For Basch's safety, Penelo & Basch pretend to be a couple when they are not. Written for Het Challenge in IJ. [PeneloxBasch, Balthier, Larsa]
Penelo sipped the sweet cactus water that she had purchased from a Garif trader. He had also sold her a paper sack of six round buns stuffed with marinated chocobo meat. The paper was warm to the touch as she carried it through the village.
Vaan was busy embarrassing himself without realizing it as he demonstrated his sword technique to some of the senior Garif. Penelo decided to go find Basch and sit with him as she often did when they took a break for lunch. She remembered that he had walked down to the river not far from the village’s entrance.
She was about to walk over the last footbridge when she spied Basch sitting under the shade of a tree just by the shallow river’s edge, perhaps fifty yards downstream. It was one of the few shade trees she had seen in Jahara and it had a short, study trunk with broad branches sporting large, oblong leaves. As she stepped down the riverbank to walk along the water’s edge, the vibrant colors and heady fragrance of wild flowers that grew on the side of the bank enticed her senses.
The flowers bloomed so profusely that she didn’t think twice about picking one bright blue cornflower and then another, plus a few daisies and then a few more, and soon she picked a sizable bouquet while chubby, fuzzy bees buzzed from flower to flower, drunk on their sweet smelling scent.
Carrying the flowers, the sack of hot buns, and the jar of sweet cactus water, she walked along the river’s edge leaving the village behind. Around a shallow bend and stepping up on a rock, she was able to stoop under the tree. It felt at least ten degrees cooler in the shade and Basch was leaning back against the tree’s trunk. He appeared to be asleep.
He really must trust the Garif, she thought, for throughout all of the time that they had traveled together, she had yet to see him appear so relaxed. He had told her that they would be safe while staying in Jahara and that it was a place rarely visited by humes. She enjoyed the village and something about it seemed imbued with the magic of the sand, stone, soil, and seasons.
Basch did not stir as she sat next to him. His breathing had the slow, uninhibited rhythm of someone pleasantly at slumber. She decided not to wake him.
She took out one of the hot buns and bit into it. The bun was slightly sweet, yet the meat was savory with a little spice. It was the best food she had eaten since leaving Rabanastre and traveling for weeks through the rains and then the ruins upon the Ozmone plains. She hungrily ate the bun and then started on a second one.
There was a good view of the village’s entrance from where they sat, yet little activity was happening on this hot afternoon. With the sack of hot buns, the cactus water, and the flowers, it almost felt like a lazy afternoon picnic under this shady tree. She wondered how long it has been since Basch had last enjoyed a day on a pleasurable outing, just relaxing without a care in the world. She suspected his answer would be measured in decades.
One by one she selected flowers from her bouquet and wove them into the light armor that he wore. It wasn’t long before he had blooms of pale daisies and blue cornflowers sticking out between the metal on his spaulder and from the plates riveted to his gauntlets. Small floral arrangements decorated the buckles of his padded leather jerkin and he remained asleep as she wove a small wreath and secured it in his hair. She collected the remaining flowers into a small bouquet and placed them on top of the sack of hot buns, sitting just by the side of his leg.
To her, Basch looked peaceful and completely at ease as he reclined a’slumber against the tree. She couldn’t help but to lean very close and briefly steal a kiss just like a pirate stealing something from right under an unsuspecting person’s nose. He made a small, satisfied noise as his head tilted toward her and his arm slid restlessly from his lap. A moment later, his breathing returned to the slow and easy pattern found during sleep.
She hoped she had brought him a good dream of pleasant memories long before he had tasted the pain of war, memories from when he was young, from some of the times that he had told her of.
Carefully, she reached over him to pick up a small paperbound book that sat in the moss by the side of his thigh. An Anthology of Galtean Court Poetry, Vol. 3. She flopped down onto her stomach with her chin propped up on the back of one hand and the book held upright before her eyes. She was just about to begin reading when she peered over the pages and noticed that two Archadians—a soldier and a judge—were watching them from across the river. From the way they stood, she suspected that they had been standing there for a while. She immediately felt guilty for not taking their situation more seriously.
