|chibirisuchan (chibirisuchan) wrote in no_true_pair,|
@ 2008-06-01 11:37:00
|Entry tags:||! 2008 twelve characters challenge, author: chibirisuchan, crossover: ff7/ff12, pairing: balthier/zack|
FF7/FF12: Fledgling - the beginning of Zack and Balthier's passionate love affair
Fandom: FF7 and FF12
Pairing/characters: Zack and Balthier
Warnings: None really
Prompt/challenge you're answering: "The beginning of Balthier and Zack's passionate love affair."
When he stumbled into the little hole in a wall of a bar on the northeastern coast, Zack was too damned tired of running. He knew he shouldn't have dragged them indoors when it started to sleet, but it was late enough at night that he hoped he could pass Cloud off for staggering drunk, because the boy already had a cold, and keeping him outdoors in weather like that was a hell of a way to turn it into pneumonia.
So he propped him in a chair with carefully-pitched chuckles about lightweights not holding their beer, and rubbed Cloud's hands between his to try to warm his chilled skin, and rumpled his hair to shake free some of the cold rain, and carried a couple of beers back from the bar, because of course he had to order two. Because a scrawny blonde boy too drunk to try to walk was so common as to be completely unremarkable, but a scrawny blonde boy too drunk to try to drink was a different matter entirely.
He didn't let himself freeze when the man who'd followed him back from the bar sat down at their table without so much as a by-your-leave. It would be a lot harder to keep up the charade in front of someone watching them both -- but then with any luck, maybe he could flirt his way into a bedroom for them both, a bedroom with warm, dry blankets. Zack looped an arm about Cloud's shoulders both to share body-heat and to signal to their inquisitive-eyed visitor: yes, we're a package deal; yes, I won't ditch him to follow you home. Yes, I'm open about this kind of thing.
And it wouldn't be a great hardship to flirt with this one, either; he was young, not visibly diseased, attractive even. Even if he was far too attentive to the little sounds Cloud made, and the not-quite steady but not-irregular-enough rhythm in the way his head kept nodding forward.
They commiserated about the lousy weather, and the joys of the road despite it, and Zack was glad he'd thought to divert him onto the topic of customizing motorcycles, because for the first time the young man actually lit up rather than simply showing attentive charm. Funny -- with all that white linen and the frills of lace, not to mention the glass of cognac, Zack sure wouldn't have taken him for a gearhead at first glance. But he wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth.
It turned out that not only was he an enthusiastic gearhead, he had some wicked-sounding ideas on top of it. Zack wished he still had the beater they'd had to ditch when it ran out of gas eighty miles ago, because he'd have loved to set this guy loose on the intake manifold and see what wizardry he could produce.
The guy cocked his head at him, and lull in the conversation dragged just a moment longer than it should have as Zack cast about desperately for some way not to say aloud I know this is where I invite you to come check out my wheels and we go on from there, but I don't have my own wheels anymore, since I've been feeding you a line most of the evening.
The faint lines at the corners of his eyes crinkled just a bit, and their visitor said, "At the risk of sounding over-forward, why don't I invite you to come and coo over my bird instead?"
He should have said something about the awesomeness of having one's own wings -- and, yeah, under the circumstances, what he wouldn't have done to get his hands on a plane or a chopper was... pretty damn slim. And this guy had to know it, had to have figured out that they were a little too desperate, that making an offer like that... wasn't likely to be refused, but wasn't exactly safe either, not when Zack had to get Cloud to Midgar and there was a whole damn ocean in the way and Shinra kept too close an eye on the ports.
Except what actually came out of his mouth was "Both of us?"
"Of course," the man said, and the look he turned on Cloud was frankly sympathetic.
"Why?" Zack asked, and the only excuse he could make for that was running on the tail-end of exhaustion combined with a beer and a half that he really shouldn't have drunk but couldn't just ignore the mugs standing there while they were being watched, and if they got out of this alive and undiscovered he was ready to swear on a crate of holy relics that he'd never stop in a bar again, and--
"Let's just say I feel a certain kinship for men of the road. All sorts of highwaymen, really," he added, with a wicked quirk to the grin. He offered Zack his hand, and said, "Balthier mid Bunansa, rather literally at your service."
