiment of star-crossed lovers comes to mind again and he is struck by the bitter certainty that this desert rat is actually going to get himself killed over his stupid ethics in gallantry, and that... well, Balthier never could tolerate stupidity.

"If you can't bear to keep him, set him free."

She starts, one hand to her breast and the other to her sword, only to relax at seeing him poised in the doorway. "I'm sorry, I beg your pardon."

Three days have passed, and they have halted their journey if only to give Vaan time to heal, tossing around in his fever bed as he is. She has yet to see him, he knows.

With that in mind, against all better judgment, he will interpose on this little fanciful epic for no reason then that he can't stand the thought of blood on his hands. Right now, in this moment, he will do a good turn for the boy for no price at all. He'll be blamed for heartache and named the prying monkey, but he's committed crimes far worse. Vaan is too naive. An orphan boy with no one to teach him the meaning of pragmatism. This one favour he will do.

"Set him free," Balthier repeats, stepping out of the doorway and into the room. He spares a glance for the door of the guest room with its occupant she has yet to visit. Her own eyes swing to the birdcage and stay rooted on the little flittering thing within. This is the monarch of a dynasty he's looking upon, but at the moment all he can see is a girl caught between duty and the gratifying attentions of a young man, and not knowing what to do with the consequences. In comparison to love, guilt is often the stronger emotion.

Ashe trails one finger along a metal wire. "He doesn't seem happy, does he," she says softly. It's not a question nor is it an invitation for his reply.

Still, Balthier approaches the gilded cage anyway, looking down at the bustling streets of a Dalmascan market day. Imperials stalk the streets with the sunlight glinting off their irons and spears, like great silver herons plucking at dirty little fish underfoot. What a task, to reign in such a broken-down country under the guidance of one hand again.

Gently, Balthier reaches past the princess and into the metal latticework. The dove comes quietly, nothing but a young squab. Ashe lifts her head, watching him closely as he strokes its creamy plumage. Two tiny coal black eyes regard him, perfectly bred for shape and beauty, for every rite of passage, observance, or pageantry that can possibly be thought up by nobility. To be used once for show and naught again.

"I once resented this life too," he tells the bird, quietly, ever so softly drawing the pad of a finger along its head. He pays Ashe no heed when she turns her back and takes a seat at the table, back to maps and schemes and merciless requitals. "To be used for the entertainment of others. For no purpose other than to be looked upon with a fleeting smile. The day's gala, as it were."

The princess says nothing when he casts her gift out the window, where its smooth, elegant body is lost amongst the dancing waves of heat and the billows of greasy smoke. He trains his eyes on the sky for a moment - inwardly yearning to be back in it and away from these predicaments - before turning back to regard her.

"Unfortunately, I'm of the belief that one cannot keep a bird in a cage simply he sits nicely on your finger. I'm sure you agree."

She is truly a Queen, the way she holds herself steady despite the scratched wooden table she sits at and the clothes of a Rabanastre commoner on her back.

"I have no idea as to what you are implying," she tells him. Her voice does not waver.

Balthier only reclines back with arms crossed loosely.

The unnecessary words are, of course, exactly what give her away.

Months slip past one after the other, and Balthier takes solace in old routines: sitting for hours in taverns with the same drink in front of him and joylessly entertaining himself with carefully selected men and women who won't remember their own names in the morning, let alone his. Thinking about his father was an old routine he tried to avoid as much as possible, so he swaps for something a little more fresh, and takes to thinking of Vaan and his little dilemma with the princess. That, and Vaan's not-so-little dilemma with his entire disposition, being none of Balthier's concern as it is.

Fran, in the late of night as they sat alone together as they usually do, once claimed she sensed a change building in him. Which was entirely untrue considering his return to the good old ways of Balthier the sky pirate. She argued the point, to which he insisted she was incorrect in her assumptions.

Well, what he said was more like: "You're out of your gourd, Fran."

She may or may not have replied with something like: "Either stop drinking, or stop speaking. I shan't bring it up again if it bothers you so."

And, like all who possess wisdom beyond the grasp of measly humes like him, held true to her word, and he was almost at the point of legitimately discounting her entirely.

Until it occurred.

His stalwart partner observes him with a kind of detached humour, leaving him to his miserable fate as Balthier comes face-to-face with something he has hoped feverously to avoid: a seventeen-year-old boy who is beginning to realize that, despite the chivalry and bloodletting, his fantastical infatuation is exactly that.

Vaan discounts Basch as a source of worthy advice, and comes to him instead, moping like only the terminally sanguine can. For once, Balthier wishes he hadn't taunted the boy so mercilessly with his own witticisms of love, for his own river of words on the subject have long since gone dry. For all his insight and unwarranted meddling (why did he have to stick his nose in the middle of their story, impending heartbreak or not?), his experience comes more from an aesthetic collection of books in a family library long lost. Fictional lovers have the delightful quality of never causing pain, or being lost in the many ways one can easily lose love, a lesson he jadedly believes all people with the ability to read should learn well. Still, he doesn't quite have the heart to put another dent in Vaan's dignity by telling him to accept reality and lick his wounds, so in lieu, he does the only thing he can.

Balthier sets a bottle of watered-down wine on the table between them, and under Fran's incredulous expression, encourages Vaan to drink as much as he wants.

Impossible to get drunk with naught but fermented grapes, he tries to portray to his partner with his eyes and an airy lift of the shoulders.

He construes the sceptical rise of her brow as, And this is why you speak of lovers and yet have none.

For prosperity's sake, he joins in on a glass or two, but mostly watches Vaan knock back mouthful after mouthful. Silence reigns.

"Well, you've obviously drunk before," Balthier comments flippantly, swirling the wine around his own glass.

Vaan gives him a look that he imagines says, Obviously, Balthier, obviously. Your higher education proves lucrative once again.

