A viera without a home, a young man getting acquainted with the fine arts of sky piracy, and the Dalmasca Westersand. One way Fran and Balthier might have met. Spoilers up to the Phon Coast.
Well. This is unfortunate.
Ffamran-/no. Balthier now/, he reminds himself. He's been using the name for three months now, but it still doesn't always feel like it's his own. He originally came across the name in his father's study, when he'd been leafing through one of the few books in there he could actually understand. The original Balthier had been the commander of the Imperial flagship Odin a hundred or so years back. The day Archades planned to invade
Cerobi-they'd been keen on getting access to Cerobi's coastal region, as far as he could tell-the Odin vanished. She reappeared soon afterwards, fighting on Cerobi's side. Balthier the first also managed to get his hands on Archades' plans for the invasion, which effectively stopped the Empire's dreams of staging a victory parade through Cerobi's capital. Instead, they went into peace talks. The history book hadn't said why Balthier the first decided to turn on Archades, but the newest Balthier guessed that he'd just gotten thoroughly sick of the whole thing.
The history book had gone on to mention that Cerobi was conquered-or "elected to add to the glory of our most magnificent Empire," if you prefer-twenty years after the botched initial invasion. Still, they'd managed to hold out for a while. Not many modern nations can say the same, he reckons.
Balthier-who-was-Ffamran couldn't feel less like his namesake now as he forces himself to look at what remains of his poor Anfang/. Balthier the first wouldn't have steered the /Odin so close to the jagd of the Yensa Sandseas, especially not if he'd heard reports of a sandstorm in the Westersand.
The storm's died down since the Anfang crashed, luckily. Grains of sand still hang in the air, though; he can feel them burying themselves in his chapped lips. It's not the most pleasant sensation.
"Well," he says to the desert at large, "I doubt that Master Orvanth's ships followed me, at least. Most likely because their pilots are sane."
No, he's not being followed. But the /Anfang/'s auxiliary engines are shot and the main engine's hardly in better shape, his potion supply's running dangerously low, and he has sand in places whose existence he preferred not to contemplate before now.
If his maps are accurate-and they should be, as he stole them from his father-he's landed somewhere in the middle of the Dalmasca Westersand. The nearest city should be Rabanastre, but he's not entirely sure if he can manage the walk there, given how limited his supplies are. Honestly, he's not entirely sure how to get to Rabanastre from where he is now. He briefly wishes he hadn't pawned the ornate compass that was his fifteenth birthday present from his father. ("Perhaps this will help you find your way," Cid told him. Ffamran-he was definitely still Ffamran then-/asked/ for a pouch of magick-infused shot. Apparently, Cidolfus Bunansa didn't trust his son to use such a gift responsibly. Really, Balthier should be honored that his father remembered his birthday in the first place.)
Well, he'll have to make the best of things. And should he fail, perhaps his remains will be of some use for another traveler. With that cheerful thought, he checks to make sure all the chambers of the Altair are loaded. He's heard tales about how the dunes of the Westersand are crawling with monsters, and he'd rather not be busy reloading when said monsters are doing their best to tear out his throat.
He takes a swig from his canteen, shakes some of the sand out of his boots, and heads over the dunes.
To pass the time, he makes a list in his head of the things he ought to remember the next time he attempts a trip of this nature. Goggles/, he thinks as a breeze kicks up sand from the dunes and blows it into his eyes; he wastes a few precious seconds wiping his eyes and pays for it when he feels something sharp sink into his arm. He grits his teeth. At least nobody /bit him during his years as a judge-that's one of the few good things he can say about the job.
A close-range weapon. Fighting wolves in the desert is vastly different from quelling uprisings in settlements with streets and buildings and-he loses track of this train of thought when a second wolf howls somewhere behind him. His gun really isn't made for this kind of combat, not without a companion beside him to keep the little beasties from getting too close. Once they start circling him-gods, must this cursed contraption take so long to fire? Balthier can't help but think that the gun's manufacturers crafted it in this fashion so they'd have the pleasure of laughing at the fools forced to rely on it in inhospitable areas-he ends up using the butt of his pistol as a makeshift club, and cracks one wolf smartly across the skull, doing his best to ignore the burning sensation spreading up his arm. /Please tell me their bite isn't poisonous/.
Of course, he never really paid attention when his tutor tried to go over the Official Archadian Index of Creatures Most Malignant with him, so he doesn't remember whether Dalmascan wolves secrete venom. /Finally/, he gets a clear shot at one of the wretched things. Even with a wounded arm, his marksmanship isn't half bad; he sends his bullet straight through the closest wolf's eye. The second wolf's more tenacious than the first, and he wastes more precious ammunition trying to bring it down.
