The Naming of Cats [FFXII]
The first time he lays eyes on her, she is bowed before him, wrists manacled together behind her back, looking low and defeated in a way he will come to hate as much as he hates anything in the world. The guards who bring her forth do so with twin sneers, the telltale expressions of the meagre who believe they have achieved some notable upgrade in status simply because they have been given licence to weild the Law over their fellow-men. He hates them.
"Caught her in Corridor 8-B," one of them explains, his Lower Archadean accent rendering the second word an ungraceful er. "Not an escapee -- this one's in from outside."
He is the judge here, and he straightens his shoulders, trying to pull himself taller than his (tragically unimpressive, he feels) five and three-quarters feet. No jailbreak she, that much is obvious; she has not the haunted, hollow look of the other viera brought to and contained within Draklor for experiments' sake, and her garments are not drab, utilitarian garb, but white and form-fitting. The other guard, the one that hovers behind her, holds a well-wrought iron dagger and a great wooden bow, both of which he assumes were until quite recently in their uninvited visitor's possession.
The first guard regards the Judge's hesitation, and clears his throat. "Drugged, she is, and likely not to trouble us further."
Not bloody likely, Ffamran thinks, looking down at her even as he takes his heavy gun from his hip and weighs it carefully. Even through his helm he can see the strength running beneath her skin, coursing and ebbing like tides, so strong he wonders how anyone might mistake her silence for defeat. She's biding her time.
And then she looks up at him, moving her head slowly, as though in a drugged stupor -- yet the flame behind her gaze startles him with its intensity. He raises the gun, bracing it heavy against his right hip. The penalty for trespass in Draklor is death, he knows, swift and certain, and the bullet he puts in her head will go utterly unquestioned for its necessity. He does not know what they do with the bodies of the viera broken and mutilated by their close encounters with the Mist, yet supposes that whatever disposal method they utilise will not notice one more corpse added to its workload. Or perhaps he could argue her taken alive, delivered to his father's murderous project as a dutiful son's peace offering. Waste not, want not.
He wonders what the guards think of him as he holds there, gun pointed at her head, staring at her with eyes invisible through his helm. Yet in the time it takes him to draw breath and release it again, he sees her eyes change -- a frown, an incomprehension, and then a dawning realisation that still makes no sense to her.
Ah, well, he supposes, it will have to do.
With all his strength, he swings around, bringing the butt of his gun crashing up from under, taking the guard nearest to him in the vulnerable spot beneath the chin and laying him flat by virtue of surprise as much as any feat of strength. In the same moment, he is dimly aware of her breaking free, stretching her leg back from her kneeling position to strike the selfsame spot -- great minds think alike, rattles the cliché in his head -- in an impossible kick that brings her to a standing position. The clatter of two heavily armoured bodies' hitting the floor is impressive, but not likely to attract undue attention anytime soon; after all, Draklor is a place where strangeness is best left uninvestigated.
She wheels around on her high metallic heels, taking off down the hallway, and would likely have slipped from his sight forever had he not had the grand foresight to yell, "Stop!"
Though he does not particularly expect her to comply, perhaps a vague sense of gratitude compels her turn back to him, regarding him with a great and curious look.
"You're trapped," he calls, tearing off his helm for air -- and there it is, that look he knows too well, the one that startles to see that beneath a man's suit hides a boy's face. He regrets the move instantly, fearing it will take from his argument the necessary gravitas, yet senses that this is no time for regrets. "I don't know how you got in, but if you've been found, that way's been cut off and the guard's been tripled."
He sees her shoulder muscles tense, and knows she knows he's right. "I can--"
"No," he says, speaking nearly without thinking, "you can't." Is this how his heroes would act under these circumstances? Would they strike out in the face of overwhelming injustice? Would it matter that the victim of injustice is perhaps the most stunning creature he's ever laid eyes upon? "But I can."
She stalks forward, her long legs carrying her toward him with every cautious step, ready to bolt at the slightest provocation. "Go on."
He takes a deep breath. This is the chance he's always waited for, it dawns on him, the chance to be a hero, and he's like not to get another, so he'd best not fuck it up. "My ship's on the roof. She's the Fahrrad," he adds, realising in the moment he says it that perhaps his latest choice of name is neither the most mellifluous nor the most noble, and resolves immediately to find something less unwieldy. "Not a trick, I swear."
A long moment passes -- too long, his brain tells him, they need to be running now if they have any hope of escaping unpursued, much less unnoticed -- yet he remains fast, breathing, waiting as she considers his offer. "...Why?" Her brows furrow as she weighs the course of action that will now determine both their fates.
It's a fair question. "...I hate it here," he replies, and there can be no guile in such a bald statement. The truth is a heavy burden, and yet one that when spoken, seems to bear up well enough under its own weight. "Besides," he gestures to the guards' still forms, "I'm not staying around to be taken to task for that." As a final gesture of his sincerity, he reaches into his pocket and draws out a shard of magicite, holding it toward her and murmuring a few words; she starts briefly as the shackles slip from her wrists and to the floor with another heavy noise, and he is certain he can now hear in the distance the approach of footsteps. If they are to go, they are to go now, and if they are not, well, their lives are forfeit.
She rubs at her wrists briefly, then bends down to reclaim her seized property -- and then reaches for him, wrapping bone-slender fingers around his mailed ones. "Lead me," she nods, and favours him with the razor's edge of a smile.
He gives his honest best shot at returning it, but his heart is pounding in his ears, and that makes concentrating on anything save the need to flee perilously difficult. With a burst of resolve so great he will think upon it later and be quite impressed with himself, he starts forth down the corridor, toward the stairs that will lead them upward to freedom, her hand clasped tight in his.
"It all depends on where you want to get her to," grunts the pinch-eyed man whose chin looks as though someone's sneezed pepper onto it; Fran is nearly to the point of handing him a handkerchief to spare him the embarrassment when she realises that the style, if not necessarily the effect, is likely intentional. She has been in Archades only a few days, and yet has already formulated great skepticism with regards to any hume man here's ability to grow respectable facial hair.
"As far as she'll go with an hour's attention," answers her babe-cheeked rescuer, tugging at one of the heavy metal knots in his ear. "Better faster than farther."
The man looks at the engine with undisguised skepticism, then at Ffamran with a look she cannot quite name, though even watching it as a third party settles it uneasily at the pit of her stomach. "Up for a summer stroll with your lovely there?" His words drip bitter venom from their edges, and he favours her with a glance to match, and she finds herself wondering if it would stretch too far the bounds of hospitality to punch her host's professed friend in his upturned nose.
To his great credit, Ffamran has the good graces to look disgusted with the situation. "At least to the Phon Coast. Balfonheim'd be nice, but not necessary."
"Balfonheim!" The man named Jules scoffs even as he picks up a wrench to open a panel; Ffamran follows his lead, arming himself with a crowbar and prying off a smaller hatch. "You'll be lucky to clear Sochen with her as she is now."
Fran arches an eyebrow from where she sits perched atop a pile of discarded wooden crates. "Lucky?"
"Aye," Jules nods, casting her another leering glace; she decides that she dislikes the man strenuously, and meets his look so coldly that he eventually has to turn away -- a point for her, she supposes, were she so inclined to tally petty victories. "The Ausgang here's--"
"Fahrrad," Ffamran corrects him, sounding a bit bashful even as he does so, and Fran deduces that she is in the presence of a vessel of something less than a magnificent petigree. Whatever its name, it had appeared an intensely welcome sight atop the Draklor roof -- though her estimation of it had suffered something of a blow when it had, shortly after takeoff, begun to shudder and emit a noxious black smoke. As rescue attempts go, she has to say, she's seen better.
Jules rolls his eyes and pops some valve free, letting a small vein of amber oil trickle its way to the pavement. "Regardless of her name, she was a prototype, and Master Ffamran's decision to rescue her from the scrapyards came tragically after the best parts of the engine were recycled to more profitable ventures. As such, her Glossair rings aren't half what they could be, her compressor coils came as salvage from a rather unfortunate -- save for us, of course -- mid-air collision above one of Archades' more populous intersections, I think the intake manifold began its life as my elder brother's science project--"
"Regardless," interrupts Ffamran, seconds before Fran decides to tune them out entirely for sanity's sake, "she's not precisely what one might call entirely equipped for long-range flight at the moment."
"And it'll take more than all the moogles in Archades could front to get her readied in an hour," Jules opines, though his pessimism regarding the project's outcome does not keep him from keeping to the task with due dilligence. Fran considers his words, mentally tallies the number of moogles she has seen in Archades since her arrival, and decides that Jules may finally have made a statement with which she feels comfortable agreeing. "You're a mess, you know, Master Ffamran?" The added title comes with an air of mockery Fran is entirely certain she does not care for, though it leaves her to wonder where in all these proceedings she's started caring at all about the dealings of humes, even humes willing to ferry her far from Archades. She is grateful for that above all else, for though she did not expect the city to greet her with open arms, it has welcomed her with naught save death, and she cannot wait to shake its dust from her heels.
