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* * *
In the chronicles of centuries to come, it is to be known that the freedom of the peoples of the world was bought first by Estharan blood. We were the first to resist the Sorceress, though we served under her yoke. Her magic drove us to technological heights, and our technology allowed us to land the first blow against her. But that would never have come to pass were it not for Laguna Loire, Ward Zabac and Kiros Seagill.

     They came to our shores seeking a child taken by the Sorceress. Imprisoned, they would become our liberators. From first contact, it did not look to be so. Laguna Loire led them and a more innocent, guileless, incompetent man has probably never walked the world since its creation. Nor a more noble. The venerable Moombas flocked to him as if to a father and he treated them as his own children, petting them and playing with them. And they did not mark him for it.

     His speech was simple, but stirring. From the moment of their escape Laguna Loire and his companions galvanized the Estharan people. Innocent enthusiasm attracted them and fired their blood while silent Ward’s wisdom guarded against mistakes too costly and Kiros’ temperance steadied their erratic course. Innocence, Wisdom, Temperance. That is how we choose to remember them, for their reign after the defeat of the Sorceress embodied these things. But that did not come to pass until after the War of Estharan Liberation.

     Estharan blood bought our freedom, but they were the ones who “sealed the deal,” as it were. Innocence, Wisdom and Temperance are not words that could rightly be used to describe these three in battle. In peace they were but men. In war, a fell veil seemed to fall upon them. It was as if ancient gods had stepped forth out of primitive myth and walked among the soldiers of Esthar, for good or for ill. Though they lacked our armour, our weapons and our magic, they made a mockery of all but the Sorceress. In Laguna Loire, an Archer strode boldly at the head of their formation, placing devastatingly accurate fire into the heart of the enemy, heedless of any in return. In Ward, the Dragoons of old rose again to fall with mighty lance upon the foe. And in Kiros, a fabled Ninja stalked their ranks, dealing death with careless grace.

     Before avatars of war such as these, the Sorceress’ forces could not prevail. I saw Laguna Loire take a salvo of shells that would have shredded a normal man. He, instead, stood shakily and threw a single grenade into the midst of his astonished assailants before finishing them off. His face was taught with pain that had nothing to do with his own wounds. Who cannot say they haven’t seen the video of Ward leaping to impossible heights, his massive frame detailing an indomitable arc of doom, to drive his ship’s anchor straight through the turret and hull of a tank. Despite his silent protests, that iconic shot loops endlessly in the National Museum. Those who were there whisper still in hushed tones at the literal rain of blood that fell after Kiros cut a path through the horde of monsters defending the final redoubt of the Sorceress’ palace. The Red Path leading to those chambers is not named for the carpet. In that final clash, where her sorcery flayed the skin off mortal man and ripped great holes in space-time, they sloughed through it like ships through a storm to defeat her. “Battered, sails torn, and listing badly, they were still there when passed the storm.” Future generations must not forget, lest they grow complacent in their own superiority. Esthar, nay the world, owes its continued existence to three Galbadians.

     In peace they were counsellors. In war, gods.
~Professor Emeritus Harkam Doneline~
* * *
Stars glimmered in the clear night sky that couldn't been seen through the thick canopy. The canopy itself was quietly alive with the sound of night-time predators stalking unwary prey. Lower still on the floor of the jungle three figures moved silently through the foliage. Their procession seemed too orderly for the stealth they employed. In front, a small, lithe figure crept ahead, obviously a scout. The middle position was held by a man of slightly-taller than average height and a muscular build, who prowled more than walked. The rear guard was a giant of a man whose attention was wholly absorbed in the task of putting one foot in front of the other without making a sound. The barest rustle sometimes emmanated from him when he brushed a branch too hard.

The group was clad entirely in skintight, dark camouflage armour. Each carried a short bullpup rifle was held at the ready. Blackened close-combat weapons adorned each in varying quantities. No insignia was visible on any of them. Such was the aura of lethality that the group exuded that they suffered no challenge reaching the river's bank. Once there, it was a quick jog to a natural promontory with some queer looking rocks.

Together, the three gathered something off the rocks and whipped off the camouflage tarp that covered a small, long range ocean craft. They quickly folded and stowed the tarp and then boarded the craft. The averagely-built man took the helm and with a roar that completely ruined any attempts at stealth the craft took off down the mouth of the river at full speed into the waiting ocean.

************

He stumbled as they pushied him unceremoniously into the cell, and so ended up on his side, on the cold steel floor. Considering that the night before, he'd been enjoying a warm bed with a courtesan, General Caraway's life had taken an abrupt change. Days - no, even hours - ago he'd been so very close to his dream of ruling Galbadia. And now, he lay in a cell, Hyne-knows-where while his enemies doubtlessly brought ruin to both his dream and Galbadia.

They weren't ready for another war. He'd counselled against it and rose in the Military Assembly on his clear, cold and reasoned platform. He'd come so close to being able to call upon the assembly to declare him Dictator and lead them all into a glorious new future, but now that was nearly impossible. Locked in here by his enemies, he was never going to get out. The worst part, he thought, is that I don't even know who my enemies are.

After the disastrous Second Sorceress War, although it ended with Galbadia's manipulated military being soundly trounced by the technological might of Esthar, saw the military in sufficient power to ignore the supposed democractic government and instead rule in martial law under te Military Assembly. It was a sort of democracy, one far less corrupt than what had existed before, but subject to ever as much backstabbing politics. As politics went though, it was decently respectful. His climb had been arduous, he'd won over detractors one by one until he had enough of a following and enough promised neutral that he could have called a vote to install himself at the top of the state.

But apparently his enemies were far more cunning than he'd forseen. Try as he might, he could not think of one person, or even faction, with the influence to be able to divert his car out of an escort and kidnap him. He'd been gassed or subjected to Sleep shortly thereafter, so he had no idea where he was now. It was definitely a detention centre along Galbadian lines, but nothing stood out. At least it wasn't D-District. If it were, he'd have significantly more difficulty free.

Caraway wasn't one to resign himself to his fate and one fruitless search later, he was sure that his way out would not have anything to do with his cell. Well. There would be other ways. No prison was one-hundred percent secure, and this wasn't even D-District. And he didn't know of any more high-security locations in Galbadia. Of course, he didn't have to be in Galbadia anymore.

He heard voices outside of his cell. Pressing his ear up against the featureless door, he couldn't distinguish much, aside from the fact that they were drawing nearer and pausing every so often. When he heard a hydraulic hiss through the wall drawing nearer in conjunction with the pauses, he realized they were opening all the doors.

Uncertain what this meant, he backed away from the door. They would momentarily open the door and he was for all intents and purposes defenceless. He prepared himself for the worst.

What actually happened was that the door opened to reveal nothing at all... at first. Then there was a shimmering as the outline of a soldier appeared to lower his sidearm.

"Sir, there's someone in this one." The accent was almost familiar.

There was more shimmering which got very confusing for a moment. Later, when he was able to sort it out in his head, he realized that it must have been the man in front of him making his way through his soldiers. There was a crackling of light across the man's body as he removed a helmet from the rest of the armour. Long black hair, starting to go grey in some places tumbled free. A ready smile lit up his face.

"Oh, hey! General Caraway, a pleasure to see you again sir."

Caraway was confused. "I... I don't recall ever meeting you."

"Oh, it was years ago. You were still a colonel, doing an inspection. I barely got my unit there in time. And... well, I guess I don't need to go into the details."

Now that the helmet was off and the suit's apparent stealth field was down, it was clear that the man was an Esthar soldier, but he lacked the accent that his subordinate had. He was also talking about Caraway's past career as if personally involved. The general's confusion deepened. Before he could ask something, the man's helmet beeped and he held it up to his ear and listened.

"Understood Team K. Rendezvous with Team W, and prepare to assist in the extract of a VIP."

Caraway backed away, alarmed. "I don't know who you are, but I'm not going with a bunch of marauding Estharans!"

"Hey, we're not marauding, we're here to rescue you! Well, ok, we're here to figure out what the hell your government thinks its doing, and rescuing you seems to be the fastest way of doing that. And besides, I give you my personal guarantee that you won't be harmed."

"And who exactly are you?"

"Oh, right! Sorry, forgot to introduce myself." The man held out his hand, leaned forwards slightly and smiled easily. "Laguna Loire, President of Esthar."

Caraway stared in shock at the man's face and then down at his hand. And then at his face again.
* * *
     The call came from Esthar at seven in the morning. It woke Rinoa up, which made her cranky, but missed Squall. He was finishing up his morning run/practice session and took the call on his communicator, transferred with an idle threat from the aforementioned cranky Sorceress.

     "Commander Leonheart. Go."

     "Hey Squall, how you doing?"

     There was a visible wince on the SeeD's face as he heard his father's voice. Generally, he let his secretary field calls from Esthar's president for reasons having to do with impatience, irritation and a few broken communicators. He'd figured a call to his personal line would have been an emergency or from Ellone, if anyone. Now, he'd have to change his number.

     "What is it?"

     "Sunny as usual, I take it?"

     "Look Laguna, I'm kind of busy right now-" Lionheart sheared through a T-Rexaur "-so could you do this some other time?"

     "Was that a gunblade I heard?"

     "I'm just in the training centre, what do you want?"

     "Oh, I just wanted to let you know that Galbadia's military went to Status Red approximately six hours ago. Figured that might you might want to know."

     Squall stopped dead in the simulated jungle. "For what reason? Does Esthar know?"

     "We're still looking into it, one sec-" From the other end of the line there was a wild woop and a rattle of gunfire. "-but I'll let you know as soon as we find out."

     "Was that gunfire?"

     "I'm just on a training mission with some of the boys. I have to keep in shape, you know."

     "A training mission."

     "Yeah, you know, keep my skills sharp."

     "Some of the boys?"

     "Oh, Kiros and Ward. And a couple squads of soldiers."

     Squall was silent for a long minute. "Laguna, where are you?"

     "Well I'm not about to infiltrate one of Galbadia's offshore military bases in order to collect intelligence and certainly not about to enter into radio discipline, bye!"

     "Laguna WAIT...!" There was a beep as the connection ended and a metallic voice began to tell him that his transmission could not be completed. Squall was left staring at the communicator in his hand. He idly swiped at a grat that came too near and made his way to the showers. It was going to be a long day.

**********

     Squall called a conference of his top staff an hour later. For the occasion, it was held in Cid's old chambers, due mostly to the availability of space. Not many people could fit in the Commander's spartan office. At the moment, Balamb Garden's Pilot Pillar was retracted and the office looked normal enough. Books that Cid had left behind lined one wall, the desk was orderly and pictures of various SeedD and SeeD events were on the other. A battered gunblade was propped in the corner.

     Quistis was the first to speak. "We don't know when Laguna will pass on new information." Squall shook his head.

     "Presumably after he's done his 'mission.' Other than that, no."

     "Ooh, I wish I could see Sir Laguna in action again. I wonder if he's as heroic as he was in The Past."

     There was a brief moment of recollection as those SeeD member's who'd experienced Ellone's visions remembered. Squall only remembered a bumbling moron. There was a cough as Xu brought them back to the present.

     "We need to be prepared for any incoming contracts. If Galbadia goes on the offensive again, there's sure to be places in need of SeeD's to help." It was an unspoken understanding that contracts would not be accepted from Galbadia, even if there were any forthcoming. There was just too much bad blood between the two entities. "Instructor Kinneas, how many recruits are ready for their final exam?"

