AU – Although badly injured, Noah survives the battle on the Bahamut. Basch goes on to take his brother's place in Archades and Noah ends up in Penelo & Vaan's care.
This has become the prologue chapter for a complex multi-pairing suspense/romance/drama. Noah/Penelo, Prior Vayne/Drace/Gabranth, Basch/Balthier/Ashe, prior Basch?Penelo, Vaan?Penelo, and some messy between Balthier-as-Ffamran with Gabranth in the distant past. And Occuria. We have to add in some Occuria. But this is just the simple Noah/Penelo beginning around which all of the above spirals about. (revised on 5 Jan 2009).
Penelo grasps a large tomato hanging from a vine. The fruit resists when her fingers squeeze its flesh. Even though the tomato's top is green, she plucks it. Midway, its body transforms into a mottle of pale yellow and rich gold. Without a second thought, she places the unripe tomato in a basket slung over her arm. It sits with four red ones that are ready to be eaten. The basket tilts when she shifts her hips. The green tomato rolls over a fragrant sprig of basil and knocks into one that is fully ripe, leaving a bruise.
She kneels down and inspects the vines for brick colored mites and for sticky, hidden sacks of eggs that will hatch an army of destruction when the sun rises the following morning. She finds none. More than two dozen tomatoes that should ripen within the week and she no longer worries. They have money for food and the market is now stocked every day.
The rainy season has ended so she takes care to water the plants every day. It is now one week past midsummer and already it is too hot to stand in the sun at nine in the morning. Now it is the time of the year when all sensible creatures seek shelter of shade during the middle of the day and wait for a break in the heat to come when the cool breeze from the Nebra rises at sunset. And it is a time of the year when most people do their business in the early morning and the late afternoon, leaving the middle of day for lazing about and for restless naps while the air is hot and still.
She brushes back a loose strand of hair, tucking it behind her ear. She picks up her basket, wrapping her arms around its wicker bowl and she holds it just below her chest. The basket presses into her belly. She doesn't hurry as she crosses the small walled garden behind her home. She steps through a doorway that leads into the kitchen, navigating through the room more by memory than by sight. She stops and leaves the basket on a table. She waits for her eyes to adjust before proceeding into the dim light within the heart of her house. She doesn't hear the familiar sounds of Filo and Kytes. They are out but she is certain they will come back soon. They will return before the sun blazes toward its zenith to scorch a city of brick and stone.
Vaan is at the aerodome. He won't be back until early afternoon, sweating and hungry and talking without stopping for a breath. He will recount every new detail of progress in restoring his derelict airship. Vaan's ship seems very small when it sits next to the Strahl. He recently purchased it. During the first few months after their return to Rabanastre, Vaan meticulously cleaned and repaired the Strahl. Now, the airship sits, immobile in its dock. Vaan will not fly it and Penelo knows why. She doesn't need to ask. After Vaan's work on the Strahl completed, she and Vaan no longer had reason to compare the airship's recover to Noah's. This is another thing they no longer speak about.
She plucks the reddest tomato from her basket and takes a small knife from a drawer.
Penelo walks through the dinning room and the parlor and past the staircase and down a dim hall. She steps with the silence of a ghost through rooms where the air is still cool. Her eyes have adjusted to muted light, but she stands in near darkness at the end of the hall. Her hand grips the handle of a door leading to another garden, but this is not one of sun and soil and vine and fruit. It a garden of canvas and paint, of textured paper colored with conté crayon, and of freshly cut flowers in high-necked vases.
"You are late," Noah says. "I've been awake and waiting for almost an hour."
"I had errands to run."
"And I have been by myself without anyone here." Noah frowns. His head rests against a starched pillow case that crinkles when his head turns. He looks at her.
Noah is now strong enough to push himself up and get out of bed. Vaan set up a bar so Noah can transfer himself to his chair, but he refuses to do this when alone. Noah always waits until someone is available to help him.
"You are late. I began to think I had been forgotten."
