Disclaimer: I do not own Square Enix's Final Fantasy XII, nor am I making any money off this fanfiction.
A Christmas gift to one of my best friends, tsukinofaerii. I hope you like it. It's full of WAFF, something I'm definitely not familiar with writing, as we all know, haha.
I Need You to Say Yes
You are cordially invited to my eighteenth birthday party at the Imperial Palace. I will be sending an escort to accompany you to the Capitol, where you will be spending in a week in your very own private suite within the Imperial Wing. Vaan is, of course, invited as well, but I would prefer to speak with you alone at some point before the festivities.
Bringing clothes or fretting over what to wear will not be necessary. I have already sent what I presume to be your measurements to the imperial seamstress.
My, with all the 'imperial'-ness mentioned in this letter, it is becoming quite stuffy, is it not? Though I say this is an invitation, it is more a plea. I need your presence by my side on the eve of my birthday. You are my best friend, and I can think of no one more I would like to celebrate with. Please respond as soon as you are able. I am aware that my party is not for another three months, but I am also aware that you may well be far away from home, on some adventure with Vaan, when this letter arrives.
Please respond as soon as you are able.
Larsa Ferrinas Solidor
Penelo let out a small scream. Vaan immediately whirled around, alarm writ across his face.
"What is it?!"
She didn't bother answering, tossing the letter she'd just opened to the side and reaching for the bag she'd finished putting away a handful of minutes ago. Already she was stuffing it with clothes from her wardrobe, though it took a second for her brain to catch up with her. Larsa had said not to heavily pack… She would just bring an overnight bag, then. She threw it on the bed, crammed in the giant book she'd picked up on her last "adventure," as Larsa called them, and started for the door.
Vaan was immediately in her path. "Where are you going? What's wrong, Pen?"
"Larsa's birthday! It's tonight!"
"Okay, so you're running around like a rampaging chocobo because…?"
"I was supposed to reply three months ago! He probably thinks I'm not coming!"
And she couldn't have that.
The trouble about Larsa was that Penelo had feelings she couldn't easily ignore.
Oh, when she'd first discovered these "feelings," she'd probably ignored Larsa for the better part of four months. The letters that were so familiar between them became thin, barely responded to, until Larsa had all but given up on correspondence with her, never mind an actual visit. It had made Penelo feel guilty, but the idea that she was in love with her best friend, already four years younger than her before he was the emperor—or should that have been the other way around?—was worse. So much worse.
Larsa trusted her. He depended on her. She was his only real friend in that horrible city, and just like her, he was an orphan by the circumstance of war. It also didn't help that his whole family had turned particularly villainous right there at the end… or was Larsa just an exception from the Solidor rule of thumb? Either way, he took comfort in Penelo's kindness, and she didn't want to abuse that.
But the older he got, the stronger her feelings grew, until one day she recognized what they were unequivocally. There was no escaping them after that. Still, the distance had hurt him, and she'd used that time to pull herself together and paste on a platonic face that wouldn't let on to how she was a raging maelstrom of grief inside.
Penelo was used to being denied things. Even before she was an orphan, she hadn't exactly been from the wealthiest district in Rabanastre. Things got rough after that, when she had to work for Migelo to put food in her belly. Nice things, shiny things, even things she needed, she'd gone without.
And Larsa? He was an emperor.
He was the one thing she could never have.
The flight from Bhujerba—the city where her current home was located—to Archades didn't take too terribly long. It just seemed to drag by, as Penelo was used to zooming around in Vaan's airship, always two seconds away from a fiery crash of death. She'd never before thought she'd be grateful for his psychotic piloting. At least it got them from point A to point B with remarkable swiftness.
She got a cab from the aerodome that took her directly to the Palace. She hadn't needed chops in years, just a transit paper that Larsa had written himself and stamped with the Solidor seal. Truthfully, the cabbies recognized her on sight now, and even dropped into small bows. This always embarrassed her—she wasn't nobility, no matter how deep her friendship with the emperor ran.
At the Palace doors, no one barred her entry. The imperials let her pass without comment. She couldn't see their eyes from behind their helmets, but she knew they were trekking her progress as she headed down the first long corridor, and she didn't know why. Moments later, another bizarre moment occurred, where a servant caught sight of her, widened her eyes, and rushed away at top speed.
What was going on?