She lowered her eyes to the pages of the book. She didn’t think they saw her sneak a look at them.
She needed to wake Basch and alert him, but she did not want the soldier and judge to think that she was alarmed, nor did she want to perform actions that raised suspicion. The mere presence as Humes in Jahara was already enough to attract some attention. It would be best for them to leave the riverbank with the same casual air as two traders—even hunters—who had stopped to have a picnic, but first she needed to wake Basch and do so without either of them displaying any concern. She hadn’t read a word of the book but she turned to the next page.
She rolled over onto her back, holding the book aloft above her face. Basch had taught her about the different uniforms and armor that members of the Archadian military wore. This judge was dressed in the armor of a lower judge, but he was still a judge nonetheless. She didn’t know how well lower judges knew the judge magisters, but if this particular judge knew Gabranth well enough to have seen him without his helm, he would recognize Basch’s face. It was a chance she did not want to take.
She turned the page and remained on her back for a moment longer and then sat up so she faced the tree rather than the river. She took a deep breath and trusted that Basch would remain unfazed by the only thing she could think of doing to divert suspicions. She moved the bouquet, the buns, and the jar of cactus water, and then she leaned forward until her face almost touched his as she sneaked her left arm loosely around him, in the space between his lower back and the tree.
“Basch,” she whispered, “don’t move as you wake up. Just listen to what I say.”
He scrunched his nose and eyes as he made the small murmuring sounds of someone only partly conscious.
“Basch,” she quietly sang as she touched his cheek and then dragged her finger to his lips, pressing them shut. “Don’t speak or move or show any sign of alarm.”
He was waking now. His eyes were beginning to focus on her and he looked rather confused.
She whispered, “Look only at me and do not look over my shoulder until I tell you what is going on, and stay as calm as you always do.”
He was awake now, looking her directly in the eye. He mumbled quietly for her to go on.
“Standing on the other side of the river is an Archadian judge—a lower judge—and he is with an Archadian soldier. I think they have been watching us for a while without me noticing them because I was reading your book.”
His eyes narrowed as he nodded his head just enough for her to notice.
“So,” she tightened her hold around his back, making sure he felt it, “I’m going to lean forward and whisper something in your ear. Maybe you can imagine I’m saying something nice while you sneak a look?”
“Okay.” His eyes remained focused on hers and as she had hoped, he had remained unperturbed although now he was clearly alert.
She leaned her body against the side of his chest and tentatively ran the fingers of her right hand through his hair as she put her lips to his left ear. To her surprise, a hint of a giggle bubbled within him.
“Sorry,” she whispered, “this was the only believable thing I could think of doing without causing alarm.”
“So it was.” She could feel him lift his arms and then his chest quivered with a laugh as he tilted his head. “You also took the time to disguise me,” he whispered in her ear as he put his arms around her.
“Oh…” That one word—one sound—escaped her lips with more honesty than she wished to admit. “I also brought you some hot buns and a jar of cactus water.”
“Thank you.” His hands rubbed her back and he leaned the side of his face against hers.
To her surprise, he did not release their embrace. Instead, his breath was warm against her neck. She did not want to do anything to let him know that she found his touch intoxicating and now she was starting to wonder if her plan had really been such a smart idea. She tried to keep herself proper and still in his arms, but his neatly manicured beard tickled her face and his breath tickled her ear, and she couldn’t stop herself from giggling and squirming. He squeezed her tightly as he pressed the side of his face against hers and she thought she heard him sigh as his lips brushed against her ear. Had she just imagined that?
She could feel the skin of her cheeks prickled with heat and she was now quite sure that his lips were softly moving from just below her ear, traveling along the line of her jaw to her neck. No, he hadn’t quite kissed her. In fact, not at all. Instead, his touch was just a featherlight hint of something intimate, yet that hint felt more potent to her than any kisses she had ever received. She had not expected him to play along like this. It was both mortifying and exhilarating.
“And now…” He slid his hands to her shoulders and slowly pushed her back until they could look each other in the eye. She knew that she was blushing and that her breath was shallow, but she was the one who had started this so she needed to keep up the pretense.
