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


Authors' Notes…

A special thanks to hesteen for beta-ing this chapter for us! Her help is really invaluable. We will always appreciate it!

The Trial of Fire

Chapter Nine

Faith Magick

"Aren't you the least bit worried that maybe something so flashy isn't the best game plan?"

Larsa slid a glance in her direction, then shook his head and set his bags down in the middle of the sitting room Penelo found herself in. They thunked lightly to the ground, a belt full of potions, a burlap bag stuffed with food, fruit mostly by the looks of it, and another satchel, this one with even more potions. Penelo eyed the green vials, her brows knotting. He was miserly to a fault with the things, yet he had a plethora of them…?

"Lord Lamont does not draw much attention to himself. This is a wealthy part of town, yes, but there are far 'flashier'—Penelo, what are you doing?"

She looked up, her hand stuffed inside of the satchel. His potions were on the floor in a safe pile beside her. "What?"

He put his hands on his hips. His brows drew down over his rather prominent nose, making him look very much like a bird. A bird that was doing his best to show her disapproval. "That."

"This?" She raised the bag, her hand still buried in it. "I was seeing if I took out the potions, if more would pop out."

"Why on earth would it do that?"

She shrugged. "I don't know. Just a weird hunch I had." She lifted the bag, spreading the inside with her arms. Looked empty to her. Hm.

Her companion—no, captor she reminded herself—looked like he was having difficulty restraining himself from snatching the bag out of her hands. She turned her back to him, walking with it across the sitting room. Her fingers felt over the seams on the inside, searching for hidden pockets. When her hunch proved fruitless, she puffed out a sigh and tossed the thing back at him.

His glare was glacial as he caught it. "Pray tell me what you were thinking."

"I already told you." Ignoring him for a moment, she mimicked his previous stance and put her hands on her hips as she mused.

Honestly, flashiness aside, it was the nicest dwelling she had ever found herself in. The sitting room alone could have fit both her old bedroom and her parents' in it, along with their dining room. A low table was situated between a chaise, two loveseats, and a large ottoman, all the color of cream with unique turquoise stitching. A throw rug was over a marble floor, plush and comfortable, hints of gold showing here and there amongst the matching cream.

Deep turquoise curtains were draped over the floor-to-ceiling windows, pulled open at the moment and tied with golden ropes, their tassels nearly four inches long. The city sprawled below them from five floors up, wealthier denizens of the floating island promenading in groups of twos and threes, mostly women with beautiful robes. Their darker skin worked well with the fuchsias, ceruleans, and scarlets they had donned. Though the robes were completely different, they made Penelo think of the dress she'd seen back in Nalbina on display in that tailor's shop. The Archadian-styled one that she could have spent all her life saving for and never come close to affording.

Penelo turned, her gaze listing to the bedroom on her left, and the other at her right. Both doors were open, with similar-colored furniture on the inside and plush blankets and pillows, although one was considerably bigger than the other. She supposed that one was to be Larsa's, and she walked inside of it, finding another, smaller room off to the side. It was a bath, by the looks of it, set into the ground with baskets of soaps, magicite, and a pile of fluffy towels encircling it on its edges.

"Wow," she breathed, and her voice echoed off the walls.

She came back into the central sitting room to find two men carrying in more of Larsa's things. He directed them to the room she had just vacated, and she frowned in thought. The rumpled present she'd been deliberately not opening for the past few days was balanced on top of two suitcases. Why wouldn't Larsa just give it up already?

"Elle," he said, and she blinked, realizing he'd been calling that name for several moments now. She turned to him, eyebrows up. Larsa had his arms folded in more disapproval. Surprise, surprise. Why was he so grumpy all of a sudden? She was finding it hard to keep up with his intense mood swings. "I must attend to some errands."

"What errands?"

It was his turn to look surprised, although in his case, it was genuine instead of sarcastic. "Pardon?"

