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Update: Claret Sky

Claret Sky
Sunnepho
Bal/Vaan, post-canon

Part 3. Part 4. Part 5.

Warnings: Fluff. Plot. Angst angst angst. Montblanc being a troll.

I have been remiss in disclaiming, but everyone knows I own nothing more than a single NTSC disc, yes?

--

Vaan looks ridiculous sitting in the Cockatrice pen, feathers sticking out of his mess of hair.

The birds cluck excitedly over him as if he is a long lost chick returned from a far journey, and Balthier tells Vaan so.

“They remember me,” Vaan says.

Balthier scoffs. “Of course they do. Given the multitude of their number who have wandered every corner of Ivalice, they must possess memories long as the day during the Dry to recall each lost member.”

“You helped to return them, though.”

“Only when I could no longer stand the altruistic whingeings of our beloved princess.”

Vaan stands, wiping his hands of dust, and he gives Balthier a doubtful look. “I hope you never let Basch hear you talk like that about her.”

“But of course. I am no fool. The sky pirate combines dashing bravery with a healthy dose of self-preservation.” He raises his brows at Vaan significantly. “A lesson you have yet to learn, Vaan.”

But Vaan is looking at the ground, and his lips part and twitch.

Ah. Balthier bites his tongue.

“Basch was a good man,” he says finally.

Vaan tugs the feathers from his hair and clothes, and his eyes dart over Balthier and away again. “Come on, I want to bring Dalan a sun stone.”

--

The dark crystals are few and far between, and Balthier glances often at the wall of dark cloud, flickering of lightning, rolling in from the coast in the east.

“Will you cease this, Vaan. It is but a simple matter to purchase a sun stone instead of traipsing around these plains while the Rains bear down upon us. You may not even be able to complete the stone before the light fades.”

Vaan sends a Hyena flying with a swipe of his sword and moves on toward the glimmer on the horizon. He frowns at Balthier. “But there will be none of good enough quality like I can make myself.”

“I do hope a Cockatrice has not Petrified your mind. Dalan will be pleased to see you no matter what manner of gift you bring.”

“I want to give him a sun stone.”

Balthier lets his head fall back as he groans.

--

The last flickers of light fade from the dark crystal as the stone in Vaan’s hand takes on a steady, warm glow. Vaan smiles and tucks it into a pocket, glancing back at Balthier.

Balthier slings his gun over his shoulder. “Yes, yes, hurrah. Now if you’re quite finished...”

There is a Giza Rabbit at their feet, which has followed them half the length of the Plains upon spotting them nearly an hour past. It shakes its plume of a tail and peers up at Balthier, dancing away and back when Balthier shoos at it absently. It chatters rapidly and hops up to Vaan’s boot.

The sky blackens as Balthier hurries, and the beast is still following them several minutes later when its squeaking abruptly shifts and becomes shrilly discordant. It dashes away, shooting down into a hollow half-hidden behind a baked red stone, and Balthier looks up when the sky rips open and rain pours down on them.

He levels narrowed eyes at Vaan, who shrugs and continues walking despite the water plastering his hair down against his skull.

--

Vaan has somehow angered a Wooly Gator in passing, and Balthier casts a wind spell impatiently. It shreds the monster where it rears, and it thuds to the ground, splashing up a spray of mud.

Lightning arcs over Balthier’s arms, stinging and spitting, and he bites back a curse.

Spinning around, Balthier backs away quickly, keeping a wary eye on Mardu as it roils and grows, roaring and blinding in its brightness.

He sees the shimmer of Reflect, and Balthier clenches his hand, gathering magick.

Mardu darkens and falls back briefly when the Dispel hits. In as much as it could, Balthier thinks it looks furious.

“We don’t have time for this!” Vaan shouts over the thunderous noise of the Entite. “Cover me for a bit, and I’ll summon Mateus!”

Balthier nods, shots from the Fomalhaut striking straight to Mardu’s core.

A chill gathers, and he feels as if the ground hardens and ices under his feet, and then Vaan is gasping for breath and stumbling, and the cold is washed away by rain.

“What happened?” Balthier steadies Vaan and tugs him along as he continues backing away.

“I don’t know! The esper refused me.”

“Can they do that?” Balthier is genuinely surprised.

“It’s never happened before. I still have the crest of its seal, so it should have worked.”

Balthier frowns, but he shakes his head. “Very well. We do not need the summon.” Balthier looks up at the blinding light, and he draws deep upon his magick reserves. There is a glow beside him, and he knows Vaan is doing the same. Ice forms in towering pillars and slams into the Entite again and again.

--

Rabanastre towers over the flat plains ahead, and the rain has lessened to a caressing patter.

