Disclaimer: I do not own Square Enix's Final Fantasy XII, nor am I making any money off this fanfiction.

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Author's Notes…

Been a while since I posted in the fandom. I actually started this quite a bit ago, but… the urge to finish it struck me, and so here it is. I hope you guys enjoy.

Takes place when Penelo joins Vaan in the Giza Plains. Spoilers for "Dalmasca's Desert Bloom" mark. If you haven't, for some reason, done this mark yet, or the sidequest started right after it, then be warned. It's earliest availability is right at the beginning of the game. You can wait to attempt this for when you have Penelo in your party after the first Giza Plains event, before Vaan tries to tackle the castle. This story assumes that Vaan didn't do "Dalmasca's Desert Bloom" alone.

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Adventuring in the Estersands

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"Ow, ow, ow," Vaan complained loudly as Penelo wound her arm around his shoulders to try and steer him towards one of the outpost's small adobes. He was limping, all manners of spots throbbing on his body, especially where there were needles he still hadn't managed to pluck out yet. That damned cactoid! If it hadn't been for that stupid, overgrown, green mutation of a cactus, he wouldn't have even been in this predicament right now.

"Say, would you mind taking that flower to my wife in Nebra? I can't leave this post because I'm on watch," Dantro asked hopefully, jumping down from his crate as he hurried over to Vaan's side. "And while you're at it, would you mind asking them to find someone to replace me? I've been stuck here a while…"

Vaan pursed his lips, turning his face away lest he snap at the man. Dantro had been nothing but pleasant, and Vaan didn't want to hurt his feelings by spouting off at him (something along the lines of, "We're not here to run your errands, okay? Send someone else!"). If he was forced to talk, it was going to get ugly. Right now all he wanted to focus on was getting the rest of these needles out of him or he was going to go crazy! The ones in his ass were particularly troublesome…

"…I'm glad you took care of that cactoid, but he sure got you hard, huh?" Dantro rubbed a hand over his hair, grimacing as he surveyed Vaan's battle wounds.

Vaan had to bite his tongue to keep down a crass remark to that, as well, and it was Penelo who answered the question for him, her tone tinged with amusement. Of course she would find this all terribly funny—she was the one who had told him not to get too close to it when it had been powering up the rest of its energy for that ruthless attack.

"Yeah, see, it did this thing where at least hundreds of needles shot out of it!" she said, smiling down at Vaan when he gave her a sharp look out of the corner of his eye. "Vaan here got the bad end of the deal."

"I know that attack," Dantro replied, his eyes widening just slightly as he placed a hand on Vaan's shoulder, apparently not noticing the flinch he gave. "I should have warned you about it, had I thought it was actually true. Rumors are that it's called 1000 Needles." He nodded, removing his hand and then rubbing it over his chin in deep contemplation. "Like I said, though, I had thought it just a rumor. I'm sorry."

"Oh, it's no problem," Penelo said cheerfully, leading Vaan up the stairs to the adobe. "How could you have known any different? We're just going to get a rest now before we head to Nebra."

"Thank you," Dantro said, tucking his hands into his pockets now. "The village is north of here. My wife's treating a patient she found collapsed nearby. He's got some serious injuries, and I'm sure that cactoid flower will help heal him right up. It's got renowned healing properties."

Once they had exchanged a few more pleasantries, during which Vaan waited impatiently, privately wondering when Penelo had taken control of what all they were doing this afternoon, they entered the adobe and the nice shade it offered. It was vacated, but there was a pile of blankets resting in the center, to which Vaan made his way over to, sinking gratefully into them and resting on his stomach.

"Vaan, that's for travelers and merchants," Penelo scolded, but she kneeled by him, digging into her pack and withdrawing a handful of bandages and salves. "I guess you can stay there, though. I doubt anyone else is going to come by here. Not for a while, anyway. Okay, sit still," she instructed, sliding the lid off a bottle of foul smelling salve and dipping her fingers into it. "I'm going to dab over what you've already pulled out."

The salve stung more than those needles had, and he had to bite hard into the side of his cheek so he didn't cry out, but he did as he was told, remaining very still. It was mostly from concentrating all his efforts into not knocking the bottle into the wall, however.

"Hey, come on, relax," Penelo prodded, winding some bandage around his left bicep. "This won't work right if you're too tense."

"That's easy for you to say," he muttered, squeezing his eyes shut and flinching as she pulled tight at the bandage. "You weren't the one that got stuck with all those needles."

"I told you not to get close to it," Penelo replied, her voice layered with concentration as she made him lift up enough so that she could take off his vest. "You're the one that didn't listen to me."

"Well, not everyone knows magic like you," Vaan grumped back, and then carefully got to his feet, turning away from her as his fingers sought to unbuckle his pants.

"You only wanted the last hit on it, that's all," she laughed, and Vaan yelped in surprise when she tugged a needle straight out of his butt without further ado.

