The New Flesh

Chapter Seven

By Scarlet Fever

Squall closed his eyes, tilting his head back. His whole body felt sore and tense, and he knew it was because of worry. He, Nida, Rinoa, Cid and Edea were sitting in the study that had once belonged to Julia Heartilly. It's burgundy wallpaper made the room dark, the moon behind clouds as rain pelted the windows. After they'd left the Opera House, after being questioned by Galbadia Officials from all sorts of different organizations, they went back to the Caraway Mansion, on Edea's insistence. Squall opened one stormy blue eye, and looked at Nida out of the corner of his gaze. Nida's outward appearance showed total composure, but Squall could see some lurking wariness in the other man's eyes.

"Rinoa..." Edea began, after a long silence of staring out the window at the hard rain, which came from nowhere, cold and biting, bordering on hail. The shadows kept growing, stretching longer and longer, as if reaching into the house. They covered the moon with their cloudy reach. "I'm just going to blurt it out, okay?"

Rinoa blinked a few times, surprised by the clipped tone in Edea's velvety voice. "What's wrong?" She looked at the three men nervously. "Did I do something?"

"No, no..." Edea soothed. "Not deliberately, anyway."

Rinoa's face turned into a mask of confusion. "What do you mean, Mrs. Kramer?"

"What sort of powers have you experienced since waking from your coma?"

Nida's head jerked up at Edea's question. Squall raised an elegant eyebrow, and Rinoa just sat there, like a shocked lump.

"What do you mean?" Rinoa asked, measuring her words. "Are you telling me that you think I had something to do with what happened at the concert?"

"Of course I don't!" Edea exclaimed. "But, I've felt something... An aura around you since you woke up."

Rinoa looked down at her hands. Squall watched her intently, remembering walking in on her in the kitchen that morning. The fact that she'd been talking to thin air, saying she'd been talking to herself. He watched as her nervous hands bunched some of the fabric of her dress. "I've been having weird dreams..." Rinoa whispered. "About death... The afterlife."

Edea sat beside the other woman, cocking her head. "What sort of dreams?"

"What does it matter?" Rinoa asked weakly, her voice sounding tired.

Edea took one of Rinoa's hands, looking over at Cid for a moment. "I just want to make sure you're okay, Rinoa."

Rinoa nodded glumly. "I guess I'm more okay than those poor people at the concert... Her voice was so beautiful, and to have that happen...."

"I'm amazed that Fermata kept her composure..." Cid mused.

"It's kind of sickening that Tevedes actually saved a lot of people... Killing some at the same time..." Nida whispered, closing his eyes. "If I didn't know better, I'd say she planned this."

"What do you mean?" Squall asked.

Nida just shrugged, resting his chin in his hands. "I don't know what I mean..."

Squall sighed, standing. Edea kept asking Rinoa questions about her dreams. She was mentioning something about a clock, and her father's voice. Squall looked out the window, resting his forearm on the glass, then pressing his forehead to his arm. He looked out at the city through the water streaked glass, seeing only shadows. It had gotten dark very quickly. Squall narrowed his eyes, a sharp, quick pain passing behind his eyes. He touched his free arm to his temple, but by the time his fingers moved up to his head, the pain was already gone. He silently sighed, thinking it nothing.

"Do you think that someone is trying to use your body for Sorcery?" Edea asked.

Rinoa sighed, thinking of Seifer, sitting across from her at the kitchen counter. "No, nobody's controlling me. Edea, I honestly didn't have anything to do with this!"

Edea patted Rinoa's hand. "No, of course you didn't."

Rinoa looked up at the older woman through her bangs. "But, do you think that what happened was sorcery related?"

Edea looked over at Nida, who was staring off into space. When he sensed Edea's golden brown eyes on him, he looked at her. She sighed deeply. "I'm afraid that's a possibility."

Squall felt a small pain pass over his chest, very sharp, very hot. He held a wince back by biting his generous lower lip. His hand reached up, into his shirt, touching his chest where the pain had stabbed him. But, this time it didn't disappear. He ran his hands over the cool silver of his Griever pendant, pressing the metal into his chest. The pain disappeared, and Squall furrowed his scarred brow, tracing the profile of the lion on his pendant, wondering where the pain came from. He looked over his shoulder at Rinoa, who was slowly shaking her head. His eyes narrowed only slightly, staring at the apex between her shoulder blades. He looked up and met Nida's distant gaze. Nida didn't even really seem to meet Squall's eyes. It was more like he was staring right through Squall's body, to outside, where the rain fell angrily. Squall's eyes looked out the window again as he weighed his pendant in his hand under his shirt, wondering why he was even looking out the window in the first place. The wet shadows were so thick that he couldn't see anything anyway...

Gietzen plastered herself against the wall of the Caraway Mansion, knowing that on the other side, Nida Nomura, Squall Leonhart, Rinoa Heartilly and the Kramers were talking about the concert. Gietzen's black vinyl coat repelled the water, but her hair and skin were still soaked. The shadows hid her well, even when she'd step back from the wall to see what was going on in the house. She stood there, watching as Squall Leonhart stopped in front of the window. If he looked hard enough, she wondered if he could see her. His forehead was pressed against his arm, which was pressed against the window. Suddenly, he furrowed his brow and touched his temple. Gietzen closed her eyes, and heard the muted voices of Edea and Rinoa ringing in her ears, as clear as if she was in the room herself. But, do you think what happened was sorcery related?

I'm afraid it's a possibility.

Gietzen's black mouth turned up in a small smile, which was half hidden under her sopping black hair, her visible black eye glinting, cruelly hardened by her black heart. She cocked her head, child-like in curiosity when Squall reached under his shirt, a grimace of pain crossing his pretty face. Gietzen looked into the shadows beside her, and saw a slinking figure stop beside her.

"What are you doing here?" Gietzen asked. Her mouth moved, but no sound came out. Water ran in rivets into her mouth, the rain so cold that it burned.

"Everything's ready, you know. And, I have to see how my pet project is going..." Griever's mouth moved as well, no sound coming out. But, Gietzen could hear the words, clear as a bell inside her head. "The only thing that is left to be done is to win the election."

They both looked at Squall, Gietzen watching him like a child watches an animal in a zoo, Griever watching him with a carnivorous glint in her feral amber eyes, her small fangs bared in a smile. She watched Squall touch his pendant under his shirt. Her own hand reached up, touching the metal that hung between her breasts. Squall winced in pain again, and her toothy, feline smile widened.

"It's almost a shame to put them through the Labyrinth..." Gietzen's black, liquid voice murmured. "They're rather fun, aren't they?"

"It's the way it goes. We'll find new toys." Griever looked through the shadows to the street. A dark car flashed its headlights, and Gietzen and Griever both walked to it, their clothes wet and sticking to their bodies. They opened the back doors to the black limo that was waiting for them. Griever and Gietzen sat on towels that were already laid out for them.

"What are you doing here?!" Val exclaimed, looking at Griever like she'd never seen her before. In fact, without her furs, Griever did look like a totally different woman.

"Just drive..." Griever commanded to the driver behind the wheel. He gave them a blank look, nothing behind his gaze. "I see you've done your work..." Griever said, noting the blank state of the driver. She pulled the silver pendant out from under her wet black raincoat, looking at it.

The mole over the left side of Fermata's mouth crinkled as she smiled. But, no words came out of her mouth.

Tempest yawned, politely covering her mouth with a hand that was gloved in black lace. As the car pulled away from the curb, she unfurled one of her fans with a quick flick of her wrist, quickly fanning her face. Suddenly, the cold rain began pelting the car, and streets outside with loud thumps. Tempest shut her fan again as the hailstones rained down around them.

Quistis stretcher her arms over her head, not looking forward to more meetings. She noticed that Xu wasn't beside her, and she then heard the shower running. Quistis rubbed some sleep out of her cobalt eyes, and decided to watch the morning Deling City news before her shower. She ran one hair through her blonde hair, which was tousled from sleep, and grabbed the remote of the nightstand with the other. Laguna always gave her and Xu the nicest room he could. It was very sweet of him. She turned it on, seeing that Deling was having odd weather. The report was about hailstones that had appeared out of nowhere.

"That's odd..." Quistis muttered, yawning at the same time. However, she became fully awake when the report changed to the Fermata concert, and the death count. "Death count?" Quistis echoed, turning up the volume. The reporter, a man with salt and pepper hair, and a sombre, bland voice began reporting.

"Last night, the much anticipated Fermata concert that was held at the Harcoure Opera House in Deling City was stricken with tragedy. For reasons unknown, several patrons lost their composure, and killed concertgoers sitting beside them. The onslaught would have continued if it weren't for the combined efforts of General Tevedes Tsepeth, Presidential Hopeful in Galbadia, and the Sorcery of Edea Kramer of Centra and Nida Nomura of Esthar. However, despite their efforts, ten are still dead in this bizarre situation. After the incident, Channel 12 got reaction from several of the patrons, including General Squall Leonhart of Garden, and the son of Esthar President, Laguna Loire."

The film switched to Squall. He had his usual annoyed expression out full-force, which didn't surprise Quistis in the least. Squall hated getting interviewed. Squall's voice was very clipped and rushed:

"I have no comment, because I don't know what happened. Excuse me..."

Quistis snorted at Squall's inability to give a decent interview, but quieted down when the story continued:

"Edea and Cid Kramer refused to comment, but Nida Nomura had this to say:" The film switched to Nida. His eyes looked very weary, although he was holding his composure.

"It just seemed to happen out of nowhere. I'm just glad that the combined efforts of myself, Edea and General Tsepeth could halt the situation before any more people got injured."

"And, how do you feel about having worked with General Tsepeth, who has been vocal of her dislike of Sorcerers?"

"I think that something like that shouldn't really matter right now..." Nida trailed off, giving the reporter a slightly hard look.

"Good for you, Nida..." Quistis whispered, feeling like she was watching her baby brother on television.

"What's going on?" Xu asked, coming out of the bathroom. She was still nude, drying her hair with a fluffy blue towel. "Whatcha watchin'?"

"Shhh..." Quistis waved her hands. "There was a situation at the Fermata concert."

Xu became all seriousness in an instant, seeing Nida's face on television. She sat on the edge of the bed, not caring that she was still damp from her shower and naked.

"I'm sorry... I can't comment further...." Nida trailed off, following Squall to a car that was waiting for them. In the shot, Xu could see Rinoa's face, looking pale and sad, before the door closed on them.

The film showed some camcorder shots from a video that was probably going to be initially used to bootleg the concert. It was grainy and shaky, but it showed Tevedes standing among some corpses, her white skin and clothes splattered with red, red blood, staring up at the balconies with an almost triumphant smile on her face, Nida staring back down at her.

