Game Restart: New Platform
June
2009

 

[Squall]

I never cared for space travel.  There's something frustrating about staring out into that dark infinity and realizing how none of this really matters.  Ultimecia may very well succeed in her desire to dominate this fraction of the universe, but it won't amount to anything more than a blink of time; meanwhile, the lives threatened by her existence hold the same worth as specks of dust, easily brushed aside and promptly forgotten.  My whole world was lost and no one cared, or even knew except for my lost soul and its ragged memories, and yet here I am, trying again to save the important pieces of my life from the suffocating darkness.

I know I'm an idiot - I don't need the universe to remind me of that.

Though I'm anxious to land and see a blue sky, I ease up on the throttle and let the gummi ship drift along with the gravity of the small world ahead of us.  The young blond at my side instantly straightens at the action and turns awkwardly in his seat to focus narrowed green eyes on me.

"What are you doing?" Seifer demands with a slight shakiness to his voice.  "The shields around Twilight Town are at seven-percent and you're slowing down?"

"The shields have been hovering under ten-percent for almost thirty minutes," I say with a disinterested wave toward the screen flashing with harsh red numbers.  "They should have fallen by now, but Ultimecia has apparently decided that she wants us to witness the collapse of the shields and she will wait as long as necessary to destroy the hearts of her enemies.  In the meantime, we need to talk."

Seifer blinks several times before renewing his glare.  "You... You want to talk."

"Not 'want to', but 'need to'," I clarify dryly, resisting the tempting desire to drop the unspoken subject entirely.

The teen scowls at my response, but doesn't continue his argument.  Instead, he slumps back in his chair and jerks his chin forward in an haughty sign for me to say my piece.

"Your family may die today."  The arrogance in Seifer's expression evaporates into nothing, a touch of honest fear slipping into his too young eyes.  "There are no rules to war and Ultimecia is quite fond of abusing that harsh reality.  No matter how innocent your family and friends may be in all of this, they are still involved for no other reason than that they know you."

"Wh--" Seifer chokes slightly on his breath before continuing.  "What would the bitch do to them?"

I shrug.  "She's fond of electricity, I suppose.  However, she has spent many years planning this day and I don't like to underestimate her creativity."

Seifer lifts a hand to his head, and when he doesn't find his hat, he scratches his fingers deep into golden blond.  "I didn't... I thought..."

"That I'd be able to do the impossible and keep everyone safe?  That I was some fairytale hero who can't be defeated?"

When a faint embarrassed blush reaches his cheeks, I know that it was exactly what the teen had been thinking.  "But you... you said that you would..."

"I promised to do everything within my power to protect them," I assure softly, "but that means you have to listen to me.  I don't need you to panic and run off at the first hint that their lives are in danger.  If you do that, everything will fall apart and I won't be able to help you or those important to you.  Do you understand?"

Something dark flickers in green eyes, a reflection of the man who would resist me over every minor issue for the simple pleasure of driving me crazy.  But that rebellious gleam fades to something quieter when Seifer demands, "Tell me that you won't sacrifice them."

"... ...?"

"My family.  Tell me that they are worth more to you than those people murdered by that warlock.  Tell me that they aren't... pawns in this game between you and the sorceress bitch."

It's hard to continue meeting Seifer's gaze and know the answer I have to give.  "I've seen what the universe will become if Ultimecia is allowed to rule.  I refuse to let that happen, even if your family or anyone else in Twilight Town are lost as a result."

The teen visibly struggles with this part of my personality, his eyes shifting in disbelief before he asks, "Would you sacrifice me?"

"This isn't the time--"

"Would you sacrifice me?"

I sigh quietly and reluctantly shake my head.  "No, that isn't an option."

Conflicting emotions darken Seifer's expression.  "Then you could let a whole city die for the chance to stop Ultimecia, but using my life to destroy her 'isn't an option'?  Even when I'm what she wants?  I mean, fuck, surely you can devise someway to use me as bait and trick her into lowering her guard."

"The risk isn't worth the price."

"I don't understand.  Why am I different?  Is it because...?"  He doesn't finish the sentence, but his eyes glance down at my gloved hand and the ring hidden there.

I breathe a laugh at how little this kid understands me, even if he manages a few good guesses every now and again.  "How I feel about you has nothing to do with this.  The simple truth is that you're important."  At the glare of doubtful green, I go further to explain, "Seifer, no one learns how to wield a gunblade in a month, no one masters magic by learning the complex spells first, and no one recognizes and adapts to the rules of new worlds when they are too young to know that other worlds even exist.  No one, except those who are meant to accomplish more than what the rest of us can begin to imagine."

Uncomfortable with the weight of my words, Seifer places a hand at his shoulder and squeezes uncertainly.  "I'm not that great."

"Not yet, and that's why losing you isn't an option."

He frowns at that rationale, not yet ready to accept the expectations of his destiny.  Perhaps one of these days, I should take him to Olympus and introduce him to the Fates of this universe, maybe even get some answers for myself.  More likely than not, they would fight over their one good eye to get a lasting look at this boy on the edge of manhood....  But that would first require Seifer to have future beyond today.

The teen adjusts his position in his seat and stares out into space.  "You're such a bastard.  Every time I lower my guard, you remind me that I think too small.  I wanted to see a new world, and you showed me a universe.  I wanted to use a real blade, and you made me use more muscles than I knew I had.  You're always, always ten steps ahead of me and I can't catch up."

I say nothing in respect of his frustration, an anger I understand all too well from the days when I chased behind the older gunblader and dealt with my desire to be his equal on the battlefield.  It took a few years after that to understand what else I craved from the blond, something I thought was impossible for years.  I had considered it confirmed as hopeless within the confines of D-district prison.  In stark contrast, this Seifer figured out the reason for his base emotions in months, and now refuses to doubt what is possible for the future.  Why couldn't I have been that strong in the past?  Maybe... But no, I can't dwell on the past.  Things happened as they were meant to happen and I can't regret those days and nights spent with the people and the man I loved.

"Y'know, I used to dream about being a hero," Seifer says with a grim smile.  "I always thought that if I got stronger and improved my technique, then I could protect my mother for once.  My sister, too.  But I never considered that protecting them would mean that there was something to protect them from.  I just assumed..."

I briefly think to assure him that many fighters share that same motivation, but something else in his words and his tone steals my attention.  "What do you mean by 'for once'?"

Seifer glances at me with an odd energy to his eyes, a light that is quickly shadowed by his raised hand when he strokes the scar at the bridge of his nose.  "... When this is done, I'll tell you about how I got this.  But not until then, okay?"

The final word has a sharp pitch of hope to it and I almost smile at Seifer creating that 'something to live for' in this messy situation.  I'm no better with my ideas of taking him to Olympus, but I'm used to these situations and the need to have something real waiting beyond a battle.  Such was the cabin in our past lives, the loss of which taking away Seifer's last resolve, and without his passionate presence, I was lost as well.  But now...

I can't lose him again and Seifer should to know that.

Not allowing myself the chance to question my actions, I reach out for Seifer's wrist and force his palm open; meanwhile, I use my other hand to remove the heavy necklace and Griever pendant from my neck for the first time in years.  It's strange to watch the silver links pool in Seifer's gloved hand and not feel any regret in losing this piece of me.  ...No, even if Seifer never returns the necklace, it won't be lost, just as the ring I gifted to my other Seifer wasn't lost, at least not until the Heartless destroyed everything I knew and loved.

"I... I can't," Seifer declares, even as his fingers curl around the polished silver in a tight hold.

