I have not yet finished Final Fantasy XII. Although I did do a bit of research, I'm sure that some things will be inaccurate, and for that reason this fic is to be considered AU. Post XII. For all intents and purposes, FXII: Revenant Wings does not exist.
Penelo hadn't expected to see him again, and yet there he was, striding arrogantly down the crowded Rabanastre streets just a few yards away from her. Or, at least, she hoped it was him.
She didn't want to lose sight of him – but his long legs and quick stride made hurrying after him while still remaining unnoticed a difficult thing to do. What was he doing in Rabanastre, anyway? After he'd stolen the Strahl and flown off into the sunset with Fran over a year ago, she'd thought it unlikely they'd ever meet again, even though her own recent adventures as a sky pirate made it slightly more probable that they would.
She lost him around a group of Bangaa merchants that were clustered around the magick shop, unloading a store of goods. Darting nimbly around them, she surveyed the area, searching for any sign of him. Had he ducked into a shop? But with Dalmasca's restoration into the Lady Ashe's keeping, Rabanastre had flourished and grown – there were far too many shops to search with far too many entrances and exits, and for what – a man who might or might not be Balthier, anyway? She hadn't gotten a close enough look, she'd merely experienced that strange tingling in her stomach she'd always gotten when he was near. Still, a year could change a lot. Likely it wasn't him. He'd said Rabanastre was not the place for him, anyway.
With a heavy sigh, Penelo resigned herself to heading for Migelo's Sundries – she and Vaan needed to restock, and after all, that was why they'd entered the city anyway.
She turned around to head back the way she'd come, only to be yanked into an alleyway a few seconds later. Before she could cry out for help, a firm hand clamped over her mouth and an arm snaked around her bare midriff, yanking her back against a warm, hard chest. Her fingers pried at the hand covering her mouth – if she could get out just one good scream –!
"Now, then," a familiar voice said near her ear. "Perhaps you'd like to explain why you were following me. Does the new queen object to having less than savory characters inside her beloved city now that she's no longer in exile?"
Her hands fell away, her instinctive fight dying all at once. Oh. So it was him. Back in Rabanastre again.
He noted her lack of a struggle with something close to puzzlement – usually when accused of being a spy one did everything in one's power to escape. But this mere slip of a girl did not. He found most people to be dull and predictable in their actions, but this girl baffled him.
"Well? Out with it." Too late he realized he still had his hand clamped tightly over her mouth. He removed it slowly, but tightened his grip on her waist in the event that she would try to flee.
"Balthier," she gasped, "it's me – Penelo. I'm not spying for Lady Ashe, I promise."
"Penelo?" Perhaps the exclamation was a little inelegant, but he felt the situation merited some degree of incredulity. The last time they had met, she had been little more than a child, still with a child's enthusiasm, boundless energy and innocent view of the world despite the hardships they'd come through together. He'd waited and waited for the experiences to jade her, to convert that ever-present optimism to cynicism, but it never had. She'd remained the voice of hope and good sense long after they'd triumphed over enough evil to kill it in a lesser person. He still didn't know if he admired it or found it incredibly foolish.
But that had been some time ago, and here she was, a few inches taller and decidedly more womanly than she'd been before. For Ivalice's sake, she'd still been in a jumpsuit when they'd first met. And now…and now she had foregone the jumpsuit for an unequivocally more provocative outfit – one that left a good deal of smooth, tanned skin visible from just beneath her breasts to a scant couple of inches beneath her navel. Given a couple of years, she'd probably give Fran a run for her gil in the way of suggestive outfits. And that got him to wondering as to precisely what sort of dancing she was up to these days.
"What're you doing in Rabanastre?" She asked, wide-eyed. Her small hands gripped his forearms – for some reason he'd quite forgotten to let go of her waist. "Is Fran with you? What about Sir Basch? Are you going to see Lady Ashe?"
"I'd rather not," he said dryly – though they were on terms that could be considered cordial, the newly-crowned queen had little patience for sky pirates as a whole, and none at all in particular for Balthier and his extraordinary arrogance, as she called it. "Fran's running some errands of her own – she had some unanticipated business to look after. She's sitting out this trip, though we're reconvening in Balfonheim within the week. As for Basch, it is my understanding that he is doing an admirable job of protecting Larsa."
