Disclaimer: I do not own Square Enix's Final Fantasy XII, nor am I making any money off this fanfiction.
An Offer From a Pirate
Vaan was hovering by the door. By the mussed state of his hair, he must have been waiting there a while. Penelo tried to feel guilty, and couldn't summon the energy for it. She couldn't find the energy for anything, really.
"I am," she agreed.
He started to shut the door behind her, but stopped. "Are there more bags?"
"Yes. Five more."
"You always have more each time you come back."
"I also stay longer each time."
Vaan went outside to retrieve them, only to be stopped by a gentleman, already carrying three of the five remaining bags. He arched his brows at Vaan, and the sky pirate pursed his lips and dutifully stepped aside.
"I don't remember servants from last time."
"Did he." It was a statement.
Penelo thought she could detect a faint note of hostility.
"It isn't really wise, you know, to have everyone knowing where we live, especially not the imperials," Vaan said in a low voice, once the servant had gone back for the rest of her things. He wanted to be bothered that Penelo wasn't quite looking at him. She seemed distracted with something. Vaan followed her gaze—it was a necklace. "A gift?"
"No, I bought this one myself."
It was a lie, plain as day, and Vaan was almost in a foul enough mood to call her on it, but he stopped himself. Why was he angry? It was obvious that Penelo was distressed. He'd have to be blind not to see it, and though Vaan might have been as much at certain times, today he wasn't.
Still. He was expecting her hours ago—nearly the day before. Why had she returned so late? Unless he had kept her, which was obvious by the trailing servant and copious amounts of luggage, in which case Vaan's mood soiled even more.
He did his best to keep his tone idle, though it played at odds against the hiss he'd affected mere seconds ago. "Are you staying long this time?"
"Of course. This is my home." She turned to him finally, her brows pinching together.
"Oh, it is?" Mildly, Vaan thought, to cover up the first flickers of anger. He hadn't wanted to have his fight now, but it seemed well on its way, and he'd been worried enough over her delay to let it keep on. No use in stopping it now—if he held it in, it'd just be worse later. "Archades doesn't seem like home much?"
"What's that supposed to mean?" Flat, pointed. Penelo, too, saw the makings of the fight.
"Just that you spend more time there than here, so I was wondering where home really was to you."
"That's not true. Every four weeks I spend there, I stay six or more here."
"Four weeks, six weeks, what's the difference?"
"I'm not doing this." Penelo left him in the foyer to travel up the stairs in the direction of her bedroom. Her hand trailed along the banister, and he could see the way her nose had risen several notches in the air. She'd definitely perfected that look while she was away.
It made his blood boil hotter. "Doing what, Penelo?" Quickly now, as he followed her, foregoing the grip of the banister as he remained just a pace away from her heels. She could probably feel his breath on her neck, they were so close. "I'm only concerned about why you stay here at all, you know. Don't you think I have a right to wonder?"
"Of course you do. But you don't have to be so damned snide."
"Oh, I'm snide now?"
"Yes, I think so."
"Gods, you even talk differently."
She whirled, and he didn't bother hiding his satisfied smirk when he saw the way her eyes were blazing. "Forgive me, Vaan, but spending time around courtiers more than half my days tends to affect my speech. I realize I sound quite educated, but I suppose I can see how you're uncomfortable with it in your unfamiliarity in the matter."
His expression darkened. "Hey."
"What?" She lifted her brows at him. "Don't like it, do you? Now leave me alone, I'm tired, and I don't want to fight."
He caught her wrist before she could get too far. "Penelo."
"What?" Her sigh was weary, and her shoulders drooped.
"What aren't you telling me?"
The laugh she gave him was so hollow, it frankly scared him. "You ask me that now, after a year of this? Now?"
"Now's a better time than not at all," he said defensively. He suddenly felt as though he'd lost the high ground. But had he ever had it to begin with? He was beginning to wonder. "I mean this, Penelo. What's going on?"
"Nothing's going on."
