Disclaimer: We do not own Square Enix's Final Fantasy XII, nor are we making any money off this fanfiction.

The Trial of Fire

Chapter One

Lord Someone

"Penelo, c'mon, let me use the magicite…"

Ignoring her needling friend, Penelo sighed in pure rapture as she ran the ice magicite over the back of her neck, where it was the stickiest from sweat. Rabanastre had really reached sweltering heights for the day, but then, it was the peak of summer. To expect anything else was foolish. That didn't mean they didn't hear complaints, though, from visiting nobles coming out of the aerodome, still clothed in the full-length dresses that Archadia offered. Nabudis had much better denizens who at least knew what to expect.

"Forget it, Vaan." Penelo plopped her forehead on her desk and kept rubbing. Cold trickled through her skin and down into her weary bones. If she had to stay up late one more night to ensure that her father managed his stock well enough, she was going to lodge a protest. Perhaps a strike. Maybe even demand a raise. It all depended on what her father's mood was at the time. "I used the rest of my pay just to buy this one."

He huffed a complaint that she didn't hear. "Penelo…" She felt his hands come down on either side of her head. "Listen to me… I can get you magicite any time you want…"

"Fire magicite, maybe." There was an abundance of it in the Giza Plains, which made for warm nights when the cold off the deserts settled in. In a heat wave? Not much use. "Go away, Vaan, I'm busy. If Dad comes back and sees you here, he's going to make you leave, and you know it. Your break was over twenty minutes ago."

His armor creaked as he shifted weight from one foot to the other. She recognized the sound of it by now. "Your dad's talking to that nobleman guy. He didn't even notice me come in here." Vaan's fingertips touched along hers, scooting down ever so slowly to the magicite she held there. "Pleeeaaaseeee…"

Nobleman guy? Penelo mused. Dad has another customer today? That was unusual. Her father tended to pander about in all sorts of merchandise, from the simple household items, to exotic trades he'd gotten in the last decade. The latter was why he went on journeys sometimes and didn't come back for a handful of months, leaving Penelo to man the store. He'd always come back with something or other, a trinket from the Phon Coast or a particularly vicious spell book from Balfonheim. But it was lunch, and at the end of the week, at that. Normally, he'd call it a day and relax to spend time with his family.

"Where's Reks?" Penelo snatched the magicite away and sat up in her chair to get a better view of the store. Her heart fluttered a little in her chest at the thought of his older brother. "Wasn't he on break, too?"

Vaan's brown eyes narrowed, and his lips pursed to one side. "He already went back, Pen. Why?"

"Oh, nothing…" Affecting a look of innocence, she placed her elbows on the table and avoided his gaze. Maybe it was best Reks wasn't here. This heat hadn't done exactly wonders for her hair, which was frizzing from its braids, and she badly needed a bath. It was a good thing she was stuck inside. She didn't want to imagine the odor of all the gathered people in the streets. On days like this? Awwwful.

A frown twisted Vaan's lips downward. It was nearly a pout, really. "Oh. Nothing, huh?"

Before Penelo needed to head off the inevitable sulk, the door to her father's private office opened, scraping over the cool tile floor loudly, catching both of their attentions. Dust had gathered in the grout again, she noticed. It got everywhere in Rabanastre, no matter how much she swept and scrubbed. Her father stepped out, walking backwards, his hands fluttering through the air as he talked to his "nobleman guy" customer.

"It's an honor to be of assistance to you, my lord. I assure you again, nothing but the best and finest of merchandise passes our doors." There was another wave of his hands, as if her father were so enthused he couldn't contain himself. Penelo's father had never been so eager to please someone. Of course, they treated their customers well, and had a lot of return business, but he seemed absolutely delighted, more than even having a nobleman customer could explain. "You won't be displeased by your commission."

"Please, sir, it's an honor to do business with such a renowned establishment," the noble insisted, inclining himself a few inches in a tiny bow. Black hair fell into his eyes as he did so, hiding his features. His voice flowed over the language, consonants clipped and vowels drawled out languidly. Archadian, and definitely a noble. No one else spoke like that. "I'll be by tomorrow to finish discussing the details of the purchase and to give you the deposit. Is noon convenient?"

