Author's Note: This chapter contains adult situations and is NSFW. The first half of the chapter is smut-free.
"When do you expect to be back?" she inquires quietly, not allowing her voice to rise louder than a whisper.
He laces up the worn boots and frowns. "Perhaps after dark. I don't suppose I need to stress the importance of staying put, do I?"
Ashe nods and fidgets with the rough blanket beneath her legs, twisting her fingers in the coarse fabric. They've only just arrived in Old Archades and if Fran has managed to work her incomparable magic with her two-day head start, Balthier will be meeting her in just over an hour. And hopefully she'll have procured them work passes for Draklor from Basch. Cleaning staff, Balthier had mused with some measure of disgust. Fran's idea, he'd complained.
The man does not enjoy "roughing it," as it were. To fit in with the rest of the slum dwellers, Balthier has had to leave behind his usual fancy clothes in favor of a simple shirt and linen trousers. His flashy jewelry is packed away in the rucksack beneath the cot they sit on at the moment, and the boots are clearly pinching his usually pampered feet. But they are holed up for the night in a shelter for those even more destitute than the usual inhabitants of Old Archades and must look the part.
Ashe frowns at their cramped quarters. They'd checked in as man and wife newly arrived and desperate for work, and she'd been quite amazed at Balthier's ability to switch from his usual clipped, aristocratic tones to the harsher sound of a commoner. He'd sounded weary and desperate rather than confident. Ashe imagined that Balthier would have been at home in the theater had he not pursued a life of crime. She'd remained silent, following the shelter operator and Balthier down to the last row of cots. Only a heavy canvas curtain separates their space from those next to them, but they've been fortunate enough to be placed at the end of the line. Now there is only one set of neighbors to potentially overhear their conversation.
"Be careful," she warns him, placing a hand on his arm. Walking the streets of Old Archades again had been strange. Life had gone on seemingly as usual, and the winter's cold had kept the faces of the residents turned down and away from the two visitors.
He finishes tying the boots and stands. Smiling as he places his hands on her shoulders, Balthier is obviously trying to mask his fear. "Don't worry about me. I know this place like the back of my hand. Just stay put, and we'll be inside before you know it. This will all be over soon."
She inclines her head toward the curtain. "Perhaps I'll make a friend or two."
"Try and stay out of trouble," he mumbles, pulling the curtain aside and sliding it back in place as he departs, leaving her with two cold stone walls and two canvas ones attached to a metal rail. The next hours will be trying for her, and it is far too chilly outside to go for a walk, nor should she risk being seen.
Ashe lays back on her side, counting the myriad stains on the curtain. She is almost asleep with the exhaustion of her days of travel when she hears a whisper from the other side. The voice is feminine, someone younger than her.
"Is your husband gone?"
She shouldn't respond, should pretend she doesn't speak the language, but the voice on the other side seems so desperate for a chat that she can't help herself. "Yes," she replies quietly, reverting to the sound of Bhujerba that had served her well the last time she was in the sprawling capital. "He has gone to find us work."
"Mine has been gone all day. And he's been looking for weeks now, he has," the young woman replies sadly. She barely sounds old enough to be married, but Ashe had been wed at seventeen. It is not so far-fetched. "Now that the Senate's been reinstated, all those big name families can afford to hire more staff. You could probably check there."
Ashe doesn't wish to keep talking, but there is nothing else to do. "Thank you, I will tell my husband when he returns." It is strange to refer to Balthier in such a way, even though it is simply a lie. She and the young woman continue their chat, but she cannot keep the thought of Balthier out in the city from her mind. Has Fran been successful? Will Basch help them?
"Do you…" The young woman hesitates for a moment, and Ashe can hear shuffling on the other side of the woman's curtain. She is grateful to only have one neighbor to worry about. "Do you and your husband have any extra bread? When Malik returns, he is always so tired, and they do not have enough for a man of his size…"
She sits up, wishing she could race to Larsa's palace right now and take plenty for all of those in this shelter. Though Larsa has done so much for his people, it is clear that many still need help. Taking the rucksack from under the cot, she grabs a fistful of their bread. Balthier will probably grab something while he is out meeting Fran since he has money with him, and she is too nervous to be hungry.
