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Salvator Ponetur in Corde Leonis

Chapter Text

~Noctis~

A hiss slips past my chapped lips as my eyes slit open. I see the remainder of the embers singe along the lining of my uniform before I open my clenched fist to watch the final glimmer of the phoenix feather fade out of existence, leaving behind the broken glass on my glove.

“Noct!” Gladiolus roars over the clashes of continuing battle beside me, but I still take a moment to allow my consciousness to return. Life burning back into my body, scorching the edges of death away and heating my heart up once more will never get easy to deal with, no matter how many training sessions I endure.

“Where am I?”

An ear-piercing screech shatters all surrounding chaos and is abruptly followed by a moment of silence. The ground spasms beneath my back as the monster my group and I were battling falls down beside me, its eye lining up with my own and I witness the last flicker of life drain out of the iris.

“Noctis!” Ignis yells out as he sprints over to stand between the fallen creature and myself, his boot blocking my view of death. I twist my head upwards and catch the glint of sun reflecting off of his glasses before our eyes meet. Relief washes over the man’s gentle features as he slowly blinks and outstretches his own gloved hand. “Are you alright?”he calmly inquires when I hesitate before accepting his help in returning to my feet. I sigh my reply, gripping my fingers along the side of my neck and craning my head in the opposite direction to stretch out the remaining discomfort of renewed life. My body shrugs itself down onto a toppled tree trunk as I blink a few more times to adjust. No, you really don’t ever get used to this feeling.

“Who the hell are these guys?”

My fingers trail up my cheek and come to rest on my temple, slowly circling to aid in releasing tension. It seems to be taking longer than usual for me to realign, so-to-speak. Another sigh slips out when I drop my hand away from my face and glance at the movement coming towards me to my right. Squinting at the sun’s descent towards darkness now bringing the light to my own eye level and accosting my vision, I see Prompto hopping over a fallen tree trunk and heading towards me. After stepping over the creature, he stands a few feet in front of me beside Gladiolus, but I lower my vision to avoid further blindness. A hand covered by a fingerless glove raises above him as he uses its shadow to block the sun from my eyes.

“Hey man, you ok?” The blonde asks through his typical smirk. He knows the answer already since I am moving instead of stiff on the ground at his feet, but a flicker of fear appears for a moment behind his sapphire eyes. With the sun shielded behind his hand, I can clearly see his entire form outlined by it while still being able to see his features, bringing an almost holy glow to the man. Gladio wore the same holiness, I assume, but my eyes refuse to leave the sight of Prompto.

“Holy Shit.”

The heel of my hand aggressively rubs the side of my head out of reflex at the sudden onslaught of fuzzy static in my mind. What the hell is that? Is this some side effect of the phoenix down? I don’t remember this happening before.

“Hey,” the deep gruff of Gladio’s voice grates its way through my wandering thoughts, snapping my focus back up to him. His thick arms, tree trunks on their own, are crossed over his chest in his usual intimidation stance, eyes burning a bright orangish red to match the setting sun behind him.

“Say something before I make you say something,” the brunette demands after noticing his own worry strewn across everyone else’s faces. Prompto abruptly turns towards the man and shoots him an irritated glare, obviously telling the man to ease off the recently deceased, but Gladio ignores the wordless argument and continues to glare at me.

“Ell? Are you dreaming?”

“Who’s Ell?” I whisper, resting my hand on top of my eyes. A light shuffle next to me causes my hand to drop away. Ignis, signature smirk in place, slowly lowers himself down onto the trunk next to me. Gently placing one of his white-gloved hands on my knee, he sighs himself before speaking.

“You can’t blame us for worrying about you, your highness.” the man mentions before a chuckle rings out across from us. We both glance up to see the cheerful blonde shifting his hand that was blocking the sun a few different ways. It took me a minute to notice the shadows crossing over Ignis’ face were changing out of the corner of my eye. Without being too obvious, I peer at the brunette beside me and see some sort of X shape crisscrossing along the bridge of his nose, the shading now above and below each of his eyes. A chuckle of my own escapes before I could stifle it but it couldn’t be helped; he looks like he has some kind of war paint on his cheeks.

“See? He’s fiiiine,” Prompto whines, shuffling towards me. He places both hands on my shoulders and tugs me back to my feet, beaming his brightest smile at me. “Aren’t you Noct?”

“Wake Up Ellone!”

~Squall~

The initial threat of an enemy approaching has always been and will always be my internal alarm clock. I prove that theory now as my eyes snap open and my fingers tighten over Lionheart. Without thought or hesitation, I react. The reflection of my eyes glare down at me on the gunblade surface, now directly in front of my face and threatening whatever foe I felt was before me; a foe that, same as any other day, doesn’t exist.

“Damn it,” I mumble while returning Lionheart to her case beneath my bed. Thank Hyne nobody has been stupid enough to attempt to physically wake me yet. Swinging my legs over the edge of my mattress, I rub my face a few times as I try to recall what had happened to set me so much more on edge than usual. Not saying this little morning routine wasn’t normal, because it is, but something extra seems to be hanging in the air of my room, like a whisper. Banging rings between my walls before that whisper can be deciphered. Once more my hands are gripping Lionheart, facial expression of death firmly staring back at me before I realize it is someone at my door.

“Yes,” I yell, irritation biting at the drawn out ‘s’ before I sigh at my own reflexes and reactions. Old habits, I suppose.

“Sir, just checking on you Sir,” A youthful voice announces from the other side. Standing to my feet, I tug on my black jeans and tuck in my white t-shirt before I push the button to open the door. I turn away to face the window. What time is it anyway? Dark and heavy cloth covers the window completely. It is meant to block out sunlight when I return after difficult missions and need sleep almost immediately, regardless of the time of day. My shoulders droop at the memories of missions, knowing those days are long past. A faint rustling behind me tells me the young SeeD was saluting me before he continues.

“Sir, you were absent from your morning training sessions with Officer Dincht and Officer Trepe,” I hear his saluting hand lower when I wave my hand at him to ease. “I was instructed by them to check your dorm room, Sir.” I nod at the window, accepting his reasoning for being here. I overslept? Before my subconscious could answer me, it clicks with my sharp exhale.

“Inform them I will be in my office in ten minutes.” I turn to face the SeeD youth with a bit more intimidation than necessary. A flash of worry crosses his face before nodding, eating up every detail of our exchange for later stories to friends, I’m sure. I shift to stand at ease before him. “Instruct them to retrieve Officer Kinneas and Officer Tilmitt for a meeting.” We salute each other before the young man agrees and scurries down the hall on his mission.

I never oversleep, I remind myself unnecessarily as I shuffle towards the bathroom. This thought keeps repeating itself in my mind over and over as I hastily brush my teeth and run my comb through my milk chocolate colored hair. A light groan escapes me when I return to my mattress and grip the hanging jacket beside it. I adjust the collar after putting it on, keeping the fur-lining away from my ears and neck while I shove my wallet into my pocket. With a frown, I glance over to my nightstand and realize my cell phone is missing. A quick running of my hands down my thighs and across my stomach reveals the device never made it out of my jacket pocket last night when I feel the lump. Great, I internally scold myself as I tug the charger out of the wall and quickly turn to leave, stepping into my boots as I go. With a quick glance at the door panel to ensure the lock was armed upon my exit, my unbuckled boots clomp out into the hallway and start to make their way to my office. Gritting my teeth at the unusual feeling of being unkempt, my mind continues on with its song: I never oversleep.

Chapter Text

~Quistis~

I pace back and forth, avoiding eye contact with the boxing blonde in the corner of the headmaster’s office. His irritation with me can be felt from halfway out into the hallway but I don’t have time to answer his questions. My only concern is seeing that Squall is, in fact, alright. Zell Dincht will just have to wait his turn to ask anyone any questions. Blue eyes bore into the back of my skull when I stop my antics and just stare at the door, waiting for something to happen.

“Hey guys!” A voice shrieks through the doorway from the other side. And here we have Selphie Tilmitt, the only other person I know in this garden that maintains similar levels of hyperactivity to Zell’s. Before either of us could respond, a small yellow blur flashes into the room and takes a seat behind the large desk. The tiny brunette giggles as she bounces up and down in the seat, humming her usual song she made up about trains and appearing to not have a worry in the world. Pinching the bridge of my nose, I turn to fully face Balamb Garden’s nunchuck-wielding pyrotechnician before another familiar voice eases its way into the room behind me.

“Come on Selphie, you know I always get the desk chair.” I exhale a breath I didn’t realize I was holding and turn back to the doorway as the charming cowboy’s words melt into our ears. He steps into the office, his trench coat swishing with each step. Pinching the brim of his ten gallon hat and tugging it downwards, he greets Zell before turning his blue eyes to my own. The man shifts his fingers so his thumb and index finger form a finger gun, the pointer finger now pushing the brim of his hat upwards to fully expose his eyes to my own. One of his eyelids slowly closes, winking at me shamelessly in front of the others as he finishes addressing the brunette behind the desk. “One way or another, that is.”

A gentle giggle abruptly morphs into a squeak when the tall cowboy clutches Selphie’s body with his hands and lifts her from the chair like a feather before seating himself and settling her body into his lap. The quirky brunette doesn’t sit still for long though, shoving herself off of the man with little concern for his body as she hurls herself up and a few feet away from the forward man. The cowboy’s injuries are not the cause of the hurt now displaying across his face though, since he quickly regains his composure by tilting his hat forward to hide any visible emotion. A dirty trick, I think to myself when I notice Selphie’s triumphant glare wilting with every centimeter of Irvine’s face that hides from her vision. Without hesitation, the concerned female kneels down beside the office chair to gaze into the man’s eyes.

“Aww, Irvy!” She squeals as she playfully smacks his shoulder, a classic Selphie move to cheer him right up. She gently places both of her hands on either side of his hat and slowly raises it off of his head, revealing his caramel colored ponytail and downward stare. The smirk could no longer be hidden from us, as I knew he was only playing wounded for the girl’s returned attentions. Selphie giggles once more when she places the hat on her own head and tilts it with her own finger gun to mock the man before her. Before the nauseating facade could go any further, the office door slides closed, stealing all of our attention away. I sigh, shrugging away my concerns as Squall turns away from the door to faces us briefly and scans the room, probably ensuring everyone is present before he begins. His gloved hand points to Irvine with the slightest show of irritation behind his natural authoritative presence.

“Move.” One word was all it took to snap the sly cowboy to attention. In an instant he’s out of the office chair and standing beside me, a salute in place along with the rest of us. We are all close, obviously, since we knew each other when we were children and have grown close like we used to be once more. But we also all understand our roles and Squall’s role was our leader when we were reunited back then and that still remains his role now since he is our recently appointed headmaster. Even as we were getting to know each other all over again, I cannot recall a time where Squall didn’t just ooze domination, his presence just demanding respect from the get go. Despite that we all have so much history together, that doesn’t change the fact that when Squall tells any one of us to jump, we never hesitate; we just jump. “At ease,” Squall instructs after a quick salute.

He sits in his chair and turns, rolling on the wheels to adjust it back to the center of the desk before pinching the bridge of his nose in typical ‘I’m-irritated’ fashion. Is he irritated at Irvine and Selphie, or something else? I cross one arm on my torso and rest my elbow on it, pushing my glasses up slightly to better survey the man before us. His shoulders seem to be slouching a bit, a touch of darkness underneath his eyes and his hair appears to be flatter on one side compared to the other, possibly from lack of showering this morning. I recall when he moved towards the desk, his steps were loud due to his boots being unbuckled and he is holding what looks to be his phone charger in his hand.

I can feel my forehead crinkle at these minute but detrimental details I now notice. Anyone who knows this man even if only in passing is aware of how utterly and completely in control he is, down to the finest of details. The stoic brunette is easily the only one left out of us all who still religiously maintains the strict training regime we were once required to do as students before we all gave it up when we made it to SeeD members. That in itself takes up the entirety of a student’s day, but Squall manages to do the training sessions and the workout while maintaining the appearances of oneself and one's dorm to protocol’s standards. He scours the library for hours of learning about our surrounding enemies. All this on top of all of the headaches and time-consuming tasks required for running the Garden without missing a beat. It’s been said you can literally count down to the second the moment when Squall starts or stops the task at hand. All of these are reasons for me to further frown at him now. To see him as he is now, still presentable to outsiders but, to the people that know him, he is completely out of sorts, and that has never been witnessed before. I hold my breath once again as I drink in the significance of these changes and take note of how unsettling and unnerving they are to say the least.

~Squall~

I pinch the bridge of my nose almost to the point of closure, failing to decide how I am to broach this subject with my team. My hand drops from my face back down on top of my desk with a thump as I release a sigh.

“Irvine,” I state before sliding my other hand across to him. He steps forward, glancing between my hand and my eyes in eager curiosity. My gloved fingers release my phone charger while my other hand now digs in my jacket pocket for my phone. “Will you plug this in for me please?” The lean brunette nods, taking the cord and phone from me and plugging it into the far wall while setting the phone on the end table between the couches. I thank the curious man with a nod before bending down beneath my desk to buckle my boots. What they must think of me after this display? I silently begin to scold myself once more while my mind fills with the possibilities. With the buckles fastened, I sit up and slouch back into the cushioned seat with a huff, resisting the urge to try and read everyone’s minds through their eyes.

“What’s up man?” Zell breaks the silence with his question, which is surely the same question they all have. My fingers find their way to the top of my nose once more. What’s up indeed? I intend to tell them I need a minute to think, to grasp what it is that happened last night to cause these abrupt and unwanted changes in me but I was cut off from my intentions.

“Whatever it is, just say it Squally!” Selphie’s chipper tone rakes any construction of thought away with its shrillness. How Irvine can handle such a pitch, I’ll never know. But that aside, a hint of a smile sweeps across my lips at her simplistic request. I’m not sure what ‘it’ is, can’t you understand that? There’s only one thought that has continuously returned while I have been attempting to devise a strategy, and that thought will just have to be my starting point I decide.

“Selphie,” I state, standing from behind my desk to face them all. The others all sharpen their stances a bit at my sudden movement, snapping back to attention without being instructed to do so. My eyes address each of them silently, willing them to understand there is no plan in mind, only reactions to the actions of the previous evening. I don’t want to consider it, to think of the possibility of something being wrong with Sis but it is still a possibility that continues to resurface which means only one thing. My eyes finally find the tiny brunette I called upon and she offers me a quick nod.

“Fire up Ragnarok, we’re going to Esthar.” The girl lights up immediately, excited to fly the machine again. She hastily salutes before bouncing out of the office in a flash. Before the others can begin asking questions, I hold up my hand to silence them.

“Pack for a week-long stay. Irvine, pack for Selphie as well since she’s more than likely already in the cockpit and will refuse to leave. Quistis, instruct Xu and Nida to take over control of the garden in our absence.” The two salute me before turning and taking their leave. I head for the door myself, my thoughts filling with final instructions for Xu and Nida but Zell breaks my concentration.

“Anything for me boss?” I glance over my shoulder as the blonde walks up behind me, twirling my phone and charger in the air. He hands them to me before clapping a hand on my shoulder.

“Aside from helping you keep your head on?” I smirk at the blonde as we both stalk out of the office and into the hallway, deciding to ignore the urge to tease with a little play on his words. The two of us have hinted in the past at possibilities occurring between us, more so in recent months but I still hold back, although I’m unsure why. To say Zell is enticing would be almost an insult at how big of an understatement it is, but I still couldn’t seem to find my way with him. Lately I seem to be reciprocating his banter, but he is mostly the one that initiates anything between us… mostly.

“All you need to do aside from pack is be ready for training once we board.” He catches my eye when we board the elevator, raising a brow as I lean in front of him to hit the button for the first floor. I clear my throat, causing him to do the same and we both return to our appropriately spaced apart stances.

“Does that mean I should go to the training center and gather the Ragnarok Special of Propagators?” he asks me while facing forward. I do the same, but a smile still crosses my face.

“If you’d rather fight them over training with me, I understand.” The elevator softly drops the last few inches and before the door slides open I turn and stare into Zell’s eyes, my smile turns into a smirk. Leaning towards the blonde, I shift to the side and bring my mouth to his ear.

“You couldn’t handle me anyway.” And with that, I exit the newly opened doorway without failing to notice the sharp intake of air from behind me. The blonde takes a moment to regain focus, almost getting swept back up to the second floor before he quickly bolts from the closing door and shuffles up behind me. Before he can catch up, I abruptly turn and face him once more, holding my hand up to halt him in his place.

“Where are you going?” I question him with a blank stare. The blonde’s face creases with confusion at my sudden shift in behavior before pointing in the direction I was going.

“To the dorms to pack.” He replies with all the confusion displayed on his face now in his tone. I wiggle my index finger at him and shake my head, pointing behind him.

“No, we’ll stick to your suggestion. Go to the training center and secure some Propagators. Maybe you and I can do cardio training some other time.” The blonde’s jaw drops at my blatant flirting as we are both taken aback by my new found cockiness. I offer a quick wink on instinct and turn back towards the dorms to pack, leaving Zell behind me completely speechless. Hyne, what is wrong with me? Where did that come from? I tune those questions out for the moment, focusing on the situation once more while I turn down the dorm hall.

Chapter Text

~Ellone~

“Squall,” I hear myself whisper through chapped lips as I clutch my bed covers tighter underneath my chin. Peeling my eyes open, I notice the soft white puffs of frosty breath floating outwards from my mouth. My forehead creases while I marvel over the details and attempt to explain it to my subconscious, but I can’t. The ‘where am I?’ question is quickly solved when I sit up from what I know is my own bed and glance around my own room. I am in Esthar, where I have been for a few years now. Shrugging the covers off of my shoulders, my hand rests over my heart. To try and stop the initial panic, I walk myself through my surroundings. I am here, in my room, the room Father gave me when I first arrived all those years ago. My gaze crawls over the walls and along the surfaces of dressers, nightstands, couches, mirrors and paintings, all beautifully decorating the entirety of my familiar space.

“I am home,” I announce to the air around me which still strangely freezes once it leaves my lips. The hand I hold to my chest now stretches out in front of me and I stare at my palm to see if the bitter cold I feel is external or internal. I frown further when I fail to see any sparkles of snowflakes falling from the ceiling, as if that would make this situation any more pleasing to my senses. An internal freeze? Well, this is new, my consciousness murmurs within my mind. I huff at all of the confusion and whip the blankets back, standing from the bed onto the glistening cherry wood floor boards. Sleep must still be trying to tug me back into its grasp I decide, turning and shuffling off towards the attached bathroom beside me.

“A temporary chill my dear, I assure you,” A cold breath whispers against my neck. I jump away from the words, slamming into the back of the bathroom door with a thud. My eyes widen while they scan everything around me in search of the mysterious interruption and come up with nothing.

“He is coming. It is time.” Another puff breezes into my ear. My breath hitches as I choke on my own scream, but as quickly as the eerie voice and freezing surroundings appear, they disappear. My hand now clutches the fabric of my nightgown above my heart desperately as I struggle to remember how to breathe. This is all very, very new, and very unwelcome should it continue on without further explanation. After a few minutes to regain composure, I grip my robe off of the end of my bed. Tugging my arm through it, I decide to see if Odine is awake. Leaving the palace in only my robe isn’t something I would normally do, but given the hour and my desperation for answers, I decide to take my chances and head for the labs.

Seeing the light on in his lab is a bit reassuring. I can’t be sure it’s him and not one of his assistants being put to overnight observation duty or Hyne knows what other tasks the tiny man would force upon his subordinates. The hustle and bustle of Dr. Odine’s lab rarely cease, unless the man runs out of immediate test subjects which demand his full attention. I shudder when the memories of my brief time as one of those subjects came back to me from all those years ago. The man’s genius can’t be matched, that is for sure. His methods or, at times his lack of humanity, brought such a darkness on the overall research of the facility it becomes almost impossible to keep the man out of prison or the public’s hands when they were reaching for justice. As my thoughts begin to turn to darker times, my eye catches the oversized collar bouncing between a few tables with beakers and microscopes strewn about.

“Dr. Odine,” I state after taking in a deep breath to calm my nerves. The tiny man turns from his path to face me, beaming an uneasy smile.

“Oh, good evening Ellone. Or is it morning now?” he questions with a scratch of his head. Glancing around, I notice even in his main labs there are no windows; not just the lockdown caged rooms, I recall with another shudder. I have to speak with him. If anyone would possibly know what is going on with me, it would be him.

“Doctor, you’re familiar with the oddities of my abilities, correct?” I jump to the point and cringe internally. His black eyes widen and a flicker of light returns with the excitement of his memories. He nods, bouncing his ponytail atop his head vigorously.

“Has something happened Ellone?” Drool can be seen dripping from the corner of his mouth as his grin widens with possibility, but I shake the image out of my head, blaming it on my imagination. I nod in agreement and accept the doctor’s outstretched hand now leading me to some nearby stools at one of the lab tables. “Tell me,” he demands after placing me on one of the stools. He grips his hands behind him and begins to pace beside me, awaiting the juicy details.

My gaze, now eye-level with the man, follows his movements for a few moments before I tell him of what happened just before I came to find him. When I finish reciting the details, he continues to pace for a few minutes, drinking in all of my words. Finally, he stands beside me and places a hand on my shoulder, the action meant to comfort but it seems to have the opposite effect on me as I brace myself to keep him from taking me and hiding me away within the vastness of the lab. “Give me some time with this my dear, I need to see what I can find in my previous research notes.” He stands me up from the stool and slowly walks me back out into the hallway. “Try and get some rest Ellone, and if I find anything out I will let you know immediately.”

His final words offer little comfort since I was counting on more immediate results. I nod my thanks and turn back towards my room, shuffling down the halls and hoping I will be able to sleep once again. Before I turn at the end of the hall, I hear the doctor call my name. I turn to face him, wondering if he might remember something from all those years ago. “Should what happened tonight happen again Ellone, come back here immediately. Come back here and find me, alright?” I nod at the request. Feeling halfway relieved that someone was there for me should it happen again but also partially concerned by his demeanor not really mimicking someone who is interested in helping so much as someone who is interested in learning. I shrug my concern off though, deciding it was the demeanor of any good doctor, right?

~Squall~

I smirk at Zell’s last hostile comment and toss him a towel, signaling the end of our training session. He shouldn’t need a sign from me considering all the colors of the propagators were destroyed, but in any case I start making my way to the cockpit with the blonde following behind.

“So, tell me already! How many?” He presses his same question once more, after already asking it four times previously. The number he is so desperately seeking is the number of creatures I killed in total. The two of us decided to train here on Ragnarok as we did in the training center at Garden by beginning on our own and meeting each other halfway. This is one of the reasons I prefer training with Zell; he and I both feel it is equally necessary to train as an individual as it is to train as a team. I’d say we were on our own for probably half an hour before meeting up for the final hour. Our only communication was deciding which colors each had during our solo time before we got started. I finish wiping the towel on my face and stare at the blonde as he does the same before he smirks at me.

“Should we, maybe place a wager on the total? Whoever got the highest number wins?” he asks, his analytical eyes boring into mine as he weighs out my reaction to his proposition. I’m caught off guard initially, seeing that I am not the only one who has decided to become bolder as of late. The offer still entices me. I cross my arms over my chest and raise a brow.

“And what does the victor win, exactly?” I question him as my mind takes off with the possibilities of his answer. How far is he willing to take it, I wonder? How far am I for that matter? Zell mimics my body language, crossing his arms over his chest and holding his index finger in front of his lips as he ponders on his own.

“Whatever the winner wants. Should we state our terms aloud or leave it as it stands?” His eyes narrow, silently telling me the ball is now in my court. Probably testing out the waters as well, seeing if I am as willing as he is. Am I? Zell and I have been dancing around the possibility for quite a long time now, but only now have gotten to the point of actual vocalized flirtation. Beyond as well, it seems; or am I reading too far into this? The two of us are now stopped in the hallway outside of the cockpit and facing each other, both in our own defensive stance out of nervousness. My eyes find his staring at me intently, causing me to smirk.

“Whatever the winner wants for one hour,” I hold up my index finger between us for a moment before returning my arm across my chest. “We write our answers down so neither of us can cheat and up our number after the first states theirs, agreed?” I ask, reaching out my hand. Zell’s smirk widens as he grips it in his own and firmly shakes it, our wager sealed.

“Hey! You guys ready or what?” A squeak of a voice startles the two of us back to reality, Zell instinctively dropping my hand at the intrusion. Quistis eyes the two of us before ducking back into the cockpit to join the others. I glance at the man in front of me, a sheepish smile in place as he rubs the back of his head and lets out a chuckle.

“Oops. Got a little distracted there,” he mumbled, dropping his eyes down to his shoes. I turn towards the conference room and nod, noticing something out of the corner of my eye. Tucked in Zell’s jacket, a Weapon’s Monthly magazine was rolled up with only the corner sticking out when the blonde rests his hands on top of his head in his typical stance. My brow furrows as I reach into my own jacket pocket and retrieve a pen, holding it up in front of Zell’s eyes. While the blonde’s face contorts in confusion, I slide my hand inside his jacket lining and tug out the magazine. Zell’s eyelids open more at my brash move, but decides to just see what I am up to instead of asking, knowing I wouldn’t answer his questions anyway.

His fingers pinch the pen out of my grasp, freeing my other hand up to flip through the magazine until I find a page near the back for commentary. I raise my brow once more and tip the magazine to his eyes, asking if this page is meaningful for any reason. The blonde catches onto my idea, shaking his head and biting the cap of my pen to open it. I smirk and tear the page out of the magazine before rolling it up and placing it back where I found it, albeit a bit more bluntly this time.

“Here,” Zell states as he holds a folded piece of the magazine in front of me with the pen, already jotting his number of kills down. I quirk a brow at him.

“You didn’t boost that number at all in hopes to outdo mine, did you?” I question with falsely placed concern as I take the items from him. I know he wouldn’t do something like that. He’s too sure of himself to find that a necessary move, which is making this wager all the more enticing. What if he does beat me? What will he have me do for an hour? What will I have him do should I win?

“Come on guys! Let’s go!” Quistis squawks from the doorway, frowning at us both as we continue to procrastinate in her eyes. I scribble my number down and fold the piece of paper before turning to Quistis and nodding. My hand slides into Zell’s behind his back, placing the piece of paper in his fist before shooing the girl out of the doorway for us to enter.

“Alright everyone,” I address the room, Zell scooting in behind me and seating himself in the nearest chair in front of where I am standing. The cockpit has seats for all of us lining either side of the window-lined room, but Selphie sits in the cockpit chair as she continues to fly us to Esthar. All eyes are on me now, awaiting my explanation of what we are doing. I try to focus, get back into the headspace of their leader and figuring out what to do with these new dreams or ‘dream world’ experiences, but I get distracted by Zell slouching slightly in his seat and resting his arms on his knees. Slowly, without Irvine next to him seeing, he unfolds the piece of paper I handed him and reads the number. Too much silence has passed, I have to focus.

“As you know, we’re headed to Esthar.” I make a point to glance between Quistis and Selphie before returning my attention to Zell. The blonde sits up, staring at me as blankly as the others. I can’t read his face to see if I won or lost, as his eyes reveal nothing. “The reason for this is because we need to speak with Sis, Ellone.” Zell frowns, same as the others, wondering what reason I have to go see her again. Yes, Ellone is my sister. She was our sister when we were in the orphanage, but Laguna adopted her making her family for me. I was closer to her back when we all were at the orphanage than the others, but since our time together fighting the sorceresses and learning about Laguna, she and I haven’t really seen each other. We speak on the phone fairly regularly, but not in person, because of Laguna. Everyone knows I avoid that man, even when he attempts to visit Balamb Garden. I dodge all his requests by claiming we are on a mission or otherwise unattainable, but this is different. I fold my hands behind my back, getting more focused since Zell gave me no sign of the winner.

“Considering you all were equally shocked when I said we were going to Esthar, I can only assume I am alone in this latest quest. That quest being a new bout in dream world,” I use air quotes to enunciate. The room begins to stir.

“What do you mean, new bout in dream world?” and “You were Laguna again?” These are asked simultaneously by the girls, while Irvine and Zell simply wait for me to continue. I hold my hands up to ease the girls a bit.

“I will debrief with you all, but first I wanted to let you know why we were going to Esthar. Once we arrive, I hope to seek out President Loire and Ellone to speak about this matter, and hopefully shed some light on why it is happening. Until then, that is all the ideas I have. Selphie, how long until we land?”

The brunette shakes her head, “Probably another couple hours.”

Selphie and Irvine begin plotting and planning what to see and do while in Esthar, Quistis occasionally throwing a suggestion in to keep the two in line. Now is my chance, I decide, as I notice Zell’s eyes on me. His expression is still blank as I reach into my pocket and pull out the piece of paper. Keeping my eyes on the blonde, I unfold it and hold it in the palm of my hand, watching Zell’s face but he holds firm. I finally drop my eyes down to my hand and see his number.

“Dismissed,” I state although the room is already lost to the couple in front. I say it out of habit before dropping my head down to Zell’s, the number still in my hand. He raises his own hand and holds out my number before sighing. I won. I tilt my head, my lips an inch away from his ear.

“Meet me in my quarters in five minutes,” I instruct the blonde as I fold the number up once again and stick it in my pocket. Zell stands from his seat as I stand back up, both eyeing each other. He nods, his eyes brighter than ever before stalking out of the cockpit. I know just what I want him to do, I decide with a smirk before following the blonde out into the hallway.

Chapter Text

~Quistis~

I stand on the left side of the cockpit, staring out at the clouds whizzing by and try to tune the couple behind me out. There’s only so much planning one can do before it becomes painfully obvious you are the third wheel. I sigh, thinking of how long I have been in this position for. Selphie releases a particularly high pitched giggle as Irvine pokes his fingers between her ribs, tickling the pilot until she threatens his life. Sighing again, I turn and leave the room, hoping to find some peace to ponder in. Where might Zell and Squall have gone, I wonder, scanning the hallway for either of them. Perhaps they were training somewhere, I believe I heard Squall say something about that before we left.

Walking through Ragnarok, I fail to see the two men anywhere. The only place left to search would be the quarters, I think before tapping a finger on my lower lip. If that’s the case, they wouldn’t be training since there wouldn’t be enough room. So, maybe they were coming up with their own plans? I nod, deciding I wanted to join the two in planning what our next move was in Esthar. At least these two wouldn’t go on and on about shopping and eating spots. Walking up to Squall’s door, I lightly tap my knuckles before pressing the button to open the door.

“Knock knock,” I announce, but quickly hush when I see Zell crouching down at the foot of the bed and Squall standing beside him. Both men turn to face my entrance, and peering beside Zell’s turned torso I notice he is placing Lionheart back into its case. Squall’s face has a glimmer of a smile on it, but as soon as I notice it, it disappears, now turning his gaze downward to Zell. Zell flashes his typical smirk before standing up from the case, punching his fist into his palm.

“We there Quisty?” Zell asks, assuming I am there to retrieve the two of them. I shake my head, pressing my glasses back up on my nose before pointing to Lionheart.

“Were you just using Lionheart?” I question, eyeing the two men suspiciously. Nobody in the history of Squall and his gunblades has ever been allowed to touch any of the man’s weapons, especially not Lionheart. It is an unspoken rule almost, one he only had to glare out through his threatening eyes. Am I wrong? Zell chuckles, Squall shaking his head and smacking the blonde’s shoulder from behind him.

“Cleaning it actually; Zell lost a bet,” the brunette explains, dropping his hand from Zell’s shoulder and taking a few steps over towards the table. I nod in understanding, but I can’t help but notice the interesting atmosphere in here. Did I interrupt something? Or are these residual feelings of being the third wheel from earlier? Zell watches Squall go towards the table before turning his eyes back to mine, crooking a brow at me.

“What’s up?” he asks, now wondering why I have come to the quarters. I shrug before crossing my arms in front of me and explain.

“I didn’t know if you two were off training so I looked for you, but I didn’t find you so I thought you might be planning what to do when we get to Esthar. Any ideas?” Both men glance at one another before shaking their heads. Neither of them have planned anything beyond meeting with Laguna. Which reminds me; I glance at Squall and ask, “Does the president know we are coming?” Squall shakes his head once again, internally rolling his eyes at himself for forgetting to call ahead. I remember his phone was dead this morning. Perhaps that led to the reason it slipped his mind. Something about this room and these two just feels like I am intruding, so I hold my hand up to Squall to stop his fretting.

“I’ll call him now. A small warning of our arrival is better than none, right?” Before the two can answer me, I am already leaving the room, the door swishing shut behind me. Another sigh slips out past my lips, realizing I truly am the third wheel, or fifth wheel if we are all together. Probably because I spend all of my time with my previous students, and who would be interested in dating their instructor? I frown, thinking how that actually would be a common interest. Pinching the bridge of my nose, a habit I picked up from Squall, I shuffle towards the nearest couch and make my phone call.

Kiros sounds glad when I tell him we’ll be arriving soon, mentioning the president could use with some good news today before getting off the phone with me. With that done and everyone else occupied, I decide to lie down on the couch, removing my glasses and placing them on the table beside me. I’ll nap before my thoughts get the best of me. The mundane hum of the surroundings seems to work as a lullaby, easing me into sleep within seconds.

~Laguna~

Worry spreads across my face as I watch my little girl sleep on the couch in my office, her hand lightly gripping my own. What the hell is happening now to make her lose sleep? What evil presence refuses to leave her alone? Questions pile up in my mind, squashing out any other thoughts I might come up with and consuming my focus.

“Sir,” A familiar voice catches my ear as the man walks into the room. His arms are tucked behind his back and a curious smile appears on his face. I frown at the man, finding his happiness to be ill placed given what Ellone is going through. He ignores my dirty look and continues to smile as he walks all the way over to my side, bending down to whisper in my ear so as to not disturb Ell.

“I just received word that Squall will be here soon. Just enough time for you to get to the entrance to greet him, in fact.” The timing can’t be any better. I sigh and grip Kiros’s hand as he helps me stand up once again. Gently, I release Ellone’s fingers, keeping quiet to let her continue her nap, before turning and leaving with Kiros as my guide. Once out the door I inform the two guards to wait inside and keep an eye on my daughter while I am gone, the two saluting and entering the room to follow my orders. At least when she wakes up she will be greeted by her brother instead of just my old mug. Kiros and I make it to the end of the hall, finding the hovering elevator and taking our seats.

“Why the sudden visit?” I question my advisor as the elevator starts its descent. Kiros shakes his head and looks at me.

“She didn’t say, just that they were on their way here and would be here very soon.” I nod, wondering if Squall may be able to shed some light on what is going on with Ellone. The elevator stops and lands at the entrance of the palace. I peer out the glass doorway to see the masses of Estharians out and about, visiting and socializing without a care in the world. The buildings spread out as far as the eye can see, showing the true vastness of Esthar and all of its beauty. From the outside though, the city doesn’t exist, making it the safest place in the world for Ellone to be. My heart swells with a bit of love for being the leader of this fine place, wishing I was able to keep Squall here safely hidden away as well. I can’t be too upset with the company I have, and I understand the headmaster’s responsibilities. Kiros and I are walking along the pathways, deciding to be out among everyone instead of holed up in the elevator network leading to the entrance to Esthar.

“Will we still meet them at the entrance you think?” I ask, wondering if taking the long way would eat up too much time. Kiros shrugs, not really knowing the exact time of their arrival. A couple of people come up to us, discussing some repairs with Kiros before wishing us a good rest of our day. I draw in a deep breath, drinking in the leisurely atmosphere.

“I love this city,” I inform my advisor, only for the millionth time I’m sure. I have ever since ending up here, our lives finally calming down enough for us to just exist, to take things day by day like normal people. It was amazing then, and still amazes me to this day. Kiros mumbles something as a response, but the two of us finally make our way to the entrance to the city, a familiar group of kids standing at the top of the stairs glancing all around.

I refrain from screaming at them to get their attention, remembering I am in public and the president. Presidents do not scream. That is about the best I could do at containing my excitement to see Squall though. My legs bounce up the stairs as quickly as possible before I crush the cringing brunette against my chest in the tightest hug I could manage. He keeps it brief though, against my will, pulling away from me while holding each of my shoulders with stiff arms to keep me back. My face splits into a smile, greeting the others by name before turning my attention back to Squall.

“Glad to have you all here. It’s been too long.” The girls gave me a quick hug one by one, Irvine tilting his hat in greeting and Zell offering a handshake. After the greetings are all finished, I clap my arm around Squall’s shoulders and start leading him down the stairs towards a waving Kiros, who is shaking his head at my antics. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve known me, you’ll never get used to me, I laugh to myself.

