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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."

Chapter Text

"There he is, Rose," Cecil said, pointing over her shoulder.

'Rose.' The nickname sounded odd and too intimate for her ears, but her need to see Zidane quieted down the protest. Rosa turned and sure enough, Zidane was strolling through Sanctuary's barrier like he didn't have a care in the world. He had his hands clasped behind his head, and his tail swung low, close to the water. No purple crystal anywhere. No lifeless eyes. No holes in his chest. Not in any immediate danger. All the tension she felt rushed out of her, and Rosa found the reassurance she was looking for, knowing Zidane was alive and seeing him with her own eyes.

"Thank the gods," she breathed. "I feel so relieved. I thought he was dead," she told him, and Cecil nodded his understanding.

"Of course. No one warned you about the manikins, and they are . . . jarring . . . at first."

“Hm. 'Jarring,'" Rosa repeated. Rosa wondered what her own manikin would look like. Would her crystal be purple, like Zidane's? What would she see in her own dull and empty eyes? “Imagine seeing a manikin of yourself, with no warning,” Rosa suddenly thought. She thought she was upset before. She couldn’t imagine the kind of panic she would have felt if she ran into herself.

Behind him came Bartz, Squall, the Onion Knight, and Vaan, just like Cosmos said before. So Cosmos could tell the locations of all of her warriors at any given moment, and yet she had no concept of the fighting? Rosa inwardly scoffed as another feeling of irritation rose up inside of her. Irritation at being passed around to the other warriors to get answers to her questions.

Perhaps she was jumping to conclusions. Maybe Cosmos kept tabs on her warriors from afar, and that was why she stayed out of the fighting.

“Are you satisfied?” Cecil asked, and Rosa nodded back.

"Yes," she answered honestly, and sighed out all of her frustration. "Yes, I am. That was scary." She thought of the dead manikin again, and couldn't stop the shudder from trickling down her back.

"I'm sure it was," Cecil said, "but now you know about the manikins. Right? You can turn this into a learning experience. And the bright side is that Zidane is alive."

Rosa looked into Cecil's eyes, which always seemed to have a spark of child-like wonder in them. A base-level of innocence and amiability. He was always positive, and always seeing the best in everything. At least, that's what she had learned from her short time around him. She tried to imagine his eyes without that glint. She tried to picture what they would look like, glossed over and dead. "What does your manikin look like?" she asked him, since the thoughts had her wondering. "Have you seen yourself?"

"I have. My manikin is white - all white - when in Paladin form. When it is a Dark Knight, it is some shade of purple. Or perhaps a navy."

"So your manikin can switch freely between the two jobs as well?"

"Yes. Manikins possess all of the abilities that we possess."

"If you kill your manikin, will it come back?" Rosa asked. "Will I see that Zidane manikin creeping around Sanctuary again?"

Cecil paused to think, but Rosa could tell it was not the careful sort of thinking she knew him to be capable of. Not a, 'I need to watch what I say here', kind of thinking, it was a, 'How do I explain this?' kind of thinking. "Manikins . . . " he began, "Manikins are never-ending. The world simply makes them, at random we assume, and continues to make them. You will not see that particular manikin any more, but you may see another copy of Zidane that the world has made lurking about."

"Oh," she said, unable to think of anything else. "Why? Where do they come from?" she asked, half-expecting him to be unable to answer just based on her general luck.

"There is a place somewhere, on the outskirts of a very far gateway, that contains a dimensional fracture. They spill forth from there." He paused, then added, "At least, that's how I had it explained to me."

"Who told you? Maybe I could ask them to tell me."

"Warrior did, a while ago. But he told me he received the information from Cosmos after his own encounter with them."

"Oh. Of course," Rosa said. The trail, once again, ended at Cosmos. "Why are they being made? Why do they look like us?"

"That, I do not know," Cecil said. "Nobody knows, really. Not even Cosmos. After a while, though, you don't question it. Because in the end, it doesn't matter. They are just something else trying to kill you."

Rosa realized that Cosmos' warriors not only had Chaos warriors to worry about, but also manikins - which spilled forth from a broken part of this world for no particular reason. No reason other than the universe's arbitrary decision to make and dump them. And they carried a bloodlust for no reason, other than the universe's arbitrary decision to make them want to kill Cosmos warriors. "So they're volatile," she said. She never actually encountered a live one yet.

"Yes. They will attack, and attack until defeated. Or until you are defeated."

"And everyone has one?" she asked. At his nod, she asked, "Does Cosmos?"

"No. Cosmos and Chaos do not have manikins. But Chaos' warriors have copies of their own."

"Oh! Well, at least they have to deal with them too," Rosa offered. "We aren't the only ones with an added burden-"

"No. They do not attack Chaos warriors."

" . . . What?"

"They do not attack Chaos warriors. Chaos warriors can summon them at will."

" . . . That makes no sense. Chaos must have created them, then!"

"We don't know. All we know is that they creep into this world from the fissure and attack Harmony's ranks. But like I said, in the end it really doesn't matter. All you have to do is stay alive. Defeat the manikins, defeat the Chaos warriors, and stay alive."

Rosa supposed he was right. Did it really matter that much to her what form the threats took? Did it really matter in this instance where the threats came from? She shrugged her concession, and decided it was time to change the subject anyway. She could quiz him later. "How about that sparring match?” Now that the Zidane fiasco was settled, she had a chance to regain huge chunks of her memories that were missing.

Cecil's face lit up in a wide smile. “Absolutely!" he said, nodding eagerly. "Let's get someone . . . Bartz!” he called, and when his head perked up, Cecil beckoned him over.

“Why do we need Bartz?” Rosa asked, but Cecil only smiled knowingly at her. Bartz finished his conversation with Zidane and quickly crossed the distance to the two of them, jogging with a happy bounce in his step.

"Hey! What's up?" he asked.

"Rosa and I were just preparing to spar. We need a referee. Would you be so kind?"

"Yeah, sure!"

"Thank you. You've never seen the two of us spar before, so you will be an impartial judge. Also, this is a good chance to really watch both of us, so you can copy our skills."

"Oh, right!" Rosa said. "You're a Mime!"

"Yep!" he said, pointing finger-guns at her. "Good idea. Thanks, Cecil!"

"Thank you for agreeing. Follow me," he said, leading the two of them to the center of Sanctuary, towards Cosmos' throne. "The rules of sparring are simple. Keep it clean, and keep it safe. All of the weapons, skills, and powers you naturally possess are at your disposal. You may use anything, at any time - but in a fair, and honorable way. No trickery, or dishonorable action. It won't be an issue," he said, turning to Bartz, "but if you see something, don't hesitate to call it out."

"You got it."

"And never aim to seriously injure your opponent. Sometimes matches can get intense, but they should never grow angry enough to bring us to harm each other. We're all friends, first and foremost, but we also don't have the supplies or the time to continuously heal each other if we're injured. Make sense?"

"Yes. Keep it clean, and keep it safe," Rosa repeated. Despite her excitement earlier, she could feel knots beginning to twist in her stomach. It was only a casual fight but a fight nonetheless. The same sensations she remembered from her fight with the Emperor threatened to overtake her.