Rising to her feet, she pulls the curtain back and is shocked to see that the young woman is barely out of childhood. She cannot be much older than Vaan and Penelo's friend Filo, and Ashe wonders how old her husband is. The girl takes the bread with a grateful smile, folding it up in a filthy handkerchief and placing it on the shoddy table beside her cot. Ashe has not been able to interact with a person other than Balthier or Fran in so long, and conversation seems to come quickly now.
The girl is fifteen and her husband is thirty-three – her parents had arranged the marriage to avoid another mouth to feed, but the husband is a chronic gambler. They'd lost everything a few months earlier, and Ashe wonders if her troubles pale in comparison to the teenager before her. The girl's skin is sallow, and she is shivering under the blankets even though it is warm enough in the shelter because there are so many people.
"Lights out, ladies," a man's voice interrupts moments later. Ashe watches the shadow of the shelter owner on the other side of the curtain, the oil lamps extinguishing and sending the whole place into darkness. She can only hear the girl now, her weakened voice the only tangible connection Ashe has to the others in the shelter. In the distance, she can hear snoring, can smell the sweat and odor of the dozens of bodies crammed into the place as people begin settling in for the night.
Ashe avoids the questions she wants to ask about Dalmasca and whether or not Archadia is doing anything to help. She supposes she will learn more once she can access Draklor. Instead she tells the story she and Balthier planned together during their journey through Sochen, and the lies fill the time adequately. The window beside the cot is so filthy that she can barely see out of it, and she hopes Balthier will return quickly.
She is so engrossed in her conversation that both she and the girl nearly jump from their skins at the sound of clanking metal. Ashe's blood runs cold – a Judge, here? There's no escape – she's at the end of this corridor, and breaking the window and making a run for it would be impossible. Panic sets in, and her new friend seems equally distressed. The girl pulls the curtain with a sharp ringing of the rail, ending their conversation abruptly as the metallic footsteps grow louder.
"This is Judge Arnholm of the third district," booms a noisy male voice at the opposite end of the line, and Ashe closes her eyes to think of what she could do. Hiding under the cot won't exactly work. They'll have lamps. "This is a random security check. Please have your identification papers ready."
Ashe freezes, knowing that she has no fake papers. That is what Balthier is procuring at this very moment from Fran. It doesn't help that the Judges probably know her face. Her friend sounds just as upset, and she can hear the girl fumbling in the dark with bags and other belongings on the other side of the curtain. Her heartbeat grows faster as she hears curtains down the line being ripped open. She worries about Balthier – will they take her away, leaving him to endanger himself further? She knows he'd probably come for her, stubborn fool that he's shown himself to be. Ashe can only hope that Fran will convince him otherwise. She's caused them both enough problems.
The footsteps are louder, and she can now hear the angry voice of the Judge and the sound of his accompanying soldiers' footsteps. A man speaking in a Rozarrian dialect protests, and a woman screams. There is a lot of shuffling, and it appears that the man and woman are being dragged out. The darkness is adding to her anxiety since the only light is the glow of the judges' lamps that she can see at the base of the curtain. The glow inches closer with each passing second, and she wonders if she'll be able to make a break for it.
The curtain on the other side of her new friend opens, and she can hear her friend praying quickly. How strange that after all that has happened, she will be hauled into a dank Archadian holding cell for not having identification papers. The rings click along the rail's track next to her, hurting her ears.
The girl begins to bargain with the judge. "Please, my husband will return soon…"
Ashe hears a loud crack and a howl, and her hands begin to shake. They've struck her – just a girl, and she can do nothing to protest. She will probably be dealt with in similar fashion. The girl is crying noisily now, begging the judges not to take her away. The glow of the light allows her to see shadows, and the jagged outline of judge armor dominates the view behind the curtain. Where is Balthier?
She could cry at the sound. More clanking footsteps join the crowd only footsteps away. "Judge Gabranth, sir," Arnholm stumbles out, and Ashe watches the man back away from her friend. Basch must know she's on the other side, but she cannot risk moving from her place on the cot. She gathers the blanket in her fingers, squeezing the coarse threads in her relief at Basch's timely arrival.
"Who authorized this inspection?" Basch asks angrily, and she remembers the same tone in his voice when he'd confronted Balthier aboard the Strahl. Fran has obviously won him over – unless he is actually here to bring her in?
Judge Arnholm offers a dozen excuses, but Basch chastises him, sending him and his men away in a noisy clash of grinding metal. The curtain is drawn, and she sees Basch holding a lamp up. He's wearing his helmet, and so she cannot see his face to discern what his reaction is to seeing her. But Balthier is just behind him, his face lined with worry, and Ashe knows that she is safe.
