Don't know much about practicing what I preach,
Don't know how to be envious without jealousy,
Don't know how to hold my temper, when I have to get in the last word,
Don't know how to speak softly and still be heard
There is a fine line between a girl and a woman.
My mother always said this. She drilled the mantra into my head until I felt like the words were embezzled into my skin. She was a woman of remarkable poise and composure, someone who could swallow cyanide and make it look like a milkshake, and if serving six brownies to seven people she was one to firmly announce that she had not, indeed, ever cared for brownies, even though we all know she really did, which is why she always made them in the first place.
She said there's more to being a woman than a tiny waist and pretty face. That more work goes into being a mother than being employed. That no school can teach you to love and no amount of gil can buy happiness.
She let us eat dessert before dinner. She let us ingest ice cream right out of the carton. Once she even let us draw on the walls. But that was only once, and my father reprimanded us for it. Mostly because Vaan, having just discovered the wonders of the female anatomy, decided to draw a large naked woman on the bathroom door. I stuck to stars and smiley faces. Reks drew magnificently ornate airships that were so impressive my parents actually kept them as a decoration on their living room wall long after they did away with my juvenile doodles and Vaan's naked woman, of which he named Lucy.
I always felt inferior to Lucy. I never had her chest and I never possessed her skinny thighs, and she was the epitome of everything my mother taught me didn't matter. In reality, I think she should have been telling Vaan that but her efforts were wasted on me; though I'm not sure wasted it the correct word, for I only say such because I felt as though I already knew it, but then again I only knew it because she had bothered to tell me.
A woman is respectable and dignified and noble, even if poor, and she speaks her mind when it needs to be spoken. If engaged in an argument with her husband, she lets him win, but only if he is right, and she always thinks of herself last, especially when it comes to her children.
She was my beacon through out my childhood and I clung to her throughout the storm of my early years. She told me to marry the man who made me feel beautiful and complimented my soul instead of my body. My intelligence instead of my hair. Not to settle for anything less that what I deserved, which was nothing short of Prince Charming himself, and to forgive people of past transgressions, for mistakes are the only way we learn. (It was then she told me to be lenient on Vaan, for someday he may even out and it can't be easy being an orphan, now can it? I think she secretly wanted me to marry Reks, but he always had his nose buried in a book and scarcely noticed females populated the planet. Of course, that was at age nine, and things changed years later. But not by much.)
She made me promise to save it for marriage and she made me promise never to hit my children. I vowed accordingly and she continued to plant words of wisdom into my head and I considered anything that flew out of her mouth on par with the holiness that would be correlated to an esper, even though she was more powerful in my mind. More powerful than any esper could ever be. I still think that today. I will always think that. My mother, when called for, could bring a man to his knees much faster than Ultima could. I think she was the only person Vaan ever admitted to being genuinely afraid of. In retrospect, that makes me giggle.
She taught me to love and she taught me to live and she taught me to care.
And then she died.
Killed, as a casualty of war. My father followed soon after. And all of the sudden, everything she ever said to me was rendered useless, for what good was I without her? What could I possibly amount to without her by my side? I wanted to make her proud but knew I could never live up to the woman she once was. She was forever immortalized as an angel in my eyes (Vaan insists he remembers her more as an omnipotent and all knowing dictator, dishing out cruel and unusual punishment on a daily basis, but he does so only to make me laugh, or at least, that's what I tell myself so I can keep from disemboweling him.)
It was Reks who convinced me I could continue living without her.
"You need to carry on her legacy," he stated simply, albeit gently, one night when we were huddled in the shadows of Lowtown, Vaan snoring at our feet, stomach habitually grumbling. "You need to make her proud."
I nodded in firm resolution, though tears of saline continued to make the suicidal plummet down my cheeks.
"Think of how disappointed she'd be if you gave up on life," Reks continued, sensing I needed more convincing like only Reks could. "She wouldn't want that, now would she?"
I silently shook my head, blonde hairs sent orbiting around my head.
"Isn't that what you would say if you had a daughter?"
A nod of affirmation, so full of energy it sent my equilibrium spinning on its figurative axis. It was then that I collapsed onto Reks's shoulder and cried. He held me tight and stayed up with me all night; reminiscing about my mother and helping me fill in the blanks that I had forgotten because I took so many moments for granted.
Years passed, and eventually Vaan would cry on my shoulder the same way I had cried back then, because fate didn't deem it enough to take both our parents, it needed to claim our brother, too.
We stopped questioning why after that and just tried to survive.
There are times when I look at myself and wonder if she'd be proud of me. I shudder in disgust because I know she would most undoubtedly be ashamed, for I am not the woman she once was nor will I ever be. I don't even amount to a fraction of her glory, and I fail at every attempt I make to emulate her.
I get jealous. And envious. I know I'm not supposed to but when Ashe waltzed onto the scene with her size two waist and supermodel thighs I lusted after her attributes in a way that would have made my mom cringe. I knew, deep in my soul, it didn't matter, it shouldn't, but one look at Vaan told me it did. Maybe on a subconscious level, maybe on an instinctual level, but there will always be a draw to the aesthetically pleasing and I look more like a middle schooler than a woman, even though I am on the threshold of twenty.
Maybe it's the pigtails.
