Chapter Twenty-Five

By Scarlet Fever

It was very black. So black that I couldn't see in front of me. But, even without seeing, I knew that there was a presence, that somebody was waiting in that darkness. I felt like I was floating, but sinking like a stone. I also felt that I was in unfamiliar territory. I tried to remember what I was doing last, but my mind was foggy, hazy. I tried to sit up, but something prevented it. It wasn't hands... Just the environment. It was very oppressive. It sort of felt like Time Kompression, but different. I wasn't really afraid here. Something felt lonely and dark, but I wasn't scared. I remembered how I was supposed to think of loved ones during Time Kompression, what my father had said. At the time, I'd thought of Rinoa. She was dearest to my heart, the only one who had given a shit to try and open up my shell. That was a long time ago. Rinoa... I tried to think of the last time I saw her. It was very difficult. It was like trying to reach into a black pool of water to find a contact lens. I groped around inside my mind. What had happened before I arrived here? A brief flash entered my mind. Eyes. The almond shaped eyes of Oriental descent. Rinoa's eyes. Dark and warm, that coffee brown. But... They seemed different. Not Rinoa's eyes. Nida's eyes. Nida... I tried to think of him, too. Out of nowhere, loud beeping entered my mind. It was like a swarm of insects. It was deafening me, and I was afraid my ears would start bleeding. Heart monitors. That's right... Nida had been in the Infirmary. Rinoa, too.

The feeling that someone was with me got stronger. It was like a sun was coming out. Instead of all black, I could now make out black shapes against the even blacker backdrop. I was on a path of some sort, or in a hall. I could see shapes rising all around me. I slowly got to my feet, coughing as I did so. My body hurt. I looked down at my torso, and saw awful gashes. Behemoth.... That's right. I'd been on a Motorcycle, and attacked by a Behemoth. I hadn't been wearing a helmet. I should have died....

The surroundings got a bit clearer. I was outside, on a road. The shapes surrounding me were tall trees, their leaves gathered in clumps at the top of their long trunks. Why did this look familiar. I looked up and down the Tree Lined Road, but it stretched on forever. Which way was I supposed to go? I couldn't really see which way was better. Something tugged within me, as if telling my mind to remember, that I'd seen this place before. I squinted at the surroundings, which were still dark. Something made my heart lurch, and one word shot through my head. Xystus.

I looked down at my feet. Xystus? Wasn't that Lillith's Palace? So, that meant that I was dead... Sadness overcame me. As I looked down at my feet, it appeared like there was a line in the dirt. My eyes followed it. It didn't stretch too long, so I could see what it was pointing to. A rather beautiful looking X. It seemed to glitter in the dark, like it was fluted with gold. An X?

Ten, my mind whispered. It was a Roman Ten. The hand was pointing to the Ten. And, that was the direction that I was heading. I was heading towards time. Xystus... The Tree Lined Road. I looked around me again. Those strange trees were linear, lined all around me, perfectly straight, perfectly separated. I sighed and began to follow the hand. I found myself not even stepping on the X. Something told me maybe I shouldn't. Maybe it was along those same lines 'step on a crack...'. I didn't want to chance it.

I'd gotten maybe half a kilometre beyond the mark when I stopped. There was a noise. I strained my ears to hear it. It sounded like a ticking. A clock of some sort. It made logical sense because of the arrowed hand on the Tree Lined Road. But, it also sounded muffled, ominous. Then, I realized what was making the ticking noise. It was cracking wood. I looked behind me, and the trees were bowing to a great onslaught of water, greater than even Leviathan's attack. I opened my mouth in shock, but no noise of horror escaped my lips. Run, Squall.... My mind commanded. My feet answered, and I began to sprint away from the water, hoping I would come across something I could climb on. But, the water flooded all around me. It didn't hit me as hard as I expected, and it immediately stilled. The water had flooded so quickly, that it was everywhere.

I guess I'll have to swim for it... I began cutting the water with my arms, trying to swim upwards so I could get more air. I swam for twenty feet or so, and my lungs began to protest. I swam upwards, but there didn't seem to be a surface to the water. I noticed a light above me, and my heart beat frantically. I had to reach it, or I was going to drown. As I tried to get closer and closer to the water's surface, I noticed that I wasn't alone in the water. There were fish swimming around me. I wondered where they came from, and gasped when something sharp hit the back of my thigh, just where my ass began. It caused some of the water to enter my lungs. I tried not to gag and cough, but couldn't help it. As the oxygen left my body, I noticed that there were more and more fish. I regarded that some of them had formed a circle around me. Twelve. There were twelve fish facing me, their blank eyes boring into me. They were swordfish, and the sharp nose of one had been what had poked my leg.

The ticking noise began to enter my mind again, as I tried to swim higher. The fish followed me, and the ticking got louder. It also sounded muffled, but that's because I was underwater, and on the verge of passing out. I was going to drown, surrounded by fish. It seemed that the surface of the water just remained out of reach. I was inwardly glad for the underwater SeeD training I'd gotten at Balamb Garden. So far away, a lifetime ago. The swordfish were still shadowing me, and it looked like they were melting. I thought it was because my vision was going blurry. I blinked a few times against the water, but no... They were melting, turning into putrid green clouds, thick like oil in the water. And, it seemed that more than the twelve fish in front of me were doing this. The clear water was now a blackish green with their clouded forms. The ticking was their bones clattering together as the flesh dissolved around them. Then, even the bones began to liquefy, turning into the same green pus like substance. It smelled horrible, and I couldn't help but gag. I mentally screamed when some of the horrible fluid entered my lungs. I felt a burn. A familiar burn.

My mind shifted briefly to Esthar, when Ultimecia, in Seifer's body, had poisoned me. I was now swimming in liquid poison. I tried to get to the surface, to breathe air again, but I just couldn't reach. I already felt my body beginning to slacken, and my mind just wanted to give up. Maybe I was already dead, and this was Hell. When I was about to pass out, my eyes snapped open. They burned in the poisoned water, but I heard a voice, and I wanted to find it. It was a gentle mantra, evenly calling to me, like the ticking I'd been hearing.

Squall... Squall.... Squall.... Squall....

I raised my hands in the thick liquid, trying to rise up again. Someone was calling me. The voice was a distant whisper, but I knew who it was. The way my heart just seemed to warm in my chest, the way it beat just a little faster, the way the defeat just washed out of me, told me it was Nida. He was calling me. I gasped when I felt my fingers poke up into cool air. I pulled the rest of my body up through the green sludge that burned me from the inside out, and took a great, gasping breath of air. The oxygen seemed to smooth the sting of the Swordfish poison. I gagged and coughed, treading in the murky water. Everything was black again. But, that light that called me was still there, divided in three. They were small lights in the distance, moving like they were alive. They were being carried.

"Help!!" I cried. It was people. There was someone else here. "Help me!" I swam towards them, my clothes feeling heavy. I reached to my throat in the water, wanting to touch Griever for good luck. But, the silver pendant wasn't there. I furrowed my brow. Where was it. Then, I remembered giving it to Nida. "Help!" I screamed again. The lanterns seemed to stop. I swam towards them as fast as I could, shedding my coat. It was heavy with the dark poison. I also kicked off my boots, and found that the combination of my pants and black tank top made me go faster. The lights flickered in front of me, and I moved my hand to take a stroke, but it hit land.

I sighed, clawing my way onto the beach, its sand as black as the rest of the surroundings. The three people that were carrying the lanterns were wearing hoods, so I couldn't see their faces.

"The water is poisoned...." I whispered, coughing up some of the disgusting water. I looked up at their faces, the black holes in the hoods, as I gasped for air, sputtering. I fell back on my ass when I saw two familiar faces flicker for a second. Both blonde, with pale eyes. Seifer and Zell. They turned away, and the shadow encased their faces once more. I looked to the third one, but could see no face. Only a glittering of metal. A silver necklace around their throat. I heard a Lion growl in the distance, and opened my mouth to speak. But, the ticking returned.

I looked around, terrified that something else horrible would happen. The ticking was the melodic flap of wings. A bird. It landed on the shoulder of the tallest of the hooded figures, the one I'd imposed Seifer's face onto. It flapped its wings once more, letting out a shrieking caw. I tried to speak, but the dark filled with something. I shivered when it moved all around me, tickling my still damp skin. Feathers. Feathers as black as the night. I waved my hands to brush them away, but there were so many, and they were all falling around me. When the feathers all finally fell, I had to close my eyes. There was an onslaught of light. I slowly opened my eyes. It was now daytime. Or, rather, a dusky lighting that seemed like the brightest sun compared to the black I'd been in. I gazed around my surroundings, using my hand to shield my eyes. I was standing on a grassy hill. The emerald hills rolled as far as I could see. I looked around for the water, filled with the Xiphias Poison, but all I could spot was dry land. And, the three hooded figures and their lanterns were also gone. There wasn't even a sign of feathers anywhere.

I saw, clustered on one of the hills, four shrubs together. I put my hands on my knees, and caught my breath for a few moments. I remembered the glittering metal on the third lantern carrier. It had been a pendant. Had the Lion I'd heard meant that it was Griever. Then, did that mean that Nida was dead? I didn't even know if I was dead. I sighed and jogged up the hill towards the four bushes. I stopped in front of them, regarding what I found with narrowed eyes. Between the bushes was a small creature. It was white, and very strange looking with a long nose. It kind of looked like a cross between an Anteater and a troll of some kind. It was peacefully snoozing, making gentle snoring noises. I coughed gently, still feeling water in my lungs. I coughed it up and spit it into the emerald green grass. This seemed to wake the creature up.