The two men enter, pulling the curtain behind them. Balthier leans against the wall, tapping his fingers nervously against his arm as Basch kneels before her. "Good thing our metal-encased friend demanded to see you," Balthier informs her. "I don't much wish to participate in a jail break. At least not at this hour of the night."
"My lady," Basch whispers. "You could have been in serious trouble. Why did you not run?"
"And where would I go?" she asks, wishing that he would take his helmet off. "Are you here to arrest me?"
Balthier clears his throat behind them, and Basch's sigh echoes from inside the metal helm. "I do not approve of any of this," Basch informs her. "But I've spoken with Balthier and Fran and have been apprised of the situation."
Basch seems to grow uncomfortable as Balthier casually sits down on the foot of the bed. Is it so very obvious that she and Balthier have become more than friends? Balthier grins, whether because of his usual nature or because of Basch's discomfort she can't tell. "He's got the passes. We go in tomorrow, and he'll be there performing a routine inspection. He will help."
Ashe reaches for Basch's gloved hand and squeezes it. "I am sorry to have deceived you…"
Finally Basch removes the helmet and looks at her shrewdly, his lips twisting into a frown at her drastically different appearance. "I have only wanted to help you, my lady." She lowers her head in apology, thanking the gods for granting her such steadfast friends in her life. "I will speak with Lord Larsa tonight to keep him aware of what it is we do."
"I thank you," she responds earnestly. Balthier shows her their passes to Draklor, and Basch offers her the lamp to examine them. She and Balthier have been granted temporary access as members of a cleaning crew in a few of the labs within. Ashe smiles at the authorization seal and Basch's own signature on each pass. "I hope you do not lose your place for collaborating with a wanted fugitive."
"Lord Larsa supports you, he always has." Basch rises, not wishing to prolong their conversation and expose their identities. "I also wished to apologize. I did not trust you as I should have. With Hammad and Rozarria, I see now that I was at fault. I should have helped you, not condemned you."
He puts the helmet back on and takes the lamp back, leaving her and Balthier in darkness as he moves to the curtain. "Balthier will let you know the finer details. Good night," Basch whispers as he departs. The curtain is drawn, and she and Balthier are alone once more. She feels his hand on her arm then as he fumbles to find her.
Balthier scoots over, putting his arm around her. "I thought I told you to stay out of trouble," he tells her, but his voice is slightly shaking. It had been a very close call with the other judges, and it has obviously set him on edge.
"Trouble seems to follow us, Balthier," she mumbles back, hearing the bed creak as he moves away from her and unlaces the boots. She listens to them thud against the floor, and then she realizes that they hadn't planned what happens next. But he's already up and heading for the curtain.
"I'll go see if they have an extra blanket…"
She imagines that if she could see his face, he'd be smiling. "Well, I don't intend to spend the night on the floor without a blanket, my dear."
The cot is big enough for two so long as they share close quarters. The appropriateness of the situation will just have to be outweighed by the sheer ridiculousness of Balthier having to sleep on the ground. She stands and fluffs the pillow as best she can in the dark, arranging the blanket. "Just…get in here with me," she tells him, trying to sound confident although her heart is racing as it had been when the judges were storming through the place. But for different reasons this time.
Ashe can hear his fingers tapping on the curtain, communicating his own mental debate over the idea of them sharing a one-person bed. She takes a deep breath and lays down on her side, pulling the blanket over herself. Let him decide then. She's made the only offer he's going to get. The mattress dips beneath his weight then, accompanied by a chuckle. "We are supposed to be married, aren't we?" he mutters quietly.
She should be tired, but she is wide awake and alert now. Ashe can hear the soft rustle of fabric and when he lays down behind her, she realizes that he's removed his shirt. They know what one another feels – why is she being so ridiculous about it? They have an important job in the morning, and they both need the rest. Ashe forces her eyes shut and tries to ignore the feel of his warm body behind her. Balthier wraps an arm around her waist, settling his hand firmly on her stomach, holding her against him.
"Good night, Balthier," she whispers and receives a light kiss on her shoulder in reply. But of course, she cannot force sleep upon herself. Balthier is rather well-behaved, more than usual at least. He keeps his hand in place as the minutes tick by. She listens to snores of various volumes all around them and quiet whispers of people further down the line.
