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Skin and Sand

part 14 of Threshold

Vossler sets his forearm across his eyes to take the blast. Strides across an earth turned to treacherous tide. Spits sand. Before he can close his lips, he earns himself another gritty mouthful of Dalmasca.

The bluster's density turns their camp into distant shadows and shapes. The Dalmascan boy keeps watch to the south; Vossler chooses his post to watch the north approach. He crouches where a long-fallen girder forms a shelter against a concrete plate. His racing heart will not quiet, the rhythm of fight or flight clear in his ears against the white howl of the storm.

The sand he rubs against his hands does nothing but abrade. He still smells the blood, wonders, as he does, why it always seems to come to this between them.

Basch's left shoulder presses against a fallen mass of concrete on one side, his fingertips touching the wind-taut thrum of tent on other. He stares for long, thoughtless moments, heartbeat racing. Breathes, hurts. Breathes until hurt should subside.

This is not the cage nor the cell. The cushioning under his neck is a bundle of two shirts and two shorts.

Basch almost smiles.

When he stands, he needs the concrete wall to ride through sudden vertigo. His mouth is full of blood - a bitten tongue, a cracked lip. His chest and thighs wet. Not solely the renewed novelty of engagement. He will need healing, but he has no curatives within reach, and does not think Vossler left to play fetch. Basch contemplates letting this bide, but the hurt rises with each heartbeat where he expected it to ebb.

Fran, then, or Penelo; for that Penelo beds with Ashelia Basch decides he will go to Fran.

His fingers are slow in separating his clothing from Vossler's seconds.

One step beyond the shelter and the sandsea's tide blinds him. The ruin is scattered, and they took their shelter where providence afforded the best chance of standing the storm. From memory, Fran's tent was pitched over a mostly-whole room, half buried and in fortunate proximity. Basch crouches at that ruin, cannot hold, falls to bury his knees in soft sand, and fumbles to find the entrance fold. He crawls within without calling his arrival, discomforted by his lack of courtesy - yet surely even Fran could not hear his voice over the storm.

The calm inside is abrupt, forceful, and spelled to be so.

A small lantern glows. Everything is gold and shadow. A heavy scent of fresh-brewed tea, and maps have been shoved to one side of the tent to clear space for his arrival.

Confronted by such, and two pairs of lantern-lit eyes where he expected one, Basch feels a rising rue. For that Balthier always beds in his own blankets when he is not absent all together, Basch did not expect the younger skypirate's presence here.

Fran's gaze is unreadable, Balthier's all too legible. Again, as ever.

Balthier cuts off the attempted explanation. 'Fran heard you.'

'I have judged poorly, it seems.'

Balthier's expression darkens. 'Better to have bedded a baknamy, Basch, than that dervish. Anyone could have told you how this would end.'

'I meant,' Basch says, 'that I had misjudged Fran's capability to distinguish voice through the storm. I apologise for any disturbance to your rest.'

'Apology unnecessary.' Fran's gaze flicks to the piled maps. 'We were not resting. There is need to define our return route from Raithwall's tomb as distinct from yours.'

'Of course,' Basch inclines his head. 'Replete with Raithwall's relics, you will have a ways to travel.'

Balthier's chin drops, eyes on his fingers, fingers toying with rings. His lip curls, scorn writ as clear on his cheek as the streak of ink from his pen.
The extent of privacy offered involves Balthier hunched in the far corner, eyes set away. Fran's loose hair lifts with the storm's static, a white corona. She sets her back to Balthier's. Basch does not know how to go about asking. Before Nalbina, tenderness was not a part of what he sought with Vossler, but rarely any need for this.

When Fran opens her arms, Basch finds the embrace welcome.

His legs in a line, his arms along hers. She considers each bloodied graze, each bruise with her magick more than eyes. Hot then cold. She heals him with slow, shallow strokes, a refinement far beyond battle-craft. Basch did not think he was so badly wounded, but of a sudden he is conscious of his own sweat-smell heavy over the brewed tea. He has marked the dirt floor as well as their blankets, flecks of dark.

The gentle magick lulls him, dazes further as his strength is consumed by the healing.

'Is this a result of your own perversity or his?'

Too much to ask, that Balthier of all people would hold his tongue.

When Basch tries to rise, Fran stops him. Basch is too tired to fight free. 'Are not the pirates of Balfonheim known for their unbiased blankets? What offense do you find in this?'

'You misunderstand to which action I append the label. I had not realized you found such comfort in shedding your own blood. Nalbina was somewhat of a holiday resort for you, then? A tailored pampering bestowed by your loving brother? Did I do so poorly to grant you freedom?'

