What is the sound of one hand clapping; a whisper in the wind or the greatest of applause?
Penelo tasted blood; she had bitten too hard on her bottom lip in that last pirouette and now the tang of salty copper filled her mouth. Still she could not afford to stop, or slow down or even spare the thought to lick the blood from her lip. Her teeth were bared in something that was not, under any circumstances, a smile.
Her feet were absolutely killing her.
The music was reaching its crescendo but she could not hear it. The thunderous melody had become one with the uproarious pounding of her feet. The hammering of her heart and the straining of her ribs as her lungs sought more air, made her feel like she was burning alive. The hard boning of her girdle and corset made her vaguely sick and she rued the day she had let Tomaj talk her into this particular costume.
She did not think that real Chocobos had to worry about corset chafing.
Still she danced, deaf to the music that rose and fell and twisted through the electrified night air following her every move and gyration. She had become the music and surpassed it. She was motion and energy and nothing more than an extension of the musical notes that flowed in her veins.
Inside the high heeled boots with the metal spikes that made such a rhythmic noise as she stamped and twirled and glided over the stage, her feet were bleeding, her toes all but crushed. It was the same every night and the brilliant shine to her lucent blue eyes was not the fey light of bewitching wonderment that many critics had described but instead it was the glimmer of tears she would not let fall.
Penelo often wondered why exactly she had ever thought being a dancer would be a fun vocation. Sometimes she really did think the battle of the Bahamut had been less an ordeal. (But then she had spent most of it too scared to think, so possible it was her memory at fault?)
Her dancing partner, the winged Arturo (as he liked to be called) grabbed her by the waist and lifted her bodily over his head as he pirouetted a handful of feet off the ground to the raucous cheers rising like a wave from the sea of shadows that formed the late night audience.
Penelo gritted her teeth and smiled through the dizzying series of steps, twists, and acrobatics that saw Penelo whipped about like a particularly limber rag-doll by Arturo. When she was finally set on her own two feet she wanted to scream with exhaustion. Instead she shimmied up to the edge of the stage to perform her final sashay.
The performance was drawing to a close and she still could not feel him out there in that velveteen swathe of darkness beyond the stage lights.
Penelo hated this part more than any other part of the performance. It didn't even matter which show she was performing, or which silly costume she had squeezed herself into, she still hated this part the most. She hated the moment she was confronted with an audience that was not him.
Standing at the very precipice of the raised stage she was blinded by the spot lights and dazzled by the searing rays of artificial light refracted and reflected from any number of strategically placed mirrors and coloured crystal lamps suspended from the rafters above the stage. The whole effect created a kaleidoscopic rainbow that burned her eyes and made her head spin.
Penelo could not see her audience at all and that was one thing she was savagely grateful for. She did not want to see those shadowed faces; the wet gleam of hundreds of eyes turned up to her like the eyes of Marlboros feasting on her pale flushed skin and corset contorted figure. She did not want to feel the heat of those eyes on her from the shadows beneath the stage. It was a dead heat; empty and devoid of the secret laughing mockery of the only eyes whom she had ever relished feeling upon her.
He said that he would be watching when the time came…….he asked for this dance! Where was he?
As the music she could not hear but could sense like the trip of her own pulse shifted into the final cords of the performance Penelo began to sway. Her hips swung like a graceful pendulum as she raised her arms above her head and tilted her chin up towards the burning cold and false light of the stage lamps above.
Her false plume of dyed blue Chocobo feathers quivered from the back of her costume as she twitched her body just so. Very slowly, with agonising foot shuffles that looked nothing but inviting to the rapt audience, Penelo began to pivot, turning on the spot.
Lacing her fingers together above her head she concentrated on her performance; concentrated on every sensation and movement of her tired, burning muscles. Her spine slithered, her thighs quivered, her feet remained almost still and her knees locked. Her hips swayed with an artful, lazy abandon and her torso followed suit. The false Chocobo tail that was such an ordeal to dance with but which Tomaj said really made the outfit, reacted as if it was part of her body. The subtle vibrations of those soft plumes captivated her audience as much as the taut play of toned muscle down her bare legs left many a male mouth in the audience watering.
