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The Hume stinks of revulsion.

Ba'gamnan's crest itches with each helm-shadowed glance cast his way. It's galling the way they all look at each other, staring, gaping with their useless eyes and blinded noses. It's even more galling when they look at him like that. As though they could drink him, taste him, know him with such a useless sense.

Still, the other Humes are a little more used to him, drinking here week after week. Their boredom passes for a kind of courtesy, the only Ba'gamnan's seen since he left his heart-home. Humes time-temper quickly, older Bangaa had told him. But this one, staring with his shadowed eyes, still oozes youth like the remnant of a weeping wound. The stink seems raw. It reminds him of his own inexperience.

It doesn't surprise Ba'gamnan in the slightest when the Judge approaches. Even a Bangaa can read the conceit in the cock of a Hume's hip. Inexperience doesn't stop Ba'gamnan deducing this Hume is one of those. Ba'gamnan tastes him in the formal way, right nostril flared, left one closed, vaguely uncaring that the Hume won't know the courtesy. Ba'gamnan wouldn't shame his mothers with rudeness, not even here in this city of boors. The Hume's scent follows schooled paths to embed code, in and out through nose and memory.

Ire and curiosity, acrid, curled through with revulsion. Stinking Hume sex. A metallic musk, like armor set in skin. Gun-powder sharper than a sword. Curiosity more than ire, but tempered by the latter and violently so. A lot of heat, hard white in the centre of him, pulsing in waves through the unnecessary motion of his clawless fingers, the excessive swing to his walk. This Hume, perhaps more than others encountered, has a truly wasteful metabolism. The rhythm of it flowers, blossoms with useless energy, decadent heat centered around his stomach.

Distinct, that scent, that heat-pattern, like one who would swallow the world if he could. Ba'gamnan won't forget this one.

"Call me Balthier," says the Judge, as he strips his helm. He shakes out the limp mop of his hair, flicks the sweat-wet of it so the front stands almost upright. Unable to help the response to that motion, Ba'gamnan's crest flares before he remembers himself, controls it. The crest-cap pins that fragile flesh flat to his neck anyway. The Hume can't see it. Wouldn't know what it meant either.

Hair, Ba'gamnan reminds himself, can't even feel. Another one of many pointless evolutions of Hume architecture.

Ba'gamnan finishes his drink, holding warm ale in the wide, flat curl of his tongue before drawing it back to swallow. The Hume's impertinent eyes follow the motion. The ale, blissfully, overwhelms his scent with the heavy redolence of yeast.

"And why would I want to call you anything but damned rude, you wet-flesh whelp?"

Ba'gamnan scours the bottom of his mug with his tongue. The Hume keeps watching, the spike of his aversion-interest like a knife through Ba'gamnan's skull. Stinking, stinky creature, hot-heaving and crass.

The young Judge laughs at him.

"Your drink looks empty."

"Not even a Hume sees emptiness," Ba'gamnan snorts. "Tis empty, not looks it."

"Shall I provide another, then, so you can extemporize on that particularly profound insight with the additional providence of another batch of subject samples?"


"You want another drink or what?"

Ffamran finds it easy enough to get the sole Bangaa in the whole of Archades into an easy rhythm of off-day binging. It seems Hume and Bangaa alike detest the demands of any kind of master. If Ffamran's experience with this one could encompass the whole race, he would speculate that all Bangaa fall into rhythms and intoxications with equal ease, eagerly. Even their conversations follow such a predictable pattern that Ffamran cuts his own booze with coffee to stay awake.

The Bangaa's too easy to get drunk, and as easy then to slip in comments about working for the Ninth, just like the Bangaa does. Apparently. Even Ba'Gamnan's not thick enough to admit that outright.

Sometimes the unfamiliarity of this game has Ffamran flushing, with caffeine, with alcohol. He feeds Ba'gamnan another shot, another two, waiting another week just in case those glittering black eyes can see more than they seem to.

When Ba'gamnan growls that he's never encountered 'Balthier' before, Ffamran shrugs it off as Gabranth's tightfistedness with information as well as with coin. That, as does any comment regarding money, gets the Bangaa snorting again like any working Hume would, but he does it with a gape of his muzzle, a flicker of fine-scaled nostrils. Ffamran wonders if the thing can even laugh properly, built like it is.

