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part 20 of Threshold

Evening light is Archades' most flattering shade. That says, Balthier decides, not much at all.

He likes to imagine he is a stranger to this place.

A stranger could take this evening parade to be benign conversation, if a stranger could forget he walked in Archades, where nothing social is benign in intention. Tea. Ah, there is tea, a hundred imported types because nothing grows in Archades; Balthier can smell it on the air. Tea and biscuits, though they come salted with their equal weight in gossip. Those with power stay at home and nurse their providence, considering for whom they will pour, who they will entertain, to whom they will use their chance to bestow a favour that will only assure their own ability to be so generous. As for those who wander; neighbours, hah. Call them petitioners, not even friends in a city where the word means something else; even ardents, if the label were not so inapplicable to an aristocracy that denies it is what it is. (Archades is a free land, Balthier has heard, anywhere but here; even a lordship can be bought, not blooded.)

Balthier is conscious of being noted. He eases his sneer but cannot ease his spine, his shoulders. The tension of the last few days were enough to have him forget this ritual, and that it would be near-religiously enacted every dusk. It had been so long since he'd cared enough to remember. He should have waited at the aerodrome for nightfall; at the least, he should have stopped somewhere to take on water, he should have washed, he should have -

But no, he shouldn't have, because he didn't care. Not for this game, nor the expectation that he should be playing; he didn't care. Archadians and their judgments, judge one another, for another will always embrace the opportunity to judge you.

Balthier walks through that purposefully meandering crowd with his stride as stretched as it can be without running. He will swallow the necessary distance swiftly even if he gags on it; he keeps his gaze either on surface-skin cobbles, or searching for street signs he already knows. The stares that come his way spear out from under the feathered brims of hats, the unnecessary parasols, the glittering fans. Too many people recognise him here in Tsenoble. Balthier wants to recognise none of them, but for the one.

Balthier is nearly home. The house that he will not claim as his. Larsa had offered to return all Balthier's withheld rights, as though expecting a pirate to loot his own father's corpse with glee. As though a free Archadian - hah! - wouldn't recognize such a shiny favour as a well-polished shackle.

On the front porch of Balthier's destination, flanked by honest marble columns and against a dishonest brick fascia, Basch keeps his evening vigil with less formality than Balthier had expected of a Magister: in loose linen and a tight-laced vest. Barefoot, oh, Basch, Basch. Some hunger, proud longing licks at the pit of Balthier's stomach to see Basch so, in Archades; stirs him enough that Balthier's lips open and his gut clenches. Basch wears juxtaposition with such style.

Basch is not alone. Two women and two men command his attention, all four in finery that may well have cost more than Basch paid for that cursed townhouse. One of the women outlines an argument with gestures that Balthier can read even at a distance, size, quantities, expansive amounts. Balthier amuses himself by imagining she enlightens Basch as to the successes of her last fishing trip, or - yes, even better, her last sexual misadventure. Just how big, that big? And how many all at once, seven, you say?

Balthier's amusement does not last long. Basch's gaze is directed at the nothingness between those dignitaries, his chin tucked downwards, his
hands tucked under his bare arms. Balthier knows that posture. Whatever it is Basch wants to say, he thinks he should not say it. Balthier wishes Basch would just say it, sometimes; the man is hard to decipher. Assumptions are easy, and Basch wears them all, but he is so hard to know. Everything Basch is, he is only through an observer's eyes.

Balthier cannot stop looking at him.

Basch lifts his head as though someone calls his name, so abrupt a motion against his distraction that the woman's hands fall, and she glances over her shoulder to see what Basch has seen. Balthier hesitates. Recognition is unavoidable. Basch smiles, steps forward, his intention as obvious as Balthier is in a crowd: the Magister will descend from his house to greet Balthier, will walk barefoot on the common cobble, when he would not even descend his front step to meet those overdressed peacocks seeking his audience.

Balthier's next step falters. His breath speeds as he slows.

Basch unfolds his arms as he walks, as he hastens, turning bare and empty palms towards Balthier. Balthier stops, abrupt, but there is nowhere to hide, no way to avoid this without hurting the only one in this whole city Balthier has no desire to hurt.

With the inevitability of a landslide, Basch pulls Balthier, sweat, packs and overburdened mind into an embrace. 'Welcome back.'

Over Basch's shoulder, Balthier sees four pairs of eyes fix on his face, sees recognition in two more of those gazes, and cannot guess how many eyes have turned their way behind his back. 'If I'd known you missed me so much I would have come sooner.'

