Progressing Through a Journey (Of Love)

Chapter 7

Author's Note: There's some more violence in this chapter, too. Again, I don't think it's too lurid, but I just want to forewarn you. Enjoy!


He felt the blood churning in his stomach and shoot up to his throat. He started spewing blood from his mouth as the mimic roughly seized him and dragged him across the hard ground. With all his might, he raised his sword and swung at the fiend. The mimic, however, was too reflexive, and swiftly speared Larsa's shoulder blade with its sharp, metal pincer.

Larsa cried out in pain as he felt more of his blood spurt out from his shoulder, and his shoulder blade crush from the massive impact. Once again, his vision was blurring. But he knew he could not black out this time, for if he did, he would never see light again.

The mimic continued dragging him across the cold ground, rocks gouging his back and head. The pain was becoming unbearable. Why didn't the mimic just kill him quickly if it wished to feast on his flesh? Perhaps it was one of those sadistic fiends that enjoyed seeing their prey grimace and suffer before dying?

Larsa's answer was soon answered, however, when the mimic brought him to a wide dwelling; a mimic dwelling. There were scores of them—tiny offspring and a few other adults—and all their metallic heads turned eagerly towards their prey. Larsa knew what his fate would be if he didn't act soon enough; they would all charge at him and tear his flesh and feed without even having the decency to kill him first.

Heart fearfully pounding against his chest, and adrenaline pumping through his veins, Larsa hurriedly swallowed a hi-potion, raised his sword again, and drove it through his predator's head. A green liquid, presumably blood, burst out of its head and contaminated the ground as the mimic thrashed wildly about on the ground. Larsa stabbed several more times into the writhing mimic before drawing his full attention to the scores of mimics before him.

Already, five were rushing towards him. The offspring, still quite paltry, tottered deeper into their nest for protection, waiting until they could feed. Dozens of adults scurried rowdily about. Larsa sliced through one mimic in mid-air and struck two across the heads, stunning them. He was about to lunge at the fourth, when another one leeched itself to Larsa's back, sinking its teeth into his flesh and lapping up the blood. Larsa hollered out in agony as he felt the mimic's fangs sink deeper and deeper into him. Another mimic started hurling into him and struck him with its pincers. Three more were already scurrying towards him.

Larsa grimaced from the superfluous pain inflicted on him. His hopes were already shattered. He could not fend off all of these mimics alone. His legs buckled, and he fell to the ground with the mass of mimics piling on top of him. They started gnawing at his flesh as he had foreseen them doing, and he attempted to strike back at as many as he could, but to little avail. He tried slipping a hand through his pouch, but the bulk of the mimics prevented even that. Eyes closed tightly and face and body contorted with dysphoria, Larsa let out one more piercing scream before he relented. All pincers and fangs mercilessly sliced through him. He wanted the pain to end. The feeling of being eaten alive was heinous enough for Larsa not to care about his life anymore.

His shredding flesh, his jolting nerves, the endless ripping and tearing…and then, all the commotion ceased.

A brisk breeze swept across the dwelling, and Larsa heard the shattering of objects. The mimics pulled away from him and he heard them screech. He opened his eyes. The scene he saw before him was completely indistinguishable from a few moments previously. Shards of glistening ice scattered the ground, and piles of mimics lay about, cold and lifeless. Larsa was in a state of confusion, but he was in too much pain to rise to his feet. What had just transpired? He struggled to keep his eyes open.

"Larsa!"

His heart nearly stopped at the sound of the voice, and he forced his eyes open. He heard a pair of feet shuffle over to him and a warm, soothing hand placed across his forehead. "Larsa!"

Larsa quickly seized both of the caring hands and drew them round his neck. "Penelo!" He placed his other hand behind her neck and pulled her head down against his sore chest. "Penelo! Penelo! My dear Penelo! Penelo!" He called out frantically. He continued to unconsciously call her name until she placed her finger on his lips to silence him.

"It's okay, Larsa. Everything's alright. The mimics are all dead now, so you don't need to panic. Look at you, you poor thing…Look at all these horrible wounds… I'm here for you. I'll take care of you now. " She picked up his pouch, rummaged through it, poured a hi-potion into his mouth, and wheedled him with her silky, delectable words until his state of shock mitigated.

As he recovered from his injuries and mental distress, he realized his head was resting on her lap. His heart beat serenely as he felt her fingers caressing his cheek. "Larsa, you had me so worried... I thought I was…too late…" She was murmuring to herself, unaware of his consciousness.

"…Forgive me…for causing you so much distress…" He responded to her, the words coming out of his cracked lips in a quiet breeze.

He was about to force himself to talk further, but paused when he felt warm liquid drip onto his face. He opened his eyes and looked up at Penelo. His heart sank seemingly to the bottom of his stomach. She was crying.

Merely seconds later, her lovely, yet heart-breaking, tearstained face pressed against his own. He could feel her wet eyelashes batting against his.

"Larsa, I thought you were dead… You weren't screaming when I finally found you, and so I thought I was too late rescuing you…"

Hearing Penelo cry splintered his heart. He had done this to her. At that moment, he hated himself for committing such a nefarious act. "I'm sorry…" He pushed out through his compressed lungs.

His recovering process was taking a while due to the severe injuries he had endured. Despite the burning sensation he was undergoing throughout his limbs and muscles, he still forced his hand to wrap around the back of her neck to comfort her. He pressed her face even harder against his, and repeatedly apologized to her.

She shook her head. "You didn't do anything, Larsa. The mimics were at fault. I was just so scared that you were…dead. But I suppose I should put the past behind me. You're alive, so I should be rejoicing instead of sulking."

"I didn't mean to hurt you, Penelo. Forgive me for causing you to cry."

Penelo tried to protest and attempted to life her head up, but Larsa wrapped his fingers behind her neck and gently pushed her head down again, her face touching his once more.

"Please…I wish to comfort you…"

She forcefully raised her head again. "Stop, Larsa. I can't lie on you like this! Look at your wounds… They've just started healing. I've probably hurt you while embracing you."

"I ache, but only slightly." He lied. "You have not inflicted any pain unto me. I am recovering. Please, lie down next to me…"

"No. You need more medicine." She shuffled to her feet and picked up his pouch. "Let me give you another hi-potion."

"Why aren't you using your white magick?" He asked. He loved the warm breezy feeling of her white magick far better than his foul-tasting potions. But a thought occurred to him. "There isn't a magicks barrier here, is there!?"

"Shhh…no, that's not the reason. Actually, I've used up my white magick. I'm unable to cast any more for a while."

"I thought you had an infinite amount of magick power…"

"Well, I have a lot of magick power, yes—so much that it isn't very likely for me to run out. But I've used a- a different…type of magicks, you could say."

Larsa strained himself to tilt his head up and look directly into her eyes. His eyebrows raised in puzzlement. "Another…type? I don't understand."

"Have you ever heard of Mist Powers before?" She kneeled down next to him so he wouldn't have to incline his head so much.

"Mist power..? I've never heard of such a thing."

"Well, it's very hard to explain, but I'll give it a try. Mist Power is a sort of…summons that you cast. It is a kind of spiritual force that causes massive, if not lethal, damage to the fiends around the area. It is exceptional to normal magicks not only because of its colossal potency, but also because it cannot be reflected or diminished in effectiveness. Depending on the level of the Mist Power, it can only take a fraction of your magick power, or it can consume all of it. In my case, I used my third level Mist Power, which ate up all of my magick power temporarily."

