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Collection of Assorted Final Fantasy Tales

Chapter Text

Oh, them.

When the fabled heroes, the Warriors of Light, first appeared before her the witch was far from impressed.

Eager fools, the lot of them, concerned only with their noble cause. All the while performing mundane errands masquerading as false heroics without complaint.

There was something about them that gave her pause though, made her think that perhaps there was something that made them stand out from the façade.

She would never admit it to them, however.

First impressions, even if they felt like ones she'd made unconsciously time and again, were hard for her to admit might be wrong.

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She was the dutiful daughter of the King of Fynn, a strong-willed princess to be sure, but one that many in her kingdom had not expected to see do much beyond marry another powerful royal and beget heirs: kings who would become legends in their own time, who would bear their lineage proudly...her father's name foremost among their ancestors.

He was the younger son of a powerful king. Not as confident in his skills on the battlefield as his brother, preferring to think of strategies instead...ones he hesitated to share out of fear of ridicule.

His older brother saw the potential he had, the strength...he openly praised him. Others only saw his temerity, his weaker fighting stance. They ridiculed him when they believed no one to be listening. He was expected to fade into obscurity after his brother wed, no more than a footnote in their royal history.

Then the Empire invaded, the imperial troops laying siege to their kingdoms.

Her father, the king, formed a resistance. She aided him at his side. When the arrows struck him down, made him unable to leave his bed, she took up the mantle...leading the resistance on her own.

During the battle that took his brother's life, he had panicked and hid. The guilt he felt with that action stayed with him always.

Still...he learned to rise above it eventually, grasping the inner strength and potential his brother had always insisted he carried with him even when he himself doubted it.

He helped to rescue the woman both he and his brother had always loved...though she was not simply waiting to be rescued, in fitting with her determined nature. He became a competent fighter and superb tactician.

Later on, the two led the rebellion as equals. It was during their time as such when the bond between them had deepened into something more, that the Empire was finally defeated.

They had quietly held hands and smiled as the cheers of those who had suffered under the brutal assaults of the Empire went on well throughout the day and night for weeks without end. There was rebuilding to be done, memorials and tributes to the fallen...but hope and a sense of joy filled the days that followed regardless of any potential hardships and the all-too fresh memories of loss still holding sway in people's hearts.

When people spoke of their descendants, who did become kings and queens in their own rights, it was in respectful and awe-worthy tones. Their names being the first to be mentioned constantly in the lineage notes: the leaders of the rebellion who helped the people find hope once more, who gave their citizens strength through their own actions.

...It is funny to think how initial perceptions can be so thoroughly changed.

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Once, in a desperate attempt to save her mother's life, she had charged at one of the great, winged beasts. She'd wanted to kill it then: a life of a creature for the life of her beloved mother.

She had been stopped though, and her mother had died: choosing not to kill Hiryu to ensure her own survival. Despite her grief, the insatiable and shocked grief of a little girl bereft of a parent...the words spoken to her then stayed with her always, causing her to feel guilty for her actions. To change how she looked at drakes entirely.

Her mother had loved Hiryu and saw the wind drake as someone precious. That memory remained entrenched in her mind always, caused her to see Hiryu and other dragons in a different light.

Years later...she almost killed herself, walking through a field of poisoned grass to save Hiryu's life. There was no hesitation, only the desire to save the drake's life: to save a life without exchanging anyone else's.

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The sensation was new to her, the desire something foreign...but persistent and natural all the same.

She had once asked a general if he thought she would ever find love. He had assured her she would, but the girl had remained doubtful.

One of the children slipped on the rocks, falling down hard on his knee. Tears welled up in his eyes as he stared at the stinging scrapes and the cut that began to trickle blood down his right leg. It wasn't a severe injury, but it was the kind of one young children often have a low tolerance for.

By the time she'd gotten through the throng of other orphans circling the child worriedly, he was sobbing loudly.

She reached out to touch his shoulder assuredly, and the boy called out and clung to her tightly...as if her presence there suddenly put a wall around everything.

She blinked slowly, the child's hands around her waist, his tears and runny nose on the fabric of her skirt. His crying was a muffled sob now, lessening by the second.

The sensation grew larger, a warmth in her chest that poured outward. Surprising herself by smiling slightly, her arms wrapped around the boy's tiny, shaking shoulders...the other children closing in around her, offering encouraging words to the hurt youth in their midst.

...Without her even realizing it, love had found her.

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Indifferent. Callous. Imposing. Gruff.

Eiko noticed these traits about the tall fighter instantly. His entire personality and all of his mannerisms screamed self-serving and solitary. Fearless as she often was about interacting with others and telling them her opinions, she tended to give him a wide berth on instinct more often than not.

But...he had chosen to help her, to save her life when they had first met. Having his "co-worker" hold a little kid hostage had affronted some sort of personal honor code he apparently abided by.

So, maybe, he wasn't so bad after all.

Lost in her thoughts as she was, the little girl from Madain Sari hadn't realized that she had been following Amarant as he separated from the group and headed down a side-alley on his own business. She paused slightly at the realization, wondering if he'd yell at her for snooping now that her head was out of the clouds.

But he didn't reprimand her for being nosey, as she had initially feared. Nor did he quicken his pace and try to lose her...or demand she leave him alone and head back (never mind that it was her first time here and she would have had no idea where to go).

Instead, he continued on at a steady pace-- thoroughly ignoring her. His gait was slow enough for her to just tag along about ten steps behind, his larger frame constantly in sight.

She could have sworn the red head perhaps muttered something along the lines of "Damn kids..." under his breath, but it was more in exasperation than anything remotely venomous.

Eiko smiled to herself somewhat in smug satisfaction.

Yes, he was gruff and intimidating to be sure...but maybe, maybe he wasn't really all that bad after all.

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When she had first met him, she had only heard the whispered rumors of the Goblins living within the city walls.

Beastmen were always a subject of gossip and, despite the fact that the group of Goblins were civil and peaceably trying to earn a living in Jueno while staying out of way, that didn't halt the rumors and secret whisperings of how "something nefarious was underfoot" whenever one of them was seen walking past-- even when they greeted those they met politely.

She had heard the talk, but didn't take too much stock of it. Neither did her brother, Aldo. And since he was the head of the Tenshodo and had access to all sorts of information others normally didn't know, it was easier for her to dismiss the rumors as unfair gossip spread from fearful and ignorant people than most.

The Goblins existed in the background-- sometimes weaving their way into her field of vision as part of the numerous crowds lining the streets of the great city: strangers, but with familiar faces...as is often the case with people you see daily but have no interaction with.

...It was much, much later when that changed.

Verena had wanted to buy something for Aldo. It was nearing the anniversary of the day when he had officially become a part of her family-- and she had gone to one of the auction houses to see what was available.

The crowds around the auction house were horrendous. She had to force her way through the thick throng of people just enough so that she could skim the list of wares being offered, only to be slightly disappointed to realize the effort was in vain when nothing seemed to strike her as something that Aldo would particularly like.

Sighing in defeat, the way back home seemed equally as difficult...

The heavily armored body of a rather muscular adventurer going in the opposite direction of her impacted with her shoulder, causing the girl to lose her footing. Due to the noise on the street and the armor he was wearing, the adventurer continued on without even realizing what had happened.

The stones that made up the intricate, well-used walkways of Jueno came up fast, and Verena closed her eyes-- bracing for the jarring impact on her knees and palms.

Then, there was a sudden, gentle yank on the puffy shoulder of her dress...a pull upwards that softened the fall: her knees landing softly on the ground and her fingertips only brushing the walkway slightly as she blinked stupidly for a few moments trying to put together how she had just avoided getting scraped from a fall.

"Are you all right, Miss?"

The voice that spoke was oddly muffled and Verena glanced up to see a stout, smaller figure dressed in brown workman's clothes...the gloved hand gripping her shoulder still. A mask covered the entirety of his face: the large goggle-like lenses and bulbous nose of the mask, and the large green ears that fanned out on both sides of his skull, indicated that he was a Goblin.

"...Miss?" the muffled tone had a note of concern-- the shoulder grip tightening a fraction as he looked the Hume girl over for injuries.

Fickblix's kindness broke any preconceptions Verena may have had right there on the spot. It only took two more accidental run-ins before the two had become close friends...before Fickblix fondly became "Ficky" and Verena had become a welcome presence among the Goblins living in Jueno.

They were gathered at the garden now, all of them in a knot of small statured figures in varying brown and green tones: a strange sight when not near their workspace in the city.

...All of them but one, she corrected herself. She suppressed a sob, knowing she had cried enough already, and that was even after Ficky had asked her not to...though she didn't believe he would begrudge her it.

If she continued to cry anymore, he would be sad. That wasn't what she wanted.

The Goblins were circled around a small group of children, friends of Ficky's who had become emboldened by Verena's friendship with the Goblin and approached him on the subject of gardening.

The little brown patch of dry soil they'd been given by city ordinance had thrived under their eager care and Ficky's patient guidance.

Word had spread that the kids had invited the Goblins to see the garden's progress: the lush spot of greenery that had even drawn horticultural experts' eyes on their travels through Jueno. A fairly large crowd had gathered, curious to see the entire group out and about...or because they had felt it was something they needed to do.

An informal memorial service, in a sense: a tribute to brave, noble Ficky...a friend to all without most of them having even realized it. The Goblin who had lost his life trying to petition the Yagudo for peace for the sake of the place he called home and his friends and family there.

The Goblins and children had both asked Verena to attend...and she stood behind them now, listening to the Goblins praising the children's efforts and offering their own advice: a young Tarutaru youth and one of the older Goblins pulling out weeds at the edge of the garden space.

Aldo stood next to her, putting a consoling hand on Verena's shoulder when her eyes began to water slightly. She smiled warmly at her brother for his thoughtfulness, her gaze drifting to the crowd.

They were talking softly amongst themselves, often reflecting on Ficky. The talk was always warm...pleasant memories and experiences. No one said anything negative about the Beastmen's presence in the city anymore.

...It would have made him happy to see this, Verena believed.

Somehow, in some way, she wanted to believe he could still.

She would have to be happy for both of them: it was what she had promised him after all.

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The world was vibrant, felt new. Green everywhere the eyes could see: the ruins of the old cities seemed almost unrecognizable now...the empty husks of broken buildings, the shells of vehicles-- they were covered in vegetation, rust and crumbling commonplace in their midst.

