The worst of the afternoon heat was over as the party trudged to the eastern edge of the Ozmone Plains. After a long journey from Archades, Ashe and her companions were en route to Giruvegan and had only the Golmore Jungle and the Feywood left to tackle before reaching the mysterious and ancient city.
Ashe of course had wanted to continue. The sun was still high in the sky, and they had just spent the previous night with the Garif in Jahara. But it had been the suggestion of that sneaky sky pirate that they camp in the grassy field at the edge of the jungle.
"Giruvegan isn't going anywhere," Balthier had grumbled as he set down his gun and a large canvas bag. He had not said what was inside it as they had traveled that entire day, and no one could part him from his bundle. In the heat of battle he held his gun with one hand and the bundle with the other. Ashe did not know what loot he was holding on to, but it must have been important enough to risk life and limb against the fiends of the Ozmone Plains.
The decision to halt their day's journey was welcomed by Vaan in particular, who had accepted a mark from the Garif the previous day. He set off to hunt while there was still light in the sky, and Penelo had trudged after him, unwilling to leave the young man's side. Fran had kindly agreed to accompany the younger party members so they would not get into too much trouble out on the plains.
Basch had not been eager to stop so early either, but he did not voice a complaint as he assumed the task of setting up tents for the party. Ashe looked around the area. It was enclosed by steep cliffs, and no fiend would enter that night. It had been used as a camp for ages, and the party had rested there on their first journey to the Golmore Jungle. The Princess was hard at work sharpening her sword. If they were to cease their travels for the day, she would not let the extra time be wasted in idleness.
Ashe watched the sky pirate with a measure of curiosity. He had his back to her and was kneeling in the grass, rummaging eagerly through his bag. The Princess continued her sharpening, but she kept sneaking a glance out of the corner of her eye. What was he doing? She heard a scraping metal noise, and Balthier stood up with a triumphant exclamation.
"Beautiful!" he cried, standing back to examine his work. "Just perfect!"
Ashe set her sword on the ground and walked over to the sky pirate. He had his hands on his hips proudly as he surveyed the ground. The Princess saw that there was a fire pit left by other campers, and it appeared that Balthier had placed a metal grate over it. Some coals were slightly smoking beneath the grate, and Ashe saw a pan handle sticking out of the bag on the ground.
"Balthier, what am I looking at?" she inquired.
He turned to her with a grin. "You are looking at the beginnings of one of the finest nights of your life, Princess."
Basch offered a distinct grunt of displeasure at Balthier's choice of words from his place near the tents, but Balthier merely smiled at her. Ashe knelt down and tugged on the handle. She ended up pulling a frying pan from the bundle, and she examined it quizzically.
"A frying pan? You fought one-handed in battle all day for a frying pan?" she scoffed.
"Not just any frying pan! It was a kind gift from the Garif for tonight's main entrée," Balthier explained enthusiastically.
"I think he intends to poison us with his cooking, Highness," Basch called as he hammered a tent peg into the soft ground.
Balthier turned to the knight with a feigned heartbroken expression. "You have not lived until you have eaten my special sky pirates' stir fry, Captain. I'll not hear you speak ill of that which you haven't tried!"
Ashe rolled her eyes. "We could be halfway through the jungle by now! We stopped early so you could cook for us?"
"No, Princess. We stopped so I could cook for me. I'm just feeling generous enough to share with the rest of you tonight. I just need time to prepare all the ingredients." Ashe merely gaped at the sky pirate. They needed to make haste to Giruvegan, and they didn't have time to sit around cooking.
Balthier sat down on the ground and began pulling several exotic looking vegetables from the bag. Ashe stood over him and looked down at him disapprovingly. "And why now? Every other night we camp and eat the bread and other food we've purchased. Why is tonight the time for special sky pirates' stir fry?" she asked.
