"Your magick does not suit you," says Fran to him out of the blue, one hot afternoon on the Cerobi Steppe.
They spent their first real earnings on new weaponry from the Balfonheim forgery, and have come out to test its mettle on the creatures of the Steppe. Balthier, as is his custom, tests not only the strength and trueness of his new gun but also its effect on his casting. Unlike maces and staves, firearms are not designed to impact magicks, but he has known smiths catering to upscale markets to use magicite ornamentally so as to increase the price charged of ignorant trophy hunters. Such weapons can have disastrous impacts on spellwork.
This one is inert, as it ought to be. The plumes of smoke resulting from his Fire die away, leaving a much-singed silver lobo. And Fran, watching him with her usual steady gaze.
"My technique, I will admit, leaves a little something to be desired," he admits. Magick has never been a strength of his, and in truth he generally confines himself to white magick and trusts his weapon to be his offense.
Fran shakes her head slowly, the shell-white river of her hair flowing in the soft breeze. "No, 'tis not that. You have not the style of a Hume."
Balthier has been travelling with Fran for a little over a week now, and this is the most personal comment she has made to him. He raises an eyebrow. "I am sure my father would welcome the suggestion that I was switched at birth; however, I believe even he would not deny my species."
"Perhaps it is simply your nature. You are a Hume who disdains the earth; a child who forsakes his parents; a man who deserts his home."
"A rather bleak summary, to be sure," he replies.
Fran blinks, her long ears tweaking gently in response to a distant wyrm's roar. "Is it? And yet, I am the equivalent of all those, and more. Would you call me bleak?"
"Your closest friends would not call you the life of the party. But you are no more bleak than the Estersands. Those who claim it is nothing but unending sand simply lack the fortitude to see the Valeblossoms in its heart." He inclines his head courteously.
Fran gives him a very old look, slowly shifting her weight from one leg to the other. As always she moves with a feline grace that is so very alien from even the most elegant Hume women. He waits patiently; she conducts her conversations as much with silences as with words, and he is still learning this new tongue.
"And do you classify yourself also as a desert bloom?" she asks, at last.
"Ah, Fran. In me you see the vast ocean. If you happen to catch it on a grey, listless day and assume from that its miserable austerity, you will not recognize it again when the sun is shining – or when the winds are howling."
"There are no oceans in Archades," she says, practically.
"No leading man is defined by his birthplace, or anything else over which he has no say. I rule my heart – to allow the inverse is folly."
"You are foolish," she tells him, swinging her bow into its travelling position across her narrow back. "But it is a pleasant kind of folly."
"I am constantly impressed," he says, as turn back toward Balfonheim, "that my considerable charm means nothing to you."
Fran blinks, genuinely surprised. "How could it?" she asks, and to that he has no reply.
They skirt the edge of the Golmore Jungle three months into their partnership, the Strahl laid up in ordinary undergoing a wiring overhaul.
"Do not cast beneath the Jungle's eves," Fran tells him, the first words she's spoken in over an hour, as they approach the shadowed canopy.
He has never been to Golmore before, nor any of the ancient woods. Humes stay away from the mist-soaked forests, or risk their minds twisting into spun sugar. "Do the creatures there not take to magicks?"
"Not to yours."
Her words surprise him; Fran does not suppress criticisms, but neither is she cruel.
"I did not realise they were so abysmal," he replies, carefully careless.
Fran pauses, long limbs stilling just this side of relaxed, ready to move in a flash. "It is not your skill which rankles. You cast not like a Hume. The wrongness of it draws attention."
Although young, Balthier left innocence in the dust behind him many years ago. Sky Pirates do not gape, nor do they voice the first thought which springs to mind. As such, he does not demand her meaning, but comes up with the most sensible possibility he can frame. "It is in the style?"
"It is in your heart – you do not call the magick from inside of you, as do Humes, but from without. It weakens your spells and limits your stamina. Were a Hume to be raised in the wilds, or with the Garif, or among my sisters, he might cast so. How it comes that you do, I cannot explain."