"Hey, ow!" he hissed over his shoulder. "What was that for, Penelo?"

Penelo tilted her head up at him, raising the long needle tipped in blood so that he could see it. He took it from her, examining it closely, frowning when he got a better look at the blood. Had the needles hit harder in his butt? Great… This wasn't going to be pretty…

"Let me pull those out before you take off your pants," she said, plucking out another needle and making him groan in pain. What was with her not warning him?! "And… final…" Yank! "…one…!" She beamed, holding up the other two. "There you go, Vaan."

Muttering darkly under his breath, Vaan pulled his pants down enough to expose his backside, and then scrambled back onto the blankets, not entirely comfortable with the idea of Penelo bandaging his butt, of all places (now that he stopped to think about it), but knowing he didn't trust anyone out there to do it, either. Why was it that every time he bothered going anywhere with Penelo, some sort of weird situation always transpired?

"You know, the last time I saw your butt, Vaan, you were—what, six?" Penelo questioned conversationally, but he could detect a light coat of embarrassment in her voice. Good, so she wasn't all that thrilled with this idea, either. At least that made two of them. "I guess I can't say much has changed…"

He glanced up at that, catching sight of the red cheeks that bellied her teasing. She had her eyes downcast, focused on the salve she was gathering onto her fingertips again, and for some reason, the sight of her like that really moved him. Penelo was often straightforward, and she had a no-nonsense attitude that was at most times infuriating. But now, sitting like that, flushed and awkward looking, it was kind of… appealing. It was like for once Penelo didn't really know what to say, and Vaan had been the one to snatch those precious words of hers right out of her mouth.

He felt kind of smug at this revelation, and at the same time… pleased in a purer way that wasn't tainted by having the upper hand for once—if one could have the upper hand while covered in cactus needles with their ass exposed for all to see.

Vaan glanced away, wetting his lips. Penelo wasn't the only one suddenly at a loss for words. Why was this so awkward? They had been best friends for ages now, and it wasn't like it was anything personal. She was helping dress the wounds to his backside, no problem there, right? Then again, it wasn't like he would let anyone else see him in such a state. He was sure he'd never outlive that proud moment that he had been needle-fied, either, where Penelo was concerned, but… somehow, it was all right.

Look at me, he thought sourly, resting his forehead on his folded arms. Getting all sentimental over something like this.

Though, on a serious note… he had plans to sneak into the palace tonight, to take back what was rightfully Dalmasca's, and he was doing it alone. He hadn't originally had a problem with Penelo going along with him in the Giza Plains, and the more they had stayed in each other's presence, the more Vaan had wanted to take her on a different kind of adventuring that didn't revolve around gathering up energy for sunstones. He supposed it was because he was both enjoying her company and… wondering if he'd indeed get to enjoy it again after tonight.

What happened if he got caught? It was into the Nalbina Dungeons for him—no second chances, no way to excuse himself out of it. Although he supposed that he didn't really have a problem with that route, if it were to take place, but… Penelo.

What would she do without him as he rotted away in those dungeons?

She'd probably be just fine without me, Vaan realized with a sting of irritation. Penelo had a job with helping out Migelo, she was popular with the common people of Rabanastre, and when all else failed, she knew how to move that curvaceous body enough to collect coins. Not that she was a street whore like other dances out there—no, Penelo kept things clean—but… she would definitely be all right to survive on her own, whether Vaan was there or not.

He wasn't sure why the thought bothered him so much. It never had before. He wanted to be a sky pirate, roaming the skies, taking them for his own, putting fear in the hearts of all the other pirates out there. Maybe it was because he had assumed that Penelo would be right there alongside him—that she would cast aside her responsibilities to all the others and willfully go with Vaan when he asked her to. And now… now he realized that she might just be perfectly content enough to stay in Rabanastre.

Would she even miss him if he went away? How long would it take her to get over the fact that he was either gallivanting around on an airship somewhere or cast into the Nalbina Dungeons (perhaps both)?

He sat up, ignoring her protests—"Vaan, I was nearly finished applying the ointment!"—and grabbed a blanket he wasn't sitting on, throwing it in his lap to cover things that didn't need to be seen by Penelo.

"What is it, Vaan?" she sighed, gathering up her bottles and bandages and stuffing them back into her pack. "I suppose a cure spell might be able to tidy up the last of those wounds, but I can't promise anything, all right?"

He watched the way her eyes glittered with annoyance, how she puffed out a breath enough to rustle her bangs, how the feathers in her braids were drooping from all the running around they had done. But more than that, he studied how her chest moved with her slight breathing, the curve of her cheekbone, the swell of her lips against soft skin. Penelo was beautiful, and he had never denied it—what he had done, however, was allow himself to take advantage of the fact that he had thought it would always be there.

