Disclaimer: I do not own Square Enix's Final Fantasy XII, nor am I making any money off this fanfiction.
A Blooming Dream
The sun was bright in Larsa's eyes as he raised his hand to block it. The wind stirred around him, tousling his hair and the carefully trimmed rose bushes in the imperial garden. The air smelled heavily of the fragrant flowers, and while normally it would have been heady, at that time it was distracting. He was hoping to catch a lingering whiff of Penelo's perfume. She'd been in the hedges moment before; he'd seen her disappear around the bend ahead of him not so long ago.
He called her name, yet could not hear his voice. Despairing, he set off. He wouldn't give up. They'd been at this game for hours. Eventually, he would catch up with her, he knew it, he was certain of it. If, in the end, he somehow couldn't, he would empty out his coffers for her if he had to, set the entire empire searching for her.
"Penelo!" he yelled again, and this time it echoed around him.
It was hot, unseasonably so, and sweat trickled on his brow. He loosened his cravat, panting now as his strides grew longer. He wasn't entirely out of shape, but it had been some time since he'd been able to get away from the mountains of paperwork in one of his numerous studies. That was the misfortune of being an emperor, sadly. Rarely did he get to go out and enjoy any sort of recreational activity these days.
He didn't understand. Why wasn't Penelo waiting for him? Why must she run? Why could they not sit, enjoy their very short time together before she had to leave again?
"Please!" he shouted. "Penelo, please wait! Wait for me!"
She made him feel twelve years old again, small and insignificant in her eyes in the ways that he so very much didn't wish to be. To be truthful, that feeling hadn't vanished in their years together, though it had lessened some.
He caught sight of her just before she vanished again, and her giggles echoed in his ears. He sighed, exasperated, and fumbled around a bush. There, in front of him, the rose maze continued on. The path forked in three directions, and he had no idea of which she'd taken. Again, he tried to scent her out, to no avail. The roses were just too strong, and when he tried to listen to her steps, the wind covered them up.
It was almost as if the garden was protecting her.
Please, Penelo. Please.
Wait for me.
They were at the game for hours longer. No matter how he tried, she was always out of reach. He would see a flash of golden hair, or the tanned skin of her fingers. He would hear her beautiful laughter again… and then, nothing. He was lost in the maze, trapped within its depths, and it confounded him. It had to end. It could only go on for so long. He had visited the thing hundreds of times in his life, and he had truthfully never gotten lost before. So why today? And why did the sun not set? It was a constant, shining orb in the sky, making him shed his jacket, his boots.
Eventually, his footsteps stilled, and he saw her ahead of him, in a small clearing. Rose petals were piled at her feet, spread out in a careful, perfect spiral. Her hair was in a loose braid down her back, some of the curls already unwinding. Her back was facing him, and her head was turned down. She didn't look like she was breathing.
A memory flickered in his mind's eye, of pale skin, his hand clutching hers, her blue eyes faded as they stared up into his. He squashed it, not wanting to see it, and took a step toward her, the earth warm beneath his bare feet.
"Penelo." He whispered her name.
She didn't move, made no sign to acknowledge she had heard him.
"Penelo," he breathed again. "Please, look at me?"
He had a distant recollection, one of shaking her, so hard he almost snapped her head back, of screaming her name over and over. She wouldn't move, her eyes stayed closed, and she looked so, so pale. In her hand, she clutched a ring, but it's significance had no meaning to him. He shouted, for someone, anyone, and servants rushed in, and then they were carrying her away.
In the present, he staggered a step to the side, clutching at his forehead. "No!" he whispered.
The rose petals at Penelo's feet were withering at their edges.
"I was old, Larsa," she said to him now, speaking to him for the first time all day. "It's okay, you know."
"It is not okay," he said. "Penelo, I need you." His voice was pleading as he raised his eyes back to her.
"You have to go on," she said.
This was not what he wanted to hear.
He'd prayed for so long, for something, anything, and now that he heard it, it went against his very existence. It throbbed in his heart like poison, quickly spreading. She had turned on him! It was unexpected. It made him sink to his knees, dig his fingers into the soft soil, dirtying his gloves.
"Penelo, no," he rasped.
"Why is this so hard for you to hear?" she asked him. "You know it's true."
He felt her hand touch his shoulder, but he did not dare look up. He sensed that if he did, she would be gone from him forever. That, he could not bear, less so than the rest of this. His shoulders felt so heavy already by her absence. Why must she torment him further? Why? All he had ever done, with his entire soul, was love her. She was integral to his being. Without her, he was nothing.