"What eeerraaaaands?" she repeated, dragging the vowels out. When he continued to look at her like he was daft, she arched her brows again. "Errands? E-r-r-a-n-d-s?"

His glare returned, even icier than before. She was slightly impressed. "You are not in the habit of questioning my whereabouts. I simply wished to politely inquire as to why."

She noticed that the more pissed off he was, the more stiffly formal his words were, the richer his accent. "Times are changing?" She folded her arms behind her head as she cracked it. Ah, that felt good. "I mean, Lamont, seeing as how we're partners and all…" The men who'd delivered the items were finishing up in Larsa's bedroom, and any moment now, he'd escape with them. "Partners in love, that is." She batted her lashes, now folding her hands at the small of her back and giving him her best sugary sweet smile.

The last thing she wanted was to look suspicious in front of strangers.

Hard green eyes stared at her from under a slightly furrowed brow. Lamont, it seemed, was unamused by her act.

Somewhere in the bedroom, something clunked—maybe a box, maybe one of the workers knocking against a piece of furniture. Whatever it was, the reminder that they weren't alone cleared Lamont's expression. It was like a curtain being drawn and reopened on a changed set—one moment his face was set in harsh annoyance, the next it was taken by his usual jovial smile.

"Perhaps, light of my heart, I wished to find a gift to surprise and delight you." Taking a quick step, he grabbed her left hand and tugged, twirling her under his arm so she ended up nestled against him just as the hired hands reappeared. "Can a man not do that for his lady love?"

Penelo put one hand against Larsa's chest, using it to keep some distance between them. It wasn't enough. Even though he was probably in three or four stiff layers of cloth, she could feel his body against hers, strong and lean and so warm. "Perhaps he can," she said, voice breathier than she'd intended. "And yet, I find myself suspicious."

Larsa chuckled, leaning in until the tips of their noses brushed. "By now, I should think, you should know better than to doubt my sincerity."

The men eyed them tolerantly as they walked past, apparently used to working around besotted lovebirds. The door closed behind with a soft sound.

As soon as it had, Larsa released her hand and unwound his arm from her waist "Excellent instincts," he said brusquely. He abandoned the sitting room for his chosen bedroom, picking a package seemingly at random and digging through it. The items in it were odd, mismatched things: a few small boxes of what seemed to be scraps of cloth, a slender book, and—of all bizarre things—some sheet music. He set it all aside with the exception of one of the boxes, which he pocketed without fanfare. "Not something to startle a man with, but quick thinking, nonetheless."

"I'll remember to warn you next time we have strangers in the room." Crossing her arms, Penelo leaned in the doorway. It really was a beautiful room. Archadian in style, she was pretty sure—Bhujerba seemed a little bit like Dalmasca in some ways, and she'd never seen a bed on a pedestal. "I wasn't kidding about wanting to know where you're going."

"Nor was I about not telling you." He packed away the box again with careful hands, fingers sliding lovingly over the music before tucking it away. "This is a private matter, not of concern to my prisoner."

"Larsa…" A headache started to grow between her temples. It had been a long, impossibly hard day. Fighting with him was the last thing she wanted to do. "I killed those men for you."

His hands faltered. "I am aware of that."

"And you just spent a fortune outfitting me."

"I was there, if you recall." Larsa didn't look her in the eye, but he didn't finish putting the book back in the box. It was the last item, and it just sat in his hands as if he'd forgotten it.

"After all that, don't you think I'm a little more than a prisoner?"

For a moment, he didn't respond. Then, slowly, he tucked the book away, taking more care than the task asked for. "What would you be, then?"

When he looked up, his expression was a mask of carefully controlled blankness. He folded his hands on the table, gloved fingers lacing together. Splatters of dark brown touched the edges of his otherwise snowy cuffs. They were hard to spot until he went still, and then suddenly the stains stood out like a mark of damnation.

Blood, Penelo realized, feeling a little ill. "What?"