Contrary to pretence, Vaan doesn't hate Basch - he doesn't even dislike him, as a matter of fact. The truth is, he likes Basch because he has a type of quiet, sound loyalty that he's always admired, and it's obvious he'd do anything to protect Ashe, including lay down his life. He's the type of guy who can't lie through his teeth without letting his eyes give him away, and although whether or not he's really got a twin brother of his own is still up for grabs, Vaan can tell he genuinely grieves for Reks.

And that's sort of the problem. Because sometimes when he's talking to Basch, he gets the creeping sensation that Basch is talking to someone else all together, enough that the hair on the back of his neck tingles uncomfortably. He never wanted to be someone's proxy, least of all someone's ghost. (He wants to mean something to somebody for being Vaan, just Vaan, not because of dead princes or dead brothers.)

Soon after will come an abruptly murmured, "I'm sorry," which could mean any number of things: sorry for all the pain I've caused, sorry for treating you like your brother.

The idea that Basch is apologizing to Reks for letting him die makes Vaan a little sick inside, but that's how it is in a world full of ghosts. Nobody sees the living anymore, just the dead.

Vaan thinks that in comparison he probably seems a little too bright, a little too optimistic, but when he looks at Ashe he thinks 'hope'. When she speaks to him, or touches his arm, he thinks We're going to help her become Queen, and the idea that he's making change however small, with his own hands, makes him feel useful. At one time, he had it in his head he was going to end up marrying Penelo despite the fact he never saw her as more than a sister, but then she started looking at different boys in the market all dreamy-eyed and pink-cheeked, so that was out of the question. Then he met Ashe, and she was strong and smart and needed his help; he knew he liked her even if she was a princess and he was a waif.

All the same, he knows that when Ashe looked at him with the Dawn shard in hand, just that once, she saw a dead lover, a short-lived husband, and that was a deal breaker in spades.

Vaan likes Ashe. He likes that she's a symbol of something bigger and greater than anything he can imagine, and he wants to protect her like Basch does. But he hates ghosts even more, and he decided a long time ago he'll never be one.

"You can never know another."

Oh, how those words came back to haunt him on that mountain pass.

He and Fran followed behind their deposed Queen and her guardian, while at the far rear, her two desert-born subjects stumbled alongside Larsa, shivering like two leaves caught in an unrelenting breeze. The entire party was stretched apart at a good forty feet, politely keeping their distance because of equally chilly frames of mind. As far as weather in the Paramina Rift went, it was quite placid; fat, wet flurries were certainly preferable to any lethal blizzards in his books, climbing steadily higher as they were. At the bottom of the gorge, the black smudge of river kept issuing deep groans as it softened under the rare butter-yellow sunlight, continually fraying Balthier's nerves. A particularly loud crack, stark like a gunshot, nearly startled him into an unsightly faceplant. Thankfully no one noticed, aside from Fran. He had gotten quite good at ignoring her amusement over her hume partner's lack of grace.

It was under a foul mood - brought on by exhaustion coupled with inexorable desperation - that he and Fran, the half-way mark of their party, turned onto a steep embankment under the shadow of the mountain range, trailing the half-faded, stumbling prints of refugees and their companion's more stolid footsteps.

Then came Larsa's shout. It preceded Penelo's scream, and both tangled together and echoed off the cliffs within half a heartbeat.

The four of them - he and Fran, Ashe and the Captain - appeared to turn as one, just in time to witness a cloud of upset snow obscure Penelo; mountains tend not to show mercy to those who lose their foothold, and the old adage held true as she began to roll downwards without delay, screaming.

Vaan, who had been following behind more closely than Balthier had thought, hardly faltered before reversing direction, clearing great heaps of snow in a few strides. He overtook Larsa before Balthier - already sprinting downwards with Basch at his side - could understand what he was planning, and by then it was too late, and they were too far away -

- Vaan leapt onto the girl and managed to secure her in the shield of his arms, taking the brunt of the mountain on his side as they disappeared in a mist of white -

The snow turned pink where it gave way to the rock underneath, and they stumbled down the trail after the source, in danger of falling themselves. What a fool, Balthier thought, I hope you break your neck for that little stunt. Of course, he really didn't mean any of it. He really didn't.

By the time they met Larsa at the bottom of the gorge, Vaan and Penelo were already lying in a heap on the edge of the river, a good ten feet further down; she mewled and swallowed a sob, crawling off his chest to ask, "Vaan! Vaan, are you okay?"

He rolled around a little. His head was dangerously close to a break in the ice. "Ow. I've got gravel in my back! You weigh too much, Penelo. Damn - do I ever need a Cure!"

A low growl split the river. This time, underneath the weight of the two Dalmascans, a sheet of ice began to split in a great hiss of ice shards. They both let out shrieks that would have been comical in any other situation, scrambling for purchase on the rupturing surface.

"Your hand!" Basch called, and lifted Penelo aside as soon as she came within range.

Balthier was dimly aware of lifting his own hand to Vaan. Only when the street rat put his weight on his right arm to gain his feet, he screamed and pitched head-first into Balthier's stomach instead, throwing them both down into the deep snows. Despite the snow melting into the neck of his shirt, he stilled under Vaan's weight, not wanting to jolt him. Dislocated, no doubt.

"Allow me," came Fran's voice from somewhere above him, sounding characteristically unbothered. After a sharp pop and a half-yowled cry for mercy, Vaan was rolled to the side, clutching at his shoulder with his free hand. The lacerations on his back and side were beginning to weep blood, but he hardly seemed to notice.

"Sorry," he muttered when Balthier dusted snow off himself.

"It's quite all right. Just don't bleed on me."

He slaps a Hi-Potion on the boy, just as he receives a handful of snow in the face.