"I had a ring once with the same image that I gave to the husband of my past," I explain softly.  "I never understood why I decided to have both items made, but it makes sense now."  At Seifer's blank stare, I inform the teen, "That belonged to him.  This belongs to you."

Though uncertainty is clear in his expression, Seifer pulls the necklace closer as if to examine its quality.  "But... isn't this Griever?"

After a moment of confusion, I realize the reason for his hesitancy.  "The image is Griever, but the two of us are joined in spirit, just as your soul is bound to Vidar.  Bits and pieces of metal have nothing to do with it."

With a slow and foolish smile at that information, Seifer pulls the heavy chain over his head and positions the pendant over his chest.  He rubs the metal with a gloved thumb as if to remove a smudge, and then looks at me with a determined gleam to his green eyes.  "Let's get to Twilight Town and kick that bitch's ass.  Then I want to hear more about why this belongs to me."

I smirk at his renewed energy and sharp confidence, pleased to have Seifer at my side for another battle.  Though he may not have the same strength of old, that never really mattered.  Instead, I need him there as a force to remind me why I bothered to fight and struggle to stay alive for all of these years, and why continue to wake up each morning with new breath and new hope.  Only Seifer has given me a purpose in life and I'll do anything to protect that reality.

Returning my hands to the gummi ship controls, I press forward on the throttle and encourage the ship into the harsh atmosphere of the small planet.  The constant haze around Twilight Town makes the ship shake from turbulence, but it's a momentary thing before we break through and see the same field that I had used when I first landed here only months ago.  A heavier gummi ship has already settled on the long grass, its passengers standing next to the ship while waiting for our arrival.  They were told previously about our likely delay - no one had argued against the unfortunate necessity.

Lost in some kind of thought, Seifer doesn't move from his seat while I shut down the gummi systems.  After standing up, I place a hand at Seifer's shoulder and I nod my head toward the exit of the ship once I have his attention.  His eyes gain a hard edge of cut emerald, a sign that Seifer had reached a dangerous decision in the last several minutes.  A flash of worry enters my mind at the sight, but when Seifer smirks and stands without a hint of his previous fear, I know that I've lost.  I may have always had the skill and logic necessary to win battles, but Seifer was the one with the passion to overcome the impossible.

"Say, Leon, do you remember when you told me that there were people in this universe who could use a knight?"

I frown at the question, only vaguely recalling the discussion that had happened after Ultimecia's first visitation in Radiant Garden.

His smirk sharp and demanding, Seifer leans in close and whispers against my ear, "If you were talking about yourself, you should've just said so."

Not waiting for my reaction, the teen brushes his shoulder against mine and moves to the back of the ship to lower the access ramp.  My gaze follows Seifer without truly seeing him, my mind instead coping with the revelation that Seifer had stumbled upon.  Years ago, I defeated Ultimecia before she could take Seifer and change him into her Knight.  I won and keep him as mine.  But then the darkness dared to invade my life and took Seifer away for a second time.  Since that time, I've been flailing, searching for a reason to live and survive.  I had lost my strength and my will to exist, and at the core of everything, I had lost my Knight...

The ramp clangs softly when it reaches the ground, soon followed by the thuds of Seifer's long stride against metal.  The sound of boot on metal wakes me from distracting thoughts, thoughts I can't afford to dwell upon with this battle ahead of us.  Raking fingers back through my hair, I take a deep breath to clear my head and quiet the ache of my chest.  Once back under control, I place a hand at the hilt of Lion Heart and follow after Seifer's lead.

Though I had been delayed only a moment, the damage had already been done to the rest of the group.  Compared to the boy I had picked up from this quiet town, Seifer stands with the type of pride that naturally keeps his head high and his back straight.  As a result, the Griever pendant at his raised chest stands out boldly and shines with the reddish glare of twilight for everyone to see.

While Aerith places a startled hand to her mouth, Yuffie smiles with a full show of teeth, looking like someone who had won the lottery.  "I knew it!  He was your Seifer after all, you stubborn idiot."

Seifer grins with confused interest at the statement; meanwhile, I scoff as the extent of my opinion toward her optimistic assumptions.

Lowering her hand, Aerith's lips set into a disappointed frown.  "While I knew Cid would be a bad influence... Leon, I never expected this from you."

"Don't say that, Aerith!" Yuffie scolds.  "So what if Squall is robbing the cradle.  They're meant to be together like... like Beast and his Beauty!"

I place a hand over my eyes and rub at my temples, purposefully ignoring the amused look Seifer sends me, most likely questioning which one of us was 'Beauty' and which was the 'Beast'.

"Anyways," Yuffie continues in her apparent defense of our relationship, "that old geezer is a million times worse than our leader.  It's totally unfair to compare the two of them.  Squall is practically an angel compared to that horny bastard."

"Hey now, missy," Cid speaks out in reflexive offense, but promptly loses his steam when his brow furrows in deep confusion.  "Now, wait a minute, what's this here all 'bout?  Did I miss somethin'?"

"Yes," Cloud replies dully as he pushes up from his leaning position against the gummi ship.  Though his words reveal nothing, his eyes shine brightly with the glow of unearthly sapphire.  Bastard, he doesn't have to seem so pleased about my inevitable surrender.  Without vocal commentary about the issue, Cloud adjusts his leather gloves and announces, "If we're stocked and ready, we should finish this."

At the reminder of the battle ahead of us, everyone gains a firmness to their stance and the previous matter becomes something unimportant in the face of greater evil.  While that doesn't imply I've escaped future lectures from Aerith, an unspoken reprieve has been granted until after this mess has been settled.

I take a step forward and tell the others, "Our teams remain the same - Seifer and Aerith with me; Cid and Yuffie stay with Strife.  Any questions?"  When no argument arises, I nod and look in the direction of Twilight Town.  From this distance, the city looks quiet and unsuspecting of the sorceress beyond their worthless gates.  They had done nothing to deserve their fate, but that fact alone won't protect them from Ultimecia's obsessive desire for revenge, just as so many others died when unknowingly standing in the path toward her vision of the future.

But no more.  No more fallen blood of the innocent, no more shredding of my soul, and no more tears for everything that I have lost.

One way or another, the cycle ends today.

~ > < ~

The gates to Twilight Town are as I remember them - covered in gold paint and bearing a few too many looping pieces of metal to be taken seriously as a form of protection over the quiet city.  Without the shields I had put in place, Ultimecia could have walked pass the simple barrier without any opposition.  As it is, the magical protection did little more than warn us about the sorceress' intentions, while also giving Ultimecia an easy method to lure us into her vision of revenge.

One day, I'll figure out why I continue to face this woman on her terms.

Cloud is the first to stop his approach to the golden gates, his halt prompting the rest of the group to slow and wait in respect of the soldier's greater sense when it comes to danger.  I move the remaining few feet to stand next to Cloud, at that point recognizing the energy that had made the blond swordsman pause.  Squinting against the twilight sun, I focus on the shadows created by the brick wall leading up to the ornate gates.

Seated near that entrance, a dark figure appears completely unguarded in his slumped position with his arms resting on a bent knee and his head bowed such that the navy blue scarf tied at his forehead covers his face.  His clothes are old fashioned with loose pants, a laced long-sleeved shirt, and a vest of cracked leather, the entire outfit bearing gashes and dark stains from a hard life.  It's somewhat surprising that Ultimecia had to travel as far as the pirate world to find her Knight, but even so, she has proven her good taste once again, able to dominate a person who comes across as threatening without a weapon in sight and resting in an inattentive state.