"General Tsepeth had this to say..."

Tevedes came onto the screen, looking very cool and composed, the blood splatters the only evidence that anything was out of the ordinary. Her unblinking white eyes met the camera. "I believe that this happened because of the presence of Edea Kramer and Nida Nomura. They may say that they didn't mean any harm, and this may be true, but can they really kontrol their powers? Events like these are why I will stand strong against magic, and the users of such magic."

Quistis narrowed her eyes, something about Tevedes's voice cutting through her like a dull knife.

"Do you think that Nomura and Kramer actually wanted this to happen?" The reporter asked.

Tevedes smiled, the bright lights of the flashbulbs illuminating the harsh angles of her face. "I can't speculate, Jim. But, it's something that wouldn't surprise me."

A woman came into the frame. It was the woman that struck Quistis as familiar. She looked lovely in a tailored suit, and it made Quistis queasy, because there was a definite resemblance. "General Tsepeth has no more to say on this issue," the woman said, her voice very, very commanding, her word seemingly iron-clad. Tevedes and her entourage got into a second car, and it drove away.

"The names of the victims of tonight's attacks are not being released until the next of kin are notified. Fermata could not be reached for comment, although her publicist says she is quote 'distraught' over the matter. Barbara... Back to you."

The report changed to labour talks in the Railroad industry while Xu slowly looked at Quistis. "What happened....?" She was shaking her head in disbelief.

Quistis's cheeks turned red with anger. "How dare she!?" Quistis ranted, getting out of bed. She paced back and forth in only her thin tank top and underwear. "How dare she accuse Nida of being involved!?"

Xu reached out her hands, grabbing Quistis's wrists. "Okay, calm down. Please...Tell me what exactly happened..."

Quistis sighed, running her hands through her hair. "Oh, man... Okay. Apparently, at the Fermata concert, some guys went crazy for no reason, and killed a bunch of people, just going crazy. So... Tevedes went down and fought them, as you saw, and Nida and Edea helped. Fuck her!" Quistis fumed through gritted teeth. "How dare she accuse Nida when he fucking helped her!"

Xu breathed out heavily. "Do you think that Nida saw what Tevedes said?"

Quistis shrugged. "I don't know... I'm sure he's been made aware of it. This is bad, Xu...."

The Chinese woman nodded thoughtfully. "Tevedes could really use this against Sorcery. It seems... Planned..."

Quistis narrowed her eyes angrily. "You read my mind. Look, I'm going to have a really fast shower, and then we'll talk to Laguna about this..."

"Did they talk to Squall?" Xu asked, standing. "Did he say anything on behalf of Garden?"

Quistis smirked, a bitter laugh coming out. "He didn't say much. He only said he couldn't comment because he didn't know anything, then took off..."

"Sounds like Squall..." Xu muttered, crossing her arms over her nude breasts. "But, I'm sure Squall isn't thinking about Garden right now. He's probably more concerned with media backlash against Nida. I wouldn't be surprised if they contact us to say they're getting out of the city soon."

Quistis shook her head, already going into the bathroom. "This could be bad for Rinoa, too. I mean... I feel bad for her. She just got out of a coma, and since Squall and Nida are staying with her...."

Xu nodded. "Yeah. Okay, hurry up and get changed. Fucking Tevedes... This just doesn't sit right with me."

Quistis grumbled as she closed the bathroom door.

Xu stared back at the television, where the story had once again turned to Galbadia's recent string of odd weather. "What is going on....?" Xu whispered to herself, her heart lurching in her chest. There was something very wrong.

Squall sat on the edge of the bed, watching Nida, who was standing very stiffly, staring out the window. Nida was watching the reporters milling around outside the grounds of the Caraway Mansion. It was like watching an ant farm. Nida tapped the glass in an invented rhythm. "This is bad..." He whispered, quiet enough that Squall couldn't hear him.

"Did you sense any power?" Squall asked, breaking the thick silence. This was one of the only times were he ever felt uncomfortable in a room with Nida.

"No." Nida answered simply. "I didn't sense anything."

"Edea seems to be nervous around Rinoa..." Squall whispered, playing with the buttons on his coat.

Nida turned around to face his lover, giving Squall a convoluted look. "Is this fodder for your jealousy of Rinoa?"

Squall slowly took in his breath, tucking some of his shaggy bangs behind his ears. He remained silent.

"I'm sorry..." Nida whispered. "That was out of line." Nida turned back to look out the window. "I feel like a prisoner."

"We should leave Deling. Maybe we can go to Dollet early. I'm sure your father has seen the reports... He must want to see you."

Nida chuckled softly. "Oh, I'm sure he has seen the reports. You know..." Nida turned around again, crossing his arms across his stomach. "I haven't talked to him about Iudicium at all. Not one word. I've been avoiding it."

Squall stood, walking over to Nida. He leaned against the window with his shoulder, looking down at the reporters, who seemed to be making camp. "Well, would you rather stay here?"

Nida looked at Squall's profile. "No. I know that I don't always have the best control of my powers, but I had nothing to do with last night." He sighed. "But, we'll probably have to stay here for at least another day... Just to let the heat die down."

Squall stepped closer to Nida, touching his lover's shoulder. "You think that Tevedes had something to do with this?"

Nida sighed deeply, his whole body slumping. "I don't know... I... I wish I did." He wearily looked at Squall. "Isn't having Sorcery supposed to make your life easier?" His eyes nakedly showed defeat.

Squall wrapped his arms around Nida, feeling the other man's head come to rest on his shoulder. Squall stroked Nida's hair with one hand, Nida's back with the other. But, his eyes stayed on the reporters outside, stupidly wishing that he could shoot death lasers at them or something. "Vultures..." He whispered.

"What about Rinoa?" Nida asked quietly, his mouth pressed to Squall's neck.

"What do you mean?" Squall asked quietly.

Nida tightened his grip around Squall's thin waist. "I mean... We can't just leave her here to deal with all the media if we take off to Dollet."

Squall snorted quietly. "Oh, I doubt Rinoa would let us leave without her, even if we wanted to."

Nida raised his head from Squall's shoulder. "I'm glad."

Squall breathed out slowly. "For what?"

"I know that you have your... reservations about Rinoa. I'm glad that you're putting them aside."

Squall just shrugged. "I guess when you yelled at me, it kind of opened my eyes..." Squall sighed, pressing his cheek into Nida's hair, slowly sliding his eyes shut. He didn't really want to say that after Edea had raised questions about possible power floating around Rinoa, he wanted to keep an eye on her. Something was very wrong, and Squall wouldn't let the possible key, in Rinoa Heartilly, slip from out of his sights.

"Oh my God, Elle!" Irvine exclaimed, coming into Odine's former lab in a cloud of motion. "Did you see the news?" He flopped down in the empty chair beside her, placing his cowboy hat on her head.

Ellone sighed huffily, looking down at the long, errant mark her pen had made on the documents because of the jostling Irvine had given her. "Gee, thanks Irvine. Now I have to start all over again."

Irvine pushed her papers aside, which caused Ellone to huff. "That can wait! This is much, much bigger!" Irvine emphasized his words by stretching his arms out. "It's about Nida!"

Ellone's eyebrows twitched.

"Yes!" Irvine exclaimed. "I get to be the one to tell you!" Irvine clapped his hands, purposely being overly-annoying. He thought it was cute when Ellone berated him.

Ellone sighed, motioning to move her hands through her hair, but stopped when she touched Irvine's hat. She grumbled, and threw it back at Irvine, who just laughed and put it on the table beside him, on top of Ellone's documents. "What about Nida?"

"Tevedes accused him of causing murder!"

Ellone's eyes widened. "What?!"

Irvine wasn't smiling anymore. "Well, apparently at the Fermata concert last night, some people went berserk and killed a bunch of people for no reason. I guess Edea and Nida tried to stop it with their powers, and Tevedes came out of her balcony and kicked the shit out of some people. I guess she killed them with just a kick..." Irvine was gesticulating madly with his hands as he told Ellone the story. "And, right after that, Tevedes said to the press that Nida and Edea, but especially Nida, were the ones who caused it."

"What?!" Ellone exclaimed, shocked. "That's ridiculous! Nida would never intentionally kill anyone."

"We know that," Irvine pointed out. "But, the people in Galbadia don't." He sighed. "Oh, and here's another piece of info... I guess Archbishop Magdalene was at the Opera with Tevedes, in the same balcony."

Ellone's raised eyebrows furrowed as she frowned. "Huh? But... Why? The Church has never been openly hostile against Sorcery. Oh... I don't know, Irvine... I have a really bad feeling about this whole thing."

Irvine nodded sadly. "Well, you're going to have to deal with it..." He watched as Ellone got up and looked out the window at the noontime bustle of downtown Esthar. "Tevedes's accusations aren't good press for Esthar, especially Laguna, since Nida and Squall are so closely connected with him. And, with you..."

Ellone looked at Irvine's reflection. "What do you mean?"

"I mean that since you took over Odine's research, the press are already starting to scurry around, wanting to talk to you about the 'possible evils of Sorcery'."

Ellone's shoulders slumped. "Great... That's the last thing I need right now."

"Well, that's why Laguna asked me to look after you."

"Look after me?" Ellone echoed, looking at Irvine's reflection in the glass. "I'm a big girl... I can take care of myself..."

"I know that..." Irvine whispered, his voice uncharacteristically gentle. "But, I still want to make sure they don't bug you too much." He put his hand on her shoulder. "They can be vultures."

"Poor Nida..." Ellone trailed off. "This whole thing just doesn't sit right with me."

"You know..." Irvine whispered, after a prolonged silence. "Laguna didn't really ask me to look after you. After I saw the reports from Deling City, I went to Laguna and asked him if I could be your bodyguard."

"Why?" Ellone asked, surprised.

"Because I was concerned..." Irvine's hand slowly moved off Ellone's shoulder and down her back, stopping at the base of her spine, just above the waist of her fitted, black velvet pants. He held his hand there for a while, and it felt warm on Ellone's back, through her tailored, white cotton dress shirt. Ellone felt a shiver move up her back, and felt heat flush her cheeks in the form of a blush. She also felt her heart begin to beat faster, and her hands shake against the now cold glass of the window. She felt warmer and warmer as she looked into Irvine's periwinkle eyes. But, before she could be bowled over by these feelings, these inklings, Irvine pulled his hand away, and leaned against the desk.

