Penelo sighed as she trudged behind the group several paces ahead of where she was. It was starting to become a little hard for her to keep up with them. Her legs felt as wobbly and unsteady as jelly, the sun was too bright, her skin felt like it was getting a bit of a sunburn, her lungs were searing with the quick, labored breaths she was taking and…oh yeah, she had a really bad case of the cramps.
"Today is not my day," Penelo groaned as she repositioned the staff in her hands. She tried to think happy thoughts: soft beds, warm baths, fresh food…But then, storm clouds suddenly rushed over the sun, instantly causing the bright blue sky to darken into a shade of gray. Her momentary optimism plummeted along with the temperature. In the next few minutes, she figured it was sure to start raining freezing cold droplets of water. "Not my day at all."
At least the sun isn't in my face anymore.
The sound of thunder roared ahead, declaring a storm's eminent arrival. "Hey, you okay?" Vaan's eager voice broke through Penelo's wallowing thoughts. He was always talking to someone, regardless of who it was. She just wondered if his chipper voice was directed towards her…or someone else. It was most probably the latter. "Yoo-hoo!? Penelo?"
Ah, never mind that idea. "Huh?" Penelo looked up to see Vaan jogging back towards her with a huge, toothy grin on his face. She furrowed her eyebrows slightly. "What is it, Vaan? Is something wrong?"
He let out a small laugh, blue eyes gleaming good-naturedly. "Well," he scratched the back of his head in brief hesitance, "Ashe asked me to tell you to hurry up a little bit. We need to make it to Balfonheim Port by nightfall." He stretched his arms behind his head, gazing skyward. "And by the looks of the weather…" he trailed off with a small shrug.
Penelo crossed her arms with a barely audible huff. "Yeah, okay." She kicked a small pebble to the side in frustration. She definitely wasn't trying to delay the group. She realized just as much as everyone else that they were a bit rushed on time. "I'm sorry, Vaan." Penelo tried as hard as she could to match his steadily increasing pace.
He's gotten in great shape ever since we left for this journey. I…I wonder if I have, too.
Vaan playfully punched Penelo's shoulder as they continued to walk. "Eh, we all have our off days, right?" She gave a weak nod. "Plus, I'm sure you're just really tired, I mean, heck, I am too, but I just---LOOK OUT!"
The next thing Penelo knew, she was shoved to the ground with tremendous force. "Oof!" The back of her head crashed into the ground with so much strength that Penelo feared she may be rendered temporarily immobile. She was seeing black spots everywhere…and someone was kind enough to land directly on her, as well.
That really hurt.
Penelo winced as the sound of three loud gunshots and the screech of a dying beast echoed throughout the surrounding area. She blinked in a daze. What just happened? "Can you get off of me…Vaan? You're…crushing…my ribs." The last two words came out as a gasp. Penelo cringed as she slowly pressed her hands to his tanned chest in an attempt to move him.
The blond above her blushed like a tomato, stuttering unintelligibly before he suddenly jumped off of her. He looked around embarrassedly, and as if he was struck by something, he abruptly made a move to help her up. Someone else beat him to it, though.
There was already a steady hand outstretched for her to grab onto.
Penelo blushed crimson, reaching a shaky hand out to accept her savior's gesture. Her breath hitched in her throat when she noticed that his hazel orbs were twinkling with mirth as he looked at her. "T-Thanks, Balthier." He nodded in reply.
She didn't think she had an injuries - besides her aching head - but she wondered what on Ivalice was wrong with her heart? It was hammering into her ribcage like crazy…
Balthier killed that bandercoeurl before it had the chance to hurt me. I…I didn't even see the attack coming.
The sky pirate rested his Altair on his shoulder, the tip of the barrel still smoking from its recent kill. He clucked his tongue, making sure Penelo had righted herself before turning to Vaan with a bored expression on his face. "Would it be possible for you to keep the damsel in distress unharmed as you rescue her from danger, Vaan?"
At the mention of a damsel, Penelo visibly stiffened.
