Disclaimer: We do not own Square Enix's Final Fantasy XII, nor are we making any money off this fanfiction.
The delay here is entirely Vash's Girl's fault. Sorry!
Trust and Temptation
The Things Unsaid
Larsa stared out the window, hands locked behind his back. Rain pattered against the glass, big fat drops that snaked their way down until they were lost amid a flood of their brethren. Below, the grand city of Archades vanished under a blanket of gray, the fog so thick it could be cut by a knife. Only the Palace stood above it all, to weather the storm as a faithful sentinel.
Gloomy days were rare jewels in the Imperial City, which was given more to sunshine and warm breezes than to the muddle of poor weather. Seeing his home so shrouded brought back memories that were, perhaps, best forgotten, and yet as persistent as a steeling in a cave.
He hid behind the drapes, curled up tight in the window seat. Outside, the wind howled and the sky cried, as if even the weather mourned the loss of two emperors. It suited his mood, the rain matching the tears on his cheeks. The loss of his father and brother was still fresh, and the crown terribly heavy. Most days he was able to bear up, to straighten his back and present a facsimile of strength, but that day he'd woken feeling weak and off-balance.
Just then, he would have paid in blood to feel his brother's hand on his shoulder, or to hear his father's voice.
His Imperials would be looking for him, he knew. They'd never been so frantic when he vanished as merely a lord, but as the Emperor, they were strict in their duties. Basch—Gabranth—especially. The man took his vow seriously, and Larsa could only be grateful for his care, but he needed a moment to himself. And how he needed it. There was no space for weakness anymore in his life, no room to mourn. A child-emperor could be nothing but vigilant, lest the carrion eaters of the court swoop down upon him.
"Larsa!" a familiar voice called, soft and sweet in what he knew to be an attempt to lure him out. "Larsaaaaaa!"
Larsa curled in tighter, listening as Penelo's voice and footsteps drew closer. It was no surprise when the curtain was ripped back to reveal her smiling face.
"Boo! Found you!"
Before he could escape or ask her to leave, she pounced, fingers seeking his tender ribs. Dignity slipped through his grasp as he squealed, twisting to try and free himself. Her attack went on mercilessly, until the tears that ran down his cheeks were fresh with laughter.
She relented with clear reluctance, wiggling until she was perched behind him, arms wrapped tight around his waist. The movement all but forced him to settle under her chin with his back pressed to her chest. Between that and her arms it was... soothing, almost. Not the comfort he most desperately craved, though. Nothing would be that anymore.
"What are you moping about?" Penelo asked, as if she didn't know, hadn't stood beside him two months before as the remains of his brother had been lowered into the ground. Her arms rocked him a little, squeezing him close. Then she reached out and carefully tugged the curtain closed once more. "Hey, I have a story."
"A story?" Larsa endeavored to appear composed, adult. Of all people, he most desperately didn't want Penelo thinking him weak. She was one of the few friends he had left in the world. "What sort of story?"
"A fun one. What else?" Once again she squeezed him, long legs bracketing his hips as she started to speak. Her voice rolled with just the right cadences for a really good storyteller. Before he knew it, he fell into the rhythm of her words.
They spent the rest of the day like that, until the clouds cleared and Archades returned, washed clean and brilliant in the light of the setting sun.
"You wanted to see me?"
Larsa turned slowly from the window, taking a moment to gather his composure. The memory had dragged him under, wearing thin at the walls he'd put up until he'd been left soft and vulnerable to his surroundings. The last thing he wanted was for Penelo to see him like that—she no longer had a right to it, his trust with her on thin ice.
But temptation proved more damning than usual when his eyes fell upon her. She was a sight he'd always privately welcomed, with her golden curls framing her perfectly oval face, and a petite body honed by hours and hours of dance. Those little hands of hers had cured many ills, that rosebud mouth had formed many sharp reprimands to those who needed to be reminded of their place in life. No nonsense, that was Penelo. But if she knew you, if she cared for you, she could give you the most beautiful smile…
"Yes." Not meeting her eyes, Larsa strode over to his desk and pretended to peruse some paperwork. In truth, he'd never been more ahead of the legislation that fell into his lap daily. He'd needed distractions these past twelve months, five days, and six hours. The perceived plights of his lords and ladies of the realm certainly helped in that regard.
