Title: A Nice Man is Difficult to Find
Summary: Ashe sees something and jumps to conclusions
Note: I am never allowed to watch Star Wars ever again. Seriously. Written 11/5/07.
Disclaimer: Balthier and Ashe don't belong to me. Property of Square-Enix.
Penelo was acting strangely. It wasn't something that people would instantly pick up on, but she kept shifting her eyes towards Balthier when she thought no one else was looking and then look away quickly, her face turning bright red in the light of their campfire.
Balthier was oblivious, mostly because he was asleep at the time. Penelo should have been asleep as well, especially if she was going to take on the next watch during the night. Ashe wouldn't have noticed either, but she was on edge and couldn't sleep. The cold that seeped through her blankets didn't help matters any, even if Basch had moved closer in his sleep, his back warming her side. They would have continued to Mt. Bur-Omisace, but the dark and sheets of snow had halted their progress. It wasn't safe to venture out, especially since even Fran couldn't see five feet in front of her face. Ashe opened her eyes again. Penelo had fallen asleep, her head pillowed on Vaan's chest as the trio consisting of Vaan, Larsa and Penelo huddled together for warmth like puppies. She burrowed her face deeper into her blankets and shivered, but managed to fall into a fitful sleep anyway.
The very faint sounds of whispered conversation woke her up. She looked up to the sky, but couldn't tell exactly how long she had been asleep. The fire was piled high, the heat coming off of it a welcome warmth at her feet. She looked at the two figures huddled near the fire and narrowed her eyes. Balthier's head was very close to Penelo's, as if they were sharing a secret. She watched as he spoke, his hands gesturing in front of him to accentuate a point. Penelo nodded, staring wide eyed at him as she soaked up every word he said.
Ashe could see the white flash of teeth as Balthier's lips curled up in what she called his most lecherous style grin. During the course of their journey, he had thrown that expression her way, and she had tried her best to ignore it. Seeing him use it on a girl five years his junior was inexcusable, which was what she told herself was the reason she stood up and sat down next to them.
She refused to believe it was anything else, especially petty jealousy.
"You look exhausted, Penelo," she said softly. "Why don't you go back to sleep, I'll take the rest of your watch." Even with the aid of Larsa's potion supply, they had still fallen back on Penelo's healing skills. The girl was adept at casting them, and they'd heavily relied on her during their most recent battle with the Elder Wyrm. She still looked drained from the encounter, and was asleep as soon as her head hit the pack she was using as a pillow, her arm going around Larsa to pull some of the blankets over her way.
"What do you think you're doing?" she asked Balthier, now that they were alone by the fire.
"Standing guard, what else?" He used a stick to stir up the fire, sparks flying up in the air as another log burned.
"You know what I mean." She moved closer so that their shoulders almost touched. "With Penelo."
He rocked back on his heels and opened his mouth as if what she was saying had finally clicked. "Ah, yes. Her." He grinned. "She wanted some advice on men, which I was more than happy to supply."
Ashe's eyes narrowed. "Oh, I'm sure you were. I seriously doubt that Penelo needs you to educate her. She's still a child!"
He shook his head. "At her age, you were married and when I was sixteen, I'd…" he drifted off, not finishing his sentence. "My point is that she's no more child than you or I. At least I'm treating her like an equal."
"So is that what you call it? I would say you're taking advantage of her."
"Taking…" He stared incredulously at Ashe before covering his mouth with a hand.
"Don't laugh at me!" she hissed, resisting the urge to hit him in the arm.
"I can't help it," he whispered, humor dancing in his eyes. "You should see the look on your face." She opened her mouth to retort, but he reached out and closed it with one gentle push. He kept his finger under her chin and leaned forward. "Ashe, it's not me she wants, it's Vaan, though for the life of me I can't imagine why."
She frowned in confusion. "But, I thought…"
He quirked an eyebrow. "That I would be such a scoundrel to prey on innocent girls? That I'd use what could be described as a crush to my advantage?" He shook his head. "And here I thought better from you."
She looked him square in the eye. "I was merely trying to protect her."
He met her stare and tilted his head. "Funny, for a moment there I almost thought you were jealous."
She jerked her head backward. "Jealous?" She hunched her shoulders, keenly aware that she had nearly shouted the question. "Jealous?" she whispered, her arms crossing in front of her chest and her breath puffing out in a white cloud in front of her face. "Why in the world would you think that?"
Balthier shrugged, mischief all but glittering in his stare. "Oh, I don't know. Perhaps you didn't like the fact that I was paying such close attention to another member of our party? Maybe you thought that I had lost interest in you for favor of someone more receptive?" His tone was teasing, but she couldn't help but feel uncomfortable with the way that he had leaned forward, his palm planted on the cold ground next to her hip. She could feel the warmth radiate off of his body and it took everything she had to scoot away.
"You think too highly of yourself," she said instead, tilting her chin up. "You, sir, are merely a companion on this journey. Nothing more."
"Pity." He moved closer to her. "And here I hoped that you might have wanted something else."
She didn't have anywhere else to go. If she moved backwards any more, she would bump into Basch's feet. Waking him up was out of the question, especially since he didn't get enough sleep to begin with. "You're not the type of man I'm interested in." She closed her eyes, knowing that she had opened up a large can of worms that he was certain to exploit.
"I'm not? And what kind of man am I?" His breath was almost hot on her cheek.
"Reckless. Impulsive. Thieving."
He snorted. "I prefer the title of expert treasure hunter instead." His hand reached up and his fingers traced the gentle curve of her jaw. "Maybe you need a change from the courtly gentlemen you're used to dealing with. You've been surrounded with nice men for too long."
"I happen to admire nice men." Her eyes slid closed at the slightly rough feel of his callous-tipped fingers.
His voice was very close to her ear when he spoke next. "I can be a nice man."
No you can't, she thought desperately as his lips gently brushed over hers. It was the briefest of kisses, but something inside of her seemed to crack, as if a great block of ice within her had suddenly decided to thaw. Her hands hesitantly reached for the cold leather of his vest, her fingers curling against the edges of the material as she tugged him closer to her.
He pulled away first, his fingers barely touching her cheek. She stared up at him, blinking the flecks of snow that had gathered on her eyelashes away. "I don't think I'd want you to be." It was bold of her to say, but she couldn't stop the words from spilling out of her mouth.
His lips curved and he brushed them along her temple. Tucking her against his side, he sat so they'd both be comfortable for the remainder of the watch.