Ffamran scowls, pausing to wipe his glasses clean before going back to work at some fierce, recalcitrant part of the ship. She knows nothing about such vessels, and would until quite recently have preferred to spend her entire life outside of one. "Just taking my chance to escape."
That catches Jules off-kilter, and though Ffamran, with his head and torso tucked securely into a moogle-sized crawlspace, does not see the look Jules givs him, Fran does -- his beady eyes widen even as his dark brows become an arrow pointing downward toward his nose. It is a look with which she is intimately familiar, and does not care to ponder its implications in this context, neither the pain it rakes on Jules' face nor Ffamran's seeming (or perhaps planned) obliviousness. "...A one-way trip, then, this'll be?"
"Leaving Archades in my wake," chirps Ffamran, popping out of the crawlspace with some mysterious flashing part in hand and a smear of oil across his pert nose. "Nothing much here I'll miss."
This time Jules wheels his gaze at her, and it is not the burst of hurt she warrants, but the slow seethe of anger. She meets him head-on, eye to eye, and does not back down from this (there is no other word for it) betrayed hume's challenge. Her conscience is untroubled by his unspoken accusations; hates her for being the spark that has set Ffamran's tinder-box alight, and for that, she supposes she is indeed culpable. Yet whatever has truly set young Master Ffamran to flight, it began long before ever he laid eyes on her, and will surely remain long after they have parted ways.
The time taken for mechanical adjustments is two hours, not one, and Ffamran flies with his eyes fixed to the radar until they are well out of Archadian airspace -- though his caution is for naught, there is no pursuit, and even the patrol ships that drift their lazy way across the skies spare his unmarked fighter little more than a glance as he speeds from Archades just as fast as inconspicuousness will allow. Straight toward the coast he heads, over uninhabited and rarely-traveled territory, figuring to make a more definite decision about their route when he runs out of land to cross, and not before. The engines whine the song of sick cats, but they appear to be holding him aloft, and he requires little more.
Fran sits in the co-pilot's seat next to him, hands folded in her lap, eyes fixed firmly ahead; her hair is a halo of white disguising the place where hume-ears would be, circling her face in gentle frame. Both her distance at Jules' garage from the ship's outer workings and her subsequent reticence here at its inner workings resonate with what he has heard of viera, the wood-workers, the green-speakers, no beloved of machines they. He has appreciated her silence the hour past, for any attempt at conversation would have interrupted his breathless fixation upon the instrument panel and surely have pushed his frayed nerves to a breaking-point.
Yet as safety and open skies spread out now like twins before them, he wonders if he ought say something, or if there is anything to say at all.
After several agonised minutes' worth of silence -- agonised on his part alone, he's certain, for she looks so calm as to be nearly asleep -- he clears his throat. "So," he begins, "Draklor."
And that, Ffamran finds to his great terror, is the entirety of his offering to the conversation. She spares him a sideways glance, then goes back to surveying the scenery before them; he shores up his thoughts more fully this time before he speaks again. "...Why Draklor?"
"My sisters have of late been disappearing under ill circumstances," she tells him in her curious, round accent, more words at once than he's heard her speak in total thus far. "What signs I have been able to uncover led me there. ...Yet instead of answers, I found their bodies."
"I wish I could plead ignorance of such goings-on," he sighs, and he feels her turn a piercing gaze on him. "Viera are more sensitive to Mist than humes, and as such...." He leaves the sentence's end hanging on the air; they both know how it would end, and such horrors bear repeating no more than absolutely necessary. In truth, he knows little about the precise nature of such experiments beyond the fact of their existence -- indeed, knows not even the length and breadth of what he does not know, and begins to suspect that she may be more well-informed in the matter than he. "As such, you stumbled across my mad father's grotesque handiwork."
He half-expects her to turn on him then, he supposes, with fangs and teeth to rip him apart for his sire's crimes -- yet, incongruous though such a reaction may seem, he sees from the corner of his eye her expression soften. "Then I am sorry it has come to such between you and your father. I know what it is to be at odds with one's family."
"Don't be," he brushes off with a laugh, hoping the scornful sound will cover any hurt that might attempt to surface in his words. "We lost one another long ago."
Fran settles her hands again in her lap, turning her eyes once more out at the landscape, where the golden line of the sea at sunset crackles just off the horizon; Ffamran weighs his options and decides that turning west toward the Phon Coast is still too close to civilisation for his nervous heart, which has not entirely acquiesced to his conscious mind's declaration that their pursuit is none. East, then, away from what for him constitutes known territory, toward the coming night.
"I know what that is as well," she offers after a long moment, and the rest of the ride passes in silence, down the water's edge through the encroaching darkness, toward the lights of Balfonheim.
She spends the first week expecting him to ask her to leave, but he does not, and as she has nowhere else to go, she does not.
Having never been in her life this far east, she is uncertain what their reception will be in the port town, and is on the whole surprisingly pleased to discover that the only thing remarkable about their presence here is how unremarkable it is. Fran has traveled far since her time of departing her home village, yet nowhere else save her brief stay among the Dalmascan border villages has she seen such diversity of races and trades, all with far more an eye to minding their own businesses than to sticking noses of any shape into hers.
Ffamran has decided to settle the ship (she has heard it called no fewer than four separate names in her short acquaintance with it, and has such decided that 'the ship' will do well enough for the time being, and a pox on the indecision of humes) just on the edge of the city, on the side farthest from the shore. The first order of business, he has told her, will be to fix the ship, for no matter what winds they might wish to catch, such plans will have to wait until the engines no longer belch black smoke and the ship's body no longer shakes like a palsied thing.
In truth, she is glad to have a place just to be, a place to wait. Too much of her life beyond the Wood's embrace has seemed blind and aimless; she drifts, a leaf supported by a river's current, the purposeful trajectory of its travels belied by the stream that bears it aloft beyond its control. At least the lead to Draklor had given her purpose for a time, and even the gun's barrel lifted to her brain had been a direction.
Yet here she finds herself again, lost in the world. She could go back, might even be able to persuade Ffamran to accompany her -- yet deep inside she knows such action would be folly, a repeat of her earlier performance, only this time with no luck left to lift her from there on his (slightly dilapidated) wings. She had found her sisters, indeed, but only their bodies long cold, and no sign that there might be those yet trapped inside still alive for rescue. For all her efforts, she simply arrived too late. The more she speaks to Ffamran of the situation, the more certain she becomes in her assessment.
The more she speaks to Ffamran at all, the more he warms, the initial tremble of fear she felt shaking off his skin having subsided. He is quiet, though, often lost in thought, or lost in the machinery -- and on the warm day she returns from a stroll through the marketplace, he is obviously both, sitting with some severed engine component across his oil-soaked grey trousers, his eyes fixed on the clear blue sky.
Fran clears her throat, and actually finds herself having to work to keep amusement from quirking her lips as he drops the metal artifact in surprise, jerking his head in her direction. "You approach too quietly," he chides, retrieving the piece and brushing dirty from its side before resuming work with a pair of thin metal pliers. "Perhaps we ought bell you, for my heart's sake. A little one, just around your neck, both attractive and functional."
"There's a bill posted," she tells him, having learned quite quickly that the best course of action when he speaks nonsense is to ignore him and continue on with whatever business was at hand before his mouth opened. "Up the Steppe."
"Indeed." Fran can tell he's trying his best to appear unimpressed, and feels sorry for him, that he must go through life so easily readable. "Well, I'm certain it'll be dealt with in a timely fashion."
Fran cocks an eyebrow. "Shall I take it you're uninterested?"
"Didn't say that, did I?" Ffamran twists a wire free, frowns at it, and pitches it off into the scrub (where, Fran is certain, some poor creature will choke on it and die, and a pox on humes and their wastefulness). "But until we've the Strahl up and running, I daresay I haven't much time for much recreation."
The Strahl, then; perhaps this one will stick. "A recreation that might well serve as a source of income," Fran points out. "And you'd have better luck if the...." Though she's been watching off and on him for several days, an education based solely on observation omits several key factors, among them the proper names for anything. "If the this," she points to a black, ribbed cable that snakes down along a fanned metal coil, "were run through the this," her fingernails trace what she's been able to determine is some air filtration device, "before it connected here," she indicates the cable's eventual destination, a grey box aside the chamber where large amounts of magicite reside.
When she looks back to Ffamran, his jaw is nearly touching his chin. "...How do you--?"