An awkward, strained silence.
"Well…?" Penelo prompted.
"It's about your new quarters. You will no longer be housed in the guest wing."
An inhalation of breath, sharply drawn.
Before she could interrupt, Larsa continued. "Your new chambers will be in the imperial wing, not far from my own."
"The imperial—?" Penelo cut herself off. Her hands reached for him, lowered, fisted. Then they ran through her hair in a gesture of what was unmistakably agitation. "Fine."
Larsa's eyes lifted. He hadn't expected such an easy response. "'Fine'?"
"Yes, fine," she snapped, and the wonderful blue of her eyes flashed a warning at him, quick as the lightning bolts she'd used to strike down the white wolves at the Paramina Rift. "Although I'm not really sure why I need rooms in the Imperial Wing, if I'm supposed to be some sort of ambassador—"
"You are a princess of Dalmasca, Penelo, and as such—"
"But the Imperial Wing is for family members, not—"
"—I will not place you in rooms beneath your station—"
"—princesses of another nation—"
"PENELO!" Larsa's hand slammed down so hard on his desk that papers flew and Penelo jumped. They stared at one another across the room, Larsa with fury gnawing incessantly at his chest, Penelo with slightly quivering lips. The hurt in her gaze alone made him want to take everything back, to say he was sorry, but he had his country to protect. What he'd said to her on the airship remained true. They must see this through together, bear this burden for just a while longer.
"Please," he said calmly, and it took an alarming amount of effort. Penelo had never tried his patience so.
"Please what?" she rasped.
"Please do not question every single one of my objectives."
The first threads of anger touched the corners of her eyes again. "Larsa, I just found out that I'm a princess now, that it'll be treason to not be standing in this very room with you, and now, when I just want a minute alone of peace, you're locking me away in the imperial wing with some half-assed explanation that you think will appease me for the time being." She took a step closer to the desk. "You're right. We were friends… once. Isn't that what you told me in Rabanastre?"
Though he had indeed said them, the words still cut at his heart like shards of the scattered remnants of their friendship.
"So give me two seconds to breathe!" she went on. "The old Penelo could have laughed with you, not gotten angry at your 'objectives,' but this Penelo is really upset, Larsa!"
"I do not care," he said in as cold of a voice as he could muster.
Penelo looked as if she'd been plunged headfirst in the waters of the Silverflow. "E… Excuse me?"
"We have important matters to discuss, your room arrangements being one of them. I need you to understand your position before rumors begin, and you come to me later, even more flustered, because you do not understand what they mean." It was easier than he would have thought to steel his heart against her. "Please do not make this more difficult than it has to be, Penelo."
She stared at him, blue eyes going wide, teeth peeking out from behind her lips. "Rumors?" Rage colored her pretty cheeks with roses, not so different in rage as they were in passion. "I understand exactly what they mean, and there wouldn't be any if you would just let me stay in the guest wing!"
His jaw tightened into a grimace. Anger burned low in his stomach, fueling the fervor with which he spoke. "You are the one who wishes this undone with such vehemence. I cannot do that and simultaneously pretend what has happened has no legal repercussions. We must survive together, the two of us, until such time as we are as free from legal bonds as we so evidently are those of friendship. Am I clear, or would you prefer it in writing?"
Penelo stood stock still, her fingers twisting as if to reach for a spellstone. For a moment, he almost wished she would. If she attacked him in his own office, there was ample precedent...
But her shoulders dropped, along with her eyes. Her hand went to her wrist where the dratted, bedraggled length of scarlet ribbon fluttered with her movement, taunting him. As he watched, she collected her dignity around her like a cloak, not meeting his eye again until her expression had returned to steel.
"You have made yourself very clear," she ground out in a voice sharp as the winter wind. "What else is it you wanted to talk about?"
If Larsa had been a more faithful man, he might have dared believe that the worst was behind him. Unfortunately, he knew Penelo better than that. "We must address your attire."