"You. Awoke. From. Sleep."

I narrowed my eyes at the gentle words. Each one had been pronounced very carefully. The creature's eyes didn't open, but a small smile seemed to play on it's strange, stretched mouth.

"Where am I?" I asked. "What happened to all the water? There were fish...."

"You. Are. Lost. Again."

"Again?" I echoed. "What are you talking about? Where is this place? I saw three people in hooded cloaks..."

"The. Vigil. Of. Seven."

I furrowed my brow. "Can't you say more than four words at once?" I put my hands on my hips impatiently.

"So. Tired. Must. Rest."

"But, I'm lost!" I exclaimed. "A Behemoth attacked me, and...."

"You. Must. Be. Tired."

I sighed deeply. But, the weird little creature was right. I was so weary. And, its voice had a lullaby quality to it. "No... I have to find my way out of here... Nida needs me."

"Nida. Is. Sleeping. Too."

"You've seen him?!" I exclaimed. "Am I... Am I dead....?"

"You're. Tired. Please. Rest."

"I... I can't...." I whispered, but I felt so sleepy. Maybe a small rest wouldn't hurt.

"Rest. In. The. Garden."

"Garden?" I asked, looking around. Where there had been only rolling hills was a gently beaten path. "Where'd that come from?" I asked myself. The path led up the slope of one of the hills, where some strong looking gates stood. They were beautifully crafted, and inside, I could see something lush and green, as well as red dappling the foliage. Poppies, roses, lilies. "Is that the garden?" I asked, turning back to the little creature.

It smiled thinly at me. "Sleep. In. The. Garden."

I wanted to. I wanted to so badly, but I shook my head. "I don't have time for this! I don't have time..."

"Time. Does. Not. Matter."

I blinked at the creature. It slowly opened its eyes to regard me. They were burning amber, boring into me. "Time. Has. Kompressed. Now."

My breath seemed to leave my lungs, and I felt like I was back in the poisoned water. I looked at the little face of the sleepy white creature. The nose seemed to shrink down in front of my eyes, and the white tufts of fur on its head became long silvery locks. The stretched mouth contracted, and the darkly painted lips sneered at me. "You're. Mine. Now. Skwall."

I tried to run, tried to say something, but couldn't. I finally sputtered out "Ultimecia....?", but I was once again staring a small white troll thing, who was snoring happily. I blinked a few times, looking up at the garden gates. "I guess I have to go there..." I whispered, wondering if I'd just imagined Ultimecia's face, Ultimecia's voice.

I got to the gates, and peered through the wrought iron bars. The garden was so lush, and I could hear the soothing noise of a running fountain. I pushed the gates with my palms, and they silently swung open to my touch. I felt light when I passed through the gates, stepping into the peacefulness of the garden. It was so lush, and the smell of the flowers was wonderful. It reminded me of the flower field outside Edea's Orphanage. That's where I'd promised Rinoa we'd meet so long ago. I saw a circular path, and began to walk along it. There were beautifully sculpted shrubs all around me, and the colour of the flowers was so rich, and the smell was so sweet. The soothing sound of the fountain in the center of the circular promenade was wonderful, as well. I saw some stone benches, and decided to sit for a few minutes and gather my wits, and think.

I looked around, trying to remember what I was doing. But, all I could see was the lovely garden. It was so peaceful. I hadn't felt peaceful in a while. And, the quiet was just up my alley. I yawned, suddenly very tired. But, I knew that I had to do something. But, it totally slipped my mind. Where was I going, and what was I supposed to be doing? I curled up on the bench, my eyelids feeling like lead. "Maybe I'll just rest for a few minutes..." I whispered, falling into a deep slumber.

Laguna walked down the hallway, combing his hair with his fingers. This was the first time since he'd waken from Adel's coma that he'd been alone. He wanted to think, to just get away from all the duties as Esthar's President. Even though he was eternally glad to see Kiros, Laguna just wanted to wander for a little while, and think through things. However, he did wish that Squall were around. Laguna was very worried about his son. He knew that Squall had gone through an awful lot, and he didn't want Squall to repress and bury all of it, like he probably would do.

"I just hope that things can go back to normal now..." He muttered to himself.

"I agree."

"Argh!" Laguna gasped, spinning around. He gave an annoyed look to Edea. "You scared me."

"I'm sorry, Laguna. I didn't mean to overhear you talking to yourself." She gave him a small smile. "I was actually going to check on Rinoa and Nida." She cocked her head. "Have you seen Squall?"

Laguna shrugged. "No. I'm sure he's with Nida. He hasn't left his side since he woke up."

Edea nodded sadly. "So many horrible things have happened to them. To all the children."

"I know..."

Edea patted Laguna's arm gently. "They'll be fine. I hope."

He gave the Sorceress a small grin. "I hope you're right, Edea. I guess you know my son better than I do." His face turned sad.

"I don't know about that," Edea said as they walked towards the Infirmary area of the Palace. "I think that you've made a lot of progress together. It's obvious that you love him dearly."

"Well, he's my only child. I know I haven't been there for him..."

"I don't think he resents you..." Edea said softly, patting the loose bun on her crown. They stepped into the doorway to the infirmary, and Edea furrowed her brow. "That sounds like a Chocobo."

"Yeah...." Laguna stepped into Nida's room. "Hey, it's a Chicobo..." He cocked his head at the small chirping bird, who was pecking lovingly at Nida's hand. "Nida...?" Laguna whispered. He noticed that Squall wasn't here. Laguna sat in the chair beside the bed that Squall had usually been occupying. Laguna peered into Nida's face. "Hey, Nida!" He looked over to Edea, who was standing at the foot of the bed. "His eyes are open..."

Edea feigned a smile, but something was passing within her. A powerful force filling the room. Laguna didn't seem to be able to feel it, so Edea wondered if it was magical, and, being a Sorceress, only she could feel it. She watched as Nida slowly blinked, looking at Laguna.

Nida smiled slightly, looking into a pair of stormy eyes. He saw the scar between them, and the shaggy auburn locks. He saw the full, cupid's bow mouth, and flawless skin. "Squall..." He whispered.

Laguna frowned. "No... It's Laguna."

Nida blinked a couple of times, and the vision of Squall melted away, and he was staring at the face of Laguna Loire. "Oh... President Loire....." He coughed, his throat aching. He tried to move his head, but pain shot through it. "Uh..."

"Sh...." Laguna touched Nida's forehead. "Jesus, you're burning up. I'll go find the doctor..." He quickly left.

Vivi was still pecking at Nida's fingers, gently pressing his little beak to the Asian man's palm.

Edea just watched silently as Nida went in and out of unconsciousness. She didn't think Nida even knew she was there. And, Edea was kind of glad of that, because she could think freely about what she was sensing in the room. It was the presence of another Sorceress. She looked around, and saw the open doorway to Rinoa's room. Edea silently went to Rinoa's room, but to her alarm, the magical energy seemed to die down. The Sorceress looked down at Rinoa's form. Her face was still, and it almost looked like a gentle smile was playing on her heart-shaped mouth.

"Rinoa... What happened between you two?" Edea asked, looking back to Nida's room, where the Sorcery was thick and strong. Did that mean that Nida had obtained some Sorcerer powers? And, if so, from where?

I blinked a few times, feeling relaxed and calm. The garden was so peaceful. I sighed. I knew I was here for a reason. In my curled up position on the stone bench, I looked at the beautiful fountain. The water was as blue as sapphires, spouting out the top. Along the rim of the sculpted fountain, I saw some sort of carving. VIII, all across it, like a border. 8? Why did that seem important. I sighed, wanting to go back to sleep. The smell of the flowers was so soothing....

Suddenly, a noise jerked me out of my reverie. I looked up, slowly raising my body to a sitting position. It was a squawk. A gentle, happy chirping noise. I looked down the arced path, and saw something walking towards me. A yellow bird. A Chicobo. I couldn't help but smile. This bird was familiar. But, from where? All I could think about was sleeping, all I could feel was weariness. The bird stopped in front of me, and looked at me with its giant eyes. It seemed to know me. I reached a weary hand out, and patted the top of its head, which it seemed to enjoy.

"Where did you come from?" I asked. "I haven't seen anyone else around here..." I frowned. "Wait... That troll." I sighed again, rubbing my head. My finger traced the scar between my eyes. Seifer's mark on my face. Seifer.... "The vigil of Seven...." I whispered.

The Chicobo chirped at me, nipping affectionately at my fingers.

I looked down at the small bird, then picked it up, cradling it in my lap. "I know you, don't I?"

The Chicobo warked, staring at me with devotion.

"Vividarium..." I whispered. I looked at the fountain again, and it's border of VIII. "The vigil of Seven..."

Vivi warked, nipping at my hands again. "What was I supposed to be doing?" I looked down at the yellow bird. "Vividarium... The garden." I yawned again. "God, why am I so tired?" I thought for a moment. "Sleep...." I looked at the VIII design surrounding the bowl of the fountain. "Ultimecia..." Something in my mind clicked. "Intervigilium..." I looked down at my lap to the Chicobo, but gasped. Instead of the friendly yellow bird, I was looking down at a black raven. It looked up at me with its one good eye.