Larsa's eyes increased in size the more she explained the Mist Powers. "Amazing… Absolutely incredible…"

Penelo beamed as he marveled over the superiority of Mist Powers, and she rose to her feet again. "Yeah, they are pretty cool. Just look around you; you had to have realized by now that this area is completely covered in ice." She motioned her hands in a flourish to the splendor she had created.

Larsa forced himself to sitting position and gazed around the area. "Wow…" He breathed out. He was in awe. It was as though the rocky masses and ground before them were dipped in crystals and gemstones. The ice glimmered spell-bindingly in the dim light. It gave Larsa the feeling as though he was submerged in a glossy liquid hollowed out inside, or on top of a translucent surface with an endless, open sky overhead. Larsa had never seen such a wondrous sight.

"You did this?" He asked, still gaping around with a look of astonishment and admiration.

Penelo beamed once again as she noted his expression. "Yes I did. Did you know a mimic's vulnerable element is ice? That's why I chose my third level Mist Power. Look all around you; it's like an icy wonderland in here!"

"Yes, it is quite so. Have you a name for this miraculous power that creates such natural beauty?" Regaining his strength, Larsa managed to lift himself up and onto his feet. He shifted his attention fully back onto Penelo. He staggered over to where she was and reached out to hug her, when suddenly he felt a jolt run through him again. He collapsed to his knees with a worried Penelo right by his side.

"Larsa, what's the matter!? Are you okay!?"

"Yes…" He heaved. "My nerves are just a bit shaken still from what had occurred an hour or so ago. It is just a stitch; nothing more."

"You need more rest. Lie down again, Larsa." She gently pushed him down on his back and supported his neck with her arm. "Just one more potion, okay?"

Reluctantly, Larsa complied and choked down another potion before continuing the conversation. "I apologize for the postponement in conversation; but now that I feel better—might I ask what name you have for this lovely Mist Power of yours?"

Penelo shrugged her shoulders, still supporting Larsa's neck with her arm and tracing her fingers along his cheeks. "I haven't thought of any. I never really did think about doing that. I mean, I've only called it my third level Mist Power. That sounds pretty unoriginal, though, doesn't it? Well, I have no idea what to call it… Any suggestions?"

She looked down at his blossoming face and smiled. She was glad to see him recuperating from such a horrible state previously. She would be forever traumatized from what she had witnessed of the mimics' encounter with Larsa. She shuddered at the image implanted in her mind: A sharp, loud cry; green blood oozing on the ground from the slaughtered mimics; fangs sinking into Larsa's skin; another holler; frequent blows to his chest and stomach; and worst of all, Larsa's stripped and torn skin, his blood seeping out and trickling down his flesh. She shuddered again. And the condition he had been in afterwards: horrendous. She never wanted to see Larsa so battered and scabbed again. And the look on his face—the desperate, hopeless, painfully lonely look— had been heart-shattering.

I never want to see Larsa in that situation again. I will make sure he never feels so hopeless or lonesome again.

"Resplendence…" came Larsa's voice from below. He cupped a hand around her cheek and smiled back at her. "Resplendence…"

Penelo interlaced her fingers with his cupped ones, and pinkened at his blazing gaze. "Yes, that's a lovely name for my Mist Power. Resplendence; I love it." She smiled shyly as she realized his fervent gaze on her had not yet broken. "Thank you Larsa…for naming my Mist Power with a name that suits it best."

"Ah, yes. It is quite a fitting name, isn't it?" His eyes were still locked fiercely on hers.

"Y-yes…" she stammered. "For this Mist Power—it's the best name…" Her heart pounded against her chest as his eyes still locked onto hers. "L-Larsa..? Are you alright?"

"Yes, Penelo, I'm fine. I am still somewhat…dazed."

Not sure what he was insinuating from that statement, Penelo bashfully smiled again before saying, "I think you need more rest then. Once the ice melts here, we might possibly be in danger again. You should rest some more now, Larsa. You need it."

She rose to her feet again and walked a few feet away before Larsa manically called out, "Wait! W-where are you going, Penelo!?"

She smiled as she saw his worried face. "I'm not leaving you, Larsa. Goodness, don't worry so much. I'm just going to get your blanket. You left your traveling bag at the entrance to this section."

"…Alright. I apologize." He nervously wrung his hands together. He didn't want her wandering alone anywhere. As helpless as he seemed at the moment, he rather she stay with him than roam about somewhere else and get lost.

In less than a minute, she returned with his travel bag. "Silly thing. You thought I was going to leave you? In the condition you're in? I'd never leave you, Larsa; no matter what the situation. Now close your eyes, calm down, and get some well-needed rest, okay?" She sat down next to him and smiled widely.

"Aren't you going to rest as well..?" He asked.

"Nah, I'm not tired. I'll just be on the watch for anything. Now go to sleep, Larsa."

"…Penelo? Are you sure you don't want to rest?"

Penelo sighed, amusedly agitated by his concern. "Yes, Larsa, I'm very sure. Get some rest, now."

"…Penelo..?"

"Yes, Larsa?"

"…Thank you for rescuing me. I truly appreciate it…"

"Oh, Larsa! What are friends for? After all the times you've helped me, it was about time I returned the favor!"

"You needn't ever feel so obligated to return any favor to me, Penelo, because there are no favors to return. I care about you and respect you—"

"—Larsa!" She interrupted, chuckling. "Alright, alright. I know you would never hover anything over my head. I would never do that to you, either. Now for the last time, Larsa: go to sleep!"

Larsa stirred for a few more minutes, deliberating.

"…Penelo…?"

"Larsa Ferrinas Solidor! I told you to—"

"—may I rest on your lap again..?"

Penelo stopped mid-sentence, mouth agape and speechless. Looking at his wide, anxious, azure eyes, Penelo couldn't help melting over his entreaty. She felt the urge to squeeze him in a tight hug after he asked for such an innocent and harmless request. He's so sweet. And so shy…

"Of course you may, Larsa. But you must promise me you'll—"

"—yes, I shall sleep peacefully, now. Thank you, Penelo…" With that said, Larsa shuffled over to where she sat and rested his head in her lap once more.

"Rest well, Larsa." She spoke softly. She began to stroke his cheeks. She smiled down at him until his breathing amplified into long, drawn-out inhalations. And when he finally drifted into a deep slumber, she was still smiling.


A few hours later, Larsa woke up to find Penelo sleeping in sitting position. The ice that had surrounded them and protected them from the mimics had thawed out completely. All around the area, the carcasses of the dead mimics lay. Fortunately, the mimic corpses didn't release a pungent, noisome smell.

He rose himself up from her warm lap, and was pleased to realize he had completely recovered from his injuries. Although they were lost in a very hostile environment, Larsa was relieved to know Penelo was alive. He sat beside her and reached out to her, pulling her onto his lap. But at that moment, Penelo stirred.

"Huh..? Oh, hi Larsa…" She yawned and smiled at him.

"Hello. How did you sleep?" He teased.

"Sorry about that… I didn't realize I was so tired. Are you feeling better now?"

"I feel completely rejuvenated, thank you. I'm glad you are well rested now, too." He looked around and noticed their dim surroundings. "Nightfall must be upon us now." He observed.

"Yeah, how are we going to find the others now?" Penelo asked worriedly. "Do you think they've rested, too?"

