The desert heat warmed Balthier's skin as the Archadian ship dropped him and Fran off at the royal palace. The viera had dared to chuckle at his nervous behavior on the flight over from Archades. He was awed by her suggestion to move their treatments to Dalmasca, but he could not think of a clever enough reason against it in time. He was incredulous at his partner's not so subtle attempts at matchmaking.
They had been cleared for travel by the Archadian doctors, and neither of them had felt any impulses out of their control for several weeks now. They had received their first curative injections before they departed, and Balthier's arm still ached like it was on fire. Fran did not outwardly appear to be in any pain, but Balthier was always the more demonstrative of the pair.
Ashe's minister still seemed to regard them with some measure of disdain, and not without reason, as he escorted them to rooms in a more deserted area of the palace. They may have been on the road to recovery, but their reputation as sky pirates was not endearing them to Ashe's cabinet. They were to have escorts to other parts of the palace and to the aerodrome, just in case they were interested in absconding with some of the palace's trinkets.
Balthier wanted nothing more than to grab a tool kit and assess whatever travesties had befallen the Strahl under Vaan's watch, but he was to attend supper with the queen shortly. He and Fran were acknowledged as the heroes of Rabanastre, and Ashe had released an official decree that they were innocent of their crimes. Her minister gave the impression that the people were more than willing to forgive them, but their chosen careers were not exactly approved of by the powers that be.
He did his best to settle in, but a palace doctor arrived then to administer the next dosage of the antidote. Balthier rubbed his arm at the memory of the last shot, and he just wished he could get them all in one overloaded injection, but the Archadian physician had laughed at that suggestion. The sky pirate rolled up his shirt sleeve and tried to focus on the various portraits of House Dalmasca that decorated the walls rather than the uncomfortably long needle that was about to pierce his flesh.
The pain was sharp, and the doctor did not have much of a bedside manner. He unstuck the needle from Balthier's arm, gathered his supplies and left the room immediately thereafter. He rolled his sleeve back down and decided to compose a list of improvements he would make to the Strahl as soon as he stole it back from Vaan. A servant arrived moments later to escort him to the dining hall. It would be his first time seeing Ashe again after their last encounter, and he hoped that he wouldn't do anything too stupid this time around.
"And she had this strange habit of spitting on her helmet. I could never get a word in edgewise with all the saliva flying about," Balthier remarked, and Ashe laughed heartily. Although their captivity had been arduous, the sky pirate and viera both had some fond memories of their prison guards. Balthier had mentioned that one of the guards, Captain Losrin, had died trying to save him, and they toasted her memory that night in gratitude for her sacrifice.
The three friends sat together in the dining hall, reminiscing about their journey across Ivalice, some pirate humor, and an escalating but not so serious argument about Balthier taking Vaan on as an apprentice sky pirate. Fran argued in the young man's favor while Balthier protested until he was red in the face. Since none of her ministers were monitoring her activities this evening, Ashe relaxed and allowed herself to indulge a bit. However, she was very quickly realizing that she could not hold her liquor like a seasoned pirate. While her dinner companions engaged in lively, but lucid conversation, they drank several tankards of ale between the two of them. Ashe had tried to keep up, but the room was getting a bit hazy, and everything that came out of Balthier's mouth seemed to be the peak of comedy.
Ashe knew if she stood up from her seat then that she would probably fall over, but it would be unbefitting of a Queen to be openly intoxicated in front of her dinner guests. She tried to drink water, but it wasn't helping as Balthier shoved another tankard in front of her. "Loosen up, Ashe! Peace in Ivalice, and Fran and I are almost free to carry on plundering the citizens of the world!"
The Queen giggled at the remark, although some part of her brain knew it wasn't exactly funny to joke about theft. She raised the tankard to her lips and tried not to drink too fast while Fran related a humorous story of a Bhujerban man who had once attempted to woo her and failed miserably. It took her several moments to realize that Balthier was trying to address her when Fran was done sharing her story.
She leaned forward with her elbows on the table, propping her head up on her hands. "What was that, Balthier?" she inquired, her words slurring together in a very improper fashion.
"I said we were going to retire for the evening. Fran and I have an entire day full of injections to look forward to tomorrow," he repeated, staring at her with a twinkle in his eye. How late was it? Hadn't they just sat down? Obviously not, she discovered, noticing the number of empty tankards arranged at the end of the table.
