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A Petal Among Thorns

Chapter Text

Another new cycle.

Another loss. Another jagged tally mark gouged on Discord's scoreboard.

Not surprising - hardly any of them ended in Cosmos' favor anymore.

No matter how hard Cecil wracked his brain he couldn't remember just how many cycles he'd seen, but it didn't matter. He didn't care anymore. The numbers meant nothing when compared to the knowledge that all of it would be repeated. All he cared to know was that he survived there long enough to reclaim most of what he'd lost. Long enough that the pieced memories had slowly connected into the almost-complete puzzle of his recollection.

Warrior of Light shifted next to him, sniffing slightly in the silence, and Cecil listened to the echo as it crept through the stiff air of the Lunar Subterraine. The sound wrapped around his mind and tugged him back to the present, and immediately his eyes burned. He didn't even realize he had been staring. He pressed his palms to his eyes and blinked away tears and stars, thinking anything else he could to plant himself back in that deep garden of thought. Sometimes, if he was lucky, remaining in the Subterraine managed to coax a last memory or two out of hiding, and Warrior was always nice enough to extend their patrol. As much as he wanted to, he couldn't seem to lose himself again.

Just as he moved to stand, the whole place brightened. Before his eyes the colors of the world around them blanched into varying shades of gold - the grey dirt became a gritty brown; the crystals growing like fungus on the bottom of each platform glittered a garish lemon; the stars darkened from white to a sweet honey; and the clear sky morphed from violet and black galaxies to the colors of yellow sand. The air itself thickened and shimmered, uncomfortably coating Cecil's throat and lungs with each pull of breath as if he were inhaling the color itself. It startled him for a moment, until he remembered the cause: Shinryu. Unapologetically gracing this world with his presence. Coming to retrieve and restore the fallen, then offer Cecil's friends back to him again and again like recycled presents.

Warrior sighed, a very uncharacteristic sound coming from him, but it about summed up everything Cecil felt. He glanced at him and had to squint from the tangible glow around the gold plating in his armor. Warrior's eyes remained wide and fixated on the sky with his eyebrows furrowed. He looked like he couldn't decide between sadness or awe. The two of them shielded their eyes as sky emitted one last bright flash of gold, then it was gone, as suddenly as it came. Warrior was the first to break the thick silence.

"Come. Let us return to Cosmos. Our patrol is over . . . " Anticipation crept into his normally controlled tone. A new cycle was always met with anxiousness; were there any new warriors? Who survived Purification? Who hadn't? For the 'seasoned' ones, as they were called, it was as easy as looking around. Who was there before, that wasn't there now? Who had memories; who did not? And who were the new warriors, freshly plucked from their probably wonderful lives?

Cecil cared deeply for his companions' states at the turn of a cycle. Each time someone woke with no memories of themselves or their comrades, it wrenched his heart, and pity panged in his gut like a sword blow. He always did what he could to help those who had forgotten. Their apparent relief at the thought of a friend warmed him, and typically replaced the sadness with a feeling of obligation - that he had to help his comrades. That was usually enough to take his mind off of all he had remembered, all that he had left behind due to Cosmos' need of him.


It pained Warrior to see Cecil so troubled.

At first, the return of buried memories elated Cecil. He refused to stop talking about it. "I remember now!" he would cry, or, "Edge! Edge was that ninja's name!" "My brother, he helped us at the end of our battle." "Rosa, she was . . . my wife . . . I loved her very, very much . . . " The pleased knight's tones became more and more somber with each memory.

Then he hit a point where he stopped telling them completely.

He would be fine one moment, laughing with them, sharing moments and creating new memories with them, then his mood would shift rapidly. The bright eyes would glaze slightly, and the proud gait of a self-assured man would slump into the downcast trudge of an empty person. He would lose himself in bouts of reverie that left him oblivious to the world around him.

On more than one occasion he walked straight into a manikin ambush, and didn't hear his companions' shouts for him until he took a blow or two from the manikins. He was at it again. Warrior stared at him, hoping he would feel the eyes on him and break the spell, but . . . He walked with that same defeated amble, his blank stare fixated on the ground in front of him. His eyebrows furrowed, no doubt in recollection of something that troubled him.

"Sometimes," Warrior thought as he stared into Cecil's tormented eyes, "it is simply better to have forgotten."


"I'm a coward," he said to her. "A coward who cannot even defy orders he knows he ought not follow." 

He dare not look at Rosa. He dare not look into her face, not after what he just did to the people of Mysidia. He was ashamed. Disturbed. The guilt gnawed at his heart like a worm that wouldn't stop squirming. He stared out the window to the turrets and ramparts of the castle below.

"Cecil of the Red Wings is many things," she said, "but he is no coward. Not the Cecil who I love . . . "

 

"Cecil!" Warrior's deep, deliberate voice broke through the fog of the fresh memory. He blinked and shook his head. The memory of her, his wife, his Rose, his everything, still swam before his eyes.

Rosa.

Just the mention of her name set his heart aflame with the passion they had once shared before Cosmos called him. Her beauty - unparalleled in Baron, in the entire Overworld. Unmatched by Aphrodite; Venus did not compare. Inanna, Freyja, all of them trumped by the love of his life.

"Cecil," repeated Warrior, once again cutting through his thoughts. "We are here."

He hadn't even realized they reached Sanctuary.

Cosmos sat at her usual position on the throne, but it was the woman beside her who garnered Cecil's attention. Tall warrior, golden-blonde hair. She had it loosely gathered to one side over her shoulder, and secured down its length with several pink bands. A two-layered cape covered her back: the bottom layer was floor-length, of sheer white cloth. Hemmed with roses in gold embroidery, while the top layer was waist-length, thick gold cloth, affixed by white spiked pauldrons. The remaining wisps of hair cascaded gently between the spikes as she brushed pieces behind her ear. From under the sheer cape Cecil saw a red skirt that was short on one side and longer on the other, short, heeled boots. A knife was strapped to her belt, a staff across her back, a quiver of arrows down near her hip, and a bow in her hands.

"A new warrior?" Cecil asked, still in a bit of a daze from thinking of Rosa. "Just one?"

Warrior frowned, understanding Cecil's implications. He tactfully ignored them. "Come, let us meet her," Warrior said confidently, striding forward with Cecil in tow. He stood before the goddess and dropped to a knee. "Cosmos." He bowed his head to her. "My lady," he added to the unknown soldier. He looked up into her face and faltered momentarily, then hastily stood.

Cecil stepped up to pay his respects when the woman spun, her green eyes locking directly with his blue.

His breath caught in his lungs. His jaw fell open as he choked on his polite introduction. His eyes captured every inch of her; lacy, thigh-high tights running up the smooth lines of her legs. The same white and gold knee guards that he remembered. Same leather belts that she used to wear - gold, brown, and maroon. The top edges of her hips were bared, and Cecil traced the tantalizing 'v' shape that the sheer white halter made as it connected to the very middle of her belt. The fabric pulled and creased, fitted against her slim figure. He zig-zagged his gaze along the green ties up the front. The brasier, solid gold with yellow lace over top and thin straps that wrapped around her shoulders.

No. No, it couldn't be.

Slender neck and sharp, contoured jawline. Thick lips, defined; her nose equally as slender and sharp, and her hair framed her face nicely. He staggered back several steps as his eyes reconnected with hers. Hooded, slightly downturned eyes filled with the most dazzling and familiar shade of green Cecil ever remembered seeing.

His lips mouthed her name but no sound escaped, and he melted beneath her powerfully beautiful features, just as the first time they saw each other, when she stole his affections.

"R-Rosa!"

 

 

Chapter Text

"Rosa!" The name tumbled from Cecil's mouth. He said it hundreds, if not thousands of times in Warrior's presence, but in Cecil's shock it sounded clumsy, unpracticed, even awkward off his tongue. So this was Rosa. Just as beautiful as Cecil described. Just as . . . womanly as he made her out to be. Elegance floated about every one of her lines, and Warrior was in awe. Her beautiful features were so stunningly eye-catching, he nearly abandoned decency and stared.

With effort he tugged his gaze from her and looked back to Cecil, roving his eyes back and forth between them so he didn't feel so inclined to stare. Poor woman, called to the cycles with no memories. Poor Cecil, missing his wife for so long and then seeing her here, like this. Cecil stood, frozen and dazed. His wide, but glazed over eyes stared at her in disbelief, his forehead and eyebrows creased, and his lips parted. And, Warrior noted, looking closer, his bottom lip quivered gently.

He looked horrified. He looked absolutely stricken.

"Cecil?" Warrior asked, edging closer to him. "Are you-"

"Rosa," he breathed. At the mention of her name Rosa's eyes narrowed. She gave Cecil a once-over, scrutinizing him from the beads in his white hair to the gold plates on his greaves. Too shocked to notice, Cecil's eyes never left her face. His fingers stretched out towards her. "I- I ne-" He shook his head. "I never, u-umm . . . " he uncharacteristically stuttered. One of Rosa's eyebrows lifted. "I never thought I'd see you again," finally crawled from his throat. Relief colored his flushed face. His shoulders relaxed, his face softened, and he smiled at her. "I'm so glad to see you!" He started towards her.

Her eyes widened and she stepped back. Forcing a loose chuckle, she smiled stiffly. "Yes, I am Rosa," she said quickly. She couldn't hide the caution tightening in her tone. "Who are you?" Rosa's eyes flicked towards Cosmos over and over, hoping to catch the goddess's eye. Cosmos missed Rosa's plea for help. She was looking at Cecil - an odd mix of interest and something else, something deep-rooted in her frown that Warrior couldn't place. On her own, Rosa faced him, crossing her arms.

"I'm-" Cecil paused, his smile faltering. "What?" he asked. "You know me."

"I can say with certainty that I do not."

He strode forward again. "Rosa . . . "

"That's close enough, sir!" she bellowed, backpedaling away from him. She grabbed her knife and slid the blade a few inches free of the scabbard on her belt. "Who are you? How do you know me?"

The moment the knife tore free, Cecil's heart shattered, an audible crack in his ears that radiated ice through his whole chest. He drew himself to full height but his shoulders slumped, hand raking slowly through his hair. "You don't know me," he whispered, dropping his gaze to the water. No, no! No, this was all wrong! He pictured their reunion over and over, a thousand times over in his head. Every scenario he could have possibly imagined was joyous, and every variation of joyous. Not this. This wasn't right, some perversion of reality. But, like watching something horrific, he couldn't bring himself to look away. His wife, his beautiful wife. Cycle after cycle after cycle without her, and her without him in Baron. And she was playing at unfamiliarity? She was tormenting him like this, tossing his heart around like a ragdoll?

Of course not. She would never do that to him. She was not that kind of woman, too kind-hearted to intentionally hurt someone this way. Especially him. No! She had to remember. A violent sort of desperation burst through the numbness in his heart, and he tried again. His blue eyes bore pleadingly into her green. "Do you jest? Rosa, you must remember! You - I kn- I know you!-" Without realizing what he did, Cecil took a few steps towards her.

Rosa grew frustrated before him. She bared her teeth with a small growl, her eyes flared in anger, and the knife snicked the rest of the way free. "Stop saying that! Please understand that I do. not. know. you," she insisted, practically snarling the word.

"Rosa . . . " Cosmos began, nodding at the knife. Rosa noted Cosmos with a sidelong glance but did not move.

"Why are you saying this?"

"You try my patience, Cecil!" She said his name like it was a curse off her tongue.

He couldn't comprehend what was happening. He couldn't . . . couldn't think. What was going on- Cosmos. Cosmos would know. "What is this?" he asked, turning to her. Cosmos only smiled, with a sickly-sweet and pathetic sadness. She could only have been searching for pity, and any other time Cecil may have indulged her. But her eyes betrayed her. The emotion in her smile didn't reach her fleeting gaze. They were hard, insincere - she knew something, anything. "Speak!" he yelled at her. "What is this?" Cosmos' face faltered. A pained look crossed her face, and she gathered the shawl around her.

She shook her head. "I'm sorry."

Realization flushed his face again. A cold chill wracked his spine as his throat seized with understanding.

She didn't remember because she was here.

She was here because Cosmos had called her.

"Sh-she is my wife!" he thought, "Why did she have to be called?!"

He may have missed her, missed her so deeply that his heart hurt with longing when he thought of her shining face he was never to see, missed her so desperately that he could barely focus in battle at the mere mention of her name. He may have missed her, but her being here was the last thing he wanted. He would never wish the twisted, methodical logic of this repetitive world upon any other.

Especially Rosa.

Never Rosa.

Cecil's dread of her calling turned to instant fury. His hands clenched at his sides. "Why?" he screamed at Cosmos bitterly. "Why her?!"

Of all the worlds she had to choose from, Cosmos had chosen his. Of all the heroes scattered across their many realms, she chose Rosa. She chose the woman he cared for more than anyone in the worlds to fight in the cycles.

His spear solidified in his grip. Rosa brandished her knife, but Cecil shoved past Warrior and pointed it directly at Cosmos' throat.

"Why?!" he yelled again. Her gaze dropped to her clasped hands in her lap.

"I never meant to hurt you . . . " she said in her voice of silk. He pressed the tip to her skin.

"WHY?! Answer me!" Louder that time.

"Lower your weapon!" Warrior yelled, but Cosmos cut him off with a hand. She raised her chin at the touch of cool metal and stared into his eyes, the sky blue of hers fighting and swirling with the royal blue of his.

"Because I needed her. That is all. I am sorry."

Cecil pulled back to strike the goddess.

Chapter Text

"My lord, Chaos," Garland said softly, falling to one knee.

Ugh. The way he said that made the Emperor's skin crawl. He said it like a loving parent to a child. To the Emperor, it came as a disgust and a shock - he long thought Garland incapable of such emotions.

Either way, the Emperor swallowed down his nausea and begrudgingly knelt with the rest of them. He had appearances to uphold, after all. Casting discreet, side-long glances all around him, he checked the others' faces as they each mimicked Garland. Though, he wouldn't have said they showed respect, or even deference. Hardly any of them lowered their eyes. He certainly did not.

How pathetic. And mildly amusing, he thought, but he suppressed the grin, lest he draw attention to himself. The only one kneeling in true servitude of their 'master' was Garland. He clung to the monster's every word as though his very being depended upon Chaos' advice. The rest knelt in sheer terror. Especially Golbez. That sorry excuse for a vessel of discord was probably quaking in his armor. Even Kefka, who had a comment for everything, remained silent in Chaos' presence.

"I have gathered the others as you commanded. You wished to speak with us?"

Chaos didn't immediately answer, slouched sideways in his throne. One set of his arms, the top set, rested heavily on the arm rests. Right fist jammed into his cheek to support his head, pulling his lip up into a sneer. His left hand draped daintily over the front edge, while his lower set of arms loosely crossed over his stomach. Displaying a hilarious combination of 'bored out of his mind' and 'mildly interested'.

The uncomfortable silence seemed to thicken with each second they waited, clouding in the air like humidity. "Chaos?" Garland asked.

A distant grunt and a dismissive wave of one of his hands, and they all rose.

"A new cycle dawns in this world," Chaos rumbled. "The heroes of Harmony scrabble for a foothold in this conflict, still under the impression that they can, somehow, win these battles. Cosmos is weak, she is desperate, and she is acting foolishly. Just today, in fact," he said, moving his arms. He clasped the upper set over his mouth and leaned forward, as though sharing some dark secret. "She expended almost all of her energy in the summoning of a warrior. Just one."

Chaos' lips curled away from his teeth in a grotesque version of a smile. As though Cosmos' weakness was some running joke. In his silence, the Emperor checked his periphery again. Garland's eyes were fixed on Chaos, the Cloud of Darkness looked as disinterested as he felt, slowly stroking her snakes. Golbez's shoulders were tense - they weren't normally so close to his helmet. Exdeath, who knew what Exdeath was thinking? Kefka looked like he was bursting to say something, anything, and was practically quivering trying to hold it in, while Sephiroth kept his thoughts perfectly concealed, unreadable as per usual. Ultimecia had a playful glint to her eyes, obviously calculating for some plan of hers, while Kuja checked his nails and Jecht idly fiddled with the straps hanging from his uniform. They couldn't have cared less.

"We are on the brink of absolute victory. You know what I ask of you: extinguish the light. Only then can you claim this world to discord."

The Emperor very nearly snorted in disgust. He managed to choke it down to a mild huff. 'Extinguish the light?' Well of course they wanted to 'extinguish the light!' That was his purpose for calling them to the War of the Gods in the first place! How ridiculous. Chaos brought them there for that speech? He hadn't even called new warriors! And as if the ones already present hadn't heard it enough! A waste of his valuable time. He had plans. Plans he was eager to set into motion. He'd been saving his strength, waiting for the right moment. Once Cosmos and her ants were crushed, and Chaos sat goading in his throne, he would be strong enough to strike. Strong enough to challenge the god. Then he alone would lord over this world and this cycle, and all would be his to command.

Hmph. Such a pitiful god. Chaos barely peeled himself from that seat; why were his warriors so afraid? "They should be more afraid of me, when I am Master of this world." The Emperor's thoughts steeled him, and he spoke out against the god.

"Truly, Chaos? We must extinguish the light?" he said, dripping the sarcasm from his voice. "I believed our goal to be more amiable than that!" A soft growl grumbled in Chaos' throat, and he slowly slid back to his slouched position. Next to the throne, Garland shifted nervously, but the Emperor barely noticed his bristle. He let his annoyance drive his voice as he turned to go. "I've yet to hear one worthwhile bit of information from you, and I severely doubt one is coming. If you are finished wasting my time-"

Chaos raised a hand.

An electric shock jolted right through the center of the Emperor's mind and spread furiously through his body in an instant. His limbs went dead, his sight went black, no sound reached his ears, nothing reached him except for the screaming of the individual fibers of his nerve endings. He tensed from the mental attack, collapsing to one knee, and sucked in painful breaths as his sight re-colored. The deafening sound that returned was filled with the chuckles and snickers of the others.

Chaos heaved himself to his feet and lifted a new hand, then swept it to the side. The Emperor was pulled up from the ground and thrown flat against the hexagonal wall of the realm. His diaphragm collapsed, his breath rushed out of him, and with an ear-piercing clang, his staff fell to the grey slate. Chaos kept his hand raised, suspending the Emperor. He stomped over to him, bent down, and peered face-to-face with him.

"Do you take me for a fool?! Do you think I am not aware of why you're so desperate to leave? Had you thought me oblivious to your schemes to overthrow me?! No, I knew of your plans, for several cycles now! I am a god, you obnoxious mortal! Challenge me as you see fit! Fight me till your heart's content!" His hot, rancid breath hissed in the Emperor's face as he leaned closer, his fangs inches from the Emperor's nose. "In the end . . . " Chaos clenched his fist. An electric charge rocketed through the Emperor. His muscles clenched uncontrollably, he struggled and jerked in his frozen prison, unable to move as the shocks tore through him.

Finally, Chaos released him. He plummeted to the floor and landed on a knee before him.

" . . . you will always lose."

He spun around to face the others, his voice booming.

"You will do as I command without question! Or the consequences will be . . . " He turned back to the Emperor as he fought to catch his breath, " . . . severe. Let this be a lesson to all of you."

