Disclaimer: I do not own Square Enix's Final Fantasy XII, nor am I making any money off this fanfiction.

Five Steps to Forgetting, One to Remember Everything


I just want to forget.

Snow fell in a thick blanket over the quiet garden, fat flakes that dusted Larsa's shoulders. His eyes glistened, and Penelo watched as he fought to control the trembling of his lips. He clenched his fingers into a tight fist at his side. Then he brought it to his mouth and bit down on a knuckle. Tears gathered on his lashes as he blinked hard, turning from her. There was a bubble over his ears—nothing was making it dissolve, no matter how many times he swallowed. He felt too numb.

"Larsa—I don't understand…" Penelo's voice sounded far away. "Why are you so upset? I thought you'd be happy…"

His breaths were growing increasingly ragged. He didn't want to hurt Penelo, he honestly didn't, but if he kept hurting in front of her, she would be. That was unacceptable. He'd always prided himself on taking his sworn duty to her very seriously, that he'd protect her always. Even from himself. It was just—he'd given and given and given and given

"I am happy." His voice cracked, but he could blame that on puberty. He was nearly fourteen now, and not a day had passed that he didn't suffer from hearing himself go off-key. It was humiliating, but, he was assured, entirely normal. "I am—very happy… After all, if you are happy, then I am most certainly—" He had to stop. The tears were making it difficult to see anything, and he couldn't let them fall.

One managed to escape, dratted thing, marking a slow course over the curve of his cheek.

"Larsa…" Her hand settled over his shoulder. It trembled. He knew it was from the cold. Her skin was so used to absorbing scorching sunlight, Archadian winters were almost too much for her.

Suddenly, he didn't want to hear what she had to say. It was surprising—after all, he'd clung onto every word she uttered for almost two years. Now, though… it was growing unbearable. So he pasted on a cordial smile like his brother had so painstakingly taught him, and he brushed his gloved fingers under his eyes to rid them of tears. When he was composed enough, he turned to her.

"I congratulate you on your engagement, Penelo." He forced his smile wider, sure it didn't reach his eyes. He no longer cared. He'd lost everything else—what was one more thing to add to the pile? "I wish the two of you the absolute best."

"But…" She eyed him suspiciously, the word hanging heavy.

He didn't want to go here. He didn't. It was dangerous ground to tread, for someone he cared so deeply about. But, as was so often the case with Penelo, he was hurting, and he didn't want to any longer. He'd rather be done with this business. If there was no hope for him, if there was no place for him in her heart, then why bother any longer? He'd begged, he'd wheedled for every bit of the time she gave him, when he would for no one else, and he could not feasibly see any reason to keep degrading himself so.

"No buts." There were a thousand buts. Vaan was too reckless—how many times had Penelo saved him from certain doom?—the life of two wedded pirates was almost laughable… they were so young… Penelo could have so much better… He could give her so much better, when he was grown enough and his blasted voice didn't feel the need to crack at every opportunity—but to tell Penelo these things, why, that was surely akin to standing in front of a wyrm and asking it to eat him.

Penelo's lips parted—closed—parted. Was she debating on what to say?

He turned on his heel. "I thank you for taking me outside in the gardens—" where they'd shared so many happy memories that would now forever be tarnished by this bit of news "—but I am very busy, and I am afraid I must get back to work. I will look forward to your next letter." He'd hang himself before he asked her to extend her stay. "Good eve."

"Larsa!" she called after him, exasperated. "Are you going to the wedding, at least?"

"Send me the invitation," he said over his shoulder, "and I will see if I am able to find time." Which he wouldn't.

He waited until he was alone a scant hour later within the depths of his rooms, and he curled up on the windowsill, and he cried like he hadn't since the death of his family had been too overwhelming. The only difference was that this time Penelo wasn't there to hold him. She was the cause of his tears. But he wouldn't give her anymore, after this. Write it off as a bad job. Stay her friend, but be distant. It was the best he could do.

And if one day he could look at her and feel none of the love he harbored so deeply, then he would consider himself an accomplished man.

He did not think that day would come.