Most people had decided to pack up and move into settlements on the outskirts of the older urban centers. It had been a hard transition for many of them at first-- the lack of power supplies in great stores currently proving difficult for some as civilization tried to adapt its current lifestyle to the drastic changes that had occurred throughout the globe with the disappearance of the Phantoms.

But thanks to the efforts of geniuses such as Dr. Sid, things were getting better. The energy needed to run many of the machines currently in use a lot less than the energy that had been used to maintain the defensive shielding in the earlier metropolises.

For the first time in a long while agriculture was beginning to be focused on: an important aspect of survival that hadn't quite been so vital before in the need for constant vigilance and defense as top priorities. Farms and smaller towns were taking shape every few miles in what had once been inhospitable wastelands and wilderness.

The changes, despite the early trials that had preceded them, brought a soft smile to Aki's lips.

"Mommy, look!"

A dark-haired little girl, no more than three-years-old, was racing up to her. The child's outstretched hands excitedly clutched a pair of smooth river rocks she had just picked up. Aki smiled at her and made a show of inspecting the great "specimens" her daughter was showing her.

She reminded her a lot of Gray: her face shape and eyes, the determination and unexpected bravery she displayed in moments that were frightening at times to other children around her age.

Thinking of that reminded her of the man she still loved: of the sacrifice he made in order for the world they now lived in to become a reality. It made her sad a little-- but she knew he would have been with them if he could have been, would have been just as content and grateful for the world they now lived in as she was even as she missed him terribly.

Aki would always work to make sure that contentment despite the hardships of the past and those that were probably likely to happen later on in the future would remain a constant for everyone adjusting to their new lives. It had become her new goal as she worked alongside Dr. Sid in trying to achieve it: the most logical course of action, the only action, she felt she could take now.

...Their child was thriving in this world too, after all.

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The vegetables from the garden were ripe. Shirma stared at the assorted colors that were displayed proudly on the kitchen counter like merchant's wares dressed up in various shades of greens, reds, and yellows.

Aunt Stella had pretty much picked everything...a veritable feast for the eyes (and later on the nose and stomach as well!). They were going to be having company, the mayor and other townspeople, for a special dinner-- but she was so used to it being just the three of them that she wasn’t sure of the display.

The young White Mage sighed and picked up a plump tomato, skin still damp from its earlier wash...a knife in her other hand. As she chopped, her mind flashed back to the last time she’d helped to prepare a large meal...

"What are you doing, Shirma?"

A boy's voice sounded just below her shoulder. The green-haired youth, how odd that he seemed to be a few years younger than herself now when he'd been only an infant a couple of days ago, looking curiously at the chopped cucumbers in front of her.

"Oh, Raffaello!" she smiled warmly, "I'm cutting vegetables for dinner tonight. Aunt Stella wants to make a big meal since you and Cid are staying with us!"

A flicker of yellow at her other side, followed by a questioning "Kweh?"

"Don't worry, Chocobo...there will be plenty of Greens too!"

"Kweh!" the bird's large eyes brightened.

"Can I help?" Raffaello asked, the usual uneasiness inside him seeming to dissipate at the thought of helping out the people he considered friends.

"Sure!"

The two stood side-by-side at the kitchen counter, Shirma smiling at the focused look on Raffaello's face as he tried to cut the tomatoes. He was embarrassed by her reaction at first, but was soon smiling and laughing along with her-- Chocobo "kweh"-ing happily as he supervised the entire affair.

"You're cutting it wrong."

The soft voice startled Shirma, "What, sister?"

The Black Mage indicated the tomato she’d been trying to finely chop...though it did look more like a pulpy mess now that she had noticed, "When I cut tomatoes, I cut them big first, then slice smaller cubes from there. Keeps the juices from running. Here."

Her own knife in hand, Croma began to slice another tomato. Shirma watched her sister for a few seconds, then started on a cucumber.

She was glad Croma was living with them now: the sister she'd finally remembered, only to have lost momentarily but found again. It felt like a part of her that had been missing had been restored.

She glanced at Croma, an absent-minded thoughtful smile on her lips.

She smiled too.

"...Hey, Croma?"

"Hmm?"

"Do you think Irma and Volg are doing well? Cid and Chocobo? ...Raffaello?"

She thought of that memory again, wondering if Raffaello had learned to cook yet on his own.

"...I'm sure." Croma looked over at Shirma and smiled warmly, her smiles came more and more easily, Shirma noted gratefully: "All of them helped to save Foundtime in their own way. They're a resilient lot."

Shirma nodded in agreement, glad for the reassurance. She had a feeling her sister was correct.

The tomatoes were cut now, and Croma stared at her expert handiwork with a puzzled expression.

"...Hey, Shirma, how do you cook these?"

Shirma giggled at that...and it wasn't long before Aunt Stella's kitchen was full of laughter once again.

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Crux was born to serve, but she did not like the people she was tasked with serving.

They did not care. They were cruel people: with cold voices and colder eyes...with hatred and contempt for others barely concealed (if at all) beneath the surface.

They never smiled with anything but malicious intent. Never saw Crux as anything but a thing...a disposable piece they put into play whenever they felt she was useful.

The animated marionette disliked them...but free choice was not something she yet had. She was born for a task, and so had to serve.

Her robotic ways annoyed them, but so long as she did what they wanted they overlooked her lack of enthusiasm.

...But the white-haired one, she could tell he was different.

He did not associate with the others overly much, seemed to avoid them and their petty quarrels. When he did interact, he was only given orders-- which he responded to in the same hollow manner as she herself did. There was a reserved sadness about him.

She found herself gravitating towards him, oddly enough...when the others had no use for her. When not in the throne room, he would often sit on a wall as far away from the fortress as possible…playing a wind instrument with a distant look in his eyes.

This time, he noticed her as she moved a mere foot from him...her small body fluttering on wings: she had become too enraptured by the music to realize she'd gotten that close, that she'd interrupted his need for solitude.

The quiet melody stopped as he stared at the tiny humanoid creature for a few seconds, the instrument lowered from his lips. She expected a punishment for her intrusion as the others did that even when she HADN'T interrupted them if they simply felt like it...but she remained frozen there, having long since learned that dead acceptance was better in the long run than fruitlessly trying to run away: if they ordered her to stop, she had no choice but to do so after all.

He blinked, and a different sort of expression lighted up his face than what she was used to...a gentle warmth in his eyes that matched the reassuring tone of his voice, "Hello, Crux. Did you come here to get away too?"

He smiled softly at her, and something sparked to life inside. Having never felt its like before, she couldn't quite put her finger on it.

But for now, for the first time since she was born...her head bobbed up and down slightly and the beginnings of a curving upwards of her own lips occurred as she tried to emphatically confirm her response to the question posed to her in the only way she knew how.

"Ku...kukuruyu!"

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What he had thought was the truth he'd later been told was false.

The woman who was murdered wasn't his loving wife. The little boy that was cut down wasn't his hopeful son.

The blood streaming through the grass belonged to strangers. The blade that killed them had weighed heavy in his hands after he took their lives.

...He'd been shown that as well as told it. He was their murderer: THAT was their only connection.

But he had known Tia, knew her touch and gentle smile. He had seen Marco's birth, had smiled at his son's attempts to cheer him up...his early clumsiness with running.

Was that false as well? Memories he'd given himself to subvert his guilt. He'd hated that he couldn't save them, had done so many things since...was his motivation a lie, a perversion of his own mind?

They had come to him when he'd needed help the most, Tia and Marco both...begging him to forgive himself and to not give up.

Tia had said he was her husband, and that she loved him. Marco told him not to cry anymore because he didn't hurt now. They would always be with him.

His wife, his son...the family he carried in his heart always.

Even if his memories were false, Ashley believed in the voices that had reached out to save him. Nothing could cause him to doubt them.

His time with his family, the love he felt for them.

It was the only reality he wanted to believe in.

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...The cat's tail swished lazily back-and-forth from the windowsill it was resting on. A tired yawn escaped its mouth as it peered at her with half-lidded, sleepy eyes.

Aire had to stifle a yawn herself as she watched the feline. She remembered her own time as a cat. She hadn't had the time or mind to do it then, but she could just imagine how good and content it must feel to rest so, the sun warming your fur as the rest of the world hurried on by...

"Aire? We’re heading out now." Brandt's voice was calling from somewhere up ahead.

"Coming!"

She moved away, reluctantly breaking her gaze with the utterly relaxed and nonchalant cat.

...Briefly, as Brandt commented on her daydreaming again, she wondered if she would remember to ask Torte later on if he ever craved cheese like a mouse anymore.

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They called him a savior: a Child of Light. The boy stared down at his hands...hands that had glowed with a power he didn't quite understand, but that he could use all the same. He knew he was different, knew he wasn't normal. The one wing on his back a testament to that fact.

A Child of Light...yet, he understood the Darkness. He could feel it creeping in the shadows of his thoughts, always there in the back of his memories. The light that he used to protect, that people said made him a savior? Raffaello knew that it could also destroy, that it had destroyed in the past.

Yes, the child knew what he was...and he was no savior. He was no pure Child of Light. If anything, he served as the balance: the proof that to have Light, one must have Darkness. Raffaello...he could feel the power inside of him, merging with the shadows. It was waiting for a chance, wanting to destroy.

Raffaello could sense the evil in every fiber of who he was. The boy, he would be no savior. He wanted to be one more than anything as his hand clenched down on nothing but air. He knew in his heart the truth: Raffaello could never grasp the light...it was never meant for him. It protected, yes, but it also destroyed. The child was of Darkness.

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The Tarutaru glanced at the traveling party he had found himself in. The Mithra that had invited him to travel with them was a friend from Windurst...otherwise he doubted they would have given him the time of day.

She came up to him with a friendly smile and pointed at his wind instrument, "You know, I think we can all use some traveling music to set the mood!"

The Tarutaru stared dumbfound at his friend: "You want me to play a song?"

She winked, "Of course! Traveling is more fun with a Bard."

The rest agreed and the Tarutaru smiled.

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He felt like the tactical meeting was over before it had even begun. With footsteps that covered up his initial fears, Scott walked out of the meeting room as if it hadn't just sealed his fate. When the military orders were delivered, he knew Hilda understood what they meant...that the odds of this strategy and attack proving successful were slim.

