The nearly two-hour flight from Archades to Balfonheim was an uncomfortably silent one. About twenty minutes in, Vaan in his supreme social tact blurted out the one of a few elephants in the cockpit with an eloquent, "Hey Balthier, what is with Jules? I thought he was a friend?" The sound of a pin dropping could have been heard as no one said a thing. Balthier left the cockpit altogether under the pretense of 'checking something', only to never return, leaving the remainder of the flight in Fran's hands. After they landed and talked to Reddas, he took a bottle of Nabrean brandy to their room and shut the door.
Fran was in the frustrating position of being increasingly troubled by him being troubled. This journey they had been on had tested and challenged Fran in ways she was not expecting and in ways she wasn't ready for. Particularly it was tearing away any illusions she had about her and Balthier, any mental comfort in the avoiding of labels or demands of commitments, their supposed unsuitability (and how it did not matter one iota in the long run), and leaving naught but the vulnerability, raw emotion and indignant passion of love behind. All that she knew for certain right then, was the heart ache she felt was entirely over the fact that her beloved was in torment.
She thought spending some time on the beach would help her mood and also give them both some distance from one another for at least a short time, but the weather was sultry and uncomfortable, an incessant clang clang clang echoing from a pile driver or some similar kind of construction was grating her nerves, and too many people were nearby to allow for any soothing of the depressing emptiness that strained her heart. She made her way back to the manse and upon opening the large wooden door to their room, she was met with the smell of alcohol. The blondish top of his hair peeked just above the mattress of the bed and when she walked over, she saw Balthier slumped on the floor. He had managed to get his waistcoat off, but got caught up in the complications of his shirt and abandoned the effort half way, with one arm in and one out. All his rings were off and apparently thrown around the room as two of them caught her eye on the floor in front of the dresser and another had landed on the window sill.
"Balthier," she shouted, making his eyes pop open.
"Why are you on the floor?"
He seemed completely baffled by her question as he scowled at her, his eyes squinted like she was the sun itself blinding him. She crouched down alongside him and picked up the half empty bottle of brandy he was drinking directly out of the bottle from and looked at the label and back to him. He was asleep again.
"Balthier," she repeated, but he didn't respond. She shook his shoulder and loudly said, "Ffamran, wake up."
His eyes remained shut and his head still as a stone as he mumbled, "Leave me alone."
"Is everything ok?" Fran heard from the other side of the room and looked up and saw Penelo standing halfway in the doorway. "Is Balthier sick?"
"He's drunk," Fran said flatly, standing up and holding out the bottle to Penelo who took a few nervous steps into the room and took the bottle. She looked at Fran and then Balthier who was completely unconscious, slumped against the side of the bed on the floor, half undressed, his head lying back, mouth open. For a man who always put such effort to be dignified, the sight of him so vulnerable and undignified, was a little disconcerting to Penelo.
"This whole thing has been hard on him hasn't it? I mean with his father and all."
Fran nodded silently and took the bottle back. She read the label again and sighed. Little chance it was coincidence that he picked a Nabrean bottle. Always a flair for the dramatic, even in his despair.
"I believe it's worse than I thought."
The heavy weight of that emptiness inside was growing as she stood there, but Fran began to feel another emotion begin to creep in, riding on that wave of darkness was a building rage. Standing there over her love drinking himself into oblivion in order to feel nothing, Fran's anger only grew hotter. She did love this young, arrogant idiot. but there was nothing she could do to ease his pain.
"Maybe if we didn't have to fight our way into Draklor, he could have talked with him," Penelo said.
"Perhaps," Fran replied. "Jules made a difficult situation even harder."
"That guy is awful," Penelo said, shaking her head. "Sold us all out to die, basically. I'm just glad we all got out alive."
Suddenly a rush of purpose and direction came to her as her anger centered on one specific man, one specific face. The way he lied to Balthier's face, the complete betrayal of his trust, his smarmy smile as he stabbed them all in the back. The audacity he had to so openly admit and gloat his betrayal is what specifically stoked her rage, more than the act itself, was his confidence that he was able to cross and sell out anyone with no consequence.