"Zack," Zack said, though he did shake Balthier's offered hand.
That crooked grin of his deepened a bit. "Just Zack?"
"Just Zack," he agreed.
"Come, now. I refuse to believe that your friend is ever-so-conveniently named Zack as well."
"Oh." Feeling a little stupid, Zack glanced over and smoothed his fingers through Cloud's dripping golden spikes. "This is Cloud," he said.
Balthier nodded to Cloud, sober and earnest, even though he'd apparently realized there was no point in offering Cloud his hand. He finished his cognac and shifted his chair back an inch or so: "Shall we?"
Giddy between exhaustion and adrenaline and the tangle of hope and worry he didn't even begin to know how to resolve, Zack said, "Oh, what the hell."
Forty minutes later, as Balthier turned the truck off the back-country excuse for a road and straight into unmarked pastureland, he said it again: "Uh, dude. What the hell?"
"You're not very patient, are you?" the man chuckled. "I would have thought a career in Soldier would teach a man all about how to hurry up and wait, Lieutenant Fair."
Zack slammed both hands into the dashboard so hard he left palm-printed craters in the plastic. "What? You -- how long have you-- oh, fuck--" Caught in some weird combination of panic and dismay, he added plaintively, "Damn it, I really didn't want to have to kill you."
"Easy there," Balthier said, and he hadn't even bothered to look sideways at them, all his attention focused easily on the dips and rises of the uneven pastureland. "You're not very good at espionage either, are you? Well, that's all right; I'm sure I can scheme well enough for all three of us."
Zack took a deep breath and counted to ten, and then tried it again when it didn't work the first time. And then he said, "Why don't we start over and you tell me exactly what the hell you're planning to do with us?"
"Make that terrible at espionage," Balthier chuckled, and shifted the truck down in order to take the slight hill rising out of the green. "You walk into a bar on the backside of nowhere with eyes like those, and not even a pretense at glasses to shade them, and you introduce yourself by the name of the First Class who was said to have gone MIA at the General's side five years ago? Yes, I can see why you were a Soldier rather than a Turk. Deception doesn't come the least bit naturally to you, does it?" he asked, unexpectedly kindly.
Zack dug a hand through his hair, and muttered, "You're really not encouraging me not to kill you. Want to try a little harder?"
"You're not paying attention, Lieutenant," Balthier -- if that even was his name -- replied. "We already share a common purpose."
"Spell it out for me," Zack said. "You really don't want a twitchy Soldier in your truck, let alone your plane. If you have one, that is, and you didn't just want to drag us off for the reward."
"If I had the slightest interest in drawing Shinra's attention to myself, do you think we'd be all the way out here?" Balthier asked. "And if you had the slightest interest in drawing Shinra's attention, you could have walked into any outpost, looked the receptionist in the eyes, and introduced yourselves. There are hundreds of easier ways for a Soldier to travel than this. So, clearly, you want to avoid them just as much as I do. And yet you're traveling toward Midgar, which says that you have a goal in mind besides simple flight. I can take you to the eastern continent, to a place a day's easy travel outside the city."
"And in exchange?" Zack asked, wary.
"Introductions, that's all," Balthier said. "I have a lovely bird who needs feeding, and no desire to hand her over to Shinra's crazed scientists and technicians in order to keep her well-fed. If you're running toward Midgar despite it all, then you know someone in the resistance whose draw for you outweighs the peril of the city. Let me meet him. That's all I ask."
Zack couldn't help laughing. "You're not actually a mind-reader, then. Good. I'm not sure I could have stood it if you were right about everything."
Balthier's brows crooked together faintly. "Her, then? I'd heard that the new leader of the resistance was a man, but..."
"We're going to Midgar for Cloud," Zack said, tightening his arm about the limp figure nodding against his shoulder and chest. "I know a girl there who's amazing with... life. With healing things. I hope she can fix him. I don't know a damn thing about the 'new leader of the resistance,' though. Sorry," he added, because it was the truth. "So are you going to dump us out here?"
"Don't be absurd," Balthier said. "After all, I haven't introduced you to my pretty bright-winged pet, have I?"
Zack blinked. "But we can't get you fuel. I haven't got the faintest clue who from Avalanche survived the Turks' crackdown, or where to start looking for them."
