Summary: In disguise, Ashe experiences the difficulties commoners encounter while waitng for Basch and Larsa at the Aerodrome, and Balthier finds himself the butt of everyone's joke.
A/N: Post game, assuming Vaan and Penelo convinced Balthier and Fran to take a quick detour in their treasure hunting.
:Setting - Vaan, Penelo, Fran, and Balthier, struck with a bad case of loneliness, have decided to have a reunion (not the kind where anyone is infected with cells and the whole city is attacked by Remnants, just a plain old reunion of friends). They have invited their companions and are seeing to the preparations.:
:Location - Rabanastre - Aerodrome - Lady Ashe has successfully navigated the crowded city. She is now waiting for Larsa and Basch to arrive.:
Ashe made it to the Aerodrome, only having to order three more guards not to see her. She joined the crowd of travelers impatiently waiting, barely tolerating the usual annoyances that went along with traveling and transportation centers. Travel centers are all the same. There’s always someone listening to loud music, mannerless people who put their feet up on your armrest, children running loose, and a crowd of anxious people gathered around the luggage carousel. Ivalice was no different.
There was a long line of disgruntled travelers groaning about delayed and cancelled flights, and a small army of people yelling and waving handmade signs to greet or see off family and friends. The noise of traveling was added to by the protests of upset travelers and those putting up a fuss about smuggled items/food/small animals. Never having to deal with the stresses of travel center workings, Ashe was slightly appalled to realize that people regularly lost their luggage and spent the night in the Aerodrome. Worst of all were the newfangled food vending devices.
Ah the vending machine! A boon to any hungry traveler finding themselves stuck in a travel center overnight. They are filled with tasty snacks and drinks…and are rigged to squeeze every last cent out of unfortunate travelers. They are ingeniously designed to trap the snack against the shelf and the plexiglass. No amount of rocking or shaking will dislodge the snack, oh no. The only option is to keep inserting change until enough food packages shift and loosen the first package and allow one to fall. Yes, just one.
Ashe was jostled and bumped by the tide of bodies as she pushed her way through the throngs and found shelter behind a pillar. She had been shoved, had her toes trod on, and been Cursed at. The princess was not used to this kind of treatment. She was used to people clearing a path at the very mention of her name, murmuring humble thanks if she bumped into them, and quailing in a satisfactory manner if she shouted at them. Ashe reminded herself, as a small child used her shirt as a Handkerchief, that it was okay, she was supposed to be a commoner and in disguise, although she made a mental note to have the child flogged when she got back to the palace (you were never too young to learn manners).
The jostling crowd spat the princess out near the waiting area. Every bench was at maximum capacity, and in some cases, patrons were double stacked. Several moments of uncertain lingering passed before Ashe realized that no one was going to say ‘Oh, Princess, please honor me by taking my seat!’ on account that no one recognized her. All she got for her trouble was territorial stares, apologetic smiles, and one snap of,
“Clear off, I was here first!”
Ashe joined the ranks of visitors circling the benches. She had never really noticed how much people imitated animals until today. Here her fellow Rabanastrans circled the seats like scavengers waiting for the predators to leave the kill, their faces taut with expectation and impatience. There! Someone shifted, a signal that they may be leaving, and the pack of seat-hunters moved in.
She soon learned that you had to push and fight dirty if you wanted a seat. No mercy was shown for the weak, elderly, or very young. It was every Rabanastran for themselves as they shoved, elbowed and climbed each other to get the vacant seat. After being pushed to the borders of the pack twice Ashe was ready for the next one. A woman shifted and before she even had time to vacate the seat properly, the mob was on her.
She was carried away and dumped, unceremoniously on the stone floor a few feet away amidst the cries of the pack, which included, ‘It’s mine! I’ve been here four hours!‘, ’Push off, or you’ll feel the back of my hand!’, and ’That’s my…uh, sister and she was saving that seat for me!’.
