[identity profile] first-seventhe.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] brokenprism
Healthy Competition (1)
or, Dear Draklor Mercenaries, Thank You For The Headache, Signed Quistis Trepe

Characters/Pairings: Quistis/Irvine, Balthier
Rating: PG-13

Summary: A competing mercenary team gives SeeD a run for their money while investigating mysterious ruins beneath Esthar's Presidential Palace. Irvine's amused. Quistis is not.

Notes: This stands alone, of course, but Balthier begs for a sequel in which he can be even more... well, Balthier. Plus my brain begs for a scene in which they can all make out. Thoughts?

For: [livejournal.com profile] astrangerenters, as promised so long ago. I am embarrassed and sorry that it took this long, and hope that you still enjoy it after so many weeks. >.>

- - -

"Wait," Quistis said, slowly and carefully, because her brain was still a little unsure it had processed the situation at all correctly. "The Presidential Palace has collapsed?"

Squall nodded. He folded his hands on the desk in front of him. He looked completely unconcerned.

"I infer from your distinct lack of reaction that everyone we know and care about is alright," Quistis continued, a little panicked, although she wasn't entirely sure whether Squall would mourn or celebrate Laguna's painful and probably overly dramatic demise.

Squall nodded, again, and nonchalantly slid a piece of paper over to Quistis. "You and Irvine are going to go over and investigate what they've found underneath the Palace."

Quistis glanced at the paper, tilting it slightly so that Irvine could read over her shoulder. Her sharp gaze stopped at line two. "Squall, why are you the designated mission contractor?"

"What," Irvine added, "isn't this an official mission?"

Squall's face twitched for a second before regaining its calm, blank expression. "They're finding interesting things in the tunnels beneath the Palace. We need to protect Garden's interests."

Quistis quirked an eyebrow that said bullshit.

"Awww," Irvine crooned, "Squall, I didn't know you cared so much about your daddy."

Squall folded his hands on the desk in front of him. "Be careful and make sure you confiscate anything that seems even remotely interesting, dangerous, or valuable," he said. "Garden comes first."

He looked completely unconcerned. Quistis knew better.

- - -

"It appears the Presidential Palace was built atop a series of tunnels," the guide said, and Quistis tried to pay attention – she really did; but she and Irvine had awful jet-lag and why was it never night in Esthar and she wanted a nice healthy snack and a very long nap, not a lecture about the Palace's history. Any other day she might have found it fascinating.

"The President's Office," the guide said, and bowed.

Laguna looked surprised to see them; then again, Quistis recalled, Laguna looked surprised at everything: visits, puppies, bad news, a lack of tape. "Hi, guys," he said. "What the heck are you doing here?"

"Um, Squall sent us," Irvine replied before Quistis could even open her mouth. "Sweet office."

"Squall sent us to investigate the mishap in the Palace," Quistis corrected. "Hello, Laguna."

Laguna continued to look surprised. "Squall sent you to what in the what now?"

"We're here to help," Quistis tried. "Squall sent us to lend a hand in the exploration of whatever you've found beneath the Palace. If you need help with repairs, we can send for another team, as well."

Laguna bit his lip, which was not a good sign.

"What," Quistis said, and it wasn't a question.

"Look," Laguna said, coming to lean against the front of his desk. "I tried to get them to hire SeeD, I really did, but Squall wouldn't give me any kind of family discount, and – so there are monsters all over the place still, right? It's not hard to find people willing to sell their services to the highest bidder, although in this case, they were the low bid, ha ha, because Garden was so expensive, and we didn't have to sign any contracts regarding Draw Point use or whatever they tried to make me sign away last time. I. Uh. I couldn't get the SeeD contract past the Council, you know, they don't really like the whole Squall-Me thing anyway, they prefer to stay away from Garden. So." He shrugged. "Uh, sorry."

Quistis blinked.

"You found another group of people who want to climb around in a collapsed building?" Irvine asked, seeming relatively unfazed by the entire thing. "Who the heck did you hire?"

"They called themselves the—" Laguna turned and rustled through some of the papers on his desk. "The Draklor Mercenary Outfit. I dunno." He shrugged again. "We've seen a lot of this in the past couple months, but these guys looked really good – references and everything. I'm sorry, but the Council made the decision, not me." He grinned, the sudden motion lighting up his face. "They've found some really cool stuff down there, though!"