"Welcome home, my lost Knight," a woman's voice states with a musical lilt.  From the side and seemingly out of nowhere, Ultimecia walks toward the entrance with a small bouquet of wild flowers in her hands and an unnatural lightness to her step, looking for all the world like a young lady lost in blissful thought.  It's somewhat disturbing that her desire to enact revenge could evoke the same response as a woman in love.

"This is a stunning city," Ultimecia continues in the same tone.  "There's something beautiful and absolutely perfect about a quiet town constantly bathed in blood-colored light."

With a low growl, Seifer slides a foot forward at the implied threat, but wisely limits his reaction to that.

Golden eyes bright while playing her game, Ultimecia lifts the flowers to smell their fragrance.  "Of course, I have yet to see the town from beyond these gates.  I'm rather anxious to meet people who have never witnessed magic or learned how to fight against demons hungry for flesh.  I can already imagine the symphony of their screams and the taste of their despair."

"Enough, Ultimecia," I warn before she can lure Seifer into acting without thought and away from my protection.  "This town holds nothing for you.  Face us and face us alone."

With the charm of her stolen body, Ultimecia tilts her head in imaginary thought before replying, "No, that would make things too easy for you and that's not allowed."

As if commanded by those words, the dark figure begins to stand with a degree of controlled grace that is guided more by strength than natural ability.  Halfway standing, he reaches behind his legs and grabs something from the ground, and as he straightens, the grind of metal against dirt eventually reveals a heavy and ridiculously large blade, of which I never imagined a twin.

"No," Cloud whispers in horror, his eyes abnormally dull with a haunted gaze.

I curse inwardly when it becomes obvious that this unlucky Knight is the one Cloud likes to describe as his 'light'.  I'm not certain what I had imagined when Cloud first mentioned that there was someone out there for him, someone he needed to keep away the insanity that plagues him daily, but this isn't the man I had in mind.  A shadow of wrongness looms over the fighter.  The soft glow of his calm blue eyes, the way he holds his blade, the posture of his body, and the cut of his hair... all of them are frightening reminders of Cloud and it doesn't settle well with me.

Glancing at the blond soldier, I frown at his unusual withdraw from the situation and wonder if Cloud had gotten this wrong.  While I normally don't like to doubt him, Cloud had originally miscalculated the issue around Sephiroth and this situation is no different.  I have a nagging feeling that this Knight isn't the cure to his madness, but instead may have been the cause.

"Oh my," Aerith breathes with a quiet tremor in her voice.  "She placed a death shroud over him.  He'll do whatever she wants... to the point of sacrificing his life."

While the fact doesn't surprise me much, a strange shadow darkens Cloud expression as his eyes regain a sharp focus.  "Can it be lifted?"

The kindhearted woman hesitates to respond, an answer I already know from past experience.  Saving Aerith the pain, I speak the words that she wishes weren't true - "Someone must die first."

Cloud's response is immediate, his unusual eyes shifting to the sorceress in the split second before he launches at her.  Ultimecia smiles softly at the deadly attack, never moving as the sprinting soldier draws his buster blade and levels the weapon for her delicate throat.  Darkness seems to flow in front of Cloud, promptly followed by a shower of sparks that ignite when his etched weapon clashes against its brother instead of the sorceress' pale flesh.  The fighters' gazes meet in that barest of moments, Cloud's blue eyes appearing slightly green compared to the truer blue of the Knight's stare, and then the Knight smirks before acting.  His buster blade lowers in a reckless move, putting Cloud sufficiently off balance as the Knight swings the flat of his blade forward.  Knocked clean of his feet, Cloud flies backward until landing nearly in the same spot that he had started from, and though dazed, he manages to recover his footing and crouch in a defensive position with his monstrous blade held in front of his body.

Laughing in pleasure, Ultimecia tosses her small bouquet to the ground, save for a single, pale pink flower.  "Isn't he lovely, my chosen Knight?" she asks while stepping around the dark-haired man to slip the flower within a small tear in his shirt.  "So strong, so loyal... Do you wish to know where I found him?"  Though no one answers, she continues on with a bright smile.  "I traveled between several worlds when I found a beautiful island that reminded me of my lost land and castle.  It was chance that led me to the beach, and there he was, a man trapped in a funeral box, apparently sentenced to death.  I sensed his ability instantly and knew he would be my Knight, but the stubborn fool waited three days in darkness before agreeing with my greater reason," she says much like one would teasingly describe her first meeting with a loved one.  She even brushes her fingers along the Knight's bare arm in a display of affection.

I frown at the mockery of love, but then notice how the fighter seems to cringe at the sorceress' flirting touch.  Hn, maybe the man isn't as lost as he should be.

Golden eyes move away from the Knight and settle on Cloud, the blond soldier growling lowly, but unmoving.  Ultimecia smiles fondly at the open sign of angered frustration and I wonder if she can sense something deeper, perhaps otherworldly, about the man she had claimed as her own.

"Now that you have met my new pet, I believe the courtesy should be returned," Ultimecia states as she steps away from her Knight and toward the ornamental gates.  She lifts her hand such that the shields spark against her fingertips and she directs a merciless smile at Seifer.  "I've been wanting to meet the ones who raised you to be so... disappointing."

Before Seifer has the chance to launch after the sorceress and I think to restrain him, Ultimecia releases her magic against the weakened shields.  It's almost pitiful how the shields try to withstand the attack of blue lightning, but magical runes were never meant to hold against a powerful sorceress, especially one grounded by a Knight.  The resulting flash of broken magic pushes me back a step, and once the light clears from my eyes, I notice that Seifer had been knocked to his knees by the unexpected wave of power.

With an exhaled breath of success, Ultimecia briefly smiles at the unprotected gates before glancing back at her Knight.  "Don't be gentle with them, my pet.  If they die, then they die, but I trust that at least one will live to amuse me further," she says, her golden eyes drifting in my direction.

The dark-haired fighter lifts his blade in response, prepared to spill blood for his mistress.

Her smile broadening, Ultimecia runs a hand through her hair in a flippant manner.  "Well, I mustn't keep my hosts waiting.  Until we meet again, dear Lion... if the gods deem you worthy enough," she adds in a mocking manner.

I meet her golden-eyed gaze and offer a small, challenging smile without any vocal rebuttal, something that makes the sorceress lose her good humor.  Revealing a piece of the demon lying within her, Ultimecia glares at me with a shadow of dark energy to her eyes, but she then turns and waves a hand in front of her to open the gates with an angry gust of wind.  Some of her grace lost, Ultimecia strides past the bent metal of painted gold and enters the city that has no chance to defend itself against the sorceress.

Cloud huffs at the woman's departure.  "You saw it."

While I nod without needing further clarification, Cid steps closer and demands, "Whaddya mean you saw somethin'?  'Cause I don't know 'bout you, but I saw her leavin' us with a sharp-toothed watchdog while she has words with the kids' family."

"Her hand was burnt," Cloud states.

I finish the explanation by saying, "Her connection with the Knight isn't complete."

Cid straightens with interest.  "Then the lady can't control her powers, eh?  So that's why she's still playin' her games."

"Games, but deadly," I amend while eyeing the dark-haired Knight.  Unmoving from his previous stance, the fighter simply watches and waits for our first move.  I have no doubt that he will attack and with all of his strength, but it's incredible to see him resist her control to this extent.  "We don't have time to waste.  Strife, Cid - attack 34.  Seifer, Aerith - be ready to run."

