If we were our lies and our conceits, if we were our rules and our restraint, perhaps better men we would make; alas in the darkness of the night we are all the same.
Balthier swam up from the peaceful depths of sleep already feeling refreshed and lazily comfortable; a certain sense of sated satisfaction warmed the deepest corners of his mind as he stretched his spine and raised a somnambulant hand to his face to scrape the limp hair from his brow, blinking his eyes open.
Thirty seconds that was how long his comfort lasted, as rising into full alertness, Balthier became aware of a heavy restricting weight inhibiting the movement of his right arm and pinning it to the bed. Rather swiftly on the heels of this realisation came the revelation that he was not alone in his bed.
Reacting to his own movements the interloper in his bed sighed sleepily, rolled over across his numbed right arm and, mumbling something incoherent and incomprehensible, wrapped her arms about his neck and bowed her spine as she pressed along the length of his body with all the wanton ease of a professional temptress.
Panic exploded throughout the lobes of Balthier's brain as Penelo, sinuous as a serpent, wound her limbs about him and, smiling with an appallingly out of place drowsy innocence, trailed one hand down his chest to his stomach causing him to clench the muscles of his abdomen against the first stirrings of desire that unconscious touch inspired.
What, how, when…..and why don't I remember? Those were the questions that jostled, screaming, for pride of place in his mind as Balthier froze in total confusion and desperately raided the treasure troves of his memory for an explanation.
He remembered going to bed alone; he was adamant of this fact. He most certainly did not invite a winsome, but undoubtedly odd, Rabanastran orphan to share his bed for the night.
So how was it that he awoke (and his body clock, attuned to the rising sun as keenly as a Rooster, knew it to be just past dawn, even though his cabin had no window) to find said oddly alluring, but undoubtedly more trouble than she was worth, Rabanastran warm and sweetly dishevelled in his arms?
Something had clearly gone quite wrong somewhere and Balthier would be damned thrice if he was blamed for this. He'd been asleep, very, very asleep thanks to Fran's powerful sleeping aid. If anything had happened he'd remember, surely? Wouldn't he?
Panic was not something Balthier indulged in over much, he was both too cynically self-assured, or too sleep-deprived usually, to drum-up the energy needed for such a feat but this occasion was proving the exception to the rule.
Penelo, oblivious of the difficulties she was causing Balthier, but sensing that her warm Hume blanket had grown rigid and unresponsive, sighed and nuzzled her cheek under his collarbone as she continued to mumble incomprehensible drivel and petted his chest with sleep walking hands.
The urge to shove her forcibly out of his bed right that instant was almost overwhelming; maybe if he ran really, really fast he could escape the inevitable fall-out of this unmitigated disaster? Or maybe he should just take a flying leap off the airship roof and cut his losses instead?
What had happened last night?
It dawned on him (and yes, he was slow today) that Penelo was fully clothed, or at least as fully clothed as she had been the last time he had seen her while conscious. The rather fetching ensemble of pale grey sleeveless bustier and loose flowing scarlet trousers, which hung deliciously low on her prettily rounded hips, was still in place albeit somewhat the worse for wear for having been slept in. This was some small reassurance to Balthier as it seemed rather odd indeed that Penelo would have dressed fully in her clothes after sex.
Still suffering from a complete amnesia regarding how he came to find Penelo in his bed, where presumably she had weathered the night with him, he was nevertheless much heartened to realise that not only was she fully clothed but he still wore the comfortable cotton trousers that formed his usual sleep attire.
So, no sex then, but still this situation he had awoken too was excessively muddled.
Balthier was no fool when it came to affairs of a carnal nature; for that very reason his affairs were kept short and sweet. Hearts were never engaged, intimacy was restricted to the entirely physical variety and he usually scarpered from a lady's chambers long before the break of dawn.
Therefore waking up with a woman (and he supposed, considering the discomfiture Penelo was causing him below his waistband just by curling against him in sleep, she had earned the title of woman and not girl) that he not only knew rather well, but had also spoken with at length and who he might, if forced to it, consider, if not a friend, then a semi-trusted adherent, was a worry to him.