'Is Fran on her way?'

'Couldn't make it, I'm afraid.' Balthier shrugs, half to free himself from that slackening embrace, half to adjust his packs; just a greeting, everyone, forgive the foreign Magister his strangenesses, it was just a greeting. 'She fell ill again, that bloody forest 'flu, and the last bout that went around nearly killed her. I took her back to Eryut and left her in the best of care.'

Basch's gaze, when he deigns to fix it on something, is piercing, knowing and so damned earnest Balthier has to restrain himself from offering more, here where even fake cobblestones have ears. The plagues are rampant outside of city palings now, impossible to contain even to species — but Basch knows that already. It's Basch's job to know. Draklor's attentions have been turned to the current blight, Basch's last letter read. And how frustrating it had been to read a single sentence dedicated to the single most frightful experience of Balthier's life to date - but Fran had recovered from that first wave. Others had not.

'I'm surprised you didn't stay with her.'

'Last time,' Balthier shrugs again, pained that there was a last time, that there will likely be a next time, 'her sister had me sleep on the doorstep for a fortnight, humes being far from worthy of any form of a bed. Fran recovers better when her every conscious moment isn't an argument with said sib on behalf of my comfort, so I saw her settled and left.'

They walk back towards the house, such a small distance, such a painful one. Basch throws a grin over his shoulder, crooked and warm, and Balthier feels his core of ice thaw a little.

'Such a dedicated partner you are.'

'I daresay you're getting snide in your old age, old man: is that supposed to be a compliment or a reprimand?'

'Why bother with the distinction? You'll take it whichever way you want it, as always.'

'Always.' They reach the step and are unmoving; Balthier lifts his chin to indicate. 'Shall we? Unless, of course, I've misjudged Jote's intentions entirely, and this habit of bedding visitors on front doorsteps is actually a new trend sweeping Ivalice along with the 'flu...?'

Basch turns, action implying acceptance. Balthier wonders why he still assumes that Basch will refuse him, that some spoken poison will fester in his long absences, that Archades will turn the familiar into another kind of stranger. Basch even spars in passing, despite their audience: 'Not at all. Though I suppose a doorstep is a step up from an alleyway, for you?'

Balthier shoves through that uncompromising quadrant that gave way so readily for Basch, but will not move for Balthier and all his encumbrance. 'Notwithstanding, neither makes much of a bed.'

Only one woman dares to sneer, recoiling from his proximity, her jowls and the underside of an upturned nose riddled with the reflection of lamplight from her jewels. She presses her gloved wrist to a sharp nose, a ribboned pouch fastened there; she sniffs deeply, obviously, at the source of her perfume precisely as Balthier passes.

The insult is calculated. It surprises Balthier only how hard it strikes him.

Another speaks, a low, familiar drawl that Balthier refuses to append a name towards: 'The world knows where a Bunansa makes his bed. In Lord Luxury's lap, nonetheless. I imagine it must be good to return to civilization after all those...wild creatures out there.'

Balthier reminds himself that Archades is worth neither his time, effort, nor any quantity of wit, particularly when that latter is rendered suddenly lacking in the face of a frontal attack. Fran wasn't even here. How dare they?

'Fortunately,' Basch says, so calmly, 'your imagination is much lacking on the matter of what constitutes another person's freedoms. Ladies,' he scarcely inclines his head, 'gentlemen, I wish you a good evening. Elsewhere.'

A chorus of mutters, the last few steps, the creak of the front door closing; Balthier is unsurprised that he and Basch share a sigh of relief, howsoever unconscious.

'Vipers,' Basch says, 'and not even sight of a bright patch of grass to compensate. Tell me, Balthier.'

'You have no idea the hell out there.'

'Is it that bad?'

Balthier lets his burden slide, at long last, relinquished to the sanctity of home. Of a home. He packs no clothes this time. Scant gifts. All paper, some photographs, his sketches of the progressive stages. The date that the viera plague leapt to down a hume soldier. The date that the Rozarria's first cohort fell. How long after that Rozarria closed her borders.

'Documented, as precisely as though you'd asked me to spy, which —' Balthier holds out his hand, appeasing, 'I know you didn't. But this was important, and your letter sounded—I know Archadians, Basch. Your men aren't telling you everything.'

'So you take it on yourself to tell me instead? Balthier, you can't keep doing this. I kept an ear out, but if you had been caught...'

Balthier feels injured by that, and feigns said injury in a manner that makes it clear it is feigned. 'I do have other friends, Basch. I wouldn't compromise you. Though Margrace will not be happy with me, I - I presumed on him to get this.'