"I said, what would you be?" Larsa watched her intently. "You cannot return to your home, and you surely are not here of your own free will. By any measure, you are my captive. What else would you have me call you?"

"I…" Pushing off from the doorframe, she made herself stand upright, still staring at those tell-tale marks. Some of it was from men he'd killed for her, and maybe some was from the men she'd taken down. "I don't…"

Had they bled? She couldn't recall. There hadn't been faces, once the spell was over. Just charred flesh, sweet and sickly in her nose, and the pounding of her heart as she burned them to a crisp. There was still a heat under her skin, soft and simmering, leftover from the magicite. It flared when she thought of it, tingling. Not enough to do it again, but there could be one day. One day there would be more men, more people who wanted Larsa dead, and she'd have the training. She'd—

A gloved hand touched her cheek. Penelo jumped, but Larsa grabbed her arm to keep her from getting too far. "Penelo?" he asked, voice soft with something that she refused to believe could be worry. "I called your name thrice. Are you unwell?"

"Yes, I—" Shaking her head, she pulled away again, and this time he let her. Instantly, she missed the support. Her head still felt light, like it might fly off. "You know what? Never mind. Maybe it's better I stay here after all."

Larsa looked at her like he wanted to call her bluff, but he nodded, anyway. "There are apothecaries nearby. I can have something delivered that will help you sleep."

"I'm fine." Pasting on a smile, Penelo made herself whirl away, back toward her own rooms. There weren't any boxes or such there; Augustine's delivery hadn't arrived yet, and she didn't have anything of her own. It was all back in Rabanastre, along with the rest of her life. "I'll just take a bath or something. Go. Get your errands done. Bring back food."

Still, he hesitated, following her to the door of her bedroom and hovering awkwardly. "You are certain?"

"I am certain," she promised, imitating his accent. Twisting, she collapsed onto the bed. The mattress folded up around her like a dream, thick and soft and heavenly. The blanket felt like it might be made of silk and down, and the mattress was so soft it should have been impossible. "Oh gods, or I might just stay here. Is this how nobles always sleep? On clouds?"

"Title and wealth are not without advantages." A smile tugged at his lips as he watched her rolling about in luxury. "I will return quickly, then. Be well, Penelo." Nodding to her, he turned and left her to her wallowing. A moment later, she heard the door shut.

It only occurred to her after he'd been gone a full ten minutes that neither of them had considered that she might attempt an escape while he was away.

"…and you surely are not here of your own free will…"

Had he simply forgotten to lock the door? Was it a test? Did he want her to escape? These thoughts and more flooded her brain, and she got up from the bed, though most reluctantly, and headed to the door, touching it. For a long moment, she stood there, debating.

This was her moment. She could get out of here! Find help, say she'd been kidnapped by a crazed Solidor lunatic. They'd have to listen to her, they'd take her home to her parents. But then she remembered the magick she'd freed from herself, how she'd let it loose on those men, how they'd spent an afternoon with Augustine discussing how she was a black mage, as if this was something to be proud of, not terrified of…

Word would be spreading from those who had survived that Larsa had a female accomplice. And when they found her, they would kill her. As instantly as they had would Larsa.

She shook her head, dreading that thought. No. They'd barely had time to look at her, and she was a petite, blonde Dalmascan, same as thousands of others. To think that if she got out from under Larsa's thumb and made it home, that those people would recognize her, hunt her down? Not only was that flirting with disaster, it was madness.

Still…

Her fingers stayed curled around the huge, golden curved handle on the door.

Why was she hesitating?

He'd kidnapped her! Yet no matter how many times she told herself that, and no matter how much she knew it was true, for some reason, that argument was growing weak. And outside of the aerodome, when he'd called her his partner… Yes, she'd reacted defensively, but deep down inside, where she refused to acknowledge existed until this very moment, she had been a bit… thrilled.

