Author Notes: This story runs parallel to part 1 of my other story In Our Allotted Time. So just in case certain parts don't make sense, that's why, though I've tried to make sure that it acts as a standalone to the best of my abilities. Anyway, you know the drill; I don't own Final Fantasy XII and make no money from this fanfiction.
A gift fic for Feeny for all the new pages I have stolen and have yet to steal. Sorry it took so long.
They had Vaan.
At first she couldn't believe it but there he was, lined up alongside some people she'd never seen before and in bonds. One minute he was there, telling her that dinner would have to wait and the next he was being led away, leaving her behind with a borrowed handkerchief from a man whose name she didn't even know. She stood watching his retreating form with indecision. She didn't know what to do. She didn't know what she could do. But she couldn't just give up without a fight.
Before Penelo got five steps, one of Imperials lining the street grabbed her by the arm. "I don't think so. Enjoy your last look. You won't be seeing him again."
She knew that. No-one who went into the hands of the Black Watch ever returned. She got the thought in her mind to plead for Vaan's release but knew it would be a futile gesture. Besides, Vaan would never approve of her kneeling to the Imperials for his sake. He would want her to be strong, so strong she would try to be.
Wrenching her arm back, Penelo watched the procession go until they turned towards a corner. Just before he disappeared, Vaan turned and gave her one last look. She smiled for him, for she didn't want his last sight of her to be a sad one. She knew it would only make him feel guilty. He stood there for a moment and nodded once to her until one of the guards forced him on and out of sight.
She clutched the handkerchief between her hands, threading it between her fingers and worrying it with her nails. He was gone and she had been left behind.
And there was nothing she could do about it.
It took a supreme effort of will to take her eyes away from the spot where Vaan had last stood but she did. Still worrying the handkerchief, she didn't pay the shady looking Bangaa on her right a second glance, even when their eyes followed her all the way up the street.
People in the Nalbina dungeons never came out, not even in boxes. The thought came to Penelo when she was in Migelo's storeroom, pretending to be taking a midnight inventory of the boxes upon boxes of sundries when in reality she was sitting quite still in a dark corner of the room, trying to think of nothing. Looking at them had reminded her of the old saying and she came to the end of her strength.
It had been three hours since Vaan had been torn away from her.
But it felt like he had been gone for days already. She didn't know how to describe it, except that a part of her was irretrievably missing, that there was something not from without that had been snatched from her but something from within. And he was gone now. Gone forever. Just like everyone else.
Tears pricked her eyes then. She wept for Vaan and she wept for herself. She cried the way she had the night when they'd brought the bodies of her brothers Calrin and Tremel back from their tour of duty in Nabradia, both broken, crushed, destroyed by the merciless tides of war. They'd been as a right arm to her, amputated without anaesthetic. Her left arm, her younger sister Iris, had been taken by the plague. Her parents, as legs to her, died to protect her during the horrific first day of the Occupation, where the Archadians were given carte blanche to do as they pleased.
But though she'd cried for them all, though she'd lost, Penelo had always before been able to pick up and carry on. Nothing had stopped her from smiling for long because no matter what the world had thrown at her, they could never take what was inside. They could never take away from her the place where her dreams resided, where her fears and loves lived side by side together. Even after it all, she'd still been able to smile.
But no more. Because now the Archadians had taken her heart, leaving a dark and empty abyss behind in its wake.
Penelo didn't even try to stem the tears. She simply couldn't. Vaan had always been there before, to hold her when she needed holding and he'd always understood because he'd lost too. She hadn't realised before just how dependant she'd been on him. When she realized that, it felt like her insides had melted into cold, cold water and she drew her knees close to her chest. But sitting like that, holding herself, didn't help at all. There was no comfort to be found from her own touch, not when the blood that ran through her veins was as cold as ice. She rested her head on her knees and tried to forget there was a world around her.
It didn't work, but then it never did. Vaan would've said something by now, sometimes something funny that he thought might cheer her up and occasionally something silly that made her feel worse. But she could smile then because at least someone was making the effort. But who could make an effort when there was no-one around who knew how? She supposed this must be what it felt like to be truly alone, no matter if Migelo and Kytes and Filo were upstairs sound asleep.
If only she had a keepsake of Vaan's, something she could smile at and pretend was him being with her in spirit. But all the few meagre possessions they had were in the tiny house which Migelo had let them use from their sixteenth birthdays. And she didn't want to go back there. She knew what she would find and all she would find would be more tears. What she was looking for was not there.
Indeed, it was no longer hers to have.