Predictably, Penelo stiffened again. Tension vibrated between them. For a moment, he almost feared she would climb over his desk to slap him again. If forcing her to sleep in the same wing as himself had been an outrage, this was an insult. "Some of us don't have the benefit of piles of gil," she snapped, fists clenched. "My clothes are fine."
In better times, Larsa might have softened, perhaps offered gifts to make up for her lacking. Fine jewels and gowns, rare scents from far-off lands... Before their falling out, he'd found joy in pressing upon her whatever trinket he could that might bring a smile to her face.
But he couldn't afford softness. He'd already lost too much to it. "You have resources now. Ashe has provided a hefty sum for your benefit, and a stipend from my own personal accounts was included in our agreement. A seamstress will be by to make certain you use it, and there are personnel available to assist you in any shopping you might care to do."
"Assist me?" Penelo's voice darkened into a growl that could have put shame to many of the evils they'd once faced together. "What, you think I can't dress myself?"
"I think that you are unaccustomed to Archadian fashion," he snapped back, "and have no wish for you to make a fool of us both out of ignorance."
"I see," she said. "Then I'd better get to it. Don't want to embarrass you." Her nostrils flared, the color in her cheeks fading to a pallor that only made the fury in her eyes that much more vivid. "May I be dismissed, Your Grace?"
There were still matters to attend—paperwork and agreements, her signature needed on several documents. In spite of all that, Larsa nodded shortly and lowered his eyes to his paperwork. Lines blurred before his eyes, numbers and code frayed into meaninglessness. "A servant will see you to your new quarters."
He didn't see her leave, only heard the soft pad of her slippers on the marble, the creak of the hinges and, finally, a tap as the door closed. Left in her wake was a heavy, aching silence, a dirge of memories and feelings which were better off dead.
The biggest mistake of my life.
The footman bowed low from the doorway, not stepping foot into Larsa's study. "Sir, you requested to be informed when the Princess was settled in her rooms."
"Indeed I did." Larsa's thumb rubbed along the length of his pen, considering the pile of documents before him. Arrangements for Penelo's accounts were foremost among them. Nothing of dramatic import, seeing as his own underused funds were available for her, but he'd hoped that having a separate and secure source of income would calm some of her frustrations. He, more than most, knew how poorly Penelo dealt with being trapped in a corner.
But how much of his desire was born of avoidance, and how much from dedication? His argument with Penelo had been brutal, in a word. But tongues would wag if he failed to even take note of her comfort.
That did not have to be immediate, however. "I will be along when I have a moment."
"Very good, sir." The footman dipped lower and backed out, all without raising his eyes. Sighing, Larsa returned his attention to the matter of finances.
Hours passed before Larsa signed the final document, laying it into a folder of similar. Then he rose, back and hips cracking from leaning over his desk for too long without pause. As a child, he'd wondered at his father's pleasure in standing when chairs were available; now he knew intimately why that was. He took a moment to stretch and pop his joints, until his posture was again firm and he no longer felt the need to limp. Then he gathered up Penelo's documents to his chest and set out.
The afternoon had withered away while he worked. Larsa found his steps slowing, as much for the enjoyment of the walk as to delay the inevitable. Afternoon light slanted through the ample windows of the palace, flooding hallways and giving warmth to cold stone. The plants that decorated sitting nooks filled the air with the scent of flowers, while the accompanying fountains added a music no mere musician could match. Delicate statues were tucked aside, and the lush rug underfoot added color to the halls.
Scarlet and jet dominated, of course, but here and there were touches of former empresses, who traditionally had full control over matters of the wing. In one place a stained window depicting mermaids along a beach colored the walls in a rainbow of color. In another a sun seat decorated in the violet of a long-ended royal line. Of them all, his favorite was a small line of gold that danced in and out of the tiles, peeking out from the rugs like a child hiding behind his mother's skirts. His own mother had decided on those changes while she'd been pregnant with him, he'd been told. Had, in fact, ripped apart the entire wing to ensure that her pattern was laid precisely as she'd wished.