"Wait, who fuckin' numbered--"

Cloud doesn't wait for Cid to remember our early morning strategy sessions from the previous week.  His buster blade held parallel to the ground, the blond soldier launches out of his crouched position and sprints into a head-on attack.  The Knight does nothing for several precious seconds, but his eyes gain a brighter glow while watching the approach of his opponent.  Cloud leaps into the air to cover the last several steps, the sight of the overly confident attack drawing a sneer from the dark-haired fighter.  The Knight shifts his blade to a single hand, and with a firm step forward, he pivots his body to swing the heavy weapon at the airborne soldier.  Cloud pulls his body into a tight ball at the right moment, his blade protecting him from the harsh force of impact, but he's still knocked aside... right where I want him.

Focused on the soldier, the Knight doesn't immediately notice my rapid approach, and even when piercing blue eyes shift in my direction, the weight of his blade has turned him too far around for a proper attack.  My gunblade held level in front of me, I lunge at the dark-haired man with the intention to maim, not to kill.  Sensing that, the Knight smirks lightly and opens his stance such that I'll either kill him or have to divert my strike into a far weaker blow.  With a growl at his boldness, I change tactics and pull back my weapon before dropping down in a sweeping move.  The Knight jumps back from my leg, and while still in midair, manages to lift his buster blade with the clear desire to spear the heavy weapon through my vulnerable body.

"Don't think it, numb nuts!"

The Knight barely has the opportunity to look up before Cid drops down from a ridiculous height, his weapon at the ready.  The pilot attacks with an engineer's precision, his long spear striking the Knight's hands and efficiently disarming the man before he crashes to the ground.  Cid, meanwhile, lands on his feet much like the tomcat he is, and bounces back a pace when the Knight tries to grab him.

Not waiting for another opportunity that may never come, I push up from my crouched position and sprint toward the gates bent by Ultimecia's magic.  As the first to notice my approach, Seifer grabs one of Aerith's hands and pulls her through the open gates, the teen fast on his feet when he wants to be.  I make it within a few paces of the gates when I hear Cid's pained grunt.  My first instinct is to turn and help the old pilot, but there are other skilled fighters around to lend a hand; meanwhile, I have the task to remove a sorceress from this universe.  I barely hear the quiet drum of feet against dirt when Cloud rushes behind me, but the harsh clang of metal against metal motivates me to increase my pace.

"You aren't going anywhere," Cloud states lowly in what would seem like a threat to anyone else, but I can hear the promise beneath the rough tone.

Seifer glances back at me and stumbles over his own foot in the stupid act, but Aerith keeps him upright and urges him forward before I can use a harsher method for the same purpose.  Apparently appeased at finding me alive, Seifer speeds ahead and leads us toward a common area lined with shops and surprisingly tall buildings for a small town.  Despite the urgency of the situation, Seifer slows down and carefully spins around, his green eyes narrowing with suppressed fear.

"Where is everyone?" Aeirth asks, probably speaking the words already going through Seifer's head.

As if in response to her question, the whispers of a moving shadow reach my ears.  I turn sharply with Lion Heart held in front of me, but I'm forced back a step when I recognize the dark lumbering mass that has no real form.  Freeing my left hand, I call upon Holy magic and release the spell upon the decayed form of a Blobra.  A strange squeal sounds from the monster when white flames cover its body, but it doesn't retreat from the attack.  Instead, it surprisingly lashes out with an oozing form of a punch, a strike that I easily dodge, but the toxic hisses from the soiled ground are mildly distressing.  Before I have the chance to counterattack, intense heat brushes past my body, leaving me untouched as I wasn't the intended target of the spell.  Bright red flames ignite and then completely cover the Blobra, and though the monster initially flails with the attempt to disperse the flames, it quickly falls apart like heated wax and its toxic body dissolves a small pit into the ground.

"Damn it."

At the harsh whisper, I glance back over my shoulder at Seifer and casually notice his fisted hand covered in thin smoke.  While I first think the teen had managed to hurt himself, his face doesn't reflect any physical pain.  Only emotional.

"Are you okay?" Aerith asks, a question that is rather pointless in this situation.

Ignoring the motherly woman, Seifer tightens his smoldering fist and glares in my direction.  His gaze is accusatory, as if I had a certain degree of blame in this situation for being right about Ultimecia's methods.  While it's an understandable reaction, it doesn't make the weight of those young eyes easier to bear.

"If we get rid of the bitch, then the monsters go, right?"

Surprised by the question that is free of blame, I hesitate before replying, "They should."

Seifer props his gunblade against a shoulder before jerking his chin in the direction of an archway.  "The fastest way to my house is to use the rooftops.  There are some boxes beyond the Sandlot that we can use."

Aerith suggests optimistically, "Ultimecia may not be there."

"She is or she will be," Seifer argues bitterly.  "She doesn't look like the monster she is, and no one here really thinks to doubt people.  This isn't a place where people get hurt, so nobody thinks about what might hurt them.  Shit, they'll probably walk the bitch directly to my front door and not think twice about it."

"Then we should hurry," I say to encourage more action and less talk, especially when Aerith seems concerned about the teen's disdainful viewpoint of his hometown.  She was never someone who could appreciate the harsh truth when kinder words could be used instead.

Seifer doesn't wait for a second suggestion that time is wasting.  Leading the way, the blond sprints in the direction of the Sandlot, a name I didn't particularly recognize, but the location has a special place in my memory.  It's difficult to accept the reality that I was here only months ago, and not the lifetime it seems when it comes to Seifer and his knack of finding the cracks in my heart.  When I saw him in the so-called 'Struggle Battle' and wielding a foam bat, I thought it was pointless to become involved in his life, a life that seemed so different from what I knew.  But Seifer doesn't let little things like logic and practicality get in his way.

We cross the Sandlot in decent time, the appearance of another Blobra and a few irritating bugs briefly slowing us down before we reach the archway that leads deeper into the town.  Despite the random attacks of half-dead monsters, Seifer doesn't hesitate with his steps, not even around blind corners or into a shadowed alleyway.  I can already feel a small headache behind my eyes caused by the conflicting emotions of pride and frustration associated to his bold actions.

As such, it's a surprise when Seifer nearly trips over his feet after rounding a corner and I mentally prepare myself for a dragon or T-rexaus attack.  But before I catch up to the blond youth, Seifer growls and launches forward in an abnormally aggressive move.  When I chase after him, the reason for his rage becomes painfully obvious - a teenage brute stands side-by-side with a white-haired girl, the twosome surrounded by five bugs that struggle to remain in the air with rotted wings.

"Rai, Fuu!  I'm coming!"

The duo looks up at the same time, but instead of the expected excitement at seeing their leader, Fuujin and Raijin seem oddly stunned by his appearance.  A Bite Bug decides to strike at that moment, but its shaky flight makes it too slow compared to Seifer's long sprint and forceful jump.  Helios glints with reddish light before slicing down through one bug, and continuing its flow, the blade then curves upward to knock another bug into the nearest wall.  As if his action was a signal, Raijin smiles and throws a heavy punch at the bug closest to him.  Fuujin, without much expression beyond sparkling red eyes, directs a mean side kick at a low flying bug, launching it through the air such that Raijin is forced to duck or be hit.  The fifth and final bug is devoured by a fire spell, its decayed body dropping to the ground into a smoldering heap.

Seifer barely has a chance to flash a victory smirk before he's engulfed by large arms and nearly knocked to the ground.  Steadying himself after a couple steps, Seifer smiles gently at the brutish friend hugging him and pats an arm in consolation.  "Hey now, big guy, I know that I've been gone for awhile, but really..."