"Oh, I see." So he'd made a solo trip into the city. But he hadn't answered her question as to why. "So…you're not staying?"
"Not overly long, no," he said, watching the light fade from her eyes. And he knew all of a sudden that her crush on him – the one he'd done his very best not to encourage – had never died out like he'd thought. Like he'd hoped. Because like it or not, sweet, innocent girls like her were not meant for men like him.
"Oh." Her shoulders slumped – she was too obvious. "I'd hoped maybe you'd, um…stay for dinner or something." She bit her lip, hoping he'd accept…and hoping Vaan wouldn't be too miffed about having a rival sky pirate aboard the Galbana.
He hesitated, torn. It wasn't like him to refuse something so freely offered, but he didn't want to corrupt that enchanting innocence she'd managed to hold on to through the years. He didn't think he had it in him to give her the sort of life she deserved – oh, he could give her excitement and adventure, but she would need love. She wanted so badly to love someone, and he knew it. She'd had so many things cruelly snatched away from her – her friends, her family, her home. And after helping to restore Dalmasca to its former glory, the people who she had come to view as more than friends – more than family, even – had all deserted her.
And he envied the man that ended up on the receiving end of that pure devotion – but if it were him, she would end up hurt again. And he respected her too much – liked her too much to let that happen.
"I don't think that would be wise," he said slowly. "However, I thank you for your kind offer. Another time, perhaps." With Fran present, at the very least.
Her face shuttered. "I wish you wouldn't treat me like a child," she said, pulling a little away.
To him, it was a ridiculous request. She was a child; how was he not to treat her like one? It defied logic.
"Penelo," he sighed, "you're a charming girl, but you're seventeen years –"
"Nineteen," she corrected hastily, still smarting over the charming girl line.
"I beg your pardon?" He was unaccustomed to being interrupted, unaccustomed to being on the receiving end of poisonous glares – how could she glare at him, anyhow? Women, as a whole, adored him. They certainly did not look at him as though he were some sort of lower life form.
"I'm nineteen," she reiterated. "I've been nineteen for three whole months, now. I'm not a child."
"Nineteen." He thought about it for a moment. "I would've sworn you were seventeen when first we met."
"I was." She rocked back on her heels, linking her fingers behind her back. "I turned eighteen a few days after we rescued Fran's sister, Mjrn."
That had still been well into their journey. "You never said anything," he observed quietly.
She lifted her shoulders in an elegant shrug, made more so by the way the toned muscles of her stomach stretched and moved. "What should I have said? That I wanted a party or presents or…or a cake, even? It was war. There were bigger things at stake than whether or not I had a birthday party."
Bigger people, she meant. It was no secret that she had been the member of their party most often overlooked, and yet somehow she had always been the one to jump in with both feet, to run to anyone's rescue, or to patch them up after a battle. That selflessness was part of what drew him to her, what had made him want to protect her, to fight her battles for her.
She had known all along that there would be no glory in their mission for her – only the slightest chance that they might succeed, that the Lady Ashe would reclaim her kingdom, and she might get to live out a quiet life as a normal, everyday citizen. She had even known that her eighteenth birthday was possibly the last she would ever see. Knowing that, how could she have pressed on so loyally? He had made no secret of his interest in the mission – he was a pirate, he was after the largest bounty he could get his hands on.
Everyone had had their reasons – be it greed, honor, or vengeance…but only Penelo had wanted to keep safe the only family she had left.
Perhaps his pensive mood had flustered her, or maybe she just felt she had overstepped her bounds, but she sighed softly and took a step away.
"Never mind," she said. "I'm in a bit of a hurry, anyway. Maybe some other time, like you said." She nudged a tin can with the toe of her boot. "Give Fran my love."
Of course, Fran got love. It irked him somewhat. He had to remind himself that he had chosen to remove himself from her affections, and so he had no right to be jealous.
"Well, see you around, I suppose." She threw a careless smile over her shoulder. "I've got to get to Migelo's before he closes up shop for the day. We're running out of supplies on the Galbana."
"The Galbana. Vaan's airship." She tilted her head to the side, slanting him a curious look. "We're sky pirates, you know."
