ENTITLED: Built to Collapse
FANDOM: Final Fantasy XII
LENGTH: 2,000
SETTING: Later part of the game, to a few years after
DISCLAIMER: Lame teenage girl is officially playing in Square Enix's sandbox.
NOTES: For Cait. Also, my life continues to leak into my fanfic. Wow. I should really take up gardening. Or just, you know. Date people who aren't evil.
SUMMARY: I'd hoped you'd be the one to come for me. — PeneloBalthier

The first time he saw Penelo kill someone—

The first time he saw Penelo kill someone is...frightening. Savage. A bandit hiding in the cliff's shadows along the Phon coast had twisted from the darkness and come at Fran from behind—she was forever wandering from the group like that, bound to no hume or whatever laws they might force upon the land about them—and he'd imagined the greasy sheen of a dagger plunge into her back before the man had even drawn arms. He'd opened his mouth to shout, hands flying to his belt for his rifle.

Fran began to turn, fingers hooking, but then—

She was so graceful that even as she moved like quicksilver, the movement seemed to trail behind her on the air. She'd dropped her short sword and shield, but regardless Penelo wound herself onto the highwayman's back. Her gentle, killing hands slid around his neck, catching the side of his jaw and Balthier barely had time to register the hard, unfocused droop of her eyes before she twisted, and then the man dropped to the ground.

Penelo didn't move until Fran touched her on the shoulder. And when she did, her head came up and her eyes met his own and he caught the end of a hastily repressed plea. She stood, and turned away.

But the look stayed with him.

She showed him the slow, sensual dances she did at the market place for change when the party had been forced to spend another day waiting in the inn for the weather to pass. He took in all of it, everything from the sensuous, crawling muscles in her stomach to her taut, winding legs to the expressive flip of her perfect little hands.

And even then he could not decide if she was woman or girl.

"Did you like it?" she asked upon finishing, and he put up the admiring smile which was sincere, if forced.

"I could try a million years and never be half your worth, sweet one."

She had a pretty blush, and an even prettier smile, and he left quickly afterwards.

If anyone noticed it was Fran, and she cared little and said even less.

Penelo hung around his favorite haunts, trying to look as though she weren't, and his heart ached for her youth even as he found himself beginning to do the same. And then he remembered, as he always remembered, that it was only his spirit that was ancient.

"Penelo," he confronted her, at last, but declined to say more. She looked at him steadily, guarding her trepidation.

"Am I bothering you?" she asked. He could see her bit the inside of her cheek.

"No, of course not," he hastened to say, "Only..."

"Only you think I'm a little girl," she said, with forced lightness.

"I think you are a remarkable young woman," he said carefully. She looked at him with expressionless, waiting eyes, and drew closer to him.

"You have always protected me," she said evenly, "You have always watched me. I might be young, but I'm not stupid. Do you?"

It seemed ludicrous, that she should be so relentless and bold. He checked the nervous fidget of her hands, quickly pressed against her thighs.

"I can't give you anything, Penelo," he said abruptly, "Not what you want, nor what you deserve. I am not the man you think I am. I am not so much as half."

"Balthier," she whispered, and touched the hard line his mouth made. He drew his cheeks in slightly as she did so, hollowing him out, making the shadows of his face yet darker. Her own eyes tilted down, slow, and sad.

"Are you sure I know so little of you?" she whispered. He could not bring himself to reply, to move, to even breath, until at last her hand fell away, and she left him.

At the very end she had crouched by his side and pushed her healing hands against his wounds while she whispered, "Would you tell me what love is?"

He hadn't spoken then, only groaned and pushed back into the cold green relief of her magick. And it was only days later that he'd had an answer for her, alone as they were on the deck of the Strahl, with nothing to witness but her shy, questioning eyes.

"Do you still want to know?"

So returned the pretty blush, "Yes."

Slowly he stepped forward, and took her gently by both wrists, raising her hands up to cover her eyelids, and he leaned forward to say, "You can only be sure you love someone when you find yourself staring at the blackness of your palms and inner eyes, hating yourself absolutely for being so inadequate, and hating them for making you feel such. Adoring them even as you fear them, and this fear builds and builds within your chest until you would sooner die than carry it even a second longer, and this is what they called love."

He pulled her hands down, to reveal her waiting, breathless, her face turned up and her eyes wide as a girl's eyes could go.

"You are right to fear me, Penelo," he hissed, reaching up to pull a long lock of blonde hair betwixt his thumb and the second knuckle of his index finger. She held herself as still as she could, a dancer's stillness, one without quivering. She didn't breath or blink or tremble, and when she replied, it was as a ghost on still lips.

"And you?" she asked, her voice high and girlish, with all the delicate inquisitiveness as a little bird, "Do you fear me?"

He did not take up her hair again, once he had run the length of it. "I?"

"Do you fear me?" she repeated, voice a little lower, a little softer. The moon paled her further still, highlighting the high white planes of her face and neck, the cold platinum of her hair. It pulled the color from her lips and cheeks and even her eyes, which had always been a pale blue-gray to start with.