"Hyperion...." I whispered as the bird took flight into the clear blue sky. I noticed that the raven was making lazy circles in the air, as if trying to tell me something, to give me a message. "What am I supposed to be doing...?" I wondered, biting my nails in thought. I looked up at the bird, then beyond him. "Vividarium et Intervigilium et Viator...." I whispered. In the Garden Sleeps a Messenger. I was surrounded by Ultimecia's paintings. What did this mean? "It must mean that I'm dead...." I whispered. "This is Lillith's realm. She was the Avatar of Death for Ultimecia." I looked in the sky again, and saw something in the distance. I walked to the edge of the garden, and found myself standing on the edge of a cliff. In the far distance, in a darkening sky, I saw a large silhouette. I couldn't really make out what it was, but I saw huge wings. I looked at Hyperion, and the bird began to take flight. The wings of Hyperion stretched out just as the shadow's did. They were huge, huge wings, far in the distance. I looked down, and found that I could only see smoke, swirling thick at the edge of the cliff. I looked behind me, but the garden, along with Vivi, had vanished. I was standing on a small dot of land, surrounded by smoke. Just like when I'd lost myself in Time Kompression.

"Time. Has. Kompressed. Now."

"What is going on here?" I asked myself. Where was I going to go? I noticed something floating in the darkened sky above me. A black feather, floating towards the shadow. "Should I go this way?" I noticed two more feathers. Three markers towards the silhouette. I knew that I should head that way, but if I stepped off my little spot of land, I would plummet to my death. I then heard a chirping. Vivi was standing at my feet, looking up lovingly at me. He chirped again and stepped off the edge of the cliff.

"NO!" I cried. But, Vivi didn't fall. He was floating in air, just looking at me like I was crazy. I gingerly stuck out one foot, toeing the ground. I furrowed my brow in confusion when I hit something solid. I couldn't see anything besides the thick, thick smoke, which was slightly burning my lungs. I fully stepped out into the smog, floating above the bottomless pit. Vivi seemed to have wandered off, because I couldn't see him. I began slowly walking towards the silhouette, still afraid that I would fall into the black below me.

I looked down into the smog, and saw movement. There were things writhing underneath of me, reaching up towards me. They looked like stretched arms, so white and malnourished looking. I strained my ears, and thought I could hear voices. I stopped moving, and looked as desperate hands tried to reach for my feet. I stepped away, but realized that they couldn't touch me. They were saying something, but I couldn't make it out. I looked at the hands, that were reaching for me, as if I was supposed to pull them out of some sort of torture. I had to squint to see through the smoke, but it looked like the palms were marked with something. I crouched down on the invisible floor, and looked closer. There were brands on every palm that reached skyward for salvation. IX.

"IX?" I whispered. "Nine...." I strained my ears, and heard some sort of ticking noise. I was practically laying flat on the ground when I realized what it was. I gasped, sitting up when I looked into the face of one of the people below me. The ticking was the noise of broken jaws clicking together. They were trying to scream out to me, like they were in Hell. What did that mean for me? Did I go to Hell, and was I just walking towards my doom? Maybe I was in Hell for killing Seifer and Zell, for killing soldiers during the Neo-Sorceress War. Maybe I was in Hell for my relationship with Nida... I doubted that was true. Something that had been that right couldn't have been wrong.

"Nine..." I whispered to myself. "Okay, the Xystus had been ten... Think, Squall.. Think!" I stood again, looking out to the black winged silhouette. "Nine...." I groaned. "God, that was so long ago." I looked down at them. I couldn't remember how the paintings worked in Ultimecia's castle, so I tried to look at them apart from that. I could still hear them trying to say something, but I could also hear something else.

Squall... Squall... Squall...

Nida's voice was calling me again. It was coming from the directing of the shadow. I ignored the creatures, suffering and twisted, below me. They were still trying to speak to me, their broken jaws clicking horribly. But, as I walked over where their palms were exposed, they seemed to shrink away, like cowards. The cowardice of the Inaudax. That's who they were. Ultimecia's followers, Intervigilium's followers. I tried not to look at their emaciated faces, not to listen to their ticking bones. I began a slow jog, getting closer and closer to the winged shadow. As I got nearer, I found that the smoke was getting thicker and thicker, until it felt like I was underwater again. The smoke was so thick that I was up to my waist in it. But, I kept moving. Finally, the ground felt different under my feet, and made crunching noises. But, the smoke was even thicker, and it was so hot. Like, it was a fire.

I took a few steps forward, and found myself surrounded by fire, the orange flames being watched over by a silver, slivered moon. I was standing in the middle of the road, and could feel the flames' heat all around me, flickering and sputtering. There were burning buildings around me, and I could hear screaming. I could also hear wood whining and cracking as it burned. I looked all around me, smoke burning my eyes, causing tears to run down my face. I was standing in the middle of the burning city Ignus.

Nida stared up at the ceiling, his eyes glassy. He couldn't move, his whole body aching from the horrible fever that ravaged it. The doctors were always in and out, and Laguna, Quistis and Xu would pop in to see how he was. He felt horrible, like death would be a blessing. He also noticed that Edea would come in every once and a while, looking down at him, like she was seeing something only she could see within him. It sent chills down Nida's spine, but he didn't really care. His fever was so high that he couldn't move without whimpering in pain, and he was only conscious for a few minutes at a time. And, at none of those times, was Squall there beside him.

Nida wanted to ask where the auburn haired SeeD was, but he couldn't even find the strength to talk, and his throat felt closed up. He had to have all his liquids through IV. He wanted water, but could barely open his mouth. Nida also wanted Squall. He knew part of him would feel better if he could at least look into Squall's stormy eyes, just for a moment, if he could just feel Squall touch him. Nida sighed again, too sore to fall asleep. He would need more painkillers once the doctor came back.

One thing bothered Nida, and since he knew he'd be awake for at least a few minutes, he thought about it. There was something on his chest, cold against his hot chest. He raised his hand to his chest, which took at least thirty seconds, and he had to flop it down afterwards, panting as if he'd run a marathon. But, he felt something bumpy under his hospital gown. He worked his fingers, fumbling until he came back with a necklace. Nida held it away from his neck, peering at it. It was Squall's Griever. Why did Nida have it. Did Squall give it to him?

A small smile grew on Nida's lips as he let the pendant drop back to his chest like a stone. He slowly put it under the gown once more, feeling his chapped lips crack painfully as he smiled. Squall gave him the pendant, something that was so personal and special to him? Nida closed his eyes, pain shooting through his entire body. He found himself slipping back into a feverish sleep, but it was also dream filled. He was in a hot place, as hot as his skin felt. There was fire everywhere. When Nida walked in his dream, he didn't feel ill. He didn't feel like he weighed anything. He sort of felt like he was staring at it from afar, watching from some sort of perch or pedestal. But, the fire was still hot, as if he were standing in the middle of it. Nida could hear screaming, and saw someone standing at the base of whatever he was perched on. It was Squall.

"Your Judgement shall pass!!"

Squall was staring up at him. Nida tried to scream, but Squall didn't seem to hear him Nida cried out because the voice was so deafening around him, like it was booming through his mind, like it was a part of him. He saw black feathers all around him, and cried out again as a voice entered his mind. But, it wasn't as loud as the last one. It was female. Both the voices were female. But, this one was far quieter, and had a serpentine quality to it. "Welkome home, my child."

"Welcome home?" Nida asked weakly. He wondered if Squall could hear his voice, but he found that he couldn't even see the other man anymore. It was all black feathers, and something else. Something fine and grainy, black and red. Sand. Ebony feathers and falling sand.

"You are now the Xerampelinae. The konduit to pass Judgement."

"I.... I... Xerampelinae?" Nida whispered. "Judgement?" He suddenly felt frightened. "And, you're going to pass Judgement on Squall?!"

"Yes!" The other voice boomed.

"NO!" Nida screamed. "I won't let you...."

"Her power is intoxikating..." The slithering woman's voice answered into his mind.

"I will not let Iudicium hurt Squall!" Nida screamed, briefly wondering how he knew the booming female voice had been that of Iudicium. "I won't let her hurt anyone!"

Nida's eyes snapped open, and he was staring into the glittering golden brown eyes of Edea. He tried to open his mouth, but she put a hand on his shoulder.

"You should rest..." She said quietly. "Nida..." She pulled the stool closer to his bed. "What happened to you?" She looked at him shrewdly. "I can feel something..."

Nida tried to speak to the Sorceress, but he could only cough. He wanted to tell her. He wanted to tell her about his dream, about supposedly being the new Xerampelinae. Did he inherit the powers after his fight with Rinoa? And, what about his empathy? Is that what was making him so ill?

As if to answer his mental question, Edea sighed. "If this is true, no wonder you're ill. Your empathy will try to kill any new powers in you." Edea looked at him as if she'd been able to read his mind. "I'll go get the doctor, Nida..."

"Squall...." He muttered out. The word sounded garbled and choked, but Edea understood it.

"We have no idea where he is..." The elegant woman admitted sadly. "A soldier said they saw him leave the city on a motorcycle last night. And, nobody's seen him since."