"Poor tutelage," replies Balthier, darkly. He sighs, and slips a hand into the pouch containing his curatives. "I take your point. Fortunately, we have a sufficient supply of potions and cures."
Fran simply nods, and continues onwards as though she had only paused for a heartbeat.
The first time they are captured, it is not their fault. In fact, it is not even intentional on the part of their captors. They merely happen to be the guests of one of the few remaining noble families of Nabradia – who, by the simple expedient of offering Arcadian troops the free use of their lands, have been permitted to keep the majority of their exquisite collection of jewels – when the Archadian army marches in to renege on the deal.
All the guests, themselves included, are escorted to their respective suites and locked in by the Judge leading the expedition to await individual questioning. Judges don't bother with keys.
Balthier has no inclination to obediently await questioning which might reveal his current identity or, infinitely worse, his previous one. Unfortunately, there is a sheer five-storey drop from their window to the courtyard, the outside wall unadorned even by creepers. Fran's sensitive ears detect no weakness in the stone walls on floor. Which leaves only the locked door.
It is possible to pick the magick locks used by Judges, with time or a surfeit of power. Balthier has the former, and pulls a chair over to sit beside the door. Seated backwards on it with his chin resting on the crossbar, he rests his hands against the wooden surface, closes his eyes, and opens his minds.
Judges create locks to circulated specifications, so that any acting Judge may open any lock. Unfortunately they change them regularly, and Balthier has no doubt they have been changed several times since his rather hasty exit from their ranks. Still, with enough concentration and patience it's possible to simply try all possible permutations until the right one is found. Magicks are like a musical scale; he begins at the bottom, and works his way up.
Balthier has no idea how much time passes, but he works through nearly a third of the possible range before he feels the lock trill slightly. He sighs gratefully and stands, finds his muscles are stiff from holding perfectly still. He swings the chair aside, presses his hand to the door, and feels the soft heart-like flutter there. The lock curls away, and the door clicks open. Balthier wipes the sweat from his brow with his kerchief, and turns to raise an eyebrow at Fran.
To his surprise, she is standing with her arms crossed and her weight crooked over one leg, looking eminently displeased. "I mislike this spell," she says, looking down at him.
"'Tis of Archadian origin. I readily concede that not much worthy of praise has come from her of late, with the notable exception of yours truly. However I see nothing to object to in this neat little piece of work." He motions to the lock as he holds the door open for Fran. She twitches her ears at it as she sweeps past, red eyes reflecting the flames from the wall torches.
"Perhaps not. But I mislike it all the same." More, she will not say.
Fran sees the Judge first, which ensures he never sees them. Her long arm stops Balthier by the simple expedient of pushing him into the valley wall and holding him there, her nails scratching softly against his shoulder. They pause silently and watch the Judge crossing the edge of the Sandsea at the head of a squad of Imperial soldiers, blasting away any creature who approaches too closely. They make good time, and are out of hearing range in a very few minutes.
"It appears the Empire seeks to espy movements in Rozarria undetected," comments Balthier, adjusting his cravat. The linen does not do well in this heat; already it is hanging limply.
Fran does not heed him, her eyes still turned towards the distant patrol. "Their leader – he uses his magicks in the same wayward manner as yours."
Balthier does not startle; sky pirates may be surprised, but never startled. He stares after the retreating party as well now, still able to catch sight of occasional bursts of fire. "Judges are retaught their magicks upon appointment. It is supposed to make them stronger, relying on the surrounding ether rather than innate skill. I have to say, it's never done much for me. But then magicks were never my forte, even before my ill-advised promotion to their lofty ranks." He makes a clean breast of it with a wry face and a glib tongue, as always. Fran doesn't even twitch an ear at the confession, skates over it as if it had not been given.
"It is a foolish Hume vanity, that. For Viera, the Wood; for Garif, the herd; for Hume, the heart. We cannot all abide by our nature, but to claim opposing it brings strength is to be naught but a child kicking ignorant heels against the way of things."
"Such a high opinion you hold of us Humes, Fran."