Ffamran's sure he could get his whole forearm inside the thing's jaw. Maybe more. Past the elbow. Gods.

For a moment, the insanity of this almost overwhelms him, but Ffamran's done his research like a good Archadian son should. The Ninth won't talk, not even under duress. They know Ffamran too well. Gabranth himself is a war zone and Ffamran's not stupid enough to go anywhere near one of those -the whole point of this idiocy. In any case, that particular foreigner holds silence closer than a wife. Of those left, the Moogles working on the mechanics won't talk, locked into the Moogle-warm cluster of companionship. But the Bangaa's alone. Apparently some kind of purveyor, a handler of odd tasks, a rare-goods hunter from what Ffamran can crack from Gabranth's coded accounts. But alone here, sourced and coddled because of Gabranth's penchant for picking up precociously talented strays and foreigners—

The Bangaa knows where the hangar's hidden.

Balthier's scent changes without the suit of armor. There's the softness of linen layered with leather, the tang of lilac and oil. The acrid curiosity-revulsion-ire never shifts regardless of what he wears; Ba'gamnan could pick Balthier out of a dark room full of sick, puking Humes.

Ba'gamnan puts that skill into practice, too regularly. Balthier knows some very dark places in this white Archadian not-home. He takes the Bangaa where they can drink, skin next to scale, without anyone staring. Ba'gamnan's never said anything about hating Hume eyes, but presumes that if Balthier works for the Ninth he's sharper than the self-curled scent of him would convey. He's even a little grateful that Balthier noticed, said nothing, and still managed to find them somewhere where the relative courtesies bred into Bangaa blood could be maintained.

Between glasses of something sticky, sweet-smelling, and red/blue — purple, Balthier called the color - Ba'gamnan discovers he shares more than just a common employer with the youth.

You're here all alone, the Hume observes, and Ba'gamnan tells him yes.

Sweet-sticky-purple continues to talk where Ba'gamnan would stop, telling Balthier about leaving heart-home, with its cloying scentmarkers that forbade breeding rights, bearing rights, the three-dimensional scent structures making boundaries of thin air, fences that can't be crossed, lines that define right and wrong and who could be touched and who could not—

I know what that's like, says Balthier, with a sharp-scent surge of - empathy?

Ba'gamnan shakes that off as intoxication.

Intoxicating, though.

Won't be alone for long, Ba'gamnan tells the Hume, of his sib-mates who would come once he paved the way with new scent trails, new patterns to follow, new sureties, a new heart-home with him at the centre instead of the fringe.

It was hard in this world of Humes, where patterns layered vertically as well as horizontally, where vehicles stole movement from the sky's eye, where the sun didn't dictate life. Heat came from within a Hume, from hunger and hormones, to give them a rhythm that pounded continuous; Bangaa fought to claim their heat from without, fought to keep it. To live a Hume's shattered rhythm of broken days and actioned nights, of start and stop without foreknowledge, to force themselves to that unfamiliarity, a Bangaa still had to find the heat from without, even denied the sun. Hume chemicals faked continuity, injections and ingestions and inarticulation twisted the solid core of a true Bangaa's sun-bound existence.

I know, says Balthier, somewhat of difficult expectations.

Again. The scent, bewildering. Undeniably empathy.

Ba'gamnan tries to shake off the intoxication with a flap of ear-folds, a dismissive snort through flared nostrils. Alcohol betrays him in his haste then, has him lose control of his most powerful of senses: his next inhalation, quick, unwary, carries Balthier inside him. Deeper than where embedded codes enable recognition. Deeper. To the heart-home, where Ba'Gamnan's sibs, mothers, mates lie side by side in memory more real than vision.

There's a Hume in him.

Next to his mothers.

Next to his sib-mates.

A self-focused, acrid, revolted Hume. A curious, empathetic Hume. A self-absorbed, bitterly irate—-

Balthier's lonely.

Ba'gamnan tries to get him out, vainly, with a flare of nostril and gape of jaw, the curl of a paw, with the taste of sticky-sweet-purple and too much heaving lilac perfume, with a violent shake of his head. It won't - he can't rub it out - it won't budge—

Balthier's hand lands on his muzzle. Heavy.

Ba'gamnan calms. A shiver makes his shoulders ripple. The Hume's hand is so warm.