Scott had to hand it to her though: Hilda was very good at being strong. It was one of the qualities he admired about her. Only he knew that inwardly she was frightened, scared for all of them. The orders themselves, in their impersonal military command, didn't terrify him...but the slight tremor in Hilda's voice when she spoke them out loud before she had the chance to catch it sent a cold chill down his very spine.

He had wanted to talk to her before he left for the mission, but Hilda wasn't someone who liked being on the receiving end of comfort. He doubted she would appreciate the effort. Scott had so much he wanted to say to her, but he knew this wasn't the right time. So, he only made a mental note to mention it later, after the battle was over. Maybe his odds of surviving would improve if he had something to return to.

He found Gordon outside. His brother had an odd habit of trying to hide in open places, as if he thought of himself as insignificant enough that no one would try to look for him. Gordon probably already knew the news was bad. His brother seemed to have a good eye for strategy, regardless of how those who didn’t know him only saw a coward.

When he looked at his brother's face, Gordon's expression was miserable...and Scott couldn't help but feel partly responsible for it. His brother didn't have a very good stomach for battle and he viewed it as a weakness, although Scott would prefer his brother to see it as a strength instead: Gordon's sensitivity made him a better leader than Scott would ever be.

He couldn't talk to Hilda before he left, but Scott wouldn't leave his brother without at least saying goodbye: "Gordon." He said, only to immediately regret it as his brother winced as if his own name being called out had physically hurt him.

Still, Scott continued, knowing his brother wouldn't talk to him...would feel too guilty to address him: "Gordon, we leave tonight to defend Fynn Castle. I don't know when I'll be back, so take care of everything."

Gordon didn't make eye contact with him. In fact, he refused to look at anything but the ground. Scott knew this would be how Gordon would react...it was how he always reacted when he was terrified. Gently, but with force so that Gordon knew he meant it, Scott squeezed his brother's shoulder the same way their father used to when they were young boys. Gordon looked up in surprise, as Scott smiled at him...possibly for the last time.

"I do not doubt you, so do not doubt yourself." Scott said to his brother as a means of farewell. With that, Scott walked away towards a battle that he knew would probably seal not only his fate in some way...but that of Gordon, Hilda, and all of the others.

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The twisted remnants of the castle were always a disconcerting sight, no matter how often he viewed them.

Still, Gabranth supposed he felt more at ease here than he did in other parts of this disjointed, haphazard world. After all, he did come from a land with somewhat familiar architecture.

Thinking of "home" as he sometimes did provided him nothing beneficial, but rather it created a knot of unpleasant emotion to swell in the pit of his stomach. All it really did was bring to mind betrayals (the betrayals of others and his own), guilt (the guilt of others and his own...so much of it piled on now), and tragedies (ones he’d experienced, others he’d inflicted...everything blended together now).

Warfare and chaos: forever entangled in his mind and heart.

...It was no wonder he’d been transported to this space then, to take part in an endless conflict--a Warrior of Chaos.

He’d been forced into a life of battle when he had been too young to have much say in it. When he closed his eyes, he could always picture Landis burning...his screams for his brother falling on deaf ears as the smoke choked his lungs. He’d chosen to continue that way of life of his own accord. The battlefield should hold little difference.

Should, he supposed, being the apt word.

Truthfully, he had no stake in this constant fighting and without even his own anger to fuel him (he had a face and a name, strikingly similar to his own, to direct his energies and hatred towards in Ivalice)--he had nothing here. No sense of purpose, no real desire to cut down those who stood before him simply because they’d been chosen to fight on the side of harmony and order instead.

So here he was again, simply trying to avoid his Chaos comrades. To be fair, they did not often seek out his company either...many of them seemed much more invested in the endless conflict than he was for various reasons--or they simply enjoyed spreading chaos for the sake of being able to spread chaos so his general mindset seemed to rather puzzle or annoy them, and those others who like him did not care overly much weren’t seeking out company either...so he often tried to dwell on his own musings and conflicted thoughts when he could. It was easy enough to lose one’s self in the ruined, patchwork collection of fractured worlds that made up their existence now.

"...Hello?"

...At least for a little while.

The voice that spoke up was an unfamiliar one, tinged with uncertainty. It sounded oddly youthful as well.

Gabranth sighed and opened his eyes, gazing upwards at the top of the wall he was leaning against. Overhead, he could see the stars of the perpetual night sky of this area shining down.

...And two blue eyes gazed down at him as well, small hands clutched to the edge of the overlook.

Seeing a child caught him off-guard. He had seen a few of the Cosmos Warriors being on the younger side of the spectrum (one, a blond youth wearing strange armor, had shown up recently...and he’d gone out of his way to avoid fighting him in combat--he’d done his fair share of horrific things to soldiers hardly qualified to be called adults, things he’d rather not dwell on, and he’d prefer to avoid putting a child not even that old to the blade if he could help it), and for a moment he almost wondered if this was a new addition to their ranks: an entry that had the misfortune of appearing in territory more controlled by Chaos. The thought wasn’t a pleasing one, given how the child seemed even younger in years than the one called "Onion Knight" appeared to be.

'He looks barely old enough to stray far from his mother’s side. What kind of feats can he be capable of to deserve a fate such as this?'

The child had green hair to match the slight shades of it in his eyes, and as he leaned forward even more to squint at the Judge Magister below, Gabranth was surprised to note the small blue wing jutting out of a bare shoulder blade.

So, he was most likely not fully Hume. ...Perhaps he was older than he looked? At least two of the Cosmos Warriors he’d encountered previously also fell into that category, so it wasn’t shocking to think another of their warriors could be similar.

"Um...I’m sorry if I’m disturbing you." The boy shifted nervously, "I don’t…know my way around here yet."

"...You weren’t disturbing anything." Gabranth stood up, shrugging his shoulders indifferently. He knew nothing about the strange, winged child regarding him curiously still and, truthfully, given the situation they were all in, he knew it was probably for the best that he didn’t engage in further conversation. Either the boy was an enemy, or he’d likely die soon enough in the fighting regardless...neither option a pleasant thought. Yet, despite knowing that something about the nervousness in the boy’s demeanor had him adding out loud, "This place can be confusing, I know."

The boy seemed to "blink" out of existence for a moment, and the hardened soldier couldn’t help being caught slightly by surprise when he reappeared not a second later only a few feet away from him. He was skinny, dressed only in pants save for the one wing that was far too small to support someone of his size if he’d had two of them. His feet, torso, and arms were completely bare save for long black gloves and an orange scarf around his neck. Gabranth had been right, he was young: far too young to be caught up in this kind of conflict (he thought of the Dalmascan soldier, the young recruit his sword had stabbed through...of the youth fighting for Cosmos...of Lord Larsa, and his stomach tightened uncomfortably). The boy’s eyes shone with an innocence that seemed foreign to the older man now.

"My name’s..." he paused, as if unsure of whether or not he correctly remembered it (a newer warrior then, most likely...there was always problems with recalling things at first, things becoming clearer with every subsequent cycle), "Raffaello."

"..."

Gabranth said nothing to this at first, still not sure what to make of the youth.

Raffaello faltered under his gaze, shrinking back slightly, "But...that’s kind of hard to remember, isn’t it? You--you can call me Raffy if you want." A nervous, shy smile, "I think...I think someone might have--have called me that once. I don’t...really know though."

So he wasn’t completely without memories then. That was somewhat curious, for a newcomer.

"It might...come back to you, eventually." He was surprised by the comforting nature of his words (he’d long since thought of himself as being unable to offer sympathy to anyone...that feeling had only intensified since coming here), "That memory."

Raffaello seemed pleased that he’d chosen to engage him in conversation (his eyes lit up as any child’s would when they felt they’d accomplished some monumental task), though he quickly turned to looking doubtful when he registered Gabranth’s words, "You--you think so? Sometimes...sometimes I think there’s a reason I don’t remember much." His voice turned to a pained whisper, "If I try to remember too much...my chest hurts."

Well, Gabranth had never heard of that before: he’d heard of people experiencing bouts of emotions and pain after their memories were restored (he’d certainly experienced something similar himself, was still experiencing it in a way)...but he’d never met someone who’d been hesitant to regain their memories before. He wondered what could possibly be in the boy’s past for him to have that kind of reaction to the possibility. And with how he looked and his teleportation just now, it was clear that the boy in general was a bit of a mystery in his own way.

Gabranth was about to ask him if he could elaborate on what he meant by that when a voice cut him off from behind.

"Ah, Gabranth," Garland’s voice was heavy, piercing through the air as deftly as his weapon could, "I see you’ve met the latest addition to our ranks."

Behind the fully-armored figure stood Kefka, a man whose appearance as a mad jester was incredibly deceptive to how dangerous and capable he truly was. Gabranth had learned early on in the cycles to never underestimate him.

Both always seemed to have their own hidden agendas: he was wary of them as a result of that, as he was of several of the other Chaos Warriors. The feeling of disdain and contempt they usually held for one another was somewhat mutual on both his end and theirs as well, he knew...it was rare for them to want to engage him in conversation unless it had to do with one of their schemes or a potential new strategy they wanted his assistance in possibly trying to employ on the battlefield in a given a cycle.

"This child is...a Chaos Warrior?" Gabranth looked down at the green-haired youth incredulously.

"That’s right...though the little twerp ran off before all of the introductions could be finished--which is just plain rude, if you ask me." Kefka cackled, seemingly thrilled at the confusion on Gabranth’s face at the new information and the fearful look crossing over Raffaello’s features.

The boy had shrunk back behind him at the sudden entrance of the two newcomers, and the Judge Magister barely even realized that he’d actually turned his body slightly as if to subconsciously stand between him and the two other Chaos Warriors. The action was not, however, lost to Garland.

"We’re all chosen by our respective sides in this conflict for different reasons, Gabranth." Garland said, his tone an almost patronizingly patient one, "Raffaello has his own role to play for us."

"And that is what, exactly? To die on the end of one of order’s blades repeatedly as we all do?"

Raffaello gasped at the ugliness of Gabranth’s words, the fear of a child at hearing of a harsh reality. He knew the tone well, had done so himself when face with the tragedy of Landis and the hardships of growing up in Archades as a refugee later. He ignored the boy, his attention focused entirely on awaiting Garland’s response.

Kefka made a "Tch!" noise under his breath, looking very disinterested at the exchange, "Well, you’d definitely know all about that, wouldn’t you, Mr. Judge? Either killing people with your blade or dying on the end of someone else’s: that’s pretty much your whole M.O. throughout this shindig, isn’t it?"

Before Gabranth could retort and a possible battle amongst "allies" commence (and, judging by how quickly Gabranth’s hand had gone to the hilt of his sword and the light that flashed momentarily in Kefka’s eyes in response to that motion despite the schooled disinterest he kept on his face still...it seemed a very likely possibility), Garland responded to Gabranth’s earlier question, "That’s...a matter of perspective when it comes to the cycles, yes. Though the boy’s role in it is quite possibly a bit...different."

"...Meaning what, exactly?"

"Meaning you’ll have to wait to find out!" Kefka cackled, the ire evident on Gabranth’s face absolutely hilarious to him, "Won’t that be fun!"

"...So you’re plotting to use him for some end, then?" Gabranth was now very much positioning himself between them and Raffaello. The boy had clasped onto the side of his cape so tightly that his knuckles were turning white, though the older man did not notice it.

"Not really." Garland seemed more amused by the reactions than anything else, "It will be enough this cycle just to observe what he might bring to the battlefield. He’s...different. What that means for all of us remains to be seen."

He thought back to the boy’s teleportation display earlier, and wondered briefly if the boy had more abilities at his disposal. It was hard to believe a small, seemingly harmless child would be picked as a warrior for Chaos, so it was evident that there was some truth to what Garland was saying, at least.

"And since you’ve shown some concern over Raffaello’s involvement, Gabranth, and the boy has warmed up to you more than the rest of us...I suppose the task of observing him would logically fall to you."

"...Gives you something else to do in the meanwhile before you die on someone’s blade, at any rate." Kefka snickered.

Even if Gabranth wanted to argue against this turn of events (and he did, truthfully...he was not comfortable with the idea of children on the battlefield, and even less comfortable with the idea of looking after another youth once again--he was notoriously not confident in his protective skills when he was more adept at inflicting harm)...the two were gone before he could say a word, leaving him alone with the strange winged boy.

Raffaello glanced up at him appreciatively, hands still clutched tightly onto the Judge Magister’s cape. He smiled sheepishly, "Th--thank you...sorry--sorry for the trouble."

Without knowing why, Gabranth was suddenly reminded of Lord Larsa. Yet another reason he was not keen on this "task"...it reminded him far too much of when he was entrusted with another person to protect, to be their "shield" no matter how laughable a concept that was to him, and he’d come far too close for comfort in failing that time. The anger that he’d held onto during his exchange with Kefka and Garland faded somewhat--his expression softening.

Whatever the reason for the boy’s presence here, he was not an enemy.

"No need for gratitude or apology." He told him, "I suppose it wouldn’t do to let them terrify newcomers as they see fit."

Raffaello’s smile brightened at this, and the Judge Magister couldn’t help but give a slight one back in an attempt to be encouraging. It was a horribly awkward one as he hadn’t had reason to smile in quite some time, even before being trapped in these endless battles--but the green-haired youth didn’t seem to mind in the slightest.

*****

The first time Gabranth witnessed how Raffaello’s abilities translated into combat, he was not ashamed to admit that he was shocked by the destructive force the tiny, unassuming form possessed.

One moment, and the two had somehow stumbled upon a field of manikins that had become active. It was odd though, given how rare a group of the automatons suddenly becoming active and attacking were. But, the next second, they’d just stopped mere inches from them, frozen in place.

And then they’d turned on each other, and the battle was over before it had even begun: the manikins quite literally tearing one another apart in what appeared to be a confused frenzy.

And throughout the whole ordeal, Raffaello glowed: his eyes closed as whatever power that he was channeling ran its course.

When it was over, he stood amidst the rubble of the aftermath, still seemingly frozen in whatever trance had taken hold of him. It took him a few moments to snap out of it and when he opened his eyes, for a second they appeared to shine in a cold, harsh golden light--before softening once more to their normal hue. He looked at the chaos surrounding them with wide eyes, before turning a fearful expression to Gabranth.

"Wh--what happened?" his voice was barely a whisper.

The older man stared at him incredulously, "You don’t know?"

Uncertainty flickered in the boy’s gaze as he cast it back at the ground, eyes lingering on a manikin arm visible amidst the rubble.

"I...did this."

It wasn’t really a question, more of a statement. Gabranth didn’t respond right away, and Raffaello seemed to panic slightly by his silence.

"I did, didn’t I?!?"

He was in Landis again, utterly powerless and screaming at Basch not to run...the fear tightening his throat just as surely as the smoke and ash did.

With effort, he pulled himself away from his troubling memories that the sight of the boy’s panic caused him to relive.

Instead, he focused on trying to quell the sudden fear of his younger companion...and find out some answers of his own.

"You knew you could do...this?" he waved a hand over the battlefield. ...How odd to be standing in the middle of one that he had not been directly involved in.

His question seemed to help keep Raffaello grounded. He surveyed the devastation, this time merely biting his lower lip nervously, shaking for a moment as he took a breath and closed his eyes.

"This? N--no, I didn’t...I didn’t know I could do this necessarily..."

He raised an eyebrow, "But you knew you had the potential to do something."

Raffaello opened his eyes, nodding hesitantly.

"I don’t...really remember much about myself before I arrived here. But--but, I feel...something." He frowned, trying to put what he was thinking into words, "I want...I need to know who I am, but I get this feeling that it’s--it’s better not to know. Like there’s a really good reason I--I don’t know...and something bad will happen if I remember more." He looked even smaller than his actual child’s height, "It...it scares me."

He remembered his odd mannerisms when talking about memories the first time they’d met, "...And seeing this confirms that?"

"...I don’t know!" he knelt down, clamping his hands over his ears and squeezing his eyes shut as if it seal everything away, "I really don’t."

He looked stricken, about to cry. Gabranth couldn’t help but feel pity for the green-haired boy’s plight.

Unsure of what to say as assurances were not something Gabranth felt comfortable with, and they felt forced coming from someone like him besides (...at least from his perspective), he awkwardly placed his hand on the trembling boy’s shoulder in what he hoped was a somewhat comforting gesture, at least.

"...I feel like...like I was right in f--feeling that way." Raffaello was saying, more to himself than to Gabranth, "It’s only gotten stronger since I showed up here."

"..." he wasn’t sure what to say, so he remained silent.

"It scares me...a lot." The boy looked up at him then, eyes wide and fearful, "Gabranth, does that...make me a coward?"

"No." he smiled slightly...awkwardly, trying to make the expression an encouraging one, "Only human."

The green-haired youth looked at the carnage around them, that he’d somehow caused without even knowing how...and glanced at the tiny wing at his shoulder blade before his eyes looked to the gauntleted hand still resting there.

There was a world of uncertainty and fear in his eyes and on his face still (though the boy gave a valiant effort at trying to cover it up), and Gabranth could almost picture the doubts his thoughts held at that sentiment: after all, what human child was capable of that? And Gabranth had no answer for him, and that troubled him more than he’d care to admit.

But when he looked up at the Judge Magister’s face again, he looked touched and grateful by the sentiment behind Gabranth’s words all the same.

"Thanks, Gabranth." His smile was watery, but a genuine one as he tried to put on a brave face over his growing fears.

Gabranth couldn’t help but be somewhat impressed at this display (again, his thoughts went back to Lord Larsa and the familiar heaviness overcome his heart at the memories there), and gave Raffaello’s shoulder an awkward pat before dropping his hand to his side once more.

The two worked their way amidst the manikin remains in a heavy silence...troubling thoughts on what had just occurred racing through both their minds as they did so.

*****

To say that he was not necessarily thrilled at the limited options he had that led to him standing in the heart of the Time Sorceress’ domain was an understatement.

Unfortunately, he really did have little choice in the matter if he wanted to get solid answers to his questions: the Chaos Warriors who were not as disagreeable to him knew even less on the matter than he did. And some, such as Golbez, were keeping their cards very close to their chest if they did know more, much to his annoyance. Asking the opinions of a Cosmos Warrior was a laughable notion at best, and the other Chaos Warriors who cared little for him and who most likely knew the information he sought (the Emperor, Garland, and Kefka being primes examples of this category from the off-handed remarks they’d made in passing and their odd interest in Raffaello’s progress in battles) were not forthcoming...as was to be expected of those who had their own plans they were working on in the shadows.

Normally, Gabranth would count Ultimecia among the third category. The Sorceress was powerful and always looked at him with a mixture of thinly veiled disgust and contempt. She always knew more about things than she let on, and it was evident that she had her hand in some of the power-plays going on within the ranks of the Chaos Warriors, regardless of how direct her actual involvement with them was.

But, whatever the interest of the others in Raffaello, Ultimecia seemed to not share in it this time. In fact, she almost seemed to be going out of her way to avoid being in the boy’s presence for any longer than necessary.

Her actions in that vein were decidedly odd for her, and it also seemed to indicate that she might know something that could be useful for him. And that put him in the very awkward spot of asking for her assistance now.

They stood at the base of her castle, a ruined structure of fractured stone and wood that spiraled upwards far above their heads and continued downwards into a pit of water with debris and stone pillars jutting out of it. In the center of the cavernous space, sand poured downwards from a hole...made to perhaps represent the sands of time in this fractured remnant of a world, he supposed.

She appeared there in a flourish of dark energies and black feathers, as was her want. Her calculating gaze fell on him and she smirked, noticing his unease and desire to be anywhere else but here.

"So, our poor excuse for a knight has chosen to deign my realm with his presence." Her tone was her normal condescending one, claw-like hands crossing over her chest contemplatively, "To what do I owe such an honor?"

It was her usual dismissive way of interacting with her comrades who she felt were beneath her. Having been accustomed to such behavior even before getting involved in this endless cycle of battle, he was able to ignore it for the most part.

Before he was able to speak, however, the silver-haired woman caught sight of the small figure peering at the temporally-altered scenery around them and she froze, her countenance suddenly turning even colder than normal.

It took her several moments in harsh silence to recover from whatever shock had coursed through her system, Gabranth raising an eyebrow slightly at her bizarre reaction while Raffaello regarded her with a child’s curiosity.

"...We should discuss whatever matter brought you here in private, Gabranth." Her tone was clipped and even when she finally did speak she turned her back to them. She glanced back with dark amber eyes, motioning with a slight shrug of her shoulder that she expected the older man to follow her deeper into her castle, the imperious look on her face stating that she did not expect to wait long.

He looked down at Raffaello, who gave him a soft smile in return, "I’ll be all right." The boy assured him, blue eyes looking eager at the prospect of being able to explore this strange new area more thoroughly on his own while Gabranth and Ultimecia talked.

"This shouldn’t take long."

And with those words, Gabranth followed the Time Sorceress deeper into her sanctum.

Ultimecia remained silent and stiff until they reached the back wall of the castle and she deemed them far enough away from Raffaello that the boy would be unable to hear their conversation. At that point, she wheeled around to face Gabranth in a twirl of expensive and elegant woven silks, the purple lines on her face contorting somewhat in a very obvious anger.

"You dare to bring the Destroyer here?" she hissed at him, eyes flashing in anger. He was surprised that she didn’t try striking him down with her magic, given how her talon-like hands were clenching and unclenching tightly at her sides.

"The…Destroyer?" he had never heard the title before, and couldn’t help but blink in surprise at it being used to address Raffaello.

Her anger dissipated somewhat at this, disbelief crossing over her features, "You mean to say you’ve been traveling with him this whole cycle and you didn’t know?"

"..." he frowned, not sure of where she was going with this.

Realization dawned on her face and she glanced at the wall, lost in thought, "No, of course you wouldn’t know. The boy himself hasn’t awakened yet, and they wouldn’t have been foolish enough to entrust him to the protection of someone like you if they’d even given you an inkling of what you were really dealing with..." she smirked at the obvious confusion on his face, "I suppose that was a rather clever ruse on their part."

"...I take it from your tone you know about Raffaello then." He chose to ignore the obvious insult she had directed at him for the time being.

"More than you know, at any rate." She shrugged dismissively, "And I’m willing to wager more than the boy himself at this stage too."

"And this...Destroyer you mentioned?" he had to tread carefully with Ultimecia at this junction: neither trusted the other, and there was always the chance that she would decide it wasn’t worth telling him anything--and he needed to gather as much information about what was really going on as he could while she was still feeling inclined to discuss matters with him.

"The Destroyer is an entity with a lust for suffering, a being that exists for destruction. An apt name for such a creature, I suppose." Ultimecia spoke slowly, as if trying to teach something to a small child, "He is also called The Guardian of Darkness and the Magic Beast of the Black in some circles."

She turned her back to him, staring at the wall in contemplation, "In his original world, he caused untold calamity--until he was sealed away."

"...And Raffaello is this Destroyer?"

"In a manner of speaking, yes." Ultimecia turned around again, glaring at the spot where the green-haired youth was exploring, "He is...a vessel of sorts, one could call him. He is the Destroyer, was created in response to the sealing--keeping the entity in a hidden existence and waiting for an opportunity to regain his memories and his former self. It is a clever self-preservation tactic."

"...Except that he’s terrified of recovering his memories." He interjected, not wanting to believe what Ultimecia was saying completely...didn’t want to believe it in its entirety.

An unconcerned shrug, “That is inconsequential to the eventuality, Gabranth. The Destroyer’s self-preservation ploy gave his 'Raffaello' construct his own personality in order to make him seem more unassuming and less likely to be registered as a threat to those he interacted with. An innocent young boy is a lot more likely to gain allies for himself--and those very allies would unknowingly help him to eventually recover who, what he truly is."

"So it’s...a façade?"

Raffaello seemed so genuine. It was almost hard to believe, though perhaps he should have expected it given their reality. He tried to ignore the unpleasantness welling up in his chest at the thought.

"Not really." If she noticed his growing discomfort, she oddly enough chose not to mention it, "The boy himself is real enough: a separate personality existing within the Destroyer himself. If he was faking, if it was just the Destroyer pulling a puppet’s strings, the ruse would be uncovered soon enough. It works because he is an innocent child at his core."

"..."

"I suppose that is why he is afraid to regain his memories, his past self. He knows he is meant to, and that curiosity was implanted within him by the Destroyer--but he subconsciously knows that doing so will lead to something disastrous. He cares about things, so his very nature as a source only of destruction and suffering terrifies him. He doesn’t want to embrace it, so he rebels and tries not to focus on it when he can."

He thought of their previous conversations, of Raffaello’s terror at the realization of what he could do and what he might truly be...and remained silent.

"...But the ruse cannot continue indefinitely: struggle as he might, try as he might to deny it, eventually the Destroyer within him will reawaken. Already, he’s subconsciously used his powers for protection...hasn’t he?"

The frown on Gabranth’s face was all the confirmation she needed, "And the more he continues to do so, the more likely that side of him will fully awaken--and the Destroyer will be in our midst once more."

"...And the others knew about this?" his voice was quiet.

"Some of them, yes. I imagine they’re planning on it happening."

"...Why?"

A shrug, "Experimentation, I’d wager. See what would happen to the cycles if a being that exists solely for destruction was unleashed on them: a creature with enough power to rival even Shinryu when fully awoken."

It made sense, in a horribly twisted way, given some of their Chaos comrades.

A thought crossed his mind though, "...And you are not in agreement with them, this time?"

Given her reaction to Raffaello’s presence here, and her willingness to discuss anything with him at all, that seemed a likely conclusion.

"..." Ultimecia seemed nonplussed at his question, as though she’d been expecting it, "I am a Time Sorceress, and my power is gained through the manipulation of the cycles of time. The Destroyer destroys time and leaves nothing for compression. We are technically on opposing forces."

"But you’re allowing it to happen."

She smirked, "What a surprisingly naïve notion. Observation is hardly the same thing as doing nothing. Besides, I believe the situation is well on its way to resolving itself now that we’ve had this conversation."

"...What makes you say that?" he didn’t like the calculating stare she was regarding him with.

"....Nothing, really." She began to walk away, evidently believing their exchange to be over with regardless of what he thought, "Do not tarry too long here with that boy, Gabranth."

He stood there, lost in thought, not noticing when Ultimecia suddenly paused once more.

"Oh, and Gabranth?" she called over her shoulder, not bothering to turn around again.

She waited until it seemed his attention was focused outwards again, and he could almost swear he could hear the cruel smirk that must have been covering her features at her next comment, "The best way to truly kill the Destroyer is before he fully awakens. You’d do well to remember that."

And with that, she was gone in a flurry of dark energies and feathers, her last words echoing mockingly throughout the cavernous chambers.

Subconsciously, Gabranth’s hand went to the hilt of his sword--and he looked down at it.

Ultimecia’s meaning was not lost on him.

His hands were already stained with the blood of innocents. What was one more?

A shield that could only kill: the hypocrisy was almost enough to make him bark out with a bitter laugh.

Trying not to dwell on her words overly much, he rejoined Raffaello.

The child had been attempting to jump over some cracks in the disjointed castle’s masonry. He stopped upon his approach, looking somewhat sheepish at having been caught doing something so juvenile.

"We’re going."

Raffaello tapped the ground with his bare foot, "Did you...find out what you wanted to know?" he asked, somewhat hesitantly given the darker expression on his friend’s face since he’d returned from his conversation with Ultimecia.

Gabranth looked down at the boy and thought about Ultimecia’s words, about the truth behind the Destroyer (the manikins lying in a pile of rubble around Raffaello’s feet without the boy even lifting a finger, his horrified reaction afterwards).

He surprised himself by managing a small smile, ruffling his hand over the top of the boy’s head as he remembered Basch doing a lifetime ago in Landis whenever his brother thought he was concerning himself with matters he didn’t need to, "No, not this time. But there’s no need to rush. We’ll figure things out eventually."

Raffaello was bright, and there was an uncertain look in his eyes for a moment that told Gabranth he knew he was lying to him about something, but it disappeared just as soon as it had flickered to life in his eyes, as though he knew there must be a reason for Gabranth’s actions and he’d trust him.

...That thought both touched and hurt Gabranth more than he’d care to admit.

"Yeah, you’re right...it might be better this way after all, you know?"

Gabranth nodded stiffly.

"We should get going then!" the boy said, trying to get a bit of cheer into the oppressive atmosphere for both of their sakes.

They both moved then, away from the distorted castle grounds. Every so often, Gabranth would look down at Raffaello and hear Ultimecia’s words, his hand going to his sword hilt.

But then Raffaello would turn to him and point at something in the distance, a smile on his face and Gabranth couldn’t help but smile slightly as well (even though it hurt to do so), and his hand would drop back to his side.

Whether or not the outcome would eventually be decided for him in the long run, right now, he decided, it was best not to dwell on it. ...For both of them.

*****

The wind that had spun the flames into a frenzied funnel of heat and devastation died down suddenly, the inferno along with it--the dying light casting odd shadows onto his gray and silver armor.

He didn’t feel the heat, the sweat coating his body as a result of it only serving to further chill him to his very core.

His sword had found its purchase thanks to the distraction, and he yanked it out with a sickening wet sound--the blade soaked crimson, to match the blood now pooling on the scorched ground beneath where they stood.

How ironic, that they were standing in the castle remnants where they’d first met such a long while ago.

Raffaello fell to his knees, his hair turning from shockingly blond to green once more. His eyes once again their soft blue as opposed to the harsh golden amber they’d become--though they were dimming rapidly. Blood pooled out of the corner of his lips, from his nose. It matched the blood pouring from the gaping wound in his chest. No matter what history or poets said, death by a sword was never pretty.

He was older now, a teenager slightly older than Lord Larsa. He’d aged quickly the more he’d had to use his powers in this cycle. But still, he’d always carried himself with the same thoughtful air of innocence, regardless.

He was struggling to breathe now, thanks to Gabranth’s finishing blow, his breaths wet and broken. He remained frozen like that for a few moments before the effort caused his eyes to roll to the back of his head and he collapsed forward.

Raffaello would have hit the floor face first if Gabranth hadn’t dropped his bloodied weapon and caught him (ignoring the pool of blood he knelt in to do so), cradling the small boy’s body in arms that suddenly seemed far too heavy for such a burden.

He struggled to focus his eyes, to look at Gabranth’s face swimming above him.

"I--it’s over...?" he asked, a gurgle bubbling in his throat.

Gabranth nodded quickly. He was never sure how to deal with these situations, never sure how to respond. Drace’s broken body came swimming to his mind: he’d failed her, just as he’d failed him.

"Thanks to you." He heard himself say.

They were such small, inadequate words of comfort for a dying child.

All he could do was watch as the life left his friend’s eyes. He hated himself even more for it.

"I...I’m gl--glad I could...could re--regain control for...a moment." He was laboring to talk now, but he looked oddly peaceful, even with the tears forming in his eyes, "Didn’t...didn’t w--want t--to...hurt any--anyone."

He was growing cold, shaking violently. Gabranth held his broken body tighter. It was only a matter of time now.

The motion wasn’t lost on Raffaello, who looked up at him with his usual soft smile on his bloodied lips, "Th--thank you. For making--making sure...I d--didn’t."

He was fading away, eyes closing peacefully, and his wounds seemed to disappear with the strange glow that surrounded him during the process. Soon, Gabranth was only holding empty air--kneeling in liquid crimson.

"...Thank you for looking out for me."

Raffaello’s final words seemed to drift through thin air, unbroken and sounding more like the voice of the small boy he’d been when they’d first met rather than the teenager he’d been in his final moments here.

Gabranth wasn’t sure what that meant, nor did he care: his mind and body numb past all caring as he remained there--arms falling uselessly at his sides. There was a burning in his chest and lungs, though he doubted that it had anything at all to do with the inferno he’d had to force his way through.

"...I’d be remiss, to think you might not need this."

A glass vial of blue liquid was put in front of his face, though he did not turn to look at the tiny blond woman who, thanks to his kneeling position, was slightly more close to eye level with him now.

"Keep your potion, you may have need of it later." His voiced sounded rough and hollow to his ears.

"...You did not get angry at my appearance, nor did you yell at me for my interference."

The tiny woman, he believed that Shantotto had once referred to herself as a "Tarutaru" before (though that nomenclature was lost on him), lowered the proffered potion. She sat across from him on the ground, arms crossed over her chest as she contemplated him in an almost academic-looking manner.

"Should I have?" the conversation gave him something to focus on other than his aching hollowness, as absurd as it probably was to have it with the petite Cosmos Warrior, "Without it, he would have gained too much power and I would have been unable to win."

"My mistake, then, to make. I’d assumed you were a prideful type, one who loves to gripe."

He let out a derisive snort, "...You would not be wrong there, milady."

She grinned, the expression looking oddly twisted and almost malevolent on a face that looked like it should belong to a young child, "As I did suspect, my observations were correct! I knew it to be true: I have my share of pride too. As you’ve no doubt guessed, it comes naturally with being the best."

An inferno that could consume everything, a tornado that could rip the earth to shreds: such magicks in Ivalice could only be cast by powerful sorcerers, so he knew the woman wasn’t boasting without merit.

"...This is not a battle I would ever take pride for having participated in, regardless."

Shantotto’s expression turned quickly back to somber again at his words, and she cast her brown eyes down to the blood covering the ground.

"Now that the topic has been risen: no, it clearly isn’t." she frowned, "I’ve fought in many battles where I was proud of my victory, but banishing the Destroyer like that was contradictory."

"...You knew of his true origin then, before just now?"

She huffed impatiently, "Of course, I always know the source! I make it a personal goal to know everything I can, just to make sure I always have a plan. Why do you think I was trailing you in such plain view? It’s not because you’re interesting with all that moping you do!"

"...You were waiting to see if he’d awaken?"

A curt nod, "Someone would have to stop him then. Big jobs fall to me time and time again."

"...Why not kill him as Raffaello then?" he asked, perplexed, "We’re enemies."

"Because the cycles and our sides make us so, I should always be eager to cause you woe?" her words were oddly sage-like for her youthful appearance despite her odd rhyming way of talking, "I’m more than happy to put a Chaos Warrior in their place if they’re asking for it...or I’m just in the mood to toss them into the pit. But killing a child just because he might become a threat, when he hasn’t done anything yet? Not my style...and that kind of insinuation makes me gag with bile."

"...I see."

"...I’d tried researching to see if there was some other way, so that things would not take place as they did this day." Her voice had turned soft, as if this type of conversation was new to her and she was unsure of how to go about it, "He changed before I could find anything, and the only option left then was to sting."

"It was to be expected, apparently." Gabranth’s voice tightened, "Even he suspected it."

"...He was kind. That brings the tragedy of it even more in mind."

He said nothing, though he jerked his head slightly in quiet agreement to her statement. His eyes burned, but he tried not to dwell on it: best not to, really.

"Too many comrades we’ve both lost, makes you wonder if it’s worth the cost." Shantotto sighed.

"..."

"I suppose later on we’ll let loose. This ends our temporary truce?" she already knew the answer to that, from the way she said it.

A quick nod, "Next time we meet, it will most likely be on opposing sides of the battlefield."

"Sounds fun, now that this is done." Her contemplative stance changed once more to a predatory grin, "Best prepare to be laid bare: when you take a stand my spells will roast you from the inside out, Gabrand."

He ignored her mispronunciation of his name. For some reason, he suspected she probably did it on purpose just to see if she could get an outburst from him, "You’re more than welcome to try. Perhaps the best way out of this hell is through an inferno, after all."

She smirked, getting up and heading away before pausing and turning to regard the still kneeling man, her expression once again becoming soft and oddly unsure.

"It’s a blow, but you did a good job, you know. It doesn’t feel like it, but in the end you did save your friend."

...A shield that could only kill in order to protect. ...Raffaello’s smile and odd sincerity that made things a little more bearable in this endless conflict. ...His heartfelt "thank you" as he lay dying after Gabranth ran him through.

"I know. He didn’t want to become the Destroyer."

"Maybe he isn’t gone for good, provided how this reality acts so differently from how it should." When he looked at her quizzically, she elaborated, "You saw what happened, how he disappeared and his wound was gone? Perhaps he was returned to his actual world, a chance to live on."

Raffaello had mentioned that he thought he might have friends somewhere, though he couldn’t quite remember them. His expression had always softened slightly, seemed more at ease when he spoke of those faint traces of memories.

To think that he might be reunited with them again in his own original word, even if he had no memories of his time here (perhaps a kindness in and of itself, he thought sadly), was a somehow oddly comforting motion.

...Especially if it was plausible those friends could help him in a better way than Gabranth ever could.

"It is a nice thought, if nothing else." He admitted. And, after a lengthy pause since this was also new to him and he wasn’t sure what to really say, "...Thank you."

A curt nod in response and then the moment of odd understanding and respect between them passed, "Until next time, Gabrand, unless you get yourself canned."

...And just like that, they parted ways.

Gabranth remained kneeling in the blood for a long while longer, before standing on heavy legs and picking up his sword, surveying the gore on it before running his gauntleted hand over the blade in a vain attempt at cleaning it. He’d have to do a more thorough job later.

"Aw...you’re no fun, Mr. Kill Joy!"

He looked behind him at Kefka’s voice, eyes narrowing at the sight of a disappointed-looking Kefka and a stoic (well, it was hard to tell really with his helmet on) Garland. Behind them a little further down stood Ultimecia.

So, they’d been observing as well: to see what would happen when the Destroyer was unleashed. It did not shock him.

"...It’s done now. Leave it at that."

Without another word, he moved past them, not taking Kefka’s taunt.

As he passed Ultimecia, the Time Sorceress gave him a conspiratorial smirk and it took all he could muster to not turn his sword on her, to keep going with the stoic mask he’d developed so long ago in Archades just to survive as a refugee there.

...He was sad that Raffaello had died, hated himself for being the one to kill him in the end. But perhaps it was better for him in the long run: at least now the young boy, his friend, was free from this if nothing else.

It was well past time he tried to find a way out as well, no matter what fate awaited him as a result.

Chapter Text

The water covering the ground of Order’s Sanctuary was cool to the touch and would have made for a soothing experience in more peaceful times if one absently bent downwards and ran their fingertips over the almost glass-like surface, as he’d done on occasion when lost in his thoughts.

...It was not nearly as refreshing or peaceful an experience when one was having their face slammed into the water after a well-placed low kick.

The Warrior of Light stayed still for a few seconds where his body had been thrown, unsure of how to approach the situation he found himself in now.

Truthfully, the impromptu sparring session had been his idea, as he had hoped to gauge one of the newer Warriors of Cosmos to assess their skills for himself (and, hopefully, to assuage some doubts he had given the woman’s often harsh mannerisms). But he had not expected the ferocity of the attack his “comrade” had launched at him in response.

"Don't say I didn’t warn you."

Ripples formed on the water to his side and he caught a glance of sandaled feet right by his face. He looked up quickly into dark eyes that assessed him with an iciness that could chill one’s bones with all the subtlety of a sudden blizzard.

"...Would you still like to test my loyalty, Warrior?"

The tone of her voice matched the look in her eyes perfectly.

Not waiting for a response, the woman held out her hand in a surprisingly peaceful gesture in light of their recent skirmish. The indifferent look on her face indicated that she held very little personal interest in how he responded to her offer.

He reached out a gauntleted hand, allowing her to help him into a sitting position.

He regarded her carefully before choosing his next words, her last question floating through his mind.

"...You were angry at the insult, then?"

A narrowed glare was her only response to that, a clear indication that he should know the answer well enough without even having to ask.

The Warrior of Light frowned in turn, "I would not expect it to have angered you so much. You’ve made no comments when others have voiced..." he chose his next words carefully, remembering the spider-like movements he'd just witnessed that had sent him flying, "...Their misgivings towards you."

Zafina drew in a sharp breath at the remark and scoffed, "I hardly think Warriors of Chaos saying such things is the same concept."

"..."

"They are not my comrades. I care little if they say such nonsense."

She knelt down, bare knees skimming the surface of the water next to him. Her fingertips touched the surface of the water in a fashion surprisingly similar to when he often did so when on his own, lost in his thoughts about the battles looming ahead. The reminiscent movement surprised him slightly.

She spoke her next line in a slow, deliberate manner, "I do not care to hear such talk from those I am expected to fight beside, however."

"...It is hard to consider you a true companion when you reveal so little about yourself."

The excuse sounded feeble the moment it passed his lips, and he couldn't meet her gaze directly.

He could picture her eyebrow raised skeptically as she regarded him from where she knelt by his side, the amusement unconcealed in her voice, "And you reveal so much?"

The white-haired warrior bristled at that, "...That's different. I have nothing to reveal."

"Because you do not know the truth about yourself or your past." Her voice had taken on the cryptic, sage-like quality he found to be so perplexing in contrast to her normal tone and harsh movements.

He nodded curtly to her statement, not wanting to say anything further.

The subject always made him feel uneasy in a way he preferred not showing to others. Especially not to people who he suspected already could see that uncertainty in him as though he was bearing it like a beacon for everyone to see...which he suspected included the dark-haired warrior sitting next to him from the assessing, critical look she always regarded him with.

...Perhaps that was the real cause of the uneasiness he always felt around her.

"And what you've revealed about yourself is...odd." He suddenly found himself defending his earlier actions, wanting to change the topic to something less introspective, "You do not hide that you are an assassin in your world. You do not try to hide the pleasure you sometimes get from battle."

The woman stared down at the ornately sewn red skirt covering her pants thoughtfully, "And you feel that those traits are more chaotic in nature?"

"Both together, yes."

"...A blunt answer." Her mouth quirked upwards slightly in a smirking manner, "I suppose it makes sense given how seriously you approach things."

"..."

He said nothing to that.

Zafina sat down fully next to the Warrior of Light, crossing her legs and looking for all the world as though she were about to engage in peaceful meditation. She remained silent for a few moments, eyes closed and a pensive look falling over her features.

"...On my world, my role as assassin was a noble one." When she finally spoke, her voice was so soft that if Order's Sanctuary wasn't so still and silent he might not have heard her, "It might sound odd to say that, but I was tasked with keeping the secrets of my people safe. I was entrusted to keep one of my visions from coming true: to keep the world from being swallowed in the chaos of a great war."

He remained silent, unsure of how to respond to her admission. It seemed as if it was a hard one for her to reveal to another person given how quieter her voice became the longer she spoke, his ears actually straining to hear what she said next.

"Life was hard, and though I was proud of my duties, they often required that I kept myself detached from everything."

She opened her eyes then, turning to look him squarely in the eyes for the first time after beginning her tale with a sardonic smirk on her lips, "My fighting skills, the thrill of a challenge: the times when I got to seek them were the only times when I ever felt free. So if I seem to lose myself during the heat of battle at times and it frightens you, forgive me."

He frowned, "...I never said it frightened me."

Her smirk widened, "And yet you felt disconcerted enough to challenge me to a fight to prove my loyalties."

He could almost feel his face redden slightly in embarrassment at that remark, "That's..."

An arm decorated in bracelets held up in the air between them thankfully stopped him from digging himself in further, "Please, Warrior. Do give me more credit than that."

"..." He said nothing, unsure of the direction the conversation was taking.

"...That being said, I can’t blame you for thinking that way either." She admitted evenly, "I suppose I do seem a bit odd in comparison to the other Warriors of Cosmos because of that."

"We're all different from one another." He heard himself saying before his mind was even registering that he was speaking, "...But your heart is the same. I should have seen that before."

She raised an eyebrow at his nervous attempt at assurance, "Is that an apology?" she asked, a teasing tone to her voice that he had never heard in there before.

He nodded, the uncomfortable feeling that had been settling in his stomach at the conversation's direction earlier dissipating as it seemed some wall had been broken through between them with the talk's flow now. The conversation now felt similar to talks he'd had before with some of their other companions once he'd become more familiar with them, something he'd not expected to happen at all when he'd first challenged the woman to battle.

"It is."

"Good." She stood then, stretching, "...Because I mean it when I say my loyalty is true, Warrior. I do not desire to see this cycle end in destruction either."

She offered him her hand again, a genuine smile gracing her features this time. He couldn't help but return it slightly when he took her hand as he rose to his feet as well.

"I don’t doubt it." He looked at her approvingly, despite the ache in his side from their harsh earlier encounter returning tenfold now that he was standing again, "...I would not want to face you in battle as a true adversary anytime soon."

"Better to stay on my good side then. It would be over far too quickly otherwise." She said, though she also gave him an approving glance, "...Though things might have gone differently if I had allowed you the opening move. You have a lot of skill yourself."

"...I suppose I should take that as a compliment?"

A dismissive shrug, "Take it as you will. It's just good to know when one has strong allies that they can entrust their futures in part with them."

The Warrior of Light nodded his head in agreement, a silent look of newfound respect passing between the two.

Then Zafina broke the eye contact, her face slipping into its usual mask of cool indifference as his retained its customary stoic façade...neither speaking a word more about what transpired between them when they rejoined the others later.

...Though the Warrior of Light did occasionally wonder still about the kind of world Zafina came from at times, absentmindedly, when they would fight back-to-back in battle and he heard her laugh.

Chapter Text

Who: Genomes and Black Mages

Mikoto was a Genome. Her appearance mirrored her "brother" Zidane to a degree, albeit in a more feminine way.

She had never questioned "why" this was, or why so many of the other Genomes also had blond hair and blue eyes. Perhaps Garland just couldn’t be bothered to come up with a myriad assortment of hair and eye colors...of skin tones, body shapes, and facial features. Only one or two in a hundred ever had differing traits of any kind.

...It had always mattered very little to her, was something she deemed inconsequential.

She knew it was the same for the Black Mages they now lived with. Their creator hadn’t bothered to waste time making their appearances differ much either. More often than not, they had numbers instead of names...and her "brother" Kuja hadn’t even bothered to learn those.

The little Black Mage named Vivi was the only one with a name. He saw her and gave a shy wave in awkward greeting.

Mikoto acknowledged it with a slight nod of her head.

She now knew greetings were important. It meant someone acknowledged another. She was grateful to have been extended the gesture at all.

*****

What: Petting

The baby Chocobo was a strange creature, and Mikoto had at first been at a loss as to the preoccupation the Black Mages had with taking care of the helpless thing. Weren’t they beasts of burden on this world?

...But, wasn’t that the case with the Genomes and Black Mages themselves? The question she had inwardly poised made her feel oddly uncomfortable, and she tried to ignore it--knowing it as truth, but truth that now could possibly be changed.

Other Genomes had started to volunteer to look after the little bird, and she was surprised to see softness in normally cold eyes--slight and unsure, but warm smiles on faces that had been blank before as they patted its head awkwardly.

The little Black Mage, Vivi, was petting the yellow feathers now. The bird seemed content, cooing softly.

Large eyes opened at her approach.

"Kweh!" Bobby Corwen greeted her as though she was his most favorite person.

Mikoto hesitantly reached out to touch soft feathers…her hands going over his whole head. She glanced at Vivi and mimicked his petting motions, Bobby Corwen relaxing with her touch.

She did not smile, but she felt lighter somehow all the same.

*****

When: Stopping

Vivi sat just outside the graveyard. The scent of freshly turned dirt filled the air.

The other Black Mages had left the somber setting, not wishing to linger. The Genomes had observed, but they had dispersed even earlier. The ceremony for mourning still confused them, put them at an unease they couldn’t explain with words.

Unsure of why she did so but, concerned over the boy’s actions, Mikoto stood before him and waited for him to notice her presence.

“I’m stopping soon too. I can feel it.”

His voice was barely a whisper. She said nothing.

“Every day it gets harder to move.” he shook a little, “...I’m scared.”

It was the logical reaction anyone would have, her rational mind deduced.

The irrational part of her mind took control then. Sitting down next to the little boy, she awkwardly put a hand on his shoulder and surprised herself by wishing Zidane were here instead.

All she could do was sit next to a terrified, dying child. She did not like the feelings it stirred within her...the blurriness in her normally perfect vision.

She sat there nonetheless, shielding Vivi inadequately from the sight of the graves.

*****

Where: Home

Black Mage Village was the place Mikoto thought of as “home.”

The Black Mages had been like her people: “soulless” beings created only to serve their function. They had accepted the Genomes...kindred spirits in a way.

The Genomes had slowly begun adjusting to their new lives, transforming in ways she’d never thought possible. They had been nurtured to their true selves here.

...The idea that soon the Genomes would outnumber the Black Mages in their own village rested uneasy with her.

It was unfair, and frustrated her...scared her even by the sharp sadness she felt.

Vivi was staring at the sky again. She joined him, staring up at the blue expanse as well.

“...My memories will become like this, won’t they?” he asked timidly, “We’ll still be here--looking over everything.”

She said nothing, not sure if he really wanted an answer.

The small smile in the boy’s eyes was oddly peaceful, “I like that idea. I’ve been thinking about things like that for awhile now.”

“...It’s an interesting concept.” the reassuring words coming from her own voice surprised her.

Around them, a soothing breeze blew through the quiet of Black Mage Village.

*****

Why: Memories in the Sky

The tiny Black Mages that looked like Vivi-but-were-not-Vivi stared at Mikoto feeding the chocobo with curious eyes.

“...Why are you feeding the birdie, Auntie?” the most outspoken one finally ventured.

Black Mage Village was filled with Black Mages now, the “children” of its first residents.

The last technology of her creator had been put to good use.

The Genomes evolved into natural caregivers: having the little ones there filled idle time and uncertainty with purpose.

...Perhaps that was the last gift the Black Mages had given them as well.

“Because he was important to your father and the others,” she explained, “Which makes him important to us.”

“So if we take care of Bobby Corwen...Father will know about it? Even though he’s stopped?”

“Of course. Your father is part of the sky now. He’s watching over you.”

The children nodded sagely at this and watched Mikoto pet Bobby Corwen on the head.

Glancing at one another, they hesitantly reached hands out to pet the very contented creature.

Small, nervous laughter erupted at the happy “Kweh!” that followed...glowing eyes smiling softly.

Mikoto couldn’t help but smile in return, her eyes glancing unconsciously to the sky overhead.

Chapter Text

1. Sparring

"...And you bring your fist out really quick like THIS!"

The motion was lightning-quick: the Elvaan girl's fist pumping through the air with a force that would have been guaranteed to shatter someone's jaw.

The silver-haired man clad in blue armor observing her frowned. Cosmos watched with mild amusement as Prishe turned to him, grinning from ear to ear.

"Your turn!"

Without waiting for a response, she gripped his right arm, his hand already reflexively made into a fist, and yanked hard...forcing his appendage into a crude mockery of her earlier smooth movement.

It was far from fluid, or for that matter imposing...and instead of the blow being powerful enough to break through a boulder it looked like it could barely make a twig move. His hand hung limply in the air where Prishe still had a death-grip on his wrist, the girl frowning at the result...and a decidedly uncomfortable and embarrassed look was crossing over the Warrior of Light's face.

"...You did it wrong." She finally announced, glaring at him accusingly.

From her spot watching them, Cosmos couldn't help but smile: the only Warrior of Cosmos who was able to interact so easily with the enigmatic new presence in their midst so far was headstrong Prishe. It was nice to see her draw out reactions from the usually withdrawn warrior. It was good for both of them, truly.

...She'd be lying to herself if she didn't admit to finding it entertaining as well.

