Disclaimer: We do not own Square Enix's Final Fantasy XII, nor are we making any money off this fanfiction.
Trust and Temptation
Vaan looked like he was about to piss himself.
"You're a princess?"
Penelo didn't have time to talk about it. She threw her bags on her bed and began filling them up, though she had a feeling she wouldn't be allowed to wear most of her clothes once in Archades. Vaan hovered like a ruffled cockatrice, pulling at his hair, squawking over his words. As far as Penelo was concerned, he wasn't worth listening to until he said something substantial.
"I just… I mean—a princess! Ashe adopted you? Has she lost her mind? And you have to go to Archades now?"
"Yes, Vaan," Penelo said tiredly. She loved her friend, she loved him dearly, but there were times when she just wanted him to shut it.
"This is too much… Oh, man…" Vaan moaned, sinking against the nearest bedpost.
"Look at the bright side." Penelo buckled up one bag and started on another. "Now you don't have to buy me a palace, after all."
"That's not funny." Vaan stepped into her path, putting his hands on her shoulders and looking deeply into her eyes. "Pen—Penny—if you don't want to go, you don't have—"
"I do, Vaan." Hating that she had to shake him off, Penelo wrenched free and continued collecting items from her wardrobe. "They made it kinda clear that if I don't show up on the airship in an hour, it's treason."
"It's not like we've never committed crimes before… I mean… we've broken laws—"
"Not like this." Penelo took a deep breath. "Like it or not, I'm a princess now." She buckled up the last bag and threw both of them over her shoulder. "I'm not saying it makes any rhyme or reason, and I'm not saying it's something I want for myself—but the fact of the matter is, I am. So—I need you to move."
Vaan frowned at her from his new position in the doorway. "Let me talk to them, Pen. I can get you out of this."
"For the gods' sakes, Vaan, move!" Penelo bellowed.
Eyes rounding with hurt, Vaan complied. For once.
Though she instantly regretted her words, Penelo didn't have time to soothe his pride. She started down the stairs of their apartment, clomping noisily. There was no time for grace when she had an airship to catch. She heard Vaan come to the upstairs landing, but he didn't take a step further, and it wasn't until she had her hand on the front door that he spoke up again.
"I'll come visit once you get settled."
Penelo took another deep breath, let it out. Then she nodded a little curtly. "I'd appreciate that." Without waiting for his response, she was out in the sunlight and gone. It wasn't that she wanted to be cold to him, but she really didn't have time, and Vaan could be a big baby when the opportunity struck.
He was probably just scared that he wouldn't know what to do with himself without her. At least, that was what she told herself.
The aerodome was busy when she arrived, and it made her wonder where everybody was headed. Clusters of people refused to make way for Penelo. As they talked amongst themselves, their voices rang out. She heard all strains of conversation, from the rebuilding of the windmills in the Cerobi Steppe, to whether it was wise for Archades to expand their non-hume population.
The last was said with a sneer, by a portly man with a huge moustache. Penelo scowled at him, and when she said, "Excuse me," very loudly and he didn't budge, that scowl worsened.
"Get out of my way, peasant," he said in a thick, Archadian accent. His fingers were still greasy from whatever food he'd recently consumed, and his moustache wiggled when he talked. "I've no time for the likes of you."
"Excuse me, sir, but you are talking to the Honorable Princess Penelo Dalmasca!" a familiar voice chimed, and moments later, Meryl was by Penelo's side. Her face red with humiliation, she looked away, refusing to take part in this.
"Princess Penelo?" the nobleman barked. "I've heard of no such thing!"
"Seeing that you've just arrived, I've no doubt." Meryl eyed the man with great dislike, then swished her hand at him. "Now, if you'd please kindly step aside, milady has an airship to board with Emperor Larsa, and it won't do you any good to hold her back."
By now, the aerodome goers had parted like waves around Penelo. She was the center of attention, which normally didn't bother her, but it did today. She was discovering rather quickly that she didn't want to be a part of Larsa and Ashe's machinations. It left a dirty taste in her mouth.