Irvine smirked, picking up his cowboy hat. "So, looks like I'll be following you around wherever you go now. You won't even be able to go to the bathroom without Irvine Kinneas pulling down your panties for you." He pointed as his chest as he put his hat back on. He pulled the brim down, hiding his face in its shadows, hoping Ellone couldn't see the blush in his cheeks. Her skin had been so warm under her shirt, and when his palm had skirted over the lines of her bra under the white cotton, his heart had skipped, and his cock had twitched.

Ellone snorted, going back to her documents.

"Sooooo... When can we go?" Irvine asked, turning to face her. "This is boring."

"Well, since you were kind enough to screw me up earlier, I'll have to stay longer." She gave Irvine a small smile, and hid it behind a smirk.

He grumbled. "That's just fan-fucking-tastic." But, in truth... He didn't really mind.

Zell stared out to Xystus, a sad look in his icy blue eyes. He was standing on a balcony of the castle that so resembled Ultimecia's dark castle from the future. Zell's muscular arms were resting on the wrought iron railing of the balcony as he looked down at the expansive Garden beneath him; Vividarium. Sometimes, Zell would see people walking in the main promenade of the Garden, and they would flicker away eventually, or just disappear as soon as they left the calm area of Vividarium. There was so much about Xystus that Zell didn't know, that he and Seifer didn't know. Maybe that's why everything was such a mess.


He looked behind him when he heard his voice being called. He looked into a pair of eyes that flocculated from icy blue, like his own, to ruddy crimson, like dried blood. Adel. His mother. "Oh.. Adel..."

She stepped out onto the balcony, watching Zell watch the Garden. She stopped next to him, and noticed that the small blonde flinched slightly. "You still flinch when I get too close."

"I'm sorry..." Zell trailed off, his voice distant.

"No... Don't be," Adel whispered. "It means that you haven't forgotten. That's a good thing."

"You can't hurt me here, though."

Adel nodded. "True, true...."

Zell sighed, looking at Adel, who was the same height as Seifer. He was used to looking up at people. "Why can I see you? There's still so much that I don't know...." He grumbled angrily to himself.

Adel touched the wrought iron railing. "You can see me because you are attached to me. Or, that's what I think. I mean, I don't know as much about Xystus as Lillith, or Ultimecia does. But, I doubt you'd get a straight answer out of Intervigilium." Adel smiled sadly to herself, her sharp canines, that were so like Zell's, flashing. "From what I understand, Xystus is concrete here because the Palace herself is made of souls, souls that have concreted themselves at the touch of your power, the power that you and Seifer pool together."

"I don't even feel like it's my power..." Zell trailed off, looking out to the Garden, seeing a woman in a black dress sitting on one of the stone benches, glaring at the flowers, as if her gaze could change them. Ultimecia's lips curled into a disappointed sneer, and she flipped one of her ribbons of silver hair over a pale shoulder.

"It's Xystus's power..." Adel whispered, watching Ultimecia, who was sulking, resting her chin on her open palm.

"There are huge problems in the live world... I wish I wasn't dead..." Zell whispered.

"You aren't..." Adel pointed out, knowing very well that Zell knew it, too.

"Feels that way..." Zell muttered. He looked over at Adel, who grew very silent. She was looking down at the Garden, seeing Ultimecia looking over to one of the paths, seeing a woman in a bright, bright claret gown walking towards the central square of Vividarium. Xerampelinae. Adel clenched her teeth, watching Xerampelinae walk so casually through the Garden, a tiara of gold glinting in her dark hair, like she was a Queen.

"You know..." Adel whispered, her fists tightly bound into balls. "I almost wish Xera was alive again, so I could have the pleasure of killing her myself."

Zell narrowed his icy eyes. "You sound like the Adel that I know..."

Her anger melted away, and a sad look replaced it on her strong, pretty face. "I know."

"How come I haven't seen Vigil?"

Adel became sad. "He was so young when he died.... You wouldn't have remembered him." Adel continued to watch the Garden, seeing Ultimecia ignore Xerampelinae, seeing Xerampelinae glaring at Ultimecia. They looked like they were going to have a fight right there, Ultimecia rising to her feet, both women glaring daggers at each other. Zell and Adel just watched, like they were watching a movie, or were looking over an ant farm. But, the two women looked away when two more people entered the Garden. There were several passer-by's, but they didn't even register on the radar. It was Seifer and Lillith, talking to each other.

"Seifer... Lilly..." Xerampelinae trailed off, taking a step towards her children. They walked past like nobody was there. Ultimecia smirked triumphantly at her former consort. When Lillith looked to Ultimecia, the silver haired woman smiled, as genuine a smile as was possible for her. When her amber eyes flickered to Seifer, her smile turned innocent, which looked very wrong on her tattooed face.

"What are you smiling at, bitch?" Xerampelinae asked, her voice like poison. "You're stuck here forever, too!"

Ultimecia just shrugged playfully, her eyes glinting with child-like mischief. "Oh, I don't doubt that, Xera dear. But..." She looked at Seifer again. "My girls think differently."

Seifer looked up at the balcony that Zell and his mother were standing on, and gave a small smile. Lillith did the same, and their smiles were so alike, even though Lillith and Seifer didn't look too much alike. The resemblance was there, but wasn't as strong as it was with Adel and Zell. Lillith more resembled Xerampelinae, while Seifer must have looked like his father.

Zell gave a small wave. "Ultimecia's right, you know... The Inaudax do feel differently. If only we knew what we were doing... This wouldn't have happened."

Ultimecia laughed as Xerampelinae insulted her. "Stupid kunt..." Ultimecia trailed off, laughing like a girl. It almost sounded pretty.

Seifer turned to face his mother and his former Mistress, and leaked some of his power into the air, filling Vividarium's space with it. "Don't worry, Ultimecia. Your Inaudax will be joining you again soon..."

Ultimecia made a sarcastic face, examining her nails. "Poor Xera... Nobody follows your voice like it's the word of God."

Xerampelinae spit in Ultimecia's face, storming off. Ultimecia made the action of wiping the saliva off her face look graceful. She gave Lillith what looked like a sad smile, and just rolled her hypnotic eyes at Seifer before walking down a different path than Xerampelinae had taken.

Zell watched as Seifer and Lillith entered the Palace Xystus. Adel turned to her son. "You can't see Vigil because you didn't know him."

"I don't know all these people, and yet I see them."

Adel sighed. "You're remembering what the crowds of cities looked like." She played with an errant strand of bright orange hair, which looked like it was on fire compared to her pale white flesh and black, black dress. Her mouth turned up in a wry grin. "I think I'll leave you to your private time." She gave one last look to her son, and walked back into the Palace. As soon as she stepped into the shadows, the air of Xystus seemed to suck her up, like it was absorbing her.

"Zell?" Seifer asked, stepping out onto the balcony a few minutes later. He saw the smaller blonde looking down at Vividarium. "Thinking about what Ultimecia said?"

Zell nodded slowly, the dead wind, that wasn't hot or cold, blowing across everything. "By the time we're strong enough to go back, by the time our connection is strong enough, it'll be too late."

Seifer wrapped his arms around Zell from behind, and pressed his lips to the nape of Zell's neck. "We'll set everything right again."

"Where's Lillith?" Zell asked.


"Oh. Seifer?"

"Yeah?" Seifer's breath washed over Zell's flesh, and caused the smaller man to shiver happily.

"Is Xystus made of souls? Has Lillith told you about it?"

Seifer shrugged against Zell's body. "Not really. We don't really talk about dead stuff. We just talk about what I did before coming here, what it was like in Garden, what Squall and the others are like."

"Sibling stuff..." Zell trailed off.

"What's wrong?"

"You get to have a sister... I can't remember Vigil, so I don't see him."

"Oh..." Seifer trailed off. "I haven't really thought about it. I mean... I don't want to concern myself with thinking if the castle is made of souls or not. And, I don't worry about Xerampelinae and Ultimecia showing up. They're dead. We control them."

"We can't control what's going on with Squall and the others, though. They're going to have to deal with our mistakes..." Zell sighed, thinking about their unsuccessful attempt to contact Nida and Squall at Diamond Dust. They'd tried to send power out, not connected enough to the live world yet to talk to either man. But, it had failed.

"Shhhh..." Seifer trailed off. He kissed Zell's neck again, and looked over his lover's muscular shoulder to Vividarium once more, the dead wind still blowing gently. He saw Ultimecia, standing at the edge of Vividarium, a small smile on her darkly painted mouth. One arm was folded across her breasts, the other was against her cheek. She gave a small wave, and a self-satisfied, smug smirk before turning on her heel, being swallowed into a bright beam of light that hit his face. Nida groaned quietly, slowly opening his eyes. There was a sliver of sun coming through the drapes. He stretched, his muscles feeling really sore. Nida turned, facing Squall, who was sleeping soundly.

Nida breathed in, the pillows smelling like Squall's shampoo. As Nida watched Squall sleep, he thought about his dream, which was already rapidly vanishing from his mind. He knew it had to do with Seifer and Zell, and Ultimecia and Xerampelinae had been there. Something about not being strong enough, and Inaudax. Nida knew that word from various books. It was a cult from circa 1000AH. Nida touched Squall's face gently, which caused the auburn haired man to murmur slightly, move, and fall back into a deep rest. The Asian pilot gently got out of the bed, careful not to wake Squall, and walked to the window. As he looked out on the Caraway Mansion's grounds, he used is stored up power to float a silver case towards him. He pulled out a joint, the drug relieving his muscle stiffness. Nida looked out to the streets, seeing that the reporters were all but gone.

Edea and Cid had already gone back to the rebuilt Orphanage in Centra, and Squall, Nida and Rinoa had planned to go Dollet right after Edea had left, but the reporters were everywhere, and they could barely walk anywhere, so decided to lay low until the fire of the Fermata Concert story died down. Nida was actually kind of glad that the reporters were being such vultures, because he wasn't really looking forward to going home. He always found it hard to explain himself to his father, and this would be the hardest thing yet. The Fermata incident couldn't have come at a worse time. Nida was already feeling extremely apprehensive about introducing Squall to Daisuke, but on top of the gossip, and the fact that Nida had never actually discussed Iudicium with his father, just made things a lot stickier.

Nida finished the joint, and stubbed it out on the inside of the lid of the silver case that he'd put on the window's ledge. He started thinking about the dream, but found that he couldn't hold onto anything from it. It was leaving his mind too quickly. Only the sound of Ultimecia's girlish laughter and the word Inaudax stuck with him. He could also feel the sadness, yet joy, that seemed to cover Seifer and Zell like a blanket. They were sad in this place they were in, but glad that they were at least together. Nida got a definite feel of frailty from the whole thing. It made him sad. Seifer and Zell really, truly loved each other. Nida looked over to the bed, and wondered if Squall loved him. They'd never vocalized their feelings for each other. Nida knew that he loved Squall, definitely loved him. But, he wasn't sure if Squall felt the same way. He knew Squall cared about him, but the extent was the mystery.

