A/N: It has been ages since I wrote Vaan and Penelo. Probably because my fifty one-shots about them sucked me dry for a while, but oh, how I have missed them.
Disclaimer: Still not mine.
Vaan couldn't sleep. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw his brother's pale face, the blank way it looked. Reks was going to die; the healers said he probably wouldn't live through the next day. They had tried everything they could, but nothing worked-not potions or magick. He was comatose and he was dying and all Vaan could do was sit there and watch. Vaan was completely lost, drowning inside himself. He had spent the past days running around the city, much as he had when his parents had died from the plague. Running to try to give some of his emotions a way out. Running so maybe for even a little while he could get outside of himself. It didn't work, but it was hard to be home.
He was tempted to just stay away at night, too, but he knew Penelo's parents would worry and come looking for him, and get others looking for him. After everything they had done for him, he couldn't repay them that way. So when darkness fell, he always slipped back into the house and sank into his bed.
Besides, even if he had wanted to flee, he could never run from Penelo. He could try, but she could always find him. She understood what it was like, too; she had just lost her own brothers in the war against the Empire.
Penelo's whisper brought his eyes over to his bedroom door. She was standing there in her pajama pants and short shirt, hugging her arms around her bare stomach. He looked away from her as she took a step into his room. She hesitated, and then crossed the rest of the way over to his bed, sitting beside him.
It was harder at night. Not that it was easy during the day, but at night the house felt so empty.
Her shoulder bumped against his, but he still didn't move. Didn't speak. What was there to say that hadn't already been said?
Penelo didn't say anything, either. She just sat with him on his bed and eventually nodded off to sleep on his shoulder. He looked at Penelo, her eyes closed and mouth hanging slightly open, and for a moment the urge to get up and leave was nearly overwhelming. To leave and not come back. It was only a matter of time before the Archadians marched into the city. Would he then be forced to live under the rule of the people who had sentenced his brother to slow death? What else would they take from him? Penelo and her parents were all that he had left-what if something happened to them, too?
But as afraid as he was, he couldn't leave, because this was all he had left. Penelo might not be Reks, but he loved her just as much and couldn't imagine his life without her.
He didn't remember falling asleep; he only realized he had when Penelo's mother shook him and Penelo awake. "Penelo! Vaan! You have to get up now!"
"Mom?" Penelo murmured blearily.
Penelo's mother was already tugging Penelo off the bed, grabbing Vaan's arm and urging him to get up, too. Vaan found his feet, adrenaline surging at the frantic look in Penelo's mother's eyes. It was only then that he heard the screams and shouts coming from outside.
"Mom, what's happening?" Penelo asked, frightened.
"The Archadians arrived in Rabanastre a little while ago," she said hastily. "The citizens are rioting and trying to fight them off."
Vaan's eyes widened; this street was right off one of the main thoroughfares in Rabanastre, right in the path of the most likely route the Archadians would take upon entering the city. Had the war literally come right to their doorway?
Penelo sucked in a sharp breath. "Where's Dad?"
Penelo's mother was pulling on them both, and Vaan wrested his arm from her grasp. "I'm going to help."
"Vaan!" Penelo gasped.
Her mother grabbed his chin and looked him dead in the eyes. "No, you are not." Vaan had heard that tone from her numerous times over the years; it was the one that demanded obedience or there would be severe consequences. "It's madness out there, Vaan. The soldiers-" She stopped abruptly when a loud pounding on the front door of the house sounded.
"Mom, where's Dad?" Penelo repeated, her voice beyond scared and moving into terrified now.
Penelo's mother looked at them both, her eyes and mouth pinched together. "I don't know. He went outside when he heard the commotion."
"We have to go help!" Penelo said frantically, and only her mother's tight hold on both of them kept her from lunging out of the house.
There was another loud pounding on the door. "Open up in the name of the Empire!" a voice shouted.
Before Penelo's mother could make a move toward the door, there was a thunderous crash, and Vaan knew that it had been kicked open. Penelo's mother shoved them both back into Vaan's room. "Get out of here now," she hissed at them. "Get into Lowtown if you can; that's the least likely place the Archadians would go."
"Mom-" Penelo began.
"I'm not going to run away!" Vaan said fiercely.
"Oh, yes, you are," Penelo's mother said in a steely voice. "If I don't find you there-"
"Mom!" Penelo sounded more frantic than ever.
"-then find Migelo."
Penelo grabbed the door before her mother could close it. Heavy footsteps were coming close, and Penelo's mom whispered, "I love you both. Vaan, get her out." She pushed Penelo out of the way and shut the door.
Vaan wrestled with the part of himself that wanted to run into the hall and fight, to do something to protect the woman who had protected him. A single glance at Penelo, standing wide-eyed with her hand still on the door handle, and he made his decision. Even if he could stand against however many soldiers were in the house, what would happen to Penelo?