"Gone fer awhile?" Raijin repeats back with a harsh laugh.  "Man, we thought you were dead."

Seifer pushes back from his friend and glances between him and the white-haired girl.  "Dead?  What the fuck gave you that idea?"

"Woman in blue," Fuujin offers.

"Yeah, some lady jus' came through here and told us that you got yerself killed.  She was lookin' fer your family to give them the news, y'know."  Dark eyes then narrow and Raijin glares in my direction.  "She said that he was the one to take yer life, too."

Seifer immediately steps between me and his friend.  "Leon would never hurt me."

His face screwing into a befuddled expression, Raijin reminds his friend, "Wasn't he the guy who tried to strangle ya?  And somehow made those ice spears appear and aimed for yer throat?"

Though I can feel Aerith's alarmed stare focused on my back, Seifer boldly argues, "That wasn't what it seemed."

"Well, y'know, it 'seemed' to us that he didn't like you breathing.  Me and Fuu think that there's something wrong with that guy.  I mean, he did that stuff to you, and then he took you away--"

"You've got it wrong, you numbskull, but there isn't time to explain everything to you guys.  That woman you met is royally fucked in the head and I have to stop her before..."  Seifer doesn't complete the sentence.  He doesn't need to.

Raijin seems perfectly ready to continue his argument, but Fuujin throws an unforgiving punch against his arm.  Her partner efficiently silenced, the white-haired girl walks in front of Seifer and lightly grasps the Griever pendant displayed at his chest.  "Not yours."

The arrogant blond smiles and glances back at me.  "I want him to be."

Noticing the suggestive look, Fuujin directs her gaze of harsh crimson in my direction and stares for a long moment before scoffing.  "Never easy."  She then releases the necklace and steps back a pace.  "Go now.  Explain later."

Even as Raijin tries to complain about the change in attitude, Seifer sweeps the petite girl into a strong, one-armed hug and gives her a fleeting kiss against her forehead in thanks.  Seifer mentions something to his posse about watching their backs, and then abruptly runs off in the same path as before.  The move forces Aerith and me to follow him without question or be left behind once he jumps up a stack of conveniently placed boxes that grants him access to the rooftops.

Running across building to building, it becomes obvious why Seifer chose this route as the way to his home.  While it does appear faster than navigating around the twists and turns of the city, the rooftops are clearly Seifer's domain.  He knows the best method forward and never hesitates whether jumping a wide gap between buildings or running along a narrow ledge.  A piece of me feels revived at witnessing the teen in his element and acting without reserve, something I haven't truly seen from Seifer in the last several months.

After a good half-mile and an additional attack by some more Bite Bugs, Seifer simply steps off the ledge of a building, my heart stopping in the second it takes for boots to thump against unseen boxes.  I barely hear Aerith's scolding sigh before she follows after the young blond, leaving me to scan the rooftops for potential monsters trailing us.  When the coast appears to be clear, I follow after the pair who had stopped in the middle of the street.

While Aerith rests a consoling hand at Seifer's shoulder, the blond teen stares across the street at the string of houses that were built side-by-side and without an inch of space between the walls of lightly colored brick.  The collection of structures gives an oddly city-like feel, as if they were meant for function, which directly opposes the aesthetics and personality that smaller cities typically prefer.  It's no wonder that Seifer favors the freedom of the rooftops over the closed off city streets.

As I approach the silent pair, I recognize the focus of Seifer's stare - a solid wooden door left open no more than the width of a fist.  But by the intent gaze of dark jade, the door had might as well been on fire for the alarm it caused him.

"It's always closed," Seifer says in a hoarse voice.  "Duchess, Quisty's cat... The last time she got out, she ended up with three kittens..."

"All the reason to end this sooner," I say lightly, wishing that I could be as open as Aerith with her support, but this is neither the time nor place.

Seifer glances at me, his initial confusion fading to a light smile of appreciation when he realizes that I'm not mocking him for his worry about a cat when we're moments away from facing Ultimecia.  He rests a hand on top of his Griever pendant before nodding in readiness.  "Let's do this."

Though its Seifer's home we're entering, I move ahead of the blond youth and take advantage of the open door.  I have no pretense of slipping into the house without being noticed, a sentiment apparently shared by Aerith as she makes certain to close the door behind her despite the sound it creates.  The house is larger on the inside than it appeared from the street, but is otherwise painfully normal for a family with two parents and two kids.  Framed photos line the walls of the entry hallway, a typical assortment that reveals the entire family at play, as well as in formal wear.  With only a brief glance, I notice how Seifer never faces the camera directly, always looking elsewhere with the gaze of a constant dreamer.

From the hallway into a wide open space, I take in the sight of the large family room joined with an upgraded kitchen.  On the large couch at the far end of the room, a woman with long golden hair and crystalline eyes sits with her arms wrapped around a small girl who bears the aristocratic features only Quistis could achieve at such a young age.  Seated next to the woman and child is an older man with dark brown hair in disarray and his flesh bearing scorch marks of electricity.  Despite his injuries, the man sits with strict posture and braces an arm around his wife's shoulders, the only sign of his discomfort apparent in the tenseness of his bloodied lips.

Altogether, the situation is fairly surprising as I had assumed the family would have easily fallen under Ultimecia's alluring power.  To witness that they had seen through her falsehoods and resisted the sorceress to their limited abilities... It's good to know Seifer was raised by such a family.

"That didn't take long," a melodious voice comments with undertones of bitter disappointment.  "And to think, I was certain that I had finally located a worthwhile Knight.  How bothersome."

I shift my gaze to the dark-haired woman perched on the counter that divides the kitchen from the rest of the expansive room.  For whatever reason, the casual pose is a strong reminder of Rinoa, especially compared to her constant playacting, but it doesn't dampen my need to end this here and now.  I sacrificed the innocent woman once before and I'm more than prepared to do so again.

"S... Seifer...?"  The questioning call from across the room is filled with disbelief and hope, making it apparent that the family had heard the same story of Seifer's death.

"It's alright, Mom," Seifer assures from behind me, his voice surprisingly calm and controlled.  "We'll handle this, so just stay there."

Ultimecia laughs with exaggerated amusement.  "What a man you have become!  And to think, you are the same child who fled from my shadow and cried in your corruptor's arms."

"I'm not running now," Seifer declares lowly and adjusts his hold on Helios with a creak of leather.

"No, my lost Knight, I won't let you run."

Ultimecia floats gracefully from her perch with an unnecessary display of power, while at the same time avoiding the use of her hands against hard stone.  What a proud woman to think that her weakness had yet to be revealed to her enemies.  Even if I didn't know of her burns, it is simple enough to recognize the new areas of dark veins marring the pale flesh of her neck and left shoulder.  Her power is poisoning her with every spell, but she won't dare admit such a defeat.

The air shifts subtly, a sign of teleportation magic and the end of any further discussion.  In response to looming threat, powerful magic wraps around my body and I shiver at the protective barriers Aerith had placed over the group.  Unfortunately, Aerith isn't allowed to take a strong position in this battle, the woman given a far more important task - to find an opening, no matter how small.  Despite that knowledge, I have to fight against my greater reason before I move sidewise, allowing Seifer the room necessary to use his blade... allowing Ultimecia a free opening at the teen.