The majority of the servants recognized her. It was not unusual for Penelo to visit, and she had for years. So why, then, the scurrying away? That had never happened before. Was it about Penelo's belated arrival to her home? Was Larsa angry at her because she hadn't responded to his invitation after months of sending it? But he was a very private person, and it didn't seem feasible that he would spread that around.
She mused on this some more, continuing to walk to the elevator that would take her to the floor Larsa's primary study was on, when an advisor she recognized stepped from around a corner further down the corridor. His robes were billowing around him, crimson and black, with hints of white, and he had a heavy book in the crook of his elbow. Penelo couldn't remember his name for the life of her, though she'd seen him maybe hundreds of times.
"You've finally arrived," he tutted in his thick, Archadian accent, the syllables clipped. Penelo arched a brow, as he hadn't ever had cause to speak to her before. "Excellent. I will escort you to your rooms, and from there we will—"
Penelo cleared her throat. "Not… to be rude or anything, but I already know where my rooms are? Twenty-fifth floor, in the guest wing."
He sighed, so impatiently it made Penelo's hackles rise. "No, no, no. See, this is why it is best to respond to an emperor's invitation immediately. As it is his eighteenth birthday, and the guest wing is full with visitors from all over Ivalice, His Imperial Grace insisted that you be temporarily moved to the Imperial Wing."
Oh, right. She'd read that in the letter, but it had slipped her mind in her haste to get here.
"So we will deposit your things there…" Here, the elderly man paused, eyeing the pack slung over her shoulder with barely masked distaste. He couldn't be outright rude. Of course not. That would be poor form indeed. Idiot. "…And then take you to your fitting."
As they resumed Penelo's quest to the elevator, she allowed herself to ask the questions that had been brewing on her mind on her way over. Granted, she'd wanted to pester Larsa with them, but if they were on a tight schedule… "What am I getting fitted for? Larsa didn't say."
The advisor tsked. Perhaps it was over her lack of using Larsa's title. Whatever, she thought. Larsa had told her firmly not to call him 'Lord' or 'Your Grace' or any of those other stuffy terms ever, and she was practically bound by imperial law to obey this "request." Everyone knew it, and if the advisor didn't like it, that was his problem.
That right there was the main reason why she hated visiting Archades. All these people with expressions like chocobo dung was constantly under their nose. If it weren't for Larsa…
"You are getting fitted for the gown you will be wearing this eve at His Grace's birthday ball."
The elevator doors closed on them, and the man input the coordinates for the fiftieth floor. He had to twist a key to get access to it, something that Penelo had previously only seen on Larsa. She'd had no idea anyone but him or the servants had access to this floor. But, she supposed, Grumpy Advisor had to show her to her rooms since Larsa himself wasn't available.
It only took ten floors for the ride to become unbearably stuffy. "How did you know I was here so quickly?"
He was perusing his book and didn't even pause to look up. Penelo could see a schedule on it, quickly penned for the day, and he was already making additions. "We have been on the lookout for you. His Grace has been quite anxious for your arrival. By the way, Miss Mercheson, it is rude not to RSVP to an emperor."
"I was away, which he said he knew," she retorted. Then she frowned. She didn't have to explain herself to this man. "So, I'm getting fitted for a dress? What if I just want to see Larsa first?"
"No, that will not do. His Imperial Grace is in a financial meeting with the Senate at the moment, and you would only be interrupting. It is of great import. He cannot be bothered by such a trivial thing."
As the doors opened to let them out on the Imperial Wing, Penelo's frown deepened with annoyance. "You just said he's been anxious over me getting here. Now my arrival isn't important enough for him?"
"It can wait."
Penelo was ready to pull that damned book out of his hands and smack him over the head with it. She wasn't sure how she restrained herself.
He dropped her off in her rooms and hightailed it for the door, with a last remark that the seamstress would be there soon. Penelo sighed, figuring that was typical, and dropped her bag on the floor of her new sitting room. She had two options. She could either stay there like a good girl and wait for that seamstress, or she could go and hunt for Larsa on her own. The only problem was, if she couldn't find him, she wouldn't be able to get back to her rooms. She didn't have a key.