Breathing in short gasps, unable to catch her breath. Adrenaline, sharpening her senses. Fighting the urge to run.

Fear. Anger.

Pain-

"Right," Cecil said, pulling Rosa back to the present. She took as deep a breath as she could muster, and tried to huff out the rest of her tension. Why was she so nervous? Cecil turned and looked out at all the other warriors gathered in Sanctuary, and Rosa followed suit. He cupped his hands around his mouth. "Sparring match!" he yelled out as loud as he could. "Clear the field!"

Warriors got quiet. Heads snapped in their direction, looking to see who was going to fight, and an energized intensity rippled through the people in Sanctuary. Rosa could feel its energy, but all it did was electrify her already frayed nerves. Her heart dropped into her stomach, rolling with her building nerves, as she realized that all of them would be watching her. When they saw it was her, Rosa detected a mix of everything in their eyes and faces: interest in the new warrior and what her skills would be. Expectations of her strengths. Skepticism, just in case she didn't turn out how they expected her to. And something else Rosa couldn't place, as she saw eyes flick between her and Cecil, her and Cecil. She felt like an animal, on display for their watching.

All together, they made their ways to the edge of Sanctuary, lining along the barrier. Giving her and Cecil all the space they needed. Even Cosmos gave the two of them a soft nod before disappearing in a flash of light. She reappeared next to Warrior. Cecil reached out for her hand and she obliged, feeling her hand shake as she pressed it into his. She prayed he didn't notice, but he must have, because he hesitated just long enough to give her hand a small squeeze. "Don't be nervous. It's a small sparring match - just to see if you remember anything. Good luck, my lady," he said, and he brought her hand to his lips for a quick kiss.

Her heart started to beat out of her chest. Her breath felt ragged and out of control. What if she lost? What if she looked silly in front of everyone? What if they thought she wasn't skilled?-

A loud shring!, and a flash of light, and Cecil's purple and yellow spear was in his hands. Rosa cursed softly. Weapon, she needed a weapon. She pictured her bow, holding out her trembling hand, and willed it into existence until she felt it press into her hand. She felt like it took her forever to drag an arrow from the quiver, and she almost dropped a few as they tumbled out with the one she selected. Her fingers felt cold, numb. Clumsy and unpracticed.

"Okay! Ummm, at the ready!" Bartz yelled, putting his arm up.

Rosa nocked the arrow, and held her bow down in a low ready position. She watched as Cecil's back straightened. His arm came up, held across his chest, with his spear behind him. Poised and elegant. Confident. It only made Rosa even more nervous.

They waited for Bartz's mark in the dead silence.

"Don't go easy on him, Rosa!" Zidane yelled, earning a muffled chuckle out of everyone.

Zidane was rooting for her, at least.

She was unprepared, and she knew it. A brief thought of 'Maybe I should back out,' crossed her mind.

Too late. Bartz took one last look at both sides. "Ready, set, GO!"

Cecil's weight rocked forwards, and Rosa's nerves jolted. She flinched before he could even take a step. In a second her bow was up, aiming for his chest. The motions were so natural to her, and at the same time they felt so foreign. She knew the arrow would fly true. She knew she sighted it perfectly. She didn't know how she did it. She didn't even know how she knew. But she knew.

At the last second, she hesitated. "Don't aim to injure," she told herself. She purposefully lifted her bow, aiming somewhere random over his head.

By then, he had stepped towards her. She let the string slip through her fingers and Cecil didn't even break stride, didn't even have to duck. He knew the shot was too high. Still, though, he paused after the arrow sailed and slowed down to a standstill, lowering his spear.

"Don't overthink it!" he yelled to her. "And don't hold back! Fight as you normally would! We know when to yield. You won't hurt me." He flourished his spear, twirling it around his hand before standing at the ready again. He waited another second, giving Rosa a chance to draw and nock another arrow, before he ran forward again.

This time, she drew and aimed high on his chest, determined to let it fly as it would. She allowed him to draw nearer, waiting for him to get as close as he would before firing. He closed the distance, running at her in a dead sprint. He ate up the distance so quickly she nearly missed the opportunity she was giving herself.

He must have realized her play. When he saw she wasn't shooting he tried to stop, but his feet skid in the water of Sanctuary. Cecil's arms pinwheeled and he tried to change directions. She waited. Waited for the perfect moment while he was off-balance. Waited for his most defenseless point.

Rosa waited.

Rosa waited until the light of the two moons shone through her window. She waited until the little square-shaped moonbeams sat right in the center of her floor. By their location, it was two in the morning.

Time to get out.

Rosa returned to the present, with her bow still held at full-draw and with Cecil still staggered and off-balance. As though no time had passed at all. More out of surprise than purpose, she loosed the arrow. It careened towards him, so fast that Rosa's eyes lost track of it. Despite being so close, Cecil threw his arm to the side and deflected it with his bracer.

She went for another arrow at her hip, but Cecil bore down on her. He closed the distance too quickly, and she didn't have time to even pull the arrow before he was swinging at her. The blade of his spear glowed pure white as he tried a weak, one-handed swing at her middle. Rosa shoved her bow between the two of them, and his blade thwacked against the wood, jarring up her arms.

She was expecting him to pull away and take another swing at her, but instead he planted his feet and pressed into the block, putting all his power behind his arm. He brought his other hand up and pushed down on his spear too, so hard that Rosa's arms nearly buckled. If she fell, she'd be defenseless. She wouldn't let it be over that quickly. She planted her own feet and pressed back.

"You hesitated," he said. "Did you remember something?" His eyes were alight with something genuine and happy. He probably loved watching her remember something about their shared past. Especially since he seemed to know her so personally.

"Y-yes, something small," she stammered. "I ran away," she told him. "Or, I left the castle, or something." At least, that was the feeling she had from it. She could feel the purpose in her heart, and the nervousness of getting caught.

"To follow me," he confirmed, voice tight from holding the press. "After I was sent away to-"

Mist Village.

"Your Majesty, why have you sent Captain Cecil to Mist Village?" Rosa asked as she dropped to a knee. "He has just returned! Why are you sending him away again?"

"Cecil," he snarled, so loud and so nasty that Rosa flinched, "is no longer a Captain, and he is no longer in command of the Red Wings! He has been stripped of his rank and all of his honor! He should be executed for treason." The King paused. "But I, in my immense generosity, have instead sent him on a delivery to Mist Village."

"You always had a bit of a stubborn streak in you! Much to the chagrin of my nerves," Cecil continued. "If you need a moment, I will yield." Cecil broke the block, pushing Rosa's bow, and all of her weight, to the side. She stumbled past him and spun around ready to re-engage, but Cecil stepped away from her, arms up in a gesture of peace.

Rosa quickly shook her head. She wanted more memories. She wanted more pieces to connect. The fact that they were returning, no matter how small and insignificant they seemed, was relieving and exciting to her. "No. I'm fine. Let's go," she said, fingers twitching against the plumage of the arrows at her hip.