Vaan smiled nervously. "Uh…sorry?" He turned to face his childhood friend with a sheepish look on his face.
Penelo purposely rubbed her tender head to show how clumsy he had just been…but she honestly couldn't resist rolling her eyes at Vaan with a small smirk on her face. Vaan was just too oblivious sometimes, and he certainly didn't mean to cause any harm. He was only trying to help…Penelo knew that from experience.
Balthier nodded before letting a sigh escape. "Precisely. Let's allow yours truly to play the role of the leading man in this tale, hmm?"
Vaan scratched his chin in thought. "Hey…" The street rat seemed like he had something else to say, but with another uninterested sigh, Balthier walked ahead of both orphans.
He spared Penelo a quick glance as he approached her again. "I'm pleased you're alright. But do watch out for yourself next time, hmm." She blushed again. "We wouldn't want anyone to be harmed when we are so close to Balfonheim Port." He brushed by her, sending jolts of electricity down her arm where their shoulders had touched. "Especially you," he murmured.
Penelo's heart stopped when she heard his muttered comment. She assumed that he didn't mean for her to hear it, but she did. And she was shocked. Especially…me? She shook her head in an attempt to erase the confusion…but to no avail.
The thunder roared above, demanding attention as it unleashed a furious onslaught of rain and hail. That certainly cleared her mind for the time being. At least the cool rain soothed her headache a little bit.
"We best make haste," Basch suggested, raising his voice slightly so he could be heard over the loud storm. He led the group towards a steadily flowing stream. "It would be wise to follow the path of the river. I am certain it leads directly to the Port."
Fran nodded in agreement, ears twitching at the slight movement. "Yes. That would be best."
Everyone else made their own murmurs or grunts of agreement, and they all continued on, Penelo taking up the rear yet again. She sighed despondently. It was taking all of her effort at that point not to think about her throbbing skull…or a certain sky pirate.
"Especially me?" she thought aloud. "I don't understand." She sighed again. Making a move to kick another pebble by her feet, Penelo's foot got stuck on a root that was sticking out from under the muddy coastline of the river. "Shoot…" she muttered as she attempted to free herself without attracting too much attention.
Suddenly, Penelo's other foot - the foot she had all her weight on - slid on the mud, and she went tumbling, headfirst, into the frigid river. "Ahh!" She hoped to all the magnanimous gods that someone happened to hear her cry for help.
The only thing Penelo could think of doing as she struggled under the raging waters and the rain was to stick her staff up as high as it could go. With any luck, someone would see it, grab it, and pull her out. It was an ingenious plan…but it had yet to work. She could only struggle for so long…
She was a girl of many, many talents - cooking, dancing, fighting, healing, befriending others, etc. - but the one thing she had never gotten around to learning…was how to swim. Who could blame her? Living in a desert doesn't exactly provide you with too many opportunities to go dive into some ocean.
And that is precisely why Penelo was counting down how many seconds she had left of her life, waiting, hoping, wishing, that someone would notice she'd lagged behind and…oh, you know, fell in the river.
This was definitely not her day.
Oh, I can't last much longer under here!
Just as her limbs were beginning to become painfully immobile, Penelo felt something tugging at the staff in her hands. Her head finally emerged from under the water, and she took a huge, liberating breath of air. But not before coughing herself into oblivion to get all the water out of her lungs.
Her eyes were closed, her body so completely tired. She felt herself being gently dragged over the muddy coastline towards the grassier Cerobi Steppe area. She truly wanted to open her eyes and thank whoever it was that had saved her from drowning, but she didn't have the strength to do it. I wonder…who saved me…
"Is she going to be alright?"
"What did you do to her, Balthier?" That one was Vaan's voice, she was sure. But she wondered why he would be talking to the sky pirate like that.
"Calm yourself, Vaan. Have you not realized that I saved Penelo from drowning just now?" Balthier's voice had a tint of amusement laced behind its serious tone.