Larsa let out a disgruntled sigh. Their entire situation was overwhelming. They didn't know where they were, and they couldn't even corroborate whether the others had survived or not. But he couldn't let his hopes down; especially since Penelo had the tendency to worry too much.

"I believe they're all fine, Penelo." He assured her. "Most likely, they are resting now as well. After all, it is quite futile to wander around in the dark. Shall we rest the remaining night here? I doubt other mimics could be lurking about in this area. You said earlier that you've extirpated the nest in this dwelling, did you not?"

"Yeah, every mimic died from Resplendence. And I've regained a fraction of my magick, too."

"Very well. I don't believe any other fiends would be in this area. Come; let us prepare a makeshift bed to rest on for the remaining night." He searched through his travel bag and set up their tent. Penelo gathered flint and moss growing on rocks and started a fire with the remains of her magicks. The two sat by the fire together; hands interlaced, and passed time while waiting for their eyes to grow heavy with tiredness once more.

Larsa contemplated for a while before he spoke.

"Penelo?" He started, looking hopefully at her.

"Hmm? What's the matter, Larsa?"

"Well, sitting here has allowed me to reflect over personal matters. And I was wondering—have you ever felt ashamed of yourself?" He looked at her with wide, expectant eyes.

She was baffled by his question. "Well, many times, of course. Whenever my parents would admonish me for misbehaving, I'd feel shameful. Why do you ask?"

He bowed his head down. "I was merely wondering whether others felt that way, too. I am always ashamed of myself…"

Penelo shifted her body towards him, waiting for him to expatiate. "What has made you feel so ashamed?"

"I've been so oblivious… My naivety astounds me." He let out a terse chuckle before continuing. He turned his head in her direction, and bore his eyes into hers. "I doubted your perceptions of my brother the first time we met. Do you remember that splendid day, Penelo? I had been so thrilled to meet you…and then I acted like quite the insensible fool."

"No you didn't…"

He tilted his head upwards and stared ahead into the distance. "Your perceptions of my brother, Vayne, were true. Do you not remember how intruding his name alone had been to you that day I mentioned it? You were so fearful of his intentions and motives—and rightfully so. And I had tried to deter you from thinking such thoughts, because I thoughtlessly adulated him then. I was such a fool. It shames me even now to think of how much I had revered him."

Penelo soothingly placed her hands on each of his shoulders, and gazed into his eyes, smiling slightly. "Larsa, you're still young. You learn through experience; it's part of the growing process. You didn't know how your brother would be then. It's perfectly normal to look up to your brother the way you did. Unfortunately, Vayne tarnished his reputation through his military antics. But you shouldn't be ashamed of yourself for believing in him."

"All my life, I trusted him unconditionally. Even after the war of two years ago, I felt nothing but reverence towards him. I thought his motives were beneficial to all nations. But our present situation reveals otherwise."

"But we're going to fix that problem, Larsa. That's why we're all traveling with you. We don't want to see another war between the nations, either."

"Am I being too hopeful by believing our journey to Mount Bur-Omisace will prevent another war?"

"I think you're trying your hardest to accomplish what you set out for, Larsa; and that's all that matters in the end. Whether our visit to Mount Bur-Omisace is successful or not doesn't matter."

"But if I fail, I will become a laughingstock before the people of my nation as well as others. I would be regarded by them as overly confident in my incentives and naïve…"

"That would be their mistake, not yours. I would always support you." Larsa smiled at her words, and she gave an encouraging squeeze to his hand.

"But you still haven't completely answered my question." Penelo said. "Why are you always ashamed of yourself?"

"I suppose I'm just very self-deprecating. House Solidor requires stern discipline towards the behavior and actions of a possible heir to the Archadian throne. The son of an emperor must exceed the high expectations of his father. Whenever I fail at a goal I've set out to accomplish, I'm quite critical of myself. The burden of being an heir to the Empire is quite heavy upon my brother and me."

"I can only imagine," Penelo said, "how difficult it is for you to carry such a burden on your shoulders. It must be so stressful to worry about others and what they think of you before worrying about yourself. But it's wrong. No child should ever have to suffer from such responsibility."

They both sat for a few silent moments, pensive, until another personal question stirred within Larsa.

"How was your mother before…the war occurred two years ago, Penelo?" Larsa faced her again, expectantly waiting for her answer. He craved for any information about a mother and her affection towards her children.

She sighed before beginning. "Well, I'm not too good with words to describe how wonderful she was." She sighed again. "Where to begin? I remember how cheerful she used to be. Her smile was infectious—just like yours, actually."

"My smile?" Larsa asked with both amusement and surprise embedded in his eyes.

Penelo started to laugh. "You have a wonderful smile, Larsa. It always brightens my mood when I see it."

"Well, I'm glad to hear that. Your mother's smile must have been hereditary, because I loveyour smile." He noted her blush and grinned.

"Anyway," she continued, "her personality was always upbeat and positive, no matter what situation she was placed in. She used to tell me to always think optimistically, for life had too many obstacles and problems in the way to wallow in misery whenever the goings got tough."

"I'd say you heeded her advice quite admirably, then."

"Really? That's good to hear."

"Yes, as your smile is contagious, so is your personality, Penelo."

"You are such a flatterer, Larsa." She chuckled.

"My thoughts of you are always genuine. But pardon me again; please continue."

She nodded and pressed on, reminiscing on the pleasant days before the tragic war. "She was always so dedicated to our family. She loved us all irrevocably. Whenever we were sick, she would cradle us and sing in her sweet voice. Whenever she became angry, her face would flush a flaming red, and she had this really malicious glare that made even the strongest, towering men cringe."

Another inherited trait. Larsa thought, chuckling to himself. But he didn't say it aloud, lest he receive her penetrable glare himself.

"She provided us with the best knowledge, nourishment, and care. Whenever we needed to be comforted, she was always there for us. Every night when we were little kids, she'd go into our rooms and read us stories till we fell asleep. She was a fair disciplinarian, too. Boy, did we ever get a spanking if we misbehaved! And she supplied us with the greatest advice when dealing with difficult issues in life."

Penelo paused a moment before continuing. "Her last caring advice to me was: 'Penelo, you must never give up on the cruel times of your life; always prevail over them. No matter what happens, no matter what obstacles lay before you, just know that I'm always here for you, whether it be physically or in spirit.' A month later, the war separated us."

Penelo didn't speak for a while afterwards, and she lowered her head.

Larsa's heartbeat started to race as he noticed her lips begin to tremble.

"No, please don't cry!" He promptly pulled her in an embrace and pressed her face against the crook of his neck. His right hand supported the back of her neck while his other hand locked around her waist. "I'm so sorry! I had no intention of hurting you! I had only meant to learn more about biological mothers. I am so selfish to have asked you when you are still recovering from such a loss. Please forgive me! I promise I will never—"

"—Larsa…" Her muzzled, quivering voice came. Immediately, Larsa ceased talking so that he could listen to her.

"Larsa, it's okay. You didn't do anything wrong. I wanted to tell you about my mother. I tend to get a bit teary-eyed, though, so please don't blame yourself."

"Penelo, I don't want to see you cry…"

But just at that moment, Penelo felt the tears start to leak out from her moist eyes. She tried to pull away so he wouldn't feel them against his neck, but his hold on her was too firm, and the tears trickled down his neck.

