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Chapter 5.

The aerodromes around Ivalice are either ruins, or converted to alternate use for public entertainment. With Draklor's backing, the Archadian port still functions in limited form, though Basch cannot help but see the overlay of decay; he has seen too much decay, in his life, not enough growth. But he is here now, as slow as his pace has been since his heart first failed at word of the Galbana's downfall. That day, Basch remembers, was the last time he ventured this far out of his Magister's routine.

The Solidor guards do not halt him at the door, his Magisterial uniform of cloth as recognisable as the armour. The younger on the right leaps with too much alacrity to open the portal, bowing, but the unwarranted respect makes Basch feel old and too aware he no longer tolerates the weight of arms. A pin through the collar of his shirt is the only steel on him, a blade, gifted in a farcical ceremony by Larsa's eldest son for some past heroism. Basch pricks himself every time he puts it on, cramped fingers helpless with such flourishes.

Strange that he came. Vaan's excited greeting does not resound, nor the chirruping docents in his wake. The customs counter does not frame Balthier's angling for terms on his docking bay.

But Basch does not forget his debts, nor his failures. It is not strange. He sits, tired.

Out the wide window, small transports fly on fuel, not skystone, skies hazy with smog. The flight paths across the surrendered territories are as familiar to Basch as the darkness behind his eyes. After the Galbana's fall, he enforced the old ways, so every airship daring to fly on skystone could be tracked for the inevitable salvage. Even Larsa, caught in plague, had wanted to pay respect to Vaan's body. Basch could offer his Emperor nothing but apologies.

It approaches, thwarting the horizon, huge, fluttering and white.

Basch almost touches emotion, but does not, in the same way he does not try to touch music or see hope. Nono's ship is slow and steady, balloon silk rippling. The moogle has not come for years, when Balthier and Fran came the last time in the Strahl.

Basch worries he does not remember them, but only remembers the remembering, now as real as dreams.

Nono's, yes, and Fran's ears, and— Basch stops, an arm's length distant.

'You missed a spot shaving.' Balthier thumbs a vertical line from his lower lip along his chin.

'It's the cleft in my chin.' Basch is too old for embarrassment. 'These lines become chasms, too damned difficult to shave every day.'

'As long as you know how ridiculous you look. Single stripe of white fur. I want to whip out my kerchief and wipe up the traces.'

'At least I can wear facial hair without looking like someone's grandfather.'

'If you're not someone's grandfather by now, you obviously weren't trying hard enough.'

This is Archades, and Balthier is well known here. Back when they played at heroism, Archades had so few of whom to be proud that Balthier wore it all. But he was never one to take what he did not deserve, so his visits to Archades were always pained, infrequent. When Balthier offers his hand Basch takes it, as though offered by a stranger. He pushes away his disappointment: another greeting, departure, round of shallow banter.

Balthier's fingers tighten, eyes suddenly awash. He stumbles forward so uncertainly Basch does not recognise the embrace until it swallows him.

If the embrace came from pity, then it was praiseworthy. Balthier often did praiseworthy things. But his hands are claws, and Basch feels it when Balthier's knees go. Basch is not strong enough for this.

Nono props Balthier's leg, Fran to Balthier's other side, even as it seems Balthier cannot lift his own arm to find her shoulders for support. Balthier holds his head up on his own, in defeat lowered again, eyes dark and breath shallow. Sweat runs steadily from his brow.

'Get me out of here, Basch. Please, before I shame myself in an aerodrome, where everyone knows me.'

'Easy, Balthier, easy—'

Balthier gasps. 'But if this is ease, I would rather die quickly on an Imperial's sword!'

'Fran,' Basch begins, intending, what's wrong, or perhaps, can you—, even I am the very soul of shabbiness for not greeting you with the truth I feel for you, but there is Balthier, always, commanding centre stage—

Balthier shakes his head abruptly, groaning. 'Oh, Basch, this will kill you. I woke, and she was gone. I came as soon as I could, it was, it was hard. I'm so sorry.'

Basch meets Fran's gaze across Balthier's nape. The horror is an unfamiliar shape, like Balthier's too-stark bones.

'He no longer sees me. Until I found Nono, this morning, Balthier was so assured I wondered if perhaps I was gone, a ghost in denial—'

'No, Fran, Fran— What is this?'

'I know not,' Balthier whispers. 'I hope she left me. The alternative is worse.'

'I know not,' Fran says. 'I hope it is fever. The alternative is worse.'

'What alternative?'

'Cidolphus once saw what was not. Perhaps Balthier no longer sees what is.'

Balthier says, 'What do you think? I'm dying, and she left me. I was supposed to live forever.'

Continue to Chapter 6

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