"You didn't kiss me when you walked in the door. Something. Is. Wrong."
"It's nothing for you to concern yourself with. Let me go, Vaan." She tugged at her wrist.
Against his better judgment, he released her. He knew better than to force her to do anything. "Penelo, please, don't shut me out."
"It's a bit too late to be asking me that." She resumed her path up the stairs. "You weren't exactly welcoming when I got back, Vaan, and you can't take back your hostile attitude now. I'm going to bed, we can discuss this more in the morning."
"I want to talk about it now. The only reason I'm crabby is because you were so late."
"What do you want me to tell him, Vaan? He's the Emperor of Archadia. He asked me to stay a night longer, so I stayed."
"He's also your friend, and I seriously doubt he'd pull the emperor card on you." Not if he knew what was best for him.
Penelo turned the corner at the top of the stairs, took a short path up another staircase, this one with only four steps to its name, and veered into the darkness of her room. Vaan followed suit and watched as she waved her hand over the magicite lamps. Light sprung to life, illuminating the furniture and the gifts that had arrived while Penelo was gone. Vaan had taken each of them in when they'd arrived a week ago.
He leaned against the doorframe and crossed his arms with a scowl. He didn't know what was in those carefully crafted boxes, inlaid with ocean pearls and tied with the richest of lace. Some of the boxes were satin. Others were hard, more like a wooden chest, but the tiniest of them had jewels encrusted along their edges. There was no other word for them except for gifts, and judging by the look on Penelo's face, they had come as a complete surprise to her, as well.
"Oh," she breathed, picking up the nearest wrapped box. It was heart-shaped, a sapphire pressed into its center among its silk cover. "When did these come for me?"
"Last week." He couldn't quite keep the bite out of it.
Penelo's face closed in thought.
He measured that expression—he couldn't read it, but he knew he didn't like it. "What?"
"Nothing, sorry. I'm just tired."
He didn't buy it for a minute, and both of them knew it. "Well, I have to say that I'm not really sure how to feel right now, Penelo."
She sat the gift back down. He wasn't sure if he was relieved or disappointed. Relieved at her apparent disinterest, disappointed because he wanted to know what was in the damn thing. All of the boxes! It had been gnawing at him for days. He rather thought that that was a tactical maneuver on Larsa's part. He never did anything lightly. Which was probably what pissed Vaan off so much about it. That, and…
"What do you mean, Vaan?" She reached up to her hair, pulling free the pins there as she made her way over to her vanity. It was something she'd gone out and gotten earlier in the year, once she'd returned from an Archades trip.
"I mean that you're my girl, Penelo, and he's sending you expensive things. How is that supposed to look to me?"
She didn't respond, her expression distracted as she pulled her fingers through her hair, loosening her curls from where they had sat atop her head. He studied the blonde fall of her hair along her shoulders and back and felt a twinge of longing. When was the last time he had lifted those golden strands to his nose, inhaled as he stroked the silky curls?
"I suppose what it looks like," she said after an uncomfortable length of silence.
He nearly choked on his breath. "What?"
"I won't hide it." She lifted her brush. "He's made a bid for my affections."
And stared some more.
Finally, he exhaled noisily and wasn't surprised to hear how badly it shook. It was one thing to suspect—no, to have it blatantly rubbed in his face, even. But for Penelo to say it out loud like that, and so casually.
"I'm… I can't believe this."
"Don't bother getting upset."
"What?! How am I supposed to be calm?! How can you be so calm?!"
"Because I'm here with you, aren't I?" She set her brush down and lifted her fingers to the back of her neck to work on the clasp of the necklace there. "Or has that failed to grasp your attention?"
She was right. Of course she was right. But it still damn rankled—that Larsa would tell Penelo that he had full intentions of getting her as his, that he probably even planned to take Penelo away from him, that…
This was just damn unacceptable!
"Pack up your things. We're going."
Alarmed, she stared at him. "What? Where?"
