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A Final Fantasy XII fanfiction. Creative rights to the characters, settings and structure belong to their original creators.

A Sense of Commitment


In pursuit of mercenary interests during an Imperial war, the skypirate pair known as Balthier and Fran expected to encounter the occasional military blockade.

Still, Balthier thought: two blockades were a bit extreme.

Via bluff and a profile so low they should have run aground, their antique Maenad had come through the Archadian part of this military blockade before. This time, however, the dismayed pilot and his navigator discovered the newest arrivals crimping their plans for greater profit: two Rozarrian Carriers blocked their way into Balfonheim's safe port, with a surrounding fleet of single-man Fighter Class airships.

Resigned, Balthier eased his chair flat. He took the opportunity to stretch the kinks from four hours of strain, shirt of soaked linen riding high over his belly.

With her knuckles, Fran pressed the ache from her eyes. Balthier felt urged to apologise for her wearied state, as if responsible. The sentiment was odd enough to dismiss out of hand, Fran no more needing his comfort than he did hers.

He turned his attention from the navigator herself to the navigator's console, the only contemporary interface in the Maenad's ancient dash. The Archadian array to their aft did not give an easy alternative for retreat from the Rozarrians to their fore. However, he decided, the Rozarrian Carriers offered far better odds, especially considering the profit when the Maenad reached Balfonheim on their other side.

Fran pointed to the Carriers, as if following Balthier's thought. 'We could change our colours to a Balfonheim flag. Call through—pass as the allies we are.'

'Announce ourselves?'

'We're not Rozarria's enemy. The truth does have its uses.'

Balthier distrusted the military, the Rozarrian presence a symptom of Archadia's aggressive designs, and not a cure. In this light, he added, 'Pure selflessness on the Rozarrians' part, I'm certain, moving to defend an independent port half a continent away.'

Which world-weary sneer Fran expected from her partner, who had long ago made obvious his scorn for matters Imperial.

He shook his head. 'One bloody Empire's the same as the other. Not forgetting, we declare to the Rozarrians, they'll assume possession of our cargo.'

Fran nodded: that as an argument made more sense from her partner than any allusion to Balfonheim's relative political freedom. Consisting of medical supplies, food, skystone and ammunition, they had stocked the Maenad with consideration for the market in a small town months besieged.

After a brief battle with the stiff lever, Balthier returned his seat to the upright. 'No, no announcements. We shall go dark again, and go in.'

This, the longest night, they had already spent navigating while dark, a dangerous low-powered flight beneath the sensors of the Archadian ships. It was a risk taken, measured against the relative gains of Balfonheim's desperate purchasers on the other side, the ability to rest safely, and soon. For Balthier to suggest the same tactic now, while he was exhausted, strained...

'What tactic does for one Empire will do for the other?'

He made a face. 'Insulting my reputation for innovation?'

They blinked at each other, Fran with a quizzical unconcern, Balthier with a tilt to his chin implying the question serious.

'Your reputation's safe with me.'

'Such a charmer, you are.' He grinned.

Balthier relayed his command down to the engine deck, where the two engineers rolled their eyes at each other. Nono responded with disgust, after which Sairo grabbed the comm., his amusement rattling through. 'Think you're up to the tightrope twice in one night?'

'I'm young. I'll survive.'

The Maenad's outdated mechanics wanted manual effort. Sairo and Nono took long moments to decrease the Mist to the airship's power lines.

Powered by Mist, glossair rings gave airships their speed and direction. Early in his piratical career, Balthier discovered the slower the rings spun, the less Mist they used—and it was Mist that made one airship detectable on another's display.

The Maenad went dark.

Not without consequence. For partial invisibility, the Maenad sacrificed stability.

The starlit serenity wanted to turn dire. Balthier found his adrenaline useless, fermented. His shirt already relegated to rags for his earlier efforts tonight, he blotted sweat from his eyes on a soggy sleeve. He had never ridden a bicycle across a slack rope, yet keeping the Maenad from a fatal tumble was an exercise in exactly that.