"I'm sure it won't be a problem," Quistis said rather automatically, her mind whirling with the implications. "Although – we might have a few details to work out."

- - -

"We can't just go down there," Irvine hissed, "it's gotta be against like fourteen different rules or something, and I—"

"Only three laws," Quistis replied, calm and serene as she strode through the Palace, her whip coiled at her belt.

"—don't want to go to Estharian Presidential jail, I'm not sure they have cable—"

"And I know concrete legal loopholes getting us out of approximately two and a half of those three," Quistis added primly, cutting off Irvine's rambling. "We can bank on our fame to dismiss the rest." She ducked beneath a long strand of crime-scene tape. "Come on."

Irvine whistled. "Never thought I'd see the day Quistis Trepe was encouraging me to break the rules." He ducked beneath the tape as well, adjusting his hat as it was caught.

"Squall is our employer right now." Quistis kept her voice firm, although she wasn't sure who she was trying to convince: Irvine or herself. "At first, I thought you were right – that Squall wanted us on-scene to make sure Laguna and Ellone were okay." She glanced down a hallway as they passed, but continued on when it was empty. "But then I read the rest of the report, and I think I know what Squall really meant. 'Protecting Garden's interests', indeed. The plot thickens."

"What do you think?"

Quistis bit her lip, and glanced around, although this part of the Palace had been abandoned after the cave-in. "A couple suspicious artifacts appeared on the black market last week. Squall managed to confiscate them in Garden's name, but... he doesn't think it's a coincidence." She paused, and then sighed. "Neither do I."

"You think too much about weird stuff, Quisty." Irvine shot her a look, sidelong. "Squall's not going to be happy if we just step all over Esthar's toes, you know."

Quistis threw him a glance. "I never thought I'd see the day Irvine Kinneas was trying to talk me out of an adventure."

"Well." Irvine's mouth quirked up, and he winked. "Adventure sure looks good on you, Quisty, but I'd rather get in 'trouble' with you and your whip than with the Garden Faculty -- or the Esthar police."

Quistis slowed as they approached a giant crater in the middle of the floor, surrounded by a veritable wall of crime scene tape spider-webbed everywhere in a style only Laguna would take credit for. "Wow," she said, unable to truly articulate. The floor just… caved in, downward, into a great gaping chasm, shadows deepening into inscrutable black at depth. The hall continued almost unperturbed about a room's-length away, across the gap in the floor.

"You want to go in there?" Irvine ducked under some of the rope and peered over the edge. "Really? You want to go down there? You, Quistis Trepe, want to go down there, Big Black Hole of Doom."

"I just want to investigate," Quistis said, climbing around the barrier herself. "So that we can report back to Squall."

Irvine frowned, but said nothing. His eyes remained on the chasm before them, and she couldn't read his face.

Quistis reached out, resting her fingers on his arm for a moment longer than necessary, until Irvine turned to look at her, his eyes narrowed in concern: her Irvine, not SeeD-Irvine. "Mad Matthiesen's Clause," she said softly. "Squall's invoking it. You know it as well as I do."

"Rogue GFs," Irvine muttered, and he looked away, down into the shadows of the crater. Quistis waited. She wouldn't be able to do this by herself, and Irvine had every right to turn away -- just as she had every responsibility to obey Squall's unwritten, between-the-line orders. But she hoped... she squeezed his arm gently for a brief second, and then let go.

Irvine sighed. "We'd better be back for dinner," was all he said.

- - -

"Shit," Irvine said as the Fire spell he'd been carrying flickered out. "Your turn."

Quistis sighed as the darkness closed in, her eyes blinking almost automatically; she stopped where she was, and concentrated, raising her hand. Eventually Bahamut sighed in her mind, and her fingers flickered with the first pale tongues of the spell. Quistis fed it, slowly, until her gloved hand was wreathed in enough fire for them both to see the path. "One more Fire down," she said with a weary sigh, and moved forward to take the lead.

"It lasts longer when you cast." Irvine sounded grumpy – not that she could blame him; they'd been down here for a while.

"Higher compatibility," she replied, primly. "I told you to take Cerberus."