Nida sighed deeply as Edea left on silent feet. Squall was missing? Then, had Nida's dream had merit? Was it his new supposed powers trying to tell him something. Nida raised his leaden hand to his chest again, pulling out the Griever necklace. He studied the roaring silver face of the lion, running his fingers over the crevices in the metal. He felt a shiver pass through his sore muscles, and he knew it was something magical, apart from his illness. Something was wrong. And, what of the burning that he'd seen? What did it mean?

He coughed, feeling like his throat was being ripped apart as he did so. As he thought he was going to cough up a lung, he heard something. A tapping. It almost sounded like a clock. Nida lolled his head towards the window, where the noise was coming from. There was a bird at the window. A large black raven. When it began tapping, Nida also heard a warking. It was the Chicobo that Squall had rescued in Centra. Nida panted heavily as he tried to sit up. The bird seemed to be trying to get in. But, why? It also seemed to be looking at Nida like it knew him. The Chicobo moved over to the window and was jumping up and down on the spot, warking at the bird on the other side of the glass.

Nida's hot, shaking hands wrapped around the Griever pendant as he struggled to a seated position.

Xerampelinae. The new Avatar of Iudicium. The New Xerampelinae. You have to awaken. Please.

"Awaken?" Nida croaked out. He moved the sheets out of the way, each motion causing him to sway and swoon. "What...?"

Squall is lost in a Stitch In Time.

"Squall....?" Nida whispered with great difficulty. Nida noticed his scythes on a table beside his bed. He must have had them when he was brought back here from the Esthar Plains. As his hands wrapped around the handles, he collapsed to the floor. One hand was around the handles of his blades, while the other was still around Squall's pendant. A terrible pain suddenly shot through Nida's head, and he began screaming...

I looked all around me. The fires were burning so fully that there would be no way to put them out.

"Zell?!" A voice cried. "Vigil? Zell? Where are you?"

I cocked my head, going to the voice. It was a woman's voice, shaking with fear. Why would she be calling for Zell? If this was Ignus, and the woman was calling for Zell, then it must have been...

I heard a horrible scream, then came across who it came from. I was standing a few yards from a woman, who was kneeled in front of a burned, charred corpse, cradling it in her arms. She had muscular arms, but they weren't the monstrosity that she'd become. Just the muscles of a working woman, much like Zell's adoptive mother, Saffron Dincht. Adel's hair was as red as the fire around her, and her pale blue eyes glittered with tears. This must have been her first son, Vigil, the one that Lillith told us she'd been betrothed to. Adel had been a beautiful woman, and it was obvious that Zell was her son, because their facial structure was very much the same. It was the same sort of similarity I'd shared with my mother, according to Dad and Ellone.

Adel's eyes looked up at me. "You shouldn't have come here," she stated flatly. Despite her obvious heartache, her voice was strong, commanding, yet nothing like her voice when she'd become the tyrant of Esthar, nothing like the voice that'd spewed from Zell's lips. "You don't belong here."

"I want to go home!" I admitted. "But, I don't know what to do!"

"You shouldn't have followed the Almasy bird. You should have stayed close to those you love."

I frowned. "But, I saw Hyperion...."

"You still shouldn't have followed!" She yelled at me, rising to her feet. Adel had also been a tall woman, something that was very unlike Zell. She was a few inches taller than me. It also sounded like a different voice coming from her quivering lips. Male...

"Zell...?" I whispered.

Adel pretended she didn't hear me. She clutched her black cloak around her. "Our home is burning. All because of Esthar.... Xera Almasy told me it was all because of Esthar. They..... She said they stole Zell from me. That they took Seifer away from her. That Lilly is gone, too." Her fists balled angrily, and her teeth bared. She had the same canines that Zell had. "They stole Vigil's life. They stole my home. Esthar took everything!"

"No...." I whispered. "No."

She laughed harshly, and I could see her eyes flash red, like the crimson blood of her second form. "Yes, yes." She suddenly looked at me sadly. "Iudicium's Judgement was passed here..."

"Because of Xerampelinae!!" I yelled over the roaring fires. "Xerampelinae caused Ultimecia to come here. Ultimecia stole Lillith, and killed your son!"

Adel blinked a few times. "No.... NO! ESTHAR STOLE MY CHILDREN!" Her voice became quiet. "Ignus is the start. The one."

"One?" I asked. "The clock...." I looked around, and saw a hand leading down a broken and burned out street.

"You'll be Judged, too..." Adel whispered. I could already see the ghostly black wings behind her, spouting out of her shoulder blades. My father had said that Adel had housed Iudicium. She must have taken over the GF after Xerampelinae or Ultimecia had used it up. I began following the arrow, leaving Adel to her silent fuming. There was nothing I could say to change what was going to happen. But, I wanted to. If Adel had never turned evil, she would never have taken over Esthar, and I would have had my father. Laguna would have been with me my entire life. I couldn't look back. She was right. I should have never followed that stupid bird. I should have stayed with Nida. He needed me. What was I thinking? What, that Seifer and Zell would be waiting for me? They were dead, and I killed them. I followed the arrow, and found myself standing at the foot of a tall pillar. I could still feel the fires warm against my back, but it was like they were a million miles away. I looked up to the tall pedestal, and saw Iudicium, sitting on it like it was a throne, her hourglass in her hand. I noticed that the sands were almost gone.

"You made it this far...."

"Why am I here?" I looked up to the sky, and saw Hyperion. "Where is this place?"

"The world between worlds. Purgation or salvation."

"So, I died in those attacks?" I cocked my head. "Where did you go after Adel and Ultimecia were destroyed?"

"I've sought my new Avatar. The new Xerampelinae."

"Rinoa...?" I whispered. I remembered Zell saying that Rinoa had been possessed with Xerampelinae's powers, and sent to kill Nida. I didn't know what to do. I felt like I was trapped in a clock. The ticking of Iudicium's bone jewellery was deafening, and all I could do was look up at her as the sands in her gilded Hourglass ran out. Her arms opened wide, as if to embrace me from her perch, and her wings flapped out. When her face looked down at me, I saw Rinoa's eyes, boring into me, in that way she used to do, like she'd been reading my soul, an open book for her honest eyes. And, I saw Nida's smile. The curve of his lips, how it made me melt inside, how it made my heart skip a beat, how it put me at ease, even when surrounded by all this fire and destruction.

Iudicium's wings opened, and it began raining black feathers. It was like the Heavens had opened, and rained down the soft ebony objects. When each one touched my skin, it almost felt like Nida was touching me. But, it turned cold, like the claw fingers of some awful creature of hatred, moving over my skin. It felt like the poison of the Xiphias Swordfish that had filled the flooding water. I waved my hands to try and get them away from me, but there were just too many feathers. A great wind seemed to come from nowhere, and blew all the feathers away. I caught a couple in my hand, clutching them. They seemed warm in my grip, like they were Nida's fingers.

When the feathers had cleared, the White Goddess of Judgement had disappeared. The stone pillar was now empty, but a woman stood in front of it. She had dark hair, cold, shrewd eyes, and the reddest clothes I'd ever seen.

"Xerampelinae..." I whispered.

She raised her arched eyebrows at me. Her face was similar to Seifer's, but longer somehow. Seifer was more attractive, and she had more of a 'witch' quality to her longish nose. "Hello, Skwall."

Edea came back in the room, followed by Dr. Sunde and Laguna. Once Laguna had heard that Nida was awake, he wanted to talk to the man. He wanted to know what happened between Nida and Rinoa in the Esthar Plains. He also had his son's happiness in mind. Laguna frowned as he thought of Squall. Why did he run away? What had he been chasing. A soldier said they saw him going towards the Esthar Plains, north towards the Grandidi Forest. What was there? Maybe Nida could answer some of those questions if he was coherent enough.

"He still looked very feverish..." Edea stated, going into the room first. "And, he.... What?"

Sunde pushed past the Sorceress. "Where is he?" The doctor looked at Edea sharply.

"He was here when I left!" Edea exclaimed. "I...." She trailed off, pressing a hand to her ivory forehead. "Oh...." She swooned.

Laguna quickly caught the lithe woman. He sat her on the edge of the now empty bed. "Edea?! What's wrong?!"

Sunde looked at Edea, then to the chirping Chicobo, who was standing in front of the window, and seemed to be looking at something. "Nida couldn't have just wandered off in his condition..." Sunde pointed out logically.


They all looked to the door when Quistis came in. "We got confirmation that Squall had been indeed heading towards the Forest when he was last seen. Xu and I are taking a ship out there. Is that..." She looked beyond them. "Where's Nida?"

Laguna shrugged. "We don't know either." He looked at Edea again. "What's wrong?"

She patted the back of Laguna's hand. "I'm okay now. Can I have some water?"

"Of course!" Laguna looked at Sunde. "Get some water!"

The doctor just rolled his eyes. "Fine..." He passed the cup to Edea. "Now, what made you pass out like that?"

"There is a strong magical signature in this room..... Xerampelinae's magical signature."

"What?!" Quistis exclaimed. "But... Squall defeated Adel and Ultimecia!"

"Just get to the Airstation..." Laguna commanded gently. "Please find my son."

The blonde nodded, spinning on her heel.

"I'm sure Squall will be okay..." Edea whispered, her voice low as she noticed the worry in Laguna's eyes.

"You think you felt Xerampelinae's powers?" Sunde repeated. "Well, Adel said that Xerampelinae was in Rinoa when she fought Nida."