"I had a taste for it," was the only explanation Balthier provided as he began arranging the ingredients. Some dried meat and even a small jar of spices were pulled from the bag, and Ashe allowed herself to consider how tasty all those ingredients would be together. Throughout their journey the party had shared meals together, but never anything homemade. Always whatever was purchased from a village sundries shop, and it was always eaten cold or cooked on a stick over an open flame. Balthier had managed to construct a miniature stove top in the Ozmone Plains, and Ashe couldn't help admiring it on some level.
"In the event that this experiment fails, Balthier, I will make sure we have enough bread and cheese to last us a while," Ashe replied, and she began walking over to the rest of the party's supplies where they rested near the tents.
But Balthier would have none of that. "No, Princess. I need you to be my assistant. I can't chop all these vegetables myself."
The Princess had hoped he wouldn't ask that of her. It was her fatal flaw, and no one else in the party had known about it, and now they all would. "I shouldn't. I'm a terrible cook," she admitted. She remembered failed attempts in the palace kitchen during her childhood. The royal chef had personally begged King Raminas to keep his daughter away from the food lest everyone be made sick by the young princess' desires to feed the family.
"We do not need to cook," her father had told her. "That is why we have a chef at the palace. We must be experts at politicking, and we can let the chef be an expert at feeding us."
And that was precisely what she related to Balthier. "Really, I can't cook. I don't want to make anyone sick," she explained.
He laughed at her. "Oh come on. I just need you to cut these vegetables. There will be no cooking involved on your end. You've proven to all of us your skill with a blade, so this should be no trouble for you."
"I don't suppose you have a knife and cutting board in that bag?" Ashe inquired as she sat on the ground beside her companion.
"Not quite," he replied as he drew more vegetables from the bag. "But I trust that you will be able to improvise."
Ashe thought long and hard, but she had no idea where to begin. Basch saved her then, poking his head out from one of the tents where he was arranging blankets. "My shield is flat, majesty. Please use it as a cutting board."
Balthier poured a small amount of oil from a vial into the pan. "Perfect thinking, Captain. Maybe I should have asked you to assist me." The Princess groaned at his remarks. She would show him.
Ashe retrieved a dagger from Penelo's belongings and Basch's shield and placed them on the ground in front of her. "Where should I begin, Chef Balthier?" she asked sarcastically.
He began adding pieces of meat to the pan and gestured to a pile of assorted peppers and onions. It smelled wonderful already, and he added some spices to the meat in the pan. Ashe wished she knew how to cook from scratch, but the skill had not been bestowed upon her. She placed a green pepper on the shield and began slicing it with the dagger.
Balthier looked up from the pan and gave her a disappointed look. "Smaller pieces please," he muttered and took a few metal plates from the bag for serving.
Ashe glared at him. "I know. I'm just starting," she answered, concentrating on her task.
"Don't want anyone choking," the pirate remarked, taking the chopped pepper from the shield and adding it to the pan.
"I said I know," she complained. He was so picky! Ashe vowed never to let Balthier con her into cooking with him ever again. She began chopping an onion into small chunks as she enjoyed the scent of meat and peppers that was beginning to spread throughout the small camp.
He stirred the contents of the pan with a wooden spoon. "Smaller," he commented.
Ashe threw her hands up in frustration. She gestured at him with the dagger. "If you don't like the way I'm doing this, you should just do it yourself!"
"Highness…" Basch warned from the tent area. He seemed to be watching the whole affair with an amused grin.
Maybe Basch was remembering the disastrous birthday treats Ashe had tried to make for him when she was about thirteen, she thought. The knight had eaten the entire cake she had made without complaint, but he had gotten a terrible stomach ache and was confined to his bed the following day.
Balthier chuckled and added her onion chunks to the pan. "I thought this activity would relieve your stress, Princess. Not increase it."
Ashe grabbed another pepper and began slicing it angrily. "Well if you would just let me work on it, maybe I would calm down. I'd rather chop vegetables than your head this evening, Balthier."
"Fine, don't let me interfere," he said with a smirk as he stirred the meal in the pan with a practiced motion. They cooked and chopped in silence for a few moments, and Ashe felt herself relax. The scent of their dinner smelled better than anything Ashe had eaten in days, and she couldn't wait to try it. Basch must have been enjoying the smell too as his tent set-up routine had slowed considerably. The spices entered her nostrils, and she wondered where in Ivalice Balthier had learned how to cook. It didn't strike her as a required trait for sky pirating.
