Progressing Through a Journey (Of Love)

Chapter 6

Author's Note: Thanks for being patient, everyone. I hope you like this chapter :)

This contains some bloody scenes. I personally don't think they're too graphic but just in case, I'll warn you ahead of time.

"Have you ever traveled by chocobo, Penelo?"

The wind tousled his hair, blowing his usually groomed bangs across his forehead and into his eyes, but Larsa's eyes remained focused on Penelo. Nothing could distract him from her.

"No I haven't. The only thing I could ever afford was traveling by foot. I'm so excited to ride a chocobo, though. They're so cute!" Penelo rushed over to the chocobo pen and ruffled one of the chocobo's feathers. "How hard are they to ride on?"

"Not particularly difficult once you accommodate to their superb agility. They are a rather comfortable and pleasant ride- very pleasant when roaming through fields and gazing at nature's magnificence. Therefore, our adventure across the Ozmone Plains shall be quite extraordinary." Larsa smiled at her, looking rather dazed. His mind was still reverting to yesterday.

Her dance: the hourglass waist, the sweating and panting, those rotating hips…

But now Larsa had to refocus from such reveries. He had a lesson to teach. "Shall we begin the lesson while the rest of the party selects their chocobos?"

Penelo clapped her hands together in excitement. "Yes! Please teach me, Larsa. Can you be in the front in the beginning, though?"

"Absolutely. I shall begin with the basics and progress from there. I hope my teaching abilities will suffice. I have no doubt that you shall be a quick learner, though." He smiled encouragingly at her and approached her side.

"First and foremost," he began instructing, "always observe the chocobo before climbing its back. Chocobos are known for their gentle, affectionate personalities but when sick or injured, they can become rather recalcitrant. This chocobo is quite content." Larsa approached the side of the chocobo and hoisted himself on its back, first jumping and swinging his leg across its other side, and then repositioning himself so he could glance down at Penelo. "See? Fairly simple after the first few tries. Are you ready to try, Penelo?"

Penelo nodded and tried to imitate Larsa. She failed to swing her leg across the chocobo and found herself falling downwards. Impulsively, Larsa seized her arm and leg and heaved her up on the chocobo's back. Penelo was astounded by his herculean strength. Since when had he become strong enough to haul her upwards so facilely?

"Careful, Penelo." Larsa cautioned as he properly positioned her on the chocobo. "You nearly hurt yourself and gave me quite a scare. Pardon me for grabbing you so rashly. It was merely reflex." He was still gripping onto the bare section of her leg; his fingers could feel her smooth, creamy skin even underneath his gloves. Reluctantly, he released his hold on her pearly thigh.

Penelo started laughing. "Larsa, you just saved me from getting hurt and embarrassing myself, and you're apologizing to me? You are honestly one of the funniest people I've met. Anyway, thank you for that."

"You are quite welcome, Penelo. Would you like to try again? 'Practice makes perfect,' as I recall you advising me so a long while ago."

"Sure. Just be prepared to grab me as fast as you did before, in case I mess up again…"

"No need to worry. Hopefully you remember the promise I made to you about keeping you from harm? I believe I have succeeded in admirably living up to that promise. But if you continue to nearly fall down the way you previously did, it will be far more the challenge for me to remain so successful…" Larsa laughed as Penelo punched him in the arm.

Penelo, too, started laughing. "Well, we'll see whose laughing once I prove you wrong." And Penelo did prove him wrong. In a few moments, Penelo was back on the chocobo's back with no help from Larsa at all.

"What did I tell you?" She said proudly.

"Well done, Penelo." He commented, looking rather impressed. "But I never doubted you. Now let us progress onto the subsequent lesson."

He took her hands and interlaced them around his waist. "Please hold on tightly, Penelo."

With the stroke of his hand to the chocobo's beak, and a swift kick to its side, the chocobo set off on a gentle, yet speedy run. Shocked by the sudden speed increase, Penelo constricted her grip on Larsa's waist. Larsa smiled to her and comfortingly patted her contracting arms. "It's alright, Penelo. Once you accommodate to the speed, the feeling is rather liberating."

Gradually, Penelo's tight grip on Larsa loosened and she took in all the marvels of the fields swiftly passing by her. "Wow…" She breathed out in amazement. It was such an exhilarating feeling to be high above the ground, feeling the chocobo's feet gently tread the ground with its swift and graceful movement. She felt as though they were walking on air. And Larsa was right: the feeling was liberating. She loved the feeling of the warm breeze passing by her, of the open fields elapsing in colorful blurs. She looked around and absorbed it all; she had never experienced such a thrill.

She closed her eyes and savored the sun's heat, the breeze, and the lovely scent of wildflowers. Larsa shifted in his position to gaze at her.

When Penelo opened her eyes again, she was shocked to see Larsa's bright, gleaming eyes staring into hers and his back to the chocobo. "Larsa!" She gasped. "What are you doing!? Aren't you supposed to be controlling the chocobo!?"

He smiled dreamily. "I was taking pleasure in watching the pleased look on your face. I'm very glad you're enjoying this as much as I am."

"Larsa, don't you think you should be watching the chocobo and not me!?"

"I would rather watch you."

She blushed deeply from his words, but even more so from the intense gaze he was giving her. Her entire face was on fire and she could feel her ears ringing, but she refused to relent to his endearing words and powerful gaze. She continued glaring at him until he answered her satisfactorily.

He smiled shyly and responded. "If you have much experience with chocobos such as myself, it isn't incumbent to remain face forward while on a chocobo. I am able to lie down on my back as well."

Penelo's tense expression eased and turned into a smile. "Wow, that's interesting. I have to see you do that."

"I'd love to show you. But would you like to ride in the front now as we return to Jahara?"