Balthier turns his face up into the sky and lets the water tap onto his closed eyelids. The coolness is soothing and welcome after the exhaustion of having his magick depleted, but there is something giddy in him at having seen Mardu wisp away into nothing.

“Ready?” he asks Vaan.

Vaan looks at him steadily with eyes like the sky, and he bites his lip. He nods, water trickling down his nose and cheeks.

Vaan steps closer to him, and Balthier smiles, lifting one corner of his mouth, before he closes his eyes.

The kiss is soft as the rain.

--

The sun stone’s glow casts Dalan’s features into sharp relief when he smiles. He cups it in his weathered hands, and Balthier can see his skin glow red as light filters through his thin fingers.

There is a soft, half sweet smile on Vaan’s lips, and Balthier cannot help but watch.

“Vaan...” Dalan says. “I hoped that I would see you again.”

“I’m sorry I haven’t visited in so long.”

“But where have you vanished to these several long years, m’boy?”

Vaan’s smile freezes and cracks. His eyes flick over, and Balthier’s throat clenches at the black despair he sees for a moment. It is gone just as suddenly, shuttered behind a blank wall, and Vaan raises a hand to rub at his nape. His back is stiff as a Shield Wyrm’s scale.

Balthier watches Vaan’s mouth open and shut soundlessly for a moment, and he speaks quickly.

“My utmost apologies, Dalan,” he says, and he thinks his voice is smooth enough to grease wheels, but he fights back the grimace. “It seems I and my illustrious partner have corrupted poor Vaan to the life of the sky pirate. The vagabond who knows no home, if you will.”

Fran’s ear twitches, and Balthier meets her eye. Ah, it is a hint of amusement that he sees there. Better that than disapproval.

“Forgot the landbound, have you?” Dalan says to Vaan, but there is something quiet under the jovial tones.

Vaan stares.

“And the children? Kytes and Filo? They too left to seek their fortune in the skies, I remember.”

Balthier prepares another lie, wrapping it tight around the ice in his core, but Vaan shakes his head sharply.

“It’s alright,” Vaan says. His voice is hoarse and forced. “I wanted to tell Dalan, anyway.”

Balthier pauses, and he closes his eyes and nods before leading the others away. He feels Vaan’s gaze boring between his shoulder blades as he leaves the man alone with Dalan.

--

There is a festival in the streets of Lowtown that night, as Dalmascans celebrate the coming of the harvest as only the desert people can.

Balthier sits, the grit of sand sharp under his fingers, and he tilts his head back, breathing in the heady, sweet scent of smoke. The Dalmascans have tossed dried herbs into the blazing fire lit in the centre of Lowtown’s congregation square, and he wonders what manner of leaves burn with crimson sparks and heavy scent. He thinks it may be a drug. His limbs feel weighted, but his core light, and Balthier sighs and savours the sensation.

There are dancers around the flames that jump as high as a man is tall. Balthier recalls the movements; he has never seen dancers graceful as the desert children, and he watches the swirl of air-light scarves and bare, sun-darkened feet.

Bright eyes, bright hair, and dusky skin whirl and pause in front of Balthier, and there are two children, a boy and a girl barely as tall as his hip, peering at him. They smile brightly, and they turn their eyes to Vaan, who sits several paces away. They must recognize his colouring as one of their own because they reach out and snatch his hands, tugging toward the fire.

Vaan shakes his head, pale hair flicking into his eyes, and Balthier watches the lingering trail of light imprinted in his eyes.

The boy pouts, and he turns his attention to Penelo, who smiles shyly and takes his hand.

The girl smiles even wider, and as Penelo passes by, being tugged by the small boy, she pulls at Vaan again.

Vaan turns pained eyes to Balthier for a moment, and he hides a smirk at the resignation he sees. Vaan stands and follows the girl.

The low thud of drums, the flickering of the fire, and the spins and leaps of the dancers mesmerize, and Balthier starts when a high voice sounds next to his ear.

“He looks better without the armour, kupo.”

Montblanc stands next to Balthier, his arms crossed over his small chest, and he is nodding his head so that his pom-pom narrowly misses hitting Balthier’s temple.

“Yes,” Balthier says. “Lighter.”

He watches the dancers for a moment longer. Vaan is taller than most of the others, yet he moves fluid as the flames, all languid twists and outflung hands. Balthier frowns, and he looks back at Montblanc. “You knew?”

“Do not underestimate the information network of Clan Centurio, kupo!”

“And yet you never told me when I agreed to seek hunts for you?”

“You didn’t ask.”

Balthier rolls his eyes.

