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Worlds, Oysters, Pearls, and a Grain of Sand

part 8 of Threshold

Age is supposed to equal maturity. This is yet another lie from a past full of lies, and Balthier flies as fast as he can, but they follow him everywhere. Age means nothing but getting old, getting older, and that's what's happened to Cid.

Cid knows he looks old. Ffamran's no older than the glorious sixteen he'll always be; Balthier is a different man. Cid sneers, stops himself before the third strike. He's angry, still as spiteful as a child, but what he really wants to do is argue with the boy.

Balthier won't respond any more than Ffamran did. Truisms, Balthier says inside his head, around the ringing of the last fist, fuck you, old man, and your truisms, you're a walking cliché. (Balthier avoids mirrors for a reason.)

Get up, Cid says. He sounds old. He sounds tired.

This is an interesting confrontation for the both of them, because it's not about who left and who stayed, who's right or who's wrong. They're both thinking of one night, from years ago. How old was Ffamran, fourteen? Sweating into his sheets, having come in straight from a sprint off the street, something illicit and gleeful, sticky and high, Balthier can't remember now.

What he remembers was his heart beating too fast, not knowing why Cid was in his room, coiled paternal energy and Ffamran no worthy outlet.

Balthier remembers this:

Cid told him a bedtime story in the only way a scientist knew how, chalk in his hand and diagrams on the wall. Stop yawning, boy. There's two paths through life, (chalk strokes correspondingly, white dust a casualty of Cid's brute force,) the first fractal tree born when you realise that there are only ever two paths: this is the dichotomy of the rational man's existence. Not good or evil, those are same thing with the only variable where upon the spectrum they may lie. Not about right or wrong - they're the same thing too, like noise and silence, only the quantum may differ. So if it's not about the difference between right and wrong, you know what life's about, boy?

People can choose this, Ffamran: (the chalk's in two pieces, snapped, sundered,) they can be good, or they can be right. So down one path of life walks a man who is good, down the other walks a man who is right. Nature of causality, boy. You know they can't be both be the same man, to be good and to be right mutually exclusive. Which man are you going to be?

Ffamran wouldn't answer. His idea of manhood was somewhat more flexible than chalk.

Certainly, he knew what answer Cid wanted, but whether it was an answer that would suit anyone but for Cid, Ffamran never knew.

Balthier kneels on sun-bleached floorboards and he stays kneeling. Strange that being on his knees is his defiance, submission when Cid wants the confrontation. But that's the way life rolls its dice: spite the directive directly, Ffamran, that's the only way to freedom, opposition! Rally the rebellion, here we come!

Through leaking pain, Balthier snarls at himself: three years older than Ffamran was allowed to be, he's a hundred years more unprepared.

Above him, Cid works the force of his last punch out of his fist. His son's blood pinks his glove across the knuckle. He frowns, bothered by the strange pride that fills him at the sight. Balthier's blood on his fist. Balthier took the blow like he'd learned how, shaken off the first, let his fall absorb the force of the second. As contradictory as it is to be proud of a bar-brawling son who knows, perhaps the hard way, how to take a hit, Cid is proud.

Balthier's a practical little bastard compared to Ffamran. Doesn't want to stain his shirt, so he leans forward, the blood from his nose pooling between his knees. The posture bares the nape of his neck. Cidolphus wants to cuff him, tell him to straighten up again, but Cid hates repeating himself. Vulnerability always provokes him. Balthier should know better.

Cid presses his fingers to his eyes, hard enough he sees stars. Balthier sniffs, he's hurting. Cidolphus' heart beats faster with the urge to - do something, not comfort, to, shove Balthier, to make him stand up, to shake him stupid and make him shout. It burns Cid, embarrasses him, he can't treat the boy like a boy, he's not. Get up, Balthier, get up and make sense. Nothing thrives on chaos except whatever broken mechanism drives Balthier's motivation, perverse and contradictory and infuriating.

Cid wants him to make sense. Hate me all you want, Balthier, hate me, just give me a reason why.

Balthier looks up, so quickly, but it's not fury that burns in his eyes. Hatred, maybe, but there's a certain love necessary to keep hatred burning last this long.

