Dreaming of Moons
By mihoyonagi, edited by mintfresh
I was sixteen when I was introduced to this story's leading lady, the stoic goddess that changed my life. At the time, I was convinced that there was to be no foreseen fate for me. Freedom was my only mistress at the time; well, freedom and her most sultry sister, spiced Archadian wine. Together, they clouded my judgment like only alcohol and an inflated ego can; completely and without a shred of hope for repentance.
With all of the alcohol and self-pity I'd drowned myself in hardly minutes before I'd met her, I was greatly surprised to find that I could even walk at all. I honestly hadn't meant to get drunk, but there are occasions when drunkenness is excusable, and running away from a most dull and boring life-plan and changing your name to something dashing like Balthier constitutes such, or at least, to a sixteen-year-old version of me it most certainly did.
"I'm cutting you off, kid. You're drunk off your ass."
"It's my birthday, you know."
"That's why I'm cutting you off. You're too young to die of alcohol poisoning."
I shot the barman a most sour look, spun around on my heel, and nearly fell face first upon the cobblestone streets. How I'd ended up outside was anyone's guess, but I had a sinking suspicion later that the barman had instructed some of my fellow patrons to remove me from the premises.
That was when I first saw her, or rather, that was when I first heard her. The delicate yet deliberate clack of those high heeled shoes resonated off the alleyway walls, up the brick and stone buildings, and echoed into the clouded night sky. She lacked her warrior's outfit, the tight, black-leather I would later become accustomed seeing her in, but she was still alluring without it. Her hair was down, swaying with each step she took.
"You are in my way. Move."
I blinked, surprised she had been talking to me. I meant to move to let her through, but in my drunken stupor I had simply been unable to respond in a timely fashion. Which is why the first contact between she and I involved her gripping my sleeve and tugging me out of her way. I nearly fell to my face for the second time in under a minute, but I managed to right myself after she'd entered the pub. I pressed my back against the white bricks of the building and asked the stars to stop their waltzing across the sky as it was making me quite sick.
She exited not long after she'd initially entered; that, or I'd fallen asleep without realizing it. Either way, when she left the building I couldn't help but follow. Sweet freedom begged me to call out to her, and sweeter wine forced the words past my lips before I had a moment to register a single thought.
"You are quite beautiful, you know."
She paused in her stride, one of her ears shifting backwards. She turned so her profile was facing me. "And you are quite stupid to be so young and so drunk at this hour of night, you know."
Had I been a chocobo, I would have puffed my chest feathers out. I was not, however, yet I still puffed out my chest and stuck my nose in the air. "Do you always throw insults at those who mean to pay you a genuine compliment, or are you simply stuck-up?"
Her ear twitched toward me, a hint of a smile playing at those delicate lips of hers. "Forgive me, then. Your compliment was merely thought to be the drunken ramblings of a youngling. I'll find appreciation for your words, perhaps."
"I'll be famous, you know. I should have already been famous, but that was the wrong life, you see. One day, the world will tremble at the mere mention of my name."
"And what name would that be?"
I smiled a smile so large, it nearly consumed my face. "Balthier."
Her ear twitched again. "I shall hope to remember our meeting then, Balthier, so that one day, when you are indeed feared, I may say that I had the chance to cross paths with you before your name held such weight."
She turned and walked into the night, and I was left awestruck at how a beauty like her could have such scathing wit without directly insulting someone. To say I was intrigued would be an understatement.
Had I been sober, I would have gone back to my room at the inn and contemplated my life and what, exactly, I needed to do with it to become as famous and feared as I hoped to one day be. But I was not sober, not by any stretch of the word, and so I followed her down the alley and into the moon-washed streets. I stayed far enough behind her that, when it became obvious there was another party other than myself following her, I was able to formulate a plan to save her. She must have heard them, however, as I'm sure she must have also heard me considering hardly anything goes missed when your ears are as large as your forearms. Still, I pulled my pistol from its holster and readied myself to scare off any potential trouble.
She turned down an alley that ended in a dead end, and I cursed and spat at the ground in frustration. I wanted to shout at her that there was no way out, but I knew if I made so much as a peep that the group of men following her would know I was, in turn, following them.
When the men were out of sight, consumed by the darkness of the side street, I took a deep breath, counted to three, then rounded the corner, holding my gun high-
Only to meet the situation with wide eyes and a most unbecoming mouth agape. She was dusting her hands off as several moaning bodies of full-grown men littered the floor, holding their heads, or other overly delicate body parts, in their hands.
"Gods above, woman- how did you manage that?"
She looked to me, to my gun, and smiled. "Ah, here to play hero, Balthier? I thought the world would cower at the mere mention of your name. You cannot tarnish your reputation by saving helpless damsels, now can you?"
I opened my mouth to counter with something most inappropriate, but was cut off by a gunshot. Looking down, I saw a bleeding hole just below my shoulder. I glared at the bastard who thought it intelligent to shoot me. "How rude."
I crumpled to the ground and knew nothing but darkness for what turned out to be several days. When I was finally roused from my near coma-like state, I found myself in a most comfortable bed, in a most lavish room, with a fire lit to keep the warmth in and the night at bay. Meaning to sit up and take a better look at my surroundings, I lifted my arm to remove the choco-down comforter from atop me, only to groan as an incredibly sharp pain erupted from my shoulder. I took a deep breath, then sank back down into the mattress.
If she'd already been in the room or if she entered while I was wallowing in pain I don't know, but she spoke when I finished my pained whimper. "Do not try to sit up; you will only hurt yourself." A cool washcloth blotted at my forehead.
"It's very kind of you to help me, but I fail to see what's in it for you." It was blunt and to the point, yes, but my Vieran beauty didn't have to save me. She had, however, which piqued my curiosity.
"It would be a terrible lie were I to tell you that there was a sense of duty involved. You tried to save me, that much was obvious, and while I should have left you to die, I found I could not. So, here we are."
"Yes, here we are."
She kept blotting my forehead with the washcloth, which I found comforting.
"And where shall we go from here, then?"
Her lithe fingers wrung the washcloth of excess moisture, and she turned to set it atop the beside table. "When you are healed, you will go where the worlds takes you, as will I. Do not think that my saving you had to do with anything else aside from pity."
I found myself wanting to say something, anything, in response to her, but I was lacking both the energy and wit to open my mouth. So, I simply kept my lips sealed as she changed the dressings on my shoulder.
"Come morning, if you can sit up, you are welcome to leave." She stood, and pointed to a tray of fruit and bread. "Eat; you need it. Then, sleep again."
She left the room, and I did as she bade me. Dratted woman, giving me direction. Had she no idea who she was talking to? I was Ffamran mied Bunansa, and-
No, I suppose I wasn't. I was running from that name, never again to return to who I once was.
Stuffing a piece of bread in my mouth, I began plotting just how to become famous and feared across all kingdoms. After that, I slept again and come morning I felt fresher and filled with more purpose than I had when I'd initially run away. I left the little loft and set to the streets once more, sworn off the particular brand of wine I'd drunk myself stupid with a few moons before.
The world would come to bow to the name Balthier, and so would she. One day.
It was nearly half a year before I met up with her again. We were both surprised to see the other, especially given the circumstances.
You see I'd heard, by means of a very trustworthy moogle, that a fleet of Archadian treasure was being moved from an old station point to a new holding facility. The means of transport was by airship, heavily guarded, and I knew at once it was that moment or none at all. I readied my supplies, adding an extra potion or two to my bag, and began what I would later come to see as the single stupidest yet smartest thing I'd ever set out to do.
I'd disguised myself as an engineer aboard the ship, having pilfered an officer's uniform hardly an hour before the ship was set to take flight. The most wonderful thing about being as smart and charming as I is that there is little a smile, a lot of faking it, and a polite and demure 'yes, sir' can't get me out of. Even if I wasn't familiar overly with the particular ship we were on, it was easy enough to get a base idea of what needed to be done, and what I could tell the soldiers who stopped me along the way.
"I don't see why you need to go through the vault in order to get to the second block of the engine room," a most portly official informed me, looking over the ship's map.
"My deepest apologies, sir; I am merely doing my duty. If you feel I am not trustworthy enough, perhaps you could accompany me?"
He studied me for a long while before he changed the subject. "You look awfully young to be an engineer."
"I tend to hear that often, sir. I have only just finished my apprenticeship, having been employed by the most gracious Captain Markshen for hardly three days now. I hate to be bothersome, but if I don't perform my duties I'm afraid that the captain will have cause to relieve me of my position."
"Perhaps we should pay the captain a visit so that I may confirm your employment."
"If my uniform and sense of duty are not enough for you to trust my words, I beg you to speak to the captain. But, as what I need to check in the engine room will take all of three minutes, I beseech you to come with me and supervise. Then, we shall go see the captain. Apologies, sir, but I wish not to be given the boot after less than a week of work."
The soldier folded up his map, heaved a sigh, and finally nodded. "Yes, yes, let's make this quick. I can see from your eagerness that this can't be helped. I don't wish to cost you your job."
Such a pity, I thought to myself, that my plan most likely involved you losing yours. Ah, but dashing sky pirates couldn't afford feelings when fame and fortune and prestige were on the line, could they?
The guard pressed in his officer code on the keypad at the door, his sausage-like fingers nearly bursting forth from his gloves. I held my breath, wondering if it was truly going to be as easy as this. I was hoping for a bit more of a challenge, though I suppose it was quite cocky of me. Still, I kept my emotions in check as the hinges on the door to the vault gave off a most gruesome and tired squeal, and followed the portly tin-man inside.
Once the door was securely shut behind us, I took out my pistol from its hiding place and proceeded to bash the fat little soldier on the back of the head. He crumpled like a soggy rag and hit the marble floor with a meaty sound.
It wasn't, however, that particular sound that had me turning around as fast as I could. I turned and came face to face with the same Viera who'd saved me after I'd been shot.
She smiled after a moment, though she kept her gun pointed at my chest. "Balthier, wasn't it? So we meet again. Is this how you will reach fame- by stealing a few jewels from the Archadians?"
"I could ask what you, my dear, are doing here as well, but it seems we both have our eyes on the prize. I'm not here for petty treasure; big ticket items are the only ones I'm snatching up."
The tip of her left ear twitched. "Then we are between a rock and a hard place, as we want the same thing. You know, it would only take a single whistle from me to alert the crew that you are not one of them."
"Yes, but by doing so you would also alert the crew to your presence as well, which I don't think will help your position any more than it will mine."
She studied me for a long while, our guns pointed at one another. Then, she lowered her pistol and smiled. "Two pairs of hands can carry more treasure than one, so long as we split it all in a fair manner when we are through."
I holstered my gun and shook her hand, sealing our new-found, on the fly partnership. "So long as you aren't planning to shoot me in the back when all of this is over."
"If I am to shoot you, you will be facing me and you will be armed just as well as I. To do otherwise is cowardly."
I nearly swallowed my tongue at that. Gracious, she was quite the fire-cracker. It was at that moment that I knew we were meant to be partners. I boast about breaking away from fate, yes, but sometimes even the most rebellious must give in. Ah, but better to have a cunning, beautiful partner in crime than none. For now, I'd let fate win.
"What is your name?"
"Fran." She was already loading her person with loot, though how she planned on hiding much treasure in that skin-tight black-leather suit of hers was beyond me, despite the overactive imagination of a teenager.
Hardly half a minute into our agreed partnership came the time to work together. She heard the footsteps far sooner than I, and we wormed our way behind a set of chests in a far corner before the door opened. Three heavily-armed soldiers poured in, looking about as if the room might catch on fire.