"Nooooo……" He moaned as he felt her tears on his skin yet again. "I was an imbecile to have asked such a personal, pain-inducing question! Look at what I've done to you…" He cupped both his hands around her tear-sodden cheeks and delicately lifted her face up towards his. He raked his eyes over her face and, although the sight of Penelo crying was most upsetting, he felt his heart literally liquefy from her glory.

"I'm not normally this mopey, Larsa. I usually don't break down and cry like this."

"No, don't accuse yourself of being weak, Penelo…"

Penelo broke into a large smile, however, as she recalled another custom of her mother. "Now I remember another routine my mother used to do for me whenever I was sad. She used to hold me whenever I had a rough day and soothe me with her gentle words until I stopped crying."

"Then I shall do just the same." Larsa said. And he buried his face between her shoulder and neck and crooned soft, comforting words to her until the tears that soiled her face desiccated. When she finally drew her head up and smiled at Larsa, he returned the smile and reached for a handkerchief in his pants pocket.

He extended the handkerchief outwards. "Would you mind dowsing this in cold water, Penelo?" He asked. She pointed at the handkerchief and cast Water on it. With the cold handkerchief in hand, Larsa tenderly wiped Penelo's puffy eyes and cheeks to reduce the inflammation.

"Thank you Larsa." She said timidly.

"Penelo, please forgive me for being so selfish. I just…longed for information about a mother. I…wanted to understand how it is like to have a mother provide and care for her children…"

Pity swept over Penelo at that instant. "Larsa…you aren't selfish for wanting to know about a mother which you've been deprived of in your life. Please, don't restrain yourself from asking me anything about a mother."

Larsa's eyes glimmered with emotion. "Is it true…that a mother sympathizes with her children? Does a mother cradle her children when they are troubled, and support them when they are placed in a difficult situation?"

"Yes, mothers are very nurturing that way. They know how their children feel, and they can empathize with them. A true mother loves her children irrevocably—and she shows it, too."

Larsa bowed his head down and closed his eyes. "It…must be wonderful to have a mother such as that. A mother who would support me when I need it. A mother to kiss away the few tears I've shed all my life when I couldn't suppress them inside any longer. A mother to ease the many tensions and frustrations I've dealt with in life. I wonder how that would be… But I must admit; I haven't been entirely deprived of a motherly figure. Drace has always supported me."

"Drace?"

"She is my surrogate mother. Of course, her duties restrict her from catering to my every desire, but she has played the largest motherly role in my life. Rather, she has been the only motherly figure in my life. Though she is prohibited from touching the royalty in any manner after I no longer needed suckling, she would sometimes steal through the hallways and enter my bedchamber to read me a story. Oh, how I loved those rare nights. She would read me the most adventurous children stories until I fell asleep."

"That was very kind of her. What would've happened if she were caught doing that, though?"

"For royalty in general, she would most likely be prosecuted. But because of my father's magnanimity, he would probably warn her not to do it again, lest she be released from her duty permanently."

"She is a very loving woman, then—to risk so much just to see you. She must truly care about you."

"Yes, I will be forever grateful to her. I, too, respect her and care for her. But…although she has provided for me in every way achievable, I still yearn for more… Why is that so, Penelo? Am I being selfish?" His eyes shifted to the ground shamefacedly.

"Not at all, Larsa. In fact," she started saying, placing her hand on his cheek, "I know what you really desire, because you've been devoid of it all your life."

Larsa placed his hand over her hand that was cupping his cheek, and waited eagerly for her to finish.

"This." She gestured to her hand wrapped around his cheekbone, and to his hand desirously clutched around hers. "Touch—the physical contact of another hume. You've been devoid of it your entire life. I've noticed that about you since the first time we met; the way you firmly wrapped your fingers around mine before leaving the Lhusu Mines, the way you try to make a hug or caress last as long as possible. You've never had anyone to comfort you that way. And you might not have realized it yet, but I do; every hume needs to feel another hume's flesh against their own. The comforting warmth it emanates is soothing, and it displays affection. Touch is one major factor for expressing love, and it is an essential. That is why you desire more of Drace; you wish for her to hug you and comfort you in ways words alone cannot achieve."

She smiled as she realized Larsa was now grasping her one hand with both of his, unwilling to let go. She stretched her other hand forward, and placed it behind his neck, pulling him forward. Larsa did not hesitate. He nudged his head underneath her chin and pressed his face into her collarbone. He released his grip on her hand and slid them around her waist. He sighed in contentment at the feel of her warm and smooth skin. He was aware of his true desires. Nothing was as heartening to him as the feel of Penelo's skin on his own.

"Yes," he breathed, "this is what I desire most. I understand my longings now…" The softness and tenderness of a woman—and not just any woman for that matter, but for Peneloalonewas all Larsa needed to sate his pining thirst for affection and reassurance.

They remained in their embrace for an indefinite amount of time; Larsa's slow, peaceful breathing stroking her neck and collarbone.

After a while, the two heard a scuttering from a distance. Immediately, Larsa raised his head and looked around.

"Who's there!?" He shouted. More scuttering was heard. Larsa rose to his feet, sword in hand, and stealthily walked towards the sound of scurrying feet.

"Larsa..!" Penelo whispered harshly, grabbing his hand and trying to pull him back down.

"I promise I will return. For our safety, I must see what is producing that ruckus. Please remain here." Larsa pulled his hand from hers and continued walking. He approached the opening of a cave and looked inside. He gasped in horror and hurriedly ran to Penelo.

"What's the matter?" Penelo asked nervously.

Larsa was panting heavily, regaining his breath so he could speak. "There are…more of them. More…mimics in that cave."

"No..! How are we going to bypass them?"

"There are other paths we can take. Let us hurry, Penelo." He hastily collected his tent and blanket and placed them in his traveling bag. He seized her hand and the two hastily ran towards another opening. A low, rumbling growl was heard, and heavy feet that stomped across the ground were booming against the rocky walls. Although the grumbling sound was faint, it still panicked the two.

"What is that!?" Penelo asked frantically.

"I don't know, but it most certainly doesn't sound good…" Larsa tugged on Penelo's arm, pulling her right by his side. "Oh, what other beasts must we encounter!?"

Behind them, the scurrying of the mimics amplified. Larsa took a glance backwards.

"No!!" He screamed. The mimics had found them, and they were giving chase. "Faster, Penelo!" He pulled harder on her arm and doubled his speed.

The booming against the walls was growing more thunderous. Most likely, the mimics were fleeing from that noise as well. But now that they had detected Larsa and Penelo, their frightened frenzy was replaced by their maddening appetite.

Penelo's lungs were on fire; they felt as though they would burst. "Larsa," she panted, "I can't..." Her legs were burning, and her stomach contracted tightly from the speed. She was beginning to stumble upon the rough, rocky ground.

"Please, Penelo! You mustn't give up!" Larsa was flustered by their situation. How could he protect Penelo against all of these mimics, as well as avoid whatever it was that was thundering from another section of the mines? They both entered another vacant section of the mines. They raced on, desperately searching for an opening that could lead them out of the long pathways. Their hearts sank when they reached the end of the section.

"A dead end…" Penelo whimpered, heart rate accelerated and legs quivering. "Larsa…" She whispered, gripping his hand harshly.