Penelo nodded happily. He sighed, relieved that she had moved on from their small altercation. He stopped the chocobo in its tracks and swung his leg behind Penelo, positioning himself behind her and gently pushing her forward with his weight. He took her hands and placed them on the chocobo's harness. "Hold on to the harness firmly. If the speed shocks you at first, I will be right here behind you to ensure you don't fall. There's nothing to fear, Penelo."

Penelo leaned her head back onto his shoulder and pulled his cheek to hers. "I know, Larsa. Don't you know by now that I completely trust you?"

He was pleased that he didn't falter when he spoke. "I am very happy to hear that. Thank you."

Penelo sat upright again and smiled in response. "Well, let's see how I do now." She took hold of the harness and kicked gently at the chocobo's sides. The chocobo abruptly raced through the fields again, thrusting her backwards a bit. But Larsa kept to his word and kept a firm grip on her waist to ensure she didn't fall. Other than that sudden jolt, Penelo did a fine job riding the chocobo.

The return to Jahara went by too quickly for Penelo. Before jumping off the chocobo, Larsa told her, "In just a few moments, we shall be riding this chocobo again. I've traveled by chocobo many times before. I want you to enjoy the sensation now. When we travel with the rest of the party, you shall be riding up front."

"Larsa, are you sure?" Penelo asked quizzically. "I'm not as fast or experienced as you or anybody else. What if I fall behind?"

"If I am able to control a chocobo with my back to it, then surely I can control the chocobo from behind you, should we indeed fall behind. But I do not believe that will be the case. You are a natural at this, Penelo." He beamed at her with pride. "Now you mustn't worry over such frivolous matters. You should be enjoying yourself now, taking pleasure in this new experience."

Penelo grinned at his kind words. "I do worry too much, don't I? But I really am having a wonderful time, Larsa. I always do with you."

Before Larsa could speak- let alone even blush- Vaan's voice echoed from afar.

"Hey guys! We're all ready now! I forgot to pack all my things so it was kinda my fault for the delay. Sorry." He approached the two and observed their wind-blown hair. "So, you guys have already been for a ride?"

"Yes!" Penelo exclaimed. "It's amazing, Vaan! You have to try it!"

Vaan smiled excitedly. "I can't wait to. I've always wanted to ride one of these! So… you riding with me, Penelo?" Vaan looked at her eagerly, eyes glimmering with anticipation.

"Oh…" Penelo looked down to the ground. "I was going to ride with Larsa…if that's okay…" She felt terrible now.

Vaan's face suddenly flushed scarlet red. Whether his face was red from being rejected or because he was angry, Penelo couldn't tell. "Oh…" Was all he managed to choke out at first. And then, "So I guess Larsa's a lot better to hang around with..? You spend all your time with him, and now you've completely forgotten about me."

Larsa looked fearfully at Vaan, and his face flushed red. Was Vaan catching on to Larsa's intentions of forming an intimate relationship with Penelo?

Penelo spoke just in time before any hostility between the two could form. "Vaan, how could you think like that!? I enjoy your company as much as I do Larsa's! I haven't seen him for three months! Can't you give us some private moments to catch up on lost time!?"

"U-um…if Vaan w-wants to ride with you, Penelo, then I…d-don't mind…" Larsa said quietly; face, neck, and ears consumed with his heated blush. Looking at how uncomfortable and upset Larsa was, and observing how reddened with embarrassment he was from the situation, Penelo turned around and glared maliciously at Vaan.

"Vaan, that implication was totally unnecessary." She seethed. "How could you say such a thing!? You're putting Larsa in an uncomfortable position, and he doesn't deserve that! Isn't he your friend, too!?"

Vaan winced as he realized how livid she was and decided to back a few steps away. "I-I'm sorry…I didn't mean it like that. It just came out…"

Penelo's bubbling rage settled when she saw the look in Vaan's eyes. He had such a damaged look to them… "Vaan…" She started, filled with remorse for what she had done. "Why do you think I'm avoiding you? I just want to catch up with Larsa…"

Vaan sighed heavily. "I know, I know… It's just that…I guess I'm not used to sharing you, Penelo." He laughed at himself as he heard the words spill out of his mouth. "Sorry, Larsa. You don't deserve any of this…"

"No need to apologize, Vaan." Larsa hurriedly said. "I-I never meant to restrict your time with Penelo. Forgive me for being so selfish and keeping her all to myself…"

Penelo blushed copiously as she heard the exchange of words between the two young men. She couldn't fathom why they regarded her as being such precious company. "Both of you…" She began, still crimson in the face. "You make it seem as though I'm some sort of valuable necessity in your lives." She had tried to make it seem like a joke, and started laughing to support that attempt, but reddened again when she saw the serious looks on both of their faces.

"Of course you're important to me…" Vaan said.

"You are very valuable to me, Penelo…" Larsa said in unison with Vaan's remark.

With both sets of eyes locked fiercely on her, Penelo's heartbeat quickened and she continued blushing like a fool. She felt very uncomfortable being in the spotlight and wanted to change the subject. Thankfully, Balthier and Fran approached them in impeccable timing.

"Ah, there you are, Vaan." Balthier said. "It seems we have an odd number in our party. You are given the choice of riding with Ashe or Basch."

"I'll ride with Basch." Vaan hastily answered. "But why can't I ride with you guys?"

"There isn't enough room." Fran stated matter-of-factly.

"And besides," Balthier pressed on with a smirk on his face, "Fran and I could use some more… personal and relaxing time together…" He grinned mischievously at Fran. Fran merely rolled her eyes and walked towards the chocobo pen with a grin on her face. Balthier followed after her, leaving the three alone again.

Penelo was relieved when Ashe and Basch selected their chocobos. She was glad to see Basch had allowed Vaan to ride in the front of the chocobo. She could tell he was giddy with excitement. She was even happier to realize Vaan had already lost any animosity he might've felt towards Larsa a few minutes earlier. He was focused completely on the chocobo now.

