Characters: Ashe, Balthier, Raminas, Doctor Cid. Brief appearances by Fran and Vayne.
Spoilers: Not really
Notes: Written for the second round of trope_bingo. Combines the tropes AU - Historical and Fake Relationship. Set in an AU of the colonial Caribbean (that probably owes more to PoTC than anything that actually happened in history). Thanks to renay for helping nurture the idea into a real plot bunny. I think this actually wants to be a 50,000 word epic romance, but I have no time for that right now. Maybe I'll come back to it someday, because I think it would be a blast.
Also on AO3
Rain had threatened over the skies of Dalmasca Island all day, but out the window of the stairwell, sun filtered through a break in the clouds. Ashe Bennington paused halfway down the stairs to push back the lace curtain and take a better look at the beams of sunlight dancing over the swell of waves. Rough water meant a storm was surely on the way, making this glimpse of sun all the more precious.
With a sigh, she let the curtain go. Her father was expecting her; best not to delay him further. She descended the rest of the staircase and nodded at the servants as she passed the hall, then knocked on the door of the study.
"Come in," her father called out, and Ashe entered the room. Her father -- Raminas Bennington, governor of Dalmasca -- rose from his seat, a warm smile beneath his graying beard. "Good morning, Ashelia."
"Good morning, Father," she replied, dipping into a light curtsey, then a deeper curtsey to his guest, another middle aged man with stubbled cheeks and round spectacles. "And good morning to you, sir."
"Lord Doctor Cidolfus Bunansa, advisor to the Western Fleet and Commodore Solidor, at your service," the man replied, sweeping into bow and holding out his hand. She accepted it, and his polite kiss to the back of her fingers. "You are truly a jewel, just as your father has told me."
Ashe's smile grew tighter, but she did not allow it to drop, even as she pulled her hand from Doctor Bunansa's grip and murmured a polite thank you. "What brings you to Rabanastre Port?"
"The fleet is docked here, for shore leave and repairs," the doctor replied. "As long as I was in the neighborhood, I came to meet with your father. We've known each other a long time, and had many topics to discuss."
"One of which regards you, my dear." Raminas walked around his desk and to her side. "You, and Lord Doctor Bunansa's third son."
Ashe took a deep breath through her nose and an involuntary step backward. "What?"
"My third son, Ffamran." She could see Bunansa' chest puffing up as he spoke the name. "Only 23, and already a decorated lieutenant on the HMS Shiva, under Captain Foras Zecht. But he could use a steady hand, a good woman to come home to."
"I-- see." Ashe turned on her father, the polite smile wearing thinner by the second. "Father..."
Raminas laid a hand on her arm, firm, calming. "Doctor, if you would give us a moment."
"Of course, Governor." Bunansa bowed to him, then to Ashe. "A pleasure. I hope to speak more with you at dinner." He left, and for a moment the only sound in the room was a rattle from the windows, shaken by the rising wind. Then Raminas let out a sigh as Ashe allowed her anger to show on her face. She shook off her father's grip and stepped away from him.
"Is this true?" Her hands rested on her hips, and she glared in his direction. "Are you selling me into marriage?"
"Of course not," Raminas said. "I would never coerce you to marry against your will. I only ask that you get to know the lad, determine whether he is a likely prospect. If not, I will send him and the good doctor on their way, no harm done. But you need to consider your choice carefully, Ashe. You cannot keep rejecting suitors forever."
Ashe lowered her eyes. "As you say, Father."
Raminas gathered her into an embrace, and she softened her stance to hug him back. "I only want the best for you, my dear."
"I know," she murmured into his coat. "But I will miss my freedom."
"Marriage will bring a different sort of freedom. You'll see." But though Ashe nodded along with the words, she couldn't quite make herself believe them.
After a few minutes of small talk, Ashe had left her father's study, begging a need for some air. She had waved off the servant who tried to give her a cloak with a headshake and a scowl. Now she stood at the edge of the dock, staring at the choppy sea, the wind riffling through her hair.
Her father was right, of course; she could not remain unmarried forever. But why the rush? She was not yet twenty. Surely there was plenty of time to wait for a better prospect than a political alliance with some hotshot sailor. And yet, here in the Caribbean, so far from civilization, how was she to meet likely candidates for marriage otherwise?
The crack of thunder roused her from the swamp of her thoughts. The storm; she had forgotten. She looked up at the sky, which had transformed from confused to threatening: streaks of lighting jumping among dark clouds, the sun completely vanished. A few drops of rain disturbed the dusty road, and looking around, Ashe could see that the streets were all but empty. "Never turn away the offer of a cloak," she grumbled to herself. The hairs on her arms stood up on end, and she hurried toward the nearest doorway. She needed shelter, and quickly.