Penelo was in her element; resplendent in her almost thoughtless, unintended sensuality. Yet for all the power she had in that moment as the object of so much fascinated lust she felt only hollow. She did not want empty adoration; she did not want the negligent power of momentary infatuation. She wanted one single pair of eyes in warm shadow and a smile as sharp as a rapier in the dead of night.
The tempo picked up; the finale was upon her and Penelo's thoughts were already turning to fantasies of warm baths and potions for battered feet. She began to twist, faster and faster on the spot. She swirled in her feathers and her lace and her tight fitted bodice. The deft flick of her hand, so practiced it now looked like divine accident, released her hair to spin out around her like the golden tail of a comic as she moved.
Arcing up on the point of one foot, ignoring the excruciating grind on her brutalised toes, Penelo raised the other leg up over her head and hooked one arm around it as she spun. Her body contorted into a blind swirl and she was poetry in motion; sex and innocence, lust and untouched serenity mixed into one fast moving and impossibly graceful arc.
Every man, woman, and child in the audience lost their breath to watch her dance.
All save one, that is, who hid his amused and indulgent appreciation behind a smirk as, sensing the denouement rapidly approaching, he slipped from his perch in the deepest shadows high above the stage. The man sauntered, balanced as easily as a Couerl, across the rafters above the stage. He slipped down the ladder behind the stage's back curtain and slipped into the innards of the small backstage area beyond.
The sky pirate was rather pleased with himself. He had told her he would be watching and he knew that she had been watching for him. For all that however he was confident that she had never even sensed him so close to her the whole time, watching from above.
Balthier chuckled as he let himself into her private dressing room; he did so enjoy these games and Penelo was by far his favourite playmate.
Blinded by the light and gilded in shadow; there is warmth in uncertainty and safety in unanswered questions.
Penelo opened her eyes wide as she broke from her impossible pirouette in a cloud of vibrant blue feathers and whipping spun gold hair. Her lungs burned and her limbs screamed with raging exhaustion as she dropped, almost violently, into a leg split at the edge of the stage. Her arms stayed delicately upraised and hands clasped still above her head, but her expression was sharp; for just a moment she had felt him. She knew she had. He was here!
Almost distracted Penelo realised that the music had crashed to its end; the show was over.
The crowd went wild, rising up from their seats in the balconies and the cheap seats like a wave; the applause a tremendous roaring beast that made Penelo flinch. She could not hear the sound of clapping only the monstrous pounding of hundreds of thick palms smacking against each other and the rupturing pops of the disturbed and sundered air. Whistles as sharp and harsh as the snarls of Worgans serrated through her mind.
She could not wait to run from the stage.
When the curtain came down for the final time, the audience still baying for more, Penelo accepted the hands that helped her to her feet and the assistance of the other members of the dancing troupe who helped her limp off the stage. Her shoes were filled with blood; she could hear the wet squish as she moved through the dark, close and musty smelling corridors of the backstage area headed for her dressing room.
Tomaj waylaid her before she could reach her little hidey-hole and the hot bath she longed for. He was grinning broadly in the way he only ever did after he had finished counting the night's take.
'Penelo, we did it! We beat our own record. We have never made so much Gil in one night before!'
Penelo somehow managed to feign a smile when what she really wanted to do was bludgeon Tomaj to death with the preposterous false Chocobo tail he insisted she wear, or failing that, summon a bolt of thundaga to send him flying through the wall. She did not care how much Gil they had made; she never cared. All she wanted was to get out of this horrible costume and these monstrous shoes and never, ever dance again.
She had always been a girl for foolish dreams.
'I'm glad Tomaj, really.' She told him but her smile quickly became tremulous, 'Do you know if….?'
She would not let herself finish; better that she just imagine what it would be like if he really did uphold a promise rather than be confronted with a bitter reality. The self-satisfied smile fell from Tomaj's lips. He knew exactly what she would not let herself ask. He reached out to steady Penelo with one hand to her elbow and stroked her arm in comfort.
'My sources tell me the Strahl was spotted flying over the Hinterhills, and that there was some manner of explosion out there.' He quirked an eyebrow, 'An old fortress tower recently converted by the Judiciary for some unspecified purpose; there is not much left of it but rubble, all the guards garrisoned there were unharmed though.'
'I never doubted he'd escape.' Penelo whispered. After all if he hadn't Larsa probably would have just let him go.