It wasn't until one of the papers slipped from Penelo's packet that he realized he'd stopped to stare down at the floor. The tip of his boot nudged a tile that had somehow been smudged with dirt, its metallic glint faded.
Kneeling down, he pushed aside the edge of the rug and rubbed the spot with his thumb until it shined bright once more. The brown mark was even more visible against his bone-white glove, but it didn't matter. Gloves could be washed. Memories could not.
Leaving remembrance behind, he stood and finished the trek without looking down again.
Windows turned to thick walls, which were safer by far for the imperial inhabitants within. Carpets vanished, so even the lightest footstep echoed. Guards grew thick, placed at every corner. They saluted as he passed, not one of them so much as smirking, though they surely knew what such an unusual arrangement suggested.
Penelo's rooms were only across the hall from his own, something that she no doubt had noticed. With any luck, she would not comment on it. That was a conversation he did not think he could survive after so tumultuous a day. Her Imperials stood at attention, finely wrought armor agleam in the glow of magicite lamps. Larsa paused before the grand double doors, stomach twisting in on itself and his heart threatening war within his breast.
For all his years on the throne, trials passed and troubles dealt with decisively, yet Penelo still had the power to return him to childhood.
He didn't turn his head as he said, "Announce me."
One of the Imperials nodded, the gesture oddly familiar even with the man's face hidden behind a helm. Turning, he opened the door and stepped inside, the sound of quiet conversation carrying out into the hall. When the imperial turned with another stiff nod, Larsa saw himself into Penelo's new chambers, back straight and chin lifted.
The years hadn't changed the rooms at all since they were his mother's. He nearly wondered what sort of changes Penelo would make to them, but he cut the thought off at its knees. Penelo didn't want to stay long enough to make changes. That was the entire source of their conflict.
"Princess Penelo." He bowed as well as he could with a thick sheaf of papers held against his chest. Behind him, he heard the Imperial close the door, leaving them utterly alone, without warden or gossipmonger to stay their tongues. Larsa wondered if he should be pleased or terrified. "I trust that your rooms are to your liking."
Penelo looked ruffled. Not in the sense that her hackles were up, as they had been in his study. It was more as if she'd been in the middle of doing something, and once the Imperial had announced Larsa's presence, she'd beat a hasty retreat into the main sitting room. To lend credit to this theory, she was clearly out of breath, and her hands kept smoothing over her attire in what could only be described as a nervous twitch.
As the silence spread, Larsa let his gaze wander over the sitting room. There was a beautifully upholstered sofa nearby, with throw pillows placed in perfect position along it, their golden tassels matching the vibrant scarlet hue of the furniture. The table placed before it was low and deep ebony, made entirely of glass. A giant vase housed a bouquet of Galbana lilies, something he had seen to before his trip to Rabanastre, and he was now sure she wouldn't appreciate the reminder of her home country at all.
To Penelo's immediate left was a fainting couch, done up in the same colors as the rest of the upholstery. Beneath it was a thick, plush carpet that spread along the entire floor, leaving only a hint of marble peeking out around the borders of the room, threaded with the gold that lined the corridors of this wing.
He was so immersed in avoiding Penelo's gaze, that he missed whatever prompted her next chilling words. "I get it, Larsa."
Larsa blinked and shifted his attention to her. She might have been holding spellstone, for the wrap of ice that shivered around his heart from her tone. Idly, he recognized that he'd been making plenty of connections between cold weather and Penelo, but it wasn't something to be helped. Since her arrival, she had become the epitome of such a thing. She could rival the bitter winters Archades often saw.
"You hate me now. I'm a burden. I've caused you some terrible grief. Well, forgive me for leaving a year ago because I thought you were a heartless bastard."
Never before had Larsa had to nearly bite his tongue in half to keep from lashing out at her. His restraint wasn't for her benefit; it was for his own. Even now, he still couldn't ignore the ache in his heart when he looked upon her, and he knew that if he was too rash, it would only haunt him.
"A heartless bastard? Is that what you call it?" He straightened, taking great care to keep his expression firm. He refused to break again before her. She had too many weapons lodged in his heart as it were.