The Rozarrian Carriers had far fewer Fighters on patrol than the Archadian blockade, if less area to cover. Fran kept her eye on the display, but the patrol kept an easy distance with no evidence of breaking pattern. Deprived of practical reason to speak, she found herself searching for words that might skirt on encouragement.

Her own silence discomforted her. She avoided looking at Balthier's strain.

The engine deck was two levels below the cockpit, a mezzanine flanked by water reservoirs and overlooking the hold—both mezzanine and hold clouded with steam. Nono waded through the heat to reach the comm. Risk shy at the best of times, even when Balthier sought to convince him of the returns, Nono let the static blare his reproach. 'That's it, kupo. Left reservoir's boiled out. The lateral ring's like to stall.'

At the unexpected static blast, Balthier's skin had turned to ice. He took too long to respond.

'Acknowledged. Terminate.'

'You what, kupo?'

Sairo cut in, as incredulous as Nono. 'He's gone 12th Fleet again. You want us to switch it off?'

Fran urged herself to ease the rigid expression from Balthier's usually mobile features, but could not think of how. She touched his forearm, light. 'We can yet contact the Rozarrians. No shame but our egos.'

Blinking the sting from his eyes, Balthier felt keenly her lack of faith. 'Our egos? Switch the thing off, Nono!'

Nono swore. 'Even you can't keep us up on one ring.'

'Alright, keep it running, then. Stalling rings make such beautiful Mist patterns on Rozarrian detection sweeps.'

Trusting more in Balthier's daring than Nono did, Sairo disengaged the Mist flow to the lurching glossair ring. Begrudgingly, Nono confirmed their compliance with the skypirate duo above, and prepared himself for imminent disaster.

Balthier scarce breathed for fear they would topple.

Nevertheless, it seemed they might succeed.

Time passed, Balfonheim's familiar streets and coastal curves becoming obvious to the eye. Balthier soaked into his chair's threadbare upholstery. His inner ear crackled as they descended, while Fran, more sensitive, made a noise and rubbed at her skull, squinting against the pain.

Such familiar motions, Balthier felt prematurely relieved. It would end well. He rolled the hunch from his shoulders.

At that point, the sky ignited.

When young Archadian Ffamran Mid Bunansa joined the 12th Fleet, he intended it as a joke. He never wanted to fly to war.

Imperial Archadia's 12th Fleet operated under a specific brief: to contend with the threat posed by the Rozarrian Empire. Ffamran had picked the bad time in history to conscript.

For a long time, Archadia had governed itself and its territories with a sharp, if benign mercantile morality. It was a matter of hilarity to dynastic nations the Archadian Emperor won his throne on marketplace rule.

Archadia's merchant-to-military shift happened soon after Ffamran's father, Cidolphus Demen Bunansa, rediscovered the ancients' method of cheap flight.

It was some decades before Ffamran's birth. Cidolphus was a teenaged genius, curious of the aerodynamic fancies, ancient and rotting, wrecked throughout Ozmone Plain. Centuries past, a great battle had been fought in the skies, with airships which no one had seen since.

While the contemporary world knew flight, it came in the form of Moogle zeppelins. One of the world's many races, Moogles kept the secret of flight close to their furred chests. Their zeppelins, cumbersome and slow, moved between ground-based town and skyborne purvama on a schedule rarer than miracles, and at a cost beyond reach of most.

Unrelated to Moogle airships, the downed wrecks throughout Ozmone Plain were artistic, sculptural, and should not have been capable of flight.

As did his reference texts, Cidolphus ignored birds, wings and aerodynamics for the inexplicable: the natural phenomenon termed 'Mist'.

The dominant energy source, Mist used less resource and caused less expense than its forerunner, the ill-fated electricity. Mist occurred in every environment to a degree, harnessed by spellcasters to provide the energy needed to produce abrupt changes in localised conditions. A skilled spellcaster formed fireballs, pockets of ice and the like. One such effect elevated a single body—a brief spell of floating.

The spell never lasted for the extended periods necessary for commercially viable flight.

Cidolphus turned his study to magicite, a naturally occurring ore known to contain a high concentration of Mist. Cidolphus sought to define the mechanism through which magicite absorbed Mist into itself, thinking to apply the method on a large scale. The vast store of Mist would fuel a spell that would 'float' an airship.