'Margrace.' For some reason, Basch's voice goes flat.

'I wouldn't be surprised to see another mark on my head when he discovers - ah, fuck it, the Rozarrians will kill me. Their country is a hollow core, the military - I outflew a barricade to get out, if only six ships standing — six, out of all Rozarria's force, Basch! — can count as a barricade. If Larsa fails to overrule the next Senatorial bid for a 'rescue mission' -'

But even as he speaks Basch is talking loudly over the top of him, habits well learned in Magisterial debate: 'The Senate bids to send a rescue mission, Balthier, not a military invasion—'

Balthier holds tight to Basch's shoulders, warm linen and warmer skin. The touch grounds him more than it does anything for Basch.

'I won't remind you that Archades' first incursion into the Republic of Landis came in the form of a rescue mission. I won't. Because that would rude of me, wouldn't it?'

'You Archadians,' Basch says. 'You Archadians and your bloody politeness. Rozarria burns, and you council that I stand back and let it burn? I can do something this time.'

Ah Basch, Basch, but in Archades, saviors die sooner than everyone else, and never for the cause they would choose. Balthier aches with familiar frustration; Basch must surely know that Balthier knows how this imposed impotence feels. Balthier left rather than bear this weight, chains of democratic process, the worthlessness of debate. Archades and all Her beloved ideals would have worked if all men had been as Basch. Balthier would tell Basch it would be better to be impotent than to have good intentions turn in his hand, a knife against his own throat. But Basch knows that, at Raminas' expense. And still Basch strives.

Balthier strives for reason.

'Larsa must overrule the Senate at this bid, Basch. Advise him. If I'm wrong,' but Balthier knows he isn't, 'and Archades has changed,' but Balthier knows it hasn't, 'and there truly is enough good will that the Senate votes to send honest aid, then do it through Archades' connections with Balfonheim. Not Archadian claws in Rozarrian soil.'

Basch's expression has gone blank, bland, and Balthier recognizes it for how Basch bears his anger. His grip - too tight on Basch's shoulders, too emphatic. Balthier lets go.

'I'm sorry,' Balthier says, 'but I know. I heard all the commands, I obeyed, and I got the hell out before I had to give those orders to another living person. You - a Magister having never been a soldier here, never been a Judge, you don't know the filth that this bright shining Empire of ours floats upon. Fran agrees with me, for what it's worth. Rozarria's freedom can survive plague; fatalities are high, but not total. It won't survive Archadian aid squads.'

'I heed you. I'll read your notes, examine your spoils, and I will consider your words.'

So painfully politic. Balthier looks away. He's a pirate, a thief, a monstrous blight on any governmental process; he never expects more than this reception, so why does it hurt when this is all he gets?

'Your consideration is all Rozarria can hope for, Basch, and their continued autonomy.'

The blankness cedes to a grimace, an eyeroll. 'You sound like the vipers outside, sly tongues sliding in their last requests. You should be the Magister, not I.'

Balthier recoils. 'Please no—'

Basch is already speaking, atop him again, 'A jest, Balthier—

'—I'm rather too fond of my opinions, as it stands.'

Basch seems to rethink what he would have said, shaking his head, some quick, inward denial. 'Will Fran be well?'

'We had to wait out the worst, til she was no longer contagious, but then the barricades were up—it was tight getting her to Golmore, but she's already recovering. Truly, I left just to avoid Jote and her damned parsimony. Fran gets on well enough with her. If not with me around.'

'What strain of plague? Not — '

'Not the cloudborne one. This is waterborne.' The recollection is unpleasant; Fran drank her coffees over ice in Rozarria. They'd been so careful, but it was in the ice. 'I couldn't flush the Strahl's reservoirs. Or refill them, without purification.'

'Which explains why you look as though you haven't showered in a week.'

'I look?' Balthier cedes to rue, to relief. Message delivered, importance heeded, and Basch is still at ease enough with him to poke. 'So you look through your nose, do you? Or is it just that you've learned to look down it?'

Basch fights to hide the grin, gives up, and shoves Balthier towards the hall. 'Go get something to eat, it might ease your temper.'

So he's been too sharp, has he? 'You know what'd ease my temper better? Go run me a bath.'

'Run, Balthier? How's this: I'll sprint you one.'

'An oasis in the midst of corruption, this bathroom. Or am I just unfairly in need?'