He…he saved me again!? Penelo blushed furiously. Of all the rotten luck, she had managed to make herself look like a helpless little girl in front of everyone twice in one day. Actually, it was twice in the span of about two hours…
"She doesn't look so good. Her face is kinda red." Vaan, yet again. Darn that boy.
Why does he choose now, of all times, to be so observant? she thought embarrassedly.
Penelo took a deep breath, carefully opening one eye at a time, testing the light around her. She was surprised to see everyone circled around her, each with their own concerned, serious look on their faces. But what made Penelo the most uncomfortable was the fact that Balthier's face was right above hers. How could she miss something like that?
She gulped nervously. "Uh…" Her throat was still extremely dry.
"Careful, Penelo." Balthier was smirking, and Penelo wished she hadn't noticed the droplets of rain running down his face, highlighting his attractive features on the way down. "You wouldn't want to overdo it, now would you?"
She shook her head slowly, but she was positive that he didn't miss the annoyance that now laced her facial expression. How can he be so smug about everything all the time!?
Penelo made a move to stand up, but Balthier instantly put his hands on her shoulders, signaling her to stay where she is. "Would you like me to carry you? It would be natural for your body to be exhausted after nearly drowning." He cocked an eyebrow expectantly. He was obviously waiting for her to happily accept his suggestion.
"No, I'm fine." Penelo shakily brushed his hands off her shoulders, and slowly stood up. He looked baffled as he watched her ignore his efforts to assist her. She was a little wobbly on her feet at first, but she managed just fine. Giving Balthier one last glance, she said, "And I'm not a child."
Vaan whistled obnoxiously as the rest of their party left he and the sky pirate standing there by themselves. "You made her mad."
Balthier shot Vaan a sincerely confused look. "But…was it something I said?"
Vaan just shook his head, making a move to follow everybody else.
She took one last sip of her ginger ale before slamming it down onto the bar counter. Stupid sky pirates, she thought spitefully.
The group had finally made it to Balfonheim Port, but after noticing at how tired and pale Penelo looked, Balthier suggested that they should stay the night at the villa to regain their much needed energy for the next day.
Penelo tried to insist that she was perfectly fine to continue, but the sky pirate wouldn't hear any of it. He managed to sweet talk everybody else into agreeing with him, so now, here she was, sitting alone on a barstool, eyeing her empty mug dangerously.
Why does he always have to be like that? Is it so hard for him to see that I can take care of myself? Vaan and I have been just fine for the past several years…I don't see what's so different now.
"'Scuse me, this seat taken?" a gruff voice asked. It would've been considered a polite query if the man hadn't chosen to sit down before Penelo had even responded to him. He glanced her way for a brief second, before doing a double take. His eyes widened and he gave a toothy grin, displaying all of his yellow, decayed teeth. He brushed his hand through his slimy black hair, obviously trying to impress Penelo with his charm. "Well, I din know this was the firs' stop ta heaven."
Penelo furrowed her eyebrows in confusion. "W..What?" She thought she understood what he said through his odd accent, but she was confused about the why part of it.
He stared her with lustful eyes. "You as purty as an angel, li'l lady. Hows about you and me go ha' fun someplace else?"
She resisted the urge to gag as she took in his less than attractive features. His eyes were a cloudy shade of gray, his teeth - Penelo feared - were sure to fall out if given a hard enough candy to chew on, his hair was as greasy as they come, and his nose was slightly crooked, giving Penelo the speculation that maybe this man had gotten it broken a few too many times.
Today is most definitely not my day.
She angled her body in the other direction, not making any further eye contact. "No…no, thank you." She tried to be as polite and dismissive as she could. She didn't want to be downright rude because she had seen her fair share of slimeballs back in Rabanastre, and from being a witness - and from experience - she knew it was wise to stay all smiles, if possible.
Plus, she could take care of herself. If this guy tried anything funny, she'd have her staff out faster than he could even realize what hit him.
"Hey!" he exclaimed, grabbing onto her forearm with a tight grip. She winced under his strong grasp, trying to pry his hand away.
"Please, stop it," Penelo tried to reason with him, still struggling under his hold.