With a second, much longer sigh, she decided to explore her rooms and then settle in. She'd be seeing Larsa either way, so it didn't matter if it was now or later. At least, that was what she had to tell herself to stay put. Normally a very sensible young woman, Penelo was finding it hard not to go barreling out of these rooms, find Larsa, and pounce on him the second she did. Then he'd laugh, overjoyed that she'd made it while everyone gaped at her forward display, and Penelo? Penelo wouldn't care one whit.
The nice thing about her upgraded rooms was that they could swallow the ones many floors below her several times over. She had a sitting room, a bath chamber, a study, and the bedroom itself. It was here that she lingered in, her fingers drawing over the beautiful woodwork of the frame at the foot of her bed. It was a deep mahogany, and probably a couple centuries old. The bed was swathed in layers of rich turquoise blankets and throw pillows, and a curtain rustled slightly around the four-poster from the breeze coming in from the cracked window.
Turquoise was her favorite color.
Noticing that made her notice other things. The Galtaean-like pottery located in the sitting room and study, with plants that were very Dalmascan in nature. The rare Galbana lilies, Alkali phacelia, with their pretty cream flowers that closely resembled morning glories, except they grew in the desert and didn't mature the same way at all. And then, one of the prettier shrubs, the apache plume, a pink shrubbery that took up several giant pots. How they would survive in the cold of Archades was beyond Penelo's comprehension, but she knew they'd been placed here specifically for her.
The pottery itself was very breathtaking, and she wondered where Larsa had found it. It reminded her strongly of the architecture of Rabanastre, something uncommon in a country so radically different. Archadians didn't favor the blues, the sepia, the golds. Penelo traced her fingertips over the patterned flower swirling around in the paint of the pots.
She lifted her head, examining the rest of the sitting room. The furniture had been reupholstered, and done in similar colors of turquoise to that of her bedspread. Gold thread was wound through it, with touches of pink here and there. The coffee table was similar to the one she had at home, but much more expensive-looking, with legs that curved outward, wrought of gold, the top itself made of marble.
Books were heaped on it, but placed artfully. Everything from her favorite poets to the history of Dalmasca, to landscapes of Ivalice that some famous painter had put together. She longed to open them. Exploration was calling her, however, so she decided to finish that first.
Artwork she'd seen in the Rabastran Palace adorned the walls, and though she knew they were imitations, they were very, very good. A painting of the Estersand, with the Nebra winding through it far below, the scenery obviously having been taken from atop one of the many cliffs dotting that stretch of desert. The entrance of the Zertinan Caverns, sand a waterfall over its gaping mouth, a Slepnir with its head bent nearby, pawing at a cactite with its mighty hooves.
Penelo turned from the paintings, her stomach suddenly in knots. These rooms seemed very… permanent. Why would he have gone through so much trouble to make them resemble the place she was born if her stay here in the Imperial Wing was only temporary, was only because the guest wing was filled to maximum capacity?
It wasn't adding up.
The seamstress arrived not ten minutes later, covered head to toe in sewing materials and measuring tapes. Her chubby wrist had a pin cushion strapped to it, and her tone was no-nonsense, reminding Penelo oddly enough of her mother. She instantly liked her, though they didn't exchange many words, except when the elderly woman told her to stand still so she wouldn't poke her with any of the pins.
Penelo specifically recalled Larsa saying he had already given her measurements to the seamstress. She mentioned this now, but Amara, as the seamstress was called, informed her that this dress fitting was for the birthday ball. Her other dresses were already on their way from the shop, and the hand maiden she'd been assigned would be there to help sort them out when they arrived.
Choking on this, Penelo felt a sting in her side that she only barely noticed. A hand maiden?
What in the seven hells did she need a hand maiden for?
"Ye might want to stay still, dearie."
She couldn't stay still when she'd just found out she was being assigned a hand maiden. Penelo was not royalty, she was not even gentry, yet somehow, her best friend had overlooked that. The question was why.
She was going to find out right now!
She was half-naked.
Amara clucked. She sounded like one of those cockatrices Terra had pinned up in the Giza Plains that Penelo and her crew had gone all over Ivalice in search of. "I'm like as not to stick ye if ye canno' stop yer fidgetin'."
Penelo had to resist the strangely childish impulse to stick her tongue out at the older woman. Hm. There seemed to be a lot of resisting her impulses today. It was quickly growing exhausting.