He peered into the face of the Emperor.

The Emperor stared back in defiance.

"Is that clear?"

" . . . P-perfectly, Chaos," the Emperor choked, still fighting for air. He picked up his staff, dropping his gaze to the floor. Chaos' hand shot out and gripped his chin, forcing him to look into the face of the wretched creature.

"Lord Chaos," the god sneered.

"Lord Chaos."

Satisfied, Chaos backed away from the Emperor. "Begone, mortals. Haven't you tasks to complete?" He lowered his massive frame into the chair.

The Emperor stood and dusted himself off, feeling the heat of humiliation rise in his cheeks. It was quiet, dead quiet, and he could feel everyone's eyes on his back. He refused to move. He didn't want them to see his face. And yet, he felt obligated to walk away with every shred of his pride he could find. As soon as he felt ready, he turned around. And met a gloved finger in his face.

The clown attached to the finger let loose the earsplitting fit of cackles he'd been restraining during the whole meeting. "WAAAAAHAHAHAHAHA!" The Emperor fought another wave of mortification but it won, coloring his cheeks again. Slapping Kefka's hand away, he pushed past him, and forced his way through the other warriors, and their laughs. Ultimecia's tinkling chuckle was the worst to him. The most assaulting to his ears and the most stirring of his embarrassment. Out of all of them, he hated looking weak in from of her most. He hated looking weak in front the only other strong warrior who could potentially contend with him. He didn't want her to think she was at all above him.

The Emperor reached the back of the group only to have his path to the exit blocked by Golbez. He strode up to the huge man expecting him to move, but Golbez merely crossed his arms in front of him, shoulders heaving with repressed laughter. The Emperor maneuvered around him. As soon as he passed, Golbez teleported away and vanished.

"Let them laugh," he thought bitterly, "When I rule this world, and all their pitiful lives, there will be no place for their laughter!"

Let his plans begin.

Chapter Text

"Because I needed her. That is all. I'm sorry."

Sorry. The word echoed hollowly inside Cecil's ears. Sorry. Sorry.

No. Cosmos wasn't 'sorry.' She would rather fulfill the selfish desires of this conflict than consider any of her warriors. She wasn't sorry for destroying any chance Rosa would ever have at any sort of life outside of the cycle. She wasn't sorry for calling her here, only to have her die again and again. And now his Rose could never leave.

And what about him? If she died here, his only hope for a life outside of this world died with her. Even if he managed to go home, without Rosa he had nothing to return to. Sure, Cosmos apologized, but Cecil saw no remorse there in her eyes. A blind rage he never felt before bubbled inside of his heart. His fist clenched around his spear, so hard that his skin chafed on the metal. A breath hitched in his chest, and his jaw clenched so forcefully, his teeth ached.

The nature of this conflict dictated ruthlessness. He just never imagined it would be directed at the two of them.

Without thinking, Cecil hefted his spear back. He watched Cosmos' eyes widen, almost in slow motion. Her mouth dropped open for a heavy gasp, and the sound charged Cecil's fury with electricity. Her back straightened, she shielded her face, and leaned as far away from him as possible.

His spear never got anywhere close to her before a flash of gold slashed across his vision, and a stabbing pain shot through his whole hand. He cried out in surprise, dropping his spear where it was.

Cecil turned away from Cosmos, cradling his hand against the residual flares of pain. Sticking straight out of his hand was a gold-tipped arrow, with a silver shaft and gold fletchings. His blood welled around the arrow shaft and spilled out the side and down his fingertips, and he stared at the droplets in shock as they stained the perfect water pink for a moment before dispersing back to the clear crystal pool.

At the creak of Rosa's bow, he turned back around. The string gently pulled her cheek as she lined up her next shot.

"Don't move," she warned him, speaking out of the corner of her mouth, "or this next arrow goes between your eyes."

"Rosa, no," Cosmos said calmly. Rosa ignored her.

"You, warrior," Rosa said, addressing his rank without realizing it was his name, "get his weapon."

Cecil's eyes flicked to his spear, in the water where he dropped it. But he had no intention of going for it again. He took a step away from it, but Warrior still ran forward and kicked it away, out of his reach.

"Cosmos, how could you?" he asked her. "She is my wife! How could you do this to her? To me?" He winced as his hand clenched accidentally.

"You take this as a personal attack against you." Cosmos' voice cut through the tension in the air like a silky knife. "That is not the case. I am tasked with protecting the balance of this world that Chaos tries so desperately to destroy. I cannot accomplish this alone, and neither can he. I only call the people whom I believe to be strong enough, and best-suited to help me combat Chaos and his chosen, and end his schemes."

"But this is a cycle!" Cecil hissed, lowering his voice so Rosa wouldn't hear. He wanted to protect her from that information, at least for now. She was a new warrior, and if she had any hopes of returning home, he wanted her to be able to hold on to that. He stepped closer to the goddess, hating the fact that he was so obviously hiding a secret. "Once we are called, we can never leave! Don't you understand? You called her from our world to help you, but you pulled her from her life in Baron!"

Cosmos sighed and closed her eyes. "I know, I . . . I am sorry. I understand your frustration, but I only did what I knew was best for the future safety of this world."

Cecil dropped his gaze, "I- I understand, but . . . " But he hated every second of it, with every fiber of his being. The bitterness hurt his heart, weighing it down inside of him. And he acted like a child, which was inappropriate, too. "Forgive my outburst," he muttered pathetically.

Cosmos held her hand out to Warrior, and he offered his arm to her. She linked hers in his and he practically hoisted her to her feet. As soon as she was upright she leaned heavily into him. Cecil hurried forward to offer his help as well, but she shook her head.

"Are you weak?" he asked her. She nodded.

"Summoning warriors takes more out of me than it used to. My strength will return in time." Warrior helped her over to Cecil and she gingerly took his injured hand, closing her eyes.

"I- . . . Should you be healing me?-" The arrow gleamed, then dissolved into a wisp of gold. The hole in his hand gently tingled, then closed smoothly, with no evidence of any injury.

"Of course. And do not apologize. There is nothing to forgive. You were upset."

"I'm . . . not entirely sure of what you're all talking about!" Rosa yelled.

She relaxed her bow, twirling the arrow around her fingers before returning it to the quiver near her hip. She rested the tip in the still water, sending hundreds of ripples through Sanctuary, and for the first time, Cecil noticed the designs on it, much more extravagant and beautiful than anything she ever had on their adventures back in Baron. There looked to be four limbs on it, not just two. An inner, smaller set with its own recurve shape that attached to the outer, longer set and pulled away at the grip, and the outer, longer set with the elegant arch of a longbow. He traced the shape of the outer set with his eyes. The grip was a thick, spiral-bound brown leather, and the limbs were fashioned to two spikes around it. Gold illuminations and swirls adorned the lengths of them, with painted images of flower petals and other accents so intricate he couldn't even see them. The inside set, he realized, were for the string and the arrow shelf. The inside limbs even had designs of their own, but the show piece was a wooden vine of red, thorny roses woven around it.

"Tell me what's going on, now!" she said to Cosmos. "I don't know where I am! I don't know who you are, or who you are!" she said, flicking her hand wildly between Cecil and Warrior. "I awoke here with no memories - nothing! Except for my name. Before you two showed up, she was trying to tell me I've been called to some kind of war of the gods-"

"That is true," Warrior told her. "You speak to Cosmos, the goddess of Harmony. She called you here, to fight for the Light against the darkness."

"What manner of realm is this? This is not my home."

"Do you remember your home?" Cecil asked before he could stop himself. She paused, her eyes seemed to gloss over for just a moment before her eyebrows furrowed in concentration.

"N-no. I can't. Why can't I remember?" Her voiced gradually grew higher and higher. Her green eyes were wide with fear and desperation, a look Cecil had only ever seen on her face once before, when Golbez took her captive in the crystal room of Fabul castle. He wanted to comfort her somehow, but he knew he couldn't. Not right now, when she was still trying to orient herself in this world.

Not when she didn't even know him.

A burst of sadness threatened to overtake him once more, but he quickly banished the feeling.

"This is not your home," Cosmos told her. "This is not, what is it, Baron?" she asked Cecil. He nodded quickly, hoping the name would help her somehow.

"Baron," he confirmed for her, staring at Rosa. She simply stared skeptically at him until Cosmos spoke again.

"This is not Baron. This war is fought in a collection of worlds, existing in a realm separate from the one you knew," Cosmos said. "Please, I know you're alarmed and scared. All of your questions shall be answered. What do you want to know?"

"So I hail from Baron. My name is Rosa Joanna Farrell, and I hail from the Kingdom of Baron."

Cecil nodded. "Your job class and rank?"

"I . . . White Mage, I think," she said, gesturing to the staff on her back. She grabbed the pink ribbon trailing from the bottom of it and fiddled idly with it. "And archery. I'm an archer as well."

"And a good one," Cecil said, rubbing the spot where her arrow went through his hand.

"And now I'm supposed to fight for Harmony in a war. Who are we fighting?"

"Chaos, the god of Discord," Warrior said. There was a palpable bite to the way he said Chaos' name. "He means to destroy this world and sink it forever into Discord, along with everyone in it. That is why Cosmos called us," he said, leading Cosmos back to her throne. "We are to fight him and his chosen, defeat them, and claim this world for the Light."

"Uh-huh," she grumbled. "Who are you?"

"I have no name. Those of Cosmos' ranks call me the Warrior of Light, by my class."

"So you don't remember either?" she said quickly. Cecil could tell she was searching for validation.

"No, I never had a name."

"Oh," she said, obviously disappointed. "Who is he?" she said, pointing to Cecil.

She didn't even look at him. He hoped the signs of his hurt didn't show on his face. "Please, Rosa, try to remember," he said, stepping towards her. This time, she let him approach but he still remembered to leave a safe distance between them. "I am Cecil Harvey. Former Captain of the Red Wings of Baron, now crowned King of Baron."

"Baron. That's how you know me."

"Yes," he nodded. "You and I are from the same world. We're married," he intoned silently. By withholding it, he felt like he was cheating her out of something important, but that bit of information would be too much for her to take in, at least right now. He held his tongue.

"Cecil Harvey," she whispered, finally looking him in the eyes. He smiled stiffly, caught somewhere between showing welcome and ensuring he did not ward her off.

"Class and rank?" she asked, mirroring his questions from before.

"Paladin Knight, and Dark Knight. I switch freely between the two in this world, but when we were together in Baron I was only a Paladin Knight."

She didn't answer, just looked at him. Piercing green eyes stared hard into soft royal blue for a long while. He felt like she was searching for something, anything. He hoped she was trying to recall anything about him. She looked down, staring down the length of her bow rather than at him. Her eyes softened, her stern face relaxed, and for a moment he thought maybe something came to her. Her eyes glossed over once again.

"Anything?"

Her eyes snapped back up. "No. I can recall nothing! This is so frustrating!"

"Please don't worry," Cosmos assured her. "Your memories will return in full. Through battle, and through existing in this realm. Each of you directly faces someone in Chaos' forces, and I selected you and your fellow warriors as a result. You and only you can match and defeat your chosen rival. Do battle with that rival, and many of your memories will return. Though, this should come as good news. The one whom you seek is an ally and spy for us. The Black Mage, Golbez. Seek him out, spar with him, and you may learn much about your past."

"I don't know how you can trust him," Warrior said. "He has betrayed us before."

"Only after Purification. He's had a change of heart every time," Cecil reminded him. "Don't forget he's my brother."

"I haven't," Warrior assured him coldly. "He longs for the light but I sense none inside of him. He will have to plenarily prove himself to completely gain my trust."

"He's more than proven himself," Cecil said. "Rosa, Golbez is a friend you can trust. Just be careful that he isn't around any of Chaos' warriors. He has appearances to uphold. While he won't necessarily harm you, he will not act as a friend around them."

"Golbez . . . okay," she said. "He wears . . . armor, right? Black armor?"

"Yes! He's-"

"Hellooooooo!" someone yelled out from behind them. A crowd of footsteps followed the voice that interrupted. Cosmos leaned around Cecil and smiled to everyone that entered.

"Hello, Zidane," Warrior said. "You brought other warriors with you."

Cecil turned, watching as Zidane led Bartz, Firion, and the Onion Knight, followed by Yuna, Tifa, and Squall.

"Wooow! Okay! So this is Sanctuary!" Bartz said, looking around in awe at the bright place, taking in every detail. "And I guess you're Cosmos!" Clearly, Bartz had received Purification. Cecil swallowed down the melancholy that sprang in his heart as she addressed the crowd.

"This is obviously not all of you," she said brightly, scanning the seven. "Where are the others?"

Zidane scratched his behind, just left of where his tail poked through his pants. "Eh, I don't know. All these guys I ran into on my way here." He winked at the goddess. "Of course, I only came here just to see your pretty face."

Cosmos turned to Warrior, rejecting his moves completely. "Have you any quarrels with venturing out and gathering all the others? I am too weak to call them right now, but I wish to speak to all of them. Seeing as how some introductions, and therefore instructions, are in order, I must address everyone."

Warrior placed a hand over his heart and bowed lightly to the goddess. "Of course. I will be back shortly."

Zidane noticed Rosa standing off to the side and smiled widely at her. "And hello to you too! What's your name?"

"Rosa."

"Oh! Rosa!" Zidane said, glancing happily at Cecil. Just in case he let something slip, Cecil shook his head as subtly as possible. Zidane's eyes flared, the only visible sign that he understood. But his goofy, lop-sided smile never wavered, to Cecil's relief. "I'm Zidane Tribal. Wow. You're gorgeous!" Zidane managed to eek a small smile from her, and Cecil appreciated it. Zidane's personality had such a disarming, undemanding, and straightforward quality to it that won him many friends.

"Thank you," Rosa said, nodding her ascent. She said with a light chuckle, "I would take it to heart but it seems to me like you say it a lot."

Bartz burst into laughter. "Haha! Wow! She's already got you figured out, Zidane!"

"How would you know? You technically just met me! I like you, Rosa. Welcome to Cosmos' side! So, you've met my friend Cecil, right?"

"Mental note - thank Zidane later," he said to himself. "Ah, actually, it was a little . . . I'd like to apologize for my behavior when we first met. Please allow me to reintroduce myself. Properly." He stood up straight and proper, years of training all coming together for this moment. He slowly walked towards her, chin up, eyes level but soft, as soft as he could make them. Doing his best to smile, when he was a step away from her he bowed low. "Cecil Harvey, at your service." He straightened up and offered his hand, and when she took it he pressed a soft kiss to her knuckle.

"Rosa Joanna Farrell."

"She'll remember . . . " he assured himself. "Eventually . . . "

Chapter Text

"Cecil Harvey, at your service," he said, kissing her knuckle like a gentleman. With the smoothness and fluidity that came with formal training. It certainly validated his claim to high society. He carried himself like a King, Rosa observed. Elegance and natural grace floated about every one of his lines, amplified by his perfect posture. Back ram-rod straight, chin up and shoulders back.

His lavender armor added another layer of awe and majesty to him. The deep purple patterns, the jagged pauldrons, and the sharp-edged greaves mixed brilliantly with the swirls and free-flowing patterns of the light purple, the cloth draped over his hip, and the gold accents. It all gave him a sort of effeminate beauty that reminded Rosa of a star-lit luminescence. Every one of Cecil's weapons - his spear, the knife on his hip, and even the sword on his back - were polished to a near perfect shine, showing his care for them. Sharp. Pristine.

He carried himself tall and his very air exuded authority, but from his sweet smile and honest, innocent looking eyes, it was an inviting and approachable authority. A gentle modesty that wasn't at all condescending or arrogant. He had thick silver hair that framed his face, strung with lavender and deep purple beads. And a purple and gold headband that exaggerated the sharpness of his features: pointed nose and chin, slender jawline, wide-set eyes and delicate eyebrows. Thick lips, tinted purple.

His whole look, pulled together with the paleness of his complexion, gave him an other-worldly quality that Rosa couldn't place.

Only when Cecil gave her hand a soft squeeze did she realize she was staring. She quickly pulled her hand from his, blinking her way back to Order's Sanctuary and everyone else in the area. "It's a pleasure to meet you," she offered. A token response. She prayed he didn't take it to be any more than that. And to her relief he simply nodded. The gesture seemed to hang thick in the air. Staring into his eyes felt awkward to her after staring so obviously for so long. Instead, she directed her gaze down, pretending that the ribbon on the end of her staff needed re-tied. She stepped back to slide it over her right shoulder. Nobody was talking. Everybody was watching her. It felt like it, at least. A tingling prickled in her face, where they were looking. She chanced a glance up through her lashes to check. Nope. Just Cecil. Staring.

The silence still felt like it was kind of directed at her. Choking her. She opened her mouth to ask him something, anything, the first thing that came to her mind. Cecil beat her to it.

"That's a beautiful staff."

"Thank you," she said, presenting it out in front of her. She gently rested the top in the water to finish tying the knot in the ribbon. Once she was finished, she twirled it around and tapped the bottom into the water to show him the top.

"A Crystal," he said. "Fitting."

Fitting? "How so?"

"The Overworld - our Homeworld, is powered by the four elemental Crystals. It's reminiscent of our origin." The way he roped her in still made her mildly uncomfortable. She didn't like that he knew more about her than she knew about herself. She hoped he didn't notice her unintentional grimace.

"I didn't arrive here with this," Rosa quickly told him, so he didn't get any ideas. "It was at my side when I awoke."

"That was my doing," Cosmos said. "When I called you here, I had the Moogle Cid craft you new weapons."

Ah. The pure white crystal at the top of her staff was about the size of a fist, set against a gold rim. a pair of crafted roses rested against the bottom, with thin, gold ropes spiraling down and around the shaft on either side. A few times they curled around each other, setting a few other gems between them. About halfway down, the gold ropes faded to green, and turned into a stem. And small roses circled around the top of her ribbon.

"May I see your knife as well?" Cecil asked. Rosa pulled the whole hilt from her belt and tossed it to him. He turned it all around, admiring the intricacies and the colors of the jewels. He slipped the blade from the hilt and checked it. "Very wide crosspiece. Beautiful cut to the blade. Nice shine. You haven't used it yet?"

"No. I just got here!" she said, holding her hand out to take it back.

"Oh. Oh, right," he chuckled. "It's beautiful," he said, handing it over.

"Thank you." She slid her staff back over her shoulder and replaced her knife to her belt. She looked up and made direct eye contact with Cecil, who was staring once again. Though, whether it was at her or through her, she couldn't tell. His eyes had a kind of distant look to them. She looked away. Nodded slowly, unsure of what else to do.

"Do . . . " she began, trying to come up with a question, "Do you know everyone here?"

"Yes. I've been here a while, and you were the only new warrior summoned."

"Ah. How long will this- How long have you been here?" She let her real question slip. How long would this 'defeat Chaos' mess take? Cecil's face fell for a moment, but he still answered her question.

"I've been here for . . . " He paused and tried to think through it. Finally, he settled on, "A while. I can't even remember."

For that long? So long he didn't even remember? Rosa wanted to end the conversation. So many things just didn't seem to sit right with her. So she left it at his answer. She turned and decided to talk to some of the others while waiting for Warrior to return with the rest. Who was that brown-haired man? The one who walked in with Zidane.