"Perfectly convenient, Lord Lamont," her father nodded, head bobbing up and down like a bird on a branch. "I may be out, but my daughter, Penelo, will be here. She has my complete confidence."

Penelo sat up straight on her stool as the most incredibly vivid set of green eyes she'd ever seen turned on her. Lord Lamont stared at her in a way that made her skin prickle, as if something slimy were oozing down her spine. He inclined his head in a polite nod.

It took everything she had to return the gesture with a professional smile rather than gritted teeth. Something about him set her on edge. The ice magicite dangled from her fingers, long since forgotten. "I'll be happy to be of service in any way I can, my lord."

Full lips curved as Lamont returned her smile, with a great deal more warmth, and probably fake at that. "I am certain you shall. My thanks."

At her side, Vaan scowled and put a hand over the short sword buckled at his hip. Before he could do something stupid and permanent, like draw steel on a noble, she kicked him in the ankle. Her father hadn't noticed. Somehow, he seemed to like the horrid man, and she wasn't going to cost them what could be a handsome profit just because his customer was disgusting. "You're welcome, sir."

"Wonderful!" her father beamed. He touched Lord Lamont's elbow gingerly and gestured to the door. "Let's be off, my lord. I'll show you the Rabanstran Rose Café on your way out, since you were so interested in their pastries. It's only a street away, you know."

Lamont let himself be guided with every evidence of amusement, but his eyes kept returning to Penelo. What on earth did he want with her? Did he have a staring problem? If she wasn't so sure she looked positively unclean at the moment, gritty and sweaty as she was—and if she had more confidence in herself—she might have thought he found her pretty. "That would be lovely indeed, sir. I've developed a taste for local delicacies in my travels."

The door closed on her father's cheerful patter. As soon as it was, she slumped back on her stool. Now she really felt like she needed a bath and an extra scrub. If that man had been any more blatant, it would have been obscene. No, it was definitely obscene already, not to mention quite rude. Honestly! It wasn't as though she were a street peddler. Maybe it was an Archadian thing. At least he hadn't leered. It had been a more neutral expression, if a trifle interested.

Interested in what, though? And… the circle went on. No use thinking about it, she decided.

Quick as a moogle with a kupo nut, Vaan's fingers snatched out and captured her magicite while she was distracted. She started, gasping, and whirled for him, but he'd already darted out of reach, a wide grin spread on his face. He'd taken off his helmet again, not that she blamed him. It was horrifyingly hot. Still! That didn't give him the excuse to steal her magicite from her.

"Vaan!" she shrieked in protest. Hastily, she scrambled off her stool, nearly tripping over her own two feet, and lunged for him. His feet were quicker, and she missed. Laughing at her, he rubbed the stone over his face and neck, moaning in contentment. Each subsequent grab for him only resulted in her almost falling flat on her face. This was completely unfair!

"Hey, it's mine now! I'll give it back tonight!"

"No, it's mine, and it'll be useless by tonight! Arrgh! Vaan!" Honestly, he acted as though he were her big brother, and she definitely had enough of those already. The gods knew where they were these days, all spread out over the continent and not writing to home very often.

He turned for the door, presumably to get back to work. Irate beyond belief, she threw herself at him with a yowl, managing to climb up his back and put her arms around his neck. He toppled, yelping with surprise. His arm flung away from himself to protect the magicite. She scrabbled for it, whapping him in the face with her free hand as the other swiped mercilessly. This stone was too precious to let him keep it. How else was she going to ward off the heat for the rest of the day?

"Gimme it!"

"Rrrgh—Penelo, get off me!"

"Just give me back the stone!"

A throat cleared.

They both whirled, Vaan pushing Penelo's hand off his eyes so he could see. She let him, clutched onto his back like a monkey, her hand tight over the one holding the magicite. They panted with the effort of the struggle, and Vaan swallowed loudly. There in the doorway stood Lamont and Penelo's father, the former with eyebrows arched in pure amusement, the latter with a deep frown.

"I forgot my wallet." Arramis patted his vest to demonstrate, then pointed to Vaan. At least, Penelo thought he was pointing to Vaan. They were rather entangled at the moment, but it all became clear with his next words. "Vaan, aren't you supposed to be on duty?"