"Penelo! Are you able to perform Resplendence?" He asked anxiously. He looked ahead and watched as the mimics drew nearer and nearer to them. He drew out his sword, preparing to slaughter as many mimics as he could.

"No… my magick power still hasn't completely replenished. I'm so sorry…"

"Don't blame yourself. We must fight as many as we can. Can you cast a few Blizzara spells?"

She nodded briefly. "I'm fighting right alongside of you this time, Larsa."

Larsa rushed towards the oncoming mimics and mercilessly sliced through as many as he could. The mimics crowded around him, but Penelo cast a Blizzara, repelling them. The mimics then shifted their attention to Penelo. Larsa extended his hand in front of Penelo in attempt to protect her. He started striking every mimic in sight. One launched directly at his stomach, knocking the wind out of him. Penelo rapidly cast a Cura on him before enchanting another Blizarra unto the mimics. They were able to kill a reasonable amount of mimics, but the mimics outnumbered them immoderately still…

They were slowly edging towards a corner. Larsa started losing all hope for survival. He cried inside, because he knew how ominous their situation was. With the possibility of defeating the mimics diminishing every second, he grabbed hold of Penelo and pinned her against the wall.

"What are you doing!?" She gasped, struggling to free herself from his firm grip.

He pressed his back hardly against her, and he extended his arms outward to shield her.

"Stop, Larsa! Let me fight beside you!"

"I shall protect you, Penelo." He said, and then he received a terrible pierce to his stomach from one of the mimics. He gasped from the pain, but refused to lessen his hold of her.

"Larsa, please! Don't do this!" She tried in all effort to free herself from his forceful hold. She pushed against his back, but he would not budge; he was too strong for her. Realizing her attempts to free herself were futile, she relented and cast another Cura on him. Then, she cast Blizzara on the mimics crowding around them, exhausting all the magick left in her.

"I ran out of magick power..." Her lips began to quiver as she realized their fate. She pressed her face into his back and wrapped her arms around his waist. More mimics, still, were creeping towards them. "I'm so sorry, Larsa…"

"No…" Larsa moaned. He needed to contrive a plan to save Penelo. If he died, Penelo would be left all alone to fend for herself. He desperately looked around, searching for anything that could at least ward off the mimics. The only thing that surrounded them was the rocky cliffs. He drew out his sword and struck three other mimics. Other mimics started sprinting towards him.

The T-Rex had been able to demolish the cliffs so facilely. And the outcome had proven to be so efficacious… If only he could somehow bring the walls down…

His heart nearly stopped from his revelation. That was it! He needed to bring the cliffs down! Determination to survive once again swept over him as he became enlightened of the solution. He could cause the cliffs to tumble down with his own strength; with telekinesis. Hope restored, Larsa sliced the few mimics immediately before him, and started to focus.

"Penelo, I will save you."

She raised her head up from his back. "Larsa?" Curiosity and hope began to seep into her once more as she heard his placid tone of voice.

"A moment please, Penelo." He strained his eyes and concentrated. He could uproot trees from the ground; surely he could cause the walls to cave in? And he felt it—felt his mind straining and flexing at his command. He shifted his attention onto the rocks and flexed once more. The rocky cliffs started to vibrate. He strained harder, contracting and loosening his mind alternately.

Finally, he felt the weight of the rock above his head, and looked up and saw a large chunk lingering over his head. He mentally thrust the chunk of rock forward, and the actual rock lurched towards the swarm of mimics. The mimics witnessed the flying rock and scuttled away.

Penelo gaped in awe. She squeezed his arm and encouraged him. "Yes, Larsa! Keep going!"

He smiled and thrust another rock from the wall at the mimics. Soon, he was able to thrust clusters of rocks. They started flying in every direction. They crushed mimics underneath, and smashed against their heads. The walls started tumbling down, until the mimics before them were covered entirely. They squirmed around from underneath the rocky masses, but the impact eventually crushed them down and rendered them lifeless.

He had done it! He had annihilated all the mimics and saved Penelo! He was so thrilled by his accomplishment, but he was also quite fatigued from all the mental force he put upon himself. And so he felt his knees buckle, and felt himself collapsing onto the ground. Penelo kneeled down beside him and mustered up the strength to hoist him upwards. She gently placed his back against the heaps of rocks. He was panting profoundly, but he still smiled at her.

She sprung at him and wrapped her arms around his neck. "Larsa, you did it again! You saved us both when our situation seemed so hopeless."

He chuckled as she hugged him so fiercely. "Well, I am your protector—your guardian—after all. Am I not?" He grinned at her.

She lifted her head off his chest so she could look directly into his shimmering eyes. She placed a hand around the curve of his cheek. "My guardian…" She confirmed with a proud smile on her face. She drew her face closer to his, and nestled her right cheek on his left. "My hero…" She whispered lightly in his ear. She twisted her head ever so delicately to the right, her lips brushing slightly against his cheek. She drew back an inch, and dove in for a swift kiss on his cheek.

Larsa took a sharp intake of breath as he finally felt the real Penelo's lips on his flesh. He teemed with excitement and pleasure as her moist lips left a hot mark on his cheek. A few drones passed through his lips as she moved onto the other side of his face with another brief, but satisfying kiss. His face was a scorching red, his heart a pulsating drum, and his stomach felt hollowed out. Her lips were so luscious and full; this exceeded his expectations of how they'd feel on his skin.

She rested her cheek against his afterwards. Just as soon as the pleasing moment had come, it had ended far more quickly.

But Larsa yearned for more. Desire gleamed in his eyes. He was just about to proceed from her previous ministration, when her head rose up in alert.

"Larsa, do you hear that?"

Coming back to his senses, Larsa looked at her alarmed face. "I'm sorry?"

"That sound… I hear that stomping again…"

Larsa listened intently. She was right; the booming treading and rumbling noise from before echoed from distant walls. "Oh, heavens above!" He cried aloud, exacerbated. "What else must we face and endure!?"

They heard the fluttering of bats and the roar of whatever entity lurked behind the remaining stony walls.

"It's coming from over there." Penelo pointed straight ahead from where they were sitting.

"Then we must change our course, lest we encounter yet another formidable fiend. Come, Penelo. I'm afraid we must rise again and flee. Oh, will we ever rest tonight?" He exhaled in a wearied manner. He rose to his feet and extended his hand out for her. He took a few quick steps before Penelo released his hand. Confused, he looked at her quizzically. "Penelo?"

"That roar—it sounds so familiar, though…"

Larsa shot another inquiring glance at her. "Penelo, we must hurry. That fiend is approaching us!" He ran to her side and seized her hand in his again. But she shook it away. "Penelo," he said in an emphatic tone, "as we stall, the fiend is only advancing closer upon us. Let us leave now."

But surprisingly to him, she took a few steps towards the echoing roar. "No, wait. I'm pretty sure I've heard this creature before…"

Confounded by her eccentric behavior, Larsa ran to her and grasped her arm, pulling her toward his direction.

"Stop Larsa!" She forcefully wrenched her arm out of his grip.

"Penelo, please…" He beseeched. But yet again to his astonishment, Penelo started to break out on a run towards the creature's voice.

"NO!!" He shouted, sprinting after her. "Penelo, what are you doing!?" In a few short moments, he caught up to her and bound her in his arms again.

"Let go, Larsa!"

"Penelo, why are you acting so rashly!? I implore you to avoid that creature!"

