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A Snag in the Plan

Fandom: Final Fantasy XII
Title: A Snag in the Plan
Author/Artist: iceprincessd
Theme(s): #14 craven; democracy; aristocrat
Pairing/Characters: Balthier/Ashe, Vaan, Penelo
Rating: PG
Disclaimer/claimer: Balthier and Ashe do not belong to me. Property of Square Enix.
Summary: “But I feel so fancy!”


“For the last time Vaan, you are not going along,” Balthier stated firmly, splaying his hand on the map of the Imperial palace for emphasis.

“I was using that,” Fran said dryly, going over her notes.

“Why not? I’ll fit in; it’s a costume party after all.”

“A costume party for wealthy aristocrats. You’ll stick out like a sore thumb.”

Vaan frowned, scratching the side of his nose. “But I feel so fancy.” As if it would win his argument, he had already put on his disguise. It was meant for someone a few inches taller; the lace cuffs hung at his fingers and the elegant brocade vest sagged on him.

“Again, no. And get out of my costume before you wrinkle it.”

Vaan goose stepped to another room on his ship. “So who’s going to be your backup? Fran already said she was watching the outside guards and Penelo’s guarding the ship.”

Penelo sat up straighter. “Hey, how come I have to stay on the ship? You didn’t even tell me I was until now!”

Vaan came back wearing his usual clothes. “Aw, come on, Pen. You’ll blow our cover if you go in there.”

Balthier and Fran shared a glance. “Was I ever that bad at that age?”

“No. You just had a bad habit of not planning things out thoroughly.”

He grinned. “That takes the fun out of things.” Before Penelo reached out to clock Vaan, Balthier intercepted. “He does have a point, Penny. Larsa is going to be there. He can spot you out in a crowd; your cover will be blown before you even get close to your intended target.”

“I always get left on the ship though.”

He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “It wouldn’t hurt to get some experience with surveillance. Fran, could you use another set of eyes?”

“It would be helpful, especially if things go bad.”

“Then it’s settled. I’ll be the primary infiltrator, Penelo and Fran will be our eyes and ears, and Vaan will helm things here at headquarters.” He left to change, shaking his head when he heard Vaan complain.

“That’s just a nice way of telling me to guard the ship.”

***

Elegant music played from the orchestra sitting in a raised area of the ballroom. With the vast amount of people attending, it was easy for Balthier to slip through the notice of the guards. He snagged a fluted glass full of a sparkling wine and concentrated on finding his target. Earlier that week, he and Vaan had canvassed the shops in Archades to see what the person they were looking for was going to wear. The man, also known as the Count Cyryil de Popinjais, was supposed to be decked out in phoenix feathers.

“Very expensive,” the shopkeeper had said with a greedy light in his eye Balthier hadn’t liked. “Could I interest you in the same?” Both pirates had declined.

Balthier wound his way through the crowds, eyeing the front dais. At seventeen, Larsa had gone through several growth spurts and filled out from the lanky twelve-year-old he had been. His adolescent crush on Penelo had followed him into adulthood, prompting him to employ both Vaan and Penelo as privateers for the Empire. He was no fool; he knew the skies were where Penelo belonged. If he could bring her closer to him by giving her a ship and having her report to him every so often, then so be it. As one that frequently did freelance work for Dalmasca, Balthier understood Larsa’s thinking. All that the emperor needed was for Penelo to open her eyes and see how he felt about her.

As usual, Judge Gabranth stood silent to Larsa’s right, his armor a sharp contrast to the bright multicolored costumes dancing around the room. Balthier went deeper into the crowd. Larsa might be able to spot Penelo at a hundred paces in a crowded room, but Basch had the uncanny knack of knowing when Balthier stepped foot on Archadian soil. He’d rather avoid a confrontation that might make him miss his target.

“Guards on the second balcony,” Fran said, her voice quiet in his ear. The blue and green feathered mask easily hid the earpiece he wore. “There should be two; they’ll be changing their shifts in five minutes.”

“Any activity on the second floor besides them?” he asked, taking a sip of his drink to disguise his lips moving. The wine was good; fruity with hints of herbs and berries that grew in the local vineyards. Larsa spared no expense, it seemed.

“No,” Penelo answered. “It’s all clear. He should be on the first floor.”

A hand at his arms made him turn. Purple and red feathers stared back at him, looking brilliant against the backdrop her wheat blonde hair made.

“What are you doing here?”

He relaxed, his shoulders loosening. “Would you believe it if I said I was invited?”