The young man flushed beneath the tan on his cheeks. "…Well… er…"

"And Penelo!" Now her father's frown deepened, the blue eyes she'd inherited from him crinkling around the edges. His bushy brows came together. Her back straightened, and she muffled a meep. The last thing she liked was her father angry with her. "…This is hardly ladylike of you… you're supposed to be watching the shop, setting an example… what if a customer like Lord Lamont were to come in and—"

"No, I assure you, it's certainly all right." Lamont stepped forward, his eyes once again on Penelo's. He held her gaze unblinkingly, the softest of smiles at the corner of his mouth. "It is not very often, you see, that I am able to witness a young lady such as this one in a pure element, free from the rules society demands of her." His smile lifting slightly, he finally tore his eyes away and looked instead to Arramis. "Archadia's culture is very strict…"

Arramis cleared his throat, unsure of what to say. He rocked forward on the toes of his feet, then clapped his hands together. "That may well be… but…" He jerked his head toward Penelo. "Penelo. Down."

Penelo thought about making one more grab for the magicite, but the glint in her father's eyes made it clear that she was already in enough trouble. She slid off Vaan with a puff of air, smoothing down her clothes before locking her hands behind her back. Her hair was an even worse mess than it had been from tussling with Vaan, but there was no help for it. Putting on her best repentant expression, Penelo bowed her head, peeking through her lashes to judge their reactions. "I'm sorry, Father, Lord Lamont. It won't happen again."

Lord Lamont had lost none of his smile. If anything, it had grown wider. Did he think she was funny? Well, that was better than repulsive. They would still get his money if he thought her entertaining. Her father, however, wasn't pleased at all. He was still glaring. There was probably going to be extra duties to make up for embarrassing him in front of a customer.

It was all Vaan's fault! If he hadn't taken her magicite, or if he'd gone back on duty… If Reks had stayed behind instead of Vaan, none of this would have happened. She was sure of it.

"'It won't happen again'? If that wasn't the biggest lie I've ever heard," Vaan snickered in her ear. She glared up at him, knowing that she had the same look on her face as her father had, because Vaan liked pointing it out. He'd done it a lot in the years they'd been friends. They'd practically grown up together, after all. But she kept her silence. She didn't want her father even angrier. It'd be scary.

Arramis bustled off to get his money pouch, and so that left the three of them alone together. Penelo fidgeted, tugging at the ends of her braids and then straightening her clothes in places where they were still rumpled. A simple wrap covered her chest, and the softest pair of fabric she'd ever laid her hands upon had been sewn into a pair of pants for her from her mother. They hung low on her hips, a custom commonly seen in Rabanastre. She'd overheard natives from Archadia one time saying that the women in Dalmasca dressed like harlots, but Penelo would like to see one of them battling with the heat.

Three bangles on her left wrist, a temporary tattoo drawn on her right bicep, small definition there that it was, and two delicate hair pins stuck in her hair before the plaits of her braids made up the rest of her ensemble. She didn't think she looked too bad a presentation. If her father had disagreed, he would have told her to change when she'd first walked in that morning. So why then did this Lamont character keep up with his awful staring?

She could keenly feel his eyes on her as if he were touching her. It rankled that she couldn't read why, and it had on her edge. Vaan seemed to notice her tension, shifting uneasily beside her as silence fell among them. He didn't know what to say to Lord Lamont, and neither did Penelo, though she knew she had better start up a conversation soon to soothe her father's ruffled feathers, lest he think she wasn't working hard enough to make a better impression.

"So…" Penelo crossed her arms. "You're from Archadia, Lord Lamont?"

His head fell into a similar incline from earlier. "Is my heritage so noticeable?"

"It's the accent," Vaan asserted.

A thin black eyebrow rose. "Oh?"

Penelo nodded. "Yeah. And all the clothes you've got on."

At that, Lamont chuckled. Appearing genuinely amused, he took a step closer to them and away from the open door. Beyond him in the streets, people bustled to and from work or to wherever else they had plans for. At least the moogles made it easier for traveling around Rabanastre, though one of them had been sick lately, Sorbet. Penelo had plans to take him some pudding soon. Sorbet loved sweets.