“Squall, I’m really glad you’re here. Something’s going on with your sister,” I begin, but the boy nods at my words.

“I know. Something’s going on with me as well. I planned on discussing it with everyone once we’re all together. Sis is here, right?” he asks, glancing around to make sure he didn’t miss the shy girl standing off in a corner somewhere.

“Yes she is back at the palace. She needed to rest after last night,” I explain. Squall’s eyes widen with worry but I shake my head to ease his mind. “She’s fine, just napping. I’ll let her explain when you see her. She’ll be so excited you’re here.” I squeeze his shoulder before dropping my arm, knowing he hates all things related to physical contact, but at least we have gotten to a point where we can compromise. It has taken an awfully long time to get here, but here we are. Given Squall’s urgency to speak to us all, we opt out of walking back to the palace, taking the elevators straight back to the palace entrance. As we start to take our seats on the elevator to enter the palace, a voice behind the group calls out to us.

“Chicken-wuss?” An instinctive twitch hitches Zell’s eyebrow as he turns while balling his fists up in a challenging stance. The others turn as well to see one of my long-term visitors, Seifer Almasy. Right, I probably should’ve mentioned that to Squall at some point. Oops.

Chapter Text

~Squall~

I am shocked to see Seifer, standing a few feet behind our group as he also approaches the entrance with us. He looks so...good? Is this where he’s been this whole time? Hiding in the city that hides? My eyes snap to Zell who is moving towards the blonde. I quickly grip the short sleeve of his jacket, stopping him from making an ass out of us all in the palace entryway.

“What the hell are you doing here?” Zell questions him through gritted teeth, his eyes narrowing further with each word. Seifer holds his hands up and shakes his head in defeat. Mentally scolding himself I’d imagine, given his shitty announcement to us of his existence. Seriously, who decides the first thing to say to the people you haven’t seen since the world went to hell is an insult? When you were blatant enemies with these people whom you knew your entire life? The same people who would like to understand what happened and to help if they can, considering we all grew up together and are the only family most of us know?

“Seifer has been my guest here in Esthar since the end of the war, Zell. I’d appreciate civility within my city walls,” Laguna pipes up, finally catching up with the rest of us. Seifer raises his eyes to Zell’s, an almost pained expression on his face.

“Sorry for calling you that, Dincht,” he starts, a slight smirk appearing in the corner of his mouth, “old habits.” Kiros struts over to Seifer’s side before holding a hand out towards the entrance.

“Shall we continue this discussion inside, gentlemen?” I scan the faces of my team, seeing a mixture of emotions ranging from regret to rage for what has come between us, but our overall curiosity has won out. Checking with Zell, I slowly release my grip on his sleeve and he eventually nods before stalking over to the elevator and sitting down. The rest of us follow, taking our seats one by one until we are all crammed together and the elevator levitates off the ground.

Silence engulfs the ride inside, which is to be expected given the onslaught of questions going unanswered between us all. My brow furrows as I begin planning out how to address the whole point of this meeting. Bodies jerk together when the elevator finally lands back on solid ground, each of us getting off and making our way to the conference room at the end of the hall. Laguna shuffles up beside me, gripping under my bicep to slow my speed and allow room between us and the others.

“Seifer isn’t the only one here, Squall.” He mumbles, worry bright in his eyes at my reaction. I frown at the older man, waiting for him to tell me who else is here when I hear Selphie’s squeal from further down the hallway.

“Rinny!”

I glare at Laguna, waiting for some kind of denial or confirmation that she is here, but he avoids my stare. With a sigh, the older man releases my arm and walks down the hall to meet up with the others, all of which are now swarming around the brunette girl and staring back at me. Waiting to see how I will react, I’m sure. How should I react, I wonder? Technically, Rinoa didn’t do anything wrong when she decided to up and leave Garden without a word to anyone, especially me. She had the right to seek refuge anywhere, even if that meant she would be away from us all. Even if that meant following the path of a certain blonde ex-boyfriend of hers to hide out in Esthar.

I frown at myself, irritated at the jealous-sounding fit my mind is throwing. I’m not jealous, I’m pissed. The amount of man hours and Gil wasted to find these two and the entire time they were here. I shake off my anger, placing my typical stoic face on and walking by them all to enter the conference room.

“Who goes first?” I ask Laguna while the others file into the room. Laguna notes the bite to my tone and winces, shrugging the responsibility of choosing the first topic of discussion off onto me. He then turns and faces his advisor, leaning in closely and whispering into the other man’s ear. Kiros nods once before turning and leaving the room.

“I’ve asked him to go wake Ellone. She should be here for this,” the president mumbles, his body language showing total defeat. At least he knows he screwed up; I decide to give him credit for that as I wave my hand out at the man.

“While we wait for her arrival, you may as well go first,” I state with little emotion.

Seifer suddenly stands from his seat and leans against the table, glancing at each of us. “Don’t be so hard on Laguna, Squall,” his voice pleads as his attention goes to the other Estharian stowaway. Rinoa stands up as well, gripping her Griever ring on her necklace. She nods at Seifer, but still keeps her eyes down almost as if she is ashamed.

“Seifer wrote to me when I was still at Garden with you all,” her eyes find the blonde’s, seeking approval to continue on. Seifer smiles sincerely at her and she sighs before continuing. “He knew I was there since I was always on your arm in all of the newspaper photos, Squall.” She points to me but keeps her eyes trained on the table top. Photos of us circulated everywhere in the weeks after the defeat of the Sorceresses, the world wanting to know all about their heroes. The tabloids really took off with the possibility of a romance between Rin and me, given how I became her knight. “He told me how Dr. Odine here in Esthar was helping him with everything that had happened.” Selphie and Zell both gasp, recalling the monstrous things they witnessed in the dream world the doctor did to Sis when she was a kid.

Seifer clears his throat to gain everyone’s attention again. “He helped me by ensuring I am, and will from now on, be in control of my own mind without outside influence,” he clarifies before he passes the attention back to Rinoa with another smile.

“Since I’ve been here, he’s been able to help me regain control over myself. He’s taught me how to sustain resistance of outside influences or sustain mental shields to keep that from happening again, all while being in a safe environment to contain any loss of control I may have.” Rinoa’s eyes finally rise up to meet my own and I see how unsure of her decisions she is within her gaze.

“Fine, that makes sense for you Rin, but you,” Zell interrupts, standing from his own seat and pointing his finger at Seifer as his jaw tenses. “Why are you still here, huh? Hiding out instead of cleaning up the mess you made?” Seifer’s eyes widen at the accusation for a moment before his typical smugness reappears. He throws his arms out across the top of the table towards Zell.

“What am I supposed to do? I don’t give a damn about the people that wish me dead for being under that witch’s control, but I also couldn’t go back to Garden! What, am I supposed to go back to sitting in a classroom? Waiting around to pass my SeeD exams? With all those kids asking questions and not trusting me to have their backs?” His hands now ball up into fists, slamming into the top of the table. “I’m not a SeeD Zell, and now I never will be! I can’t go back to classes, and I can’t go with you on missions, so what the hell am I supposed to do?” Zell’s eyes are as wide as the rest of ours, realizing we all hadn’t thought of those points. What could he do now? The blonde faces away from Seifer but still holds a defensive pose and a scowl on his face. Seifer leans against his knuckles on the table, slouching slightly to bring himself down to Zell’s line of sight before he continues.

“The only one who is going to care what happens to me is me, so I did what I needed to do to ensure my own survival. And luckily, Laguna understood where I was coming from and offered up Odine to help however he could, even if it meant sealing myself away from the world.” Zell’s shocked eyes meet Seifer’s, the two blondes staring at each other for a moment as Seifer nods a few times. “Yeah, there were moments where that seemed like the only outcome for me.” Zell and I shake our heads at the thought of Seifer being sealed. Would we have come and rescued him like we did Rinoa, I wonder?

“That’s not true, Seifer. We care about you. Squall ordered so many search parties for you after the war was over, Zell leading every one of them!” Selphie mentions before Zell’s glare silences her. Seifer quirks an eyebrow at her statement, watching Zell’s face redden a shade or two. I sigh, pinching the bridge of my nose.

“Either of you could have told us at least. We looked for you both. You could have let us know you were alive,” I state without releasing my pinching fingers.

“So you could come rescue us? That’s not what we needed, Squall.” Rinoa chimes in once more. The door to the conference room swishes open.

“Squall!” Ellone says as she walks quickly towards me and wraps her arms around my shoulders in a hug. Was she always this short, I ask myself as I stand from my seat to give her a proper hug. She leans back, tracing her fingers down my cheek to partially outline my smile. “It’s so very good to see you,” she says before turning to the rest of the room and nodding, “all of you.”

Selphie bounces out of her chair and gives Ell a quick squeeze, unable to control herself before quickly going back and taking her seat between a waving Quistis and a hat-tipping Irvine. I scoot away from my own seat and hold my hand out, offering it to Ellone who smiles and accepts. After she sits, I turn towards everyone else, noticing how Zell and Seifer have both settled back into their chairs, Seifer’s eyes are still on the other man. Placing my hands behind my back, I start to pace, readying myself for my speech when I hear a whisper behind me.

“Squall,” Ellone whispers, her hand clutching her chest. Gasps ring out from the others while I instinctively reach out to Sis when I see her eyes roll back into her head.

“Ellone!” Laguna yells, but that is the last thing I hear, as my knees buckle and I go down towards the floor. A bluish white light cracks along the veins of my arms and my vision frosts over briefly before the ice shatters into darkness.

~Noctis~

As I stare up at the sky, I lose myself between the glistening emptiness of the universe and the crushing silence of the outdoors. My group and I seem to be stuck out in the middle of nowhere and our energy reserves burned up as quickly as the sunlight, leaving us only one option: camping.

“Hand me that pole would ya, Noct?” Gladio requests, his mood more chipper now that we decided on spending the night outside. I hand him the metal rod and he smiles at me, turning his attention back to building the tent. Ignis hums lightly a few feet away from us, busying himself with cooking the evening meal. Taking a deep breath, I inhale the smells of heaven, considering Ignis was a god when it came to cooking anything. A clicking noise that differs from the crackling of the fire pit catches my ear, snapping my attention in front of me.

“Love the lighting!” Prompto announces as he lowers his camera. He beams a smile at me despite taking my picture and being caught, although I doubt my attention would have stopped him. I smile back at him briefly before looking back up into the night air. Hey Noct? Uh, I was wondering,” the photographer states, scooting across the campsite to sit in the fold out chair beside mine. I look into his eyes, seeing a bit of apprehension and wondering what the next words are going to be. The blonde leans closer to me and lowers his voice to avoid being heard by the others. “So I’ve been takin’ pictures of whatever catches my eye, but is there, y’know, anything you want to see?” He finally asks, staring down at his fingers as they adjust the lens of his camera.

Yeah, you.

A smile slowly spreads as I take the camera out of Prompto’s hands and raise it up in front of us. Prompto watches my hand holding the camera as I lean towards the blonde and smile, quickly pressing the button on top. The auto flash flickers before a familiar click is heard, both the blonde and I moaning at the blindness we now have. I chuckle and set the camera back in the man’s lap before answering him.

“How about snappin’ a few pictures of yourself for a change? Photography is better when it includes the photographer.” The blonde eyes me for a moment before smiling at my words.

“What, like a selfie?” he asks me sarcastically, chuckling when I roll my eyes at him. Glancing down at the camera in his hands, he slowly nods. “Alright, more of me then, but you know what that means, don’t you?” Unsure of his meaning I stare into his eyes, seeing for what may be the first time just how blue they truly are. A smile spreads along his lips as he turns away from me and leans his back into my chest, stretching his arms out straight and gripping the camera in both of his hands. Before I know what is happening, I am blinded once again by another flash and hear another click of a picture being taken. Prompto chuckles as he brings the camera closer to us to see the screen on the back. Pressing a few buttons, he finds the picture he just took and holds it up for me to see.

“Just means more pictures of us,” he states through a sigh as he continues to lean against me. My hands slowly slide over the top of his fingers holding the camera and bring the tiny screen closer to see. The two of us look the happiest I have ever seen, if I were honest, an almost natural flow to the closeness we share.

Good.

“Good.” I whisper into his ear as my eye catches something in the corner of the viewfinder. Removing a hand from on top of his, I point my finger on the screen. “What’s that?” I ask, allowing the blonde a better look at the image to see if he may have an idea. Whatever it is seems to be behind us, we both notice at the same time. The blonde suddenly sits up as we twist around to look for any signs of what the camera caught. Nothing seems out of the ordinary though.

“Maybe it’s our visitor again? The photo-bomber?” Prompto offers as an explanation, sneaking another glimpse at the camera’s screen. The connections start to be made as the pattern I see slowly morphs into a cloaked figure grasping her hands in front of her.

What the hell?

The blonde and I quickly stand from our chairs and turn to face the back of the site. A woman is there now, standing in the same place she was at in the picture as well with her hands folded in front of her. Her cloak sways behind her from the breeze passing by and her eyes remain closed, as they always are in the pictures she appears in.

“Hello?” I breathe out, taking a step towards her and reaching my hand out to her arm. The woman stands still, making us wonder if she is a statue that was here on the site and we just never noticed, until my fingertips meet the sleeve covering her arm. Once I feel the cold surface of the leather, her arms snap to either side of her with hands wide open, palms facing us.

“Squall.”

A voice rings through my mind. I assume it’s hers even though her lips never move or even open. A white light spirals along the length of each of her arms towards her hands. Once the light pools in her palms, it shoots out towards us, knocking us both onto our backs and releasing the breath in our lungs on impact.

Chapter Text

~Zell~

Panic overtook the entirety of the room, everyone standing from their seats and whisking to Squall or Ellone’s side, myself included. For a split second, I thought the man had finally buckled under the weight of the world on his shoulders. It's as if the knowledge of Rinoa and Seifers’ whereabouts being in the city his father ran is the final piece of information that completely shatters his consciousness and shuts him down. While I drop to my knees, I roll the brunette onto his back and place my hand on his cheek, noticing three things in this particular moment.

First, I am familiar with this facial expression, seeing it quite a few times back when we were still tangled up in the sorceress war. I can recall a time or two where Squall, Selphie and I were sent into dream world with Ell, and I woke up before the others. I saw this same expression on his face back then as I do now. When Squall sleeps, his face twitches as expression finally is allowed to shine through since he is unconscious and cannot hide it. But when he is in dream world, his face is as still as stone with an overall aura of peace surrounding him.

To confirm my suspicions, I glance over to Selphie, which is when I notice the second and third points. Selphie stood behind a stooping Rinoa, who now has taken over checking on Squall by gripping his arms and shaking him a bit harshly. Selphie’s eyes are staring into mine, her expression absent while her eyes seem to be struggling to focus. I believe the two of us are realizing the same thing at the same time, confirming it for each other: dream world is back.

But my eyes phase the brunette out as they suddenly focus on the towering blonde figure behind her. Seifer’s face holds a melting pot of emotions, his eyes snapping back and forth between Ellone and Squall until they narrow. I stare at his face, watching his expression shift from concern to anger in an instant, his eyes now boring into my own. Is that jealousy, I wonder as I follow the trail his gaze has just taken, finding the only thing that he may have seen that would upset him is my hand on Squall’s cheek.

My hand quickly falls away from the brunette’s face as I glance back up towards Seifer. Were the rumors true? Did something happen between Squall and Seifer, and now he’s jealous of me touching him? The blonde shifts, now bending down with an arm on Laguna’s shoulders to try and calm him down.

“Guys, it’s fine!” Selphie yells. Laguna asks Kiros to retrieve Dr. Odine, but Seifer holds his hand up to stop him. The blonde glances at me, but once we see each other he drops his stare to the ground and swallows. He mumbles something about going himself to get Odine, leaving the room before anyone can utter a word. Did he leave because of me?

“We’ve done this before,” Selphie starts to explain the situation to everyone, but I keep staring at the doorway. Seifer won’t know what’s happening, he won’t know that this isn’t serious. I quickly stand from Squall’s side, nodding at Selphie to continue before jogging out the door to follow him. He couldn’t have gotten very far. Rushing down the hallway, I spot the blonde as he impatiently waits for people to get off the lift.

“Yo, Seifer!” I yell out, gaining his attention. The blonde turns at my voice, his face instantly creasing with the same jealous glow from before. He refrains from looking directly at me, opting to stare down at his arms, now crossed over his chest. When I finally make it to him I stop at his side, feeling every inch of height difference between us. Why am I suddenly so nervous? This is Seifer, damn it!

“It’s fine man, we’ve been through this before. It’s dream world again,” I explain, but slowly drift off when I fail to see the concern leaving his face. He still refuses to look at me, but I stare at the left side of his face since he is turned away from me and continues to stare down at his arms. Each word leaving my lips only narrow the blonde’s eyes further, souring his expression with every syllable. Did we ever tell him about this before? I rub the back of my head, now staring down at the floor myself as I try to remember.

“Uh, did we tell you about dream world man?” Seifer’s shoulders tense as he glances towards the lift again. I follow, seeing a couple of people seated and the platform descending. Shit, we missed it. Peering back at the blonde, I watch the tension build and release as he clenches his jaw before turning towards the doorway to the emergency stairs.

“Hey,” I call out, chasing after him as the door starts to shut between us. Shoving against the cold metal, I watch him shrink with each step of his descent.

“Seriously man, it’s no big deal, we just gotta wait it out. He’ll wake up eventually.” My words get caught in my throat when Seifer’s body turns, oozing with a growing hostility. His piercing stare still avoids me, staring at the steps he just went down with a frown across his brow that causes me to frown as well. “We really never told you about-”

Seifer snaps, slamming his fist in the metal railing that ran the length of the stairs against the wall. His eyes finally look up into mine, raging with irritability that bites at my very breath. “No Zell, I apparently didn’t get the stupid memo you send out to your weekly chess club or book club bitches about the damn dream world.” He sarcastically holds his index finger to his chin, dramatizing the situation. “Hmm, maybe because I’m not a part of the Reading for Rejects club, or the Chess Club Chicken-wusses!” I scowl at the provoking nickname as he drops his finger and balls his fists up at his sides, glaring at me as he slowly walks back up the stairs towards me.

“Or maybe it’s because I’m still considered a high risk hostile that has orders out against his head, orders that say K-O-S or ‘kill on sight?” The blonde throws air quotes around the definition of the abbreviation before lowering his fists to his sides once more. As he now stands in front of me, I bite my tongue, keeping my own anger in check. The last thing we need is to brawl in a stairway, injuring ourselves and causing further concern for the group. He is right, albeit infuriatingly so, but I take in a deep breath to calm myself.

“Fine, would you like me to explain it to you now then?” I question through gritted teeth. His sapphire eyes narrow, wondering where my anger is since he used my typical triggering word. He takes a step back from me, giving me some room away from the door I hadn’t realized I am now pressed against. How the hell did that happen? “The short version,” I begin as I side step passed him and start walking down the stairs, leaving him behind. After a few steps I hear the stomping of his steel toes on the metal stairs behind me. “Ellone was trying to change things in the past, specifically change Laguna not being present when her mother passed away. She used her abilities to do so, but couldn’t do it alone. She used Squall, Selphie and myself most of the time, tapping into our minds and sending any of the group's subconscious back in time to her father’s past in hopes of us being able to change events, but we couldn’t because you can’t change events in time.” I turn on the last landing, glancing up at Seifer before taking the last flight of stairs to the main level. He is frowning as he listens to my explanation, but doesn’t interrupt.

“When she would send us, she did it unwillingly at first when she slept. This in turn would send us at any time, meaning,” I point my finger up to the floors we just came from, “we would pass out or fall asleep at any point until Ell woke up, releasing us. Any questions?” I sarcastically ask as my foot drops from the final step. Seifer jumps down the last steps, gripping my bicep and jerking me to face him. He grabs my other bicep and slams my back against the wall beside the door, bringing his nose within an inch of mine. My eyes almost pop out of my skull at the sudden attack, unaware of anything happening until my back hit concrete. I brace myself for the impact of his fists or forehead, unsure if his anger from earlier was triggered by my sarcasm. We stare into each other’s eyes for a few moments, feeling his breath wisp over my lips and down my neck.

“How long?” he mutters, his eyes bouncing from left to right as he studies my own. I frown at him, wondering what he was referring to. Does he mean how long was it happening for? Or how long were we out? This was a bit too much even for him, to pin me against a wall just to be asking about the dream world. His leather gloves begin to make cracking sounds from strain as his grip on my arms tightens. Angered by my lack of answers, he pressed me further against the wall. “You and him,” his eyes flash upwards then return to mine again. “Squall,” he clarifies with a bit of a bite in his tone. “How long?”

I stare with wide eyes into his narrow slits, shocked that he is even asking. So something was going on between them back in the day, I note, remembering the numerous times I would run into them training together. Back before everything happened, Squall and Seifer would only train with each other, excluding themselves away from everybody else. At first, it was assumed they did it because they were the only two that used gunblades so, of course you would want to train with someone else trying to specialize in similar weaponry as you. As time went on, their constant bickering and feuding morphed into some sort of weird understanding between the two of them. Their training sessions increased, secluding them away from everyone else. Once or twice a week obligations given to them by instructors quickly turned into once or twice a day by choice on top of the required hours just before the war began. That must have been when the two of them were closer than sparring partners, I decide.

My memories must be taking too long, since Seifer’s watchful eye now falters. His grip on my arms loosens and his gaze falls away from mine as he stands up straight once more. Just as his fingers slide down my forearms releasing me and he shifts sideways to open the door, my own jealousy flares. Balling my fists catches the blonde’s attention, snapping his eyes back up to mine.

“If you were so damned concerned about him and what or who he was doing, you should have let him know you were alive.” After a moment Seifer’s brow twitches, his eyes widening with each passing second. Black leather gently slides along my cheeks as he holds my face in both of his hands. Warm lips press against mine and time freezes. The taller man exhales his held breath from his nose and I instinctively inhale, but air can’t fill my lungs fast enough. I switch from breathing through my nose to my mouth, which Seifer interprets as an invitation, sliding his tongue against mine and causing my eyes to close. Before I could reciprocate as realization caught up with me on what was happening, the man was gone, the door slowly closing beside me as I forget how to breathe.

~Squall~

“I’m afraid I must insist Mr. President, it’s the only way I can optimally understand what is happening,” a uniquely familiar accent breaks through my subconscious, causing me to stir. Noting the soreness I feel in both of my knees when I stretch my legs out, I quickly recall what I had just witnessed, or should I say whom. The people were as unfamiliar as their surroundings, which is unusual since I have traveled all over the world as SeeD. Before I became headmaster, I note with a hint of harshness since I miss what I used to do. The four of them seem to have some sort of training background, each specializing in various weapons, and various levels of attractiveness. My face twitches at the unintended turn in my thoughts, but there is nothing to stop them now as images flood my mind of the four of them. Out of them all though, the blonde is particularly...

“Squall?” Irvine’s familiar voice creeps into my ears, ceasing all of the images bouncing around in my brain. My eyes slowly crack open, narrowing at the unnecessary brightness of Selphie’s attire. The tiny girl squeals, standing from my bedside and jumping up and down a few times. Quistis stands beside her, pushing her glasses back up to her eyes and signing her relief.

“He’s awake! He’s awake!” The bouncing brunette announces to the rest of the people strewn about in the room. Room? Where am I, I wonder as I glance around at the decor. Laguna steps away from a mumbling Dr. Odine towards me, smiling at my recovery of consciousness. This must be his quarters? Or mine?

“How you feeling?” Seifer asks, standing near my feet at the end of the couch beside Rinoa. His face is a mess of emotions, most of which I am unfamiliar with aside from concern and relief. Rinoa rests her hand on my ankle.

“Zell? He’s awake now,” Selphie announces across the room to a stiff blonde leaning against a door frame. His thumbnail sits between his teeth, aimlessly nibbling at it before he finally snaps into focus. He smirks at me and throws the thumb he was chewing on up before uncrossing his feet and walking over to us all. I press the heel of my hand into my eye as I slowly sit up and swing my legs off the side of the couch I am laying on.

“Sis?” I mumble, nursing my throbbing skull between both of my hands as I lean against my elbows that now rest on my knees. Laguna frowns as Odine shuffles back to his ear and begins mumbling again.

“Fine, fine, do it, but I’m warning you,” the president threatens as his arms flex from his solid grip on them crossed over his chest.

“I’ll aid you, doctor,” Quistis pipes up, running her hand along the side of Laguna’s arm as she whispers something in his other ear.

“That is unnecessary,” Odine begins to argue but the brunette holds his hand up and eyes him dangerously.

“Actually, it’s very necessary. Thank you Quistis,” Laguna smiles and squeezes her hand in gratitude. Zell hops over to the bed in the room, where a still unconscious Ellone lies.

“I’ll carry her down,” he offers, sliding his hands beneath her knees and shoulders and scooping her up from the covers. Laguna thanks the blonde as he quickly leaves the room, followed by Quistis and the doctor. The President rubs his hands against his face a few times, wiping the fatigue of the situation away before looking back at me.

“Odine is going to keep Ellone in his lab. He wants to run a few tests since she keeps having episodes lately, which is wearing her down more than usual. Since you’re awake Squall, would you mind if I stayed with Ell until she wakes up?” Before the man can finish his question I am already nodding and shooing him out the door. He smiles at me, promising we’ll go over what happened after she returns to us before he leaves to follow the others.

“You need anything?” Selphie asks, Irvine sliding up behind the girl and stretching his hand out towards me. I open my palm underneath his fist and he drops a few pills and hands me a bottle of water. Tilting my head back, I pop the pills in my mouth and chug a few gulps of the water to wash them down before shaking my head at them both and thanking them.

“Our rooms are right down the hall if you need us, ok?” Selphie coos as Irvine gently pushes her towards the doorway. I nod my understanding and thanks while the two exit the room, leaving me with Seifer and Rinoa. Seifer rests his hands on his hips, now showing only relief at my recovery while Rinoa crosses her arms and bends down beside me. Her dark chocolate gaze finds mine when I look between the two, finally showing a sincere smile at them both.

“I’m glad you two are alright,” I mention, failing to do so earlier before I went into dream world. Rinoa flashes a small smile, glancing back towards Seifer. Noticing the look in his eye, she looks back at me and sighs. Standing up, she slides her hand down my cheek before turning to Seifer. Gripping the sleeve of his coat she squeezes, then stalks out the doorway, pressing the button to close it behind her.

“What happened?” Seifer asks me once the door is closed, concern starting to show on his face. I eye him for a moment before I quirk my brow with a smirk.

“I could ask you the same,” I reply. Seifer drops his hands from his hips and slouches, taking a few steps towards me and turning to settle onto the couch beside me.

“Oh, the usual,” he breathes out with a large exhale. Raising his arm above his head, he rests it on the back of the couch behind me and places his ankle on his knee, crossing his legs.

“I screwed up,” he answers with a traditional Almasy smirk plastered on his face. I continue to stare, awaiting the deeper reveal. Eventually, the smirk falls away and the man drops his leg and leans on his knees, gripping his head in his hands. “I’m such a fucking idiot,” he mumbles out between his fingers and I sigh, staring forward as I smack him on his shoulder blade.

“So, you finally told Zell then?” I fill in the blanks myself, watching out of the corner of my eye as his head twists to face me, a scowl freshly in place.

“How long have you two been a thing?” he questions me sternly, anger beginning to bubble to the surface. I shake my head at his words.

“Nothing is going on, aside from some harmless flirting from time to time. Did you actually tell him?” I recall what seems like a lifetime ago when Seifer and I would train together. It took months for him to finally admit his endless teasing of the blonde was his only method of flirting, given he had no real practice, especially with another man. Seifer exhales loudly, releasing his face from his fingers and sitting back against the couch in a slouch.

“Didn’t tell so much as showed.” I snort before I can stop myself, glancing beside me to Seifer and wincing a silent apology.

“I couldn’t help it. He was all over you after you went down and I just got pissed at the two of you. I tried to hold back and leave but he followed me to explain the whole dream world thing. I couldn’t keep my temper in check and snapped at him like an asshole, but he threw it right back at me thinking I was jealous over you being with him, not the other way around. I just-” he throws his hands up and shrugs, staring at the floor “I just reacted. I couldn’t have him thinking I was upset for the wrong reasons, you know?” The blonde sighs, gripping his face between his hands once more and groaning. “What was I thinking Squall. I get mad at him, I walk away from him, I blow up at him and then I make out with him?”

“Then what did you do?” I ask, staring at the back of his head as his gloved fingers run through the short blonde hairs. His hands stop and he sighs again.

“I left him again. Holy Hyne what is wrong with me,” he trails off with another groan, probably from squeezing his skull too tightly.

“So, how was it?” I finally ask with a smirk. Seifer turns his head in his hands to face me, his signature smirk firmly in place.

“So fucking good,” he moans, causing us both to laugh. I pat his shoulder a few times and hold his gaze.

“If it was good, then he responded to it, right?” I ask, the blonde frowning at me for a second.

“Of course he did, I don’t like my partners to just sit still man,” he watches me as I tilt my head slightly at him.

“So if he responded and it was great, do you think he enjoyed it?” His face smooths as the pieces start to fall into place. He stares at me, then glances towards the door as his mind triple checks every detail of what happened between the two of them. I use the hand on his shoulder to shove him off the couch towards the door.

“So why the hell are you still sitting here with me?” The blonde stands up before I can shove him onto the floor, flashing a grin over his shoulder as he trots toward the door. Once he reaches it with his hand out towards the button, he pauses and turns to look at me.

“Seriously, you good?” he questions me with all the concern he could muster through his excitement. Lying back on the couch, I place my arm across my eyes to shut out the light and wave him off with my hand. A breath later, the door swoosh sounds twice when he takes his leave.

Chapter Text

~Zell~

Pinching the arm of her glasses between her fingers, I watch Quistis as she guides me to place Ellone on a linen-lined metal table, similar to one you’d see in a veterinarian’s office. The older man thanks me for bringing her down so easily before urging me towards the doorway to leave. I eye Quistis and raise a brow, making sure she is alright with my departure. She smiles and nods, offering a quick wave when I go back the way we just came. Just to be sure though, I lean against the wall outside of the room and cautiously watch and listen to ensure she would be alright with the doctor. The giant wall sign scrawled with ‘Odine Laboratories’ proves to be in the perfect position, the glassy surface giving me a clear viewing of inside the room without them realizing I am still here.

“Well,” the doctor states, turning towards Quistis with his hands folded behind his back. Quistis stares at him, unsure of how honest the man’s motives truly are when it came to offering to help Ellone. “Since you insist on being here, I insist on you helping me figure out what is wrong with her.” The shorter man holds one of his hands out to his side, gesturing to the tabletop that expands the length of the room, covered in boxes stacked almost to the ceiling of the lab. “Start here with these, and see what you can find about Miss Ellone’s abilities while I begin to conduct tests.” Odine turns away from her then, heading towards the unconscious girl.

“What tests are you going to conduct exactly?” Quistis questions him suspiciously, watching his every move. The man halts beside the table Ellone is resting on and drops his head, shaking it.

“Standard checkup procedures Ms. Trepe, nothing unorthodox.” His frustrations are starting to show, I notice with the bit of a bite to his tone.

“Certainly not with me right here, doctor,” the strawberry blonde replies, narrowing her eyes towards him. She slides the box that is closest to her off of the counter and carries it to a stool facing Ellone. Placing the box beside the girl, she scoots the chair as close to her as possible without being in the way and begins digging through its contents. Odine stares at her for a few more moments before shaking his head once more and getting started on his examination. Yeah, Quistis will be fine with him, I tell myself with a grin before turning and heading back towards the exit.

Stepping out into the warm air, I draw in a long breath, raising my arms up on either side of me in the process. I hold the air in my lungs until I feel like they’re about to burst before exhaling harshly, dropping my arms back to my sides. Walking towards the car that brought me from the palace, I frown at the thought of going back. I need to clear my thoughts I decide, waving the driver of the car off and walking up the path towards the shopping center. The warmth of the day brought a lot of people out, but not an overwhelming amount. Finely dressed couples roam the edges of the roads to avoid any oncoming vehicles and wave at them if they do drive by. Peaceful and friendly people gather in tiny groups throughout the city, discussing the simple pleasures of living in Esthar. I wave to a smiling lady and her small boy as they pass by me, just leaving the shopping center kiosk. Pressing the screen to life, I briefly scan through the shop names before aimlessly pressing a few of them to see what they offered.

“Retail therapy, huh?” A familiar voice in my ear startles me. My eyes snap to the newcomer, shutting my shopping experience down since I broke eye contact with the machine. Seifer stands beside me, holding his hands up in a surrendering apology. His eyes stay where the computer screen once was to avoid mine.

“This huge city and you manage to find me,” I murmur, suspicious of him actually finding me and not following me this whole time. Seifer’s shoulders raise in a shrug.

“You weren’t in your room. I asked the front guards if you returned yet and they told me you hadn’t, so I started towards the lab, but I saw Laguna’s driver pull up. You didn’t get out of the car, which I didn’t think you would anyway since you’d need to clear your mind, so I knew you’d be wandering around the city somewhere. Most of the city is just paths to more paths with an occasional floating garden near some stairs. This is about the only interesting spot, or at least interesting to you.” His gaze meets my speechless face when he finishes his explanation before facing forward once again. “I do know you Zell. I’ve known you most of my life, remember?” he asks me with a deep breath. His hands were resting on his thighs, thumbs tucked inside the front pockets of his jeans. I notice the fingers resting outside of the pockets are trembling slightly. Is he nervous, I wonder dragging my eyes slowly back to his face.

“It wasn’t retail therapy,” I mumble after a few minutes of silence between the two of us before starting off again towards the palace. Since the person I am trying to avoid is standing right next to me, I might as well go back now. Seifer snorts, falling in line behind me to follow. I turn my head a few times, seeing him still staring down at his feet.

“Now you’re blatantly following me,” I joke, trying to lighten the mood between us. This is Seifer, the man I’ve known for as far back as the Guardian Force’s allow me to remember. He’s always been such an asshole, relentlessly teasing and poking fun at me, belittling me and humiliating me. This prick is one of the reasons I got into martial arts before we were shipped off to Garden, so I could protect myself against him constantly beating me up and calling me that damn nickname all the way up until SeeD exams. But now he’s changed so much I hardly feel like I know him anymore. The blonde snickers behind me before picking up his pace and stepping in sync beside me. I watch him out of my peripheral as my mind races with all the differences from then to now in the man, but my thoughts seem to stick to one very large difference I can’t seem to ignore.

“Why’d you do it?” I question him, my voice barely above a whisper as my throat is almost swollen shut from nerves. A familiar sneer appears on his face and I already hear the words he’s about to say before he even utters a sound.

“Do what?” we both say at the same time. I stop walking and cross my arms, glaring at the back of his head. Maybe he isn’t as different as I thought. Seifer takes a few more steps before turning his face to where I once was next to him, seeing my stance out of the corner of his eye. The blonde sighs heavily, glancing over to the other side of the path we’re on. We were walking by one of the floating gardens he mentioned earlier, the staircase zigzagging back and forth between the floral levels. Seifer shuffles towards the lower level where a bench lies centered with the flower box behind it and takes a seat, resting his elbows on his knees and keeping his gaze on the ground. I take in my own deep breath and slowly walk over, settling down beside him and waiting.

“I know so much about you Zell. I remember so much from when we were kids at Matron’s and in classes together at Garden. I know your habits and mannerisms, what makes you tick and what sets you off,” he leans against the back of the bench now, trademark grin in place.

“Chicken-wuss” we both say, my eyes rolling into my skull instinctively as he breathes out a chuckle. His baby blues finally meet mine, the sneer fading into a sincere smile.

“But in all the years I’ve known you, studied you, learned everything there is to know about you, I never learned how to show you,” he trails off for a moment, his hand clenching his jacket over the top of his heart. His eyes wince in pain as he pats his fist over his heart a few times, tears beginning to form in his eyes. All I can do is stare at him, words failing to form in my mind from the shock of the moment. Seifer sighs again, widening his eyes to stop the tears from pooling any more than they already have.

“After Edea and I changed back, I was overcome with memories of what I had done to you, to all of you. And when I would think back to when it started, the line between my control before her and her control over me was blurred,” Seifer shakes his head and stares up into the sky, failing at preventing the tears from forming.