Despite appearances, Balthier isn't the type to hit the bottle too hard. With inns a plenty ranging the Dalmascan countryside, there's no reason to haunt taverns like the Sandsea, and the smell of more powerful alcohol tends to repel viera like Fran. Still, when the Aerodome is full of Imperial ships with hordes of Imperial soldiers - most of whom have probably memorized every contour of his wanted poster - he goes to the place with the most people, all the better to make a quick exit.

He picks a table in the back, and nurses a tall glass of mead, watching all sorts of entertainers, story-tellers, drunkards looking for a simple fight, hunters, and casual visitors come and go for the night. One tavern girl with an attractive figure about her has been expressing her interest throughout most of it, and when she inquires as to a refill, he gets a full - not unwarranted - glance of the round, flushed tops of her breasts.

Fran would have his head if he fooled around in the midst of their current situation, so he already knows he'll have to decline if the woman makes another pass. Not without a bit of wistful regret, though.

Eventually, he calls it a night at half past the eleventh hour, and makes his way to the front counter to query the state of affairs in the Imperial world. Such is the life of one perpetually on the wrong side of pursuit. The girl tracks his progress from her position at the tavern-keeper's side, her elbows propped up behind her, giving Balthier another fine view.

Theyare awfully nice breasts...

There's a sudden commotion behind him, and he whips around, immediately on high alert. Rather then potentially having an armful of eager women, he gets an armful of drunken churl instead.

"You!" Vaan laments, and the aroma of liquor is tangible. "You sleazy rover! Why'd you have to go and say that!? She told me - she told me - "

Say...? She told him...?

Oh gods above.

The tipsy thief throws himself further into his arms, nose bumping his collarbone. For a split second, Balthier isn't sure what's going on or what he should do to rectify the exceedingly inglorious situation, until his brain reminds him precisely what a boozing pickpocket - who is most likely searching for more ways to get uproariously drunk - would attempt to do in such close quarters. He twists the wrist of the hand working its way to his back pocket, not quite to the point of pain, trying to ignore the fact in Vaan's state he was more apt to get a handful of his rear end over gil.

Vaan'sother hand is free as a bird and Balthier can't quite hold back a strangled yelp as Vaan does exactly what he suspected.

All too conscious of the picture they make, Balthier pins both wrists together and spins him around; if Vaan notices he just groped Balthier in the middle of a public bar, he doesn't show it, just glares up at him balefully. The tavern girl, watching him all the while, gives him a long look, silently withdrawing her tempting offer from the table with no more than a raised brow.

Inwardly, he promises himself due reparations, giving the now struggling boy a good glower.

Offering a quick apology to the owner, Balthier bodily hauls Vaan out the door and to the water pump out back.

This is what gets said earlier that night:

"You know," he finally ventures, after two hours of touchy silence. Again, Vaan has managed to seek him out, even in the midst of hiding - a hand-picked spot to avoid this very same encore. To avoid another, he's scripted these words out oh-so carefully in his head. Words. Orphans. Right now, both are a terrible thorn in the side. "It's my firm believe that one should never have to ask the question 'Do you love me?'"

"Why not?"

He peers into the depths of his glass with a frown. There are so many choice responses for such a question, including the explanation on the wonderful thing about social classes, or the verbose discussion of unrequited love, or even a plainly spoken smack in the face. All of which are none of his business.

So instead, he speaks his next line: "Well that's the wonderful thing about love, isn't it? It's not something you have to ask for, or about. Either it is or it isn't."

This is what doesn't get said:

It isn't, Vaan. It isn't.

"Balthier! Balthier, please!" he howls, beyond pride now. "Okay, okay, I'm sorry! Please! I'll give the gil back! I'm sorry!" He shoves at the foot on his chest in vain, trying to wriggle out from under the pump's mouth.

With a satisfying squeal of rusted metal, Balthier props his elbows back on the handle and looses another torrent of water on the boy's face.

Vaan coughs, splutters, positively wails in protest. Clumps of soggy hair stick to his face; he flails on his back weakly, like a dying fish, before surrendering to the inevitable with a surprisingly coherent and equally vulgar string of curses that could have put the most bawdy of men to shame.

Never one to laugh in the face of one's misery, this time Balthier can't help but to make an exception.

An interesting folly of human perception is that when - and this Balthier knows well and covets gratefully - one flees from the realm of men and takes to the skies, people cease to matter. There is cloud and rain and dusty Dalmascan storms, but there is no half-mad father, no squalling mobs, or undesirable conversations across smoky table tops with men who stare into his eyes, smiling, all the while itching to put a knife in his back. There are no attachments. It's a life-sized theatre where reality is a quaint motif, and the people he meets are supporting characters in a drama, puppets drawn by strings. There, he is the leading man, and he directs his story as he sees fit.

Acquainting with the princess was an interesting turn of events, to be sure. There was profit to be had in temporarily grounding himself with this group of misfits, and so he had, all the while knowing that sub plots came to their respective ends eventually. Knowing he could return to the skies as a dying breed, turn his back once more on the chains of his past. Knowing he could let go.

Then he made the mistake of looking deeper into the world of a seventeen-year-old thief with a smile that is slightly crooked, and there was no way of stopping his wings from melting under a hot Dalmascan sun.

This all strikes him as fast as a streaking comet across his mind, as Vaan gets run through with an undead sword and once again it could have been avoided if Vaan just stopped protecting others over himself and there's so much blood pooling on the ground, on Vaan, on Balthier, he just wants to press his bloody hands to his head and scream, "Why why why? Why do you always do this?"

Guilt tastes like cloyingly thick syrup, but then again, why does he feel guilty? He shouldn't feel guilty - he shouldn't care - the blame lies at the feet of a stupid, stupid child who takes punishment he knows he can't take for those that can.

"It's his fault he's hurt! He's the fool who protects others unwarranted! He's the fool who can't learn to close his heart! He's the fool!" is what he wants to say. Or maybe, "It's not my duty to look after you!"

Or even, "I don't want to care about you!"