Balthier glanced sideways at that, and the corner of his mouth lifted. "Better," he judged. "You lasted a whole thirty seconds before you told me about your Avalanche connections. In your case I'm certain that took effort; well done."
"Former Avalanche connections," Zack said, a little desperate. "And most of the ones I heard of, I heard of because Shinra was busy executing 'em. Look, man, I'd love to trade you fuel for a flight to the other continent. I don't know what else I can do for him, and I'm running out of places to run. But I'm not going to let you think you can wring something out of me that I haven't got--"
"Zack," Balthier said, and his voice was brimming over with laughter that he barely kept in check. "A lesson for next time, all right? Next time, you tell the sky pirate offering you transport to another continent that yes, you know the leader of the resistance, and yes, you're sure he'll be glad to see you, and yes, fuel won't be a problem at all. Because by the time the sky pirate learns otherwise, you'll be on the other continent -- the one you needed to visit, remember? And you'll still be a Soldier who could break his neck like a matchstick if he objects to the impending breakdown in the exchange of favors. Do you see the pattern here?"
In a voice that sounded more plaintive than he wanted to admit, even to his own ears, Zack said, "Why the hell are you telling me this? --Even more, why are you telling me this?"
"As I said," Balthier replied with an idle flick of the hand, "I have a soft spot for men of the road."
Zack thought that over for a long minute.
"And the fact that you're telling me that right now, before we're on your ship -- that means it's probably a lie, doesn't it?"
Five seconds later, Balthier had actually stopped the truck, because he was laughing too hard to steer.
"Ah, gods," he managed, scrubbing laugh-tears from his cheeks. "I suppose I deserved that, didn't I? Sharply spotted, my bright-eyed fledgling, for all that that's not the lesson I'd intended you to take!" Still shaking with mirth, he scrubbed his arm across his face, then shifted the truck back into gear and eased it over the crest of the hill.
Whatever reply Zack had meant to make to that flew out the window along with most of the breath in his lungs, when he saw the sleek-shining steel beauty that kept Balthier so happy to boast.
"Holy Mother of God," he breathed. "What is that?"
"That's my Strahl," Balthier said, and under the circumstances, Zack thought the self-satisfied smugness in his voice was pretty well called for. "You can see why I don't want the Shinra getting their avarice-filthy hands on her."
"Yeah," Zack murmured, still awe-struck. "Damn, I think I'm in love. She's yours? She's beautiful."
"You certainly have a homing instinct for the path to a man's heart, don't you, Lieutenant Fair."
There was something odd in his voice there; Zack tore his gaze away from that magnificent creation in order to take a curious look at her pilot. "Huh?"
"Ah, never mind." Balthier waved one bright-ringed hand, but there was still something rueful in his eyes. "The old adage about candy from children and whatnot. This, by the way, is the point where you promise me fuel and terrorists in exchange for the ride."
"But I already told you," Zack started, and then Balthier's hand was over his mouth and he was trembling with barely-suppressed laughter again.
"This is a skill known in the vernacular as 'scheming', Zack. It's akin to target practice, only with subtler weapons. Now. Lesson one. Promise me."
After a moment's agonized struggle -- he couldn't help looking down at Cloud, who was nodding against his heart in that eternal half-dream -- Zack looked up at Balthier and shook his head.
"I can't," he said, stroking his fingers through Cloud's hair. "Not even for this. I can't make a promise I can't keep. All I have left of Angeal is his sword and his honor, you see. And I wouldn't give you his sword either."
Balthier sighed, rubbing a hand down his face. "You're going to be the death of me, boy," he murmured. "At the very least, the death of my reputation. I hope you appreciate that. --Come on, then."
Zack lifted his head sharply. "What? But -- you said -- but I can't--"
"We'll work something out later," Balthier assured him, swinging their packs out of the truck's bed and over his shoulders. "Go on, get moving. It's bloody freezing out here."
"But you said--"
Balthier turned on his heel, and flashed him a wide, wicked grin in the moonlight. "'I said?' And weren't you the squawking fledgling so bewildered over whether to believe anything I said? Come along already!"
He ducked under the curve of the Strahl's hull, and a moment's touch had the system's hydraulics hissing as the ramp lowered for them.