Larsa, you've been so distant in your letters lately… I don't understand… what did I do to upset you… please talk to me… please… Larsa, you haven't responded in weeks… Larsa, I miss you… Larsa, I thought I was your best friend, so why… Larsa, come on, please, write me back… Larsa, it's been two months… Larsa…


As the cliché went, a pin could have dropped and been heard in the silence that followed Penelo's yell and the banging open of his study doors. Five lords, two senators, and a moogle turned toward the commotion and simply stared. From behind his desk, Larsa slowly rose to his feet. He hadn't expected this. Penelo had never come on her own without his coaxing—he knew how she felt about Archades. He had thought if he ignored her to give himself time to maybe, futilely, attempt to move on, she'd eventually get the hint.

Baldly, she pushed her way through the gathered throng of stately peoples and the moogle and slammed her hands down on his desk. Several papers swooshed up and fluttered to the floor. His bottle of ink upset and spilled over what was left of them. It seemed the latest treaty with Queen Ashelia would have to be writ anew.

"Excuse me, girl!" a senator tutted. "What do you think you are—"

She held up a hand to silence him, not even turning around. Her blue eyes burned as they stared into Larsa's. "Really, Larsa? You think if you ignore me I'll just go away?"

He found a spot on his desk to stare at, and he began to fiddle with his quill. "That was the idea," he said quietly.

"Lord Larsa, really!" Lord Emery snapped. "We are in the middle of a meeting!" He didn't dare order Larsa to remove her from the room, however.

Penelo was hurt. He could tell without having to look at her. Her eyes were practically gouging a hole into the side of his head, and he could see where her fingers were white as they gripped at the edge of his desk. She leaned forward just slightly on her tiptoes. Breath whooshed in toward her.

"Larsa—why would you… ignore me? What's wrong?"

"Penelo, I do not have time for this right now." He lifted his eyes to hers, knowing he couldn't be a coward, even as his throat was tight and his heart pounded. "I have an architect here and several officials of great import to discuss the state of Old Archades. We have been planning this meeting for weeks. Before you barged in, we were seconds away from relocating in the conference room." He had never spoken this way before, softly, but coldly. It didn't feel good. But letting her stomp all over his heart, he knew, was even worse.

"But…" She licked her lips. "Please—Larsa—what about after—"

"I am afraid this will extend well into the evening, perhaps even tomorrow." The amount of things that needed fixing in Old Archades was quite extensive. The moogle had a folder of the blue prints, and it nearly couldn't fit them all. "So—if you will excuse me…" He moved around his desk, and the other men in the room promptly went for the door. It was clear Larsa had dismissed the blonde Dalmascan chit.

She grasped onto his elbow as he passed, and he was nearly done for then and there, he nearly forgave her everything. Just to have her touch…

Gently, he wrested himself away from her. "You have a wedding to plan. You do not have time to come to Archades to find out why the emperor is too busy to write you." Calculated words, ones meant to sting, but his smile was soft, forlorn. "What must your fiancée think?"

Like the last time they had parted ways, he didn't look back.

And like the last time they had parted ways, she didn't follow.


"Happy sixteenth, Lord Larsa!" Lord Victor boomed as the meeting adjourned. "The parades will last a week, they will! I remember when I turned sixteen… was quite frankly stoned through most of it…"

Larsa gave a polite laugh, shuffling his papers. It was deep, not the unsteady, cracking thing it had been two years ago. For that, he was eternally grateful. "I hope you will enjoy the parades, then. But I am afraid I will be too busy."

"You work too hard." A burly man, Victor clasped him companionably on the shoulder, then parted for the door like the others. "I'll see you tomorrow for the rest of the meeting, Your Grace."

You work too hard…

For a moment, he could hear laughter, and see bright blue eyes looking into his own over a chessboard.

You need to learn to play sometimes, Larsa!

He grabbed up his papers and shook the memory away. He had better things to do than to ponder over the memory of a woman he hadn't seen in two years.

As the evening progressed, however, his thoughts lingered with Penelo. How was she doing these days? It wasn't that he hadn't heard from her at all—occasionally, once every six months or so, she would write him a long letter, and he would usually draft one in response, but he hadn't replied to the last one, and it had arrived on his desk some odd days ago.

