started June 30, 2008, returned to and finished May 19, 2009
"Can you come out and play?" Penelo asked Larsa innocently. Though she knelt respectfully before his throne, the amateur sky pirate was clearly here for fun, not business.
"Emperors do not go out and play," observed the gruff-voiced Judge Magister at Larsa's side.
"For shame, Gabranth," Larsa chuckled, "Emperors are free to play as they please. It is simply that the pastimes of emperors are not typically the domain of common men. ...Or our playgrounds are the battlefield." The young emperor looked solemn and a tad wistful, his face tipped up to glance at the armored man.
"Then go wheresoever you wish, Your Highness," the judge relented, "Merely do so with the honor befitting a member of House Solidor."
Larsa smiled and stood up, daintily lifting the edge of his robes as he descended the dais where his throne sat. "Please allow me a moment to change into something more conducive to merry-making," he nodded in Penelo's direction.
"I could help you change more quickly," the girl suggested, a teasing smile playing about her lips.
"That will be more than enough," the judge cooly laid down the law.
"Oh, Basch, you're no fun!" Penelo laughed. Not that this was unexpected. He had always been a serious man and now he played his part well.
"It's Gabranth," he corrected her gently.
"Oops, sorry. I still can't help but think of him when I say 'Gabranth,'" she admitted.
They stood together in awkward silence until Larsa returned outfitted in a clean white and blue tunic with long riding gloves, blue knickers, and short boots with green stockings. The outfit was clearly reminiscent of his garb of choice when he had journeyed along with Ashe and the others several years earlier. Even now, he was only just sixteen, but Penelo could tell he was maturing into a fine young man. "So are we to slip out of the palace on foot or has some other mode of transportation been arranged?" he inquired cheerfully.
"Vaan's got his ship hovering above the palace as close as he can come without appearing too threatening. He's just waiting for my signal to swoop in and carry us away."
"And where is it you plan on whisking me away to?" Larsa continued his line of light questioning as he allowed Penelo to lead him by the hand up a winding staircase and down a portrait-lined hall to a flat section of roof, perfect for a quick pick-up by an aircraft. Larsa enjoyed the feeling of the wind whipping his dark hair around his face. This was not the first time Penelo had arrived like this. Sometimes he was too busy to escape with her, feeling his guilt like a load of bricks on his shoulders if he didn't settle the necessary affairs of state beforehand, but on a quiet day like this- well, he was entitled to a bit of fun.
"You'll love it," Penelo yelled to be heard over the whir of the engine and the roar of the wind as Vaan brought the Nimbus in close enough to let down a rope ladder.
Penelo steadied the ladder slightly for Larsa as he clambered up, laughing at the way her braids swung in the turbulent air, practically sticking out horizontally from her head. How did she manage to secure those feathered ornaments tightly enough to keep them from blowing away?
"How's my favorite emperor on this fine day?" Vaan chuckled merrily as Larsa clambered into the airship.
"Quite well, than you," the youth replied, smoothing down his ruffled clothes.
Penelo scrambled up the ropes after him, quick as a monkey and Larsa politely offered his hand to pull her in. She accepted his hand and found herself surprised at the strength of his gentle grasp. Despite the deliberateness of her visit to Archades, when their eyes met, Penelo found herself blushing. Physically, emotionally, intellectually...Larsa was just so engaging to her.
"Thanks." She pulled in the ladder, rolling it up as she went, and putting it aside, flopped down in a seat to the back, Larsa having situated himself beside the pilot.
"I rather miss the thrill of the small maneuverable crafts like this," the brunette remarked cheerfully as Vaan directed the Nimbus away, engines roaring.
"Do you fly much at all these days?" Penelo called over the noise.
"Occasionally to state functions or to see to things in the more distant parts of the empire, but traveling in state one is not in much of a position to feel the wind on one's face. And there are certainly no rope ladders!" Although the measure of peace Archadia and Dalmasca had achieved was dearly important to him, Larsa missed the excitement and freedom of the past. He might have been raised to be an emperor, but he had the heart of a dreamer. The boundless border of the world always beckoned to him.