"There's something I must do," Fran said and walked out of the room.
"Wait!" Penelo chased after her, stopping her in the hallway. "Where are you going?"
"Somewhere you cannot. You will watch over him for me?"
The girl nodded. "I'll sober him up, don't worry."
Fran nodded and turned to leave, but Penelo grabbed her arm. "You're coming back aren't you?"
Fran gave her a small smile. "I promise."
With the worry of Balthier aspirating like a common street drunk or troubled author who dies unexpectedly now gone, she could concentrate on her plan. The hour was late, but she could still get back to Archades before nightfall. Fran quickly packed a small bag with some supplies and took off for the Aerodome.
The old city was a disgusting pit of filth as far as Fran was concerned and she found it fitting that such a man frequented such a location. Luckily it was an excellent Without fail she spotted him sitting on a large crate outside some establishment that had loud arguing inside.
"You are Jules, yes?"
"Why, if it isn't the little lord's viera," he smiled, looking her up and down. "My, my, you are a thing of beauty. How can I help you, my darling?"
"I need to speak to you. About obtaining information."
He bowed his head and motioned with his hand for her to continue.
"Not here. Private."
"Is this a matter we are keeping from the lord pirate I take it?"
"It is better he not know," she said, giving him the false hook he was grasping for, something he thought he could hold over her head. She hoped she didn't make it too obvious. "Discretion is required."
"Our little secret then, no?"
Fran nodded her head.
He seemed to accept what she had said, but Fran knew better than to trust anything, word or expression, from con-men. "There is a small motel at the east end of Nalbisse called Raven's Nest, book a room under the name... Lola. I will meet you tonight. Say eight?"
"Do not be late."
Gods she hated this man. The way he looked at her, with the licentiousness of a dirty fop and the impure smile of a money lender, sent an unsettling nausea through her. It took every ounce of personal restraint she was capable of to maintain the facade of seeking his help, but internally she was fantasizing about incredibly violent acts upon him. Even the name of the meeting place he selected sounded pointedly obscene. She wondered how long it would take him to expose himself to her once he showed up or if he'd even bother waiting and simply show up completely nude. She sighed as she recalled an over eager admirer years ago and that it wouldn't be the first time that happened to her as she made her way into the city proper to prepare for their meeting.
The street level of Archades is several degrees cooler than it's mid and high level strata as it sits in the ever present shadows of the towering skyscrapers and walk-bridges and hover-cab hubs that exist hundreds of feet precariously above the heads of the denizens of the lower levels. The dimmer light and cool air agreed with Fran and the layout of the area was perfect for her needs of a quick escape which she walked first to make sure it was unimpeded.
She found the hotel, more like a flop house and paid an outrageous 200 gil for a dingy room. Once inside, she placed everything where she needed it, and then sat in a chair where she could see the door. Balthier's favorite gun she swiped was angled and cocked so she could quickly and easily grab it if necessary while she patiently waited for her mark to show up.
Finally he showed up, eleven minutes late, with a soft rap upon the door. "Come in," she said loudly. Her plan was to slam him with magicks as soon as he walked through the door, leaving him completely immobilized. She began the incantation of the spell and the small seconds ticked by as the door knob twisted and the door swung inside, as soon as she could see him she sent a blinding mass of energy towards him. But fate had other plans aside from hers and the spell was entirely ineffective and instead of collapsing to the ground paralyzed, Jules laughed and pulled a knife out from his back pocket.
"I thought perhaps this wasn't all it seemed, one has to be prepared, no?"
Fran wanted to kick herself for underestimating this vermin's street smarts. "Then why come?"
"Beautiful women are my weakness. But the question is, what are you after?"
"You betrayed Balthier, therefor you betrayed me."
"There's no honor among thieves, he knows how the game is, just ask him! That's city life, sweetheart. Now, let's calm down here and talk."