Balthier's voice echoes unpleasantly from acres of tile. This is the room that adjoins what had once been the master chambers. Basch does not sleep here, nor Balthier and Fran when they stay, but it is the only room with a bath. Balthier sinks further into that near-boiling relaxation, his breath skimming the water's surface. Basch sets down the towels to one side, atop the bureau, eyes the water level. If he steps in, it will rise, but not enough to spill.

He starts to strip, deliberately making noise, rustle of fabric, ring of belt buckle against the tile. Balthier airs no protest, comment or surprise; he barely opens one shadowed eye. Only the pirate's tattooed shoulders and head clear the water level - and now his knees, as he draws them up, makes room. As good as a welcome.

Basch sits opposite. Sinking into that immense heat is like sliding into a full-body sheath, it holds, it releases - it eases him. He feels better in the water, and even better with Balthier's thighs uncompromisingly tense beside his own. Basch rests his hands on scarred shins, slides as far as the bath and Balthier's recumbence will let him, and sighs fit to have the water ripple.

'You're too hard on this city, Balthier.'

'It was damned hard on me, Basch. I like to repay favours.'

A grudge that would destroy the world if Balthier determined it should take such a thing to ease his old humiliations. Basch says nothing. What can he say, that there is so much in that narcissism that has him think of Cid? Not that he knows Cid, no more than one can know a man through his leavings, but all Cid left in Draklor's rubble was chaos and confusion, self-propagating destruction, and all of Balthier's thoughts meander along that self-same path.

Basch soaps his palms and rubs them along Balthier's shins, the too-tense muscle of his calves, kneads. Balthier curses and kicks, involuntarily, apologises immediately, and pins Basch's hands with his own.

The pirate is always so tight. Small need hunting for a trigger on this one. Basch frees his hands, and starts again just as gently, one hand working while the other holds Balthier's ankle tight. Balthier arches, slow as sin, shoulders sinking. His head lolls back to bare his throat, and the rope-scar that rings him there.

Balthier had showered, brisk, in icy water even, before he thought to soak. The water is clear but for scented oil, white musk, and the soap that Basch applies to trembling muscle. Basch watches as Balthier gets hard at his touch, and works his fingers harder. He wonders how long Balthier will bear it before saying something, but the pirate's aged disproportionately for how long it's been, he's learned restraint from somewhere these last few months; Basch is well onto the other leg, all the way up and working on a thick hamstring, before Balthier's cock does more than thicken; a twitch. A tight lurch. Unlike his motivations, Balthier's desires are so easy to read.

Balthier opens his eyes.

'Is that good?'

Balthier clears his throat before he speaks, a little hoarse; 'You can keep going if you like. A little higher, perchance.'

'Can I, now?'

'Only if you want to.' Muscles flex, solid then soft, against Basch's palm. 'Unless you'd prefer to keep talking politics, you're a tantalizing conversationalist there. Fran's extent of political debate is to call us all mad. Social creatures with a society as manufacted as nethicite; walk into caucus and discover that it absorbs all reason, much as that unpleasant stone absorbs mist.'

Basch keeps his expression carefully neutral. He dislikes talking anything political with Balthier, who prefers to lecture; he is suspicious of how everything is so personal to Balthier, one man set against the world, scorning the world, and why? What had the world ever done to Balthier but give him everything? You sound like your father, Basch could tell him, if Basch had wanted to strike an unforgivable wound. Remind me of Landis, will you, Basch could say, riding on outrage. Balthier conveniently forgot that if either of them had the right to bear a grudge against this Empire, it was not Archades' proudest son. Basch knew, intimately, the weight of the whole of a city's blight, how it felt come crushing hard across his own shoulders.

'If that's the only alternative—'

Balthier laughs without laughing, eyes alight even through the steam, sharp features shifting into pure amusement. 'I knew that'd get you going.'

Basch - unknots his own shoulders, and fishes for that sliding bar of soap. 'Presumptuous prick.'

'Says the self-righteous bastard.'

'Says the arrogant arselicker.' Basch lets his lip curl.

Balthier moves - so tight-wound, unraveling, so sudden! - and water slaps onto tile, and his weight, unexpected as it is, is alarming. A tongue, surprisingly cool compared to the water's heat, laps along Basch's cheek, jaw to hairline. Not quite along the scar, but close enough to have Basch's heart race, the surge of defensive adrenaline powering nothing more than open-kneed surrender.

Balthier exhales against Basch's ear. 'I'd apologise for my arrogance, but I did assume it was an aspect of my overwhelming attractiveness. Unless it's just my arselicking that works for you?'