It was a bright day, and the sun beat down upon the city relentlessly. Penelo and Vaan weren't the only ones suffering from the heat. Most people looked bothered, drenched in sweat and their pace more hurried than usual. It was fortunate that Penelo had found her ice magicite before the vendor had run out of them, though now it was all of a matter of getting it back from Vaan if he didn't make an escape before her father left. She definitely couldn't make a try for it in front of him or Lamont.

Lamont tapped his jaw thoughtfully with a long, well-shaped finger. His mouth opened briefly, then shut with a quiet laugh and a glance at her father. "Best to be known for the clothes I wear than those which I do not."

Penelo's back shoulders went stiff. Did he just say…? "Excuse me?"

His smile was as sweet as Rozarrian honey. "Custom dictates clothing. Isn't that what you only recently said, in that you identified my nationality by my attire?"

That wasn't what she had said at all! Her eyebrows drew together in a scowl. "No. That's not what I'm talking about. You said—"

"Penelo! Mind your manners!" Her father stepped between them, his back turned to her. "I'm so sorry, Lord Lamont. You know how girls are. She's young and excitable, I'm sure she'll regret speaking to you in such a tone as soon as she regains her senses."

What?! she thought, staring at the spot between her father's shoulder blades, where a miniscule tear her mother had mended was there on his vest. Her fists clenched, and she stepped toward them, uncaring for the moment of Lamont's background or what her father might think. Before she could get very far, Vaan placed a hand over hers and pulled her back. He shook his head in warning, placing a finger over his lips.

"Don't," he mouthed.

She opened her mouth in disbelief, then shut it, her jaw trembling. This was just wrong! Were it anyone else, her father would have told the man off for daring to insult Penelo in such a manner, but no. Not precious Lord Lamont. The man must be dropping quite a bit of gil for Arramis to behave this way. That didn't make it any better, though, and Penelo turned her back on them, stomping out of the room. Who cared if she was in a tizzy? If her father wanted her to stay quiet, then she'd have to leave.

Vaan was at her back in seconds, and as she burst into her father's private office, already pacing and ignoring the sand in the grout because just looking at it made her infuriated, he gripped her shoulders and whirled her to him. The bell to her father's shop jingled, signaling that Arramis and his damned noble customer had left. Penelo didn't like to curse very often, but there it was. Ooou, she was mad!

"Hey, hey, hey—" Vaan pulled her into the warmth of his chest where his straps of armor didn't touch. She almost didn't allow him, but at the last moment changed her mind. The end result was a bit of a stumble. Vaan tucked her head under his chin and slipped his arms about her. She'd always liked Vaan's hugs. And though he was a bumbling fool most of the time, he always knew what to say to her when she was upset, a feat he hadn't quite managed yet with anyone else.


"He's a jerk, Penelo, all of them are." Vaan pressed a kiss into the general frizziness of her hair. "But this time, I think that guy was just trying to get a rouse out of you. He thought—he thought you were cute."

Sniffling, Penelo tilted her head back to see him. "He did not. Look at me."

"It's not just looks, you know, that make someone cute…" Vaan flushed, and when Penelo's gaze darkened, he hastily retreated a step, arms still loosely about her. Penelo didn't know whether to be insulted or not. On the one hand, he'd agreed that it took more than looks to make up a woman, which implied he had depth. On the other hand, he had just insinuated that she wasn't cute. "Hey, c'mon, you know what I mean." Vaan shook his head. "He wouldn't stop staring at you. I didn't like it."

She twisted her lips to one corner of her mouth. "I noticed. I didn't like it, either."

Nodding, Vaan lowered his head. She wondered why he wasn't looking at her anymore. "Anyway… when—a guy finds a girl… attractive… sometimes they pick on them." Smiling fondly in memory, Vaan tweaked the end of one of Penelo's braids between his fingers and pulled, albeit very gently. "Like little boys act."


Lamont liked her?

Appalled, she pulled from Vaan. "That's disgusting."

