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To the Sky, a Field of Snow

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Laughter and good cheer rang through the Imperial City of Archades. The first snow had come, bringing with it the traditional halt in enterprise as the entire city celebrated. For a fortnight, even vulgars from the Old city were able to travel without the necessity of chops, to enjoy the festivities and feast upon the imperially provided fare. Grand avenues were decorated with glittering lamps and colorful bows, their lamp posts strung with garlands of greenery from as far away as the Feywood.

While the wintertime festivities were in full swing, the Imperial Palace was filled with wonders of music, dance and theater fit to make all but the dullest of heart sing. Visitors from the farthest corners of the empire paraded in the halls, preening like songbirds as they fought to catch one another's eyes.

And Emperor Larsa Solidor, alas, was required to sit through the worst of it, his attention battled for by coquettish ladies and fawning gentlemen, every gesture and glance extracted for later gossip. Fortunes could rise or fall based on how well he rested the night before. There was no escape until the official festivities were over and he could seek solitude wherever he could find it.

On that particular night, such peace was found in his old study, the one he'd preferred as a boy, tucked far away from the late night revelry. His Imperials, always faithful, waited outside. Magicite lamps flickered in poor imitation of candles as he bent over his desk, papers scattered before him. The hour was late enough that he should by rights have sought his bed, to rest in preparation for what was doomed to be another difficult day. But, Larsa had found, some tasks were as important to the soul as others were to the empire. So he kept on diligently, pen curving through lines he had spent the day dwelling on, each part edited and considered until he could near sing the words.

I dearly wish you were able to Visit. I recall how you enjoyed the Snows of Paramina, the joy we found in our Childish Games. Though those were Dark times, they remain some of my fondest Memories. I would show you the Gardens of the Palace. In Winter, some parts are kept heated, so that the more Delicate of plants might yet Bloom. One may sit in Comfort and watch the snow fall beyond the walls to blanket the City below. Or perhaps you might find Pleasure in the more common Gardens, where Winter is allowed her grasp untroubled by Hume hand or magicks.

It was understated, and deeply so. But in the years they had kept correspondence, they had both grown accustomed to the necessity of such things. Interfering with Imperial missives was a treasonable offense, but there was little some folk would hesitate to do for the right price. Truly personal messages would have to wait for the next visit. Whenever that might be.

In closing, I plead with you to write back with all due Haste. Your previous letter seems to have run afoul of its courier's Fortunes, and while I doubt not at all your Capabilities, it would set my heart at ease to know you are well.
         With affection
                   Your friend,

His pen paused, leaking a tell-tale blotch of ink onto the parchment as he stared at his signature. Scandalously unhindered by titles or seals, and perhaps more revealing in its simplicity than all the words he had written.

A fair jest, he thought to himself, sitting back in his chair, that one may correspond with pirates, and yet it is one's signature which may be most scrutinized.

As soon as the ink was sufficiently blotted, he folded the letter and slipped it into an envelope. A quick stamp with the Imperial seal closed it, and hopefully would keep casually prying eyes from it. On the other side, he scrawled Penelo with his usual flourishes before setting it aside. It would be delivered to his special courier in the morning—more common routes would not work for those who so often had reasons to avoid persons of official status.

Then, he sought his rest, escorted as always by his Imperials. They paced him on the walk to his rooms in the Imperial Residence, which was happily one of the few places never opened to the public, or even to visiting gentry. The wing itself was grand, with arching halls and broad balconies that were hanging gardens of flowers in warmer weather. It was also empty, other than his own suite. Once it had housed the entirety of the Imperial family, with places for favored friends and relatives, and even more rooms set aside in case of a visit from those who had gone on to build their own households. Since the passing of Larsa's Imperial father and brother, there had been only him. Halls that once were bursting with life echoed when he walked them.

The Imperials took their stations outside his door as he let himself in. There was as little life in his personal rooms as there was in the rest of the wing. Some few mementos rested in places of pride, and he had—perhaps imprudently—hung a piece of artwork that Vaan had given him after a particularly questionable adventure. His days did not leave much time for such things as books or hobbies, and so there were few personal touches beyond those few.

As always when he came across his sitting room in such a mood, Larsa's feet slowed. He considered, for a flash of a second, leaving. Telling Gabranth that he would be gone, and just going, as he had so many times when he was young. It barely mattered where, so long as it was elsewhere.