"As you wish," he said, smiling sweetly at her in a way that was so completely . . . gentle and proper and Cecil that it drew a small smile from her as well. It looked to her like there was even a bit of . . . affection. Could she say that? She didn't know if she should. To even think it registered something hesitant inside of her heart. Why should she think that it was affectionate? He was drawn to her, true, but she thought of him as nothing more than a helpful comrade at this point. And there was no reason to-

She cut herself off. "Don't flatter yourself, Rosa."

"You guys want me to reset you?" Bartz asked.

"No!" Rosa said, a little too quickly. "We'll start from here. Ready?" she asked Cecil.

"Ready. By your mark, Bartz."

Bartz put his hand up again, and Rosa quickly surveyed her surroundings. Sanctuary had a barrier that was almost the same as the one where she fought the Emperor. If she had to, she could use it to jump or run away. She could also use it to gain height over him if she needed it. There were crops of white stone - natural barriers all around. She could use them for cover to shoot from or heal herself.

Cosmos' throne could also act as an obstacle, if she managed to maneuver him to one side and her to another. And, she saw, there were blueish-green ribbons that arched all above and around them. They matched the red ones that were in the room where she fought the Emperor. She didn't know what they were, or how to use them-

"Go!" Bartz said, throwing his arm down.

On instinct, Rosa pulled four arrows at once. She nocked the first one and held the shafts of the rest between the last fingers of her draw hand. She drew and shot at Cecil again, before he even had time to step. Rosa didn't wait to see if he deflected it before she had the next arrow in her hand prepped and sailing. She shot the third and the fourth within seconds and snatched another cluster of four from her quiver. As she loosed the next round, she began to slowly circle him, hoping he wouldn't notice the change of angle while he was blocking.

He hadn't so much as moved from his spot. The arrows were coming too fast, and she had him pinned down. She figured she could hold him there indefinitely until she came up with something new to do, and she felt a surge of pride rise up within her. Rosa was holding out longer than she honestly expected herself to, and she hoped the others around her were pleasantly surprised. At least she hadn't done anything to embarrass herself, yet.

The arrows were gone before she was even done thinking, so she grabbed another bunch and continued to shoot, one right after the other. Rosa didn't expect him to do anything other than stand there, so when Cecil dove and rolled to the side, she was caught off-guard. Rosa was forced to pause and aim at his new position.

Cecil completed his roll, landing in a crouch, and right as Rosa drew to fire again, he popped up, jumping a few inches off the ground. He threw his fist up in the air, and when he gently opened his hand, it was like he clasped a small light. The light pulsed, flashing white.

Right in front of her, from thin air, another light appeared and pulsed, so bright that Rosa flinched away from it to shield her eyes.. It fanned out into a sigil, spinning inside of itself. Rosa didn't have time to react before a white laser shot out from it. It launched and collided gently with her shoulder, knocking her left shoulder back. She staggered and caught herself, but another laser connected just above her opposite collar bone, knocking her around the other way. She eked out a small squeak of surprise, her legs tangled, and she toppled to the floor as the last laser shot above her, where she had been standing a second ago. She staggered to her feet, momentarily forgetting to be aware of her surroundings.

So much for not embarrassing herself.

She didn't notice that Cecil had dashed towards her. Something flat and metal - the flat of his spear blade - slapped into her back so hard, her head whipped back and she saw stars. A sting like no other erupted across her shoulder blades where he hit her, burrowing deep in her skin, and she screamed in pain. Cecil pulled up on the blade and lifted Rosa off her feet, and she froze, winded, for she didn't know how long. Gravity started to pull her down towards the floor but Cecil's blade slammed down vertically across her back and threw her to the floor.

She crashed to the ground, landing on her stomach so hard that she rebounded off the floor and landed again. Her chest collapsed, her breath left her. She tried to suck air in but her chest refused to expand, and panic set in, even more potent than the pain as she realized she couldn't breathe. A small squeak crawled from her throat as she tried to pick herself up, and right herself to give her chest more room.

She practically forgot she was supposed to be in a battle until she heard footsteps splashing in the water behind her. Rosa quickly flipped over, drawing her knife from her belt as she realized she was completely defenseless.

Cecil ran up on her, but then stopped a few feet from her. "Sorry! Are you alright?-" Rosa threw a hand to her chest. "Breathe through your nose," he told her, as soon as he saw that the wind was knocked out of her. She sucked in as big a breath as she could through her nose, and was surprised when it pulled in easily. She instantly relaxed, and he allowed her to sit there in the water for a few more seconds as she caught her breath.

"Geez, Cecil, don't hurt her!" Tidus yelled.

"I wasn't trying-" he started, sending Tidus a completely distressed glance.

" . . . I'm fine!" she yelled as soon as she could, but even to her her voice sounded hoarse and small. Rosa sheathed her knife and looked around for her bow and realized that she must have sent it away without even knowing it. Well, fine. She figured it was time to change tactics anyway. She was breathing easier, and she let out one last, huge sigh to let him know that she was alright. But she still didn't get up. While she sat there, she tried to remember some of the spells she knew. She had Cure and all of its levels. Protect. Shell for magic. She knew Libra, which was an informational spell. She remembered Raise and its higher version, Arise, from her encounter with the manikin that she tried to revive. Dispel, what else?

Rosa blinked and looked to the side, but when she opened her eyes, she didn't see Sanctuary around her. Instead, her surroundings were dark and grey, and she was in a cave.

The Cait Sith opened its huge jaws and snarled, flaring its antennae around it in a clear threat. The Lunar monsters were strong. Incredibly strong, and much more vicious than anything on the Overworld, and they were only making it angry. Edge's shurikens barely even sliced its thick skin. Palom's Black Magic disoriented and confused it, but did little else to actually damage it. Cecil and Kain could barely even get swings in. Instead they were continuously blocking the swipes from its claws and from its antennae. Rosa was spending all of her magic just keeping everyone healed and strong when they took serious hits.

Its antennae started to glow dangerously white, and Rosa knew its Blaster attack was coming. Kain wisely backed away, leaping back several feet in one bound. Cecil watched him retreat in confusion, unaware that the Cait Sith was charging up.

"Watch out!" Rosa tried to yell.

The antennae lashed out, slapping against Cecil's armor on either side of his chest. Yellow charges pinged and jolted off his armor, and he stiffened from the electricity. He collapsed to the ground, lying completely still. So still, Rosa thought he took a fatal blow. She instantly took off towards him, but the Cait Sith snarled again and whipped its antennae around it, keeping her at bay. Suddenly, Cecil's form shuddered on the ground and dragged itself to a sitting position. Rosa could see that something wasn't right. His back was to her, but his motions were slow and sloppy, like he didn't quite have control.

"Cecil!" she called.

He turned towards the sound of her voice, and Rosa saw what the problem was. His eyes were black - completely black. The Cait Sith had Blinded him. He opened his mouth and looked like he tried to scream, but nothing crawled from his throat. He was Silenced, too. He dragged himself to his feet, but wobbled and collapsed again, swinging his sword wildly around him.

"Cecil!" Kain yelled, and ran forward to help him, but when he got close enough, Cecil jabbed his sword at Kain. He crawled after Kain on his hands and knees, too dizzy to stand up, and continuously swiped at his legs. "Rosa, he's Confused!" Kain yelled.

