Another old, old project, this one. It's taken two years to get this written out entirely, and it's a monster of a one-shot. If the format changes and jumping around in the first half confuses you- good. It's kinda stream-of-conscious for Balthier, who's apparently just taken a nasty header, and so is meant to be jumbled and choppy.

Also, I put some time before Bahamut's arriving in Rabanastre- two weeks, to be exact. C'mon, it's a sky fortress, what part of sky fortress sounds fast?

The game at the end is entirely my own creation. If there's an actual game like it, I am unaware of it. Following the gameplay itself isn't necessary, so you can just read the dialogue and skip the rest, but it works better if you read the whole thing.

Disclaimer: me no own.

The darkness parts like a heavy curtain, allowing him to become aware of more than just the hollow emptiness that was pain beyond description. A faint green light flickers at the edges of his consciousness, most likely some form of healing spell. He wrinkles his nose at the smell of the powerful magick. Like overheating metal and burning oil in an airship's overworked engine, a spell as powerful as this taxes the Mist that births it and devours the ether that gives it form.

"It's not working. Why is it not working?" Panic laces the words. The voice is familiar but the tone is not; rife with fear and useless panic, stripped of its normal curiosity and sharp-edged humor and the omnipresent layer of smugness. Like blood, that smugness- look at the skin of words and you know it's under there but you can't actually see it. You simply have to know.

But this... this is far from normal, and despite the pain he finds himself trying to move between the boy and whatever was scaring him, trying to become a living barrier as he has countless times before. Once he had sworn to himself that his days of protecting people from their own folly were over. Odd how after only a moment near this boy he had completely forgotten that.

"It's a complicated spell, Vaan. Give it a minute." A different voice, calmer, controlled. Panic and fear corralled and redirected into useful action. Good for her. Vaan, on the other hand, is still failing miserably at actually doing anything save working off the adrenaline no doubt singing through his veins- he can hear the boy pacing, footsteps leading away and doubling back.

He decides to try opening his eyes and immediately regrets it. Brilliant sunlight pours into his eyes like molten lead; pain returns vividly to life and sears his nerves. A scream tears at his throat but he clamps it down, strangles it. Then the second wave hits and he's gasping, back arching and fingers digging into the ground beneath him, tacky with drying blood. The two children- and they're both really just children, no matter that they're not really all that much younger than him, that they've survived a war and the city streets, that they've lost more than he could ever imagine, they're still children, just don't ask him what makes him more of an adult than them- the two children are arguing overhead. Their words are sharp with sudden fear and real worry. He should be flattered that they care this much. Instead he focuses only on hoping- wishing- praying- the pain would stop.

The ground under his left hand is no longer sticky with dried blood. In fact it's getting slippery with fresh blood. Even in the midst of his agony he finds himself wondering how much blood his body has in it and how much more he can afford to lose. The answer to those are not enough and too much already, he knows. He tries to unlock his joints and lower himself gently back to the ground- if he collapses he'll hit his head again and he most certainly doesn't need that. He's met with partial success. Two pairs of hands help him the rest of the way when previously stiff muscles suddenly go limp.

"... have to get the others," Vaan is saying, and there it is. He's back in control again. Probably wide-eyed and vibrating with barely restrained energy, but still. "Fran will know what to do, or maybe Ashe."

Fran, perhaps. He's not sure he trusts the princess with something like this yet. He's not sure he ever will. Theirs is purely a capitalistic relationship and he can't put a price on his own life. It's why he's always avoided being partied with her- the others he can trust implicitly. With her he would hesitate, and given their normal in-a-life-or-death-scenario status a hesitation could be fatal.

"I should stay here," the girl protests. Vaan won't let her, he knows. He won't let her stay and as crown prince of the street urchins he'll get his way. And indeed he does- he listens to the argument, which is fast and intense and ends with her dashing away to fetch Fran. At least, he hopes she's going for Fran. He simply doesn't want Ashe saving his life. Ever.

For that matter, when had Vaan saving his life become acceptable? Or even Fran? Wasn't that the whole point of his new approach to life? Not trusting people- not caring about them- meant not being hurt when they left.

Something moves over him; a callused thumb brushes gently over his cheekbone. He wants to lean into the tentative caress. Instead he allows the boy his shy touch and sighs in quiet relief as his stillness brings an end to the pain. Or maybe it's simply too intense for him to truly feel it anymore- like flying over an ocean, the glassy carpet of blue having no beginning or end and therefore unable to properly impress upon the observer its true size.

"You'll be alright," Vaan is saying shakily. His hand drifts down, fingers resting lightly against his throat in search of a pulse. It's hard to find- too much of his blood is soaking into the thirsty desert ground below him. "You'll be fine. You've survived this long, you can't die now."

He allows himself a tiny smile at that- are you telling me or asking?- which quickly fades. The darkness was coming back. He takes as deep a breath as he could and settles more comfortably onto the ground, bracing himself to fight it.

