Note: I haven't done a FFXII story before, so this'll be new for me. It's just something "short" to pass the time while I slug through some things. Um, for what I have planned, the story will be rather gruesome so please read responsibly. Of course, like all other fanfiction, I have no rights to anything except the insanity, so don't go pointing fingers. Other than that, I don't think there's much more to say. Enjoy.
Twice As Dark
They were on me. Their eyes were black like marbles, staring down at me with no emotion. The flaps of their mouths fluttered open as they spoke to one another, hints of their needle-like teeth showing through. I couldn't understand what they were saying, but their noises were quick and excited. Their hands were like claws, the points of their fingers sharp; they scraped their nails along my skin, drawing multiple red lines down my arms and legs.
I was stripped of my clothes, and they had no intention of returning them anytime soon. The ones at my head touched my face and drew on my neck. It stung. Their touches hurt, and when I winced and protested, they became more excited and touched me more. One unsheathed a dagger and pressed the point to the side of my belly and started to carve into me. I screamed at the pain as blood rushed to the surface of the wound, but they held me down with their pointy claws as the one with the dagger continued to etch his sign above my hip.
Two by my right foot prodded sharply at the soft flesh of arch. I jerked and yelled, but they laughed at me in their high, chittering voices and stared at me with their blank eyes. Pain raced up my leg while most of it welled at my side. I was bleeding a lot, and slowly – not nearly quick enough – was I becoming numb.
Another one pulled out a second dagger and pressed the flat of it against my cheek. Was it a joke? It clicked its tongue (?) at me and flapped its mouth before removing the blade and pressing the tip to my shoulder. I opened my mouth and pleaded for it to stop, but it only jerked the blade into my skin and started to weave its own intricate design along my shoulder and under my collar bone.
I screamed the top of my lungs as a fire of unbearable pain burned the complete upper right half of me, from ribcage to shoulder to arm to neck. I burned all over, and they would not cease. They would not listen to my cries of release. They only spoke to each other in rapid succession and continued to brand and mark me.
My voice died and instead of screams I could only produce pathetic gasps and wheezy moans. When they pulled out the knife and plunged it into my skin to carve out a new line, I could only jerk and pant, the sensation of pain slowly falling away from me like the blood I spilled as my body became used to the torment and could no longer keep up the struggle.
I struggled weakly to stay awake – with eyes open I could see what they did to me; with eyes closed and unconscious, I would no longer know what more they would do, what other pain they would inflict upon me – but almost immediately, when the one at my side forced the dagger back into my skin, I blacked out, my consciousness fleeing from the torture.
Vaan landed the airship carefully in the sands of the Ogir-Yensa Sandsea, delicately maneuvering it onto the few solid rock structures in the whole sea. He shut down the engine and looked out the front. Before him was the ever moving sea of sand, waves of it crashing over one another. Some lapped at the edges of the small shore he was parked in front of.
"Well, here I go..." he muttered to himself and flipped a switch on the headboard. He picked up walkie talkie and spoke into it. "Today is the seventeenth day of the eighth month. I'm currently in the Ogir-Yensa Sandsea, about to go through with a hunt. As always, if something happens to me, I have separate tapes made out to those important to me in the second drawer under the headboard. It's about high noon right now and this shouldn't take more than a couple hours. I should be back by sundown. And so... uh, here we go."
He flipped the switch on the headboard again, turning off the recording. He heaved a sigh and climbed out of the pilot seat, making his way to the rear of the ship. There, he picked up his javelin and mage masher; he strapped the dagger to his hip and hefted the javelin over his shoulder before he walked out.
The sand was soft under his boot, just like it was over a year ago. He didn't know much about fighting or the world beyond Rabanastre then. He was just an orphan looking for adventure, finding one through the most unusual of people and in the most dangerous and unique of places. Now, he supposed he wasn't so different; he was still looking for some excitement, still running around like a young pup, eager for his first steps. But see, this time, he was more experienced. After the ordeal with Arcadia and Vayne, Vaan considered himself more mature about certain things, especially in the department of traveling and hunting.
Usually Penelo came with him on his hunts, after all she was his partner, but this time he had gone out alone on account that Penelo had to take care of Kytes and run shop for Migelo. She was vexed when she learned Vaan was planning to continue the hunt without her, but he convinced her to stay when he promised that he would come back safely and quickly. And he planned to do just that: come back safely and quickly.
The Sandsea was a dangerous place to be. Whomever had placed that bill up was either insane or desperate to have something here killed. And Vaan himself was either insane or desperate to answer the call.
It took him two hours to wade through the beasts of the Sandsea to make it to the site where the wyvern nested. He was after the mother, and by the description, it was supposed to be over three times his size. There was no way he could miss it; but then again, he almost hoped he did because he wasn't sure his magic could support him enough in this solo battle.
The low rumble of a bestial purr reached his ears as he crossed the bridge leading to the island where the wyvern was suspected to be. By the sound of it, there was only one present. Carefully, he crept along the rocks and peeked around the edge to where the beast lay.
Vaan's eyes widened. It was HUGE! Its leathery green wings looked like they spanned half of the Leviathan. He was supposed to take out that?! ...This definitely wasn't a job for just one person. If Vaan planned on making it out of there alive, he would have to plan extra carefully. He would've done better at defeating one of those eggs it guarded.
Slipping away from the edge, Vaan bit his lip in contemplation. He tapped the javelin against his shoulder knowing that just that weapon wouldn't take it down. He walked back over to the bridge. With a frown on his face, he half turned back toward the alcove on the other side of the rocky hill.
"I need a plan. ...A better weapon too. But a plan. Jeez."
He turned his back on the bridge and started for the hill again. He had to go back and see the wyvern again; maybe he could get a better idea of what he was working with or what he could work with if he had a second look.
Vaan never made it half way when something shot him in the back of the leg. Despite his previous attempts to be quiet on the island he let out a yell of surprise and pain, and fell to the ground. He quickly turned on his side, spitting out a mouthful of sand, and yanked the arrow out of his leg. Crawling out of the sea of sand on either side of the bridge was a group of Urutan-Yensa. Several had bows and arrows in their clawed hands while the others had swords and daggers. A Yensa fish hovered behind them above the sea, eying him hungrily.
Vaan got up to his hands and knees and grabbed his javelin before the Urutan-Yensa could advance. And they did advance, shuffling on their peg-like legs, those with bows knocking their arrows while the ones with swords raised their blades. Vaan scrambled to his feet, holding out his javelin offensively.
"Stay back!" he ordered. He wasn't too afraid of battling the Urutan-Yensa on his own, but rather more afraid of what would happen if the wyvern decided to come forth and aid them in picking him off.
Cursing to himself, he started up a spell that would put the Urutan-Yensa to sleep, perhaps the only thing that would buy him time to escape before the smell of blood attracted more fiends, and more specifically, the wyvern mother.
The Urutan-Yensa shuffled their feet and created loud noises, waving their weapons at him. Vaan backed up a few steps when the Yensa fish pulled out of the sand and hissed at him. He never liked those creatures: they were like demons, able to fly out of the sand at any moment and drag you into the sea. It almost happened to him once when he had carelessly stood too close to the edge of a broken bridge. He had wanted to touch the sea again. What a fool he was...
Ever since, he was especially wary of the Yensa.