“I realized I couldn’t tell where my torment against you guys ended and hers began.”

~Seifer~

I take a moment to regain my composure, allowing the broken worded sentences to sink into the blonde’s head. Is anything I am saying making any sense to him? Or am I wasting my time? After a few deep breaths, my eyes even out again, tears retreating. I glance over my shoulder to see Zell, staring forward his mouth slightly ajar.

“Does any of this make any sense?” I finally ask, my nerves almost completely shot. The blonde snaps his mouth closed and furrows his brow a bit, but keeps his eyes away from mine.

“You tortured me, Seifer. You used me as an easy target to beat up, pick on and everything in between. For the majority of my life that is all you’ve ever done to me,” he trails off for a second, swallowing back his own tears before turning to face me on the bench. “What makes me think the words you say now, or your actions now are anything different?” I should have expected him to doubt me to some degree. Hell, this is chicken-wuss, the man I did focus my sole attention on for years only to humiliate and devastate at every possibility that arose. But his words still felt like taking a boulder to the gut, knocking the wind right out of my lungs. I hang my head low, dropping my eyes down to my boots and rack my brain on how I could possibly prove to him I no longer wished him any harm.

“I have nothing to give you as proof, Zell; only my broken stutters and a promise that what I said and did before will never happen again. If there’s one thing I regret about my past aside from devoting myself unwillingly to a demented psychopath that tried to destroy the world and everyone in it, it is everything I did to you while growing up. I wish I could take it all back and actually have enough guts to show you how I felt. To show you how I feel even now, but all I can do is remember that my horrible treatment of you then is partially what made you who you are now, and that man is everything to me.” His eyes stare into mine as both of our mouths seem to drop open. I think I shocked not only him, but myself with what I said, finally able to speak from the heart. It took my entire life to sit beside this man and say to him everything I’ve wanted to say to him since we were first learning how to fight, and I’m not going to waste this second chance I’ve gotten to see him again after everything we’ve been through.

Before he can turn away from me, I place my hands on both sides of his face and slowly lean forward, taking my time to see if he would forcefully pull away from me. He only stares at me, his eyes widening the closer I get. I savor the moments until our lips finally touch, keeping this time around a bit less rushed and harsh. His pillow soft lips press against my own, spreading warmth throughout my entire body. Our mouths mesh together for a few moments of bliss before he parts his lips, releasing a warm breath against my mouth.

A small moan passes through my own parted lips when I slide my tongue along his bottom lip. His hands suddenly cling together behind my head as he pulls me closer along the bench, his tongue seeking mine out. They dance together in our mouths for a few incredible moments before he finally pulls back to breathe, locking his eyes with mine. His expression reads pure shock, but his eyes still manage to scan over all of my features to see if any malice is hidden in them. When he doesn’t seem to spot any, he leans back from me, pressing a hand on my chest to stop me from pulling him back in.

“I need to think,” he manages to mumble under his breath as he runs his gloved fingers through his hair and zones out. I watch him, a smirk playing at the corner of my mouth when I see the affect our kiss had on him matched that of my own. His mind is racing, I can tell as his eyes flicker all over every surface before us, until they finally come back to mine.

“This is going really fast. I still don’t know if I believe that this isn’t just another sick joke, Seifer. But I really,” he trails off, seeing the disappointment behind my eyes. Slowly he places his hand within my own in my lap, linking our fingers together. I watch our hands as they connect before looking back into his eyes. “I really hope this is real.” He finishes with a blushing smile. I nod, bringing his hand up to my lips and press a quick kiss on the back of his glove. Frowning, Zell smirks at me as I twist my thumb behind his hand and scoot the fabric aside and try again, kissing the skin on the back of his hand this time.

“If you ever want to talk, or ask me anything, I’m here. All I can do is wait for you to be ready to believe me, and I am more than willing to wait,” I mention before leaning in for another stolen kiss. Keeping it quick, I peck his lips a few times before standing, raising him with me from the bench. He keeps ahold of my hand as we head back towards the palace, my spirits rising with every step. I will prove to this man that he is everything to me, somehow. Even if it means waiting forever, I’ll do it. I owe him nothing less.

Chapter Text

~Quistis~

My vision blurs around the edges, the endless scrawl of letters on the page morphing together with each passing minute. Glancing up at the clock, I notice the doctor and I have been at this for almost six hours again. Setting the packet I hold down on the table in front of me, I press my fists into my lower back and stretch to relieve the irritated muscles. We’ve been doing this for almost a week. I scour over pages and pages of notes and tests while the doctor keeps an eye on Ellone’s medical state without any sign of improvement. Through the process, I’ve noticed a pattern in his files when it comes to the young girl; when he wanted any results versus when he wanted to actually study her. To say I found it appalling would be an understatement. I shudder at the thought of being in this man’s mind, worried I am losing my basic human nature by reading so many of these notes. There’s only so far the continuous reminder of her being a child at the time can take me, before I start to view it as a necessary process to learn how to stop the sorceress wars. The doctor stands beside Ellone with his back to me, gripping her I.V. bag between his fingers.

“Overall doctor,” I start to say as I stand from my stool to stretch my legs. The doctor turns away from Ellone to face me with a curious look in his eyes. “Do you recall ever truly understanding what it is she can do? I’m sure you would remember something like that, not need to jot it down to recall later, or wouldn’t you?” My irritation at the lack of my own results ringing true in my tone. If he had some sort of miraculous discovery with Ellone, I won’t find it in these documents. It would be in his mind, I decide as I watch his face for any signs of recollection. The man grips his hands behind himself and slowly walks over to me, an eerie smile spreading on his face.

“From what I can remember Ms. Trepe, she held abilities beyond our understanding. I attempted to learn more about them by conducting tests and taking samples, ultimately only making the situation worse. My samples taken then were what made the sorceress wars possible in the future. If I learned anything from that time, it was simply this: remember what can happen should your tests and experiments fall into the wrong hands.” He stares at me for a few moments, watching my face scrunch up in misunderstanding. I shake my head at him.

“Yes that’s all fine and good doctor, but that doesn’t really answer my question. Do you recall any specific details of her abilities?” The doctor nods slowly, his creepy smile only growing larger. I stare at the man, waiting for an elaboration, but give up after a few moments.

“Care to share doctor?” I finally ask as my patience dwindles further. Odine turns away from me abruptly, making his way back to Ellone. His fingers slide along the end of the table near her feet as he stares at her sleeping form.

“When it comes to Ellone and her abilities, it is best to ask Ellone about them.” The man chuckles, placing his hands into his lab coat pockets and staring off in his own thoughts. Finding his answers uncomfortable along with his watchful gaze on the young girl, I throw my hands up in frustration.

“Alright that’s it. Let’s go,” I announce, striding over to the man and wrapping my arm under his own. As I tug him away from Ellone, the man stiffens at the sudden contact.

“What?! What are you doing?” I ignore his questions and continue to pull him out the door of the lab, heading for the elevator. Odine keeps sputtering questions while stumbling along beside me, his stubby legs failing to keep up with my long stride. If I want answers, there’s only one way to get them, I finally decide as we exit the lab. “We can’t just leave her unattended!” He finally yells, grinding the heels of his feet against the tiles. I stop and face the man, seeing how reddened his face has become.

“You,” I announce while still staring into Odine’s eyes. The guards on either side of the doorway turn their attention to me and I point my finger into the room we just left. “Watch her until we come back. If anything happens, contact Kiros and Laguna or someone. We’ll be at the palace.” Odine stiffens more, frowning at me as I turn and pull at his arm once again.

“What?! Why are we going there?! We have nothing to do there, our work is here!” Ignoring the whiny orders spewing from the doctor, we make our way to the palace where everyone awaits our results.

Bursting through the doors to Laguna’s office, I fling Odine towards the couch against the wall and watch him stumble and land on the cushions ungracefully. “Quistis? What’s this? Where’s Ellone?” A confused president asks as he stands from his desk while Kiros is already moving towards Dr. Odine and watching me curiously.

“She’s mad! I told her we cannot leave the girl but she insisted!” Odine releases one of his hands that was gripping at Kiros’ sleeve and holds his arm up pathetically, “she almost pulled my arm out of its socket while she dragged me here!”

“Shut it Odine!” I threaten, glaring at the infuriating doctor for a minute before turning back to Laguna. “I sent the guards outside to gather everyone up. I’ll explain when they get here, sir.” Laguna glances over at his adviser and I notice the shrug Kiros gives the president out of the corner of my eye. “She’s fine, sir, I assure you, the guards outside the lab are watching her until further notice.” I ease the man’s tension, noting how worried he appears. I have to do this, there’s no other choice. From what pattern I noticed in his notes, I’ve got a pretty good chance of ending this.

“Quistis? What’s happened? What did you find?” Squall questions me as he enters the room, everyone else trailing behind him. I pinch the bridge of my nose, easing the tension of the situation before I dive into a lengthy explanation, or possibly a debate. Probably a debate, if I am honest with myself. Releasing a sigh, I begin, staring at Squall who now stands beside Laguna.

“Odine is wasting my time, wasting our time,” I fold my arms over my stomach and wait, watching the eyes of the room shift from me to him. The tiny man’s eyes grow wide for a second his face brightens in anger.

“Lies! She’s lying. How am I wasting time when we are going over my notes from over a decade ago-” I shake my head and point my finger at the man.

“No, I am going over your notes from over a decade ago while you just stand around near Ellone!” I intentionally bait the man, hoping to further irritate him.

“Quistis, that hardly qualifies as wasting time. There could be important information in those notes-” Squall interrupts our argument but Odine hollers over him as he stomps his feet.

“I am not just standing around her, I am keeping an eye on the subject’s vitals and-”

“The subject?! She is not a subject Odine! She’s my daughter!” Laguna yells at the newly agitated man, snapping Odine’s attention to the president. Odine holds his hands out at Laguna in a surrendering gesture and begins to backtrack.

“A slip of the tongue sir. My apologies. I am a scientist, I am used to subjects and using the term-”

“Tell me how after almost a week she has shown zero sign of returning to consciousness! When Squall came back mere hours after the last episode? Why is that Odine?” I continue berating the man to stop him from regaining his train of thought, knowing that is the only chance I have at slipping him up is to keep attacking him. Odine snaps his eyes back to mine, seething for being interrupted again.

“How should I know? Nobody knows what is happening now with-”

“You do know sir, you just refuse to inform the rest of us as to what is happening, by busying me with paperwork which all holds no merit to our current situation, correct?” He scowls at me for belittling his research.

“How dare you assume I know more than I say and how dare you disparage my work-” I interrupt him again and his scolding against me ceases.

“You yourself just said we do not know what is happening now, meaning there is a difference between then and now. So anything in those notes will be irrelevant to what is happening now. Is that not what you are saying?” The doctor stomps his foot again, frustrations elevating at the continuing interruptions. Turning his attention back to Laguna he stabs a finger towards me.

“She is putting words in my mouth Mr. President! I did not say looking through my notes would solve what is happening now, it is just an option to help us find out what is hap-”

“You did say that it is best when it comes to Ellone’s abilities to simply ask Ellone about them though, did you not sir? Just moments before coming here?” I question him further, quoting him almost verbatim from when we were in the lab a short while ago. The man bristles again for being interrupted, starting to argue with me before realizing that was what he had said.

“N- Well, yes that’s correct.”

“But we can’t do that while she remains unconscious, can we sir?” Before he can respond, I turn towards a baffled Squall and Laguna, standing at ease as if I were being briefed for a SeeD mission.

“She remains unconscious because this man is keeping her unconscious, thus not allowing us to find out from her what it is that is happening to her.”

“That is an outrage! I am doing no such thing!” Odine jumps in, defending himself as Kiros grabs his shoulders to keep him from attacking me. I keep my eyes forward and continue to address our leaders.

“I witnessed him without his knowledge, using a syringe, injecting her I.V. with some sort of liquid I believe is keeping her unconscious.” I now turn to Odine and point my finger at him once again. “A syringe filled with blue liquid which is still in your pocket, isn’t that correct?”

“No! That is a lie! It is pink!” The man announces, gripping the syringe from inside his pocket and holding it up to Laguna and Squall as evidence of my lies. He faces me and sneers, thinking he has won just as the room erupts in shocked gasps.

“My mistake,” I sarcastically remark, Kiros tilting over above Odine and taking the syringe out of his hands. Realization of being duped spreads over Odine’s features, and worry sets into his pupils, stuttering as he tries to talk his way out of being caught.

“You’re keeping her asleep?!” Laguna directly asks him, Squall placing his hand on the man’s bicep to hold him back. The doctor shuffles away from Kiros, his eyes scanning over all of ours like a caged animal realizing it is trapped. Trapped indeed he is, since Selphie and Rinoa are guarding the door as Zell, Irvine and Seifer all begin to corner the man. Once cornered, the guys grab each of his arms and stand up, hoisting the short doctor a good foot at least off of the ground. Odine continues to stutter out an explanation as Laguna approaches but the president ignores it all, holding his hand up to stop him from further lies.

“These men will escort you back to your lab where you will wake her up immediately before you are thrown in jail, understood?” The president instructs the flailing man with all the authority he holds in his tone. Before Odine can reply to him, he nods to Seifer who turns with Zell, both holding Odine’s arms and Irvine leads them out of the room, pressing the button for the door to open and keeping his finger on it for an easier exit. Laguna directs Kiros to follow so that once Ellone is given the drug to awaken he can lock Odine up.

“Good work, Quistis,” Squall states, his actions are unsure of how to show his appreciation and ultimately falls back on a SeeD salute. I return the gesture with a weary grin while Laguna turns his attention back to me.

“I don’t understand, if you saw him use the syringe, why did you say it was blue and not pink?” Squall turns towards Laguna, a shadow of a smile on his lips.

“She didn’t see him do it,” he tells the president, watching me to see if he is correct. I nod at the two before explaining.

“In his old research, I noticed his patterns were to keep her conscious and ask her repeatedly about her abilities and what she knew of them, but when he wanted to conduct his own research he would put her to sleep by injecting her I.V. I didn’t see him do anything of the sort now, but I had to assume he was since he hovered over her, constantly messing with her I.V. bags and staying by her side instead of trying to find any answers in his notes.” I sigh, pinching my nose again in frustration at the lost time and my failure to discover this sooner. “Why he kept her asleep now, I’m not sure since he wasn’t taking any samples from her to research. All I know is any answers we are looking for can only come from Ellone. His own words today confirmed it.” Squall leans to one side, resting his hand on his hip as he stares at the ground in deep thought.

“I wonder how much she knows, if anything at all,” Squall questions aloud, the three of us all pondering the same thing.

“President Laguna,” the voice of Kiros breaks our concentration as it crackles over the intercom on Laguna’s desk. Striding around to the other side of it, the president presses a button on the golden metal box to respond.

“Yes, what is it Kiros?”

“Sir, we have a situation outside the palace; one that requires your attention,” Kiros warns as a scuffle could be heard coming through the speaker. Laguna frowns, glancing at the two of us before looking back at the box.

“Can you not handle it?”

“It’s the issue we’ve been dealing with sir, it-it’s only getting worse.” Laguna sighs loudly, agreeing to meet Kiros then rubbing his hands on his face in frustration.

“What is it?” Squall questions the peeved man, frowning himself at the interruption of current issues. Laguna shuffles around the desk, shoulders slouching briefly before he straightens up to his duties.

“There’s been an ongoing issue here I wished to discuss with you soon, but I’m afraid soon has become now,” the man pats his hand on Squall’s shoulder and offers a timid smile. “Looks like Esthar may need to recruit some SeeD members,” He states over his shoulder as he makes his way out of the office to Kiros, Squall and I following behind.

~Ellone~

“Wake, child...can you hear me?”

An intriguing voice filters into my dreams, wrapping itself around my mind like a warm blanket despite my chilled exterior. Chilled? I notice my frigid fingers are clutching my green shawl around my body, secretly wishing it were a blanket instead to cover me entirely. My eyes refuse to open, keeping me drenched in darkness.

“Do you know who I am, child?”

A frosty breath floats across my cheek as I realize the voice isn’t coming from my dreams, but actually an unknown figure near me. The voice holds no malice, so I refrain from fearing what stands so near that I cannot see. I clutch the shawl closer for comfort, shaking my head towards the direction I assume it is standing.

“Soon you will, my dear, but for now you must have questions…”

Immediately my mind fills with the obvious: Who are you? What are you? Where am I? But I hold my tongue, attempting to sort through them to find the right question. Aside from not being able to open my eyes, my senses still react to my surroundings. I am not conscious, I decipher quickly as I recognize the weightless void overall, but it still feels different than any other time I have attempted to go into my dream world.

“Speak…”

I gasp, having opened my mouth for the first time and becoming overwhelmed by the heavily iced air. “What should I ask about?” I manage to mumble, failing to arrange my swirling questions. What does it have answers to? Anything? Everything? The figure suppresses a laugh, probably at my expense. This entity, creature, figure or whatever it is holds vast knowledge I could never begin to understand, that I am sure of solely based on the voice itself. But what does it wish to help me with?

“You know what it is I refer to... Ask.”

My misunderstandings of the current events taking place in reality immediately jump to the forefront of my mind. Without further hesitation, fearing it might irritate the voice, I begin. “What is happening to me?” I sum up with a generalized question, hoping it isn’t too vague. The voice morphs from slightly louder than a whisper to simply speaking when it answers me, revealing it actually is a woman.

“Soon child, you shall have a visitor of an unusual kind. This visitor will forcefully gain the attention of many, but only truly seeks the attention of you…”

The darkness surrounding me suddenly morphs into a horrendous thunderstorm and fills with images of people grouped together and chanting, showing what appears to be a timeline of what is to come; the group of ten to twenty people eventually becoming hundreds, storming through the streets of Esthar towards the palace.

“When the time is right you must leave the sides of the others to follow the visitor and find the answers you truly seek…”

My vision slowly creeps above the drenched heads in the crowds to the palace entrance, showing Squall and the others she was referring to in their fighting stance to defend the building and all who reside within. I see myself standing beside Squall with my hands wrapped around his arm but he mouths words to me I am unable to hear and shoves me backwards where I land in a puddle. I note how my face suddenly shifts into realization, my eyes widening despite the rain drops pelting my cheeks when I notice something. After a brief glance at the dripping backs of the SeeD members, I quickly race off.

“You must follow Umbra, child, or the chance will be lost…”

The whole scene billows and bubbles until it disappears, shifting into only a darkened gray sky drizzling rain and booming with thunder.

“That is all I can offer you for now, my child, just remember Umbra and remember… your mind’s sky must become cloudy before it can clear.”

The thunderstorm I was watching quickly dissipates into a calming blue sky without a cloud to be seen and the chill I felt throughout all of the scenes before finally begins to ease.

Chapter Text

~Squall~

Stepping off the elevator, I scan the big glass windows surrounding the palace entrance, spotting the issue Laguna was just speaking of outside. “How long has this been going on?” Quistis asks, seeing the same thing I am seeing. Kiros is standing between a few men just past the doorway, waving off Zell and Irvine to go on without him as they struggle to keep the doctor in the back of an unmarked van. Laguna shakes his head slightly at the scene and exhales before he answers.

“Talks of them organizing have been whispered about for months, but actually witnessing their growing numbers and voices has only been recently.” I watch one of the men Kiros is facing grow more irate at him, the adviser placing his hand on the man’s chest to hold him back. Shooting Quistis a glance we both nod at one another.

“Selphie, Rinoa, you two get to the lab and keep an eye on Ellone. Looks like Seifer was left behind for the same reason.” Both girls nod and head around the edge of the growing crowds to get to Laguna’s driver, yelling directions at the man as he hurries around the front of the car to get into the driver’s seat. Quistis and I look at one another again before bolting out the door towards Kiros.

“You have no proof!”

“Why should we believe you?”

“You can’t stop us!”

“We’re all allowed to stand up and fight to protect ourselves!”

Faceless voices are shouting around the growing tension of the situation between Kiros and the unknown man. The two of us stand on either side of Kiros, gripping our weapon handles in preparation as Laguna’s voice soars over them all. “What is the meaning of this?” he questions the crowd, holding his hands up to silence their yells. A few more voices ring out, screaming that he knows what they are there for and what is going on, but the president continues to stare between Kiros and the agitator.

“Mr. President, you’ve heard of our pleas from your useless minions before, and yet you continue to ignore us. We felt,” he throws his arms outward, gesturing to the crowd at his back, “maybe you’d hear us better if we came to your door.”

“You have our attention, and to ensure there are no miscommunications between us please say what it is you seek?” Laguna asks, folding his hands in front of him buried beneath the oversized sleeves. Kiros steps back to Laguna’s side and waits for the man’s explanation. The agitator’s eyes roam over the two then shift over to Quistis and me, pausing when our eyes meet. A sneer begins to spread across his face as he takes in a deep breath and starts to pace in front of us.

“According to you, Mr. President, and all the other leaders of the lands, the sorceresses that endangered the lives of every one of us standing here today,” he points a finger out to the groups of people that came with him. He holds his eyes on us as he continues, “were killed in a final battle, never to be seen or heard from again.” I keep my eyes from rolling, knowing exactly where this is going. He points his finger at the president now when he turns and begins walking back the way he came.

“You, sir, claim the final battle took place in a far off land, in a far off time etcetera etcetera,” his hands are rolling as his tone drips with sarcasm, a few people from the group chuckling and laughing at his words. “But none of the leaders of the lands offer us any proof! Something, anything, to show the people around the world that the sorceresses are, in fact, dead and gone forevermore!” His voice grows into a shout as he hits his key points, his followers starting to participate by shouting out their agreements. His pacing stops, standing directly in front of me and locking his eyes on mine while shifting his arms up in a shrug. “All we want is to be sure what happened before doesn’t happen again, is that so wrong of us? So since none of the world leaders can produce a scrap of proof of their demise, we are banding together. Drawing strength in our numbers and our solidarity against the sorceresses! Should they return, we shall be ready and able to fight them off ourselves!”

The growing crowd in front of the palace throws their fists and arms up, erupting in cheers. My eyes shift around their faces briefly as I try to recall hearing the same whispers around Balamb or Garden. Is this what is coming, I wonder? When the crowds’ screams finally die back down, Laguna takes a step toward the man in charge, standing centered behind Quistis and myself. Placing a hand on each of our shoulders, partially to keep us from pushing the man backwards, he begins his rebuttal.

“Here are two of the SeeD members that fought and won against the sorceresses,” The nameless man’s eyes widen momentarily at the two of us before he regains his composure. “Fighting against not one, but two of the most powerfully deadly forces ever to be written in our histories or our futures. Barely returning to us intact after having traveled in ways nobody else in our time ever has, to places nobody else in our world has ever been.” Laguna drops his hands from our shoulders and takes another step towards the man, staring deeply into his eyes.

“Would you ask them to bring back some proof of death when it may alter their return? Some trinket to show they had perished when that very same object could be the exact thing the sorceresses transferred their powers into in order to continue their survival?” The leader sneers at the words, noting the deafening silence behind him as the group of people start second-guessing their ideals. His eyes drop down to my hand, gripping the handle of my gunblade Lionheart, then he glances over to Quistis’ hand on her whip Save the Queen. He brushes past Laguna, taking the couple of steps to reach where Quistis and I stand. I tense when his finger taps against our hands on the handles before he raises his fingers upwards.

“And were these the weapons used to kill them? Might these be trinkets they would transfer their power into?” The backs of his hands briskly trail down our cheeks, “or did they just transfer their power into these two, since they’ve been known to do that before?” he mentions before we both shift our faces away from his touch. The man chuckles at each of us before gazing back at Laguna.

“All we are saying, Mr. President is we have no way of knowing they are truly gone, and no way of knowing they are truly staying gone.” He turns from us and begins to walk into the crowd, flicking his hands at the people who start to turn away as well. “All we are doing is uniting the men before the return of Adel. You have heard us today, which is all we asked. Please consider our words.” A few agreeing yells ring out as the people once gathered in front of us disperse.

“Uniting the men before the return of Adel? What about Ultimecia?” Laguna wonders out loud after releasing a tense breath. Quistis crosses an arm over her stomach and rests her index finger against the corner of her glasses, waiting for me to process everything that was said. I place my hand on my hip and pinch the bridge of my nose, stress and worry about any whispers back home now weighing down on me. “Because Adel was here with us in our timeline, unlike Ultimecia who was in the future,” I reply after a few moments. Turning my attention back to Kiros, I ask what happened with Ellone and Odine.

“He did wake Ellone up. We were headed back to lock him up when we passed the growing crowds. I insisted on stopping. The others wanted to help but I told them to go on and get him behind bars.” I frown at the man before turning my head towards the lift.

“Was Seifer left with her then?” I ask, already sure of the answer. When Kiros nods at me, I mention Selphie and Rinoa are on their way to the lab as well before turning to the strawberry blonde. “Quistis, call Selphie or Rin and tell them to bring Ellone back to the palace. Seifer as well so we can figure out what is happening.” We remain at the entrance, watching the majority of the people scatter back to their normal routines before we return inside the palace and await the others.

~Seifer~

“Give it a few minutes and she’ll be awake, but this is a mis...” Dr. Odine ceases his arguments when Irvine smacks the back of his head, bouncing his pathetic ponytail in the process. The doctor attempts to face him head on, but Zell and I tighten our grip on his arms, keeping him firmly in place.

“Give it up Odine. Nobody’s interested in your lies anymore, let’s go.” Irvine instructs as he turns to lead back out through the doors. Kiros nods at us as we hold the doctor, agreeing we should get him to the cells. As Zell and I shuffle Odine away from Ellone’s side, a hand suddenly tugs on my shirt. Looking down at the cause, I see Ellone’s wide eyes staring into mine, refusing to release the fabric if it means my leaving. She’s terrified, I notice, knowing the two of us have grown closer in our time together here in Esthar, but not close enough to warrant such a reaction out of her.

“Wait,” I halt the others, turning back to the doorway and waving Irvine back to us. Zell notices the look in her eyes and glances at me, already agreeing with what I am thinking.

“Irvine, take Seifer’s place. He’s going to stay with her until we’re done locking him up.” Zell smiles at me before reaching his free hand over to Ellone’s hand in my shirt. Zell’s envelopes the brunette’s petite fingers easily and gives them a gentle squeeze as a welcome back. Irvine grips the doctor’s armpit and lifts, releasing my hold while keeping the doctor in the air so he can’t attempt to escape. I nod to them all while I lift my hand up under Ellone’s fingers, untwisting them from the fabric so she may grip my hand instead.

“We’ll be back once he’s locked up, Seifer.” Kiros reaffirms the plans before they all take a hasty leave, carrying an angry doctor with them. Glancing around me, I notice a stool not too far from where I am standing. Stretching my foot out, I hook one of the legs and drag it towards me until it is within my reach. Gripping it with my free hand, I adjust it closer to Ellone’s side and take a seat, looking into her eyes.

“Welcome back, “ I murmur, noticing a hint of fear still present in her gaze. Her eyes snap across her surroundings for a minute before coming back to mine. I take this as a hint to explain what has happened, from the beginning when she fell unconscious in our meeting. I explain to her how she never woke but Squall had, and finally telling her how long she had been kept asleep. “He’s getting locked up this time, Ell, don’t worry,” I attempt to comfort her when I see her squint at the length of time she lost to sleep. The girl shakes her head at me, keeping her eyes locked on mine.

“That’s not what I’m upset about. Something is coming,” Ellone mentions, but our eyes both shift to the sound of footsteps approaching outside the lab.

“Hey guys!” Selphie chirps, bouncing over to the other side of Ellone. Rinoa makes her way into the room as well, her phone against her ear. I stare between the two, wondering why they came instead of Kiros and the others. “Something’s going down at the palace, Squall told us to come here,” Selphie quickly explains while gently grabbing Ellone’s free hand between the two of hers. “Rin’s on the phone with Quistis right now.” She finishes her explanation with a grin to ease the worry on Ellone’s face. Before I can ask what was going on back at the palace, Rinoa presses a button on her phone and slides it back into her pocket.

“Right, Ellone, how are you feeling? Think you can walk?” I watch the girl look at each of us before swallowing. She slowly shifts over to my side of the table, swinging her legs off the edge.

“Even if she can’t I can carry her, why what’s up?” I ask, biting my tongue at how little an explanation we are receiving. Ellone has just woken up after being asleep for six days, and now is immediately being told to move? Rin jabs a finger against her phone in her pocket.

“Squall wants us all to get to the palace so we can figure out what’s going on and what to do.” Selphie is eyeing me as I bend down to support Ellone’s movements, noting my irritation.

“All we know is there was a crowd of people yelling outside the palace, but Squall told us to get here instead of engage. He and Quistis stayed behind with Kiros and Laguna to figure it out.”

“He said everything’s quieted down for now, that’s why he wants us to get there as quickly as possible. Selphie, get a hold of Irvine and tell them to meet us at the palace as soon as Odine’s locked up. We gotta go.” Selphie nods, pulling her hands away from Ellone to call Irvine. I keep my hand on Ellone’s lower back for support, waiting for her to try and stand. She smiles at me before placing her feet against the tiles. When she begins to stand, she falters and leans back on the table.

“I’d be too slow even if I can walk,” she mumbles with a huff. Rinoa quickly steps in front of me and reaches behind the girl’s makeshift bed, grabbing her shoes and placing them on the ground in front of her.

“Give it a try, Ell,” she encourages the girl with a smile. Ellone grabs onto my hand and steps into her shoes, her feet sliding into them with ease. Keeping my arm behind her, she slowly releases my hand and stands on her own triumphantly. The poor thing has always been a bit on the weaker side, but whatever is happening with her lately seems to be taking even more out of her. That, or this all could be due to only recently waking up; I quietly hope for the latter.

“Irvine and Zell are on their way, Odine’s locked up,” Selphie informs us as she comes up on Ellone’s other side. She slides her fingers down the girl’s arm and raises it, offering to let her lean on her if she needs. Rinoa smiles at us all before turning to the doorway.

Chapter Text

~Squall~

Waiting in the conference room, I watch as everyone eventually filters in, taking their seats in an order I hadn’t expected. Zell and Irvine crossed the room towards Quistis and me, asking what happened near the entrance. After we said we’d cover everything once everyone was present, Seifer came in with the girls, gently helping Ellone into the nearest seat before scoping the room for Zell. The two eye each other for a moment before Seifer takes a seat, insisting on staying near Ellone. When did they grow so close? Placing a hand on my hip, I try to remember ever seeing Seifer and Ellone speak at length, or Zell and Seifer managing to be in the same room together without fighting, let alone seated beside one another. Although, Seifer did mention telling Zell how he felt. Well, showing him his feelings actually. What is happening? I shake the thoughts out of my head, reminding myself I have much more important issues to deal with besides who is friends with whom these days. Quistis hangs up her cell phone and nods at me, telling me she concluded the call to Xu I asked her to make.

“Alright everyone,” I say a bit loudly to gain the room’s attention. They eventually take their seats and hush their individual conversations, all eyes falling on me. How I hate making speeches, I groan internally, but at least it is to people I am close with and not a room full of strangers. “We are in need of a meeting to catch up on everything that is going on. Not only what has happened with Ellone,” I gesture towards Sis who shrinks down into her chair at the sudden attention on her, “but also the growing panic here in Esthar, and probably other places as well.” I pause for a moment, realization of how much we need to discuss weighing down on me.

“Quistis,” I tilt my head towards her, “just got off the phone with Xu, informing her of the situation with the groups as well as informing them of our time here being extended.” I see a few nods from the people in front of me before I look at Quistis. “Any issues back in Balamb?” Quistis shakes her head briefly, setting her phone down on the conference table and crossing her hands in her lap.

“Nothing to report. They understand the situation and assure me they will keep a lookout for any concern among the students and report back.” I nod once, turning back to everyone else.

“The crowd we encountered outside of the palace was a group of people that do not believe the sorceresses were destroyed, since we didn’t offer any proof. They claim to be preparing themselves for Adel’s return.” I glance over at Laguna, who takes the lead.

“The group started out small a few months ago, only a few people here and there talking about it but it seems to have grown almost overnight. I’ve discussed with Kiros the possibility of recruiting SeeD to help us maintain the panic, since a lot of my own military are a part of the group now as well.” Laguna stares at me, waiting for an answer but I look away.

“The main reason we came here, which some of you don’t know,” I point out, nodding my head at a few, “was and is finding out what is happening between me and Ellone. It initially seemed to be another trip into ‘dream world’ but I noticed early on some vast differences. Ellone, what do you know?” I ask her flat out. I hope she has some more insight than I do, because at this point all I know is an intriguing hot blonde is hanging out with three handsome brunettes in a place and time I am very unfamiliar with. Internally scolding myself for the line of thought, I shake my head slightly before locking my eyes back on Sis. Ellone scans the room before looking back at me, her face almost seems fearful.

“I’m not sure yet Squall, I was just as lost as you were in the beginning, but while I was asleep in the lab, I was visited by someone.” Ellone drops her eyes into her lap, telling us all the details of the whispers and the visions. Seifer is squeezing one of her hands by the time she finishes, smiling to ease her nerves.

“Squall,” Laguna leans forward in his seat, “what did you see when you were there?” I sigh, looking back to Ellone before I tell the room what I saw and heard, leaving the personal details of Prompto out. Ellone chimed in a few times, pointing out details I failed to mention but thankfully leaving my commentary I’m sure she heard out of it as well. I offer her my own smile in thanks for keeping my secrets.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Quistis mumbles, looking up at me. “Four guys living somewhere neither of you have ever seen? Ellone, I thought you were only able to visit points in the past if you knew the person?”

“Not necessarily, she was able to show me to Squall in the present after only seeing me when I was asleep in space, remember?” Rinoa points out while Ellone and I nod, recalling the time spent at the space station before Rinoa was awoken and possessed, used to release Adel from the seal.

“But how do you explain not knowing the place that they are in? The couple times you’ve gone there and neither of you recognize the surroundings? Seems odd considering how much of the world we’ve seen.” Irvine mentions, glancing between the two of us.

“It is unusual, but so is everything else about this. When I sent you before, there never was a voice that came to me and told me to look for a sign or that things will make sense later. I was always alone in it, aside from you guys.” Ellone looks around the table, gripping Seifer’s hand tighter. “I think something else is going on, something we aren’t yet aware of. And these people Squall and I see have something to do with it. What it is, I’m not sure yet, but hopefully I will know soon,” she states with a shaky but firm nod.

“Given we came here for answers we can’t get immediately, we will remain in Esthar until our answers are received. Until then, Mr. President, we’d like to help you with the panicked group where we can. No need for contracting SeeD, we’ll do it just out of friendship between our two countries, if you agree?”

“Yeah! No charge Laguna! You don’t charge family, silly!” Selphie giggles, sticking her tongue out at the president.

“Squall?” Rinoa says, quickly checking with Seifer before turning back to me, “if it’s alright with you, Seifer and I would like to help you guys as well, to figure out what is going on and with the panicked group.” Seifer nods his head in agreement, the two of them waiting for my answer.

“Yeah! The more the merrier! You don’t tell family no!” Selphie bellows before breaking out into a fit of laughs. Irvine pokes her side and shushes her, mumbling something about letting the adults talk which earns him a swift kick to his shin. I pinch the bridge of my nose, knowing I should have seen that coming. Everyone breaks off into their own conversations once again, trying to come up with solutions to problems we still don’t know the depth of. I take this opportunity to talk to Seifer a bit more, to see where his head space is at before I give Rinoa my answer.

“Seifer, a word,” I tilt my head towards the door, hoping he knows I mean I wish to speak alone. Without fail, the blonde catches my meaning, smiling to Ellone as he stands from his seat and releases her hand. With a quick smirk to Rinoa for reassurance, we leave the conference room to find somewhere to talk.

~Seifer~

I enter the key code into the panel beside the door to my room and stand aside for Squall to enter, watching him subtly checking out the quality of it when I close the door. Asking him to sit is pointless, since he’s about to get serious with me, so I ignore the formalities and flop down on the couch. Resting my head against the arm of it, I realize how exhausted I am. I’m out of shape when it comes to SeeD missions and their ability to constantly be on the go. Kicking my feet up on the opposite arm, I tilt my head sideways to watch the brunette. A silent countdown in my mind times him perfectly, picking up on when he would start pacing just as he does. Ha, knew it.

“Seif, I agree with Ellone, there’s more at play here than we’re seeing,” he starts off, scrunching his face up further as he thinks harder. His eyes are glued to the ground, probably watching his feet as he paces back and forth in front of me.