"So, Xerampelinae took Nida?" Laguna asked, his eyes wide.

"No..." Edea whispered. "Nida is Xerampelinae."

I just watched as Xerampelinae walked towards me. But, it all seemed distorted. I got the image of Rinoa, in her white ball dress, walking towards me at SeeD graduation. Xerampelinae also seemed to have that context about her, like she was existing outside her proper time. I also saw that she seemed to blip, static making her look distorted. Her head began bobbing unnaturally, and I was looking at Rinoa with her broken neck. Rinoa had a harsh look in her dark eyes, that so didn't fit her face. Rinoa's eyes had rarely looked harsh. I tried to call out to Rinoa, in her garishly red clothes as she menacingly walked towards me, but she changed again.

I was now looking at Adel. The form I was used to, the horrible beast, not the woman I'd just seen in the burning city. One of her long arms reached out towards me, but flickered away. The motion repeated itself, and the background seemed to swirl into a million different things, like I was inside a top of some sort, spinning round and round. Xerampelinae's face showed up again, her harsh eyes that looked like Seifer's. I'd been on the receiving end of that stare many times. The scar formed between her eyes, and Seifer stood before me, Adel's reaching arm now the Hyperion, pointed at my throat. He made a slash at me that I actually had to dodge. I could feel the wind of the arc of the blade against my cheek. The thick metal turned into an arm, and I was now looking at Zell. He made a move to punch at me, and I stumbled on my feet, falling down. The scratch on my chest from the Behemoth attack began to throb. I'd forgotten about it...

When I looked down, my whole torso was covered in blood. I gasped, touching the wound, which was a lot bigger than it had been. I could see a shadow descending on me, and looking up. Xerampelinae's hard smirk turned into a familiar smile, and I saw Nida in her, I saw Nida standing before me, in a long red, crushed velvet coat. His gentle smile turned hard, and he was Xerampelinae once more. She had a long staff, one that had a clock on the end of it, a spherical face with old Roman numbers. She slashed it out at me, and I had to roll to avoid being hit. There was blood pooling all around me, and I was getting weaker. I also noticed that my vision was beginning to fade.

When I looked up at Xerampelinae again, she was going through the same metamorphosis that I'd watched earlier. Her face was changing from Xerampelinae Almasy, to Sorceress Adel, to Rinoa, to Seifer and Zell, and to Nida. It was Time Kompression all over again. I wanted to scream. I was lost in time again, and didn't know how to get back out. Should I think of Nida? Last time, the idea of Rinoa dying in space had snapped me, and now... All I could hear was Nida's heart monitor, flatlining. I began panting, looking up at the laughing Xerampelinae as she cackled, standing victorious over my broken and bleeding body. She wasn't even really Xerampelinae anymore. She was changing so fast, and the room was spinning around us. I felt like I wanted to throw up. Then, everything seemed to stop, and shatter. It was like it all exploded, into a great showering of pink. It was like a giant firework, and as I watched it fill my vision, I got the warmest feeling, and a word entered my mind. Venus. Venus meant love. Maybe this was Heaven opening up to me. Maybe Nida would be waiting for me. I could fold Nida into my arms. I could apologize to Selphie, to Seifer and Zell. I could see my mother. The pink burned so bright, like a sun, rising in the horizon. That light was all I could see, until a dark shape seemed to appear.

I blinked a few times. I felt hard ground under me, different from what I'd been on earlier. It was still sticky from my own blood. The shape was a person, silhouetted against the light, so they were only a black outline. I saw the Angel Wings, dark as well, translucent, letting the pink light through. I had to squint as to not be blinded. I could also see a dark hump at the feet of the standing Angel. And, in this man's hands, the man with the wings, were a pair of sickles, dripping with something. Blood. The blood of the lump at his feet. I just looked at the image of Nida's form, standing in front of me, his back to me, where the shimmering, gossamer angel wings were formed, his sickles held out to his sides, like bleeding half moons. I wanted it to be the last thing I remembered. It was so beautiful, but not as beautiful as my name floating on the wind, gently whispered by him.


I sighed, my dark Angel collapsing being the last thing I saw before joining him in unconsciousness.

Nida slowly opened his eyes, feeling groggy, but overall more healthy than he did the last time. At least opening his eyes didn't make him want to cry in agonizing pain.

"He's awake..."

Nida shifted his gaze to where the voice came from. Xu was sitting next to his bed, Quistis beside her.

"Hey, you!" Quistis exclaimed quietly. "Welcome back."

"How's my princess?" Xu asked, stroking Nida's hair.

"Don't call me that..." He muttered. Nida's voice was still hoarse, but he was glad that his throat didn't hurt as much anymore. "Where am I?" He began to sit up, but Xu's hand made him lay back again. He slapped it away, sitting up anyway. "I want to move around..." He explained, looking at his two friends.

"You're in Esthar," Quistis answered. "Xu and me found you in the Esthar Plains, near the Grandidi Forest."

Nida nodded slowly, furrowing his brow in confusion. "How did I get there?"

Quistis and Xu shared a look. "We were hoping you could tell us..." Xu whispered, squeezing Nida's hand. Xu was so relieved that Nida was okay. She herself was an only child, much like Nida, and he was like a brother to her. Quistis and Nida were all she had outside her work as a SeeD, and during this whole situation, she'd almost lost both of them. Quistis squeezed Nida's other hand.

"I... I don't know...." Nida shook his head. "What happened?"

"You and Squall were both collapsed...." Quistis said slowly. "Squall supposedly took a motorcycle out there, but we don't know how you got there. You were very ill and could hardly move."

"Squall..." Nida whispered. "Is he okay?" Nida frowned, thinking. Something had happened to Squall. That Chicobo had been chirping at the window, and a raven had been there.

Xu sighed. She didn't want to tell Nida anything bad. Any hurt in his eyes would break her heart. "He was hurt pretty badly. He's still passed out. Sunde had to perform a few surgeries on him. It was a Behemoth attack, and he also fell of the motorcycle. It was totally crashed."

"He'll be okay..." Nida whispered, pulling his hands away from their grip. He had a certainty in his voice that caused Quistis and Xu to raise their eyebrows at each other. Nida reached under the pyjamas that he'd been dressed in, and touched the pendant. He was still feverish, so the silver was cool against his chest.

"What is that?" Quistis asked, pulling Nida's hands away from the necklace. She looked at the Griever in her palm. "When did you get this? It's Squall's!"

"He must have given it to me..." Nida whispered. "When I woke up before, it was around my neck."

Xu sighed deeply. "Squall must really care about you. That pendant is very important to him. I think he likes it better than he likes me."

"Why did Squall go out there?" Quistis asked.

"I don't know..." Nida admitted. "All I really remember is waking up, seeing Edea... She seemed worried about something, and then hearing a bird tapping at the window..." He paused "Oh! And... A burning city, and a woman's voice."

"Huh?" Xu furrowed her brow. "You're not making any sense."

Nida laughed to himself. "I think it was a fever induced dream."

Quistis patted his shoulder. "We should get Sunde...."

"You can't stay?" Nida asked, coughing. "I'm sorry... Can I have some water?"

Xu bustled, pouring him a cup. "Here you go, sweetie. So, you don't remember anything?"

Nida shrugged. "Well, whatever happened, I feel a lot better. I mean, my head still hurts because of the fever, and my throat is still sore, and I ache everywhere, but considering how I felt when I woke up last time, I feel great..." He paused. "Has Rinoa woken up yet?"

"No..." Quistis frowned. "What happened between you?"

Nida sighed. "Well, I was in the Plains, and I thought a soldier was hurt. But, it was Rinoa. She was possessed by Xerampelinae. We started fighting, and she basically kicked the shit out of me, but something happened... I don't know. Maybe Xerampelinae's powers stayed in her...." He sighed.

"No, they did not..."

Nida, Quistis and Xu turned to see Edea standing in the doorway, with Sunde beside her.

"Matron!" Quistis exclaimed.

"How has the cleaning out gone?" Edea asked, keeping her amber gaze on Nida.

"Fine. The monsters are gone now. We're just starting to organize some construction crews with Laguna..."

"You do that, then," Sunde muttered. "I have to check on my patient."

Xu rolled her eyes. "Edea, what do you mean?"

"Rinoa is not Xerampelinae. Nida is."

Nida's eyebrows shot up, and Xu snorted. "What are you talking about?!" she demanded.

"Nida...." Edea looked at him with wistful eyes. "You disappeared because your powers teleported you to where Squall was."

"But...." Nida frowned. "How...?" He furrowed his brow. "That's right...I stabbed Rinoa..."

"You must have killed her, and the power had to go somewhere."

Sunde frowned. "But, Miss Heartilly is still very much alive."

Edea cocked her head. "And, if you inherited Sorcery, no wonder you were so ill. Your empathy is probably at war with it. It was killing you."

"Well, then...." Nida looked at the Sorceress, fright entering his eyes. "What happened to my empathy...?"

Edea frowned. "That, I don't know."

Xu snapped her fingers. "Hey! Nida, didn't your empathy give you high abilities to heal?"

"Yes," Nida whispered. "So, you think that my empathy somehow moved to Rinoa while she was transferring Xerampelinae's powers to me?"

"It's a good probability," Edea said softly.

"Okay, okay..." Sunde whistled. "I have to examine him."

As Quistis, Xu and Edea left, Nida called out. "Edea!"