Nida's heart lurched in his chest as he watched Squall sleep. He was so farcically beautiful, and yet, still retained a masculine air. It was laughable how wonderful he looked, the sun hitting the lines of his shoulder and arm, which were above the blankets. Nida's eyes gazed out the window once more, his forehead pressed to the cool glass. He filled the air slowly with power, wanting to release the tension it was causing in his muscles. As Nida did this slow release, he realized that Iudicium hadn't spoken to him in a while. He wondered what this meant. He tried to touch her with the part of his mind that she seemed to house her power in, but was somewhat unsuccessful. He could feel that Iudicium was there, but almost like she wasn't her own entity anymore, like she was assimilating into him. This thought scared Nida. Although he hadn't had any problems yet with the Goddess of Judgment, he didn't like the idea of her becoming one with him. He thought of what she did to Adel in Esthar all those months ago, and wondered if the same would happen to him. The room suddenly felt very cold, and Nida's nude skin became covered in goose bumps. It sent a tremor through the air, and caused Squall to stir.

Squall opened his eyes, feeling the air change. He slowly opened his eyes, using his one hand to rub sleep out of his eyes. He saw Nida looking out the window, a very distant, apprehensive look on his face. Squall sat up, watching Nida, who looked almost terrified. Squall quickly got out of bed, not caring that he was naked. He went over to Nida, looking out the window, wondering if more reporters had shown up, wondering what had seemed to frighten Nida so.

"Nida...?" Squall whispered, touching his lover's shoulder, seeing that Nida's smooth, olive flesh was covered in goose bumps. He furrowed his scarred brow, because it wasn't cold at all in the room. In fact, it was rather warm. Nida blinked a few times, his almond eyes looking over to Squall.

Nida blinked a few times, his dark mahogany eyes filled with a deep worry. He blinked it away with lush lashes, and smiled distantly at Squall. "Hey...." He reached a hand up, and touched the side of Squall's pale face.

Squall nuzzled into the touch, noticing that Nida's hand was shaking, but he didn't say anything. "What are you doing up?"

"The reporters are mostly gone. We should go to Dollet today."

Squall nodded, casting his eyes downward. He blinked in confusion when he saw that at Nida's feet, the Persian rug was littered with black feathers. Squall pulled away from Nida's hand, and bent down, picking them up. There were about a dozen. Squall held them out, looking at them. Nida noticed, and the worry that he'd been trying to bury came back. Nida just shook his head, gave Squall a tired smile, and stepped away from the window. As he walked to the bathroom for a shower, he thought of his dream, and Ultimecia's confident laugh.

Squall looked at the silky black feathers in his hands. He absently made a makeshift fan with them as he heard the shower start.

"Are you coming in?" Nida asked, calling from the bathroom, a teasing, lusty hint to his voice.

Squall looked at the feathers, gently waving them back and forth against his face, relishing in the ticklish feel of their soft edges on his cheeks and lips. As he did this, a breeze shook the trees, and caused Squall to shiver. He put the feathers down on the dresser, and joined Nida in the bathroom, glad to be leaving Deling.

Val smiled as she switched the song in the Discman that she was holding in one hand. She was wandering around the large conference room that had become kind of like their home base. There were a couple large stacks of CDs on the table, all of which Valhalla was going through, listening to the songs. Most of them were thumping techno with hard beats and raspy male vocals, or sweet female ones. Val looked out the window, her body moving in slow, sensual movements with the music that only she could hear because of the headphones. Her sexual, erotic dance seemed very out of place in comparison to her youthful body. She was like a grown woman, experienced in the world, trapped in a girl's body. Her clothes only added to her child-like look, her blasphemous erotica. Today, she was wearing a wool, pleated kilt that was green, black and blue, in a tartan pattern, held together by large safety pins with glittery fastners. Her shirt was a very tight T-shirt in pale yellow, the colour of butter that said 'I Love Cock', except the love was a heart made of rhinestones. It was written in cute, girlish script. She looked out over the city, seeing a gentle breeze moving through the trees, and some sunlight.

"About time..." Val muttered, looking at the sun, dancing along with her music. She turned it up, until the beat was rattling her bones, filling her mind completely. She gave Tempest a hard look, and just continued to dance, her pale eyes closed as she blissfully lost herself in the music. Music was the best thing about being alive. Especially all the new kinds of music that used electronics and new instruments. It was so different than the minstrel music that she'd been used to. She patted Griever's head as she danced by.

Griever was laying on a large table, reclining as she pet a stray cat that she'd picked up outside. It was very cute and had lots of black stripes, and white feet. It purred as Griever scratched it in all its favourite places. As Griever paid attention to the cat, one of her hands moved to her chest, touching her silver pendant. She thought of Squall looking out the window at the Caraway Mansion, his pretty face troubled. Although Griever didn't find Squall sexually attractive, he was utterly fantastic looking, his face very fair and femme, his skin pale, his eyes like an ocean. He reminded Griever of her child. "I wonder what happened to him..." Griever trailed off, talking to the cat, who started rolling around on the table, wanting its belly scratched.

"Who are you talking about?" Gietzen asked, seeming to slink up from the shadows under the table. Val danced around Gietzen, bumping the darkly dressed woman with her hips and butt. Gietzen locked her arms around herself shyly. "You never talk about yourself."

"What's to tell?" Griever asked. "I'm not human. Animals care not for the past."

Gietzen rolled her visible dark eye. "Uh huh..."

Tempest just fluttered her fan in front of her face. "You're supposed to be in Trabia. Why are you reminiscing here?"

Griever shrugged, touching her pendant again. "There isn't anything to do in Trabia. Pallas, Schuld and Xiphias have everything under control."

"And, Squall Leonhart is here..." Gietzen trailed off, her voice sounding oily.

"Oooh, is he your boyfriend?" Tempest asked, raising a teasing eyebrow.

"If that's the case..." Val trailed off, hearing their conversation through the lull between songs. "Can I have Nida?"

"I don't know how you can joke about this..." Tevedes said, her voice filling the room, hissing over all surfaces. Val just rolled her eyes, dancing as another song started. Tempest's smile faded, and she averted her eyes as she flapped her fan in front of her face.

Tevedes entered the room, Kronos walking beside her. "They just left the city," Tevedes informed. "Heading for Dollet or God knows where. But, it doesn't really concern us anymore. The election is next week, and after we win, they won't be able to hide from us in Dollet." Tevedes looked at Griever. "Where did you get that thing?"

Griever frowned, her amber eyes narrowing. "It's a cat, Tev."

"It probably has fleas."

Tempest laughed behind her fan. When Tevedes gave her a hard glare, she just raised her eyebrows, lightly fanning her face.

"You shouldn't frown so much..." Val murmured, dancing in an erotic circle around Tevedes. "It will give you wrinkles."

Tevedes pushed Val out of her way, putting her hat on the table near Griever's elbow. "I'm going outside for some air." She gave Tempest a hard look. "Lay off the wind, please."

The Chinese woman just nodded, stilling the fan in front of her face. Tevedes walked out of the room, her colourless eyes distant. Kronos began to follow her, but at a distance. Tevedes walked up the stairwell to the roof, Kronos shadowing her.

"I don't need you to follow me..." Tevedes whispered, her voice sounding oddly gentle.

"Neither Pallas nor Schuld are here. I doubt that Ultimecia would forgive us if anything happened to you." Kronos held up a leather file. "I'll just hang around the doorway and do some work."

Tevedes smirked. "Taking up bodyguard duties?" She pulled a cigar case out of an inner pocket of her uniform coat.

Kronos just cocked an eyebrow, opening the file. "I may not have the body strength of Schuld or Pallas, but I do have the art of verbal persuasion on my side." She paused. "I didn't notice Fermata downstairs... Where did she go?"

Tevedes pulled out a cigar and a silver lighter. "The reporters were starting to get restless, so she's giving out a statement on behalf of her 'record label'. Then I believe she went to call on Magdalene." Tevedes looked at some of the papers that Kronos had pulled out of her file. "She really does look like you."

Kronos studied the official Garden Photograph that she was holding. It was a posed picture of the honoured SeeD after Ultimecia's defeat during the Neo-Sorceress War. Kronos flipped it over a few times. On the back, she'd written in the old Trabian script, Kronos Tempus; From left: Major Selphie Tilmitt, General Xu Yun Ling, General Quistis Trepe, General Squall Leonhart, Major Zell Dincht, Captain Nida Nomura, Headmaster Cid Kramer, Honorary SeeD Irvine Kinneas, Civilian Rinoa Heartilly, Esthar President Laguna Loire, Sorceress Edea Kramer. Kronos ran her finger gently over Quistis's face, which had a tight-lipped, serene smile on it. "Yes, it's really quite remarkable, isn't it?" She then tapped Zell's face. "Adel's child could cause us many problems, Tevedes." She laughed, but it sounded so unlike a laugh, that it was more of a cough. "It's amusing that the one who started everything isn't even in the picture." Kronos smiled thinly as she thought of Seifer Almasy.

Tevedes cupped the flame from the lighter, and lit the cigar. She puffed on it thoughtfully, offering one to Kronos, which the stately woman declined.

"Nomura and that kunt Leonhart are the ones that are the real trouble right now. Fuck Zell, and fuck Seifer." Tevedes's bloodless lips curled into a wrathful sneer. "Leonhart will never get away for destroying Ultimecia."

"Twice, even..." Kronos pointed out gravely.

Tevedes's lips twitched angrily around the cigar. "Don't remind me, Kronos. Well..." She blew out smoke, smiling. "Once our little lost girl gets her act together, things should get a lot more interesting."

Kronos touched Nida's face in the picture, then Selphie's. Her thumb remained over Selphie's brightly smiling face as she looked at Tevedes. The sun hit her pale skin and hair, making her look like she was glowing. "It was really quite a show at the concert. Fermata was trying to look horrified, but she thought you put on a better show than she did."

Tevedes laughed, running her finger down the line of Kronos's cleavage. She stopped her long, pale finger at the pocket watch that hung around Kronos's neck. Tevedes picked it up, and looked at it. "Can I have ten minutes to enjoy a cigar in peace?"

Kronos nodded, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose. "I'll just be on the other side of the door if you need me."