And, also as it always did, reality wasted no time in reasserting itself. The crown was not something that could be set aside at a whim; he'd known that when he'd taken the position as a child. He knew his life was not so tedious, and he took pride in his work. But on some days, it was beastly difficult, receiving letters from around the world while he could only remain in his seat and dream.

Sighing, Larsa continued on to his bedchamber, where the bedside lamp had been left low and the green coverlet turned down in wait. Someone had drawn the drapes as well, which surely was meant to be insulation against the winter chill, but left the room looking small and claustrophobic. Larsa took a moment to pull them aside, letting in the starlight. Then he stripped off his gloves and coat, draping them on an ottoman where the servants would surely find them in the morning. His cravat and waistcoat followed close behind, along with his boots. His bare feet slid over the glassy surface of the tile, the flecks of fire and ice magicite embedded within glimmering. They kept the flooring warm or cool, whichever was needed for the season. In truth Larsa preferred the rugs that adorned the sitting room. They had been a coronation gift from Al-Cid, who understood how a boy might feel about stepping into his father's position. They were the deep, metallic golden color that Rozarria was renowned for, and thick as the grass of the Ozmone Plain.

Now that he had time to slow down, exhaustion tugged at his bones, making each button and clasp a trial to manage. They took so much focus that he didn't see anything amiss until he slipped under the blankets and nearly crushed it.

A red flower sat on his pillow.

"A galbana lily?" Larsa asked the empty room, and only hesitated a moment before picking it up. It was, but what it was doing in his bed was anyone's guess. They were only found in Dalmasca, and even then but rarely. The blooms, he was given to understand, were much prized for their unique color; in Rabanastre they were exchanged as tokens of memory and long-lasting affection.

There was a thin red ribbon wrapped around the stem, tangled in the leaves to keep it from sliding off. On the end of the ribbon dangled a silver charm. Hooking his finger under it, he held it up to the light. A crowned heart glittered back at him, facets cut cunningly so that it caught the light like a jewel.

No one could access his rooms without permission; all entrances to the wing were guarded closely, against persons and magick both. He twirled the stem between his fingers and considered, for a moment, summoning Gabranth about the breach in palace security. Someone had been in his rooms enough to leave a token. By its nature, that meant they had been close enough to leave a trap.

But the flower was innocuous, and any person with murderous intentions surely would not give themselves away so blatantly. A maid was to blame, perhaps, or one of the guards who was not so honorable as to refuse a small errand. Surely it wasn't something worth prying Gabranth from his bed over. The man was nearing forty, after all.

Carefully, Larsa set the flower on the bedside table, atop the small volume of poetry he occasionally read before sleep, and passed his hand over the lamp. It winked out, leaving the room dark but for the stars shining through the window.

Morning arrived as it always did—with a flurry of activity. For the occasion, breakfast was primarily eaten on foot, while the day's festivities were set in motion. Being the emperor, such a thing could never be allowed, and so Larsa's meal was brought to his rooms. Unfortunately, it was accompanied by General Malleus, who never missed an opportunity to fill Larsa's ear. Even the Winter Festival was no match for his determination.

"Your Grace, it is a threat that cannot be ignored!" Malleus shifted his weight from foot to foot, ruddy-faced and scowling. He'd refused Larsa's offer to sit, under the guise of having only come for a brief word; with Malleus, there was no such thing as a brief word. It had been a tactical error, and one Larsa bore some little guilt in relishing. "The forces of Dalmasca gather and you do nothing!"

The General was precisely the sort of man Larsa recalled causing his father much grief in his final years and, in fact, may have been one those specific men at the time. And now he was Larsa's to deal with. Watchers had reported suspicious airships bearing Dalmasca's flag crossing the border, and they would be turned into ships of war if Malleus had to personally piece together the metal of the deck.

Deliberate in his comfort, Larsa leaned back and steepled his fingers, breakfast yet unfinished before him. "And I do not intend to ignore any such threat," he said calmly, watching the General fidget with growing pleasure. "That is, provided one is presented to me. My personal informants tell me that the border you refer to is empty of any such invasion force as you claim. In addition, it is on occasion used by skypirates. And while piracy is certainly a crime we can only condemn—" In his favored place behind Larsa's shoulder, Gabranth stifled a choked laugh. "—I do not see how anyone could hold Queen Ashelia responsible for their forays.Most especially not when Balfonheim sits on our own lands, untroubled by Imperial forces."