     Lifting his head and peering at her under his hat, Irvine answered, "About twelve, all told. There'd be more, but only so many can take a shot at the Fire Cavern at once." He looked at Quistis. "Think we should start rushing more through?"

     She nodded and Xu continued. "With those twelve ready to go, we still only have a total of 60 SeeDs ready to go. We lack GFs to field all of them in a combat capacity, but in an advisorial role most of them are cleared."

     "I don't get it," Zell remarked, "I though Galbadia was still recovering from the Second Sorceress War?"

     "According to our latest intelligence, that's correct," Squall said. "Any ideas, people?"

     Uneasy glances were passed around and Selphie said what was on all their minds. "Maybe Ultimecia is back?"

     Before anyone could say anything else, the elevator doors swooshed open and Rinoa strode through. A year and a half as the commander's significant other had affected her, and her step was more confident, with an air of imperious command that Squall lacked. "I don't think so," she said. "What Sorceress would she possess if she were? And if she just manifested, I'm sure we would have felt her wrath by now."

     Squall nodded. "Exactly. But just to be sure, because we know Galbadia harbours a grudge, I want to check in with any SeeD teams dispatched and have them recalled, discreetly."

     At that, Zell jumped up. "Hey, no prob. Just lemme hop onboard the Ragnarok and we'll be good to go." The rest present shared a look, and Zell asked, "What? Whaaat?"

     "Zell, Ragnarok isn't exactly a discreet way of picking people up." As the SeeD slumped in disappointment and the others had a chuckle at his expense, Squall continued, "But as you've already volunteered, you can head to Communications and start contacting those teams. Maybe some of them will need a pickup after getting out of sight."

     Zell perked up and and trotted out. The others took their cue and began to file out, already aware of their tasks. Rinoa stayed behind, but Squall spoke out again. "Quistis, Xu, stay for a second, please." He turned to his Sorceress. "Rin, could you go get ready for your guest lecture? I'll be down in a second."

     Rinoa smiled at him, "Fine I'll leave you all to your cloak and dagger work. Hurry up though."

     "Literally seconds behind you."

     When the elevator door closed behind her, Squall stood and followed. "Black SeeD is still investigating Lunatic Pandora?"

     Xu looked confused while Quistis nodded. "You want them reassigned?"

     "Yes. They are to determine who is in charge in Galbadia at the moment, what the purpose of the mobilization is and any other information they deem pertinent. But before you issue those orders, fill Xu in on Black SeeD."

     "Yessir. What will you be doing?"

     "Right now I'm going to see if Rinoa can be constructively incorporated into the SeeD personnel structure as a Sorceress." As the doors closed on him, Squall thought to himself, This bureaucratic speak is getting far too natural. I'm going to have to get out of the office, and soon.
Current Location:
Peters Building Room 1035 Office
What I Feel:
bored bored
* * *
     When Fran awoke, the bed was already empty and the other half of the sheets lay cool. Shocking, that Balthier had managed to rise before she. A testament, perhaps, of his desire to be done with this errand of the Emperor's. Or, less likely, but the possibility that she hoped for, a sign that he was actually interested. Rare were the times that the sky pirate Balthier rose early, but they were guaranteed to make life interesting.
     The viera combed out her hair and dressed, the former taking twice as long as the latter. It would have likely taken even longer had the two gotten up to anything the night before, but Balthier had apparently not been facetious about an early morn. She made her way to the aft of the Strahl and went through their stores. Piling fruit and vegetables on her plate, she turned to leave and hopped out of the way of a bleary moogle that wandering into the room. It turned out to be Alta who squinted up at Fran and waved sleepily and let out a soft "kupo" before continuing into the stores.
     Fran continued through the interior of the ship, munching on the food. She had a fair idea of where to find Balthier, and sure enough when she walked into the parlour he looked up. For a moment she was struck by how utterly different he looked. He was casually dressed, his shirt only halfways done up and the cuffs undone, giving the whole outfit a rather voluminous look. He sat hunched forwards over the note-strewn table and wore tiny reading spectacles that he regarded her over.
     "Good morning, Fran."
     "And you, Balthier." She settled into a chair across from him. "Your early rise, inspired by anticipation or antipathy?"
     He snorted a short laugh. "A bit of both, I should say."
     He reached beside him and dug through a bowl of fruit. He popped a portion of orange into his mouth and returned to the papers in front of him. His face slowly contorted into an expression of extreme concentration with a hint of exasperation. Almost hesitantly Fran asked, "Progress?"
     "Next to none. It takes me sometimes two whole minutes to figure out what a single word in this scrawl is. I have, however, figured out the reason Larsa's advisers made no headway."
     Fran's silence prompted him to continue. "It's in a short hand that he used when he was wholly engaged in a project. It makes little sense and there's no system that they can use to figure it out, it being based off of word-association. Exceeding complex and personalized, but elegant in its simplicity and ease to use."
     Fran thought she heard a note of pride in his tone, but chose not to make anything of it. "Can you understand it?"
     "To an extent. I helped him develop it." Fran blinked in surprise. "The tough part is deciphering his bloody handwriting. Once all that is done, I'll be able to piece together the generalities in here. And then I get to try to understand it."
     He removed the spectacles and rubbed at the bridge of his nose. "I'll be damned if this isn't making me cross-eyed though. Want to give it a go?"
     Fran picked up a piece of paper between her nails and gave it a look. It really was a scrawl. Though she could speak, read and write the Hume tongue with ease, the markings on the page made little sense to her. Occassionally, she thought she could see a consonant and occassionally a whole word, but greater body of it looked like loops and waves. She lowered the paper and met Balthier's gaze. Slowly Fran crossed her eyes and let her head droop to the side. Her partner laughed delightedly.
     "Exactly!"
     She shared his laughter momentarily before returning to her food as he returned to his. Soon though, the food being chewed upon was replaced by his pen as his attention returned the paper in front of him. She wondered whether it was the challenge of it that held his attention so or the connection to a father he helped kill. Deciding that only time would tell, she stood.
     "I go to service the ship. You will call when you make sense of the documents?"
     "As you say, my dear." Balthier nodded to her and returned to his work. She left and made for the engine room in the center of the ship. She found Nono there already, up to his hips in the interior of the machine, kicking his feet idly and humming something. Removing her armwear, she joined him.

*************

     Half the day had passed when she and Nono concluded their work. The rest of the moogles had filtered in and sped the process up with their deft and expert hands. They shared a brief discussion of possible modifications and agreed what they would convince Balthier that the ship needed. She enjoyed these conspiratorial moments with the moogles. It was occasionally necessary to remind Balthier that the Strahl was not his ship alone and having improvements made while they were discussing them was a subtle way of jogging his memory.
     She cleaned the various fluids off her and made her way to the parlour, which she found empty. A new stack of papers stood beside the notes and she read through the top sheet. In Balthier's own more legible handwriting was the shorthand, followed by a translation or two of it. She understood some of the concepts layed out, but her expertise was more practical than theoretical and she return the paper to the pile.
     A brief hunt of the ship found Balthier in his old room going through a chest of texts. He was lost in one of them as she entered. He jumped when her hand touched his shoulder.
     "Fran! I appreciate your skill as a stalker, but really!"
     "I was not being especially silent. Your books swallow your senses."
     The pirate gave a wry grin. "They might. I haven't gone through these in ages. I picked them up through the years to give me a hand with various technical tasks. To keep up with Nono's native engineering skill."
     Fran looked at the titles of the various books and monographs. Most had to do with airship design, skystone and glossair systems. Then she saw the text in Balthier's hands.
     "Fundamentals of Mist Storing Geodes."
     "Aye. I bought this one the first time we went running about after rocks. I meant to give it a read then but never really had the time. Just as well, really. Look what I missed."
     He flipped to the front of the book, keeping his place with his fingers and showed her the title page. The crest of Draklor Laboratories was prominent and the name Dr. Cidolfus Demen Bunansa.
     "Imagine my state of mind then had I realized I was reading his work!"
     Fran regarded him. "And how fares your mind now?"
     "I haven't the foggiest. I don't think I'm cracking up or breaking down or going in some other abnormal direction. It's a rather cheering realization."
     "I am glad."
     Balthier looked at her contentedly. Then he snapped the book shut and replaced it in the chest, along with the others. "In any case, I needed to understand some of the terminology the notes were using. Mistology was never my area of study."
     "What have you found?"
     "After all is said and done and roughly figured out? Two things: a location and an equation that reminds me suspciously of certain conductor constructions. The latter bears some investigation, but we lack the facilities here to figure it out. The former is a spot in the Tchita Uplands according to our maps."
     Fran gave him a moment to sit on the bed. "Are we accepting His Excellency's offer then?"
     Balthier laid back on the bed and looked to the ceiling. He stayed this way a long moment, lost in thought. Fran walked around the side of the bed and perched herself on it beside his head. She ran a hand through his coppery curls and he shivered slightly from the touch of her claws. Briefly, she considered distracting him further with them, but let him have his concentration.
     "Oh to hell with it already. I confess myself wholly consumed by this mystery and declare my intention to see it solved!"
     The viera smiled down at the Hume, who now had locked eyes with her and told him frankly. "Declare it not to me, but rather our patron."
     A grimace. "Back into the city then. We never did establish how we were to meet again."
     "A most unfortunate lapse of foresight."
     "Indeed."
     They fell silent and he shifted himself to place his head on her lap and reached up to play with her hair, as she did his. It was comfortable. Long moments, passing into minutes went by. Just as it appeared that he was to fall asleep, his eyes sharpened slowly like a predator sighting its prey.
     "The palace?"
     "The palace."
     He rolled himself off the bed, and in a blurringly precise series of motions did up his shirt and cuffs, tucked the whole thing into his pants and drew on his vest. As he reached for his hip-pouches he caught Fran looking at him.
     "The spectacle to your liking?" He teased.
     She walked out of the room without granting him the dignity of an answer.