"I told you not to go into the giant gaping hole," Irvine said, "and look what happened."

"Point taken," Quistis murmured. "Because I was obviously supposed to know that would happen."

Irvine's sigh was very put-upon. "All I wanted was to be home for dinner. What do I get? A cave-in, a headache, and a lecture on GF choice."

Quistis sighed, and bit back the retort on the tip of her tongue. The rockslide hadn't been her fault, certainly, but it had been her idea to climb down into the cavern, which made their current situation her responsibility. She couldn't have known, but she still felt awful - and Irvine's continued grumblings were only making her feel worse.

"Tell me again," Irvine said finally, after the silence had started to grate her nerves, "what the heck is Mad Matthiesen's Clause?"

Quistis swallowed. The flames from her hand sparked glittering threads in the dark cavern walls, confusing her dark-dazzled eyes. "Marce Matthiesen was an archaeologist who died after prolonged exposure to a rogue GF in Centra," she said softly; the tunnels seemed to swallow up her words. "Just about a year ago. But before she died, the GF drove her mad, and she killed her entire camp. Twenty-five people. Some of them were SeeD cadets."

"I know the story." Irvine's voice sounded grim, and Quistis glanced over her shoulder, relieved at the sight of his pale-lit face behind her - no matter how unhappy he currently looked. "The Clause, I mean. The reason you think we need to be down in this hellhole."

"The Clause is only for Rank A-Plus SeeD." Quistis felt the flames on her fingers start to flicker out; she paused, extending a hand behind her to stop Irvine, and concentrated on summoning forth another fire spell. "After the Centran incident, the Garden Triage got together and discussed whether or not SeeD had a responsibility to protect the world from Guardian Forces - as Garden probably knows the most about using GF, and SeeD is trained to do so. They decided - well. That was the Matthiesen Accords." The fire spell sparked from her fingertips, and she caught sight of another glittering vein, tracing its way down into darkness.

"They decided a lot of things, but the Clause is an unwritten rule that goes into any contract where the leading SeeD is Rank A-Plus. If there's any chance of locating a rogue Guardian Force - one not Junctioned to anything, the kind that do real damage - the team leader has a responsibility to investigate and, if possible, to secure the GF for either Garden use or quarantine, in addition to whatever objectives the original mission contains."

"You're A-Plus?"

Quistis nodded, then realized Irvine couldn't see her in the darkness, and cleared her throat. "I was the first," she said briskly. "Squall made the rank right after everything happened."


She paused and turned again, finding the familiar sight of Irvine's face a relief in the cold darkness of the tunnels. He looked at her, long and even; not quite frowning, but not smiling either.

"I'm not," Irvine said.

Quistis sighed. "I know."

- - -

They'd stopped to rest, and the silence was grating enough on Quistis' nerves that she finally sighed, let the firecast on her hand sputter out - hiding her humiliation in the darkness - and swallowed. "Irvine, I'm sorry."

The darkness almost made it worse; she had no way to check the expression on his face, whether he was amused or upset. "I think you know me well enough to know that this wasn't my intention," she continued, trying for humor. "Had I known there would be a cave-in, I would have packed snacks."

Irvine chuckled. "Quisty, babe, I'm not mad. At you, anyway. Yeah, I'm peeved that we're stuck down this giant chasm of death and we haven't even gotten to make out in the caves yet, but like... what am I supposed to do about it?"

Quistis bit her lip, and ventured, "You just seem a little bothered by the Clause thing."

An exhalation, in the black. "It ain't necessarily the Clause," he said, slow drawl telling Quistis he was choosing his words carefully. "So I don't like SeeD being police, but I can at least understand where it's coming from, you know? It's just more... I'm still gettin' used to doing missions with you like this. You take SeeD real seriously, and it takes a bit of adjusting."

"Of course I take SeeD seriously," Quistis said, stung. "I'm the first Rank A-Plus, I have a million things I have to be aware of in addition to the mission, or I could lose my post - or worse, get Squall in trouble, or get Garden in trouble for something I did or didn't do."

