Beauty in the Breakdown
The Strahl's engine was humming steadily, making its way to Balfonheim. There they would take much-needed rest, and prepare themselves, not only physically, but also mentally and emotionally, for what lie ahead.
They must also honor the dead. The sky pirate Reddas -- nay, Judge Zecht. Dr. Cid -- Balthier's father. And Judge Gabranth -- Noah. Basch had gotten his body out of the Pharos before the explosion … but he knew not if he had survived.
How did one grieve for a man who was born your brother, but turned into your greatest enemy? Did one grieve for that at all? Or was there only relief?
The knock on the door of his cabin gave him respite from his musings, and he contemplated whether to answer. The knock had been light, gentle. It could only be one person. Did he want to see her now? He feared what might happen if he let her in … his emotions were in turmoil, and she didn't deserve to have to bear witness to that.
Though, he thought with wry amusement, she'd borne witness to all of his other moods, more so than any of the others. But they had always been out in the open, near where the rest of the party slept. If he let her into his cabin now … would he have to admit it, finally, to himself? He'd done a good job of denying it up until now … or so he told himself.
She knocked again, a bit more insistent this time. He could just stay silent, and if she questioned him later, he could tell her that he had fallen asleep. That seemed like as good a plan as any.
He didn't anticipate that she'd actually just turn the doorknob and let herself in. Damn it, why hadn't he remembered to lock the blasted door? She was a fraction of a second from letting herself completely in when he realized that he wasn't wearing a shirt, having cast off the one he'd worn in the Pharos in anger and grief when they'd returned to the Strahl.
His eyes widened and he would've given just about anything to go back and lock the damn door, when she appeared in the room. Her blonde hair was free of its usual plaits, instead it was tied in a simple ponytail that hung in pale waves halfway down her back. Her traveling clothes had been replaced with green shorts and a white tank top. "You didn't eat any …" Her voice trailed away when she caught sight of him. "Oh, I'm sorry. I knocked, and you didn't answer. I thought you were asleep, and I was just gonna leave this tray here for you …" she stammered, her face turning scarlet. "I'm sorry." She set the tray down on his bedside table and quickly turned to leave.
Sighing resignedly, he ran his hands across his face a few times, trying to block the image of her long legs from his mind. "It's all right," he told her, as carefully as he could, though he didn't really think it was "all right" at all.
He thought he might be in hell.
She turned around slowly. "Are you okay?" she finally asked him, trying to keep her eyes trained on his face, not allowing herself to admire his well-muscled torso and arms. She didn't know why her voice was coming out so croaky all of a sudden. She cleared her throat, green eyes seeking his face imploringly.
Earlier that evening …
What they had gone through today had been hard on everyone. Vaan hadn't wanted to talk to anyone … he'd been fond of Reddas, and his death had been hard on him. Balthier didn't really seem any different, but there was tenseness about him, and Fran had advised her that it would be best to give him some time alone.
She had noticed with no small amount of amusement that "alone time" apparently included Ashe.
Fran had retreated to her own cabin, and Penelo hadn't really wanted to be alone … not after everything that had happened …
So she'd gone to the kitchen area of the Strahl and thrown together a tray of bread, cheese, and fruit, figuring that it was as good an excuse as any to see him. She realized she'd done that quite a bit these last few months … made excuses to see him. He didn't seem to mind, but sometimes she felt a bit foolish.
It was silly, this … whatever it was. Crush? Didn't seem like the right word for what she felt. She enjoyed his company, found him to be something of a peaceful bastion in a world gone mad.
They'd taken so many watches together over the course of this journey, it wasn't really any wonder that she'd begun to feel … something … for him. At first Penelo had been intimidated. For a big part of her childhood, she and her friends had harbored small girlish crushes on Captain Basch fon Ronsenburg. Then he'd been labeled a traitor, a king-slayer, and he'd been executed. Or so they'd all been led to believe.
But she found him quite easy to talk to, not at all the stoic, taciturn man she had expected him to be. He had known her brothers, had trained two of them personally. His dark blue eyes had grown sad at the mention of the boys. He had apologized to her then.
