Title: Believe in Me, O Dancer Girl

By: Aina Song

Fandom(s): Star Ocean 3: Till the End of Time

Genre: Yaoi

Rating: NC-17

Warning(s): Language; Direct & Altered Quotes; Spoiler Alert; Slight OOC; Much Angst; Mention of past-NCS (Hell, where'd I put that Fluff? This one's gonna need some Fluff…)

Pairing(s): Albel(Peppita) x Fayt (Not the way it sounds, I swear!)

Reviews: Yes, please.

Author's Note: Standard Disclaimer. This story was not written for money.

Another Note: Hate me for this all you want, but in my own little world, Adray does not exist. Useless old coot in battle, and socially inadequate everywhere else. And, even after he joins the party, he's never included in any of the major movie scenes - you don't even see him hanging around in the background! *blows raspberry* Italics = dreams, sword telepathy, and flashbacks. Do tell.

Teaser: It was a secret he had protected for as long as he could remember. And, without even realizing it, she was a part of it.

Chapter One - Thank You

He was loitering outside the door of Arias' chapel when she found him. The youngest of their party, usually so bright and bubbly, looked so unlike herself that Albel Nox could only stare as she approached. Her clothes were spattered with mud. One of her shoes was missing its overly large bell. Her soft white hair had fallen loose from both its ridiculous pigtails and was matted with dirt, and tears were still streaking through the dirt on her face. She held one hand to her upper arm; thin trails of blood were spilling from between her fingers.

"The village children didn't like me," Peppita Rossetti offered in meager explanation. "They said I was… different."

He narrowed his dark red eyes, wondering briefly why she would come to him before any of the others. Wordlessly he pushed away from the frame of the door, took her by her other arm, and led her into the chapel. The building was always empty at this time of day; even the priest had gone home to visit his family and prepare for the evening Mass. Albel sat her down on the front pew - "Don't move." - and then raided the back of the chapel until he found what he needed. Returning, he set an offering dish and three skin pouches of holy water on the pew beside her then rounded to her other side and gently pried her wounded arm from her grip.

With an old towel and the first of the pouches, he cleansed and inspected the scratch. Minor, but cut deep enough to scare on first glance. He poured more of the water over it to be certain it was properly cleansed, then tore the towel into a long strip and used it to bandage her arm. Handing her that pouch and another towel, he let her wash the dirt from her legs and arms and face. He then had her lower her head over the offering dish, and he slowly poured the remaining water over her hair, carefully working out the dirt and matted knots until he was able to pass the fingers of his good hand through it without trouble. He had brought with him a third towel, which he draped over her still-muddy shoulders before letting her sit back once more.

Taking up the dish of dirtied water and other items, he motioned with his head for her to follow into the back of the chapel. She stood in the doorway of a small room while he dumped the water out an open window. Finding a simple white gown that was probably three sizes too big for her delicate frame, he suggested she wrap her hair in the towel to shelter it from the mud still on her clothes while she changed, then closed the door behind him.

When she emerged, Albel found himself staring once more. In the gown, with her white hair brushing her shoulders, and eyes that were so silvery blue they were nearly unfathomable - she might very well have passed for a holy child herself. Shaking his head to clear it of such an unbidden thought, he went into the back room, gathered her things into a large hide sack and led her out of the chapel.

Crossing the dirt road, he dropped the sack off at the inn with orders for its contents to be mended and awaiting Miss Rossetti's return. He then took her hand and brought her to the weapons/outfitter's shop, where he asked her in front of the owner what was her favorite color.

"Black," Peppita replied instantly.

The shop owner was not the only one taken by surprise.

A hint of pink flushed her copper face. "In the circus, just before a performance, the stage would always go completely dark. I'd be unable to see a thing. But that never stopped me from getting so excited about what was to come that my heart would start pounding in my ears." She shrugged, glancing aside. "Black… reminds me of that feeling."