"Lieutenant!" One of them shouted, going to the body of the fat-man on the floor. He stayed unconscious, however, and two of the guards were set to the task of carrying his body out of the room. For a moment, I felt a flash of panic rush through me. I'd meant to knock him out, not kill him.
Fran laid her hand on my shoulder, leaned up against my ear, and whispered to me. "He lives."
I sighed, heavily, and for a moment I thought I'd given away our position. None of the guards, however, had heard my relief over the clamor of their own armor.
The vault doors slammed shut again with orders to keep the door locked until the ship landed. Fran stood up and walked around from the other side of the chests we'd be hiding behind. "Now we plan."
She punched me in the face.
I pinned her arms behind her and made my way to the door. With a balled up fist, I pummeled the vault entrance. "Open up! Let me out! I've caught the thief!" I twisted Fran's wrist behind her back. She hissed, tried to step around me, but I managed to turn around and push her against the door. "Help! Open the door!"
One of the doors opened, and three armed soldiers sprang on us. Fran was cuffed, and I was escorted out of the vault with an armored hand gripping my upper arm. "She knocked your comrade out, and before I could call for help, she knocked me out, too."
"Why didn't we find your body when we found the lieutenant's?"
"I have no idea why you didn't find me; I wouldn't have been conscious to tell you, obviously. Can you not see the swollen eye I am sporting, sir?"
I'd done my best at memorized the layout of the ship before I'd set foot on it. It seemed like a smart thing to do and I, being a smart man, easily understood that knowing my way around a ship I'm to rob blind is quite high on a list of good ideas. "My lady, are you ready?"
Fran threw me a look over her shoulder, stopped dead in her stride, and flipped the two armed guards over each shoulder respectively. With a kick to each, they were out cold. I, not wanting to look the part of the idiot, slipped from the grip my escort had on my arm, twisted around him, and put his beefy neck in a lock until his body went limp. I brushed my hands off when I'd finished. "Why are all the soldiers on this ship heavy?"
"Archadian food is rich, and their wine-"
"Yes, yes, I know of their wine. I know plenty of their wine." I shot my partner a smile before we began toward the long boats. Only one guard was on duty at the door, who Fran dispatched quite quickly while I entered a series of alphanumeric codes for the door.
"Am I to assume you know how to fly one of these?" I asked her as we began starting sequences for the ship.
She sat herself in the captain's chair. "Far better than you." It wasn't a remark with scathing wit, it was merely a statement of fact so I simply let it slide. I was a decent pilot, yes, but I would put my trust in her for our escape on the basis that while I'd flown more than a ship or two in my short life, I'd never navigated a long boat away from a daring robbery. In fact, I wasn't even certain of how many on board the actual ship knew of our feats of thievery.
The Archadies government attempted to keep our little raid on their treasury under the radar. When, however, one of the higher noble families found out it was mostly their loot that had been stolen, they openly mocked the security of the ship and soldiers employed, and demanded retribution, as their trust had been broken with the theft of some of their families' precious heirlooms.
We made the news for a solid week, though no one had a better description than 'a feral viera warrior and a young man posing as an engineer.' It was a start, at the very least.
"Why shouldn't we stick together? We make a fantastic team."
She gazed at the ruby the size of a chicken egg, looking thoughtful. "They will be looking for us. They suspect our partnership already."
"I shall make you a deal then, Fran. Let us extend our partnership into a few more excursions. Let us strike fear into the hearts of treasure rooms and those who guard them the world over. If, for any reason, you wish to split, I shall not only refrain from asking questions, I'll make sure that you've enough gold in your pocket to procure a ship of your own and do with what you will. If you so decide that you wish to never again look at my handsome visage, I shall not hold a grudge against you. You see, I'm quite tired of running. I would very much like to settle down into the life of a sky pirate."
For reasons I couldn't begin to explain, as I was hardly sixteen and a half at the time, I wanted her with me, at my side. I could tell, as could any idiot I'm sure, that she was a rare find – beautiful, intelligent, and deadly; hardly a combination to be trifled with – and I wouldn't give her up simply because our job was done.
She cracked the slightest smile at my words. "You are so young, so self-sure, that you do not see how foolish your words seem to one who has seen the dangers of the world. Still, you are capable of great things, Balthier; that much I am certain of. Perhaps we shall simply see what time will make of our acquaintanceship."
We were in the market for a new ship by week's end. The extravagance that the ship-dealer showed us, however, was lost on deaf ears once I laid eyes on the Strahl. The salesman insisted that it was no ship for a lady, and was destined for the scrapyard, but I would have none of it. It was to be mine – to be ours – and I paid the man nearly double just to make him shut up. I emptied my pockets, took the keys from outstretched hands, and without a word boarded the ship.
"She's quite beautiful," Fran informed me, running her long fingertips gracefully across the instruments.
"I have a feeling that this is the beginning of something fantastic, don't you?"
Another half-smile; how I loved when she graced me with them. "So full of yourself," she mused.
"Yes, well, men as intelligent and daring as I are few and far-between, wouldn't you agree? Life is hardly more than dressed up, over-important theater, and you and I, my dear, make fine thespians in our respective leading roles."
And wouldn't you know it? We did. We hired a moogle as a mechanic when we docked, though Fran saw to most of the repair and upkeep of the ship. I was both surprised and pleased to find she not only had a way with a sword but with a wrench as well, and within a year and a half and nearly all of our money we turned the Strahl into a ship destined for greatness.
I was eighteen, and in love with her. I never once spoke a word of it out loud – such would be foolishness to a degree I find my intelligence far above – but I knew it, and though I tried to hide it from her, I'm certain she knew it as well. Since, however, I refrained from acting on it, we remained partners and, to a point, good friends, in all our endeavors. After all, a smart man knows not to ruin a good thing.
I found her painting what was designated as her room of the ship one morning, all of her furniture spread about the hallway. It was hardly larger than a broom closet, as was my own room aboard, but it suited us just fine. We had managed, over the year and a half of our partnership, to purchase no less than three safe-holds, in case we ever needed to retreat into hiding; one only she knew of, one only I knew of, and a shared one we often met up at after we'd been separated during a job. Since her door had been open, I merely knocked on the frame and popped my head inside.
"I've been planning something to get our names out there. Care to hear what insanity I've concocted?"
She didn't turn to look at me. "I rather like this shade of yellow, don't you?"
Her remark regarding the color she was painting with caught me slightly unprepared, but, as always, I simply bounced back. "It reminds me of sunsets. It will match well with your bed linens, don't you agree?"
"I had such in mind when I bought the paint." Though she was a warrior by day, and a mechanic by night, Fran was also quite creative. She made the Strahl feel not only like a war-ship, but a little like a home, as well. Our kitchen was painted a nice, light green color – to match the color of tea leaves, she'd informed me when I'd found her painting the walls one morning – and the bathroom a lovely shade of blue. To be honest, we'd turned the Strahl less into an actual war ship, though it still had guns and the like, and more into our base, our home.
"Are you going to tell me of your plan?"
I smirked, and held out for her a piece of paper.
She took it, unfolded it, and rolled her eyes. "Must you always crash parties?"
"I'm the leading man, Fran; it's hardly a party without me."
And, in three weeks time, we'd devised one of the most fantastic robberies in the history of our partnership.
You see, that simple piece of paper had contained an invitation for one, plus a guest, to the most talked about ball in all of the Arcadian empire. Every year was said to be more extravagant than the last, with all of the most influential – and rich, I might add – people within the kingdom.
We made way, after properly dressing ourselves in the latest of fashions, to the Port at Balfonheim. The party was to take place this year on the largest of luxury cruise ships, newly built on her maiden voyage, and merriment was meant to last through most of the night. Dancing, gambling, good food and wine; it sounded positively tedious. That is, of course, where Fran and I made our entrances. Sky Pirates liven every party, after all.
"You look exquisite in formal wear. Has anyone ever told you that?"
The end of Fran's nose twitched, as though she was holding back a most venomous retort. Instead of snapping at me, she simply fidgeted with her hair. "You jest," she finally sighed.
I hadn't been lying. Far from it, actually. She truly looked the very definition of beauty; she was elegance personified. I could wax poetically of how she fit in her dress, how the fabric stretched over her backside with every step she took, how the white of the fabric clashed in a most fantastic way with the darkness of her skin, or despite how tight-fitting her garments were, she sill managed to hide a pistol on her person, but it would take days, perhaps an entire week to do so. For not only was she gorgeous, I was quite verbose.
We were introduced in a most dramatic fashion to our fellow guests upon our arrival. A trumpet blew and our names announced. "Balthier Bunansa and guest, the Lady Fran." Those on the ship did not yet fear my name, but after tonight they would. No one knew us, but by dawn bards three kingdoms over would be fabricating songs of our most daring, albeit terrible, deeds.
We mingled. We danced. We made merry conversation over the buffet table regarding the fashion changes, the exchange of wealth, and the chocobo races. We were halfway into the night before Fran flipped open her fan, a sign that it was time to get this party really going.
I stepped up on the buffet table, much to the gasps of those around me, and knocked a knife against my champagne glass. "Ladies and gentlemen, if I could have your attention. This has been a most magnificent party, if I do say so myself, but it seems we are lacking. Would you agree?"
"Lacking in what, sir?" One of the nobles, a man I'd come to know as a duke whose name I'd forget by morning asked. "Unless there is something planned that we were not previously aware of."
"Oh, but that's just it! You're all in for such a treat!" I tossed the glass and knife over my shoulder, hearing a satisfying shattering sound.
I heard the echo of gunshots near the ballroom entrance. The doors swung shut with a gigantic bellow that echoed through the hall, and people, both men and women, began to panic and scream. Taking out my own gun, I fired a few shots into the air. "Now, now, none of that. I'll have you all quite down, please!"
They quieted, and I kicked a punch bowl off the table. "You see, ladies and gentlemen, my fellow guests, this is a heist. And if you don't cooperate, I'm afraid that I'll have to start shooting at you, instead of into the air."
Fran, gun held high, marched down the steps. "My companion here," I explained, "has a bag and into it everyone in the hall will dispense any thing they have of value upon their person."
An upstart noble took a step toward me. "And if we refuse? There are nearly a hundred of us, and only two of you."
I lowered my gun and shot him in the foot.
He screamed, which, in turn, made several of those around him cry out as well. When the hall quieted down once more, I looked around at my captives. "Anyone else want to play hero?"
The room was as quiet as death itself.
"Good. Now, let's get this going. I haven't got all night."
It was easier than stealing candy from a sleeping babe, though, to be fair, I'd never done such a thing, but I imagine that there is simply no effort involved in it. Fran went around the room, and the bag filled up by the time she'd reached the last of our prisoners.
"Is that everyone, then? No one is holding out on us?" I pointed my gun level with a few of them, scanning the room. An elderly woman fainted. I rolled my eyes.
"How do you propose to get out of here? You've locked the doors, so that the guards can't get in; but how do you suppose to get out without having to face them?"
"A fantastic question." I pulled a little device out of my pocket and pushed a series of buttons. Within hardly a minute the windows of the ballroom shattered into a million pieces, falling like broken rainbows to the floor and out into the night sky. The Strahl hovered in the air beside the cruise ship.
I threw a smoke bomb into the crowd and raced for the window. No one stopped me – they were too busy coughing and screaming - and I heard the clacking of Fran's heels against the marble hardly a step behind me.
By the time the smoke cleared, we were aboard the Strahl. I leaned out of the loading bay as it closed, shouting to my victims. "Remember, everyone; this fantastic adventure and the liberating of your valuables was brought to you by Balthier Bunansa and his partner, Fran. Tell your friends."
And we shot into the night.
