Vaan watched the princess as she disrobed. He had heard enough of Balthier's jibes concerning his less than heroic performance during their last hunt- it had been enough to slip in oil and accidentally set his pants on fire, let alone have to hear all about it again later that same day. Even worse, Balthier's glib tongue managed to make every agonizing detail that much more "humorous," if you could call it that. Why was it that whenever Vaan tried to relate a funny anecdote concerning Balthier that it fell flat, while the sky pirate's tales never failed to ignite a spark of mirth in their intended audience?
It couldn't possibly be that he was that silver-tongued. It had to be something like that old quip of Migelo's: "Everything is easier when you're pretty." This whole journey had basically held to that statute, as far as Vaan was concerned. Sure, things weren't necessarily easy if you were attractive- the princess was definitely going through hardships enough- but they were only harder if you weren't.
Vaan squirmed, trying to get more comfortable without making any noise that might alert Ashe to his presence. Her senses were deadly sharp and if she caught him watching, her reflexes would probably be just as dangerous.
This would probably qualify as one of those downsides to good looks. It wasn't like he spied on her all the time...just every so often on nights when she thought that everyone else was sleeping or otherwise occupied. The rough underside of a fern frond brushed against his arm. The brown, raised circles of spores underneath made it sort of itchy. A broken twig was poking him in the rear. Move again or bear it? Maybe after a while he'd stop noticing it. It was worth a try. At least he could count on the security of not having to watch his back. Their group had dispatched all of the antagonistic creatures in the area and with the tide so high more were unlikely to wander down to the beach.
Gods, the princess was well proportioned. She had left her armor behind at the hunters' camp before tiptoeing off with the towel under her arm providing a clue as to what she might be up to. Shoes, stockings, top, belt, skirt, undergarments. She folded them all up, turning toward Vaan's hiding place as she stashed them up on a rock, safe from the creeping reach of the tide, and tucked her towel over them for safekeeping. It- it wasn't as if Vaan had never seen a naked woman before. It was just... Well, none of them had been so highborn or were able to take him down in a fight.
She turned away, standing up straight and regal in the ocean air. The only sounds that Vaan could hear were his own forcibly hushed breathing and the billowing crush of the white breakers. She walked slowly, gingerly, to the edge of the water, tracing her sword-honed fingers around a string of barnacles on a rock. The sand was strewn with shards of shells and half-exposed stone. Her backside swayed enticingly as she moved as cautious and deliberate as a cat.
An unexpected crunch sent Vaan spinning around in a daze of fear and excuses. Who was there? What would he say? "Gods," he prayed, "Don't let it be Basch...!"
"What do you think she's thinking?" Penelo asked him, crawling through the underbrush to join him.
"Penelo, what are you doing here?!" he hissed. Sure, she had approached so quietly that he hadn't notice until she was practically upon him, but the more people out here participating in this impromptu royal peepshow, the higher their odds of being caught. Who was next, Balthier? ...Then again, Vaan imagined Balthier wouldn't hide in the plants, but would shamelessly strip and go join her.
"I was looking for you!" Penelo huffed in an angry whisper, "Here you are gawking with your mouth open and you have the nerve to scold me?!"
"Y-yeah, well," he wasn't as good at this guilt-tripping thing as she was. Maybe it was a sister thing. "You stuck around to watch."
"Did you think I would just crash through the bushes and drag you back to camp? Vaan, she snuck off alone in the dark! She wants some time to herself. And she's naked! She would be so embarrassed."
"Still," he echoed his initial words, "You're watching too. You want to know what she's thinking."
Vaan was right. Penelo turned away from him to peer through the leaves and down the sand to where the princess was wading out into the surf. Ashe hesitated slightly as the waves slapped at her thighs. Vaan and Penelo had splashed around during the day and found the water not yet warmed to its full summer potential. At night it would only be cooler. Until today, neither of the young Dalmascans had ever swam in the ocean. What did it feel like to stroll through the sea, feeling the caress of the waves on one's bare body?
"I was right, wasn't I?"
"Yeah, you're right." The pale moon shimmered across Ashe's wet body as she dove, slippery as a fish, into the waves. It showed her confidence, Penelo thought, to swim alone in waters she did not know. "I wish I understood her better. Maybe it's because she's been hiding out working with the Resistance, but even though she feels closer to the common people than I'd imagined a princess would, she's still...different."