Balthier's too-thin fingers spread, around, too-long wrapping, too-soft and stroking the line of Ba'gamnan's jawbone, too-warm and down along his throat. Plate-scale parts under Balthier's hesitance where it would hold firm against force. A small fingertip presses against true skin, finds a pulse, flexes in time. Speeding.

Ba'gamnan says nothing. Holds against the sudden rising thickness, of scent and heat, of Humeness, just a Hume, just a Hume, just another wretched Hume in this place of not-home—

After some consideration, Balthier's hand slides up again, fingertips playing along the dangerous sensitivity of lips, palm on the ridged bridge of muzzle, and then he touches - it, so lightly—


— that fine-scaled, delicate, sensitive skin that tapers to hide fragile nostrils.

No moderation avails, then. No mantra. No memories of mothers and sib-mates.

Ba'gamnan pushes against Balthier's hand, and he's keening, crooning; Balthier holds firm against the force. The ridge of skull rubs, the line of jaw arches, the flare of ear inside and outside tempts and Balthier knows somehow; he rises, responds, rubs, caresses: but wrong, wrong— Balthier stills then, as if he knew the unspoken ache, to let Ba'gamnan's driving motion direct his blissfully unclawed fingertips to exactly the right places, those that itch so.

Ba'gamnan dips his head, lost in the bliss, writhing. It's not until he bows, deep enough that Balthier's fingers slide under his crest-cap to find secret spine-stiff quills, that Ba'gamnan realizes what he's offered the Archadian - the place-master of this not-home - and he snarls - stands—

Come on, the Archadian says, rising also. His heat radiates like the sun, spilling over everything, blurring his shape with such brilliance that Ba'gamnan should look away. And can't. Like the sun. The eye in the sky. Follow, then.

Balthier knows a better place, he says. Doesn't know he is a place inside Ba'gamnan's head now, a place of sun-daze and slumber, of gunpowder-sharp solitude.

A Bangaa would taste the implication in the order and bow to its truth, of he who is place-master and he who supplicates for a place. But Ba'gamnan didn't leave his heart-home to be thralled by old Bangaa scent-strictures. A Hume thought rises in Ba'gamnan's mind: that not even Gabranth speaks to a dog in that tone of voice. Follow.

Ba'gamnan refuses, with a hard arrogance that is more Hume than Bangaa.

The spike of Balthier's surprise strikes Ba'gamnan like a punch. Even that is a pleasant summer's evening breeze compared to the stinking burn of the Archadian's sudden shame, and an arousal drenched in shocking embarrassment.

As Ffamran suspects, the Bangaa's rhythm isn't as easily shattered as his composure.

He's waiting at the last place they drank together, even down to the booth they shared, even down to the cushions the Bangaa had sat on. The same drink. The same bloody glass, Ffamran imagines. Bleeding predictable creature.

Ba'gamnan stands as soon as Ffamran appears, catches the last of his drink in the bell of his long tongue. When he stalks to the door, Ffamran watches, observes the Bangaa's stride as he's never bothered to before, cloth-shrouded legs spring-loaded like a sighthound's. Clawed like one too, for speed, drive, surety in motion. In motion the Bangaa's physiology has purpose, over-strong shoulders balanced by the hard sinew of flank and foreleg.

Ffamran follows. There's nothing else to do now, no more weeks to wait. Even in fine linen Ffamran sweats to keep the Bangaa's pace. He'd thought the weight of armor had broken him of that weakness.

In no way does Ffamran find the Bangaa attractive. Too lean at the waist for the breadth of those bare, scaled shoulders. Curled, with such unexpected muscle as though all fours would suit him more than this verticality.

Gods. Don't think about him on all fours. Ffamran can't help it. Don't think about him on—

Ribs visible even under the slide of scale that looks slick, but feels - Ffamran remembers touching - like sun-warmed satin, firmed, textured. The muzzle more refined that he'd thought initially. Again, more like a sighthound's and with the angled grace of one, sleek, angled, purposeful. Delicate, even, for all the harsh voice that the inhume throat emits.

Still a beast's. Alien. Strange.

Even if it hadn't felt so—No.


The Bangaa was strange, is strange, would always be strange.