She does turn now, surprise stamped on her face. "I speak not of all Humes. You yourself admit your weakness, while seeking a strength better-suited to you."
He bows, accepting the compliment with smiling eyes. She wrinkles a disapproving nose. "Do not let it go to your head."
"When have I ever?"
She does not deign to comment, slipping out instead from the shelter of the cliff wall to cross the Sandsea in the direction opposite to that taken by the Archadian party. Balthier smiles, and follows.
It is not until they enter the Golmore Jungle for a second time that Balthier understands Fran's understated but unbending disapproval of his magick. They cross the dark eves with Ashe and the rest of the eclectic party that has somehow sprung up about them, driven this time by necessity rather than interest. They enter it in earnest as they did not before, the gigantic limbs of ancient trees looming above like fingers woven together ready to close in and crush them. Balthier has no need of a reminder to keep from casting; he can feel the Jungle's malevolence hanging heavily over him, the dampness that beads over his throat and down his back prickling at him like a thousand tiny blades.
He first notices something definite in the mist-laden barrier the Jungle casts to forbid their entry, his attention peaked all the more by Fran's discomfort. But when she summons a green path out of the close, humid air he knows why she holds her adamant distaste for his casting.
The resemblance to his Tides of Fate is unmistakable, the coincidence utterly impossible.
They cross the thick moss in a subdued group, Fran's somber air affecting even Vaan. At the entrance to the village she sends them off to look for Mjrn, standing alone and aloof on the very edge of what was once her home as if the proximity burns her. He stays at her side.
"I see the reason for your disapproval of my magick," he says; they have no need to dance around a point. She glances over at him, moving only her eyes.
"I was not wrong in thinking Humes raised by my sisters would cast so," she says. Fran has a trick of referencing conversations months, even years past as though they had occurred yesterday. Perhaps it is why she is so careful with her words. It certainly makes Balthier, a spendthrift when it comes to his own, devote considerable attention to hers.
Fran shifts her weight with the slow inevitability of a felled tree falling, letting the silence be the voice of her displeasure. "It is not something my people would teach an outsider."
"At all. The safety of our sisters and the Wood is paramount – our lives are but leaves to their tree." She turns, graceful limbs slicing through the thickly-scented air, ears fluttering and nose flaring to take in the scent. Balthier looks away, his heart aching for her.
"Then what? How came this secret to my people? For the magick of the Judges is without a doubt based in this," he says sourly, motioning to the green path.
"It may be only one of two things. Either it was spied out, by long and patient watching. Perhaps a caster of truly exceptional skill could learn the way of it simply by watching. But I am doubtful. The alternative is that it was taught not to an outsider but a Hume taken into the bond of family, who then broke it. If so, it is an unspeakable betrayal." Fran's voice is harsh and blunt as a rusty sword, the jagged pain intense. He turns to see her staring him down, pinning him beneath her ancient eyes so that he feels like a wayward child.
"I do not know what must be done, Fran," he says, thickly, forcing sensible words from his chastised tongue.
She looks at him for a long while, and then slowly shakes her head, the great white mane of her hair shining behind her. "There is nothing to be done. If all of your Judges have learnt this, the betrayal is cold and my sister long dead. It is not your burden to bear." And then, in a more forgiving tone, "It is not your way to let the mistakes of others taint you. Sky Pirates are not morose."
The words your Judges burn, but while Fran has made the chasm between them clear she has at least offered an olive branch.
"Perish the thought," he says, and turns at the sound of Vaan's pounding feet returning before she can read the falseness in his smile.
They look upon the wasted, rotted ruin of Nabudis without words, although there is no silence to be had in this evil place: it is full of the whispers of the dead and the endless creaking of blasted stone and wet footsteps in the dark.
"Such is the doom Humes have wrought. Mayhap it lies in store for all of us." Though the air is thick with mist Fran stands straight-backed, staring unflinchingly into the ugliness of the ruined city.
"'Twas Archadia alone that brought about this devastation," flares Ashe, backed by Vaan's less articulate, "Yeah!"