For just the briefest of moments the tip of his nose moved forward to touch hers, although perhaps it was just an accident. Then she felt his fingers squeeze her shoulders and he began to quietly speak. “The lower judge and hoplite now stand with their backs turned toward us out of proper respect for our provincial indecency.”
Penelo could do nothing more than bite hard on her lip as she tried to tamp down her woozy sense of arousal. It served her right for suggesting this ruse to someone once known as a daring tactician, and she hoped to the gods in the heavens that he couldn’t read her mind.
“We should gather our things while casting our eyes no further than the shade of this tree and then head up the river bank as if we would rather be somewhere else.”
She was flustered now and that made her nervous. She couldn’t help stealing a glance across the river.
“Hey,” Basch’s voice was soft and warm as he put his hand to her face and turned it back toward his. “At this moment we are nothing more than…” His eyes looked down for a moment and his smile was sheepish and sort of silly. For just an instant he reminded her of a young child having fun in a make-believe game. “…than two lovers in Jahara running away from all in the world that is cruel.”
She couldn’t believe he had just said that.
“Well.” He briefly cleared his throat and did a terrible job of feigning seriousness. “It sounded good to me.”
And with that, she couldn’t stop herself from giggling, which was always infectious, and soon they were both laughing in the sort of way that made others look at them funny because, other than Vaan, no one seemed to understand that all of this seriousness was on the verge of driving everyone crazy. But this time their moment of fun was only between themselves, and it was just a brief moment because they needed to return to the village quickly.
He picked up the bouquet of flowers and playfully tapped them on her nose as he winked and then he grabbed the sack with the hot buns, handed her the jar of cactus water, and stuffed the book in his pocket. Taking her hands in his, he pulled her to her feet and then into a friendly embrace.
“Let’s head back to speak with the elder chief,” he said softly just before kissing her on top of her head.
She nodded as she caught her breath. Penelo noticed that Basch was looking down at his chest and then at his left shoulder. He started to laugh, which shook a few flower petals loose from his hair; some floated past his face. “How much time did you take to disguise me?”
He continued to laugh as he stepped up the bank while holding her hand and helping her keep her balance until she stepped onto the top of the banked slope.
With his arm around her once they were atop the bank, he leaned down toward her ear. “I admire your unconventional field tactics. I don’t think any of your brothers would have handled this situation with your level of grace and creativity.”
Normally she would have cracked a joke with a set up line like that, but this time she wasn’t able to say a word. When she failed to reply with one of her snappy comebacks, he chuckled as he squeezed her with one arm and reached over with the other to give one of her braids a sportive tug. He kept his arm around her until they came to the edge of a well-worn village path that took them around a hillside about out of the sight of the two Archadians.
Balthier was standing ahead of them on the path and he watched them approach as they walked into the center of the village where the Garif were busy going about their daily activities.
# # #
“Run ahead and find the village elders.” Basch watched Penelo run forward without looking back. He knew her face was beet-red. From the start, he had found her to be a very sweet young woman and he knew all that had happened had left her embarrassed. He would make a point of apologizing to her later, although he knew that by then she would just laugh it off.
Balthier walked up to Basch, reached forward, and plucked a daisy sticking out of a buckle on his jerkin. Balthier held the flower up, rotating it between his thumb and first two fingers. “Playing tea party with dolls at the river bank, Captain?”
Of all people, Balthier was the last person from whom Basch wished to hear such words. “I was keeping watch on the village entrance when I fell asleep. Penelo took over the watch—”
“Clearly.” Balthier’s eyebrow raised as his lips drew into a smirk. He plucked a second flower.
“And she was reading a book, since there was little reason to suspect danger, yet she spotted an Archadian hoplite and a lower judge on the opposite side of the river bank. They were watching us, presumably to figure out who we are and why we where are here.”
“Hm. You seem to invite trouble with open arms.” Balthier looked down at the two flowers he held in his hand. “A hoplite and a lower judge all the way out here.” Balthier stared at Basch in silence. Basch knew that he could stay silent much longer than Balthier.
“Sounds like they found the two of you very entertaining.” Balthier cocked his eyebrows as if waiting for a response. When Basch refrained from speaking, the pirate actually had the nerve to tap Basch on the chin with the flowers. Twice.