Ffamran glances around, to the streets of Archades, and sees them watching the Bangaa, eying Ffamran in his wake. He can imagine them presuming he's the Bangaa's guard, even clad in linen and leather as he is instead of steel. That's how strange they find the Bangaa, that even the sight of him is enough cause for gawking.

So if he's so monstrous what happened last time -

Alcohol, Ffamran tells himself. Being drunk. It's happened before. In fact, it's the only way anything's happened before. Being drunk and being determined. All he'd thought to do was befriend the damned creature, and worm out any information on the prototype that way. He had no damned idea the Bangaa would even be interested.

Like a dog. The Bangaa had rubbed against him like a dangerous dog, head and throat and jaw and muzzle, so needy, keening a little, such a desperate little sound. Ffamran's throat thickens at the memory, such need. His groin warms.

There's no alcohol now. No alcohol and no excuses. Or maybe new excuses. Ffamran finds himself so willing to rebel against Archades, wanting to defy everything Archades holds sacrosanct. What better way to express such defiance than with something so strange, scaled, inhume; so far from what a good Archadian scion would ever consider?

Balthier darts to keep his pace alongside the Bangaa, and feels the eyes of Archades follow him.

The Bangaa's not strictly green. His scales are a hundred shades of green, each facet catching the light slightly differently. More silver than green, up close. Only green from a distance, a trick of the eye and sky combined.

There's probably not another person in the whole of Archades that will ever get close enough to see that.

Balthier touches him, along his spine, across the arc of his shoulders. Hard. As though to feel only the muscle beneath skin instead of the ridged scale on top. Ba'gamnan growls, flexes, arches at that touch, so ungentle, as though from the hard-horned hand of a sib-mate instead of a Hume.

He can't help the spike of his own scent that releases at the pressure, piercing, almost masking Balthier's.

I think I like your smell, Balthier murmurs, like summer — and his, he - his neck bows — and sunshine on grass — and he rubs his face along the scale at the back of Ba'gamnan's neck. The Hume rubs his inadequate nose - there—at the bare, flexing crest.

Ba'gamnan thinks, then, he could almost forget the fragile, over-hot strangeness of the Hume. The Hume's too alien for him to just accept it, but he could choose to close his eyes. To think of the scent only instead of the sight; to pretend the constant-chaotic ripple of Balthier's heat pattern just another sib-mate's brief-rising lust.

Balthier touches, hard enough to hurt, hard enough to rip his unprotected palm on scales had he not always kept with the grain instead of the bias. Each limb Balthier marks with his own scent, from Ba'gamnan's corded heel to hard buttock, from clawed fingertip to tensed shoulder, from narrow muzzle to arching, flaring crest, and even along the feathered membrane between each barbed spine there. Ba'gamnan turns to face him, and still Balthier strokes, from collarbones along chest and stomach, to where stomach muscle, plate and sheath all contract in a unified spasm to bare Ba'gamnan's frustrated maleness, vulnerable.

There is no hesitation there either, just hardness, just hurt.

The Bangaa core patterns flare in a rage that could kill them both if the Ba'gamnan had not the wit to overcome it. The correct scent-markers are missing. There are no breeding rights granted or given, no domination rights acknowledged in the trace fabric of air. Ba'gamnan's intelligence instructs, overwrites, overwhelms the instinctual core. This isn't as wrong as it could have been. Balthier's already inside Ba'gamnan, had time to establish place-permanence, his gun-sharp solitude lying alongside mothers and sib-mates.


And yet.

Ba'gamnan's claws destroy sheets and mattress and still, he finds nothing to hold.

When Balthier enters him, occupying, Ba'gamnan recoils. Revulsion swells, shock; so thickly twined from the both of them that Ba'gamnan can't pick out how much comes from he and how much from Balthier. Ba'gamnan fears the grotesquerie of this, the potential for pain, for the humiliation that is the place-master's right to give had Balthier known the right his own to claim. The flaring Hume heat, inside and out, is a vile monstrosity, an unregulated metabolism almost immoral in its wastefulness. Ba'gamnan writhes, resists, thinking of that, of the bare vulnerability of Balthier's flesh a constant, the metal-plate approximation of armor hiding nothing, not the gross coarseness of the Hume's scentless speech, not his unremitting chaotic irregularity.