"Larsa," she said, not unkindly. "Let me go…"
"Why are you doing this?" He squeezed his eyes shut.
She was touching both his shoulders now, and he heard her kneel before him. "Larsa—"
His eyes shot open. He was staring up at the canopy of his bed, and he was soaked in sweat on top of breathing raggedly, as though he had run for miles and never stopped to take a short break. For several moments, he was disoriented, unsure of where he was and what he had been doing. The scent of roses still clung to his senses, disturbing him, paining him.
"Honestly, Larsa! You tell me to visit you, and then when I get here, you're sleeping!" The voicing was chiding, yet affectionately teasing in its own way. It made him sit up in bed and look to his right, where it had come from.
Penelo smiled at him. "What were you dreaming about? You kept shouting my name." Raising an eyebrow, she hopped up on the edge of the bed and put her hands on her knees. "Upset I was late? Well, I'm here now."
He reached out with more familiarity with her than he had ever allowed himself and cupped her cheeks in his hands. They were bare, stripped of his gloves. He was still in his night things, and judging by the sunlight streaming in through his windows, he had missed breakfast. His throat was dry as he dragged his thumb over her cheekbone, committing her features to memory.
"Larsa…?" She didn't pull away, no matter how unaccustomed she was to his touch. That alone spoke thousands of words to his heart, and he felt his eyes prick with heat.
"I had a dream," he said, then rather harshly shook his head. "Nay, a nightmare."
"About me?" After a moment, she touched her fingers to his knuckles.
Here, he hesitated. Now that he paused to think about it, could he really go through with telling her what, precisely, he'd dreamed of? "You were dead," he said. "It felt so… so real. I even had memories of you dying, but at the same time, it was a dream within a dream. You were there, and we were young, like we are now, and… I was recalling when we were older, and you had…" He trailed off, unable to make much sense of it.
For a long time, Penelo didn't say anything, only watched him. When it was clear he was finished, she patted her hand over one of his. "Don't sweat it, Larsa. It was just a dream."
"It felt more like a premonition," he said softly, his eyes lowering to his embroidered blanket. He let his hands fall from her face, to his lap. "One that I would care to never see again."
"Can't be too bad of a premonition!" Laughing, she lightly swatted him on the arm. "If it is, it means that we're friends even when we're old!"
He shook his head, unable to see humor in the situation despite her best intentions. "It means that you are dead, and I… I felt so alone, Penelo. I could not seem to bear the thought of a world without you. It was as though my entire body was denying what had happened to you, and you yourself were telling me that I… that I did not need you, that I would do well enough on my own without you."
She smiled at that. "Wouldn't you?"
"I would like to think that your death would pain me, but that I would eventually be able to overcome it and move on…" His brows pushed together. "In the dream, this was not the case."
After a moment, her smile began to fade. "Larsa… Larsa, look at me." She touched his cheek, and it was only that that made his eyes lift in surprise to hers. "Larsa, it was just a dream. Dreams are only that… dreams."
"It felt real," he insisted.
"If it was real, I wouldn't be here."
"If it was a premonition, you will be here for much longer."
She pursed her lips, dropped her hand, then turned her face away. It was evident she didn't know what to say to him. He found that he could not blame her. "So tell me, Larsa… I die of old age?"
"Yes," he said, nodding slowly. "You were here at the palace. I held your hand while you did so…"
A shiver passed over her. Did the thought disturb her? It would have him. Not that she would be at his death bed, but rather that he would be on one at all. Death was inevitable—and not something one pondered on too terribly much, as not many held a fascination with it. Those who did were either philosophers or had some twisted fragment in their heart that needed curing.
"Why would I be here?" she said.
Here, he flushed, and avoided her penetrating gaze.
She touched his knee, and it only grew worse. "Larsa? Talk to me."
"I've nothing to say," he lied. "I have no idea." Abruptly, he slid off the bed and went over to his wardrobe. "If you give me just a moment, I can change, and then we can discuss our plans for the day."
He opened his wardrobe. "If you would kindly give me a moment?"
She hopped off the bed in his wake, but she folded her arms and refused to budge another inch. "Larsa Ferrinas Solidor, I can tell when you're lying! You may be able to fool everyone else, but not me! I'm your best friend! Spill!"
Larsa laughed. He couldn't help it. No one else would dare to order the emperor around, only his dear Penelo. It softened his heart, made him smile fondly at her as he turned from the wardrobe. "Very well, then. We were married."
He had no idea what possessed him to say the words. They flowed from his mouth, as though he had no barriers in his mind or heart at all against her, no need to protect himself. He could only watch her helplessly after he'd said them, then drop his eyes. She was the only one alive who could humble him.