He heard Penelo's mom talking, heard the loud, angry voices of the soldiers, and he knew there was no time. He yanked Penelo to his window-a window he had climbed in and out of a couple of times, when he just needed to get out and breathe the night air, to be alone and think.
Now he opened the window, lifted Penelo off the ground, and pushed her outside before she could argue. He slid after her, and had just dropped to the ground when he heard his bedroom door crashing open, and then soldiers' voices were right above them. Penelo was huddled on the ground, shivering, and Vaan pulled her back into the shadows against the wall as one of the soldiers in his room said, "There's no one in here! If there was, it looks like they escaped out the window!"
Penelo stood to her feet and pulled on Vaan, and together they crept around the house. Noises that had seemed so distant in the light of what he knew might be happening to Penelo's parents suddenly exploded around him.
As he and Penelo rounded the corner of the house, he could see that the main road was now being trampled down by the Archadians as they swept into the city in the dead of night. The shouts and screams of soldiers and Rabanastran citizens blurred together in a loud cacophony of madness. The night air was thick and there were too many people, too many weapons and bodies and Vaan was suddenly frozen to the spot.
Right in front of him, an Archadian soldier ran a man through with his sword. The soldier whirled on Vaan, and it was only then that Vaan moved, but it wasn't through his own doing. Penelo had grabbed his arm and jerked him to the side, and suddenly he was running, running away from the house, away from the street, away from the riot of soldiers and Rabanastrans. He had Penelo's hand in a death-grip, but almost didn't realize it until she stumbled and fell, almost dragging him to the ground.
Vaan stopped and dropped down beside Penelo; his heart was thumping loudly. Penelo was crying, saying something, but his ears were ringing and he didn't understand. He couldn't understand.
Penelo's words finally broke through to him when he realized she was trying to pull away, realized he was clutching her arm. "My parents! Vaan, my parents!"
There was raw panic in her voice, and he refused to relinquish his hold on her. His words finally unstuck from his throat and he was amazed at how calm he sounded, because he felt anything but calm. "Lowtown. We have to go to Lowtown. Your parents will find us there."
But they never did. They never came, because they were killed by Archadian soldiers, and Reks died from wounds inflicted by a traitor, and Vaan was all alone. All alone except for Penelo.
The first weeks were the hardest, as they scrounged for food and fought for space in Lowtown with the other Rabanastrans who had been forced belowground, as nights were filled with agony and grief so thick that it hurt too much to even speak, as Penelo curled up against him and cried until her voice was hoarse. And Vaan wondered if there had been a reason that Archadian soldiers had invaded Penelo's home, if they had been looking for Reks, the only witness to the treachery and assassination of the king. Or maybe it had been because Penelo's father had worked as a guard. Or maybe…
The maybes made him crazy, and he tried not to think about them. He couldn't change anything. He couldn't go back in time and make it different. He couldn't save anyone.
The more time that passed, the more this new life in Lowtown settled into a routine. It was never easy. It was still full of pain when the memories of lost loved ones hit at unexpected moments, and there was a constant struggle to have enough food to eat. Vaan tried to distance himself from it, from the agony and heartache. He dreamed, dreamed of a place far away from here, dreamed of one day owning a ship and being a sky pirate. There was no freedom on the ground, but maybe there would be freedom in the skies.
He wondered sometimes if he might have disappeared entirely, just vanished out of the city and wandered into the desert until he found a good place to stop, but there was always something keeping him from running too far. Always someone who chased after him and badgered him and made him come back to Lowtown every night. Penelo was his grounding force, and as much as he loved her, sometimes he wished she could just let him go so he wouldn't have to face what his life had become anymore.
But he knew, really, that he wouldn't have been able to let her go even if she had been able to let go of him. He needed her and he knew she needed him.
One night he came home to their tiny little room in Lowtown to find her dancing in the silence, dancing and crying and telling him that she couldn't stop. "I can't remember my steps, Vaan. I can't remember my steps," she had finally sobbed, collapsing onto the ground.
He was terrified because he couldn't help her. Terrified because he couldn't help himself. So he just kept looking up at the sky, promising her that one day he would have that ship. One day…he would find freedom for both of them.
He had just never expected "one day" to come with prisons and sky pirates, with a princess who was supposed to be dead and a knight who was supposed to be a traitor.
At the end of it, when he had helped restore his city and his country, he could look at Penelo, still standing by his side-always standing by his side-and realize that he had come to understand what freedom really meant.
He knew he wouldn't be running away ever again. Well, maybe he'd run from the occasional monster or two if he really didn't want to deal with them, but he wouldn't be running from himself ever again.
He had found too many things to run toward now.