Nodding, Albel turned back to the owner. He could sense the young girl's stare as he gave very detailed instructions as to size, design, and material. He dropped several gold coins upon the counter for the advance. The shop owner had been listening to the order with steady diligence, copying them down on a sheet of parchment to prevent mistakes, then excused himself for a handful of minutes. When he returned, it was with his daughter, who nodded in greeting before quickly hanging a dark curtain across one corner of the shop for privacy. She then motioned to Peppita, who glanced at Albel for confirmation before following behind the curtain. Though his specifics were accurate to the letter, it was still a demand of their profession to check measurements before cutting materials, and therefore took another hour before the desired results were met.

Albel was leaning his back against a wall with his gauntleted arm resting atop his sheathed katana when the shop owner's daughter led Peppita back to his side. His eyebrow arched, the only sign of his reaction to how she looked now.

She wore a thin, sleeveless turtleneck beneath a billowy low-cut blouse with full sleeves that hung off her elbows. A slim belt caught the waist of her blouse, with a delicate but intricately carved buckle. The shorts were gone, replaced by snug tights that stopped three full inches below her knees. Her too-large shoes were now small but strong boots with a better fit, able to brace her heels and ankles whilst she danced without fear of a sprain. The heavy cuffs around her wrists which had anchored the giant ribbon draped behind her back were no more. She now wore daintier bangles that would not weigh down her arms, and the ribbon itself was now a number of thin triple-coil ropes - each with its own marble-sized bell dangling from its ends.

As promised, black was the theme. Everything, from her sweater and blouse, down to her boots and ropes. Black. But to compliment their darkness, her blouse had been thinly lined with silver thread. The bangles were silver, too, as well as every one of the countless bells she was already admiring.

And she still wore her hair down. So, in all, her presence now was subtly dramatic. Something he suspected one such as she might appreciate.

"Here," Albel spoke, lifting his good hand. While she had been outfitted, he had on a whim made yet another purchase.

She whispered her stunned gratitude, accepting the silver chain necklace and carefully securing it around the base of her throat. Her fingers played a moment with the tiny golden bell which hung from the necklace, and she thanked him once more while he paid the shop owner the remaining cost for materials used.

When they exited the shop, they saw that the sun had already begun to set. Albel knew that the girl preferred an early dinner and so, feeling oddly generous, he took her to a newly opened grocer shop and ordered for her a small meal.

They sat together on the floor in a back corner of the shop, he watching silently as she ate. She did not try to talk his ear off, like she would with their other party members, nor did she appear bored with his reluctance to start a conversation of his own. On the contrary, she seemed quite comfortable with the quiet and made no effort to disturb it.

Near the meal's end, Albel realized with a start what it was she was doing. Ever since he had corrupted those off-worlders' plans to mess with his prey at the training facility, the other members of their party had none-too-subtly tried to befriend him. Going out of their way to pretend to understand him, so that he might better accept each of them. They were often so ridiculously obvious at it that the whole thing had become very annoying. He was almost literally snarling at them on a regular basis just to keep them at bay.

But Peppita Rossetti, this very young teenage girl, understood immediately what they could not get through their thick skulls. He had but one thing in common with them; the goal to stop this "creator," this Owner, before all was lost. That was it. In all other ways, he was completely different from them, did things according to his own plan, and liked to keep it that way. So the young dancer did not barrage him with pointless questions (Sophia), did not make suggestions to "better" his personality (Maria), or even invite him to go Convictor hunting (Cliff and Mirage).

In short, she was doing effortlessly what those other fools could not do if he had spelled it out for them. She was letting him be who he was, and giving him the chance to some day accept the same of her.

Which he was rapidly finding himself willing to do. Some day.

~o~

Their absence had not gone unnoticed. Albel had entered the inn first and so, naturally, it was he the rest of the party bombarded with their curiosity.

"Where the hell have you been," Cliff Fittir demanded loudly. "We've been looking for you all day!"