"I watch you," she shrugs, though it's only half the answer. Viera are taught from tender age to navigate the Wood by its patterns, to recognise its systems and humours, its courses and seasons, until what stretches before them is not the fearful chaos most creatures behold, but blessed familiarity. The machine before her does not have the same organic beauty as the Wood, yet upon closer examination evidences many of the same patterns and humours as the natural world.
Ffamran scowls over his glasses, then pitches her the tool, which she plucks effortlessly from the air. "Fine, then. Put your wrench where your mouth is." His words and expression appear outwardly cross, and she worries briefly that her words have given him cause for offense. Yet a spark shines behind his eyes, and she registers his reaction for what it is -- not jab but jibe, nearly kindly in its tease, tempered by the near-smile that threatens to wreck the scowl he tries so hard to affect.
"Then I shall," she says, accepting his challenge and taking to the vessel's workings with a near-smile of her own.
The nearly naked pair of breasts that meets them on the other side of the tavern's door is so impressive that Ffamran takes several moments more to notice fully the woman attached to them, and another several to notice the strapping men around her, and by that point Fran has begun to loom over his shoulder and wait for something to happen, and he cannot even pretend in the slightest that he has not wasted the first critical seconds of this encounter by gawking. "...Ah, sorry, wrong door?"
"You're the two what've been clearning all the marks," the woman says, her voice redolent of the islands that line the coastal edge of Archadian territory. A black satin bandana keeps several braided strands of dark hair from her eyes, and every time she moves her head, the bells and beads at their tips sing a percussive song.
Ffamran takes a backward step and casts a sidelong glance to Fran, who merely shrugs; he decides in that moment that honesty is the order of the day, and if it comes served with a side dish of heroic embellishment, so much the better. "We are -- and have returned triumphant with the horns of the fabled and elusive Bandersnatch, to claim our just reward from...." Memory fails him, and he casts an eye briefly at the bill to refresh his memory. "From the Lady Calliope, it says, or from the envoy with whom we spoke originally, it matters not to us."
"Then you'd be talking to me." Her words are decorated artfully by two gold rings that circle through the side of her lower lip, and Ffamran finds his eyes settling there once he removes them more firmly from her chest. "I posted the bill, and am pleased to see you come to it in good time."
"We're an efficient team," he says, and this statement can hardly be termed exaggeration at all. His eyesight, worthless unaided for squinting at fine print, has no fault at great distance, and his years of target practice (at his father's insistence, of course) have of late come to very practical fruition. Indeed, his choice of weapon has proven to be a great asset to their partnership, for while he poises himself as a cacophanous, black-powdered distraction, she can slip nigh-unnoticed with bow and knife past their quarry's defences, until the creature has fallen and the mark is theirs. ...At least, such is the general theory, for though the plan has served them on a half-dozen instances the week past, Ffamran has occasionally walked away from the hunts wondering just how close she was planning on letting that thing get to him before intervening. Such trifling details, however, are not the stuff of legend, and he secrets them away at his own discretion.
Calliope laughs, though the men attending to her (two humes and a particularly shifty-looking bangaa) do not so much as put cracks in their stern expressions. "Well, welcome to Balfonheim. It's my city, after all, and I'd hope you feel free enough in it to stay a spell -- though if you do, you and your efficient partner may end up running off some of our more dedicated bounty hunters."
Ffamran does his best to keep his expression neutral, and hopes that the subsequent exchange of glances he shares with Fran will be interpreted as sheepishness regarding their sucess, or some other competent emotion, he cares not which. Truth be told, he hadn't known Balfonheim as a city to be owned by anyone -- though, truth be told, he hadn't known much about Balfonheim at all beyond speculation and reputation as a free port, a place for the more disreputable members of society, where a Upper Archadian escapee still in the middle of his growth spurt and the viera accompanying him might go unnoticed.
So much for unnoticed, he thinks, fingering absentely the bill still clutched between his fingers. "Many thanks." He favours her with a half-bow, trusting excessive deference to cover a multitude of ignorances. "Now, I believe my associate has a bag of horns, and would much care to divest herself of them, while I would much care to discuss the payment stipulated earlier." While he does not much suspect her of being the type to try and substitute such a welcome for reward enough, he ill-trusts pirate folk enough already that he would not put such past her.
The bangaa takes the burlap sack from Fran -- Ffamran is amused to no slight degree to see him buckle under the unexpected weight she has carried so effortlessly -- and one of the hume men produces a sandalwood box in which Ffamran desperately hopes is contained the previously agreed-upon 1500 gil (a paltry reward for such hard work, he complains later, but Fran hushes him and tells him that everyone starts small), though he decides ultimately that peeking to check would be construed as a sign of bad faith. Trying to affect a casual air, he slips it in one of the leather pouches at his hip. "Pleasure doing business with you," he winks, half-gratified and half-scandalised to see that though the Lady Calliope is obviously far too interested in Fran to respond to such base flirting, the less recalcitrant of her hume hangers-on favours him with a low smile. Well, that's an avenue of entertainment he's not precisely considered before, but files it away in the back of his mind as a possibility nonetheless.
Once near the edge of the city, Fran makes a thoughtful sound. "I'd wondered if we might meet her."
Ffamran wheels on her, fighting to keep his feet moving against the urge to stop dead in his tracks and have it out. "Her? Wait, you knew about her? More to the point, you knew and you didn't tell me?"
"I thought you'd have known when you selected our destination." Fran shrugs, settling an ill-fitting helm about her ears; hume helms are obviously not made for viera, even with strategically punctured holes. "The pirate queen, who keeps the pirate town of Balfonheim well and in order despite its disreputable citizenry."
"You chose the mark," Ffamran points out, squinting against the wind, which has begun to pick up, carrying clouds of the upland soil with it.
"I'd wondered for your lack of enthusiasm."
"I can't believe you didn't say something."
"What was there to be said?" They enter the clearing where the Freitag (he likes this new name, it has a sturdy sound to it) has settled down; their presence startles some of the more curious and innocuous wildlife away. She spares him a glance, and sighs at his downcast face. "In the future, though a fact may seem unsubtle, I shall endeavour yet to make mention of it to you, that nothing might escape your notice."
He favours her with a sour look. "I've scarce been outside Archades my entire life, and certainly never this long before. While I thank you for not bringing up the matter of my shortcomings in public, I'd honestly prefer you didn't bring them up at all."
"I've observed recently that you're a hume," she points out, apparently making good on her recently declared intent to state the obvious at all times.
"Thank you for that, yes, I mightn't've caught that one." Instead of returning to the ship's interior, he reaches for one of the wrenches in his now-considerable toolbox and hoists himself up the ship's side. The dual-wing design, though quite elegant in concept, has more than a few flaws in execution, and even more so now that he's started making adjustments to its structure; Fran may have proven herself the pair's superior mechanic, but he's still the one whose misspent youth involved many hours of studying historical vessel schematics, and he'll be damned if he lets such a trove of knowledge go to waste.
She watches his ascent, her arms folded, squinting into the midday light. "Now you're atop the ship."
If she keeps this up, he may have to heave the wrench at her; it'd necessitate climbing all the way back down to retrieve it and up again, but at this point, he dares think it'd be worth it. "Thank you for the status update, yes, you can go inside now."
"There's an Earth Elemental behind you."
"Thank y-- there's a what?" Ffamran whips his head around just in time to see the glowing orb encroaching on his head, which startles him so badly he loses his balance and falls to the ground, landing on a mound of tall grasses. Far above him, the elemental drifts lazily by, oblivious to the non-magical goings-on surrounding it; from much closer above him, the shadow of two long ears falls across his face. This partnership has become rather hard on his dignity.
Fran has in the past not precisely gone out of her way to avoid other viera, as she knows she will find no judgement from them for having left the Wood, for they are guilty of the same crime; however, neither has she sought them out, for shared race and exile states are hardly sufficient to create bonds broad enough to cover a multitude of other sins. The diversity of population in Balfonheim means a relatively high number of viera, however, and she has found encounters unavoidable.
Ffamran has stepped into a small shadowed alcove, dealing with a bangaa trader -- the boy may be naïve in many other respects, but he can bargain like the queen of the fishwives -- leaving her a few steps away, trying not to appear too threatening a presence (for oft when traders become nervous, prices tend to rise mysteriously). She stands not too purposefully in the sunshine, letting her head fall back just a touch, enjoying the warmth on her face. Balfonheim had these past two days had rain so miserable Ffamran had both compared the place to Archades unfavourably and made the executive decision that they should stay in the Gurke (its newest apellation, and one she is too polite to say sounds like an unpleasant bodily noise), lest the downpour sweep them both away. But today the storm has broken, and the sky is endless blue above the city.
"Hail, sister." A voice with a northern accent greets her in the viera tongue, and she turns to see three of her sisters standing there. "Well-met, so far from the Wood."