I'm temperamental, in stark contrast to my mother's contemplative nature. She taught me to behave otherwise, but I can only take so much of Vaan before I yell at him; only put up with so much of Kyte's innate whining before I start to get frustrated. Tomaj even gets under my skin, what with his 'I have a penis and therefore I must always be right' attitude, which my mother could have killed off with a glance but I find myself resorting to vocal means and profanity; the most unbecoming thing on a woman. I snap. I crackle. I pop. Vaan tells me it's only human, but it means nothing coming from him because he still views me as a girl and I know it.
Don't know much about love cause I get the same crap from every guy,
Don't know how to see the grass being greener on my side,
Don't know much about wisdom without being jaded,
Don't know how to take criticism without feeling hated
Being as old as I am and never having a boyfriend sucks. But that could be for a number of reasons. I was always busy trying to survive. I never had the time. Every decent man had died during the war. Half the Rabanstre population was thrown into the dungeons for false crimes they never committed. A good portion of the citizens aren't even humes. This is what I tell myself when I get down, for my mother never allowed time for self pity, even though it is something teenage girls revel in and I admit I have fallen culprit to more than once.
It's not like you can't when your only constant companion who is your caliber of intelligence (not really; but close enough) is Vaan, who can scarcely walk three feet without screwing something up, and every other word out of his mouth is 'blagh blagh blagh sky pirate.' You would have thought the hormones kicked in by now.
"Penelo, you need to be lenient with Vaan, maybe some day he'll even out."
Well, Mom, he hasn't yet.
"And it can't be easy being an orphan all the time, now can it?"
No Mom, it can't. I think I know that now.
Life continued; love sucked. Guys are scarce and hard to come by. The last remotely intelligent one I knew was Reks, and he's dead. Though Basch isn't too bad, but he's old enough to be my father and I don't think my mom would approve of pedophilia. Then again, I'm legal, so I suppose it is alright. (But to marry a Judge, when it was a Judge that killed my parents in the first place?) So I'm stuck with three men now. Two of them have connections to being Judges and one is Vaan.
And you have officially hit rock bottom when you start getting involved with Vaan.
He's more attracted to power chords and wing spans than he is bosoms and estrogen.
Except, of course, when it comes to the ethereal Ashe.
Maybe that's why I always held an inexplicable grudge towards Ashe. Well, no, inexplicable is the wrong word, because I can explain it perfectly. Fair is another thing. She practically defined the meaning of the word woman, and I hated her for it. I think she knew it, too. Not that I hated her, but that she was the object of affection and she was perfectly alright with that, which made me hate her even more. She knew she was refined and proper and attractive. It all played into her aloofness that diminished any hopes I ever had of being confident in the few things I was blessed with: decent sized eyes and nice fingernails. Everything else paled in comparison.
Sometimes I wonder if Mom would have been happier having her as a daughter instead of me.
I can't engage in the witty banter that makes Balthier drool, I can't march forward with the confidence of a heavenly calvary, I can't pick myself up when I fall, and I can't govern my own country.
I'm the kid. She's the grown up.
It's written all over my face. And pigtails.
It was in the Golmore Jungle that I started to physically try and keep my distance from Ashe, for watching the way Balthier threw himself in front of her every time anything remotely dangerous came across the path, even though she was perfectly capable of taking care of herself and in reality I was the one who needed the protecting, just made me want to projectile vomit the little amount of rations I had ingested the previous night. It's great when a guy practices the lost art of chivalry but it's a pain when he's not doing it for you.
Vaan is more likely to put his life on the line for Balthier than me, seeing as though the man is a sky pirate and Vaan thinks he is on par with a deity descended from the heavens.
I remember, while under the vast canopy of lush foliage that made up the Golmore Jungle, I began to fall behind due to fatigue and neglect, for I needed potions more so than anyone and the men of the group were too busy dishing them out to Ashe. Well, Basch made sure I stayed conscious, but he's got the whole Knight thing going on and that kind of shifts his priorities.
Fran, of all people, or viera, I guess you would say, was the one who noticed me lagging behind and slowed down her pace so she would be adjacent to me. At first I thought perhaps she was injured, for she had said about two words to me the entire journey and I was about to offer her a hi potion, since why else would someone be walking next to me, when she stated, not asked, without making eye contact, "Something is wrong."
I preformed a mental face slap and tried to snap to attention.
"Is there a problem with the Mist?" I queried, wondering why she was choosing to tell me this instead of the men.
"The Mist is fine," she answered slowly, now deciding to look at me. "It is you I am talking about."
I blinked a couple of times in response.
"...me?" I stuttered, unable to rely on repertoire since I am not known for my wit. Common sense is another thing, which I guess is valuable seeing as though Vaan lacks so much of it.
Fran stared at me.
"I believe I just made that distinction."
I laughed out of nerves, for Mother always said laughter is attractive and a great way to break the ice, which Fran was practically coated in, and tried to put a little hop in my step, the way I did back when I was doing errands for Migelo, for he made me feel like I belonged somewhere.
"Just thinking, is all," I offered simplistically.
Fran remained silent, gods only know what was going through her head, but I knew it was something because he ears kept twitching and there was no wind, meaning she was doing it on her own accord.
I thought she would run up to be with the others but she remained behind with me for the next half an hour or so. Eventually I couldn't take the silence anymore, even though it was characteristic of her, and finally blurted out, with no finesse whatsoever, "Do you think I'm a woman?"
Fran's nose wiggled slightly. I think she was confused by my inquiry.
"Don't understand," she stated, waiting expectantly for further elaboration, seeing as though it was required.
"Do you think I'm a woman or a girl?"