Except he discovered his assumption flawed. Magicite did not absorb Mist. Magicite was Mist. Much as carbon became diamond, magicite formed when vaporous Mist was compressed at great heat and depth, over millennia.

Before a user could access the trapped energy, magicite's crystalline structure had to be rendered unstable. Cidolphus pioneered a method of transforming stable, non-reactive magicite into that unstable, volatile form. Magicite became skystone: a grade of unstable magicite with sufficient energy to sustain flight for weeks at a time.

Skystone provided flight to any body, cheaper, easier and faster than the Moogle zeppelins.

Following Cidolphus' revolutionary discovery, Archadia's geologists determined which landforms meant magicite deposits. Archadia's military then determined within whose national boundaries such landforms fell. Archadia's Senate, headed by the merchant Emperor, moved to ally, buy or conquer.

The Rozarrian Empire, military-minded, largest and oldest of Empires, did not appreciate the sudden addition of aerial scope to Archadia's army. Through counter-Archadian intelligence, they discovered for themselves the secret of flight, and engineered their own airship brigade.

In response to Rozarria's growing airship presence, the Archadian Emperor formed the 12th Fleet.

War was declared, fought and resolved. Then declared again.

Meanwhile, Cidolphus Demen Bunansa furthered his study of magicite, chasing rumours found within the texts of their ancestors. As often happened, Archadia's preeminent scientist found himself with three sons to three different researchers, while remaining ignorant of conventional marriage.

Ffamran Mid Bunansa was the third son.

Ffamran's passions involved guns, bikes and airships. Of the latter two, Ffamran's interest remained practical, his fondness for anything that would allow him to go fast and high. He showed no signs of the theoretical introspection his father encouraged. As the Bunansa family tree proved laden with fruity artists, inventors, geniuses and all-round eccentrics, Ffamran's conventionality was met with a patronising fondness, a decided air of humouring the boy.

As did most great Archadians, the Bunansa clan ran a merchant sideline—in their case, purely to fuel their alternate interests. Bewildered by his family's ambitions, Ffamran found order in the business's tallies: business offered definable gains, tangible goals. Ffamran knew when every Bunansa airship would launch, what cargo they held, their destinations, and what specialties they would be bringing back. He proved the ability to turn a profit from the least likely device bouncing, jangling, staggering or coalescing its way out of his parents' laboratory. Nevertheless, his relations mocked his absence of inspiration for so long that Ffamran forgot there had ever been affection behind the sting.

Ffamran did not find society much comfort against his family's scorn. The Bunansa clan's reputation opened the family's scions to gossip. Confronted with snide society peers, Ffamran discovered a temper that made him occasionally speechless.

The only possible comeback involved his fists.

The arrival of the fourth lawsuit pulled Cidolphus away from his latest pursuit, researching a magicite with potential to absorb Mist, without need for a millennium's worth of compression. Displeased at the disruption, Cidolphus took one brief interval, the details of which Ffamran fought hard to forget, to impress on his youngest the lives of violent mindless types had only two possible outcomes.

Prison was one.

Accordingly clich´┐Żd, Ffamran Bunansa marched himself off to the other, and added his name to the 12th Fleet's lists in a fit of adolescent rage.

If Ffamran had thought his father might correct this horrendous state of affairs, he was wrong.

Yet Ffamran enjoyed the training. Military infrastructure provided him with the recognition his family had denied him. The boy's quickness, his fast reflexes, his inherent knowledge of the logic of flight and Mist, impressed his officers. His detailed understanding of airships saw him trained for aerial operations, giving him a knowledge of and responsibility for solo Fighter Class airships, in strike attacks, as well as Light Cruiser Class airships, working as crew.

Sped to a position above that of his peers, his officers pressured him to perform.

Ffamran's abilities, origins, and his somewhat fey features made him a priority target for his new peers.

But in the 12th, Ffamran's explosive violence merely served to win him medals, respect, and a reputation.

To further this, he gave himself a judicious buzzcut, adopted an air of off-kilter amiability, and believed himself set to enjoy a steady rise to any position he desired.