"Very well," she sighed and as she whispered another spell, a large black circle the pitch of night materialized above her and as it grew and twisted in on itself, languishing over its own creation, it came directly towards Jules.
She heard him yell, "Are you insane?" as he tried to turn and run but it was futile as the weight of the gravity spell hit him and nearly everything in the room within the fraction of a second, the force of it exploding the lightbulbs, blowing out the windows and spraying glass over the street and bringing a sharp pain to her eardrums that made her cry out, shrapnel cuts across her forehead and her forearm she shielded her eyes from the blast with.
Jules was knocked to the ground, a broken chair and some debris on top of him, unmoving. She wondered for a second if she had killed him, but before she had a chance to find out, she kicked the debris off of him and replaced it with her sharp knee in his back and Balthier's gun pushed painfully into the back of his neck. "Any limits of magic, strength or ability can be overcome by a bullet, the one true equalizer" he told her once. She hated it when he's right.
"Move and I'll shoot," she said and felt the tension in his body go lax as he put his hands out at his side in surrender. She ripped off the Ribbon amulet that was blocking her magicks on his arm and wrapped it around her wrist. "I'll be taking this."
With his loud protest, Fran immobilized him with her powerful magick, making him as threatening as a mouse. Completely paralyzed, he could only move his eyes as he watched her right a chair and then without much care heaved his heavy limp body up into it and then used a green rope to secure him.
"What I said earlier was true, Balthier does not know I am here. My people do not tolerate traitors in our midst."
He watched her hands with his eyes wide and full of terror as she conjured another spell, the bright energy snapping and swirling around her as it landed upon her victim. Suddenly, his pulse grew slower and he was finding it hard to keep his head up to look at her. His feet felt cold. His skin was growing paler and duller by the minute.
She stood over him, watching him with the disinterested boredom one might have while watching their laundry dry as his body began to shut down in front of her eyes. "Your heart grows weak. You are dying."
Fran watched him for about thirty more seconds, let the terror sink in a little more, and then with a simple remedy she had brought with, she negated the magicks she applied that were sapping his life-force. The sickening feeling of his heart fluttering and straining to pump was gone and aside from a blinding headache from the blood waning and flooding into his brain, he no longer felt as if death was upon him. Immediately, he began yelling and cursing at her as she forced the broken door to open to make her exit.
The owner was approaching, his bald head in his hands, completely shocked at the destruction, and in a moment of guilt for causing so much damage, she tossed the stolen highly valuable Ribbon to him and said, "Careful, he's dangerous," before running at full speed away as he yelled at her not to leave, he was calling the authorities. That was fine with her, that was exactly what she wanted. Her original plan was to simply immobilize him and tie him in place for them to find the known hustler and con-man wanted for half a dozen infractions tied up like a nice gift, awaiting them. Or simply kill him. A lengthy prison sentence in a hellish dungeon or laboring in the sun for years, building the Empire's roads and sewers on a chain-gang sounded like the perfect compromise of the situation. She made her way down the confusing maze of buildings and alleys, down to a canal she jumped the fence of and followed directly to the slums of the old city where she left the ship cloaked and waiting.
It was almost three in the morning when she returned back to Balfonheim and to the Reddas Manse. Fran walked into her and Balthier's room to find all the lights on and him laying on top of the covers in a white gauze shirt and pants, bare feet crossed at the ankles and his forearm over his eyes. She closed the door with both hands, trying to be silent, but as soon as she turned around he was looking at her.
"You're conscious. Good," she said.
"With the headache to match," he said in a gravelly voice. "I got an interesting call from Archades by an associate, not even an hour ago though."
"Oh?" she asked, not looking at him, stepping out of her shoes.
"Let me see, seems our old friend Jules is in armed custody at the University Medical Center recovering from an attempt on his life, by a viera no less. Does that ring any bells? I suppose it answers the question of where my missing ship and partner have been the last eight hours, it does not offer any clarity as to the why."
Fran did not respond, only began to unhook and remove her armor.