But thinking of Penelo often led to worrying, and he hated worrying. She was married to Vaan now, and immersed in her life of sky pirating. She didn't need Larsa. Though he had once needed her, he'd learned to cut that part of himself off. He'd let her go free. If he had told her of his feelings… it would have only burdened her. Maybe she would have even grown to resent him.

Still… he had his birthday ball tonight, and he had invited her. He wasn't sure why—with how he'd behaved toward her, she likely wouldn't wish to come. After all, the last invite she'd given him, he hadn't arrived. He wouldn't hold it against her if she didn't show. But… it had been a long time now, and his wounds had mostly healed. He thought he could gaze upon her and feel only platonic well wishes.

He smiled ruefully to himself. If only that could be the case… He knew himself too well, and he wasn't quite sure why he was so fond of torturing himself. He'd done so well to keep a distance between them so that he wouldn't have to hurt, yet here he was, inviting pain to toy with him once more. Why couldn't he let things rest? Why, the more important question was, couldn't he be happy for her?

She had the world at her fingertips. She could go anywhere she wanted, not strapped down by duty or imperials watching her every movement to protect her from danger. She was not rooted to one place, having nothing to keep her tethered. If she wanted treasure, she could plunder it. If she needed adventure, she needed only to take her airship and fly toward it. What could she possibly want in Archades? No, staying here would only clip her wings.

Penelo needed open sunlight, to wander about as she pleased. She was bossy, with a strict tongue and a firm hand on reining others in to behave, to follow the right path. Court etiquette would kill her slowly inside. On the other hand, it was these qualities that made them such a good match. He still couldn't imagine anyone else at his side in his future ruling of the empire.

And oh, how Penelo would run if she could know what he was thinking at that moment.

But he was wrong, in the long run.

Penelo did show.

He almost didn't notice her at first, immersed as he was in conversation with a variety of lords from varying parts of Archadia, wine glass in hand, a pleasant smile on his face. The party was going well—it had a much bigger turn out than the year before, which was truly saying something. As Larsa grew more and more popular with his country's people—and neighboring countries—the more popular he was at his birthdays. It was almost comical. But he did not complain, for when he had entered the life of caring for an empire, he had been on his own, without family and with few friends.

A flash of gold caught his eye. To be more precise, it was gold hair. He halted in midsentence, his heart squeezing into the tightest vise that he thought it might disappear altogether. He counseled himself into not turning—after all, it was likely just a diplomat from Dalmasca. As rare as blonde hair was, Penelo wasn't the only one who had it. Reassured, he returned to what he was saying, ignoring the look the lords exchanged at his momentary bout of silence.

It was when he was going to retrieve more wine that he stopped dead in his tracks. Penelo was already there, at the table, dressed… exquisitely, there was no other word for it. Her hair had been left out of its braids and the ringlets were piled atop her head in an elegant manner he had never seen her don before. Indeed, he hadn't seen her in an Archadian dress, either, which she wore so easily it was as if she had been wearing them a lifetime and not the scraps of cloth she usually tested his hormones with. His hormones which were much worse after two years of absence and much physical growing.

Gods above, she was lovely.

He stepped closer, hardly daring to believe his eyes. "Where is your husband?" he asked when he had neared, and even as he said it, he wondered if she would be able to hear it over the music, his voice was so soft.

Her eyes, always so blue, lifted to his. The smile she wore was a ghost of the usual one. He supposed he deserved that, after ignoring her for so long.

"He didn't receive an invitation, only me." Penelo fiddled with the wine glass in her hand, her fingertip tracing its rim over and over. "So I thought you wanted me to come alone." She let out a small breath. "…Though I have to say, I'm really surprised you invited me, Larsa."

He didn't bother asking why. It would have been silly to. "I thought maybe the hurt had worn away enough that I could withstand your presence and not be reduced to a mess when you went away again." He smiled genuinely when he said it, and was glad for it.

But anger shadowed her brow. Instead of voicing it, however, she clamped her lips together and stared at something past his arm. Slowly, so slowly, she set the glass of wine down on the table. "…I can't stay long."