She felt a hot gust of breath flow through her ear and Larsa's voice vibrated into it. "Now it's finally time for the journey ahead of us." He whispered, tickling her ear. "Are you ready, Penelo?"

She nodded and turned to face him. "Yeah, I'm excited. Let's go."

When everyone was seated on their chocobos, Balthier spoke. "Even while riding on chocobos, this journey across the vast Ozmone Plains will take weeks to travel through. We will not be riding these chocobos for more than five hours a day, as we have a limited supply of gysahl greens to assuage their stamina. After dismounting from our chocobos, we shall find an area to retire to where there aren't such an abundant amount of fiends lurking about. No one is to separate from the group."

After the 'leading man' finished with his elucidation, the party set out towards their destination. While setting off through the narrow path out of Jahara, Penelo observed how well Vaan could navigate a chocobo and smiled again, relieved that he would be having a pleasant time as well. But she frowned as she pondered Vaan's cynical attitude towards Larsa.

He never had a problem with Larsa until now. Vaan believed that she preferred Larsa over him, and that was far beyond the truth. As irritating as Vaan could be, he was still a brother to her, and she loved him dearly. She couldn't comprehend why he would suddenly lack confidence in their close friendship.

"Penelo..?" Larsa's voice came from behind her. She immediately refocused from her trance and glanced back at him. "Are you alright?" He looked so concerned for her that it impassioned her longing to reach out and hug him. How could she be upset during such a blissful time? Larsa made her so happy whenever he was with her. She didn't want to dwell on thoughts that could dampen her wonderful time with him.

"Yes, I'm fine. I'm just concentrating on riding this chocobo. I think I'm doing well enough. I mean, I've managed to stick with everyone else." She noticed Vaan and Basch were the farthest ahead. Perhaps Vaan assumed she wanted him to leave her alone altogether during this trip? She certainly hadn't meant to insinuate that. It didn't really bother her at the moment, though; she was consummated with joy from the journey's beginning.

Larsa would point out flowers, trees, and bushes from time to time, and enlighten her on their medicinal uses, whether they were edible or not, and what climate they grew in. He would tell her stories of his childhood: of how he used to love running through Archadian plains as multicolored petals fluttered in the wind, of how he used to escape to the Tchita Downs and create tiny forts to hide in whenever he encountered a fiend, and how he used to stroll through the city in hopes of befriending someone his own age.

She adored his explanations and stories. She loved the smooth rhythm of the chocobo's steps, the tranquil wind that stroked her cheeks lightly, and the setting sun in the horizon. And when Larsa realized she was beginning to catch a chill, rummaged through his travel bag, and wrapped his large blanket around her, she felt her eyes begin to droop. Larsa was telling her another wonderful childhood story when she felt her head fall back against his chest, her eyes closed.

Larsa was nervously prattling away at his story as she snuggled up against his chest. When he finally realized she had fallen asleep, he reached out and took hold of the harness. He gazed down at her and smiled. She looked so peaceful and relaxed as she slept against his chest.

He extended his hands outward so the chocobo could see them, and pointed to each of the party members in a flourish. When the chocobo made eye contact with him to inform it had acknowledged him, he smiled, patted its head, and fed him a gysahl green. Larsa had always been astounded by a chocobo's intelligence. Nobody seemed to realize how comprehending they truly were. He knew the chocobo had understood what he meant: to follow the other chocobos while he rested. And so he carefully took Penelo in his arms, shifted around until he was lying down on his back, rested his head against the chocobo's neck, and placed Penelo on top of him.

The orange sunset highlighted Penelo's hair with a ginger glow. Her face pressed into the side of his neck, tickling him with her tiny breaths. She was so warm and cushiony that Larsa, too, found himself drifting to sleep. "Goodnight my sweet Penelo." He whispered to her, wrapping his arms around her from underneath the blanket. His eyes closed soon afterwards.

A few hours later, all the chocobos had stopped in a small field with bushes around the perimeter. Everyone jumped off their chocobos and assembled their tents. Larsa woke up begrudgingly from his pleasant rest and realized he was still lying on the chocobo with Penelo in his arms. Slowly and carefully, Larsa lifted Penelo up and jumped off the chocobo. She stirred in his arms for a moment, but Larsa soothingly stroked her cheeks until she became limp in his arms once again. He gently placed her on the ground with her head on a pillow and proceeded on starting a fire and constructing their tent. Shortly afterwards, Larsa and Penelo were asleep inside their tent.

Two months had passed by; two blissful months had already elapsed with the wonderful routine of traveling through the breathtaking Ozmone Plains. Although he knew he shouldn't, Larsa was comfortably getting acquainted with this adventurous routine. He knew one day he would return to his horrifically insipid life, but for now, he was living just for the moment. He didn't care for his possible succession to the emperor's throne later, and he cared even less for the inordinate amount of paperwork he would one day be frustrated with. The only future he looked forward to was a future sealed with peace among the nations. Aside from that, he only wanted to focus on the present.

They were in Golmore Jungle, following Fran through narrow, gloomy paths to an unidentified location. Larsa was gripping Penelo's hand tightly in fear of being separated. When Fran had stopped at a seemingly dead end, the party exchanged perplexed glances to each other. Only Balthier remained poised.

"I never knew this day would come." He said to Fran with a smirk on his face. "I wonder how they will all react?"

Fran glowered at him. "You will be as much responsible to their reaction as I shall."

He merely shrugged at her comment, completely placid by the situation. "Well, no matter. If there is no other way to break that seal, then we must do this."

"What are you guys talking about?" Came Vaan's voice. "Why are we all standing here when it's a dead end?"