She had shaken her head. "It wasn't your fault," she had said kindly.
Then he had changed the subject to something far more pleasant -- the Palace gardens back in Rabanastre -- and Penelo had learned that he didn't like to dwell on the painful parts of his past.
It had become an almost nightly occurrence that the two of them would draw the same watch. Penelo had thought nothing of it at first … luck of the draw, right? But after nearly a month, it became clear that something was amiss, for Balthier always seemed to draw the same watch as Ashe …
Basch had been in a foul mood the night he'd caught on, in the Golmore Jungle, en route from Mt. Bur-Omisace to Archades. "If I had but proof," he began, nearly snarling with rage.
"Basch, calm down," Penelo had implored him. "I think Ashe would complain if something were wrong, don't you? It's just the way it's worked out, that's all." He had looked at her then, sitting on the ground with her knees tucked up under her chin, her arms wrapped around her legs. So young. So naïve. "Besides, honestly? How would one go about rigging up who gets what watch?" She had laughed a little then, and he felt his insides uncoil, just a bit.
"I'm sure he's got all manner of tricks up his sleeves," Basch said derisively.
Penelo shrugged. "He's a pirate," she said diplomatically. "But I don't think he has ill-intentions." Basch opened his mouth to speak, but Penelo cut him off. "Before you say anything about me being too trusting, I'll have you remember that I've lived on the streets of Rabanastre for the better part of two years now. I know people."
"I think you only want to believe the best about him," Basch said, wondering at the curious pang he felt in his gut at the thought.
Penelo looked up at him, eyes questioning. "Meaning?" He had merely looked at her pointedly, and she'd felt her face go red. Thank the gods it was dark out.
Sighing in frustration, she tore a handful of grass out of the ground. "I'm not blind, if that's what you're implying. And anyone with half of an eye -- that had cataracts, I might add -- would notice that he's …" As if she suddenly realized who she was talking to, she allowed her sentence to trail off. "That's beside the point, any way, Captain. Even if he looked like a … a seeq, I'd still give him the benefit of the doubt. And so should you. We all trusted you, didn't we?"
She saw him visibly wince at her last statement and immediately regretted it. He turned and walked away from her, and she blew out a long breath. Nice, Penelo, really nice. "I didn't mean it like that," she called out softly, so as not to wake the others. A muffled grunt was her only response, and she narrowed her eyes. It's like dealing with Vaan, she thought grumpily. Standing, she crossed over to stand before him. "Quit pouting," she said, hands on her hips.
"Pouting?" Basch said, amusement flashing in his eyes briefly.
"Yes, you're pouting," Penelo told him. "And it's really very unbecoming. You're a knight, and you're all bent out of shape because … well, why, exactly?" Her brow furrowed, she was genuinely confused.
To be honest, he didn't quite know what was bothering him. He'd been sure that Balthier had somehow tampered with the night watch pairings, but Penelo had been so quick to jump to the pirate's defense …
Was that it?
No, that was foolishness. He shouldn't care that the girl had an infatuation with the sky pirate … even the Princess was quite taken with the rogue, for reasons he had yet to fathom. But that didn't cause his insides to knot up around themselves … not like the thought of Penelo … He cut his thoughts off abruptly and crossed his arms in front of his chest. He'd gotten far too accustomed to their nightly watches together over this past month, that was all. She was pleasant company, she allowed him to think of times when things were simpler.
He was a Knight of the Old Order of Dalmasca, and he was nearly 36-years-old. He couldn't possibly care about her. Could he?
"Basch?" Penelo's voice had snapped him back to the present. She was looking at him, concern in her green eyes. "I didn't mean to … I shouldn't have said that, about us trusting you. I shouldn't have said it like that. I apologize." He still said nothing, and she sighed affectedly. "You know that if you don't talk to me, I'll be forced to sing one of the songs Vaan picked up in that Nalbina pub, don't you?"
"He taught those to you?" Basch's head snapped up. "That's hardly appropriate …"
Penelo rolled her eyes. "You don't have to worry about me. I grew up with Vaan, so nothing can shock me any more. Although, he did teach a couple of verses to Ashe …"
"And she didn't cause him bodily harm?" Basch questioned.