She took a step back from the door, then another. It was a trap, she told herself. The second she left the room, he'd be waiting for her to snatch her back up and tie her back to a chair this time. Trying to escape now would just be a waste of time, and make him insufferably smug. No, she wouldn't be so easily fooled. She'd find a better way of getting free, one that didn't involve a constant stream of humiliation.

That decided, she clasped her hands together and edged toward Larsa's bedroom. She'd take a bath, wipe this… filth… off her, and wait for Augustine's packages to arrive so she could get a good read in before Larsa returned. As much as she'd hated what her magick had done to those people, the possibility of being powerful had its lure. Maybe that would be her ticket out of here, as she'd originally intended before Therese had been murdered so brutally.

She frowned in thought. He sure was playing with fire, wasn't he? Teaching her magick to help him, but at the risk that she might use it against him once she mastered it? Or did he, perhaps, think that by the time she'd understood the nature of the magick that she would want to be his partner?

In your dreams, Larsa.


The hot water soaked into her bones like nothing else, creating the most blissful experience she'd ever been blessed with. Of course she'd had baths before, but nothing could compare to this. Not when she'd so desperately needed it, needed to be clean and shiny and good as new again. She even soaked her hair, grateful for the small bottles of sweet-scented liquid to wash the golden strands.

It was only when she was resurfacing from this that she saw the water had turned a little pink. She didn't understand it at first, not until she had a flicker of memory of when she was nine. Reks had carried her to her mother while she bawled, her knee scraped badly. Emilie had used a soft cloth to dab the grit out of the wound first, and when she dipped it into the basin of water at her side, that water had started turning pink.

Blood.

So it had gotten on her, after all…

There wasn't very much. Likely, it had only been flecks, which would explain why no one had been ready to call the guards at the sight of her. She mulled on that, pulling her long hair over her shoulder and massaging the strands, making sure the soap got in deep. It was almost like the perfume her father got her mother on special occasions, done up in a pretty glass bottle with a glass cork, a little thicker, but just as aromatic. Penelo was used to taking a thick bar of harsh soap to her hair.

How easily her thoughts drifted from what had happened to her.

But she couldn't help it. Lingering on what had happened to those imperials was just depressing her, and Penelo was not a person who tolerated depression. She turned her nose up at this line of thought, closing her eyes and massaging her scalp to spread the liquid soap easily.

Partners.

The word whispered insidiously at the back of her mind. She actually hesitated, licking her lips. It… wouldn't be such a bad idea, would it? Maybe if she got Larsa to believe that she really wanted to be partners, she could ditch him once she'd won over his trust. On the downside to that, however, was the distinct possibility that they ran into trouble again, and repeated sightings with Larsa really would result in her death warrant.

There was no easy way out of this. As much as she didn't want to believe it, her hands were as stained as his. Could she really go back home, even if she was safe from imperial decree, knowing that deaths lurked over her head like a constant black cloud? Could she look into her mother's smiling face and pretend that she was still that innocent, no-nonsense girl? The answer was no, and the bitter disappointment of that was a sinking stone in her belly.

In some moments, she really hated Larsa. She hated herself more because she'd been the one to stay when he'd told her to run.

Growling at the dangerous turn her thoughts had taken, Penelo ducked her head down under the water and held her breath. Her hair rose up around her, tickling her cheeks as it floated to the surface. Little noises became all-encompassing—a tap of sound when she touched the edge of the tub, someone's footsteps outside, the splash of water when she moved. Even her heartbeat seemed louder.

She stayed down until her lungs ached and her head felt like it might explode and the confusion had been pushed down by a slow boiling need for air. In a rush, she burst out of the water, taking a deep, gasping breath. Her head swam, and as much as it was her own fault, it felt good. Blank. The confusion and worry was still there, but they'd been forced back a ways.

Once she felt steady enough, she climbed out of the bath, wringing her hair until it wouldn't leave a puddle and wrapping it in a towel before wrapping herself in another. They were so large that she was covered from breast to knees, and soft as a kitten's fur. Hanging on the wall next to the towels was a set of robes, both of them the same cream and turquoise as the rest of the suite.