The hours dragged past. Penelo had had no idea getting ready for a ball held in the emperor's honor could be such a tedious task. She'd attended several of Larsa's birthday balls, and she hadn't had any of this hassle. Granted, she'd been with Vaan, but still. Not a peep of anything. Yet… now, her whole day was occupied by the procedure.
Why, why, why?
They went through three gowns before the seamstress and her hand maiden declared her ready. Apparently Penelo didn't have any say in the matter. After that, she was unceremoniously tossed into the adjoining bathroom in her chambers and scrubbed clean until her skin was baby pink. It was humiliating. Penelo couldn't remember the last time she had been nude around anyone. Amara and Bernette, however, didn't even seem to notice. Penelo didn't see how. She was so red in the face, she could have heated the bath water herself. The other women didn't even bat an eyelash.
Her skin raw, Penelo grumbled as she was dragged back into her sitting room. At least she smelt nice.
She was moved to her bed chamber and forced to sit at an antique vanity. It had probably been in the Solidor family for many a generation, just like her bed frame. She ran her fingers almost reverently over the worn wood before she felt fire sear along her skull and screamed reflexively. Bernette held her shoulders down while Amara began to tug the brush through Penelo's long blonde locks.
"How—did you guys—have my dress so quickly—"
"Oh, it was easy-peasy," Bernette chirped. "It had taken you so long to reply to His Grace, he sent the measurements in and told Ms. Amara to make the dresses. Then, once she had those designed, all we had to do was put you in them and fix up the last-minute stitching." She patted Penelo's shoulders.
Two hours later, and it was dark outside. Penelo had missed dinner, and her stomach was rumbling ferociously, though she had a feeling her watchers, as she'd come to think of them, weren't going to let her eat anything before that dratted corset was placed around her again. It turned out this line of thinking was correct, as not minutes after they'd finished styling her hair, she was unable to breathe as they laced the corset up.
Penelo's fingers were white-knuckled around one of the four-posters on her bed. It was taking all she had not to throw the women off her. She had a petite frame, she knew that, but as far as she was concerned, the corset had been invented to squeeze the life out of a woman and do terrifying things to her organs.
But, at long last, she was deemed ready to attend the ball.
"Well, what do you think, milady?" Bernette gripped Penelo's waist affectionately.
The slender dancer from the streets of Dalmasca had been, simply put, transformed. Her hair, usually thrown up in two braids, had been left down tonight. The curls spilled around her face and over her shoulders, down the length of her back to settle at her spine in layers of hair, much like a waterfall. Bernette had pinned turquoise butterflies in her hair—Amara having left once her seamstress duties were over—and had fastened a silver chain around her neck with a matching turquoise pendant that dangled between her breasts.
Speaking of her breasts, they seemed a lot larger than normal, and although she couldn't breathe very well, Penelo liked it. She yanked her eyes from her cleavage back up to her face to see the fine details Bernette had painted on. An eyeshadow that somehow seemed to glitter, a gloss that made her lips shine just as much. Rouge on her cheeks, softening her features somehow, making her appear… not as used to the life of a sky pirate as she'd become.
Penelo touched her throat self-consciously and let her eyes drop to the rest of her ensemble. The gown was cream with embellished gold stitching, the corset itself a darker shade of turquoise, and her skirts fanned out at her waist, glimmering just like the rest of her from hints of gold stitching here and there. Her slippers were the cream of her sleeves, simple but elegant in that simplicity.
Like this, Penelo looked like she was born for the court.
"I think… this is amazing. You two… I just… Amazing," she rambled, flabbergasted.
Bernette giggled and winked at her in their reflection. "His Grace is sure to think so, as well. Let's get you to him, shall we?"
"W-What?" Penelo jerked her head up from examining her slippers again. "No!" Wait, what was she saying? This was Larsa's birthday! "I mean, it's just—I…" Licking her lips, she shook her head wildly. It was threatening to upset the pins, though, so she stopped. She didn't want all of Bernette's hard work on her hair to go to waste.
"Nervous?" Bernette said knowingly.
Larsa had never seen her like this. What if… What if he didn't like it?
Her hand maiden didn't give her a chance to calm her nerves before she had Penelo out in the hallway, on the way to the ball. Bernette slipped away to a servants' elevator, leaving Penelo alone and keyless on the journey to her own. She didn't understand that, and when she came to stand in front of the thing, she frowned at it.