"Balthier?" Vaan's hand is on his chest, monitoring his breathing. The boy sounds closer than before, as if he's leaning over him. It feels good- he's blocking out the sun, which is sapping his strength almost as much as his wounds.

And then the black rises up again, clawing at his mind and dragging him back into its depths as Vaan's voice echoes far above him.

One of the first things you learn when you're taught to fly an airship is to keep an eye on the weather- a single powerful storm can destroy an entire fleet if they're ill-prepared for it. All sky pirates know the ways of the winds, can tell at a glance if an approaching storm is going to be a gentle summer rain or a tempest.

In this regard, Balthier tends to think of his meeting Vaan as less of an actual meeting and more of a convergence of two storm fronts. Certainly they never technically met; their initial encounter included explosions and fire and constant running and even a potentially lethal fall or two. He distinctly remembered a lack of anything vaguely resembling decorum in their introduction. By the time Balthier felt inclined to actually attempt civility it was far too late; their relationship was already defined by sardonic words untempered by diplomacy.

(Fran will comment on this later, weeks later, when they are taking a well-deserved rest in Bhujerba. She will randomly point out that rarely has she seen him take such a blunt approach, that he almost always manages to be a charming gentleman no matter the circumstances. Balthier's response to this will be a blank stare. It will be hours before he puzzles out the meaning behind her words, but he can say nothing in his defense. She is allowed to make references to things that happened weeks ago. He is not.)

Golden-white hair untamed, uncut, unkempt. Golden skin, smudged with dirt and the lingering residue of sand. Cinnamon-colored eyes, almost animalistic, wide and wary. A lean form that spoke of a delicate balance maintained on the knife edge of poverty. A street rat in every way, shape, and size. Balthier had been honestly surprised to find that that golden creature actually had a name; he had seemed less a person and more a social caste given flesh. At first he blamed his distracting fascination on the boy's uniqueness- he had never before seen a true Dalmascan, the ones that rivaled the fey of legends with their fair hair and pretty faces. Theirs was a dying breed, blood diluted by time and intermingled heritages.

There were rumors, spread by the terminally bored of Archades' upper echelon, scandalous whispers of halfbreeds running rampant in the desert cities of the south. The stories in the capital made it sound as though you took your life in your hands every time you walked Rabanastre's streets. Balthier had never believed any of it. He understood as the others in Archades had not that Rabanastre was just another city. A little warmer, perhaps, certainly dustier and poorer, but just as lacking in free-roaming mythical creatures as Archades. And your life was safe enough on most streets, though your purse was another matter entirely. Vaan and his ilk were a challenge to Balthier's belief. Knowing how the gods liked to laugh at him, the sky pirate wouldn't be in the least surprised to find that Vaan was, in fact, descended from a legend. Probably an incubus.

Balthier was willing to blame his almost instantaneous attraction on the boy's questionable heritage. Certainly Vaan had nothing Balthier normally considered attractive. Try as he might, the sky pirate couldn't quite erase the impression left by his upper-class youth. He was drawn towards classic beauty, towards eloquence and coy flirtatiousness and self-confidence. Not to grungy street urchins who got adorably flustered at the first hint of flirtation, who seemed unable to control what came out of their mouths and maintained an almost criminal level of ignorance as to their own exotic seductiveness.

(Fran will tell him, on that day in Bhujerba, that he has allowed his attraction to extend beyond the physical level and it scares him. She will then smile serenely at him and walk off. Vieras, Balthier knows, are overly fond of riddles. He is familiar with her tactic of using obfuscation to score a point off him. All the same, this particular non-conversation will send him into the Cloudborne looking for a good-sized bottle of madhu.)

The first time Balthier touched Vaan, he knew that this harmless little infatuation wasn't going to be going away anytime soon.

The first time Balthier touches Vaan is in Nalbina. They're following an Imperial Judge, a man they will later come to know as Gabranth, as he and his party leads them through the bowels of the dungeon. When Gabranth stops to talk to a wreck of a man, the three escapees hang back in the previous room, the door open only wide enough for Balthier to press himself against it and watch the scene unfolding.

"I need your help." Vaan says quietly. Balthier looks round instantly, about to scold the boy for speaking at all when there is a judge magistrate in the next room. Instead he stares into that head-on, challenging gaze. As he is, Vaan is a liability and they all three know it. He handles himself admirably in fights against unthinking beasts such as the inhabitants of the sewers. However, against a more intelligent foe the boy has only his thief's luck working for him. So far that has been enough. Balthier starts to say something along those lines, then changes it to some comment about how they haven't the time for lessons. Then he sighs, because that unwavering gaze won't let him casually dismiss this with a few pithy words.