Apparently she allowed herself to get a bit too distracted, as Balthier called her name several times before she noticed. "Princess, you know you need to remove the outer skin for that, right?"
Ashe looked down and noticed she had been cutting an onion with the outer husk still on it. Of course she knew to remove it! She'd just been saving time and….oh what was the use? Balthier would never be satisfied with her vegetable chopping prowess.
She picked up the small tomato that she was to chop next and tossed it to him. "Then you do it!" she began, but before she had realized it, she saw that Balthier didn't notice her throwing it.
The tomato splattered onto the front of his vest, leaving traces of red fruit and seeds all over the intricate designs and onto the crisp white linen of his shirt.
"Oh no…" the Princess muttered as she saw Balthier's features darken. He looked at her in complete surprise. Ashe knew that Balthier took an obnoxious amount of pride in his clothing, and she had just committed a cardinal sin.
"You little vixen!" he cried in shock, brushing bits of tomato off of himself. Ashe dropped the dagger and backed away from the cooking area.
The sky pirate stood up as well and hefted a tomato of his own. "Balthier…" Basch stopped hammering a tent peg to warn the pirate.
"I'm sorry, Captain. This will not go unpunished," Balthier retorted, moving away from the frying pan and towards Ashe.
The Princess held her hands up in innocence. "I'm sorry! I didn't mean it! It flew out of my hand. Why weren't you paying attention?"
But the sky pirate was undeterred and he threw the tomato at her. She dodged aside quickly, but not fast enough. The tomato smacked her in the knee, seeds and slimy fruit sliding down her leg. The Princess let out a loud cry of surprise. He did not just attack me with food, Ashe thought incredulously. This will not stand.
The Princess raced behind Balthier and found another tomato. "Don't make me do it!" she warned as he grabbed another vegetable. They were at a stalemate, but he smiled at her and broke first, lifting his projectile veggie for another assault.
She managed to avoid this one and launched the tomato at her companion. Ashe's aim could not have been more perfect, and the sky pirate was rewarded with a splattering tomato to the side of his head. "Yes!" she cried in triumph as Balthier began picking tomato out of his hair and from his earrings in disgust.
They ran in circles about the campfire, picking up another discarded vegetable each time and hurling them at one another until there was food everywhere. Ashe did not want to admit how much fun she was having as she threw an eggplant at the pirate.
Basch poked his head out from another tent and screamed at them. "That's enough!" he cried, but the Princess and the pirate threw their respective food items in the knight's direction in one swift motion. A large piece of broccoli Balthier had thrown smacked Basch in the face.
"People have to sleep here, pirate!" Basch complained, tossing bits of broccoli away from the tent opening.
She finally stopped running around and tried to catch her breath. The Princess scowled at Balthier. "You're wasting everything!" she exclaimed, gasping for air.
He bent forward, his hands on his knees. "Speak…" he wheezed, "speak for yourself!" The companions stared at one another, trying to regain their breath. They each dared the other with their eyes to continue the assault.
Fran's voice broke the silence. "Something is burning." Balthier's eyes widened as he noticed a small amount of smoke rising from the frying pan. He rushed over to tend to the meal as the Viera and the children entered the camp.
Vaan surveyed the scene with a gobsmacked expression. "You guys had a food fight?" he asked in surprise. Ashe also detected a hint of disappointment in the young man's face at not being able to participate.
The Princess tried to quickly cover her tracks. "No! No, we just had a…disagreement." She wiped bits of tomato from her leg and picked pieces of onion out of her hair.
Balthier looked up from the frying pan where he was spooning bits of stir fried food onto the metal plates. "And it just so happened that the food was in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Vaan shrugged and accepted a plate and began eating eagerly. Penelo wrinkled her nose as Vaan scarfed down the meal. "Is it still edible?" she asked as she took a plate for herself.