The Esuna spell was already tumbling from her lips, and the warmth was already starting to build in her chest. It needed to be powerful to heal all of his ailments-

Rosa opened her eyes, finished the blink, and looked around for the Cait Sith. Expected to be on the dark moon's surface. But instead, she was surrounded by all white, sitting in Sanctuary's water, and Cecil was in front of her, already healed.

Oh.

Well, at least she remembered a lot of what she knew. She had a Silence spell, that could inflict or heal. She didn't know if Cecil had any magic to him, but if she got the chance to try it, she would. She remembered Blind, but she didn't have a spell that inflicted it or healed it, except for Esuna.

And there was Confuse.

She remembered that one.

Which, she thought, could be fun. If she could get Cecil close enough to her, she could . . . "N-next time, don't stop!" she told him, trying to hide the fact that she just remembered something. "If this were a real battle, my opponent wouldn't stop." The Cait Sith certainly didn't. The Emperor didn't stop for her.

"Friends wouldn't hurt each other in a real battle," Cecil said. "I'm sorry." He stepped towards her and offered his hand.

"You're the one who said to fight like we usually would!" she fired back. She slapped his hand away, and called her staff to her hands, using it to drag herself to her feet. Good, now she had it in her hand.

"True, but I'm not going to attack you when you're completely defenseless! We aren't trying to harm each other here!"

"Says the man who just hit me twice in the back."

"I used the flat of the blade so I wouldn't stab you, Rosa."

"Uuuuugh, stop fighting and- . . . fight already!" Tidus yelled from the sidelines.

Rosa rolled her eyes, exasperated with the fact that they got so off-topic. "Bartz," she called.

"Yeah?"

"Offensive white magic is allowed, right?"

"Mmmmmm," he hummed, eyes flicking up in the air. "Yeah! I don't see why not! As long as you know the spell, Cecil said that every skill . . . "

Offensive magic felt different. While healing magic was a soft warmth, offensive magic felt cold and heavy. Like there was snow piling up inside of her. And while healing magic seemed to come from her heart, the offensive magic pooled lower, sort of near her stomach. Rosa let the chill build while Bartz was talking, and when she felt it was built up enough, she let it build in the crystal on her staff, too. It flashed, and Rosa thrust it forward like a spear and slammed it into Cecil's chest plate.

"H-hey!" Bartz yelled. "I don't know if that's-"

"Anything at our disposal!" Rosa countered.

The blow had staggered Cecil back, but the Confusion had held, so he dizzily splashed to his backside in the water. He blinked hard, but his eyes were glassy and wide, like he could only see very far into the distance. They flicked around wildly until they locked on Bartz. Cecil dragged himself to his feet, never taking his eyes off of him. When he was upright, he wobbled a bit, then ran towards him.

"W-woah!" Bartz yelled. "Cecil, stop!" He backpedaled wildly as Cecil stumbled towards him, swinging back and forth at him. "Ah!" he called a copy of Firion's small round shield to his wrist and blocked an overhead swing. "C-call him off, Rosa!"

Rosa gasped and ran forward. She didn't think this through. Confuse caused the afflicted to attack anybody, enemies and friends, at random. It didn't occur to her that he'd consider Bartz at all. Rosa slid in between the two and pushed Cecil back with her staff braced across his chest.

"Oooooooh no she didn't!" Zidane yelled. He grabbed the Onion Knight next to him and shook him, pointing towards Rosa and Cecil. "Look, look! She Confused him!"

"Get off!" Onion yelled, throwing him off. "I think it was a cheap trick."

"It wasn't cheap," Warrior said. "It is well within the rules to use whatever you have at your disposal. And Cecil let his guard down."

Rosa ignored them.

Cecil ran forward again, and thrust the tip of his spear at her stomach. She wormed to the side and planted her foot on his hip, pushing him back again. While he was at a distance, she recalled the spell and cast it towards him, removing it. He blinked the bleariness away from his eyes and saw Rosa, and ran forward as though nothing had happened. He probably didn't even realize he nearly killed Bartz, she realized.

"Mental note: be careful with Confuse," she told herself.

She figured that was enough of her magic anyway. She sent her staff away and called her bow again. He seemed to be breathing easily while her breath came in deep gasps - though she figured a portion of that was from having the wind knocked out of her. Cecil sprinted forward. She watched the form of his body. Slightly leaned forward, eyes up and intense, sword behind him.

Twenty feet from her.

Ten feet from her.

She heard a heavy sound behind her. A dry rustling, like someone was dragging something heavy in the dirt. She whirled around, thinking someone was attacking her from behind.

She whirled around, glaring into the blackness of the Cave behind her. Hoping to ambush them, six Black Lizards scuttled and crawled out from the shadows of the cave. They skittered forward on stubby legs, and their bodies shuffled through the dirt.

The one in front reared up on two legs and squealed in a clicking sound, and Rosa turned to alert Cecil. "To arms!" He turned, made a noise of alarm, and sprinted to engage, almost running straight at her.

The Cave rippled and shimmered around her. Water lapped at her boots, and for a second everything was white.

Cecil was still running towards her-

He brushed her shoulder as he ran past her.

"No!" she screamed, turning with him. "There are too many!" Cecil froze where he was, skidding in the dirt while his eyes surveyed the six Black Lizards around them. "I've got it."

She pulled an arrow from her quiver, already calling a Holy spell into existence. She sent it into the arrow, building it and building it until the tip glowed white-hot. She aimed at the nearest wall, well away from any of the enemies.

"What are you-" Kain yelled, but Rosa ignored him to loose the arrow.

When it hit the wall, it ricocheted, and the tip burst apart into six shots.

A perfect combination of a Holy Arrow and a Ricochet Shot. Each one bounced randomly off the narrow cave walls, and all of her party members ducked and dodged until all six found their marks in a Lizard.

Rosa opened her eyes, and Cecil was still coming in quick. She gasped, dodging to the side to give herself more time to draw. She pulled an arrow and nocked it, and turned to the side to aim it at the wall-

There were no walls in Sanctuary.

Cecil changed directions on the dot, still bearing down on her. He was close, incredibly close. Quickly panicking, with nowhere to shoot the arrow, Rosa aimed it straight at the ground instead. She loosed the arrow, and when it hit the ground and burst open into three shots, she half expected him to stop and at least try to deflect all three. They fanned out, one coming at him from head on, one bouncing to the right, and the other bouncing to his left.

Cecil jumped into the air and twisted, swirling his blade around him in a visible arc. The spin of his attack simply powered through her arrows, and they glanced harmlessly off of his armor. He twirled again, landing one swing against her left pauldron. The clashing sound rung in her ears as her arm jammed straight into her side, jarring her entire frame. An ache erupted in her chest, from when she was slammed to the ground, but before she could even react or recover, Cecil was circling again. The second swing hit her pauldron again, harder, and she felt all the bones in her arm and shoulder gnash together. Tears sprang to her eyes and she yelped, unable to quiet the sound before it left her.