Tomaj nodded, more interested in his gossip than her interruption. 'Rumour has it a Viera was spotted in the area, but none came through the doors of this theatre.'
Penelo nodded again; she had been looking for the tell-tale rise of slender ears all evening as well. Tomaj gave her a small, but genuine smile.
'Or at least no one saw a wanted sky pirate and a Viera come through the doors. We both know that doesn't mean anything, however. Gods know Vaan has managed to slip into every venue we have performed in without paying the door charge and if the apprentice can do it, then the master could probably walk right by us both in an empty corridor without our noticing.'
Penelo's smile died a wavering death upon her lips as she nodded once more. She would know, surely, had he been near, wouldn't she? It had been a year but she had rarely spent a day not feeling the keen bite of his absence.
Dance for me when the time comes, he had said. He had even promised to be watching but, if she had learned anything at all, it was that Balthier's greatest weapon was his words. He had promised to be watching but had not promised to be watching her.
'That's true,' She agreed eventually aware that Tomaj was only trying to make her feel better and it really was silly to be moping about when she knew it was too much to expect that he would keep his word. Tomaj watched her with compassionate eyes; he squeezed her arm once more before releasing her.
'Penelo he invested fifty thousand Gil into our business; I can't imagine he would do such a thing if he had no intention of coming back for you. Fifty thousand Gil is a great deal of Gil.'
'Yes,' Penelo agreed with him again, head nodding falsely and smile hurting her even as she held onto it with deathly determination.
Fifty thousand Gil was a great deal of Gil to anyone other than Balthier who played with wealth like he played with everything else. Gil was not a commodity Balthier held in high regard; it was merely an excuse for the games he liked to play. Penelo knew this and she feared that he had gifted to she and Tomaj such a large amount (far more than she had ever asked for) simply to make himself feel better for abandoning her.
A year was a long time, Penelo reasoned, and Balthier was notoriously fickle.
'Goodnight Tomaj,' She said with brave smile, glad that the owner of this small theatre in this tiny northern Archadian town had been gracious enough to let their troupe stay the night in the theatre instead of taking rooms in the town. She did not think, once she got out of these silly, horrible clothes, that she would be able to move again. The thought alone of being forced to walk into town from here made fresh tears prickle her eyelids.
'Goodnight Penelo, sweet dreams.'
Tomaj let her pass him with a sad smile. He watched her disappear into her dressing room and close the door. Once he was sure Penelo would not hear him Tomaj turned to the Viera who had been waiting, silent as a standing tree in an old grove, in the shadows further down the corridor.
'She doesn't think he wants her. She doesn't think he really meant that he would come back for her.'
'She knows him well and yet not at all. Or so it would seem.' Fran murmured in agreement, 'He will never do as she suspects so long as he has power to confound her expectations.'
Tomaj, who was a natural and somewhat irrepressible optimist, shrugged and turned his thoughts back to the vast sums of Gil this night's performance had raised. He also had no doubt that the return to liberty of his most significant financial backer would mean that their revenue would soon be going up even further. Tomaj smiled happily.
'Well, at least he's confounding her in a good way this time.' He looked back at the still and expectant Viera, 'Dear Fran would you like to retire to my room and help me count the Gil from tonight's performance again?'
The Viera smiled just a little; this hume had a good grasp of her likes, she would concede that point. 'Indeed, I would like that.'
The two retired into Tomaj's borrowed rooms in the backstage area of the theatre without further ado.
Ask me no questions and I'll tell you no lies. These games we play, I and thou, are ours alone.
Penelo slipped into her crowded dressing room and found before her eyes exactly what she had expected to find. A room filled almost to bursting with outlandish costumes and loose falling feathers in vibrant and unnatural hues, scattering the floor. There were bouquets of flowers from enraptured audience members and letters of adoration filling all available surfaces.
There was also, in its nook in a dark corner, her most unusual token of esteem. It was a mechanical songbird; all polished tin and agate eyes. The strange contraption was the work of one particularly ardent admirer of hers and it scared her a little. It was so eerily lifelike and yet so very far from living, but she had not the heart to refuse such an elaborate gift.
Tired almost to sickness Penelo dragged herself deeper into the cluttered, hot and tiny room.