"I asked ya nicely, my purty li'l angel. So now I think I'll make ya come with me." The man made a move to stand up with her in tow, but he suddenly froze.
"You would be wise to release her as she asked." She'd know that voice anywhere…which isn't something she was necessarily proud of, but at this particular moment, she was grateful for Balthier's timely arrival.
The grip on Penelo's arm loosened, but didn't release her quite yet. "She yer lady?" the man asked with an interested look on his face.
Penelo finally twisted her body in their direction to face Balthier. She saw him smirk when he glanced her way before replying, "Yes, you could say that."
The man let go of Penelo's arm, leaving behind a white handprint on her tender skin from how hard he was holding on. "Ouch," she muttered as she rubbed it gently.
It was just as the disgusting man stood up to leave the bar that Penelo realized that Balthier had his Altair drawn, pointed directly at the man's back. She gasped in shock.
"Are you alright, Penelo?" Balthier asked as he took the lecher's seat once the he was sure the man was gone. His face no longer held any of his previous amusement or carefree nature. He looked completely serious, concerned for her well being. "He didn't harm you, correct?"
Penelo was still in a daze that Balthier would be so rash as to point his gun at the man, regardless of what a dirtbag he may've been. Plus, she could take care of herself!
She finally managed to find her voice. "You don't always have to swoop to my rescue, Balthier." She angled her body away from him. "I'm not some…some damsel in distress!"
"Aye, but you are," Balthier retorted with a laugh. "To me, at least."
Penelo whipped around to face him, brows furrowed. "What do you mean by that?"
He sighed, a small smile lining his face. "Is it really so bad for a gentleman such as myself to care for the wellbeing of a woman such as yourself?"
Woman? He doesn't think of me…as a child?
Her heart rate was starting to accelerate again, which wasn't an uncommon thing when she was in Balthier's company. She sighed. "I…I guess not. But you could give me a chance to prove that I can take care of myself, you know!"
He nodded. "Yes, I could."
Penelo smiled softly at that.
"But I wouldn't want to risk you being harmed," he finished. "I would never want that to happen." His gaze had never left her face since the moment the lecher had left.
Penelo's cheeks reddened. "W-Why do you care about me? If you want to play the role of the leading man so much, why don't you go rescue Fran or Ashe…heck, even Vaan! Gods know he needs all the help he can get."
Balthier laughed at her last comment. "Too right you are, but where would be the fun in that?"
"I don't understand what you mean," Penelo countered, breaking their eye contact by busying herself with the mug in front of her.
"I think you know exactly what I mean, Penelo."
Penelo's breath hitched in her throat. Do I…?
She shook her head slowly, choosing instead to disregard everything. "Look, let's just forget about it, okay?" She hopped off her barstool, ready to head upstairs and call it a night. One look at Balthier's somewhat wounded expression and Penelo was instantly feeling like the bad guy. "I'm sorry." It was then that she realized…"I never did say thank you, Balthier. So…thank you. For saving my life." She laughed softly. "What was it, three times in one day?"
He got off the barstool, more gracefully than she had, Penelo noted. "I wouldn't call the last one a life or death situation. Rather…an inconvenience."
Penelo smiled shyly. There he goes…looking at her like that again. She feared she wouldn't last another minute under his careful scrutiny. "Right," she said breathily. "Thanks." In a quick, bold move, she leaned forward and kissed Balthier on the cheek. As she went to back away, a hand grasping her wrist stopped her in her tracks.
Balthier gave her a genuine smile. "You missed," he muttered.
"I…w-what?" Penelo stammered out. It was starting to get hard for her to breathe properly, especially since the sky pirate had just taken two steps closer to her.
He let out a small laugh at her nervous reaction. "I said…you missed." He leaned closer to her face, and before Penelo knew it, his lips were brushing against hers in a gentle kiss. She hardly had time to react to it before he pulled away again, smiling slyly. "Goodnight, Penelo." He left her standing there in a daze.
Penelo raised her fingers to her lips in confusion.
Maybe…today wasn't so bad after all.