His third strike to her shoulder shot stabbing pain up and down her arm. So intense she froze, clenching it to her side. It only lasted a second, and after it faded, pins and needles replaced it, into each of her fingers and all the way up to her collarbone. She lost feeling, her arm grew weak and slumped to her side, useless. She was thrown up into the air, and Cecil soared after her, surrounded by an aura of gold. Everywhere he followed, he left forms behind him - insubstantial golden transparencies that froze in the air and held his pose. They drew Rosa's eyes, and she lost sight of the real Cecil.

There was a flash of white light. A strike collided with her left pauldron. Her already injured shoulder. The pins and needles gave way immediately for blinding pain, and she spun dizzily around with the swing. She caught sight of Cecil for a second, but there was another flash and he was gone. Another of his gold forms was all she saw before another strike slammed into the small of her back, curling her up in the air. Cecil appeared below her, and she watched him dash straight up one more time, then flip downwards, plowing the flat of his blade between her shoulders again.

Rosa was hurled to the ground again and lay there, too dizzy to even try to get up, her arm too weak to even move. Her right arm moved slowly, robotically, like she wasn't the one controlling it. It hovered over her left shoulder, shaking, and she held it there waiting for a healing spell, any healing spell, to wrap around her. It took a few seconds before she was coherent enough to realize that she hadn't actually spoken any spell.

She blinked hard and fast, bringing her eyes into focus, and when Sanctuary finally stopped spinning, she spoke a real Curaga. The warm light in her chest spread over her shoulder, banishing the pins and needles. Like a jolt, her strength returned to her arm and fingers, and she clutched her bow tightly to her.

Oh gods, she was losing. Badly. She hadn't managed a single hit on him. Only a silly Confuse spell that did more harm to Bartz than it did good for her. She dragged herself to her feet, and spun towards him, not even caring if her fear showed on her face. She didn't have any more tricks. Nothing else had come to light yet from her memory. All she had was what she knew, and she didn't want to just defend with White Magic the whole time.

"You alright?" he asked.

"Wh-what was that?!" she sputtered. "I didn't even . . . see you. Only gold images of you."

"Firion named it Radiant Wing for me. Much more poetic than anything I could have come up with. Sorry, if it hurt you."

She didn't answer. Only lifted her bow to start the fight again.

Cecil paused, lowering his spear from his upright position. "This is only a sparring match. It's supposed to be helping you. Don't take it so seriously."

Rosa bristled in anger. "I won't lose," she growled to herself. She didn't know why she couldn't relax. The desire to prove that she had some sort of merit, maybe. That she wasn't just ignorant or helpless, or a burden to them until she remembered something. And plus, she thought bitterly, for something not meant to be taken seriously, Cecil hit pretty damn hard.

She didn't even know how to fight back. And it wasn't to hurt him, she just wanted to feel like she was doing something.

Cecil reset, but before Bartz called the battle, he raised his spear across his chest. It glowed pure white - Cecil's trademark, it seemed, as a Paladin: white light. He lifted it straight up above his head, brighter and brighter, and Rosa expected another flash of light. Perhaps a dormant power, or something. Instead, a wave-like pulse burst out from his body, and it was purple.

Menacing, powerful in an uncontrolled kind of way. It dissipated, and all around Rosa saw more dark energy swirling and dancing around him and glinting like crystal shards. Darkness had clung to his Paladin armor. Instead of the glaring whites and soft purples, he was wearing black armor, adorned with deep purple and gold accent colors. Where his Paladin armor looked smooth and fluid in its design, and even a bit ornate, this armor looked more simple and functional.

His Paladin shoes, which had been shaped into a point, had a gold, metal, crown-shaped plate over the front of his ankles for protection. But his black shoes now were rounded, with diamond-shaped guards on either side of his ankle rather than in the front. His greaves were plain in the front and had four purple spikes poking out on both of his calves. Matching diamond guards covered his knees, and as Rosa's eyes trailed up further, she noticed that his armor had muscle definition carved into the shaping where his Paladin armor didn't.

His belt had a purple 'x' outlined in gold on it, and the accents and colors wrapped around it in a waving design as well. The abdomen and chest were well-defined, and his giant pauldrons were flat and round, outlined in gold with one curved spike that stuck straight up from each of his shoulders. Matching spiked gauntlets and a high collar nearly completed the set.

Nearly startling Rosa was the helmet that had formed over Cecil's face.

A grimacing, nasty face sneered back at her. The features of the face were slumped downward. The eyebrows were furrowed deeply, the eyes themselves were narrowed and completely white, like dead eyes. White and empty like that manikin of Zidane. It had six horns, three on each side, that trailed off both sides of it, making him look like a demon.

It was such a startling contrast to his usual emotion. He seemed generally pleasant, usually smiling when she looked at him. Always bathed in the purest of radiance and elegance in his Paladin armor. His light was the pride in his eyes and his stance, gentle and ethereal, and with it he floated above the world around him. Now he looked enraged. All the light was gone from him, and it looked like the armor was specifically built to keep it out - that, or lock every mote away tight, never to reach the surface again. He looked unrefined and rugged. More grounded and fierce, but at the cost of the light that he took so much pride in.

Even his battle stance had changed. He wasn't standing straight anymore, with his chin elevated, standing firm against his adversaries. His stance in the dark armor was hunched over. Low and threatening, with his spear back behind his left side. He was looking up at her through the helmet's furrowed eyebrows like a rabid animal about to attack.

Feral, that was a good word, Rosa realized. His dark armor looked feral.

"This is my Dark Knight," Cecil said, after a while. He must have caught her staring. Rosa quickly closed her mouth and blinked herself back to her surroundings. They still had a battle, after all. She quickly reached behind her to grab a few arrows, but Cecil lowered his spear and stood up straight. "Wait," he said. "Do you have any . . . questions, or anything?"

"Questions?"

"Oh . . . No, nothing. I was hoping that seeing the armor would help you remember something." He went to scratch awkwardly at the back of his head, but when his hand came into contact with the metal helmet, he simply dropped it back to his side.

"Nothing specific," she said. "All I know is that . . . you were the King's ward in Baron. He had you become a Dark Knight as he had been." She knew that from the memory she had of their discussion under the tree. She had asked him then if he even wanted to be a Dark Knight. By then, he was very nearly at the top of command.

He nodded. "Yes. I suppose it makes sense that you have few memories of this armor. I only wore it on missions during my time with the Red Wings, and His Majesty never sent you on any missions with me. You were only an Apprentice, and he only allowed Mages to accompany us- Well, I still had it when we went to Mount Hobbs. You, me, Rydia, and Edward."

A brief thought flashed in her mind, of the green-haired girl, of a blond man in a red and orange outfit holding a lute. Cecil, frowning at them from under his black helmet. She could remember standing on an orange raft-like vehicle, the propeller whipping the wind all around them, blowing Rosa's hair around her and tangling it all up. She stared over the side, and as they crossed the shoals and the shallow rocks on the water, a huge, rising mountain loomed overhead, growing taller and taller and taller the closer they got.

She supposed that was Mount Hobbs.