Zack picked Cloud up carefully, and dashed through the sleet to follow Balthier up the ramp.
Whoever had designed the airship was either a lunatic or a genius, or perhaps both; it didn't look like there were any wings, which meant no steering, but somehow Balthier had gotten it here and landed it precisely enough to hide behind the crest of that hill, so there had to be something he was missing, but in the meantime there was the cockpit, and yeah, physics could go hang itself, he wanted to get his hands on those controls. Once Cloud was safely strapped in to one of the seats, Zack nabbed the copilot's position for himself, and it was really, really hard not to reach out and stroke the control panel. Altimeter, pitch, yaw -- clearly this beauty steered somehow, even without wings, and--
And then Balthier triggered something, hands moving lightly over the controls like a musician coaxing free the first notes of a symphony, and when Zack looked over his shoulder at the rumble-and-roar, all of a sudden there were wings. And some unholy blue fire and a lot of quivering -- like a thoroughbred just waiting to run, really, and --
Zack let out a whoop of glee when Balthier's crazy beautiful machine picked itself up and then soared.
"What is she?" he asked over the keen of the engines. "I've never seen anything like her!"
Balthier rolled his eyes, though he couldn't hide the tug of a grin at praise for his pride and joy. "Do you really think I'm going to answer that question from a wanted man running straight back into Shinra's territory? Here," he added, and moved Zack's hand to the copilot's yoke, which as distractions went was pretty damn effective. "Enjoy yourself."
At Balthier's nod, he whooped again and leaned her into a long smooth bank toward the east.
He lasted most of an hour before sheer exhaustion caught up with him; on the ground it had to be three or four in the morning, of course, but still, he wished he could have flown all night. In hindsight it wasn't really surprising that a machine this sophisticated had an autopilot system that alerted him when he tried anything too ludicrous with loops and dives and the like. It was a little disappointing to realize that this beautiful thing could fly herself without any human assistance, though of course it would make long travels a lot easier on her pilot.
Balthier helped him carry Cloud back to the bunks, and they strapped him in again, and then Balthier sat on the next bunk over without the slightest hesitation.
Zack finally, finally stopped and thought. And then he felt like kicking himself for being so damn slow on the uptake. His only excuse was that it was three a.m. and he was well beyond worn out.
"You picked up a couple total strangers in a bar," he said, "knowing -- well -- more than I'd have figured on somebody knowing at a glance, but then that's me. But you picked up a couple total strangers with Soldier eyes, in a bar, and now we're on your plane in the middle of nowhere. And you know I can't get you fuel, or terrorists, or even much money; I can't access the central banking system or they'll know where we are, and... well."
Balthier said nothing; he simply looked at them, head tilted sideways a bit, rueful and charming and not denying anything.
"Well," Zack said again, and took a nervous breath and blew all the air out in a sigh that shuddered more than he liked. "Okay. I mean, we know you've outplanned me eight ways from Sunday already. And you even let me fly her. I owe you for that too."
He bent forward and reached for the lacings of Balthier's leather pants -- this guy and Seph would've loved to talk tailors, he thought in a moment's irreverent nostalgia.
Only before he could get anything unfastened, Balthier had him by the wrists, and he was laughing.
"Ah, fledgling," he said, still holding Zack's wrists, but lightly, as though he knew exactly what would happen if a man with Soldier-strength took offense. "Haven't you studied your script at all? I'm the knight in shining armor. The hero with the swift-footed steed who rides to the rescue of beauties in distress."
"Uh," Zack said. "What?"
That dimple at the corner of his grin deepened. "Chivalry declares that heroes do not expect their rescued beauties to deflower themselves. It's elementary fairytale protocol."
"No, seriously, what?" Zack said.
Balthier rubbed at his temples gingerly for a moment. "In blunt terms, then. I don't expect you to whore yourself to me as payment. Regardless of the state of my own honor, I do recognize that yours has value."
"But then I really haven't got a clue what I can pay you with," Zack mumbled, chewing at his bottom lip. "I mean, around the barracks it generally goes 'cash, cigarettes, sex, drugs, or weapons,' and sex is the only one that doesn't need stuff I haven't got to spare."