"Which I won't," Tevedes muttered, walking to the edge of the roof. She stepped up on the ledge, looking down at the city below her, which looked so small. The cars were like little models, the kind children played with, and the people were little ants in a meaningless farm. Tevedes lowered her body down, and sat on the ledge, her legs dangling over the edge of the building as she smoked her cigar, the strong, harsh smoke filling her lungs. She exhaled, watching the clouds slowly roll by, the warm breeze kissing her pale, angular face.

"I wish you were here..." Tevedes whispered. Although she was talking to herself, Tevedes knew that her voice could be heard in places other than Deling City. "The world is an interesting place now." Tevedes sighed, smoking some more. She watched the end of the cigar smoulder. "I wish I could have seen your future. I wish I could have seen your accumulated power."

Tevedes closed her eyes, inhaling so deeply that her lungs were completely filled with smoke. She slowly breathed out her nose, parting her pale lips, the smoke slowly escaping. "That fucking bitch Skwall Leonhart will pay for what he's done to you."

The cigar burned down to Tevedes's fingers, and she looked at it. She stood, looking down at the crowd that was passing underneath of her, not seeing her, way above them. She put her arm out in front of her, opening her palm over the streets. "The hand of God is waiting above you..." She whispered. She lowered her voice to a gentle caress, looking up at the sky, at the burning sun that was like Ultimecia's eyes. "I wish you could see my power..." Tevedes whispered, opening her fingers, and dropping the burning cigar down. She watched it race down, her lips pulling apart into a wrathful smile. She knew that the speed would cause the cigar to go out, so she snapped her fingers, and it exploded in a small cloud of burning flame, just as it dropped onto a woman who was unfortunate enough to be walking under it.

She began screaming as her body was ignited in flames. Tevedes watched with silent rapture as the woman ran around frantically, freaking out. People around her were screaming, and began using bags, purses and coats to try and beat the flames out. The smell of burning flesh rose into the air, reaching Tevedes's nose. She laughed loudly enough so the people below could hear it, a haunting echo. They looked up as the woman writhed, her flesh blackening under the flames, but Tevedes had already vanished from the roof's edge.

Squall looked at Nida's hands, which were gripping the steering wheel of the Ragnarok so tightly that his knuckles were white. Squall reached his hands over, touching the backs of Nida's hands, which were tense.

"Relax..." Squall whispered. "You're going to fly us into the side of a mountain."

Rinoa looked up from her book. "Nida..." She sighed, tucking some hair behind her ears. It just fell back into place. She grumbled to herself, pulling some small hairclips out of her pocket that were in the shape of spiders. As she put her highlighted hair in the clips, she gave Nida an understanding look. "Despite Squall's shortcomings, there honestly isn't anyone better that you could introduce your father to as the person you're sleeping with."

Nida whimpered, banging his forehead against the steering wheel. "Rinoa, you aren't helping!"

"Shortcomings?" Squall asked, his voice terse.

Rinoa just shrugged, biting her lower lip to hold back a smirk.

"Look... Do you want me to fly?" Squall asked. He put a hand on Nida's shoulder, pulling it back when he felt how tense the muscles were, and the slight hum of power under the surface of Nida's skin. His brow furrowed in concern. "You know, this behaviour isn't making me more excited about meeting your father. We don't have to do this. I can just hang around town when you talk to him..."

"No, no..." Nida whispered. "I want... I want you to meet my father. I want to get it out of the way. It's not that..."

Squall thought of the scattered black feathers around Nida's feet that morning, thought about the scared look in Nida's eyes. Squall leaned in, whispering "what's really wrong?"

"Nothing..." Nida gave Squall a tired smile. It was a total lie that nothing was wrong, but it was also the truth. Nida didn't know what was wrong, so couldn't really tell Squall about it. He also didn't want to worry his lover. "I guess I'm just thinking about the concert."

Rinoa turned the page in her novel. "Tell me about it," she snorted. "I haven't been this glad to leave Deling since the first time I went to Timber." She drummed her fingernails on the page, the metallic polish, silver with a hint of pink, glinting in the sun that was coming in from the windows. "Damn Tevedes. Did you guys see that Fermata gave a statement?"

Nida frowned, breathing out as he tried to melt his tension away. "No. It's about time she said something... I mean, it was her concert, and it ended up in disaster."

"She didn't seem that broken up about it..." Squall mused, thinking to the detached look on Fermata's elegant face as Tevedes kicked the shit out of the patrons.

"She said that she wouldn't be giving any more concerts..." Rinoa mused. "I guess she was actually pretty shaken up." Rinoa smiled. "Okay, let's talk about something less dreary. Are there any neat things I should check out in Dollet?"

"Like what?" Nida asked, checking a few gauges on the dashboard.

"Touristy stuff...?" Rinoa offered. "I mean, I don't want to sit in the Hotel while you guys are at your place."

"There's a really nice Academic Library in Madre Hills."

"Whoa, whoa!" Rinoa held her hands up, laughing. "Madre Hills?"

"Oh, it's the University area of town. It's really huge. I mean, I've noticed that you like books, so you should check it out. They have conference rooms and amphitheatres there, too, and there are always usually lectures going on that are open to the public."

"The Magus Library?" Squall offered. His voice grew wistful. "Seifer used to talk about it all the time. Despite the fact that he always failed, he was really quite brilliant. If he'd applied himself, he could have been better than Quistis...."

Nida smiled sadly. "You miss them, don't you?"

Squall remained silent, crossing his arms over his chest.

Rinoa's smile twitched, and she felt like she was on the verge of tears. She thought of Seifer talking to her in her kitchen, talking about her father. Talking about the past was painful, and it also made Rinoa feel like she was going crazy. Seifer was dead. How could she be seeing him. "What else is there?" Rinoa asked sadly, using all her strength to keep the quiver out of her voice.

Nida sighed. "Hmmm... There are lots of neat antique shops. Oh, and last time I talked to my mother, she said that there was an Empire period exhibit at the Circe Gallery. Paintings from the heyday of the Dollet, Centra and Trabian Empires."

"Ooh, that does sound interesting!" Rinoa stretched her arms. "If I can find it, that is."

"There should be a map of Dollet around her somewhere..." Nida looked at the dashboard.

"What, like in the glove box?" Rinoa asked. "Is there even a glove box in this thing?"

Nida laughed. "No... An electronic map. You can access it from the station by your chair."

"Oh..." Rinoa trailed off, laughing nervously. "I feel stupid."

Squall snorted, but said nothing. Rinoa made a rude noise at him, and pressed a few buttons. "Oooh!" She laughed when a screen came up. "How cool!"

"It navigates like the Internet, so it should be easy to use. If you can't find it, I can just pop it up here."

"Ahh, they have the Internet on computers now?" Rinoa said softly, giggling to herself. "Well, I guess I better make this fast, because we'll be in Dollet soon." She tapped her fingertips on her chin. "Oops, I think I pressed the wrong button. I'm in some sort of Aircraft thingie."

Nida furrowed his brow. "Hmm, you must be in the model list."

"Oh." Rinoa cocked her head. "Well, let's see if I can get back..."

"Wait!" Squall trailed off. He pressed a few buttons on his own panel. "What's your access code?"

"Huh?" Rinoa asked.

"The number at the top, right-hand corner of your screen..." Squall muttered, as if he were talking to a slow child.

"Hmm... 84354." She paused. "Got that?" She asked caustically.

"Yes..." Squall sneered. "Okay. You're going to help me look for something."

"Like what?" Rinoa asked, looking at the list of ships. It was like reading old Esthar co-ordinates. "I can't understand any of this."

"Just look at the pictures!" Squall exclaimed, exasperated.

"What are you looking for?" Nida asked, seeing the borders of Dollet in front of them.

"That ship that Tevedes was riding in..." Squall murmured. "You said that you didn't know what model it was. My father told me that the Ragnarok has detailed files on airships of any kind, including old, old models."

"What about future models?" Rinoa asked, going through the list. She didn't realize she'd even spoken aloud until she looked up. Squall and Nida were both looking at her, confused. "What?"

"Future models?" Nida asked. His lips pursed thoughtfully.

"Why would we want that?" Squall asked. "It's not like we're dealing with Ultimecia here..."

Both Rinoa and Nida fell silent.

"Yeah..." Rinoa trailed off. "It was stupid of me to ask."

"I've looked through that list before," Nida pointed out.

"There's a special file for secret Government ships, and a more detailed list of experimental ships that have been made in the last 5000 years. You need a password to access it."

"Let me guess..." Rinoa trailed off, going to another list. "You know Laguna's password."

"He couldn't resist telling me a couple years ago. I was on his laptop to check my Garden mail account, and he blurted it out because he wanted to show me some stuff." Squall typed in his father's password: leonhart. When Laguna had blurted it out, Squall remembered that he'd felt a wave of warmth. The password wasn't for Squall himself, but because it was Raine's maiden name. It was one of the first times that Squall had ever felt like he'd had a real family. Laguna had noticed the small smile on Squall's face, and gotten really emotional and hugged Squall too roughly and kept blubbering about how sorry he was. Even now, it caused Squall to smile despite himself.

"I fly this ship all the time, and nobody thought to give me a password in case of emergency?" Nida asked.

"Bring it up with Laguna..." Squall murmured.

"You know... Tevedes could have just made the ship herself," Nida pointed out.

"That kid may be able to pilot a ship, but I doubt she can make one..." Squall pointed out. "And, since she's a General, I doubt the army would let her fly around in some rickety experimental ship."

"What exactly does Tevedes do in the army anyway?" Rinoa asked. "You don't just become a General overnight..."

Squall cleared his throat. "I did."

"I meant in the Galbadian army!" Rinoa huffed. "I've never heard of her, and I knew a lot of the soldiers because of Dad. He and Mom had parties all the time." She paused. "Whoa!"

"What?" Squall looked at his screen, which was split between his own search, and what Rinoa was looking at. "Hey...." He leaned closer to the screen. "This one's pretty close..."

"I mean..." Rinoa cocked her head. "I'm not an airship expert, but this one looks close. But, it's a lot older."

"Keep it on the screen..." Nida trailed off. "We're almost at the Dollet hangar." Dollet had an airship hangar that was outside town. It offered a car service to get into the city. "I'll look at it after we land."

"I don't think Galbadia uses these models at all..." Squall whispered. "Well, no wonder. It was made in 800 AH."

Nida waved his hand as he turned on the intercom. "Quiet for a sec." He spoke to Dollet's crew. "Okay...." Nida began the landing process. "800 AH? Are you sure?"

Squall looked at the screen, and nodded. "Yeah. It was like... the first one ever. But..." He read a few lines, squinting. He shook his head. "I think I need glasses. Anyway, it never flew. It was more of a construction plan, and it just never came to fruition."

