The very last one.
He is weaving, flying, rolling over backs bent from swinging massive swords, trying to avoid death by cutting steel and rending magicks. He snatches a Bolas from the floor, courtesy of a failed attempt to entangle him only twelve seconds ago. He does not have enough room to spin them, nor the time, instead using the weighted ends to wrap around an armoured head and smash the metal into the face beneath it. Ignoring the cries of agony, he ducks again from another wild slash, bringing his Durandal under and up in a gutting motion, slamming the blade through the weak flesh under the man's jaw and through his brain.
Blood and a little gray matter popped out with the point of the sword from the scalp, spurting a small bubbling fountain when he rips out the blade. He cannot rest now, even though his gasping breaths are like the desert sand itself on his throat. His heartbeats harder than a southern drum, his eyes dart from soldier to soldier, all trying to do him grievous harm in no uncertain terms, his ears filled with the quick scuffling of his feet, the clanking of armour and the rough, coarse cursing of Sylvaen troops. Vaan knew that while a heroic fight against multiple adversaries on a suspended wooden platform with no way out usually ended with a victory in favour of the single hero in comic books, this was real life.
And even in the thick of all this, even when he knows that this may be one bungled heist that he could have had a helping hand in, he can't help but think that Penelo's cooking is probably waiting for him right now, steaming and slightly inedible while the cook herself played with her hair. It doesn't comfort him that if she had been there, she would have pointed out the layout of alarm traps (Grisly devices consisting of a skull and a heavy stick pounding on the bone once a wire was tripped) and got him… maybe… twenty metres further into the complex. Then again, given the now-known Sylvaen paranoia, it would have only meant that she would inevitably be in here with him, dodging death.
Vaan broke into a cold sweat as the two men he had taken down rose without a scratch, feeling their sealed wounds and nodding thanks at the spellcasters behind them. Suddenly, the battle seemed to become a definite fatal aspect of his career, with his foes undying and outnumbering him ten-to-one.
He feints forward and bends backward to avoid the cut, shivering as a blade whispers across his throat, nicking the skin. Another two men, wise now to his maneuvers, jabbed forward with their spears, slicing open a part of his pants as he twisted out of reach. He felt the banister at his back, hissing through his teeth as the men formed around him in a semi circle, another soldier swinging his swords with both arms in a vicious crosscut. Vaan's escutcheon managed to parry the horizontal blow, but the vertical chop dug deep into his thigh when he dodged back into the banister. Another spear blow clipped into his ribs, the bladed tip thrust too far forward to find any mark, save the wooden barrier.
All in all, Vaan mused, it could have been worse. He could have dragged his friends down with him, Kytes and Filo and even the Avariel guy, whats-his-name… Aa-thingy? Flyn? Flam? Kentucky fried? Nose-munch? Buttmonkey?
Either way, it was something comforting to focus on while he countered the next flurry of attacks, gritting his teeth as a Firaga spell sucked the air out of his lungs and sizzled his flesh. A clever parry from a man on the right left him swordless, Durandal flipped into the air and stabbed into the floor on the other side. With only his shield left, and with no time to perform any magicks, Vaan decided to do what any Sky Pirate would do when confronted with inescapable death:
"Congratulations! In disarming me, you've won the right to the lottery for a homestead on the Galban coast!" Vaan smiled winningly, holding his arms wide in a supplicating manner. One of the men who weren't confused by the sudden change lunged forward with his spear, only to have Vaan dodge and trap the shaft underneath his armpit, jerking it away from the man and tossing it over the edge before the barbed underside of the blade could rip through his side.
"Viwhatz… whatziz?" One of the spellcasters down the back cried out, "Vouzse… Vouzse an thief! Notz lottoman!"
"Yas correct, lottoman camm yesterday." The furthermost guard on the right agreed. The swords and spears were raised again, ready to pierce the youth where he stood.
"I'm his son! I've got an even better deal for you!" Immediately Vaan knew this was a bad thing to tell them. Suspicious as they were, it wouldn't be long before they asked some very awkward questions…
"Butz he iz of za darka-hue. Youze iz maggot-pale."
Like that one. He had no idea how they mixed up his bronzed desert skin with pale, perhaps it was the light?
"Ah, my friends, there is a horrible tale behind my fleshy discolouration, wrought with mystery, intrigue, and a very accommodating whorehouse in upper Archadia-!"
"Doez diz stooorey end viz youzse filled vis holez?"
Vaan shook his head, "I'm afraid it doesn't, my good man, my flesh is mostly unharmed." He took the opportunity of the chuckles to apply a Curaga to his body, wincing as the deep cut on his thigh knitted together, "Anyway, I was on a business trip to the newly-opened boutique, and-"
"Zen I do not likez zis storey. We change it zo zhat you fill viz holez. Karasapaati, Vikhamas!" The frontmost troops lifted their spears, already beginning to lunge and skewer the thief, until…
The same spellcaster from before spoke up, using a localized Stop spell to prevent the peppering of the Rabanastran.
"D'jatovi, De'sel?Rikkomas hamso?"