Noah always wakes with the light of the sun and Penelo spends the first hour of her day helping him wash and handling other necessities. All of the fuss and bother tires him, so then she helps him transfer back into his bed and she brings him a light meal before she begins her own day. By mid-morning, Noah becomes restless and he wants to sit in his chair and start his day. He wants company or he wants to be taken somewhere else in the house. He wants to know from her that he is needed and that there is still something useful for him to do. He wants to balance financial accounts or comb through legal paperwork.
Since their return to Rabanastre and after the improvement of Noah's health, he helped Penelo reclaim her family's house. Now Noah works at reinstating her father's financial accounts. He has shown her how to file legal claims that will force Archadia to repay her for lost family income spanning three years. Sometimes Penelo wonders if it would be easier to write a letter to Basch, but she knows better than to mention the name of the man who currently serves as an Archadian judge. Noah angers when she does.
In the later hours of afternoon, Noah prefers to be left alone in his room where he paints images of lush landscapes. His artwork fascinates Penelo: images of dream-scapes teaming of life but devoid of people. The scenes are too tranquil to depict locations in Archades, but Penelo hasn't asked him where these memories are from and Noah hasn't offered to tell her.
After supper and sunset Noah expects Penelo and Vaan to push his chair for a stroll through Rabanastre's plazas. Upon the chill of night, she returns him to his bed. She often sits beside him with his blanket across her legs. She reads to him until he falls asleep.
"I brought you a tomato from the garden. Would you like me to cut it into slices?"
"No, not now." Noah stares at the ceiling. His lips part before he speaks in a hushed tone. "I want you to come here."
She leaves the tomato and knife beside his bed. She turns and wheels his chair closer.
"No, I don't want to get up. Not yet. Just--" His hand slaps the thin blanket covering his bed. "Penelo, just come here." He doesn't look at her. Instead, he closes his eyes and continues to frown. He looks like someone who wants to pick a fight but not with her.
Her legs press into the side of his mattress and leans forward to look down at his face and wait for his eyes to open. Time passes; his tenacity begins to bore her. She sighs and stands herself straight.
She says nothing--neither does he--as she shimmies beside him. She rests her cheek on one end of his pillow.
Noah speaks with no more volume than needed. "I fell sleep when you left and then, when I awoke, you had not returned. I called out and no one answered." His breath sounds of stress. "That worried me. I shouldn't be alone."
"I told you that I needed to run errands for Migelo."
"But it is already nine. You should have been back shortly after eight."
"Then let me take you with me when I run morning errands."
Now he finally looks at her. His fingers tap a nervous rhythm on her arm. His eyes are upset. "I prefer you are back by eight. No later than eight-fifteen. Else my day is set behind."
"Would you like me to help you up?"
"No, please, say here for a minute." Noah exhales a ragged sigh. She is close enough to feel his body tremor and hear his teeth grind. He is upset. She knows how to calm him.
Penelo pushes at rigid arms until he makes room for her to press against his chest. Once she has settled, he clasps her to his body in a tight, awkward grasp. His pulse drums in his neck and, with hardly a moment of thought, Penelo shushes a sustained, quiet stream of breath against his cheek.
Noah is not his brother.
From this angle, the shape of his nose and the line of his chin appear identical to that of Basch. They may be twins, but Penelo knows all of the little differences that tell them apart. She knows the flecks of amber in Noah's eyes and the widow's peak in his hairline. She knows the shape and width and heaviness in his jaw, and the fullness of his bottom lip. Noah never smiles and he often knits his brows. He fidgets with his hands and he pouts when he's upset. Noah is often upset. Noah cannot walk.
For all the strength in his arms and the hard expressions on his face, he is motionless downward from his hips. The half of him that once rooted him to the earth is now dead weight that needs to be moved by the work of her hands. Those same hands massage him each morning and often at night. And Noah needs to be checked for sores on his backside; he requires others to get items placed beyond his grasp. He needs help when he washes and more help with clothes. Penelo thinks he is now strong enough to dress on his own, but he refuses and he will remain in his night clothes throughout the day if she doesn't assist him.