Fran, again, wiggled her nose, and resumed her previous activity of staring at the ground.
"I think you are female," she proffered.
Not the answer I was expecting.
"Well, do you think I am as...mature as Ashe?" I elaborated, now starving—hell bent, really—on getting an answer. I had gotten this far and there was no turning back now.
"What makes you think Ashe is mature?" Fran questioned, blood red eyes now traveling to Ashe's backside, which was all we were able to see from our angle. It was, as always, prim and proper and made me consequently feel like crap.
"Well, look at her!" I laughed, as though the question was insane and the correlating answer went without saying. "She's the princess of Dalmasca!"
"...the only thing necessary for being the princess of Dalmasca is that you be female," Fran reiterated in her usual guarded voice. "Otherwise you would not be a princess."
I felt like face palming, but refrained. Fran's logic was both convoluted and simplistic at the same time. I couldn't tell if I liked it or not, but it retrospect, it doesn't matter because it was what I needed to hear.
"She's gorgeous," I finally breathed, defeated and deflated. "Look at all the men crowding around her."
There was a pause.
"Three," Fran stated firmly.
"Three? Three what?"
"Three men. There are only three."
"Yeah, I know..."
"Three men constitute as all?"
I was rendered silent for a moment.
"Well, that's all that's here."
Fran looked at me again, her eyes piercing as usual.
"True. But those three are not all."
I began to subconsciously fiddle with my left pigtail, for it was a nervous habit that never left me and even though I shouldn't even be wearing pigtails I did because it was comfortable and it was always how my mother did my hair. After she died, I never bothered to change it.
"Fran," I began, voice fragile and honest. "Do you think I am mature?"
There was that predictable lull where one could practically hear Fran's mind churning to work up a sentence.
"Real maturity comes when you stop worrying about others," she intoned.
She began to quicken her pace and saunter ahead of me.
"Wait!" I cried, a little too loudly for Vaan actually looked over his shoulder and took heed of me for the first time that morning. "You didn't answer my question!"
Fran stopped walking all together and turned to face me.
"Yes I did."
She then resumed her previous path.
I trailed behind the group the rest of the day, both sulking and festering over what Fran had said. She was right, of course, but I wouldn't admit it at the time. I much preferred to hold a self pity party, which if anyone wanted to do it should have been Ashe, but no, it was me, and I finally concluded I couldn't take anything out of Fran's mouth seriously because, really, what did she know about the true elegance of womanhood?
She wears a metal thong, for gods' sake.
I'm everything I said I wouldn't be,
Standing here with nothing, will you help me?
I don't know if Mom would like Fran. I'm sure she would have grown to like her, eventually, seeing as though she was demonstrating benevolency towards me, and any mother likes the person who makes her child happy, but I think she may have been put off by the clothing—or lack thereof. For someone who always preached modesty and dignity, I think the Eryut village would have had her spitting blood or in traumatic shock.
Cultural differences aside, Fran continued to walk beside me on various occasions. Not always, of course, because Fran was certainly not the clingy type, and I am proud to say I didn't always require her aid. Sometimes I was able to put Ashe out of my mind and concentrate on more important things, like saving the world. But there were times when Balthier went a little too far with his promiscuous comments (often forgetting there were five other people around) or Vaan looked a little too glassy eyed and practically had drool building up in the corners of his mouth. These are times I fell behind and these are times Fran fell behind with me. She taught me about magick and how to control the Mist better, and on days where I was really bummed about the lack of male affection I had she'd tell me horribly embarrassing stories about Balthier. This was always amusing because it required her to talk in more then mere fragments. Her stories always went something like this: "Balthier became intoxicated once. Not on Madhu wine. He says that is piss water. He then approached a bangaa. Mistook it for a hume. A female hume. It was neither."
I laughed more at her delivery than the actual story itself. I didn't tell her that though.
On occasions, I am happy to say, Basch decided to make himself known to me. He always had that paternal instinct, for both Vaan and me, and whenever the two of us were bickering (for while I grew insanely angry at him from time to time I could never hold a grudge, well, I could with anyone but him, and we'd go on like nothing ever happened. That was how we always operated. Saving the world doesn't change that) Basch would come over and listen to us, perfectly silent and stoic, and every once in awhile he'd break out in this really deep, manly, chuckle because Vaan would say something stupid or I would say something blonde. Either way, it was amusing.
He protected us on the battlefield. We protected him. Balthier kept throwing himself in front of Ashe like a human shield and we let him. Once you learn to laugh at it it's kinda funny. Mom probably would have found it cute. Well, until he went off on his not so charming innuendo, which we always knew when he did because Ashe would get her disgusted face on and slap him. Vaan and I kept a running total.
Fran said she lost count two years ago.
I think after awhile Basch became our surrogate father. Vaan needed male guidance, from someone other than a thieving sky pirate who was more concerned with getting inside Ashe's belt—I mean, skirt—than he was saving Ivalice. I needed someone of the male gender to assure me I was not going to charm school hell and even someone as quirky as me still had a chance of procreating offspring.
Of course, he never worded it like that. This is Basch, remember? Loyal even if beaten within an inch of his life and all 'nearer to the princess, my thee' mentality which I'm sure Mom would have found a very defining characteristic.
"Oh look Penelo! He's noble!"
Understatement of the year.
Anyway, we were traveling the Tchita Uplands when I asked him if he thought I was pretty.