"Fran! Are you going to tell me what the hell is going on?"
She turned and faced him and in her perfectly, sometimes infuriating, stoic way, said, "I took your ship, I flew to Archades and I showed Jules why one should not cross sky pirates. That is all."
"That is all? What would possess you to do such a thing? We just broke into and destroyed part of Draklor Laboratories. We're wanted criminals and you and your seven foot tall long eared stick out like a sore-thumb self dares to return to commit more crime?"
"I was not caught. The way it ended, I did not intend. I was protecting our reputation, of course."
Balthier cocked his head to the side and gave her a disbelieving look. "I've never known you to do such a thing, Fran. Did he steal something from you? Is he blackmailing you somehow?"
"Of course not. And you have known me nary three years, there is much that remains unknown to you."
"It would seem so. I assume since you are here in one piece my ship is too, please tell me it is."
"Your ship is fine."
Fran walked over to the side of the bed he was on and turned her back to him and pulled her hair in front of her shoulder in a silent demand to help her get her corset off. He sighed and sat up on his knees so he could reach and roughly worked the loops free down from her shoulder blades, down along the perfect taper of her waist and in the process of freeing her confined flesh he discovered this bed was the perfect height for him to take advantage of their reversed heights. He leaned forward and pressed his lips to the delicate, crenelated skin and kissed along the pattern cruel confinement had branded her with, down, and then up her long spine.
"I see you're feeling better."
He reached around the front of her and pulled her corset open and tossed it down to the ground, taking her lovely breasts in his hands and pulled her against him. "A bit," he replied, kissing her neck and squeezing her in a tight embrace. "I was very worried, you know," he whispered, rocking her back and forth. "Don't do that to me again."
"I'm sorry," she said and turned around in his arms and wrapped hers around him. Gently taking his head in her hands, she touched her forehead to his and closed her eyes. "This journey, it's been akin to hell for you. You may hide it from them, but not me. The last thing I wished was to trouble you."
"Is being an empath another of your viera specialty I'm not aware of," he asked rhetorically, going to his default reaction of sarcasm Fran expected by now.
"You suffer in silence, but not alone. Do not forget, I am here with you," she said, placing a hand over his heart.
She watched the pain and his desperate struggle to hide it cross his face. He took her hand and brought it to his lips, placing a long kiss on the top of her knuckles, cleared his throat and smiled. "Forgive me, for losing control earlier. I suppose we both did a little though. I've never had a woman commit attempted murder and wanton property destruction over my honor before. I'm going to have to marry you, you realize."
Fran looked at him and held him by the sides of his arms."Then let us leave this place, Balthier. Quit this fool's errand once and for all, it's not too late. We'll fly to the world's edge, just you and I. No mist. No nethicite. And there we shall wed."
"Fran," he sighed.
"If you mean what you say, then that is all you must do. Leave with me."
He released her and sat on the edge of the bed. He leaned forward on his elbows and looked down and shook his head. "I do mean it. But I must see this through. It's my responsibility."
"But it is," he almost shouted at her. Lowering his voice and tone he repeated, "It is. It all falls on me. My mother is dead. My brothers cut all ties with my father over a decade ago and their mother cares not. It's no coincidence I got pulled into this mess, you especially should not be blind to that. I cannot run away from him or his legacy anymore, and I will not let," he paused and lowered his voice to mere whisper, "I will not let anyone else use those stones."
"You'll kill her then?"
"If I must," he said somberly.
Fran actually didn't believe in the concept of filial responsibility, nor of ancestral sin, or any other familial burden, as no such thing existed in viera society. However, over the decades she had learned how deeply ingrained it was in hume societies and cultures and usually remained mute on the matter since it was so inherently foreign to her. It was incredibly important and it was obviously so to Balthier. She also did not believe he was as prepared for the impending horrific events as he thought he was. But she could not ignore though the way the gods or fate or some unknown force had pulled her and Balthier directly into this conflict and regardless of their efforts to escape, they ended right back in the middle. Perhaps there was something larger at work, which made her all the more anxious over it. She sat next to him and he took her hand in his and kissed it. "You may have to slay your own father, are you prepared for such a thing?"