Meryl, taking all of this firmly in stride, swept an arm in front of her. "Milady, if you will?"
The path to Larsa's docked airship was now clear, so Penelo had no choice but to move forward. Whispers followed her every step, and she ducked her head down to avoid the worst of the stares. Wasn't there supposed to be some sort of official ceremony for all of this? Instead, the news had been thrust at everyone willy nilly. The way the rumor mill worked, everyone in Rabanstre would know in a couple of hours. In some little way, she'd hoped it might stay quiet, that after Larsa and Ashe's little conspiracy was done with she might be able to go back to a normal life.
So much for that.
She did such a good job of not looking at anything or anyone that when she finally reached the airship, she stubbed her toe on the gangplank. Cursing under her breath, Penelo looked up…
Every ship in the Imperial fleet was always a sight to behold, and the ones in the Emperor's personal fleet were even better. Penelo had flown in them a few times, back when she and Larsa were friends. Back then it hadn't been uncommon for her to hitch a ride with one that happened to be heading her way, which was surprisingly a lot for Larsa's personal ships. But those had always been small couriers, or cargo vessels at the biggest. Fancy, yes, and top of the line, but still working airships.
By comparison, Larsa's personal traveling ship was just ridiculous. It was gigantic, practically a barge, towering up over her head higher than even the commercial ships that flew the standard routes. A stylized phoenix rising had been painted on the prow in the brilliant, deep scarlet of House Solidor, its flames edged in gilt that made it seem to flicker in the dim light of the docking bay. Delicate carvings swept back over the hull, edged in more gilt. Pennons hung limp from their poles, no doubt carefully selected to snap merrily in the breeze once the ship was underway.
Penelo tilted her head back to consider it, mouth twisted to the side with professional disdain. It probably took an army just to keep the thing clean. One good storm and all that pretty woodwork would be so many splinters, to say nothing of how badly gilt flaked off.
At her shoulder, Meryl cleared her throat. "Princess?"
She jumped, flinching slightly at Meryl's patient expression. Shrinking in on herself a little, she tried for an apologetic smile. "Sorry, I—sorry." Before she could get cold feet, Penelo took a deep breath, put her shoulders back, and stalked up the plank.
Inside the airship was at least not completely impractical. She'd half-expected it to be decorated with vases of flowers and knickknacks that would go rolling the second the ship took off. Plush furniture and carpets abounded, but everything seemed safely nailed down. There was still gilt everywhere, arching bay windows and even a magicite chandelier, but if she tried really hard she could pretend that it was just a better class of commercial airship. A half a dozen servants scattered around her, striving to look busy and helpful at the same time. There was no sign of Larsa.
That was probably for the best, Penelo decided. Decking him in public probably would land her in jail for treason. It wasn't worth it, no matter how satisfying it might have been. She was a princess, on her way to Archades to live with Larsa; it wasn't exactly what she'd been planning when she woke up that morning.
A pang of loss hit her as she thought of Vaan. They'd had so many plans together…
"Princess! Lady Meryl!" A fussy man, shorter than even her, bustled up from behind a desk, and interrupted her thoughts. His livery was done in the same shades of Solidor scarlet and black as the banners outside the airship, and a pair of twining snakes had been embroidered over his heart. "Lovely to see you could come, absolutely lovely! Lord Larsa said you might not be able to join us. I am Trentis. Please allow me to show you to your cabin."
Bemused by the way he buzzed around her like a bee around a flower in spring, Penelo nodded. "Thanks. I'd like that."
Trentis beamed and turned around, hurrying down one of the hallways. "Wonderful! Please, follow me."
With Meryl at her back and no escape, Penelo did as she was told.
The hallways were furnished similarly to the main lounge, with the addition of fainting couches set back in recessed alcoves in case walking was too much of a strain for the poor aristocrats. Thick black and gold carpeting padded every step, and magicite lamps were strategically placed to light up showy little indoor gardens.