One Urutan-Yensa flapped its mouth at him and fired an arrow. Vaan dove to the side, his concentration on the silencing spell broken. He rolled back to his feet only to be shot at with another arrow. It missed him by a hair, leaving a razor thin cut on his jaw. Alarmed, and extremely grateful to whatever god saved his neck, he jumped to his feet and lunged forward toward the one that had shot him with a yell.
The Urutan-Yensa were always quick on their feet, and this one was no different; it shuffled to the side and out of the way as its comrade swung a sword at him. Vaan blocked the weapon with a swing of his javelin, twisting his body to force the humanoid back. He jumped back and twisted around in the other direction, driving the pronged end into the chest of another Urutan-Yensa. With the humanoid stuck on the prongs, he heaved it over his shoulder at a third.
But as he did this, the second archer of the group shot him in the side with an arrow. Vaan shrieked at the stab of pain near his ribs and crumpled to the ground. He had difficulty pulling the head out, and when he did, he was left panting and weak.
Then suddenly the dull rumble of a roar that could only have belonged to the wyvern carried in the air. Vaan cursed and got up to his knees just in time to see the wyvern launch in the air and head straight for them. The Urutan-Yensa shouted at each other in their own language and scattered. Vaan struggled to get up as pain seared his side and leg, but before he could make it up to one foot, the Yensa fish flew through the air and rammed him, throwing him onto its back. Automatically, Vaan caught the reigns and rode the fish back out into the sea of sand where the fish kicked and flipped him up in the air, dismounting him.
Vaan yelled in surprise but could do nothing when gravity dictated the direction of his movement and the Sandsea swallowed him whole in one bite. Vaan choked on the sand and sank quickly. He was rammed on the sides by two Yensa, making him drown in the sand and ultimately lose consciousness. The last thing he remembered was the pain in his side and how he had just broken his promise to Penelo to come back safely.
When I came to, my entire body ached. The blood had dried and scarring started to form where they sliced me open. I couldn't even turn my head to see what it was they etched into me; I felt extremely sore. They really did a number on me, those Urutan-Yensa. And as if they meant to come back and inflict more pain on me, they kept me strapped. But I couldn't move anyhow, my body was too weak to even consider twitching.
Never in my life, not even getting caught by the Imperials during my travels with Balthier and Fran and the rest of the gang had been this torturous. For a moment, I actually wished it would all end and the damn demons would just kill me and get it over with.
But... what would Penelo think? How would she feel if she knew that I lost to a bunch of mindless humanoids? What if she found my corpse all bloody and bruised, covered in all these scars? I bet she'd cry... and probably beat me and scream at me for being stupid. I wouldn't blame her; it was dumb to go out hunting on my own. I'd never make it out of here alive -- whatever "here" is...
Heh. If I had a tombstone, what would it read, I wonder? "Idiot who got turned into a scratching post by the Urutan-Yensa." Or maybe, "Vaan, the fool who took a bite of more than he could chew." Heck, even the simple, "Vaan: dumb and dead" would work. Certainly wouldn't tell my story any, just give people a reason to spit on my grave.
Gosh... how long had I been here anyway? I hadn't eaten and I hurt. I doubted the Urutan-Yensa would ever feed me, or care to, with the way they were treating me like some new toy.
I squeezed my eyes shut for moment and gathered my breath before I opened them and dared to look down at my side. What I saw made me groan: a haggard, choked noise that could only be made by a bled, dehydrated, wasted fool. The Urutan-Yensa made a writing tablet out of me, inscribing symbols in neat, perfect lines on the inside of my hip, like a prayer or piece of history you would otherwise find on the walls of a king's tomb. Of course I didn't know what it said, but neither did I care; it sucked to be carved into, and it hurt to the point that I couldn't even feel it anymore.
Staring at it, knowing what they had done to me -- I still couldn't turn my head to see what they put on my shoulder -- made me feel... worthless. It made me feel weak and nothing more than a toy or a piece of meat hanging on a hook. I was fodder to be thrown around and messed with by any and every thing. Gods... I almost wanted to cry.
If not for the familiar and sickeningly high-pitched chitter of the Urutan-Yensa as they drew near, I probably would have sobbed openly and wasted what precious moisture I stored within my body for a moment of self pity. Instead, I was forced to lie still and await another round of torture. In my head I imagined Balthier coming through the tent, seeing me in my most pitiful state, and jesting, "Well look at what you've gone and done now, Vaan: finally decided you're not too great at being a sky pirate and went and tried to commit suicide amongst these rabble, ey? Quite a gruesome finish for a boy wonder like yourself, don't you think?"
If he did, I would say in return: "What, would you rather join me and get carved into, Mister 'Leading Man'? I'm sure they'd like a piece of you, hero."
But, of course, Balthier wouldn't -- and probably couldn't all the same -- just burst into here against a whole clan of Urutan-Yensa just to save me. And who would know where I currently was? Who would know how to find me? For all they knew, I was eaten by the wyvern I was tracking, not slowly bleeding myself out under the filthy knives of the Yensa clan.
I sighed and closed my eyes again, pretending to still be unconscious to the rest of the world. At the very least I already made that tape with my will on it. If I really did die because of this, then if or when my ship was found, everyone would know I still cared for them and haven't forgot them after all this time.
Yeah... the people who mattered to me will know I love them... especially that jerk...
The high chitters of the Urutan-Yensa came just beyond the room, and to my luck, before they even entered my conscious was already slipping, fatigue doubled with pain striking my weak body. I could barely make out a HUMAN voice amongst the high chitters before everything around me died.
"I do hope... --s because... we unders--... Right then."
...Who was that?
"Balthier, please! You're the only one who can find him!"
Balthier looked at the young miss who gripped his arm tightly, twisting the fine linen of his shirt under her hands. A crease formed between his brows and his face was screwed into an expression of regret and helplessness. He laid a hand over hers and stroked her knuckles soothingly.
If only his next words could be as comforting: "Penelo, you know just as well as I that the Ogir-Yensa Sandsea is a very dangerous place. He's been gone for more than a week you said? By now he's probably--"
"No! Don't say it! He's not. He's not dead. He said he'd come back. Alive!" Penelo's eyes were wide with panic and pleading. "Please, Balthier, you're the only person I know and can turn to to find him and bring him back. You've been everywhere, haven't you? The world is your backyard, surely you can find him?"
Sky Pirate Balthier sighed heavily and gently worked the young woman's hands from his person. All of a sudden it seemed as though rocks had been been placed on his shoulders, dragging them down. "Penelo..." he started, the crease between his brows deepening.
"Please Balthier... Please," Penelo pleaded once more, her eyes wide and glistening with tears.
If it wasn't treasure, it was a woman's tears that shook Balthier's nerves, a weakness he didn't share with anyone. Except Fran, of course: she knew everything about him, even the dirtiest and strangest of his mind. Cringing now, away from Penelo's quiet sobs, he mentally berated himself for being such a softie and pulled out his handkerchief. With it he wiped away Penelo's tears, tilting her face upwards to look at him.
"Hey now," he said softly, dabbing at her cheeks, "don't go crying yourself a little puddle now... If it makes you feel better, I'll give it a shot. I'll try and look for Vaan but I can't guarantee you anything. Got it?"
Penelo nodded and gratefully took the handkerchief when he handed it to her. "Yes, yes... Just please try. I... There's a locater in the repair docks that can give you the general area of where he was supposed to be. I don't know how much it'll help you finding him since it only tracks the ship, but... even if it's just a little..."