"My men saw a scouting vessel cross the border yesterday afternoon," Malleus pressed on, nervously straightening the long sleeves of his jacket. He was a man of the old ways, and eager to return to the bloody ways that had built the empire. War would bring the glory he longed for, even if he had to manufacture it. "They reported—"

"I, too, have men stationed at the border," Gabranth said, stepping closer to Larsa's shoulder. His helm was off, but he didn't need it to be imposing. Even Larsa, who had grown to manhood with Gabranth's kind hand as substitute to his lost father and brother, who knew beyond doubt the gentleness of spirit hidden in Gabranth's breast, had no doubt how fearsome the man could appear when he so chose. "His Grace is correct; the vessel you saw was only a pirate, no doubt on way to Balfonheim or some other friendly port."

"As my own men tell me," Larsa agreed, expression utterly bland. "I dare say that it was likely a ship like any other, passing through on its way to Balfonheim. Do not worry yourself over it. Enjoy the festival, and leave such worries to other men for now."

"My Lord—"

"You are dismissed, General."

The General opened his mouth, no doubt to protest, but closed it again swiftly. He was, apparently, not so stupid as to actually argue an order from the emperor. Bowing, he took his leave with nearly impolite haste.

Larsa pressed his fingertips to his temple, rubbing at the headache he could feel building there. One trouble out of the way, but surely another dozen would seek him soon. "Have him watched, Gabranth," he ordered. "I do not trust our dear General, but too much protest will be made if I retire him yet."

"Consider it done," Gabranth said, rather more stiffly than was his wont when they were alone. Before Larsa could ask after the strange tone, a maid came in and Larsa's attention was utterly stolen. The tray she sat before him bore mulled cider, which was most certainly not his usual morning drink.

Beside the cup was another galbana lily.

As with the other, it had a small charm attached—a scroll and quill. Picking up the flower, he twisted it about, finding as little clue to its origin as the first had.

"Gabranth?" he asked. "Have you an idea what this is about?"

"Whatever it is, it seems harmless enough," Gabranth replied, which was not at all the answer Larsa had expected. Harmless was a word he did not often hear pass his Imperial's lips.

Larsa shook his head in wonder at the man's ease. Clearly, something was afoot. He just needed to find out what it was.

The first event of the day was a troupe of moogles with a traveling theater that they set up in one of the large rooms that seemingly had been built a century past simply for the sake of it. The tale was of a maiden knight and an ice dragon, and of her journey to the Holy Mountain to vanquish it. The costumes were bright and lovely, and the acting rather good for a children's tale. Larsa had never known moogles to try their hand at theater, but Archades was still not a place which attracted many of their folk.

It was a pleasant diversion, which unfortunately did not make up for the one to follow. Music, which by itself Larsa would have no complaint with, but which was not so diverting that he could use it to stave off the attentions of the court.

"I'm certain your Grace would agree that the key of C minor as used by Bellani is so very outdated," the latest imposition droned from outside Larsa's protective circle of Imperials. He was a younger man, dressed in a truly impressive mixture of teal and orange that would likely haunt Larsa's sartorial nightmares. Larsa couldn't place his name, but it wouldn't be the first time someone had thought to win his ear by force of personality rather than title. "It was certainly fine for last year, but we have progressed so very far in musical ability..."

Larsa's fingers dug into the arms of his chair. In the course of a normal day, such a foolhardy attempt at social climbing could be easily deflected by deferring to more important matters, but during the Festival, it was inescapable. He could eject one, and the next would be a gamble on his patience and their status. All he could do was nod and hope he could find an escape quickly.

Like a herald of mercy descending from the heavens, Gabranth took pity. He stepped up to Larsa's shoulder, and when the pompous twit stopped for breath, leaned down to whisper, "There is a need for you in your private study, your Grace."

"Is there?" Larsa asked, unable to entirely hide his desperation.

Gabranth nodded, eyes twinkling with the lie. "Very urgent, my Lord. It's the matter we discussed earlier, regarding Dalmasca."

Entirely inappropriate relief flooded Larsa's soul. "Then I must hurry. I apologize, but it seems I am required." The twit bobbed and bowed, not at all arguing while Larsa made his escape.

