Chapter 1: Sour Times
Vaan is a day late. Noah doesn’t want to admit he’s been counting hours, so he has rounded it up to a day – although the fact that it is a day makes him breathless and more than a little cranky with worry. But he feels justified worrying about an entire day late – professionally justified, because a day is more than enough for so many things to go wrong with his network. Worrying about hours is a personal thing and also is not dignified. A day is a legitimate worry.
His concern has gone far enough that he sends out one of his agents to trawl for information in the local bars, although it’s a useless gesture because as he opens the door to his room he sees Vaan’s sandals kicked into the corner and Vaan, prone across his bed, flat-unconscious as if he’s been running for a week.
This isn’t entirely strange – they have an arrangement, now, or a half-arrangement, that Vaan can use Noah’s room if he can get there unseen, which Vaan sees more as a game and a challenge than the security precaution Noah meant it as. It is another of those things between them, half-spoken and half-declared, like the clumsy kisses they still seem too shy to talk about. Mostly Vaan comes to Noah’s room when he’s in too much of a hurry to do anything except nap or, occasionally, heal up an injury.
But usually Noah knows he’s coming. Well, he thinks, he did know Vaan was coming: he’s a day late. But usually Vaan gets his kicks out of sending an agent, or a servant, to let Noah know in the worst way possible. Vaan’s code phrases could use work. They are not codes. They are usually just dumb. And there was no warning message this time – rhyming or otherwise; Vaan’s poetry is worse than his code – and something flips in Noah’s chest, looking at him.
He looks exhausted. And young, in sleep, so young; Noah forgets sometimes – he can’t forget the age difference, no more than he can forget the weight of his old armor, but he forgets that Vaan is so young. In sleep, he could be nearly Larsa’s age. Then again, Larsa seems so much older than he is; being surrounded by such precocious youth has muddled Noah’s judgment. Then again, in Vaan’s case his judgment is somewhat prejudiced. In Larsa’s, too, to be honest, but for supremely different reasons.
Vaan looks not only exhausted, but unhappy; the corners of his mouth are turned down, the tense muscles looking odd in an otherwise relaxed face. Noah crosses to his desk, silently, and obtains the folder of translation work he’d come for. For a long moment he stands and looks at Vaan, wondering whether he should wake the boy or let him sleep. He has some idea of what urgent things could drive Vaan to his chambers without warning, but he also knows the most recent mission Vaan was completing was an exhausting one, and rest never hurts. But as he watches, Vaan stirs and then sits up slowly, as if Noah’s gaze is tangible. The way things stand between them, it may as well be.
“Oh. Hi.” Vaan blinks sleep and upset from his eyes, and then rubs at them with the heels of his hands. “Sorry. This was the first place I could think of. I should have sent a message.”
“Do not worry,” Noah says, and he sets the folder back down on his desk. “You are always welcome here.” It is truer than he knows, one of those phrases that whispers back against his lips even as he says it, but Vaan just rubs his hair back into some semblance of order and sighs.
“Do you need to rest?” Noah asks, after a long quiet moment, because Vaan is just sitting on the bed and scowling into the air. “Or supplies? Are you injured?”
“Nah.” The word seems to shake Vaan back into himself, and he gives Noah the kind of lopsided grin that makes it suddenly, hotly evident that there’s a bed nearby. “Food, though, food would be good. I kind of ran away before I’d eaten.” The last is delivered sheepishly, but the look on Vaan’s face fades into a surly contemplative sulk again, and Noah feels a wash of concern and guilt.
“I can get a meal. Wait here.”
He trusts that Vaan will do so – and it’s strange, that trust, for a man who slept for years with a knife in his hand and his homeland’s name in his throat; but Vaan is different. It isn’t even – just – that Vaan does not care a Dalmascan ounce for Noah’s spycraft, nor for intelligence as a currency: Noah’s secrets are safe with Vaan for the mere fact that Vaan despises everything to do with numbers, including Noah’s numerical coding language. But there is a deeper trust between the two of them, fragile and fraught and deeper than bone. It builds every time Vaan appears in Noah’s chambers rather than accepting the guest bedroom Larsa keeps prepared; every time Vaan naps while Noah inscribes missives at his desk; every fleeting time Vaan will see Noah’s exhaustion and pat the bed beside him, nights they sleep touching and close, too tired to do more than snore in chords. And what would they do? Noah firmly grinds the thought beneath his heel.