She turned back. "Yes?"

He looked at her with scared eyes. "Does this mean that I'll turn evil, too?"

She sat back down on the edge of the bed. "No, Nida... No, of course not..." She patted his hand, still seeing the look of terror in his eyes. "I know that you've seen the horrible side of Sorcery in the past little while, but it's not all bad. I mean... I was possessed at one time, too, but aside from that, I've tried to be good. The power will never make you evil. Only you're designs can make you evil."

"So... Why do I feel better now?" Nida asked as Sunde began pulling stuff out of his bag.

"Take your shirt off..." Sunde instructed, pulling out a stethoscope.

"I think that when you disappeared from your room, you let out a surge of your power. Maybe it made the rest of the empathy leave your body." Edea kind of blushed at Nida's state of undress, and felt foolish for it. "I should give you some medical advice. Don't keep all your power bottled in all the time. You have to let it out at regular intervals, or it takes a toll on your body. And, with your already sensitive reaction, I suggest often. Just do simple things like levitating things or casting low grade spells on inanimate objects...." She smiled and left.

"She's right, you know..." Sunde muttered, pressing the stethoscope to Nida's back. "About everything. I can feel your power very strongly."

"You can...?" Nida asked.

"I'm used to dealing with Sorcery..." Sunde muttered blandly. "Okay, follow the light..."

Nida did as he was told, his mind wandering. His power had teleported him to Squall? He couldn't really remember anything. He'd have to ask Squall when he saw him. He smiled distantly as Sunde checked his blood pressure. He was sure it was going up just thinking about Squall. Adel and Ultimecia were finally gone. It was horrible that it was at the expense of Seifer and Zell's lives, but... It was over. Maybe he and Squall could work on furthering a relationship. Nida just wanted to see him. Even though he knew that Squall was alive, he just wanted to visually confirm it. He hadn't seen Squall since before his fight with Rinoa. He sighed happily, ignoring the pain behind his eyes from his fever. He just hoped that Squall would wake up soon.

"You seem alright," Sunde said. "I just want to take some blood. Lay back."

"Can I walk around after this? I'm kind of hungry, and want to use my legs."

Sunde gave Nida a look. "As soon as your light-headedness subsides from when I take the blood, you can do what you wish. Just as long as you get some rest. I don't want your fever to come back. It's still there, so just be careful."

"I promise, doctor," Nida muttered as Sunde's cold hands pressed on his hot skin.

"You don't sound very sincere."

Nida closed his eyes as Sunde took his blood. The fact that he had a fever caused him to become very woozy. He decided to rest for a while. "How's Squall?" Nida asked sleepily.

"He's better. Still knocked out, though. I've been giving him a lot of Morphine, as well as high end Curagas. I had to perform extensive internal surgery."

"He'll be alright, though, right?"

"I hope so. I think he should, though. He's lucky you came around when you did."

Nida nodded distantly, and feel back asleep.

It was very quiet when Squall opened his eyes. There was discomfort in his chest, but it was distant, and nothing that he couldn't handle. He fully opened his eyes, wondering where he was. He almost expected to see Xerampelinae standing over him, a hard look on her face. But, he was staring up at the canopy of a bed. His bed in Esthar. He rolled his head, and felt like he'd been drinking. Laguna was sitting beside his bed, fiddling with the ends of his long, black hair. When the President noticed that Squall was awake, a big, happy smile broke out on his handsome face. "Squall!"


"You're in Esthar," Laguna answered, sensing what Squall was going to ask. "Nida saved your life."

"Nida....?" Squall struggled to a sitting position, noticing that he wasn't wearing a shirt. He touched the bandages on his torso.

"You were attacked by a Behemoth. You're lucky that Nida vanished to find you."

"Vanished....?" Squall asked, clearing his throat. "What are you talking about?"

"Nida used his powers...." Laguna sighed. "In his fight with Rinoa, he acquired the powers of Xerampelinae. He's a Sorcerer now."

"He's...?" Squall asked, his eyes wide.

"He's fine..." Laguna patted his son's arm. "Edea just filled me in. She sensed the power in him. He was dying because his empathy was warring with the Sorcery. But, it seems it was Nida's empathy that saved Rinoa's life." Laguna noticed Squall opening his mouth to speak. "No, she's still in a coma."

Squall shut his mouth once more, watching Laguna with curious eyes.

"I don't know what happened, but Nida said something about a raven coming to his window, and your Chicobo starting to wark at it."

"Hyperion..." Squall whispered. He'd followed Hyperion. He remembered Adel saying something like "You shouldn't have followed Hyperion." Was all that stuff just a dream? What about the image he'd seen, of Nida with wings in front of the rising sun?

"Huh?" Laguna cocked his head. "So, now Nida's got Xerampelinae's powers. Edea said that he's kind of scared that he'll turn evil, but it's only the power in him. Nida still has his consciousness."

Squall pulled the sheets off his body. "I have to see him."

"Whoa!" Laguna commanded. "You've had extensive surgery!" He pressed a button attacked to a portable intercom. "Sunde, Squall's awake..."


"How long has it been?" Squall asked.


"Since I was brought back here?'

"Oh... A week." Laguna smiled. "You were lucky. A Behemoth attacked you. What the Hell were you doing out there anyway?"

Squall shrugged. "Following a lead."

"What does that mean?"

"Can we talk about this later?" Squall asked. "I thought I saw Lillith's bird."

"Lillith's raven?" Laguna asked. "Nida said the same thing... I wonder what it means..."

"Has Nida woken up yet?" Squall asked softly.

Laguna nodded. "Yeah, an hour or two ago. He'd woken up a bit before that, but passed out again after Sunde took blood. I think he's either eating or being mothered by Xu and Quistis."

Squall smiled distantly. He reached to his throat, expecting for a second to touch his Griever pendant. But, he remembered that he gave it to Nida. The smile grew wistful, and he moved his hands to his face, smiling into his fists.

"Well, you're awake..." Sunde said, announcing his arrival. "It seems you boys make fast recoveries. I only hope Miss Heartilly is as lucky."

Squall looked at the doctor. "Am I well enough to get up? I feel dirty and want to shower."

"Well, let's take a look here..." Sunde pushed back the covers, until they were around Squall's knees. He began to gently pull back the bandages on Squall's taut belly. Sunde touched the scar, which was still red. "Does it hurt?"

"Not really..." Squall muttered. "But, I feel like I'm on some sort of drug."

"I've been giving you Morphine. I'll give you smaller doses, so you don't get addicted. It looks good. The Curagas must be working. I don't see why you can't get out of bed. Just... Don't go nuts. I would suggest resting for a while, and not doing anything too strenuous, like running off on motorcycles."

Squall rolled his eyes, already beginning to get out of bed. He wanted to shower so badly, and he wanted to find Nida.

"Listen to the doctor, Squall," Laguna added, his voice trying to be stern, which didn't suit him. "Just... Be lazy for a few days, okay?"

"I will, I will!" Squall exclaimed, exasperated. "Can I have some peace to have a shower?"

Laguna laughed, giving Squall a quick hug. "Of course. I'm so glad you're okay, though!" He ruffled Squall's hair and left with Sunde.

Squall sighed, going into the bathroom. He slid out of the pyjama pants he'd been dressed in, sighing in happiness when the warm water pelted down on his weary muscles. It felt so good just to be in the shower. He let the stream fall on the nape of his neck as he soaped his body down. Squall briefly flashed to his experience in the shower with Nida. Despite his joy of bathing, he rushed through his shower, vigorously and quickly shampooing his hair. When he got out of the shower, Squall inspected his nude body in the mirror, looking at the cuts and scars he'd received. Laguna and Sunde were right, Squall admitted, as he looked at the scar the Behemoth had given him across his stomach. He probably would have bled to death if Nida hadn't saved him.

"Nida is Xerampelinae...." Squall whispered as he dug around his drawers for some clothes. He chose a pair of baggy flannel pants, which made him feel comfortable, and a grey shirt with elbow length sleeves. He ran his hands through his damp hair, shaking out the droplets of water. "I have to see you..." Squall vowed to himself.

After ten minutes of searching the Palace, Squall hadn't found Nida. He didn't really know where to look for him. Squall shrugged, heading towards the kitchen. He heard someone talking. It sounded like Xu. Then, he heard footsteps. Squall crossed his arms over his chest as he walked down the long hallway, but stopped all motion when Nida came around the corner, Squall's heart leaping in his chest. He was alone at the other end of the hall, wearing loose black pants, and a black hooded sweatshirt. He had the hood up, and it made Nida's olive skin look very pale, accenting the slightly sickly quality he was carrying with him at the moment.

Nida looked up, and saw Squall looking at him. A relieved smile passed over Nida's face. He slowly walked towards Squall, seeing the distant look in the other man's stormy eyes. "Hi..." Nida whispered when he stopped in front of Squall.

Squall just watched him silently, searching his face.

"Oh!" Nida exclaimed, reaching under the orange shirt he wore under his black sweatshirt. He pulled out the Griever pendant, removing it. "I guess I should give this back now. It brought me luck..." Nida put it around Squall's neck, where it belonged. He put it under Squall's shirt, smoothing the fabric. "There. Thank you." Nida opened his mouth to say something, but a wark interrupted him. "Hey, it's that Chicobo!" Nida smiled.

"Vivi..." Squall whispered. "He... Stayed with you."