"Right, right," Balthier nodded and looped his arm around her shoulders. "Better show me then."
It was hot. Really hot. I felt wet. Sticky. For some reason I couldn't breath. Was I suffocating? Something was pressing down on my chest; my arms felt like they were under an Immobilize spell. I couldn't see -- something pressed against my eyelids and held them shut. The noise, or rather the absence of it, was too loud, like a violent torrent of wind buffeting my ears. What was happening to me?
I swore I was dying. This was it, I was certain of it. Those Urutan-Yensa had finally killed me. They probably jinxed my body with their foreign spells and tossed me out into the Sandsea to perish. I was probably helpless bait for some wyvern or other beast to come and eat. And how would I know what it was that tore my skin from my bones and shattered my very existence? I couldn't see, I couldn't hear, I couldn't move, my tongue refused to work, I couldn't even feel properly -- I just knew I was uncomfortable and unbearably hot. I didn't know how or why though.
I didn't know up from down; I hardly distinguished my left from my right. I must've been dying. I was sure I was. Yes, why else would I feel this miserable and disoriented?
This was the end. Nothing could save me from this horrible heat that burned my skin and melted my bones. If I ate, I knew I would've thrown it up. But what did it matter anymore? I was a goner. No more Vaan. Bye everyone, see you in the next life...
"What's this? Are you up or not, Vaan? Open your eyes, now. ... Let's see, do you still have a fever?"
Something touched my face -- at least, I thought it was my face (I wasn't too sure anymore) -- that was delightfully cold. It felt wonderful against this heat that engulfed my body. I tried to reach for it, to lean into it, and absorb more of that gods-sent coolness.
"Ah, so you are awake."
Something else touched my face, pressing lightly against my cheek. It moved around, spreading its cold all over my skin. I wanted it to stay still, to extinguish this heat, but it kept moving, only giving me temporary relief. Why? Stay still! Don't move, please! Smother me in the cold; stop the fiery death that steals my body and its movements.
"I suggest you stop fidgeting or you'll fall off the bed. Though... you hardly listened to me before. Fine, find out for yourself then."
The world tipped. It felt like I was cast overboard from an airship, swirling and diving down into oblivion. I reached out to grab... something, anything to secure myself, but nothing met my hands. I was certain I would stop soon, but I feared what pain would certainly come when I did. I let out a cry, sharp and strangled, helpless in the darkness that I couldn't overcome, and grabbed more frantically.
"What a bother..."
Something reached out -- the cold! the precious cold! -- and grabbed me, pulling me away from the oblivion and righting my world again. I clung to that safety, my savior, and pressed close. I didn't want to fall again. I feared falling again. And never getting up.
"Understand what I said now? Now be a good boy and stay still."
The cold touch shifted to hold me around my shoulders. I felt myself be pushed back onto something soft. I didn't recognize it from before; was I on it before? Was I lying down earlier? Was it really a... bed I almost fell off of? The cold touch started to disappear from my body, moving away to let me go. I grabbed for it, holding it and preventing it from running away. No, I didn't want it to leave, I needed it.
I heard a sigh. And recognized a male voice. Was it human? I rubbed my thumbs along the cold and recognized the feel of fabric brushing against skin. I was grabbing at wrists.
"C'mon, best to let go now. I'm not going anywhere, if that's what you're worried about. But, really, how am I supposed to fix your eyes if I can't move my hands?"
I slowly loosened my grip, trusting the man (?) to keep his word. I knew this voice, I realized, though for some reason I couldn't quite place just whose voice it belonged to. But I trusted this voice, at least a little. He would help me.
The cold vanished from my fingers, going away for a moment. Suddenly, I heard rustling -- the movement of fabric, I was certain -- and my weight was shifted abruptly. I thought for a moment I would be tipped again, thrown off bed, but nothing happened. "W-whe...?" I tried speaking, but my voice sounded wrong in my ears.
"Ah, right... Hold on, I'll get something for that in just a moment..."
The voice drifted from one spot to the other. The man was probably moving around the room. It took a few moments (however long they were -- they were too long for me) before he came back, drawing near and touching my face again with that coldness, the cool flat of his hand. I leaned toward it, relishing the feeling, but it evaded me. He removed his hand just quickly enough to reach around and cradle me behind the neck. I felt my world tilt again; he was moving me.
I held on tightly, afraid and aching. I didn't like moving, it made my body hurt and my blood rush forward to scratch irritably at the wounds on my body. I tried to swallow the fear and pain, though. I tried to stay calm to allow him to move and adjust me.
"Here," he said, his voice suddenly close, his cool body hovering near. Something cold touched my lips. "Drink." Something else just as cold -- no, colder -- slip into my mouth. I swallowed it down, nearly gasping at how wonderful it felt. I wanted more. "Slow down or you'll choke."
He controlled how quickly I took it in. I constantly nosed closer to take more than just a sip, but he wouldn't let me. I imagined he was teasing me, a smile probably written on his face. The jerk. To make fun of an injured person! But he finally gave it all to me and I felt so much better. I licked at my lips, enjoying the moistness that coated them.
"Th-...Than-Thank you..." I said. My voice was still rough, but it was an improvement from before. I couldn't help smiling a little, satisfied for now.
"That's a charming smile. Good to know you're feeling better." I could hear the smile in his voice. "Now, what say we fix this?" He touched my face again, at the corner of where I knew my eyes to be. It felt nice. Really nice.
"Mmhmm..." My world tilted, but slowly as I was laid back down again. "Now lie still while I Dispel this..."
I waited. And waited. I didn't know what to wait for -- a word, a signal, a feeling, a noise? What was he dispelling?
"Go ahead, try and open your eyes."
I tried to lift the darkness that clouded my vision. Sudden brightness took over and I had to throw back on the covers, squeezing my eyes shut. "So bright!"
"Who told you to open your eyes so quickly? Goodness, Vaan, try to use your brain a little. Try again, but slowly this time."
I did as I was told, letting my eyes adjust to the light, and looked up at the first thing that encompassed my vision. Balthier. He was smiling -- smirking at me, cocking a brow in question as I stared at him.
"Well?" he asked, leaning forward a bit. He touched the corners of my eyes, bringing back that coolness that I recognized and liked. I couldn't help leaning toward it again. "Can you see me?"
Balthier leaned back. "Good. That certainly assures me I don't have to go searching on the black market for replacement eyes."
I stared at him in horror. Surely he wouldn't? I was ill! He couldn't joke like that!
He rolled his eyes at me and jabbed me in the forehead with his finger. The ass. He was joking! I frowned at him, rubbing at the spot there he poked me. It didn't last long, however, when a sharp pain raced along my shoulder. I remembered then: my fresh wounds from the Urutan-Yensa. It was the first time I looked at it in a while; it was already starting to scar, my once tanned skin now blotchy with red smears from raised blood, brown from crusted flesh, and off colors of green and purple for the bruises. Looking down at my wrists, I saw where it was raw from my bindings. My entire body was naked of clothing, yet covered in ugly scarifications and bruises. I looked horrible.
Balthier met my gaze steadily. It was scary how serious he looked. I was so used to him smirking and waving things off as if it were nothing, danger or no. I didn't know why he was looking at me like that. "This won't go away, you know. No Cure can erase what happened to you." I nodded silently, numb to the fact. "And I imagine you won't want to wear those old clothes of yours anymore, hm?"