"Of course not," Larsa murmured.

Her eyes flashed to his. Strangely, he felt no ire, just… calmness. "Why do this, Larsa? Why keep me at arm's length?"

"Why marry a pirate when you could have had an empire?" Larsa set his glass right next to hers, and accepted a new one when it was handed to him. All the while, his eyes never left hers. He could sense that her heart was pounding.

"What are you talking about…?" Her voice had dropped several octaves.

His smile spread. "Look at you," he whispered. "Surprised, even after two years. You never figured it out? I suppose I thought myself more obvious than I was. Well, it's not your fault." He took a sip of the wine. "Why come at all, Penelo, if you will leave me so soon?"

The line of her body trembled. She clenched her hands as if to still it. The sight gave him no greater pleasure. Had he finally slid beneath her skin, riled her up? It was a good feeling, and a small thing compared to how she had made him feel.

"How is your marriage, by the way?" It was meant conversationally, but Penelo took it worse, her brows furrowing and her hand lifting. Three seconds later, the sound of her palm connecting with his cheek echoed through the party.

"You're a selfish boy!" Tears glistened in her eyes, but she would not let them fall. It looked like it was taking all of her willpower to contain them, with how hard she shook now. "How can you expect me to know anything when you don't say so? I was your best friend, Larsa—if you know me half as well as you think you do, then you know I need things spelled out for me! And on top of that, you were just a child! How was I supposed to piece that one together, that you would care for me that way?"

"I was more than just a child…" Cradling his face and anger simmering beneath the surface, Larsa narrowed his eyes at her. "I ascended the throne at a mere twelve years of age, Penelo—"

"Exactly!" she cried, and now those who hadn't heard the slap had heard her voice, and everyone in the room was looking their way. Whispers were forming. Imperials would have closed in already if Larsa had not given them a look to stand down the moment she hit him. "You're an emperor, and I'm me—a pirate! That's not exactly a threshold I would have assumed you'd cross!"

"And if you know me half as well as you think you do," he said in a low, dangerous voice, fair quaking with the effort not to yell at her, "you would know that in light of our friendship, there is no threshold I would not cross for you."

The tears she had been so valiantly trying to keep in exploded from her in a sob, and she gathered up her skirts and turned, rushing from the room. This time it was who she left and he who would not follow.

Even through layers of bitterness, that did not sit well with him.


Larsa, I am writing to tell you that I don't think I can be your friend any longer. I guess it wasn't much of a friendship to start with, considering we haven't really talked the last two years, but… I still thought, maybe… we just needed time… Now I see that we've done nothing but hurt each other without meaning to, and it's irreparable. You can't forgive me for marrying Vaan, and I just have to accept that.

So… I guess this is good-bye.

Larsa smoothed the letter out, his brow creased. He had been cleaning out the contents of his desk drawer, and he'd stumbled across this folded up thing. It's creases made the writing almost illegible in places. Looking upon it, though… it brought so many things rushing back to him, things he had wanted so desperately to forget and had.

He leaned back in his chair, holding the parchment up to the light. At his feet, Teifram played, two and a head full of dark, silken curls like his Rozarrian mother. He looked up curiously at his father, his chubby fist clutching onto a quill he'd already reduced to shreds. It was one of Larsa's better ones, but that was all right.

Larsa rubbed at his chin, then folded the letter back into the neat square he had found it in. His fingers were trembling slightly. He was glad no one was there to notice. He'd been on the throne for twelve years, and no one had seen a sign of weakness in him just as long. He wouldn't start now. Even when a memory made him ache.


That was a name he hadn't thought of in years. How was she doing? He'd never seen her again after that party. Which one was it…? He'd either been sixteen or seventeen, he couldn't remember. Maybe even fifteen, though that didn't feel quite as right, so likely not. He regretted it later, that he'd sent her away in tears after bringing her there, but… he hadn't been able to cross that bridge to make amends, and so their friendship had fallen to the wayside. He hadn't even written back a response to that letter, if he recalled correctly, and he believed he did.

He let out a weary sigh, closing his eyes. Penelo. The name was tempting to say, because he knew it would be sweet on his lips, just as it had always been.