"To Archades. I'm going to give him a piece of my mind!" He spun for the door, his mind racing ahead. He'd pack a light bag, nothing too much. He wouldn't be long in Archades. Just time enough for Larsa to eat his knuckles, and then they'd be gone, and he'd never see or hear from them again.
"Oh, no we're not!" Penelo seemed to have recovered from her shock, for she rushed from the vanity to grab Vaan by the elbow and jerk him around. "You can't just go storming into Archades and do that!"
"Why the hell not?!" he fumed.
"Because I don't want you to!" she cried. "And that should be reason enough! Honestly, Vaan, what are you so worried about?!"
"THAT YOU'RE LETTING HIM DO THIS!" he exploded.
They stared at one another, each breathing heavily in the silence.
He jerked away from her and stumbled back a step. "That's it, isn't it? You like him," he whispered, horrified, his eyes wide and locked on her rapidly paling face. "You do. I thought you were just being a friend when you stayed in Archades when he asked you to, but—but I can't ignore this anymore, can I? If you really just wanted to be with me, if I really had nothing to worry about, you'd send his gifts back."
"Vaan—" She reached for him.
He sidestepped. "Did you bother telling him no? That you weren't interested? I know he's persistent, Penelo, but damn, I know the man enough to be pretty sure that he'd let off if you told him no."
"You told him you'd think about it, didn't you? Or that you didn't know? Or, wait, wait," he laughed, waving a hand, "that you wanted more time, right?"
"I've got to get out of here. Don't wait up for me, I don't know how long I'll be." He whirled, bypassing his room this time in favor of heading down the stairs.
He heard her footsteps behind him, clomping down the stairs as she raced to keep up. He didn't care. He wasn't going to slow, and he had always been faster than her. He needed to get away from here, to think, to realize what this might mean.
Gods, it was all so clear now. How could he have been such an idiot? For an entire year, he'd been swindling her away from him, right from beneath his nose. Using cover stories that Penelo's diplomacy skills were really helpful in the court to bring more good feelings untoward Dalmasca. Letting everyone think she was a noble, pretending that it was just temporary, that it'd end eventually.
But he was grooming her, wasn't he? Preparing her for a life at the court?
By the gods—
I can't believe I didn't see this for what it was!
I trusted him!
"Vaan, gods, stop—stop being an idiot, let's talk about this!"
She wasn't telling him that it wasn't what he thought. She wasn't denying that she liked him.
"There's nothing to talk about, Penelo. Why did you even come back?" He stopped at the front door. The servant was long gone. "At least tell me that one, huh?"
Penelo skidded to a stop before him, obviously surprised he'd whirled around so quickly. She stood there, trembling, her eyes scanning his face. Did she think he wasn't serious? Then her eyes widened with realization, and they both knew he was.
"Vaan… Please…" She placed the heel of her palm to her brow, and already he could see the tears pricking at her eyes. He knew how much this was costing her from that alone—Penelo hated to cry in front of anyone. But it didn't move him, in that moment, not like it always had before.
He was too angry, he felt too betrayed.
"Well?" he prompted, and he wasn't, strangely, ashamed to hear the fine quaver in his voice. "Well, Penelo? C'mon, let's straighten this out now. Why did you come back? No, while we're at it…" A laugh left his lips for the second time. This one was strained, and he had to stop as an answering prick developed in his own eyes. "Why did you lie to me about the necklace? I mean—why even bother with all of this?"
Her throat worked as she turned her head away. Swiftly, her hand came up to swipe over her eye.
"They're beautiful pearls, Penelo. When did he buy them for you?"
She said nothing.
"Look, I already know you're lying about them. Why don't you just at least give me the truth, huh? Is that honestly asking for so much?"
Again, she swallowed.
"Penelo," he growled. "Don't pull this with me. I deserve more than that. When did he buy them for you?"
"He didn't!" she cried, finally looking to him again. Her cheeks were wet, and she looked stunned at her outburst. When her voice came again, it was faint. "…They were his mother's…"
For a moment, absolutely no words came to him. He just stared at her. Air seemed lost to him—it was if she'd sucker punched him right in the gut.
