Fran watched Balthier sleep.
Penelo noticed this more than perhaps even Fran herself realized. Maybe out of habit, maybe even out of loyalty, she’d watch from a distance with those all-knowing eyes. There was something melancholy about what Fran did–and for the longest time Penelo couldn’t figure out why. After listening to their conversations and straining to understand what was actually meant (they’d practically talk in code and more times than not Penelo was left wondering) and after a while of watching how they interacted, how they moved with each other and thought with each other, she even began to idolize such a partnership.
Penelo wished that one day she and Vaan could be like that.
She looked back at Vaan, a moment away from her, near their camp. The fire was small and he was trying to garner what little warmth he could from it.
Sometimes she felt she was years older than him and that always made her smile. She liked that about Vaan; he was too much of a child to ever be considered an adult, but what he had been through and continued to fight for made him more than just another kid. So, she figured, he was still stuck somewhere in-between. That made Vaan different from anyone else she had known.
And that alone made him more special to her.
Vaan settled near the campfire, his gaze growing soft, his mind clearly somewhere else. She thought that perhaps he was thinking of his brother and what could have been. She realized then why Fran sometimes watched Balthier the way she did and Penelo couldn’t help but feel troubled about what would come of it.
One day Fran would be watching him die.
Whether out of some stupid, reckless action or more quietly from old age (Penelo couldn’t help but think the former was more fitting of him), Fran would most likely be outlasting Balthier. Penelo often caught herself wondering what Fran was thinking, what she was mauling over inside that strange, exotic head of hers, but tonight she found herself wishing Fran would be thinking of other, more pleasant things. Sometimes thoughts were too obvious, sometimes intuition and perception had little to do with figuring people out. And at times when Fran wasn’t guarding herself, when at that rare instant she wasn’t paying attention to what was going on around her, her thoughts would ebb from her. And from those times Penelo knew Fran missed the trees, her home and one day her sky pirate.
Fran moved–she probably knew Penelo was watching her–and she was gracefully and easily enveloped by the trees around their camp. (Penelo would have loved to have that kind of grace with nature.)
She looked back at Vaan and wondered if one day she’d be watching him die, too.
It didn’t matter; she knew she would stay with him regardless, whether out of friendship loyalty or something more, just like their sky pirates.
She might’ve thought that she fancied pretending not to watch him, sitting there by himself and pretending not to watch her in return. The moon was hidden by the clouds tonight and some part of her was troubled by that; she had no problem seeing, however, and what she couldn’t see she heard in its stead.
She heard him breathe in and out, pause, holding his breath because she knew he knew she was listening, then exhaling again unreasonably loud. There was the rattling and clicking of his gun moving (he was on watch this night), then him clearing his throat. She closed her eyes for a moment. She could picture him smiling–in fact, she was certain she could actually hear him smile.
He cleared his throat again.
Yes, he knew she was watching him.
Yes, he probably knew after all these years that she sometimes watched him sleep, too (when he did sleep, that is).
Yes, it was perfectly fine with him.
He once teasingly called her his watchdog, but after a swift glare he graciously changed it to “beautiful, forgiving sidekick”. She would have preferred “beautiful, forgiving partner”, but she wasn’t picky. She heard him shift again. Maybe he was uneasy that she could see him perfectly fine, but his eyes couldn’t find a trace of her, her lithe figure hidden behind shadow and branches and simple, unavoidable human inability. He certainly didn’t have her eyesight, after all.
He looked directly at her, although he probably didn’t know it. She hadn’t made a sound to betray her position, but perhaps he could just feel her there with him. His eyes narrowed and he cursed softly. He didn’t like the dark, she knew. He’d sometimes mention it, opaquely, at a time where it didn’t fit into the conversation. It was always something of an afterthought and he was fine with it not making sense to anyone but her at that particular time.
(He liked that when he often mentioned things no one but them understood what he actually meant. Something like talking in code, she imagined.)
“Are you going to sit there all night and watch me?” His voice was sudden, audible enough to echo briefly throughout the forest behind him, and it probably woke up one of their traveling companions.
She could hear Penelo stir, the girl most likely staring into the darkness in wonderment.
“Well...?” It nearly sounded like humming.
She smiled slightly, unseen by him but oddly enough known by him all the same. There was a quiet rustle of leaves parting obediently for the wind, then the cool feeling of it brushing her hair across her forehead. She moved so fluently that he started when she just seemingly appeared out of nowhere beside him.