"Well-met indeed," Fran answers politely, lifting a hand in a greeting she knows to be particular to Eryut. She offers nothing else, though, hoping they will content themselves with having made their presence known and be on their way. Even back in her Wood, she had not been known as the friendliest.
The viera who had given the initial greeting, however, gestures to the two standing behind her. "These are my sisters Brta and Ylgja, daughters of Tytja and Nauma, and of the Great Wood beyond the Black River. I am Alhvt, daughter of Imdg and also of the Great Wood beyond the Black River."
"Fran," she replies curly, leaving the requisite geneaologies unspoken as she has ever since she stepped beyond her own Great Wood's green bounds and into the sun-bare world beyond Her reach. She is the daughter of none now, not of her dame, and certainly not of the Wood. What other traditions other viera seek to preserve are their own business, but she will have none of it.
Alhvt nods, her lips curling into the very ghost of a hume's smile, an expression that bespeaks her great distance from her home. Her teeth gleam like the daggers at her hips. "Fran, then. Word has reached us of your accomplishments."
Fran already has an idea as to where this conversation is headed, and feels her shoulders begin to tense. "Indeed."
"You brought down the Myrmidon King," says the one identified as Ylgja, her voice betraying a youthful awe Fran finds both vexing and heartbreakingly familiar all at once. "The hunters who watched said it was a sight to rival the stories of the Great Huntress."
"I brought it down with my partner." Fran folds her arms, feels her ears begin to set back in irritation, and wills them to remain upright; she wants no quarrel, not even with those who so obviously wish to curry her favour with flattery. She says a fervent prayer to the very same Great Huntress that Ffamran stay engaged with his business dealings as long as possible, only to be reminded of the Huntress' terribly cruel sense of humour as he steps up behind her a moment later, his arms full of twine-tied bundles, wearing a truly idiotically hopeful smile across his face. Fran vows never to observe the ritual of the Hunt Moon again if the Huntress keeps responding to a sincere postulant's pleas with the precise opposite.
"Ladies," he smiles up at them -- up being the operative word, for though she might swear he's grown a full inch since their first meeting, he still has a long way to go before he can look any but the shortest viera in the eye. "Lovely day for shopping, isn't it?"
Brta, with black-dyed braids in her hair and heavy rings in her ears, gives him the same disgusted look Fran has seen on the faces of bangaa passing too close to cesspools. "Your pet?" she mocks, still in the viera tongue.
"My partner." Fran forms her words with thinned lips.
The laughter from the northern viera is cruel enough that Ffamran's sunny smile begins to darken at the corners. "Come with us," Alhvt says, stepping closer, as though to come between Fran and the place where the diminutive hume stands. "Your blade and your bow would come to far greater use with your sisters at your hand; surely you know the truth of this as much as you know anything."
The worst part is that Fran indeed must know the truth of her sisters' words. If she resembles the Great Huntress so, it is because she, like the Huntress, comes alone to take down her quarry. Ffamran's perch needs be placed beyond the range of injury, and as such her own part assumes the antlion's share of the risk. What foes could she best, then, if not one but three of comparable skill joined her to set upon a beast? Might there be any mark they could not vanquish, any legendary beast they could not foil? Even if they themselves turn out only to possess a small fraction of her speed and talents, their greater number would more than make up for any such deficiencies.
Fran lifts her hand again. "Go in peace with the wind, that it may one day gather you home." Slipping back into the common tongue, she favours Ffamran with a nod. "Shall we?"
"Pleasure meeting you all," he half-bows to them, though Fran can swear she detects a knife's edge hidden beneath the charming tone of his voice; they unsurprisingly do not even deign to acknowledge his presence as the curious pair slips away. Through the market they go, Fran in the lead, Ffamran a quarter-page behind, and every step she takes, she wills be strong and even, not to drag her feet as though to show remorse at her decision, not to sprint as though running from fate. Strong and even, and never look back.
Time proves him a liar -- contrary to what he told Jules, Archades, it turns out, does have its fair share of things worth missing. Among them is his book collection, his shelves and shelves of volumes that lined the walls of his room and continued into the adjoining study. Their funds here are tight, most of their bounty earnings going toward the modifications on the Messer (he really likes this one, it's got a nice ring to it), and Ffamran acknowledges the necessity of this, even encourages frugality in all other respects that they might have enough not to skimp on parts; he's been around mechanics and shipyards enough of his life to know that in cutting corners lies only disaster.
He is therefore grateful the day he returns from bartering, when Fran's gaze falls on the volume tucked away amongst the coils and compressors, then turns away without comment. A cheap, poorly crafted copy of The Song of Balthier it is, its cheap leather binding threatening to let the contents loose at any moment, the pages turned and cracked at every edge, the antiquated false-gilt lettering on the cover (made to look like moogle script, though Ffamran knows it to be artistic nonsense) nearly flaked and worn off entirely. He's paid for it three times what such a decrepit volume would be worth at any reputable bookseller's, he knows, and chastises himself for letting his want for it be so obvious to the old hume woman peddling it, but he had so truly surprised to see it among its penny-novel companions that he had nearly been brought to tears.
For the first time in as many months, he finds his heart longing for the life he has left behind.
Ffamran has just reached the point where Balthier meets the nameless child-viera (scholars have argued long and excitably over whether she is intended to seem a child or merely unusually small in stature, as the only clue given to her appearance is a scant line -- 'then she and Balthier stood toe to toe and eye to eye,' as the later Durai translation renders it -- but Ffamran chooses to believe the former assessments, as who has ever seen a short viera?) when he has a thought that causes him to lift his head from the verse and turn to Fran. "...How do viera reproduce, anyway?"
Fran looks at him as delicately as she can with a giant steak-bone tucked in the edge of her mouth; she eats at least three times what he does, and has taken to gnawing the bones afterward, something Ffamran cannot decide is arousing or just disturbing. "Spores," she answers flatly, turning back to the schematics spread before her.
"Very funny." He lifts the pale ribbon from where it dangles over the back cover and drapes it between pages to mark his place, closing the volume on his knees. Curious man-sized circular indentations in the Messer's walls serve no design purpose so far as he can determine, and though he has vowed several times to make them windows just as soon they can afford the glass-blower's fee, for the time being they make fine reading nooks, which he has taken to curling himself into for greater comfort. The curve of the metal settles his feet about as high as his head, a contortion he finds surprisingly pleasant. "I mean, I've never even seen a male viera. Female viera, sure, you're everywhere. But beyond the hearing of a few rumours, I've come to doubt you even have men."
Her teeth click against bone, though even from this distance he can tell her show of irritation is mostly for effect. "Budding."
Ffamran pushes his glasses up his nose; without them, the tiny print of this reproduction blurs into senseless mist. "I've come to doubt you have children, either. I used to suspect there was only one viera in the world, and she was very fast and changed her hairstyle rapidly just to confuse the poor humes around her. ...Then I saw three or four of you in a bunch, and it ruined that theory--"
"Mitosis," she deadpans.
"You're not going to tell me, are you?" In lieu of answering, she lifts the edge of the blueprint with two elongated fingernails and turns to the sheet beneath it, studying it with what appears to be renewed intensity. "Fine," he sighs, shaking his head. "Don't tell. You're not the only one who can keep secrets."
Fran shakes her head. "Humes have no secrets. If they did, they would write them down in books, and then they would no longer be secrets."
"Well, we don't have arboreal telepathy, so we have to do something."
Now she looks hard at him, uncomfortable surprise written across her brow. "...What do humes know of that?"
"Humes? Oh, nothing. Moogles, though." He lifts the book and beats a quick tattoo on the cover with his fingertips. "Moogles know everything. Someday, when we're big famous sky pirates, we should get a moogle crew for the ship. Not to travel all the time, just a ground crew, for repairs and crawling into small places. My fa-- I learned everything there is to know about ship repair from watching moogles."
"That is hardly a rousing endorsement," she points out, her nose twitching. "And now we are to be sky pirates?"
Ffamran shrugs, settling back down into his book, thumbing carefully to the spot he'd left. "It's better than an honest living. And more glamourous. Not stealing for ourselves, though, there's no profit in that. We'll end up sitting like dragons on a hoarde of meaningless trinkets at that rate." He waves his hand meaninglessly in the air, a terrible stalling gesture his etiquitte teachers had never entirely broken. "We'll ... take bills. From clients. Do you want this or that stolen? Call on Ffamran and Fran, the famous sky pirates! For only a modest fee, of course, far less than the value of the this-or-that in question -- but for us, far more than that same object would be worth resting idle in our hands."
"I think your adventure book has addled your brain."
"Just you wait." The ribbon slides out from between the leaves of yellowed paper with a whisper that sounds to his ears like Ffamran and Fran, the famous sky pirates. A lot of f's, but still quite distinguished-sounding. Ffamran and Fran, lords of the skies.