Penelo eyed them thoughtfully as she finished drying herself. It couldn't hurt, could it? Larsa wasn't going to be taking her anywhere. There was nothing wrong with her clothes; she could go back to wearing them easily. They were good, solid leather, and still relatively clean. But they were fighting clothes, not something to relax in.

If I'm going to be stuck here, I might as well enjoy myself, she told herself resolutely. She slipped into the smaller one, thumb running across the collar. It felt like silk, but thicker. Whatever it was, it was soft and warm.

Being kidnapped was quickly turning into the most luxurious thing that had ever happened to her.

Her abandoned clothing, she left in her own room, draped over the foot of the bed to await her need. The wet towels were more difficult; she'd never been in a rented room. After a bit of consideration, she left them by the bath tub to deal with later.

Then, she went on the prowl.

Larsa's rooms were unlocked, and still stacked with odds and ends. There were at least ten different boxes of all sorts of things, in addition to what seemed to be his personal luggage. Carefully, Penelo pried open the one that Larsa had been interested in before leaving.

Her hopes of finding a clue about his supposed errands proved fruitless. The contents of the box were interesting purely for their seemingly random nature: the sheet music she'd noted was old but not ancient. The song written on it was nothing special—just a lullaby of some sort, written out in a fair, curving hand. A well-loved book of poems, place marked with a fading red and black ribbon. Then there was a box of sea shells, the sort that could be picked up along the Nebra for anyone with an eye and time. Another box held a brass apple that shed flakes of dry red paint when she moved it even the slightest. Yet another had a simple golden chain, with no marking or pendant.

The next box was more of the same, and the one after, and the one after. At one point she found herself staring at a pouch of dirt. Bits of something glittered in it, but it was just plain old dirt. She put it back and closed the lid, making a face.

So much for that brilliant idea.

In the course of her poking about, she'd wandered closer to the bed. Larsa's bed was identical to hers, even the same size for all that his room was larger. The gift from before had been set carefully on it near the pillow. It felt like a taunt.

Thoughtfully, she sat down on the bed, folding her legs together as she stared at the box. It wasn't a small package; it took up the length of her entire arm, and was deep enough to hold almost anything. Over the course of their travels, it had acquired some dirt stains, and the bright red silk wrapping had torn in a few places to reveal the white pasteboard underneath. What had once been a stiff, proud gold ribbon sagged. It had been a little under a week since she'd first seen it, but it was certainly the worse for wear.

That thought tugged at her, made her pause. Had it really only been that long? She'd only spent three days with Therese. It felt like a lifetime, like she should have been an old maid twice over.

Her fingers ran over the silk, feeling the grit that had caked onto once-delicate fabric.

The gift was hers, given and rejected before she'd known him as anything other than a pompous, annoying customer. She'd thought it was only meant to buy her affections, but he'd cared enough to take it with him all the way to Bhujerba. He could have turned around and given it to any pretty girl that caught his eye, someone who wouldn't mind taking a roll with him and then waving him off. But no, he'd kept it for her. She couldn't deny that the thought made her heart speed.

When a man's give ye a gift, ye don' refuse 'til ye know what's what about it.

"Maybe it's time I find out what's what, then," Penelo murmured to herself. Moving fast, before her better judgment could catch up to her, she grabbed the ribbon and yanked. It unfurled in a shining golden length, the inside still clean and new. Underneath, the scarlet wrapping had been carefully folded so no stitchery was needed to hold it together. She plucked at it until she found the right fold to tug, and the whole thing came unraveled before her.

Nerves gripped her stomach, threatening to crawl up into her throat and nest there. Her fingers hovered over the lid. "Come on, Penelo, it's just a box," she told herself sternly. The empty room was the only thing there to listen.

Bracing herself, she grabbed the lid and lifted.