"She actually laughed," Penelo said, smiling a bit at the memory.
She thought it wise to not mention that immediately following Vaan's "sing-along", Balthier had whispered something to Ashe, and the two of them had disappeared for over an hour. While she found it romantic, she had a feeling Basch wouldn't feel that way.
Suddenly a thought had occurred to her, and before her brain could censor her, she spoke. "Have you ever been in love, Basch?"
He had looked at her sharply then. "What?" he coughed.
"Never mind. I'm sorry … I wasn't thinking." Penelo's face had gone crimson, and she had never wanted the ground to open up and swallow her whole more than she did at that moment.
"No, it's quite all right," he said kindly. "Just … unexpected, that's all. I was, once."
Penelo looked at him, suddenly intrigued. "Who …" She amended her sentence. "What happened?"
"She died when Archadia invaded Landis," he said simply. Then, almost as an afterthought, he added, "Her name was Elena."
"I'm sorry," Penelo said quietly. "The Empire's taken a lot away from us all." Sensing his silence, she sighed. "Thank you. You didn't have to say anything, you know. I know you don't like to talk about your past." Impulsively, she reached out and took his hand in her own. "I just wish that life … had been better for you."
For a moment, he had just stared down at their joined hands. Finally, he let out a long breath. "And for you as well," he said.
She had smiled a bit then. "Oh, it's definitely got its good points," she said cryptically, leaving him to wonder just what she was thinking.
It was after that night that things had slowly started to change. Penelo would make excuses to hang behind and walk with him as they traveled to Archades. She forgot herself only momentarily, a week later, when they reached the Phon Coast, and had run ahead with Vaan, splashing and laughing merrily in the surf.
He had watched her, smiling to himself as she squealed when Vaan dunked her into the sea. She was so vibrant. She had seen as much horror and tragedy as any of them, and she remained consistently upbeat and happy. Perhaps that was why he was so fond of her … she reminded him that even in this world of chaos, there was still plenty of goodness.
He had managed to convince himself that it was only a deep fondness and affection he felt for her, had even managed to make himself believe that when his eyes trailed along her body, he was merely assuring himself that she remained unharmed.
She, however, had no such qualms about her seemingly sudden single-mindedness when it came to him. She always made sure to heal him before the others, and she seemed to appear from out of nowhere, "just to talk".
She did that now, coming up beside him, squeezing out her wet braids, her nose wrinkled in distaste. "It's salty!" she said. "My hair's going to feel weird now." She pulled the ribbons from her hair and began untwisting the braids.
He looked at her in amusement. "Surely you knew the sea was salt water?"
Penelo only laughed. "I haven't ever actually been to the sea before, Basch. I know that might surprise you, me being so worldly and all. Of course I knew it … it's just not something that is usually at the forefront of my mind, you know." She smiled at him. "You should get in. It feels so nice."
"But my hair might never recover," he quipped, surprising even himself at the ease at which the banter came with her.
Penelo's eyes widened in delight. "Are you making fun of me?" she asked him. She held her hair away from her face. "Feel that!" she told him indignantly. "It's crunchy." She began finger combing her locks, and he suddenly had the strongest urge to do it for her. He looked around … the others were nowhere in sight. With a hand that was trembling slightly, he reached out and let his fingers slide gently through her flaxen locks.
She sighed a little. "See? It's awful, isn't it?" she said softly.
"It's not that appalling," he replied, suddenly wondering where this voice was coming from. Where this person was coming from, for that matter. Basch fon Ronsenburg did not stand on pristine white beaches with his fingers tangled in the silky blonde hair of a pretty young woman. At least, he didn't used to.
What the hell was she doing to him?
"Basch?" she asked, snapping him out of his reverie. He realized his hand was still in her hair, and he quickly let go of her. Her brow furrowed. "Is something the matter?" she asked him.
He merely shook his head. "No, no, nothing's wrong," he said absently, patting her on the shoulder. "I'm going to go look into getting some new weapons for the group."
