A/N: My first FFXII fanfic. All feedback welcome, although if it's criticism please try to be as constructive as possible... and to my knowledge, Viera don't turn into trees.
All recognisable characters and locations throughout this story (including Fran and Balthier) are property of Square Enix and I do not claim them as my own in any way.
1. The Beginning
The Skycity of Bhujerba
Admittedly, the tavern Balthier had chosen was not what could be described as pleasant. Hardly fit for a leading man, he'd decided on entering. But he could not be seen in The Cloudborne. No; there was a hefty sum on his head right now. This back-end dump would have to do, even though the stench of rotting wood permeating his nostrils made him feel somewhat nauseous.
"Svagatam," the barkeep announced as he took a seat. The sky-pirate eyed him suspiciously; he smelled as if he'd been needing a bath for the past few years. "What can I get for you, Bhadra?"
"Madhu will do me just fine," he answered. This place made him nervous. He was used to seedy bars like this; he'd been using them for the past few years since he fled from Archades. But this particular tavern definitely had an unpleasant feel about it. He glanced around. The mechanic he'd exchanged letters with should be here by now. He knew very little about her, other than she was a Viera and, according to her description, "very professional". We'll see about that, he thought. He'd come across many Viera in his life-time, each more intelligent, beautiful and unbelievably proud than the last. All of them were skilled in the art of weaponry, but their mechanical skills left much to be desired.
"Madhu for Bhadra." The Madhu appeared in front of Balthier.
"I know I play the leading man, but all this Bhadra nonsense really is unnecessary," he replied, taking a suspicious sniff of the Madhu. "Say, you haven't seen any Viera around have you? I'm supposed to be meeting one."
"Here in Bhujerba? Oh no, there are very few Viera around here, Bhadra," the barkeep explained, clearly ignoring what the sky-pirate had just said. "I will keep an eye out for one. What does she look like?"
"Well I presume she looks like a Viera," Balthier replied scathingly, despising the denseness of the Seeq. "I assume even those who have never strolled beneath the skyline know the striking characteristics of a Viera. But if not then no matter. I shall keep a look out for this one myself."
"The Viera are the ones with the ears, aren't they?" The barkeep asked. "The ones who live in woods and turn into trees during the night, that's the Viera, right?"
"Apparently so," Balthier sighed, wondering to himself who had come up with the notion that Viera turn into trees at night, "Although this one had better not be morphing into any sort of plant every time the sun sets. It would be highly inconvenient."
"I've heard they're beautiful," The Seeq breathed.
"Oh, they are," the sky-pirate said casually, "Beautiful, elegant and incredibly stuck-up. Most do not like to venture beyond their woods, so I've been told. The few I've met in the past were all fresh from their homes, though. This one I'm supposed to be meeting today has apparently been walking amongst the rest of us for quite a while." He raised the Madhu to his lips and sipped cautiously. When he didn't feel any malevolent side-effects, he took a large gulp. "This is just what I needed," he decided aloud, "A good drink and some company. It gets lonely being…" he paused very briefly, knowing he could not mention his profession to even this bartender, "Archadian. It would appear the rest of the world is not fond of our kind, even here in Bhujerba."
He looked up at the barkeep, expecting him to reply. But his eyes were fixed on the door. Frowning, Balthier glanced around. Then he took another swig of Madhu to stop him from staring.
Just as the rule seemed to go, she was more beautiful than all the other Viera he'd seen. Like most of her kind, her clothing could be described as provocative, her low-cut bodice and the black armour covering her long, slender legs barely hiding half her dark olive skin. She had the token silver hair and ruby-red eyes that every Veena Viera carried, and yet there was something… different… about her stride…
"I dare say this is the darling Viera I've been waiting for," Balthier announced, maintaining his composure. He had seen many girls in less clothes than this in his time, yet still the sight of her threw him off. "You must be Fran."
"And you Balthier," she stated simply. She did not sound like a Viera, yet she did not sound human either. It was as if she was half way between the two, having lost some of her Viera dialect yet not picking up a human one either.
"That I am," he answered, "I believe we have business to discuss."
"Such rarity it is to find one of your heritage in such a profession," she commented, arms folded. "And one so young with such a price upon his head."
Balthier smirked. "Done your homework, have you?" He took another swig of Madhu. "Let us discuss these matters away from curious ears, shall we?"
Without waiting for a reply he stood up and marched over to a table in the far corner of the room.
"You say you've worked with sky pirates before," He commented, pulling the letters from his bronze vest. "What I'd like to know is why you call yourself a professional when you jump from one to the next with ease, never staying around for too long. Just what exactly is your profession?"
The scowl she gave him was petrifying. Viera were not known for filling their eyes with emotion, but at that moment this one's were overflowing with fury.
"I did not come here to waste my time, Hume," she snarled, "Do not imply I am more body than mind when my wisdom stretches back beyond your days."
"Equally, I am not here to waste my time discussing serious business with someone no more than a mere harlot," Balthier replied as casually as he could under that terrifying gaze. "No matter, now that we've got that one out of the way, I would like to know, seriously, what your credentials are."
Her expression softened back to the icy detachedness the Viera normally present. "I have worked on the mechanics of airships," she explained, "Skilled I am too in archery. Many times have I hunted marks. You will find there is more to me than meets your human eye."
"I assume you have intelligence and wit about you too, seeing as you were able to track me down," he commented, "How exactly did you track me down?"
She merely smiled. "The earth around may no longer speak to me, but I have not lost all my senses," she answered softly.
"Then you'll have to tell me how to mask my scent," he said. "It is not right for the leading man to smell, after all."
"I will help you, in return for a professional partnership," she offered, leaning forwards so he could almost feel the sweetness of her breath, as her bright eyes pierced his own. "You desire my aid; I yearn for your lifestyle. Would you not agree it is a fair deal?"
Balthier eyed her, leaning back. "Something tells me you doubt my sincerity. Tell me, are you suspicious of my intentions?"
"What fool trusts a sky pirate?" She asked scathingly.
He raised a sandy-brown eyebrow. "You and I both know the reasoning behind my question."
For a moment she held his gaze. But then she averted her eyes to her right with a sigh.
"So shallow-minded have my past comrades been," she answered heavily, "They see no more than a useless doll, to be played with and tossed aside, not of serious or professional nature." She raised her eyes back to Balthier's. "For this reason, I have stayed not long with my other partners."
Silence settled between the two as they spoke with their eyes. His were intrigued; hers were determined. Finally, he spoke.
"Bhujerba Aerodrome, dock seven, an hour after the moon rises," he said. "Be there."
"I will." With that, she rose. Balthier could not help but watch her as she stalked out of the tavern, head held high, not meeting the stares of any of the men that gawped at her, stunned. At that moment, he admired her. How he too had judged her the moment he'd seen her, but now… now he realised how little she enjoyed the attention, how he had mistook dignity for pride, and it was all she had in this world where those around her assumed she was, in his own words, "a mere harlot".
Don't you worry, Fran, he thought to himself, you're in good hands with me.
He smirked as he picked up his tankard. After all, this is a purely professional relationship, and the likes of me do not fall in love.
With that, he took another swig of Madhu to slow his heart.