A dark portal appears in front of the sorceress, obscuring her in the moment a cumbersome object inches out.  Metal groans and joints squeal as the large robot shakily appears, the once golden and deadly Trauma transformed into a corroded memory of rusted armor and frayed wires.  Its single, intact shoulder-piece carves into the ceiling of the house and causes bits of drywall to flutter to the ground.  Once a vision of the future, Trauma is now a reflection of the past and a poor one at that.

It's hard not to smile when I realize that Ultimecia doesn't know how I've already taken apart this particular toy of hers.

Despite the threat of the mechanical monster, I lower my gunblade and spend the precious seconds necessary to remember a simple spell, a spell not of this universe - Meltdown.  It hurts to use it, just like it hurts to use any magic from my past, but no spell has yet to refuse me.  Trauma shudders at the heated magic and actually inches backward as if comprehending its fate, but the metal beast is programmed to fight and nothing more.  Long arms move with painful slowness to produce one of its drone, but before old wires can produce enough power, clean metal flashes in the erratic electric light and Helios cuts deeply into the rusted armor.  Seifer jumps back when circuits explode at the assault, but the cocky teen promptly positions his gunblade in readiness for another attack.

Not about to be left behind, I sprint up close to Trauma and use its damaged arm as a jumping point to strike my blade against its chest, arms, and shoulder, until I eventually reach its tiny head.  Lion Heart pierces easily through the rusted metal, and as eyes of flickering red light stare back at me, I pull the trigger to release a charge of Holy magic into the weapon.  In the past, this would have ended with a near firework display of explosions, but the robot is only a memory of Trauma and too corroded for anything more than a few pops of electricity and a whine of complaint as it powers down.

I jump away when Trauma begins to collapse, but unfortunately, the large body tilts back and crashes through the defenseless wall of the living room, leaving a shower of drywall and splinters of wood.  Shielding his face with a bent arm, Seifer eyes the destroyed section of his house, but says nothing out of anger or frustration.  By the shadow darkening his face, he seems resigned to the fact that his home is disposable in this battle.

Somehow dodging the collapse, Ultimecia stands next to the fallen weapon, her golden gaze filled with disbelief and betrayal.  "Impossible... impossible..."

Movement flickers at the corner of my eye, a flash of pink that prompts me to play Ultimecia's game.  "Don't you understand, sorceress - I have already won this.  I have defeated all of your guardians.  I have defeated you.  There is no other ending to this fight between us."

Ultimecia turns her attention to me, her eyes bright with uncontrolled magic.  She raises a hand covered in blue electricity, and with a flick of her wrist, lightning crashes down from the ceiling.  Seifer bites out a curse at the attack, but this isn't the first time he has been harmed by magic.  Even so, my teeth grind together in response to more than my own pain, and once the paralyzing electricity passes, I launch forward at the sorceress.  Lion Heart screeches at the first contact against Ultimecia's shields, but the faithful blade doesn't surrender under the pressure of intense magic.  The result is basically the same for the next three strikes, but with each blow layering over the previous one, I noticed the different tone to the impact of the fourth strike.  Smirking, I sway back the distance necessary to flatten my blade and spear it forward to shatter the dome of magic, the sudden burst knocking me back several feet.

Ultimecia screams in frustration and black energy courses down along the length of her arm, but before launching that attack at me, an unfortunate clatter of metal sounds from the side.  Ultimecia whips her gaze in that direction, and though Aerith leaps from her position with the stone relic in hand, the sorceress reacts without hesitation to release black fire at the attacking woman.  The flames don't pierce Aerith's shields, but the strength of the magic throws Aerith into the kitchen area to crash against unforgiving cabinets.

Aerith whimpers before going limp, a distressing outcome given her brave attack, and yet my first thought is that the relic is no longer in her hand or anywhere else in sight.

Distracted by that moment of lost hope, I almost don't react in time to block the spear of midnight blue ice aimed for my throat.  Even so, I'm driven backward by the shear force of the icicle against my flattened blade, forcing me to maintain my balance before the spear shatters apart.  Eyeing the broken shards, I try to ignore the way my scarred shoulder itches at memories of a battle that had never happened.

Ultimecia laughs with a hint of insanity to the joyous sound.  "That was it?  That was your glorious plan to be rid of me?  A girl without a real weapon?"

Except for steadying my blade, I don't bother replying to the taunt.  Seifer's deep growl is response enough.

"Very well, since you showed me your trick, then I should show you mine," the raven-haired woman states with a sharp smile.  She lifts her hand and shows the small globe of sickly yellow-green light that can only be one possible spell, and with her smile broadening, she turns to face the vulnerable family huddled together at the other end of the room.

With no other option available, I run to place myself between Ultimecia and Seifer's family, only then recognizing the trap she had laid for me.  To block the Ultima spell would mean redirecting some of it forward, either at Seifer or the unconscious Aerith.  To dodge the spell is out of the question, especially when my new position allows me to hear the rapid whispers of a prayer from Seifer's mother.  And yet, as I lock gazes with the sorceress, I feel oddly calm at accepting the outcome that we both know is coming.  The Ultima spell grows into a vicious sphere of energy that serves no purpose beyond pain and destruction, and before Seifer manages to cry out my name, I lower Lion Heart and ready myself for the ball of vengeful magic targeted for my life.

There is nothing but pain and golden-green light for too long, an eternity packed into seconds and my twisted mind decides to provide me with images of a laughing Seifer as he pulls the switch that drives electricity through my body and burns my flesh.  For the first time in years, my chest aches with the need to cry, but the tears would only evaporate if I made the attempt.  But then, just as the light begins to recede, I hear Seifer's scream of anger and my vision of the past shatters apart into darkness... blissfully numb darkness that I'm not allowed to enjoy for long enough.

"... ster....  Mister."

The pain returns when someone taps my head and I choke on the cry that wants to form.  Even though I want nothing more than to hide from the world, I force my eyelids open to little more than painful slits and view upon my tormenter to find the younger version of Quistis squatting in front of me.  Confused at the new angle, I waste a moment to understand my situation before I realize that the Ultima spell had knocked me off my feet, not to mention across the room.  Lying on my stomach and facing the couch, I can't find the willpower to move just yet, but I can clearly hear the fight behind me.  Seifer's aggressive attacks dominate most of those sounds, but there is also the gentle voice that manipulates complex magic and I exhale a relieved breath at the thought that Aerith is all right and helping Seifer.

"Mister, aren't you going to help my brother?"  A frightened whisper of 'Quistis, get back over here' sounds from her mother, but the small girl doesn't move or even flinch while staring down at me, her pale eyes holding the same demanding presence as when she first obtained the rank of instructor.  "Is that lady going to kill him?"

"... no..." I breathe, wishing that I could better back up the sentiment with some action.

The girl's fine eyebrows furrow in worry, but she still reaches behind her.  "The other lady dropped this when she was hurt.  Do you need this to stop the evil lady and save my brother?"

I stare at the revealed relic and fight against the odd urge to laugh.  The key to ending everything is right here, perfectly within reach... and I shouldn't touch it.  I know that logically and it was the basis of my decision to have Aerith handle the relic instead of Seifer or myself, but there simply isn't enough time to create new plans.  Placing a hand against my forehead, I cast a medium level cure spell that will remove the effects of the Ultima spell, but not waste my energy like the higher level spells.  My body heals instantly, but it still takes effort to encourage my sore and exhausted muscles to function.  I carefully push up from the ground, but don't move higher than resting on a bent knee.

"Seifer said that you were a bright girl," I say softly, earning an embarrassed smile from Quistis.  "When this ends, tell him... that I'm sorry."

Quistis frowns, but is too young to understand the gravity of my request and nods innocently.