"We'll have to do this again, your Highness," Fran said politely, rising from her seat with her usual grace. Balthier stood as well, although he seemed a bit shakier. It appeared that his composure at the table was a ruse, and he was probably as gone as Ashe was. The viera bowed politely and gave Balthier a look Ashe could not decipher before she departed.
The pirate shuffled around the table to stand next to her. He bent forward, turning his head to meet her eye level as she continued to lean on the table. "Shall I have a guard carry you out, Ashe? Or can you walk?"
How rude of him. Could she walk? Of course she could walk! She was Ashelia B'Nargin Dalmasca, and she could do anything. "No, I don't need to be carried," she muttered as she tried to pull herself out of the seat. It wasn't the easiest task. He offered her his hand, but she waved him off. "The Queen can leave the dining room of her own accord!"
She stood then and with one hand firmly planted on the table, she met Balthier's eyes in triumph. His face was a glowing pink from drinking, and he wore his usual cocky grin. He chuckled at her. "If you can leave of your own accord, then why don't you let go of the table?"
He was infuriating. I'll show him, she thought proudly, and she turned around to face away from him. She let go of the table and tried to march away from him, but she had moved a bit quicker than she intended. As her knees wobbled, he walked up behind her and was bold enough to put his arms around her, settling his hands on her hips.
"Don't fall now," he whispered into her ear, his chest pressed up against her back. This was very wrong, Ashe thought. All of that ale had been a foolish decision, but the still functioning part of her brain wasn't entirely dissatisfied with how he held her. She mustered up whatever courage she had left and turned around in his arms.
She stared up into his face defiantly. Her heart was racing like it had that night in the dungeon, but this time there were no bars and definitely no Basch. She got up on her tiptoes to reward the pirate with a kiss, but he turned his head aside, and she ended up leaving a sloppy kiss on his cheek.
"You're….you…" she slurred, "You're the one who grabbed me, pirate!"
He leaned back from her, still offering some means of support but no longer embracing her. "You've had a few too many tonight, Highness. I think it's best we sleep on it."
Her eyes widened at the suggestion inherent in his phrasing, and Balthier looked almost ill at his slip up. "I mean, it is best that we sleep on it in separate places."
She laughed so hard she thought she would be sick all over his fine vest. He laughed along with her, and it just felt wonderful to be alone and comfortable with him, even if the room was making her dizzy. "Could you just walk with me? I don't want the guards to think something's wrong."
He linked arms with her and whispered to her in a conspiratorial way. But since he was rather drunk himself, his attempted whisper was nearly a shout. "I don't see how we're going to convince them!"
She giggled again, and they staggered towards the door. The guards posted outside merely exchanged glances with one another as the Queen and pirate stumbled up the steps. They arrived at Ashe's chambers, and one of her maids opened the door to let her enter. "Just a moment, Laina. I have to say good night to Balthier," Ashe ordered in the most regal voice she could muster, but Balthier's laughing response told her that she had not come across as very commanding.
Laina dutifully shut the door, and Ashe turned to face the sky pirate. "The Queen bids the hero of Rabanastre a good night!" He leaned towards her, grabbing her hand. He pulled it to his mouth and planted a kiss on her palm.
"Good night, your Highness. It will be a shame for Fran and me to leave such amusing company," he replied, still holding her hand.
Ashe's mind registered his words, and her happiness faded quite a bit. "Leave? What do you mean? You just got back."
She saw him look away to focus. "After Fran and I are considered healthy, we're going to get back to work. We can't stay around here."
"But I thought we…" she began, but his refusal to meet her eyes answered the question for her. What had she been thinking? Once he was cured he would just dally about Rabanastre? Of course he couldn't just settle down. Ashe did not want to show her disappointment and opened her door. She was quickly sobering now that the thought of him going away again was at the forefront of her mind. He had been gone before, and she hadn't known if he was dead or alive, and now he was leaving of his own initiative. "I will be rather busy for the next few days. Just let me know when you and Fran are departing. You are welcome to visit Rabanastre any time."
"Ashe, wait," he said, trying to grab the door before she closed it.
She turned to face him and saw sadness in his eyes that probably mirrored her own. "Good night." She closed the door and leaned back against it. Laina said nothing as she helped the Queen dress for bed.
Tinkering with the Strahl's engines was a most welcome activity for her owner. Balthier had spent the past few days inspecting the airship for any sign of malfunction and was relieved at its condition. Vaan had surprisingly not ruined it with the exception of a stinky old satchel of food that was uncovered from one of the smuggling compartments. He and Fran had received the last dosage of their scheduled treatment that morning, and soon they would be off. Balthier had felt a small tug of remorse at Vaan's crestfallen reaction, but the young man had helped him refuel the ship and change some of its smaller parts. In exchange, Balthier promised to assist Vaan when he set about purchasing an airship of his own.