No, I didn't. It felt hideous to show off these markings, so fresh and raw. They were wounds as a prisoner, markings of a predator on its prey, symbols on the weak by a master. I didn't want to show this to anyone, especially not Penelo. I didn't even want Balthier to see, even though he already had. But how could I stop him from looking? He probably looked at every etching there was on me. Not even I knew all of what it was they made me bleed for.
"...Can I have some clothes?"
Balthier sighed and moved away again. I watched him, looking for the first time at the room I was in. Was it the inside of an airship? Was this the Strahl? It looked like it. "Here, some spares of mine." He came back to give me new clothes. I put on the shirt, so similar to the one he always wore, and he helped me put on a loose pair of pants. I couldn't even dare to put on anything fitted; my wounds weren't ready yet. Even when Balthier wrapped each one before dressing me, it still hurt to move and feel something rub against them.
But what could I do about it? I was helpless to the pain, bedridden due to my weakness. It made me sick, yet I was grateful to Balthier's kindness and hospitality. It wasn't exactly a common thing for him, yet it wasn't rare either. I enjoyed when he looked after me during our travels together. Now was no different. I just wanted to ask him some questions... So many "what"s and "how"s and "why"s were going through my head.
I was too tired, though. I couldn't stand to keep my eyes open any longer.
"Close your eyes, Vaan. It's a long flight back to Rabanastre, and I still have to coordinate your own ship to have it follow us on autopilot. Don't think we -- or you for that matter -- are moving anytime soon."
Balthier flicked close the safety strap of the dagger at his thigh, leaving the weapon there in case of emergencies. He checked the cartridge of his Fomalhaut rifle before walking out of the Strahl, blinking thrice at the afternoon sun. He had finally located Vaan's Palidor via the locater given by Penelo. He was surprised to find it untouched, for he was certain more than just a bit of sand would rough up the abandoned vessel. And yet, here it was in good condition.
Approaching it cautiously, just in case something unpleasant happened to stick around, Balthier circled the ship before entering, unlocking it as Penelo had instructed him how. Once inside, he checked the damage before working his way up to the front where the pilot's seat remained abandoned. Staring at it, he couldn't help but smirk. He could imagine Vaan's face, so bright and full of excitement, when he drove this ship. He was still a child at heart, regardless of the hardships and growing up he was force to go through.
Slipping into the seat, Balthier put down his gun and checked around the compartments, searching for anything that Vaan might have left behind. There probably wouldn't be anything, trusting Vaan to take all his things with him, but he had to make sure. Opening drawers, pockets, et cetera, nothing besides emergency provisions, a hidden Altair with extra bullets under the pilot's seat, and a packet of tapes came up. Balthier found no interest in the tapes, that was, until he noticed different names scrawled on the side of each one. He saw his own name on one of the tapes.
Curious, Balthier looked on the dashboard for a slot for the tape. He found it and tried to push the tape in, but it wouldn't go in. Something else was already in there. He rewound the tape and played it, startling himself when Vaan's voice suddenly broke through.
"Today is the seventeenth day of the eighth month. I'm currently in the Ogir-Yensa Sandsea, about to go through with a hunt. As always, if something happens to me, I have separate tapes made out to those important to me in the second drawer under the headboard. It's about high noon right now and this shouldn't take more than a couple hours. I should be back by sundown. And so... uh, here we go."
The seventeenth. Vaan had been missing for more than a week, he was gone for almost eleven days. Balthier frowned. He played the tape again. He caught the mention of the separate tapes and looked down at the one in his hand. He knew this one was one of the ones Vaan mentioned. Without thinking, without hesitating, he switched out the tapes, popping in the one with his name on it. Just as before, Vaan's voice came through.
"Hi... Balthier. This tape that you're listening to is something I made in case something -- I don't know, maybe I turned mute, or I'm incapacitated, or maybe I'm even dead -- happened to me. I'm sure you'd know by now that I'm a Hunter. No longer a sky pirate apprentice like I wanted to be." Vaan could be heard chuckling, albeit a little nervously."Um... Well, really, this tape is supposed to be my final farewell to everyone. I get to tell everyone special to me how much I really liked traveling with them, fighting, getting back Ashe's title and rights to the throne, y'know. Everything. But... I don't know, I can't really figure out what to say for you. I mean-- it's not like I can't think of anything good to say about you and our time together. You taught me how to fly, after all. I really learned a lot and had fun and got stronger and all that stuff. But I still don't know what exactly I want to say." Vaan cut himself off. He took a deep breath and paused to calm his nerves before trying again.
"I guess... I guess I'd like to say thank you. Though I never got to go flying with you on the Strahl and go on a few pirating adventures with you and Fran, cause you stole the ship back before we could even meet. Jerk. Maybe we can do it someday? --Oh wait, crap, if you're listening to this, we can't. Double crap. Damnit..." There was another pause in which Vaan softly cursed himself. "Er-- anyway-- um, well... Even though we can't see each other again, uh, I guess... Well, yeah, there is one more thing I'd like to tell you. I... I really admire you, Balthier. I mean, you always were an arrogant jerk and called yourself 'the leading man' and whatever, and I really didn't want to listen to it, but really... I liked you. I still like you, I guess. You were everything I wasn't. You were everything I wanted to be. Well, almost. I could do without the attitude."
Balthier chuckled, hearing Vaan do the same on the tape. It was so good to hear the boy's voice again. "You may say that now, Vaan, but you know you were jealous," he teased, though he knew the boy couldn't hear him.
"Um... hey, Balthier? I always thought I'd take this to my grave, and I suppose I am, in a sense." There was a break in Vaan's voice, a waver that was different from the nervousness he had earlier. Balthier could almost guess the boy was embarrassed about he was going to say. "But, well... I... I more than just 'like' you. I-- I really don't want to just come out in say what I really mean because I know you'll be listening. And it's embarrassing, okay! You might find it easy to express your feelings, but for me, it's a lot harder. St-Still, I mean it: I really do like you more than just a friend or comrade or whatever. And though it doesn't mean anything after I'm gone, at least you know. Knowing you know, even though it's too late, really... I have no regrets now. You may not return my feelings, and for all I know this tape along with my ship may have blown up, leaving my message unheard, but I at least I still said it here."
There was silence in which Balthier stared at the dashboard. He didn't know what to make of it. He didn't expect a confession like that. He didn't really know what to expect at all, really, but that certainly wasn't one of the possibilities that circulated in his head. During their travels, he didn't get any vibe from the young man that would hint toward his feelings. Certainly, he knew the boy admired him -- who couldn't? -- but this leaning toward love...
Balthier shook his head. Even though this was Vaan's one and only confession to him, he couldn't treat it as though Vaan was already gone. Balthier wasn't allowed to give up the search before he even started. A frown creasing his brow, a hard curl of his mouth turning it downwards. He couldn't afford to lose time, not with this bearing down on him.
Standing up, Balthier brushed his fingers across the dashboard, closing his eyes momentarily in silent prayer. Then, without a word, he exited the cockpit, jumped out of the ship, and started anew his search for Vaan: that precious, missing boy.
"Are you comfortable?"
I looked up. It was strange to hear Balthier speak so kindly. It had been a day since I woke... I didn't know how long it'd been since he rescued me, or when I last saw the light of day before then. My days had blurred together during my time with the Urutan-Yensa. I didn't even know if it really was a day since I figured out Balthier had rescued me. He offered no definite date or time, so I only assumed I'd rested that much.