"Vivi?" Nida cocked his head, looking down at the small bird, who was nuzzling at Squall's bare feet, giving Squall's toes playful nips. "That's a cute name."

"It's short for Vividarium."

"The garden? How fitting..." Nida bent down, and patted Vivi's head. The bird showed his appreciation by chirping. "So much has happened...."

"Nida..." Squall whispered. He opened his arms and slowly enveloped Nida in a tight, yet gentle embrace. Squall put his head on Nida's shoulder, sighing deeply. "You saved my life... Again."

"I didn't even know what happened.... I just sort of... Teleported, I guess." Nida squeezed Squall back. He ran his fingers through Squall's damp hair. "It seems like a million years has gone by...."

Squall locked his arms around Nida's waist, closing his eyes. "Nida..." he whispered, feeling a tear slide down his cheek. Squall blinked, feeling a few more trapped behind his lashes, and before he knew it, more and more were joining the solitary tear. Squall pressed his face into the crook of Nida's neck, his body involuntarily convulsing with pent up sobs. He bit his lip, which was horribly quivering, but he couldn't hold it back. When Nida's hands moved gently up and down his back, Squall began weeping, sobs wrenching out of his chest as tears poured down his cheeks. He felt like his heart was being ripped apart, torn in a million different directions.

"It's...All...M...My... fa..fault..." Squall cried, his words horribly broken up by his racking sobs. "I.. I killed them... I... I....I'm a... mur..."

"Shhhh...." Nida whispered, turning his head, kissing one of Squall's wet cheeks. "Shhh... It's okay. No, it's not your fault... You're not a murderer."

"Wh...... why?" Squall whispered, crying harder. Now that he'd started, Squall didn't think he'd be able to stop. He just hurt so much. His tears were soaking Nida's neck and sweatshirt, and he sniffled, his sobs turning into pathetic, quivering wails.

Vivi warked sadly, sensing that they were sad, that something was wrong. Nida gently lowered Squall to the floor, so they were sitting against the wall. Squall clung to Nida's body, weeping uncontrollably. Nida blinked back a few tears, but they still pushed past his lashes. His tears splattered onto Squall's already soaked cheeks. "Shhhhh..... It's okay," Nida whispered, not knowing anything else to say.

Nida knew he couldn't really say anything to offer comfort. "It's okay, baby... Shhhh..." He gently rocked Squall's body, lightly kissing his temple.

Squall just kept sobbing. Internally, he just felt like he was draining. All the pain he felt was pouring out of him. He felt atrophied from guilt. If it weren't for him, Selphie, Seifer and Zell would still be alive. Now that Squall had started crying, he didn't know if he would be able to stop. The only thing that was keeping him sane was Nida, Nida's arms around him, Nida's voice in his ear.

Nida looked up, seeing an Esthar soldier walking down the hallway. The soldier had a sad look in his eyes as he heard Squall's heart-wrenching sobs. Nida narrowed his tear blurred eyes. Something was off. It wasn't evil, but it didn't feel natural, either. The soldier's eyes met his own, and a wave of recognition seemed to pass though his icy blue eyes, like he sensed the same thing that Nida did.


Nida's eyes widened. He still kept stroking Squall's back in a loving, gentle manner, but he watched this soldier, who smiled sadly.

Take care of him, please....

Nida cocked his head, wondering where the voice was coming from. His lips parted in surprise as he looked into a familiar pair of icy blue eyes. He could see the canines in the smile, and the creeping black tattoo. Nida blinked, and it was gone. The soldier saluted and quickly left. Nida shook his head, wondering if he was losing his mind, or if his new powers were playing tricks on him.

After a good twenty minutes, Squall had finally stopped crying. He was curled in Nida's arms, still sitting on the floor. Vivi was sitting next to Squall, his small bird head resting against the side of Squall's thigh. Nida had already chalked the soldier up to his powers. He would have to get used to the layered history of Xerampelinae's powers, and not let it play mind games with him. Squall stretched the arm of his shirt, and used it to mop up the tears on his cheeks. Nida just watched him patiently.

"I'm sorry..." Squall whispered.

"Don't be..." Nida whispered back. "Do you want to get up now?"

Squall nodded distantly, letting Nida pull him to his feet. "I'm kind of hungry..." Squall admitted.

"Okay. Come on..." Nida took Squall's hand as they walked to the kitchen. He stopped for a moment, though, and pressed his lips against Squall's. It was a very gentle kiss, more of a whisper of a touch. Their breaths mingled together, and Nida whispered "I'm glad you're still here" against Squall's mouth.

After they'd pulled away from each other, Squall wiped his eyes again. He smiled distantly, and rested his head against Nida's shoulder as they walked, Vivi marching like a bright yellow caboose behind them.

Squall sighed deeply as Nida's finger traced the deep scar on his stomach. Squall was laying on his bed, Nida curled up beside him. Squall hadn't let Nida leave his side for the rest of the evening. He was almost afraid that if Nida left, Squall would never see him again. Nida's hand skirted Squall's shirt up his ribcage as he followed the rest of the scar. Squall raised his arms over his head, and Nida took the shirt off.

"Why did you follow that bird?" Nida whispered, kissing Squall's eyelids.

"I don't know... I felt something.... Maybe I felt so guilty about Seifer and Zell, that I thought they could maybe be still alive."

Nida thought of the soldier in the hallway, and shook his head. His mouth covered Squall's. It had just been his imagination. However, for the sake of Squall's sense of guilt, for his sanity, Nida had wished it was true, that Seifer and Zell were still around, that Lillith's powers had saved them. Could it have happened? Nida's empathy had brought Rinoa back from the dead, so anything could have been possible. Although, it wasn't known if Rinoa would ever wake up. Sunde didn't hold out much hope.

Squall wrapped his arms around Nida's shoulders, and crushed their mouths together. His fingers traced the Asian man's shoulder blades, where the wings had sprouted in Squall's vision. He sighed into Nida's mouth when the other man's hand moved to Squall's hip. Squall pushed his tongue into Nida's mouth as he rolled them over. He straddled Nida's waist, looking down at him. Nida's hand reached up and touched the Griever pendant hanging against Squall's bare chest.

"Why did you put this around my neck?" Nida asked as Squall unzipped his black sweatshirt, pulling it off.

"Because..." Squall sighed, taking Nida's shirt off. He ran his palms down Nida's chest, which was still warm from the fever. "I wanted you to come back. And...." He sighed. "I wanted you to have it. I gave Rinoa my ring once. I wanted to give you something of me. Like, it could have helped you... I don't know..." Squall sighed in frustration. He'd never been good at explaining his actions. He lowered his head, running his tongue over Nida's collarbones, dipping his tongue into the hollow of Nida's throat. He didn't want to talk anymore, so occupied his tongue in other ways.

Nida smiled distantly, craning his neck as Squall kissed along his throat. "It made me feel special. Like... I mean something... Important to you."

Squall met Nida's gaze as his hand worked into Nida's pants, running along Nida's haunch. Squall's thumb pulled the waistband of the pants down as he touched the other man's thigh. "You are important to me..." Squall whispered, kissing Nida's lips, feeling the fever in them. "Do you think I'd be with you like this if you weren't important to me..." He paused. "Don't answer that." As he pulled off Nida's pants, Squall's other arm reached towards the table beside his bed. He put the condom package gently between his teeth as he reached for the lubricant. Squall gasped, the condom falling out of his mouth when Nida's hand moved into the front of his own pants, Nida's fingers touching his penis. He also dropped the tube of lubricant into the sheets. He raised his hips so that Nida could pull off his pants, and then kissed the Asian man deeply, his tongue probing deeply into Nida's mouth.

Squall sighed into Nida's mouth. When he was with Nida like this, when they were kissing, Squall could forget about the horribleness of everything else. It didn't seem to matter when Nida was next to him. Squall gently parted Nida's legs, and settled his weight between them, his lips remaining locked with Nida's. They moaned against each other's lips, and Nida wrapped his legs around Squall's waist. Squall moved his hands under Nida's body, cupping his ass. Nida panted softly, his fever and his desire making him swoon under Squall's ministrations. One of Squall's hands moved in the sheets, trying to find the condom and lubricant he'd dropped. As he searched, he rocked his hips against Nida's, their hard cocks brushing together.

"Squall...." Nida whispered. "Squall... Squall..." He repeated over and over again.

Squall stopped, remembering the whispering he'd heard in his strange dream. Nida calling for him. His heart constricted in his chest, and Squall thought it was going to leap into his throat. Squall silenced Nida's whispers by covering Nida's mouth with his own, practically devouring the man under him.

Nida clung to Squall, feeling like he was floating away. Part of him had wondered if he'd ever even be able to touch Squall, let alone be with him like this again. Squall broke the kiss when he popped open the tube of lubricant. Squall dabbed some on his fingertip, and gently rubbed the cool liquid against the puckered entrance to Nida's body. Nida raised his hips off the bed, rolling them against Squall's hand. When Squall's finger poked into his body, Nida let out a low whine, pushing against the digit. He rocked his hips so that Squall's finger hit his prostate.