She wanted him back with a fierce passion, because she didn't know what it was she had until it had gone. Because where before she had been semi-dependant on Vaan (having been more than capable of surviving on her own for the most part), now she knew she couldn't go on knowing that she would never see him again. Already, she could feel the knowledge eating away at her insides, starting at her heart and it wouldn't stop until she was destroyed from the inside out. That frightened her, because even now she wanted to live on and find Vaan again, though her thoughts held no room for hope anymore.
The tears kept coming and Penelo made no attempt to still them. Because if she couldn't fill her heart with hope, then she could at least empty it of its sorrow. But her heart was as a vessel of the gods, never emptying of that blackest of liquids with the bitterest of names: bereavement.
Though Vaan wasn't dead, she knew that she'd seen her last glimpse of him.
So she cried and cried on.
"Where are you?"
Four days ago, she hadn't reckoned that she could be so terrified. But then again, four days ago she'd been a free woman. Deeply unhappy, yes, but free. Though she'd seen lots of scary things on the streets of Rabanastre, none of them could compare to this.
They weren't with her now but they were still there down below: Ba'gamnan and his siblings. Down there, beneath that closed iron hatch, the Bangaa were making plots and hadn't been at all subtle about her use as a piece in them. There was no doubt in her mind that once they were done with her, that they were going to kill her, slit her throat from ear to ear. She'd heard the stories. Everyone had. Sometimes, to quiet disobedient children, exasperated parents in Lowtown would say that Ba'gamnan would come and take them away if they persisted in misbehaving.
Invariably, the children stopped being a nuisance and behaved.
Some of the things Penelo had heard were enough to make her toes curl and cover her ears. Ba'gamnan and his siblings were well known to be fond of torture and would often tease out their victim's sorry existence for a further day or two under their ministrations. Sometimes they would let their victims go, if their bounty was negligible enough, just to keep their reputation alive. The way they'd been talking about the mysterious man Balthier had been enough to make her blood run cold and even though she didn't know him, she hoped he wouldn't fall victim to them.
They needed him alive apparently. But once he was in their grasp, then her own usefulness as a pawn would be expended. And then…
She shuddered. She didn't want to think about what they would do to her but she knew they'd show no mercy. Not unless, of course, she could prove herself useful enough to be kept alive. And what use could they find in her?
Target practice, she thought wryly.
She supposed it was ironic that coming so close to the brink of her impeding death that she could almost touch it should give her a reason to be happy again. Balthier had escaped from the Nalbina dungeons. And if Balthier had escaped, then…
She didn't even like to think about it, lest she jinx it, let alone say it out loud. But surely Balthier hadn't escaped alone. He was a sky pirate at the end of the day. And a sky pirate she barely knew wouldn't risk life and limb for a girl whose name he'd never heard. So it stood to reason that Vaan must be with him. Well, she'd said it but she didn't believe in such silly superstitions anyway.
Vaan was coming. And her heart was filled with a different substance to before, something so bright and clear that it was intangible and gave her butterflies every time she thought about him. She wasn't sure where she was or where he was but he would be coming sooner or later.
She could only hope that it would be the former.
After all, her only hope was that Balthier and Vaan would get to her before the Bangaa had reason to kill her or simply got annoyed with her. When they arrived, hopefully they'd be able to think of something. In the meantime, there was nothing to do but sit and wait to be moved one place forward in this chess game. Her musings instead turned to how it was she came to be in this deserted storage room in the first place.
Migelo had found her in his storeroom the next morning curled up in a little citadel of boxes. He'd told her to go upstairs to rest in her old room and promised that he'd go to the palace to appeal to the Consul for Vaan's release. It took her three days to dredge up the courage to go back to the house in Lowtown. But even when she left the shop, she hadn't gone home, instead opting to wander the streets of Lowtown aimlessly to put off the inevitable. It was then that Ba'gamnan and his lackeys had captured her, caught her unawares from behind and dragged her into a side-alley. They'd bundled her into an airship, bound her and left her in this storeroom to wait. Then the rest, as they say, was history.
Looking to the window again, Penelo looked out onto the blue sky, hoping to see the airship that would be bringing Vaan to her. They'd left the window open but she knew they'd only left it so as a cruel joke. When they first threw her in here, she'd stuck her head through the window intending to escape. But she soon discovered, even if she had managed to squeeze through in bonds, the building backed onto nothing. If she'd climbed out, without doubt she would've fallen thousands of feet all the way to her death. That was how she'd figured out she was somewhere in Bhujerba.
Though she could've tried climbing around, the risk whilst bound was too great. And she didn't want to risk dying when she had a reason to keep living.
