Penelo doesn't cry. It's like her tear ducts have forgotten how. She thinks it's better that way, better for others, better for herself.
She used to employ a host of tricks to stop tears from flowing down her face. Jamming her tongue against the roof of her mouth until it locked every muscle in her throat. Mentally naming the exact color of every object she could see within her field of view. Biting down on a little flap of skin inside her right cheek. Taking quick small sips of water from a glass while turning her back on everyone else. Opening her eyes as wide as she could while smiling until her mouth hurt. Forcing herself to laugh. Forcing others to laugh too.
Eventually, she learned which tricks worked and forgot the ones that didn’t. Then one day, walking through the bustle of Lowtown, she no longer needed any of these tricks. She didn't realized it on that day because when tears never threatened to flow, she didn't have to run through her repertoire of tear-stopping tricks. A few months passed without her needing to conjure up a single trick. It wasn’t until the day she attended a cheap funeral she had hoped would be the last death from the war, that Penelo realized she had grown out of crying. It was a good thing, she thought, because her lack of tears marked am important transition. She had become an adult. That day was shortly after her fifteenth birthday.
Since then, exactly two years have passed.
After spending a day trudging through icy mountain passes, returning from a hunt with Fran and Balthier, Penelo met up with Vaan, Ashe, and Basch where they sat the temple steps at Mt. Bur-Omisace. They were eating dinner and they offered her food. That was when Penelo remembered what day it was. She had almost forgotten. In her mind, she scolded herself. The day was nearly over, and only after sunset had she remembered the day's significance. She chewed her meat slowly, no longer enjoying its savory spicing.
Vaan was talking to the princess, addressing her by her given name. Given the perturbed look on Ashe’s face, it was clear Vaan had insulted her by failing to address her as royalty. Penelo could have corrected him, but she didn’t. Not today. Anyhow, maybe it was best for those of royal birth to remember now and again that they tread the same soil as everyone else. Not that Penelo would ever say aloud what she was thinking, at least, not directly.
Watching Vaan, Penelo was certain he had forgotten what day it was. Maybe he had remembered, but he always acted as if nothing mattered beyond the immediate moment. Perhaps that was just how Vaan coped. Still, it was a day he should remember.
Basch probably didn't know. After all, it wasn't as if she had told him and Vaan surely had not. Basch was sitting beside Penelo, munching on a steamed bun filled with spiced meat. Two drops of sauce clung to his beard. Rather than point that out to him, Penelo let him chew with gusto as he reached for the steamer basket to take another bun.
She didn’t want to tell Basch what anniversary was marked by this day. After all, if Basch knew, he would immediately apologize and then he would fall into solemn silence. After that, he would refuse to eat the last of the steamed buns, claiming he was no longer hungry. Penelo couldn’t allow that. Basch was still too thin. Whenever he took off his shirt, Penelo could easily count his ribs and that wasn't good. He needed to eat more so he could become the man he once was.
Anyhow, what happened two years ago was not a result of Basch's actions. If anyone, Penelo felt most of the blame should fall on herself. She encouraged Reks to follow the same path as her own blood brothers, she helped raise money to sponsor Reks as a knight, and she trusted the hospital to make him better after he was stabbed, after that ridiculous trial.
Basch sucked spicy sauce from his finger and nudged Penelo with his elbow. "Last one left. All yours." He grabbed the steamer basket and held it in front of her.
"No... you can have it."
"We'll split it," he insisted, breaking the bun in half.
Sipping water from her canteen, Penelo ignored his offer.
"Come on. Eat up. You just got back from a hunt. You should be hungry."
She shook her head.
"Are you feeling ill?" Basch took a long concerned look at her face. He popped half of the bun in his mouth, freeing one of his hands as he chewed, and used the back of his hand to check the temperature of her forehead and cheeks.
"This wouldn't be an announcement of your upcoming career change to first-level chemist and white mage?” she replied. “And if it is, I really must learn how to use a two-handed sword first thing tomorrow morning."
Just as Penelo expected, Basch froze for a moment, taking her words seriously before acknowledging the joke. He laughed deep within in belly while shaking his head. Penelo loved that she was always able to make him laugh (and that no one else ever could).
Basch dropped his arm across her shoulders, pulling her sideways into a jovial hug. Whenever he did this, his strength always made it difficult for her to escape, especially when he flexed his muscles and squeezed. That always made her squeal, and Basch chuckled.
"Eat up," he said, passing the remaining half of a meat-filled bun to her.
Leaning against his side, she ate the bun slowly, savoring Basch's warmth as much as the taste of the meat.
"I would have you know that I had to learn the basics of chemistry when I was squire," he said.
"I'm sure you did."
"I wasn't bad at it."
"Of course you weren't."
"You aren't teasing me, are you?" Basch winked at her.
A laugh rumbled and shook through his sides.
She sucked her fingers clean.
"We should clean up," he said, moving his hand to her back, patting her once before pushing her up.
“Yes, we should."
But rather than gather the empty steamer basket and the other items that remained from their dinner, Penelo wrapped her arms around Basch and squeezed him as tightly as she could. She held on for what seemed longer than the time that had actually passed. She kissed him on the cheek just before she let him go.
She caught a glimpse of Basch softly grinning like a satisfied man before she turned her back to him and reached for her canteen.
A few long seconds passed in silence as she stood by the fire, sipping slowly, sipping until no more water was left, finally shaking out the last few drops her canteen held into her mouth. It was hardly enough to swallow and made her tongue taste metallic.
Still sitting behind her, Basch said, "Had I known what reward I would earn by sharing my supper with a young lady, I would have done so sooner."
“Oh, Basch, you are such a push over."
"I am not," he said. He stood and reached for her canteen. "So, what reward awaits me if I fill this for a young lady."
"Judging from the length of the walk from here all the way down to the well, I'd say it probably gets you out of cleaning up the steamer baskets, the pots, and packing up our supplies.”
"Leaving my burden with someone else is no reward." Basch held out his hand. "Come on, walk with me."
Before she could argue otherwise, Basch had his hand on her shoulder. He steered her forward, down the stairs, toward the path that wound through the camps and led to the public well.
"On the way back," he said, "there's a shrine to the fallen soldiers you might want to see. A group of acolytes built it. They've left a book by the shrine. If you write the name of a fallen soldier in the book, they'll carve that person's name onto the shrine. I can wait there with you for long as you need."