Nida landed the ship, then looked at the model. "Yeah, this one is pretty close. Centra Empire, eh?"

Rinoa shrugged. "It could be a new model. It's not like I know much about what's going on now in the Galbadian army. When I went back to Deling after Squall and I broke up, my dad and me didn't talk much about the army."

Squall sat back. "When we get back to Esthar, I think we should do some serious research into Tevedes's military career."

"Deal," Nida and Rinoa said in unison.

They got their bags, and began to get off the Ragnarok. Squall stroked the side of Nida's face as Rinoa loaded some bags onto a handcart. Squall ran his hand over Nida's soft hair. "It's going to be okay. I won't embarrass you, I promise. I didn't inherit that side from Laguna."

Nida laughed quietly, nervously, pressing his forehead to Squall's. "I know. Whenever it concerns my father, I return to the age of nine."

"Ahem, you guys..." Rinoa trailed off. "You want to hang around here all day?" She looked around the hangar, wondering where their car would be meeting them. She saw a handsome Asian man in a crisp suit coming towards them. She smiled, figuring it was their driver. "Hello!" Rinoa greeted, bowing politely.

Squall and Nida kissed briefly, their lips just brushing against each other. Squall could feel Nida's nervousness, which was causing his power to hum under his skin. "I guess we should get our car..." Squall trailed off, breaking away from Nida to pick up his bags.

"That won't be necessary," the man who approached them said. He bowed his head at Rinoa, who looked at his face, and widened her eyes. She looked at this man, then at Nida, and back again. "Oh!" She exclaimed.

Nida looked up from hoisting his carry-on bag over his shoulder, and the bag slid to the ground. His lips parted in surprise as the man in the suit crossed his arms over his chest, giving Nida a quick once-over with steely brown eyes. "Hello, Nida," Daisuke Nomura greeted, his voice very even and commanding. "I thought that since I was in the area, I would greet you, and save you the gil for a taxi service."

"Dad..." Nida trailed off, his cheeks flushing with crimson. "What a nice... surprise..."

Quistis blew out her breath in a grumble as she stapled some pages together. She was sitting in the library in the Esthar Palace, doing some last minute paperwork. She also had her Junior Headmaster, Faye, on the other end of a speakerphone.

"Don't worry, Quistis. Things are going great here. How's the Esthar stuff going?"

"Good," Quistis murmured. "But, too much paperwork. Xu and I will be heading back to Garden today."

"Really?" Faye answered. "That's great! The students miss you."

"It might be a short visit. There is an official party here that President Loire is throwing. So, make sure that everything on my schedule is cleared for the 20th. Xu's, too."

"Will do!" Faye exclaimed happily.

"I'll see you this evening..." Quistis trailed off, hanging up. She sighed, kneading her temples with her fingertips. Quistis signed a few more papers, then picked up the Deling Goer. The front page was covered with various stories concerning the Fermata concert, and Tevedes's comments about Nida. There was also a story containing the comments of Nida, Squall and Rinoa before they'd left Deling in the Ragnarok. There was a grainy photograph of the three of them getting into the ship. Squall was glaring, and if looks could kill, the whole city would be dead. Nida looked wide-eyed and tired, just exhausted. Rinoa was shielding her face from the cameras, already half into the Ragnarok.

Quistis flung the paper down on the desk, and rubbed her face with her hands, groaning when she realized that she probably smeared ink all over her cheeks. She got up to check the mirror, wiping a black smudge off her chin. As she went back to the desk, she stopped in front of a shelf of history books. Quistis gently touched the spines. She almost felt like there was something that she should look up. Quistis sighed deeply, leaning against the shelf, breathing in heavily, the smell of old books filling her nostrils. She thought of Tevedes, of the Galbadian election, of all the horrible things that had been happening. She also thought of the woman that had been with General Tsepeth. The one that looked like Quistis herself.

"What does it all mean?" Quistis asked herself, tracing the letters on the spines of the books. She stopped on one that was called History of Trabia: 800-1200 AH. Quistis began pulling it out of the shelf, but stopped when she heard the door open.

Xu popped into the room, smiling at Quistis. "The ship is flying into the Airstation now. Are you ready to go?"

Quistis nodded, putting the book back in its place. "Yeah, you're in luck... I just finished the paperwork."

"I take it you saw today's Goer, huh?" Xu asked, making a displease face.

Quistis nodded slowly. "Well, they left Deling, so at least they don't have to worry about Tevedes..."

"For now..." Xu trailed off. She watched as Quistis collected the paperwork into a leather attache case, and opened the door for her blonde lover. "You have a black smear on your cheek."

Quistis rubbed at her face, but Xu shook her head.

"Here..." Xu murmured, rubbing at the spot. "There. Now you look perfect."

Quistis smiled, but it was slightly forced. "Thanks, Xu."

"Don't worry about them. Nida's a big boy..." Xu sighed. "Who am I kidding? I'm worried as Hell, too."

Quistis looped her free arm with Xu's, pressing her temple to Xu's. "We're SeeD Generals. We aren't supposed to feel this way. I mean... Squall's a General, too, and Nida's a Captain. They're okay."

"Well, let's go..." Xu murmured. "The ship will probably be landing now."

Quistis nodded silently, giving one last gaze to the bookshelf before leaving the library behind her.

Squall looked at the pictures on the mantle of the large fireplace in Nida's living room. The whole house was very posh, and seemed large without really being terribly large. Nida's family home was in a wealthy section of town, overlooking the ocean. There were a few pictures of people that Squall didn't know, probably aunts or grandparents, and a few photos of a woman that looked a little like Nida. His mother, Squall assumed. However, he'd yet to see her in the house.

The car ride back to Thackery Point, the neighbourhood that Nida lived in, had been painfully quiet. They had ridden in a Towncar driven by Daisuke's driver, so had just sat in silence. Nida had sat beside his father, watching his hands in his lap. Rinoa had made pleasant conversation with Nida's father, asking about the local society, while Squall had sat beside her, like a quiet lump. Nida's father, although not severe, was very imposing, and Squall didn't want to say anything to embarrass Nida, who already seemed mortified enough. After stopping at Nida's parents' house, Rinoa had walked towards town, assuring that she was okay by herself, and that she would meet them at the Hotel for a late supper. When they'd arrived, Daisuke had to take a call from a client, so Squall and Nida were waiting in the living room for his return.

Squall stopped, looking at some pictures of Nida as a small child. Not much about his appearance had changed, except that he'd grown older. Nida had been a very cute boy. Squall peered at it. Nida was smiling, mid-laugh, his hand in his father's. Daisuke was also smiling, an expression very different from Squall's initial impression of the man. It was the face of Nida's mother that was off. She looked unhappy, compared to the joy on Nida and Daisuke's faces.

"Where's your mother?" Squall asked quietly, looking at Nida, who was sitting on the black leather couch, as still as a statue.

"I don't know." Nida closed his eyes. "This was a mistake."

"Oh, it's not that bad..." Squall whispered, looking at more pictures. "You look a lot like your father."

"So I've been told."

Squall looked at a wedding photo of Nida's parents. Again, Nida's mother didn't look terribly happy, although Daisuke seemed pleased. Squall wondered if Nida's father was so severe because of Nida's mother's seeming unhappiness. "What's your mother's name?"


"She's very pretty," Squall mused. He turned to face his lover. "You know, I felt exactly this way when I officially introduced you to Laguna as my boyfriend. Except that I was more worried about Laguna making a fool of himself than either of us."

Nida laughed thinly. "I just... I just wanted to ease your introduction to my dad, but he saw us kissing, so I guess that's out the window."

Squall looked at some artwork that hung on the wall. He didn't realize that Nida's family was so wealthy. But, it was like pulling teeth to get to hear anything about Nida's life before Garden.

"Sorry that took so long," Daisuke said briskly, coming into the living room. "Would you like some wine or brandy?"

"Brandy's fine..." Squall said, sitting down beside Nida on the couch, the leather of his own coat squeaking against the leather of the couch.



"Scotch?" Daisuke echoed, raising an eyebrow, which seemed like a very large gesture, considering his eyebrows were more prominent on his face since he was bald. Squall couldn't tell if Daisuke was actually balding or not, because his head was so closely shaved. His eyes, nose and mouth were the same as Nida's, delicate without being ultimately feminine.

Daisuke gave them their drinks, and sat in a couch, a glass of club soda in front of him.

"You don't drink anymore?" Nida asked, knowing that his father usually had a white wine after work.


"Where's Mom?"

Daisuke took a small sip of the soda, giving Nida a sad look. "I checked her into Longbourne yesterday."

"Longbourne?" Squall asked. "Is that a hospital?"

"Only if you're a drunk..." Nida whispered bitterly.

"Oh..." Squall trailed off. "It's a shame I don't get to meet her."

"It's better that you didn't," Daisuke muttered. "If you called more, you would have known that she's gotten worse, Nida."

"I noticed in the pictures that she never seemed to look happy..." Squall trailed off. He realized he said that out loud, and blushed a little. "Oh, I'm sorry."

"You're very observant," Daisuke commented. "The only time she didn't drink was when she was pregnant."

Squall suddenly didn't feel like drinking anymore of his brandy. "So, you're a lawyer?"

Daisuke nodded. "That's right. I must say that I can see your father in you."

"You've met Laguna?" Squall asked, cocking his head.

"Yes. I've made a few trips to Deling and Esthar in my career. He's a very lively fellow."

Squall snorted. "You can say that again."

Daisuke turned his attention to his son. "See, this isn't as painful as you thought it would be, Nida." He turned to Squall again. "You're the first man he's ever brought home."

"I know that you're disappointed in me... you know, being.... what I am..."

Nida's father blinked a few times. "You think that?"

"Aren't you?" Nida asked, confusion in his voice.

"Well, I'd be lying if I said I'd planned it this way, but it's who you are. So..." He took another sip of his drink. "That was Julia Heartilly's girl?"

"Yeah," Nida muttered. "Rinoa Heartilly."

"How is she? I heard that she was in a coma for quite a while."

"Well, she's okay, considering..."

Daisuke looked at the paper on the glass coffee table. He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. "I wish you would tell me more about your life, Nida. I find out more about you in the paper than I do from your mouth."

"You mean about Tevedes?" Nida asked.

"About everything."

Squall watched Nida, who was still staring at his hands. "Nida's the best pilot Garden has."

Daisuke smiled serenely. "Is he? I've heard that he's also becoming quite the Sorcerer."

Squall nodded. "He saved my life quite a few times."

"Is that how your...." Daisuke paused, trying to find words. "... relationship started?"