Fran raises one delicate eyebrow. "And yet we too seek the stones, do we not?"
"Solely to prevent Archadia from destroying a second city!" Ashe cuts the air with a sharp stroke of her arm. "They have shown themselves to have no compunction." She stares at Fran, nearly vibrating with indignation. Fran does not reply, and after a moment Ashe turns and leads the group down towards the Necrohol at a quick, fierce march. Balthier hangs back, arms crossed in exasperation.
"Must you provoke her? She will have us travel for hours, now. And I doubt the dank in there will do my boots any favours."
"Borders and empires." She shakes her head slowly. "What one Hume invents another will use; what matters an invisible line in the earth?" They pick up the trail of the others, following at a distance.
"Spoken like a true member of a species which knows no countries, nor patriotism. But while one man is very like another, it doesn't do to remind them of it. We all like to fancy ourselves unique." He bows theatrically while gracefully navigating around a lump of fallen stone; Fran ignores his gesture.
"And yet the very blood in your veins makes that impossible. You cannot escape the marrow in your bones, nor the heart that beats in your chest."
"Perhaps the need to try is what makes a Hume a Hume. We seek to fly the skies though we have no wings, and to glide over the seas though we have no fins. I myself wish for many impossible things."
She gives him a flat glance. "Then to be a Hume is to be dissatisfied."
"But we do fly the skies and glide over the seas," he replies, earnestly. "Perhaps even my more modest wishes may someday be granted." He looks ahead so as not to risk meeting her gaze, but sees her look sharply at him out of the corner of his eye, a flash of moon-beam whiteness.
There is an anxious silence, terse as the moment before a bluff is called. And then, "Only if they are not unduly foolish," she says, dryly, the tension passing as though it had never been. Balthier, unaccountably glad of it, looks at her in mock surprise.
"My dear Fran. I should hope never to be anything else."
Viera do not snort, but the look on her face carries the thought of it well enough. They stride together down into the mist-glutted Necrohol, its darkness lit solely by the shimmering golden curtain of magicks. She casts a soft look of warning at him as he raises his hand to summon a fire by which to find the others, and he belatedly calls Fire rather than Firaga. The mist-soaked atmosphere amplifies the spell ten-fold, and it erupts in a volcanic belch that scorches the damp wall, and the delicate lace of his sleeves as he steps hurriedly backwards. A dull ache blossoms behind his eyes an instant later, the aftermath of channelling too much power.
Fran watches him, wryly amused. "It would seem you are succeeding."
"Like, yet unalike," she says in the cool dusk of Balfonheim, the air salty on their tongues. It makes for a pleasant difference after the dry heat of Archades and the Draklor Laboratories. They sit in Reddas' garden, watching the sky darken.
"How alike?" Balthier asks, calling up a mental image of his father, hardly changed despite the intervening years. "Surely not in looks, and as for actions…"
Fran gives him an old look. "One of you seeks to distance himself from his people by might – he strives to sit on high amongst the Occuria, mayhap. And you… I fear you bend your heart as a sail with which to flee your race." She reaches out and places her hand on his shoulder, light as a fallen leaf. "Such things are not possible; to pursue them brings only suffering, or madness. Or both."
He turns away, cut by the pity in her eyes. "If you know what it is I would have, and cannot give it, then that is that. But your perception of my motives is false. I have stopped running, but never would I have used you to speed my flight."
Fran removes her hand and straightens to sit as the corseted women did in his youth, straight-backed with her head held high. But in the gentle curve of her ears, he reads softness, sympathy. "I am sorry if I wronged you. And sorrier still to hurt you. But for all my time as a sky pirate, I have not learnt to put heart over mind."
"Then let us not speak of it again; at least not while the Sun-Cryst hangs over our heads." He rises, and returns to the manor.
When Balthier's mother still lived she grew a window box full of flowers, exotic seeds sprouting up through rich Jungle earth brought into Tsenoble at a fortune. They bloomed in bright, cheerful colours: reds, blues and greens to match the best-cut gems.