Well, so did a few security ships, but I was far from worried. I trusted Fran's ability to pilot far better than I trusted any government or official to catch a criminal. We'd modified the Strahl for speed, and into the night she sped, at what neared break-neck speeds, until the ships that were following us simply turned around.
Not only that, but with the arrival of our ship, and the pushing of that remote control, I'd set a few fires 'round the ship. Security would need to turn back to help the nobles off their now aflame cruiser.
We decided that it would be a good idea to keep clear of the Archadies region for a period of time, given what had just transpired, so we took our ship, and our loot, to Rabanaste in order to let our celebrity flare up, then die down. It would end up being a long while before we could trade or sell of the majority of our stolen goods, but, in the long run, it was worth it. The nobles and their ilk would be talking of us for months.
Not that I was complaining.
We landed, and broke out the wine. "I believe it's time for a toast," I decided after nearly half a bottle.
"You're meant to toast before you start drinking, not after." Her face was flushed with the slightest tinge of pink. She, too, was drunk.
"I can toast however I want to, thank you very much."
"Fine, fine. Do what you will."
"I propose a toast to my most fantastic partner in crime, Fran, and the fact that she managed to hide a gun in that slinky dress of hers nearly all night."
She drank to that, a smile on her lips.
When she had finished her sip, my lips replaced her wine glass.
I think I scared myself more than I'd startled her, to be honest. When I pulled away from having kissed her, her eyes were set wide and her eyebrows were raised.
"Oh, come off it," I reprimanded. "We both knew it was bound to happen. You're a viera; you can sense my emotions better than I can feel them. You've known I've been in love with you all along."
She blinked a few times. "I knew there was something there, but I wouldn't have assumed such things as love."
"Oh." I felt quite the fool. Ah, it was already out. "Well, there you have it, woman. Are we going to make something of this night, or not?"
It was, quite honestly, the worst proposition I'd ever offered.
Her ears went back, and a rather thoughtful expression consumed her face. "I... Balthier, we are partners-"
"In crime, yes. Why not in other aspects as well?"
"This will... complicate things. Infinitely."
"Oh, now you're just making excuses. If you don't want to Fran, just say so."
She glared at me, and sighed. "If we do this, will it ease your thirst of me?"
"Fully and without question."
Fran sat for a moment, lost in thought. Then she looked up at me and shrugged her shoulders. "Get the lights, then."
I didn't need to be told twice. I was upon her in an instant, my mouth lavishing her neck with attention. She sighed, light and airily, as I pushed up the sides of her dress. I was hardly eighteen, and already had the woman of my dreams wrapping her legs around my hips. I push myself up against her, up against the counter top of our quaint little kitchen, and remember thinking, quite clearly, that I could never recall having been so aroused in my entire life. Perhaps it had been the thrill of the job we'd pulled off, perhaps the wine, or perhaps still simply the though of her naked and mewling beneath me, but I found that I could hardly contain myself.
With her hips around my waist, I scooped my hands neath her backside and proceeded to walk toward my quarters. Having my way with her on the kitchen counter sounded devilish indeed, but I wanted to woo her with my lovemaking. Her hands coasted across my shoulders, her pointed fingernails gliding over my skin. I shivered, my flesh erupting into goosebumps, and it took me a moment of fancy finagling before I was able to open my door. Having the epitome of womanliness up against ones nether region, while she delicately nibbled at an earlobe would do that to even the strongest of men, even one such as I.
I laid her down atop my bedcovers, pulling the dress up over her head. I did the same with my doublet, tossing it behind me. I heard the thump of her heels hitting the floor as she pushed them of her feet, and I, while still standing, managed to slip from my shoes as well. I bent over her, my head swimming, the world spinning, and thanked the Gods for my luck. I moved to kiss her upon those thin lips of hers, but she twisted her head out of the way so that my own lips met with her neck. Such was fine with me; while I kissed at her neck and collarbone and was rewarded with a most content sigh. My hands could not stay idle, and it was only a matter of moments before I rid her of her underclothing.
She wore only thigh-high stockings.
Gracious, my pants were far too tight. I leaned my weight on one arm so that I might rid myself of the damned things, but, much to my surprise, Fran's hands were already there. She fidgeted with the buttons and instead of pulling my pants off, she instead simply dove a hand past my undergarments and pulled my claim to manhood right out and into the night air.
I sucked in air, surprised; I was meant to be the one in charge here, not her. Yet with her hand firmly wrapped around me, there was little I could do save bury my head in her neck and pant against her.
"Oh, Fran." I hadn't meant it to sound so pleading, but once the phrase was past my lips there was little to be done of it.
She, however, had other plans.
With those powerful legs of hers, Fran flipped me over so that I was on my back. A woman who could take control at the helm of a ship and in bed? I was truly blessed beyond measure.
"Enough play, Balthier," she chided. I opened my mouth to say something pretentious and witty, I'm sure, but all was lost when she took me within her. My hips bucked up to meet her, and I found that I was completely buried.
Angels above, she was so tight- so tight and so hot. I felt as though I would ignite, burn into a pile of ashes and float away on the faintest of winds. Forced to remind myself to breathe, I found my hands were shaking. I gripped her thighs, then coasted my quivering fingers up and down her silky skin.
Sex is sex, but this was powerful. She had power over me, complete control - I'm sure I would eat out of the palm of her hand had she offered, and think nothing of it. She was the very definition of a perfect woman.
She rode me into oblivion. I came like a deranged, love-sick animal. My voice echoed throughout the halls of the Strahl as I called out her name over and over again. Floating back down to solid ground, I reached out to her in an attempt to take her in my arms.
Whatever I'd thought our night together had meant, Fran did not share my ideals or feelings. When I reached out for her, she gently pushed my hands to my sides before she moved from atop me.
"What of you, my dear?" I hadn't meant to be so selfish. I had meant to lavish her with tenderness once I regained both my breath and my composure.
"What of me, Balthier? You know that this was just to get it out of your system."
I was left completely dumb-struck as she picked up her various articles of clothing and vacated my room. I am quite a master of the spoken language, but she'd completely left me without a retort, or even a thought for that matter.
Her sighs as I'd kissed at her neck had not been those of content, but rather those of contempt. She'd refused to meet my lips after I'd carted her to my bedroom. I turned my head and gazed into the night sky out of my window.
I'd just been pity-fucked.
To say that I was upset would be the largest understatement in the history of the recorded races. No, before it's asked, I didn't cry, but I came damn close, which is rather more than I'd like to admit. After all, isn't the hero meant to get the fair maiden in the end?
Despite being far more intelligent than nearly anyone I'd come across in life, that night I'd discovered that I still had far more to learn. Wise is the man who understands the limits of his own wisdom, or some other riddled proverb of that sort.
By dawn, I had readied an apology. I'd also taken it upon myself to find a decent cure for a massive hangover. Since none of the ones I'd found sounded particularly pleasant, either in method or in taste, I was doomed to face the day with a headache and a severe sensitivity to both light and sound.
I cooked her favorite breakfast, knowing it would get her out of her room. If she had a hangover, she was a fantastic actor for I could not tell in the slightest. She was suspicious of my motives, however; such was obvious when she looked to me, then to what it was I cooked for us to share, then back to me, all the while her ears twitching ever so slightly. "Dare I ask what this is about?"
Taking a bite of toast, I smiled and shrugged. "I'm sure you have some sort of idea, but allow me to speak before you do. I'm terribly sorry I put you in such an awkward position last night, Fran."
Her eyebrows raised, a clear sign she had not been expecting me to say something like that.
I continued after I had swallowed another bite of toast. "Listen carefully, for you'll never hear me admit this to another soul so long as I live; I'm quite full of myself."
Ah, that made her smile.
"Which is why, Fran, dear, I must apologize. I hadn't taken into account your heart when I'd made my move last night. Yes, part of it can be blamed on the copious amounts of fine booze, as it seems to only make me far more brave and stupid, yet I openly take responsibility for my actions. You see, I seem to be constantly under the impression that I can always get what I want."
She took a moment to gather her thoughts. "You are the leading man, after all," she chuckled.
Oh, I'd deserved that. Still, I smiled.
"We are partners. But partners in crime. I fear that anything more than that would ruin what we have between us."
"I couldn't agree more."
And that was the last time we talked of our hearts for nearly five and a half years. We ate breakfast, and planned our next big heist.
It was the week of my twentieth birthday. Fran had informed me, on our way to the market, that she had business outside of town for a few days, and that I and that I, unfortunately, was unwelcome. When I pressed her for information about her errand - for who in their right mind would deny my company? - she tilted her ears back in a clear sign of annoyance and simply told me those who resided in the area she was visiting would easily recognize me, and weren't soon to forget grudges. Understanding that my hide was slightly more important than my nigh insatiable curiosity, I let the subject drop and figured that I would find something else to do for a few nights on my own.
It was harder than I'd thought. For what was nearing four years, Fran and I had remained linked, at the side of the other, and, well, I found that I was quite lonely. On the first day alone, I cleaned the ship, from top to bottom, and even dug out the hose from the storage shed and washed the outside. It took nearly all day, but it got my mind off things. I made supper for myself, which was strange considering how used to I was cooking for two, and retired to my bedroom thereafter to finish a book I'd been attempting to read on and off for nearly three months.
It was absolutely boring, and it only served to drive me up the wall.
On the second night, I decided that it was time for a pub crawl.
It sounds so terrible when I say it, but I didn't have many friends apart from Fran, and what we had didn't necessarily branch into friendship in the first place. We had a partnership, but we seldom dove into the deeper aspects of the word. It was another year and a half before I managed to find out what her favorite color was. It's red, in case you were wondering, but she claims she never wears it for it clashes with her skin. I told her that nothing could clash with how radiant and beautiful she was, and was promptly rewarded with an eye-roll and a sigh. Such is our routine, after all.
Ah, but back to the story. I may have not had friends, but I had acquaintances, and better yet acquaintances who owed me favors, which is, to say, that for the night it seemed everyone wanted to buy me a drink in hopes that I might forget about the price for the information I'd provided them or the cargo I'd brought through most unusual, and illicit, means.
I wrote off two favors, just to show that I was in a pleasant mood - and, I won't lie, to get more to drink. It was my birthday, after all, and who was to deny the great Sky Pirate Balthier a drink on this merry day? It just went to show that no matter your title - be it barkeep or sky pirate - it always aids you to aid others. I wasn't a hero, no, but to more than a few of those in the pub that night I might as well have been. I'd stolen from the rich and rubbed their shocked faces in it. I was twenty years old and already there were songs of how dashing and brave - and handsome - I was.
A quarter past midnight and I'd nearly thrown up on my shoes I was so drunk.
Can see where this is going, can you? Yes, this was the night that I gave up heavy drinking, but for reasons other than nearly ruining my shoes with my own vomit. You would think that I would have learned to hold my liquor by then, but I hardly learn my lesson when there is hardly a lesson to be learned. Having to toss your shoes out in the morning is hardly a lesson to someone who could afford an entire ship worth of them.
You see, I'd made myself a friend that night. Well, friend is the wrong word I suppose, but for the sake of the story, and propriety's sake, she was a friend. One thing I have learned on my journeys is that while you call a pirate just that, you never call a whore anything less than a lady. She was young, her face was pretty, and her breasts were mountainous, which, to a drunken man who is full of himself on his twentieth birthday, is a fantastic combination. And better yet; for me, the dashing and brave sky pirate Balthier, this little tumble 'neath the bed covers was free.
Could you blame me?
Yes, yes you could, but you shouldn't. I've already come to understand how stupid I was, and have been berated for it.