Relief flickered briefly in Vaan's eyes, and then darted away. "Yeah." He reached forth, taking her hand and depositing the ice magicite in it before closing her fingers about it. "Here. I've gotta get back to work or Captain's going to yell at me. I'll see you after dinner, okay?"

She looked down at the magicite in her palm. He'd actually given it back to her?

"Thanks—" She blinked, trailing off. The store's front door jingled. He was already gone. What was he in such a hurry for? Then again, he'd been really late.

Unable to help the tiny smile that graced her lips, Penelo put the magicite over the back of her neck and set about to look for something to clean the sand out of the grout until her father came back or another customer came in.

Reks leaned over Sorbet's little bed, tucking the moogle in under his sunflower yellow sheets. Penelo watched from the door, glancing out into the twilit streets of Rabanastre anxiously, then back into the cheery moogle nest. Dishes were scattered along tables, and books were piled high by the bed. That was the only sign that the nest was being used as a sick room. Everything else was tucked away nice and tidy, even down to the row of moogle-sized shoes by the doorway. Sorbet liked his nest kept clean. She wondered if he'd been tidying it up, even now.

The bowl of nice and cold pudding she'd brought was tucked up against her stomach, where it would be safe from being stolen or jostled. She'd used the last power in her ice magicite to cool it, so she really shouldn't waste time, but Reks hadn't noticed her yet and she didn't want to break the moment. Her eyes wandered down Reks' back, lingering on the muscles left bare by the leather armor he wore, but only for a moment before she yanked them back up, a blush heating her cheeks.

He was so kind and handsome, helping poor Sorbet when the moogle needed it most. Whatever he was saying was too soft to hear, but the warm murmur of it filled the nest. If she could have, she would have wrapped Reks' voice around her and burrowed in. Hearing him speak was like having a fluffy blanket wrapped around her on one of Dalmasca's rare chilly nights. She could picture the expression on his face. It would be that same gentle fondness he had when he spoke to her. Light hair falling into his eyes, lips curled in a smile. Even though he didn't mean them the way she wanted, she treasured those smiles. They lit his face up. Reks didn't have a devious thought in him, and his smiles proved it.

Unlike a certain snooty Lord Someone.

Penelo frowned, ripped from her nicely developing daydream. Why had she thought of him? Lamont hadn't bothered her that much, had he? He didn't deserve the time it would take to wipe him off her sandals.

"Oh!" Over the pillow, Sorbet's bright yellow bon bon perked up from its droop. He must have been feeling horrible, for it to hang so low. "There's a shadow in the door—I have a visitor? Penelo, is that you, kupo?"

She brightened at this and came closer to the two. "Yeah, and I brought pudding."

"Pudding, kupo?" Sorbet began to wrestle himself into a sitting position. Feeling bad for him, Penelo hastily darted forward and set the pudding onto a side table. He didn't need to move around so much when he wasn't feeling well! "I love pudding!"

"Take it easy, Sorbet," Reks murmured. The melody of his voice made her hum in delight and all but dance her way over to them. She plopped down on the edge of Sorbet's bed, only lightly jostling it, and Vaan's older brother glanced over to her. "So you did make it here, after all."

"Mmm, yeah…" Penelo lowered her eyes to her hands. How could anyone not like Reks or want to be around him? His soul was so gentle. It was hard to imagine him in the army. He should have been stationed with the medics, not that she'd ever tell him that. He was too proud to want to hear it, and besides that, Vaan was already following in his footsteps. He had to project an image of someone Vaan could continue looking up to, though Penelo didn't understand why that didn't include healing people.

Sorbet cleared his throat. "Excuse me, kupo, but…" He turned his head to try and see around Penelo to where she had put the pudding. "What flavor?"

"Vanilla, your favorite," she said with a grin. "Do you want some now? I chilled it with magicite, though it's not going to last much longer. Probably not past the night."

"Ooooh." Sorbet nodded his head, bon bon waving. She wanted to ruffle the fluffy thing with her fingers, but some moogles took that offensively. It was unfortunate. They didn't know how many hume girls would coo over them if they would just let themselves be petted. Then again, maybe they thought that degraded them to animals. "I love vanilla, kupo. Let me see…" He squinted up at Reks. "Would you two like to share a bowl with me?"