I hurt all over. The searing pain from my scars had dissipated mostly, but there still remained a throbbing that I couldn't get rid off. My skin itched and my limbs felt heavy. My body refused to cooperate and move more than a couple inches without screaming at me as though they were on fire. I remained frozen, propped up on a couple pillows in this small but comfortable bed, staring at nothing but the silent walls around me.
Balthier stared at me. He probably wasn't convinced. I wouldn't be either. I was horrible at lying. Yet, what else could I say? The truth? Even my tongue felt too lazy to form proper sentences. I was content with just keeping still, doing nothing to agitate myself more than I already was, and staring at things. I didn't read anyway. Balthier could give me a book and I wouldn't touch it. I didn't have the energy to process anything intelligent.
I turned my head to look at Balthier. "What?"
Balthier pursed his lips, his mouth wrinkling into a frown. It looked like he wanted to say something to me, probably something important, but he wasn't for whatever reason. He shook his head and stood up. "Call me--" he pointed at the intercom on the wall, "--if you need anything. I shall be in the cockpit."
I nodded and he turned, walking away. He was silent as he left, which I found unusual for him. There was no witty comments, no sharp comebacks, just a simple question, a nod, and he left. Nothing more.
It felt strange, maybe even uncomfortable, after he left. The silence was near deafening, and the lack of glamour in Balthier's speech was almost unsettling. I wasn't used to it. It was so rare... how was I supposed to react?
Was Balthier upset about something? Was it about what I did? About how I turned up? How did he find me? What did I look like? No doubt a lot worse than how I was now.
Questions swam in my head, and there was no answer in sight. It made me feel somewhat miserable. I wanted to get up and chase after Balthier, demand him answers, but there wasn't enough energy in me to even attempt such a task.
Sighing, I let myself relax against the pillows and fell asleep, ignoring my troubles for the meantime. I dreamed as I slept, but it was more of a nightmare than a dream. I saw the ugly faces of the Urutan-Yensa, peering down at me with their beady eyes, laughing in their high, impossible voices as they dragged their daggers across the skin. All my limbs were marked, every a spot of skin feeling desecrated. Decimated. Defiled. Ruined. Mutilated. A horrible feeling sank in my heart and crushed it, awakening a sob from my parched lips.
Gods, I felt so ugly.
"It's all right, Vaan. You'll be fine. You're a strong chap."
Reality started to bleed into my dream, vanquishing the dark of my thoughts. Slowly, eagerly, I pulled away from it, waking up. I felt a hand sifting through my hair, and when I opened my eyes I saw Balthier peering down at me, his expression unreadable. He caught my stare and quickly smiled down at me, the hint of a smirk at the edges of his lips.
"Back to reality, are we?"
I nodded slowly.
"Then I hope you can find the reason to release me."
Confused, I frowned at him. It wasn't until my gaze traveled and I saw my hand gripping fiercely to Balthier's shirt that I realized what he meant, and immediately let go.
He gave a small roll of his eyes. "It wouldn't be the first time someone's manhandled my clothing while I'm still in it."
My gaze wandered again, embarrassed I had grabbed him in my sleep. I noticed then that my sheets were askew, I was hardly in the same position (let alone spot) on the bed as I was when I went to sleep, and somehow had wheedled my head onto Balthier's leg. My embarrassment grew, and I quickly moved away.
But my body protested, as did Balthier, as he held me still. "You'll reopen your wounds," he admonished me. "Then where would that get you?"
I forced myself to relax, though I did try to push Balthier away. "I'll be fine. Just let me lie properly."
Balthier didn't respond at first, which made me look up at him, but as soon as I met his gaze he moved, shifting me back to the position I was before I fell asleep.
"I suggest you don't move next time."
I frowned at him, my expression bordering on a scowl. "I couldn't help it." He should've known that.
"Just lie still."
"Balthier-- What-- Answer me a few questions, would you?"
"What did you want to know?"
"Why what? You need to be more specific, Vaan."
I glared at him. He was messing with me. "Why are you here?"
Balthier shrugged a shoulder. "Penelo asked me to come get you. She's been worried sick over your absence."
I faltered at that. "...R-Really?" I could just see her now, having a fit because I wasn't there. "How long have I...?"
"Almost two weeks now. You were asleep the first few days after I found you."
"...And now? We're still not at a clinic?"
"We're heading there," he answered, shifting. He was sitting on the edge of the bed, leaning slightly on one hand. "We're currently on autopilot. We should reach Rabanstre in an hour."
An hour. In an hour, I would meet Penelo and Kytes again. In an hour, I'd be off this ship and back in their arms. ...In an hour, I'd have to once again reveal the hideous scars on my body.
"They'll see what's been done to you."
I looked up to meet Blathier's gaze. He knew the misery I felt. "...Especially not from Penelo," I said rather glumly.
"Especially her. She won't shun you for it, though."
"No... Instead, she'll hate me for letting myself get like this." To emphasize, I ran my fingers over the dirty bandages. They needed to be changed already. "And she'll hate herself for letting me go on the hunt alone."
"She's a very loyal and protective girl. You are precious to her."
"I know. That's what makes it worse." I didn't know if I could face her in my state. I was a living, breathing, carved... thing. There was no way I could live the same after this. I couldn't even wear the same clothes anymore. There was no way I was going to shame myself by exposing my scars like trophies. There was no pride in being the Urutan-Yensa's victim.
"...I'm still surprised I'm alive."
"Were it not for Penelo's request, you probably wouldn't be."
"You found me, right?" He nodded. "And Penelo asked you to?"
"Pleaded is more like it. She nearly tore my arm off with her insistence."
Balthier cocked a brow. "For what?"
"For worrying you. For dragging you into this. For making you find me... like that." I felt like scum.
Balthier snorted, flapping a hand. "It's not me you should be apologizing to, Vaan, but that dear girl of yours. Let her hit you a few times for your stupidity."
My eyes stung. I was stupid. I let myself be tortured. I let this happen. I made Penelo cry and desperately call for Balthier's help.
A hand -- Balthier's hand -- touched my cheek, drawing my attention back to him. "But I will admit that I was worried myself, when I found out you were missing. And in the Sandsea no less! I was almost certain you were dead."
"...Imagine my surprise when I figured out you were not only alive, but held captive by the Yensa clan!" Balthier gave me a wry smile. "You certainly know how to make things more complicated. You never just shyly step into danger, you run full speed into it. I swear, Vaan, you're too much for a man to handle. How Penelo has stuck with you for so long is beyond me."
I lowered my gaze. Balthier definitely knew how to kick me while I was down.
"I am glad, though, that you're well. As well as one can hope, anyway."
At his voice, suddenly soft and compassionate, I looked up sharply, surprised at the change. My eyes widened when he leaned forward and pressed his lips to my forehead, his hand combing through my hair. The action was quick, ending before I could react. He pulled away to smirk slightly at my expression.
"Penelo isn't the only one who finds you very dear to them, Vaan. It's best not to go on anymore suicidal missions next time."
Without waiting for me to recover from the shock, he got up and left, leaving me to gape after him. I didn't understand. Why did he do what he did? Why did he kiss me -- albeit on the forehead, but still a kiss -- and caress me so gently? Sure I knew Balthier was smooth in his actions, and could very well be a lady's man, but I was neither a lady, nor did I deserve his sly moves.