For the first time in so many years, he drops his weapon in his haste to cast magicks. That is what he thinks about as he sits in the chair at the side of the bed, watching a now unmarked chest rise and fall, rise and fall.

The figure in the bed scares him. He is angry, too. Desperate to escape the circle of events he is in.

But he can't bring himself to leave. (He doesn't want to be the one who doesn't visit.)

"I would never take a blow for you," is what he says when Vaan is propped up on pillows, devouring his meal.

A possible 'okay' is mumbled through the whirlwind of fork and food.

"That doesn't concern you?"

A disgruntled look at being interrupted. "No. I can take care of myself! I don't expect anyone to look out for me."

Balthier is a liar by nature and trade. There are times when he lies without knowing it.

Two more months pass until he realizes it.

For once, it's not Vaan bleeding into the dirt from a strike recklessly taken for another. At first no one in the party seems to remember what comes after a serious injury - they're accustomed to Vaan taking hits for others, not the other way around.

Thankfully, he blacks out before he can hear anyone question such peculiarity. If only the stupid boy would take better care of himself...

When he wakes, he's back in this week's rented room of choice. He immediately smells the antiseptic, and glances down to see his shoulder and arm wrapped tight in crisp, white bandages. The thing about healing magic is that it's not an end-all to natural recovery - the deeper the wound, the harder it is for magicks to reverse the damage. He curses whatever sadistic demon possessed him into a philanthropic streak. He curses monsters and warring nations and Vaan. Always Vaan. He was an orphan and that always meant trouble for someone. In this case, it just happens to be Balthier.

He's been tucked neatly into the left of the bed, but the bed sheets on the right seem much more mussed than they should be, wrinkled from the weight of a body. Tossing and turning all night isn't an implausible explanation. His injured arm twinges, earning a sigh. No wonder it still pained him, if he'd been thrashing around throughout all hours.

For some reason, the sound of Vaan's voice, loud and desperate, crying "Balthier, please!" from a long ago night at the muddy foot of a water pump echoes throughout his mind, and he licks at the corner of his mouth in consternation.

Another month, this time.

"Pity, that," Basch remarks. "He's a good boy." They're watching Vaan aimlessly stomp around in the dark outside their camp fire. Not surprisingly, when he and Ashe got into a small contest of wills involving Ashe's diplomacy face and Vaan's pouty lower lip, he came out the loser. Basch is probably doing a good deed and looking out for nocturnal beasts in Vaan's stead. Balthier, however, is not the Captain - he simply enjoys the view of Vaan licking his wounds by kicking at scrub. Dimly, a voice in the back of his head warns him that his taste in entertainment has plunged dramatically.

Not so. This is payment. He causes me trouble, and provides me with amusement.It's a fair barter.

Balthier spares Basch a glance, somewhat cheered by his impeccable logic. "Yes, quite. I suppose we'd better hope his next great love isn't Vayne Solidor himself, or we'll all be in trouble."

The other chuckles lightly at that, and the next thing out of his mouth comes so casually, Balthier can't help but to stumble in his thoughts.

"If you're taking him under your wing, you'd best make it sure it doesn't happen, then," says the Captain.

Taking him under... What in the gods?

"Wherever did you get that impression?"

Bash turns his head to regard him full in the face, and one of the qualities he has grown to both appreciate and disdain in the older man is that his eyes never lie. Right now, they are as fair and honest as Balthier has ever seen them. So it's no barb or pretext for some veiled comment when he says, "You just seemed to warm to him, that's all. He carries on about being apprenticed by you, so I assumed..."

You just seemed to warm to him.

Warm?Seemed to warm? Presuming Balthier had somehow, under the context of 'warm', grown more fond of Vaan through the passing of time? Captain Rosenburg had either spent too long trapped in the slimy confines of an Imperial cage, systematically inebriated himself by way of cactus juice, or had caught wind of a potentially life-destroying and pederastic allegation. He postulated all three were fairly likely.

Because it was utterly fallacious. He just couldn't stand having blood on his hands. That was all.

You just seemed to warm to him.

Well, yes, Vaan did blather on about Balthier helping him gain some wings in the form of an airship, but Balthier had never eluded to even registering his comments, let alone indulging that sort of talk. Had he? Had he somehow sent unconscious signals that the Captain had picked up on?

He examined his choices: beat Vaan's head in the next time he so much as gave the impression of opening his mouth, collect Fran and the Strahl and cut his losses, or deny, deny, deny.

All things considered, he went with the third option. "Warmed to the little churl? Don't be absurd. A man doesn't warm to a dog simply because it's scrawny and makes noise. Quite to the contrary."

Even to his own ears, he hears the overkill of hauteur. Too quick of an answer. If Basch were a lesser man, he would doubtlessly have chuckled, and like Balthier, made an unseemly comment on such a vehement dissent. But all he does is smile and say, "I see." Where Balthier goads at Vaan's age difference of five years, he is double the amount with Basch, and it is glaringly obvious in that moment, like the proverbial lone daisy in a field of red roses.

Basch makes some sort of noncommittal noise, a polite variation of the amused chuckle.

If Balthier were a lesser man, he might do something nasty to the Captain's daily supper, but he was raised in cultured society as a Bunansa. That sort of aimless behaviour is beyond him.

He does something nasty to Vaan's supper instead.

A ratty old deck of cards from one of the Strahl's many nooks and crannies sits in front of him, and Vaan swipes the top card off the deck and begins to dance up back and forth along his knuckles.

Another tavern, another day, another instance of not being surprised when Vaan pops up out of nowhere and takes the seat next to him.

Balthier regards the desk of cards idly. A vorpal bunny print. "Vaan? Up and about at this hour? And here I thought you'd be tired out from chasing after Her Majesty all day long."

This has become a sort of poor running joke between, only he should have taken into account the expression on the other's face before making such a comment. There's a storm cloud brewing.