A few bunk spaces down, Ashe can hear a creaking that grows steadily louder as the moments pass. Though she is no innocent, it is not a sound she is often privy to. She is used to a quiet night's rest in her own bedchamber. Now she shares quarters with dozens, and it appears that some of those souls are engaging in various activities. Ashe licks her lips, trying to ignore the soft moans that reach her from further down the corridor.
The hand on her stomach begins to move, Balthier's fingers beginning to trace small circles on the skin beneath her blouse. Her chest tightens at the sensation. There are people all around them, but it has not deterred others and it doesn't seem to be deterring Balthier. She feels warm kisses on the back of her neck, and she is unable to stifle a sigh. The creaking down the aisle increases in volume, but no one else in the shelter must be hearing it but her. She wants Balthier, has wanted him for quite some time now, but is this the right time and place?
He continues at a leisurely pace, his hand moving up her blouse to her breast. He gently squeezes and caresses, taking his time with each one although she cannot do much more than focus on breathing and the sound of the creaking cot down the way. "Balthier," she whispers, "not here." She tries to shift slightly, but only ends up arching her hips up and back against him, and he moans quietly at the contact.
Ashe inhales sharply as he moves his hand down quickly to her skirt, running his fingers up her thigh and then between her legs. His touch is still gentle, but she is shaking now from the intimate contact, knowing that there are other people just paces away. They had time alone in Giruvegan, aboard the Strahl, in Sochen…but it is here that something more will finally happen. They will cross a line now and will be unable to return to where they once were. She could end it now, could demand that he stop, but his fingers are deftly parting her, making her ache for his touch. It has been so long, years since she was with Rasler, and he had never paid her such attentions.
She bites her lip hard, holding back a sound of pleasure as he lets his thumb flick across her most sensitive of places, and she can feel his unsteady, warm breaths against her neck. The creaking down the aisle has ceased, but in the distance, it seems that another couple has started on the very same path that she is now on with Balthier.
She cannot help thrusting her hips back against him as he touches her, relishing the sensation as he moves his fingers in and out of her. He must know how long it has been for her, and she can feel him pressing insistently behind her, his breathing growing more and more erratic as she moves back and against him. Hearing the others in the shelter has only been encouraging for Balthier rather than deterring him. He works his hand faster and faster against her until she can barely breathe. She wants to cry out, to let him know what his attentions are doing to her, but she knows she cannot. Perhaps it is this close quarters situation that has Balthier so enticed.
She wants more, can hear stifled moans in the distance and must have him closer still. Ashe raises a shaking hand to halt his hand beneath her skirt. He seems to understand and without words, he leans away, allowing her to turn and lay upon her back. The cot creaks with their movements, and she can hear him fumbling with the clasps of his trousers, the sound amplified in her senses because of her lack of vision. She reaches her hand out and meets the firm, toned skin of his stomach and the waistband of his trousers.
He stills his hands and lets her run her hand along the top of the trousers, her fingers slipping inside the band to feel him. He had been kind enough to be attentive to her own needs, and so she wishes to return the favor, reaching for him as he holds his face in his hands, his lips clumsily finding hers in the dark. Balthier moans quietly against her mouth as she touches him, his fingers tangling in her hair. She is no longer capable of shame, no longer embarrassed because all she knows is the warmth of him and the feel of his kiss as she feels an intense ache between her legs at his absence.
Balthier chuckles quietly, a low rumbling from deep within his throat as she tries to tug on his trousers to pull them down. Their cramped position on the cot is not making this so very easy, and she needs to feel him within her. He moves her trembling hands away and shakes the bed as he tugs the trousers down, discarding them on the floor. Her breaths are shallow as he pulls the blanket back over the both of them, lifting her skirt to bunch up at her waist. Balthier stops abruptly, and she hears footsteps in the corridor and a few noisy coughs.
Her heart is pounding, and the very real possibility of being caught only encourages her more. She waits until the footsteps trail off, then parts her legs nervously, letting him settle in between. He cradles her head in his hands, kissing her forehead gently. "Are you sure?" he whispers beside her ear, giving her one last chance to say no. But his body is warm and hard against her, and she will scream if they are interrupted now.
"The Queen demands it," she teases him, wrapping her arms around him. She feels the taut muscles of his back and shoulders, flesh that is usually hidden away beneath his fancy clothes. He is far stronger than he looks, and she kisses him firmly.
