It takes Balthier two weeks to seek her out and he approaches her with a smile. He has a new haircut and has lost his glasses somewhere.
She wonders if he can see.
Fran arches an eyebrow but his focus has shifted to her bike. "Is that a throne?" he asks with something that might be a laugh or perhaps a snicker.
"For safety," she clarifies with a smile.
"And simply building something to hold onto wouldn't suffice," he says with a wink. "Fran, you've certainly a flair for design."
With a careful shrug, she closes the distance between them and asks, "Your payment?"
He holds out four rings—gaudy and bright and utterly predictable. They're made of a heavy stone and polished to gleam in the hazy orange light. For a moment she looks at them, then gives him a sidelong glance. His grin is rueful and he scratches the back of his head.
"What enchantments?" she asks.
"Protect, Shell, Haste, and..." he grins and pauses. "...Cleanse.
The last makes her laugh—only an Archadian would see the need for such a thing, but perhaps he does not have to burn all his roots. Just most.
"Come in three days," Fran tells Balthier and she tucks the rings away.
He grins again, mirth twisting his mouth. "And if I come sooner?"
"They will not be ready," she says with a shrug. "I am no miracle worker."
With a wink, he says, "Perhaps."
Again, his attention turns to her bike and he runs his hands over the chair she's in the process of attaching to the back, and he asks, "Will you indulge me?"
"Mayhap," she says and moves to her bike. "After I have enchanted your rings."
"I look forward to it," he smiles at her, a rakish smile, and gives a half bow.
When he leaves, Fran is left to ponder where and when he learned. She tilts her head to the side and she puts her goggles back on and turns back to her bike. The wrench is cool and familiar—his smile imprinted in her mind is not.
He comes the next day at noon, but hangs far enough back, that, were she a hume, she'd never notice him. With a shrug, she leaves him his anonymity, and does not turn to him.
Wrench in hand, she works on her bike most of the morning, sweat and grease and other substances streaking her and he stays there, not speaking, merely watching. Her ears flick back at him and she hears him inhale. Does he realize she knows he's there?
Fran shakes her head. When did he become so distracting?
Sighing, she puts her tool aside, and then shakes the chair. It wiggles and screeches beneath her touch, but she can fix that. Footsteps sound and then, "You have a stalker, kupo," Nono tells her cheerfully, looking at her hover bike with interest.
"I realize," she replies and steps back, eyeing her bike critically. "It needs more support."
"True, kupo. Do you want me to get rid of him, kupo? I can be quite ferocious."
Fran laughs and shakes her head. "He does not bother me."
"Were you going to help me with the Cerberus, kupo? Or are you just going to work on your bike?"
"I'll assist you later," she tells him, "I have a commission."
He nods. "All right, kupo," he says and leaves her there.
While she wipes her hands on a damp rag, she glances back at Balthier, who's chatting up one of the female pirates.
"You could come see my ship," she purrs, and Fran hears Balthier's chuckle.
"Some other time," he says, "I'm working."
The woman huffs. "In the aerodrome? What sort of sky pirate are you?"
"Weren't you leaving?" he asks and then sighs when she saunters off.
Fran shakes her head and spreads a clean rag on the floor and pulls out the first of Balthier's rings. Gently, she places it on the rag and then tugs her goggles down so they're hanging around her neck.
The floor is cold when she sits. She holds her hand out over the ring and calls the magick to herself. Focus and calm—if she falters, if she loses her train of thought, all will be lost and she'll need to start again.
Murmuring the spell over and over again in the vieran tongue ("Protect, Protect, Protect"), she pushes the magick from her fingertips into the ring, thinking of its smooth color, its polished surface. Nothing else crosses her mind. Nothing else can cross her mind, save the spell and the ring. That is all that exists.
Hours pass but she doesn't heed them. Finally, beneath her fingers, warmth sparks and burns and she can smell the magick emanating from the ring. Fran opens her eyes and exhales.
Before her, the ring glows and she picks it up gingerly. The rag she had set beneath it is charred black. She stands and has to sit again. Her body shakes with exertion and she's coated with sweat.