He resisted the sudden urge to throttle her. Barely. "No," he said calmly. "No, I did not know."
"You're kidding. I thought for sure you would've known." Oddly pleased, she moved a little closer. "We're just starting out, and the Galbana isn't anywhere near as big as the Strahl, but it's a lot of fun. There's still a lot of Ivalice I want to see. Navigating for Vaan is the perfect way to do it."
He clenched and unclenched his fists, valiantly restraining himself from wrapping his fingers around her pretty throat.
"Penelo, you cannot be a sky pirate." He imbued the statement with as much finality and conviction as he could muster.
"Why's that?" Her voice had a distinctly frosty tone to it. "Is it because I'm a charming girl?"
"In part." Where to begin, though? How was he to tell her she lacked the necessary attitude to be a successful sky pirate? "You're still young, Penelo. You're just a girl."
He hadn't intended for it to come out that way – what was it about her that flustered him so?
"Fran's a girl," she said, setting her jaw stubbornly. "And I can take care of myself, you know."
He could see that he was going to have a battle on his hands to get her to give up her new career path.
"Fran is a Viera," he replied. "She's had hundreds of years in which to study and train. You haven't even had two decades. But there's more to it than just being able to defend oneself. You don't have it in you to be a pirate. You lack the ruthlessness necessary to carry out a successful mission. You are filled with empathy and compassion, and there is no room for compassion in the life of a sky pirate."
"I can't be a pirate because I'm not ruthless? Like you?" She queried. At his curt nod, she threw back her head and laughed. "You're not ruthless, Balthier. You're ridiculous."
He bristled. "Care to repeat that?" Folding his arms forbiddingly, he attempted to stare her into submission. However, she merely grinned up at him disarmingly, launching unceremoniously into her explanation.
"Ridiculous," she proclaimed. "You act like you don't care, you pretend to be indifferent and nonchalant, but you're not. If you were, you would never have rescued Vaan for me, you would never have given me your handkerchief for safekeeping that day. So you go right on ahead and tell yourself that you're a ruthless, compassionless sky pirate." She smirked, mirth and satisfaction glimmering in her eyes. "But it'll be nothing but lies."
"Be that as it may, my behavior has little to do with your pirating. Of which there will be none, just as soon as I have a word or several with your co-conspirator." He made for the main thoroughfare and she darted in front of him, blocking his path.
"No," she said primly. "I am rescinding my invitation. You're not allowed on the Galbana."
"I'm a pirate, sweetheart," he said. "If failing to gain permission to go somewhere had ever stopped me from going, I wouldn't be as successful as I am, now, would I?"
"Well, that's a very good point," she said, "but I've got a better one."
"Which would be?"
"You've got no idea what the Galbana looks like. And, since it's a sky pirate's ship, you can hardly expect to find it easily, can you? I'd say you need me to help you find it. Which I am not particularly inclined to do." She skipped a little backwards, heading towards the street. He lunged for her, but she, with her dancer's lithe frame and swiftness, kept just a hair's breadth ahead of him, heading for the street.
"Some other time, Balthier!" She hurtled into the main street, flying at a breakneck pace down the cobblestone lane, dodging anything and everything in her path. Somehow he managed to keep up with her, despite her alarming penchant for squeezing through exceedingly small spaces. He was actually gaining on her when it happened – either a loose stone caught her boot or she'd suffered an unfortunate bout of clumsiness. Either way she took a particularly nasty fall in the middle of the road. A small smear of blood blossomed on her cheek. He was already tugging his handkerchief out of his breast pocket – the one hidden by his embroidered vest – as he dropped to his knees beside her.
"This is why you can't be a sky pirate," he said irritably. "You still need a keeper." He dabbed at the streak of blood carefully until she brought her fingers up, stilling the motion as she pulled back his hand to examine the bit of fabric in it.
"You kept it." Wide-eyed, she examined the handkerchief. It was just a simple cotton scrap of fabric – he had no idea how she could tell. For the first time in recent memory, he was speechless – there was nothing he could do or say to persuade her that it meant nothing to him. Perhaps he wasn't even sure of the reason why he had kept it for so long – close to his heart, like he'd promised her – but the fact remained that he had, and it meant something.