I took her back to the ship because I detested sleeping in inns unless it could be helped. Call me paranoid, but I knew my ship better than I knew myself, and a room at an inn was little more than unknown territory.
I should have stayed at the inn.
Stumbling and bumbling like the fool I was, my hand wrapped around the waist of the feisty little bar maid, I entered the ship only to find Fran sitting on one of the stools in the kitchen. As soon as we'd entered, Fran's ears had drawn back and I began to worry that she would gut me.
She stood, in all her fluid grace, and walked toward us. I gulped, sighed, and let my hand drop from about my maiden's hips.
"You didn't tell me she would be here." Her words hissed into my ear.
I sighed. "Neither did she."
Fran outstretched her hand toward the girl and spoke to her, sternly but gently. "Come with me, please."
The girl gulped and, for a moment, I could tell she was thinking of running. Fran wasn't petty enough to do something like hurt her, but how would she know in the first place? All the poor girl saw was a warrior viera asking to be alone with her.
Still, she nodded silently, gave her hand, and followed Fran out the door. I peeped out of the window and watched them talk, Fran's face conveying the soft tone she was obviously speaking with.
I positively itched to know what it was they were conversing over, for by the end of it the bar maid was smiling gently, as if she and Fran had shared a joke, and began to walk back toward the direction of the pub.
Fran turned and began toward the ship, and I felt like a child simply waiting to be scolded and punished.
She knew it, too, and I sat there, silent, waiting her disappointment, until finally she spoke.
"We are partners, are we not?"
"Then tell me; why you would bring a stranger on our ship without consulting me first?"
I looked up at her, slightly shocked. "That's what you're displeased with?"
She sighed and rolled her eyes. "Balthier, I could care less what you did on your own time and with whom, but know this; this ship is just as much mine as it is yours. I would never bring a stranger aboard, short of an absolute emergency, without speaking with you first."
What do you say to that? The woman you've pined over for four years catches you with a whore and instead of being upset over what you intended to do with said girl, she's instead upset over the fact that you didn't ask to bring the girl in first.
She shrugged. "It's not as though we've ever openly spoke of it, so I suppose I shouldn't be mad at you."
"Unspoken agreements shouldn't have to be brought up in the first place. Again, I apologize."
"Do you not understand? I don't want your apologies, Balthier. I just wish you were more conscious of those around you. Especially me."
Oh, how I wanted to say something snarky and lewd in response. Ever since our little tryst, my dear, I'm physically incapable of being unaware of you.
Boundaries, Balthier. Boundaries.
"At any rate, here is the reason I was gone."
I was handed a small wooden box, intricately carved with ivy. "What is this?"
Fran waved her hand through the air, dismissing me. "Your birthday present. I'm off to bed. Goodnight."
I was shocked into a momentary lapse of cognitive thought. I simply stood there, stupidly, and stared at the little box in my hands. Is that why she'd gone on her little journey? Well, didn't I feel like quite the ass. Flipping up the tiny leaf-shaped latch, I opened the box to find four crystal rings, each a brilliantly bright, albeit strange, color.
Green, yellow, pink, and blue.
On the inside of each there sat a tiny set of engraved letters; hope, wisdom, honesty, and freedom.
I took a breath and cursed her. Having a weakness allows others the chance to exploit you. Knowing your weakness is intelligent, but knowing your weakness while constantly indulging yourself in it is behavior best described as mentally ill.
I swear, someday, she will be the death of me.
And wouldn't you know it?
Two years later, she nearly was.
Well, to be fair, it wasn't her fault. It was my own fault for letting my ego get the best of me, and her not being able to do simply say no. I just -had- to have the Goddess's Magicite. I couldn't stop thinking of it once I'd heard about it.
Once we'd met Vaan, well... the whole world went tumbling down around us, didn't it?
I asked Fran about her past once. It was simply meant to be a harmless question, as even though well-educated through books I may have been there was much real-life application and practical topics I knew little of. Tact normally didn't fall into such a category, but this occasion I might as well had asked her to dance around lacking clothes on the streets of Dalmasca.
"Where is it you're from, Fran? I read once that the viera - both Rava and Veena - aren't permitted to leave the forests in which they live, else they are exiled. What caused you to leave your home?"
She was quite and still a moment. "First I pose this question to you. Who are your kin and where do you hail from?"
I swallowed hard, knowing she'd caught me in a trap. I didn't know if she knew who I really was, but I'd never once volunteered information about my upbringing or from which house I once belonged to. "I hadn't meant to offend."
"And in not thinking of our relationship up to this point you have done just that. It is not the question, Balthier; it is that you feel need to ask in the first place. I have yet to ask what your family is named, who you parents were, or where you come from. I expect the same. What does it matter where we are from or who we once called family?"
"Your words sting, my dear. I said it once and I'll say it again; I hadn't meant to offend."
"Curiosity begets regret; do not ask others the same questions you would yourself not answer."
Turns out, traveling with our little ragtag group of misfits revealed both of our pasts to the other. Her reasons behind leaving all that she knew reminded me, oddly, of my own reasons for running away; where we begin in life isn't always where we are bound to meet our end. We didn't accept where our lives were meant to go, and so we jumped ship on the set course fate had in store for us. Yet even if our paths had changed, it seemed our destinations could not be avoided; she and I both ended up coming to a point in our lives where our pasts could not be overlooked, but only confronted.
Still, I'm the leading man, and as such death can't seem to find me, even in the most dire of circumstances. Fran and I nearly met the cold bastard as we took down the Sky Fortress Bahamut. I swear on all the treasure I've ever stolen that while I was afraid, I knew that what we were doing would live longer than any story of our looting.
Turns out that it didn't matter, because, as the leading man, it seems I'm invincible. Fran made some witty retort about my role seeming as though it were more of the supporting type, to which I was forced to roll my eyes to. She was hurt, and so I would let it slide.
How did we survive the crash? Well, to be honest, the actual story behind it is woefully uneventful and boring. In fact, it is a most unbecoming story for people to share in regards to a famed sky pirate. If a minstrel made a song of what happened between when we crashed in the Bahamut and when Fran and I stole up the Strahl from Vaan and Penelo again, he would put his audience to sleep. Either that, or be booed and heckled by those still awake.
There was, of course, more to the story than that, but, for the sake of boring you with minute details until you are either insane or dizzy, or possibly both, let me simply reiterate that I am composed mainly of awesome and, as leading men so often do, it was time I snared my love in a web of wooing.
As luck would have it, she began to slowly reciprocate my feelings. Flowers and chocolates were the tools of the common man, which I was not, and so instead I got Fran's attention by being attentive and kind. True, I was quite the gentleman before, but had never extended the courtesy toward her. She was my partner in crime; just as comfortable in a dress with a gun strapped to her legs as she was under the Strahl on a roller cart with a wrench in her hand.
In the year it took us to recover from our near-death adventure after we'd crash-landed in the Bahamut, I was awarded with two kisses on two separate occasions. The first might have been due to the fact that, well, we'd survived the crashing of something labeled as a sky fortress. After we'd walked away from the wreckage, Fran took my face in her hands and planted a good, long, hard kiss upon my lips. Then, she walked away as though it had never happened. The second was a good eight months later; we were in a bar, fishing for information that might let us know how not only our friend Queen Ashe was doing, but also if Vaan and Penelo were out making a name for themselves.
"Are you worried for them?" She asked as I sipped my spiced wine. In moderation was the only way I drank any longer.
"Yes, but I trust you to tell no one."
She stood, leaned over the table between us, and planted a very sweet kiss upon my cheek. "Such a hero," she teased.
The look on my face must have conveyed my shock quite openly, for she smiled widely as she sipped her own drink. I had, after all, not expected such playfulness from her.
Little things do not go unnoticed by women. To be more specific, there is little that a man does that goes overlooked by his female companion. This is a grand cache of wisdom if you are found looking to woo a lady. There is little Fran doesn't observe. Along with being quick-witted, beautiful, and stronger than most men I've encountered, she is intelligent, cunning, and precise with her thinking.
"You bought me flowers?" she asked one day, after having observed the bouquet on the table of one of our hideouts. It was clear that she wasn't too pleased.
"They are for the house, my dear. I know you've no use for something as superfluous as cut, decorative plants."
"It seems a waste of life." Her words weren't cruel; she was just stating facts. These flowers were slowly dying atop the kitchen table, their only purpose in life to brighten up an otherwise boring counter.
"It's a hume indulgence. Would you allow me my little pleasures?"
She relented after a moment. "I suppose they do make the place brighter. And they smell nice."
I grinned, but hid it behind my hand. True, flowers were tools of the common man, but I had brought them home with the intention of observing and drinking in her reactions. Was she the type to enjoy little gifts from others?
Then again, leave it to Fran to make clinical observations over something that is meant to be a simple joy.
Ah, but there is little in our lives that is simple.
I was twenty-three and one month when I first witnessed Fran actually want for something. When we went on our raids, it was because I had laid eyes upon a treasure my fingers itched to posses. While high-profile items often equated to a high selling price, there were many of the treasures we'd stolen up that were on display within our hideaway houses. In fact, there was a Faberge chocobo egg in the spare bedroom in one of my hidden bases that was worth tens of thousands. I kept it because I liked the color.
She laid an open book in front of me. The title of the particular chapter was 'Treasure of the Forgotten Lady.' That already had my attention. "It is strange, my dear, that you are the one to initiate a raid, especially based on such legend."
"Legend? What makes you sure it is so?"
"Unless you were alive when the kings of old walked the plains, I would assume such. These were stories my nurses told me before bed."
A prolonged silence stretched between us. "No," I declared, aghast. "I know you are far older than I, but that is simply too fantastic."
"And if I were to tell you that I knew the precise location of this tomb?"
"I wold question why you've kept such knowledge from me for nearly seven-odd years."
"Because I do not dredge up my past willingly. I've never been to these ruins, but I know where they are. Your assumption of my being too young to have walked with kings long past is correct, yes, but there is still much you do not know of me."
Though I had more questions for her, I knew better than to ask. She would not answer, and I would play the part of the fool in my attempts to procure the information. "You're my partner - and dare I say my dearest friend - and yet I feel as though you don't trust me."
"I do trust you. This is not an issue of trust. Please don't think I would keep
such things from you. It was, perhaps, odd timing on my part, and I apologize, but I know that you, too, keep things from me, do you not?"
Damn her ability to make me second guess myself. She knew I was still in love with her, no matter how I hid it. I sighed and picked up the book.
The story was just as I remembered. It even starts with 'once upon a time.' You see, a grand lord promised his most beloved daughter to the crown prince in a neighboring kingdom. The prince was known far and wide as both handsome and intelligent, but little did the lord know that the prince was selfish and only interested in things of great beauty. And, sadly for the maiden of the story, while she was kind and patient and loving and full of wit, she was not beautiful. Instead of marrying the young woman, the prince cursed her to the life of handmaiden of another woman he had decided to take up as his queen, for she was far more beautiful. The maiden, fully shamed, tried to leave the kingdom and return to the loving embrace of her father, but the king found out and had her maimed, disfigured so that none would love her, and set her to the dungeons to live out the rest of her life in solitude, so that her face would never have to be seen by the sun ever again.
But little did the king know that the head of his knights, the very same man he'd charged with the task of keeping the girl locked up, had fallen in love with her. Unable to overlook what his king had done to the poor woman, the knight stole her up in the middle of the night and took her back to her kingdom. Her father was so pained by what had happened to his daughter that, wallowing in his own guilt, he took his life.
The lord, however, had no sons, and so it was the daughter who was next in line. She married the knight who had saved her, and together they lead their secluded little land into prosperous times. The lady, though maimed, was well-loved by her people despite that over time the very people who loved her so came to remove her name from history.