Fran should do this, he tells himself. She is the true weapons master in this partnership. It has been years since Balthier has last handled anything as clumsy as a sword. Even so, he steps away from the door and she moves to take his place. Balthier takes the boy's sword and grimaces at the familiar weight, the heavy and heady feeling that is the power of life and death. Guns are safer, he has found. Guns are less personal. Guns don't require you to watch as your enemy's life fades.

The lesson is short and brutal, focused less on actually defeating his opponents and more on defending himself. There is just no time for in-depth dissertations. Vaan will simply have to trust his two companions. Balthier is explaining this to the boy when he touches him. He places on hand on Vaan's shoulder and the other splayed across his stomach to correct his posture. Then he found he couldn't let the boy go if his life depended upon it.

Vaan's skin is smooth. Not like silk- nothing as ridiculous or fragile. More like a stone scoured to a satin finish by eons of exposure to wind and sand. He's also warm, as though he just stepped in from outside in the sun though Balthier has yet to see him in direct sunlight. Under that smooth skin his muscles tense, and Balthier feels his hand subtly moving as the boy breathes. For a long moment they remain frozen in this tableau. Then Fran nudges the door open slightly and turns to them, telling them the judge and party have left, and Balthier is forcing himself to pull away from this warm desert creature.

The subsequent meeting with Basch is a handy distraction, Vaan's obvious ire with the man more so. It is a welcome respite. It prevents Balthier from reaching out and petting the thief, from dragging his fingers through that blond hair to see what it feels like. Either Vaan is a far better liar than Balthier first gave him credit for or he's even more oblivious than Balthier thought- either way, the boy remains unaware of the thoughtful stares the sky pirate sends his way.

The next hume-fighting class is another slapdash lesson, this time given by Vossler on board the Leviathan. The one after that is their first night in the Sandsea. This time the students are both Vaan and Penelo and the teacher is Basch and the man obviously knows his business, both in fighting and teaching, for he's far more patient with the two children than Balthier ever could be. The sky pirate idly sits by and watches, eyes straying every few seconds to Vaan's bare stomach. Really, they have to teach to boy how to dress himself better, although Balthier isn't going to trust himself with that since he can't decide whether to cover the boy head-to-toe or have him take off what little he is wearing.

At first he thinks it's raining. He doesn't dare risk opening his eyes, not after last time. Instead he merely runs his tongue over his cracked lips and lets out a shivering sigh. The pain has retreated for the time being and he's not inclined to do anything that might bring it back.

"Balthier?" Vaan is there, like a hunting hound catching a scent. "Is he awake? Can I talk to him?"

"Awake, yes," a woman answers. Not Fran, or Ashe. She's familiar in an off-hand way and he immediately gives up trying to identify her- he knows too many people. "And you can talk to him, but I can't promise he'll respond. Keep giving him the water."

"Thanks, Masyua," the thief answers, and now Balthier remembers. The Giza Plains nomads. Once they stopped there, looking for some herb to make a medicine to trade for a charmed amulet or some such nonsense. Upon entering the camp Vaan and Penelo had dissipated like so much smoke, leaving the other four standing there looking awkward and feeling like intruders. The two children had easily melted into the rustic village around them, becoming part of the nomad's clan. This was their people, their land. They belonged here in a way the others, even Ashe, could only envy.

"Giza?" he whispers. His voice is harsh and broken but it works and that was the point of asking, more so than confirming what he already knew.

Above him, Vaan exhales in noisy relief. His own voice is shaky and tired. "Yeah. Camina found us and ran back to get the adults. We're in the Elder's tent."

He hasn't a clue who Camina is- maybe one of those darling little children Vaan and Penelo have wrapped around their little fingers- but he's grateful to her all the same. He risks opening his eyes, comforted by the thought of being away from the sun. The world is a water-stained blur the color of a strong tea. Vaan blends in well.

"They've got the kids out looking for the others," the boy continues gamely. He's doing something over there but he can't tell what and doesn't try turning his head to watch. "They're pretty good healers here but not... not this good. And they sent a messenger to Rabanastre to get a real healer. Just in case, you know, they can't find Fran in time."

This isn't the first time a member of their little party has been darkening death's door. This isn't even the closest they've come to losing someone. He can't remember any details right now, but he sees flashes of images- a wide swathe of blood leading down one of the crystalline ramps in Giruvegan, a snapped arrow shaft peeking out through an impossibly small gap in armor, the cloyingly sweet stench of poison and rotting flowers on the heavy jungle air, claws raking and fangs tearing and swords slashing... theirs is a dangerous occupation. They're well used to these long minutes of wondering and waiting.

"Balthier?" Vaan's panicky voice draws him back from the introspective darkness. He realizes his eyes are closed again and forces them back open. The thief is leaning over him- their gazes meet and the boy sighs in relief. "Don't do that. You have to stay awake, Masyua said. Here, drink this."

Between the two of them they manage to get a little water into him. He's not quite willing to say he'll survive this but his odds are significantly better now. Vaan also knows this, for he's relaxed and more in control.