"I'm almost positive I know what that beast is! It'll help us! I'll have to show you, though, because I don't have time to explain what it is and how it'll help. We have to hurry before we lose it!"

She struggled to free herself, but he refused to release her. She glared at him, causing him to recoil, but his hold on her remained ever strong. Reasoning the vainness of straining against him, she opted instead to cajole him.

"Larsa, don't you trust me? You know I wouldn't act without thinking first, don't you?" She frowned and gazed at him with the most offended, pained expression she could generate. To her amazement, she noticed Larsa's eyes literally melt into a pool of emotion.

Overcome with regret for what his actions had implied, he swept her in a passionate embrace. "My trust for you will remain forever staunch, Penelo. Do you not realize that by now? Please forgive me for leading you to believe otherwise."

Although Penelo always enjoyed hugging Larsa, she knew she couldn't prolong their embrace at the moment. She patted his back momentarily, and promptly pulled away.

"Save this for later, Larsa. We need to hurry."

Disappointed, Larsa ruefully freed her from his hold. "…Alright."

The moment his arms left her waist, Penelo raced through the narrow passageways and followed the sound of the roaring beast with Larsa following after her. As the beast's cries escalated, Larsa grew more concerned, but he promised himself that he would not deter her from her thoughts. If she truly believed the beast would be beneficial to their cause, then he would faithfully follow her anywhere she went. And even if her judgment were incorrect, he'd be there to protect her.

At last, Penelo halted at an open section. "There it is." She breathed out.

Larsa turned his head to where she was staring, and gasped in horror. Penelo started to spring towards it. Larsa couldn't help worrying again. He truly trusted Penelo's discretion, but the beast's shadow alone was alarmingly fearsome.

Penelo stopped right before the beast. Larsa followed suit and gaped wide-eyed at the monster as he finally saw it in the light. It was over ten meters tall and easily five meters wide. Its four arms could easily crush the two of them with little effort. At the moment, it was effortlessly gnawing at a dozen fluttering bats in the air, emitting its earsplitting howl throughout the mines. Involuntarily, Land threw his arms around Penelo protectively. But Penelo merely laughed aloud and kissed him on the cheek. Despite the fear induced within him, Larsa's heart flickered with exhilaration as she nonchalantly kissed him without hesitation.

"Yes! I was right! It's Belias, Balthier's Esper!" She shouted joyously, waving her hands in the air.

"Balthier's Esper? Penelo, what are you saying?"

Looming from behind the giant beast was none other than Balthier, his lips raised in his inveterate smirk.

"PENELO!" A cry came from behind Balthier.

"Vaan!" Penelo hollered in return. "Basch! You're all safe!" Penelo grabbed Larsa's hand and led him to the other party members. Vaan raced to Penelo and lifted her off the ground. Basch and Balthier nodded to Larsa and smiled at the best friends' reunion.

Vaan crushed her to his chest and placed incessant kisses across her forehead. At the sight, Larsa felt his blood boil and he tightened his fists at his sides. His heart started to sting the longer their embrace carried on. He suddenly felt the urge to go up to Vaan and snap his head—and notably his lips—away from Penelo's luminous face. This feeling Larsa experienced inside of himself was foreign to him, and it perplexed him. Was it anger? Jealousy? His protective instincts? An amalgamation of all of them? He couldn't place his finger on one certain emotion, but he knew the feeling inside of him now was not a pleasant one. He felt guilty for feeling this way about one of his friends— especially after just reuniting with him—but it came naturally to him. He did not want to see Vaan—or any man for that matter—embrace Penelo so; save himself, of course. When Vaan eventually released his hold on her, Penelo rushed back over to Larsa and wrapped her arms around his waist, who in turn locked his arms possessively around her. He smiled again; the incongruous and foul feeling inside of him diminishing already.

"Don't forget to greet Larsa, too, Vaan!" Penelo exclaimed. "If it weren't for him, I wouldn't have survived."

"Hey Larsa! I didn't know you were with Penelo the whole time. Thanks for taking care of her again." Vaan approached Larsa and patted him on the back.

"Hello, Vaan. I am glad to see you have been managing well. But where are the Lady Ashe and Fran?" Larsa peered over Vaan's shoulder to see a disgruntled Balthier and Basch.

"Unfortunately we were separated from them at the beginning…" Basch muttered disappointedly.

Balthier inhaled sharply, deeply frustrated by the situation as well. "We have been searching everywhere. Hopefully they are together…"

"Well, with Belias, I shouldn't think it'd be that difficult to find them." Penelo chimed in optimistically.

"Yes," Basch agreed, "it has been quite effortless with Balthier's Esper. Yet I am still worried about Fran and Her Highness… We must continue our search of them."

"If Princess Ashe is with Fran, then I'm sure she is safe." Balthier assured Basch. "Fran's acute hearing and smell will prevent the two of them from encountering any undesirable monsters, and she is quite talented with escaping from danger. But I still worry about her, as any caring partner would. So, as you said, let us make haste."

The party gathered all their belongings and set off for the search of the two missing women. Belias led the way through the tangled pathways.

"Penelo," Larsa started, taking her hand in his, "what is this mystical beast of Balthier's?"

"Oh, I'm sorry, Larsa. I forgot to explain." She smiled and continued. "Well, this beast, Belias, is called an Esper."

"Oh yes, I do recall you saying that. And what makes an Esper differentiate from any other monster?" Larsa was fascinated by the supernatural beast. He never knew a beast could be so docile and servile to a hume.

"Well, I don't know much about them, either, but I've learned that they were rebellious entities who were doomed by the gods to remain on Ivalice for all eternity."

"My goodness; they must've done something quite immoral to have had such a curse placed upon them!" Larsa was dumbfounded by the Espers' recondite history that had been unbeknownst to him for all of his life. It only widened the gap between his political knowledge and his expertise of the magical history of Ivalice. He was simply stunned by how little he truly knew of Ivalice's history.

"Yeah." Penelo agreed. "And now they are condemned to serve humes, should we conquer them."

"Amazing…" Larsa breathed out. He gazed at Penelo with enthrallment. "I have learned more from you about this world's magical history than I have all my life. Thank you very much for enlightening me, Penelo." With an innocent grin on his face, he stopped in his tracks and placed numerous kisses on Penelo's hand, provoking an envious Vaan beside him.

"I think we should hurry up and follow them before we get lost, Larsa." Vaan blew out through his gritted teeth.

As soon as he heard Vaan's peremptory tone, Larsa regretfully ceased his ministration. After the wonderful—and absolutely terrifying— night alone with Penelo in the Henne Mines, Larsa was easily accustomed to lavishing his attention fully onto her. But now, it seemed he would have to be more careful of what he said or did, unless he wished to deal with Vaan and impair their friendship.

"Vaan," Penelo interrupted, "I don't see what the problem is. Larsa isn't holding us back. He was just commenting on what I knew about the Espers—that's all."

"Yeah, but does he have to do that?"

"Do what? I saw nothing wrong with what he did. He was just thanking me for explaining the history of the Espers! I'm not going to argue with you on this anymore, Vaan. Let's just go, okay?"

"My apologies, Vaan." Larsa said diffidently. "I hadn't meant to instigate…"

Vaan heaved a sigh, feeling regretful for his bad temper. "No, it's okay. I tend to overreact sometimes when I'm stressed. Sorry Larsa…"

"Come on, guys." Penelo spoke up again. "Let's make this Henne Mines trip as pleasant as it can possibly be."