A small smile turned up the corner of Reks' mouth. "Yeah. I'll get the bowls and spoons. Where are they?"

"In the cabinet by the leaning bookshelf, kupo."

Penelo watched Reks get up and go, the beginnings of concern creasing her face. Something was off. Reks wasn't normally so… reserved. Did he not want her here? But no, that hadn't ever happened before. He seemed… upset about something. What could it be? He'd been fine earlier that morning when Vaan and he had stopped by before their shift duty. Had something happened on his shift? She couldn't ask until they were safely away from Sorbet's small house, pocketed away in a corner of the bazaar. Reks could be a very private person sometimes.

"I think I'll be back at work soon, kupo," Sorbet said from her side. "The others need me. They must have plenty of work to handle. All those extra people…" He trailed off into a minor coughing fit. It was strange to hear a moogle coughing—they so rarely got sick. The tiny creature quivered, his bon bon limp again. Once it was over, he took a deep breath to collect himself. "Well, it's best I'm there soon, kupo."

Penelo put a hand to his forehead, even though she wasn't really sure if moogles got fevers or not, or if she'd even be able to tell under the fur. "I think they'd want you to get better first, Sorbet."

Reks returned with three miniature bowls and matching spoons. He held out one set to Penelo with a raised eyebrow and a more secretive smile dancing on his lips that she had to stifle a giggle at. At least his good mood wasn't gone entirely.

Penelo grabbed the pudding so they could dig in.

"Penelo's right, Sorbet," Reks said as she deposited some pudding in first Sorbet's bowl and then Reks'. "You need to rest. You're not any good to them if you're sick like this and maybe getting other people sick." He put a spoonful of pudding into his mouth and hummed in delight. "Your mom makes the best pudding, Pen," he said once he'd swallowed.

"Yeah…" Penelo touched her hair, drawing the tip of her spoon through the jiggly white mass. She couldn't cook, though she'd tried to again and again. Her mother just lost patience with her now, often chasing her out of the kitchen. That wasn't to say that Vaan didn't pretend her food was divine, often making exaggerated noises of contentment so that Penelo would smile through her tears over her latest failure.

"It is very good, kupo!" Sorbet's wings fluttered in approval.

She smiled at him and took a bite, letting the smooth vanilla wash over her tongue. It was good, just the thing for a hot day. She swallowed it down and beamed at them. Maybe she couldn't cook, but she had her mother's food to be proud of. At least, she told herself so. "I'll tell Mother you said so."

Metal clinked against the edge of the bowl as Reks stirred his pudding, watching her through his eyelashes. The sad expression was back, but when he looked up at her he smiled again, and her heart fluttered. "Hey, Penelo, can I walk you home? I need to speak to you."

"Really?" The spoon clattered as it dropped from her limp fingers. Penelo grabbed it and made a show of stirring her pudding, staring into it as if it could tell her fortune. Reks? Needs to speak to me? About what? "I mean, of course! Sure! That would be great!" She listened in horror as her own voice babbled on and on, unable to stop for more than a breath. "Maybe we can stop by the fountain, I think the pecan praline vendor is there still and I've wanted to pick some up. Would you like some, too? They're my favorite—no wait, you knew that already, ha, silly me."

At least Reks didn't laugh at her, but she could tell by the little crinkles around his eyes that he was trying not to. "We can stop on our way."

Sorbet looked up at her with a knowing grin. The pudding had done wonders for him; his bon bon was much perkier. "The fountain is really romantic, kupo!"

"Sorbet!" Penelo blushed. Was the moogle joking or…? Oh, gods, what if he knew? She'd never live it down, and then Vaan would tease her forever about her crush on his brother. She might as well run off with Lamont for as much of a chance as she'd have with Reks. Bright eyes looked up at her, and Penelo silently swore that if Sorbet made some comment about euphemisms, she'd dump pudding on his adorable head. "I just want some pecans, that's all!"

Luckily, Sorbet just winked knowingly, nodded and returned to his dessert. Penelo winced and looked over at Reks, terrified that he might have picked up on the moogle's unsubtle hints, but he seemed absorbed in his own thoughts. Saved.