Cecil beat her to that, too. "Well!" he said cheerily, "I'm going to . . . talk to some of our friends."

Despite their horrible introduction, Rosa admit she still followed Cecil around. Even as he gravitated to each of the warriors to chat superficially. Even though he still made her a little . . . she didn't have anyone else to talk to. He knew her world, he knew her, and he seemed to know a lot about this world and this conflict. And, despite the sometimes awkward turns of their conversations, she felt like she could talk to him. He was approachable.

He introduced her first to Tifa, who she really liked, and Squall. Tifa was confident, cheery, easy to talk to as well. She asked Rosa a few questions about her and about their world, but when Rosa couldn't answer she didn't pry. Rosa was more grateful for that than she realized. She didn't like feeling stupid, standing next to Cecil who knew everything, and she didn't like not knowing so much about herself. She didn't like not knowing things in general. Squall simply stood and listened intently to their conversation, occasionally nodding his ascent or frowning his disagreement.

The Onion Knight vaguely irritated Rosa. He seemed overly confrontational. Arrogant, and quick to defend himself even when no one was attacking him. Always boasting his skills when they never came into question. Yuna, who he was standing with, was sweet. A kind-hearted summoner, always willing to put others before herself. When asked about her Eidolons she commanded Ifrit, Shiva, Bahamut, and a few others Rosa had never heard of before. Still, though, the thought of those few seemed familiar to her. In her mind she could see a face. A blurry face. Against a green background. Why did she associate the face with green?

"Did . . . Did I know a summoner?"

"Yes!" he said, nodding enthusiastically. "We both knew her."

"She was . . . green. Or, something about her was green. I can't remember what she looked like, but I associate her with the color green."

"It was her hair. Her hair was green." Rosa framed the picture in her mind with curly, green hair, but it didn't make the picture of her face any clearer. It frustrated her, and she sighed exasperatedly before casting the image away.

Yuna smiled at her, gently reaching out for her arm. "Do you remember anything?" When Rosa told her no, she gazed sympathetically with her two colored eyes. "Don't worry. I know it's frustrating. But you'll remember everything soon, I'm sure of it!" Extremely positive.

"Thank you," Rosa said, smiling back.

Firion took her hand and kissed it upon their meeting. He had every kind of weapon strapped somewhere on his body. And, according to Cecil, he knew how to use them. He was tall, he was obviously strong. He complimented the roses all over her weapons. And he asked to see her staff and bow, gently tracing the carved thorns as though in awe.

"You favor roses?" she asked. She had to. He was glancing far too intently at them.

"I do," he said. "They're my favorite flower. And they're part of my dream- my goal," he quickly remedied.

"Your dream?"

His face grew red. He blushed and looked down, handing her staff back to her. "I'll tell you about it some time later. Thanks for introducing us, Cecil."

"You're not embarrassed of it, are you?" Rosa asked. A feeling of pity spread through her heart. "You shouldn't be embarrassed, whatever it is."

"I know. But still. I'll tell you later."

As they walked away, Cecil leaned down and whispered to her, "He's sheepish about it because he's afraid it's too childish of a dream to have. He is proud of it, but afraid of the judgment in its wake."

"But what is it?"

"It's a dream to create a world of wild roses. A world of peace where flowers can grow."

"It's beautiful."

"Yes. And roses are his favorite. He'll definitely take to you. Come on, I think you already met Zidane and Bartz, but Vaan has yet to meet you." He led her over to their group, and Zidane immediately interrupted whatever he was saying.

"Heyyyyy," he purred, running a hand through his hair. "What's up, Rosa?"

He was trying so hard. It made Rosa smile. "Hello."

"Vaan, have you met Rosa?"

"Oh! No, not yet," he said. "Hiya! I'm Vaan." He was tall and lanky, like he didn't quite know what to do to handle himself. He had sandy blonde hair and a tan skin tone, obviously spending a lot of time in the sun. His vest barely covered his chest, but his waist-high pants and metal boots hastily covered the rest of him. It was an odd juxtaposition. He looked young. No older than 18.

"Nice to meet you. I'm Rosa."

"Rosa, huh? Makes sense, I guess, with all the roses on your weapons."

"I thought it was because you're beautiful, but feisty like a rose," Zidane tried. Bartz scoffed.

"Wow. Don't listen to him, Rosa. He's a hopeless romantic."

"You talk about it like it's a flaw!" he argued. He let out an exaggerated sigh. "You see what I have to deal with?" Rosa kept seeing the flash of tan-ish brown behind Zidane - his tail. It flicked back and forth vigorously, seeming to match his excitement and pattern of speech. The movement kept drawing her eye, to the point where she couldn't decide what to focus on, his eyes or his tail. Was it even real? It looked like it was real, but she was skeptical to believe it.

"So, Bartz," she questioned, changing the subject to keep attention away from her staring. "You don't remember anything, either?"

"Uuuh," he said. He crossed his arms, glancing up into the air to think through it. "Nnnnope. I don't think so. I'm in the same boat as you. Freshly called here, don't remember anything."

"You're a new warrior? Cecil told me I was the only new one-"

"I must have made a mistake," he interrupted. "Sorry, Bartz, I forgot about you. Please accept my apology."

He laughed, waving his hands. "It's fine! Don't worry about it!"

"It's cool, Cecil. I know I forget about Bartz all the time," Vaan joked.

"Ouch. Get outta here, Vaan!" he said, pushing him lightly.

They continued their banter, so Rosa took it as the opportunity to leave. She walked back towards Cosmos, and Cecil followed a close distance behind her.

"So this place acts as our base?" Rosa asked him.

"Yes. This is Cosmos' throne. Her strength replenishes here."

"Are you our leader or something?"

"No. Warrior is - well, I try to help as much as possible. I feel confident in my knowledge and skills, and my ability to judge a situation. If I had to make a decision, I feel I could do so. Warrior's our leader in name and in practice."

"Question: is Zidane wearing a tail?" she asked, pointing back to Zidane.

"Oh, he's not 'wearing' it. It's real - don't pull on it," he said. "Another warrior found out the hard way once."

"Hey! There he is!" Vaan said, pointing to where Warrior entered Sanctuary. He led a crowd of people behind him. It was almost comical. They looked like the most informal, patched-together group of people someone could stumble upon. Some were in full armor, some were dressed down. Some were tall, some were short. Most were men, Rosa observed. There was one girl, no, two. What was shocking about one of them towards the front was that she had pink hair. Speaking of hair, one of them had blonde hair that stuck straight up in gravity-defying spikes. As they drew closer he happened to raise his eyes, and Rosa met with the most striking blue eyes she'd ever seen in her life.

"Kain!" Cecil yelled next to her.

Rosa saw a purple dragon head perk up in the crowd, mostly because it belonged to the tallest warrior in the crowd. She tried to look collected, but despite herself, her curiosity got the better of her. She leaned this way and that to try and get a better view of the rest of the man under the dragon, but he was impossible to see through the crowd. Luckily for her, he pushed his way to the front, bolting ahead of the rest of them to catch up with Cecil.

Boy, was he tall. He towered a full head over her, and a bit over Cecil, inclining his head down to look at everyone properly. The dragon head was actually his helmet. The nose of the beast rested just above his nose, so when he was looked at full-on it looked like his opponent was facing down a real dragon. Complete with glowing red eyes and everything. The curvature of his helmet arched down his cheeks, ending below his eyes, making his sharp nose and frowning lips the only visible part of his face.

The rest of his armor was purple and scaly as well, with spikes, fins, and even purple claws on his nails.

He made her wary. He made her wary, and she didn't know why. What did his eyes look like? Did he hide his face on purpose? He instantly presented himself like an enigma without even trying. And she wanted to solve him. If only to appease her inexplicable fear. And plus, he was so tall and imposing, with broad shoulders and well-defined muscles, that she instantly felt belittled.

Did his personality match?

"Kain, I want you to meet someone," Cecil said, gesturing to Rosa.

His face turned towards her. He walked up to her, bearing down on her with those imposing shoulders. Leaning down slightly, unconsciously, boxing her in. And before she could help herself she made herself smaller, cursing the fact that she didn't even know him but he still made her feel small.

His lips parted when he stopped in front of her as if in shock, then abruptly snapped shut.

"Does he know me as well?" she thought, as Cecil cleared his throat.

"Rosa, this is Kain Highwind, my lifelong friend. Commander of the Dragoons of Baron, and my right hand. Kain, this . . . is Rosa."

Kain Highwind. Even his name sounded . . . something about him unsettled her. She couldn't place it. He bothered her.

Kain knelt, reached out, and took her hand. He raised it to his lips. "My lady," he said.

Then he kissed her hand.

She gasped. Like a spark, a flicker of a memory flashed before her eyes.

Her shoulders ached. Her back ached. Everywhere she moved she lay uncomfortable on her arm. The ropes were starting to chafe, wrists stinging every time she even tensed them. How long had she been laying there in the dark? She shivered; the cold rising off the metal had seeped into her bones and blood and skin. Metal, metal everywhere. Had she been asleep? Or just lost track of time? She had no idea. All she knew was that this time Kain and another figure stood before her. A huge man in black armor.

Her heart dropped into her stomach with dread. "What are you going to do to me?" she asked. Her voice came out in a whisper.

Kain turned towards her. His lips stretched over his teeth. And he smiled at her.

She ripped her hand from Kain's and stepped back, a small cry escaping her lips. Cecil gripped her arm.

"A memory?" he asked excitedly.

She nodded, just as Cosmos addressed the crowd. "My warriors."

Chapter Text

Zidane inched closer and closer to Cecil, hoping he would see him before he had to say anything. Cecil never even noticed. His full attention remained politely on Cosmos, with a gentle smile on his face. Man, the guy was so . . . proper. Zidane waited another second, then looked up at him and whispered, "So . . . that's Rosa, huh?"

The noise startled him. He tensed and looked down, looking Zidane up and down with his eyebrows furrowed as though he couldn't quite remember who he was for a second. "Hey! Hello, hi!" Zidane said, waving slightly. "So, Rosa?" He could feel his tail flick back and forth faster and faster with his rising anticipation. This was juicy stuff right here! Rosa was called to the world! What did Cecil think? Did they have a good first interaction? Did Cecil know how pretty she was? Well, Zidane was sure he knew, but did he know?

"Oh! U-um, yes." Pride showed through his new smile as he returned his gaze to Cosmos. "Aye, that is her."

"And so . . . "

"So what?"

"I don't know, just . . . like, what do you think? Are you happy she's here? Sad? Did you miss her? Did she remember that you guys are married? Did you guys have a good first interaction? I remember you telling us about her. How beautiful she was, and stuff. And all of a sudden, I was walking with the others, and the tip of my tail started twitching. Right here!" He grabbed it from the air behind him and pointed right to the end. "It's kind of like my sixth sense. I can tell where pretty girls are. And all of a sudden, it was just on fire! So I knew somebody pretty was gonna be here. And then I met her, and found out that she the sexy woman you never shut up about! And, just, . . . damn! She's beautiful!" He couldn't think of the words to describe her. She looked like a goddess.

"Yes, she is, isn't she?" Cecil followed his gaze to Rosa. He glanced over to her himself and they met eyes. She blushed and looked down, idly playing with the ribbon tied to her staff. He stared at her for a moment more then looked back down to Zidane.

He had nothing more to say. He shook his head, throwing his hands on his hips while his tail slumped in the water of Sanctuary in defeat. He hissed a breath out through his teeth. "Lucky bastard," he muttered.

"I - I beg your pardon?!" he asked.

Zidane trudged back to Bartz's side.


 Cold metal on her skin.

Shivering.

Grey tinted room.

Black armor, gold accents.

Kain. Blue armor, red accents.

Rope burn.

Kidnapped.

Rosa returned to the present, but even as Cosmos addressed them, the memory still hadn't faded from her senses. She continued to receive quick, sporadic flashes of unconnected details. The warriors around her and her surroundings faded in and out, back and forth between the metal room and the water of Sanctuary. She couldn't root herself there with them, and when they quieted down and gathered around Cosmos, Rosa felt cornered and threatened. Unsure of their surroundings or who was really there with her. As quickly as she could, she ducked and dodged and slid to the back of the group, staying far away from both Cecil and Kain. Knowing she was drawing attention to herself but unable to care at the moment.

"Introductions are first in order . . . summoned two new warriors . . . in your campaign against Chaos."

New warriors? Gods, that was her! Rosa shook her head, blinked hard, and luckily, the residual sparks stopped right in time. She got a quick glance at Sanctuary, at all the warriors around her, at Cosmos up on her throne, and knew she was back for good.

"Quick with knives, a talented archer, and an extremely good mage. Rosa Joanna Farrell," Cosmos said, gesturing towards her. Every one of the warriors in front of her swiveled and turned to look at her. Rosa made sure to meet eyes with every one of them. She wasn't sure why - to assert herself? To ensure she was really here? Either way, she glanced at each warrior in turn. Some were stern, some were happy, some wore no expression. None seemed angry or distrustful, which made her feel a bit more at ease. She smiled, nodding her thanks at Cosmos. "And Bartz Klauser, who is a . . . jack of all trades?" She said it like a question, and looked at Bartz to confirm.

He nodded quickly. "Yeah, that's what I'd call myself! Hi, everybody!"

"You will most likely find him watching you spar for the first few days he is here. He can copy your skills and weapons and replicate them."

"Wow. Bartz is a Mimic? He'll be a powerful ally," Rosa thought to herself.

"You all will have the chance to introduce yourselves, and some of you already have. I trust you will make them feel welcome, and I trust you all will help them gain their bearings and learn all they can about this world and how we work to end this battle. In the meantime, listen close, all of you. Those of you who have been fighting this war for a while know that Chaos' forces have been quiet for some time. I fear they are plotting extensively, and I fear something large is about to transpire . . ."

Rosa couldn't focus. She couldn't take her mind off of Kain, being here now and also being in her dream. Was he on Chaos' side at any point? Because any rational person would think that he was working with the armored man in her dream. And the way he smiled at her was unsettling. Like he knew something she didn't. Like he was going to prove her wrong about something. Ugh. She was going to have to talk to him again after this. "No, thank you," she said to herself. She resolved right then and there to leave the instant Cosmos was finished speaking. She had to get away from Kain, and from the memory flashes, and from Cecil and his hopeful expectations.

"There's something I'm missing. There's some crucial detail I'm simply overlooking. Otherwise, this world makes no sense. These people make no sense. This war makes no sense."

It could be her lost memory. That was a huge variable that needed filled in to solve this equation. Maybe that was all she needed. Cosmos told her earlier that battle was a way to bring some recollection back. How did it happen? A little sparring, then BAM! It all came back? Or was it a much slower process, one memory at a time like she experienced already? If so, how long would it take before she remembered everything? Gods, this was so confusing. She didn't want to think about it anymore.

She returned from her thoughts and gazed at all of her surroundings, only to see Cecil staring at her. Crap, had she been staring back? Her cheeks colored in embarrassment; she looked down quickly and absently fingered the ribbon tied to the bottom of her staff. He was still looking at her. The weight of his gaze on her face forced her to look the other way, only to meet eyes with a purple dragon. Kain. The fear she felt in her memory twisted in her gut, but she forced herself to stay strong and hold her gaze with him. His lips pulled up into a slight smile, though, with his eyes covered, it was impossible to tell if it held any meaning. She shivered with a sudden chill that shot down her back, and returned her attention to Cosmos.

" . . . must always be aware of your surroundings. Look after each other, and support each other. You never know what those on the side of Chaos have in store for you, but if you protect each other, trust in each other, no obstacle will impede your way to your goal. Thank you all, and you may be on your way."

The crowd dispersed as everyone clustered in individual groups. Almost instantly, both Kain and Cecil closed in on her. No way. She was leaving. Rosa spun on her heels and strode away from the group, anxious to be rid of the prying eyes, away from the attention, the unanswered questions. Her image of Kain left her shaken, and she was desperate to have some time to herself to think things through.

Chapter Text

As soon as Cosmos ended their meeting, Cecil watched Rosa spin on her heels and run to the edge of Sanctuary.

"Where's she going?" Onion Knight asked, crossing his arms over his chest. "That's a little rude, isn't it?"

"She's probably overwhelmed. Give her some time," Kain said, staring after her as well.

"Wait, did anyone warn her about the manikins?" Firion asked, glancing wide-eyed at Cecil.

"No," he said. She needed to know or she could get hurt. He took off after her, calling her name. "Rosa! Rosa, wait! There's something-" She already pushed through the barrier.

She paused at the edge of Sanctuary's platform and stared, probably surveying the world below. Cecil pushed harder, sprinting to catch her before she left. By the time he reached the barrier and pushed through, she had already touched the blue gateway sigil and was gone. He slowed down and jogged to the platform's edge, staring over the side until he saw her appear in a flash of blue light at the very edge of the Cornelia Plains. She looked around, left and right, before deciding on a direction - left, towards the Melmond Fens. Then she took off.

"You're not going after her?" Kain asked behind him. Cecil didn't even realize he'd been followed.

"I'm not sure. Clearly she has some reservations about us, and I don't want to make her uncomfortable. But she could get hurt."

"She's strong. Smart. And skilled," Kain said. "She should be fine on her own."

" . . . Sure," Cecil said. "I believe in her."


Rosa all but ran to the edge of Sanctuary, praying the protective barrier she encountered on the way in would let her through. She placed her hands flat against it and gently pushed, and luckily it seemed to unfold around her. As soon as she stepped out, a burst of chilled air cut through her, and she hugged her arms over her chest. Sanctuary was like a perfect little bubble. So removed from everything, so protected and cocooned, that Rosa figured it was easy to forget that an entire world existed around it. The crystal platform that supported Sanctuary extended out for fifty or so feet in any direction, sprinkled with sharp crystal formations and grey, rolling clouds up above. Rosa walked to the edge and peered over it, and she received a perfect bird's eye view of the tiny, but admittedly beautiful, world.

It looked to be split into two horizontal halves, an upper and lower half. An ocean separated the two in the middle, and an extremely narrow path connected them on the right-hand side. Almost directly below her, Rosa could see the blue gateway sigil she used to first enter Sanctuary, and the ground around it was relatively flat on either side, wrapping around Sanctuary as far as she could tell. To the right she could see the beginnings of white, snowy mountain caps but she didn't want to stay around Sanctuary long enough to find out what the back looked like. The upper half looked to be covered in lava. It had a reddish tint to it, and the clouds looked almost black. Maybe there was a volcano over there.

"Rosa, wait!" she heard behind her. Cecil. She didn't want to talk.

She circled Sanctuary to her left until she found the narrow crystal path that led her straight to the bright blue gateway sigil. She touched it, and its light grew brighter and brighter, blinding her. She shielded her face and turned away while a feeling of weightlessness lifted her feet off the ground. She flailed, feeling like she was going to fall, and then the ground underneath her solidified once again. When she opened her eyes, she was standing at the bottom of Sanctuary's pillar, where she was just looking a moment ago.

She had two choices, left or right. Rosa considered both for a moment, then on a whim decided to go left. She only made it a few steps before hesitation stopped her.