*************

     It was undeniably magnificent. Towering over the other buildings in Archades, the sight was enough to humble lesser men. Balthier had grown up playing in it halls though, and Fran merely wondered what need any family so inclined to fratricide would have of so many rooms. As they ascended the front steps many passersby gave them a second glance and a third and more than a few stopped to stare. The better informed of them whispered the names "Bunansa" and "Ffamran." Fran was glad that her exceptional hearing was not shared by her partner, but did not think him nearly naive enough to fail at figuring out their exchanges.
     The largest of the porticoes provided a steady stream of visitors to the palace and so Fran was mildly surprised when Balthier took them around to another entrance, hidden between pillars and far off to the side. Two Judges and a palace official of some sort stood guard and looked quite capable to repelling intruders.
     "Halt!" The palace official came forward. "What is your business here?"
     "Balthier and Fran to see His Excellency."
     The official sneered and a sound came from the Judges' armours that could have been chuckling. "Oh really? And I suppose-"
     "Oh just check your clearance list already you silly man. I'ven't the inclination to speak with servants such as yourself today."
     The man blinked in surprise at Balthier's sudden change in tone and looked down at the clipboard in his hands. He sucked in his breath a moment later. "Let them through!"
     Balthier nodded snobbishly to the man and waved a pouch of coins in front of his face. "Where might I find His Excellency this afternoon?"
     "Er, I believe he was to take tea in the Embyryon Memorial Room."
     "That's off the Western Grand Balustrade, yes?"
     "Correct, sir." Balthier dropped the pouch into the man's hands who quickly pocketed it. The two strode past him and the guards, Balthier in the lead. One of the Judges opened the door for them and Balthier nodded his thanks. Once inside and walking through the darkened corridors, Fran spoke.
     "You know the ways of this place well."
     "Yes, once I showed that I could behave myself in public, my father did so love to take me along. Show me off and all that. And, I suppose, show me the true nature of Archadian backstabbing in the Grand Arena of Deceit."
     Fran nodden once. Then asked, "You behaved once?"
     "You are a paragon of comedy and hypocrisy, Fran. Fine words coming from someone who pilfered that official's hard earned tip."
     A pouch of coin was cupped in Fran's hand, well hidden by the long claws. "I disagree with your assessment. He was discourteous."
     "Certainly true enough. No wonder he was stationed at the express entrance. Prepare yourself, we walk in the open now."
     They emerged from the dark halls into a splendidly lit... words failed her. The walls arched hundreds of feet into the air and were paneled in all manner of sheet gems and precious metals. Gaudy, yes, but unmistakably opulent. It was all she could do not to stare at the ridiculous extravagance. Balthier turned and began to walk purposefully through the gigantic hall.
     The garb of those who stared at them was equally as ridiculous as the walls around them. Balthier noted her keen, discrete glances and opted to display more of his upbringing in brisk conversation.
     "They wear their very best to court and in this case, best means most expensive, as opposed to tasteful or practical. I never did see the appeal in jewel-encrusted coats and cravats. So very heavy and constricting."
     "We stand out of place here."
     "You had better believe we do. Good taste always makes for attention."
     "Curiously, we both appear to be the spectacle."
     "I suspect that it is envy of me for the company I keep as much as it is your comparative state of undress."
     That earns him a withering stare that he had learned meant he will be quite cold tonight. Too far again Balthier. Their walk continued in silence and eventually Fran asks, nearly irritated,
     "How much further?"
     "Oh, a little over a kilometer, I should think."
     That got a reaction out of her, a hitch in her stride. She looked at him out of the corner of her eye.
     "You kid."
     "I wish."
     According to Fran's mental measure, it was barely under a kilometer before they reached a door that Balthier presented himself at, again announcing their presence and desire to speak with His Excellency. She was coming to share Balthier's revulsion for the city.

*************

     They took tea with the Emperor. Almost every soul in the city would have given untold quanities of gil, chop or knowledge to be in their position and they'd merely walked into the palace and asked nicely. The noble folk of Archades could learn something from these sky pirates, thought Basch.
     Larsa was speaking, "Is the tea to your liking Fran?"
     The viera favour him with a small smile. "It is."
     They found themselves on the balcony of the Memorial Room looking down at the gardens. In Balthier's case he lounged on the sofa, teacup in one hand, his other at the end of an arm that was thrown across the back the sofa. It looked in immenent danger of slipping and finding itself around Fran's shoulders. If she was bothered by the show, she made no sign of it. Basch took his tea standing. Of all the places in Archades, the palace was unfortunately not the safest.
     "I take it you've come to a conclusion regarding my offer then?"
     Pausing from a prolonged sip from his cup Balthier looked up answered. "We have. I am pleased to announce that we would be honoured to accept such a prestigious quest from the noble House Solidor."
     His free hand made flowery, theatric gestures in the air as he spoke and sure enough, when he was done, it ended up on Fran's shoulder. She made no sign of protest and Basch wondered at her calm. The emperor set down his teacup and clapped once in approval.
     "I am so glad that you've decided on this, Balthier. Might I ask what convinced you?"
     A moment's indescision crossed Balthier's face, so quick that one not accustomed to his ways might have missed it. Basch had spent the better part of a year fighting alongside the man and considered it a telling flicker. The pirate glanced in his direction.
     "Basch had the right of it. This has the makings of an adventure not to be missed. And as my lovely partner has point out, we are bored." His hand slid off her shoulder and down her upper arm. This time Fran did react, reaching around with her opposite hand to pinch at the flesh between his thumb and fore finger. A less than subtle twitch of pain spasmed across Balthier's face. Daintily, she lifted the hand from her and deposited it back on the sofa's back. The young Emperor did his best not to giggle at the show. He mastered himself almost immediately and began to question them.
     "What have you learned of the stone? Is it dangerous? Should we destroy it?"
     "Unfortunately, all I've been able to piece together from Dr. Cid's notes has been an equation of sorts and a location in the Tchita Uplands. I really couldn't tell you more without further investigation."
     "I don't suppose you recognize the equation?"
     Balthier grimaced. "No. Unfortunately, I do know how to get more information out of it. I am loathe to request this, but I need access to Draklor Laboratories."
     Fran shifted in her seat to look at him and cocked an eyebrow. Evidently this had not been discussed. Larsa frowned, an expression that Basch shared. "Draklor? I don't suppose there's an alternative? You may well be recognized there, both from your past association and your... incursion."
     "Oh certainly. If you'd just let me into the Mist Processing Chamber of a cruiser-class or better airship, I could use the equipment there to test the equation, but I think we all remember what happens when you go sticking strange rocks into airship engines."
     Larsa blanched and nodded. "Draklor it is then. Is there a particular time that would be best?"
     "When there's no one there, I should think. Alas, unless the stereotype has miraculously changed since I've been off gallivanting, there will almost always be a scientist or two hanging around doing research."
     "Indeed. As time may be of the essence, tonight should be as good a time as any. Judge fon Rosenberg, would you be adverse to escorting our investigator through Draklor tonight?"
     "Well, there was the small matter of an outing with a pretty girl, but I think she can wait."
     The looks on the assembled company's faces were absolutely priceless. Larsa even began to apologize, "Oh dear me, no, I would not ask you to sacrifice your perso-" before Balthier noticed the glimmer in his eyes and the struggle it was to keep a straight face and burst out laughing. Fran let out a short giggle, more likely at the ever-increasing look of dismay on Larsa's face than his joke.
     "It was a jest Your Excellency. I can meet the good rogue in his airship bay at midnight. What say you, Balthier?"
     Staying his chortles, Balthier slapped his thigh once more in approval and said, "Yes, that is as good a time as any. By the time we reach Draklor, most of the whitecoats should have cleared out. Ideally."
     "Then it is settled," Larsa said, gathering himself. He reached into his pocket and withdrew a slip of paper. "Here is an cheque from House Solidor for a small sum of money. Consider it the first of your operational expenses and a show of good faith."
     Balthier accepted it and glanced twice at it. Basch had seen it prior to the meeting and apparently they both shared the opinion that perhaps the young Emperor did not quite understand what "a small sum of money" meant to other people. To his piratical credit, Balthier said nothing and handed it to Fran who similarly glanced at it and slipped it away inside her armour. The pair stood following Larsa, who extended his hand to them. They shook it and Basch saw them out. He turned to see a mock-displeased youth. The Judge shrugged expressively and offered a grin.


*************

     "Draklor? Are you certain?"
     "Fran my dear, I appreciate your concern, but I am not about to keel over from heart-ache if I visit my departed father's workplace. Short of him appearing as a spectre to haunt me, I expect no trouble."
     The confidence in his tone, rather than the carefree words told Fran that such was in fact the case. "And if he does so appear?"
     "Then he will receive a face full of Holy energy. Two, in fact, as the good Judge will be there to keep me out of trouble. And unless I err in my recollection, that was a spell that he has managed to master."
     The walk back the Strahl was filled with all manner of similar jesting. Ascending the ramp, Fran announced that she would be going to bed. Balthier looked surprised.
     "So early? Whyfor?"
     "I will be as busy as you tonight, scouting the Tchita location."
     "Oh." He had to admit, it made good sense. Her vision was much better than his and at night she would suffer no detriment in those conditions. Reconnaissance would also aid them in discovering more about the mysterious Key before a more exhaustive investigation of the location when they got around to it. "Taking the Strahl out?"
     "That was my plan."
     "Be sure to bring my treasure back in one piece, you hear?" he said as he slapped a bulkhead affectionately. Fran sniffed indignantly.
     "Worry not, I will be landing the Strahl far out from the location. She will come to no harm."
     "Ah, but I was talking to the Strahl, not about her." As Fran stopped and stared at him, Balthier stole a kiss and spun off. "I'll be puzzling through the notes some more, just to be sure I don't bring Larsa's capitol down around him. As satisfying as that would be."
     Fran watched him go, her lips curling into a bow of a smile as they tingled from his. She never questioned why she stayed with him, because he always held another surprise for her.