"Hush…" Ashe hissed beside him, glowering. Vaan merely rolled his eyes.

"Sorry, Ashe, but your glare is nowhere near as frightening as Penelo's."

Ashe was about to squabble further, when Fran suddenly extended her arm outwards and waved it around in swirls. Light emanated from her fingers, and a hidden path was revealed. The party looked ahead in awe.

Fran led the way, and the rest followed after her into Eruyt Village.

"Geez, what a boring place!" Vaan complained to Penelo and Larsa as they left Eruyt Village. "And did you see the food they ate? Only vegetables! How can you survive on vegetables alone!?"

"Just be grateful that you don't have to live there." Penelo replied, straining her eyes in the dark Golmore Jungle. "I can't believe we have to trudge all the way back to Ozmone Plains in search of the Henne Mines, though. We're going to run out of supplies!"

"Worry not, Penelo." Larsa said, squeezing her hand in reassurance. "I brought plenty of supplies with me."

"Yeah, where do you keep all those potions of yours, Larsa?" Vaan asked with a smirk.

Larsa smiled. "Ah, my secret shall finally be exposed!" He was glad when he saw Vaan return a smile. Ever since the incident at Jahara, the two had been fulsomely formal to each other. He was relieved that that little episode had finally evaporated from their minds.

"It is very straightforward, actually." He began. "Whenever I come across a merchant, I purchase an excessive amount of potions and other medicinal herbs."

"Yeah, but where do you keep all of those medicines?" Penelo asked, curiosity piqued.

"Here, in this pouch." Larsa unwrapped the tiny pouch from his belt to show her.

"You can't even fit one potion in that thing!" Vaan said.

"Normally, you cannot. With some magicks, however, that can change. As Penelo knows very well, casting magick is not my specialty. Instead, I use motes to minimize the medicines."

"But, Larsa," Penelo protested, "when you minimize anything, its potency dwindles, too…"

"Ah, but that only pertains to animate creatures, such as humes and fiends." Larsa couldn't repress his beaming smile. For once, he knew something about magicks that Penelo didn't. "With inorganic substances, the potency remains the same. Hence why my potions and hi-potions are always so effective."

"Ha! That really is simple, isn't it?" Penelo flung her arms round his neck and locked him in her bone-crushing hug. "You're just too clever, aren't you, Larsa?" She teased. She giggled as she watched a bright red flood to his cheeks.

"I-it's very simple, really…" Larsa said humbly, his face on fire.

"All right, let's change the subject." Vaan growled, shooting jealous glares at the embrace.

"Oh, Vaan, I'm just teasing him. No need to get so irate." Penelo released her hold on Larsa. Realizing it was better to change the subject now, she added, "I wonder what Mjrn's like?"

"Just like any other Viera, I suppose: six feet tall, rabbit ears, and prancing around basically nude." Vaan mumbled. Larsa coughed to conceal his laugh.

Penelo rolled her eyes. "I meant how she is personality-wise, Vaan. Whether she's more like Fran, or like those uptight, antisocial ones we just saw."

"I hope she isn't like those other ones!" Vaan cried out. "I asked them where a bathroom was and they just stared at me and walked away! I had to go out and do my business in Golmore Jungle!"

The three burst out laughing as they returned to Ozmone Plain. As they approached an open field, they noticed two Imperial soldiers leaning against the rocky cliffs.

"What are Imperial soldiers doing here?" Balthier asked aloud.

"I don't know, but it looks as though they're injured…" Ashe stated, looking slightly worried. "What if a gruesome fiend is nearby?"

Basch approached the two and checked their pulses. "They are alive, but need medicine quickly."

Larsa rushed over to the soldiers and pressed a potion to their lips. When they recovered from unconsciousness, one soldier felicitously thanked the party for the rescue and explained where they had been.

"A dark mine, you say?" Balthier asked, raising an eyebrow and looking at Fran. "That must be the Henne Mines. I take it this mine isn't the most pleasant of places to venture through. But no matter; we must find your sister at all costs."

"Yes, we must be prepared for the worst." Fran said. "I sense grave danger here. Who knows what lurks deep within? I pray Mjrn hasn't been too reckless…"

"If she shares any of your genes, then I am certain she will find a way to escape should she be in danger." Balthier reassured her, placing his hand on her shoulder. "Let us make haste, though. I would rather get this over and done with instead of stalling."

"Be careful, your Majesty; the brush here is rather thick." Basch cautioned. He drew his sword out and cut the brush ahead of him. "Follow this trail."

Without hesitation, Ashe followed him. She trusted him completely now. She realized, as Vaan had months earlier, that Basch wasn't the culpable traitor of Dalmasca.

"I'm glad Basch and Ashe are getting along so well now." Penelo commented as she saw the two disappear within the shrubs.

"Yeah, it's better him than me." Vaan responded bitterly.

"Oh, come on, Vaan." Penelo urged. "She's not as mean as you said. If you weren't so blatantly obnoxious, then perhaps she could tolerate you."

Vaan huffed in protest. "There are just some people in this world who are better off being left alone."

"Whatever, Vaan." Penelo sighed in exacerbation. "I get along with her pretty well. Let's go now. We need to catch up with everyone."

Larsa quickly grabbed hold of her hand. "I shall help you through the brush, Penelo."

Penelo smiled at him and curled her fingers inward, feeling the smooth silk of his glove. "See, Vaan? If you were a gentleman like Larsa, then you wouldn't have such difficulties with women like Ashe." With that, Penelo and Larsa strode hand-in-hand through the brush with a steaming Vaan in the back.

As the party walked across an open field, a shadow hovered above them all. Looking up, they realized they were staring at a Wu.