As soon as they reached the splendid isolation of the halls, Larsa allowed himself to relax; there none were present to witness any minor indiscretion. "Bless you, Gabranth. May you live a long life, to ever come to my aid in times of distress."

One great gauntleted hand came down on Larsa's shoulder with a fatherly pat. "Generous of you," Gabranth grinned. "Now, to your study, or tongues shall wag."

Nodding agreement, Larsa stretched his legs to hurry the pace. He'd found that if he walked the halls at speed, with an expression of deep thought, only the most brave or foolhardy would approach him. Unfortunately, this did not work on a certain subset of gentle folk with children of a marriageable age, but such individuals were occupied by the events for the moment and were not a pressing concern.

As with his rooms, Larsa's official private study was hidden away in the Imperial Wing, where few could stumble across it and interfere with his work. Gabranth followed him in, taking a place by the door while Larsa sat down into his desk chair with a relieved sigh. It was closely followed by a noise of confusion as, once again, he found himself confronting an unexpected flower. This time, the charm was of a slender anchor such as an airship might use, rather than the less common sea-going variety. Under it was a note, sealed with plain wax and scribed with for the emperor in a suspiciously bland hand.

Picking up the flower and the missive, Larsa turned. "Really, now! Have you any idea what this business might be about?"

Gabranth stared straight ahead, chin up and expression unrevealing. "I could not say, my Lord."

"I see." Larsa's fingers ran over the folded edge of the note as he pondered Gabranth. In any other man, he might have been suspicious of foul play, but never Gabranth. It made the man's ambiguity all the more odd, though. Gabranth was not a man known for playing games.

But he might enable others in theirs.

Slipping his thumb under the seal, Larsa popped it up. It was cheap wax, colorless and soft, the sort that barely held place and was easily tampered with. Inside, there was only four words: look to the sky. He frowned at it, twisting the parchment in case some other clue made itself known. When that proved fruitless, he turned to the flower.

A crowned heart on his pillow. A scroll and quill at breakfast. And an anchor in his study. All of them attached to galbana lilies. They seemed meaningless, but clearly someone was attempting to tell him something. The only thing for it was to see it through to the end.

"How very exciting. An adventure." Tucking the lily away where it would be safe, Larsa stood. "Come, Gabranth. It seems we have a mystery at hand."

The half-panicked expression that flickered across Gabranth's face warmed Larsa's heart. It was the look of a man who had seen far too many juvenile antics for his health, and had learned to distrust the word exciting. But he rallied and stood aside, ready as ever to follow Larsa into the depths of adventure.

Look to the sky, the message had said. Unfortunately, that meant very little in a city whose primary mode of travel was by aircab. Larsa took some detours to balconies on all sides of the palace, but the air traffic in the city showed nothing of interest, and the endless cover of grey clouds was unbroken by further clues. So, trailed faithfully by Gabranth, he did the only thing he could think to do.

He went up.

The palace had been structured around a pair of central spires, leading up to a primary platform that was—currently—used as a dock for imperial aircraft. Over the centuries, it had been added on to, deconstructed, and generally molded to suit the whims of the sitting emperor. As a result, there were numerous areas with open access to the air.

Larsa sought out the highest. It was not an easy height to aspire to; in some places, stairs were the only access, and in others the magicite-powered lifts covered a bare three or four levels. The servants and bureaucrats who inhabited the higher levels were left to stare in confusion as the emperor, trailed by his guard, charged through areas long since forgotten by the gentry.

At the top of the palace there was only a small platform, edged with a low wall. No one had troubled themselves with clearing snow from it, and the wind was not so sharp as to have done the job itself. Small drifts had piled up around some pieces of decorative stonework, creating a rolling carpet of snow that was broken by glimpses of the brown stone beneath.

He pulled his jacket closer and stepped out into the chill air. There were footprints in the snow, a clear set that had not yet been filled in. They crossed directly in front of the doorway and curved around out of sight. Frowning in thought, Larsa followed them around the curve of the spire, the crunch of his boots loud in the still winter air.

No sooner had he turned the corner than a snowball smacked him square in the face. A loud, lovely, familiar laugh followed it.

"It took you long enough!" Penelo giggled. She was bundled up in thick wool and leather, her head covered with a hood lined with fur. Behind her, an airship anchor had been lodged firmly in the stonework, its rope vanishing overhead. "I thought I was going to have to just charge in and throw you over my shoulder."