Ashe managed to trip several people and claw her way to the front of the pack where panting raggedly, she faced down a middle-aged man with and intimidating stomach. Ashe and the man both flung themselves at the empty seat and tried to force the other out of the way with their hips. For a moment it looked like the man would win, but as a single young woman, Ashe knew a few powerful words that won her the seat in the end. She took a deep breath and shouted,
“Pervert! This man is pervert!“
Heads turned and the man quickly relinquished the seat. He melted back into the mob as it went in search of another target. Victorious, she breathed a sigh of relief, but the respite didn’t last long. She groaned internally as a seeq, fresh from a long morning walk in the daytime heat, made himself comfortable beside her (making room by tossing a man out of his seat) and began to slowly engulf the bench. The princess managed not to gag, which would have been very impolite, as the scent of frying bacon and sweaty gym socks enveloped her. Ashe stayed seated and tried to breathe through her mouth, which only meant that she was able to taste the smell. She couldn’t stop herself from gagging, so she feigned a cough and excused herself by saying,
“Your pardon, I’ve been ill.“
Ashe, trained rigorously in proper and polite princess behavior and diplomacy, had to dredge up every last ounce of will power to stay calmly seated and even smile obligingly as the seeq grunted an apology for a sudden gut gurgling eructation that sent ripples to outlying areas of its backside. The smell alone seared her nostrils and made her lightheaded. She desperately searched her brain for an excuse to move that wouldn’t make it seem like she was moving because she had just been repulsed by a natural bodily function. Luckily a knight in shining armor appeared to rescue her. Two in fact, who just happened to be Basch and Larsa. Ashe bolted towards them and the fresh air surrounding them.
The young Archadian royal and his guardian were momentarily taken aback by the desperate looking young woman running towards them. Larsa wasn’t used to young women running towards him period (and probably wouldn’t even entertain the idea in his royal little head for a few more years) and the only experience Basch had had with people running towards him were those wielding weapons or righteous royal outrage and shouting ‘Get the traitor!’ Not wanting to draw steel in a public place and create panic, Basch settled for moving protectively in front of the young prince. He was taken completely by surprise when the girl ran up, grasped his armor and nearly shouted,
“I’m so glad to see you!”
Larsa and Basch blinked at her in mild confusion, taking in the pirate like scarf covering her hair, and the riding pants and linen shirt Rassler used to wear on his hunting expeditions.
“Lady Ashe!” Larsa began warmly, while Basch gasped in surprise,
Ashe rammed one hand over each mouth and hissed,
“Shhhh! I’m in disguise! Let‘s get out of here quickly.” she nearly begged, jerking her head towards a group of panic-stricken patrons fleeing the area around the seeq she had just been sitting by.
“You couldn’t stand out more if you were wearing my helm.“ Basch chuckled in amusement as Ashe and her friends strolled leisurely through the streets towards the Sandsea.
“Could you not have chosen a disguise less conspicuous? It even bears the royal crest.” Ashe glanced quickly down at the blazon on the right breast of the shirt and groaned. It was as good as a flashing light, or a lighted billboard sign saying ‘Look at me!!!’
Ashe looked back up at her friends with a sheepish grin.
“I think it suits her rather well.” Larsa complimented. Basch cleared his throat and gave Ashe an expectant look,
“Aren’t you forgetting something, princess?” This earned him a blank look.
“It’s been a while since we have last spoken.” the Judge Magister prompted.
Ashe suddenly brightened, mischief bubbling in her eyes. Larsa looked on, mystified as his royal companion suddenly slapped the former Captain lightly across the face.
“You traitor!” she spat, but with out venom,
“How could you! There. Is that better?”
“Ah! Now it feels just like old times. Forgive me Lord Larsa,” he said in reply to the lordling’s puzzled expression,
“It is traditional for the Lady Ashe to slap me each time we meet.” Larsa just smiled. Adults were so juvenile sometimes.
The royal party was intercepted by Vaan and Penelo at the doors to the Sandsea and told in mysterious and hushed tones.
“What ever you do, don’t laugh at Balthier. We‘re playing a little joke on him, so don‘t laugh at it, look at it, or make any comments on it.” Vaan stressed. Ashe was afraid to ask what it was.
Inside the gloom of the tavern (which is the standard in Inn, bar, tavern, and shady pub lighting), Basch and the royalty were met with inexpertly hung decorations and all the details that let guests know that the whole event was set up by amateurs who had a boat load of good intentions, but no skill whatsoever. Then there was Balthier and Fran, the Han Solo and Chewbacca of Ivalice, only Fran wasn’t excessively hairy, wore 5-inch heels, and her speech was perfectly understandable. Balthier on the other hand had almost nothing in common with Han Solo except for the sarcasm and silver tongue. Other than that the dashing young pirate had a penchant for expensive looking clothes, luxury, and wore more rings than an Italian mobster. The flamboyant pirate was also sporting a good sized knot on his head, which immediately drew the newcomers’ attention. A single thought blew through their minds as they moved to greet their old friends….What ever you do, don’t laugh….
“Ah Princess! How nice it is to be graced by your lovely presence!” Balthier declared with a courtly bow. The display of charm did not earn the expected reaction. Instead of the usual blush and smile, Ashe just stared at him (with a look usually reserved for nights spent in the bathroom after too much cheese and protein) before grunting an affirmative and quickly departing to talk to Fran. Larsa greeted him normally, declaring that they were all good friends and as friends should be addressed with out titles and formalities. Then of course he skipped off to talk to Penelo.