The Wu beat its wings in the air furiously, creating gusts of wind that nearly knocked everyone off their feet. Basch, Ashe, and Vaan clambered around the bird and aimlessly struck at it with their swords. Balthier fired away with his gun while Fran shot frail arrows at it. Penelo started casting black magic in hopes of finding its vulnerable element. Larsa was throwing potions to any wounded party members.

All their struggling efforts seemed to be in vain: the Wu continued to strike at them in full force. The Wu let out a hair-rising shriek before swooping down and knocking Vaan and Basch off their feet. They thrashed about on the ground, clutching bleeding stomachs and struggling for breath. Larsa immediately threw a high potion at the two before he, too, was tackled to the ground, writhing helplessly on the ground.

"Larsa!" Penelo screamed. She stopped her black magic incantations and hurriedly cast a blessed Cura on him. As the warmth caressed his wounds, Larsa jumped back to his feet again. Larsa smiled at her for her rescue and was about to orally thank her but just then, the Wu swooped down and seized Penelo in its sharp talons.

"PENELO!!" Larsa bellowed. He saw her wriggling around in its tight grasp, struggling with all exertion to escape. "PENELO!" He yelled again, running towards the Wu in a mad flurry. The Wu's sharp claw was piercing her soft skin and she screamed in agony. He could see her blood oozing from her arms, neck, and thighs. The Wu's hold on her grew tighter and tighter, suffocating her and cutting off her circulation.

"LET GO OF HER!" Larsa heard himself screaming at the top of his lungs as he rushed towards the beast.

Ashe was knocked unconscious on the ground and Basch was rushing to her side. Fran and Balthier continued with their futile shots and Vaan was thrashing his sword at the Wu blindly, calling out Penelo's name desperately.

Through all of the commotion, Larsa single-mindedly focused on Penelo, who was moving violently in the Wu's talon in hopes of freeing herself, and bleeding copiously while doing so. He felt hot tears sting his eyes and his heart felt as though it had jumped to his throat.

Penelo, no…

He steadied himself, inhaled deeply, and then focused on the Wu's enormous head. He needed to compose himself, to focus clearly, or Penelo would…

I will save you, Penelo…

He clutched his sword in his hand, closed his eyes, and sliced the air before him. Behind him, he felt more than heard a massive tree uprooted from the ground, hurled into the air, and bashed against the Wu's skull. There was a deafening crack as the Wu's skull split open, and a thunderous crash as the dead beast crumpled to the ground with glazed-over eyes.

Franticly, Larsa rushed over to the Wu's talon and hacked off the piercing claws in order to free Penelo. "Penelo!!" He cried. "Penelo, can you hear me!!?" Tears spilled from his eyes, blurring his vision, as he pried her loose.

"Larsa…." She whimpered, clutching herself in hopes of staunching the blood from the deep gashes. Her lips were trembling from the pain.

"I'm here, Penelo. It's all right. I'm right here. Come here…" He uttered almost inaudibly. He lifted her from the talon and laid her down on the ground. He knelt down beside her and slid his arm underneath her neck for support. "Here, Penelo. Drink this hi-potion…" He pressed her head against his chest and rocked her back and forth lightly, stroking her face and pouring a potion down her throat.

"Larsa…" She whispered weakly in a raspy voice.

"I promise, the pain will go away soon, Penelo. The pain will go away soon…" His lips quivered frenziedly and he hovered over her protectively. He wiped away his tears before she could notice. "I'm so sorry, Penelo… I promised I would keep you safe from harm, to guard you from such terrible things…"

"You did, Larsa…" She whispered. "But how..? How did you…manage to kill it?"

He noted her cuts were starting to heal and sighed in relief. She was going to be alright. "Telekinesis… I-I have the ability to move objects with my mind." When he looked down at her again, her eyes were wide open.

"You're…telekinetic!?" She lifted herself up from the ground and looked at him in amazement. Her wounds were already nearly gone. "Why didn't you ever tell me that!?"

"I…is it a bad thing?" He asked nervously.

"Bad? Absolutely not! It's almost unheard of nowadays, and it's a very powerful techique. You have to have a very strong mind to be able to perform telekinesis. Larsa, do you know how potential that is- to know how to mentally move objects?"

"I never realized how…effective it could be until now." He said. "I've only recently discovered this ability and it is quite expedient…especially for such events as the one that has just transpired…" He bowed his head down, recalling the look on Penelo's face as she writhed around in the Wu's piercing talon.

Penelo placed two fingers underneath his chin and lifted his face so she could gaze into his eyes. "I'm fine now, Larsa. Stop blaming yourself. Let's go see how the others are doing."

She took his hand in hers, and they walked over to where Ashe was lying down. Basch was sitting next to her with a potion in hand.

"She has recovered fully." He told the two. "We shall leave soon enough. We cannot rest, so long as Mjrn is missing. The Henne Mines is only a mile or so away from here, so it shan't take much longer. How are you faring, Penelo? You worried us all."

Penelo blushed at his paternal concern. "I'm alright, Father." She teased.

He smiled. "That is good to hear. Vaan is concerned about you. Perhaps you should go see him?"

"Yeah, that's a good idea. Come on, Larsa., let's go." Penelo and Larsa walked across the field to talk to Fran, Balthier, and Vaan.

Ashe stirred and rose from the ground. "Ugh, that damned bird…" She muttered before she glanced at Basch. "Are the others alright?"

Basch nodded in reply and smiled. "Yes, everyone has fully recovered. That was quite a battle. I must say, Princess, you fight quite well."

Ashe's eyes beamed with pride. "Thank you. I've needed to survive on instinct and impulse for the past two years, after all."

"And you've managed well at that. It still surprises me, however, to see such drastic changes in you. What happened to the rambunctious, little girl I used to visit from time to time so many years ago?"

Ashe faced him and gave him a puzzled look. "You…knew me from before…?"