So she stayed where she was, lapsing back into thoughts about how she might be able to survive, all the while conscious that the closer Vaan came to rescuing her, the less time she had left to live. But she knew he'd come. He always did.
"Keep moving, girly. Wouldn't want to keep your friends waiting."
The female Bangaa whose name Penelo hadn't yet learned dragged her along on a chain looped through her handcuffs. She stumbled forward and only just managed to keep her feet as her captor enjoyed to pull sharply on the chain at random intervals. Her heavy step seemed to amuse the Bangaa, who pulled on the chain again. Still off balance, her feet couldn't find purchase and Penelo feel over onto the ground.
The female headhunter laughed, particularly as she struggled to get up again. Penelo couldn't quite keep the scowl off her face.
It had been like this since Penelo had first awoken. At the time, she hadn't remembered falling asleep but the wake up call was one to remember. The female who seemed to have been primarily charged with her 'care' had doused her with a bucket of cold water. Again, this seemed to be primarily for the amusement of her and her brothers. Though she'd wanted to yell at them, she'd had the wit to hold her tongue, knowing that they were just looking for a reason to tease a scream out of her, much as they wanted to do to this Balthier.
However, this time she couldn't quite contain herself. She fell face first into the stone and did so quite hard. At the last moment, her arms had risen instinctively to shield her face and now she could feel her forearms pained her in a dozen different places and already she could feel the minor scratches start to bleed. She'd had just about enough of this.
"What is your problem? I'm trying to keep up as best as I can."
Though the form of a Bangaa's mouth made it impossible to smile, Penelo was sure this one would be smiling evilly if she could. "Did you hear that, my brother? She's a feisty one."
"So she is." Penelo felt a slight sense of dread as Ba'gamnan stepped up to his sister's side. "They're so much more fun that way."
The way his sister looked at him was somewhere between reverence and adoration. "Can we kill her now, my brother? We know Balthier is here. Whether she breathes or not isn't important anymore."
"Not yet Rinok. First we need to go deeper into the mines. You can dispose of her just as we get to the Twinspan. Then we can throw her body into the sea. Only the fishes will witness the crime."
The maliciousness of Rinok's gaze made Penelo shiver. There was no doubt in her mind that they weren't just going to kill her but they were going to enjoy doing so. "An excellent plan." Reaching out, the female headhunter's fingers brushed Penelo's cheek. Penelo couldn't repress the shudder of disgust. The hand was so cold, just like the Bangaa's heart. "I shall enjoy killing this one. I'll happily allow our brothers the rest so long as I can have girly here."
"Then it is done," Ba'gamnan said, making his way to the head of the procession again. "She's all yours when the time comes."
"Come along, deary," Rinok said in a faux-mothering tone. Penelo had managed to get back to her knees but hadn't dared to stand in Ba'gamnan presence. From what she'd heard in the past and from what she'd seen first hand, violence was ever the first mode of action with the headhunter, never the last. Now Rinok was tugging at her chain again.
But if she still had some time left to live, she didn't see why she shouldn't make their lives fractionally more difficult. Penelo pulled back on the chain, though her efforts were feeble in comparison to the Bangaa's strength. Indeed, her little show of defiance seemed to amuse Rinok still further and when she pulled again, she pulled so hard that lancing pain went through Penelo's arms and shoulders. It felt like the Bangaa was trying to rip her arms off.
This time, Penelo was dragged forcibly to her feet. "We've still got a way to go. It would be rude to keep Balthier waiting," Rinok told her, her tone still mocking.
Before she knew what she was doing, Penelo had spat in the Bangaa's face. The action which she had always considered deplorable in any situation now filled her with a justified sense of pride. She had no idea where she'd dredged up the courage to do so but her pride quickly melted away. Rinok wiped the spit away then, before Penelo could blink, planted her fist into Penelo's stomach.
All the breath in her body went out of her and once again she crumpled to her knees. For a moment, no sound could escape her and she simply waited for her breath to return, all the while conscious of the numb pain in her stomach. She started to cough at the exact same moment as Rinok yanked her chain again, forcing her up again.
"That'll teach you some manners," the Bangaa told her. "Get up."
Penelo did as she was told, all the fight now knocked out of her. Though it was difficult, she eventually managed to get back onto her feet even with an unhelpful tug on her chain to speed her up. She kept coughing for a while, even as they started to walk again, until slowly, and with deep shuddering breaths, she managed to breathe normally again. But as she recovered, Penelo pondered on the only consolation that the headhunter hadn't hit as hard as she could have. Her brothers had taught her something of fighting and Penelo knew that she could've been coughing up blood by now, if Rinok had so desired.