At which point, the Archadian-Rozarrian war was declared, again, and the 12th prepared for action.

The battle took place over Golmore, a jungle occupied by the insular and reclusive Viera. Beyond Golmore, Archadian geologists discovered a significant magicite lode, yet the Viera did not favour Archadia's aim to open a mine. Archadia's tries at alliance rebuffed, Archadia's first air-based approach should have annihilated the Viera, as the Viera did not have airships.

Rozarria did. While Rozarria withheld from mining foreign territories, they did not allow Archadia free reign over the world's magicite supply.

Ffamran found himself thrust into a well-equipped Draklor CB58 Valfarre Fighter Mark I, namedEnnessa, and directed to join the compliment of the 12th's flagship, the No. 1 Heavy Carrier Class Alexander. He was at war, if uncertain of why.

Within the week, sixteen-year-old Ffamran had effected his first long-distance massacre of civilians.

He also discovered his glorious future in ruins. His immediate superior had the wit of a dead leaf.

Ffamran's disillusionment was instantaneous.

Above the foreign jungle, months passed in military deadlock. Aboard the Carrier Alexander, Ffamran experienced mind-numbing boredom, peppered with the minor cruelties of soldiers denied action. Back firmly against the nearest wall, he plotted his desertion with an imaginative bent which would have impressed the more theatrical branch of his estranged family tree.

His plan would have worked, had the deadlock held.

In his last, tumultuous battle, a Rozarrian Fighter shot Ffamran's airship to ground.

Captivated by his approaching mortality, Ffamran did not remember his jettison, whether he used a parachute or a spellstone to preserve himself against the landing. Nor even of how he fouled his landing badly enough to break both his legs.

He woke to discover the world didn't care. Within arm's reach lay one corpse, and beyond, another soldier almost a corpse—both Rozarrian, Ffamran failed to notice.

After some time, he acclimatised himself to his own agony, and the sound of the dying Rozarrian.

The battle raged overhead. On occasion, a shower of debris disrupted the jungle's thick silences with crashes and cracks. Ffamran soon learned not to flinch. When the skies fell silent, whose victory he should celebrate remained a mystery, as the thick, sweaty jungle masked any upwards view.

The first night, Ffamran shivered himself unconscious. He woke retching, in rediscovery of pain.

Agonisingly, the ants arrived.

Scared by the sounds of war, the scavengers took three days to emerge.

Ffamran had six bullets left in his gun, three of which taught the scavengers the forever-dying Rozarrian, now Ffamran's stalwart companion, was tougher meat than expected. They appeased themselves with the dead Rozarrian.

Ffamran waited for someone to notice his absence, then realised he had no one.

The dying Rozarrian recovered, to an extent: he spoke a prayer. He asked for one thing, and after hearing it so many times over, Ffamran whispered with the soldier, cursing the unresponsive universe denying them rain. Ffamran licked the humidity from whatever lay within his shortened reach. He didn't know what the Rozarrian did.

The sound of running water made the thirst worse, from close enough that the mucky tree, dying man and scream-worthy heat seemed Ffamran's personal hell. Though Ffamran admitted conditions worse for the increasingly liquid Rozarrian, who refused to admit defeat.

At length, the man's prayer for water converted to a plea for death.

At which point, Ffamran wondered if he might also succumb to this lethal anonymity. Twas a disgrace, he told the Mist-thick air. He had been meant for more than this.

Courage was for the afraid, so Ffamran collected his practicality, and made a plan.

Before he left, he spared a bullet for his best friend the Rozarrian, who gazed up the dull grey muzzle with an indefinable expression.

'S-sorry.' Ffamran licked his lips, cocked the gun. 'Sorry for waiting so long.'

'Thank you anyway,' said the Rozarrian.

After that, Ffamran dragged himself in search of the running water. It took time, interspersed with dark periods.

The stream ran through a deep vertical gully. After the crawl, the drop-off came as a nasty punchline.

Desperate, Ffamran worked with the remnants of his upper body armour, gun belt and ammunition belt, and what shrubbery within reach, to create a bladder of air of sufficient buoyancy to keep him from drowning. That he would pass out on impact was undeniable. He tore his undershirt into strips, strapped himself to the bubble, and threw himself off the edge.