The room Trentis showed her to was much, much too elaborate to be called a cabin. Massive windows let the sunlight creep in through the open dock doors—her room was so high up that the moogles working in the aerodome looked like dolls. Thick velvet curtains had been tied back, but she could see the cord that would allow them to be shut at need. Overhead a small chandelier glittered in the light that came through the window, not yet alight but still dazzling.
"This is your sitting room, your highness," Trentis explained cheerfully, waving her in through the door. "The amenities are through the door on the left, and the door on the right leads to your bedchambers should you wish for a nap. If you've need of anything, pull this cord and I'll be here in a trifle."
Meryl prowled around the room, opening both doors and peering inside, then moving back to give the furniture a suspicious poke. "I suppose it will do," she sniffed, lifting her nose into the air. Trentis wilted, but Meryl didn't seem to care as she turned back to Penelo. "Now, Princess, please do travel safe, and think well on everything you have been told this day. The Queen will be in contact with you shortly—"
"Wait!" Panicking, Penelo grabbed for Meryl's arm. "You're not coming with me?"
Something softened in the older woman's expression. Gently, she patted Penelo's hand. "I must stay here and assist the Queen. Do not worry, Princess. No matter how far the body may travel, the heart always knows the way home. Trust in that."
Tears pricked Penelo's eyes. Don't leave me alone like this, she wanted to wail, but her throat was too tight to say a word. All she could do was nod and watch as the last friend she might have had slipped through the door and out of her life.
It was painful, knowing she would be so alone in Archades, with all that had fallen between Larsa and herself. Her vision blurred, and she palmed her eyes as she walked over to the small window in the sitting room. They still hadn't launched yet, and she wasn't looking forward to seeing Larsa on the journey over… because at some point, she would have to.
When did this all turn so complicated? she thought.
She could still remember Larsa as a child… When he was twelve and so much shorter than her, with the future of an empire and a kingdom both hanging on his shoulders. He'd bore it admirably, never once complaining, and seemed to find comfort in her presence. That comfort had grown between them as a fledgling friendship, which had then bloomed into the most beautiful of…
Her throat tightened further, and it was all she could do to breathe. She took one step away from the window, then another, and another, the gravity of the situation finally starting to sink in. Good gods, she couldn't do this. She couldn't just become a princess—she couldn't be an ambassador or whatever this charade was, parading around Archades, acting like she knew a single thing about being a royal member…
"Ashe hates me," she whispered. That had to be it. She'd joined forces with Larsa in that hatred, and now the two of them were going to see to it that she never got a moment's rest ever again. The thing of it was, she could understand Larsa's wrath. But to get Ashe in on it, too? It was just too much.
She wasn't alone for very long. A knock sounded at her door, and when it hissed open, a moogle appeared a moment later. He was the pale pink of Dalmascan moogles, with a neon green bon bon and a cute little vest to match. Seeing him cheered Penelo up slightly. Though Larsa's rein was great, Archadians were still having difficulty establishing non-humes into the city of Archades. On the streets themselves, it wasn't too unusual to spot a bangaa or a seeq. But for a working Imperial? It was almost unheard of.
"Excuse me, kupo." The moogle trodded over to her, flapping his wings when he reached her bed and lifting himself to its edge. Once on the massive spread, he plopped down. His bon bon swung with the motion. "My name is Jamenson, kupo. I'm here to take you to His Grace."
Penelo placed her hands on her hips, sniffling away the tears that had begun to form. "You work for the Emperor? Since when do moogles make for servants?"
At this, Jamenson puffed up, and his wings spread behind him as his eyes narrowed. He got back on his feet, as though that would make him any taller. "I-I'll have you know that I am an Imperial Advisor, kupo! And I do not appreciate your tone! Kupo-po-po!"
She had to stifle a laugh. "Sorry. It was wrong of me to assume." She came over to him, sitting on the bed beside him. "I'm used to moogles doing their own thing. You know, becoming cartographers, or repairing ruins. You must be new, because I haven't ever seen you before."
"I started six months ago, kupo." The little creature eyed her for a moment longer; then, seemingly satisfied, he ruffled his wings and shrugged. "I like the job, but sometimes I do miss the outdoors. The Imperial Palace gets a bit stuffy at times, kupo."