Did you follow me, Balthier asks, or just find me?

Circumstances conspire, Cid admits. I'm here for Lhusu. The Marquis closed the mine. Did you know the Ninth is after you?

I know, Balthier says. So when did you start calling me Balthier, father: before Gabranth put lizards on my tail, or after?

Cid thinks of the folio of newspaper clippings and hunt board bulletins in his desk, one-liners written by Solidor pets, blurred photographs, two hand sketches, one profile, one three-quarter view. Orders for capture issued in retribution for Balthier's daring. Ffamran was never as daring as Balthier. As dashing. Even in their rife criminality, the photographs are flattering.

Then Balthier spits blood, and it's a calm come and gone, like the eye of a storm.

It had been a shock to see Balthier in this Bhujerban market and mistake his own son for a stranger, dark and feral and thoroughly at home arguing with a Seeq. Yet clearly displaced, and uncaring for displacement. A thriving fucking contradiction, this boy.

Cid followed him, of course he had, how could he not, spoke to him in the taverna below, followed the boy up a flight of narrow tiled stairs with his eyes on Balthier's hunched shoulders. They stood, in silence, in Balthier's room, until the boy provoked him. What do you want, old man, congratulations that you found me? I'd hit you if I cared enough to try.

Cid cared enough to try. Cid cares so much he never wants to stop trying. His knuckles hurt. Cid laughs, shakes his head, this is ridiculous. He holds out his hand, the unpained one; the one that struck Balthier he cradles close to his heart (his son, his son!).

Balthier disdains the offer. He can stand on his own. Of course he can, but he won't, not while Cid looms like he's waiting for another reason to strike. Contradictory creatures, the pair of them. It is Balthier's pose that has Cidolphus itching. No son of his was born to kneel.

Cid moves around the room, around the kneeling Balthier, looks at things and pokes instead of looking at his son and striking. The narrow bed, well-slept in, the pillow covered with white fur of all things, but at least it's not scales. Cid scatters foiled condoms off the nightstand with an angry strike. His son. His seed. Balthier keeps his guns well-tended, if set amidst empty bottles, not quite a quarter of which are topped with lipgloss, one of which is filled with the corpses of cigarettes. Looped belts hang from the back of a chair with a broken leg, the leather intricately worked with scorch and indentation. Cidolphus recognises Ffamran's hand there, remembers sketches in ink plastered over walls slowly becoming three dimensional, leather-work, wire-work, even jewellery once Ffamran taught himself to weld, and Cid unsure of what response to give where praise would seem patronising proportional to the creationist impulse. Ffamran liked patterns, and made infinite iterations for a world that never made sense. A cluster of crumpled bills, each mark struck through with success. On the back of the last Cid finds a tally of earnings to spendings, profit and loss margins. Cid laughs. Laughs.

Blood itches at Balthier's upper lip. He wipes on his cuff, stares at the red.

This is your life. Cid can't believe it, won't. Killing animals. This is piss, Balthier. Your allowance gave you more profit than this.

Incidentals, Balthier replies. The money's in the loot.

Cid sneers. Tomb raider. No better than a Seeq.

Balthier has a hundred arguments about the relative value of better, debates regarding the quantification of freedom, the right to choice. All his complexities are sourced in hatred of earlier mistakes (and another memory, he flew low and released a gift from the gods, watched a city obliterated in fire, he will not ever equip the Strahl with more weapons than her wings). But Balthier raises no debate. He hates all of his clumsy constructs of thought for their insufficiency to explain, everything, when nothing explains life. He says instead, for no reason whatsoever:

It gets me laid. Half the time I don't even have to pay for that.

Cid backhands him. The blow comes across Balthier like whiteness, powerful. It fills Cid's eyes with blackness.

I raised you for more than this.