*************

     "Lover's spat?" Basch asked as he walked up to the lone pirate in the empty bay. Balthier was seated on an overturned crate and polishing a gun.
     "Goodness, no. Fran's out scouting the location I mentioned earlier. She decided I was mature enough to handle this."
     "And she will be alright? The Uplands at night are no parkland."
     "As you so clearly pointed out yesterday, my dear Judge, my partner is one of the most powerful people in Ivalice. I am confident she can take care of herself."
     "Very well. Shall we be off?"
     "Careful there, you might make it sound as if we are off to a tryst. Brilliant delivery on the jest this afternoon, by the way. You had us all going."
     "Oh, I was only partially jesting. We ended the outing before I came here."
     Balthier nearly tripped over himself. Basch barked a laugh as the pirate collected himself. "You're not just getting extra mileage out of that joke, are you? Well I'll be damned, Basch, I would never have pegged you as both a comedian and a lady-killer."
     "What can I say, Balthier, you bring out the best in me."
     "Coming from a Judge, that must be one of the strangest compliments I've ever received."
     The discussion continued as they proceeded, with Basch questioning the presence of the firearm and Balthier explaining the need to defend himself from haunting spirits. The Judge was not entirely certain how to take that. Little under an hour later they found themselves at the loading dock of Draklor, riding the elevator up.
     "The music is new."
     "I noticed."
     "As horrid as the rest of the building."
     "I agree."
     They emerged into an empty corridor on the 57th floor. Balthier looked around to reacquaint himself with the area and started down the hall to his left. "Unless there have been serious changes in the layout, the equipment should be down this way."
     "I find myself surprised that you remember the layout for a place you assaulted once and profess great dislike for."
     "Oh, I spent my fair share of time up here, working with my father before he went entirely insane and I became a Judge."
     "That's a bit of trivia I don't think I'll ever quite manage to reconcile with reality."
     "I'd like to live in your reality in that case. Here we are." Balthier gestured at the door and it's keypad. He tried to get a look at the override code that the Judge used, but Basch rather pointedly interposed himself between the pirate and the pad. The door swished open and the two entered. Balthier removed the Key from his hip pouch and went to one of the machines in the room. As Basch watched, he positioned it in a tube among a variety of instruments and shut the access hatch. Then he went to the control board and hovered over it uncertainly.
     "Let's see now, how exactly does this one work...?" That gave the Judge a start.
     "You don't know?!" Balthier looked up at him, unconcernedly.
     "Well not exactly. Mistology was never my area of expertise. But I read up on this before Fran left. Aha, I see now."
     "The confidence you inspire in me is overwhelming."
     Balthier worked the controls and other than a release of Mist into the tube, Basch noted nothing of interest. The pirate on the other hand was engrossed in the terminal. He took a pad of paper out of his pouch and compared it with the terminal. Quickly sketching what looked to be calculations, he nodded to himself. Just then, the door swished open again.
     A tired-looking young woman in a labcoat stepped into the room, looking at her clipboard. When she realized the room was occupied, she looked up in confusion.
     "Oh hello I-" And she froze, clearly not expecting to see a Judge and some unknown man fiddling with the machine. Basch turned to her and smiled kindly.
     "I apologize but we'll be needing this room for a while longer. Could I please ask you to wait outside?"
     "Um, I, I suppose so...? Does, does he know what he's doing there? That's expensive equipment."
     Balthier snorted in derision. "Oh spare me. Even if they've upgraded this in the past ten years it can hardly be that expensive anymore."
     He shut the machine off and waited for the mist to clear out of the tubes. Then he retrieved the stone and turned to Basch. "I've the information we need, we can be gone from here."
     Bewildered, the young researcher stepped aside as the two armed men left the room, both nodding politely. After the door had swished shut and they were a ways down the hallway, Basch looked over his shoulder to make sure she wasn't watching or listening and prompted Balthier,
     "So?"
     "So I was right and this is some manner of device designed to conduct a form of Mist energy along a rather complicated pathway." The younger man frowned in thought. And Basch left him to ponder as they descended back into the night of Archades. Once outside though, he asked again.
     "Now what?"
     "Now I wait for Fran to arrive back with the Strahl which isn't scheduled for another... 3 hours. Then we see about doing some on-site investigation based on what she has discovered."
     "Ah. You certainly sound like you're prepared." Balthier nodded absently.
     "Did you happen to recognize that woman?"
     "No, did you?"
     "Not at all, but she reminded me of graduate students from the Akademy. At that age, she'd fit the bill. Speaking of graduate students, what say you to engaging in the other great past-time of graduate students this late at night?"
     Basch looked warily at the pirate. He'd heard some of the things that bored or desperate Akademy students got up to. "That being?"
     "What else? Imbibing cheap liquor at the nearest establishment."
     "Normally, I would decline and cite duties in the morning, but for some reason, His Excellency gave me a three day leave this evening."
     "Excellent! That shall have to be our first toast then!"
     "To the young Emperor's budding wisdom and foresight?"
     "Gallantly said! Despite my mislike of Archades, I can toast to him!"
     "Would that be because of his character or the alcohol involved?"
     And so the lawman and the pirate spent the next three hours in a bar joking and telling stories like the old war compatriots that they were. The other denizens of the establishment stared at them, first in consternation at having a Judge in their bar. That changed to disbelief as they pieced together from the tales who these two men were. On more than one occasion a drink was bought or a fight narrowly averted by or with those other customers. Three hours later, they staggered only slightly out into the street. All told, it was one of the most enjoyable that Basch had had in a very long time.


*************

     A dark shadow rose from behind a rock and a bamboo arrow dripping with poison slammed through the wing of the bellwyvern and into its neck. The fiend wheeled out of control and slammed into the rockface it had been flying alongside. The shadow darted out and fired two more arrows into the thing's face, putting it out of its misery. Recovering the arrows, Fran scanned the area with her keen eyes. Most of the threats in the area were asleep, but new ones came out at night and some never rested.
     She'd made good, silent progress across the distance between the Strahl and the locations described in the notes. Her stops had been infrequent and only to deal with unavoidable obstacles, like the overly-alert bellwyvern that now lay dead at her feet. She'd stalked silently through a cluster of lizards without waking a single one and managed to skirt downwind of a pride of nocturnal coeurls.
     The skills learned decades ago in Golmore were put to use out here as she made her way alone through the dangerous territory. It had been a long time since she'd undertaken any sort of Hunt alone. Her partnership with Balthier was nearing it's seventh year, and while that should have been but a drop in the ocean of a viera's lifespan, her life with the hume had shifted her perception of the passage of time.
     She judged the area to be clear and dashed quietly across the open plain. The wind through her hair, the smell of the grass beneath her feet and the dangerous feeling of being out alone again sent a long-missed thrill through her. Her heart exalted at the sensation of the headlong rush through the night, leaping boulders and dodging deftly around sleeping beasts. She would be lying to herself if she denied the reason she chose now to undertake this reconnaissance was that it guaranteed that Balthier could not join her. She would also be lying if she did not admit that another reason for her haste was to speed the endeavour on so that she could return to the hume. She'd long given up trying to reconcile the contradictions the man evoked within her and had learned simply to accept them.
     Presently, she neared what her mental map told her was the rough location of her target. She slowed and lowered herself to all fours. Instinct told her that this area was perhaps even more dangerous than the rest of the Uplands. Through the long grass she crept, a silent blot in the night. Her nose twitched and her ears were perked to pick up the barest hints of foes. She continued on unmolested. Eventually, she came to an earthen cul-de-sac that had clearly been carved out by intelligent hands. The ground was scorched and broken and she rose from her crouch, her cover gone. She sought the sanctuary of the shadows of the wall, darting from one to the other. They got progressively deeper as the culvert went further back. The walls rose high on either side and she looked up as she caught a hint of movement from above. She froze and scanned the skies diligently. Finding nothing after a while, she continued on. The end of the giant ditch was disappointingly plain.
     But there was something here. Mist pricked at her senses, not affecting her, but merely existing where it should not. Power of a sort lingered here. The pricking was unpleasant, but she did not let it cloud her senses. Still, disturbing. A closer examination showed her all she needed to see, a nine-sided indentation in the otherwise earthen wall and she was out of there.
     She left the area, hugging the shadows. Once back into the grass, a near-silent flap of wings was all the warning she received. She flung herself flat as a gigantic Bellwyvern gouged the earth around her with its claws as it bombed past. Before it had time to turn, Fran was up and half a dozen shafts peppered it's back. If the giant beast felt them, it made no sign. To grow to such a size, it had likely gorged itself on Mist and was now a fell foe. Making a snap decision, she snarled an incantation and dropped a Shell over herself to ward against the firey breath that would certainly come. Then she stood straight, in full confrontation with the beast. It turned to face her and she summoned to Ivalice the Esper Exodus. The beast's challenging roar was drowned out by the clap of reality twisting as the Judge-Sal erupted into existence behind her. With the power to challenge gods at her back, the viera re-entered the combat.
     Shot after shot pounded away into the giant beast's breast as the sky rained Comets. Clearly not expecting such sudden and devastating resistance the bellwyvern unleashed a wave of its incendiary breath, scorching both Fran and the Esper. It burned through her Shell and the fires elicited a desperate gasp of pain from her. She kept the count though, even through the Curaja that restored her and her Esper. A Bubble dropped over her next, to safeguard her as she returned to sending shaft after shaft from her Sagittarius into it. When the count dropped near ten, Fran spun and Immobilized the great Esper. Anchored to the earth by arcane power, it reached into the heavens with it's power and drew a mighty Meteor down onto the offending Bellwyvern. Through the roar of the spell's effects, even Fran could not hear the squelch of the fiend under the rock. Exodus faded into non-existence and she tended to the remainder of her injuries next to a new wound in the earth.
     The rest trip back to the Strahl was uneventful. Perhaps the creatures could smell the great death that lingered about her, or perhaps they were scared off by the supernatural occurances of the night. By the time she'd returned to the ship, she was too tired to care. Keeping her movements stealthy took all her energy. Onboard the Strahl, the moogles nearly swarmed her.
     "Fran! Beady saw the lights in the sky and woke us up, are you ok?"
     She smiled at them. "I am well. My thanks for your concern."
     "What happened out there, kupo?" another asked.
     "I met with a great beast I took no chances with. The right choice, I believe."
     The moogles ooh'd and aah'd and kupo'd, especially the newer ones on the crew. Balthier would better play them up and set their fears to rest, but she was too tired to try now. "Nono, could I ask a favour of you?"
     "Sure thing Fran, what's up?"
     "Please see the Strahl back to Archades."
     Nono nodded and then gathered all the moogles about him. "Ok, you kupo lot. Just like we practiced. Let's get our baby in the air and back to port."
     A chorus of cheers and kupos enlivened the night and all made for the cockpit. Fran followed to oversee the takeoff. It was a rather astonishing sight to see the many moogles swarming about, all handling specific parts of the controls in careful, concentrated unison. The Strahl lifted off smoothly and soared through the sky with Nono steering. After Beady called out that they were settled into a course and on auto-pilot, he turned in mid-air and gave Fran a tiny thumbs-up. She smiled and held out her fist. They all flew up and bumped their fists on top of hers, then she on top of all their massed fists, and then took their playful punches on her knuckles.
     The moogles would take care of everything else, she was certain. She was tired enough to pass out in the cockpit but made it back to her cabin. It is worth it to see them fly. Nono had explained to her that, certainly, they could fly the ship. But it took a lot of concentration and was far more stressful that they would like. They were glad to do it in emergency situations, but for little else. Back in her room, her helm was tossed into a chair, her stilettoes kicked away and her armour peeled off with little ceremony. She nearly fell into bed and promptly fell asleep.
     She woke only briefly to Balthier quietly entering the bed. The smell of alcohol was on his breath, but not so strong to indicate that he was drunk. He looked at her concernedly and she replied to his attention with a sleepy,
     "I do not recall inviting you in tonight."
     The Hume froze and then guiltily clambered out of the bed. Or at least tried to before Fran pulled him back in and made him her pillow. A soft chuckle escaped his lips as he slid himself under the blankets with her and enfolded her in his arms.
Current Location:
The Bahamas
What I Feel:
accomplished accomplished
What I Hear:
Dvorak - Symphony no. 9 "From the New World"
* * *
Chasing Legends: The Key of Stone
     Balthier stared out into the night sky. The stars flickered through sparse cloud cover, but despite their beguiling dance, they were silent. He would not get the answers he sought from them. The soft click of nails on floor behind him alerted him to his partners approach, and her respect of his privacy. Her arrival was only audible for his benefit.
     He cast an uncharacteristically soft smile her way as she settled into her co-pilot's seat. It was almost pitiful. She did not return it, but he could see the warm support in her eyes. He felt as if he could lose himself in those eyes, as countless tales had said before them, but he ignored the temptation. Though she was more beautiful out of her armour, he needed to think.
     They stared at each other across the cockpit for an endless moment before he let out a sigh. Thinking was so bloody hard with scarcely-clad women around.
     "I seem to remember you saying something the first time we got involved with a shiny rock with too much power."
     Fran was silent a long moment before supplying, "'The fates toy with us.'"
     "Yes, that was it." Balthier let out another dejected sigh. "Had I known that as a leading man my role would revolve around these things, I'd've become a jeweler rather than a sky pirate."
     He tossed the newly acquired stone in the air and watched in spin in the starlight.
     "Are not sky pirates enamoured of jewels too?"
     "I suppose, but this sky pirate is starting to get sick of them."
     Fran reached out and felt his forehead. "No fever yet. This is good."
     Balthier let out a surprised bark of a laugh. He'd never heard Fran make a joke that bad, but it did help relieve the oppressing feeling that he was choking down now. Her hand, having played its part, drifted down the side of his face and he nuzzled it, breathing in her fresh scent. He cupped her hand in his, but eventually drew them both from his face. She looked at him expectantly.
     "Well, nothing for it," he said, standing. He tucked the stone into his vest pocket and began to unbutton it. "A stone to investigate, a rich prize dangled in front of our noses by House Solidor and my father's notes to unravel. We'll have to make an early day of it tomorrow. He had horrible handwriting, you know."
     Fran almost smiled at the offhand way her partner now referred to his father. He was almost over his death. Perhaps this new adventure would help him along. She rose to meet him and slithered an arm around his waist as he divested himself of his vest on the way to what was now their room. As they made ready for their night's rest, her mind wandered back to how they had gotten involved with this stone, this Key of the Occuria.