You see, she insisted that she and her people would always remain upon the same level; the lady had a garden in which she tended, ate from, and shared with her people, classes in which she oversaw, and people her land throughout who she went to visit and help. They had taken to calling her variations of virtuous aspects; The Lady Patience, The Lady Grace, Kindness, Peace, Tranquility, and Prudence. They didn't so much forget her name as they tried to guard her from any who would recognize her. So full of remorse and hatred they were toward their king that they acted as if the daughter of the lord had never returned battered and broken so that, were the king to ever recognize her, all under the maiden's protection would deny her identity so that never again could she be hurt.
When the lady finally left the land of mortals, so saddened were her people that they created a temple to her, a tomb in which she remained hidden so that none could disturb her eternal rest. It is said that every year on her birthday, the villagers would bring a tribute of their love for her.
As time often witnesses, however, the village became the thing of bedtime stories. As the tomb was never found, the village long turned to ruin, it stayed just that; a story.
"You want to raid the tomb of a well-loved, maimed woman? This doesn't seem like you."
"No. We will take nothing save for one item."
"And what item is that?"
"A gift in which my mother placed in the tomb when I left the wood."
I shot Fran a strange look. "Your mother?"
"Yes. My mother. I was meant to receive a gift when I was of certain age. I, however, left the village, and my mother set my gift in the tomb. The story is old, yes, but is one that even the Viera treasure. I was told the story of the Forgotten Lady many times as a child. I remember telling my sisters that I wanted to one day visit the tomb and pay my respects to such a woman, but they teased me for wanting to leave the Wood. For a while, I thought myself foolish. And yet, when it came time for me to forge my own path, I drew strength from the stories of the strong, and the Forgotten Lady in particular. Though she had such a terrible life, she made the best of what was given to her. It was, in truth, that story that made me doubt being tied down to fate. My mother died not long after I left the Wood, and while I regret not returning to see her return to the earth, I received a letter from her. She'd written that while she hated me for leaving, she still loved me, and that her last gift to me was in the tomb of the one whom I held in such high regard."
"You've been out of the wood for decades, Fran; why would you wait to go claim the last gift your mother had given to you?"
She turned away from me. "Never, up until now, have I had the courage to go. I... wish you to come with me, so that I might draw strength from you."
I was floored. All that I'd mentioned earlier in our conversation about her not trusting me; well, it made me feel like a supreme idiot. This was her trust in absolute. "When do we leave?"
She smiled at that.
Two days later we found ourselves in the crevice of a deep ravine, hardly outside of the plains. My trusty pistol ached to be held; it had been ages since I had last pulled her from her holster. The fiends of the area were little match for either my bullet or Fran's magic. She was just as adept with her black magic as she was with a bow or sword, and her weapons expertise never ceased to amaze me. Still, she used her fire spells to frighten the creatures away. Any that weren't smart enough to turn tail were dispatched. She'd given them a warning; those creatures too stupid to retreat were usually also the overly aggressive ones. Better she and I take them out than have them attack a nomad or traveler.
She stopped suddenly, and held her hand out to signal I do the same. Inhaling deeply, Fran let her eyes roll back. A slight moan fell past her lips. "I smell old magiks."
"What do you mean? A protection spell?"
"No. Spirits are watching us."
Wonderful. Just what we needed. A band of boogiemen peeking over our shoulders and breathing down our necks while we searched the tomb of one of their most beloved leaders. "Aggressive?"
"No. Merely curious, they are those who guard this place. We must proceed with great caution. Take nothing that does not belong to us." She took a deep breath, letting out a tremendous sigh. "We mean no harm unto your most precious lady. I am here to claim something left to me by my blood. Please let us pass unscathed and we will leave this place as we found it, with nothing in our pockets save what we came with."
There was a wind that rustled the grass at our feet. I felt a prickling at the back of my neck, and my hair stood on end.
Tombs have always felt to me like a way to show the living how full of yourself you are, even after death. Naturally, I expect a fantastically superfluous tomb for my body to rot in. The Forgotten Lady, however, seemed to have simply wanted a place to rest peacefully. The entrance to her tomb was nothing more than a dank cave.
"This is where they put their most beloved lady to sleep the eternal slumber?" There was nothing about the cave that was either inviting or promising. In fact, the overpowering smell of animal piss made my nose-hairs curl. "Are you sure?"
Fran was silent a moment, and the nodded, motioning me to follow her over her shoulder. If my clothes came out smelling the way the cave did, I'd have to burn them. Such a pity, too, as they were my favorite pair of pants.
We moved through the cave, silently, guided only by the flame that Fran held aloft. I stumbled and nearly tripped several times, as spelunking really isn't my forte, but managed to right myself before I fell. I was covered in sweat by the time we took our rest. "Gods almighty, woman; how far into the earth does this cave go?"
She lifted her head and pointed her nose upward, like she was sniffing the air. "Not much farther."
"Gentlemen don't undress themselves in front of proper ladies, but I'm afraid that I might suffocate if I keep this damn shirt on much longer. Would you be offended?"
Shrugging, she didn't even look to me. "Do as you please to make yourself comfortable. It is of little consequence what you're dressed like."
Goddamn, I had the body of a Kingsguard - I'm sure I could give a gladiator or two a run for their gil - and yet I was stuck in a cave with the one woman who didn't want to gaze upon my perfection with awe. Damn fickle hearts, particularly mine.
I took my canteen out and soaked my shirt the rest of the way through, then wrapped it all around my head. I felt better instantly; the excess water dripped down my shoulders and back effectively cooling the rest of me as well.
To be fair, the heat wasn't completely unwelcome. Walking behind Fran, I was bestowed with the most wonderful of views; her dark backside glistening with sweat. Ah, there is little more beautiful in this world than a woman completely naked and dripping wet. Fran, however, would be the last to meander around an old cave naked as the day she was born, but her little leather warrior suit still left little the imagination. Particularly, mine.
The long stretch of cave finally opened, and our tiresome journey came to an end as we found ourselves in a great cavern of sorts. It took a few moments for my eyes to adjust, considering this particular room was lit from all sides by oil lamps that lined the walls. I found the setup of the tomb rather odd; you see, upon the side we entered was a great staircase carved of stone. It wrapped around the room from all sides, and went downward where, halfway to the middle of the room, began upward again, like a giant bowl with a cone in the middle.
The cavern was huge, and upon nearly every stretch of stair, save for the pathway that had been made from the pillar of stone in the middle of the cave to the exit where we stood, were gifts of every shape and size. Hand-made dolls, jars of marbles, jewelry and precious gems alongside a tiny glass figure of a bahamut painted with the skill of an infant ; a pantheon of treasure, both worthless and priceless, lined nearly every inch of the cave.
For one short moment in my life I didn't have something witty to say. "How the blast has this treasure trove existed and most of the world been none the wiser?"
A tug on my pant leg, a quick turn of my head downward and my question had been answered. A rather bright-eyed moogle smiled up at me. "We are the keepers of the forgotten tomb. Have you come to pay your respects?"
"Apologies, friend, but we are here to pick something up."
The moogle hissed at me. "You musn't take from the mistress." He whistled and several other moogles poked their heads from their respective hiding places.
That explained it all well enough. Try to raid and pilfer and forfeit your life to moogle warriors.
"My partner does not choose his words carefully. I am here to receive a gift my mother left to me."
That got the furry little things excited. They all flooded toward her, taking her hand and ushering her down the stairs. "We remember your mother, the Lady Dasmere. It was my very grandfather who ventured to her wood and took the letter and gift she left you."
"We were all so very worried that you would never come to get it."
"Is it true that you are a sky pirate, the very same whom we hear the bards sing of?"
Well, it seemed Fran had found some admirers. I held in a chuckle as I followed them down the stairs, the moogles crowding around her like school children. We followed the chattering little creatures down the stairs and up again until we neared the very center of the tomb. A pillar that stretched all the way the roof of the cave loomed over us, the delicate face of a young maiden gazing out with stone-dead eyes. For being forgotten, the lady was well-loved.
One of the moogles dug around in a mess of items near one of the top stairs. I found it curious that, while the entire cave was covered nearly inch by inch with trinkets and gems and all manner of things, the five stairs that surrounded the pillar were bare. The moogle mussing about in his little pile of treasure smiled at me. "We keep her safe, so that nothing clutters her up. It's a self-imposed rule not to touch the stone she is buried in."
"Yes, out of respect," I responded, though I wasn't quite sure why. Touching the grave of a loved one always seemed, at least to me, a sign of coming to understand ones loss; it's meant as a loving gesture. To completely withhold contact of the stone grave seemed, while respectful, distastefully distant.
Finding what he'd been searching for, the moogle held Fran's treasure over his head and let out a satisfied little squeak. Flapping his wings, he floated over the items and stairs that separated them, coming to a graceful landing at my companion's feet. She held out her hand and was rewarded with a small square-shaped parchment-wrapped package.
It's a rare sight indeed to find Fran surprised. Without a sound, I carefully observed her, drinking in her reactions. Her eyes enlarged, her head tilted a few degrees, and the base of her ears twitched. I wanted to smile, but I held back, knowing it might ruin the moment; emotion, pure and unbridled, is an uncommon occurrence for her. It's not that she doesn't have emotions, but rather that she likes to keep you guessing.
She plays a terribly mean game of poker.
Holding her hand out, she shook the hand of the moogle who had presented the long-lost treasure to her. "I appreciate you holding it all this time for me."
The moogle's nose twitched as he smiled. "Your mother seemed confident that you were capable of great things. I remember my grandfather telling the story of when he first came across your mother, and how she asked him to take this to our temple for you. I'm glad that we weren't disappointed."
A genuine smile, delicate and warm, befell my viera companion. I thought for a moment that while in most cases I appreciated her normal stony demeanor, as she seemed to be the only one who could put me in my place with a simple look, I also found myself quite thrilled when she smiled.
"May I pay my respects to the lady?" She asked, turning to look at the stone grave hardly a few paces from us.
"Oh, yes, yes, just be careful not to muss anything, would you?"
"May I... My I lay my hand upon her grave?"
The moogle thought for a moment, looking toward his companions for answers. They all slowly nodded in shy agreement, and he turned back to Fran with a quiet smile. "I think that, for you, we can make a small exception. Just, well, be careful."
Fran bowed her head in gratitude. Then, straightening up, she walked the last few steps toward the carving of her favorite fairy-tale lady. She carefully and gracefully fell to her knees, kneeling before the grave. Holding the gift her mother had left her in one hand and reaching her other hand outward, she inched closer until her palm was resting flat against the stone coffin.
"Thank you, lady, for giving me strength when I have little."
A quiet prayer from a quiet heart. I ached to reach out to her, but knew that it would only spoil the mood. I was here for Fran when she needed me. I knew it, and she knew it, but sometimes, no matter what type of companions we keep, we sometimes feel as though we are the only ones in the expanse of the world.
Suddenly, a bright light filled the room. The moogles and I shielded our eyes, keeping ourselves from nearly going blind, and I called out to Fran. The earth beneath us, all around us, began to shake and rumble, and a terrible feeling that started in the pit of my stomach took over me.
That is, until Fran came flying at me and, together, we fell backward, down several stairs and through meticulously organized treasures.
"Goodness me, what have you done!" One of the moogles shrieked.
"Out, out, the both of you out!" Another squealed.
"This mess will take us days to fix!"
I ignored them, turning over and gathering Fran in my arms. I lightly shook her, calling out her name. Almost lazily, her eyes rolled open. "Gods above, woman, you gave me quite a scare. What the hell was that about?"