Yards and yards of shining turquoise met her eyes, touched with white and gold. It was the gown, the one she'd seen in the tailor's shop. Or, on second glance, not the exact one—touches of gold and pearls had been added to the bodice, and the sleeves were a slightly different drape, but the resemblance was clear. Her hands shook as she lifted the gown, only to find a corset and snowy underskirt beneath. There were even shoes, delicate dancing slippers in the same shade of blue.

She didn't realize she was crying until a tear dripped onto her wrist. Hastily she scrubbed at her eyes with the sleeve of her robe, but the tears wouldn't stop.

"Penelo?"

It said something about her state that she didn't even jump at Larsa's voice. "Why?" she asked, voice wobbly and thick with emotion. "Was this— why?"

The gown was silk, and pearls, and cloth of gold, and she didn't deserve anything so fine. Every inch of her was a merchant's daughter, from her the top of her head down to the soles of her feet. Even touching it fresh from a bath felt like she was dirtying something precious.

Larsa watched her from the doorway, the line of his mouth soft. "It was to be a birthday gift," he answered quietly. "I had hoped to win your attentions enough to escort you to a palace fete before I left Rabanastre."

A rock lodged in her throat. It had to be a rock. Her heart couldn't hurt so much. "Is that all?" Penelo asked. "No scheme? No pirate business?"

She could tell what the answer was by the way his shoulders stiffened. "Not such you would be involved, or even know."

The rock in her throat sank to her stomach. "Right," she said bitterly. "Of course." For just a second, she'd hoped...

But she should have known better than to think like that. He was a pirate, a Solidor, and anything nice he'd ever done for her had been for an ulterior motive. It was easy to forget, but she couldn't let herself. Not again.

Suddenly, his fingers had an iron grasp around her wrist, snatching it up while his other hand jerked her chin up so she had to look at him. She frowned, immediately beginning to struggle, but something in his eyes gave her pause. His grip loosened only a little on her, enough that he wasn't pinching off the circulation anymore, yet where she wouldn't be able to break free easily.

"Let me go," she said.

His fingertips gentled on her chin. "Do you remember when you asked me to eat dinner with you?" When she didn't immediately answer, his grip tightened again, and he pressed on, "At your parents' house, when you were trying to spite your friend."

Vaan.

She could still remember the subsequent trip she'd had to make to the sewers, the way Vaan hadn't wanted to look at her just like she didn't want to look at Larsa right now. Her heart was pounding so quickly, like a trapped bird. She didn't know why. She just despised that he could make her feel like this, even after everything that had happened.

"What about it?" she finally said, because Larsa clearly expected an answer.

"The fete I intended to escort you to is not for weeks. Queen Ashelia is out of the city, the country even."

"So?"

"So…" He leaned in closer until he was more on her eye level, and when she tried to back away, he wouldn't let her, his fingers turning almost bruising. She winced, but he didn't seem to care, bringing his lips to the corner of her mouth, letting them hover there. Like this, she could catch his scent. It was intoxicating, a spicy blend of lingering desert and the Bhujerban streets. "Until that time, I would have had weeks to court you, to win your favor."

Despite her ire, Penelo's cheeks burned crimson. "What does that have to do with me asking you out?"

He tsked very softly, somehow making shivers dart up her spine. As if reading her thoughts, he released her face to settle a hand at the small of her back, his large hand resting against the line of her vertebrae. "If you wanted to have time with me alone, without any ulterior motives, then why did you take it back?"

Checkmate, she thought weakly.

"I guess you think you're pretty clever," she whispered. "Backing me into a corner like this. So I'll have no choice but to say something like—" She lifted her voice into a falsetto. "Oh, Larsa, you're so right, I never should have taken it back."

At last, he released her, but the amused smirk on his face was not to her liking. "Nothing of the sort. You deem yourself to be a very logical person. Therefore, I was applying logic to the game of cat and mouse your mind constantly seems to run around in. If you don't like the logic much, well… do not look so sad at our turn of events."