Where was she…? Should he try to write her? Would the letter find her? Was she still alive? She'd lived such a dangerous life. But no, surely someone—Ashelia, perhaps—would have written to him of her demise, had she had one.

Was she still married to Vaan? He himself had lost Lidia a year ago to an illness the best mages in the country couldn't cure. It had grieved him at the time, but not for long. Lidia and he had been friends at best, lovers only as a need to produce an heir. When she had begun looking elsewhere in the court for attentions, he had turned a blind eye to it. The peace treaties drawn up by their marriage with Rozarria had to be kept, and he'd seen no reason to ruin all of that hard work because his wife preferred to find pleasure with someone more willing to give it.

"What do you think, Teifram?" he murmured. "Is it best to leave it alone?"

Teifram didn't hear him. His large brown eyes were focused on the task at hand, which was swirling the quill around in an empty ink jar.

But the idea wouldn't rest, wouldn't crawl back from the hole it had slunk out of and die quietly. No, it had nested within Larsa, and soon, it consumed all of his thoughts. He found it difficult to concentrate during meetings, and at night, when he did his best to try and get a wink of sleep, he rose the next morning bleary-eyed and without the slightest hint of rest. Her name sang in his blood, it called to him. He had to discover her whereabouts.

He penned what must have been twenty drafts, each discarded. When letter-writing proved futile, he hired an agent to hunt her down, investigate. Then it was the waiting game. It could take weeks, perhaps even months to find her, and Larsa's life had to continue on in the meantime, no matter how much he would have liked to put it on stall until word reached him of Penelo.

He wasn't sure why he cared so much. He had no intention of… well. No intention of anything. He didn't intend to renew his friendship with Penelo, nor did he intend to see if she would leave her marriage with Vaan. So what, then? If neither of these things, what could he possibly want with her? But, he thought, maybe he just wanted to see if she was all right, and that was all. He would go back to a Penelo-less life after that.

The results of the investigation stole his breath in a way that nothing ever had, and when he heard the news, he had to sit down. He couldn't see, he couldn't think. He couldn't feel. Everything was black. Everything was numb. There was nothing but this desolateness inside of him. Someone might as well have stabbed him in the chest. It would have been far less painful.

Penelo was dead.


"Look at 'im… he's been like this for an entire week, sir… the Senate don't know what to do, and he's got great meetings of important comin' up… if he don't pull 'imself back together in the next few hours, why, I meself don't know what'll happen…"

"This will be easily solved. Hold on. Larsaaaa…"

Larsa cracked open his eyes. Through the haze of much scotch, he thought he heard people discussing him, and a familiar voice calling his name, but he wasn't quite sure. He'd been haunted by Penelo's memory for nigh on a week now, and the only thing to make it go away was the bottle—excessive consumption. He could sense that no one knew what to do with him, but that was all right. He wanted to be left alone at any rate.

"Larsaaaaa… your old pal has come to see you…"

'Old pal'?

"Larsa! Seriously, man, look at you!"

Something was hitting his face. He thought maybe hard, but he couldn't really feel anything through the numbness.

"Larsa!" Another blow, this one much heavier.

Though it didn't hurt, he sat up, anyway, peering blearily at whoever had dared assault his person. When he saw who it was, a chill dropped straight through him. Suddenly, he wanted nothing more than to be completely and entirely sober, an achievement he would not make any time soon. Damn his hastiness to turn to the bottle!


The older man smirked at him and crossed his arms. His skin was kissed by sunlight, a dark, wholesome tan that likely many ladies daydreamed over. His fair blond hair was a few shades darker now that he was older, and not quite as spiky, but his brown eyes were just as devil-may-care as they had been when Larsa had last seen him, some ten or eleven years ago.

Vaan's hands fell to his waist. It looked like habit more than anything else, for they were reaching an inch or so to the sides and clutching thin air. Mostly likely some sort of sword scabbards usually hung there. The imperials wouldn't have let him in to the emperor's chambers with any sort of weaponry. And that's where they were—Larsa's desk in his bed chamber. He could just make out the maid, a Miss Lillian, hovering anxiously near the doorway. He dismissed her with a grim smile. She looked all too happy to go.