Basch laughed at her inquiring look. "You were quite young, so it is understandable that you do not remember. I used to visit Dalmasca regularly. I traded the finest silks for gold. The silks were admired most by your mother, and so I would visit your castle frequently to trade."

Ashe bowed her head down and closed her eyes, as if she were trying to recall a memory. "Did you…used to carry large bags with you?" She asked.

"Aye, they were completely filled with our silks. Landis was well known for the weavers. Women wove the best quality silks and linens attainable." Basch closed his eyes in reminiscence. Had it really been two years since his homeland was destroyed? It seemed to have been centuries ago…

"I remember you." Ashe said excitedly. "You would enter our castle and smile down at me. Often times, you brought a box of sweets for me."

Basch laughed as he remembered that. "Yes, you had quite the sweet tooth. I would do it furtively so your mother never knew. I never understood why the royalty were so averse to sweets. Well, you weren't at least." He looked at her and smiled again. "Those peaceful days are over now… Though it pains my heart to remember my homeland, I do not wish to ever forget it."

"Understandably so…I shall never forget my family and home. I will never forget my past before the war that raided us of everything." She glared ahead, eyes ablaze and vengeful. "I shall revenge all of those who've died unjustly. My father, my mother and siblings, and…Rasler…" Automatically, Ashe gripped her wedding band around her finger. "The Empire will compensate for all the damages they brought upon us."

"Lady Ashe, do not forget what I told you before: There is hope for peace among the nations. A treaty is the best solution."

"I don't know if I want this peace Larsa is proffering." Ashe spat out. "It seems unfair to me that he would expect me to comply after his Empire has harmed our homelands so horrendously. There must be another option that proves Dalmasca's military strength, but doesn't lead her into immoderate debt."

"And what would that option be? I know you would seek revenge, but to what extent? And with what methods?"

Ashe hesitated before answering. "The Dusk, Dawn, and Midlight shards… The indeterminate amount of power within them… What I would do to attain them all… If I could, then perhaps I could-"

"-obliterate the Empire?" Basch finished.

Ashe shook her head. "No, nowhere to that extent. If I could coerce them to return to Archades and restore sovereignty to Dalmasca, then that would suffice."

"But must you do it violently? Peace will settle the animosity between the nations. If you use such violence, Princess, then the Empire, in return, will seek vengeance. The emperor may not, but the people would. Unions formed by the public are the groups to be feared. Though an emperor rules his people, he cannot overrule a tide. Larsa is the key to peace. His soul is pure and innocent, and he seeks nothing but tranquility. A would-be emperor who would seek nothing else than that, is an emperor to be desired."

Ashe heaved a sigh. Everyone agreed with Larsa. Nobody understood the pain implanted within her heart. How could it ever heal? Vaan and Penelo seemed almost completely cured from their past losses. Why couldn't she let go and move on? She sighed again. She knew she had always been weak inside. She just couldn't find it within herself to be magnanimous enough to forgive and forget. "Let us return to this matter, later, Basch." She finally replied. "We must focus on reaching the Henne Mines."

"Yes, your Highness." The two walked towards the rest of the party.

In just a short while, the party found the entrance to the Henne Mines. Larsa gasped in shock as he observed the area. Five Draklor Laboratory members were lying on the ground, lifeless.

He released Penelo's hand and rushed over to the nearest member. "What happened? What are they doing here?"

"Research, obviously." Balthier spat out. "It sickens me how desperate they are for more power. Truly not a good sign for the war plan Vayne must be contriving now."

Larsa rose to his feet and stared at Balthier with eyes as cold as ice. "And that is the reason I am traveling with you; to prevent such a war from occurring."

Balthier looked down at Larsa with a haughty expression on his face. "We shall see how your plan works out, though I have reason to doubt it will work out at all." He left a wounded Larsa in the open field and entered the Henne Mines with the rest of the party.

Penelo wrapped her arms around Larsa comfortingly and stroked his soft, charcoal hair. "Never mind what he says, Larsa. I trust you. I know how motivated you are to bring peace to all nations. I can't tell you how much I appreciate all the effort you're putting into your plans for a brighter future. Even if Mount Bur-Omisace isn't the solution to a peace among the nations, I'll always be here to support you."

"Thank you…Penelo…" Larsa's voice wavered. But then he smiled at her with liquid eyes and took her hand in his. He brought her hand to his mouth and pecked it lightly with his lips a few times before bringing it back to his side. "I am grateful for your fidelity. Let us press on."

Once everyone was inside, Balthier cautioned the party. "Without a doubt, bats will be dwelling in such dark, damp conditions. But I must warn you all: fiends far worse lie in waiting, too."

"Beware of the mimics here." Fran counseled. "The ones from the Nalbina Dungeons feed off of electricity surges. These mimics, however, feed off of flesh and blood…"

Penelo took in a deep breath and covered her mouth with her free hand. Larsa hugged her close to his side; he was worried, too. "Penelo, you must remain by my side the entire time here. Please, please do not let go of my hand." He looked at her with fearfully wide eyes and pressed her even closer to him, as if she would evaporate should he release her.

"I promise, Larsa. Why would I want to wander away from you now? I just want to hurry up, find Mjrn, and get out of here…"

"If we stay together as a group, we will be safer." Ashe said. "Nobody is to roam about alone, understood?" She directed the command specifically at Vaan, who was looking around the mine in hopes of finding valuable loot.

"What?" He blurted out. "Aren't I allowed to look around? Sheesh…"

"Vaan, listen to Ashe…" Penelo pleaded with large, precautious eyes. "Just stick next to Basch, okay? Maybe you can learn a thing or two from him on defending yourself."

"Okay, okay… Stop worrying so much. Geez…"

The seven humes walked together accordingly: Balthier and Fran in the front, Penelo and Larsa in the middle, and Vaan, Basch, and Ashe in the back.