I reach forward to take the relic, my hand flexing in fear of the inevitable pain, but as the fight behind me continues with a battle cry that belongs to Vidar, a calm resolve overtakes me.  Idiot, I told Seifer to not summon the GF under any circumstance, but I should have know better.  If anything, the act only serves to remind me that this decision to touch the relic is a special kind of stupidity that is usually reserved for Seifer and his reckless way of reacting without thought.  Meanwhile, I struggle over every option when there is no other choice beyond the obvious.  With a smile at the thought and my hand steady, I grab the relic and turn around before the symbols gain the purplish light of dark magic.

I sprint toward Ultimecia, each step bringing about a new form of pain as the relic gains strength and tries to reach for my soul.  Ironically, the previous Ultima spell had numbed my body to the point that relic's powers don't inhibit my stride as I rush at the sorceress.  Even so, I can feel the relic tearing something from me, something that is an important piece of my existence and I know that Griever is the first to be sacrificed to the soul-stealing magic.  It's a sobering thought and I whisper my thanks to the loyal beast for giving me extra time.

Ultimecia notices me while in mid-cast of a spell, and with a glint of shock to her golden gaze, she changes the focus of the magic in a panicked attempt to stop me.  My lips twist into a harsh smile as 'Hell's Judgment' wraps around me and steals most of my energy, but it's ultimately a worthless spell against my body when my soul is about to be stolen away.

I cross the last several meters in seconds before tackling Ultimecia with my arms around her body and the relic pressed against her back.  Purple light flares at the relic's first taste of the powerful soul and Ultimecia screams when recognizing her fate... a fate we share.  I barely notice the clawing of long fingernails at my neck and the teeth at my shoulder.  Instead, I turn my head to find Seifer, the teen yelling without a voice as Vidar holds him in place with a large hand braced at a shoulder.  Hyne, it's only been a couple of days and Seifer already can remaining standing after summoning the powerful GF, basically proving that Seifer's stubbornness ranks as one of the more formidable forces in this universe.  Unfortunately, my vision begins to blur with painfully white light, but I'm satisfied with that last image in life.

"Don't you dare!"

At the sudden cry spoken in Rinoa's voice, I'm shoved back and onto the ground, something that is surprisingly easy given Ultimecia's previous struggles to be rid of me.  I almost panic in that moment with the thought that she had broken free, but while sitting up, my eyes focus and lock onto the disturbing image of my body lying on the ground, side-by-side with the collapsed sorceress.  To confirm my worrisome suspicions, I lift my arm and stare through my once solid flesh at the hardwood floor beneath me.  ...Well, at least this is something new compared to waking up in a body that isn't mine.

"I'm disappointed in you, Squall Leonhart."

Startled, I look up and stare at the not-completely-solid vision of a raven-haired woman wearing in a simple white dress made of fine silk, the same outfit Rinoa wore the first time we met at the SeeD ball.  I reflectively frown at Ultimecia continuing to play games even when she has clearly lost, but then I take in the sight of dark doe eyes that don't hold a fleck of gold in the fathomless depths.

"... Rinoa...?"

She smiles in her way and lifts her hand with a single raised finger, another memory of the past.

"Oh Hyne, Rinoa..."  And what could I say?  That I didn't think her soul survived all of these years?  That I won't say I'm sorry for condemning her to the fate that saved a world?  That I'll never regret stealing Seifer from her and keeping him as my own?

The lovely woman sighs, but doesn't lose her smile.  "I know what you're thinking, Squall, but you're wrong.  When Ultimecia and I joined, I saw everything - her horrible plans, her hatred for you, and even some of the past she remembered.  You stopped her in the only way you knew how."

I shake my head, unable to explain that I had betrayed her and made her into nothing more than a tool.

"You poor thing, you have such a beautiful heart," Rinoa says as she leans down and brushes her lips against my forehead.  "It's no wonder Seifer can't stop thinking about you."

"... You know?"

"From the beginning.  Seifer would say things in his sleep when we were together, and you were always the topic."

I gaze up into dark eyes, wishing to ask more, but purple light flares behind her and I can feel the relic's desire to draw me into its body.  Tendrils of magic wrap around Rinoa's small frame and several more reach out for me, but those are promptly kicked aside by the woman's high heels.

"Damn, I was hoping for more time," Rinoa murmurs bitterly before returning her attention in my direction.  "I need you to listen to me, Squall.  Everything is as it should be.  I have always wanted to help people, but I never understood the greater evils that exist out there.  Ultimecia is definitely one of those evils and I'm proud to be the one who will protect everyone from her terrible plans."

Refusing to accept her logic, I push up from the ground and face her directly.  "No, I'm the one who should spend eternity guarding her, not you.  You're innocent in all of this."

"Stupid man," Rinoa says as white light slowly stretches out from her back in the form of unearthly wings.  "In the physical world, you have the strength and power to defeat Ultimecia, but not here.  She would tear you apart before escaping this new cage you made for her."

My hands tighten into useless fists as I struggle with the idea that Rinoa is sacrificing herself when I should be the one to be condemned to that fate, but the rational part of me knows that she is right.  She has the eternal powers of a sorceress while I'm nothing but a soldier without a weapon in this body-less state.  Even so, Rinoa doesn't have to be alone, and when I think to offer that, the woman smiles and shakes her head.

"Don't you get it, Squall?  This isn't your choice.  You've had your revenge against Ultimecia, and now it's my turn."

At the words spoken with vindictive pleasure, I study impossibly dark eyes and discover that Rinoa's soul has aged even when her image is still of the teenaged princess lost in a mercenary's world.  I can't imagine what she has seen or experienced during the years trapped within her own body and at Ultimecia's mercy, but instead of breaking, Rinoa became strong in mind and heart.

The raven-haired beauty sighs when more tendrils of magic appear and slide past her guard.  "Our time is up.  I'm sorry, but you can't stay here.  It shouldn't be hard for you, but try to be quick when returning to your body."

Before I can form a proper thought or question, Rinoa pushes her hands forward and white light bursts from open palms.  Her magic covers me fully in a warm embrace that is nothing like the searing pain of the Ultima spell, and yet the effects are much the same in that time and place become meaningless while I'm lost in the flow of pure energy.  The blinding light is eventually replaced with reddish hues before I manage to take in the shapes of the city around me.  While the exact location isn't familiar, the buildings and colored sky assures me that I'm still in Twilight Town, though far enough away from the relic that I can no longer feel the malicious force reaching for my soul.  But even as I feel a moment's relief at escaping that particular fate, I shiver when a deep chill fills my chest and I wonder if Rinoa's warning to be quick was an understatement.

The first landmark I locate of any familiarity is the brick wall that guards the city, and with no other easy lead, I follow its length for wherever it may guide me.  Moving at a careful jog, I cover maybe a half-mile before the distinct sounds of a sword fight reaches my ears, and after rounding a corner, the bent metal of the entrance gates comes into view.  Though I remember the path to take from this point, the sounds of fighting lure me to the gates and I know that can't leave without checking on the others, even if I can't help them in this body-less state.  I move to the city entrance with a soft step, more from habit instead of necessity given my lacking physical presence, but I don't move further than the bent gates when the scene beyond stuns me into inaction.

Cloud and the Knight are still deep in their exchange of blows, their strikes too fast for a normal human to follow despite the size of their blades.  The blond soldier is the worst off of the pair, blood streaming down the side of his face and a separate wound coloring his right arm in a range of red hues.  Despite the injuries, Cloud doesn't appear hindered and his sapphire eyes glow the brightest I have ever seen them... and are oddly matched by the Knight's luminescent gaze of truer blue.