Still, Balthier knows what he's doing. He pins writhing shoulders with both palms, sets his hips just so, snaps forward like a shot and slow on the recoil, a thrust determined. His slide is one of capable machinery, a shaft sleek enough, slick enough not to snag, his eyes closed, his weight suspended so they only meet there, where it matters.

Ba'gamnan relaxes into it. Unwilling. Then too willing.

The rhythm of their rutting holds to long, forceful strokes. Balthier's arms tremble with the strain of keeping his distance. Unlike the desperate drive of procreation, and yet unlike the hard, brief fucks for place-master rights; Ba'gamnan holds still for the confusion, wanting to arch. For all the purposeful length, Balthier's stroke is hard enough that even with distance between them Ba'gamnan can feel the Hume's outward breath between the diamond interlock of scale.

Not so strange, Balthier breathes, blinded, without seeing it. You're cool.

Ba'gamnan has no words for him, no agreement. Hume words are too harsh for what he would say, this - empathy. He releases his own embedding instead, all those coded restraints of courtesy and cohesion; he shuts his own eyes so Balthier's heat pattern blurs from Hume-shaped into a -

—summer spent basking on rock—so the scent of—his layers fold and form like—warm—rain from the—eye of the sky—thunder-crack-gun-sharp

Balthier's lost too— on that—wave of a thousandfold memory of—cut grass and—shade when it's too—hot skin under water—cool-kissed by a—breeze lifting hair

Ba'gamnan feels the Hume's rhythm shatter.

Balthier cries out at the best of it, sharply.

Archades hasn't changed. It should have. He's just done the unthinkable.

The breeze this high up blows cold through Balthier's shower-wet hair, his collar soaked, prickling on his skin. The space between the blades of his shoulders itches too, but less with his over-hasty toweling than with the weight of everyone's stare. Staring, at him, almost alongside a Bangaa. A bare half-step ahead, as though they were almost equals. Friends. More than. Even if the Bangaa looks like a kicked puppy, head down, neck arched, trailing in Balthier's shadow. A kicked puppy, wanting another pat.

Balthier finds himself leading the Bangaa into Nilbasse even though he has no need to go anywhere near the boulevard.

He wants to be seen with the Bangaa, he realises. Unvisored, in civvies, Cid Bunansa's precocious youngest befriending the Bangaa. He wants to be seen with the creature. Wants it. Wants everyone to know, but also doesn't, in recoiling, horrific self-disgust.

Of course, they can't read that just from their proximity.

"See how they're staring? They hate you, you know."

The Bangaa shrugs with a great roll of muscle, a hitch in his stride. "I scent no hostility."

"They're staring at you. They hate you, what your kind signifies. They're afraid of you."

"I don't grasp your meaning."

"You're a threat to their happy way of life. You're alien."

The Bangaa snorts, dismissive. "And how is it that a sole Bangaa threatens them so, Judge? In this their heart-home?"

Balthier bites back his retort. "Nevertheless."

"I still scent no hostility," the Bangaa says. "Maybe I falter to read their faces as you can. Maybe they're gawping at you with all their murderous hatred."

Balthier trails behind, hunting in the faces of Archades for the rejection. He'd been so careful so far, only ever meeting the Bangaa in a bar, never been seen on the street with him, doing nothing to connect himself with the Bangaa. It wasn't for fear of persecution then, but rather an effort to avoid anyone connecting him with the Bangaa once the prototype was taken.

There's curiosity. A lot of curiosity. Even shock, but only mild shock subsumed by the greater curiosity. The Bangaa's never been into Nilbasse before, keeping to the Akademy's concourse where Gabranth and the rest of his loyal loner lackeys could keep a watchful eye.

Shock and curiosity beside, Balthier can't find any anger, rage, rejection.

Maybe, Balthier thinks, Archades is altogether too used to being shocked by Bunansa's prodigal. As though shock had a limit, and they'd reached theirs after sixteen years of his striving; nothing he could do now would inspire anything more than a mild, easily forgotten curiosity.

Balthier eyes Ba'gamnan where the Bangaa strides ahead. There's balance in his motion, such a strong purpose in the flex and bounce of his curved limbs where Ffamran found only strangeness before, strangeness in stillness. For a moment, Balthier wonders what Archades would do if he bent the Bangaa over the next nearest bench and fucked him there. Maybe in a fountain: that would be a better idea. They were so godsdamned precious about staying out of the fucking fountains. Fucking in the fountains. There'd be a riot.