"Not much further to the spot," Penelo chirped, pressing her face up to the glass to track their progress over the hills and valleys of Archadia. What was once forbidden and unknown territory had grown familiar to her. Seeing the world as their oyster, Vaan and Penelo had flittered about here and there, with Filo and Kytes as occasional acolytes, discovering secret spots to wile away their off-days. Often, Penelo dreamed of sharing these tiny oases of wonder with Larsa. Vaan could be fun, but he just couldn't appreciate natural beauty the same way Larsa did.
"Okay, lovebirds! Here we are!!" Vaan teased. He tried awkwardly to deepen his voice in mimicry of Reddas and other valiant, more masculine, pirates he had known. "All ashore that's goin' ashore!"
"Just drop us off, Vaan," Penelo sighed. It was embarrassing for him to talk like that (a little disrespectful to Reddas' memory too).
"Are we going to land or take the rope ladder again?"
"He'll hover near the ground. Vaan can get close enough here that we won't need the rope ladder. I hope you aren't disappointed." She had heard the rise of excitement in his voice as he referred to the unconventional way of getting around. It was cute.
"No, I don't mind."
Vaan began to take the Nimbus down as Penelo fiddled around in the back to dig up two woven baskets from among the miscellaneous supplies and loot they were carrying. The descent of the ship quickened as she moved back to her seat and she tripped over a loose coil of rope, falling against the back of the seat. "Ouch!"
The baskets tumbled from her arms, one ending up on the floor, the other flipping over onto Larsa's head, sending the young emperor into a whirlwind of concern for Penelo's condition and laughter regarding his own unusual predicament.
"I'm okay, I'm okay," Penelo assured the others, rubbing her chin, which still throbbed from the smacking it had taken.
"My goodness," Larsa chuckled, lifting the basket up to reveal his surprised yet risible expression.
Penelo staggered to grab the other basket and drop temporarily into her seat. She was rarely so clumsy in the air. She almost wondered if she'd subconsciously decided to do it on purpose in an effort to look more delicate and maidenly in front of Larsa. She had never had any insecurities about her true self around him before, but the situation was a little different now. When they had been hastily tramping around the continent, being resourceful and strong had been positive qualities, but now Larsa was ensconced in the capital and probably surrounded by scores of elegant court ladies with charms she could not hope to match. "Honestly Penelo," she scolded herself, "Insecurity doesn't suit you! Trust Larsa a little more!"
"This looks promising!" Larsa exclaimed. The basket was now in his hands and he leaned over it toward the windshield, pleased by the thick greenery he saw before them, whipped in the wind of the Nimbus's engines.
"This is about as close as I can take you," Vaan declared, "Wouldn't want to squish the berr-"
"Shh!" Penelo cut him off. "Don't spoil the surprise!"
Larsa raised an eyebrow curiously at his date. He was a quick study and between the leafy field and the spacious baskets, he had at least an inkling of what was about to go on on the ground.
Penelo rose, her basket looped over her arm, and jerked open the heavy door. The wind rushed into her face, blowing her bangs and braids straight back from her head. "C'mon," she beckoned Larsa, "We're barely more than a yard above the ground." Giggling with excitement, she urged him to hop out, then used her dancer's agility to hold onto the door and pull it shut behind her as she leapt after him.
Vaan waved at them as he pulled the Nimbus up and forward into the sky and away over the hills. He figured he'd head into Balfonheim and see if he could sell off some of his loot to the shops, or to some sap like Suphyn.
"Wild strawberries!" Larsa announced, taking in the whole area with a wide-eyed stare. "Have you been here before or did you find it just for me?"
"We stopped here a while back when there were only blossoms. And right then I knew I wanted to come back here with you," Penelo explained. "That look on your face... it was exactly what I'd hoped it would be."