"What?" Vaan questions in a distracted tone, snapping the card into the air and catching it neatly with his other hand. "Oh. Yeah. Nah." At Balthier's inquisitive sound, he glances out of the corner of his eye and starts dancing the card once again. "I mean, you know. Ashe and me. Everyone keeps saying I have to back off or something, leave her alone 'cause she's royalty, but they have no idea... They just don't get it," he says, sounding more like he's about to start a disgruntled rant to himself. He punctuates the end of this statement with an honest to god laugh - albeit, a dry one - as if he just witnessed an innocent by-stander get nipped in the rump by a passing chocobo.

Balthier blinks, trying to find something to say to that. Finally, he blurts out, "'Just don't get' what, exactly? I thought you were madly in love with the girl."

"What?" When he spins on the stool to face Balthier, he looks genuinely puzzled. "Don't tell me... but I thought you knew. You're like Dalan - you always just seem to know." A pause. Then, loudly, "But I thought you knew!"

There's a moment where Balthier thinks he has missed something very, very crucial in this conversation. Or possibly the last half a year. Or perhaps Vaan hit his head on something blunt yet again. Yes, that was more probable. The thought of strangling Vaan and demanding, "Knowwhat!?" occurs to him, but the tenuous thread of his patience manages to remain intact.

"You were pining," he presses on blandly, "For the princess, you remember? You came to me for advice on love and then proceeded to get uproariously drunk and embarrass us both in front of a full house, if you do recall."

By now Vaan is staring with his mouth slightly agape, the same expression he might have worn if Balthier had told the Empire had been burned to the ground my Moogles the previous night. "What?" The third time is the charm, so to speak.

Balthier shoots him a sharp look, irritated. "Don't keep repeating 'what' at me. You're not a parrot."

"Yeah, but... jeez... I thought you knew!" he chokes out through a sudden laugh.

That's too much to take. Balthier slams his forearm on the counter and turns his own body to face Vaan. "A little comprehensibility would be unduly helpful, Vaan. I could get more sense out of a wyrm than you," he snaps out.

"Rasler!" he yelps, lifting his hands in a placating gesture.

Balthier turns back to his deck of cards. Has no idea what's going on, but it's apparent Vaan has broken some vital part of his brain. Best to save the frustration and return to previous activities.

"Hey, don't ignore me. I'm serious!" Vaan worms his way back into Balthier's line of sight, face tinged a soft pink in mirth. "After that thing with the bird... I mean, I know I raved my head at you in the Sandsea, but I was really off it. I was just pissed at you - when I talked to Ashe that night, I knew you'd said something to her, because she told me I could go... I mean, she told me I could just walk away from you guys if I wanted... " he trails off for a moment, the glow of his eyes dimming in unhappy thought. Then he looks sideways at Balthier and they light up again, back to silently laughing. "And I came to you for advice on Ashe, not Ashe and me... It was never about - you know, that!"

Understanding comes to Balthier in slow fits and starts. Although he has no time to consider this explanation of events when Vaan jumps in suddenly, a seemingly amusing thought coming to him. "Come on, you don't think - you didn't think I actually asked her if she loved me that time, did you?" He starts laughing - honest, unadulterated laughter that draws the attention of nearby customers. He laughs and laughs and laughs, hiding his face in the shadow of his arm, shoulders shaking.

Balthier's never taken being the butt of someone's amusement well, especially if he or she is laughing hysterically over a bowl of nuts as Vaan is. Petulance is ever a hard trait to hide. "Yes, well, it certainly seemed that way when you were plying my pockets for money and all that," he says rather coolly, tipping back his drink.

It takes a while for him to sober up. Finally: "Yeah, sorry about that. But you stuck me under a water pump, so I think we're even. Like I said, I was just really pissed at the time, so I felt like drinking. At least then I had an excuse to be a bastard." He props his chin on one hand, gaze turning thoughtful once more. "She told me was sorry, and I just knew... I'm not Rasler."

The name spoken twice earns Balthier's long-suffering attention. Vaan's attempts at clarity only end up providing more headaches. Nevertheless, that's a name he hasn't heard in a long while. "The Nalbian prince? And exactly what in Ivalice does he have to do with anything, aside from the fact he's dead?" He should know better then anyone that curiosity is a hazardous thing, but he can't help himself.

"Exactly. He's dead, and yet she kept seeing him in me. Ever since the Dawn shard. I knew it, but I was just being stupid. I wanted her to seeme, so I kept trying, you know? But it was kind of pointless. It doesn't really matter anyway, does it?" He popped a nut into his mouth, looking far too serene for pleasure.

And this was precisely why Balthier never involved himself in other's business; it usually left him slightly bemused and not a little aggravated. He barely understood a word of it, the Dawn shard, the dead Nalbian prince, and Vaan's terrible explanations aside. If not attracted to Ashe, then he'd like to know what was going through the boy's head all this time. Probably more nonsense. And lots of impish laughter.

"Well, not to fear," he said, releasing a passive breathe, "you'll find another skirt to chase, I'm sure."

Vaan scoffed, wrinkling his nose. "Who says I need one? I've been alone a long time. I'm fine by myself."

His words resonate along with his tone of voice, and it strikes him then, analyzing Vaan's smoky profile, that seventeen and twenty-two are not so far apart at all, and for all his naivety and baby-fat cheeks, Vaan is not - as he may have previously judged - a child. Still childish, yes, but it seems to be a layer peeling away faster and faster the more Balthier watches.

But then Vaan opens his mouth and says, "But I was sort of wondering... I know I said that stupid thing about her age, but... Fran's not interested in anyone, is she?" and promptly shocks him into a stupor.

Despite the stunned deadpan Balthier knows has taken over his face, he feels the distinct urge to reach out and throttle something. Namely the deadly serious expression that has crossed Vaan's face as he leans closer, watching Balthier expectantly.