She blinked up at me a few times, trying to get her eyes to focus. "I don't feel well," she began, reaching up and lying a hand on her cheek.
Meanwhile, the moogles kept shrieking at me.
"Out! You need to leave!"
"We must fix your mess!"
"Oh, why did we let you touch the lady? She is mad at us now!"
I rolled my eyes, struggling to stand and pick Fran up at the same time. "Yes, yes, we're leaving. Keep your pom-poms on." Quick maneuvering allowed me to turn Fran around in my arms and hoist her up upon my back. She wrapped her arms around my shoulders and neck, then her legs around my waist, and I carried her, piggy-back, toward the entrance of the cave.
I could hear the cries of the moogles behind us, while I labored with a woman on my back and a flame in my hand.
"Are you doing well enough back there?" I called after some time.
The feeling of her breath on the back of my neck was splendid, and did nothing to help the fact that I was already daydreaming about the fact that I was shirtless, and she was pressed quite close against my back. Yes, I knew it was no time to think of such things, but aside from being an immortal hero of a number of ballads, I was also a man. Besides, she was still breathing and was not bleeding; so far, the odds were in favor of her living. She had, after all, survived worse.
"I feel so very ill," she sighed against me.
"Yes, but you're not going to die on me, are you?"
"As if you could survive without me." Ah, sarcasm. A good sign.
"I could, though barely, but I think the Strahl would miss you the most."
"Indeed. Who would pick up after you were I to perish?"
"And I'd never have a decent meal ever again. I boast many talents, but cooking is not among them."
She laughed, her breath dancing across my neck. "I still remember when you tried to cook Bomb-Stew."
"We were scraping food off the ceiling for three days."
Another small laugh, this one warming me to my toes. "You stink like cave."
"You don't smell much better, my dear."
By the time we reached the entrance, night was nearly upon us. Utter exhausted, I practically collapsed upon the field grass, taking in my first breath of fresh air since we'd descended into the earth earlier that morning. We ate what little provisions I'd managed to fit in a spare ammo case about my hip, the both of us ravenous. "I will take us out for a real meal tonight. I'm too tired to cook, and you're in no shape to."
She sighed, as if she had something to say in protest, but it died when she sat up and dusted herself off. "I wish, first, for a shower. I feel as though a thousand years of grime is stuck to me."
"No argument. I fear I will have to burn these pants to rid them of the odor they have acquired."
We hobbled the rest of the way to the ship, each of us leaning against the other for support, both physically and emotionally. Hardly anything accomplished, yet it was such a taxing day.
She showered first while I gathered our clothing and let it soak in a washtub filled nearly halfway with fragrant soap. I liked those pants too much to allow burning as a first option. Only after we exhausted our supply of flowery soap would I seriously actually consider burning the things. Have you any idea how dreadfully difficult it is to find pants that accentuate my fantastic posterior? I don't work out nearly every day to hide it all in baggy pants, thank you.
I heard the door to the bathroom creak open and the fragrance of Fran's favorite pomegranate soap poured out mixed with the clouds of water vapor. I liked my showers hot. She preferred hers scalding.
She stepped from the clouds of steam draped only in her towel. I found my mouth a little dry when I spoke. "Feeling better, my lady?"
Her eyes met mine and for a brief moment I felt strange, like the woman standing in front of me was not Fran at all. Then she blinked and tilted her head up at me. "Yes and no. Pleased to have the smell of a thousand years of tomb washed from me, yet somehow sad to leave it behind. It has been so long..."
I gave her a questioning look. "So long since?"
She suddenly shook her head. ""Never mind. It is... unimportant for now. Hurry; I'm hungry."
I showered and though I tried to move quickly, the tightness of the muscles in my back prevented me from properly washing my hair. Cross, I threw the shampoo bottle.
Fran poked her head through the door, unabashed at seeing me naked. And there I was, too tired to care properly. "What is the matter?"
"Nothing. Everything. My arms are refusing to work properly. I can't wash my bloody hair for I can't raise them above my head."
I could practically hear the smile she wore as she hefted a little sigh. "All you must ever do is ask."
"My ego is far too inflated. You know that."
Her gentle hands, her long fingernails, coasted up my shoulders and raked across my scalp. She massaged my skin, smiling softly at me the entire time.
How, exactly, it took me to quite so long to see that she was wearing naught but panties and a bra I will never come to realize. I tried to rationalize it with the thought that I was tired and my ego was bruised over her having to wash my hair for me, but past that I had little excuse.
"I owe you much."
Have I ever mentioned how much I enjoy that she and I are so close in height- when she's not wearing those heels of hers. She was grace personified, the way she could run in those things. They didn't make the view from behind something to complain about, either. "Nonsense, my dear. I would do anything for you; you know that."
"Close your eyes?"
"I beg your pardon?" My eyebrows nearly lifted to my hairline. What, exactly, was going on?
"You said you would do anything for me. All I am asking of you is do close your eyes. Won't you indulge me?"
Though I did as she bade, I voiced my complaints. "I fail to see how this will accomplish anything."
She dunked my head under the shower spigot, effectively rinsing me of shampoo. I heard her soft laugh; she had known where my mind had been going; directly into the gutter.
Alas, I lacked enough shame and didn't blush. She had, after all, been teasing me. "Dry yourself," she instructed, handing me a towel. "I'm hungry."
Dressing myself proved to be another challenge in and of itself, but I refused assistance in this particular endeavor. In fact, I locked the damn door, too.
We had our meal at one of our favorite little pubs, tucked away in a back corner of a dingy alley down a street few would venture down. In addition to being our favorite place to fill an empty belly, we also found it to be our favorite place to listen to the latest gossip of the town, it's people, and nearly everything in between.
Fran and I greeted the Nu Mou behind the counter with a familiar gesture and took our usual seats near the back of the tavern. From our perch, we could see most of the bar, both the front and rear exits, and were able to keep our backs to the wall. What? I haven't gotten this far in life, let alone this rich, without being just a little paranoid. I'd rather that than a bullet to the back of the head. I may have had many friends, but I had just as many, probably more, enemies, or, at the least, people who wanted me dead. One would be surprised at how low the nobles are willing to slink when they've been effectively humiliated. Like I said, job security and all that.
We dined, sipping a new type of wine the barkeep had ordered and wish to know our opinions about, and gossipped with a few of our more unconventional friends like Henny, a sweet moogle lass who worked at the castle's library. It was our strange way of keeping in-touch with our Queen, Ashe. Nothing of great import was passed along through Henny - mostly just questions about how well the others are doing - but when the Queen needed a reprieve and went to read, Henny was there by her side to deliver or take any notes between us. In return, Ashe has granted Henny job security for life, so long as she stays faithful and tells no one of the extra job she acquired. Of course, it doesn't help that Fran and I have informed her that, even if someone were to find out what was going on and wished to purchase Henny's loyalty, we would triple what ever amount she was offered without question. This never came about, of course, as Henny was loyal more to the books than to anyone else, and a job at the castle library for as long as she wanted was too good an offer to pass up.
The occasional treat of dinner didn't hurt either. She happily munched on her sweetbread, swinging her little legs off the stood we'd pulled up at our table for her. "She seems to be doing alright," Henny informed us of queen Ashe between bites. "She smiles more often than she used to, but offers no note this time around. She mentioned that she's been mighty busy with revising some of the peace treaties between the kingdoms, but refused to give me specifics."
That was specific enough for me. Over the time we've been communicating through Henny, Ashe and I have come to create a code without meaning to. By having Henny mention the revising of the peace treaties, Ashe is also letting me know that while the relationship with the other kingdoms seems stable from the outside, the fact that there is need to revise at all reminds me to keep a low profile am I to travel outside the borders. Things are well, merely strained for the time being.
"And, pardon me if I seem a little forward by saying so," Henny began, once her meal was finished, "but, well, Fran, you seem a little different."
Fran froze for a moment, as if unsure of how to react. "I am the same as I have always been," she replied.
Henny stood and swept her jacket off. "Yes, I know that. It is merely it looks as though you carry yourself a little different tonight. You smell unusual, as well. Musty, almost. Well, thank you again for the meal. Let me know the next time you need me." And with that, she flapped her little wings and left the bar.
I looked to Fran, unable to discern if Henny had meant to be rude or not. "What was that all about?"
She shrugged, taking a large drink of wine. Then, setting her glass down, she twirled the empty vessel between her fingers.
"Shall we call it a night, then?" I emptied my own glass in preparation to leave.
Fran shrugged and stood, and I followed her out of the pub and into the crisp night air.
Back at the Strahl, I laid in bed thinking about what Henny had said of Fran and how strangely uneasy it was beginning to make me. What had the light been, not to mention the explosion, when Fran had touched the tomb? And for a moogle to inform you that you had a musty odor about you? It was, to be honest, quite unsettling, as moogles noses are quite keen. A shower and an obscene amount of soap would have chased away any leftover cave stank, of that I'm sure, so what had Henny smelled?
Instead of sleeping, however, I was simply lying there, doing nothing. If I wasn't going to sleep, I might as well not sleep and do something, so I pulled out a prototype of a casting gun I'd been working on for a few months from my desk drawer and began to tinker with it. It proved to keep my mind off things until I heard Fran's footsteps outside my door. Seems she couldn't sleep either, so I called through the door at her. "If you're passing by the kitchen, would you mind bringing me a few of those chocolates in the cupboard?"
I heard a pause in her steps, then they faded down the hall. Time would tell if she felt up to getting me my late night snack or not; sometimes she was more than agreeable, and other times she didn't much care for making a detour on her way to the bathroom.
A few moments later, however, my door slid open. I turned over my shoulder, meaning to thank her, and promptly forgot what I was meant to be thanking her for, as she stood in my doorway clad in very close to nothing at all.
I dropped the screwdriver I'd been holding out of shock. I can deal with a woman's nakedness easily enough, but this was no normal woman who stood in front of me, nor was it any strain of normal behavior for her. She stood before me in nothing but her night clothes - only a pair of silk panties - and I gazed about her, trying to formulate something to say. My eyes kept wandering down toward those perfect breasts of hers, and every moment I gawked was a moment longer in which I wondered if I had, perhaps, fallen asleep sitting in my desk chair.
My mouth flopped open and closed a few times as I tried to speak, but found nothing truly came to mind. Instead, I only managed a few mangled sounds. It was more out of shock than anything; I'd seen her naked before, yes, but never before had she paid me a visit in little more than her birthday suit.
She closed the door behind her, and started toward me. Between her index finger and thumb, she held up a simple piece of chocolate. I looked at it, then to her, then back at the chocolate again. Finally, finding words, I blurted out, most unceremoniously, "that the last one?"
I boast of being a poet, but even the greatest masters of words find occasions when nothing but failure falls past their lips. Here she was, the woman I'd been trying to get to fall in love with me for nearly a decade, naked save for a pair of panties, in my bedroom, in the middle of the night, and all I could comment on was the piece of chocolate she'd brought for me. If there were ever a moment of my life I wish to forget, it would be that simple sentence.
What came after that sentence, however, I would remember for the rest of my days. She looked up at me, meeting my eyes, and placed the chocolate to her lips. Then, taking agonizingly slow steps toward me, she leaned forward, wrapped her arms around my neck, and promptly planted a kiss upon my lips that made me forget who I was. I was met with the most wonderful taste of chocolate as Fran's tongue swept past mine.
She attacked my neck with her lips next, taking no prisoners. I was convinced that her kisses were leaving scorch marks.
As much as I wanted to let this entire ordeal continue, I pulled her away from me by her shoulders. "What is this, all of a sudden? Five years ago we tried this and it ended, well, awkwardly to say the least. This is far too unexpected and out of character for you, my dear."