Perhaps running like this, without anyone with her, was a poor decision. She did not know this world, except for where she was standing. She didn't know what the terrain was like, what kinds of enemies may be prowling about, what kinds of tactics she needed to defeat them . . . What if she came across a warrior of Chaos? Or worse, Chaos himself? Cosmos rarely left the throne, so she was told, but what if Chaos prowled around the world seeking to destroy her warriors?

"I should go back," she thought, and she even stepped in front of the sigil to do so, but she had her bow. She had her bow, she had her staff, and she had her knife. And based on her encounter with Cecil earlier, she remembered how to use them. Well, the bow, at least. The natural skill she knew she had gave her confidence that she could hold her own. She summoned her bow, feeling the weight of the wood in her hands, the draw weight, everything, and she checked to be sure her quiver of arrows was full. Drew the string a couple times and mimicked some practice shots before she decided she'd be fine.

Directly in front of the little archway she appeared under, Rosa saw a cluster of shattered, deteriorated, and broken boulders, shaped around a yellow stone in the middle. Rosa inspected them closer, and realized they weren't boulders. They were bricks, with some built up in a cylindrical shape, some square. They had small holes in them that looked like arrow slits and other battlements. It looked like the remnants of an old castle, and the yellow stone was meant to be the center. A shining crystal floated in the middle - a common theme, it seemed, these crystals - and decorative stone spiraled around it. She briefly wondered if the crystal did anything special, but then remembered that she didn't want to stay around for too long. Not when Cecil and Kain were at her heels and she was so desperate to leave.

She began along the path she chose, the one trailing from the left of her starting point. As she walked, she became aware of the constant sound and surrounding of water. The land wasn't particularly . . . wide at any point here. The ground on which she stood only rose out of the ocean a foot, maybe two. There were rocks, crags, and other croppings around, but no substantial bit of land that was large enough to accommodate a severe weather condition. It disconcerted Rosa, in a way. The constantly cloudy sky, even over Sanctuary. The mild weather there. The utter blandness of the terrain made this world feel as dead as it looked, with an ambiance of apathetic cruelty. She had called it beautiful when she could see it from above, but she didn't feel that way anymore. It was like the world couldn't make up its mind and instead smashed together an eclectic mix of terrains. Regardless, she pressed forward, pushing through brush, fighting through fine sand, and crunching over rocks and dirt.

At one point, the path split. A relatively narrow, flat, dirt path led her straight towards another castle-looking rock while the other path led her sharply to the left. A grey archway, surrounded by grey rocks, made it impossible to see what lay beyond, but it looked to be her only option considering the straight path would take her to a dead end. Despite feeling as though she was alone, Rosa's heart still beat a little harder at the thought of not knowing what could be waiting for her. She tugged on her bow string. Simply knowing she had it, regardless of whether she could use it, quieted a bit of her nerves. Taking a deep breath, she ran ahead through the archway.

The rocks on her left ended first, and as Rosa looked she could see Sanctuary from where she was. The whole pillar rose above the world like a beacon. It made sense, she realized, considering when she was up there the land seemed to curl around it. If she followed the land, she knew she would end up circling Sanctuary. She continued on the path, able to see the land all around her but unable to get to it because of the water. She could explore the path that led to the right before later.

At one point she came to another circle of castle remnants and a yellow crystal. For sake of exploration, she kept going, circling around the back of a line of rocks to cross under an archway again. On the other side of the archway was a circular area completely surrounded by rocks. The brush was arranged in a circle around a standing archway in the middle, and in the archway itself was a glowing blue sigil, just like the one she touched to leave Sanctuary.

"If I touch this one, will it take me back?" she thought to herself.

Was it worth the risk if it didn't? Once again, she didn't know this world. What if she was whisked away into some sort of trap? Either a trap set up by Chaos or a trap set up by the natural oddness of this world? She was banking on the fact that she could defend herself, but could she, really? She wanted to say she was confident in her skills, because to say otherwise frustrated her. It was insulting that she didn't even know her skill level.

Leaving was a poor choice. Back at Sanctuary she had sparring partners, opportunities for practice, people to answer questions and quell her concerns. Leaving was rash - and from what she wanted to assume she wasn't a rash person. She liked thinking she was level-headed . . . could she even say that when not two hours ago she didn't know her own name? She didn't know her name, she didn't know her own temperament, she didn't know a thing. The person who did know? Cecil. And she didn't want to talk.

"Calm down!" she scolded herself. "Practice here, if you're so concerned!"

The sigil was full of designs. It was circular, had x's arranged in it, rather perfect for a target. She turned her back to it, pulling an arrow from the quiver at the small of her back. She found out she could shoot well when she took careful aim. Cecil's hand could attest to it. But what about on the move?

Rosa nocked the arrow. She didn't even have any pointers to give herself. She didn't even remember what she knew about shooting, she just knew she could do it. She took off running, arching around the gateway. When she faced the sigil, she turned over her left shoulder and shot one, two, then three arrows, rapid fire, all aiming for the center. The first one was an inch too far to the right from her momentum. The second one was right on the mark, and the third was also an inch too far to the right.

Okay, so compensate for it. Right?

She did the drill again, aiming a little more to the left with her eyes. Just as she thought, all three shots hit their mark, right in the center of the sigil. If she did anything different with her body, it wasn't conscious. She decided it was good enough, at least to intimidate an adversary if she had to. Next, she drew her staff from her back. Cosmos said she was a white mage, and she remembered the names of the spells. They were still there, like a base knowledge she could draw on.

"Curaga," she thought to herself. That was the most powerful one. The white crystal began to glow at the top, and Rosa felt a warmth from inside her chest. She latched on to it, imagining it was balling up, and sent it towards the crystal. It moved inside her as well, down her shoulders, arms, and hands, and when it touched the metal of the staff the crystal glowed brighter.

"Curaga," she said aloud. The crystal's white light turned green, and enveloped Rosa. The light, and the warmth she felt in her chest encased her whole body, along with an invigorating tingle of the healing spell. Energizing and dynamic.

She could still shoot, she could still cast. She could go through the gateway.

Rosa retrieved her arrows, and walked up to the sigil. Unsure of what else to do, Rosa held her hand out to it, hoping some sort of magic would let her through, either from within the gateway or within herself. When nothing happened, Rosa simply tried to walk through it.

She heard a whoosh, felt the rush of air, and once again the ground spiraled away from her. The sensations made her a bit lightheaded, but it only lasted for a second. There was a flash, and she was back on the ground, on a dirt path of sorts that looked to be shaped in a cross. Well, it was almost a cross. The the long leg of the cross split at its foot into two diagonal paths.

It was completely abandoned. Totally dead, just like the world around it. There were shards of crystal of all different colors that littered the trail at certain points, but otherwise it was empty. Rosa turned around and looked behind her and saw a black statue sitting at the very top of the cross. The center looked like a horned face, circled in by a swirl. Rosa figured she had to touch that, and that would transport her to wherever she needed to go. She didn't think she could get out of here any other way. All around her was grey swirling - the clouds above Sanctuary. She must be extremely high up. She didn't want to step off the path and fall, if that was even possible.

This world was so strange.

A brief flare of rage festered in her heart, at herself and her memory, at this situation, but she quickly tried to keep it contained. Rage would do her no good, not right now. She needed to take a few minutes. Maybe even hours. And just sit and reflect. Lay down everything she learned and everything she knew, and line up some questions she could ask her comrades or Cosmos when she got back.

When she touched the sigil, she appeared in another unknown realm, but it was real. Not like the trail in the gateway. There were columns, so close together she nearly felt claustrophobic. The whole world held a purple hue, and in the center of the grey transparent floor was a bright swirl of blues and lavenders and white. Magenta chords of light arched overhead and coiled between the pillars.

Rosa took in her surrounding, then sat with her back against a column and stared into the empty sky. She felt like she could think here.

"Alright. Time to assess things," she thought to herself. "I know my name. My name is Rosa. Rosa Joanna Farrell. I am an archer, and a white mage." What else did she know about herself? "I hail from a world called the Overworld, and from a town called Baron." Cecil told her that, when she first met him. "Cecil Harvey and Kain Highwind hail from Baron as well. We grew up together." She had no memories of it, but she felt like she could trust Cecil based on his reaction when he first saw her. And based on the fact that he knew a lot about her. "At one point, Kain Highwind betrayed me." That's what she saw in that memory, anyway. Why else would she be tied up? And why would Kain smile at her like that, with that empty grin?

Regardless of what happened then, she was here now. "I am in this world because I was called by Cosmos, the goddess of Harmony. I am here to fight for her against the god of Discord, Chaos, and his warriors. I am fighting alongside sixteen allies. The Warrior of Light is the leader, then there is Firion, Tifa, Laguna, Vaan, the Onion Knight, Squall, Lightning, Yuna and Tidus, Zidane, Cloud, Bartz, and Terra, as well as Kain and Cecil."

"Cosmos told me that Chaos summoned one person from each of our worlds for us to fight specifically. She told me my nemesis' name is Golbez. He wears black armor, and I believe I saw him in my memory." Also, Cosmos told her that her memory would return with time. That told her that Cecil and Kain had to have been there and fought there for a long time since they remember so much. Rosa couldn't tell if she wanted to be here long enough to remember as much as they did, or if she wanted to end this war as quickly as possible and just go home.

"My plan is: to find Golbez. Cosmos said that he is friendly, and a spy for Cosmos. He will probably help me. In the meantime, I will engage and fight any other Chaos warrior that I encounter, so that I can achieve my goal and end this conflict." There. She laid it all out, what she knew and didn't know, what she suspected, and what she planned to do. She felt more grounded, and less frantic in the fact that she lost her memory. After going through everything she no longer felt that she didn't know a thing, and that she was wandering through the logistics of this world blindly.

Rosa stood to backtrack and make her way back to Sanctuary, but she heard a noise like a whoosh from behind her pillar, in front of the exit. She could hear angry footfalls pacing back and forth, back and forth. They growled through their teeth, too. Whoever they were, they were upset. Rosa leaned around the pillar to get a better look at them. All she could see was their purple cape. It was definitely a man, though. She decided that right as he slammed his weapon on the ground and drug it behind him with a shrieking scraping sound, leaving sparks behind it. He turned around in his pacing, but her angle was just off. She still couldn't see his face.

He rolled his hand around in the air, and a purple pulsing light appeared in his hand. Rosa didn't know what it was, but she didn't have time to figure it out. He spun and threw the light at one of the standing pillars. It exploded, and bits of rock blew out from every direction. Rosa cried out and retreated behind the pillar again, seeing bits of stone ricochet from around her cover. When it was quiet, she leaned over again and peered at the man, holding her breath.

He was hunched over, with a hand to his ear. The explosion must have harmed him as well. He was thrashing a bit, spinning all around. If she could just move a bit closer, she would see his face. She kept watch, leaning farther and farther. She leaned too far, and with obnoxious clacks, the arrows in her quiver shifted, hitting against one another. Rosa dashed back behind the pillar as all motion stopped.

"Where are you, you pathetic coward?" she heard him yell. She didn't answer, didn't even breathe in the silence. "You should know that I am in an extremely foul mood! Show yourself, wretched warrior, or face my power! Whoever dare challenges me, the Emperor Mateus of Palamecia-"

Rosa called her bow, and stepped out from behind the column.

Chapter Text

The Emperor would've normally gone to his throne to sulk after an embarrassment of that magnitude, but he was far too furious to even sit down. Instead, he left the Edge of Madness and teleported somewhere he knew he would be alone - a nondescript gateway in the Melmond Fens. In Cosmos' realm, far enough away that he wouldn't be seen and laughed at by Chaos' warriors.

He needed some manikins to destroy anyway.

Unfortunately, when he entered the gateway, there wasn't a single manikin in there. It was only a single-floor gateway. He made a poor choice. No matter, he could summon them to him, if he wanted. The gateway looked like a cross, with slanted feet off the end of the long leg. he called four manikins, one on each arm of the cross and one to each foot.

They don't attack Chaos warriors, but he wished they would. He was so angry, he wanted to fight them, and he wanted to break them. He wanted to stab his staff through their crystal hearts, over and over again, and imagine they were the real Chaos warriors. He wanted to rip their crystal skin with his bare hands, he wanted and watch the lights die in their already-dead eyes.

He didn't even have to break stride for the first one. It was a drab grey in color; a lower level, weak, pathetic copy of Kain Highwind. The Emperor lifted his staff with his power and hurled it to the side, watching as it frisbeed through the air with so much force that it stabbed straight through Kain's stomach. Chunks of crystals broke off and scattered, and the Emperor ripped it out while Kain crumpled to the ground.

The manikins were all gone within minutes, and he still had rage to spare. He touched the Stigma of Chaos stone and was teleported to his destination, the Realm of Darkness, to wallow in his fury. He paced angrily, dragging his staff along the ground behind him so hard, he left a trail of sparks in his wake.

"Rrgh!" he growled through his clenched teeth. "How dare they mock me?! How DARE they?!" He called a purple bomb to his hand and hurled it at the nearest pillar, not realizing how close he was in his anger. The explosion roared in his ears and knocked all other sound away, and the force blew his hair back. He cried out, staggering back, and quickly touched a hand to his ears to deafen the ringing. Rocks rained down around him, and he was showered in pellets and stones.

Stupid. Stupid, stupid!

"Those idiots don't even know who they're dealing with," he said to himself. "I have already achieved divinity twice in my lifetime. I have conquered the uppermost reaches of Heaven down to the deepest, fieriest pit of Hell and everything in between. Including the humans' pathetic realm! And yet they treat me like I am nothing! Ha! I am more powerful than six of them together!"

If they didn't know his power, they would soon. "They will bow to me if it's the last thing I do."

The ringing was starting to die down. He could start to make out the natural sounds of the realm. The rush of air that seemed to be constant despite the lack of breeze, the charged hum of the red bands for sliding, floating in the air-

And clacking. He heard clacking. Like wood hitting together.

Someone was here. Cosmos or Chaos, he didn't care. He would end them.

"Where are you, you pathetic coward?" he yelled, sweeping his staff threateningly. The silence went unbroken, and he quickly tried to pick up on the presence near him. He was still a bit disoriented from the explosion, and this wasn't his world. It was the Cloud of Darkness'. His power of perception quickly diminished, seemingly sucked into the grey void in the center.

"You should know that I am in an extremely foul mood! Show yourself, wretched warrior, or face my power! Whoever dare challenges me, the Emperor Mateus of Palamecia-"

The threat died on his lips as a woman emerged from behind a column near the center of the room. Though she was no woman like the Emperor had ever seen before. If a sneer wouldn't have been on his face, his jaw would've surely hung open. Instead, his sneer dropped, long forgotten in her presence.

She had the face of a goddess, as though beautifully sculpted by the Maker himself. Slender face with a sharp, contoured jawline. She had thick, rosy pink lips, arced into a slight frown - though he was certain that in their natural position they were shaped perfectly. She had a long, sharp nose, and her wide, piercing green eyes had deep, rich green as well as flecks of pastel and vibrant emerald greens. They rooted him to the spot, catching him in her spells. She had the thickest, most pale yellow hair, subdued down the length of it by ties, and it caught the light perfectly; her body, her face, her entire being tugged at him, drawing him closer and closer, until he melted beneath her emerald gaze.

She was a succubus, a perfect Lilith, ebbing away at his willpower until he was completely vulnerable.

Immediately, he knew he wanted her for himself. He would get her.

When he regained his senses, he looked her over once more before he spoke. "M-my lady, what manner of creature are you that you should have such beauty?" he asked, stepping closer. She was the most beautiful thing he'd ever laid eyes on-

The woman took a step back, her features shifting from gentle curiosity to instant caution. Her frown deepened, and he stepped back as well, being careful not to warn her off.

"My apologies if I alarmed you before," he said, sweeping into a low bow. "Pray tell, what is your name?"

She hesitated, but after a moment returned a shallow curtsey out of politeness. She was familiar with etiquette. Perhaps she was royalty?

"Rosa," she said.

"Rosa," he repeated, like ecstasy on his tongue. "It is not often that one comes across a woman so beautiful in any dimension, let alone this one," he said. Slowly stepping towards her like he was approaching a wild animal. Never breaking his gaze from her eyes. He didn't want to scare her, and he knew she was dangerous if she wanted to be. He could practically see her power, her gold aura, whirling around her like it was the sunrise stretching over land. It was intoxicating, that power. If he could but make it his own. Make her his own.

Again, the alarm returned to her eyes and her hand touched an arrow in her quiver. "No closer," she warned him. "Who are you?"

He could not scare her away. Would not. She was too beautiful for him to let slip. Too enticing.

Ah, what if he was able to combine her powers with his? "Just imagine the power we could have together. She could bring any man to his knees in less than ten seconds, and I can ravage whole kingdoms in almost the same time." His fists clenched at the thought of it, already imagining it was his fists crushing his enemies, but when his hands chafed on metal, he looked down and remembered he was holding his staff. It was probably scaring her. He flicked his eyes back to hers and cocked his head towards his staff, slowing bending his knees and putting it down with a sharp clang. "I am Mateus, Emperor of Palamecia, my dear," he said, stepping towards her again.

Her eyebrows furrowed, and her eyes trailed up and down his entire body. A change came over her, and the Emperor watched as the light faded from her eyes for just a moment. She looked confused. "Ah . . . you won't remember me. I am not from your world, my lady." He couldn't be sure if that was what was wrong, but he'd been in this realm long enough to know what a new warrior looked like and what an experienced one looked like. She was new.

Rosa's eyes flared, alerted by his voice, and she shuddered violently, withdrawing from him another step. For a moment he nearly reconsidered his advance. She was intoxicating, but she could probably slip away from him in an instant, and leave him longing. Before he could make a decision, her liquid honey voice melted through his senses.

"And what side of the conflict are you on?" she questioned, muddling his temporary flash of morality.

"As if it isn't obvious," the Emperor thought. He swallowed, trying to keep his expression calm. "My allegiances matter not," he said. He took step after careful step, and she allowed him to come within conversation distance. He could practically reach out and touch her! Did he dare? It would break all propriety, and very well may startle her off. But he had to have her. He had to touch her, and feel her fair, smooth skin under his hands. If she left, at least he would know.

"You, however, must be on Cosmos' side," he said. He reached out and drew a clawed finger down her right arm. Her exposed arm.

She lightly hopped back, and he grasped at air. "Enough! You're with Chaos, are you not?" She drew an arrow and placed it on the bow. Didn't nock it, just held it in her draw hand.

The Emperor's outstretched hand clenched to a fist. If he could only draw her to him, instead of warding her off . . . Didn't she see how interested he was in her? Didn't she want to know what he could offer her? He peered back into her face, and when his eyes locked back onto hers, it sent a jolt through his chest and straight through his soul, where he was sure she was peering. "Tell me, Rosa, how one as beautiful as you . . ." He teleported, reappearing right behind her. He swept a clawed hand through the ends of her hair, like silk through his fingers. He finished, " . . . gets called to such a conflict?" She whirled around but he was gone, back to her other side. Good. He would make her chase him.

"I don't believe I owe you any answers!" she said, backing away from the Emperor. She was only talking tough. The Emperor knew she had no answers. It frustrated him.

Maybe he could try another tactic. "You carry yourself as one of noble blood. Obviously royalty. Something in common between us."