"In a way," Squall answered. "Actually, while we were classmates, I didn't even remember Nida's name. It's kind of embarrassing."

"You dated Rinoa Heartilly at that time, correct?" Daisuke raised an arched eyebrow. "You two are still friends?"

"Well...." Squall trailed off. "It's complicated. Her and Nida seem to be better friends that we are." Squall couldn't believe that he was talking so much to Nida's father, but Nida just seemed not to want to participate in this conversation, and Squall just wanted the tension to end. And, there was something about Daisuke that Squall liked. He sort of reminded Squall of himself, very business-like, very task-oriented.

"So, I assume that you are... serious? I doubt that Nida would bring home a casual fling."

Squall couldn't help but blush at how serious they actually were. "Yes."

Daisuke narrowed his almond eyes, that were just like Nida's. "So, this Tevedes Tsepeth woman... What do you know of her?"

"I unfortunately know as much as you do, Mr. Nomura. She's quite the mystery, and annoyance..." Squall muttered, his voice lowering in anger.

"She hates Sorcery, no?"

Squall nodded.

"What kind of danger does this pose to Nida?" Daisuke asked.

"We don't know. I mean, if she becomes President of Galbadia, that doesn't really concern his safety within Esthar. My father will oppose Tevedes if she tries to implement any sort of inhumane actions against Sorcerers and Sorceresses." Squall sighed.

"I understand. Of course, he could also stay here. Dollet isn't Galbadia." Daisuke became quiet. "I can feel your power, Nida."

Nida's head reared up, and Squall looked at Daisuke with curiosity. "You can?" Squall asked.

"Nida's mother and I began to try and sense Sorcery when Nida was a child, to try and protect him. You saw how it affected him as a man, so we were worried it could kill him as an infant or toddler. This Sorcery must be very powerful, Nida."

"... I didn't tell you because I'm ashamed..." Nida whispered. "I'm a horrible Sorcerer, and it was just something else that I did wrong. First, I was empathic, then I wanted to be a pilot instead of a lawyer. I didn't marry a girl from Madre Hills or St. Tempus Academy. I came out of the closet, and now I'm holding a potentially fatal being in Iudicium at bay." Nida raised his eyes to his father. "I never call because I don't measure up to what you wanted. And, Mom is always drinking, and you're always working. You only had me because you had to." He breathed in. "And, I brought Squall here because he's the only thing I'm really proud of, even though I'm sure you wish I was bringing you Rinoa as a lover instead."

Squall looked at Nida, rendered silent in surprise.

Daisuke was far better at hiding his shock. "You really think this, Koneko?"

Nida snorted. "I haven't been called that in a long time."

"What on earth gave you the impression that any of these things were true?" Daisuke asked, his voice even.

"Mom. Do you know that I called here the day after I found out I was a Sorcerer? Mom answered, and told me 'Nida, why can't you just be normal?' She told me that you guys only had me because Grandma was pressuring you two."

"I think that I should leave..." Squall began to say, but Daisuke held a hand up.

"If you are as serious with my son as you say you are, then you'll have to deal with our family neurosis sooner or later."

Squall remained silent, looking at father and son.

"You really think that I didn't want you?"

"Well, you were always very harsh with me... What was I supposed to think?"

Daisuke sighed. "Rei is a drunk, no beating around the bush. Someone had to be the stern one, the bad guy, and since I'm inclined to that anyway, it turned out to be me. If I hadn't been strict with you, nobody would have taught you to learn from your mistakes. I always had to be the bad guy for our entire marriage."

"You talk like you aren't married anymore..." Nida whispered.

"I should let you know that if your mother fails in this attempt at sobriety, I'll be divorcing her. It's my money that pays for her drinking. And, the fact that she told you such a thing..."

"Divorcing?" Nida asked, his voice quiet.

"I guess it's true... Your mother was pressured by her mother to get married, to start a family."

Nida looked at his hands, closing his eyes. It was true... His mother didn't want him.

"But, that's not the case for me. Nida..." Daisuke frowned when Nida kept staring at his hands. "Koneko, look at me."

Nida looked at his father sadly.

"To think that you're nothing but a disappointment in my eyes is just wrong."

"Then, why didn't you say anything?" Nida asked quietly.

"Because that's just the way I was raised. I thought it was just assumed how I felt. But, I see that that isn't the case."

Squall bit the inside of his cheek. Daisuke's words hit very close to home. He felt a kinship at this point with Nida's father, for Squall himself also had trouble telling Nida how he felt. He watched as Daisuke and Nida sat in silence, son looking at his father, father sipping his drink.

"How bad is she?" Nida asked.

"Your mother? Pretty bad. It's an effort for her to walk because she's so drunk. Are you going to pay her a visit?"

"I don't know..." Nida whispered.

"That's understandable, Nida... Well, I think a change of subject is in order. So, what did you do in Deling, besides anything dealing with the Fermata concert?"

"Actually, we only went to a club, where some more weird stuff happened, and then stayed at the Caraway Mansion because of all the reporters. We're going to Timber after here for the Triple Triad tournament."

"Triple Triad? Have you improved at all?"

"Not enough to beat you, I'm sure..." Nida muttered. "Actually, we're going because Squall wants to. He loves Triple Triad."

"Oh?" Daisuke raised an interested eyebrow. "I was Triple Triad champion in law school."

"I am head of the Card Club in Balamb Garden, and also Champion of the Esthar Triple Triad Society."

"Very impressive..." Daisuke trailed off. "Your father is also a good player. So, I assume that you've beaten him."

"Oh, many times," Squall trailed off. "Did you know that in one of the new series of cards, there will be a Nida one?"

"Yes, I did," Daisuke replied, taking a sip of club soda. "The Card Queen's father is the one that paints the cards, which I'm sure you know. He showed me the card after he'd painted it. He also told me about a promising Garden student who beat his daughter many times. Hmm, he said 'a kind of girlish boy with brown hair and a scar between his eyes.' I guess that's you."

Squall couldn't help but frown. "I guess so."

"From what I gather, you only met your father a few years ago," Daisuke said, changing the subject. "How is your relationship with him going? Hopefully better than our relationship..."He made a gesture towards Nida, who just seemed ashamed.

"I'd be lying if I said that I was always on the best terms with Laguna. He's just... Silly and scatterbrained. But... I'm glad he's my father. I envy Nida, you know? Despite the fact that... Your relationship is bumpy..." Squall trailed off, feeling sort of like a cad. "He's always had a father, a mother. I didn't have that. My mother died when I was born, and Laguna... Well, I only just met him a few years ago."

"I'm sorry...." Nida whispered. He leaned forward, resting his forehead on one fist. "You must think I'm a selfish brat."

"Don't do this, Nida. You always did feel that everything was your fault, you always apologize for everything. It makes you appear weak. And, I know that you aren't."

Nida just sighed. Then, a man came in, dressed impeccably in a suit. "Sir? Telephone for you."

Daisuke nodded, standing. He reached his hand out to Nida's shoulder, as if to pat it. Instead, he ran his palm over Nida's hair. "I'll be back in a moment."

Squall watched as Nida's father left the room. Nida was still sitting with his back hunched, his head bowed, his forehead pressed to the heel of his hand. Squall touched Nida's back, looking at his lover's profile. Squall could see how Nida would feel small in his father's eyes. Daisuke was a very stern man, and didn't mince with words, said how it was without trying to sugar coat anything for Nida's benefit. Although it was somewhat harsh, Squall could plainly see that Daisuke adored Nida, that Nida was the light in the darkness that was his marriage to Nida's mother, Rei. Squall looked at the defeated way that Nida was holding his body. But, Squall noticed that on Nida's lips was a small smile.

Rinoa stopped in front of a store window. She'd gone to the Magus Library, amazed at all the books that were there. Within the Library, there was an extensive bookstore that had some reprints of some of their books, but naturally not all of them since the Library itself was larger than Rinoa's mansion. She sighed. It really was her Mansion now. During one of the days in Deling, General Caraway's lawyer had stopped by, telling Rinoa that everything had been left to her, except for certain amounts of money that were to be given to charity. She wondered how it was going with Squall, Nida and Nida's father. Daisuke Nomura reminded her a lot of Squall himself.

What made her stop was the necklaces in the window. She saw that it was a thrift shop, and stepped closer to the window, cutting down the glare from the sun. She bent at the waist to look at the jewellery, her mauve sundress blowing in the warm breeze, the glittery pattern of creeping purple vines catching the light. The first necklace was a choker, made of a delicate pewter chain with metal flowers on it. The center of each flower, daisies, was a clear amethyst. She looked down at her dress, seeing that the necklace would go quite nicely with it. The second necklace was also a choker, but was far more simple. It was just a silver chain, and had angel wings in the center, which came together in a downward point. The wings were of glittering black onyx set in sturdy pewter. It reminded Rinoa of Nida's wings. She stepped into the shop, and bought both of them; the daisy necklace for herself, and the angel wings for Nida. The necklace was plain enough to be masculine.

After buying them, Rinoa decided to try and find the Circe Gallery. It was supposed to be in this area. She looked at the buildings, and finally found it. The building itself was very old and ornate, and caused Rinoa to gasp with delight, clutching her hands in front of her breasts. "Wow!" she mused, slowly walking up the large stone stairs to the front doors. On either side of the entrance were impressive statues of women in robes. One was holding a lance, and the other was holding a jug of some sort. Rinoa stopped at the front desk. "How much is it?"

"It's free," the girl behind the counter answered. "But, you can make a suggested donation of five gil."

Rinoa gave the girl twenty gil, and took one of the small, printed out maps of the layout of the Gallery. She also took a couple brochures on different artists and art periods, and decided to look at the Empire Era Exhibit first. She took a left from the Main desk, and entered a nice, circular room. There were other people looking at the paintings, discussing them amongst themselves. Rinoa stopped at the first painting, admiring it. It was of a beautiful woman surrounded by cats. She giggled to herself. "Cute..." She murmured. "Kitties!" The next painting was of an ornate building on the edge of a cliff, overlooking the ocean. She recognized the trees as those around Winhill. She stopped at the next painting, blinking at it. Rinoa read the plaque under it. Queen Zohra Almasy. 999AH. "Almasy...?" Rinoa whispered to herself. She studied the face of the woman in the painting. She knew that Xerampelinae had been Seifer's mother, another Almasy subject of a painting, but Seifer hadn't looked much like his dark-haired mother. However, this woman could have been Seifer in drag, although more feminine. She was wearing a large gold crown, and her long blonde hair curled around her shoulders as her green eyes looked out coolly from the painting. Rinoa looked in the pamphlet, wondering if the painting was in it. It was. "Squall and Nida have to see this..." She whispered.