He immediately turned an alarming shade of crimson and buffered, "I do not believe I am in a position to answer that question."
"Course you are," I assured him, hours spent together fighting side by side making me more comfortable than I should have been. I knew what the man smelled like without deodorant. I considered us intimate.
"I, for one, do not believe something like that should matter."
I stopped fiddling with my weapon to look at him.
"Well then why do you keep falling all over Ashe?"
"She is the Queen of Dalmasca. It is my sworn duty."
"Queen? She's a Queen now?"
Oh, Mother, I'll never win.
"There is no one else in the position to take the throne. She is the only one left."
It made sense. I hated hearing it, though.
"Why do you trouble yourself with these trivial matters, Penelo?" he inquired, making sure to avoid eye contact, for he was still crimson, though in a less intense shade.
"What do you mean?"
"Aesthetics and such," he replied.
I was silent.
"You should feel inferior to no one," he continued. "While I may not be in the position to offer my opinion on your visage, I can assure you I firmly believe you will make quite an excellent mother."
And I think my world stopped then and there. And I prayed, prayed, prayed that Mom heard that too, wherever she was.
I tried to laugh it off, turning crimson myself because—oh my gosh, does he realize the gravity of what he just said? I feel like I just got hit by a Flare spell. Five of them, at that.
"Pifft," I dismissed. "You'd say that to Ashe too, it's your sworn duty."
Basch cleared his throat. "I do not lie," he grumbled.
"I didn't say you would."
For the first time, Basch made eye contact with me. "Sometimes I worry she will beat her offspring," he stated in tones of great seriousness.
And I keeled over from laughter.
The entire party had to stop traveling just because of me. They were all forced to wait for me to clamor back to my feet and regain my composure (Basch now beat red and more crimson than I have ever seen him) after I was done laying on the grass in the fetal position and convulsing accordingly.
Vaan himself was stifling a laugh at seeing mine. Mom always said happiness was contagious, which is why, I suppose, everyone loved Reks. Even me.
After my spectacle was terminated, we proceeded onwards and I ventured conversation with Basch once again. He had now returned to normal hues of skin tone so I did not have to fear for his health anymore.
"So, physical attributes aside," I commenced, "do you believe I am a woman or a girl?"
I didn't let on how serious this inquisition was to me.
Fran knew, for I saw her ear twitch in my general direction from somewhere in the front of the group and I knew she was silently eavesdropping, as usual.
Basch was silent for a moment. It worried me. A lot.
"Anyone who is willing to put up with Vaan on a daily basis is the equivalent of six women in my eyes."
I didn't giggle, even though I knew he was trying to make a joke, which was rare and I should have given him compensation of some sort for the feat.
I think that was when he realized how serious this matter to me really was.
"...he'll come around," Basch offered sparingly, and without even asking I knew who he was referring to. "Boys need longer to become men than girls need to become women. Which is why I have always advocated females are the stronger gender of the species, they must learn to put up with us. Every solider I have ever had the honor of training was raised by an equally honorable mother. The man swings the sword but the woman is the one who made him strong enough to hold it."
I was shocked into a hypnotic like stupor for the next five minutes.
The moment of reflection was broken when we heard the all too familiar sound of a far off slap echoing off the low canyon walls.
"Thirty three!" Vaan cried out.
"Then again," Basch said in resignation. "Some boys never grow up."
"Just because you can see it doesn't mean you can touch it, Balthier," Ashe could be heard scolding from a few feet away.
"He has always wanted things he can not have," Fran murmured, occupying herself with the maintaining of her bow.
On second thought, perhaps Mom and Fran would get along.
Don't know how to tell a joke without putting my foot in my mouth,
Don't know how to be intimate if I don't have a crowd,
Don't know how to be hopeful, what if they let me down?
I don't know how to keep myself from hurting everyone...
Sometimes I think my mother would be shocked if she could see me now.
I used to braid my hair and play with dolls and draw pictures of smiley faces and tulips and lolly pops. Little stick figures sketched in waxy crayon all holding hands and standing under a bright orange sun.
Now I kill things and shoot them with a large assortment of weapons, anything ranging from a gun to a sword to a bow, but I usually stick with the bow seeing as though Fran doesn't mind putting in the extra effort to teach me how to use it properly.
In some cases, I believe Fran is more of a woman than Ashe is.
Which is ironic, because you wouldn't think she'd make a better mother, what with her lack of dress and taciturn nature. But actions speak louder than words (but only with some people; Tomaj has been known to proffer every female orphan with some grandiose assortment of jewelry for her birthday, fully expecting compensation of some sort, and then turning around and gossiping about them and their rendezvous the next day. When he approaches me on the twenty second of March, I'll throw that cubic zirconium ring he is trying to pass off as a diamond right back in his face and scamper away, again thinking of nothing intelligent to say, but I have that innate common sense and it rings loud and it rings clear.)
Besides, I promised Mother I'd save it for marriage, anyway.
Not like I'll ever have the temptation, but still.
I digressed into this matter when I was forced to impale a rather cute looking cataur out of necessity, and I could practically here my mom whimpering in the background 'Oh sweetheart, why'd you do that?' It was trying to kill me, Mother. 'You don't know that, maybe it wanted to be your friend.' Mom, I've been fighting for approximately three months now, I think I know when something is trying to kill me.
Oh, and Mommy, I kill and I kill and I kill right back.