His father burns now with the same vivid hues, his magicks alight, the flames fanned by his own magicite. The mist is thick here, wrapped so close about them all that Balthier can feel the tingle of it on his own skin, and knows a single snap of magick would be enough to set him too ablaze. Cid laughs as he falls, and Balthier cannot help but think that there will be no incense-soaked pyre for his father, no silver bells and prayers. Cid dies as he lived: unable to trust his affairs to his son.
Fran is heavy in his arms as he carries her from the battlefield, but his rage and grief twine to strengthen his muscles and he does not heed the aches and pains.
"You are bright and beautiful as a mayfly," she tells him sagely, mist-drunk and loose-tongued. "I envy you your freedom."
"If I were truly free," he replies, knowing she is beyond hearing, "I would be any place in Ivalice but here."
"Do you begrudge me my magicks now?" mutters Balthier to the unconscious Viera in his arms. "No, I thought not."
The interior of the Bahamut is rapidly approaching the roasting point, her engines burning far too hot on their way to catastrophic failure. The air is filled with mist, soaked with it so that he can feel it even against his bare skin, slippery as soap as he strides through it. He does not even need to raise his arms to cast Aeroga at the pilings and collapsed bulkheads that block his passage; a flick of his hand from beneath Fran's shoulder is enough to direct a spell holding the force of a tornado. The mist is burning out his magical senses, the sheer raw power of it scorching the channels of his mind devoted to casting. He can feel them deteriorating, boiling away like water on red-hot iron. But there is no other way out.
They reach a hanger full of Atomos just as the first of the glossair rings dies, this time for good. The Bahamut lurches sickeningly, but Balthier is used to keeping his feet in a storm. He uses the momentum to carry him nearer to the closest craft, boards hurriedly and lays Fran down behind him in the cockpit.
They shoot free from the Bahamut like a spark from a fire, hidden at first by the billowing smoke and then by the massive confusion on the battlefield.
Balthier has no eyes for any of it, his mind afire with the mist and his heart with fear for Fran. He pilots the ship with senses that do not belong to him, borrowed at tremendous cost from the golden curtain; it guides his movements with no need for gauges or compasses.
The mist carries him nearly all the way to the Ozmone Plain before it begins to seep away, leaving him cold and trembling. He makes a bad landing, poorer than his worst when he was naught but a schoolboy flying gliders, at the anchorage on the border of the Golmore Jungle.
His thoughts are a thin, stuttering mess, barely able to latch on to what he must do far less how he is to do it. It is a long while before he makes his way out of the ship with Fran slung this time over his shoulders, for he is weak now and she is heavy, so heavy.
Balthier stumbles under the eaves of the Golmore Jungle for a third time, barely aware of where he is. The creatures stay away, hissing at him with their backs raised and shying away when he comes near; he does not notice.
He wanders on the twisting loops of the Jungle for some unknown time, steps growing slower and back lower. His sight too seems to grow dimmer; the artificial brightness leant by the mist is gone, and has taken with it some of his own as well. Cold is gnawing at his bones, and while he knows that at least must be wrong when sweat is running down his brow and stinging his eyes, but he has no solution but to keep walking.
Finally by luck rather than intention he comes to the platform he is searching for in his dull, Golem-like way. He lays Fran down on the thin layer of moss – she does not move – and faces the black space beyond.
There is a key here, his mind tells him. Something unseen but known nonetheless. He knows it by training, he knows it by experience, he knows it now by a sense hurriedly born and just as quickly dying. Balthier reaches out with the cracking dregs of his magicks, and finds the gate to Eruyt Village. He has only one chance, only the strength and stamina for one essay.
A soft, ghosting breath, the last of the mist that has ravaged his senses, blows through him. Balthier's arm skates through a pattern he saw only twice, finding the hidden locks his training and the mist tell him are there. The gate shudders under his touch, but at the opening of the final lock reluctantly falls open, as the last of Balthier's magick crumbles.
He topples forwards onto the green path, and does not feel the coolness of its touch against his fevered body.
Balthier dreams of a valley full of Valeblossoms drowned beneath a roaring tidal wave. He dreams of the Jungle alight with multi-coloured flames. He dreams of the Bahamut, of searing heat and prickling sweat and the taste of engine grease.
He dreams of Fran, watching him in expressionless silence, as though he were no one at all to her.
For three days the fever burns hot, and his mind burns with it.
"There is a limit even to fool-hardiness, and truly you have surpassed it beyond the desire of most lunatics," Fran tells him, sitting lithe and cross-legged at his side. He has never seen her look so young, or so angry.
Balthier's sick-bed, such as it is, lies in the shelter of a screen of interwoven branches on the Road of Verdant Praise. The Viera are not accustomed to harbouring Humes, especially not the ill; it was only Mjrn's pleading that permitted this sanctuary on their doorstep. None of them have shown their faces in his more wakeful hours, although he has heard Fran speaking in a low voice from the edge of his dreams. The Wood, at least, does not bother him; he has sensed none of its former malevolence since he first woke.
"I would never have anyone say of me that I do things halfway," he replies, in what he intends to be a grandiose tone; it comes out of his dry mouth sounding petty instead. He refuses to cough to clear it – he has had more than enough of being treated as an invalid.
"If that is your goal then you have achieved it. But there is a difference between risk and recklessness; only one is to be proud of."
"Aye, but if by risk alone I gain nought but my miserable life while casting into the flames a city, then I would far prefer recklessness –"
Fran's ears stiffen, her long nails drawing up towards her palms. "I do not speak of your actions aboard the Bahamut; do not play at ignorance."
Balthier looks at her with narrowed eyes, but continues in an only marginally tenser voice, "Very well: if by risk alone I gain nought but my miserable life while casting yours into the flames, I would take recklessness with my whole heart."
She regards him in silence for a long while, and he knows she is reading his mood and the honesty of his words by his rhythms: pulse and breath, skin tone and temperature. She is the best judge of mood he knows, when she cares to be. Finally she lowers her head, a cascade of silver hair flowing down over her shoulder.
"It is no prize to lay at my feet, no gift I would want," she says quietly, and perhaps for the first time he can hear genuine distress in her voice. He softens, lying back in his bed with eyes closed.
"True, 'tis a selfish gesture. But I am selfish, Fran. I do not hide it." He opens his eyes and looks at her, straight-backed and beautiful, all silver and honey in the morning sunlight. "I do not regret my actions, nor their price."
Her face hardens as she looks down at him, as if to lock away her thoughts. "Then you know –"
"My magick is gone." He reads the truth of it in her face instantly, but he has known for a while – known since he first awoke, and felt nothingness rather than the close rage of the Wood. The mist has ravaged his mind, burnt the bridges that carried his magick. There is no gaping hole in his mind, no wound crying out to be healed. There is simply nothing, a dead space.
If it had been lost in any other pursuit, for any other cause, he might have mourned its loss. But Rabinastre stands still, and Fran is sitting whole and healthy at his side. He feels no grief. "Well, 'twas never a great skill of mine. And you did not care for it in me. Two birds with one stone."
She reaches out a slow hand; gentle as if scooping up glass shards, she places it against his cheek to cup his face as she did at the Pharos, but he sees only her own mind in her eyes, now. It makes his skin burn, feverish without a fever, and sets him to gabbling for the first time since he was a boy.
"And besides, now you need never fear my betrayal of this place, of the Wood's secrets. A more secure lock you shall never find."
"I believe I found it some time ago," she tells him, slipping her hand down to rest over his heart. "We live and die for the Wood, but perhaps it would be truer to say we do so for our hearts – as you do. Mine was sundered from the Wood many years ago. It may be that it could learn to look to a new lodestar."
She removes her hand and sits up, looking at the verdant canopy above. The leaves whisper, but if there is a voice there Balthier hears it not, and knows for once that Fran hears no different. "I will say no more here. I am neither so reckless, nor so hasty."
Balthier smiles. "Do not worry. Those, at least, are skills I possess in spades."