Penelo watched him walk away, frowning. Had she done something wrong? Or maybe … just the opposite? The thought made her smile as she headed down the beach toward the hut that Fran had managed to secure for them for the night.
There had been no more time to ruminate over the state of the "relationship" between herself and Basch, for once they reached Archades, everything seemed to happen so fast. And when they had met Dr. Cid, and discovered that he was Balthier's father, everything else seemed so insignificant.
The only thing that seemed to matter now was that Ashe wanted to go to Giruvegan, as Cid had suggested to her. Balthier didn't seem happy about this. Ever since they had been face-to-face with Cid, Balthier had been out-of-sorts and edgy. He tried, on several occasions, to talk Ashe out of going to Giruvegan. Penelo could tell, though he wasn't saying anything, that whatever the problem with he and his father was, it had all started in that ancient city.
The sky pirate Reddas had offered them lodging for a few nights, while Ashe decided what their next course of action was going to be, so the party headed to the port city of Balfonheim in the Strahl.
Late that night, she had wandered into Reddas' library, purely by accident, for she had gotten lost whilst searching for the kitchen, so she might have a drink of water. She had only been slightly surprised to find the Captain sitting there, alone, a book open in his lap, though he didn't appear to be reading it.
She turned to leave him in peace, but something made her pause. She crossed the room quietly, and as she approached him, she noticed that, indeed, he had fallen asleep where he sat.
Smiling to herself, she shook her head in amusement. Carefully, she picked up the book from his lap, and noted its title, something dreadfully boring-sounding about the history of laws or some such thing. "No wonder you fell asleep," she murmured, setting the book aside.
Cocking her head to the side, she studied him thoughtfully. Here, at least, in repose, he looked peaceful. He was always so staid when they were with the rest of the group. She preferred those times when it was just the two of them, and he allowed a bit of what she surmised might have been his "younger self" show. Sometimes, she wished that the others could see him as she saw him. But most times, she was selfish, and glad that he only shared that part of himself with her.
He didn't look terribly comfortable, sitting in that chair, so she knelt over him quietly, and shook his shoulder lightly. "Basch," she whispered. No response. "Basch," she said, louder this time.
He stirred only slightly, but didn't open his eyes. He did take her hand in his own, and Penelo was suddenly a bit overcome with emotions that she'd tried to deny. She leaned forward a little more, and without even thinking, she allowed herself to lean forward and place a soft kiss on his cheek. He looked so tranquil … and so handsome.
Besides, he was asleep … who would ever know?
He woke with a start, and his eyes widened to see the girl standing so near him, her lips very near his face, his fingers twined with hers.
Penelo's eyes widened in fear, and he thought he knew why. "Oh, you're awake!" she stammered. "G-Good. I was beginning to worry!" She said it lightly, but there was a skittishness in the way her eyes were darting around his face, avoiding eye-contact at all costs. "I was just getting a drink, and I passed by and saw that you'd fallen asleep, and it didn't look very comfortable." She was talking very fast. "Anyway, goodnight!"
She stepped back, nearly tripping over her own feet, and he found it all quite amusing. "Penelo?" he asked, not releasing her hand. He wondered if the surprisingly brazen young lady would admit to her deed.
"Nothing!" she practically yelped, then clapped her hand over her mouth. "Um -- I mean, what?"
"Is something the matter?" he asked, quirking an eyebrow at her.
She shook her head quickly. "N-No, nothing," she lied, wishing he would just let go of her hand already.
He finally released her hand. "I thank you for your concern," he said genuinely. "But you should be getting to sleep, yourself," he said, not unkindly.
She nodded quickly. "Of course. I'm sorry I bothered you …" She turned and all but sprinted from the library.
He shook his head, mildly bemused by what had just transpired. He tapped his finger against his cheek thoughtfully, trying to remember the last time a woman had kissed him.
So much happened after that night, that Penelo's faux pas was seemingly forgotten. They'd gone to Giruvegan, and discovered that the Occuria meant to use Ashe as their "saint". And after that, it had been onward to the Pharos, where many things had come to light … and many things had gone to dark.
They would be allowed but one night of respite before they'd have to take on their biggest foe yet … Vayne Solidor.