He darts his tongue against her neck teasingly and whispers in her ear once more. "You don't know how long I've wanted to hear you say that." Balthier strokes her cheek with his fingers, and she knows that he is telling the truth. She lets her worry about her country, about their pending visit to Draklor and the consequences of a relationship with a sky pirate melt away. Ashe kisses him back, letting it mask their moans as he slowly enters her. Even with his attention beforehand, it still aches, and he takes his time.
She breaks the contact of their lips, burying her next cry in the skin of his throat as tears gather in her eyes. She and Rasler had only been together a few times in their precious few months together, and she is embarrassed. Balthier slows his movements. "I'm sorry," he offers in apology, but she parts her legs further and breathes. This may be their only chance for some time and possibly ever, and she won't let her lack of experience slow them down.
"Don't stop," she mumbles, clinging to him. He obeys, pressing soft kisses to her cheeks as he moves within her. The cot creaks the same as the others had, and she imagines that it is obvious to anyone listening what is happening behind their curtains. She moves her hand to the base of his spine, encouraging him to enter her further with each movement of his hips. Balthier keeps one hand beneath her head and the other runs gently up her side and her thigh, caressing as he moves.
She grows used to the sensation, the pain between her legs changing to a more pleasant prickling, and she wonders how long they'll be able to continue their illicit behavior. Ashe can feel the mattress rock beneath her, and Balthier groans as she moves her hips up off the bed to meet his every downward motion. "You'd better quit that, Princess," he whispers in her ear, and she smiles. He retaliates by thrusting hard, making her lose her scream against his mouth.
The coarse blanket slides down his shoulders and onto his back as his movements grow rougher and his breaths become more erratic. The sensation between her legs builds, and she wraps her legs around him, encouraging him to drive deeper. Her breaths catch in her throat, and he sighs, losing himself in her. Whatever noise they are making matters little now as she clings to his sweaty shoulders and inhales the scent of him. Balthier's usual control dissipates, and he moans her name quietly, pushing harder and harder against her.
Has he been with no one else since meeting her? Probably not, but just how long has he waited for her? "Ashe, I need…" he says hoarsely beside her mouth, nearly lifting them both from the mattress in his frenzied motions. It is dizzying to have him so fully within her, her breaths coming quickly to match his own. The darkness around them has only amplified the physical feelings of their coupling, and she feels as though she will burst.
Balthier kisses her roughly, losing his groans against her mouth as their hips rock against each other. He moves against her a final time with a satisfied moan, and she chuckles as he lays his head against her chest. "The demands of a Queen, even in a filthy place like this," he complains, lying heavily atop her. "I don't think I shall move for a week."
She kisses the top of his head, the sounds of coughing and snoring in the shelter around them reminding her of what they've just done and where. Ashe doesn't know if she is ashamed or excited by it all. "Only you would joke at a time like this."
"Perhaps," he replies, finally moving and returning to his original place behind her. He wraps his arm around her and squeezes tightly. "For what it's worth, I do love you."
Her eyes water at his admission, and she pulls his hand to her lips, kissing his fingers. "I wouldn't have let you do all of that if I didn't believe it."
"Liar," he accuses her in a hoarse whisper, lavishing her sweaty shoulder with kisses. "Haven't you always wondered if all the rumors about my reputation had a lick of truth to them?"
She yawns, leaning back against him. "Maybe."
He laughs quietly, his words slurring as he speaks. "I pray it was everything you hoped it would be. I'd surely die if I failed to satisfy a royal. My very first," he admits, giving her a little pinch.
Ashe can feel a buzzing in her head, a dizzying sensation that won't go away for some time. If she'd known before that being with Balthier could feel so wonderful, she'd have surely overstepped the bounds of friendship ages ago. "You've no cause for anxiety. I might have to hire you on at the palace." Her giddiness is infectious.
"Can I choose my own title? How about 'Her Majesty's Bed Warmer?' or 'Keeper of Dalmasca's Most Sacred Treasure'?" he whispers. She chuckles, and he squeezes her tight. "Any excuse to make love to a Queen again. Anyhow, better get some rest. Big day tomorrow."
"You expect me to just sleep after all that, Balthier?" She hears his breathing even out as he lets sleep claim him. Ashe smiles, grateful for the love of the man holding her in the dark slum shelter. Whatever happens tomorrow, she will have the one she wants beside her.