Overhead, a wooden sign rocked wildly in the gale, hinges screaming. Ashe only had time to glance at the name -- "The Sandsea" -- before the skies opened; she jumped through the door to get out of the deluge, thunder shaking the wooden frame behind her. She swiped the water from her eyes, pushing the sodden hair off her forehead, and attempted to squeeze her skirts dry, but the effort was in vein. Sighing, she let them go, and only then did she realize her next mistake. Rather than a respectable establishment, she had stumbled into a saloon -- a pirate saloon from the looks of it, populated by rough men, armed to the teeth, their scraggly beards stained brown with tobacco juice, and every one staring straight at her. Never mind the cloak; she should have insisted on bringing a pistol or a sword.
Ashe backed toward the door, prepared to take her chances with the storm, but it was too late. She had been spotted, by one of the more hirsute and unwashed specimens, and he was making his way across the room to her. "Well, and what kind of morsel do we have here?" He leered at her, and she shrank away from his breath, foul with spoiled food and rum. Silently she cursed her unarmed state. Could she get the knife out of her boot without him noticing?
"My morsel, if you please." The drawl came from behind the man, and Ashe peered around his bulk. Another man -- younger, blonder, oddly dashing -- approached them, eyebrow raised. "So if you'd unhand her, I'd be much obliged." He caught her eye with a swift wink, then shouldered his way past the brute to catch her by the arm. This pirate, if pirate he was, seemed more of a dandy type, in a brocade vest and ruffled sleeves, and from the smell he had bathed much more recently.
"Yours?" The first man snorted. "Ain't you with the tall one over in the corner?"
"Fran is my business partner," the newcomer said, patiently. "Amalia is my betrothed."
Ashe almost jerked away in surprise, but thought better of it. If pretending to be with this man would save her from the depredations of the whole tavern, it was worth the trouble. "Yes, and where were you?" She turned on him with a scowl, only half-pretended. "I was caught out."
"Sorry, my sweet," said her rescuer. "Got wrapped up in negotiations. You know how it goes." He leaned down and planted a kiss on her lips -- firm, swift but possessive. "Now. Why don't we get you out of those wet things and closer to a fire?"
The first man laughed. "Always the smooth talker, Balthier. Well, all right. You win this time." He stepped aside just enough to allow Ashe to squeeze past him, using this Balthier, as a shield between them.
She leaned close to his ear as she walked. "My thanks," she murmured. "You can let go of my arm now."
"I'm afraid not," he replied, also sotto voce. "Don't want to arouse anyone's suspicions. Wait until we're off the floor. I have a room upstairs, with a balcony to aid in your escape."
Hand still clamped around her arm, Balthier steered her across the floor toward the fireplace and a tall woman with bronze skin and flowing white hair, her foot propped on the table, a bottle of rum in her hand. "Fran," he said, with a quick nod. "You remember dear Amalia." He caught her eyes; she lifted a brow, then nodded in acknowledgement. "Hold our table while I get her upstairs, before she catches her death."
"Of cold, yes." Fran looked her up and down. "Do you wish a drink? Something to warm the insides?" Without waiting for an answer, she poured some rum into a spare glass and held it out to Ashe.
With only a small hesitation, Ashe accept the glass, then sipped from it, the potent alcohol burning her throat on its way down. Six months ago, when they were new arrived from England, she would probably have spat it out, or at least coughed. But now she simply swallowed and let the warmth spread from her stomach to her fingers and toes. "Thank you."
Fran inclined her head into another nod, and then Balthier pulled her away again, toward the staircase. Ashe balked; to be seen going upstairs, alone, arm in arm with a man, in an establishment like this... He turned toward her and shook his head. "We're to be married, remember?" he muttered. "No one will think twice."
"Right." Internally, she squared her shoulders and let him walk her up the rickety stairway, down a hallway made of floorboards that creaked on every step, and then into the room. She looked around, eyebrow raised. "Surprisingly well appointed, for a lowly pirate," she said. She caught his light blue eye. "You are a pirate, I assume."
"Guilty as charged, my lady Ashelia," he replied, sweeping down into a bow. "My mate and I have worked out of this port for nearly a year."
So, he did know who she really was. "And why the false engagement?" she asked.
He tipped his head to the side. "Do you really want to know what would have happened to you down there, a woman alone, nobility alone, on that floor?" Ashe opened her mouth to protest, and he shook his head. "I doubt any of the others would recognize you by name or face. But you dress like a noble and carry yourself like an innocent, practiced in the theory of self-defense but not the reality, unaware of the social niceties of the underclass. And the moment they realized, you'd have found yourself a hostage."
She snorted. "Am I not a hostage now?"