The pirate found Basch’s reaction quite puzzling. The man greeted him with a hearty handshake and a solid slap on the back, then curiously raised a hand in greeting to the area above his right eyebrow before heading off with Fran and the others to the loft. Suspicion eeled its way out of the dark corner of his mind where he hid his fears, paranoid musings, evil thoughts, and memories he‘d like to forget.
Everyone has a little corner like this, where they shut away embarrassing memories and wicked thoughts. Most of the space is taken up by humiliating childhood memories and social blunders, but a small portion is set aside for all those evil and paranoid thoughts. They sit in their heavy iron box with the combination lock and whisper things like, ‘You know Jenny Shenny is the one stealing the post-it notes from my desk drawer’, ‘Those darn Rozarians are the reason the economy is going down hill’, ‘It’s all the monarchy’s fault. They’re covering it up.’, and ‘If Reggie Kooms touches my desk with those greasy hands of his one more time, I’m going to….’
One of memories that slithered out of the darkness just so happened to be the time he came back to the Strahl staggering drunk after a night out with a few ladies. He vaguely recalled stumbling into Fran when he tripped over his own feet, and the viera plunging his head into a bucket of water several times, old school Baptism style. When that hadn’t worked, she’d given him a ringing slap to the head, thrown him on the floor, and stomped a heel down dangerously close to a very tender area. Then, in a voice like an avenging angel, she had demanded that he stopped being drunk…immediately. Funny thing was it had worked better and faster than any Remedy thus far. There’s nothing like the pointed threat of a spiky stomping in the goolies to sober a man up. From that point on, Balthier had never downed enough booze to come anywhere near inebriation.
Balthier shuddered and mentally prodded the horrible memory back into its corner with a toe. The slimy worm of Suspicion wriggled its way through his mind, leaving little steaming droppings of Doubt. His friends were hiding Something, he knew it. He had that misgiving that they were laughing at him. Don’t be absurd! He reassured himself. They are probably just really delighted to see you again, and are at a momentary loss for how to express themselves.
It sounded perfectly plausible. Women were often rendered speechless by his wit and charm, and men were often left feeling intimidated by his loads of style. Some people had it, some didn’t. Balthier knew he had most of it.
He eyed them all warily as he took a seat at the table. He raked his gaze around the table, which spawned a mild coughing epidemic. The flamboyant pirate focused on Larsa, who returned his gaze steadily for a few moments, then made conversation with Penelo. The companions spent the next few hours reminiscing about old times, but always there was an air of suppressed…something, when ever they looked at Balthier. He was also disturbed by the way, every so often, someone had an urgent need to go help in the kitchens. Balthier had a bad feeling.
“Alright. What’s going on.” Balthier demanded sternly,
“I know you are all up to something. Out with it.” He was met with awkward silence and a lot of uncomfortable shifting.
“Come on, don’t mess me about.” the pirate prodded.
“Is it my injury? You find it amusing? This inquiry spawned several coughs that sounded suspiciously like snickers.
“Well, I’m glad you find my misfortune so entertaining.”
The man was sullenly quiet for a few moments, then hesitantly asked, in voice full of conceited worry,
“Is it really bad as all that?” No one seemed willing to answer, so Fran kindly stepped in and said,
“It’s not that bad. It looks quite…friendly. It doesn‘t attract a lot of attention.”
Balthier’s eyes narrowed,
“Friendly? Really? And just what could you possible mean by that I wonder?”
Without any hesitation, his partner in crime replied,
“It definitely will not frighten small children or young women.” If the man had been a bird, his feathers would have slowly settled back into place as his fears were laid to rest. He didn’t even wonder about Vaan, who had a sudden coughing fit and had to be led away to the kitchens by Ashe and Penelo. Over the din of clashing pots and pans, only Fran was able to hear the guffaws of laughter.
Basch felt rather proud of his young charge as everyone took a turn going down to the kitchens for a good hard laugh. He was managing to talk to Balthier with a straight face and completely ignore the large purpling knot with the goofy, smiling face scrawled on it. Basch didn’t know how Larsa could look at it without a giggle. It probably had to do with good breeding.
Good Breeding was the standard explanation for all kinds of royal behaviors. For centuries farmers were breeding their animals for size, improved health, milk and meat production, temperament, and in some cases coat color (which explains Belted Galloways). It wasn’t just limited to livestock either. Their dogs were bred for loyalty, endurance, and hunting ability, and their crops for higher yield, pest resistance, heartiness, and drought tolerance (which is always a good idea if your village tends to insult the gods a lot).