*************

     It was a fairly typical day for the desert city of Rabanastre. Clear, hot and dry enough to suck the sweat straight off their backs. Neither of them particularly liked the city, though it was the ruling seat of their high born once-companion. It was perhaps for that reason that Fran disliked the city more than her partner, because as much as Balthier claimed that he loathed Vaan's continuing adoration there was never more than occassional surface irritation in his eyes. Her solace came from the fact that they made for the Sandsea and not the palace.
     They took a pair of seats on the balcony again and Balthier called down their order. To their surprise Tomaj delivered them himself.
     "Well you look like you've done well for yourself. The Lemurés incident was profitable for you?"
     Tomaj grinned at that and shook out the sleeves on a rather expensive looking silk shirt. "Oh, a little. Enough to secure my living for a while."
     Balthier lifted his glass and nodded in a toast to him. He and Fran then looked expectantly at the profiteer. Tomaj grinned eventually. "Yeah, ok, so one of the bartenders has a message for you. Kinda private. Want to hear it up here?"
     There was no one else on the balcony at the moment so the pirate pair agreed. While Tomaj went to fetch the bartender, Balthier wondered aloud,
     "Private, eh? Who do we know that wouldn't have the sense to just leave a message at the aerodrome?"
     Fran sipped her water and after a moment of silence answered, "Everyone?"
     A wry, knowing grin lit Balthier's face and lingered even after a Hume bartender began to ascend the stairs. He stood before their table nervously and scratched at the back of his head.
     "So, uh, yeah that one Judge friend of yers was askin' about you here."
     "A Judge, snooping around Rabanastre and it didn't raise trouble? I'm shocked. I rather expected people to hold a grudge around here."
     "Well he weren't wearin' his armour y'see. But I knew it was him, cuz I done seen the Queen's ceremonies, and uh," his eyes darted around as if to make sure no one was listening. "I remember him being with you two from before. when he still was a traitor."
     The man looked inordinately proud of himself, though it was all Balthier could do to keep himself from wincing in sympathy for Basch. Some stigma just did not vanish. The pirate nodded and prompted, "He had a message?"
     "Yeah, 's right. He said Lamont wanted to talk to you about a job. Good pay, lots of travelin'. You was to go to yer Dad's old place to meet."
     At that Balthier and Fran shared a glance. What in the name of all that was still holy could the teenaged Emperor of Archades want with them? And why bring up Balthier's father?
     "We thank you for your time." Fran said as Balthier handed the man a small tip. Once he had departed Balthier's countenace changed subtly. He looked halfways between interested and angry.
     Staring into his glass of Chivas, he asked of her, "So, do any of our plans press so urgently upon us that we cannot meet with the charming emperor minor?"
     A short shake of her head answered him. "Blast. I thought not." With that he knocked back his alcohol and got up to follow her out.
     They passed the rest of the evening in city, catching up with acquaintences, repairing bridges as it were and eventually returned to the tavern and ordered food to go. They returned to their moogle crew with the various Rabanastran delicacies and announced that they'd make for Archades on the morrow. This was greeted with no small surprise and excitement, which had the lot of them running and flitting here and there until Nono got them all sorted out. Archades in the morning. Balthier went to bed in a foul mood.

*************

     The smell of nerves irritated her nose and the short gasps of breathing that the moogles were making rose to a clamour in her ears. From beside her she could barely hear the grind of her companion's teeth in his mouth, though his exterior was all calm and elegenace as he piloted the Strahl through Archadian airspace. Truth be told, she was as nervous as the moogles pressed to the glass around them.
     Balthier glanced at her and nodded. She opened communications with the Archadian Sky Tower.
     "YPA GB-47 requesting landing clearance."
     There was a long pause during which not a sound could be heard in the cockpit save for the quiet hum of the engine and the whine of the glossair rings.
     "YPA GB-47 you are cleared to land in bay MZ11."
     All at once everyone's breath left them and a wary smirk found its way onto Balthier's face. "Alright you louts, back to your posts. You can relax when we're on the ground and gone."
     He disengaged the autopilot to land the ship and flexed the stiffness out of his hands one at a time.
     "Shall I take over?"
     Balthier looked like he was going to say no for a moment and then surrendered the controls to her side. "No point in taking chances where they don't matter. Intellectually I know that the bounty has been lifted, but old habits and all that."
     But he did not look any more relaxed once they'd landed and not been blown out of the sky. Fran looked at him appraisingly. "You were not this distraught when last we visited."
     Balthier looked surprised at her. "Do I look disraught? No, I am merely irritated that we are back in this smiling dagger warren."
     "You are not. You were irritated when last we visited. Now, you are distraught."
     Balthier glared at her momentarily. The heat soon died and he began to walk out into Archades. She followed at his side. He looked distracted, his eyes passing over the sights without seeing.
     "When last we were here, we intended to raid Draklor, bring a certain kind of justice to the place. It was a thrilling and most satisfying intention. I had the idea I would get the chance to stick it to my father, as it were."
     "And you did."
     "Aye. And in the end, it cost me." Out in the avenues of Nilbasse, people stared at them, as usual. They were now so used to this treatment it went virtually unnoticed. "What will it cost me this time?"
     As they made their way through the city, Balthier's mood did not improve. Fran worried, but made no comment. He would have to resolve his own issues. They passed through the city easily, their exotic combination giving them an easily exploited lull in traffic. Balthier's Sandalwood chop got them into Tsenoble and presently they stood in front of an plant covered building that was slowly degrading. The viera looked around. As houses went in this district, the place was one of the larger ones. From what she understood of the customs of Archades, it denoted that the people who once lived here were of some importance.
     "The Bunansa Estates. Once upon a time, it had some fanciful name, but dear father had done away with that long before I came to be."
     Fran took in her partner beside her. Hands balled into fists on his hips, chin up, he looked on the surface every inch the defiant youth. His face had a dark, almost fearful, cast to it, but slowly, as she watched, it took on the role he was fashioning for himself once more. A few nobles had their eyes on him, as if expecting him to entertain them. Balthier took notice of their inquisitive gazes and grimaced slightly.
     "I'd hoped to avoid an audience." He walked up to the massive metal gate and gave it a push. The wrought adamantine did not give. His grimace lengthened and he turned to one of the pillars to the side of it. He pushed plants out of the way and uncovered a device set into the stone. As Fran watched, he spoke into it. "Ffamran Mid Bunansa."
     Oh, how that must have cost you, she thought. There was a flicker of light beside the device as he spoke, a slightly climbing and then falling bar. Balthier sighed dejectedly. "Lovely. The microphone is dying."
     "We cannot enter?"
"Oh we can. Getting out, however, will be an experience I'd wished to spare you."
     Fran cocked her head to the side. "Why?"
     Balthier cleared his throat and declaimed loudly in a voice more proud, aristocratic and vain than usual, "Ffamran Mid Bunansa!"
     This time the lights leapt and the device chimed. There was a murmur of astonishment from the nobility behind them as the gates at first creaked apart and then silently receded. Balthier looked over his shoulder at her. "They are why. Now that word of my return is out, avoiding their ever sniffing noses will be a feat in itself."
     Indeed, as Fran watched, nobles summoned streetears and pressed coins into their hands and sent them off with messages. One made to approach the pair, which was something Balthier was having none of. He nearly hauled Fran across the threshold and verbally ordered the gate shut. The viera found herself faintly amused at his discomfort of the idea. With his back to the nobility, he walked up to the door and made as if to knock. He abandoned the idea and simply tried the handle. The door swept open.
     "I find myself unsurprised."
     The pair made their way through the house and Fran took the opportunity to take in every detail. Technological opulence dripped from the walls, and not a surface covered in dust. She thought it strange that after so many years unattended the house would be in fine condition until a tiny mechanical creature floated past, cleaning the guardrail of a staircase.
     "The interior is kept up, but the exterior runs wild," she observed.
     "He enjoyed his garden, though even in life there were times it grew untidy at his negligence and insistence that no one else touch it."
     Even as he spoke, the bitterness in his tone was fading into nostalgia. They passed a parlour and he froze. It was occupied. To be precise, it was occupied by a short teen Emperor and a helmless Judge. Dramatically, Balthier put his fingers to his temples.
     "This is, I am sure, where you were to deliver some quip about the leading man arriving late and I to deny it, but in the interests of speeding this up, let's just get down to business, hmm?"
     Larsa Solidor and Basch Fon Rosenberg looked at each other in surprise at the pirate's out of character curtness. But down to business they did get.

