Warning: Set during game events; spoiler warning up to and including the Dreadnought Leviathan. Rated for unpleasantness.

Unfortunate Duty

Cloudborne. What a blow to his grounded pride.

To Bhujerba, Balthier had fled the Leviathan, his strays in tow. By his dwindling and disillusioned honour, he'd never intended it to go this far. Rescue the girl, give her back to her boy, drop them both back where he'd found them. It had seemed infallible enough, solid, a plan. But now...

A pair of urchins yearning for a taste of the sky was one thing, dealt with easily enough; but the fugitives of rather troublesome import were less apt to be shirked, and he found himself more and more mired in the complexities of their purposes as the hours passed. On Basch's reservation, they had waited two loathesome days to return the princess to the good Marquis, and Balthier had been inclined to agree; it wouldn't do to waltz right back into an Imperial net. To wait in well-bought secrecy with two impatient waifs and a war-hungry princess, was - well, a more enduring punishment he'd never received.

Rooms above the tavern had not come cheap, nor had the reassurances he'd moved earth and sky to obtain while his companions wallowed to sheer distraction. Only Fran was to be counted upon. The resistance was grudging yet to help them, and keeping Ashe hidden from even Ondore would keep the Strahl long out of repair. The princess had near promised him that the Marquis would reward him handsomely for his troubles, but he hadn't kept his head all these years out of Archades by blindly trusting pretty faces. Well, perhaps not blindly.

Balthier had always taken quite nicely to Bhujerba, her high walls an ease and a comfort, chased by ever small tinges of homesickness that had recently turned to bitter bile to burn his throat with all this waiting. Avidity, so close a friend for so long, became his enemy as the sky beckoned him, so tantalisingly close. Resentment slowly began to blacken what patience he'd had for certain daughters of kings.

To bide had never suited him well. Thoughts, after all, had a way of making use of an idle mind, and his became a breeding ground of question and doubt. This night, without Fran's influence, the calls of his thoughts were particularly – intrusive. A nagging deep inside of him refused to be sated by a glass of something strong and fragrant as he awaited his partner's return from her watch of the keep, as it were. Ondore, ever the wiser, kept his own.

It wasn't until he noticed the boy pouring over the Board in the corner than he realised why his conscience plagued him so.

Bhujerba. The mines. Answers and allies sought in a fiend's den. The magicite. The girl.

There was nothing for it. Discretely, he removed himself; the gil he'd left on the table would pay for rounds twice over – such was the price of anonymity. He mounted the steps. There was light spilling out from beneath Penelo's door; she was waiting for the boy to return to her.

Gently, he knocked; her invitation came hesitantly, and when he opened the door, she greeted him with stave in hand, ready to put the dear captain's training to use. It was an ill sign, mirroring his own suspicions.

"You needn't be frightened, I seldom bite without reason," he said, habit curling up his lips in a dashing smile, a more hardy defence against a young woman ready to bludgeon him, he'd often found.

As he'd hoped, her stance relaxed, and she replaced her weapon, leaning it against the wall next to the bed, easily reached. He'd slept so long with his holster slung over the bedpost, he could hardly criticise.

"I had assumed the captain secured all these rooms," he said, as she looked on expectantly.

"He did," she said, bobbing her head only once.

"I dare not ask if you're resting comfortably," he said, taking a seat without preamble at the small table crammed into the corner. It afforded him a view of her watching him nervously from her place on her narrow bed.

"I've never been this far from Rabanastre before," she said, glancing up at the ceiling. He oughtn't have wondered what she sought. "Even the plains were too far for me. I miss the sound of the East End. This city, it... it sleeps differently."

"As do you, as a part of it."

"Or not at all," she said, laughing quietly.

"My dear," he said, "you may yet find yourself in stranger places. Set your mind at ease; for now, no walls are safer."

"For how long, I wonder?"

He smirked, unable to help it. "You are beginning to resemble the princess, all this worry and wonder."

"But you're worried, too," she said, after a dreadful pause. "Otherwise, you'd still be downstairs keeping an eye on Vaan."

She was a perceptive girl, he noted with reluctance; there was no doubt in his mind now that she knew the reasons for his visit, most likely better than even himself. He felt a bit the fool, but with no compunction to remedy the situation in his favour once more. He wouldn't pay her that shameful disrespect.

"I had not had the chance to personally inquire after your well-being," he said, knowing by the welcome he'd received that he needn't now have bothered. Settled back in his chair as he was, he had a good look at the falseness of her bravery as she summoned it.

"I'm all right, thank you," she said; oh yes, that smile she gave was fake, but not for lack of trying. A fine performance.

Balthier leaned forward, hunching his shoulders to rest his elbows on the tops of his legs, a brutish position only necessary so that she might get a good look at his face, so that he in turn might see her unmasked.

"Yes," he said, after a moment of watching her watch him, "I do believe you may be yet."

She blushed, looking down into her lap.

"You see, Penelo," he said, "on occasion, a leading man finds it his unfortunate duty to play the cad."

Her eyes found him once more, an eyebrow raised in silent query.

"Did they hurt you?" he asked firmly.

She was slow to respond, never a good sign coming from a woman, no matter how young. "Less, I think, than they might have."

An evasive answer. The girl had been looking after herself for far too long to give up much to him so easily. He might have been proud of her, if not for the difficulty he faced now because of it.

"Vaan may be too ignorant, and the captain too chivalrous, but I, on the other hand, have no such reservation to asking after such indelicate matters," he said with great disdain. "Not a finger was laid on you, otherwise?"

She shook her head, eyes wide with understanding, her cheeks still stained pink, a flush most becoming for all her sudden shifting with inquietude. He expected her to say something, nay, wanted her to say something, but she had fallen into a silence that carried on between them no matter the clamour of patrons from below.

"I've yet to apologise to you," he said. "For my part in your suffering." The words were grains of sand between his teeth. He closed his eyes against the discomfiture of his guilt, so familiar still after so long left behind. A sky pirate with a weak and swaying heart was no pirate at all, he'd often berated himself.

"You don't have to," she said with an earnest smile. "If you hadn't stepped in –" She swallowed, eyes falling to her lap once more. "The Imperials would have taken me to Nalbina right along beside you. Who knows what would have happened to me before I got there?"

Balthier sighed, letting his head hang. Spoken like a true Dalmascan, ever wary of the Empire's sharp teeth hidden behind a benign smile.

"And the little lordling protected you, then?"

"Larsa was very kind. Too kind," she said, and he found her smiling still when he glanced back up. "And with far fewer questions, I might add."

"On that, I have my doubts," he said, and stood; she moved to her feet as well, a nimble slip of a thing, all tumbling legs and curious eyes. "Keep close that trinket he gave you. I'd give it to the sky were it mine, but lost things have a way of washing up elsewhere. I think it safest in your hands."

The nethicite; by the Gods, but was it the heaviest burden of all to bear, and he did not envy it of her.

"I appreciate –"

He cut her off. "Always, my dear."

He left her then, standing with the door to his back long after he'd closed it, his head low and his soul uneased. There would be times yet when he would be sorry he hadn't tried harder to rid himself of these troubles, but for the moment, he slipped quietly down the hallway before anyone knew he'd ever been there.