"Let's keep going," she said. The respite was nice and she felt like she was ready to continue, at least physically. The healing she performed earlier had removed the heaviness from her arm and from her muscles, and just to double check, Rosa called her bow and experimentally pulled the string as hard as she could a few times. Perfectly fine to keep shooting, she just hoped she wouldn't be sore later. In a way, she realized she could continue to battle indefinitely, or at least, until she lost all of her magic power. Either spending all of it or just being too physically weak to call upon the power.

Or mentally weak, she added. She could feel the battle's tolls on her mind. The memories were powerful, random, and completely overbearing, and Rosa could feel a bit of fatigue set in. She felt slow and tired, like she couldn't be bothered to muster the energy to be as high-strung as she was at the start of the battle. More fighting seemed like a momentous undertaking - but she quickly realized that her desire to remember more, to not be completely in the dark, sort of quieted some of her exhaustion.

At Bartz's call, Cecil started towards her, and Rosa noticed he was moving much slower than she had seen before. His dark armor must have been heavier. If she had to guess, his attacks would be stronger, but less quick as well. Rosa realized that's why the armor was so much more rugged in its design. It was built for durability. For slow, heavy-handed, deliberate skill.

If he was slowed, she could definitely use that to her advantage.

Rosa called upon the cold, tingling power of offensive White Magic, and shuddered as it pooled down near her stomach. She whispered, "Time, hasten to my aid." Second nature to her. As though she never forgot. The piercing chill spread through her whole body, into her chest, her legs, her arms, and fingers.

From within, the chill touched her muscles, and everywhere it went she was left with a slight buzz. An intense vibration that awakened her senses and shivered up and down her body in waves. The Haste spell spread itself through her, and all around her, Sanctuary seemed to slow down. Cecil's slow and controlled run seemed even slower. Bartz's blinking face looked robotic and methodical.

This would work incredibly to her advantage.

Rosa looked around - she knew she had time - and took in her surroundings. There weren't any white barriers around in this area of Sanctuary, but one of the green bands that she saw earlier curved and touched the ground not far from them. The course of the battle had sent her close to some of the arrows she shot earlier, so she circled around and picked some of them up. Her quiver wasn't close to empty, but it never hurt to keep a few extras. She could even use magic arrows if she had to. She turned back to Cecil and he was halfway to her, still running at her.

Nocking the first of the arrows she picked up, an idea came to her. With no barriers here, she needed something to distract him with. Or something she could use to give herself the upper hand. She held the next arrows in her draw hand and prepared for another Rapid Shot, but before she shot the volley, she aimed the first arrow far over Cecil's head. Not even close to him. Her eyes scanned the area over his head, trailing a wide path through the air then crossing it back to Cecil.

She loosed the arrow, and it sailed far over Cecil's head. He paid it no attention, still running towards her at a slow and steady pace due to her Haste. She then finished her Rapid Shot, shooting arrow after arrow after arrow, one right after the other at him. Cecil leaned to the side and dodged the first one, but the second one came too fast for him. It pierced his right shoulder, punching through the thick pauldron. He grunted in pain, stumbling as the cadence of his sprint was thrown off. The next arrow stabbed just above his collarbone on the same side. He backpedaled away, and happened to dodge the third arrow by chance.

She kept them away from the left side of his chest, away from his heart just in case the arrows buried too deep in him and actually drew blood. The other two sailed for him, too fast for his eyes, and while he handled them, Rosa kept her eyes on the arrow she sent through the air before the Rapid Shot. It slowly trailed up and up, along the path Rosa drew with her eyes. It curved along the wide arc, seeming to slow to a dead stop before circling back around and swept back down towards Cecil's back and honed in on him, picking up speed and power.

He was still reeling from the two shafts that managed to pierce into his shoulder and arm, and didn't even notice the arrow coming for his back. It slammed straight into the center of his shoulders and threw him down flat to the ground. Flat on his stomach. His weight snapped the two already in him, and Rosa panicked for a brief second while he slid forward in the water from the force of her Homing Arrow. She started towards him, afraid that his fall had buried the arrow tips even further and potentially caused him more damage than she intended.

To her relief he slowly dragged himself to his hands and knees, and it looked even more slow and labored to her because of the spell. She went to call out to him, and waved her off. "Good shot," he said.

"Did those arrows hurt you?"

"No. They're just stuck in my armor. Keep going!" he said, trying to reach around to grab at the other one. He couldn't get to it in his armor, and resorted to leaving it there.

The tingle Rosa had felt from her spell was growing more and more faint, fading away from the fibers of her muscles. Occasionally a residual twitch came to her, or a pulse, but gradually the world around her seemed to speed up as she slowed down. Cecil used his spear to haul himself to his feet, groaning with the effort. He continued to run towards her, and a cold chill spread down Rosa's back as she realized how quick he seemed now that she no longer was Hastened.

She called upon one of the spells she knew from her memory of the Cait Sith, and sent a Paralyze spell his way. She actually positioned the magic in front of him, so that he would run right into it. To her relief, his path carried him straight through the center of its concentration, and immediately she watched the effects set in. He stopped exactly where he was, with his body leaned forward, poised for the next step. His body started to tremble with the effort of trying to break through the spell and move. With tremendous strain he picked his foot up and it inched forward, almost painfully, but before long he froze like that. He struggled, growling low in his throat - Rosa could see the occasional jolt of his body.

She froze, unsure of what to do next. If she attacked him now, he would be defenseless, and after her accidental stunt with Confuse she didn't think that would be very sportsmanlike. In the same breath, she didn't want to just sit and watch him struggle. If this were a real battle, she wouldn't watch her enemy, gloating like that. Besides, it would look extremely pretentious. She couldn't even remember if the spell faded or if she had to remove it herself, like Confuse.

Thankfully, Cecil saved her from her conflict. He yelled out again, and with a bright flash of white light, he shifted back to his Paladin armor. The shift allowed him to break through the spell, and Rosa could feel it collapse pathetically around him. He only spent a second back in his Paladin armor before he stood up on his toes, raising his spear straight up, as far above his head as he possibly could. He shifted back to Dark Knight, and slammed his spear to the ground.

A column of crackling, black and purple flame spouted out from the spear with a boom that sounded like an explosion. It shot up high, flickering and spitting, and before it fully dissipated another shot up in front of it. Then another, then another, coming towards her in a line. All thought left her, awestruck at the sight before her. She had no idea Cecil could be that powerful.

Rosa staggered to the side at the sight of it, and to her horror it seemed to track her movement, inching to the side after her. Her panic swelled and her heart jumped into her throat as she realized to completely dodge this she would have to time it exactly right. The closer and closer it drew, gaining speed and power with hit, the more she felt it. It shook the ground it was so powerful. It shook her, rattling her bones inside of her.

The Tower of Zot shook around them, so hard that it rattled the bones inside of her. The walls visibly trembled, and bits of concrete, glass, and crystal rained around them as it broke free from the ceiling.

"The tower's collapsing!" Cecil yelled.

"Look out!" Kain yelled next, head reclined to stare straight up at the falling debris.