Consciousness returned in small and torturous doses. Ffamran drowned, caught, floated. Delirious, with sun on his face, skin mottled by leaves and leeches. The thirst left him, replaced by cold and terror. He woke in a bed, lungs afire, but his legs no longer rotting, nor festooned with bloodsuckers.

Regarded with impersonal scorn by two Viera salvemakers, Ffamran fought to stay silent through his delirium. While unwilling to war, the Viera had agreed to staff an impromptu hospital for their Rozarrian defenders. Here, Ffamran recovered himself.

On his second return to reality, the Viera queried his nationality and his name.

No Viera bore good will towards Archadians, but Ffamran knew his colouring too pale-skinned for Rozarria, too dark-haired for a citizen of the myriad midland nations. He introduced himself as Balthier, a Balfonheim mercenary, who had the misfortune of chartering with a skypirate who tried to profiteer from the flare-up war.

So mournful was Balthier's unfortunate tale the younger Viera's features softened in sympathy, her long, black-tipped ears a-tremble. Fluttering his lashes over fever-bright eyes, Balthier touched pale fingers to her cheek. With a sincerity that would have alarmed a fellow Hume with its intensity, he thanked her from the bottom of his humble soul.

He went to Balfonheim. Balthier's persona as an independent, blithely superior skypirate was so well crafted, it surprised him to discover his imaginary last charter had never existed.

He had surely survived the worst.

Even flying dark, the Maenad always risked the chance visual.

Fran raised her hand against the artificial dawn. The light destroyed their cover, whether it came as a magnesium flare or a spell. Heartbeat slowing after the original shock, she resigned herself to the loss of their cargo. Rozarrians fought by established rules of conduct, codified a century past by the monks at the Holy Mount. She had no reason to fear.

For all their days together, she could not have anticipated Balthier's reaction.

When the sky turned white, Balthier's first thought was not flare.

Under missile assault, an airship's shield glazed white when about to fail. Before deserting the 12th Fleet for his mercenary persona, Balthier had been conditioned for survival in such an event.

His vision flooded with white brilliance, he thought, simply enough: incoming!

And found himself in that nightmare sky of four years prior.

Forcing his damaged Fighter's exoskeleton to pirouette, graceful in its last moments, through the litter of metallic corpses, the Mist-trails of the likewise doomed, friend and foe alike, fragments carving flame through the sky, while salvos continued to rattle his bones, both ship and shell. A banshee missile shrieked his name.

Suspended over an obsidian jungle which would surely be his doom, he longed to close his eyes before the impact. Instead, his imminent dying transfixed him.

All this in a fragmented second.

'Balthier! Pull up-'

Balthier felt oddly distanced from his partner's call.

Via a static-loud comm., Sairo roared, 'Fran, full power, now kick him or pull us up!'

The Maenad surged to full life. The cockpit lights blazed on, surpassing the exterior's imposed hellish glow. The blackness in Balthier's eyes receded to a blind pinpoint: a metaphysical jolt, Fran saw. It did more for him than she had.

Blood boiling, Balthier immediately took gut-wrenching evasive action, both from the proximal earth and an imagined missile.

Which was no longer strictly imaginary.

The Rozarrian Fighter expressed its interest in the dirty, limping old airship with a friendly flare, then assumed the worst when the ship descended on a suicidal path towards Balfonheim. The Rozarrian Fighter pilot fired the missile in defence of the port. Balthier's evasive action took the form of an upwards haul, which brought the Maenad into the missile's path sooner than expected.

The missile sliced through the Maenad's inferior shield, into one side of the ancient ship and, astoundingly, out the other. The paper-thin state of the old alloy hull saved them from immediate annihilation.

Fran's hand closed around Balthier's forearm. Coming back to her more than himself, he met the navigator's eyes. Her brows arched, sorrowful.

She tightened her hold. 'With you not by me now, should I believe the worst?'

Balthier remembered. He had promised her, the leading man never dies.

The Rozarrian Fighter's next barrage sent fragments spiralling into the night.

Had Cidolphus Bunansa not discovered skystone when he did, Fran would never have divorced the Wood.