Maybe it is best you do not know me anymore. But then again, does a mother ever forget her daughter, even in death? None of us could answer that, none of us were parents let alone mothers, and we can try to imagine all we want but I don't think you fully can comprehend the gravity of becoming maternal until you hold something of your own in your arms.
I used to play with baby dolls all the time but I never once contemplated dying for them.
Which, in reality, is what happened to you, now isn't it Mother?
You didn't want the Judge to know there were children inside the house, did you? Your distraction gave us enough time to hide in the little make shift sliding wall Dad fashioned right before he was falsely accused of treason, and we were all spared while you were beheaded.
Sometimes I enjoy the killing, Mother.
I pretend it is the man that killed you.
I know you said hate is evil and hate is bad and hate will eat you alive, but I can't help it. And neither can Vaan. It's where we get our strength from. It's how we carry on. Fran fights for her sisters (she claims she isn't but we all know she is) and Basch fights for Dalmasca. Ashe fights for revenge. Vaan fights for Reks and I fight for you. Balthier fights for only gods know what, but I certainly don't. Fran said alcohol but I think she was joking. You can never be too sure with Fran, though. She also told us the viera get impregnated by cabbages. We believed her; all four of us silently nodding as she foretold such in tones of great import. Balthier then told us we were all being retarded.
Well, what does he know?
I remember it was night time, towards the end of our time together, where we were all growing closer than we wanted to because inevitably we would have to split up and we all subconsciously knew this and chose to ignore it anyway.
It was the evening of a particularly vicious day, Balthier was sprawled out on the ground, bitten and bruised, bleeding and coughing. A fiend had broken four of his ribs and Fran spent the remainder of the night tending to his wounds and nursing him with x potions and elixirs. Vaan called him a Curaja Whore, for the man couldn't go two feet without depleting half of his health, and we couldn't run fast enough to keep our magick up to cure him constantly. And now we were all exhausted and unable to help him when he needed it. But nothing was life threatening, just painful, and it put him out of commission for the night. This also gave Ashe the night off, seeing as though he usually harassed her around bed time, making lewd comments of sharing a sleeping bag and the like. Every time he did such I think Basch would choke a little on himself 'that's not how you treat a lady!' but he knew better than to stick his nose where it doesn't belong. Keep her alive, Basch. I think she can handle the rest on her own. It's not like the man is deadly, anyway. Fran attested to this. "I do all the killing," she told me one day. "I just let him tag along."
Well, that's what she meant to say. It came out more like, "I kill. He tags." But anyway.
That night Ashe announced she had some defecation matters to take care of ('So basically you have to take a crap?' Vaan asked. He was ignored. As per usual.) and she went off a ways into the woods, so we were all left to doze off (except for Basch, who was keeping diligent watch as usual.) I waited thirty minutes for Ashe to come back, and when she didn't, I turned to Basch, who always knew how to make things right.
"I don't think she's pooping," I commented quietly, not wanting to wake Balthier but more importantly Fran, because she was still mobile and could physically hurt me in the morning. Balthier would just call me names. And then Basch would punch him or something and he'd leave me alone.
"I believe there is much validity in that statement," he confirmed, head drawn down to his knees, hands clasped behind his neck.
"Um, are you gonna go check on her or something?"
Basch was silent for a long moment. "There is not much I can say to make her feel any better."
"...who says she's upset? Maybe she's lost."
"It is the eve of her wedding anniversary," Basch stated simply. "She is not lost."
I sat there mauling this over for a moment or two.
"I guess it's a good thing Balthier broke his ribs then," I tried to laugh. "Otherwise Ashe may have hurt him."
"I am responsible for the breaking of his ribs," Basch admitted, staring hard at the dirt ground.
"You hit him?"
"No, of course not, I am not that brash nor impulsive. But I saw the fiend approaching and neglected to warn him. I knew what tonight was and I did not want him hounding the Queen with his misconstrued attempts at...whatever he calls it that he does."
"Flirting?" I suggested.
"Trying to convince a lady into your bed is flirting now?"
"...he would never actually act on it," I assured him confidently, even though I scarcely knew Balthier as it were.
"Yes he would," Fran stated from across the smoldering campfire, eyes still closed and head still propped against the far tree trunk.
Both of us jumped at the unexpected comment, and I think Basch went so far as to draw out his sword (which was funny, because we all know Fran was the strongest one out of all of us and could probably have handed his hindquarters to him on a silver platter if she really wanted to) but I settled on simply apologizing profusely.
"It is no matter," she replied dreamily. "Balthier is deserving of a whack in the ribs sometimes. I am saddened that you took the opportunity away from me."
I think I like her more everyday.
Vaan was snoring from his perch over by the rations. He always slept with the food; it was his one true love (aside from sky pirating, that is, and he couldn't exactly sleep with Balthier, now could he?) He was as zonked out as the aforementioned thief and he did not even have the insane amount of curative items coursing through his system. Amusing, yet pathetic.
I lay awake a little while longer, unable to fall asleep. Fran's breathing became regular, and we made the assumption she had finally drifted off. Though we could never be sure with her.
I then began to stand, my sleeping bag falling away from me like the molting of an outer shell. Basch eyed me curiously as I began to make off in the same direction Ashe had previous taken.
"Do you require assistance? You may get lost—"
"It's a girl moment," I stated firmly, my voice enough to bring Basch to his knees. He resumed his previous position on the nondescript trunk and had the remnants of an unspoken question riddled within his rugged features. It did not go unnoticed.