As it was, she wasn't and that was good enough for her. It surprised her then that she didn't especially feel any terror at what was coming. Somewhere in the back of her mind, Penelo couldn't let go of the notion that Vaan would come to help her before things got out of hand. Sometimes he wasn't punctual, but he would always get to her eventually. But this time, she didn't have the safety net of time. Every step she took was a step closer to her death.
She didn't want to die. She had far too much to live for. There was her mismatched family of orphans in Rabanastre. She wanted to see Kytes grow into a handsome young man; she wanted to be a bridesmaid at Filo's eventual wedding. She wanted to see Migelo again and thank him for everything he'd done for her over the years. Most of all she wanted to find Vaan and both kiss him and slap him, the former for saving her and the latter for being late. Besides, if he hadn't tried to break into the royal palace…
But she couldn't find it in her heart to blame him. Penelo couldn't remember the day she'd first met Vaan but some of her very earliest memories included him. They'd been together through thick and thin through more years than she could count on two hands. Sometimes Vaan would get into trouble and end up dragging her along in the slipstream but ever and always did he stay by her side. Not once did he ever run away when the going got tough. The fact that Balthier was in Bhujerba at all could only be down to Vaan. He might have made mistakes but then again he was only Hume. But he would find her before it was too late.
Apparently, according to Ba'gamnan at least, Vaan and Balthier were somewhere in the tunnels ahead of them. They'd already been waiting in an alcove of the entrance when Vaan, Balthier, the Viera who had been with them and two other people she didn't know entered the mines. Rinok had kept a hand over Penelo's mouth and a dagger at her throat to ensure her silence. She hadn't been foolish enough to assume the Bangaa was bluffing.
They'd stayed there for awhile until another procession, this time leaving the mines, passed them by. She didn't recognise any of the figures but they all looked like pretty important people, particularly the man in the suit of armour who she presumed was Archadian. Then they had gone. After a few minutes of silence, Ba'gamnan had led them out of their hiding place and Vaan and the others were nowhere to be seen.
Ahead, Penelo noticed that the tunnel seemed to be getting brighter. When they turned the corner, it became clear that it was sunlight spilling through the catacombs, rather than artificial light. She tried to shield her eyes though Rinok tugged on the chain again, forcing her hands down in front of her. Her eyes watered, now unused to the bright light and she was forced to squint. But with the light came the realization that they must be coming up to another bridge.
Though it was difficult to make out, Penelo could see a bridge stretch on beyond the yawning white chasm. This, she presumed, was the Twinspan. The first pangs of terror started to stir in her gut. After all, Rinok seemed to be quite pleased with herself all of a sudden. To confirm Penelo's suspicions, at that moment she was pushed down to her knees. Fortunately, her legs just missed the steel tracks set in place for the carts that never seemed to move in this place. Instinctively, Penelo knew what was coming next.
This was to be her execution ground, her gallows, her scaffold.
"Balthier can't be far ahead now, brother," said one of Ba'gamnan's brothers. "The gates up ahead are locked and there's no way out but this one."
From her place behind him, Penelo saw the bounty hunter nod. "Good. Rinok, time to play with your prize. But be quick about it. A bounty calls."
From that point on Penelo didn't really take much else in. She was only partially conscious of the fact that splinters from the grainy boards of the railroads had stuck themselves into the palm of her hand. Instead, she was more interested in the wicked looking dagger that Rinok had produced seemingly from nowhere. It was so well polished that in the moment Rinok held it still, she could see her own eyes staring back at her, wide and terrified. She briefly entertained the thought of trying to run but she didn't even bother to try. Even if she wasn't paralyzed by inertia, she was sure they'd catch her anyway.
She had a greater awareness of things as the Bangaa brought the blade close to her face, like how loud her breathing sounded. Her heart beat so loud and fast that she was sure it was bruising her ribs. The silvery blade wandered along her cheek and she felt the blade keenly though it didn't break the skin. It wandered down to her neck, edging down along with the singular bead of sweat which had suddenly started to make its way down her throat. Her mouth felt very dry, as though she was chewing on cotton. Then she clearly heard Rinok grunt in satisfaction as the knife wandered to her throat.
When Penelo looked into the eyes of her soon-to-be murderer, though her breathing didn't slow down, she felt like she beyond terror. Instead, she felt a profound disappointment gnawing at her insides. After all that hoping and after all the times he'd come to her before, Vaan wouldn't be there to help her this time.
"What pray tell is the meaning of this?"