Fran exhales a quivering breath and tucks away the ring; she feels the magick warming her side and she stands ago, slower, with more care. Again, the world tilts and twists, but she stays standing this time, blinking and breathing. "Here," and she isn't sure when Balthier approached, but he hands her his canteen and her hands are shaking so much that she spills about a third it, but she gets enough and nods her thanks.
He does not do her the disservice of asking if she will be well. For that, she is grateful.
When she turns and walks with unsteady footsteps, Balthier follows at arm's length, and she isn't sure what he wants but she needs something, anything—the box next to her bedroll has ethers and she drains two and wastes one by time she's through, and the world seems almost right again.
"Do you have need of me?" she asks him calmly.
He winks and says, "I'm sure you've had your share of admirers," he pauses and presses on, with, something like anxiousness. "Am I bothering you?"
A chuckle almost escapes but she manages to reply, "Nay, Balthier. Watch as you please."
Almost instantly, she regrets it—somehow, she thinks he might take her up on the offer. Balthier gives a half bow and follows her back to where her bike sits. All he does is watch: he offers her no aid on her bike, does not offer her food or drink. Nothing.
Just before night falls, he gives a nod and walks out, whistling a tune.
Humes and their idiosyncrasies.
It is even less of a surprise when he comes the next day as well.
Partly, she wonders if maybe his scrutiny is him ensuring she does not cheat him of his enchantments. With a sigh, she sets about ensuring the chair will not fall from her bike without sacrificing the beauty of her bike to the cause.
Shallowness is not something she engages in often, save for regarding mechanicks. In a machine, beauty and functionality both are not so hard to attain and it is her way, as it is the vieran way, to adore perfection. She works to midday and uses a Cleanse spell to clear the grime from her hands.
Nono, with a laugh, brings her lunch. Some sort of green Dalmascan fruit and a piece of cooked fish. She smiles. "Thank you."
"Your guest is back, kupo," he says sternly, "Do you want me to get rid of him?"
"No. He does not concern me."
Fran glances at Balthier who gives a short wave, eating salted jerky he takes from one of the pouches he has acquired somewhere. Shaking his head and grumbling about viera who always learn backwards, Nono goes walking off.
After lunch, Fran pulls out another clean rag, and lays it on the ground. She takes out the second ring, this one is blue, and she puts it on the rag. In the Wood she remembers elder viera who could enchant three or four or five objects a day. Never could she imagine doing so many, when merely enchanting one wears her so thin.
With a wry smile, Fran marvels at her own youth, and holds her hand out. "Shell, Shell, Shell, Shell,"the magick streams through her, bright, and she can focus on that feeling, that exhilaration, and she thinks hard on the glinting ring and feels the stone, hard and strong and cool.
When she opens her eyes, breath coming in short gasps, Balthier crouches in front of her and hands her his canteen again. She nods and drains it again. This time, though, she'd prepared.
Without standing, she leans over and grabs three ethers from next to her tool bag and empties them. By time she stands, the world shifting but not spinning erratically, Balthier's already retreated.
Fran sighs and takes Balthier's ring, still glowing with magick, and slips it away. Her bike requires attention—Balthier does not.
Mechanicks are soothing and working on her hover soon cures her of the remembrance of overspent magick and humes who confuse her with actions she understands not. Machines are easy—when they are broken, you take them apart to fix them. Humes are no so easy—when they are broken, they detest being taken apart and detest being fixed even more. They are nearly as prideful as the viera, in that way.
Fran shakes her head and keeps working. She's so close.
That night, he leaves only after she finishes her bike, running over it with a rag and she smiles and he waves goodnight and she gives a distracted nod.
Finally, her hover bike is safe for two. Well, more or less, with, perhaps, an emphasis on the more.
She is even less surprised when he shows up the third day. This time, he comes into her workspace and sits, his back against the wall.
"Good morning, Fran," he says with a winning smile.
His eyes droop with exhaustion and his hair hasn't been combed. She smiles, fond. "Hail," she says and puts her armful of ethers onto the floor gently. " 'Twill be a dull day, I fear," she tells him, "You time would be better spent elsewhere."
Balthier merely shakes his head.
Putting Haste on the third ring isn't very difficult. After she finishes, Balthier hands her an ether and she downs it and three more and then moves onto the next ring.
Nono brings her lunch again and looks at Balthier disapprovingly, and Fran nods her thanks and he leaves without complaint.