The three followed after Balthier and Basch into another dreaded section of the mines. Balthier stopped in his tracks.

"Do you hear that?" He asked the others. Larsa automatically strengthened his hold on Penelo, wary of any other fiends that could endanger them.

Vaan furrowed his eyebrows together as he strained his ears. "It sounds like someone's running..."

"This way!" Basch commanded the party, and he took a sharp right into a very constricted path. The rest followed suit and eventually came into a wide opening. There, they all saw a crazed Viera with glowing red eyes pointing at someone.

"Fran! Ashe!" Balthier shouted, running towards them with the party following behind.

The two women were standing side-by-side, staring ahead at the distraught Viera. The Viera was pointing directly at Ashe with wary, loathing eyes and a disgusted grimace upon her face.

"Stay away! Power-needy hume!!" She bellowed, and then she fled away with her skewed body.

"Mjrn!" Fran cried out, and she gave chase to her younger sister.

"That's Mjrn!?" Penelo asked bewilderedly. She would have never thought Fran's sister would be so cruel and awry.

"Something's wrong with her." Ashe said. "We must follow Fran and help her!"

But the ruckus they produced, as well as the scent of all the humes in one gathered place, lured in a giant wyrm. The wyrm roared in a thunderous tone and panicked the party. They all turned to face the savage beast and stared at it in a state of shock. The wyrm's legs alone were larger than each party member, and its razor sharp teeth glistened with saliva. With another piercing howl, it charged at them.

Belias intersected and clasped the wyrm's head in two of its mighty hands. With its other two hands, Belias began pounding against the wyrm's skull. Balthier and Basch struck at the wyrm's legs while Vaan and Ashe struck at its underbelly. For a moment, Larsa could only stare in disbelief at Belias's might. When Penelo began to cast Aero, however, Larsa refocused and ran ahead to aid Vaan. The wyrm refused to succumb, and it fought back with utmost vigor.

After a while, Vaan stopped striking at the beast and concentrated on a certain, unidentifiable incantation. Larsa noticed everyone else ceased what they were doing, and also concentrated on a spell. Suddenly, Vaan was airborne, floating in the air and twirling around like a tornado. Balthier followed suit with a powerful explosive spell, Ashe produced large bolts of lightning, and Basch fired a powerful stream-like magick spell. Penelo ended the performance with a spin and whirls of magicks spewing from her hands. The wyrm howled in pain and collapsed lifelessly to the ground, limp. After the commotion, Vaan and Penelo high-fived and complimented on each other's Mist Powers.

"Penelo," Larsa intervened, "you used another Mist Power?" He was simply awe-struck by the scene that had just played before him.

"Yes!" She answered excitedly. "You just witnessed a chain of Mist Powers, Larsa."

Larsa marveled at her. "Penelo," he said, chuckling as he spoke, "the more time I spend with you, the more speechless I become. I am truly stunned by everyone's ethereal abilities. Truly amazing…" He gazed at Belias, and then glanced at everyone. What more magickal powers did they hold? His telekinetic powers now seemed so frail and feeble compared to their aptitudes.

"Forgive me for the intrusion of your thoughts, but we must search for Fran now." Balthier said in a jostled voice.

The party complied and traveled through another narrow passage. As they entered another wide opening, they noticed Fran cradling her sister, who seemed to be unconscious. Manufacted nethicite lay beside them, baffling Larsa. Why had Mjrn been carrying around Archadian nethicite? And what had caused her to behave so idiosyncratically from a Viera's usually calm and collected composure?

"Let us enter the small room behind me." Fran abruptly suggested.

When Mjrn finally awoke, she explained her encounters with the Archadian soldiers. She described how the nethicite given to her had driven her mad. She said the power of the nethicite frightened her.

Larsa's heart pumped chillingly as he listened to Mjrn's story. He turned and faced Penelo.

"Penelo, that stone I gave you—do you still carry it with you?" He wanted to punish himself in some way for acting so insensibly. How could he have given her something that was life-threatening?

"Yeah, it's right here." She took it out of her pocket and showed it to him. The moment she placed it in his sight, he snatched it from her hands, eager to take the wretched thing away before it did anything to her. She gasped in surprise at his prompt action.

"Larsa..?"

He glowered at the stone with a newly formed revulsion. He abhorred anything that could potentially harm the one he cared for most. His blood rushed fearfully through his veins at the thought of Penelo being stone-cold and lifeless from it…

"This…is a more dangerous thing than I had imagined…" He shivered as he spoke, his back facing Penelo in shame. He bowed his head down and closed his eyes, praying that she'd forgive him for his stupidity. "Forgive me, Penelo. I—I didn't know…" He clutched the stone in his hand, contracting his muscles painfully. "I only wanted to give you a gift to remember me by…"

Penelo broke out in a smile just then. "As if I could ever forget you, Larsa."

As he heard that, his grip on the nethicite loosened so much that it fell from his hand onto the ground. His head perked up in curiosity. She knew he wanted to hear more benevolent remarks, so she elaborated on them just for his sake.

"Besides, Larsa, I've always thought of it as my good luck charm." She could already see his smile, despite the fact that his back was facing her.

"And," she added in, "it saved us from the Leviathan. If it weren't for this nethicite you gave me, we would've all been killed. So in the end, you actually saved us all by giving this stone to me. Thank you for that, Larsa."

He turned to face her and bore his eyes deeply into hers, beaming the entire time. She observed the bright sparkle of his eyes and wide grin across his face as he listened to her.

"You…truly mean that, Penelo?" He asked meekly.

"I meant every word of it. You are, beyond a doubt, my hero forever." She bent in and pecked him on the cheek. She could feel his cheek heat up even before her lips left.

"Penelo…" He took a step closer to her and took both her hands in his, refusing to take his eyes off of her. Everyone surrounding them watched them suspiciously, waiting to see what else would transpire.

Vaan glared spitefully at Larsa. He was mentally daring Larsa to build onto whatever was occurring between the two currently. Thankfully, Ashe cut in just in time.

"We must be careful of this nethicite, then. Who knows what powers a manufactured stone can wield now?"

"Yeah," Vaan absentmindedly agreed, "it's better to avoid the nethicite altogether. Even if it did protect us before, it's still dangerous."

"Well," Balthier said, "now that our mission here is accomplished, let us leave this dreadful dwelling and soak in some sunshine. A bath in the Ozmone Plains ponds seems quite lovely now, too." He brushed away at his dusty vest, scowling at the filth caked onto it.

"Agreed." Fran said, wrapping an arm around Mjrn's shoulder. "We shall return to Eruyt Village afterwards."

With the entire party together again, it was fairly easy leaving the Henne Mines. They rushed out of the mines and into the Ozmone Plains in broad daylight. They basked in an open, bright field and bathed in the sun's beaming rays.

"Ah, it's so nice out!" Penelo exclaimed exuberantly, spiraling around in the fields. "And to think we were hauled up in the Henne Mines for only a day!"

"What a day it was, too." Basch remarked, chuckling at Penelo's vibrancy.

Larsa couldn't stop smiling as he ogled at Penelo's elegance. She gracefully pirouetted with one foot gliding through the air at a right angle to her body. Somehow, she was able to balance on one foot the entire time. The breeze was a warm one; blowing leaves and petals in a swirl around her. Some exotic, brightly colored flowers caught in her hair, adorning the golden silk with its own beauty. Her face and body had a saintly look to it as the sun poured over her porcelain skin, creating an ethereal glow and enhancing the glistening of her hair. Her grace only substantiated her nimble, angelic appearance.