Rinok took the knife away. Penelo let out the breath she didn't know she was holding. Ba'gamnan turned around from the far entrance and looked to the side. His brothers parted and let Penelo see who her saviour was.
Penelo's heart both sank and rose at the same time. It was the Archadian she'd seen at the entrance to the mines.
"This be none of your business, Archadian," Ba'gamnan told the stranger. Penelo watched the man in armour approach from the side entrance nonetheless.
"Considering that you are in the sovereign territory of an ally of the government of the Archadian Empire, that would make it my business," the man told him. "Not least because you are in the employ of my masters and as such under my command by default."
"I take orders from no-one."
"Aside from Gabranth, you mean?" The tension in the air got just a little bit thicker as Penelo watched the bounty hunter take a surprised step backwards. "Oh yes, your sordid little dealings with Judge Gabranth are known to me. They are also of no consequence unless you start murdering civilians whilst under his orders. The Ministry of Law frowns on cold blooded murder and punishes perpetrators with the utmost severity."
Ba'gamnan looked from left to right at his brothers and sister. After a moment's hesitation, he swatted at invisible flies in irritation. "Fine, let her go. There's bigger fish to be catching anyhow."
Amazed at her sudden change in fortune, Penelo couldn't help but feel disbelief as Rinok released her bonds. When the heavy handcuffs fell to the floor with a clang, her hands rubbed automatically at her sore wrists though she thought it was more to reassure herself that she was actually free. She'd been in bonds for over two days. All her previous terror vanished as the morning dew but that pang of disappoint had yet to leave her heart.
"Don't you have sky pirates to be hunting?" the Archadian asked.
"Bah," replied Ba'gamnan but he and his siblings went on their way anyway, leaving her alone with the Archadian. Though the soldier in unusual golden armour seemed to be her saviour, she still didn't dare speak until the Bangaa were well gone.
She turned to the soldier to find him looking at her. "Thank you-"
"You are under arrest for trespass on restricted ground," the man interrupted. "Follow me."
She followed him without complaint. After all, being arrested was a damn sight better than being dead.
After a whirlwind of circumstances, Penelo was surprised and not to mention overjoyed to be back in Rabanastre again. Near the Twinspan Bridge, she never thought she'd see her beloved hometown or anyone in it again. She'd thought she wouldn't get the chances to do many of the things she wanted to do once more, be they from as important as being with those she loved or as insignificant as enjoying the citric tang of a starfruit on her tongue.
It had been a long and crazy trip to get back where she was. After being arrested by the Archadian who she later found out was called Ghis and apparently one of the higher-ups in the Archadian army, she'd been rescued not long after by the boy she'd seen entering the mines with Vaan. This Larsa (as he called himself) had escorted her away and had turned out to be Vayne's brother. He'd offered to take her home on an Imperial warship but before they even left the city, Larsa had pulled her halfway around said ship to be reunited with Vaan.
She'd been filled with relief at the sight of him. As they were crossing the ship, she was getting to the slightly irrational point of thinking that she'd never see Vaan again. So when she'd suddenly seen him in the corridor, Penelo hadn't been able to stop herself from running to him and hugging him like there was no tomorrow. There had been tears in her eyes, tears of happiness, but she'd blinked them away. It hadn't been the right sort of situation for tears, particularly in a room full of people she didn't know.
Now that they'd escaped and were taking a temporary respite in her hometown before moving on to the Tomb of Raithwall, tears would've been profoundly embarrassing. That moment had passed now but she couldn't forget the well of emotion that had sprung up inside her on that ship. At frequent intervals during her captivity, she'd looked out the window and thought of Vaan. Now, free in Rabanastre, she was doing the same.
The view wasn't particularly spectacular but then Lowtown wasn't exactly a spectacular place. Indeed, they were lucky that their windows simply looked out onto a non-descript street in the quieter Southern Sprawl. Sometimes she would think they were lucky to have windows at all, but in a city surrounded by sand, windows were as cheap as dirt. The poorer demographics of Rabanastre passed on by and she watched them go with her mind elsewhere.
During their brief embrace, Penelo had felt something that she'd never felt before. Something different, something new. At the time, she'd paid no mind to it because she didn't have the time to pay mind to it. Now that she had time, she pondered on it but couldn't think of an answer. Well, there was one answer...
At the very least, even if Penelo didn't truly understand yet what it was she felt for Vaan, she did know one thing for certain. She knew that she didn't want to be put in that sort of situation again. She didn't want to be left alone. That was why she'd demanded to be brought along rather than left behind in Bhujerba. Well for that reason, and also because she couldn't afford a ticket home from the Aerodrome.