Cleanse is the hardest one, because it's not a defensive spell but a restorative spell. Restorative spells release in quick bursts, like Cure and Curaja, where defensive spells smolder and last long, like Shell and Protect. It take so much longer to enchant an object with restorative spells. Magick pours from her and she can feel the pink stone absorbing it and absorbing but it takes so long to fill.
A long time passes before she feels the ring grow warm. She releases the magick and lowers herself to the ground and falls asleep promptly.
The next morning, she wakes on her bedroll smelling of her own sweat, ethers, gunpowder, and leather. With a grimace, she rolls off and gets another ether from her box and drains it.
She casts Cleanse and feels better. At least Balthier's scent no longer clings to her like perfume.
By time she manages to enter the main portion of the aerodrome, the sun's already streaming in and Balthier's examining her bike with careful, gracing touches. He turns at her approach and grins.
"Good morning," he says with a mock bow. "How do you feel?"
"If hangovers feel aught like this..." Fran shakes her head and walks to him and holds out his rings, burnt bright with magick and warm to the touch still.
He takes them and puts them all on one hand. Somehow, it's not as gaudy-looking as it should be, but still, it makes her smile. Shameless, he grins at her and winks.
"Now, Fran," he says and the grin fades to intensity. "I have a proposition for you."
Balthier fiddles with his cuffs, fingers dancing across the fabric with his distraction. Glancing up at her, he clears his throat and looks back down at his sleeves, then back up at her. "Fran? Would you care to be my partner?"he tries for off-handed, for casual, like he hasn't been working up to this for some time, but her ears can pick up the strain in his voice and she can hear the way his heart pounds in his chest.
She tilts her head to the side, watching him. To find a partner is no simple thing. Pirate superstition dictates there is but one chance to find a co-pilot, to find a ship, to find a head-mechanic. Once you've chosen, you've chosen.
To attempt to change that choice is to bring the worst sort of luck to all involved.
Fran isn't sure she believes that—but pirates are remarkably firm in their beliefs. If bad luck does not befall naturally, they will see that it befalls by their hands.
It does not concern her, however, though she thinks he thought of that before asking her. No. Solitude has been her way since leaving the Jungle, perhaps since before then. Does she want a partner? More importantly, does she need one?
They work well together and seem to enjoy one another's company, that is true, but is that enough?
She looks at his face, which has stilled in a remarkable mesh of hope and fear, and she wonders if, perhaps, it is time to become something new again. Perhaps, sky pirate will replace engineer. Balthier looks down, youth apparent, and she can see his expression giving way to despair.
His soul reads so clearly, and she was like he is, once. And they fight the same battle, run from similar ghosts (ghosts that are places, ghosts that rip away what was and what will be, but they can't take what is).
Fran steps nearer and puts her hand onto his shoulder. It's cool to the touch.
"Aye, Balthier," she tells him, and with a slow curve of her mouth that becomes a full smile, she adds, "On a single condition."
His head jerks up, to look up at her, and he flinches, just once, and then he asks, "What?"
"You will allow my mentor to be your mechanic."
"Your mentor?" he frowns, with brows furrowed. "Who...?"
She releases a small, breathy laugh, and says, "The moogle."
Balthier's wince requires no articulation but he nods. "Alright. Partners, then, with a mechanic in the bargain."
When he holds his hand out, she shakes it, and is surprised when he brings her hand to his lips and brushes them across her knuckles. Tilting her head to the side, she reclaims her hand and says, dryly, "Partners. Now, would you like a test run?"
She nods her head sharply at her bike, ignoring the tingle of her hand, and he smiles like the child he was not so long ago. "You read my mind, Fran."
"Get on," she tells him and puts her goggles in place, "and hold on."
She laughs and moves to sit behind the controls and she fires it up as he sits on the chair, looking at her dubiously. "You are intelligent. Discover for yourself."
Whether the sound he makes next is an exhilarated laugh or a yelp of terror or perhaps a mesh of both matters little. Speed is all that matters. Salty sea-scent and the sound of fighting greet them and they zip through the streets; Balthier laughs now, through mouthfuls of her hair, and she only almost runs over four people, and rather than calling her a menace, he pulls out his gun and threatens to shoot anyone who gets in their way.
A partnership is born.