Pudding didn't seem very appetizing anymore. "I can't stay for very long. Father wants me to check the books tonight." Penelo finished the last bites of pudding for form, then took her bowl to the sink, picking up plates and glasses as she went. For such a tidy person, Sorbet had certainly let the dishes go undone. When she got to the sink, she saw why. It was at height for a hume, which meant Sorbet would either have to hover or use a stool. Both of those would probably be too much for someone who was ill. Poor Sorbet. Pushing her braids out of the way, she started filling it with soapy water. She'd just get the dishes done, and then go before Sorbet could let anything else slip.

Sneaky moogles. A lot more keen than they let on, eh?

Once Reks was finished with his pudding, he came to stand by her side to help out. Very aware of him beside her, she focused on what her hands were doing. Scrub, scrub… Put a dish in opposite sink for Reks to wash, dunk a new dish in the soapy water, repeat. It helped that Sorbet's dish set was so small. Moogles couldn't hold as much food in their stomachs as humes could. They'd be porkers!

Unable to help a laugh, Penelo avoided Reks' raised eyebrow when he turned his head to her. She shook her head. Oh, nothing, nothing.

Half an hour later, Sorbet's dishes done and more of his nest tidied up, Reks and Penelo left arm in arm. The heat from the day had mostly gone, thank the gods. Penelo wasn't sure what she would have done if it had lingered. Fortunately it got chilly during nights in the desert. She wondered where it was like anywhere else—she hadn't exactly ever traveled outside of Dalmasca. It wasn't that she hadn't wanted to… she'd just never even had the chance.

Eyeing the starry sky above them, Penelo mused on that. She'd wanted to go with her father more than once on one of his trading trips. She'd wanted to see her brothers, too, all at various points in time before she'd finally given up. She was going to be stuck forever watching her father's shop. If she wasn't there, he was a mess, everything unorganized and getting lost. It was probably why he'd taught her to read at a young age. Her brothers were hopeless in the sense of taking over things, so that left Penelo. She wasn't useful in the kitchen, so he might as well put her in the shop.

Penelo sighed. Such was the life of a responsible daughter.

"What's wrong?" Reks bumped shoulders with her.

Embarrassed at the melancholy route her thoughts had taken, Penelo ducked her head. "Nothing. You wanted to talk?"

They were nearing the stairs that would take them up into Rabanastre's proper. Most of the stalls had shut down for the evening, and the streets were scarce. The odd mix of cooking food was in the air, hours old but lingering. It made Penelo think of her pecan pralines and the little pudding she'd eaten, and her stomach grumbled. She hoped that merchant was still there. Penelo was willing to pay extra for them, they were so good. Her favorite sweet!

"Yeah. It's… um… well." Chuckling, Reks rubbed his free hand over the back of his hair, much in the same way Vaan usually did. "Penelo, what do you… well…"

He was nervous! Why?

"It's about Vaan." Reks looked down at her, and she liked the play of the moonbeams on his fair hair. He was so beautiful. It wasn't fair. She'd grown up with Reks for her inspiration of what a perfect man should be. How was she supposed to look at anyone else when she had such a masterpiece in front of her?

"Vaan?" she hummed, not really paying attention. His hair had always looked so soft. She rarely got to touch it, which was a darned shame.

"Yeah. You guys are getting old enough now to be thinking about, you know—getting married, having kids…"

Penelo felt her eyes grow as large as dinner plates. Mostly out of shock, she dropped her hand from Reks' elbow and whirled to stand in front of him. "Hold on!" He had to look up to see her, since she was a few steps ahead on the staircase. "Vaan? Me? Getting married?!" Was he joking? Vaan was like—like her brother! He tormented her like one, too! Getting married? Oh, gods, her face was blistering red, this was so embarrassing. She liked Reks! Was he so dense?!

Reks took a step back, beautiful eyes wide with hurt. Penelo almost never raised her voice to him. Screechy, he'd called her once, when she'd been a little girl. That had been enough that she'd changed her ways immediately. Even back then, she'd been in love with him. And now he was staring at her like she'd turned back into that three year-old monster, all pigtails and glass-shattering shrieks.