"We'll think of something," Balthier assured him. And then that grin that meant duck for cover showed up again, and he added with an airy flick of the hand, "I trust you to be yourself -- your revoltingly straightforward and honorable self. Which means that I also trust you'll charge into Midgar with the subtlety and self-restraint of a hundred-pound retriever puppy in a china shop. Believe me, you'll earn your keep with the sheer distraction value you present."
Zack thought that one over for a minute. "So you want to use Cloud and me as a decoy, and you want sex for free on top of it? Can't I just whore myself and call us even?"
It was oddly gratifying to see those blue eyes widen in surprise; he hadn't realized the smug bastard could be surprised by anything. He even stammered. Wow, Zack thought, patting himself on the back a little.
"It's not -- I don't -- I mean, you shouldn't -- um." Laughing a little, he scrubbed a hand over his face and tried again. "I am not fool enough to deny that you are a very attractive young man. But the benefit I'm likely to receive from your approach to life, not to mention your approach to Midgar, is something that will continue to exist regardless of your intentions. You'll pay me with your decoy life whether or not you pay me with your body first. And... if you were to grant me the pleasure of more intimate companionship, I would hope that it would be a free and willing exchange. I am not one with a taste for sexual coercion of any sort."
"It sounds like you're talking your way around not charging me anything," Zack said.
Balthier gave a small, expressive shrug. "Color it as you will."
"You really ought to make up your mind whether you're playing the hero or the rogue, you know."
"In a world where that fat, braying old ass plays king and high priest and archvillain all in one, I find the distinctions blur themselves more than is convenient for pigeonholing," Balthier admitted, and then stretched both arms over his head. "Sleep where you will; I claim a bottom bunk, because it's faster to the cockpit, but consider yourself at liberty."
Something pinged up in the front, and then chimed; Balthier padded his way forward, and Zack sat down on the edge of a bunk and thought.
For all Balthier's teasing, he had to admit he really wasn't good at scheming. And the man had taken his expectations, turned them upside down, and given them a good shaking often enough already that Zack just wasn't sure what -- if anything -- he could believe anymore.
"Costa Base to unidentified airship," a tinny voice said over the comm system, "you are approaching controlled transoceanic flightspace. Present your authorization code."
Balthier rattled off a string of letters and numbers and codewords as though he'd done so in his sleep a thousand times before; possibly he had. After a moment's silence, the automated voice pinged and spoke again: "Authorization granted, Colonel Aurelius Shinra. Have a pleasant flight."
Zack figured he could be forgiven for falling straight off the bunk.
"Holy shit," he said, and then clamped a hand over his mouth until Balthier toggled off the communication system. The minute the man turned around, though, Zack's mouth took over from his brain again: "No wonder you don't want the Shinra catching up with you! How many of their authorization codes have you got? And who the hell's Aurelius Shinra anyway? Does he know you've got his codes?"
"Go to sleep, Zack," Balthier said, amused.
"But -- uh --" And then his brain caught back up again. "Uh. Right, of course he doesn't, or they wouldn't still work. Heh. Sorry." He flopped back onto the bunk, and admitted, "I'm normally a little better than this. It's just... it's..."
"You're exhausted, confused, worried about your friend, and you've just hitched a ride with someone who can't decide whether he's a hero or a pirate?" Balthier supplied. "Truly, Zack. Go to sleep. It'll be better in the morning."
"Yeah." Squirming himself into a ball of blankets -- and they were just as warm and dry as he'd fantasized about, back at the tavern -- he yawned fit to crack his jaw. "G'night, Balthier."
"Good night, Zack."
"Is that actually your name?"
Balthier laughed. "Of course it is," he said. "It's a name to which I respond much more readily than the name I was born with. That makes it mine."
Zack thought that over. "Does it really work that way?"
"Yes," Balthier said, with complete confidence. The sound of his boots hitting the floor was followed a moment later by the rustle of blankets.
"Balthier? Can I get a name too?"
"I'm sure you've collected several."
"Yeah, but a name I can use. 'Puppy' just doesn't work on job applications and stuff."
Balthier gave him a mouthful of liquid syllables, and then added, "It means 'noisy little bird testing its wings.'"
"Good night, Zack," Balthier said, and the warmth in his voice sounded like he was smiling despite himself.
"Good night, captain."