Her eyes, half-lidded, stared up at me from under her thick lashes. Warm fingertips coasted down my chest, fluttering about above the line of my pants. "Is it so wrong to need an outlet every great once in a while? I feel as though I haven't allowed myself to simply be."
I tried to make sense of her words, of the meaning behind them, and the fact that they didn't sound like anything Fran might reason with.
"I can't pretend to be devoid of emotion all of the time. Even stone walls crumble."
I lost. Despite the fact that her words didn't seem her own, I knew how she felt. Fame, prestige, wealth; even when surrounded by that which you seek most in life, the need to touch someone could at times be overwhelming. Loneliness can kill a man. I sighed, let myself relax, and surrendered to her.
By my waistband, she guided me to the bed and pulled me atop her. She smelled of the pomegranate soap she loved so, and tasted of the chocolate she'd only moments before shared with me. Her skin was warm, and I whispered her name as I kissed down her neck, down her shoulders. The sounds she made were entirely new to me; I'd heard her curse the gods and praise the angels, but never had I heard her gasp in sweet anticipation.
I found heaven- for you see heaven is not in the sky, but in the arms of the one you love.
I gave myself to her that night, in my bedroom hardly bigger than a broom cupboard, atop my bed with their mismatched linens, drowning in moonlight. It was nothing like our previous night before; she reached for me, touched my face, cried out my name, wanted me, needed me, and I gave her all I could and then some. I've said it once, and I'll say it again; sex is sex. But, lovemaking can make the steady ground you once stood on crumble beneath your feet.
Her hands, her expressions, every movement, every call of my name only fueled my love for her. The feelings that I'd kept locked away for the past five years came crashing out of me in waves; there was not a man - nay, not even an army - on Gaia that had strength enough to pull me from her.
I woke to her in my arms, sweet sunlight bathing the both of us. Running my fingers through her snowy hair, I marveled at her beauty, and at my luck; I was rich, handsome, famous, and now content, though a bit egotistical I'll admit. It hadn't managed to get me killed yet, so I counted it as another blessing.
She opened her eyes, looked me over, and heaved a heavy sigh. For a moment, I worried that it would end up like the last time we were intimate with one another; in a mess of awkwardness, apologies, and 'I didn't mean it's. But she leaned over, placed a kiss atop my brow, and left with a satisfied smile.
And I wish it could have lasted. The one thing I knew better than most is when something was too good to be true, it more than often was.
She left that very morning, without a word. I assumed perhaps she was going to market, or just out to enjoy the sun, and I still didn't begin to fret even after she'd been gone several days. Who was I to tie her down? She would come back to me of her own free will; I would not cage her. Yet, when she'd been missing for nearly three weeks I did began to panic. Leaving for a few days was one thing for Fran. Being gone a fortnight was another matter, and completely uncharacteristic.
I sent Ashe a letter through Henny. It only read, "Fran is gone. Let me know if you hear of her. I'm worried."
Though I received no note in reply, Henny assured me that Ashe was most worried as she'd read it, and promised to keep an ear out.
I even became so desperate as to send not only Vaan and Penelo a letter asking if they'd seen Fran, but one to Basch as well. His reply was simple: "No word of her. I will keep my senses keen, and send word if I hear even a rumor."
I lost sleep. I lost weight. I took to drinking. Why had I been so preoccupied with my own selfish whims that I couldn't see how she had changed? I felt as though I was drowning in shame for not becoming aware of what was going on sooner; the changes in her mannerisms, in her behavior, in her smile and speech. I was given clue upon clue, some small and some not so small. Ah, but such is a man in love that he can only see perfection in his mate; in my defense, her flaws were unimportant to me, and yet I should have been, at the least, more aware of how acutely they were growing.
But to have realized what was truly going on would require the skill of mind-reading, a skill I am afraid to admit that I lack. Ashe sent Henny with a message. Her little moogle wings fluttered as fast as her heart, I'm sure; she was out of breath when she arrived, flustered over having been told to hurry so quickly. "Her Majesty says that one of her most trusted set of eyes saw the Lady Fran entering Golmore Jungle hardly two days ago."
I dropped whatever I had been holding, dug out a gold dragonfly pin, and tossed it to Henny. Her eyes widened with awe. "This is for me?"
"For always being so helpful my dear. Without you, I'd hardly know what to do."
She pinned the broach to the collar of her uniform, beaming. "Make sure your lady is well," she offered as I ran up the ramp of my ship.
Golmore Jungle, though treacherous, held within it Eruyt Village, the same village Fran once called home. Her sisters were there- perhaps they had come in contact, or at least heard word, from their wayward sibling. I knew I was far from welcome in their land, but desperate times calling for desperate measures and all that.
I was outside the jungle by nightfall, though I didn't let the looming danger of the nocturnal beasts sway my resolve in the least. Bring them on, I dared the night; I'd brought down a sky fortress, danced with death more times than conceivable, and had dead-accurate aim. There was little that went bump in the night that wasn't afraid of me. And with the resolve I carried with me to find my dearest? I'm sure the Gods pissed themselves with fright.
They were expecting me, the viera. The one I recognized as Fran's older sister, Jote, scowled at me from the entrance of their village. "You are not welcome here, least of all in the middle of the night, hume." Her voice was commanding and incriminating, as if I'd affronted her simply by existing. Which, I'm sure, was exactly the case.
"I mean you no ill, viera. I've come through looking for Fran."
"We have other pressing matters to tend. Leave." Jote turned, and I saw behind her a young moogle, face splotched with blood and dirt, shaking as he took a drink of water another viera offered him. It took me to realize how I'd known him- he was one of the moogles that had kept guard at the temple of the forgotten lady, the very same one that had escorted us through the piles of treasure.
Jote turned to look at me, the look on her face clearly asking why I wasn't on my way out of their forest yet. "This moogle came seeking help from us. The tomb he guards has been attacked by a viera who can no longer hear the wood."
I raised an eyebrow. "Does he know that you won't raise a finger to help."
She glared. The family resemblance between her and Fran at times was unmistakable. "We cannot leave the wood."
The moogle looked to me, waving his arms, asking me to come closer. "I remember you. You came with the Lady Fran to pick up the gift that was left to her. She is there! She's at the temple!" The moogle wailed, suddenly. "Oh, save the gifts of the lady, please!"
Mjrn, Fran's younger sister, stepped in front of Jote. "I knew it was her I saw! I knew it! Only a few days ago I saw my sister walking through the woods!"
Jote's ears twitched backward. Though still glaring at me, the viera elder began to speak. "Mjrn claims to have seen Fran, wandering through the woods. But the wood did not speak of her. Only those with lost souls go unnoticed by the wood. What have you done to my sister, hume?"
"Me? Nothing at all, and I'd appreciate it if you'd hold your contempt of me. I'm not playing games here. The only thing I've come to your wood seeking is Fran. And here this moogle tells us that she's at the temple as it burns. Why am I standing here, arguing with you?" I turned, suddenly upset with myself over the fact that I was attempting to talk while Fran was most likely stuck in a burning cave.
I was off and running, ignoring my already tired state. I was, however, surprised when I heard two others gaining close behind. I looked over my shoulder to see both Jote and Myrn following at my heels. "What, may I ask are the two of you doing? You know as well as I that neither of you will set a single strand of hair outside of this forest."
"We will follow you to the edge of our lands; we can take down any fiends that stand in your way." Mryn had determination set across her features; I would hate to be the creature that thought it an intelligent idea to cross paths with her.
"Though she's been swallowed up by your world, she is still blood," Jote called out after me.
So, was this what family was meant to be like? For a moment, I felt a pang of guilt over the feeling of jealousy that washed over me. I shook it off before it could linger much, and kept my mind on running.
Flanking my sides, Jote and Myrn dispatched any an all creature, no matter how mighty, so that I could make my way to the plains. My journey, however, cut short when Jote called to me to stop. My lungs were on fire, as were my legs, but it mattered little. I was needed to make a daring rescue of my lost maiden. "What is it? We've got to keep moving!"
Jote pushed away a stone wheel, revealing a stretch of cave beneath. "This is how the moogle arrived so quickly. This will take you to the tomb, to Fran. Please. Save my sister."
I looked the viera elder in the eye and for once was not met with contempt; she was too worried for the safety of her sibling to let something like racial prejudice cloud her judgement. "Have you any idea who you're talking to, my lady?" I asked as I pulled a torch from inside the cave. I lit it with the ease of magic. "I've stolen treasure from under the noses of the nobles, I've looked death in the eye and laughed until he skirted away, ashamed he'd attempted to come after me. I'm Balthier; I never fail."
And because I said it, because I believed it, it was true. Call me arrogant, but I was easily the luckiest man alive. Little I do may change the world for the better, true, but the minstrels sang of me, castle guards three kingdoms over used my name as a curse; I was born to fit the role of a leading man. And leading men always rescue the damsel.
I had to stop twice to vomit, once to empty the contents of my stomach, and once simply dry heave and spit up anything left over from the first evacuation. I kept my pace, however, and nearly tripped or accidentally put out my torch more times than I care to recognize. After what felt like an eternity of running, the smoke began to dissipate. Finally I came to the inner sanctum, only to find it desecrated.
If this had ever been a holy place, none would recognize the state of chaos, the cloud of dust and destruction and debris left behind. Hand crafted stuffed toys still smoldered, little else than melted button eyes and a pile of embers remaining. What had once been polished silver trinkets were now charred, disfigured husks of their former selves.
And in the midst of all the chaos was my lady love, chipping away at the pillared resting place of her most beloved fairy tale with a sledge hammer.
"What, in seven hells, is going on?"
She stopped her onslaught for only a moment - long enough to hiss at me - and quickened her pace. "I've nothing left for the likes of you. My craving for the touch of a man has been satisfied. Yet you still persist. Was one night not enough, or does your greed know no bounds?"
I stepped toward her. "This is not the Fran I've spent my years with, not the gentle, yet fearless woman who won my heart. What happened to you, Fran? What has been done to make you change so?"
"Your precious Viera will not come out to play, sad hume. This body is no longer of this world."
A chill as icy as death began to creep over me. I started toward toward her, my pistol drawn and aimed, like a predatory animal. "What nonsense are you spouting?"
She stopped with her hammering of the stone coffin. "I mean exactly as I say, you stupid man. This body is mine, now, and I'll die once again before I let it go."
My hands began to shake. The smoke, the destroying of the coffin and tomb, the bright light, the change in Fran. "You're the Forgotten Lady."
"Ah, so quick to deduce the truth," she mocked menacingly as she placed the sledge hammer against the pillar. "Such a pity it means nothing now."
My mind was reeling, my thoughts erratic. Fran had been possessed by the same woman whose life story had shaped her. "The tales tell of your kindness and generosity. I can see such was little more than a lie."
She glared down at me, her lips tight. "They forgot my name. All of them, all of those I cared for forgot me, and so long have I rotted in this tomb that I, too, forgot my own name."
"Forgot you? My dear, this place was filled from top to bottom with gifts for you. I'd hardly call that forgetting."
"What good are material possessions to the dead?" She shrieked.
"My lady, I regret to say that I haven't a clue. I also regret to be the bearer of bad news; you cannot stay in the body you've stolen."
The smile that crossed Fran's face was terrifying; a toothy, shadowed grin that tormented her face and sent shivers down my spine. She balled her fist up and punched the stone coffin, sending spiderweb cracks all up it. "And what do you intend to do of it? This body is far faster and stronger than yours."
"I'm well aware of that." I held up my gun again, my stomach feeling as though I'd swallowed a cannonball. "But you're not quick enough or strong enough to dodge bullets."