Sputtering, Larsa fell back a few steps, wiping his eyes clear to glare at her. It may have been more effective if he'd been able to stop smiling. "Yes, well, perhaps your clues could have been thought through a bit more," he accused.

Behind him, Gabranth had re-appeared with a cloak and warm gloves. No doubt he had been as involved in the matter as Penelo. Larsa tugged on the outerwear gratefully; his jacket was no match for the temperature, and neither were his gloves nor boots. "I'll not forget your part in this," he added, muffled a bit by the addition of a scarf.

"Cast blame where you will on your return." Gabranth tugged Larsa's hood up, anxious as a mother cockatrice with her first clutch. "Go."

"Go?" Larsa looked between his Imperial and his pirate. "Where to, precisely?"

Penelo hooked an arm through his, bumping his bicep with her shoulder. "You, my Lord, are being kidnapped by a pirate for the day," she announced grandly, in a poor imitation of an Archadian accent. "Come on!"

She gave his arm a sharp yank, pulling him over to the anchor. Larsa hadn't time to form a protest before she'd pulled a rope ladder seemingly out of midair and was shoving him up it. His guard, supposedly loyal beyond all bribery, dared to wave as he was manhandled into the airship.

Pirates and knights! Unlikely companions in trickery, and yet there they were.

"Sit!" Penelo pointed him at the co-pilot's seat, dropping herself into the Captain's chair. Her hood flopped backward, letting her braids free from where they'd been bundled behind her head. In the year since they'd last met, it had grown even more in length, leaving the golden ropes of her braids to pool behind her. "We've got to get out of here, before someone decides to ask questions."

"That would be terribly inconvenient, wouldn't it?" But Larsa took the time to buckle himself in, recalling a few similar trips with Penelo at the helm. This was a different ship than he knew from previous trips with his favorite pirates, but he doubted that Penelo's flying style would alter itself simply for that.

The city fell away behind them, quickly vanishing as they rose into the cloud cover. "Dare I ask why you've seen fit to abduct me?" he asked, after they had been in the air some minutes.

"It's just a day trip!" Penelo looked over at him, all wide, lying blue eyes. Larsa crossed his arms and waited. As he anticipated, it took only a few seconds for her to break. "Aaaand maybe someone told me that you work too hard and needed a break. It's the Winter Festival! You should be enjoying yourself, not moping about the palace."

Larsa bit his lip. He couldn't argue the point and maintain honesty, but he was loath to admit it aloud. "I do not mope," he said instead, stiffly, realizing his mistake only when she glanced over at him in alarm. Swallowing, he added, in a softer tone, "And perhaps, if I ever did, it would be for missing you."

A faint, hurt noise escaped her, barely audible under the hum of the skystone. On the controls, her grip tightened. "Larsa..."

"You did not reply to my last letter." He tried to keep his tone even, but to his horror it wobbled as it hadn't since he'd been shorter than she. "I do worry. The life of a pirate is harsh, and I cannot ease your way should you come to mischief inside another's borders."

"I know." Reaching out a hand, Penelo grabbed his, keeping only one hand free to guide their course. "I'm sorry. I thought I would arrive before it was due."

Her hand felt small in his, a thing he'd never quite had time to grow accustomed to, their visits were so few. He could feel the occasional catch and tug of her calluses on his gloves, and her nails were uneven from the rough living required of one who would thumb their nose at the law. "I would rather have you in person than a thousand pieces of dry paper, no matter how soulfully written the words within," he confessed quietly, drawing his thumb across her knuckles and wishing for a moment that there was naught between them but skin.

She squeezed his hand, tilting the control to cut them sideways, past some obstacle his eyes couldn't make out through the cloud cover. "I'll make it up to you," she promised. "Maybe I can kidnap you again tomorrow."

The ship started lowering, or so it felt; there was no change in the view, but his head felt oddly light with the change. Surely they could not have escaped Archades so quickly. "Or perhaps you could come for a proper visit, rather than simply whisking me away from my duties."

"Duties!" Penelo scoffed. "I know what you do during these festivals. Mope."

"I do not mope!"

The back and forth continued, easy and meaningless, simple chatter to fill the silence of the cockpit as Penelo maneuvered them wherever she would. It must have been a carefully plotted plan, as some of the changes she made were so subtle, he only tracked them by the movement of her hands on the column.