“I know,” I mumble, knowing he isn’t listening to me but still mentioning it in case he is. He stops pacing, turning to face out the window and stare outside. Something about the city of Esthar just calms your thoughts. I can vouch for that, given the numerous times I’ve stared out that very window, thinking of all my past sins.

“I’m not sure where this is going to go, or what this is going to involve,” the brunette continues, taking in a few deep breaths. Esthar was working its magic, I notice as the tension in Squall’s shoulders begins to melt away.

“I know,” I reply, waiting for him to finish what I know he’s going to say. Something along the lines of this may involve sorcery again or it may involve the sorceresses again, can you handle it? Despite knowing what he’s going to say, I still wait for him to get it out on his own, remembering how little experience he has with these types of talks.

“I need to know you are prepared for anything that may come,” he finally spits out when he faces me again, frustration at having this little chat dripping all over every word. I put on my typical smirk and throw a thumbs-up. His lips start to mimic my own smirk before he stops himself, eyeing me dangerously. I sit up and swing my legs off of the couch.

“I know, really I do. And I am.” Squall stares at me for a moment, then nods, flopping down on the couch beside me. Just like that, our serious talk is over.

“So what’s going on with you and Zell?” he asks, leaning his head back and placing his arm over his eyes. I quirk an eyebrow at him, not that he can see it.

“What’s going on with you and Prompto?” I see him tense, his arm dropping from his now very wide eyes, confusion all over his face.

“Oh, I see,” I reply sarcastically, teasing him further. It doesn’t matter how much space there is between us or time that drifts away from us, I still know how to read the silent Squall. His face blanks and he stares forward.

“Damn it Sis,” he mumbles, and I begin to laugh.

~Noctis~

“We are quickly approaching. Are we all ready?” Ignis asks everyone, tilting his neck to the side to pop the developing kink and straightening the collar of his uniform. We all summon our various weapons under the cover of our coats, hiding the process from any prying eyes nearby. Minus Gladio whose weapon is crazy huge and can never be concealed. Not that it matters on there being any prying eyes, since we’re alone in this railcar.

“Hey, let me get this shot,” Prompto sets his camera on the table beside ours, propping it up on a folded up discarded newspaper before setting the delay. Leaning back into my chest, his hair tickles the tip of my nose as he holds his arm out towards Ignis and Gladiolus, both posing for the camera. Leave it to the blonde to pick a tense moment to distract us with a photo opportunity. Just before the camera flashes, my eyes find the tiny device, but not in time to smile before the shot is taken. Prompto scurries up, leaning across the aisle to reach his camera and check the picture it just took.

“Whoa! Love the lighting!” he states with a thumbs-up at us, but pocketing it before any of us could see the shot. Why he has a thing about showing us the pictures he took during the day when we are all about to fall asleep, I’m not sure. The train speeds through some snowy mountains, rocketing us closer to the end of our journey which we all are anxious for.

“I don’t know about you, but I’ll probably never camp again after this is over,” I whisper to the blonde beside me, earning a few chuckles out of him as he eyes Gladio.

“What?” The larger man asks, crossing his arms in front of his massive chest and wondering what the two of us are making fun of him for this time.

“Oh nothing, nothing at all big guy.” Prompto brushes the situation off, beaming a smile at him to seal the deal. I bite my tongue trying not to laugh, knowing Gladio is the last person to fall for that face.

“Focus, we are nearly there.” Ignis mentions, snapping us all back to attention. I glance out the window, watching floating snowflakes turn into white streaks as we fly by them.

Wait.

The train suddenly comes to a dead stop, jolting all of us forward aggressively. Prompto and I grip our stomachs, trying to ease the searing pain from colliding with the edge of the table we’re sitting at. Gladiolus and Ignis hold the back of their heads after smashing into the wall behind their seats.“What the hell?” Gladio mutters through clenched teeth as he brings his hand in front of him to check the magnitude of the injury.

“Did you hear that?” Prompto asks as he struggles for air after having it knocked out of him.

“I know what I did not hear,” Ignis mentions, slowly leaning from his bench seat into the aisle to check the front and back of the railcar. “I did not hear any brakes.” The lights on the train begin to flicker while an eerie crackling sound comes from the back of the railcar. Ignis’s eyes lock onto something behind us, quickly making him stand to his feet and face it in the aisle. Without hesitation, the rest of us follow, holding our various weapons at the ready. The crackling noise follows down the length of the car and we see frosty ice spider-webbing along the walls and over the glass windows. We notice a familiar figure standing at the other end of the car facing us. She takes a few steps towards us, her hands folded in front of her and her eyes closed as they always are.

“Gentiana?” Gladiolus calls to her but cuts short when he notices what the rest of us have already seen. We release our weapons out of sight as we watch the ice collecting along the sides of the rail car, trailing across the walls and down the floor, up to where the woman stands, only coming closer when she approaches us. Her arms, although resting in front of her, have a blindingly white light swirling and spiraling around each of them.

You are not ready. Not yet.

I gasp, having heard her voice in my mind but watch her mouth stay closed with my eyes. What the hell? She stops now, standing a few feet away from us. Slowly, she raises one of her hands and points to Prompto without opening her eyes.

It is incomplete.

Prompto shoots us all a wary glance before his gun materializes in front of him, without him calling for it. Our eyes grow wide as it sits in midair, held by the slightest puff of frost. “W-What's incomplete?” the blonde asks, his breath freezing as soon as it leaves his lips. His gun rotates in front of his eyes, before floating over his heart, disappearing once it collides with his jacket. Gentiana smiles at us, lowering her hand back in front of her.

Soon.

Before any of us could ask another question, the woman disappears, leaving her frosty trail along the floors and walls behind. The train remains in place, failing to continue on once she left. “Looks like we’ll be walking back,” Ignis mutters after a few moments, pressing his glasses back up on his nose.

“Walking back?” Prompto and I whine in unison, gripping our jackets closer to our bodies in preparation.

“We cannot go any further. Not until we complete whatever it is that is incomplete. She will not allow it.” Ignis places one of his gloved fingers on his lips as he begins strategizing. Why won’t she allow it? What are we missing?

“Hey, you ok?” the blonde suddenly asks, catching me off guard. I cross my hands behind my head, holding my arms up and shrug to hide the remaining tension.

“Yeah, why?”

“Just wondering, since the last few times we’ve seen her you said you felt off.” Prompto eyes me, trying to read if I’m lying or not. I shrug my shoulders and smirk at him.

“Seems like this time was different somehow. I feel fine.” He nods at me and returns a smile, wrapping his arm around my shoulders. “Well, as fine as we can be after seeing ice follow her up the walls,” I mention, quirking my eyebrow at Ignis. Maybe he’s coming up with something?

“Indeed. As well as witnessing someone summon one of our weapons without us,” he points out, still tapping his finger across his lips. Maybe not.

“So, where do we go from here then?” Gladio asks, his frustrations with the situation voiced clearly.

“I’m not sure,” Ignis admits with a sigh, dropping his arms back to his sides.

You haven’t seen everything you need to see. It is not only one you must fight, but three.

“Three? What does that mean?” Gladiolus asks the air around us, staring at the roof since Gentiana is nowhere to be seen.

Pieces are still missing for both weapon and heart, to receive the pieces needed, you must return to the start.

The ice across the surfaces of the rail car abruptly vanishes, leaving only the frost from the outside air to be felt. “Back to the start? Like, back to Lucis?” Prompto whispers, afraid she may speak within our minds again and startle him.

“Back to Insomnia,” Ignis confirms, frowning at her words. Missing pieces? What missing pieces? And what do we need to see?

“Well, let’s go. Once we get there, maybe she’ll show up and tell us what we are missing out on.” Gladiolus announces, forcing the railcar door open and jumping down into a knee-high snow drift.

“Brr, do we have to?” Prompto whines, clutching his collar over his mouth to seal in as much warmth as possible.

“Once we have cell phone signal, perhaps we can call Cindy and ask for a lift back to the car or Hammerhead?” Ignis mentions, looking at me for confirmation. I quickly agree before sinking into the hood of my jacket and hopping out of the train as well. It looks like we’re in for a hell of a stroll.

Chapter Text

~Irvine~

A sliver of sunlight shines through the drawn curtains across my eyes, alerting me that it is morning. I huff, clutching the extra pillow on my bed over my eyes in denial. I hate mornings. Why can’t mornings happen at a more reasonable time, like say around noon? I childishly argue with myself for a few moments before succumbing to my fate, flinging the covers across the bed along with the pillow shielding my eyes.

“Damn it.” I mumble when the sun hits my face again. I shift out of the bed to avoid the brightness in my eyes and make my way to the bathroom. Taking a quick shower would wake up any normal person, but the only thing I can think of during the washing is what will truly wake me up: coffee. I blow dry my hair to avoid my biggest pet peeve of wet hair clinging to me before I get dressed. Glancing at the clock on the nightstand, I see it is not as early as I thought. Everyone should be up by now, I wonder what they’re doing? My phone screen catches my attention when it lights up. Unplugging it from the charger, I check the screen to see several text messages from a particular brunette and I smirk.

“Selphie, ever persistent I see,” I say aloud, quickly scanning the missed messages. It’s true, she and I have feelings for each other. We have since the moment we met again as adults after all those years apart, but I refrain from letting us become anything more than flirtations. I know Selphie, and I know what she wants from me. She wants someone stable and devoted to her and while I can admit I am both of those things, I cannot say I am solely devoted to her. My wandering eye has gotten me into plenty of trouble in the past. Bottom line is she deserves someone better than me, someone who can commit to her without fear of straying and I am not to that point just yet. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop the girl from trying to start something between us. Even with her knowing all the details of my feelings she is still constantly telling me I don’t truly know how I would treat her until we are in a relationship together. It also doesn’t stop her from blowing up my phone all night asking to come to my room. I tap in my text box and start to reply.

“What are you doing?” I say out loud as I type the words before sending the message to her, setting my phone down beside me to put on my boots. By now she’s probably already had breakfast, coffee, and is doing laps around Esthar. I smile at the images of it, thinking of how energized she is regularly but she insists on getting caffeinated regardless. A few light knocks on the door grab my attention. After tugging on my second boot, I get up and answer it. There she stands in her traditional yellow dress smiling as brightly as the sun and holding two large mugs of coffee. I gasp excitedly at the sight, causing a slight blush to appear on her cheeks. She hands me one of the mugs when I step aside to invite her into my room.

“I love you,” I inform her, quickly shutting the door with a press of the button before gripping the mug with two hands. Caffeinated warmth travels down my throat, warming my insides and showing me colors that are too faded in my just woken up view of the world and I groan. I love her.

“I know,” she replies, taking a sip of her own mug and smiling at me again. We enjoy our moment together before she abruptly punches my arm, jostling the slightly less full mug in my grasp. I stare at her, thanking Hyne she didn’t cause any to spill out but warning her with a gaze that promises harm if she does it again. Her face remains stern, immune to my threatening eyes as she only frowns harder at me. “You ignored me last night,” she mentions, both of us knowing I knew why she had hit me. Just like she predicts what I am going to respond with.

“You know why,” we say in unison, both holding our angry glares at each other. She mimics my movements when I bring the cup back up to my lips and take another drink. By the time the mug touches my mouth we are both smiling at each other again, humored by her behavior. Most people would find this tiny creature to be irritating or annoying with how hyperactive and juvenile she behaves, but I find everything she does to be perfect. I was not lying when I told her I love her.

“So, what’s on the agenda for today? Did you have breakfast with the bosses this morning?” I ask her, turning and heading for the bed.

“No I didn’t, they’re having breakfast now. I came to wake you so we could all figure it out together,” she says before alerting me that she is about to do something with a giggle. I stop myself from sitting on the bed and watch her do a running leap into the comforter, holding her coffee skillfully and not losing a drop. Once she’s landed, I settle down beside her, sipping my drink as if nothing happened, making her giggle even more. “Besides, I like our morning cup of coffee together, without everyone else around,” she mentions with another blush, attempting to hide it with her mug as she takes another drink. I grin at her, remembering the numerous times she told me all about my “coffeegasm” as she calls it, when I take the first drink just after waking up and how it is the highlight of her day. To be fair, I feel the same way. I enjoy her reactions to the first sip as well, both her first sip and mine. When she takes the first sip, her nose crinkles up adorably and she sighs, her neck and shoulders relaxing before an innocent smile appears. She watches me take my first drink, her eyes taking in every detail right up to when I groan, then they widen and her face flushes, reacting to the images that flood her mind just as they flood mine. We finish the last few gulps of coffee and set the mugs down on the nightstand before turning to face each other.

“We should-” I begin, but the sentence becomes muffled when her lips smash against mine, smiling at the other morning tradition the two of us share together when we can. It isn’t very often we both are in the same place at the same time. Sometimes she or I are off on a mission far away from each other, making these moments all the more rare. If we are both in Garden by chance, one of us could get up before the other and get called away by Squall and Quistis to do something, making us miss the chance to have coffee together. So when we do get the chance to do it, we go all out. Or at least, she tries to go all out and I use every ounce of willpower to keep it to making out only. “Selph,” I warn as she leans back on the bed, gripping my shoulders to pull me down on top of her.

“Mmm?” she hums innocently, her hands now sliding up my neck to my face and her tongue toying with mine. I keep my arms straight, holding myself above her so I won’t feel her body against my own. I know that contact is all it would take for me to give in.

“Come on, we gotta go,” I tell myself more than her. Her arms wrap around the back of my neck and her lips now trail tiny kisses up the side of my face. Feeling she was agreeing with me, I start to shift away but the sly little minx knows my plans. She leans with me, hooking her foot behind mine and bringing me back to her before sliding her leg further and bringing her other leg up behind me, trapping me between them. Her arms still linked behind my neck, she pulls herself up to my ear.

“No we don’t Irvine.” She moans before lining my ear with the tip of her tongue and nibbling on my earlobe. I groan at her, knowing I am quickly losing this battle, especially when she says my name in that voice. I slowly lower myself down on top of her, turning my head so our mouths could meet once again. Every inch of her is on fire, I feel as she tightens her limbs around me to be as close as possible. I moan out in defeat against her lips when she suddenly flips us on the bed, her now pressing me down into the mattress when she unhooks her limbs from around me. She half whines, half moans in my mouth while her hips begin to rock. I begin to accept this loss as a very big win when she suddenly hops off of me and stands next to the bed, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. I eye her suspiciously, wondering if I’m supposed to sit up and undress her or undress myself while she undresses herself. “Don’t ignore me again,” she says while running her hands through her hair. She smiles and winks, turning and leaving my room before the haze of lust can lift. I stare at the door for a few moments, wondering if she is teasing and will come bursting back in. After those moments pass, my stare shifts to my ceiling, seeing how she played me. With the heat of the moment refusing to leave me, I sigh and get up, heading towards the bathroom. I smirk as I turn on the cold water for the shower and start taking my clothes off. I really do love her.

~Squall~

Shoving the empty plate away from in front of me, I nod in agreement with Laguna as we discuss how to approach the crowds of people forming all over Esthar. Gripping the handle of the cup, I sip on my coffee while the maid gathers our plates and takes them into the kitchen area.

“I can’t think of a time I’ve seen you drink coffee before, Squall,” Laguna mentions, nodding to the man standing beside him with the coffee carafe. I hold my mug out beside me so he can fill it, shrugging. I don’t want to go into detail with him on how I hardly slept last night.

“Good morning,” Ellone greets us with a smile, taking her seat beside Laguna and thanking the servant that places a plate of food in front of her. I eye her warily over the rim of my cup, feeling my cheeks abruptly warm up. After kicking Seifer out of my room last night, I attempted to catch up on sleep by going to bed right after, but all I managed to do was toss and turn with the images of Prompto occupying my every thought. Judging by the girl’s innocent glance between us before beginning to eat her breakfast, I figure she wasn’t linked to me at all to see those thoughts last night. Thank Hyne.

“Good morning group,” Zell chimes, rubbing the towel around his shoulders along his dampened blonde hair. Seifer trails in behind him, using his own towel to wipe down his face as the two sit beside each other. They worked out together this morning; I noticed them starting as I was leaving the showers myself. Laguna and I greet them with a nod, sipping on our drinks. They seem to be off in their own little world, lively talking among themselves. Zell dives into his breakfast as soon as the plate touches the table with Seifer watching him. I see the man’s face soften as he stares at him, swishing a limp lock of blonde out of Zell’s face with a smirk.

“Did you make any decisions about those two, Squall?” Laguna asks, noticing me staring at Seifer. I look back at the president, setting my cup down on the table.

“Yes, they can join us. The more on our side, the better,” I state, staring off out the window behind the man.

“Good to hear,” Rinoa chimes in beside me, startling me. She presses her fingers to her lips to hide her giggle, apologizing for scaring me. Taking the seat next to me, she quietly thanks the lady that drops off her breakfast before she returns to the kitchen. Rinoa eyes me for a moment, nibbling on a piece of bacon. “You look terrible. Couldn’t sleep?” she asks, not intending to insult me. I take a drink of my coffee and nod at the man holding the carafe for a refill.

“I’m fine,” I reply, Quistis stating the same thing at the same time I spoke from the other side of Rinoa. I glance at the woman who smirks at being able to read me before I take another drink.

“You don’t drink coffee,” Quistis informs me before pouring some sugar into her own cup and twirling a spoon around inside the mug.

“I didn’t think so either,” Laguna mentions again to the two who weren’t present when he questioned me the first time.

“Good morning fam!” Selphie chirps when she enters the dining room, grinning at all of us. She practically skips to Ellone’s side, placing a hand against her back as she bends down to ask how she is feeling. Ellone smiles sweetly and nods, saying she feels fine. Irvine silently walks into the room, eyeing everyone before shuffling over to Selphie’s side. He flops down into the seat beside the girl who is still talking to Ellone and waits for his coffee cup to be filled. I take a sip as he does, watching Selphie lean towards the man and whisper something into his ear. Irvine’s eyes widen at whatever she says and he almost spits the coffee out on the table.

“Whoa, Squally’s drinking coffee? We really are family now!” Selphie announces to the room. I pinch the bridge of my nose and raise my coffee cup sarcastically before taking a drink. Holy Hyne, can a guy just drink a damn cup of coffee in peace? A hand gently grabs my wrist, removing it from my nose. Rinoa’s smiling face greets me as she places our hands into my lap. I tense at her hand remaining there, holding the coffee cup in midair in front of me.

“Squall?” Irvine’s voice chimes through my panic, catching my attention. His eyebrows raise at my frozen in place state, waiting for an answer. I continue to stare at him, forcing my hand to move the cup to my mouth. “Did you hear me? I asked what the plan was.” Rinoa breathes a laugh, bringing her hand back to her own lap. I bite my tongue, wondering where the hell that came from as I glance over to Laguna.

“We figure the best plan of action is to get out there and hear what they’re saying and maybe see just how many are following these ideas,” Laguna reluctantly responds when I continue to stare at him. Everyone nods, agreeing with the idea.

“Are we going undercover?” Zell questions us as he shifts his empty plate away and steals a piece of toast off of Seifer’s. Seifer quickly smacks the back of his hand, making Zell drop the piece before Seifer takes it back. The two share a smile when Zell exaggerates by folding his hands and placing them in his lap like a scolded child.

“In a sense, yes. You guys will go out and find the groups, hopefully without being noticed as the SeeD that took down the Sorceresses. This is why we,” I gesture to Quistis and Rinoa, “cannot. They saw Quistis and I yesterday, and Rinoa is infamous for becoming possessed.”

“That’s not necessary Squall. Seifer and Rinoa have been here a long time, going out in town often without incident. They can help as well,” Laguna points out with a nod. I look at Seifer who is nodding.

“Alright then, if you think it’ll work,” I tell the two of them as I finish my coffee. Selphie claps a few times and turns towards Irvine, whispering excitedly about something. I narrow my eyes at the two and clear my throat. “I do mean keep an eye on the groups, listening to their conversations and attempting to get an idea of how many of them there are. Not using it as an excuse to go shopping all day.” Selphie turns back to me with a grin, her shoulders visibly deflating.

“Of course Squally boy! Infiltrate and study them, got it!” Irvine smirks himself, standing from his seat to leave, coffee cup in hand. Selphie stares up at him, watching him leave the room with a slight pout in place.

“I could stay behind, Squall, if you’d prefer,” Rinoa whispers into my ear a bit closer than I thought she was a moment ago. I lean away from her out of instinct, shaking my head vigorously.

“No, I need you out there gathering intel. Since I can’t do it,” I trail off as I see her disappointment for not wanting her to stay behind. Where is all of this coming from?

“Come on, Rinny!” Selphie calls her at the doorway with a smile. She holds her hand out towards Rinoa, waiting for her to follow. Rinoa peers over at me for a moment then sighs, standing from her chair and going to Selphie’s side. They intertwine their fingers and leave the dining room, giggling. I shake my head, pinching the bridge of my nose again. Not enough coffee in the world can help me figure that out, I decide.

“So, what can we do here Squall?” Quistis asks, scooting from her chair into Rinoa’s now vacant one beside me. She takes a drink of her coffee and sets it on the table, crossing her legs beneath it.

“No idea. We can continue to strategize with Laguna and Kiros while the others gather information, but our hands are tied until we have an idea of what we’re dealing with.”

“Don’t worry Squall, we’ll figure something out,” Zell says, standing with Seifer from the table and removing his towel. Seifer smirks at the blonde, slowly removing his own towel and staring at Zell’s. An idea pops into Zell’s head and they both begin to twirl their towels and stare each other down.

“Out, children,” I tease, pointing to the doorway. The two laugh and turn to leave, neither one looking away from the other out of fear of getting snapped.

“What is going on with everyone?” Quistis questions, glancing back at me. I shrug, resisting the urge to have more coffee. I felt a lot more awake than I did when I first crawled out of bed, but still not coherent enough to be considered alert. Especially after seeing everyone’s...bonding.

“Squall, maybe you and I can work on connecting willingly together?” Ellone mentions, thanking the maid as she hands her used dishes to her. I grab my mug and hold it out, silently urging the man with the carafe to fill it up. Screw it. “I mean, after you strategize of course. I just thought we might see what we can come up with if you and I were to try and control it, instead of being ambushed by it.” Laguna nods at the girl and smiles, patting his hand on her arm.

“Are you sure you are up for it Ell?” he asks cautiously, the two of us eyeing her to see how her level of energy appears to be today. She nods vigorously, reassuring us as best as she can under our scrutinizing gazes. I have noticed since being back here in Esthar that Ellone’s energy levels are depleting a lot faster than they used to, when she is coherent that is. That could be due to recent events, or just passing time, I ponder to myself when Laguna chimes in again. “That’s a good idea, Squall. No need to only focus on one issue when you might be able to do something about another.” I feel my lips start to form a smile at the thought of seeing Prompto again, quickly bringing my cup up to hide it.

“This is true. Alright, Ellone and I will work on that while you guys brainstorm what to do about the growing unrest.” Quistis nods and stands from the table with Laguna, telling us they’ll be in his office with Kiros before they leave. “Where did you want to try this out at, Sis?” I ask her, standing from my own seat and holding the cup in front of the man with the coffee.

“I may need a carafe dropped off to us, if that is alright.” The man fills my cup and nods, heading to the kitchen to prepare a fresh pot for me. Ellone shakes her head and smiles, reaching out and wrapping her hands around my arm.

“Wherever you like. I’m not sure anything will happen, but we may want to be lying down in case something does.” I nod in agreement, turning to face the man standing by the door to the kitchen.

“Will you ask him to bring the coffee to Ellone’s room please?” He nods and exits into the kitchen, the door swinging slowly behind him. “Well, let’s see what we can do,” I say, placing my hand over her fingers and leading her out of the room.

Chapter Text

~Noctis~

Hopping out of the tow truck in Hammerhead, I wait for the others before heading into the diner. A strong cup of Ebony should strike out the last bit of chill in my bones. Sighing, I sit down on the bench outside, doing the math on how long we were hiking before we had a signal to call Cindy for help.

“Thanks again Cindy, we really appreciate it.” Prompto smiles at her as she hops out of the driver seat. She shakes her head, wavy blonde hair bouncing on her shoulders under her Hammerhead truck stop hat.

“Ah ah boys, a deal’s a deal. I’m happy to help y’all, but you know we talked about y’all dealin’ with that monster out near the power lines,” she reminds us with a perky grin. Ignis and Gladio nod at her, glancing around to see where I’ve gone. When they spot me, I stand from the bench and stretch my arms in the air.

“Of course Cindy, we’ll deal with it. But first, can we get something to eat? I’m starved,” I ask her as she shifts some levers on the back of the cab to her tow truck. The flatbed carrying the Regalia starts to tilt, dropping the back end towards the ground. Holding the lever with one hand, she places the other on her hip and tilts her head towards me.

“Of course ya can! I need to find the details on where exactly that pesky pest was last seen anyway. Y’all go on into the diner and when I find the details, I’ll bring em’ to ya. Don’t worry about the Regalia, I’ll tune her up while y’all are off killin’ that monster for us. Do we have a deal?” She offers her hand to shake on it. I grip it within mine and give it a quick shake, smiling at the woman before heading into the diner with the others.

“Thanks again Cindy!” Prompto calls out before skipping inside behind me. The diner is a fair size considering its location in the parking lot of the prominent garage, holding a nice round bar that seated at least ten plus about two dozen benched seat tables scattered against the walls. A few people were inside, hushing their children or discussing the latest of the news on Insomnia.

“Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for my Ebony,” Ignis mentions, sliding along the bench seat and gripping one of the menus sitting at the end of the table. Gladiolus sits beside Ignis, sighing heavily as he takes up a menu of his own. I stand on the opposite side of the table and wait for Prompto to get in, preferring the outside instead of the wall.

“I think I’ll join you on that,” I mumble, taking the seat beside the blonde when he finishes adjusting.

“Hey fellas, been a while,” the cook for the diner announces from the bar area. I toss up two fingers in a wave as I keep scanning the menu in front of me.

“Might we get some Ebony to start?” Ignis asks politely, smiling when the man nods and gets to making a fresh pot for us.

“Some hot food and coffee should do the trick,” Prompto mentions, closing his menu and sliding it in front of me. The rest of us nod, making our decisions on what to eat before the cook came over with the coffee.

“So, what’re we having?” Takka asks, taking down our orders and heading back behind the counter to make our meals.

“Can’t believe this place doesn’t have cup noodles,” Gladio grumbles with a pout. Ignis shakes his head and shoves his shoulder into the man’s large bicep.

“Cup Noodles is hardly a meal, especially after the journey we have had already today,” he scolds, pressing his glasses back in place.

“Yeah man, and we still gotta go kill some big scaries. Can’t do that on an empty stomach y’know?” Prompto adds, twisting in his seat to lean against the wall and bring his knee up on the bench between us. We each sip our cooling coffee, opting out of the continued argument over the cup noodles due to our weariness.

“Here ya go fellas,” Takka says, sliding the plates in front of us and telling us to let him know if we need anything else. Ignis and I nod while Prompto and Gladio quickly dive into their meals.

“So, what is the plan then? Aside from taking care of the pest problem here for Cindy?” Ignis asks, eyeing me over the edge of his cup. I shrug while I finish chewing, watching the man to see if he’s already got something in mind. “Gentiana said we need to return to where it started, which is home. Are we really going back to Insomnia?” Ignis presses further while I continue to eat. I give him another shrug, how should I know? I don’t know what the right answer is, or what her words meant. I shiver against the cold spike traveling down my spine when her voice inside my head comes to mind once again. Despite already thinking on her words repeatedly while we all were hiking, the sensation to go through the entire scenario again more thoroughly pops into my thoughts instantly.

“If Gentiana tells us that’s where we need to go, then that’s where we need to go. She’s the one that stopped us, it must’ve been for a good reason,” Gladiolus decides with a slurp of his soup. He holds his frown as he stares at the bowl, pouting at it since it wasn’t in a styrofoam cup.

“But is it a good idea to take the King somewhere he may be attacked? All because a spiritual entity that aids the Oracle tells us to?”

“That is all the more reason to listen to her. She is a clairvoyant,” Ignis argues with Prompto while I finish my food.

“Hey y’all! Here’s that info you boys needed. And thanks again for doin’ this for us,” Cindy walks over and places the packet on the table between Gladio and I before waving. “I gotta get back to the Regalia. She needed more work than I thought. She runs fine, but y’all gotta be more careful goin’ around corners! She’s all dinged up! See you boys when you’re done!” We wave to her through the window as she walks by to return to the garage.

“Let us see what we shall be dealing with,” Ignis says, opening the packet and removing the flyer. A nasty monster was drawn on the front of it, with horns twisting out of its mouth and spikes covering the majority of its body.

“Ah, a bandersnatch. Should be fun,” Gladio announces sarcastically as he slams the remainder of his coffee.

“Indeed,” Ignis mumbles, pinching the corner of his glasses while he reads through the notes at the bottom of the flyer. “Not too far from here either. Seems to have been causing a problem for a while now for Hammerhead,” he mentions before handing Prompto the flyer. The blonde slides his knee back under the table and sits up so I can see the flyer as well. “Well then, shall we?” Ignis announces, urging Gladiolus to get up so we can head out. I sigh, gulping down the last of my coffee before standing up myself.

“Hey,” Prompto calls, eyeing me from the table. He slowly stands with a frown, his eyes locked onto mine. “You ok man? You’ve been pretty quiet since we got here.” I shrug as I set down my empty cup, placing it back on the table. Prompto keeps staring at me but doesn’t press any further.

“Right then, should we order some chocobos or just jog over?” Ignis asks, eyeing the two of us who are still staring at each other. I’m the first to break the stare, looking over to Ignis.

“Chocobos of course!” Prompto yells through a grin, seeming to give up on our staring contest continuing. Gladio finishes paying the cook for our meal and thanking him before following the rest of us back out into the parking lot. I stand a few feet from the yellow box, letting Ignis order the chocobos while Gladiolus and Prompto stand near the entrance of the diner discussing something.

“Everyone ready?” Ignis asks, alerting the two behind me to come forward. A flock of four bright yellow birds with saddles already in place on their backs stalk over in the street, having heard the whistle Ignis blew to retrieve the birds. He hands a whistle to each of us before hoisting himself onto the first one standing in front of the others. Prompto quickly follows, almost ignoring the stirrup by jumping onto its back in excitement. “The faster we deal with the bandersnatch, the faster we can get back here and sleep in an actual bed for once,” Ignis mentions at my hesitation, his head tilting towards the camper parked at the edge of the parking lot. I smirk at that thought and awkwardly climb onto my own chocobo, earning a squawk when I accidentally pulled on its feathers instead of the cantle.

“What is this, your first time?” Gladiolus teases me while he adjusts his seating. Ignoring his words, I quickly follow Ignis who leads us out into the open desert beside the parking lot. The birds reach high speeds once we are out in the wild, the dirt getting kicked up by Ignis’ bird clouding my vision in front of us. My mind wanders back over the details of our visit from Gentiana, paying particular attention to her words and her voice which causes me to wince. I’m familiar with the spirit; I’ve known her since I was a small child growing up beside Lunafreya, and yet something about her voice is affecting me. By the time we reach where the beast was last seen, my eyes are shut tightly, my hands gripping the reins with everything I’ve got.

“Whoa, Noct, you sure you’re up for this?” Prompto urges beside me when he sees my face all scrunched up. I release the reins and slowly open my eyes, witnessing the worry across the blonde’s face.

“Yeah, it’s just the dirt getting in my eyes is all.” I shrug off my reaction, unsure where it came from myself. A terrifying roar rings out before us as the ground trembles.

“Looks like we’ve found it!” Gladiolus announces, sliding off his chocobo with ease and holding his hand out beside him. An obscenely sized great sword materializes in his outstretched hand which he swings up to lean against his shoulder. Prompto and Ignis call their own weapons to them, Ignis gripping two daggers against the back of his forearms and Prompto aiming an interesting looking handgun. Without thinking, I mimic the motions of the others and a sword appears within my grasp. I frown at the curves in the blade and fumble a bit with the handle, as if my hand wasn’t used to holding the weapon.

“Noct!” Gladio’s voice snaps me to attention, witnessing him take a few swings at the oncoming beast. It stalks slowly towards me on hind legs, its face distorted by the mass of horns coming out everywhere. My mind phases out while instinct takes over. I throw my sword, shooting it towards the beast and disappearing, with me along with it. My sword and I reappear beside the beast, sword now stuck deeply in its thigh. Gun shots ring through the air, Prompto holding the beast in place while the rest of us hack away at its body.

“Whoa Noct, where’d you learn that?” Gladio asks me, but I ignore him, sliding between the bandersnatch’s legs to avoid being stomped to death and jabbing my sword upwards into its stomach. The battle continues on with Ignis taking a moment to analyze before tossing firebombs at its feet and Gladiolus slicing and dicing away with his massive greatsword like he is carrying a regular sword.

“Prompto, on your feet!” Gladiolus yells beside me, snapping my eyes to where he is looking. The blonde falls victim to the creature’s spiky tail, failing to move before it slams against him and forces him into a boulder where he appears to have fallen to the floor unconscious. Without thinking, I lurch my sword in his direction, sending myself to his side within a breath of time.

“Prompto,” I whisper, wrapping my arm behind his head and hoisting him away from the rock. His head falls to the opposite side and his eyes remain closed, a small trickle of blood dripping out of the corner of his mouth. My eyes seek out the others, who are occupied with the monster now that two of us have stopped fighting it. “Prompto,” I call out, as my other hand feels a bulge in his jacket. Gripping the object and tugging it out, I see the phoenix down he’s always sure to keep on him. Quickly leaning him back against the boulder, I grasp both of his hands within mine and place the bottled feather in his hands. Squeezing my own shut shatters the glass between his fingers, releasing the feather before igniting his entire form. Life abruptly slams back into his body, snapping his eyes wide open with a gasp of air fresh in his lungs. I wrap my arm around his shoulders once more, sitting him up to help him breathe as I grab an elixir out of my own pocket. He breathes heavily for a moment while I press the bottle into his hands and repeat the motions, making him squeeze it open.

“Whoa,” he finally mutters, staring at me with a bit of a smile on his lips. I sigh deeply, flopping down on the ground beside him, keeping my arm around his shoulders.

“Yeah, I thought I lost you there for a second. Like, beyond the power of a phoenix down,” I tell him while I take my own deep breaths. He hooks his finger on my cheek and pulls my face to look at him again, staring deeply in my eyes.

“No, I mean whoa your eyes,” he murmurs, his smile growing a bit more. I watch his face as a warmth develops in the pit of my stomach. “They’re different,” he continues, removing his finger from my cheek, but resting his hand on my shoulder to keep me from turning away. My eyes flicker between both of his, watching him stabilize after taking the elixir. “Usually they’re as blue as the deep ocean, but now they’re almost gray, like a storm in the sky.” A shriek suddenly startles us as the bandersnatch is finally defeated. I try to turn and see it fall, but Prompto tightens his hold on my shoulder, keeping me from moving. “I’ve seen these eyes on you before, Noct. Whenever Gentiana shows up. What’s going on with you?” His gaze narrows, worry causing him to wince but he continues to stare into my eyes. My hand reaches up to his fist gripping my shoulder and rests on top of it. His eyes widen at the touch, but he only breaks our stare when my other hand starts reaching for his cheek, gently resting against the warming flesh.

“Squall.” I breathe out, rubbing my thumb along his bottom lip before my hand falls from his face and I slump over, everything going black.

~Vincent~

My eyes burn against their dryness, snapping them closed when tears flood back through my ducts. An unforgiving tension fills my lungs as air enters them once more. I wince, clasping my wrist against the power radiating beneath the skin. Blood red light filters through my fingers before it finally subsides.

“So,” I mumble hoarsely before willing my saliva to moisten my throat. I press my fist against the lid of my coffin, the hinges creaking as it opens and fresh air floods into the box with me. Sitting up, I glance around taking in my surroundings. “It is time then,” I say aloud, gripping the rim of my box before pulling myself over the edge. I crash down on the floor beside the pedestal my coffin sits, my limbs failing to recall their functions. A sigh slips past my lips when I push myself up from the ground, standing for the first time in who knows how long. I lean against the coffin, grasping my wrist while I take a better look around the room I am in. Red velvet curtains line the stone walls, the occasional candle sconce hangs unlit. Given the cleanliness of the room, I decide I must have been moved here recently, or someone is in charge of the upkeep. Flicking my hand upwards, the sconces ignite, lighting all the candles at once. An orb on my opposite arm lights up when I force the fire to light the sconces, the materia weakening after its use is done.