The strange and slightly unsettling mechanical bird seemed to come alive as she hobbled past it, and oddly discordant musical notes filled the air as the bird's eyes sparked with inhume light from within and its metal beak opened on the first refrain of the leading musical number from the 'Blue Chocobo'.
Penelo stopped on her way to the bed and frowned at it; the contraption had to be wound up before it would sing and she did not think anyone had been in here to wind it.
Suspiciously she looked around the room, lit as it was by diffuse and softly glowing crystal lamps suspended above her head from wall sconces around the cluttered room. She could not see anything out of the ordinary. Perhaps Tomaj had wound it up thinking she would appreciate the out of tune warblings?
Dragging herself to the foot of the bed (unmade and covered in feathers like everything else in the cramped space) Penelo dropped like a stone onto the soft mattress. It was only as she fell backwards to lie flat that the rich chuckle reached her ears.
'Well now that was quite a sight, and here I was thinking you would not be able to sit, much less collapse supine, with that magnificent plumage of yours.'
Penelo blinked; had she had the energy, she would have sat bolt upright and strained every sense to locate the owner of that voice. She had not sensed his presence at all inside this tiny room. She struggled in ungainly fashion to raise herself up from the bed. She didn't get very far; her muscles were weak as water.
As it was he saved her the bother of rising by materialising from the soft shadows in the corner of the room to come and settle on the bed beside her, propping himself up on one elbow.
'How now sweetheart,' He smiled at her amused, 'It has been a while, has it not?'
'Balthier?' Her voice choked off. She did not dare believe. She rolled onto her side so she could see him as he reclined on the bed as casual as could be.
For a long moment all she could do was stare at him; his face a scant inch from hers, the soft warmth of his breath tickling over her sensitized and tired body. He smiled just faintly and she all but drowned in the warmth in those brown eyes. It did not seem possible to her that a whole year had passed. He did not look any different now than he had in her dreams when she had imagined this moment. She wondered, briefly, if perhaps she was dreaming now as well.
She stared and he watched her; those dark, hooded eyes reading her every thought, hope, and fear easily in her eyes. He shifted on the bed, making himself comfortable.
'I told you I would be watching, did I not?'
He murmured dryly reaching out behind her head with his free hand to tweak one of the long blue Chocobo feathers that formed part of her 'tail'. He smirked with amusement as he played with her costume.
'I must say, after witnessing that rousing performance, I am not sure I will ever look at a Chocobo in quite the same way again.'
'I did not see you. I did not feel you there.'
Penelo was surprised to find that she was angry and did not quite know why. She found the courage to reach out to touch his sharp cheekbone. She had been so sure he would let her down again, that he would betray her, that now that he hadn't she felt quite contrary all of a sudden.
'Well, I was trying to keep a low profile,' he told her blandly quirking an expressive eyebrow, 'I am but hours from escaping prison after all, sweetheart. Even I have sense enough to know when it is prudent to keep my presence a secret.'
'Larsa won't pursue you, he told me so.'
'That is good to know,' Balthier murmured amusedly, 'Especially as I am not in the mood to run. Captivity has made me indolent, I would hazard to guess. I find myself growing quite partial to the thought of a life without the need for constant flight.'
Because he seemed so real and his voice was wrapping around her tired limbs like the kiss of black velvet Penelo closed her eyes with a heartfelt sigh and forced herself to close the gap between them so she could tuck her head under his chin. Balthier obliged her by drawing her in close within the circle of his arms. She felt the starch of crisp cotton and the butter smoothness of a patterned leather vest under her cheek.
'I missed you,' Penelo whispered. She did not want to think on what he had just said or allow herself any vain hopes. Balthier was flighty and he would soon long to escape whatever stable comfort he might find with her. She was certain of this. It was almost comforting to believe in his faults rather than dare hope he was serious. He always ran; it was what he did. Wasn't it?
'No doubt you have missed me,' Balthier chuckled richly, 'I am, after all, a very engaging fellow.'
For a short time they were silent and Penelo almost succumbed to sleep; the steady thump of his heart against her ear, so real and so solid and so seemingly faithful was hard to resist. Still she did not want to sleep; if she slept he might not be there when she woke. She roused herself with effort.