His body is stronger now--much stronger than when they first returned to Rabanastre after the war. During those first weeks, Noah lay lifeless, all but a ghost except the rasp of his breath.
Penelo tilts her face forward and touches the tip of her nose to his cheek.
She remembers the afternoon when Vaan enlisted aid from Filo and Kytes. Vaan knew better than to tell Kytes that Noah had been a judge. "Just a solider," Vaan said. "He's not from here, but his brother arranged for Penelo to take care of him." Kytes thought nothing odd about it and helped them conveyed Noah in a stretcher, up a narrow flight of stairs. Noah said nothing. From that day onward, Noah remained in her care.
Noah said little during those early weeks but she learned that Noah calmed when he and his surroundings were kept crisp and clean. She learned that he preferred his food much blander than she preferred and that he liked the sound of her voice when she read to him. She learned that he expected her, and only her, to wash and care for his body. "These are private matters," he once said. "I don't want those children or your male friend to see me in a state of humiliation. You are different. You received medical training. They haven't."
Noah depended on her. Penelo didn't mind but she preferred to come and go throughout the day whereas Noah wants to follow a precise schedule, never deviating by more than a few minutes on any given day. Or so he claimed.
By holding her like he is now, another delay is added to his schedule. Despite his complaining, this too is Noah and he will remind her for the rest of the day about the lost hour he suffered in the morning.
Noah is often disagreeable in the morning.
Penelo's theory is that Noah is troublesome so he can see if she will anger and threaten to send him away. She is certain of this. Sometimes at lunch when no one else is around he will lower his voice to whisper.
'If my brother were to stop paying you, would you wheel me out past the city's south gate and leave me to roast under the blaze of the noonday sun?
'When you abandon me, would you destroy the papers that identify me as a member of this household and as a legal resident of Dalmasca?
'Would you leave me in Lowtown with all of those other legless soldiers until my body reeks and my face disappears behind a grizzled beard?'
Whenever he asks, she closes her eyes and shakes her head. 'No, Noah. Never. This is where you live.'
She never knows if her answer satisfies him. He always huffs and pushes his food around his plate until she decides that he is done. That is when she quietly stands, steps behind him, and rests her hands on his shoulders. No words ever pass between them as she waits for his to leans back into her breasts. Silently, from the kitchen, they'll look out into the garden. She understands why he might worry but she wishes he could believe her.
No matter what Noah does, she never angers, never shows anger, and rarely does she feel her anger rise, but she doesn't understand his Archadian habit of paying close attention to the clock, especially given that is now summer. His clock does not match Rabanastre's cycles of baking heat and the violent rain. She will come and go as she pleases during the few hours that is cool and dry.
As long as she presses against him, he will ignore the clock.
"Shouldn't we get up?"
Before he agrees, he tries to stop time. He doesn't breathe.
What follows is familiar routine: it always takes all of thirteen minutes to dress Noah as proper Archadian gentlemen. He refuses to go shirtless like a Rabanastrian and he will not consider loose, cotton breeches. Instead, he insists on hard boots that rise above his ankle, long hoses, tightly tailored trousers, a fitted silk shirt, and a brocade jacket, all of which are too warm for the summer climate.
Penelo straightens his shirt and jacket one last time. He sits tall in his chair and his feet are secure on the kick-board.
"Do you want to share a tomato? It's from the garden, sun ripened. It should taste very sweet."
"Let me slice it." Noah holds out his hands.
He slices the tomato and reveals two glistening faces. Juicy pulp spills into Penelo's hand when she takes her half from him. Its flesh tastes tangy and sweet on her tongue. Seeds stick to her fingers and dribble down her chin. Noah cups his messy hands in his lap and watches Penelo lick her hand clean. He waits, silently, for Penelo to brings him a linen napkin. He removes the seeds left behind on his fingers.
Noah wheels himself down the hall and into the parlor.
It takes Penelo hardly more than a minute to fold his pajamas and make his bed. She wipes the knife on the napkin that Noah has left behind. She pockets them both and walks out to the parlor to join him.