"I am a coward," Balthier whispered, expression indecipherable, "A coward and a kin-slayer and a traitor and a thief. I am the worst of them, Penelo, hidden behind a manner of distractions, and you would be wise to remember that. Go back to Vaan. Go back to your friends. Go to anyone but me, and give your heart with more discretion. It's a precious thing."

"I never said I gave it," Penelo protested, voice and cheeks hot. She glanced down once, the beginnings of a sulk pushing her lips together, and tightening her shoulders. "You always treat me like I'm a child. If you don't want me, just say so. Don't be so stupidly dramatic about it and make yourself to be the noble one."

She waited a moment for his defense, for him to articulate the things she already knew—that his words had not been offered as a means of self-gratification, but as the attempt at teaching. When he failed to do so, she turned her back on him, as hurt as she was angry, "You let me think that you would always protect me. It isn't nothing, Balthier, no matter how much you might want to pretend otherwise. You were right. You are a coward."

Half a year afterwards Penelo greeted another full moon from the unimpressive view offered by her prison cell.

She didn't have to wait long to hear his rapid, light footsteps coming down the hall, and then he was suddenly before her, separated only by bars. She did her best to appear composed and fairly clean.

"What're you doing here?"

"My job," Baltheir said, leaning down to jimmy the lock with a bit of thin, complicated metal. He rolled his eyes so expressively that even in the prison's gloom, Penelo caught the flash of white, "Which, I have been told, involves protecting you forever."

Penelo bit her tongue, the heat rising to her face. A string of snippy replies ran through her head almost instantly, but she swallowed them, for fear of sounding the brat. She rolled to feet and paced across the cell, watching him work with her nervous hands tucked safely behind her back.

"I've been here only a day," she said mildly.

"I happened to be nearby," Balthier replied, parroting her aloof tone, "Should only be another second."

True to his word, the door was pried open in the next instant, and Penelo minced neatly outwards, posture erect and perfect, her steps swinging with obvious reluctance. Balthier caught her arm and began pulling her along behind him, "What are you dawdling for? Quickly, now. What were you doing in there, anyhow?"

"It wasn't my fault," Penelo muttered sulkily, "I would have gotten out tomorrow when Vaan and the others came back for me. I was the distraction."

Balthier made a slight, impatient noise, "A co-captain is not something he should gamble so easily."

Penelo's face jerked up slightly, "And me? What about me?"

"Infinitely precious," Balthier said smoothly, somehow managing to avoid a single grain of sincerity whilst also dodging sarcasm.

Penelo's lips thinned, then she dug in her heels as they rounded the next corner, "I can take it from here."

She timed his turnabout perfectly, so that her lips met his cheek before he'd even had chance to see her. One hand brushed her waist as she slipped away, and she slung one leg casually over the nearest window ledge. "I'd hoped you'd come for me," she said warmly, and then clambered outwards into the warm and waiting night.

It was hot and foul in the City of Pirates.

Penelo hung over the rail, grimacing at the cluster of ships, in sea and sky alike, choking the ports. There was a storm lurking on the horizon, one threatening enough to scare traders lawful and illegitimate alike to the nearest shelter.

"I hate this."

"We should just go," Vaan agreed from her side, almost gagging in the heat and the collecting smells of spoiled food, "I can't stand this. I'll risk the storm."

Penelo grimaced once at the slow-rolling sky. They had outrun a storm before, but...

"Come on, Vaan, it's just a day and a night. Maybe it's better on land."

Vaan did not look convinced.

"In a tavern," Penelo continued, as though she were speaking to someone of unimpressive mental facilities, which she occasionally suspected to be more accurate than she would care to believe.

Vaan perked up. "Got any money?"

"A little," Penelo lied, "I'll fetch it for you if you promise to feed yourself before you leap at the cards."

Vaan waved a placating hand, "Aw, Penelo. C'mon."

Ten minutes later, with her captain sufficiently boughten off, Penelo wandered the streets of Balfonheim, head turned down and hands curled around the coins in her pockets. As the peaceful minutes stretched on, she gave them a good jingle.

To the thieves waiting for her at the edge of alley, she dealt a swift punishment.

"That was rather reckless, sweet one."

"I don't need you to protect me anymore," Penelo said boldly, spun about from the two unconscious men at her feet, to look boldly up into Balthier's face. She put her hands on her hips, and marched forward a pace. "Don't you see?"

"I think we both know I would bring you more calamity than protection," he replied, hands loose in his pockets. "And to be sure, you've never needed it."

"No," she agreed steadily, "But maybe you needed to be the protector."

He studied her for a long moment, then smiled a bit. "Must you always cut to the heart of things?"

"So long as you hide from them," she replied, and took his hand. She raised it to her breast, and pressed it against the hard bone, "Will you hide from this one?"

"You've never let me," he allowed, and ran his fingers back through her long, golden hair.