"I've nothing in common with a warrior of Chaos," she countered evenly, sensing the change in his tone. Her fingers twitched on the arrow.

"Perhaps more than you think. I can show you, if you'd like. You have power, and so do I. Yours glows bright around you like a sun is behind you. I bet you don't even know your full potential, but if you spend some time with me, I can show you." Maybe he could entice her to him. He reached out to her, the corners of his mouth upturning into the slightest ghost of a smile. He stared into her eyes, and withstanding the ferocity of her glare took everything he had. Everything ounce of his willpower was spent resisting the urge to shy away from her and that power. A perfect queen, one of such beauty and power, on the arm of the conqueror of worlds. They would be invincible. If she could catch his eye, make him this captivated, he could only imagine what she could do to whole kingdoms, entire armies of men twice as susceptible.

The fingers of her left hand tightened around her bow, too, and something glinted in the light, catching the Emperor's eye. He broke eye contact with her and stared down at her hand, where the glint came from. "What?"

She turned to run, and for a moment the Emperor could only watch as the wind blew her hair back. He had to catch her - he still had a chance. He teleported after her, materializing directly in front of her. She ran straight into his arms and he caught her, trapping her bow between the two of them. Rosa stabbed the arrow tip right for his abdomen, but he caught her wrist. The Emperor snaked a hand around her back and held her still, glaring at her left hand, still clenched around her bow. She was wearing a ring. A ring on her left hand ring finger. Rosa struggled, pushing away from him, so he let her retreat but snatched her wrist and spread her fingers to inspect it.

It was massive, even by his standards. A circular diamond of outlandish proportions, set on a two-layered square, diamond, rose gold bearing. The band was also set with tiny diamonds and criss-crossed around her finger. The bridge underneath had an intricate design - a small diamond set directly underneath, with studded swirls trailing away from it. On her left. hand. ring. finger.

"A wedding band?!" No! No, no! Only he was entitled to brandish a woman like her! He alone should have her charms, her raw power, her beauty, her being! "Aaah, I see now!" he said angrily. "Refusing me and my obvious power and riches because you're already taken! I should've known-"

"N-no!" she stammered, trying to pull away. "I-I'm not! Let go of me!"

"Oh, you're not? Then what's this?" He shook her wrist hard.

"I don't- please let go!" He could tell that she was doing everything gin her power to stay calm. He only had one more chance to convince her before she panicked.

"Do you not see the potential we have, Rosa?!" he asked. He gripped her wrists tighter. "Your beauty, and your power matched with mine! Why, whole realms would be on their knees before our might! You and I, ruling together as two of noble blood should: with crushing authority! Monarchs of the entire world-"

"You are a tyrant!" she cried, ripping her wrists free. Before he could blink she had her bow aimed and an arrow notched and drawn. "I fight for Cosmos! You are manipulative and cruel, as to be expected from one of Chaos! I already know that I am nothing but an object for you, a target for acquisition. In what world would you even dream that I would join you? You claim to have power but all I see is a desperate man, trying to gain an advantage of some sort with empty words in pitiful attempts. You have no real power!" Her bow creaked under its pressure, but Rosa held the string taut, unflinching. She was physically strong, too. The Emperor could see the muscles in her arm, clenched and taut but unwavering.

No real power? No! He was the only one in this godforsaken world with real power. She was not refusing him. He wouldn't allow it! He wouldn't allow her to humiliate him, not after what he just went through in front of the Chaos warriors. He was through being embarrassed. She had killed his mood. He could feel the fire in his eyes and in his soul slowly dulling to a dim spark. The Emperor wanted to reply to her. He wanted to be sweet, he wanted to keep her interested in him, but all he cold feel was his resurfacing rage. He didn't know how else to respond. This was unacceptable.

His jaw opened, closed, and opened again as he tried to come up with a crushing retort. " . . . I am Mateus, sovereign of Palamecia. None refuse me. None refuse me! Not HER." He got what he wanted, or there was hell to pay.

Fine. He would make her pay.

"Hmph! 'Real power'?" he hissed. He would show this wretch what happened when he was refused. He swept his hand to the side and his staff drew to him from where he lay it down for her. "Allow me to show you what real power is!"

Chapter Text

Rosa was right to be wary from the moment she saw him. And as soon as he touched her arm, she should've planted a swift kick to his jaw and ran. But no, she stayed, and now he was attacking her.

"Why did I stay?!" she screamed at herself.

Rosa had never been so scared in her life. Her heart pounded in her throat, her breath couldn't seem to come fast enough, and she didn't know what to do. Oh, gods, she didn't know what to do. She thought she practiced. She thought she prepared. She didn't realize until now how pathetic her 'practicing' really was. A few shots at a false target? Really?

The Emperor let her go, and she ran behind a pillar, taking cover for a second while she knew she still had time. Her first battle. "I hope you know what you're doing," she warned herself, nocking an arrow to the string of her bow. Her stomach tightened, like there was a ball in there, knotting tighter and tighter. She felt light-headed, like she would be sick. Oh, gods. She would have to shoot him. She may very well have to kill someone, albeit a Chaos warrior, on this day.

"Oh, no, girl, you'll not escape me now!" she heard him yell.

So, now she was 'girl?' In a way, it justified her concern. Two seconds ago he would have ridden an antlion bareback for her if she asked him, but now that his prize was lost, she was nothing to him once more. "I called this one right," she thought to herself, momentarily proud in her judge of character despite not knowing a thing about this world or its warrior.

Okay, okay. She couldn't hide forever. Time to go. Rosa took a deep breath to calm her nerves. She side-stepped to step out from behind the pillar, but when she turned her head she came face-to-face with the Emperor. She let out an involuntary shriek and loosed her arrow straight for his face. He turned at the last second, and her arrow just grazed his cheek before clattering loudly to the floor.

The Emperor recoiled with a grunt of pain, hand flying to his cheek. When his hand came away, his mouth dropped open in shock at the sight of blood on the palms of his gauntlet. With a small growl he rushed at Rosa, using his magic to swing his staff for her head. She ducked beneath the blow, and he used the arc of the swing to bring it back over his head. He slammed the end down into the ground, throwing bombs in her direction. Inexperienced, she lurched clumsily to the side but the shock of the blasts threw her backwards.

Something natural clicked inside of her head while she was in the air. Something cold, and calculating. Rosa made a split-second decision to tip her head back and arch her back, throwing her feet over her head in a back flip. She landed on her feet, pausing to assess her situation. He was directly in front of her, blocking her exit. From what she could see, there were no other escape routes. He was a distance fighter, using magic to control his staff and throw bombs at her. He probably had other magics as well. Rosa quickly listed her advantages and disadvantages: she was ranged, mid-ranged, and close-ranged - completely versatile with her knife and her bow. She had white magic, so she could protect herself. She was at a disadvantage because she did not know what kinds of tricks he may have up his sleeve.

Another advantage: his ego. He was cocky, overconfident. Easily flustered.

Her sense of battle startled even her. Her mind moved at an impossible rate, fueled by adrenaline and instinct.

Until the memory came. Like a portal she was whisked away to another dimension as the flashback played out:

"Oh, you cherish this one, do you?" a thick, deep voice asked. His dark tones reverberated off the glass all over, making it seem louder than it was. The owner of the voice stepped closer to Rosa. "Then let me take her along as well . . . to hold in trust until we are graced with the chance to meet again."

He wrapped his massive arms around her, pinning her arms in place. She struggled and kicked, but he held her too tightly. He began to drag her from the room, and she screamed and fought. Cecil was defeated, lying on the cold floor of the glass room, and Kain was nowhere near her to help.  With a sweep of his cape, he teleported, cackling as the world spun away from her eyes.

She was snapped out of the memory by a mild blow to her middle. It barely even hurt, but it did knock her off-balance. Staggering back, she focused once more on the Emperor, who waved his staff in the air and drew another crest of purple light. Five orbs of purple magic shot out of the sigil. Heading straight for her. Frozen.

"Dodge, dodge, DODGE!" she yelled at herself. She leaned to the side, but the others had fanned out. She stepped right into another's path. It hit her shoulder, so hard she almost spun completely around. Rosa could feel the adrenaline starting to kick in. Her sweaty hands shook on her bow, so violently she saw the string tremble. She felt like she couldn't quite get a solid grip on it, and her chest tightened around her heart, making her pant harder just to breathe. The sweat beading on her hairline was already gently dripping down her face and she just wanted to run.

Run. "Just run!" she yelled again to herself, spinning around. She didn't get two steps before something glinted on the ground in front of her, like a spark. Pink-ish spikes rose up around her, looming over her and blocking her in. She skid to a stop, and the orbs of the Dreary Cell charged up, throwing sparks all over the place. She cringed and shied away, thinking they were going to immediately detonate, and landed on her backside.

The Emperor chuckled. "I believe you've just seen a memory, dear Rosa," he said, snarling her name. "A vision of your husband, perhaps? You'd best be careful, lest he always get in the way like that!" Rosa scrambled to her feet.

The trap detonated around her.

An orb exploded near her side, knocking the breath out of her. She choked, then careened right into another, and the fire engulfed her right shoulder.

For a moment, all she felt was white-hot, excruciating pain. A weak, breathless scream ripped from her throat while her skin sizzled and burned under her pauldron, and before Rosa could even pull away on her own she was thrown back around, onto her knees. She reached for her shoulder - when did she drop her bow?-

BOOM. Somewhere around her another went off. She didn't know where anymore. She couldn't see. Her ears rung. She was dizzy, and disoriented, and she couldn't breathe. Rosa dropped to her stomach and curled up, trying to make herself as small as possible to protect herself.

"Protect!" she yelled to herself.

Rosa knew the spell. Without thinking she reached over her head for her staff, but the burn on her shoulder halted her. Instead, she used her hands. The warmth built in her chest. She tried to speak the word, but her breath still hadn't come back properly. She barely managed a quick Protect barrier before the rest of the mines went off. She held it until the smoke cleared, but when she lowered her hands, the Emperor was nowhere to be found. Where was he, oh gods. Where was he?! Shaking, shoulder throbbing. She was weak, inexperienced, and he knew it. He knew it, and he was going to attack her at any moment.

Rosa circled, feet frozen to the spot in tension, looking all around for the Emperor's next attack. She picked up her bow from where she dropped it, pulling the string to mid-draw. Her shoulder twinged, her skin ached hot, and she could even feel the heat from her red, blotchy skin rising off of the wound. She bit her lip and swallowed down the scream she wanted to let loose.

When she didn't feel the arrow rest on her hand, she looked and realized she never nocked another one. Growling in frustration, she grabbed one and slammed it in place.

His laugh resonated through the world. Laughing at her, laughing at her pain, laughing at her clumsiness. His voice bounced and echoed off the columns, making it seem like he was everywhere. The small of her back tingled and tightened. She felt like she was being stared at. Attack coming-

Rosa jumped, spinning around. Nothing. She pulled the string to full draw, faltering for an instant as her shoulder pulled and tore with it. The wet, warm blood that had dripped to her fingers made the string slippery, and she had to take an extra second to get a firm hand on the string for full draw.

"Does your husband have powers like this?" he asked, his voice circling around her. "Hmph! And here I thought we could make use of our strengths. But now I see that you're the one with no real strength at all. Just another pretty face, doomed to fade just as those before you."

"Where are you?!" she cried, circling again.

"Hahahaha!" His warm breath trickled down her neck and she dropped her bow to reach for her knife. She swiped at air behind her.

If she didn't figure something out, he was going to toy with her forever, then kill her. Her stomach hurt, her shoulder hurt. She couldn't run. She knew if she did he would be right there with her to push her back. She didn't know what kind of magic he was using. Maybe she could dispel it. She thought of the word, even imagining the painful warmth from her shoulder powering into the spell. It traveled to the center of her chest again, and Rosa clasped her hands over it, hoping to draw more power. Cursing her shaking hands, her shaking knees. And the blood on her fingers. Staining her clothes. She would have to cast this to the entire reaches of this place to find him.

When she felt it was powered up enough, she threw her hands out, imagining a purple wave shooting out from her to all sides. She pictured it pulsing to the edges of the world. Filling the space.

Rosa stood and waited for him to appear.

Waited.

Waited.

Right when she thought the spell didn't work, she heard a whoosh behind her. There! Rosa took the knife in her left hand and spun over her left shoulder, hurling her knife overhand towards the Emperor. He appeared right in its path, and it embedded to the hilt into his collarbone.

"Agh!" he yelled, and Rosa felt a wave of morbid relief wash over her. She landed a hit. The blow threw his shoulder back, and she rushed him once more. She picked up her bow as she went by and parried a swing from his staff. With a sweep she ripped it from his hands with the arm of her bow, throwing it to the side. Her second swing back collided with the Emperor's jaw, and she went for a third, but he grabbed the bow, halting it. Rosa reached behind her back, grabbed a gold plumed arrow and the string, and leaned back on her heels as far as she could go, pulling the string with her weight. She snapped the arrow into place and let go. It pierced his shoulder, and she let her momentum carry her through a back hand-spring. She then slid forward, ripping her knife from his shoulder to jam it into his exposed ribs.

Forcing him to a knee, she jumped and pushed off his leg to over to the wall. Using the wall as a floor, she ran along shooting arrow after arrow. Snap! Snap! Snap! Snap! Snap! Until five fresh shafts protruded from the Emperor's chest. She crouched, pouring all her muscle power into her legs for a final leap from the wall, and she drew one last arrow, landed before the Emperor. Rosa channeled Holy magic from her body straight through to the arrow, so powerful that the tip glowed white from it. The heat burned her fingers but she held it, afraid that if she even twitched, it would slip. A snarl of power and rage escaped her lips as she put the tip to his throat. He lifted his chin and stared up the shaft at her, wide-eyed and panting.

"Shoot him, Rosa! Shoot him!" she screamed to herself. "He tried to kill y-"

No. No, no. Rosa's eyes were open, but for a minute there, she wasn't sure she was seeing anything. Like waking up, time seemed to slow down, and things started to pour into her senses from all over. She blinked once. Twice. Looked around and remembered the pillars, the magenta ribbons around her, remembered where she was. The pain of her shoulder returned and she winced, skin aching as her fingers clenched the string of her bow too tightly. She looked down and saw the Emperor. A real person. A warrior of Chaos, but a person, staring at her. Fear in his eyes. Fear of her. Breath laboring, weaponless, bloodied from the knife in his side, hands frozen on their way to clutch at it.

Rosa lowered the tip away from his neck and cast her bow away, but kept one hand braced against his shoulder in case he tried anything. She never took her eyes from his, willing him to stay in place - no, begging him with her eyes to stay there. She was sure hers looked as wide and fearful as his. Even as she leaned down and touched the hilt of her knife. He squirmed, pursing his lips together and muffling his noise of pain.

"Mmf!" She tugged her knife from his side and he gasped, throwing a hand to his side.

Everything in Rosa was telling her to run, now impossible to ignore. She slowly backed away from the Emperor before finally turning around and running from the battleground when she felt it was safe to.

Chapter Text

Ultimecia picked the perfect day to eavesdrop.

Her decision to follow the Emperor was on a whim. On any other day she wouldn't bother with him, but he tried so hard to be above them. He tried so desperately to seem untouchable that she jumped on every chance she could to watch him fail. She wanted to watch him try to lick his wounds and regain some semblance of the pride that Chaos shredded.

After he shoved and stomped his way past all of the warriors, she trailed him at a distance, masking her presence so he wouldn't know she had followed him. Of course, when they both got to the Realm of Darkness, neither of them could have known that Cosmos' new warrior would be there. Rosa, her name was. And Ultimecia couldn't have known just what this Rosa would do to him!

Refusing all of his advances and humiliating him; five arrows to the chest; two stab wounds, one in the front of his shoulder, one in his side. She took a few hits herself, but absolutely destroyed him in the end. Not a half hour ago, Ultimecia would have argued that Chaos destroying the Emperor was the best thing she ever witnessed. She didn't think it could get much worse for him.

She'd never been more happy to be proven wrong.

Time to gloat.

She cast away all of her shrouds and appeared behind the Emperor. He had both his feet under him, wobbling on his ankles. He tried to stand, but his legs failed him. He fell back to his knees with a small grunt of pain. Ultimecia circled around to see his face, but he had his eyes glued to the floor and his hands pressed to the bleeding wound in his side. He looked to be panting, taking tiny, shallow breaths.

This was too good.

"What are-you-doing here, witch?" he asked through ragged breaths. The arrow shafts rose and fell with his chest, taking small circles in the air.

Ultimecia couldn't keep the smile from her face. She could only imagine how embarrassed he was. "That was the most pathetic battle I've ever seen."

"Leave me be-"

"And how long has it been since you've courted a woman?" she asked. His eyes widened, whatever color was left in his face quickly blanched as he realized she saw that, as well. "She took to you, didn't she?-"

"Silence!" he yelled. He braced his staff against the ground and leaned heavily against it to stand. Ultimecia watched him struggle to a hunched over standing position before he threw his staff down and gently closed a hand around one of the arrow shafts. Preparing himself with as deep a breath as he could muster, he yanked on it, only to snap it. "Nrgh!" he cried, staggering forward. His panting intensified, chest heaving faster and faster. His eyes were wide and he was blinking heavily. "Damn!" he hissed through his teeth. He threw the shaft to the side next to his staff.

Now she could make him feel worse. "You shouldn't do that," she said, crossing her arms over her chest. "You'll break every single one of those before you ever get them out." He glared up at her.

"Thank you. I'm so happy you told me now. I couldn't have used that information earlier," he sneered back.

Ultimecia stepped forward and gestured to the arrows. "Allow me?" she asked. He opened his mouth for a nasty retort, probably something along the lines of, 'No, I don't want your help!', but he must have remembered his predicament. Ultimecia saw the glow of pride dim in his eyes, and he nodded.

She grabbed the broken shaft right where it entered his chest and braced herself to pull it out. "Ready?" she asked. Before he could reply she counted down, "Three, tw-" She ripped out the arrow. It came out easy - the tip itself was only buried an inch or two in his skin under his armor. He collapsed to his hands and knees, and she inspected the tip of the arrow for any bits of flesh she may have ripped out with it. "I do have to say, she was one of the prettiest warriors even I've ever seen." she said, kneeling next to him. She grabbed another shaft close to his chest and ripped it out before he could even prepare. "And you're lucky the shafts aren't that deep. Either that or she wasn't aiming to kill you."

"She was inexperienced, and weak-"

"Clearly," she muttered sarcastically. A bead of blood that had welled up in the cut on his cheek dripped down his face. The Emperor's eye twitched, but otherwise he gave no outward sign that he noticed. Ultimecia reached out and grabbed his chin, gently tracing her claw under it. "Tsk! Awww," she pouted, clicking her tongue.

He swatted her hand away. "I had her, right where I wanted her."

"Of course you did." He was so pathetic. She chuckled at how ridiculous he sounded, trying to defend himself with a flimsy lie.