"What?" I asked. "I think I can find my way around a couple of trees."
"It is not that, Penelo," my companion responded, folding his hands and trying to word his question in his mind before articulating it. "It is just...I thought you did not favor her."
I sighed, for I knew that was what he was thinking.
"Ah, hell. I'm not even enough of a woman to hold a grudge properly," I grumbled, hoping my excuse would suffice. I could be immature and fickle just this once more, right? I'll never be a lady anyway, so why start now? I could go help my figurative enemy, even though it makes for a horrible battle tactic and pretty much solidified my previous assumption that I could never govern a nation like Ashe could.
"Penelo," Basch called after me. "I never said that made you immature."
I paused, waited for a moment, and then continued on. I was sensitive enough concerning the matter, and if Basch said the wrong thing Ashe and I would both end up crying and I don't think I have any purchase to complain considering I never lost my husband. Ashe had lost everything I have but I have not lost everything she has. I would not cry tonight. Thus, I tore away from the camp site even though I think Basch was trying to tell me something.
The ground was mushy and damp and icky and I felt like the dirt itself was trying to suck my HP out through my boots. I was making squishy squashie noises with every step, and I knew finesse would never be a skill I could add to my lacking itinerary. I could dance, or at least I like to pretend I can, but stealth was something only Reks had mastered, the boisterous air that Vaan and I emanated only making his skills even more evident.
Heels were also hell spawn. Or at least they were in my eyes. Vaan compared them to ancient Rozzarian foot bondage synonymous with that of torture, and I very nearly broke my nose when I face planted the cobble stone lining the streets of Rabanastre whilst on an urgent errand for Migelo. "Oi, Penelo, you stupid little girl," he had said in that rumbling voice that continues to resonate through your bones long after he is done talking. "What am I goin' to do with you, huh?" Of course, he said this as he held my head back in one massive claw and clamped my nose shut with his pointy forefingers, all the while tenderly humming some nondescript lullaby even though I was reaching the end of my adolescence.
"You shouldn't do that," Vaan muttered, absent mindedly chewing on some obnoxiously yellow fruit he had previously stolen from an unfortunate bangaa. "The blood is gonna go down her throat and make her blow chunks."
"Vann, shut up," I quipped, but since my nose was plugged, it came out more like, "Baan, shub ub!" Volcanic laughter ensued, me snorting due to my injury, and I think Migelo was thankful I was happy again.
Sometimes I think Migelo is more aware with my ongoing struggle for acceptance and maturity than anyone else is. Even Vaan, who is probably aware of it, but seems to forget every time he sees something shiny or equally as enticing.
I replay these scenes in my mind whenever I am uncertain, for they remind me that no matter what happens, I will always have a home to return to, no matter how untraditional or eccentric that home may be. And as far as I am concerned, a rag tag bunch of orphans and one paternal bangaa constitute as more than enough.
And what did Ashe have to return home to?
An empty, vacant palace? An onslaught of maids and servants hell bent on pleasing her and vying for her approval even though they scarcely knew her? Knights willing to die for her but none that were able to reiterate her favorite color, her favorite book, whether she liked her eggs sunny side or scrambled?
For all of Vaan's short comings, even he knew he was putting his genitilia on the line if he ever dared to scramble my eggs.
And he did so. Every morning at breakfast. And I both hated him and loved him for it.
I wonder if Rasler ever had enough time to cook Ashe eggs?
Eventually I was able to follow Ashe's muddy foot prints to a desolate precipice located on the far edge of the woods, over looking a star peppered sky smattered with a healthy serving of clouds and a generous hunk of moon.
The minute Ashe heard me coming, she swirled around at the speed of light, drawing upon her sword for protection as she readied her battle stance in preparation to fight off whatever fiend dared to disturb her on this hallowed and consecrated night.
I waved sheepishly, and I saw the tension in Ashe's body leave her, only to immediately return as she turned back around to resume her previous perch on the adjacent rock and lost her footing to the mud, silently slipping and toppling over in a flourish of white cloth and moon struck jewels, all which had seemed to have lost their luster in mourning for the departed, as Ashe was so unquestionably in the process of doing.
I hurried over to her side, squish squashing the entire way, and collapsed into the mud next her in a futile attempt to help her up. I stopped trying to yank on her appendages when I promptly realized that perhaps she wanted to be left alone, desolate yet content in her crumpled form as she sat there folding in on herself, and I quickly withdrew my eager hands, for now I was scared to touch her, like she was some immaculate—albeit currently covered in mud—being that was above me, even in her grief and suffering.
"You didn't impale yourself on your sword, did ya?" I questioned, because I am an idiot. An idiot who once again has just proved finesse will never be something I have a prayer of mastering. Mom would have known the right thing to say. Mom would have said it. But I am not my mother, and this fact once again became obvious to me as I sat there on the damp earth with a broken and shivering Ashe.
Her hair shielded her face, and I could not catch glimpse of her visage, whether it be tear stained on stoic and aloof as usual. After a couple moments of permeating silence, I got up to leave, digging my palms into the mildew infested earth as I rose to my feet. I was used to being dirty. I was an orphan. Reks and I played in the mud for fun when we were kids.
I turned to head back to the campfire, feeling like an intruder now more than ever, like witnessing Ashe in this state was blasphemous and I was desecrating her holy and ethereal image. Citizens are not supposed to stand by and gawk while their Queen crouches in the mud and cries. Yes, these things happen behind closed doors, but we are not supposed to witness them.