"It won't come to that," he said quickly. "I still may be able to get through to him. If I just had a moment without outside interference, I know I could talk to him." Balthier rubbed his hands through his hair and cursed, "Fucking Jules. Robbed my best shot, didn't he."
"Yes. Which is why I paid him a visit. He is a despicable rat of a man and he made me very angry," she spat.
"Just angry? Oh come now, you can say it," he laughed and pushed his forehead against hers. "Say it, Franny. Say the p-word."
"You know I do not like that word."
"I know," Balthier whispered and gently kissed her. Making a noise as if he were making a great feat, he lay back onto the bed, taking her down with him, laying them on their sides facing one another. Squeezing her in his arms, he said, "You're my old fashioned girl."
After a few lovely moments laying in each other arms she broke the silence. "Whatever you choose, I will stay with you."
"The leading man can't triumph without his leading lady," he smiled and pushed the stray hairs across her forehead with the backs of his fingers. "I've never known anyone like you, Fran. I'm so deeply in love with you."
He kissed her forehead and pitied the little cuts upon it and traveled up along her sensitive, ridiculously long ears which he secretly enjoyed the sensation of the soft fur-like hair of against his lips because it reminded him of a puppy he had as a boy, and would often kiss and place its soft ears in his mouth. It had actually been a long time since they had done anything in a bed together besides sleep and argue and both quickly became entwined as desperate, straining masses of need as their months of abstinence came to a glorious end.
When he grew too loud, she shushed, shushingly breathing into his mouth, and in turn twice before the night was over he put a hand over her mouth. The Reddas Manse was large and had thick stone walls but it was old and everyone's rooms were down a single corridor and every involuntary groan, girlish gasp, and tattlish squeak of the ancient bed frame echoed under the thick wooden door with a good two inch gap from the floor, and bounced down those stone walls and tile flooring like a rubber ball.
The next morning, Balthier was jarred out of sleep by the echoing sound of a large gong announcing breakfast being served. Still lost in the wisps of the dream he was dreaming, he confusedly alarmed, sat up, ready to leap to charge and save Fran and all her puppies from the impending doom. Reality quickly sank in and replaced the false alarm with frustration. He reached over for Fran, but the bed was sadly empty and cold already. He sighed and swung his legs out of bed, all hopes of keeping the fires from last night alive just a little longer having been vanquished, and proceeded to speed ready himself which his head was still not through punishing him for poisoning it with that Nabrean jet fuel of a brandy. He questioned if he should not be upset by it, that it was his just due for being the son of a man responsible for the deaths of countless people, an entire kingdom even. But he soon brushed that nonsense away and remembered how much he hated those who act as if shows of guilt and self abuse made them more moral or important and then made a pointless promise to himself to never drown his emotions so recklessly again which he would break later on.
"Good morning everyone," Balthier quietly said as he entered the dining room and took a seat next to his partner, who had finished long ago, he could tell by the dark coffee she was drinking, which she never had except after eating on account of the delicacy and temperamental nature of viera digestion. Everyone else was also obviously long since finished, and was waiting on him. The communal bowls of some kind of dip served with bread wad decimated, two withered looking strange pastries that were left in an near empty basket and empty plates littered the table.
"My apologies, I overslept," he murmured, as a stranger brought him a plate and set it in front of him.
"It's alright, we've been discussing what to expect in Giruvegan," Ashe replied, smiling. "Fran tells us you're ready to leave today?"
"Our weapons have been made ready and a full stock of consumables is being loaded aboard the Strahl as we speak," Reddas added.
"Is the captain ready to fly?" Penelo asked, smiling and then biting on a round unfamiliar pastry.
Beneath the table Fran grabbed his hand and squeezed it.
"To Giruvegan then," Balthier said and looked to Fran. "And whatever we may face there."