He had the faint satisfaction of seeing her flinch. "What do you want of me, Penelo? I came only to see to your comfort, and to provide you with your necessary paperwork. If there is ought else in my power that will appease you, do let me know, as I have been seeking such for quite some time now, and I fear it a hopeless quest."
At that, her jaw set. Several moments of silence passed, in which many a painful expression crossed her face, before she spoke again. "You want to know what you can do?" She jutted her chin forward. "All right." A stiff nod, and she went to the sofa, fingering the frayed ribbon about her wrist, a sight that still had Larsa's nerves coil like a threatened snake.
Not once glance in his direction. Even when she sat, she spoke instead to the centerpiece at the coffee table, her tone low, silk over steel. "Tell me why you slept with me, knowing we can't be together. Knowing that to do so would only be leading me on, thinking we could have something, thinking—" Her voice broke, and she stopped. Fighting not to cry before him?
Abruptly, she rose. "Just leave the paperwork, Larsa. I'll make sure it's signed. And sure." She gestured to the room at large. "I'm comfortable."
"Leading you—" He couldn't breathe.
Did she think that? That he had led her on? Did she not know?
His world, unstable enough since the death of his family, spun out from under his feet. He wanted to ask what happened that night—what she thought happened that night. But there was a horror climbing in his throat, sinking its claws into his chest, that said it was too late to know.
She hates me.
She hates me for the sake of a lie.
And there was no fixing it now.
"Of course." For all his oral lessons on how to address his empire, he'd never heard his voice sound so raspy and out of place. His head was throbbing double time, and he was having trouble picking out one thing from another, like the carpet and the tapestries, because no matter where he looked, all he could see…
A piece of ribbon, wound around their wrists—
"The papers." A sharp shake of his head and a brittle smile, and Larsa set them down on an end table. "I… will not keep you, then."
Was it his imagination, the faintest hint of laughter at his ears, his name said on a warm sigh?
"Good afternoon, Penelo." Bowing his head, he turned on his heel to go.
"I thought I was in love with you, you know."
The words were soft, so soft Larsa almost missed them, lost as he was in his memories of that cursed night.
"Silly, right?" A pause. And when no answer was forthcoming, "Good afternoon, Larsa."
He waited until he heard the click of her bedroom door, signifying she'd left the room and locked him out. He looked down at where his gloved fingers were wrapped about the metal of the doorknob to these chambers.
"I thought you were, too," he said, in words barely above a whisper.
Swallowing down his pain, he took the extra step to leave. He needed to make preparations for the secondary solution, and…
And to end what had been done, before it caused them any more grief.
A sharp clang of steel against marbled floor, and a groan of frustration.
"Again, Your Grace." Gabranth, as he had been for nearly six years now, swung his sword out to his side. His voice was perfectly muffled by his helmet, and that suited Larsa just fine. He didn't want to see the other man's face and the disapproval that would no doubt be found in them.
The young emperor picked himself up off the ground and bent to retrieve his sword. "I have already told you, I am hardly in the mood for this."
"An enemy will care not for your moods." The Judge Magister fell into an attacking stance. "En guard."
Sweat streamed down Larsa's face as he fought to parry Gabranth's blows. This was unexpected. On a normal day of the week, he was at his finest, often a challenging foe. A man who fought fairly would have trouble keeping up with him, and one who didn't would find that Larsa had his own arsenal of dirty tactics to see him through a battle.
Today, however, was different. In the last year, Larsa's resolve to keep his sword arm trained had kept him going, each swipe of his choice of weapon cutting through another of the memories that haunted him. But after last night's confrontation with Penelo, and the softly whispered words to his back, telling him she'd thought she'd loved him, once upon a time… It was damnably distracting, much more than he cared for.
He spun, twisting his wrist, feet falling into the proper dance steps—
Gabranth wasn't there.
A harsh shove to his side, and his sword went flying again as he lost his balance and crashed anew to the ground. The jar of it made his teeth clank together, reverberating down the length of his spine. Annoyed, Larsa looked up in time to see Gabranth lowering his helmet.