He knew that he would have to bid farewell to the Queen shortly, and Balthier was very unsure about what he would say to her. After the disastrous end to their dinner the other night he had only seen her in passing, and he had been too embarrassed to meet her eyes. It was fairly childish of him, Balthier admitted, but he couldn't stop thinking about Basch's words to him a few weeks prior. Her purpose in this world is greater, and he was determined to tell Ashe as much when he said goodbye to her. He longed to pursue something more with her, but their worlds were too disparate. It would never work. Of course it was very easy to say these things to himself, but could he look her in the eye and deny what he felt?
He would find out soon enough as Fran arrived in the hangar. Balthier wiped the engine grease from his hands with a handkerchief and met his partner at the airship's entry hatch. "A guard waits to take you to an audience with the Queen," the viera noted as she boarded.
Balthier nodded and headed for the exit, but Fran grabbed his shoulder. "I wouldn't throw this away if I were you," she warned and released him. He rolled his eyes at her advice. When was the last time Fran had fallen for royalty? It wouldn't be all sunshine and flowers.
He exited the Strahl and was escorted back to the royal palace. The sky pirate was brought to a small sitting room and could not shake the nervous feelings he felt. He paced the room, probably wearing the ornate rug down with every repetitious footstep. He practiced what to tell Ashe.
This will not work out. I am a pirate, and I delight in robbing people like yourself.
You have a country to run, and I can't sit idly by and deal with the tedium of politics.
I don't deserve you after what I've done…
The door opened and the Queen appeared. Everything Balthier rehearsed flew out of his mind at her presence, and he didn't know how he could bear to part from her. So much for "this will not work out", he mused.
She spoke first. "I want to first apologize for my behavior the other evening. I was not myself and did not respect you as my honored guest. I am sorry."
He grinned. "You have nothing to be sorry for. It was wonderful to see you so relaxed. You should come out with me and Fran some night in Balfonheim."
She blushed at the idea and looked down. "Before you leave, I think we have some things to discuss."
He longed to flee from the room, but his mouth was open and his heart pouring out before he knew what was happening. "Ashe, I think I'm in love with you," he blurted out. She looked at him in surprise, and for some reason his mouth kept running like a faucet. "And I am absolutely terrified by it. I love the chase, and I love the rewards I receive from it, but I can't say I have ever felt this way before. I feel as if I could chase you to the ends of the world and never tire."
"Balthier…" she began, walking up to him and laying a comforting hand on his arm, but now that he had started, he had to finish. He had to tell her no.
"But even though I feel this way, there is nothing to be done about it. You have Dalmasca, and I have the skies and never the twain shall meet. I am sorry." He tried to back away, but she tightened her grip on his arm.
"You think you're the only one conflicted about this?" she asked. "I know what my duties are, and I will never turn my back on my people. But what of my happiness? I know that I would be happier with you in my life than without." He looked down into her eyes and was pained by the anguish he saw in them.
He embraced her then, trying to regain his thoughts. She seemed to fit perfectly in his arms, and he now knew his heart would beat out the voice of reason. "I don't want to hurt you again. I may be cured of whatever those blasted Rozarrians did to me, but I don't think I'll ever be cured of my desire for freedom."
Ashe chuckled. "I am well aware of that, pirate. I'm not asking you to settle down. I just want you when I can have you, is that so wrong?"
He kissed the top of her head and threaded his fingers through her silky hair. "Well I can't say no to a Queen's desires, can I?" He tipped her chin up to look into her eyes, and Balthier could definitely not say no to the look she gave him. This time it was right. Their lips met, and Balthier had never felt something so right in his entire life. Falling in love with Ashe was going to make him soft, he was sure of it. He let a woman steal his heart, they would say. Some sky pirate he was!
They broke apart, and she smiled at him. "Was that so difficult?" she remarked, and reached for him again, but this time he denied her.
"You delay my departure, highness. How can I return to you if you won't let me leave?" he replied, silencing her with a finger to her lips. "I have but one request before I go."
She turned her head at a slight angle and regarded him with a wicked expression. "The Queen grants your request. You may speak."