Fran. Honestly. Fran?

He doesn't realize he's said it out loud until Vaan bursts into hysterical laughter, pointing with a shaking finger.

Then he realizes he's been played like a well-oiled instrument.

Vaan is terribly spry when he wants to be; he delays his imminent demise with a handful of nuts and escapes out the door with Balthier on his heels, all the while lighting up the night with more side-splitting laughter.

"When you sleep, why do you put your gun to the left of your pillow if you're right handed?"

Balthier starts at the unexpected question. Another windy day, another momentary repose sitting under the shade of a tree.

"How in the world do you kn - "

Vaan is miming Balthier's own brand of smirk right back at him, down to the impish glint in his eye.

The bed sheets. Nearly another half year gone by, and Balthier remembers the bed sheets.

He laughs, then, astounded. (Not unpleasantly so.)

Sometimes Vaan likes to imagine his past is a deep, dark river and that whenever sadness threatens to drag him under, remembers that this river is far too murky to allow anything distinct to float to the surface, and that these unrecognisable memories are just so much water flowing under the bridge and he is safe from drowning.

But there are bright spots to even the darkest corners of his memories, like the time when he was six and Reks was eight, and the Aerodome was the best place in the world to spend their time. At this time, the numbers of young thieves and pickpockets are still half the number that they'll one day be, and nobody yells at them for being street rats as they weave in and out of people's legs, laughing excitedly.

There's something extra special about the dull, scratched ships that dock in the shadowed ports, and never at all if there're fancy Imperial ships about.

("Sky pirates," Vaan says, breathy in awe.

"Yeah! That's what we're gonna be one day! C'mon Vaan, you can be navigator!")

Unlike Vaan's kind, these men and women with dubious pasts and careful eyes are still abundant, and haven't yet died off to a bittersweet dream. They're the best part of the day, because he gets to watch them go about their business without paying heed to anybody but their own. They don't follow rules of empires, kingdoms, or even Ivalice as a whole. They're freedom.

He won't meet another set of sky pirates until he's staggering out of the Queen's chamber, clutching a hot amber stone, and even then he's not sure about the gun-toting nut that talks like a highborn, because what kind of half-assed pirate chases him up and down the castle, and finally throws him off a parapet?

Balthier, as it so happens, is not exactly an archetype of his lifelong dream - he's mean and petty and threatens to push Vaan out the Strahl's airlock if he doesn't behave. Vayne Solidor would never find a more gerrymandering speechwriter. On a good day, he's only mildly insulting, and on a bad one, he can be downright scathing. Since Vaan ends up being the subject of most of the abuse, it's usually a good time to head off the offensive and start taking shots too. Everything down to the date of his birth seems some sort of impropriety, and Balthier always, always has to bring it up.

And it's one of the best kinds of conversations, because when Balthier looks right at him and calls him stupid, or a feckless thief, or a waste of effort, he really is looking right at him, and people don't seem to realize just how rare that is. It's a special kind of magic that's just as few and far between as sky pirates and their cloud kingdoms.

Vaan likes Balthier. He likes that Balthier changes the sweet taste of his idealized fantasy into something different, stronger, so heavy it falls on his tongue as rich honey. It all comes down to a rainy day trapped in an inn (when it feels like they've all been travelling together for a lifetime or two) that he sees his reflection in the glass of the window and comes to a conclusion: there are no ghosts here.

This time when Vaan crashes into him, his breath holds naught a trace of liquor, and he is quite certain of the boy's sobriety when a tongue pushes into his mouth and he can taste every inch of him.

He grabs Vaan's shoulders, but doesn't entirely succeed in pushing him back. There's the traitorous side of him with its own intentions, despite how he might deny them. Despite how he is restless and irritable and tired and all of it comes back to the intensely tangible dream he had but two nights ago. Despite the fact, like the three phases, there is a surprisingly simplistic answer to his growing issues with Vaan. Not the least of which is how he has noticed Vaan looking at him in the past few days, and how his subconscious responds in kind.

When he feels lips on his, he decides he can be a traitor to reality for one night. He can accept that he has grown to want Vaan like he wanted the pretty tavern girl from so many long months ago. He can accept that Vaan has grown to watch him like the pretty tavern girl watched, like suitable company that eventually finds their way into his bed watches him. He can accept that for one night. If Vaan were to be swallowed up by the mind games and entanglements of others, than by the Mist, if only once Balthier wanted to teach him something of honesty. And honestly? He wants to take the teasing little churl to bed.

A street mongrel untouched by the unsavoury hands that lurk the corners seems a near impossibility, but when Vaan looks up at him with equal parts desire and dilemma, he realizes the rashness of the kiss was owed more to inexperience than anything else.

He breathes in, pushing at the fog of lust. This... was not what he had expected. If Vaan was to come to him (and he had to be the one to come to him, for Balthier could never betray the freedom of the skies and make that move on his own) he was supposed to come to him with some sort of experience. If not with the heart, then at least with the flesh. At least that.

He was not supposed to come to him as a book unwritten. Not that, anything but that.

Vaan senses his resolution, and that flushed face falls somewhat.

A softly murmured, "Balthier..." and a hand on the nape of his neck swings his decision with horrendous speed, however, and they stumble back into his room, locked at the mouth and grasping at any place they can reach.

There is probably a law somewhere prohibiting robbing the princess of her pet, a fate to be placed aside in a royal coffer, but he has ever been a man capable of sidestepping the law in that regard.

(I want to put my mark on this boy.)

Despite his smoke and mirrors, there are some facts about himself there is just no use denying. Like, for instance, despite his commendable senses of self-preservation and incoming danger, Balthier is, naturally, a heavy sleeper.

What entertainment finds its way into his bed usually leaves as fast as it enters. And so, for the first time in a long time, he wakes to find last night's lover still in bed beside him.