At the age of sixteen he who became Balthier made a promise. He would never trust anyone ever again and he would never, ever, allow anyone he cared for the opportunity to hurt him again.
In the intervening years Balthier had amended this promise to exclude the presence of trusted and beloved Viera partners (because even he needed to depend on someone from time to time) and had, in compensation, made damned sure he was never so foolish as to engage his affections in either friendship or romance.
Friends could become enemies, family could become megalomaniacal mass-murderers and lovers could become liabilities and hindrances; thus he would do away with the bother and have none.
Penelo shifted once more, a slight frown ghosting over her pretty, simple milkmaids face with its uncomplicated emotion always on display, and that soft, rosebud mouth that he had already spent far too much time pondering.
He had told himself it was purely the aesthetic in him admiring a little piece of hume perfection, but then he had gone and kissed that little trembling mouth during the last night of their stay in Balfonheim and it became hard for even a practiced self-deceiver like Balthier, to continue to claim that his interest was purely artistic.
The brutal truth of it was, if he did not know her, did not know something of the sum and substance of the thoughts that filled her head, he would have had her by now; perhaps more than once if she proved able to deliver on the promise of that supple, ridiculously nubile, dancers physique.
Penelo sighed once more, sounding unutterably content in her dreams and hitched one leg up over his, almost to his waist, as she cleaved against him and snuggled her brow into the crook between his neck and shoulder; her soft little mouth shaping half-formed words against his sensitive skin reminiscent of kisses.
Sometimes Balthier truly wondered what precisely he had done, and to whom, to warrant this level of complication in his life. It just wasn't bloody fair!
Now would be the perfect time to wake her, or at the very least, disengage her limbs from him – sweets gods what was she intending to do climb his body? – before the gentle pressure of her leg sliding over his hip and her right hand gliding down his left flank broke the very last of his reserve all together.
Her sleep dancing fingers passed the boundary of his waistband and any hopes of maintaining any control of this spiralling downward situation fled along with the last vestiges of his restraint; his arms came round her, left hand cupping the back of her head as his right hand, attached to the arm still pinned under her body, slipped over her pettable rump as he pressed her more firmly against his body and woke the drowsily amorous girl with a surprisingly hungry kiss.
Damn…….but he had really tried to be a gentleman.
I talk to the moon and the darkest night. I confess my heart to the indifferent stars; in the hours of the shadows I am truthful. The sun alone owns all my lies.
Heart going into painful palpitations in the flimsy cage of her chest Penelo was trapped between the paradoxical and nonsensical desire to either burst into tears or collapse into giggles as Balthier blinked owlishly at her and cleared his throat before murmuring in a voice thick and languid with sleep.
'Can I help you with something, darling?'
Words flew to her lips and escaped without first seeking permission from her brain, which was floundering in guilty panic, 'Where did you get those scars on your back? Who whipped you?'
Of all the things she might have thought to say, she had not expected to ask that question, but still, under the circumstances she realised that nothing else she could say would be any more sensible.
Balthier, more asleep than awake and eyelids drooping even more heavily than usual, shifted a little and raised one hand drowsily to his brow. She thought he might drift off again without answering and let her escape relatively unscathed.
'Hmm, the life of an apprentice sky pirate is not all airships and auraliths; Vaan has no idea how lucky he is. I'm a saint in pirate circles.'
It seemed to be taking Balthier some effort to formulate speech and his words were slightly slurred and rolled in the close, warm, air of his darkened cabin thickly, like honey and molasses.
'Pirates did that to you?'
Penelo was shocked both at the notion that sky pirates would do such a thing to one another (her only experience of them was mixed it was true; Rikken, Elza and Raz, as well as Balthier and Fran, were the best of the profession she supposed) but also that Balthier would have submitted to such a thing.
She was just readying herself to ask him who had hurt him and why, when Balthier roused himself enough to properly open his eyes, 'Why are you here?'
Penelo's questions lodged in her throat; she had dreaded this moment because for the life of her she did not have an answer and had somewhat hoped Balthier would be too drugged and lethargic to ask it of her.