"So…how big are these mines?" Vaan asked.

"I do not know." Fran answered. "Not even Balthier and I have roamed completely around the Henne Mines. In fact, we've only been here once."

"Oh?" Vaan's eyebrows perked up in interest. "What brought you here? There doesn't seem to be much here."

"Oh, but there is." Balthier replied. "Those Draklor Laboratory researchers probably knew it as well. Those power-hungry mongrels would go anywhere where a means of acquiring a new power lay."

Penelo felt Larsa's hand tighten more firmly around hers in attempt to restrain himself from arguing with Balthier. She reassuringly patted him on the back and returned a gentle squeeze to his hand.

"It is recorded in history books that a power deep within the Henne Mines is dormant. If one approaches it, however, it shall awaken and strike."

"Is it some sort of esper?" Penelo asked curiously.

Balthier gaped at her in surprise. "How did you know?"

She shrugged her shoulders. "It seems pretty obvious. Espers tend to dwell in ancient areas, confined deep within so as not to be disturbed. Isn't that what the gods wanted? The gods wanted the espers to be bound to Ivalice for eternity. What better places to keep the espers than in fiend-infested places?"

"I'm quite impressed with your acumen, Penelo." Balthier complimented. "That mind of yours would do well to teach Vaan a thing or two on common sense."

"Hey!" Vaan shouted, his echo thundering across the mines. Bats from every corner scattered across the ceiling and headed towards the party, furious from the disruption of their sleep.

Fran rolled her eyes and sighed loudly. "Yes, some common sense would be very beneficial for you, Vaan." She raised her bow and arrow and started shooting the scurrying bats.

The party drew out their weapons and spread out. It only took a few moments to slay the bats before they pressed on.

Larsa threw a potion towards Vaan as he noted a gash in his arm.

"Geez, is everything in here carnivorous?" Vaan spewed out, drinking the potion offered by Larsa.

"It would seem so." Ashe said. "But I would rather not find out, Vaan."

Vaan looked at her in disbelief. "You'll blame me for anything, Ashe."

"Rightfully so." She replied laconically. The rest of the party laughed in agreement.

Vaan grumbled to himself as they walked. He looked around the Henne Mines in hopes of spotting some treasure. His eyes stopped on a shining object a few feet away. "Aha! There is treasure here!" He darted to the chest and reached out to pull open the lid, when suddenly the 'chest' leaped into the air and reformed itself. It was a mimic. It charged at Vaan and tore his flesh from his arm. Vaan shrieked in pain before drawing his sword out and stabbing at the fiend.

"Strike number two…" Balthier muttered to Fran before he loaded his gun with powder and aimed at the hideous fiend. After a few shots and strikes, the mimic keeled over dead. Vaan rubbed his arm where his flesh had been torn off and smiled sheepishly at Larsa. Larsa presented him with another potion before the party continued onwards.

"How many times does it honestly take you to learn, Vaan?" Penelo teased. "Stay with the party. Don't wander around anywhere away from the party."

"Hey, it's not my fault the thing can take any form it wants… I just wanted some treasure, that's all."

"It would do you well to keep your shield in front of you, Vaan." Basch advised. "If such an incident occurs again, then the shield would be very advantageous."

"Yeah, but I thought it was treasure. How could I open up a treasure chest when my hands are holding something else?"

"There is no tangible treasure here." Fran retorted. "The only things palpable here are the remains of those who acted as foolishly as you are doing now. Do you want your fate to become the same as theirs?"

"Fine, I won't touch anything." Vaan fumed. "There's nothing wrong with keeping my eyes open for gil or other valuable treasures. That's how I've been all my life."

"Yeah, and that's how you've gotten into so much trouble all these years." Penelo refuted.

The quarrelling ended when the party felt the ground shake beneath them. Bats scattered everywhere again, shrieking and crashing into rocks, as a massive beast roared and treaded heavily towards the party members. Larsa tugged Penelo to his side, Basch extended his arms outwards to shield Ashe and Vaan, and Balthier and Fran took a few steps backwards with gun and bow and arrows in hand. A thick-skinned dinosaur was in view, with crazed eyes and a salivating mouth. At the sight of all the humes, it sprang at them wildly. Fran, whose reflexes were quicker than anyone else's, immediately shot an arrow at its thin arm. The beast snarled loudly again, its vociferous howl booming across the mines. Bats began attacking the party members, and, in a brief moment, the dinosaur snatched Fran in its uninjured arm.

"I don't think so, you bastard!" Balthier loaded his gun and shot at the monster's eye.

On a direct hit, blood spurted from the beast's damaged eye and it staggered and stumbled around the party, trying in all its effort to steady itself. Basch, Ashe, Vaan, and Larsa swung their swords at the blood-lusting bats and Penelo aided Balthier in rescuing Fran. Balthier lifted his gun up and shot again, impairing the other eye. Blood streamed from the T-Rex's eyes and smeared its face as it howled louder. Finally, it released Fran from its grasp. Balthier dashed underneath the T-Rex and caught Fran from her fall.

The T-Rex lurched wildly about, and soon it began colliding with large rocks. Chunks of rocks tumbled downwards, separating the group in all directions. A small boulder fell and crushed Basch's leg. Vaan and Ashe rushed over to Basch's side and tried prying off the heavy boulder.

Another large piece of rock fell from the mass of stony cliffs. Larsa gasped in horror and ran to Penelo. "Penelo, look out!"

He pushed her aside and the sharp, jagged rock jabbed into his skull. The T-Rex was riotously colliding with the cliffs, and rock chunks flew in every direction. Penelo was screaming and reaching out for Larsa as rocks scattered the ground. Larsa collapsed to the ground, blood trickling down from his scalp. He was seeing everything in a faint blur and soon afterwards, everything went black.