There is a servant, exiting the guest hallway, and Noah stops and asks for food for three. The servants and guards already whisper about his secret lover, and Noah allows them to do so simply because he is a spymaster, and curious to see what their rumors turn up. Food for three will help Vaan’s cover, because it will imply he is having a meeting of spycrafters, rather than having a ...friend spend the night. The night?
By the time he returns Vaan is dozing again, his head tipped back onto Noah’s pillows. He rouses as the door closes, and struggles himself upright. “I thought I ordered food,” he mumbles, and Noah chuckles.
“Archadia is a land of wonders, but even we cannot create a meal out of thin air.” He dares to sit on the edge of the bed, and dares further to think Vaan looks pleased at it. “Do not worry. I still terrify the servants enough that I am sure it will be here before you have a chance to fall asleep again.”
Vaan gives him the lopsided smirk again, and it’s like a shock this much closer to him. “This is probably super rude behavior, here in Archadia, falling asleep in the host’s bed. Am I going to get beheaded?” It’s almost flirtatious, and Noah’s responses all crowd in his throat, eager and inappropriate and before he can eliminate all but the safest, Vaan sighs and a curtain falls over his face as he falls back into bed.
“Oh, and Penelo left me,” he says.
Noah swallows, and it’s a good thing there’s a knock on the door because it gives him time to think of a response that isn’t awful or related to the security repercussions. He sets the tray down on the bed between them, and there are a few much-needed minutes while Vaan refuels. He does it almost mindlessly, although the bread is still hotly fresh and the jam is Noah’s favorite.
It isn’t until the third sandwich that Vaan starts talking, around bites – which is an unsettling combination of charming and rude. “She told me before this last mission that she wasn’t sure about it, and I thought she was just worried about robbing a library – she’s like that – but then we finish up and she sits me down in the cockpit and tells me she isn’t sure she’s a sky pirate.” He pauses to chew vehemently and Noah’s heart does a funny sort of flip watching him, upset and angry and hurting and wearing it all across his face like a banner. Noah’s so used to looking for signs, miniscule and untraceable, that someone like Vaan is a blaring symphony of treasures to his eyes. He wants to be honored that Vaan is so honest around him but he knows that perhaps Vaan is just not a very good liar.
“She said ...she said it was my dream, not hers.” And Noah hears how this hurts, ripping its way out of Vaan’s throat, so many levels of pain. “She said she wanted to try something else and see if she could find herself. Find her dream.”
Noah says nothing, because there is nothing to say. He wants to reach out in comfort, press his hand against Vaan’s back perhaps, but he is so afraid of unbalancing.
“I can’t blame her, I guess. I want her to be happy.” Vaan’s eyes flick up to Noah’s, quick and hot and hurting. “I just... I thought she was. I thought she loved what we did. And it sucks,” he adds with extra venom, “when you think you know somebody and it turns out they were lying to you.”
Now this stings Noah, of course; lying is all he does, some days, and Vaan has never understood the intricacies of spycrafting and intellectual property and he’s sure it isn’t meant as a direct insult but it still creeps under his skin like a needle. He says, “Maybe she wasn’t lying. Maybe she’s just... confused.”
“I know.” All of the steam leaves Vaan with an audible puff as his shoulders slouch. “I can’t be mad at her but I’m just mad in general. It’s gonna suck being a pirate by myself, you know?” And then, quieter, “I’m going to miss her.”
Noah is touched by this honesty, again, a thing Vaan continues to offer him guilelessly, almost unknowingly: Vaan’s true feelings are like a gift, continuously renewed and Noah only wishes he felt more deserving of these gems that roll out of Vaan’s heart and off his tongue. He wishes he felt more deserving of any of this, all of the things Vaan brings forth as if they cost nothing – perhaps to him they do not. Noah’s own heart is divided, each piece and parcel locked so far away, the keys rusted and broken.