She watches him weight the short sword in his hand, turning it over and over before settling on a grip. "All proper pirates carry swords," Ffamran tells her. "Or most of them, at least."
"Did Calliope tell you such?" Fran laces on a new pair of shoes, frowning at the imperfect fit. Hume cobblers are terrible at gauging viera sizes; if she wants a proper pair, she wagers she'll have to get them custom-fit, and what an expense that will be. If he is indeed serious about sky piracy as a lifestyle choice -- and she has been given no reason to believe otherwise -- she hopes they can get on with it sometime soon. The longer they stay in place, the longer their expenses build to the point of outweighing their increasingly meagre income. The problem with good bounty hunters is they are apt to run themselves out of business.
"She suggested as much," Ffamran admits, stepping into a fighting stance with ease, his body lean and strong in his lightweight practice clothes. Though his specialty may be the gun, he appears similarly well-suited to the blade. "Piracy, she explained, is often an art of close combat, and one ought be prepared to do battle at whatever distance the situation requires."
Fran neither likes nor dislikes Calliope (indeed, she makes a point of not expending any more emotional energy on humes than strictly necessary), but Ffamran has of late spent a great deal of time around her and her ilk, presumably engaging in what amount to informal piracy lessons. She is glad that he is making friends, and gladder still that his involvement with them keeps him out of the ship and out of her hair while she's working. "Worthy advice indeed."
He thrusts forward, as though to impale some invisible enemy, then spins around and follows through with a second slash; he wears about his wrist now the brightly coloured bands she has seen on others around town, and they clink softly against his bare arm as he moves. "Will you watch to see if my back leg's straight? Gustave frequently corrects me on that."
Her eyebrow arches. "Gustave?"
"One of Calliope's men. You remember. The red-headed hume who met us at the tavern."
"With the little moustache?"
"No, he's shaven it off."
And so much the better for him, she thinks; the man had looked ridiculous, as though he'd neglected to wipe his upper lip after his last meal of tomato stew. "It looks fine." She gestures to his back leg, which is indeed poised straight and strong. "Don't overextend your elbow."
With a frown, he pulls the sword closer, correcting the problem. "...Many proper pirates have moustaches."
"Some even full beards."
"Is that so."
Ffamran takes a few more strikes at the air, looking sharp. His glasses lay on the rock beside her, as he claims they merely serve to get in the way of his more athletic pursuits, and though she tends to hold true that a warrior's eyesight is an important asset, his form hardly seems to suffer without them, so she opts not to press his preferences in that regard. Without the frames, he appears older, their absence removing from him the air of the errant schoolboy -- yet simultaneously and paradoxically younger, as without their lines crossing his face, his youthful features can be viewed unimpeded. "Perhaps I ought grow one myself."
The amount of control Fran exerts over the musculature of her face is so great that only her eyebrow twitches, and even that only a fraction. "I do not think such a choice would suit you."
"Oh?" Ffamran turns to her, tapping the flat of his sword's blade against the outer side of his shoe. "I think a moustache might well befit a leading man."
Caught somewhere between her general disdain for facial hair and her overwhelming skepticism that the young man before her could manage even with effort more than a three-haired beard, Fran opts to change the subject. "Perhaps if you learn to take from mark and minor beast alike while yet they live, we would increase our take at the bazaar."
He sighs, picking up the sword and resuming his stance. "No moustache, then. But what are your thoughts on sideburns?"
She shakes her head, grabbing a nearby screwdriver to tighten her new shoes' unfortunately loose heel. "As you like."
On the morning of his seventeenth birthday, Ffamran Bunansa wakes to find himself in a dubiously acquired and highly modified ship settled on the edge of a pirate port, sleeping in a hammock strung up in the ship's largest closet (which has come to serve also as a walk-in toolbox), living with both a beautiful and talented woman who could probably kill him with just her teeth, and a rather insistent erection.
He figures that this is perhaps the best birthday ever.
He can tell from the cracks in the ship (and that's another item on his list of Things That Need Fixing, for the last thing they need is heat escaping at high altitudes) that the sun has come up, and that Fran has been polite enough to let him sleep in this morning. Though he remembers having told her of the day's significance, her reaction seemed unimpressed at best, and in the end he assumed she'd forgotten about it. The thought that she might not have makes him smile.
Fortune could hardly have presented him with a better partner, to say nothing of a more beautiful one. Ffamran has in his now-seventeen years known many women -- and since the age of fourteen, known quite a few of them better than others -- but has never met any more magnificent than she. He wants to touch her, to stroke her long ears -- knowing full well that doing so would likely lose him a hand, though this knowledge perversely serves to arouse him more. That selfsame hand that gains such access in his fantasties now slips down his chest to his belly and lower, pushing his loose breeches from his hips.
Surely she cannot keep up her feigned disinterest for long, he thinks, tracing fingers along the inside of his thighs. Surely she's bound to give any day now. After all, isn't that how women work? They have pride, of course, women are particularly prideful and viera doubly so, but none can hold out forever.
Moving more absently than purposefully, he begins to stroke himself to full hardness, biting his lips to keep a moan from escaping. Perhaps one day he could rescue her again! ...Though 'again' seems a funny word for it, as he knows full well that he'd less rescued her there as facilitated an escape she'd surely have made on her own. But this time, one one of their hunts, she could be in actual trouble, real mortal danger, as the stories are wont to put it. And if she were -- and certainly he does not wish her to be in peril, perish the thought, but if it just so happened during one of their exciting and dangerous adventures that she were -- he could swoop in to save her, to pluck her away as a brand from burning and preserve her life. Some great and slobbering behemoth, perhaps, and she o'erzealous in pursuit makes a fatal error, a misstep, a miscalculation, that only he (perched atop his vantage point) can see.
In his mind, he jumps heroically from the cliff to the grassy terrain, running and shooting full charge until the beast is dead, even swinging wildly thanks to his newly acquired swordsmanship, not part of the original plan, but surely she'll take improvisation in exchange for her life. And as the foul creature falls around them, crashing like thunder to the ground, he takes her in his arms and asks if she's all right, and she, bleeding but not critically injured, lifts one hand to his face and by way of thanking him, her hero, for saving her, brings their lips together for a sweet kiss--
The door to the closet swings open and Fran is in before he can even begin to pretend he was doing something, anything else. "Thought you'd be awake by now," she rolls her eyes, reaching right over him for the welding gear that rests just above his right shoulder. She looks neither intrigued nor disgusted, but perfectly business-like, with perhaps an added shade of the oh, humes expression with which he's gained regrettable familiarity. And then she is gone, not even bothering to shut the door behind her, leaving him wall-eyed and speechless, with only his own hand encircling the rapidly wilting form of his prick.
Ffamran spends the remainder of his seventeeth birthday working out a lock on the supply closet door.
"She's a proper ship now, quite nearly," Ffamran muses as he picks through the remans of his dinner before giving up and shoving the plate still half-full over to Fran's side of the table; the boy has the appetite of a sick bird, and Fran does not believe in waste. "Perhaps she ought have her name painted on the side."
Fran snorts through a mouthful of heavy stew over rice. "You'll have to pick one and stick to it, or there'll be a lot of paint wasted."
"Quiet you. I think the Wuerste is a lovely name. Has a good, heavy sound to it. Don't you think?"
She doesn't think, in fact; quite frankly, she's numbered at least two dozen different name changes since meeting the ship, and those are only the ones to have made themselves heard outside of Ffamran's head, with each one having been the worst (the pun is unintentional, but it tugs at the corners of her mouth anyway). "Where do you get these names? They're in no language I know."
"Old High Archadian." He takes a sip of his wine, looking thoughtful. "In his youth, years before I was born, my father redesigned the entire Archadian fleet -- but before that, ships and ship classes had more traditional set of names, describing more of what they looked like -- usually long and lean, very aerodynamic. Though the fleet's got a whole mess of new classes and titles now, smaller ship-builders still pull from that tradition to give their vessels names."
Fran shakes her head at him. "I don't see why this decision is so difficult."
Ffamran scoffs at her. "The naming of things is very important. I once had a pet cat who went five years before we found his name. When I called him Fluffy, as five-year-olds are wont to do, he set about destroying my nice bedsheets. When I called him Eutorpe, he went wild and refused to listen to reason -- even for a cat. When I called him Clarence, he hid under the bed and came out only at night. Only when I showed Emperor Felinius III the proper respect did he have anything at all to do with me."
"But that was a cat," Fran points out, gesturing with her fork before she catches herself (of all the horrible habits she's acquired in their time together, that one is the worst, and she's determined to break it) and steadfastly wills herself to stop, "and this is a ship."