Or perhaps she would have. Distance, its glamour, had always captivated her.

Born deep within the Golmore Jungle, Fran left Eryut Village long before skystone's discovery. Reclusive by nature, Viera lived separate from the world outside, shunning even their own kind but for when necessity required it. The isolation allowed the Viera to hear the spirit voice of the Wood, an incarnation of the jungle's awareness.

Before she left, Fran scarcely even considered what difficulty her departure might cause herself. The longing to travel struck her like a restless twitch, a physical need to move a limb kept motionless.

Much later, she reflected that she could have resisted the urge, had she the desire.

Fran explored urban comforts and mortared hells, learned terms like 'national policy' and 'political freedom;' she met, married, murdered, all before Cidolphus Demen Bunansa's birth.

Between episodes of her life, Fran visited Eryut Village with the same unselfconsciousness with which she had left. She noted her sisters staring, the vague withdrawal of the other Viera from her presence, but did not react. In a hammock, cradled by breeze and familiarity, she wondered what drew her to return to this place she yet called home. If easing cramped limbs drew her outwards, did a fear of overextension call her back?

Fran moved through the outside world with the detached pleasure of an anthropologist. She had no want to be a part of her observations, but found a fundamental pleasure in making them. She carried the habit of observation into her own home village.

Her return visits grew rare. Nevertheless, Fran kept an oddly parental urge to protect Eryut's chosen isolation, the village a perfect relic of itself. In part, Eryut's isolation and segregation came as a physical necessity: Mist affected the Viera more than the other races, causing violent, sometimes lethal physical reactions. For generations, Viera chose to live in areas with lower concentrations of Mist, locales as rare and isolated as those with high concentrations of Mist.

Isolation bred itself.

Yet Eryut Village, out of many Viera communities, was deeply insular. So engaged with its own self-developed cultural restraint that belief in the corrupting influence of Mist had become fanatical. The other races had long since integrated the use of Mist into their lives, a means to an end. Fran learned to do so, too. Outside the Wood, Mist use could not be avoided.

If trace guilt returned each time Fran stepped within the Wood's bounds, as Mist-user, unclean, she banished it with the promise of a fresh horizon, wind in her ears, the purchase of fresh leathers, tailor-made and striking.

One particular day, a lifetime away from Eryut, Fran saw an airship take to the sky. The odd shape caught her eye: no cumbersome zeppelin, this airship rose at a speed in defiance of its shape.

Aerodynamics contributed little to the design of Archadia' first airships. The earliest models resembled their oceanic cousins, complete with sails as wings.

Instinctively Fran knew: the improbably shaped airship could not have sailed the skies without Mist involved.

A fierce desire for all things taboo filled Fran to the brim.

Forbidden yet flaunted, lethal. Mist-winged fancies filled her dreams. Then, her days.

She would not return home.

When Fran chartered with the airship on which she would meet a young, grasping Balthier, she had well over fifty years of experience of survival in a world where airships flew. She had made her own way as a hunter, warrior, mercenary, skypirate and profiteer. More importantly, she knew everything worth knowing about airships.

Despite Balthier's youth, that flight together showed they shared a suitable ethic. Over far too much whiskey and not enough supper, they expounded on a love of airships and freedom. For Balthier, airships provided a method of upholding his independence. For Fran, life aboard an airship proved that she preserved her freedom from ingrained stricture.

When Balthier first arrived in the pirate port of Balfonheim, his own survival drove him. In his first unfruitful days on the street—similar to Fran's first days in the derelict shanty town the port had once been, it would have intrigued him to know —Balthier realized that his continued survival required acquisition.

He was greedy. For life, not that he recognised it. Sublimating, he instead began to acquire.

Acquisition provided one with choices, choices increased the odds of survival, and Balthier intended to live forever.

A year playing hunter and mercenary gave Balthier enough profits to enter the Balfonheim market. He learned which goods were in scarce supply, and gained such goods by sword or secrecy. He invested in training and a better armoury, which allowed him to try dangerous hunts with smaller parties, netting higher earnings from the sales. He picked up a wardrobe fit for a pirate king, aware of costume's importance in the success of a role. Clad in leather, linen and lace, he grew enamoured of his own invulnerability. He developed a belief that he was the star of his own story, a rakish leading man who loved many and respected few, destined for horizons and never the ignoble death.