"Vaan?" she questioned, lifting her gaze to his. "Vaan, why do you keep staring at me—"

He cut her off with a kiss, leaning forward with his palms on the ground to either side of her and his head tilted up. Her mouth was as warm and as soft as it looked, and he had the added bonus of feeling her exhale in surprise against him, her escaped breath mingling with his own.

He pulled back after a moment, noting her stunned expression, how her mouth worked open and closed several times before she swallowed and peered hard at him. Now that he had actually kissed her, he felt sort of embarrassed himself, and he quickly looked down to avoid that questioning stare.

"Vaan… what was that for? I mean…" She breathed in through her nose, let it out. "Vaan—how could you?!"

This made him look up again, and he gasped in surprise. "What's that supposed to mean, Penelo?"

"Exactly what it sounds like!" Penelo retorted heatedly, grabbing a nearby pillow and smacking it against his head. "You can't just go kissing me—or any other girl, for that matter—if you don't even know if they want to be kissed!"

Vaan frowned, rubbing over his hair where she had thwapped him. He didn't exactly know what to say to that—he was more surprised than anything else that she had rejected the idea of them kissing so openly.

Penelo glared at him for a moment longer, but when Vaan only returned one balefully, she sighed and looked away. The scowl melted from her features, a soft smile moving in, touching the corners of her mouth and her eyes. And did he see a slight twinkle in them? Hm—improvement… Much better than that reprimanding expression. Although Penelo probably wouldn't be very Penelo-like if she couldn't still summon up a look mean enough for mothers to give their children. He supposed it came from maturing so quickly and watching over her siblings…

"Penelo," he muttered, awkward again. He cast his eyes to the throws beneath them. "Listen—I'm sorry. You're right. I shouldn't have kissed you when I didn't get permission."

"It's okay," she replied, surprising him. Her smile grew, and he watched as that glow from earlier returned to her cheeks, darkening them to the color red. "…I kind of—liked it. Just ask me next time. Okay?"

A spark of hope ignited inside of him. "So there's gonna be a next time?"

Another pillow promptly found his face.

"Hey!"

"Honestly, Vaan—get your head out of the gutter, will you?" Penelo stood, stretching out her legs and then her upper torso before finally tugging her braids back into submission. "Kisses are special to me. I don't give them to just anybody, you know? You should think about that." She turned, pulling open the door for their adobe, leaving Vaan to blink against the bright rays of light streaming in. "Come and get me when you've got your pants back on."

"Kisses are special to me, too," he grumped, also getting to his feet. He winced as the pinpricks that hadn't gotten salve on them flared in pain. Gods, those needles had sunk in deep. There was no way he was going near a cacti again if he could help it—too risky. Unless he learned some magic, but that was doubtful, anyway, and the notion was best to be forgotten.

"Penelo," he said once he had rejoined her side, pulling her away from Dantro and his bubbly chatter. "Do you like this?" At her puzzled expression, he sighed, gesturing at nothing in particular. "Us. Adventuring together like this. Has it been any fun?"

"Fun?" She bit her lip, sucking on it a little, one foot tracing patterns in the sand as she appeared to give it some thought. "I don't know if I'd call it fun…" she said at last, just when Vaan was about to lose his patience and ask her again. "It's more like—hm… I guess I just like being with you, even though it's kind of dangerous. But at the same time, I feel included for once?" She laughed, shrugging her shoulders and beaming a smile up at him. "I'd definitely do it again, if that's what you're asking."

"Well, I was just thinking—if I ever become a sky pirate…" He hesitated as her expression darkened, but instead of frowning like he'd normally do and give up, he continued hastily, "I'd want… I'd want you to come with me."

She was quiet for a long moment after that, her expression unreadable, and anxiety gnawed at Vaan's heart. What if she said no? Could he deal with that? He was so used to Penelo being there… what would he do with her absence? Then again, what if she said yes? Could he involve her in all the things that sky pirating entailed? Could he get her entangled in that risky business? He wasn't so sure…

He shouldn't have asked.

"I'll have to give that some thought," she said, touching his forearm. "That's not a decision I can make right now. But… thank you for asking, Vaan. That really means a lot to me. Although…" And a smirk played along her mouth as she placed her fists on her hips and leaned forward to examine his face more closely. "You're being so nice to me today. What did you do?"

"Nothing!" he scoffed. "I mean, at first I was annoyed at you inviting yourself along in that nomad village, but—I don't know. I guess I got used to you at my side, and the longer you were there, the more I liked it." He folded his arms, pursing his lips and looking away. "I shouldn't have said anything."

"Oh, come on! You never could take a tease!" she admonished, tugging at his elbow, starting to head towards the direction of the Nebra. "Let's go. We made a promise to Dantro."

And though he grumbled the majority of the way about Penelo and how unappreciative she was—and Penelo would just smack him one on the arm—Vaan had to admit to himself… even if Penelo wasn't having fun…

He sure was.