"Archadia brosal vik ton a'to a'ten. Jranvas…"
Vaan blinked at the exchange, which left quite a few of the guards now staring at him in unabashed awe. He had absolutely no idea what had been said, but judging from the slaps on the back that the grinning spellcaster had received, it seemed to have something to do with foreign machismo.
"Youzar, zhat brofal youzse went to, in Archadia, it vaz call-lead 'Va Green soiree?'"
The young pirate blinked again, taken aback. "Uh… yeah, the one with the palms from Phon in the centre hall and everything."
The majority of the guardian squad were grinning, now. The one with the most decorations gave the boy a respectful nod as the Spellcaster came out to the front, better for not having to shout his part of the conversation.
"Iz too go zar vunce, very goot quvarity, very fine vomanz, very cleanz." The man nodded, "Vhen waz last you go zar?"
"Uh…" Vaan shrugged, deciding to go for the truth at least. That way, there was a lesser chance of contradicting himself. "I had a friend, Balthier; take me there on my Eighteenth, two years ago. He'd plenty of money after a heist, so he treated me to a fancy place and told, no, forced me to take a girl. 'I'm not teaching a man who cannot understand the finer intricacies of the fairer sex', he said to me and, well… yeah." He felt like hanging his head, having told Penelo on the day that he was going fishing with Basch, Larsa and the older Pirate off the Sandsea.
Lying to her had never sat well with him, but it was better than her knowing he'd shacked up with a whore for the night.
"Ach! Viz a mentorz! Zhow very goot to pazz down the mantlez! Vhich girl did d'ju pick?"
"Her name was Eilijan."
"I amz not familiar viz her."
"Really? She had long, blonde hair, kinda tied to a braid that went about so high." Vaan held his arm flat against the crook of his back, "She wore a Dalmascan dancing costume, bare midriff, baggy pants, and had biiiiiig blue eyes, super pretty!" Cursing himself for devolving his speech back into his adolescent tone, Vaan nonetheless continued as the guards began sitting back and lounging against the banister as he got into his story.
"And back then, I was pretty dense, a girl could strip off her clothes and throw herself at me with cries of 'Take me! Take me now!' and I'd probably wonder if she liked me or something. So when Eili came up and asked me if I knew what I wanted, I said apples."
"Drasve hande'vektogua? Rungas?! Barristi!"
Vaan didn't understand the language, but he knew a disparaging tone when he heard one. A guard not much older than him, slouching against the rail, had opened his mouth and sneered at him, prompting a small chorus of chuckles.
"He sayz zhat youzse must havez had zhome ecksuperience, nobody kanz be zhat naïve."
"Nah, all I really had on my mind back then was taking my revenge against the empire… and Sky Pirating. And maybe the day I would be old enough to drink. There were also… other things… but they weren't that important."
Honestly, Penelo, why did you have to wear that getup so low on the hip?
"Ach, an man drivenz, I zhee."
"So, yeah, she plied me with drink until I was so messed up in the head that I mistook her for somebody else. After that, well, you know, what with her rubbing herself on me and leading me off to the chambers… yeah."
"Miztook? Zho elze doez you zhnow viz zha bluu aiiza and zha longz hair and zha outfit?"
The more Vaan looked back on it; there really wasn't anybody else who would fit the description. In fact, he was beginning to suspect that Balthier had dragged him off there because there was a woman who very much resembled the girl he knew. Except… there really was no comparing them. Bits of memory mixed with shame filtered through, mingling with imagination born of hormonal buildup and speculation. The woman was rough where the girl would have been shy, exasperated where she would have been giggling, fire-fueled where she would have been slow and pondering. Mostly, the woman frowned, and swore when she was not frowning. There was no laughter, no smiles, only cold professionalism.
And the girl he knew would never have sighed and said 'You need work, a lot of it.' at the end. She wouldn't have left the bed and cast back one hard, disappointed look, before closing him in that room alone.
"She looked like my best friend."
There was silence, a few of the men coughing. Others just looked on without an expression, although a few were nodding and sighing, like they too knew the difficulties he had faced.
When he looked up at the spellcaster, he was surprised to see tears in the man's eyes. An occasional sniff and a shivering finger as he wiped his closed lids, finally seeming to find the strength to speak.
"Vhy don't'ju tell her, dree'dik?"
"Tell Penelo? Ha! She likes the rogueish, polite kinda guy, like the Emperor. She wouldn't go for some uneducated street boy that she grew up with. You should've heard her talking with Filo, 'Don't date the mate' she said, "Save yourself for the shining knight'!"
"Maybe… zhe does not vhant yousze to thinkz zhat zhe iz a fazt vomans?"
"Who knows. I've never been able to figure her out. I'd like to think that she likes me, but I don't think I'm willing to break what we have by trying my luck. But anyway, the story about my skin!"
Vaan jumped to his feet, startling the troops, a spell already brimming to life in his hands. "The hero vanishes into nothing, eludes the guards, having bought himself enough time to absorb mist and heal, and escapes to Dalmasca with five priceless relics tucked into his satchels, the end!"