He survived a year without the sky, until the loss grew paramount.

In an alley off the quayside harbour, Balthier applied judicious force to create an opening in the five-bodied crew of the Gerai. Within six months, and with the unexpected aid of the airship's navigator and chief engineer, Balthier effected mutiny.

The Gerai came as stylized as early airships could come, designed for sea and not for sky. A recognisable airship was not a good choice for a theft, yet Balthier enjoyed daring the likelihood of failure. Each time he survived, he reinforced his invulnerability.

Yet daring did not mean stupidity. He removed the airship's identifying marks, renamed it the Maenad, and docked at Balfonheim's aerodrome without fuss.

The change in leadership pleased Fran. Skypirates of late had turned to a code lacking the morals of their predecessors, becoming little more than skyborne cutthroats, monster-hunters turned to murders in lust for money. But Balthier flew by the old code. He divided loot fairly, with bonuses for those wounded in hunts or feuds. The Maenad flew as a charter, a company, each member with shares in the ship. Except in times of war or battle, Balthier assured his tiny crew his leadership would be the voice that called them to vote on decisions, not the hand that demanded obedience.

Common enterprise united Balthier and Fran, discovery of each other's competence cutting across the usual boundaries of nationality and race.

Disinclined to share with each other either pasts or traumas, they nevertheless developed a rapport Fran appreciated. If she played the detached anthropologist, a voice from the wings, Balthier claimed the spotlight as the chameleon tourist.

Without much debate, the skypirates kept Balfonheim as their home port. The lively self-balancing chaos of the place had always intoxicated Fran, even when the streets had been mud, the harbour filled with sails, and the aerodrome but a single dock for a Moogle zeppelin. With good humour, Balthier scorned the provinciality of the streets, but Balfonheim's marketplace government appealed to the certain aspects of Balthier's persona.

Of the many cities and towns within Archadia's borders, only the pirate port of Balfonheim remained possessed of the mercantile attitude which had made Archadia a world power—for a long period, merchant and pirate were synonymous.

In Balfonheim, anyone who could afford it was a king.

Not quite self-crowned, the fighting proud Viera and lean, lace-clad Hume blended into Balfonheim's chaos when alone, but remained notable as a pair.

They spoke no vows to each other, nor made formal alliance. After taking the Maenad, Balthier let Fran know he would appreciate her closeness. Her partnership, if she would. There would be benefits, he told her. His destiny was to survive.

Out of habit, Balthier did not doubt they would survive this current attack.

Fran, too, had learned to rely on his infallibility.

The missile strike below hit a critical conduit. The lights flickered, the cockpit left with no more light than the ugly orange emergency glow. The window exploded inwards, heralding the Rozarrian boarding squad's entrance. Three Rozarrian gunners landed, ropes hissing away from gloved hands, the sudden influx of air blasting Fran's fine white hair into her eyes. Balthier hauled her from her chair in that moment of vulnerability, after which they stood by the ladder, in readiness to descend.

The Rozarrians forestalled their exit. 'Weapons down, hands high! Weapons down, hands high!'

Fran shook pebbled glass from her hair, ears flicking. Balthier caught Fran's eye and shrugged, insolent.

In that brief moment, they debated the likelihood of resurrection.

The Rozarrian boarding squad fired a warning round—if too late, as the Maenad keeled to one side. Having heard the whine before the ship canted, Fran curled into the descent, grabbing Balthier's forearm. With her free hand, she latched onto the ladder. Balthier returned her grip. The Maenad levelled out, and they moved with it, into the ladder's shaft, descending in a swift manner akin to a partially arrested fall.

Scarce seconds later, in retreat as another squad member leaped from the forward commons, a shell exploded into the hold. The ship's spin saved them again, levelling as a member of the boarding party took control of the helm.

Despite their evasions, when the skypirates reached their nearly horizontal engine deck, the Rozarrian military had repossessed the Maenad. A cohort of twelve kept a solid guard around the skystone. Nono scowled at them, his empty paws spread wide.