He'd have to bend Ba'gamnan's tail out of the way, rutting like that. Shouldn't be too difficult.

Balthier blinks, startled to realize how far ahead Ba'gamnan's pace carried him. He takes long strides to catch up with the Bangaa's shorter ones, and Ba'gamnan drops a half-step behind again. Balthier's lip curls, unwilling. There's a sick taste in his throat. He needs a drink. Another one. And then one after that.

They had to be shocked by the Bangaa. They had to. Otherwise what was the point of fucking the creature?

Balthier laughs. He'd almost forgotten the ship.

Gabranth scarcely raises his head, stiff-backed at his desk. He signs his incomprehensible mark onto incomprehensible paperwork, and Ba'gamnan looks away. Another Hume falseness he has yet to learn; to read, even though those words lie worse than speech, a lie or truth dependent on the hand that plies the ink.

"Do you have his description?" the Judge Magister asks, mildly.

Ba'gamnan burns with the shame. Gabranth's dissatisfaction comes in waves of metal-clad scent, even if the voice tells nothing.

"Taint my fault. There were supposed to be guards. Key-locks and code-locks. The fuzzball Moogles. Other Humes."

"The location was confidential until you saw fit to make it otherwise."

"I'm a bloody procurer, Gabranth, not a deviant Hume spy. A procurer. Of parts. And Balthier said he worked for you, for the Ninth, it seemed like he already knew—"

Gabranth even puts his pen down this time.

"Again, Bangaa, we hit the same point in this great circuitous defense which, I will assure you, continues to re-affirms my belief in your competence with each pass. I'll ask once more, because the name is meaningless to me. What did he look like?"

Ba'gamnan shifts his weight, from foot to foot.

"Hot. Very hot. I haven't the Hume word. Hot."

Behind him, Gabranth's honor guard sniggers.

"So," Gabranth says, "we have a thief called Balthier who's well comfortable with passing as a Judge, is a noble Archadian, and who is exceptionally hot. Excellent. Truly, I couldn't have hoped for a better description. He's hot. Yes. Let's draft the bounty post now. Wanted: young, hot thief—"

"Gunpowder," Ba'gamnan snarls, "he stunk of gunpowder. The kind from the great battle-guns, not the toys your nobility plays with. The dragon-slaying kind."

"Ah. I will amend. Wanted: young hot thief. Noble born. Has big guns. Oh, and his own airship."

The honour guard guffaws.

"Tell me, Bangaa, does that sound like a bounty-hunter's bulletin or a romantic fantasy?"

"What do I know of what your Hume breeders lust for?"

"Evidently," Gabranth says, "they lust for precisely the same thing as Bangaa."

Ba'gaman swallows the insult there. Has to. He can't help the snarl though, the fury that blocks his scent, that blinds him to the latest entry, another metal-clad Hume - a female, this one - who thrusts through the door to interject.

"Gabranth. Ffamran's gone."

Ba'gamnan pants into that silence, harsh, writhing for control. Gabranth stiffens, sword-straight, and his scent makes Ba'gamnan recoil then. Like acid. Almost like apology.

"Since when?"

"Since—" the new Hume nods at Ba'gamnan. "A most traumatic miscommunication, this, for if Cid had been...other than Cid, this should have been resolved without further conflict on any...person's behalf.

"Cid failed to notice his own son's absence."

"Should we expect otherwise? The Akademy has also familiarized itself with - even permitted - all Ffamran's eccentricities in favor of his performance Their concern was scarce raised until this morning when he should have resumed his duties—"

"Judge," Gabranth says to his honour guard, "draft up a bulletin for the marks board, and provide the Bangaa with Ffamran's full details, a description a Hume can use, and the boy's likely patterns and preferences. Balthier now, I suppose."

Amidst the brief flurry of activity, Ba'gamnan realizes he's being given a concession here. As much of one as a true, full-plated place-master like Gabranth can give, no scent-admittance of blame or apology, just a verbal circuit that needs violent thought to detangle it. And Ba'gamnan does detangle it and understand it, and doesn't know whether to lament how much more like a Hume he's forced to become.

This is a concession. An exile of sorts. Another one, when he had hoped - when Gabranth had offered —

"I'll bring him back," Ba'gamnan says. "How do you Humes vow it? 'On my honour.' I'll hunt him down. Bring him back."