“Oh!” A timid voice squeaks behind me, dropping some sort of tube she was once holding to the ground. I stare at her hungrily, feeling urges I hadn’t felt in ages come to life. “Mr. Valentine! You’re awake!” she breathes, bending to retrieve whatever it is she dropped. She holds it up in front of her before slowly stepping towards me. “Here, this is for you. It- It’s time for your feeding,” she sputters out, tensing up more with every step. My eyes narrowed to slits, teeth baring themselves when I sneer.

“Feeding?” I question her, enjoying every drop of fear oozing out of her. I notice I seem to be better at movements after waking up this time compared to others, but was that because not as much time has passed, or something else? The girl quickly nods, gesturing to my arm before a shaky hand reaches out towards my cloak. I grip her wrist between two of my fingers, gaining a squeak and stopping her from going any further as my nose catches a familiar scent. Her fingers are gripping a syringe of blood, but something in the blood smelled...off.

“It’s animal blood. Rats, mostly, since we have them here for studying. I am required to come down here daily and inject you with some to maintain your… well, you,” she explains quickly, eyeing her wrist in my fingers. I release her and snatch the syringe out of her hand. Tilting my head backwards, I push the plunger and drain the blood into my mouth, calming my cravings a bit before the liquid disappears all too quickly. Handing the needle back to her, I press my finger against my lips as I swallow the remaining drops.

“Here’s what you’re going to do miss,” I glance down on her white coat and see embroidery above her heart. “Odine Laboratories. You’re going to get a lot more of this blood and bring it to me, then you’re going to tell me where I am, do you understand?” Her forehead creases as her gaze looks down to where I glanced to find her name. She releases a chuckle, looking back into my eyes with a nervous smile.

“Oh, no, I’m Dr. Odine’s assistant. That’s not my name, that’s where you are.” She places her finger on the embroidery. “See? Odine Laboratories. You’re in Dr. Odine’s laboratory here in Esthar.” I stare at her while my mind tries to recall a place called Esthar in the past. The girl notices my hesitation, waving her hand as she slides the syringe into her pocket. “Which you don’t remember Esthar because there wasn’t an Esthar where you’re from, right?” She shakes her head, internally scolding herself for being so naive. Slowly she steps back to the door, promising to bring more blood as quickly as possible before promptly turning and leaving the way she came. I remain in place, staring around the room I am in. It looks almost identical to my room from my home, did they transport it here? Or did this lab get built where my home used to be? Seems like a lot of effort to make to keep someone like me comfortable while I sleep. My wrist burns once again causing me to wince and squeeze the bones beneath my fingers. I hiss at the pain while my heart begins to grow heavy, knowing what it means.

“Soon, old friend,” I whisper, rubbing my wrist with the palm of my hand. “Let me find out where we are and when we are first.”

Chapter Text

~Squall~

I gasp, fingers still tingling where they were pressed against his face. “Prompto,” I mutter, fluttering my eyes closed as I will his image to return to me; the warmth of his skin on my fingers, the weight of his body in my arms, the smell of gunpowder and leather that filled my nostrils. I can almost taste the blood sprayed on my face from the beast we were battling again before a voice makes me crash back to reality.

“Squall?” Ellone whispers, gently resting her hand on my arm. My eyes flicker open, focusing on her face seated on the floor beside the couch I am laying on. Her gaze is pained as she witnesses my unraveling, tears springing to my eyes without my permission. She drapes herself across my stomach, clinging to my shoulders in a hug for comfort while I attempt to fight the tears from falling. Why am I so upset, I wonder, feeling my heart crackle under an unknown weight that is making it heavy. Ellone leans back, letting me wipe my eyes as I sit up to face her.

“That was intense,” she mentions as a way of explaining my tears, but we both know that isn’t the cause of the sudden burst of emotion. I nod my head, agreeing with it for now until I can think more on it alone at a later point. I sigh, leaning back against the couch while I regain control. Ellone takes a seat beside me, resting her hand on my arm once again in comfort. “I did not recognize anything again, did you?” She asks me when I lower my hand from my eyes. I shake my head, focusing on the details we just witnessed.

“We have to go speak with Laguna,” I decide, standing from the couch. Ellone grips my arm, keeping me from leaving the room. Glancing down at her, our eyes lock.

“Squall, you spoke to him,” she says, watching me carefully. I nod once, remembering me telling him my name before it all ended.

“I controlled that Noctis person as well towards the end there,” I trail off, refusing to let my emotions show again. Ellone stands up beside me, dropping her hand from my arm.

“Did Prompto see you?” Ellone asks me, wondering how much I was able to do. I shook my head, unsure of the answer myself and wishing there was more time to find out.

“I don’t know, he only mentioned seeing my eyes. He’s seen them before.” Ellone nods, staring at me as if I hold some answers she is unaware of.

“I’m worried Squall, I’ve never been able to force change in another time. We’ve never been able to do that before.”

“Or be able to be somewhere you aren’t familiar with, or inside of someone you aren’t familiar with,” I agree with her, frowning. None of this made any sense. But, it often doesn’t when it comes to Ellone and her abilities. One thing is certain though, I decide, turning towards the door. “We need to talk this over with Laguna,” I say as we leave her room. I go over the details of what I saw while we head to the president’s office, studying every moment for some sign of familiarity and coming up short. Nothing there looked like anywhere we’ve been. The vehicles were more advanced, the land was more sparse and the weapons…

“Come in,” Laguna’s voice sounds on the other side of the door before I open it, letting Ellone enter before I follow. Quistis and Kiros nod at our arrival as Laguna stands from behind his desk, coming over to Ellone to hug her. Quistis eyes me carefully, probably noticing my unusual mood or appearance.

“Well? How’d it go?” Laguna asks after releasing the girl, turning to smile at me. His smile falters when he sees my face, noticing the red rim of my eyes. He looks back at Ellone, scanning her for any similar features. Before he can ask, I dive into my explanation, informing them of the unusual time and place the group was located at and how the surroundings appeared.

“The vehicles are far more advanced than ours are, practically driving themselves. And the fiends…” I trail off when I suddenly think of the bandersnatch we fought, remembering Prompto getting slammed into the boulder causes me to wince.

“They were abnormally large. Quite larger than anything fought here,” Ellone finishes my sentence when she sees me falter. She places her hand on my arm, urging my consciousness back into the room. “Tell them about the weapons too, Squall,” she directs my thoughts which I nod my thanks for her help.

“Their weapons materialized out of thin air, gigantic greatswords, handguns, daggers and standard swords just appearing in their hands when they will them to. I have seen them with weapons before, but they already had them in hand. This is the first time I witnessed how they drew them to themselves.”

“And Noctis could throw his weapon in any direction at any distance and he himself would disappear and reappear wherever the weapon landed, materializing in the same way the weaponry did.” Ellone mentions in awe. It truly all seems like something out of a movie, one that only Ellone and I could watch. Or sometimes participate in, I think to myself with a shiver.

“So, what were they doing? Just fighting fiends?” Quistis asks, her finger pressing against the edge of her glasses. Her stance reminds me of Ignis, making me flash a smile before I answer her.

“They were told by someone that they weren’t ready to face the man that destroyed their home, claiming they were missing pieces and needed to return to the start, which is their home. A kingdom called Lucis, or Insomnia,” I trail off when I think of the memories I made Noctis recall of their encounter with the spirit guiding them. Glancing over to Ellone, she watches me knowing what I’m about to say.

“The person that told them to return is a spirit named Gentiana, someone that aids their oracle and is a clairvoyant.” I look to Ellone, waiting for her to continue since I also heard her own memories while we were connected. Ellone sighs, turning to face the others. “She is the same voice I heard while I was unconscious in Odine’s lab, warning me of something coming.” Laguna’s eyes widen, leaning against his desk in front of Ellone. Quistis slowly nods as she begins to pace.

“So, someone that is a spirit is speaking with you and speaking with them. A spirit would be able to speak to each of you no matter what time difference there is, and she’s clairvoyant, so she’s warning all of you about something coming. Any idea what it is?” She questions the girl when she stops in front of her, her arms resting on her stomach. Ellone shakes her head, trying to remember exactly what the voice told her.

“She said I need to keep an eye out for something called Umbra. That when I see it I have to follow it to receive my answers.” Quistis nods slowly as we all fall silent. Eventually, she throws her arms up and faces me.

“I don’t think we have enough to figure anything out just yet. None of this is really making any sense, other than some spirit is trying to help us and/or help them by reaching out to you, Ellone. We aren’t even sure if we should trust her or not.”

“Or sure if we shouldn’t trust her either,” Ellone counters as she shakes her head. I shrug at them, growing more agitated at the need to see Prompto taking precedence over anything else at this point in my mind.

“We can’t jump to any conclusions yet. Not until we think everything over. Maybe we should wait on making any decisions until after we’ve discussed it with the others,” I offer as the door to the office swishes open.

“Hey guys!” Selphie chirps, waving vigorously with Rinoa on her arm giggling. Irvine, Zell and Seifer follow the girls into the room, clearly amused by their actions until they see the looks on our faces.

“Whoa, what’d we miss,” Seifer asks, staring into my eyes. I turn back towards Laguna, placing a hand on my hip while the other pinches the bridge of my nose.

“Will you ask someone to bring up some coffee please? Tell them to bring a few pots.”

~Seifer~

Listening to Ellone and Squall explain what they went through in the dream world is quite interesting, to say the least. I try and imagine being able to see and hear another time and another place that you’ve never been to. To interact with strangers, witness an unusual culture and just to see anything before anyone else you know has ever seen. Fascinating is the simplest way to put it. But the entire time the two explain to us what happened, my eyes are locked on Squall’s. I know there’s more to what he saw then he’s admitting, which makes me wonder if he saw that Prompto guy again. His eyes look bloodshot, like he might’ve been crying or something. That makes me even more concerned, since I’ve never seen Squall cry, other than when we were all kids and Ellone was taken from us at the orphanage.

“What happened with you guys today?” Ellone asks, turning in her seat to face us with her hands resting in her lap. The exhaustion in her body was evident, the girl barely able to keep her eyes open but still insisting on being present while we discuss everything as a group. Squall takes his own seat near Laguna’s desk, clearly wiped out after going over so many details with us. It is still nothing compared to Ellone’s exhaustion. I look around my group, waiting to see if anyone had anything interesting to say about what we did. Nothing really happened, other than Irvine deciding to come with Zell and me instead of being latched onto Selphie like he usually is. Made my trip out in the city with Zell a little less fun than I had been planning, but I learned to deal with it.

“Groups of people are gathering sporadically all over Esthar, anywhere from five to fifty people in each of them,” I decide to chime in since Selphie and Rinoa are giggling together and Irvine and Zell are staring off into space. Squall nods as he stares at the ground in front of his seat. Laguna stands from his desk and walks around to the front of it, leaning back against it as he faces us with his arms crossed over his chest. “If I were to estimate how many we came across today, I’d say somewhere around two hundred. Not sure how many the girls came across, or if the groups they saw were the same as the ones we saw but regardless, the numbers are definitely growing from what we originally saw when this all started a few months ago,” I finish, glancing back at the guys who only nod in agreement with me.

“We saw quite a few as well, numbers ranging the same, five to fifty. Everything was pretty much the same as Seifer said, but we actually stood with a group of about thirty and listened to what they were talking about,” Rinoa mentioned as Selphie stares at Irvine. We all wait for her to elaborate, but Rinoa is also staring at Irvine who is keeping his focus in front of him, avoiding their gaze.

“Mostly they discussed how they have the right to defend themselves, and there is nothing wrong with learning how to do so. It’s never too late to learn how to fight and the more people that stand together, the better odds everyone have at defeating the sorceresses when they return, not if,” Selphie states, returning her eyes towards Squall and Laguna.

“Oh! They also kept chanting ‘unite the men before the return of Adel!’ but that’s about all we got.” Rinoa and Selphie chant out the phrase together, giggling at the end of it. Squall stands from his seat, turning to face us by leaning against the desk next to Laguna.

“So, we have at least two hundred people joining together and learning how to fight to defeat sorceresses that no longer exist. So they’re only stirring up panic among themselves for no reason other than to potentially fight against the palace for not offering any proof of their demise. Does that basically sum it up?” Squall questions the man beside him. The president slowly nods, pressing his fist against his mouth with a scowl.

“How are we supposed to fight against people that want proof we can’t give them?” I ask, frustrated at the lack of information we collected today, Squall and Ellone as well as the rest of us. All we ended up with was more questions than answers.

“Maybe we need to create proof?” Irvine suggests, catching our attention. I watch him pinch the rim of his hat and tug it downwards, hiding his face from the rest of us.

“Create proof? What do you mean?” Laguna asks, leaning forward a bit to hear the cowboy better. Irvine shrugs, pushing the hat back up to show his eyes.

“Just what I said: create proof. Maybe we need to fabricate something to give to them as evidence towards the sorceresses’ deaths. Something that will show them they aren’t coming back. Higher ups do that all the time to calm oncoming storms, right?” Squall frowns, dropping his eyes to the floor once more as he thinks over Irvine’s words. Should we do that? What if they find out we’re lying to them? Won’t that just add fuel to the fire?

“Can we do that?” Selphie finally asks, an uncomfortable look crosses her face at the thought of lying to people. What other choice did we have, really? Either deal with the eventual revolt against the palace here, and other places that housed the people in charge around the world or lie to chill everyone out. Both options leave a bad taste in my mouth.

“Might be something to consider,” Squall mumbles, glancing over to Laguna and Kiros. Both men look shocked at his consideration of the idea, but quickly understand his reasoning. There are a handful of us against at least two hundred others, and that’s only here in Esthar. How does it look everywhere else?

“Let’s put a pin in that idea for now, I’d like to get out there and gather a bit more information before taking that route. As it stands, they are only interested in gathering forces to stand against a daunting threat that passed through our world not that long ago. Nothing suggests a necessary need for us to stop their grouping as of now. But we may find more evidence of it in the coming days,” Squall informs the rest of us, nodding while we all agree with him. The phone on Laguna’s desk begins to ring, alerting Kiros to answer it. After a few moments, he holds the phone against his shoulder and mumbles something to Laguna. The president’s face scrunches up in confusion before he snatches the phone out of Kiros’ hand.

“What? What are you saying?” he blurts into the receiver, eyeing Kiros as he listens to the reply on the other end. Slowly his eyes widen with each passing word, his gaze flicking between Kiros and Squall before he silently replaces the phone to its cradle. Heaving a sigh, Laguna leans against his fists on the desk, attempting to hold in his frustrations.

“Go get Odine and bring him to his labs,” he informs Kiros who nods once and takes off out of the office, pointing to Zell and me on his way out to follow him. We quickly fall in behind him, as Laguna explains to everyone else in his office why the man was being retrieved.

“We need to question him on why he has a damn vampire in his lab! No, not just a vampire, an awakened vampire that I was unaware of!”

Chapter Text

~Vincent~

Sucking down the last of the rodents’ blood, I feel the life of them hitting my veins and transferring into my body, every motion more flowing now instead of jerky and useless. I hate awakening after a long sleep. According to this assistant that keeps fetching more blood for me, the time between when I last walked this earth and now isn’t as long as I expected, but still enough to cause my body to wilt over its length. With each passing lab rat, my arm grows more and more irritated, burning just under the surface. I have wrapped my cloak around it to shield the light it emits, but this should only work for so long until the orb burns through the fabric. I need to find out why we are here and why I have risen now.

“Ah, Mr. Valentine,” a new voice calls from the doorway to my room, arms stretched wide as he shuffles over to me. A tiny man, with an unusual accent and an even more unusual outfit, followed by three larger men of varying levels of strength enters the room. There are two blondes that appear to be strong with a darker fellow that is slimmer but still carries his own power. Interesting, I think as I watch the smallest man with the odd hairstyle approach me. His shorter legs finally carry him to my side, where he places his hand on the agitated wrist. I quickly snap it out of his grasp and stand, towering over him. In an instant, the three that followed this man here are at his side, shifting him backwards away from me and eyeing me cautiously, as they should be.

“Forgive my forwardness, Mr. Valentine, I feel more familiar with you since I’m the one that has maintained you over the years, awaiting your return.” He clasps his hands in front of him while scowling at the men gripping his arms. They eventually release him so he may approach me once again, all their eyes burning into mine.

“You are Odine then?” I question, seeking the assistant out in the room for guidance on who this was. She stifles a giggle, but nods her head towards me.

“Yes, I am doctor Odine. These are my laboratories in Esthar. Did my assistant already fill you in on the wheres and whens you are in?” The man asks, staring me up and down. I nod, watching the others behind him. They all release some varying levels of unease, directed towards me mostly but also towards this tiny doctor. I wonder why.

“Why is he here, Odine,” the dark one asks, crossing his arms in front of his chest without resting them atop one another. What appears to be saw blades are grasped within his hands, stretching the length of the back of his forearms and ready for whatever may come. This man was a fighter, I confirm before glancing to the others. The taller one hid something beneath his long coat, only showing the tip of a handle clutched within his hand. It appears to be a gun of some kind. The other blonde with the spiky hair grips a fist within the other, both covered in some specially designed gloves that should add protection to his knuckles. So, he must be the scrapper.

“Because I knew something like this was coming, as I often do,” the short scientist reaffirms before sliding on an uneasy smile. He holds his fingers out and silently asks if he may approach. I don’t confirm or deny, just watch him as he does. His fingers slowly reach my arm and begin unwrapping it from my cloak. I sneer but not at the man, but at the burning that has only intensified. The men behind the doctor tense up, but Odine stills their movements with his other hand.

“I knew one day this would be needed,” he announces as he finally releases my arm. The orb’s light is blinding at this point, making me clutch at my skin to ease it somehow. The men stare at my arm before returning their attention back to me.

“The time I lived last, we carried power within orbs. These orbs can become a part of you by pressing it into your flesh, as I did,” I explain, holding my wrist up to them.

“The power I hold is not a typical kind, as it is a man instead of an ability. I hold him within me to contain him until he is needed. He must be needed soon, otherwise I would not have risen.” The bigger blonde steps towards me, his eyes narrowing as he glances down at my wrist before looking back up at me.

“You’re saying that is a man? What kind of a man turns into a ball and goes into someone else’s arm?” I sigh at the simplistic take, but before I can explain any further, the doctor wraps my arm in some sort of material that instantly eases the orb.

“This is only going to get stronger when you meet him,” Odine mumbles to me quietly before turning to the others. “He needs to speak with everyone. This is the next part of our journey!” The three men glance confusedly between each other before the spiky blonde punches his other hand.

“What journey, Odine?” he asks, frowning at him in disbelief before he even utters a word. The doctor stomps his feet a few times, throwing his arms up into the air above him.

“The journey we are on now, idiot! We need him to meet Squall! That is the next part of this journey!” My eyes narrow at the mention of a name. A name that sounds familiar finally.

“Did you say Squall? As in, Squall Leonhart?” I ask, watching the others’ reaction to my question. Seeing them glance between one another again is all the response I need. So, we’ve finally made it, I whisper internally, gripping the fabric over the orb. Given the type of ‘person’ I am, I have been privileged to witness certain events which are to come throughout history. Some being mere potential outcomes, should certain events actually take place while others are more concrete. This event, the event that includes a Squall Leonhart is an outcome I witnessed after I foolishly insisted on my comrade becoming a junctioning materia orb, making him needed to aid in the destruction of evil which would destroy every sign of man from history. Before I am lost in my own thoughts, the doctor’s face splits into a grin, having watched my own reaction to the name and confirming his own theories. He turns to the others, the grin falling from his face.

“This man is crucial to the continued survival of mankind,” he points a finger towards me, then towards my arm, “he holds the man that will aid in the survival of our race.” Dropping his finger down to his side, he sneers at the others and releases a somewhat terrifying laugh. “The sorceress wars are not finished!”

~Squall~

Waiting in the office with the others anxiously, my mind continues to fight me with flashes of what I saw as Noctis. Seeing Prompto injured, reviving him, and more importantly, seeing him possibly see me for the first time. I try and shake the images out of my head, but they are relentless, feeding into my interest in the blonde stranger more and more with every passing breath. Knowing he was alright was all I had to go on at the moment, and knowing I would see him again. One way or another, my mind insists I will see him again.

The door automatically glides open, allowing the group to enter with an unusual looking man dressed in a lot of black leather and belts which is covered slightly by a long red cape that is torn to pieces. His eyes burn blood red, barely hidden behind his ashy black hair that spans almost the same length as his cloak. Golden armor covers one of his arms as well as the bottom portion of his knee-high boots, the other arm has a simple wrist-length and fingerless leather glove. My eyes take note of the gauze wrapping that covers the rest of his exposed skin above the fingerless glove. Staring only at me, he enters the room behind Zell and Seifer who practically carry a screeching Odine with them.

“He’s insane,” Kiros bellows above Odine’s tone, irritation boiling to the surface. Zell and Seifer release the doctor with little regard for his footing as he almost face plants into the tile floor. With a huff, the man turns and stares the two down before addressing the president with a smile.

“Mr. President, may I introduce Vincent Valentine,” he then turns to the newcomer and continues with the formalities. “Mr. Valentine, this is Esthar’s president, Laguna Loire along with the SeeD members that failed to defeat the sorceresses, Quistis Trepe, Selphie Tilmitt, Irvine Kinneas.” Odine points behind them towards the two blondes, “the two oafs are Zell Dincht and Seifer Almasy, which that one was the sorceress’s knight.” Pointing towards Rinoa and myself he ends his title-giving, “Rinoa Heartilly, the temporary sorceress for Ultimecia and finally, Squall Leonhart, the man which you seek.” We all stare at Odine, stunned by his words before Laguna finally speaks up.

“What do you mean by failed to defeat the sorceresses, Odine?” Before the doctor can draw in enough breath to go on another rant, Zell and Seifer step forward, eyeing Vincent cautiously when they do.

“Odine claims he kept Vincent Valentine alive because he has someone inside of him to help us defeat the sorceresses finally.” The vein in Laguna’s forehead looks like it is about to burst, his eyes threateningly narrow when he responds.

“That’s insane. Lock him back up immediately! We do not have time for these games, Odine!” Zell and Seifer move toward the doctor, but the man scrambles in front of Vincent, holding his hands out in each direction between himself and the encroaching blondes in a weak stance to stop them.

“That is not what I said! I said he contains a man inside of him that is a crucial and key component to the journey we are on, which is to help to save the human race! I assure you it is true, Mr. President. Vincent, tell them.” The others stop in their places, and all eyes fall on the stranger. The man breaks his eyes away from mine, scanning over the rest of us before looking back at me. He takes a step away from Odine, leaving him wide open for retrieval before he jerks his arm up beside himself. The gauze-wrapped limb is bent in front of him, now the center point for all of us to see. It appears to be normal medical gauze, except it is altered somehow with ice, frozen breath radiating off of the fabric which he slowly unwinds before us.

“I am Vincent Valentine, and I have heard of you, Squall Leonhart.” My eyes flicker between his and his arm, watching the skin slowly come to light. A faint shimmer of red shines through the layers of bandages, growing brighter with each one removed. “My companion from many decades ago has also heard of you, and knows this is his destiny, despite his unwillingness to participate in it.” His arm is released from the final layers of gauze, showing the rest of us his glowing wrist. A painfully bright red sphere shines through the layers of skin, flickering hastily like a strobe light. I shield my eyes from it as the man continues. “I have seen what could come to pass after your sorceress wars, as has my companion. We are here to aid in the destruction of the three.” My eyes widen briefly before I close them from the brightness, recalling the same phrase being told to Noctis and his group. “Cloud Strife, come forth! I summon thee!” Vincent yells, holding his arm out to his side again and turning to face away from it. The strobing red light flashes to a blinding white, beaming over everything in the room until the sound of steel colliding with tile rings out and the light disappears. Lowering my hand from my eyes, I see a new blonde hunched over on the ground. Kneeling beside Vincent, he has one hand stretching above him to hold the handle of an impressively large greatsword, the tip of it stuck into the tile floor. His blonde hair waves on top of his head, sticking up in a somewhat familiar way that makes me think of Prompto. Excitement courses through my veins before I can stop it while the man slowly stands beside Vincent.

The lower part of his face is covered by a cloth that matches Vincent’s cloak, blood red pooling down behind him in tattered pieces. When he finally stands tall, the purpose of the material became clear as it covers a majority of one black wing that protrudes out of his back. The rest of his attire seems somewhat normal; a deep violet sleeveless turtleneck tucked into some oversized baggy black pants which are held up by the same number of belts I always wear. The man takes in a few deep breaths and as he does, I take note of the slight differences between him and Prompto, letting my excitement fade. Eventually, the man’s eyes snap open, narrowing when they find mine.

“Cloud,” Vincent calls out to the man who tightens his grasp on the massive sword beside him, but it is too late. Before I or anyone else have time to react, my body is forced to the ground and he is standing over me, the base of his sword’s sharp blade at my throat.

“Hello Leon,” he hisses through a sneer, deep ocean blue eyes are swirling with an intoxicating green in front of me as they bore into mine. I hold my hand up to stop the others from reacting but otherwise remain in place, staring at the towering blonde with a blank face. This only irritates the man further as he slides the blade along my Adam’s apple, piercing the skin.

“Cloud!” Vincent warns, now standing beside him and gripping his arm. “He did not ask for any of this, do not blame him!” Cloud’s eyes narrow more, shifting completely from blue to a teal, the iris now slitting like a cat eye. He roughly shoves the hand off of his arm and jumps to the other side of the room, clearing thirty feet in one hop. I stare after him in awe at his maneuvering, knowing how impossible the movement is but believing it only since I had just witnessed it.

Striking the sword into the tile once more, the blonde holds both his hands on the tip of the hilt while he checks the others out. He watches me closely when I slowly stand back on my feet, Rinoa gripping her hand to my throat to stop the bleeding despite my attempts to push her behind me. A sneer reappears on the blonde’s face as he kicks the blade out of the floor and bolts toward the farthest window behind him. Just as he is about to shatter it in his escape, Vincent’s arm snaps upward beside me and a red ring shoots out from his wrist, halting Cloud in midair briefly before he falls to the ground, his sword clanging down beside him.

“You cannot leave as long as I control you, Cloud, and I do control you with this orb! Now stop!” A low rumble of laughter escapes through the blonde’s pursed lips while he quickly rolls over and stands on his feet. Bending down to retrieve his sword, he locks his gaze onto mine, witnessing the motions Rinoa is taking to fuss over me.

“So, this is who you chose then?” he asks me through gritted teeth. I eye him curiously before glancing towards Rinoa. What is he talking about? Before I can show a sign of my confusion, Vincent takes a step towards Cloud, holding his wrist up as a warning but also opening his hand as a peace offering.

“The life you and I saw never came to pass, Cloud. This is not Leon, this is Squall.” The brunette turns his head toward Laguna, then shifts his eyes to me. “I need time with him, to explain things to him. Please, may we have the room?” He looks pleadingly between Laguna and me while keeping an eye on the agitated blonde across from us. I stare at Laguna, refusing to make this decision when it is his city, and his office these two want to use. Laguna nods briefly, but points a finger towards the man threateningly.

“Fine, but guards will remain outside this room to ensure neither of you leave without my knowledge. Once you two are on the same page, the rest of us would like to join you on it as well.” Vincent nods while the blonde snorts a laugh and crosses his arms, leaning his cheek against them as they now rest heavily against the sword in the floor.

“Ha! Like a couple of people are going to stop me from leaving? Or him? Let alone both of us!” His booming voice holds the sound of two people, one deeper in tone than the other. The brunette waves an apologetic hand behind him before agreeing to the terms, mentioning he would alert the guards when things have calmed down. Laguna nods once before turning and addressing the rest of us within the room.

“We’ll go to the conference room to continue discussions. We should probably eat as well, given the late hour now. Squall, do you need any medical attention?” He asks worriedly. Before I can argue against his need to mother everyone into eating or any medical aid, the brunette holds his other hand out towards me, the wad of gauze in his grasp. I slowly take it from him, nodding my thanks before glancing over my shoulder at the angry blonde. Teal eyes bore into mine before staring at the gauze offered by Vincent, but the brunette ignores his anger.

“Right then, let’s go,” Laguna orders the rest of us before pressing his intercom button to alert a chef to join us in the conference room. With one last glance towards Cloud, the blonde's gaze seems to return to their original blue although appearing to be pain stricken now at my leaving. The wing hidden beneath the cloak slowly disappears along with the slit pupil. I stare at him until I pass the doorway, wondering what in Hyne just happened between us.

Chapter Text

~Rinoa~

I can help him, I know I can. All the time I spent here in Esthar, away from him and the others, it had to be worth something! Learning how to control my abilities and harbor such powerful magic, why can I not control a simple cure spell now? He needs me and I can’t do anything for him, my mind focusing instead on what just happened in the other room. Vincent Valentine, a vampire and Cloud Strife, a nightmare of a man who both came from another time to help us save humanity? We did this already! We fought against the sorceresses and won! Why now am I hearing they are still alive? Is this why I can’t cast a cure on Squall? Are my magical abilities already being drawn to darker uses by terrifying forces trying to control me again?

“Rinoa, please,” Squall’s agitated voice breaks through my rambling mind, his hands clutching my wrists at his neck where my hands are clamped over the severed skin. Shaking my head briefly, I keep my hands against the wound while I focus once more to cure him. The brunette huffs in irritation, slipping his gloved hands down to the crook of my elbows and forcing my arms back to my sides, his glare prompting me to stop fussing over him. My concerned gaze slips down to the cut on his neck, a thin trail of blood seeping out and dripping down his skin. What would Vincent do if he were in here, seeing the blood coming from Squall’s neck? I shake the thoughts from my mind and draw in a deep breath, Squall now draping the gauze the stranger gave him around his shoulders. My hands are back near him once again, shaky fingers moving to help wrap the material. Seifer steps between us, his eye catching the look on Squall’s face that I am ignoring before sliding his hands gently over my own and turning me slowly to face him.

“Calm down Rin,” the blonde whispers against our fingers, a sweet smile spreading over his face when I look into his eyes. “He’s fine. A superficial injury like that won’t kill him.” Slowly nodding with him, my nerves tense as I fight the urge to fix it anyway, but I ignore them and stand off to Squall’s side. Wrapping my arms around myself, I stare at my feet and focus on my breathing while Seifer takes over helping Squall wrap his neck in gauze. Hooking a digit between skin and material, the blonde asks if it is too tight before shuffling back over to Zell’s side when Squall shakes his head to the question.

“Sit down, everyone. Please,” Laguna holds his hands out, gesturing all of us to take our seats while keeping an irritated glare on Odine. Quiet shuffling fills the room as we all silently settle into the chairs scattered around the large wooden table. I keep close to Squall, telling myself I am near enough to help should he really need it, or if the cut continues to bleed even with the cooling gauze pressing against it. Squall remains tense when he sees me sit beside him, but keeps quiet about it when he turns his gaze out around the table at the others. A maid steps into the room from the swinging door leading to the kitchen, her eyes searching around for the president for a moment before making her way toward the man with a polite smile. “What would everyone like to eat?” Laguna asks solemnly.

Squall slams one of his fists against the table, all eyes snapping toward him at the sudden bang. His angered glare now fixated on the president, he doesn’t utter a word of explanation to him, hoping his exasperation would be all the explanation Laguna might need. The president’s wide eyes stare back at his son for a few moments before he clears his throat, turning his head back to the still startled maid. “Salad. We all would like salad please, with coffee as well. Just bring all the dressing choices in with it, thank you.” The woman nods hastily before scooting quickly back to the kitchen. “Something light would be best for us, I think. We still need to eat, Squall.” The brunette beside me jerks his fist from the table up to his face, his fingers pinching the bridge of his nose as he sighs heavily. Nothing else is said while we all recover from what happened in the other room, our thoughts going over the details and behaviors of the two newcomers while also taking note of what the now unusually quiet doctor mentioned as well. People come into the conference room with stacks of dishes and our food and drinks on rolling carts, keeping themselves hushed after the maid informed them of the seemingly tense atmosphere here, possibly from the conversation we were having. Said maid keeps to herself near the doorway, cautiously watching when the staff gave Squall and Laguna their salads and coffees. Once the staff served each of us and left the room, Squall turns his attention back to the quiet doctor, shifting the bowl of greens away from himself with a huff.

“What the hell was that Odine?” The brunette snaps, bringing the others’ minds back into the room to focus. Odine lowers his fork back down to the table, dabbing the corners of his mouth briefly before quirking one of them upwards.

That was you all meeting the two that will help save the human race.” We all stare at him, expecting further explanations but only witnessing the doctor pick his fork up again to continue eating, a knowing smirk across his lips. Selphie and Quistis glance back over at Squall with me, the three of us waiting for him to bend and snap his fork in half. His jaw clenches and unclenches rapidly, the muscle along his jawline flickering in and out of focus as he does.

“Spit it out Odine,” he warns, narrow eyes burning into the doctor’s cocky pose. Odine releases a dramatic sigh, criss-crossing his silverware over the top of his half-eaten salad and scooting the dish away from himself. He blots his napkin along the entirety of his mouth slowly while his eyes read each of our faces before eventually setting it on top of his dish as well.

“Do you remember when I had Ellone in my labs when she was a child?” the shorter man asks, directing his question toward the president. Laguna bristles at the sudden reminder but nods curtly after it is asked. Glancing back over at Odine, a smirk is intentionally placed on his face as he reveled in his moment of getting under Laguna’s skin, but he quickly removes it when he sees Squall’s temper begin to boil over. Standing from his chair, Odine scoots it back underneath the table before gripping his hands behind his back. Pacing calmly, he stares ahead of himself instead of focusing in on any of us listening.

“I will spare you the details of what happened while I had her then, what discoveries I made even without the ability to continue my research after you took her away from me.”

“Took her back Odine, she is my daughter!” Laguna interrupts, correcting the infuriating man with a vengeance. Odine drops his head downwards, shaking it lightly as he breathes out a laugh. The joy he takes in holding that over Laguna’s head is horrifying. If only there were someone else that had Odine’s brilliance, the heartless man would be sent to the other side of the world so fast and personally escorted by Laguna I’d imagine.

“Right after Ellone left me, I was visited by someone. Someone who knew details about my research of the girl that nobody else did, since I kept all of it locked away from even my most trusted assistants and interns.” Ellone droops lower in her seat when the doctor shuffles behind her, her eyes remaining on her lap until he makes his way by. “She recounted all of the things I had recently learned about, paying special attention to certain aspects of Ellone’s abilities. When I yelled at the guards to enter and take her away for somehow breaking in and stealing my research, guards never came. That was when she finally revealed her name.” Odine stops pacing between Seifer and Zell’s chairs, scooting toward the table before he leans against his hands on the table top and locks analytical eyes on Squall. “Gentiana.” Squall drops his hand away from the side of his face, sitting up and staring into Odine’s crooked sneer.

“That’s her, the clairvoyant.” Odine nods at the brunette, taking pleasure in having this information and keeping it from all of us until now. Squall’s face drops into a frown, his gaze leaving Odine’s when he gets lost once again in a whirlwind of confusion and deep thought.

“The guards never came because she stopped them from entering, showing me part of the power she held while explaining who and what she is. She told me what would come of my explorations into Ellone’s abilities, again, details I will keep from you due to the vast devastation it brought onto the world. She showed me,” Odine’s expression shifts away from overconfidence to one of horror, his focus growing bleary as he recalls the distant memories he speaks of now. When he shudders himself back to the present, he clears his throat and returns to pacing behind all of us. “She showed me how time holds many outcomes, various paths lead to various conclusions, some leading to life and prosperity while others lead to death and destruction. The majority of them though did lead to a horrific end to the human race in one way or another, only postponed by brief moments of peace before ultimately the paths merged. The one we are on now, currently,” Odine stops behind Laguna, shifting his eyes to stare at the back of the president’s head, “is the only path that will lead to the survival of humanity.”

The doctor turns his attention to Squall who stares at him now, along with most of the rest of us as we digest what he just mentioned. Odine tilts his head toward the door. “They are key to remaining on that path. That is why I did my part to keep them alive.” Squall frowns further while Odine changes his appearance back to one of confidence. “I’ll let them explain to you who Leon is. Just know that the two of them are needed along with you to save the rest of us.” Turning back and taking another step, Odine resumes his pacing as he shuffles quietly behind me.