Vaan glances toward him, skin flushed from the heat of the fire and the exertion.

--

Balthier can see the twisted hull of the fallen Bahamut, Sky Fortress, from where he stands.

The metal glitters under the sun, red with rust over most the panelling. It shines like dried blood.

“What of the nethicite?” Ashe asks, an impatient tinge to her voice.

“What of it?” Balthier turns and leans against the window sill. He examines his hands idly, and he notes a chip in a nail.

“If we are to war with Archades, perhaps it will provide the firepower that we need. You were arrested for its theft, were you not?”

Balthier looks long and hard at Ashe, and she flushes.

“Do you never learn, my Queen?” he says drily. “In this struggle between men, we cannot rely on the whimsy of self-styled gods.”

“What will we do, then?” Penelo asks. She grimaces, glancing at Vaan, who stands silent, eyes trained upon the cracks between the tiles of the floor. The perfect soldier, awaiting its turnkey. “The direct approach? Storm the palace, kill the Council?”

Balthier wrinkles his nose. “I should hope we possess somewhat more subtlety than that, but that would be the general idea. Have you not heard that the simplest plan is often the most effective as well?”

“So we fly for Archades, then,” Larsa says quietly.

“Yes, let’s.”

Ashe scowls. “I remain curious as to what happened to the stolen nethicite,” she says archly. “Do you keep it for yourself?”

“And style myself a hypocrite?”

“So you have sold it?”

Balthier sighs, brushing the wrinkles loose from his sleeves, suddenly undesirous of meeting Ashe’s eye. “No,” he says shortly. “I returned it to its rightful owner. She is the daughter of a researcher whom I met when he worked with Cid at Draklor, as he was part of the original team responsible for the development of manufacted nethicite. The nethicite in question was made for the woman as a gift, but it was seized by the Archadian Empire when war first threatened. Upon his death, he informed his daughter that he wished her to destroy the stone.” Balthier flexes his hands. “His greatest mistake, he supposedly called it. The woman then posted a bill on the hunts’ board asking for its retrieval.”

He looks up now, and he sees the mix of amusement and surprise that makes his skin itch in Ashe’s gaze.

“Balthier the Just,” she says, pressing her lips together as if battling a smile.

“Your comments lack an appreciative audience, Lady Ashe,” Balthier retorts, and he ignores Penelo’s chuckle. “In any case, the nethicite is likely long-gone.” He pauses, tapping a be-ringed finger over his arm. “A most peculiar woman,” he muses. “She collects Mandragora stalks, and insisted on showing me the curative properties of her prized set.”

There is a thud, and Balthier looks up. Vaan has slipped from where he leans against the wall, and his elbow has slammed into the stone behind him. His eyes are flitting restlessly as he rights himself, bracing a hand against the wall.

“This woman,” Vaan says, his voice a strangled reed, “does she live in the small red house next to the armour shop in Bhujerba?”

“Yes,” Balthier says quietly, after a while. He stares at Vaan, at the shakes in his shoulders and the clench of his hands. “What did you do?”

Vaan’s jaw ripples until it is white under the strain.

“Vaan, what did you do?”

“They found out about her. I don’t know how. I brought her to Archades. She stood trial the day before your escape, and after that...” Vaan looks up, eyes hard and black. “She was executed.”

--

The Royal Palace of Rabanastre is solemn in Vaan’s absence.

Of course, Balthier corrects himself, the man’s presence would not liven, either, the way he carries on lately as if he bears the world on his shoulders like that hero of Nabradian legend. Balthier remembers not the name, and he dismisses the thought.

The Queen cannot shirk her duties for long, and Balthier has seen barely a hair on her head of late, though she catches his eye at times, and her features are heavy with poorly-concealed worry.

Balthier wishes not to hear another half-frantic discussion on Vaan’s safety between Penelo and Larsa, and so he shuts himself into his room and waits.

The man is more than capable of fending for himself.

It is the irritated flick of Fran’s ear and the very nearly exasperated “Balthier” that alerts him to his own pacing.

“If you worry, then seek,” Fran says when he stops.

Balthier does not apologize because it is Fran, and Fran knows. He nods, and he leaves the palace. He walks, and in the end, it is Old Dalan who regards him strangely and says, without hesitation, “Look to the desert.”

--

It is the scent of blood that draws Balthier to the Zertinan Caverns.

He sees the Wolves before he sees the hunched figure on the ground, surrounded by mauled, half-eaten corpses. Vaan's shoulders are streaked with blood and dust, and he cannot see if they move with breath. He smothers the thought, steps quickly over the exposed rib-cage of a fallen Mallicant, and he raises his weapon.