"Cats, ships, humes, viera -- it's much the same. In Archades, those who ascend to new positions -- particularly the Judges Magister, a terrifying lot you ought be glad you had the pleasure of not meeting -- regularly turn over their old names for new ones as a sign of accepting their new roles, becoming new people entirely. What people call you has a lot of power. It's very important."
That cuts his tirade on naming short; he stares into his wineglass, eyebrows raising a fraction in surprise. "That's not one of the old ship names; why that one?"
Fran shrugs, taking another few bites of his relinquished portion, hardly one to let such a thing as conversation get in the way of eating her fill. "I liked it. It had a good sound." Once again, he's overcooked the meat, making it all unpleasantly tough. "I could say it."
"You could say Messer just fine."
"Yes, but I didn't like Messer."
When he does not respond, she returns to the task of finishing her supper. At first, she found the prospect of not only eating with another, but still eating longer after he had finished somewhat unnerving; by now, however, she knows that if she'd continued to let such things upset her, she'd never have made it through another meal. She's nearly cleaned her plate, and is pondering checking the cupboard for bread to sop the remnants, when finally he mutters an answer: "...It was the name of Balthier's sword."
"Balthier?" Fran is not on the whole much familiar with any race's work of literature, but his inability to stop talking about the noble moogle hero of the book she swears he's read and re-read no fewer than three times since acquiring it has educated her somewhat. "The moogle had a sword?"
Ffamran quirks his lips to one side, an expression he oft makes when defiantly refusing to be mocked. "A small one, I'd assume."
"How cute," she quips, well beneath her breath. "The Strahl, then."
"I didn't say we could name her that."
"Then you oughtn't have suggested it." Rising from the table, she gathers dishes and cutlery alike, carrying them over to the sink. Of all the internal modifications they've carried out, she's been most impressed by the ease of adding the small kitchen -- no chef's delight, to be certain, but perfectly servicible for two people, and a good third option to their previous choices of cook it outside or eat it cold. She scarce lives under the illusion that she's had her last raw meal, but for now, it is a quite-servicible touch of civilisation.
Leaning back in his chair, Ffamran sighs at her over his shoulder. "I suppose I don't get a say in this now?"
The water heating system runs off heat generated by the ship's engines, and as they have travelled nowhere today, the water that comes forth from the tap is regrettably cold. "You have had your say. Now it is mine." She ponders a fire spell to encourage the water to heat, a small one, but fire in particular can be unpredictable, and she doesn't wish to chance destroying their hard work just for the sake of dishes.
"The Strahl, then," he echoes, surveying the bulkheads and flooring as though seeing it all for the first time. "Is that acceptable to you, my lady?"
Fran rolls her eyes, knowing she is hardly the lady he addresses. "She can't answer. She's a machine."
Ffamran grins. "No, but she can hear me."
The ship gives no audible reply -- and though Fran thinks she feels the water run momentarily warmer over her hands, she brushes such off as a figment of her imagination, and does not bother telling Ffamran. The ship, no matter her name, is still only a machine, not to be felt like the Wood, and his delusions of anthropomorphism need no help from her oversensitive mind.
The Strahl circles the coast, skimming on currents high above the sands that cover an admittedly short radius from the Balfonheim, on her first technically long-term voyage to test how she flies with all her modifications. Ffamran beckons her from his place at the helm, and she skips and darts among the clouds, plunging down toward the ocean once at such a steep angle that he fears Fran may yet rise from her seat for the sole purpose of killing him.
"Perhaps you ought take flying lessons," she opines, her ears flattening back.
"Next time you have to go anywhere, you could take a teleport crystal," he points out as he levels their trajectory.
She scowls and settles back in her seat. "I don't care for the way they make me feel. It's unpleasantly like being drunk."
"What's so unpleasant about being drunk?"
"You ask a glass of water."
He supposes he can't argue with that one, and so settles back in the pilot's chair, being so bold as to remove his hands entirely from the helm for the few seconds before the ferocity of Fran's gaze convinces him to grasp the controls again. "You'll have to learn how to deal with my daredevil piloting once we're sky pirates."
"Then you shall have to deal with my bruising your shin with my foot every time you try." As though to prove her point, she stretches her leg over, tapping the long, pointed heel of her metal shoe just above his ankle. With not much more force behind them, those could do serious damage, and he makes a mental note not to incur their wrath any more than strictly necessary.
Ffamran coughs and draws his leg just beyond her easy reach. "Threats of injury notwithstanding, I'd say this has been a most successful test flight. Now if we can upgrade the fuel capacity, we might be able to take her safely somewhere beyond the reach of Balfonheim without fearing finding our tanks empty mid-journey." The previous fuel cells had been more than sufficient to carry them on their Archadian escape, but the upgrades drain them now far more quickly, and after a scant fifteen minutes in the air the gauge already shows the remaining capacity dwindling perilously close to the red line of empty. "Even flying conservatively, we'd scarce make sight distance of the Phon Coast before running dry."
The fuel issue, however, is only a minor impediment, and one addressed easily enough with the proper combination of finances and mechanical skill, such a quick fix that even it does nothing to dampen his spirits. The end of their time grounded is firmly in sight, and beyond that, their destination lies where fancy takes them. Chancing Fran's wrath, he takes the Strahl in to ground far too fast, pulling out at the last minute for a point-perfect landing in their customary clearing. When he finally dares look her direction, however, what he sees is not a scowl, but an almost-pleased lift to her eyebrows. "You're quite good at that," she concedes.
"I ought be. I've spent enough of my life behind the wheel, working mostly on the theory that someday I may have to outrun someone larger than I." He hits a few switches, powering down the ship's flight controls, which sing a descending hum on their way to sleep.
"Is that why you always run as a man fleeing pursuit?"
"Is -- what?" Ffamran frowns at her. "I do not."
"With your knees nearly at your chest." Fran reaches over as she stands from her seat and taps the hard leather of his waistcoat, making a hollow sort of sound. "You have a most guilty gait."
"I do not," he protests. "Just because we humes don't have the same stick-legged forest-creature run viera do--"
"Oh, not all humes. It is most particular to you." She pats his head, then saunters off back into the rest of the ship before he can craft an appropriate rejoinder, hips swaying beneath her light damask skirt. Considering the circumstances, he allows himself the guilty pleasure of watching her retreat, partly because he can by now detect the sincerely affectionate tone hiding beneath her every tease, and partly because a subtle voyeuristic victory is the only type he's ever likely to score with her.
His attempts at stalking quietly across the Strahl's floorboards fail miserably, partly because her hearing is so good that even the slightest noise is enough to waken her if she sleeps lightly, partly because his attempts at subterfuge are not particularly competent. By the time he passes her bed, her eyes are open, tracking his process through the darkened ship's body. "Is it morning already?"
He stops stone-still in his tracks, every inch of his body language betraying the sentiment caught! She can see he walks on bare feet, likely having left his noisy half-sandals by the ship's door, and now those feet pivot slowly toward her, uncertain of where the man who owns them stands with her. "Just night's side of dawn. Go back to sleep."
"I could say the same to you." She sighs and sits up, swinging her long legs off the side of the bed. Viera are known for their affinity to sleep, yet she has been a relative insomniac all her long life, reaching wakefulness after a mere six or seven hours and finding herself unable to return. "I am awake."
"Well, good morning." He waves his fingers, looking almost child-like, and she sees that his shirt's collar is undone, showing where several uncareful bruises of a particular stripe have blossomed around his throat and collarbone. Had any doubts remained in her mind about what business had kept him out past her own bed-time the previous night, the wine-coloured blooms and his sheepish demeanour would have erased them all.
To a very large degree, she finds the hume preoccupation with and embarrassment about sexual matters amusing. Some of her sisters have informed her (often whether she wished them to or not) of the extensive pleasures to be gained from intercourse with other creatures -- humes, bangaa, even one who spoke curiously highly of a certain nu mou gentlemen -- but such endorsements to her serve merely the opposite function, pushing the appeal of such congress away until she can view it comfortably from a spectator's perch, at best remotely amused. If he has found evening entertainment, then that is well and good for him, and she neither needs to know nor honestly cares in which bed he finds it. "Good morning. Did you sleep?"
He scoffs a bit at that, and in the grey early morning light she can see the outline of his shoulders sink slightly as he relaxes an inch. Did he think she might be cross with him? Or merely disappointed? "If I hadn't, I'd likely have been back earlier."
"That's nice." She draws a light tunic over her frame, which will serve her well enough until she wakes sufficiently to bother with more complicated attire. Still barefoot as he, she stands, leaning her knees slightly forward over her tip-toes to compenstate for the lack of added balance footwear would afford her. All viera are trained upright by such shoes from a young age, a more civilised posture for a race that prides itself on having achieved a pinnacle of civilisation -- yet she has seen her sisters grow so reliant upon such support that they become quite hobbled without it, and refuses to let herself fall victim to such dependencies. Her shoeless posture gives her a pitched, feral look, he once told her, but she tossed a wrench at his head when he said it, and he has refrained from further comment.