A change of shirts. He smiles dryly. He can just imagine walking into Central Archades with grit in his hair and a bloody sleeve. Really, it would be worth it just to see how many people would try to shoo him back to Nilbasse or the slums of Old Archades. Then again, some women are partial to the rugged adventurer look, he's found. Perhaps he should walk into the nearest tavern in Rabanastre attired like this and see what happens.
Plans for his triumphant arrival will have to wait, though, at least until his arm stops shouting at him for attention. He uncorks a potion bottle and drains it quickly. The pain in his arm blessedly dwindles. After noting the dismal state of his potion supply, he adds curative magicks to his list. He's never had much of an aptitude for them, to put it politely, but even a skull as thick as his should be able to get the basics of healing drummed into it someday.
Now, he does remember that wolves like to hoard treasure. He wouldn't mind getting his hands on /that/, certainly. If they came out at him from behind that dune, perhaps their lair is behind there?
/Shovel/, he adds. He doesn't relish the prospect of digging around on his hands and knees, but he's rather hard up at the moment.
The wolves' lair is behind the dunes, he discovers. He also discovers that the two wolves he slew earlier weren't its only inhabitants. Now three wolves are slinking towards him, and they look none too pleased.
He's beginning to wonder if he's fated to be the jester, not the leading man.
Some helpful words from Gabranth (some of Gabranth's only helpful words) penetrate the "oh bugger oh bugger"s currently taking up most of the space in his head. "Marksmen facing superior numbers should seek cover and a high point-ideally both."
He has no chance of finding a high point in this area of the desert-not before the wolves rend him limb from limb, at least. But cover, that he might be able to manage. He sprints like he's never sprinted before towards a rocky outcropping to his right. The wolves give chase; he doesn't dare slow down, even though his leg muscles scream in protest. His legs will find themselves in even more pain should the wolves get close enough to nip at his ankles.
I really am too irresistible for my own good, he thinks, flinging himself behind the outcropping with absolutely no dignity and very little grace. He presses his back to the rock, cocks the Altair...
...he's not alone, he realizes. He would have heard the breathing sooner had his brain not been in a somewhat excited state, he thinks. Then again, whoever's next to him is doing his, her, or its best not to make a sound. Slowly, he turns his head to the side.
He's never really seen a viera before. He's seen pictures. Some of the pictures have even been decent ones. Balthier's glimpsed one or two on trips to Balfonheim port (the wood guardians aren't fond of Archades, it seems, which he thinks is excellent judgment on their part). But he's certainly never been this close to a viera before-which might be a good thing, as this particular viera looks less than pleased to see him standing here.
"Dreadfully sorry." His smile comes out as rather strained, as he can't help thinking that the wolves must be very, very close by now. "Is there space behind here for two on a temporary basis?" Balthier keeps his eye on her bow. He has no doubt that if she so chose, she could put an arrow through him with no more effort than it might take his father to add two and two.
"You have brought your quarry with you." Her red eyes lock on his. Well, he thinks, being slain by a beautiful woman is a better death than being torn apart by wolves, at least.
"I'm afraid they're the persistent type." He peers out from a crack in the rock. The wolves slink around the outcropping. Why haven't they attacked? They must be able to smell him. A horrible thought dawns. Dear gods, they're playing with me, aren't they? And I thought only cats and Imperials did that.
Well, their overconfidence will be their loss, he decides. He edges his gun around the corner, aims, and fires with military precision. A howl answers the Altair's report; when he peers through the crack again, he sees that his bullet's caught one wolf in the leg. "I've tried telling them to leave, but they don't seem eager to listen."
"Creatures of the desert rarely do," she says; he thinks she looks slightly amused. Maybe. It's entirely possible that he's projecting his own feelings onto her. How the viera manages to climb up the outcropping and balance on the narrow ledge in those shoes, he can't say. From his current position, he sees her arrow bury itself in the injured wolf's chest. One down, two to go.
He darts out from behind the corner-thank the gods he's not wearing that bulky Imperial armor now, which always slowed him down far too much and made him sweat obscenely, to boot-and shoots the wolf rearing on its hind legs in the belly before it can start to scrabble up the outcropping. It takes the viera two more arrows to bring down the last wolf. From out here, he can see how fast she is with that bow; she'd put any member of the Imperial corps to shame. No wonder outsiders are so reluctant to enter the viera's Wood.
"Much obliged," Balthier calls up. She nods and climbs down with that same swiftness. "That ought to be the last of them..."
She sniffs the air delicately, and he marvels that such an elegant little nose can detect so much. "It is," she confirms.