Basch will not speak, not when he knows his voice would come thin with strain. The defensive response (humour, insult, turn-and-turn about) that would have deflected Balthier's - intentness, his need, fails Basch entirely. He likes Balthier, but he likes Balthier at a distance, where the sheer presence of the man is something he can admire without experience, without his own need. When did this happen to him? When did camaraderie turn to such intimate concern? They are all a-tangle now, when before they had been laid out neatly enough within porcelain confines that Basch could forget proximity; now they are a-tangle and blurring into each other with heat, with wet. Balthier's hand curls around Basch's cock, Balthier's teeth at Basch's ear. Basch is panting, or perhaps that is Balthier's breath, or their echoes filling the room as intangible as steam.

They pause.

Balthier is waiting, Basch realizes.

Rue fills him, unrolling like relief from the inside out - ah, he's as tight as Balthier, today, he has been right from the unexpected sight of the pirate in the street, looking like death warmed over and too many kilos lighter for Basch's own comfort, and without Fran; Basch felt fear then. Frightened, tight and unsettled, too used to the speech that only sounds in shadows to have forgotten that nothing Balthier says can be taken at face value, except when it can, that perhaps Balthier meant nothing more with his advice, freely offered, than as an opinion, freely heeded. Perhaps Archades has taught Basch to hear what is not said, to manufacture motivation into all silences.

Balthier is still waiting, trembling with renewed tension, mouthing at Basch's ear and murmuring, something; Balthier will never assume—

'You need to come more often, if you can scarce keep off me for long enough to soak.'

'—I've missed you,' Balthier agrees, with only the barest of stutters, and Basch's throat is tight.

'With your aim?'

'Ah, Basch, Basch, why don't you throw it all in and come fly with Fran and I? I'm sure I could train that so called sense of humour out of you...'

'And who would I be if I threw it all in? Another Balthier? The world scarce contains the one.'

A pause, another shudder, and Balthier sinks, muffled against Basch's neck. 'I'm surprised you didn't turn that into a chance to ask me to stay.'

Basch presses a grin into that bowed head, through the damp heat of sun-starched hair. 'Never. I would hate myself if you said yes.'

Balthier's lips want to curve. His hands ceaselessly stroke, soapslick along Basch's old scars, pressure and pressing and no pretence with the urgency now. Whatever Balthier ate in Rozarria wasn't enough, Basch decides, for his own fingers stutter across the corrugation of ribs and spine as Balthier curves up and away—

'Let's to bed.' Balthier climbs from the bath, clinging to the nearest surface for stability. Water sheets from his shoulders, his thighs, pooling across the tile to mirror white light and endlessly long legs. All the angles and planes of a marbled Archadian monument; Basch admires.

'Getting too old for chance bathhouse encounters, Balthier?'

Balthier does not engage, does not laugh, does not deflect, but says:

'I want to make you moan, and with the acoustics in here it would be embarrassingly loud.'

Balthier suspects that it is for his own sake that Basch let looses the constraints of his greater experience, moaning as though this is unexpected. Balthier knows enough from Fran to keep his tongue narrow where Basch expects flat strokes, flat where Basch expects narrow; along the seam of tightened balls, the delicate skin where thigh and groin will blur. How unfair Balthier has always thought it that even Basch's arsehole is a pretty one, so lightly gold-dusted with hair and as tightly, neatly pink as a girl's. Balthier courses, until lust surrenders a certain tension in Basch's gasps and Balthier closes his eyes, clenches tight around the knot of his own uncertain, roiling desire, and worms his tongue inside to discover a tight heat entirely unexpected.

Basch's voice rises to a pitch as yet unheeded, gratifyingly. Balthier opens his eyes with enough time to see scarred fingers knot against sheets, to witness the shuddering of Basch's thighs, to note how Basch widens his knees as far as he can, shoving back, back. It's such a womanly response, so uncontrolled - Balthier doesn't know what to make of it. He withdraws, hears Basch sob a laugh or laugh a cry. He rests the point of his chin on Basch's tailbone.

'Oh, you like that, do you? When I get my tongue inside?'

Basch coughs helplessly into the crook of his forearm, eyes fixed forwards. Balthier thinks he has never seen the man so undone. No smirking. No deflection.

'What do you think, Balthier?'