"Oh…" she said. He heard her take a breath, then another. "That's… a bit… odd, isn't it?"
A rueful smile crossed his lips. "Not so very odd, I would think. We do see each other quite frequently, and we break many rules of propriety, even though we are only friends. No one else could be so close to my person, or so open in their mannerisms or speech patterns. You are the only one I allow to do such things."
"Yeah, but that's not really grounds for marriage…"
"It is not," he agreed. "But some say I have eyes for no one else."
He lifted his eyes to her, then, wanting to see her expression, but she was turned away from him, pulling at a loose thread on his cover. He waited. He knew that if he did not speak, she would break the silence eventually. She was never comfortable with letting one carry on too long.
"But we can't marry," she said. "You're an emperor, and I'm a common Dalmascan sky pirate." She shrugged one shoulder. "It's impossible. That's why I said it's odd that you would dream something like that."
A chuckle left him, one he couldn't prevent in time. She turned to him questioningly.
"I can marry whomever I please," he corrected her. "It is only a matter of whether I choose to appease the populace by marrying one of noble stock, and on most days, I find that I wish they would hang themselves." Nerves dancing in his chest, he came to her, touching her chin and turning it up toward him. She let him, her eyes meeting his unflinchingly. "Penelo, I am an appointed ruler, an emperor chosen from vote alone. It is all politics. Could I strengthen ties with another country by wedding one of their own holders of power? Certainly."
"Exactly." Her voice was shaking a little bit. "So it wouldn't make any sense at all to marry me."
He took a moment to breathe, then he lowered his voice to nearly a whisper. "It is a small thing to request of Queen Ashelia to ennoble you. You have a plethora of credentials alone from helping fell my brother five years ago. She could make you have 'blue blood' in the course of several months. No one would deny you anything with your titles. You are a hero, Penelo. Hypothetically speaking, if it was somehow not enough, she could appoint you as an ambassador, perhaps, to go back and forth between her court and my own. There are many, many ways you are more than enough for the position of empress."
Here, he smiled. "And you are correct—you are from Dalmasca. There you are. Politics."
Her eyes closed. Her fingertips came to rest against his wrist. It made his heart skip a little. Outwardly, he kept his appearance calm. It would not do to let her see how nervous she always, unfailingly, made him.
It was a wonder alone that they were even having this conversation, that she hadn't disregarded it as nonsense and promptly changed the subject. Could that mean…?
"You don't think it… I don't know, Larsa… weird that you would have a dream about being married to me?" she whispered.
He was never completely honest with her on the matter of his feelings. This morning, however, he strangely yearned to, and damn the consequences. He stroked his thumb over her chin, along the line of her jaw. "It was not the first," he replied softly.
Her eyes flashed open at that.
He kissed her.
It was a very small thing, more of a peck on the lips than anything else. Their lips barely even touched. But his burned when he pulled away from her, and his lashes were low as they stared into her darkening, surprised pupils. Helplessly, he smiled anew, and touched the hair near her forehead, pushing a strand away.
Curious, how he'd pined after her for years, and then completely unexpectedly, he would feel at ease around her one random morning, at ease enough to lower those shields.
"I love you," he said simply. "And that alone is more than enough for me to want to marry you."
Silence stretched between them, longer than it ever had. Strangely, he was not worried. He turned back to his wardrobe, selecting his attire for the day. He could feel her eyes on his back as he worked. Her mind was no doubt racing, turning over every word he had uttered. It made his heart surge, pump faster. He felt refreshed, more so than he had in some time.
He left her alone in his bed chamber and went instead to his bathing chamber to change. His boots slid into place, along with his cravat, jacket, and gloves. He brushed his hair, washed his face. When he felt presentable enough, he returned to find her at one of his windows, looking out at the busy city.
"Penelo," he said. "Come? I attend to have a late breakfast prepared. Are you hungry?"
"Yes," she said faintly, and she came to his side. She took his arm when he held it out to her. "I haven't eaten since last night."
He tsked beneath his breath. "That will not do at all. Let us get some food in you. Peaches are in season now. You should try some. I remember you said you have not had the delight of tasting one."
She was being so quiet, lost in thought. He let her have her time to organize those thoughts and steered her toward the kitchens. It would not be the first time they had snuck into them to get a late meal because they were having so much fun they'd lost track of the time, or because they wanted a snack and intended to raid the cupboards.
He had a feeling it would not be the last.
This feeling was strengthened while, on the walk there, she slid her hand into his.