And caught up in this thought it is too easy to lean in, as Vaan leans towards him, and there is nothing careful about this kiss. Vaan’s mouth catches his and claims it, and there is something in the raw need of it that scrambles Noah’s brain and his better senses. He opens his mouth, and Vaan’s tongue slips against his, and a hot rush fills Noah as he realizes that this is Vaan’s comfort; Vaan has come to him for comfort, for companionship and maybe more and all the gods, he wants this as much as he fears it. Vaan has come to him because it’s safe, because he wants it, and the thought fills Noah’s head with liquid heat, Vaan’s simple sure faith in the refuge of Noah’s room.
Vaan moves, slightly, his hand coming up to tilt Noah’s head, fingers tracing the back of Noah’s neck and Noah’s eyes close. This is Vaan’s honesty, again, relentless in the face of things Noah might argue, and who can argue with his lips pressing, questing, against Noah’s own, replacing his thoughts with this need: this expression of trust, wanting right now someone that will not surprise him. Someone that will not leave him. Someone who will not lie.
The last makes Noah open his eyes, and pull himself away from Vaan – although slowly, and his hand comes up to cup Vaan’s cheek instinctively. Vaan leans into it and says nothing, his eyes searching Noah’s face. There is hurt there, in Vaan’s eyes, hurt and the confusion of the young, who still ask why life is unfair. Noah lets his thumb smooth Vaan’s face, because he does not want to add to that hurt, and also because he just likes it, the way Vaan’s eyes flicker at it, the way the cheek is so smooth and warm and available, right there, for his touch.
But he cannot take this; he cannot comfort Vaan when it was his idea, and Larsa who asked Penelo to do it, and Penelo who said yes: more going on than Vaan can know, all of them tangled in a spymaster’s web.
Instead he says, “Stay. You’re tired.”
It comes out soft and dark, and Vaan’s mouth quirks into that sideways smile again, the one that makes Noah’s mouth tingle with the pressure of a kiss he doesn’t deserve. “Wasn’t planning on moving,” Vaan says, and it’s shy and sweet and honest again, as it’s punctuated with a yawn. “Although I’m not sure how much longer I’ll stay awake.”
It’s an invitation, and Noah’s heart beats heavily at it even as he feels relief: there is no need to even discuss the walls that still remain between them, let alone start to break them down. He smiles as he stands, gathering the tray of food. “Sleep, then. I will make sure you don’t get crumbs in the sheets.”
Vaan is already crawling beneath the blankets, although the look he gives Noah is contemplative and blazing and tired all at once and Noah cannot help but chuckle at it, the tumultuous mix of feelings that is Vaan, all of them powerful and honest. “Sleep,” Noah says.
“Are you coming to bed?” Vaan asks, almost a mumble, and Noah’s heart flickers painfully at how easy the question comes, how normal it seems, how casual and not-casual it stands in the air of the room.
He sighs. “Yes. As soon as I clean up.”
Vaan rolls over and Noah heads to his desk, penning a short missive to the agents he knows are still working, still waiting for the folder he came to retrieve; this translation will have to wait until tomorrow, and it isn’t urgent. The missive is tucked in a discreet envelope and he leaves it on the tray of food, set on the floor outside his door. He trusts his own servants – they are agents as well – and knows it will get to the right hands. He slips back into the room, locks the door, turns the lamp down.
In the darkness the guilt is stronger, as he slips his shirt off and slides beneath the covers. Vaan must have been truly tired, for he just makes a low rumbling noise, barely awake as he curls his back into Noah’s side. Noah wraps an arm around him and Vaan mumbles again, his face already buried in a pillow; Vaan tucks himself even closer under Noah’s arm, and Noah sighs. He does not know how he will sleep, so close to Vaan, so many things crowding in and pressing them together, but he closes his eyes and decides to make an effort at it anyway.
Chapter 2: Pedestal
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.