And now, here she was, standing just inside the doorway to his cabin aboard the Strahl, as they made their way back to Balfonheim, and all she could do was look at him expectantly, awaiting an answer to her concerned, "Are you okay?"
It was a silly question, and she knew it. Of course he wasn't all right. None of them were. "Never mind," she muttered. "I'm sorry about … your brother." She wondered if he still considered him such.
"He may be alive yet," was all Basch could think to say. Though what it all meant, he had no idea.
Penelo nodded. "I'm sorry … I'm sorry to bother you," she finally said. "Everyone else is … well, no one really feels like talking. But I didn't want to be alone. And I thought maybe you …" She looked down, a blush creeping up on her cheeks. "Maybe you were hungry," she finished, gesturing to the tray of food.
"Aye," he said, wondering if that was what had truly brought her here. "Was there anything else?"
She looked up at him. "I … don't know," she admitted. "It's just … you know, when you're young, how you have a security blanket or something? Well … I guess … I guess I kind of think of you as mine, now." She laughed a little. "That's stupid, I know. I don't know how else to say it. And I might not get another chance. I've lost too many people that never knew how I really felt, and I don't want to do that again."
"Penelo," he began, wanting her to finish desperately, but also terrified of what she was going to say.
She held up her hand. "No, no, let me finish. The thing is, Basch. I -- really care about you. More than I've ever cared about anyone. And I … just wanted you to know that, before …" She brushed a stray hair out of her face distractedly. "You don't have to say anything. I just don't know what's going to happen tomorrow, and I thought you should know." She shrugged and turned to go.
He stopped her by placing a hand on her shoulder. She turned her head just slightly and looked at him over her shoulder.
She wasn't really sure what exactly happened next, all that she knew was that he had pulled her into his arms, and just held her for a long moment, his fingers once again tangling in her golden hair.
Then she had stood on the tips of her toes and hesitantly brushed her lips over his, and when he hadn't responded, she had kissed him again, with a bit more enthusiasm. Her dainty hands worked their way up his well-muscled arms and she wrapped her arms around his neck. She twisted some of the hair at his nape around her fingers, and it was then that he finally kissed her back, with the all the desperation of a dying man.
Maybe that wasn't so far from the truth. Maybe they'd all be flying to their doom the next day, when they flew to the Bahamut. All Penelo really knew was that they had this moment. And for now, and maybe even forever, it was enough.
Everything that happened the next day would remain burned in her memory. The defeat of Vayne was bittersweet, for it was immediately followed by the death of Noah. Then came the most shocking losses of all -- Balthier and Fran, dying their heroes' deaths inside the burning Bahamut, and Ashe's silent tears that followed. The Princess tried not to show her pain, but Penelo saw the almost imperceptible trembling of her lower lip, and she knew that Ashe's heart was breaking.
For Penelo, it was the departure of Larsa and Basch in Archades that was the hardest for her to handle. She hugged Larsa goodbye, and they promised to write. Then she turned to Basch, and she knew this was the last time she would see Basch fon Ronsenburg. When -- if -- next they met, he would be Judge Gabranth.
She pulled him aside and placed something in his hand, closing his fingers around it. "To remember me by," she said in a quiet, strained voice.
"I need nothing," he told her earnestly, and she smiled at little, blinking back the tears that were threatening.
"I want you to have it," she said. "Goodbye, Basch." She stood on her tiptoes and kissed his cheek chastely.
"Not goodbye," he told her firmly. "Fates will we shall meet again."
"I hope so," she said, though she knew that even if they did, it would never be the same. "Take good care of Larsa." She turned and walked away from him then, and didn't look back.
When she was out of sight, he opened his hand to reveal what she had left him … one of the ribbons from her hair. Smiling to himself, he ran it through his fingers, and then closed his fist around it, and walked off to join his new charge.
A/N: This might be the longest one-shot in the history of the world. Or, you know, maybe not. Anyway ... it's my first for this pairing, and thank you for deciding to give it a shot. I had planned for this to go a little differently, but in the end, I think this worked out for the best. :) I hope you enjoy!