"Why not?" Hands spread, Reks shrugged, as if showing that he was weaponless would help. "I mean—you grew up together, you're best friends and—and…" He glanced around, obviously searching for something else to add onto that. "And he's not bad looking!"

Anger turned the soft shadows of the bazaar red. "Not bad looking? Not bad looking? He's—" He was Vaan, for gods' sakes! Like the raggedy, awkward puppy she'd let follow her home once and now couldn't shoo away. It wasn't that she wanted to get rid of him, really, but why would she want Vaan when Reks was so close? It was insane. She took a sharp step forward, pressing up on her toes so she could get in his face and he couldn't ignore her serious expression. "I am not going to marry Vaan."

Going by his expression, he didn't get it at all. "Not now," Reks agreed, with the sort of condescending attitude that she didn't miss at all from her older brothers. "But, you know, eventually you'll want to get married, right? And Vaan would be a good husband. He has a job, he's a nice guy—he's great with children!" Leather scuffed over stone as Reks fidgeted under her glare. "There's worse things than marrying your best friend. Come on, don't tell me you haven't even thought about it."

Penelo thought about it. She thought about spending the rest of her life cleaning up Vaan's messes and arguing with Vaan whenever he was in a mood. Chasing after him when he was being contrary. Day in, day out, for however long they both lived. She thought about all of that, and then she thought about throwing herself under a runaway chocobo.

It wasn't that she didn't love Vaan—she loved him with all her heart. But only as a brother. And the man she did love wanted her to marry him. "No, Reks."


"No." He didn't reply, just kept staring. Taking a calming breath, Penelo turned on her heel. Even the lure of pecan pralines wasn't enough to keep her there. "I'll take myself home. Goodnight."

Reks didn't even try to stop her as she stalked off, chin held high. That hurt, even though she might have hit him if he had. But what should she have expected? He didn't have any idea that she loved him. It was probably some harebrained scheme to make sure Vaan was taken care of. After she calmed down, she'd talk to him and explain why it was the most ridiculous idea he'd ever had.

A waning moon had already risen over the walls, bright enough to flood the streets with light. Rabanastre had gone quiet in the short time they'd been arguing. All the merchants had gone home to supper, and the children who usually played outside had gone with them. The only people left at all were the guards, and they were spaced so far apart that she never saw two at a time. There weren't very many of them; Rabanastre was a peaceful city that kept only a small guard, and had been since the Solidors had been thrown out of power in Archadia nine years earlier. She let the quiet wash over her, soothing away the rage Reks had thrown her into.

As she passed an alley, something moved at the corner of her eye. It flashed bright silver in the darkness. Penelo paused, taking a cautious step backward to hide behind the corner of a building. She craned her neck for a better view. There it is! Squinting, she pressed herself up against the wall. Her heart picked up speed as she scanned the area for the source of the light. What if it was two lovers trying to have a moment before they parted ways? Or a sky pirate, scheming to make some sort of deal? It could be anything at all—



The nobleman was talking with someone, one of the men that hung around Lowtown trying to pass himself off as a wandering trader—Beaulf, or something like that. She'd never liked him. He tried to sell half-rotten fruit and constantly picked fights with the guards. While she watched, the light flashed again from some sort of device hidden in his palm. It didn't look like anything she'd ever seen before, a strange combination of mechanical pieces and magicite. Whatever it was, Beaulf didn't pay any attention to it, chattering as happily as if Lamont were an old friend. Their talk concluded with large smiles on both parties and an exchange of coins. The merchant waved and ducked back inside what was probably a home, going by the decorations hung outside the door. Lamont put his toy inside a pocket and slipped back a side-street, vanishing.

Penelo's lips pursed. Slowly, she started to walk again, hands linked behind her back. That had been odd. What could a nobleman want with someone like that? Did he think he'd get a better price on his order other than what her father was offering?

Well, it wasn't her problem if Lamont was tricked out of his gil. It would teach him not to work with substandard merchants. She brushed the incident from her mind and picked up the pace. Dinner would be ready soon, and pudding wasn't a meal. Her mother was supposed have made her famous roast, with the special sauce that everyone loved so much. If there was enough left, she'd save it for Reks as a peace offering. Food worked where words didn't, and no one could resist her mother's cooking.