'Did you like it?' Penelo reached out to encircle his neck with her arms. Her eyelids felt weighted down and she had no want to move, not even to remove her hateful heels.
Balthier slid his free hand (the one not pinned under her body) down her side, fingers fanning out in a teasing flicker to just brush her hip. Penelo shivered and pressed closer as Balthier's clever fingers began exploring the lacings at the back of her corset.
'Did you like my dancing?' she asked him drowsily. Even if she was just dreaming that he was here and so warm and sweet she did not care; it was a good dream to have. Especially when his wicked chuckle reverberated through her body once more with the promise of a night spent doing anything but sleeping.
'Ah, your dancing,' she could feel his dark smile against the sensitive skin of her neck and the heat of his breath tickling her earlobe. When he kissed her just behind her ear it was like ice and fire across her flesh. She felt it to the marrow of her bones and the centre of her being.
'I am not sure I possess the words to fully express my feelings regards your dancing. I would call you divine except I know for a fact that no divinity has ever evoked such a reaction from me.' His teeth nipped lightly at her throat, 'Hmm, in fact there should be laws against that sort of self-expression. It is the sort of thing to lead good men astray and bad men to distraction. Though I confess, you look quite sumptuous in blue.'
He trawled liquid heat down the stem of her throat with each butterfly kiss as he fisted her hair to gently tilt her chin up to nuzzle underneath it. He rolled them so that she was flat on the bed and he was looking down on her. She gazed into those hot dark eyes without thought, content to drown in sensation.
'Tis a damnable shame you are obviously quite exhausted from you night's labours for there are any number of things I would like to do with your…..feathers, my dear.' He purred in her ear.
Penelo bit her lip on a giggle and opened her eyes wide as Balthier raised himself up to kneel beside her on the bed. Idly he traced the plunging neckline of her corset with one deft fingertip. He flicked a smouldering gaze her way before giving a theatrical sigh and sorrowful shake of his head.
'Prison leaves a man with a surfeit of imagination and no recourse for his urges,' he smiled just a little, belying the mournful tone of his voice, 'and alas it seems to be my accursed luck that now I am free from my fetters my dear lady love is too tired to oblige me.'
Penelo sucked in her breath sharply, jolted fully awake. 'Lady love?'
Balthier's lips twitched with suppressed amusement, 'Rather quick to catch the operative words, aren't you my dear? I dare say you are looking a tad more spritely now too.' He leaned forward slowly, moving in close for a kiss, 'I wonder why, hmm?'
'Do you mean it?' Penelo asked him when he was so close her lips brushed his as she spoke. She placed a hand against his collarbone to stop him moving in that last breath. 'Am I really your lady love?'
He shook his head and she could have sworn he rolled his eyes, 'Tsk, you women are all the same. A man let's slip that blasted word and even the hardest hearted slattern is distracted from the task at hand. You women become ravenous beasts demanding more and more if a man makes the mistake of using that word in your hearing.'
Despite the half-hearted resistance of her hand against him he leaned in to press his lips to hers. Penelo hesitated; she tingled where he touched her, but she did not part her lips to grant him access. She had to know.
'I am not a slattern.' She all but breathed into his mouth. She felt his smile against her lips.
'No, merely a ravenous beast,' He pulled away from the almost kiss before Penelo could react to that, 'Now will you let me seduce you or must we waste all night in futile conversation, hmm?'
Penelo frowned even though she shivered and grew hot inside all at once at the thought of what 'seduction' he might have planned. She had missed him horribly after all and it had been a year and she really wasn't all that tired……No! She would not be distracted even as she could feel the tickle of his fingers walking up the bare flesh of her right thigh.
She grabbed his hand and held it pinned between hers, 'I have waited a whole year for you, Balthier. I did everything you asked for! I even went to Larsa to make sure he wouldn't hunt you down after.'
She stared at him, trying to bore her earnest need into his understanding. 'I need to hear you say you love me, just one more time.'
'Hmm, is that so?' He looked down at her coolly as he knelt on the bed in her cluttered dressing room. She could not read the look in his eyes. 'No, I do not think that is what you need at all, my dear.'
She tried to grab for him when he easily twisted his hand free of her grip and shifted off the bed away from her.