“So you see, everything that has happened so far has all been a part of Gentiana’s plan. Every action I have taken has been to ensure we get to this precise moment, where you meet them and they meet you. All of that has happened as it was supposed to, thanks to me. Which proves, Mr. President,” Laguna looks up at Odine who has now made his way back to his own chair, his fingers gripping tightly into the leather. “I am needed. Not in jail, but in my labs.” A scoff on my side of the table brings my eyes over to Laguna, the man scowling at Odine’s statement.

“You drugged my daughter, Odine! You kept her asleep for a week!” the president spouts off to the doctor, but Odine shifts his eyes over to Ellone.

“Gentiana did speak to you while you were asleep, did she not?” Ellone drops her eyes back down to her lap before nodding slowly. Odine’s smile grows while he thrusts his hands out across the table. “See? As I knew she would! I was to keep Ellone asleep until Gentiana could speak to her!”

“Bullshit! That’s a cop out and you know it! There’s nothing and/or nobody to prove that!” The door to enter the conference room opens abruptly, Laguna and Odine snapping their mouths closed while we all turn to see who is entering.

“Forgive my interruption, but I wanted to inform you all that the process with Cloud is proving more difficult than I originally anticipated. I felt it best to advise you all to retire for the evening, given the slim possibility of getting through to my companion in one sitting. I have no qualms with a pair of guards posted outside of the room, although if I may suggest a new pair of them to be stationed outside considering the probability of my continued efforts exceeding throughout the night.” Vincent waits patiently for his request to sink in until Laguna finally agrees to his wishes, asking one of the guards outside of the room we are in to rotate the two outside of the office.

“Please ask them to wake me if you need anything, Mr. Valentine, or if you get somewhere with your companion. I don’t think any of us are against the idea of some well needed rest.” Vincent gracefully bows at the president’s words and bids us good evening, sliding the door shut behind him while he returns to his companion.

“Well,” Laguna sighs, stretching his arms above his head, the previous tension appearing to vanish at the suggestion of rest. “I urge you all to get some sleep. Odine, you will be placed within one of the guest rooms since I am weary of your return to the lab. Guards will be placed outside of your door as well to ensure you stay put.” Odine mumbles to himself as we all stand from the table and start to leave, saying our good evenings to the president. I stand beside Squall, not wanting to leave him alone until Selphie wraps her arm around my waist.

“Come on, Rinny, let’s have a sleepover,” the girl says, pulling me toward the door. Glancing over my shoulder, I see Squall having no interest in my whereabouts, whether I stay by his side or go, so I turn with a huff and allow Selphie to lead me out into the hallway.

“Goodnight Irvy,” Selphie practically sings when we pass the cowboy in the hall of rooms, looking a bit triumphant. Irvine tips his hat at us with a smirk before stepping into his room. Zell shuffles passed, waving effortlessly at us as the brunette enters the code to my room and guides me inside. When the door slides shut behind her, she turns and wraps me into a hug, letting my tears fall onto her bare shoulder.

“Oh Selphie,” I squeak out through my sniffles, squeezing her back in thanks for suggesting I don’t be alone for the night.

 

~Squall~

Zell and Seifer come into the dining room finally, the last to arrive since the two decided to train a bit longer than they usually do this morning. I continue pacing, my coffee gripped in hand. Laguna keeps an eye on me as I do, refraining from sounding like a broken record and asking for the fifth time if I’m alright. Another sleepless night came and went, my thoughts consumed with Prompto, but now images of Cloud and his haunting eyes as well. Who is this Leon they mentioned, and why does Cloud think I am him?

“Looks like I’m not the only one that had a rough night,” Seifer mentions, sliding into a seat beside Zell. The two proceed to dig into their breakfasts, needing the refuel after burning so much energy off this morning. I ignore the comment, continuing my motions while my mind further wanders.

“Does vampy Vincent know we’re awake?” Seifer asks Laguna between bites. Laguna drops the finger his cheek was leaning on, turning to nod at the two blondes.

“I sent guards to inform them when I arrived here a few hours ago. Seems there wasn’t much progress made between the two last night. The guards that were stationed outside the room reported no disturbances or attempts at leaving before they went off duty for the day.”

“So now we sit and wait,” Selphie chimes in, keeping her eyes on the brunette girl beside her. Rinoa twirls her fork in her eggs sluggishly before finally setting the utensil down. Selphie smiles weakly, patting her arm before taking a sip of her coffee.

“Is that the plan?” Zell asks us, glancing between Laguna and me. I look over at the president and watch him shrug.

“Not much else we can do really, unless we want to take another stab at learning about the groups or dream world again. Are you guys even up for that?” Laguna asks the room. Quistis sets her mug down on the table, folding her hands into her lap and looking at me.

“I’d like to stay close to Odine, maybe see what other information I can get out of him.” I nod after a moment of consideration. If anyone could get anything out of the man, it is Quistis, especially since she already got under his skin when she outsmarted him before. Ellone nods her head as well before looking at me, silently asking me if I’m up for another romp around unknown land. I gulp the last of my cup before standing in front of the man holding the carafe, holding the cup out for him to refill for me.

“Well, I’m ok with going back out and seeing what else we can find out about the mobs. Beats sitting around here waiting for who knows how long,” Seifer mentions, eyeing the blonde beside him. Zell nods, shifting his empty plate away from in front of him and leaning back in his chair. Rinoa and Selphie look at each other, an unspoken conversation occurring between them. I take a sip of coffee, watching the two of them.

“If you don’t feel up for it, just stay with Laguna and wait for any word from Vincent and Cloud. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind the extra people around to alert the rest of us should something happen.” Selphie stares at me for a second before looking back at Rinoa, who keeps her eyes in front of her and slowly nods.

“Aye Aye, Captain!” Selphie sings, wrapping her arm around Rinoa’s shoulders and tugging her closer. Rinoa’s face splits into a smile which makes Selphie squeal.

“Fine, you two stay with Laguna, Ellone and I will go back to her room and reconnect with the Noctis group. Quistis can keep an eye on Odine while the rest of you can go out and see what else you can find out about the groups,” I instruct everyone with a sigh, gulping down the rest of my cup before the man refills it again. I ask him to have a pot brought to Ellone’s room again when she stands up from the table and heads for the doorway. “Anything happens, you know where to find us,” I mention to Laguna before taking my leave. Ellone waits for me on the other side of the doorway, a worried expression on her face.

“Are you sure you’re up for this, Squall?” She asks me as she places a hand on my forearm. I smile at her, resting my hand on top of hers briefly before dropping it back down beside me.

“Sure Sis, we need to figure out as much as we can.” Ellone nods in agreement, leading me toward her room. Once inside, I take my usual position on the couch and lay flat against the cushions, closing my eyes. The man enters the room, dropping the fresh pot of coffee off on the end table above my head before taking his leave.

“Alright then, you ready?” Sis asks, seating herself beside me on the floor, her hand on my arm once again. A quick nod assures her I am and we begin. My consciousness fades into a calming trance, pushing the tension and stress of reality away from me. Regardless of the majority of my emotions being forced out of focus, I still maintain an excited need to see Prompto, my nerves starting to get the best of me before I disappear into the darkness.

Chapter Text

~Noctis~

My vision blurs around the edges, light beaming into my eyes harshly when I open them. I groan out my angst toward it, shifting my arm so it covers my eyes. “Noctis?” a voice beside me calls out before I hear a shuffling sound. Pressure against the surface I am laying on dips down beside me while a hand touches my forehead.

“Is he stirring finally?” Ignis’s familiar voice asks the person beside me, worry deep in his words. More shuffling on my other side before a hand gently grasps my arm and removes it from over my eyes.

“You gave us quite the scare, Noct,” Gladiolus mentions through a heavy sigh, pressing his forehead against the palm of his hand. My eyes struggle to focus on the heaping man, his facial features staying blurred.

“I’ll alert the doctor that you have awoken,” Ignis announces, turning away from me and exiting the room.

“W-Water,” I whisper against severely chapped lips, deciding against dropping my arm over my eyes once more. Gladio stands from his own chair, holding a hand out to stop Prompto from retrieving it. He quickly leaves the room to go find liquids for me. A warm touch against the back of my arm urges me to move it to my side, staring into the bluest of skies in his eyes I can ever remember seeing.

“You’re not Noctis, are you?” The blonde whispers, his gaze flicking between both of my eyes. Before I can utter a sound, Ignis returns with a woman in a white coat, her focus on a clipboard she grips in front of her.

“Prince Noctis? How are you feeling?” she asks without glancing up from the papers. I shift my eyes back to Prompto’s, swallowing air since my saliva has all but evaporated. A slow nod is all I can manage, making the blonde above me slightly frown.

“What’s the word, doc? Is Noct gonna be alright?” Prompto questions her impatiently, now keeping his eyes away from mine. The doctor presses a button on the wall behind me, shifting the hospital bed I am laying on into a seated position. She pulls a pen light out of her coat pocket and instructs me to follow it with only my eyes, shifting it back and forth in front of me. She changes direction, moving it up and down a few times before replacing the light in her pocket. The doctor then removes her stethoscope from around her neck and places the cold object against my apparently bare chest.

“Deep breaths please,” she asks, listening intently. She shifts the device around to a few locations before moving it to my back, repeating the motions. Giving us all a nod, she wraps the stethoscope back around her neck and quickly checks a few things off on the clipboard. “Everything seems to be in order, gentlemen. It appears he just took a nasty spill after the battle you mentioned earlier. I’ll get things in motion to get you out of here.” She turns to leave the room, pausing at the doorway before turning back to face me.

“And Noctis? It’s good to have you home, your highness.” Her words ring out in my tiny room after she leaves, my eyes snapping to Prompto’s and Ignis’s. Gladiolus reenters the room a bit later, handing me a pink plastic cup full of ice water. I gulp the liquid down thirstily, paying no attention to the drops falling from my chin onto my chest.

“So, are we good?” Gladio asks the others, crossing his arms in front of him while staring at them. Ignis nods, leaning down to retrieve my clothing. Apparently I am completely stripped, I notice when the brunette hands me my shorts as well as my shirt and short-sleeved jacket. They take their leave, Prompto trailing behind the others as he glances over his shoulder at me. His fingers twist the blinds over my window closed before he steps out, shutting the door lightly behind him. I slowly stand from the bed and begin redressing, my mind racing with what to say to the curious blonde.

Don’t say anything. Not yet.

I stop myself from pulling my jacket all the way on, unsure if I had really heard that voice. Was that Gentiana?

Almost there, Squall. You are all so close.

My vision blurs again around the edges at the mention of that name. I know that name, right? A banging on the outside of my door snaps me back as I finish tugging my jacket on. “Let’s go,” Gladio urges when I open the door and face them. Prompto keeps a sharp eye on me, but doesn’t say anything while the others turn and lead us out of the building.

“How’s it feel to be home, Noct?” The bigger man questions me, smacking his hand against my back abruptly. I shrug while I check out the hallways we are walking through. So, if this place was destroyed, it sure is lucky the hospital still stands. I wonder how many survivors there are. A new depth of heaviness in my heart is reached as I think of how many souls were lost that day. I quickly regain control of my composure though, not wanting to bring the heavy mood to my surroundings of patients, medical staff or especially not to my companions.

“Where should we go from here, I wonder?” Ignis says aloud, pressing his glasses closer to his face. My mind floods with the conversation we had with Gentiana, recalling her order for us was to return here, but nothing on where to go after we got here.

“We’ll figure it out as we go, I’m sure,” I mention hoarsely, my throat still appearing to be dry. Prompto turns his head toward me, staring at my side as we continue walking out into the main lobby. I glance over at him, remaining silent. He eventually looks forward again, but keeps a step or two behind me so he can see me at all times. Does he not trust me? Through the double doors, I see the remains of buildings standing haggardly all across the street, rubble littering the roads and preventing any vehicles from passing by. People walk around carrying belongings, all looking a bit worse for wear but at least they are alive. Once we step out of the hospital, a familiar pair of dogs catches our attention, sitting at the edge of the stairway that went down to the street.

“What’re you two doing here?” Gladio and Ignis ask, walking toward the dogs. I stop in my tracks, the names of them I couldn’t quite remember. Prompto takes a few steps and turns in front of me, facing me head on. The moments fill with an uneasy silence, Gladiolus and Ignis completely unaware of what is happening between the blonde and me as they get closer the dogs.

“Who are they, Noct?” Prompto finally breaks the awkward silence with the question. I stare into his eyes, wishing the scowl appearing on his face would cease. I slowly slide a finger against his forehead, hoping my touch will stop the frown from spreading. I hadn’t meant to do it, it just sort of happened, but once my skin connects with his, the concern on his face eases. The blonde shuts his eyes instinctively after a second before rejoining the moment and twisting away from my touch. “Who are they Noctis?!” Prompto yells his question this time, almost like he is yelling to keep himself focused while also gaining the attention of the others. Ignis and Gladiolus glance between each other before quickly turning back to face us.

“I-I don’t know, Prompto,” I breathe out, my head starting to throb against the brightness of the sun in the sky. I wince at the light, but the blonde refuses to allow me to look away, staring deeply in my eyes.

“What do you mean you don’t know? How can you not know them Noctis?!” The others are quickly approaching, hearing the blonde’s words and frowning themselves.

“I-I’m not Noctis,” I whisper, clenching my teeth at the swelling tension behind my eyes. I pinch them closed to avoid the sunlight, but Prompto jerks my arm to get me to open them again. When I do, his expression shifts, his mouth hanging slightly open while his eyes widen.

“Squall?” He whispers back, shock forming on his face. I manage a quick nod before dropping to my knees, holding myself up with my hands against the pavement.

“Noct!” Gladiolus and Ignis yell as they begin to run back to me, but everything around me fades away, my vision only highlighting the two dogs now standing near the stairs. Both animals begin to run toward me at full speed, lurching over piles of rubble and stone with ease. Their two forms begin to morph together before everything completely fades away, the last thing I hear is Prompto calling out my name, Squall’s name.

~Selphie~

I shake Squall’s shoulders violently, my vision snapping over to Rinoa who is doing the same to Ellone. “Squall! Wake up!” I shout into his ear, relief spreading through me when they both finally begin to stir. Ellone stares at Rinoa through her slit eyelids, the haze still heavy on her features. Rin slowly helps the girl to her feet, whispering something into her ear. Squall’s eyes now begin to flutter open, his lips slightly parted. “Squall! We gotta go! Irvine said the mobs are outside the palace again!” That hastens his recovery, his eyes snapping open and scanning over my features. He quickly scrambles to his feet, checking on Ellone briefly before he turns and faces me.

“Get to the front of the palace. Text Quistis and tell her to do the same. You two,” He points two fingers at Ellone and Rinoa, “get back to your rooms and wait for me there.” Rinoa scowls at the man barking orders at us, releasing her hold on Ellone to thrust her fists against her hips.

“Excuse me? I’m not going to sit back and hide while a mob tries to attack us Squall! I can fight, remember?!” her stubbornness hits home, reminding the man of arguments from the past.

“Whatever you two want to discuss about Rinny and her fighting abilities, do it later! We gotta move!” I scream, stopping any further arguments between them. Squall stares at Rinoa for a few moments before turning toward the door, throwing a hand over his shoulder to shrug her arguments off. Rinoa scowls at the back of the fleeing man, taking in a deep breath to begin her tangent. I press a finger against her lips after moving quickly to stand right in front of her, our noses maybe an inch apart.

“Not the time Rinoa. If you want to help, then help. Save the dramatics for another time. You good?” I question her with wide eyes, hopefully showing her I don’t mean to upset her. I just want her to get into the right headspace. The girl eyes me as she exhales, her eyes dropping down to the ground when she nods. I nod as well with a huff, tugging my phone out of my pocket to text Quistis to meet in front. Typing the orders out quickly, Rinny turns and sees Ellone standing near the couch, watching the two of us mentally prepare for whatever may come. I slide my phone back in my pocket and grip Rinoa’s arm, jerking it lightly. “Alright, Quistis knows what’s going on. She should meet us there. What do you want to do Rin?” Now is the time to make a decision, and I watch her nod her head without hesitation.

“I’m coming with you. I asked Squall if Seifer and I can help, and that’s what I intend to do.” She briefly turns toward Ellone, holding her hand out toward her. “You coming with us Ellone, or staying behind?” Ellone’s eyes widen, the three of us knowing she doesn’t have an ounce of a fighter’s spirit in her body, despite the internal strength she holds for her own mysterious abilities. Still, she should be allowed the same opportunity to decide.

“We can take you back to the lift to the conference room if you’d like, but we gotta get up front with the others,” I tell her, stifling any pressure she may have felt to participate in the potential battle. Ellone glances between the two of us before nodding and gripping Rinoa’s hand in her own. “Alright, let’s go!” I yell, thrusting my fist in the air to get ourselves pumped up. I lead the girls out of Ellone’s room and head toward the lift, seeing it through the glass windows coming to a stop and Quistis stepping off, racing for the entrance of the palace.

“Quistis is there,” I point out as we round the corner and head toward her. The girls break away from behind me, Rinoa leading Ellone to the lift and releasing her hand. “We’ll be right up, Ell, don’t you worry!” I insist, easing her mind as Rinoa and I jog away from her to meet the others. Chanting can already be heard from this far into the building, raising awareness in us of how many people must be outside this time. Doesn’t matter how many, I tell myself as I grip my nunchucks between my fingers. We’ll stop it from getting out of hand.

~Ellone~

I witness my two escorts fleeing out the front entrance of the palace, already taking the defensive stance and holding onto their weapons before they’ve even seen what’s waiting for them outside. Muffled yelling filters in through the open doorway and I strain to hear what they are saying. Before I know what I’m doing, I make my way toward it, straining to hear what they are screaming. It seems there must be thousands of them when their words become clearer.

“Unite the Men Before the Return of Adel! Unite the Men Before the Return of Adel!” they chant repeatedly almost in unison. Peering out, I see a sea of bodies all standing together and dripping wet, their fists in the air jerking and punching whenever they hit one of the words of their chant. The sky is darkened by storm clouds while heavy rain pelts against everything below it relentlessly. Squall stands in front of me just outside the entrance, gripping the handle of Lionheart. The others are spread out evenly across the front of the building, all holding their weapons and staring angrily at the mobs of people, waiting for someone to make the first move. The scene before me looks vaguely familiar, only taking a moment to finally click as to why. I rush to Squall’s side, gripping his arm between my hands. He turns to face me, surprise written on his face that I am standing out here with the others.

“Squall! This is it! This is the vision I had!” I scream over the pounding of the rain and the chanting of the people. Squall narrows his eyes at me, unable to hear my words over everything else. I tug at his arm and repeat what I said, but he shakes his head at me mid-sentence.

“Get back inside Ellone, you don’t belong out here!” he demands, shoving me off of his arm and quickly turning back to the mobs of people to keep them from advancing. I trip over my own feet and land in a puddle, drenching me completely. My vision catches a new movement that brings my gaze upwards toward the crowd, and I see the men at the back of the chanting mobs holding banners attached to wooden poles. Letters scrawl across each of the sloppily crafted signs with periods after each one, appearing to be an abbreviation of some kind, but that’s not what I focus in on. My eyes widen, rain drops pelting my cheeks and attempting to get into them, I read the abbreviation out loud.

“U-M-B-R-A. Umbra?!” The sound of the voices around me slowly come back into focus, syncing with the letters of the banners and clicking with what Gentiana had shown me before.

“Unite the Men Before the Return of Adel. Umbra!” I say aloud, glancing back to Squall and the others. They couldn’t hear my words over everything else, and they keep focused on the people in front of them. This is it. This is what Gentiana told me.

“Soon child, you shall have a visitor of an unusual kind. This visitor will forcefully gain the attention of many, but only truly seeks the attention of you…” Her words rush back into my mind as I stare at the backs of the others.

“When the time is right you must leave the side of others to follow the visitor and find the answers you truly seek…” I wish I could connect with them so they could hear me, but know they need to stay focused where they are.

“You must follow Umbra, child, or the chance will be lost…” That’s it, I decide, standing quickly back on my feet. This is my part to play in all of this. I rush off toward where the men holding the banners stand, the rain practically bruising my cheeks as I go. Ducking and dodging between the bodies, I slowly ebb closer to the Umbra banners. My senses are heightened while my body tingles, scanning over my surroundings to see where my next sign may be. I know I’m on the right track, since every inch of me is practically vibrating with... excitement? With fear? I'm not sure. All I know is I need to get to the banners as quickly as possible. The sound of shattering glass silences the masses behind me, but I focus on the people holding the banners. They stand still before me, watching and waiting for me to get closer.

Once I am a few feet in front of them, they turn toward each other, the banners flicking the accumulated rain off of their fabric. Between the two signs and a few yards behind them sits a dog staring at me with golden eyes. It’s an average sized dog, the longer fur a mixture of white on the lower half and black on top, but a small stripe of white lines beneath the gold eyes and over the snout. I take a few steps toward it, watching it carefully to make sure I don’t agitate it. The dog slowly stands before me and turns away, trotting down the path in front of the palace. Am I supposed to follow it, I wonder briefly, but my feet make the decision for me.

Jogging lightly behind it, I notice the sounds of the masses I slipped through are no longer present, the surroundings we briskly move through now all appearing calm and serene. The sun shines down on our backs, the storm clouds seeming to have dissipated. The dog leads me to an overpass that is well known for having an amazing view of the entirety of Esthar. It stares off down the path in front of us, but stops moving. I stop a few feet behind it, glancing around to see what may come next. Before long, the dog in front of me lets out a bark, snapping my eyes back down the path it stares at. Another dog appears, slowly trotting toward us. This one is mostly white with a few spots of off-white mixed in along its hind quarters. The closer it gets, the more I notice two stripes of gray lining beneath each of its own golden eyes. Once the second dog approaches the first, they both stand before me, about two feet apart and staring into my gaze.

It is time.

A chillingly familiar voice rings through my mind as a female figure slowly appears between the two dogs. As Gentiana’s body fully materializes, the two turn to face each other and sit, looking up where the woman’s face is forming.

“Gentiana,” I breathe out, my eyes widening at her when she emerges. The woman releases her clasped hands in front of her and stretches them toward me, her eyes remaining closed and her lips staying sealed in a soft smile.

Quickly, take my hands.

Her orders surge my body into movement. A blindingly white light begins to tangle around each of her outstretched arms when I reach out and grasp her hands, wincing at the sudden coldness wrapping between my fingers.

Umbra! Pryna!

Her voice screams through my thoughts and I watch the two dogs simultaneously jumping up on either side of her, resting their paws against her hips. As soon as the three connect, the lights spiraling around Gentiana’s arms envelope over our hands before it engulfs us completely, my eyes losing any shape or shadow to it before I clench them shut. The cold skin of the woman’s hands leave my own, now pressing tightly to either side of my face, focusing in on my temples. Power is draining out of my body, the little I still had after going back to Noctis and the others with Squall, but I fight to keep myself upright. As much force that leaves me, that much is also returned through my connection with Gentiana, like a flowing cycle given and taken by each of us simultaneously. The flow suddenly stops, fading as fast as the blinding white light around us before I hear heavy breathing.

“G-Gentiana?” a familiar voice moans in front of me as I suddenly hear others groaning. My eyes snap open, my jaw gaping while I fail to take a breath.

“Prompto?” I whisper, gaining the man’s attention. He glances over his shoulder at me, a hazy curiosity growing in his eyes. In slow motion, my head droops down to my feet, where I see the other three familiar faces all sprawled on top of each other on the ground, gripping various limbs or their heads, their wincing eyes flickering between Gentiana and myself drenched in confusion. I slowly drop to land beside them, my hand shielding my head from the harsh collision before my vision fails me as I faint.

Chapter Text

~Squall~

What in Hyne’s name is she doing?! I wonder internally as I watch Ellone race out into the crowds of people. My legs flinch, wanting to stop her from leaving but I hold myself in place, following her with my eyes. I see her wet hair dripping as she bobs and weaves between them all, hoping she will look back at me so I can urge her to return. The people in front of us start to break apart, seething in anger and wanting to start a fight. I glimpse at the stragglers stepping away from the others toward us to provoke someone to start the fight, only to fall back against the main line. I quickly search the last place I saw Ellone, attempting to find her again. Everytime I do though, someone else in front jerks up on our level in threat, snapping my attention back in front of me. Suddenly glass shatters over our heads and startles us, followed by a name being screamed out.

“Cloud!” Vincent’s voice rings out, hushing the mob in front of me. Quickly looking to where the noise came from, I see Cloud stretching his arms straight out on either side. He’s falling from the broken window Vincent now hangs out of with his hand reaching feebly down toward the blonde. Dropping head first to the pavement beneath us, his massive sword twirling in the air a few feet in front of him just out of his reach. Gasps sound through us all when the blade pierces the pavement beside me a half of a second before a large black wing shoots out of Cloud’s shoulder. In an instant he shifts his feet beneath him, landing behind the protruding blade in a crouch with his hand on the hilt. Before anyone can fathom what they just witnessed, the blonde stands abruptly, pulling the blade from the ground and holding it out in front of him with the tip still pointed toward his feet. Jerking his sword in front of his eyes, I watch the gaze swirl between ocean blue to a toxic teal again, the remaining blue snubbed out as he places his other hand on the hilt.

“Stop!” he bellows, his voice distinctly different now, sounding as if two people speak from within him at once. The groups before us all still immediately, freezing in place and hushing their screams before slowly disintegrating into the puddles of rain below them. Faces hold their last scornful scowls, eyes empty of life glaring forward at our startled state before droplets of rain wash their bodies away, piece by ashy piece. It is no different than finishing a battle with a fiend, the way their lifeless corpse fades away into the air to meet with the earth once more.

Those are fiends though, monsters that hold nothing more than the urge to kill anything that crosses their path. Not people! People that only wanted to gain answers from their leader; wanted to know they were finally safe from forces so far outside of their understanding that it drove them to attempt to retake control in the only way they knew how. Growing in numbers and learning how to fight with fists and weapons, the same way they saw the infamous SeeD fight, which is how the sorceresses were eliminated to begin with. They wanted answers! They didn’t deserve death for that! We watch in horror as the bodies disappear along with any sign of them ever existing, the skies clearing just as rapidly as the people vanish to release the sun once more. Vincent, now appearing behind Cloud grips the man’s shoulder which causes the blonde to lower the sword with a heavy sigh. The black wing that stretched out from his back now dissipating as well, completely vanishing from were it once was.

“Hyne,” Seifer whispers while the girls clasp their hands over their mouths, but all I see is red. Stepping in front of the blonde, my fist clutches the thick collar of his turtleneck, jerking his face toward my own with our noses touching.

“What the fuck did you just do?!” I yell, twisting the fabric tighter. Cloud’s eyes, now back to a weary blue, narrow while reaching a gloved hand up and gripping the tendons in my wrist.

“Saved your sorry asses Leon, what the fuck else do I ever do?!” His hot breath spreads along my face when he speaks through his teeth. Vincent places a hand on my shoulder and lightly pushes me away from Cloud.

“Squall, please, let us explain,” he asks, but I ignore his wishes as well as the fingers digging into my wrist, squeezing the turtleneck even tighter around the blonde’s neck.

“Ellone was out there you fucking asshole, what the fuck did you do?!” Cloud’s eyes begin to flicker between the colors again, his brow bone starting to protrude outward further than before while a faint outline of the large wing flickers behind him.

“She is fine Squall, I assure you,” Vincent mumbles into my ear as he rests a hand on my arm to stop me from strangling the blonde. Seeing Cloud start to lose control again, I weigh my options quickly before thrusting the blonde away from me harshly and pointing the tip of Lionheart at the red markings along his throat.

“She better be. For your sake,” I threaten before turning away and entering the palace again. Vincent whispers to Cloud, tugging the man’s arm over his shoulders and placing a hand on his to guide him inside. The others follow the two numbly, still shocked at the sudden disappearance of so many. My mind races while my heart grows heavy, thoughts willing me to wait until I hear them out before I decide to believe Sis is gone.

“Into my office,” Laguna directs everyone as he sits himself on the lift. The President and his adviser were watching the scene from inside the doorway, startled by everything that has happened along with the rest of us. He holds a hand out beside him, inviting Vincent and Cloud to join him and Kiros while the rest of our group head for the stairs. We meet again at the doors to the president’s office, my arms tightly crossed over my chest. I glare at Vincent as he helps Cloud enter the room, placing him roughly in one of the chairs by Laguna’s desk. The others filter in and we take our seats on the various couches, leaving the pair of chairs in front of Laguna’s desk for both Cloud and Vincent. Noticing the broken window at the far end of the room, we all watch the two closely while each of our minds race with possibilities.

“Ellone’s fine, she wasn’t a part of it,” Vincent starts off, resting his hands in his lap. I gaze at the pointed edges of his golden armored hand before coming up to meet his eyes.

“Where is she then? She ran out there in the middle of them before he decided to vaporize them all,” I jab a finger toward the blonde beside him, keeping my eyes on Vincent.

“I didn’t vaporize them Leon,” Cloud mumbles out to explain. I snap back up on my feet from the couch, Lionheart falling from my lap down to the tile floor with a harsh metal clang while I glare into the blonde’s still weary eyes.

“My name’s Squall damn it! Not Leon!” Vincent holds a hand out between us in front of Cloud, waving it slowly as he takes a deep breath. Cloud’s scowl matches mine but we both remain silent as the brunette beside him continues to explain.

“Ellone found what she needed to find and left before the others vanished, I assure you. Nobody was harmed.” Seifer snorts at the last part of Vincent’s statement, but Cloud interrupts any arguments.

“You cannot harm what does not exist in the first place, Squall.” Sarcasm drips off of every letter when he says my name, folding his arms over his chest and slouching back against the chair.

“They weren’t real, Squall. They were visions projected by her to gain all of your attention. The groups of people,” Vincent points a finger at the large window, “all over your world, gathering against you? They never existed. They never even appeared past the confined boundaries of Esthar.”

“Umbra groups,” Cloud mumbles to help explain but keeps his frown on his boots.

“What did you say?” Irvine asks the blonde, glancing around at the rest of us before leaning closer to Cloud. The hostile blonde sighs, sitting up in his chair.

“Umbra groups. Y’know, Unite the Men Before the Return of Adel? U-M-B-R-A. Umbra groups.”

“They were implanted by Gentiana as a form of a test for you, well, for Ellone. She is fine,” Vincent assures us as he looks each of us in the eye. How could we not see it? I pinch the bridge of my nose at the realization of the chants my group told me of before, settling back down on the couch behind me. It all made sense. So then did that mean Sis really is alright?

“This was all part of the visions we saw before of the coming future. That was part of why we are here, why I am here,” Cloud explains quietly, maybe regaining some of his composure or possibly expending too much energy before and is now too depleted.

“So, why else are you here then? While we’re sharing stories, what are you exactly?” Seifer chimes in, spreading his question between the two of them. Cloud sighs again, turning his attention back to me. His oceanic eyes are pained when they meet mine briefly before he frowns and drops his gaze back down to his lap.

“I know you are not Leon, Squall. No matter how much I wish you to be him, you never could.” I stare at the man, wondering if I should be thankful for his words or insulted. Before I can question the meaning behind it, Vincent decides to speak.

“From what we can deduce, the two of us are not from this planet.” Confusion plastered over all of our faces, we gawk at the men sitting before us while waiting for further explanation. Cloud and Vincent share a glance before Cloud slumps further into his seat, urging the brunette beside him to continue.

“To keep explanations brief, we believe we were taken from our time on our planet and brought here to rest until taking up our part of this journey in aiding to save your planet…our planet. The home we once had was destroyed by a greedy corporation that effectively syphoned the planet’s lifestream until it ran dry, killing everything and everyone in the process.” A movement out of the corner of my eye catches my unamused glare off of the two, turning to see Selphie raising her hand into the air.

“Question!” She announces in case the childish gesture wasn’t an obvious enough hint that she might have one. “What’s a lifestream?” The tiny brunette asks, tilting her head sideways and dropping her hand back down to her lap.

“The lifestream is what keeps the planet alive, like the bloodstream inside of people. Everything and everyone on the planet when it perishes returns to the lifestream to continue to sustain the planet until it is brought back to the surface to live again.” Cloud blurts the explanation out, eying Selphie irritatedly. The girl mouths an ‘oh’ before nodding, showing her question was answered and allowing them to continue on.

“By removing us from the planet, we survived, but we believe it was only due to Cloud’s newfound abilities mixing well with mine, since I am able to hold such a power.”

“My creation, you mean,” Cloud mumbles, an attempt to keep the comment between the two of them fails when I catch his hushed words. Creation? Does he mean his existence within the power orb in Vincent’s arm? Barely following what these two are trying to tell us, parts do start to come together to create a picture. If they came from another world, it explains why they are the way they are, and why we have never heard of magic being contained in spheres and pressed into someone’s body to be able to use it.

“What ‘abilities’ are you talking about?” Seifer asks, using his fingers to quote the word the brunette just used. Vincent, glancing over to Cloud, looks for some unknown sign from the blonde on if he should elaborate. With nothing more than a stern frown and downcast eyes, Vincent decides to continue since his companion is all but ignoring his approval-seeking eyes.

“As you know, I am vampiric. I am capable of controlling such powerful beings, like Cloud, with ease due to my increased strength. Cloud is... a combination of beings.” A what now? What the hell does that mean? My mind is filling with more questions than answers, more confusion than I thought possible. The small connections I made to help this all make sense seem more frivolous with every passing word of explanation from them. Why would Gentiana set up such an elaborate hoax for a mere test? Where did these two come from? Nothing makes sense!

“During the final battle to save our planet, Gentiana stepped in and fused Cloud with another being; a darker being that was on a revenge-fueled rampage with the sole purpose of destruction. Killing people, killing the planet, just destroying everything in its entirety. His name is Sephiroth.” The mention of this name brings rigidity all over Cloud’s entire body. Stiff shoulders and tense back, the blonde scowls but keeps his hardened gaze in his lap.

“After they were fused together, the both of them were confined to a materia orb, which I was forced to push beneath the skin of my arm. Gentiana explained what was happening to our planet, but also informed me of the coming need in the future. When I was placed within my coffin, where I woke here and now with all of you, Gentiana told me of what needed to be done, and who I would seek in the future when it was time. Her clear vision of you, Squall, is what Cloud saw when he was in his orb.”

“My Leon was born,” Cloud whispers sarcastically, his eyes finally trailing lazily up from his hands to meet mine. We stare at each other for a breath before the familiar wince of a frown crosses over the blonde’s brow and he drops his head again.

“Being in an orb, Cloud could still see Gentiana’s shared visions despite not being fully formed in the world around us. What he saw of you is what either he, or Sephiroth, created to exist with him in the orb while I slept. Cloud had decades with a man that he thought was Leon, but really it was an imagined being with the name of Leon. There is a possibility Cloud created him to get through the years, or Sephiroth created him to torture Cloud further, that we do not know.”

“So, what you’re saying is the two of you aren’t from this world, and you were brought here by Gentiana to help fight this world-saving battle because Cloud is two people fused together, and you are strong enough to wield him? Oh, and while you waited decades for me to show up, Cloud created another me to entertain him while he waited, and you just... slept? You’re also saying Gentiana decided to test Ellone by using a bunch of fake people in growing riots to get her attention and drag her away from the rest of us?” I struggle to keep my tone even, praying my teeth do not shatter since I am clenching my jaws together so tightly. Swiping my hand through the air in front of me, I rapidly return to my feet.

“Why? What is the point?! Going through all of this, this extra shit just to make sure Ellone will act at a certain point?! Forcing us to stay behind so she can draw Ellone away to do Hyne knows what?! It doesn’t make sense!” Yelling echoes through the room, everyone’s shocked faces are locked onto me as I stoop down to gather Lionheart into my grasp from the floor. Ignited fiery eyes glare at my every move, but I ignore Vincent, focusing completely on the man that cast so many lives out of existence in a single shout, possibly Ellone’s as well. Cloud remains seated in his chair with his eyes staring down at his boots as I approach, the tip of my gunblade pointed at his chest.

The second before my blade will meet his body, Cloud’s hand clutches at my throat. Without seeing him move, the blonde went from a weary sitting position in a chair to standing on his feet, his arm stretching out to hold me inches off of the ground by my neck. Blackened feathers fall to the floor from the outstretched wing that twitches with tension behind his small stature, blazing green eyes burn against my glare. “You will threaten me before you see your proof then? Strike against me so I should make you fall before your beloved sister returns with the others?” That voice, the voice made up of two brings a small acknowledgement within me of their story possibly being true. Angling my blade to press against his throat, I stall the threat against me with a threat of my own, a threat against themif what they say proves true.

