Notes:Set during mid-game. Spoilers for anyone who hadn't reached Phon Coast yet.

The first part of Vaan and Penelo's conversation was copied word-for-word from the game (at least, that's what I could make out over Balthier and Ashe's voices, anyway). It didn't make sense to me, but I tried my best and added my own twist to them to make the conversation flow better. I hope it doesn''t strike you as weird.

Disclaimer: Final Fantasy XII and all the characters in this story aren't mine. I make no money out of this.


Cinderella

Penelo's eyes widened in wonder as she took in the beauty of Phon Coast. Being a desert girl, she had never seen so much water in one place before. She cast her gaze across the sea. So vast, Penelo thought, it's as if the water stretched on forever.

Smiling, she turned back to look at the group, just in time to see Balthier catch Ashe's hand as she stumbled. Penelo's smile faltered as she watched the two go off to the side to have their own private conversation. She sighed, then sadly turned away from the two.

She walked a little past the water's edge and watched as tiny ripples formed around her shoes. She wondered if she would ever be as graceful as Ashe, or perhaps as exotic and beautiful as Fran? Would anyone notice her then? Or would they still see her as Penelo the tag-along?

Penelo glanced at Balthier. He had his back turned towards Ashe and was talking with a very serious expression on his face. She wondered what the two were talking about. Another, deeper part of her wished that it was her that he was talking to, not Ashe.

Penelo sighed and looked away. Who am I kidding? Men like him would never look at a girl like me.

Just then, Vaan sidled up next to her.

"Hey, let me show you something. Come over here!" Vaan said as he tugged her arm. Penelo complied and let herself be dragged along. Then, to her surprise, Vaan poked her ribs, tickling her.

"H-hey! Watch it!" Penelo yelped and slapped his arm. Vaan laughed in response. Penelo shook her head in bemusement and turned to look at the sea.

"What a beautiful view," Penelo sighed and smiled. She glanced at Vaan and saw him grinning smugly, as if he too, was included in Penelo's 'beautiful view'. Penelo rolled her eyes and added, "Except for you."

Vaan raised his eyebrow, then quickly recovered and said in a joking manner, "Why, thank you. I'd be worried if you start calling me beautiful. I'm a guy, after all."

"No, I wouldn't call you beautiful. I'd say you're… pretty," Penelo said with a teasing grin.

"Pretty?!?" Vaan looked utterly scandalized.

"Pretty, pretty boy!" Penelo said in a sing-song voice.

"Pretty boy?!?" Vaan huffed and said, "I'll have you know that my rank in the hunting clan is Ward of Justice now."

"You may be a Ward of Justice, but you're still a pretty boy," Penelo stuck her tongue out at him.

"Oh yeah?" Vaan raised his eyebrow challengingly.

"Yeah!" Penelo grinned stubbornly.

Vaan's eyes glinted with mischief. He smirked, then kicked the water and splashed her.

"Wh— why you!" Penelo's jaws dropped. Oh, this means war! She crouched down and splashed a good amount of water on Vaan. Before they knew it, the two were running around the water, chasing each other while trying to avoid getting splashed at the same time.

oOo

Balthier barely spared a glance as Ashe walked away from him. He sighed and looked away. He supposed he might have been a bit harsh on her, but he didn't want the princess to turn out like his own father. She had dragged them all across deserts, jungles and mountains in search of one item of power after another. At first, he thought nothing of it. But when Ashe failed to destroy the Dawn Shard at the Stilshrine of Miriam, Balthier began to worry.

Balthier shook his head and sighed again. Well, regardless of what path Ashe chose, he was in for the long haul, now. Though he may deny it out loud, he couldn't help but feel a sort of camaraderie with the motley group he was traveling with. Balthier cast his gaze across the group, who were scattered around the shoreline. They were as mismatched as can be: a princess, a fugitive knight, a thief, an orphaned girl and two sky pirates. Strangely enough, despite their differences, the group worked well together.

He heard the sound of tinkling laughter and turned to look. Penelo was dancing in victory while Vaan stood there, soaked from head to toe. Balthier stifled a chuckle. Penelo was the liveliest one in the group— the one who could always bring a smile in everyone's faces. Without her, the group would probably be in a more somber mood by now, what with everyone stressed out over the nethicite, the constant running from the Imperials and the uncertain future looming before them.

He wondered if Penelo was even aware of how much the group needed her cheerful presence?

oOo

The group decided to camp for the night in the protected rest area. Game hunters and wayfarers pitched their tents and huts along the edges of the large camp. Here, among so many skilled warriors— otherwise known as game hunters —they were safe from fiends, who knew better than to wander into a place with so many humes and Bangaas who would kill them at first sight.