"Woah." She heard shifting in the darkness, and then Irvine's hand bumped against her arm; he settled in next to her, tucking his arm around her in a movement both casual and familiar. His warmth was welcome; her eyes were adjusting to the point where she could almost make out his face. "Did I say you shouldn't take it seriously? This is exactly what I mean, Quisty - you worry yourself to pieces about things I don't even know about. I'm just SeeD, not Super-SeeD. It's just, like, a little bit weird, you know? I'm still tryin' to catch up."

Quistis sighed, and let herself sag a bit against Irvine's solid warmth. They'd discussed, when they'd started this - whatever it was, this tenuous thing she'd already become too reliant on - how they would deal with their jobs: with missions, with each other, and whether one would affect the other. It had been Squall making them a team which had led to this in the first place; she'd seen it happen in the field, plenty of times, and was still downright wary. Irvine seemed amused by it all. But it had led to these growing pains between them, times they had to shift slightly around each other in order to fit, adjusting themselves to the other.

Sometimes she wondered whether all relationships were this way - although granted, most people their age didn't have to factor in their mercenary upbringing when dating.

Quistis sighed again, and turned towards Irvine in the darkness, a smile finding her mouth despite her worries; she leaned in, letting her senses locate Irvine's ear, and murmured, "What was that you said about making out in caves?"

- - -

Quistis jerked awake as Irvine's hand clasped around her ankle; he held on with steady, serious - but not painful - force, and she was already whispering, "What?" even as she struggled to push her sleep-heavy limbs into a seated position.

"Don't know," Irvine whispered back; the pressure of his grip vanished, and she heard the shifting and clicking sounds she recognized as his gun, the preparation so instinctive to Irvine she knew the lack of light wasn't a hindrance at all. "Doesn't sound good, though."

Quistis clambered up into a crouch, roughly massaging wakefulness into her screaming thighs, letting the awkward position help shift her body into alertness. She could hear it now, the faint scrabbling noise of something approaching - there was an odd rhythmic thud that could be footsteps, almost human-sounding, something running, in the midst of a more chaotic shuffling-scramble. She wondered whether it was really as loud and terrifying as it sounded, or if her senses were overcompensating for the lack of light; her muscles were awake now, alert and tensed with awareness and muted panic.

"Do you want light?" she hissed; Irvine's guns had sight-scopes on them, but it wouldn't do too much good until the thing was almost on top of them. Light might reveal their presence -- but any monster used to the environment of these caves already knew they were here by scent and sound alone.

She felt Irvine's hand, fumbling on her arm in the darkness until he found her shoulder; he squeezed it, once, and the intimate gesture made her feel suddenly and irrationally better. "Your call," he whispered back, and she felt him tense as a loud clap ricocheted through the tunnels, followed by a high, piercing screech. "But I don't think it's a bad idea," he added, somewhat hastily, dropping his hand. Quistis heard the reassuring click of his gun, but she was already standing, tired muscles screaming at the movement.

She took in a sharp breath, hissing through her teeth; she'd used up a lot of her concentration yesterday, casting the fire spells for light, and her brain felt like thick mud as she sorted through her spells. She only had maybe a dozen Auras, but it was the best idea; they needed not only the light but the bitter edge their Limit Breaks would give them, and Quistis was too exhausted to execute the fine control individual fire spells needed while also in battle. The sound was getting louder; closer.

She exhaled, and brought her arms up quick as she did it, and the gold-gleam light of her cast was so bright it pierced her eyes as it settled around Irvine: crouching, she saw now, a sniper's pose, Exeter resting calmly on his shoulder as he waited, his eye already through its scope. The sight filled her with welcome relief, even though she'd never doubted Irvine's reliability; the gold-glow of Aura settled around him, the bright outline throwing the jagged rocks around them into sharply-angled designs and making him look like a grim angel of death.

Quistis admired him for only a moment before she jerked her hands again, sharp; this cast was less blinding, her light-starved eyes already eagerly adjusting to the glow, and she felt more than saw the rush of the spell as it knit into her veins and bones, opening temptingly that sector of her brain linked to her Blue Magic. Mentally she rested a light touch on it, both to calm it and ready it. She braced herself, standing behind Irvine, ready to cast: the two of them gleaming gold-light in the darkness like vengeance.