*************

     "To be short, as you have implored us, we wish to hire the two of you to deal with an issue most secret."
     "And what manner of secret is it that it cannot be handled by the Judges?"
     Basch winced at that. "We are trying to move the image of the Judges away from such endeavours. The change must come first from real action."
     "A noble intention, but you must understand that Fran and I will not be lowering our prices, even for an esteemed comrade in arms."
     At that, Basch actually laughed. "I would never expect you to. We are prepared to pay for the best."
     "Oh-ho, flattery is it now? Do continue, I like the sound of this."
     Larsa smiled. "By all accounts, you may not, after what I have to say. The issue arose out of handling your father's estate."
     Balthier's epxression soured minutely. "Of course it did. If this is about what to do with it all, I as sole heir authorize you to liquidate it all and donate the sum to charity. He had a favorite, but the name escapes me."
     To Fran's keen ears, the words rang false though not audibly. In the spirit of them lay some self-deception, hinting that Balthier only chose to act as if he had forgotten.
     The young Emperor nodded. "Thank you, that solves the second issue I'd wanted to discuss. But as I'm sure you've guessed, that is not exactly most secret."
     He withdrew something from a pocket in his doublet and lay it on the table. It appeared to be a polished stone, carved from some unknown substance into the shape of a nine-pointed star. At once both the pirates were ill at ease, though no threat seemed to be present. To Fran's senses, it did not bleed or suck Mist like nethicite and it did not seem familiar to Balthier's extensive material and arcane knowledge. At their near simultaneous inquiring glances Larsa explained.
     "It was found in your father's oldest office, in a safe in the floor, with a series of maddeningly complex notes. What my best scientific advisors and I have been able to figure from them is that it is called the Key of the Occuria at least by Dr. Cid." At the mention of the accursed god-like beings both Balthier and Fran's eyes hardened. He went on. "From what we have been able to surmise, this is how he came into contact with the being known as Venat."
     Balthier looked down at the stone and then back up at Larsa. "Oh. Oh no. To hell with the rest of your offer, I've heard enough. I am NOT mixing myself up with whatever mess my father got himself into."
     Balthier got up to leave, but to his surprised, an insistent grip on his arm prevented him from turning. He looked down at Fran who merely said, "You are being rude, leaving the guests you host so."
     Balthier blinked at her in shock as the words sank in. He was in his(...family's? father's?) house. It and all the wealth of the Bunansa name were his, but he'd just written them off, uninterested in them. But could he do the same with the responsibility thereof? For a brief moment he wondered if his partner had chosen her words just so to evoke this line of reasoning. Blast it, he was supposed to be the one with a way with words.
     He sat and smoothed his shirt and hair. "My apologies, my partner is correct. If you please, continue."
     Basch shot Fran a grateful smile and took up the tale. "We would like you to try your hand at figuring out the notes and the stone and investigate from there. If you could clear up its connection to the Occuria, Archades would be most appreciative."
     Balthier was silent as if expecting him to go on. Fran prompted the Judge. "And if we do this, what then?"
     Across from them, the other two exchanged a glance. "In all likelihood, we would ask you to destroy this key and whatever it opens, unless you determine that to be the wrong course of action."
     "And the pay?" Balthier sat back, still apparently uninterested, but continuing gamely along.
     "The Arcadian Treasury has seen fit to hold in escrow a sum of 5 million gil until the identification of this key is complete. Any other operational expenses will be paid out of House Solidor's coffers."
     Fran could see the numbers whirling in Balthier's head through her partner's eyes. A tempting sum. But she knew her partner and any moment now...
     "Thank you for the kind and tempting offer, but that's a treasure of little worth to us." Fran nodded in agreement.
     Larsa's expression faltered. He apparently had not expected the sky pirate to turn up his nose at near-limitless funds. Basch, however, just shook his head sadly as if he'd known this would happen.
     "I told His Excellency that you would turn this down, Balthier. He erred to think that you, like other sky pirates, did not understand the difference between wealth and worth."
     "Bold words to be spoken in front of your Emperor, Captain. Oh, your pardon, Judge."
     Basch brushed his needling away. "So what treasure would it be that you would find of worth enough to pursue this investigation, pirate?"
     The question caught Balthier off guard for a moment, but he rallied quickly. "I haven't the faintest. But I'm certain it's out there, waiting to be discovered." He made to leave.
     "But what if it's right here?"
     Fran watched as Balthier paused in midstep. "I beg your pardon?"
     Basch picked up the stone and held it out in front of him. "What if this is the key to some lost treasure that no one has ever heard of? If the beginning to a grand new heist is hidden in your father's own handwriting? Would you let that go? Let someone else discover it? Another Ratsbane, an up and coming sky pirate looking to outstrip the legendary pilots of the Strahl?"
     An actual amused laugh escaped Balthier at that and Fran was glad to see that this meeting was lifting his spirits finally. "Oh, you almost had me there Basch, until that last bit about someone outstripping us. Sorry, but no whelp is going to out do us any time soon."
     Basch nodded and let his hand fall, still gripping the stone. "Aye, for how could he? Before we all saved the world twice over you'd already emblazoned your name across the sky in letters none could miss. Did you know in Lowtown they still tell the story of how you and Nono made off with the Strahl?"
     As Balthier grinned at the memory, Larsa broke in. "That was a story! Hang the theatre in Tsenoble, that one trip to Lowtown beat any production I've seen."
     Balthier made a show of protesting the flattery, but was clearly enjoying himself. The grin had faded to a well-known self-satisfied smirk that told Fran volumes about his state of mind. In short, it was returning to normalcy or at least egocentricity. She saw her chance and made her position clear.
     "I am for it." Balthier stared at her in shock.
     "But, but, why?!"
     She shrugged. "We are bored, Balthier, and you are haunted." Going unsaid but perfectly understood by her partner, and this would resolve both... issues.
     Basch started in again. "Balthier, let me be frank and mistake this not for flattery. Between the two of you, you claim most of the known spells in the world, can level most foes in torrential Quickenings of pure Magick and command four of the most powerful beings ever to walk the face of Ivalice. Is there anything that you could not steal at this point?"
     Balthier silently crossed his arms and sank into thought. Long moments passed. The viera rose and stoof beside him, resting her hand lightly on his shoulder. Absently, he shrugged one shoulder up and pressed his cheek against her closer hand. She blinked in surprise. He'd never openly shown such affection. The other two in the room were pointly looking away, Basch into open air and Larsa back down at the notes. Her partner's eyes flicked up to hers and mischief danced in them in counterpoint to muted resignation.
     "Basch, Larsa, I've been remiss in my treatment of your offer. Give the stone and notes here, we will consider them at length on board the Strahl."
     Immediately, Basch handed over the stone and Larsa presented the notes, as if they could not be rid of them quick enough. Both items went into Balthier's hip pouches. "Now, if you will excuse me, this no longer appears to be my house so I will take leave of Your Excellency. As a last request, if you would kindly not leave by the front door, I would be forever grateful as the last thing I need is for Archades' honoured nobility to go whispering about some Ffamran brat's association with the Emperor."
     Larsa laughed lightly. "Oh, do not worry. We will see ourselves out by the way we came in." And with that he cast a spell in the air and orbs of strange, mist-coloured light surrounded them. With a flash, they were gone. Balthier stared at the empty space, running through his head the implications of the spell.
     "Some manner of modified Warp spell? Perhaps using the X-Zone as a bridge of some kind...? How would they..."
     He was cut off by Fran's guiding hand on his arm, pulling him along. "Do not tarry, lest the influence of your father's house turn you from a pirate into a researcher."
     Balthier looked up at that and gave a sheepish grin. "Heaven forbid. Let us avaunt."
     As he began to open the door, Fran stopped him and cast a spell. As they faded from view she shot her a quizzical look. "Why the Vanishiga?"
     "You were wary of the attentions of the nobility were you not?"
"Ah. But then would a door opening and closing by itself evoke suspicion?" he asked as he proceeded to do just that. He could not see it, but he felt the shrug against his side. For the hell of it, he open and closed it several more time, slamming it in the end.
     "It will aid Ffamran's mystique."
     "At this rate, the snotty brat will have notoriety approaching mine."
     "Quiet now, and over the wall."
Fran's choice seemed to be well considered, as there was a small gathering dispersed about the neighbourhood surreptiously watching the gates. The ones with a view of the doors whispered in hushed tones. Silently the two pirates scaled the Bunansa Estate's wall and Balthier was suddenly glad of the modifications Ffamran had made all those years before to allow him and certain companions to slip over the walls unmolested. As luck would have it, their quiet landing was near a gaggle of those former companions, scandalously discovering through their shared tales that Ffamran had not, in fact, been true to any of them.
     When they were a safe distance away Fran dropped the spell. A moment of walking in silence passed before she stated, "Fframran's past catches up to him, if the tales those women tell are true."
     Balthier laughed. "It shall have a fine time of that, poor thing, as he no longer exists."
     The viera was again quiet momentarily. "This is all you have to say?"
     Balthier gave her a measured glance before risking, "To quote a certain Vaan Ratsbane, 'Oops?'"
     She gave him a small smile to show that she had been toying with him and he grinned at that. But presently thoughts of the past began to intrude upon him again. Fran resigned herself to putting up with this melancholy for a while longer but he surprised her. He shook himself out of it and linked his arm through hers.
     "Speaking of tales, Basch reminded me of something. After all this time, I don't believe you've heard of how Nono and I stole the Strahl, have you?"
     She shook her head. "It seemed a private joke between you two."
     "Oh really? Well I'm sure he wouldn't mind me telling. He can iron out the kinks and outright lies in my story when we get back. You see, it started when the YPA GB-47 was to be scrapped..."
     It was an utterly blase, scripted line to begin with, but she had confidence that her partner would make the story dazzling in his own way.
* * *
* * *
Every Good Tale Starts in the Tavern
     Bhujerba's crisp air came as something of a shock to a Viera who's life had been spent in a humid jungle. Fran merely stood at the entrance to the aerodrome for a long while, taking the foreign city in. A city in the clouds, airships, different races. Such things she had only dreamed about in Eruyt. But now she stood in the midst of such things. Having acquired enough money through the rather pathetic "Hunts" that the Humes posted in their towns, she'd come up here.

     She'd missed the last liner leaving the town for the season but had managed to book private passage with a small-time trader for a rather excessive sum. In retrospect, her out-of-character verbosity was probably revenge enough. And it had gotten her a great deal of information about moogle-designed aircraft. It was much like caring for the more exotic plants of the jungle, in a twisted, metallic way.

     But now she was standing on a flying city, with very little money and no prospects. The price of a healing draught had so shocked her, her first day out, she who was used to free healing from the village. She'd been in the outside world to realize that a Hunger without money was as good as dead. So she headed for the only sensible place for someone with little money and little prospects: the tavern.

****

     Balthier glared at his moogle mechanics. He wasn't at all pleased with the news they were giving him.

     "I have a price on my head and you're telling me to stay put for two days in one of the busiest ports in Ivalice."

     "Sorry Cap'n, but we're going to have to swap the engines in and out. For little moogles, that's hard work!"

     Dramatically, Balthier put his fingers to his brow and massaged it. "Fine, fine. I bow to your wisdom and expertise. But if I for some reason don't come back, you know why and don't expect any pay."

     "Aw, you're not going to leave the Strahl."

     Balthier was already on his way out of the aerodrome so the moogles couldn't see his wry smirk, but they took note of his knowing nod. Balthier took his time wandering through Bhujerba, keeping his eyes open for anyone particularly interested in him. True to his nature, however, he was unable to stop from keeping an eye out for the more attractive members of the opposite sex.

     And so it happened that his keen pirate eyes caught sight of his latest... booty, as it were. A Viera!, he thought, and was off. She was headed into a tavern, a logical place for him to be anyways, he rationalized. From there he could possibly find out who, if anyone was on his trail. Yes, that sounded all very good and responsible.

****

     Fran was by now accustomed to the stares she got wherever she went. Viera simply weren't a common sight outside of their refuges. The curious looks she could now ignore and the less savoury she was well capable of dealing with. From the bar she ordered a cocktail to allow her the priviledge of spending time in the place and made her way to the posting board. Both looks fell off quickly. Few were stupid enought to tangle with a Hunter.

     There were a few that caught her eye, and coincidentally one whose poster claimed to be waiting in this very tavern. She tore it off the board and proceeded to seek him out. In minutes she had accepted the Hunt for some bothersome creature in the Lhusu mines. She retired to a corner to mull over the information that the contact could give her.

     She paid no particular notice to the Hume just entering, other than his carefully groomed appearance.

****

     She was in the corner, Balthier noticed from the edge of his vision, but he did not immediately go towards her. For one, it occured to him he had no idea how to approach a Viera. Barring that, etiquette required him to buy a drink. He did so, and was soon casually sipping a small glass of Archadian spirits. And still, he did not approach her.

     Still at a loss, he decided instead to take care of his business. Chatting folks up was something that he was rather adept at and soon he was embroiled in a raucous discussion of the current doings of pirates across the skies. He kept a meandering eye on the Viera while he listened for mention of himself. She held a torn piece of paper in her hands. His eyes darted over to the Hunt board where he picked out a scrap that matched the tear of what she held.

     Well, now he had his approach.

****

     Though her eyes were downcast and her thoughts elsewhere, Fran's Viera ears caught everything that was going on in the bar, from the lovers' spat in the opposite corner, to the bartender's orders to the animated discussion regarding sky pirates. The conversation interested her somewhat, so she bent and ear in that direction. Flying the skies for life sounded fantastic.

     A life of freedom.