He doubted that very much, and said so. Arias was a pitifully small village, and had very few nooks and crannies in which to hide. He'd tried.

"If you had something to do or somewhere to go, you might have told us." Maria Traydor that time, with another one of her oh-so-helpful suggestions. "We wouldn't have tried to stop you."

"No," Albel agreed. "You would've insisted on joining me. So I didn't bother."

Sophia Esteed pushed between them, stepping forth to grip his good arm in both her hands, her bottom lip trembling. "We can't find Peppita anywhere! Someone we asked said some kids were picking on her and had chased her away. Have you seen her?"

"Of course he has," the dancer herself answered, coming at last through the door. "How couldn't he?"

The lobby fell swiftly quiet, as all stared at her black attire. Her smile was as bright as the sun as she absorbed their shocked expressions; there was nothing a circus performer enjoyed better than remaining unpredictable. Finally Cliff cleared his throat, tossing Albel an accusatory glance. "Tell me that wasn't your idea…"

He was not given the chance to defend himself, for Peppita immediately set her hands to her hips and huffed indignantly. "Don't start on him! I happened to have some extra money saved up, and I thought I'd try a new look. In fact, the first time I've seen Albel all day was when we bumped into each other near one of the village exits."

Albel tried not to let his reaction to her words show. That was the first he had ever seen her lie, and she'd done it so flawlessly. But even more surprising… if the rest of the their party had learned of his efforts to salve her broken heart and stitch her wounded pride, the list of questions would have gone on for miles. Without missing a beat, her fabrication had cut it short. And, judging from her posture and that smile hidden behind her indignation, she well knew it.

Smart kid.

They were immediately apologizing and complimenting her clothes, and he left them to it. He silently found his way to the back of the room, where he leaned his back to the wall and watched them dote on their youngest companion.

"Well done," a voice whispered near his ear.

He swung his dark red gaze to the side before bringing it forward once more. "What are you talking about," he hissed.

Leaning against the wall beside him with arms and ankles crossed, a slow smirk on his face, Fayt Leingod did not look his way so as to seem to be merely thinking aloud. "Being outcast from the other children would have upset her a great deal," he quietly pointed out. "Though you almost went too far with such an expensive necklace. Peppita hates spending too much money on herself, outside an emergency."

Slow smirk still in place, he left the wall then to join the others across the lobby, leaving Albel to stare at their unofficial leader as though seeing him for the first time. How often was the blue-haired fool going to be able to catch him off-guard like that?

~o~

A week or more had passed, and Peppita's new attire became her permanent look. And though she never bothered him with the update, Albel could tell that she was drawing a stronger sense of confidence from the color she held so dear. They soon arrived in the next town, called Peterny, and she seemed unconcerned with the thought of encountering more children that would distrust her.

Early one evening, that whiny mage Sophia was once again frantic with worry. Peppita had disappeared. This time, however, Albel was sitting alone in a dark corner of the inn's lobby and so escaped Cliff's suspicion. A search party was put together, in which he refused to join, much to their annoyance. The party was split four ways, so that every corner of the small city could be searched all the way to the exits and even outside.

Twenty minutes passed, and Albel looked up as the door to the inn swung open. Fayt Leingod stood there, meeting his gaze with a slow smirk and motioning for Albel to follow. Suspecting the rest of their group was being excluded for a reason, the garnet-eyed warrior rose to his feet. He let himself be led into the city plaza, and then Fayt cocked his head toward the chapel with a silent warning to remain very quiet as his hands pulled one of the giant doors partially open.

Frowning at Fayt's knowing look, Albel peeked in. And stared.

Inside the chapel it was dark. Every available surface was littered with small candles inside glass red cups, which gave the chapel's large gathering room an ethereal glow. From high above the chapel doors, its single stained glass window poured soft light in every color imaginable upon the center of the floor.