Now Ashe was nothing a head bobbing above the water and a flash of moving limbs as she swam out further and further toward the silent, floating moon. She moved with the same speed and passion that propelled her on and off the battlefield. Why was she going out so far? She was always chasing after something, and like the gibbous moon or the other side of the ocean, it was usually something that moved ever out of her reach. "You know, I think she's different too. Than you or me, I mean," Vaan answered, trying to give voice to a vague sort of feeling, "But it's not because she's a princess who should be queen. She's different just because she's Ashe."
"Ha ha." For just a moment, Penelo's laughter escaped the heavy limits of sound she had imposed on her speech. She tensed nervously, but Ashe was still swimming, stroke after steady (though gradually slowing) stroke. The music of the ocean created a barrier between the princess and everyone and everything remaining on the shore. It was like the entire ocean was emanating out from her like a royal raiment, insulating her in that other world of shapers of the fates of nations. Maybe that was over-thinking things. Penelo relaxed again. "What I should say is... I think I understand what you mean, but if Ashe hadn't been born a princess, would she still be the same Ashe? Isn't it hard to draw that kind of line?"
"I don't know," Vaan shrugged, "You got me thinking, that's all. I just wanted to see what she was doing. You're the one who got all philosophical about it."
"Well, excuse me for looking a little deeper, you pervert," Penelo tittered, unable to keep her amusement completely out of her voice. "I'm going back to the camp before Ashe stops swimming or Fran starts wondering about me." She backed up out of their prickly cocoon of leaves on her hands and knees, trying to avoid sticking her fingers or palms on any stray thorns or stickers. "I won't say anything about you, but if you get found out, I'm not going to lie for you either."
It was easier going once she was out of the bush and back in the mix of ferns and overgrown seaside grasses where she could proceed on her feet, crouching for cover.
"I figured as much," Vaan waved her away with a smile, "But don't try and act like you're not a perv too."
"And you wonder why you're never had a girlfriend!" With a toss of her braided hair, Penelo slunk off into the foliage, cutting back to camp by a nonstandard route. Vaan listened to the creak and crunch of plant material beneath her boots, but quickly set his eyes back on the tides. Ashe was coming nearer again, her internal landscape as mysterious as ever. She had fought her way out, beating her way through the waves with the force of her own body, but now, satiated and drained, she allowed her form to move with the flow, directing her torso along the foaming crests, riding the waves like an airship gliding on the breeze.
She moved out of the water, pausing to shiver at a sudden chill. Was it the change in temperature that caused it or some cold thought? Vaan had no way to tell. He allowed his gaze to roam instead to the decorations the sea had seen fit to bestow on its visiting sovereign, a touch of wet sand here and a wisp of seaweed there... The princess came nearer, picking up her towel, beginning the process of rubbing herself dry.
Vaan was glad for Penelo's departure. He responded to the reaction of his body by loosening up his pants. He wondered if it were a punishable offense to get a hard-on from watching the princess. The again, that one time Basch had... Ashe didn't know about that though.
The towel slipped through her fingers to the sand, but Ashe did not bend down for it or her clothes. Instead, she focused on the sand that clung to the more intimate nooks and crannies of her body. And the tips of her fingers moved and lingered long, longer than the task required. She closed her eyes, in sync with the tide.
Vaan could not believe his eyes, but his body didn't need any confirmation of reality to be pushed to its limits by this. He took himself in hand without half of Ashe's grace. The moment broke fast, but blissfully. If this was a dream, then it was one she was happy to believe in. He'd always been a dreamer anyway.
Ashe opened her eyes. She appeared neither frustrated or troubled, but, like the sea after a powerful storm, almost preternaturally content. Suddenly Vaan felt out of place and exposed, as if any second Ashe would look past the rocks and through the leaves straight to him. This was Ashe's dream, not his. Vaan was nothing but an intruder. He hurried to make himself presentable. Now that he thought about it, the voice of his own mind scolding him for overstaying his welcome sounded awfully like Penelo.
"If there's one thing you know how to do, Vaan, it's make a clean getaway," he assured himself. There was no way his heart was beating loud enough for anyone else to hear it. There was no way his face was so red that it stood out against the green branches. Ashe had no idea that anyone had followed her. She was entertaining her own thoughts, still caught up to some degree in the rapture of the sea.
Vaan didn't dare stay put a moment longer. She would have to come too close to his position to leave. He crouched into a sprinter's pose, took one deep breath, and ran.