Disclaimer: I do not own Square Enix's Final Fantasy XII, nor am I making any money off this fanfiction.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm going to get the chocobos," Penelo snapped over her shoulder, clutching her cloak tighter about her shoulders and trying not to let her teeth chatter too much in the biting cold.
The wind was howling past, tugging at the long braid down her back, whipping it out past her face and into the air before her. She was already knee-deep in steadily rising snow, and she honestly wouldn't be surprised if she had frost-bite. Her feet were so numb, however, that she couldn't tell, couldn't feel a thing past her thighs. If this kept up she'd probably become an ice cube. Not that Vaan would care—he was more concerned about saving his own hide than venturing out into the ill weather to fetch their steeds when it was his idea to take on this mark in the first place.
She wished that she was as young and as limber as she used to be. Eight years ago and she would have been twirling through the snow, spreading her arms out to either side of her and tilting her head back to catch falling flakes on her tongue. The others from back then would have laughed at her playfulness despite the monsters lurking about, ready to attack at any given moment, any suspicious movement. She still remembered the thrill of running from the storm elementals, the hiss of lightning at her back as it melted away the puffs of snow left in her trail.
Penelo supposed that it had been all the adventure at the time. Saving Ivalice and all. She hadn't had time to think about other important things back then, like how she could have caught hypothermia or something. Now as she pushed up the mountain path of the Paramina Rift, she gasped for air, her throat burning and her ears ringing with the pure cold of this place.
I'm only twenty-four, she told herself by way of encouragement. I'm still young yet!
But why was it that the older you became, the more fragile you got in the process? Back then she had been all but invincible (at least in her own mind). Now she was wary of everything, from the poison of a viper's fangs to something as simple as a spider crawling along the ground. Anything could hurt her—anything could bring her down. She didn't just have a mallet to whip out and attack that spider with. It would have put a dent in the floor for sure.
Every day she looked into the mirror, she saw a face that wasn't her own. Or rather, it wasn't the face that she had grown so accustomed to for the majority of her life. Sure, she looked mature for her age, and not a day went by where she wasn't told how beautiful she was. Even Vaan slipped it in when he was in one of his more affectionate stages. She still couldn't forget the time when he had cornered her, proclaiming boldly that she had nothing to worry about, that anyone would be lucky to have her as their own. His eyes had stared so intently into hers that it had left her absolutely captivated, and then he had gone back to babbling about some hunt from a week ago, as if he had never said such a thing. Only the blush on his cheeks had told otherwise.
But Penelo was afraid. Not of Vaan or his not-so-subtle attempts to woo her. Not of the marks that they took on together in a desperate attempt to bring back the old days, that rich sense of joy that one could only get from coming so close to death as to say hello and share his breath and then carry on with their life. No, no, she was afraid of something much more simple, and yet… it was so very complicated at the same time.
She could hardly recall what Larsa looked like anymore.
Penelo stopped, raising a hand to her forehead and staring up at the sky and the sun trying to shine through the gathered clouds. Just eight years ago Larsa had stood beside her, just like this, and shared with her little facts about the world that she had never taken the time to learn. Like how the temperature tended to drop around ten degrees when the clouds were out, how cockatrices were able to sit on their young without suffocating them for days at a time despite their heavy frame. Even little secrets, like the discovery of something called coffee, beans that the Archadians had found. Apparently it had a particular ingredient in it to wake the soul right up.
She bit into her bottom lip, chewing, before letting her arms drop to her sides, but she didn't let her gaze falter. Of course she had no romantic memories with Larsa—the boy had been only twelve at the time, and besides that, they hadn't had the time to think about such things. They had instead formed a deep and sacred friendship that supposedly not even the hands of time could wear at.
What a lie.
Larsa was the Emperor of Archadia, and he had a busy agenda. Apparently so busy that he hadn't taken the time to speak to her in eight years. Well, that wasn't entirely true. He had written letters at first, and she had responded… and then, one day, they had just stopped coming altogether. Maybe Larsa had seen that their friendship was withering and had decided to snip the frail line in half, ending everything before they could grow even more miserable in the other's absence. Maybe she would never know.