For what? What plan, ploy, plot; fuck you! Balthier hates his father then, the contradiction of lace (appearances, Cid sneers, are the easiest way to convince shallow eyes) and the carelessness of stubble (Father's so busy, Cid's eyes always elsewhere even from six feet away. Ffamran throws a fork across the table like a dagger, watches ancestral metal bury itself in the worked ornamentation of the sideboard. Cid doesn't blink, six days the fork stays erect until gravity calls it home.) Their ancestry is false, the fork someone else's stolen from true nobility. Bunansa's flag rose with Cidolphus' father, inventor, creator, economic merchant, pegged to the Solidor snakes. Whose House and Blood that long dead Bunansa bought, Balthier doesn't know and Cidolphus never cared. Their name and pride is all their own creation, shallow arrogance against the might and assurance of the full House of Lords. So Cid never cared about aristocracy, but had to abide by its laws, he wears lace and frills and hides a peasant's dour barrel of a chest beneath intelligence that borders on insanity.

Those gloves, those gloves; he's taking them off now, cracking knuckles worn raw.

Balthier shuts his eyes, swallows.

So this is the truth of the gloves: his father's hands bear no grand disfigurement, only that they are gnarled before their time, a history of labour written in skin, bone, sinew, calloused from when work was all that kept Cid fed, scorchmarks from a time before electricity had laws, stained by the ink in which Cidolphus wrote those laws, wrote magicite's mechanics in the white scars of shrapnel that lightly salted fingers and palms.

Balthier shuts his eyes on a multitude of juvenile terrors. Here's the revulsion (Balthier's adult overlay) and here's the pleasure (a child's hunger for approval): there's his father's rough thumbs, the crooked fingers, calluses thick as books and filled with as much lore. The vague oiled stench and bittersweet burned flesh . Cid never stopped touching, mechanics, engines, his latest devices, his son; Ffamran learned proximity was natural, hands on shoulders and oil-black fingers stroking his cheeks. Personal space was the construction, the thing he had to learn once leaving the house, the law that Balthier's life had taught him was necessary for interpersonal interactions.

Cid never learned those kinds of laws. Cid stands too close, grabs Balthier's head with both twisted hands, and that scent/smell/heat/proximity/force invariably to remind Balthier of a time when he could stand with his leg against his father's with Cid's breath in his hair - bent over a circuit board, Cid angered by the mistakes, blind to the painstaking corrections Ffamran had already made, blunt and crude and always touching.

Yet space is always the enemy, for Balthier, he wants none of it between him and people, but he has to keep half a world between himself and anyone else. Only best friends and family can stab you in the back.

Get up and fight.

No, Balthier says.

Get up and fight. You fought me to become a Judge, you pulled on gloves and I pulled on mine, we got up on the roof and fought, blow for blow - of course you didn't win, fourteen and soft as a baby's cock, of course you didn't win, but I was proud of you then! You fought, me and expectations, and I supported you! A Judge, my bloody son, a godsdamned policeman of the state, after all the law and learning and science I poured into your stubborn fucking head, and you wanted a field position? As much a peasant as your grandfather, but I thought, well, you wanted it, and you fought for it, I got it for you, I was proud of you when you excelled, as if my boy could do anything but. And then what, one day, you're gone? A thief and a coward, you ran away in the heart of a battle, you were gone! Not dead, no honours: run away! What am I supposed to say to that?

Nothing, Balthier says. I don't want you to say anything.

Get up and fight! You fought to become a Judge - you want this shithole of a life (Cid kicks over the nightstand, the lamp shattering, kicks the bedframe up against the wall) you can fight for it too.

No, Balthier says.

The backhand again. Some peace comes with it. Balthier almost forgives his father before the blow lands.

The feel of bare skin on his cheek. The roughness lingers as fingers dig through Balthier's hair, blunt fingers, one black nail. Pain, wretched and wrenching, but it's touch, and it shakes him awake.

They provoke, and provoke; only family can do this so well. Balthier closes his eyes, but Cid twists his grip.

Fifteen white shirts, Cid sneers, lipstick at the collar. You'll be dead in three years, Balthier Bunansa.

The words would be difficult, so Balthier says nothing. He's missed the old man's brand of encouragement, one that sits sick in the pit of his belly and begs for him to defy it.

Call me Balthier, if you will. I am not a Bunansa.

No son of mine, Cidolphus says, would be such a coward as this. I would have given you everything you ever wanted.

Balthier doesn't say: As long as everything I ever wanted was exactly what you wanted to give me.