“Look.” Basch put his hands to his hips. A daisy worked its way loose from his left gauntlet and fell to his feet. “She thinks fast and finds plausible ways out of situations without causing alarm.”
“Too bad I missed watching it myself.” The pirate held the flowers to his lip, insinuatingly. “Although, isn’t she a bit young and innocent to be providing amatory cover for a escaped prisoner?”
“She is hardly younger than you, assuming you have not given a false age.”
Balthier’s eyes narrowed for a moment.
Basch began to pluck the flowers from his gauntlets, vest, and spaulder, and collect them in a single bouquet. This was the first time that the pirate had taken issue with the fact that Penelo had grown noticeably attached to him. Penelo made a point of stating that Basch reminded her of one of her older brothers, and whether her affection was innocent or not, the six of them traveled in such close quarters that none of this was news to anyone.
Basch was thankful that she had come to find him and although he had assumed that she eventually would, it probably wasn’t smart for him to have wandered off alone.
He sighed as he closed his eyes. “I may be in Penelo’s debt for the fact that I am not in standing in chains just beyond the village gate. I would provide Her Highness with poor service if that were to occur.” When Basch opened his eyes, he found that Balthier was squinting at him as if to discern the details that had been left out.
“You never struck me as a cold bastard. Far too sentimental for that.” Balthier handed the two flowers back to Basch. “My advice, if you care to hear it: do not use her.”
Basch frowned. Was that how it appeared?
As he collected the last of the flowers from his right gauntlet, he suspected that his friendship with Penelo had little to do with what was truly bothering Balthier. Basch had long been certain that the pirate was keeping something from him. There was something a little too knowing about look that Balthier first gave him when they found him inside the interrogation cage. There was something a little too casual about the way Balthier accepted his story with little question. And there was something about the way in which Balthier acted as if he thought he knew more than Basch about matters of kingdoms, empires, war, and politics. Every time Basch attempted to foster camaraderie with him, Balthier would find reason to push him away. This wasn’t about Penelo, but damned if Basch could guess what it was about.
“I should now speak with the elder chiefs.” Basch bowed his head slightly toward Balthier before leaving.
As Basch walked toward the tent of the elder Garif chiefs, he did not realize that he still had flowers in his hair.
No one made mention of this fact until he found out, not more than an hour later, that the two Archadians he and Penelo has spotted had accompanied Lord Larsa from Archades to Jahara. No one was in any danger of detainment.
It was Larsa who asked him why he wore a flower wreath in his hair.
# # #
Basch’s ears were attuned to the sounds of the night as he lay curled up on his side near the door of a conical Garif tent. He could smell the wood smoke from the fire behind him and he could hear the soft snoring of the emperor’s youngest son who lay sleeping beside the fire.
It was not yet clear whether Ashe would accept Larsa as a traveling guest or if he would be accompanying them as a hostage. Either way, Larsa had already taken Basch to speak to the lower judge and the hoplite and that occurred after Larsa pulled Basch away from the evening festivities with the Garif. Had Basch known in advance what would occur, he would have suggested seeing them earlier or he would have found a way to avoid the influence of the Garif’s pipe smoke.
The judge said not a single word to Basch and left his face fully covered by his helm as they stood under the night sky. The judge gave the hoplite a sheet of parchment penned in ornate hand and it was the hoplite who read it aloud by lantern light. All in all, this struck Basch as strange. With no more than a few dozen words, Lord Larsa had been temporarily placed under Basch’s protection for two months or upon reaching Mt. Bur-Omisace, which ever came first.
Throughout all of this, Basch made a point of saying little because the effects of the herb that the Garif smoked had left him a little giddy. Rather than ask questions, he did nothing more than agree and then the parchment was given to Basch for his own protection. He examined it under the light of a hand held lantern. It contained a raised seal of the Empire and the signature of a judge magister named Drace. He had no idea who this judge magister was.
The entire legal affair took no more than five minutes and then Larsa led Basch back across the footbridge. “Well, now it is done,” the emperor’s youngest son said. “Let me show you to the dwelling the Garif have provided for us.”