Pressing her lips together, Penelo looked back at the gown. It was still too much, too expensive for someone like her, but the gesture had to mean something. Didn't it? Maybe only that he thought she was pretty enough to court for a few weeks before moving on, but she supposed that when a few weeks was all he had, it wasn't so bad.

"What are you going to do with me?" The question slipped out before she could catch it.

Larsa drew back, obviously startled. "What do you mean?"

What do I mean? There was something that had been bouncing around in her head all day, ever since her fingertips had lit up with flames in his defense. She kept her head down, not ready to look up at him just yet. "Before you left, you asked me what I would be, if I didn't want to be a prisoner."

In the corner of her eye, she saw his head incline in a wary nod. "I did. And you did not answer."

"Because it's not for me to answer." Gently, Penelo started to bundle the gown and its trappings back into the box, careful not to crease anything. Whatever the gift meant, she'd figure it out later, when her head wasn't buzzing with too many thoughts and not enough words. "I'm your captive. You said it—you keep saying it. I can't be anything if you'll only let me be that."

When she looked up, Penelo could tell she'd scored a point. His cheeks had gone pale, and he'd clenched his hands together to keep them still. Larsa stared down at the dress as she boxed it back up, as if he weren't quite sure what it meant either. "You killed those men for me."

The corner of Penelo's mouth twitched. "I'm aware of that."

"And I have just spent a fortune outfitting you."

Her smile got a little wider. "I was there."

Humor flashed through his green eyes for a brief moment before his expression turned serious again. "I would like for you to be my partner. If you would."

"Your partner," Penelo repeated slowly, eying him thoughtfully. It wasn't like she hadn't expected it. He could have just bought her a simple dress to replace her old, worn clothes. Instead he'd outfitted her in ridiculously strong protective gear, and armed her to boot. That wasn't the sort of thing a pirate did for his hostage. "Really?"

"Yes." Larsa's face could have been used as a writing board, it was so blank.

Nudging the box out of the way, Penelo turned and sat on the edge of the bed, leaning back on her heels to stare up at him. Her bare knees peeked out from under her robe, making it a little too obvious what she wasn't wearing under it, but there was no help for that. "You don't know what else to do with me, do you?"

"I may have acted hastily, yes."

Still no expression, no clue to what he was thinking. Penelo imagined he was squirming inside, hopefully humiliated by his lack of foresight. It would have been nice to see it though. What kind of pirate kidnapped someone without any idea what to do with them?

A really bad one. One she wasn't sure she wanted to ally herself with. "I'll think about it."

There it was, a spark of annoyance peeking through the façade. He glared at her, brow ever so slightly scrunched in a way that made him look all of twelve years. "You are the one who asked!"

"Yes, and now that I know I need to think about it." Using her index finger, Penelo poked the center of his surprisingly firm stomach until he backed off a step, enough to give her room to rise without flashing anything. "You're a pirate and a Solidor, and you did kidnap me. I've got a right to be suspicious."

Larsa stepped aside so she could head for the door. Somewhere out there, she smelled something faintly meaty, and heavily spiced—food.

Just as she hit the door, she heard a soft, "I would think you would have more faith in me."

Penelo paused, throat suddenly tight. Too many thoughts crowded her head. Before any of them could escape and cause any more damage, she took that final step, and let his bedroom door close behind her.


Larsa didn't join her for dinner.

Penelo thought that suited her fine as she dipped meats in spices she'd never tried before, leaving empty skewers on a small plate. She ate with her robe on, comfortable in its fluffiness. Her mind wandered. Though she'd kept a smug attitude about the partnering business, deep in her stomach, nerves clenched. After all, saying she was considering becoming his partner and actually doing it were two different things entirely.

But the fact of the matter was, she'd saved him. She'd killed for him.

She hadn't had to.

She'd been given an out.