'I wanted to talk to you.'
She finally stuttered out, feebly, and waited for the wave of suave disdain from him to drown out her pathetic utterance at any moment. Balthier laboriously rolled onto his back rising on his elbows to flex his spine as the bedding pooled about his waist and Penelo had a lovely view of his lean torso stretching before she awkwardly averted her eyes.
Her pulse was pounding so loudly in her ears she barely heard him speak. 'What do want to talk about?'
She felt sure the heat in her cheeks was vibrant enough to light the entire room with her candescent embarrassment; that image of his body was going to be emblazoned upon her mind forever, she just knew it, and to make it worse she did not even know why she cared. She had seen men's chests before, after all, and while as she had never seen Balthier's chest until this night, it was not, in a purely anatomic sense, any different from any other man's chest.
She actually yelped when Balthier's fingers brushed her bare forearm and she had to catch herself before she fell flat on her backside on the floor. She regained her balanced crouch before the bed to see just the faint wet gleam of Balthier's eyes as he withdrew his hand, once more lying on his side so he could face her.
'I asked what you wanted to talk about.'
He reminded her in perfectly reasonable, if slightly thick voice. In his half-asleep and almost trance-like state he seemed to have accepted her reason for being here without rancour. Very briefly Penelo contemplated how much nicer Balthier would be if permanently medicated.
'Umm,' Penelo twisted her hands together, fingernails scratching nervously at the backs of her hands, 'I….I just wanted to talk,' she trailed off wretchedly.
Really, she should have taken the time to compose a script and a strategy of campaign. It worried her that he would think her even more an idiot than he probably did already.
Balthier did not say a word against her however as he sighed and shifted in bed, tugging the pillow a little further down the bed before tugging the covers up higher over his body.
'Time travel,' he said abruptly and Penelo blinked at him.
'Hmm,' he reached out one languid arm and, apparently able to see just fine in the gloom, reached out to deftly brush his knuckles against her cheek in absent caress, 'I don't recommend it. The future is a disappointment; they don't even fly airships there.'
It occurred to Penelo that the reason Balthier had been so unconcerned with her presence in his bedroom was likely because his head was sky high in the clouds; it was even possible that he was dreaming awake, which would explain all this talk of time travel.
Penelo considered getting up and leaving him alone. He probably desperately needed a good nights rest if he was resorting to mind-altering substances and secret Viera remedies to fall asleep and it was unfair of her to be here when he didn't really know what was happening or what he was saying.
On the other hand………
…….on the other hand, this could be exactly what Fran meant when she spoke of getting what she wanted from Balthier while sleep was 'heavy on him'.
Had adrenaline not been crackling through her central nervous system and a strange excitement tingling in her lower extremities she might have been shocked and appalled at herself for taking advantage of him in this state.
'Why don't they fly airships Balthier?' she asked as she shifted across the carpeting to sit closer to the edge of the bed. She clasped his hand in hers as it dangled over the edge of the bed. His fingers were warm and lax as she twined them with her own.
He yawned hugely and burrowed his head further into his pillows, fingers idly flexing in her hand, 'Who knows? Ignorance, stupidity. People never change, it is really,' he yawned again, 'rather laughable.'
For a few seconds afterward Penelo simply watched him drift into a light doze once more as she argued with herself over whether she was really going to do what she was contemplating doing.
She reached out and gently shook his shoulder to wake him, 'Balthier why did you kiss me?'
'Hmm?' a befuddled frown tried to form on his brow but slipped away as sleep clawed at his consciousness, 'When?'
Penelo stroked her hand over his shoulder and forearm, enjoying the sensation, and she thought he must do as well as he sighed and relaxed, 'That first time, in Balfonheim, but I guess tonight as well, though we didn't really kiss. Why did you?'
'Hm, you have a pretty mouth.' Balthier opened his eyes abruptly and narrowed them in an attempt to gather his lethargic wits to him, 'should you really be here now?'
'Oh, it's fine.' She assured him easily and Balthier, very much under the influence of the sleeping draught, accepted this and let his eyes slide shut again. 'Do I really have a pretty mouth?'