“No.”

He shook his head. “Are you going to rat me out then, Princess?”

“You know I won’t.”

He looked her costume over. “Red suits you. Why haven’t you worn it more often?”

“Perhaps I’ll make it a habit. It’s been six weeks, Balthier.”

He gave her his best charming smile. As usual, it didn’t work on her. “I told you to write,” Fran said while Penelo giggled. “You’re so busted,” the younger girl laughed.

“Noted,” he replied tightly. To Ashe, he said, “Save me a dance and I’ll be more than happy to tell you what I’ve been up to.” He led her to the dance floor with a hand under her elbow. They stood a respectable distance away from the other and he tried to concentrate on the fact that he was supposed to be a nobleman dancing with a queen for the first time than a man that was more intimate with her. The subtle perfume she wore and the soft texture of her skin under his hands were making that difficult to do though.

“See, Vaan and Penelo decided a week ago to do one of their friends a favor and hunt down a merchant that’s supposedly ripping everyone off. He’s charging five times the amount that he should and keeping the profits to himself. They need information on him to bring him to the attention of the authorities.”

“And he’s here?”

“Which is exactly why I am here. I’m going to pick his pockets to get his address and then go search his home. He’ll be here for hours, giving me the perfect chance to find anything.”

She frowned. “If he’s an important merchant, then wouldn’t it have been easier to just search the shipping records for his address?”

He shrugged, turning her into a complicated dance step. “Yes, but then I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to crash a fancy party, now would I?”

Her mask hid most of her exasperated expression. “If this is Vaan and Penelo’s heist, then why aren’t they here?”

“Yeah! She would have let me in!” Balthier winced at Vaan’s exclamation.

“They asked for our help, so we’re giving it.”

Her fingers tightened in his hand. “And who are you looking for?”

“Oh, some Count. Poppington or something.”

“Popinjais?”

“That’s it.” He twirled her, bringing her back flush to his front. At the moment, he really didn’t give a damn who he was supposed to be looking for. She was right; six months had been entirely too long of a time to be away.

“Ugh. He’s a pompous ass. And to your left, several dancers over.”

Balthier looked over to see a balding, short man with a paunch trying to dance. “He looks awful.”

“Horrible waste of phoenix downs,” Ashe commented. “Very tacky.”

“Quite.” He danced her closer, his fingers brushing against the bared swath of skin at her waist. It was a move that would have landed anyone else in prison if he hadn’t made it look like an accident. He smiled at her sharp intake of breath and watched as her eyes darkened. The number ended soon after. Balthier bowed low over her hand, his lips hovering yet not touching her knuckles. “Thank you for the dance, your Majesty,” he said, every inch the wealthy gentleman.

“The pleasure was mine,” she replied. “Perhaps we will dance again tonight?”

“I’m sorry to have to decline the offer. I have an errand to run.” It was obvious that Popinjais was drunk. Getting what he needed would be simple. “Though perhaps later?

“Not too late. I may retire soon. Larsa has been kind to supply me with a room on the third floor of the palace.” She smiled. “Such a nice room, the one at the end of the hall on the right.”

He inclined his head. “If I ever get an invitation, I may visit it some day.”

“Perhaps.” She gave him what he liked to call her Royal Dismissal nod and walked away.

He sighed, noting her step was light with a hint of a sway at her hips that was almost inappropriate, but not quite. He turned back to the business at hand, determined to get it completed as quickly as possible.

Many hours later, Balthier slid under the silk sheets, his hand skimming over the nightgown Ashe wore.

“You’re late,” she sleepily declared.

“Popinjais is a slob. It took forever to collect evidence, even with Vaan’s help.” He kissed her bared shoulder, spooning closer behind her.

“Did you find what you needed?”

“That and more. The man is a greedy, pathetic waste of space.”

She turned in his arms, throwing a leg over his. “Well, I’m glad you helped save the day. Now,” her tone grew businesslike. “Care to explain your prolonged absence? You said that Penelo and Vaan asked for your help a week ago. That doesn’t explain the other five weeks.”

He scraped his teeth over her throat, making her gasp. “If I promise to write next time, can I leave out all the questionably legal details?”

“How about you make up for being gone instead?” She sighed when he found the sensitive spot behind her ear. “And if you can successfully distract me from asking about the questionably legal details, I’ll ignore them.”

He grinned, teeth bright in the dark. Turning so he was braced above her, he lowered his head. “You have yourself a deal.”

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