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Friend or Foe

Fandom: Final Fantasy XII
Title: Friend or Foe
Author/Artist: iceprincessd
Theme(s): #5 trickery; magic
Pairing/Characters: Balthier/Ashe
Rating: PG
Disclaimer/claimer: Balthier and Ashe do not belong to me. Property of Square Enix.
Summary: At least that would explain why she couldn’t remember anything.

Ashe had a pounding headache. She tried to open her eyes, but the harsh sunlight overhead merely added to her discomfort. Nausea clawed at the back of her throat and she couldn’t find the strength to roll over to her side. At least the grass she was lying on was cool and soft to the touch, though there was a rock digging into her shoulder that was starting to hurt. The last thing she could remember was being ambushed by four malboro overkings after coming around a corner of one of the ruins that dotted the Tchita Uplands. One of the malboros had belched out a foul stink and…

She snapped her eyes open and drew in a sharp breath. Fran and Balthier had been with her. She couldn’t remember much, since everything had happened so fast, but she did recall hearing Fran cry out and Balthier curse. Ashe was in the middle of attempting to sit up when she heard them talking. Relieved that they were fine, she closed her eyes again and prayed that one of them had a decent supply of potions.

“She’s been out for at least an hour,” Balthier said off in the background.

“It’s been twenty minutes, if even that long,” Fran’s calm voice answered. “Now stay still long enough for me to finish patching you up.” Ashe heard movement to her side and felt someone sit next to her. The warm notes of aftershave told her it was Balthier.

“You are too hard on yourself,” Fran continued. “It wasn’t as if you had any other choice.”

Fingers sifted through her hair, pushing it out of her face. “I should have bought some more smelling salts at the last vendor. I just took for granted having people around that could cast esuna.” His breath hissed out between his teeth. “Damn it, Fran! Did you have to tie that so tight?”

Fran gave a little harrumph. “It took your mind off your brooding, did it not?”

“I’m not brooding.”

“Of course you aren’t.” Fran’s voice was patient, as if she and Balthier had gone over variations of the same conversation several times since Ashe had been out of commission. “I’m sure that she would have done the same to you if your roles had been reversed.”

His fingers were back, this time gently tracing the curve of her cheek. She should have stopped him, should have opened her eyes and told him he was being completely improperly, but she didn’t. Because of years of people saying that this exact behavior was improper, people often kept their distance from her. As a consequence, she had become starved for touch, even if it just meant the casual brush of someone’s hand during a conversation. The backs of his fingers were warm against her skin. “I don’t want to think about that,” he said quietly.

“I’m going to scout around. Perhaps the others are close by.” Ashe felt rather than heard her leave; Fran always had been the stealthiest member of their group. She opened her eyes then, seeing that Balthier was still sitting next to her. He wasn’t looking in her direction, which gave her the opportunity to watch him. He looked upset: his lips were set in a thin line and the skin around his eyes was strained. His vest was missing and surprisingly, his shirt was hanging unbuttoned out of the waistband of his pants. It was so unlike Balthier to be less than impeccably dressed that the sight made Ashe blush. She took a deep breath and managed to roll to her elbow.

The movement made Balthier’s head whip towards her, his pained expression melting behind the usual indifferent mask he often wore. “Ah, you’re awake.” He shifted, moving so he could help her into a sitting position. “Water?” he asked, tipping their water skin to her lips.

“Thank you,” she said. “What happened?”

“You got hit by a bevy of ailments all at once.” Balthier dug around in his item bag, producing a potion that she gladly accepted. “You were blinded, poisoned, confused…”

Ashe sat up straighter. “Confused?” That would explain why she blacked out right after the malboro attack.

Balthier nodded. “Fran was hit with a silence spell so she couldn’t cure you right away.”

“Did I hurt either of you?”

Balthier didn’t say anything.

“I did, didn’t I?”

He finally shrugged. “Just a glancing blow, nothing serious.” His eyes shifted slightly to the side and his tone was far too blasé.

“You’re lying.” Dread welled up in the pit of her stomach. “What did I do?”

Balthier sighed, pulling the edge of his shirt open. Ashe gasped when she saw the bandage wrapped around his chest, the center portion stained red. “Like I said, it was hardly anything. It looks far worse than it is, really.” She could tell that he was still trying to downplay the injury.

“Glancing blows don’t cut through leather vests, Balthier.” She reached out and touched a thin red mark the bandages didn’t cover near his collarbone. His skin was hot, nearly scorching under her fingertips. “I’m so sorry.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” he told her gruffly. He gave her a quick grin. “At least now you can say that you’re the only woman to ever get so close to my heart.”

She groaned. “That’s not funny.” She reached back near the base of her skull, puzzled when dried blood flecked off on her fingers.

“I’m sorry.”

She frowned. “What for?”

He looked apologetic. “Well, with Fran busy taking out the malboros and you in no condition to heal yourself, I had to neutralize you somehow.” He winced. “I hit you with the butt of my gun. I didn’t realize how hard I had done so until you didn’t wake up after a few minutes.”

She grew very still when Balthier reached out and cupped the back of her head with one of his hands. The move brought him almost nose to nose with her. “Believe me, it was a last resort. If there had been anything else that I could have done…”

“I know,” she said. “At least it’s nothing a good cure spell can’t heal.”

He sat back and watched as the familiar greenish light enveloped her, causing her hair and clothes to flutter in an invisible breeze. He had expected her to cure herself first, but looked down to see that his chest was completely healed, the throbbing pain gone.

For a split second, Ashe saw a flicker of surprise along with some other emotion flit over his face, but it was gone before she could define what it had been. “Thank you, Princess.” Standing up, he held out his hand to help her to her feet.

“It’s the least I can do, what after almost hacking you to bits and all.” She tried to keep the tone light, but still couldn’t shake the guilt. She knew her own strength and knew how easily she could have killed him.

He scoffed. “Please. You were blinded; you got lucky.” As usual, Balthier knew the right thing to say. He proceeded to button up his shirt, hiding tanned skin away from her eyes. Surprisingly, she felt more than a little disappointed at the move. She followed him, shaking her head as he lamented the state of his shirt. She promised herself that she’d purchase him a replacement at the next shop they came across.

Right after they maxed out their supply of smelling salts, that is.

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