"Masyua..." he tries carefully, and the boy stills immediately. "She... healed me?"

"Kind of," Vaan answers wryly. "She did what she could, but she wasn't strong enough to- to fix everything, so she just patched you up a little. So you wouldn't bleed to death."

No, she wouldn't be strong enough. Masyua wasn't a healer; she was the designated magick user for the nomad tribe. Her healing skills probably extended to broken bones and gravel-torn palms and nipped heels and fingers. This would require experience with powerful magick and with life-threatening injuries. She wouldn't be ready for this.

He reaches out blindly, feeling for the boy's hand. Vaan shifts carefully and catches his hand with both of his own.

"You've done well," he says carefully. He doesn't like the shortness of his speech, but it's necessary. He doesn't have the strength for his normal eloquence. Still, it's important to say this, for the boy has done an admirable job once over his original panic. He highly doubts that Camina would have been able to adequately process what she was seeing upon first finding them. Vaan no doubt would have had to shake her out of a frightened reverie- as a rule children tended to get a wide-eyed, glassy stare upon seeing so much blood, and were unable to process even a simple command until forced to look away- and send her scrambling for the adults. Then he would have had to support Masyua as she tried to heal him, would have had to keep her from pouring too much of her strength into her healing. And now he's sitting at the side of a man who is slowly dying.

The darkness was returning. He tightens his grip on the boy's hand and breathes deeply. Vaan must have realized what was happening- he pulls his hand close, resting it against his chest, and he can feel the boy's heartbeat now and that has to be one of the most subtly erotic things he's ever experienced-

Before he can properly finish that thought, he's falling once again.

One of the few truly enjoyable things about their journey was that Balthier got a chance to see the world through a child's eyes. He was jaded and cynical even before ever leaving Archades and although Ivalice is rich in natural and cultural beauty he was determined to remain aloof. Vaan had no such reservations.

When they first reached Bhujerba, the boy had been largely unimpressed. The architecture was Galtean; the people had a similar feel. The city itself was smaller than Rabanastre, more hills and less sand, and somewhere in Vaan's mind, something hadn't quite made the proper connection yet. Balthier wasn't quite aware the moment it did connect. All he knew was that somehow, between one moment and the next, they had misplaced their thief.

They found him on the Kaff Terrace, standing on the edge of the world, leaning over the endless drop. There was nothing but a single breath of wind between him and the ocean far below. He was chatting and laughing with a woman nearby as though this was an everyday occurrence and Balthier would bet every last gil he had that she never realized the boy wasn't actually Bhujerban.

Then Basch caught Vaan by the elbow and, saying something about important business, pulled the boy away from a ledge Balthier had never even been able to look at before, never mind stand near.

The Sandseas had been only briefly interesting to Vaan. He was a child of the desert, this was nothing special to him. Balthier, however, had been unable to take his eyes off the boy. The desert provided the perfect backdrop for the thief. He belonged here. He had a confidence in himself here that he displayed nowhere else.

The Giza Plains during the rains made Vaan uncomfortable; the Ozmone Plains were merely an extension of Giza; Jahara was a mirror image of the nomads' camp in Giza. All of these earned barely a glance. The Golmore Jungle, on the other hand, was far from the boy's natural environment and therefore garnered attention. Vaan would reach out to run his fingers along the trees as they passed, as if to convince himself that they were really there. He seemed determined to find every patch of slippery moss on the jungle trail and occasionally stumbled into trees and other people.

Balthier is one of those people, once. The boy slips and staggers straight into the sky pirate, who in turn reels backwards until his spine fetches up against a tree. They stay like this a long moment, bodies pressed together in a mocking parody of intimacy, Balthier's knee between the boy's thighs and Vaan's breath across his face, panting a little too hard for a simple stumble. He starts to say something, maybe an apology, maybe a half-hearted comment on the weather, maybe an invitation; Balthier doesn't know and doesn't wait to hear. He tilts his head forward, one hand skating up the boy's back to wrap gently around the back of his neck-

And then Larsa, that evil little monster who was clearly waiting for the worst possible moment to interrupt, materializes at his left elbow and asks if they plan on standing there until they mildew. Vaan ducks away and all but bolts over to Penelo, who's giving him a knowing look. Larsa is watching Balthier, who in turn makes some token complaint about how he is the one stuck babysitting the children. The boy isn't fooled, but says nothing, and the four continue deeper into the jungle as Balthier tries to determine whether to curse Larsa for his interruption or thank him.

The less said about the Paramina Rift, the better. Even in his own memories Balthier tends to gloss over those days of ice and snow and pain, not just their pain but everyone's. When the Gran Kiltias died they all felt it, an indescribable feeling of sharp-edged loss and sudden vulnerability. It was also the time Balthier realized exactly how much he had at stake here.

