Noah wakes easily, slipping from fretful dreams into fretful thoughts, his mind already kicked up into gear. Beside him Vaan sleeps soundly, clumsily, like he always has – arms and legs strewn wide and then drawn back in sharply, resulting in a snoring tangle of blankets and limbs. Noah smiles at it. Because Vaan is asleep he lets his fingers brush against Vaan's cheek; lets his hand stroke down Vaan's bare arm.
Vaan continues to sleep, the sleep of the truly exhausted. He always sleeps deeply beside Noah, and his trust is like a dare, almost a taunt, flaunting in Noah's face the way he can sleep so soundly without worry.
Noah dresses quickly and slips out of his room, intent on following up last night's message and this morning's work; Vaan will sleep until he can sleep no more, and then he'll lounge around in bed as if he's sleeping, so Noah has at least a few hours. This realization is cut abruptly short when he turns the corner and sees Penelo, being ushered down the hall by two of his trusted servant-agents.
"Noah!" Her face lights up, a friendly greeting, and behind it he reads relief. "Good morning."
"Penelo," he says, and takes her elbow, steering her hastily away from the agents who note his dismissive nod and vanish. He pulls her into an empty meeting-room and says, "Penelo, you cannot be here right now."
She frowns. "But I thought the whole point was for me to be here, wasn't it?"
"Penelo," Noah says, trying to keep the hint of panic from his voice – a spymaster does not panic. "Vaan is here."
The frown deepens. "They told me the guest rooms were empty, so I figured he had… gone home," Penelo says. She looks sad at it, and Noah wonders what he has gotten her involved in, whether he has tangled her childhood loyalties irrevocably with service to an emperor who isn't hers.
"I – oh." He is caught off guard; he had assumed Penelo and Vaan were the types of friends who knew these things about each other. And where had Penelo been all the other nights Vaan had crept into his chambers? "He comes to …my room. On nights it's too late to report, or if he wants to be completely secretive."
"Oh," Penelo says, and her lips quirk upwards, distinctly smug. And then: "Oh," she gasps, "oh. Noah, I am supposed to meet with Lady Antonias this morning, to go shopping, what should I do?"
It's even better than he'd hoped, for her to be picked up so soon. "That's more important," he says. "I will – I will distract Vaan. Just do not – wander. He cannot get wind of this so soon."
Penelo's smile is more of a wince than a smile and Noah feels his heart wobble at it. Maybe it was wrong to ask her to do this, to step into so much danger – but then the smile rights itself, and her eyes glint with that steel Penelo has perfected, the determination of a mage protecting her friends. "Distract him," she says, and it takes a moment for Noah to realize she is teasing.
"Oh, go shopping," he says with a faint smile, and hands her back into the custody of his servant-agents, who will make sure she is properly dressed to gain the most sympathy from Lady Antonias.
He takes the path back to his rooms more slowly. It is imperative now that Vaan be seen, somewhere other than Archadia, and alone, to support Penelo's cover story. They had talked about this plan, in detail, he and Larsa and Penelo by letter, but Noah had not realized how heavily it would weigh on him, the simple act of keeping Vaan in the dark.
("I will take the blame for it," Larsa had said, in that slow pondering way that made him thirty rather than thirteen; "you cannot deny a direct order, can you? And I will make it one.")
(Vaan is a terrible liar, Penelo had written. He'll give it all away. The people at the Sandsea know him, they've known him for years. I'll tell him, when it's over. He can be angry with me… if he dares!)
In all of their careful planning Noah finds he has not compensated for this tendril of guilt slowly snaking its way about his heart. His heart? A foolish place to hold all things Vaan-related, but apparently that is where the boy has lodged himself. He has not written this weakness into his scheme. There is no room for feeling bad in a spycrafter's arts.
As expected, Vaan is awake but lounging in the bed, strewn across all of the pillows as if pretending to sleep will rest him sufficiently well. He cracks an eye to peer at Noah, lopsided and lazy. "No food?"
"You are a never-ending drain on Archadia's resources," Noah tells him fondly, because his eyes are still blinking from sleep and his face is so relaxed and calm. "I'll make sure you're fed before you leave."
"Leave." Vaan somehow manages to flop across the bed more without ever getting up from it. "Don't use such dirty language at this hour of the morning."
It is even worse here, in the closeness of the room, with Vaan's casually flippant language and that lazy trust written out in every limb of his body; he looks like a cat soaking up sun, relaxed and boneless. How had Noah ignored this weakness – he should have expected it, this odd loyalty lodged somewhere in his breastbone, the way his eyes trace up Vaan's long limbs and feel almost traitorous. It's a dangerous word for him. Then again, Vaan is a dangerous concept.
"If I ply you with food will you listen to the next mission?" It's a trick question and Noah feels it twist up in his chest as he says it and damn Vaan for sneaking his way into everything like the thief he is.