Furious, she hisses and took a fighting stance. I shot once, grazing the soft flesh of her cheek. "If you've any memories of the woman whose body you stole, you'll understand that I don't miss my target purposely. I will ask you this only once; leave in one piece that which you've stolen."
She flecked the blood from her cheek, smirking. "There is nothing in this world that will make me give this body back." And, like lightning, she came after me.
Having perfect aim is feat in and of itself, but Fran's speed and agility were not the reason I was unable to hit my target. You see, though I boast of a heart of steel, the last thing I am physically capable of is hurting someone so very close to me. But after I was awarded with several blows to my face, one that I was nearly sure had broken my nose, I realized that the creature I was engaged in combat with may have looked like Fran, but was truly a monster of festering hatred and malice.
"Why are you doing this?" I tried to distract her, while I blocked her onslaught of fists.
She smiled at this, another twisted look consuming her face. "Because I watched, for centuries, as my kingdom crumbled and those who once fought so willingly for me began to flee. They forgot my name, they forgot my tomb, they forgot everything. My children forgot me, my grandchildren forgot me, and my blood forsook me and took up arms with the very kingdom that sent me to hide in the first place. I want revenge. I want kingdoms to crumble before me. I want blood to flow in their streets."
I was awestruck. For centuries she'd been nothing more than a vengeful spirit, hatred and anger incarcerated within her cave-like tomb. "Why did it take you so long before you could posses a body?"
Her kick was high and meant for my head, but I somehow managed to dodge and block it, though I'm sure there was more than one break in my forearm. I was in fantastic shape, yes, but viera were born to be quick and strong.
"Because until this little tart of yours touched my resting place, I'd never before felt such patient, latent power. With this body, armies will crumble and the very mountains themselves will fall to my feet."
Despite the onslaught of physical violence aimed toward me, I managed a few blows of my own, though albeit with a fist or a foot in place of a bullet. Such close range fighting was not beneficial to a gunman, as many could guess, but I didn't need feet, merely inches, to actually fire.
I shot her in the foot. It wasn't a wound large enough to maim her so long as it was properly taken care of, but I knew it would slow her down far faster than my conversations would.
"Fran! You're stronger than this! Fight her!"
The lady within threw her head back, and despite her injured foot, raced at me. With her hands around my throat, I was lifted from the stone steps and slammed into the pillar-grave so hard that my vision blurred and the wind from my lungs exploded fourth in a strangled gasp. I tried desperately to get away, so desperate that I began to kick and scratch, but nothing I did loosened the hands around my throat. To add to my growing list of concerns, as if my life was not top priority, I was forced to listen to her crazy banter as she strangled the life from me.
"She can hear you, oh, be sure of that, but there is nothing she can do. Your lady is strong - I've already said as much - but my power is near limitless now."
And, as though she derived some sick form of pleasure in beating me so, I was slammed backward through the pillar coffin and sent careening down the staircase on the other side. I coughed up blood, despite not being able to catch a single breath. I lay there, unmoving, in more pain than I could ever recall suffering through before, and sighed. It seemed that, despite who I was, this was a fight no mortal could win. My head refused to move, meaning that even glimpsing Fran again before I died would be impossible. The view facing away from my attacker was none too pleasant, to be noted. I'd been sent flying through a coffin, and bones and tiny trinkets that had been inside were scattered about me.
That was when I saw it. With a strangled breath, I called the name etched in every bone that surrounded me. "Aurelia."
The sound of heels stopped completely.
"What did you say?"
I coughed again, spitting blood as I did so. "That's your name, isn't it? Aurelia. It's on all of your bones."
In the silence between us, though I could not see her, I knew her to be calculating, to be considering what the bones of her body inscribed with her name truly meant to her. A silver ring was within my view, and on the inside I could see the first half of her name. A flat cut stone, malachite if my knowledge of semi-precious stone meant anything, set in silver and glittering upon a chain rested, draped across my wrist. I couldn't feel it. Fires below, I couldn't feel much of anything. My vision was slowly fading.
What a way to die, eh?
Ah, but that's always what the hero of any story believes before he is saved by some form of ancient magic, isn't it? After all, death is afraid of me.
The stone set against my wrist began to glow, at first I through perhaps it was merely glittering with the reflection of the remaining fires throughout the desecrated tomb. But, even though my sight was dimming, the light shone bright and warm.
It was as though a waterfall of warmth washed over me, enveloped me, as though trying to reassure me that everything would be alright. When my fingers began to move of their own, however, did panic truly begin to set upon me. I suddenly felt drunk, giddy and high, as, despite my broken bones and broken pride, I stood tall and faced my adversary.
But something at the back of my mind didn't see it as such. There was tugging there, as though someone was pulling the back of my shirt, or perhaps whispering into my ear.
Even when I'd been lying on the stone floor, near death, and I not been so terrified as I was when I came to realize that I, too, had been possessed. It was as though my body a puppet, and someone, something, pulled the strings. I was left with no free will save my own thoughts, which, given the situation, were nothing but chaos and panic.
Still, the warm feeling resonated throughout me, reassuring me that there was little to fear. To be fair, I was dying, so, after a short while there would no longer be anything to fear for there wouldn't be much left of me save my cold, dead body.
That simple call of a name, however, made her eyes grow wide. Her breathing was heavy from beating the very life from me, and her fists were clenched tightly at her sides.
"Aurelia, stop this." The voice was mine, but the words were not.
"No. It's not fair."
"Little one, you know better. You had your fairy tale ending. Did I not make you happy?"
Ah, well, that answered my onslaught of mental questions. It was the knight from the story, the very same who had saved her from her horrible dungeon fate, that had taken possession of me. Simply grand. As though I didn't have enough to worry over.
Tears were welling in Fran's eyes. "You cannot ask me such. I suffered in life and I suffered after death."
"My darling, the only thing you've done is watch over those who love you as they showered you with gifts, and whispered their secrets to you. Nothing but love has entered this cave, nothing but love for you. Why are you so upset?"
"They forgot me! They all forgot me!"
"Forgot you? You've sent strength through the hearts of all those who have entered. But now look at what your selfishness has done; you've taken the love you've been given and treated it as though it is meaningless. The little moogles that watched your temple cried as you set fire to what they've devoted their lives to making perfect for you."
"Stop. I don't care. This is not enough. I want the world."
"And what will you do with the world? Treat is as you've treated this temple?"
She was in shambles, shaking, tears streaking down her face. "I don't care."
"Darling, it's time to rest. You know I am right. You know that you've known little other than love since you passed from the land of the living. The only thing unfair is that you've taken an innocent woman's body, a woman who drew nothing but strength from you, and have used it against the one she loves. If you mean to take the world, destruction will be the only thing that lies in your wake. History will try to forget the scars you inflict upon those who you leave dead in your path. Yet your kindness will live forever. And I will always love you."
She fell to her knees, and my body with her. My hands pulled her close, though to be fair I could no longer tell if my limbs were possessed any longer; I'd meant to reach for her the moment she began to fall anyhow. Her anger and bitterness dissipated as the one she loved most in the world let her know the love he still felt after centuries of watching silently, even after seeing the ugliness that anger can bring about.
True love, if I'd ever seen it.
And, like a whispered secret as the last breath dances past your ear, I released my breath and was no longer conscious.
I now know better than I have previously that while death has yet to take me, he is always lurking round the corner. I remember glimpses of the time between when I'd fallen in the tomb for the last time and when I truly woke, small pieces of Fran crying over me, of her cursing my weight as she pulled me from the cave, and the moon overhead. For some reason, I was always dreaming of the moon.
My eyes fluttered open, the night sky bidding me a most welcome return to the place of mortal dwelling. My head pounded, my body ached, and I had an urge to piss so terrible I felt my bladder might explode. But I was alive. And, as I looked around the room and took in my surroundings, so, I discovered, was my precious love.
"Next time, don't touch anything."
Her head shot to me, her gaze wide as though she had not been expecting me to wake. "What?" she questioned as she stood and made her way toward me.
"Next time we go somewhere, don't touch anything. I don't want this kind of adventure to happen again, understand?"
"You nearly die by my hand and this is what you offer when you wake?"
"And what should I be instead? Angry that you'd no control over you body, or simply relieved that you're alive?"
Her shoulders relaxed, as did her intense gaze. After a few moments of hesitation, she reached up and blotted my forehead with a wet wash cloth.
"This brings back memories," I mused as I tried to smile at her. The muscles in my face weren't responding well, but I did as best I could.
"What do you mean?"
"When we first met."
Ah, she smiled at that. "You thought you were being heroic, coming to save a lady in need."
"And I would have managed spectacularly had you not been completely and utterly capable of taking out warships with your bare hands. Ah, but you've such delicate-looking fingers, and such a slim frame; how was I meant to know that under all that black leather you wear resides the fiercest warrior that I've ever had the pleasure of looting with?"
A subtle eye-roll, a quirk at the corner of her lips. We knew one another better than we knew ourselves, and yet at times not at all.
"I'm afraid, my dear Fran, that I have a most terrible confession to make. You see, I'm hopelessly in love with you."
"Yes. I know."
"You know?" Somehow I knew, but it was still strange to hear her say it.
"Yes. I've known it since you knew it. You forget, Balthier, how sensitive I am to the emotions of others. I'm particularly keen to pick up yours, after having been in such close company after all these years."
"Ah, well, I suppose that is exactly what I'd feared. And now it's a wrench in the gears."
"Oh? And why would that be?"
I looked at her, my face carefully blank. "My darling, we tried once before; you let me attempt to slake my thirst of you. It only made me crave you, and made breakfast the next morning the most awkward occasion I've ever attended."
She smoothed the hair from my face. "That was years ago, when our relationship was still so new, still so unsure."
"And now?" I asked dumbly.
"I would not mind so much if you chose to court me, though I must admit I am more used to the physical aspects of a relationship. I fear to admit I know little of how humans go about wooing their mates."
"Well, we're off to a good start, I suppose. We've already got the terribly difficult bits out of the way. You know, the world saving and the possessions. I'd rather like to settle down, perhaps buy land somewhere in the countryside, and rob a few more nobles blind."
We shared laugh, one that made my broken ribs hurt, but the smile that graced Fran's face was as beautiful as the full moon, though far rarer.
I don't like the endings of most fairy tales, because they all end with the slowing of life and the raising of children and the growing old together. I was not yet thirty and I'd done more than most men dare to dream, yet growing old, even stopping for a moment, seemed so deranged that I refused to ponder it. Instead, Fran and I plotted our next heist and had the most fantastic sex of our lives. After my ribs healed, of course.
Even though I'm sure it was mostly unwelcome, I sent a letter to Fran's sisters, without letting my lady hear of it of course, to let them know that Fran was well. Though it took several days, we gathered all of the moogles from the temple and explained what had happened. We hired Henny to aid them in their reconstruction of Aurelia's tomb. They cried as we helped them sweep the ashes in the tomb, and wailed as they picked up the bones of their most beloved lady, but I somehow knew it would only make them even more devout to her. When we later visited, her name had been pained in the most vibrant shades I'd ever encountered all across the walls and steps, even upon the ceiling. And instead of gifts, the moogles asked that the only thing presented to the lady be flowers.
After all, flowers do not live forever, but it is love that is given with them, it is love with which they bloom, and even though their colors fade and their petals wilt, they are simplistic yet holy in their meaning.
Needless to say, I brought Fran flowers at every opportunity. And, as we held one another, looking and the moon through the windows of the Strahl, reflecting on all of our near brushes with death, did we come to realize that there was no treasure that could compare to what we shared.
Didn't mean we stopped looting, of course.