The Mosphoran Highwaste was a rainy, muddy, miserable trek. With each breath he could feel the air getting thinner and braced himself for it; the path would not lead them back down into the lowlands until the Phon Coast. Vaan was silent the entire time- they all knew his opinion of rain by now, and it isn't flattering- except for a few notable hours in the relative dryness that was the caravan's rest area. The very mountain itself shielded them from the rain and the party took advantage of this. Balthier tracked Vaan out of the corner of his eye, watching as the boy utterly charmed an Archadian researcher and proceeded to play with the centuries-old wind shrines like toys. He was especially fascinated by the floatweed, watching the plants rise and fall as the researcher jabbered away about something.

Luccio the caravaneer, obviously no fool, took in Balthier's distraction and immediately began to milk it for all its worth. Balthier probably would have paid three times his purchases' true worth had an observant Basch not stepped in.

The Salikawood was an airier version of Golmore. At first Vaan was hesitant to walk on the plank-wood paths. He wasn't the only one; even the stalwart Ashe balked at the sight of the mossy, half-rotted wood. As soon as it became clear the paths would hold them, Vaan charged ahead as usual. When they reached the gate and found it closed, he and Penelo took off to go moogle-hunting almost before the moogle boss asked them to. They were gone half an hour at most and when they came back, escorted by a small fleet of moogles, they had still been bouncing on their toes and excited and ready to go. Just watching them made Balthier feel old and tired.

They stay two nights at the hunter's camp on the coast, laid up by a nasty gash on Ashe's leg that quickly gets infected. Between the hunters- capable people who care for their own- and her companions she is in no danger of either death or losing the leg, but both the camp healer and Fran are insistent upon her getting a day's rest before moving on. Sometimes magick alone is not enough. She agrees, grudgingly, mostly because she can't walk on her own and refuses to be carried.

The second night they're there Balthier notices Vaan is no longer occupying the bedroll the hunters have loaned them. He sits up and stares at the water, which looks less like the crystal blue from the day and more like an endless well of black ink washing along the white sand shore and gently reflecting the stars in the sky. And there he is, a brief splash of white amongst the black. Balthier stands and stretches and ambles over to the water's edge.

"Who taught you how to swim?" he asks.

"The villagers on the Nebra," Vaan answers lightly. Villagers...? Ah, yes, he remembers. The ones with the cactoid problem and the pickpocket chocobo. Balthier is about to ask if the boy knows some sort of magick that allows him to charm everyone he meets when he abruptly realizes something.

"Are you naked?" the sky pirate demands. Vaan blinks at him.

"Yeah. Is that bad?"

Balthier groans tiredly. And to think, in a few days he's going to be introducing this grubby child to a sophisticated and easily offended city. Perhaps it would be for the best if they just left Vaan here and came back to fetch him after their errand in Archades was done.

"You do realize that I have been trying to civilize you," he says slowly. The thief frowns.


It's a good question and Balthier suddenly finds he has no answer, at least not a real one. He's been trying to civilize Vaan, to tame him, in order to make him safer, easier for Balthier to handle. Because it's everything wild and free in Vaan that attracts Balthier. Because it's everything wild and free in Vaan that Balthier loves.

He can't handle this. Not now. He says something, he doesn't know what, but it's cold and scathing and leaves Vaan gaping after him as he storms off. He prays the boy doesn't chase him, or if he does he stops to put on clothes first, because he won't be responsible for what he does otherwise and he can't handle that on top of everything else.

In Old Archades Vaan blended right in, as Balthier had known he would. In Archades proper he was charming and adorable and soon had the whole city cooing over him, and Balthier had been expecting that too. It irritated him somehow, that Vaan could so effortlessly win over a city that had coldly rejected Balthier himself.

After Draklor, Balthier forced himself to stop watching Vaan. After Draklor, he forced himself to stop caring.

Fran's voice, husky and soothing and achingly familiar, is what eventually penetrates the haze. He opens his eyes- still in the tent- and risks turning his head to look for her.

"Lie still," Vaan commands. "You almost died-" and here he snorts, hard, and his head answers by throbbing and he knows it's going to hurt for days, but at least that means he has days ahead of him still- "well, all right, you almost died again. Just... don't move."

The boy sounds lost and tired and broken, and he knows he's responsible for most of it. He's been playing with Vaan like a cat batting at a piece of string. That the boy hasn't simply given up on him yet is a surprise.

Fran's words, from that madhu-hazed day in Bhujerba, suddenly makes a good deal more sense.

"Fran is here?" he asks. It's easier to talk now, although the taste of powerful magick leaves a thick residue on his tongue. He's healed now, he knows. He's not dying anymore. It will still be days before he dares to try to leave the village, but that's acceptable since the Bahamut won't be reaching Rabanastre for two weeks at least.

"She's here," Vaan answers. "She healed you. You're going to be fine."

He smiles at that, a tiny turn of the lips that slips away quickly. "Good."