“What others?” I hiss, the grip on my neck becoming tighter after I shifted my weapon. Everyone around us jumps into action, Vincent standing on his own feet with his hands gripping Cloud’s shoulders to stop him from finishing. The others rally behind me with their various weapons drawn, all of them threatening the pair should anything happen to me. All of this should drive the crazed blonde to the end, but instead I watch as the wing behind him fades away to an outline, his hand lowering me back to my feet before releasing me from his grasp and falling back into his seat. Vincent drops back down into his own beside him, an arm over the blonde’s shoulders as he struggles to keep the man conscious.

“Your proof.” The final sentence slips out before the hypnotizing green irises shift back to blue, a moment before they close and Cloud is lost to the rest of us.

~Ellone~

“W-what? What happened?” I moan, pressing my hand against my forehead. A cooled cloth drips water down my temples when my fingers push into it, causing my eyes to snap shut automatically. The trickles only fall from the edges of the washcloth, keeping my eyes dry so I can open them.

“Are you alright?” Ignis asks, squatting over me. He gently removes the cloth from my face and folds it up, using the driest part to wipe away the stray beads of water.

“Ignis?” I whisper while my eyes enlarge. Glancing at the movements behind him, I see Gladiolus leaning against a wall with his arms crossed over his chest. Noctis is sitting in a chair beside him and leaning to one side, his finger pressing against his temple to keep his head upright, and finally Prompto who scurries back and forth in the room with his cell phone raised up toward the ceiling. The room we are in appears to actually be someone’s home here in Esthar; the wide open windows shining brightly with sunlight bathing the familiar blue surfaces of the pathways outside. “Where are we?” I ask as I attempt to sit up. Ignis slides his arm behind my shoulders and helps me upright, telling me to take it slowly in hushed whispers.

“Ugh, please tell me at least one of us knows the answer to that question,” Noctis groans out, eyeing me curiously with a tiny smile. Gladiolus now stands straight up, dropping his arms down to his sides and walks over to us.

“Hey there, how you feelin’?” The huge man asks in a quiet tone as he reaches his hand out toward me. I slip my hand over his, which could engulf half of my arm with how large his hands actually are, and slowly stand on my feet. Ignis stands with me, keeping an arm on my back to ensure I don’t fall backwards onto the bed. I glance between them all, surprise plastered on my face before finally nodding slowly to Gladiolus’ question.

“Oh man! There’s no signal anywhere here!” Prompto whines, dropping the arm holding his phone with a huff.

“That will not work here, Prompto.”

We all turn to face Gentiana who suddenly appears in the doorway. She holds her usual stance with her hands linked together in front of her and her eyes closed. Beside her are the two dogs I remember from before, sitting quietly and glancing around the room.

“What’s going on Gentiana? Where are we?” Noctis asks, standing from his seat to address the woman straight on. A smile spreads over the woman’s lips, but she doesn’t make a sound.

“You’re in Esthar,” I inform them before frowning, knowing that tells them nothing. “We’re, er, this is a different time and place than where you’re from, right?” I ask Gentiana, hoping she may clarify. The men gawk at me before turning back to the woman I questioned, waiting for her answer.

“A different time and place, yes, but one that is essential for all of your survival. This is the next chapter of your story.”

Before any of us can ask any more questions, the woman places her hands on both of the dogs’ heads and the three disappear before our eyes.

The next chapter of all of your stories.

“Wait, that’s it?! Gentiana!” Noctis yells up at the ceiling, waiting for her to reappear. The others frown and look around the room, knowing she won’t be returning anytime soon.

“Give it up Noct, you know how she talks in riddles,” Gladiolus mentions before looking back at me. Gently dropping his own hand startles me briefly, surprised that I still held it, and return mine to rest against my chest. The corner of his lips quirk up for a second before he places his hands on his hips and shifts his face to frown down at me.

“Where are we? How much do you know? And actually, how do you know? Like, know us,” he asks, swinging his thumb over his shoulder gesturing toward his group. I sigh, wishing the woman would have given us more to go on than just the mention of a new chapter for all of us. Looking out the window, I recognize the pathways and the lifts outside, giving me an idea of where we all are.

“Come on. We have to get back to the others. Hopefully everything has calmed down there now. There’s someone you’ll want to meet.” I step toward the door, Ignis releasing his cautionary hold on me when I move but Gladiolus’ hand grips my wrist, stopping me from getting too far.

“What? Calmed down where? Who are you talking about we’ll want to meet?” I drop my eyes to the floor, exhaustion weighing heavily on me.

“I’ll explain on the way. It’s not far, see?” I point out where the palace is through the window, telling them that is where we are going. They each peer through the glass and stare at the building that towers above all others. “That’s the palace, where the others are. The man you’ll want to meet is there now. His name is Squall.” Prompto’s eyes lock onto mine, which were staring at him already expecting him to recognize Squall’s name.

“Did you say Squall?” The blonde asks, leaning toward me and grasping my shoulders in his hands. I nod, unable to shield the smile spreading on my lips. Prompto glances behind him at the others and tells them that is who he was speaking of before they ended up here.

“Come on,” I urge, stepping out the doorway and onto an empty path. The air is fresh and crisp after the rain showers that had recently passed overhead, leaving Esthar cleaner in its wake, if that is even possible. Having a bit of a ways to go until we end up at the palace entrance, I tell the men behind me a bit about my abilities and how Squall and I were able to visit them, although I wasn’t sure why. Filling them all in would save time once we arrived, I decide. We were almost to the palace when I finally finished, the group speaking amongst themselves about how unusual my explanation was. They couldn’t disagree with me though, since they all are in a strange and unusual place. While keeping up with me, the four decide to call their various weapons to themselves, testing to see if they could still since they are in an unknown land. Each weapon materialized with ease as expected, calming their worries when they appeared. When we finally reach the entrance, I notice the mobs of people are no longer present.

“They’re gone,” I tell everyone behind me as I walk into the building. Beside the doorway, I see shards of glass scattered around on the ground near a gash in the pavement. Glancing up, I note the window that holds no reflection like the others. Something broke out a window, or someone. My mind floods with possibilities when I realize that broken window is the window from Laguna’s office, where the mysterious duo has taken residence and I wonder if they had something to do with the shattered glass. I’ll find out soon enough, I tell myself as I shake the thoughts from my mind. Giving a brief tour of the building we are walking into, I explain where halls lead and what the lift is when we all take our seats.

“Whoa!” Prompto yells when the lift hovers off of the ground. Biting back a giggle, I briefly explain what is happening as the lift raises higher and enters the tube leading toward the hall where the others are.

“When we stop, we will be in the Presidential Hall, where my father resides as the President of Esthar. His office and conference room are down the same hallway.”

“Your father is a king?” Noctis asks curiously, his eyes lighting up at the title. I smile at him, recalling how Noctis is a prince where he is from.

“Sort of, yes. We don’t have kings here, only presidents of individual countries. My father is the president of the country of Esthar.” He slowly nods, a smirk appearing on his lips before he hides it behind his fingers as he rests his chin against the palm of his hand. The lift stops and slowly lowers back to the ground to everyone’s amazement, other than mine obviously. We each step off before I lead them toward Laguna’s office at the opposite end of the hall. Mutterings can be heard when we approach the door to the room, and I raise a brow to one of the guards standing just outside. Without word, he turns sharply and presses the button behind him, raising the door for us to enter.

“Ellone!” Laguna’s voice rings out before everyone else’s, immediately followed by Squall’s.

“Sis!” he yells, standing abruptly from his seat on the couch. He bounds toward me briskly, wrapping his arms around me and raising me to the tip of my toes in a hug. “Thank Hyne,” he whispers into my hair, expelling a breath I feel he may have been holding since I left. I grip the crook of his arms in my fingers and try to prepare him for who he is about to meet.

“Squall,” I say, but the blonde behind me speaks his name at the same time as I do. Squall slowly releases me, now staring directly behind where I stand. I turn to see his eyes are locked onto Prompto’s, who must’ve recognized the color of Squall’s eyes when he hugged me.

“Prompto,” Squall whispers, the shock between them radiating off of their skin. Prompto’s eyes scour every inch of Squall’s face before dropping down lower while Squall does the same. I reach a hand out and grip the blonde’s hand within mine, smiling at the confused pair of eyes that shift over to focus on me.

“Come on, we have a lot to discuss,” I urge, pushing passed Squall to direct the others into the room for introductions.

Chapter Text

~Quistis~

Every movement among us stops, every breath now suddenly held when the four strangers stride into the room behind Ellone, the air of entitlement heavy with their every step. We all size each of them up unapologetically, reading each twitch of a finger or flick of an eye around the room as holding more meaning than they intend.

“Uh,” the biggest of them all begins, glancing around at his own friends before returning his gaze to the rest of us. His posture shifts subtly, hitching to one side to lean closer to the thin man with longer black hair standing in the middle of them. The blonde of the group came in when Ellone did and stands in front of Squall, the two staring at each other beside the entrance and ignoring everything else occurring. Another brunette, taller than the one with long hair but built the same, has his fingers pinching the edge of his glasses frames while he steps before the brutish looking one.

“Apologies for Gladiolus. Who might be in charge here? Ellone mentioned something about a President.” Our eyes trail over to Laguna, who slowly stands from his desk and closes his mouth to stop his gawking.

“Y-yes, I am the President. Uh, President of Esthar here, where you are. Laguna Loire.” The man introduces himself, making his way over to the newcomers. He stretches his hand out and shakes each of theirs, nodding when they state each of their names.

“Um, here we have Squall, which you may already know,” Laguna holds a hand out to Squall’s back, who keeps his eyes locked onto Prompto’s. The President hesitates for a moment before he proceeds with introductions around the room, Zell and Seifer lazily waving a few fingers overhead once Laguna calls out their names. Rinoa blushes madly when he introduces her, bringing her legs up onto the sofa and wrapping her arms around them. Selphie offers a little wave while Irvine tips the brim of his hat, nodding to them while Laguna continues on. Odine shows polite disinterest, despite initially being a bit more animated at their arrival. Kiros bows briefly, his long braided dreadlocks falling over his shoulder when he does.

“And finally we have Quistis Trepe,” he states with the same hand gesture he used to point out everyone else. Since I sit closest to where the group is standing, I slowly get to my feet and shake each of their hands.

“Quistis, what a beautiful name,” the one called Ignis compliments, sliding a silver leather driving glove off of his hand before taking mine. I bow my head slightly in thanks, keeping my eyes on him. Releasing my hand, we both reach up and press our glasses back in place, causing a light chuckle between us.

“There are two others in our group, but they, uh, retired for the evening. Right. Well please, have a seat where you like, I’m sure we have much to discuss. Do any of you need anything? Something to eat or drink, perhaps?” Laguna questions the men as he makes his way back to where he was just seated. Odine switches his seat, freeing up the couch beside mine when he settles himself down near the door on my left side. Two of the three brunettes thank the doctor for his move while strutting over to take their seats. Ignis thanks the doctor as well, but decides to take the seat to my right so he is close to the others while still leaving room for Prompto to sit down with them.

“Hey, Squall,” Seifer calls out to get the man’s attention. Squall turns around and blinks, apparently missing all of the introductions and movements. Seifer puts on his signature smirk, crossing his arms over his chest and leaning back in his chair. “You’re staring man, let him sit down already. Sharing is caring.” Squall scowls at the blonde’s teasing, his cheeks shifting to a light pink. He nods at the blonde named Prompto in front of him without looking into his eyes before shuffling back over to the chair in front of Laguna’s desk. Ellone glides to the other seat in front of the president’s desk, placing a hand on Laguna’s arm which he quickly grabs and squeezes. They smile at each other before settling themselves down.

“Do you have Cup Noodles here?” Gladiolus asks us, tucking the length of his jacket beneath himself before sitting. Noctis smiles at his friend’s question before putting his hand over his eyes and shaking his head.

“Um, what? No, um, unfortunately I don’t believe we do, but if you are familiar with all of the ingredients, my chefs can make it for you?” Laguna offers. Gladiolus smiles and shakes his head, thanking the man for the offer but mentioning something about how it wouldn’t be the same somehow.

“Do you perhaps have Ebony here?” Ignis asks, glancing beside himself toward me. I quirk an eyebrow, unsure of what that might actually be.

“Coffee, he means coffee. Ebony is a brand of coffee we have back home,” Noctis clarifies, chuckling when he looks at Ignis. The brunette looks at his hands, now folded politely in his lap and shakes his head.

“Yes, I should have clarified, apologies.” Laguna points to the man standing against the wall, alerting him to go retrieve some coffee for the newcomers.

“Yes, we do have coffee here, ha!” he laughs, before asking if the others would like some as well. They all nod and the man leaves, stating he will return with a few pots should anyone else like some.

“Man,” Noctis states before pointing to each of his friends, “No Ebony, no Cup Noodles and no cell service. I may just be the only one who survives it here.” His friends chuckle as the blonde suddenly pulls his phone out of his pocket and holds it up toward the ceiling.

“Aww man! Why’d you have to remind me? I was doing so good at Fal’Cie Sin! I just got a new dressphere for Yuna! It makes it so she can harness Chaos in her abilities when she wears it!” The rest of us stare at the blonde as he gets over excited about his phone in his hand. Noctis snickers again, reaching for Prompto’s arm and pulling it back down to their sides.

“Sorry Prompto, Gentiana said they don’t work here. No ‘Fall Season Fashion Show’ for you.” The blonde turns and playfully smacks the man’s hand off of his arm, smiling at his play on the words.

Fal’Cie Sin! Not fall season fashion show Noct, it’s a fighting game!” The rest of us chuckle at their antics. Prompto, suddenly remembering they aren’t alone, slides his phone back into his pocket and sits down, glancing toward Squall with blushing red cheeks.

“Well, at least your camera still works here Prompto, thanks to the power of the crystal. Although, I am still not quite sure how that is possible.” Ignis mentions beside me with a smile to ease his blonde friend’s embarrassment.

“Oh yeah, that’s true! Works just like all of our weapon calling. Way to go Noct Power!” Prompto perks right up at the mention of his camera, the device hanging in the middle of his chest from a thick canvas strap that wraps around his neck.

“You said Gentiana? Is she here with you?” Selphie asks, leaning forward on her cushion and focusing in on the name that was previously dropped. I notice Irvine’s eye on her, making sure her gaze didn’t linger too long on any of the newcomers. I sigh, if only those two would just make it official already.

“She was with us when we got here, and waited for Ellone to wake up again before they took off,” Prompto replies. Squall shifts his eyes to Ellone’s, worry appearing within them. She holds her hand out toward Squall and smiles sweetly.

“I’m fine, I just fainted when Gentiana used me to bring them here.” Squall and Laguna ease with her assurances, but still watch her a bit closer now.

“Well, you all seem to be handling this, um, transition rather well considering,” Laguna mentions, smiling at the group while folding his hands to rest on top of his desk.

“We’ve done this before. Or I should say Noct has. He told us about how he’s traveled back in time with Umbra before and sort of assumed we all did the same thing, just together this time,” Gladiolus points to Noctis beside him.

“We were a bit on edge when we arrived though, since it is our first time. Ellone explained much of it to us on our way here. This is a first for us all, being somewhere we have never visited before,” Ignis explains, glancing over toward me. I offer a small smile before pinching the rim of my glasses.

“I have to say it is most fascinating seeing you all here in one place after all this time,” Odine mentions, looking over at Laguna when he does. The President warily stares at the doctor, wondering what he means before nodding politely. Servants enter the room, pushing a cart full of ceramic mugs and steaming pots of coffee.

“Ah, here we are. I don’t know if it will stand up against the flavor of Ebony, but Estharian roast is the best in the world, in my opinion.” The President assures the men with a proud grin as they receive mugs before the man pours the coffee into them. They each request cream and sugar, Ignis omitting either option and bringing the mug up under his nose. He inhales the scent of the liquid deeply, steaming his glasses slightly as he does.

“It smells divine,” he states before blowing lightly on it a few times. I thank the man for my own cup, setting it on my knee to let it cool. Watching Ignis take his first sip, I see his long lashes flutter shut when the coffee slides down his throat with a delayed gulp. “This is quite good, thank you,” he says to Laguna when he opens his eyes again and stares into his cup.

“Damn fine cup of coffee,” Prompto agrees, holding the mug up to the President with a sunny grin in thanks. Laguna nods, taking his own sip once the servant makes his way to the desk.

“Are you sure you don’t want anything to eat?” he asks again, hoping to keep his guests as comfortable as possible. Squall pinches the bridge of his nose, finding the man’s constant need to feed everyone overbearing most of the time and willing him to stop with his thoughts. I press my fingers against my lips, keeping my giggle to myself at the show of disapproval. Ignis notices my shift of position out of the corner of his eye, glancing toward me. He holds his cup out toward mine and smiles. I lift the mug up off of my knee and lightly tap it against his, returning the smile before we both take a drink.

“Actually, if it is at all possible, I would like to spend some time in the kitchens at some point. I find cooking quite calming and a nice distraction to organize my thoughts.” The brunette beside me requests humbly. Noctis snorts and mimics Squall’s gesture, pinching the bridge of his nose before he starts to tease.

“Iggy hasn’t even tried the food here and he already wants to take over the menu.” But Laguna waves a hand at the two and nods.

“Of course, whatever you like. The palace is my home, and my home is your home as long as you are here. Please, feel free to make yourselves comfortable. Kiros,” he calls out to the man standing idly beside Ellone. Kiros looks over at the President, waiting for the words we are already anticipating Laguna to say. “Please ask the maids to ready an additional 4 rooms for them, the ones that are already settling in Cloud and Vincent. Alert the staff of their arrival and stay. I don’t want anyone harassing my guests thinking they are intruders wandering the halls.” Kiros nods and turns to the door, leaving the room to carry out his orders.

“You all must be tired after the distance you traveled. Knowing what sort of toll it takes out on Ellone, I would think you all might feel similar. Might I suggest we retire for an early evening and continue discussions in the morning?” The men glace between each of themselves, looking toward Noctis to make the decision. The brunette shrugs after a few moments, standing from his cushion and walking over toward Laguna. The President stands and faces the man who now stretches his hand out toward him.

“Thank you for your hospitality Mr. President.” Laguna nods and smiles at the others before glancing toward me.

“Quistis, would you mind showing these men to the Hall of Rooms?” I nod, standing from my own cushion and finishing my cup of coffee, placing the cup gently on the coffee table.

“Thank you,” Ignis says, smiling toward the President before turning to follow me. With the others in tow, I guide them back out into the hallway.

“This is Laguna’s office,”I gesture behind us before I turn to point out the door at the end of the hall, deciding to give them a bit of a tour since they’ll be staying. “That is the conference room and that door is Laguna’s quarters.”

“Yes, Ellone explained this level to us when we arrived, as well as the lift. Interesting mechanics there,” Ignis points out when we face the floating seat. I smile at him, walking the others toward it. We each sit down, sitting closer together than usual considering Gladiolus’ size. The large man is pressed against one of my sides, while Ignis presses against the other. He turns his eyes toward mine, our faces only a few inches apart.

“Apologies,” he mumbles, the smell of the coffee on his warm breath. I shake my head, pressing my glasses closer to my face when I look away from his eyes, feeling warmth creep up my face. The lift finally takes us back to the main entrance and we each step off, the men turning to face me. Ignis offers his hand to me as I step off, smiling sincerely. The warmth in my cheeks grows as I take his hand and step off, releasing it quickly.

“This is the main entrance to the palace,” I point off to our left toward the large opening, “down there are all of the utility rooms, kitchens, launders, training facilities as well as the servants’ quarters. And over here,” I start to walk toward the large opening to our right, the group following behind me, “is the hall of rooms where we all stay aside from the President, of course.” I notice a few maids scurrying in and out of rooms near the end of the hall when we turn the corner, figuring that was where they will be staying.

“Those must be ours,” Ignis mentions as he walks beside me. I nod, keeping my eyes forward while we make our way toward them. We stand out in the hall for a moment while the last maid finishes preparing the final room, smiling at us when she leaves with her cart. I turn and face them, holding my hand out beside me.

“If you need anything else, I am in this room here,” They turn toward the room across the hall from one of theirs where I have been staying.

“Uh, how do we get in? We didn’t get any keys or anything.” I frown at Prompto’s question.

“Keys?” Prompto smirks at me and starts twisting his fist in front of him.

“Yeah, y’know, keys. The things that go into locks to unlock and open doors and stuff?” Unsure what he meant by something that goes into the door, I press the main button on the panel beside the entrance to one of their rooms and the door slides open with a swoosh. “Whoa!” Prompto says, hopping away from where he stood near the now open doorway. I walk inside the room and point to the panel on the inside.

“The big button on the bottom opens the door, and the number keys are how we lock and unlock them. Here,” I say, pressing and holding the new code button on the top right. “Give me a number sequence you will remember,” Ignis blinks at me before looking down, a gloved finger pressed to his lips.

“5519.” he decides. I press the numbers before pressing the new code button again. A few chimes confirm the code being changed.

“Is that your birthday or birth year or something?” I ask, wondering what year they came from. He smiles and shakes his head, following me out of the room.

“No, the last four of my cell phone number.” I press the button to close the door behind us, smiling at his selection.

“Good choice,” I mention, pressing the door button again. The door now chimes deeply, alerting the person trying to enter that a key code is needed to open it. “The door is locked now, the only way to enter is to put in your key code.” I press the numbers again and the door slides open. Folding my hands in front of me, I smile to the others.

“Anything else I can do for you before you retire for the evening?” They shake their heads and thank me, each filtering through the other three doors while Ignis stands beside me. They mumble their goodnight to each other before shutting their doors, chiming heard across the three rooms while they set their own key codes.

“Thank you again Ms. Trepe, for the tour of the palace,” Ignis says, removing his glove and holding his hand out to me. I shake it lightly, smiling at him.

“Quistis, please, and of course. I mean it, if you have any more questions, I’m right here.” I tilt my head toward my door. He nods, releasing my hand and bids me good evening. I repeat the phrase, turning from his door to head back down the hall.

“Are you not retiring?” he asks behind me. I shift back to face him, folding my hands in front of me.

“I’m not sure the rest of us are done with our discussions yet.” I mention, bringing the back of my hand up to my lips to cover a yawn, the events of the day finally catching up to me. He nods at me and smiles again, which I return the gesture before heading back down the hall.

“Quistis,” he calls while stepping out into the hall to stand behind me. I turn and face him, eyeing him cautiously. “If I may ask, would you mind showing me to the kitchens before you return upstairs? I’m not quite as eager to retire for the evening as the others.” I nod, turning and heading back to the main entrance. Passing through the large room, Ignis steps up beside me, remaining there instead of trailing behind like before. We pass a few of the recreational rooms, which I point out to him before finally coming to the first of the kitchens. I enter the room with Ignis at my side, informing the people working inside who he is and that he will be staying at the palace.

“You may see him often in here so, don’t be alarmed. He is a welcomed guest of ours...or um, of the President’s.” I quickly correct, nodding toward them before turning back toward the brunette. The man looks all around the room, smiling at everything he sees before looking back at me, keeping his smile in place.

“I’ll leave you to it then,” I say, quickly heading toward the door. His eyes follow me when I take my leave, watching me stop near the entrance. “Help yourself to anything. I’m sure Laguna won’t mind. Good evening,” I mutter before exiting the kitchen and heading back toward the lift. My face flushes again, I notice, placing my hands on my cheeks and shaking my head. An honest slip of the tongue, I reassure myself as I make my way back to the others. Nothing more, I think while my flush subsides. Placing a hand over my heart, I feel it beating a bit faster now. Nothing more, I think again.

~Seifer~

Quistis reenters the room and takes her seat again, asking us if she missed anything and telling us she gave a quick tour to our visitors before most of them retired into their new rooms. “Ignis is in the kitchens now, I showed him where they are,” she concludes, brushing her bangs away from her face. I narrow my eyes at her, noticing a bit of pink appearing on her cheeks. Interesting, I think before turning back to Squall. Frowning slightly, the brunette only sinks further into his chair, staring down at his hands while he gets lost in thought.

Laguna appears lost in thought as well, glaring down at the top of his desk while Selphie and Irvine stand from their seats and excuse themselves. Squall nods at them, urging the rest of us to go ahead and depart if we are tired.

“Nothing else to discuss really, until we all can be together.” Rinoa skips toward the door, smiling at Selphie when she passes her to leave. Selphie snorts, knowing the reason behind the girl’s giddiness before taking off after her. Irvine sighs, waving limply behind him before he leaves.

“Well, if there’s nothing else to do,” I say, standing from my seat and glancing over toward Zell. The blonde frowns slightly before shifting in his seat away from me, remaining seated on his couch and leaning toward Squall. I release my own sigh, knowing he still is guarding himself against me but not knowing if the show is for himself or for the others. Regardless of his reasons, I respect them, nodding toward the others before stepping away from the couch. Quistis suddenly stands as well, pressing her glasses closer to her face before meeting me at the doorway.

“Seifer,” she says, stepping in front of me while we exit. I watch her turn to face me, wanting to say something further.

“Trepe,” I state, quirking an eyebrow at her to urge her to continue. She huffs, shifting away from me as we both make our way down the hall.

“Quistis is fine, Seifer, how many times must I tell you?” she asks, her usual irritation present in her voice. I put on my best smirk for her, laying out the Almasy charm.

“Oh, once or twice more I suppose,” I mention, taking a seat on the newly returned lift. She shakes her head at me and smiles, giving up on the same argument we always have and sitting down beside me.

“Tell me Seifer, what do you think of them?” she asks, leaning closer to me as she does. I stare at her, wondering what she means before I give my analysis. She smiles a bit before patting her hand on my knee, “You always were a good judge of character before… everything happened.”

“No idea yet. They seem arrogant and entitled, but trustworthy for the most part. I already see interests peaking between them and a few of us,” I mention while watching her reaction closely out of the corner of my eye. As predicted, her shoulders tense at my last words before she pinches her glasses. Thought so, I think to myself, noticing a closeness between her and the other one with glasses. I brush it off before she feels obligated to explain anything away. “Too early to tell though really.” She nods beside me, stepping off the lift when it stops. She turns to face me, exhaustion seeming to spread through her features as she grins.

“I thought as much, but wanted to ask anyway,” she breathes out through a yawn. Walking with her toward the rooms silently, I notice her checking behind us a few times to look down the opposite hallway.

“Looking for Ignis?” I ask, unable to help myself. She stares at me briefly before facing forward, keeping her eyes locked on the wall we are approaching.

“No, just, curious if he remembers how to get back to the rooms,” she states, turning the corner with me slightly behind her now. The hallway is mostly empty, other than the cart that is now parked near the end of the long corridor. Quistis frowns at the object before turning to bid me goodnight since we reach my room before hers.

“Goodnight,” I say, pausing before entering my room in order to see what is going on down there. Quistis quickly reaches the cart as Ignis leaves one of the rooms. He smiles fondly at her, the two speaking briefly before he points to one of the covered dishes in front of them. She thanks him, taking the dish into her hands before the man nods and pushes the cart toward me. Quistis turns and watches him go, a sweet smile across her lips before her eyes find mine. Flushing, she quickly turns and punches a few numbers in to unlock her door, stepping inside and shutting it hastily behind her. Ignis makes his way toward me, smiling as he approaches.

“I was unaware how many of you remained awake. Had I known, I would have brought more of the food I prepared with me. Would you like me to retrieve some for you? I won’t be but a moment.” I hold a hand out to stop him from taking off.

“No, thanks, I’m pretty beat, but thank you for the offer.” The man nods, bidding me goodnight before pushing the cart around the corner. I watch him leave before glancing back toward Quistis’ door, grinning. About time she finds somebody, I think internally before entering my room and pressing the button to close the door behind me. Before I can reach the bed, a light knocking sound comes from my door. My mind immediately goes to Zell before I shake the thoughts from my head, returning to the door and opening it. Squall stands in front of me, weary exhaustion painted over every feature.

“Hey,” I greet the man, turning so he can follow me into the room. Squall shuts the door behind him and falls against the cushions of my couch with a groan, laying his arm over his eyes almost immediately. “You crashing here?” I ask, tossing the extra blanket that is folded up and kept on the chair in the corner of the room. It lands on his stomach, surprising him as he raises his arm to see what it is before lowering it again.

“I don’t know,” he mumbles, taking the blanket off of his stomach and shoving it behind his head. Sighing heavily, I sit on my bed and remove my boots, throwing them somewhere near the doorway. Scooting back against the headboard, I raise an arm behind my head and stare at the brunette, waiting for him to say what is bothering him. “He’s here Seif,” he says finally without moving his arm to look at me. I scrunch up my forehead, knowing what he’s going through better than he does since I know what it feels like to be so close to someone you like without being able to show it.

“I know,” I state in a hushed tone, tugging the blankets from the other side of the bed on top of me. Moments later, while I wait for him to say anything else, I catch the light snores coming from the couch. Squall has fallen asleep, fatigue finally catching up with him when he laid his body down. Smiling at the man, I quietly approach him and tug his shoes off. Grabbing another blanket from the small closet near the door, I shake it out a few times to unfold it before draping it gently over him.

“Sleepover,” I tease the sleeping man as an attempt to mimic Selphie. I smirk before returning to the bed and lying down as quietly as I can so I don’t wake him. He deserves somebody too, I think before flicking the lights off and shutting my eyes.

Chapter Text

~Squall~

A week has passed without any progress being made. Conversations among all of us have come up short on what our next move is supposed to be, so we have all fallen into somewhat of a routine. I have stuck close to Laguna, discussing potential plans but never anything that might prove worth the efforts, while everyone else has been meshing together with the newcomers. Even Vincent seems to have grown a bit more comfortable with the rest of us while Cloud has calmed down significantly but still keeps to himself for the most part. I try and keep myself busy, running ideas by Laguna and sometimes the others if they are around, keeping in touch with Garden and making sure Xu and Nida contact us if anything happens. Otherwise I try to train as much as I can, keeping in shape should I need to be in the future.

Occasionally I come across some of the others throughout the facilities, Zell and Seifer training almost daily now although not together any longer it seems. Selphie and Irvine have been practicing more as well instead of lazing around in random rooms together and wasting the days away. Lately I’ve even seen Rinoa and Gladiolus sparring together. One of the times I noticed them before I hit the showers I watched the man bring his blade around in front of him and attempt to hand it to Rinoa. She squealed out a few giggles and shook her head before he insisted she try and take it. When her hands both wrapped around the bottom of the hilt, he released it and nearly lost both of them to gravity. He quickly gripped the blade again and brought the two back up while Rinoa playfully smacked his arm and giggled out how she told him that would happen. I smiled at the scene before leaving them be.

Sometimes, although rarely, a particular blonde might cross my path when I’m heading toward Laguna’s office or he’s entering the training facilities as I leave. Prompto stares at me as I pass, but I keep the encounters brief, nodding politely but continuing on my way. It seems to work out for the most part, me successfully keeping the man at arm’s length, until Seifer finally corners me outside of my room.

“What are you doing?” he questions bluntly, startling me since I didn’t hear him approach. I frown at him before finishing my key code, the door swishing open in front of us. I walk in and sigh, waiting for him to follow me as I hang my damp towel from the shower in the training facilities up in the bathroom to dry. He blocks the doorway, crossing his arms in front of himself to cement his position. I lean on one leg and place my hand on my hip, turning away from his prodding eyes with a frown.

“Move,” I tell him, but he ignores me as usual. Scoffing at him, I move my hand to press it against his shoulder and shove him backwards, earning a sliver of an opening for me to squeeze past him.

“What are you doing?” he repeats his question, throwing his arms out on either side. I stomp toward the dresser, sliding a drawer open which holds Lionheart's case and place the gunblade inside. Shutting the drawer again, I see Seifer approach me and I brace against whatever he may do. He stops beside me, watching and waiting while I stand upright.

“Nothing,” I finally say when I try and turn away from him. His arms reach out and grab my shoulders, keeping me from leaving. A frown on his face now stares at me directly, even when I turn my head to the side to avoid it.

“Exactly. Why? Why are you doing nothing?” he presses, jerking my shoulders briefly so I would look at him again. When I do, I see the look in his eyes, confused concern apparent within them.

“I don’t know,” I mumble, shrugging his hands off of my shoulders before stepping backwards toward the chair in the corner. I flop down onto it and anchor my elbows against my knees, reaching my hands up to rest my face in them with a sigh. Seifer stomps toward me, his hands stretched out in a helpless gesture.

“Do you know how badly I wish I were you right now? I mean, he’s not even trying to avoid you! He just waits around for you to pass by and stares at you while you do. Come on, man!” Seifer exclaims, frustration of his little progress with Zell apparent in his words.

“I know,” I mutter, leaning back in my chair to look at the blonde. His eyes urge me to do something about it, but I remain seated before him. “I-I don’t know what to do. What happens if they go back? When they go back, what then? I don’t want to get attached to someone that inevitably is going to leave.” Seifer shakes his head and throws his arms up in exasperation, staring at me sternly.

“Don’t worry about that shit now man, you should be enjoying the time you do have with him. They’ve been here what, a week? That’s seven days you could have spent getting to know him and spending time with him, but instead you wasted it on playing duck duck hide!” I frown at his choice of phrasing but let it go, understanding his point regardless. Before I know it, Seifer is tugging me back to my feet and pulling me toward the door.

“Come on,” he instructs me, slipping Lionheart out of the drawer and jabbing the handle into my hand before kicking it closed again. He jerks my body to a stop near the front door, quickly stepping sideways to grab my damp towel and toss it at me. It smacks against my face, forcing a huff of surprise from me.

“W-what?” I mumble through the fabric, snatching it off of my face and resting it on my shoulder. Seifer shoves me out of the door that barely opens in time and steps behind me, shutting the door before pushing me further down the hall.

“He waits in the training facilities for you to pass him when you leave, then goes in and trains alone. You’re going to go and train with him,” Seifer huffs at me when I grind my heels against the ground to stop.

“The hell I am! We can’t train together, he uses a handgun! What am I going to train with him on, how I can dodge bullets and he can what, shoot better?” Seifer shoves harshly against my back, hurling me forward to almost collide with the opposite wall.

“I don’t care how you do it, just do it. You deserve somebody, Squall. No matter how long you have him, you deserve him. Now go.” I glance over my shoulder at him when he speaks, noticing the sincerity to his words. The blonde avoids my eyes and simply jabs a finger toward the training facility, standing firm so I won’t try and get past him to go back to my room. Sighing at him, I turn and make my way out of the hall, silently thanking him for his efforts as the nerves grow in my stomach.

Before long, I find myself standing at the entrance to the training facility. Shifting my feet back and forth in the dirt, I sigh, tossing my towel onto the nearest surface before I stalk inside the first barrier that contains the creatures inside. Making my way through the vegetation, I keep an eye out for the blonde as well as others, but don’t come across anyone else. Finally, near the back end of the room, my eyes widen when I see the blonde fighting against a t-rexaur. His boots slide against the dusty and mossy ground when he slips out of reach of the powerful jaws that attempt to bite him in two. Twisting backwards, he fires off a couple rounds that land along its back thigh, causing a beastly roar to escape its throat. Prompto bounces lightly between his two feet, trying to anticipate which way he needs to roll to dodge the next attack.

“Might I join you?” I yell out behind him, gripping Lionheart in my hand as I slowly approach. The blonde glances over his shoulder, his eyes widening when he sees who it is that wants to join him. The t-rexaur makes its move while the blonde is distracted, leaning forwards and opening its mouth again as he approaches the blonde.

“Look out!” I yell, running forward with my gunblade at my side and ready to strike. Prompto keeps an eye on me as he quickly drops and rolls toward me, dodging the snapping teeth successfully. I snap my hand out while he continues to roll toward me, which he reaches out and grabs with a fingerless gloved hand. Jerking my arm back springs the blonde back to his feet, spinning before me in midair with his arm stretching out and his finger on the trigger. Firing off a few more shots finally drops the beast down to the ground, blood pouring out of the bullet holes directly centered on its forehead.

“Whoohoo! Nice!” Prompto chants, thrusting his gun up into the air before turning to smile at me. I return a shy smile, nodding at the fallen beast.