At night, bonfires lit up various corners of the camp as people huddled together with their respective groups to eat, talk and in some cases, play-fight. There was a bit of drunken revelry going on at the other end of the camp. Thankfully, those drunken Bangaas kept mostly to themselves— for now. Ashe had wisely chosen to camp near opposite end, away from most game hunters and wayfarers camping for the night. For the most part, they were left alone.

The night was growing late. Ashe and Fran had decided to turn in for the night and were currently sleeping on pallets laid out around the bonfire. Vaan was still up, talking to Balthier. Basch volunteered to take the first watch, because even in a protected rest area such as this, there was always a chance that fiends might brave the camp and attack anyway.

Penelo stretched and got up. She needed to pee. Surely, it ought to be safe enough to wander in this camp, right?

She was just about to walk away when Basch called out.

"Where are you going?" Basch asked.

Penelo fidgeted in embarrassment as he turned to face the men. She gulped, not wanting to say something so intimately revealing as needing to pee.

"I was just, um, well… you know… er…" Penelo fidgeted from foot to foot.

"You shouldn't wander alone. Even in a safe camp such as this, one can never be too sure, especially with those drunken Bangaas around," Basch warned her.

"But I need to, er… you know…" Penelo bit her lips, then sighed in defeat and said, "I gotta pee."

The men grew quiet. Basch coughed uncomfortably and looked away.

Vaan, of course, started sniggering.

"Vaan!" Penelo's face turned beet red. Annoyed, she huffed and turned around. She started to walk away while muttering, "Honestly! How immature can he be?"

She heard footsteps behind her and stopped. Thinking it was Vaan, she turned around, ready to tell him to leave her alone. To her surprise, it was Balthier.

"Come. I'll walk with you," Balthier said as he walked up next to her.

"But…" Penelo blushed in embarrassment. How could she pee with Balthier standing there, watching her?

"I won't look, I promise," Balthier grinned in amusement.

Penelo hesitated. It would be horribly embarrassing having Balthier around while she peed, even if he promised not to look. Still, she had to admit, Basch had a point. Those drunken Bangaas at the other end of the camp did worry her, somewhat.

She sighed and said, "Okay. Fine."

oOo

They were quiet as they walked. Penelo was tempted to ask what his conversation with Ashe earlier was all about, because the princess looked so disturbed afterwards. But it wasn't her place to ask, so Penelo decided to keep quiet.

They found some tall bushes where Penelo could do her business without being seen. For a camp with so many travelers passing by, it's a wonder that no one ever thought of building an outhouse. Then again, it wasn't as if any particular group was responsible for maintaining the camp. The game hunters had their own outhouse, but it was not for public use.

Penelo ducked behind bushes while Balthier stood nearby and looked away. She tried not to think about the fact that, despite not being able to see her, he could still hear her pee. Thankfully, Balthier was tactful enough not to say anything when Penelo finished and rejoined him.

"Um… thank you," Penelo said awkwardly.

"You're welcome," he replied courteously as they walked.

Penelo looked around as they walked. The stars spread across the night sky like diamonds on black silk. The sound of rushing waves seem to lull her into a sense of relaxation. Even the weather here was nice at night— not too hot, not too cold, either; unlike the desert, where temperatures could get very cold, very quickly at night.

"You know, this really is a nice place. I wish we weren't in such a hurry. I would've loved to stay awhile and enjoy the beach," Penelo said with a sigh.

"Well, you'll always have an opportunity to return later, once this is all over," Balthier replied.

Penelo smiled, then shook her head and said, "That would be lovely, but I doubt I'll be able to come back here."

"And why not?" Balthier stopped and turned to face her.

Penelo stopped to look at him as well, then replied, "Well, for one thing, I don't have the money to buy a teleport stone. And two, getting here on foot would be a lot tougher if it's just me and Vaan. And besides, we… we don't even know if we'll even be alive after… after… after it's 'all over'." She looked down and pushed the sand around with her foot.

Balthier was silent for a moment, as if he was thinking about what to say next.

Then, to her surprise, he held out his hand and said, "Walk with me."

"Huh?" Penelo looked up. Balthier raised his eyebrow expectantly and continued to hold his hand out towards her. Hesitantly, she took his hand. He turned and led her by the hand towards the shore.

Penelo tried not to blush as they walked hand in hand along the shoreline. After awhile, Balthier stopped, then sat down on a dry patch of sand. He patted the ground and invited Penelo to sit next to him.