     But the piracy bothered her. And she wasn't certain she wanted the notoriety of these pirates. The group was now tossing names around like Reddas, Mijurik, and Darron with easy familiarity like everyone knew them. She attracted enough attention as it was.

     So engrossed was she in the conversation, she failed to note a Hume break off from it and make his way in her direction. Her senses cued her in to him before he got too close, however. His easy, languid stride told her he was no threat but due to a shift in wind through the shutters, she smelled his rich, spicy liquor before she heard him.

     She looked up and fixed him with a stare.

****

     Balthier felt an jolt run through him when he looked into those garnet eyes. He was prey at the moment, a most unpleasant situation to be in. So he did what came naturally and turned on the charm.

     "Is this seat taken?" He gestured at one across from her.

     Her eyes flicked towards it. "It appears no."

     Smoothly he slid himself into it and suddenly found himself speared again. He shifted mildly. "I take it you are a Hunter then?"

     "Yes. Have you business with me?"

     "Oh no, I'm just trying to make conversation. So are you on one now?"

     She stood, a most gratifying movement from his position. "Yes. Right now," she said and made to leave.

     "Well perhaps I could assist you?"

     She stopped and looked at him with incredulity and some bemusement. He almost felt insulted. "You are a Hunter?"

     "Well, no, not as such. More a... trader. But I can handle myself. Dangerous things in these skies."

     She regarded him for a moment, then turned to leave. "I hunt things more dangerous than sky pirates, trader."

     Despite the fact that he had been quite clearly shot down, it was Balthier's turn to be amused. There was little in the world more dangerous than a sky pirate.

****

     Time passed and the sun set spectacularly under Bhujerba's horizon. The sky-city was awash in dusk colors and drew her children indoors as the day ended.

     At the entrance of Lhusu mines, a more solid shade of red splattered the ground and a wounded Viera staggered up the steps to a crystal. This section of the city had been empty for hours, the miners all gone home so there were none to take even the faintest interest in her. Fran didn't much care.

     The healing energies of the crystal closed her wounds but did nothing for her exhaustion. She slumped gracelessly against the blue mineral. She fished through her pack to make sure she had the proof she needed. Arrow torn pinions from the beast should suffice, she thought. Looking up at the sky, Fran wondered at the time. Would the tavern still be open, the client still there?

     Tired out of her mind, she made her way back. She was exhausted enough that her ears drooped on her head, which was, in her opinion, a poor excuse not to hear that many footsteps. She was yanked off balance and into an alleyway. Before they were properly on her, Fran's claws had claimed one's throat and her clawed foot-armor had torn another's thigh raggedly open and blood was everywhere. Then one managed to get the point of a spear up to her throat and she froze.

     "You bloody bitch, wait until we're through with you NOW."

     "Ye could've made this easy, luv, but now ye've got te pay!"

     The remaining two leered at her and Fran's skin crawled. They reeked of hard, acrid liquor and even less savoury substances. Her ears flattened against her skull and then twitched at a soft metallic click from the entrance way.

****

     Balthier had had no luck catching on to any rumors of a someone hunting him, nor did he find any wanted posters with his likeness on them. His moogles had apparently managed to coerce a Baanga into helping them, so his Strahl would be ready to fly tomorrow afternoon. He wasn't about to complain.

     And then he heard the scrabbling sounds of a fight in an alleyway. He had fairly well decided to pass it on by when he did in fact pass it and he saw the combatants. His Altair was instantly shouldered and cocked.

     "That's hardly a way to treat a lady."

****

     The thugs started at the steely voice, but Fran was prepared. Well, prepared for the interruption, thanks to the gun's tell-tale click, but not for who interrupted. The finely-dressed trader was pointing the business end of one of the Hume race's weapons right at her assailants' faces.

     But Fran was not one to tarry. She batted the spear away from her throat, grabbed a hold of it and wrenched it out of the man's comparatively weak grasp. The man stumbled to the ground and the head of the spear followed him. She plunged it into his back and viciously layed her weight into it. Yanking it back out, she drove it down again with such force it snapped and carried her to her knees.

     That was when the red cleared and she became aware of the other man, behind her.

****

     Balthier's first shot was ruined by the Viera's blindingly quick reaction and he tarried on the second, caught off guard by her vicious attack. Then he saw the other thug raise his dagger to plunge into the Viera.

     Balthier shot his head off.

****

     Fran heard the loud crack of gunfire and swore she felt the breeze from the shot kiss her ears. She watched the last Hume tumble to the ground, thinking the angle strange because she couldn't see his head. It became apparent that this was due to the fact that he no longer had one.

     She stood.

****

     Balthier rested his Altair on his shoulder and looked the mess over.

     "Well, you certainly didn't need my help."

     The Viera glanced at her bloody claws and then spoke. "No, I did. I thank you."

     "Well, do accept my apologies on behalf of my benighted race. Some of us have some courtesy." He looked both ways down the street. "The guard will have heard that shot. We should be off."

     He turned to leave and the Viera began to as well but nearly stumbled. She managed to catch her self before she did, but Balthier was too canny to miss it. "Are you alright?" he asked quietly.

     "Tired. The Hunt was difficult."

     "Well, you look like hell." Balthier stated frankly. "Let's get you cleaned up."

     The Viera shook her head. "No. I will deliver the proof." She set out for the tavern. Balthier fell in step with her.

     "Very well. But then you're getting treated."

     She eyed him warily, but made no protest.

****

     She walked with the Hume for a while before he started as if he'd realized something.

     "The adrenaline must have gotten to me. I've failed to introduce myself. Balthier, at your service."

     He stopped for a slight bow. Fran kept walking. After a moment, she replied with, "Fran."

     Catching up, the Hume, Balthier now, replied, "Fran? Delightful name. Suitably strong and yet unmistakably feminine. So Fran, what brings you to Bhujerba?"

     She was silent and after it became clear that he would receive no answer he was too, mercifully. Their walk to the tavern was similarly so. Inside, her client was rather shocked at her rapid resolution of the Hunt. He noticed and was about to comment on her bloody claws when Balthier smoothly interjected,

     "Yes, amazing, she took the beast out with her bare hands." Which gave her a wide berth of respect and fixed the attention on the question of what Balthier was doing there with her. He rose to the occasion grandly and she slipped away. Securing a room upstairs with her reward, she retired for the night. She managed to clean the blood off of her and shuck her boots. Tossing her headgear and bracers with the rest of it, she collapsed onto the bed. It had been a very long day and she-

     Someone was knocking at her door. She had half an idea who it would be. Maybe if she ignored him...

     The knocking contiued.

****

     "Come now Fran, you must be hungry after all that? Why not at least eat what I've brought!"

     Balthier waited for a response to that, and sure enough the door opened to an irritated face. He offered the platter that held two sandwiches, a cocktail that he'd gotten the bartender to remember and small bottle of his Archadian spirits. The offering also covered sliding his foot into the door. Fran eyed the goods and then looked at him.

     "You persist."

     "I do."

     She was silent at that for a moment. Very reserved. I wonder if all Viera are like this. His thoughts did not get a chance to continue as she turned away and left the door open. Smiling broadly, he slipped in and shut the door. He followed her as she sat at a small table. He set the platter down and took the other chair.

     Fran lifted the top piece of bread and regarded the contents. She wrinkled her nose and removed the meats delicately with her claws. I'll have to remember that. But she bit into the rest with gusto. Balthier allowed himself a smile and poured himself glass before starting on his own.

     They ate in silence and despite Fran's voracious appetite, Balthier finished before her. Silence was something that did not sit well with the Hume.

     "You look different without your armor." He offered. She flicked her garnet gaze at him again and once more he was prey. He found himself missing the regard she held him with a few minutes ago.

     "More free." That got something of a reaction out of her.

     "Free?" she asked, finishing her meal. She picked up the cocktail and began to suck it down.

     "Your hair, mostly." Balthier felt out of place. He was usually much smoother in these situations. Her cocktail finished, Fran smacked her lips and looked at his bottle. She snatched it up and pour some into her glass. She gave it a taste and failed to cough as he did his first time.

     "What do you want Balthier?"

     "I? I only want to make conversatio-"

     "Liar." Balthier stopped short.

     "Excuse me?"

     "I can smell it on you. Under the scent of you, the scent that smells like this alcohol." She tossed the rest back and sighed, presumably at the warmth firing through her body. "You are nervous Balthier."

     At the moment, he could not dispute that fact, but neither could he honestly say why. He was never nervous like this. To cover his lack of a response he calmly poured her more and topped himself up.

     "Like that, so calm and smooth. Smooth Balthier, immaculate Balthier." Fran went on. She took a more moderate sip. "That is how you see yourself, how you appear. But that is not what I smell."

     She got up and made her way to other side of the room, glass in hand. Balthier followed cautiously. It was becoming clear this was out of his control now. But he was not about to give up.

     "And you? You were taciturn before, but now you seem to have quite a lot to say. And judging by how you handled that Chivas, it can't be the alcohol speaking."

     Fran turned to face him and he noticed that she was not so much taller than him now, out of her boots. He determined not to quail and took a sip.

     "I was tired. The food has given me vigor, but I need sleep as well."

     The Viera finished her drink. "This liquor is delicious." She licked her lips and held the empty glass up to the moonlight. She looked at him sideways. "Are you?"

     Balthier put his glass to his lips and drank to quell his rapidly beating heart. He was sure she could hear it. Why the bloody hell am I nervous?

     Further attempts to think were quite handily dealt with as the Viera advanced and knocked the glass from his mouth and covered it with hers. The spice of the Chivas filled their heads with that kiss and Balthier's mind may have shut down but his body was in familiar territory and his arms enfolded her.

     Familiar territory was left behind quite suddenly when she grabbed his buttocks, pinching him with her claws and lifted him bodily onto the bed.

****

     The rest of the night was hot and exquisite, satisfying and alluring, and filled with sex. The cheap sheets of the inn were rent by Viera claws and Balthier's skin achingly accepted similar treatment when they arched into climax. It was worth it, he decided, for her later labial nursing.

****

     The next morning Fran silently slid into her armor and boots before getting her pack ready to go. She was not comfortable here any more. Certainly, she wanted last night, had needed it. She had enjoyed herself, clawed out her stresses of the day before, kissed and licked away the marks she had left on him, and relaxed into Balthier's kneading touch. But now she was entirely unsure of what to do. Rare were the times Viera mated, even for release or pleasure. Balthier slept soundly and she couldn't bring herself to look at him. Her inexperience, combined with the emotions whirling inside her could cause her to do something she would regret.

     So she made quietly for the door. Which, quite unexpectedly, burst open with two men, a Baanga and a Hume yelling at the top of their lungs.

     "Time to face the music, sky-pirate!"

     Both were staring at a blearily awake Balthier and both were levelling weapons at him. Millennia of Viera instincts screamed Protect the male! at Fran and before she quite knew what she was doing, she had rushed them and was tackling them out of the window. They crashed into the street below.

     Where apparently, the two bounty hunter's group waited for them. A wide variety of weapons levelled themselves at Fran who rolled backwards and was firing off her short bow before she even got erect. At least four of the bounty hunters went down in her initial barrage. Two rushed her and her arrows felled a Hume before the Baanga with a sword leapt upon her, knocking her to the ground.