She shook her head and turned away from him. "If you're going to go, then just go, Vaan. We both know you want to."
But now he wasn't finished yet.
"No, wait." The words were low and dangerous, and he saw her back stiffen. "So that's it, then, Penelo? You spend all this time away from me, letting him—letting him wheedle you away from me—and you come here, to me, wearing his mother's necklace?" It took all he had not to shout the words. It helped that he still couldn't gather a good breath for it.
"No, explain that one to me, Penelo, please. I'm dying to hear this."
Her jaw was set as she whirled back to him. Instead of tears gathered on her lashes, anger now lurked in the blue depths of her eyes. "I don't have to explain anything to you, not when you're being like this."
"You didn't want to leave, did you?" he goaded, stepping from the door to come near her. He must have looked really angry, because for all her bravery and all her years spent steadily in his company, she began backing away. "You wanted to stay in Archades!"
"Why are you doing this?!"
"Why are you wearing his mother's necklace?!" he fairly roared. She didn't flinch, but her pace quickened. Too bad for her—her back was about to smack right into the window and then she'd have nowhere to go. Oh, he wouldn't hurt her, but she was going to stay here and they were going to settle this once and for all.
"BECAUSE I WANTED TO!" she shouted, and this time she wasn't surprised at her surge of anger. If anything, Penelo hated being backed into corners. Her feet came to a firm stop, and she lifted her hands, bracing them to shove against him if she had to.
"You wanted to?"
"Yes! Why else would I be wearing it?!" Her arm flew out to the side in a wild gesture. "That's what you wanted to hear, isn't it?! That I wanted to wear this, that I practically begged him for it?!"
"Sure, why not?! You're not going to believe anything I have to say to you about it, anyway!"
He sounded raspy when he spoke next, in his effort to lower his tone, "Kind of hard when the evidence of—of—of your little affair is right in front of me, Penelo."
"It wasn't an affair, and it's not!" Hand flying up to her throat, Penelo stared at him. She didn't seem to know what he was going to do next. That made two of them.
"Why. Are. You. Wearing. It?" It took all he had to get out the words in an even voice, though in truth it was closer to a hiss. That was fine. At least he wasn't screaming, which is what he really wanted to do.
"I told you." Though her voice still carried the fine trembling note it had when he'd first begun questioning her, her shoulders straightened. Her chin jerked up. "I wanted to."
"So then why did you come back?" Thunderous, shaking all of him as he resumed his advance toward her.
She stood her ground, but despite this, tears were fresh in her eyes. "I don't know."
"You don't know."
"No," she whispered.
"So then what you said upstairs—was that all a lie, too?!" He swept his arm in the direction of the staircase.
"I don't know."
He jabbed his finger at her. "Stop. You're a smart girl, and we both know it. You know everything you do."
Her fingers flexed at her side.
Good, let her hit him.
"The clock is ticking, Penelo," he said raggedly, straight through his teeth. He could feel the muscles in his jaw clenching terribly, and it was starting to hurt. "We don't have all night." He wetted his lips, his mouth dry. "Just admit it. You wanted to stay in Archades, didn't you?"
"Gods, will you quit trying to provoke me?!" she spat at him. "Just knock it off!" Funny how she didn't sound quite so refined when he'd finally pushed her buttons hard enough.
"Just answer the question! How hard can it be?! You wanted to stay in Archades, didn't you?!"
"Yes, fine, yes! I wanted to stay in Archades! I regretted it the second I stepped foot outside of the Imperial Palace!"
"Did you?!" They were nose to nose, glaring hatefully at each other.
"Yes! I did! I never wanted to leave!"
"And these—these dresses of yours, the way you do your hair now, all the fancy perfumes, the luggage, the servants, the little tea parties you write to me about, you enjoy it, all of it, don't you?!" He didn't want to hear any of this—he didn't want to know her answers. But he couldn't make himself stop. It was as if poison had settled in his veins, and the more it spread, the angrier he became, the more reckless.