While following Larsa back into the village, Basch wondered who Drace was. Under Raminas he rarely had the occasion to meet Archadian judge magisters and while he knew some of their names, Drace was not one he had heard of. He wondered if Drace was normally assigned to Larsa’s protection and then that led him to wonder which Solidor his own brother directly served.
During the events of Raminas’s death, Basch had assumed that his brother served Vayne. Yet, he came to doubt after noticing how Vayne’s name would make his brother’s face twitch and his eyes shift nervously to the side and down. He knew that look from when Noah was young, and he was sure that his brother hated Vayne and probably feared Vayne, but that he had somehow found himself in his debt rather than offering willing service. Still, it didn’t diminish any of the guilt that Basch felt when thinking about Noah and the circumstances that parted them when they were both seventeen.
Basch watched Lord Larsa walk just ahead of him. Indeed, Basch was once again as free as a bird in a cage. Let them watch. He would carefully mind his words.
Larsa led him to one of the many large conical tents that made up the Garif village. Upon stepping inside, Basch saw that Penelo was already there. She was sitting on a pile of furs by a central hearth fire.
“And the others?” Basch had asked as Penelo looked at him and smiled.
“The Garif provided one other large tent. Everyone else is there. So, it looks like for at least a night or two we have comfortable accommodations.”
Her hair was loose and fell past her shoulders as a silky curtain of flaxen gold. For a moment it struck Basch as indecent for him to see her like this, dressed in her nightclothes with her hair loose. Then he laughed at himself for still feeling the hold of old customs that mattered not to people beyond Landis, back when Landis still stood. It was silly, for he had seen her like this on many other nights, but those nights seemed different. Right now they didn’t have everyone else around them except for Larsa.
Basch settled himself on a soft fur skin that was nearly opposite from Penelo across the hearth fire.
Larsa sat on plush fur next to Penelo and leaned his head against her as if only a young child rather than the son of an emperor, an emerging political operative.
“Penelo tells me that you know good stories. I’m not yet tired so, please, could you tell us one?”
And that was how Basch ended up translating old Landisi ballads aloud for a small but attentive audience until the young lord slowly sank into the furs. The boy was all but asleep in Penelo’s lap, lazily playing with a lock of her hair, his cherubic face smiling sweetly.
It was hard for Basch to believe that such a well-mannered child was brother to Vayne Solidor and although Basch had heard rumors of the boy being sheltered from all aspects of statecraft, it was clear to him that Larsa had decided otherwise. Still, the young lord was only a boy of twelve. He was two years away from becoming a man and Basch was already willing to wager that in two years, Lord Larsa would grow into a force of notable power.
“We should get some sleep,” Basch said as he stood up and walked over to his pack. He found his blankets and moved to a spot closer to the door, leaving Penelo and Larsa on the pile of furs by the fire just a few yards behind him. As he settled himself for sleep, the lantern that sat near Larsa went out.
They were safe in Jahara and there was no need to keep watch. Yet, the quieter it became, Basch found sleep less likely to come, so he listened to the sound of the crackling embers and the hooting of a distant owl.
Without any warning, Penelo slid herself behind him. He hadn’t heard her sneak up as she stepped silently around the fire. She had learned well from him and that made him smile although he wondered why she was here and leaning herself against him.
“What are you doing here?” He half whispered, half giggled, and then he realized that the effects of the Garif pipe smoke had not left his body.
“Making sure you sleep soundly.” Her finger danced along his arm, tickling if they were innocent, but he suspected otherwise.
He took hold of her hand and held it flat against his arm lest she engage in further mischief. “I believe you should be getting a night of sound sleep before our long journey ahead.”
“Okay,” she whispered, but she did not leave him. Instead, she pressed herself against his back and molded her body around his.
“Are you certain about your plan for a night of sound sleep?” The palm of his hand still rested upon the back of hers. He slowly let it slide down, his palm slipping over her knuckles and then over her fingers, and next his own fingers lightly touched hers and until they hovered just an inch away. He waited. She did not take her hand from his arm.
“You don’t sleep well when all is quiet because you fear no one is watching you back during the night, right?” she asked in a whisper.