"Not at all, my lady." He bowed again, half a smile tugging at his lips. "As I said you're free to go, though I might advise you wait for the storm to pass." He gestured toward the ramshackle window. "When you're ready, that leads to a balcony, and there are stairs into the alley."
She glanced at the rain, at the roaring fire, thought of the discussion with her father. "The worst of the lightning seems to have gone; I'll take my chances with the rain." She considered him one more time. "But tell me true: why bother with a rescue?"
His smile became a charming grin, and suddenly she wished for the feel of his fingers around her arm again, remembered the quick touch of his soft mouth. "Because now Ashelia Bennigan, daughter of Governor Raminas Bennigan, owes me a favor. You'll know when I've come to collect."
"All right." She went to the window and threw it open, then looked at him again. "Thank you, Balthier."
He came to her side, caught her fingers in his, touched them with a butterfly kiss. "Until we meet again."
She let him hold her hand just a smidge longer, then vaulted out into the storm, pausing only to liberate the dagger from her boot before hurrying down the rickety stairs. Best not to get caught unarmed again.
Ashe slipped in through the kitchen door and hastened up the back stairs to her chambers, teeth chattering the whole way. She shed her wet dress and underthings into a sodden pile. Then she sidled up to the fire, getting as close as she dared, letting its warmth penetrate her clammy skin. A quilt lay over the back of the couch, and she snatched it up to wrap around her shoulders before lying down, the warmth of the fire and the blanket combining to stop her shivers. She closed her eyes, and before she knew it, her maid was shaking her shoulder.
"Lady Ashe? My lady? Dinner will be served soon." Ashe sat up, shaking off the last remnants of her nap, and yawned as the maid helped her up. The girl's eyes widened when she realized Ashe was nude beneath the blankets, but instead of commenting, she went to the wardrobe and pulled out underclothes before selecting a dress.
Ashe shook her head at the gown, a confection of blue and white, silver ribbons on the bodice. "Surely that's too formal for dinner with my father?"
The maid turned, eyebrows lifted. "But m'lady, the Commodore is here, and his advisor Lord Bunansa, and a lieutenant from the fleet!"
"Oh." Ashe rose quickly, clutching the blanket around her chest. After the day's misadventure, she had forgotten the evening's ordeal. "All right. Could you help me with my hair?" She hadn't checked the glass, but she had gotten her hair thoroughly soaked, then slept on it; she could hardly be a pretty sight.
"Of course." The girl bobbed a quick curtsey, and held out the outfit. "Why don't you get started, and I'll fetch a comb?"
Half an hour later, Ashe was dressed, pressed, and descending the staircase to the main dining room. The maid had combed her hair and tied it up as best she could with a silver ribbon that matched the dress, adding drops to her ears and her mother's wedding ring as a pendant on a chain. She caught a glimpse of her father through the bannister railing, already seated at the table and engrossed in conversation, and she hurried her steps.
She rounded the curve of the stairway. "Father?"
Raminas turned his head, then stood to greet her, along with the other men at the table: Cidolfus Bunansa, the Commodore with his dark hair and polished buttons, and a stranger, in a dress uniform, sporting the same honey-blond hair as the doctor and a half-smirk she could swear she'd seen before. He could be none other but Ffamran, and Ashe frowned. Was it only the resemblance to his father that made him so familiar?
"Apologies for my tardiness." Ashe held out her hand to her father, who took it with a smile. She curtsied to Dr. Bunansa, then the Commodore. "Doctor Bunansa, my lord Solidor. So pleased to see you both again, and I apologize to you both as well."
The Commodore smiled and bowed. "Do not worry yourself, my lady. Yours was an entrance worth waiting for."
"Thank you, my lord." Ashe curtsied again, then walked around to the empty chair between her father and Bunansa's son, giving her father an expectant look.
Raminas gestured to the boy. "Ashe, may I introduce Lieutenant Ffamran Bunansa?"
She held out her hand, and Ffamran took it, his grin spreading -- and then she knew, and had to hold back a gasp. "Charmed to meet you, my lady," he said, and the revelation snapped firmly into place. Ffamran Bunansa? No, this was Balthier: dandy, pirate, rescuer of noblewomen in distress. How had she not known him immediately?
"Likewise, to be sure," she said, and he leaned forward to kiss her knuckles, the light press she already recognized, lingering just a touch longer than was proper, but she couldn't bring herself to care. What was this? What secrets were buried behind that proper gentleman's mask?
Balthier-- Ffamran-- how was she even to think of him? -- pulled out her chair, and she sat down, not taking her eyes off his face. His mouth quirked up just a touch more, and then he winked at her, swiftly, and she could not help but smile back. This man was a mystery, and at that moment she determined she would set herself to figuring him out. No matter what it took.
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