'It's hard to tell with you.' Balthier's hand has been tight around Basch's cock the whole time, not so much moving as holding, but he moves now, two brisk, high-friction strokes that has Basch buck involuntarily backwards. 'This,' Balthier says. He keeps his voice level, at the expense of his vocabulary, 'You'll not leak until you're coming; you thicken to size and never throb the thicker no matter what I do; you never, ever sound for me. Some nights, all night we go, Fran and I then I and Fran, and still you won't come. How am I supposed to know how you feel unless you tell me? Make more noise, Basch, I want to hear you make more noise.'

'If you like doing it...'

'Damned politician, don't you dare turn this back on me. I've long suspected you only get off on other people's pleasure, godsdamned self-sacrificing - - ah. Well, I'm not stopping until you come, I don't care if I have to tongue-fuck you all night.'

'Then shut up and do it.' Sudden, unexpected, throaty and thick and demanding - Basch growls, 'Stop talking and fucking do it— Damn it, Balthier, months, months, you and Fran have each other and what do I have but waiting, in this city that makes of me a mock for what I want...do you even know how long—shut up and just - '

So Basch can be pushed too far, too; Balthier's gratified, terrified at the same time, disturbingly pleased that he was the one to discover this. Something to tell Fran, perhaps. Ah, but she should be here for this, Balthier's safety net, his emergency exit, gods, but she's not, and he's - Basch is moaning. Balthier works his tongue deep enough that his jaw aches for it, his neck cricked, teeth scraping, but all his aches are meaningless. Basch moans, louder, cursing worse than Balthier's ever heard from his lips even sewing the man back together after a stray spear in a no-magick zone; louder again, panting vicious instructions, a finger, stretch me, and Balthier complies with only his own spit there and his tongue alongside, and only one hand left to obey the other command: jack me harder, no, you limpwristed half-way-pirate, (growling, Basch demands it:) that's a cock you're holding not a godsdamned lily, harder, harder, harder, until Balthier wonders that Basch doesn't bruise with it -

'On your back,' Balthier says. He wants to drink, doesn't. Not now. His lips burn. 'On your back.'

Basch rolls, eyes nearly black with lust. His cock is dark enough too, large enough that Balthier feels that uncertain terror rise again, a child's fascination and a man's too-wild imaginings. (Fran, Fran, save me from the fruits of my flirtations!) And what would those peacocks outside say if they knew their tame pet Magister bore one of these monsters under his pressed dress trousers? Balthier brings his palm to his mouth, spits without any neatness, a strand snapped half-way from his lip to his goal.

'You're insane,' Basch hisses. 'At least let me—'

'No.' Balthier comes to his knees, slicks Basch's cock with not enough, not nearly enough, gods— 'Insane, am I? So fuck me for it,' Balthier says, evenly, even though the words make him want to laugh. And what would those peacocks say now, if anything, if Balthier even cared? 'I said I'd make you come, didn't I? No thinking about me, Basch. Not at all. Do it for Archades, eh?'

It strikes Balthier, sudden and hard, that if he doesn't care about what they're thinking, outside these walls with word of his re-arrival spreading like syphilis; likely they don't truly care about him, either, no word or whisper of suggestion except those that Balthier imagines. He has to laugh. Rocking back on his heels, he has to laugh. Basch's cock throbs at the sound. They don't care, but evidently Basch does, for even driven as frantic as this Basch can gather enough of himself to rummage through his own bedside drawers for - oil, for many various types of oil, Balthier notes, mildly impressed by the inventory. Another reminder that Basch's libertine shadow has been around longer than Balthier has; that this will never mean to Basch what it does to Balthier. His own fault for fostering so many reputations, near as many as the flasks Basch dismisses, but for the one, applied with Basch's usual slap-dash, excessive liberalness.

'Don't touch me with that hand,' Balthier says, when Basch reaches for him, 'I know where it's been.'

'Balthier, please—'

Fingers, inside him, that's what Basch wants to do to him. To make it easier, to make it hurt less, but when did daring one finger to a blaze ever make leaping full into the flames feel any better? 'No.'

Basch sits up for this, holds Balthier around the waist, draws him close. How does Basch know, Balthier wonders: he can take this, clinging to his self as he clings to Basch's shoulders, but if he had to bend Balthier thinks he would break. He feels like he's being impaled, pressed down implacably, but it's all perception; Basch steadies him, doesn't constrain, isn't even the one who guides his cock inwards. Balthier has to do that, and what shame that his hand is so uncertain, three times before he can — His other arm curls around Basch's shoulders, his knuckles white from the force of his grip on Basch's tight upper arm. Tighter. Deflect the sensation; his knuckles burn with transmitted force.