When they finally came out from the cloud cover, they were still in Archades, but only just at the edge of the city. The golden stone of the buildings stretched up in graceful towers and arches, all of it decorated with a loving dusting of white powder. People in brilliant colors scampered through the streets, some in the imperial crimson distributing hot drinks and food to the revelers, some on hume-built ponds slipping and skating on ice that had frozen weeks prior.

Penelo did something complicated that made the controls beep, and lights flash a steady yellow. In a flash, she was up and out of her chair, reaching across him to flip open the buckles of his restraints. Using their still-joined hands, she yanked at him, bodily forcing him out of his seat. "Come on, Larsa! We don't have all day!"

"If I recall, we rather do," he joked, but made a point of speeding his steps. Her excitement was contagious, jingling along his nerves pleasantly. Penelo had rarely offered him any reason to mistrust her plans, and he could not deny that he was interested in discovering what she had set in store for them this time.

The ship was a new one to him, and he found himself surprised by how spacious it seemed. There was what appeared to be a sitting room, a galley, and two doors that he presumed led off to bunks. She pulled him past them to a cunningly crafted set of stairs that led up to a small hatch in the roof. Larsa watched in bewilderment as she spun the lock and pushed it open to reveal the cloudy sky above. In the short time that they'd been hovering, snow had already gathered on the blue and gold enamel of the deck, a thin blanket that would no doubt grow quickly.

"Go on!" Using his jacket as a hand-hold, Penelo continued her methods of pulling until Larsa's choices were reduced to following along or sitting down like a spoiled child and forcing her to drag him. Given so little option, he let himself be hauled out onto what appeared to be an observation deck. Below, Archades sprawled in all its splendor, even more magnificent without the glass of the cockpit between them.

They were even higher than the palace at its peak, showing a city in the full enjoyment of the holiday. Aircabs, public and private, zoomed through the sky in patterns that his eye couldn't read. Tsenoble was awash with color and light, magicks at work to create magnificent displays. The lower districts were not so extravagant, but their less pyro-technick adornments were pleasing in their own way.

In the distance, the crumbling remains of the old city lay like the decaying body of a once fair creature. The Sochen Palace was an oddly shaped lump of sunken architecture and fallen rock, and there were no decorations to be seen. Now and then one of the denizens of the place was a dark speck of motion, scurrying across the white carpet of snow.

It was peaceful, in a way nothing in the Palace truly was. Even when he slept, there was a hustle of activity, and the knowledge that he could be woken for any emergency deemed suitable. So high over the city, it was different. He knew that Gabranth would not have let him be stolen away without the ability to call him back at need, but it seemed a distant possibility, no more a concern than a hare in high grass.

"Is this what you wanted to show me?" he asked, turning around, only to find himself alone on the deck. The door had been closed behind him while he'd been taken with the view. Curious, Larsa opened it a few inches. "Penelo?"

"Coming!" She danced into sight, juggling two large pewter mugs. At first glance, they appeared to be steins, which he'd seen used before by some visitors from the Clans in the northern territories. Penelo's seemed to be shaped slightly different, with flatter lids and no visible hinge. It even had a small hole on top, with a gently curved rim for the ease of drinking.

No sooner than she neared him did Penelo shove one of the mugs at him. "Cocoa," she said cheerfully. "It's not a snowy day without cocoa."

Bemused, Larsa followed Penelo's motions in taking a sip. The drink was of good quality; he wouldn't be surprised to find she'd filched it from the palace kitchens. A few nudges from Penelo had them taking seats at the edge of the deck, feet dangling over open air, close enough that their legs pressed together from hip to knee. Though he was larger than she by a significant amount, Larsa leaned down to let his weight press against Penelo's side. She wrapped her free arm about him, burying her bare hand under his jacket. Her palm was a warm spot against the small of his back, layers of clothing not enough to dull his awareness of the touch.

Time enough passed that the dregs of his cocoa grew cold, and even the thickness of his gloves could not entirely combat the chill. Penelo's skin was nigh on turning blue, though she was dressed near as well as he for the weather. Desert born and raised, winters as harsh as those in Archades were terrible for her, no matter how exotic she found snow.