He thinks of Penelo's surprise, that Vaan would come here. It has offset him, suddenly, strangely; that Vaan came for comfort, to Noah rather than going back to Dalmasca: back to the place he knows, the land he fought for. He came to Noah, to an old bitter man tangled in a web of his own making, to a traitor and an enemy and an employer. Maybe Noah had realized it yesterday but today it sinks in, with all the words he cannot say fighting for space on his lips.
Vaan flops over and gives him a lopsided smile. "You still don't have any food."
Noah shakes his head. Right now the most important thing is to stick to the original plan. This low burn in his chest will have to wait. He has been so good at deferring his emotions, for years; he cannot have lost the ability so quickly.
So he slips out of the room and orders a breakfast, and when he returns Vaan is dressed and sitting at his desk, feet up on the stack of folders as he looks out the window. "So you have more trouble you need me to get into, huh?"
"An issue has come up," Noah says slowly, "which is particularly suited to your situation."
Vaan rearranges himself to sit crosslegged in the chair. "You need a talented handsome young man to knock some heads together?" He doesn't mention Penelo; it's like he's already resigned himself to working alone. Noah decides not to mention her either.
"I need a Dalmascan patriot," Noah replies, softly.
Vaan raises his eyebrows, but he says nothing. Noah is suddenly nervous: he should have thought of something else, made up a mission, sent Vaan after Balthier and Fran. This is too close; it toes the edges of the vast spaces between them, all of the walls of history and nationality and habit too tightly knit to be easily navigable. But he cannot bring himself to lie to Vaan more. An empty mission would not be just a lie, it would be an insult.
"We suspect someone in the Senate is selling Archadian secrets. We are looking into the Archadian side of things, but it would help to have someone pulling at threads from the buyer's side, not just the seller's."
Vaan's brows lower. "This isn't a pirating mission," he says, slowly. "This is, this is an actual spy mission, you mean."
Noah opens a palm towards Vaan, leaving it there. "You do not need to be a sky pirate – or a spymaster – to listen to the gossip in the Sandsea, and express your desire for more."
"Why there? Wouldn't it be somebody in the palace, buying secrets and giving them to Ashe?"
Noah is impressed at the speed of this train of thought. "It could be, but Queen Ashelia is an Archadian ally, recall. She would be slow to act on information, not only because of our alliance, but appearances must be kept. I suspect the financial interactions are occurring at a much lower and much less official level."
"So what the heck am I supposed to do?"
Noah steps past him to open the top drawer of his desk, brushing by him slightly as he withdraws the small pouch. "Old Archadian gold." He drops it ceremoniously into Vaan's lap. "If there is a network, it would identify you as a buyer. If not, I hear it will buy decent ale."
Vaan laughs. He yanks the top of the bag open, peers in. "That is a lot of gold," he says faintly, and then pulls the drawstring taut again. His eyes waver on it for a little bit.
"Noah," he says finally. "Usually the missions you give me are all related to stuff – things to steal, things to deliver, things to pick up. I've never done…" He swallows, and Noah watches it go down. "I'm not gonna be good at this kind of thing."
Noah waits, and the next thing Vaan says undoes him completely: "You thought Penelo was gonna be here for this, didn't you."
"Why?" It strikes him, makes him uneasy, pushes him off-balance: as if she's going to run in here at the mention of her name, give it all away.
"She's always been better with the people part of this." Vaan tosses the bag of coins in the air, catches it. He isn't meeting Noah's eyes.
Noah says, "Then people will suspect you less." He is not sure what to make of this tack: if it's Vaan honestly doubting himself, or if he's still upset at Penelo's decision, or if this is a layer of complexity he doesn't understand. "If you are not interested, do not accept for our sake. There are plenty of other things—"
"Nah." Vaan stands up, stretches, and Noah blinks as he realizes Vaan has already hid the pouch on his person. "I'll try, anyway. I wouldn't mind getting home, right now." This is delivered in an offhand manner that tells Noah just how true it is.
"Of course." Noah makes no move to clutch at him, makes no gesture to hold him here. Why would he? Vaan has been hurt, by Noah's own false spyplay; he should be with friends and family, now. "Be safe."
"I'll see you in a week or two, then?" Now he looks – vulnerable, as if Noah is casting him aside, and Noah stands up despite himself. He's suddenly close to Vaan, and as he looks down he feels the choking sensation about his heart again and wonders what in the world he could even say.
But Vaan quirks a sideways smile, as if the look on Noah's face has told him everything. "Keep the door unlocked," he says, as if he wouldn't pick the lock anyway – as if Noah doesn't lock it every night and keep a knife beneath the pillow and a sword beneath the bed; old habits die harder than their masters. The smile becomes a grin, and then Vaan tosses the pouch in the air again, catches it, and leaves.
Noah sighs as something pulls from the bottom of his heart and follows Vaan, the same thing he had not identified, had ignored, when they'd hatched this dangerous plan in the first place.