Had someone forgotten to give her a key in their haste for preparations for the ball?
Confused, frustrated, she was just turning to head to the servants' elevator when the doors in front of her hissed open. She stared, stunned, as Larsa walked out and took her hand. He was dressed in similar colors, which made her wonder how that information had been passed so quickly from Amara. Larsa would have had only an hour to dress into a prepared… matching… attire?
"Larsa, it's so good to see you!" Penelo exclaimed, nearly kicking herself a moment later. Why did she have to sound so eager? She flushed all over again, this embarrassment somehow worse than the scene in the bathroom. "I—happy birthday!"
"Thank you." He squeezed her fingers, his glove soft and spotless. She watched, mesmerized, as he lifted her hand to his lips to ghost a kiss there. At her look, an impish smile touched them. "You never responded to my letter. I had feared you would not arrive."
"I'm sorry, I was a-away…" She hated that she was stuttering, but he'd never done something like that before. "I only just got back at the crack of dawn this morning. I headed over straightaway!"
She would have kept on like that, had he not shook his head. "It is all right, Penelo. You are here now, and that is all that matters." Taking her hand, he hooked it over his elbow and began to walk with her down the corridor.
"Where are we going? Your ball…"
"There is something I wanted to discuss with you first."
Larsa had grown in the last six years.
Of course, that was to be expected. Who wouldn't grow in that amount of time, had they started out in adolescence? Larsa, however, had changed so drastically, it was hard not to constantly notice. Especially since these changes had been what had captured her attention, and then later, fused with his sweet personality, her heart.
Once only reaching her shoulders, he now towered over her by a little more than a foot. His hair was much the same, dark like midnight and feathery, fanning up at the ends. His eyes, too, were the same shade of rich green, but now they had little crinkles around the corners from constantly laughing, and they darkened to the color of emeralds when he was amused.
His lashes, longer than ever, had entranced her on more than one occasion, and though he had inherited the imperial nose, it wasn't as obvious as his brother's, and his jawline was strong, masculine. It screamed at her to run her fingers over it, something she'd never gained the courage to attempt. When he was a boy, everything had been simpler. She could hold him, comfort him, soothe away his tears and his worries from the loss of his family.
Now he was much too tall for that, too big, filled out with muscle, yet not hulking. It was a slender sort of frame, but with his height and firm build, he commanded attention. And even that had nothing on his voice, deep and authoritative, something he'd mastered at the fragile age of twelve and five months.
He leaned against the railing of the balcony he'd led her to. It was at the end of the Imperial Wing, and far, far down below were the imperial gardens. Penelo wished she could smell the fragrance of the flowers, that the breeze would carry it, but they were too high up. Oh, well. She'd make sure to see them before she went back to Bhujerba.
"Penelo…" Larsa smiled at her. "I had meant to discuss this with you much earlier, but right now will have to do, as telling you after the ball or during it would ruin the purpose of… this." He glanced at her beautiful gown, then away, blushing. Penelo could see it even in the dim light of the moon. "But I fear I cannot find the words. They escape me. I imagined you would be beautiful, yet—"
"Larsa, don't," she whispered. Her throat felt tight. Hearing him compliment her so sweetly, when it could never go anywhere, was too painful to listen to.
"No, I must finish," he insisted. "You…" He turned to fully face her, his hands spread before him as he surveyed her. "You are a sight." His eyes lifted to hers, and her heart skipped a beat, damn the thing. "You look amazing, no—glorious. You put the courtiers who spent months preparing for this ball to shame."
She shook her head. "But why all this fuss, Larsa? I—the hand maiden, the rooms in this wing, all the dresses, everything…" She gestured hopelessly and stared down at the stone beneath them, because she couldn't look at him anymore. Hearing him write sonnets in her name over her appearance was growing much more than painful, it was torture. He only meant it as a friend, and he could never know how much that agonized her.
"Tonight is a very important night. It is not only my eighteenth birthday, but something else, as well…" He took her hand in his. When she still wouldn't look at him, he touched her chin. "Penelo, please? I have been preparing for what I am about to ask you for months…"
Ask her? He was going to ask her something?
That got her attention, but her throat tightened when his eyes gazed fiercely into hers and his hands tightened. "As you know, I am the sole remaining member of House Solidor, as well as childless and wifeless. The Senate has been after me for two years, and now they have finally put their foot down. Tonight, I am to escort my chosen bride to this ball, and make known to Ivalice who the future empress of Archadia is."