He shoved the handkerchief back into his pocket, all too aware of the curious stares of the crowd milling around them as he helped her to her feet.
She was saying something, but it was too low for him to hear. As he leaned in to listen, he caught the tail end of the spell she'd been chanting, and quickly found himself immobilized. Why, the little wretch had actually had the unmitigated gall to wield magic against him! Shocked, he was only halfway through the counter-charm when she silenced him as well.
She patted his shoulder sympathetically. He lunged for her, but his feet remained firmly planted on the ground as if he'd grown roots.
"Sorry, Balthier. But I can't have you following me." She skirted around his grasping fingers. Maybe he couldn't speak, but his eyes promised retribution of the most unpleasant variety. "It'll wear off in just a few minutes. It's not strong magic." She reached for the handkerchief, but he held it away from her, his message clear – if she wanted it, she'd have to fight him for it, and he knew she did not have the time to do so.
"I'll get it later, then. After all, I still remember the Strahl." And with a cheeky smile, she disappeared into the crowd.
Blast and damn. Balthier dug frantically through his bag, searching for some sort of remedy, but the magic wore off even before he found one – still, it had been plenty of time for her to make a clean get-away. She would not be caught again if she did not wish it so.
Where had she said she was going? Ah, yes, Migelo's. Balthier wasn't as familiar with Rabanastre as he might've been, and he held little hope of catching her at her shopping, but perhaps Migelo could be convinced to part with some information if Balthier could convince him that he was a friend of Penelo's.
"You've just missed her. Skipped out the back not two minutes ago," said the boy manning the shop. "Shame she didn't have time to sit and talk awhile. I'd have liked to hear about sky pirating."
Bloody hell, did everyone know about the foolish girl's larcenous activities?
"Would you happen to know where they've docked the Galbana?" He inquired.
"Gad, no. They don't tell anyone that. Who knows who might hear?"
"Indeed," Balthier muttered dryly. "I thank you for your time." He dropped a healthy handful of gil on the countertop, watching the youth's eyes widen at the sight of the unexpected bonus. "If you've any other information for me, you'll find me at the Sandsea."
And with that, he headed for the opposite end of the district to the small tavern, intent upon having a few mugs of ale and renting a room. Penelo would expect to find him aboard the Strahl – would likely spend several hours figuring out how to get aboard without alerting him to her presence. She would not expect him to have taken up a room at the tavern in anticipation of her visit.
He left the handkerchief on the nightstand beside his neatly folded pile of clothing, then slid into bed. It was easy to get to sleep, but difficult to stay asleep, especially with the sort of restless dreams he'd been having – mostly involving Penelo. He supposed it was simply because of her sudden reappearance in his life, the unexpected confrontation with her, and his own strange reaction.
Sometime during the night he gave up on sleep entirely, resolved to cut short his stay in Rabanastre. It was better to retreat and recoup than to allow the enemy – and anything that threatened his carefree existence was, in essence, the enemy – to take advantage of one's weakness.
He poured himself a glass of water from a jug on the dresser, then quickly redressed. In the dark he reached for the handkerchief, but his fingers brushed stiff paper instead of cool linen. He switched on the light, staring dumbly at the note in his hand.
Clever. But not quite clever enough.
I won't be giving your handkerchief back this time – you'll have to come and get it if you want it back. Good luck finding us!
The ruthless, compassionless sky pirate Penelo.
P.S. Did you know that you snore something awful? I don't understand how you get any sleep at all when you make such a racket!
He crumpled the note in his fingers, torn between amusement and anger – then smoothed it out and read it again. So few people in his life had teased him that he was unused to the feeling.
Still, she had a lot to learn about pirating if she was sneaking into men's hotel rooms and stealing items of sentimental value. Primarily, she needed to learn that one did not taunt sky pirates. It simply wasn't done, not if one wanted to remain among the world of the living. Well, perhaps death was a bit drastic, especially considering their prior association – but he could certainly show her why should would need to be on her guard at all times. A lady pirate was much more vulnerable than a man, and if he could not force her to give up her pirating, perhaps he could appoint himself an…instructor, of sorts.
And there was, after all, the matter of his handkerchief. What self-respecting sky pirate let another get away with such blatant thievery? Oh, he'd get it back.
And more, besides.