His head was throbbing. His flesh was stinging. Slowly, Larsa opened his eyes to find himself alone in a section of the Henne Mines.

He raised a hand to his scalp and felt the raw, scabbed flesh where the rock had pierced him. He languidly reached for his tiny pack by his belt and drank a potion. As the pain on his throbbing head alleviated, Larsa became more aware of his situation.

"Penelo!!?" He screamed aloud at once. He darted his eyes timorously about, searching for her and the rest of the party. The mines were so quiet; far too quiet. A nervous sweat broke out on his skin. Where was everyone? Were they alright? Had they even survived?

"Is anyone nearby!!?" He shouted fearfully. Oh no…oh gods, no… Am I the only one-

He shook away such horrible thoughts. No, everyone had to be alive. He needed to believe in positive things. He was only separated from them. Soon enough, they would search for each other and reunite with him.

But he remembered a quivering Penelo after the battle with the Wu, a struggling Fran as the T-Rex had wrung her about. If the party needed to be together in order to defeat such fiends, then how would they manage alone?

They will be fine…they're all strong…

After calming himself down, Larsa started to consider the options of his current situation. Remaining stationary, in this case, wouldn't be so wise. He needed to seek out his friends quickly.

He brought himself to his feet and observed his surroundings again. From afar, an opening led to a narrow passage. Seeing it as the only path he could take, Larsa followed the path into another large section. As far as his eyes could see, this section seemed to stretch on everlastingly. He sighed as he realized this was his only option.

He walked for miles, looking around for any source of life. Again, the stillness in the air and the deafening silence overwhelmed him. No sign of life…anywhere. Not even fiends resided here. He was beginning to worry again. Had the T-Rex opened a new path from destroying the towering rocks?

Larsa fell to the ground again and rubbed his temples. His head was throbbing again- not from his scabbed scalp, but from the overpowering fear his thoughts induced. He brought another potion out of his sack and sipped at it lightly.

Suddenly, he heard the sound of crushing rock. He gagged and coughed when the potion went down his air pipe and choked out, "W-who's there?"

It was definitely the sound of boots walking on a rocky surface. Larsa looked around frantically in hopes of finding whatever it was that was approaching him. Instinctively, Larsa drew out his sword with shaky fingers. "Who's there!" He said, more loudly this time. He heard the crushing rocks grow louder, and knew the steps were coming from behind him. Promptly, he turned around and lifted his sword higher, preparing for the attack. Cold, nervous beads of sweat trickled down his neck and face as he discerned the form of a shadow approaching him.

Without any hesitation, Larsa sprinted towards the creature and raised his sword high for an attack. When the creature emerged into the light, however, Larsa stopped in his tracks and dropped his sword immediately.

"Penelo..?" A weight immediately lifted from his shoulders and heart. He had found her! She was alive and well!

She stood before him with a wide, close-lipped smile on her face.

"Penelo, I was worried about you. Thank goodness you're safe!" Larsa beamed at her.

Penelo remained stationary, gazing at him with a dreamy look and that close-lipped smile still stretched across her face.

"…Penelo?" Larsa said timidly. "Are you alright? You're not hurt, are you..?" He observed her from head to toe and couldn't discern any wounds.

She took a few tiny steps towards him, keeping that dazed look and smile on her face.

"Penelo..?" He was becoming very curious. What was she doing? Why hadn't she spoken a word to him yet? And…why was she staring at him so dreamily? His heart beat excitedly. He couldn't deny liking this new expression etched onto her features.

She took a few more steps closer to him, smiling. She was only an inch away from his face. He could see all her facial features so wholly now. The tiny specks of crystal blue in her eyes sparkled sensationally in the light. Larsa's heart was fluttering. Oh, temptation! What was she planning on doing?

She drew her hand out and lightly touched his face. A blush formed on Larsa's cheeks immediately, but he refused to stagger backwards. Her fingers were surprisingly cold as they fondled his cheek; normally, they were very warm. But that didn't matter to him at all. He liked what she was doing.

He exhaled more heavily. "Penelo…"

She cupped both her icy hands around his face.

And, yes! She was leaning in towards his face. Her lips brushed his cheek lightly. Her soft lips were, again, oddly cold; but he couldn't care less. Penelo's lips on his flesh- what more could he want! She smiled and gazed at him before sweeping in for a gentle kiss on his other cheek. He sighed again at the feel of her lips blessing him with a chaste kiss.

She pulled back a few inches and darted her eyes across his face, taking in all his features. She treaded her fingers down along his cheeks and all the way to the back of his neck. Slowly, she leaned in again. This time, her face didn't tilt to either side of his face.

Waves of emotion flooded Larsa then. Her lips were only a centimeter apart from his! He unconsciously closed his eyes, anxiety and excitement welled up together inside of him. Oh gods above! You are too generous!

But just before he could feel her lips press against his own, he felt an excruciatingly spastic twinge jolt through him. He clutched his stomach and felt an object wrenched into it. He looked down and discovered the object was a dagger.

"P-Penelo..?" He gasped through the shooting pain. "Why..?"

But to his horrors, he realized a change undergo the beautiful girl before him. He observed the dagger more closely and finally came to the conclusion that it wasn't a dagger at all; it was a pincer. Face contorted with pain, and skin a sickening yellow color, Larsa raised his head to look into her eyes once more.

But they weren't the majestic crystal blue eyes he had gazed into a few moments ago. No, not at all. In fact, the face before him was not Penelo's face at all. The thing before him wasn't even a hume.

It was a mimic.

Author's Note: Woohoo! A cliffhanger for the ending. : D Sorry for the wait, everyone. This time of year is the worst for me : (

Please comment on this. I'd like to know your reaction to this chapter.

Thanks again!