A snowflake landed on the tip of her nose, and she blinked, brushing it off, coming out of her thoughts. She shook her head to clear the rest of them, thinking that maybe it wasn't such a good idea to dwell on the past. The man was an emperor. He had to run an entire country. He didn't have time to speak to Penelo about trivial things anymore. Still, though… she hoped that he was sitting in that comfortable palace of his, dwelling on her as much as she was on him.
"What are you doing?" came Vaan's voice, and his hand curled around her elbow, tugging her in close against him.
"I told you, I'm getting the chocobos," she replied, placing a hand against his side to put some space between them. She appreciated his attempt to shield her against the elements, but she'd be fine.
"Oh, really?" he drawled, raising a brow and ruffling his hand over her hair, making her hiss in irritation and swipe at him. "Because to me it looks like you're standing in the middle of the snow, staring dumb-struck at the sky."
"Not dumb-struck," she countered, sticking her tongue out. Eight years hadn't exactly killed her playful, slightly immature side. "Just remembering."
"About what?" Vaan laughed, the sound a lot deeper than it had once been, warming her straight to the core, although she didn't want to think about why. "I was kind of remembering, too, back when there used to be more than two of us on these stupid hunts." He raised his arms, folding them behind his head, also peering up at the cloudy sky. "Sometimes I miss those days."
I miss them all the time, Penelo thought, unwilling to voice this aloud, especially not with Vaan's next words.
"But it's not good to dwell so much on the past," he said, confirming her earlier fears. "You might get so lost that you forget how to live in the today."
"Yeah, but… what if we can't remember something that's so important to us?" she replied, gripping at his arm in a sudden burst of need, staring wide-eyed up into his startled face.
"W-Well, I don't know, Penelo," he said, taking a step back and almost tripping because of the heaps of snow that they were standing in. "If something is that important to us, then surely we wouldn't forget it?"
She swallowed hard, releasing him and whirling away, her shoulders drooping as she lowered her gaze to the pearly white snow. It sparkled in places where the sun's rays managed to touch, giving the illusion that it was somehow alive.
"Let's go to Archadia," she said, not sure if she really wanted to, in fact knowing that she didn't. What if Larsa was so different and older by now that he was entirely unrecognizable? What if he didn't like her? She had stayed the same for the most part… He might not find her so interesting anymore. He'd see her as dull, boring even. The empire had probably taken that sweet smile of his and warped it into something with hidden intentions.
Her heart was suddenly pounding, making it difficult for her to draw a breath, and she rubbed at her forehead, squeezing her eyes shut. She felt Vaan's hand touch her shoulder, heard her name as a worried question on his lips.
"Never mind," she said. "I don't want to go to Archadia. I want to get back to Rabanastre."
"Are you sure? I thought you wanted to explore some more before we got that reward from Millie."
"I'm positive, Vaan," she replied, shaking him off and starting forward again, intending to get the chocobos so that they could ride the hell out of here. She didn't like feeling like this—this terrified, this uncertain of herself when she had been so sure a mere half hour ago. Larsa was making her doubt; Larsa was making her lose faith in their everlasting bond of friendship. Larsa was leaving her alone to deal with the absence of him while he continued on with his merry life in Archadia. It was Larsa's fault that she felt this way, all of it.
"Hey, Penelo, slow down!" Vaan complained.
No, she couldn't slow, couldn't stop. If she did, she'd once more be plagued by the memories of that little boy that had seemed so earnest in capturing her attention. Only now they were growing steadily tainted. She didn't want to let her despair make her hate him. She wanted to cherish him still, even if it cut her to the core to do so.
"Damn, Penelo, what's the matter?!"
"Nothing!" she cried over her shoulder. "Hurry up, slow poke!"
"I'm an old man now, I can't!" he shot back.
Please, you're only twenty-five, she thought wryly, not bothering to hide a roll of her eyes.
And as Vaan finally fell into pace beside her, trekking with her through the mounting snow to the cave where their chocobos were tethered, waiting, Penelo unknowingly forgot a little more of what Larsa's face had looked like back then. But deep in Archadia, amidst mounds of paperwork, Larsa still remembered every detail of Penelo's face as if he had just gazed at it yesterday.