What do you want? Almost pleading, the great man, all his shoulders' breadth and working hands and complex thought useless. Cid says: Come back to Archades, Ffamran. Balthier. (Assure my pride, Balthier hears. Supplement my ego. Let me know I'm doing things right, because this is right, father and son, in Archades. Tell me I'm right! Balthier thinks/does not think of rough fingers on his cheeks, a hand carding through his hair, a handkerchief held to a leaking nose; childhood is an impossible place to find again, he's looked everywhere, he knows.)

Such concern, sir. Yet I want for nothing. Blood threatens to broach the corners of Balthier's mouth. Bunansa blood turns perverse once spilled, perverse and sneering, sharp as swords. Unless you'd like to spare me a thousand gil, pops?

Better had I never seen you again. The word pathetic is scarcely adequate to deliver my contempt.

Fool of a father, Balthier does not say. You think the back of your hand was ever enough?

Cid clenches, cracks his knuckles, releases. Smiling, or sneering, or laughing as though silence is a familial comedy of the grandest kind. Balthier has forgotten he never knew how to read his father. Absence does not generate fondness, but given absence, the mind always works to fill the gaps with reasons.

The door's latch turns. When Fran comes in, Cidolphus' lip turns as though arrogance is the only permissible response to shock. He laughs with percussive force.

Good gods, boy, what have you been doing?

Balthier shakes: this is a grand comedy. Fran's eyes are wide, her belt-knife drawn on the instant. She thinks he's hurt, she thinks he's broken, and she looks ready to defend him.

Balthier stands for her, not for Cid.

Except it is for Cid, he doesn't want Fran's blade in his father's back. Balthier straightens his shirt as he rises. He is disproportionately upset at the rip that bares his shoulder. He liked this shirt. Fran does not ask him if he is well. He is not.

I'm leaving, Cidolphus announces.

Childish, Balthier thinks, as though the announcement would provoke one last desperate outreached hand. Go on then, Ffamran does not say. Run, to Giruvegan or Draklor or Vayne, run, as though motion grants you purpose (it doesn't), as if purpose grants you righteousness (it can't). I'd tell you, if you would ever consider learning a thing from me (you won't).

Irony batters at Balthier's skull. He does hold out his hand. As a skypirate, he is, above all else, a gentleman.

Cid stares, then takes it. Balthier threads fine fingers through the tangle of his father's flesh, wraps his free hand over the top again, against thick veins and a bruiser's knuckles. The old man would never have passed for middle class, not with his wit and these worker's willing hands. Reach for a star, bear the burn-marks with pride, only the heights hold enough room for wandering madmen disguised as eccentric lords.

Balthier holds his father's hand tightly. The effort should make him feel something more than revulsion/shame. A frown creeps up on him unbidden, a line drawn between his brows. Balthier feels the hurt on his face distantly, the eye that will bruise/is bruising, his cheekbone, his jaw. Cid only struck for his face, as though Cid only wanted to strike that which remained familiar.

Cid returns the grip with force. His expression crumples in strange ways, unguarded like a child, or a very old man. He stands too close, as always. Someone needs to remind him to shave with regularity.

It's been as much a pleasure as always, Balthier offers.

He is not so magnanimous as he wants to be, for all this is neither defeat nor success. Yet another stalemate. Balthier wonders if his father and he are even fighting this battle on the same field.

They stand in silence for too long. Cidolphus releases first, leaves with an inappropriate look directed at Fran's lengths and proportions (one glance at her ears, Balthier tallies for the record, one curling sneer to the thousand judgements Cidolphus has passed before, one sneer that becomes a lecher's leer), and leaves the door swinging open behind him.

Swift, Fran closes the door.

'We need to leave. Now.'

It is a question, in her way. Balthier regards the room's state. He had planned to bluff the broken chair, a casualty of earlier and more pleasant engagements, but the rest of the wreck now, shattered lamps, glass, and the twisted bedframe, the blood and minor destruction. This is the scene of a battle better left uncompensated. Cidolphus's debts have a habit of escalating, and Balthier will not square them.

'May I suggest via the window?'

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