"You can always count on Fran's nose to tell you when to stop cooking. It's perfect as a matter of fact," Balthier commented. The group sat around the fire and munched eagerly on their dinner.
Vaan took a break from stuffing his face and turned to the sky pirate. "Mmhphf ngaghmp!"
Penelo shook her head in embarrassment. "Vaan means to say that he likes it."
The young man swallowed his current mouthful and smacked Penelo's arm playfully. "Well yeah, but I was trying to ask where Balthier learned to cook like this."
The sky pirate and his Viera partner exchanged a significant look, and the remainder of the party waited eagerly for an explanation.
"Fran, you want to field this one?" Balthier asked as he stabbed a large bit of pepper with his fork. He glared at Ashe as he tried to stuff the piece of pepper in his mouth.
The Viera set her plate down and looked around the campfire. "It was a long con. We posed as chefs at a ball in Bhujerba because the easiest way to access a safe in the mansion was through a stairway that led from the kitchen."
Ashe looked between Fran and Balthier in surprise. "You couldn't just break in like normal thieves?"
Balthier shook his head. "Now where is the challenge in that, Princess? And besides, the life lessons I gained fed you all this evening. There's gratitude for you."
Fran cleared her throat and crossed her arms. "It wasn't my idea, your Highness. Not to mention the attractive young woman Balthier learned to make pastries from caused a considerable delay in our seizing of the treasure."
Balthier grinned. "She taught me the best way to knead dough…" he began with a naughty wink in Ashe's direction, but Basch raised a hand to stop him right there.
"We follow well enough, Balthier," the knight said and began cleaning some of the remnants of the food fight from the ground around him.
Vaan wore a confused expression. "I don't get it…" he complained as he helped himself to the remainder of Penelo's dinner. Balthier snickered at Vaan's reaction and helped himself to more of the special sky pirates' stir fry.
Penelo and Fran retired to the tents, but the younger girl squealed in surprise. "Why is there broccoli on my pillow?" she cried.
Basch shot Balthier a very dirty look, and Ashe looked down in embarrassment. Vaan shoveled more food into his mouth and looked to the sky pirate. "So what was the point of the fancy dinner tonight, Balthier?"
The knight offered an answer. "I believe I know the reasoning for tonight's events."
Ashe scowled at the sky pirate. "So Balthier could make a fool of me?" she guessed as she rose from the ground to flick a stray piece of tomato from the pirate's shoulder. Balthier returned the gesture by pointing to his head, alerting Ashe to the presence of a piece of onion stuck in her hair.
Basch set down his plate and looked to the Princess. "More like he was trying to add a degree of levity to our extraordinary situation. It has been a long journey, and we still have much ahead of us. Perhaps we forget the comforts of home when we spend our days fighting until we can no longer stand. Maybe he sought to foster a more familial camaraderie, to raise our morale with a fine meal."
Balthier put his hand to his heart. "You read me like a book, Captain. Can I keep nothing from you?"
Basch switched his gaze to the pirate and stared him straight in the eye. "No."
Ashe couldn't help laughing at Basch's deadpan look, and she doubled over, giggling until her sides hurt. Balthier joined her in laughter and tossed a small vegetable from his plate at Basch. "It is good to hear you laugh, Princess. You should try and work on that more."
The Princess settled down a bit and began cleaning more stray food from the ground. "I'm afraid there has been little to laugh at lately. I am sorry."
Vaan helped her clean. "I say we should try to get Ashe to laugh like that every night."
Ashe blushed as everyone responded affirmatively. "Do you all see me as that humorless?" she asked.
"Don't make me answer that," Balthier joked. Ashe laughed again, and the dinner concluded. Tomorrow's journey would be a long one, but Ashe felt a renewed sense of strength after the evening's meal. She felt closer to her companions as well as they cleared the camp of any trace of the earlier food scuffle.
But there was no chance that Ashe was going to mention the large tomato seed that was still stuck to the middle of Balthier's forehead. She needed something to laugh at the next time.