So, while farmers were genetically modifying their livestock and crops for genetic superiority, the noble born were busy breeding for more important things. What could be more important than health, endurance, and good bone structure? Good manners for one, charm, the ability to endure long ceremonies, banquets, and events while smiling and being gracious to people you can’t stand, and of course, how to dismiss a person with the languid wave of the hand and bestow the maximum amount of insult to their honor. Over centuries of inbreeding, Good Breeding gave rise to several amazing traits, excluding good health and common sense when it came to things like riding in the front of a charge and hiring dodgy advisors. Yes, Good Breeding in the modern royal could be credited with the ability to eat a grey paste made out of the back end of a rat on a small piece of toast, while raving that it’s the most marvelous thing you’ve ever tasted and the ability to say that ‘Princess Spintzi Stickinbottom is absolutely the most lovely creature you have ever set eyes on‘ without gagging. Yep, that’s all Good Breeding.
A while later Vaan and Penelo volunteered to go down to the kitchens and bring out the food. Actually Vaan had been ‘involunteered’ (lit. volunteered against your will) by Baltheir. It happens to everyone sooner or later. One day you come home and your parents say,
“Guess what? Old Gurdy Plurddy across the street needs someone to clean out her fifteen cat boxes while she’s away so, we told her that you would be more than willing to do it. She’s leaving today and will be back in two weeks.” Yeah, you just got ‘involunteered‘.
Vaan staggered under the weight of the platters and ran through the events that led him here….
…Penelo rose with a polite ‘excuse me’ and announced that she was going to bring out their meal. Balthier also rose from his seat, and with a courtly bow said,
“As a gentleman it won’t do to let such a lovely lady do all the work herself, so let me offer my assistance.” He turned to Vaan, who was slouching comfortably in his seat and telling Basch about his recent pirate adventures, complete with sound effects and gestures.
“Vaan, stop sitting on you spine and assist this lovely young lady here. A true gentleman never lets a lady carry anything heavy“.
Vaan snorted in derision and drawled impudently,
“Well, since you’re up and the leading man, why don’t you do it?”
“Why on earth would I do that?” Balthier retorted with a chuckle,
“As the leading man, it’s my job to entertain our guests. As my apprentice, it’s your job to do everything else. It teaches you courtesy and good manners, both of which you lack by the way, along with tact and gratitude.” As the posh pirate continued his long winded lecture, Vaan stared transfixed by the smiling lump on his head. Every time the man moved his head it wobbled slightly, as if nodding in agreement.
“What?” the sky pirate demanded, when he realized that the boy wasn’t listening to his words of wisdom. His frown deepened when he followed the trajectory of the boy’s gaze.
“Fine, fine. I have a bump on my head, so what? Let’s all have a jolly good laugh and stop looking at me like I’ve-” Balthier began hotly, only to be interrupted by Basch, who interjected,
“Grown a second head?” the knight supplied innocently. He didn’t even flinch when Ashe kicked him under the table.
“Exactly!” Balthier replied, glad someone knew how he felt. There was a sudden outbreak of snickers and giggles.
“Come on, now,” the pirate snapped, with a disgusted toss of his head,
“What could you possibly find so amusing about a little bump?” Sudden dread descended on the young man like four horsemen bringing an apocalypse as he looked around the table. Vaan had is back to him and was nearly bent double with the effort of restraining laughter. Penelo had both hands rammed over her mouth, while Ashe had her head in her hands with both shoulders shaking. Larsa was trying to hide a pumpkin grin behind one high born fist and Basch had suddenly found the intricate workmanship of the carved patterns in the rafters very interesting. Fran was simply watching him with an amused smile.
One thought dominated Balthier’s mind as he cast desperately around the loft. Mirror! Mirror! Must find a mirror! There was an almost imperceptible shift among his companions. Everyone was positioning themselves to make sure the table was between them and Balthier as the man strode up to a polished bronze shield. Around that time Vaan decided that it may just be good idea to help Penelo after all and the two made their escape.
Balthier braced himself for something horrible as he approached the shield. As his head became visible in the reflective surface, it revealed something much worse than any carnival horror house could achieve. He found himself staring at his own visage, which looked rather good, or would have if there hadn’t been what looked like a huge othros trying to spawn from his forehead. It had a silly, smiling face on it. Fran’s reflection appeared behind him and she said in a cheerful tone,
“See, it’s not bad at all. It seems very happy to see you.”