The noise was almost upon them, and Quistis could see a faint light creeping around the edges of the opening at the end of their tunnel; the glow brightened - a cool, almost artificial silver light compared to their spell-bright gold - and then a form appeared, throwing itself through the doorway at high speed. Quistis brought her hands up in a jerk to cast, Blue Magic flaring eagerly under her fingertips -- and then she realized it was a man.

The newcomer's eyes landed on them for a fraction of a second. "Convenient," he said, his voice low and amused, even as he turned and braced himself to fire something at the opening of the cave. "A deus ex machina exactly when I need one." Another shot echoed, and something dark and writhing in the shadows by the opening shrieked; Quistis realized the man was carrying a gun of some sort.

"Get back," Irvine said, easily, and Quistis didn't even see what reached through the door this time before the familiar-loud clap of Exeter shook her ears; another loud shriek of pain, and she turned to the stranger and snapped, "What is it?"

He shrugged; his garb looked unfamiliar and intricate, but he carried himself with the easy poise of a soldier used to battle. "Cave vermin of some sort. It got the drop on me."

"Let it come through," Quistis told Irvine, and she tapped into Aura, the shimmering gold filling her senses as she felt the inhuman surge of her Blue Magic answer; she opened her eyes with a snap as the monster-sense of her spells warned her. The thing crawling through the caverns towards them was dark, misshapen, with tentacles scooting its grisly body across the ground; lost in the tug of Aura and the feel of Blue, Quistis only registered the sense of enemy. She opened her mouth and growled, and felt the painful heart-tug of a cast even as Degenerator tore itself from her, the air howling as a blackness darker than the caves wrapped itself around the creature and pulled its fibres out of existence with a soft and eerie pop.

She slid back into herself slowly, to find Irvine grinning up at her. "No fun at all, Quisty."

"The situation called for extreme force," she replied cooly, because she wasn't at all sure who this strange man was, and she was still SeeD, buzzing with the aftermath of paramagic and battle.

The stranger was already shouldering his gun and moving onward down the passage. "There will be more," he said, and she marked his accent as strange; she couldn't quite place it. "Are you coming, or shall I go on without you?"

- - -

"Alright," Quistis said, when she thought she could no longer bear the silence and uncertainty. She stopped, planting her feet in the hallway and letting her hand drop to idle beside her whip. "We've come far enough. It's perfectly safe, and we could use a rest."

The strange man turned to her, an amused light in his eyes. He carried his gun on his shoulder; where Irvine's rifles were rustic and solid, this man's weapon was intricate and almost whimsically archaic. His outfit was just as intricate. It wasn't any uniform she recognized, although he carried himself with experience - maybe not military training, Quistis mused, but the basics of it, and raw experience from the field besides.

"Time for questions already?" His mouth quirked. "I wouldn't want to ruin our fine camaraderie."

"Who are you?" The question was blunt, but Quistis was tired - and ached besides, from the filigree-fine precision casting she'd been doing to light their way. The man bore some strange light around him; it seemed to be some passive kind of spell, filtering light in his immediate vicinity. She and Irvine had been forced to firecast to follow him, after their Auras had sputtered out in the darkness.

He took a few steps forward and bowed to her, delicately taking the hand not wreathed in fire and bringing it to his lips. "My name is Balthier," he said, with a charming smile. "And I hope you appreciate my assistance as much as I appreciate yours."

Behind her, Irvine snorted, the noise so faint she wouldn't have registered it were she not used to it - nay, waiting for it. Quistis sighed in exasperation. "I'm Quistis, and this is Irvine. And I'm not sure I'm disposed to be too grateful for being woken from my rest as you dragged an enemy directly into our camp."

Balthier raised one eyebrow carefully. "Yes, well, that wasn't exactly intentional, was it? It isn't as if I knew you were there. I'm talking about the fact that I've led you away from the nest you were so misinformed as to sleep in. We'll call it even."

Quistis stared in astonishment for one moment too long, because Irvine shrugged and said, "Well, thanks then, I guess."

"What are you doing down here?" she asked, bristling with indignation.

Balthier lowered his strange gun from his shoulder and idly began rubbing a small kerchief along one smooth polished piece. "I would assume the same thing you are," he said, his voice light and non-committal. "Draklor Mercenaries, at your service."

"The Draklor Mercenaries are one guy?" Irvine asked. Quistis saw him shift in the corner of her vision, leaning up against a wall of the cave, casual and unconcerned.