That is the head, Balthier thinks, through the white-noise of pain, tidal wave of impossible sensation; vertiginous, teetering. His cock beats a furious countermand to what feels like the urge to faint, good, good, good. Basch groans against Balthier's chest, open-mouthed and wretched, but Balthier is all strain now. A sharp snap of tension; and inside, and Basch's voice is a full octave higher, and Balthier can barely breathe. Suffocated from the center outwards, too much pressure. Basch throbs thicker with every passing inch; Balthier slides now, has his hips tilted right now, and it's so much deeper now than he thought it could feel.

'—are you alright?'

Balthier whimpers. 'I think I just came. I didn't want - I thought you would first if I—'

Basch slides a hand between them, and there is enough slick there that Balthier feels familiar shame spin tight inside him. He came, but he's still hard, as though Basch's own hardness filling him so profoundly has to spill out somewhere, hard to harder. Balthier's going to come again before this is over, he can tell, weak flesh and weaker will; he's been - thinking about this too long. It means too much to him. So much for doing it all for Basch's pleasure. Did Balthier truly want this so badly he had to spin yarns of unselfish reasoning, all to veil his own selfish aim?

Basch breathes a strange, high-pitched breath. 'Are you alright?'

'Why are you treating me like a virgin? Gods, man, I'm not going to start weeping—'

'Are you alright?'

'Well, it might feel like it's been—' forever — 'a while,' Balthier says, and breathes, 'it hurts,' and he does, but hurt like a crimp being eased out of muscle, or the weight of Fran's feet along his spine after an all-nighter flight as she'd walk the knots out of his back; the hurt becomes something else, something eased, the longer he bears it. 'I've had worse going through me. This shaft's not even barbed.'

Basch doesn't laugh. His lips narrow. Parsimonious old fart to look so disapproving of Balthier's shortcuts, considering his cock's full-hilted in Balthier's flesh; considering Balthier can feel every one of Basch's heartbeats in a way he never thought possible.

'Why do you have to do everything the hard way?'

'You could have stopped me.' Balthier can't look at him. 'You could've told me what you want from me.'

A pause, and Basch exhales. 'Are you alright?'

'Yes.' Balthier tightens his belly, curls his hips up and under himself. Basch's eyes flare wide, startled, hungry and moaning, his lips opening. Ah, yes; Balthier is more than alright. He pushes his knees wider. The tighter his muscles, the faster Basch breathes. Who starts again first, Balthier can't tell, but Basch's hands are hooked over his shoulders and pulling him down, and Balthier's hips curl into this hard and fast; it still hurts, with waves of heat and sweating chill, until suddenly it doesn't hurt and he's rolling back in Basch's arms, slack and surrendered, the both of them all speckled with white like obscene jewelry. Balthier shudders harder than he thought he could and still hold all his selves together.

Balthier nearly misses it when Basch orgasms, despite that it's as loud and wretchedly obvious as Balthier could have ever dreamed a heroic outcome to be.

'Tell me about Rozarria. Not your opinion of what I should do. Tell me what's happening. Margrace and his brothers must have some strategies they're enforcing to control the spread, despite Rozarria's relative freedoms.'

Balthier stirs against the weight of blankets, surfacing; his breath has been too short, too sharp for sleep, as Basch had thought.

'Read my reports. Apparently I'm very good at writing them, so my old homeland sergeant used to say. Generally right before he'd dump all his paperwork onto my desk.'

'And so you save the world with well-written reports?'

'Well, it can't all be flashy heroics. I used to think—'

Basch waits, but Balthier is silent.

'Tell me what you used to think.'

Balthier says instead: 'You know we don't really see the stars in a city. Light pollution, and the paling. The cursed paling. Keeps out invasions, undesirables, the worst of the weather, and it keeps out the sky. Most of our training happened in simulator engines, in gaming machines, and I was - I was good, Basch. Cursed competence, it gave me so many shortcuts, I could flout rightful process and the only reprimand I got was a complaint I wasn't doing more. I shouldn't have been able to enlist for another couple of years...if Gramis hadn't been in power, or if he'd been interested in something other than expansion, endless wars to distract the Senate from what Vayne was doing behind their backs, maybe I would've had another chance, that my first wouldn't have been so —

'The first time I ever saw the sky, I was flying a B24- Pandaemonium Liberator, X-mod with a doubled 70 wingspan, seven-blend brand chassis, twin engine and quad glossair with a 4-way linkage and the first ever designed lateral shift adjustment. Total vertical takeoff, Basch. It was fantastic. My first airstrike. The first time I'd ever gotten my hands on the controls of an actual airship; brand new pseudo leather seats, coloured blue-black to match my cohort, we all had a - a mascot, a picture of this girl our sub-captain had convinced to - anyway, it's not important, her picture was pinned up on the visor— It wasn't like I loaded the bombs, nor did I pre-engineer the fault in Orbonne's paling generator; I didn't clone the plague, I didn't issue the order for an aid mission. I wasn't the one that decided that firebombing half a country was the only way to halt a plague's advance on Archades' northwards border. No; I just flew a single-man battleship, dreamed about the stars, and keyed the release code. I didn't think at all. Forgive me if I overthink things now. Forgive me if I try to.'