     Nightmare images of the previous evening flashed through her mind as she struggled to keep his sword from plunging down. She tried to grab and crush his throat, but his neck was too wide and well armoured for her to do any damage.

     And then the street was rocked by a deafening explosion and body parts toppled by them. The Baanga looked back in disbelief at the crater where half his group had once stood. Two had Baanga survived, and just barely. Everyone else was dead.

     "Hey you brute! Have you forgotten the leading man? I thought you came here for me!" Balthier stood on the roof of the first floor of the tavern with his gun levelled at the Baanga on top of her. For the first time she managed to properly process that they had been referring to him as a sky pirate. In his other hand Balthier casually tossed and caught a handbomb. He had a dangerous look about him, like a cornered couerl intent on survival. The sneer on his looked enough like a snarl.

     "Balthier..." The Baanga growled. "Come down from there or-"

     "Oh come off it you scaly bastard. There's only one way this is going to happen, so listen closely. The Viera goes free. And so do I. Or I blow your last two compatriots into giblets as well."

     The Baanga straightened and trembled in anger. Which was enough for Fran to pull her legs to her chest and hurl the bounty hunter off her. On her feet in an instant, she had her bow trained on him. Backing away, she heard a thud, followed by a muttered curse from behind her and surmised Balthier was now ground level.

     "Now after that, I definately suggest we leave." And he ran off in the direction of the aerodrome. Against her better judgement, Fran followed. Behind them, the Baanga shouted after them,

     "This won't be the last you've heard of me Balthier! So swears Ba'gammon!"

Balthier pointed his gun over his shoulder and blindly fired. Fran's gaze whipped around to see the shot ping off the ground next to the Baanga and then whip back to stare at the Hume in front of her. Sky pirates, apparently, were dangerous foes.

****

     Up the steps of the the aerodrome the two raced and into its cool halls. Fran began to break off to one of the ticket counters but Balthier grabbed her hand and pulled her with him.

     "This way, to the Strahl."

     "Your ship?"

     "Aye. Best set of wings in the sky."

     "What did you do get a bounty on your head?"

     "Oh, well, er, I may have robbed an Archadian military convoy blind, laid low a Judge and blown the ships to pieces."

     Fran was again quiet for a moment before stating, "You are insane."

     "No, dear Fran, the insane do what they do at random. I, at least, have a reason."

     "What is that?"

     "Among other things, the freedom of the skies." Another corner and they were suddenly in a hanger. Fran's breath caught in her throat as the ship came into view. Slowing to a reverent walk she took in all of the Strahl's sleek lines. A pack of moogles were slamming down a hatch in the back, suggesting this craft was of moogle manufacture. In the ships entrance way, Balthier turned and extended an open hand,

     "Well, Huntress, can I tempt you into the blue sky with me?"

     The air was remarkably still for the havoc they had just caused. A stiff, crisp wind wound its way through the hanger and Fran stared at Balthier's open hand and then at his face. Her judgement struggled with the pull of her heart towards this man, towards this ship, towards the sky. She searched his face for some deciding quality that would end this torturous moment. His lips supplied it.

     "Please? I believe I need you..."

     He seemed so much younger and unsure at that moment, sheepish in his honesty. On his face lay none of his earlier cockiness or lethality, only hope and a promise of endless skies. Her heart folded in on itself and swelled in her breast, all at once. Stepping forwards, she reached out hesitantly and he leaned out. Lightly she rested her hand in his and gently he took it.

     She pulled herself aboard and it all began.
What I Feel:
accomplished accomplished
What I Hear:
Xenogears - Small Two of Pieces
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Testing out ideas for one of my series. Steal this and I will literally hunt you down with the force of the law and make you pay through your TEETH.

The How To of MagicCollapse )

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Setting: Wicked (bookverse)
Rating: T (for references to sex)
Summary: Yackle takes on an apprentice and has it learn of the Witches.

Conversations with Yackle

     So, apprentice, have you read up on the line of Kumbricia? Questions? Good. Something ticks in that poor excuse for a head of yours. Ask away.

     No, it is not genealogical descent. It is one of spirit. Entirely unconcious. Witches are not born they are become. It will make sense eventually.

     Her name was Elphaba. Wicked Witch of the West was just a title.

     I don't think she rightly cared whether or not she came up with it or it was bestowed upon her. It matters little. That is how she will go down in history. Now are you so entirely hung up on her that you have failed to see the rest of the picture?

     There have been three Witches in recent times you dolt. Of varying powers and efficacy, but there you have it.

     I take back what I said about your brain. Glinda and Liir. They followed on Elphaba's coattails, to be su-

     Yes, WITCH. Don't give me any of this Warlock nonsense. Names, titles MEAN something.

     No, Nessarose wasn't one. Have you not learnt anything? She had no power and was far too simple a figure. People loved her or hated her.

     Glinda, simple? Many would have said she was, in mind. Idiots, the lot of them. Simple? I will forgive you this, you do not know the Emerald City. Glinda may have been loved and loved on the surface, but so much more went on underneath. Such is the way of society queens. And she had real power. She was the power behind Nessarose.

     No, not quite. Elphaba wasn't universally hated. Some hated her, some loved her, some respected her, more feared her. Charisma was a small part of it.

     Love? Well, Glinda for one. Liir, perhaps, but he is still finding his footing. He certainly respects her.

     Yes, the Good Witch loved the Wicked Witch. They were roommates at Shiz for better or worse and such things happen.

     Oh stop beating around the bush. Yes, love. Romantic, ideal, racy, tragic, between the sheets, everything. She would get hot and bothered in their room and it was hell on her. Their whole lives were hell on her.

     I believe, that yes, Elphaba did love her, early on. But she was afraid. I will not speak of their time in the Emerald City, but that night was as much fear as love. And was in part why she left.

     Well, what do you know, you can come to some correct conclusions. She was afraid of Fiyero but had learned from Glinda that important courage. Of course it came to naught with his murder.

     Emotions? Yes, I suppose that's part of being a Witch. And why it is so difficult to be one. So few people can understand themselves. Elphaba struggled with it daily. Glinda followed her example. She did things. And in a way, she was far more successful. But accomplishment is a small part of history.

     How much did Elphaba accomplish? If you could speak with her ghost, you would find her bitter and disapointed, I should think. She accomplished none of her goals. But the things she did. Oz will never forget The Wicked Witch of the West.

     Yes, Liir understands this, perhaps better than Glinda. The witch Nation is an active, living thing, a fitting tribute to Elphaba. And it's wonderfully complicated. It's that complexity that gives Witches their power.

     Elphaba struggled daily with her life, her existence. She strove and did and has left her indelible mark. Glinda did what she did out of a mix of love for her Elphie, her innate "goodness" and other things I'm sure no one will ever understand. And Liir? The Son of the Witches is not yet done.

     Now go away. My throat is sore.
What I Feel:
bored bored
What I Hear:
Natasha Bedingfield - Unwritten
* * *
Setting: Final Fantasy XII
Rating: T
Side Effect

     Helpless. He felt completely and totally helpless. He stood by as his comrades lay dieing on the ground, burn marks scorching their armor, weapons lying uselessly by their sides. He was alive and their opponent was barely so but he couldn't do anything. He had a perfect bead on his father's head and only the best of his skill kept his hands from shaking too much to make the shot impossible. But he couldn't take it.

     "You asked me once, my boy, why I didn't care for you or your mother! Remember?!"

     The maniacal Cid screamed at him, clutching a jagged wound in his side with one hand and leaning on his weapon with the other. He was bleeding out and seemed to be out of regenerative means. Which further heightened Balthier's fear. He couldn't let Cid die until he could do something about-

     "Caring gets in the way boy! In the way of genius, of glory, and in your case, your precious dreams!" His father interrupted his train of thought to gloat. "I don't care, so I've won! I can feel myself fading, Balthier! There isn't much time left for you and her!"

     Balthier's hands trembled and his aim was spoiled. He couldn't care less for his aim right now as he whipped his mind into a frenzy. Maybe if he could get Vaan back on his feet, the young man could crack the device long enough to steal-

     "Oh ho! I've seen that look before, though it's usually on my face. You've come up with some last minute brilliant plan! That's my boy. Unfortunately, I won't follow your little plan!" And with that, Dr. Cid shoved himself upright and, as a gush of blood left his side, grabbed his weapon and drove it straight through his chest.

     "NO!"

     There was a wet, coughing laugh. And then the doctor seemed to grow lucid and serious. He addressed his son with regard, respect and something near affection. "Caring gets people killed, Balthier."

     And with that, he expired. Simultaneously, a red light started flashing above the cylindrical chamber Fran was trapped within. It was difficult to say what drowned what out, Balthier's scream, or the chamber's explosion.

     With his scream, he awoke, already shaking tensely upright in bed. Dream and reality blurred together for a moment, until Fran's stern grasp on his shoulder snapped him to clarity. He promptly buried his face in her hair, crying next to her in bed. She was shocked, to say the least. But she held him close and after a moment, felt it safe to quip,

     "If you keep this up, the rest of the ship will be here." Balthier managed a weak laugh and extricated himself from her embrace. He wiped his eyes clear and wrinkled his nose in digust at himself.

     "Hardly a situation I'd want to be caught in."

     "Here I thought you wanted to bed me." He barked a laugh. Her biting humor was a balm on his frayed nerves. He looked out the portal at the passing sky outside and remained gazing at it for a while. Fran wasn't a fool. He couldn't look at her right now, she knew. And he knew that she knew. Her next actions came as a surprise to him. Again she gripped his shoulders, pulling herself near.

     "They get worse."

     "What?"

     "Your nightmares. They were never this bad."

     To his knowledge, he had never reacted to a nightmare before. "I've never had nightmares... before," he amended, not taking the immature route of outright denial.

     "Liar. I can smell them on you. And I could before."

     "You smell them?" A nod. "I smell?"

     "Of sex and fear. Most disconcerting." Fran withdrew and Balthier guessed the reason. Immediately, to rectify the situation, Balthier rolled around and pinned her to the bed.

     "I don't fear you, you bloody fool."

     "This started when we began-"

     "An unforseen consequence of caring. Forgive me." His father's dreamlike words haunted him, but he chased them away with the reality in front of him, below him, around him.
What I Feel:
blah blah
What I Hear:
Eagle Eye Cherry - Save Tonight
* * *
The moment you realize you've gone and fallen in love (AGAIN, as the case may be for some), is rather like watching a train wreck in reverse. There's that horrible moment of impact where your heart feels like several tons of steel crumpled into an impossibly small space. And then everything explodes away and you can see the track your thoughts and emotions took. And there exists the perception of unavoidability, of determinism, of fate. There was only one path to take, this was meant to be.

And oh, the tragedy of the moment is that it is a wreck. And like all, it will be cleaned up. The hotly burning remains, the flesh and steel intertwined almost organically, it will all eventually be swept up and disposed of. The track will be relaid and trains may continue along it once more. But oh, that one wreck! Still the perception of fate remains, the unavoidability of the tragedy. And it will be remembered as Meant To Be.

But a keener eye will see that trains have brakes, and choosing not to barrel forward blindly could have averted the mess and its eventual cleansing. A keener eye or a more bitter? Is it only a bitter fool who could see love as a train wreck? Or does the metaphor fit too well, inevitability and choice and all? Perhaps it's not that there was a choice, but that it was not made and life happened.
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