"Oh, Penelo, thank you," he replied, his voice sticky with the sweetness manifest in his eyes. His attitude fit right in with the location. He followed Penelo's lead with the basket, moving it from his hand to hang around his arm, and tiptoed through the strawberry plants to thank her with a proper hug. "You shouldn't outshine me like this," he mock-chided, "The gifts you give are putting mine to shame! Which of us is the emperor here anyway?"
Penelo laughed, happy to hug him back. He was getting taller. They were nearly the same height now. "Well, go on and pick as many as you like. I hope they taste good."
"Even if they're sour, the intention is sweet enough to flavor them to my liking," he countered, making one of those beautiful statements that made her melt a little inside. How did he manage to think of such things to say? Whenever Vaan made a statement that elegant she knew he had to have memorized if out of a poem or play, but Larsa seemed to draw forth such moving utterances from his own sharp mind and gentle heart. It was a testament to his abilities.
Larsa knelt down and moved aside the leaves, uncovering half a dozen of the small red berries. When he plucked them and placed them in the basket he smiled at how unnecessarily large the baskets were for this task. They seemed better suited to apples or pomegranates or another large fruit than these tiny strawberries.
When he met Penelo's eyes over the leaves, they both laughed as he held up his bulky basket so she could see inside and she returned the gesture. "They were all I had," she admitted, "Migelo's only loaning them to me as it is."
"Hmm, that might explain the lingering pungence of gyasahl pickles," he chuckled, sniffing the woven reeds.
"Pickles?!" Penelo hurried to sniff her own basket, "Oh, eww! You're right! I hope the smell doesn't rub off on the strawberries."
"I wouldn't worry too much," Larsa tried to calm her down realizing her distress, "Strawberries have a fairly strong aroma of their own and if this odor wasn't readily apparent to you from the get-go, I doubt it will suddenly become pervasive on its own."
"You're right. You are. I guess I'm just being paranoid. I don't want anything to spoil our good time." She was a little embarrassed to admit it, but it was the truth.
"Oh, Penelo, I spend most of my days locked away in the capital where everyone around me does their utmost to see that my every whim is satisfied in the most precise and perfect way. Small imperfections add beauty to things. Imperfection is true and sincere in a way the immaculate can never be." Life, after all, was not perfect, nor was love, and to believe that they could be was to dream a lotus-eater's dream. A rational person, even an optimist, had to see that. Things could always be better, but they would never be perfect.
"Like Basch's scar," Penelo answered. She seemed to have grasped the idea. "Hmm," she smiled, brightening quickly as a hiccup of laughter jumped from her throat. "I guess I should be glad that the pickle smell is the only thing that's cropped up so far! It could've actually been something troublesome, like rain."
"So, do we have to take the strawberries home with us for later or can I taste them out here?" Larsa inquired with an equal brilliance in his demeanor.
"Oh! Of course you can eat them out here! Go ahead!" Penelo rushed to answer. She hadn't meant to hold him back in any way. She was getting far too tense about the whole thing. It wasn't like her. Though she was always the responsible one when it came to her interactions with Vaan, in general, Penelo regarded herself as a freewheeling, relaxed person. This must've been one of those cases of strong feelings bringing out different sides of her. Well, such restraint just wouldn't do!
She looked into her basket and picked out he best-looking strawberry she could find. Larsa was absently wiping his juice-splashed gloves against his blue knickers without considering that the stains might be transferred to them. "Say 'aah,'" she grinned.
"Wha?" Larsa turned and she popped the strawberry into his open mouth bursting into yet another fit of melodic laughter at his surprised face.
He chewed and swallowed, appearing amused at this turn of events. "A sneak attack, eh?" he raised an eyebrow as a rascally tone entered his voice. "You'll soon see that two can play at that game!"
Penelo dropped her basket and set off running through the grass and bushes. "You'll have to catch me first!" she teased.
Without a pause, he followed.