"Please..." Ashe croaked, voice faltering in a way I was unaware she was capable of allowing.
I looked over my shoulder, wavering in uncertainty at the threshold of the forest.
"...don't leave me..."
And it was so weak and so pitiful and so mitigated that at first I thought I had just imagined it. But then I took heed of Ashe's tremulous frame and I realized that she was just as lost and scared and scarred as I was. We were both orphans, after all. And funny to think that I was once so shallow as to believe that since Ashe was located in a different realm of social hierarchy that the loss of her parents would somehow hurt less.
I meandered back to where the newfound Queen of Dalmasca was fixated in the mud, unwilling to pull herself up, perhaps for the first time in her life, and simply just sat there, splattered in mud and dirt and ick and grime, not caring about her outward appearance, which was usually so pristine and flawless and immaculate, and was stunned to find that perhaps, for the first time, she was simply just...being.
And what do you say to that?
What condolence could I possibly offer her?
What did Reks do when I crumbled in front of him?
But that was different. I was not a Queen. I was not a woman. I was a twiggy little girl with pig tails and voice that still cracked when excited. Ashe was...different. We were different.
"My Mom used to bake brownies," I blurted, settling down next to Ashe, regardless of the mud that was seeping through my jumpsuit. I'd wash it sooner or later.
"...did she now?" Ashe asked, voice tinged with a hint of waver. It was such a contrast to how she usually sounded: so sure and certain and absolute. You never questioned Ashe. You just agreed.
"Yeah huh," I continued, drawing me knees to my woefully underdeveloped chest and hugging them accordingly. "And she let us eat them before dinner. That was the best part."
There was a lull in which some crickets chirped and the globe circled around the now invisible sun just a little bit more. I had to fight the urge to fill the silence but thought perhaps that my own voice was not the best remedy for the situation. I let the omission of sound linger until I was almost beginning to grow fond of it. Quietness is a commodity I never allowed myself to long for, partly because I knew it was nigh impossible with Vaan constantly flanking my side and partly because I didn't like resorting to my own thoughts to keep me occupied.
"...mine made cookies."
I startled at the abrupt offering of information, the previous ambience now shattered and replaced with the jargon I was more accustomed to. I found myself fighting back a giggle. Ashe saying the word 'cookie' just struck a chord.
"Were they chocolate cookies?" I pried. "Because, ya know, chocolate cookies are the best kind."
"Yes," Ashe recalled. "They were chocolate. With sprinkles."
I found it odd she chose to divulge this information to me. But then again, why not? Who was left?
I snorted at the reminder of sprinkles.
"We never had sprinkles. Vaan always found a way to get them stuck in his nose."
And at that, a small trace of a smile flittered across Ashe's face. It was quick and it was fleeting and I'm not quite sure it was there, but I like to pretend it was.
"I ate too many once," I informed her. "I was blowing chunks all night." For a moment, I was too caught up in the memory to realize I had just showcased my immaturity by utilizing a phrase like blowing chunks, but I don't think Ashe noticed.
"She stayed with me," I continued. "My Mom, I mean. She slept on the bathroom floor."
"Mothers are funny like that," Ashe concluded softly. Her voice was carried off by the wind. I had to strain to hear it, but I did. It was then Ashe's face contorted into an expression I had never seen before, like it was stuck somewhere between rage and sorrow and couldn't make up its mind on which way it wanted to go, so I decided to intercept before either emotion came hurtling in and blew her over.
"Balthier sure seems to like you!" I blurted. Two seconds later, I swear I could have throttled myself to death, but I didn't. Ashe would have just cast Curaga anyhow.
"Indeed," Ashe agreed, face clouding over.
I sat there for a moment.
"Do you still miss him?" I ventured after a while. There was no avoiding the discussion. I mean, it was why she was out there after all. It's not like she was going to magically forget about it just because I made for some scintillating conversation.
"I miss my mother more."
And I think I managed to choke on air at that point.
Silently, of course. But still. It was a new experience for me. One that I doubt I will ever allow to happen again. I waited for further elaboration, and eventually it came.
"You can replace a husband," Ashe noted dimly. "You can never replace a mother."
"But you can become one..." I added weakly.
And I let that hang there for awhile, for I really had nothing else to say. I picked at my nails for some time, pulled up some grass, and then emitted a sigh. I officially suck at giving encouragement. It must be a side effect from living with Vaan for so long. It's fun to blame things on him. Therapeutic.
I then stood up to leave. I had nothing else to offer her.
"How can you be so strong?" Ashe shot out all at once. I was half way off the ground and found myself falling back to the earth out of shock. I sat there, frozen in some catatonic like stupor, and stared slack jawed. It was all I was capable of doing at the current moment. Words just weren't an option.
"You always seem...so...so..." she struggled with words probably for the first time in her life, "...at peace."
I stared at my boots. They were brown.
"I have...Vaan...I guess..." I finished lamely. "And Migelo. They're not a typical family but they love me. And, well, just because my mother's gone doesn't mean she's not still...with me, ya know?" I thought hard on what Reks had told me that fateful night. "And I have to keep strong. For her. How could I offer her any less?"
Ashe stared, searching, waiting, yearning for more. I wasn't aware I had anything to give.
"Someone has to carry out the family name," I stated bluntly. "I can't imagine what my mother would say if I just gave up and died. She'd probably kill me."