“Be that so…” He let his voice trail off. Penelo had a habit of uncovering uncomfortable truths even when she asked them as questions. He clasped his hand over hers and gave it one good squeeze before he let his own hand drop to his side. “Sleep.”
Yet, he soon realized that sleep would not quickly come, especially not as her hot breath condensed just behind his ear. And then her lips nibbled softly at the back of his neck, setting his spine alight like a vein of magicite, glowing in deeply hidden rock. He did nothing in response, not even to stop her, although he knew he should. Her fingers slowly caressed his arm.
Had she also smoked some of the Garif’s weed? He couldn’t remember. What he did remember was her asking him to dance. She had asked everyone to dance once the Garif musicians began to play lively tunes under the light of the stars and moon. He had found himself foolish and laughing in a way that brought back memories from when he was only her age, nay, a year younger. And while his behavior was certainly unbecoming for a man his age, he was actually saw the princess’s face soften with a smile as she watched him dance with Penelo. Perhaps there is hope that broken trust can be mended.
He did attempt to apologize for what had happened by the river, but Penelo just laughed and rolled her eyes and gave him a goofy smile as she told him to stop worrying about everything and just have some fun for once. That was how she managed to pull him onto his feet and get him to dance with her, but now he managed to find her beside him, still kissing him at the nape of his neck and still caressing his arm
He needed to bite his lip to hold back giggling once her fingers started tickling him, but then her fingers moved down across his belly, lingering and meandering as if asking another question. Nay, Penelo, perhaps neither of us are as innocent as we might appear.
He had to stop this, yet the thought of feigned innocence only brought his mind back to the guilt he still felt about Noah and that guilt only managed to grow over the years rather than diminish. Basch knew he deserved no grant of innocence from Dalmasca. He was not innocent; his hands were stained with blood. He had to stop this.
Oh! Faram in Heaven! He found himself gasping under the spell of her touch, and then he caught his breath and caught hold of her hand. It had been a long day, he told himself, and they were both tired and entranced by the magicks of Jahara. And while the Garif may wear masks, everyone else who comes here will find that their masks are eventually removed.
He moved her hand up to his shoulder, holding it in place with his own. “Sleep,” he whispered, “else I must send you back by the fire to keep warm.”
He could list a thousand reasons why he shouldn’t encourage this, but when he tried to occupy his mind with a long enumeration of codes and vows and duties that he was tasked to uphold, all he could remember was how Penelo had kissed him under the shade of a tree by the river bank when she thought that he was asleep.
He still didn’t understand why she trusted him. He didn’t deserve it.
Hardly anyone still held any trust in him except, perhaps—and he nearly laughed as he thought of it—a foreign judge magister he had never met, much less even heard of.
He slipped his fingers between Penelo’s and slid her hand along his shoulder until it fell against his neck into a place where he could rest his chin against the back of her hand.
He heard her sigh as she nuzzled her nose in his hair and he couldn’t help smiling. This was only a small pleasure—a fair showing of friendship—and, by the exacting letter of the Code, today he had performed no action of his own that would break his vows.
She stayed curled around his back, pressed tightly against him, her arm around him, and hand tucked under his chin. She sought no more and for that he was thankful.
# # #
For the first time in a very long while, he did not wake until first morning’s light. The dead hours of the night passed with only a blink of the eye and he found that she was still there, sleeping right behind him.
Basch felt the early morning chill in the air as he sat up and Penelo’s breath created little puffs of fog now that she no longer nuzzled in the nape of his neck. Tentatively, and only with the tip of his ring finger touching, he ran his hand over a lock of her hair—soft as finely spun silk strands, soft as blue cornflower petals. Basch made sure that she was fully ensconced within her own blanket and his before he got up.
While he sometimes withheld his words, in the two months they had spent together he had never once spoken a lie to her, and that she found him funny and thought him to be a bit of a joker only made it easier, and it also made it easier for them to both find safety and solace in shared fairy tales. Thus, no promises had been made; no vows had been cast asunder.
He began preparations for their journey east, which now included taking Larsa to meet the Gran Kiltias.