"I-I swear, if you tell anyone of this, I will drag you down to the deepest pit of Hell and-"

Ultimecia grabbed the third arrow shaft a little too hard, and twisted it a tiny bit. The Emperor cut off to cry out and brace his arm on her shoulder to keep from pitching forward. She raised a thin eyebrow. "Oops. I'm sorry, you'll what?" Rip. "Don't make threats you can't keep, Emperor." Rip. She eyed the last shaft, then his side where blood still leaked from the hole in his armor. "You'd best keep pressure on that," she told him, raising her chin to his side. His lips curled up in a sneer, but he did as she said.

She smiled coldly down at him, hoping he realized exactly what she realized: "I know I've got this over you, foolish man. And I intend to use it to my full advantage." He winced, but to Ultimecia, it didn't seem to be out of pain. With a chuckle and a final tug she ripped the last arrow from him.

"Shall I fetch the surgeon?" she asked jokingly, laying out a hand to help him up. He snorted, instead picking up his staff and using it to stand once more.

"This stays between us," he warned once more, lifting his staff in the air and disappearing.

"Hmph! My lips are sealed," she said, drawing a zipper across her mouth.


Throbbing. Searing pain. Attacking her shoulder over and over again.

Rosa's sweat salted the burn, the watery seepage fused her pauldron to it - and every pump of Rosa's arms while she ran tore her pauldron free and slapped it back in place. Shot intense pulses crawling in waves over her whole wound. Heat from her blistered skin radiated all the way to her neck and face. She could barley focus on anything else. Tears welled in her eyes, threatening to spill at any second, and she almost stopped in her escape just to clutch at it and do anything she could to stop the pain. She could heal it, she knew. All she had to do was stop and cast a few spells on it, but she couldn't stop yet. She didn't feel safe.

She left the way she came, touching the Stigma of Chaos and traveling back through the gateway floor. The dizzying sight of the world falling away from her nearly knocked her off her feet, and she collapsed to a knee to keep her balance under her, shutting her eyes against the lights and the whirring sound. After what seemed like forever, she phased through the blue sigil. When the ground crashed under her feet again her shaking legs failed her. She collapsed out of the gateway, sprawling on her face and stomach in the tall grass. She didn't know how, but she had the presence of mind to roll to her side a bit and protect her injury.

The air was cool, just like when she first left Sanctuary hours ago. Was it hours? It felt like hours to her, but she couldn't be sure. The fight, the adrenaline, and the pain was distorting her sense of time. Either way, just the cool air on her shoulder was enough to soothe it a bit, and she sighed in relief. For a second. 

"Come on, come on!" she pressed, dragging herself to her feet. He could be behind her. He could be right behind her. The second Rosa had the thought, she felt the fear creep upon her back, pressing against her, poking her and bothering her. Urging her forward in panic. She staggered towards where she could see Sanctuary's pillar over the mountains that circled around her and framed her in. She ran back the way she came, but after the relief she felt, the tugging and ripping of the wound instantly brought tears to her eyes again. "Go, just go!" she yelled to herself, pushing herself harder and harder. She wasn't far from Sanctuary. She could make it. If she got to Sanctuary, then she could stop.

Unfortunately, Rosa tired out quickly in her weakness, only making it back to the narrow land bridge before her legs were jelly and her throat was too constricted. White began to creep into the edges of her vision and dizziness overtook her. She collapsed to her knees, dropping her bow so she could catch herself with her good arm. Her head was spinning, spinning, and the panic was still there, but it was distant. Rosa reached over the side and scooped water in her hands, throwing it all over herself - her face, what she could stand of her shoulder, her mouth. It was clumsy, she couldn't quite see a whole lot, and her limbs felt weak and disconnected, but it felt good to just lay there and breathe.

Eventually, she calmed down. Her breath came easy, the white faded, and she stopped shaking. She was able to drag herself to her feet again, certain she was going to be sore when all this hit her but too concerned to worry about it at the moment.

"I hurt someone." The thought struck her harder than she was prepared for, planting itself in the forefront of her mind. It repeated, over and over in her head. "I just hurt someone. I just attacked and harmed someone. I shot him. I shot him five times."

She was a White Mage. White Mages healed people that were hurt. People came to White Mages for protection and recovery.

"It was in defense," she told herself. "He attacked you, not the other way around. You were only defending herself." Yes, defense. Defense. How else did she protect herself back on Baron? The fact that she knew how to shoot proved that she used her bow before - even if she couldn't remember it. She wasn't weak, and clearly she wasn't one to hide in the back. She shot well because she practiced, and she must have practiced somehow on Baron. Considering Cosmos called her, Rosa assumed it was monsters. She helped to purge Baron of evil, and so Cosmos called her to purge this world of evil.

"You've obviously shot things before, so calm down!"

But people? She wanted to say no.

Rosa liked rationalizing it like that. It helped calm her down.

She stumbled and trudged all the way to where the path curved around and led straight to Sanctuary. But when she turned the corner, her eyes locked on a still form to her right. A man with purple clothes on, lying motionless in the dirt on his stomach. She gasped before she could help herself, and ran over to them.

"Are you okay-?" she asked. She reached out with her shoulder - her bad shoulder - and her flesh screamed in protest. Rosa froze, hissing a breath through her teeth, and touched his shoulder with her other hand. She rolled him over onto his back, and withdrew in horror.

She was looking at Zidane. She could tell it was him by his tail, but a grotesque, lavender, crystalline version of him. Even his skin and lips were purple, making what she could see of his cheeks seem puffed and suffocated. His neck had craned towards her when she turned him over, and she came face to face with milky, iris-less, cream-colored eyes, locked open. Staring straight through her despite being lifeless. She touched his skin and could feel how cold and hard it was, and she finally looked closer and saw the shardy, chiseled look the rest of his body had. It looked like purple crystals had grown out over his entire body. Even his clothes, his hair, and his tail seemed hard and frozen too, stuck in a half-curled position behind him.

Someone had slashed him, right across his chest. The crystal was broken and chipped around it, and when she took a peek inside the wound it was crystal inside, too. What is this? "Zidane?" she asked, quickly bending over him again. Maybe she could revive him. She quickly thought of the Life spell she wanted, and focused on sending towards Zidane. Was he cold from the crystal, or was he cold from death? She prayed it was the former, but the dread melted her heart and pooled it down in her stomach. She placed her palms on either side of his cut, and the warmth made its ay up through her chest. It touched her shoulder, and the tingling grated on her nerves for just a second before cooling relief. She resisted the urge to hold it there and cure herself. Zidane needed help, and he needed it now. She could heal herself later. It took her extra effort to tug the warmth from her, like it knew how much she wanted it and just wanted to toy with her for an extra second. Instead, it traveled down her arms and circled around Zidane's purple form, seeming to draw straight to the hole in his chest. 

Zidane didn't even twitch. Her chest tightened around a panic that took root, and her stomach knotted. He wasn't gone for good, was he? "Zidane, wake up! Please!"

She tried the spell again, focusing harder for longer, but even after the light enveloped him for the second time, he didn't move. She sat back on her heels.

Zidane . . . Gods, what would she tell everyone when she saw them? What would she tell Bartz, already his good friend after mere hours together? That she came across Zidane, frozen by some kind of Stone spell and stabbed? By whom? By what? A Chaos warrior? She had no answers, nothing to tell anyone.

Rosa stood from Zidane, and quickly looked around the small area. It was quiet, completely dead. It didn't look like anyone had been through here since she had been. Nothing had changed, except for Zidane lying here.

He wasn't real. It couldn't be real. That was the only conclusion she could come to, and she jumped to as quickly as she could, trying to rationalize it as desperately as she could. She just spoke to Zidane. And unless he somehow managed to completely and utterly mask his presence behind her, this was a copy. Plus, there wasn't a spell she knew that could turn a person into crystal. Stone, yes, but not crystal. It looked like a flawed copy, like an unfinished crystal sculpture of him. Someone had been through here, and destroyed it.

Sanctuary was there, right there, but Rosa didn't want to leave Zidane. If this really was him, she needed to know what happened to him. Leave Zidane, or stay and try to heal him?  After debating, she chose to go to Sanctuary. Cosmos would be able to tell her everything. It loomed overhead, bathed in its white light like a beacon. Rosa pressed the last quarter mile to the sigil, and teleported up to the top.

 

Chapter Text

Four steps.

Three steps.

Two steps.

One step.

And Rosa broke through Sanctuary's clear hexagonal barrier. She braced for it to brush her shoulder, but luckily her pauldron protected the majority of it from the sensations. The air inside Sanctuary was gentle and warm - comforting any other time, but it felt sweltering now. She was sweating, she was bloodied, and she panted warm air back into her lungs from sprinting back. It didn't help her dry throat.

She stopped just inside of the barrier and put her hands on her knees to catch her breath. She raised her head to see who all was here, and who all would hear the news about Zidane. Cosmos was on her throne still, like she hadn't moved. Rosa looked around for Bartz and she didn't immediately see him. That helped her breathe a bit of a sigh of relief. Someone else could bear the burden of telling Bartz after she told Cosmos and the others who were here.

When she felt she could speak better, she ran towards the throne. "Cosmos!" she yelled. "Cosmos!"

Cosmos smiled in her direction, but when she saw Rosa's singed shoulder her face fell. "Rosa-"

"No, no! Zidane!!" she screamed, pointing back the way she came with her good arm. "He was- . . . Just say it," she told herself silently. "I found him just outside, and he was- . . . DEAD," rang hollowly in her head, but the word refused to form in her throat. "Crystal! He was purple, and he looked like crystals had grown all around his body, and he- . . . Someone attacked him, and-" Rosa forced as deep a breath as she could muster into her lungs, and practically screamed out what she wanted to say. "He's dead!"

She didn't know what she expected, but she expected some kind of reaction. From Cosmos, from the other warriors around her. She expected solemnity, she expected tears, perhaps, if they knew Zidane well, she expected shock and surprise. She received none, not even from Cosmos. A dead and bored silence greeted her in the wake of her announcement, and she let the confusion cross her face.

"Zidane is dead! He's been turned into crystal! Does anyone care? I tried to revive him, but he wouldn't wake!"

"Your shoulder is injured."

"What is wrong with you?! Don't you care about your warrior?!"

"What you saw wasn't the real Zidane Tribal."

" . . . What?" Rosa asked.

Before Cosmos could continue her explanation, Cecil's voice called above the crowd, "Rosa!" He pushed his way to the front, and his face paled when he saw her shoulder. The small trickle of dried blood down her arm. "My god, Rosa, are you alright?"

"Yes, yes," she said quickly, waving him away irritably. "Who was that, then, if not Zidane? What do you mean?"

Rosa supposed she wasn't reacting properly to this, either. At knowing Zidane was probably fine - or at the very least the real Zidane wasn't lying out there turned to crystal - she should feel relieved. Happy, at the very least, but instead all she felt was confusion. And anger. Cosmos clearly knew about these crystal beings, and hadn't told her. Hadn't told any of them.

"Rosa, at least heal yourself first-" Cecil tried to press. She shook her head and held her hand up to him, palm out.

"Shush! Cosmos, What is this? Is Zidane dead, or isn't he?" The word came out easily this time.

Cosmos gently shook her head, and when she looked up her crystal blue eyes were flat and emotionless. Different from her usual warmth and motherly tenderness. "What you encountered is the monster of this world. They are imperfect replicas of the warriors who are called here, formed of crystal. We call them 'manikins', because they are mindless. They know only fighting, and they know only destroying those of you who fight for me."

"Manikins," she breathed, testing the strange word. "It's a copy?" she reiterated, just to make sure she was clear. "It's a crystal copy of Zidane? It's not really him?"

"It's not," Cosmos said, nodding to affirm Rosa's understanding. She clasped her hands over her heart and closed her eyes. "Zidane is still well. He travels with Bartz, the Onion Knight, Vaan, and Squall near the Bahamut Isles."

Rosa didn't know where the Bahamut Isles were, but she nodded as though she did.

"I'm sorry," Cosmos continued. "We would have warned you about the manikins, but you left-"

"'We'?" Rosa asked. "They all know about them?"

"My other warriors? Yes," Cosmos said. "The manikins have existed in this world for a while now. All those who have fought with me for a while have encountered them."

Rosa looked around, to all the faces who were staring at her. Staring at her, mostly expressionless. Some looked sad, but Rosa knew it was sadness that she had to find out the way that she did, by encountering one and believing her friend was dead for a hot second. Shame and embarrassment heated in her cheeks, and she looked down before any of them saw how embarrassed she was. She hated not knowing this world. She hated wandering around blindly, just taking things as they come.

"Did the manikin injure your shoulder?" Cecil asked.

Standing still for so long, Rosa very nearly forgot about it. Aware of it again, a heated itch sparked along the edge of it, and Rosa winced, resisting the urge to scratch it. "Ah, no. That was from a real person."

He reached out to grab her hand, but she backed away from him. "Too close, Cecil. Watch it," she silently warned him. His shoulders slumped the slightest bit, but he backed away a step.

"What happened?" he asked, dropping his hand to his side.

"A Chaos warrior threatened me, and attacked me. We fought, but I ran when I had him down."

"Who was it?" Warrior asked, barely after she finished her sentence.

"He called himself Emperor Mateus-"

Firion perked up from near the back of Cosmos' warriors. "You fought the Emperor?"

She nodded. "Is he yours?"

"Yes. He's a power-hoarding tyrant."

"I gathered as much."

"You wounded him, you said?"

"Yes. Not fatally," she added. "I won the fight, though. I sh- . . ." Rosa took a deep breath. "I shot him five times, if that did it. He got a good shot in, though." Rosa glanced at her painful shoulder, and knew she'd have to remove her pauldron to air it out, though she dreaded it. She decided to get it over with, gently undoing the buckle on the underside of her bicep. It was hard with only one hand, and Cecil watched her fumble for a second or two before offering his hand.

Rosa shook her head. She didn't want anyone's help. She already looked ignorant a moment ago with news of the manikins. She wanted to prove that she had some sort of strength, even if it was undoing a buckle with one hand. After a minute, the buckle came off, and the pauldron slid off her shoulder, grinding against the whole burn. Fiery pain, like she was burnt all over again, radiated across her shoulder. Rosa bit her tongue and managed to quiet down her cry of pain, but she wasn't able to stop the tears from welling in her eyes. She took a deep breath and breathed the pain away until she could move, sniffing in its wake.

"I could help you-" Cosmos started.

"No!" Rosa yelled. "I remember that you were weakened by calling me. Save your strength."

Hovering her hand over the sticky patch, she could still feel the heat from it. She closed her eyes and called the Curaga spell, drawing it from her hands straight into the wound. Like before, the tingle grated on her nerves for just a moment before soothing it in cool relief. Before her eyes the red skin healed into healthy pink, stretching over and closing the wound.

Rosa openly sighed in relief. "See?" she said, to Cosmos, Cecil, and anyone else who was still listening. "Good as new."

"Yes," Cosmos said, smiling down at her. "Well done. Your magic is extremely powerful, Rosa Farrell. Every moment you are here, you validate why I called you." Rosa saw Cosmos' eyes flick to the side, and when she followed her gaze, she realized Cosmos was glancing at Cecil. In turn, Cecil's eyes flared - the only visible sign that Cosmos' words meant something to him. Rosa couldn't even begin to guess . . . unless that was why Cecil attacked her before? Rosa quickly put the pieces together in her head: Cecil knew her before she was called. Upon finding out she was here, he became irate and that was why he attacked Cosmos before.

So, what, did Cosmos offer him a subtle dig? Or was it harmless? Cecil raised his chin, as though raising himself above her words, before turning and walking towards the edge of Sanctuary.

"You've earned a rest," Cosmos said to her. "Please spend some time here. And speak to some of your comrades. They may offer more insight as to the ways of this world, and they may be able to answer your questions."

Rosa hoped her indignation didn't show on her face. "I had assumed that to be your job," she thought to herself, "since you are the goddess here." And, in a way, the indirect architect of the ways of this world. Cosmos existed in this world first, then called them here. Shouldn't she know?

Regardless, Rosa offered a shallow curtsey to Cosmos and took her advice, walking over to Firion.

Chapter Text

It wasn't that the Emperor welcomed other Chaos warriors into Pandaemonium, but he didn't mind if the occasional warrior passed through. To plan, to pass information - or even just to chat, if the mood struck him.

Then again, after thinking harder into it, he supposed that depended on the warrior.

"Have you ever though about Exdeath's helmet? I mean really thought about it."

"Kefka, if you don't close that cavernous hole you call a mouth, I will step down from this throne and close it myself."

Of all the warriors that could have wandered into Pandaemonium. Of course they had to be Kefka.

"Luck does not favor me this cycle," he thought to himself. Perhaps now was a bad time to launch his revenge plot. Then again, if all went as he planned, he wouldn't actually be the one carrying out the revenge. Maybe that would help his odds.

"Why? Are you brooding?"

"Planning."

"As if there's a difference with you," he grumbled.

Every word frayed the Emperor's nerves. He could feel them unraveling one-by-one. His fists clenched so hard, his nails cut into his palms. "Do you want to be a part of this, or not?"

"I. don't. know," Kefka enunciated slowly, pointing each word in the air. "You. haven't. told. me. what. we're. doing."

"I'm trying to formulate the plan, but you find it convenient to distract me!"

Kefka crossed his arms and turned away, sticking his hooked nose in the air. "Well maybe if you concentrated better, I wouldn't bother you." He continued to grumble under his breath, and the Emperor figured that was the best he was going to get.

"From the beginning, then," he thought, taking a deep breath. "I send Ultimecia, Exdeath, and Kefka after Rosa. Simple. Kefka and Exdeath will agree on principle of Chaos warriors destroying Cosmos warriors, but I need to offer Ultimecia a reward for her services to ensure she agrees. What could I offer that would maintain her interest?"

A small prize, or a large prize? He supposed he had enough wiggle room in his plan that he could offer her a large prize from his larger scheme. His long-term one, to lord over the gods and over the cycle itself. Could that work? A piece of Time Compression in the world after this one?

He could suggest both. Suggest a small reward, perhaps a treasure. A Tome, or a relic of the Eidolons. If that didn't work, he could offer the large prize as a bargaining chip. Did the Emperor have a relic he was willing to give up from his collection?

"But Exdeath! Do you think he even has a face under there?"

He did have a swatch-

"I betcha five Gil he doesn't."

-of Shiva's veil-

"How much do you want to bet? Do you have a guess?"

"Kefka."

"Hmmmm?" he sang, raising the pitch to a level that rang in the Emperor's ears. He winced against it and rubbed the headache that just started in his temples.

He was looking for a reaction. He was looking for the Emperor to lose his sanity, to stoop to his level. He wouldn't oblige. "I know that you've set this special time aside to utterly ruin my entire day, but if you could perhaps . . . refrain for five minutes, then maybe I won't rip your mouth from your face."

"But Emperorrrr," he purred, "you know I'm impatient." Like the Emperor was trying to tease him. Ugh.

Fine. If he couldn't get Kefka to shut up, then perhaps he could send Kefka out. " . . . Do you want me to tell you . . . faster?" The improper sentence rolled awkwardly off his tongue but Kefka understood him anyway, perking up like a puppy offered a treat. He nodded enthusiastically. "I need Ultimecia and Exdeath here as well. Go and fetch them, and the moment all three of you are here, I will indulge you."

"Yes! Aye-aye, cap-i-tan!" he said, saluting the Emperor before hopping up into the air and disappearing.