It wasn't until after I presented it that I realized the duplicity in what I had just said.
But it made Ashe laugh. Which was a first. So I didn't bother to correct myself.
"But," she began quietly, after she was done reveling in the wake of my last statement. "But what if you don't have Va—" she paused "Migelo. What if you don't have a family to...return to?"
"Well, first things first," I blabbered. "You can't have Vaan because he's mine. And secondly..." I paused, trying to pick my words carefully. I tried to imagine what Reks would say if he were here. "Well, you don't want Migelo anyway. He smells funny." No, definitely not what Reks would say.
I swallowed in trepidation. "And, well. You have...us?"
Ashe stared hard in front of her.
"I suppose that will do," she stated evenly, all previous vulnerability gone within the blink of an eye. I watched as the placidness slowly seeped back into her features. She was putting on her armor, and I felt it was something best left uncommented on. I hopped to my feet first but knew better than to help her up. I also knew better then to ever mention this night again.
We returned to the camp in silence. There were no sentiments exchanged and certainly no hugging business. In fact, I don't think we spoke more than five words to each other for the remainder of the venture. But words are over rated anyway. Just ask Fran.
And so maybe I never did get to trump Ashe in looks or power or men or money, but maybe it was enough to know that even spite of all that I envied her for, she still harbored the same insecurities and I, and was perhaps envious of me.
And maybe, somewhere in the back of my very convoluted mind, I finally realized that perhaps I do have it better off than Ashe. I may not be the paradigm for affection, Al Cid may not flirt with me and Balthier may not try to sneak into my sleeping bag, Basch may not throw himself in front of every arrow hurtled my way and Vaan may never look at me the way he does her, but I was not alone, and there is more to love than just the romantic kind. Vaan, however incredibly stupid and moronic he may be, will forever be a permanent fixture in my life, and Migelo will make sure I am never out sleeping on the streets. I was not tied down to anything or anyplace or anyone, free to roam where I chose (or where Vaan chooses, as it may be) and had not the weight of the world on my shoulders. I was not liable for the well being of a nation or the economic status of a thriving metropolis. I could go to bed late and wake up at twelve. I could not go to bed at all, if I really wanted to. I can sing and I can dance and I can get drunk whenever I please.
And yet, despite all of the aforementioned differences, we are still so much the same.
Sometimes it boggles my mind.
And I wonder if it should.
So when all is said and done and we saved the day and the world, I wonder if Mom would be proud. I wonder what she would say if she knew her daughter—her skinny, pale, whiny little runt of a daughter—who used to cry when she scraped her knees and whine about eating her spinach, managed to save all of hume kind (and viera, and bangaa, and seeque, for that matter) and still come out with both pigtails perfectly in place.
I wonder if she would finally consider me a woman.
Any maybe she always did and maybe she always didn't, and I guess I'll never know but isn't that the beauty of it? I can pretend, I can imagine, and I can dream up whatever response I would like.
But somewhere in the back of my mind I know I'll never be satisfied because I will never be able to get an honest answer.
But maybe one becomes a woman when she stops looking for one.
I don't veer to others looking for approval. I don't ask Basch or Fran anymore if they view me as mature or a rug rat. I don't pester Vaan with my questioning and I stopped constantly wishing I was someone else. Because, well, that's not very fair to my mom, now is it? I doubt there's a nice way to say, 'I hate how you made me, gosh your genes suck.' Because I am part of her, now aren't I? And if I'm full of self loathing, then technically I'm still loathing an extension of her, however distant and diluted that version may be. I am still my mother's daughter, and I guess I'll have to learn to work with what she gave me.
"Oh gods Penelo, what happened to your outfit?"
I stared down at my new wardrobe, something I had been saving up for ever since we defeated Vayne and were sent to live out our normal lives. It was less constrictive than my former jumpsuit, lower cut and accentuating different aspects than my previous garb. It was bright, it was festive, and I loved the way it made swishy noises when I danced. It was an outfit I do not think I was capable of pulling off before our adventure, but now that two years have passed, I like to think I'm ready for it.
"Oh, ya know," I answered breezily to Vaan, who was sitting slack jawed at Migelo's Sundries. "I wanted to try something new." And I didn't look to his face for approval or praise. I liked it. Vaan could always go oogle at Filo if he needed to get his kicks out of lesser women.
"...it's hot," he finally came back with.
I stopped and looked at him, the current assortment of groceries I was busy stocking forgotten in my arms.
"Confidence," he finished up lamely. "That's hot."
And. Well. Maybe I wasn't looking for his approval but it made me feel good just the same.
Oh gosh. Another Penelo fanfic. I don't know what's come over me. Ever since touch of grey and mariagoner converted me I keep finding myself penning her Penelo's POV.
Wow. It started out as a song fic, but it really didn't need to be. In fact, towards the end I ran out of lyrics. OO
The song was Idina Menzel's 'Penny' from her album Here.
That song just screamed Penelo to me. Thus, inspiration.
Also, I wanted to thank everybody who reviewed my last Penelo one shot 'Ten Things I Learned While Saving The World.' You were all so nice and supportive and I want to feed you all cookies! SQUEE! This is for you!
Your kind words have spurred me on to write more Penelo. Wow. Things I thought I'd never say.
I find it quite fun trying to flesh Penelo out as a character. She is nowhere near as bland as I originally thought her out to be.
Thank you for your time and I hope you had as much fun reading as I did writing:)
Oh, and reviews make me squeal. XD