Blue eyes were frosted with disappointment and only the faintest traces of annoyance. "What happened?"
"I do not know of that which you speak," Larsa muttered sullenly.
Gabranth's hand connected with the side of his head, pushing. "Do not be a fool, Larsa. Although perhaps after today's performance, that might be too kind a word—"
"Stay your tongue, Gabranth!" Larsa shouted heatedly up at him, his temper, always in the wings lately, rising eagerly to the fore. He climbed back to his feet. "I told you I had no care to do this today!"
"Yes…" Already icy eyes hardened into chips. "I can see that. As you will, Your Grace." Gabranth sheathed his broadsword across his back. With a curt bow, he spun on his heel and left, boots clicking all the way out.
Larsa cursed and ran fingers through his sweaty hair. Though he'd asked for—pressed for!—freedom from Gabranth's attentions, he found himself wanting to call the man back. The contradiction was the distilled essence of the way his past week had been.
"A bit peaked, are we, Emperor Larsa?"
"I fear that those of us with care for our duties and titles find ourselves tired by the drag of certain layabouts who avoid theirs." The voice was so familiar, so detested in its sly tone that Larsa didn't bother to hide his distaste as he turned. "What can I do for you, Ffamran?"
"I rather think it is what I can do for you, Sire." The scion of Bunasa was, unusually, dressed in full court attire. His cravat was crisp, gloves white and the shine on his boots unparalleled. It was a far cry from his usual costume. But one had only to look at his posture to know he no longer belonged. He slouched, arms crossed and lips twisted in an unholy smirk. "I thought you might like to know what your recently acquired Princess of Dalmasca is up to."
"She's investigating the Emperor's Library," Larsa answered promptly, and then privately cursed himself. Ffamran had no need to know Penelo's whereabouts, nor that Larsa had been keeping close track of them. Who knew what foul intention lurked in Ffamran's head?
But the elemental was, unfortunately, unleashed, so he drew himself up to look the man firmly in the eye. "Her Imperials escorted her to them this morning after she broke her fast. I assume she is still there. Though, understandably, I cannot have you shown to her." Larsa smiled condescendingly, tilting his head in an entirely false show of regret. "Only members of the Imperial family are permitted, you see. Perhaps you would care to wait for her in one of the public drawing rooms?"
Ffamran's smile could have cut magicite. "I think you misunderstand. An hour or so ago, I happened upon Penelo in a tavern in Trant, well-marinated and buying rounds for the whole building. It occurred to me you might wish to know, but..." He shrugged eloquently and batted his eyes like a court maiden.
Metal clinked as the eternally present Imperials who guarded Larsa's every move straightened with interest at this news. They were too professional to immediately begin to gossip about the news. They'd understood the implications when Penelo had been assigned her own escort. This would only fuel their fires of curiosity. Soldiers were worse than oldsters.
Larsa felt their attention on him, sharp as blades. Worse was the twisting, ill sensation crawling up his throat. "She is her own woman," he said after a long, painful moment, keeping his voice level and his expression bland. "Tell me, did you see her guards at the door?"
"I fear not, Your Grace."
"On the walls?"
"At her side?"
That clenched it. With fingers that trembled, Larsa stripped off the bulky chest padding Gabranth insisted he wear, discarding it off to the side for a servant to care for. "I want an imperial aircab readied," he ordered the nearest Imperial sharply. "The Princess's guard is to be found and held until Judge Magister Gabranth deals with their punishment for dereliction of duty. Lord Bunasa," his attention fixated on Ffamran, "will give you any information you need on the specific tavern in question. We leave immediately for Trant."
The Imperial saluted sharply before turning to Ffamran and gesturing at him to follow, which the sky pirate did without so much as a blink. As soon as the man was out of sight, Larsa leaned forward to brace himself on his knees, head hanging low and breath coming in long, unsteady gasps.
Penelo, his Penelo, unguarded and drunk in a strange city with no idea what she was risking or who might want her harmed. Playing the fool, sneaking out, putting herself at risk...
He was going to be ill.
No time to play the lovelorn, Larsa, he chided himself, drawing upright. You have a princess to rescue from her fool self.