The windows are small in the room Basch takes for his bedchamber, but the house is on Tsenoble's highest curve: the sky is close. Basch can see Balthier's eyes by the glimmer of reflected paling light, can just see the shadowed curve of his lips. He does not need to see. Balthier's voice fills the room with bitter substance even in the absence of sight.

'Balthier. It's just war. It's what happens. People continue.'

'Exactly. Only countries go to war, Basch. How does it happen? People don't want to go to war, people want to have brawls, break chairs over each other's shoulders for reasons that can be understood...supposedly understood...but they don't burn whole countries to the bone. I can believe in people. I can believe in you, or even Vayne, I could've believed in him in another life; I believe in Ashe and everything she wrestled with and for; but I can't believe in Dalmasca, Rozarria, Archades. Archades. Oh, She exists, this Empire of ours, strange insubstantial thing that She is without a glimpse of sky for all her dreamers, but I can't believe in Her or Her intentions.'

Basch considers. Why did Balthier tell him that? What does Balthier want him to say, forget Archades, Archades is worthless, the city is a lie? But it is not. No lie, Archades is structure and substance and influence on the world, home to many and heaven or hell to many more and what they would make of it; Balthier would turn all the world into symbols just for the sake of his scorn. How would Balthier be, if Basch told him of the demimonde's streetchildren, who chaunted down in moogle galleries the spawning epic of thrice-risen Balthier and never-false Fran; of the teens who met on corners in Tsenoble, challenging old rulings and common modes as they quoted the tales, loudly, eagerly, excitedly, of that true-born Archadian who had defied old structure in favour of freedom. Archades had no sky, no horizon to put all the pettiness of life into perspective, except as seen through the eyes of her champions of law, her arbiters of freedom. Larsa. Vayne, still beloved for his sacrifice, forgiven for his drive. Balthier would not believe his name, and Zecht's for all his foreignness, to stand on that list. Archades embraced its underside.

Basch says slowly, 'The first time I picked up a sword it was for war and not for play, at my father's order, and me, I could scarce heft the blade. Yet now, I cannot see the reason for that war, why he had me take arms and march, all for a cause not worth defending. Landis was broken long before Archades came.' Basch adds, 'Come so soon from Rozarria, you will be able to imagine the blight that struck Landisi soil. The Archadians brought food along with their order. We met them with steel.'

'The destruction of a nation is not a solution to starvation, Basch.'

'What was destroyed? The land is still there. The Republic had structures and systems towards freedom and vote absorbed by the Senate, no history preserved but a functioning, applicable truth; you think it so unlikely my brother and I could take so well to Magistracy? The role is a Landisian lawspeaker's role whatever an Archadian calls it, bred into our blood. A country is not always her people; a people are not always their country. Landis ended as a name but her people survived. And thrived, Balthier.'


'You presume, if you call me a slave. I am a willing servant of Empire.' Basch reaches for his centre, for calm. 'Forgive me if I have faith in Archades' ability to change the face of the world.'

'Faith?' Balthier asks, sharply. 'Or fear?'

'Either way,' Basch replies, 'it means I must be here.'

Balthier's hand fights through the space between them, fingers curling firm around Basch's wrist. His nails stutter over the scars. 'You have no idea how much I honour you for that. I -couldn't—I can't do it.'

'But no one's asked you to, Larsa hasn't, and I will not—' Basch stops, feels realization flood him like a wave of warmth, of good humour, and he wants to roll on top of Balthier and headbutt him for stubbornness (Noah would have understood, at the last, Noah would have understood). 'Your absence isn't a failure on your part, you realise.'

A pause, just a heartbeat of hesitation but Balthier so rarely hesitates, so ready is he to defend, deflect. Basch would laugh, but that he loves so fiercely in that instant that he has no breath.

Balthier says, 'Of course it isn't. Whatever gave you that idea?'

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