He puts shot through the skulls of the beasts before they can do more than whimper, and he crouches down to press the fingers of a hand against Vaan’s neck.

Balthier is half-expecting the reaction, given the number of dead creatures surrounding the man, and so he blocks the quick slash toward his shoulder by slapping his forearm into Vaan’s wrist and knocking the sword from his hand.

The punch to his chest that follows winds him, and Balthier stumbles back, raising his arms, but Vaan is motionless, squinting at him as if he has not opened his eyes for days.

“Balthier?” he says hoarsely.

Balthier does not reply, but he scowls blackly and throws a waterskin toward Vaan’s head.

“What’s this?”

“What does it look like?” Balthier snaps. “Drink the water. You have been missing for three days, and I am willing to wager the Strahl that you have not had anything to eat or drink here. You are not yet a Cactuar, Vaan.”

Vaan pulls a face, and he uncorks the skin. “The springs—”

“Are poisoned by Mist and monster. You know that as well as I do, you simpleton. Now drink, and we return to Rabanastre.”

Water trickles down the side of Vaan's chin, leaving pale tracks in the dirt. "Balthier, I—"

"Did not kill the woman."

Vaan looks at him. "I have plenty of blood on my hands, Balthier."

"Yes, we are all quite aware. Do you think me an innocent?"

"I—"

"No," Balthier says sharply, and waves an agitated hand. "Do you think so little of your comrades that you believe we care?"

"You do," Vaan says quietly. He wipes his mouth with a filthy hand, and he stands, his spine cracking into place in a ghastly cacophony. He glances up at Balthier's impatient stare, and he looks down. "Not yet," he says. "I want..."

Balthier sighs. He does so often lately. "Do what you must."

--

The dust hangs through the air like a curtain in the Undershore, roiling and shifting, and Balthier can nearly see shapes in the shades.

His eyes flick to Vaan, and the man is staring into the billowing sand as if entranced.

Balthier feels it settling upon his skin, and he wonders if the caves will be buried before too long, smothered by grey dust.

“Where do you think the dead go after they die?” Vaan says suddenly, his voice muffled by the hiss of sifting sand.

Balthier thinks for a moment. It is not the question he would have expected, but he is discovering, more and more, that Vaan is nothing if not unpredictable. “The Wood Viera believe that the dead return to the Wood, and they are visible in the motes of light that weave in the trees,” he says. “Myself, I prefer the nursery tale that permits the dead to become stars in the sky.”

“You believe this?”

Balthier watches a plume of sand reach out and settle, sliding a phantom finger down Vaan’s cheek. “No,” he says. “But I enjoy the story.”

Vaan turns to look at him, something unreadable upon his face. He sways slightly as he steps forward, and he leans until his forehead rests against Balthier’s collar.

Balthier feels the feverish heat through his clothing, and he exhales lightly, his breath stirring up the dust.

--

TBC

*snicker* It's probably because I'm focussing so much on the relationship bits, but the plot sounds pretty ridiculous to me now. Ah, I don't care. I just want angsty Balthier/Vaan. :P

I'm such a loser.

Comments

( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
gabranth
Sep. 26th, 2011 05:08 am (UTC)
I dislike Vaan as a rule, and I've never read Balthier/Vaan before, but I love this. The angst is perfect. Maybe Vaan is more palatable damaged. I really like your Balthier as well, who seems realistically more grown-up.

Very nice work; I'm so excited to read more!
sunnepho
Sep. 26th, 2011 06:14 am (UTC)
Poor, poor hated Vaan... I'm kind of hoping to convert people over to my view of Vaan through angsty torture.

XD Thanks for giving this a shot despite your misgivings!
pennies_4_eyes
Apr. 6th, 2012 05:31 am (UTC)
well, I've always loved Vaan and especially Balthier/Vaan and I really am so very grateful you wrote this!

When my professional schedule permits this summer, I fully plan on doing some fanart for this story!
sinnatious
Sep. 27th, 2011 01:37 pm (UTC)
Ah, the meeting with Dalan broke my heart a little. ;__;

At last we find out what happened to the Nethicite, though! That was a cool, though again, very tragic twist. I'm starting to like that plan of simply storming Archades.

Not much more to say than that. I'm really liking your description in this chapter, you flesh out all the details of Ivalice so well. And Balthier's and Vaan's interactions are all so laden with emotion. Still really enjoying this.
sunnepho
Sep. 27th, 2011 01:55 pm (UTC)
Thanks for reading, still! Argh, this is starting to drag on too much. I'm beginning to itch for action and lose control of the angst.

Please shoot me if it does start getting teenage headcase-y.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )