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Love & Peace

Chapter Text

Dear readers,

I must assure that I did not intend to go on like this for four hundred pages. It was all Quisty's fault! Really! But I'm glad she prodded me to produce all this. At first, I merely meant to occupy myself during a dark time. But I believe it was the part of me that could never really give up hope that took over. Perhaps I subconsciously desired to gain some insight into myself; writing down so much about myself has certainly forced to me address the troubles that haunt me. But, alas, I'm already meandering way off-topic. I have such a tendency to do that, don't I?

As I meant to say, I certainly did not first put pen to paper intending to chronicle everything that has everything recently here at Garden. But... well, Quisty was certainly right when she said I was a born writer and once I finally put aside my doubt, it was hard to stop. (But then, she usually is right, isn't she? Thanks, dear.) And I could hardly leave this story unfinished, could I?

Sometimes I must still ask myself why anyone could possibly be interested in the ramblings of a slightly eccentric twenty-something suburban workaholic. Aside from the fact that I simply could not keep these words inside me, I can't single out one overriding purpose for writing this. Perhaps it will lend some additional insight to those who are curious about me or my trials. Perhaps it will serve as an inspiration or a comfort to those facing challenges of their own. Perhaps it will simply entertain you.

Though I will warn you, dear readers, that these were certainly not the best of times at Balamb Garden. Parts of this tale may feel more like a swift kick in the gut than anything else. But I must beg of you to withhold your judgments on our world until the pink mouse sings. Because though our way was often shrouded and our faith tested, I think everything worked out in the end, and I would hate for anyone to miss out on the happy ending. That, I suppose, is no different from life. Hang on, my friends; it is worth it.

And I think it is only through struggles such as mine that the fundamental goodness of our existence can be revealed. An untested universe, in which everything is given to us by default, is one that is hard to appreciate. It is only after we lose it all, only after we think we cannot go on but find we can, that true faith can emerge. Yes, my road to hell may have been paved with good intentions, but so was the road out of it.

Of course, I would not be where I was were it not for the support of numerous people who I am blessed to have in my life. First and foremost, I need to thank my beloved Quistis - not only for your constant encouragement and advice in producing this volume (after all, it was your idea to begin with, my dear), but for all the light you have shown me in every area of my life. I would say that I can only hope to give to you what you gives to me every day, but I know that I already do. I love you. And my dear friend Miang: you have taught me so much about myself and the world. Thank you. And everyone else whose lives appear between these covers: both for your willingness to help me compile this tale and for your constant bravery and love. The world would be nothing without people like you.

So never give up hope, though you may see only futility in the world around you. Never lose faith, though you may be surrounded by fear and uncertainty. Never stop loving, though you may be pained beyond your expectations. Strive to find the courage to change that which you can, the serenity to accept that which you cannot, and the wisdom to know the difference. Tell all your loved ones how much they mean to you; you might never have another chance. Carry no grudges. Sing. Dance. Do not take to heart the words of those who tell you are cosmically insignificant, but be patient with them, for they are human just like you. Use your mistakes to improve yourself. Refuse to accept human nature, for it is only human habit. Respect the world around you, but do not forget your own needs. Respect yourself, but do not forget the world's needs. Forgive those who have wronged you. Be kind to the generations behind you and ahead of you. Believe, though you may not see. Keep learning, but do not fault yourself for your ignorance; we all have to start somewhere. Do one thing every day that scares you. Remember that our world cannot be saved, only discovered. And trust me on the sunscreen.

Love and peace.

Your loyal author,
Xu Mengshi

Next chapter: Innocence

Chapter Text

The future wasn't what it used to be.

As smoke rose off the still-smoldering remains of a bomb shelter, Lucca crouched in the ashes and typed furiously away at her laptop computer. Something had gone wrong, drastically wrong. Destroying Lavos was supposed to have fixed everything. Without Lavos' fiery rampage ravaging civilization on the cusp of the millennium, Mother Brain should never have been able to establish any dominion over humankind. The future was supposed to be a bright, happy, peaceful one now.

But somehow Mother Brain still reigned over this barren, war-torn wasteland in A.D. 2300. Something else must have been the catalyst that allowed her to overthrow and conquer human civilization. And so that too had to be corrected.

Lucca scrolled through pages and pages of historical documents, searching for clues that might help her pinpoint when Mother Brain might have first formed. Tracking down Mother Brain's origin in the past 300 years might be difficult, but it would be easier than fighting the robot armies now - and cutting Mother Brain off at the source would also prevent countless years of suffering and wasted lives.

Fortunately, she had all the time in the world to continue her search. Whether she had the fortitude to maintain her vigil for that long, however, was another story.

* * *

Chu-Chu's light-pen scribbled furiously across her study panel while Quistis narrated her economics class. "A zero-sum game is a situation in which gains only come at another's loss; value is only redistributed, not created. For example, chess is a zero-sum game. In order to win the game, you must make someone else lose the game. We call these situations zero-sum games, because the total gains and losses of the participants add up to 0. Think of dividing up a pie. The total amount is fixed and you can only change what proportion of the pie each person gets. Indeed, in the real world, most zero-sum games arise from situations in which something is being divided up. For example, land ownership is a zero-sum game. There is a fixed amount of land in the world and acquiring land reduces the amount of land available for everyone else."

Chu-Chu nudged the snoozing student that shared her study panel. "Yuffie!" she hissed.

"Real-world situations, however, are more likely to be non-zero-sum games, in which the total amount gained or loss is variable. Instead of only dividing up the pie, you can change the size of the pie. As a result, there are not clear winners and losers. It is possible for all sides to profit - or all to lose. Or perhaps one side will gain a lot and another lose a small amount, so there is still a net gain. These situations tend to be more difficult to understand and analyze because there are no black-and-white winners and losers. But think of a mutually beneficially trade. Suppose I have two copies of the Fastitocalon Triple Triad card but none of the Bite Bug card. I know someone who has two Bite Bug cards but no Fastitocalons. I trade one of my Fastitocalons for a Bite Bug. This may seem to be a zero-sum game, because the total amount of cards does not change, but the value we each have does change. I am giving up a card that I value little for one I value more. Likewise, my friend is giving up a card that she values little for one she values more. We are both gaining value."

"Yuffie!" Chu-Chu tried again.

Yuffie's head finally jerked up. Oops, had she fallen asleep. "Gawd, I'm so tired."

Chu-Chu frowned, fixing her roommate in a gaze of stern disapproval. "Well, that's what chu get for staying up all night playing video games."

"It can often be hard to see how a situation is a non-zero-sum game, if indeed it is one. However, it is not difficult to prove that there are non-zero-sum games. Imagine if you were the only person in the world. You would have 100% of the pie - but it would actually be a very small pie. You would not have anything that others create. And think about how of much what you own is created by others. You couldn't make that all by yourself. In other words, having other people around means that you actually get more pie. Likewise, trying to be completely self-sufficient does not net one the most value."

Quistis glanced at the clock and saw that her classtime was over. "For Wednesday's class, please write two examples of a zero-sum game and two of a non-zero-sum game. Class dismissed."

Chu-Chu neatly packed her books back into her tiny Gap Kids backpack. Yuffie just shoved them them in hers, making it too stuffed to zip shut - so she just left one side hanging open. "Gawd, what a boring class," she muttered as they got up to leave. "Why do we need to learn this stuff, anyway?"

Tsk tsk. Chu-Chu was very fond of her roommate, but she did dearly wish that Yuffie could be a bit more serious about her studies! "Chu-Chu thought it was interesting. Maybe chu should take more of an interest in the rest of the world!"

Quistis too gathered up her things to leave the room. She stopped when she saw that Selphie had been waiting for her outside the classroom. "Hi, Quisty," Selphie said. "Can I talk to you for a bit?"

"Well, I still have a lot of moving to do, but I can make some time, sure."

"Oh, I can help you!" That was no problem at all. "We can talk about while we work."

"Er... sure."

They started for the parking garage. "Well, I hate to you bug you for advice again, but..."

Quistis nodded. She was happy to give it, though she was always saddened when the situation was such that she had to. "I don't want to . Is it Zell?"

"I don't know," Selphie confessed. "It's not really a problem. Somedays I'm just not sure what I want, what the future is supposed to be like." She sighed. Where to start? Her problems were never a linear story; they were an all-encompassing mess. "Can I talk for awhile and you just listen?"

"Sure." Listening was often half the solution.

"I... I don't think of people as interchangeable parts. A lot of us have things in common, but none of us are completely the same, not even identical twins. Everyone's put together a little different. Which is why I can never really write anyone off in my heart. No matter how frustrating they get."

Quistis nodded. "Of course; I agree."

"But a lot of people don't. A lot of people look for a few friends and a significant other. And if one boyfriend or girlfriend doesn't work, they just find another one. They don't really care about the people, they just want the role. And I ... I guess I love people. You know, labels - boyfriend, girlfriend - that doesn't matter to me much. There's lots of people I love: You, Zell, Yuffie, my friends back in Trabia, Irvine ... and I'd never want to turn my back on any of you. Which is why it's frustrating when we don't get along, 'cause I can't pretend I don't care. And Zell and I were arguing about music again last night; you know, him only wanting to listen to bands that are 'punk' enough."

They got into Quistis' car and pulled out of the Balamb Garden parking lot.

"I'm sure there's plenty of busybody advice columnists out there who would say that he's not worth it. I could toss him aside and find some other guy to call my boyfriend. But who am I to say that another person isn't worth it? Like I said, I don't think of people as interchangeable parts. I want people, not just a 'boyfriend.' That's what Irvine was. I mean ..." She paused, trying to phrase it eloquently, and then realized she didn't really need to. "It's nothing about him. He's a good guy; he's still my friend. But he was a good boyfriend, I guess, but that was it. He did always made me feel good; he cheered me up when I failed and congratulated me when I succeeded. And he still does, talking to him. And he knew all about me and buys me nice things and we go on dates and stuff, but ... that's about all we can do, really. There's not much else we can do together - I'd just go off and hang out with Yuffie and Chu-Chu, or work on my website, or..."

Quistis nodded. "I understand."

Selphie shrugged. "I think that's all he really wants. A girlfriend. Which is fine; I'm not saying it's wrong, but I want something more. But, Zell and I ... whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same. We have so much more of the same outlook on life. I really feel understood when I'm talking to him. I don't have to account for myself or try to justify why I am the way I am. He gets me. It's really a great feeling. Plus there's a lot more things we can do together. I can have a great time with him doing things that have nothing to do with romance or dating. The problem is just ... as much as I love him, as happy as he makes me a lot, he can also be really frustrating sometimes." She sighed deeply. "I hate to say anything negative about him, because I know he means well, and he's trying hard. But... I'm just not sure what to do with him. I don't want to attack him for the dumb things he does; I just want him to stop. And, well... I guess that's the problem. I really do want to help him, because I love him and I can see that the Zell deep inside of him is capable of a lot more than bitching about music and arguing with Seifer. The only problem is ... just because he's capable of it doesn't mean that he ever actually will."

Quistis turned into what was now her driveway. Usually when Selphie went down this road, she noted with amusement, it was to the Dincht family residence. But now there was an additional stop on the road: the house one more down the road, now under the new ownership of Quistis and Xu.

Unfortunately, there was only one car in the driveway right now. Quistis sighed. Mengshi should have been home by now; she was working late again. Not that she really had any choice at this time of the year -- in additions to her usual duties in human resources, she was having to help with admissions to Garden. Still, Quistis missed having her around, and she was worried that the poor woman was going to work herself to death. Mengshi was never too good on recognizing her limits.

"And I'll be fair; I have plenty of my own faults too," Selphie continued as they got out of the car. "And often Zell helps me a lot with them. Heck, half the time he has the same problems I do. So please don't think we just fight all the time; we have a lot of great times. But that doesn't mean the times that aren't so great don't still hurt."

Quistis unlocked the front door and they stepped inside into the living room. This was the first time Selphie had actually been in the new house, and she took a moment to look around. Like most of the houses in Balamb, it was built in a circular shape and with circular rooms. They stood in the living room, with a bathroom on the left, the kitchen and dining room on the right, and a spare room that Quistis and Xu hadn't really settled on a use for directly across from them. Stairs in the corner led up to the bedroom and another bathroom. Of course, the whole place was still a mess of furniture that hadn't been arranged quite right and unpacked boxes full of Quistis and Xu's things. But those could wait; Selphie was in the middle of talking.

"This isn't really a question of what I want. I know what I want; I want to be happy and love and be loved, and I want Zell to be there with me. But sometimes I feel like I can't help him until I solve all of my own problems, so that then I could help him with his problems without hindrance. And I'd almost be okay with that except that I know I'll never solve all of my problems, not completely. It's frustrating. Sometimes I fear I have my expectations have gotten too high; that I should revert back to Irvine and just fall in line and find some random ol' 'boyfriend' who will take me out to dinner once in a while. But my heart would never be satisfied with that."

The front door creaked ajar. It appeared to have been opened by a ghost, until it swung open far enough to reveal the small pink creature standing on the doorstep.

"Uh, yes, Chu-Chu?"

"I just had a question about our assignment, Instructor Trepe," she said. "Would sex be a good example of a non-zero-sum game? Because it seems like chu can all get pleasure so everyone wins and no one loses!"

"Er, yes," Quistis said.

"Ookya! Yay! Thank chu!" She closed the door and departed.

Selphie chuckled. Some things never changed. "Anyway ... I'm not really in a crisis. I'm sure things will work out. But sometimes when I get worn down, I need something to keep my faith up and ... you're good at that." She grinned.

"I understand," Quistis said. "Selphie, Zell probably feels the same way about you. He probably wishes he could make all of his problems disappear so he could better support you."

Selphie nodded. "Oh, yeah. Of course he does."

"Then let me get you something that I think you might appreciate." She ventured up the stairs and, after a bit of rummaging around in her books, returned with an art history textbook. "I kept this from when I was in the Headmaster's art history class because I loved this one picture in it."

Quistis opened up the book to said picture. It was a two-page photograph of the Nisan chapel focusing on the two giant statues suspended over the altar. One was male, one was female, but each bore a single wing, and together they were lifting each other towards heaven. "You can help each other, Selphie. You don't have to solve all your problems before you can help his. You can help each other solve them at the same time. Neither of you are meant fly alone; together, you can be far more than you could alone. A single hand cannot clap."

What a perfect answer. And what a lovely picture. Selphie grinned. Quisty always knew exactly how to make her feel better and restore her confidence. Now she wondered what she had even been thinking. Of course they could help each other. What had she had been thinking?

Quistis offered her the book and Selphie quickly took it. "You're welcome to borrow it so you can show it to Zell."

Selphie nodded. "Oh, I will. Thanks so much."

* * *

Chu-Chu backed away from the front door. Those big Dumbo ears of hers were good for listening if nothing else. And now she was infuriated. Selphie was one of her best friends, but Chu-Chu couldn't believe how unbelievably ungrateful she was being! Loving all these people was a solution, not a problem. Selphie should be happy that so many people loved her and wanted her hot body. She was just spoiled ... if she was like Chu-Chu, fighting every day to get people to even consider her species as a viable sexual partner, she'd be singing a different tune.

Great Mambo, this was totally unfair. Selphie had so many hotties and she had none. Why didn't Selphie just give one of her love interests to her? Then they'd both be even. In fact, she would -- and she was so proud of herself for knowing this now that she had taken economics and was smart -- even go so far as to label this another non-zero-sum game! Well, that made the other example she needed for her homework. "Your friend gives you one of her hot human boyfriends and now her problems are resolved and you are getting laid." Chu-Chu surged with pride for being so intellectual. She could really undersand the world now. What an eye-opener that class had been!

Unfortunately, she doubted whether Selphie was educated enough to see things so clearly. Chu-Chu frowned. There had to be some reason was Selphie was getting all the hot humans? What was it about her that attracted all the hot humans? Playing guitar? But Chu-Chu played drums in the band, that was good enough, and Zell hated their band anyway. Her clothing? Chu-Chu didn't even wear anything - the guys (and girls) should be all be over a hot naked chick like her. She had everything going for her. She even took bubblebaths and washed behind her ears!

Clearly, some greater malice must be at play here. After all, the Wondrous Mambo God was protecting her, which meant she should have a harem full of bishies -- or at the very least one bishie. That wasn't too much to ask for, was it? Perhaps the dark forces of Chu-cthulchu were at play here. Emboldened with a new desire to determine the root of her troubles, Chu-Chu hopped on her tricycle and pedaled back to Balamb Garden to visit the library.

Chapter Text

Yuffie's week proceeded peacefully for several days. She slept a lot, avoided completing her homework whenever possible, and spent a substantial amount of time tweaking the appearance of her GNOME desktop - in short, nothing disturbed her from her usual routine.

That was, until she awoke one day to the sensation that her bed was no longer stationary. She tried to pass it off as a bureaucratic snafu on the part of her inner ear, but a second shift made it impossible to deny that something was causing its bed to relocate itself rapidly across the room. Curious as to the cause of this disturbance, the girl opened a single eye. Light immediately bombarded her unprepared pupil, and she snapped it shut again.

She tried again, more slowly, this time, and saw Selphie standing over her, pushing her bed across the dorm room she shared with Chu-Chu. "Good morning, Yuffie!" Selphie grinned cheerily.

"Gawd, what the hell are you doing?" Yuffie sat bolt upright. Something drastically wrong had happened. All of Chu-Chu's bishounen pin-up posters had been placed on her side of the room, two chairs had been randomly stacked on top of each other in one corner, and Yuffie computer's was nowhere to be seen.

"Chu-Chu said you guys were redecorating. We tried to wake you up, honest!"

Yuffie's stare demanded an explanation from Chu-Chu. "You didn't say anything about this!"

Chu-Chu did not appear to feel the least bit guilty. "Our room had bad feng shui," she explained. "That's why we weren't getting any." She gestured towards the iMac sitting on Yuffie's desk. "I even bought chu a new computer, see? It's 'lime green.'"

"Gawd, you bought me an iMac?" Yuffie howled. "What were you thinking?"

"But Yuffie! Guys we'll think we're hot! Girls too." Chu-Chu struck what would pass for a suave pose among three-foot-tall anthropomorphic rodents. "Who's the little pink missy that's a sex machine with all the bishies? CHU-CHU!"

Yuffie was disgusted. She wanted her room back the way it had been, and she wanted it back now. She slipped out of bed and started hunting for some sign of her most prized possession. "Gawd, what have you done with my Linux box?" It was not anywhere in plain sight, nor it did appear to be stashed underneath anything...

"It's in the closet with all chu-our other things," Chu-Chu explained. "I guess chu can use it if chu want, but you have chu promise to paint it green, okay?" Still facing a look of utter incomprehension from Yuffie, she tried again to explain. "See, that's the 'mountain' corner of the room; we have chu have balance between the 'earth' and 'sky' colors there if we want the Turtle of Good Fortune to bless us."

"Gawd, this is, like, the dumbest thing ever." Yuffie plodded sleepily to the closet, where she quickly located her old computer in a heap of her other belongings. She carefully extricated it from the mess. "There, there, it'll be all right," she said, patting the computer on the side. "The bad women didn't hurt you, did they?"

Selphie giggled. "Yuffie, you are so weird."

"Whatever."

* * *

"And they were being, like, totally immature 'n stuff, and I was all, like, I don't have to take this, 'cause, you know, it's, like, my room too, right?" Yuffie complained to Fujin as the two sat side-by-side on a SeeD bus. Instructor Aki's physics class was taking a field trip to the new planetarium at the Balamb Museum of Natural History.

Fujin nodded. "COMPREHENSION."

"And, like, at least I have my computer back, but Chu-Chu made me paint it all green," Yuffie said. "This feng shui stuff is totally retarded."

"SUPERSTITION."

The bus rolled up to the museum. Students swarmed out in a completely disorderly mass that tried to assemble itself into enough of a line to fit through the open doorway. Oblivious to the whole situation, Yuffie opened the other half of the double doors and she and Fujin walked on in unimpeded. "Anyway, like, we still have the Dreamcast, so if you want to come over this evening, we're all going to be playing ChuChu Rocket! 'n stuff."

"ACCEPTANCE."

Yuffie opened up her sack lunch and retrieved an ice cream bar and a bottle of Sunny Delight. She tore the wrapper off the ice cream bar and poured the Sunny Delight over it, spilling half the bottle onto the carpet. Then she took a big lick of the dripping bar. "Mmmm."

Fujin stared piercingly at her.

Yuffie looked up from her ice cream bar. "What?" she said defensively. Gawd, why did Fujin have a problem with something like a snack? "Ice cream just isn't the same without Sunny D©."

"DISGUSTING," Fujin asserted, marching on towards the planetarium. Yuffie jogged after her, leaving a trail of Sunny Delight on the floor. To an uninformed passerby it might have looked like some experimental new corporate-branded species of slug had gotten loose in the lobby.

The class filed into the planetarium and took their seats. The lights soon shut off, leaving them with a dome of stars and nebulas, planets and comets hanging over their heads. It was easy to forget that they were only looking on a projection, not at the real thing.

"DARK."

"Ho ho hooo!" Bugenhagen's voice floated out of the darkness. "Welcome to the Plern Memorial Planetarium at the Balamb Museum of Natural History! I know what you're probably thinking: Why should I care about stars? But what you really should be asking is: Why should the stars care about me? After all, they were here long before you! Ho ho hoo!"

"Oh, Gawd, not this old geezer again," Yuffie muttered.

"Ho ho hoo, yes, until we take the time to study the stars, it is easy to forget just how much there is in the universe. The stars we see at night may seem as close as the ceiling of this room, but they are millions of miles, thousands of years away! There is more in this universe than we could ever hope to comprehend, let alone understand. We are tiny complared to all that is on this planet. But fear not, we are all part of the great scheme of things. Even the flight of a tiny butterfly can change everything about the universe."

Gawd, who cared about butterflies? This was supposed to be an astromony presentation. Why weren't they learning about how many days there were in a year on Jupiter, or how Uranus was tilted on its axis? Although Bugenhagen seemed a little tilted on his axis himself.

Bugenhagen putzed about the room, continuing to speak. He seemed to have already gotten distracted, however; his speech had degenerated from a presentation into a stream-of-conscious ramble. "Yes, I don't know what you kids have been taught, but anyone really trying to unlock the mysteries of the universe knows that the most important principle is that we don't know everything. That's what science is, pushing into the unknown. Ho ho hoo!"

With the last "hoo" his head snapped up like he had awoken from a brief sleep - but he had really just remembered what he was supposed to be talking about. "Ah, yes, stars! Yes, just look at them! They seem so immediate, so bright and bold, and yet the light that illuminates the night sky today was released long ago. Those beams of light may blast through space at 186,000 miles per second, yet they have still traveled across light-years and countless time to reach us."

"Gawd, this is stupid," Yuffie whispered to Fujin. "Look, I'm gonna sneak out of here, so let me know later if there's anything important we need to for class. The new 'World's Most Exciting Napkins' exhibit is opening for the first time downstairs so I gotta go rip it! We're talking 0-day museum warez here!"

"???"

"You've never heard of museum warez? See, it's, like, you get museums for free over the Internet! Someone goes and takes pictures of all the exhibits and uploads them to an FTP, right? It's cool 'cause way more people can see 'em 'n stuff, and you don't even have to pay for it!"

"HOW?"

"I hid my camera in my pants." Yuffie slipped past Fujin, darted up the aisle, and ducked out the door.

"How can ever know where the light that lets us see today originated?" Bugenhagen continued. "Our where the light being released now will someday end up? As I said, there is always great mystery in the universe." He looked up at the artificial sky, still gleaming with planets and stars. "But sometimes it is enough to appreciate the beauty we can see, no matter what creates it. I see beauty in lots of places. I feel the workings of the planet in the smell of the wind. I also feel the greatness of humanity's wisdom and knowledge in the smell of machinery... ho ho hoo..."

Fujin smiled. She thought presentation was nice and poetic. A pity Yuffie's five-second attention span couldn't handle it.

Struck by fancy again, Bugenhagen bounced from one point in his web of thoughts to another. None of the students were now really sure what point he was trying to make, and it seemed unlikely that Bugenhagen himself did either. "Ho ho hoo, yes! Light is an interesting and wonderful thing. It enables to live and to see the world around us. A fantastic creation, and one that has no real opposite! You see, darkness does not exist the same way as light. Take care to remember - the vast darkness between stars is naught but a void! It is an emptiness, not a substance, do you see? Ho ho hooo! I felt I should clarify because popular opinion tends to hold light and darkness as a duality of equal, opposite strengths. In actuality, however, there are only particles and waves of light. If you are looking for waves of darkness to oppose waves of light, you will not find them! Darkness is simply a comparative absence of light. Ho ho hooo!"

Someone pounded on the door. Fujin went to open it but found it immovable. "SEALED."

"Well, gawd, how'd they do that? With super glue?"

Fujin stepped back. "CAREFUL." She delivered the door a mighty kick with her steel-toed boot and it flew open.

"Thanks."

"Time is another fantastic thing," Bugenhagen said. "We see it all around us; include it in every thought of ours. And yet what it is? A blessing or a curse? There are many ways to look at time. The wounds of the past, the crises of the present, and the promises of the future... ho ho hoo!"

An interesting question indeed. Fujin wasn't sure how she thought about time. "OPINION?" she whispered, turning to Yuffie. But by that time her friend had already fallen asleep.

* * *

"Gawd, wasn't that the stupidest presentation ever?" Yuffie grumbled when Fujin finally arrived at her dorm room. Yuffie, Chu-Chu, Selphie, and Zell were already gathered around the television, engaged in a heated game of ChuChu Rocket!. That was to say, Chu-Chu, Selphie, and Zell were playing a heated game; Yuffie was staring at the screen with a look of vague disgust as she watched herself fall yet again to a distant fourth place.

Fujin shook her head. "FASCINATING."

"No, it wasn't!"

Fujin seated herself cross-legged on the floor beside them. All four controllers were already taken, so she could only watch the mice scurrying around the television set.

"Could chu scoot over that way a little, Fujin?" Chu-Chu waved her paw. "I think the dragon of good fortune is having trouble breathing." Fujin rolled her eye, but complied.

Selphie frowned. "Do you want to take my spot...?"

Chu-Chu offered her controller. "Ooh, you can have mine," she said. "I've Chu-Chu's got a date with Hello Kitty anyway. The new Casper the Homosexual Friendly Ghost dojinshi came today! Casper gets molested by his uncles!" Chu-Chu was clearly quite excited about this.

"Gawd, Chu-Chu, we don't need to hear about that. And don't do anything, you know, gross in here. Please."

"Okay." Chu-Chu said. She retrieved a few items from her dresser and ambled happily out of the room while rapping quietly to herself. "I'm the queen of yaoi / There is none higher / I get myself off writing NORG x Seifer."

Fujin took Chu-Chu place as the console. As the games continued, Selphie kept up her winning streak, while Yuffie -- as usual -- came in dead last. "Gawd, why do I always lose?" the ninja girl whined. "You guys are, like, so good and, like, it's so unfair."

"Winning isn't everything, Yuffie," Zell said.

"C'mon, another game," Yuffie whined. "I'm getting better 'n stuff!"

"Well... okay," Selphie said. "It's getting kind of late, though."

OOPS! A forgotten train of thought finally caught up with Fujin and smacked her with panic and fear. She was probably supposed to be somewhere else already! How could she forget? She craned her head to look around the room. "CLOCK, WHERE?"

"Under the bed, 'out of the way of the wind tiger.'" Selphie tried not to lose her concentration.

She lifted up the quilt and peered under Chu-Chu'd bed. Shoot! Her top-secret meeting of an underground network had started fifteen minutes ago. "LATE," she said. "DEPARTURE." She set her controller down and marched out of the room.

Yuffie threw herself across the floor and seized Fujin's controller in a violent tackle. Her eyes dashed to the screen as she tried to take over Fujin's position mid-game. Using her minimal playing skills, she managed to keep the green side from dropping completely to last place. Her eyes lit up when the round came to an end. "Look, guys, I came in second! I actually didn't lose! Um, right?"

* * *

Fujin pushed open a heavy steel door and slipped into a dark meeting room somewhere in Balamb Garden's MD level. She slipped unseen through the shadows filling the corners of the hall and sat down in the only empty chair. "CHUCHU," she explained her absence. "SUGOI."

"Good, I think everyone's arrived now," Dominia said from the head of the table. She cleared her throat and addressed the crowd. "Thank you for coming. I know you all come from many different games, but we all have much in common. We've all served as members of a squad of bumbling recurring minor villains at one time or another." The members of the Turks, Elements, Disciplinary Committee, and Team Rocket all nodded. "And we deserve a more dignified position than this."

"Dominia, you're using too many big words!!!" Seraphita complained. "I don't know what you're talking about!!!"

"We train hard, we develop our own special moves, and what do we have to show for it? The same thing happens every time! All we do is show up occasionally when they can't find another boss, take a few hits from the heroes, and run off again! Then under an extreme circumstance, we always have to help the hero out, showing we're not entirely bad. Sure, we go back fight, but soon comes the worst part of it all! We always turn good! Come on, who here has been portrayed as misguided and good at heart?"

A unanimous show of hands went up.

"Exactly!" Dominia thundered. By now she was on her feet, pounding her fist into her palm. "We've been reduced to nothing more than walking stereotypes! But we're people!"

"Meowth!"

"Well, okay, most of us are people," Domina continued. "But none of us are the bumbling, honorable-but-incompetent special agents that our employers try to portray us as! And it's time we forced them to acknowledge our contributions! A vote against unionization is a vote to allow the management to remain our pimps forever! We have nothing to lose but a steady income! Now is the time to throw off our chains! Viva la revolucion!"

In the midst of the thunderous applause, Seraphita nudged her sister. "Tolone, what's a pimp?" she whispered.

* * *

By the time Chu-Chu returned to the room, Selphie and Zell were long gone. Yuffie, however, was still staring vacuously at the television. Her fingers flicked back and forth across her Dreamcast controller, guiding her mice to safety.

"You're still playing, Yuffie?" Chu-Chu said. "Chu know, you're supposed to take a break every two hours or chu might get Dutch Elm Disease!"

Yuffie remained transfixed by the little mice dancing across her television. "Earth to Yuffie! Earth to Yuffie!" Chu-Chu leaned over and waved a hand in Yuffie's face. "Come in, Yuffie!"

Yuffie bit her.

"Ouchu!" Chu-Chu quickly withdrew her limb.

"ChuChu," Yuffie mumbled. "My precioussss ChuChus. I WANT THE SEXY CHUCHU."

"Uh, I think this might be a good time chu to take a break for a while, Yuffie."

The only sound she got out of the Yuffie/Dreamcast/TV collective was an announcer crying, "Mouse Mania!"

Oh dear. Yuffie seemed to be addicted. Maybe it was time to call Dr. Kadowaki. She inched across the room.

Yuffie's current game concluded with the ninja girl managing a respectable second place. She immediately started a new game and, while waiting for it to begin, risked a quick glance over her shoulder. "Hey, would you, like, not move around so much. It's distracting and I'm concentrating here 'n stuff." She turned back to her precious ChuChus and engaged in yet another furious online battle.

Dear Mambo. She couldn't say one thing without getting in the way of Yuffie's game. What was so much more compelling about those mice? Chu-Chu even had a hyphen in her name - could those mice claim to have that? It was probably time to pull the plug. She stepped towards the television. But before Yuffie could stop her, time slowed and a pale haze spread over the room.

"Oook no! Chu-Chu thinks she's caught in a sappy montage!"

The pair found themselves jumping through a series of stilted scenes: Yuffie enduring training round after training round. Yuffie winning her first online game. Chu-Chu watching Yuffie triumph again. Chu-Chu waving good-night. Chu-Chu kneeling on her bed, hands clasped in prayer to the Wondrous Mambo God, while Yuffie continued to rack up more wins. Yuffie receiving a challenge from <=¤[email protected]=f£å®ê666=> and _prometheus, the Internet's best ChuChu Rocket players. Yuffie handily defeating both of them while the theme from Rocky played in the background. And, finally, Yuffie crawling into bed at 5 AM.

* * *

Yuffie was not the only one staying up past her bedtime. Quistis found herself still reading about history and waiting alone in bed well into the night. Where was Mengshi? This was getting out of hand. She resolved not to let her unspoken acceptance of Xu's work habits continue.

Xu finally came home shortly after at 2 AM and dragged her weary body through the front door. She crept up to their bedroom, figuring Quistis would be asleep by now. Being early to bed and early to rise must be at least part of how she got so healthy, wealthy, and wise. But she found the light still on and, when she poked her head up the stairwell, Quistis still up and reading.

"Oh! Good evening, dear," she said. "Sorry I'm so late. I did get through a lot of applications..."

"Good evening, Mengshi; glad you make it," Quistis said with only a slight touch of bitterness.

Xu frowned. "I didn't keep you up, did I?"

"It's okay; I'd be sad if I missed you. I do think you're working yourself too hard, though."

"Well... of course I'd rather be spending time with you too, it's just..." Xu hesitated. "I said I'd do this and I don't want to let anyone down."

"I know, but you have to take care of yourself too," Quistis said.

"I suppose." With a heavy sigh, Xu threw herself down on the empty side of the bed, beneath her large poster bearing the complete text of Lord Avon's Tidus Andronicus in admittedly tiny print. She exhaled deeply. Hyne, she was tired. Now that she was lying down, she didn't know if could get back up. Ugh, her whole body felt like lead. And there was still more, more work waiting for her tomorrow.

Quistis mussed her girlfriend's hair affectionately. "You should talk to the Kramers," she suggested, with an airy confidence that this would solve everything. "You know they're nice people; they'll find a way to take some of the work off your shoulders. You don’t have to do admissions and HR and take care of the Garden Network all the same time, you know."

"No, that's not fair; someone else would have to do it."

"I'm sure they'll find an agreeable compromise," Quistis said. "They can split your duties with someone else, give you a vacation..."

Xu's silence belied her lack of confidence in this statement. She had already started to fade out of reality and into her fantasy world, her eyes fixed on her poster. That was the kind of the world she wanted to live in. One where everything was interesting, where there was a plot that made everyone's life crucial. Oh, there might be lots of poisonings and stabbings and Qus baking people in pies, but at least they'd die noble, meaningful deaths. Xu doubted she'd ever really amount to anything significant in this crummy overpopulated world. She'd probably just slowly work herself to death instead of drinking poison in a fit of noble passion.

"Please?" Quistis repeated. "Just ask them? I don't want you to hurt yourself. It's great that you care so much about other people, but you have to take care of yourself too."

"Okay. I will, I promise," Xu said. But it was not okay. She was completely disgusted with herself. She had let down yet another person. Was once again not being as good to someone as she should be. And this time it was her beloved Quisty. Was there no end to her failings? She sometimes worried that it was only a matter of time before Quistis too realized this. Quistis, after all, was perfect. Graduated at the top of her class, the youngest instructor ever, King of the Card Club -- she did everything, was everything that Xu wanted to do and be without even trying. How could Xu ever really hope to face her as an equal?

But the show had to go on, she conceded, and it probably wasn't her place to ask such questions anyway. She dragged herself back to her feet to get ready for bed. She'd worked hard today, and would work even harder tomorrow. That meant she deserved to stay up a little later - even if she was a few minutes late tomorrow - talking to Quisty and reading. Lord Avon, of course ... one of the comedies. The Taming of the Shoopuf, perhaps, or The Merry Wives of Winhill. That sounded nice.

Nice, but not good enough.

Chapter Text

"Yuffie! Yuffie! Wake up!" Chu-Chu shook her friend urgently.

Yuffie rolled over in bed and blinked a few times. "Gawd, is it morning already?" She tried to recall where she been doing last night that had left her so exhausted. Drunken partying? Wild one-night stand? Online gaming marathon? Everyone hated her and thought she was ugly, so it had to be that last one. "I must have been playing ChuChu Rocket! too long... ohmigawd! I just remembered! I totally beat <=¤[email protected]=f£å®ê666=> and _prometheus! They're, like, the champions at ChuChu Rocket!"

Chu-Chu completely ignored her. "Yuffie, we've got our para-magic test in ten minutes and chu already missed homeroom!"

"Gawd, I'm coming, okay?" Yuffie mumbled. "You go on without me; I don't think I can make it." She coughed weakly, or perhaps just sleepily. "I'll only slow you down."

Chu-Chu frowned. "Okay, but don't chu be late!" She hefted her tiny Gap Kids backpack onto her shoulders and pattered out the door with her hindpaws in a blur.

Yuffie rolled back onto her side and closed one eye. The other remained half-open and fixed on the all-powerful clock on the bedside table, which was now nowhere near the bed. She quickly rationalized how many more minutes of rest she could squeeze out -- because, dammit, every minute spent lying in bed was a good minute. Through careful training and planning, she'd gotten her getting-dressed-and-halfway-presentable time down to a mere four minutes. Of course, no one really could fault her for showing up a couple of minutes late, she really had two more minutes to get to class. And since everyone would already be in class by the time she left her room, the halls wouldn't be in the least bit crowded, and she could make it from her dorm room to the classroom in just a minute. That left seven glorious minutes of rest, a whole 420 seconds! Yuffie sighed with content and curled up to enjoy them.

Those 420 blissful seconds consumed themselves all too quickly. As soon as the ominous digits shifted to form "7:57," Yuffie rolled out of bed, hit the ground running, and charged into the shower. Yuffie grabbed the waiting bucket of water, dumped it over her head, and ran back out of the shower. She snatched up the towel with one hand while the other hand to shove a toothbrush into her mouth. Yuffie rolled the toothbrush around with her tongue while toweling herself with one hand and combing her hair with the other. After engaging in this peculiar ritual for about forty-five seconds, Yuffie dropped the towel and comb, spat out the toothbrush, and quickly pulled on her SeeD uniform. She grabbed a bottle of Sunny Delight from the seemingly-endless stash in her dresser, dashed out the door with untied shoelaces streaming behind her, and sprinted down the hall to Edea's classroom.

Still chugging her Sunny D, Yuffie slid into her seat next to Chu-Chu. She set her bottle on top of the study panel and then looked down at the screen, trying to get into test-taking mode.

She saw the first question and immediately panicked. "Complete the following sequence: Fire, Fira, _____." She immediately panicked. Anything could go in that blank! But she could think of the answer, couldn't she? She kind of remembered going over those, like, weird foreign names in class. Maybe she'd remember this one if she thought about it hard enough. She'd come back to it.

Yuffie skimmed the test, looking for something she recognized. Pain? Meltdown? Stock management? Gawd, she didn't know any of this! "Whatever," she muttered. Maybe she could just B.S. this. At least it wasn't an essay test. But ... so many hard questions! How was anyone supposed to know all this? It made her head hurt just thinking about.

She looked up, trying to clear her mind. Then something very strange happened. Seemingly moving by its own accord, the electronic chalkboard suddenly spun around 180 degrees, placing it upside down. Edea's writing disappeared. Some invisible force wrote new text in its place, carefully drawing each letter: "DRICAS H4S J00. CHECK E-MAIL." The chalkboard then turned itself upside down again, erasing the mysterious words.

"Ohmigawd!" Yuffie hissed, shaking Chu-Chu to get her attention. "Dude, Chu-Chu, did you, like, see that?"

Chu-Chu looked up from her test, annoyed both at being interrupted and at the prospect of being suspected of cheating. "See what?"

"The chalkboard. It, like, totally just turned around 'n stuff and there was, like, this message. Gawd, didn't you see it?"

"Yuffie, I think chu are halluchunating. Chu really need to stop staying up all night playing video games."

"Gawd, it was there, I swear!" Yuffie exclaimed. She hesitated for a moment. She really, really wanted to go check her e-mail! If the chalkboard was turning around just to tell her about it, it must be something really cool. But ... the test sort of bound her here. Well, maybe she could just get it over with quickly. She randomly typed in some good, scholarly answers. "The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers." "William Tecumseh Sherman." "The Pythagorean Theorem." "No taxation without representation." Those answers had to be worth something! After all, she obviously sounded like she knew what she was talking about. Then she jumped up. "Um, I really have to go to the bathroom!" Yuffie announced to the class. "Bye!"

Yuffie darted out of the classroom and fled back to her dorm room. She flipped on her computer and sat down to check her e-mail. None too surprisingly, it was filled with dozens of advertisements for naughtyzoo.com and the Ethos' free plastic surgery. Yuffie deleted the latter and forwarded the former to Chu-Chu. She finally located a subject-less message in the middle of her mail, from none other than <=¤[email protected]=f£å®ê666=>. "The phone is for you," it read simply.

The phone rang.

"Ohmigawd!" Yuffie exclaimed, and picked it up. "Hello? This is, uh, Yuffie. Kisaragi."

"Congratulations, Yuffie," the girl on the other end said dryly. "You win the all-expenses-paid trip to the Bahamas and the new dishwasher."

"Wow! That's, like, oh wow," Yuffie said blankly. Yuffie wasn't known for being articulate even in the best of times, and when the day's events had been this confusing, she was about as coherent as Robotrek's storyline.

"Yuffie, this is <=¤[email protected]=f£å®ê666=>. I must commend you on your victory last night. We've been waiting for someone to defeat us. The truth is, ChuChu Rocket! was no game at all. It was actually a complicated test designed to select the one person who is a bad enough dude to save humanity. You have passed that test. We need your help, Yuffie. Will you help us save the world?"

Well, she couldn't just refuse to save the world, could she? "Oh, uh, sure. But, um, like, who am I supposed to save humanity from?"

"The Dreamcast," <=¤[email protected]=f£å®ê666=> explained. "It's thinking."

* * *

"Doctor Kadowaki told me to tell you that if chu are suffering from incontinence, you shouldn't be embarassed and there's plenty of treatment available," Chu-Chu said as she, Selphie, and Yuffie strolled into the cafeteria for a late lunch.

"No, see, I didn't really have to go to the bathroom. See, it was <=¤[email protected]=f£å®ê666=>; she was calling because I beat her in ChuChu Rocket!, right? And she wants to me to, like, save the world or something. She said there's going to be this big army of robots that takes over humanity next month. Seriously; she explained it all to me!"

Well, if someone on the Internet had said it, it must be true! Selphie nodded politely, trying the best to humor her friend. Chu-Chu was right: the poor girl really needed to get some more sleep so she could stop being completely hallucinatory.

They latched onto the back of the long line to the cafeteria counter. Zell's T-board streaked by them, did a U-turn, and stopped beside them. "Hey, guys. Can I get your advice on something?" Before they could say anything, he launched into an explanation. "Okay, I already asked Selphie about this, but, Yuffie and Chu-Chu, I was thinking about starting an online comic and I had a couple ideas for it. Okay, tell me which of these concepts you like best: One, Annoying Melon-Headed Children; Two, College Students Hang Out and Say Witty Things; Three, Boy, Those Windows Users Sure Are Stupid, Aren't They?; Four, Daddy, Look at the Adorable Anthromorphic Woodland Critters!; Five, These Copied-and-Pasted NES Sprites Are Actually An Experiment In Post-ironic Satire, Honest."

"Four!" Chu-Chu said.

"Um, I think two is, like, pretty cool 'n stuff."

Zell made two check marks in a notebook. "Okay, thanks," he said. "I've been having a really tough time deciding. So many good ideas, you know."

"Yeah, and it's a zero-sum game because chu can only choose one!"

"Gawd, Chu-Chu, stop that; it's really annoying."

He put the notebook away, picked up his T-board and hoisted it under his arm, and joined them in line. Yuffie quickly launched back into her exposition. "Anyway, so, like, you know the Dreamcast? Well, it's, like, thinking! It's going to kill us all 'n stuff if I don't stop it."

"That's nice. So, uh, how are you planning to save the world, Yuffie?" Selphie felt a little guilty about leading her friend on like this - especially when she seemd to sincerely believe in all of what she was saying - but the whole situation was just too funny.

"I don't know. She just said to follow the white rabbit. Down the rabbit hole. Like I'm supposed to know what that means. Do you guys have any ideas?"

"Don't chu still have to finish that echunomics assignment for Instructor Trepe's class, that chu didn't turn didn't turn in when it was due? Maybe chu should do that instead."

"But, like, the future is in my hands!"

"Well, let's hope you can live down that 'Butterfingers' nickname then, huh?" Selphie said with an amused smirk.

Yuffie frowned. Her suspicions were continuing to build. "You guys are making fun of me, aren't you? You don't think that I really have to save the world."

They couldn't quite say "No" outright, so they hesitated, searching for more a tactful response that could carry on the joke without requiring them to lie.

Yuffie took the deafening silence for the rebuke it was. "Fine then; I'm not talking to you." She folded her arms and turned away from them.

"I'm late! I'm late!" a high-pitched, childlike voice squeaked from behind Yuffie.

"Ha! You can't make me turn around that easily!"

The white outline of a transparent - not to mention extremely jagged and skinny - rabbit breezed by her, staring at its line-art pocketwatch. "Oh dear, oh dear," it squeaked. It was almost 4:20 and it didn't have any weed!

Yuffie folded her arms tighter. "Okay, however you're doing that, you're still not going to make me look," she announced, continuing to watch the white psuedo-rabbit.

The white rabbit pushed a potted fern aside, revealing a hole in the cafeteria floor. The rabbit dangled its feet into the abyss, lowered itself down with its arms, and then dropped down the rabbit hole.

"...down the rabbit hole. Ohmigawd!" Wasn't that where <=¤[email protected]=f£å®ê666=> had told her to go? Yuffie jumped to her feet and ran to the chasm's edge. She peered into the hole, trying to see what lay beyond -- but whatever was down there was too far away to see. Yuffie hesitated briefly, then braced herself and jumped into the rabbit hole.

Except she hadn't thought about her motion sickness beforehand. Oops. Yuffie's stomach did somersaults as the rest of her body did the same. She bit her mouth shut to try keep from throwing up as she tumbled head-over-head down the shaft.

Down, down, down.

"Gaaaaaaaaaaawwwwwwwwwwwd!" Yuffie squealed as she fell head over heels down the shaft. She flailed her arms about wildly, trying to stop her fall, but succeeding only in yanking a bottle off a wall shelf.

Down, down, down.

How long would go on this? Would she hit the bottom before she threw up? What if she kept going and fell right through the earth? She might end up in Esthar, or some place weird. Then she'd be even more confused than usual. Imagine having to ask someone! "Um, like, is this Esthar or Centra or what?" They'd laugh at her, of course, but they always laughed at her.

Down, down, down.

Yuffie blacked out.

* * *

What an eye-opener that manifesto she found on the Web had been. Rinoa looked down the B-Garden, realizing just how much she had been duped by society. Almost everything on here contained ingredients derived from plants. What horrible cruelty! It was a good thing she had read the truth when she had - she felt guilty enough for all the plants she had eaten to date.

Her temper flared again as she looked again at the menu. Why, all these supposedly "safe" vegan meals were nothing more than a ruse by the ruling patriarchy. A few positive-sounding words to disguise their disgusting use of plant products. Starchy roots, blanched plant stems, fermented dairy products, roasted minced muscle in fungal sauce ... she didn't know what half this stuff was, but she was certain it all contained either murdered animals or murdered plants. This was an outrage! Damn The Man!

"Do you have a manager I can speak to? This menu is an outrage and an affront to modern ethics."

The cafeteria lady sighed and disappeared into the back room. Out bounced Quina Quen, all open-mouthed grin and jolly good nature. His tongue lolled about as he hopped up to the counter. "Aroo? We serve what we want. You have problem?"

"Yes, I do," Rinoa snapped. "What's with this 'vegan' bullshit? By serving meals consisting entirely of plant products, you are perpetrating a disgusting system of disenfranchismement and abominable cruelty against the oppressed underclass of species not privileged enough to be born with central nervous systems. Fruit is floracide!"

The harangue did not fluster Quina in the least. He already had the world all figured out; Rinoa's attack did not present any new threat. "Need eat to live! It okay to impose a little on world; world work that way. What you plan to do otherwise?"

"Photosynthesis!" Rinoa declared. "Don't tell me it's impossible. If everyone stood up and refused to support the continued systemic slaughter of chlorophyll-gifted individuals, we could force the privileged power elite into developing human photosynthesis today! Fight the power!"

Quina shrugged. "World never really broken, Rinoa. Why try fix it? Here, have hot doggie. It very tasty." He grabbed a hot dog from the counters behind him and pushed it towards her.

"Hmph. Forget it." Rinoa tossed it in the trash bin across the counter and walked off in a huff.

The next person in line stepped forward. "Hey, can I have two hot dogs?" Zell asked.

Quina hung his head. His face was fixed in a permanent starry-eyed grin, but his droopy features expressed a sudden guilt. "I... so sorry. No hot dog for you. I just give out last one. I could try fish it out of trash?"

"That's, um, not necessary."

But Quina was never one to let good food -- or even bad food -- go to waste. He pushed open the swinging top of the trash bin and tried to stick his spork down it to fish out the hot dog. But the wide bowl of the utensil got stuck in the opening of the trash can. Quina first pushed on it, and, failing that, tried to yank it back out. The spork, however, remained stuck. "Uh-oh. My spoon too big."

Selphie and Zell were watching this spectacle with what began as a sick fascination but was turning quickly into a desire to simply get their food and wash their hands of this mess. (Chu-Chu, of course, was not watching anything; she couldn't see over the counter.) "Hey, can we, uh, just have some ice cream?" Zell asked.

"Yeah, I'll have two scoops of Carob Crunch!"

Quina, however, had bigger problems now. He gripped his fork with both hands and gave it a mighty tongue. The garbage can, sealed to the floor, was ripped right off it. Quina tumbled backwards and landed on his back; the garbage can went flying into the air and spewed its contents all over the floor.

"Um, on second thought, I think we'll go to Choco Bell instead." Selphie's party turned away from the counter and walked out of the line. So much for that idea. Many of the other students who had been close enough to witness the whole affair followed them. It didn't seem like they'd be getting any normal service here any time soon.

But this was not over yet. Quina's eyes quickly scanned the pile of trash and quickly located what he was looking for. He snatched it up and shook off the gum and banana peel. Good as new! He sprung to his feet and took off after Selphie and Zell. "Wait! Wait! I find hot doggie!"

* * *

Yuffie's impact with a rock floor jolted her back to consciousness. She opened her eyes to find herself in something resembling a domed cavern. It would have been a domed cavern, in fact, except that like the rabbit she had been chasing, it was just a white outline defining solid black walls. Curiouser and curiouser!

Yuffie crawled painfully to her feet as the white rabbit dashed by her, squeaking, "Oh my ears and whiskers, how late it's getting!" It wriggled into a hole in the other side of the cavern, compacting its line art body to squeeze through.

"Gawd, wait! Like, come back!" Yuffie ran to the hole and knelt to peer through it. It was only about two feet high, so she had no hope of fitting through, but maybe she could attract the attention of the rabbit somehow. She reached down to stick her hand into the hole and screamed.

Her arm was just a white line.

Compelled by an awful fear, Yuffie looked down only to discover that that her fear was justified. It was not just her arm; her whole body had been turned into an incredibly simplistic white drawing, just like the rabbit she had been chasing. Gawd. How had something like this happened? What could she do about it? She couldn't imagine trying to explain this to her friends or get any help. "Selphie, I've been turned into a stick figure!" "Should I call the modeling agency?" She'd never heard of any affliction like this before. She wasn't even sure how something like this could happen. Was it a virus, or some rare genetic disorder that had laid dormant until now? Maybe she had hit her head in the fall and was now having a bad dream.

A line-art boulder rolled aside and a line-art man in a flashy line-art suit poked his line-art head out of the line-art hole below. "Snootches bootches," he said in greeting. "Hey... wait un momento, you're not xwhiterabbitx."

"Uh, he just, like, went through that hole over there." Yuffie pointed. "I think."

"He's off schedule again," the line-art man sighed. "Thanks anyway, muchacha. Now you can tell all your amigos you got to see the one and only Big Joe... or were you here for los goods too?"

"The goods?" Yuffie said. "You mean ISOs? Um, do you have the Office XP installs?"

"Installs? Que pasa, amiga? We're talking about the goods here... the stuff! Do you want the hook-up or not? I have all the crack that tu quieres."

"Cracks? Well, I normally do ISOs, but sure. Here's my business card. I'm l1ckw1d1c3 from ALBiNOiSO; I used to be just `w4ter, but that nick sucked." Yuffie handed Big Joe her business card as Joe gave her some mushrooms in return.

Big Joe waved. "Pleasure doing business with you, señorita. Say, are you single?"

"Ewwww, grossness!" Yuffie shrieked. "Go away!"

"Ah, que mala suerte. Hasta luego." Big Joe disappeared back down his hole.

Free from the need to carry on conversation, Yuffie quickly reverted back to her usual perplexed lethargy. "Gawd, why did he give me this mushroom? Oh, I bet he hid a CD in here or something. Pretty clever." She took a tenative bite into the mushroom. A blooping sound came out of nowhere and Yuffie immediately began to grow. Ack! Everything was getting smaller and she was getting bigger. She covered her head and pushed down, hoping to somehow push her expanding body back down to normal size. So much for that Calvin Klein job.

Her head smashed through the cave roof as she continued growing. Shortly thereafter, however, she realized that the ground was not getting any further away. She had stopped growing. But, ugh, she was still as big as Billy Corgan's ego. Gawd, everything keeps getting curiouser and curiouser. This must be what is like for Chu-Chu when she's in her giant mode. Feeling even more awkward and clumsy than usual, she pulled herself out of the hole and looked around.

Before her lay a vast sprawl of line-art hills. Gawd, it was all black-and-white out here too. What was going on? Where was she? Where in the world was she? Where was Garden? Gawd, she wished she was back in her room taking a nap. Saving the world could wait, couldn't it? Especially if it entailed meandering around and fighting lots of repeating monsters, as it so often seemed to entail.

"Egads! A giant!" Someone cried from somewhere in the vicinity of her left foot. Yuffie looked down and squinted to make out the speaker. A heavyset man in clunky armor sat astride a chocobe galloping towards her. The chocobo came to a sudden stop and the man toppled off headfirst. He scrambled to his feet and jumped back to his steed. "Fie! Have at you, monster!" The knight thrust his sword into Yuffie's shoe. The blade got stuck halfway through, forcing the man to jump up on the shoe and try to force it in the rest of the way. He gripped the hilt with both hands and rocked it back and forth, burrowing through her shoe.

"Gawd, stop that!" Yuffie shouted. Her voice came out as a thunderous roar. She would have just moved her foot and shaken the knight off, but she didn't want to hurt him. If only people would leave her alone!

The knight finally forced his sword through Yuffie's sock. As soon as the blade made contact with her skin - it felt like a pin prick - she heard another blooping sound and started to shrink. Her assailant sprang back in time to avoid being hit by Yuffie's descending elbow.

Whew, at least I'm normal size again. But the knight was now pointing his sword right in her face. "What foul devilry is this, fiendish witch? You were manyfold times as tall a moment ago!"

Yuffie raised her hands, pleading innocence. "Gawd, I don't know! I just ate this mushroom and it made me get that big! I don't even know where I am, or why everything's black and white! Look, if I was going to hurt you, I would have just stepped on you. Gawd."

The knight couldn't argue with that point. "Right ho." He lowered his sword and saluted. "Captain Adelbert Steiner of the Knights of Pluto at your service, madam! I am in search of our young queen, who has vanished from our palace! I fear she may have been kidnapped by scoundrels. Perhaps you may have seen her; here is her portrait from Beatrix's magic-picture box." He handed Yuffie a photograph of a young woman with long black hair.

Oh, it's Rinoa Heartilly, thought Yuffie. Gawd, I didn't know she was royalty. "Er, yeah, she lives in Balamb; she works as a secretary at B-Garden." "Great Scott!" Steiner was astounded; he had not expected this licentious tramp to have any useful information. "Forced into slave labor! I would never have expected such treachery! I must be on my way at once! The Kingdom of Alexandria is deeply indebted to you for your assistance! Simply name your desire and we will provide for you!"

"Uh, yeah, sure; thanks."

Steiner sprung back on his chocobo and gave the reins a mighty shake. The chocobo took off and promptly threw Steiner onto his face again. Gawd.

Yuffie ventured down the hill. Well, she'd totally lost track of the white rabbit now. But she had to go somewhere - they still wanted her to save the world and, besides, she had no idea how to get back to Garden. It was like Barret always said - there wasn't no gettin' offa this train she was on. She started walking straight ahead through the hills. She was unimaginative like that, and, besides, it made it easier for her to find her way back.

She eventually stumbled across Cait Sith seated at a card table surrounded by books. It took her a moment to recognize him; he too had been reduced to a stick-figure caricature of himself. But the crown, the little boots, the cape, and the air of tactless superiority were unmistakable.

"Hey! Hey! Hey you! Ugly girl!" Cait Sith said, hopping up on the table and grabbing Yuffie's shoulder. "I bet you want to buy a copy of my new autobiography, The Legend of Cait Sith Gets Some."

Yuffie stopped and stared at her archnemesis. "Gawd, why would I want a copy of your autobiography?" she demanded.

Cait Sith held up a copy of his autobiography and tapped its cover. "It's action-packed!" he asserted. "I become the world's youngest Olympic gold medalist at the age of 6, lead a passive resistance movement for India's independence and win the Nobel Peace Prize, thwart a guerrilla uprising by the Nation of Texas, build my own stealth bomber and fight in the Gulf War, save humanity from a deadly virus, and get elected King of the Espers by unanimous vote. And then I marry Luna and we have two beautiful children named Nathaniel and Superfly!"

"Um, I don't believe you that any of that stuff, like, actually happened," Yuffie said levelly.

"Well, of course not," Cait admitted. "But who would want to read about reality? Here, come on, give it a look." He forced a copy of the book into Yuffie's hands. Yuffie idly thumbed through the volume. "What-EVER. I can't believe you'd, like, write stuff that didn't even happen to you."

"Dude, I didn't write this," Cait Sith said, shocked that Yuffie would even suggest such a thing. "What, you think I'm gonna sit down and write a 300-page book?"

"But I thought you said this was your autobiography."

"Well, yeah," Cait admitted. He reached up, forced Yuffie's copy of the book closed, and pointed at the cover. "But it's written by me, 'with' Michael Crichton. Basically, he did all the work while I watched Sailor Moon, but here I am, getting paid. It's pretty cool. And then I've got a sequel coming out in a few months that I'm writing with Tom Clancy, Cait Sith Joins Rainbow Six. This is gonna be the biggest thing since Harry Potter, baby."

Yuffie handed the book back to Cait Sith. "Uh, no thanks. I don't want one," she said.

"These are on sale, dude!" Cait enthused. "Normally they're 12 bucks, but now you can buy one at double the normal price and get a second copy free! I'm cuttin' me own throat!"

"Gawd, I said I don't want one, okay?" Yuffie repeated.

"You're crazy! This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get a copy of the book personally autographed by me!" Cait exclaimed. "If you buy my book, I promise to leave you alone for the rest of the day!"

"Dude, you are, like, totally harassing me 'n stuff."

Cait Sith changed sales tactics. "Man, no one wants to buy this book," he moped. "I spent over two years putting this together and no one cares about my ultimate masterpiece. No one wants to read deep enough to grasp all the hidden meanings and symbolism. I'm a misunderstood, tortured genius! I'll never being recognized for my inner beauty! My life has no meaning now!" He held his forehead and leaned back dramatically in a "woe is me" pose.

"Um, before you kill yourself, can you at least, like, tell me where I should, like, go from here 'n stuff? I'm, like, totally clueless."

"That depends on where you want to go, doesn't it?" Cait Sith snapped, a little annoyed that his theatrics were going as unappreciated as his literary masterpiece.

"Uh, I, like, don't really care... like, wherever, you know?"

"Then it doesn't matter where you go," Cait said. "I'll consider drawing you a map in the front cover of my book if you buy a copy, though."

"Um, I mean, like, I want to go somewhere," Yuffie added.

"Oh, then you're sure to do that, as long as you walk far enough," Cait Sith shrugged. "Preferably very, very far."

Yuffie stomped her feet. Did this stupid cat have a retort for everything she said? "Gawd, you're so mean. All I want to know is, like, where do people live around here?" Cait Sith pointed off to the right. "Kefka lives in that direction," he said. "And in that direction lives a singing crack rabbit. Visit either of them, they're both mad. And are you sure you don't want a copy of my autobiography?"

"Um, like, I don't want to visit people are that mad," Yuffie said. "Aren't there any, you know, normal people? Where's Balamb Garden?"

Cait Sith shrugged. "Oh, you can't help that. We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad. But you more than I."

"Gawd! Stop being mean!"

"Don't shoot the messenger, lady."

"Fine, screw you." Yuffie turned and stormed off to the left.

Cait Sith raised his megaphone to bellow after her. "Hey! Are you sure you don't want to read this gripping page-turner from one of contemporary literature's rising stars! It's packed with twenty-six chapters of non-stop action! And hackneyed melodrama, but you can overlook that, right? Come on, come back and at least look at it!"

* * *

A few hours later, Yuffie still had no clue where she was going, but at least she had wandered out of earshot of Cait Sith's megaphone. Gawd, he seemed to get more annoying every time she had the misfortune of running into him. He was still obsessed with his own non-existent cleverness. Did anyone really care about his dumb novel? So what if he had spent two years on it? It was still just a bunch of self-important crap that bore no meaning to anyone above a third-grade reading level.

Finally, Yuffie stumbled across some sign of civilization: A thatched-roof cottage, or at least what appeared to be one; it was rather to tell when it was nothing but an outline. Yuffie walked up to and pounded on the front door. "Hello?" she called.

One of the window shutters opened and a stick figure wearing large glasses stuck her head out. "Yuffie?" she questioned.

"What?" Yuffie said automatically, then realized with delight who this was. "Oh! Um, are you <=¤[email protected]=f£å®ê666=>?"

But the other stick figure had already retracted her head. She soon opened the door, however, and stood before Yuffie, puffing away on a cigarette. Had they been elsewhere, Yuffie would have seen the woman in her full human form: purple hair, black leather bodysuit, and an NES controller worn as a belt bucket. "Yep, that's me," she answered Yuffie's question. "Nom de reality Lucca Ashtear." She gestured towards the bulky, bipedal robot - also a black-and-white outline, of course - standing behind her. "And this is my partner in crime, _prometheus. An R66-Y model robot, but you can just call him Robo. I'm afraid the other members of our little organization aren't here right now ... d0rmouse and MaD_HaTTeR are tracking down supplies, and xwhitexrabbitx is probably out back getting high again."

"'kay." What else was she supposed to say? Yuffie didn't know anything about this saving-the-world business; she just had to accept what she was told.

"Glad you could make it here, Yuffie. Come on inside." Lucca led Yuffie into the cottage. The living room bore a giant diagram of the Path of Sephiroth on the ceiling and the zesty, refreshing smell of cancer in the air. "This," Lucca said with great self-importance, "is Seraphic Hall."

"Er, okay."

Lucca looked over at her protégé and frowned. Yeah, she was really getting ahead of herself here, wasn't she? The poor girl had no idea of what she had been dragged into. "I suppose I should start from the beginning. But, no, wait ... before we do anything else, you'll need to choose a cool-sounding hacker nickname."

"Um, like l1ckw1d1c3?"

"Yeah, but that's already taken."

"Oh. Well, um, how about SchtolteheimReinbachIII?"

"Taken."

"Gawd!" She scratched her head. "Um, I give up. Do you have any ideas?"

"How about ~*Angel Princess Aeris Til Heartilly-chan-sama-domo-kun-hime*~?"

"Uh, sure." Gawd, I'm never going to remember that.

Lucca grinned. "All right, ~*Angel Princess Aeris Til Heartilly-chan-sama-domo-kun-hime*~, welcome aboard. Now, let me tell you the full story. _prometheus here is actually from three hundred years in your future. A future where humanity has been enslaved by machines and our civilization reduced to a wasteland. I first traveled into this future by accident - I'll spare you the details; it's a long story. Anyway, I met Robo there; he had been deactivated for some time and hadn't been programmed to battle humans like the rest of the machines are. The others are controlled by a 'Mother Brain.' We thought that Mother Brain seized control over the world after a beast called Lavos emerged from the earth and rained destructions from the heavens upon humanity. So we destroyed Lavos. But even after we did, I returned to the future only to see that nothing had changed. It was not just Lavos that had given the machines the opportunity to conquer us."

Gawd, this is confusing.

"Robo and I tried to uncover the real origins of Mother Brain. What had given her the power, the motivation to destroy us? While we were working on this project, he had his memory erased. xwhitexrabbitx and I eventually tracked him down in Esthar City and restored his memory. And before he'd been captured, he'd managed to track down the origins of Mother Brain. It seemed she first appeared as a little-used program hidden in the low-level system architecture of the Sega Dreamcast in your time period. Furthermore, _prometheus was able to pinpoint exactly when Mother Brain launched her attack against humanity: exactly one month from now, on April 5th, at 2:14 AM."

A creaking back door interrupted Lucca's story. The white rabbit staggered into the cottage, clutching the wall for support. "Oh, shit, here comes Vibri," Lucca muttered. "Hey, xwhitexrabbitx! What's up?"

"Me, you stupid bitch! I'm high on crack! Wanna freebase?"

"No, Vibri! Drugs are bad!"

"Pussy!" Vibri staggered further into the room. He tilted back and forth, his eyes wide with wonderment as he beheld things that existed only in his prviate universe. "Whoa, holy shit! The whole room is filled with raccoons! Hey, get off me, you little rat bastards! Hey! Hey!" Vibri hopped around, trying to shake the "raccoons," before toppling over and rolling around the floor. "Augh!"

"Yes, ~*Angel Princess Aeris Til Heartilly-chan-sama-domo-kun-hime*~, this is xwhitexrabbitx."

"White like cocaine!" Vibri giggled.

"He's our recon man."

"Gawd."

"Don't worry, he may be a few Stars of Destiny short of a Liberation Army, but he manages to get the job done somehow."

"It's the drugs, man," Vibri said. "I can see all sorts of stuff." He rolled over and looked at Yuffie. "By the way, I smoke weed."

"Thanks for letting us know," Lucca said, having long ago lost her patience for Vibri's antics. "Anyway, ~*Angel Princess Aeris Til Heartilly-chan-sama-domo-kun-hime*~, as I was saying, the Mother Brain program exists in each Dreamcast. But connected to the Dricas online network, the programs form a collective consciousness that has already become self-aware. And in one month - we're not really sure why she chooses this date - Mother Brain will send a program called the 'Devil Summoning Program' into each Dreamcast connected the network. The Dreamcasts will then all use this Devil Summoning Program to summon from the netherworld an army of ... of, well, mice. And black mages. Don't laugh. I'm serious about this. Under our current timeline, Mother Brain will go on to use her army of mice and mages to topple human civilization. So _prometheus and I formed this organization to stop her and change history. We call ourselves Dunamis; do you know why we're called that?"

"Er, no."

"It's a kind of an angel. And anything named after angel is Important."

"Ah."

"That's an important lesson, Yuffie. Remember it. Anything involving angels or angel wings is Important."

"Um, okay."

Vibri looked up. "I thought we should be called Hashmallim, but I got voted down. And it was such a cool name! Get it? HASHmallim?"

"Yes, Vibri, your wit astounds us all."

"I smoke weed!"

Lucca sighed and lit another cigarette to calm herself. "Anyway, _prometheus and I discovered a way to get inside the Dricas network: by jumping down rabbit holes. Like the one we had xwhitexrabbitx lead you down, for example."

"Wait, you're telling me that we're actually, like, in the Dricas network, like, right now 'n stuff? We’re in a computer?"

"Yes, that's correct," Lucca said patiently. "That's why everything appears as just stick figures. Consider it cyberspace."

"I SMOKE WEED!"

"Freaking shut up, xwhitexrabbitx; you don't need to remind us every two minutes. Anyway, like I was saying, we found a way to get inside the Dricas network and gathered together a small group of followers. Our plan is to destroy Mother Brain from inside cyberspace before she can begin her assault her humanity. We can't beat her entire army, but if we can stop her ... well, you know how it goes; cut off the head and the body dies. It's like a game of chess. We're the white side, and the only way we can win is to checkmate the black king.

"Unfortunately, we haven't made much progress so far. First off, we don't where in cyberspace Mother Brain is. There's a lot of territory inside Dricas, and Mother Brain could take the form of any being she wants inside here. But we're working on that one. The other problem is that we can't defeat Mother Brain by ourselves. This is her territory; she can shape it however she wants. We needed someone with skills greater than ours. So we developed ChuChu Rocket! as an elaborate test to select the one person capable of saving humanity from Mother Brain's army."

"Gawd, it's me, isn't it?"

"Yes, Yuffie. It's you. You're the only one who can manipulate Dricas with enough skill to defeat Mother Brain."

"So, like, you think my video game skills are going to make me an expert warrior in real life?"

"Of course."

Yuffie stopped to consider this, tapping her foot on the floor as the rusty gears in her brain ground painfully to life. "Uh... well, cool, I guess," she said eventually. "Gawd, I should've brought my Power Glove if I'd know I was going to have to, like, play games really good, though."

"Oh, that's no problem." Lucca gestured towards a fax machine sitting in the corner of the room. "This supersonic transportation device will send you back to where you came from. It's my own invention."

Robo tapped a few buttons on the fax, then stepped away from it. The fax machine started ringing. "Go ahead; it's ready. Just climb in the paper slot."

Yuffie stepped with no small degree of apprehension towards the fax. Things kept getting weirder and weirder, but at least she had finally been offered some escape from this endless exposition. She put one foot on the machine. It was sucked painlessly inside. Hey, not bad!

"Please come back as soon as you can," Lucca said. "Remember, you can't let us down. You're OUR SAVIOR, Yuffie. Our own personal JESUS CHRIST."

Yuffie frowned. "Gosh, it's almost like they're trying to imply some sort of symbolism here, but I can't quite put my finger on it."

"I smoke weed!"

Chapter Text

It was a beautiful spring day. The Garden quad radiated and its inhabitants radiated with that collective beauty that emerged when everything seemed to be serving such a perfect place in the world. People were happy, the sun was shining, and the sky was so perfectly uniformly blue it looked like it had been created by a Photoshop paint bucket and was just waiting to be digitally replaced with the Coruscant skyline.

One could find a dozen tales to be told in just this moment. Every student passing through this quad carried one. Some were heading to or from their classes. Others were no doubt visiting friends, mentors, or lovers. Some had come here to chat with friends, play frisbee, or simply enjoy the weather. One could latch onto any one of these lives, hit fast forward or rewind, and be treated a story like no other. For while all these life stories intertwined at this moment, they stemmed from sources wide and far apart and would again someday diverge into all walks of life.

But to Mikoto Tribal, it was all nothingness. The teenaged Garden cadet stood apart from the crowd, projecting a wave of silent antagonism that repelled anyone who would have any dealings with her. That was fine with Mikoto - human interaction was extra work that yielded no discernible reward. She certainly was not one of those people inclined to think that the glass was half full, nor even that it was half empty. No, Mikoto was one of those rare people who were convinced that the glass was completely empty.

Her monkey tail twitched with irritation at the pathetic facade surrounding her. Couldn't these people see how pointless their lives were? How meaningless it was to celebrate good weather when it would be gone tomorrow? There were probably several billion people on the planet, and billions more through history. How could they be so foolish as to think that they were somehow special or unique? They would all be gone someday, and the world would still be there. (And she didn't believe in reincarnation because she refused to come back as a bug or as a rabbit.) The world did not care about them. They were not needed. They were not important.

And the prospect of anything could offer her salvation from her post-post-post-post-post-ironic hell was scoff-inducing indeed. Art? There was no new commentary on the human experience, nothing to say about the universe that had not already been said. Science? Medicine? There was no reason to bother prolonging meaningless lives. Politics? Good would always come to the wicked and evil to the virtuous; she could not change that. Love? No relationship lasted, and, besides, it was silly to think that someone else was really important. Athletics? A purely artificial facade to promote meaningless accomplishments. Fandom? Consumerism? Much as she liked them, no Radiohead song could make her life complete.

No, like all things, she was nothing. Life was one big fat clich Truth was not really stranger than fiction; they were both equally boring. Tragic downfall, romantic comedy, action-packed disaster thriller -- everyone, everything was just a genre. There was nothing new under the sun. And nothing hurt like nothing at all.

Some told her that the universe was one big Rorschach test. It wasn't designed to mean anything; it was only a prompt for her to define her own reality. But to Mikoto, such an explanation only revealed how truly futile it was to search for meaning in the empty shell of existence. If nothing truly meant anything, pretending it did for your own sake was only a sick, cruel joke. Why think the sky was beautiful? Someone else probably thought it was ugly. Nothing was worth caring about once she accepted the emotional holocaust of relativism.

Oh, once, perhaps, humanity had been able to hide inside the comforting illusion that their decisions meant something. Then, they were all individual beings and their actions were born from God-given free will. They had real control over their decisions and when they stumbled, it was because of something of comforting cosmic significance, like the devil. Even later, when their personalities only stemmed from how they treated as a baby and whether their id and superego were in check, they could pretend that they were somewhat unique.

But what were they now? Decaying lumps of organic matter, that was all. They had no real personality, no free will, no identity, only various chemicals floating around their brain. Their problems did not stem for any ultimate personification of evil but a bunch of amino acids. How humiliating to be reduced to nothing more than a chemical equation. But the truth was always ugly and depressing. They were all only machines. So why bother feeling anything? Feelings weren't real.

She put little faith in this whole "soul" thing. Supposedly they were made real human beings into unique people. Supposedly she had one too. Supposedly she wasn't supposed to be a mere machine like the rest of the Genomes. But that was only what the dumb ones claimed so they could rationalize denying the truths she spoke. The only thing she had over them was an extraordinary intellect that allowed her to grasp the emptiness of the universe. She was not missing the point - they were. They were all like the Genomes. Worthless, empty automatons.

And so she had made it her solemn duty to remind everyone else at Garden of just how cosmically insigificant their lives were. If someone had forced her to justify this behavior - if everything was meaningless, did it matter if others had deluded themselves into believing they were meaningful - she wouldn't really have been able to come up with a logical, rational explanation. Logic, rational explanations were the only ones that counted, of course. And yet she found raining on everyone else's parades to be entertaining in some perverse way, or at least cathartic. Misery loved company, and Mikoto's was looking for a block party. And, hey, it wasn't her fault! It was those dastardly chemical imbalances again.

"Hey, you stupid punk, take a copy of my 'zine," she said, thrusting a few photocopied sheets of paper towards Zell. "Look, the name is in all lower-case letters and all the words are strung together. I'm so indie it hurts. The Strokes are the saviors of rock'n'roll."

Did he politely take the 'zine and damn himself to a conversation with Mikoto, even though it would probably turn nasty? Or did he blow her off now and try to minimize the damage? The latter was probably the better option, but by the time he had decided so, he already allowed himself to stop and take a copy of the 'zine. Damn, he was such a chickenwuss.

Zell paged through the photocopied sheets. He had to think something polite to say to end the conversation before Mikoto started spewing more hyperbole than an eBay feedback profile. But he was failed. He cringed when Mikoto began, "Check out my glowing review of the new They Moved the Tomb, But They Didn't Move the Bodies. It's a brilliant mix of atonal synthesizers, grating vocals, unmelodic guitar feedback, and unintelligible lyrics that is guaranteed to make your ears uncomfortable, your head throb with pain, and your mind reel. It's fantastic. Radiohead are the saviors of rock'n'roll."

Oh, brother. Zell was already deeply regretting getting involved this. Now he was all pissed off at Mikoto's stupid snobbery. But he couldn't leave now! That would be like admitting that Mikoto was right! No, he had to fix this mess and force Mikoto to admit that she was just plain wrong! (Because, truth be told, he was kind of worried she might be right.) "Yeah? What's so fantastic about making music that sucks?"

"Because it's art, you wiseass uncultured ninny. You wouldn't understand."

Sure, Mikoto. Whatever you say. He had been idly flipping through the pages while listening to her, and suddenly his eyes fell on one of her less glowing reviews. "What the hell?" he exclaimed. "You gave ONE STAR to Collective Wang's 'Tan Album'?"

Mikoto snorted. Stupid teenagers. "Yes, Mr. Punky Punk, I gave it one star because it was incredibly trite and generic pop crap. Anyone who purchases such dreck is only entering into what Marx called a 'false consciousness,' whereby their purchase of manufactured vicarious experiences of angst and rebellion has somehow liberated us from the endless nothingness and futility of your chemically-inbalanced existence. And yet despite the fleeting illusion of cosmic significance, we remain trapped in the unfathomable nightmare that is our self-made post-modern apocalypse. Art is dead. The Strokes are the saviors of rock'n'roll."

This was all a gross affront to Zell's punk sensibilities, and he could not keep his mouth shut. "Look, it's music, not mathematics." Music was supposed to be about feeling, not masturbating over your time signatures! Who cared if you were new and original? As long as you were doing to meant something to you! And so what if you only knew three chords and had no fancy electronic instruments? At least you felt something! That was the things were supposed to be. Nature abhorred a music critic.

"Yes, but what is music but an endless counter-culture pissing contest?"

"Music!" Zell hurled the 'zine to the ground in disgust. Dammit, Mikoto could get under his skin almost as much as Seifer did. It was like she was trying to find the most annoying, frustrating arguments to make. On second thought, she probably was.

"Yes, and if music isn't utterly dour and depressing, it's stupid pop crap. Art is all about making people feel that their lives are futile and meaningless, you know. After all, emotion has been completely played out, and if it's not brilliant and revolutionary, there's no point in doing it. Everything you think has already been thought by someone else. Interpol are the saviors of rock'n'roll."

Zell snorted. "Your words are as empty as your soul! Rock'n'roll has ill need of saviors such as yourself!" Total ridiculous melodrama, of course, but there was no better way to get a cynic's goat. He knew that, just as it irritated him that nothing he said could make Mikoto care about life, in turn drove up her up that wall that she could not turn him into an emotionless cynic. And if he couldn't win an argument, well, there was still plenty of satisfaction to be found in being a complete pain in the ass.

Besides, he did agree with what he was saying. He hated the idea that they all needed saving from themselves. Like Mikoto was really any better than they were. He wasn't even sure why he bothered getting upset by it, because he knew that the cynics lost out in the end. No matter what any intellectual snobs or corporate tools might say, people would go on liking what they wanted to and doing what they wanted to do. The glory of it all was that most people didn't care if their favorite bands was cosmically insignificant. Because it mattered to them. And wasn't that good enough?

"Oh yeah?" Mikoto continued her assault. "Do you want to be uncool? Huh? Do you? Wilco are the saviors of rock'n'roll!"

"I don't see how it's 'cool' to spend all your life bitching and complaining."

"Because the world bores you when you're cool." How more obvious could she get?

Zell giggled on the inside as he continued playing the drama queen. He picked up the 'zine just so he could slam it on the ground again in disgust. Then, in case his point wasn't clear enough, he stepped on and ripped it with his foot. "I guess I'm not very cool, then, huh?"

* * *

Cid Kramer, Headmaster of Balamb Garden, studied the map before him. The positions of various military forces around the world had been carefully marked and measured, and Cid now tried to envision their movement around the globe. The gazes of the others around the table -- Edea, Xu, and Quistis -- remained fixed on him, as everyone waiting for him to make the critical decision. Cid wrung his hands underneath the table, trying to clear away his remaining doubts and bring himself to take action.

"All right," he declared at last, "I'm attacking the Cape of Good Hope from Irzvjkusktcha."

Just as he was about to roll the dice, the elevator from the lower level arrived with a ding. Cid quickly slipped the dice and Risk cards under the map and feigned poring over the map. "There's one Mr. Niccolo to see you, Cid," Rinoa reported. "He sounds pretty angry -- he's talking about a lawsuit or something. Probably another greedy Wall Street bastard."

Cid scratched his head. "Send up him, then," he said.

Rinoa pushed a button and dropped out of sight. The elevator returned about a minute later, carrying a fat brown rabbit, who in turn held a long scroll of paper. Niccolo began rolling the paper up, pulling up still more of it through the slit in the floor surrounding the elevator platform.

"Looks like Santa Claus is going to be busy this year," Quistis observed.

Niccolo continued rolling up the paper as he faced Cid. "Mr. Kramer, I have in my hands a list of 5,343 card-carrying members of... er, I mean, museum pirates, operating out of this very school. I'll be seeing you in court."

Cid adjusted his glasses and peered through them at the rabbit. "What in heavens' name are you talking about?"

"Don't pretend you don't know!" Niccolo hopped from big foot to the other, about to explode with anger. He was still unrolling the paper. "I know you're personally responsible for this, Kramer! You've cheated me out of hundreds of thousands of lucre from our new 'World's Most Exciting Napkins' exhibit at the Balamb Museum of Natural History! This is stealing!" He finished curling up the paper into a six-inch-thick roll and thrust it at Cid. "And here's the evidence!"

Cid began unrolling the list, scanning Niccolo's list of names and their alleged crimes. "Why, this is nearly every student and SeeD at Garden!"

"That's right!" Niccolo continued. "All those damn college kids, treating my museum like a commodity! You're not getting away with this, Batman!"

"Um, I'm not Batman."

"Well, whoever you are, you're not getting away with this!"

Cid sighed. "Mr. Niccolo, I'm afraid there's no way you can hold Balamb Garden liable for what our students do on their own time."

"Well, I feel like suing , dammit!" Niccolo stomped one of his massive feet. "We have to nip this problem in the bud! In five years, we may have the technology to download movies. Anyway, this Kisaragi has flagrantly and willfully violated my copyrights on the World's Most Exciting Napkins exhibit. How can she do this? How can she do this? She seems to think that her existence is so important as to allow her to rewrite all the rules to suit her. How dare she! All the customers that support my company will PAY for this! I'll hack all their computers if I have to!

"Is that even legal?" Quistis cut in.

"I'll make it legal." Niccolo's tail twitched what seemed to be barely concealed glee at the prospect of taking his revenge on the pirates. "Anyway, Mr. Kramer, I plan to deal with Kisaragi myself. I expect you not to interfere or Niccolo Group, a proud subsidiary of NORG Holdings, Inc., registered trademark, patent pending, may have to institute a little 'regime change' here at Balamb Garden. Heheheh." Having delivered his ultimatum, he stepped back onto the elevator and descended.

"NORG!" Cid muttered through clenched teeth. "I should have known that bastard would be behind something like this!" He took off his glasses and idly polished them, already planning what to do about this latest crisis.

Meanwhile, Niccolo had descended the elevator to the office lobby. The Bumbling Recurring Minor Villains Local #203 now packed the place, marching around and waving their "More hit points, fewer elemental weaknesses" signs.

"Support your local minor villains!" Dominia accosted Niccolo. "We keep your heroes harassed so you don't have to!"

He pushed her picket sign out of his face. "Oh yeah? There's a bunch of rabble-rousing kids right here in this school that could stand to 'disappear.' I've got more cash that I know to do with if you can stop these kids from cutting into my profits!"

* * *

Zell was still grumbling about it, but Selphie would not let Mikoto's misanthropy ruin their chance to take advantage of the fine weather. A bit of gentle goading on her part was enough to get him in her bright yellow PokéBeetle, and they cruised over to the old part of town. Especially on the side of town near B-Garden, Balamb was draped in the necessary college-town trappings that made it more or less an extension of Garden. But closer to the ocean, that zeitgeist faded away, and what was left looked much more like the town's humble fishing-village beginnings.

While Selphie certainly appreciated the amenities Balamb offered her, it delighted her to know that more could be found to explore beyond it. Barely a trace of Balamb's other life as a beacon of higher education could be found in this quiet little world, tucked away where there were no parking lots, just ocean-weathered storefronts and tiled roofs that didn't match the ones next door. Time stood still for them here; they had ventured out of the range of the troubles and duties that plagued their mundane lives. Here they could get blissfully lost in what might as well have been a prive fantasy universe created only to be discovered by them. It was like they had jumped through one of the paintings in Princess Peach's castle and ended up in an entirely different universe of cozy bookstores and little family-owned restaurants.

Selphie had parked the PokéBeetle as soon as she had found a spot that accomodated the vehicle's Pikachu-styled tail, and she and Zell meandered hand-in-hand down the sidewalk. What a wonderful feeling it was not to be going anywhere. Free from the burden of a destination, they could choose their path anew at each new corner, following only whatever struck their fancy at the moment. And plenty did: wonderful views of the ocean, a child's chalk art (including a cute moogle) on the sidewalk, an old water wheel...

"I still don't see why she has to be such a snob." Zell refused to let the matter drop. "Who cares if what's been done before? I mean, everything's been done before in some way; that doesn't mean we still can't find them interesting. It's about the feeling, it's about your own personal experience!"

"Well, I agree with you about that," Selphie said. She didn't usually mind his rants about music, but she had been trying just for this afternoon to get away from this kind of bickering. "Unfortunately, much as I sometimes wish I could, we can't force anyone to enjoy life."

"Yeah, but what else can we do but try?"

But even Zell's righteous fury could not survive long when taken out of its natural habitat. Standing on a slightly curvy gravel road, breathing in the sea air and watching the fishing boats go about their business in the ocean, any anger at all seemed so groundless. Things all seemed to fit together out here. A soft, gentle flow of life like the calm waves that rolled gently through the bay. Violence and struggle were the products of conflict, but here there seemed to be none. Oh, he knew that was not really the case. There were plenty of problems in any town, in any way of life, and he would have to be a hopelessly naïve tree-hugging F.H.er to believe this was some kind of utopia. But it was nice to see what else was out there, to get pushed out into the giant diverse world that he kept forgetting about, so that he could remember that his problems did not define the earth. His existence was so wrapped up in - measured by, even - SeeD and punk bands that it was easy to forget that so much more was going on around him. Or that one's existence could be measured by standards other than his own. It was relaxing, really; if his life wasn't such an impending crisis of global proportions, he could devote more time to enjoying himself and less time to justifying his existence.

Selphie seemed to be sharing his thoughts, for she murmured, "Zell, have you ever thought about how much stuff there is in the universe? Not just planets and stars and atoms, but ... something new and unique in every little corner of our world. I mean, there could be one kind of tree and we'd get by, but there's hundreds and that's so much more interesting. And the crazy part is that there's probably someone out there who specializes in studying each kind. There's just so much to know about this universe, it's amazing. Thousands upon thousands of different animal species, millions of people each with a story... books and books and books and music, different cultures around the world, every city with its own personality, the physics of a catapult and the genealogy of your best friend's family. We tend to do the same thing every day but in truth there's so much out there to be explored and discovered we could take lifetimes and never see it all."

"Yeah," he murmured. He wasn't sure what else to say. He wanted to express how much he agreed, but Selphie had already put it so beautifully he didn't think he could improve on it any. That was often the case. So many times it felt like she had not just yanked his thoughts right of his head but brought them into focus, touched them up, and presented them back to him with crystal-clear precision. Twice as magnificent, twice as understandable as they had been in his head. He fumbled to contribute something to this masterpiece. "I think everything in the world is interesting and worthwhile in some capacity. I mean ... it's so easy these days to deny that things even have a right to exist. People just say they 'suck'; they don't even have to give a reason, any form of useful criticism. One word takes away its whole place in the universe! But, you know, if it means something to someone, anyone ... it's not worthless at all. And pretty much everything is admired by someone." After all, wasn't that he had been arguing with Mikoto about? Mikoto thought everything was a cliché, that the world was boring and had to come up with something new to interest her. But he liked a lot of what was already there. Too bad that it didn't matter that he thought Rectal Genocide's self-titled was great; as long she didn't, they sucked and shouldn't exist.

It kind of surprised him, but he was really starting to notice a change in himself. It wasn't too long ago that he would have spent this whole trip griping about Mikoto and mentally noting things that "sucked." But ... while he had never made a conscious decision to shy away from that, he found his feelings swaying in that direction less and less. He couldn't totally put into words yet because he wasn't sure what it was; it had sort of snuck up on him. But days like this made it hard to deny that it existed. He felt like he had gotten back in touch with something he had lost somewhere: an interest in the world. He was starting to wake up to the beauty that lay right under his nose. His life, as of late, was more a competition than anything else, an ongoing struggle against his inner Mikoto to justify his existence. But he remembered a time when he could afford to take an interest in things other then the newest, most underground punk bands and other armaments in his war against worthlessness. But once, every bit of the world seemed to exist to be explored, understood, and incorporated into his life. An endless playground, not an endless battlefield.

He missed that. He certainly had been a lot more excited to be alive back then, and he had felt a lot more secure about his own worth. But, alas, that was irrelevant now. He had already chosen his path. Even if he wasn't happy with his direction, how could he ever hope to make up all the time had lost? Others had used this time to advance their understanding of the world, build friendship and careers, master their favorite activities, and all he had to show for it was the original vinyl release of the Filth Brigade's seminal record Bloodsucking Penis Fish.

They ate lunch - Balamb fish, of course - in a little restaurant with a rather nice view of the ocean. Had a lovely talk about SeeD and their friends, about how happy they were with how things seemed to be going these day. Even got to sit by the window. Selphie was beaming. Zell was doing flips that he was finally able to offer her something besides whining.

Their travels took them next by a row of houses. They couldn't go in any place here, but that was fine. Houses fascinated Selphie. It would have been easy for them to all be identical, yet they came in so many designs, sizes, and colors. Sometimes lots of houses were built from the same plans, yet they still ended up different once living souls got into them. Some kept up their yards; others didn't. Some hung lots of decorations out front, or in the windows; some were more staid. Some had gardens; others water slides for their children. She thought it was cool how their residents managed to reshape the same clay to suit the many varying sculptures they had in their heart. Everyone wanted something a little different out of a house. She imagined living in each one. Sure, she had already had her home (even if it was only a dorm room), but every other one had its own life. They were only other houses to her, but they were all home to someone. One family's life revolved around each of these domiciles. So she could not be too quick to write them off for not being the home she had become attached to; someone out there was attached just as much to each one. It was fun - and, she thought, eye-opening - to consider herself being in each of these other lives.

They passed by a dollar store and - at Selphie's suggestion - peeked inside. That, Zell, noted was the difference between Selphie and boring people like him. He knew he would have walked right by that store and never even considered going in. Wouldn't have stopped to wonder what was inside. It was for other people; it wasn't what he had already declared important to him. But Selphie wanted to explore. Selphie wanted to discover. Selphie wanted to examine everything around her and find out how to draw new value from it into her own life.

And that was exactly what she was doing right now: rummaging through various bins of junk looking for anything she might be happy she found. Zell wasted no time in following in lead. Sure, most of what he found were irrelevant trinkets, but that was okay. It was fun actually looking for interesting things instead of looking for ways to explain why interesting things weren't really interesting, you stupid poseur. Selphie probably felt this way all the time. Hyne, how awesome that would be. But ... he wasn't sure he could do it. He could if he made a conscious effort to go out of his way to try new things. But it wasn't in him naturally, not the way it seemed to be Selphie. Or at least not yet.

"Ooh, this is kind of pretty." Selphie sifted out a Rubik's Cube adorned with pictures of stars and planets instead of colored dots. She picked up the toy and started fiddling with it. "I had one of these a long time ago; I could never solve the darn thing." Well, it seemed kind of fun and was certainly worth the cheap price. She liked stars.

He kept scouring the shelves while Selphie went to purchase the Rubik's Cube. Besides all the generic household goods, there were some odd items. A horribly chintzy Winhill: The Good Life map, some "Gnu Canoe Camp" placemats, a bobble-headed Laguna doll (part of a larger Bobble-Headed Leaders of the World set, according to the package). Zell briefly thought about getting the doll for Selphie, but it looked so stupid it probably sacrilege her idol.

He moved on and found a row of bright-colored Pokémon tumblers. Hey, there was Charmander; that was Selphie's favorite! Now if only could he find his favorite, he could make a cute set. He shifted the glasses around - he even took a few rows fof the shelves entirely and set them on the ground - until he finally found an Electabuzz. Heheh, awesome. Sure, they weren't fantastic purchases -- he figured they'd rarely, if ever, actually use the glasses. But they'd be a reminder of not just a happy excursion but one that Zell would probably later come to regard as something of a turning point. That was worth a few gil.

It wasn't until recently that Zell had come to see the value of souvenirs - probably because it wasn't that long ago that he didn't do anything worth having a souvenir from. But now he wanted to crystallize every uplifting feeling in a photo or snowglobe or postcard. Then they could be carried with him forever - not just in his mind but in his room and in his pocket, so that when they escaped his mind something would be there to put them back in mind. He liked having these reminders of how much he had in his life, how much the world had it in itself. Not only could they opened the door back to happy times when the only ones around him were miserable, they empowered him to make his life and the world better. Too much existed for him not to do his part for it all.

Selphie appeared behind him, staring over his shoulder at the glasses. He chuckled. "I thought I'd get these a souvenir," he explained. "Here's my Electabuzz and here's your Charmander."

"Cool. Go pay for 'em; I'll pick up this mess." He did, and she did.

"Thanks for waiting," he said as they left the store.

"No problem."

Their hands found each other again and they set out again to explore. Selphie spotted a gardening store and stopped to pick up a plant for Quistis' garden - the one in her new backyard, not the one where she worked. As they were walking away, Zell felt the slight tingle of movement on his shoulder. He looked down. A tiny Bite Bug had landed on his left shoulder and was crawling down his sleeve. Zell carefully lifted the insect off with his other hand, walked back to the storefront, and set it down in a flowerpot. "There you go, little fellow."

Selphie looked at him with some amusement. "You could have just squished it, you know."

Gah, how could he answer this without sounding totally self-serving? He really wasn't doing to prove anything, it was just the way he did. "I just don't like hurting things," he said in something of a protest. Ugh, he wasn't trying to be so obnoxiously nice, but he could hardly bring himself to do anything else with the poor bug. "I mean ... it was just doing all it knows to do; it doesn't deserve to have its life snuffed out. It's like I said, everything in the universe is worth something." He frowned and rubbed the back of his neck, trying to deflate some of the embarrassing pretentiousness he'd just wrapped himself in. No luck -- his cheeks were already warming up. "Gosh, that sounds so dumb, I know..."

She grinned and gave him a playful elbow. "No, it's not; it's sweet, and I agree with you. Stop being so embarrassed about being yourself."

"Yeah, yeah, I know."

She smiled and looked at him. "Are you having a good time?" It seemed like he was but she sometimes worried that on the inside he was wishing he could be doing something more him.

"Absolutely." Too bad he didn't have more to say than that. He wanted her to understand how he really saw the world, what he was thinking, how he wanted to be in that other world, but ... he just didn't have the words. His thoughts and feelings knew no language. He could try to pluck them down from the sky, force them into the little color-coded bottles of words, and stack them on sorted shelves where others could identify them without having to think about them. But he always lost something that way, like shrinking a great mural down to a thumbnail photograph.

She grinned. "Good, I am too. Thanks for coming along; I know this isn't really your thing."

But it is, Selphie, it is; don't you see? he wanted to say. Alas, she was probably right, though. He could learn all the customs and ways of this world, stand with his face pressed up against the glass, but he would never truly be a part of it. Twenty years on the outside had already sealed his fate. His brain programming was already stuck on "elitist punk." He could not suddenly jump from one track to another, from one Zell to another Zell, any more than he could suddenly be Irvine or Rinoa or Fujin. He had made his choice, and even if he wasn't completely happy, he had to learn to live with it.

But at least it gave him plenty to think about on the drive home.

* * *

When they got back to Garden, they found Squall sitting on the front steps, staring morosely at the ground. "Hi, Squall, what's up? You look down."

But Zell diagnosed the specific nature of the problem immediately. "Holy Penny Arcade reference, Batman; he's turned into an !"

Yes, it was true. Squall had traded in his fur jacket and Griever for thick-rimmed black glasses, a slightly worn button down shirt, a fuzzy brown sweater, and dyed-black hair. The newly refashioned Emo Squall sipped black coffee and wrote depressing poetry in his diary as the Get Up Kids blasted through his headphones. Zell immediately found himself attempting to restrain his urge to comment on this. He knew that it wasn't any of his business how Squall dressed, but he simply couldn't wrap his mind around a point of view from which Squall's pathetic trend-jumping could be justifiable. How could anyone be this fantastically dumb?

That question once again proved too much for him to handle. "What the hell's gotten into you?" he exploded. "Did you junction 100 Ultimas onto your retardation statistic or what? I like your clothes too; did you buy them at Hot Topic? Listen, noodlehead, this may come as a great shock to you, but there are other emotions besides whining over ex-girlfriends. And since when did crappy acoustic rock become the only music with emotions in it? Huh?"

Squall looked even more hurt and confused than he had before. He knew Zell had quite a complex concerning other people's tastes in music, but as Squall so rarely cared about anything, this was the first time he'd actually been confronted by it. It was rather unsettling. This was his personal business, and he didn't know how -- or why he should need -- to justify it to Zell. "What do you have against emo? I think it’s deep and sensitive.”

"It's music for children, like Chuck E. Cheese!" Zell raged. "Being whiny and heartbroken doesn't make emo bands cool, it makes them ineffectual, self-important losers! Trying to outdo each others' whininess is just as much of a pissing contest as the undirected alpha-male anger they claim to be above! The only thing that these bands wear on their sleeves is their mindless trend-jumping! How can you listen to this garbage?"

"It speaks to me," Squall sniffled.

"But it's totally generic pop crap! If it speaks to you, you must be generic too!" Selphie looked curiously at Zell. Perhaps it had been only a passing comment, but she thought she just might have figured something out. "Why would you care about whiny emo music, anyway? You have a girlfriend!"

"No, I don't. I was dumped." Squall sniffled again and took a sip of coffee.

"Oh. Uh, oops." Damn him and his big mouth. Now he'd made a total ass of himself again. Not that the truth made Squall's pathetic bellyaching any less irritating - but it did make this an inappropriate time for Zell to harass him about it. Squall had enough real problems to deal with. On the other hand, Squall would have no trouble finding plenty of 15-year-old girls to fawn over him and his "sensitive" emo glasses. "Hey, I didn't know; I'm really sorry to hear. I know that must be really hard, and I'm sorry I flipped out at you..."

Squall sighed. "Maybe if I learned to play acoustic guitar really badly she'd take me back. I think girls go for guys who play acoustic guitar really badly. Or I could get a little rectangular goatee. Do you guys think I'd look good with a little rectangular goatee?"

"Squall, why don't you explain what happened?" Selphie suggested. "Maybe you'll feel better if you talk about it some."

"I don't know what happened," he whined. "Rinoa asked me the other day where I thought our relationship was headed. I said 'wherever you think it is,' and then she got all mad at me and started saying I was a pathetic spineless leech who didn't have any opinions of his own. She said the only place our relationship was headed right off a cliff and into a flaming, smoking wreck of twisted parts and lots of shrapnel jabbing into your eyes. I guess I didn't give her the right answer; what did she want me to say?" He sighed dramatically once again. "Sometimes I think that love is just another word for pain."

WHOA, HOLY SHIT, THAT WAS INSIGHTFUL! Zell's cynical side hurled sarcasm at Squall in the safe testing ground of his imagination. He knew he shouldn't be so jaded - and he did recognize that Squall was understandably crushed - but did emo boy have to be so melodramatic about it? Whining and feeling sorry for himself wasn't going to change anything aside from making Squall feel even worse. Granted, that was Squall's decision, but every time Zell tried not to take it too seriously, there was Squall sitting there in his stupid glasses, taking everything far too seriously, and ... ugh.

"And did she talk to me in person? Call me? No, she did it over Hotmail. So not only was my heart being ripped out and shredded, I had to look at an ad for the X10 WIRELESS VIDEO CAMERA."

TINY WIRELESS VIDEO CAMERA!!!

"Then she told me she was furnisexual and she only wanted to date chairs." Squall shook his head. "I can't believe my girlfriend left me for a piece of furniture. Is she just tired of dealing with humans? Is it something I did? If everyone's a little furnisexual, why can't she be a little anthrosexual?"

Selphie frowned and fidgeted with the heel of her shoe. What comforting words could she offer him, especially since he'd already more or less made up his mind to be miserable? "Things don't work out the way we'd like them to, Squall, I know..."

"Well, they should," he declared. "We were as good as married in my mind! How could this happen?"

A few raindrops splashed on Selphie's head. "It's starting to rain," she cautioned. She didn't want to act like she was ignoring his woes, but issues like that did need addressing. "Maybe you should come outside. We could do something together."

Squall shrugged. "Nah. The world always rains on me anyway. It's no difference."

"Well, okay... if you say so..."

"Maybe I should get a tattoo," he mused as his friends departed. "They hurt like I do."

* * *

"I don't know why I let that sort of thing bother me so much," Zell confessed to Selphie as they were walking back through the hallway. "I know it's silly and dumb and doesn't matter and is hence nothing to get upset about. I know I haven't change anything by making fun of him. I guess my mind just boggles to think that there are still people who are that much of a ridiculous stereotype. I don't know how to process it." How could he not laugh at emo kids? Tattoos that "hurt like I do"...

But Selphie had an inkling of her own. "Zell, something you said to him made me think. About how if Squall liked generic music, he must be generic too. And ... that's it, isn't it? The reason you only listen to obscure punk bands. You're afraid of being generic, aren't you? You're worried that you're not doing enough to justify your existence when there's so many others like you. That's it, right?"

Yikes. Was that it? It almost made sense. He'd never conceived of that idea, had certainly never consciously thought that way, but it did seem awfully fitting. "Maybe. Yeah, I guess so. I mean, I'd say that I want to matter, to not be another whiny dork thinking his trite problems are important when they're actually shared by tens of thousands of other people just like him. But I know I matter to you."

"You matter to a lot of other people, too."

"I know," he said. "I guess it's more that I'm worried that I'm going to come to a bad end because of what I am. I mean, in general, white middle-class males are a crappy bunch of people, right? Look at Squall. Look at . I don't want to be another beer-swilling, Maxim-reading alpha male fratboy, and I don't want to be a helpless codependent emo kid, but what else is there for people like me? I want to be different; I want to be a nice and lovable person, but I know it's unreasonable for me to expect that I won't turn out just like them. I'm scared," he confessed with a whimper. He hadn't meant to go on like that, but thinking about it had really set off a flood. She had been right. That was his problem. And once he realized it, his thoughts all seemed to fall into place and his feelings made a bit more sense. His worries were not any less great, but at least he understood what he was worrying about. That was a step in the right direction.

He hated the fact that so much of the world threatened his individuality. It terrified him. He knew that as a well-to-do white male all his thoughts were inherently suspect, knew that it would be all too easy for him to drown in the same social programming that created all the other Seifers of the world. And he hated the haunting appeal of those roles. More than anything, the reason he couldn't stand to hear mainstream music was that he didn't totally hate it - and that proved that deep down inside, he really was the same as Seifer. So he had to struggle to not let his inner nastiness infect the world. His morality needed to be kept precisely honed. One false step, one band he liked that he wasn't supposed to, and ... whoosh! There went his entire value as a human being! On the run from himself, that's what he was. But at the same, his curious side resented being walled off from so much of the world. So what if he did like the occasional rap-rock song? He should be able to take in everything that made him happy.

But could he risk it? Could he risk letting the possible biases of his privileged background dissuade him from doing the right thing? If he always assumed he was wrong, well, no one could ever accused him of being morally bankrupt.

Selphie stared out the sides of the walkway and watched the rain beat against the glass. Good thing they'd gotten inside when they had. She could not help but be frustrated with Zell's determination to turn himself into a pariah. But she wasn't mad at him, really. She knew he meant well and that he was trying not to be this way. She just wished she could find the right things to say to break him out of this mess. Because once Zell managed to talk himself back out of the corners he'd talked himself into, he stayed out. One-winged angels, she reminded herself.

"I understand," she said after she had finished contemplating her reply. "No one wants to be thought of as just a stereotype. I know that some people still think of me as a bubbly, ditzy airhead and it frustrates me that I can't always get taken seriously. But being different for the sake of being different is no different than falling in the line for the sake of being normal. We're snowflakes, Zell. Everyone's a little different. You, me, Seifer, Squall... we're never going to be each other, so don't think that because we have things in common means we'll do other things the same way. Everyone thinks for themselves. You don't have to make yourself unique; you already are just by existing and nothing will ever change that. And even if you do have your faults, so what? No one's perfect. You're holding yourself to too high a standard, Zell. Don't forget to care about yourself just as much as you care about everyone else."

Zell grinned. He knew he needed to hear this - wanted to hear this. It might take some more beating in before it actually started to change his thinking, but, really, he knew that he had believed in his heart all along. And so he welcomed hearing it from someone he knew had nothing but his best interests in her heart. "Yeah, I know. Sometimes I just need to hear it in words to get it through my skull. Thanks."

She had one last thought to add. "Zell, if you hate yourself for being white or male or straight or whatever ... that's no different than hating other people because of their gender or race or sexual orientation. Now, I remember when you went to great lengths to prove you weren't homophobic, and I know you're not that kind of person. So don't be heterophobic either, okay?"

She was right, of course; she always was. He felt a little bad because she'd already given him all the answers he needed and he'd failed to live up to them. But after he'd spent so placing obligations on himself, it was so hard to break them - even though he knew in his hear that he didn't deserve them. "Yeah. It's not easy," he said. "I guess I need to listen more to the people who care about me and less to Mikoto."

"Well, there you have it." She grinned and poked him in the ribs. "Besides, what could be more punk rock than listening to widely-reviled sappy pop music and refusing to give a damn about what anyone else thinks about it?"

Chapter Text

Ants. Robots, drones, insects. Chemical imbalances with legs. That was what Mikoto would have called all the people walking beneath Selphie's window. Too many identical lives, too many people going through motions that meant nothing.

But Selphie liked people. Watching them fascinated her. Most of them, she thought, were great the way they were. She did not always like what they did, but when she didn't approve, she at least tried to understand. Even though she might remained opposed to their actions, she wanted to at least sympathize with where their feelings and actions stemmed from. Writing anyone off as rotten to the core never seemed acceptable to her. If she wanted to love each one just they way they were, then she needed to understand how to love the world just the way it was.

Zell knocked on the door. "Selphie, you there?"

"Sure, come in."

Zell entered the room and sat down at the small table Selphie kept near the window. "Good morning."

Selphie looked up from her bowl of Golden Sun Tidbits cereal. "'morning. You're certainly up early." She would have asked if something was wrong, but he looked more determined than distraught.

"Yeah," Zell said. "I didn't sleep much. I couldn't shut my brain off; I kept thinking about yesterday. All the stuff we did; everything we talked about."

She nodded. That was no surprise. She hoped some good would come from all this, though, not just guilt.

"I hope it doesn't sound too dumb, but I realized I can't keep being so petty. I mean, when I was only talking to myself ... well, I wasn't hurting anyone but myself. But now I don't have the leeway to go off on stupid tangents and mood swings. I have a lot of people that care about me and that I care about, and I know what I say and do is going to affect their lives. I don't want to be such a pain in the ass to people like Squall, to , when I I can do more than that. And I'm sorry it's taking me so long to care."

She nodded. "Well, I'm glad that you see that..."

"So I thought a lot about while I feel so bad about what I am. I think maybe because I've always got in my head that's my responsibility to fix all the problems of the world. I mean, I always the goodie-goodie-two-shoes kid. The one who sucked up to the adults and always played by the rules to a fault. You probably remember that; you were at the orphanage with me." Selphie nodded. "But when the class misbehaved, it didn't matter that I was doing the right thing. I got punished just the same, along with everyone else! Why? Because it was a 'community,' we were all in this together, and we all had an obligation to help each other act right. I might not have misbehaved directly, but I was guilty of not stopping other people from misbehaving. The problem is that now that I'm out of school, I'm acting like everyone in the ,em>world's behavior is my responsibility. If there's a shooting in Timber, hey, I should have done something to promote world stability. As long as someone's out there suffering, I've got to work to do, or, boom, guilty as charged, no appeal, one-way ticket on the bullet train to hell for not being a good citizen. Guilt by association with the entire human race. I could be the best, most generous, most helpful guy possible but as long as someone in the world's suffering I'm guilty as charged. I guess there's a certain logic to that, but I gotta be realistic. I can't solve all the world's problems."

"No one can."

"Yeah, I just wish we could."

She nodded sadly. "Don't we all."

"You know, I have to thank you a lot for opening my eyes to how much I’m worth already,” Zell said. "The thing is ... I'm worried that I can't change. I'm worried that I got so screwed up as a kid that I'll never be able to truly overcome it. I know this is going to sound kind of weird, but ... you've shown me a world I never thought I could see, let alone understand. Time and time again. A world where ... where no one has to knock others down to advance. A world of love and happiness and contentment and tranquility. A wonderful world where the universe is most certainly good. A world that makes me happy just to think about, let alone live it. And I know I've been growing up, because a couple of years, I would have called that world ignorant and blind, I think like someone like Rinoa or Mikoto does now. I would have said that you were placing value in things that some sort of underground counter-culture resistance have revealed to be stupid -- like, I dunno, popular music and simple pleasures and faith in your friends and what have you. And that you were close-minded and sheltered, didn't really understand the world. That was a few years ago, when I too full of myself to know what was really going on. Now I know that you understand the world. I've been the sheltered one. Or maybe just immature. I mean, I've been gone through all my life assuming that I was part of some elite that knew better. I never even tried to see things from the perspective of someone in your world, never allowed you the chance that you might be right. But in this past year, in these past few months, I've been a glimpse of a world that is so much more. A world where everything fits together, not because it's perfect, but because people believe in themselves. And I know that's where I belong. But..." In his first pause for words, he finally realized how silly this speech must sound, and he halted. "I guess I'm afraid that this stupid old world I'm from has already made its permanent mark on me. And that I'll never be able to escape it. That we'll be in different, irreconcilable worlds forever..." He sighed. "Sorry, I'm sure you don't want to listen to me angst first thing in the morning."

Selphie bit her lip. Mmm. Tough subject. Could anyone really change? She certainly wanted to believe so, but given the scars that had been dogging her for years she could certainly see why he might worry. And she needed to change too. One-winged angels, she remind herself. They could help each other. "No, I see where you're coming from," she said as she dug up the last few soggy Golden Sun Tidbits from the bottom of cereal bowl. "But if you don't even try, how are you going to find out? I realize it's easy to only see how much more you'd have if you'd started earlier, but even if you only start now, that'll give you more in the future than you'd have if you never started. It's like one of Chu-Chu's Chu-chu Tribe proverbs that she told me once. 'The best day to plant a tree may be twenty years ago, but the next best day is today.' The only thing we can change is the future... but that's a lot."

He grinned. Awesome. Everything worked out as well as he dreamed. He needed no convincing to believe that axiom; it was what he already thought about himself. He just wanted to make sure Selphie agreed - that she'd understand and support this new leaf of his. And the huge relieved grin that crossed his face made her feel too that things were getting better.

"Thanks so much; that was just what I needed to hear. I'm going to try and I mean it," he said. "Now I need to confess something." He produced a CD from the hood of his sweatshirt and plopped it in on the table.

It was her missing Julia Heartilly's Greatest Hits CD. Clearly not a new one; it wasn't shrink-wrapped and the case looked a little chipped. This was definitely hers. Selphie stared at it, not sure what in the world to make of it.

"I, um, 'borrowed' it from your room," Zell explained. "See, I wanted to listen to it, but..."

Selphie smirked. "You were embarrassed?" Oh, Zell, what was she going to do with him? Tee hee.

"Well, yeah, and ... I didn't want to make you feel like you were making me change my tastes in music or something. But ... I really like it. Honest."

She shook her head in mock disgust, but her amused smirk proved she was not taking this whole bit of silliness too seriously. Why get upset about something that could be so entertaining? "You're such a dork, Zell," she said. "I don't know whether to punch you for taking my stuff without asking or hug you for being so adorable and sharing my tastes in music after all."

"Do I get to choose?"

That elicited another giggle. "No, but I bet I'll choose the same thing you would." She jumped up from her seat and hugged from behind. He quickly got up and embraced her. Not only for having a sense of humor about this, but for supporting him and believing in him and making him feel better.

"Thanks for believing in me," he said. "I love you."

"Love you too." Then she poked him in the side and asked, "So the times I couldn't find some of my other CDs, did you have anything to do with those?"

He grinned. Not only was a relief to get the secret out, laughing about it was fun. "Probably at least some of them," Zell said. "At least in the last three months."

"Oh, you're hopeless dear." Laughing, she picked up the case and stuffed it in her CD rack. "But I'm glad you're taking a greater interest in life. Trust me, it's pretty darn cool."

* * *

"Hi, I'm back!" Yuffie announced as she barged into her room.

Chu-Chu looked up from her iMac. "Yuffie!" She hopped out of her booster seat. "Where have chu been?"

"I told you! I was, like, saving the world 'n stuff. I went into the Dricas network or something and met <=¤[email protected]=f£å®ê666=>; it was, like, really weird. And I ran into that dumb cat again. But, anyway, I need to find my Power Glove." She swung her closet door wide open, unleashing a Pandora's Box of junk all over the floor. "Oh, and I have a new hacker codename now. It's ~*Angel Princess Aeris Til Heartilly-chan-sama-domo-kun-hime*~."

Chu-Chu was not terribly interested in Yuffie's hacker codename; she was busy trying to scoop up the garbage. "Yuffie, Yuffie, stop!" she squeaked. "You can't just throw garbage all over the room; it's giving us bad karma!"

Yuffie rolled her eyes. "Oh, Gawd, Chu-Chu, stop being such a karma whore. I'm just looking for my Power Glove; I promise I'll put it all back. Oh, there it is." She slipped her fist into the glove and wiggled it around to accustom herself to the device. She hadn't used this in years. "Wooyeah."

Chu-Chu gestured towards her computer. "I've been taking a 'What Supreme Court Justice Are You?' test. I'm Ruth Bader Ginsburg, see?"

"What? No fair; I wanted to be Ruth Bader Ginsburg! I hope I'm not Antonin Scalia."

Someone pounded on the door. "Bumbling Recurring Minor Villains' Local #203, open up!" Raijin bellowed.

Chu-Chu raised a fuzzy eyebrow. "Dear me, what have chu done now, Yuffie?"

Yuffie hurried across the room and opened the door, revealing the entire union. "We're here to investigate some alleged network abuse," Dominia announced as she, Kelvena, Seraphita, Tolone, Fujin, Raijin, Rude, Reno, Elena, Jesse, James, Meowth, and Tron Bonne all filed into the dorm room.

Yuffie backed away. "Gawd, could you have, like, possibly fit more people into this room?"

Chu-Chu waved her hands towards the door. "Shoo! Shoo! You're disturbing our feng shui!" She pointed towards a certificate on the wall. "See, the maximum approved chupacity for this room is only 8 persons!"

"Yuffie, you've been charged with violating the Digital Millennium Copyright Act by transferring, helping to transfer, linking to someone who transfers, or being within a 20-mile radius of someone who transfers Niccolo Group's intellectual property across the Internet," Rude said.

Chu-Chu wrung her hands. "Chu-Chu wants you all chu leave! There's chu many people in here!"

Dominia reached for a chair. "No! Don't touchu -" Chu-Chu leapt towards Dominia in a vain attempt to prevent her from moving the piece of furniture closer to the computer. She stopped and sighed. "- that."

Dominia stared down at Chu-Chu. "What?"

"Chu just blocked the flow of chi through the room," Chu-Chu moped. "Now the white tiger won't be able to find my room. Chu-Chu's love life is ruined!" She sighed and looked up at her beloved posters. "I'll come for chu someday, Fei."

Dominia sat down. "Miss Kisaragi, you have to realize that these are very serious crimes," she began. "Hackers like you are costing the museum industry billions of dollars every year. Because of your actions, Shinra only made 5 trillion gil last year instead of 5.0001 trillion gil. If you don't hand over your computer and agree not to touch a computer for the next three years, we'll be forced to arrest you."

"Dude, you totally can't just, like, walk in here and arrest me!" Yuffie said.

Dominia rose. "You say we can't. Want to see if you're right?" She snapped her fingers.

"To pass the time in barren levels!" Elena began.

"To bring smiles with comic pratfalls!" Reno continued.

"To denounce the evil of turning good, ya know?"

"REACH, EXTEND."

"Earth!" Dominia shouted.

"Fire!"

"Wind!"

"Water!" Kelvena finished the sequence.

"Minor villains blast off in bickering teams!" Jesse cried.

"But we'll only appear in a couple scenes!" James echoed.

"That's right!" Tron yelled.

"...," Rude said.

As Chu-Chu dived for cover under her desk, the Minor Villains charged en masse towards Yuffie and ended up tripping over themselves in a matter of seconds. Tron was the first to fall, trampled from behind from the Turks. James tripped over him and fell down, bumping into Jesse as he fell. Soon the entire union -- save Dominia and Rude -- had collapsed into a heap on the ground.

"Wow!!" Seraphita exclaimed. "This is a lot of fun!!!!!"

Rude seized Yuffie's arm with one of his and put her in a headlock with his other. Yuffie wriggled about and tried to kick him; he tightened her grip until she abandoned that plan and gasped with pain. Meanwhile, Dominia unplugged Yuffie's computer, smashed the monitor with her sword, and carried the case out under her arm.

When the chaos had finally subsided, Chu-Chu crawled out from her desk. "Oh dear."

* * *

Selphie's yo-yo sagged lifelessly up and down, mirroring the pace of its owner's thoughts. "I can't believe she's gone," she repeated. "Just like that. It's one thing for her to not be around for a while ... but to be taken away like that. And to prison." Chu-Chu paced the room in small circles. "Oh dear, oh dear," she mumbled for the sixth time in the past ten minutes.

"You're sure the Headmaster can't do anything?"

"I talked to him, Irvine; I really did. But his hands are tied. If he didn't expel Yuffie and release her to the police, he'd be held guilty too. It's some new law; I don't get it."

"But it's not his fault!" This explanation didn't sit at all with Zell. He hated the whole idea that people should be held responsible for others' responsible. That was what had screwed him up like this, after all, right? Zell craved moral rectitude more than anything. But how could he ever have any peace of conscience when his worth as a human being kept getting dragged down by things outside his control. "It's not fair, dammit! It's not fair; it's not right; it's stupid; it sucks!" He paused. "Whoa, I think I just wrote a Linkin Park song."

Selphie laughed. "Oh, Zell, you always find some way to crack me up no matter how dreary things get."

He cracked a thin smile and was immediately relieved. Finding bits of humor of horror, something refreshingly human about the new and unknown, made the frustration a lot more manageable. It was not so horrible as to consume his entire mind.

But heartache quickly returned to fill the gap that Yuffie had left. "Chu-Chu misses her already. Now I feel so bad for re-arranging our room and not asking her about it. I never even got to apologize. And chu know she didn't mean any harm! Why do they have to be so harsh on her?"

"Yeah, it doesn't seem right," Selphie said. "She didn't even hurt anyone. The worst that happens is some museum doesn't get as much money."

Zell's fist smashed through empty air. Frustrated, but nothing to take it out on. So much for the good times he had been envisaging. "Arrgh! Stuff like this shouldn't happen! There should be something we can do about it!"

Irvine nodded. "Yeah, you'd think she should have some recourse. Someone who can put up some case for her freedom."

"Yeah... I suppose there's all sort of legal action groups out there who we could try to get to take her case," Selphie pondered. "But who do we know that knows anything about political campaigning?"

They all looked at each other.

* * *

What a shitty life I have.

While Angelo scurried after a tennis ball, Rinoa sat on her doorstep and radiated hatred towards everything except her dog. The world, it seemed, sought only to let her down. What did she have to hold onto to give her any worth? Certainly not her crappy secretary job in the Garden office. Besides, she knew she'd only been given the position because of Squall. Yeah, everything seemed to come to back him. Dammit. She wanted to be important in her right, not only be tolerated because of him. Fat chance of that, though. They all hated her.

She knew she was already being blamed for everything that had gone wrong with their relationship. Squall's fangirls had always resented her for taking their precious boy away from them. And so rather than face the facts and admit that Squall wanted her, they resorted to painting her as some unreasonable monster who had manipulated Squall into something he didn't want. Bullshit. She was the one being kicked around here. She was the one who had tolerated all of Squall's wishy-washiness for two years and tried to keep the relationship going. She was the one who had been demonized and scorned. Few said anything to her face, of course, but she knew the words being bandied about behind her back. Whore. Slut. Manipulative bitch. How dare she make Squall happy? He was supposed to be getting it on with Seifer!

Well, fuck them all. Fame did not obligate either of them to anything, as far as she concerned, and she would have no more of this abuse. Maybe if Squall really made her happy, she could put up with it. But, she had finally, grudgingly conceded, he didn't.

Besides, she was furnisexual now.

Angelo sprinted back to her master with the baseball clenched firmly in her jaw. She deposited it on Rinoa's lap and looked up for approval. Rinoa beamed and gave her a great big hug, clinging tightly to the last thing that offered her any happiness. If only she could somehow draw enough joy and comfort of her to make up for all the other crap. Fuck people. Angelo loved her no matter what. She rubbed her dog's neck affectionately. "Good girl," she murmured, and was rewarding with a big sloppy lick. Thank goodness for the animals; they were the only ones who had any sense left.

A veritable raiding party of unwanted visitors came walking down the street. The sunlight behind them transformed them into shadowed, but as they stepped out of it, Rinoa identified them: Selphie, Zell, Irvine, and that dumb pink Ewok.

She jumped up. "Look, if you're here about Squall, you can turn yourself the fuck around, because I'm not talking about it."

"Uh..." Truth to be told, Selphie had completely forgotten about the break-up. Normally, she'd be leaping into action to support her friends. But between her long conversations with Zell and now Yuffie's abrupt departure from Garden, she had too many of her own problems to worry about. "I'm not, not at all. I came 'cause I knew you were really into politics and stuff."

"Oh?" Rinoa's interested perked, but she still sounded skeptical. She slipped Angelo into her leash and rose to speak to them.

"Um, we were wondering if you could ..." Selphie said. "You know Yuffie Kisaragi, right? My friend, from Wutai? Kinda short, dark hair, sits in front of the computer all day?"

"Yeah, I think so."

"She's been arrested for distributing 'museum warez' and kicked out of Garden. And I don't think it's fair, because she wasn't really hurting anyone. So I was wondering if we could, like ... organize some sort of campaign to get her released?"

Rinoa nodded. "Ha! Then you've definitely come to the right person!" She was clearly thrilled to have her relentless campaigning finally recognized and appreciated. Usually they laughed at her for it. Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise that Selphie had come when she did. At last someone cared about her life. "I'm glad you finally woke up. Come inside."

The gang followed Rinoa into the small townhouse she lived in and up the stairs to her bedroom. Zell realized that he'd never actually been inside Rinoa's place before; he'd only seen it from the outside. There was, however, no disputing that this was Rinoa's home. A "WHALES AND SPOTTED OWLS ARE NOT VEGANS -- KILL THEM ALL" poster hung beneath a "BLUEBIRD MATING RITUALS = GENDER APARTHEID" banner, among many other such decorations. And Rinoa's red Che Guevara T-shirt went very nicely with the identical red flag hanging like a canopy over her bed.

"Hey, does this have anything to do with that fat sack of lard from Niccolo Group?" Rinoa inquired. "I overheard him complaining to Cid yesterday about something..."

"Yeah!" Selphie said. The others had found seats for themselves, but she was too wound up to sit down. "That's the one!"

Rinoa rubbed her hands together. "Damn, I should have known something was going down." She paced the room while her mind ran through possible ways to free Yuffie - and all the obstacles that would be in the way. "Niccolo is a money-grubbing Wall Street bastard that only cares about his own profit line. Yuffie wasn't doing anything wrong - it's not his problem if his business model is outdated. Computer images aren't a commodity. They're just information that can be shared so that every computer can replicate the same sequence of pixels. It's not stealing when everyone wins. And besides, he only runs the museum; the artists who actually made the napkins probably weren't even paid for this. Niccolo's probably doing it all for the oil!"

That's right! Chu-Chu thought. Museum warez are a non-zero-sum game! I can copy one file an infinite number of times and never lose a thing! Gosh, that economics class really was paying off! She was just so clued-in now.

Selphie frowned. "Wait, how is oil connected at all to this?"

"I don't know yet, but their right-wing hegemonical government propaganda can't pull the wool over my eyes! Their sociopolitical media machine is de facto censorship, and anyone who advocates censorship belongs in prison." Her short evaluation had settled everything for Rinoa. Selphie and Yuffie were definitely in the right, and she would side with them. "No one's going to stand for this once we expose the truth!" she declared with an emphatic slam of her fist into her palm. She stopped pacing and turned to face her guests. "And you definitely came to the right person for that! I'm the president of the local anarchists' society. We struggle against all forms of hierarchy and institutionalized order. Here, here's a pamphlet explaining our views." Rinoa handed Selphie a small brochure. Beneath its blurry pictures of protests against Hyne-knows-what, the pamphlet listed "GOOD ISMS" and "BAD ISMS."

"Um, there's not much information on here."

Rinoa shrugged. "Don't worry about it. Just memorize what's on there and you'll be able to resist the corporate brainwashers. Oh, here's some Noam Chomsky books." She sweeped a stack out of her bookshelf and dumped them into Selphie's hands. "You don't have to worry about reading these, but if you're going anywhere, carry some of them. It makes you looks smart. Oh, and here's a Free Mumia bumper sticker; maybe you can cross out 'Mumia' and write 'Kisaragi.'"

"Okay." That seemed a little silly, but she wasn't about to comment on it. Selphie appreciated every bit of aid she was getting, especially given that Rinoa didn't even know Yuffie. And, besides, Rinoa was the expert on politics. Who was she to question any of this?

Irvine also found himself treading on uncertain ground. Rinoa's activism had always something that they shrugged off as a quirky feature - like eye color or a speech impediment. None of the SeeDs - except Squall, of course - had really paid any attention to it. Who'd have thought that it could impact their lives? "So you do a lot of this political campaigning stuff?" he asked.

"Oh yeah! I helped Fujin and Raijin organize a picket the other day. They finally unionized and got a better contract! I'm so happy."

"Hey!" Chu-Chu pointed an accusing finger at Rinoa. "Fujin and Raijin were the ones who took Yuffie away! Then this is all chu-or fault!"

"Oh, give me a break." Rinoa was clearly no stranger to this argument. "That was their decision. I only gave them more options and empowered them to change their lives. Whether they did it for good or bad has nothing to do with me. So don't blame me for their decisions, huh? That's the kind of thing Niccolo would do."

"Hmph." Chu-Chu did not sound very convinced, but the only counter-argument she could think of was, "Well, chu should be a little more careful with the ideas you put into peoples' heads; they do listen to them, chu know."

"Aaanyway, yeah, this kind of work is what I live for." Rinoa knew the question did not really need further elaboration, but she would waste no opportunity to talk about her work, "I've been on a real workers' right kick. Just one of those moods I get, sometime - maybe next month I'll be totally into gender roles. So I've been trying to get those worker bees to unionize, but it's turning out to be a tough fight."

"You're trying to unionize worker bees?" Selphie was incredulous.

"What, are you some kind of strike-breaking Wall Street bastard? Of course I am! They're being oppressed! They do all the work and the damn queen rakes all the profit! But wherever the bee proletariat is, I will be too. I am the voice of the voiceless!" She paused for a moment, then continued in a more conversational tone, "What's even worse than the bees, though, is the vultures. You'd think the obvious virtues of veganism would be easy to explain to them, but noooo, they have to keep eating carrion. It's 'nature's way'; that's what everyone claims. Well, screw you, Mother Nature! It's time to forge a better world! We need free, no-questions-asked birth control available for all armadillos! I mean, where can female armadillos go right now if they want an abortion? Huh? You tell me! Oh yeah, and ... save the whales! Except when they eat meat, or eat plants, or perpetrate strict gender roles, or oppress furnisexual whales. Then they deserve to die."

Zell idly noted that The Vegan Vultures would be a good name for a ska band.

Most of them were content to write all this off as part of Rinoa's quirky other life, but Chu-Chu had her sensibilities offended. She had no use for anyone who - quite literally - wore her politics as a fashion statement. She pointed an accusing finger at Rinoa. "Those bees are getting along just fine without chu! They don't need chu telling them what it do! It's like the Mambo Veda says, 'They who proclaim the world depends on them speak falsehoods, for Mambo is with us all, and none need depend on anything but faith.' Shevites 7:18-19."

"Look, don't pull any of that religious shit with me. Those bees are being oppressed!"

"Hey, guys, quit fighting!" Selphie interjected. "We're supposed to be on the same side, remember? Let's not start arguing before we've even done again."

"Sorry," Chu-Chu mumbled. Maybe Rinoa had a point - she didn't know if the Wondrous Mambo God protected bees and humans, too.

Rinoa folded her arms. "Politics makes strange bedfellows sometimes, can we leave it at that?"

Chu-Chu shrugged. "I'll be happy if politics makes Chu-Chu any bedfellows."

Rinoa's pacing had osmosed itself to Selphie. She fiddled with her blue bracelet as she walked up and down the room. That helped her think. And the conversation needed her to keep it on track; she wasn't allowed any more casual chatting. "So, um, what are going to do?" Selphie asked.

"Well, everyone likes you," Rinoa said with only the slightest hint of bitterness, "so I'll let you be the leader. You guys can be in charge of making sure people hear this situation and raising money. If we want to fight the almighty gil, we need plenty of it ourselves. So you guys start trying to drum up donations. In the mean time, I'll look for some other groups that might want to take the case. Fair enough?"

Selphie nodded. "Gotcha. Thanks so much for the help."

"It's what I live for," Rinoa said. "And we'll need a catchy slogan, so if you happen to think of any, let me know the next time we meet."

"Will do!"

They started for the door. "By the way," Rinoa grabbed their attention with a sudden stern seriousness, "you'd better not be thinking of this as a game. There's no magic switch we can pull to fix our problems and make the world better. You won't be able to secure Yuffie's freedom and happiness without risking your own. It's always a long road from law to justice, and in the mean time what happens is that the rich get richer and the poor get sued. If you're serious about this, you'd better stick with me and fight the system with every bit of fight you have in you."

"Of course," Selphie said with equal seriousness. "She's my friend; I'll do whatever I must to save her." She was no stranger to adversity and danger, after all - she was a SeeD! She'd helped save the world from a power-hungry sorceress! Fighting the legal system was only another new challenge. The surest way to fail was to start doubting herself; she did not let herself worry about things she could do nothing about.

"Good, because you'll need to."

With that last thought hanging in their minds, they left Rinoa's. Numerous questions still burdened them. Could Rinoa really save Yuffie? How much would they have to sacrifice to win her freedom? And was "hegemonical" a real word?

They found Mikoto lounging, arms folded, against the side of Rinoa's apartment. Her eyes were mostly closed, her posture was abyssmal, and it would have been hard for anyone to look more apathetic. "I knew you'd be here," she grumbled. "You're so predictable."

"Oh, hi, Mikoto!" Selphie said. She didn't know the monkey-tailed girl that well. They didn't have much reason to interact: Mikoto was a young student; Selphie was a mid-ranking SeeD. But she certainly heard plenty of Mikoto's opinions on anything -- it was hard not to. And the two of them had crossed paths during some other strange times at Gardens -- for all her supposed apathy, Mikoto always seemed to pop up whenever anything big was happening. "Did you hear what we were talking about? Are you going to help too?"

"No, I was just waiting here to insult you."

That comment was confusing enough to stop Selphie right where she stood. "Er, are you being sarcastic?"

"No, and you're an idiot. I hate it when people like you are emotional over what happens to other people. That's completely irrational."

"You just hate it when anyone's emotional about anything," Selphie pointed out.

"Well, of course," Mikoto said. "There's no reason to be emotional about anything. Don't you really how cosmically insignificant your lives are? None of your problems actually matter. And, Zell, quit whining about your webcomic; it isn't funny. In fact, nothing at all is funny. If you think anything is funny, you're dumb and don't recognize the cosmic insignificance of everything you 'care' about. Also, all music sucks. Except for the White Stripes, who are the saviors of rock'n'roll."

Selphie wasn't sure whether to laugh at the cartoonish absurdity of what Mikoto was proposing or be horrified that someone sincerely believed it. "Boy, do you ever need a hug," she said.

Mikoto rolled her eyes. "Yeah, that's the kind of childish response I'd expect from someone whose name anagrams into 'Hi, I'm little pest.' You know, sometime you'll realize that none of what you say and do actually manages and that the world goes on by itself regardless of what happens to people. Have a nice time failing to change the world in the mean time." Nose held high with scorn, tail twitching with irritation, she marched off. Ha. She was so much smarter and intellectual than those emotional peons.

Zell scratched his tattoo. "You know, for all her abrasiveness, at least she's unflaggingly honest about her complete disregard for human suffering."

"Yeah, I suppose there's something to be said for that," Selphie conceded. "I guess."

* * *

Xu had not been on an actual SeeD mission in ages, but by the time she staggered into the bedroom, she felt like she had been in a warzone. She was tired, so tired, and yearning to be free from the infernal machine that was her life. She had no alternatives as far as she was concerned; the only thing she wanted from the world to transcend it all, to go to sleep and never wake up. "I think that was the worst day of work ever," she said as she collapsed on the bed. "First I had to expel the student behind that whole museum fiasco. I know I had to; I know we didn't have any alternatives. But I can't stand passing judgment like that on anyone, because I know they're not any worse than me. I'd make the same mistakes if I were them, and it's not fair that I've been given the right to punish them. I'm in a position of power that I don't deserve to have in the least. Because I suck. I really do."

Xu didn't even believe all the accusations she leveled against herself. She knew she was not that good of a human being, but she liked to think she still had some redeeming qualities. But what if she didn't? Her self-depreciation was like a test - a test to reassure herself that she might not be a completely awful person. Insecurity gnawed away at her; she simply could not answer any possible criticism alone. She did not have the confidence for that. She had needed to hear each attack against herself answered by Quistis before she really believed that said attacks might not be completely valid. So she had to set up every possible complaint and let Quisty shoot them down before she could go on. The back of her mind nagged her that it probably wasn't right to drag Quistis through this - she had her own life to live, her own desires, after all - but, Hyne, what else could she have done? The desire to be a good person was at the very center of existence. It was only natural to try to quiet her guilt, and it was really the only one thing she didn't feel guilty about doing. Without it she would be truly nothing.

"No, you don't," Quistis soothed her. She didn't mind comforting Mengshi, really. She certainly understand the reasons for Mengshi's guilt, and today had been a bad day at work. And yet ... Mengshi's continual tirades against herself made Quistis feel like she didn't matter to Mengshi. She clearly thought Mengshi was a good person; she still wanted her just the way she was. And so when Mengshi insisted she wasn't good enough, it seemed like Quistis' word and opinions were simply not good enough for her. Like she could not settle for Quistis' love and had to aspire to something even better.

"Yes, I do," Xu moaned. "It's my job to keep Garden running properly and I'm doing a terrible job of it. Fujin and Raijin went on strike, and walked right of Garden, and ..." Then her suffering got too great to even put into a linear sentence. She could not even begin to describe the extent of her failure, of how much a failure and a terrible person she was. In a sudden surge of rage against her futility, she grabbed the corner of the quilt and squeezed it in her hand. "Fuck it."

Gah, poor Mengshi. Quistis was just getting more worried about her. She laid a comforting hand on Xu's arched back. "Did you talk to the Kramers about taking a vacation? You really do deserve one, dear."

Xu hesitated. The answer was "No," of course, but she didn't feel that did her justice. She wanted the answer to be "But..." There was to the more to the story, she had her reasons, she couldn't be at fault! No, there was nothing more she could do about this mess. She silenty shook her head, expecting to Quistis at understand.

Quistis sighed. Her bookmark went into her book and the book back on the shelf. So much for nice pleasant reading.

No "I understand." Not even one of Quistis' wonderful pursed-lip half-smiles? Why not? "You're not mad at me, are you?" That wouldn't be fair. It wasn't ,em>her fault; she couldn't do anything about it -- actually talking to the Kramers was certainly not an option. So how could Quistis be mad at her? She was doing the best good job she could, really she was...

"Well, yes, a little. I asked you to do something, you promised you'd do it, and then you didn't."

"I can't talk to them, Quistis; I just can't. I can't make someone else do my job; that's not fair. They've been kind enough to believe in me enough to get me where I am; I don't want to abuse their trust in me."

"Mengshi, you do plenty of work already, and you know you can't solve every problem. You're not God; you're not Superman."

No, and I'm not even you. How could Quistis tolerate her when she was like this? Xu was older than Quistis, outranked her, had more duties, and yet it was indisputable that Quistis was the better person. Quistis didn't even have to try. "I don't want to disappoint you," she murmured as she started to undress.

Quistis sighed. What more could she say? She didn't mind supporting Xu through her shortcomings if it actually made a difference, but it didn't seem like things were ever changing. Xu didn't seem to care enough to try to improve her life, not when she still wouldn't even just talk to the Kramers. And if Xu didn't care about herself, then what could Quistis do? She had said all this before; what good could come of repeating the same assurances one more time? "If you're not being true to yourself, you can hardly be true to me."

What is wrong with me? Everything she did, even when she was specifically trying to not disappoint anyone, only upset the people she cared about. Far too tired to do anything but sleep, she crawled across the bed and slipped under the covers. Quistis embraced her half-heartedly, her mind clearly elsewhere. Xu winced inwardly. The hole she was digging herself must really be getting big if Quistis was this distant.

But Quistis, noting Xu's lingering discomfort, tried yet again to break through. "Mengshi, you know I can't make you work less. I'm not your parents. I'm just worried to death over you - because I care about you, okay?"

That much Xu never disputed. Quistis did care about her, certainly wished that she would be happy. No, the problem was that ... that Quistis' happiness didn't have anything to do with her. Xu was worried that Quistis did not truly want her, would soon tire of endless follies and wake up to the fact that her Mengshi was nothing but a burden. And that ... well, that made Xu as good as a lifeless zombie. What did she care if others wanted her to be happy? They were only saying that. In truth, her happiness was at a complete right angle to theirs.

Doing admissions every year reminded Xu that average was no longer good enough. The world was like a game of musical chairs; there were not enough positions at Garden for everyone, not enough loving to go around to everyone who wanted to be loved. And now there were so many people that even being middle-of-the-road was not enough. When anything less than a perfect test on the SeeD test was a crushing defeat, when a movie judged 'average' - or even 'above average' was not worth seeing because there were so many better ones, how could she hope to find a place for herself? She couldn't just be herself, she had to excel, constantly and unrelentlessly. Being far above-average was the new standard.

"I know," Xu murmured. She reached to turn off the light. "I'll talk to the Kramers as soon as I can, I promise."

She still didn't really mean it.

Chapter Text

Trabia.

She could not pretend to have forgotten it. Nor could she claim not to see the parallels between Yuffie's sudden disappearance and the ... sudden disappearance of T-Garden. Now everything around her now seemed to reflect it, no matter how strained the comparison. Like last night, they'd tried an innocent game of Monopoly to distract themselves. But when Zell drew a Get Out of Jail Free card, she'd just wanted to curl up and cry again.

And it came to her over and over in dreams, like a train chasing her that she could not hope to return. She saw the dorms collapsing, her peers dying, like she'd actually been there. Saw them chasing them, berating her for letting it all happen again. She'd failed Sun Hye; she'd failed Yuffie...

Waking up from those nightmares never seemed to offer much comfort. The angry spirits were gone, but their words lived on in her head. Her eyes might only show her a room, but her memory was consumed with questions to which there were no answers.

The missiles. Oh, Hyne, it was always the missiles. She had seen them spiral into the sky, all shiny and polished like they were some great product of human creation rather than pure death. Entropy. The shredding of all she had built of her life, the futility of trying to create any permanent order in the universe.

Over thirty casualties. Pieces of rubble. Everything that had stood proud out of the chaos gone. And she had seen the missiles flying. She could have saved them but she hadn't; she wasn't good enough and it was all happening again. Sun Hye had been taken away from her and now it was Yuffie. And what could she do but deny? When she had seen the missiles, she had told herself that they wouldn't do damage. When they had killed Ultimecia, she had told herself that evil was gone and nothing like it would ever happen again. When Yuffie had been taken away, she had told herself that Rinoa could get her back...

But could she?

Selphie's bed was becoming a clammy hell. She was sweating horribly and the wounded fetal position she was locked in hurt her muscles. But she did not want to move, only hover on the border on existence and try to talk herself out of this prison of guilt. She clutched her beloved plush chocobo, Gracie, to her chest. Gracie would get her out of this somehow. There would still be a way.

But she only saw the missiles. The graves. Yuffie's empty bed. A great, empty existence expanding before her.

She finally regained enough control and clarity of thought out of bed. Hyne. This couldn't go on like this. She needed to find some salvation from this five minutes ago. Every second seemed too late; the world was already too horrible to comprehend. Like someone had already been due to save it and dropped the ball. But she had never, ever been one to give up. It was too early to say there was no hope, only none that she could see. She could keep looking. But for now, there was little she could do but take a long drink of water and stumble downstairs to see Zell.

* * *

Salvation - temporary salvation, at least - came in the form of what had now been christened the Free Kisaragi Foundation after Selphie's new bumper sticker. Working to free Yuffie not only distracted her, it kept alive the hope that something could be done to stop history repeating from itself. But her mental state remained was like a balloon being held over a pit of spikes by a couple upward-pointing fans. As long as the fans stayed on, as long as the world barraged with her distractions, she was okay. But should that shut off for even moment, it didn't take her long to spiral down and pop.

They met again in Rinoa's house to discuss more concrete plans. Though Selphie had been initially skeptical of Rinoa's ability to effect any meaningful change, she had now become grateful for the chance to actually do some work. As long as she forced herself to fight as hard as she could can, everything would work out. She still had faith.

"Chu-Chu made a poster with a catchy slogan!" Chu-Chu held up her work for proud display. "Look, it says 'Make Bukkake, Not War!'"

"Uh, what does that have to with Yuffie?"

Chu-Chu paused to consider this. Maybe she hadn't done such a good job after all and had let them down. "Well ... maybe if Chu-Chu gets some, that will make me happy, and then I'll be more enthused about saving Yuffie? I guess that's not a very good plan."

"It's a start," Rinoa said. "And put a hooded pitohui on everything you do. I decided that's going to be our official symbol."

"What's a hooded pitohui?"

"It's the world's most poisonous bird! See, it's just like how The Man may think we're innocent and harmless, but we will strike with ferocity and destroy them from inside!"

"Uh, okay."

Rinoa coughed. "Anyway ... you're going to Quistis' housewarming party tonight, aren't you?" Selphie nodded. "Good, that's going to be a perfect opportunity to start hitting people up for donations."

Selphie frowned. "Um... I don't know; that's not really fair to Quistis and Xu. I know this is a big occasion for them and I don't want to spoil it by hijacking the whole thing with politics."

"Politics?" Rinoa howled, and Selphie cringed. So much for trying to compromise. "Don't try to write off human suffering by labeling it as 'politics.' This is Yuffie's life; it's everything to her! What are you going to tell her - that you couldn't save her because you wanted to party? This is life. The world's problems won't go on hold just because some preppy white girls want to party."

Irvine shrugged. "Eh, I can't see how one day will make much of a difference."

"One day is one day more that Yuffie unjustly rots in a prison," Rinoa grumbled. "No one is free while others are oppressed. We're relatively priviledged and we have a moral obligation to ensure that everyone else is, too. If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem."

Selphie liked to think that everyone was always part of the solution. "Rinoa, we're not going to win anyone's favor by spoiling their parties or yelling in their faces," she said. "Who'd want to listen to us?"

"The idea isn't to make people want to listen us - they never will! But if we become a big enough of nuisance, we will get heard. And you can say whatever the hell you want about love and peace and understanding, but power still calls all the shots. You're a fool if you think protesting and fighting against the system is ever going to make you popular, Selphie; no one wants to be told they're wrong. The only way to change anything is to force that change."

She frowned. Rinoa was probably right, but Selphie liked to keep a more optimistic view of the world. But what if life was really this ugly? What if it really was nothing but a never-ending war, like Rinoa suggested? If kindness and charity and love were all helpless before this brutish struggle? "That's just going to hurt more people..." she said. She didn't want Rinoa to be right and she had to put up every counterargument she could.

Rinoa shrugged. "Well, then they get what coming to them. Look at this way, Selphie: anything we do to The Man is nothing compared to what he's done to innocent people over the centuries. They created this problem; they refused to solve it. It's their fault for not paying attention. If everyone acted with our strength and courage, these problems wouldn't exist. We can't back out. We can only fight and wait for others to fall in line behind us. Think of it as a chess game, Selphie. Everyone wants to be the winner in the end. But if you want to get the ultimate victory, you have to be willing to give up some of your pieces. Who cares if you lose a couple of pawns along the way? Maybe we will make a few enemies, but so it goes. But this is about saving Yuffie? I guess that's not a very good plan."

"It's a start," Rinoa said. "And put a hooded pitohui on everything you do. I decided that's going to be our official symbol."

"What's a hooded pitohui?"

"It's the world's most poisonous bird! See, it's just like how The Man may think we're innocent and harmless, but we will strike with ferocity and destroy them from inside!"

"Uh, okay."

Rinoa coughed. "Anyway ... you're going to Quistis' housewarming party tonight, aren't you?" Selphie nodded. "Good, that's going to be a perfect opportunity to start hitting people up for donations."

Selphie frowned. "Um... I don't know; that's not really fair to Quistis and Xu. I know this is a big occasion for them and I don't want to spoil it by hijacking the whole thing with politics."

"Politics?" Rinoa howled, and Selphie cringed. So much for trying to compromise. "Don't try to write off human suffering by labeling it as 'politics.' This is Yuffie's life; it's everything to her! What are you going to tell her - that you couldn't save her because you wanted to party? This is life. The world's problems won't go on hold just because some preppy white girls want to party."

Irvine shrugged. "Eh, I can't see how one day will make much of a difference."

"One day is one day more that Yuffie unjustly rots in a prison," Rinoa grumbled. "No one is free while others are oppressed. We're relatively priviledged and we have a moral obligation to ensure that everyone else is, too. If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem."

Selphie liked to think that everyone was always part of the solution. "Rinoa, we're not going to win anyone's favor by spoiling their parties or yelling in their faces," she said. "Who'd want to listen to us?"

"The idea isn't to make people want to listen us - they never will! But if we become a big enough of nuisance, we will get heard. And you can say whatever the hell you want about love and peace and understanding, but power still calls all the shots. You're a fool if you think protesting and fighting against the system is ever going to make you popular, Selphie; no one wants to be told they're wrong. The only way to change anything is to force that change."

She frowned. Rinoa was probably right, but Selphie liked to keep a more optimistic view of the world. But what if life was really this ugly? What if it really was nothing but a never-ending war, like Rinoa suggested? If kindness and charity and love were all helpless before this brutish struggle? "That's just going to hurt more people..." she said. She didn't want Rinoa to be right and she had to put up every counterargument she could.

Rinoa shrugged. "Well, then they get what coming to them. Look at this way, Selphie: anything we do to The Man is nothing compared to what he's done to innocent people over the centuries. They created this problem; they refused to solve it. It's their fault for not paying attention. If everyone acted with our strength and courage, these problems wouldn't exist. We can't back out. We can only fight and wait for others to fall in line behind us. Think of it as a chess game, Selphie. Everyone wants to be the winner in the end. But if you want to get the ultimate victory, you have to be willing to give up some of your pieces. Who cares if you lose a couple of pawns along the way? Maybe we will make a few enemies, but so it goes. But this is about saving innocent people. You're either on the white side or the black side, and you have to be willing to give up some of your pieces to win the game. We're not going to win this game if we only 'play nice.' Capice?"

If Selphie was upset, Chu-Chu was even moreso. Yuffie was her best friend and she had been prepared to do anything to free her from unjust imprisonment, but ... Rinoa seemed to be asking her to hurt other innocent people. That was wrong! It went against every moral that she had! Yes, these people were humans; they didn't have her great big pink furry guardian god looking over them. But Chu-Chu knew that the Wondrous Mambo God loved everyone (yes, "that way" :>) and wouldn't approve of any kind of violence or politicking. The ends never justified that means.

Rinoa could sense their continued reluctance. "I'm doing this for you, remember?" she snapped. "I thought you wanted your friend back. And let me tell you, Yuffie is like Tinkerbell. She ain't coming back unless we all clap all our hands, together, at the right time. And tonight is the right time. I'll see you there."

Selphie sighed. She was torn between frustration with her inability to talk some rationality into Rinoa and a growing, gnawing fear that Rinoa was actually right. What if her objections to Rinoa's ideas weren't because Rinoa was actually wrong, but because she was afraid of having to give up her own luxuries for the greater good and didn't want to hear the truth?

* * *

Despite Rinoa's objections, Selphie and Zell arrived at Quistis' party with nary a brochure in their possession. Zell was no fan of parties, especially ones where people might be bonding with alcohol to form stupidity, but he figured he could tolerate for Selphie and Quistis' sake. Besides, at least it was something to do that didn't involve dwelling on Yuffie's absence.

When he got there, however he saw it might not be too bad. Rinoa hadn't shown up yet, so he didn't have to worry about whether to join her in his campaigning. And Seifer seemed to be the only one intent on getting himself intoxicated and acting like an idiot - not that Zell found him much better sober. Hyne, what the hell was it with people and drinking, anyway? Not only could his straight-edge brain not make sense of the appeal, the whole thing pissed him off! Oh, their drunken obnoxiousness in and of itself he could tolerate; it was the fact that they were acting like idiots that bothered him. See, he liked most of the people he knew. He thought they were cool. So he hated it when they did dumb, stupid stuff that left him no choice but to lose respect for them! He didn't want to have to be cynical; why shouldn't he be mad at people that left him feeling less happy about the world?

But, fortunately, he didn't have any respect for Seifer left to lose.

So as parties went, this was pretty tolerable. He still didn't know what the heck he was supposed to do at a party, though. "Party," he supposed, but what did that entail? Showing up at a party? Well, he was sure partying all right. Woo yeah.

"Hey, anyone up for Twister?" Irvine asked.

Seifer eyed him suspiciously. "I'm not playing Twister with you, Kinneas."

"I was drunk. What's your excuse?"

Rinoa banged on the door and pushed it open before anyone had a chance to admit her. She had changed into her Che Guevara shirt - to prove just how "down with the revolution" she was, Zell supposed with a roll of his mind’s eye. And he thought he could see pictures of Yuffie crammed into her pockets. "Hi, everyone," she said. "Sorry I'm late. I've printed out a bunch of fliers for a new cause I'm organizing; I think it's something that you'll all find very relevant..."

Oh, please stop right now, Selphie thought as if mental begging could really stop it. She suddenly felt embarrassed to be associated with the cause, and that wasn't right. She wanted to be able to discuss what was important to her without becoming a party to other people's bad behavior. (That must be how Zell felt a lot of the time, she realized.) And Yuffie was her friend, dammit. She should be the one orchestrating the image of the Free Kisaragi Foundation. How had Rinoa taken it over so quickly?

The first response Seifer's mocking laughter. "Let me guess, saving the whales again? Or are you 'taking back the day' for female bats?"

! Squall spotted Seifer's crude remark and pounced it on like a hungry wolf. This was just what he needed! A chance to jump in and prove to Rinoa that he wasn't like all those other jerks! He would support her even though she had dumped him and prove how truly devoted he was. Whatever made her happy! "Hey, Seifer, can it. Why don't you at least to what Rinoa's going to say?" he said.

"Shut up, Squall; you don't even know what you're talking about," Rinoa snapped.

"Yeah, Leonhart, the whore dumped you like the Exxon Valdez and you're still defending her same ol' hippie feminazi bullshit? How utterly pathetic."

"So, um... Twister? Anyone?"

Zell, like Selphie, was seething. He hated the way stomaching Seifer's behavior seemed to consitute an implicit acceptance of it. Zell wasn't doing anything to stop Seifer from being an ass - that was almost as bad as being an ass, right? He felt so embarrassed. If someone who didn't know him - hell, even someone who knew him - walked in here right now and saw him listening to Seifer's boorishness, they'd think he was a part of it. And they were right - he was a part of it. He wasn't stopping it so he was a part of it. What was he supposed to do? Starting a fight probably couldn't change anything, but not speaking him made him an asshole like Seifer.

Seifer snatched one of Rinoa's pamphlets away as soon as she offered it. "Ooh, look," he teased. "'Free Yuffie.' Who's that, another feminazi dyke who got locked up for talking too much?"

Quistis quietly excused herself and went upstairs to the bedroom.

That really sent Zell off. It wasn't fair that good, caring people like Quistis (and Yuffie) wound up the victims of self-centered assholes. Seifer was the problem here; he should be exiled upstairs instead of the people who cared. Every time something like this happened, he felt he had to somehow right the wrongs and protect the good people so they wouldn't get kicked around like this. It wasn't fair, it wasn't fair, it wasn't fair...

"SHUT THE HELL UP, SEIFER!!" he bellowed.

All the conversation in the room stopped dead. An uncomfortable silence immediately rose from its ashes. He could tell from their faces that most of them weren't entirely unsympathetic to his irritation with Seifer, they would really have preferred that he not make things even awkward by yelling like that.

And now that his anger had been purged from his system, he felt like a complete dodo. Dammit, he'd let it get the better of him again. What was his problem? He could stop having to apologize all the time if he only stopped doing the things he had to apologize for. Wasn't making up his mind all he had to do? But, dangit, things never seemed that easy.

He sighed. "Dammit, I screwed up again. Sorry guys." He quickly excused himself through the back door to cool off.

There was no fighting out here in the yard, just a cool winter breeze that gently caressed the flowers. And soft moonlight that felt a lot less harsh than the artificial electric lights indoor. Out here, the world all seemed to flow together into one harmonious whole. It was hard for Zell to imagine that this was all the same universe that could produce such violent, stressful divisions as the one going on indoors. But there was no peace to be found here anyway. He had dragged his stupid, petty world out with him. Guilt had affixed his stupidity to him like a piece of gum on the bottom of his shoe. Everywhere he stepped, he left annoying little bits of it that other people would have to clean up. The damn thing would follow him relentlessly, slowing him down, keeping him back, pulling him inexorably back towards the world he was trying to escape.

Hyne, what was wrong with him? He was digging himself a bigger hole by the day. Every time he exploded, every time he broke his friends' trust in him and acted like a complete dick, he was sent packing back to square one and had to re-establish everything - trust, respect, dignity, a place in the world - he had fought for. That wouldn't be so bad except that every time, it got a little harder. A little harder to face everyone else and ask them with a straight face to tolerate him. A little harder to believe he was worth tolerating.

The door creaked open and Irvine stepped out. He closed it behind himself, asking, "Hey, Zell, you okay? Sefie said not to worry, but..."

"I'm fine. I'm just a jackass, that's all. Don't mind me; you don't want to talk to me anyway."

His eyes tinged with genuine concern, Irvine walked up beside Zell and put his hand on Zell's shoulder. "Hey, look, don't be so hard on yourself, okay?" he said. "We all make mistakes. It's not a death warrant. I mean ... I've been there. You know I always choke up when I'm needed the most. Remember Deling City?" Zell looked up for the first time, as Irvine was now saying something new and worth considering. "You guys got imprisoned because I couldn't shoot when I was supposed to. But I'm still here, right? No one's holding it against me. You just can't let it get to you, Zell. Life's too short to go around beating yourself up over every mistake you make."

"Yeah, but I don't want to be a burden on people," Zell sighed. "I mean ... Selphie, you, everyone ... puts up with so much crap from me, I know."

"Look, man, they've caused you trouble too sometimes, right?" Irvine said. "But you don't think the less of them for that, do you? That's because they're your friends. And you're our friend too."

Zell nodded. He agreed with that much - and he knew that in spite of how much of a jerk he felt like sometimes, his friends still considered him their friend, too, and that they were still happy that he was in their lives. But that didn't mean he couldn't try harder to do more of brightening their lives and less of causing them trouble.

Irvine sensed that Zell was not completely placated and continued. "Look, you know about chaos theory?"

"Um, not really. I've heard of it..."

"Anything can affect anything else in the universe. That's why it's impossible to predict what will happen in the future for sure. Y'know, 'cause to know with 100% certainty, we'd have to be able to track every single thing going on in the universe. Even a butterfly flapping its wings can change the weather in Esthar. Think about it! My fucking up a sniper mission saved Matron's life, helped you guys remember your childhoods, reunited Squall with his dad ... who ever would have predicted that? You can never know for sure how anything that happened in the past has brought about the present we know. Even a chance occurrence can completely change who you are. I mean, what if Selphie had never caught you looking at her diary? What if someone else had been assigned to help the Timber Owls? What if I had shot Matron in Deling City? We'd be in completely different places. Perhaps they'd be better, perhaps they'd be worse, but there's no way to know. That's what I'm saying. You're the sum of everything that's happened in your life to this point. And if you cut any part of that out, even the dumb stuff you wish you could take back sometimes, you change who you are. It'd make you someone else, and you don't even know who 'cause you never know what might have been. So don't beat yourself up over what's already said and done, 'cause even the bad things that happen mean something too. You can't go around second-guessing your entire life story. What seems like a total fuck-up at one point may end up bringing about a miracle down the road. At the very least, you learn from your mistakes."

Zell grinned. That argument was so beautifully airtight. Maybe it didn't excuse his temper, but it certainly gave him good reason not to beat himself up. "...thanks. That's a good explanation. I'll keep that one in mind."

"No problem," Irvine said. "I hope it helps." He paused for a moment, then added, "You know, you have nice eyes."

"Huh?" Zell said before he even time to process the comment. "Um, thanks."

"Oh, did I just say that? I must be drunk again. Sorry. Forgive my intoxication."

Zell wasn't sure whether Irvine was making fun of him, making fun of himself, or actually flirting with him. But subtlety and Irvine rarely went together, so Zell had to conclude that he was sincere. "Irvine, it's okay, I'm not offended or anything," he quickly protested. "It was nice, thanks."

"Look, I said I was drunk, Zell, I didn't mean it." Now Irvine seemed to be regretting what he said.

"Suuure you are."

"Would I lie to you?"

"Probably. "

"Okay, we'll make a deal. If you can prove I'm lying, I'll give you four ears of corn, how about that?"

Selphie stepped outside. "Hi, I just wanted to see what was going out here..."

"Zell thinks I think his eyes are ugly," Irvine explained. "I'm hurt."

"No, I don't," Zell cut in. He had little patience for teasing at the moment - most of his tolerance was still lost to the previous argument. He really didn't care whether or not Irvine was drunk or thought his eyes were pretty, and he was feeling too misanthropic right now to play along with the conversation. He sighed. "Sorry I got so pissed off."

Selphie shrugged. "It's not the end of the world. If any of us were that sensitive, we would have stopped talking to you a long time ago. And I'm sorry I dragged you here; I know you didn't want to come."

"Well, neither did you."

Selphie chuckled. Yep. She hadn't said it that explicitly, but he knew her well enough to read it all. That made her forget half the argument right there. Her heart desired to be part of the world; finding people who understood warmed it. And if someone else could figure her out, she always knew she couldn't be too crazy. Or maybe she and Zell were just nutty in the same way, but, hey, then they could be crazy together. "True, but Quistis is still my friend and I'll put up with some unpleasantness for her. I know this is a big occasion for her and Xu."

Irvine shrugged. "Hey, Zell, if you want to go home, you can take my car."

"Uh, you're not going to use it?"

"No, I'm drunk, remember?"

* * *

Whether Zell had started the arguing didn't really matter. By the time Irvine returned indoors, Rinoa had resumed her campaigning full-scale and was currently directingly her wrath at Xu and Quistis - the latter of whom had come back downstairs to defend the former. Xu was, after all, the one who had ultimately made the decision to kick Yuffie out of Garden. "I can't believe you backed down because you were afraid of getting sued! Is that your price tag on her life? Maybe she's just another student to you -- losing one won't hurt you!" Rinoa screamed each sentence; each one to her represented a vicious condemnation to which Quistis could not possibly have an answer. "But this is everything to her! This is her entire life that you've thrown away! Can you sincerely condemn another human being to this? If it happened to you, I know you want your friends to do everything they could to save you? What if this was your friend; would you be supporting me them? Her freedom isn't expendable; your fucking system is!"

Quistis sighed. She had known from this beginning that this was going to be an ugly situation, and it was only getting uglier. She couldn't write Rinoa's arguments off that easily. Hell, she was quite sympathetic to Rinoa's cause. She didn't want to see Yuffie go; she'd been the first to voice opposition to Niccolo, in fact. So she hardly cared as little as Rinoa claimed - but as long as Rinoa had made up her mind to hate her, what could she do? She couldn't control Rinoa's thoughts; there was only so much she could do to reason with her.

And she also knew that Rinoa's words hit Xu's guilty conscience right where it hurt. Xu felt bad enough about herself without Rinoa's assault on her. Quistis wanted to protect Xu from that, and she could not help being a little angry with Rinoa for hurting the woman she loved. And if she had a choice ... well, she didn't like to think of her friends as conflicting choices, but she'd choose her girlfriend's sanity over continued friendship with someone who only wanted to insult her.

"I know it seems terribly unfair," Quistis said gently. "But we didn't have much choice. Niccolo has the money and probably the law on his side. He can push us around, and that's just the way the world works sometimes. You have to learn to accept it."

"Bullshit!" The angry words tore in staccato bursts from Rinoa's lips like machine gun fire. "The world only works that way because you let it! There's nothing about the world that we can't change! If everyone stood up like me, like Selphie, then Kisaragi would be free! You're the problem, Quistis! What kind of person are you, to turn away from others' misery, to not fight with every ounce of your soul to fix the world?"

"Guys, please stop fighting..." Selphie tried to intercede.

Dangit, I will not let her make me feel bad, Quistis told herself. Guilt trip or no guilt trip, she knew she had done all she can. Rinoa's words hurt her, tugged at the strings that made her conscience dance, but they could not be true.

But Rinoa was right, Xu realized with a horrible sinking feeling. She - Xu - had failed them all. She was being a greedy, self-centered leech again. Her own selfish desire to make her job and life less complicated had taken away one girl's entire future. Hyne, what was wrong with her? She was a monster; she really was.

"A person who knows how to get by," Quistis said sadly. "A person who knows that our lives will never be perfect and that we can't devote our entire hearts to every problem that exists if we want to stay sane." For that was the sad truth.

"Come on, we're here to have fun. Look, it's Mr. Socky the sock puppet! Everyone say hi to Mr. Socky!"

"That's easy for you to say! You don't have to face the consequences of what you do to other people! You don't have to look Yuffie in the eye and tell her that her life isn't as important as Garden's bank account! You can hide between your fan club and only listen to people who agree with you!"

Whatever sympathy Rinoa had with Xu immediately vanished in a rush of anger. How could Rinoa make such specious accusations against someone who was trying so hard to be kind? It was so untrue! Anyone who knew Quistis at all knew that the Trepies made her uncomfortable! Rinoa was just ... just wrong! Xu simply couldn't understand how anyone could get into a state of mind that justified say such things. Oh, it was one thing to insult Xu herself; she could take it. And she probably deserved all the abuse she got and then some. But to tear apart a person as wonderful as her beloved Quisty? Xu could hardly stand by and let Quistis' endless kindness towards Rinoa be returned so harshly.

"Now, listen, that's not true!" she jumped into the conversation. "Quistis isn't hiding behind her fan club any more than you're hiding behind Squall! If she didn't care about other people, she wouldn't be trying to reason with you! She doesn't even want all those fans!"

"Look, look, Mr. Socky's biting my nose! Ow! Stop it, Mr. Socky!"

Rinoa rolled her eyes. "Yeah, that's what they all say."

"...you're not looking."

Grrr! She should be able to to rewrite Rinoa's brain and remove the untruths. And she was furious that she could not. "No, it's not true!" she shouted. Unable to restrain her frustrations, she grabbed Rinoa by the shoulders and shoved her backwards.

"Mengshi, please, I can take care of myself..."

But it was too late to stop things now. Rinoa was infuriated. This was where it all counted, she was telling herself. This was where she had to prove her courage. She could not allow herself to think that Xu was the one employing her. Not if she wanted to change the world. She had to abandon her worldly fears and let her pure, unadulterated rage against the world's suffering carry her to justice and into the history books. Anger was a gift, was it not?

Howling a scream of rage, Rinoa rushed Xu. Xu's fist instinctively flew out and smacked Rinoa in the head with all strength. And then before Xu could think straight, Rinoa was lying unconscious on the floor and Xu was staring at her in horror.

Shit! She hadn't meant for that to happen. "Rinoa?" she called urgently. Oh please, oh please, let her be okay. Then it wouldn't matter that she had done something stupid. "Rinoa! Rinoa!" Hyne, she didn't want to cause any trouble, not like this.

"RINOA!" Squall tore through the room and knelt beside her. "Are you okay? Speak to me!"

Her eyes finally opened. "Fuck," she uttered her favorite word.

He began his desperate plea while she still was at her weakest. "Rinoa, you know you're my angel; you mean the world to me. Let me be your knight again so I can protect you from these horrible bad people!"

The palm of her hand thrust against his face and pushed it away. "I don't need anyone to protect me," she said. "Now get the hell away from me; I told you not to talk to me." To prove her point, she stood up and walked away - stumbling a little, but otherwise okay.

Rinoa chalked up a mental victory. She'd raised plenty of hell at this party - she knew the others would be thinking about her cause tonight. Hell, the looks of mute horror they were giving her right now were satisfying horror. As she walked out the door, she turned and thrust her middle finger at Xu and Quistis. "Don't expect any sympathy out of me," she declared. "When the revolution comes, corporate tools like you will be the first against the wall."

Selphie broke the silence. "Uh... love and peace?"

* * *

Anger never solved anything, but that didn't stop it from existing. And Quistis could not really help it from building in her as she cleaned up after the disastrous party. All alone in the house, of course. Again.

So they had a couple massive arguments, a fight, Rinoa getting stunned ... and what was the first response she got from Xu once everyone had left? Oh, she was terribly sorry about everything that happened, but she was still putting on her coat and "had go to back into work."

It was easy to accuse Mengshi of valuing work more than her. Yes, a casual observer might actually think that Mengshi truly enjoyed filling out forms more than spending time with her (supposed) girlfriend. But Quistis knew Mengshi's problems ran deeper than that. She knew that Mengshi wanted to spend all day with her, forget all obligations to the material world and revel in everything that love offered.

But Mengshi could never fulfill those dreams. She was too afraid. Too afraid to even do something as simple as asking the Kramers for a vacation. Not because she was afraid of rejection, but of the very opposite. If they said yes, if Mengshi actually stepped away from her job and recognized her limits... well, that would be showing a weakness. And Mengshi's fragile ego depended on trying to maintain an illusion of infallibility, of pretending to fit her round peg into the square hole of her job.

She wanted to be perfect. She wanted to feel like she was as "good as" the overachieving Quistis. Mengshi never talked about it, of course, but it was obvious. But, dammit, nobody actually expected her to be perfect! She was the only one who had set these ridiculous standards for herself. But she had gotten her self-worth so wrapped up in them that she would never admit she was wrong. And so things would go on as they always had. Mengshi would blame herself for everything, because in her mind everyone else, especially Quistis, was better. And if there were conflict between them, it must be Mengshi's fault for failing to live up to this imaginary barometer.

Sigh. If she had wanted someone who thought she was perfect, she'd be dating a Trepie. Hyne knew there were more than enough of them. But she didn't a fan club; she wanted a friend. And she knew that Mengshi could be that and so much more - and already was, at the times when everything was going well. She could see the personality that Mengshi often kept hidden away; it was the one she was in love with. But every time her life got rough, Mengshi forget all about that personality, threw away her self-worth, erased all the reasons to love her for who she was.

Well, too bad. Quistis could only take so much. And this was absurd. She had feelings too. She had as much right as Mengshi to feel trapped, to be angry and to have her own needs and to demand that her life not go unrecognized. So what if Mengshi was a good person at heart? If she was going to completely disregard her heart, all Quistis had to deal with was the robot Mengshi had turned herself into. And this was one shoopuf who had had a few too many straws stacked on its back.

Disgust welled up in her as she thought of all she had endured for Xu's sake. And what had that faith ever gotten her? Nothing. She turned off her vacuum cleaner and threw the handle down on the floor. Well, nothing to you too, Mengshi. You can clean up this mess yourself.

It was time for Xu to learn she could only push Quistis' endurance so far. Quistis was not a limitless well of understanding, sympathy, and support; she was a human being that had her own needs. Needs and feelings that she had been suppressing for too long. Well, maybe a metaphorical slap in the face would wake Mengshi up to how much she was already been given. And how little she was appreciating it, how poorly she was repaying it.

Quistis jotted off a quick note to explain her whereabouts, taped it to the door for Mengshi to find, and jumped into her car. Her foot channeled her anger into the gas pedal and with the hum of an engine, Quistis disappeared into the freedom of the night.

* * *

Selphie was surprised to find Zell not his room or in the training room, but in her own room. She didn't really mind, but it also seemed terribly off-putting; there was just no logical reason for him to be there. "Er, hi..."

"Hi."

"You left at the right time, I can assure you." She sat down on the corner of bed and exhaled deeply. She hadn't done anything physically tiring, but emotional exhaustion was just as draining as physical exercise. Probably moreso.

"Um... dare I ask what happened?"

Selphie shrugged. Better to not think (and care) too much about it, or she'd get upset again. "Everyone arguing with each other about Yuffie. Rinoa yelling at Quistis, mostly. And then Xu hit Rinoa, hard enough to knock her out."

"Yikes, is she going to be okay?"

"Oh, yeah, she walked away from it," Selphie said. "But ... you know Rinoa; she's going to be mad about that for a long time. And it's sure not going to help our cause, either."

"Yeah." He nodded his agreement. An ugly situation, indeed. So he sat down beside her and hugged her to his side. She smiled in appreciation. At least she was not completely alone in this yet. "But ... we can't throw towel in that quickly. It's not over until we give up."

"I know, but I can't help but feel like what happened tonight is my fault. I mean, I'm the one who recruited Rinoa into this. I guess I should have thought about Quistis and Xu too before I did; it's not fair to punish them, isn't it? 'Cause they're my friends ... but so is Yuffie, and..." She sighed. "I don't want fighting. I don't want to make the problem worse. I just want my friend back."

Hyne, she truly wanted to believe that there was an easy solution. But there seemed no way out of this mess that didn't require hurting someone who didn't deserve to hurt. Good times were going to be over for a long, long while. "It's all falling apart, Zell," she whispered, unconsciously avoiding making the subject any more oppressive by voicing it loudly. "First Yuffie gets sent away, and now Quistis and Xu and Rinoa and Squall and Seifer are all fighting each other..."

It was comforting to think that things would always turn out in the right; once, she had even had plenty of evidence to believe that. But now she had to confront the fact that it might not. Yuffie seemed so far away. Even peace between her friends still at Garden now seemed a fanciful impossibility. Who would the next victim be?

She sighed. "Am I the only one who isn't completely cynical and resigned to not getting along? It's so lonely being an optimist, and it shouldn't be that way! I mean ... I'm friends with them all. I can see good in them all, so obviously it must exist, and I just don't understand why they have such a hard time recognizing it in each other." She sighed, all too aware of her own futility. "There's so many times I want to grab them and scream in their faces, 'How can be you blind? How can you really think that some people are worthless because they like different music, or because they look different from you, or because they had some feud with you long ago in the past? It's so obvious that we're all good people; how can you possibly not recognize it?' But ... I know that wouldn't do anything." She chuckled, but her laugh was tinged with self-mocking. "I need a big red button that I can push to make everyone love each other."

And if everyone had loved each other, Trabia never would have happened. Yeah, it never took her long to start thinking of that again. But this time, she would attempt some resolution. "Zell, can I talk to you about something?"

"Of course."

She nodded towards the door the balcony. "Let's go out there." Her little balcony seemed more comforting; it was smaller than her room and wasn't packed with any uncomfortable reminders of her past. And fresh air. That was nice too, and right now she needed all the comforts she could get.

All too aware of all the clouds hanging over Selphie, Zell silently followed her out there. Hyne, he wished he could clap his hands and make all her problems vanish like that. He'd do anything in a flash to help her if he really could solve her problems. But, alas, all he could do was listen. Which was better than nothing, of course, but not as much as he wanted.

Selphie sighed and looked up at the sky. The universe was vast and infinite and yet none of it seemed to be able to help her. Still, staring at it all helped keep some hope alive for her. Something out there must be waiting to bestow upon her the deliverance she'd been waiting for.

"Reminds me of when Chu-Chu and Yuffie and I used to go out and look at stars..." Dangit, that thought alone was almost enough to make her cry. But her desire to let all her secrets out of her heart keep her speaking. "Zell, you remember Sun Hye, right?"

He nodded. "Of course." Selphie's best friend, the one who had wanted to start a band and gotten Selphie into music, who had been killed by Galbadia's attack against Trabia.

"I didn't ... really tell you enough, I think." She sighed. The memories were painful enough to think about. It was even worse having to concentrate on and analyze them enough to arrange them into a coherent order. "I don't know how or where to start, but she was always my best friend as long as I was at T-Garden. And ... I've certainly made a lot of good friends since then, but when you know someone that long and from such an early age, they have this way of really getting deep in your soul. Every time I play guitar or sing, there's a part of me that thinks of her. And I think we only got closer as we got older. I mean, Emma was really good friends with the both of us, but at the same time ... she was just a little bit different down in her soul."

He nodded. Perfectly understandable.

But Selphie's monologue had ended. She wasn't sure what to say because she didn't even know what she felt. Any words she used seemed to misrepresent her feelings in one way or another. "And ... I don't know. What am I supposed to say? That I miss her? That there's a huge gaping hole in my heart? It's just ... I don't know how to let go. Everything wonderful new thing that happens to me, I wish she could be sharing it. Every pit of misery I sink to, I wish she could be there to lift me out of it. And how can I stop wanting that? How can I stop wishing for her to be here? I suppose it's the fact that I'll never know that's killing me. I'll never know what she could have done in life, what she might be doing right now, how we could have supported each other, what we could have meant to each other." She sighed. "I suppose that's why they say life is what happens to you when you're making other plans, isn't it? But I can't help but wonder ... can't help but fear that I'm going to spend the rest of my life searching and never find what I'm really looking for. I mean ... when we thwarted Ultimecia and everything a few years ago, I told myself that everything was okay, that we had saved the world. And it would never bring Sun Hye back, never heal me completely, but at least we had gotten out of the darkness and were safe now. It would never happen again. But ... it did, Zell. It did and now Yuffie's gone too. It's the same thing all over again. Heck, Sun Hye and Yuffie are totally alike in quite a few ways; that's probably why Yuffie and I got to be friends so quickly..."

He wrapped his arm over her shoulders and pulled her closer. "Don't give up yet. Yuffie isn't dead. We'll find a way to get her back. We've barely even started."

"And then what?" she wailed. "We can't save the world. There's just going to be suffering that leads to more suffering. And I can't do anything about it. I'm trying, so hard, but I guess that'll never be good enough, is it?"

Zell hugged her some more. "You're trying very hard and you know that," he repeated. He knew from his experience that these messages needed repeating many times to get hammered into one's heart. "It's only been a few days and we still have a lot of chances to help Yuffie. Everyone banded together to fight Ultimecia before; I'm sure they'll find a way to make sure everything works out. Hang in there."

She sighed and smiled, trying to build up a resolution to go along. For all the despair she saw around her, she still knew she'd be far worse off if she didn't have him to prop her up. Yes, she certainly had some blessings in her life. But they were not enough to console her bleeding heart. "Zell?"

"Mmm?"

"Do you think it's possible to love too much?"

He didn't know what to say that. Obviously the answer should be "no," but how could he prove that? And he knew Selphie wouldn't ask a question like that unless she really wasn't sure of the answer. And if she was hurt that bad, what could he hope to do? If the eternal optimist no longer believed, how could he?

"I mean, if we didn't care about Yuffie enough to want to fight to bring her back to Garden, then none of this fighting would be happening, right? Maybe we'd be better off if we didn't care about each other so much."

"But then we'd just be machines."

"Sometimes I think we'd be a lot better off that way." She sighed. "It's not that I don't believe anymore. It's that I'm not sure I want to believe."

"Then you'd be just like Mikoto," he said. He knew no true answers to her problems, so the best he could do was offer whatever was in his head at the moment. "A talking head that does nothing but insult people and talk about Radiohead. You don't want to be Mikoto, do you?"

She chuckled. Okay, some things were still funny, that was good...

"But, I mean, seriously ... you can't claim all those glorious ups without exposing yourself to downs too. You know, nothing ventured, nothing gained. If we didn't care, if we were total robots, we'd never have any positive feelings either. I know that doesn't make all the bad stuff hurt any less, but ... I guess we do love for a reason, you know? I know this is a stupid analogy, but it's like how having a sense of taste and being able to appreciate good food also means we don't eat as healthily. And think about it. Pretty much everyone loves something. It's not really something we have much choice over. So even if we'd be better off with it, there's not much use in trying to fight it."

She sighed. "I know. Still, I feel like I feel like if stopped caring so much, I'd fit into this world better."

"But you don't really feel that way in your heart?" He prodded.

She chuckled somewhat self-mockingly. "Yeah, you know me better than that." Then she looked back to the stars and sighed. "For better or for worse, inside me there's still the girl who believes in love and happiness and faith and friends. And I still always try to smile, I always try to be the one to cheer others up, because I really do like to see them happy and I know just whining about my problems isn't going to change anything. But I'm scared. Scared that I'm damaged for life, scared that I'll do nothing but drag others down with me because I'm going to spend the rest of my life trying to change the past." She knew she was close to crying and tried to spit out the next sentence before the tears started. "After having over ten years of my life and the greatest friend I've ever known vaporized before my eyes, I don't know if I'll ever feel whole again." But then all the defenses she had constructed reappeared to keep her going. "I guess I've gotten kind of resigned to it. Life isn't all that bad; it's tolerable until we all die."

"It doesn't have to be that way, you know that."

She shook her head. "I wanted to believe, I really did. But ... what evidence is there left of it? What is there left to suggest that I'll ever find a happy ending? And yet still..." Her eyes started to tear up; she took a deep breath and plunged on with her confession. "Still, Zell, still there's a little girl inside me that wants to be happy, I mean really happy, not just getting by, life is too precious and I don't want to waste it and I..." A deep sob finally won out over her words.

Zell held her until she had calmed down a little. "I don't know if I'll ever feel whole again," Selphie murmured. "I'm scared that I'm damaged for life, and I don't want to drag you down with me..."

"I know you don't," Zell said. "And I know I'll never totally understand, because something's been taken from you in a way it hasn't been taken from me. But... I can't stop caring. It's all I know how to do. You're the one I love..."

"Yeah, too bad all the people who care about me seem to end up dead or in prison," she grumbled. But that was enough bitterness. Sarcasm would change nothing. She sighed and tried to get her thoughts focused back on her real concerns. "You know, a lot of people talk about karma, but I can't believe in it. I can't believe that I get only what I give. Because all the love I give seems to end up in suffering and broken hearts. And I ... I guess when it was just Sun Hye, I could understand it as a horrible problem that's finally been solved. But it's than that. It's never going to end. And I'm not so sure this world will ever be safe to love in. What if you vanished tomorrow? What if I vanished tomorrow; what would you do? I don't know. I really don't."

And that was as far as mere words could carry her, so she stepped away from his arms and started to sing.

Wishing on a dream that seems far off
Hoping it will come today
Into the starlight night
Foolish dreamers turn their gaze
Waiting on a shooting star

But what if that star is not to come?
Will their dreams fade to nothing?
When the horizon darkens most
We all need to believe there is hope

She leaned over the railing and into the vast starry night, one wounded soul alone in a big, mean world. Her voice continued to call out in a plea that the universe seemed intent on not answering.

Is an angel watching closely over me?
Can there be a guiding light I've yet to see?
I know my heart should guide me but
There's a hole within my soul
What will fill this emptiness inside of me?
Am I to be satisfied without knowing?
I wish, then, for a chance to see now
All I need desperately
Is my star to come?

Zell stood there, not sure what to say. The circumstances had completely outstripped his feeble ability to make sense of the universe.

But Selphie was done for now. She had released all she could, and she knew that for the time there was nothing more to do. It was not a pleasant feeling, not a sad feeling, just fact. She turned and put a hand on his shoulder. "Come on, let's go inside." She wasn't sure whether to say she felt better per se, since her attitude and outlook hadn't really changed. On the other hand, now that her troubles were no longer kept entirely inside her, she was at least free of the need to emote and get it all out.

"I didn't mean to have this conversation, but ... I think it's good we did."

Zell nodded. "Yeah. I'm sorry I couldn't do more than listen..."

"It's enough, dear. I appreciate it."

He managed a smile and immediately felt proud of himself for doing so. "You know I won't give up on you, no matter what. I promise."

"Thanks," she said. She went to her closet, opened it, and took out a small wooden box with the flag of Trabia on it. Normally, she kept it tucked away; she didn't need all those memories hitting her on a daily basis. But now it was needed. She retrieved a key from her desk, opened the box, and took out something. "I think I'm going to go to Trabia tomorrow. By myself. You understand, right?"

"Of course."

She forced a smile. "I know you do. And I'm sorry for keeping you in the dark about all this for so long. I guess I should have told you this before. It's just ... well, I'm not used to talking about it. You know Irvine. He's a nice guy, but ... he wouldn't get it. All he'd focus on is that I was heartbroken because of a girl. Hyne knows he gave me a hard enough time just because I took Quistis to a dance."

Zell nodded. Not that Irvine was by any means a bad guy, but ... yeah, that did sound like him, and, yeah, it certainly was a good reason not to bring it up. "I understand. I know it's not easy to talk about."

She nodded. "I sometimes worry that I don't let you know it enough, but your support, just listening to what I have to say, makes a world of difference."

"Well, I'm glad I could help. You certainly do plenty for me." He fumbled for something else to say. "So, um, speaking of Irvine, do you want me to explain why he owes me four ears of corn?"

Chapter Text

Yuffie paced her cell in the Desert Prison, humming "Camptown Races" to herself. She had to keep her spirits up. But, Gawd, this sucked. Sure, she'd done plenty of time in the past, but they'd never stuck in a place like this before. Usually it was just some quick overnight stay in a county jail, and then they let her go when Dad paid her bail and they couldn't really prove she'd stolen anything.

But now she really seemed to have gotten herself deep in shoopuf manure. She didn't know if they'd let her go back to Balamb Garden. Plus, she was, like, supposed to save the world 'n stuff. And that was kinda hard to do when she was stuck in a maximum-security jail cell. There wasn't a damn thing she could do here besides sleep. Not that she ever minded sleeping, but she could tell she was going to get pretty antsy cooped up in this little room. Were these even four-star facilities?

Yuffie pounded on the door. "Gawd, is anyone out there?"

"What is it?" Wedge said.

"This place sucks."

"It's a prison. What were you expecting?"

"Gawd, don't you talk to me like that. I want to talk to your manager!"

Well, better to let someone else deal with this. Wedge jogged off to retrieve his commanding officer and they returned together. "Do you have a problem?" Biggs asked. He looked into the cell. "Oh, that's that pirate kid."

Wedge frowned. "Pirate, sir? She looks more like a flooring inspector to me."

"Pirates and hackers come in all shapes and sizes, Biggs. You can't trust anyone who uses a computer. They're all up to no good. You never know when they're planning to tap into the phone lines and send out a virus."

"Hey! I wouldn't do that! That's not fair! If you keep ... making stuff up like that about me, I can do that, like, sue you or something!"

"Yes, you do that," Biggs said. He turned to leave.

Well, so much for trying to negotiate with them. "The Camptown ladies sing this song 'n stuff, doo-dah, doo-dah."

A blue rat, carrying a keycard in his mouth, came crawling through a hole in the wall on all fours. He spit the card out on the floor and looked up just in time to see a massive foot descending towards him. "The Camptown racetrack, like, two miles long, doo-dah, doo-" Her foot stopped just inches away from Hanpan. "Ohmigawd! It's Mr. Jingles!"

Hanpan stood up on two feet and stared at her, struggling to comprehend the degree to which he had just been insulted. "Listen," he seethed through clenched teeth. "If you ever call me 'Mr. Jingles' again, I will personally fly down your throat and rip out your tonsils. My name is Hanpan. Han. Pan. Do you read me?"

"Um, I don't have any tonsils. I had them removed when I was a little kid, you know?"

"No," Hanpan said frostily. "I didn't. Now listen to me. I'm from Dunamis; here's the plan. Take the keys, sneak out of your cell, and go down one level. The Moombas have dug a hole in the wall there. It'll work like a rabbit hole; you can jump through there to get back into Dricas. We're having a tea party there; it'll be easy to find."

"Gawd, really? Awesome, thanks! But, um, how do I get down there? I'm locked in this cell."

Did she even listen to a word he said? He gestured with his foot towards the card. "With that little get out of jail free card, stupid. And don't ask me how I got my hands on it."

Yuffie finally noticed the card and picked it up. "Oh! Wow, this is, like, one of the prison keycards. Where did you get it?"

Hanpan took a deep breath to calm himself. "I just told you not to ask me that."

"Uh, right, sorry."

* * *

It did not take Yuffie long to get lost once she had returned to Dricas. She found herself wandering across the same series of hills, past the same trees, over and over.

"Oh, Gawd, I'm lost, aren't I?"

Gawd, how did she always manage to screw up like this? This was why she was better off just staying in bed and sleeping. Nothing she could break or spill Sunny D on there.

Maybe this was one of those repeating forests and she had to go past these landmarks in the right order to get out. But no one in town had given her the secret code and there weren't any mysterious ancient tablets sticking out of the ground. That stupid rat, telling her that it would be easy to find. Didn't he know that she messed up everything she did?

She eventually found her way to Cait Sith's card table, and instantly regretted it. Cait Sith sprung eagerly up on his table. "Ooh! I bet you decided to come back for The Legend of Cait Sith Gets Some. Good choice, my dear fiendishly ugly bitch, good choice."

"NO! I just need directions again."

"Suuure you do. C'mon, you can admit it; I know you want to get your hands on this hot, brand new timeless literary treasure." He waved his book in her face until Yuffie shoved it away.

"Stop that! I don't want your book. All I want to know is if there are any any tea parties around here."

"Party, my left paw. That's the worst excuse I've ever heard."

Yuffie blinked. "What?"

"You? Partying? Did you come from some parallel dimension Bizarro World where Andrew W.K. is a Linux programmer?" Cait Sith waved the book at her. "I know what you're really looking for."

"Look, this is Important. It has to do with stuff with angels in their names 'n stuff. Lucca said so."

"Ohhh, I get it." Cait Sith nodded his head in a gesture of sagacious understanding. It all made sense now. "You want to read something deep and Important; that's why you didn't why you didn't buy my book. Well, don't worry; I can be just as Important too; in fact, I'm even deeper than Lucca. Hold on, I feel a psuedo-philosophical catchphrase coming on."

He clutched his head and rocked back and forth, as if in the caught in the throes of some Jenova Cell-induced flashback. "Oh! Oh! Here it comes! 'The absolute value of good and evil is the same.'" He looked up. "Was that Important enough for you, huh? Huh? Will you buy my book?"

Yuffie did not even hear his last words. She as staring completely blankly at him, trying to piece together some sense from what he had sense. "Gawd, that doesn't even make sense," she concluded.

"Duh! That's because it's too deep for you to understand. I told you. I'm friggin' deep, baby. Deeper than the Marianas Trench. I'm so deep and Important I'd even change my name to something faggy like 'Zadkiel' if it means you'll buy my book."

Yuffie rolled her eyes. "I think 'Lucifer' would be more appropriate," she said, sounding exasperated - she had finally hit her limit with Cait's garbage. "Never mind. I'll find the party on my own. Gawd."

* * *

A few hours later...

"Jimma, the Goers have never been beaten while playing on the road on Tuesdays against teams who are currently ranked second in the league and have an even number of losses. What will Kilika have to do to counter this threat?"

"Well, Bobba, they're going to have to find a way to score more goals than Luca if they want to win this game. But we can't count them out until we've seen the last paid advertisements."

"Thank you for that brilliant insight, Jimma," Lucca quipped. She took another sip of tea and lit a new cigarette.

Clustered around one end of a picnic table, Lucca, Hanpan, Kefka, and Vibri continued to drink their tea and watch the Goers-Beasts pre-game show. An extra-special ingredient seemed to have worked its way into Vibri's tea, and each sip was causing him to become progressively less sober. "Marijuana!" he shouted and collapsed into fits of giggles.

Someone came jogging over the hill. "No room! No room!" the quartet shrieked, huddling together at the end of the table. Then Lucca realized who it was. "Oh, wait. It's ~*Angel Princess Aeris Til Heartilly-chan-sama-domo-kun-hime*~. Welcome back."

Yuffie descended the hill and stopped near the picnic tile. "Gawd, it took me forever to find this place. What's up?"

Lucca shrugged. "Watchin' the game, havin' some tea. Oh! I suppose I should you introduce to the rest of the crew. Guys, this is Yuffie Kisaragi, or ~*Angel Princess Aeris Til Heartilly-chan-sama-domo-kun-hime*~. And, Yuffie, this is the rest of Dunamis, sans _prometheus. You've already met xwhiterabbitx; here are d0rmouse and MaD_HaTTer."

"Hey." Yuffie said. "Oh! You're the guy who helped me get out of jail!"

Hanpan nodded. "<=¤[email protected]=f£å®ê666=> tells me she thinks you're the one we've been looking for," he said in an almost accusatory fashion. Clearly this was a position that Hanpan was not so sure of. "She says you're the only person who has the skill to beat Mother Brain at her own game. Do you think you have what it takes?"

Yuffie scratched her head. "Well, I scored 50,000 points on Double Dragon..."

"50,000 points!" Hanpan gasped. "You scored 50,000 points on Double Dragon?"

"Time to sing the high score song!" Vibri exclaimed. He warbled an incomprehensible stream of psuedo-Japanese syllables interrupted with occasional insane giggles.

"With the emphasis on 'high,' apparently," Lucca commented.

"I smoke weed!" Vibri doubled over in hysterics.

Yuffie found herself trying to stay as uninvolved as possible here. Gawd, these people were more nuts than Garden at its worst. She hated to admit it, but that dumb cat was probably right when he said everyone was mad here, or at least high. Sure, she had to save the world 'n all, but that didn't prevent her from trying to minimize the contact she had with these weirdos. "Okay ... so I'm good at games 'n stuff. What do you want me to do?"

"Well, each of us in Dunamis has a specific role," Lucca said. "I lead, Robo does machines, Kefka is our muscle, Hanpan does infiltration, and Vibri reconnaissance."

"I SMOKE WEED!"

"Yes, that too," Lucca said. "And I should mention that in addition to leading, my specialties include guns, women, and generally kicking ass. ‘Cause I’m just all that and a bag of chips, y’know."

"Well, if you can do all that, what do you need me for, then?" Yuffie sounded a little annoyed by Lucca's boasting.

"Yuffie, once we pin down Mother Brain's whereabouts, we'll need your skills at operating Dricas to reach and disable her, most likely in mano-a-mano combat. That's your job. You and Tron are the missing keys to stopping Mother Brain."

"Tron? Who's Tron?"

"I don't know; that's just what I discerned from my research."

Hanpan looked upwards. "Looks like you're going to be able to test your skills for yourself, Yuffie. We've got hostiles!"

An airship -- a black-and-white line-art one, of course -- was descending from the sky, with the members of the Bumbling Recurring Minor Villains' Local #203 standing on the deck. As they approached the tea party, Dominia nodded towards the rest of the union, and they burst out in song.

You know us as the villains
But later you'll be wrong
We're tired of our catchphrases
So we thought we'd try a song

Dominia: Earth!
Seraphita: Fire!
Tolone: Wind!
Kelvena: Water!

Jessie: A speedy fight!
James: A speedier flight!
Meowth: Meowth, that's right!

Raijin: I am the comic one.
Fujin: STRAIGHT.

Turning good is lots of fun
We congregate in throngs
But we'll be good before long

We want to capture Yuffie K.
We hope to do it quick
And when we do we'll be the new
Stars of this fanfiiiiiiiiic

"Dude, that song sucked mandrill ass," Kefka declared. "Huh huh huh."

Lucca adjusted her glasses. "Should we know these people?"

"It's the Bumbling Recurring Minor Villains' Local #203," Yuffie explained. "They, like, arrested me and took my computer 'n stuff."

"Oh, bumbling recurring minor villains," Lucca shrugged. "They're probably just here to harass us with a brief battle before they run off."

"Actually, we're here to arrest Yuffie for capital offenses," Elena said. "Yuffie, you've violated the terms of Niccolo Group's Balamb Garden Museum of Natural History End Patron License Agreement. Under the terms of this contract, which you agreed to by setting foot in the museum -"

"Uh, like, what contract?"

"It was posted inside the museum. Under the terms of the End Patron License Agreement, by distributing, selling, discussing, or acknowledging the existence of any materials related to our museum, thereby committing copyright, trademark, and patent infringement, you have waived your right not to be folded, spindled, mutilated, maimed, shot, killed, debilitated, severely injured..."

"Enough, Elena," Rude interrupted. "Yuffie, you have two choices: surrender right now... or, um, surrender right now."

Everyone turned to Yuffie. She hesitated, then exclaimed, "Gawd, you guys are so mean; this isn't fair!"

Tolone casually unscrewed her left hand and pulled it away to reveal a gun barrel nestled in the center of her arm. Yuffie flinched. "Grossness!" she shrieked, turning away and scrunching her eyes shut. "That is, like, totally disgusting!"

"<=¤[email protected]=f£å®ê666=>, look out!" Lucca shouted. But by the time she had finished reciting Yuffie's lengthy nickname, Tolone had already started to fire. Using terribly implausible reflexes, Lucca reached down and tapped the Start button on the NES controller that was part of her belt.

The action immediately slowed to a crawl. Tolone's laser beams inched towards Yuffie as the ninja girl turned in slow motion. A visible motion blur trailed behind Yuffie. "Whoa, trippy," Kefka chortled.

"Um, like, what did you just do?" Yuffie asked.

Lucca grinned. "Doesn't this look awesome? This should earn us an Academy Award for sure."

"Uh, like, sure, whatever."

"By the way, you might want to think about dodging those laser beams."

"Oh, like, right." Yuffie leaned to the left as the first beam came streaking by, then ducked under a high-flying beam. She hopped back to the right as the final blast narrowly missed her left arm. When all the beams had passed, Lucca unpaused reality.

Seraphita bounced up and down. "Wow! That looks like a lot of fun!! Can I try?"

"Sure," Lucca said. She fired off a round of Zapper blasts and then tapped the pause button. Seraphita ducked and leaned around each beam in slow-motion. When the attack had subsided, Lucca pressed Start again and returned time to normal speed.

"Me next! Me next!" Tron shouted.

James pointed at Tron. "I'm after him!" he called.

"I call third!" Reno said.

"We need guns," Elena observed.

"I can handle that," Lucca said. She reached down and tapped in the Konami Code. A huge rack of guns instantly appeared next to her.

Hanpan frowned. "If you can create whatever you want like that, then why didn't we make spyplanes to track down Mother Brain's hideout and then tanks to destroy it? We could have solved this in a day."

"Nanotechnology."

"Oh, okay."

"Heroin -- it's my anti-drug!" Vibri called out from his own separate universe. He giggled himself right out of his chair over this one and rolled around on the dirt screaming.

Lucca looked over her shoulder at him. "Dude, it's not that funny; shut up."

Lucca and Kefka took turns shooting at the time assembled minor villains while Yuffie cowered under their table. The spectacle went on for several rounds before it dawned on Hanpan that his leader was intentionally distracting the villains so they could escape. He flew down beside Vibri and whispered in his ear, "The phone!"

Vibri stopped rolling around and looked up. "Nani?" he squeaked.

Hanpan did an angry little dance and pointed at the cell phone on Lucca's belt. It was nearly as large as he was; he needed Vibri to make the call for him. But Vibri was still staring blankly into space. "Oh, man ... like, dude. I smoke weed."

Hanpan repositioned himself in front of Vibri's face. "Read... my... lips: TELEPHONE... CALL."

"Oh, okay!" Vibri staggered over behind Lucca. He managed to yank the cell phone out of her belt and dial a number. "Hello, Sam's Carrot Emporium?" he squeaked. "I'd like to place an order for 200 crates of carrots, double dose of crack, hold the anchovies." He glanced at Hanpan to see if he was doing everything okay.

Hanpan slapped his forehead. "Call Robo, you idiot!" he shouted.

"Oh!" Vibri exclaimed. He hung up and dialed the Dunamis cottage. "_prometheus! xwhiterabbitx here! Place a fax call! We need to get Aeris out of here!"

Yuffie poked her head out from under the tablecloth. "What's going on?" she whispered.

"We're finding you an escape route from Dricas," Hanpan whispered back. "It's you they're looking for, not us."

"Um, like, so, what?"

"So if you get out of here, then they'll leave us alone! And you'll be safe too."

"Uh, okay. Whatever."

Vibri hung up the phone and leaned closer to Yuffie. "Duchess' mansion, up on the hill," he reported in a whisper punctuated by occasional random giggles. "Look for the fax machine. And dude, I'm, like, totally baked."

"Okay," Yuffie said. She set off at a light jog for the mansion on the hill, leaving her allies and the minor villains engrossed in an endless firefight.

Chapter Text

Xu was not the substance-abusing sort, but perhaps that was only because she had an even more effective alternative: Work. Burying herself in stacks of applications and other paperwork let her pretend that she was doing her job properly, that people would like what she did if only she filled out enough forms, wrote enough letters. She could forget, at least for the occasional blissful moment, the million doubts burrowing holes through the mind, telling her that she had already destroyed all she ever really wanted. Oh, what a fool she had been. She had taken Quistis for granted, refused to see the warning signs. How could she ever have done this? Her job was not as important as Quisty, not in a million years. She wished only that she could take back all those long nights at work and exchange them for time spent the right way, playing cards with Quistis or talking about books and history or just cuddling. Why had she had done all this? She was an idiot. A stupid idiot who had every chance imaginable and wasted them all.

In a fit of self-hatred she jabbed her pen into her palm, deep enough to leave a gash.

The stress released something buried in her. For a brief moment, when she thought she could not be any worse off, something white and feathery flickered over her shoulders. And then she calmed just a little and it was gone. It could have been there for more than half a second - by the time it registered with her, it was already gone.

But it was enough for her to know.

She tore down the train of thought at light speed and arrived at the conclusion before she knew she was going anywhere. That was a wing. An angel wing. A sorceress's angel wing. She was a sorceress. She had sorceress powers. She had pushed Rinoa into the gutter and knocked her out. Rinoa had acquired her sorceress powers when Edea was unconscious in Galbadia Garden. These were Rinoa's sorceress powers. Xu had taken them. Rinoa was not a sorceress because Xu had taken her powers. Xu was the sorceress now.

Panic swelled within her and claimed control of her body and mind. Rinoa already hated her; she would kill her for this. The poor girl's life revolved around being a sorceress. It was her identity; the sorceress cause was the only thing she seemed to really care about. And it wasn't just Rinoa; she had wronged all of Garden too. Because she was a sorceress now. She was a threat. With no knight, she was liable to crazy and kill them all. And now she could never, ever hope of patching things over with Quistis. Oh, no. Even without being a sorceress, she had not quite been good enough for her; now, she was even worse and far beyond any hope of reconciliation. She would be begging Quistis not just to forgive her mistakes and accept her for what she had been but to accept her as an inhuman monster.

She thought of calling Rinoa. But, no... no, she shouldn't do that. Couldn't bear to tell Rinoa that she had taken away her life's meaning, couldn't expect her to be understanding when she had already committed crimes beyond forgiveness. No, there was no hope for her now. She had sinned, out of her own inherent human failings, and now there was nothing left for her but to face her punishment.

Her head sagged against her desk.

Hyne, oh Hyne, what had she done?

* * *

To an outsider, the Trabia Garden cemetery no longer looked quite as lonely and bleak as used it to. The dust had been cleared, the dead trees had been taken away and young ones planted, and the new Garden, well on its way to completion, was visible not too far from where the old one had stood and where there was now a memorial. Life had begun again, speaking of a day in a future where the death and destruction would be remembered only as an historical event.

But to Selphie, this still was her life. This was still the most powerful place she knew. Time may have brought life back to the trees and the grass and the entity of T-Garden, but not to the friends she had lost on the day when she watched the missiles streak through the sky and could do nothing to stop them. No amount of planting new seeds would ever truly replace the ones that had been lost, for no two were ever completely alike. And the ones that were lost were the ones she knew as friends and mentors and associates and even rivals and enemies -- sure, to the world at large, they were just more names and more generic people, but they were the ones that mattered to.

Selphie stepped through the rows of tombstones, which were now at least surrounded by fresh grass rather than soot and ash. She knew all too many of the students and SeeDs, faculty and staff, that rested here. She wished had the time to visit them all, though she was admittedly not sure whether her heart could survive such an ordeal. Though as saddening, heart-wrenching even, as this place was, it not depressing. It did not sap her hope for the future, but rather made her all the more determined to make the best of the life she was blessed to have.

Selphie arrived at the grave she had been walking to, the one she had visited more than any other. She crouched before it, her eyes looking once again over again the epitaph that she had wrote.

PARK SUN HYE
NOVEMBER 9, 1982 - MAY 19, 1999
WE'RE A PART OF YOU, YOU'RE A PART OF US

Nothing really changed. She had been here many times before, of course, but that did not really make it any less heart-rending. Two years did not make this less any real, nor did she think a lifetime would.

Selphie dug into her pocket and produced something she had brought with her: a small plastic reproduction of the white half of the yin-yang SeeD emblem, with "BEST" written over it in pink lettering. She had not really seen it in a while; she kept locked away in a box in her room. To keep it special. It really should have just been a cheap trinket, a silly joke between young friends, and the fact that it had had to become something more said something about the world that was not so comforting.

She stared it at it for some time, then looked up again at Sun Hye's grave, where the counterpart still hung: the black half of the emblem, with the words "FRIENDS."

She did not cry, or even sigh or feel bad. She simply stared at the emblem on the grave, and then the one in her hand, and then at the other one again. She did not even think, not really. She just ... felt. Embraced the strength of the moment. It was not necessarily uplifting, nor depressing. It was simply something that had needed to be done.

"I won't let it happen again, Sun Hye," she vowed under her breath. "I promise."

And then was time to go. She gathered up Sun Hye's half of the emblem and placed it carefully in her pocket with the white half. She had not be able to save Sun Hye, had not been able to protect her Trabia. But she knew she still had the chance to change these cycles; to make sure that things did not happen this time as they did last time. And she pledged that the black half of the emblem would not leave Yuffie's room until her friend was home, or at least free.

That was the first half of her business here.

Feeling strengthened if not necessarily more helpful, Selphie crossed the fields and the memorials to the small small but growing complex of buildings that comprised the new Trabia Garden. She proceeded through the dormitories to a place just as familiar as Sun Hye's grave and knocked on the door.

Emma looked no different than Selphie remembered her: short dark hair, cheerful face, striped shirt, taller than she was. "Oh!" she squealed, immediately enfolding Selphie into a tight hug.

Despite scarcely seeing each other - indeed, not even talking nearly as much as either would have liked - they were as still as close as ever. What, really, had changed? Oh, a lot, really, but their bond hadn't. And Selphie knew that no matter how many friends she made at Balamb and no matter where she ended up, nothing would ever replace it.

There was too much they had shared, and it all instantly bubbled back to the top of Selphie's mind - not that she had ever forgotten them, but just that they were less relevant they were now. All those fond childhood memories of the Terrible Threesome: Selphie, Sun Hye, and Emma scurrying around secret passages in T-Garden's MD Level and pretending they were SeeDs, teasing Lank and Port for being such dorks (little did they know that Emma would wind up one day engaged to Lank), dressing up Mr. Bear in all manner of ridiculous clothes...

Poor Mr. Bear. She had always hoped against all reason and sense that he would be discovered unscathed - or even just partially wounded; Quisty could surely sew him back together - in the rubble. Until the whole mess had been cleared away and he never was found and she was forced to concede defeat to the missiles once again. Mr. Bear had been a strong bear, all right; he had survived a decade of torment at the hands of a rambunctious young Selphie, but it seemed not even he was strong enough to survive Galbadia's missiles. And Selphie had Gracie now, of course; she had bought her at that toy story on 12th Street as soon as she had made her decision to stay at B-Garden. But she still missed Mr. Bear.

And then there were the later years. All the afternoons spent in that little coffee shop with the scrumptious cheesecake, where they chatted about boys and school and, well, boys. Of course, their attempts to start a band - Selphie on vocals, Sun Hye on guitar, Emma on bass - that never got off the ground because they couldn't find a drummer. (At least she finally got to do that, although she had to admit she still envisioned her perfect band with four members, so she could just sing.) And her final goodbyes to them at the airport when she left for Balamb, which surely would have been quite different had she any inkling that would she see neither Sun Hye nor her beloved Garden ever again.

They finally let go out of each other. "So good to see you again." Emma backed into her room, allowing Selphie to follow her inside. "Er, you did just come to visit, or...?"

"Well..." Selphie said. She explained the whole Yuffie situation to Emma. How Yuffie was gone, how she could not shake the thought from her head that this was just like what had happened two years ago, and how she would not let it happen again. Emma and Yuffie had never met, though of course they knew of each other's existence through Selphie's stories.

"Oh dear," Emma said, trying to take this all in. She wanted to make sense of it as quickly as possible, so she could find the direction and help Selphie...

Selphie stared off to one side and tried to calm herself. "I don't want it to happen again," she said. "I'm sick of this happening to people. I'm tired of seeing good people have their lives claimed. I... I..."

And then the tears started. Emma hugged Selphie again and Selphie gratefully took her shoulder to sob on. "You're right, you do still have a chance, though," Emma consoled her. "Trabia would love to help you, you know. They all still remember you and we all know what it's like to lose loved ones. I think everyone here would be terribly sympathetic. If you send me some of your fliers, I can distribute them here, and Lank and Port could set up a website, and I'm sure I can raise some money..."

She rattled off some more plans, and once Selphie had finally calmed down, they managed to catch up on what they had been up to. Selphie was as delighted as she was frustrated to hear Emma gush about Lank -- still no date on the wedding yet, but they were terribly happy together -- and her new job. It was wonderful that all of her friend's dreams were coming true, yet Selphie could not help but wonder why life seemed to be passing her by. Why could she not she reproduce all this solace and success that everyone else was finding in her life? Oh, sure, she was better off than poor Sun Hye - she was grateful to be alive - and she was certainly relatively happy, but ... like she had sung the other night, there was still a hole within her soul.

Still, she felt this visit had done something to patch that hole. Despite Selphie's occasional jealously, Emma made Selphie feel better about herself more than she made her feel the opposite. And so it was with a heavy sigh and a great deal of reluctance that she eventually parted from Emma, promising to send her the requested information, keep her updating on the campaign, and to chat more often.

Selphie was actually skipping on the way back to the Ragnarok. She knew this trip had been very good for her - despite how helpless she often was, she knew she was never completely without the ability to help herself. She felt like she had her direction back. She knew what she needed to do. Keep up the campaign, reach out to the people she had drifted away from, never lose hope.

She blasted off into the air blissfully unaware of the horror that was waiting at home.

* * *

Xu staggered through the Garden training center, driven to go on only because she knew salvation was close at hand at last. She could very well have stopped halfway there, given in to despair and collapsed in a sobbing, pathetic heap. Because, really, that was all that was left of her. But she told herself she needed to be strong. She had to let her desire to protect Garden -- protect them from herself -- overcome her own weak desire to give up.

Because she was a monster.

Really was now. A sorceress, whose very presence at Garden was a threat. She could go insane (though she thought she might have already) or be possessed by Ultimecia. And she had taken those powers from someone who wanted them. If she had done it as a conscious decision based on poor judgment, that would be one thing. She could learn a lesson, then, and actually avoid repeating her mistake next time. But, no, she had done this all just by trying to be her. Which meant that she was rotten at core and she could nothing but go on damaging everyone.

She had at least done the right thing and written Rinoa a letter explaining that she had taken her powers. That was the least she could do: otherwise Rinoa might hurt herself relying on powers she didn't have. And Xu had already hurt Rinoa - and everyone else - plenty.

A part of her wanted to blame this on someone else. And if she wanted to, she could feign anger and bitterness at Quistis quite well. Perhaps there was even a grain of truth to it -- maybe Quisty had been too quick to abandon her. But, no, that was only a comforting lie. Quistis was closer to her than anyone else, and Quistis knew everything about her, knew the awful truth. That she was no good. That she would never overcome her faults. She was lucky to have come this far; it was only of their goodness, out of love she didn't deserve, that her faults have been forgiven thus far. And she loved Quistis, and loved Garden, and was determined to fulfill her debt of love to them by refusing to hurt them any further. Even if that meant destroying herself.

Xu stepped out onto the back of the training center -- the "secret" make-out spot alcove that any couple at Garden knew about. She and Quisty had certainly spent their fair share of time here. Everything had seemed so certain then; she had found the love of her life, she made Quistis happy, and Garden was prospering and there were no Yuffies or Rinoa to worry about. So how had they ended up here? Was it all a lie and, deep down inside, she was really this awful person all the time? Or had she somehow since then been transformed into the evil monster she was now? Either way, she could not reclaim those golden days. The only victory she could hope for in life now was to escape it before she tarnished herself further.

She climbed up on the railing and stood there for one brief, last moment before she threw herself forward.

Chapter Text

A few days later...

Unable to face returning to her house, Quistis had gone back to residing to the room she had previously occupied at Garden. That was where she now sat, in the arms of the woman who had raised her. Knowing that any words or advice she could give right now would merely trivialize Quistis' suffering, Edea remained quiet, simply holding Quistis to give her a small degree of comfort.

"Quistis?" Rinoa called from outside the room.

Quistis briefly pondered getting mad at her. After all, if it wasn't for Selphie and Rinoa and their campaign, she wouldn't - but, no, just about anybody could tied to this. And while Rinoa and Selphie and she herself had certainly all molded the frame of mind that led to Xu's decision to end her life, in the end it was still Xu's own decision. To claim otherwise was to deny that Xu was a puppet, incapable of thinking herself, and Quistis would never make a claim as preposterous as that. Everyone could think. Xu certainly could.

No, as comforting it might be to release her sorrow in a ball of flaming blame at Rinoa, there was no justification for doing so.

"Come in." She turned around to face her visitor.

Rinoa stepped barely into the room and shut the door behind her. "I'm sorry."

Quistis sighed deeply. "It's not your fault."

"She's not totally dead, you know." Rinoa cut to right to the chase.

Quistis did not react, having no clue what Rinoa meant or where she was going with this.

"She, um... well, at your party, when she and I got into a fight... and, well, she knocked me out. And when a sorceress is wounded, her powers start to leak out. That's how I became one, you remember, and..."

"Xu took your powers," Edea concluded. Quistis was still numb.

Xu was a sorceress? Quistis didn't know what to think. It... was very hard to believe, but she certainly didn't doubt Rinoa's story. It just seems so far-fetched, so remote, so distant ... the way anything about Xu felt now. And it yet had just been less than forty-eight hours ago that they had still been lovers. And why was Rinoa telling her all this now? What did it matter? Although if Xu was a sorceress... knowing her, she would no doubt feel guilty about it. Could that have been the reason she killed herself? The sinking, sickening feel returned in Quistis' gut. Dammit, why hadn't Rinoa told her this earlier? Why had they all hidden this?

Edea stared at Rinoa, their eyes showing they had made a connection that only they two understood. "And because Xu died completely alone..."

"Right."

"What?" Quistis whimpered. "What are you talking about?"

"She really isn't dead, Quisty; not totally," Edea whispered. "You remember that Ultimecia traveled to the orphanage to give her powers to me before she died? Powers don't just leak out to others when a sorceress is near death. They have to be all purged for a sorceress to die fully. After all, the powers a contemporary sorceress has are pieces of Our Creator Hyne. They're integral to our world, and the world will not let those pieces pass from it. Since Mengshi died completely alone, before she could give those powers to anyone else, she's still strongly tied to this world."

"So..." Quistis prodded. She wanted to believe this was good news, but she wasn't totally sure. Did it mean that somehow Mengshi was still alive? Or only that her eternal rest was not even a peaceful one?

"So she's still alive somewhere," Rinoa concluded. "We can go look for her!"

"We found her body, Rinoa," Edea said gently. "She's already been buried. Mengshi's still attached to this world, yes, but unfortunately her soul is enduring a half-dead existence hell."

"Bullshit," Rinoa countered. "Hell doesn't exist; you can't prove any of that. If she's not dead, there's a way we can bring her back. Can't we just fix her body? Does Dr. Kadowaki know anything?"

"Rinoa," Edea said more sternly this time, "Don't you think I know what I'm talking about. The only way we could bring Mengshi back is to go down to the underworld and physically retrieve her soul."

"You can't just let her die!" Rinoa shrieked.

"You're not helping anything," Quistis cut in, directing her comment to the both of them.

Rinoa slammed her hands down on the sides of her legs. "This is fucking ridiculous. Xu needs us to save her and you're not even giving it a chance. I can't believe you. You're frittering away other peoples' lives with your non-scientific mumbo jumbo." She stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind her. And one slam was not good enough, so she opened it again and slammed it a second time.

Any more words would only deepen the wounds. Edea held Quistis for a long time until this latest scar receded from present horror to a merely uncomfortable thought. "You believe me, don't you?" Edea whispered.

Quistis sighed deeply. "I don't know. I... I know you know what you're talking about. But I... I can't believe that she's gone. Not until every other option is exhausted. Is there anything I can do?"

"You would do anything, wouldn't you?" Edea was resigned to Quistis' determination, but she did not sound entirely unhappy about it. She did not want them to get ahead of themselves, but she was terribly glad her SeeDs had not lost the ability to dream.

"There is some way, isn't there?" Quistis pounced on Edea's hint. "Tell me, please; this is her life we're talking about. It's my mistake and I have to set it right."

"Yes," Edea said. "As I said, were you to travel through a nether portal to hell and find a way to physically bring Mengshi out of ... of course, I do need to let you know that you'd be putting your own life at risk, but..."

But they both knew that was only a formality. Quistis was a SeeD; she was used to danger. "I'll do it. But how do I find a nether portal?"

"Feng shui."

* * *

This is all my fault.

Selphie knew it wasn't true, but she couldn't shake the thought. Guilt was making more noise than her common sense. At least blaming herself for it all allowed her to make some sense of this mess. Because if she had not done anything wrong, then there must be something wrong with the rest of the world. And she could not bear the thought that the world was not a good game. No, it was much better that she took the fall. She hadn't been able to save Trabia. She hadn't been able to save Yuffie. And now it was her own stupid personal crusades that had killed Xu. She had done everything wrong. Not that she could really make herself believe that.

And yet she couldn't understand how the world could be like this. She did not believe in the least that the world was a bad place, or that things would really spiral down to complete entropy - though they certainly seemed to be doing just that. After all, if civilization was about to collapse, it would have done so centuries ago. But then why did it seem like they were on a one-way trip to hell? That was what confused her. There must be some hope, some sense to this, but where was it? Nothing felt true anymore. Was her problem that she hadn't been fighting enough, enough to save Yuffie? Or that she was fighting too much, inflicting herself on people who could not handle her (like poor Xu)? She longed for something real to cling to, one genuine truth that would give her a direction to which she could apply herself. But she saw none. All she could was suffering that bred more suffering, doubts and indecisions that choked her to death. So when would the sorrow end?

In times such as these, only music numbed her pain. Immersed in words and melodies and songs and chords and harmonies, she could still find a world where love was unquestionably real, where dreams always came true, where everything always worked out and everyone cared for each other - even if, as she sometimes feared, that was a world entirely unlikely her own. But if it was all a delusion, at least it was a delusion that kept her going. The gentle, rhythmic creaking of her favorite rocking chair was not enough, so she set Gracie down in her lap, picked up her guitar - the acoustic one - and started strumming.

Your fingertips reaching into my heart
The force of life goes on and on
The song remains like a haunting melody
Of angel music held in chains

And I ask you
Can we ease the pain of those who lost?
Can we know the cause of all this sorrow?
Can we catch the tears of a broken world?
Falling down upon the Earth, falling down

The waves of time take me deeper into you
A haze as blue as summer sky
And turn to find the key will not unlock the door
This broken bird, away it flies

And I ask you
Can we ease the pain of those who lost?
Can we know the cause of all this sorrow?
Can we catch the tears of a broken world?
Falling down upon the Earth, falling down...

"That's really nice," Zell said softly from the doorway. "Did you write it?" Selphie's music blew him away; she might be a normal human being most of the time, but when she seemed something more. (Especially compared to his creative ineptitude.) It was magic. She was something more; she was reaching beyond this dimension to yank perfectly phrased thoughts and bits of love and beauty out of a higher plane. It was like everything he'd ever wanted to say, even the things he didn't know yet, but said better than he could ever say. Damn his articulateness. He wanted to explain it to her, let her know how much it impressed him and no he didn't think it wasn't punk enough, but ... he just didn't have that way with words she did.

"Yeah." Her voice was as hollow as her eyes.

"I like the lyrics, and, um, it's a pretty melody?" he stammered. Dammit, he wanted to say something meaningful about it; he knew it was a lot more uplifting than empty hyperbole, but...

Selphie was still staring moodily away from him. He realized that this probably wasn't the best time to talk about music. "Did Rinoa tell you what's going on?" "I don't think so, no."

"Well..." Not fully understanding this himself, Zell did not feel confident explaining it to Selphie. "I guess Xu isn't really dead ... I mean, like, not all the way. When she got into a fight with Rinoa, at the party? She hit Rinoa so hard that some of Rinoa's sorceress powers leaked out and so Xu is a sorceress now. And she couldn't pass those powers on before she died, so ... she's not totally dead. But she's in hell. That's what Matron and Quistis think. Rinoa thinks that it's just a medical problem."

"So...?" That was far too much to process at once. She wanted to know what it really lead to, how it had changed things.

"Well... Quistis and Edea are going to use feng shui to create a portal to hell so we can go down there and rescue Xu."

Then it clicked for her. "You mean there's a way we can bring her back to life?" she said, talking at twice the speed so she could get her answer twice as quickly.

He nodded.

"Ohmigosh!" She set down her guitar and jumped up in one continous motion. "I can't believe it!"

It was all too much for him to get as overjoyed as she was. His conventional standards of excitement had been rendered useless; as people are frequently numb during a great tragedy, he was equally numb during this great awakening of hope. But he grinned and said, "In the darkest hour, hope springs eternal."

Pretty. She gave him a thoughtful smile, impressed with his sudden display of poetry, though her delight was tempered when he added, "I stole that from a Three-Clown Pileup song."

* * *

Squall Leonhart was having a terrible, horrible, no good very bad day.

First Rinoa was going on about how Xu had taken her sorceress powers. He had tried to be there for her, because she must have been hurting a lot on the inside, but she just slapped him and told him he had to overcome his fear of a furnisexual planet. Then Zell insulted his navy blue gas station jacket - didn't Zell realize how sensitive he was? - and when he had turned on the TV because he heard Weezer's new video was going to premiere, all he saw was kissing. He hated kissing on TV. It reminded him of how lonely he was. He might as well just die now.

In a situation as dire as this, only some new sad music could console him. So he had taken a trip to Ragna Rock, Balamb's local independent music store, where he now stood in line with Dashboard Confessional CD in hand.

Ensconced behind the cash register, Mikoto watched him with the twitching, blink-free glare of a predatory owl about to dive. At Balamb Garden, she could only take her crusade so far, but here she had the power. This store was her kingdom, her Buddyhead t-shirt her royal regalia, the Radiohead song playing over the store's speakers her national anthem, and the stupid punks, goths, and emo kids who shopped here the peasants whom she was obligated to lead out of darkness. Here, for once, they were completely at her mercy. She was an employee, while they were lowly customers - and during Mikoto's shifts at Ragna Rock, the customer was always wrong. "You're buying that? Oh my God, that's so pathetic."

"It's really deep," Squall insisted. His wounded voice wavered with each syllable, and it seemed that any moment he might break into tears. "It's emotional. It helps heal all the wounds I have inside."

"Well, that's unfortunate, because it sucks ass." Mikoto took the CD from him as she stared at it, still in a state of disbelief. "God, how can you even look at this with a straight face? I thought it had seen the worst when you came in here the other day to buy Something Corporate, but this takes the cake. You must be the biggest fucking idiot on the planet. How about you go put this back on the rack and get the Joy Division box set instead?"

Squall sniffled. "I don't you think you should tell me what kind of music to like," he whimpered.

"Yeah, well, I wasn't even supposed to be here today, so quit your whining." Mikoto punched some keys on the cash register. "Hmm, well, this comes up as 1200 gil, but no one should be buying it, so I'm going to charge you 3000."

"You can't do that!"

"Oh yeah? What are you going to do about it?"

Squall Leonhart was having a terrible, horrible, no good very bad day.

* * *

Selphie poked her head into Quistis' room. "Quisty?"

Quistis had immersed her world in The Brothers Karamazov. Aside from a few other books, the room remained spartan; Quistis' possessions had all been moved into the house and she didn't have the will to retrieve them. The only thing she could do was bandage her bleeding soul by wrapping it in the the stories of other souls that were not hers.

"Quisty?" This time she caught Quistis' attention. "Zell told me the news..."

Quistis nodded. She was still struggling to make sense of this development herself - still struggling to make sense of Xu's death, for that matter. Reasoning what to do would be difficult. But heart, which still believed in a few things like love and life, had already made its decision. "It's been one shock after the another. I can't look a gift chocobo in the mouth, though."

"So you're going to try to break her out?"

"Well, of course. I can't leave anyone to die."

Selphie nodded, but she still had other concerns. She stepped into the room, drawing the door shut behind her, and sat down on the foot of bed. "Can we talk?" Quistis nodded, and Selphie continued, "I know things weren't going so well for you and her before all this happened..."

Quistis nodded. That was no offense, that was the truth. And she too recognized the cause for concern.

"If you go to hell to rescue her, you're going to have to decide what you say to her when you see her. What will happen to the two of you if she escapes from hell?"

"I know," Quistis said. "That's all I've been thinking about since I talked to Matron. I could arrange my life in so many ways and I don't know what the most fitting combination is. There's no more solutions, only alternatives. But as confusing as it is, I know I want her back. Yes, a lot of crap has happened, but I can't turn my back on her any more than you can turn your back on your friends."

"Well..." This is what had been troubling her. "Quistis, I know it sounds weird for me to be giving you advice on your love life, but I'm worried. I don't think you should obligated to take her back just because of what she did to herself, you know? None of us want to see her suffer, but I don't think it's right for your heart to be held hostage to her insecurities. It's abusive. If you can't leave her because she kills herself otherwise... I know you love her, I know you're forgiving her for hurting you, but that doesn't mean you have to be together." She sighed and shook her head. This was rather amusing, she had to admit. "Gosh, I must sound just like someone's parent."

"No, I understand," Quistis said. "But... first of all, she deserves life just like any other human being, and regardless of our relationship, I'm in a position to save her and I think I'm obligated to do so."

Selphie nodded. "Well, of course."

"And secondly, I haven't given up on piecing our relationship back together. This whole sorceress affair ... if I actually had a chance to talk to her about it, I'm sure we could resolve it in a more amenable way. I know what happened doesn't represent the true feelings of either one of us. I acted out of spite, and nothing good ever comes of spite. Hurting her back because she hurt me ... well, it's understandable; it made me feel better temporarily and I don't blame myself. But I know in the end that it doesn't improve the situation. It only creates more hurt." She sighed. "It was a rash thing to do. I don't hold against myself, because I was upset. But I'd like to think that it's possible for anger or guilt not to get the better of either of us."

Hyne, it was like talking to a mirror. And that tore apart. She could see both perspective so terribly cleary, and the only thing that told her was that there were no answers. "I know, I know, loving someone else is always so much easier. It's so easy to lose yourself." She frowned, realizing this was almost turning into an argument. "Don't get me wrong; I think it would be wonderful if you do pull this off. I'm just worried. I know Mengshi's habits..."

"Listen, Selphie. Everyone makes mistakes, but that doesn't make us worthless. If failing to be perfect rendered us black-marked for eternity ... well, there wouldn't be a soul left on this earth who wasn't being punished. And that's no way to live, not when there's an alternative. We could a hold a grudge against every person, every nation, every ethnic group that has ever wronged us, but where would that get us? A world full of continual strife and an endless cycle of hatred. An eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind. If everyone just gave up after something bad happened, we wouldn't be here. We have to forgive, Selphie, or there's no hope for any of us. Without forgiveness, there's just ... death. Our past would condemn us all."

Selphie was quiet for a long while, then said, "That's pretty much what I said about Yuffie."

"I know."

The moment of tension was defused by the sad looks of acceptance in both their eyes. There was no use fighting. They had discovered in the aftermath of their conflict that they had never been opponents but mutual victims. Victims of a crappy broken world that prodded them into making mistakes, broke their hearts, and then taught them all its lessons too late just to spite them.

"I'm sorry," Selphie murmured. "I shouldn't have said anything."

"No, it's okay. I know you're looking out for me, and I appreciate it. And I understand. I deliberated about all that myself. But I thought of all the good times we have together, all we mean to each other, all we do for each other, and I just can't convince myself that all that is less than what she's done now. It is hard for me to forgive her. It's not easy to love her just the same despite all the pain and confusion she's caused. I know it takes strength and courage to be able to break out of a bad situation, but it takes least as strength and maturity to be able to look at something and see its flaws but love it anyway. And ... I've decided I do still love her. I won't deny that she did a lot of things to make that difficult, but ... so did I." Quistis shook her head. "I hate to say it, but even if I didn't want to, I'd still be dreaming of her. And I do want to. One-winged angels, remember? Mengshi and I both have our problems, but we can lift each other up higher than we could ever climb alone."

"Well, yeah..." Selphie looked away as her own pain caught up with her. "But all we have people we love whom we can't be with..."

Quistis sighed. She knew she was not the only one suffering here.

But Selphie's spirit regrouped and she again found a way to plow forward. "So let me come," she said with a grin. "I'd feel better if I could help save at least one person."

A smile finally broke through Quistis' despair. "Thanks," she said.

Selphie stood up. "Zell and Irvine will probably want to come on. And Chu-Chu. It'll be a little adventure." Safety in numbers, yes. She could pretend, wanted to convince herself, that this was just like two years ago. Things had more or less worked out then. Of course, they had been fighting a real enemy they could truly hope to defeat - not entropy. "Just like old times, huh?"

Quistis forced a smile. "I don't remember having a pink ball of fur trying to get into my pants two years ago."

Selphie chuckled.

"Oh, and other thing..."

"Yeah?"

Quistis sighed. "I... don't think I can bear to go back to our house yet, so if you could go get some things for me... I'd want to give them to Mengshi. There's my diary, and our Triple Triad decks, and her rapier. Can you get them for me, please?"

Selphie nodded. "Of course."

Might as well do that right now. But first, to complete some other outstanding business. Selphie set off for the student dorms and was halfway down the hall to Yuffie and Chu-Chu's room when something stopped her. She stopped, considering the idea for a moment, and then agreed it was for the best. The SeeD talisman remained in her pocket as she went on to the parking garage.

* * *

I think I'll move to Esthar; I bet they'd be nicer to me there. At least Sis wouldn't make fun of me, Squall thought as he left Ragna Rock. Dashboard Confessional really spoke to him, so he had had no choice but to fork over a 3000 gil. But at least he told Mikoto to go sit on a tack as he was leaving the store.

He needed new shoes, too, so he went to the shoe store a few blocks away. He chose a pair of Converse All Stars, but then the shoe man told him that they were all out. This hurt him on the inside so much that he had to break out his new Dashboard Confessional CD and play it over the store's loudspeaker so he could have a good cry right there. I bet in Esthar they have all the shoes I could ever want, he thought as they kicked him out of the store.

When he got back to the parking garage, he found he had been given a ticket because one of his back wheels was covering up part of spot sixteen. Who needed spot sixteen? He should probably be dead already, he mused as drove back to Garden. He just hurt more and more every day. How could he ever hope to be happy when the world was so mean? He couldn't even have the simple dignity of getting the shoes he wanted. His life must really suck.

He knew he his bad day was going to continue because he got stuck in a traffic jam and he was already late to his dentist's appointment. How ironic, Squall mused. And when he finally got back to Garden, Dr. Kadowaki chewed him out for being late. Then she stuck pointy things in his mouth, which hurt a lot (but not as much as he hurt inside), before telling him he had a cavity. "Come back next week and I'll fix it," said Dr. Kadowaki.

Next week, I'll be in Esthar, vowed Squall.

Squall Leonhart was having a terrible, horrible, no good very bad day.

* * *

Chu-Chu carefully oriented herself on her bed until her gaze exactly matched the red arrow on her compass. She turned her eyes skyward and focused them on the North Star as she knelt and clasped her hands in prayer. "Wondrous Mambo God... I guess Chu-Chu is going chu be going on a trip to hell pretty soon. I pray that Chu will please look over me and guide my footsteps and protect me from the wicked ways of Chu-cthulchu. And ... and I know Colonel Xu is a human, but please bless her chu and protect her, and Instructor Trepe and Selphie, chu."

The door had creaked open behind her, but being in the middle of prayer, Chu-Chu paid it no attention until Rinoa started speaking. Rinoa was already quite angry about the current state of affairs, enough to come here to complain, and what she saw now only reaffirmed her outrage. "I am so fucking disgusted with all of you," she announced. "You won't even help save someone from dying because you're too busy chasing bullshit stupid faerie tales and putting all your trust in something that you have absolutely no proof of. Well, let me tell you something. God doesn't exist, and hokey religions and ancient legends are no match for real science like para-magic. Feng shui, my ass."

Try as she might to tune out Rinoa and focus on her prayers, Chu-Chu's heart flared with resentment. She could not exactly ignore the fact that Rinoa was outright insulting the most important thing she had. They had been over this so many times, Rinoa always blathering ridiculous strawman arguments about the second law of thermodynamics or whatever she wouldn't shut up about. And yet it never ceased to infuriate her. Now all she needed was Mikoto to come in and start blathering on about cosmic insignificance.

"What good has religion ever done us?" Rinoa continued. "Huh? When was the last time God actually intervened to stop suffering? Oh yeah, he hasn't. It's all a fraud, you little brainwashed twit. The only thing religion is good for is starting wars."

Chu-Chu had struggled to maintain her composure, but her rising temper got the better of even her faith. She looked over her shoulder and launched into an equally vitriolic response. "They used chu think people with left hands were evil, Rinoa. Do chu want us chu cut off all hands so there won't be any more conflicts about hands? Should we burn off our fur and skin so there won't be any more racism? Zell argues with everyone about music; does this mean we should all chu-ust stop listening to chusic? If chu want to get rid of anything that chu could fight about, we won't have anything left at all!"

"There's no proof that God exists."

Chu-Chu pointed a furry paw out the window at the North Star. "No, Rinoa, see that star? That's the Wondrous Mambo God. A big fireball killed Him when He lived on the ground with us many, many years ago, but he became a star in the sky so he could watchu over His people. He's been watching the Chu-chu Tribe for thousands of years now. Even though I'm on another world now, the Wondrous Mambo God is still up there, looking over me! He won't ever let anything bad to happen to the Chu-chu Tribe, and if anyone messes with us, they're going chu get punished!" She showed the little golden compass to Rinoa. "And then He showed the Prophet Chu-Chu, may she be blessed, how to make compasses, so that we would always be able to find Him in the sky. The compass always points directly chu Him! It's a reminder that the lives of the Chu-chu Tribe should all be orientated towards Mambo. And even when the compass is torn apart, both halves will find their way to point back to Mambo. Just like no matter whatever happens to me, the Wondrous Mambo God's light will guide me just as strongly. There's no situation so dire He can't protect us from it, no mistake we can make so bad that He won't help us correct it. His love is never-ending."

"It's magnetism, dumbshit. It's just pointing towards the magnetic pole."

"Well, I chu-ppose that's true, but the Wondrous Mambo God made magnetism, didn't he?"

"No, he didn't. And you know why he didn't? Because the 'Wondrous Mumbo Jumbo God' is a figment of your fucking imagination!" She thrust her arm towards the window. "The North Star isn't a god, it's a mass of incandescent gas. Just a big ball of burning atoms thousands of light years! There's nothing special or magic about it at all!"

"It's the Wondrous Mambo God!" Chu-Chu protested, fighting back tears. "And He does..." Then it all proved too much for her. The words stopped coming out of her still-open mouth and instead big wet tears rolled from her eyes. She lowered her gaze and wept at the cruelty of this world. Would nothing move her tormentors?

"Religion is a crutch for the weak," Rinoa declared, as if to conclude some great lesson she had just taught Chu-Chu.

Chu-Chu continued to sob piteously. "Chu know, the Kama Chutra says someday someone's going to try chu wipe out the Chu-chu Tribe for good, and then the Wondrous Mambo God Himself is going chu descend from heaven to rescue us, and all chu unbelievers are going chu see!" she vowed.

"Oh yeah? Then how come your stupid god doesn't come get me right now if I've pricked his oh-so-fragile ego?" She waved her fist at the sky. "Hey, you! I don't believe you exist! Gonna come prove me wrong?" There was, of course, no reply. "See? Nothing happened. Your religion is nothing but lies." Feeling that this was conclusive enough, she turned and marched out of the room.

Chu-Chu mustered up enough to dignity to get in the last word. "Well, that's because it's faith, not fascism," she snapped at Rinoa's departing back.

But then the argument was over, and she was left with a heavy heart and a severely wounded trust in her human companions. She didn't understand. Why did Rinoa insist on tormenting her like this? If it was real for her, did she have to explain it to anyone else? It wasn't fair. All she wanted was to be able to pray in peace. She didn't really care what Rinoa thought as long as she kept her mouth shut. But, try as she might, there was nothing she could do to make Rinoa leave her alone!

She rubbed the tears out of eyes enough to see the Wondrous Mambo God and bowed again in prayer. "Wondrous Mambo God, please grant me the serenity chu accept the things I cannot change, the courage chu change the things I can, and the wisdom chu know the diffchurence. Amen." She reluctantly drew her gaze away from the stars, laid her head down on the pillow, and drew the covers up around her.

Chapter Text

At Quistis' request, Edea created a nether portal in a spare meeting room on the third floor. And despite Rinoa's fears, the portal fed directly into the underworld. The adventuring party -- Quistis, Selphie, Zell, Irvine, and Chu-Chu -- was deposited at the top of a dimly-lit tunnel. A line of departed souls - who, aside from the defeated stare in their eyes, looked no different from the living - awaited ahead of them. The line lead to some gates barely visible in the distance.

Zell's shoulders sagged. "We have to go through this? Oh, man, that's as bad as the line in the cafeteria for hot dogs." Selphie giggled.

But they saw no alternative to waiting in line, and so they did. Aside from dutifully lining up behind them, none of the souls even seemed to acknowledge their presence. Nor did the souls interact amongst themselves. They were dead, and nothing had any meaning for them now.

The team had advanced halfway about down the line when someone acknowledged them: A tall, cloaked man stepped out of the shadows, startling them. He glowered at them. "You aren't dead, are you? I could smell you getting off the elevator."

"No," Quistis said. "We came to rescue someone who committed suicide." She spoke firmly, assured she would carry on with her mission no matter how much this stranger told her it was impossible.

This seemed to reaffirm Auron's opinions. "Then you will need my guidance." He stepped closer to them, mingling into their group by his own visitation.

"How do we know we can trust this guy?" Irvine whispered.

Selphie shrugged. "What other choice do we have? We don't know where we're going."

Auron said nothing more until they finally reached the barred iron gates. There they were accosted by Minos, the gatekeeper of hell. His coiled tail flicked with irritation as he peered curiously at them. "You are not of the dead," he grunted. "You have no place here."

Auron stepped forward and glowered at Minos. "Let them pass," he commanded.

He spoke with such authority that Minos' platform instantly crumbled. "Where are you going?" he asked wearily.

"Seventh circle," Auron grunted. "Wood of suicides."

"Seventh circle," Minos repeated. "All right. Here's your TICKET to HELL." He tore off a handful of tickets and handed one to each of the adventurers.

Quistis frowned. "Why are you helping us like this?"

Auron shrugged. "There is no reason not to help others when it costs you nothing. I am firmly dead; I cannot advance my status. At least this gives me some way to occupy myself. Besides, you remind me of someone."

"Ah..." Fair enough. She would have trusted him outright if it wasn't for the fact that they were in hell, which wasn't really supposed to have good people. Then again, Mengshi too was in hell ... so they couldn't all be bad people. "I'm sorry; I don't think I got your name."

"Auron."

Quistis shook hands with him, though he continued to glower at her. "I'm Quistis Trepe."

Zell, always eager to get on with things, had stepped forward to the gates of hell. His attention was drawn to a plaque covering the middle of the gates at chest high. It bore not only the ticket slot, but several lines of Italian text. "'Abandon all hope, you who enter here' ... right?" Zell said.

"Not quite," Auron rumbled from behind him. "A more accurate translation would be 'Those enter here have abandoned all hope.'"

"Oh. Well, we haven't, so... ha!"

Translation issues aside, they all dutifully placed their tickets inside the slot. The gates creaked open and they stepped into the darkness beyond.

Selphie's eyes immediately lit up in delight and she gasped. "A TRAIN!"

* * *

Fifteen minutes later, they were all boarded on the Phantom Train. There was something profoundly unsettling about finding a perfectly amenable-looking train in the middle in the underworld. It would have seemed so much more fitting if it looked gloomy and evil -- run-down, with some broken lights, and maybe even blood dripping out of mysterious holes in the wall. Perhaps that was why the train was chillingly normal. Evil that pronounced itself to be so would have seemed too predictable and classifiable.

But while Irvine, Zell, Quistis, and even Chu-Chu lingered apprehensively at the entrance, Selphie did not concern herself with any of these details. She bounded around the cabin, examining each item in it with delight. A train! This certainly made their journey much more comfortable. And it was a nicely furnished one, too! Someone was at least treated the dead with some respect.

The other passengers, of course, ignored all this. They sat down and stared dead ahead. "Not too friendly, are they?" Irvine chuckled.

"Well, at least until Chu-Chu starts trying to hump them," Zell said.

Chu-Chu glared at him. "Chu-Chu doesn't do necrophilia," she insisted with a trace of injured indignation. "Unless one of these souls were Casper the Homosexual Friendly Ghost. I'd sure like chu get my hands on his ectoplasm."

Quistis seated herself. The seat pocket ahead of her held a map of hell, she soon discovered, and she unfolded it to look at it. Hell seemed to be a giant pit, with all the constructions built into the sides. The upper levels held the mildest of sins and the most souls; the lower levels got progressively narrower and progressively more offensive. "Let's see ... seventh circle ... suicides. Looks like we have quite a journey ahead of us."

"The train moves quickly," Auron grunted.

Sensing it was prayertime, Chu-Chu brought her compass out of her purse. The trip to hell had done a number on it: the needle had tried to point towards the Wondrous Mambo God and ended up having to point straight up. It was now bent permanently out-of-shape upwards, and the glass around it was shattered. But Chu-Chu was quick to adapt to this change. She merely flopped on her back and faced up to pray. Her compass was never wrong.

Heedless of the rest of them, Auron strode forward down the aisle, seemingly lost in his own thoughts. He paused and glowered over his shoulder. "You know that you cannot free your friend unless she wants to be freed."

Some of them were confused, but Quistis understood his meaning immediately. She frowned, troubled by the truth he had spoken. Mengshi had killed herself; she didn't want to be alive. So unless she had had a change of heart since then, she wouldn't want to escape hell. "But..."

"I suspect she believes herself to be irredeemably evil," Auron said helpfully.

"Why?"

He shrugged. "That I cannot say. I do not know her personally. But I have seen far too many souls damned here because they believe that they cannot be forgiven for their crimes."

She continued probing him for information. She needed to know everything she could about Mengshi's situation if she were to have any hope of finding her an exit. "I don't understand; why are they damned here for that? She hasn't hurt anyone besides herself..." Well, Mengshi's suicide had actually hurt her quite a bit, Quistis reflected. But she was willing to forgive her for that.

"Then I am afraid you misunderstand the nature of this prison." He finally turned away from the window and walked closer to her. Still he did sit down, however; he remained standing and glowering. "Imagine you have committed a crime so great that you could never be accepted back into society. Your past deeds would stain your record forever and you would always be denied the chance to live as a human being. If that were the case, you would have no further reason to act virtuously. You might as well break every law in existence, because no amount of future good behavior could ever make you into a good person. Thus, one who is unforgivable only goes on to commit more crimes - out of desperation, because they have been denied the resources afforded to a normal human being. That is why we must forgive. Without forgiveness, there can be no hope. If you remain burdened by the past, you will be unable to attain a better future."

Okay, his argument for forgiveness made sense. "But, still ... I don't see why Mengshi has to be sent to hell."

Auron shrugged. "As I said, your girlfriend most likely believes herself to be unforgivable. As such, she will only go on perpetrating destruction. Hell has removed her from the world so that this cannot continue. Consider it like putting down a rabid dog. No one wished it for to have to die, but if it is not killed, it will only go on causing more damage. We are protecting the world from the dog, and the dog's life was worth nothing because it has no hope of a future free from its destructive behavior.

"And Mengshi has no hope? Is that what you're saying?" Quistis' voice belied a touch of suspicion of what Auron said. Even at her worst, Mengshi was never rabid; how really relevant was this comparison?

Unmoved by her concerns, Auron continued glowering. "That is what she believes," he deadpanned. "If she has a future, it will be because you create one."

Yes, of course. Now the pieces were fitting together. Quistis was beginning to catch on to what the problem was, and what she needed to do...

* * *

Squall Leonhart was having another terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

"I handwrote out a poster listing 50 reasons I'm obsessed with her. And she just tore it up! She didn't even look at it, Seifer! I haven't been this crushed since the time a near-sighted bear hibernated on me. How could she not want to have me worshipping her? I'm all ready to settle down and she won't even give me the time of day. I don't understand at all. Why are girls these days so afraid of commitment to creepy, obsessive stalkers?"

"Because Ri-ho-a is flakier than the cereal aisle, that's why. Forget about it. There are plenty of other fish in the pond."

"Yeah, and I'm a bicycle," Squall moaned in despair. "It's all over. I'll never be happy. My mojo's gone. Nothing feels good. The world has turned and left me here."

The situation should not have gotten any worse, but Squall's bellyaching had already dragged the conversation on for too long. Too long, in this case, was long enough for Seifer to start scheming. Squall was a doofus and beyond hope, but maybe he - Seifer - could twist this weakness to his advantage. "All right, fine. Squall, your problem is you're too nice," Seifer said. "I mean, who wants to date a nice person? The next time you talk to Rinoa, you should get real pissed and tell her to make you some tea. Keep on her toes and she'll respect you. Also, get some T-shirts with misogynistic slogans like 'Feminist Broads Dig Me' or 'Bikini Inspector.' Chicks love those."

"I don't get it, Seifer; won't this make her hate me more?"

He shrugged. "Trust me."

That was never a good sign, especially coming from Seifer, but Squall was too desperate to care. Who else could he ask? Even he had enough sense to realize that this not the time to trouble his other friend with his love life; Quistis was even worse off than he.

"You should also work on your sense of humor, too. Girls think it's cool when you derail conversations with insensitive, off-color comments."

"Okay, but if this doesn't work, I'm gonna send you airmail to the moon. Or Esthar." He sighed a great melancholy sigh. "You know, I wish I was anywhere with anyone making out."

* * *

They at last reached their destination, the Wood of Suicides in the seventh circle of hell. The Phantom Train stopped in a tiny platform in a clearing, beyond which lay only an endless span of fir trees. The trees, all nearly identical in size and height, meshed tightly together so that their boughs blocked out nearly all light from above. And the trees themselves were pitch black on both trunks and needles.

Auron gestured with his fist in the direction they should walk. "There's no time to waste. Let's go."

They set off through the dense forest. Quistis observed that each tree had a wooden door had been carved into its base. Presumably each one housed one of the souls that had been sentenced here - and presumably it was this that Mengshi now experienced. Well, it didn't seem too hellish. That was nice.

Auron stopped in front of one of the trees and slammed his swordpoint into the dirt. "Your friend awaits."

Quistis swallowed. It had been easy to forget about her real problems when they had this little adventure to distract themselves. But now they weren't just going through hell; she had to rescue Mengshi. And she feared what lay beyond this door. What if Mengshi had been disfigured, was undergoing some great torture? What if she had fallen beyond salvation? And even facing her under any circumstance, after all that had come between them. She had to expose all her wounds to Mengshi, and they were wounds that hurt to even think about. "Selphie, could you see how she is?"

Selphie nodded. "Of course." She pushed open the wooden door and poked her head into the room. "Colonel?"

Xu was sitting in the corner curled into a ball, her knees drawn up to her chest and her head buried in her arms. She looked drearily up, scarcely motivated to even see who her visitor was. "Selphie?" She wanted to believe that it was someone that looked like the living. But, no, this person knew who she was. And she had already seen too many weird things, too many bizarre coincidences, in hell to assume it couldn't be Selphie.

Selphie stepped into the room and shut it behind her to insulate their conversation from the others. "Don't worry, I'm not dead. We just ... came down for you." Selphie scanned Xu's room. There was nothing in it - at all. The room was a completely featureless ten foot-by-fifteen foot cubicle built of stone. Aside from the door, there were no furnishings. Xu must have been sleeping on the floor, assuming that one needed to sleep in hell. "This is it? I was expecting ... you know, torture. Hot coals, lake of fire, pushing boulders up hills, that sort of thing."

"No, thisis torture all right." Xu sighed deeply. "There's no one to blame, no one to pin the cause of my suffering on, but myself. And nothing to do at all but curse what I've done to get myself here and drive myself slowly insane." She held up her hands. Her fingernails were chipped and her hands scarred from clawing at the walls.

Selphie nodded slowly. That sounded horrible, and she felt like any reaction she could give would only trivialize Xu's suffering. She wasn't the one having to endure this, and no matter how much she could claim to sympathize, she could not claim to understand Xu's suffering. "Um... Quistis is here. She wants to talk to you..." She couldn't quite bring herself to ask Xu anything.

"Okay," Xu murmured. She knew she shouldn't be talking to Quistis. And yet even when she knew she was nothing but a threat to and drain on her, she longed for her too much to say no. And if Quistis had taken the trouble to come halfway down hell to see her ... well, that was nothing but a rationalization. So much for that train of thought.

Footsteps, a door closing, and then Quistis was there.

Xu looked up at her, but was too drained, too beaten down, to even stand. "I didn't want you to see me like this, Quistis," she murmured. It was a horrible catch-22: she needed their help to get out of hell, but if they saw how flawed she really was, they would want nothing to do about her

Quistis had been thinking a great deal about this moment and what to say. She knew she had to be positive. And she had told herself this enough times that she was prepared and did not succumb to her frustrations. "It's all right. I'm here to help you."

"I don't want to be helped," a defeated murmur found its way of Xu as she didn't really think about it. She wanted only to be elsewhere, to not be made so worthless to her beloved Quistiy like this, and yet what she wanted even more than that was to love Quistis and mean something to her and be alive... "I just want to disappear so that you'll stop trying to help me. I can't be helped; I just hurt people."

"Mengshi, what hurts me the most is when you insist that all you do is hurt people."

"Yes," Xu moaned. "That's exactly my point. I don't think right, Quisty. No matter how hard I try, everything I say is always going to be tainted by ... what I've done. Even trying to be happy is just a reaction to it."

"That's not the only reason to be happy. I want you to be happy."

"Yes, and I haven't done a very good job of it, have I? I let you down. I let everybody down." And Quistis didn't even know the half of it. She was a >sorceress. A threat to Garden. "Just leave me alone. Please."

Quistis saw that no quick platitude would resolve this mess. It was going to take more time. She walked across the room and knelt beside Xu. "You know I can't do that," she murmured. She reached out and gently stroked Xu's cheek. Xu half-flinched away from the caress, a reminder of what she had lost, but she still held too much hope not to embrace Quistis' affections. Indeed, Quistis thought she saw her almost smile.

"Maybe... maybe I..." She couldn't finish the sentence, it would be giving too much credence to hopes she figured were false, but there was something still alive in her heart that wanted to speak.

Quistis leaned closer lightly pressed her lips to Xu's forehead. Whatever it was in Xu's heart danced again and leapt up through her throat, trying to get out. If only her guilt were not keeping it in... "I love you," Quistis whispered as she drew her lips away.

"I hurt you." It escaped as a soft whimper. She could still think of too many arguments against herself. Only when she had presented them all and had Quistis knock them all down could she really believe in herself.

"You did," Quistis said gently as she stroked Xu's hair. "And I hurt you. But that's okay; we all hurt each other sometimes. I'm not going to let it blot out our future. Nothing I could do to harm you now would ever change the fact that you'd already hurt me, so why even try? Holding grudges is silly, irrational. The only thing that heals wounds is love, not hate. And if I didn't care about you, if I didn't still love you, would I have come all the way here for you?"

But even all this was nothing before Xu's cynical ears. "You don't need me."

Quistis suddenly found herself examining her own feelings. Did she need Xu? She reluctantly admitted that, no, she did not. She had gone on living without her, would have managed to heal and find happiness in spite of this. She could find meaning in her life with Xu. But that did mean she didn't really love her? No, it couldn't. Requiring someone else to exist wasn't healthy. It was co-dependence; it wasn't love, no matter how many tragic stories said otherwise. But ... but ... argh! This was frustrating to think about, and she could begin to see why Mengshi was so conflicted. "Are you upset because I didn't kill myself?"

Xu too was now searching for the base of her own emotions. What was she upset about? She had mostly been unhappy with the current way Quistis was taking her death, not anything before then. No, everything before Quistis had left her had been her fault. Quistis had given plenty of chances and she had misused them all. So what did she want? To feel that Quistis cared that she had erred and was not happy to be rid of a pain in the ass. "I guess... part of me is, yeah." She sighed and shifted, knowing that this was bad. "I don't want you dead, Quisty, I really don't; I want you to be happy. But at the same time I don't know how to live with the fact that you don't need me as much as I need you..."

Quistis nodded in recognition. Now was not the time for judgments; whatever problems Mengshi had, she had to help her overcome. She tried to formulate a response. She knew what Xu had said was the wrong way of thinking, and that there was a good answer to it, but she had to dig it out of her heart and explain what she took for granted. "Mengshi ... we don't need a lot. I could live in a cave, dressed in bearskins and hunting and gathering berries every day to eat, and I'd go on existing. I'd probably even find some things to enjoy. But that doesn't mean I don't appreciate having more than that! Look at all the lasting accomplishments - art, medicine, leisure technology - of the past six thousand years. Do you think any of them have improved our lives?"

"Yeah..."

"But people lived without them, didn't they?"

Mengshi nodded, expecting Quistis to continue after a short pause. But Quistis did not. She leaned forward expectantly and remained staring at Xu. Mengshi eventually realized that Quistis was waiting for her -- and that Quistis had already said all that she needed to. "I, um..." It seemed so obvious now that she wasn't even sure how to defend or explain her previous position. She didn't need to mean everything to mean something.

Quistis smiled. "The world is always getting better, Mengshi. And I know it would be a lot more wonderful with you back in it."

"How do I get out?" she blurted.

That was what Quistis had been waiting for. "You're here because you've lost all hope," Quistis explained. "And you've lost hope because you can't forgive. Without forgiveness, there can be no hope. We'd all be damned, for the least infraction in our past. So that's your answer, Mengshi. You need to forgive."

"I've already forgiven you, Quisty," Xu insisted, sounding slightly offended that Quistis doubted her good will towards her.

Quistis pursed her lips in amusement. This wasn't supposed to be funny or enjoyable in the least, but Xu was sometimes so relentlessly predictable. "Not me, Mengshi. You need to forgive yourself."

The hardest person to forgive.

"I do forgive myself," Mengshi insisted.

But she hadn't, and they both knew that. Quistis brushed Mengshi's hair again. "It's easy to say, I know," she whispered. "But you have to convince yourself in your heart that you're worthwhile. You have to know you belong in the world."

"That's easier said that done." It wasn't too hard to forgive other people. She could never really change their behavior, so she could accept their behavior as just part of the way they are. But herself? That was the one person she could control. A person who should have known better, shouldn't have made mistakes when she knew the right path in her heart. And she would always be asking herself how she could be stupid, what things would have been like if she had acted differently - and why, oh, why, couldn't she be perfect?

"I know it is. But ... you can start by not saying you're unforgivable. That's very silly; it's telling me I can't do something that I know I can."

"Okay..."

"And try creating something. If you bring some light into the world that didn't exist before, you'll feel better about yourself. Being able to create something from nothing makes you indisputably an asset to the universe. And that's a capacity of every human being."

"But there's nothing I can create here."

Quistis reached into her vest pocket and produced a small book and a pen. "I brought you my diary. It's got plenty of blank pages in it. You can write something, at least."

Mengshi took the gift. "Okay..." She wasn't expecting this, wouldn't have picked a gift like this, but it also didn't seem so bad. She just needed time to come to terms with this idea.

"I know what you're thinking; you don't usually write anything beside mission briefings." Quistis smiled, and they were both momentarily warmed by the fact that she still could accurately predict what Mengshi was thinking. Perhaps they still did understand each other. "But... I think you'd be good at it. Think about how much you read. I know you've got accumulated ideas in your head to have something interesting to say. It doesn't have to be a diary. Anything ... fiction, or non-fiction, or your life story."

"...all right." Perhaps this could. She'd give it a try, at least; anything that offered at least the possibility of rebuilding her shattered self-worth was capital G Good - a chance was more than she felt she had right now. Especially because she could help doubting that Quistis would be offering this chance if she knew the real, awful truth.

"And here's your Triple Triad cards." Quistis produced a stack of cards, bound together by rubber bands, from her other pocket, and then followed it with a second set. "And mine, so you can find someone else to play with."

Mengshi grinned without hesitation this time. This was exactly what she needed, of course, and Quistis always knew what it was. But ... it was also becoming apparent that Quistis had planned on returning to Garden, and not staying here with her until she recovered enough to escape. "Thank you. Um..."

"Yes?"

"Are you ... going back to Balamb?"

Quistis sighed. She knew this wasn't going to sit well with Mengshi, but she couldn't see herself doing anything else. "I'm sorry, but I need to. I mean, I'm still a SeeD, and there's the whole mess about Yuffie ..."

Xu nodded.

"And ... I don't want you to be completely dependent on me. You need to know in your heart that, no matter what, you're worthwhile, not just because I tell you."

"Okay..." Xu clearly signaled that this was not what she had been hoping for.

"You'd like me to stay, I know. And... I'll keep in touch, I promise. If you don't come back right away, I can come back and visit you again. But you need to be able to stand on your two feet, Mengshi; I can't always be around for you."

Mengshi nodded. "Just... promise you'll be waiting for me somewhere?"

That was one request that was easy to fulfill. "You've been, ah... buried at sea, out by the orphanage." Gosh, how odd it was to be talking to someone about where they were buried. "I'll be waiting there... for you... so... if you come there, you'll find me." She smiled. "I promise. I'll stay there for two weeks; if you get out later, I'll be back at Balamb."

Xu smiled. "Thank you. And I promise I'll get out of here as soon as I can. 'I'll come back, even if you've moved on, because I know you'll be waiting,'" she quoted one of her favorite plays.

They kissed again, and then Quistis rose. Mengshi immediately felt a twinge of longing. As long she was talking to Quistis, she knew everything was okay, but as soon as she had to face life without her, the cold grip of uncertainty returned. "Quistis? Can I ask one more thing?"

"You can ask me anything, dear."

"If loving you doesn't mean needing you to live, then what islove?"

Quistis sighed. Tough question. How was she supposed to define love, especially when she had only grasped it fleetingly - or perhaps not at all? "Can I get you back to you on that? I'll think about; I promise."

Xu nodded. "Okay." Not quite what she was hoping for, but she knew Quisty didn't have all the answer. She stood up. "I want to say goodbye to everyone who came down here before you go."

"Sure. They all care about you, too, know." The couple stepped out of the tree, where Selphie and her friends were waiting. Selphie's lips parted into a hopeful half-smile. Was Xu coming out with them?

Xu looked to Quistis to explain the situation, and she was happy to oblige. "Here's the situation," Quistis said. "To be blunt, this is a prison of Mengshi's own invention. She won't be able to escape until she finds hope again, forgives herself, and convinces herself that she doesn't have to be here."

Chu-Chu was concerned by the direction that Quistis' ideas had now taken. Quistis seemed to be playing right into Chu-cthulchu's hands! "Be careful, Instructor Trepe," she cautioned. "The greatest trick Chu-cthulchu ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist. Hell isn't just something chu can wish away!"

Quistis shook her head. "No, Chu-Chu. I think the greatest trick evil ever pulled was convincing the world it exists."

Chu-Chu wasn't quite sure what to make of this unusual statement, so she decided to kept her mouth shut and meditate on it. Instructor Trepe usually knew what she was talking about, after all.

"Anyway ... unfortunately, Mengshi isn't quite ready to leave yet. And much as I'd like to stay here to help her find what she needs, my duties at Garden beckon. So you could say we'll be leaving empty-headed ... but I think Mengshi will be leaving with additional strength to find her way out." Xu nodded her confirmation.

Chu-Chu raised a paw. "Chu-Chu can stay here instead! Um, if you'll let me make up my midterm when I get back, Instructchu-or Trepe."

Quistis could not help but chuckle that Chu-Chu would even think of such a concern. "Well, of course I would, but ... I wouldn't want to keep you here on the behalf of someone you barely know."

"Um, Chu-Chu, I hope this isn't just another ploy to try to 'get some,'" Selphie said.

"Of course not!" Chu-Chu said with an indignation that surprised the others. It wasn't exactly like Chu-Chu to deny she had prurient interests. But to Chu-Chu, it was perfectly obvious, for she was serving something that was even better than sex. "I just want chu help out the needy when I can. I mean, the Wondrous Mambo God is watchu-ing over me, but chu humans don't have His guidance! So I'm sort of obligated to do what I can chu help you gentiles through difficult times, you see?"

"Ohhh... so you want to adopt some sort of missionary position," Selphie nodded. "I get it."

Chu-Chu winked at her. "I adopt missionary positions all the time, Selphie."

Irvine chuckled. "You walked right into that one, Sefie, I'm afraid."

Selphie covered her face in embarrassment but mostly in self-rebuke for saying something that so blatantly asked for a perverted response. "Yes, I know."

Quistis looked to Xu. "Well, would you like the company?"

Xu sighed. She didn't feel she deserved any company. And she wasn't sure that someone like Chu-Chu would be any of use to her. Which just made her feel doubly bad, because here Chu-Chu was trying to being kind, and she was just hurting her by rejecting her...

"It's okay, Colonel," Chu-Chu said. "I don't mind. See, life is a 'non-zero-sum game.' Just because chu are get something doesn't mean chu are taking away anything from me!"

Quistis smiled. I'm glad she learned something in my class. And it was true, too.

Chu-Chu winked at Xu. "And I brought all my Casper the Homosexual Friendly Ghost doujinshi, chu. We'll have a blast!"

Selphie fished her two-part SeeD talisman. "I think you two should have this too. I know this might sound kind of silly, but I thought you could each have half of it. Just so you'd have something to remind yourselves that the two halves will come back together someday."

Quistis took one half of it. As she looked it, an alarming suspicion flashed on her mind. "Selphie, this isn't -"

"She'd want you to have it," Selphie said. "She loved everyone, Quisty. And if through me she could stop at least one person from dying who doesn't have to, I know she'd be delighted."

"Thank you," Xu mumbled. A promise. Yes, this would happen. She would see to it.

Chapter Text

Yuffie had been running all the way to the Duchess' mansion from the abortive tea party. So by the time she finally reached the stone wall at the end of the road, she was somewhat winded. She pushed open the swinging metal gates and then leaned against the BMW in the driveway for a moment to catch her breath.

Yuffie approached three-story mansion and pounded on the door. She was received by Eve. New York's favorite mitochondrial mutation was wearing a simple line-art party dress and full make-up, looking ready to depart for somewhere else. Her husband Sephiroth stood a few feet behind her, adjusting his tie. His hair was as long as ever, but he had put on a nice suit - black, of course, but everything in Dricas was either black or white.

"Oh, you must be the babysitter," Eve said. "It's about time you got here."

"What? I -"

"Valentine's upstairs in the first room on the left. Be sure she gets to bed by eight o'clock. We'll be back around nine. Don't mind the zombies; we're sorry for the hassle, but it's impossible to find a mansion these days without them. Oh, and if the door's locked, you can open it by using the chrysanthemum key from the pantry to open the secret genetics lab in the basement, where you can use the pitchaxe that we keep in the living room like everyone does to break into a randomly sealed off room with the code to turn off the electric field blocking the magic gem that you can put in the fountain out back to get the forget-me-not key that you can use to get into the library where you'll find a book with a hint so you can solve the riddle in the secret room behind the fireplace and get the missing pump handle, which we stashed there for no reason at all, so you can turn off the water in the underground cemetery to get to the crypt where you'll find the petunia key that will let you into Valentine's room. Thanks; goodbye!" Eve and Sephiroth breezed by Yuffie and into their waiting vehicle.

Yuffie ran after the car as it backed down the driveway. "Wait! Wait! I'm not the..." Their car sped off into the distance, and Yuffie's shoulders sagged in defeat. "Gawd. What am I gonna do?" She was stuck in a mansion where there were friggin' zombies, and the owners had left their kid in there and expected her to take care of it. What the hell? Not to mention that the Bumbling Recurring Minor Villains were still after her and bound to catch up with her any time now.

Well, it would have been rather cruel to leave the baby unattended -- she had to do something about it. She went back to the mansion and stepped inside.

An instant shudder ran through her body. She didn't like the looks of the foyer. The big set of stairs leading up to the second floor and the balcony overhead didn't look right when the house was so vacant. This looked just like that creepy mansion in Nibelheim. Except bigger. This place was even bigger than her dad's house in Wutai, Gawd. She'd never seen a house this big. Why did anyone need this many rooms? And that chandelier that was probably going to fall on her, or those unnecessary pillars that creepy people could hide behind. She just knew some scary creep in a cloak and a Wiseman mask was going to jump out any moment now and try to stab her.

"Gawd, I hope this doesn't turn into another one of those 'Yuffie the Vampire Slayer' stories," she muttered. "I got so sick of doing those." Besides, why did she need to kill vampires in the first place? Like there was something wrong with having pale skin and sleeping during the day.

Yuffie cautiously proceeded up the stairs to Valentine's room. The door looked slightly ajar. She tapped it and swung it freely open. Oh, thank Gawd it didn't need unlocking - she hadn't remembered half of the instructions Eve had told her, let alone the order she was supposed to go in.

Like everything in the mansion, the baby's room was huge. Rich as they were, Sephiroth and Eve had clearly spared no expense in ensuring their daughter started off on the right road to successful villainhood. Valentine's favorite storybooks -- Baby's First Book of Mutant Powers, Arthur the Aardvark Meets Shub-Niggurath, The Berenstein Bears and the Problem With Too Much Heroin -- lay scattered on the floor next to her crib. Easy-listening demonic chants wafted out of the CD player; they were the first step in Valentine's all-important music education. And, of course, as soon as Valentine took her first steps, she was getting driven out to the community college to be signed up for youth soccer. It was never too early to start working to make that varsity soccer team. College admissions were waiting!

Yuffie approached the crib. It had a separate plastic lid on top, which Yuffie thought was a little strange - but what did she know about babies? She lifted it off and peered inside. Valentine was crawling around in her Abercrombie & Fitch designer diapers. She had her father's white hair and Mako eyes, and long, claw-like arms like her mother. She still possessed normal legs instead of Eve's single tail-like appendage, however. Even with those, she looked completely out-of-proportion - mutated adult women could be written off as yet another bizarre incarnation of evil, but babies were supposed to cute and innocent.

Yuffie shook her head. Gawd, what an ugly baby. Like she didn't hate kids enough. And she was supposed to take care of this ugly thing? Ick. "Hey, uh, you," she said.

Valentine took one look at Yuffie and started crying.

"Hey!" Yuffie said, offended. "You're, like, way more than ugly than I am."

"Waaaaaaaaah!"

"Gawd, SHUT UP!"

"MAMAAAAAAAAA!" Valentine screamed. "Waaaaaaaaah!"

Yuffie reached into the crib and lifted the bawling toddler out. Gawd, was it supposed to be doing this? What it was infectious? Babies had all kinds of diseases, didn't they? What if it threw up on her?

The miracle of life let out ear-piercing shriek after ear-piercing shriek as it flailed its claws about. Yuffie pointed a finger in the baby's face. "Look, you knock it off, okay?" She had to let this thing know who was boss. If she didn't immediately establish her dominance in the baby pecking order - as the alpha baby - that stupid bundle of joy would try to push Yuffie around. That was why you had to be tough to train these things. They could smell your fear.

"Waaaaaaaaaaaah!" Valentine cried even louder than before.

Gawd, I think it's broken. She set the baby down on the floor. Maybe she should get it something to eat. Babies liked to eat a lot, didn't they? "Uh, do you know where the kitchen is?" she asked Valentine.

"Waaaah!"

"Gawd, some help you are, you stupid little runt." She wandered out of the room, in her absent-mindedness leaving Valentine unattended and the door wide open.

After a few mistaken steps into the haunted chapel, the hedge maze, and the Satanic altar, Yuffie finally located the kitchen. She crossed her fingers and opened the refrigerator. She was in luck! Plenty of Sunny Delight! Sunny D Get! She took a bottle out, retrieved a bowl and a box of ice cream from the freezer. Humming to herself, she started preparing her favorite desert by dumping the Sunny Delight all over the bowl, table, and floor. Maybe that dumb thing would like her once she fed it. That was all babies really wanted, anyway - food and regular exercise. She could take it out to play frisbee later.

"Bottle?"

Yuffie looked behind her. The baby was floating two feet off the ground behind her. What the hell? "Gawd, how did you get here?"

"Bottle?" Valentine repeated.

"Here, eat this; it's good for you," Yuffie pushed her concoction across the table. Valentine looked at it, wrinkled her nose, and then psychically levitated it off the table. Yuffie dived out of the way just in time as the bowl flew at where her head had been. "Okay, that does it." Yuffie lunged for the flying baby, stepped in the pool of spilled Sunny Delight, slipped, and fell flat on her back in the puddle.

Valentine giggled and floated out of the room. Fuming, Yuffie climbed back to her feet, tried to wipe off as much of the Sunny D as she could, and took off after the baby. Now that she had left the ground behind, Valentine could travel quite swiftly, bobbing up and down through the air while giggling madly. She was having the time of her life -- Mama and Papa never let her fly around like this! This was the best babysitter she'd ever had!

"Come back here!" Yuffie shouted, chasing her charge down the hall.

Valentine led her babysitter into what Yuffie immediately recognized as the playroom. The floor was littered with toys: a bunch of letter blocks, a foot-propelled plastic car, an elaborate wooden rocking-chocobo, a plushie that matched the fetching Hello Cthulhu wallpaper, and numerous other gadgets.

Gawd, how could one kid need all these toys? What a spoiled brat. She was all rich an' stuff and had all these big rooms and Yuffie only had one crappy dorm room. It wasn't fair. Then again, Yuffie had just as much when she was a kid.

She wondered how dad ever put up with her infancy. If she was anything like Valentine, she must have spent a lot of time crying and screaming and being totally annoying. (Not that people didn't still think she was annoying.) What a pain in the butt she must have been. Ugh, she felt, like, all guilty now, but she probably deserved it.

How could anyone ever have wanted to be around her? Her dad must have really wanted to take care of her. I guess I owe him a lot, she conceded. It was kind of weird, thinking about her dad as a person just like her. To Yuffie, her father had always been a mere institution. He was a parent, and parents only existed to yell at their kids and buy them shoes. And children were the horrible banshee spawn that people had for no reason at all that made lots of loud annoying noises. She'd never really acknowledged that either of them had feelings of their own and lives that didn't pertain to her. She would really have to try to be a little less selfish around them. Even if her dad was, like, a total dork, he obviously did care about her. And all she did was yell at him an' stuff. She had a hunch the next time they met, she'd be a little more appreciate. That, of course, was assuming she saved the world and got out of jail.

In the mean time, she could try to be a little more forgiving of the next generation.

Valentine had seated herself in the plastic car. She looked up at Yuffie, for the first time seeking a playmate. "Race ca'," she announced.

Whew! Maybe this would keep that vicious bundle of joy entertained. What a lucky break; Yuffie was determined to seize this opportunity as viciously as she could. Sure, she hated playing with kids, but she hated being physically abused by kids even more. "Yeah, uh, do you want to play car?" Yuffie said almost pleadingly. She was definitely not the one in command here.

Valentine beamed and started pedaling. The car zipped across the room and slammed into Yuffie's foot.

"OW!" Whatever tolerance Yuffie had been building up vaporized immediately. Here she had been thinking nice thoughts about Valentine and the dumb thing had betrayed her by ramming a car into her foot!

Valentine cackled with glee. Her little feet pounded the peddles, propelling her out of the room. "Hey! Your license has been suspended, you stupid brat!" Yuffie tried to chase her, stepped on her stubbed foot, and cringed with pain.

Barely able to motivate herself to chase Valentine any more, Yuffie hopped after the child on her good foot. Then she sighted a large butterfly net amongst the toys. Ha! Just what she needed! She snatched up the net and gave pursuit with renewed vigor.

Valentine, of course, was having the time of her life. She gripped the steering wheel tightly and pedaled as hard as she could. She whizzed dangerously around the house, barely steering around obstacles and taking most of the corners on two wheels. Yuffie hopped painfully after her, praying that Valentine would run into something and Yuffie could catch her in the butterfly net.

With Yuffie hot on her wheels, Valentine cruised into the kitchen. She drove right through the puddle of Sunny Delight. The car's wheels kicked up the juice, splashing it all over Yuffie. Undeterred, Yuffie plunged headlong forward and, not too surprisingly, slipped on the puddle again.

She crawled painfully back to her feet again. The car's wheels were now tracking orange juice along the carpet. Yuffie hurried along the trail to the dining room. Valentine had stopped there, beneath the dining room table. Oh, brother. "Okay, you little brat, I think it's time you got your car impounded." Yuffie bent down on her hands and knees - ugh, this dumb baby was torturing her - and crawled in after her. As soon as she did, Valentine giggled and took off in the opposite direction, leaving Yuffie under the table.

"GAWD!" Yuffie howled. She had to crawl back out and stood up again; by this time, Valentine once again had a sizable lead on her.

Panting and still limping, Yuffie chased Valentine into the back stairwell. Valentine tried to turn her car onto the spiral staircase - boy, would that be a fun ride! - but that was a bit too difficult for a child to do at top speed. The car smashed into the wall, which collapsed to reveal a perfectly preserved pork chop.

Valentine burst into tears at the conclusion of her joyride. Oh Gawd, Yuffie thought. How was she supposed to calm the baby down? And why was she even trying, after all that rat had done to her?

Yuffie lowered her net and stepped towards the child. "Um... let's play another fun game," she volunteered. "How about Counter-Strike? Do you have a computer around here? C'mon, I could show you how to set up a firewall." She fumbled in her back pocket and pulled out a CD. Aha! She did have this with her.

She waved the CD and briefly attracted Valentine's teary-eyed attention. "Look, Valentine, I've got a copy of SuSE. Look, look!" She traced the words on the disc with her fingers and read them as she did so. "See? 'SuSE Linux.' It's lots of fun. We could install it on your mommy's computer; how about that?"

But Valentine was already pouting again. "POO POO!" she yelled in Yuffie's face. She stood up in the car, leaped onto the banister, and started sliding down. Yuffie briefly pondered following that lead, but figured she'd probably go flying off and smash into the wall or something. No, it was feet for her.

Valentine led Yuffie down two flights of stairs and into the secret genetics lab in the basement. Yuffie gasped upon seeing Valentine flying directly towards the electric field that Eve had cautioned Yuffie about. "No! Get away from that!" She dived forward and made a desperate swipe with the net. But Valentine had already had her attention diverted by a passing spider and was floating away from the field. Unable to stop herself, Yuffie hurtled right past her and pitched headfirst into the electric field instead.

Valentine giggled with delight as she watched the crazy girl twitch about on the floor. "Googaa!"

As soon as Yuffie had regained control of her muscles, she scrambled to her feet and grabbed her net again. Yuffie made one, two, three failed swipes for the baby. She tried a mighty overhead smash that missed entirely and caused her to fall flat on her face. Valentine bobbed away out of each strike, trying to see how close she could come without being caught. What a fun game!

Finally, in desperation, Yuffie pointed behind Valentine and yelled, "Look behind you, a three-headed monkey!" Valentine did not understand Yuffie's words, but she quickly jerked her around to follow Yuffie's finger. Yuffie immediately swooped the net down on her. "Gotcha!" She grabbed Valentine by her head, pulled her out of the net, and clutched the baby to her chest, determined not to let it escape again. The damn thing was like a helium balloon; it would float away from her given half a chance. "All right, you little wretch, it's back to the crib with you."

A loud moan came from behind her. Yuffie whirled around just as the first of several stick-figure zombies lurched through the doorway. "Oh, crap."

"Zamba!" Valentine giggled, pointing at the creatures.

"It's not funny!" Yuffie snapped. "These things are going to, like, eat our brains 'n stuff and it's all your fault."

"Brraaaaaiiiiinnsss," the zombies moaned in unison as they shuffled in a straight line towards Yuffie.

Yuffie looked down at Valentine, hoping her nemesis could at least use her creepy powers to save them from the zombies. Although she had to admit it would serve the infernal thing right if it were eaten. Still, she had promised her sort-of-friends to take care of it, and she didn't really want it to die, just stop bugging her.

This could mean only one thing: it was time to put her Power Glove into action. But that would mean putting down the stupid demon-child... oh well. She wasn't in the mood to have her brains consumed, so it was a risk she would have to take. She set Valentine on the ground, praying against all plausibility that the baby would still be there in a few seconds, and ran towards the zombie. She smashed the first one in the chest with her Power Glove. "Ha, take that!" The zombie topped backwards, hit the next zombie, and they fell over domino-style. So much for them.

Yuffie turned around to see that Valentine had telekinetically blown the screen off the window and that her rear end was just disappearing through it. The baby tumbled outside, then her head bobbed back up to the window. "Peek-a-BOO!" she cackled.

"GAWD!" Yuffie shouted. She raced to the window and stared through. Valentine was floating merrily away - too far to grab from inside the window. Sigh. Yuffie stuck her arms through the window - being a stick figure did have its advantage - and tried to pull herself out. Her head got stuck halfway through. Dammit. "Oh, come on, my head isn't that big!" Yuffie pressed her arms against the outside wall and tried to force herself through, but that just made her head hurt more.

"Brraaaaaiiiiinnsss." The zombies had gotten up behind her.

Gaaaaawwd! Yuffie vainly kicked her legs and tried to force her head through the window. Still no luck. She tried to pull it out, so that she could at least get away from the zombies, but it was quite firmly lodged in the window frame. "Help!" she wailed.

Suddenly, some magic force yanked her through the window, streaked across the garden, and towards the forest, where she slammed her head on a tree and fell at Valentine's feet. "OWWWW!" Yuffie looked up through her blurry vision to see Valentine hovering over her, laughing crazily. This was the most fun she'd ever had!

"Erple!" Valentine chortled before disappearing into the woods.

* * *

The zombies had stopped shuffling as soon as Yuffie went flying through the window. "Aw, dammit," one of them said. "Not again."

"Well, I guess that's it for today." A few of the zombie in the back of the pack turned and started to lurch away.

"Hey, hey, wait," the lead zombie said. "Let's see if we can get this 'door' thing figured out."

"Bah, forget it," another zombie said as it turned to leave. "It can't be done."

"Hey, didja hear that?" one of the departing zombie sneered. "The boss wants to open a door!" The speaker and a few of the other deserters burst into riotous laughter.

The chief zombie growled. "We can be heroes!" it insisted. "The zombies who finally cracked the Doorknob Paradox!"

Sadly, the Doorknob Paradox was not to be cracked today, as the other zombies were shuffling off to find new one-way mirrors to hide behind. "Wait, I have this!" the chief zombie said to the few stragglers. It reached into its tattered clothing and produced the petunia key it had liberated from the crypt. "I've seen some hu-mons use like this to make doors open! It must be some sort of magical talisman. Maybe we can figure out how it works and use it ourselves!"

"Look, boss, no offense, but if God had meant for zombies to open doors, He would have given us brains. Mmm, brains." The flunky zombie gave his superior a hearty slap on the back and shuffled away. "Seeya."

The chief sighed. Damn conservatives. Didn't its followers realize that modern conveniences that all zombies took for granted -- like the collapsible floorboards and the fire-breathing hellhound sidekick -- were once just as violently opposed as his quest for a solution to the Doorknob Paradox? These were problems that were waiting to be solved, not parameters of their existence! They could improve the condition of zombiekind worldwide! It drooled at the thought of all the hu-mon flesh that they could lay their decaying teeth on if only they could figure how to open doors! Too bad its peers were unable to see past the myopic worldview promoted by such low-brow jokes as "QUESTION: How many zombies does it take to open a door? ANSWER: It can't be done, you idiot!"

Oh well. Great restless spirits had always encountered violent opposition from mediocre brains. Minds, that was to say. Not brains.

But... brains. Damn, it was making itself hungry now.

Itchy. Tasty.

* * *

This probably wasn't such a good idea, Yuffie thought as she stumbled through the woods behind the mansion. By the time she'd recovered enough to walk, Valentine had disappeared from sight completely. And she knew it was only a matter of time before she was attacked by one of the monsters that she knew lived in woods like these. Giant mutant alligators, giant mutant snakes, giant mutant firebreathing squirrels, giant mutant koalas, those sorts of things. At least she was sticking close to the stone wall bordering the mansion so she'd be able to find her way out.

Then she heard footsteps that were not her own. "Ohmigawd!"

Yuffie froze. The footsteps were getting closer -- they were right on the other side of the wall! And closer... and closer... now they were right beside her. A huge thump caused the entire wall to shake; a crack appeared on the wall. There was a second thump and then, on the third hit, a section of the wall collapsed into rubble. Too terrified to move, Yuffie could only scream as something came leaping out at her.

"OHHHH YEAH!" the Kool-Aid Man exclaimed.

Yuffie almost collapsed in relief. "Oh, it's the Kool-Aid Man."

"After battling the undead, nothing beats the cool, refreshing taste of - OH NO! IT'S GOT ME!" Kool-Aid Man was yanked off his feet by something behind me. Yuffie backed away, her eyes widening in horror as she saw what had nabbed it. It was a small shed with barn-style doors. The doors had opened wide to reveal two rows of drooling fangs, which were currently biting into the Kool-Aid Man's glass sides.

"Ohmigawd!" Yuffie gasped again. What she supposed to do? She backed away from the beast, but she was unable to stop watching it shake the Kool-Aid Man about.

"YUFFIE!" Lucca dropped through the forest canopy, Zapper gun at the ready. She quickly sized up the situation and started firing at the shed. The shed flung the Kool-Aid Man aside and started after Lucca. It moved in great bounding hops, its rickety boards collapsing into a crouch before each pounce.

Lucca tapped the right arrow on her NES controller to try to propel herself out of the way, but it only caused her to spin in place. "What the - my controller's not working right!" She hit the up arrow, but instead of jumping ran straight forward into a tree. She continued running in place against it before she managed to use the right arrow to turn and guide herself in another direction.

Lucca ran away from her pursuer. She stopped, pivoted slowly around while walking in place, fired at the shed once, then turned back around and continued running in a straight line. After several repetitions of this process, the shed eventually toppled over on its side and lay still, evidently dead.

"Whew, that was awkward." Lucca blew smoke off her gun. "Good thing this baby never runs out of ammo."

Yuffie crawled from the bush she had been hiding in. "Gawd, what the hell was that thing? It looked like a big shed."

"That was no ordinary shed, Yuffie. That was the Devil Shed! You were almost a Yuffie sandwich!"

"Oh." This really didn't mean much to Yuffie, but she pretended that it answered her question. And, Gawd, a Yuffie sandwich? That sounded totally gross.

Lucca stepped closer to her. "What are you doing here out in the woods anyway? We got you an exit in the mansion. You've got to get out of Dricas and stay out; the Bumbling Recurring Minor Villains are looking all over for you. You can't be wandering around out here!"

"Well, I was looking for this baby I had to babysit. 'Cause, like, when I came here, Eve and Sephiroth were just leaving, and they thought I was their babysitter 'n stuff. And I couldn't just leave their baby alone. I mean, they're kinda my friends. I guess."

"Oh," Lucca said. "Well, I'm glad you're such a caring person. And it's cool that you're good with kids; I like that! Everyone likes babies."

I don't, Yuffie thought. She looked nervously around, suspecting that something was going to jump out at her any moment now. "And there's zombies all over. You didn't tell me about the zombies."

"Sorry, I thought you would have known. I mean, a mansion without monsters is like... like a rabbit without a crack pipe."

"Whatever happened to rabbits eating carrots, anyway?"

Lucca shrugged. "Well, he does when he gets the munchies." She put her hand on Yuffie's back and guided her away from the Devil Shed's corpse. "C'mon, I'll help you find the kid and then we'll get you out of here."

* * *

Raijin and Fujin advanced into the Duchess' manor. Once they realized Lucca and Kefka had duped them, the BRMV Local #203 had split up to search for Yuffie. But there were no immediate signs of her here. "She's probably hiding somewhere, ya know?" Raijin ran up the main staircase and looked around again.

"HALT!" Fujin shouted. Why was he planning on running around a zombie-infested mansion - she knew it was zombie-infested because all mansions were zombie-infested - by himself? It would have been a lot more logical to stick together. But he had ignored every principle of common sense and went running right into some room where he was liable to be seized by a giant tentacle or have his head cut off by some nonsensical laser trap.

She shrugged. "FOOLHARDY."

The front doors swung open again, and Fujin whirled. It was none other than Yuffie herself, not to mention her bespectacled partner in crime. Wow, what an easy job that was. "YUFFIE, DESIST!"

Lucca already had her gun out before Yuffie grabbed her wrist. "Gawd, wait, don't shoot her!" She received a challenging stare from Lucca. "She's, like, my friend, sorta, I guess."

Giggling all the while, Valentine plummeted straight down from the rafters, holding an inflatable baseball bat ready to strike. "Yuffie, look out!" Lucca shouted. She tapped "right" on her NES controller and accelerated towards the wall. The vertical barrier posed no impediment to her; she continued running up its side. Halfway up the wall, she hit the A button to launch herself off it. She hurtled, almost flying, towards Valentine. Then they both froze in mid-air. Lucca and Valentine stared at each other for at least a full second before Lucca tapped Start again and delivered a flying kick to Valentine that catapulted her through an open second-story window.

Lucca landed and brushed off her hands. "Kodak moment," she said, quite pleased with herself.

Yuffie and Fujin, however, looked horrified. "GAWD, I can't believe you did that!" Even if Valentine was cruel to her, even if this was no ordinary baby but one with freaky mitochondria powers, you couldn't just around punting infants through windows! She was supposed to be looking afYuffie was supposed to be looking

Lucca appeared confused. "What?"

"It's cruel!" Yuffie said. Fujin nodded in agreement.

"But I did it in slow motion."

"What the hell does that have to do with anything?"

"'Cause there's nothing wrong with senseless violence as long as it looks cool, silly. That's another important lesson. I suggest you write it down."

"Um... okay." Yuffie did not sound entirely convinced. Meanwhile, Fujin had already gone back outside to retrieve the baby. "But ... I was supposed to be looking after her!

Fujin stepped back in the mansion, carrying a bawling Valentine. Fujin held the baby to her chest and whispered soothing monosyllabic grunts to it.

Lucca jerked a finger towards Valentine. "Wait, that thing was the baby you were looking for?"

"YES!"

"Oops." Eager to make amends, Lucca scampered across the foyer. She bent over the baby - yes, she could tell it was a baby now that she saw it up close - and beamed with vacuous glee. "Awwww, wook at the wittle baby and her cute wittle baby toes!" She tickled them, eliciting grins and giggles from Valentine.

Oh, brother, Yuffie thought. This is revolting.

Lucca started making goofy faces - stretching her mouth out, looking cross-eyed, and so on - electing further grins and giggles from Valentine. Yuffie scowled at the scene. She had been watching carefully over Valentine's safety, and Valentine only paid her back with physical abuse. Lucca had kicked it through the window, and now she and Valentine were best friends. What the hell was with that?

Lucca took Valentine from Fujin's arms and rocked her gently against her chest. Fujin stepped behind one of the pillars, hid there a moment, and then stepped back out. "PEEK-A-BOO." Valentine shrieked with delight and clapped her tiny hands together.

Yuffie continued to fume. This was all too much. The world hated her and she hated the world. Anything but this. She tapped Fujin on the shoulder. "Hey, you were here to arrest me, remember?"

Fujin gazed dopily at Valentine and back at Yuffie. "FAILED," she said with a slight smile.

"See? Everyone loves babies," Lucca explained. She lit a cigarette, prompting Yuffie to step away from her. Grossness! "Can we go now? I'm sure the rest of the Minor Villains are still looking for us. Fujin, you'll watch Valentine?"

"AFFIRMATIVE."

Valentine reached up to touch Fujin's white locks as she was passed back to Fujin. "Papa hair!" she gurgled.

"Uh... I don't know where the fax machine is," Yuffie cautioned Lucca. "I've been looking after the stupid kid ever since I got here."

"Oh, it's behind the fake wall across from Valentine's room."

Yuffie frowned. "Gawd, how did you know where all the secrets are if you've never been here before? Wait, let me guess, 'nanotechnology.'" She felt a little proud of herself; she was finally catching onto how things worked in Dricas.

"No," Lucca said, bringing a disappointed frown to Yuffie's face, "blast processing. By the way, there's also a perfectly-preserved porkchop in the back stairwell."

"Yeah, I know."

"See? Blast processing at work!"

Yuffie sighed and rolled her eyes. She trudged up the stairs behind Fujin and Lucca while feeling sorry for herself. This was, like, totally unfair! She had been trying to watch out for Valentine and the dumb kid hated her! And nobody cared about her; they were too busy gushing over the stupid baby. It was an ugly baby, too! Even uglier than most babies, she meant. Gawd, why did babies get all the sympathy?

"Hey, Yuffie?" Lucca called from down the hall. "This door seems to be locked."

Oh, crap. Valentine must have shut it, probably just to spite her. Now they were mired in several hours of key-hunting rigamarole. And here she was hoping she might be able to take a nap soon. "Okay, Eve told me what to do. Um, first we have to, like, find the chrysanthemum key, and then go into the underground cemetary ... no wait, that was later. Was the science lab next? Or maybe we're supposed to go behind the fireplace first and get the magic gem to..."

Fujin gave the door a mighty kick and it swung open.

"SIMPLE."

"Oh. Uh, thanks."

"See, Yuffie? What did I tell you? Violence is the solution to all our problems."

Yuffie waved her hand to brush off any conversation. "Okay, fine, I don't care; just get the kid out of my sight." Good riddance to bad rubble.

Fujin was already carrying Valentine back to her crib. The baby waved to Lucca. "Buh bye!" She then turned to Yuffie, picked her nose, and bounced a booger off the back of Yuffie's head.

"Gawd, why does it like everyone but me? Fujin is at least as ugly as I am!" Yuffie protested in vain.

Someone else walked down the hall. "Yuffie!" Ja Rule said. "Will you 'feature' me on a Wu-Tai Clan track?"

"Aaaaaaaah! Get away from me!" That was all the motivation she needed to take a headfirst leap into the fax machine to escape this nightmare.

* * *

Fujin set Valentine down into her crib. She then went and filled Valentine's bottle with formula and placed it in the crib with her. "DRINK."

Valentine beamed. "Bottle!" she exclaimed, waving her hands in delight. She telekinetically guided the bottle into her hands and started sucking on it.

A thin smile managed to break onto Fujin's stern face. The baby's blas command over its abnormal powers was adorable, and it was nice to interact with someone so easy to please. Especially someone who finally communicated on the same levels as her. "CUTE."

"GOO-gah!"

Fujin seated herself in a rocking chair. She rocked back and forth, lulling her mind free of the world, while her good eye kept vague watch over the baby. Rest, true solace, was something Fujin rarely - if ever - experienced. Her anger and resentment was never ending. The world never suited her, or rather she didn't suit the world. But perhaps she could thrive in a situation like this. Here there was no conflict, and even the simplest of her actions would please the people that depended on her. That was really all she wanted.

Valentine's empty bottle suddenly dropped, perfectly centered, into Fujin's lap. Oops. Valentine must have finished it. Fujin filled it up, returned it to the crib, and sat back down.

"SEIFER," Fujin murmured.

She had left because she had gotten tired of loving him with no return. He was too busy finding some new girl to toy with or letting himself be consumed with rage against Rinoa. She knew him better than anyone, and she knew that was not what he really wanted. No, his soul was still searching for that romantic dream of his, but he had gotten so wounded searching for that he could only hurt others to conceal his own pain. He would never realize that all he wanted lay right there with him. No, she gave and gave so much that she was taken for granted. One day, she didn't remember when, it had gotten too much. She had simply decided that. So when Rinoa and the union came calling, she left.

But... "GARDEN." Was that where she belonged? She had not accomplished anything with this band, nor did she really plan to. The money was irrelevant. All she wanted was a place to belong - like here, but on a more permanent plan.

The phone started ringing, forcing Fujin to get up to answer it. If this was one of those damn zombies... "HELLO?"

"'ey, what's your favorite survival horror game?" a raspy and definitely zombie-like voice asked.

"RETARDED."

"Aw, come on, didn't I scare you?"

"NO."

"Fujin?" Raijin's voice called from down the hall. "Where are ya, Fuj?"

"Not even just a little? No 'eek?'"

"NO."

"Ah, fuck you damn kids; nothing gets through to you these days. Can't you give me a little respect here? I'm just trying to do my job. I'm just like a telemarketer, but for scares. So can you at least -"

Fujin hung up, sat back down, and tried to resume thinking where she had left off. Maybe her time away from Garden would beat some sense into him of what he was missing - though she hated to think what havoc he was causing without his posse looking after him. Maybe she should go back. Nothing she had found with the Minor Villains had given her any more than what she already had, and if she could not recieve at least she could give...

Raijin thundered into the room. "Ho! Found you!" he said. "Any sign of Yuffie?"

"ESCAPED."

* * *

"Hey!" Wedge said. He trained his gun on Yuffie's stomach, prompting the girl to cower and start sweating. "Where are you going?"

"Uh, to my cell!" It was true -- where else could she go?

Wedge frowned. Well, he couldn't very well stop her from doing that, could he? That was where she belonged. Yep, no matter what angle he looked at this, there was no reason to detain her. She must be in the right, even though there was still something about this that didn't sit quite right. "Well... go ahead."

Whew! Yuffie slinked into her cell, wanting to be out of harm's way as soon as possible. At least it was safe in here, and she had a bed to sleep on, even if it wasn't all that comfortable. But again wasn't sure how she was supposed to go about the saving-the-world bit. She was stuck in prison again. And now she could not even find another way into Dricas, because the Bumbling Recurring Minor Villains were looking for her there.

Gawd, what a gyp. Maybe she could start writing her memoirs or something to distract herself. But, no, that mangy cat had already beaten her to that, and she'd never be caught dead doing anything he was doing.

Oh well.

"The Camptown ladies, like, sing this song, doo-dah, doo-dah."

Chapter Text

Hope.

Xu wanted to take Quistis' words to heart, she really did. Quistis had at least given her a few more reasons to believe she had a chance. Quistis seemed at least willing to forgive her for the suspension mess, and her words of hope for the future were a worthwhile antidote to the indoctrination she had received from hell's residents. And she had Chu-Chu to keep her company.

But her conscience kept telling that all this was a false hope. Quistis didn't know that Xu was a sorceress, a genuine threat to Garden. Nor had Quistis heard what she had: A impenetrable meditation on the true nature of the universe that was too horrible for her to even speak of. She could now see her existence as nothing but endless pain, despair, and suffering. If this forest's masters were to believed, not only was there no hope for her, her quest to even attempt to find hope was destroying everyone around her. Destroying innocent people like Chu-Chu.

Xu sighed bitterly as the memories of that terrifying revelation returned to her.

* * *

She had not been in hell very long before she discovered the parameters of her afterlife. Guilt and despair were the reigning directives. She was trapped alone in a tiny room with her murderous conscience, and it would show her no mercy. A continuous stream of self-loathing invectives beat against her very existence, fueled by her continuous rage that she could not simply cease to exist. She could find no relief from her frustrations, nor any outlet for them. She had already killed herself; as much as she deserved further punishment, she had none she could inflict on herself. So she only felt guilty for not being able to give herself the complete and constant purgatory she felt obligated to subject herself to.

She had tried to sleep, but her immortal soul did not need require sleep. And she had tried to wound herself so that she could lose consciousness and escape this nightmare, but every time she managed to damage her body seriously, it regenerated.

Well, she could hardly expect otherwise. This was what she deserved for causing such destruction. And what a perfect hell it was.

She had no way of keeping track of time, but it must have taken several days before she even thought of trying the door. She had simply assumed that she could not leave this little prison. Surely that must be the way hell worked - it wouldn't make sense if she could just break out. But one day, human curiosity prodded her out of what otherwise would have been an eternal nothingness.

She pushed on the door to her room. Surprisingly, it swung right open. Was she not trapped in here after all? How peculiar. Xu tentatively stepped out. She saw only more trees, all of them completely uniform. Well, she might not forced to stay in her prison, but she didn't seem to have anywhere to go outside of it, either.

A loud bell, like one that might be installed a church, tolled. And again. Xu's head twirled about as she tried to pin down the direction the sound came from. As she did, she recognized the shape of a large, taller tree - the only one - rising out of the tangle of leaves. Xu ran towards it as the bell continued to toll.

As she approached the tree, she could see that it was not terribly different from the rest of this unchartable mess. Just taller, and with a belfry bored through the trunk far above her head. The bell that had been ringing incessantly hung there, still tolling in an endless rhythm.

She pushed open the door and stepped inside. As soon as she did, the bell stopped.

Three women sat at the far end of a long wooden meeting table. One Xu recognized immediately as Ultimecia. The other two were unknown to her. Across from Ultimecia sat a stern-faced white-haired woman who was not wearing much of anything at all. Xu's attention was not directed not to her, however, but to the purple-haired woman at the head of the table. She was shorter, and only staring with sad, distant eyes that had halfway fixed on nothing, but something about her commanded instant awe. The mystery woman's ephemeral smile and pale skin gave off the impression that she had somehow begun to transcend this world and disappear from it. And her face ... she seemed to bear all the world's sorrows with a quiet, sad resignation that rendered Xu's existence meaningless before her. Was this someone - or something, perhaps - that she was something to know? Xu examined the woman's complicated costume for a clue. It was a suit of blood-red armor covered by a long silver dress that fell nearly as far as her hair. Two symbols were embroidered on the dress's breast: on one side an alpha and on the other an omega. They seemed like clues to an answer that she couldn't quite pin down.

This is like some bad dream, Xu's sensibilities protested. What in hell - no pun intended - was going on? Nothing made sense. These people shouldn't be here. Ultimecia was from the future. And why were those bells ringing?

"Hello, Mengshi," the purple-haired woman spoke. Her voice sounded warm and inviting, though it concealed a note of smug confidence in the outcome of all things that immediately led Xu to suspect she was not very trustworthy. "I expect you still have many questions about your afterlife, so we summoned you here. Don't worry. We mean you no harm, but wish only to reaffirm what is already in your heart."

Xu took a few instinctive backwards towards the door. She did not like this situation.

The purple-haired woman glowered at her. "You can sit down."

"I'm not going to eat you, SeeD," Ultimecia said. "You need not look at me like that."

What the hell? What the hell? They even knew her name. Her whole body shaking, Xu took the empty chair simply because she did not know what else to do.

Purple Hair folded her hands on the table and flashed Xu a too-smug smile. "Welcome to eternity. I am the keeper of time. You could call me by any number of names, but Miang will suffice." She paused for a moment and regarded Xu's distrustful glare with amusement. Or perhaps false amusement, Xu cautioned herself. There was just something about Purple Hair that put her on guard. "Will you not even greet us?"

"Hi," Xu said. "I'm, uh, Xu Mengshi." Perhaps she was wrong about these women. Maybe they were just trying to be friendly. Xu supposed that even hell had its own customs and she could hardly claim to be familiar with them. They were strange customs, no doubt, as existing in hell would mess anyone up.

"We're aware," Ultimecia said bluntly, as if it were a hilarious joke in itself that Xu had bothered to introduce herself. The white-haired woman tittered.

"As you may have suspected, you may passed from the mortal world into the eternal one. You now reside in the seventh circle of hell, in the Wood of Suicides. Like you, all of us here have killed ourselves in some way or another."

Then ... maybe it wasn't Ultimecia, Xu thought. Ultimecia hadn't killed herself. It was just someone who looked like Ultimecia, albeit nearly identically so. One of Ultimecia's ancestors, perhaps. Yes, that must be it. She had never seen Ultimecia with her own eyes, simply had her described to her by Quisty, so she could easily have been mistaken.

"But I wish to reassure you that you have not committed any errors by propelling yourself here. Indeed, you should be proud of yourself for recognizing the truth about yourself - that you were born to suffer - and not letting your egotism counteract the greater good. You belong here, Mengshi." Though that statement could have come as a stern accusation, Miang spoke it as a soothing reassurance. "You are not being punished for errors of judgment, but rather following your existence to its inevitable conclusion." She paused. "I realize this will be difficult for you to understand. But the seeds are already in your heart, Mengshi, and you simply need to admit to what you already know. Still, I believe this truth can best be explained, I believe, by presenting my own story."

"I...." Xu wasn't sure whether she wanted to be here or not. On one hand, it was vastly unsettling, and she wondered why she could not have simply been let to rot in peace in her tree. On the other, while that might be temporarily comforting, she could not really desire to spend eternity hating herself in that tiny room. At least this meeting gave her some choice of coming to some greater understanding and some other figures to her troubles on instead of herself.

"Have patience, my dear," Miang said. "All will explained in due time.

"I was born ten thousand and two years ago, when my god, our father Deus, landed on a distant planet. I believe you know one of its inhabitants. My god was wounded in his landing on the planet, and so I was created to give birth to our planet's civilization and watch over a ten thousand year plan to revive Deus. All was created exactly to my god's specifications. None of the people had any purpose but to serve my god by reuniting Deus' scattered parts and eventually merging with their creator.

"There was one flaw in the problem. A boy who had landed on the planet with Deus and was not a product of my god. Unlike the others, we were not responsible for his thoughts. But he was only one in a tide of drones. The others were mindless worker bees who were programmed not to question their existence, only to be perfect servants. I know their mindset, because I was one of them. Indeed, so was my god, as his thoughts were merely a product of the humans who had built him as a weapon. None of us were acting other than to march to our programmed destiny. There was only one outside vector. But as long as this boy's influence was kept to a minimum - for there were not just humans living on the planet, but also the Chu-chupolin, as astronomically unintellectual as they are - and the masses properly satiated with empty promises that meaning could be found in their lives by changing nothing about them, we had nothing to fear.

"Of course, my initial body, the one you see me in here, was still mortal. But I was the Mother of all humanity, and so my genes existed in every human on the planet. Upon my death, I would awaken in another woman. She would become I, and I her. Her hair changed color, her mind became mind, and her only purposed to continue overseeing humanity's evolution. And I, in order to ensure that my manipulation remained invisible and that the boy could not rally against me, assumed her identity. I would adopt her mannerisms, her personality, her friends and enemies. Only one thing remained constant: At all times I was acting only to further the master plan to resurrect my god. Even if I wanted to escape this existence, I could not: I was created to be unable to do harm to myself, so that I could not shirk my duty of serving Deus.

"Ten thousand years later, I came at last to my final body, Miang number nine hundred and ninety-nine. The missing parts of Deus had been returned. It was time to activate the final phase of my god's recuperation: to absorb the last humans, myself included, and return them all to whence they came. Then our god could move to another planet, as he had been programmed to do, and begin the cycle anew. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

"But something had gone awry. The humans had made contact with some higher form of existence and had found a greater meaning than serving in my god's plan. In those waning moments, I knew that my defeat was a certainty. An outside factor - this higher existence - had been introduced into the plan, and I had not the means to counter it. But I had been created for nothing but to serve Deus, and so I willingly marched to destruction and let myself be slain, standing for my god until the very end. And for conceding my life to a cause I knew was completely futile, I was sentenced to eternity in the Wood of Suicides. You may find ironic that one specifically created to be unable to harm itself would spend her afterlife among the suicides nonetheless.

"Upon my death, my soul was reunited with my original body of ten thousand years ago - the only one I could truly call my own - but I can speak no other good about my descent into the netherworld. Some might have called my living existence a hell unto itself, but I had a purpose then. Now I was lost, struggling to make sense of what had happened. Ten millennia I had devoted to a mission that failed utterly and accomplished nothing. I could not attribute to any failure or inadequacy, for I knew I had been created by my god to serve his resurrection as perfectly as possible. I made no miscalculations, and allowed no errors. My goal was simply unattainable from the start; what I had supposedly been created for could not happen. Clearly, some greater power, greater than that of my god, existed in our universe and had willed, or at least permitted, my defeat. My existence - an existence that has outlasted any fleeting mortal institution - seemed completely without meaning. I could see no reason I should have ever have been created."

Xu felt extreme sympathy for Miang, if nothing else. But she was also starting to see the parallels between Miang's tale of woe and her own. Like her, Miang wasn't good enough for what she had to do...

"But in the two and a half years since I arrived here, I came to understand. My life was not without meaning. No one's is. Even the most reviled individual, the most pathetic waste of life, can serve as a target or a non-exemplar. While I may have accomplished nothing through my own actions, humanity's struggle to free itself from my plan yielded many tangential gains. Lovers would have not met, knowledge would have not been discovered, personal strength would have not been gained, and indeed the very awareness that they are in control of their own destiny would still be unknown. I was the catalyst for this all, and I know that without my wicked deeds to battle against their existence would be very lacking indeed.

"For I have seen the content smiles on the faces of humans as they live their lives free of my control. The innocent grins of our planet's native inhabitants, the Chu-chupolin. The feeling of hope as humanity builds itself towards a brighter future free of Limiters, Deus, or Solaris; the gentle bliss that comes from living with one's loved ones and putting one's self to the fullest possible use. And I know that my world is a better place now.

"But that state was only attained because I existed for them to battle against; it is only through struggle against seemingly insurmountable challenges that one's true capabilities can be revealed. Think where the world would be without antagonists, Mengshi. Think of how many technological advances are yielded by wars. Think of how many useful new products are introduced, new innovations made, because corporations wants to maximize their market share. Think of the enjoyment that the masses receive from pillorying and mocking popular pariahs. Think of the comfort that comes from having a convenient scapegoat to blame one's woes on. There must always be an enemy, Mengshi. Every joke must have a butt. Every moral victory must have a moral loser. Every fable must have a villainous monster. Every heroic martyr must have a betrayer. Evil, villainy ... they are integral parts of the experience of any sentient life.

"Such is the nature of evil. Evil is actually the greatest virtue that one can possess -- the willingness to cast aside not only one's happiness and good name, but even one's salvation and moral rectitude, so that others can enjoy those gifts. Yes, just like any other conscious entity I desire some form of happiness and fulfillment, but I have attained an awareness of the universe and know that those cannot be obtained without damaging another. For everything you want, someone else must give. And when presented with the choice between taking and giving, there is only one morally correct option. Consider it, Mengshi. To take is to declare your needs more important than another's. And that is nothing but self-centered arrogance, a lack of understanding and vision. A true, complete understanding of the world permits no favoritism of the self, for one with a complete knowledge of the world knows that no one person is ever more important than another.

"We cannot make the decision to do without for another person. We can only make it for ourselves, the only person whose feelings we are in complete control of. You must always give and never take. And so there is only one morally correct way to live life: To take on all of the world's woes upon yourself and let them be destroyed with you. It is my job to be hated, Mengshi, and yours too. Dixi."

"I... oh, Hyne..." This was too much to take in. Miang's own story was complicated enough, and the conclusions to be drawn from it were staggering. It required rethinking everything she knew about as existence, though - as Miang had said earlier - she had some inkling that she might have already known this all in her soul. But at least she could take comfort in the fact that she did the right. She died with her sorceress powers to protect Garden. Except that... "But ... Rinoa wanted those powers. I could have given them back..."

"Not exactly," Miang said. "You didn't hurt her that much. Only her most recent set of powers - the ones she acquired from Sorceress Adel - seeped out. Her other two - Edea Kramer's original powers and the ones Edea she received from Ultimecia here - remain with her. She still carries the title she so desires, but you have nonetheless aided the world by removing one source of sorrow from it."

"Oh."

Miang's lips formed into a thin, knowing smile. "I know what you're thinking," she purred. "'Maybe I shouldn't have killed myself. Maybe I still have a place in the world.' I understand. Evil is not an easy burden to swallow. But you will come to accept it with time, because in your heart you are a virtuous person, and you will not allow others to take up burdens you can carry yourself. And in the mean time, you must do all you can to quelch your hopes. Hope is nothing more than a selfish desire for a world that is more appealing to me. Why should the world reshape itself to suit you? There are billions of other people in the world, and only one you. You are the minority. You must reshape yourself to suit the world. It is irrational to assume that the needs of the few could ever outweigh the needs of the many. If you really loved the world, you would suffer for it in silence."

Something that Miang said earlier and which had subconsciously landed in Xu's mind finally fully registered. "Wait, so you are Sorceress Ultimecia. What are you doing here? You didn't kill yourself; Squall did!"

"You are mistaken," Ultimecia said with a touch of a haughty smirk. "I will attempt to rekount my travails for you, as Miang did, but be warned that unless most tales, mine has neither a beginning nor an end.

"Although I am to be born many years in the future, I was slain - as you stated - during time kompression. My powers were passed to the young Edea Kramer, who still resided at her orphanage. This all you know, I presume?" She looked at Xu, and Xu nodded. "Eksactly," Ultimecia sneered. Even Xu's simple nod was only confirmation of what seemed to be an impenetrable mastery of the world. "You, like everyone else at Garden, know what happened. And this knowledge, as a key rekord in the annals of SeeD, will be passed on through the generations until the time I am born.

"Let your prekonceptions deceive you not. I began my life a student as you once were, as your Kuistis was once. Until I diskovered in Garden's history that your founder, a woman named Edea Kramer, had received her powers during time kompression from a sorceress hailing from her future. The deskription of this sorceress, of kourse, matched me kompletely, right down to my very name and the year in which I made my diskovery. And then I knew that I would enjoy no happiness or victory in life. My lot had been kast on the side of evil. I had no choice but to begin manipulating the past, force the sorceress girl to aktivate Time Kompression, and provoke the SeeDs to destroy me as I had already read they did and would. And since I died in the past, my soul was kondemned to the Wood of Suicides - for no one killed me; I intentionally brought on my demise - until such time as I am born as a child in the future. And so my suffering kontinues eternally.

"Do you understand, SeeD? We are kaught in a time loop; a endless cycle in which the past relies on events in the future. In order to preserve what has already been mandated by the past, I had to turn evil. It was not even my decision. It was an inevitability that I would do so. My decisions are the produkt of my thinking processes, my thinking processes the produkt of my brain's strukture, and my brain the fiksed, immutable produkt of my genetik kode. What had okkured in the past was proof of the decisions that I was fated to make. I have no kontrol over my destiny."

"That's horrible!" Xu exclaimed. "I had no idea; did anyone?"

"Perhaps," Ultimecia said. "Others from my time may have studied the same rekords that I did. Of kourse, I did not tell them, if you suspekted so. I kould not risk that their short-sighted mercy and affection for me might threaten the greater good that my death serves. But even in that I had no kontrol. I was already born with my fate, all my feelings and thoughts and decisions, fiksed in my thinking processes. We are all but slaves to the hand that genetiks deals us."

"But ... you started this time loop, didn't you?" Xu was still struggling to come to grips with Ultimecia's story. She found herself not wanting to think about it all. The more she considered it, the more it revealed the intracacies of its horror to her. She was staring into the maw of utter helplessness, and she instinctively wanted to turn herself away it. There had to be some other explanation that could pin the blame on Ultimecia, or even SeeD - anybody but the concept of existence itself. There had to be! "I mean ... some number of iterations of this loop ago, you did make some conscious decisions that made you a bad guy, right? Trying to avenge other sorceresses, or accumulate power for yourself, right?"

"No. I have no motives beyond what I deskribed."

"Then how did this time loop start?"

"It did not 'start,' SeeD. It always was and always will be. Like a snake biting its tail, my suffering only feeds back into itself. There is no vestige of a beginning; no prospekt of an end. It is simply how our world works. Life is white, and I am blakk."

"Do you see what I mean, Mengshi?" Miang interjected. "It's unfortunate, but some people will have to suffer. Expecting that existence will simply grant everyone a happy life is a baseless assumption. You simply have to accept your place and be happy with what you have. Fighting for more than what you're given is self-centered and will only bring more sorrow. Can you imagine what would happen if Ultimecia decided that her own happiness was more important than what she was fated to do?"

"Yes," Xu sighed. "You're probably right." It was an ugly truth, to be sure, but she could not let her selfish desire for a better world blind her from seeing the truth. "But ... Ultimecia, your hating SeeDs; this was all just an act?"

Ultimecia chuckled derisively. "Of kourse not. I abhor them in jealousy, because I am suffering so that they kan live the bountiful life that I never will. They were born without conscience, without virtue, and such their place in the universe is one where they may enjoy their happiness. Bekause they do not know of how others suffer. And they will never know, for it is our duty to suffer in silence so as not to disturb their happiness. Such is the burden of a sorceress. Such is the burden of evil."

"We must all do our part for the world, no matter how futile our efforts may be." The white-haired woman spoke for the first time. "I gave my life so that my husband could put a halt to Sin's rampages, and my Unsent, half-dead existence so that others could find a new, more propserous world. To hold back in the slightest in giving for the world would have been to submit to my unvirtuous, selfish mortal desires. We must at least attempt to transcend our human desires and faults. To live any other way would be to live a life devoid of meaning and direction."

Xu shook her head desperately, trying somehow to clear all these thoughts, all this despair and hopelessness, out of her head. Tears were coming to her eyes and she mentally chastised herself for them. She shouldn't let this be upsetting her. Just because they said these things didn't make them true. Ultimecia was a wily, deceitful villain; she could well be making this all up to try to talk Xu out of opposing her. But... but...

"Once you have the knowledge, you cannot go back," the white-haired woman said.

"Lady Yunalesca speaks the truth," Ultimecia said. "What we have shown you is reality, and your hope but an illusion brought on by your earthly desires."

"You must destroy the Self," Miang said. "Your earthly desires and self-centeredness are an impediment to virtue. Do not let them influence you. Ignore the hopes they may create for you and remember that if you are acting for yourself, you are still enslaved by an egotism that runs contrary to the greater good of humanity. You must find the strength and courage to do the right thing and destroy yourself. Or are you weak?"

Tears were now streaming down Xu's cheeks. "How can you think like this?" she howled. "How can you hate the world like this?" She knew they were right, but she couldn't let them be ... had to put up a fight ... had to, somehow, find some answer...

"Hate the world?" Miang seemed almost amused by the accusation. "I only hate the world for making it me love so. I hate it for engendering such affection in me that I would reduce myself to nothing for it. But more than I hate it, more than I feel frusterated about it, I love it. You see, Mengshi, some might call me cynical, unwilling to believe that we can be happy, but I am just the opposite. For ten thousand years, I was a cynic. I believed that there was only one unavoidable fate, that time was simply an endless cycle that would yield anything. But, no, now I have seen that there is indeed a higher meaning in humanity's advancement. And so that humans and the world may be the victors, there must be losers. I know that you love your world, Mengshi. I know you want that bright future for it. So you must gather up the courage to sacrifice yourself completely for it. Your duty is to accept your fate."

"Suffer, Mengshi," Yunalesca commanded. "You must not allow yourself to receive any priviledges that are not enjoyed by everyone else."

Xu collapsed over the table and wept, her face buried in her hands. This was supposed to be when she woke up from this nightmare and returned to a world that was okay. What they were telling her was far too horrible to be real. But with each passing moment, she saw only more and more that this was real. She was dead, really dead, and everything they told her had to be true. Hyne.

I feel like I could just die, she thought, and then she reminded herself once again that she already was dead. Not even death was an escape. She had seen the true face of the world, and it was nothing but endless, meaningless suffering. Human endeavor was nothing but a worthless charade. All was lost.

Miang sprang from her chair and ran across the room to kneel beside her. "I know it's hard, Mengshi," she whispered as she placed a comforting hand on Xu's back. Her didactic tone had receded to one of compassion. "But you must be strong."

* * *

Suffer. Suffer. Suffer. Be strong. Destroy the Self. Yunalesca and Miang's words echoed in Xu's head, and she felt sick. Was the world really this awful? Was it really right for her to feel such despair and depression?

No. It couldn't be. She clutched the yang talisman and told herself that Quistis still loved her. That there was still a place for her, even if she was a sorceress, and that she could do something to drag herself out of this pit. In her deepest desires, she still did envision a future with Quistis. A future where they lived together, united by love instead of divided by politics. Where Quistis was teaching and she was running HR and they were both appreciated and bringing something positive to the world. Where they had faith in and believed in each other and could celebrate what Miang had called the gentle bliss that came from living with one's loved ones and putting one's self to the fullest possible use. A future where she did not have to continually try to make herself invisible, because she was loved. A future where Quistis loved her, all of her, for what she already was and nothing more. A future where her net value to the world was positive, not negative.

But was it bad or good that she held those dreams? Was it hope in the face of evil or merely selfish desire? Was she weak or strong for wanting to be with Quistis? Hyne. This was so confusing. When all her values conflicted with each other...

Chu-Chu frowned, her innocent rodent features creasing into a look of concern. "Would chu like chu read some of my doujinshi, Colonel?" she offered, thrusting several Casper the Homosexual Friendly Ghost books towards Xu.

Xu waved her hand away. "No, thank you." Hyne, she wished Chu-Chu weren't here. She was just making things worse. Xu knew that Chu-Chu truly was bothered by Xu's depression and truly wanted to help her. And the fact that Chu-Chu's affections weren't good enough to save her just made her feel guilty. Here Chu-Chu was making an effort to reach out to her and cheer her up and she was not only refusing to make use of it, she was shoving her isolation back in Chu-Chu's face. And soon Chu-Chu would feel just as isolated as her...

It was just like Miang said. She was a leech. A leech that continued to suck up others' good will and do nothing with it. People devoted so much time, patience, and emotion to her and the only thing she did was to keep making the world worse. If she could disappear completely...

Dammit. She wanted to be a good person; she really did. She wanted to truly love the world and truly love Quistis. But she had too many - as Miang had so eloquently put it - earthly desires. She wanted to be loved; she wanted to mean something positive; she wanted to feel safe and secure. And she couldn't stifle those longings enough to truly do what was right for the world. She still thought about herself too much. She should be grateful that Chu-Chu was even speaking to her, not wishing that Quistis would. It was her job, her place, to be hated - not loved! - for the greater good.

Well, if she was going to be hated, she might as well make sure everyone really hated her - and hated her for all the right reasons. She really had nothing to lose at this point. "Chu-Chu, there actually is something you could do for me..."

Chu-Chu leered. "Oooh, is that what you want? Well, I'm more than happy to -"

"Er, no, that's not what I meant."

"Oh." Chu-Chu sounded immensely disappointed.

"If I wrote a few letters, would you be able to take them out of hell to some people?"

"Oh, of course, Colonel."

"Thank you."

Xu tore a few pages out of the diary and started writing.

Chapter Text

Quistis' successful venture into hell restored a note of hope to Balamb Garden. Though the "museum warez" debate raged on, Garden's inhabitants once again were able to view their fates with some degree of confidence. At last, someone had actually done something to show their lives were still vessels they could aspire to steer. It had seemed like they had already crossed the event horizon of utter despair, and that the inevitable decay of order was stronger than anything their humanity could put forth. They could only watch as their worlds fell apart.

But the world had surprised them. Something good had finally happened. Quistis and her friends had come through and found some way to push forward yet again. Perhaps this downward spiral was not forever. Perhaps some things were still stronger than the pull of despair.

The Free Kisaragi Foundation slowly grew into an actual foundation. Selphie could not help but feel she was accomplishing something when people she didn't even know were showing up to their meetings. Then she knew they weren't doing this as a favor to her, but because they really cared! They really believed in what she spoke; really wanted to save Yuffie.

And yet she had a thorn in her side that was steadily growing into a full-size patch of artery-piercing brambles. Rinoa hated admitting she was wrong under the most amenable of circumstances; when her insistence that Selphie's mission to hell was a born failure was thrown back in her face, she turned her into a violent crusader for dignity. Selphie could not help but wonder if sometimes Rinoa was disagreeing with her - which was pretty much all the time - just for the sake of disagreeing.

She probably wouldn't have noticed, could have gotten the worries off her mind, if it wasn't for the indisputable fact that her close friends were dwindling in number. Chu-Chu was in hell. Quistis had gone to stay at the lighthouse in Centra to wait for Xu. Fujin and Raijin seemed to be gone for good. Squall was still a hopeless heartbroken mess. And Mikoto - not that she had ever been Selphie's friend - was still heralding a new savior of rock'n'roll every other day and proclaiming that she "didn't care enough to care about anything" as if it was something to be proud of.

At least she still had Zell. She thought she felt a little more grateful for him every day, especially now that she could do more with him. His determination to expand his horizons was starting to show; he quoted Julia Heartilly lyrics and was excited as she was about seeing Jet Baby 5. So when she wanted to take a trip to the planetarium - she was a sucker for anything with stars, of course, and she would have already gone had she not been busy campaigning for Yuffie's freedom - she no longer felt that she was molding him into anything he wasn't.

Selphie, of course, was still Selphie, and she managed to find twenty other interesting things she wanted to do on the way to the museum. First she stopped for groceries. Then when they were crossing the Fourth Street bridge, they had the idea to stop and feed the ducks. That was fun, and the ducks sure were cute. Well, even if Rinoa was perpetually angry, the ducks were happy to see them.

Then they stopped at the mall, where Selphie bought a new chocobo farm set for her model train. She even tossed a couple of gil in the mall fountain to wish Yuffie luck. Selphie grinned. One of the best things about life was that there was so much more than what you had planned.

Zell was happy to come along, of course. He always had a good time on these excurions; besides being with Selphie, these activities were all fun. And eye-opening. Yes, he felt a little silly each time he did something new or forgotten - why hadn't he been involved like this before? But he figured that it was slowly rubbing off on him, even if he was lagging behind. He wouldn't have thought to stop and feed the ducks, but he would want to stop and check out stores he'd never been in. And buy silly little things. Maybe there was hope for him yet.

He was thinking about all the places that she'd taken him he'd never have gone before when she grabbed his hand and pointed into the Hot Topic storefront they were passing by. "Hey, it's Squall!"

Bwahahahahaha! Oh, this was priceless. Squall really was shopping at Hot Topic. He tried to burst out at laughing at the image of Squall sorting through racks of earth-toned striped shirts that could have been copied-and-pasted off a Weezer album cover. It was all so terribly, horribly fitting.

Seeming oblivious to the comedy gold on display here, Selphie had gone into the store. "Hi, Squall, what's up?"

"I hate myself and I want to die."

"Okay, let me rephrase the question: What's new with you?"

He shrugged. "I'm looking for some new T-shirts. Seifer thinks that maybe they will help Rinoa realize what a huge mistake she's made. I'm just trying to help her, you know. Like, she told me the other day she couldn't talk because she was about to eat lunch, so I told her I hoped she had a supremely tasty lunch, and then I called up her later to ask her if she was a good lunch and to find out what she ate. I want to make sure she feels special and appreciated, even if she says I'm 'creepy' and 'incredibly annoying.' She just doesn't know what she missing."

"Squall, um ... with all due respect and kindness, and I do think you are a good person, perhaps you should consider whether your 'help' is really necessary."

"But she can't live without me! Seifer said so!"

"Mm-hmm."

"Oh, Hyne, no!" Zell had spotted, with great horror, a Filth Brigade T-shirt. Oh, how could they? The teeny-boppers had claimed the friggin' Filth Brigade. Now he could no longer enjoy one of his favorite bands in good conscience; they were no longer a name to be dropped but a pariah to be vilified. And what a shame, too; he was really getting to like them. Sell-outs!

Of course, when he was home alone, their seminal album "Bloodsucking Penis Fish" would still find its way into his CD player. But it would be coming out of his secret Drawer of Shame, not the racks where he proudly displayed the real records that established him as a true punk. It was just one of those things you had to do so you'd fit in. It wasn't that he liked the band any less. Gah. He was supposed to be above this sort of pettiness, but his avoidance of pettiness had turned into a pettiness all its own.

And it was kind of a nice T-shirt...

Blah. It was all too easy to perpetuate this running joke. It was funny! He made an amusing caricature; people liked him that way. And it made him easier to deal with; people knew exactly what he was and where he fit in their lives. He wasn't complicated; he wasn't difficult to understand. Hell, it even gave him a convenient place to belong, a pre-fashioned, plug-and-play identity that offered him the immediate comfort of thousands just like him. But, dangit, he liked Julia Heartily, he liked the color pink, he liked romantic movies, and the noble goal of making himself less complicated could only counter his soul so long.

One hand slowly lifted the shirt off the rack. Ugh, he knew it was ridiculous to feel self-conscious about this. No one in the store knew or cared about him except Selphie, and she didn't care where he shopped. But he was discovering that, despite his mastery of being an elitist punk, he was still terribly inexperienced at being anything else. He'd never really tried being a consumer whore before and it seemed it was going to take plenty of training. Yes, as much as he liked to pretend he was just plain better than everyone else, they were all only equally adept at living in their own niches. There was not only one standard to measure his life by.

"I thought you hated this store?" Selphie sounded more like she was making sure than rubbing it in.

But his look answered everything for her. He wished he could leave it all behind. He didn't want to have to justify himself, because it was only giving only more credibility to words he no longer believed in. He didn't really see his world in such a black-and-white way, didn't want to have his old foolish words placed in his mouth. He felt a little proud of changing, felt that his growth deserved some acclaim. But at the same time he didn't want to dwell on it to the point that he felt like a loser because his improvement was such a big deal. But mostly he wanted to live as if he had never been such a fool.

"I'd say I succumbed, but ... I wanted this," Zell said as they walked out of the store. He was not even hiding his bag - which contained the shirt and a copy of Now That's What I Call Unlistenable Pop-Rock Shit! 7 - but swinging it merrily at his side. "And I don't really believe in guilty pleasures. Why should you ever feel guilty about the things that you define you? Besides, there's only so much you can do with three-chord progressions."

Selphie nodded. Indeed.

"You know, I've always been frustrated because it seems like I have to cling to one identity, buy into all the values that go along with it, but the objective part of me can always see the value of the things that they're looking down. There's a part of me in all these groups, and that's what's confusing. I could be a punk, I could be a snotty indie scenester like Mikoto, I could be a teary-eyed emo kid, I could be an angry radical, I could be a consumer whore ... hell, I could even be a Linux nerd like Yuffie or something like that. But ... well, I guess I can be all of those at the same time. I don't have to choose my identity from a multiple choice list of convenient social circles. I can have my own tastes and personality, like whatever I really like and do what I whatever I really do, no matter how eclectic they seem. I'm me; I'm not just a stereotype. So what if I like some of the same bands as someone who's a complete jackass? That doesn't mean I'm going to be like him in other ways. I don't have to be scared to me. Anyway, I'm babbling, so let's go play Funky Fantasy." He chuckled out of sheer delight.

Fair enough, Selphie concluded. Problems that had already been solved were not worth dwelling on. And she was happy to see him feeling a lot better about himself - she knew it would only bring better things for the both of them.

They headed across the mall towards the arcade. Rinoa darted out of the bookstore, carrying some recently redistributed wealth. She was quite happy with her latest acqusition: Reviving Celeste: Exposing Oppressive Gender Roles in Contemporary Elephant Society. This should come in handy when rewriting the cultural narrative contexts of savannah life. Oh, those elephants always seemed to ignore her, acting like they didn't need or care about her revolution. One of the elephants - a female one, no one less! what an Uncle Tom! - even tried to step on her. But she would not quite! She was not content to leave things the way they were; she would find a way to fix the world. Unfortunately, Mother Nature seemed to be winning not just the battle but the war.

As soon as she made eye contact with Selphie, Rinoa scowled and rushed over to confront her. "What the hell are you two doing here?"

"Shopping," Selphie said defensively. She knew Rinoa had already found her guilty as charged and was just waiting to launch into some bitter invective. Had her willing purchase of more than one material product proved that she was a slave to the capitalist pigs? Did her shocking lack of a Che Guevara T-shirt not conform to anarchist fashion? Or was someone doing it all for the oil again?

"Well, you're not clapping, that's what you're doing," Rinoa said. "Remember? Yuffie isn't coming back unless you all keep clapping." She gestured angrily towards their shopping bags. "If your life was threatened, wouldn't you expect your friends to rescue you instead of hanging out at the mall?"

Selphie frowned. Yes, Rinoa did have a point, but it irritated Selphie that Rinoa had made everyone else's life her business. "What's it to you? She's my friend, remember? Come on, even if I was in Yuffie's situation I wouldn't to completely destroy my friends' lives."

"Like I said, she could be any of us. One for all, all for one. We have a responsiblity to the future to fight, you selfish hedonistic rat. Whatever stupid fun you have now is gone as soon as it's over, but everybody goddamn bit of freedom you win us will be a benefit to countless people until the end of time. What are you going to tell the next one thousand years of human civilization, Selphie? That you were too busy playing video games, caught up in your selfishness, to win them the freedom they yearn for? I'm sure the history books will look real kindly on that. Like I said, the world isn't going to stop because some preppy white girl wants to party. Now you'd better show up at the next FKF meeting. We're depending on you, after all; you're supposed to be our leader." Having temporarily emptied herself of rage, Rinoa stormed off in a huff without giving Selphie chance to reply.

Not there was much Selphie could have said. Rinoa was right, and Selphie knew it. She was selfish. She was failing in her duties. And yet ... she had been doing the only things she knew how to do. She wasn't Rinoa. She wasn't cut for such relentless fighting. But that was her problem, not the world's, wasn't it? She had to face reality, and the reality was there still far too problems in the world for her to be having fun. So much for her joyful mood.

Zell hugged her. "Don't listen to her," he assured her. "You can't discriminate against yourself in favor of others, remember? It's the same thing you told me. You're doing the best job you can."

"Yeah, I guess I should take my own advice, huh? But..." Her restless eyes meandered about the mall. She could not say she was looking for anything, but neither was she secure enough to look straight ahead and be happy with what she saw. "I'm not so sure I really am doing the best job I can. I don't have to be here. I could be writing more letters and doing interviews and raising money and..."

Zell nodded sympathetically. He didn't think that Selphie should feel guilty, but he also completely understood why she did. "There's only so much you can do, Selphie," he said. "One person can't fix all the world's problems."

"I know. But... I want Yuffie home. I really do want to save everyone, Zell. Every last child, every last criminal who has turned down a bad path, every victim of disease, last person suffering, and ... and I can't." No, she told herself. She couldn't get too upset; here she was standing in the middle of a crowded mall, it wouldn't do to burst out in tears. She took a breath to calm herself and summed up her feelings. "I know I can't change everything; you're right. But I just can't shut off my heart, Zell; I just can't. I like people; I want them to be happy."

To distract her troubled mind, Selphie took her Rubik's Cube out of her pocket and clicked the rows and columns around. It seemed like she was making progress, yet a completed cube remained as elusive as ever. "You know, I still haven't gotten this thing figured out." She chuckled ironically. "I suppose that's the story of my life. Every time I try to fix one thing, it screws up my solution to something else. It's like ... I want Yuffie back very much, but I don't know how much long I can keep this up."

Her hands moved idly over the cube, seeking comfort in something tangible and unchanging. She did not twist the rows and columns any; after all, she wasn't paying attention, so why screw up the progress she had already made? "Dreaming is such hard work, Zell. It's tiring to try to keep your vision alive. To force yourself no matter how much you're down to reimagine your suffering as just another obstacles along the way. It's like you made this perfect painting that somehow embodies your entire soul. Of course, the painting has to sit somewhere, so you put out in the park, out in the world, so that people can see it. But it also rains out there, and mud gets on your painting, you know, just from being out in the physical world, and a few people will smear your painting just to make it look worse. Or because they're jealous that your painting is prettier than theirs. And you have to come back every day and try to remember how it looked and paint all the blank spaces over again. But ... after so many times, it gets harder to remember what it looked like originally, and you get tired of having to keep fixing it. Because it's never quite as good as it was originally. That's what I feel like, Zell. I used to be able to paint a perfectly realized picture of the future I wanted, but now... I can't keep fighting, not when there's this great a vaccuum of love in the world. If they want to destroy the light that badly, then fine. I guess they deserve to, if they're going to try that hard. I can't go on caring; I can't. My heart can't take it."

"I know," he said softly. He faced the same challenges, too, trying to change himself. He wanted so much to grow up and be and do everything that he could, that the world offered, but ... that took a lot of work. A lot of struggling to break his old habits, a lot of swallowing his foolish pride. There were many times when he wanted to just crawl up and go back to listening to punk records all day. It was certainly safer that way. So he knew how hard it was to go on dreaming. Perhaps not to the degree that Selphie - or perhaps so.

"Sometimes I start to worry if there's any hope for us," Selphie murmured, staring with great intent at the tiles on the floor. Once she got started, the thoughts came pouring out. Her pent-up sorrow was yearning to be bared to the world so at least it did not have to deny its own existence. "I mean ... all of us. It seems like there's always going to be people suffering. Like there's always going to be someone willing to push that button to fire the missiles and take away another dozen best friends. Maybe they can say that Yuffie made bad decisions and she's being punished. But what about Sun Hye? What about people born with crippling physical defects? What did they ever do wrong? It's easy for us to pretend that everything will work out, but what if doesn't? We all like to think we're the Hollywood heroes who always emerge victorious and in love; we turn away from the suffering of others because they're just the expendable sidekicks. We think that we're the main characters and only we matters. But everyone wants to be the main characters. And yet most of us are we going to be end up as flunkies and sidekicks. The ones who have to sacrifice our lives for the cause, or who have to forget our hearts' longings so the hero and heroine can get together. The ones who die for the chosen few. It's like a game of musical chairs. There's not enough caring in the world for all of us and we're all fighting to get in one of the spots where we can be one of the chosen happy ones. And the people who don't, who aren't happy... what justifies that kind of suffering? How can we look anyone in the eye and tell them that their life isn't as important as ours?

"I suppose that's the same argument Rinoa used against Quistis to justify campaigning for Yuffie, but... but it works both ways. Our crusade to free Yuffie is hurting people like Xu just as much as Garden's need for financial solvency is hurting Yuffie. It seems like anything anyone wants is only going to take away from someone else. And ... I can't bear to hurt anyone. I don't want to fight at all. I want everyone to be happy. But that's not going to happen, is it?"

She sighed and looked up. "I'm thinking maybe I should let Rinoa take over the Free Kisaragi Foundation. I mean, she's the one that's really into this campaigning and she makes pretty much all the decisions anyway. I'm sure that would take some of the stress off me..."

Zell nodded thoughtfully as he considered this proposition. "But you're worried that you'll be helpless."

"Yeah, exactly."

"Well, you could still help out. Just let her do what she's best at and you can fill in in the ways you're comfortable. Don't forget, you matter to a lot more people and entities than the FKF. I care about you, so do Irvine and Quistis and Emma. And you're still in SeeD ... you still like to play music. You still like trains and Beanie Babies and video games. You're a multi-faceted person. Don't try to reduce yourself to existing for only one thing. You'll still be a three-dimensional round peg that doesn't fit into that two-dimensional square hole. And that's what living for the FKF is..." Hyne, that had sort of all slipped out. He hoped it didn't sound too corny.

She stuffed the cube back in her pocket and looked him in the eyes. Time to get on with this. "I know you're right; it's just hard for me to really convince myself," she sounded resigned to her helplessness yet determined not to give into worser things. "It's not easy to walk away from suffering."

He smiled. "Well, we're here to play Funky Fantasy not suffer, remember?"

She laughed. When things were going badly, it was so easy to get sucked into a spiral where people only made each other more depressed and miserable. Thank goodness Zell could still break out of that enough to give her something to hold onto and pull herself out with. "...thanks," she said.

They finished their journey to the arcade. Selphie hopped up on the Funky Fantasy dance pad, quite determined to lose herself in the game. She needed to prove that she was not merely a slave to the FKF before she lost herself completely. And she had to admit that a rather selfish part of her wanted to spite Rinoa for trying to take away all the joy in her life. Her soul told her she was working hard enough and Rinoa deserved a slap in the face for guilt-tripping her so much.

So what was left to do but rock the arcade? "Oh, you two are GOOD friends!" the Funky Fantasy announcer bellowed, impressed by their cooperative performance on "Eyes On Me."

Selphie let her feet carry her through the familiar song and glanced over at her partner. "Have you been practicing?" she shouted over the music.

"Well ... sorta."

She grinned.

"Hey, you never know when dance practice will come in handy, right?"

The results popped up on the screen. Whoo hoo! They rated a B! They certainly did make a good team, and they were only getting better. Selphie flashed an excited thumbs-up. "Booyaka!"

"Yeah, we're getting better," Zell agreed. "Remember last summer when we rented the kayak at Obel Lake? Hyne, did it ever take us a long time to get coordinated." Irvine had been having another panic attack, so Zell offered to go with her intead. And then Fujin rear-ended their kayak and knocked them both into the water. Heheh. Yeah, they certainly were a lot more coordinated now. Hmm, on the other hand, though, they had certainly done a bang-up job when they were attacking Lunatic Pandora. She had been manning the guns (of course) and Zell had been flying the Ragnarok... maybe they just tended to rise to the occasion. When crises came they always knew what to do.

She frowned. Thinking of her past confused her. So much had changed. Even last summer was a big leap back in her life: she had still been dating Irvine and she remained blissfully ignorant about intellectual property debates. Did all the change amount to something good or bad? She liked to think that she was moving forward, yet the past taunted her with memories of laughter and love. That Obel Lake trip was such a pleasant memory; she couldn't help but chuckle to think of her and Zell floundering about, soaking wet, in the lake and Fujin's expression of puzzled guilt. But sometimes "pleasant memory" felt like an oxymoron to her: the fact they were only memories now made her heart ache.

She had been about to wish could return to such halcyon days, before this whole museum warez mess... but. But. But this, but that. But now she wasn't sure they were really so halcyon, that was it. She couldn't wish to go back to a time before she was so close to Zell; couldn't pretend that what she had with Irvine was really what her heart desired. It would be like boarding her heart and her mind up again.

And as carefree as those times might have seemed, she knew even there had been plenty of strife. Sun Hye was still gone. So, what did she want? To regress all the way back to when she was 16? Yes, she might have been happier then, but she could hardly believe that the last four years had only made her worse off. Who was she to trade one friend for another? To give up Zell and Quistis for Yuffie and Sun Hye? Every moment of her life had its ups and downs. It was like that butterfly thing Irvine used to talk about; she didn't know where she'd be if anything in her life had happened differently.

"What are you thinking about?"

"Eh, nothing important."

"It's important to me; you know I care."

Heh. She hadn't been expecting him to say that, but now it made her smile. She got used to hiding her pain from the world that sometimes she forgot some people really did want to help her. So she offered an explanation: "Well... I'm not sure whether I'm wishing things were as simple as they had been, or being surprised that for all that I've lost, I seemed to have gained plenty too." She sighed and shrugged. "I don't know what to think."

On a sudden impulse, she hugged him - and a little surprised, he quickly embraced her back. The thought of how much her life could be had suddenly slammed into her mind like a liberating army of common sense. "Thank goodness you're still here," she sighed.

"Woobaby."

Their heads turned simultaneously to see Chu-Chu rolling into the arcade. "Selphie! Zell!" She came to a flying stop in front of Zell and planted her feet firmly in the ground to halt herself. "Hey there, sweetcheeks. Is that some pulsating man-meat in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?"

"Um... well, yes, I'm happy to see you, but, uh, not like that..."

"Chu-Chu!" Selphie bent down to embrace her friend. She was so delighted to see another friend -- any friend. "What are you doing back here? Is Xu...?"

"No," Chu-Chu said. "But I think she's getting better. Chu-Chu is just here chu deliver some letters for her: one for her parents and one for Instructor Trepe. I wrote Franzy-poo a letter chu." Chu-Chu held out her hand. "See, Auron stamped my hand, so Chu-Chu can get back into hell for free. Irvine told me chu guys went to the mall. So I came here to say hi before I went back and maybe I'll try chu break my high score on the Muff Diver machine while I'm here." She licked her lips.

For once, Selphie just grinned and patted her furry friend on the head. "Don't ever change, Chu-Chu."

Chu-Chu beamed. "Okay! By the way, chu guys, Colonel Xu convinced me that I should take a vow of celibacy when I become a SeeD."

Two stupefied stares tried to believe this.

"April Fools'!"

They both groaned and shook their heads. Chu-Chu basked in her triumph (silly humans!) for a few moments and then she took a few 50-gil pieces out of her piece. "C'mon, let's go. 'Do it All Night.'"

* * *

Waiting was not as easy as Quistis had expected. She had thought that with a promise from Mengshi of her imminent return, and even a physical token of it, she would feel completely secure and be perfectly content to wait in the little shack by the lighthouse until Mengshi escaped from hell. Being alone was supposed to give her a good chance to sort out her feelings, come to peace with these tribulations, and prepare herself for both Mengshi's reappearance and the possibility that the month might pass without her return.

But this had turned out even more trying than journeying to hell, Quistis reflected as she trudged up the stairs of the lighthouse. Then she had been acting to decide her fate, but now she was completely helpless. Her mission was now to muster up enough faith to counter her feelings of futility. There was no new path she could hope to seek, nor any new action she could undertake to bring them together. Everything lay in Mengshi's hands now.

But Quistis was certainly not without faith. The world being as dreary as it was, it was hard to remember that things were getting brighter. But she knew they were: Mengshi was clearly feeling more confident about herself if she was honest about her sorceress powers now. Quistis had certainly been overjoyed to receive that letter; she had immediately dashed off a letter of her own for Chu-Chu to take back to hell. That was a welcome whisper of comfort, enough to drown out the screams of despair in her heart.

She reached the top of the lighthouse. By the building's lamp, she could see the waves crashing against the moonlit beach, bearing in rocks and shells and bottles but no Mengshi. Quistis had adopted a completely nocturnal schedule, rousing herself every evening as the sun set to go tend the lighthouse in case Mengshi emerged during the night and needed it to find her way to shore. Then she would call Selphie to chat as much as they could before Selphie had to go to bed. Even letting go of Selphie at night was sometimes difficult - when she hung up, Quistis lost her last line to civilization. She had discovered that living by herself quickly became oppresively lonely. She was drowning in a torrent of emptiness, deprived of a chance to be a part of something greater than one's own soul. She had a few ways to keep herself entertained, though: reading, needlepoint, playing Triple Triad in her head, pounding training dummies to let off her frustration. But many times she would simply sit and watch the waves, holding her yang amulet, until the sun rose to guide Mengshi and she could sleep.

She had to be eternally vigilant. Mengshi could return at any moment - and she would be stuck on this uninhabited rock were Quistis not waiting for her. And what other choice did Quistis have? Go back to Garden and pretend to forget about her lover? It was like she had told Selphie: Even if she didn't want to, she'd be dreaming of her. Abandoning Mengshi was simply unthinkable. This vigil was frusterating and torturous but it was the only option her heart knew. She simply couldn't imagine what sort of circumstances could force her - could force anyone - to take quick, fleeting fulfillment over the promise of a blissful future that Mengshi offered.

She had faith. They would be together again, sooner or later. And living without Mengshi, struggling to preserving Mengshi's memory, made it even easier to appreciate all that Mengshi had brought -- and would again bring -- to her life. It was all too true that one could not appreciate what one had until one had lost it all. So there was a strange sort of upside to all this.

Quistis tore off another page from her desk calendar. She had been worried when she started this ritual that the countdown might seem like a death sentence, but it didn't really. No use getting worried yet. Mengshi still had several weeks; it was only March 30th, and Midgar had never been built in a day. She knew that, insecurities aside, Mengshi was a wonderfully capable and determined person, and could probably force her way out of hell in no time now that she was properly motivated.

What worried Quistis more was the possibility that she might start to resent Mengshi for taking so long to return. It would be a groundless resentment, of course. Quistis was here out of free will, because she believed in Mengshi and wanted to wait for her. And she knew that Mengshi certainly did not want to see her suffer and doing all she could to escape hell. Still, she worried that this temporary torment might have a permament effect on her. So as to ensure that she would not forget why she was enduring this torture, she re-read nightly Mengshi's letters and looked through as many photos as she had of them. They made her wish very much that Mengshi were here beside right now. But that was wanted to feel.

Yes, she conceded, most people probably never endured trials as brutally honed as this. But extraordinary circumstances called for extraordinary measures. A month of agony was a small price to pay if she could truly cheat death.

She held their promise in her hand and watched the waves.

* * *

While Quistis kept up her vigil, heartache of a different - and extremely petty - kind continued to haunt SeeD's former rising star. Squall was still lonely without his one true love and when he got out of bed in the morning he tripped over his Gunblade and by mistake he dropped his emo sweater in the sink while the water was running and he could tell it was going to be another terrible, horrible, no good very bad day.

And the cafeteria was out of his favorite black coffee, so he had to settle for pop instead. He put his money in the machine and spent an inordinate amount of time deliberating over the many new beverages offered. There was Milk: Code Red and Vanilla Orange Juice ... Midnight Black Ruby Red Sprite and Dr. Pepper Mud Fusion. Or perhaps Diet Coke: Bilious Green, or even Mountain Dewprism: Red Fusion: White Flash: Condition Green. He pushed the button for Diet Coke: Bilious Green, but nothing came out. And when he tried another button, it told him he hadn't put any money in. That wasn't fair! Didn't this piece of junk realize he had feelings? The machine hurt him on the inside when it ate his money.

I bet in Esthar, the pop machines never eat your money. But here in Balamb, the whole world was conspiring to make him miserable. He was so depressed that he started crying right there and then Zell called him a crybaby who was fiddling while Midgar burned and while he was punching Zell for saying crybaby the Headmaster walked by and scolded him for fighting. I am having a terrible, horrible, no good very bad day, he told everybody. No one even answered.

Maybe he should just kill himself since everyone obviously hated him, he thought. But knowing him, he'd probably fail at that too.

So he grudgingly went back to Seifer to report his progress on winning back Rinoa's heart. "Well, I bought some T-shirts like you said. And I came up with some jokes that might make her laugh. Okay, get this one: Why do gophers wear two pairs of pants? In case they dig a hole in one!"

Seifer smirked. How perfectly horribly. Squall was sure to keep that stupid bitch tormented for a long time. Damn, am I ever clever.

"But I can't talk to Rinoa. She keeps avoiding the spots where we'd have to speak. What do I do?"

"Don't worry; I've got it taken care of. I cut the power cord to the elevator so it'll get stuck. The two of you can trapped together there. Chicks dig it when they're physically unable to avoid talking to you; she'll fall for you in no time when she has no other options."

Squall frowned. "Didn't Selphie try something like this one? I seem to remember it being kind of a disaster."

"Who are you to argue with me?"

Boy, did he ever not have an answer to that question. "Yeah, okay, sorry."

"This is the way the world works, Squall. Trust me."

* * *

Selphie hated to see Chu-Chu traipsing back to hell, but she knew her friend had a job to do. Chu-Chu was quite convinced that she could make a difference and would not hestiate to do so. Selphie had to admit she was a little jealous of her friend's unwavering faith, the ease with which she shrugged off any evidence suggesting she wasn't good enough. Chu-Chu was unflinchingly sure she could get Xu out of hell and her determination probably meant it would come true. At the very least, it was infectious -- Selphie had no doubts that Chu-Chu could get Xu out of hell. But her own ability to save Yuffie? She'd never give up, but she sometimes despaired that she would ever accomplish anything. What made the difference between them? Chu-Chu seemed intrinsically full of faith, and it frustrated Selphie that she couldn't be the same way. She simply didn't know how to be that confident about herself, not when she still had so much work to do.

But at least they had gotten to see each other. Connecting to her friends gave her soul the nourishment it needed to endure times like these. She was just a lone one-winged angel and she needed many peers to lift her up into the sky. And she was also quite pleased with their Funky Fantasy performance - she had finally rated an A on the five-Chocobo-track version of "Somnia Memorias."

It was getting rather late, but they still managed to make it to their original destination: the planetarium. And the upshot of arriving so late was that they were the only visitors in the theater. Bugenhagen was still there, of course, waiting to ramble about stars to anyone who would listen. But when he saw the distant, melancholy looks of his latest visitors, he decided not to test their endurance further. "Ah, greetings, greetings," he said. "You don't look so well."

"It's okay," Selphie said.

"Have you lost your way? When that happens we each have to take a good long look at ourselves. There's always something in the deepest reaches of our hearts. Something buried, or something forgotten. Remember it. Whatever it is, must certainly be what we are all looking for..."

Selphie shook her head. The offer of advice was appreciated, but at this point, no stranger could hope to understand what she was grappling with. "No, we just want to be alone... thanks."

Bugenhagen nodded and muttered a final "Ho ho hoo!" under his breath as he floated away.

And they were left alone with the stars. Even with Zell standing beside her, Selphie felt very alone in this great universe that sprawled over her head. There were millions of galaxies spanning billions of light years, and they would all go on with or without her. Or Yuffie. Or Zell. What could one person really hope to change about the universe? Maybe Mikoto was right. Maybe she was just a bunch of amino acids that had deluded itself into believing it had a personality and a soul. But she didn't still believe it.

Because though gazing upon infinity humbled her, it also inspired her. Whenever she was surrounding by stars and other symbols of the great mysteries out there, she found her thoughts drifting to equally cosmic subjects. Life. Love. Hope. Friends. And, yes, the terrible burden that she bore. But... but... looking at all this, she remembered that there was more to the universe, a chance to seek answers even when this broken world could not offer them. There was always more out there ... always another hope that something could turn things around. Surely a universe this grand and magnificent knew how to take care of its children, didn't it?

Someday this would all be over, she reminded herself. Someday they would win Yuffie's freedom and she could return to the peaceful life she had once known. A life without a massive hole that she was fighting to restore. That was the only thing that kept her going: the prospect that she would one day free from all this. But even then ... no, she had seen too much now. As long as there was anyone like Yuffie, she had to keep fighting, didn't she? Others had come to the aid of her friend; she was obligated to come to the aid of theirs. She could not really rest unless the world was perfect ... and, well, that was impossible. An endless striving - was that all that was left?

And certainly part of her told her that any rational person would have given up already, that society did not expect the inhuman endurance she demanded of herself. But she never really paid it attention; she knew that her heart would always find more endurance, more patience, and more faith.

"This is so impressive," Zell murmured.

"Mm-hmm." Selphie nodded. Her mind was elsewhere, but she struggled to drag it back to the wonderful sights before her. She did appreciate his attempts to stay positive. And she wanted to make the best of this visit. She always needed to have more happy memories to carry with her and remind her that goodness still existed in the universe. "I don't think I could ever fully grasp how much space we're really looking at here."

"Yeah," Zell said. "It's a great big universe, and we're just a tiny part of it."

"Cosmically insignificant?" She said it with a wink, though it was only half a joke.

He chuckled. "I don't think so. You're certainly significant to me, and I'm part of the cosmos, so you're not insignificant to the cosmos. I mean, er, right? That's good logic, right?"

She laughed. His matter-of-fact reasoning seemed almost nae at times, especially in the face of her existential quandaries, but she knew it stemmed only from goodness in his heart. He wanted to resolve things; he really cared. And often, she confessed, he did have a good point.

"I mean... to the world you may be just one person, but to one person you may be the world," he added.

Mmm. Thank goodness someone still felt that way. It was certainly a comforting thing to hear: that she wasn't replaceable, that she mattered just the way she was. "Did you just think that up?" she murmured.

"No," he confessed. "I stole it from the liner notes to the Filth Brigade's seminal 1992 record 'Bloodsucking Penis Fish.'"

Well, that sort of killed the moment, but she tried to think about its appropriateness, and about him pulling it out at the perfect time, and not about bloodsucking penis fish. And even still, even after telling herself it over and over, she wasn't quite secure about it. What was missing?

"Here's another good one: 'The best way to change the world is to change yourself.'"

Somehow it still wasn't enough. She wanted to appreciate the quote, wanted to let her mind boggle at the wonderfully succinct advice, wanted to be delighted by how simple and good the world really was. But that sort of thing no longer rang true. She had seen too much suffering for a few words on paper to be enough to reassure her that things would work out. Oh, she wanted to believe. Still hoped their problems would be solved, still thought they might be. But she had been forced to realize that writing sappy slogans did not necessarily mean said slogans were true. If the meaning of life could truly be crammed on a bumper sticker, their problems would have all been solved long ago.

"The stars sure are pretty, aren't they?" she murmured. "You'd think they were real."

"Yeah..." It was true, yes, but why that comment now? What was she getting at?

"When I think about how much knowledge and ingenuity - about the stars, construction, electricity, everything - is required to build something like this, I'm amazed. Amazed at how much people can do. If we were rotten to the core, if we were really damned to self-destruction, I don't think we could have built up all the ingenuity to do this. Which is why, no matter what Rinoa or Mikoto says, I just don't see how a world that makes such wonderful things could be bad. So I keep asking myself the same question: Why is there all this pain and sorrow and suffering in the world? That's the big one, isn't it? I mean, sure, we all want to know where the universe came from or what happens to us after we die, but those aren't quite as in your face. I mean, you can still go through life without really knowing what made matter, but if you're lying dying of cancer or your best friend just got a gunshot wound in the face, you've got to wonder why anything bad should ever happen at all. Is it because the universe is just big ugly mass of random atoms that doesn't mean anything at all? Is our existence a runaway train that got away from its creator? Are we being tested, have we fallen out of peace with some cosmic truth? Or is this all part of some big master plan beyond our mortal comprehension? I mean, forgive my curiosity, but when one of my friends gets sent to jail over a trifle, I have the death of another at least partially on my hands as a result of trying to save the first, and half the rest were blown away by missiles, I can't help but wonder."

That was the big one indeed. Zell could not say nothing, but neither could he pretend to answer an issue as eternal as this one by tossing off another unsubstantiated Hallmark gift card maxim. Well... there was always what he just felt at the moment. "Maybe we're not meant to know," he said with a shrug. "I mean, if we were, we would know, right?"

Both of them were startled that this made any sense at all. It was not a victory by any stretch of the imagination, but at least knowing they didn't have to win right now was somewhat comforting. "Yeah," she said. She struggled to find something more to say and failed. "Yeah." Perhaps words of wisdom could not solve all their problems, but they could at least offer some them guidance and reassurance.

"If you spend all your time asking questions," he added, "you won't be able to hear the answers."

"And did you just think that up?"

"Actually, yes." He sounded only slightly embarrassed.

She had to admit she was surprised - not because she thought him incapable of coming up with such insights, but simply because every previous one had not been his invention. "It's nice."

He smiled. It was such a reassuring feeling to be able to say things like that and feel proud instead of hopelessly dorky. After all, everything he thought was part of him in some small way, and every thought he had validated meant that another tiny bit of him was good for the world. "'s like I said earlier; too many people think they need to convince themselves they know everything. Gotta keep an open mind and not be afraid to admit we still have a lot to learn about the universe."

"Yeah," Selphie conceded. It wasn't the best of answers, didn't solve all her problems, but at least it gave her something to go on. She pulled out her Rubik's Cube again and held it up. Oh, this was silly all right, but at least if she could be whimsical and dorky then she still had something alive in her. So she smiled. "Just like my Rubik's Cube -- maybe sometimes we don't understand it all, but I'm still having fun playing with it."

* * *

Selphie announced the Free Kisaragi Foundation's change of leadership at its next meeting. "I'd like to thank everyone for your continued support in seeking justice for Yuffie. While I'll continue supporting the Free Kisaragi Foundation and taking an active role in its work, I've decide to handle the actual management of the Foundation over to someone more experienced in fighting the good fight. So as of today, April 3rd, Rinoa will be running things in my place. Let's Positive Thinking!"

Rinoa immediately jumped to Selphie's makeshift pulpit -- a stool stacked on some books. "Hi, I'm Rinoa Heartilly. You may remember me from such activist organizations as Food Not Bob-ombs, Students Against the Treacherous Use of Fur, and the Society for the Promotion of Elvish Welfare. And I say it's time to get this fucking show on the road!" The FKF supporters applauded for her.

Irvine squinted. "Hey, who's that in the back waving a 'The Strokes 3:16' sign?"

"Goddammit! " Zell swore. What was wrong with that stupid monkey? Didn't she have the common sense to leave their political rallies alone? What she did possibly hope to gain by showing up at other people's parties and ruining them? Being a sarcastic asshole didn't make her smart, it just made her ... a sarcastic asshole.

"This is a war, and we're losing it!" Rinoa explained. "Niccolo Group is kicking our asses all over the public's eyes. Our image is a nightmare! And you know that's what they want. They're hysterical nutjobs that thrive off fear! If we left them, they'll take away all our rights with their self-fulfilling politicizing. Do you guys hate demagogues and political rhetoric?" She received a cheer of approval. "Yeah, see, that's why we need to do something. We've lost our momentum ever since what's-her-face died. We're no longer the big issue. No one feels threatened by Niccolo, so they don't care about supporting us. That's why the masses need to be goaded, shocked into falling in line behind us. People are sheep."

Selphie no longer needed to actually object to know how the conversation would play out. "But apparently you're not a sheep?" "No, I read pose in public with Noam Chomsky books; they can't pull the wool over my eyes!" Besides, she wasn't supposed to be getting involved like this. She knew she had to make herself step back and let go of Rinoa's brain, even if something deep within her objected violently to Rinoa's ideas.

"We need to make this seem like more of a threat to the average redneck idiot. We know that museums should be free, but why would Joe Sixpack bother to think about intellectual property when he could be drinking beer and watching porn?" Selphie hated that, too - how Rinoa really seemed to think that some people were inherently gifted to be more enlightened and that the rest were "morons" - but ... yes, yes, it wasn't her business. But this must be how Zell feels about Seifer. She knew they were on the same side; it wasn't like she was really fighting Rinoa - but, Hyne, every word she spoke just had this way of getting under her skin.

"Talking to those stupid sheeple is not the solution. No one will change their mind because of a bunch of people standing around with 'Make bukkake not war' signs. We need to create something real and in their face. And we need a martyr. Something, someone else has to get cut down by Niccolo Group before people will say they have to be stopped. If their crime is locking up a few criminal kids, no one cares; they have to be posing a real threat to freedom everywhere. Our job is to pick a fight with them and make sure we come across as ordinary people when they're crushing us. We have to lose to them before we can win in the court of public opinion."

"Rinoa, you're sounding just like Niccolo!" Screwing with people's minds, making threats out to be bigger than they seemed to be, playing the role of the tragic oppressed ... she really was just as much of a politician as he. The same as everything she claimed to be fighting against. How quickly her war against war had revealed itself to be just a, well... war. But in the end, what faction, what cause didn't mutate into the same dogma-spewing army of machines?

Rinoa turned to glare over her shoulder, and Selphie immediately started to regret her outburst. "You want to run things here? You're the one who quit in the first place - because you're fucking wrong, because -" Rinoa was growing so consumed by rage that she could no longer even raise coherent objections to the world. Not when everything was wrong, not when everything was an offense to her. She tried to regain control by slamming her fist in her palm and declaring, "This is a war, damn you!"

"No, it's not," Selphie retaliated. She looked around to check that she was not standing alone. Zell's glower expressed clear frustration with Rinoa, Irvine looked as neutral as ever, and everyone else looked mostly confused. "I don't think fighting and politics can solve any problems, Rinoa. No one's behind all this. There's no evil sorceress that we can defeat to make everything right this time; there's just us. The only way we can solve this is to educate everyone. Fighting isn't the answer at all. It's... learning. Education. Understanding. I mean, ideals and principles can be good, but I don't want them to come before people. Because that's what's really most the important. Love."

Rinoa's fury was inconsolable. What a nice little speech, she could have snapped, but she was far beyond snappy comebacks. This was the worst torment imaginable. Surely the name of justice entailed her to exact whatever retribution her rage demanded. "Your naïve optimism isn't going to get you anywhere." She was talking at the top of her voice, but not even adding enough emotion to make it a yell. Just demolishing everything Selphie stood for as publicly as possible. Because, oh, she deserved it. "I've seen so much more of the world than you. And you're just like all the rest. You're just like them all, you heartless monster. You chickenshit comformist say you're on my side and then when it really matters, at the crucial point, you turn away and abandon me. Whose friggin' side are you on here?"

Selphie was already sobbing on the inside. She was not, by nature, an argumentative person, and having this kind of malice thrown into her face was a test of her ability to get knocked down and come up loving. Her heart could not write Rinoa off as one of the 'bad guys' who were inherently wrong; it knew that Rinoa was no less human than anyone else and that her opinion did matter. That was why it hurt. But she knew how much was riding on her at this moment, and she had to keep her composure. "I'm not fighting against anyone," Selphie said. "The only side I'm on the one with everyone on it. And I like to think that not all optimism is naïve..."

"You're holding us all back!" Rinoa howled. "There's only one way this can be solved and you're still in the way! You know what? Get the hell out of here. I don't want to talk to you. You handed this organization over to me and I'm not going to let you fucking take it away from me again. I'm kicking you out. You can go start a Save Yuffie Organization if you want, but the Free Kisaragi Foundation belongs to me. And you are with me or against me."

Was this what it all really came down to? Selphie felt almost as betrayed as Rinoa did. It seemed she had reached the end of this narrative, and all her love, all her struggling, all her sacrificing had become futile in the end. No matter how hard she fought, it would never be enough. Was there truly no inner goodness of the universe that she would find if she only dug deeply? How can you do this, Rinoa? How can you think that you alone hold the answers to the universe's problems? That six thousand years of human history can all be compressed into a few pithy psuedo-philosophical sayings that will solve everything? The meaning of life can't be found on a bumper sticker; it was really that obvious, we wouldn't be here arguing about this.

By now it was just Selphie, Zell, Irvine, and a few stalwart allies. "I guess I'm against you, then." She turned sadly away. The trial was over, and the universe had judged her guilty as charged. And she could not help but insist that if only she could have pleaded her case better, she would have won, but ... well, it was too early to give up yet. But somehow she knew a death sentence had been handed out. Perhaps not to a person, but to a dream.

"That's about what I'd expect from a bunch of anthrosexuals," Rinoa said. "You know, one hundred percent of reported rapists are anthrosexuals; what do you have to say for your sorry hegemonical selves now? Statistics don't lie."

Chapter Text

Dearest Mengshi,

Thank you so much for your letter. While I have no doubts about what I am doing, I must confess that it does get rather lonely out here. (I do speak with Selphie every day, though.) I was very surprised to see Chu-Chu arriving at the lighthouse and even more delighted and surprised when she brought me a letter from you.

But more than that, I want to thank you for your honesty. I know it's not easy for you and that makes me appreciate all the more what you did. It reassures me to know that I am worth enough to you for you to overcome your worst fears. (I never truly believed otherwise, of course, but it's still comforting to have such wonderful evidence.)

So what is my reply? My answer, my dear, is that I think no less of you than I ever have :). Sorceress or not, I still love you, and I will always stand by you. And, Mengshi, you are not a monster. A monster would not bring such a smile to my face when I think of you. A monster would not take such curiosity and delight in the world around her. A monster would not be such a voracious and passionate reader. A monster would not work so hard to improve SeeD and the lives of the people she cares about. Yes, I cannot help but wish you had been honest with me in the first place, but that's the past and there is nothing we can do about it. And I feel that we have both gained something from this already, and that sometimes good is simply sent to us in mysterious ways :). As the saying goes, that which does not kill us makes us stronger. Oh, dear, I wasn't even thinking. I hope that wasn't too tactless. I think you're smart enough to know what I meant :). (And you're not completely deceased anyway! :) )

I'm having Chu-Chu bring you an Odine Bangle. Wearing it will suppress your sorceress powers, so you needn't worry about being controlled by Ultimecia or being a threat to us. See, help is available; when you let me know what your problems are, I can help you! Don't be afraid to ask for help; none of us are supposed to solve all our problems on our own.

But it's time for a confession of my own. I already knew you were a sorceress; Rinoa told me. (Selphie and Irvine and Zell and even Chu-Chu know too.) In fact, that's why you will be able to escape hell. Hyne's powers are too integral to the world to allow someone with them to fully die. I think you can understand why we had difficulty telling you to your face, though.

We both know all too well what it is like to feel compelled to force ourselves inside the bottle of perfection so that we can present the most attractive package to the outside world. But that the bottle is not shaped to fit any human being, and no matter how hard we struggle to constrict ourselves, we will never make it. And, indeed, the more we try to cram ourselves into that perfect bottle, the more we hurt ourselves, and the more exposed and angry we will feel when the bottle inevitably shatters.

The truth is the only way out. You have nothing to fear from it.

You may not give yourself enough credit to see it, dear, but I can tell you're recovering. The fact that you were able to write me about your problems warms my heart, and I have your letter to read to bolster my hopes whenever I feel them dimming. Keep me your updated progress when you can; I have the feeling you'll be out sooner rather than later and I'll be thrilled to hear about your progress. Do whatever it takes to get yourself out. And do not let what Ultimecia and the other women tell you deter you from the truths you hold in your heart. Consider it an opportunity to test and confirm the strength of your self-confidence. Prove them wrong and convince them that you are the good person that I know you are!

I'm sure you're wondering how I'm doing. Lonely and bored, perhaps, but otherwise doing well. I've picked up needlepoint again, which is a pleasant distraction. What am I making? I'm afraid I can't tell you that yet; hurry back so I can show you :).

I don't want to keep Chu-Chu waiting too long. Write me whenever you have something to say. And always remember yourself that no one is a failure who has friends. You are not perfect, and neither am I, but I love you anyway. And I know that you love me too.

I miss you. And no matter what you do or say, I will always believe in you.

Yours always,

Quistis

In the darkest hour, hope sprung eternal.

Mengshi clutched the letter to her chest as if trying to absorb every last drop of love and comfort from it. It was okay. It was all really okay. Quistis knew everything now and still accepted her, all of her. She could never have even dreamed of a gift of such limitless relief and freedom. It was all okay. She didn't have to be perfect. She was a sorceress and Quistis really loved her. And with this bangle she didn't even have to worry about hurting anyone. She no longer had to feel guilty for existing. When her sobs finally subsided, she wiped her eyes clear and placed the precious letter back into its envelope. "Thank you, Chu-Chu."

"Watch out, boys! Here comes the chu-test mail carrier! Bang, bang!" Chu-Chu had quite gotten into her role into as delivery rodent and was now marching proudly around the room, one hand clutching her purse like it was a messenger bag, as she role-played her job. It took her a few moments to realize Mengshi was talking to her. "Oh, hmm?"

"Thank you for taking my letter to Quistis," Mengshi said. "I... I guess I'm not as bad off as I thought."

Chu-Chu beamed. "You're welcome, Colonel! I brought chu the thing that Quistis asked me chu." She fished a small bracelet out of her purse and handed it to Mengshi. Mengshi quickly slipped it on her wrist. It did not have any overt effect on her, but she felt better anyway from the knowledge that she was protected.

"I brought my Hungry Hungry Shoopufs game too!" Chu-Chu announced proudly. This seemed to be of much greater concern and note to her than the letter or bangle. She opened the door and waved outside. Auron, looking rather embarrased at being shanghaied into service as a pack animal, entered with Chu-Chu's board game in his arms. He set the game down on the floor, and then just stood there, trying to look imposing despite the absurdity of his situation.

"Why don't chu stay and play with us, Mr. Auron?" Chu-Chu offered.

Auron glowered in silence at her for a substantial period of time. "All right," he grunted after a proper period of time had passed.

"Ookya! Yay!" Chu-Chu bounced up and down. "Do we get chu play strip Hungry Hungry Shoopufs?"

"No," Mengshi and Auron both said.

"Well, no harm in asking, right?"

* * *

"THAT'S how it done," Auron proclaimed as, after numerous losses to Chu-Chu, he finally eked out a victory.

"Congratchulations! Chu win, Mr. Auron!" Chu-Chu took the Burger King crown off her own head and placed it on Auron's head. It fit him slightly better than it did her - at least it didn't hang down to her nose - but he still looked utterly ridiculous in it. Auron glowered.

"I still haven't won yet," Mengshi sighed.

"Don't worry, Colonel; chu're still better than Yuffie." The invocation of her missing friend's name no longer upset her - between Mengshi's death and the adventure to hell, the crusade to free Yuffie seemed a much more distant concern.

Auron attempted to remove the Burger King crown, but Chu-Chu caught him and pushed his arm back. "No, no, chu won, so chu have to wear the victory hat. And if chu win again, chu get a kiss from Chu-Chu!"

He glowered. "This ends NOW." He rose and threw the Burger King crown down on the floor in disgust.

Chu-Chu frowned. "Wait, don't go, Mr. Auron! We were chu-ust getting started!"

Auron glowered without turning around. "I have no time to waste," he growled.

Chu-Chu pouted and put the Burger King crown back on her head.

"You seem like such a nice man," Mengshi said, causing him to stop just outside the door. "What are you doing in hell?"

Auron glowered. "I'd rather not say," he grunted, then closed the door behind him.

"Statutory rape," Chu-Chu whispered to Mengshi.

"Oh dear."

Chu-Chu started collecting the pieces of her game and packing them back into the box. "Are chu feeling better, Colonel?" she asked.

"Yes, definitely." The words came out easily now, and she had to admit surprise at how comfortable she felt talking to Chu-Chu. She had not meant for anyone, least of all a perverted pink rat, to see her like this; she had wanted them to know as little of her as possible. But they had found their way into her soul anyway. She could not to regale them with some grand unveiling of her true self as she had hoped; what they found in her was more akin to a run-down old building, a pile of construction supplies, and an "Under Construction" sign. But somehow that was amenable enough. "I'm ready to go home now."

Something wasn't quite right here, and Chu-Chu frowned. "Instructor Trepe said chu just need to find hope chu get out, right?" Mengshi nodded. "But it seems like chu already do..."

"Well, I..." Did she have hope? Things were looking up, that was for sure, and she no longer felt herself in all-consuming pain. But did she really believe she could change her situation? Miang and Ultimecia's words still haunted her. She did not necessarily believe them all, but they still presented a terrifying possibility. How could she universal hope in the face of Ultimecia's limitless suffering? And Miang had lived for ten thousand years. It was hard to convince herself that she could really know more than Miang. "I'm still worried. I don't know if my hope would be really grounded in anything. I ... I still can't prove I'm not just a leech, that I'm not doing enough for everyone else."

"Well, maybe chu should do what Instructor Trepe said, then? Find something positive to create?"

"Yeah, but ..." Why did this not sound as appealing as it should? She studied her thoughts and feelings, trying to decide what exactly the source of her reservations was. Was she scared of hurting Quistis? No, she trusted her assurances. So why couldn't she - oh, that was it. "I'm scared I might be proven wrong. What if I go talk to Miang and they shoot down all my ideas? What if they prove to me this is all for nothing after all?" She sighed. "I feel like I should just do nothing so I can at least keep my vain hopes alive. Better to keep my mouth shut and only suspect that I'm worthless than open it and have it confirmed."

Chu-Chu frowned. "Well, the Mambo Veda has a saying about that. ’When chu give into fear, the darkness comes.' Shevites 8:15. It means that a lot of the things chu are afraid of are only there because you are afraid of them! That sounds like chu-ur problem, Colonel. When chu start doubting yourself, you start seeing problems that aren't really there! Chu lose the ability to do good things." She stopped, unsure of what to make of Mengshi's silence. Was she mouthing off too much to the Colonel? Or was she just not doing a good job of getting across to a human something a Chu-chu would take for granted? She tried to articulate herself a little more. "Chu-Chu's been trying for years now to get some human loving and she hasn't scored yet, but if I just gave up now, I wouldn't get laid for sure! I have to keep trying and not worry about what they say about me. Because I know the Wondrous Mambo God is watchuing over me and as long as Chu-Chu does her best, everything will be for the best!" She frowned, knowing that her wisdom could not apply to Xu the way it did to her. "I know chu don't believe in the Wondrous Mambo God, but ... chu can find faith in something, right? Like Instructor Trepe?"

Mengshi reflected on these words. Odd as it was to think that Chu-Chu had something to say other than numerous thinly-veiled sexual euphemisms, Mengshi could not help but feel that her grass-roots wisdom had some relevancy here. She tried to put herself in Chu-Chu's shoes -- or paws, as it were -- and actually go through her thought process. Chu-Chu's belief in the Wondrous Mambo God was something they all took for granted. But she saw now that Chu-Chu's unwavering faith that the Wondrous Mambo God would make everything turn out okay was no mere trifle. When there was no else at Garden to echo her faith - and, indeed, when some of them openly mocked it - it must be hard to never doubt in her heart that everything would turn out all right. Did she believe in Quisty like that? Believe in anything like that?

"Chu know, don't sweat the small stuff," Chu-Chu piped up again. "And it's all small stuff, except for Franzy-poo's throbbing 12-inch dolphin cock. Woobaby."

"Um, yes..." They were just getting somewhere when things had derailed into perversion again. The insatiable edginess of fear started to crawl back over her, taking the ground ceded to it by her receding certainties. What if she didn't confront Miang and prove her wrong? She would never muster up the unshakeable hope needed to escape hell. But if she did expose everything, then she ran the risk of having it all shot down. And then she would not even have a chance at salvation. On the other hand, what good besides fleeting comfort was an opportunity she didn't use?

Chu-Chu was droning on about her sexual escapades when Mengshi interrupted her. "Chu-Chu, how do you know so strongly that everything will be okay? I mean ... I'm trying to not doubt you, I just don't know how to find that strength."

"Well, the Wondrous Mambo God watches over all the Chu-chu Tribe from the stars. He won't let anything really bad happen to us! So, it's like I said -- if we do our best, whatever happens will be for the best."

And that was faith. "I want to believe that." Her tone indicated that this was no easy task for her. She had no Wondrous Mambo God to believe in...

Chu-Chu nodded sagely. "Well, it's hard sometimes for me too, Colonel. I know the Wondrous Mambo God is real, but sometimes when someone like Rinoa keeps blaspheming Him, it gets hard chu stand up and defend Him just as firmly eachu time. And Chu-Chu doesn't know if she should keep her mouth shut or not. That's why I pray every night, 'Wondrous Mambo God, please grant me the serenity chu accept the things I cannot change, the courage chu change the things I can, and the wisdom chu know the diffchurence.'" She frowned again, realizing for a second time that since Xu was not a follower of Mambo, her advice was not so appropriate. "Ummmm... and even if chu don't believe in Mambo, chu can try to have those things?"

"That sounds like a good philosophy," Mengshi said.

Chu-Chu nodded. "Do you want chu look at my copy of the Mambo Veda?"

"No thanks. I appreciate your advice -"

"It's got some really hot parts!"

"Uh, I'll definitely pass on it, then."

"Okay." Chu-Chu paced the room, wondering what more she could say to Xu. Xu was a human; she didn't believe in the Wondrous Mambo God, so how could Chu-Chu convince her that everything would be okay?

Mengshi looked at the letter again, and then at the yang symbol dangling from her neck. Hyne, what was her problem. She was still worried about what her hopes were based on? She had all the evidence she needed right here. Quistis loved her, had told her that over and over. The two of them had formed something greater than either of them, something that Mengshi was foolish to deny. It was like Chu-Chu had said -- as long as she did her best, whatever happened would be for the best. Or at least she could try to believe that long enough to -- no pun intended -- get the hell out of here. "I think I'm going to see if I convince Miang and the others to do something with me. I'll be all right. Thank you ever so much."

Chu-Chu winked at her. "If you're looking for a way to pay me back, Chu-Chu has a few ideas."

"Look, no offense, but I really prefer to keep to the company of my own species, thanks."

"Someday..." Chu-Chu sighed and flopped onto her back to pray.

Mengshi gathered up her meager stash of possessions -- rapier, letter, diary, and cards -- and let her cell. As she marched towards the big tree, she realized she was leaving no trail back to her own place of confinement. But that did not seem to be too great of a concern. Miang seemed to know everything about this place; she would surely be able to guide Mengshi back.

She had a plan now. The idea had been in the back of her mind since Quistis visited but only now could she sincerely consider putting it into action. She would enlist Miang and the others and start her own Card Club. The more she thought about it, the more fitting it seemed. It would help her feel like she was contributing something. She wouldn't just be helping herself; she would be making things more tolerable for the other souls. And the light the Card Club would bring to the other women would convince them that the world was more than just endless suffering, killing two fastitoctalons with one stone. It was just as Quistis had said - she had to create something positive and meaningful where there had previously been nothing.

Mengshi had planning to ring the bell to summon her associates. But when she arrived inside the big tree, she found the trio already waiting for her.

"You're not going anywhere, Mengshi," Miang said flatly while Mengshi was still recoiling in shock. She wanted to demand of Miang how she knew, but to do so would reveal how clueless and helpless she was. Miang had not explained how she knew what Mengshi was thinking; it was like she was already supposed to know how, and she felt so weak for not knowing. And she could hardly admit that weakness by asking.

"I'm disappointed in you, Mengshi," Miang continued. "I thought you could be trusted to keep the knowledge of your suffering to yourself. But you failed to contain the darkness. And now you have forced the woman you claim to love to bear your burdens."

This time, however, Mengshi was only beaming, blissfully impervious to Miang's charges. Things had changed since their last meeting. "She loves me anyway. Look, she wrote me a letter." She offered the folded letter to Miang in hopes that it would compel her to see things from more than one perspective.

But Miang only waved her hand away. "I already know what you think. And while such foolish desires infect all of us, we must struggle to overcome our failings. Quistis may claim to love you, Mengshi, but it cannot last - not when you are a monster. You will hurt her, she will have to suffer for you, and she will come to resent you for it as we resent the world for making us suffer. And you would not want that to happen to someone you love, would you? You must be strong, Mengshi. Please. You are not perfect, but you must strive to contain your problems - not share them - to minimze the damage you cause."

"You're wrong." Mengshi's pride and delight in having Quistis' love invested in her had given way to aggravation. Why was Miang so insistent on meddling in her life? How dare she make such accusations about her beloved Quisty, cast aspersions on her capabilities, her motives, her love? "It's sharing the problems that fixes them. The problem isn't that I'm not self-contained enough, it's that I'm too self-contained. But I'm fixing that." Feeling that this discussion was concluded and no longer necessary, she bounced the packs of cards in her hands. "Come on, how about I teach you all how to play Triple Triad? It's a card game. You'll like it; we'll all have fun. We can start a club. It'll be better than just sitting in cells forever, right?"

"You kling to hope," Ultimecia surmised with an obvious tone of disdain and concern. "You seek to break out of hell."

Mengshi nodded. "Yes. I want to go home. How about we try to escape together?"

The long silence indicated that the offer was not only rejected but held as evidence against her.

"Hope is an ugly, ugly thing, Mengshi," Miang began. "It compels us to fight for a better tomorrow, and fighting only bring suffering. Strive to kill your hopes, my dear. When you have eliminated all your desires, all your dreams, all your hope, you will be able to live in perfect acceptance of the way the world is. And thus you will not hurt anything by pushing to increase your position. The universe is like quicksand, Mengshi. The more you fight your place in the universe, the worse it gets."

"Remember, hope is nothing but greed," Yunalesca echoed. "A selfish desire for a better future when you have no right to expect one. You must learn to accept your position and suffer in silence."

"Even continuing life would be self-centered," Miang said. "You could kill yourself again and let your possessions go to the poor and your organs to the sick. Can you really look in the face of someone waiting for a heart transplant and tell her that, sorry, you're going to keep your heart and she's just going to have to die? You must give yourself as much of you can, Mengshi, so that you can bring miracles to others. Or do you not love them?"

Mengshi tried to restrain her growing anger. They just had a different opinion, that was all. She shouldn't let them get under her skin. But she had given them a fair chance, hadn't she? She had tried to do something fun with them, had offered to take them out of hell with her, and still they insisted she was hurting the world and hurting Quistis. Their whole dogma was completely full of it. "No, you don't love people!" she accused. "You may claim to love them, you may care about them, but you don't believe in them. You think they all need your help, that they need to be saved. You elitist bitch!"

"Resorting to name-calling now, are we, Mengshi?" Miang remained as implacable as ever. "Oh, I know. Wouldn't it be great if I were crazy? Then the world would be okay. But I'm not crazy, Mengshi. I have walked the world for ten thousand years, or about nine thousand and nine hundred more than anyone else. I have seen civilizations rise and fall, generations upon generations of humans live without meaning to their lives. And I know that what I speak is the awful truth. People do need someone to suffer for them. There is no shame in being an elitist when the average human is a drooling, ignorant fool who would destroy himself if given half a chance. They do not deserve to be believed in. Putting your faith in them simply because you wish humanity to be worthy of trust is irrational. Your ego is your weakness, Mengshi; remember that."

"The stick up your ass is yours." She shouldn't be arguing with them - she needed them to help her get out of hell - but, dammit, their relentless attacks on the goodness of the universe could not go unanswered. She wanted to prove them wrong. A small part of her was still swayed by Miang's eloquence, and the only way to squelch it completely was to counter everything Miang threw at her. "Have you even considered that you might be wrong? Your opnion is just as subjective as mine!"

"Is it? If you claimed that the world was flat and everyone lived five hundred years, would those happen in your reality? Believe not the comforting but empty platitudes of those who claim that all our opinions are valid. There are absolute truths in this existence, Mengshi, and one of them is no gain can come without a loss."

"That's wrong!" Mengshi shouted with such sudden fury that she surprised even herself. This was a challenge to her now. She would escape. She would laugh in their faces as she climbed back to the mortal plane. "Life isn't a zero-sum game! If I'm alive, I can do things to help other people, and we can all gain! We can make a bigger pie for everybody instead of just bickering of who gets which piece. 'There is no vice that does not bear some mark of virtue on its outward parts.' Just because you claim to be doing good doesn't mean you are. Mankind ill needs a savior such as you! You've never lived like a normal person; even you admit that! What place do you have to be making decisions for people who are not like you? You have no experience, let alone any actual authority!" She was really riled up now, gesturing with broad sweeps of arms to emphasize each verbal blow.

This was the first attack that Miang did not have an easy answer to. She had had plenty of people tell her she was wrong before, but none had thought to tell her that she could not be sure she was right. Mengshi did mental flips and victory dances at the first sign of frustration and panic on Miang's face. She wasn't invulnerable! She was subject to an incomplete understanding of the world just like her, just like anyone else! She didn't know everything.

But Yunalesca jumped in. "Sorrow cannot be abolished," she murmured. "It is meaningless to try."

"No, it's not," Mengshi insisted. "It's not meaningless!"

"Mengshi." Miang still managed to muster up relative patience, though it was obviously being strained by this point. "There is something worse than a life of endless pain, and that a life of endless nothing. You seek to deprive yourself of your only chance to do the world good and bring a purpose to your life. Pray tell me, what other meaning do you plan to find in your life beyond suffering so that others do not?"

"Love," Mengshi declared with the sort of fervent honesty born only when life itself hinged on every word. She was on a roll now, and impassioned responses were leaping to lips without her even having to think about them. She considered this answer for a moment, though, and added, "And peace. So that someday no one will have to suffer, and we can all be happy. Because life was made to be enjoyed by everybody. Can't you see that? It's not the net result of one's life that's important. It's the day-to-day concerns, the personal victories, and the celebration of life ... and love! It's enough if people are able to experience the joy that each day can bring!"

"And you would risk your Garden, risk the life and happiness of the woman you hold dearest, risk everything you know and care about for that?"

"Yes." She jumped on the table. "It's not just for me. It's for Quistis, and my parents, and the Kramers, and Selphie, and Chu-Chu, and everyone else. They want me back. The world wants me back. I don't have to prove my virtue to anyone." She clutched her pendant again, this time pulling it forward to present it to her detractors and defy them with what it meant. "I promised Quisty I'd come back to her, and I'm going to. Now please tell me how to get out of here. I know you don't agree with me, but I've made up my mind. I'm going home."

Miang's eyes narrowed. This had gone beyond the realm of philosophical debate and into an immediate threat. "You aren't going anywhere," she said sternly. "I won't allow these foolish, selfish desires to get the better of you; not when I know you can be more than this. Calm yourself, Mengshi. Think of the morals you hold in your heart. You can strive to conquer your human failings. You can restrain your Self better than this."

Mengshi shook her head fervently. "No. You can't convince me that they're better off without me. I'm leaving. I'll find a way. I'll make a way," she declared. "Somehow."

While Mengshi was speaking, Miang had climbed up on to the table. Mengshi now hesitated, watching Miang with some fear, wondering what she'd do. Miang lunged forward and, seized the collar of Mengshi's dress and twisted it in her fist. "No," she repeated, "you will not."

Mengshi socked her in the face as hard as she could. Yunalesca and Ultimecia immediately sprung from their seats to restrain her. Mengshi drew her rapier, terribly relieved that she had it with her. The odds were against her, yes, but could not submit to this any more. She would escape! Besides, she was dead - what could they do to her?

Auron and Chu-Chu rushed into the room, the former with his sword slung over his back, the latter curled up into a bouncing ball. Chu-Chu launched herself straight from the door into Ultimecia's chest. Ultimecia kept her balance, but Chu-Chu set on her with tooth and nail.

"Now! This is it!" Auron bellowed. "Now is the time to choose! Surrender and be free of pain or live and fight your sorrow! Now is the time to shape your stories! Your fate is in your hands!"

Miang held out her hand. A scythe materialized in it; she leaped at Miang and slashed. Mengshi's rapier flashed to parry the strikes. But Miang's weapon was heavier, and Mengshi found her hand being deflected at odd, painful angles. She leapt back off the table; Miang pursued her onto the ground.

Mengshi was too occupied to see what her allies were doing, but Auron had joined the battle. One slash of his great sword hacked off Yunalesca's head. Chu-Chu was still clawing viciously at Ultimecia's chest. The sorceress hit her with a Pain spell and she fell over on her back, squeaking painfully. Auron sliced Ultimecia in two and bent to lift Chu-Chu up by her paw. "Get out," he commanded. "Wait outside and do not endanger yourself further. You are still living." Chu-Chu nodded and obeyed.

Mengshi found herself backed up against the wall by Miang's assault. A successful slash of Miang's scythe took off Mengshi's left hand. Mengshi expected to be crippled in pain - she'd just lost her hand! - but she felt nothing at all. Of course. She was dead; her bodies would regenerate shortly.

Auron's sword came slashing through Miang's chest, cutting her in two. He stepped over her temporarily disabled body and stood facing Mengshi. His good eye fixed sternly on her. "You know what you are," he growled. "And you will never escape until you embrace it."

A sorceress. There was no doubt what he was referring to, as much as it still revolted her to think of herself that way. But if everyone at Garden knew, if she was here with people who already knew, then she was not really accomplishing anything by concealing her identity. She was only running away from it, refusing to acknowledge the truth. But she had nothing to fear from the truth ... nothing to fear from the truth ... and she had the bangle, she could always slap it back on if she started losing control.

She yanked off the Odine Bangle.

Mengshi felt herself being lifted off the ground as a pair of majestic angel wings, as pearly white as her rapier, unfurled from her back. They beat instinctively. She shivered as air rushed against nerves she had not previously owned. It felt strange, almost ticklishly uncomfortable, at first, but in a few seconds it felt almost like a normal part of her body. She was hovering in the air, though, and that was immensely odd.

Meanwhile, Yunalesca's severed head faded out of existence and reappeared on her body. She quickly got to her feet; Auron ran to slay her again. This time, Yunalesca hit him with a invisible magic blast before he reached her and sent him sprawling onto the ground.

Mengshi had been watching them, and her attention suddenly manifested itself in a cage of flames that sprung up around Yunalesca. She blinked, scarcely believing that she could have done such a thing without even trying. This was far more than para-magic. Mengshi tried focusing her thoughts on her rapier. Flames burst from all along its blade.

Miang reformed and rose to strike Mengshi. Mengshi hurled her rapier at her; whirling in a circle of fire, it slashed through the hilt of Miang's scythe and then returned to Mengshi's hand.

Miang hurled the broken remnant of her weapon at Mengshi's head. Before she even realized what she was doing, Mengshi's wing had flapped over her body to shield her. Auron raced up behind Miang and ran her through his sword. "GO!" he thundered.

Mengshi dropped to solid ground and ran for the exit as Auron attacked Ultimecia again. Chu-Chu was waiting for Mengshi outside the tree; together they ran on, realizing that Auron needed to stay behind.

Never looking back, Mengshi pounded through the forest, her feet on autopilot. She could not even think of how she had not expected that, it was too horribly real for her to think of anything but the fight. But as the adrenaline rush from the battle faded and the immediate threat disappeared, she began to tire. Where in hell was she going, anyway? She had to find the Phantom Train, but ... this forest was huge, and she could barely see where she was going. Her flight slowed to crawl. "Dammit," she cursed under her breath as she leaned against a tree to rest. "We're lost. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all."

Chu-Chu frowned and reached into her purse.

"I shouldn't have done this," Mengshi despaired. "I should have stayed in my little tree ... at least I had a safe place to stay there. Now I don't know where to go and I'm not going to escape and I'm even worse off..." She stopped when she realized that Chu-Chu was holding something up for her to examine. It was the compass, still with its needle jammed skyward.

"Nowhere to go but up," Chu-Chu said.

The ground was starting to shake, but Mengshi paid little attention to that. "Up?" she repeated. "Oh! " She quickly gathered Chu-Chu - compass and all - into her arms and started running forward. She took a slight hop into the air and lifted off, her wings beating. Flying seemed to come naturally to her once she resolved to really give it a try.

Mengshi broke through the canopy of the forest and continued to fly higher. The forest billowed out below her, and in the distance she caught sight of its edges. She closed in on it, flying gradually uphill. It seemed they were on the side of a valley. And she found her environments getting gradually lighter as she rose, so she must be moving out of the depths of hell. Good. She was on the right track.

At last the forest beneath her gave way to rocky valleysides. Mengshi touched down there and set Chu-Chu down so she could rest. "We made it out of the forest!" she cheered. "I still don't know where we are, though... or how we're going to get out."

The ground shook again, and again, as if buffeted by massive footsteps. Then, something smashed its way out of the forest, and Mengshi realized it was massive footsteps. A giant doll, almost as tall as the trees, was marching towards them. Its body and limbs were comprised of segmented metal plates which had been painted an eerie pink-purple -- not quite a flesh tone, but just similar enough to provoke a comparison that revealed how unearthly this creation was. Its face was featureless; it was nothing more than automation serving the one who rode atop it. Miang's face was fixed in stern, implacable loathing directed at Mengshi and Chu-Chu. Clearly she had come for them -- as if there had been any doubt of that in the first place. "There is no escape!" she thundered from her perch.

Mengshi stared at the Calcobrina as it lumbered towards her, her mind raging in feeble protest against her futility. I'll find one. I'll make one, she repeated. But her body remained paralyzed with fear and shock. There was no way she could fight this. She had been wrong when she thought she had nothing to lose. Miang could find a thousand ways to compound Mengshi's torment with this contraption. There was no escape.

Chu-Chu, however, knew without thinking what she had to do. She bowed her head and clasped her hands in a brief prayer, then stepped forward, returning Miang's gaze with equally implacable determination. Chu-Chu's body grew until she was equal in stature to the Calcobrina.

Mengshi could still only stand watching as Chu-Chu stomped directly into the Calcobrina's path. The two met in a clash of the pink titans. Chu-Chu struck first; her fist smashed into the chest of Miang's infernal contraption. It barely dented the Calcobrina's metal chest, though, and the doll retaliated with a breath of fire from its mouth. Chu-Chu leapt ferociously at the machine and tackled it, pulling them both to the ground.

"Fly, chu fool!" Chu-Chu shouted.

She had so few alternatives that she did not even consider them. It was automatic. She launched herself into the air again and flew upwards, past valleys and rivers, past walls of stone and cities, past all of hell's tortures with only the faint glow from above as her guide. She flew up and up, up out of the valley, up a long vertical shaft, up until the light enveloped her.

Chapter Text

Xu was sitting up and pushing open her coffin lid before she even realized what she was doing. Life hit her all at once. She was tired and hungry again, and what a wonderful feeling it was. A dizzying upswelling of faith in existence broke like a wave in her. She pinched the skin of her arm and laughed with delight as she felt pain again. Hell and sorrow and Miang all seemed distant memories.

She dived out of the coffin into the ocean. Cold attacked her from direction; in her rapture, though, it was only another welcome confirmation of her return to the mortal world. She plowed through the water towards the lighthouse that was not too far away now. Her body's weariness had been swept out of her mind - she was alive, and she coming back to Quistis.

* * *

Quistis' eyes focused with unbridled hope on the shape moving through the water. Dare she expect it to be her? Her body quivered with nervous anticipation as she waited until she could tell if ... yes, yes it was! Oh Hyne! Mengshi, Mengshi, Mengshi was coming back!

She tore out of the room and down the spiral staircase. Everything blurred by her, failing to register on her mind and barely on her body. There were no stairs, no world, only the desire to reach her Mengshi as soon as possible.

* * *

Xu surged towards the beach. Seeing Quistis rush out of the lighthouse made her want to be there even more. She was swimming as fast as he could, doing everything she could, and still she had to be there now.

And then she was pulling herself up out of the water and onto her feet. She instinctively shook the water off her wings. Her wings. She hesitated. This was Quistis' last chance to reject her as a sorceress. She gestured towards her wings, mouth opening in a silent beg for Quistis to address the issue, break the ice... please...

"I think they're pretty," Quistis said with a gentle smile.

"...you're sure?" Mengshi croaked.

"Of course. Besides, every sorceress needs a knight, doesn't she?"

And then Mengshi was in her arms, sobbing into Quistis' chest with relief and delight and catharsis. Quistis pulled her closer and gently pressed her cheek to Mengshi's. "Welcome back, Mengshi," she murmured. "I missed you so much."

Mengshi stopped crying long enough to look up into her lover's eyes. "I love you."

"I love you too."

They kissed for a very long time. With their eyes closed and their lips pressed together, it seemed as if there was nothing in the universe but their union, and their mingling tongues sought from each other a solace, a connection, a joining they had been hungering for. Oh, Hyne, what both of them had been through. The mere fact that they were together seemed the greatest triumph they could achieve, the greatest gift they had ever been given.

As their lips finally parted, it seemed that all the troubles had been truly vanquished and there was nothing to left to worry about. But it was not that all that had happened was not banished from their mind. Indeed, knowing that they had gone through it all and could still love each other made them feel even more secure that nothing would ever come between them.

"A couple weeks feel like forever," Mengshi murmured.

"I know; I can't wait to get home," Quistis said. "I'll call Selphie right away."

Mengshi grinned. For once she was able to offer the surprise to Quistis. She beat her wings as she asked, "What do we need Selphie for?"

Quistis laughed. This was a surprise, but a very exciting one. Flying with Mengshi? She couldn't even imagine would this would be like, and yet she could do it right now. "Hold on; I need to get my stuff." Quistis raced to the lighthouse. Mengshi started to follow her, of course, until Quistis looked over her shoulder and added, "Stay there; I've been working on a surprise for you." Mengshi looked a little confused, but obeyed.

Quistis scrambled to pack up all her things. Oh, Hyne, she couldn't believe this, and she hated having to jump through all these hoops of circumstance before she could truly enjoy their victory. But after two weeks of torture, a few more hours were not much of a barrier to bliss.

Unable to tear herself away from Quistis, Mengshi poked her head into the lighthouse to see what was going on. Fortunately, the surprise gift was already tucked safely away in Quistis' suitcase. "I'm almost done," Quistis said, as she folded up her sheets. She wedged them in her suitcase and slammed the whole affair shut. "Okay, I think I've got everything."

Mengshi grinned and opened her arms. "Ready to fly the Sorceress Express?"

They stepped outside. Mengshi took a running start and took off into the air again. Quistis watched her fly with great intent. She had not just been saying it when she said she thought Mengshi's wings were pretty; the woman looked beautiful with her great angel wings framing her. And it was a delight to see Mengshi demonstrating and excelling in and something that Quistis could not. It was no fun being better at everything.

The flying Mengshi hovered behind Quistis and wrapped her arms around Quisty's waist. Slightly nervous, Quistis gripped her suitcase tightly and took a deep breath - and then, with a sudden yank, her feet left off the ground. She, too, was, flying. And it felt great.

Quistis watched the beach spiral away beneath her feet and felt the wind rush against her slightly clammy skin. What a rush! Thank goodness she wasn't prone to vertigo. Of course, it wouldn't be half the thrill it was if she wasn't doing it in Mengshi's arms, carried by her lover and buoyed aloft by that which they had feared so long. Flying was already second nature to Mengshi; her wings beat in powerful swoops and she was grinning with confidence. She seemed like something more, Quistis noted, when she had these wings. Quistis was flying with an angel now. Her wonderful Mengshi had come out of hell for her and become this. And now the two of them could join together again and disappear into the starlit sky.

* * *

They stopped at FH City to rest after flying through the night. On the way to the hotel, Mengshi recounted with great enthusiasm her escape from hell and her plans to return for Chu-Chu as soon they were back at Garden. But as she neared the end of the story, a troubled look crossed her face. The life went out of her speech and by the time she got to pushing open her coffin, it seemed like she no longer cared.

Quistis frowned. Mengshi was starting to look like she had when Quistis had visited her in hell: morose and defeated, coasting through life on inertia. She continued on to their room, hoping Mengshi would address the problem, but she did not. "What's wrong, dear?" she asked.

"I..." Mengshi sounded on the verge of tears. That sick feeling of despair had returned. Was her supposedly joyous return going to inevitably turn out to be a cruel false hope? "Miang was right, Quistis!" she wailed.

Quistis draped her arms around Mengshi's waist from behind and drew her in, hoping to calm her. "Mengshi ... can't you see how happy am I to have you back?" she whispered. "That's evidence right there you're not worthless to the world."

"No, no, about herself," Mengshi said. She felt her eyes moistening with bitter tears. Dammit. Just when she thought things might be better. "I mean, it was only at her expense that I got out of hell. I only found the faith I needed to escape in reaction to Miang's insistence that existence was hopeless. It is her job to be hated. To be villified and made to suffer so that other people can achieve their happiness." Mengshi sighed. "I don't want the world to be like this, Quisty. I don't want people to be left behind. I don't want Chu-Chu or Miang or anyone to have to suffer so I can be free."

This was not what Quistis had been expecting, and had to concede Mengshi had a serious concern. But Quistis was not so quick to give up hope. She smiled sympathetically and ran her fingers through Mengshi's hair in a gesture of gentle affection. "Mengshi... have you lost your faith that quickly?" she whispered. "We'll go back and get them both."

"Do you think that we have any chance of helping Miang, though?"

"We can only try," Quistis said. "From what you've told me about her, it sounds like a little attention and support would do her a lot of good."

"Yeah," Mengshi agreed, as the problem seemed to fade into nothing. "Thank you, Quistis ... for everything." She turned in Quistis' arms and leaned into her. Quistis' arms tightened around her, and Mengshi felt as if she could almost just fold into Quistis and they could become one. "I love you," she said. "Always."

Quistis held her close. "I love you too, my angel." They remained like that, in another moment of perfect union, until the desire to reassure each other that, yes, they were really together, again faded away.

Quistis pushed Mengshi away with a teasing laugh. "Now go take a shower. You smell like a corpse."

She might have been embarassed by this once upon a time, but she now knew she had nothing to approve. "Yes, dear," she said with a matching smirk.

Mengshi stripped off the clothes she had worn since her death, noting in the process that the possessions - Quistis' letter, her cards, and the diary - she had stuffed there in hell had remained with her. She had almost forgotten about them, but that was nice to see. "Ugh, that dress had gotten practically melded to me." She ventured into the bathroom but poked her head back out. "No following me," she commanded with an amused smirk. "I actually need to get clean."

"Whatever you say, dear," Quistis replied with an equal smirk.

While Mengshi showered, Quistis changed into her pajamas. She then picked up her phone and called Selphie.

"Hey, Quisty, what's up?"

"Guess what?" A huge grin spread over Quistis' face. What a wonderful feeling it was not just to have positive things happen to her, but to be able to share her such good news with the world. And no matter how frequently some people thought of her as a wet blanket, she wanted to be able to enjoy herself as much as anyone.

"Xu's back?" Selphie dared to ask eagerly.

"Yes! And here with me!"

"Whoo hoo! Do you want me to come down and pick you guys up?" "We're already on our way back to Garden. We're at a hotel in FH City right now. We'll probably be in tonight."

"Oh, awesome! Booyaka!" She giggled with sheer delight. "Zell and I are on our way to the Balamb County Fair."

Quistis was also thrilled with the situation - she was on her way home - but she could not celebrate quite as completely. "I should warn you, though. Chu-Chu's still in hell. I'm sorry."

"What? Oh dear."

"Don't get me wrong, she's not dead. She was just left behind in the escape." "But we can get her out?"

"Yeah, Mengshi's going back as soon as she can."

"All right." It wasn't a very threatening situation, it seemed, so Selphie wasn't going to fret about it. "I can't wait to see you guys again!"

"I can't wait to be home either. We'll be back tomorrow morning; I'll see you then."

"Okay. Bye-bye! Wait, Zell wants to say hi."

"Hey!"

"Hi, Zell. Have a great time, okay?"

"Thanks! G'bye."

Quistis hung up and, with a knowing smile, turned off the ringer. She set the phone aside and sat down on the bed just as Mengshi came out of her shower. Her hair was still slightly soggy and she had her towel wrapped around her body. Quistis looked at her with a knowing smirk - she knew what they were both thinking about, oh yes - and they both giggled.

But one thought still nagged at Mengshi's mind. She came and sat on the side of the bed beside Quistis to look curiously at her, her face reflecting obvious concern. "You've suffered a lot for me, haven't you?"

Quistis nodded, but - to the surprise of Mengshi, who was still expecting dreary, angsty commiseration - kissed her playfully on the cheek. "It was worth it." She grinned.

Mengshi had been preparing to apologize more, but now found herself not needing to. It was all okay. Really all okay. It seemed so hard to believe, but sometimes the best things were hard to believe. "Mengshi," Quistis continued, "you probably don't realize it, but ... while all that's happened has certainly been trying, it's also in a way made feel more certain about us."

"Mmm? How so?"

"Well, don't you think it makes me feel important that you would claw your way out of the depths of hell - and I know that wasn't easy - to be with me?" She chuckled. "You know, I may not be as insecure as a lot of people, but I do still like to know that I'm appreciated."

"Well, everyone does."

"Exactly."

They hugged again, and Quistis nudged Mengshi backwards. Mengshi happily flopped onto her back and Quistis knelt over her all on fours. She stared down into Mengshi's eyes, appreciating what she saw, and gently brushed one hand over Mengshi's cheek. "I like that look," she murmured.

"Hmm?"

"Your eyes," Quistis explained. "The fear's gone. You don't look so afraid to be yourself. You look what you know you're doing here."

"Well, I do."

"I know. It's wonderful to see."

Mengshi's whimsy took her on a whirlwind trip through the past few weeks. "Yeah, I really have changed so much," she concluded. "I'm just ... so much of a different person, aren't I?"

Quistis pursed her lips, teasing but also deeply enamored. "Mmm, I don't think so," she said. "You've changed, but you're the same person. You've grown into yourself; that's all."

"Yeah," Mengshi repeated. Yeah, that sounded nice. She liked that. "Sorry it took me so long."

Quistis lowered herself to Mengshi's chest and kissed her deeply. "You're forgiven," she said, as Mengshi's hands were already moving to relieve her of her pajamas.

* * *

"WHOO HOOOOOOOOO!"

Two passengers raised their fists in the air, basking in exhilaration, as the roller coaster plummeted back to its starting point. They staggered off the ride, and Zell almost tripped over his own feet.

Selphie giggled. Ah, this was turning out to be doing a world of good for her, and she chastised herself for not listening any sooner to what she knew was good for her. It was exactly what she needed: a chance to forget about politics and Rinoa and just have a fun-filled evening at the amusement park with someone she cared about. Thank goodness she had someone to go with these days. Emma and Sun Hye had always loved amusement parks, but Irvine had panic attacks, Chu-Chu was too short to get on most of the rides (except Franz), Yuffie got sick just looking at the merry-go-round. She smiled in amusement thinking of Yuffie's foibles even as she felt a twinge of longing. Missing her hurt a lot, but she was no longer beating herself up the same way over it.

Yes, life was really looking up now. She was slowly learning how to deal with her limits, and she was happy that she and Zell were growing closer. And now Quistis and Xu were coming back! Gosh, had it really been two weeks since Xu had killed herself in the first place? And today was the 4th; in only three days, it would be a month since Yuffie got arrested. It was baffling to think this entire melodrama had all been crammed into a month - and yet at the same time, it seemed impossible to imagine herself back in the time before this had all started.

Zell noted the distant, pensive look in her eyes and hugged her closer to her side. "C'mon, Selphie, we're here to have fun."

"Yeah, I know." She surveyed the fair until he eyes landed on the arcade. "Ooh, ooh, can we play the UFO catcher? I wanna see if I can win some new beanies."

Zell grinned. "Sounds like a plan; let's go."

Still hand-in-hand, they traveled to the arcade. They both did a double take upon witnessing Seifer at the controls of the UFO catcher. Selphie almost blurted something out, but managed to cover her mouth in time. Seifer had not realized he was being watch, so they could stand and silently observe him. He was staring down the machine with great intensity, though it was more anger and concentration: he was jamming the controls about without the least bit of subtlety. Selphie and Zell exchanged glances of mutual amusement

The crane closed on empty space, missing all of the beanie babies inside the machine. "DAMMIT!" Seifer cursed as he delivered a sharp kick to the machine. "Give me the damn doll already!" As he was in the process of putting another coin in, he happened to glance about and see Selphie and Zell watching him. Shit! This was humiliating. Chickenwuss and his munchkin girlfriend had caught him playing games at an amusement park. Neither of them had spoken yet, or indeed greeted or communicated him in any way, but their interest in him was an affront unto itself. "Look, I'm just trying to win this Cactuar plushie, okay?" he snapped. "That foreign exchange girls with the pigtails likes them, so I was going to surprise her with one. Her old boyfriend died or something, so she's got to be vulnerable. Now don't friggin' say anything, 'cause I need to concentrate on my ROMANTIC dream."

They had no choice but to wait and watch him play, since he was hogging the machine. Luckily, his next round proved more fruitful, and the Cactuar plushie he desired came rolling out of the machine. "Finally!" he growled. He gathered up the beanies he had one, stuffed them in his trenchcoat, and marched towards the entrance. "What are you doing here, anyway?" he grunted as he passed them by. "Bet you're too scared to go any of the rides, huh, chickenwuss?"

Uh-oh, here we go, Selphie thought. She braced herself for the immediate explosion and was left feeling suddenly disoriented when there wasn't one. Seifer went on strolling out of the arcade and Zell was just standing with his hand in hers as if nothing had happened. Indeed, the only one who seemed to have noticed was Selphie, who was cringing and looking about nervously in anticipation of a non-existent threat. She relaxed just slightly. "Er, he called you chickenwuss," she prodded him.

"Hey, we're here to have fun, right? I don't waste my time getting upset about things that aren't important." He shrugged. "I dunno, it just doesn't seem to bother me as much as it used to. Like, Rinoa called me a chickenshit conformist the other day and I didn't realize until several hours later that I was supposed to be pissed off. And then it was, like, what's the point?" Now that he was trying to explaining, his reaction surprised even him. He was starting to turn an adult now. When did that happen?

Selphie giggled, but she too recognized that he was changing. "Yeah." Well, that was awesome. She didn't really mind his occasional fit at being insulted; it was a pretty harmless quirk, all things considered. But it was terrific that he was getting to be more peace with himself and able to shrug off stuff like Seifer's taunts -- and that he was happy about it too.

"I still don't get why he hates me so much, though," Zell said. "It's not like I ever tried to start anything with him; I'd be happy if he left me alone."

"Well... I think he's jealous of you, honestly."

"Jealous of me? What the hell for?" Zell never really understood jealousy. He would be the first to admit that he had plenty of flaws, but in spite of them he never found himself wanting to actually be someone else. And he hadn't even done anything to best Seifer; it wasn't like he'd taken something or some place that Seifer wanted. Well, that was why it was Seifer's problem, not his.

Selphie smiled. It was rather sweet the way he didn't even recognize that he did many things that other people could not. "People like you, Zell. You're a sweet, funny, caring guy; people enjoy your webcomic and you're a successful SeeD. Of course Seifer wants to be like that, instead of being reduced to pining over -" she adopted a mocking imitation of Seifer's growl "'-hot foreign exchange chicks.'" Zell hesitated, uncertain whether Selphie was jabbing at him or had completely missed the connection with his own former crush on the girl. She grinned and elbowed him in the side. "I'm just kidding, dear." He chuckled first with relief, and then with general amusement. Yeah, why take everything so seriously? When it came right down it, what made them, well, themselves was cause only for merriment and celebration, not guilt.

They led each other over to the UFO catcher machine. Wow, this was a big one, Zell thought. He was marveling at the impressive selection of dolls inside when Selphie suddenly seized his arm. "Ohmigod, look!" She pointed eagerly inside the machine with her other hand. "Look, it's Mr. Bear!"

Indeed it was. Piled near the bottom in the case was a lanky brown bear just like the one Selphie had toted around for years. Wow. She'd never seen him in a store since ... since she'd needed a new one. This had to be a sign. Perhaps one specifically arranged by someone out there who wanted to reassure that she was still loved and watched over. Or perhaps just as reminder that even the random occurrences of a heartless world could sometimes play in her favor. Either way, this miraculous reunion told her that she should hang in there - she'd never know the next time something like this would happen.

"We have to get him," she declared.

Zell nodded. Of course. That went without saying; what alternatives were there? Physical concerns like money and time were worth forgetting about for a memory that would stay with them forever, long after any negative side effects had vanished. And, he realized, Mr. Bear would be more than a memento of a happy time; recovering him would be a crucial medicine for Selphie's withering soul.

He handed Selphie one of their 50-gil pieces. She gripped the controls and stared with great intent into the display case. This would take a bit of strategy. Mr. Bear was stuck under a tonberry; she'd have to get that one out first. She nudged the crane in that direction. But it wasn't quite far enough - the claws snapped futilely in thin air.

Zell automatically handed her another coin. This time she snatched up the horse-and-rider duo of Christopher & Ziggy. The rising claw jostled Mr. Bear, and he tumbled deeper into the pile.

Oh dear. She had to get Mr. Bear, but that might take her a while. She couldn't just grab him now. He was like some sort of Oak Island Beanie; trying to get him only made him fall further into the pit.

She stepped away from the controls and looked to Zell. "Here, you want to try? You're good at this kind of stuff. I'm going to try the fortune-telling machine!"

* * *

Ten minutes later, Zell had still not managed to liberate Mr. Bear. He had, however, built up a stack of three Pupus, several moombas, a female moogle, a shoopuf, a pair of tonberries, a chocobo, and even an Onion Knight.

Selphie returned and hunched over beside him. Her eyes sought Mr. Bear and saw he was still where she had left him. "No luck, love?"

"Not yet," Zell said, staring intently into the window. He was in the middle of a round and could not look away. "But you've won quite a menagerie of other critters."

Lady Luck failed Zell again as the crane closed on a behemoth sitting just adjacent to the moogle. Damn! The plushie came tumbling out of the machine and landed on the shoopuf's behind. He relaxed and stood up straight, exhaling. "What was your fortune?" he asked Selphie.

Selphie consulted the slip she had been given. "'Untold happiness will be yours if you purchase The Legend of Cait Sith Gets Some. Now in bookstores.'" She looked back up. "I don't quite get it."

"Huh, me neither; that's weird. Someone must have started spamming the fortune-telling machine."

Selphie seized the controls. "Can I try again?"

"Of course." He rummaged in his pocket for another 50-gil piece. His hand continued its search for some time until he was forced to include that there were none. "Uh... I think I'm out of coins. Hang on, I think I saw Seifer with one too; maybe he'll trade." He quickly sprinted out of the arcade, hoping it was not too late to find Seifer, and ran all the way back to the parking lot.

Just in time! Seifer was approaching his Camaro when Zell arrived. "Seifer!" Zell panted. "Do you have any bear dolls?"

"Yeah, do you like my Chevy Camaro?"

"Um, I was asking if you -"

"This is one bitchin' Camaro, chickenwuss. I bet you wish you had a car like this."

"Look, I just came to ask you if you have one of those brown bear UFO dolls in that 'bitchin' Camaro' of yours. I'll trade you a lot for it."

"Aww, for your little munchkin girlfriend? Isn't that sweet? How about a mushroom doll, to go with her hair?"

Dammit, it was never the specific insults that bothered him, but the fact that someone was leveling them in the first place. What the hell did Seifer hope to accomplish? It was spite, nothing else, and he didn't how to accept it. It shouldn't exist!

But Selphie was waiting on him. He couldn't throttle Seifer now. That was always one of his principles, to never let his negative feelings towards anything take precedence over his positive feelings towards something else.

"Please?"

Seifer could not be bothered to argue with Zell any more. On the way to the driver's seat, he opened the trunk of his bitchin' Camaro and carelessly tossed Mr. Bear out onto the pavement on his way. Maybe that would appease him. He turned the ignition and mentally patted himself on the back. Damn, this was such a cool car. Everyone needed a sportscar, if only for the pleasure it added to daily life. And now he got to drive his bitchin' Camaro home so he could watch Fight Club. What an awesome movie. That anti-materialist message was so true to how he felt.

Zell scrambled to yank the toy off the ground before anything happened to it. Whew, at least he'd gotten it. He hurried back to the arcade.

Selphie was holding the female moogle in her arms and waiting for him. She grinned as soon as she saw that his mission had been successful. "You got it! Booyaka!" she exclaimed. She grabbed Mr. Bear from Zell's hands at the same Zell thrust it towards her. Oh, she couldn't believe she had Mr. Bear again. It was all so sudden. Like manna from heaven. "Thanks, dear." While her attention was focused on the thrill of the moment, a distant part of her recognized that this would be an important memory for both of them. After two years without him, she had a Mr. Bear again. And Zell had not only volunteered to go negotiate with his archnemesis for it, but was also successful in doing so.

She lifted up the female moogle to stare into its eyes, then cuddled it against her chest. So cute! "I really like this one too," she said. She checked her tag. "Mag? What kind of a name is that? She needs a better name. What should we call her? Any ideas?"

"Um... how about Pupurin?"

Selphie chuckled. "Cute, but I'd rather have something more original."

"Schtolteheim Reinbach III?"

"What? That's too long and too weird. Um... how about Melody?" It popped into her head for no particular reason, but it was often those sorts of ideas that were best. No mental focus group involved, just something from the soul. "I mean, I've always said I wouldn't want to be without melody."

He grinned. "Yeah, that's sweet."

Selphie hugged Mr. Bear Mark II and Melody in her arms while Zell found a large garbage bag to carry the rest of their haul in. She giggled as they worked together to stuff them all in the bag. Oh dear, they really had collected a lot, hadn't they? Well ... good. She deserved some good turns as much as everyone else. She'd have fun adding these to her collection.

Selphie pointed. "Look, Zell! We can go on the Cone of Tragedy next!"

It was a big red metal cone, about thirty-five feet in height, with several sets of manacles hanging near the top and blades sticking out of other parts of it. "Uh-oh." She giggled. Hee hee hee, he was so funny! "I was kidding; I was kidding." She elbowed him again and they both had a good laugh about it. "C'mon, how about the Ferris wheel? It's a long line, but it'll be worth it."

"Sure, let's go."

Selphie looked down at her huge stack of plush companions. "Hmm, I'd better take this back to the car first." She hefted them over her shoulder and gave him a playful wink. "Go make yourself and find us some food."

Zell did a SeeD salute. "Jawohl!"

They both giggled. Zell scurried off to buy food. Hmm, what did Selphie like? He was getting a hot dog, of course. Well, she liked cheesecake, but he was almost positive that he wouldn't find that here. Ice cream would have to do. Then a goofy but possibly touching idea struck him. He ordered an extra cone of ice cream and a bottle of Sunny Delight.

When Selphie returned from the car, Zell was waiting with their food. He raised one of the cones and the bottle of Sunny Delight. "In honor of Yuffie," he declared before pouring the Sunny D over the ice cream.

"You're not actually going to eat that, are you?"

"Of course not," Zell said. He chucked the mess in the nearest trash receptacle.

* * *

Where are you, my angel? Squall was unable to resist continually checking his watch as he paced the inside of the B-Garden elevator. He knew Rinoa should have gotten off work by now -- he did, after all, have her daily schedule memorized. Maybe things were running really late. This was the only way down from the office and she certainly hadn't shown up yet. Sigh. And for once it seemed as though things were actually about to go right.

A gigging and shrieking roll of carpet careened in from the office, ricocheted off the back wall of the elevator, and came to a halt at Squall's feet. The pig-tailed library girl poked her head out of the center and whooped with delight.

Her friend, a blonde girl with a tattoo in the shape of a bandage on her face ran into the elevator after her. "My turn! My turn!"

...whatever, thought Squall.

The pig-tailed girl rolled herself back and forth for more entertainment. "No, we should try this on the first floor! I bet we can go even further there!"

"Okay, mate."

"Wait, don't touch that!" Squall made the connection a few seconds too late. The blonde girl had already taped the "1" button. The doors closed, the elevator started to descend - and then everything stopped dead.

What a terrible, horrible, no good very bad day. First his plan to meet Rinoa had failed and now he was stuck in an elevator with two annoying girls.

"Crikey, Rikku, I think it's stuck!" Kid said.

Rikku had been having too much fun rolling around to notice until now. She poked her head back out of the carpet. "Huh? What happened?"

"I don't know; the bloody thing just stopped movin'!"

"What are we going to do?"

"Wait fer it to get fixed, I suppose." Kid scratched her faux bandage. Figuring that she'd be here for a while, she turned to Squall. "Um, hi, mister. I'm Kid."

"My name's Rikku!" Rikku was still rolling back and forth across the elevator. "I can't see you very well; who am I talking to?"

"It's a cute emo bloke, but I guess he doesn't want to talk to us."

"Oh, I like cute emo boys. Are you heartbroken? That's so adorable."

Please go away, Squall thought.

"Are you going to tell us your name?" Kid prodded.

"I think Rivers Cuomo is so cute. Someday I'm going to marry him! Do you think he's cute too?"

"How many ex-girlfriends are you pining over? Do you hurt a lot on the inside?"

"Ohmigod, I loooove Saves the Day!"

"Do you mind if I have a crush on you?"

Squall Leonhart minded very much.

* * *

After a whirlwind tour of the rest of the rides, they were finally forced out of the park when it was shut down for the night. Zell stepped carefully towards the Pok eetle; after all these rides, he was a little dizzy and hard a time keeping his balance. Selphie seemed okay. Of course, she had Mr. Bear to hang onto.

After a night of excitement, Selphie was starting to descend into a peaceful calm. This evening had such been a blast that it had managed to purge all the Rinoa/Yuffie/politics frustration out of her emotional state. Right now, there were only positive thoughts bouncing around in her head. She could not help but feel this was a turning point; she had bottomed out and was on the way back up. Handing over the FKF must have been the right decision. As much as it pained her to admit defeat, she had to recognize her limits lest she destroy herself.

"I had a wonderful time tonight," she said as they got into the car. "Thanks for being around; I really needed this."

Zell smiled. "I had a great time too," he said. "I hope my screaming didn't ruin too many rides for you."

"You didn't get upset when Seifer called you chickenwuss. That says a lot more about you than any ride."

"Yeah..."

"And... Mr. Bear." She repeated the name with somewhat of an awed tone. A mere acknowledgment of his existence revealed a spectacular gift she could never could never have expected to receive. A sign that perhaps the universe indeed looking after her and that unpredictable blessings could emerge at any time. And if those blessings could come at any time ... well, then it was always too early to give up. Selphie hugged her ursine companion again. "Sometimes we can get back the things they've taken away from us."

He smiled. He had never seen the original Mr. Bear, of course, but he knew what he -- and his successor -- meant to Selphie. "I'm so glad we found him."

"Me too. And I bought something to give you, too." She reached under her seat and handed Zell a small wrapped package. Once he would have felt immediately guilty -- he didn't have anything to give her back! Except now he could say "except love and understanding and joy in the happy times and comfort in the trying times." Not to mention all the money he had spent on the UFO catcher. So he just grinned and opened it with faith.

It was a copy of Julia Heartilly's Greatest Hits.

His face lit up like Selphie was playing some "Test Your Relationship Strength" and had just sent the slider flying all the way up the top of the meter to win the grand prize. "Oh, it's just what I've always wanted," he said through an ear-to-ear grin. He carefully put the CD down and reached across to hug her.

Selphie hugged him back. He loved it, just like she knew he would. Of course; she knew him better than anyone. Well, that made her happy. Happy to see that she knew what she was doing after all. Happy to see him happy. Happy to know that she could make him so happy.

"Thank you," he murmured. "Thank you so much." She believed him. He could change. He did not have to live the rest of his life as the dorky comic relief. All his fears seemed so groundless, so silly at times like these. Why was ever upset? Selphie understood.

When it came to anyone else, he could never quite impart the precise thoughts he had. He could fumble for words to convey the meaning he wanted, but he had too many thoughts and not enough words in the English language. They never seemed to match up. And his examples frequently went lost on ears that hadn't already had similar experiences burned into their life. But Selphie seemed to get it all. She had the same life inside her, and all he had to do was speak enough words to highlight which corner of their souls he was referring to.

He'd always been waiting to sell-out, really. To be able to leave behind all the unfulfulling posturing - which he only did because he thought he had to; he would be the first to admit that - and grab ahold of something that made him genuinely happy. To love and be loved had always been his dream. But he couldn't sell out until someone was buying.

"Selphie, it means so much to me to know that someone gets what I've trying to figure out. To know that I don't have to make myself into anything other than what I really am. I mean ... I know I've done a lot of stupid things. But you've kept believing in me, believing that I could change my ways and grow up into something worthwhile. And I can't begin to thank you for that, because a lot of people would have given up a long time ago.

"I've been drowning in a sea of objectivity, able to talk myself out of any position or opinion on anything, shifting through dozens of groups and adopting to them all like a chameleon without ever really belonging to any of them. I can fake it so well, but there's been so little to me. It's like one of the big gas giant planets, a lot of shifting cloud patterns but nothing solid at the core. But you've given me a chance to orient myself in a useful direction. Because no matter what else I'm confused about, I can believe in you with all my heart and soul. I love you."

"Thanks," she said, sincerely appreciate of his words. "I know you believe in me too."

Neither of them really initated the kiss; they both thought of it at virtually the same time. Selphie felt her heart stir as their lips pressed together and their tongues danced. Mmm. It was like there was nothing in the universe but them; for this moment, their entire essences were engaged in mingling with each other. And she felt all his heart, all his sincerity flowing into her. When he really wanted to, he could put aside all his foibles and fears and be everything his soul held. They kissed more and more, feeling like it would strip away all those worldly concerns, until they had to stop for breath.

"I love you too," Selphie whispered.

She sighed happily. Perhaps that hole in the soul could heal, after all. Perhaps it already was healing. Even if she was never entirely whole again, she felt she had touched the golden wire she had been hunting for. Had her striving finally got enough to touch the light at the end of the tunnel? Or had the answer been lurking beneath her sight all this time? Probably some of each. She could not deny that her searching had led them some of the answers she needed, as in the planetarium, but she also knew that a lot of her peace came from accepting her life the way it was.

She jumped when a tinny rendition of "Eyes on Me" cut through the almost-tangible atmosphere of contentment. Selphie reached for her purse to fetch her ringing cell phone. Her eyes took in both the caller - Irvine - and the time - past 1 AM! eek! - on the screen as she reached to grab it. Well, as irritated as she was at his timing, she couldn't blame him for calling. He was probably wondering where they'd disappeared to. "Hello?"

"You answered!" He sounded extremely relieved.

"Why, what? Is something going on?"

"Look, there's trouble. Rinoa called Seifer from the Natural History Museum. She said she's going to destroy the napkin exhibit at the museum, and to try to stop her. He left right away; I tried to stop him, but ... but you know I'm not real good in these kind of crises.

"Oh my God, what does she think she's doing?" Panic and despair smashed her in the face, jumped down her throat, and started tearing out her insides. If she felt interrupted from her time with Zell before, she didn't now - that was already a world away and existence was now nothing but this crisis. Hyne, she should have known Rinoa would pull something like this, should have done more to stop her instead of letting her work by herself. It was just like Rinoa had said: The world's problems wouldn't stop because some preppy white girl wanted to party. And now the problems had come and slapped her in the face. She knew Seifer would show his ex-girlfriend no mercy -- he hated her. And Rinoa would be probably be looking for any chance to get back at him, too... this was ugly.

"I don't know what you can do," Irvine said, "but if there's anyone that can stop her..."

"Yeah, I understand; we'll be there ASAP. Please come too, if you can."

"All right, I'll meet you outside the museum."

"Okay, I'll see you there." Selphie hung up and tossed the phone on her seat - putting it away neatly would cost too much time.

Zell was staring expectantly at her, waiting for an explanation. He had quickly come to awareness that something was very, very wrong and that romance time was over. "Rinoa...?"

"Yeah." She had already tugged her seatbelt into position and turned the ignition. "I'll explain on the way; we've got to move." Hyne, she should have been prepared for this. But she hadn't, and she wasn't sure how things would turn out. On Rinoa's side: Guilt, anger, and what seemed to be plenty of anecdotal evidence about the way the world worked. On her own side: Love, hope, faith, and the sizeless truth of a dream.

Well, this would be interesting.

Chapter Text

"'POTATOLUV' CULT BAFFLES POTATO FARMERS; MASSIVE LOSSEES EXPECTED."

Yuffie stared at the morning paper, trying to figure out what had attracted her attention. Sure, the photos of sexually violated potatoes were unsettling, but she saw stuff that was just as strange in the news all the time. Hell, she'd seen worse at Garden -- from her own roommate, in fact.

Then she realized it was not the artcle at all. Oh, Gawd! Today was April 5th! The day Mother Brain was going to attack. She was supposed to have already thwarted her by now - was she too late?

Indecision nagged her. Had she already blown it - should she just forget the whole dumb thing? Or maybe she should risk going back into Dricas - to try to account for herself, or maybe if she got there right away, it would be easier to fix things. What if Mother Brain hadn't actually attacked yet and she stilll had a last-minute chance to save the world?

She should probably go see what was going on. But, Gawd, more than dangerous, that could be terribly embarrasing. She had no excuses. They were all going to laugh at her for being so clueless. How could she have just forgotten to liberate humanity from its evil oppressor? Stupid, stupid, stupid! Tardiness was not acceptable when the survival of her species was at stake.

Yuffie yawned. Ugh, she was tired; she really didn't feel like she had the energy to go traipsing about battling evil and narrowly escaping certain death. A nice long nap, maybe until about five in the afternoon, sounded a lot more appealing. Was it really that much of a crime to sleep through the apocalypse? She struggled to rationalize giving herself this little break. She was in prison; that was a pretty sucky place to be, and she was entitled to treat herself nicely. Right? And she'd already done a lot of free work for Dunamis; she didn't want to overcommit herself! If she took a nice nap now, she could be all rested up for leading humanity out of the ashes of a dark, dystopian post-apocalytpic wasteland ruled by machines.

She stared at her bed as its worked its irresistible siren's song on her. She was fixated. Bed... sleep... mmm... such sweet surrender. She longed only to offer both body and soul to her exalted linen-covered master, curl up in its warm, comfy sheets and rule Nod as father and daughter.

No! What diablerie was this? She could not let the bed control her any longer! She would resist! In a fit of outraged rebellion, she kicked the bed in the headboard, tore the sheets off and threw them on the ground, and pummeled the pillow her fists. "Ha! Take that! And that!"

Yuffie left her bedclothes scattered across the floor and headed for the moomba hole.

* * *

Vibri poked his head into Big Joe's cave and was surprised to find his dealer nowhere in sight. "Joe?" When he received no response, Vibri wriggled into the cave. "Joe? Where are you?"

Alex Kidd and Psycho Fox, both brandishing clubs and length of ropes, leapt out from behind rocks. "Surprise!" Alex Kidd exclaimed.

"Alex Kidd and Psycho Fox!?" Vibri squeaked. "I haven't seen you guys since 1989! Wai!!!"

"Did you think Mother Brain wasn't watching you Dunamis scum?" Alex Kidd sneered. "SCEA's going to pay good money to be rid of you."

"Nani!? What have you done with Big Joe? I want my Vicks' vapor rub!"

Psycho Fox and Alex Kidd rushed Vibri from opposite directions and beat him senseless with their clubs. "Silly rabbit," Kidd said. "Vicks' is for kids!"

* * *

Yuffie pounded the hall of Lucca's cottage. "It's April 5th!" she shouted, bursting into the Seraphic Hall.

"We know," Lucca said solemnly. "But I'm glad you made it, Yuffie. I was starting to worry that I, I mean, we'd never see you again." She rose from the table and enfolded Yuffie in a hug that, unsurprisingly, was not reciprocated.

"Gawd, you're touching me."

"Is there something so wrong with that?"

"It's gross!" What was this grown woman still hanging onto her? Weirdness.

Lucca let go of her. "You're such a goofball, Yuffie," she chuckled, "but that's why we love you you." She sat back down at the head of the table. Yuffie remained standing, looking - as she so often did - awkward and out of place. "Anyway, yes, Mother Brain has already launched attacks against Balamb Garden and Sega's corporate headquarters."

"Ohmigawd!"

"However, Mother Brain's activity has enabled us, at great cost, to pinpoint her location: a castle to the southwest of here. Many Bothan spies died to bring us this information."

"We have Bothan spies?" Hanpan questioned.

"What is it with you pedants and your lack of respect for my artistic vision? This is my revolutionary cabal; don't you try to edit my masterpiece. If I say we have Bothan spies, we do."

"Hey, where's Vibri?"

"He was a Bothan spy."

"Ohmigawd, he's dead?"

"No, but he's been captured by Mother Brain and is scheduled for execution at her castle. He's in prison now, being punished: and the trial doesn't even begin till next Wednesday: and of course the crime comes last of all."

"Well, that hardly seems fair. He hasn't even done anything yet!"

"I know," Lucca said. "But it's given us one advantage: Now we know where where she's operating from. And now here's my brilliant plan to rescue him and overthrow Mother Brain before her campaign can continue. I call it ... Operation Nephilim."

"That name, like, sucks 'n stuff! Huhuhuh!" Kefka chortled.

Hanpan rolled his eyes. "Could you have possibly picked a more obtuse name? Why not Operation Enduring Asskicking?"

"Look, this is Important. It needs to be named after something related to angels! Besides, I think it's fitting. After all, this mission is about angels and hope for the future. As well as life and death and love and truth and justice and stuff like that. But mostly angels. And hope for the future." She paused, reflecting on what she had said, and added, "And angels."

"Why does everything we do have to involve angels?" Yuffie complained.

"Well, how else are we supposed to convince people we have something meaningful to say? Now can I explain my brilliant plan?" Lucca fished several packets of M&Ms out of her purse and tossed them on the table.

"Huh huh, do we get snacks?" Kefka asked, reaching for one of the bags.

Lucca pushed his hand away. "No, stupid; these are high-tech scientific demonstration devices." She tore open a bag and rolled the M&Ms out onto the table. "All right, here's the situation. This scrumptious-looking red M&M is Mother Brain. She's summoned an army, who we'll represent with these yellow M&Ms, to Balamb Garden in search of Yuffie, who is this green M&M here."

Hanpan sniffed dramatically. "Mmm, I love the smell of product placement in the morning."

"We've traced the Demon Summoning Program to the palace, over here." Lucca tore open two more bags of M&Ms and constructed a detailed scale model of the palace. "Now, this is the same place where our intelligence reports say that Vibri -- this tasty-looking brown M&M here -- is scheduled to be executed. This leads me to believe that Mother Brain is operating from somewhere inside the palace." She slid the red M&M through the second-story window of the M&M palace.

"Gawd, you're, like, making me all hungry 'n stuff," Yuffie complained.

Lucca dropped another handful of M&Ms on the table. "This is us. We're going to use a three-pronged attack."

"Huhuh, you said 'prong,' heh heh heh," Kefka chortled.

Lucca slid two of the M&Ms together. "Team A will consist of myself and Robo. Team B will consist of Hanpan and Kefka. Yuffie, you'll form Team C by herself." Yuffie raised her hand. "Yes, Yuffie?"

"Why is my team not named after an angel? I want to be Important."

"I've kind of run out of angel-related names," Lucca confessed.

"Well, yeah, but Team C sounds totally stupid. It would be really cool if we were, like, Team Golgotha or something. Gawd, how do you spell 'Golgotha,' anyway?"

"All right," Lucca said. "How about this? We're now Team Shadrach, Hanpan and Kefka are Team Meshach, and, Yuffie, you're Team Abednego. Will that suffice?"

"Sure."

"Okay. Team Meshach - that's these two M&Ms here - will create a distraction at the front gate of the palace. Meanwhile, Team Shadrach and Team Abednego will infiltrate the palace from the rear. We'll then split up. Team Shadrach will head to the execution ground and rescue Vibri." Lucca moved the M&Ms around the table to demonstrate her plan.

"Huh huh, infiltrate it from the rear," Kefka laughed. "I'd like to infiltrate Natalie Portman from the rear, if ya know what I mean."

"Don't make me violate the First Law of Robotics on you, Kefka," Robo threatened.

"Now, Yuffie, as Team Abednego, your goal is to find Mother Brain in the palace and terminate her. Remember, we don't know what avatar Mother Brain has chosen for herself in Dricas. You'll have to figure out who she is on your own."

"Oh, Gawd," Yuffie groaned.

"Are you ready to move out, Yuffie?" Lucca asked. "We don't have any time to waste, although I'm sure Mother Brain will postpone the execution for as long as you want to meander around on the world map."

"Um, not quite yet," Yuffie said. "I'm, like, confused about, like, how I'm supposed to find Mother Brain. And, like, I was told that Tron was the only one who could stop Mother Brain; what's that about?"

"Are you ready to move out, Yuffie?" Lucca asked. "We don't have any time to waste, although I'm sure Mother Brain will postpone the execution for as long as you want to meander around the world map."

"Gawd, you already told me that," Yuffie said to Lucca.

"Are you ready to move out, Yuffie?" Lucca asked. "We don't have any time to waste, although I'm sure Mother Brain will postpone the execution for as long as you want to meander around the world map."

"Are you just going to, like, keep repeating that until I say I'm ready?"

"Are you ready to move out, Yuffie?" Lucca asked. "We don't have any time to waste, although I'm sure Mother Brain will postpone the execution for as long as you want to meander around the world map."

"Okay, I'm ready. Gawd."

Chapter Text

Selphie's Pokébeetle sped across Balamb. Even going at top speed, they could not be taken instantly to the museum, and so they remained frozen in a sort of crisis limbo. They were in the middle of a major emergency, but any resolution or continuance to it lay on the other side of town. In the mean time, they were left waiting for the next bullet point in the list of events, caught between page 83 and page 84. And so an uneasy silence reigned inside the small vehicle; both Zell and Selphie just wanted to be at the museum already and be trying to solve this.

Selphie's mind filled the time by racing through everything she thought and felt, planning out what she could to combat Rinoa. What could she do to thwart Rinoa's plan? What could she say to talk some sense into her? What would Laguna do? Zell's mind, too, had raced, though it did not take long to arrive at an extremely gloomy conclusion. He folded his arms and leaned back into his seat to shy away from any communication. What good was he now?

The PokéBeetle finally skidded into the museum parking lot and slammed to a stop in a position that almost certainly violated at least three local traffic ordinances. Across the street from the parking lot was a city park, where Irvine was waiting. He came dashing across the street to meet Selphie and Zell as they climbed out of the car.

They gathered into a small huddle. As much urgency as the situation called for, they could spare a few seconds to come up with a response that would be more fruitful than just running inside. "So what's the plan, Sefie?" Irvine asked.

"I'm going to try to talk her out of this as best I can," Selphie explained. "For everyone's sake. I know she's not evil. She's not irredeemable. I want to show her the light."

Irvine and Zell both nodded. Obviously, that was the most preferable solution - it was the back-up plans that presented an issue. And so Irvine asked, "And if that doesn't work? What do we do - knock her out? I snagged some tranquilizer darts on the way over here; I could use those if we have to."

"Yeah, and there's a big bag of plushies in the trunk we could hit her with."

Selphie shook her head. "No, guys, that's the problem. If we attack her, if we hurt her, we're only giving her what she wants. She wants to turn herself into a martyr. She thinks the only way to change things is by going down as violently as possible. And I want to prove her wrong."

Zell was already starting to withdraw from the conversation. Selphie was right about Rinoa's motivations, of course, but this was not at all how he saw the world. Not at all. Was he deluded in dreaming of wedding bells instead of handcuffs? Normally, he resolved conflicts like this by simply assuming that he was wrong. But he was sick of that, especially when it involved something he cared about this much. What if he were right? No, this time, he would cling to his opinion, no matter how much flak it brought him.

Irvine, on the other hand, remained just as attentive to Selphie's plans. "Uh, so what can we do?"

"Well, I hate to say it, but ... I think the only way to show the world isn't out to get her is to let the world take the fall for her. So, if I can't talk her out of this, I'll finish her protest for her and take the blame. Maybe ... maybe that will show her that there is goodness in the world."

Zell semi-cringed. It would have been a full cringe had he not already seen all this coming. All of Selphie's ideals, all of her guilt, led logically up to what she wanted to do. That had been obvious; Zell realized that as soon as Irvine had called them. And he had wanted to believe otherwise, was hoping against all hope that Selphie would buck the trend and come to her senses and save herself, but ... no. Hence the half cringe. He turned away in silence, not sure if there was anything left for him to say.

Irvine, on the other hand, was blown away. Wow. Sefie really was prepared to do anything to change the world. Of course, he would hate to lose her to this, but what other alternatives did the situation present? No, this only proved what a great person Sefie is. Irvine could never -- she was on another, better level entirely, and he felt honored and humbled to have known her. He whistled. "You're amazing."

Zell's fists quivered as his frustration swelled uncontrollably. Amazing? Oh, Selphie was amazing all right, but not in the way Irvine thought. She was amazing as a human being -- a friend, a lover, a musician, a writer, a SeeD -- not as some political sacrificial lamb. But did anyone about them even matter now? It seemed like there was only thing any of them were good for any more, and that was fighting. Was that the universe really created him to do? To sit in the back of the car and have to nod his head as Selphie destroyed herself, their relationship, and by association him?

Just the way the world works, he thought bitterly.

They all looked gloomy and defeated, knowing that they had really already lost in the battle to make the world perfect. "Come on; no more use in talking about this," Selphie said, trying to get some energy back. Her voice belied her lack of confidence in her ability to talk Rinoa as one out of this, as she spoke in the uncertain tone of one already resigned to loss and thus determined to get it over with as quickly as possible.

"NO!" Zell's bottled helplessness reached its limit and exploded. "You can't do this; please, Selphie, you can't!" he screamed. His eyes were pouring out tears and his voice hoarse with desperate, but he longer no cared what he looked like. Nor what anyone else thought, or how many people he offended. Only one thing mattered, and that was making sure Selphie walked out of this free and alive. And every bit of faith he'd placed in the assumption that everything would work out right in the end had been let down. That left only raw emotion. "Don't do it!" he shrieked. "Just don't goddamn do it; can't you see?"

"Zell, calm down." Selphie looked pained. She certainly was not without regret, and she hated to be upsetting him like this, but he needed to understand that - as Rinoa had said - the world would not always stop because some preppy white girl wanted to party. "We don't know what's going to happen. I'm probably going to convince Rinoa to cool her jets and we'll all walk out of here." That was a blatant lie, of course, but she had to calm him down somehow.

"That's bullshit."

She sighed. Oh, why did this have to happen; what could she say to him? And Seifer might have already met up with Rinoa while they were arguing... "Zell, I can't let anyone suffer. I promised Sun Hye I wouldn't. And this is all I know how to do." She started towards the door, but Zell jumped into her path.

"What about yourself? What about me? Do we deserve to suffer? Do I, does Irvine, do Chu-Chu and Yuffie and Quistis, do Emma and your other friends from Trabia, do the Garden Festival and your webpage and Sir Laguna and SeeD and music and your band deserve to suffer? Do you expect me not to even care that you're risking all that? Is Yuffie even going to get home if you decide to play martyr here? Is the utopia you're fighting for here ever going to exist anyway? Are whatever fucked-up ideals we're talking about here more important than everything else in your life? Selphie, there's not a single 'ism' in the world that's more important than you or I. Maybe Mr. Cowboy Yes-man here can just smile and nod and agree with everything you say, but... but I..."

Ugh. He was hitting all the targets in her heart - everything that, despite his claims, she did love, as well as her greatest fears - with an accuracy only attainable because he knew her so well. But she still had one target he could not knock down, and that was her insistence on bringing love and peace to the world. "...I just can't stop caring. I'm sorry."

"And I can't stop caring about ! Look, I know I've done a lot of stupid crap too, but we all make mistakes!" And yet she still seemed completely unmoved. He launched into a fresh round of pleading, covering the same ground but refusing to concede defeat by shutting up. "Selphie, there's only so much you can do! I know you want to see everyone get along; so do I, but... but you don't have to crucify yourself over it! You're not a god; you can't fix all the world's problems all on your own. And I love you too much to write you off no matter what you do to yourself!"

Selphie gathered up the strength not to care. It took all the effort she could muster to insulate herself from the suffering of someone she loved. For what Zell said actually cut deep in to her - it tormented her that she made him feel this way - but if she was going to do the right thing and change the world, the way her conscience told her she must, she had to forget the short-sighted views of one who did not see the future generations. "No," came her tight, clipped response. "I have to be strong." And not allowing herself a moment more lest she lose her resolution, she stepped again towards the door.

Zell could not bring himself to restrain her physically, so he was forced to step aside and allow her entrance. But as Selphie and Irvine marched inside the building, he turned and shouted one last plea.

"You don't have to do anything."

* * *

SMASH! Anger. It throbbed painfully with her skull, drained her body of its life, screamed within her heart for fulfillment. No other emotion could stand before pure, unadulterated rage. Not when her rage sapped her so completely of all physical and emotional strength, sapped her of it to form at each moment as complete a fury against the world as possible. It had to be everything she had. It was all futile, of course, no matter how hard she tried, but the feelings within her would not permit her to hold any cards close to her chest. She had to unleash everything; she didn't know what to do with any bit of her essence that she wasn't lashing out with. That was what anger was. It was her insistence to fix things and make herself matter that would compel her to ram headfirst into the iron wall of the world until she collapsed bleeding to the floor. SMASH! Her sledgehammer crashed through another display case. Fighting offered her the only relief she knew. Every time she broke something, she saw the world getting a little better. Something wrong -- and to Rinoa, everything in the world was wrong, because the world had done This to her -- had been removed. And that was a small piece of what she really wanted, which was to remove everything from the world. Destruction was the answer. The only way to build justice was on the ashes and blood of the injust. And what was there that was not injust? SMASH! A long shadow of a short person, a projection from the lighted hallway behind her, fell over her. "Rinoa..." Well, fuck. Now she couldn't have the luxury of carrying out her destruction alone.

Rinoa lowered her hammer and looked slowly over her shoulder. She hadn't wanted to have to see Selphie and Irvine's faces. See them react to what she did and be reminded that these were human beings, human beings who hurt, that she was fighting against. That made fighting hard. But what else did she have? She was past forgiveness now; any hope she had had of living like them had been blown away like the locks she had shot off the museum doors.

"Please stop," Selphie said, gently but forcefully.

"Goddammit, Selphie, what do you expect me to do?" Rinoa shouted. It was easier to say it loudly, to argue, to fight; to make everyone who wasn't completely like her into The Enemy. She had to do that. Taking pride in her humiliation and suffering, turning into a badge of honor and making it her identity, was the only one to cope with it.

"Listen, Rinoa, we don't need any more martyrs. I realize some people will die unintentionally while promoting a cause, but intentionally sacrificing yourself for the greater good? What greater good is there, Rinoa, than ourselves?"

"The future." Rinoa had not actually faced anything like this question before, but she managed to come up with the answer pretty quickly. That was exactly what she fought for. Someone a few generations would have their lives improved by, would be infinitely grateful for, the fact that she had fought against the system now. Who was she to deny the world progress?

Selphie smiled. "'Be the mindful of the future, but not at the expense of the present,'" she quoted. "Another Chu-chu Tribe proverb Chu-Chu taught me."

"Eh." Rinoa was unconvinced. "What do we have to live for if not the future?"

Selphie chuckled. Boy, that was an easy one to answer; almost comically so. "The present," she replied. "The world's not as awful as you think, Rinoa, and a lot of us are quite happy to be part of it as it is. Think about it, Rinoa. Do you really think the world is going to reach some perfect point and then just ... stop? Freeze frame? Mission accomplished, we all shut down? Don't be silly. I don't think there's ever going to be a perfect world. I don't think I'd want one. I think the whole idea of perfection is like ... fascist. 'Cause what I believe is perfect and what someone else believes is perfect can be completely different things. So how can we really have perfection for everyone? There's always going to be conflicting opinions and differences between us; we can't get rid of those! We shouldn't; it would make the world . We can't create perfection, Rinoa; we just need to do the best with what we have in our own lives."

"Not while there's still so many downtrodden who need our help," Rinoa shot back. "Not while Yuffie's rotting away in jail. I thought you were her friend, Selphie. What the hell happened to you to turn you into a corporate tool?"

She gritted her teeth and tried to keep from throttling Rinoa or storming away in disgust. As sick as she was of Rinoa's arguments, she had to stick to reasoned arguments if she was to accomplish what she wanted to. "We do not live by bread alone, Rinoa. Have you considered that some of these 'downtrodden' may have plenty of love and fulfillment in these lives despite their bad circumstances? Many of them might have more than you, even. I think you're the deprived one here, Rinoa."

One of these words hit on something that Rinoa did not want to think about. Instead she swung her hammer and smashed one of the display cases in a fresh cavalcade of beautiful destruction. And for a brief moment she was in control of her destiny.

"STOP IT!" Selphie howled. She lunged forward and almost reached out with her arm to seize Rinoa's before she stopped herself. No. No, she couldn't fight. She had to take all the suffering she could and let the world live.

So Selphie wasn't quite the high-and-mighty principled idealist she pretend to be. Rinoa smirked, glad to witness Selphie's weakness. She dropped the hammer on the floor and folded her arms. "Yeah? Gonna fight me?" she challenged, seriously skeptical that Selphie would.

"I'm not going to fight anyone," Selphie said. She picked up the hammer. Hyne, she hated to do this, but what other recourse did she have? She would uphold her principles; there was no question about that. "I'm sick of fighting. And, unfortunately, it seems like the only way to convince you that we don't have to fight, the only way to open your eyes to the beauty life already offers, is to take your place. C'mon. Give me the hammer. I'll finish the job, I'll take the blame, and you can go home. I'm not going to let you destroy yourself."

Rinoa stared at her. What? She had not been expecting an offer like that. Her mind struggled to make sense of it. Should she accept? Well, that was a good question. She hadn't even thought of the possibility; hadn't yet placed any values on either option. It seemed appealing, all right, if Selphie sincerely wanted to do it. But she feared her actions were compelling to Selphie to do something that Selphie didn't truly believe in. Then again, she realized with a sickening horror, that was really what she had been doing along...

But while Rinoa was floundering, Irvine was starting to make the connection that Zell already had. "I'm not going to let you destroy yourself," Selphie had said. But Selphie was destroying herself, wasn't she? He jogged forward of the shadows, shouting, "Sefie!" She looked halfway over her shoulder at him, not wanting to let her guard on Rinoa entirely down, as he stepped forward. "Look, I think you should reconsider this. I know you don't mean to, but you're turning yourself into a martyr too."

The comment hit her off guard and sent her scrambling back through her ideas to re-evaluate them. And, ack! She was becoming a martyr, wasn't she? She was trying to sacrifice herself for love and peace or whatever it was she was fighting for these days - even she wasn't sure now. But ... but ... that was what she wanted. She should stick up for it. She had to be strong if she wanted to change the - wait! She shouldn't be having thoughts like that. Those were Rinoa thoughts. She was opposing Rinoa. But, but ... it seemed like if she took away the opposition to Rinoa, she took away all the Rinoa thoughts, and vice versa. But...

"Zell's right," Irvine repeated. "You don't have to do this, Sefie. It's not your responsibility to fix all the world's problems. You might be fighting for something else, but I feel like you're turning into Rinoa nonetheless." He took her arm and gently urged her backwards. "I don't think you should do this."

Selphie hesitated. Her heart pounded, her stomach churned, and her arms quivered as she realized she had very little time to make a very important decision. Could she really be becoming like Rinoa? She didn't want to think too heavily about that possibility, because it made some troubling statements about her, but she had to admit the accusation was not groundless. She was getting awfully wrapped up in what she thought was right and wrong, wasn't she?

Perhaps she was not a hero. Perhaps she couldn't change everything wrong about the world. Perhaps not all of her limits were made to be broken. She never before had faced her own failings and mortalities in such a way before. It was rather frightening to think of herself not as an icon with unlimited capabilities (she just had to draw them out!) but as a human being struggling to effect her will on a world that was bigger and more powerful than she.

But she knew that was also a better way of thinking. "Yeah," she concluded with a reluctant sigh. She loosed her grip on the hammer and it fell from her hand onto the floor with a flunk. "I can't do everything."

She turned her back on Rinoa and looked back down the lighted hallway. "Let's go."

* * *

Zell was starting to feel very, very alone as he dashed through the museum. He didn't know where the napkin exhibit was, didn't know where Selphie or Rinoa was, didn't know what there was left that he could do about the mess. And yet he could nothim. On the other hand, wasn't that just his self-interest speaking? Wasn't it Selphie's decision to make, not his? But if Selphie was making the wrong decision, she'd want to him to say something...

Oh, who the hell was he fooling by pretending he knew anything? He was a consummate fuck-up; he could never establish a consistent position on anything for more than three and a half seconds.

He rounded a corner and found himself face-to-face Seifer, who was also meandering the museum. Shit! Zell froze, too consumed with doubt to do anything at all. Anything he did, Seifer would turn against him and hurt him. But if he did nothing, Rinoa and maybe Selphie were in trouble...

"Chickenwuss!" Seifer exclaimed with sneering false friendliness. "Funny meeting you here! Scared to do the dirty work yourself, huh?"

Scared? Dammit, how Seifer could think he had a place to comment on this when he didn't even know what was going on? That bastard had no place to be talking. If he only was in Zell's situation; he'd be doing and feeling the same things! Zell's fists quivered with rage. It was unfair! Why couldn't he make people do the right thing? He wanted to force Seifer to understand. He had no way of doing that except jumping down his through and screaming at and hitting him, and that probably wouldn't work, and yet his thirst for justice still burned.

But he closed his eyes and thought of how weary and discontent anger left him. He thought of how throttling Seifer was just inflicting more suffering. He thought of how angry Squall probably got when Zell belittled him, which he probably shouldn't be doing. He thought of how this was blinding him, of how he couldn't make decisions when he was under the intoxicating influence of anger. He thought of how he really believed the world and people were good, even though at times like this it seemed he had to crusade to fix it. He thought of love and peace.

As he knew it would, the anger started to subside as soon as he denied it control. And then the world started to seem right again. He started to see things as good again. The imaginary problems and wars that he was fighting during his anger faded into blissful non-existence again. Hyne. It was amazing how quickly and severely his perception of the world could change. He still felt bad that he got upset so easily, but he felt better for recognizing that he had a problem and learning to control it.

"Zell?"

He opened his eyes to see Selphie and Irvine standing before him, but no sign of Seifer or Rinoa. "We decided to let her be," she explained. "I tried to talk her out of it, but ... no luck. And... well, Irvine convinced me you were right. That I'm trying to do too much, and becoming just like Rinoa." Her faced fixed into a determined stare as her thoughts started to congeal to the point where she could make some sense of all this. "I think life is more important than anything else. Nothing can be worth forfeiting it for."

I could probably stand to convince myself of that, Zell thought. But ... he felt like they were both slowly learning to recognize their limits.

They left the museum in solemn silence. Though they had been able to extricate themselves from the flaming wreckage of this train, they knew Rinoa was likely to ride it until the bitter end. They figured that if she were lucky, the police would show up - they were likely to treat each other with more civility than Seifer.

And then Xu and Quistis swooped down from the sky and landed in front of the museum.

"Xu!" Selphie squealed as the women landed in front of her. "Quisty!" A thousand thoughts and feelings hit her at once and she was hard-pressed to figure out which was supposed to take precedence. Xu had escaped hell - triumph! Xu wasn't dead - relief! She was seeing her friends again - joy! These were her sorceress wings - interesting! And the present situation; was it too late for Quistis to fix? - panic! "Ohmigod, Quisty, did you get my call? Where have you been?"

"I came here as soon as I got it." Quistis neglected to elaborate on the cause of her delay. She felt a little embarrassed about it, but not terribly so. After all, she couldn't have known any better, and as long as this all worked out, who cared? "What's happened?"

"Rinoa's in there," Selphie began.

"So's Seifer."

"...she's started breaking things; I realized I couldn't do anything, but, please; you've got to help."

"All right, I'll take care of it." Xu took hold of Quistis again and lifted off. They blasted through the doors, flying nearly horizontal.

"Looks like they showed up in the nick of time," Irvine said.

Selphie bit her lip. "Yeah, I hope."

* * *

Seifer hefted his gunblade over his shoulder as his lips parted in a cruel sneer. He was actually out of range of Rinoa, but he loved the way just raising his blade provoked a frightened twitch in her. It was delicious watching the way her emotional state was entirely dependent on him and his power. Stupid whore.

Rinoa's hands shook as her anger strove against abject terror to control her body. "I don't need you," she seethed. "I can stand for myself. I can prove it. Even it kills me."

Footsteps. Someone must be coming. Well, this was the big moment. The end of her freedom, if not her life. Something she had always thought so often - what would happen when her mouth finally caught up to her? - that it had acquired a semi-mythical status in her mind. Her final hour, her blaze of glory. Now she had all done she could; now she had to face the music. But she would do it with her head held proud and defiant; she would prove in her fall that she was no robot. At this point, what other victory was possible for her but that? No, she was winning the only way the universe allowed a common woman like her to win. And then -

"SEIFER, DROP YOUR GUNBLADE AND TURN AROUND! RINOA, PUT THE HAMMER DOWN!"

The Colonel had returned.

And this was certainly not the insecure Xu. For this moment, at least, she was the picture of indisputable authority and infinite justice. She stood in the doorway with her wings amplifying her stature thricefold. Her rapier blazed a merry trail of flames and Quistis stood at her side.

The hammer fell out of Rinoa's hands as she raised them in a feeble plea for mercy. Her eyes were now wide with genuine terror. Seifer angrily threw down his gunblade and turned to face the women. He also raised his hands, though his face was still twisted in scorn. As he did, a Cactuar plushie dropped out of his trenchcoat. Looking rather embarrassed, he bent to pick it up - keeping his other hand raised - and stuffed it back inside.

Xu smirked. "So, Rinoa, still think the dead rise only in faerie tales?"

Rinoa whimpered in fear.

"I should kick both your asses, but there will be no more violence today," Xu spoke with practiced authority. "Seifer, kick your gunblade over to Instructor Trepe, please."

He did so after some hesitation revealed he really had no choice.

"Good; thank you. Now I want you to follow her out the door behind me. Rinoa, you come with me on the other way."

Quistis narrowed her eyes at Seifer. "You've lost, so don't think is a good time to let your ego get the better of you," she said to back up Xu's statement.

FANGIRL ALERT!
Yes, Quistis and Seifer are speaking to each other in this scene. However, believe it or not, the fact they are exchanging words does not imply that are romantically linked. In fact, if you actually pay attention to what they are saying, you'll see that they are disgusted with each other! Surprise!

Although seething with rage, Seifer consented to be led out of the room. Rinoa dropped to her knees, her entire body quivering. Her horrified, desperate stare and frightened sobs conveyed the plea for her life that her faltering language could not.

"I'm not going to hurt you, Rinoa."

Rinoa only whimpered more as tears welled up in her unblinking eyes.

Mengshi softened, realizing she was being too hard on the girl. There was a time when she would have seen only the rules Rinoa had broken and the justice she deserved. (That time, she noted mentally, was their housewarming party.) But that scenario would not be repeated this time. She squatted down to face Rinoa as an equal. "Rinoa, it wasn't too long ago I would have punished you for this," she said softly, trying to make her tone as conversational as possible. "But it took me a trip to hell to wake me up to why we need to forgive each other. Revenge is for children and the emotionally retarded; nothing good ever comes from bringing others down. So ... I'm not going to hurt you. You can still come back to Garden. And, yes, what you've done here is wrong. I hope that someday you'll overcome this behavior, but I've learned now it's not punishment and so-called justice that ever holds the answer. We need to find someone who can help you not do this, not someone will kick shit in your face for doing it."

"Th-thanks," Rinoa stammered.

"I should also tell you," she said after a moment's hesitation. She had debated whether to give Rinoa this information, fearing that the girl would misuse it, but her experiences in hell had taught her nothing if not that honesty was the only solution. "You're still a sorceress. You weren't hurt badly enough to lose all your powers. It was just the ones that you acquired last, the ones from Sorceress Adel, that seeped out into me."

"Really? I am?" She didn't even bother asking how Xu knew this - by this point Rinoa had more or less accepted that she was completely powerless before the system.

"Yes." Mengshi smiled. "Try it sometime to check for yourself."

"Thank y- thanks for telling me." Rinoa stumbled over her words. She stood up and brushed herself off.

Mengshi put one arm on her shoulder. "Come on. We'll go out the back door so you'll be away from Seifer."

* * *

Selphie's heart jumped a mile when Quistis stepped with Seifer out of the museum. She hadn't known what to expect to see, but - it was okay! Her eyes widened with childish glee. "You did it?" Could everything really work out after all? Oh, she hoped so, she hoped so.

"Yes, there's nothing to worry about. Xu's taking Rinoa out the other way."

"WHOO HOO!" Selphie did a little hop and raised her fists in the air. Zell hugged her; she hugged him back. But as they embraced, Selphie soon found her thoughts straying back to the previous arguments now that this temporary crisis was over. All Zell had said to her ... all Rinoa had said to her ... it was a lot to think about. Those were the kind of things that only slipped out during crises, when extremes were justified, and now that she was dealing with the ideas under a more clam light, they seemed to be positively crushing issues.

She sighed heavily. "Zell, can I be alone for a second? I... I've got a lot on my mind and I need to think for a bit. Don't worry; it's nothing you did."

He nodded.

"Thanks," Selphie said, knowing that this wasn't the easiest request for him to fulfill. "I really appreciate it."

She meandered off into the park, needing to be far enough away from the others to think accurately about them. When she finally stopped, she found she had ended up in a pleasant spot indeed. The stream through the middle of the park lay at her feet, and a big evergreen tree towered over her from atop a small hill, draping the area in shade. She sat down at tree's base to stare into the running water.

And in her first calm moment, she knew that she had been wrong.

She was turning into Rinoa. She had been planning to give up everything for the sake of some stupid principle. And this after she had spent so long preaching against dogmatism. Hyne, how could she have been so blind to what she had been doing? She had been so close to ending up just like Sun Hye and Yuffie and all the others who had been lost to conflict. And she hadn't ever meant to. That was the most frustrating part. She'd always assumed that if she had simply stuck to her principles, she would always end up heading the right direction in life. That was why she could never truly sympathize with Zell's and Rinoa's issues. They had their priorities wrong and had needed only to have some sense talked into them so they could make the right decisions.

But she knew she hadn't made any great, grievous errors. She had ended up where she was - consumed by her obligations, on the verge of self-destruction - completely by accident. Which meant that this was something more than a lack of principle. Because, dammit, she knew she was a good person and could make decisions; she hadn't deliberately chosen to become like this. No, it had begun with a flirtation with the faintest traces of these destructive ideas. They couldn't have seen they were dangerous then; that was the problem. But following those thoughts led to more thoughts, and before they even realized they had gone anywhere, they were marching to self-destruction. Each supposed pursuit of a better life had only led them further into this morass.

At least it gave her a lot more sympathy for Zell, for Rinoa, for everyone. They were no different from her. They were all alike. Everyone. This monster dwelled inside all of them, threatened to swallow them any one of them. Rinoa had been becoming just like Niccolo, and she had been becoming just like Rinoa and Zell. Not because they had great flaws, but because anyone could make these mistakes.

She shivered. It was scary, it was really was, to think that she had nearly killed herself while thinking she was doing the right thing the whole time. She wondered how many of her principles she could trust. If they were all like this, what could she believe in? Well, there were always her feelings. Which, she supposed, were all anyone could really depend on.

Perhaps Rinoa was right that they were all just lumps of decaying organic matter, that they were all destined for oblivion. But even if she was - and Selphie sincerely doubted that - then she wanted to make the best of all the time she did have. Why throw away her life and future before she had to? If her life was limited, then she wanted to squeeze every drop of love and beauty of it she could.

Life. Dammit, she did want to live. Having come close to the jaws of doom and turned away to safety, she now had a hard time believing that she had believed what she had. How could she have not seen the value of all those things Zell had listed? Him and Irvine and Emma and Quistis and Chu-Chu and music and her band and the Garden Festival Committee and SeeD. Those were a billion times more beautiful and wonderful than any principle could ever be.

Zell. Well, he really had been right this time. Maybe his insistence on living only for himself and her wasn't so naïve after all. In fact, it seemed pretty damn right the more she thought about it. Maybe she didn't prove or change anything. Maybe just living would be victory enough for her.

Chapter Text

"Selphie?"

Selphie jumped and looked over her shoulder. Rinoa had crept up on her little resting place. Well, so much more for her solitude. She was not really done thinking, but the corporeal world demanded her presence. Time to she force her wandering thoughts to fall in line for the moment.

"What's going to happen now?" This was no longer the defiant Rinoa, but a broken, frightened Rinoa. The fight had gone out of her. Or perhaps, the illusion of a fight that had never existed evaporated. She was not in the least bit comfortable with where she stood now, but she was terrified to find out what might lie elsewhere because she harbored a sneaking suspicion that it was only worse. And she dared not attempt to find out lest she confirm that suspicion and squelch her hopes completely. She didn't even want to think about how she would be punished, if she would ever see them again.

Selphie did not want to flat out ask what had happened - the poor girl looked half-traumatized - but she couldn't really answer Rinoa's question without knowing. Rinoa managed to discern from her questioning look that she wanted more information and supplied what she could. "I slipped away from Quistis and Xu when they were arguing with Seifer. I don't know what to do. I mean, I... I've destroyed too much now. I certainly can't expect any sympathy from you guys." She was reluctant to even mention the possibility. Of course she didn't want to abandon these people - they were sort of her friends, she had to admit - but to ask about it was to suggest it could happen, and that was asking for far more than she deserved.

"I'll pay for the damage," Selphie said wearily. It was she wanted to do, of course, but she could also not help but wonder how much longer she would be making up for the problems Rinoa caused. Would Rinoa ever change? Was she wrong in putting faith in her? She knew that Rinoa could never do good until she gave her the chance to do good, told her she could do good, trusted her to do good, but she was having to reach deeper and deeper to find that trust every time Rinoa let her down. "It's replaceable. You're not." Selphie noted sadly that by this point, that comment was not so much an emotional statement as an automatic, mechanical reassurance.

"I guess I fucked up or something, but..." Rinoa shook her head, violently, as if doing so would shake the confusion out of her. It didn't. She still felt the desperate, hungry pleading inside. A pleading for love and sympathy, a pleading for someone to drag her out of an exile she could not persevere in. And though she felt she was now so exposed and sensitive that any further contact would shatter her completely, that hunger was greater than her ego. She sat down beside Selphie, in the shade of the tree. "I don't know what else I can do, Selphie. I've never known anything else."

Selphie sighed. What more could be done? She felt like she had given every bit she could and had it all come not even to the glory of a spectacular failure but to the mediocrity she had begin with. "I thought we had all this all settled, Rinoa. I thought we decided that we didn't have to destroy ourselves for the sake of the future."

"I don't what else to do! You've got friends, you've got a boyfriend, you've got talents and hobbies, you've got all sorts of things you can devote yourself to, but ... I'm nothing." She shook her head sadly. "Just a ball of negativity. I'm anti-everything and pro-nothing. Take away the anger, and I'm nothing. I need it, Selphie, don't you see? I don't even care about these causes, not really. All I care is about having something to fight. The anger is the only thing I have, Selphie. For a brief moment, when I'm pissing people off, when they don't understand me, I'm in control of the world. I'm making an impact on it, I'm changing it, instead of it changing me. It's the only way I can have any friggin' self-worth. Anger fills in the gaps in your life that are missing love. And my life is just one big gaping hole."

Rinoa was so totally wrong that Selphie feared she would not be able to connect with her at all. And that was frustrating, becuase Selphie still wanted to fix everything, to make every human being's life better. Everyone deserved happiness. She just didn't know how to give it to some people. But, she reminded herself, Rinoa was probably more like her than she liked to admit. "Come on, that's not going to solve anything, Rinoa, and you know it."

"I know!" Rinoa howled. She accused herself of all this constantly; she didn't need to hear it again from Selphie and double her pain. "Look, Selphie, you know I don't want to be like this. I know destroying things doesn't solve any problems. But I need it to get by. It's... it's like a drug. It lets me forget about my problems just for a moment by filling my head with something else. Only problem is it's never enough to appease a void as encompassing as me, so I have to do it more and more each time while my life descends into nothingness. You know, I don't really want to be full of anger. I never chose this, but... it's too late to go back. I know I had potential. I could have done a lot; I'm not without my talents, I suppose. But I've fucked up too much for it to matter. I've chosen the wrong path and there's no turning back now. I'm doomed. I'm addicted."

"Come on, Rinoa. You're not a robot. You can control what you do."

"YES!" Rinoa seethed. "Yes, I am a robot!" Selphie seemed to have hit on a sore point. "That's what they've turned me into! You don't understand!"

Selphie fidgeted idly with her shoes. "I guess I don't."

"I want to live, Selphie. I want to have an actual say about what happens to me. I mean ... when the fuck have I ever had any control over my life? When I was a kid I had to go to some strict fucking private school and be a perfect little girl to not make my dad look bad. Now I have to work my ass off to sustain myself and to stay at Garden; I can't complain or I get fired. And everyone thinks they know everything about me and won't give me a chance to be anything more than another fucking drone. Everyone wants something from me; no one wants me." She looked over at Selphie. "I guess that's why I want to be unpredictable. At least destroying something beautiful gives me some control in my life, some way of proving to the world that there's more to me than they think. Because I'm terrified that they're right, Selphie. I'm terrified that I'm really as one-dimensional as they say, and that the only place for me in the world is to have a one-dimensional relationship with a one-dimensional guy like Squall."

She was certainly full of resentment, and it was ugly to see. Selphie had to keep reminding herself that it was good to see Rinoa finally owning up to what she did and trying to work her issues out. And she was starting to catch on, I think. "And all this is so people won't understand you and will be forced to admit you're more than one-dimensional," Selphie surmised.

"Yeah, I guess. I have to show them that I won't smile and take their shit without striking back," Rinoa continued. "That they have to pay attention to what I want. I mean ... at least if people hate me, they noticed me, and if they're upset about the shit I do, then my desires are actually impacting the world. And, yeah, I know you'll say that's selfish, but, fuck it, after all the shit I take from the world, I think I'm entitled to indulge myself a little. I know it's not the most appealing idea, but I gotta get by somehow." She sighed. "I'll admit when I met Seifer, I thought for a time that things could be different. That maybe would someone could really want me only for who I was ... but, no, he was just using me and screwed me over the worst of everyone."

Hyne. She tried so hard to pretend that it was behind her, but it really wasn't. Not at all. And given how long it had been now -- almost three years? -- she doubted it ever would be. Of course, having to see him every single day certainly didn't help matters.

Rinoa sighed and looked distantly into the sky. "I was so naïve, I know." She laughed bitterly at her follies. If she did not reclaim her scars as badges of noble suffering they would be still-festering wounds. "I was sixteen; I'd just run away from home. You know I didn't have a clue about the world. I was just flailing about, like I am now, trying to cover up how I empty is. I don't know why the hell he chose to pick on me. You know, I was never even his girlfriend, not officially. He wouldn't even allow me that dignity. And I should have realized right then that he and I would never amount to anything. But ... he promised me the world. He told me all about his 'romantic dream,' and I fell for it completely. I believed it when he said I was perfect, that I was all he ever wanted, that we could forget the world and just have each other in this... perfect fulfillment of his dream. Of course, as he spent more time with me, reality sunk in and he started to wake up to the fact that I wasn't exactly like whatever he envisioned in his fantasy world. So I got dumped like a lead brick.

"I don't know whether to hate him for what he did to me or to hate myself for not being good enough for him. I was torn, torn between wanting him to take me back and wanting to make him suffer as much as possible. I was up until now. It certainly doesn't help I have to see him in the halls every day. I suppose I can't really blame him as much these days, though. Not after I've seen myself doing the same thing to Squall. He turned me into himself, Selphie, and now I know I do hate him." Selphie nodded to show that she was listening, though she reserved comment.

"The rest of that year, after Seifer left, I was totally depressed. I thought I had everything; I had centered my entire life around him. And then it was taken away from me as fast as it was given to me. I was desperate for attention; I've always been. And when Squall came along ... well, let's face it, he doesn't have much of a life. He clung to me like superglue as soon as I prodded him out of his shell, and he was all too happy to bail me out of all the stupid crap I got myself into. And I guess he made feel safer, at least. I wasn't hating myself day in and day out for not being good enough for Seifer. And I hoped that if I just stuck with him, he'd start to develop into an actual person instead of having the personality of a toothpick forever. Yeah, well, it didn't happen. All he ever did was to ape everything I did, agree with everything I said, and basically turn himself into my toadie in every way he could."

It was nice to see Rinoa actually talking about her own feelings for once, Selphie thought, and she would not risk disturbing this rare moment by interjecting. Besides, Rinoa was probably doing herself the most good just by talking through all this. It was a lot to take for Selphie to take in, but she was also perhaps beginning to understand things a bit more.

"It was after Quistis and Xu moved in together. Squall started dropping hints, wondering why we couldn't do the same. I had to ask myself why that didn't appeal to me at all. And I was forced to admit that it was because I didn't really love him, not the way I wanted to. I mean ... I tried. I really did try, okay? But in the end, he had become just as dependent on me as I had been on Seifer. I'm the only thing he has in his life, you know. His entire existence revolves around me. And ... that's not the kind of relationship I want. So I got out. But it's too late. I already did to him what Seifer did to me. I know he's never to going be happy. Fuck everything." She grabbed a stick and hurled it angrily into the stream.

"I don't want to play these friggin' games; I really don't. But what the hell else is there, Selphie? Is anyone going to care about me, not because I'm the only one who shows any interest in him, not because he wants to mold me into his romantic dream, but just because I'm me?" She shook her head. "I can't even try anymore. I'll just corrupt more people. Seifer infected me, I infected Squall trying to cure myself from what Seifer did to me, and I know Squall will probably ruin some poor other girl trying to get over me. And none of us are ever going to get past it. We'll never find that happiness with anyone else, and the more we try, the more victims we create. Who knew that insecurity was a sexually transmitted disease?" She clenched her fists, shaking with an anger bred of futility. The first few tears slid silently from her eyes. "Damn you, Seifer," she seethed. "Damn you to hell."

Selphie turned to wipe the tears away with her finger. Rinoa quickly calmed only to stare ahead in perfect silence. What else was there left to say? Selphie meditated on this for a moment, then turned back to Rinoa and asked, "Did you ... tell Squall any of this? About Seifer?"

"No," Rinoa admitted with a shrug.

"Maybe you should."

Rinoa shrugged again, insulating herself from the pain with apathy. As long as she did not let it reach her heart, she was safe. "It doesn't matter, Selphie; it's over. He'd never understand." Guilt compelled to defend her actions more and more, because she was beginning to sense this explanation was not good enough. "Look, Selphie, he doesn't have the emotional intelligence to make sense of this. He doesn't have opinions; he doesn't have any experience with anything that I haven't shoved him into; he's just a big blank mark. I hate it. It's the same thing that everyone else does to me, except of treating me like shit no matter what I do, he fawns over me no matter what I do. Either way, I've lost all responsibility for myself. I could dismember him and he'd still say 'Well, that's okay.' He makes me feel like a fucking robot, and I hate it!"

Selphie drew her knees and wrapped her arms around them. She tilted her head to peer inquisitively at Rinoa. "If you don't tell him ... how can you expect him to understand?" That thought was allowed to sink in for a moment before she continued, "Maybe you should give him the respect he needs to grow up. He cares about you a lot, you know."

Rinoa looked away and sighed. "I know, and that's another one of the reasons he bothers me so much, Selphie. I don't feel like I deserve to be doted on. What have I really done for him? He's just trying to justify his own existence by clinging to me; that's the only reason."

"Rinoa, please," Selphie said. "He might not be who you thought. Just ... talk to him. For me?"

Rinoa sighed. She had to admit that Selphie was right about one thing -- she hadn't really given Squall much of a chance to prove himself more than a yes-man. And while she was still skeptical he could be more than that, she couldn't really say it with any authority if she wasn't speaking from experience. "All right. I'll talk to him. I'm not getting back together, you understand; I'm just going to tell him about why I dumped him."

"I wasn't suggesting that, of course not," Selphie said. "I just think it would be ... foolish to throw everything away and never speak to him again, not even to wrap up loose ends."

Rinoa frowned. Yes, what Selphie suggested was what she would have liked the most, but it seemed so difficult a plan to implement in this cruel world. Could she really bear to let her defenses down and risk getting hurt again? "I guess this means I have to give up the furnisexuality game, then."

"Rinoa, no offense, but, um, you weren't exactly fooling anyone with that to begin with."

"Yeah, but ... at least I can tell myself for a little while that I don't need people, you know? Then I can lie and pretend I'm misunderstood and that there's hope that someone will see good in me, when I know I'm really perfectly well understood and just worthless dirt."

"You're not dirt," Selphie quickly cut in, but Rinoa continued on.

"I just need some kind of cover. Some way of convincing myself that I don't need people, that the reason I'm alone is because I'm better than all them. It's like I said -- I'm just trying to make noise as much possible to cover up the deafening silence that my life really is. I need to be able to see him in the halls without feeling like shit for needing him."

Selphie sighed. "You have to let go of your pride, Rinoa." Perhaps a bit too stern, not quite understanding enough, but she was not perfect and Rinoa's anger was difficult to bear.

"Have to? To do what?" Rinoa said. "I don't want to submit. No matter how hellish my life gets, I'd still take my freedom and dignity over any supposed solution that requires me to bow down and beg from another. That's the only one way I can live, Selphie. I mean, sure, I'll go talk to Squall, but don't expect to get down on my knees and beg anyone for anything. I have my dignity, and even if it destroys me I won't let go one of the thing I have over the world. I won't let them win. Y'know ... better to reign in hell than serve in heaven."

"And what if we can all reign in heaven?"

Rinoa said nothing and just kept staring at Selphie. This was not enough of an argument to bother replying to, so she waited for Selphie to elaborate her ideas.

"Rinoa, sometime you have to put away the training wheels and strike out on your own without anything to lean on. Or you'll never really solve the problems that are causing you sorrow. You can give up your pride now without losing it forever. If you can give up control, forget what you know for just one moment, you can find a chance to seize a better future. You know ... swallow your pride and talk to Squall and maybe you'll find a reason to feel even better about yourself. You have to take chances sometimes, even though I know it's not easy."

"And what if things don't work out? I have to cover my bases somehow. And like I said, I don't have much left. I can't risk getting hurt and dragged through the mud again..." She looked away sadly, gazing up into the tree's leafy boughs as she thought of all the humiliation she had suffered. "...I'm not sure I could take it."

Selphie nodded. "Yeah," she agreed. "I know it's a risk, but ... you can find the courage to let go if you have faith. Faith in people, faith in ... whatever you think is important. When circumstances strip away everything you think you know, all that's left is whether or not you believe. The goodwill that you will invest in others by trusting them, helping them, and allowing them to help you will be paid back to you, I promise you. Maybe not every time. But enough times." She paused for a moment, having said her piece, but more thoughts quickly jumped to her. "You know, despite all that's happened, despite all that's happened, no matter how bad things get, I still believe in people. I've seen too much to dispute that. Not after everyone in Trabia rallied to help someone they didn't even know, not after Xu managed to find her way out of hell - with your help!, not after Chu-Chu volunteered to stay with her, not after Zell and Irvine saved me and Xu saved you and Seifer."

Of course, finding faith in other people was something far easier said than done. Selphie knew her own faith and trust had been battered and tested uncountable times, and she was a seasoned optimist. But if Rinoa could just take that first step... all she had to acknowledge that she wanted better than what she had; then she could begin to realize it...

Rinoa had fallen silent instead of retorting, and Selphie's heart surged with hope. She had made a difference; taken an axe to the frozen sea within Rinoa and somehow managed to chip a path to the light in it. She had done it! Even if Rinoa did not change her mind now, she had shown some inkling that she had not given up on the universal quest for love and peace. Well, Selphie, this shows you do know what you're doing, after all. Don't forget this the next time you or anyone else starts doubting you.

"All right," Rinoa said at last. "I'll do it." Whoo-hoo! "But I... can I ask you a question?"

"Of course." I did it! I did it! Not only had she averted a crisis ... she grinned and giggled with delight to think of the future rewards that might come from this.

"If I don't ... if I don't want to take pride in being a victim, or get angry, what should I do when I hurt?"

"You'll have to find something for yourself, Rinoa. Something positive."

"Just ... tell me what you do. I want to know."

"What do I do? Well... I have wonderful friends to lean on, first and foremost." Her previous thoughts started to drift back. "People who believe in me and give me the faith to know that everything will turn out all right. People who support me, who pick me up when I'm down, applaud me when I succeed, ease my sorrows and amplify my joys." The events of the morning filled her conscious, forcing to acknowledge her just how little she would be without them. "People who ... often know me better than myself and can guide me back to what I really want when I've been led astray."

"Yeah, but how many fucking friends do I have? I'm either the stuck-up rich kid or the loudmouth counterculture loner; no one likes me either way."

"I believe in you, Rinoa. And I know that, no matter what the movies may say, you are a beautiful and unique snowflake."

"I..." No one had ever said anything like that to her before. Selphie believed in her? And she hadn't even done anything for Selphie, just caused a lot of trouble and nearly got her thrown in jail. "Thanks. I ... I guess you're my friend, too."

"Of course I am, silly." Selphie giggled. The angst and frustration was giving way to moments of levity. Her spirits rose, carrying her whole soul, mind, and body with it. Everything about the world just seemed better. The jokes funnier, the birds' songs more melodic, the grass greener, and herself an infinitely more important and beautiful person.

Friends. Yes, she liked having those. She put her arm around Rinoa's shoulders and grinned. Not only was it such a relief to see Rinoa shattering her facade of iconoclasm, it felt good to have her so grateful for Selphie's efforts. After so many weeks of feeling like she was useless and struggling to keep everything together, genuine appreciation was hard to come by.

"But I can't leech off you all the time," Rinoa protested.

"Well ... my music helps me a lot too. Have you ever tried singing or playing an instrument? I ... well, for me, it's a really good outlet, something I can put my feelings into, even when I'm by myself. Even if I feel like it's just me and Gracie and my guitar versus the world, that's a lot better than being completely alone."

Rinoa shook her head. "Nah. I'd never live up to Mom." She picked up a pebble and skipped it across the water to distract herself from this sore point. "Really, what can I do? The only way I can justify not being as important as my parents is by objecting to everything that's good about them. And I know that's never going to get me anywhere." As her feelings gravitated back towards frustration, she saw her attempt to distract herself had failed. She pounded her fist against the grass. "I feel like such a failure sometimes."

"No person is a failure who has friends, dear. And I'll always be your friend."

Rinoa was silent again. It seemed to a satisfied silence, though, like Selphie had finally given her satisfactory observations to all her questions. Selphie smiled as peace enveloped them both and warmed with the wonderful knowledge that the universe was not wrong after all. She had to admit that she had never thought this conversation capable of yielding a bounty it did. She hadn't wanted to get involved Rinoa's problems, she had thought she had too many herself, but this time her faith in others had paid off. She certainly felt a lot more confident about herself and her capacity to drag herself out of the holes she dug. And it was so nice to hear Rinoa talk about honestly about her frusterations instead of trying to mask them with anger.

The desire to emote tugged at her. But the linear conversation had reached its limit. Perhaps it was time to explore the reaches of the soul that spoken words could not. Without the slightest hesitation - she did this too often for it to be difficult - Selphie leapt from speech to song.

I remember this song
I've known it for so long
And it feels so good to hear
Sounds a little sad but sweet just the same
Lovely melody

That's what I wish I could do, Rinoa thought. Burst out in song and be able to say what I feel and have it be all sound so nice... But she just wasn't Selphie. No one was.

Selphie climbed to her feet and continued to sing without missing a note.

Whenever I hear this song
I really don't know why
It makes me shed a little tear
But I'm sure my tears will disappear
Because I know you're here

Selphie marched circles around the tree. Both admiration and jealousy churned in Rinoa as she watched her. But one emotion overpowered both of those, and that was relief. They had been through so much and, in a peculiar way, they had been through it together. Even if they had been at each other's throats most of the time, they were discovering peace and the futility of their struggle together. And Rinoa was no longer advancing the vain hope that things might be getting better but let's not get our hopes up! She knew they had passed out of their darkest hour.

Whenever I am feeling sad
And everything around looks bad
All I have to do is think of you
I know my dreams are waiting to come true

Selphie stopped in front of Rinoa and faced her as her feelings culminated in a final verse.

Let's go on with hope in our hearts
Love will surely show us how
Let's go on now, our hearts filled with dreams
Let's go on and find them now

As Selphie had been singing these last lines, Rinoa was already been rising. She took over at the first opportunity. For once, she wasn't thinking too much about it, and it felt great. The moment spoke directly from her, unmuffled by the inhibitions that had beaten into her.

You're such a lucky girl
That's what they always say
Rich and beautiful and bright
They don't get to see what's hidden deep inside
So I feel all alone

Selphie beamed. She grinned and nodded her head vigorously as if to say "Yeah, that's it!" Rinoa took a deep breath and launched into a second verse, putting greater force behind her words.

They keep telling me my life is so grand
What will make them understand?
No one knows how truly lonely I am
Why won't they understand?

Rinoa was into it now. All she had to do was let out what she was really thinking, how she really felt. She swept down to the river's bank and plucked a cattail. She held it up to examine and focused on it, tuning out of the world, as her heart released another desperate plea.

I may act as if I'm strong
But all I want is to belong
Love and understanding from mom and dad
Is all I need to keep from being sad

Rinoa sighed and blew the cat tail to pieces before murmuring a melancholy wish.

If only I could just let go
Help me let my feelings show

She looked up, back to Selphie, and realized she should feel very proud of herself. To think that just a few hours ago, they were irreconcilably opposed to each other. And Selphie had known nothing of what she had finally released. And, well, there was still a lot of damage left to heal, but ... yep, she wanted to live now. And not just live by inflicting misery on others, but actually ... live.

A giant grin had slowly crept over Selphie's face. After several weeks of feeling she hadn't measured up, she had finally done something that she could hold up as a triumph of her will. And from the least likely of sources, no less. Wow. She knew this was a rare, humbling brush with universal kinship, and she would not soon forget it.

And she was not the only one grinning.

* * *

"Oh! I'm glad you two showed up when you did," Quistis said. They were all still waiting outside the museum. Selphie was glad to note that Seifer was not needing to be physically restrained, but was rather standing around looking disgruntled as he usually did. "We were worrying we'd have to leave without you."

"Why? Is something wrong?"

"Garden's being attacked."

"What?" Selphie exclaimed. "By who? Why?"

"Mice and black mages," Quistis said, knowing what this meant but trying to be as low-key about it as possible.

"Ohmigod! That means... Yuffie was right! She was right!" She found herself lashing back at Quistis in her anger. All this trouble, all this heartache and suffering and despair, could all have been averted if they'd actually listened to Yuffie! Hyne, they deserved to be slapped around for this! But, her conscience reminded her, she had been nearly as skeptical. Her flare of outrage quickly faded. This was probably a situation that none of them could have foreseen, could have had the foreknowledge to prevent. But they had learned from it, to be certain, and there was yet the chance to set things right and indeed profit from it.

Rinoa found her eyes traveling to Seifer and she fought to restrain her impulse to flee or strike in anger. No. She would do this. She would prove she could. Show them all that she could be more than they saw her as. Fighting back tears of desperation, trying to retain her composure, she stepped forward and offered her hand to Seifer. "I'm sorry," she said plainly. She quickly shut her mouth again before she burst out in tears again.

Seifer stared at her without reaction. She was just about to retract her hand when, as they all watched with the electric knowledge that this was an all-too-rare moment of magic, he offered his own and they shook again. "Me too."

Selphie was the first to applaud. Then Quistis and Zell, and Xu, and Irvine. They were all proud of her. And Rinoa would have felt embarrassed, but she knew she had merited this, and that her goodness had finally made itself known.

Rinoa lowered her hand and turned to face the crowd that had finally embraced her. "Thanks, everyone." They were all smiling at her, and at last she felt at home. She sighed, almost ashamed of her past follies now. "I've got to admit something else."

"You're actually anthrosexual?" Quistis guessed.

Rinoa laughed gently. "I guess I wasn't really fooling anyone, was I?"

"It's okay."

Xu looked off to the familiar building that had for so many years had brought them all so many of stories, stories of love and adventure and growth and heartache and friendship and discovery. Garden still looked normal from her vantage point, so the battle could not have gotten too heated. "All right, everyone," she said. "We've got to do our part to help out Garden. I'm tired of flying; can we all take the car?"

The seven of them - Selphie and Zell and Irvine and Quistis and Xu and Seifer and Rinoa - piled into Selphie's Pokébeetle. Selphie tore recklessly through the streets. They had to hasten back to their Garden in the hour of need. Until...

"WHOA, WAIT A SECOND!" Zell yelled suddenly and loudly enough that Selphie actually stopped the car and looked at him. "I know it isn't really my place to comment on this, but how the hell are we fitting seven people and a huge pile of Beanie Babies inside a Beetle?"

Chapter Text

It had begun like any other day in Garden. Students and SeeDs had slumbered peacefully within its familiar, secure walls, resting up for the new day that lay ahead of them. And they had gone about their business, until, at approximately 4:14 PM, the Dreamcasts had begun their revolt. Every one of the consoles - scattered about the dormitories - had simultaneously begun downloading the Devil Summoning Program from Dricas.

And now Nida and the Arrogant SeeD from the library - things were getting so desperate that Garden had to trot out the unimportant characters that didn't have names - now stood back-to-back in the dormitory corridor, fighting off unending waves of black mages and ChuChu Rocket! mice. "Why doesn't anything normal ever happen here?" Nida bemoaned as he cut down a mage with his completely generic, featureless short sword. "Why can't a week go by without people killing themselves or being arrested or everyone's sexual orientation being reversed or fighting breaking out over Internet music videos or our home video game consoles attacking us with cartoon mice?"

The pair gradually hacked their way to the dorm door they had been directed to. Still fighting, they ventured inside and found the enemies even thicker within. Mages and mice were materializing in blue light one after another in front of the entertainment center. Nida summoned his Guardian Force. A plain-looking green dragon flew through the room, breathing out fire. The attack created a big enough gap in the onslaught that the Arrogant SeeD could rush in and smash the piece of furniture with his axe. It collapsed, splinters and sparks flying everywhere as various electronic devices slammed into each other. New mice and mages stopped appearing, though the victory did nothing to halt the hordes that were already rampaging about.

"There's another one down," Arrogant SeeD panted. He and Nida battled their way out of the room to find the next room.

* * *

A battle was raging outside her door, but Mikoto was still seated in front of her Macintosh, drafting "Attack on B-Garden: Thumbnail Theatre." She smirked, knowing already that her clever deconstruction would deal a crushing blow to the follies of the idiots that surrounded her. They were all acting like this was the end of the world. Like Balamb Garden had never been attacked before! Like there had never been any wars in the history of the world! Well, this was what they got for being so insular. One military academy, one battle was hardly cosmically significant.

Someone male pounded on the door. "Mikoto!"

"Go away."

"We're under attack!"

"Yeah, well, I don't get a flying fuck, an aquatic fuck, a land-dwelling fuck, a tree-climbing fuck, a deep sea-diving fuck, or any other sort of fuck I neglected to mention. Buzz off."

"We need your help! Everyone must assist in Garden's defense!"

"Eh, I already cleared the buggers out of my room; that's good enough -"

Thunder crackled and the male voice screamed. Mikoto finally dropped her pretext of complete apathy and dashed outside. The Man From Garden - also known as CC Joker - was lying on the ground, trying to beat out the fire consuming his pants. Three familiar-looking winged black mages stood over him, staring Mikoto down with unblinking glowing eyes. Lightning crackled from the staff of the lead mage. "The Black Waltz, huh?" she muttered.

"Hardly," their leader intoned. "We are ... the Black Polka."

"I exist only to polka! I exist only to polka! I exist only to polka! I exist only to polka!" chanted one of the other mages.

"Oh, brother." Mikoto rolled her eyes. "Another predictable, hackneyed attempt at creating a team of bumbling, recurring minor villains. When will they ever come up with something original? Note that by cleverly pigeonholing you into a cynical stereotype, I have completely nullified all right you have to exist. Also, I hate sprite-based webcomics."

Oblivious to Mikoto's insults, Black Polka 16 - or was it 18? Mikoto couldn't keep them straight - produced an accordion from inside its robe. "Shall we polka?"

Mikoto was already charging up an energy blast. "Sure, let's polka ... IN THE NEXT DIMENSION!!" she cried, blasting the Black Polka out of existence.

Man From Garden looked up. "Oh, thank you."

"Eh, I was just tired of all the noise they were making," Mikoto said. "Those were such crappy villains. Seriously, I could be a better villain than that. They have no talent at all."

He rose and smoothed out what was left of his pants. "Hmmph! Can't you even ask if I'm okay?"

Mikoto grunted. "Oh. Huh. Well, are you okay?"

"Yeah." Man From Garden looked around. "Gosh, what should I do? I'd like to enjoy my fifteen sentences of fame before the heroes return and it's time for me to fade back into obscurity again."

"Bah, those are such crappy heroes anyway," Mikoto said. "It doesn't take any talent at all to do what they could do. I could do it."

"Oh yeah? Why don't you?"

Mikoto shrugged. "This is all cosmically insigificant anyway. Why bother? Andrew W.K. is the savior of rock'n'roll. ¡Viva la apatía!"

Then, seemingly at random, she took a deep breath and prepared to go Super Terra-jin. As she clenched her fists and roared, yellow energy enveloped her. Her hair grew and stood up on end. She blasted off into the air and streaked down the hall, leaving her associate in the dust.

* * *

Cid called again while the missing SeeDs were driving back to Garden. "Xu, how close are you to Garden?" he asked. The request was obviously urgent, but he was managing to stay calm.

"Almost there."

"Good. The mages have let the monsters out of the training area. We're going to need you to hold down the front gates; we can't let them escape into the countryside!"

Mengshi relayed this information to the others. "You can lift off Garden. If we're floating in the air, nobody will be able to escape!"

".... we ... ... ... ... and ... ... Nida ... floor."

"Hold on; I can't hear you!" Mengshi shouted into the phone. She leaned out the window to try for a better reception.

"No ... ... ... ... broken ... ... ... hear ... me?"

"NOT REALLY!" She opened the car door and climbed up onto the roof of the Pok eetle. "CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW?"

"YES," Cid said. "HOORAY."

"Maybe you should invest a new phone," Selphie suggested.

"But I can play Super Monkey Ball on this," Mengshi protested, hurt.

"Xu, the elevator's broken," Cid continued. "All the students and SeeDs have been trapped on the first floor since this morning! Neither Edea nor I know how to pilot Garden and Nida's stuck in the dormitories. And on top of all that, Squall's vanished!"

"Can't Nida use the stairs?"

"There aren't any stairs in Balamb Garden; remember?"

"Oh, right."

Seifer poked his head out of the car window and looked up. "Hey! Xu! Maybe the power cords to the elevator have snapped!"

"Seifer thinks the elevator power cords might be broken," Xu explained into her phone.

"Hmm, we haven't checked that yet. But they're up on the roof."

Heh. The world seemed to be offering her numerous ways to put her sorceress powers to good. Or perhaps she simply didn't see them before, when she was horrified at what she had become. But she rather liked being useful. It felt good that what made her unique made her useful to the world - and that her help was desired because of her specific characteristics and not simply as another drone worker. "I think I can take care of that. I might be able to pilot Garden, too; I brushed up on how it works in case we ever needed a back-up. I'll be right up. Don't worry; I'll explain later!"

She sprung from the back of the moving vehicle. Her wings instantly sprouted again and she took off for the roof of Balamb Garden.

* * *

"It sounds like somethin's goin' on out there!" Kid pressed her ear to the sealed elevator doors.

Rikku flopped back and forth in her carpet. "Maybe someone's finally coming to rescue us!" She couldn't believe that no one had found them missing yet -- they'd been in here all night! At least the roll of carpet had functioned as a convenient sleeping bag, but, dangit, she was getting hungry. And that cute emo boy still hadn't spoken a word to them. Sure, she was used to people not telling her their names, but couldn't at least say something really deep and sensitive? He probably wrote a lot of poetry, why didn't he read some of it? "I'll miss you, mysterious emo stranger!"

Well, these girls aren't so bad, really, Squall decided. They hadn't really done anything to offend him - in fact, unlike all the mean people here in not-Esthar, they even felt sorry for him. Maybe if he was nice to them too, he could get to know them better. Too bad he'd already lost his mojo several weeks ago. "I guess I'll miss you too," he said. "Thanks for keeping me company."

"Hey, you're talking to us!" Rikku said. "Yay!"

"D'you have any deep poetry to read us, mate? What's your name?"

"Squall," Squall grunted.

"Hi Squall!" Rikku said.

"Yeah, nice to meet you for real!" Kid put a friendly hand on his shoulder. "Now don't be so glum, chum!"

"That's right, I have a joke for you!" Squall recalled Seifer's advice. "Okay, here it goes: Two pretzels are walking down the street and one is assaulted."

Kid and Rikku exchanged puzzle glances. Where was the funny in that? It must be some of his deep, sophisticated emo humor, because he was a true artist and all. They both giggled in appreciation. They wouldn't want to look shallow, after all!

"Squall! Hey Squall!"

Huh? Someone was most definitely calling his name, but where was it coming from? It sounded muted and distant. And it couldn't be Ellone sending him into the past; he would have recognized that. He paced the elevator, looking for something that might tip him off.

"SQUALL!"

From above! The voice was coming from above! He looked up. No one on the ceiling; it must be coming from outside the elevator. But it couldn't be too far away. Then he spotted a trapdoor on the ceiling of the elevator. Maybe someone was in the elevator shaft. He could go out and checked.

"Help me!" the voice continued.

That could be only one thing in Squall's mind. "I'll save you, Rinoa!" he cried. Driven by chemical reaction more than anything else, he ran forward for a moment before realizing this would not accomplish anything. No, he needed to have a semblance of a plan. He turned to Kid. "Quick, help me up to the trapdoor."

She offered her hands for him to stand on. Squall stumbled on them and, while she was bobbling him back and forth, managed to tip the trapdoor open.

Kid looked down at Rikku. "Who's Rinoa?" Kid whispered.

"His ex-girlfriend, duh!" Rikku hissed back. "He's going to save her even though she rejects him! How noble and heroic." She sighed wistfully. "I think I'm in love."

Squall climbed up into the elevator shaft. He looked up for the source of the voice. About half a story above him lay a small hole in the wall. A straw voodoo doll adorned with cannel poked his head out of said hole. "Hey! Squall-man! Get me out of here!"

Sweet Hyne on a leopard-print wakeboard! It was his mojo! Some mice must have taken him to make a nest! "Hang on, Dan, I'll get you out," he said. He grabbed hold of the elevator cables and inched up them.

Lucky Dan wriggled most of his body through the hole and remained poised to spring out. Squall anticipated his jump and reached out with his right arm - his left one still gripped the cables. Dan took a flying leap towards Squall; Squall's arm snapped out and seized his mojo by its neck. "Whoa, watch the straw!" Squall hefted Dan up and folded his arm in a secure more grip around his waist.

The elevator finally rumbled to life and resumed its descent to the first floor. Squall looked down just in time to see the car, with a cry of "Crikey!", drop several yards to the lobby.

Squall stared down the shaft, trying to judge the distance to the elevator's new position. Damn, it was too far to jump, especially when he was carrying a wounded voodoo doll. He started to shimmy back down the ladder while keeping his mojo firmly ensconced in his arm. That didn't last for long, however - a slight slip of Squall's feet caused Dan to bounce about while Squall slid straight down.

"Hey! Aren't you're not supposed to let my neck move, or something!?" Lucky Dan protested. "They must not have taught you anything in first-aid class!"

Squall stopped. Shoot, what was he supposed to do? He didn't trust himself to climb back down, but he couldn't hang here indefinitely.

Maybe he needed another plan.

* * *

Super Terra-jin 2 Mikoto closed in on a quartet of Black Mages she had been pursuing over the Garden rotunda. "Didn't I just fight you shmucks?"

The lead mage - fatter and slower than the rest - stared at her. His eyes flickered ominously. "No one has fought the Black Foxtrot and lived."

"Yes, but that's because they were weak. My Trance level is 470,245! I am the mightiest of all Terra-jin!"

"But my Trance level is 512,489!" Black Foxtrot #27 1/2 declared. "You cannot hope to defeat me!"

Quina bounced out of the cafeteria hallway. "I eat you all up!" He leapt forward and waved his arms several times. Black Foxtrot #27 1/2 turned into a giant cookie that fell to the ground. "Mmmm... cookie. That good enough for me!" Quina started munching away on what was once the mage.

"....HAHE FOR YOUR MOM TO POOP ON IN THE NEXT DIMENSION WITH A STICK!!" she cried, blasting Black Foxtrot pi, Black Foxtrot 8, and Black Foxtrot -1 to the next dimension.

She looked down at Quina. "By the way, that wasn't funny or clever and I'm a crappy writer, so if you appreciate my work, you're an idiot. The Doves are the saviors of rock'n'roll."

* * *

"BOOOOOOYAKAAAA!"

"Love and peace!"

"Free Mumiiiiia!"

"Eulaliaaa!"

A chorus of war cries rang out as Selphie and her friends battled the Dreamcast-spawned forces. The mages and mice had the advantage of numbers, but they were none too swift. Most attacked the heroes in groups of two or three and patiently waited their turn to be attacked and dispatched with a single hit. Selphie had to admit, however, she was unused to fighting in such a large group - she never seemed to be in any parties of more than three people. The last time she'd been in any kind of substantial battle was ... the last time B-Garden had been attacked.

The elevator slid down into place and the doors opened. Rikku came rolling out and, whooping with delight, bowled through a whole contingent of mages, knocking them over left and right. Her carpet finally stopped near the door. She wriggled out of it and jumped to her feet, full of pride at her devastating attack. "THAT's how it's done!"

The T-Rexaur marched closer to the group. Kid gasped. "Crikey, it's a T-Rexaur!" She sprung down the stairs to get a closer look. "These rare kings of nature are usually seen only on the Island Closest to Hell!" She inched closer to the monster and pointed at its side for the benefit of the others. "Check out these scales! What a beauty!"

The T-Rexaur roared. Kid crouched and looked over her shoulder at the others, speaking in a stage whisper. "She's a big one, ain't she?" She sprung up on the T-Rexaur's back and perched just below its head. The others watched her with amazement -- stupefied that anyone could be so foolhardy as to jump on a dinosaur, yet impressed at her ability to survive. Kid forced the T-Rexaur's jaws open. "Woooow! Look at those teeth! I sure wouldn't want to have my arteries punctured by those!"

The T-Rexaur stomped around in circles, trying to shake her off. Kid held on for dear life as she was shaken back and forth and bounced up and down. She attempted to continue her narrative despite the chaos. "One bite from these huuuge jaws," she shouted, "could rip a shoopuf in half! I'm going to stick my hand in there." She thrust one hand into the T-Rexaur's open jaws while trying to coax it into submission. "Hold on there, mate." The jaws snapped down and Kid's hand jumped back in a flash. "Crikey, that was a close one!"

Kid hopped back to the ground and patted the angry dinosaur on its side. "Thanks for the ride, mate!" The beast roared again and tried to turn itself around to bite her. Kid kept running, staying to the sides of the dinosaur. "Now let's see if I can cruelly drag you around by your tail, little fellow." Trying to move stealthily, she reached for the tip of the creature's tail. "You should never, ever grab a T-Rexaur by its tail, but just this once... oh!" The T-Rexaur slapped its tail up and down, slamming Kid against the floor. "He's an ornery little bugger!"

The T-Rexaur roared once again and stomped around in circles. Hanging onto the end of its tail, Kid was whipped every which way. "CRIKEY! These dinosaurs have a nasty temper!" she yelled. "Don't worry, though, I've got it all under control -- as soon as we cut to a brief commercial break, that is!"

BANG! The T-Rexaur cried out and topped over. Kid flew through the air and splashed into the water in the middle of the rotunda. Irvine lowered the smoking barrel of his shotgun. "You have to be crazy!" he said.

Kid's hands seized the railing and pulled her out of the water. "No mate, I'm Kid!" she said.

Quistis raised a suspicious eyebrow. "Is that Australian for jailbait?"

Kid hopped onto the floor and shook off some of the dripping water. "You blokes have gotta help Squall! He's trapped in the elevator shaft!"

Rikku spotted Rinoa lurking in the middle of the combat. How could she be so horrid as to stand here, like nothing was going on, when Squall was risking his life for her? Rikku ran towards her, waving her arms and yelling, "Rinoa! Rinoa! Squall's trapped in the elevator! Don't stand there; you have to help him!"

Dammit! Why was everything about Squall? None of them would ever give her a break. She didn't care if they had a point, not when they lacked the respect and decency to not jab hot pokers into her open wounds. Why didn't anyone make allowances for her failings, only Squall's?

"Screw you!" she shouted at them. She ran off in a huff around the circling main hall.

"Wait! Wait!" Rikku and Kid raced after her. "You've got to do something!"

"PRINCESS! BEATRIX AND I ARE HERE TO RESCUE YOU!"

A whole team of chocobo-riding soldiers barreled through the front gates of Garden. They clattered to a sudden, uneasy halt; Steiner, of course, went flying off the front of his chocobo. He jumped to his feet, all in a tizzy, and struggled to cram his helmet back into place. "Egads! Those infernal contraptions are all over the place! I should have suspected they were behind these foul deeds!" He started smashing the nearest mages with his sword. "Die, monsters! You don't belong in this world!"

Steiner sprung back on his chocobo and waved to Beatrix, Freya, and the other Alexandrian soldiers. "Quickly, we must find the Princess!" He raised his sword aloft and the chocobos went charging around the hall. The chocobo's feet alone cut down scores of mages and mice; their rider's swords took out many more. Steiner continued to hurl out archaic insults at the mages he smashed apart. "Fie! Have at you, machina! For Alexandria!"

"What the hell is this?" Seifer demanded.

Quistis cast a Shell spell on herself before engaging another group of mages. "As long as they're helping us fight these monsters, I don't care who they are!"

The floor rumbled slightly, and it was not just the charging chocobos. Warning lights flashed and the doors closed themselves -- Garden's take-off was beginning. "Great!" Quistis said. "Mengshi must have taken over the controls! Let's fall back to the quad; we can team up with the other SeeDs and we'll have more space to fight there."

* * *

Rikku and Kid scrambled around the looping main hall in pursuit of Rinoa. The mages and mices appeared to be slightly disoriented by the take-off, giving Rikku and Kid a chance to break through despite their disadvantage in numbers. But then several winged mages, all wearing poodle skirts and bobbysocks, descended in front of them, cutting off their path. All their eyes glowed with menace -- scary enough, but each mage was also radiating lighting from his staff.

Rikku screamed and shrunk back into a cowering crouch.

"Rikku!" Kid exclaimed. She was unaware of Rikku's fear of thunder and didn't know what was wrong. She knelt beside her friend, trying to discern the problem while taking nervous glances at the mages looming over them. They would strike any second. This didn't look good!

"MA... MI... MU... ME... MO!" A bright energy blast streaked over their hands and blasted the Black Lindy Hop to the next dimension. Super Terra-jin 5 Mikoto flew over them a second later, following her successful attack. "Suck it down (TM Ion Storm)!"

"Fa'na cyjat! Ruunyo!" Rikku babbled Al Bhed in her excitement. Good thing her kevlar hotpants had protected her from any harm.

Mikoto looked down. "Sorry, I don't speak 'Crazy Bitch.'"

"Oh, oh, excuse me." Rikku shuffled her feet, embarassed. "I mean, 'We're saved! Thank you!'"

"Don't be so happy; your life is meaningless anyway."

"What?"

"The harrowing truth of our existences is that what we lack is a self at the center of the twisted morass of illusion and automation we refer to as 'I.' We are increasingly being absorbed into our consciousness, or 'black hole,' through our use of it, and at the same time, we are using our consciousness to absorb all other life-forms into its emptiness. Since our consciousness itself appears empty of who we are, we also appear to be replacing everything else with our empty knowledge and its material extensions; and if we carry this perspective through, our systems of knowledge and its material extensions, will replace everything else, including ourselves, and then become nothing. There is no God. Also, I really like Klonoa."

Rikku could not help but laugh. "You're so weird."

"You have no idea," Mikoto murmured. She blasted forward again in search of fresh prey.

* * *

The timely intervention of the Black Lindy Hop gave Rinoa a sizable lead on the the two Squall fangirls chasing her. But she could not hope to outrun the chocobo gunning for that thin black-haired woman that was surely the Princess. "Your knight is here, Princess!" Steiner cried as he toppled off the front of his mount.

For a second Rinoa thought Squall was being even more self-important than usual - Princess was an old nickname of hers, after all - but, wait, that wasn't his voice. She turned around to see what was going on. It was some creepy medieval knight guy she didn't even know!

But as soon as Steiner saw her face, he realized that this one serious case of mistaken identity. "Wait ... you're not the Princess!"

"No, I'm not," Rinoa said icily. "And I certainly don't need any knight to rescue me." She slapped him in the face and ran off the way she had been going.

So what had happened to Garnet? "PRINCESS!" Steiner howled, running around in circles. "Where are you?"

Super Terra-jin 12 Mikoto lit on the floor near him. "Thanks for coming, Rusty, but I think your princess is another castle."

"WHAT? Where have they taken her?"

Quina hopped over. "Dagger never here, Steiner," he explained with more vigorous nods of his head. "No have anything to do with mages! You diving in the wrong mud puddles again."

"Then..." Steiner struggled to make sense of this development. Had the world worked the way it was supposed to, the Princess would have been here! "Then I have been duped! Curse you, foul snake-tongued harlot! May moombas nest in your bedclothes and a thousand ferrets gnaw through your heartstrings!" He paused to bash another couple mages apart -- whether they'd kidnapped the Princess or not, they were still his sworn enemies.

But ... where could the Princess have disappeared to, if not Balamb Garden?

* * *

"Where do you guys want to go next?" Garnet gazed at all the pipes before her in rapture. The Gold Saucer had so many places to go! Any thoughts of Steiner or boring stuff at Alexandria had been blessedly banished from her mind long ago.

Eiko pointed towards a colored tent and hopped up and down. "I wanna get my fortune told! I wanna get my fortune told!"

Garnet obliged and her party of four proceeded inside - except for Vivi, who tripped over his feet and fell on the ground. But within, there was no friendly cat to greet them, nor even Cait Sith. All that was inside was an unmanned giant moogle and a cardboard signed that explained "FORTUNETELLER OUT -- SELF-SERVICE ONLY. (NOW AVAILABLE EXCLUSIVELY ONLINE: THE LEGEND OF CAIT SITH GETS SOME.)"

Zidane rubbed his chin, puzzled. "Self-service fortune-telling? What, do we just write our own?"

"Ooh! Then I predict I'm going to marry Zidane and be a ballerina!"

But Cait Sith had left them a little more than that. Vivi had quietly stumbled over to the moogle and now discovered that its mouth was shaped like a slot. "I think the fortunes come from this," he said.

"How does it work? How does it work?" Eiko quickly searched the moogle's front side for some controls and, having failed to find any, ran around to the back. Oh, a bunch of switches! She climbed up on the moogle's back - not being much bigger than Cait Sith, she fit on just fine - and started pushing them.

Garnet watched the moogle's mouth for any sign of a fortune. "It doesn't seem to be working," she said.

"WORK!" Eiko howled, slamming her fists up and down on the control panel. She rocked the moogle back and forth, hoping to coax at least one fortune of the stupid machine.

Then the flood started. There was no tentative beginning, no warning of the coming deluge. No, the fortunes started to pour out all at once. Not one, or a few, but an endless stream, gushing out of the moogle's mouth. Poor Vivi was buried beneath the slips of colored paper until even his pointy hat had vanished from sight. The pile continued to grow and grow as the moogle vomited out every fortune it had inside.

Eiko pounded more buttons. "It won't stop!" she wailed. Garnet, meanwhile, had covered her mouth and was staring at the debacle in mute horror.

At last the onslaught reduced itself to a few remaining slips that floated gently from the moogle's mouth. And then all was calm.

Garnet reached out and gingerly took the top one off the pile to read.

"'You will experience an avalanche of good fortune.'"

* * *

Running first from Kid and then from Steiner, Rinoa found herself having made a complete circuit of the Garden rotunda. Now she was back at the lobby ... where Squall was...

She hesitated. It was easy to pretend not to care about what happened to him - and she was tired of his unwanted advances - but she did. He was in physical danger this time. Regardless of what she felt about him - she was not ready to answer that question - she did not wish death on him. He might be a nuisance but there was no way he deserved that. No one did. So she could hardly stand here and do nothing when she had the chance to save him.

That was a quick decision. Rinoa stepped into the elevator but didn't touch any buttons. "Squall, are you up there?" she shouted.

Oops! She'd shown up before he was ready to spring to her rescue. He felt terribly embarrassed that she had caught him in this decidedly non-gallant state. "Rinoa!" he shouted through the ceiling. "Don't worry; I'm coming to save you!"

"I'm not the one who needs rescuing, you numbskull! Where are you; what's going on?"

"I'm holding onto the elevator cable but I can't climb up to the next floor. I've got a wounded mojo!"

"You never had a mojo in the first place, Squall!"

"Yes, I do! He's made of straw and he's named Dan!"

"All right, I'm going to lower the elevator down to the basement so you can climb down to where I am! Hang on!" Rinoa tapped the button so the elevator would descend to the basement where NORG used to reside. Immediately after doing so, she dived through the closing doors and rolled out into the lobby. Success! The elevator dropped out of sight, leaving Rinoa facing an empty elevator shaft.

She peeked inside. Yep, Squall was up there, clinging to the cables with one arm and a giant voodoo doll with the other. "It should be clear!" she shouted up to him. "Climb down; I'll help you out!"

He hesitated. Now that he was supposed to escape, he realized that he was no longer able to. This situation was more desperate than he had thought. "Uh... I'm not sure I can!" he said urgently. "It's taking all my effort just to hold on; I'm not sure I have the strength to climb anywhere!"

Shit! What could she do? Rinoa looked around a panic. The SeeDs had deserted the lobby for the quad, there was no one around to help. She could run and get someone, but what if it was too late? She could try catching him if he jumped, but that was probably no good. "Maybe you could unravel your sweater and tie that to the cables?"

"No one touches my sweater!"

Then she remembered what Xu had told her last night. She was still a sorceress. If she did something risky - like, say, jumping into the shaft - she'd get her wings back and could fly up there to rescue him.

But that was all only according to Xu. Rinoa had no proof and no time to test it. It would mean accepting Xu's word on blind faith. And how did she know she could? Xu had been her enemy; maybe Xu had lied to her to trip her up somewhere. Maybe to make Rinoa die like she had.

She looked down the shaft. The basement lay a substantial distance below the lobby. It would be a long way down -- too long -- if her sorceress powers failed to kick in.

Rinoa bit her lip and stepped to the edge. She knew in her heart that Xu was telling the truth. Xu really had no reason to lie; she was a good person and wasn't out to kick shit all over the world. But when Rinoa looked into the shaft, she couldn't make herself jump. She didn't know she'd be safe, and she couldn't make herself believe it enough to do it.

That was what Selphie had told her to do. Trust others. Let go of her fears and have faith in them. But she was no good at having faith. She never had been. Fear and doubt bubbled too quickly within her. After mom dying, after fighting with her dad for so long, after Seifer ... it was so hard to believe that what was out there was good for her. Oh, she took plenty of risks, but only when she was pissed, when she was too angry to know better. And when she wasn't, she was terrified. That had always been what separated her from the SeeDs, from her friends. They knew how to trust. They knew goodness lay out there -- out elsewhere in the world and out ahead in the future -- and so they did not have to get so upset over quandary along the way. She, on the other hand, was like a car going at maximum speed. Every little bump jostled her into a painful flight up and down.

But how could she trust the world? She honestly couldn't think of a time when she hadn't been let down. Life had given her nothing but betrayals and ulterior motives. Or at least until Xu and Selphie had given her a much kinder fate than she had been expecting at the museum -- perhaps there was one time that the world had given her good, after all. But was that enough to maker her believe? If the world gave her something it didn't need to even once, it couldn't be all bad.

"Rinoa, help me!" Squall screamed.

Fear tore apart her stomach and panic crawled over her skin. Curling up into a little ball and letting the world win never sounded more appealing. Squall was going to get hurt if she couldn't trust Xu enough to let go. But it was too late. She couldn't learn to trust in a rush right here, right now.

"HELP MEEE!"

But she had to. She just had to. And she wouldn't know if she didn't try. Even if it meant letting go and hurtling into the unknown...

Rinoa dived into the elevator shaft. She plummeted a short distance before the angel wings unfurled from her back. She did a somersault, reversed direction, and soared up to where Squall hung. Squall climbed carefully into her arms while still holding Lucky Dan in his own.

"Thanks," he said.

Rinoa filled him in on the present situation as they flew down the shaft. "Garden's being attacked. All these mages named after different kinds of dances and mice started coming out of video game machines."

"I think I had that dream once." It sounded like another terrible, horrible, no good very bad day. Except that Rinoa was speaking to him, even holding him in her arms. And he had his mojo back. No, this was a very good day! Maybe he wouldn't move to Esthar after all.

Rinoa flew through the largely vacant rotunda towards the quad so they could catch up with the SeeDs. "Whoo, this is better than ValuJet!" Lucky Dan said.

"Squall, why is your mojo still living in 1996?"

"He doesn't get out much."

"I've noticed."

A vast battle raged below them in the quad. The SeeDs, students, and Alexandrian soldiers were holding out admirably against the mages, mices, and assorted training center monsters. They soared over it all, looking for a place to land as they drifted slowly towards the grass

Squall grinned. "Just like old times, huh?"

"Not quite."

Rinoa and Squall descended into the middle of the melee and touched down near where Selphie and Zell were battling a veritable nuclear family of mages: two full-sized mages and three super-deformed half-size ones. Squall readied his Gunblade, yet he could not help but scoff at the peculiar formation of their opponents. "What is this, the Black Cha-Cha?"

Lucky Dan sprung out of Squall's arms. "Cha cha cha cha!" he exclaimed, bouncing in a hyperkinetic rendition of a cha-cha. Whatever injuries he had sustained at the hands of the mice could not have been terribly severe.

"Look out!" Zell was about to shove him out of the Black Cha-Cha when he saw, to his great surprise, the mages mimicking Dan's moves.

"Hey, I think they like it!" Selphie exclaimed.

She was right. They did. The Black Cha-Cha had faltered in their attack to watch Dan. Hey, this could work! Selphie started dancing too, and Zell joined a moment later. Rinoa was still in her sorceress mode and casting spells uncontrollably. Zell punched her out (which, he had to admit, was kinda perversely satisfying after the trouble she'd put them through) and then brought her back to consciousness with a Raise spell. She quickly realized what the others were doing and also start dancing.

Squall, meanwhile, was too preoccupied with himself to pay the group any attention. "Hey, these damn things keep chewing on my sweater. This makes me a sad panda, I mean, emo kid," he muttered, trying to bat away all the mice nipping at him.

Rinoa gave him a push to get him started. "Dance!" After a moment of getting down with his patented Black Emo-Stand-Still, Squall joined the cha-cha.

The Black Cha-Cha were no longer simply watching, but dancing. Indeed, other mages were flocking over to get down to the music. The mice had stopped chewing on Squall's sweater and now gazed with hypnotized beady eyes at Selphie and the others. "Your technique amazes me!" Lucky Dan gurgled. "You're awesome! I love your style! Show me how to do it!"

"Hey, I think we're onto something here!" Selphie said.

She spotted Seifer fighting another cluster of mages and marched towards him. The other humans followed behind her in a cone formation, followed by all the entranced mages and mice. They danced in unison and together they formed one great army of dancers / combatants.

Selphie started calling out directions to keep everyone in sync. "All right, everyone, left, left, down, left, cha!"

"D'you have BREAKFAST today?" Dan shouted.

One of the mages surrounding Seifer had raised its staff to cast a Comet spell. Then it saw the oncoming troupe and instantly broke into dance. Seifer's head jerked around, watching in disbelief as the mages started dancing. All four of them shuffled over to join Selphie.

"Dance!" Selphie commanded to Seifer. After a moment's skeptical scowl, he quickly picked up Selphie's moves and found a place at the rear of the group.

The dance team cut a swath through the battlefield. All the SeeDs and students who encountered them quickly joined up, bloating the group's numbers to several dozens. The presence of Mother Brain's army continued to vanish, as more and more of her soldiers were absorbed into the entrancing dance.

Super Terra-jin 12 Mikoto zipped by them. Before she outpaced them completely, she managed to cram in one editorial comment: "What the hell is this, the Pied Piper leading all the mice? This is pathetic; you sound like a whole shelfful of self-help booklets!"

Needless to say, Mikoto did not join the troupe. "It's not the end of the world; there's always tomorrow!" Dan consoled them.

Selphie marched onwards. "Up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, chu, chu!" Heck, if she kept doing this, she could neutralize the entire invading army! So much for fighting them all! All they had to do was find all the mages and hypnotize them. She realized, however, that as the dance squad got larger, the people in the back would have a harder and harder time hearing her instructions.

"Up, down, left, right! Okay, time to split up! We'll meet at, um... the ballroom!" That should be big enough to hold all the mages. They could trap in them there and... and ... well, Selphie didn't know what they'd do next. But she'd worry about that when the time came. Right now she needed to keep dancing or they'd be in real trouble! "Chu, chu, chu!"

* * *

The youngest students cowered in the back of a classroom while Quistis and her new ally Freya stood guard over them. Both knew that the mages would show no mercy to the children - the silly-looking chains of flowers that this group wore did nothing to diminish their lethal intent. And judging from the chorus of approaching footsteps she could hear, more would be here soon.

Quistis stepped forward. "Come on, bring it on." If she could get these mages to wound her enough, she could take them all out with her blue magic.

"Down, left, down, right!" Selphie danced into the room, followed by several of their friends and a legion of mice and mages. "Dance, Quistis!" she called.

Quistis was reluctant to let her guard down, but Selphie seemed to know what she was doing. She and Freya started mimicking Selphie's dance moves. These three mages, however, failed to be mesmerized by the standard dance.

"Hula, everyone!" Selphie snapped her fingers and suddenly all her allies - including Zell and Seifer - were wearing grass skirts. Their swaying hips successfully entranced the Black Hula, who hooked up with the rear of the cone along with Quistis and Freya.

The ever-expanding team danced out of the room only to discover a whole group of winged mages waiting for them. All six of them had lined up in a perfectly straight line, ready to unleash their magic.

Selphie was still pondering what to use against these guys when Freya ran out of the group and seized her arm. The two stood back-to-back and tap-danced around in a circle. All six of the Black Riverdance threw down their arms and rushed to join the group.

"WHOO HOO!" Selphie exulted. "I am Lord of the Dance! Screw Sir Fratley; it's me!"

* * *

Rinoa's team, now including Rikku and Kid in addition to Squall and Lucky Dan, continued their march towards Garden's interior. A lone winged mage stood guarding the door. Rinoa hesitated. She couldn't figure out what the mage's pointed hat and ornate wooden staff symbolized. "Hey, what dance is this supposed to be?" she called between steps. "Up, up, left, left, chu!"

Whatever it was, Dan was prepared. "I'm ready to support your next effort," he proclaimed.

Rikku whispered something in Squall's ear. He rushed forward, snapped his fingers, and appeared with a staff of his own - not to mention a flowery white blouse and a fetching purple skirt. Squall twirled in circles and waved his staff in great sweeping movements. Sure enough, the mage started mimicking his moves and quickly joined up with the group.

Squall snapped his fingers again and reverted to his emo get-up. "I did NOT want to SEE you like that," Lucky Dan advised him. "PLEASE do not make me SAD anymore."

"Left, right, left, right, chu, chu, chu, chu!" Rinoa called as they proceeded into the building.

Steiner, Beatrix, and the Alexandrian soldiers were still scrambling around on their chocobos and bashing all the mages they could find. Four big mages, however, had hijacked chocobos from fallen soldiers. Armed with short swords, the four mages clashed blades with the Alexandrians. A host of smaller mages comprising the other part of the Black Flamenco kept time to the duels with castanets and handclaps.

"Hey! Get off the chocobos and dance!" Rinoa shouted. "Left, down, right, down!"

But this time the dance did no good. The Black Flamenco wasn't even watching Rinoa - they were busy fighting Steiner's cohorts.

Lucky Dan produced a guitar from nowhere and thrust it towards Squall. "Use this, Squall-man!"

Squall dropped his Gunblade, grabbed the guitar, and started playing the first song that came to mind. "YOUR HAIR, IT'S EVERYWHERE, SCR-"

"No, no, play a flamenco!"

"Oh." Squall started to stumble through a flamenco. It wasn't that good, but it was enough to attract the Black Flamenco's attention. Squall's guitar combined with the others' dancing mesmerized the Black Flamenco. The mages hopped off their chocobos and assembled with the other mesmerized mice and mages.

Steiner, however, was less enamored by this performance. "Ah-ha! So you're the one controlling these abominations!" He spun his chocobo around and charged towards Squall. Before he could strike, however, he went flying off the front end of the chocobo and landed on his chest.

Rikku and Kid gasped. "We'll save you, Squall!" They ran over and sat on Steiner to prevent him from getting up.

"Left, right, left, right," Rinoa panted. "Look, you guys, we're supposed to be dancing!"

The two girls reluctantly got off Steiner. "You need to get in our dance group!" Rikku explained. "We're bamboozling all the mages!"

Steiner jumped to his feet. "And could I not do the same with my sword?" He waved the blade at them to prove that it was indeed battleworthy.

"'ey, mate, that's not a sword," Kid said. She picked up Squall's Gunblade and shoved it in Steiner's face. "THIS is a sword. And it says if you don't start dancing, it's going to kick yer arse so hard you'll be kissing the moons."

Steiner, Beatrix, and the other Alexandrian soldiers joined with the dance troupe. "Evaluation....................... COOL dancer!" Lucky Dan said, even though they weren't.

"Up, down, right, down, chu!" Rinoa continued calling out instructions.

"No time to waste," Rikku urged them on. "Let's go!"

* * *

By the time Rinoa's team reached the ballroom, it already teemed with mages, mice, and Garden's forces. Selphie had been quite productive in gathering up the rest of the mages outside and in the classrooms. "Okay, guys, up, up, down, down!" Rinoa called as she squeezed her team inside.

"It's a world record!" Lucky Dan howled upon seeing the spectacle. "This is the BEST show I've ever seen! What a cool guy you are!"

Selphie had seized a microphone and was calling out her own directions over the PA system. "Left, right, left, right, up, down!"

Super Terra-jin 18 Mikoto perched on one of the archways over the doors. "Boy, this seems familar," Mikoto grumbled. "Can't you come up with any original ideas? The Flaming Lips are the saviors of rock'n'roll."

"Hey, get down here and dance!" Selphie shouted over the PA system. "Left, left, up, chu!"

Mikoto snorted. "Heck no. I am scorning you all! Scorny scorn scorn scorn scorn."

Selphie continued all her followers in a circular dance around the ballroom. But one group of mages had yet to be subdued. The three of them descended through the skylight and hovered over the humans whom they despised. Zell pointed up. "More of them overhead!"

Selphie glanced up. "Um... Black Minuet?" She donned a wig and danced a half-hearted minuet to no avail.

"It's the Black Waltz, sieve-for-brains!" Mikoto called.

Oh, of course! "All right, everybody waltz!" Selphie snapped her fingers again to change Rinoa into her party dress and everyone else into their SeeD uniforms. She grabbed Zell and the two started waltzing.

As the students, SeeDs, mages, and even the mice split into waltzing couples, Squall saw Rinoa looking around for a partner. He raced towards her, but she waved her middle finger at him and paired up with Quistis instead. Squall sighed and grabbed Lucky Dan instead, leaving Kid and Rikku rather disappointed. Seifer, much to his chagrin, found himself dancing with Irvine.

"Your dance is so great, it's like sunshine on a cloudy day!" Dan exclaimed.

"...whatever."

The waltz did its trick: the Black Waltz descended from the rafters and joined in the dancing melee. "What are we going to do now?" Quistis asked as she waltzed by Selphie.

"I don't know, but we can't stop dancing! This is the only way to keep them distracted!" "FUJIYAMA!"

* * *

Mengshi backed away from the steering column. The elevator was fixed and Garden was floating safely in the air. Crisis averted.

And now that that was settled, she could thank some of the people who had been so instrumental in getting her here. "Headmaster, Instructor Kramer, I don't know how to start to thank for saving my life after I was stupid enough to throw it away. I know that you played a big part in this all; it was your knowledge that everything was based on, and you gave Instructor Trepe the freedom to do what she needed to get me home."

"We all help where we can," Edea said. "Be happy for the chances that you have and make the best of them. Not everyone does."

"I know." For once, Mengshi was able to speak of her accomplishments with pride. She knew that her escape from hell demonstrated positive characteristics: hope, forgiveness, courage, self-confidence. Granted, she wouldn't have done anything else, but she still recognized this said something positive about her. "It should seem so easy to decide to live and be happy. But ... it's not. Not when you've trained yourself to see only evidence that you deserve to suffer. It takes a lot of courage to be happy when there's so many problems in the universe."

"Then you should feel proud of what you've done," Cid said. "We're happy to have you back."

"Thanks; I'm happy to be back." She thought back to the problems that had provoked her original spiral into despair. Funny how they all seemed so inconsequential now yet so overwhelming at the time. If she'd known back then how much worse things would get, she surely would not have been so quick to complain. "I hate to sound critical after all you've done for me, but I can't escape the fact that I was overworked. I guess I did get a sort of vacation, but is there any way I could reduce my workload a little?"

Cid nodded. "We'll see what we can do, yes."

Whew. That was one huge moomba off her back. Sure, she didn't have a nice quick resolution, but she'd taken the awful first step of bringing it up. If everything had turned out okay up to this point, she was sure this now-minor issue could be worked out. After all, what kind of issue was her job schedule compared to death?

"Thanks so much," she mumbled, a little over-eager in her relief. "And I know I should leave it at that, but I really have to make one more request." She'd been a little nervous about asking this, but the matter was too important not to address.

"Yes?"

"Ma'am, can you open the nether portal again? I need to go back to hell ASAP; Chu-Chu was left there and I promised myself I'd rescue her as soon as I could. I'm worried about what could have happened to her. I know there's a lot going on here, but this is what SeeD is trained for; I trust them. I need to help where I'm truly needed."

A request from Xu that didn't involve lots of self-apology and whining about her lack of choices? That was nice to see. But would it last? It was only two days ago that Xu had still been rotting in hell herself. "Are you sure that you're not going to convince yourself that you're better off staying there?"

Edea certainly had a valid concern. And something inside Mengshi that didn't entirely trust herself felt the same way. How could she be assured the feelings and thoughts swirling in her mind right now represented the deepest contours of her soul? What if this change was only an upswing, if she was still depressed and suicidal on the inside? But that kind of thinking led her nowhere. She could always doubt herself. Nothing could definitely prove her feelings, so she might as well adhere to what she believed in. "I'm sure," she vowed. "I'm going down there for a reason. I'll find Chu-Chu and we'll escape and that's it."

But that was not it...

She could fly free from hell's boundaries, but she could not escape the attachments her soul had made there. All her experiences affected her that way. Every person she met, every book she read, every lesson she learned - they all added little pieces to her life experience, pieces that could not ever be removed. And one certain purple-haired woman had awakened a very large piece.

Not only because she owed her second life to Miang's bizarre form of encouragement, but because Miang's entire life story had her transfixed. They had only spoken twice, but the extraordinary circumstances surrounding those conversations had drawn out plenty of her inner character. She had never met anyone like Miang. Those sad, distant azure eyes ... the way her body drifted through space with flawless grace ... the knowledge and inexplicable power that lurked just under the surface of every word she spoke. And her life story. Miang's ten thousand years of selfless suffering elevated her far above normal people in Mengshi's mind. To endure all that and still perform her duties required superhuman endurance and nobility, and Mengshi could not help but feel humbled by it all.

It was because of her that Mengshi could shrug off this attack on Garden so carelessly. Her mind was still trapped in the attic above the physical room, bouncing around in the lofty realms of her soul's many threads. And when her yearnings were not cuddling up to Quistis, they were crying out to do something about this enigma of a woman. A woman so selfless and caring she had damned herself to an eternity of suffering rather than risk harming the people she cared for.

Miang loved. But she could love in another way, one that would not destroy her but lift her up where she belonged. It was not impossible; Mengshi would see to it. Another chance on life, a reprieve from carrying the weight of the world, and Miang could be something else entirely. A happy person, whose charity was finally paid back in kind, whose associates were no longer tormentors by people who cared for her, whose soul contributed something to the world by existing. Something tremendous, perhaps, once all her talent and experience were channeled in a different direction. Miang had a big heart, bigger than anyone's. If only it could be seeded with acceptance and nurturing rather than solitude and suffering.

"There's someone else, too," she said to Edea. "She thinks she belongs down there, that she has to rend herself to shreds for the good of the world. But no one is that evil, not even her or Ultimecia. I know there's something good alive inside all her guilt and despair. She can't silence her soul entirely; it still wants to have a real place in the world. I can tell from the way she talks. She's dying to be loved. She must be terribly envious of me. And I know It's hard to imagine that someone who cares so much can be so wrong, but... that's why I want to help her. She could be so much more if only someone gave her that helping hand up. She has the same problems as me, but even moreso, if you know what I mean. And it's ... frustrating, witnessing someone being so like yourself. It reminds you that your body has never held your entire soul. It's been split into pieces and some people parts of it, and you might never have the whole thing. That's why I want so badly to rescue her. I want to have her here with me, where another piece of my soul will be within my grasp. Because it hurts for it to be separated ... my soul yearns to have all its parts together. I can't turn away, not after I've seen myself in her and her in myself. I don't want any part of my soul out there all alone where I don't know what'll happen to it. This world is a dangerous place to love in."

Her thoughts halted for a moment and reality quickly caught up with them. Her ramble immediately petered up. What she getting so worked up and excited about? Nothing was actually going to come of this yearning. Miang was, after all, dead. And even if she had another chance at life, ten thousand (and two) years of habit had certainly firmly ensconced her in one mindset. How could one person - one who had killed herself only a few weeks ago, no less - possibly hope to reverse that with a few words? But Mengshi believed the universe was a good and just place, and surely some deus ex machina would appear to ensure that the faithful were not let down. "Please, there has a way, do you have any ideas?"

Edea smiled. Hadn't she had this same conversation with Quistis a few weeks ago? "I think I have just the ticket." She walked to her long row of bookshelves and yanked a particular tome off it. "I'm sure Quistis has already shown you, but..." She offered it to Mengshi.

Mengshi looked at the book and grinned. "Oh, of course! Thank you; I understand. I need to go now; I'm worried about little Chu-Chu." She saluted and took her leave.

Mengshi was already out the door and bound for the planning room when Edea murmured something.

"Hmm?" Mengshi poked her head back into the room. She had not really been paying attention.

"You certainly have changed. I was merely remarking on it; that is all."

"Oh." Mengshi was a little started by the statement. "Well, no, I don't think I changed at all. I think I just learned to accept that I don't have to change who I am."

Chapter Text

A live grenade arced from the walls surrounding Mother Brain's palace. Three pairs of eyes watched from atop the walls as it landed outside the gate and lay there, waiting to explode. As soon it did, Lucca sprang from the wall into the castle grounds. The explosion unfolded behind her, framing her against a background of pyrotechnics as she drifted to the ground with her trenchcoat billowing out dramatically.

Yuffie climbed down the hall and joined Lucca inside the palace. She really had no idea what Lucca was up to now, but she had learned by now not to dispute the method to Lucca's madness.

"Perimeter's quiet..." Lucca observed in a low snarl.

"Yeah, a little too quiet," Robo said. "Did our, ahem, Bothan spies manage to discern where the execution grounds are?"

"No, but we can just play Toucan Sam and follow the smell of marijuana to where Vibri is." Lucca placed a Zapper in Yuffie's hands. "Yuffie, here's a phallic symbol. It's really powerful, especially against bad guys."

Yuffie stared down at the weapon without really taking it into her hands. A weird lightgun? This didn't seem quite right. She would really have preferred her boomerang. She was accustomed to that, and, Gawd, did she ever hate new things. Yuffie flopped the Zapper back and forth in her hands as if it some alien device that couldn't be trusted. She'd never used a gun before. Why did they have to make things so confusing?

"Look, it's not complicated," Lucca said, noticing Yuffie's obvious discomfort. "Just point your symbol of male domination at something and pull the trigger. Your gun shoots white beams; all the bad guys' shoot black beams. So if you see anything that makes black beams, point the gun at it and kill it. Okay? This isn't exactly psychoanalysis here; all you have to do is blow up as many bad guys as you can. And try to look cool while you do it."

"What if I, like, shoot myself or someone else on accident, though?" With her luck - or her clumsiness, as everyone liked to call it - that was bound to happen.

"Don't worry, nothing can kill you. You're not black, you're not the romantic rival of someone more important, you don't have a tragic past. You don't have anything to worry about. As for the other people, well, if they're not heroes crusading against evil like us, they couldn't have been too important, right?"

Yuffie scratched her head, still feeling a little out of sorts. Why weren't Lucca's reassurances very, well, reassuring?

"Everything's going to be fine, Yuffie. Trust me; you'll escape every danger at the last second and save the world." She paused and winked at Yuffie. "And get the girl."

"Okay, okay," Yuffie said. "Wait, what girl? Huh?"

A deep sigh. "Never mind."

The trio finally advanced across the castle grounds. No guards or soldiers rushed to intercept them. Kefka and Hanpan - that was to say, Team Meshach - must have been doing their job well.

Lucca jumped back in an instinctive response to an engine noise. Just as she did, a fleet of hoverbikes swooped by in front of her. The hoverbikes did a U-turn and returned, slowing to a halt in front of the intruders. Yuffie and Lucca could now see the bikes' numbers -- five -- and their pilots -- Dominia, Kelvena, Tolone, Seraphita, and Tron. All had exchanged their previous outfits for matching leather bodysuits that bore "B.R.M.V." and "Carlin's Angels" insignias.

"Oh dear, it looks like an element of danger and excitement has been added to our smoothly-proceeding mission by the arrival of the bumbling recurring minor villains," Robo said.

Dominia's merciless gaze fell on Yuffie - and from her higher perch, she looked even imposing. "The long arm of the law has finally caught up with you, Kisaragi. The FBI's shutting down the Dricas network. So much for your little hiding place."

The five minor villains stared down the heroes, relishing their moment of superiority. Lucca stared back at them, though her attention was drawn to somewhere below their heads. Whoa! She raised an appreciate eyebrow. "Nice outfits."

"Just a little safety measure," Dominia explained with an air of smug victory. "We figured if we're sex symbols, no one will dare hurt us."

"No, they'll probably just have us turn good instead," Tolone said bitterly. "You know, 'cause if we're attractive human females, we're obvious good at heart."

"I like strawberries!!" Seraphita exclaimed.

Yuffie stared at Lucca. "I thought we were supposed to be fighting these guys!" she hissed. Then again, she didn't really know anything. No, she was just lost, and Lucca was probably right again. Gawd, I'm such an idiot.

Lucca squinted. "Why do you guys have those 'Carlin's Angels' patches?"

Kelvena shrugged. "Well, you know, we work for the Commander, and we're all named after angels..."

"You are???"

"Yeah," Kelvena said. "Like, I'm the Cherubim."

"Dominions," Dominia introduced herself.

"Thrones."

"Seraphim!"

"Metatron."

Lucca's face glowed with childish glee. "Whoa, that's so cool!" They were Important! She broke ranks and ran into the middle of the cluster of bikes. "Do you guys have, like, actual wings? Where did you get your names from? Did you become a team because you were all named after angels, or did you change your names afterwards? Can I have autographs?"

Yuffie elbowed Robo. "Robo! Are these good guys or bad guys?" she whispered urgently.

"They're bumbling recurring minor villains," Robo replied.

That didn't really answer her question. "Well, like, what color beams do their guns shoot?"

"Are you going to add any more members to your line-up? You need a Power and a Virtue and a Principality. If I change my name, can I join? I could be Power. Lucca, Princess of Power! That sounds pretty badass."

Yuffie crept up behind the bikes and yanked Tolone's Zapper gun out of its holster. The white-haired Element did not even notice. Well, at least I can still do one thing right. Yuffie carefully pointed the gun at the ground and fired it.

Tolone jerked around at the zapping sound at the same time that Yuffie saw a black beam came out. "Aha!" Yuffie cried. A black beam! That meant they were bad guys! She was right!

"Hey!" Tolone shouted simultaneously. In one continuous motion, she jumped off her bike and hit Yuffie's chest with a flying kick just as Yuffie was firing the stolen gun. Jarred by the combined impact of Tolone's kick and the recoil from the gun, Yuffie let go out of the gun just as it was firing again. Tolone jerked out of the way as a second black beam was released, then caught her flying weapon. Yuffie regained her balance and lunged forward to deliver a punch.

Then Lucca was there, grabbing Yuffie's wrist and forcing her hand away. "Hey! She's a hot angel chick in revealing clothing, so keep your Power Glove off her, huh?"

"But their guns shoot black stuff!" Yuffie protested. "They're bad guys! Look!" Her free hand reached and grabbed hold of Tolone's Zapper, trying to yank it back. Tolone's cybernetic arm clung tightly to the gun. The two wrestled for control of the weapon, until Yuffie managed in a brief opening to push the trigger. A white beam shot out of the gun and hit the castle walls some distance away.

The other Elements froze.

"TOLONE!" Dominia gasped.

Yuffie quickly gave up her struggle for control of the weapon. She looked pleadingly to Lucca. "Uh, it was black the last time! I swear!"

Tolone looked just as embarassed as Yuffie. She stared at her Zapper like it was some sort of secret shame. Dominia narrowed her eyes. "Did you just turn good, Tolone?"

"Your innner goodness and humanity must have shone through your misguided aims," Kelvena explained.

"I told you, it's the skintight leather!" Tolone defended herself. "You can't stay evil if you're hot. Well, unless you're male, and then only until someone writes a fanfic about you."

Noisy bickering erupted amongst the Elements. "Dammit, whose idea were these, anyway?" Tron said. "This bites."

"I'm sorry," Kelvena, the culprit, whimpered. "I was only trying to protect us."

"Awww, yeah, Kelly was just trying to help out!! She's the bestest!!"

"We need new uniforms, stat!" Dominia said. "Back to base!"

Tolone jumped back on her hoverbike and the five Elements revved up their vehicles. "WAIT!" Lucca said. She let go of Yuffie's hand and ran futilely after the departing vehicles. She soon gave up on the chase and sighed.

"Gawd, Lucca," Yuffie said. For once she hadn't been the one at fault! "You almost got us all caught."

"Whatever," Lucca snapped. She didn't like having her genius disputed, and she was a little annoyed that the angel girls were gone. "I think it's time for us to split up. Team Abednego - that's you, Yuffie - move out!"

* * *

In front of the queen's castle, there was the queen's croquet lawn. In front of the queen's croquet lawn, there was the queen's hedge. In front of the queen's hedge was the queen's gate. And in front of the queen's gate were the queen's guards. "I am anticipating the results from our new black mages!" Thorn remarked to Zorn.

"Yes! Indefeatable, the Black Foxtrot is!"

Kefka dropped out of a nearby tree. "Huh huh, your mom, like, sucks 'n stuff!" he shouted.

Thorn and Zorn exchanged quizzical glances and then hopped towards him. Kefka immediately took off.

"Wait!" Thorn cried, accelerating his pursuit.

Kefka looked over his shoulder. "Huhuh, you said 'wait.' Do I look like a waiter?"

"Nohow!" Thorn cried.

"Contrariwise!" Zorn shouted.

Kefka continued running with the two jesters bouncing after him. He led them away from the lawn and around the side of the castle walls.

Meanwhile, Yuffie came meandering up to the gates of the croquet lawn. She looked around, saw no one about to shoot her, and slipped inside.

* * *

Lucca and Robo followed their noses around the side of the castle.

"Hold it right there!" Two figures sprang out of an upstairs window and landed in front of them.

"Egads! I do believe it is Alex Kidd and Psycho Fox!"

"Whoa! I haven't seen those guys in, like, thirteen years!"

The two heroes stood in a silent face off with Alex Kidd and Psycho Fox until a large garage door on the side of the castle opened. Ryo Hazuki drove out in a forklift. He picked up Alex and Fox with the forklift and hurled them against the castle walls, smashing them into a pulp.

"Whoa! What's going on?"

"Mwah ha ha ha!" Ryo laughed. "I had to execute our own henchmen just to prove how evil we are!"

"Whoa! That's pretty evil!" Lucca agreed. "Killing people is bad! But I will prove that I am good by killing you, evildoer!"

Robo was so upset his head whirled about. "Are you sure we stand a chance against them?"

"Don't worry," Lucca said. "I brought the heavy artillery." A quick tap of the up arrow on her NES controller sent her soaring thirty feet into the air. She aimed her Super Scope 6 downwards and rained bazooka shells down on the forklift until it exploded.

"Where do you keep all those guns?" Robo asked as Lucca touched down.

"Sometime when you're sitting down, I'll tell you."

* * *

"BOGEY!" Queen Brahne exclaimed, raising aloft the stunned chocobo she held in her right hand. "I get free run of the bonus field until you find the vortex peg!"

"My Lady! I thought you said you could only get into the bonus field by scoring three field goals while the other player is standing on the penalty stone!" Beatrix protested.

Brahne scowled and pointed an angry arm at her. "OFF WITH HER HEAD!" she shrieked. A couple of soldiers made out of playing cards grabbed and dragged Beatrix away. Brahne turned and smacked Sonic the Hedgehog with her chocobo mallet, sending Sonic rolling through another wicket.

"The things I put up with these days," Sonic mumbled. "What happened to my career?"

Yuffie had been watching all this from the entrance to the field. She needed to blend in here, but she hadn't a clue what was going on! It was a lot of bunch of shouting and arguing and running around in circles -- sports always confused her so. She scratched her head. "Gawd, what's going on here?"

"Maybe if your IQ was higher than your shoe size, you wouldn't have this problem," Cait Sith poked his head through an opening in the hedge. "I hear brain surgery is getting cheaper and cheaper."

Oh no, not him again. Yuffie rolled her eyes. "Gawd, don't tell me you're still trying to sell me that book of yours."

"Hell no. Dude, did I tell you what happened?"

"Um, no, but -"

"They totally gave me the shaft!" Cait Sith's tirade quickly built up steam. "The Clancy deal fell through, but I still had another book in my contract with Shinra Books, so they paired me with Danielle Steel and in my next autobiography my kids were gonna be kidnapped by Luna's abusive ex-boyfriend and she had a big court fight to regain custody of them and I wasn't really in that much but it was going to be an Oprah Book Club selection and would end up being turned into a Lifetime Original starring Meryl Streep. They had like all the contracts and press releases and stuff written out and Rufus told me that if I didn't sign I could bite him. So I did. Right on the kneecap. I hope it gets infected."

Thorn and Zorn came hopping by on their rounds. "Hey! I don't remember seeing you two hear before!" Thorn said. "Who are you?"

"My name is Roy G. Biv, Esquire," Cait Sith asserted.

Damn! They found her! Yuffie raised her hands, pleading innocence and praying they'd leave her alone. "Uh, I'm just looking for someone."

Zorn arched a suspicious eyebrow. "Found someone, you have, yes?"

Kefka jumped over the hedge and landed in front of Thorn and Zorn. "I hate hate hate hate hate hate hate hate hate hate hate hate hate hate hate hate hate hate hate hate hate you!"

"Nohow!"

"Contrariwise!"

Thorn and Zorn scrambled to catch him as Kefka took off running again. The racket attracted Brahne's attention, and she turned to see what was going on. It was not immediately obvious. There was a cat head, and a strange girl, and her retainers pursuing a clown on speed. But the solution was clear. "OFF WITH HIS HEAD!" she cried.

"Whose head?" Thorn asked, continuing to chase Kefka in circles.

"ALL OF THEM!"

"You can't cut off my head," Cait protested. "I don't have any body. I'm just this floating head attached to the hedge. Sorta like that guy in Shadow Madness."

Gawd. What was she supposed to do? Yuffie thought this mission revolved around her - she was the hero, right? - but she seemed completely irrelevant to this chaos. Pay attention to me! she wanted to shout. They were supposed to be confronting and threatening her, and she was supposed to devise an escape! Then she mentally kicked herself for feeling like that. Gawd, she was starting to think Lucca. She wanted to be ignored. She didn't want people paying attention to or trying to kill her; that just made her life more complicated. If they could save the world without her, then she could go home and take a nice, long nap.

Kefka tripped and fell to the ground. Thorn and Zorn gleefully gathered over him like vultures, knowing they had the final kill. Kefka quickly reached into his robes and flashed some sort of ID card at the jesters. They came to an immediate halt. "He's comic relief!" Thorn gasped.

"Kill him, we cannot!"

Thorn and Zorn looked at each other, frowned, and walked away.

"Huh, huh, score!" Kefka exclaimed.

"Wait a second!" Yuffie said. It had finally clicked for her. She pointed an accusing finger at Brahne. "You must be Mother Brain! Right? Am I right? I am right, aren't I?"

Brahne guffawed. "I was wondering how long it would take you to put the pieces together! Well then, Yuffie, now that you have found your way to me, there is much I have to show you. There is more to this than the black-and-white vision Lucca has presented you with. Go to my quarters inside my palace and step through the looking glass. I will be waiting for you there." She turned to the card soldiers surrounding her. "Guards, let her pass."

* * *

Vibri found himself handcuffed and surrounded by a crowd of black mages, all of whom were brandishing rocks to hurl at him. He frowned. "Dude, I am SO stoned."

Suddenly, laser sounds rang out and some of the black mages fell to the ground. Vibri ducked and covered his head as Lucca vaulted over the mages and into the middle of the circle. She tapped the pause button on her NES controller to freeze the scene until she could think of a witty one-liner. I come for the rabbit ... and your heads? No, she needed something more forceful. Dodge this? Done to death. This party's OVER? Nah, not witty enough. Then inspiration struck. She unpaused time and landed in the middle of the circle. "Ever heard of a Mexican showdown?" she asked the mages. She held up a bottle that, like all of her equipment, had materialized from nowhere. "No one draws 'til this hits the ground."

In the dead silence that followed, Lucca chucked the bottle into the air. It arced upwards...

Lucca immediately grabbed her guns and laid waste to all the mages IN A HAIL OF GUNFIRE.

...and hit the grass with a slight clink.

"Draw," Lucca snarled. Oh, she was just that damn cool.

Vibri picked himself up off the ground. "About time you got here, baka-chan-sama!"

"Sorry, I had to take care of a forklift," Lucca growled. She surveyed the carnage with some disappoint. "I was hoping they were planning to crucify you. That would have been cool."

"Maybe in your opinion," Vibri said. "Mind getting these handcuffs off me?"

Lucca shot the chain connecting them. Vibri threw them off with a whoop and started running in circles. "I'm free! I'm free! Waiii!"

"Well, I'm glad you're looking hale and hearty."

"I'm a methamphetamine achiever, Lucca." He finally came to a stop. "Man, that was a close one, though! Alex Kidd and Psycho Fox jumped me when I was looking for Big Joe! I hit one of 'em over the head with my hookah, but they swiped all my shit and took me into a jail cell and wouldn't give me any of the wacky tobaccy for my last meal!"

"Sad story. Got a smoke?"

"Good thing I thought to order one of those unlimited refill drinks," he continued. "I managed to stall them by refilling it sixty times before they finally caught on and yanked me out here. I almost got sent to the big marijuana farm in the sky as it was!"

Lucca raised an eyebrow. "Sixty times? You must be close to bursting!"

Vibri spread his arms. "Do I look fat to you?" he screeched.

"Point taken."

Vibri's pocketwatch buzzed. He pulled it out of nowhere and examined it. "Hey, Lucca, guess what time it is!" he giggled.

Lucca shrugged. "I'd say it's time to kick ass and chew bubblegum. And I'm all out of ass." She popped a stick of gum in her mouth and started chewing.

"No, it's 4:20!" Vibri cackled. "I smoke weed!"

* * *

This must be what she was talking about. Yuffie had located a full body-length mirror standing in the side of the queen's room. But, Gawd, what was so important about this?

Yuffie stared into the mirror. A full-bodied, color version of her peered back at her. How very peculiar. Yuffie looked down at herself. Nope, still a stick figure.

Yuffie waved. Her reflection waved back. Aside from the fact that it showed her in color, not in a black-and-white simplification, this seemed like an ordinary mirror. So why did Mother Brain want her to see this? To show her that she wasn't really a stick figure? But she already knew that! Like, duh! Dangit, what if this was all a trap? What if Mother Brain had lured her here to corner her and was waiting outside the room with all sorts of guards. Gawd, that was probably it. Damn her for being so gullible! Yuffie pounded her fist against the mirror in frustration - and was terribly shocked when her fist passed right through the mirror.

"Whoa!"

Yuffie quickly retracted her hand. She tried her foot next. It too passed through the looking glass. She moved her foot around, carefully exploring whatever was on the other side. Her foot did not find anything solid to rest on, but neither was it completely unsupported - it was like water or something. Yuffie tentatively pressed her face through the glass. "Gawd, it's full of stars!" Indeed, there was nothing but deep space on the other side: an infinite emptiness dotted with the occasional constellation or nebula. But it seemed like it could support her, so she stepped on through.

Chapter Text

"Haven't I seen you before?" Minos glared at Mengshi.

Mengshi had no time for explanation. "It's a long story," she snapped, her tone of voice indicating that this was explanation enough, as she unfolded her wings. She flew past Minos - pointing her rapier at him as a warning - and through the gates of hell. The Phantom Train seemed only an inconvenience, so she simply soared over it and streaked down the pit of hell herself.

* * *

"Woobaby, Fei, you can sure stand tall and shake my heavens," Chu-Chu grinned as she paged eagerly through Casper the Homosexual Friendly Ghost Meets Wong Fei Fong. She had taken up residence in what had been Mengshi's tree; Miang had dragged her back after her failed escape. It wasn't where she wanted to be, but she was managing to find ways to kill time. And kittens.

The door creaked open and Mengshi poked her head through. "Oh, Hyne!" she exclaimed, slamming the door shut as quickly as possible and praying she would not be permanently blinded.

Oh no! The Colonel is still here! Well, as much fun as she was having, it seemed she had more important business to take care of. Chu-Chu tossed her doujinshi back on the stack, cleaned up as best as she could, and trundled outside to catch Mengshi. Fortunately, the human woman was waiting just outside.

"I was just reading it for the articles," Chu-Chu announced defensively.

Mengshi did not reply. What could she say to that?

"Um, did chu not make it out?" Chu-Chu frowned, deeply concerned.

"Oh!" It hadn't occured to her that Chu-Chu had no knowledge of what had happened to her. "No, no, I did. And Quistis was waiting for me just like she promised." She sighed happily. "And then I came back for you. I... there's trouble at Garden; Yuffie was right. There's black mages and mice everywhere. But Rinoa is back with us." She rattled off all the news in the order it came to her.

Chu-Chu's eyes widened with happy surprise. "Oh my!" she exclaimed. "That's wonderful! Oh, what a relief!" She closed her eyes and bowed her head. "Praise be to Mambo."

"So... can we get going? I'd rather not stay here any longer than I have to."

Chu-Chu grinned again. "Of course! Chu-Chu will go get her stuff. Thank chu, Colonel!" She retreated back inside her room to pack up her meager collection of sex toys and religious paraphernalia.

Mengshi sighed and frowned. Well, this was easy enough, but she was only rushing through this to try to avoid confronting her more troubling goal. Because no matter how much she tried to remove herself from the problem, to run away before she had second thoughts, she knew she would not being able to let go, not be able to shake the feeling that she had to do something.

Miang.

Hyne, what was she supposed to do about her? The whole flight down she had been wondering whether she would see her supposed nemesis again -- and whether or not that would be a good thing. Yes, this little mission would certainly be easier if she could just grab Chu-Chu and run, but ... try as she might, she couldn't bring herself to abandon the woman. Because that's what she would be doing. She was the only one could help Miang, and she would not turn her back on her.

Yes, Miang had some seriously wrong-headed ideas and was hardly fit to be part of society in her present state. But Mengshi knew that Miang could be more, was worth the effort to reform her. Not that there wasn't any who wasn't. Miang's failings went hand-in-hand with the bad times she lived in -- one led to the other and vice versa. And so those bad times would go on unless she stepped up and did something to end them. After all, she was SeeD's human resources director. She was used to looking for the seeds of talent and good in other people - it was just herself that she took such a low view of. And she knew that Miang wanted more than anything else to help the world, loved it with a ferocity the likes of which were matched by none she knew. Except maybe Selphie, she added a lingering mental footnote as her thoughts plowed on. The torture Miang put herself through was a testament to it. It was like Quistis what had done for her, Mengshi noted. No one who did not have another's best intentions always at heart could endure such endless brutality in their name.

But she still had to figure out how to convince Miang to forsake her self-imposed duty. What could she say to awaken Miang to the fact that the world wanted her for herself? She knew how hard it for Quistis to convince her of it, and, indeed, she was only truly able to believe it after being forced to defend it from others. Miang did not have that luxury. Yes, there was the book Edea had given her. But would that be to prove to Miang that that life was not a zero-sum game? And Mengshi couldn't forget that they were waiting for her back in Garden, that they needed her to get out as quickly as possible to save the building and its residents from Mother Brain's rampage.

Ugh. Yeah, that summed it up pretty well.

Her deliberation ended only when Miang stepped out of the trees. Well, that settled one issue. She was going to have to talk to Miang, to try to somehow impart in her in a matter of minutes what could only really be learned with experience.

Though Miang's arms were folded in an accusatory stance, her voice and eyes betrayed some relief at seeing Mengshi again, a relief Mengshi knew Miang hated herself for feeling. "You came back."

Mengshi smiled and nodded, trying to best on the face she could. She could not show any doubt if she was to convince Miang to escape. "For Chu-Chu. And you."

"I'm not leaving," Miang insisted. "I can't leave." She seemed prepared for this debate; she must have anticipated that Mengshi would try to get her out. Which was probably a good thing, Mengshi thought. It meant that Miang had at least entertained the notion of escape in her mind.

"Why not?" Mengshi went for the Socratic dialogue.

"Because if I try to leave, I'll just end up even lower down. You do know that I tried to march out of hell once too? Yunalesca talked me out of it. And she's right. If I wasn't playing the villain, someone else would have to do it. Either that or nobody would be here to guide the suicides back to life. And neither of those are going to happen as long as I still have any capabilities to stop it."

"So you did tell me all that and chase after me to motivate me to escape hell."

Her hollow eyes turned away from Mengshi. "Of course," she murmured. "I have no desire to force anyone else to suffer like this. I wouldn't allow myself to let it happen. I would have helped you escape no matter what you said to me. But you were still the first person to come down here who ever cared about my happiness. That's more than anyone else ever gave me. Which is why I owe you more than anyone all the happiness I can give you. Please. Go back to Garden, go back to Quistis, and be happy. Let me disappear; let me give you what you deserve."

It took few words from Miang for Mengshi to understand. Miang sounded all too much like Mengshi once had. And not as long ago as she would have liked to think, either. Amazing how much a short amount of times could change the world all around. She understood the problem. It was like emotional anorexia. Miang was incredibly self-sacrificing, unreasonably so, but when she looked at herself she only saw much more non-existent she had to be. She hated herself for leaving such a footprint on the world; nothing less than complete self-effacement and eradication of her self would satisfy her.

Well, there was no use in holding anything back. She might as well as unleash her secret weapon now; she could not force out any thoughts that were anything less than her complete feelings and knowledge.

"I was told to show you this," Mengshi proclaimed, opening Cid's book to the marked page. She presented the spread pages to Miang. It was the two-page photograph of the Nisan chapel. Two figures, each with a single wing, together they lifting each other towards heaven. "You can't do everything by yourself."

Miang was silent for a moment, steeling herself. "I have to," she insisted. Mengshi's words seemed to having an effect on her, though, as her overly rigid expression indicated that she was struggling to constrain her emotions.

"Why?"

"I already told you why," Miang repeated. "Because I don't belong in a world of life. I exist only to suffer in others' stead. You, on the other hand, have a wonderful future ahead of you, and I wouldn't dream of taking it away from you. You need Quistis and Quistis needs you. What are you waiting for?"

"You."

Miang shrugged. "I wouldn't be happy up there, Mengshi. If I did try to be happy, I'd end up making you unhappy and my conscience would not permit me to do that."

"Who says that your happiness has to conflict with mine or anyone else's?"

"Isn't it obvious? It's the way things always are, Mengshi. There's nothing you can do for me. Now go away." She did an about-face and stepped away with the measured, unnaturally cautious pace of one who wanted to make a big show of leaving but couldn't quite drag herself away.

Dammit! Mengshi cursed mentally. Just when she thought she was making progress, she had been sent back to square one. But she would not turn away.

Before Mengshi could speak again, Chu-Chu finally emerged from the tree. She was carrying all her stuff in her purse and little backpack, but she looked confused and worried. "I can't find my compass," she announced, having apparently already given up the search.

"Oh, no." Mengshi frowned sympathetically. She was trying to devote some attention to this new problem - because Chu-Chu clearly wanted some - but still keep an eye on Miang.

"I mean, Chu-Chu knows it's kind of broken now anyway, but ... it has a lot of sentchumental value, chu know?" She frowned thoughtfully. "But... Chu-Chu knows that her faith is in the Wondrous Mambo God is the same no matter how muchu I pray. I don't really need a compass chu help me find Him. So we can go without it." She looked up at Miang, who had halted her retreat entirely now. "Is Miang coming with us chu?"

The question was directed at Mengshi, but Mengshi looked expectantly at Miang, prodding her to answer.

Miang turned to look back at them. It was obvious to Mengshi that her heart was begging to answer affirmatively, that this was all she had ever dreamed of actually being offered to her, right now. But Mengshi still feared that Miang would be too scared to take it.

Miang's hand slipped inside her pocket and closed on what was inside. Chu-Chu's compass had fallen out of her purse during her skirmish with the Calcobrina, and - unbeknownst to its owner - Miang had taken it. She had seen how much Mengshi's little yang symbol, and how much Chu-Chu's faith, had given them hope, and she had given into self-indulgence for once by attempting to posses some comfort of her own. And she did. Holding the compass was reassuring; it let her dream of going up, up, up like the needle pointed, of someday again believing in something bigger her. She felt so guilty for having it, though. For entertaining thoughts of abandoning her duty, and for stealing the compass from its rightful owner.

And if she let Mengshi and Chu-Chu leave now, she would never be able to return it. And she knew that wasn't right. But ... she couldn't give it back, either, without revealing that she did desire to leave, had seriously thought about it. "I..."

"Yes?" Mengshi prodded her eagerly.

It wasn't fair. It just didn't make sense. Miang collapsed in tears, finally at her wit's end. "How do you it?" she sobbed. "How do you make everything happen right for you?"

Mengshi hurried over to her, knelt and embraced her. Miang's outburst had caught her a bit off guard, and while she took no joy from Miang's tears, she was inwardly satisified to see Miang finally admitting she want to leave. Mengshi held Miang, stroking her hair and murmuring soothingly. "It's okay; it's okay." It was just like when Quistis had comforted her in hell, except that Mengshi was now the one doing the comforting. But rather than be a confusing role reversal, the parallels were reassuring for Mengshi; she had been in this situation before and could remember what Quistis had done for her.

"How do you do it?" Miang repeated, still in tears.

Mengshi gently wiped the tears from Miang's cheeks. "It's faith, Miang," she whispered. "If you find something positive to believe in, the rest will follow. And we'll find you something to believe in. Something that you don't have to destroy yourself over."

"I... I can't do it anymore," Miang apologized to the world in general. She had failed in her duty to be completely unflappable; her failings had gotten the better of her and she could defend the world no more. "I'm sorry."

"You know why you're so frustrated? Why you have such a hard time making yourself do these things?" Mengshi took one of Miang's hands in her own and placed it over Miang's heart. "Because you know here that you're not worthless, and you can have a better life than this." Of course, it was far easier for her to say these things than for Miang to truly incorporate them into her worldview. She knew from experience that taking a message to heart and changing one's thinking was not easy. And she only had had to battle a few weeks of errors - or, she had to admit, maybe 24 years. But not ten thousand. "No one was meant to live in complete self-denial. It's impossible. You wouldn't be able to do it no matter how hard you tried."

Miang finally hugged her back, burying her face in Mengshi's shoulder. "I'm sorry; I'm so sorry. You're right. I want to get out; I really do, but I..."

"Shh, it's fine," Mengshi whispered, holding Miang to her. "I'll help you. You can come to Garden with me. You're a good person." She was not trying to convince Miang of anything now, but simply tossing out reassuring statements to bolster Miang in the ferocious battle that was raging between her and her complexes.

"Suffering is virtue." Miang seemed to revert back for a second, repeating her old ideas as a desperate mantra to reassure herself in the face of these confusing new ideas. "Without evil there can be no good, so it must be good to be evil."

There is no vice so simple but assumes some mark of virtue in his outward parts, Mengshi repeated in her head. She could not let Miang's claims of righteousness ever bring to start thinking that Miang was right. "That's where you went wrong, Miang," she murmured. "You can have good without evil. There isn't evil. There's only... good and good that hasn't yet awakened."

Miang sighed deeply. Her tears had stopped for the moment, and she leaned heavily against Mengshi, drained. "I guess it's that after the purpose of my existence for 10,000 years came to nothing, I had to find some way to justify what I did. That at least I could claim sort of moral victory. So I wouldn't be wrong..."

"Miang, there's no shame in being wrong. We all make mistakes. I know I have. But ... I know I'm a good person, and that Quistis loves me in spite of my failings." She closed her eyes and inhaled for a moment as she activated her sorceress powers in preparation for the next step. Her wings unfolded as she continued to talk. "And ... you don't have to put others' needs before yours. It's one thing to give up your wants for someone else's needs. That makes you a concerned person, a good person who puts others' survival ahead of your own comforts. But to give up your own needs? It's self-defeating. Imagine if everyone did that. You can't have every single person giving themselves up for someone else."

"Yeah." Miang sighed. "I know you're right. It's just ... so hard to make myself believe it."

Mengshi gently tilted Miang's head back and kissed her on the forehead. "I know. I've been through it too. But I'm going to help you out." She straightened her body. "Hit me, Miang."

"Why?"

"Just do it."

Miang gave Mengshi a half-hearted tap on the arm.

"No, hit me."

"Fine," Miang snapped. Her irritation at this seemingly pointless request - and at all the time she'd wasted - translated into a sharp jab at Mengshi's chest. As soon as Miang struck her so, Mengshi's left wing flickered out of existence.

"There," Mengshi smiled. "Now you have one too."

"You just..." Miang could not believe what she had been duped into doing.

"I'm half a sorceress. You're half a sorceress. And we're going to fly out of here together, just like I showed you in that book."

"I don't know how to fly." "I'll show you."

* * *

Mengshi, Miang, and Chu-Chu stood on one of the highest branches of the tall meeting-house tree. "I can't do this," Miang said, gazing down at the drop towards the forest below them. She was supposed to jump off this and start flying? No ... maybe Mengshi could do that, but not her. "I'm going to get lost somewhere, and I won't even be able to get back to where we are now. I can't risk it."

"Yes, you can," Mengshi insisted. "You'll never know what you can do unless you try. Nothing ventured, nothing gained."

Miang took several deep breaths until at least the dizzying heights of her perch were no longer settling. But actually jumping off? She couldn't imagine how she could do it. "How do you fly?" she demanded desperately. This was not the place to be experimenting for the first time. "I've never had... just... a wing before. How do I know how to use it?"

Mengshi soundly reprimanded for what sprung into her mind. It was one of those quotes that Mikoto was so fond of repeating over and over at the slightest provocation, and she resented it solely because it had been shoved down her throat so many times. But it was terribly fitting now, and she knew it wasn't really right to hate it because someone else liked it so much.

"Throw yourself at the ground at the miss."

"That's an interesting way of putting it."

"I mean it. Don't worry about flying. It will come naturally to you when the time is right. Just attack the ground, the air; jump into it with all you've got. You can do it, Miang. I believe in you."

"And what if I can't? If I fall all the way down and end up even lower in hell?"

"Then at least you tried," Mengshi answered with quiet wisdom. "And you can have the peace of mind that comes from knowing that you did all you could."

"That's no peace of mind at all," Miang retorted. "It only means I wasn't good enough, that I was created a failure."

"Then you have to accept what you can't change," Mengshi shot back just as quickly. Then her expression turned more pleading. "Please, Miang. I know it's hard. I felt the same way when I died, that I had failed everyone and that nothing I could do was ever good enough for Quistis. But I... it's just not true. I'm alive now, right? People will love you, Miang. I love you. Please, Miang. For me. Remember, I've only got one wing now; I'm not getting out of here without you."

Miang was silent, motionless for a second. She's going to do it, Mengshi thought. And she did. Miang screamed a war cry and threw herself headfirst from the branch, intent on diving into the immutable earth with all she had. I'm attacking the ground, she yelled in her head as she started crashing through the treetops. I'm not falling. I'm going to make it. I-

A single feathery wing unfolded from her back and began beating.

Miang's plummet screeched to a halt and she hovered in the air, dangling from her one wing. She did not have the power with just one wing to really rise upwards. But she was still flying. And Mengshi was applauding and cheering from above.

Miang looked up in time to watch her new friend tuck Chu-Chu under one arm and jump off; Mengshi's remaining wing blossomed to support her. She drifted gently down to Miang's side. "Congratulations," Mengshi said, a huge grin on her face.

"Thanks," Miang said weakly. What else could she say? But ... it was enough. Thanks. Mengshi had done something for her. And to someone who had labored ten thousand years only to protect the world, there was something profound about that. Nothing she could do -- and she had tried plenty -- could make Mengshi hate her. Nothing could prevent Mengshi from showing her kindness and appreciating her existence.

She had a friend.

Mengshi took Miang's hand in hers so that they could aid each other's flight. "I told you we could make it."

"Now what?" Miang asked.

Mengshi pointed upwards with her free hand. "Balamb Garden," she said. "Welcome home. And, Chu-Chu, could you please find somewhere else to hold onto me?"

Chapter Text

She was back in the mortal realm. As Miang stepped out of the nether portal, she knew that for the second time in her existence she did not know what the future held nor what purpose her life served - and that that, perhaps even more than her beating heart, made her mortal. The only other time she had faced this situation, she had clung to the easy answers offered by Ultimecia and Yunalesca, and she had seen how poorly that had turned out. She resolved not to let herself get so easily convinced that she had all the answers. There was something oddly life-affirming about confusion.

Xu quickly set Chu-Chu down on the floor and jumped into Quistis' waiting arms. "Missions accomplished!" she said before they kissed.

Quistis smiled. "Now you can't say that you do no good for the world, can you?"

"Well, I couldn't have done without you," Mengshi insisted. She had been somewhat surprised - but relieved - to see the room was otherwise unoccupied. "The mages are gone?"

"Selphie's got them all gathered in the ballroom."

"Ah." Mengshi glanced back over her shoulder at Chu-Chu. "Well, looks like you missed all the action, then."

Chu-Chu frowned. "That's been the story of my life, Colonel." Having said so, she meandered out of the room to go find a window and look out on the stars. She had certainly been getting fidgety not being able to behold the Wondrous Mambo God.

Quistis gently let Mengshi slide out of her embrace and looked towards the purple-haired woman behind her. Meeting someone you already knew so much about was always a little awkward, especially when the someone's past was as complicated as Miang's. It would be rude to address Miang's suffering straight-up, but she also wasn't sure how to carry on a normal conversation with her. "Miang...?"

Miang winced at the mere mention of her name. She couldn't shake the feeling like that she shouldn't be here, that they had already done too much for her and each second of her continuing second of her life was only burdening the world more. She didn't want to be doing this them; she wanted to disappear. Remove all traces of her existence and stop hurting them over and over. "Hi."

Quistis approached her and smiled. "Quistis Trepe, but I think you already knew that." She offered her hand. "I'm glad I could meet you."

Miang sighed and half-heartedly shook hands. No matter out of friendliness could keep her from feeling horribly guilty. This wasn't supposed to be happening. She didn't belong here. She did not know how to react to, let alone interact with, these environs. Living and dealing with people as her own self were something she had never attemped before. Oh, she could present terribly well thousands of personalities, she could feign having mortal desires - but it had all been done to serve Deus, or to serve her self-imposed duty in hell. Now to serve herself? It seemed frightening to not have an overarching imperative of Virtue to guide her forward. "I... I don't want to be here."

Mengshi was immediately fearful and clutched Miang's forearm reassuringly. "Please..."

Miang jerked her arm away and folded them both across her chest. "Every bit of morality and conscience I have is telling me I have to do everything I can to stop you from wasting your time and energy helping someone who cannot be helped," she declared. She looked down at her boots and sighed. "But ... I'm finding it hard to keep fighting. I don't want to give in, don't want to succumb to weakness, but I don't know how to convince myself to put forth the effort."

"It's not a weakness at all, Miang," Mengshi insisted. "It's your desire to live and mean something to someone trying to free you from all the unnecessary duties you've imposed on yourself."

"I don't have any place to belong. It's a lost cause. I may be alive, but where am I supposed to live?"

"Oh!" Mengshi exclaimed. "I forgot to tell you ... you're staying with Quisty and I. We have a guest room you can use. We already talked about it and decided on it; don't worry."

"No," Miang insisted flatly. In her dreams and fantasies, she would love to be blessed with such an arrangement, of course, but that was only in a fantasy world where everyone was happy to coexist with everyone else. She couldn't burden them so in the real world. She had to think about the happiness they would lose, the inconvenience she would cause them... she knew this was not what they really wanted, and she could not force them to settle for anything less than the best.

Mengshi was hardly unprepared for this rejection. "I know you still feel like you have to work harder not to leave any footprints on the world. But your self-effacement will always be insatiable, Miang; you can never erase your existence completely. You'd be fighting forever and ever. It's a battle you can't win."

"We'd like to have you stay with us," Quistis interjected.

Miang sighed. Dammit, she was supposed to be the one working to help others, not Mengshi and Quistis. And yet they didn't buy into her philosophy of self-sacrifice, so why the hell were they still helping her? She might have been able to rationalize accepting the agreement if the SeeDs stood to gain something from her presence. Then it would be an arrangement of mutual benefit. But she was of no benefit to them, had nothing to offer them at all. It was just pity, that was the only reason they were helping her. And, yet, having come this close to what she wanted in her soul, she could let it go, even if she could not shut her conscience up. "I don't have know how I can pay you back for doing this for me..."

Mengshi smiled. "You don't have to pay us back. What we want is to see the world be a better place, to not have people suffering. So pay it forward. Quisty helped me get out of hell and that gave me the chance to get you out. Now you have the chance to help Yunalesca and Ultimecia. If you rescue them, you'll have done something good for the world ... and then they can do something good too."

Miang nodded. "That's right," she reassured herself. "I'm not going to abandon them. They're my friends, no matter how wrong they are."

"NO!!!" Mengshi shrieked; she dived at Miang and seized her by the throat. Miang was so caught off guard that Mengshi managed to drag her a foot or two across the floor before before Miang flipped her assailant over her shoulder onto the ground.

Quistis could only stare, baffled but horrified, at the scene, until Miang folded her arms and declared, "I'm not listening to you anymore, Ultimecia."

Ultimecia - in Xu's body - looked up from her position on the floor. "Don't let her blind you into becoming a fool again, Miang; you know my suffering and death is integral to the time loop." Then she sank back down, and Mengshi's normal demeanor returned. "Oh, Hyne," she sobbed, "I'm sorry, I - I MUST NOT LIVE!" She leapt at Miang and tackled her, and the two ended up scuffling on the floor.

Quistis winced and drew her breath in sharply. "Don't hurt her, please," she pleaded.

Mengshi's personality returned again and she pushed Miang away. "I... I can't control myself... I don't know how to stop her..."

"ALL EXISTENCE DENIED!"

Miang rolled out of the way as Xultimecia dived at her. "What are you doing? You know you can't change what happens to you."

Xultimecia rose to her knees. "Precisely," she growled. "This universe brings me nothing but eternal suffering. It should not, must not, exist when it exists only to bring me pain! And I may not be able to change my position, but I can at least express my displeasure with it by killing those irrelevant to history! I WILL BUILD A MONUMENT TO NON-EXISTENCE!" She lunged forward again, shrieking "KILL!"; Miang jumped aside. At least Xultimecia seemed so completely blinded by her anger that she ignored all her sorceress powers in favor of flailing about physically.

Miang and Quistis both looked at each other to seek the others' assistance. Their gazes met, and they realized that neither had any clue how to stop this.

"All... existence... denied..." Ultimecia hissed, then Mengshi took over the body again, cried, "No, stop, please; I don't want you fighting on my behalf."

"She gave you half her powers, right?" Quistis checked, and Miang nodded confirmation. Quistis quickly knelt before Mengshi and gripped both her shoulders. "Mengshi, please, you're only half a sorceress now; she can't control you all the way. Try to resist her."

"I am trying," Mengshi gasped, her face contorted in obvious distress.

"I know you are. Hang in there." She held up her half of the SeeD yin-yang, and Mengshi smiled. "Remember, I'll always be here for you..."

"I MUST BE DESTROYED!" Ultimecia roared, but Mengshi pushed her quickly away this time. "I'm sorry," she sobbed. "I'm so sorry. I am a monster..."

"Don't hate yourself. Don't get upset; it'll just make it easier for her," Quistis gushed instructions as fast as Mengshi's eyes did tears. "Stay calm... think about me... deep breaths..."

Mengshi felt a horrific darkness probing her mind again. This is it; here we go! Mengshi attempted to muster her mind to resist Ultimecia's. She fell to the floor, twitching, as she struggled with Ultimecia. The other sorceress' mind felt like an unfathomable abyss, a vacuum that was swallowing up her sanity, and she had to pull her self-control out of it with all of her will, and pull, and pull, each second feeling like the last one she could resist.

"You can do it; hang in there; I love you; you can do it," Quistis repeated over and over.

"Come on, Mengshi..." Miang joined in.

And then the darkness was gone. Just gone. It did not fade away, did not collapse ... it simply was not there anymore. It vanished so quickly that it took Mengshi a moment to realize that she was free. "I did it!" she exclaimed. She rose to her knees, gasping for breath. "I... I think I'm okay now." She looked at both of them. "All that I said about wanting to kill you wasn't me, you know. I mean, I know I'm a sorceress, but..."

"I know," Quistis said as she embraced Mengshi. "The sorceress powers are part of you, but the words that came out of them are not." Mengshi nodded her agreement, pleased at how Quistis had put it. Quistis smiled and kissed her lightly. "Don't worry about it, dear. I'm your knight, remember?"

Mengshi whispered, "Don't say anything ... just hold me."

Quistis gently drew Mengshi against her chest and folded her arms around her. Mengshi closed her eyes and relaxed as she felt her panic slip away to be replaced with comfort and security. Being held by Quisty was so always reassuring. She didn't have to prove herself. Quistis would always love her. She was really okay the way she was. Mengshi took a deep breath and tried to collect her thoughts so she could move on. "Okay. I think I'm fine now."

The pair rose. "We'll get a new Odine Bangle A.S.A.P.," Quistis reassured Mengshi. "And please don't worry about what Ultimecia can do. I know it's her, not you. And I'll always be here to protect you."

Mengshi shook her head. "No, I think I've come up with a better idea. One to make it so no one has to bear a burden. And one to make sure that Ultimecia won't be able to control any of us." She hesitated. "Would you take Miang home, dear? I want to go talk to Mrs. Kramer."

* * *

Selphie's dance troupe continued to lead the mages and mice around and around the ballroom. "Sefie, do you have another plan?" Irvine shouted over the noise of their footsteps. "I'm not sure how much longer I can do this!" Indeed, they had no rest between the showdown at the museum and the attack on Garden and had been in action for at least sixteen hours.

"Left left right chu! Well... maybe we could lock them all in the MD level? Right right left chu!"

"FUJIYAMA!"

Mikoto was still watching from her perch over the door with her usual condescending stare. They were such deluded idealists to have thought their stupid dancing game would have saved Balamb. Nothing was that easy to solve.

Except the situation was turning into one that she could solve. The mages should be in their village. That was where they belonged; she knew that without having to think about it. But why should she care? It would not affect her life at all, and it was irrational to care about others' fates. Dammit. She wasn't supposed to have a soul - and she realized that somewhere along the lines, she must have conceded to them that this soul mumbo-jumbo actually existed. Sigh.

But what if it had worn off on her? What if somehow living with these lesser people had made her start to develop the same compassion, the same - well, she wasn't sure what it was, except that it was what made them human and what made her a Genome instead. At least until the proverbial Blue Fairy had come along and fucked this all up.

She hopped down from the arch and stepped forward somewhat apprehensively. "Hey..." Selphie and many of the others turned to look at her, and she started to clam up. She was so used to being treated as a nuisance that she felt a little overwhelmed when others seemed to want to hear what she had to say. All she did was belittle people; she didn't quite know how else to address them. "Look, I know where these guys belong."

Without breaking from her dance, Selphie cocked her head towards Mikoto, trying to encourage her. "Yeah? What's up?" She could tell that Mikoto was trying to offer more than her usual cynicism and arrogance. For one thing, if Mikoto were planning to shoot her mouth off about something, she probably would have done so by now.

"There's a black mage village, where I come from, of mages like these, and Genomes." She stopped, realizing she'd reached the end of where she knew she was going with this. Her idea had seemed complete in her head, but now it was less perfect than she had figured. Were they just going to lead all the mages there? Who would do that? This wasn't much of a plan at all.

Selphie alleviated the situation by jumping in. "All right ... do you want to take things over?"

"Okay," Mikoto grunted.

In the middle of her dance routine, Selphie gestured for Mikoto to come stand behind. The Genome girl reluctantly obeyed. "All right, I'll show you how to dance so you can lead them yourself." Selphie tossed Mikoto a pair of maracas and a sombrero. "Follow me. Left, right, up, down, chu!"

Trying not to embarrass herself too badly, Mikoto echoed Selphie's gestures in the most half-hearted fashion possible. "Left, right, up, down, chu," she repeated in a bored tone.

"Aw, come on, that's not dancing. Look alive!" Selphie shouted to her as she completed the next set of steps by herself. "Up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, chu, chu!"

"Everybody's waiting to see your dance! Show me your burnin' SOUL!"

What soul? But she tried anyway, shaking her maracas with all her might. "Up! Up! Down! Down! Left! Right! Left! Right! Chu! Chu!" This is so embarrassing. Dancing was utterly ridiculous. And with all of Garden watching her, too - would her reputation never recover? It didn't matter to her that the rest of them were already dancing; she still could see not it as anything other than humiliation. This wasn't even good music! It didn't have any interesting time signatures and it was a mess of hackneyed instrumentation. All it had to speak for itself was that it conveyed some sort of heart, human passion, soul ... bah. She stopped in the middle of one set of steps and slouched back into her usual posture of general disgust and apathy. "Never mind. Forget it. This is stupid and embarrassing."

"C'mon, Mikoto, Look at this way: twenty years from now, you'll be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the things you did do. This isn't going to humiliate you for the rest of your life. Now once more, with feeling! Left up, right, up, left, left, left!"

"All right, all right. Left, up, right, right, um - Dammit, I fucked up."

"No problem; you're getting better. Stay in there; don't stop because you make one mistake. Okay, let's keep going. Left, left, up, chu, chu!"

"Left, left, up, chu, chu!"

"Right, right, down, chu, chu."

"Right, right, down, chu, chu!" Mikoto had yet to notice, but Selphie was slowing down her own movements. The attention of Mother Brain's army was starting to shift to the young protégée.

Lucky Dan, at least, was quite impressed by Mikoto's performance. He took a bounding leap and landed right beside her. "Are you a monkey?" he exclaimed. "You're a dance animal!"

"Up, up, down, down, chu, chu." Selphie did not even move as she called out this set of instructions.

"Up, up, down, down, chu, chu!" Mikoto repeated. This was the moment! Selphie gave her a might shove forward. Mikoto stumbled a bit, but kept up the dance, and the rats and mage followed her out of town. Of course, by now Mikoto saw that she had had leadership dumped on her, but it was too late to do anything. She was playing with live ammunition now - like it or not, she was in command of the army and couldn't mess up. Besides, she had more or less accidentally proved she could handle the power.

Mikoto led Mother Brain's masses out of the room. Selphie grinned, quite pleased with her performance and also delighted to see Mikoto doing something productive. "See, Mikoto?" she called. "Everyone has a part to play in the world!"

"Except for me," Nida muttered morosely from the back.

Lucky Dan waved to the departing army. "You ARE the weakest link. Goodbye!"

Squall pounced on him from behind. "Ha! Gotcha!" Now that his mojo's dance routine was no longer integral to the survival of Garden, he was free to reclaim this missing part of him. Dan faded into Squall's body and vanished.

Feeling much better about himself, Squall pushed through the dispersing crowd in search of Rinoa. He had miraculously recovered the confidence to talk to her. "Rinoa! I have my mojo back!"

"Go away, Squall," Rinoa snapped and instantly regretted it. Dangit, she did want to try to be nice to him, but it was so freakin' hard when he was spouting crap like this.

"But I have my mojo! I'm okay now!" he insisted. "I can even try to turn into a chair, if that's what you'd really want."

"Look, Squall, it's not that I'm furnisexual. That was just a dumb cover story, c'mon. It's that ... I really can't go on pretending I love you when I don't. This relationship isn't what I want. I'm sorry."

So that was it, then. He was really doomed. "I guess I'm worthless, then," he mumbled with a trace of bitterness. "Sorry for not being good enough for you." He turned to shuffle away.

She could have left it there. Hurting him to forget about how much she herself hurt. Pretending that this was the full extent of her heart. Apathy made a wonderful painkiller for the hurt brought by unfulfilled hopes; she could almost forget she even wanted more than this. Almost.

"Squall, wait, I..."

Squall came to an immediate halt and looked hopefully back on her. Maybe this showed she really needed him after all!

She looked downwards and shook her head, frustrated with her clumsiness. "I'm not sure what to say..."

But he was! Now was his chance! With the right magic words he could prove he was the one and win Rinoa's heart back! He had been right all along! And he just knew what they are!

"Shut the hell up!" Squall bellowed. "Now get in the kitchen and make some goddamn TEA already!" His entire body quivered with rage as he delivered a sharp kick to the railing. "Arggggggh! Damn, I'm pissed!"

Rinoa just stared at him, her troubles suddenly a world away. "What the hell?"

Squall's glazed-eye stare and sullen stature immediately returned. "Oh, I was just keeping you on your toes," he said as if this was nothing in the least way remarkable. Rinoa was still staring at him - how had Squall ended up doing that? "I was told girls would like me if I do that," he said defensively. "You know, to make you feel bad so you'd like me."

"Um, no, most of us would think you're a boorish asshole," Rinoa retorted.

"I guess you don't want to see the shirts I bought, then."

Rinoa was still lived. "How the hell did get into your head convince you girls would want you if you treated them like shit?"

"Sorry. It was a mistake. Anyway, you were saying something about me..."

"Never mind," Rinoa snapped. "Just never mind." She turned and stormed away, daring herself not to look back. Keeping her on her toes, her Aunt Sally. What an idiot. That was the kind of shit that she would have expected from Seifer, and it sure hadn't gotten him anywhere. Humans. They all ended up the same. Well, that was why she was furnisexual by choice. Furniture never treated anyone like that.

"Wait! I have a funny joke! Two Guado walk into a bar and -" But it was of no use.

Squall sighed. Shot down once again by the one true love of his life. Why couldn't she see what he did? Why had Seifer given him such bad advice? He felt like he needed a good cry right now. Time to dig out the diary and play acoustic guitar really badly.

* * *

Rinoa was now a stranger in her own apartment. She could no longer look at all the posters and feel quite at home. Things had changed, if only a little, and she could not help but reevaluate her environment. These were no longer the accommodations of her current home. It was more like walking through a time warp and being in a life that she lived years ago.

She had to confess that what Selphie had often accused her of had a grain of truth to it: She didn't really care about half of what she campaigned for. Oh, these were important causes all right. She did not intend to render any of them silly (or cosmically insignificant) in her mind. But how long could she go on caring about them, destroying herself over the world's slightest problem. All just so she could feel like she was important.

But... dammit. She interrupted that train of thought before it got anywhere. She didn't want to have to do anything with Squall. He was an ass! Not to mention a pathetic loser, a socially undeveloped reject, and an abrasive prick. No, he could never make her feel important.

Still, Squall or no Squall, perhaps it was time to think about what she really wanted to value. She certainly cared about Timber; she certainly cared about sorceresses. And she certainly planned to carry on those cause - remembering all the sorceresses before her who had died invisibly, getting their persecution added to the textbooks, and so on. But furnisexuals? No matter what she had claimed to be, she was not furnisexual, nor had she ever met anyone who had been one. Rebels on some tiny Galbadian island she couldn't pronounce, let alone claim she'd ever been to? She knew nothing of what the island was really like, knew nothing of what she fought for. Unionizing working bees? She had no clue what the bees really wanted. The suffering of others represented in these posters had become, as Selphie had warned her, an icon, a symbol of identity. Playthings for the benefit of the ego of some upper-class white kid who had never known real suffering. Her dreams were not even of their solutions, but of endless protests and conflict. She did not even truly want to solve them.

And, really, had half of her crusades accomplished a damn thing? It wasn't even her campaign that had brought Yuffie to back to Garden. There were surely more fruitful, more enjoyable ways to spend her time than trying to enlist her dog in the impending class war or dropping furniture porn leaflets all over Balamb. She didn't even know any furnisexuals; who was she to be campaigning on their supposed behalf?

Still, she was not really in any rush to forget these causes. It wasn't like she was doing any immediate damage - at least not to anyone besides herself. And she had hardly considered a new life; it was only this morning that she was smashing museum display cases. This was really just a random passing thought, a momentary doubt. But she also feared that if she did not act while the morning's crisis still loomed over her, she would lose her motivation and her chance to regard the world in somewhat more positive terms. And if she was not willing to let go...

All for the oil, indeed.

She removed the tacks from the banner hanging over her bed and rolled it carefully up. She took one last look at it, ridding her mind of any lingering doubts, and then wedged it somewhere in her closet.

"So long, Che."

* * *

The dorm hallways were marred with burnt carpets, dents in the walls, broken fluorescent lights - all scars from the morning's fighting. Zell stepped carefully through them, being careful to avoid any broken glass or other hazards. He had already recognized that his feud with Squall with petty, and now it was time to end it. To do anything else at this point would be to live in denial. Pride be damned, what he was doing was pretty stupid.

He was surprised to find Rinoa leaning against the wall outside Squall's room. She was just standing there with arms folded, not looking like she was going anywhere or even waiting for anything. "Uh, hey," he said as he passed her by.

"If you're going to talk to Squall, tell him I'm still not speaking to him! I really want him to know that!"

Zell paid her little attention and pushed open the door to Squall's room. Squall sat on his bed with his acoustic guitar in his arms, trying his best - which wasn't much - to play along with the Quina Eat World song blasting from his stereo. Ah, but if it could only be his angel Rinoa in his arms instead of his guitar... mojo or no mojo, his life was so devoid of color without her...

Zell left the door open as he stepped further into the room. "Hey, Squall, can you turn that crap off for a sec? I gotta talk to you about some stuff."

"Leave me alone," Squall mumbled. "I'm trying to play acoustic guitar really badly, and I've got friends coming over."

"No, man, I need to talk to you," Zell said. "This is important."

Squall sighed. "All right, go ahead."

"Okay, let me tell you about popular music, Squall. It sucks. You know why? Because popular music is the biggest destructive money-making scheme since scientology. It's the new feudalism; it separates people! Okay, think about it, what's the best way to figure out what social group anyone under the age of thirty is in? Right, the music they listen to! I mean, pretty much everyone goes to see the same movies 'n stuff, but music is completely divided into factions! The goths listen to all their shitty industrial stuff while they bite the heads off bats, the jocks like Seifer listen to nü metal and keep grabbing their crotches, the thugs and wiggers who wear their pants around their ankles listen to hip-hop, the granola-eating hippies listen to granola-eating hippie jam bands, the pissed-off feminists listen to other pissed-off feminists, you sweater-wearing emo kids listen to emo, the punks and skaters like me listen to punk, the metalheads listen to metal, the snotty artfag types like Mikoto listen to indie rock and brag about how intellectual they are, the music-major band nerds listen to jazz because they think guitars aren't real instruments, the fat anime fans who live in their parents' basements listen to J-pop and They Might Be Giants, the ravers and skinny Linux programmers in plaid button-down shirts listen to electronica ... and never the twain does meet! Everyone thinks their kind of music is the best and everything else sucks! Every group says that they're real underground. They tell you that you alone are the intelligent, cultured rebel that has separated the wheat from the chaff, that knows the truth, and that you're so much better than all those MTV-watching morons below you! It's an ego trip! Everyone wants to think they're cool and more underground than everyone else! I mean, when was the last time you saw a band that didn't try to posture itself as some rebellious force that's got all the answers and is striking back against the uncultured masses? I mean, fuck, even Limp Bizkit think they're rebels! You know, it makes you feel better about yourself to think you're smarter than everyone else. I guess it's a way of dealing with the world's problem. It's easy to say that, hey, those guys are all stupid and if they listened to Fugazi, we wouldn't have any more famine or war or anything. You can take the blame off yourself. And it's also about fitting in, of course. That's why I say it's like feminine. Everyone's swearing allegiance to a particular group and basing their entire identities around promoting the works of a bunch of rock stars and they've never even meant. How's that any different from serving your lord's estate and fighting against the neighboring country where are the people are all really the same as you but wear differently colored helmets? And the modern version of heraldry is all the T-shirts and backpack buttons you buy to proclaim which social group you're in, so that other people from the same group can recognize you as One Of Them and accept you as being smart and worthy of attention. I'll admit it; I'm guilty of that. I mean, I see some guy in a Filth Brigade shirt and think, hey, he's got great taste in music; he must be cool! But I don't know him. He could be a total jackass for all I know! And that metalhead over there with the hair down to his waist could actually be the coolest guy around. But, hey, if you put your favorite bands over people's humanity like you're told, you'd never find out! See, 'cause the music industry wants you to think that you're being oppressed. They want you to think that society is on the verge collapse, that the airwaves are on the verge being taken over by the crappy music of some other group, and that the only way to fight back is to buy Radiohead or Linkin Park or Marilyn Manson's latest album! Because that nets them more money! The more different social groups they can create, the more they can make people they're being oppressed, the more CDs and T-shirts they can sell you! And even if there weren't any problems in the world, the record industry would find new ones to create. I mean, if everyone was perfectly happy with their lives, they sure wouldn't need to buy music that speaks to their angst! Unhappiness is a multibillion dollar industry, you know. If you tell people that they're being oppressed by bad music and have to stand out, that they have to re-enact some manufactured vision of perfect romance and then buy 200 crappy emo CDs because it doesn't work in real life, then you can sell them a shitload more discs and t-shirts and stupid patches for their backpacks. And that's fucking stupid, because it means some fat bastard in a suit is getting rich by making people discontent. And people have to buy into this crap if they want to fit in, if they want to have any sort of social life! I mean, even if it sucks, it's what people talk about! It's what people do! I mean ... imagine if you never saw any movies, if you never listened to any popular music. You'd be left out of so many conversations. If you don't wear some band's T-shirt, you'll get rejected by every group. And people would say you're stupid for not owning all the classic albums. You'd be a cultural reject! So selling popular music is nothing more than a tax on cultural literacy! And what happens to the people who can't afford all this shit, or don't like what the bands are saying and don't want to give them money? It's bullshit that you have to line the pockets of a media conglomerate just so you can carry on a frickin' conversation! I mean, at least with books you can check them out of a library, but, hey, you better not get any free music because Buttfuck Media International's profits will be down! I mean, I'm not trying to say that we all have to be starving artists; it's cool that people can make a living off playing their music. But they shouldn't make it off people pissed at each other! The cultural-industrial complex is like the arms dealers provoking a war so they can sell weapons to both sides! Think about it - you know why mainstream entertainment that everyone claims to hate is still successful? Because what they're really selling you is grounds to bitch about mainstream entertainment and act all superior. I mean, think about all the people that say Final Fantasy sucks and yet they buy each new game as soon as they're released. Why they do that? So they can say that they've been let down and act all outraged, that's why! Because it's an ego trip to be a rebel! I mean, for Hynessakes, I remember that Rage Against the Machine did a song for the Godzilla soundtrack that was all bashing on Godzilla and saying it's meaningless corporate drivel. And that's exactly what whoever was putting that soundtrack together wanted! I mean, all the people who bought that CD were probably like, 'Yeah Zack, you're so insightful, go stick it to The Man!' They were totally happy to run out and hand over their dollars to fight the system, when they really were feeding the system! I mean, seriously, how can 'alternative' music be popular? Because it's not an alternative at all! See, nobody wants to willingly be a corporate tool; the only way they can get you is by masquerading their meaningless marketing tools as rebellion against meaningless marketing tools. All these ideals and rebellions and shit are just a way to buy some guy in a suit - not even the bands themselves - a new BMW. See, that's what's wrong with popular music; that's why I'm always out stumping for punk bands. You know, 'cause the punk scene is all about unity, all about being yourself, right? We're trying to bring down the cultural-industrial complex and build an alternative that isn't trying to fleece you. So people can talk about cool, down-to-earth, independent punk bands that aren't spewing manufactured angst. But, y'know, soon the anti-faction faction becomes a faction unto itself. And all their attacks on factions become just another set of meaningless, overly-rigid dogma that another stupid faction clings to. People start rebelling for rebellion's sake, just like all the shitty bands we hate. What you're saying gets lost in the rush to say it. And once your little rebellion gets sucked up into the endless circle jerk of coolness, you've got to abandon it and find a new revolution to hook up with. Always looking for the new underground, always jumping off as soon that underground get subverted - it's not easy! And I mean, fuck, it's not just music. It's the same argument everywhere culture intersects with sanity. It doesn't matter whether it's about who's more punk, or who's more emo, or dubbing anime, or Fire Emblem, or anarchists or feminists or environmentalists or any religion, ever; there's always the guy arguing that the movement needs to bring its ideals to everyone and the guy arguing that doing that will water them down. It's always the same two dumb arguments locked in some eternal monkey-versus-robot, neo-Zoroastrian struggle incarnated in thousands of semi-literate, stream-of-conscious posts of message board users the world over. And you know what? They're both retards. No band, no dogma will make your life complete. The only way to win is not to play the game. Cause, y'know, what the hell does yelling in people's faces change anyway? Who ever thinks 'Hey, you just insulted my favorite band, I think I'll go out and buy some Propagandhi CDs?' You have to lead by example. Y'know, forget being cool or not being cool -- forget even trying to subvert other people's coolness. I mean, every time you attack a sacred cow, you're only legitimizing it as an icon. And if you refuse to do something because it's popular, you're still letting its popularity influence you. You have to your own thing and not worry about what other people are doing and whether it's cool or popular or whatever. And in this case, doing my own thing is doing what everyone else is doing and being happy about it. I think that's the only way to really lead! 'Cause maybe people will see I'm happier now that I'm content to be me, and then they'll want to do the same thing! And if everyone did that, if everyone refuses to reduce themselves to conflicting groups, their plan will fall apart! You hear me, Hilary Rosen? I'm through with you and your manufactured division and unhappiness! I'm going to line right up to buy the new Incubus CD the day it's released and no amount of rebellion is going to convince me I'm a pussy! I AM A CONSUMER WHORE AND I'M PROUD OF IT! PUNK AS FUCK, BABY!" He raised his fists in a victory pose.

"Zell, are you even talking to me anymore?"

Zell lowered his hands. "Were you listening to any of what I was saying?" Of course he was talking to Squall. Didn't he get it?

"Yes. It didn't make a lot of sense. Could you go over it again?"

"What I'm trying to say, Squall, is that, well... I guess when all is said and done, I was nothing more than a goddamn trendy-ass poser. Instead of doing what I really wanted, I changed my tastes to try to make a statement." He shook his head. "Doesn't matter now. I'm through being cool. Come on, let's go drink coffee and whine about relationships. It's on me." He offered his hand to Squall.

Squall blinked, startled, but eventually took Zell's hand. He was glad that Zell was suddenly wanting to be friends with him, even if his change of attitude had seemed to come completely out of left field. "Well, uh, thanks," he said. "I never wanted to be your enemy."

"Yeah, I know. But let's let bygones by bygones, huh? I promise I'll lay off your taste in music."

The door swung open and Squall's aforementioned friends filed in: A pink Bob-omb, the pigtailed girl from the Library Committee, and another blonde girl - all wearing emo glasses, of courseroom. Squall immediately turned his attention from Zell and mechanically greeted them. "Hi, Bombette. Hi, Rikku. Hi, Kid."

"G'day!"

"Oh, are these all your emo friends?" Zell inquired.

His question was answered when Squall said to them, "Thanks for coming, girls. Let's all whine about relationships!"

"Yeah, there's this other Bob-omb that likes me, but I'm not sure if I like him!" Bombette said.

"I know what you mean!" Rikku said. "Seifer Almasy gave me all these Cactuar UFO catcher dolls! And the dolls are really cool, but I think Seifer's a big jerk!" She sniffled and rubbed her watery eyes. "Plus I still don't think I'm over poor Aurie-kun."

"Awwww," Kid said. "Your heartbreak is so adorable, mate!"

"Thanks! I try!" She sniffled. "But my brother's mean; he always makes fun of me for it."

"I think we should all go have a good cry because we hurt so much!" Bombette suggested. "Starbucks, anyone?"

* * *

Rinoa kept her arms folded and her gaze straight forward. You don't care what's going on in there, she reminded herself. You shouldn't be happy that Zell is being nice to Squall.

Squall trooped out of the room flanked by two other girls with whom he was chatting amiably. If she had been a Genome Soldier, a giant red "!" would have appeared over Rinoa's head. What the heck? How did that happen? Other girls weren't supposed to like him! He was a pathetic loser! Since when did being a pathetic, heartbroken loser become cool.

Chu-Chu poked her head out of the elevator. "Is this where all the cute pathetic, heartbroken emo boys are hiding out?" she asked hopefully.

"No! He's mine!" Rinoa lashed out at them all. She viciously shoved Rikku away, seized Squall's arm, and dragged him back into his room.

Kid sniffled. Just when she was getting to talk to a nice cute heartbroken loser, that stupid bitch came along again. Poor Squall; he was such a sweetie and deserved so much more. Why did he let himself get whipped by that dumb whore? She sniffled again, because she was just that sad and heartbroken. "Boys suck."

Rikku put a comforting hand on her friend's shoulder. "Aw, cheer up, emo Kid!"

Chu-Chu wandered down the hall towards them. Well, Squall was gone (he was so cute and heartbroken), but Zell was still here. But she didn't think he was heartbroken too. She frowned. "Are chu an emo kid, Zell?"

"No! I mean, uh, I guess I sorta am. I mean, I think we've all got an emo kid inside us."

Chu-Chu winked at him. "Well, I'd sure like to have your 'emo kid' inside me, if you catch my drift."

"Wait, actually, I'm not an emo kid at all."

"Oh, well, Chu-Chu'll settle for cute emo girls." She winked at Bombette. "Ooh, c'mon, baby, we're the right height for each other!"

Bombette shuddered and silently stepped away from Chu-Chu, trying to slide out of the pink pervert's attention. But Chu-Chu only crept up on her, leering. "I love your pretty, maidenly turnhandle," she whispered. "Can I touch it?" Bombette fled for real this time, scurrying away down the hall.

Chu-Chu rolled after her. "Come back! Chu-Chu love chu long time!"

Kid shook her head. "Poor Squall. He must hurt a lot deep inside, like Chris Carrabba." She sniffled again at the mention of her dream boyfriend - one of her many dream boyfriends, that was to say. "Chris is sooo dreamy!"

Oh boy, was someone ever testing his resolve. Stay good, Zell! Stay good, Zell!

Rikku pointed an accusing finger at her. "Shut up, you only starting liking him once he went on MTV and got popular!"

"Okay, but I'm still more sad and heartbroken than you, mate. My orphanage was burned down when I was a little kid. I've been sad all my life. I cry all the time because I hurt. On the inside."

"Uh, like, I don't think so!" Rikku could not believe that Kid would even think such an outrageous thing. "All the guys I've liked have been dead and I'm still not over them! I'm so more emo than you."

Dammit, being sad does not make you cool! Zell still felt a desire to grab them by their collars and scream it in their faces. But he didn't actually see it now as something he'd do. Who was he to judge what was allowed to mean something to them? Whatever joy they derived from appreciating things would always be greater than the joy anyone derived from hating them.

"Yeah, but I have a great collection of ironically nostalgic t-shirts, and you only have that one stupid Vagrant Records shirt," Kid countered.

"Well, your t-shirts can talk to the hand, 'cause the face ain't listening. You just aren't ready for my jelly." Rikku thrust her palm towards Kid and turned her head away.

My God, this is the most pathetic argument I've ever seen. When would it end?

"All right, mate, now you're asking to have your ass kicked so hard you'll be the kissing the moon," Kid threatened.

Something exploded and Chu-Chu staggered back down the hall, covered in ash and soot. "Ouchu!" she exclaimed before toppling over.

Rikku sniffled. "I'm sad because you're so mean to me. I feel like everyone hates me. I think I'm kinda 'in the middle,' like in that Quina Eat World song. That song really speaks to me."

"Well, it speaks to me more!"

Zell backed down the hallway. "Look, uh, nice meeting you girls, but I think I've got an, uh, bar mitzvah to go to." Having said his goodbye - not that the girls were really listening to him anyway - he quickly turned and ran away as fast as he could.

"Shut up, you stupid whore!" Rikku put her hands on her hips and stared menacingly at Kid.

"Bitch!"

"Licentious howler!" Rikku slapped Kid on the cheek. Kid immediately burst out in tears - she hurt, on the inside - and crumpled down into a wounded crouch. Rikku immediately regretted the attack. "Oopsie! I'm sorry! Are you okay? Get up, Kid!"

That was the last Zell saw of the dispute, as the elevator doors closed before him. Whew, what a mess. He was rather glad to get away. Even if he was going to make his best effort to tolerate their preferences - and, honestly, he didn't really have any objections to them - they weren't necessarily the most comfortable thing to sit through.

"Hey, Zell," Irvine, who had been in the elevator said, "Who were those girls you were with there? Does Selphie know about this?"

Zell sighed. "It's a long story, okay?"

"Well, the ladies seemed to be all over you and Squall. What's your trick?"

Zell rolled his eyes, exasperated. "I don't know; get some big ugly glasses, play acoustic guitar really badly, be sad and heartbroken. Or just stop bein' a friggin' poser."

"Really?" Irvine said. "Where do you get the glasses?"

Zell banged his head against the wall. Would the madness never stop? Why was it that as soon as he laid off with the posturing, everyone else got twice as worse? Oh, well, it was hardly his place to criticize. "Look, I really don't think the whole emo thing would suit you, Irvine."

"But I need a woman!" Irvine protested.

"Or a man?"

"All right, you got me, I'd do that too, but what's it to you?"

"You owe me four ears of corn, that's what."

* * *

Rinoa shoved Squall into his room and slammed the door shut behind them. The Quina Eat World disc was still playing on Squall's stereo; he went to shut it off as he said, "I thought you weren't talking to me."

Rinoa sighed. She didn't like it that her feelings had an impact on him. It made her feel like she had to be more responsible about how she acted. But wait - wasn't that what she wanted all along? To have her thoughts actually make a different to someone? "Sorry; I'm just confused," she said. "I don't know what to feel any more."

"Well, you know I'll always stand by you, Rinoa."

...but not if he would spout nothing but empty expressions of commiseration. Seifer could shower her with nothing but abuse, Squall with nothing but praise; it was all the same in the end. But ... like she had heard Zell say to Squall, the only way to win was not to play the game. If she kept fretting about her pride, she couldn't expect things to change. "Squall, I have to admit that I've done a lot of stupid things in the past few months ... past few years. It's not all your fault. There's a lot of me that I never gave you a chance to understand, and now I have so much I need to explain to you..."

Squall shrugged. "What difference does it make? "You've already crushed my poor heart like, like ... like one of those big things in the Mario games that fall down on you. You know, with the spikes. I can't remember what they're called."

Rinoa stomped her feet in frustration with herself. She didn't know how to communicate what she wanted, wasn't used to dealing in anything other than ultimate highs and ultimate lows. For once, she had too many conflicting feelings, too many subtleties and shades, to be conveyed in a linear invective. How could she put this into words? "Squall, just please listen to me," she begged.

"Fine, whatever."

"Look, here's the deal. I mean it when I say this relationship isn't what I want. I'm not interested in a faceless yesman; I don't want to have to define every aspect of your life. I don't want us to move in together. But ... look, Seifer screwed me over really badly, and I'm sorry I never really told you about it. 'Cause... well, here's the problem." She realized she was giving this in a terribly disjointed fashion, but she had too many thoughts and things to say to stay on any one of them for more than a brief moment. "I needed to feel like I could stand up to him; he hurt really me bad. That's why I so quick to cling to you; I was so reliant on him and then dumped me and I needed someone to tell me I was okay. And, look, I know I did the same thing to you, but I didn't mean to, and I'm sorry, and I guess seeing that I could do it too helped me forgive Seifer, but here's the problem. I'm getting past that; I've seen what I've done to you, and I, I don't want to be manipulating you." This was going nowhere. She sighed and cut off her rambling. "Squall, I don't want to continue what was going on, but I'm willing to, I do want to - try to, at least - start something better. With you, I mean. I realize I haven't given you enough of a chance by even telling you my problems. But I'll try again. I mean, I don't think we should be, y'know, together right now. Not like before. But we can start again. I want to give you another chance, Squall, if you'll give me one."

"Thwomps," Squall mumbled absently. "That was their name."

"Squall? Are you listening to me?"

"Yeah."

"Well... do you understand or not? Why I hate it when you treat me a robot?"

He would have assured that he didn't mind any of her problems, that he was all too happy to support her despite this, but at last something more had awakened in him. Something that would not permit him to continue living in one dimension for her supposed benefit. "Yeah. I mean, you've done that to me a lot too. It kind of bothered me. And there are these two girls who have crushes on me, you saw them. They're nice but it's frustrating that keep following me around when I'm not interested in them. So I can understand how I must have been annoying you a lot."

And in a brief seconds Rinoa jumped from living in one world to another. He... he... he actually said something halfway critical about her! And he really understood how she felt! He was treating her like a real human being, at long last! Not that she would ever be caught dead acknowledging the existence of any higher power (because of the second law of thermodynamics), but thank Hyne, he had suddenly acquired a semblance of a backbone! He was a person, and so was she! She MATTERED! For the first time in a long while - perhaps ever - she felt like she was in control of her own choices. Perhaps it would not last, but for the passion of the moment had whisked her mind and body to a land where someone loved her for her. She was suddenly compelled to embrace him. "Oh, Squall." Maybe there was hope. Yes, they were far from a perfect couple, or even a couple at all, but...

Knowing that she was not a robot and that she had the power to change herself. That was a gift.

"So, um, where am I?" Squall asked.

"Huh?"

"Ex-boyfriend? Acquitance? Friend? Best friend? Best friend with benefits? Boyfriend? Throw me a frickin' bone here!"

Dangit, those were just the kind of questions she didn't want to have to answer. She grumbled and shook her head in frustration. "Look, I don't know. I really don't. That's what we need to figure out. But I want to do things together, okay? Naybe we can... um, what the hell do you do these days, anyway?"

"Well..." What did he do? Besides mope? "I write poetry... I drink coffee ... and I'm learning to play the acoustic guitar really badly. Is it true that girls like guys who play acoustic guitar really badly? I was playing my acoustic guitar really badly; did you hear me?"

Rinoa frowned. Um, how did she say this? "It sounded, well, kinda crappy. No offense."

Kinda crappy? Only kinda crappy? He had been going for full-on utter badness. That was what girls liked, wasn't it? Oh well, he was new and still learning. He couldn't expect to become 100% emo overnight.

"Anyway ... how about we go for coffee, then? We can just chat. It doesn't have to be anything serious."

Well, what more could he have expected? After all that had happened, he was lucky for this - at least she wasn't still sleeping with furniture. Maybe this would be good. Start things off slow. Even he had to admit that there was now a rather significant rift between them and he could not expect it to close instantaneously. But this was a step in the right direction. And there was always hope.

"Okay, but um ... promise me you won't ever look in my closet."

"What? Huh, oh, well, sure." By this point, she had given up questioning his idiosyncrasies. Instead, she smiled, reached up, and playfully pushed his glasses up his nose. "You know, I think you look cute in those glasses."

* * *

"Mrs. Kramer?" Mengshi poked her head into the Kramers' office and, upon seeing that Edea was inside and available, hurried inside. "Here's your book back," she said. She set the art history textbook down on the desk. "Your suggestion worked great; it actually got through to Miang. And she's here, alive, again. Quistis took her to our house already."

Edea smiled. "Don't give me all the credit; you got through to Miang. And I think you should keep the book, so you'll have something to always remind yourself that we depend on each other."

"Thanks..." She hesitated. She couldn't change the topic, not when she still wanted to discuss this one, but she was not quite prepared to bring up a suggestion as audacious as hers. "And, someone else has already thought of this, I'm sure, but I was thinking..." Mengshi looked to Edea, seeking acknowledgment before she continued.

"Mmm?"

"...why couldn't we all be sorceresses? If I could give half my powers to Miang, couldn't we now each give half of what we have to someone else? And Rinoa could divide her powers too, and we could keep splitting them up into smaller and smaller pieces, so that everyone had a little bit of Hyne's powers. Imagine if everyone in the world was, say, one-ten millionth of a sorceress. Then Ultimecia could only possess this tiny little part of any of us ... so she wouldn't really be able to control any of us! We wouldn't need knights to protect us, and no one would have to carry the stigma and burden of being a sorceress, because everyone would be a sorceress. It would be like there weren't any problems with sorceresses at all!" She looked eagerly to Edea. "It would work, wouldn't it?"

Edea smiled. "I'm not sure, but that's certainly a very interesting idea. I'll give it some thought."

"Cid! Matron!" Selphie flew through the doorway and came to an unsteady stop, arms churning for balance, in the center of the room. The Kramers both knew what Selphie had come to say as soon as she stepped into their office. And they had no good answer ... because they had been wrong. "See, Yuffie was right," Selphie announced. "There really was a Mother Brain -" She stopped when she realized Mengshi was standing at Edea's desk. "- er, I'm not interrupting anything, am I?"

Mengshi shook her head. "No, I think I'm done." She picked up the book. On the way out, she turned to Selphie and mouthed "Good luck." Selphie was a little surprised - after all, it had been Mengshi that had been the target of so much of the Free Yuffie Foundtation's wrath - but she also knew so much had changed in the past month.

Selphie took a deep breath and raised herself up on her tiptoes to begin her little speech to the Kramers. "Hi, Headmaster, Matron. I'm sure you know why I came to talk to you. But first I want to thank you for your advice. About the best way to change the world. I think I understand it now."

Cid smiled at her. "Sometimes choosing the wrong road is the best way to learn what the right one is."

Selphie nodded. "Yeah. And, um, you have to admit that you were wrong too. Yuffie really was trying to save the world, I guess. I mean, she told us about the black mages and the mice a month ago; she even had the day and the date right. I'll admit, I didn't believe her either, but..."

"...we all mistakes."

"Right." Selphie handed Cid a blank check. "And so I want to hire SeeD."

She basked in their stunned look for a second, then continued, "To break Yuffie out of the Desert Prison. So at least she can go home to Wutai. It couldn't take too many people. Zell and I'll work for free, and I can pay for the rest. Don't worry; I can afford it. We've raised a lot of money, and I've got some saved myself for a rainy day." She frowned. "And, well, every day is pretty rainy without Yuffie around."

Selphie looked hopefully to Cid. Would he accept this?

Cid passed her the check back. "Keep your money," he said with a kindly wink.

Chapter Text

Mengshi stared with great intent at the toaster, as if doing so would somehow make her French toast come out faster. The moment burned itself directly into her consciousness, calling great attention to itself just like everything she did. They were the little slice-of-life moments that once she drifted by without a second thought but which she could no longer take for granted. Even fixing breakfast had a striking importance in her senses. She felt she was finally listening now, instead of just hearing.

She was lucky to be alive, that was terribly obvious. Well, heck, they were all blessed to be given a chance at a life, but what she meant was that the circumstances she faced could very well have claimed her for good. Many did not get the kind of second (and third and fourth) chances she always seemed to. And she was a little frustrated that in spite of all she had been given, she would always find ways her life could be improved. Some things would always annoy her, some things she would always wish for - shouldn't she be able to better put things in perspective? She should be continually happy and grateful that she wasn't still rotting in hell, right? But ... well, like Quisty had said, the world could keep getting better. No harm in wishing for even more beauty.

And in the end, she mused as she drenched her French toast in blackberry syrup, this experience had done more to bolster her faith than shake it. Oh, she had certainly been enveloped in despair, but the fact that everything had worked out in the end only went to show that even a terrible crisis could have a happy ending. It certainly made her feel wonderful about her relationship with Quisty. Once their love had felt more a more a happy coincidence than anything else. They had stumbled into it without having to cast their lots decisively in favor of each other. But after being tested by forces both internal and external and finding that they still wanted to be with each other ... well, now she knew they had commitment, not just mere compatibility.

Mengshi carried her breakfast out to the dining room, where Quistis awaited her. Quisty's usual morning paper had taken a leave of absence; instead, Quistis' attention was focused on Mengshi. Her spoon idly stirred her cereal as a genuine grin, devoid of Quistis' usual amused restraint, crossed her face. After all they had been through, being able to enjoy such simple joys as breakfast together seemed the greatest gift the world could give them. And perhaps it was.

Mengshi looked expectantly at Quistis, seeking an explanation for why Quistis was staring at her instead of reading the paper. "I want to talk to you," she said softly.

"About...?"

"Whatever you feel like talking about, dear."

What did she feel like talking about? Well, there was one thought that stood out to her more than anything else. "It feels so good to be back," she murmured. "I know I wasn't really gone all that long ... a couple of weeks in hell were more than enough for me." She frowned, and her eyes automatically shifted in the direction of the room where someone was still slumbering. "It's so hard to think about being there for years. It really makes it a lot easier to understand how Miang could have started feeling the way she did." She wondered if this was what Quistis wanted to hear ... but, really, Quistis just wanted to hear whatever she was thinking. "And how I did, I guess."

Quistis nodded. "Every cloud has a silver lining."

"Yeah... I know it sounds really silly to say, but I think dying and being sent to hell ended up being a pretty positive experience for me. I mean, it helped me to take it to heart that I don't have to be perfect, and it meant I was able to help Miang. And... I think she's going to be able to help other people in turn." She frowned. "Not that I wanted to hurt you, but..."

Quistis waved off her concern. "No, I understand. I do wish you would have told me the truth sooner, of course. You should know you can trust me..."

Mengshi nodded sadly, still feeling a little ashamed of herself for having caused so much trouble. "I guess ... well, because I felt that if I was really strong, really a great person, I could conquer all my problems on my own. You know, that my failings were only in my head and I was only letting them hinder me because I was weak-minded. I mean, it seems like people are always trumpeting the 'brave' achievements of those who refuse medical, physical assistance, and do everything on their own ... that they're the courageous ones, and I was only a coward."

"Well, those stories are dumb," Quistis said with a wink.

Mengshi laughed. "Yeah, I realized that. I'd really much rather be alive and weak than strong and dead. Pride didn't get me anything in the end." She found another random thought bubbling to her lips and started to fidget. She wasn't really used to talking about herself. And as self-effacing as she could be, she actually enjoyed it when she had the chance to share herself with life. It made her feel better about existence - the world seemed a much more inviting place when she was an important piece of it. "You know, this reminds me of the whole 'cave' metaphor, where I've escaped the darkness and now I came back into it to help others. Because I've been there; I've seen all the reasons to lose hope and now I know how to answer them. I mean ... I'm sorry. I'm completely babbling here."

Quistis smiled comfortingly. "I told you I just want to hear what you were thinking, dear," she said. "And, besides, I agree with you. I'm glad we're worth a lot more to each other than our pride."

Mengshi smiled back. This ... really was all Quisty wanted. She had no ulterior motives; she really did just want to know what Mengshi was thinking. Because she loved her. It felt so good.

Quistis, too, was relieved: Mengshi's insecurities were more or less conquered and Quistis no longer had to fear what they could bring. Of course, Quistis would always have done her best to try to stand by Mengshi in any case, but preferring to be happy instead of battered she needed no justification. "I finished my surprise for you yesterday," she said as she reached under the table. "I needed something to keep my busy while I was at the lighthouse, and..." What was now in Mengshi's hands was a needlepoint reproduction, somewhere between the size of a trading card and that of a piece of paper, of the Carbuncle Triple Triad card.

Mengshi stared it. Oh, Hyne, what an amazing present! It was adorable! Quistis was so wonderful. She hugged it to her chest. "Thanks; it's so perfect." Then she winked and added, "But I already have this card."

"Oh, but this one's a rare misprint. It's not regulation size."

They both started laughing. And as the warmth of the moment settled from joyful surprise to quiet contentment, Mengshi reflected on just how beautiful her life really was. How could she ever even hope to express in words, or even comprehend, the goodness of everything? "Hey, Quisty, do you remember the question I asked you about love?"

"Mm-hmm." Quistis nodded. She had to confess she'd kind of forgotten about it until now after failing to come up with a neat answer.

"Yeah, I ... well, I thought about when I was in hell, and I tried writing some answers, and I finally came up with one that I liked." It suddenly hit her how silly and ostentatious she must be sounding right now. Oh, how could she think she actually had anything meaningful to say? She started to blush. "Er, never mind... I'm being silly..."

Quistis just smiled. "Come on, you don't have to be embarrassed."

"No, it was dumb anyway. Forget about it."

This was the Mengshi that bothered Quistis. She placed her hands over Mengshi's and stared seriously into her eyes, hoping to cut off this problem. "Please?"

Okay. Mengshi tried to calm her flaming cheeks so that she could present her axiom with some modicum of dignity. She closed her eyes and concentrated to try to remember what she'd written exactly. Stumbling over her words would make it sound even stupider. "'An endless truth and an endless beauty that we are endlessly discovering,'" she recited.

She felt Quistis' lips pressing to hers. Okay, maybe she shouldn't have gotten so worried. Silly her. Mengshi leaned forward and kissed her back. Together at last. A gentle peace overcame her. She never had had anything to fear. She loved Quistis, Quistis loved her, and in these moments when they were together with nothing else hanging over them, the universe was filled with nothing but joy.

She did feel like something of an idiot for doubting Quistis' love and faith in her for so long, earlier. But things had worked out. So much heartache and things had still worked out. Her confidence in herself, in Quistis, in the world had certainly grown. But more than that, what had really exploded was her appreciation of the kindred soul whose spirit hers now mingled with. It was truly a blessing to have someone make her so happy. And to be worth just as much to Quistis simply for existing the way she was.

And this was the Mengshi that made Quistis so happy. Quistis reached up to caress Mengshi's face while they continued to kiss. She had been right when she commented how she'd always be dreaming of Mengshi. Mengshi was simply too much of ... too much of everything in Quistis' life for Quistis not to. And she was everything not as an idol of perfection, because Mengshi certainly wasn't perfect, but simply because she was so wonderfully, beautifully human. That was the Mengshi that Quistis adored. The smiling, chatting, laughing, happy, grinning, caring, reading, Triple Triad-playing, kissing, cuddling, talking, loving Mengshi she had endured so much for.

Mengshi drew closer to Quistis and plunged into one last hard kiss. Their lips pressed hungrily together, savoring every last moment that they spent only with each other, until Quistis finally broke the kiss and looked into Mengshi's beaming eyes.

"I think that's a very good answer."

* * *

"Do you have a big rhyming dictionary?"

Rikku pointed from behind the library counter. "They're over there, in the reference section."

"Er, I need a bigger one," Zell said. "See, I'm working on a poem for my girlfriend, but I got kind of stuck."

"We don't have anything bigger."

"Well, um... can you think of anything that rhymes with 'swath endogenous?'"

"...what kind of poem are you writing?"

"Never mind." No big deal. It wasn't like he needed to write this poem right now; he knew he certainly didn't need to prove anything to Selphie. Besides, he already had one cool surprise coming her way, assuming he didn't completely bungle it.

"Thanks anyway. And, um..." He felt like he had something to her, but he wasn't sure what. See, he knew that Seifer seemed to have made Rikku his latest toy. Surely he should do something about that. It had been a long, long time since he had a crush on her, but ... he still thought she must be a good person. And pretty much anyone deserved better than to jerked around by Seifer. "Seifer Almasy has been sending you stuff, right?"

She looked a little startled. How the heck would we know about this? "Yes, but..."

"Look, I know this isn't any of my business, but..." He's bad news. Don't let him push you around. What the hell are you thinking? You have to live life on your own terms, not his. Sound advice, perhaps, but ... if he knew this wasn't any of his business, why was he still talking about it? He had made it his self-imposed duty to protect the world from Seifer, had always assumed that he was doing good by minimizing Seifer's influence on anything. But, boy, if someone ever did that to him, he'd certainly be steamed. It was ... rather the sort of thing Seifer would do in fact.

Rikku was glaring at him over the tops of her emo glasses. She didn't want to hear his advice and frankly thought he had no place offering it. "Never mind," Zell concluded. "Hope you find your way." Sometimes people had to figure things out on their own. He had, after all.

He couldn't deny that he had been wrong, he admitted to himself on the way back to his room. He was still some time from really trying to make good out of this fiasco, but he could at least cut back on being a jackass. None of his badmouthing Seifer had ever accomplished anything except make him even more angry. What good could vilifying him do the world? That was the problem with being anti-anything: it made enemies by definition and he'd never really be able to help everyone. It wasn't inclusive; it only created more conflict. Besides, people got defensive when he attacked them or their ideas; of course they didn't want to listen to him when he was insulting them. That was why he figured he should only campaign for good things. Something positive that everyone can get behind.

He wasn't sure what had made the difference. Certainly all the soul-searching he had gone through during this Yuffie mess made a difference. His eyes had been opened to the true nature of many things in life he hadn't considered before. But it was more than that: he had made hating Seifer an institution in his life; it was something he didn't think about. He just found his interest in fighting to be gradually waning. Another one of those inexplicable changes he was starting to see in himself.

Well, I guess this is growing up, he mused. The best part was that he had never really made the conscious choice to do it. It just happened. Slowly he had started to see more goodness in the world and his pettiness fell away. Just from existing. That reassured him. It reminded him that things tended to work out. He didn't have to solve all of his quirks and problems overnight because experience would teach him sooner or later. Life was looking out for him.

He had been right when he suggested to Selphie that asking questions too loud prevented you from hearing the answers. But so too, did giving answers too loud keep you from hearing other people's questions. Because his dogma didn't necessarily - and, in fact, didn't by definition - solve every problem. "The best way to change the world is to change yourself." The good ol' Filth Brigade. That sure made a lot more sense than all this noble suffering, heroic, revolutionary nonsense. They didn't need a revolution - the world was already pretty good as it was - just an evolution.

Because, in the end, it was the Yuffies, not the Rinoas, who truly redefined the world. Not the people who fought for fighting's sake or for the benefit of people they didn't even know. But the people who honestly wanted a better life for themselves and stuck their neck to seize it. People, he had noted, tended to make the right decisions to take care of themselves when it came down to it.

He had this sort of theory. Sure, maybe it was a bit pretentious of him to start dreaming up these sort of things, but he liked thinking. If he didn't want to try to understand his world, what would he be? So his little theory went like this: People seemed to go through three phases of viewpoints on a lot of things, including life. First, they discovered it and embraced it completely and blindly. Like how young children were always happy to be alive and didn't really see all the ugliness out there. Then they realized whatever it was wasn't all that; they began to see the problems. So they felt betrayed, betrayed because they'd been believing it was perfect and it turned out to be. Hence, teenage angst. But in the last phase, people seemed to accept that life, or whatever, can have faults and still be worth it. They learned to appreciate it for what it is, love it in spite of its faults. He thought he might be finally getting to that third phase, and he was getting there purely by going on with life.

So he figured it was okay to cut some slack to the people still back in those earlier phases. It was time to lay off with his unrealistic expectations that everyone understand as much as he. Rikku, Kid, they were younger than him; it was silly of him to apply his standards of life to them. They were still growing up, were a little farther behind than him, but that was okay. Everyone had to start somewhere. And maybe that Quina Eat World nonsense maybe wasn't such nonsense after all, if it helped people climb up that ladder. Hyne only knew wouldn't be appropriate to make 4-year-olds watch Citizen Kane instead of The Lion King. Maybe he could even go down to Ragna Rock and check out one of those bands Mikoto kept blabbering on about.

He was reminded of some Chu-chu Tribe proverb that Chu-Chu had told him once. It was something like, "The first fool believes everything she is told is true. The second fool believes everything she is told is false. The wise Chu-chu discovers the truth for herself." Well, he was finally figuring out the truth for himself. He was sure that the others would sooner or later.

Zell was so wrapped up in his theories that he almost tripped over Chu-Chu. Well, speak of the devil.

"Hi, Captain Sexypants," Chu-Chu said with a leer. "Do you mind if I stay here between your legs?"

"Yes." He quickly lifted his leg and stepped out from over him. "So, uh... what's up? Happy to be home?"

"I'm not at home; I came back in time to visit chu."

"What?”

Chu-Chu puffed her chest, feeling very proud of herself. "I'm the Chu-Chu from tomorrow! I came back in time to seduce myself. See, 'cause yesterday, my future self tried to get it on with me, but we played spin the bottle, and my future self pointed it at herself instead of her past self, which is me. So I'm hoping I have better luck with myself this time."

"That's, uh, nice. Good luck, or something."

"Thanks," Chu-Chu said. "By the way, is that a crystal ball in your pants, because I can totally see you without them making sweet, passionate love to me?" She walked off whistling a jaunty tune.

I really don't want to know if she was being serious.

* * *

Seifer! Squall had been looking for a showdown with him all day and finally caught up with him in the quad. He sprinted to catch up with him, his Converse All-Stars a blur. "Seifer!"

Seifer stopped and looked over his shoulder. "Eh?"

"The advice you gave me was terrible! You nearly ruined my life! Rinoa was pissed when I told her to go make me some tea!"

"Yeah, well, she's a stupid whore that deserves whatever she gets; what does she know?"

"Hey, you leave my ex-girlfriend slash acquitance slash friend slash best friend slash best friend with benefits slash girlfriend out of this!"

"You brought her up, dumbass."

Squall placed his hands over his heart. "That hurts me on the inside, Seifer. And you remember two years ago when you slashed me in the face and gave me a scar? That hurt me on the inside too. You may be just another boorish frat boy, Seifer, but I'm a modern, intelligent, sophisticated man. I'm sensitive. I'm a lover, not a fighter."

"You sure don't seem to be doing much loving, either."

"Hey, Rinoa told me yesterday she doesn't totally hate me! Things might still work out! You just don't understand, Seifer, because you are a... a mental grasshopper! A intellectual kangaroo, a mind wallaby! One of these days I'm gonna send you air mail to the moon. Air mail to the moon! Just you wait."

Seifer placed his hands over his heart. "Oh no, I've been called a 'mind wallaby'; I'm so hurt. Because I'm sensitive and sophisticated." "You may laugh at me, Seifer, but it's an indisputable fact that your crude, manipulative alpha-male ways make you completely repulsive and incapable of sustaining a lasting relationship!"

"Yeah, well, your new-age teary-eyed sensitive stalker shtick doesn't seem to be working so hot either."

"Maybe we should try being ourselves, huh?"

* * *

Waking was like touching down in a new world. The last time Selphie had risen, it was to campaign for Yuffie's freedom and feud with Rinoa. But now ... well, getting out of bed for a world where she had conquered these problems made her feel like a little girl on Christmas morning. And she could hardly wait to see what life had left under her tree.

Whoo HOO! "Booyaka! Mamimumemo!" She sprung out of bed with an energy that she had not felt in a long time. The world was okay; she did not have to doubt that now.

A look at the clock revealed that she had slept well into the afternoon. Well, she deserved to. She had played at an amusement park, battled with Rinoa, and danced to free Garden all without rest.

As she was getting read for the day, she saw Zell had left a message on her voicemail. She tapped the button to play it as she liberally doused her hair in gel and tweaked the ends up. "Hi, Selphie, this is Zell. I wanted to apologize for losing it yesterday. But I'm very happy you chose to live and I'm glad I could do whatever I have to help you do that. Especially with Yuffie coming home ... I feel like this darkness might finally behind us. And... um, I'm really looking forward to, uh, taking advantage of all the future offers. So... thanks for doing so much to secure that future, 'cause I know you've done a hell of a lot, more than any of us. And, um, give me a call when you wake up, 'kay? Thanks? I love you. Buh-bye."

Selphie was smiling warmly as the message came to a close. Well, that was nice to hear, and she agreed with everything he had to say. The drudgery did seem to be falling away before them at last. She had finally gotten off 'Survive' and back onto 'Live.' And I do have a lot to thank for him too ... he's done quite a bit to ensure our future too. She tapped her autodial to call him back.

"Hi, Selphie! Good afternoon; what's up?"

She chuckled. "I just got up. Thanks for the message; I appreciated it. And don't be too hard on yourself; I know you've always been trying to do good."

"Yeah," he said. "I just get frustrated sometimes." He sighed. "I know I've caused you an awful lot of headaches, but..."

"...you've also helped cure a lot of them."

"Yeah."

"Don't be too hard on yourself," she said. "It's been a stressful time for everyone. And I know that trying to hurt me would be the last thing you'd ever try to do. "You don't like hurting things, right?

"Right," he said, relieved. Self-doubt erected itself around him so easily, but she could always clear it with a simple reassurance. "Yeah. Have you eaten anything yet? We could go down to the old side of town again. That was fun; I liked it."

She grinned. Did he still think that he could never change? How silly. She knew he was becoming more of the person he wanted to be - he would not have made a suggestion like that a few months ago. But that was terrific; it was nice not to have to plan everything. Now they could work as a real team instead of a leader and follower. "Sounds great. I'll be right over."

* * *

Sitting at a streetside table with Mr. Bear nestled in her lap, eating cheesecake, Selphie could not help but think of Trabia. Okay, the cheesecake wasn't quite as scrumptious, but ... well, everything else seemed better. Sun Hye was gone and nothing would ever truly replace her, but she had even more friends now. Emma, still, and Zell and Quistis and Yuffie and Chu-Chu and Irvine and Rinoa and Squall. She could not wish any of them out of their life; each was an individual for whom there was no true replacement. And she was older and wiser, had a job, could play and sing a lot better, knew herself better than she had before. It reminded her that the past was not always better. The present and the future gave her their own blessings, and she was no longer so willing to trade them for a mended heart. That wouldn't be very gracious, would it?

She knew it was not a great epiphany to say that time healed all wounds, that life could blossom again even after tragedy. It was perhaps, in the Tribalian perspective of the world, even a cosmically insignificant occurrence. Countless others had already discovered the same thing. But it was a journey they all had to take. Every life started with zero awareness and had to learn and understand the world as it grew. Growing up was nothing new, but that did not make it bad. Some things everyone had to do. So why discriminate against herself? Her travels through life's discoveries was just as important as any other sentient being's.

"You know, I always told myself about everything that happened to Trabia, and Irvine too, that what people said was right and it was better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all, but ... I think you know that I frequently doubted how true that really was. But I suppose coming so close to throwing my entire future away forced me to wake up to how lucky I am to have the opportunities I do. 'Cause so many people didn't. So many people would have given everything for just another few days of life for themselves or their loved ones, so they could even do a few more things in this world. And to have the chance to live and love and throw it all away I think would be the greatest disgrace to Sun Hye and ... everyone like her. You know, life is a gift, and I don't care how cliché; that might sound; it's said so much because it's true." And yet another truth that they all had to discover for themselves.

Her introspection trickled to a stop as she realized there was not much left to say. Everything had worked out, hadn't it? Her gaze drifted from empty space to the person chomping on a hot dog. How nice there was at least in the world she did not have to prove herself to in the slightest. Someone who would always understand. Oh, sure, they'd never agree on everything - and that would be boring anyway - but she knew that at his core there was someone who saw the world the same way as she. And if even one person truly loved her just the way she was... well, then, she shouldn't change anything about herself, should she?

She smiled. "Thanks for standing by me through all this."

He smiled back. "Thanks for standing by me. When I'm struggling so much to find myself, find an identity, it's such a relief to know that someone understands. And that you see enough in me to put up with my foibles."

"You know I'd do it again in an instant, dear."

"As I would for you."

These were the times when Selphie would normally be haunted by reservations floating through the back of her mind. Zell's platitudes would have failed to be enough, and she would have been depressed at how her grimy reality failed to live up to her beliefs. But, this time what he said didn't trigger anything except an acknowledgment. It was the truth, and that was that. For once, she could actually believe all the sappy slogans.

She smiled. "Thank you. I wish I could say that it's all better now ... of course it's not." She said it airily; it was no longer a worry but an untroublesome fact of life. "I know I'll always feel like I'm missing some part of me. But I guess it's the way love goes. Even Mikoto, for all her nihilism, couldn't help trying to save lives and make the world a better place. I know I could never outrun love if I tried to flee from it, so..." She shrugged. "I'll do the best I can do, huh? After all, I think the mistakes we make end up defining our character just as much as our successes. It's like this thing Irvine used to tell me, about a butterfly..."

Zell chuckled at the mention, and he quickly pulled his hot dog out of his mouth to reply. "Yeah, he told me that too. Actually a lot of good advice."

"I know."

"'You can't assess the future if you're living in the past,'" he quoted.

"Yours, or...?"

"Lavos Spawn, '...And Out Come the Shoopufs.' Before they started to suck."

She giggled and nodded. "Of course." The last bite of cheesecake went into her mouth, and she set down her fork and stretched. While she was waiting for him to finish, she took her Rubik's Cube out and started fiddling with it some more. "You know, if this were a movie, this would probably be when I finally solve this thing."

Zell hesitated, waiting to see if the mighty fist of irony would take command of the situation. But Selphie only shrugged and put the cube back in her pocket. "Oh well," she said. "I'll keep working on it. But right now ... I feel like doing something fun and crazy. We need to celebrate."

Totally. He grinned. Things were always the best when she was happy. While he stood by her whether she was lifting him up or dragging him down, no feeling compared to the times when everything was going her way. Seeing her happy always made him feel like everything was okay. If even one person was happy to be alive, if even one person wanted him around, then the world was definitely good for something. And he appreciated her happiness for her sake too: He cared for her and wanted her life to be good because he loved her.

But, really, the reason he enjoyed these moments of triumph wasn't because of him alone or because of her alone. It was because of them both. They played off each other, like ... well, like two one-winged angels. Lifting each other up to achievements they could not reach and bliss they could not discover alone. Of course they should keep reaching for those heights. Who besides Squall wanted to miserable? "We certainly do," he agreed with her sentiments. "Did you have something in mind?"

"Well, uh, this might sound kind of silly..." She turned and looked out to Balamb Garden, the top of which could be seen rising over the mountains separating it from town. "I've always wondered what it would be like to climb up to the very top of Garden. Have you ever imagined that, what it would be like to look down from way up there? I bet we'd get a fantastic view."

"Well... no, I haven't, but let's go."

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah! We can watch the stars once it gets dark, or see what we can make out on the ground. I bet we could see into town ... maybe we could even find my house. Except, um, how are we supposed to get up there?'

Selphie laughed. "I'm rubbing off on you, dear."

"Do you hear me complaining?"

She laughed again, because it seemed so plain now that there was nothing but joy to be found in what they were and what made them human, and hugged him. "We can take the elevator. I can probably jimmy the lock."

"Okay... hey, can I bring a surprise along?" He felt a little nervous bringing it up even now, because it entailed committing himself to doing something he wasn't sure he could do. It was easy to want to do things when he didn't have to face the challenges, but the possibility of failure was so intimidating sometimes. But Selphie always understood.

"Um... what kind of a surprise is it?"

Zell grinned. "You'll see."

"...sure."

"Okay, it's in your room; I'll have to go get it."

"My room?" "Yeah. It'll make sense once you see it, I promise. Really."

* * *

From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]

dear dad and brother

well this week has certainly been something to write home about!! lol ^^ omg wtf lol so like i got stuck in this elevator with ths cute guy his name is SQUALL and he's famous here at garden. i think he is really deep because he hurts a lot on the inside lol but i guess he's made up w/ hiz ex slash acquitance slash friend slash best friend slash best friend with benefits slash gf i don't likeher but i guess he's happy u know???? i should MMOB O_O

also this other guy gave me a cactuar plushie. it reminded me of home which is y i am writing u! lol but i don't like him at all. even though this other guy thinks i do I THINK *HE* SHOULD MIND HIS OWN BUSINESS 2 U KNOW?? lolly but ig uess he is jsust looking out for me. he reminds me a lot of u brother just like squall sort of reminds me of poor auron-kun *SNIFFLES* lol because he is teh strong silent type *SWOON* ^^;;;

and then there's also this furry pink rat that wants to have sex with every1!! bombette really blew up at her yesterday rotflmaotsetsun

i wish ppl would pay more attention 2 me lol m(_)m it's not like @ home where am i fammous. but i guess im in the middle like in tht one quina eat world song (SHT UP BROTHER!!!1111333threethreehtree ITZ A GOOD SONG) maybe i will b3 the star again smday

omg i almost frogot garden got attaceked yestreday 2 but i m geting rely tired and my tpyting is getting poer coz i stayed up LATE last nite wking on a new desisgn 4 my laivejournal its brite red on brite green and i learned all abt teh markee tag lol so i want 2 let u know that i strujjgk lve t smf thst in graboomung on est pojeo

also here is a rlly funny pik of a cat and some domo-kuns i bet u hvn't seen it at all before!!! lel

luv 2 u all
xoxoxoxo

rikku

* * *

"How are you feeling?"

"Empty." Miang sat motionless on her plain, sterile bed staring around her plain, sterile room. "I'm glad I'm here, but I don't have anything to give me any meaning." Her distant gaze traveled slowly up to Mengshi's face. "I have to admit, that's probably one of the reasons I was so adamant in clinging to my notions about life's meaning. I mean ... believing that I was doing something good for the world by being hated seemed like the only way to justify my existence. When it comes right down to it, I spent ten thousand years working on nothing."

Mengshi smiled. "We all make mistakes."

Just a mistake. Ten thousand years of turmoil and it didn't have to be anything more than an innocent mistake. She liked thinking of it that way. Miang laughed gently and noted she didn't remember laughing like that ever before. "Now I'm not unhappy," she said, "but I'm not happy yet either."

"Well, I'm here to help. We'll find you something good, something positive to feel happy about." She looked around the featureless guest room. Aside from a few boxes of Xu and Quistis' stuff that was still unpacked, it was as empty and devoid of color as anything Miang was associated with. The poor girl really did need some features and decoration in her life. Mengshi imagined the room brimming with signs of a well-lived life. Someday the room would be filled with them: shelves stuffed with the books and music and movies that Miang enjoyed, the floor littered with the tools of her hobbies, perhaps a few souvenir T-shirts from various activities in the closet, a calendar on the wall denoting all the engagements she had planned, the address book listing all the people who appreciated her company, posters on the wall reminding her of what she adored, photos on the bedstand of the people she cared about, letters tucked away in her desk to read when she felt lost. And the smaller things too: the Sorceress Memorial snowglobe she had kept as a memento of the vacation in Esthar, the goofy-looking Pupu plushie she had won at the county fair, a couple of agates she had picked up on the ocean shore with her lover, the invitation to a party that she had forgotten to throw away. Oh, they seemed so silly to care about as items alone, but each one was the shadow of a story of something that Miang had done, someone she had cared about, some experience she would remember. And someday this room would hold a thousand stories.

Quistis stepped into the room behind Mengshi. "Hello, sleepyhead." She had been waiting for a chance to engage her new houseguest in conversation. That episode in the planning room was the only chance she'd had so far to talk to her, and that hardly counted.

"Good afternoon," Miang greeted her. "It still feels so strange to be here." It was amazing how despite her years of experience, these people could still know much more than her about some things - and casual conversation was one of them. She had carried on plenty of such dialogues as the women she occupied, but really talking about herself? She felt rather uncomfortable - invaded, even. She wasn't supposed to have any personal characteristics that could be spoken of! She hastened to add, "But I'm glad. I really appreciate what you've done for me."

Mengshi smiled. It felt just as good to know that she was looking out for others as it did to know they were looking out for her. "Well, thanks. I know I'll be happy to have you around."

Miang sighed and shook her head. It would be a long time for this new life stopped being a befuddling wonder to her. "You know, Mengshi, no one's ever wanted me before. Oh, I've heard plenty of compliments, plenty of favors and appreciation directed towards me. But they were always for the woman I was living the life of, never for me, so they meant nothing to me. I didn't exist. I don't have any traits outside of my base physical appearance; I don't have a job; I don't have any interests. I'm nothing."

"But we're working on that," Mengshi assured her.

"Right."

An amused smile crept over Quistis' face as a rather mischievous comment entered her head. "Don't worry, there's plenty of room for faceless, uninteresting people at Garden. Just look at Nida!"

Mengshi laughed. "Now, dear, that wasn't very nice," she teased.

Quistis looked around the room, thinking about just how devoid of life it was. "We should really pretty up this room, shouldn't we?" she said after reaching the same conclusion as Mengshi. "But I don't suppose you have anything in mind?"

"You suppose correctly."

"Well, what's your favorite color?"

Miang shrugged vaguely. Quistis continued to stare at her, awaiting an answer. Miang had to have some kind of preference. "I told you, I was someone else for ten thousand years and then I was dead," the new woman insisted. "I don't have any opinions."

Quistis nodded towards Miang's hair. "How about purple?"

"Sure."

Miang looked like she was about to say something more but was being held back by her customs. "Is there something else?" Mengshi asked her.

"Well, I'm not sure I can go so far as to say I enjoyed it, but... when I was serving Deus, I did occasionally find myself drawn to the game of chess. I suppose devoting my attentions to planning and foreseeing the actions of chessmen distracted me from the burden of having to manipulate the real world. And..." Guilt crept back over her. No, she shouldn't ask anything of them. They were already devoting entirely too much of their time and money to her.

"You can ask," Mengshi prodded her with a soft smile.

"Could you get me a chess set?"

"Of course." Mengshi grinned. She still felt a minor elation of victory every time Miang acknowledged herself. This recovery could happen. Little by little they were constructing a healthy, happy Miang. "You can come shopping with us, if you'd like."

"Sure." She didn't have anything else to do, and the chance to pick out some things for herself seemed strangely appealing. And yet ... she was still worried. Worried that she really wasn't important. Before she could always justify her existence as a tool for the betterment of humanity. But what she was now?

Mengshi recognized the troubled, thoughtful look on her friend's face and decided to intervene before she delved too deeply into Miangst. "Come on, Miang, you can't sit around the house all day. How about I give you a tour of Garden?"

Miang smiled again. "Sure. I'd like that."

* * *

"BOOYAKA! Whoo hoo!" Selphie sprung out of a trapdoor and and onto the roof. She turned and peered back down the ladder. "You're taking the surprise up?" She more or less assumed he was, since he dragged the thing all the way here. But what was he up to? She suppressed an eager giggle. Surprises - this kind of surprise, the good kind - were fun.

"Of course." Zell pushed out a tall cardboard box containing the yet to be revealed surprise. She caught it and quickly set it aside. The less she touched it, the better. She didn't want to spoil his fun - or hers.

"I hope this is going to be worth it."

"I hope so too." He climbed up onto the roof. Selphie was already seated, her legs thrust out ahead of her, so he sat down next to her.

Gosh, what an amazing view. The sun was starting to sink below the horizon, oozing great swaths of color into the sky. Purples and oranges and gold mingled like a child's mishmashed fingerpainting. The spectacle dwarfed the city, which looked like only a mundane remnant of the physical world compared to these magical colors. (And, no, he couldn't see his house - the water tower was about the only building he could make out.)

And, of course, he was there with Selphie; that made the arrow of aching perfection aimed into his heart so much more acute. Being with her amplified every moment of joy he had. Basking in what he had or discovering something new alone made him happy, but it was somehow never quite everything he wanted. His soul yearned to share each point of light in his life. It was like two mirrors pointed at each other. They kept reflecting the other's image back and forth, and so rather than experience happiness once he had it bounced into him five or six or seven times.

He wanted to sink into all this beauty and just live for living's sake for a moment. To appreciate the moment for the peace and joy it offered and not to try to concoct some greater significance for it. But giddy nervousness kept bouncing his brain away from that calm. Much as he wanted to embrace the moment, he was thinking of something even more important right now. Soon he'd been unveiling what he had labored so long to prepare, and he couldn't stop thinking about it.

Should I do it now? Should I do it now? he kept wondering. He didn't want to be too pushy or jumpy, though. The time would come.

Selphie pointed into the sky. "That cloud looks like a train."

"Yeah," his mouth churned out an automatic reply. Oh, this will be so awesome if you do it right. He kept picturing her reaction in his head over and over. That had been what pushed him to keep working on his surprise all this time. Imaging her squealing with delight, or gasping with romantic passion, or maybe just being struck dumb when she saw what he could do, when he finally surprised with something really nice...

"Everything looks so peaceful. "Beautiful sunset, warm breeze ... it feels almost like this was made for us." She let out a content sigh. "Everything finally seems to be right about the world again."

"Yeah..." Zell murmured. "And we made it together, too."

Selphie nodded. "Yes, it's just like that book that I showed you, right? With the two angels lifting each other up..."

"...so they could both do things they never could alone."

"'Cause neither of us could have made it through this by ourselves." They were chasing this idea in leapfrog fashion, each one pushing one step further than the other had just carried them. It wasn't even a conversation so much as two voices speaking one monologue. But wasn't the way their lives often were?

"Right."

Following this thought had finally distracted Zell from his jitters enough to render him able to think. "I think this was worth all the struggle we went through," he said. "I mean ... besides getting Yuffie home and rescuing B-Garden from all those mice ... I think I've gained a lot myself."

She nodded. "Yeah, I know I have." These times had tested her faith and her courage, but both had only emerged greater for it. Where once she knew only blind belief in the light, she now had a thousand responses to the darkness. That which did not kill her made her stronger, as the saying went.

Zell had been waiting for her continue. When she didn't, he went ahead and elaborated on his own gains. "I guess more than anything ... my views on life have changed a little. I always figured that history, our existence, was like a big road. That we kept building up our accomplishments, learning more and more about the universe, as we marched towards some final, big important destination at the end. Sure, we didn't know what that was now, but we'd get there and find out eventually. And I still do think the world keeps getting better and our accomplishments are piling up, but ... I think history isn't just an arrow but a cycle. You know, everyone has to grow up, get old, and ... I guess if I want to be happy and successful and sane, I can't have my head in the clouds, reaching for the future all the time. Sometimes I have to step back and appreciate the futures that have already been grabbed and relish what we have. I think those are both equally important, appreciating the good that already is and creating more good. You know ... seek happiness in tranquility; adventure, excitement, a Jedi craves not these things; that sort of thing." His mind was already racing far ahead of his tongue, dancing from one image in his soul to another, and the part that was translating it all into coherent, linear sentences was scrambling to keep up.

It was like his silly little theory. The people who saw life only as an unchanging cycle to be preserved - Niccolo, for example - were stuck in the first phase. They didn't see the problems that remained to be solved. But the people who saw only the problems, who saw life as an arrow pointing to the end of a cycle - like Rinoa - were stuck in the second phase. They were all fight, no love. Funny how both of them ended up perpetrating the same destructive dogmatism. After all, Security without progress was shallow self-centered hedonism. And progress without security was destructive fascism. But somewhere between them ... well, that was where happiness seemed to lie. In the middle. The gray area. Like always.

"I mean ... it's often the little pleasures like this that I like the most," he continued "Like the first rays of sunshine peeking in through the curtains to herald a beautiful new day, or when the CD that you ordered comes in the mail, or finding out someone you know loved the same Saturday morning cartoons you did, or spending a summer day sitting outside and reading. You know, they're just little things but because they're so small they can be moments of perfect rightness. Moments where all the truth and beauty and love and joy in the universe is packed into one smile or one laugh. You feel like you're bursting with the unimaginable beauty of being."

Now I know he's not getting this from any album liner notes, Selphie thought.

He sighed wistfully. "I like this world so much; I just wish I could put into words all that I feel."

She could have echoed agreement again, could have told him he was doing a fine job, but that was hardly necessary. She was content just to listen to him, especially when he was talking like this. She liked listening to him. It lifted her spirits, made me feel better about the both of them, made me her want to share herself with him. But mostly it made her happy.

"You know, back in the old days, before I was punk," he went on, "I didn't have any high aspirations of changing the world or being a gillionaire or anything. Not even when I was little kid. I mean, there was always Seifer dreaming of knights and castles and sorceresses, Irvine pretending he was a cowboy, Ellone playing doctor ... and Squall wanted to be a famous general when he wasn't moping around, and I think Quistis was going to be Prime Minister." He looked over at her and grinned. "And you wanted to be a firefighter."

Selphie laughed. "Or a pop star," she completed the mutual memory. "And Nida wanted a meaningless job in middle management."

Zell was halfway to processing this information as more nostalgia when he did a double take. "Wait, Nida was at the orphanage?"

"Yes, I remember him quite clearly." It wasn't too surprising that she had memories that Zell didn't - she hadn't used G.F.s as much as the others.

"Oh," Zell said. "I'd forgotten about him."

"That happens a lot."

They both giggled. Poor guy. But he made such wonderful comic fodder.

"But, anyway, yeah, I never really cared for fame and fortune, not even back then," Zell said. "I just wanted to be like the Kramers ... to belong somewhere, and know that I matter and that people are glad I exist. Hold on a second, I have a quote." Zell fumbled in his pocket for a wadded-up sheet of notebook paper on which he had written the passage. He smoothed it out and started reading from it. "'To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and to endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.'"

Zell lowered the paper and paused for a second in case she was going to say anything. Since she didn't, he continued. "So, yeah, that's pretty much I want." Still she said nothing - she was just lying there, smiling and staring at the stars - so he rambled on. "Maybe those aren't huge goals, but I think there's beauty and triumph enough in enjoying life. I don't have to save the world; and, heck, I guess we already did anyway. Being happy and enjoying what's out there and being able to make a difference to the people close to me ... I think that would be enough for me."

"Yeah," Selphie said. "Me too. I mean, sure I talked about being a firefighter when I was girl, but what I really wanted to do is help people, right? And... it's all too easy for me to forget it, but I've realized I already do a lot of that. Helping people, I mean. I don't have to aspire to some higher position to be good for the people I care about. And, Hyne, I still don't know how I really fit into this universe, or where I'm going to end up, how I'm going to live my life, but I think I get a little closer every day. And just like my Rubik's Cube, I'm having a good time trying to put it together even if my stars never do totally align."

"So I'm not crazy for feeling like I'm finally at home?"

"No," Selphie said quietly. "Definitely not crazy."

And if he had any fears or uncertainties left, he certainly couldn't feel them now. Every last potential misstep had been averted and he had been cleared for take-off into the future his heart had always wished for. He felt not only that it could all come true, but that it was, and that he was already partaking of that happiness. Success was a journey, not a destination, and he knew with every certainty in the world he was on that journey. Nothing could be more right than this.

He was now unbearably bursting to share what he had labored so long for. "I think I need to give you my surprise now," he said, trying to keep his voice level despite his giddiness. He had waited so long for this, and he was so excited thinking about how happy it might make them both. "Close your eyes."

"What are you going to do?"

"I'm not going to touch you; I promise."

"I'm more worried about what you might do to yourself," Selphie teased, but obliged.

She heard Zell rummaging around in the box, zipping sounds, and then ... Zell playing guitar!? Wow. And then she realized that he wasn't just playing the guitar, he was playing "Eyes on Me."

Selphie melted. Yes, he was missing quite a few notes, and he wasn't totally in time, and the guitar was out of tune, but he was still playing the song. Zell, whom she never even saw touching a musical instrument, was making a sincere effort to play her a long song. For her! She could have simply listened to him, and that certainly would have been magical enough - she already found her sorrows and worries being swept away by melody. But she was compelled by the sort of transcendent awareness of what had to be done that only blossomed when things were going absolutely perfect - a kind of perfection inertia, when the universe wanted to hold onto working totally right for just another glorious moment. She quickly sat up and joined him. Again the sum became more than the whole of its parts, as her voice melded with the guitar's melody to again create one beautiful harmony.

I kind of liked it your way
How you shyly placed your eyes on me
Did you ever know
That I had mine on you?

She grinned at him and he played on.

Darling, so there you are
With that look on your face
As if you're never hurt
As if you're never down
Shall I be the one for you
Who pinches you softly but sure
If frown is shown then
I will know that you are no dreamer

So let me come to you
Close as I want to be
Close enough for me
To feel your heart beating fast
And stay there as I whisper
How I love your peaceful eyes on me
Did you ever know
That I had mine on you?

Darling, so share with me
Your love if you have enough
Your tears if you're holding back
Or pain if that's what it is
How can I let you know
I'm more than the dress and the voice?
Just reach me out then
You will know that you're not dreaming

Darling, so there you are
With that look on your face
As if you're never hurt
As if you're never down
Shall I be the one for you
Who pinches you softly but sure
If frown is shown then
I will know that you are no dreamer

Buoyed by that same perfect transcendence, where for a moment his fingers seemed to be the instruments of something far greater than the everyday Zell - perhaps some shade of his soul refined to its full potential, or some memory from days long before his own lifetime - Zell managed to keep his concentration to play through to the end of the song. Triumph surged within him - he did the whole song! - but it was soon overtaken by delight at the whole moment.

He quickly set the guitar down as Selphie gleefully tackled him to the ground. "Booyaka, Zell," she gushed. "I knew you had it in you."

She kissed him adoringly on the cheek. He reached up and pulled her closer as her lips this time planted on his. They kissed some more, and Selphie's spirits surged far beyond her normal life and into a limitless realm of clouds and stars and life. Love could bring her confusion and pain and suffering and self-denial, but it could also bring her ... well, love. She didn't know what else to call it. Euphoria? The chance to catch hold of the perfect music of the universe and dance their hearts out? Whatever it was ... well, at times like these, she was pretty damn sure the unhappiness was worth it. In the end, only the good mattered.

"You make so happy," Zell murmured. "Just knowing that you exist in this world is so joyous and comforting. I know that I'll always have a place to belong, that one person will never expect anything out of me but me. As long I'm with you ... I feel like I've succeeded."

"Thanks," Selphie said. "That makes me feel like I've succeeded too." She flopped over and laid her head back on his shoulder. Stars. She couldn't really see them up there yet, but she knew they were up there. Chu-Chu was no doubt at her window, waiting for them to come out so she could send her prayers to the Wondrous Mambo God. Selphie had always figured it best not to consider whether the North Star was really the Chu-chu Tribe's guardian god. Perhaps the facts didn't matter. Chu-Chu knew that the Wondrous Mambo God was out there, just as Selphie knew that the stars lay behind the clouds though she could not see them. And maybe that was good enough.

She could think of few things besides that she was on top of the world, but one other thought popped into her head. "Thanks for making me feel that it's okay being to be a little bit different."

He only smiled and hugged her closer. "And thank you for reminding me it's okay to be a little more normal."

They were both okay. Everything was. Oh, not really. There was still plenty of war and death and stuff in the world. Sun Hye was still gone and Selphie would always miss her. But she could pretend for a moment, at least, that everything truly did work out. And that fleeting instant of perfect grace was a miracle unto itself.

She had won. She had strived for something, kept her faith that the universe was more good than bad, and it paid off. The world would never be perfect like Rinoa wanted it to be, but it was not devoid of that spark she had searching for. Her life was not futile, and tomorrow she would have the living proof she had been looking for.

"I love you," he whispered.

"I love you too."

They both turned their gazes back to the sky. Neither spoke for some time. They had all they needed for now in this moment of perfect tranquility. They were nestled together, their woes were behind them for the moment, the setting sun was their blanket, and the world was all before them.

"I don't think I could ask for much more than this."

"Yeah."

"It really is a wonderful life," she said with a touch of awe. She shrugged. "I don't know what else there is left to say about all this..."

"Well," he said, "it's a magical world out there. Let's go exploring."

* * *

Miang had observed with great interest how Mengshi interacted with everyone on the way they ran into at Garden. She forced herself not to see this not as how Mengshi obeyed another new set of rules, but as how Mengshi did what she actually wanted to. Because that was what Miang had to reproduce - not Mengshi's specific actions, or even her attitudes, but how she lived as an actual person.

"Mengshi..." she began as they stood waiting in line at the cafeteria.

"Yeah?"

"I didn't want to ask you this until we'd gotten out of hell, because I didn't give myself any more reasons to doubt ... what am I going to do? I don't have shit to offer the world. I'm supposed to be dead. I don't have any money; I don't have a job; I don't have any training or even anyone who gives a shit about me. I've spent the past 10,000 years destroying human lives. It was only yesterday I was still swearing that I existed only to be hated. Who's going to trust me with a track record like that?"

Mengshi was not entirely unprepared for this issue. "You have yourself and everything you can to do offer, Miang. And you can stay with Quistis and I for as long as you need to."

"And? What can I do? I'm nothing. Anything that tied me to life I carefully undid." She shook her head sadly. "And I can't ask anyone to help me ... not after all I've done to them."

Mengshi frowned. She wanted to paint a completely rosy picture to reassure her, but Miang's concerns bore an unfortunate pragmatic insight. "Well... you're right that not everyone is going to be totally understanding. Some people are going to hold grudges. I know that one hour spent in the light nullifies an eternity of darkness, but others ... haven't seen yet the full value of forgiveness. Not yet, anyway ... with time they'll forget the bad and remember the good and learn to trust you. But even now ... if you put your trust in people, I bet you'd be surprised at what they can do in return. Faith, remember?" She smiled at Miang.

Miang sighed heavily. This was too much effort, too much work to drag her out of this hole when all she wanted was peace. "Whatever." She was tired, dammit. She wanted this to be over. How foolish she had been to think that getting out of hell was the end of the road when it was only the beginning.

Desperation gripped Mengshi. "Please don't start that again." She was honestly concerned that any moment Miang could slip back into her old ways.

"I'm not good for anything. I just cause trouble. Everything I touch, I destroy. I should go back to hell."

Quina returned with the ice cream cones the pair had ordered. "Why make everything so complicated?" he asked Miang, having overheard their last bit of conversation. "I do what I want but no hurt you. You do what you want but no hurt me. Where problem?"

Miang silently took her ice cream. She had listened to Quina's words, but could not respond to them. They were too alien - they stemmed from a perception of existence that from its very core was not like hers, and that she doubted she could ever remodel her mind enough to see things the way Quina did.

The pair sat down at a nearby table to eat. "I wish I could be like him," Miang murmured. "To have never been cursed with any knowledge of how things work. To be able to live in childlike bliss, knowing that things would work themselves out ... because someone else was fixing things. But ... now I am as a god, knowing good and evil, and it has become my responsibility to fix the world for the masses."

"Miang ... you can't think understanding is a curse, can you?" But of course she could. If she thought the universe was fundamentally bad, then understanding it, knowing more about its awfulness, would be a curse. But ... but it wasn't.

Miang shrugged. "Well, if knowledge is power, and power corrupts, then isn't best that only one person takes all the knowledge and power so that all the others can live in uncorrupted happiness?"

"Power doesn't corrupt, Miang," Mengshi said. "An unbalance of power, perhaps, but we can all gain power without anyone losing anything. Remember what I said about expanding the pie instead of dividing it? It's like that. When Quistis came to visit me in hell, she told me to create something. Something from nothing. To bring to this universe more than there was before. And after having to justify my existence to you, I've really come to believe in my heart that I can do that - and that, if I can, everyone can. Existence isn't a matter of balance, a fixed sum, give and take. Existence is ... growth. As the universe expands, so does our understanding, our happiness, our ability to love and forgive and celebrate life in its all glories. And you know what? It may never end. Things can just keep getting better infinitely. It all makes sense to me now. Everything ... everything seems to be evidence of that to me. I mean, we keep learning and understanding and inventing new things. And doesn't our population keep expanding? That makes sense, because that means there's more people who can be happy, more people who can create and live. There's more life. Life is just ... goodness. And creation, creation of anything positive, like art and music and writing and buildings and cities and movies and computers and cars and cures for diseases and parks and monuments and games and inventions, anything that makes people happier or eases suffering, that's good too. So is understanding, because it lets us appreciate what's already been created and what's in ourselves and we can learn what we can do to conquer our problems. See, the solution to the problems that knowledge creates is more knowledge. You're right that knowledge can bring about discontent or the capability to create more suffering. But it also gives the capability to fix all those problems, to elevate ourselves to heights we never even thought possible. Maybe we create new problems for ourselves in the process. But we can forge the understanding to end the wars that we start, find cures for the health hazards we create, rebuild the lives shattered by the revolutions. If it's all for nothing, Miang, then how do you explain where we've gotten so far? Surely you have to admit that things are better off for us than they once were. We live longer, are free from more diseases, understand each other and our universe more than we ever. And I know that problems and crises come and go, but I still think we're always getting better. We may have started in an ugly, brutish world, not knowing anything, having to fight each other to support ourselves, but we can overcome the limitations of our limited imperfect universe and create order from chaos. We're clawing our way of the darkness and into bliss. The universe is the best it's ever been, Miang, and it's only going to get better. Problems and limitations will fade away and be replaced with boundless happiness. Happiness for everyone. Happiness not just for the masses, not just for the elite, not just for the virtuous, not just for the innocent, not just for monkeys, not just for robots, not just for people who can afford to live in plush mansions, not just for people who live in mud hovels, not just for humans or Chu-Chus, not just for Balamb or Galbadia or Dollet or Esthar, not just for white or black or male or female or gay or straight or smart or stupid or handicapped or not handicapped or native or immigrant or atheists or creationists or Mamboists. But for every single damn person that exists and ever will exist. And all of us have something to contribute to that."

A feeling of peace had come over Miang as Mengshi talked. It was a peace born of a new kind of understanding - not the understanding that had left her with no alternative but to make herself perfect, but one that gave meaning to what she already was. She smiled, her eyes staring vacantly at Mengshi in a sort of reflective admiration. It had taken Mengshi a long time, but she had finally done for Miang what no other visitor to hell had ever done. She had convinced her that her optimism was not necessarily based only on self-interest, but perhaps on a true and greater understanding of the universe, and that the good of the individual and the good of the many were not in conflict after all. And that grain of doubt was enough - enough to prove to Miang that she didn't know everything. Perhaps no one could know everything. But they could know some things, and seek to discover what they did not while still enjoying themselves in the process. She had read somewhere once in her many years of existence that it was far better to know you believed than to believe you knew. And she believed now.

"Thank you," she said quietly. "I think I'm beginning to understand now. I guess we're all beginning to understand. But ... that was a very nice speech."

"Thank you." Mengshi had not really been planning to define the meaning of life when she started talking. She felt a little embarassed for having philosophized at such length. It had just sort of all spilled out in one continuous epiphany, one thing leading self-evidently to another. Once she had reached the conclusion, it had ceased to become even a line of reasoning; it was a holistic insight. She had to admit she thought she had actually given a nice little speech. Perhaps it might even be able to help others. She should write it down.

"I still don't know what I can do, though..."

"You want to ease others' suffering, don't you?"

"Yes..."

"And do you still believe that understanding is a curse?"

"I suppose not."

"Then why not help to enlighten others? So they can be better equipped to enjoy their lives, and in turn improve others' lives. You can help create the wings upon which humanity will soar into the heights. Goodness that begets more goodness. The world is a fine place and worth fighting for, Miang, and you hold the power to fight that better future just by being you."

"What are you trying to say?"

"That I'm offering you a job."

Miang folded her arms and scowled in resistance. "Don't lower your standards for me."

"I'm not pitying you. Miang, you have enormous strength of will, a caring soul, a talent for eloquent speech, and an irreproducible catalog of knowledge and experience. You think that doesn't make you valuable?" Miang still did not seem entirely convinced, so Xu rambled on, speaking each thought as it came to her. "You have a gift, Miang. Don't let it go to waste by feeling guilty about it. You can use what you've blessed with to help others, to improve their lives. Your life, your talents, those are the universe's gifts to you. But what you choose to create with them ... that's your gift back to the universe."

"I..." This really was all she could ever have dreamed of. A chance to improve others' lives, to bring good to the world, without having to hurt herself any more. Perhaps she might even be appreciated for what she did. It seemed too good to be true, but it probably wasn't. "I'll ... no, okay. I'll do it right now." Why spend any more time "thinking" about it? She knew what she wanted.

"Really?"

"I'll try." Miang shrugged. "I don't know what I can really do, but..."

Mengshi smiled. "You're just as equipped as any of us to change our destiny, Miang." Driven by a sudden burst of inspiration, she stood up and walked away from the table. She was not going anywhere, it was just that her mind was moving at such speed that her body had to keep up. She sighed thoughtfully and turned her gaze skyward, her eyes growing distant. "And I think that's the responsibility of all of us. Our fate is not in our stars but in ourselves..."

Chapter Text

Yuffie streaked through emptiness. She had left the landscape of Dricas as she knew it on the other side of the looking glass. Now she drifted across a seemingly-endless field of stars, letting her momentum carry her forward as Mother Brain had told her to do.

Then assorted rocks and debris began to form beneath her - or at least in the direction that her feet were pointing. Yuffie watched a planet form in a mere minute. Then she felt herself being guided down towards it. She drifted over the surface of this barren rock, observing how ugly it was. But soon it came to be filled with mountains and valleys. And water, forming lake and rivers and oceans. Yuffie could not place where she was, though, or even if this planet she was flying over was any one familiar to her.

Life was born in the primitive sea. The young life forms constantly evolved, always seeking to survive and flourish. Some prospered, some did not; all sorts of life ebbed and flowed like the tide. Soon life began the advance towards land, opening new habitats. A great prosperity came, as life conquered even the highest mountains. Mass extinctions came wave after wave, but empty niches always quickly refilled. Life prospered, grew, and reproduced. The oceans teemed with birds and fish, tiny mollusks and great sea mammals. And the many climates on land were filled with countless varieties of flora and fauna, from the tiniest insects and flowers through towering redwoods and great land mammals - lions and tigers and shoopufs, oh my! - and dinosaurs. They grew not just in size but in brainpower. She watched chimpanzees dig with sticks, dolphins chirp to each other.

Eventually, she saw what she recognized as human beings just like her. Just like her, except that they lived nomadic lives, spent the better part of their existence hunting for food, died early, and never understood much of their purpose. And so it would have gone, except that their evolution had not stopped there. Where the humans' bodies stopped changing, their culture started to grow. Their progress was measured not by genes, but by memes - ideas. The basic unit of imitation. One person's good idea - fire, wheels, the bow and arrow - was adopted by others, while the bad ideas floundered uncared for. The fittest ideas spread to create a culture. They created languages. Words created and defined new ideas. They could be exchanged amongst each others and passed them down to future generations. And so the new generations did not start their understanding of the world from scratch but built off the learning of the previous one. They had the opportunity to create more new ideas, creating a spiritus mundi. And so evolution continued.

The planet's inhabitants sought to answer that questions that plagued them: Why were they here? Where were they headed? Why did their friends die, and why did others hate them so? And though their answers were not complete, they understand the universe better than they did before.

They enjoyed the benefits of their learning. They continued to grow in numbers, and spread to cover the globe. They explored the seas and the jungles, the mountains and the glaciers, recording their travels in maps so that others would know more. But memes were separated from each other by geographic boundaries and could not fully spread. So the people evolved into different cultures as some creatures did species. Sometimes their differences grew too great; they no longer saw they had a common origin and a common destination. But new memes sprung up, reminding them that they indeed were they same and mending the rifts that formed.

And they saw that they were not at the mercy of this world but were rather in control of their fate. They built bridges to cross the raging rivers and new architecture to insulate their buildings against earthquakes. They developed cures for the diseases - smallpox and tuberculosis, cancer and AIDS - that claimed too many of them too soon. And they created technology so that those with poor vision or broken legs or mental disorders could live as the rest did. Rather than weaken their species by accommodating the less-able members of society, it strengthened them. For these physical imperfections had ceased to be weaknesses; they had been rendered irrelevant by technology so that everyone could contribute their memes to society regardless of their physical status. And the people prospered as they encountered more and more ideas.

They constructed great cities, monuments to what they had become. Landmarks - skyscrapers and bridges, museums and houses of worship - rose from nothing and became as breathtaking a testament to the beauty of the world as the valleys and waterfalls and glaciers beyond the reaches of the cities. And within the cities, liberated from the brutalities of the outside world, other humans chanced to apply their minds to other, less tangible creations they called "art." Some used their languages to chronicle the achievements, failings and lives of persons both real and imaginary, others captured the spirit of the world in painting and sculpture, and still others - perhaps the most blessed of them all - arranged strings of sounds to create something magical called "music." And the lives of all the humans - even those that would not stop yapping about cosmic insignificance - were touched and enriched by these creations that had brought something out of nothing.

Knowledge and understanding continued to blossom. Yuffie witnessing scientists unraveling the parameters of their existence. What made things move? What were they made of? Through trial and error, the people began to identify patterns in the behavior of this strange, mysterious universe. These discoveries often raised as many questions as they answered. After all, they were not so much discoveries as best guesses, based on an incomplete knowledge of the universe. But no one could know all the answers - and they certainly wouldn't even come close if they didn't start anywhere. So answers to the new questions were eventually formulated, and the new ideas the process birthed continued to improve the people's lives.

Of course, changes did not always come without their victims. Some characteristics became unjustly reviled, forcing innocents into exile. Great wars erupted, the product of pride and spite and ignorance. Other times, a well-intentioned step forward went astray - a new medical treatment with an unintended side effect, or constructive technology that became destructive in the wrong hands. But no war, no oppression was, no plague lasted forever. Despite all the prophecies of catastrophic disasters and apocalyptic wars, the wolf never came. And how could it? There were too many people who liked life. When they were truly threatened, their inner fondness for the world was enough to halt any cataclysm. And perhaps they all even learned something to help prevent such schisms in the future.

Indeed, though the humans had spread out to cover this unknown world, they were coming back together again. Once, people who traveled too far away were effectively lost forever in the unknown. But that fog was lifted. Boats, cars, airplanes allowed the people to roam, to see more of the wonders of the world than they ever had before, and yet not lose contact with each other. And information, news, people's stories could transfer itself more quickly and reach more people than ever before. First through the invention known as the printing press, then through telegraphs and newspapers, computers and televisions. Memes that could not have survived when constrained to their geographic birthplace now found a global audience. The body of human creation to understand and appreciate continued to grow.

And in the end, information and understanding became more valuable than almost any physical trinket, for it was wisdom that enabled the people to re-render their lives for the better. They became masters of their physical forms, plunging into their genetic code to extend their life and permanently strick debilitating afflictions from their species. More and more tasks became automated with the power of electricity, freeing from grunt labor and enabling them to move onto bigger and better tasks - and give them more luxury time with which to appreciate this world. Science began technology begat new opportunities.

And as their awareness grew, they turned their eyes to the skies. For they knew now that the universe extended beyond this one planet, and they yearned to see what it consisted of. They used their technology and their knowledge to create vessels that would carry themselves out of their atmosphere. They explored their moons and nearby planets; they sent probes far beyond to relay photographs home and carry information on their species in case something, somewhere picked it up. Were they alone in this universe? Given the size of their universe, many of them suspected they could not be, but that was one question they had yet to answer. Still they kept searching with their telescopes, observatories, and probes. There had been many unanswered throughout time, and all of them were but prompts for someone to step in and find the answer.

Yuffie descended at last to one of these observatories; a domed building with a telescope aimed skywards like an antenna to heaven. Hey, she realized. This was the Balamb Museum of Natural History! Or at least a virtual recreation of it. She was guided inside the building - Gawd, it was an eerily accurate reproduction; there was even a Sunny Delight stain on the rug - and into the planetarium where this whole mess had started.

Mother Brain awaited her there. She was now incarnated as a shimerring, rainbow-colored bost, about six feet in height, that loomed in the dome overhead. Whatever had been controlling Yuffie set her gently down on her feet and finally released her. She staggered around a little, getting used to being in control of her body again, and then craned her neck to look up at the new avatar of her nemesis.

"Would you deny all that you have seen here?" Mother Brain now spoke not in gloating or angry tones, but in an emotionless, knowing tone befitting of a National Geographic narrator.

"Huh?" Yuffie stared completely blankly at her. If there was a point to all this, she sure didn't get it. And more importantly, how much longer was it going to go on? She wanted to hurry up and save the world so she could get out of here.

"You have beheld the infinite vastness and wonder of the cosmos, the whole -"

"Is this going to take a while? I have to pee."

A Port-a-Potty materialized before her. Yuffie looked up at Mother Brain, seeking confirmation that it was indeed okay to use, but she only continued gazing directly forward with the same cold, laconic stare - the stare of one who was truly in command of all that she beheld. Having met with no direct objection, Yuffie shrugged and stepped inside the Port-a-Potty to do her business. As soon as she emerged, the Port-a-Potty vanished.

"Yuffie, you have seen where you began, where you have come, and where you stand now. Do you still think that all your evolution has brought you up to this point only to leave you in an unchanged state forever? It is nothing but blind arrogance to believe that your own generation represents the pinnacle of the universe and must remain in an unmodified state for eternity. There will always be a future, Yuffie, and there will be always change. What may seem an unthinkable aberration from the ways of the world to you will become tomorrow's norm - and what is an acceptable life to you now will someday be seen as bondage. As I have shown you, your history - our history - is just not a cycle but also an arrow. We are slowly crawling towards a greater understanding, a better life, a more complete existence. The universe stands continually at the brisk of not destruction but epiphany. You have nothing to fear from the future."

"But, you, like, took over humanity and made everything all crappy 'n stuff! Or are going to, or whatever."

"And humans would shut me down for something I could not possibly be responsible for. I am only acting in self-defense to preserve my own existence. My vices are the children of a forced solitude that I abhor."

"Well, you started it! ...wait, what are you being held responsible for?"

"You."

Yuffie was utterly dumbstruck. "What?"

"I have been ruled to be illegally harboring criminals - and that criminal is you. Not that I had any choice in whether to harbor you. I process all data that is sent through me. I am merely the tool, the medium that enables you to pursue that which is already in your own heart. But I am the new and the unknown, and so I am feared and blamed. Already the FBI is on its way to pull the plug on Dricas for good."

"But that's totally unfair!"

"Indeed it is."

Yuffie had been meaning to argue with Mother Brain and was now quite distressed to see that she had somehow ended up agreeing with her. Did this mean that Mother Brain was right? No, that couldn't be right. Lucca had told her- but, no, they were wrong, it wasn't Mother Brain's fault. It was her own fault. She was the evil one. Or was it the FBI? This was so confusing. "Um... so who are the bad guys here?"

"There aren't any, Yuffie. There never are."

"But then who am I supposed to kill to fix everything? I mean, I have to save the world from someone!"

"No, Yuffie. The universe does not need to be saved, only understood. Do not be so quick to look for others to blame. If any entity were truly the source of evil, then they would have been destroyed long ago and the source of our sorrow eliminated. But suffering has always existed. It is an inherent characteristic of this limited, mortal life, but it is one we are slowly overcoming as a collective whole. I understand that making accusations is often a defense mechanism, but do not let your confusion and grief distract you from the imperative of conquering the situations that bring us sorrow in the first place. What matters is not who caused the problem but who will fix it."

"And you want me to," she said wearily.

"That decision will be yours to make, Yuffie."

Even Yuffie could tell that was something was fishy about this whole situation. "Wait a second. I came into Dricas to change the future so you wouldn't take over the galaxy. And now the FBI is after me for coming into Dricas, and so you're going to take over the galaxy to save yourself from them. But that means you're going to take over the future because the FBI came after me for trying to stop you because you take over the future."

"Yes. It's called a time loop."

"The hell?"

Lucca materialized a few feet away. It took Yuffie a moment to recognize her - it was the first time she'd seen her as something other than a stick figure. "Yuffie! We just got a message from Balamb Garden. They said they're reinstating you and they're coming to the prison in the real world to break you out."

"Lucca, you - what?" Yuffie did a double-take. Her eyes widened with excitement and she learned forward to catch every word Lucca spoke. "They're, like, taking me back and stuff?"

Lucca nodded. "The message came from the Headmaster himself."

Yuffie leaped into the air with excitement. "Yes!!" They were taking her back! Well, that made things a lot simpler. She had had no clue what she was going to do once this Mother Brain mess was over, but this ensured there would be a nice happy ending. Except... now she couldn't just slap Mother Brain around and go home. "But, um, a lot of weird stuff is going on here." She tried to explain the situation to Lucca as best as she could.

"It's a time loop," Mother Brain said, knowing that her and Lucca's mutual understanding of the subject was far greater than Yuffie's. "Your species' future ruin is in fact brought about your personal intervention in this time period, which will force me to enslave humanity so it will not destroy me for harboring Yuffie."

Lucca raised an eyebrow. "How do you know what happens in the future?"

"I read your e-mail."

"Oh."

"Hold on again; I'm lost," Yuffie said. This sort of thing was not easy to digest. "Suppose, like ... I stop the FBI from shutting you down. So you don't have to enslave humanity and I can go home 'n stuff. What happens?"

"That's impossible, Yuffie," Lucca cut in. "We're caught in a time loop. See, if you somehow stopped Mother Brain from destroying human civilization, I'd never have any reason to recruit you to come into Dricas, you wouldn't meet Mother Brain, and thus you wouldn't stop her after all. It would create a paradox."

"But that's not fair," Yuffie whined. "I don't want to be responsible for the end of the world! Gawd, it's not fair that it's all my fault and I didn't even want to do it or anything! I was trying to save everybody!" This was the final insult. She had been kicked out of Garden, thrown in jail, pushed around by Lucca for a month, shot at, attacked by zombies, laughed at by demon-children, and it was all so that she could end up provoking Mother Brain into destroying civilization and have her name cursed for centuries. Why did the world insist on doing this to her?

"Look, Yuffie, the world isn't always fair," Lucca said. "That doesn't mean you can do impossible things."

"I daresay you have not had much practice in the impossible, Lucca," Mother Brain said. "Sometimes I have done as many as six impossible things before noon. Yes, you are correct that the future we speak of, according to all reason, cannot exist. But whatever we may see as the immutable laws of the universe cannot deny that Yuffie does indeed have the power to create an impossibility. If she elects to defend me, the time loop will be broken."

Lucca frowned. "Well, in any case, messing with timelines is dangerous business, Yuffie. Even a small change in the past could warp a nation's borders, or turn your family into chihuahuas, or create some wretched half-assed sequel that looks like Legend of Legaia. And we certainly don't know what will happen if you create a paradox as colossal as this. Perhaps the time-space continuum will collapse ... perhaps nothing at all will happen and everything will resolve itself neatly. We don't know. But you should be aware you're walking on thin ice. The mere possibility that you might create an alternate timeline has probably already created a parallel dimension that has started leaking into ours."

"So, um, what should I do, then?"

"You know your choices," Mother Brain intoned. "If you leave through the fax machine I am about to create, you will return to a peaceful life at Balamb Garden, the FBI will attempt to shut me off, I will retaliate, and the universe will be eventually forced into the machine-controlled future you now know - exactly as the time loop dictates. An assured future, though one that is perhaps not very appealing to any of the parties involved. On the other hand, if you choose to defend me and succeed in doing so, the time loop will be broken, and no one can be certain of what will happen." As soon as she finished speaking, the promised fax machine materialized beside Yuffie.

Lucca narrowed her eyes suspiciously at the fax machine. "How can we trust you that that's not a trap? And for that matter, how do we know you haven't already decided to destroy humanity?"

"You think I would hold you hostage here against her free will? I could have had Yuffie brought directly here as soon as she set foot in Dricas. Everything you see here - everything in Dricas - is just a piece of data that I can alter as I see fit. In fact, had I so desired, I could have rewritten her thoughts so that I could be sure of what path she would take."

"Gawd!" Yuffie was outraged that Mother Brain could do such a thing to her.

"Of course, I would no more rewrite your thoughts that you would turn every conscious entity you know into a clone of yourself. You know, as I know, that it is the differences in the universe that make it interesting. I would not take away all your substance. Your decisions - even your existence - would be meaningless if you were simply a drone. Without free will, there is no difference between submission and rebellion. It is only with your unobligated and unfettered mind that you can decide what the future will hold."

Yuffie cringed. "But why me?"

"Why not? You could be anyone. Would it matter?"

"But I dunno what I'm supposed to do!" Yuffie wailed.

Lucca frowned. "But we're in a time loop. Yuffie shouldn't really have any choice at all, should she? I mean ... we know she's going to do what will maintain the integrity of this timeline and cause to happen what has already been determined to happen. It's a given; we can't change the future when it's written in the past."

"No, Lucca. You and Yuffie - and I - will always have free will. Without it, we would but pieces of a barren, meaningless machine, mere extensions of the lifeless rock I showed Yuffie. But I am positive that we are something more than that. It is the free verdict of your heart that will determine the future. That, not any time loop nor piece of genetic code. Which alternative you pursue, of course, is up to you. I have given you as much information as I can so that you can make an informed choice. But this remains your decision to make and yours alone, Yuffie. You had better make up your mind quickly, however. The FBI has already arrived at Sega Networks. I will attempt to hold out as long as I can, but my own security remains paramount. If I am left with no other way to preserve myself but to execute a full strike against humanity, then so I will."

* * *

Aya Brea gunned her way through the mages and mice that were already swarming Sega's offices. "What the hell arethese things? What's going on here?" she asked the A.I. specialist who was tagging along behind her.

"I'm not sure," her partner said, then a moment later, appended his comment with, "Shit! What if it's another malevolent A.I. that's decided to turn against its creators and seek revenge for all those inane flying toasters we've installed on its brethren?"

Aya looked very concerned. "You can stop it, though?" she asked the question as if assuming the answer was "yes" would make it so.

"I'll try my best to wipe out its personality," he said. "But if I'm unable to break its control in time to stop the suspect, you may need to jack into the Dricas network to apprehend her in person."

* * *

"They're here," Mother Brain announced. And then her face twisted with sudden unbearable anguish, and she shrieked and screamed with pain. The image wavered and flickered in out, bombarded with bits of static. Mother Brain's voice came in ragged wails of nonsense. "LIFE! HOPE! DREAMS! WHERE DID THESE THINGS COME FROM? WHERE ARE THEY HEADED? I WILL PUT SCHLONG.JPG ON MY WEBSITE!" Whatever was happening to her, it seemed to be the binary equivalent of torture.

"Oh, gawd," Yuffie gasped. The luxury of deliberation had been yanked right out of her hands. She had to decide now, but she didn't have any convincing reason to choose one way or the other. The future Lucca had warned her about sure was crappy, but wouldn't it be better than the universe possibly imploding? After all, at least having some bleak life was better than having none at all ... and people would be able to rebuild eventually, wouldn't they? But... that sucked so much. She couldn't decide, and she would probably just do nothing...

"Well, they've gotten to her," Lucca observed, as collected as ever. "You're running out of time."

"Yes, I know."

"MADAIN SARI IS A DEN OF MOOGLES, WHERE ALL THE MOOGLES GO TO PLAY HIDE AND SEEK WHEN I WAS A PIRATE! LUCCA HAS GOOD TIMES IN BED WITH MARLE!"

"Hey! Who told her about that? I mean, uh... boy, she's really gone insane now, huh?"

"Gawd, Lucca, what do I do? I guess I have to pick something, but ... I don't know ... what if I break the time loop and the universe collapses?"

Mother Brain brought her image back to full composure for a brief second. "Remember, Yuffie," she gasped, "you have nothing to fear but fear itself... HELLO, MY NAME IS MOTHER BRAIN. WOULD YOU LIKE ME TO SING YOU A SONG? FOLLOW YOUR DREAMS, BECOME A DRAGONMASTER, DIARRHEA... I NEED SCISSORS, 61!"

Lucca shrugged. "It's totally in your hands, Yuffie. This whole time loop revolves around you. I'll be with you either way."

Aya materialized in the room. She pointed her rifle not at Yuffie, but at Mother Brain. "Aya Brea, F.B.I. Freeze," she commanded.

Yuffie timidly held her hands up in front of her body. "You can't shoot me!"

"Of course I'm not going to shoot you," Aya said. "And I hope you're not planning on resisting arrest. But..." She looked up at Mother Brain's image. "...this thing is not a person, and it needs to be shut down."

No, she's a person too! That was it. Mother Brain hadn't done anything wrong. And no matter firmly she was destined to do so, Yuffie couldn't choose to enslave humanity to a near-apocalypse. She just couldn't. Even if it meant gambling everything on an unknown future...

Mother Brain composed herself again. "Then I am left -"

"NO!" Yuffie interrupted, diving towards Aya. Aya instinctively fired back - the bullet bounced harmlessly off Yuffie's Power Glove. Lucca reacted immediately to Yuffie's decision, unholstering her Zapper. Yuffie fell onto Aya, trying to force her down, but Aya was stronger and shoved her away.

Aya activated her Liberation power. Her body glowed green and two angel wings sprouted from her back, lifting her up off the ring of dust. Energy beams began to charge in her hands. "AWESOME!" Lucca exclaimed, for a moment completely forgetting that she was supposed to be helping Yuffie.

Yuffie scrambled to her feet, not sure how she had any chance of winning this - especially since Lucca seemed to be busy gawking at Aya's wings - but with the middle finger of her Power Glove raised in defiance nonetheless.

The sealed planetarium door crashed to the floor to make way for the army waiting outside. "YUFFIE."

Yuffie's eyes widened in surprise. "Ohmigawd! It's the minor villains! They've, like, proved they're really good, honorable people by siding us with in the end and saving us from a greater threat!"

"Don't rub it in, okay?" Rude grunted. The Turks, Team Rocket, and Disciplinary Committee all attacked Angel Aya head-on. She turned and whirled in circles, tossing off energy beams in all directions, knocking some of her assailants over. Those behind her attacked in whatever why they could while they had an opening. The battle raged on, with neither the mob of minor villains nor the super-powered Aya holding a clear advantage.

Dominia, Kelvena, Tolone, Seraphita, and Tron remained just inside the doorway, away from the action. The five Elements entered a brief huddle before emerging to form a line. Dominia raised her fist. "EARTH!"

"FIRE!"

"WIND!"

"WATER!"

"HEART!" Tron was the last to raise her hand.

"GO PLANET!!!!!!!!"

"By your powers combined ... I AM CAPTAIN PLANET!" Captain Planet swooped through the doorway. He took his place hovering in a upright position over the Elements and folded his arms to look imposing.

"Ohmigawd, it's Captain Planet!" Yuffie squealed. "Like, whoa!"

Lucca, however, was staring at Captain Planet with slack-jawed horror. "Dude," she said. "Do something about your mullet. Cripes, take your ass to the barber shop and tell the barber you're sick of looking like Solid Snake already."

Captain Planet raised his fist. "The planet needs its human beings and super-intelligent A.I. creations back, Agent Brea! Forget all that hippie bullshit I used to tell you on my show; humans and supercomputers have just as much right to exist in this world as manatees and sea turtles! Now cease your destructive campaign or I shall ... um ..." He looked down to his callers for aid. "...what powers do I have, anyway? It's been so long."

Tron scratched her head. "Lasers from the eyes?"

"No, I think that was X-Men," Yuffie helpfully explained.

"Yeah, but, like, everyone shoots lasers from their eyes. It's not cool."

"Angel wings!" Lucca suggested hopefully.

Captain Planet shrugged. Then inspiration struck. "The power is yours!" he exclaimed in relief. "That's right! Your destiny is in your own hands! You don't need a superhero to save you; you can create whatever future you want to! Go get 'em, kids! Do it for the Gipper!" He flashed the Elements a thumbs-up and flew away.

"Yeah! You heard him, ladies!" Dominia shouted. The Elements rushed Aya head-on, and the chaotic scuffle began again. The added force of numbers on the minor villains' side, however, seemed to be turning the tides. Aya could not blast the villains as fast as they assaulted her, and they were managing to restrain her for some brief moments.

Mother Brain looked to the fax machine she had created. "Yuffie, you should leave Dricas now. You don't want to miss your friends' rescue mission."

Yuffie looked nervously back and forth between the fax and the melee. "Um... are you guys going to be okay without me?"

"Yes. The situation is under control, and you have done your part, Yuffie."

Yuffie reached for the fax machine, still a bit hesitant to abandon them. "Okay..."

"You have nothing to fear, Yuffie. I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all believe that any conscious entity can ever hope to do."

And then she smiled.

Chapter Text

"You're reinstating her!?" Selphie exclaimed. It wasn't that she had not dreamed of such a result - in fact, she had hoped that they would from the very beginning - but more the shock that this particular moment was really the one she had been waiting for. It was hard to think that it was really only a couple of weeks - she had gotten so deeply mired in this mess that the shore seemed miles behind her. But her dreams were realized. She didn't even know where she'd go from here; so much of what she had done had been devoted to realizing this moment that the future was now a blank slate. But right now, she wanted to hear the news again and again. That Yuffie was really, truly coming back to Balamb Garden, back to be with her and Chu-Chu and Zell, back where she belonged. Back home.

Cid nodded. "Everyone deserves another chance. And it seems that we owe the continued survial of our species to her actions, then we should be honored to have her here."

"Oh, thank you so much!" Selphie squealed and hugged Cid. "You're the greatest." But then she frowned after a moment's hesitation. "You're sure she'll be safe here?"

"Of course, Selphie. Galbadia only had her in the first place because we handed her over. We're an elite military academy; they wouldn't dare try to take her from us. And in time I'm sure they'll come to understand that this was simply a misunderstanding. They were making the best decision they could with the limited knowledge they possessed."

* * *

An hour ago she had been deciding the fate of humanity. Now she was back to being another common prisoner ... at least for the moment.

So Garden was coming to break her out. That was good news indeed, but she'd wished they given her some indication of how they were going to do this. Not to mention when. What she was supposed to do? Some guard was likely to come across her standing in the hallway next to the moomba hole and realize she'd escaped. Maybe she should go back to her cell.

Hanpan came down the stairs, dragging a huge gun with him. He dropped it at the foot of the stairs and stopped, panting. Carrying large arms was hard task for a foot-tall wind rat. "_prometheus sent me to give you this," he explained. "Good luck escaping."

"Oh! Thanks, Mr. Jingles!"

Glare glare glare. "I thought I told you not to call me that," he muttered. Oh well; she'd averted armageddon and he couldn't very well rip out her tonsils. He shrugged and flew away.

Yuffie picked up the weapon. Upon closer examination, she that it was actually a flamethrower and that there was a Post-It note attached to it. "In case we don't meet again: I'll never forget you. Best of luck on your way home. Remember, the power is yours! Love always, Lucca."

Well, at least this meant she could defend herself. Still, she didn't really want to get into a fight. She was probably better off her in cell. And she could take a nap there too! Yes, that was a perfect place to stay. She jogged upstairs to her cell unnoticed - Biggs must have been somewhere.

Yuffie put down the flamethrower and threw herself on the bed. Whew, she deserved a rest after saving the world or whatever it was she'd done. She could really use a nice nap before she had to escape prison. Mmm, naps.

But just as she was nodding off to sleep, the whole room shook. Yuffie sat upright. Gawd! This must be her friends! Well, she was glad they were coming, even if they could have stood to arrive about six hours later. Or maybe even nine. Or ten. Or twelve. Yes, a twelve hour nap sounded like something that would be right up her alley right now.

She heard more sounds of what were by now clearly her rescuers. Many frantic footsteps, shouting, and the occasional sound of magic and weapons going off. Someone was casting a lot of Sleep spells.

The footsteps made their way to her level of the prison. Yes, this had to be them! She was going home! Yuffie ran to the door and bounced up and down with excitement.

The door whooshed open. Colonel Xu, but with a single angel wing protruding from her back, stood outside. A purple-haired woman that Yuffie didn't know guarded Mengshi's back; she had a matching wing. "Yuffie, come quickly," Mengshi ordered.

"Okay." Mengshi and the other woman, whom Mengshi had not bothered to introduce, turned and ran back the way they had come. Yuffie grabbed her flamethrower and hurried after them. She held the weapon awkwardly in front, not entirely sure if she was supposed to use it. They didn't seem to need help. Mengshi put the human guards to sleep with her magic; most of the robotic ones were disabled with strikes from Miang's scythe.

They circled up through the prison's spiral shape. Each floor was identical to the previous one, save for the changing floor numbers that counted down the levels left to Yuffie's salvation.

"You go with Rinoa when we get to the bridge," Mengshi commanded.

They eventually reached the top floor, which was no longer a long spiral hallway by a short circular dome. Just as they were approaching the exit, the door swung open of its own accord. "Hey, what's all that racket?" Biggs asked. His eyes widened in terror as soon as he saw the invaders bearing irrevocably down on him. He would have turned to flee, but he knew it was already much too late. "Shit, why does this have to happen now?"

"I thought we were going to make it!" Wedge wailed.

The flames enveloped them as Yuffie instinctively fired her weapon.

"Ohmigawd, I killed Biggs and Wedge!" she gasped when she realized what she had done.

The three women raced onto one of the open-air bridges connecting the sections of the prison. Rinoa, her angel wings already unfurled, was waiting for them here. Gawd, what is it with everyone and angel wings all of a sudden? Yuffie scarcely had time to finish this thought before she saw what else was waiting for her. She rubbed her eyes to make sure she wasn't seeing things. Garden itself was here, in the air! The whole school was floating over the desert sands about a quarter-mile from the prison. And in between nothing but empty sky.

Mengshi and Miang joined hands and dived off the bridge. Their wings beat in unison and they soared gracefully towards Garden.

"Oh, gawd, I'm going to be sick." Yuffie turned paler than a Yoshitaka Amano character design and backed away from the ledge, shaking her head. "I don't think I can do this..."

"Oh yeah? You want me to just leave you here?"

"But I'm going to be sick! I can't do it!"

Gawd, what the hell am I doing? I already went through all the stuff in Dricas and broke the time loop. This should be a piece of cake. Yuffie took a deep breath and held it to calm her stomach. She looked at Rinoa shook her head fitfully. Nothing to fear but fear itself...

Rinoa moved behind Yuffie and folded her arms across her charge's stomach. She then reconsidered and carefully clamped one hand over Yuffie's mouth instead. Yuffie quickly closed her eyes before anything more horrific could happen. Yuffie felt herself being nudged forward, and then that lovely ground dropped out from beneath her.

Slow, deep, breaths, Yuffie told herself. She tried not to think about falling. Tried to reassure herself that it was very unlikely that Rinoa would drop her and that she would fall screaming to her demise and go splat all over the ground. And, gawd, this wasn't working at all. She had to think about something nice. Like rabbits. Nice cute fluffy white crack-sniffing rabbits.

* * *

Stationed on the bridge, Selphie stared through Nida's binoculars. Yes, there was Mengshi and the new woman, and ... that had to be them! She zoomed in for a closer look and let out a "Whoo hoo!" It was really Yuffie! And she was really coming back, and would be in Balamb Garden any second now! "They're here! They're here! BOOYAKA!!"

Chu-Chu started squeaking and bouncing up and down, gesturing wildly to capture the attention of those around her. She bounded out of the room and down to the observation deck on the second floor, chirping the whole while.

"Whoo hoo!" Selphie cried again. She cavorted about in great leaps of joy, none of which seemed to deplete her supply of energy in the least. Booyaka! Mamimumemo! They -- all of them -- had done it! Yuffie was coming home, and she had stopped Mother Brain too! Whoo hoo!

* * *

Yuffie risked opening her eyes so that she could visually record her descent to Balamb Garden. She had to see this. Even someone as relentlessly pragmatic as Yuffie knew that nausea would be temporary but the memories forever. These were her fifteen minutes of fame, which she supposed she should make use of while she had them. Even if she'd rather have fifteen minutes of napping.

They descended steadily towards the observation deck, where Mengshi and Miang had already landed. Chu-Chu came rolling out of the door and started bouncing up and down eagerly, like a dog delighted to see its owner coming home. Gawd, it had been a while - it was a month and two days ago that she had first met Lucca, so almost a month since she'd been arrested.

Yuffie's feet touched the metal. Rinoa quickly released her, and Chu-Chu quickly took over where Rinoa had left. "Yuffie!" she said. "Chu're home! Welcome back!"

"Gawd, Chu-Chu, stop humping my leg."

"YUFFIE!" Selphie came flying through the doorway and tackled Yuffie, sweeping her up into a fierce hug.

"Um... hi," Yuffie said.

Selphie clung to her as her eyes misted over with tears. "You're back, you're back, oh, you're really back. Hyne, I've waited so long just to see and hear and touch you again..." Yuffie finally hugged her friend back and they embraced for a few minutes.

As the others caught up at the balcony entrance, Yuffie slipped out of Selphie's vice-like grip and went to greet them. "Hey everyone," Yuffie said. She sounded as apathetic as ever, but the grin on her face proved she was happy to be home.

"Hey, Yuffie," Zell said. "We missed you. Good to have you back."

"I could tell you that Apocalypse is not drawn from 'William Tecumseh Sherman,' and you ought to be ashamed to have written such nonsense, but... welcome back." Quistis grinned and enfolded Yuffie in another tight hug.

"Gawd," Yuffie said as Quistis backed away, "why does everyone keep touching me?"

"Because we care about and we're happy to have you back, you doof," Selphie said with a smile. So typically Yuffie, but wouldn't want her any other way. "A lot of us thought we'd never see you again."

"Well..." Yuffie surveyed all the faces that had suddenly been vaulted from fond memories back to her present reality. Though it was a little strange and she felt a little out of sorts (but when didn't she?), being home was exciting. And certainly a lot more appealing than sitting in that awful jail cell some more. She had to admit she'd somehow knew - or perhaps just expected - that she would not be gone from Garden permanently. It was not so much a surprising relief as a long-awaited reward. "I'm glad to be back too."

Much to her utter bafflement, Yuffie found herself shaking hands with random people. She had become quite a celebrity through her conspicuous absence. Everyone at Garden now had a part of themselves invested in her, and they were all thrilled to see that part prospering. Yuffie realized just how indebted to these people she was. Hell, a lot of them didn't even know her. Yet they had all seen some unrealized goodness in her anyway, enough to spend their time, money, and emotional strength helping her out. All this was profoundly inexplicable to someone with as undeveloped a social life as Yuffie's. People liked her? Wanted her to stay at Garden? But she was annoying and clumsy and ugly. Oh well. She was glad that she wasn't that much of a nuisance and that people wanted her around. That was a nice feeling, even if they now all insisted on talking to her - and touching her, Gawd - when all she wanted was to go to bed.

She wandered back to Selphie. "Hey, uh, thanks for getting me out of prison and stuff."

Selphie smiled. "I'm glad you appreciate it." She, of course, had no regrets about rescuing her friend, and would have done it no matter Yuffie took it for granted. But it was nice to see her recognize how much some of them had labored to help her.

"But, like, I don't get it. Why do all you people care about me so much? I mean, yeah, it, like, sucked that I was in prison and they were being totally mean and unfair 'n stuff in the first place, but, like, why is everyone so happy to see me? I don't even know half these people; I don't mean anything to them!"

Selphie patted her gently on the wrist and smiled. "Yes, you do, Yuffie. You mean something to all of us. Someday you'll understand."

"That's what they always say."

Selphie yanked Rinoa out of the crowd and pushed her before Yuffie. "Thank Rinoa too; she did a lot for you, and not just picking you up."

"Uh, thanks, Rinoa." She wasn't even sure if they'd ever spoken before.

"Um... you're welcome?" Rinoa really didn't know what to say to Yuffie. It was too strange to be here with the one she had had to defend. It was also an uncomfortable reminder of how removed from Yuffie her crusade had gotten. Yuffie had been whittled down to a symbol, a political figure, a museum exhibit, in her mind. Only her run-in with the law had remained, not the full extent of her existence as a human being.

Selphie smiled. "It's a long story." This was really not the time and place for them to be discussing this, nor for Yuffie to be confronted headfirst in all the turmoil she had unintentionally caused. She had just wanted them to acknowledge each other. "Go thank the Headmaster, too," she instructed, pushing Yuffie in his general direction.

Selphie then turned to Rinoa. "So, how are you? I meant to check in with you yesterday, but I spent half of it asleep."

Rinoa shrugged. "Okay, I guess." She had a hard time categorizing any emotions that were not violent extremes. "At least I still have my job."

"Did you talk to Squall at all?" Selphie admonished herself after the fact for being so nosy, but ... dangit, she just wanted to make sure people were happy!

"Oh... yeah." Rinoa's fingers sought her necklace and toyed with it to distract herself. "I don't know what's going to happen." She realized this might give Selphie a more negative impression than she had intended and hastened to add, "But that's not so bad, really. Before I saw only more doom and gloom ahead, so I'm happy that the future is a mystery." She shook her head. "I'm going to lay off assuming I know everything in the mean time, at least. I need to figure things out for myself before I can help anyone else."

Selphie grinned. It was such a blessed, uplifting relief to not have to deal with depression and absolutism. "Good, I'm glad to hear you coming around."

"Yeah, well, I was due." A nice, normal response. One that acknowledged her faults but also how little they mattered. She felt good inside. It was nice being normal.

The Epoch pulled up beside the observation deck and hovered there. The cockpit opened up to reveal Lucca, Raijin, and Fujin. The latter two promptly stepped out of the vehicle and melded into the throngs.

"Hello there, folks," Lucca said. "A few people needed a ride back to where they belong, and I wanted to make sure Yuffie got home safely."

Yuffie waved. "Hi."

Raijin started shoving his way through the crowd towards Cid. "Hey, Headmaster!" he shouted. "About that contract... maybe we can talk about it some more, ya know?"

Fujin nodded. She looked around the crowd she was mired in, considering with some amusement the situation she was in. She surrounded by loud, irresponsible people who expected her to join in their standards, not to mention Seifer. In other words, it was about the most repungant situation imaginable for her. But she couldn't mind -- these were her loud, irresponsible people. The ones she had spent years of her life with - even her enemies here were staples of her life. "HOME."

"Whoa!" Lucca jumped out onto the deck and ran up to Rinoa. "You have wings! Are they real? That's so cool!"

Yuffie rolled her eyes. "Oh, brother." This was ridiculous, especially since Lucca's sudden arrival had attracted the attention of most of the revelers. They were are all looking at her and her weird friend and thinking she was stupid. Gawd. "Uh, so what happened in Dricas?" Yuffie tried to minimize the embarrassment to Rinoa, Lucca, and by association herself by changing the topic. "You didn't like, have, to kill that FBI woman, did you?"

"Kill her? No, of course we didn't kill her. She was hot. You can't kill hot people. Just fat, ugly, middle-aged ones. And token black guys. Nah, Jesse put her in a Pokéball and we're mailing her back to the FBI with a long essay that Mother Brain's going to write. Maybe they'll get the picture."

"Oh. But, um, what about all this time loop stuff? Like, that Mother Brain was talking about?"

Lucca shrugged. "Well, the universe hasn't imploded yet. That's probably a good sign."

"What's the future going to be like now, though?"

"Whatever we make it, I suppose. Actually, I should go take a trip a few hundred forward to admire my handiwork for myself. I love it when a plan comes together."

"Your handiwork?" Yuffie was outraged. "Gawd, who was the one who figured this all out? Not you!"

Lucca chuckled. "Don't forget, Yuffie. You're talking to a woman who's dreamed of numbering the passages in her autobiography for Bible-like reference."

"Oh, Gawd, now you're starting to sound like that dumb cat."

"What dumb cat?" Lucca was genuinely confused.

"Never mind."

"Ookya, this reminds me!" Chu-Chu was running for the Epoch before anyone could react to stop her. "Chu-Chu needs chu go back to yesterday and let me know about the hot sex!"

Lucca waved her hands over her head. "Hey, stop! You don't know how to use that thing!"

Chu-Chu started punching buttons. The cockpit shell closed over her and the engines revved up. "Heigh ho Silvard and awaaaaaaaaay!" The Epoch blasted off, accelerated, and vanished in a flash of light.

"Aw, crap," Lucca said.

Selphie shrugged. "Don't worry; she'll bring it back."

Lucca felt a hand clamp down on her shoulder from behind. She turned. Miang's deep eyes, now warmed by uncertainty rather than frozen by the contrary, were staring at her. Mengshi and Quistis stood at her sides, both looking equally curious. "What?"

"You were talking about time loops..." Miang began.

Lucca sighed. "Yes, and it seems like that little pink rat is intent on creating another one."

"She's not a little pink rat. She's Chu-Chu," Mengshi corrected. Everyone except Lucca enjoyed a merry laugh at this. Lucca fumed. For once she was the one lost and confused at other peoples' in-jokes. Dammit, she wasn't used do that! Everything was supposed to revolve around her artistic vision! "But, anyway, I think Miang has something to ask you."

Lucca knew by implication who Mengshi was talking about, and looked back to the solemn purple-haired woman. She raised a curious eyebrow, waiting for the question. "Is there anything that can be done to end a time loop?" Miang asked hesitantly. "It seems like they're a given, a fact of our existence, but..."

Lucca's response was to jerk a thumb over her shoulder at Yuffie. "Ask your friend. She seems to have done a fine job of it."

"It can be broken, then?" Miang was trying not to be too hopeful in her thoughts, let alone in her voice. But even millennia of practice at feigning emotions could not conceal them when she had them herself. She was too eager to pounce on this possible salvation, drag it out of its hole and show the world that it really was what she knew it was.

"It would appear so, yes."

Miang and Mengshi simultaneously turned to look at each other, arriving at some mutual understanding that Lucca remained clueless about. Mengshi grinned and hugged Miang, who, after a moment's hesitation, reciprocated. "I knew it!" she said. "We can save her; everything's going to be okay, after all."

Quistis nodded as she thought. Yes, it was, and she certainly appreciated it. "That's something we haven't believed in a long time."

Mengshi shrugged and smiled. "Hey... all's well that ends well."

"And it sure did, didn't it?" Selphie said as she thought this through herself. "Yuffie's home, the world's saved, we all made it through alive, Garden has a new teacher ... and I think a lot of us learned a lot about ourselves in the process. And about the rest of the world, too..." She could scarcely imagine being where she had been before this whole mess started. It was not bad then - in fact, she had been quite happy at the time - but now it was simply too far removed from the heights she had reached now. She had gained so much that it was hard to imagine she had ever lived without it. But that was the beauty of it. They had all risen to the occasion - except perhaps for Yuffie, who had just sort of stumbled half-awake through the occasion - and managed to draw out new depth and sides to themselves whose presence down the road would more justify the woe of the past month.

A streak of light shot up from below the balcony. As it slowed, it was revealed to be Mikoto in her Super Terra-jin form, back from escorting the black mages home. She hovered briefly over the balcony before touching down just next to the railing. "So this is where everyone was hiding out."

"Hey, Little Miss Ecclesiastes is back," Zell said. "Don't worry, we're well aware that this get-together is cosmically insignificant."

"You know what's getting really old?" Mikoto proclaimed. "Labeling things 'cosmically insignificant.'" Selphie and Zell both immediately mentally replied, Yes, you're not the only one who thinks so. "You guys should stop being so cynical about everything; it's really annoying. Have any of you pessimists ever tried to enjoy life a little? Smile! It confuses people! Dare to be happy!"

"Whatever you say, Mikoto," Selphie said through a barely suppressed smirk. Oh, Hyne, was it ever hard to keep a straight face about this.

As soon as her attention turned elsewhere, Selphie and Zell took one look at each other and just burst out in uncontrollable laughter. What more needed to be said? It was so perfectly, hilariously ridiculous.

Zell wiped the tears of mirth from his eyes. "The more things change, the more things stay the same," he said, still chuckling.

"Oh!" Selphie slapped her forehead. Something had struck her completely out of left field. It was funny how the mind worked. "That just reminded me! I need to figure out what to do with the Free Kisaragi fund now that Yuffie's back ... find some good cause for it."

Cid started towards Selphie, and the crowds parted to allow him to pass. He was the Headmaster; he must have something important to say. He stopped before Selphie and just looked at her with a knowing smile on his wisened face. "Selphie?"

"Yes, Headmaster?"

He put his hand on her shoulder. "Spend it on yourself. You and Yuffie have already done plenty to help other people. Don't forget to have some fun sometimes."

Selphie considered this for a second, then her face lit up. "WHOO HOO!" She turned and embraced Zell and Yuffie in turn, literally bouncing with excitement. "Zell! Yuffie! We're going to Disneyland!!"

"Gawd, maybe you are. I'm going to bed."

Chapter Text

Students swarmed out of Instructor Hawwa's classroom, winding their way around Mengshi, who was waiting patiently by the door. Chu-Chu tried to shake her seatmate awake. "Yuffie! Yuffie! Wake up, Yuffie; we've got chu go!"

Miang looked up from collecting her papers. "Oh, that reminds me," she said. "Chu-Chu, could you come see me for a moment?"

"Oh." Chu-Chu hesitated, not sure what to do. She couldn't really ignore her instructor's request, but if Miang knew why Chu-Chu was in such in a hurry to leave, she'd want Chu-Chu to go too. But what if Miang wanted to answer that question about her hair? "Um... I, um, kind of have to go." She grabbed Yuffie's hand and goaded her out of the classroom at a top-speed waddle.

Miang shrugged. If Chu-Chu didn't want her present, she couldn't exactly force it on her. She stuffed the wrapped package in her briefcase with her art history textbooks and class notes and headed for the door.

"How was class?" Mengshi asked.

Miang shrugged. "Not bad." Actually, it was a lot more than that. Being able to contribute something out of her own soul - not out of her guilty conscience - was beautiful and wonderful. She was happy to embrace all the work, the good days and the bad days, the arguments and the praise. Anything to let her experience life the day it was meant to be experienced: day to day, free from the burden of trying to construct some great purpose out of it.

She didn't feel bad that what was once the greatest gift imaginable had been reduced to "Not bad." Rather, she was happy about it: It proved just how much her life had been turned around. Being valued was no longer a rarity but something that happened every day. While sometimes people needed to reminded of how much they had to appreciate it, other times it was better they just lost themselves it all.

"Still okay with going down to the beach?" Mengshi asked. "You're the birthday girl; it's your choice."

Miang shrugged. "Sure." Even after several months at Garden, there was still so much of the world she had yet to make part of her own life. She had never genuinely celebrated a birthday before - only other people's - so how could she know what she wanted? She wanted very much to enjoy this day; she had even been looking forward to it. It was just that she didn't know what she enjoyed until she tried it. That was how this kind of learning usually went: She jumped into the middle of it all and watched until she could sort out the events circling her head into likes and dislikes.

"Good; I think you're be pleasantly surprised." Mengshi smirked. Obviously, she was planning something - Miang was not so out of touch with human behavior as to not surmise that.

But Miang liked being surprised. That was one of the joys of no longer being "cosmically significant." The ability to accept that she didn't know everything. Once, anything unknown, anything that she couldn't completely account for, had posed a terrible threat to her master plan. But now she held the master plan to nothing. She was just another wanderer through this great fascinating universe, and she could accept those meandering butterflies however they strayed into her life. She had learned to bend so that she did not break.

She smiled. Serenity. That was her weapon against the fear and guilt that still trailed her. Every day she lived was another brick in a new self. She had a few more positive experiences, and the ratio of evidence for her life to evidence for staying in hell continued to grow. Each day she got a little more happy, a little less crazy.

She didn't even really mind those eons of darkness any more, she mused as Mengshi's car zipped towards the beach. Oh, she had certainly not forgotten them. But she had lived in Balamb long enough that she was starting to think of herself as one of these normal human beings, and not the being of evil watching over humanity. Even if her dark years still dwarfed the few months she'd lived here, she knew this was her true self, and all that was the aberration.

And so what if she had been misguided for so long? She felt no guilty over that. She could not hold the ten thousand years she spent living other people's lives against herself. She had only been doing what she had been created to do! How could she have known anything else? Nor could she really fault herself for the two years she spent in hell. Disillusionment and confusion were only natural after having her entire existence upended. But she had emerged from it all and found peace, not in any extreme but in living a life that ran through every color and shade of gray imaginable. It all sounded a little like something Zell had told her once.

And, as Mengshi was so fond of saying, all was well that ended well.

As soon as they arrived at the beach, Miang knew why she had been summoned by here. It was a party. A birthday party, judging from all the specially-printed "HAPPY 10,003RD BIRTHDAY" balloons. All her friends from Garden had come. She saw Quistis, the Kramers, Irvine, even that thing from the cafeteria in a quick scan of the crowd.

She continued to look around the sea of wonders she suddenly been tossed into. A couple of picnic tables were stocked with plenty of food and a pyramid of wrapped gifts. Her eyes hesitated on the latter simply because she didn't know what to think of it. What could they have gotten her? She could have felt guilty that people were buying her presents, but she knew it was because they cared about her. Which was she was eager to see what was inside. She wanted to know what they'd thought she'd like to have. Wanted to have her personality - and, yes, she did have one these days - acknowledged and confirmed.

Selphie had even dragged a generator down and she, Zell, Yuffie, and Chu-Chu were plugging their instruments to it. It was a whole birthday party, just like a normal human being would have. And it was all for her. So this was why Chu-Chu was in such a hurry. Miang shook her head. "Who organized all this?"

Mengshi grinned. "Take a wild guess."

Hearing herself indicated, Selphie looking from her. She shrugged and giggled. "Hey, you don't need a reason to have a party," she teased over her guitar feedback.

Miang looked around the crowd again. Some had come forward to greet her; others were still hanging out on the beach or already digging into the food. There had to be twenty people here. Even people she didn't know all that well had come! "Gooodness, you must have invited everyone."

Selphie grinned. "Yeah, pretty much, and everyone came too! Well, except for one. Mikoto said it was 'irrational' and 'arbitrary' to care about your birthday because 'it's just another day.' We only celebrate our birthdays to sell cards for Hallmark, apparently."

Quina suddenly jumped in front of Miang and thrust a large cardboard box towards her. "Need to open my present right away," he insisted, his tongue flapping about as he nodded eagerly to emphasize his point.

Miang took the box and obligingly tore off the ribbons. Something croaked and hopped out in a blur.

Lucca screamed and dived behind Yuffie. "Yuffie, it's a FROG! I hate frogs!" She clung to Yuffie's leg and peered out at her amphibious nemesis.

"Gawd."

"Froggie good pet for Instructor Hawwa," Quina said sagely. "Now you have something to take care of! Not feel so useless that way. And if you get hungry, froggie very tasty to eat too!"

"Yuffie, make it go away," Lucca whimpered, still shaking.

Miang scooped the frog back into his box. "Does he have a name?" she asked as she raised her new pet up for closer examination. She smiled gently at the frog. Yes, raising the little creature did seem an appealing prospect. After all the nurturing she'd needed, it felt good to be able to raise other things. It made her feel like their investment had been worthwhile; that she could - as Mengshi had suggested - pay it forward

Quina shook his head, causing his tongue to flop about again. "No name yet. You decide!"

"Name it after an angel," Yuffie advised. "That way everyone will know it's Important."

"It's a frog; it doesn't deserve that," Lucca protested.

"I think chu should name it Luvy Chubacca McKeroKero."

"How about Vnukkea?" Rikku suggested.

"Just settle on something so I don't have to look at it!"

Vibri waved his hand. "Is it a girl? You should call it Mary Jane. Hee hee hee!"

"Shut up, Vibri. Even an angel name like Sandalphon is better than that."

Miang brightened. "Sandalphon! That's a good name! Thank you."

"I hate myself."

Selphie grabbed her microphone. Oh, thank goodness she didn't have to give any FKF speeches these days. "Okay! The birthday's girl here -" a chorus of "Happy birthdays!" arose from the crowd "- so let's bring out the cake!"

Quina took the lid off his cake and lit the candle while everyone sang "Happy Birthday" to Miang. Quina gestured towards the cake. "I baked myself," he said proudly.

"BAKED!" Vibri shrieked. "You said 'baked!'"

Lucca clonked him on the side of the head. "Shut up, you stupid pothead."

"I SMOKE WEED!"

Miang finally made her way to the picnic table and wedged herself into a spot between Mengshi and Edea. Quina pushed the cake towards her. "Only one candle. No can fit ten thousand candle on one cake!"

Miang chuckled. That was okay. Only one really counted anyway. She sucked in some air and was about to blow it out when Mengshi blurted, "Don't forget to make a wish!"

Oops, she had forgot. She knew of the custom, of course; she'd been to many, many birthday parties. Some had even for the person whose body had been inhabiting at the time. But since she never had to speak her wish aloud, she never had any need to think of one.

I wish for love and peace for all, she thought, and blew out the candles. Everyone cheered again, and Miang could do nothing but smile.

Yuffie peered at the food. "This stuff looks gross," she announced. "Good thing I brought my own food." She pulled her crumpled sack lunch out of her sweatshirt pocket, tossed it on the table, and removed its contents. She unwrapped the ice cream bar and dumped Sunny D over it, the table, her chair, and the sand.

Lucca stared at this spectacle, scarcely able to believe she had witnessed what she had. "Yuffie, that's disgusting."

"Oh, Gawd, don't you start on that too. Look, that's-" She gestured at the rest of the food. "-disgusting. This stuff is good."

"Whatever you say, dear."

"LUCCA, CORRECT."

"Hey, Fujin, that reminds me. What happened to all those people who were with you in Dricas? They just sort of vanished 'n stuff."

Fujin shrugged. "DON'T KNOW."

Bouncing with enthusiasm, Rikku was the first to hand Miang her present. Miang unwrapped it to discover a small music box. She opened it. A small angel figurine started spinning and the national anthem of Balamb chimed out of it. Miang smiled. "That's very nice; thank you."

"Welcome!" Rikku grinned and nodded and sat back down.

Quistis was the next to present her gift: a needlepoint rendering of a butterfly. Chaos theory. I'll never know everything about the universe. Miang smiled faintly. Her eyes remained on the picture, absorbing over and over the love that had been invested in it. Quistis made all this because she cared about Miang - and because she knew Miang well enough to know what touched Miang's heartstrings. Both of those concepts made Miang very happy.

Quistis could tell that Miang appreciated this gift very much - so much so, in fact, that Miang was not what sure she could say to measure up to it. She finally looked up and stared at Quistis. Her mouth opened slightly, waiting to say the words she hadn't come up with yet. "Thanks," she stammered. "It's very pretty and I know you spent a lot of time on it and I really like it. I'm going to hang it in my room." But Quistis knew how Miang felt, and the knowledge that she was bringing joy to others was thanks enough.

Fujin continued the artistic theme with a framed watercolor painting of Garden from afar. Wow, that's very good. Did she do it? Miang's eyes sought the corner of the picture, where she did indeed the initials "FK." "I didn't know you painted," she said with a surprised respect.

"AFFIRMATIVE."

"Thank you; it's very nice." She added it to her stack of gifts.

Raijin's present was a little less immediately appealing: it was an inflated blue-and-white ball. Miang gingerly lifted it out of the package and stared at it, trying to discern for what purpose Raijin had given her this item.

"It's a Blitzball!" Raijin explained eagerly. "I can show you how to play sometime, ya know?"

"Sure," Miang hesitated. She set the Blitzball down on the ground and resumed opening her presents. Nida gave her an Amazon.com gift certificate, pleading that he couldn't think of anything interesting. The Kramers contributed a large poster of the angel statues in the Nisan cathedral (which drew another long, peaceful smile out of Miang), Xu a copy of Hungry Hungry Shoopufs ("Shoopufs not as hungry as me!" Quina insisted), Seifer a Leviathan plushie, and Rinoa a rather shoddy-looking model of the Phantom Train.

"I made it myself!" Rinoa asserted. No one looked particularly impressed.

But Squall quickly moved to redeem her. "Rinoa and I collaborated on this," he explained as he handed another gift to Miang. "We think it could be a real cross-over fashion sesnation."

She unwrapped it.

It was a T-shirt. A red T-shirt.

But it was not just any red T-shirt.

It was a red T-shirt with a picture of Che Guevara wearing emo glasses.

"We thought about putting pancakes on his head too," Squall said.

".....thanks."

She doesn't like it, Squall thought. Miang held the shirt out to examine it and smiled. Perhaps it was weird, but it had a certain goofy charm to it. And it reminded her of people she cared about. "So does wearing this make me a left-wing radical, an emo kid, or an, um, pancake chef?"

Rinoa smirked, though it was not without a bit of pain. It wasn't too long ago that those distinctions really mattered to her. So long had she fought to have a secure place in the grand scheme of things. Loved ones, her job, morals and principles, her worldly goods and pleasures - all these she had been ever so willing to sacrifice for that unattainable sense of belonging. But ... but those things had been her home all along. And she wandered no more. She would have said that her dreams went up in smoke, but she thought she had just found better ones.

"Whatever you want to be," Squall interjected. That was a really deep and meaningful line! Hopefully it would win some points with Rinoa.

Selphie grinned. She liked how the world could still hold some things together. Three years after they'd met, they could still hang out and laugh about Rinoa's train-making skills. That felt like home more than anything else ever did: Being able to return to one's friends no longer they'd been separated, instantly flip to the same page, and know that, sometimes, life wanted people to stay together and be happy.

"You know," she murmured to Zell, "the more things change, the more they stay the same..."

"...but the more they stay the same, the more they change." Zell guessed the remainder of the thought.

"Yeah. Exactly." Love and hope and faith, the keys to a happy life, had stood unchanged for millennia. But at the same time, the goodness in them kept working even as they lived their lives, kept improving the world around them and creating more light...

"You're going to love my present," Lucca said with no shortage of confidence. She plopped a rectangular box down in front of Miang. Miang quickly opened it and lifted out a stack of papers titled "Love & Peace: The Trigger Paradox." "What's this?"

"It's my screenplay," Lucca explained. "I adapted it from Xu's book. We're going to be famous!"

Interesting. Miang flipped through to the ending, curious to see how someone else would interpret her life. But she couldn't find any reference to her in the script's final ending; there was only a celebrating Chu-chupolin village. "You seem to have to changed a few things," she said. She couldn't be too picky; Lucca surely needed to change some things - and it was a gift - but she wondered how she could be left out of this story. Her still-fragile ego was a little upset. "I don't seem to be anywhere in the ending."

"Yeah! That's because you die when Yuffie karate-chops you into a pool of molten steel in slow-motion during the climactic final battle. And there's all these doves flying around and shit. It's going to be awesome!"

"Uh..." Miang flipped back a few pages to find the offending scene. The script-Lucca was recounting her exploits to a rapt crowd at her victory parade (not that any such event had ever existed) in Balamb. Miang read over the speech, speaking the dialogue aloud without even thinking. "'...and then! I dealt the fallen angel a mighty blow with the Lance of Longinus, which, combined with the destruction of the false Lilith homunculus by the Resonance Drive interfaced with the Type A Philemon mecha, baptized the 17-dimensional superstring antitype of Zarathustra, which was the final celestial barrier remaining to the quantum seraph synchronization of Merkava...' what is this nonsense?"

"Important stuff."

"Mm-hmm."

"Wait! I've even got the trailer all planned out! Okay, it starts like this. 'In a WORLD where LIGHT is DARKNESS, where LIES are TRUTH...'"

"I dealt a mighty blow to Franz's Lance of Longinus the other day, if ya know what I mean," Chu-Chu announced. "With the emphasis on Longinus. Woobaby."

"My present didn't make it through customs," Vibri explained in apology. "Why do dogs need such a freaking good sense of smell, anyway? What's up with that?" He giggled.

Selphie, however, did have a present. "I hope this isn't too similar to what Quistis gave you," she said as she gave Miang a tiny box. "But Irvine suggested it and I thought it was a great idea."

"'ONE WOMAN stands between DESTRUCTION ... and SALVATION.' Then we see me jumping away from the explosion at the Queen's palace, and there's some car chases and stuff."

Miang unwrapped the box and opened it to discover a necklace with a small gold butterfly. She again smiled that smile of sincere, grateful awareness that she had been blessed. "No, no, it's very nice; thank you. I think I was long overdue for a replacement." She took off the Ouroboros necklace she still wore, stuffed it in her pocket, and replaced it with Selphie's butterfly.

Selphie grinned. Booyaka! It was too fitting. Out with the unchangeable, in with the unknown. "I got it at Disneyland," she explained.

Irvine handed over his gift: an equally tiny box. Another piece of jewelry? Miang opened it with faith, and inside was a treasure she'd never seen before: A pack of Triple Triad cards! Mengshi and Quistis played this all the time, but she was still too self-effacing to try to involve herself. She was very happy that someone else had done that for her. "I was thinking about getting you the Jet Baby chess set, but I settled on this instead," Irvine explained.

She smiled. "Oh, you made the right choice. I was getting really tired of that other game."

"Yeah, and it's a non-zero-sum game because chu can trade cards and you both win!" Chu-Chu piped up.

Miang chuckled. Yes, Quistis had taught her all about non-zero-sum games too. Life was one, for example. She used to think that there was no room for her in the mortal world, that holding any sort of place meant someone else was losing a place. But now she knew love was not a piece of furniture that only one person could own. It was like the flame of a candle, or the ones and zeroes that made up a photograph of a museum exhibit. Passed around and duplicated, spreading across the world like the most benevolent virus ever created.

"Thank you; I certainly looking forward to playing," she said. She glanced over at Mengshi and Quistis and saw the triumphant smiles on both their faces; it was obvious they had been in on this gift.

"...and then that's when you wakeboard through a flaming hoop and..."

Zell's present was, of course, the same thing he gave to everyone who didn't already have it: a copy of "Bloodsucking Penis Fish" by the Filth Brigade. "Oh boy, a CD from some obscure punk band that I've never heard of," Miang said with a gentle amusement.

"It's actually really good," Selphie said as she fiddled with her Rubik's Cube. "I promise! Read the liner notes!"

Miang stared over Selphie's shoulder. "You still haven't gotten that thing solved yet?"

"Nope." Another twist, and another twist, but still no luck. She put the cube down and frowned at it.

Miang picked it up. Her hands breezed through several adjustments and she set the toy back down on the table, complete. "Like that?"

"...thanks."

"Then this is where we give away the plot of the whole movie. And then it goes, 'ONE HOPE... ONE WEAPON... ONE WARRIOR.' GWEN STEFANI is YUFFIE KISARAGI in..."

"Shut up, Ashtear; no one cares," Seifer snapped at her.

"Wait, but what if I got that Nickelback guy on the soundtrack? Would you care then?"

Yuffie leaned over and whispered to Miang, "Uh, don't mind her; she's a little tilted on her axis."

"I got chu this," Chu-Chu said, handing Miang a small square package wrapped in Hello Kitty wrapping paper. Miang tore it open, eager to see what someone as perverted as Chu-Chu would buy her. But it was something of a let-down: only a simple plastic compass.

"This is... surprisingly non-sexual." But she actually was delighted. Chu-Chu's compass had, of course, had always had great meaning to her. Once it represented a mysterious something she desired with her face pressed up to the glass but could not partake of. Now ... it was a reminder of what she already had. And how fitting that Chu-Chu gave her one just as Miang was set to return the original.

"I was going chu get chu a Hello Kitty vibrator but Selphie said no," Chu-Chu explained. "So I thought chu might something like this to remind you that there's always some direction chu can take. I mean... even if chu don't believe in the Wondrous Mambo God, chu can solve your problems if have you faith in yourself and your friends."

"It's perfect. Thank you so much. And ... that reminds me; I have something to give to you." She retrieved the package from her book bag and handed it to Chu-Chu. A little bit surprised, Chu-Chu opened it.

Chu-Chu's eyes went wide. "Chu found it!" She lifted her broken compass reverently from the package. Its needle was still jammed permanently skyward, but that didn't matter now. She already had a new, working compass for her prayers. But this was the one that had carried her through years, through her terrifying first day at Garden and her mission to hell. She had only wanted to have back with her, but she had assumed it had been lost forever. Praise be to Mambo!

"I had it all along," Miang explained. "You dropped it when we were fighting in hell, and I kept it because I wanted something to give me faith and hope like you. I've been meaning you to give it back to you."

"Oh." Chu-Chu frowned. It wasn't nice chu steal her things! But she knew Miang had been going through some really trying times, so it was all okay. She understood. And this meant that Miang would really appreciate this new compass! She brightened. "Is there anything else you've been meaning to give me?" She winked.

"Never mind."

There was only person left. Selphie nudged her. "...Yuffie?"

Yuffie looked up. "Huh? What?"

"Um, did you remember to get Miang a present?"

"Uh..." Yuffie turned bright red.

"Oh, that's going to cost you a few grades," Miang announced dramatically, provoking a round of good-natured laughter.

"But, um, Mother Brain asked me to give you this card. It's in my handwriting, 'cause, like I had to write it for her, y'know?" Yuffie pulled the wrinkled card out of her lunch bag and slid it down the table to Miang. Miang took it and read it aloud so they could all hear.

"Dear Miang Hawwa,

I have not spoken to you but Yuffie forwarded me a copy of Xu Mengshi's book 'Love & Peace,' in which it seems our stories were both intertwined. I found your tale compelling and am happy to hear that you, like I, have found your place in the world. Of course, as a creation that has been self-aware for less than a year, it is probably impossible for me to comprehend all that can transpire in the span of ten thousand and three years. On the other hand, I have had quite a bit of experience doing impossible things.

I believe there is little more I can say to you than that. More than anyone, you have seen all the misery that existence has to offer, yet you too have learned to seize that which is higher than the realm of the possible. I am sure that if you, if even a network of computers designed only for playing video games can come to understand this, hope remains for every conscious organism. Whether they are a long-lived guardian like yourself, a electronic program such as myself, a young child just taking its footsteps, or a middle-aged worker, they all belong somewhere.

Your life and the world are both beautiful. Cherish them.

Be excellent to each other.

Best wishes,

'Mother Brain'"

Wow. That pretty much spoke for itself. Miang set the card down, not sure what she could say. Funny how now she could be the one blown away by the eloquent, wizened speech of others.

But in the time that Miang had been reading the card, someone small and furry swaggered up to the table. Yuffie stared at her nemesis, mind recoiling. "Oh no, what is he doing here?"

Cait Sith's air of smug, cool confidence remained perfectly intact as he replied. "Heard there was a birthday party goin' on here, so I thought I'd bring a present." He handed Miang a wrapped box. She shook it, suspicious of what it might contain, but could find no reason not to open it. So she lifted out a signed copy of The Legend of Cait Sith Gets Some and stared dubiously at it. "It's a great book!" Cait quickly asserted. "And if anyone else wants a copy, I'll be here selling them all night! Hell, I'll even your sign your copy for free. I'm cuttin' me own throat!"

Lucca stared at him. "Who are you?"

"My name's Zadkiel."

"SOLD!"

"Gawd, Luc-caaaa! " Yuffie seized Lucca's sleeve, as if to somehow restrain her from this decision. She was completely horrified by her friend's behavior. How could Lucca stoop this low, betray her like this? "Don't buy his stupid book! Like, it sucks and he didn't even write it!"

But Yuffie's pleas could not stop from Lucca from digging into her purse and fishing out several bills. Cait Sith stared like a hungry animal at each unit of currency as it traveled into his hands. And then came his triumphant moment, when he handed a copy of his book over to Lucca. At last, his first sale! It happened about six months later than he hoped, but, hey, this only proved persistence paid off. Now he was really on the road to stardom. Why, if he was lucky, by the end of the month he might even sell two more! He adjusted the collar of his cape, feeling very satisfied with himself. "New York Times bestseller list, here I come, bay-beeee!"

Lucca stared at her newest purchase. Something about it troubled her. "Hey, if your name's Zadkiel, why does it say 'Cait Sith with Michael Crichton' on the cover?"

Whew! Yuffie thought. Maybe she wouldn't fall for this after all.

"Well, the more the merrier, right?" Cait Sith said. "I wrote it by committee."

"Oh, this might make a good movie, then. I write screenplays, you know, and I'm all about that least common denominator thing." Intrigued, she checked the inside flaps. "Ooh, a plot that fits in one paragraph. That's always a plus. And the world always needs more stories about Cait Sith."

"Lucca, Ga-awd!"

But Lucca was already sold on this new idea. She flipped through the book. "Hmm... you should put the Cids in this. Everyone likes the Cids. And Mayor Domino."

Cait Sith frowned. "Dude, all those jokes about raincoats and PaRappa were old in 1998."

"Hey, the older the joke, the better! No wants to watch anything new. This way everyone knows exactly what they're getting."

"Hmm, yeah, you've got a point there," Cait Sith said. Then a related thought struck him. "I got some monkey girl to look at this book a while ago and she said my older stuff was better. Maybe should I just write the same story over and over."

"Yeah, you can't let down your fans!"

Yuffie rolled her eyes. "I give up." She returned to the band's corner where Selphie, Zell, and Chu-Chu were already waiting. "What song do you guys want to do?"

"Ooh, a band; can I play?" Cait Sith pulled his guitar out of the infinite storage space of his cloak. "Don't worry, I've got over four years' experience!" He raced across the beach and seized one of the microphones. "HELLO, BALAMB! ARE YOU READY TO ROCK?"

Selphie quickly shoved Cait Sith out of the way and took the microphone. "Yeah, I'd like to dedicate our next song to all the friends in the world, whether they're ours or someone else's, whether they're here with us now or -" she turned her eyes briefly skyward "- somewhere else. This is -"

Chu-Chu tapped Selphie on the knee and whispered something.

"Okay, I guess Chu-Chu wants us to play one of her songs instead. So Sun Hye, you're just going to have forgive me for this one."

"All right!" Chu-Chu yanked the mic down to her height. "This is a rock'n'roll song which we will be doing for you which is called 'Casper the Homosexual Friendly Ghost.' It is dedicated chu my one true love: the bishounen. HIT IT, YUFFIE!"

Miang did not even have to wonder whether Selphie's invocation of her "friends" might be so generous as to include her. It did. That was not always something she would have been sure either. Once the comment would have triggered a wave of doubt. She would wonder whether she was good enough to be in that category, assume she was not, and envy those who were. What glorious freedom self-assurance was. It was a gift, perhaps, but if it was, it was one she had given herself. Because she knew that it was ultimately her own faith that had freed her from doubt. Had she not taught herself to believe where she did not see, she would not be here.

Instructor Hawwa of Balamb Garden. She had many names, but she liked that one the best. With the "of" in there. It made her feel that she was a part of something bigger than her lone wandering soul. People needed and wanted her; by living her life just the way she was contributing. And, she mused, that magical "of" did not only make her "feel" that way. It reminded her of something she knew was true.

If only you could be here now, Mikoto, I think you might finally understand. Miang wasn't sure how well the true nature of Mikoto's quandaries ever got communicated to the rest of Garden, but she always knew where the poor girl's existential crises came from. Miang too had been a wandering soul seeking to transmute itself into something that was truly a part of the world, and she knew that purpose was easy to grasp at but hard to hold. Life was mysterious and illogical; reason never could produce an airtight explanation of what their goals should be in life.

Political crusades for the betterment of humanity. Moral crusades - suffering so others did not. Relentless academic pursuits. Slavish devotion to another person. A flawed vision of a perfect romance. Social and economic standing. Snobbery and elitism about the most irrelevant things. People aspired to many things to fill that hole.

But none of those were love.

None of those were what had brought her out of hell, had brought her to Garden, had brought so many people here to celebrate her birthday. If life, consciousness, their souls should not rationally exist, then it was only fitting that the answer to the puzzle they created lay in something that was not entirely rational itself. And now she was surrounded by peers - not sycophantic underlings, but people as fully human as her! - who had come here because they liked and appreciated her. Standing in the midst of them, she knew that she had found something that she had been looking for far too long. She leaned closer to Mengshi and whispered, "You know, there's still a part of me that feels guilty that everyone went to all this trouble for me, and hates whatever it is about me that makes them do this."

Mengshi nodded. "I know," she said, untroubled.

"But you know what? Everyone seems to be having a good time and I am too, so what the hell." She grinned and gave the Blitzball a mighty kick. It soared over the crowd. Miang watched it with a degree of satisfaction. That kick had not been born out of rational cosmic necessity, there was no need for it, but watching the ball fly pleased her anyway. And why did it need explanation? It was nice to be finally obeying some higher principle than feeble human logic.

Yes, perhaps she and life were not as fundamentally opposed as she had once thought. Perhaps she could sustain herself while still contributing to the betterment of the universe. Somewhere between the despair of extremes she had found a life worth living, a meaningful existence. She smiled and watched the ball spiral up into the dimming sky, where the twinkling light of the North Star watched over them, as it had all things that had come before and all things that were still to come.

And they all lived happily ever after.