What caused the man to touch me like that? Why would he? I had no answers, and direly wished I did. I wouldn't get them though. Balthier ran from any questions I would give by shutting me in the room, closing the door after himself. I doubted I would get the chance to ask him later; we had less than an hour left to reach Rabanastre. ...Balthier wouldn't stick around once he handed me back.
Frowning deeply, I sank into the pillows, waiting and thinking, wondering why why why?
"The boy is ours, human."
Balthier cocked a brow at the Yensa Queen, leader of the clan. "Oh? And how do you think that?"
"We found him," the Queen hissed. "We have already marked him."
Balthier inwardly snorted. "He was already claimed before you."
Dozens of eyes narrowed suspiciously. "How? There is no proof!"
"I have claimed him before you," he dared to say. It was a bold statement, one he felt strange using.
"You only say that to trick us!"
Here, Balthier smirked. "Not really. The boy isn't a virgin. He has already been taken. He isn't yours."
The Yensa hissed collectively. "He has been taken before?"
The Queen glared at the other Yensa under her rule. "He is not pure?"
The Yensa made chittering noises, shuffling nervously.
The Queen turned back to Balthier, hissing at him. "It doesn't matter anyway! We do not follow human rules or mastery."
"You should. It's what keeps hunters out of your waters."
"We can easily overpower you humans."
Balthier gave a cocky smirk. "Just as we can easily burn your entire homeland. You may hate us, but as long as you leave alone what is ours, we'll do the same."
The Yensa snarled at him. They looked amongst each other, chittering and arguing in their native language. Balthier was certain they were cursing his existence, cursing the human laws, cursing their mistake for falling into this trap by taking 'the boy.'
After it seemed they were done arguing, the Queen turned to Balthier, seething. "You will have your pet back, human. But not without compensation."
Balthier eyed the humanoid warily. "Compensation? What type?"
"We must be paid for surrendering one of our captives. We never let them go; we deserve something in return."
"...What do you want?"
The Queen laughed, a screechy, high-pitched noise that sounded ugly in his ears. "Flesh for flesh, human. We will give you what you will take from us."
Balthier clenched his teeth. "Not until I see him first. I have no guarantee he's alive. I won't hand anything over if I don't know firsthand what I'm getting in return. For all I know, he's dead and you'll be handing me a sack of dead meat, not a boy."
The Queen glared at him. She turned to one of the Yensa and spoke to it. After a moment, the underling moved off. The Queen spat at Balthier, "See for yourself."
"Gladly," Balthier returned and followed after the Yensa. They came near a room, the door covered by a thick cloth. "I do hope you're not leading me somewhere dangerous because that would certainly be troublesome for the both of us."
The Yensa made angry noises at him. Balthier paid it no mind, gesturing for the humanoid to go first into the room. His hand casually strayed to his hip where his weapon was. The Yensa caught the motion and snarled warningly.
"So we understand each other," he grinned. "Right then. After you."
My hands gripped the sheets. I couldn't help the sharp spike of nervousness that woke with ever jostle of the airship as it slowly pushed down to land in the hanger. My heart raced, pounding in my chest. I didn't want to see Penelo.
No, I didn't want her to see me. I didn't want her to witness the hideous figure I'd become. But I did want to see her. I wanted to throw my arms around her and hug like there was no tomorrow. I was so glad to be back.
...But I wasn't so sure I was so glad to be alive.
"Calm yourself, Vaan."
I nearly jumped out of my skin as Balthier's voice came out through the intercom.
"Don't worry, we'll fix you up before you go and see her."
I snorted. Yeah. Easier said than done. There wasn't much Balthier could do to "fix" me after the damage was done. All he could do was quicken the scarring process and shove me full of painkillers so I wouldn't wince when Penelo launched herself at me.
I waited, wishing the landing process would take longer. (Though at the same time I wanted it to be over with. It was torture to sit here in bed, knowing I was about to face the inevitable.) Unfortunately, time didn't listen to me and kept slogging on, singing its own tune. We touched down with ease, and all I knew was the loud pounding of my heart.
When the door to the room opened, my head jerked in its direction. I was afraid Penelo was going to be on the other side. But it was Balthier who walked in, carrying a bundle of clothes in his arms.
I sat up as he came near, nervous.
"Hurry up, let's get you into these clothes before that girl comes barging in. I told her to wait a few minutes but I doubt she'll listen." He waved at me, holding out one hand to help me up. "Come on, then."
I was slow, but I pushed up to my feet, standing on weak, abused legs. I favored one leg to keep pressure off the foot where the Urutan-Yensa carved into the arch. It was near impossible to stay off it completely as I changed; I could feel the skin stretching with every movement, protesting loudly at the barely healed wound. I had no doubt I'd rip it open again (and again and again and again).
Balthier threw a cloak over my shoulders, wrapping me up, I guess as a precaution or something, and I gladly gripped the ends to hold it close. He supported me on my weak side, and together we walked out of the room. My heartbeat grew faster with each step we made; my mind stopped working as we neared the door; I really really didn't want to meet Penelo and see her reaction.
"It's better to face it now than wait."
Balthier's quiet voice cut through the silence. I looked up at him, stunned. He met my gaze, smiling faintly.
"Trust me. You're better off getting it over with."
I nodded hesitantly. "...Okay."
He gave my shoulder a pat and opened the door. Our stair ramp was already set up against the door, leading down to the ground. I looked out and flinched when I saw Penelo and Kytes standing there at the bottom, eagerly waiting for me to come down.
Penelo looked like she was about to cry. Kytes had his hand on her arm, the other waving up at me as he smiled.
It hurt to look at them. I hurt to see their faces. I didn't want them to see me. But try as I might to resist without ripping my wounds open, Balthier persuaded me to go climb down the stairs, one agonizing step at a time.
When I made it to the bottom, Penelo made to rush at me, but Balthier held a hand out to stop her. "He's injured."
Penelo came up short, her eyes roaming my cloaked body. She was searching for visible signs of abuse, but Balthier was smart in wrapping me up tightly, concealing the damage.
I nearly choked on the sound of her voice. She sounded so worried, so concerned. I didn't want to hear it. But instead of turning and running back into the ship, I smiled a reassuring smile. "Hey, Penelo." I even added a small chuckle. "I'm back."
She smiled a watery smile. "Vaan, you big dummy. I ought to hit you."
I flinched, quickly hiding it in an exaggerated, playful wince. "I hope you don't. I've got enough to deal with already."
She reached out and took my hand. "What happened?"
I couldn't answer. And I didn't have to, because Balthier spoke up then. "Save the questions for later, shall we? Vaan needs to sit down first and rest, it's been a long flight, and it'll only be a longer recovery."
Penelo nodded eagerly, pulling back to let Balthier practically drag me away. She led the way to our home, our house that we'd been gifted with after Ashe's return to the throne. It was modest, for Rabanstre, but for the three of us, it was perfect. It felt familiar and comforting to be back here again.
"Here, take him to his room."
Penelo led the way to my room. Even after all this time, we still didn't share rooms. Not even Kytes and I shared.
Balthier set me on my bed, an achingly familiar comfort. I sighed gratefully despite myself, and sank into the mattress.
"Is there anything you need, Vaan?"
I looked at Kytes, smiling and shaking my head. "Nah. I'm fine." Being back in my room washed away my anxiety.
That is... until Penelo opened her mouth.
"I swear, Vaan, next time, you're not going alone. I'm not letting you out of my sight again."
I frowned at her. "I'm fine, Penelo. I'm back, aren't I?"