Rinoa took a step to look at the next painting, her footstep echoing loudly. She frowned, looking around. All the people had vanished. Her eyes moved to the Queen Zohra Almasy painting again, but it was gone. "Hello?!" Rinoa exclaimed. She went out to the main hallway, but the girl and the Information Desk were gone. Instead, she was standing in front of a large painting that would be as tall as Rinoa, if she had Squall standing on her shoulders, and Nida standing on his shoulders. She gasped, bringing her lips to her mouth. It was a painting, larger that life, of Ultimecia. Below it was a fountain, the trickling sound of water sounding oddly calm. Rinoa gasped again when she saw that the water was red. It was blood. She looked to both sides of her. The room that she'd just been in was dark and still. The room to her right had a light coming from some torches that lit the walkway. Rinoa's whole body shook as she saw a shadow moving. She was glued on the spot, not wanting to go into the room. The pleasant mouldings that had bordered the ceilings of the Circe gallery were gone, in favour of ones that looked menacing and alive. The sound of the blood fountain was unnerving Rinoa, and when she saw eels swimming in it, along with swordfish, she turned on her heel, and followed the torches and the moving shadow. Rinoa put her hands up, like she was going to fight whoever was there, but put them down again when she saw two people sitting on one of the stone benches in front of the paintings on the wall.

"Hello...?" Rinoa whispered.

They turned to look at her, and she sobbed. Seifer slowly stood, his black leather trenchcoat melting into the shadows. Zell continued to sit, looking at the painting in front of him, kicking his legs out, his baggy grey slacks almost covering his red sneakers.

"Seifer....?" Rinoa whispered. "Oh, there was this painting....!"

"I know," Seifer said lowly. He gestured for Rinoa to come closer.

"What happened?" Rinoa asked. She turned to look at the painting that Zell and Seifer were looking at. She gasped. "Oh, my God! It's me!" She peered at the painting. In it, she was wearing a burgundy, empire-waist dress with pink ribbons on her arms and around her neck. Her hair was long, and her highlights were current. "Huh....?" She murmured.

"Welcome to the Gallery of Xystus..." Zell greeted, getting off the bench. "We're in the mortal room."

"Mortal room....?" Rinoa repeated.

"Look..." Zell trailed off, pointing to the next picture. He looped his other arm with Seifer's, and they walked beside Rinoa as she peered at the paintings, curiosity and fear written all over her face. Zell rested his head on Seifer's shoulder as Rinoa gasped.

The next painting was of Nida, half his face in shadow, wearing a coat with a square collar, and beaded necklaces around his throat. She shook her head, looking at the paintings. The next was Squall, looking off to the side, as pretty as ever.

"What is this?" Rinoa asked. "Where am I?"

"The Gallery of Xystus..." Seifer repeated.

"But, nooo... I'm supposed to be at the Circe Gallery in Dollet. I have to get back, because Squall and Nida are meeting me at the Dollet Hotel for a late supper!" She could still hear the bloody fountain in the next room. Beside Squall's painting was one of Quistis, leaning over a desk, her glasses on. She looked very sensual and mature. There was also a smiling picture of Selphie which made Rinoa grimace sadly. "You said this was the mortal room... But... Selphie is dead." Rinoa shook her head, her black hair swinging around her shoulders.

Seifer crossed his arms over his chest, but said nothing. Zell looked at the painting of himself, and snorted. "This looks nothing like me!"

Rinoa looked at all the paintings, spinning around on the spot. "I don't want to be here...." She shook her head. "I have to get out of here..." She began to make a dash for the exit, so she could go back to the room with the large Ultimecia painting, her face impassive as she held an hourglass. But, the entrance wasn't there anymore. Seifer and Zell were standing in front of it, looking at Rinoa like she was a little girl.

She whimpered to herself, and spun on her heel, going in the other direction. She shielded her eyes from the serenely smiling painting of Selphie, her emerald eyes staring out at Rinoa as the Asian woman flew by, her erratic footsteps hitting the ground noisily. After leaving the 'mortal room', Rinoa entered a dark hallway. As she ran, she kept bumping into walls, which were poured concrete, and had sharp edges. It scraped her shoulders, and tore at the delicate satin of her mauve sundress. She panted, hitting the wall so hard that it caused her to fall to her knees.

"Dammit!" She cried, her knees stinging. But, Rinoa got up, and kept running. She could see some sort of dim light ahead, and dashed towards it, just wanting to be away from this place. She gasped as she finally escaped the dark hallway, and tumbled into a room. She coughed as her body unearthed dust from the ground. Standing on shaky legs, Rinoa looked around her. It looked exactly like the room she was in before. She made a pathetic growling like noise, and made her way to the entrance, but found it was blocked, just like the other room. She turned on her heel to go back into the hallway, but Seifer and Zell were standing in the way.

"Let me out!!" Rinoa screamed, taking a few steps backwards. She turned, and began to run to the other end of the room, but Seifer and Zell were there, too. She bumped into Seifer's chest, and fell to the ground in a sobbing heap. Her shoulders and knees were skinned, stinging and bleeding. "I want to leave..." Rinoa whispered. "I want to leave... I want... I want to see Squall and Nida... I want to go home..."

"Soon home won't be what you want," Seifer whispered, offering a hand to Rinoa. She gingerly took it, and he helped her to her feet.

"You mean because of Tevedes...?" Rinoa whispered.

Seifer just nodded, while Zell's icy eyes travelled to one of the paintings. Rinoa looked at both men, then at the painting. It was of Tevedes. Rinoa took her hand out of Seifer's grip, the torches around the room lighting up in a spark of orange flame as Rinoa took small steps towards the painting on the wall. Tevedes looked similar to how Rinoa remembered her from Deling City, paler than pale, her colourless eyes looking spooky. She was in a uniform that looked like the one she had been wearing, and she was also smoking a cigar.

Rinoa breathed out, her chest heaving. "Okay... Calm down, Rinoa.... Breathe..." She tapped her hands on her chest, calming herself down. When she turned to face Seifer and Zell, who were watching her, calmly, but with anticipation, her voice was even, normal. "Okay, I must be here for a reason...." She noticed other paintings on the wall. There was one of Xerampelinae, but it was a different pose than the one from Ultimecia's castle. Rinoa stopped at the painting beside Xerampelinae's. It was of a redheaded woman who looked like Zell. The Asian woman looked at the plaque beneath the frame. Adel Viator. "Your mother..." She whispered.

"Yeah, before Xera made her change..." Zell muttered, his arm still looped with Seifer's, looking strangely normal and domestic in such a strange, dark atmosphere.

"Am I dead...?" Rinoa suddenly whispered, her voice very quiet as she looked at the next painting. It was a woman with short blonde hair, bangs falling in her eyes, which were an animalistic colour of amber, like a cat. She was stroking a fur boa that was around her neck, one of her nipples showing through a sheer black shirt. Rinoa looked at the name under the frame. Griever. Rinoa's hands fluttered to her mouth, her breath coming out in erratic spurts. "Griever...?" She touched the chained ring around her neck, as if touching the ghostly Griever ring of Squall's that used to hang on the chain with the ring that had been Julia's. "What does this mean?!" She demanded, looking at Seifer and Zell angrily. "Why aren't you telling me anything?"

"You're not dead," Seifer answered simply.

Rinoa shook her head, giving them a look as she turned to look at the next painting. Griever? She thought of the picture of Ultimecia out in front of the crimson fountain, the eels swimming in the pool of blood. She remembered the fight all those years ago in the future, Ultimecia calling Griever. Had it been this woman in a different form? The next painting was of a woman with orange hair and a pretty, elfish face, her ears pointy, too. She also looked a little like Zell, and especially like the picture of Adel. Viator. "Wait..." Rinoa trailed off. "There was a Viator painting in Ultimecia's castle.... Is this the original one?" She didn't really expect Seifer and Zell to answer, so she just looked at the next painting. It was a woman with metallic hair, a gun slung over her shoulder. Pallas. The next one made Rinoa stop, her feet almost skidding.

"Oh God..." She whispered, actually reaching out to touch the painting. The frame's curves caught the fire's light, and made it look like it was made of pure gold. Upon touching the frame, that thought was confirmed. Rinoa's heart moved into her chest as she touched the mole above the lip of the woman. Her eyes went over the named plaque. Fermata. Her elegant face was tilted upwards, a small smile on her full mouth. Rinoa thought again of the paintings of Ultimecia and Tevedes. When her eyes travelled to the next painting, Rinoa's heart began leaping like a rabbit in her chest, trying to pop out. She was holding a cross in her hands, her cold eyes staring out. Magdalene.

"Mag.... Magdalene?" Rinoa spun on her heel, facing Seifer and Zell. "What does this mean?" She looked at more paintings, the room seeming to spin around her. "Oh, God.... The Inaudax....?"

Seifer and Zell shared a silent look.

"Answer me!!" Rinoa demanded angrily, rushing over to them. She grabbed fistfuls of Seifer's leather coat. "Answer me!"

"Ever since you were in the coma, a part of you touched Xystus. You were dead, yet not, alive, but not really," Seifer said slowly. "Since you touched Xystus... We need your help."

"Help?" Rinoa asked meekly. "Why?"

"Remember the Trauma, Rinoa," Zell answered cryptically.

"What does that mean?!" Rinoa demanded, her voice sounding pathetic. She turned to look at the picture of Tevedes again, her mouth twisted into a small, knowing smirk. She turned back to look at Seifer and Zell, but they were gone. She was looking at people walking around the Gallery, talking about the composition of the pieces, and their use of light. She panted, looking back at the painting. It was the serene face of Queen Zohra Almasy.

Rinoa blinked, looking at the paintings. The one with the cats was still there, like the other Gallery hadn't existed at all. Rinoa looked at her shoulders and knees, but they were unscathed.

"A dream...?" she whispered to herself. Nobody was looking at her strangely, so she must have been in the same spot. She wondered if any time had passed at all. She checked her watch, but didn't know what time it had been beforehand, so that didn't help much. The images in her vision faded rapidly, until she couldn't remember anything except for the sound of Seifer's voice, and Zell saying 'remember the Trauma.' There was also a painting.... a woman with elfish ears and orange hair.

Rinoa touched her fingertips to her forehead, which was beaded in nervous sweat. The sounds of the conversation around her, and the ambient, friendly lighting, was so average and normal, that it caused Rinoa's body to chill. She gave one last look to the portrait of Queen Zohra, shivering, and dashed out of the Gallery, distantly hearing a noise that sounded like gurgling, running water.

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