Prodded by guns from behind, Fran raised her hands in a similar sign of surrender. Balthier followed, reluctant, until he reminded himself that surrender could be considered an alternate form of survival.

Losing this ship would dent him, he realised.

Long-nailed fingers laced at her nape, Fran's downcast eyes saw Sairo first. Nono caught her raised eyebrow and shrugged, helpless. He turned a wary glance to Balthier and drew the pilot's attention down.

Sairo had been shot, terminally.

The pain of losing his ship shifted into a worse ache. Balthier met the engineer's glassy stare and found it reproachful.

Guilt rose, a tide in the skypirate's chest. Balthier always survived. Those who rubbed their shoulders with him should have been awarded the same indignity.

Blackness, ruin impendent, overwhelmed Balthier with a list of drastic measures. In his skypirate career, unlike his abbreviated military service, he had taken precautions to avoid excessive death, and the murder of sentient beings. The unexpected appearance of a fatal flaw within his own crew suggested that Balthier was but a heartbeat from returning to the rank and monstrous jungle, lurking behind his mind's eye.

Inexpertly, the Rozarrians removed the skystone from the Maenad's's antiquated core. Their mishandling caused showers of brilliant sparks. Sairo's eyes had last sparkled like that lying in a grassy field on a carefree day, his shoulder against Fran's, taking apart an antique gun to Balthier's lazy instruction. They had been well fed, rich and lightly oiled, enjoying their well-funded freedom in a string of perfect days.

Balthier fought the black wave, and for a moment, lost.

It almost wasn't worth it, life.

Mist backwash burst free from the skystone, clarifying matters with a brief, magnesium-bright surge, leaving the ship in comparative blackness.

Balthier shuddered away the image behind his mind's eye, of his own frozen death. He was not going to die. He was selfish, incapable of the last act of jettisoning everything, nationhood, pride, expectation, life.

The deck vibrated as the Rozarrians pulled free the stone. One of the Rozarrian Carriers caught the Maenad in her own Mist-field, tugging the ship into the internal dock. Time for the leading man to do anything imaginative had ended.

Fran stood firm against the vibration, but Balthier went to his knees, hands curved around his skull. He swallowed, hard, when Sairo's head bobbled with the motion.

Nausea. Certainly not anything sentimental.

Balthier caught Fran's steady eye and saw himself reflected; reflecting, as he rose to his feet, on how essential his partner had become to ensuring he remained himself. Living his role, Balthier needed the accountability of having an audience.

The Maenad tilted to an even keel, then to a halt.

The hatch lowered, a gangway raised, the boarding party increased. No one gave permission for the skypirates to lower their hands. Only Nono worked, preventing the Rozarrians from causing more damage to the antique engine and the skystone.

If Balthier and Fran formed their unspoken alliance based on common desires, Nono partnered the airship herself, going wherever the Maenad flew. An emphatic glance from the Moogle told Balthier that Nono preserved the ship in expectation of an eventual bid for freedom, which Balthier would, and must, pursue on their behalf.

Faith, Balthier recognised.

At Balthier's side, Fran's long lines matched his own, a stance of lazy caution, prepared to sink into the tooth and nail fight that Balthier's next move could trigger.

It was his own little Empire, in a way.

A fierce, protective affection surged in Balthier. To think, he had thought affection inconsistent with survival.

Masked and effective, the Rozarrian soldiers directed the pair out of the hatch, at gunpoint. In the Carrier's massive, bustling hold, further armed Rozarrians stood at attention, prepared for any eventuality.

This, Balthier could deal with. The leading man mantled himself in a matching arrogance.

Fran felt his stance change, recognised the arrogant set to his shoulders. 'Delightful.'

Looking sidelong, Balthier raised an eyebrow.

Gracious, Fran inclined her head at the assembled military. 'The adoring, much trouble they might be, step out to stand in our presence.'

'Gentle and trembling though they are.'

Fran's lips curved with satisfaction at the vast numbers of those not privileged to be within their circle.

The skypirates lowered their arms, and ignored every muzzle that threatened to bark.

Continue to Chapter 1

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