As the boy's Vanish spell concealed him from the shouting audience, Vaan grinned to himself and sprinted to where the ship was tethered not a hundred feet away, likewise invisible.
Five minutes later, the Galbana Mk II soared into the night sky, to the cries of angry guards.
And later, when they located the spellcaster tied up in his closet, ranting about a Shapeshifting blonde-haired wisp that hit him with a sleep spell and took on his form, their screams were doubled still. They vowed bloody murder on the girl who had made a mockery of their defences.
Penelo didn't care; she was waiting for Vaan to set the autopilot before she pounced. Fun times were to be had, and the truth was always good to extract.
"Oh… that's tough. I'd have to say that I think of Shrubs."
"Leaves are the first thing to come to mind."
"Really, Larsa? When somebody mentions trees, you think Gardens?"
"Basch, please, Archadian is very moist. We have trees in abundance, if you hadn't noticed."
This story was simple enough, and possibly the best in its simplicity. The emperor of Archadia required a quick, inconspicuous mode of transport in order to avoid the massive delegations that awaited him on the official barge to Rozzaria. A quick message, an annoyed sky pirate later, and he found himself on the Strahl with Basch as his accompaniment. Penelo had taken the opportunity to practice her navigating skills with Fran at the cockpit (How the two younger pirates had gotten on board or heard of the move was a mystery), leaving the four males with nothing to do in the central planning room but play games.
The game was simple, a word would be mentioned, and the associated word that first appeared in the head of the others would be spoken and revealed. So far, Vaan had likened Cactuar to sushi, Ashelia to a Nam-yensa (Basch had likened it to a fist in the stomach of an unamusing lech) and Basch to a great overbearing protective git who wouldn't know a joke if he got drunk and shared his life story with one and ended up married to it after a drunken night of debauchery.
"Larsa. Your turn."
"Very well… pillows."
"Pillow fights. With chicks in their pajamas." Vaan pointed out. The others just gave him long, unamused stares.
"Pajamas, you say." Basch coughed, colouring in the cheeks. The staring was now directed at him.
"Oh, yeah. By pajamas, of course, I mean-"
"-In their altogether?"
The two still blushing and unfocused in the eyes, the boy emperor turned to the older sky-pirate.
"Hmmm? Oh, yes. Fran."
The three men looked at him, at each other, and nodded, giving their answers simultaneously.
Balthier gave them all his most expressionless face, before sighing waving his hand before his face, a condescending smirk playing over a tic on his forehead.
The other three did the simultaneous trick again.
This time, Balthier snapped. He hit the table, spilling the bottles over their owners and sweeping the impromptu game of checkers on the surface back to the floor. His hair, normally well kempt, began to strand off and peel from the peak of his crown.
"Is that all Fran is to you, is she? Just a satchel of flesh wrapped in metal, hmm?" He glared at each of them, disappointed. "Vaan, you'll never amount to any kind of pirate if you cannot tell a woman's ability from her front-bumps! Ditto to you, Larsa!"
"But I'm not going to be a pir-"
"Fine! You'll be an ass pirate! A fanny-bandit!" The smarmy rogue turned around, throwing his hands into the air, "Now this is why I keep Fran's company. I'm surrounded by drooling imbeciles with seesawing blood concentrations and everywhere I turn there's another damn fool who thinks that because my partner is covered in a cast-iron body stocking doesn't mean she'll put those very sharp heels through his face!"
Basch nodded and took another swig from a rescued bottle, strangely unfazed. Larsa turned to Vaan and said something in a comical stage whisper.
I don't get it; did he just call me gay?
Sounds that way, your highnessmajestything.
"Good gods, and that's another thing! None of you idiots know how to cook! I can forgive Mr Oooh-I'm-a-royal for that, but what about the rest of you? Vaan grew up in the streets-"
'With the food vendors.'
"-And Basch was a soldier!"
'I was a Captain from Graduation. There were officer's messes back then.'
"See? See!? You're all relying on women to provide for you! Fran never provided anything apart from a good sword arm and plenty of advice! When was the last time you saw her cook?!"
'But Viera don't use fire-'
"That's not the point!"
'Yes it is.'
"The point is, Fran is probably the epitome of a partner. She's professional, she's intelligent and she knows her craft! And all you ever see are her bumper-stickers!"
There was a long, significant silence. Finally, Basch cleared his throat.
"And you said I was the one who couldn't take a joke."
Balthier stammered in mid comeback, blinking in the knowledge that he'd been had. Larsa raised his hand, a small smile on his face.
"Balthier, seeing as you're so wise to the feminist principal, and as you're an only child, do you mind if I ask a question?"
Vaan and Basch leaned in with anticipation, hunger for gossip easily read from eager eyes.
"As a child, did your mother ever dress you up as a girl?"
The minute Larsa entered the meeting hall, there was great aplomb. The young emperor found himself surrounded by concerned delegates and worried servants.
He brushed them away and called his attendance to the agenda, feeling his newly acquired black eye swell up again and vowing to raise the bounty on Balthier's head by another 12,000 gil.
It was fun. Farewell.