The days seem to vanish like mist after that. One moment he's lying in the tent, using his full strength merely to squeeze out a few words, and the next he's sitting at the elder's dining table, wearing clean clothes and arguing with her over who will get her tent tonight. She's an old woman, although he's tactful enough to avoid overtly saying so, and it's her tent by right. He's used to the hard ground and his injuries are healed enough to not matter. Elder Brunoa, however, is having none of it. He's still pale and drawn and needs Vaan's steadying shoulder to make it across the camp.

He eventually wins this fight by virtue of being a 'damned obstinate fool', as Brunoa calls him, and finds himself outside on the ground that night trying to discern exactly what he'd just won. Vaan, the only one of the group still here, settles down next to him.

Come morning the boy's back is molded against his side. He starts to push the thief away, as he has every time he finds them like this, then stops and turns into the touch instead. He wraps an arm around Vaan's chest and buries his face in the boy's hair and breathes in deep the scent of the desert.

It's something of a lost cause, he now knows. Pushing Vaan away will hurt just as much as keeping him near. At least this way only one of them is suffering.

It's been a long time since they've kicked back and just unwound- since the last time they were here, to be precise. Reddas' death has left their emotions scrubbed raw. Bahamut's approach is an inescapable cloud hanging over their heads. There's tension and anxiety riding high in the air and someone's going to snap sometime, they can all feel it. The whole world is riding on their one final battle and there's a clock ticking away in their minds. They have only so long to get things done, to live, before doomsday is here.

Basch, a far braver man than Balthier, watches Ashe reduce a malboro to a green smear and a few twitching tentacles and gently suggests they take a break. So they head to the coast, where there's something for everyone to do. Vaan immediately takes off, apparently deciding that hunting down some giant turtle to impress a quartet of bangaa is of vital importance. He returns the proud owner of an exceedingly ugly trophy, a mark of his success. In honor of this, and in defense against the gloom their group has brought with them, the bangaa throw a party that night.

Balthier surrenders himself to the mood of the night, well aware that he's got a limited window of time to savor being alive. It's a joke, really- he's never truly enjoyed his life. He's spent so long running from all that he hates and fears that he never got to slow down and appreciate the things he loves.

The party's dying down when he takes a clayware flask of the local liquor- like swallowing liquid fire, it burns in all the right ways going down and it'll be days before anything tastes right again- and heads out into the night. He strays dangerously far from the camp's boundaries and can't be bothered to care about the threat- there's a pretty good chance he's already drunk, although the trail of footprints in the sand behind him is relatively straight.

Vaan's already settled in the little cove Balthier was aiming for. The boy seems him coming and shuffles over a little and Balthier drops next to him. He considers saying something heartfelt and profound, and chooses to take a drink instead. It's probably the better idea.

"What happens if we win?" Vaan asks some long while later. Balthier blinks at him. "I mean, I know what happens if we lose: we die and Vayne wipes out everything that isn't Archades. But what happens if we win?"

"We go our separate ways, I suppose," Balthier says eventually. "Ashe becomes Queen, Basch becomes her knight, Fran and I… find something… pirate-y to do-" by the gods, did he honestly just say pirate-y? "And you get to go home."

"Yeah," Vaan agrees listlessly. "Home."

Balthier looks at him, studies him. Somehow this golden desert creature has lost its way in the world. Going home is all well and good, but when you've the yearning for freedom and a taste of the world, staying home forever is as harsh a fate as having nothing to go home to. They're a study in contradictions, each one taking the other extreme.

"No one said you had to stay there," the sky pirate adds softly. It's not an invitation, it's a simple statement of fact. But somehow it feels like a great personal accomplishment, to have said that.

He glances at Vaan, eyes catching on the boy's face. The thief smiles tentatively and leans over and kisses him- a shy brush of lips over his. Balthier considers this for a moment, then tilts his flask up and finishes it off in three swallows. When he shifts to face Vaan the thief's smile is real and welcoming.

The next kiss is long and leisurely, all skill and slow seduction on Balthier's part. Vaan is inexperienced but a quick study and far too happy to let Balthier take over, pushing him back against the sand and lying over him. Balthier has the advantage of wearing actual clothes and uses it ruthlessly, dragging his tongue down the boy's neck while he spreads a hand over that flat belly that's been teasing him for so long and the thief squirms and moans under him.

Vaan tries to be quiet, probably out of consideration for the others. That doesn't last long.

In the grey of pre-dawn Vaan makes as if to leave but Balthier, well aware that he's not going to allow himself this luxury again, pulls him back. Later, when there's no excuses to hide behind, he'll let the boy go. Not now.

That day is a pain-filled blur, everyone on the coast suffering from massive hangovers. Sometime about noon Balthier rejoins the others, intent on fresh water to clean out the carpet of fuzz growing on his tongue. He ignores Vaan, cold and distant as ever. The fact that Vaan isn't put out by this, seems almost to have expected it, makes him hate himself that much more.