And there was no-one in the world she wanted to stay by her side more than the teenager in the room across from hers.
With that thought decided on, she just needed to summon up the courage to go out the door, across their living room and knock on his door. And that proved rather more difficult than she had been anticipating.
"Are you alright?"
Penelo jumped a little at the voice. She'd forgotten that Ashe was in the room with her, lying in the other bed. By necessity they'd been forced to share and while the princess hadn't proved bad company, Penelo was still a little uncomfortable being around the woman who in any other situation wouldn't look at her twice. Until that moment, she thought Ashe had been sleeping. But the look of concern on the princess' face was genuine, as was she in general.
"I'm fine. Just thinking."
Ashe stretched and raised her arms high above her head. "I wish to go into town today just before we depart. I think I shall ask Basch to accompany me."
"No, it's alright. If he is to be my guardian, I suppose I ought to get to know him. I shall just go and fetch him."
Penelo nodded, a bit surprised that the princess had snubbed her offer to show her around the town. After all, she knew the streets of Rabanastre and Lowtown like the back of her hand. As she got to the door, Ashe turned around.
"Just for your general information, I believe Balthier and Fran are at the hangar to make sure the Strahl is airworthy."
With that, she took her leave and closed the door. Penelo was sure it was just her imagination but there seemed something… conspiratorial about Ashe's departure. It didn't take very long for it to click what the princess was doing. She smiled, thinking that she'd have to thank Ashe for it later.
Behind the door and across the now hidden room, she heard the sound of murmuring voices, eventually followed by the front door opening and then shutting again with a bit more force than was strictly necessary. Grateful as she was to the princess, her departure with Basch hadn't made the summoning of courage any easier to make. In fact, the butterflies in her stomach seemed to be fluttering worse than ever now that she knew she was all alone in the house with Vaan.
She was sure there was a red tint to her cheeks and she hadn't even moved yet. Galtea knew what it would be like when she was actually in the same room as him. It amazed her that just the other day she had spoken up against the Bangaa when her life was in their hands. All that fortitude seemed to have dissolved into water, along with her skeleton, because when she finally managed to stand up her knees felt like they could barely support her. It had taken about half an hour to get that far.
Taking slow steps, Penelo reached the door and opened it slowly so that the hinges wouldn't creak. Slipping through the gap between door and doorframe with an unnecessary amount of cloak and dagger about her, she came out into the living room. Ashe had been right. Neither Balthier nor Fran were to be found in the common rooms of the house, nor could she hear any sign of them behind their bedroom door.
"You okay, Penelo?"
Somehow, when she'd taken a cursory glance around the room, Penelo hadn't noticed Vaan's legs dangling over the edge of the sofa. Now he'd taken them back and had sat up, looking at her over the top of the seat. Suddenly, Penelo wished that she hadn't left her room.
"Hi," she said, keeping her hands at her sides.
Vaan smiled at her and she averted her eyes to the floor. "Are you just gonna stand there?" he asked.
Penelo acquiesced, moving across the room to sit on the sofa as far away from Vaan as it was possible to get. Tucking her legs beneath her and crossing her arms, she was aware that she seemed to be trying to make herself as small as possible, as if Vaan wouldn't see her then. The teenager had his faults but bad eyesight wasn't one of them.
"What's up, Penelo?" he asked.
She tried to answer, all the while avoiding his eyes. It was difficult and she had the feeling that she should've thought what she wanted to say before coming to see him. As it was, she didn't know what on Ivalice to say.
"I wanted to talk to you about something," she finally said.
"Okay." He sat forward a little bit, something she knew was meant to ensure her that he was paying attention.
She looked up at his face, but avoided his eyes and gave a weak smile. "Actually, it was something I wanted to ask you I guess."
"I'm listening," he replied.
Damn him but he wasn't making it any easier for her. She found herself watching his hands lace themselves together behind his head and accidentally met Vaan's eyes. He was smiling at her and that made her smile too, if somewhat timorously.
"What I wanted to ask you was… I wanted to ask if you would stay with me."
Vaan blinked. "I'm not sure I get you."
"What I mean is…" Penelo stopped and tried to think what it was that she wanted to say. He stared at her as she did and she felt her cheeks redden again. "I mean I want you to promise that you'll never leave me behind. You know, that you'll always be there for me."
"You know I'll always be there for you. I always have been."
"Except when you were breaking into the palace," she reminded him. "Except when you were rotting away in the dungeons. I was left to fend for myself."