"You...only showed it to me once. And you're the one who pulled my arm." The warrior said quietly, trying to recover his dignity.

"Details aren't necessary." The girl waved her hand dismissively, the stone at her chest glowing in the reflected light of the Sanctuary, "What's important to keep in mind is that clearly you have never been in a fist-brawl."

"..."

"Or maybe you were and you got your ass handed to you." The girl was nodding to herself now, as if her theory was sound and proven.

"Prishe..."

"I think you should stick to practicing with your sword!" she wheeled around to face the Warrior of Light again, eyes gleaming, "You're getting so good with that...you even keep ME on my toes sometimes during fights! And you're definitely better than most of those Chaos jerks with blades. Isn't that right, Cosmos?"

She turned to glance at the goddess, her surprisingly mature eyes indicating that Prishe had known all along that Cosmos had been watching.

The Warrior of Light stared at Cosmos blankly, but there was something in the depth of his gaze that almost seemed eager...as if he needed confirmation of what Prishe had just told him.

Somewhat surprised by the sudden display of emotion under the surface of his stoic exterior, Cosmos nodded her head, "Yes, of course. Your skill has been improving steadily ever since Prishe brought you here."

She glanced over at Prishe, who was grinning...as if she knew that was something he needed to hear.

Yes, their interactions with one another seemed to be doing them both good.

SMACK!

The girl slammed her hand into the Warrior of Light's armored back carelessly in a friendly manner...causing the surprised fighter to momentarily lose his footing and almost crash into the ground.

"...It might not be too bad an idea for you to practice more with that shield though!"

 

2. Potion

"...I’m going to be going back soon, aren't I?"

The voice was steady as the two stood overlooking a massive, empty arena. Wisps of light and mist floated around their heads, and the brunette woman that had asked the question was standing next to the edge of the large expanse they were on, her green gaze far away.

Cosmos, standing behind her, turned her head slightly to stare contemplatively at the warrior's back.

Aerith was similar to both Shantotto and Prishe. She knew more about was going on than the others often did when they become part of the battle's cycles...but anyone who had been in previous cycles tended to remember more than their later counterparts did initially. All three had been in numerous ones prior.

Aerith's connection to the life force of the Planet on her own world made her more perceptive to when a cycle neared its particular end. She'd been the first to realize when Prishe had been given her (temporary) reprieve from the fighting.

"...I believe so." Cosmos didn't lie to Aerith, "I'm sorry that I can't prevent it."

A shake of her head, her back still turned, "Don't be. I wasn't even expecting to come back at all...so this has been an interesting adventure."

Cosmos said nothing. After a few moments, the young woman turned to face her with a wistful smile, "It was nice to see them both again face-to-face...even if it was only temporary."

Silence. The goddess watched one of the misty orbs flit in the air before her.

Aerith began walking, a small skip to her step, "...Of course, Cloud is being stubborn like he always is and for some reason ended up landing himself in Chaos's court. It’s odd how things turn out sometimes."

"..."

"But he'll figure it out. I think he was beginning to, this cycle anyways. Having both of us here probably helped in a way." She smiled again knowingly, "She'll be able to make him figure it out in the next one even though she doesn't know who he is right now. I think they'll both be fine."

Turning back around, Aerith walked over to Cosmos and handed her a blue bottle with an intricately shaped lid. The goddess gripped the Potion tightly.

"I know this is a lot to ask...but could you please give this to Tifa for me? I think she'll put it to good use in a later cycle." Aerith closed her eyes for a moment and took a deep breath, but when she opened them again her smile had returned.

"Tell her...it's from a friend who is looking out for her always."

 

03. Decision

"You just lost the battle, take it to heart! I trust now very soon, you will depart?" The Tarutaru smiled, a dangerous glint in her eyes.

The battle was all but won now: thanks to a well-timed magic barrage she'd just used to lay waste to the terrain. From the smoke that was rising up from the ground, an armored figure could be seen standing...though leaning heavily to one side.

This wasn't the first time this lone warrior had walked into Cosmos's territory. He had come repeatedly throughout this cycle, and without orders. It was an odd situation: a very different way of acting from most of the Chaos Warriors.

He always leveled his sword at her directly: Shantotto, who had appointed herself Cosmos's bodyguard this cycle, simply stood in because she wasn't about to let Cosmos get hurt or let a good brawl go to waste.

"...Do you still mean to continue fighting?" Cosmos addressed him, the pointlessness of this continued battle getting to her.

"Keep coming back day after day and I'll finally get mad enough to make you pay!" Shantotto laughed, covering up her own annoyance with the situation.

He straightened, and though it was hard to discern eyes from beneath the Judge Magister's helm...the goddess knew that his were fixing her with a glare full of contempt.

"The gods are the cause of this battle, this needless bloodshed! The only way to end it is to kill one of you."

"...And harmony is an easier target than disorder?" Shantotto sounded both angry and amused, "You did not count on us making you smolder!"

"...I figured that out the first time I saw your magicks." There was a bitter, wry tone to the voice, "I have no more desire to see blood spilt or to spill more. Not when there is no cause to it but the squabbles of the gods."

Cosmos remained silent.

"Chaos has no use for a dog that is no longer on its leash." Gabranth was moving away now, acknowledging his defeat, "It won't be long before I am discarded from this playing field altogether."

Shantotto looked thoughtful, remaining uncharacteristically silent at his words.

"Gabranth."

He turned, and Shantotto looked up at her taller figure. Beneath her elegant appearance, the ripple of power that was a part of her being seemed more apparent than before: a determination in her manner that was surprisingly intense.

"...What you said isn't untrue. The cycles are never-ending and cruel, and warriors have suffered. Perhaps the only way to end that is for one of the gods to be utterly defeated." She closed her eyes in thought and then opened them again, that determination even sharper, "If I can figure out a way to end this conflict, to free everyone from the cycle...I will do so."

She paused, sadness tingeing her voice as she remembered, "Too many people have been lost already. I do not desire more."

"Words do not change what has already transpired. Have you any idea how to do so?"

She shook her head, "...It would probably take several cycles."

He gave a short laugh, "And in the meantime we all suffer still in endless conflict."

Cosmos frowned: "So you'll come again then?" her tone was regretful.

"Research is the key to every possible victory." The Tarutaru said sagely, closing her eyes in thought, "If we find one...the battle will be won."

"...I thought you liked getting into fights, Shantotto." Cosmos smiled in jest, though she was touched knowing this was the magic-user's way of offering support.

"Challenges grow on trees to one as talented as me! It's far better to put your mind at ease." She smiled mercilessly again, "Besides, with that Gabrand fellow still acting that way...I will always have opportunities for an exciting day!"

 

4. Book

The book was discarded on a pile of rubble. The leather binding stood out, catching the goddess's eye. Sensing no danger, she tarried there-- tentatively reaching slender fingers out to grasp the tome.

It came out with a tug: bits of stone and dust falling to the ground.

There was a fine layer of dust over its covering, but the text inside was legible.

"...Cosmos?"

The voice startled her from her inspection, and she looked up at the youngest of her warriors. The blond youth was staring at her curiously, unsure of how to ask her a rather mundane question.

Finally, he risked it: "What are you doing?"

Cosmos proffered the book to him, "I found this."

"A book?" his inquisitive nature got the better of him and he forgot his propriety at the sight...sitting down at the goddess's side in order to see the text, "I wonder how that got here?"

"Perhaps it's always been hiding here and we never saw it before? The last battle did alter the terrain."

A nod, "That seems plausible. Who would have thought an adventure book would show up here though?"

As he spoke, the boy called Onion Knight skimmed the contents at a quick pace. The story was one of a youth who went on a great quest and became a heroic knight: variations of it appeared as legends in every world and reality.

But in this world of constant warfare, taking the time to enjoy such a tale was to be relished.

The excitement on the boy's face caused Cosmos to smile.

...Something about the act of sitting here side-by-side with the youth stirred something deep inside her: faint traces and glimpses of memories-- of a time when a different boy huddled near her...clasping her hand in a tight grip as they read together.

It was a thought that left her both content and sad.

But she was happy enough to give Onion Knight this momentary reprieve from the constant stress of fighting. She watched him for a few more seconds, resisting the sudden urge she felt to grip his hand reassuringly.

"...I wonder." She heard herself muttering in response to his earlier question, joining the boy in reading as he turned the page to see what happened next.

 

5. Target Practice

The sound of arrows hitting wood echoed with a resounding thud throughout the grounds.

Cosmos watched as the Weapons Master continued practicing. She did not wish to disturb him.

"Yo, Firion!"

...Tidus, on the other hand, had no such compulsion. He waved enthusiastically as he climbed up to their level, "Hello, Cosmos."

She nodded politely, enjoying the feeling of being included in these peaceful moments with her warriors.

"What is it, Tidus?" If he was annoyed by the intrusion, Firion didn't let it show.

Tidus put his hands behind his head, "Nothing, really. Everyone's doing their own thing right now."

The blitzball player's eyes went to the bow Firion was holding, "Could I try that?" he asked.

Firion glanced down, uncertainty in his eyes, "...Have you ever drawn a bow before?"

"Nope." Tidus's answer was simple and honest, a carefree grin plastered on his face, "Figured it was a good time to try."

From the look on his face, it seemed Firion was trying to come up with a polite way to decline the request, "I'm...not sure that’s such a good idea..."

"Aw, c'mon! I'll just aim for the wall like you were doing. What's the harm?"

He said nothing, still looking hesitant.

"...Please?" Tidus quickly switched tactics, "What do you think, Cosmos?"

"..." She glanced over at Firion's nervous expression, and then at Tidus's hopeful one. Giving Firion an apologetic look, she said, "There shouldn't be any harm in letting him try, Firion. If you're there to supervise, of course."

...As it turned out, the two ended up having a pretty entertaining experience: though Zidane, who nearly lost his tail when Tidus's first shot ricocheted off the wall and landed about a centimeter from where he was sitting, took a bit longer to see the humor in it.

But, soon enough, all three Warriors of Cosmos were taking turns trying out one another's weapons...their laughter echoing off of the walls of the abandoned castle as the other warriors began returning to see what all of the hilarity was about.

Cosmos watched them with a playful, quiet smile of her own.

...Moments like these were rare for them, and they were to be treasured. It gave them something pleasant to look back on in the times ahead, to propel them forward.

For her, it further strengthened her resolve to help see the battles through to the end.