Balthier interrupted Larsa's trance. "I'd say we all needed a rest from that wearisome visit. It is such a glorious day, too… I suppose we can rest here for the remaining day. Is that alright, Fran?"

"There is no rush. I, too, could do with some relaxation. This day is far too wonderful to pass for any more laboring and traveling. I need to bathe as well."

Balthier grinned at her. "Behold, the ponds over there look quite tempting. Care to join me?" She nodded and the two left to settle down in the warm, shimmering water.

"Hey, Penelo! Larsa!" Vaan shouted. "Let's go over to the ponds. too!"

Penelo stopped twirling around, tempted to swim in the ponds. "Yeah, the water must be so nice. Come on, Larsa!"

Penelo grabbed hold of his hand and the three followed after Balthier and Fran. Basch and Ashe eventually joined in as well.

Vaan tore of his vest, slid off his boots and gauntlets, and dove in one of the warm ponds. He beckoned Penelo and Larsa to join him. Penelo took off her boots and armbands and unzipped her jumper. At first, Larsa gaped at her with large—and excited—eyes, wondering if Penelo was really bold enough to swim in only her undergarments. To his masked disappointment, however; she wore a lacy shirt and shorts underneath her jumper. She undid her braids, her hair flowing down her back like a waterfall. Larsa's heart thudded rapidly as he soaked in all her newly exposed skin and flowing hair. He sighed yearningly as he took in the barer sections of her upper thighs and the curving of her waist. The jumper had concealed so much of her bodily beauty.

"Come on, Larsa!" He heard Vaan holler out.

Larsa hesitantly divested himself of his boots, shirt, and gloves. He was a bit self-conscious about his body compared to Vaan's. His pastel skin and meager chest contracted vastly from Vaan's larger, bronzed physique. Of course, he was still growing…but he feared Penelo would be averse to his current physical type. To his relief and delight, however, he found Penelo literally pulling him into the water, completely unaware of his insecurity, and seemingly indifferent towards his body form.

"Gosh, Larsa, you take a long time! Hurry up and get in!" With one last tug on his arm, she hauled him into the pond. He fell face-first into the water, and when he lifted his head up into the air, his hair was matted to his forehead and eyes.

Penelo burst out laughing. "Interesting hairstyle, Larsa." She trekked over to him and pulled his bangs back. "There, much better." She commented.

Vaan treaded lightly behind Larsa and sprung on top of him, pushing his head back into the water.

"Vaan!" Penelo chastised. "That was really cruel. Apologize to Larsa!"

But Penelo was surprised to see Larsa smiling underneath his mop of sodden hair. Unexpectedly, Larsa turned around and pushed Vaan's head underwater, laughing. Vaan rose above water again and chuckled.

"Hey, I gotta admit; that was pretty good." Afterwards, Larsa and Vaan playfully tussled in the water, dunking each other and laughing the whole while. Penelo was pleased to see Larsa's playfulness coming out. It was about time he started having some fun in his life.

Relieved to see her two best friends having so much fun, Penelo joined in as well. She furtively crept behind Vaan and used all her weight to push him under the water's surface. Still underwater, Vaan grasped Penelo's arms and tugged on her arms, heaving her underneath the water, too. The moment Vaan's head rose from the water, Larsa tackled it back underneath. Penelo rushed over to Larsa from behind and grasped his head in her hands, preparing for a dunk. He was too quick, however, and he spun around and lightly gripped her waist, pulling her slightly away. Chivalry kept him from submerging her in the water. That, and also the bright smile she was granting him with, melting his heart instantaneously.

He burst out laughing and pressed her roughly against his bare chest. "You knew I wasn't going to tackle you. How could I? Especially after you bestowed me with such a sweet and innocent smile!" He squeezed her more tightly against him, glorifying in the feeling of her wet body on his.

She giggled with him. "Yeah, that was the plan. I know you too well by now, Larsa."

Vaan approached them with a humorous expression on his face. "Here I thought you were going to tackle her, Larsa; but then you hug her instead! I have to teach you to be less of a softie." He playfully punched Larsa on the arm and chuckled.

"Larsa is not a softie, Vaan." Penelo intervened, smirking. "He's very polite; a trait you obviously don't have."

The trio leaned against the edge of the pond and talked until sunset. They were having such a wonderful time together that they didn't even realize everyone else had gone off to set up their tents.

"Time flies when you're having a good time." Vaan stated. "Let's get out of here before the bugs start attacking us. I have to help set up another tent for Mjrn anyway."

When Penelo and Larsa bid Vaan goodnight, they headed towards a quiet section to set up their own tent and fire.

After starting the fire, Penelo said to Larsa, "If the bugs aren't too vicious tonight, then we should probably rest out here to dry our wet clothes."

"I like that idea, Penelo. Just a moment; I will fetch my blanket."

He spread his blanket on the luscious grass and lay down on it with Penelo. Larsa wrapped an arm around Penelo, drawing her closer to his side. They gazed up at the burning sun as it began to lower, admiring the oranges and pinks that fused together and painted the sky. A strong gust of wind blew, bringing another shower of flowers and leaves with it. The flowers languidly drifted downwards, covering Larsa and Penelo. Larsa took a handful of colorful, dappled flowers, and wove them together by the stems into a tiara. He placed the flower tiara on top of Penelo's head.

"A pretty flower tiara for the goddess of beauty." He smiled at his cleverness and fixed his eyes on her approvingly.

Her face flamed up from his charming words. She drew even closer to him and nestled her head on his bare chest. "Thank you, Larsa. You're too sweet. I've always loved flowers so much…"

"Oh, is that so?" An idea sparked in his head. Flowers were very romantic gifts, and women adored them. Luckily for him, they were quite abundant here, too…

"Yeah, everyone loves flowers." Penelo picked up a flower from beside her and jokingly placed it in Larsa's hair.

Larsa burst out laughing. "Do I look pretty?"

She giggled incessantly at the question. "You look beautiful."

"Might I ask where my flower tiara is then?"

Penelo couldn't help cackling out loud. She loved the way Larsa was starting to joke around more. He wasn't so anxious or uneasy anymore. He had always been a bit circumspect about his impressions on people. She was glad to know he finally felt comfortable enough to tease and play around a bit. He would always be mature; but even mature, sophisticated people need to have some fun once in a while.

The two continued laughing until Balthier demanded them to quiet down and get some rest.

When their laughter stifled, they huddled closer together for warmth.

"Penelo, if you are cold, then please put on my dry shirt."

"I'm fine, actually. You're quite warm."

"I am glad to hear that. I suppose we should catch some sleep now, considering how we've upset the others." He smirked at her.

"Yeah, I'm getting pretty tired anyway. I had a great time with you and Vaan today. I hope there are more great times like that later on. Goodnight, Larsa." She yawned and snuggled on his naked chest.

"Goodnight, my dear Penelo. Rest well." He draped his arms over her and fell asleep soon afterwards.


Author's Note: This chapter was meant to bond Larsa and Penelo more intimately together. I also wanted Larsa to be a bit more playful and naïve in this chapter because he has his 'kid' moments, too.

I hope you all liked it : ) Thanks for reading!