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08 September 2013 @ 05:10 am
Port after Stormy Seas [II] [Balthier/Ashe]  
Title: Port after Stormy Seas [II]
Pairing: Balthier/Ashe
Fandom: Final Fantasy XII
Genre: Drama, Romance, is Political Intrigue a genre?
Rating: PG-13
Summary: They are two ships passing by in the night: fated to meet, destined to part. In this game of chess, politics and empires are not the only stakes in place.

Chapter 1

*****


II.


The rip is long and pitiless. Straight down the middle, rough and ugly, the sheet falls into halves. Frowning, the Marquis Ondore rubs the raised vellum while another hand drums along the smooth wood of the queen's desk.

Embossed in gold, the page's edge flirts with the flickering glow of his fading light. He calculates that there's half an hour left at best. Across the table, head slumped over her arms, Ashe emits a strangled snore. Automatically, he drapes a thin coverlet over her shoulders. Although tonight is warm (such is the fate of a city circumscribed by twin oceans of sand) she is prone to colds.

Ever since childhood. Ever since she first stumbled into his office and haughtily proclaimed that she will grow wings and fly from Bhujerba, absconding with his dog. She didn't make it past the palace gates.

She's grown significantly taller and bolder—and he couldn't be prouder. Quickly, he glances over. Satisfied that she's drifted back to sleep, he picks up the pen once more and strikes through the entire second paragraph.

The Rozzarians will not be pleased, but he isn't here to titillate sanguinity among sovereign hearts. Ashe is too inexperienced to tumble into bed with yowling, feral cats. So he'll go in her stead and exit with adroit, avuncular grace.

She prefers diplomacy; he favors the earnest approach. Much simpler to declaw the animals and sever their tails. Only then, will they never be able to jump again.

He signals for the attendant. "Bring me another lamp. This one is obviously defunct."




--





Bordering the western outskirts of Rabanastre is an inn eclipsed by gleaming mansions and hazy mountains. Tiny and inconspicuous, it quivers in the midday sun while the stark heat cripples the stale air.

Close to the Aerodrome but tucked away, there's leverage room for privacy. Twice a week, the supply merchants arrive, bearing exotic spices and toxic herbs. And airships sweep through day and night, sometimes low enough to nearly blight the staggering boarders and panic-flung carts.

A family of moogles runs the guesthouse. The beds are comfortable and the food is decent (the owners are known to be discreet).

Scowling into the cup, Fran declines the server's offer of more wine. She's never liked the stuff (can't understand why humes ardently yearn for such a vile taste). Balthier is no exception. On innumerable nights, she has scooped him up and carried his disheveled, leaden body to bed. And never once did he verbalize gratitude.


We're partners, Fran. We'd die for each other.


Almost did.

She tracks all the times when he saved her as well, from onslaughts of Mist to mortifying skirmishes with hume culture. Like a knight he is. A knight errant. How peculiar their entire situation stands, how devastating and risible and so rightfully them.

"What is wrong?" Fran asks in her odd, modulated tone. Not quite a murmur nor fully pronounced. Whereas others exhale, she inhales as she speaks (releasing a draft of summer-tickled leaves).

Penelo grips tightly onto the thick sides of her stool. The veins in her dainty hands rise in revolt. Her fingertips are callused from tug-of-wars with machines. In the desert plains, moratoriums do not exist. But this hot, hot mess is her home, and she'll be all right—if she stays in the shade.

"Nothing. I'm just thinking about Vaan."

"You must trust him. He is your partner."

"But he's never been gone this long!"

"And it won't be the last. Once, Balthier left for a month. I worried that he might've been killed. At least Vaan left you a note and location points. He has many friends in Archades. I am sure he is fine."

"Fran, be honest, are circumstances really that bad?"

"I am not familiar with the intricacies of hume politics, but I do not think it's time to fret. Not yet. Your queen will find a solution. She is stronger than she looks."

Although her voice is firm, a shroud of doubt sidles along the back of her mind. Skin crawling, she braces for the mounting tension (implosion). When people build castles in the sky, absent of buttresses or phenomena, they will inevitably crash.

Plummet and splinter leagues below—

Into earthen tides, whence none can return.