“Nice shot,” I praise, approaching to see how centered it really was. Prompto shrugs beside me while thumbing the safety on the back of his gun.

“Eh, y’know, took longer than I would have liked but hey, got the job done. What is that thing anyway?” His question surprises me before I remember where he is from.

“T-rexaur. One of the more challenging fiends we have in here, but rare. This one came from my Garden to better train the Estharian soldiers against other types of beasts from around the world, by Laguna’s orders.” I stand from my squat in front of the beast and face the blonde, who eyes me curiously.

“Garden? You have things like that in your garden?” I smile at the image he must have of flower beds filled with massive fiends like this and shake my head.

“Garden is a military training facility. I am the headmaster of the Balamb Garden, or the Balamb military school where we train SeeD, which are operatives that train in Gardens for the purpose of exterminating sorceresses, along with other things.” The blonde nods slowly at my explanation, placing his hands on his hips and glancing back at the t-rexaur.

“So, you’re not from Esthar then? You’re from Balamb?” I nod, twitching Lionheart in my hand a few times as we start talking more.

“I am. Balamb Garden is west from here, across the ocean, or it was before we became mobile. Now, I’m not sure where she’s parked. We haven’t been back in about a month since…” I trail off, unsure of how to phrase what I want to say. Prompto quirks a brow at me, waiting for me to continue. “...Since we came here to speak with Ellone about my dreams of you,” I mutter the last part before clearing my throat, shifting my gunblade in my hand. I tilt my head toward his handgun. “You always use handguns?” I ask, hoping to change the subject quickly and discreetly. The blonde’s eyes drop down to his hand before he twirls it in front of him. Gripping the barrel, he hands the weapon to me and shrugs.

“Yeah, mostly. I’ve never been great with swords or daggers, Forget greatswords like Gladio’s, I’d call it and when it appeared we’d both fall flat on the ground.” He grins at the memory, rubbing his empty hand on the back of his head and shifting his blonde hair all over. I examine the gun, finding it to be fairly basic, nothing too exciting compared to what we have here.

“What about a gunblade?” I ask, offering mine to him. Prompto frowns at it before taking it in his hand, the blade drooping slightly until he adjusts to the weight of it. I fix his fingers so he holds it correctly before he takes a few practice swings.

“When you strike against anything with the blade, you can pull the trigger to fire a shot directly into it, causing more damage.” The blonde grins at the thought of more damage before we trade weapons back.

“Pretty cool, but way heavier than I’m used to,” he mumbles while he rubs his shoulder briefly before shaking his arm out to his side to prove his point. I shrug, slicing the blade through the air a few times before resting the blunt side against my shoulder.

“Just takes practice. I could train you on how to use it, if you’d like?” The blonde stares at me for a second before dropping his eyes to the ground. His cheeks start to hold a pink hue when he finally replies.

“Y-yeah, that’d be cool, if you don’t mind or... anything.” A grin spreads across my face when I see his cheeks lightly blush.

“One condition,” I state, holding a finger up in the air. Prompto looks back at me, staring at the finger before tilting his head back in question. “Let me see your gun disappear.” The blonde grins, holding the handgun out in between us. Bluish purple light form like an outline around the gun before it becomes translucent, rapidly all disappearing from our view. I stare at his hand as he calls it back to him again only to make it disappear once more.

“Pretty cool huh?” he says, flipping his hand back and forth like he just performed a magic trick. I smirk, pointing toward the pathway that leads back to the front of the facility.

“Might want to keep it handy since you’re still training.” Prompto wills it back into his hand and holds it at his side, nodding while sighing.

“Yeah, I think I’m done for the day. Getting sort of hungry,” he mentions, glancing toward me. We turn and head back the way we came, keeping an eye out for anything that may approach. We walk in silence until we reach the barrier, stepping through it together. I reach out and grab my towel, draping it over my shoulder again while Prompto releases his hold on the gun, making it disappear once more. “You going to shower?” he asks, looking at my towel. I shake my head, noting how little I did when I entered to find him this time.

“I took one earlier.” The blonde’s face heats up as he stares down at his boots.

“I know,” he whispers and I barely catch it. Before I can question him though, he jogs back to my side and stares at me. “You hungry at all? Maybe we can find Iggy in the kitchen? He’ll make something for us.” My head starts to shake but I stop when I look into his eyes. Seifer’s words bounce around in my mind, how I should enjoy the time I have with him while I have him here.

“Actually that sounds good, but Ignis doesn’t need to cook for us. I’m sure we can figure something out.” Prompto shakes his head and frowns, falling in sync with my steps as we leave the room and turn toward the kitchen.

“He likes it, I promise. It’s not like we force him to do it or anything. He really does find some kind of peace when he cooks, I don’t know. He’s always cooked for us, especially Noct.” He turns his head to face me, bright eyes shining into mine. “Have you had any of his cooking yet? It’s amazing!” Watching him get excited about Ignis’ cooking makes me smile when I shake my head in response. “Oh man, you have no idea what you’re missing! Come on, I bet he’s in there working on, like, his eighteenth dish of the day.” He grips my hand, our fingers sliding together and linking, but before either of us can get nervous about the contact he pulls me toward the kitchen, a grin firmly plastered on his face when he turns to glance at me. His eyes light up at our connection and he chuckles shyly but keeps our hands held tightly, making my face match his while I race behind him. Most of the way to the kitchen I spend scolding myself internally for denying myself this for a week.

~Seifer~

My frustrations are mounting, but I bite back the urge to lunge toward the blonde. Something is going on with him that I can’t quite put my finger on, something he won’t discuss with any one of us. Keeping myself off-center in front of him, I stand facing the left, stretching my arm out in front of me with the tip of Hyperion’s blade pointing between his eyes. Waiting for him to make a move is infuriating me further as he continues to keep his massive buster sword wedged into the ground in front of him, standing limply with his arms draped over the hilt. Bouncing back and forth on my feet, my patience finally wears out and I run toward him, twisting my gunblade down near my left knee in preparation for a slice up his smug face. At the last second, Cloud side steps away from my swiping blade, gripping his large sword in one hand and turning midair, slashing his metal through the space in front of him toward my exposed back. I twist as well, expecting his movements and jerk Hyperion up in front of my face, blocking the attack a second before it connects. Falling to the ground on my back, my foot swipes toward his stance, but the blonde quickly jumps away from the attempt to bring him down, landing where I once stood before I decided to attack.

“Damn,” I mumble, grinning at the blonde who smirks at my failed efforts. Jabbing the blade in front of him again, he returns to his waiting stance with his arms draped over the hilt of the greatsword. I groan, dropping Hyperion down to my side and shaking my head, admitting his victory. A victory by default, given I am still trying to get back in my old fighting shape before I basically retired all those years ago. Lengthy battles were never necessary while I stayed here in Esthar, and without anyone around with the time to train with me, I hate to admit I lost a lot of my stamina. Cloud gives me a quick nod, gripping the handle of his sword and swinging it over his shoulder until it snaps into place on his back.

“You need patience,” the blonde suggests, tossing the towel I left where I initially stood over toward me. I grab it before it smacks against my face, smirking back at the blonde.

“You need moves. Like, to actually move,” I shoot back, watching his tight-lipped smirk turn to an actual smile.

“I don’t want to kill you,” he breathes out while walking by me toward the barrier exit of the training facility. I huff behind him, rubbing the towel all over my face and head of sweaty hair. Is that cockiness I detect? Or a legitimate claim? I watch the blonde’s movements beside me out of the corner of my eye, attempting to read them while I try and decide which it is.

“Done already?” A voice in front of us catches our attention, or mine at least since Cloud was already staring at the newcomer before he spoke. Vincent strides toward us, the long barrel of his shotgun resting on his shoulder. I nod toward the man, but my focus is on the blonde beside me. Cloud tenses as Vincent approaches us and turns his gaze away, appearing less than interested in his arrival or intrusion. The brunette stops in front of us, staring at Cloud before glancing over to me and smiling.

“I was hoping to do a bit of training myself today. Cloud? Might I borrow you for a sparring partner?” I think I hear a sigh come from Cloud’s direction before he turns back toward the man with his typical stoic face and nods. I shrug and step aside for the two to return where we just came.

“Sure, I need to hit the showers anyway,” I tilt my chin toward Cloud with a smirk, “he doesn’t since sweating comes from actual fighting.” Cloud’s eyes shift to mine, a smile playing at the corner of his lips before returning to a blank expression.

“Thank you for the practice, Seifer,” the blonde mumbles before turning back, Vincent clapping a hand on his shoulder and walking with him further into the training facilities. I frown as I turn away, noticing this pattern from the past week. Cloud started seeking me out for training which I agreed to do, given my little interaction with Zell recently. As the days went on, he would find me more often and ask for more frequent training sessions, but during or after almost every single one of them, Vincent would appear and intervene. Stepping up to the entrance to the showers, I hang my towel up on the hook before glancing over my shoulder. Vincent and Cloud face each other now, right by the entrance of another section. The brunette mumbles something to the blonde who is facing away from him, staring into the next barrier. After a few moments, Cloud quickly turns toward Vincent and jabs a finger into his chest. Teeth exposed, I see his lips barely moving as he speaks before he turns away and stomps through the barrier. Vincent drops his head and shakes it, glancing off to the side where I am standing. I shift the towel I still hold onto, acting like that was all I was doing before stepping inside. What is going on between those two? Does it have something to do with me?

Stepping up to one of the stalls, I draw the curtain behind me before peeling my training clothes off, piling them down at my feet and kicking them out into the room when they are removed. Something is definitely off with Cloud, I’ve noticed in our training sessions together, but he never speaks to me about anything, hardly even speaking at all. My mind scours over details while I quickly wash the session off down the shower drain. Maybe Vincent has an issue with him getting close to anyone other than him? Or doesn’t want Cloud to form any attachments, since he is technically a summons? I twist the knobs on the wall, the warm water ceasing while I stare down at the remainder of it circling the drain. Who knows, I think as I reach for my towel and begin drying myself off.

“Seifer.” The voice startles me, almost making me lose my grip on the towel wrapped around my waist. My eyes snap to the doorway where Vincent stands, his back turned toward me.

“Whoa!” I snap, hastily stepping toward my clothes and almost slipping on the floors. The man keeps his back to me, crossing his arms in front of him as he waits for me to dress. “Uh, what’s up?” I ask, finding the silence a bit uncomfortable when I tug my jeans over my boxers. Vincent turns and looks me in the eye, not bothering to wait for me to put on my shirt.

“I apologize for the intrusion, I just wanted to ask you something,” he starts, keeping his eyes locked onto mine while I adjust the hem of my shirt and toss the damp towel over my shoulder. We both stare at each other for a moment before I finally quirk an eyebrow at him.

“What?” I ask awkwardly. After gathering up my soiled workout clothes, I stare at the man who is standing in the doorway so I can’t leave, but he only stares at me instead of speaking… what else am I supposed to do? Vincent realizes he is blocking my exit and quickly steps aside so I can leave but following closely behind.

“Has Cloud said anything to you? I’ve noticed you two spending more time together recently and I was just curious if he has spoken to you about anything?” I shake my head, keeping my eyes in front of me while we step out of the showers. I glance around to look for the blonde he is talking about, but Cloud seems to have left shortly after I started showering.

“No, not really. He just asks if I feel up to training and that’s pretty much it. Why do you ask?” My gaze travels up the man’s arm that grips his shotgun, observing the lack of any detail to the gun overall. The brunette stops and turns to face me, his eyes still eerily locked onto mine.

“He has not really spoken to me as of late and I was just curious about how he is doing. That is all.” He tries to shrug his curiosities off but keeps his eyes on me, like he’s looking for me to lie or something. I shake my head slowly, lifting my shoulders into a shrug.

“I mean, we taunt each other while we fight, but nothing comes to mind to say something is wrong with him or anything,” I trail off, unsure of what else there is to say on the matter. Vincent’s gaze keeps piercing mine for a few moments after I spoke before he smiles, turning back toward the exit.

“Good, as long as everything seems to be alright, then it must be so.” The man bids me good day before hurrying down the hall, his tattered cloak and lengthy hair swishing back and forth behind him. Turning to the barrier Cloud went through, I frown before looking back where Vincent is exiting the training facility. What the hell was that about?

Chapter Text

~Irvine~

“No fair!” Selphie squeals, hopping up and down in her chair while she jerks and thrusts her fists up and down in a tantrum. I smile sweetly at the girl, gently pinching the corner of the card between two fingers and bringing it closer to my eyes.

“A very good lookin’ card, I must say.” I lower the card from in front of me, exposing a huffing brunette behind it. She crosses her arms in front of her chest and slouches in her chair, a full pout forming over her features.

“Do you know how long it took me to get your card?! Stupid hippy Flo would never play it against me! I had to throw, like, a million games before she finally thought I was losing enough to play it!” I place the same grin I have in my picture on the card on my face before her, waving the card lightly as if to fan myself.

“Sorry darlin’, rules are rules.” I slide the card into the middle of the stack I hold in my other hand, feigning disinterest in its rarity. Selphie’s eyes widen when she sees this, her knuckles turning white when she grips the arms of her chair harshly and leans forward halfway across the table.

“What?! Don’t do that! It’s rare! It belongs with your other rares! What if you play with random?! You’ll lose it so quickly!”

“Lose what?” Ignis’s questioning voice is heard when he and Quistis walk into the conference room together. Quistis presses her fingertips against her lips, her shoulders bobbing up and down as she holds a giggle back.

“You got the Irvine card from her didn’t you?” she asks through her giggles. I nod, beaming a victorious grin while Selphie throws her arms up into the air, nearly striking Ignis who has stopped to stand behind her chair.

“He cheated! He knows I’m horrible at math and insisted on playing with Same!” I wiggle my finger back and forth at her, shaking my head as I do.

“Ah ah, rules are specified before cards are chosen. You knew what you were gambling with,” I mention, glancing up at the other two. Ignis frowns, leaning over Selphie’s shoulder and sliding one of her cards off of the table to bring it closer to his eyes.

“What is a Diablos?” he questions, holding the card out for Quistis to see. Quistis takes the card from the man and points at it to start explaining the face of the card, but Selphie snatches it back from her.

“It,” she air quotes, “is a super awesome, badass, amazing guardian force that is equally super awesome, badass and amazing as a card, that’s what!”

“You guys haven’t played Triple Triad yet?” I ask, narrowing my eyes at the man as he continues to lean over Selphie’s shoulder. Ignis rises, glancing over at Quistis before shaking his head at me.

“No, I cannot say that we have.” Selphie immediately quirks up, jumping out of her chair and shuffling behind it. Ignis flinches when the perky brunette grips his shoulders before shoving him down into her recently vacated seat across from me.

“Oh man, nobody’s shown you yet? Great! I’ll teach you,” she announces, already plucking cards out of her stack and placing them between the two. I sigh, my narrow eyes still locked onto the encroaching man, tapping a finger on the table between us to stop her.

“Why not let him watch the two of us play? You may be able to win your card back,” I offer, scanning through my cards until I see my familiar face. She turns and beams a threatening grin, sitting abruptly in an empty seat and shoving Ignis’s chair sideways to take his spot. The man rolls toward Quistis, who stretches her hand out and stops him from colliding with her legs.

“Oh! You’re on!” Selphie squeaks, completely unaware of the abandoned man and his ruffled exterior after being handled in such a way. Quistis stoops down beside Ignis, pressing her glasses closer to her face.

“I’ll explain how the game works while they play. You and the others might enjoy it. Especially Prompto, poor thing still pouts about not being able to play that phone game of his.” Ignis smiles at the woman before looking back at the table. We play a few more rounds, Quistis explaining what rules there are other than the ones we are playing with, which we demonstrate so he better understands them. Ignis asks if he can see one of Selphie’s cards while we are in the middle of a game, keeping the girl from making her play.

“Ifrit? This looks nothing like how Noct described him,” he mentions, pinching the rim of his glasses and narrowing his eyes to scan over the image printed on the card. Selphie turns and faces him, leaning over his arm to look at the picture on the card.

“No? That’s how he looks,” she says before glancing back at the man’s face. He hums, handing the card back to the brunette.

“Noctis described him as having more humanistic qualities to his appearance, like a towering giant with a crown of horns stretching back the length of his body. I cannot be for certain though, since I have never seen him with my own eyes.” Selphie takes the card out of Ignis’s hand and sets it in her lap, staring at it briefly.

“Well, he does have two horns that reach almost to the middle of his back, but I wouldn’t call him human-like at all.” My gaze narrows again at the two staring at each other before I quickly adjust in my seat and clear my throat.

“Would you like to see them?” I offer, watching the three turn their heads toward me. Selphie frowns, turning back to Quistis with a curious look in her eyes.

“Can we do that?” The spunky brunette questions innocently. Quistis glances between the two of us before shrugging, standing up and holding her hands out.

“I don’t see why not, but we’ll have to ask Squall before we take them. I doubt he or Laguna will want us using them anywhere in Esthar so, we’ll probably have to figure out a spot to do it at. Would you be interested in seeing them?” she repeats the question to Ignis when she looks down at him again. Ignis stands from his seat, stepping sideways before his hand presses against the back of it to tuck it neatly under the table.

“I would like to, yes, if it is not too much of a bother. I want to see what Noctis says about Ifrit, if he is the same as he remembers.” Quistis nods, turning back toward the door.

“Well, let’s go ask if it is alright before we tell the others. I don’t want to get their hopes up just for Squall to say no.” Ignis politely thanks us for teaching him how to play the game before they walk out the door, leaving Selphie and me alone again. I hear him questioning Quistis as they leave about how they will be able to see them though, making me frown. What kind of question is that?

“Finally,” I mumble under my breath, but my hopes are dashed when Selphie stands from her chair and slides her hand across the table, gathering up her cards together in a messy pile.

“Come on Irvy, let’s go!” She squeaks excitedly. I watch her gather my cards with hers and shove them into her pocket before she wraps her hands around my arm and pulls me from my chair.

“You took my cards darlin’,” I mention while the girl pulls me quickly across the room to catch up with the others.

“What? No, I don’t know what you’re talking about. Come on! Move it!” she orders me with another tug. I see the smirk on her face, realizing she snatched up my Irvine card in the process. I’ll tease her about it later, I decide as we leave the conference room.

~Squall~

“I have no idea,” I mumble before taking a sip of my coffee, watching the blonde sitting beside me out of the corner of my eye. Laguna sighs, shuffling through stacks of papers on his desk between us while Kiros reorganizes them after the man casts them aside.

“There must be something out of all of these suggestions that appeals to you, Squall,” Laguna implores me to go through the ideas again, wanting my help with his trivial matter. The President has an obligation to organize his new idea for an Estharian ball. The goal in mind is to open up Esthar to the rest of the world, inviting the leaders of the other countries to attend and offer them a night of dancing and entertainment, which is where Laguna has lost interest in deciding on anything. Dancing is easy enough, just hire a band or small orchestra and play music in the grand hall, but entertainment? The last thing Laguna knows anything about is entertainment, which still gives him an advantage over me; I know nothing about either choice for the intended grand evening. “Nothing? Really?” He presses me, sliding more files in front of me to choose from. I pinch the bridge of my nose before taking another sip of my coffee. Yes, Esthar and Balamb Garden are close, closer than most after everything that happened with the sorceress wars and, of course, my biological link to the president of the country. But that doesn’t change the fact that I hold no obligation to help the man figure out how to throw a damn party.

“I know nothing about entertainment, Laguna, or dancing for that matter. You know that,” I mumble, my cheeks reddening when Prompto faces me while I speak. The blonde doesn’t need to bear witness to our meetings, but lately he has been insisting on coming with me. I internally hope he does it to spend more time together but I’m not certain, nor do I even think about possibly asking. Waving a hand over the folders, I set my coffee cup against my knee. I’m growing more and more frustrated with the man; asking me daily for over a week now what I want to do with this damned ball.

“Ask Selphie. She’s the head of the Garden Festival Committee, she should be able to help you figure something out.” As if on cue, the door to the office slides open and Selphie enters the room along with Quistis, Irvine and Ignis.

“Hiya!” she chirps, bouncing toward the desk and turning to face Quistis. The woman glides in between mine and Prompto’s chairs, placing a hand on the back of both.

“What are we discussing today?” Quistis asks, smiling at each of us. Laguna sighs and flops back against his chair, his hands full of disheveled sheets of paper.

“Still trying to figure out something to do for the ball,” I mumble, raising my mug back to my lips and taking another sip.

“Selphie. Help,” Laguna whines while Kiros fusses over the crumpling sheets between the President’s fingers. The brunette perks up beside Prompto before walking around the desk to stand next to Laguna.

“What’s up?” She asks, peering at the pages Kiros hasn’t organized yet that are still strewn across the desk top.

“The President needs to decide on what he wishes to do for entertainment the night of the ball. It’s proving,” Kiros snatches the last pages out of Laguna’s hands with a huff before straightening them to at least all face the same direction again, “difficult.” Selphie jerks her head toward Quistis before she hops up and down, clapping her hands in front of her rapidly.

“Ooh, great! We actually came to ask Squall about something that I think would solve your problem!” Quistis glances down toward me, a small smile spreading on her lips.

“We were wondering if we could use the guardian forces, to show Ignis and the others what they look like here, since they have them where they are from as well.” Quistis explains calmly.

“We can do a demonstration! Show the world the power the SeeD’s hold!” Selphie thrusts her fist up in the air and bending a knee so her foot sticks straight out behind her. Laguna frowns for a second, glancing down at the pages on his desk in thought. I lean forward to peer over at Prompto.

“You guys have guardian forces?” Ignis steps forward, pressing his glasses up on his nose while subtly slipping closer to Quistis.

“We call them Astrals where we are from, and from the looks of them on the cards I saw a while ago, you have quite a few more than we do.” Prompto quirks a brow at Ignis before looking back at me and smirking.

“Guardian what now?” he teases, holding the smirk in place. I roll my eyes at him with a quirk in the corner of my lips, ignoring him while I look back up to Quistis.

“Where at? The training facilities are hardly spacious enough for them.” Quistis shakes her head at my question before Selphie jumps in with another suggestion.

“We can do it out beside the city with actual fiends, so everyone gets the full show!” I shake my head at the girl, frowning.

“They’re not pets, Selphie, to be taken out to show off,” I lightly scold her, knowing her unusual attachment to some of them. We all have one or two we are closer to than the others, but I sometimes wonder if Selphie took it to an extreme. She presses her fists against her hips, scowling at me.

“You know what I mean, Squally!”

“That’s actually a great idea.” Laguna chimes in, shoving the pages in front of him to the side and knocking Kiros’ freshly organized stack to the ground. Selphie chuckles when she bends over, helping a peeved Kiros pick up the pages from the floor. Laguna starts spouting out ideas of where the ‘display’ can be thrown and what precautions can be taken to keep everyone else safe. I shift my eyes upwards to look at Ignis before glancing back at Prompto.

“Would you guys be willing to wait a while before you see them?” They both agree with waiting, turning back to watch Laguna and Selphie throw out ideas at each other. Ignis rests his hand against his stomach, feeling a grumble beneath his palm.

“Apologies, I think my body is trying to tell me something,” he smiles, glancing over at Quistis. She mimics him, placing a hand on her own stomach before nodding.

“Yes, I think mine is as well. Anyone else getting hungry?” she asks us, dropping her hand back to her side.

“I could eat,” Prompto shrugs before eyeing me. I nod, realizing hours have been lost since we’ve been cooped up in this room with the President.

“Yes, we all should eat. Selphie, would you sit with me so we can continue our discussions?” Laguna asks as he stands from his desk. The brunette nods and smiles, wrapping her hand around the President’s offered arm while they head out of the room. “What does everyone want? I’ll ask the chefs to meet in the conference room if you want to gather up everyone else?” Ignis holds a finger up, clearing his throat.

“Actually, I was hoping I could cook for you all. I have an idea. Quistis, if you would not mind accompanying me?” Quistis smiles at the man and nods, her cheeks flushing slightly. Laguna agrees, turning toward Prompto and me and asking us to go gather everyone else to meet in the dining room. Ignis promptly takes Quistis’s hand to wrap it around his arm, her hand placed on top of his sleeve beneath his hand as he guides her out. Prompto and I smile at the two in front of us as we follow, but keep our thoughts to ourselves.

“Selphie, what do you think about having some kind of a barrier put up for the guests to stand behind, so they aren’t attacked or anything? Like the ones in the training facility?” Laguna questions the girl when they whiz past Prompto and me to make their way to the lift. The two take their seats on the now full lift, continuing their discussions while it raises off the ground and carries them downwards. A sigh over my shoulder comes from Irvine, who turns and shuffles slowly toward the stairway. Glancing over to my other side at Prompto, we both smirk before following the cowboy down the stairs.

“Where do you think Gladio and Rinoa are?” he asks me when we reach the main level, Irvine holding the stairway door open for us.

“Probably training again, unless Rin managed to get him to go shopping with her,” Irvine chuckles at the thought before pointing over his shoulder.

“I’ll go find Zell and Seifer if you two want to hunt them down.” Prompto and I nod when Zell suddenly appears in the entrance to the palace.

“Hey,” he waves, meeting us in the middle of the room. Irvine glances over the blonde’s shoulder before looking back at him.

“Is Seifer with you?” he asks. Zell tenses, shooting a glare at Irvine that, if it were a punch, would have knocked him clear across the room.

“Why would he be with me?” he snaps, crossing his arms in front of his chest. Irvine stares wide-eyed at the agitated man, holding his hands out in front of him.

“Whoa, just asking. Ignis is going to make lunch for us all and we’re gathering everyone up to wait in the dining room. Have you seen him?” Zell drops his arms back to his sides, but still holds an irritated glare.

“No, I don’t know what that guy does all day.” We watch Zell for a minute, but the man keeps his bristled posture and icy gleam in his eye.

“Maybe he’s in the training facilities too?” Prompto offers, turning to Irvine. Irvine nods slowly, keeping an eye on Zell.

“So we meeting in there or what?” Zell asks, jerking his chin out toward the dining room. We each nod and the blonde stalks off, his face still twisted in irritation.

“O...kay? Let’s see if we can find them. Maybe Cloud, Noctis and Vincent are in there too.” We make our way to the training facilities, Prompto calling his gun into his hand while Irvine and I ready our own weapons. Better to be prepared for anything, in case we do come across something other than the people we are looking for in there. Various towels are strewn across bars and hanging up near the showers, suggesting most, if not all of them are in here.

“I’ll head this way if you guys want to go that way. Meet in the middle?” Prompto and I nod and head to our opposite ends toward the barriers.

Chapter Text

~Cloud~

“Again,” I announce, thrusting the tip of my sword into the ground to signal the start of another match. Noctis to my left and Seifer to my right, the two continue to train with me, appreciating what I can offer from my days as a SOLDIER. My eyes narrow when I feel the shift in the air around us, knowing Vincent is hovering somewhere nearby. Eventually he’ll make his presence known, but until then I refuse to be baited into seeking him out. Seifer takes a swipe at Noctis who blocks it with his sword, rolling off to the side and bringing the blade up behind him to block another attack from the blonde.

“Good,” I yell, watching the two focus on each other and try and decipher their next moves. Drawing in a breath alerts me internally to an approaching presence, one I am quite familiar with. “Squall,” I state without turning to face them as they walk up behind me, “Prompto.” The clanging of metal rings out when the two step up beside me, both watching their friends’ various movements in awe.

“Damn, Noct!” Prompto cheers his companion on happily before turning his attention to me. “Did you teach them those moves?” he asks innocently through an approving smile. I nod once, keeping my eyes in front of me before I stick the tip of my sword into the ground.

“Again,” I yell, Squall having tensed beside me when I moved my sword. He’s still weary of me, as he should be. They all should be, I remind myself when I sense Vincent approaching behind us as well. “Vincent,” I mumble, unable to contain the sneer in my tone. The man steps to the other side of Squall, watching the others with us.

“They look to be in better form. Your training appears to be paying off.” I nod at his words before jerking my sword out of the ground and stepping toward the two fighting.

“Enough,” I say, swinging my sword behind my back and latching it into the holster. Seifer falls down to the ground with a groan, his chest rising and lowering with his heavy breathing while Noctis bends forward, resting his hands on his knees after he dismisses his sword.

“Ugh,” Seifer moans, rolling to one side and getting back to his feet. Squall walks over to the man while Prompto skips toward Noctis, clapping a hand on his shoulder and praising his new moves.

“What are you doing?” Vincent asks quietly, keeping his eyes forward when he comes up beside me again. I watch the four interact, pursing my lips together to remain silent. “You know,” Vincent begins, placing an arm around my shoulders while leaning closer to my ear, “no matter how much you train them, they won’t be able to kill you. They cannot end your existence, Cloud.” I shrug the arm off of my shoulders and turn to face him, focusing on keeping the darker side of me from coming out while I feel my eyes shifting and the skin on my back start crawling.

“I know,” I hiss, running my shoulder into his as I pass by him to leave.

“Hey, wait!” Prompto calls out, jogging up behind me. “Ignis is making food for everyone if you guys want to meet up in the dining room. We came to find everyone and tell them.” I tilt my head to the side and nod, keeping my face away from him so he can’t witness my struggle before I continue on my path to leave.

“Thank you Prompto, we’ll be there shortly. The others are just ahead,” I hear Vincent mention before he appears beside me once again. We walk silently most of the way back through the barriers until we almost reach the last one. As I am about to step through, metal claws dig into my skin as Vincent grabs my arm and turns me to face him, his blood red eyes boring into mine. “Think about what you are doing, Cloud. You are only making things harder on yourself in the end,” he warns, releasing my arm when he thrusts it out to the side and walks away from me through the barrier. I close my eyes and take in a few more deep breaths, willing Sephiroth back under my control.

“Vincent!” I call out over my shoulder. I hear the man now behind me stop and turn to face me, but I can’t open my eyes, my hands trembling at my sides. I slowly turn to face him, using every ounce of strength to do so willingly before I feel the man’s hands grasping onto my shoulders. “We need to do something, soon. I’m losing control over him,” I mutter through my panting breaths, clenching my eyes shut while the inside of my skull screams. Icy cold hands press to either side of my face and jerk my head a bit.

“Open your eyes, Cloud,” he orders me, commanding me through the materia he still keeps junctioned, my eyes instantly opening wide. The man’s face is directly in front of me, but his image morphs between what I normally see him as and a monstrous image of the threatening being I know he truly is. “Calm down,” he snaps, controlling me again and staring directly into my twisted and dark dueling souls to watch his orders followed. His gaze shifts over my shoulder where I know Sephiroth’s wing is starting to form. Is he attempting to help because he is a friend, or ordering me to do so because he is now my keeper? I shudder at the thought, instantly wondering if they are my own, or his. He cannot control me, I will not allow it! A calm eases through me internally, stilling my shaking hands and returning my vision back to what it once was. The man leans his forehead against mine, the cool surface of his skin welcome to my overheated flesh. “We must figure out a way to exert you so he remains sated. Perhaps actual training with someone is becoming necessary.” I nod briskly when he releases his hold on me, stepping away and watching me closely.

“Perhaps.” I reply, taking in a few more deep breaths before the two of us take our leave through the last barrier.

~Quistis~

Hordes of utensils and various ceramic pieces have been being shipped in for days now, all in anticipation of the big ball coming up. Laguna appears to have jumped the gun with ordering everything with Esthar’s name on it before actually having a plan in place on what to do for the evening. I shake my head at all of the boxes stacked all over the place, taking up an entire kitchen across the hall from us.

“Seems excessive,” I mention, turning back toward the brunette and adjusting my Esthar-embroidered apron. Ignis flashes a smile before holding the spoon he is swirling inside of a large stock pot out toward me and raising his brow. I grin back at him, taking the spoon into my hand when I step up toward him.

“Keep stirring this, if you will, while I go seek out the last ingredient,” he keeps his hand on the tip of the spoon after I try and take it from him for a moment longer than necessary, holding his stance closely to mine. I stare into the pot before I realize he is still beside me, gripping the wooden spoon. Glancing up at him, I see the most sincere smile I have ever seen on his face before he turns away and clears his throat, releasing the spoon into my grasp.

“Right then, I won’t be but a moment,” he mutters as his fingers intertwine with the tie on the back of his own Estharian apron. I quirk a brow at the man, watching him remove the cover and hang it on the wall before turning and waving lightly. He leaves me alone in the kitchen, walking across the hall into the other one. Frowning at what might be in there and not in here, finding the two were stocked with the same things, I turn back to the pot and continue to stir. Watching the ingredients twirl around in the simmering warm broth, I wonder briefly if I am supposed to continuously stir or occasionally, deciding the man didn’t specify. The fragrances coming from the pot have been making my mouth water since he placed everything inside. I wonder how he does it, does he just think of things to throw together or is there more of a method behind it?

“Here we are,” he startles me when he walks back in carrying one of the boxes from the other room. Setting it on the counter beside the stove top I am using with a grin, he eyes my stirring before looking back to me.

“Ready to see the most important ingredient?” He asks, keeping his grin in place. I nod, enjoying his excitement when he unfolds the first flap. “This isn’t quite the same, but, I think it will do the trick.” He reaches in and pulls out a larger than the average ceramic mug and sets it in front of me. The blue color of the mug matches the color of the pathways around Esthar, an almost translucent sapphire with gold lettering in the center spelling out the name of the country. I step aside as Ignis takes the spoon out of my hand and taps it against the lip of the pot. Taking the used wooden spoon and the Estharian cup to the sink, he washes the two items, placing the spoon in the drying rack beside the sink and uses a fresh paper towel to wipe the remaining water out of the cup. He grasps one of the large ladles hanging off of the side of the counter we are standing by and begins ladling some of the soup noodle broth into the cup.

“Let me see if I have done it,” he whispers, bringing the cup up to his lips. Sniffing briefly before blowing on top of it a few times, he takes a sip, closing his eyes as the broth slips over his tongue. “Yes, I think that is as close as I can get it. It is better than I expected, if I am honest.” Handing the mug to me, I repeat his motions, blowing lightly on the top of the liquid before taking a tiny sip. A swirl of ingredients slides over my tongue, the noodle binding to the other ingredients and making a pleasantly new soup.

“Delicious,” I mumble, glancing between the cup and the man standing beside me. He smiles at me, genuinely pleased that I enjoy his creation, before sliding the box of mugs off of the counter and stepping over to the sink.

“Not really my recipe, I have only copied one as best as I can that is infamous where I am from.” He quickly washes the other mugs out, setting them on a towel he laid out beforehand. I come up beside him, a new towel in hand, and begin drying the dishes for him. Once done with that, he stands near the pot while I bring him each mug to fill, placing them on trays set on top of the rolling carts they use to bring our meals to us.

“This,” he holds the last cup up in between us with a grin, “is Gladio’s Cup Noodles, the only missing element is the styrofoam cup that usually holds it.” I nod, finally seeing why he wants to use cups instead of bowls. Taking the last cup from him and setting it on the tray, I ask a woman if she will roll the dishes into the dining room while Ignis and I clean up. She agrees, taking the cart and pushing it through a swinging door near the opposite end of the room. The two of us make quick work of the cleanup, Ignis washing while I rinse, settling the dishes into the open slots of the rack beside the second sink. When Ignis hands me the freshly washed pot to rinse, he drains the sink before standing behind me. I feel a slight tug as the man unties my apron for me before doing the same to his own, me placing the pot into drying rack and sliding the item over my head. Handing it to the man, he jogs over to the wall and hangs the two up, before jogging back to me. Gripping my hand in his, he pulls me to the swinging door the woman walked through with the cart, a grin firmly in place as we enter the dining room.

“Iggy!” Gladio’s face lights up when he sees his friend, a pile of noodles hanging out of his mouth. Ignis chuckles at the sight, seeing the man’s approval all over his full mouth before walking over to him and patting him on the shoulder.

“Did I do it justice?” Ignis asks, Gladiolus nodding hastily before shoveling more into his mouth. I glance around and notice everyone else enjoying the meal, Noctis and Prompto laughing as they explain to the others that this is the meal Gladio requested when they first arrived.

“Well done Ignis, and Quistis,” Noct quickly includes me, tilting his Estharian mug at the two of us before he continues drinking the broth. We take our seats beside each other, scooting closer to our own cups and digging in. Jokes and laughter ring through the dining room while Noctis and Prompto tease Gladiolus on the numerous times he requests the dish, making special trips to a certain city where they are from to stock up on the product. I smile at their stories, enjoying the warm and loving meal from one brotherly friend to another.