She regretted that almost as soon as she had said it. She knew she'd cut him deeply by the way he simply stopped looking at her. Then Vaan stood up and moved to the other sofa in the room, one that seen far better days, much like the one she herself sat on. Though it was a small move he made, it was still one that made Penelo feel all the more guilty.
"I did it for you," he told her, not looking at her now, and her heart skipped a beat. "You, Kytes, Filo, I did it for everyone."
Her heart settled back into place. "I know that. Not to say that I don't appreciate what you did but I kinda need you more here than in the hands of the Black Watch."
"What? In case Ba'gamnan and his lackeys come after you again?"
She knew she'd hurt him with her words but that was a petty shot. It slightly amazed how she could go from overjoyed one moment to feeling humbled the next and to downright irritated the one after that but Penelo had managed it. It wasn't just the way he'd said it, as if she was incapable of looking after herself (and he better than anyone should know how capable she was) but the fact that he'd said it in the first place. Vaan seemed to understand and once again refused to meet her eyes.
"I'd like to see you take on four armed Bangaa when all you have for a weapon is a handkerchief," Penelo said bitterly. Somehow she'd wound up on her feet and in that moment Vaan seemed so much smaller than she was. It tugged at her heartstrings a little but her irritation was still winning the battle for dominance inside her. She jabbed him in the chest with a finger. "How do you think you might've done in my shoes?" she asked, jabbing him again with every emphasised word.
Vaan's hand crept up to his chest where she'd poked him and rubbed at the abused flesh. Once more ignoring her conscience, she turned around and faced the corner so she wouldn't have to see him do it. She already felt bad. Standing this way reminded her of her childhood. Whenever she'd done something naughty, her parents always told her to stand in the corner as if it was a punishment. Now it seemed like she punishing herself.
"Not much better," Vaan admitted. "I'm sorry, okay? I would never have done it if I'd known how it was going to turn out. You mean a lot to me, Penelo."
"I know," she said, though she wasn't sure which part of what he'd just said she was referring to. Turning around again, she found him sitting on the arm of the chair with his feet up on the cushions. She'd been trying to get him to stop doing that for years but now wasn't the time to take up that losing battle again. "Remember when I told you how you need to be there for us the day you picked that soldier's pocket? Well, to tell the truth, I was thinking more about me when I said that."
The admission didn't just surprise Vaan. Penelo hadn't known what she was saying until a second after the words had left her mouth. But it was the truth. Though Penelo secretly approved of his pick pocketing of the Archadians (a fact that she would never tell him) on principal, the risk involved always scared her. Every time she'd caught him with the spoils of victory, she'd always grow restless, thinking the Archadians would take him away at any moment. Now that they had done that once, she didn't want it to happen again.
Vaan didn't answer her admission and the silence dragged on for a while. "Next time you're going to do something big like that, bring me along with you. At least if we get caught, we'll still be together," she said.
"Okay," was all he said in answer.
Penelo smiled a little and moved to sit down on the sofa he'd moved to. She patted the cushions beside her. Though he still seemed uncomfortable, he sat down with her all the same and met her eyes once more. "Promise me."
"I promise," he answered and in her heart, Penelo knew he meant it. He held out his hand. "Do you wanna shake on it?"
Penelo regarded his hand wryly. Though she didn't know much about contract law, she knew that such deals were sealed with a handshake. But a handshake always struck Penelo as insincere and inadequate for its purpose. It was a gesture that didn't really mean much. She looked away from his hand and met his eyes again, warm and friendly. "No."
She shuffled closer to Vaan, putting her hand on top of his. The space between them disappeared into nothing and his look of confusion at her refusal disappeared with it. They were close now, close enough for her to make out all the little details on Vaan's face, how his right iris had a slightly darker tone than the left, how there were a few tiny spots on his forehead. It wasn't a perfect face, just like her own wasn't, but it was more than good enough for her.
He inverted his palm slightly so that he could hold her hand in his. His fingertips were slightly calloused and the smoothness of his palm that he had as a child was now long gone, thanks to their years of hard living. But there was no other hand Penelo considered more perfect than his. There was no hand that was a better fit to her own. It was a perfect match.
Penelo met his eyes again but then looked away. She knew full well what she was doing but couldn't quite believe she was doing it. Never in a million years did she think she would have the bravery to act on these confusing feelings. It was difficult just to get as far as she had, holding his hand in a way that could never be mistaken for sisterly. For now though, she was content just to sit as she was and enjoy the moment. If things had gone differently, she never would've had this opportunity.
So it seemed a shame to waste it, particularly considering how dangerous the coming trip would be.