--





His mother's villa sits half a day's journey from Archades proper. On days when he is sickened by endless circle-talks and straw-man negotiations, Larsa retreats behind the estate's white walls and shallow pools.

There are fruit trees in every courtyard, and the ones in the southern wing are especially delicious late in summer. Here, he allows himself a few moments of solitude, dreaming of swinging hammocks and cooling winds. It is quiet here, and he feels at peace.

Vigilant, Basch looms behind him (a rooted fortress resilient to guns and gods alike). Slowly, Larsa crumbles the piece of paper and reaches for another. He chews on tip of his pen and madly searches for the appropriate words.

"Basch, have you received word from Balthier?"

"Not yet, Your Majesty. Perhaps it was rash of me to suggest him."

"Nonsense. Balthier has proven himself more than capable. It is not his loyalty or dedication I question. It's his work ethic. He allots far too much devotion to megrims."

"Does Your Majesty fear he will fail?"

"On the contrary. Once Balthier targets a prize, he will not cease pursuit until it's obtained. Presently, he desires nothing more than seeing the Rozzarian prince falter. Besides, Fran is there to prevent unforeseen disasters."

"If I may ask, what is Your Majesty's plan?"

Larsa pauses. If Archadia enters the stadium too early, he loses his vantage point. But if Archadia hesitates (moaning and malingering) the Rozarrian emperor will strike nonetheless. And gloat over having discovered a loose hinge in the gates. Hard and relentless, he will dispatch his emissaries like bolts of pollen to desolate wheat fields.

Archadia is richer, but Rozarria has more people (more princes).

Archadia has only him.

"I shall expedite the outstanding treaties. In the meantime, you will prepare for our departure in a week. Do not inform Balthier. I am curious how stunned he will be."




--





Keen and shrewd, Ondore listens to an update on the progress of the impending imperial arrival from the north. Aside from the queen and a few ministers, the news has not been divulged.

So Larsa Solidor is desperate enough to directly engage in battle.

He will come here first before requesting an audience with Ashe to solidify an unofficial alliance (an understanding, if you will). It's the prudent approach (it's what he would do). And Archadia has the most at stake.

"In a week, sir."

Nodding, Ondore stirs his tea. He likes this particular variety because unlike its cousin strains, it is bitter when hot or cold. In its lukewarm phase, it turns sweet and clear. But he does not drink it for the taste; he drinks because it reminds him not to stray.

Like the tea, reality is cruel and rancorous at its extremes.




--





Rains rarely appear during the hot, relentless summer months in Rabanastre. Their advent is rapid and unpredictable, galvanizing the people to flee behind lattice windows and duck under awnings. For Ashe, they bring her the halcyon days.

Shrugging into a light robe, she pushes open the heavy doors of the library's balcony. Annoyed, she finds an occupant already lounging in her chair. The sight scarcely generates a surprise—she's been expecting him, thinking he will (of course) seek out sanctuary from the storms.

Balthier doesn't weather the ravages of politics well.

"Ah, Princess, care to join me?" he asks, not rising from his perch.

She sits down across from him. Still garbed in full court regalia (bandaged with ruffles and gold and that ridiculous jabot) he makes her feel small and dangerously unfit. Unmanned (unseated). Subconsciously, she stretches her spine, trying to create the illusion of height and eminence.

And falls by a pitiable one and half head short.

"Where did you go tonight?"

"What, did you miss me?"

"Uncle Halim inquired about you. He would like your assistance in arranging a meeting with the other Archadian delegates."

"Sorry but as I said, I'm not here to pay courtship to your crown. I have neither allegiance to Archadia nor Dalmasca."

"I do not understand you. First, you offer me counsel—which I did not invite—yet now you denounce any part in governments."

"I'm here to help, Princess. I swear it."

"Really," she replies, doubt tinting her tongue. "And whom might that be?"

"You."

(There's never been anyone else.)

Ashe parts her mouth in blank amazement. But he's not playing, feigning. His honesty shocks her like the whorls of lightning and crimson thunder singing the night. And another realization slams deeper into her, imparting grotesque blisters in its wake.

Despite what they've been through, all that he's done for her, she knows so little about him.

And he's not a puzzle she absolutely wants to solve.

—Can possibly be done.

Chapter 3