"But you almost weren't! You could've still been out there if I hadn't called Balthier!" I glanced at him then, but he didn't say anything, choosing to stay out of the argument. "You could've died!"
"Look. Penelo, I can take care of myself. And we couldn't help it this time anyway. You had to stay here, and I needed to do the job. Things happen!"
"I know that! But you don't seem to realize how bad it could've been. You don't see that you could've died. You keep insisting-- I wouldn't be able to see you again if you were dead!"
She did the unthinkable and threw herself at me, hugging me around the neck. I couldn't help crying out at the pain of her body pressing at my wounds. She startled and quickly pulled back, Balthier yanking her off me.
I hissed, squeezing my eyes shut. My shoulder and my neck throbbed, my side even more so. I felt hot, and I was almost certain something warm and thick was sliding across my skin, soaking into the bandages that lay over them.
"Get him ice."
"What's wrong with--"
"Just get him some ice, Penelo. --Kytes, you take her. And bring a medical kit."
There was the noise of people moving, my bedroom door opening wide, and for a moment, silence. I could hear my own breathing, loud in my ears, heavy in my lungs. It hurt to expand my chest to gulp in air, and after a moment I felt hands sift through my clothes, pulling it open with care.
"What a mess... You opened your wound."
I forced my eyes open, the muscles in my face taut and scrunched together. I gritted my teeth. "Is it bad?"
Balthier looked down at me, meeting my gaze before looking back at my cuts, his hands flitting over the bandages. "I don't believe so. But this certainly sets you back some odd days."
I groaned. "Great."
"Don't blame the girl, she's only worried." Balthier was chastising me, reading me like a book. "And after a reaction like that, all you can do is tell her the truth. She'll only keep prodding you until you do."
I rolled my eyes, hating the truth in his words. "...I know," I sighed. I was defeated by him.
"Well, let's get some of this off you, then."
I looked at him sharply. "You're going to move me?" After that?
He gave me a look. "Well we need to know the damage, don't we? How am I supposed to know how bad it really is if you're still covered up?"
I'm sure my expression was one of incredulity. "She'll see!"
"That's the point. Best get it over with. Or do you want me to prod you somewhere where it hurts so you won't have to see her face?"
I grimaced, shaking my head. "...No." I looked away. I did not want to see her look at me like this.
A hand touched my head, and I looked back at Balthier who gave me one of his confident grins. "Are you a man or a boy, Vaan? Women shouldn't be your downfall." He petted me, his fingers sifting through my hair. "Be tough."
I leaned into his hand, just as I did when I first woke in the cabin on the [Strahl]. It wasn't until I met his dark gaze that I remembered just a little while ago when Balthier kissed me on the forehead. It was such an intimate action, I quickly pulled out of his touch now and turned my gaze away.
His hand froze near my head, and I listened to him sigh quietly before withdrawing his hand. "Vaan..."
I automatically looked back at him. His expression was unreadable, but I knew he wanted to say something.
If not for Penelo's and Kytes heavy footsteps, he probably would've opened his mouth. I looked at the other two, feeling dread all over again. Balthier conducted them to set the ice and first aid kit down near the bedside, and with the help of Kytes, they shifted me to get rid of some of my clothing.
I could feel Penelo's gaze on me, but I didn't look back. I stared at the wall to avoid all their gazes as Balthier set to pulling off my shirt and then snipping off the bandages. I heard a sharp intake of breath-- I knew it was Penelo's.
I could only guess Kytes was too shocked to say anything, because I didn't hear anything from him.
I made a face, grimacing. "I don't want to talk about it, Penelo. You can see for yourself what happened."
"But that's not something that happens by wyverns!"
Balthier cleared his throat. "No, it's the work of the Urutan-Yensa."
"The Urutan... Yensa...? But--"
"They had taken him captive," Balthier said, answering for me. I wasn't sure if I should've been grateful or not. "They are a vicious species of fiend, the worst enemy to humans, besides themselves. This is how they play with their victims, by physically claiming them as toys."
"And they did that..."
"Yes," I ground out. I didn't like this conversation; I didn't want to be reminded of the nightmares. "For countless hours, they did this to me. Now can you please stop talking about it?"
Penelo didn't say anymore. And Balthier did nothing to break the silence. He wrapped me up and gave me the ice for my various wounds. He told me to remain still and just lie in bed. I wasn't going to argue with him. He forced Penelo and Kytes out of the room, shutting the door behind them. I was glad for the silence.
But not for the loneliness.
"Balthier, what happened!"
Balthier sighed, standing opposite of Penelo. "You can see very well for yourself what happened," he replied, looking at her sternly. "I found him like that, only the wounds were much fresher. He was covered in blood."
A hand flew to her mouth.
"It's a surprise he's still alive. You didn't see the whole of it, but he's in no position to be jostled. That means don't touch him." He gave her a look. "No matter what, you can't touch him. In fact, just leave him alone. He needs to see a healer. In fact, even Fran should take a look at him. But he won't be moving for a while."
"Fran's out in the city..."
Balthier snorted, smirking lightly. "Is that so? When did she leave?"
"Before you radioed in."
"Ah. Then you won't have to do anything. Chances are, she'll have already gotten the things we need."
Penelo looked at him worriedly. "...Balthier, will he really be okay?"
He looked at her a moment before approaching her and giving her pat on the head. "I said this before, haven't I? Vaan's strong. He'll pull through. If he's not dead yet, he won't be for a long time. But we'd best be careful of his mood. I have no doubt he's feeling rather depressed after all that."
She lowered her gaze. "...Yeah."
"Have a seat, Penelo. We'll wait for Fran to return, and find out what the healer says. After that, then we'll worry about the trauma and stress. Gods above know I don't want to deal with it now."
Penelo gave a weak chuckle before nodding, moving off to the den to have a breather. It was sinking in deeper and deeper, the reality of Vaan's condition. If not for Balthier, she was almost absolutely certain she would've broken down. Vaan was dear to her. He was a great friend. She would not be where she was today if not for him. The same with Balthier. Both of them were so valuable to her. They were brothers from another family, cousins in her heart. She couldn't stand to lose Vaan. Not like this. Not after all they'd been through.
The sky pirate glanced down at her, lifting a brow.
"...I'm really glad you're here. I'm glad I called you. Vaan wouldn't be here right now if not for you. Thank you."
He flapped a hand, waving it off. "As if I had a choice."
She looked up at him. "Did you know? Vaan really looks up to you."
"Oh, I know. The brat was aspiring to be a pirate like me ever since we crossed paths."
She chuckled. "Yeah. ...But for some reason, after we all separated, after Ashe regained her title, he suddenly lost interest in being like you. He didn't want to be a pirate, but he still loved flying. He really treasures his [Palidor]."
"More so than his friends? More so than you?"
Penelo gave a wry smile. "We're not together, Balthier. Vaan and I, we could never be like that. We're more like brother and sister than lovers. We're hardly fit to be a married couple."
He gave her a curious look. "Why? You get along well enough. Childhood friends and all. It would make sense for you two to be together, especially after all you've been through. It's an excuse to bond."
She shook her head. "No... we can't. We just can't. Vaan, he... he's always had his eye on something else. One someone else. I'm not for him. And really, he's not for me. I'll always keep him close, but he's just too adventurous. I can't keep worrying all the time if he'll ever come back home alive. I can't take it."
"You think you'll find a man who isn't at least a little adventurous?"