Irritated with the circle her thoughts kept going in, she shook her head and went to her room to dress. Night was falling, so she chose a thin slip of pretty white cotton. The practical part of her thought it was asking to get filth all over it. But she wasn't used to riches, and she might as well enjoy it while she could. There was no point in doing otherwise.

By that time, she was curious as to Larsa's whereabouts. She'd left him sulking long enough.

A quick peek through a crack in his door revealed that the room was empty. However, after a moment of straining her ears, she caught the faint sounds of splashing coming from the bathing room. Biting her lip, she took three careful steps into the room, glad that the carpet muffled her trespassing. There was no way Larsa's hearing wasn't keen after years on the run.

Once she'd made it halfway through the room, she chanced a glance into the bath chamber. His back was turned to her, and she watched as he rose from the depths of the water. It ran in rivulets down his back, tracing muscle and lightly tanned skin from their trek through the desert. Seeing it made her remember, for some insane reason, the kiss they'd last shared at Therese's.

Her cheeks heating, she backed slowly from the door, then scooted over to his bed. Before she could think better of it, she pulled the silky sheets back and climbed down beneath the brocaded blanket. She yanked them over her head, her heart pounding hard against her ribs as she waited for him to finish his bath.

It took forever. She wondered how his skin hadn't pruned. Whenever that happened to her, she washed up quickly. Wrinkled skin felt weird.

At last, the smell of soap wafted toward her, even through the thick blanket. Larsa's footsteps started forward, paused. Likely, he saw the new lump on his bed that hadn't been there before his bath. The pause stretched into infinity; Penelo thought her nerves were about to explode. No sound permeated her senses, so when his hand landed on the pillow above her head, she jumped about a foot off the bed.

"Penelo."

How did he do that?!

"This is not your bed." Impatience colored the words. Still sulking, then.

"You're right. It's not." Penelo made a point of snuggling in more, using the blankets to hide her face. She didn't know what had gotten into her. There was poking the wild saurian, and then there was climbing into its mouth pre-seasoned. Have I gone insane?

Larsa shoved the pillow again, harder, making her head bounce. "Remove yourself."

"Nope."

The weight on the pillow didn't move at all. She could feel Larsa's eyes boring into her. Squinching her eyes closed, Penelo endeavored to stay as still as possible, barely even breathing lest he try and manhandle her out of the bed.

Yes. Yes, she had gone insane.

But she remembered the drip of water down his back, the smooth slide of skin over toned muscle, and her mouth went dry. It wasn't that she wanted something to happen. That would be ridiculous and self-defeating. He was a Solidor, and a pirate, and Penelo was pretty sure he'd tumbled more girls than she'd lived in years. Only an idiot would want anything to do with him romantically, no matter how handsome he was. Tempting him would be a disaster.

Which didn't at all explain why she was curled up in his bed, wearing only a thin shift. With Larsa looming above her. And no escape.

Definitely insane.

When he came to the realization that she wasn't moving, Larsa let out a heavy sigh. The light shining through the cracks in her cover vanished, and she felt the bed dip. "Shift over. I'm not sleeping on the edge of my own bed."

Slowly, Penelo edged down the blanket to peer at him. The room was nearly pitch black, what little light there was coming from the window. She could make out the shape of a Larsa-shadow sitting on the edge of the bed, limned in the weak silvery-blue glow of the magicite mines in the distance.

He hadn't put on a shirt.

Penelo swallowed hard and moved over.

Larsa slipped into the available room, pulling the blankets up over his bare chest. He didn't make a move to touch her, or even to crowd her off the mattress. Not a single cold toe made its way across the invisible line dividing the bed. No wandering hands, no liberties. Just two people sharing space.

Disappointed for no reason she could name, Penelo turned her back to Larsa. Sleep. She was going to sleep, and it would be the best sleep she'd had since she'd been knocked out and dragged away from everything she'd ever known. There would be no thoughts about the man in bed next to her and the sharp cut of his collarbone, or the smooth curve of his freshly-shaven jaw.

None at all.