"You were looking for her," Vaan said without preamble.

Gods, Larsa wished he weren't drunk. He held up a hand, and just that movement alone made him sway. He tried to say something again, but he couldn't articulate well enough.

"It's okay, you don't have to tell me why." Vaan studied his fingernails, one hand on his hip. It was eerily reminiscent of Balthier. They must have spent a lot of time together at some point. "You probably thought of her, all these years later, and wanted to talk to her again, right?" His eyes lifted to Larsa's, and suddenly they were cold. "You'd just wind up hurting her again. Stay away, Larsa."

Wait… what… was he saying…?

Vaan came close to the edge of the desk. He put his hands on it and leaned over, his face an inch away from Larsa's. The world was spinning. Larsa was fighting hard to stay upright. "She doesn't need you. She needs me. I'm her husband. So just stay here, in Archades, where you belong, and leave her alone. I'm tired of comforting her every time you make her cry—and I really don't think you've changed that much in eight years."

Penelo was alive?

Was that what Vaan was telling him?

"I'm serious, Larsa. Stay the hell away from her."

"How…?" was all Larsa could choke out. "…informant…"

"Even the empire's dogs can be bought off with the right price." Vaan straightened his back and rubbed a finger over his nose. Some traits, it seemed, hadn't left him. "If you really care about Penelo like you say you do—stay away." He left.

If Larsa had been on better legs, he would have done something, anything. He wasn't sure what—quite possibly grabbed the sword he had nearby in case of emergencies and chop Vaan's head off with it. As much as he had cared for Vaan as a friend in the past, that had all changed when he had taken Penelo away from him. When he had created this rift between them.

Penelo was alive.

She was alive.

The thoughts kept circling, over and over, until Larsa was dizzy. He had to get up. He had to get sober. He had to go find her, now. She wasn't dead. She wasn't. It didn't matter what Vaan had told him. Vaan could hang. He just wanted to see Penelo. He just wanted to make certain with his own eyes that she was indeed in good health. He wouldn't be mean to her—he wouldn't dare harm a hair on her head. He just wanted… just wanted… just wanted…

The world was spinning too fast. He stood up, bracing himself on the desk, but slid to the right and crashed to the floor. After that, he didn't have enough energy or coordination to get back up again.

"Penelo," he whispered weakly.

This time, he would find her.


It was a dreary, wintry day, the sky a slate of gray above their heads as Penelo and Larsa stood near the water that was rolling up onto the beach. Not that there was much of the coast left—the harsh tides had all but eaten it away, leaving nothing but barren rocks for foam to sop over. It was this foam that Larsa watched now, his hair blown all about his face by the bitter wind.

"You wrote me," he said, having to speak a little more loudly than usual because of that very wind. His cheeks had been scrubbed raw by it minutes ago. They felt numb and were probably very red. "I've searched for weeks, and the only reason I stand before you now is because you wrote me of your whereabouts."

Her eyes were on the horizon. There were little changes about her—age, but it had been kind to her, showing only sharper angles to her features, any traces of baby fat long gone. A thin scar was near her ear, and her blonde locks were longer than ever, growing tangled every second by the wind, braided in a plait down her back as they were. She'd dressed appropriately for the season, wearing thick trousers and a knitted top that she had rolled up at the sleeves. A dagger stuck out of her boot, and a pouch of spellstone or something similar hung at her waist.

She had yet to speak a single word to him.

"Why bring me here, Penelo? Your husband made it very clear I was not to see you again." Honestly, not that he had let that stop him. Just thinking about Vaan brought a tick to his jaw.

She turned from the beach then, her eyes somber. "I heard about your wife."

His smile was faint, but showed a brief gleam of teeth. "It was a year ago."

"Did you love her?"

Larsa looked toward the water. "As a friend," he said at last, when the silence had stretched on long enough, broken only by the waves. "She was there for me as one in the truest sense. I could tell her anything. But… there was never room enough in my heart for more. She did give me Teifram, and for that I will be forever grateful."

She said nothing, did nothing.