Gods, finally.


"What is it that you see in Rosa?" Warrior asked Cosmos.

"What do you mean?"

"I know you favor her, but why?"

"Warrior, can you not feel her power? She is incredibly strong, physically and magically."

Warrior frowned, looking away from Cosmos to stare at Rosa, chatting softly with Firion. "Hm. I can, but she is clumsy and inexperienced.

"So were you, until you gained your bearings in this world," Cosmos reminded him. She smiled fondly, at what Warrior could only guess was the memory of him awakening in this world next to her throne. "When she regains a bit of her memory, she will be a force to reckon with. On Baron she was formidable, both as a warrior at Cecil's side, and as a beautiful woman on his arm."

"That's right," he mumbled. "They are married." Warrior paused, then said, "I assume you believe her to be pivotal in breaking the cycle. Otherwise, the talents you so value are lost here." Cosmos blinked, lowering her eyes to the water in front of her, and Warrior received his response. "You did not think of that," he said to her. Not a question.

"I did consider it, but I need her magic. She has to stay alive here. You know that those who fall in the cycle are doomed to Purification. I need someone - a powerful White Mage - to keep our ranks healed and fighting within and between cycles. If we fall less, and are given multiple opportunities within a cycle, we can switch to the offensive, and I can begin to amass power again."

So Cosmos acknowledged what he'd been noticing for many cycles, now: she was only defending while Chaos' warriors attacked again and again. Warrior would never presume to know more than Cosmos regarding strategy in this world, but within his reason it was wasteful to only call warriors for damage control, rather than switching to the offensive.

If Chaos' warriors continued with their normal ferocity, this Rosa would be gone long before she ever had the chance to do the job Cosmos called her to do.

"Why do you not tell her of her role here?"

"I'd rather her grow comfortable first before I press knowledge of the cycle on her. And the pressure," she added, "of being the only White Mage charged with keeping all of her companions alive. Any failure after that would be a morale blow to the ranks and a personal blow to Rosa."

Warrior looked down at Cosmos, and he saw immense sadness in her eyes, and a heaviness that seemed to deaden his own limbs as well. She was thinking of the worst case scenario - Rosa dying, and Cosmos' only hope of changing tactics dying with her. How could she not think of it, Warrior thought, if to win this cycle she needed blind luck, and blind faith that the person she gambled upon paid off?

Warrior vowed to keep his heart neutral, just as he did for all these past cycles. He had one duty, to Cosmos. Nothing more. Win or lose, Cosmos or Chaos, Rosa or no, he would protect her as well as he could until his dying breath.


So Zidane was alive. Zidane was alive, and what she saw was a manikin - a copy.

Rosa couldn't believe it. Of course she wanted to, desperately. She didn't want to think that Zidane, or any warrior in Cosmos' ranks, was dead. She even tried to repeat it over and over to herself to assuage her panic and dread. Unfortunately, it refused to take. The image of the dead crystal manikin was so vivid in her mind, and her worry was so potent, she knew that until the real Zidane walked through Sanctuary's barrier, she wouldn't be able to believe he was alive and well. The shreds of her doubt were too strong to ignore.

He was on patrol. When would he be back? After Rosa left Cosmos' throne, she asked Firion.

"Hello," she greeted him. He opened his mouth to reply but Rosa didn't give him the chance. "How long has Zidane been patrolling? When will he be back?" She didn't have the patience to idly chat.

"He left, ummm . . . " Firion trailed off. "Hey, Laguna, when did Zidane leave?"

The warrior with the blue jacket and brown pants turned towards them. "I don't know, like, a half hour ago? Probably." He shrugged. "Sorry, I wasn't watching when he left."

"No, it's fine," Rosa said. "The manikin encounter scared me. I'm anxious to know he's alright," she told them honestly. No reason to hide it. If they had any sort of similar encounter when they arrived here, they would understand.

Firion nodded quickly. "I get it. Then he'll be back soon. It takes anywhere between twenty and forty minutes to patrol the Isles depending on whether or not you encounter any trouble. Considering how many of us he took with him, even if he encounters trouble he'll be fine."

"Yeah," Laguna added. "Cosmos said he was okay, right?"

"She did," Rosa told him, "but I'd still like to see him." Verbal reassurance, from Cosmos and whoever else, wouldn't equate to seeing Zidane. They just didn't understand. "How often do we patrol?"

"There really isn't a 'night' time here in these worlds," Firion explained. "So we mark time by Sanctuary's shadow on the world below us. We send a patrol out every quarter-shadow, whether or not the first patrol returned. We don't send out more than two groups before one of them returns."

"That makes sense."

"Yeah. Though, once you've been here a while you tend to develop the 'feeling' of time in this place. I haven't checked the time in a while, but I can already tell we'll send out another group in ten minutes."

"Wow. You must have been here a long time."

"Me, I've been here . . . " he trailed off. His eyes circled around the air above her, clearly thinking it through. "Hmm . . . Not sure exactly," he finally settled on.

Rosa huffed out a breath. "Can anyone give me a definitive answer? Who's been here the longest?" she asked Firion.

"That, I don't know either. But if I had to guess, probably Warrior. Maybe you should ask Cosmos."

Rosa shook her head. "Cosmos doesn't seem too willing to answer questions right now. She sent me to speak to the rest of you. Which somewhat upsets me, but . . . I don't want to think about it."

"Maybe Cosmos thinks we'd be able to answer more specific questions. About the fighting," Firion suggested. Which made sense to Rosa, but still made her angry. Cosmos would know those specific things as well if she fought the battles every once in a while, and if Rosa had to guess, she probably didn't. Not with how weak she was.

"Maybe," Rosa mumbled, hoping to end the conversation. She stayed close to Firion but turned away from him, and stared out at the other warriors lounging around. Sanctuary was rather boring, she decided. Not much to do but sit around, or spar. She figured that patrols would be her saving grace for a while, since they were excuses to venture out and simply explore. With companions, this time, so she wouldn't have a repeat encounter with the Emperor or someone like him. She wasn't bored enough of Sanctuary yet to try another little adventure by herself. Not for a long while. Thinking back on it, the way he approached her and the way he spoke to her before he attacked . . . Rosa almost shuddered at the memory of it. With nothing else to do at the moment, and unwilling to speak to anyone else until Zidane arrived, Rosa decided to pass the time by looking at all the warriors and seeing how many names she remembered.

"Warrior," she thought, when her eyes roved over him. The horns on his helmet were incredibly identifying. His blue armor, and his physical imposition were as well. Plus, Rosa noticed, he never seemed to venture very far from Cosmos unless she asked him. He was beside her now, softly holding a conversation with her.

Of course she knew Firion. He favored roses as part of his dream. Plus, that bandana and odd hairstyle underneath made him incredibly memorable. Not including the fact that he was a one-man armory. Laguna, she had forgotten, but luckily Firion had said his name. She'd have to find some identifying feature to memorize about him to commit his name to memory.

He had a necklace on, that looked like two metal bars. They clinked together when he moved suddenly. Perhaps she could use that.

Tifa was easy to remember from her introductions. Rosa liked her upon meeting her. She had long, beautiful black hair tied only at the bottom, and a pleasantly smiling face. Rosa found her behind Cosmos' throne, talking animatedly to the man with striking blue eyes and alarmingly blond hair. What was his name . . . ? She couldn't recall.

Tifa was trying to corral another woman into the conversation, too. The one with curly blond hair who Rosa thought looked ready to burst into tears at any given moment. Terra. The women were easy to remember, since there were so few of them. Yuna was the summoner, with one blue eye and one green eye. Tidus had the kind of personality that demanded to be remembered, so of course Rosa could recall his name and face. Plus, he had one pant leg that was longer than the other and Rosa thought that was odd. One of the last warriors, off all by herself towards the edge of Sanctuary, was the pink-haired woman named Lightning.

"Ah! Cloud!" Rosa thought suddenly. "The spike-haired man's name is Cloud." There was a woman named Lightning, and a man named Cloud.

Rosa spun around slowly. Who else was there, besides Kain, not even in Sanctuary, and-

"Hi, Cecil," Firion said.

Rosa turned, and there he was. In his white and purple Paladin armor that seemed to glow with Sanctuary's light. Back just as straight and chin just as elevated as when he officially introduced himself to her.

"Firion," he said, nodding to him. "Rosa." He offered her his hand, pressing a swift kiss to her knuckles. Never breaking eye contact. "I don't mean to interrupt, but I was hoping to have a moment alone with Lady Rosa. Do you mind, Firion?"

"Oh! No, not at all! I'll leave you two alone. Sorry I couldn't be of more help, Rosa," he said, backing away from the two of them. Oh, gods. What could he possibly have to talk about, except to try and unintentionally pressure her into some sort of familiarity that just wasn't there? Rosa resolved right then and there that she would not feel pressured by him. She would not let him make her uncomfortable.

"You know," Rosa blurted out before he could speak. Assert herself. Get the first, firm word in. "I find your gravitation towards me somewhat . . . " Gods, now she couldn't find the word. Uncomfortable? No. But generally bold? Assuming? Brazen, invasive, considering he knew so much about her but she knew nothing about him?

He glued his eyes to the ground. "I . . . I know. I'm sorry. It is not my intention to make you uncomfortable."

"Well, you are," she wanted to say, but he already looked so downtrodden. She knew she couldn't destroy him like that when he wasn't doing it intentionally. "Could be worse," she thought to herself, already trying to rationalize it. "Hm," she snorted, adding, "better you than Kain, I suppose."

He looked up sharply. "What do you mean?" he asked, blinking his surprise and confusion at her.

"Before I left earlier, I had a memory return to me, remember? Kain was in it. I was bound, and I was lying on a metal floor. Golbez stood before me, and Kain bent down over me and smiled at me. But it was cruel," she said quickly. "It was the most empty and soulless smile I've ever seen. It scared me. Did Kain ever betray us?"

"Yes, but not of his own volition. I don't really . . . think it's for me to say," Cecil said carefully. His eyes flicked around, clearly thinking through his point and choosing his words carefully. "He went through many trials, so if you'd like to know, I would ask him. I'd rather him tell you himself than me say something poorly and potentially damage his honor and credibility. Kain is a man of honor, though, and I wouldn't hesitate to trust him with my life."

"But did he kidnap me?" Rosa wasn't in the mood to mince words. Not when something as significant to her as this occurred sometime in her life on Baron. Not when Kain was pretending that nothing was wrong here in this world - and, if she pegged Kain to be as malicious as she thought - taking advantage of the fact that she forgot.

"It was Golbez!" Cecil protested. "Rosa, I understand your wariness, but I promise you, whatever you think happened is not the whole story. He is self-conscious and very embarrassed of what happened. I don't want anyone blaming him more than he already blames himself, and making him feel worse. He is very dear to me, and I will not allow anyone to slander him."

Wow. Rosa didn't realize how much Cecil trusted Kain. She quickly relented, backing away from the conversation. "No, I'm sorry," Rosa said. "What I said was unfair. I didn't know it was Kain, but I made a terrible assumption."

"That's alright. Let's discuss something else," Cecil said, and his shifting eyes told Rosa how uncomfortable the conversation made him as well. "But anyway, I'm not trying to make you uncomfortable, at all, I just . . . I knew you, from before. I knew you from when we were in Baron together. We spent- a lot of time together." He hesitated on the last sentence, and Rosa looked up into his face, to try and read any sort of emotion there. She could see sadness - but it was always there, deeply buried in the back of his eyes every time he looked at her. Sadness, but also the softness of innocence and amiability. A small, soft smile. The way his eyes crinkled in genuine emotion at even the slightest show of it.

She'd seen that smile before.

"We were best friends," he added, and instantly, she was transported back to Baron, to her childhood:

CLANG.

The sound above them startled Rosa out of her concentration. She lifted her eyes from the book and glanced curiously at the stairs. "Archmagus, what was that?" she asked her teacher.

TCHINK!

"Just some sparring, probably. Pay no attention, Lady Rosa. You must be able to keep your concentration if you hope to-"

"Argh!"

"Stop! Please!"

Two mens' voices. Shouting and grunting. A clash so loud it set Rosa's ears ringing echoed through the halls of Baron Castle, down into the White Mages' training room.  "That sounds like real fighting!" Rosa said, hopping from her stool. The white and red skirts she wore as a White Mage in-training pooled around her legs, and Rosa had to gather fistfulls of them to haul them over her feet.

"Lady Rosa, do not interfere-" her Archmagus tried to yell.

"They could hurt each other! We have to do something!" she yelled, running past the Archmagus and tripping up the stairs. Open and friendly combat was common among the men of Baron Castle - even encouraged. Disputes were normal, after all, and the King always insisted on settling them 'Ye Olde Fashioned Way', as he called it, but this fight sounded too vicious to be in fun. Weapons didn't clash so forcefully when the parties weren't aiming to harm.

As a future White Mage, she had a duty to ensure that neither man ended up in her care.

When Rosa reached the top of the stairs, she expected to see two men, fully grown and clad in armor, trading blow after experienced blow in the hopes of landing the fatal hit. Instead, when she hefted her skirts above the landing and raised her eyes, all she saw were two boys. Not much older than she was at ten, one boy with bright blond hair and the other with soft silver hair. She recognized the silver-haired boy; he was the King's ward. Orphaned as a baby and taken in by His Majesty as a favor to his mother.

The two of them rushed each other again, but it was clumsy and almost comical. The blond boy hefted a too-long, too-heavy spear behind him while the King's ward sported a short sword that he had to wield with both hands. They slammed their weapons together, and they bounced off each other and hit the ground with another harsh metal sound. The two paused, panting awfully, so Rosa took her chance. She ran forward and placed herself between them.

"Hey! That's enough! What are you two doing?!"

The King's ward immediately relented, stepping away from the other boy and lowering his sword to the ground. She turned towards him, and he blinked in surprise at her. "S-sorry," he stammered. "Sorry, Lady Rosa." He bowed awkwardly to her.

He knew her name. Rosa's own surprise forced her back a step. "You know me, but I do not know you, except that you are the King's ward. Who are you?"

He glanced into her eyes. Smiled that smile. A smile that crinkled his eyes, and seemed to brighten up the room around him with its genuineness. It lifted spirits - she could feel it in his energy and in his politeness. He completely disarmed her and stripped her of her anger, and she could only smile back, staring into his royal blue eyes. Silver hair. Cute face.

"Cecil Harvey, Lady Rosa."

"Woah!" Rosa said. The memory seemed to strike her mind so hard, she felt the beginnings of a headache creep into her temples. "I just remembered something!" she blurted out, gently touching her hand to her head.

Cecil gasped. "What?" he asked, turning towards her. He lurched forward and grabbed her hands on impulse, overexcited for her. She almost pulled away, but realized that the motion didn't feel as unintentionally threatening as before. As though the memory brought with it a basic level of trust in Cecil she hadn't remembered before. He was so excited he even squeezed her hands.

"We were childhood friends! Right?" she said, asking him for confirmation. A wide smile split his cheeks, and he nodded so forcefully she thought his head would tumble from his neck. Joy and relief swept over Rosa, lifting enough weight off her shoulders that she felt lighter. Thank the gods. She remembered something about herself. A small piece about herself, but it was enough for her. A laugh bubbled up in her chest and tumbled out, and she grasped Cecil's hands in return. "We met when you were fighting with another boy-"

"With Kain!" Cecil said, practically vibrating with excitement. "We grew up together in the castle-"

Rosa tilted her head back and closed her eyes, letting the little sunspots that poked between the canopy of leaves warm tiny spots on her face. Was right then the best time to ask Cecil? Maybe she should save it for another time. Another day under the tree - tomorrow, when they would  no doubt be there again, perhaps? Any other day when the afternoon sun wasn't the perfect temperature and the breeze wasn't so refreshing and there were more clouds in the sky.

No. She had to ask him, today. She had to open up the dialogue. "Cecil, may I ask you something?"

"Of course."

She dropped her head, but did not look at him. She didn't want to see what his reaction would be to her question. "Do you even like training to be a Dark Knight? Do you even want to be one?"

"Yes, of course!" Cecil answered immediately. But Rosa knew him better than that. She knew after five years when his tone was genuine and when it wasn't. She could hear the uncharacteristic flatness that never bled into his normal, positive speech.

She threw the grass she was picking to the side and rolled towards him, resting her elbow on the ground and propping her head up with her hand. The hillside where they were laying was perfect for it. Outside of the Castle walls, where they could talk unheard, and uninterrupted. "Do you?"

It was Cecil's turn to look away. " . . . There's nothing else I'd rather be doing with my time, or my skills," he said distantly,  choosing his wording carefully. Rosa could tell that he meant what he said, but it upset her that he had to think of it in such a way. Having to word it exactly correctly so it wasn't false. That, to her, spoke volumes. "Plus, I owe a debt to His Majesty. He's never held it over me, not once. But I still feel I owe him something for taking me in the way that he did. Giving me the privileged life he has given me. If he wants me to be a Dark Knight, then I will be a Dark Knight. If he had asked me to be a Dragoon like Kain, then I would've been a Dragoon." He paused, and Rosa could see him thinking the entire situation through behind his blue eyes. "I think of His Majesty as my father, and he's treated me like a son. If he wants me to be a Dark Knight, who am I to question his judgment?"

I'm not saying that because of His Majesty, as though he made the wrong choice. I'm just wondering if it's what you want. I don't want you to feel . . . " Rosa couldn't think of the right words. "Pressured," she decided on. Or, no, that was the wrong word. "No, not 'pressured', but obligated. I don't want you to feel obligated to do something you don't want to do-"

"Rosa," he started, but she continued talking. She had to say what she was thinking.

"You're almost fifteen, so you'll be going to war soon under the Red Wings. I just want to make sure that you're doing what you want, because you could die. Do you understand that? I'm scared for you-" Cecil was already shaking his head. "-and I care too much about you to see you throw your life away over something you don't want to do. His Majesty would understand if you chose another path-"

"Rosa, I'm not choosing another path! Death is the risk that any man takes. I'm nearly at the top of the ranks already, after only training for four years - about to be promoted to Captain! I truly am happy training as a Dark Knight. It is what I want to do. I'm extremely good at it, and I want to make His Majesty proud. I know you're scared. War is a scary thing. But my training and my skill will carry me through."

"You're my best friend. I don't want you to go."

"Don't worry. You're my best friend, too, Rose, and I wouldn't ever leave you. The Red Wings' campaigns are only weeks long now, instead of months. We'll see each other soon." He sat up, inching closer to her, and  put his arm around her in a soft hug.

Rosa blinked, and Cecil was in front of her again. Not beside her. Not wide-eyed and small, but a confident man, holding her hands. Face bright with excitement. He'd grown up. A lot. She remembered that tree, the familiarity of that place and the feeling of the shade and the sun. She remembered the first time he took her there. "We always used to sit under a tree and talk. Just the two of us."

"That's right! But that wasn't the only secret spot we had. Do you remember the other one? The one that we shared with Kain?"

"Kain, wait!" Rosa called. "Slow down!"