The next day they're heading for Giza.

Six days after he almost dies, he's finally feeling well enough to leave the nomad village. Which is good, Brunoa tells him, since the Rains are coming soon and the nomads don't intend to wait on their visitors. He feels delicate and disconnected, as if he's a child's doll that had been torn in pieces and clumsily stitched back together. His body is weak and fragile and easily broken and he doesn't care much for this revelation. He's faced down death a dozen times and never before came out of it this badly shaken.

Which is why he could easily claim to not necessarily be in his right mind when he notices Vaan and decides to not-stumble his way over to the boy. Vaan's sitting cross-legged across from another nomad child- there's a small herd of the little beasts, he can't be expected to instantly recognize all of them- hunched over something on a low stone between them. As he gets closer, he sees that it's a small game board with a handful of brightly colored pebbles scattered across its surface.

The game board and its pieces had been carved by Basch in the Mosphoran Highwaste, in an effort to combat boredom. Carrying on in that theme, the fallen knight had then taught the two children several different games. Balthier had reluctantly allowed himself to be pulled into the lessons and took it upon himself to insure that they would win every game they played. Ashe had accused him of cheating, but her time with them had quite obviously dulled some of her pricklier edges, for she had voiced her accusations with a slight smile.

Balthier carefully makes his way over, chasing the child away and settling himself gently down across the board from Vaan. The thief can clearly see something has changed, for he spares him a swift glance before pulling out a leather pouch and spilling the game pieces across the board. Balthier wipes a hand across it and sends most of the delicate little pieces clattering to the cracked dirt. He flips the hand over and shows Vaan the three pieces he's palmed.

Vaan turns the board so the corners are pointing at the two players. Balthier takes his three pieces and arranges them carefully in the third row from him, the first row with three spaces.

The point of the game is to get your three pieces into the squares at the corners of the diamond, excluding the one directly in front of you. The catch was that only one piece of the three could perform any sort of aggressive maneuver. The attacker piece can bump pieces off their square but the other two cannot; they're called defenders but in truth are mostly deadweight, good only for taking up a place. The trick is in figuring out your opponent's strategy and maneuvering your pieces into key positions before being forced to decide which one will be the attacker.

Balthier is dark, the three pieces having been charred with a firebrand before being waxed, whereas Vaan's are pristine honeywood. It's an expensive luxury, honeywood. Basch picked it up in the Nalbina market, only enough to carve these six pieces, and it had cost more than the bow and quiver of poison-tipped arrows Fran had found. Balthier's hand shakes as he reaches forward to move his first piece and he pauses, willing himself into steadiness before continuing. The first move out is one square forward- defenders can move two squares at a time, the only advantage they have over attackers, and by moving only one square at a time he hasn't locked this piece into a defender slot.

Vaan mimics the move, careful and cautious, which is wrong. He's a reckless player, preferring to charge ahead into full-scale attack. As much as Basch had tried to drill strategy into the thief, the boy still chose blitzing attacks in the hopes of keeping his opponent off-guard.

Talking is sometimes difficult for Balthier, when the words are heavy with meaning and emotion. They get tangled up in his throat and no amount of reassurance or pleading will unknot them. Instead, in those moments, he says something else, something sharp and often hurtful when he means the opposite. In this way it's easier with the game there, allowing him to study the board and convince himself that he's speaking only to the delicate wooden knights.

"I owe you an apology," he said carefully as he moved a second piece in the same direction as the first, both aiming towards the corner square to his left. An attacker can only bump one defender per turn, and his third piece would be free to wander deep into Vaan's half of the board.

Vaan moves one piece back two squares- a defender, standing guard in his corner. It's a defensive move. "It's not your fault," he replies, also staring at the board. "The monsters around here can catch people off-guard."

A wise man would recognize the peace offering and accept it. A clever man would also recognize it and use it to control the conversation. Balthier has always believed wisdom to be overrated. He moves the final piece directly ahead, aiming for the far corner. He'll need to decide if it's the attacker before he gets there, or otherwise Vaan will never move the defender already in the corner.

"I have a tendency to sabotage my relationships with people if I feel they are becoming too... personal."

Vaan's jaw tenses subtly. He moves his first piece forward two squares- his second defender. "You're friends with a lot of people."

Balthier moves the piece closest to the left corner forward two squares. His hesitation means Vaan will take the corner, but Balthier will be able to maneuver his defender into a position that will be awkward for Vaan to maneuver around. "I have acquaintances, not friends. I would trust very few of them with my gil and none with my life."

The young thief pauses, hand resting on his as-yet-unmoving attacker. Then he nudges it forward, aiming for the left corner. A hint of aggression to come. "If this is about that thing on the beach, don't worry. I'm not upset about it."

After a moment's consideration, Balthier moves his second piece forward one square. Vaan's attacker is well positioned to head after any one of Balthier's pieces, meaning the sky pirate would decide on which his attacker was based solely on Vaan's next move. Attackers cannot be bumped; deadlocking attackers leads to long, frustrating games. "I know," he allows mildly.