A single, forceful crash shook the entire tower further, and Rosa knew that the upper floors and the tip of the tower were shaking loose and collapsing. As if to confirm what she thought, larger chunks of the tower fell around them. She had to get them out of there. She pushed her way to the middle of their little group. To the middle of Cid, Cecil, Kain, and Yang. "Hold on to me!" she yelled, throwing her hand out, Cecil was the first to grab it, and Kain held on to Cecil while Yang grabbed her other hand.

They had seconds, maybe.

Rosa called as much of the magic she possessed inside of her and focused it straight from her heart. She pictured Baron. The castle. The West tower. Cecil's bedroom in the West Tower. She surrounded all of them with the power and yelled, "Teleport!" as loud as she could.

The Dark Flame drew closer and closer to her, only feet away. She could feel the heat. Radiating off of the flames and scorching her face. Scorching her entire body. Her cheeks burned, her eyes felt hot, instantly tearing up.

She had seconds, maybe.

Rosa called the same power, picturing the other side of Sanctuary. "Teleport!" she yelled.

The warmth enveloped her whole body. The world fell away from her. Sanctuary's light blacked out instantly, as though she had gone blind. The floor collapsed away from her feet and she flailed, thinking she was going to fall. A sound like moving air whirred in her ears for just a second, before everything stopped. The ground slammed against her feet and the light came back.

She was where she pictured, on the other side of Sanctuary. Far away from Cecil and his attack.

It faded away, with the column shrinking and shrinking until it disappeared, and Cecil looked around in confusion before spotting her on the other end of the battlefield. The heat from it . . . She felt like she could still feel it on her cheeks. She felt like her eyes were burning hot, like her skin was on fire. The very air felt dry and hot, and she gasped-

She staggered again, nearly face-planting in the sand. So hot . . . she had to be close to Damcyan. Or Cecil - she wasn't even that far behind Cecil. He only left . . . three days before she did. Word only reached her that he perished hours ago. Or was it a day?

The sun beat down on her skin, and she felt like she could feel the waves of its heat beating down on her face. She was dehydrated. She knew she was. She was dehydrated, and had probably taken a wrong turn in the endless dunes. The sand blew again with a dry gust of hot wind and her eyes blurred, burning her vision-

Rosa blinked hard, wiping furiously at her eyes, to clear the memory's searing sand.

She trudged through the endless sand, each new step like a leaded weight upon her legs. She shivered again. The dull throb of simple fatigue had long since subsided to a feverish ache in every single muscle. Her foot sunk in the soft dune, and she lost the effort to lift her boots from the suck of the sea.

She collapsed there, shivering uncontrollably with a chill as the sun glared down at her. Burning her skin. Drying her out. Leaving her there, without mercy. Weakly she lifted her head and tried to call out, but her parched, swollen throat failed her. She only managed a hoarse whisper as the desert fever took over her completely.

"Cecil . . . "

"Cecil," she whispered, and she paused in embarrassment as she realized she said his name out loud. She spun around, hoping nobody heard, and sighed in relief when she saw that Cecil was still across Sanctuary, headed towards her, and the others were lined over by where he was.

"Well done!" Cecil yelled to her loudly, cupping his hand around his mouth so she could hear. He closed the distance quickly and smiled at her, but when he saw the seriousness in her eyes, his face fell. "Are you alright?"

"I'm fine. I just remembered something that really . . . I tried to follow you, and got sick. In the desert."

"You got desert fever."

"I collapsed in the middle of the desert. How did anybody find me?"

"You weren't minutes from Kaipo before you collapsed. Luckily, a traveler found you and took you to their home. They let you stay there while you recovered."

"Oh," she said, unsure of what else to say.

"I was worried sick about you. Rydia, Edward, and I were able to cure you, but it was close. Your fever was far too high, and wouldn't break." His voice grew distant, and Rosa couldn't see his eyes. But imagined that if she could, she'd see them fixated on the ground in front of him. He was remembering his part of the experience. "You wouldn't stop saying my name. It was heartbreaking. But," he said brightly, breaking himself of the solemnity. "You were fine! The three of us went and found what we needed to cure you. Almost immediately you insisted upon coming with us to our next destination. I refused, of course, but that stubborn streak . . . " he said, allowing the smile to cross his face. "Are you good to keep going?" he asked, reaching out and gently touching her arm.

Leaving it there as he peered down into her face.

She noticed he had kept his hand on her arm.

For far longer than was proper.

He was still smiling at her. For far longer than was proper.

She noticed that about him, lately. They'd spent day after day at the tree and behind the waterfalls. She was starting to feel a change in him.

He had begun with glances. Keeping his eyes on her for longer than was proper while he bowed, before finally lowering them to the floor. Smiling at her when she caught him staring. Roving his eyes over her face.

Then it was hand kisses. His lips would brush her knuckles first before the most gentlest of touches to her hand. He wouldn't exactly clasp her hand in his, but he would open his hand and allow her to rest it there for as long as she would.

She had started to notice she didn't always want to pull away.

And he had no doubt noticed her own stares. Her own smiles.

And then he moved on to gentle touches. Holding her hand, hooking his arm in hers. Maintaining that contact.

His touches had started to burn her. When she reciprocated his instances of contact, he would light up in joy that was nearly blinding.

Sometimes she wished he'd hold her closer.

Touch her longer.

Steal a kiss already-

Rosa shook her head violently, as though to shake the memory from her mind. Her cheeks heated in embarrassment, and when she raised her eyes and saw his look of genuine peace , her cheeks reddened, even hotter.

Where had that come from?

"A-actually," she stammered. "I think I'm done."

"Oh!" he said quickly. He shifted back to the bright white of his Paladin armor, and his face looked dejected and a little bit hurt. "Okay. Are you alright?"

" . . . Fine. I'm just tired. The memories hit me hard," she told him honestly. "I need to rest. And to think."

"Yes, of course," he said. "If you have any questions, please let me know."

"I will," she told him, nodding to him. He held his hand out to her and she pressed it into his palm. He pulled her hand to his lips, gently kissing her knuckle. "You did well, Lady Rosa. I look forward to our next encounter."

"Thank you," she said. She waited patiently for him to release her hand so she could curtsey. She waited. Smiled at him, and he smiled back.

She waited longer.

There it was again, that extended contact she hadn't known a thing about until she saw it just now, in a memory. She pried her hand from his and offered a shallow curtsey. "Until our next encounter."

Chapter Text

If prompted to tell of it, Exdeath could make an excellent story out of his own origins.

It was a fantastical tale in and of itself. Eons and eons ago, before the worlds ever existed as these warriors knew them, there was a Sorcerer-King named Enuo. Already the most powerful being in his own world, he constantly sought even more power. Sought dominion over all worlds, not just his own. Dominion, even, over the Void, the nothingness that all Life returns to upon its death from its mortal prisons.

In his pursuit, Enuo targeted the four Elemental Crystals. Essences of Life itself - Water, Fire, Air, and Earth. He planned to use the Void and its power to suck all power from the Crystals, absorb it into himself, and drain the world of all life until the planets and all the worlds died and sank into the Void. Exdeath was one of his soldiers. A powerful fiend, one of thousands, who fought and killed the humans and their worlds for Enuo.