Reaching over, he took her stein from her, lifting her fingers to his cheek to judge their chill. "Come," he said decisively, rising to his feet. One hand held the empty steins while the other wrapped around Penelo's elbow, urging her up. It seemed it was to be his turn to lead. "Your schemes will do me no good if I must chop you out of a block of ice."

Penelo let him lead her by her icy hand, keeping the other folded under her cloak. "It's not a scheme," she insisted, through teeth clenched against chattering. "It's a plan."

"Yes, I quite see the distinction." It took a bit of juggling for Larsa to open the hatch without dropping either Penelo or the mugs. He managed by way of elbows and toes, and then shuffled them both inside, slamming the hatch shut.

The warmth of the ship was almost too much after so long bared to the cold air, but the discomfort was welcome. Parts of Larsa that had been entirely too intimate with the frosty metal of the ship began to thaw. Penelo huddled in on herself, shivering violently, a high flush covering her cheeks. Larsa deposited the mugs on the nearest surface before stripping off his gloves to fold her hands between his.

"Dalmascans," he teased lightly, rubbing their hands together. "You torment me for my clothing choices in a desert, and then forget to wear gloves in winter."

"I didn't think we'd be out there that long." Her head bowed, forehead coming to rest against his collarbone. Every now and then, one of the shivers would wrack her so hard he could feel it pass through her.

"You should have spoken up, if you wished to return inside."

"I didn't," she confessed in a whisper. "I liked it."

The chunks of ice magicite that were her hands were slowly starting to warm up. Swallowing back his fears, Larsa pulled her in closer, tucking her hands up against his sides as she had the one out on the deck. His own arms he slipped around her shoulders, carefully loose in case she wished to duck the embrace.

"I enjoyed it, too," he murmured, lips brushing her hair. The wind had pulled free strands from her braid; they tickled him with every breath. "Thank you, for doing this for me."

"We don't spend much time together like that." Against his ribs, Penelo's hands clenched and released, then tightened again. "There's letters, but..."

But they are only a small relief, Larsa finished in the privacy of his own thoughts. It was painfully true. He looked forward to each of her letters as a moment of brightness in his work-weary week. From their correspondence, he thought he might not be alone in that.

Larsa tilted his head down, and found himself looking directly in her eyes from only inches away. His breath seemed to catch behind a sudden tightness in his chest.It was well past the time when the embrace could have been for mere warmth, and what would have seemed simple before suddenly became enormously complicated.

Forcing himself to breathe, he said, "I asked, before, if you would consider staying for a proper visit. Would you?"

"I—I guess pirates can take vacations, can't they?" she asked, voice soft in a way he'd never heard from her before. "We haven't really got any plans for a while. And Vaan can watch himself."

"He is a man grown," Larsa couldn't help but point out. Vaan's seeming dependence on Penelo had always been an annoyance for him. He was wise enough to know that it had more to do with jealousy than any righteous anger at Vaan's troublesome ways. "And I have missed you terribly. Do not I deserve some spare sliver of your time?"

Penelo's weight leaned into him as she rocked up on her toes, bringing them close enough that he could feel her breath on his lips. "Yeah," she said, "you do."

One of them, or perhaps both, moved in. The kiss was quick, a bare brush of their lips before they pulled away again. Penelo's eyes were wide, as if she'd startled herself; Larsa had a suspicion that his own expression was much the same.

"I—" Larsa licked his lips, finding it a battle to focus on anything but kissing her again. "We should..."

"Yeah," Penelo breathed, bouncing on her toes to steal another kiss. Then she was gone, backing away with a shy smile that made his head swim. "I should take us in—we've got time to make snow pirates in Balfonheim before Basch wants you back."

He nodded, not moving after her, as he didn't trust himself to walk. It wasn't that Penelo wasn't a lovely woman, but he'd gotten very good at not looking at her in her various revealing costumes. Being struck once again by it just then felt akin to learning how to fly. "Right. Of course. Balfonheim."

Dimples, actual dimples, appeared at the corners of her smile. "Maybe you can warm me up again, afterwards." Not giving him a chance to respond, she turned to vanish toward the cockpit.

Free of the need to appear competent, Larsa grabbed ahold of the nearest counter and hung on, willing his knees to support him. Once again, he could feel their friendship unraveling, but it wasn't the same. There was something new being born of it. Something, perhaps, that had the chance to be even better.

He couldn't be certain of what new form their friendship was taking, but one thing he did know: it was going to be an interesting winter.