Splayed on his stomach, Vaan's elbow is cocked in prime jabbing position, his knee bent oddly and assailing Balthier's vulnerable abdomen. Vaan has tyrannized him to the edge of the bed and seems content in waging war for the last few inches if need be.

The boy, of course, is fast asleep.

Balthier grunts petulantly, and tries to roll out from under Vaan's dead weight. At the last moment, he realizes there is, in fact, nowhere else to roll and nearly brains himself on a bedpost. Vaan groans like a disturbed boar as he's propelled a good two feet across the sheets. "Don't be a grouch. S'good morning..." he mumbles.

Despite the low light, it's already sweltering. He's sticky with sweat. Damned desert babies.

"And how exactly can you call this a good morning?"

He regrets it as soon as it's out of his mouth, both for his tone of voice, and for the fact that could be misinterpreted in more than one way. The reality of the past night hangs on the edge of a blade, and whatever delicate potential hangs in the air could quickly turn sour. Balthier isn't sure what he prefers. The night's proceedings were more than fair, but seconds were not a usual habit for him. All the same, he looks to the crescent of face visible under the sleep-tousled hair, gauging his reaction. He's graced with a smile, still with the hint of lopsidedness. Something eases within him at the sight.

Vaan got it just as he meant it, and in that moment he wants to turn back the clock and restart the past six hours. "Well hey," Vaan says, "isn't this the post-coital bliss part?"

Making himself comfortable against the headboard, Balthier flips his gaze to the ceiling. "I'm sorry, did you say post-coital tristesse?" he taunts.

"No." An arched eyebrow. "Well, maybe. You say you're the best at everything, but I dunno now. I mean - "

For someone claiming Balthier's company unsatisfactory, he sure dodges the slap aimed at his rump rather quickly. "Hey! Don't youdare!"

"Of course I dare - I always dare," Balthier replies, but he doesn't pursue Vaan as he wriggles away, returning to a spread eagle position and nestling his face back between the pillows. He doesn't have a bead of perspiration on him, the little bastard. "So tell me, when is this 'bliss' part supposed to take effect? I'm hardly blissful."

"When I wake up," comes the drowsy answer, making Balthier roll his eyes as Vaan goes right back to sleep without a care in the world. For someone (questionably) innocent in the ways of venery, he certainly has no qualms undermining Balthier at every turn.

Teaching the lippy churl just who would be leading the show would be a particularly delightful venture.

Which was precisely the problem.

He eyes his discarded clothing. Sensibly speaking, he should wash, dress, and return to Fran as quickly as possible as he would do on any other occasion. Sensibly speaking, a single night of adult pleasure shouldn't detract from either of their respective pursuits. Sensibly speaking... if he were to be sensible at all, gods... the last year should never have happened.

Vaan doesn't wake at the light touch along his naked spine, just mews into the pillow, scarcely a breath of sound. Gooseflesh breaks out across his skin.

He sighs, and slides back into the covers.

He, Fran, and the Captain (after some smooth coercion) separate from the party for an indefinite amount of time in pursuit of a mark.

It was Balthier's idea. Naturally.

"You just take off without a word for more than three weeks, and since you've been back, you've been ignoring me! What's your problem? Don't act like it never happened. We had sex! It's not something you forget!"

Balthier is honestly caught off guard at the sudden deluge of angry words, unable to gather his thoughts for a moment. It was just the two of them for the time being - it was nearly time for departure, and those that weren't as eager to flee to the next destination were still in preparation. Aside from Fran, who had merely disappeared.

He'd been absently adjusting controls while Vaan perched in the rear, cleaning his boots with a knife. The boy had been in fine spirits since their return nearly four days ago, perfectly normal. The dreadfully blunt outburst came as something of a curiosity, although, if Balthier were to think on it, not entirely unexpected.

And that was the boy's eventual undoing, wasn't it? His infernally straightforward nature. The one thing that was going to crush him one day. He shouldn't have been surprised, he really shouldn't have. (Protect that, Vaan. I see now it's one of your best qualities. I... want to protect that. If only to see you succeed.) He had grown fond, he could admit that. He had even desired and taken innocent flesh, he could admit that too. But he had done so before, and had come out the better for letting go. Vaan would too.

He regards Vaan's stubbornly jutted lip with something close to a smile. This was bound to have come up eventually. Better now than later, now that the adventure was almost through. "You should know by now I don't do anything unless I want to. And I did want you."

This answer, meant to appease, only seems to vex him further, if the sudden snap of the knife back into its sheath is anything to speak of. With scarcely a pause, Vaan jumps to his feet and stomps out the door before Balthier can completely escape the confines of the piloting chair. For once, he can't read Vaan at all - the sinking suspicion that Vaan is in search of a bigger blade to do more than simply sift dirt makes it way into his mind. It was a single night of stress relief. Considering their position, it hadn't been more than that... shouldn't have been more than...

He extricates himself with a disgruntled reflection on quaint romantic tomes. Please, by the Mist, don't tell me he actually -

He gets his answer when a muffled, "Past tense, right? You know, that's really great. It really is. I'm so glad you're such an honest guy like that, Balthier!" is spat at him from somewhere down the corridor. Pure indignation, and more stamping feet.

Balthier considers the situation. It seems to register hollow within his capacity for logic. He considers some more. He had come to terms with becoming fond with Vaan, but never had he expected feelings on the other end. Never hurt feelings, like he was a girl who'd just stamped on a proffered bouquet of flowers. One night was one night, and anything else was...

Somehow he'd become Vaan's new Lady Ashe without realizing, and... well, that alone was enough to make him snort. He does, and Vaan barks at him - voice barely audible but still righteously furious - from the bowels of the ship, "What's so funny, huh!? I don't think it's funny!"

On all accounts, it's been a long while since he's laughed in honest humour. Having Vaan tear back up onto the deck in a fine rage is well worth the moment.