His throat felt so tight he did not think he would be able to swallow, and so when he spoke again, his voice was hoarse. "I love you." For a moment, he felt sure the words had been lost to the wind. But then something in her expression shifted, and she took a step toward him.

"You never learned to let me go?" she asked. They were a mere inch apart now. She hadn't had to lift her voice at all.

"No," he said honestly, "I had forgotten for a time—but not really. You've always been with me, even when I hadn't realized it. You are so ingrained inside of my very skin, that it would take death to rid me of you."

A smile graced her lips, and she averted her eyes. He had never seen her look sadder.

Though he knew it was wrong to, he lifted his hand and tenderly tucked a fluttering strand of hair behind her ear. "I found your last letter a few months ago… Now I find myself haunted by all that we have lost. What fools we were." He shook his head, his eyes suddenly wet. "What a fool I was."

And then, suddenly, she was kissing him.

Her mouth was hot, her teeth sharp, her fingers were buried deep in his tunic. She pressed the line of her body to his, all delicious curves and muscle. He groaned, cupping beneath her jaws, fingers encircling her slender throat. He devoured her mouth, not keen on letting her have control for long, thrusting his tongue against hers, drawing her even closer to him.

It must have gone on forever. It surely felt like it had. He could not get enough of her, nor, it seemed, her of him. It was years and years of want, and he did not want to stop for the life of him. He was afraid of what would happen when it ended. Penelo was married. This was forbidden. But the gods help him, he couldn't let her go.

She drew away at last, her lips swollen from his kisses, her eyes unfocused. He stayed close, bringing their foreheads together, their breaths mingling, each ragged.

"I love you," he said again, and watched as tears sprung to her lashes.

"I never married him," she said.

"What?" he whispered, drawing away from her.

She clutched at his hands. "You were pushing me away, and I—I kept putting the wedding off, I didn't know what to do… I… and by the time—by the time I decided I didn't want to, by the time that I figured out that maybe I wanted you, too, it was done, our friendship was ruined… And then you were married, and I… I had no place in your life anymore…"

This was becoming difficult to absorb. Mind spinning, he pulled his hands from hers and staggered to the left, clutching his forehead. What was she telling him?

"Larsa," she sobbed to his back, "I wanted to be close to you again, and you wouldn't let me… I thought you hated me…"

He could have never hated her, but with the way he had acted, she never could have known that. How had he done this to them? If he had never been so hurt—if he had still been there for her—if he had only…

Her arms were wrapping around him from behind, and her face was against his back.

"What about Vaan?" he said, his voice shaking. "I thought…"

"He got to the informant first—paid him off… came there to threaten you… I didn't find out about it until a couple of weeks ago—Larsa, I'm so sorry, please, please forgive me, I'm so tired of missing you, I…"

"But the wedding invitations—"

"I called it off a day before…"

"Penelo, why didn't you tell me—"

"Why didn't you write me? Why wouldn't you talk to me anymore?"

"I—don't… I don't…" He tilted his head back, eyes closed to the sky. His jaw was trembling. He hadn't cried since he was twelve, and he did not wish to start now. It was a losing battle. "I was hurting…"

"I was hurting, too." He felt her tiny fist collide with his back, her other arm still tight about his waist. "Larsa, I don't want to hurt anymore. You have an heir, and you're not married, and I'm not married, and we both love each other, and—"

Larsa turned around in her arms, grasping her by the upper arms. His eyes stared fiercely into hers. "You love me?"

She closed her mouth, more tears welling up on her lashes, and nodded.

"Are you sure?" He realized his hands were tightening on her, and he let her go.

She gave him another nod.

It was all he could do to restrain himself—and in the end, he couldn't. In two small movements, he had her in his arms, up against his chest, and was kissing her again, his hands buried in her hair, unraveling her braid as he did so. Her arms banded over his shoulders, and she molded herself to him.

This time, he thought, he wouldn't let her go for anything.

He was tired of being an utter idiot.

"I love you," he breathed against her lips in between pecks, "I love you, I love you…"

She laughed, and the sound sent something soaring in his chest. "I love you, too, Larsa."

Never again—he'd never lose her ever again.