Basch feels suddenly helpless when he did not in Vossler's demanding hands.

Balthier moves then, anger suddenly lost in the face of an equal helplessness. He is crouched and awkward for his height in this confined space, close enough that they must all touch. Basch watches as he pours more tea, steam and scent rising in the tight space. The cup is thick Archadian polymer for travel lightness, and when Basch takes that offering all the warmth comes from the brief touch of Balthier's long fingers.

'He could have killed you. Did you not think to resist him?'

Basch chokes on tea. 'Balthier, this wasn't.' He cannot speak the word. 'When you have fought, every day, for as long as we have—' But this is not his story to tell. 'I regret that I had the need to seek you out for aid. Notwithstanding, I do not see that I have a need to discuss our habits with you.'

'Why are you protecting him? For your princess? Do you take his violence for her sake?'

'This has nothing to do with Ashelia.' Then, in sudden shock, Basch says, 'You will not speak to Ashelia of this.'

'Speak or no, I'll not stand aside if this happens again, Basch.'

'You will not interfere. This is not your business.'

Balthier recoils from whatever steels Basch's voice. Basch is embarrassed by it. The small honesty in this act with Vossler is too delicate to withstand the blaze in Balthier's eyes.

'What little freedom I can offer Vossler, what assurance. I offer willingly.'

Balthier's disbelief does not shift; he folds his arms.

Fran touches the column of Basch's neck, the knot of his throat, and magick unravels the pain of his argument. The pallet and blankets are of no greater thickness than Basch's own, but they smell of Fran, and Balthier, sex and sweat, tea and ink. Basch curls. This is not sleep, but some kind of surrender, some small safety against what lies in the darkness behind Balthier's eyes. Basch drifts on the song of a spell.

There is discussion over his head; Basch's undone mind snatches for the words, but misses each time. By the time he wins back his alertness, Balthier crouches at the blood-streaked end of the tent, folding back his sleeves with grim motion. His forearms are corded with a gunman's muscle, long and firm.

'He stands on watch,' Fran says. 'To the north of the camp most like in the lee of that first fallen girder. The storm has ceased, but be wary of discovery. Vaan is at the south end of camp, and the entities are roaming.'

Balthier nods and regards his fists. Basch reaches when the pirate makes to leave the tent, his voice thick and slow. 'Wait. Balthier.'

'I'll not offer a word of reasoning,' Balthier says, as though such a thing is assurance. He cracks his knuckles. Words whip-quick and wounded. 'Vossler's face offends me. Such can be sufficient excuse for a man such as I to unleash the limits of my violence, as I am free of any loyalties but to my own selfish desires.'

'Worthless effort, misdirected. We are so few; we must stand united against what will come.' The humour is hard to resist. 'I assure you, my honour is unsullied.'

Balthier regards him for a long moment. His smile is unexpectedly sincere. 'I have freed you once already, Basch. It seems I must continue to play savior.' The smile widens to wildness. 'For Lady Ashelia's sake, I will leave our noble knight able to walk.'

Basch cannot help but laugh at Balthier's threat. A height with Vossler, if not of a breadth. They are fighters from opposite sides of the line, knight against pirate. Vossler demands a way, with force the only path he knows; Balthier is accustomed to finding a way through any route conceivable.

'Do stay your hand, Balthier. Please.'

'And your reason? I have yet to hear that you have asked for what he did. Only excuses on his behalf.'

Basch lets his hand drop. Says what he should not. 'Because I would rather have you stay with me.'

Balthier and Fran exchange in a single glance more than what words could carry.

Balthier's hesitation stretches. 'You trust too readily for me to find evidence of my own worth in that statement.' His voice is steel, a sudden sharpness. 'I still can't believe you sought this treatment out deliberately, Basch. You forgive too easily, and it takes those of us more easily offended to seek recompense on your behalf. If this happens again I'll not hesitate again.'

Such moments when Balthier seems so very young. 'Thieves, traitors and desperate men. What gives you any right or reason to turn yourself so swiftly to such final judgement? You scarcely even know Vossler.'

Fran's voice sounds softer. 'Balthier's eyes will always betray his intent.'

'Bah. It's far too late at night for mysticism.'

Basch finds warmth in his ability to rise to the jest. 'I do note where Balthier's gaze turns of late.'

Now Balthier sputters. 'Because I choose not to look aside from his actions, when he so vocally condemns us?'

'Tis not how a sky pirate lives,' Fran notes. 'Choosing not to look aside.'

If Balthier has an answer, Basch does not hear it.

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