"Then why work there?" Penelo tilted her head curiously. "Why be an Imperial Advisor?"
"Because I'm tired of moogles and other races being discriminated upon in Archadia, kupo! Lord Larsa agrees with me, kupopo!" He hesitated after this outburst, looking both this way and that and rubbing his hands nervously in front of him. "Kupo… I shouldn't have said that so loudly…"
She waved a hand. "Who cares? Most Archadians are Grade A jerks."
He grinned sheepishly at her response. "That may be true, kupo, but I must still maintain an air of—" But he shook his head before he could finish, hopping the distance from the bed to the floor. "I've forgotten myself, kupo. We don't have very much time to chat. The Emperor would like to see you."
The second mentioning of this made Penelo's shoulders droop. For just a moment, however fleeting, she'd totally forgotten about her new predicament. With a sigh, she nodded and got up to follow him into the corridor. Great… Sure, earlier she'd wanted to talk to him in private, but that had been in the heat of the moment. Now that she'd—mostly—calmed down, she wanted as little to do with that boy as possible.
But he's not a boy anymore, some traitorous part of her whispered. He was too tall for that, too muscular, too… everything.
Damn it, this trip wasn't going to be very pleasant.
Larsa's rooms were in a secluded part of the aircraft, where no servants lingered, nor any aristocrats or ship handlers. Jamenson even abandoned her at the beginning of the short corridor that led to his rooms, waving his good-bye before he zipped out of sight. Penelo was tempted to call after him, but stopped herself just in time. She straightened her shoulders, lifted her chin. She would have some pride while facing Larsa. She didn't need anyone to say the things that were all but bursting to get out of her.
There was a moment of silence after her stiff knock… and then, almost softly, "Enter."
Her heart constricted, and any amount of bravado she'd had just seconds before turned to ash in her mouth. She took a step back, shook her head, and plowed forward, the door opening at her close presence. When it shut behind her, it closed out the sounds of the engines running, leaving her alone, at last, with Larsa.
The urge to run was itching at her more strongly than ever as she stared at him. She stayed by the door, unmoving, unsure of what to say, her planned speech flying out the window as nearly as she had just three hours ago in the Rabanastran Palace. Larsa watched her just as tensely, seated at a love sofa, one ankle across his knee and a book spread open on his lap.
His surroundings were as lavish as the rest of the ship, if not more so. Imperial colors decorated every surface, and the carpet beneath her feet was plush and managed to block out the vibrating of the engines like the door had. Larsa tipped his head toward her, silently acknowledging her presence. He patted the cream cushion of the sofa beside him. Offering her a seat? No way.
The word was whispered, the only one to make it through her arsenal.
A hollow laugh escaped him, choked back almost as quickly as it had come. "Is that all? Why?" He waited for her to answer, a brow arched and his lips twisted in a mix of amusement and the stirrings of anger.
Penelo allowed herself a jerky nod.
"Which why would you like answered? There are a great many." Since she wasn't taking the seat he initially gestured to—no way in hell—he waved his hand toward one of the other seats in the room, chairs with claws for legs. The things were frightening, in no way inviting.
But because her legs wouldn't hold her for much longer, damn the shaking things, she sat in the closest one to her, also conveniently the farthest away from him. She was quiet for a time after that, simply staring down at her hands, maybe for a full five minutes. She wasn't entirely sure. All she knew was that she could hear each heartbeat in her ears over the roaring of her blood.
Those minutes crawled past as she played words over and over again in her head, only to discard each one like the useless weapons they were. The fact of the matter was, she didn't want to fight with Larsa. She cared for him deeply, and the yearlong separation had torn her in places she hadn't known she could hurt. But he hurt her. He abused the very foundation of their friendship. So as much as she was loathe to argue, she couldn't just… pretend everything was all right again.
"Penelo?" Larsa prompted.
"I don't know," she said, quietly, mostly speaking to herself. Her hands twisted in her lap. "All of them? I don't—I don't understand any of this!"