The conversation dies at that point, and they start moving faster. Vaan's first defender is bumped out of the corner nearest the boy and moves a square away, outside of the attacker's reach but still close enough to reclaim the corner in one move. His second defender veers off its initial path and makes its lonely way across the board towards Balthier's corner. Balthier's first defender takes the left corner and loses it within two turns to Vaan's attacker; his second breaks off and heads for the right corner. The two wanderers make it to their goals without challenge, and there they pause. This is where true strategy is necessary; both must risk losing hard-won ground in order to gain their last corner.

Balthier moves his homeless defender towards Vaan, hoping to slip it into the corner without the boy's defender reclaiming the square. As he runs his fingertips over the satin-smooth honeywood, he finds the courage to untie his words.

"I have been behaving rather boorishly towards you as of late. I'm afraid I don't have a reasonable excuse."

Vaan frowns at that, and moves his attacker out of the left corner and towards the right. "So what's your unreasonable excuse?"

Balthier moves his attacker out of Vaan's corner, hoping to lure the boy into wasting a turn. The old Vaan, the Rabanastre street rat, would have done so. Now the boy barely flicks a glance towards the opening before moving his attacker again. Balthier moves to intercept- an attacker deadlock will buy him time needed to maneuver his free defender into position while simultaneously protecting his corner defender.

"Even before I... left... Archades, I kept my relationships separated," he explains carefully. Their attackers race across the board and clash just shy of the right corner; Vaan promptly moves his free defender back into his corner. "I did not care to become too friendly with those whom shared my bed."

Vaan tilts his head as he translates this and blinks incredulously. "You didn't like the people you slept with?"

Balthier bites back on the instinct to cuff the thief like a misbehaving puppy- or like a boy being purposely thick. "Obviously I liked certain aspects of them," he says irritably. "But those aspects did not tend to be their personalities."

"Why not?"

Balthier studies the board. Had deadlocking attackers actually seemed like a good idea? Perhaps five turns ago, but certainly not anymore. He moves his attacker away from Vaan's and bumps his own defender out of the right corner, replacing it with the untouchable attacker.

"To avoid becoming too attached," he says, answering Vaan's question. "To avoid caring."

"You don't want to care about people?" Vaan asks. This seems to somehow surprise him. "What about Fran?"

"A mutually satisfactory financial agreement," Balthier recites, and Vaan sends him a look that's part disbelief and part pity.

"You're afraid," the boy says. Balthier grimaces.

"That argument could be made," he admits, which they both know means 'yes'.

Vaan moves his attacker towards the left corner and glances out over the plains, studying the skies grimly. It's not visible, won't be for another week at least, but they both know it's out there and it's approaching, slow but inevitable. Death on a dragon's black wings.

"So what's changed?" he asks finally.

"Sometimes there is victory in defeat," Balthier says, studying the board. Vaan's attacker is about to bump his defender from the left corner and Vaan's free defender is moving closer to the right corner. The boy will win this one.

Vaan shifts uncomfortably, not entirely sure what Balthier's saying, so the pirate wraps a hand around the back of the thief's neck and pulls him forward into a kiss. It's chaste and the position is awkward due to the game board, and when Balthier tries to shift closer something gives a painful twang in his neck. He pulls away with a sharp hiss, ignoring Vaan's immediate concerns, and presses his fingertips to his skin.

A cockatrice, the one who's approximately the size of a small airship, goes galumphing past. The game pieces rattle on the board each time the bird's clawed feet hits the ground. A stampede of shrieking, giggling children chases after it. Balthier watches them go, then rolls an eye towards Vaan, who merely shrugs and grins.

The mood's well broken after that, the real world once again existing around them, so Vaan takes off to join the Great Cockatrice Chase and Balthier cleans up the spilled game pieces.

When he wakes up the following morning, his head is pillowed on Vaan's stomach. It's the first time in days he doesn't wake up to pain.

The wind is blowing in from the south and carries with it the earthy smell of rain. If one stood tall enough, one could see a thick line of grey darkening the horizon. As he has every morning, Vaan turns instead towards the east, watching for a different airborne menace. The nomads ignore him, moving around him like water in a stream around a rock, industrially packing up their camp. The children and elders will go north to Rabanastre, while the rest would herd their cockatrices to some unknown place to wait out the Rains. By the time the Dry returns, Balthier knows, Dalmasca will either be a free land or will have been wiped from the map.

Balthier is still weak. He allows himself to lean on Vaan until he's sure his feet will stay under him; then he stubbornly pushes away. Fran is there, and she casts one final healing spell over him. Then, because they're in the way and trying to help would only cause disruptions, the three head north to the city.

The entire time, Balthier keeps a hand on Vaan's shoulder. Keeping him close.