"Yes! I do!"
"He's changed you, and you don't care one bit!"
"He hasn't changed anything, Vaan, I want the life I have there!"
"Do you also want to raise your nose at people and look down at them? Think you're better than everyone else?" He chuckled, and the sound was ugly, even to his own ears.
"Gods, what? Vaan—it—it has nothing to do with that!" Now she was the one to advance as he took his space away from her. He spun on his foot, going for the door.
"Why did you come back here?"
"I told you already!" He heard something shatter on the floor, pieces scattering along the wood. It was probably the vase he'd nabbed from Ashe's sitting room the last time he'd been there. Fine. Now there was no evidence that he'd stolen it.
He sent her another laugh over his shoulder.
Everything was going down, down in flames, and it was all he could do.
It was either that, or start crying, and she didn't deserve his tears anymore.
"I don't know!"
When he was at the door, he turned back to her. "Well, you better find out now. It's time to make a decision, Penelo." Silence fell between them, and their eyes darted back and forth over one another's faces. He broke it, nearly croaking, raising a hand half to her, half to the side. "So you don't want to be here. So you don't know why you came back, when I think you and I both very well know perfectly that you do."
Her nostrils flared. She was still standing by the vase she'd broken. "It's not—"
"We'll just say you were confused—that okay? I'll give you the benefit of the doubt." He stepped toward her, stopped, lifted both hands. "Before you ran off into his sweet, loving arms, you wanted to make sure it was the right thing to do. See what you were leaving behind."
Her nose rose an inch into the air. He wasn't sure, but he thought he caught the faint hum of magick on the air.
"Okay, I get that. So here's what we're going to do, Penelo—we're going to settle this once and for all."
Her jaw locked into place. Her eyes narrowed.
He pointed to his chest. "Me." He pointed behind him. "Or Larsa."
She shook her head, looking down.
"Aw, Penny, come on now. If you really ever loved me, you can at least do this for me, can't you?"
"And if you ever really loved me, you wouldn't make me decide like this." Her eyes rose, and they were wet.
He was thirsty suddenly.
He needed a beer.
"Well, that settles it, doesn't it?" Pivoting, he reached for the knob to the door and twisted it open. "Don't wait up for me."
She rushed forward. "Vaan!"
He slammed the door squarely in her face, and as he walked away, digging in his pocket to make sure he hadn't left his money pouch behind, he thought he heard her let out a strangled yell of fury.
Larsa was better for her, anyway, he decided.
After all, what did he have over an emperor?
He chuckled to himself.
And there, in the crisp wind rising up from Balfonheim port, he let the dark of the night be the only witness to his tears.
Penelo wasn't sure how long she remained on her knees on the floor. It could have been only minutes. It might have been hours. Either way, it didn't matter. If she wanted, she could go on nursing her broken heart forever.
Or she could get up, take a deep breath, and clean the mess she'd made.
Her legs aching in protest, she got to her feet, only to kneel again several steps later to the broken glass. Glass was so expensive. It was a shame she'd thrown it in her anger. Not that she—or Vaan—had paid for it to begin with, but…
His warm, blue eyes. The way his blond hair fell over his face, framed his smooth, tanned cheeks. His lopsided smile he usually reserved only for her these days. The few last inches in height he'd grown until he'd hit his current ripe age of twenty-three.
She wiped her wrist beneath her nose, uncaring if it wasn't very ladylike. She was too far from Archades to worry about that now.
Leaving the broken pieces of glass where they were, she rose again to her feet. She swiped her palms over her skirts, sniffled, and then gripped onto the banister as she ventured up to her room.
She wouldn't bother unpacking.
She'd stay tonight, think things through, make sure this was what she wanted to do. See if Vaan had cooled off when he got home, whenever that would be. If she still felt the same then as she did now, then she'd go. She'd head straight back for Archades, even though Larsa had told her she had more than enough time to think about things.
But she didn't want to think.
What she wanted was to not hurt anymore.