He chuckled at her. He had no doubt that Ashe would always lord that title over him. "You might have to do something about Basch. I can see him plotting creative ways of dissolving our courtship. I would not put it past him to find some archaic Dalmascan law explicitly forbidding sky pirates to consort with queens."
He stole another kiss from her, this one far less chaste. He heard a low rumbling moan escape her, and Balthier dared to sneak a hand up the Queen's skirt to stroke her thigh. She laughed against his lips at his boldness and pushed him away before his behavior got out of hand.
She rearranged her skirt to her satisfaction and regarded him with a chastising look as she tried to regain her breath. "And Basch would not be wrong to do so. Anyhow, before you go, I thought you would be interested to know that an excavation team has discovered a Galtean-era palace in Bervenia. This has just come to my attention, so I imagine that security is still low in the area."
He was shocked. "My lady, are you encouraging me to pillage this ancient and undoubtedly educational site?"
She winked at him. "I'm just telling you what news comes to me. It is up to you to decide how to use it."
He gave her one last kiss and bowed to her. "Then I will take my leave. I hope you will grant me an audience when Fran and I return as rich as Raithwall himself." She laughed, and he walked away with a grin plastered across his face.
When he reached the Strahl, Fran rolled her eyes at his gleeful expression. He would have expected no less from his best friend. "Do we have a destination?" she inquired as the ship prepared to depart the aerodrome.
"I hear Bervenia is lovely this time of year," he said, flipping a few switches on the console.
"You are distracted. Is it the Queen?" Fran asked nonchalantly.
"Mind your own business, Fran. You know I cannot kiss and tell."
His partner groaned at his behavior. "If you crash the Strahl because your mind is elsewhere I dare say it is my business." He chuckled at Fran's annoyance, and he went through the final check before takeoff.
"Forgetting something?" she asked. Balthier looked at the console. Everything appeared in good order. They had been cleared by the aerodrome for departure, and all systems were functioning. He looked beneath the panel and gave Fran a puzzled stare. She pointed to his hand. "Maybe you should give it back?"
Of course, Ashe's ring! He bolted from the seat and yelled behind his shoulder for Fran to shut off the engines. "It'll only take a minute!" he cried and fumbled around in his cabin for something to write with. He scribbled a message and dropped it into a small leather pouch along with the ring.
Balthier hurried into the aerodrome where Vaan and Penelo had been watching them prepare to take-off. He raced up to the children and pushed the pouch into Penelo's hand. "Give this to our queen for me, would you?"
Penelo looked to him in surprise. "What is it?"
Balthier sighed in annoyance. "Ashe will know. Just give it to her, alright?"
Penelo and Vaan exchanged a knowing look and acknowledged his request. They bid him farewell and scampered off. The sky pirate returned to the cockpit and saw Fran shaking her head in amusement. "Let's be off!" he remarked cheerfully and the Strahl rocketed off into the sunny desert skies.
Ashe stood on her balcony facing the aerodrome. She saw the Strahl fly off in search of adventure, and she smiled happily. Everything was going to be alright. There was peace in Ivalice, and peace in her heart. She heard excited feet running behind her, and she saw Vaan and Penelo being escorted into her chambers.
She greeted her friends, and Penelo handed her a small leather pouch. "What's this?" Ashe inquired.
Penelo shook her head. "Just something Balthier asked me to give you."
What did he want now? "Do you know what it is?"
Vaan shrugged his shoulders. "No idea. He said you'd know what it was."
"Can't he deliver his own mail?" Ashe asked no one in particular. The children said their goodbyes and hurried off as quickly as they'd arrived. Ashe longed to have an ounce of their boundless energy.
The Queen untied the pouch's string and dumped out its contents into her palm. It was Rasler's wedding band. Why would he give it back now, she wondered. She saw a note fluttering to the ground and picked it up.
I said I'd return this when I found a better treasure, and I have.
The Queen rolled her eyes at his message. Maybe it hadn't been the best idea to tell him about the discovery in Bervenia. But she could see the writing continued onto the other side.
Love, Your Leading Man
She groaned outwardly at the message, but inside she felt like she would burst with joy. She returned the ring and its note to the leather pouch. The Queen of Dalmasca could not mask her smile as she watched the Strahl become a distant speck on the horizon.
Her leading man indeed.
A/N: Woohoo! It's over! Thanks to everyone for your encouragement with my very first story. Your support kept me going through the entire process. By the by, I'm planning a sequel of sorts to this story, but it's still in the early planning stages. But you can all look forward to more of this universe if you liked it. Thanks again!