Penelo's heart sank. Why was he telling her this? Did he want her congratulations beforehand?
Furthermore… "What? Why haven't I heard about something important like this?"
Larsa's brows rose, his eyes darkening with amusement. "The rumors have spread far and wide of my pending announcement. You truly did not know?"
Penelo shook her head. "I've—I've been… away-away."
"And you have spent all day in your rooms, with little time to explore to see the decorations for visiting royalty from Rozarria and other smaller kingdoms…" Larsa smiled to himself, lowering his eyes. "This is, perhaps, sure to become awkward, but I suppose I must proceed, as I have already begun…"
He fell to one knee.
Penelo couldn't stop her eyes from growing as wide as saucers. "What are you doing?" she asked, her voice nearly shrill. He couldn't be doing what she thought he was doing. Could he?
His fingers trembling ever so slightly, Larsa reached into his cream jacket and pulled free a velvet box. It appeared black in the darkness, though with the way the moonlight was hitting it, Penelo thought maybe it was navy. Either way, the sight of it made her take a step back. Larsa didn't seem to notice, intent on the box, which stood out starkly against the cream of his gloves.
Then, taking a deep breath, he opened it, presenting it to her.
The largest diamond she had ever seen glittered up at her, taunting her. She could have likely bought a house with that thing!
She clasped her hands over her mouth, silently shaking her head back and forth. When he frowned at that, she hastened to correct her response, clutching the sides of her face and breathing raggedly, her eyes constantly jerking from the ring to his face. Okay. Maybe she was having difficulty controlling her facial expressions. He clearly thought she was saying no, and that was not it at all.
"No, please, let me—let me say what I need to say!" he burst out, his eyes wide in near panic. "Penelo, I have loved you for as long as I have known you. Once I rescued you from Judge Ghis and the bangaa who'd captured you in the Lhusu Mines, I knew… I knew that one day I would be here, kneeling before you, offering you my mother's ring."
"I'm not even—" Royalty, she finished weakly in her head. Saying it out loud would just make it more real, more awful.
"Since then, you have proved that what I thought was my infatuation as a boy was much more than that. You are amazing, resourceful, so intelligent, brilliant, beautiful, you are so kind, you—" He stopped gushing, dropping his eyes before lifting them back to hers. A new intensity blazed in them. "I need you, Penelo. I need you by my side. I need you to say that you will accompany me tonight. I need you to say yes."
How was this happening? Penelo was fairly certain she wasn't breathing anymore, and now the world was spinning at alarming rates.
He took her hand in his, gently slipping the ring over her finger, the one with the only vein in her body that led directly to her heart. "I love you. Please… marry me."
"I—" Her heart, of course, was screaming yes, yes, yes, yes! but her always prevailing sense of logic was befuddled. "I'm not—a—I'm not a noble, Larsa, I…"
"I do not care!" he breathed. Then he was up, back on two feet, gripping her biceps, then her cheeks, smoothing his hands into her hair and holding the nape of her neck. She could only gaze up at him, mesmerized by the passion in his voice. "I have spent the better part of the last year finding ways to ensure no one can deny me this. That no one can deny me you. That is when I sent your invitation. I had hoped to spend the last several weeks courting you, bringing you around to the idea, but now, we are out of time…" He shook his head slowly, his eyes never once leaving hers. "Penelo… I love you, I do. I love you so much. Please… Please say yes…"
A thousand thoughts ran through her mind. This was insane. Or a dream. It had to be! Never in her wildest imagination—
But the warmth seeping through his gloves from his palms was real.
She put her hands over his, smiled, and said the one word he most wanted to hear.
And when he kissed her, when he picked her up in his arms and spun her around, laughing with exhilaration, she laughed, too, and she cried. They were tears of happiness, but tears nonetheless. She threw her arms around his neck as he slowly stopped the spinning, and he held her close as she hid her face in his shoulder.
"What is wrong, love?"
"Larsa… I love you, too," she whispered. "I… I thought we would never get to be together… I thought that you would never get to know how I feel, or return that feeling…"
"I know," he whispered back. "But now, I get to spend the rest of our lives proving you wrong."
And he did exactly that.