Larsa closed his book, page marked with a piece of red ribbon. "There is not much to understand," he replied, just as softly. "Your nation has need of you. Is the sacrifice enduring of my presence so great?"
"Yes!" Penelo sprang to her feet, gesturing at her clothes, her hair. For the trip, she'd changed back into a pair of comfortable trousers, and her hair was back in its usual braids. Though none of it was as bad as it might have been when she'd been nothing but another orphan on the street, it was working-woman's clothing: a little worn at the hems, frayed here and there, patched well but patched all the same. Next to the gilt and velvet of Larsa's sitting room, she was as out of place as a cockatrice in a silk gown. "This isn't me! I'm not meant for these things! Ashe has ladies in waiting—she has advisors and counselors and ambassadors! You should have taken one of them!"
As she spoke, Larsa's face closed in on itself. His expression, which had been almost open, turned into a blank slate that could have been hiding anything. "Should I?"
A shiver ran through her. Larsa had never been able to hide from her like that before. It was unnatural. "Yes."
He nodded, eyes dropping to the book in his lap. Long, gloved fingers ran over the cover, twisting across the title: The Descent of the Archadian Emperors. His fingers then trailed down to the end of the ribbon that dangled from between its pages. "I see."
She waited to hear more, but nothing came. Larsa didn't speak, didn't so much as glance at her. He seemed absorbed in his thoughts, as if he'd forgotten she was even there. Or as if he were ignoring her.
The thought made her livid. After what he'd done to her, he was going to give her the cold shoulder? She wanted to smack him, to reel back and plant a good one right on that damned prominent nose of his. Anything to get a reaction. "That's it?" Penelo's voice rose in frustrated demand. "That's it? You see? Fat lot of good that does us!"
"What would you have me do?" he asked, still not looking up. "It is too late for us both. Had I known you... felt thus, I could have handled matters long ago, before this became an issue."
Penelo stared at him in utter confusion, rage dying to a simmer. A creeping, sickening feeling slid through her, along with the suspicion that they were having two very different conversations. "Handled matters?"
"Yes." Finally, he looked up, and his smile was even worse than the lack of expression from before. It was cold and tight, nearly a grimace. "As it stands, we must both be trapped with our mistakes, for at least a while longer."
Turning, Penelo scrubbed a hand over her face. The magicite lamps glimmered prettily, which was better than looking at him. "Biggest mistake of my life," she muttered.
She'd thought she been quiet, but she heard Larsa take a sharp breath behind her. When she turned back, his head was bowed, hands clenched around the book in his lap. "If that is how you feel, you are free to leave my presence, Princess."
A fist squeezed her heart. "Larsa—"
Surging to his feet, he threw the book away, sending it spinning into a wall. The binding cracked, spilling paper across the floor. "I said leave!"
A pair of Imperials opened the door at the noise, shouting Larsa's name. Penelo dashed through them. One tried to grab her arm, but she slipped down, sliding along the slick tile, then bouncing off a wall to roll to her feet. In a flash, she was through the doors and gone.
It was only after, in the silence of her own chambers, that Penelo allowed the first tears to trickle free. Breathing fast from her run, she slumped against the wall near her bed, then slid down it until she was sitting. From there, she curled up into a fetal position, locking her arms over her head.
The hours passed. Several times, servants knocked to ask if she was ready to eat. She never answered them, preferring instead to cry herself senseless. But eventually, there weren't any tears left, just the dry, empty sobs echoing in her ears.
What had happened to them?
Was everything between them ruined?
He had never shouted at her that way before… never looked so furious, so hurt…
She wanted to be angry. But there wasn't anything left inside of her that felt even close to the kindling of rage. Cold stretched through her heart instead, vast and bottomless. She rolled onto her back, peering up at the ceiling, folding her hands over her stomach. She sniffled, her face sticky from long dried tears.
That he felt so angry implied that she'd been wrong about his feelings regarding the matter of That Night. And if she was wrong about that… then what did the last year mean? The last year she'd spent stewing over, agonizing over, hating him over?
Nothing, she thought, quietly even inside of her own mind.
It meant nothing.