Watching the master swordsmen fight, I find it strange that, between the two of us, I'm the coldhearted killer who can strike down any opponent, even if that opponent was Seifer.  Meanwhile, although Cloud is physically able to harm his opponent, he has yet to make the Knight bleed for his loyalty to Ultimecia.  Maybe at some point in their shared past, the monster in Cloud has already been tamed by this Knight, and for that reason, refuses to strike back against the obvious threat.  It's yet another inconsistency that bothers me about Cloud and his 'light', and I wonder what the blond soldier has gotten himself into with this battle.

A faint curse draws my attention away from the pair and I find Cid seated against the outside of the wall, his hands grasping tightly at his leg and the bloodied knee that pokes through his torn pants.  More likely than not, the kneecap has been shattered and it'll take time in addition to a series of potions to heal the agonizing injury.  Meanwhile, Yuffie crouches in front of Cid in a protective stance, but the thief isn't much better off with her left arm cradled close to her body and her right hand holding a shuriken in a shaky grasp.

"No..." I whisper, though no one will hear me.  "Damn it, no.  Ultimecia is dead.  This is supposed to be over!"

Abruptly, the Knight throws a hard strike at Cloud and they break apart with the smaller swordsman sliding across dirt and gravel.  And then, in a show of disregard for his opponent, the dark-haired man turns his attention toward the city and his expression shifts into a mask of fearful disbelief.  I follow the direction of his gaze and I easily find the pillar of pale purple light I hadn't noticed before with the city around me.  I shiver at the sight of the relic's magic and wonder if the thing wasn't satisfied with the souls of two sorceresses in its grasp, that it wanted me as well. 

But even as the thought crosses my mind, the light of tainted energy grows paler until perfectly white, and in a soundless explosion, the pillar shatters apart into a shower of magic.

A strange whimper sounds from the Knight and I turn to watch the dark-haired man lower his weapon.  Cloud advances at the seemingly obvious opportunity, the soldier unaware of Ultimecia's final imprisonment within the relic and I'm unable to alert him of that fact.  But instead of raising his buster blade to strike down the Knight, Cloud drops his faithful weapon and reaches the Knight in time to catch the pirate when he sways dangerously on his feet.  Cloud winces when supporting the taller man and helps the Knight to lower to his knees, at which point the man abruptly wraps his arms around Cloud's waist and clutches onto dark clothing like a drowning man.

The scream that sounds is animalistic in nature, raw and unleashed as the Knight copes with the lingering taint of Ultimecia's magic.  Cloud says nothing to soothe that obvious pain, but he eventually places a gloved hand into thick hair and massages with a careful touch that is rather unlike the soldier.  From the sky, glimmering magic from the broken pillar flutters down toward the pair of fighters and an ethereal feather lands on top of the Knight's head to quiet his cries.  He glances up at that point, bleary eyes focusing on Cloud like someone would look at a person he recognized, but couldn't place a name or where they had met.

"I was looking for you," Cloud says quietly, his hand lowering to touch the Knight's face.  "Zack."

His eyes widening, the dark-haired man mouths something in return ('...Cl...oud...'), but his voice doesn't sound in his bewilderment.

Though initially stunned by the act, Cloud breathes a laugh and smiles softly with a boyish curl of lips that makes him seem years younger than his years and experience.

Relieved to see my friends escape this particular fight alive, I'm reminded of my own situation when my vision abruptly blurs of this world, but returns a worrisome second later.  I'm certain that I've wasted too much time watching this battle, especially when I was powerless to help, but I don't regret being able to witness something good rise out from Ultimecia's madness.  Turning my back to the gate, I run deeper into the town and follow the same path Seifer had laid out before, but when I reach the twists and turns of the alleys, I quickly lose my sense of direction.  Apparently I never noticed the multitude of boxes that all give access to the rooftops, and without knowing the right set to use, there's little chance of me figuring out my way back to Seifer's house.

As I debate over which boxes to use, a blatant snort sounds behind me and I turn with my hand automatically going for my gunblade, but grasping at nothing.  A chuckle quickly follows my mistake, but I don't have the luxury to be embarrassed; instead, I stare at the massive beast with the body of a dark-furred lion and bearing an unusual pair of lavender wings that fold tightly against its back.  Its blood-red eyes focus on me with a merciless stare, and that more than anything else makes me feel a sort of familiarity with the creature.

<There is an easier way.>

Confused at a beast giving me directions in the middle of a non-magical city, I continue to study the large cat as it stands perfectly still except for a casually swaying tail.  Without really thinking about it, I reach out a hand toward the beast and place my fingers behind a curved ear, a touch the cat allows as its head tilts into the scratch and closes its eyes.  That contact restores a piece of what I thought was lost and I exhale a long, shaky breath.

"Griever..."

The beast purrs lightly in reply.

"Hyne, I assumed... I felt you being taken by the relic."

<Your sorceress released me from the stone after sending you away.>  Crimson eyes glimmer with humor when Griever adds, <She was concerned you would get lost, as you did in the past.>

"She... remembered that?" I ask warily, referring to the Time Compression and my time spend wandering lifeless earth.

<No, but my kind does not forget.>

Just when I consider asking the beast for more information, the world seems to slant against my will and becomes hazy for several seconds longer than the last time.  Damn it, I really don't have time to chat with an overgrown cat who apparently is humored by my constant near-death adventures.

<Come, your other half waits and he wants you back.>

"Seifer...?  What do you know about him?"

Baring his teeth in something resembling a smile, Griever replies, <I know you wasted too many years before finding him again.>   As I stare dumbly at the GF, the large cat turns around and whips his tail against my chest, prompting me to grab the appendage or be slapped in the face.  <Hold onto me.  I imagine your other half would set that stone upon me if I lost you now.>

Griever starts forward without any acknowledgement from me, his long stride jerking me forward for several steps before I match his step.  It must look ridiculous for me to walk behind the lion while grasping onto his tail, but if my vision plays with me anymore than it already has, then I'll be thankful for the unwanted help from the GF.  Surprisingly, Griever steps directly for a nearby wall and leads me through the solid object, an unexpected reminder that I've been torn away from the physical dimension of this world.

As we walk through the empty store and its displays of accessories, I build the courage to ask Griever, "Do you know if he... if Seifer is the same Seifer from my past?

<Don't you?>

While it shouldn't have been a satisfying response, I find myself smiling slightly and thinking about my last vision of the youth, Seifer crying out for me despite his lost voice and Vidar holding him back.  "He'll be angry with me."

<He always is,> Griever comments with a snorting laugh.

I narrow my gaze on the beast's back, curious just how much the demon knows about the past and future, but I eventually decide that it would be best to leave the subject alone.  There are some things that mortals aren't allowed to understand for the safety of their sanity and I have enough worries to concern me without the addition of more abstract notions.  As if summoned by the thought, a deep chill courses through me and I can almost imagine the hand of Death grabbing for my spirit and somehow missing... this time.  I tighten my hold around Griever's swaying tail and pray that I can reach my body in time to prevent the death I once desired, a death that would now be boring without Seifer there waiting for me.

 

{Continued}

 

Author's Whining -- Ugh, what a chapter.  Stupid thing was supposed to be half fighting and half SxS together time, but that obviously didn't happen.  I've already started into the next chapter, so hopefully that will go a bit smoother in the direction I want.  And just for the record, I so hate to write fighting scenes.  Why do my favorite boys have to be fighters? =P