"You have to hurry, or we'll miss it!" Kain insisted. He did slow his pace, but his long legs, even though he was only twelve, still gave him an edge over Rosa. Together the two of them ran through the Baron town, so fast that the air made Rosa's eyes water, stinging against her face. Past the Inn and Item Shop, past Rosa's mother's home, and behind the armory. They came to a halt at what looked to be a solid wall of hedges. It blocked their view of what lay beyond, but Rosa could tell that it was the stream. She could hear the gentle babble of water.

"What are we doing back here? It's a dead end," Rosa said.

Kain just shook his head, and walked over to the wall of shrubs and hedges. He grabbed a section of them, and to her surprise they came away easily, opening up like a makeshift door. Behind it lay an old, broken and decrepit stone bridge that traveled across the stream. Kain grabbed her hand and led her a few steps across, but when a brick wobbled under her feet, she froze in panic.

"Here. Hold on to me," Kain said, looping her arm in his. He carefully led her across the rest of the way, tapping each brick to ensure his footing as well as hers. When they were finally across he kept her arm locked in his, and led her down a dirt path, and up a set of stone steps. Rosa looked around the small stone enclosure they were in, and realized they were at the top of the reservoir. The three waterfalls that pooled into the stream spilled in front of her, and the water's roar echoed off the stone.

"Oh, wow! This place is beautiful!" Rosa said, squinting and shielding her eyes against the glare of the sunset.

"Wait. That's not the best part." Kain let go of her and dropped to the ground, lying on his back and facing the water. "If you lay like this, the sun makes colors in the water."

Rosa followed suit, and sure enough, as soon as she was level with the water, she caught the glints of an entire rainbow arcing over the foam and steam of the waterfalls. It was magnificent, a beautiful pool of color, and Rosa sighed in awe.

"Wow. This is amazing," she said. She looked over, and caught Kain staring at her.

"So are you," he muttered under his breath, but while looking at her. As though he didn't want her to hear it, but wanted her to know he was the one that said it. He offered her his hand, but she didn't want to take it. He dropped hints like that constantly, but she was already entertaining courtship from Cecil. She didn't enjoy his advances, subtle though they were. Caught in the middle of not knowing what to do, she started to shake her head before footsteps entered their enclosure.

"Hello!" Cecil said. "I see you showed Rosa the spot!"

Relieved for the timely distraction, Rosa quickly stood and went over to Cecil, dragging him over next to her. "Come sit beside me and look at this!"

Rosa returned to the present, and saw rainbow reflections in the water, just like in her memory. She gasped, believing for a split second that she was back home. Back near the waterfalls with Cecil right in front of her, holding her hands. But when she looked around in surprise, she realized it was Sanctuary's water, not the water of the Baron reservoir.

"Do you remember?" Cecil asked again. She almost forgot the question. Where they used to meet.

"The waterfalls! The three of us always used to go there and spend time together after we were finished with training for the day." They were only a few full conversations that she saw, but in her mind, there all of a sudden as if they had been there all along, were small snippets of other conversations. Hundreds and thousands of childish conversations. About new spells they made up, about what creatures could be on the moons, about anything and everything. Even a few fights that Rosa broke up between the two of them. Dragoons vs. Red Wings nonsense. When they got older, conversations about deeper subjects.

"Yes! The waterfalls! Rosa, I'm so happy!" he said, pulling her in. His arms wrapped around her shoulders, his warmth encircled her, and Rosa relaxed into his now familiar touch. He no longer felt foreign. He no longer felt like a complete stranger trying to win her trust. Instead, he felt like an old friend now. Already, she felt more complete. The holes in her heart were starting to fill, and she couldn't have been more happy. She lifted her own arms and curled them around him.

And just for a moment, everything felt right.

Cecil gasped like an exuberant child and pulled away, holding her at arm's length. "We need to spar with each other, too!"

"Spar? Why?"

"It may bring back some more memories!"

"But Cosmos said that doing battle with an adversary would bring back memories."

Cecil nodded quickly. "That is true, and battling Golbez probably would bring back the most memories," he said, "but doing battle in general can help as well. Especially if it's with someone you are familiar with. Would you like to try?"

If it meant bringing back more memories, she was ready to try anything. She wanted to know more about herself. She wanted to know more about Baron and about him and about Kain. She wanted to fill in every gap at once, and just be Rosa Joanna Farrell.

"Absolutely-" Wait. In Rosa's excitement, she very nearly forgot what was making her so anxious before. She still needed to see Zidane. Back from patrols in less than ten minutes. The nerves she felt before didn't compare to her happiness now. She almost thought about abandoning her search for the real Zidane, unwilling to return to that scary and dark moment.

Ten minutes. Talk to Zidane, and then spar with Cecil. She could wait, she decided.

"Oh. Umm," she said. "Wait. I still want to see Zidane. Can we wait for him?"

"Of course," Cecil said.

"I just want to talk to him for a moment or two. It won't take long at all."

"It's fine! Just let me know as soon as you're ready."

"I have . . . a lot of questions in the meantime."

Chapter Text

Twenty minutes went by.

Thirty minutes.

Thirty five.

Did Kefka even deliver his summons to them? Were they ignoring him?

Or worse, were they mocking him?

Of course they were, the Emperor thought bitterly, and the realization weighed down on his shoulders like lead, pressing him into the throne. They were probably laughing around Ultimecia's castle. Kefka was probably throwing himself around the room, howling, while she told them of what Rosa did to him. How she humiliated him. She probably told them how she had to rip the arrows from his chest, one by one.

And he could do nothing about it.

He needed them. If he attacked them, or threatened them, they would not agree to his plans. And he would be stuck doing all of the dirty work himself. Though confident in his abilities, it was the time frame that frightened him. The longer it took him, the longer Chaos had to amass more power. And then the ultimate goal would be that much harder to achieve.

The Emperor hated being indebted to people. Debt was a snare - for those who set it, an asset and fail-safe leverage tool. For those who ended up trapped, a death wish. For once in his life, his plans depended on people. He would not be indebted to them any more than-

Whoosh. The Emperor scrambled to sit up straight in his throne, thinking that Exdeath, or perhaps even Ultimecia, had decided to show. Instead, the gaudy purple of Kefka's face paint grinned up at him.

"Hello!" Kefka yelled, waving with his arm straight out.

Ugh. Of course. Well, at least he didn't come alone. Ultimecia and Exdeath were probably right behind him. The Emperor waited for them to follow.

And waited. And waited.

"Well?" he asked Kefka. His deranged smile dropped as much as it could, and his eyes flicked to the side once.

"Well what?" he asked back.

"Well?!" the Emperor asked again, sweeping his arm to the side to gesture wildly to the otherwise empty room around them. "Where are they?"

"Pfft!" Kefka snorted, shoulders shrugging so high they nearly touched his ears. "How should I know? I gave them the message, and then I left!"

The Emperor had to make a conscious effort to unclench his jaw. It didn't work. "I don't like to be kept waiting," he growled through his teeth.

"How is that my fault? Maybe they don't like you that much. Or, I know: maybe next time you should get off your butt and gather them yourself!" Kefka's voice grew louder and louder until he screamed the last word.

A headache sprouted above his brow, so the Emperor pinched the bridge of his nose to ward it off. "I gave you one task. One measly task: fetch the others. And you failed, even at that. How . . . dense can you be?"

Kefka scoffed, throwing a dramatic hand over his chest. "Dense? Well ex-cuuuuuuuse me! I was told to go and tell them that you needed them here so you could reveal your 'very important plan!'" he said, putting it in air quotes.

"No, you stupid clown! You were told to bring them here!" he yelled back, emphasizing the word.

Kefka stared, mouth open, eyes flicking above the Emperor as he mapped out the conversation in his head. "Oh," he finally settled on.

'Oh.' That was all he had to say. 'Oh.'

And he was one of the people the Emperor was depending on for his plans? He silently cursed his serious error in judgment, but he knew there was nothing else he could do. He needed someone who would destroy without question. Even if that someone was psychotic.

"No matter," he said, sighing out the rest of his frustrations. "We will have to wait here for them. And if they do not come, we will have to go search for them." This delay was Kefka's fault. "You obnoxious clown," he tacked on to the end.

The Emperor thought Kefka would take offense again, but it seemed to have the opposite effect. Kefka tossed his head back and cackled, so hard his feet lifted and he floated several inches in the air. "'Obnoxious', he says!" Kefka yelled, as though to a crowd. "I believe that was one of the adjectives Chaos used when he tossed you into the wall! Aaaaahahahaha . . . "

"Silence-!" the Emperor yelled, but he barely finished the word before the violent memory assaulted him. At the very mention of Chaos' attack on him, he felt it, all over again. His sight went black. His limbs went cold and dead and the ringing in his ears wouldn't go away. He felt himself being picked up, still blind and disoriented, and thrown against the wall. The Emperor's breath hitched as his chest collapsed in the memory. His breath stopped - everything stopped - as he struggled to regain himself.

He opened his eyes and found he could breathe again. He gasped, taking in as much air as possible, but the motions pulled at the still-healing wounds on his side and chest. He winced before he could help it, clutching at his ribs to steady himself as best he could. Suffering while Kefka cackled. His cheeks heated in humiliation. Of course Chaos attacked him in front of the others. Of course he was made to look weak in front of Ultimecia.

And then Rosa. He wasn't going to think about her. He wasn't going to think about how she refused his advances and humiliated him, and he wasn't going to think about how she cut his cheek with a well-placed shot that he barely managed to dodge. He wasn't going to think about how, in a momentary burst of raw power, she shot him five times in the chest and stabbed him in the side and very nearly shot a Holy-infused arrow into his throat.

A rage bubbled up inside the Emperor, so potent that his fists clenched and shook, claws cutting into his palms. His heart caught fire in his chest, pumping harder and harder, nearly beating out of his chest. The heat rose in his cheeks and his jaw clenched, so hard his teeth ground together.

"Awwww, you look upset! What's wrong, Emperor? Still trying to nurse that bruise your ego took earlier-?"

Rosa. Rosa Farrell.

The Emperor called his power, lifting his staff, and hurled it as hard as he could towards Kefka. Aiming the little metal ball for his teeth. It was inches away from connecting, before a harsh, throaty laugh resonated through the top floor of Pandaemonium, so loud it set the crystal crops rumbling. Kefka ducked from the sound instinctually, and the Emperor's staff sailed harmlessly overtop of his head. It grazed the feathers of his hairpiece, then clattered lamely off the floor.

"Mwaaaaaaahahahahaha!" Exdeath. So Exdeath decided to show. His relief at the thought of intelligent company distracted him from Kefka. He gathered himself, sighing out the rest of his emotion, and called his staff back. He attempted to act causal, twirling it with his fingers next to the throne. The air in front of him wobbled, like heat lines, and Exdeath materialized there next to Kefka.

"Deathy!-" Kefka yelled, but Exdeath cut him off with a raise of his hand.

"How amusing," Exdeath rumbled. "I rather wish the blow would have connected, Emperor." The Emperor stared at him in confusion, before realizing he was referring to his attack on Kefka. He let himself smirk, nodding his agreement, before Exdeath continued. "Such feeble mortals. You argue and squabble as though your quarrels possess any meaning in this world. Or in the Void," he added, and the Emperor felt that if he could have shaken his head, he would have.

"I suppose you presume your own quarrels have value, hm?" the Emperor asked. It was a tactic he learned while in this world. Find out what others' levels of self-importance were. If played into, those sentiments could be used to properly word a proposition, and make it the most appealing it could possibly be to that particular person.

Exdeath chortled in reply. "No more value than yours, Emperor."

Hm. Not an answer of value. So Exdeath didn't believe the Emperor to be worth his time. No matter. He could change his mind.

"To what do I owe this . . . assembly?" Exdeath asked. "Surely you do not intend to involve me in some petty scheme. Was Chaos' little threat not enough for you? Ohohoho!" he laughed, throwing his whole back and shoulders into it.

Every mention of Chaos' attack dug under the Emperor's skin. Exdeath's delivery was condescension in the most smug tone possible, carried with an air of superiority to remind him that Exdeath held no respect for him or his plans whatsoever.

The Emperor would have to be extremely careful.

He held eye contact with the slit in Exdeath's helmet, where he assumed his eyes were. He hoped to keep his expression as neutral as possible, to show Exdeath that his comments held no sway over him."I was hoping Ultimecia would be here. I have a . . . business proposition for you. All three of you."

"Hmph! 'Business'," Exdeath echoed. "What manner of business?"

"Ultimecia-" he started, but her cat-like purr filled the air, echoing around them.

"-is right here," she finished for him. She appeared beside Exdeath, stepping out of a pocket of darkness. "My, you're desperate to see us. This had better be a plan worth our time."

"I can assure you, it will be worth your time. I have . . . payment."

"Of what nature?"

"Don't you think you should hear the proposal first?" he asked her. He didn't want to give the prize away first. Otherwise, the two of them might form their own ideas of the difficulty of his task, and refuse before he even offered it to them.

"I suppose we should," Ultimecia said. "I'm terribly curious."

The Emperor nodded. "As you know, when one god's warriors fall, they receive Purification and return for the next cycle. Is that not so?"

"It is," Exdeath said.

"I need someone taken care of. A Cosmos warrior."

Ultimecia's lips twitched in a haughty smile, but for whatever reason, she contained it. Instead, she raised an eyebrow and let a knowing look glint in her eyes. Of course she knew who he was referring to. But just to rub it in, she asked, "Anyone in particular?"

"Yes. A new warrior, called only days ago. Rosa Farrell."

"What quarrels have you with a days-old warrior?" Exdeath asked. "Or does your cowardice in preying upon the weak know no bounds?"

"This has nothing to do with cowardice!" the Emperor hissed. "Call it . . . a grudge. Regardless, I want her dealt with. I want her destroyed so thoroughly, she won't be able to return to the cycle."

"I'm in!" Kefka yelled, throwing his hand in the air.

"This warrior . . . she is from your world?" Exdeath asked.

"No, she is not."

"Then I ask again - what quarrels could you possibly have with a days-old warrior?"

"My quarrels are neither of importance nor relevance! All I need for you to do is to destroy her. Make use of your role as the enforcer of Chaos' will."

"Oh yeah!" Kefka interjected. "I forgot that you're the expert on Chaos' will, Emperor."

"Be silent, or be gone, fool!" he snarled, pointing at Kefka. "You've heard my offer, and now have no more reason to be here!"

Kefka sneered in reply, grumbling under his breath. The Emperor swore he heard him say something about 'making him wait for something like this'. Finally, Kefka let out a big, dramatic sigh. "Well fine! Whatever. I'm in!"

The Emperor nodded his approval. It wouldn't do to show them he was anything other than in control, despite his attack on Kefka earlier. "In return, I offer everything you could desire from this world. I offer you, Exdeath, the chance to let a warrior sink into the Void you so desperately revere. Kefka, I offer you the chance to destroy, unrestricted. You can do with her as you wish."

Exdeath stared, unmoving, at the Emperor, and he resisted the urge to look away. He felt like Exdeath was staring into his soul, and it was incredibly awkward and jarring. The Emperor generally considered himself a master of deceit. He knew how to spin words like thread, and weave together the best of utterances. He knew how to calculate his body language, and he could turn the smallest gesture into the largest effect. A well-placed smirk. A slight quirk of his eyebrows.

That was the norm, but he couldn't see Exdeath's eyes. He had no idea if Exdeath believed him in the slightest, or had any interest whatsoever despite the smoothness of his sales pitch. After what seemed like forever, Exdeath answered him.

"I . . . also accept your offer. I suppose it is of no larger effort to me to see this warrior destroyed. She would, no doubt, fade in time." Without another word, Exdeath disappeared. That was two warriors down.

Kefka quickly followed suit, offering the Emperor a mock salute. "Goodbye, Superiority Complex!" he said, and disappeared as well.

Ultimecia waited for a long while, staring hard at the Emperor. Probably waiting for him to give something away, he realized. He stood just as still as her, staring her down before she spoke. "And me?" she asked. "What could you possibly have that would interest me?"

"I'm glad the others have left. I meant to speak to you about it privately. I have a number of relics of the Eidolons-"

"Worthless," she said, crossing her arms and turning away.

"A swatch of Shiva's veil? Worthless? I hardly think so. Monetarily, it is a tremendous prize."

"I have no use for the item, or the Gil it could earn me, and so to me it is worthless. You'll have to do much better than that."

Time to break out the large prize, then.

"Time Compression. On this world." Her eyes flared. He celebrated his small victory, at having garnered her attention. "I am planning something big. The details are not yet worked out, but my ultimate goal is to destroy Cosmos and Chaos both. That will create a certain . . . power vacuum, if you will. I had every intention of saving all of the spoils of this world for myself, taking the gods' places and amassing power, but if that is the payment you'll require, I will allow you to share in the world after these gods. We can split it equally between the two of us, and you can do whatever you'd like - be it destruction, be it Time Compression, be it anything - with your half. Time Compression still is your goal, is it not?" The Emperor already knew that it was.

Ultimecia crossed her arms again and narrowed her eyes at him, no doubt in distrust. She was not simple. She knew he was hiding something. She knew that wasn't the whole story, but the Emperor already told her that he himself didn't have all the details.

She didn't know that he told her that on purpose.

"And you'll reward me all of that, just to kill Rosa?" Ultimecia laughed, and the tinkling sound of it seemed to hang in the air over the Emperor. He kept his face as hard as he could, as still and as resolute against her taunting as possible. He couldn't let her know she was able to get under his skin so easily. "She made a lasting impression, didn't she?" The Emperor said nothing, and waited for her to have her fun so he could hear her answer. "Hm. I'll join, I suppose. But don't think for a minute that I don't know that you're hiding something from me. Even more than what you said here. I may not know what it is, yet, but believe me, I'll sniff it out." Her condescending sneer dropped into a frozen glare before she disappeared.

"Wait!" he yelled, before she completely faded from Pandaemonium. He thought she hadn't heard, but she returned, still with that frosty edge to her eyes. "I'm going to pretend that I didn't hear you threaten me. I reserve the power to retract my offer at any point - even after Rosa is dead."

Ultimecia scoffed, blinking her surprise. "And I reserve the right to refuse to go on your little revenge tangent! You actually admit to not keeping your word?!" she asked incredulously. "Don't forget that you're the one asking me for help!"

"Don't mock me, witch! I want her dead! Ensure that it happens, and you will be given all that you were promised!"

"I don't believe you," she answered coldly. "I'll do it, but not for you. With Rosa gone, that is one less obstacle to my own goals. Your own be damned," she spat. She disappeared again, and the Emperor knew that even if he wanted to get the last word in she wouldn't have returned.

He hated having to bet so much on her and the others. After all, none of them trusted each other, which left him a minuscule amount of room to act without scrutiny. But, his plans were already in place. By the time they realized he would be excluding them from their prizes, he would have already crushed Chaos, Cosmos, and them. Crushed them like the vermin they were.

Of course, he was betting much on speculation. He wasn't sure if destroying the gods was possible without breaking the cycle. They could return as though nothing changed. His team of destroyers could fall, or betray him. Regardless, the Emperor was ready to try. He was ready to be feared. Cowered before. He was ready for absolute power.

He was ready to become the new god of this world.

They all would bow to him.

He returned to the throne and sat down, idly drumming his fingers on the arm rest while he thought through his entire plan again. "Soon, very soon."