"Do or not," Gabranth says, taking up his pen again. "The Ninth has officially washed its hands of this matter. Although I do so lament my continued bent for misplacing my trust. I will contact you if I require your services on other matters."

Gabranth's pause there is a weighted one.

"...your procurement services, mind."

Ba'gamnan scarcely waits for the honor guard to open the door, and quits Archades within the hour.

There are altogether too many Bangaa in Rabanastre.

Balthier settles himself against the bar, nursing what's probably his third, maybe fourth drink. Too many Bangaa, although the green ones are seemingly rarer than most. And too many Moogles. Seeq even. And a few Viera, though those are somewhat less offensive to his eye.

"They don't like it when you stare."

Balthier turns, head arching over his shoulder, to see the young barkeep nodding towards the Bangaa family - or was it clan? - drinking in the corner. "So?"

The barkeep shrugs. "From the sound of you, you're Archadian, so you probably don't know much about politeness. Basically, they don't go around with their noses in the air sniffing us openly, and we don't go staring at them when they're trying to have a drink."

"Still don't follow."

"They're almost blind," the barkeep explains, smirking. "And we can't smell, according to them. They could pick a trail six months old and follow it through a battlefield."

Balthier considers that. "They do have rather sensitive noses."

"Exactly. We don't go around staring, they don't go around sniffing."

"...they like it when you scratch the ridge on top of their muzzle, though."

The barkeep almost drops the glass he's drying.

"You touched a Bangaa on the nose?"

The hunt is the only interlude Ba'gamnan has from this Hume world.

For a time Ba'gamnan loses himself in who he used to be, formless and shell-bound, thoughtless and hungry. His rhythm returns to his natural cycle, of sunshine and storage, of effort and motion, of sleep and recuperation. He eats once every three days, something scavenged, something killed, and sleeps half a day to digest it; he runs, then, tireless, feeling the loam shred beneath his claws, and the only wrongness in that rhythm is the solitude.

But no interlude lasts; he's hunting a Hume. For humiliation, for revenge, for having shattered a bare-born dream of a new life unbound by old Bangaa strictures in the hot-high provinces of the Empire. He's hunting a Hume, and even the hunt then is lost to Hume rhythms.

To catch a Hume, Ba'gamnan has to talk to Humes. To talk to them, he has to enter their their cities of false light and unwary shade and hard rhythms, of paved streets without purchase for claws. He talks, grudgingly, learns of free ports and places large enough to house the prototype, for if anything holds true it's that the Hume will need to change its face, its name, its scent through the air. Ba'gamnan finds a few places, a few trails to follow, and sets to with a will that denies what draws him: anger, betrayal, that vague longing, Balthier's coiled scent of Balthier that rules his will and thieves his rights. Any sib-mates to find him now would find him halved. Balthier's neutered him, unknowingly or not, so Ba'gamnan hunts. His right of self-determinacy is wrapped in Balthier's heaving, soft-skinned hide, and he would claim it back wholly. With the Hume dead or alive.

Before he departs the Clan's halls, Ba'gamnan speaks to the few other Hume-stinking, Hume-thinking Bangaa there, and gets the name of a skilled leatherworker. The noseguard sits heavily for a while, chafing, until the delicate scales there toughen. It doesn't impede scent, but it protects against casual touch. No one will catch him so unaware of his own Bangaa-born weaknesses in this arrhythmic Hume world.

If the Hume had just asked Ba'gamnan to follow, he would have, would have had to, place-bound, scent-strictured, wanting to—

If the Hume asks him to follow now, Ba'gamnan is unsure of how he will respond. The Bangaa-Ba'gamnan would have him follow, complicit in acquiescence. The Hume-Ba'gamnan is a lot angrier than that. As Ba'gamnan treks through long, empty days, the thought that solaces him is thus: to never forget that any Hume is alien, incomprehensible, unsound, and not to be trusted.

At the next Clan hall, Ba'gamnan finds himself shunned by the Bangaa there. He is bewildered, enraged by it, but knows why they spurn him; that 'why' merely fuels his fire and such, such rage is a good thing. Revenge is a Hume dream, they tell him, not a Bangaa's. Just like a Hume, it keeps him warm at night.

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