But she couldn't stop looking at her feet. She just couldn't summon up the courage. But then she felt Vaan's fingers curl around hers just a fraction tighter. Though she didn't know if he meant anything by it, it gave her the resolve she needed. He wanted what she wanted, or so she hoped.
Looking up once again, Penelo willed herself to meet Vaan's eyes for longer this time. It was difficult, like staring at the sun and with all the radiance. But he smiled at her and she could see that he was just as unsure and uneasy as she was. She smiled back, even though she felt so, so nervous and she couldn't stop her hands from shaking. They just seemed to sit there staring at each other for a while. It was now or never.
She leaned in.
But she closed her eyes as she did, too afraid to meet Vaan's gaze and perhaps find rejection. But if blindly was the only way she had the courage to do it, then she would do it blindly. After a few seconds, she felt more than knew that she was closer to him then she'd ever been before. Just one more push and that would be it.
She leaned in to kiss him but bumped his nose with hers instead, the tips touching so that their lips were still an inch or two apart. It had gone wrong. It was supposed to be a perfect faerie tale moment, they'd tilt their heads just right and their lips would meet halfway. But that hadn't happened. Though just as she was about to pull away, she felt Vaan's arm coil around her back, pulling her close.
"You can open your eyes, you know," he said soothingly, with their noses still touching.
"I won't be able to see properly though," she muttered.
He didn't answer to that and she didn't open her eyes. Neither of them moved, neither of them said anything but she knew without needing a looking glass how red she must be going. She was a little disappointed when he let go of her hand but the way he traced his fingers down her cheek more than made up for it. She shivered a little.
"Your hand is cold," she whispered. She felt if she spoke above a whisper, something bad would happen. She didn't know what. Just something.
"Sorry," he whispered back, trying to take his hand away.
Before he could, Penelo pressed her own hand on his. "Don't. It's nice."
She didn't know how long they stayed there like that, holding each other and touching noses and she didn't particularly care either. It was more than she ever could've hoped to ask for. Well, almost.
"Yeah?" he answered.
"Do you want to kiss me?"
Again, he didn't answer with words. But she felt his nose finally brush past hers and his lips land on hers.
It was better than she ever could've imagined. She could've have described the way it made her feel with words even if she'd had the ability. So she wrapped her arms around Vaan's waist instead and pulled him closer, deepening the kiss. He responded only by moving his hand again and losing it in her hair, making her tremble every time his fingertips brushed her scalp. From there all she knew was that Vaan was kissing her and that she wasn't daydreaming. It was real, it was tangible and that was all that mattered.
After a few more blissful seconds, Penelo pulled away a fraction so their lips brushed one another but didn't touch fully. The space between them didn't diminish and she planned to keep it that way. She'd only ended the kiss because she knew that one could have too much of a good thing. She opened her eyes and saw that Vaan had his shut too, and though she couldn't really see, she could imagine the silly grin he would be wearing. This was the Vaan she knew and loved and she couldn't want anything more.
"Four minutes, twenty-three seconds, Fran. You owe me a gil."
The moment shattered. They jumped apart instinctively and moved to opposite ends of the sofa. Her heart was beating fast for a completely different reason now. Turning around, she found Balthier and Fran stood beside the door leading out into the street, with the former glancing at something he held in his hand.
"Nonsense," Fran replied, "I am certain that was more than five minutes."
"Timepieces have nothing to gain by lying, my dear," the sky pirate replied, dangling the now visible pocket watch before Fran's face "Be a good sport and pay up what is due."
Only then did Penelo manage to find her voice. "You were spying on us?"
For the first time, the two sky pirating partners looked away from each other and settled their attention on her. Suddenly, Penelo wished she hadn't said anything.
"Spying is such a vulgar word," Balthier replied. "I think 'observing' would be the better term, as well as making a healthy bet on the sideline."
"We came initially to tell you all that the Strahl is ready to make sail," Fran replied. "Where are the princess and her guardian?"
"In town somewhere," Vaan replied from behind her. Though she was still incredibly embarrassed, Penelo couldn't help but enjoy listening to the sound of his voice.
"Then we shall search them out," Balthier said, opening the door and offering it to Fran. "And a word to the wise," he added as Fran left the room. "If you don't want to be disturbed in the future, might I suggest not consummating your passions for one another in communal places?"
Penelo didn't trust herself to answer and simply watched Balthier chase after the Viera. That had been embarrassing, no question about it. She tried not to think about it and focus only on the teenager sitting next to her.
"I guess we've finished here then," she muttered.
Vaan reached out for her, stopping her from getting out of her seat before she could start. "Not quite."