She watched him for a moment more–he was rubbing his eyes now–and sat down wordlessly.
If they were anyone else they might have tried to make unneeded conversation to break what would have otherwise been uneasy silence between them. But they weren’t anyone else and the silence was their secret language (at least, she liked to think it was). Part of her back was matched perfectly with his and he leaned his head toward hers, but it never touched. Still, it made her feel warmer in the cool air of the night.
She noticed he was shivering slightly.
(He liked to pretend that he didn’t feel the cold.)
And she would have suggested that he relight the campfire that had went out sometime during the night, but he would only laugh at her for suggesting that he move from his spot and do something that would otherwise admit he felt the cold. It was unnecessary, anyhow, because Penelo was up and about, looking for something to restart the fire. She didn’t like the dark, either.
In a matter of moments the campfire was relit and the girl’s face was aglow with orange and yellow. She looked pleased with herself, then outstretched her hands towards her new source of warmth.
“You’re cold,” she said to him.
His arm shifted for a moment, moving away from hers, then back against it a second later. “I’m not sitting over there, if that’s what you mean.” He motioned with his head, nodding over towards Penelo and their sleeping friends. He sounded mildly amused. He clearly liked the spot he had chosen, cold or not, and wasn’t going to move, no matter how much lovely warmth bleed from Penelo’s fire.
He wasn’t like them and if sitting away from them could keep it that way, he’d do it.
But she wasn’t like them either and she could appreciate it more than him.
Them against the world, always.
The moon finally broke through the clouds and both looked up in unison, their faces bathed in silver light. But the clouds regrouped and it was dark once again, aside from the now duller manmade fire. They were far enough away so that the firelight was pale against their skin, but close enough so that they were slightly warmer.
“It will be a long night.”
Wasn’t every night nowadays that way?
“You can sit with them, if you like,” he said.
She didn’t have to respond; her silence was the perfect answer.
He smiled wryly and his head rested against hers. “I wouldn’t have it any other way, Fran.”
She liked to think that she was tough, that nothing bothered her (not even the cold night air). She liked to think that she adapted with ease, changed to match any difficult situation, and came out the better for it. She liked to think she had a heart of stone.
She liked to think that sometimes, when no one’s looking, she wasn’t that small, frightened child she might have been years ago. But she doesn’t remember those years ago, not anymore (it’s just a guess now, at what she used to be); a blurry mess of pain, heartache and bittersweet reminders of a love that could have been more.
She wanted to be like Vaan, strong, a little childish, not afraid of what she must do. She wanted to be free like Balthier and Fran, to run away or stay whenever she so pleased; she wanted to be sure like Penelo, a brave and a loyal friend.
Maybe it contradicted itself. And maybe she could never be like them.
She slipped away this night, far from the now relit campfire, the gentle chatter from Balthier and Fran, and the distant forms of Penelo and Vaan. She slipped away and part of her just wanted to keep on going, through the forest, through the brush, perhaps through and onto forever. (A sky pirate was looking like a pretty tempting offer right about now). She wanted to keep going, but a steady hand held her back. It fell to her shoulder and clasped it firmly.
“Running away, Princess?” It was spoken without mirth, which she was partially hoping would be there, if only to remind her that he was just joking, that he didn’t actually think she’d abandon everything for a fleeting moment of freedom. That wasn’t her.
“No. Never.” Her fingers were woven together in front of her, short hair (wasn’t it once longer?) parting and moving away from her face in the wind.
She imagined he nodded then and even liked to think that he smiled, reassured in her words. But his hand still remained on her shoulder, as if he had lingering doubts.
(So did she.)
“Would you run away with me, Basch?” Her voice sounded so small now.
“I said I would protect you.” That he said with certainty, one that made her feel guilty for ever having doubted herself. No, he would never do that again–he would never run away with her, if only because he wouldn’t let her run away to begin with. It wasn’t what she wanted now, even in her moment of weakness. She would stay and fight. That’s who she was.
He was certain of that, even if he would never be certain with himself again.
No, she was strong, even in her weakness. She was strong because of her friends. She was strong because of friends like Basch. That could be enough, even if she doubted herself from time to time. And perhaps she was more like Basch than she knew. She’s broken and looking for a way to set things right. It wasn’t bad being like him, after all. She noticed how he watched over her, how he protected her silently. She wanted people to protect, too. Maybe he wasn’t as lost as he thought he was.
Maybe she wasn’t, either.