But the humans, seeing the threat to their worlds, fought back. They used the power of the near-drained Crystals to seal Enuo away, in the Void he so desperately craved. And all of his ranks were sealed away as well, in the trees of the Great Forest of Moore. Exdeath's body and his consciousness were crammed into the bark. He and many others were seeped into the roots, twisted around the branches. Eventually, all of those souls congealed and morphed, twisting together to form individual and sentient beings within the trees of the Forest themselves.

Exdeath was the only one powerful enough, and consumed with enough hatred, he assumed, to ever break out of his tree.

He remembered his time as a tree. Unable to move his painfully twisted and gnarled limbs for millennia. Unable to speak to another, only able to push against the other consciousnesses crowding around his until he finally consumed them. Amassing their power. Pulling them into himself until their essences disappeared and he was left. Only able to plan his ultimate escape from the tree. Only able to exact his revenge upon the people who sealed him there. Only able to plan his ascent to become the next Enuo, the most powerful being in all of the worlds. It was torture.

He would rather go back to being sealed in a tree than spend any extra and unnecessary time with Kefka.

But of course, the jester followed him to the Rift. Of course, he just had to follow Exdeath rather than Ultimecia. Rather than staying and bothering the Emperor as he no doubt had before he arrived in Pandaemonium.

Kefka kept trying to speak to him. To hold some semblances of a conversation, however simple and painful.

Exdeath resorted to ignoring him.

Completely, blatantly-

"You sure you don't wanna show me what's under that helmet, Deathy?"

Exdeath slowly turned towards Kefka, even leaning slightly downward to try and make him feel small. Usually it worked, but Kefka was . . . Kefka. He couldn't even glare to help himself, with his helmet in the way. It prevented any sort of emotional display.

"I won't laugh, I promise!"

Gods, how he wanted to kill him. He could feel the rage bubbling up in his heart. His fists clenched so hard that they trembled, as he imagined how much pressure it would take to crush Kefka's skull with his bare hands. It was by sheer force of will he restrained himself.

"Pleeeeeeease-"

"You ask me that again at your own peril." His voice came out clipped and tight through his clenched teeth.

"Deathyyyyy-"

"No, no, NO! For the last time, you cretin, I will not remove my helmet for you!" To drive his threat home, he summoned his sword to his clenched fist, then allowed it to hover in the air between him and Kefka. The last warning.

But of course, Kefka found a way to ignore it.

With a screeching yowl, Kefka sprang from the ground and leapt straight over the sword, straight towards Exdeath. He latched on, wrapping his legs around Exdeath's torso like a leech. He tugged and pried at the helmet, attempting to detach it from Exdeath's shoulders.

"Come on, come on! It's gotta come off, somehow!" Kefka jabbed his fingers into the slit, and tried to brace it open.

"RRRRAAAUUUGH!" Exdeath roared, as Kefka's fingers stabbed and clawed at his face. He back-pedaled as fast as his legs could carry him. He writhed and thrashed as much as he could in his armor. He could not detach Kefka from his face.


 

If Ultimecia learned anything from the Emperor's little meeting, it was that he was as simple and she believed him to be. Even after Chaos' direct threat, he was still trying to overthrow him. The Emperor was so arrogant, he didn't even realize he lacked any sort of power to even come close to Chaos. He didn't understand that he would fall before he ever amassed any sort of power to even think about coming close to Chaos.

And if he thought she honestly believed his little promise of payment, then he definitely was as simple as she believed him to be. He himself told her he didn't have a plan yet. Only an idea - and he was willing to send her, Kefka, and Exdeath on a wild goose chase in the meantime while he figured it out.

Either that, or he believed her to be just as simple as she thought him.

She agreed for her own purposes, not for his. She needed time to plan for herself. When he was ready to take on Chaos, and, presumably, take her on before that, she needed to be ready to strike him before he struck her. What better to do in the meantime than indulge his little grudge? Especially when it would help herself.

She wondered what Kefka and Exdeath thought of his little plan. They agreed on the principle of the thing - of Chaos' warriors destroying Cosmos' warriors. It wasn't like he promised them anything tangible like he promised her. So did they see through it just as she did? Did they know it was a cover up for something else major in his plans?

Ultimecia figured she could ask them. They were supposed to work together, after all.

The most likely place to find Exdeath would be the Rift. Ultimecia figured she would start there.

She called a pocket of darkness and pictured the Rift in her mind, down to the exact platform she wanted to go to. She willed another opening into existence there, and stepped through. A brief feeling of weightlessness, a rush of air, and she appeared there.

Right as a demonic roar reached her ears.

"RRRRAAAUUUGH!" Exdeath's sword clattered to the ground and he clawed at Kefka, who was wrapped around his face like a pastel-colored vine. "GET OFF OF ME, KEFKA!"

"I JUST WANT TO SEE YOUR FACE!"

"KEFKA!"

Kefka even called a fire to his palm, seconds away from blowing the helmet off of his face.

Gods, they were so simple.

"Excuse me!" Ultimecia yelled in-between Exdeath's cries. "I'm not interrupting anything, am I?!"

Kefka froze, craning his neck to peer at Ultimecia over his shoulder. Exdeath still struggled, but he did it silently, scratching at Kefka's clothes and back.

"Put that away, Kefka, and stop acting like a fool!"

Reluctantly, Kefka closed his fist over the fire. "Nice to see you too, deary."

She scoffed, rolling her eyes. "Have you truly considered the Emperor's proposal?" she asked, trying to sound indifferent.

Exdeath grabbed a fistful of the feathers in Kefka's hair. "I have," he said, a little out of breath. He yanked and peeled Kefka off of himself, and threw him to the ground. Kefka yelped in protest. "There is something amiss. Either this Rosa is powerful and he is afraid of her, or she is a detriment to his real plans. Defeating her is some small part of a larger scheme."

"I came to the same conclusion. Any idea what his real plan is?" She already knew, of course, but she wanted to see what they knew.

"None," Exdeath said. "And I don't care to know it. It is of no consequence to me what he thinks he can plan. No consequence to this world, really. Whether he succeeds or not, all will return to nothingness. He will lose in the end."

"Will you still go through with helping him?"

"Kill Rosa?" Exdeath asked. "Yes. As I told the Emperor, it is of no extra effort on my part to send a warrior to the Void."

"I'm still helping because killing people is fun!" Kefka yelled from the ground. By then, he was reclined on his side, with his elbow on the ground to support his head.

"Let's agree to keep an eye out for her," Ultimecia said. "If any one of us spots her, we will alert the others."

"Agreed," Exdeath said. "Until then, do not contact me, Kefka." Exdeath called his sword to himself with magic where it lay on the ground, and disappeared in the next blink. Leaving Kefka and Ultimecia in the Rift.

Kefka stood up from the ground and leaned in to her, as though about to share a secret despite being the only two people there. "You can't tell me you've never wondered what his face looks like."

Ultimecia stepped away from him and sighed. "While you ponder your profound thoughts, keep an eye out for her." She left Kefka to return to her own tower.