For his own well-being, he has to put a stop to this.

Having weaseled his way back into Balthier's bed, Vaan seems imbued with a dogged reassurance over Balthier's true affections. For Balthier's part, he wants to put an end to that smug expression. Very much. At the same time, he is deathly afraid that if he takes in the sight of his company sprawled naked in his sheets, he'll lose sight of the mantra.

For his own well-being, he has to put a stop to this.

Logically speaking, such an action would begin with extricating Vaan's stroking fingers from his hair - much more pleasurable than elbows and knees though they are.

"What are you thinking about?" Brassy, so brassy.

What a self-assured brat.

"Nothing that concerns you."

A blatant lie, but oh well. In truth, he's been thinking about Fran handling the controls on deck by herself. She was born with an all-seeing eye when it comes to his business, so he suspects that she suspects. If he was fair, he'd admit that she's probably suspected everything from the moment his and Vaan's relationship took a shift - like one of those annoying individuals who sees the whole of the puzzle before the pieces.

Then, of course, there's the issue of Vaan himself. That, and his uncanny ability of mirroring Balthier's thoughts.

"I've been thinking what Penelo would say if she knew. She'd be so burned up," he's saying, staring unseeing through half-lidded eyes.

Balthier can't help but to interject on that. "It's unsurprising she'd be jealous of you."

"Jealous? She and Migelo'd string you up and crucify you."

There's an unexpected response. Balthier needs a moment to collect his wounded pride. "What a lovely thought," he replies dryly.

Vaan rearranges himself closer, and looks up into Balthier's face. "But they'll find out eventually." He's fishing, and they both know it. It strikes Balthier with resolve. He's fallen too far from his original purpose, his original desire to ever join company with the thief in the first place. Treasure. Paragons. A sky pirate's prerogative, not a lover's.

This time he does reach up and pull Vaan's hand away; it's beyond him to try and meet those big, undisguised eyes while he does it. "There's nothing to find out about," he says to the room. "When this is all over, I will go my way, and you will go yours. Find your own ship or whatever you wish."

This is the part where he expires whatever blossoming feelings the boy is starting to harbour - that he should be the one going through these motions despite his expectations is cruelly ironic - and return to his dodgy existence alongside Fran. Vaan will return to Rabanastre as an adventurer among street rats, finding a glossy and exciting body to pursue soon after. The first of many pretty young things, Balthier predicts.

Vaan lets him talk. To lay down the real ending to stories of romantic grandeur - that most of the time, two lives don't intersect, and that there is rarely any joy in it even if they should. That Ivalice holds no sympathy for tender feelings. He thinks of Ashe as he says it, although if she were always in love with her lost husband as Vaan once claimed, then he is the one who was caught in the star-crossed tale, not her. Vaan nods once or twice, and lets him say all he has to. Balthier has to get this across; he has to end it now, before something worse comes along, like the Empire, like Vayne. He has to detach himself before something worse comes along, they both do. Unlike Her Majesty, he could never watch Vaan take a killing blow for him.

For a moment, Balthier thinks Vaan's actually come to a mutual understanding.

Then: "No." And Vaan leans over and presses himself to Balthier's side, settling himself with preamble. "No," he says again. "Because I'll be on your ship and I don't care how long you blab on. You really will have to kick me out the hatch to make me go. Fran already said she'd be glad to have me."

"She said no such thing," spills from his lips before he can so much as protest.

"Yes, she did. Ask her!" Vaan exclaims swiftly, sensing Balthier's distracted thought process and rattling it further for all he's worth. "She came up to me and said I can come if I want. By the way, she also said that your opinion doesn't matter."

Vaan lies better than the Captain, but not well enough to fool a professional like Balthier.

The second blow comes in the form of how just like Fran such interference sounds. Traitorous viera.

"It's my ship," is his eventual argument.

The only time Vaan's smile is straight is when he is playing at innocence.

Once again, for no reason at all, the idea that seventeen and twenty-two are not so far apart returns to him with a vengeance.

To an outsider, it might seem like the same old discussion - Balthier, please take me on the Strahl with youso I can learn to be a sky pirate - played out in the same old fashion - Vaan, I don't have need of a no-good chit - but in actuality, it is altogether untried dialogue, and every step further into this quicksand territory pushes Balthier off the axis of the world just a little more. What Vaan truly says (Balthier, please take me with you) and he says (Vaan, I don't have need of you) will define an unnamed and nebulous thought, achingly crucial in equally nameless ways.

Vaan's gaze slides to the left, somewhere at his shoulder, then down to his boots and back up again. This is where similarities diverge - this is no half-pronounced argument in the warm cradle of bed sheets, either. "I know you don't do anything without a price. There's not much I can give you... but - "

And the potential behind that 'but', the scope and breadth of such a possibility, is too much for Balthier.


And just like Vaan before, it's his final verdict on the matter. He will let go. He has to.

Vaan doesn't. Balthier comes to learn there are no final verdicts with orphans, and somehow, someway, he is saddled with one in the end.

"If you're staying, you're going to learn to read. Quietly."

"I know how to read." He's been gnawing at some sort of taffy for the past hour, and the sticky chewing noises make Balthier want to reach over and rip his tongue out more and more.

He flips a page, pointedly tilting the cover in Vaan's direction. "You'll learn to read better material." Naturally, he doesn't notice.



"You learn how to pickpocket."

"I already know how to adequately pickpocket, thank you."

"Well, I already know how to read."

"I told you - you're going to read better material."

"Learn how to pickpocket better."

"I pickpocket fine."

"I read fine."

The juvenile behaviour is too much to bear - he sniffs, refusing to debate the point further.

"Oh, by the way," and here comes a messy sucking noise as he shifts taffy into his cheek. "Ashe says she hopes you're doing well."

Balthier can't help but to roll his eyes.