Her heart fluttered as she nervously sat down next to him. They looked at the crashing waves. For awhile, neither spoke. That is, until Balthier broke the silence.

"I must admit, there's a very relaxing quality about this place. One can almost forget about the troubles of the world just by looking at the sea," Balthier said.

"Yeah," Penelo sighed contentedly and looked out into the stars.

"In fact, I wouldn't mind coming back here myself— once the Strahl is fully repaired, of course," he said.

"Really?" Penelo looked at him in surprise.

Balthier turned to look at her. He smiled and said, "What do you say? Shall we make it a date?"

Penelo's eyes widened in surprise. "You… you're serious?"

"My dear Penelo, I would not have made the offer if I did not mean it," he said with a charming smile.

Penelo's face broke into a wide smile. "Alright. It's a date!"

Then, realizing what she just implied, Penelo blushed and stammered, "I mean, not a date date, er… I mean, I know you don't mean it in that way. I know you meant we'll be going with Fran and Vaan and, well… you know."

Balthier raised an eyebrow in amusement, but chose not to comment. Instead, he turned his gaze back towards the sea. After a moment of silence, he said, "Seems like you and Vaan had quite a time today. I daresay I've never seen him look as utterly shocked as when he was standing there, soaking from head to toe. And you, you were quite the little dancer."

Penelo blushed and said, "I was just, um… well…"

Balthier looked at her in amusement and said, "I meant that as a compliment."

"A compliment?" Penelo blinked.

Balthier nodded and said, "This journey has taken a toll on all of us. But you, for reasons I cannot fathom, you always manage to lighten the mood to our already overstressed little party."

"Um, well I… I don't know what to say," Penelo muttered. She never thought of herself as the life of the party or anything even remotely close to that. She looked down and absent-mindedly traced random patterns on the sand, then said, "I know how stressful the situation is. It's not that I don't care, because I do. I'm just not the type to dwell on things, I guess."

"Sounds like someone I know," Balthier muttered.

"Really? Who?" Penelo looked at him curiously.

He turned to her. Then, with his characteristic lopsided smile, he said, "Me."

"You?" Penelo raised her eyebrow.

Balthier turned to gaze at the sea and said, "I prefer not to worry over a past I cannot change or a future that is not yet here."

Penelo smiled and said, "Sounds like a good philosophy."

"It is. Saves me a whole lot of headache," Balthier said with the ghost of a smile on his lips.

Penelo chuckled. "You really are something, Balthier."

"Is that a compliment?" Balthier raised his eyebrow.

"Mm-hm." Penelo nodded. She sighed and turned her gaze towards the water. After awhile, she said, "Maybe we should get back. Basch and Vaan would probably be wondering where we are by now."

"Very well," Balthier said. He got up, then held out his hand towards her and helped her up. They spent some time brushing sand off their clothes. The wind blew gently, causing strands of hair to fly across Penelo's face. Balthier paused, then tentatively reached out and brushed her hair aside.

"You are a rare gem, Penelo. I don't think I have ever met anyone quite like you," he said softly as his hand lingered on the side of her face.

Penelo's heart fluttered at his words.

"Vaan is very lucky to have you," he said. There was a bittersweet tinge to his voice as he spoke.

Penelo's breath caught. She looked into his eyes and was met with an intense gaze.

"I… Vaan is not… he and I are just friends," Penelo's voice dropped to a whisper. She wasn't exactly sure why she said it. All she knew was that she didn't want Balthier to get the wrong impression about her and Vaan.

"Are you, now?" Balthier raised an eyebrow. A spark of hope flashed in his eyes.

Penelo nodded. She felt speechless under his intense gaze.

"Who, then, is the leading man in your life?" Balthier asked. He trailed his hand down the side of her face and tilted her chin until their eyes met.

"N-no one. There isn't any," Penelo replied, her heart beating a mile a minute.

He leaned his head towards hers until their lips were but a breath away. Penelo's heart skipped a beat.

"And who am I to you?" Balthier whispered.

"Who would you like to be?" Penelo whispered breathlessly.

Balthier closed the distance between them and brushed her lips against his.

"Your leading man," he said as he leaned his forehead against hers.

Penelo smiled. She snaked her arms around his neck.

"You are now," Penelo whispered. Then, she leaned forward and kissed him.

Balthier smiled and wrapped his arms around her waist. He deepened the kiss and nibbled softly on her lips. The wind blew gently around them, carrying sounds of merriment from the other end of the camp. But the two were too lost in each other's world to care.

And she thought men like him wouldn't even look at a girl like her.

The End