He bows briefly. In all likelihood, he's being ridiculous, but he can't help playing the gallant rogue before a beautiful woman. I have a mummer for a son, his father often snorted. She doesn't appear to mind his behavior, not that he can really tell what she might be thinking. "And now, I leave the rock to you."
She shakes her head slowly. "The sound of your gun will have warned the wolves away from this spot. A hunt here will prove unsuccessful."
"Ah. My apologies for ruining your hunt, then."
Were she human, she might have shrugged. As it is, she keeps staring at him. Her gaze makes him feel practically naked-a sensation he might not be opposed to at some other time, mind. "There is other game to be found in the Westersand."
"True." He begins trudging back towards the wolves' lair. Hopefully there aren't any more unpleasant surprises in store for him there.
He only finds out that the viera's following him when he looks over his shoulder to check for wolves. He's proud that he doesn't start visibly. She's so quiet.
"I slew two of the wolves. Part of their hoard is mine," she tells him. He's not about to argue with her.
"A fair arrangement. There were five wolves, I believe. I slew three, you slew two, we'll split the gains sixty-forty?" He holds out his hand for her to shake. Belatedly, he realizes that shaking hands when the other person has claws might not be a good idea, but it's too late to pull his hand away without seeming rude.
"That is fair." She takes his hand gingerly and releases it after a few seconds.
They reach the lair in silence. The only sound Balthier can hear at all is the crunch of his boots on the sand. The viera, of course, makes no noise when she walks. The lair looks empty from where he stands, but he still approaches it with caution. He'd rather not have to flee back to the outcropping, especially now that the viera's watching him.
His luck holds this time, as the lair's deserted for real. If he gets on his stomach and crawls in, he can probably reach the treasure. He manages to get his head and shoulders through, but the entrance isn't wide enough for his arms. He really must look a fool now. With a few curses and a good deal of wriggling, he extracts himself well enough.
"Allow me." The viera drops to her stomach and peers in.
He straightens up. "Much obliged, Miss-"
"I am called Fran." She turns her head to look at him. This time, he can read the question in her eyes. Who are you?
"I'm-" he begins, and stops. Gods, did he really almost introduce himself as Ffamran? "My name is Balthier," he finishes rather lamely.
"Is it?" Fran asks. He looks slightly off to the side. The glib remarks don't seem to be rolling from his tongue now. The silence between them stretches out to be as vast as the Westersand itself.
"Close enough." He shrugs.
She seems to accept that answer for now. Her torso disappears into the wolves' den; she emerges scant seconds later, blowing the dust from three fire stones, a few pebbles, and a lifeless cub. Fran lifts its chin up with one of her claws. "The pelt is of high quality." She turns the cub's head towards Balthier, who crouches in the sand next to her for a better look. "The red color is even, and the fur is soft."
He reaches out a hand to feel for himself. It is soft.
"The fur on older wolves is coarser. Pelts such as this are a rare find. We were lucky to uncover one." She lets the cub's head drop. He takes the limp creature from her carefully. Rare, is it? It might fetch a decent price in Rabanastre, if so, and he really does need all the money he can get. Carrying the whole cub to Rabanastre might be problematic, though he'll have to do it if he wants to sell the pelt. He has little-all right, no-experience with skinning and tanning animals, but he doesn't think the task can be accomplished in the middle of a desert. Perhaps if he were on board the /Anfang/-
His throat tightens. Truth be told, he's not sure the Anfang will be skyworthy again.
Balthier carefully deposits the dead cub in Fran's lap. "Is this an acceptable forty percent share?" He's no tanner, but he thinks he's valued its worth relatively accurately. It's certainly not worth less than forty percent. Sky pirate though he may be, he's not stupid enough to cheat a viera. Not when those claws could rend his flesh so easily. Besides, Fran's been a great help. Perhaps she could be an even greater help, if only he can convince her that a newly-minted sky pirate hume might not make such a bad partner. But that's something to keep in the back of his mind. He has other things to see to now.
"It will do." Her ears swivel to the side a little as she favors him with her piercing stare again. "Why have you come to the desert?"
"I suppose I don't look the part of the explorer," he chuckles. He knows he has far to go before he erases the stench of money from him, even though he's spent recent months scrounging for any gil he can find. He looks down at his gun-more specifically at the curlicues traced in mythril winding their way around the barrel. No, he doesn't look the part of the explorer. Not entirely. Not quite. Not yet.
"No," Fran agrees.
"I didn't intend to come here." He stands up. From here, he can make out the /Anfang/, though the poor girl's half-covered in sand. Balthier gestures towards her. "My ship, however, seemed rather insistent on making a detour."
Fran follows his hand. He thinks he sees her eyebrows come together a little. "A towering storm passed through this place not a day ago. You flew your ship through such a storm?"