He pressed a finger to his own lips, 'Shush, Penelo. I am not quite so callous that I cannot read what you truly need in your eyes, dear heart, and it is not more words from me.' He chuckled dryly, 'I dare say you have heard quite enough empty platitudes from me already.'
Penelo opened her mouth, though she did not know what she intended to say. Thankfully Balthier's next action, reaching out to curl a hand around each of her ankles and pull her legs off the bed so he could begin unfastening her shoes, saved her the effort of trying to think of something to say.
Her shoes came away and she could not resist a groan of pure relief. Balthier sucked in a sharp breath, 'Sweet gods, my girl, I have heard of suffering for one's art, but this seems a trifle obsessive.'
He squinted at her feet and immediately a soft healing glow suffused his fingers as he began to minister the bleeding blisters upon the soles of her feet. Penelo bit her lip and let her head drop back against the mattress as the tickle of Balthier's healing magick glided over her abused flesh. It was so hard to stay awake, so hard not to let herself be washed away in the comfort he offered.
'Close your eyes and sleep, Penelo.' He told her firmly, clasping her left leg so he could press a kiss to the freshly healed insole of her foot and then her ankle. The soft tickle of his sideburn made her shiver as he pressed a further kiss to her inner thigh before turning his attentions to her right foot.
'You do not need me to tell you I love you Penelo, because we both know I am a shameless liar. It would be a meaningless sentiment.'
He looked up at her from where he crouched on the floor at the foot of the bed once he had finished healing her wounded feet. His position forced Penelo to look down the line of her own body to meet those wonderful shadowed eyes of his. His hands glided in firm caress up her thighs and then hooked his fingers around her waist to pull her upright as he rose to his feet and climbed onto the bed.
'You need to believe that I love you, darling, and there are no words I can ever utter that can convince you of that.'
Balthier pulled her into his arms and tangled his fingers into the sweaty hair at the back of her head, with his other hand he reached out once more to play with the feathers of her false plumage. Penelo tilted her head to meet the kiss she knew was coming.
As it happened she was not sure how she ended up lying back down on the bed once more, her head cradled upon her pillows and her body tucked against his, panting for breath and seeing stars, and she did not really care. She just didn't want to let this moment slip away. She looked up into those dark, dark eyes and for the first time she thought she could see a light within those depths.
Balthier reached out and brushed his fingertips over her eyelids, 'Sleep now sweetheart and you will have all the proof you need that I do indeed love you.'
Penelo bit her lip, eyes closed and his fingertips feather light against them. However she could not quite believe that if she allowed herself to sleep she would not wake to find him gone, or worse, that all this was nothing but a dream.
He whispered lips against her ear and the overwhelming sense of him darkness and velvet, leather and laughter, was too great an enchantment to resist. She spiralled away into slumber before she could stop herself; blissful and at peace if only for a moment.
Penelo slept long and deeply. She did not dream and she did not stir, caught as she was in the good, honest completeness of hard earned slumber. She did not wake for some considerable time as night rolled into morning and morning edged towards noontide.
When Penelo did finally awaken she opened her eyes to smooth leather and starched white cotton. She stirred to the beat of another's heart against her ear and the scratch of charcoal over paper as clever fingers sketched the mechanical bird in its cage with swift strokes. Brown eyes flicked down to her as she looked up into Balthier's familiar and much loved face and she felt sure that she could see the light in them now.
'Good morning sweetheart; pleasant dreams?'
Penelo smiled and snuggled deeper into his arms as something tremulous but pure grew brighter and stronger inside her. Balthier was here and he had stayed and she knew then that he had spoken true. He did love her. She knew this finally because here and now in the light of day, far from the sweet seduction of the night, he had remained with her.
And for the first time she thought, she believed, that maybe, just maybe, he would stay here with her now forever more.
It was then that Penelo began to laugh, even as she almost convulsively squeezed her arms around him (forcing him to put aside his paper and charcoal lest they be damaged). Knocking the sky pirate flat against the bed in her enthusiasm Penelo showered kisses down upon his face even as she held him pinned.
Here he was and here he would stay: her heist, her prize, her Balthier.
A/N: To everyone who has written to me either in reviews or PM's about this story and its predecessor thank you so much for the praise and the lovely, interesting things you had to say; you cannot imagine how much it means to receive such support and encouragement. I can only hope that anyone reading this story has enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed writing it.