Squall kissed the inside of Nida's thigh, gently nibbling the tender flesh of the junction between Nida's thigh and groin as he inserted two more lubricated fingers. He slowly worked them, feeling the strong ring of muscle gripping his fingers in rhythmic contractions. Squall scissored his fingers, biting harder into Nida's skin, leaving small teeth marks, preparing Nida's rectum for his eventual entry. Nida was panting, his hot flesh seeming to sing under Squall's hands. Squall wondered if it was Nida's powers that he was feeling. He also wondered if Nida's wings would appear under great emotional circumstances. Or, if the wings were even real, or just part of Squall's imagination.

"Fuck me," Nida demanded lowly, through clenched teeth. "Just... Fuck me..."

Squall wiggled his fingers teasingly in Nida's ass, grinning when Nida groaned impatiently. Squall kept wiggling his fingers within Nida while he pulled the condom over his painfully hard erection. He had to pull his fingers out to lubricate his cock, and Nida groaned, slowly writhing in ecstatic agony. When Squall was done, he ran his hands up and down Nida's thighs, briefly kissing the tip of Nida's cock, which was beginning to drool precum. Squall licked it off, tasting the bitterness, which to him, at that moment, tasted fantastically. Nida arched his back, sweat beginning to appear on his flesh. He turned his head and moaned into the pillow, his body screaming out. His fever was burning his skin, his lust was shaking his insides, his flesh yearned for Squall to touch every inch of his body, and something deep within him touched every nerve. Xerampelinae. His powers. Would he ever be able to think of them as his powers? Or, would he always think of it as Xerampelinae inside him?

All of these elements came together into a shattering tremor moving through his body when Squall slowly pushed into him. Nida slowly breathed out, his muscles relaxing to allow Squall to push in farther. Nida could tell that Squall was being very gentle with him, maybe more so than he usually would have been. Nida didn't care. Squall was inside him. That's all that mattered. When he felt Squall's testicles press against his ass, Nida whimpered. He felt like the bones in his legs disappeared. He could feel his limbs shaking, and he was glad that Squall was holding his hips. Nida curled his legs with Squall's when the scarred man slightly pulled out, then thrust into Nida with a quick, downward push. Nida cried out, arching his hips upward, his bones pressing against Squall's so tightly he could swear that he heard them grinding against each other.

Squall bowed his body over Nida and began thrusting into the hot depths of the other man's body in earnest. The insides of Nida's intestines were practically burning Squall, because of Nida's fever, but it was a wonderful heat, and Squall had to bite into Nida's neck to prevent a wail from coming out. Squall was thrusting so hard into Nida that his flesh was slapping loudly against Nida's skin, but he didn't care, and the noises that Nida was making showed he didn't really care, either. Squall lowered his head, and used his teeth to tug on the hard peak of Nida's left nipple.

"Squall...!" Nida panted, his voice seeming to fail him. As Squall bit and suckled on Nida's nipple, one hand curled into the flesh of one of Nida's ass cheeks, grating his nails down the muscular globe, digging into the soft flesh. His other hand moved to Nida's erection, fisting it with fervour. Nida's hands moved into Squall's hair, and he pulled his lover's face away from his chest, and kissed him heavily. Nida bit at Squall's lips, doing it a little too hard at one point, because he tasted blood against his lips. He suckled at the small wound he made in the inside of Squall's full lower lip. The scarred man grinned, letting Nida lap at the small amount of blood as Squall fucked Nida senseless.

As Squall fully pulled out, then thrust all the way into Nida in one move, he felt something pass across his skin. It felt like magic. Was it Nida's power? He remembered when Seifer first found out he was a Sorcerer, that he couldn't really control it all that well. Squall couldn't help but moan. It felt like invisible hands touching every erogenous zone on his body. Squall threw his head back, moaning. He slowly opened his eyes, looking down at Nida. His olive cheeks were flushed from fever and lust, and his almond eyes were closed. He never looked more beautiful to Squall. Nida's shaggy bangs had fallen in his eyes, and Nida's mouth was slightly stained cherry from Squall's blood.

"My beautiful Angel...." Squall whispered into Nida's ear as he pressed the edge of his fingernail into the slit at the tip of Nida's erection. "My dark Angel..."

Nida opened his mouth, possibly to say something, but all that came out was a lustful shunting of breath as his whole body seized up. He could feel something strange build within him, along with the familiar feel of orgasm. When it all came washing out, when he'd hit his pinnacle, Nida couldn't help but let out a low moan that was closer to a hoarse scream of euphoria. This incredible feeling, better than anything he'd felt before, washed through his entire body, shooting through every nerve, loosening every muscle. He whimpered, still feeling Squall's hard cock thrusting in him. As Squall kept hitting his prostate, Nida whimpered lower and lower, a tear falling out of the corner of his eye.

Squall noticed, and used his tongue to catch the vagrant tear. He could feel Nida's body shaking under him, and felt the sticky release against his hand. Squall thrust into Nida a few more times, and felt the tightness of orgasm work through his body. He buried his face against Nida's neck, and moaned and he came. He felt something ghostly moving over his skin, but far weaker than before. Squall touched Nida's shoulders, and the sheets around them, as if stroking the wings he though he'd seen on Nida's back. Squall slowly sat up, pulling out of Nida's body as his cock softened. He ran his fingers through the white pool of come that had formed on Nida's taut, shivering belly. As Squall threw the condom in the garbage can near his bedside, he licked the semen off his fingers. When he'd gotten it all, he kissed Nida, making the other man taste his own ejaculate. Nida's tongue moved in Squall's mouth, and Squall lay his body out beside Nida, still touching his shoulders.

Squall furrowed his brow when he touched something on the sheets. He grumbled, expecting to wrap his fingers around the tube of lubricant as he pulled away from Nida's mouth. He smiled down at his lover, then frowned. He picked up what he thought was going to be the lubricant. Instead, it was a black feather. Squall inspected it, then looked at Nida, whose eyes were closed, a dreamy smile on his face.

"Nida....?" Squall whispered. "My Angel...."

Nida slowly opened his eyes when he felt something ticklish moving down the center of his chest. Squall held up the black feather before Nida's eyes.

"Where did that come from?" Nida asked.

"You, my Angel," Squall whispered. "This is the third time you've left one for me."

Nida cocked his head, already beginning to feel sleepy. "Huh?"

"The first time was after I'd killed Seifer and Zell..." Squall paused, sadness overcoming him. "I found it in my bed. You were still lost in the Plains with Rinoa. The second time was in a dream I had... When I was lost in a Stitch In Time..." Squall's voice became quiet. "Between Purgation and Salvation..." He looked at Nida. "And, now... This one."

Nida sighed. "Edea must be right then. I am Xerampelinae...."

"No, you're not..." Squall whispered. "Xerampelinae's dead. They're your powers. And, she has no sway over you. You're Nida Nomura." Squall wrapped his arms around Nida's torso, and tucked his head under his lover's chin. He put the feather over Nida's heart, and pressed his hand to it. He sighed heavily, entering a world of sleep that was as black as the feather.

Squall woke up, feeling warm rays of light. He opened his eyes, but the bed contained only him. "Nida?" Squall called out.

"Yeah...." Nida's voice answered from the balcony of Squall's room.

The scarred brunette got out of bed, and walked out, not caring that he was naked. "What are you doing out here?"

Nida was sitting cross legged, a blanket wrapped around his shoulders, and something hanging between his lips.

"You're smoking a joint...?" Squall asked, sitting beside his lover. He took part of the blanket, wrapping it around his own nudity, also using it as an excuse to move closer to Nida's body.

"Yes. I'm sore from my fever, and it's helping."

Squall took it from Nida's mouth, inhaling himself. "Does your power still hurt? I mean, what about your empathy?"

"I think it's gone..." Nida whispered, exhaling smoke. His voice sounded almost sad. "I've been empathic all my life. I had just recently gotten used to it. Now... How long is it going to take me to get used to this...?"

Squall sat back from Nida so he could look his new lover in the eyes. He took another long drag, then stubbed out the joint on the ground. "It will just take time. I'm sure that Matron will be more than willing to help."

"What are people going to say when they find out that I have Xerampelinae's powers?" Nida narrowed his eyes. "What will my father say?"

"You care a lot what he thinks, huh?" Squall asked.

Nida nodded distantly. "As long as I can remember, his approval meant the world to me. I envy you. Laguna loves you so dearly."

"Your father doesn't love you?" Squall asked.

"Yeah, he does.... He's just very stern."

"What does he do?"

"He's a lawyer in Dollet." Nida looked out across Esthar, which was very quiet. "What is everyone going to think of me when they see me summon Iudicium for the first time...?"

"Who cares?" Squall asked. "Don't give a shit what they think. It only matters what you think."

"What will you think?" Nida asked, running a finger down Squall's throat.

"I'll think you're beautiful. And, I'm sure I'll be glad that you're fighting with me instead of against me."

Nida leaned in, kissing Squall's lips gently. When they broke apart, Nida cleared his throat. "I'm kind of thirsty. Do you want some water or something?"

"Sure..." Squall whispered, watching as Nida got up and went into the room. He admired the other man's nude form, biting his lip in distant desire. He sighed, missing Nida already. He knew that his lover would only be gone for a couple of seconds, but Squall already wanted to taste Nida's lips and feel the warmth of his skin. Before the Nida's form disappeared from his view completely, Squall genuinely smiled.

Hurry back, my darling. I don't want to lose any more time...

In the End, there is a Beginning.


Note: Look for The New Flesh, the third installment in the Hourglass Trilogy, coming soon.

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