A/N: A story in five parts. Spoiler alert! You have been warned.
Part One takes place between the battle at Draklor Laboratory and Giruvegan. Parts Two and Three take place after the Pharos. Part Four and Five take place after the battle with Vayne Solidor.
He walks in from the rain outside, water running down his face in rivers. He's sopping wet; his shirt clings to his arms like a second skin. He eyes the cuffs of the shirt and sighs sadly; the expensive silk is ruined. Just my luck, he thinks. Taking a mental inventory, he remembers that most of his shirts are ruined or dirty with the countless escapades he's been on lately. And now, what with the soldiers even more on the look for them, how will he manage to buy more? He sighs; sometimes, life is so very difficult.
Turning carefully so as to minimize the amount of water he sprays around the Strahl's cargo hold, he leans against the doorframe of his ship and stares out through the veil of rain at the Dalmascan Estersand. The barren, rocky landscape is strangely haunting in the misty rain that spatters the sand, lit to a pale grey by the early morning light. His footprints are quickly being obscured by the overlapping circles left by the raindrops.
In truth, Balthier is enchanted by the scene, though he'd never admit it to anyone else. Most of his life, he's tried to avoid the Estersands, whether in the rainy season or not. Growing up in Archades to the north, he's always been more at home in cities. And this endless desert is quite possibly the farthest thing from that. But perhaps it's the exotic aspect of it that he finds so mesmerizing now.
"It's raining?" Ashe appears behind Balthier, her eyes dull with sleep. She wears a blanket wrapped around her thin shoulders and her hair is tousled, a strange sight on the usually well-kept princess.
"I would venture that 'raining' is an understatement," Balthier says, "It seems more like a flood, in my opinion. Has the last rain in Dalmasca been in recorded history or are we witnessing a miracle?"
"It rains in Dalmasca," Ashe replies with slight indignance, "But remember that you are in a desert. Do you expect it to rain every day?"
Balthier raises one hand in defense, "Touché. Perhaps you, as queen, could command this downpour to desist. It is quite impossible to fly in this mess and it shows no sign of lightening."
"You ask much of me, Balthier. I'm not queen yet."
Balthier laughs, "How presumptuous of me to think a mere princess has control over the weather." He turns his attention back to the Estersand, though still aware of Ashe's presence as she moves to stand at his side. "Still," he says, "I can't say it is unwelcome, after such a long time in the dry heat."
He expects Ashe to rebound with a sharp remark, but to his surprise, she sighs peacefully and says, "I agree. It is peaceful." She rests her hand gently on the Strahl's frame and turns her eyes to the rolling clouds overhead. "It's been too long since I really appreciated that which I am trying to protect and serve. Sometimes I wonder if I've forgotten…" She trails off, as if suddenly aware of her surroundings or her upbringing. The pattering rain is the only sound until she sighs heavily, "To tell the truth, I do not mind the delay. We all could use a rest."
Bathier remains silent as he studies the solemn princess. She stares out into the rain, her eyes slowly waking from sleep. But rather than drinking in the surreal desert scene (which, as he thinks about it, is likely not at all surreal to her), her gaze drifts beyond the rain, beyond the sand. He has no doubt what she sees is not her beloved Estersand, but the trials before her, lying in wait across the far reaches of Ivalice.
"You'd do well to follow your own advice, Princess," he says without thinking. He curses his slippery tongue, usually so under control. Antagonizing her is all well and fine, but not when she is so disarmed as this. He blames the rain for his suddenly loose words.
She turns her heavy gaze toward him, one eyebrow raised critically. "And what would you know of it, Sky Pirate?" Her voice bites on the title she only uses when she is angry with him. "You seem to understand the inner workings of a woman's mind so well. Pray tell me how to find peace in these troubles of mine."
Balthier's shoulders sink, the only outward sign of his regret over his choice of words. "In my experience," he says slowly, embellishing his words as best he can, "If one has a problem of your magnitude, the best remedy for clearing one's head is to find a distraction." He shrugs dismissively, "I can only speak for myself, though."
"A distraction…" Ashe muses, pressing one finger to her cheek in a graceful moment of indecision. "The trick, it would seem, is in finding something more distracting than Vayne Solidor." She offers Balthier a weak smile in the way of an apology, "If you think of one, let me know."
He bites back his first impulsive, indecorous response. She looks innocent enough, but if anyone should know that appearances are exceedingly misleading, it is Balthier. Is she setting him up, he wonders? Baiting him for a response she can react to with justified fury? Or is she serious? He sighs. When did he become so damned tame?
"I'm sorry about your father," Ashe says unexpectedly, causing Balthier's thoughts to reel. He'd nearly managed to dull the encounter they'd just left from in Archadia, the meeting with the father who was so… gone. And thanks to Her Royal Highness, it was all for naught.
She casts a wary glance at him, waiting for him to respond. She judges his reaction while pretending not to look at him, perhaps hoping he will let the issue fall. But respond he must. His mouth feels clumsy as he speaks. "My thanks," he says, "Although they have come six years too late."
Ashe blinks, stunned by his cold response. He notices her fretful gaze turn back to the rain and he adds, "The father I knew was not the power-hungry man you saw. I only wish you could have met my father. You would have liked him, Ashe."
Ashe's head snaps up, her heart skipping a beat at hearing her name in Balthier's Archadian accent. Doing her best to remain surreptitious, she studies him from behind her eyelashes. Her mind is a swirling mix of emotions; she is confused when the emotion that surfaces to the top of the chaos is one she cannot identify.
He pretends not to look at her. Even Ashe, with her limited experience with this sort of thing, can see where his glances are aimed. Though he's significantly dryer than when she came down to the hold, his hair and clothes still drip slowly, like a metronome, onto the metal floor. She has a sudden urge to touch him, to feel the warmth of his body through his wet shirt, to prove that this is not just a waking extension of her dreams. She shakes her head to clear the impulse and pulls her blanket tighter around her shoulders.
Balthier's eyes wrinkle with amusement. He takes a step back from the door and stretches his arms over his head. "I'm afraid I must leave you now, Princess, before your desert rain gives me chills. Would you like the hatch left open?"
"No," Ashe answers softly. She doesn't move as Balthier presses a button on the wall and the Strahl's cargo door closes with a mechanical whirring. The door draws up in front of her, a theatre curtain closing on a scene. "Balthier," she says, catching him just as he turns to leave.
He turns back, waiting quietly.
She takes a moment to respond, stunned into temporary silence by his eyes meeting hers. "Thank you," she says finally.
"For distracting me," she says, a smile playing on her lips, "If only for a moment."
He blinks, trying to decipher her meaning. Then he smiles mischievously, moving back to Ashe's side with just a few fluid steps. "It was my pleasure," he says, his hands resting lightly on her shoulders. He bends and places a quick kiss on her cheek, light as a feather. He lingers for a moment too long, then turns again and vanishes into the dark cargo hold.
Ashe watches him go, her mind a whirl of shock, indignance and….something she hasn't felt since before Rasler died. She touches her cheek where she can still feel his breath on her skin and she frowns.