"Of course not," Balthier said, although his mouth quirked at it. "We're efficient enough that we can work in teams of one."

"And what are you here to do?" Quistis smiled blandly at his inquisitive look. "Maybe we can work together. We're both working towards the same thing, aren't we?"

"That," Balthier said with more smirk than smile, "I very highly doubt, my dear."

He stuffed the kerchief back into his pocket and lifted the gun onto his shoulder again. "Unfortunately, I believe this is the part of the story where I must leave you. I can't afford to rest, see, and you have me outnumbered. Thanks ever so much for your assistance, though." He nodded at Irvine and gave Quistis a twinkling wink. "Best of luck."

And then he was gone, the darkness of the caves seeping back into Quistis' flickering firecast as the odd light he carried vanished with him.

"Damn," Quistis said. The other mercenaries would beat them to -- whatever this cave was hiding, at this rate.

Irvine sighed. "We're going to follow him, aren't we."

- - -

"It's a little hard to follow a guy who makes his own light in a really dark cave," Irvine pointed out.

"I hadn't noticed." Quistis snorted. The fire spell flickered on her fingertips for a moment, and Quistis imagined that even Bahamut was laughing at their predicament: darkness, a myriad maze of caves, and the few creatures they'd encountered had only Ice spells available to Draw. She was truly starting to worry; their Junctions would keep them healthy and hale for a while without rations, but they wouldn't last forever. Besides, a handful of Holy attached to her health might sustain her, but it was nothing like a hamburger. Her stomach twisted at the thought, and Quistis swallowed, almost guiltily.

Starting on Balthier's trail too soon would've been too obvious, so they'd waited and rested a bit at the cave junction where he'd left them. It had proved quite difficult to find any trail to speak of once they'd started firecasting and looking; Balthier appeared to be a professional, and their light was too dim to find any but the more obvious marks of passage. There were some: she and Irvine were professionals, too, and they spotted upturned moss and shifted stones enough to believe they were making their way along something like the right path.

"Think there's only one of them?" Irvine's voice was oddly flat in the darkness, her brain expecting an echo. "Draklor, I mean. If they're a team of mercs, why is he running away from a cave dweller all by himself?"

"Maybe he's the dumb one," Quistis remarked, rather nastily. "Maybe he screwed up and they left him behind."

Irvine chuckled. "Quisty, you know better than that. We wouldn't leave Seifer behind if he was on our team -- no matter how much we wanted to."

"It could just be reconaissance," she mused, "if they've got a larger team somewhere else. But how are they finding each other?"

"And more importantly, how can we tap into it?" Irvine stretched, and sighed. "I'd give like half my gun for a hot dog."

"Look," Quistis said, which was funny, because the moment she said it her firecast spluttered and died at her fingertips. "Shit."

"I've got it," Irvine said calmly, and there was a sharp bright flicker as the spell settled in his hand.

"Look," she repeated, her voice quiet. There were very obvious marks of a disturbance: slashes in the floor that could easily be footprints, and the residue of something splattered along a wall that might have been a potion. "Somebody was here."

"So like, what's the plan?" Irvine let his hand fall, a little; the light from the flames licked sparkles from the dark veins in the floor of the cavern. "Find them, ask for directions and bail? Find them and steal their stuff? Do we have a plan?"

"We have authority to collect GFs from them unless they're licensed," Quistis said, slowly. "Because of the Matthiesen Accords. I don't really look forward to starting a fight with another mercenary unit if they resist, though." She sighed; she was tired, and filthy, and wanted a warm shower and a nap, with Irvine curled around her rather than watching her back. "We're just going to have to play it by ear. I hate that, but we don't have the upper hand here."

Irvine paused for a second, as if debating his response, and Quistis watched as the I-told-you-so flickered across his face like the light from his firecast. Instead he smiled at her, tired and wry, and said simply, "I'll follow your lead."