And that was where he found Peppita. She had taken off her silver bangles with their many ropes and jingling bells, and her boots. Only the single tiny bell dangling from the necklace she was never without chimed ominously as she twirled slowly about under the multicolored flow of light. Her head was tilted back, her dark and doe-like eyes closed as she danced, never once straying beyond the colorful circle. On her face was an expression of such serenity, that Albel was nearly stricken by it.

Behind him, Fayt gently pushed at the small of Albel's back, wordlessly urging him forth. Glaring back at the blue-haired warrior, he shook his head. But the other would not take 'no' for an answer. Smirk widening, Fayt lightly shoved him through the partially open doorway and followed after him.

They remained near the door, neither wishing to interrupt the obvious joy their youngest teammate found in her solemn dance. She moved in a slower reenactment of one of her hyper battle dances. With every twirl, she had somewhere specific to place her feet; with every arch of her back, there was reason for one or both her hands to reach up toward the unseen sky. Unbridled bliss streamed from her closed eyes, catching the colored light if they were flung from her face as she spun.

Albel was so taken aback by the sight before him, he did not hesitate to acknowledge again the unbidden thought that she resembled an angel. A dark angel, he corrected himself, identifying with the mournful undertones of her dance which might easily have been mistaken for some ritualistic prayer.

"Dance with me," she whispered gleefully, though it did not appear that her eyes had opened long enough to spy their intrusion.

He glanced over his shoulder to determine who she meant, but their oh-so-loyal leader had apparently disappeared again. Unknowing as to what lured his feet forth, Albel silently approached the circle of multicolored light. She paused mid-twirl, blinking her eyes open and stretching her hand out in invitation. On her face was inscribed such sincerity, he never once thought she might be baiting him.

This was a piece of herself, hidden far beneath the playfulness, and she was offering to share it with only one other.

Him.

He untied his sword's belt from around his hips and set it aside on the nearest pew, then let his good hand slowly catch her reaching fingers. Her hand lightly clasped around his, and she gently pulled him into her circle. She fearlessly brought the claws of his gauntlet to the small of her back, looking up at him with open trust as she repositioned his good hand around hers and then rested her other hand almost weightlessly atop his gauntleted arm.

At first, she merely led him in a very slow and simple spinning circle, her eyes never leaving his as his feet instinctively found where next to fall. This lasted for several minutes, as the light pouring down upon them shifted slowly upward and carefully darkened from its bright rainbow enigma into a multifaceted shade of varying blues, evidence of the setting sun. Peppita effortlessly helped them both to follow under the light as she patiently waited for the hesitancy to dissolve from his steps. Then she altered their dance, bringing a just a bit of speed and life to their spinning, confident that he could follow now without falter.

And Albel stared at her all the while, never even noticing the ease that seemed to flow with the movements she now was wordlessly demanding of him. From the sudden quirk of her smile, he knew without asking when to bring his clawed gauntlet from the small of her back and raise their clasped hands so that she could twirl beneath his arm, and he kept his feet moving in the almost familiar pattern taught him to keep their dance in rhythm. Her silvery blue eyes were radiating her joy as she brought herself again within the circle of his arms, new tears streaming unabashedly down her cheeks as she praised him with her smile.

Whatever song that only she could hear seemed soon to draw to its end, for after the light from the stained glass window began to fade as it climbed the far wall, she let him spin her beneath his arm once more before concluding the twirl with a low curtsy that had her sinking to the floor. With his good hand still clasped in her own, this last movement gently tugged his arm so that he followed it in a subtle bow.

After another moment, she straightened to her feet and released his hand. Silently and without looking at him, she gathered her things and returned them to her person with practiced ease. Only after she had checked that every rope and bell was in place did she turn again to him and offer a tenuous little smile. So swiftly that her bells could barely sing with the movement, she swept over to his side and stretched onto her toes to press a chaste kiss to his cheek. Before she whirled about and fled from the chapel, she whispered near his ear, her voice catching with some lingering emotion.

"Thank you…"