He leans against the wall and watches her, arms folded lightly across his chest, a smirk playing pure mischief at his mouth; he's again not wearing his glasses, she notices, and wonders where he's put them. "After all, wine and pair of enthusiastic sky pirates have a way of tiring a man out."
She regards him with a sharp frown. "I'm certain." She reaches back to comb her fingers through her hair and ears; the latter are always droopy immediately after her waking up, while the former has a mind of its own that it chooses to exercise every time she falls asleep.
"And that was even before the Dalmascans arrived."
With a heavy sigh, she pinches the bridge of her nose. "Do you ever stop talking?"
"Not if I can help it, no." He walks by her, placing a hand against her shoulder as he does, then sets about rummaging through their admittedly small store of pots and pans. "The day I stop is the day they lay me in my grave, and even then, they'd best belt a steel muzzle about my jaw just in case the habit has become so ingrained that it persists posthumously." Unearthing a cast-iron skillet from the back, he frowns. "That's an entirely disturbing mental image, even by my standards. Bacon and eggs?"
She begins her morning routine of stretches, modified for the small enclosure that is the Strahl's main cabin (even the best modifications in the world can't create space where none has existed before), using their sole table as a makeshift balance beam. "You cook the bacon too long," she complains, balancing on her left leg which curling her right one backward until her foot is over her head.
He makes a face, pulling a slab and some eggs from their icebox. "Only because you'd have me toss it raw upon your platter, and I refuse, because that's disgusting -- again, even by my standards. I'll beg your pardon for not having a digestive system that grew up eating malboro."
"If ever we venture near Golmore, I shall prepare malboro for you." She lets go of the table, picturing herself as being suspended as on a string from above, remaining perfectly still. "It can be quite tasty, though it must be boiled for several days, and the fumes during preparation are somewhat noxious."
"You're insane and I can't have this conversation while even only mildly hung over." He tosses several strips on the heated skillet, looking somewhat queasy. "For that, I'm burning the bacon."
Switching legs, she lets out a resigned sigh, not bothering to tell him that that's how she secretly likes it best.
The night wind brushes cool and easy through his hair, and Ffamran sighs, stretched out on his back atop the Strahl, keeping his eyes fixed on the moonless sky. "A good night for stars."
"Indeed." Fran seems less intent on stargazing than on stealing from the bag of crisps Ffamran has at his side, and he allows this without comment. This is to be their last night in Balfonheim, then -- the fuel cells have been entirely overhauled, replaced with higher-grade, more efficient materia-lined chambers, and he calculates the Strahl might now be able to make a jaunt to Rozarria and back without having to recharge. Tomorrow morning, they take their leave of Balfonheim for some time and set out for farther ports, places they have never been.
He thought about venturing back into the city for one final evening, but in the end decided such a trip would be more hassle than benefit. He has never been fond of the rituals associated with parting, the sentimental farewells, the promises to write or visit, the prolonged good-byes. He can barely remember his mother, only ghosts at the genesis of his memory, but as cruel as her example seems, perhaps it is for the best -- one day, simply vanish, leaving grief in one's wake and never looking back.
For the first time since leaving Archades, he allows himself to think of his father, to let that familiar anger bubble up inside him -- except now, as it surfaces, he finds that the rage has cooled to a simple ache, a dull wound in his side. On the few occasions he's heard his father speak of his long-absent mother, it has largely been to elighten Ffamran as to what traits he shares in common with the woman he never truly knew; yet there is a note that creeps into to his father's voice during such anecdotes, one that the boy he was could never have named. The man he has become knows it now -- loneliness, the pain of walking with a hole in your heart where love used to be.
"Look," he says softly, pointing up to the carpet of stars. "A falling star. Make a wish."
Fran politely finishes her crisp before speaking. "Whyever for?"
"Well, it's ... you see a shooting star, you make a wish. That's how it goes."
"It won't work," she points out. "There's nothing in a star that could give you a wish, even if it did notice your presence."
He takes a deep breath and exhales, letting the night wind carry the air from his lungs away from him; when finally he speaks again, it is in a great rush of words built up inside him he hadn't even known were there, flowing out over his lips, and he as helpless to stop them as a child's stick dam to halt a flood.
"...How long do viera live anyway? Hundreds of years? Thousands? Tens of thousands." Before she can reply, he flutters his hand in the air, waving her away. "No, don't bother, I know you won't tell me, and I don't really care to know the precise number, because my point is: a long time. You have no urgency. You know you'll be here a long time, and if you stand in one place long enough, the world will turn around you to deliver to you what you wish to see." She takes another crisp from his bag -- at this rate, she'll have eaten the whole thing before he gets another bite, but he cannot let this stop him. "No, wishes on stars mightn't work, but I'll make them because I don't have that long.
"I'm seventeen years old, and that likely means I've lived a full fifth of my life, perhaps even a full quarter already -- or even a half, if I'm not careful. It's gone, and I won't get it back. I've spent all but the last six weeks of that either a mewling babe, or an indentured schoolboy, or a gods-damned judge, and there's nothing to be done for it. So I have to keep moving, and if I make impossible wishes on deaf stars, perhaps it is because I need miracles to substitue where time has failed me."
He folds his hands atop his chest, can feel his heart thrumming inside the cage of his ribs just beneath the point his fingers twine. "I know what they were saying to you that day, the viera you met, the ones who looked at me as though I were something foul just crawled out from under a rock. Their eyes spoke loud and clear. They said, a hume? And you know something? I've heard it from the hume pirates -- a viera? Not with the same air of disgust, of course, but there's still their fair portion of surprise. This doesn't happen, this ... partnership, this pairing we've made. And so they surmise you're indebted or indentured to me, or in some other way compelled to remain, and I can't tell them otherwise, because the truth is I don't know the truth. I can't fathom why you didn't up and leave with those viera that day in the marketplace, or the moment we set down in Balfonheim, or even back at Draklor, where I'm sure you could have gotten out on your own, and to hell with whatever I had to say about guards and exits and the what-not. None could ever find among your affairs any stripe of debt to me that has not been repaid a thousand times over."
Ffamran pauses to regroup, and in that space hears the sound of her hand rustling in a nearly empty paper bag. "You worry too much about what other people think. You should have some of these, they're quite good." She tosses another into her mouth, crunching it merrily as she gazes up at the sky.
"I know they are; it's why I bought them." He hesitates, however, weighing in his mind the right way to word the question that's been dragging his heart down like an anchor, the question he's been longing to ask since the moment he met her: "...Why are you still here?"
In the dark, he can barely make out the faint smile she wears as she closes her eyes, her voice a whisper that barely reaches the distance between them. "Why do you ask questions for which you are convinced you do not want the answers?"
Half an hour later, she slides wordlessly from the ship's hull to the ground, carrying the empty crisp bag with her, and he listens as her footsteps climb the steps to the hatch and disappear inside. The night wind has picked up even worse, blowing from the south, off the sea, and he can smell the salt it carries in its fingers. Its chill speaks of a summer that fades with each passing day, an autumn a mere hair's breadth off in the distance, and its damp cold seeps into his bones, a bitter counterpoint to the thoughts and fears that have in the silence begun to race full-tilt around his brain. He willingly endures both, however, to remain in place, his gaze turned sharp on the sky, his eyes searching what light there is to be had for even the slightest hint of motion. Good sense be damned, he's got one more wish.
As he creeps toward her bed, her eyes remain shut, only her ears tuned attentive. She budges neither on his approach nor as he lays himself out along the sliver of mattress her body has left exposed, tucking his face into the skin at the curve of her shoulder, pressing his forehead to the line of her jaw. She hesitates, uncertain as to the proper response largely because of uncertainty regarding his motives. The past hangs off him like a shroud this evening, the great toll it takes on one so young surely visible to all with eyes; any advance he makes will not be able to be shrugged off like the joke his attraction has become between them, nor will her rejection's arrow be stopped by his heart's customary good-natured defences.
She feels him tremble against her body, and waits, fairly holding her breath; then he outright sobs, and she has taken him into her arms, kissing his soft hair, rocking him gently against her breast as he weeps out all the sorrow under whose weight he threatens to drown. Young and scared, he is, and so far from home now, and she knows the feeling so well that all she can do is cradle him, stroking his back and wrapping one arm around the crown of his head.
"Don't leave me," he whimpers against her ear, sounding so very small. "Please, Fran, don't leave me."