- - -

The tunnel opened up into a broad cavern, the darkness of the corners swallowing the light of their firecasting almost immediately, leaving faintly-shifting shadows as they moved. "Stay alert," Quistis said, her voice low. "This could be--"

Something growled in the darkness. The response was immediate; Quistis felt Irvine's back up against hers, straight and solid and ready, and with a mental stretch she brightened her own firecast as much as she could without burning her hand as Irvine dropped his completely to draw Exeter. There was another low growl, and Qusitis bit back the sigh as she brought her arms up sharply, casting one of their few remaining Auras on Irvine. She closed her eyes against the sudden flash and felt Irvine's body behind her flare up with the heat of the spell; when she opened her eyes again, a glittering and inhuman pair of eyes was staring back at her.

"Here!" she snapped, the words catching awkwardly in her throat as she braced herself. It was a dragon: crouched low over its front paws like a cat waiting to attack, it growled again and shifted a little, blue-black scales reflecting the golden light of Irvine's Aura. Quistis felt Irvine turn, and then he was suddenly at her left side, Exeter easily aimed at the creature's skull.

It lunged. Quistis dove away, immediately, and she heard the familiar-loud bark of Exeter even as she spun; Irvine was backing away, to get a better shot, and the dragon's glance was flicking between the two of them. Quistis shouted something and cast a Blizzaga at it - finally, a use for all the Ice they'd been Drawing - hoping to draw its attention from Irvine long enough for him to aim. The dragon turned and hissed at her, and then Irvine let loose a long string of Scattershot, lit with Aura-gold in the darkness, the sound a relentless clap echoing in the cavern.

It only angered the dragon -- and summoned its mate, apparently, as a second shadowy form emerged from the darkness, growling.

Quistis froze for a moment, her eyes now flicking between the two as her mind whirled; she didn't need Scan to tell her these cave-creatures were fierce, and intelligent, and fast: easily a match for her and Irvine together if things went badly. Even now, Irvine struck again - the gunshots jerking Quistis out of her observational trance, her hands coming up automatically to shape the sigil for Blizzaga again. They'd both focused on the same dragon - the first - and as Blizzaga caught it, one of Irvine's bullets shattered bone, the dragon wailing as its foreleg collapsed beneath its weight.

The second creature came back to circle around, hissing at Irvine as it ducked its head and spat fire -- and Quistis cried aloud as the full brunt of its breath caught Irvine directly, the golden light of his Aura enveloped entirely by white-hot flame, so bright it made Quistis' eyes water, because she couldn't stop staring. Her heart felt like it was being wrenched out of her chest, and as the flames died down she saw Irvine, Aura-glowing and charred, crumble to his hands and knees, coughing and spitting up ash and blood.

Her entire chest clenched in fear and fury and worry. She lunged forward, her hand already extending, Curaga sparkling on her fingertips - and then something painfully loud roared past her head, so close she could feel the wind of its passing. The dragon jerked and howled in surprise, and a hand clamped around her other arm.

"Don't go running in there," Balthier said, voice low. "That's a close-range attack only. You're more help to him from back here than you are in there, unless you two want to be a very romantic barbecue."

He let go of her arm to level his gun and fire another sharp shot. "If we distract them, can he heal himself?"

"Yes," Quistis said, instinct taking over, and she fell back to Balthier's side, her hands coming up sharply; the warm feel of Double settled over her, and she waited patiently for it to knit itself into her nerves. Balthier fired again; he was no sniper, but an uncanny shot for a lone mercenary. They'd gained the full attention of both dragons, and as Quistis fired off twin Blizzagas in paired succession, the creatures began to close in on them, teeth bared.

She threw Irvine one glance and saw him digging through a pocket - good; potions wouldn't attract as much attention. Balthier shot again, and Quistis followed it with another doublecast, and one dragon crumpled to its knees, obviously weakened. "Excellent," Balthier quipped, voice still low, and she saw him reload. "Let's get this over with, shall we?"

"Gladly," Quistis hissed, and she tapped into Flare this time, the paired magics flashing blindingly off of the walls of the cavern in the darkness, and as the second creature stumbled Balthier leveled his rifle and shot something that glowed with fierce radiance, taking the dragon in the throat. It fell to its side, and the first creature came to stand over it, hissing.

"Well, then," Balthier said in a strange kind of finality, and he bowed his head and pressed his fist into his chest.