He stretches and looks over his shoulder. Really, it hadn't seemed such a stupid idea when Master Orvanth's guns were trained on the Anfang. "I had little choice in the matter. The Westersand seemed the best way to escape-/other/ airships." No doubt the fate Master Orvanth had planned for him would be even more unpleasant than the ravages of a sandstorm.
He gives her his most winning smile. It's succeeded in bringing a blush to the cheek of many a girl, although Fran is hardly blushing. "I could tell you a thousand stories. Two or three might even bear a passing resemblance to the truth."
"How badly is it damaged?" Fran asks as the two of them begin crossing the dunes to the downed Anfang. She knows how ships work, does she? he thinks. This could work out well...if she accepts, of course.
It would be easier with two. It would be a sight less lonely, at least.
"The auxiliary engines are offline," he tells her. "The main engine's in similarly critical condition-the first and second pistons are misfiring due to sand buildup, I believe. The skystone's needed to be replaced for some time now. I didn't have a chance to get a replacement the last time I docked her, though." He shakes his head. "I hadn't thought that Master Orvanth would be so quick to notice the gems missing from his stores." The shouts from the warehouse had been loud to wake him up from his bed on the other side of town. In some ways, he's thankful for the commotion; it bought him enough time to get a head start on his pursuers.
"You are a sky pirate?" He can't detect any judgment in Fran's words, and for that he's grateful.
"I like to consider myself as such, yes," Balthier says, affecting more casualness about the question than he actually feels.
"For how long?" she asks.
Another question he'd prefer not to give a straight answer to. He has a feeling that Fran asks a lot of those. "Not long enough to build up any sort of reputation, judging by the fact that you didn't react at all when you learned my name."
The Anfang is almost close enough to touch when they round the next dune. Even battered, bruised, and covered in sand, she still carries herself with nobility. He looks over at Fran to see what she makes of his ship and thinks he catches her nodding slightly. "YPA manufacture," she says, resting her hand carefully against the /Anfang/'s side. She keeps her claws from scratching the hull, which must be difficult to do. "She seems to be an older model, although I cannot tell her year of manufacture. Someone has thought to paint over any markings that might identify such things." He thinks he hears either amusement or approval, possibly both. "She looks serviceable."
She likes his ship, thank the gods. That should make it easier to convince her to make it her home for a while. He dreads the thought of braving another desert without a companion at his side who knows what she's doing. "She's more than just serviceable," he says. "By now, she's saved me enough times to earn back double the price I paid for her."
(Technically, he's never gotten around to paying for the ship. He liberated her from his father's storehouse of odds and ends that never worked quite as expected. But the sentiment is what matters, he reasons.)
"What do you call her?"
"The /Anfang/." He strokes her hull gently, checking for any further scratches and scrapes she might have received from that sandstorm. "It means 'beginning' in the old Archades tongue."
"It is a good name," Fran says.
"A good name for a good ship," Balthier agrees. He pulls the crystal that serves as the /Anfang/'s key out from under his shirt. The ship almost seems to sigh in relief as she opens. He steps in the doorway and breathes in deeply, savoring the scent of scoured metal. "She's the best home I've ever had."
He's not sure why he decides to turn and look at Fran, but he does. Her ears are cocked and her nose is sampling the air delicately, but he doesn't think she's hearing and smelling the /Anfang/. She's lost in a place drawn from her memories. He doubts he can imagine what such a place would be like. She closes her eyes; he rests his elbow against the doorframe and props his head up against his fist, watching her. He might as well make his offer now.
"It could be your home, too, if you'd like. I could use someone with your experience. You've seen how good I am at coping with the desert, after all." He chuckles. She's not laughing at him or walking away, so he continues. "We'll share the profits-you're welcome to keep anything you get on your own, of course. You can leave whenever you like, and you don't have to call me Captain, although if you want to, I won't stop you. And you'll have your own quarters," he adds with a gentlemanly half-bow.
Time seems to grind to a halt as she walks to the entrance and looks over his shoulder to the heart of the ship itself. He reminds himself to stay relaxed, but he still feels the universe shrinking until the only occupants are himself, Fran, and the /Anfang/, and the only event worth mentioning is whether she'll say yes...
"I accept," she says, and the universe returns to its normal size. Fran's the one to hold out her hand to Balthier this time. He clasps her palm in his briefly.
"Excellent. We need to pick up parts in Rabanastre, but that shouldn't be too strenuous. I know people there who can give us what we need at entirely reasonable prices."
"And after that?" Fran asks.
"After that?" Balthier echoes. He points to the horizon and feels a smile spread over his face. "After that, we have the whole sky."