She raised the fingers of her free hand to her mouth and brushed her lips thoughtfully, obscurely flattered with this compliment. She realised that although he had inferred by word and action that he found her attractive, Balthier had never really paid her any compliments as such.
Balthier however seemed to be fighting back, 'Penelo?' he blinked at her and she saw that he seemed a trifle more lucid than he had since first waking, 'Hmm, my dear, you really should not be in here.'
'It's fine, really.' She insisted and then, suddenly inspired, 'Vaan knows I'm here and he's fine with it.'
Balthier blinked, actually managing to be startled under the heavy veil of half-sleep that clouded his mind. 'He knows?'
It occurred to Penelo, quite abruptly and shockingly, that Balthier must care about Vaan in someway. That was the only explanation for why he seemed to always bring him up when alone with Penelo.
The revelation hit her full force that the reason Balthier always pulled away from her, even though she was hardly resisting him, was because he was guilty; guilty of indirectly hurting Vaan and, also, Penelo herself.
Or perhaps he acts in your interests? Perhaps he fights his own nature for the betterment of yours? Fran's cryptic comment finally made sense to Penelo and she realised that maybe, just maybe, Balthier had been telling the truth all along when he had told her he did not have any intention of seducing her.
Perhaps the philanderer did not want to break the heart of a person he had come to know as more than just another pretty face?
A huge suffusion of warmth and happiness filled Penelo up from the tips of her toes to the roots of her hair; he actually did care. Then a slightly more sobering, confusing thought stole a little of her giddy joy and replaced that bubbling effervescence with something darker and much more dangerously exciting.
He might not want to seduce her, but did her very presence here tonight mean that she was trying to seduce him?
He was sinking fast now and she didn't think she could keep him even partially awake and lucid for many moments more.
'What do you think of me?'
She squeezed the hand that she held captive in hers for emphasis and after a few seconds where she thought she'd lost him to slumber's embrace once and for all he roused himself enough to answer.
'You're very sweet.' The slurred response came disjointed but honest, 'I don't want to hurt you Penelo……..hmmm, you deserve better than that.'
Dropping back onto her haunches Penelo let his hand go and watched him slip completely into sleep. She wasn't sure how long she simply watched the ghost of dreams dance across his relaxed face as he slept and listened to the thunder in her own chest as her pulse beat out a staccato rhythm as fast as it was erratic.
Penelo finally understood what the wise Viera had meant all along. Sitting in this hot, close, dark room, Balthier asleep, peaceful and hardly in a position to stop her from taking anything she wanted, she found herself wondering who was the real thief, the jaded sky pirate, or the girl from the gutters of Low Town?
If only she knew what she wanted: the apprentice, the pirate, or the whole world?
Quiet and deliberate she rose to her feet and kicked off her loose sandals before gently, but firmly, pushing on Balthier's shoulders until, deep in slumber and pliable for the fact, he shifted back in the bed to make room for her.
Like a thief in the night she slipped between those covers and wound herself about his neck, pressing against his torso, as sleepily he cradled her in his arms. Penelo was unrepentant as she pressed her cheek to his warm chest, greedily stealing every last moment of intimacy she could with every heartbeat.
There is no evil more potent than that committed by the good of heart; nor any wound deeper than that of a trust betrayed.
She woke to warmth and friction and lips bruising against her own. There was the scent of sleep sweat and the salty taste of another body on her tongue as she purred deep in her throat as questing fingers recognised the expanse of strong shoulders tapering into whippet lean waist and she was pressed down into the mattress.
Lips scored a scolding line down from her arched throat to the very neckline of her top as strong hands sought out the ties that bound her within her clothes. She didn't fight, she didn't shy away, instead Penelo wound herself about that other body like a limpet and refused to let go.
Deep down inside she knew it had been a picture perfect theft and the victim had never seen it coming.
A/N: To all who have read and enjoyed this story; thank you greatly and I hope you have enjoyed reading this a fraction of as much as I have enjoyed writing it. Spikey44