Quistis watched in shock as he - vanished, flickering in and out of existence, and even as her brain told her dumbly, he's Junctioned, she couldn't do anything but watch as light coalesced before them both, outlining the shape of a great golem, a creature of stone and rock who howled and stamped and obscured the entire room in a flood of dust and stone. By the time Balthier had returned to her side, head still bowed, the dragons were nothing but ash.

For a few moments there was silence and stillness, the odd light Balthier wore gently and dimly illuminating the cavern.

- - -

"You're right," Balthier said, his voice even as he cleaned his gun; they were currently using his light-aura (something he'd called Libra and then pointedly not explained) to help clean out a particularly bad burn on Irvine's upper arm. "This is the center of one of the caves. There's an exit, up that way. The paths that slope upwards will take you."

"What were those things?" Irvine asked. His face was drawn tight as Quistis liberally dabbed potion along his arm.

"Not entirely sure," Balthier said, with a shrug.

Quistis made a noncommittal noise. "We'll have to find their lair, then. If you assist us, Balthier, we'll be sure you get your share."

He gave her a neutral smile. "There's no need."

Quistis looked up, her eyes sharp. "And why is that?"

The smile twisted, smug. "Well, I'll just say this: you can investigate all you like, but you probably won't find much of anything."

Quistis dropped Irvine's arm (wincing as he grunted in protest and pain). "You have no right to anything down here," she said, scrambling to her feet in righteous anger.

"I'm not sure you have any more right than I," Balthier replied, looking unconcerned. "Especially when I just turned their own goods against them to save your sweetheart." From the ground, Irvine snorted.

"I'm not sure you're properly equipped to Junction that GF." Quistis made her voice cold, internally fuming; how had he been one step in front of them the entire way? "Unless you're the first licensed mercenary team I've never heard of."

"Would you like a souvenir?" Balthier stood up, casually, and reached into one of his pockets. He tossed her something - a small trinket, some kind of hairpin which tingled in her hand, telling her it was a sort of magical accessory. "This is all yours. As for the rest, however, I'm going to claim finders-keepers, my dear."

"You can't--" Quistis began, and then stopped, because he could, unless she decided to stop him with force. Which she had to. Matthiesen's Clause. She didn't exactly relish Drawing it right from his mind, but she could do it, and neatly; she'd done it before.

"You don't want SeeD after you," she said instead.

Balthier's smiled quirked into a charming grin. "I welcome the challenge," he murmured. "In fact, the next time I see you, assuming you can find me, I promise to give you another piece of the treasure, absolutely free. A fitting reward for seeing your lovely face again, I'd think."

For a moment, there was nothing but silence. "And on that note," Balthier said; he gave her a quick but very theatrical bow, and then was suddenly gone, nothing but the faint acrid smell of some unfamiliar magic remaining.

Quistis swore into the darkness.

- - -

"That's so strange," Laguna said, shuffling through his papers. "I swear he showed me credentials! I'm not a total idiot."

Kiros threw Quistis a mournful, apologetic look. "Laguna, whatever he gave you was a fake. We've done the research. Draklor Mercenaries is a non-existent outfit."

"Not entirely true," Irvine pointed out, an amused smile teasing his mouth. "It's an outfit of one."

"It's a completely illegitimate organization," Quistis spat. "Not to mention they certainly don't have the license to carry GF."

Irvine leaned back in his chair and took another bite of his (third) sandwich. "The guy saved our butts, though. Doesn't he deserve a little bit of a reward?"

"Not an illegal one!" Quistis huffed. "Besides, he might have helped, but I wouldn't say he saved the day, at any rate. We hadn't lost it yet. His help, while appreciated, was absolutely unnecessary."

Irvine rolled his eyes, but tempered it with a smile. "You're just mad cause he got the loot before we did."

"Of course I'm upset." Quistis sat down and, rather irritably, made herself another sandwich. "The only thing worse than a rogue GF is a rogue who knows how to use GF."

"I don't know." Kiros shook his head as he sat down at the table. "Using the GF contains it, right? While I'd obviously rather Garden had it in custody, if I had to choose between someone familiar with the correct usage and an innocent Estharian, you can guess which one I'd pick."

Quistis fumed, but as Balthier was just an insufferable man didn't sound like a helpful comment, she ate her sandwich instead.

"We'll find him," she said instead. "I owe him a... thank-you card."

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