She laughed. "Probably not. But maybe I can settle for a guy who'll watch the shop with me. Someone a little less daring than Vaan."
"Well, that won't be a problem then. Vaan is the wildest of them out there."
She laughed again. "I think you're right. He can't stay still at all. I'm still surprised he gave up being a sky pirate; it was his dream."
Balthier shrugged a shoulder. "Perhaps he found a reason to stay."
Penelo stared at him a moment before smiling quietly. "Yeah. Probably."
I opened my eyes, tired and hot. My limbs felt heavy and burned with pain, but I was used to that already. I turned my head to find Balthier sitting near my bed, cradling a book in his hand. At first it looked like he was engrossed in it, but the longer I stared I realized it was just one of his cleverly disguised bored expressions.
I wondered how long he was sitting there, pretending. I opened my mouth to speak, but then found his gaze on me. His stare was quiet, and to a point, unsettling, but then he reached out and pushed hair from my face, lifting a cloth -- probably once damp but not anymore -- from my forehead. I watched as he rinsed it over a basin and then put it back on my head.
"You must enjoy being in the habit of sleeping lately, Vaan."
I'm sick, I wanted to remind him.
"Yes, I know, you can't help it. In fact, it's a good thing. You should be able to walk in a day or two. Nothing much, I'm sure you're disappointed to hear, but you'll have to deal with it."
He paused, slowly set his book aside, and looked at me. I looked back because it was the only thing I could do, and faintly I wondered what this all meant: Balthier's weird behaviour.
I didn't think he'd do what he did, though. He touched my cheek, almost as though he was trying to check my temperature, then his hand trailed down the side of my neck, feather light as his fingers ghosted over my bandages. His gaze followed his hands, and I followed his eyes, caught by the serious look in them that darkened the hue of his irises.
He stopped, his eyes catching mine. He was silent for what felt like an eternity, before at last he spoke, his voice low and soft, carrying a tone I was unfamiliar with hearing from him. "If there is one thing a man can and should have have pride in, when all else fails, it is his self control. No scuffle in a bar should anger him too much, no stolen treasure should put him in a hysterical panic, no woman's tears should break his heart so much he's no better than mush. Always, he must have some sort of self control."
I stared at him in confusion, not sure where he was taking this. His fingers pressed at my side where I was wounded, making me wince.
"But I lost that, Vaan. Or at least I feel as if I have." I grimaced, pushing at his hand.
He sighed and shook his head, finally releasing pressure from my side and bringing his hand up to my cheek. His thumb stroked my cheek, and as I looked at him he pinned me with a strange look. "Never tell a man your feelings on a mere tape, Vaan. And as a last good bye message at that. It leaves a man confused and wretched, guilty and regretful."
I froze, the blood seeming to drain from my face.
"Don't act so surprised, of course I listened to it. You left it for me to, after all. ...How long have you had those feelings for me, Vaan?"
I stared at him, my mind blank. For some reason, I couldn't think. "...Since... forever?"
"Forever, you say? And you didn't once have feelings toward Ashe?" I slowly shook my head.
"She was... I mean, I was curious, yeah. She was a princess! But... She only saw me as some replacement for Rasler."
I looked up at him sharply. "She's like a sister to me!"
I stared, unbalanced by these questions. "N-no. Never. --Balthier, where are you going with this?"
He didn't answer at first, but then he startled me when he brought his face close to mine. "Gauging the competition."
"What about Basch? Larsa?"
I glared at him. "NO. I didn't look at any of them. Only you, got it? Just you and your stinkin' arrogant self!"
He chuckled then, making me glare harder. He froze whatever retort I probably would've given back, though, when he pressed his lips against mine. I made a noise in surprise and tried to push him away to demand what the hell he was thinking by doing that, but he pushed his fingers into my hair, sucking my tongue into his mouth.
I was so shocked by what he was doing, I didn't have the sense to resist. I had dreamed of him touching me like this and more. I never knew a day like this would come. I didn't think he would actually kiss me.
But-- I pushed him away, breaking the kiss. "Wait."
He looked down at me, and I nearly faltered at the expression on his face. Shit... "Balthier," I swallowed, "you don't... Why?"
"Why?" I repeated. "Why are you kissing me?"
"Are you questioning my intentions?" I nodded. "Would you believe a man such as me, committed to nothing and no one, free from all obligations and promises, if I said I fancy you? That I've always found you interesting, Vaan?"
I sputtered, knowing I was red in the face. "Wh-What?"
"Must a man explain himself?" He shook his head, as if amused by my question. "It was probably your spunk that drew me to you. You were -- and still are, frankly -- a stubborn and naive boy. You didn't know how to control yourself, and you always threw yourself headfirst into trouble. Honestly, I was safer without you around; at least then I didn't have to worry about Imperials banging on my doorstep."
He smirked at my expression. I probably looked distraught or something. I felt that way, at least. "But try as I might, I could never leave you alone. I swear, I must be insane, or better yet a masochist, because there are far less troublesome partners I can find in the world than you.
"I think this time you are the better pirate, Vaan. Without even knowing it, you've stolen my heart. It only took your near death experience for me to realize it, but I do believe I have been captured by you. I guess there is something to thank the gods about."
I leaned into him as he touched me again, still a little too shocked to do anything else. I couldn't really say anything in return -- what would I say anyway? -- but I wasn't about to object and refuse him. I wanted this. I wanted him. I've wanted both for a long time, and I really thought I'd take that confession to the grave because I'm too much of a coward when it comes to these sort of feelings, but here it is... here he is... making my fantasy reality. How could I resist?
Turning my head, my lips met his, and we kissed. I reached my arm around his neck, and he mapped my skin with his callused fingers. It felt like a dream, embracing him so intimately, feeling him tease me touch me hold me taste me. I never wanted to wake up.
Balthier stopped, slowly easing my hand out of his hair. "...You are still injured," he reminded me, as if I wasn't aware already. I was thoroughly reminded of the pain lacing my body.
Damn, that shattered my mood. "So?"
Balthier threw me a look. "You expect me to continue, and risk further damage? You'd sooner bleed on me and pass out than follow through with sex. If I'm going to take you, Vaan, it'll be when you're fully recovered. That way, there is nothing holding me back."
I flushed. "G-Geez, can you say it any more bluntly?"
He lifted a brow. "I can say many things, but I won't. Your little virgin ears would explode from too much detail."
I could only imagine what he meant by that.
"Now, don't tempt me. Get some rest and focus on getting better." He smirked. "Don't worry, I'll have you soon enough."
I swore I died of embarrassment right then and hid my face under my good arm. I cursed him under my breath, wishing he'd stumble into Ba'Gamnan or something and get hell for it. He reached down and kissed my ear, whispering, "I'm glad you're alive, Vaan."
I carefully lifted my arm to look at him. "...Yeah, me too." I grinned up at him. I was willing to wait for him. I had been for a long time now. A couple more days wouldn't hurt.
Afterword: Holy Schmoly that's long. Took me forever to write. And I wrote it in different sessions, too, so I'm not sure how coherent it still is. I hope the story still rocks. I'm a bit worried, but I'm almost certain my original idea for this hella-long oneshot changed over time. Either way, I've always been a fan of BalthierxVaan, along with a couple other pairings. I hope some others who share the same liking for these two will have enjoyed the story. Thank you for taking your time to read this. Much appreciation goes out.
PS: Happy Birthday to me.
Finished: 15 November 2008