Finally, she realises why it is he's seemed so familiar to her from their first meeting, when he tumbled into her life shielding himself with an armour of bluster and adventurousness, erected so carefully to hide the tender heart suspended deep within. It brings to mind the days she cradled Mjrn like this, little Mjrn, having been set off by some reprimand or injustice, come to her steadfast middle sister, whose arms could always be counted upon to frighten away even the most persistent demons. Little Mjrn, who will likely for the full span of her life be 'little' Mjrn, always the first to beg the expeditions into the Wood's dark places, always the first to run crying back to the village when the dark became too overwhelming, so easily scared and yet so outlandishly brave in the face of all her fears.
Perhaps he is right; perhaps they do live too long. A forty-year absence would be to any other race tantamount to bidding farewell for the rest of one's life -- yet when she thinks of her home and family, all she thinks is, too soon, too soon. Forgiveness does not come easily for those whose journey in time's river is such a lengthy one. The Wood's memory is as long as any, and as such the viera have learned to hold grudges at the feet of the master.
"Don't leave me," he begs again, and she thinks he is right to ask, for she does indeed have an impressive résumé as far as abandonment goes. She has thought her heart entirely gone to stone, that she might walk out on Jote's cries, on Mjrn's tears, on the Wood's prohibitions that run as deep as her own blood. Yet a heart of stone is a nigh-unbearable burden, and forty years is far too long to struggle on under such a weight -- either it will drown her as surely as his grief will sink him, or it must needs become light enough again to bear them both to safety.
She opens her mouth to whisper her assurance, yet what comes out instead is no promise, but the same lullaby she once sang to Mjrn as they lay together, tucked beneath the Wood's green embrace, back before the world began to turn and her heart grew so heavy she could turn her back on anything she loved, anything at all:
"Little bird, little bird
you fly so far away
Far from the branches and boughs
where you make your nest
Why do you beat your wings
as though your heart were too heavy?
Oh, I have come too far from my home
and I have no place to lay my head.
"Little bird, little bird
you fly through the Wood
Her shadows are deep and dangerous,
the foul beasts live there
Why do you stray from the bright spots
that fall between her crown's leaves?
Oh, I am too tired to fly my way home
and now I am lost and frightened.
"Little bird, little bird
I am the Wood that is your home
My branches all shelter you
My breezes will bear you up
My berries and my streams give strength
And my children will not harm you
Oh, lay down your head, and never fear,
all my bosom is your nest."
Her voice trails away, and in the silence, she hears his laboured yet steady breathing, the sound of a mind still troubled but at rest. She tucks his head beneath her chin and closes her own eyes, listening not to the pulse of the Wood, but the soft hum of the Strahl's engines, holding them safe in the hollow of her mechanical heart.
By the time she pulls herself awake the next morning, he's already up, still nestled beside her but propping his head up on one elbow, perched and waiting for her to open her eyes. "What do you think of 'Balthier'?"
She blinks at him, once, twice. "You're not allowed to rename the ship."
"I don't mean for the ship," he tells her. "I mean for me."
"You have a name."
He scoffs, rolling his eyes. In fact, this js the very thought brought him to consciousness this morning, full-formed and certain, and he has been congratulating himself on the wisdom of it ever since. "Yes, but it's terribly unsuited to me. Ffamran the pirate -- oh, that's a name that'll strike terror into the hearts of the masses. Ffamran the librarian, more like it. Ffamran the middle-class accountant. Ffamran the utterly boring individual. But Balthier!" He punctuates the second syllable with a hearty fist to the air, a move whose enthusiasm nearly sends him tumbling to the floor. "The dread sky pirate Balthier!"
A long moment passes, and her stoic, just-wakened expression does not waver an inch. "...Like the moogle."
"Moogles are quite noble, and often rather tenacious." He pats her thigh, feeling her skin warm beneath his fingers. "If you ever read the book, you'd understand."
She gives him a look that says if he does not remove his hand he is apt to lose it, and he leaves it in place just to test the sincerity of her challenge. "Like the moogle," she repeats, not bothering to disguise the incredulity that drips from her every word.
"Yes! Like the moogle! He's a very heroic moogle! He goes on great adventures and meets all manner of creatures, and some he defeats and some he befriends, and some he defeats and then befriends, and it's all a great metaphor for the triumph of will in the face of adversity." He shrugs. "Besides, no one'll notice; no one reads epic poetry these days anyway -- case in point, yourself."
That one earns him the push off the bed he's been expecting, though not even a collision with the floor caps his enthusiasm. He springs up fairly quickly, ignoring how waking after a night where one has cried one's self to sleep and being hung over are two not-unrelated calamaties. He is bound and determined to feel like a new man, and if the new man has had a skull-splitting headache, then so be it. The contents of the water-flask on the table are warm, but as he drinks he swears he can feel liquid seeping in to fill the cracks in his dried brain.
He turns again to her, expecting to see her rolling her eyes, mocking him for his hume antics, teasing him for making such a fool of himself the night previous. Yet he finds none of these writ on her face -- only a full, honest smile that nearly slays him where he stands with its beauty, a smile that he will live and die by for as long as he continues to draw breath. She gazes upon him with true and bright affection, as though there were no one else in the world to her save he.
"Balthier," she says. Not a weighted word for consideration, nor some character from a tale she's never read, but his name, from her lips, and in that single word he can feel the past evaporate from him as a fog beneath the light of day.
And Balthier grins.
Fran watches him work to prepare their departure, practically floating about the ship and its exterior, making certain no valuable piece of equipment has missed being gathered up and tied down, no valuable provision has escaped notice. They will be a long time returning to Balfonheim, for the world has in it many exciting destinations, and no rewards for doubling back over already-trodden ground.
That world, she thinks, is simply far too big for Ffamran Bunansa. He was the king of Archades, or at least what small portion of it that he ostensibly ruled with charm and aplomb, if his stories are to be believed, and king of the fish-pond, indeed, is still better than not a king at all. Yet Ivalice stretches farther than even the most stir-crazed of captive young minds can reach, ready to devour the unprepared heart. Already she has seen it swallow whole too many, and has nearly found herself numbered among its victims. He could not look it in the eye cowed by the terrors of his previous life and still hope to survive.
As such, she does not begrudge him the change. Indeed, it reminds her of how she has learned to close her ears and nose as she walks among the world beyond the Wood. A change that o'ershadows her true nature, perhaps, but one that makes the very act of living possible in an o'erwhelming world. Armour for the senses, armour for the heart, not to transform them into people they are not, but to keep who they truly are alive in the face of nigh-impossible odds.
This is what we do to survive.
She peers over his shoulder, frowning at the maps he holds at arm's length. "You ought wear your glasses."
"Sky pirates look better without glasses," he counters, turning the page at a ninety-degree angle and making a concerted effort only to squint a little. "Makes us more roguish."
"Where are we going, then?"
"Your choice." He brings the map closer to them both, giving up his own eyesight as a lost cause, and therefore working to better facilitate hers. "Congratulations, my poor eyesight and vanity have just promoted you to navigator. I'd say find us somewhere I've never been before, but that's hardly a tall order, so ... how about somewhere you've never been before?"
"Rabanastre?" she offers, reaching out to tap a large-sized red dot with one well-trimmed nail. "A city of myriad businesses and preferences, or so I've been told, with many a place for a pair of newly minted sky pirates to get their start."
"Fantastic. Get us there." Pleased by her choice, he turns and presses the folded page into her hands -- then pauses, looking at her with a bit of a frown. "...Since when am I as tall as you?"
Fran raises a skeptical eyebrow. "Since never," she scoffs, wandering over to her seat and unfolding the map out over the control panel.
But they are, he can see, or close enough that they meet one another on something approaching even footing. Somewhere in the time they've spent with one another, he's finally grown up -- and just in time, for their journey starts today, and the road before them requires a man's determination. Toe to toe and eye to eye, he thinks, with no small smirk. Perhaps he should write the scholars and tell them that he's found the viera girl's name where they could not, that such things are easy to find once one steps out from one's book-bound palaces and into the sun.
Toe to toe and eye to eye, indeed -- and because he is no longer afraid of her answer, he settles himself in the captain's chair and asks, "...Why are you still here?"
She turns from her route planning to look at him, and the wise smirk that quirks at her mouth lets him know that asking again has indeed been the correct choice. "Because my wish was to see the world, and I knew I would see it through you."
"Then strap in," Balthier grins, reaching for the ignition. The engines roar to life, and the ship first shakes with the force of leaving the ground, then thrums with the efforts of the machinery that set the dual-wing design that had both damned and saved this beautiful ship kick into action -- then they are clear of the earth, pointed west beneath the midday sun, leaving the past in their collective wake.
As the ground speeds by beneath them, faster and faster until the land is a blur and Balfonheim recedes in the distance, for the first time he can recall, he feels free -- absent obligations of rank and family, duty and necessity. The road is clear for the travelling, free to be navigated solely by whim, if he so wishes. If they so wish.
At long last, nothing hanging over his head, not even his father's expectations. Nothing but the weight of sky.
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